Tuesday, April 28, 2015

may you eat interesting food

Maybe it’s only the time of year and the fact that this ridiculous winter simply will not give up and spring on out of here that I’m having a hard time coming up with my usual at least adequate enthusiasm for cooking supper each night. My appetite is gone for root vegetables, for instance, and a chunk of meat just seems extravagant. Gone, too, I think, are the days when we could and would settle into a big pork chop and mashed potatoes with veg. I’m simply not interested.
But one of the best places I’ve found for interesting food is the Rutland (year-around) Farmers’ Market (it’ll be moving outside to Depot Park on Mother’s Day weekend), from Peter McGann’s excellent Mexican to Young-La’s smartly named Flavors of Asia: Vermont Seoul Food, and everything in-between.
One delicious food I’ve been noodling about all winter is  Storytime Foods’ muhammara, a walnut, red pepper, and pomegranate molasses dip that is as spicy and full of flavor as you might deduce from the ingredient list. It is delectable, no getting around it. You can find a recipe on-line, but that involves several different steps, such as toasting walnuts and roasting and skinning red peppers, and even then you have no guarantee that you’ll get the same end result. They even make their own pomegranate molasses! I have an ancient bottle of that in my fridge, so perhaps next pepper season I’ll make a batch, but for now my Muhammara will come from Storytime Foods.
Get Cracking Kitchen is another intriguing purveyor. After I spotted several packets of its Chickpea Almond Crackers in a friend’s shopping bag and she told me she’d bought them out because they were so good, and gluten free, and vegan, and acceptable for diabetics, I made sure to buy a packet of them the next week, and Man, they are good! Intriguing. Just on the off chance I googled them on the web. And there they were, called Besan crackers on a lovely website, the Mindful Foodie. They’re very straight forward, containing flaxseeds and cumin as well as the two main ingredients. (The chickpea is also known as gram, garbanzo, and cece as well as besan.) However, I was certain that Grace Davy, who is the baker and cook behind Get Cracking, adds her own touches. Over the last couple of years I’ve bought several items from her, including a totally outrageously rich chocolate beet brownie that you can only eat in tiny slices. She uses 3 kinds of chocolate, she whispered to me.
So I emailed her, wondering what her aim is – besides deliciousness – in the products she creates. “You use such iconoclastic ingredients and I suspect your techniques are dissident. Are you just curious?”
Well, she got an awfully big kick out of that. And then she said, “My objective in all this is to keep my creative juices flowing and spread the creativity to my customers. I like whole grain flavors in my desserts, I like homegrown ingredients and I like details and ideas.”
And then I really like her take on competition with the other established foodsters at the Market, namely that she prefers “innovation to competition.” Continuing, “Everything at the market is good, and I came in after so much deliciousness had (already) been established, so why offer ... close choices?... I work really hard to offer things no one else does.”
I, for one, appreciate that hard work, and until I get a little more creative myself I’ll continue to let Grace put the cece in my crackers and the beets in my brownies.
Last couple of weeks there’s been fresh ricotta at the Farmers’ Market, and this last week I grabbed a package. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who I bought it from and there’s no label. Fresh ricotta, though! What a treat. And since I also bought two bags of fresh spinach from Radical Roots, my mind wandered to a treat I learned to make from Dancing Ewe Farm when they came to that first year of the winter farmers’ market back of the co-op several years ago. That treat being, it came to me slowly, Gnudi Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli!  Meaning, in answer to Leo’s query, Nude ravioli – the filling without the pasta purse. “Oh,” he said, “how disappointing.” Well, no, not really. Really quite grand, he would find out.
So, the recipe had disappeared from Dancing Ewe’s website but I cobbled one together in spite of the fact that the search for “gnudi ravioli” all came up in Italian so I was forced to go with gnocchi. Nevertheless, I’m here to tell you, a plate of these swimming in basil butter is not a bad thing.

