Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Italian Strawberries for Sarah

The first time I traveled without my parents, I had just turned 15. A school friend was spending the summer with her father in Sheffield, England, and I was allowed to take the train from Leuchars by myself. I had to change trains once, in York I think, so I was quite focused the whole time and felt very adult indeed.

My friend’s father owned an Italian restaurant, which he lived above, and we ate most of our meals there. The waiters treated us like royalty, and we drank ourselves sick on the elegant glass bottles of acqua frizzante and lime wedges they brought us all day every day.

But I did try more adventurous fare too. Creamy avocados stuffed with plump baby shrimp and mustard vinaigrette became a fast favorite. Though nothing approached my newfound obsession with prosciutto and honeydew melon. This was grown-up food – salty and savory, paper-thin ham and floral, juicy melon on the same plate. I ordered it breakfast, lunch, and dinner, spoiled girl that I was.

In the years since, I’ve learned that I love prosciutto paired with other fruits too. Figs are a particular favorite, but, in the late spring, when figs are rather thin on the ground in Manhattan, I make myself special breakfast crostini with strawberries and the year’s first basil. Olive oil, aged balsamic, sea salt, and cracked black pepper transform the toasts into a true feast.

My cousin Sarah, who’s now 14 and already has a far worldlier palate than I did at that age – she’s made a mean vinaigrette since she was 9 – is doing her 8th grade research project on Italian Cuisine. I’m beyond impressed, though I always am by Sarah and her brother and sisters. I did my 8th grade project on Marilyn Monroe (what my poor mother must have thought...). Though that might have been because my Uncle Brad, of whom I was, and am, exceedingly proud, did one of her most famous interviews, and this way I got to interview him!

When Sarah asked if she could interview me, I knew she'd love to try the age old Italian preparation for fresh strawberries (involving brief maceration with balsamic vinegar and a little sugar), which has long been a standard in our house. I like to add fresh mint, basil, or rosemary when I’ve got them – all 3 lend a subtle vein of spice and earth to the fragrant syrup that forms as the strawberries meld with the aged vinegar. The recipe exemplifies what I love about Italian (and Mediterranean) food. The quality of the ingredients is highlighted rather than the complex (sometimes distancing) skills of the chef.

And for when she’s feeling adventurous, here’s the recipe for my breakfast crostini – directly descended from those delicious plates of prosciutto and melon I feasted on in Sheffield when I was her age. Special thanks to my cousin (and Sarah's mom) Celia for the stunning 2nd photo!

Prosciutto & Strawberry Crostini

Serves 2 for breakfast

2 thick slices of good bread
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
6 fresh strawberries, rinsed and leaves trimmed
4 thin slices of prosciutto
fresh basil leaves
aged, thick balsamic vinegar
freshly ground black pepper

Grill or toast the bread. While still hot, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Arrange the strawberries and prosciutto on the toasts and dot with the fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with the syrupy balsamic and season generously with black pepper and more sea salt. Serve immediately.

Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar

Serves 4

1 lb fresh strawberries
2 tsp granulated sugar
1 tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
fresh mint, basil, or rosemary

trim the stems and leaves from the berries, half any that are large, and place in a medium bowl. Sprinkle on the sugar and the vinegar. Toss to combine, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. Remove from the fridge and toss in a few torn mint or basil, or a tiny bit of minced rosemary. Serve immediately.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pickled Ramps - Packing Up Spring

Is spring over already? Is a month all we get? It seems like yesterday I was gushing over the first pea shoots and wintered-over broccoli rabe. But Friday was the River Garden’s last day of lily of the valley at the market (I bought 3 bunches for good measure), it topped 90 degrees at the Yankee game on Saturday, and the ramps are looking swollen and yellowed. Fortunately, there is always a silver lining, and the end of ramp season, when the bulbs are biggest, is the perfect time for pickling.

Preserving of any kind has always felt a little like packing away the Christmas decorations to me. There’s a sense of sadness that something so looked-forward-to is ending, but there’s also comfort in “putting up,” whether that means knowing broken ornaments have been repaired and stored or lining a shelf with a year’s supply of raspberry jam, fresh from the harvest.