Gnudi Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli

(adapted from Epicurious) Serves 2 as a main course

  • 12 ounces (2 bags from Radical Roots) fresh spinach leaves
  • 8 ounces, 1 cup, fresh ricotta cheese
  • ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (plus more to be slivered over)
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour (plus more to roll out)
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • ½ teaspoon salt (plus more for cooking water)
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Fresh ground nutmeg
  • ½ to 1 stick of good butter, melted, not browned
  • 2 small bunches of baby basil (Radical Roots has these) or sage leaves

Cook the spinach in a large pot of boiling well-salted water just until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Scoop the spinach out of the water, squeeze out the liquid when it’s cooled enough to handle, and chop finely. Reserve the cooking water.
Mix the spinach, ricotta, parmesan, flour, egg yolk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a bowl until a sticky dough forms and everything is well combined.
Dust a flat surface with flour, and working with about ¼ cup of the mixture at a time, pat it into a well-floured, fat roll, then pinch off perhaps two teaspoons at a time and roll them between your palms to form into lozenge shapes. Handle these as little as possible while assuring that they are well put together. Line them up on a cool surface.
Add enough water to the spinach water to fill the pan ¾ full and bring it to a boil.
In a sauté pan melt the butter over very low heat – even using a diffusing pad over the burner if needed, the butter should not color – and add the whole sprigs of basil or sage to add their flavor to it.
When the water is boiling, work in batches to add the nude ravioli to it. Cook until the ravioli rises to the surface then cook 4 to 6 minutes longer. Using a slotted spoon, remove the ravioli from the water, letting all the water drain off, and put them into the warm butter.
When all the raviolis are boiled and warming in the butter, place on serving plates, grind pepper over them, sliver parmesan over that, place a couple leaves of basil or sage on the top – another grating of nutmeg? – and eat up.
So that’s this week’s installment of interesting food. Catch you in a coupla!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

nubbins and nobs in the color of green

What is happening now is that the tiniest little green things are appearing among the apparently war-struck detritus of the winter yard – the spear shaped leaves of sorrel, for instance. They’ll be ready to add their sour green notes to an omelet by next week. Last weekend I discovered the tubers of Jerusalem artichokes clinging to the ends of the woody sunchoke stems. I washed one off and cut a slice and it was sweet and crisp with that distinctly smoky taste, wonderful added to stews, made into a soup, sautéed in coconut oil until crisp on the outside and creamy in, or eaten raw with a cheesy dip of some sort. I’ll bet I’d find shoots of tarragon if I scratched around enough, and there was lots of fresh, crinkled spinach at the Farmers’ Market Saturday.
Suddenly. In spite of everything. It is (early, early) Spring.
Green and magenta knobs of rhubarb are showing through last year’s rotting leaves. It won’t be long until we can make the first rhubarb pie.
If you grew up with rhubarb you probably think of it as a treat: from the first time you toddled alone out to the patch of towering broad leaves, with their hint of strength and poison, grabbed a thick red stalk and leaned your slight weight back against it and then towed it back into the kitchen. There, a big person trimmed off the leaf for you and handed you a little dish of sugar, and you plunged the raw end of the stalk into it and took your first hardy crunch and felt the sourness and sweetness contract the corners of your eyes. You were hooked. When you got older, then, that first rhubarb pie made your eyes widen: it was Spring. You were about to taste an omen, a token, an icon, a memory, your imagination.
It’s an ancient plant – traced to 2700 BC in China, and to 1790 for the American roots – and it was used, like most bitter spring plants, as a tonic, to get the digestive system going. It’s an old-fashioned plant – you seldom see a dooryard of an old house – extant or vanished – without a lilac and a flourishing specimen of the pie plant, as it was called. How many first-haying suppers, tables crowded with dead-tired and famished haying crew, did a rhubarb pie or two, or three, not grace?
And yet I think of the rhubarb pie as the passion of a sophisticated palate that won’t be satisfied with quick and easy fixes, that appreciates the difficult art of a food that so many people relied on before things got all-sweet-all-the-time. Like the tastes of asparagus, dandelion greens, fiddleheads and ramps, not to speak of morels, we anticipate that of rhubarb with a kind of greed that comes for foods that are strangers to a world increasingly prone to a canned blurring of the seasons. They speak, gently but pungently, of spring.