Now, at this point you may be asking yourself why this site isn’t named Figs, Olives, Ramps, and I hear you. I have been on a ramp kick, and I promise this is the end. But, until surprisingly recently, that’s what eating was always like – and still is in more rural parts of the Mediterranean.

The late, great food historian Piero Camporesi, whom I’ve mentioned before, wrote much on the anticipation and hunger that led up to harvest time, the rush of feasting when a crop was finally ready, and the satiation people felt by the end of a season – which is when they started craving the next crop. It’s a connection to the seasons that was always taken for granted, and that we now make much of trying to recapture.

And besides, a pickled ramp is a glorious thing, whether laid atop a rich paté, heaped on a cheese board, or submerged in an icy martini. I’m of the no-sugar persuasion when it comes to these pickles, and, after many trials and some kind advice from Beth of Beth's Farm Kitchen, this is my version, naturally sweet with fennel seed and earthy with black pepper and bay.

I didn’t can these. I only made 1 jar, and, though I know it's ridiculous, I'm a little scared I’ll give my lovely husband botulism. But pickles of this sort should keep for at least 6 months in the fridge. Use distilled water and vinegar to keep them longer. And, if you want to can your ramps, the buck stops at Linda J. Amendt’s Blue Ribbon Preserves. She really knows everything about the fine art of putting up and gives wonderful trouble-shooting advice as well.

I should add that, if your ramps still have nice green leaves, Beth says they freeze very well. Wash and dry them, roll them in paper towels and seal in freezer bags, and you’ll have the garlicky greens at hand all year for scrambled eggs, salad dressings, and soups. Don’t hold onto any yellowed or bruised leaves (or bulbs for that matter). As the saying goes, one bad ramp spoils the whole bunch.

1 very clean quart jar (or 2 pint jars, etc.)

5 bunches ramps (about 3 – 4 cups of cleaned, trimmed bulbs)
2 cups white vinegar (or distilled if using)
2 cups water (distilled if using)
5 tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp whole fennel seeds
30 black peppercorns
5 fresh bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 500 F

Sterilize your jar by putting it in the oven for at least 30 minutes. Remove with tongs, and be careful not to touch the jar. Remember that hot glass looks the same as cool glass!

Clean the ramps carefully. Trim off the root end and the leaves. Discard any bruised or blemished bulbs.

Boil a pot of water and place the cleaned bulbs in a sieve. Dip them in and out of the water once. The quick blanch removes some of the air from the plant cells, preparing them to better absorb the brine.

Meanwhile, heat the vinegar, water, and salt in a pot over high heat. Put the fennel seed and peppercorns into the jar. Pack the ramp bulbs and bay leaves into the jar. When the salt has dissolved and the brine comes to a boil, pour it over the ramps. Tap the jar with a wooden spoon to help free some of the air bubbles.

Once the brine has cooled to the point that it no longer steams, seal the jar and place in the refrigerator. The ramps should be ready to eat after a day.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Fava Bean & Fiddlehead Orecchiette

When I was an underling in the kitchen at a well-known restaurant here in New York, I shucked and shelled a lot of fava beans. And I mean a lot of them. Fortunately it was a task easily mastered – a blessed and fortifying relief considering the multitude of duties I could not yet complete without complication or mishap.

Take quail eggs. The assignment was deceptively simple. “Soft boil and peel this bowl of quail eggs.” But the whites seemed rather more fond of their shells than, say, chicken egg whites are, and, at first peel, the whole thing would dissolve into useless (but delicious) shards. Each time I pass the basket of quail eggs sandwiched between the caviar and the truffles at Garden of Eden, I shudder at the thought of how much it must have actually cost the chef to keep me in the kitchen.

Lobsters comprised another level of horror entirely. The line cook entrusted with my instruction would rip the tails off live lobsters without flinching. “That’s illegal in France!” was all I could sputter – fully aware of the beat down I’d get if any friends or instructors from culinary school saw me acting so squeamishly in a professional kitchen. After a few days of hushed bickering, I was finally permitted to dispatch the lobsters with a sharp blade before I shoved a butter knife up each of the tails to keep them straight and flat on the grill. But it was definitely not cool – a damn waste of time if you asked my line cook.