The Rhubarb Custard Pie
...the crust...
My grandmother’s crust was pale, never golden, even white. She used lard, and sometimes a bit of butter. It was slightly salty, never sweet, so that it was a flaky foil to any filling. Flaky? When your teeth bit into it they slid off each other, then through with a click, as though biting into a scrumptious, slightly salty, richly greasy, layered shaley stone. It was the queen of pie crusts, the one everyone else aspired to. After Grandma died, Aunt made the pies, for her crusts were closest, even though she would grunt, "Humph, not as good as Ma's, but..."
It took me years to learn to make a good crust, and that was only after I realized I had taken too seriously admonishments not to handle it too much and so it all fell apart when I tried to roll it out. I knew this, but could do nothing about it. Every time I tried to squeeze that dough together the bones in my fingers locked up.
This is the way I make it now: Preheat the oven to 450°. Into the bowl of a food processor put 2 cups of unbleached flour (9 oz); 1 teaspoon salt; 1/3 cup cold butter cut into small chunks (3 oz); 1/3 cup of lard (3 oz). Pulse until the mixture is the size of coarse meal. Into 1/3 cup of water put two ice cubes, and, holding the ice back with your fingers, add it slowly to the flour mixture as you pulse the machine just until it comes into a smooth ball. I seldom use all the water, so go slowly and carefully. It shouldn’t be wet, but neither should it be too dry.
(To do this by hand, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter and lard until the texture is correct, sprinkle with the water, toss with a fork until the dough comes together in a ball.)
Flour a working surface, scrape the dough onto it, knead it a bit, pat into a smooth ball and divide it in half. Take the slightly larger half and roll it out and fit it into your pie pan, making sure you have a generous overlap, at least an inch. Set aside and roll out the top crust and leave it while you make the filling.
Rhubarb Filling
(Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery)
Whisk 2 large eggs until foamy. Whisk in 1 ½ cups granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, grated rind of ½ lemon or lime, and ¼ teaspoon salt (I do this all in the processor). Pour 4 (generous) cups rhubarb that has been cleaned, trimmed, and cut into 1/3 inch slices (it should be dry) into the bottom crust. Think about whether you would like to add a few leaves of basil or sprigs of tarragon to the filling now. It’s quite intriguing. Pour the egg mixture over the rhubarb, dot with about 2 tablespoons butter (don’t forget this step, as I often do) and gently position the top crust over the rhubarb. Turn the overlap of the crusts under to seal, and then crimp the edges. They’ll be nice and thick and crispy when you’re done. Vent the top crust with the shears and sprinkle with turbinado sugar if you have it.
Don’t skimp on the sugar in a pie. I use practically no sugar on an everyday basis, but pies are the kind of special occasion on which, even when sugar was valuable and hard to get, it would be used abundantly.
Bake the pie at 450° for fifteen minutes, then lower the heat to 325° and bake for twenty or thirty minutes, or until the top crust is browned, the fruit is fork tender, and the filling is bubbling.

By baking for ten or fifteen minutes at a high heat, the bottom crust has less time to get soggy and the rhubarb gets a jump-start on becoming tender before the filling has time to boil and curdle the eggs. The long low-heat baking then thickens the custard while further tenderizing the rhubarb and crisping the crust.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

tapping into spring

Photo by Donna Wilkins Photography
Trickster returned from a long and grueling journey to find the habitation of his village gone to hell and falling down and seemingly deserted until he spied all the villagers lying hither and yon under Maple, drinking her full-fledged syrup that leaked down into their open mouths.
Incensed and full of sorrow, Trickster grabbed up the river and flowed it into Maple, diluting her sugar into sap. “There,” he told his villagers, not without a characteristic edge of evil glee, “is work to be done! From this day hence you will be called out of winter sleep by vibrant cruel sunshine in what some call this grimmest of seasons, to tap Maple, steal her sap, haul thousands of gallons of it to the fire and bring it to boil with red hottened rocks and keep it there until it is reduced to powder, the better to fit into small vessels.
“The alchemy between this season, in which it is impossible to do anything else worthwhile, and Maple, and your sweat in this first, wild, foraging time, will feed you in Aprils before any green things creep out of the muck.
“Go to it, My People!”

As so often happens, a good punishment turned out to be a blessing. Look at it this way – if you’d been hibernating in a primitive abode made of stone or animal pelts as in a cave or a tent, a yurt of some sort (or within bricks or wood-frame or logs, for that matter), and it came to be this time of year and your dried berries were giving out and the grains had become somewhat beetley, and your normal quiet cheer had receded to reveal the roots of desperation, then you would be glad, nay you would be ecstatic, when the days reached above freezing and the nights reached below, to go out into the mush by day that turned to frozen ruts by night, to slash the maples and to gather the sap in buckets or waiting troughs and to boil it down into sugar. You would be glad, you can bet, if need be, to exist on nothing else but that sweet in Aprils that were slow to show green shoots pushing up anew.
It begins, this sugaring season, with fits and starts, some false, finally true. Some days begin at -5° and are +45° by 11 am. The sun blasts through a skyblue sky and freshets run everywhere, over sun-slickered ice, muddying ruts, through the trough of ditches and from here we will hear the beginning roar of Otter Creek as the weight of it filling with melt pushes its freightedness faster and higher. All Saturday morning trucks chuckle by splashed windshield-high with a surf of mud, and through the cracks of it shine bright eyes and devilish grins. Red goosedown vests are open over black turtlenecks as the rounds of morning are made to the transfer station, the locker, to Evie’s Deli, and to the Post Office. Then, after noon, everything is nulled and silent. The chores are done and everyone is back home again, trying to find work outside.
Sugarers are lucky that way. They take their little hand-auger, their taps, their pails they’ve scrubbed, climb out along the sugarbush and make ready for the drip of the sap. Not only is sugaring something to do when that randy energy rips you from the fireside, from out the rocking chair; not only is it something to do when the earth is still inhospitable to most other activities, but it is something to do with food, so that viscerally it is perceived to be at least vestigially worthwhile.
Anna Fenton’s Maple Pudding Cake
Anna Fenton was a long-time maple sugar crafter and 4-H leader, and a wonderful cook besides. This is such a sweet confection that I always think it needs a baked apple or a cool fruit sauce to finish it, but on second thought we keep shaking our heads. No, that would not do. The only thing that tops it suitably is yet another spoonful of cream – unsweetened whipped cream or, better yet, one of crème fraîche. Serve it once a year and enjoy its richness. The syrup stays on the bottom, almost frying the delicate batter, then gradually seeps up into the cake. It is a simple batter in the European style of biscuit. A butterier, shorter, American biscuit dough is more traditional in community cookbooks. This serves 8 once, 4 twice, or 1 or 2 piggies
o    1 cup maple syrup
o    1 ½ cups flour
o    1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
o    ½ teaspoon salt
o    2 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
o    ¾ cup sugar
o    1 egg
o    1 cup milk
o    1 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat the oven to 350°. Liberally butter a glass soufflé pan 8 inches in diameter, 4 inches deep (don’t scrimp on size or you will have a mess), and pour the maple syrup into it. Set aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.
With a wooden spoon or large whisk, beat together the butter, sugar, and egg. Quickly whisk in half the milk, then the dry ingredients just until smooth, then the rest of the milk.
Pour this batter into the baking dish. It should reach only halfway up the sides of the dish! Drizzle the heavy cream over the batter, place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick tests not dry but baked.
Let cool at least 15 minutes, cut into eight slices and serve warm, with extra mapley stuff from the bottom spooned over the top, and a spoonful of crème fraîche if desired.

And keep an eye out for Trickster – He’s liable to eat the whole darned thing right from under your astonished eye.

Note: This column was adapted from CookSpeak: A Seasonal Narrative with Recipes by Sharon Parquette Nimtz, Issue 5: March/April 1995.  Sugaring techniques may have advanced since that ancient time.

time and space and, oh, corned beef

“Where does time go,” she pleaded plaintively. And then she continued...
We are back from Apalach, which is how we natives refer to Apalachicola, where we rose early and, turning our trenchcoat collars up against the gray drizzle, began days of eating dozens upon dozens of fresh and briny and liquory oysters, sating ourselves for the time being. And then we moved west a few feet and began walking the alternately misty and sunny, and fabulously-birded beaches of San Blas Peninsula and continuing to eat oysters and conduct our own exploration for the best hush puppies in the area. They can be so very good.  There really WAS nothing to eat besides oysters and hush puppies. Well, some breakfast shrimp and grits were pretty good.
Hanging over us all the time we were there was the need to get to the airport for our return at some point, and that airport was in a different time zone. It’s bad enough, as you probably know, thinking about a day of flights without having to worry about the spring ahead fall back syndrome without even the spring and fall. Panama City airport (Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport) is on central time and we were eating oysters on eastern time. We needed to get to the airport an hour earlier... or was it an hour later? Finally, realizing that if we left Atlanta at 4:45 and were to arrive at Panama City at 4:55 for an hour flight, then if we needed to be at the airport at 8:30 a.m. and it was a 2 hour drive, we would need to leave San Blas by 7:30. I thought about this a lot. I tried to bounce it off the others in my party but they trusted me implicitly. No one else would even entertain the thought process. Cowards!
And now what I can’t figure out is why did we make such an effort to deal with the two big quandaries of time and space just to get back here to the land of dirty snow and dried-out air. While our outermost membranes gulped gallons of moisture down there, there is nothing we can do about the frigid landscape. Except wait. And while we solved (I solved) that particular question of time, no sooner do we get back than Daylight Savings goes into effect and we lose whatever grounding we’ve gained. If any.
So it is that I find myself here needing to write a column on this snow-drizzling Ides of March, in time to get to the Paramount by 3 (which would have been 2 nine days ago) and then a celebration dinner, at Roots, the Restaurant, after the Symphony, of our 46th anniversary with friends whose anniversary is the 17th. Add to that not waking until almost 9, which would have been 8, I remind myself, 9 days ago, which was still late. It is a day all about time. And that is a fact I hope to ingest and make part of me and then forget! About it.
Then, of course, speaking of dates – and we were, weren’t we? (I’m beginning to feel a bit like Charles Dodson) – here comes St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday. Let’s face it, I have not the slightest bit of Irish in me, nor does Leo, who also doesn’t appreciate Irish music one whit (while I’m not above enjoying a nice tenor), but we do like a good corned beef. Toward that goal I began yesterday, a little haphazardly, prepping for one. It won’t be done by Tuesday but it will be corned by Friday, which is as good a day to eat corned beef as any other. Corning a piece of beef is really no different from brining a chicken or turkey. Corn originally meant grain, and here we’re talking grain of salt. So what we’re doing is preserving and flavoring with salt and pickling spice.
First I bought about 5 pounds of beef brisket from Plew Farm yesterday at the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market, then I went to the Co-op and obtained some pickling spice. I left the brisket out to thaw when I got home and did manage to make a brine and put it outside to cool.
All the while I’d been mulling over using pink salt – the nitrite salt used for curing, which gives corned beef its distinctive color and flavor – or celery seed, which contains its own significant amount of nitrite. But I did not have enough celery seed, nor could I find the ratio of celery seed needed for the amount of pink salt called for. I may go to the locker tomorrow and see if I can get some pink salt. I don’t see what the problem would be in adding it after the fact.
In bed last night I remembered that I had forgotten to put the thawed brisket in the brine, indeed could not remember putting it in the fridge, but instead of getting up and checking on it – control freak that I am – I decided Leo must have put it in the fridge when he did the dishes after supper, and I allowed myself to go back to sleep.
He had. I put it to brine this morning.
Home-Cured Corned Beef
The following recipe is adapted from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman
For the brine:
1½  cups kosher or sea salt (a pure salt, with no additives)
½ cup sugar
4 teaspoons pink salt (sodium nitrite), optional
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons pickling spice
1 5-pound beef brisket
For the cooking:
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in two
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons pickling spice
In pot large enough to hold brisket, combine 1 gallon of water with kosher salt, sugar, sodium nitrite (if using), garlic and 2 tablespoons pickling spice. Bring to a simmer, stirring until salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled.
Place brisket in brine, weighted with a plate to keep it submerged; cover. Refrigerate for 5 days.
Remove brisket from brine and rinse thoroughly. Place in a pot just large enough to hold it. Cover with water and add remaining pickling spice, carrot, onion and celery. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer gently until brisket is fork-tender, about 3 hours, adding water if needed to cover brisket.
Keep warm until ready to serve. Meat can be refrigerated for several days in cooking liquid. Reheat in the liquid or serve chilled. Slice thinly and serve on a sandwich or with additional vegetables simmered until tender in the cooking liquid.
This turned out very very good, in spite of professionals telling me I'd have just a glorified pot roast  it had the characteristic corned beef texture and taste, it just wasn't pink! I'll never buy corned beef again. 

“Remember,” she finished, “you can make this at any time. As a matter of fact, just forget about time. Think about cold and warmth. Make it when it’s cold because – now add space into the equation – it can reside on the porch instead of the fridge while it’s brining.” No longer was she plaintive.