So fava beans were my respite from shame, and I was terribly anxious when that spring ended and I had to learn to make quenelles of basil mousse for the cold tomato soup instead.

I think in their unadulterated, richly green, oval form, fresh fava beans are inherently soothing anyway. They’ve been cultivated in the Mediterranean for at least 8000 years, and they’re an intrinsic part of the March 19 St. Joseph’s Day celebration for many Sicilian families.

According to legend, in the Middle Ages, St. Joseph saved Sicily from the brink of starvation during a drought. In response to the islanders' prayers, he sent a rain that allowed the fava bean crop to grow. These beans now adorn altars and play a major role in the meatless feast prepared to honor the island’s patron saint each year.

I’ve paired them with fiddlehead ferns and a gently aged goat cheese here. And, though there are a few steps required to prepare the beans, I promise they’re completely stress free – you can shuck, blanch and peel them up to three days in advance, which is an offer I can assure you I never got from the quail eggs.

Serves 4

2 lbs fresh, young fava beans in their pods
extra virgin olive oil
12 oz. dry orecchiette
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced very thinly
kosher salt
crushed red pepper flakes
1 lb fresh fiddlehead ferns, stem end trimmed
juice 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped
1 small aged goat cheese crostada, pulled apart or crumbled

Remove the fava beans from their pods. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the beans. Blanch for 1 – 2 minutes, depending on the age of the fava beans. Drain and rinse under very cold water to stop the cooking process. Pinch the outer skin with your thumbnail, and squeeze out the fava bean halves.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and drizzle with a good glug of olive oil. Add the sliced garlic and sprinkle with kosher salt. After a minute, add the fiddlehead ferns and sprinkle with crushed red pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil. Add the orecchiette, stir, and cook, tasting regularly until almost al dente. Drain and add to the fiddlehead ferns with the fava beans and more olive oil. Sauté the pasta until it’s al dente and the fava beans are heated through.

Remove from the heat and toss with the lemon juice, mint, and goat cheese. Adjust the seasoning with salt and more red pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cobb Hill Cheese Making

I spent the weekend at my parents’ home in New Hampshire. As I said last week, I was much in need of retreat and rejuvenation, and, when, after the 5-hour drive, I finally settled in at the kitchen counter to watch my mother make my favorite chicken for dinner, I knew I’d come to the right place.

Mum slid me a wedge of cheese to nibble, and I unwrapped the pale blue paper to reveal a butter-yellow, crumbly piece of local Four Corners Caerphilly, or Welsh-style cheddar, as it’s known in the States. It was tangy but fresh and lightly sweet – none of the bitterness I tend to dislike in so many cheddars. A phone call was made and an invitation procured to Cobb Hill, where a friend of my mother’s makes the cheese.

Now, I understand that Caerphilly is hardly Mediterranean, but artisanal cheese making is a fascinating craft practiced in that part of the world too, and I'd never seen it first hand before. Cobb Hill is an intentional community on 270 acres of land in Hartland Vermont. The focus of the community is on sustainable land management through organic farming, ecological forestry, and minimization of waste. Various members have formed cooperatives to make maple syrup, farm poultry, and grow herbs and vegetables (using Fjord draft horses rather than tractors to plow and cultivate crops, no less!)

My mother’s friend Marie, a founding member of Cobb Hill, met me at the barn. Chickens clucked in the otherwise silent background as she helped me change into sanitized rubber clogs and brought me in to watch Zach add vegetarian rennet to raw organic milk from the farm’s 10 Jersey cows. He was making a batch of Ascutney Mountain – Cobb Hill’s other cheese. It’s a nutty, slightly crystallized, alpine-style cheese, similar in character to a Gruyere.

Zach cut the curd into tiny pieces and drained off the whey as he packed the solids into cheesecloth-lined “hoops.”

The grey whey streamed into an outdoor tub to be picked up by a local pig farmer as a nutritious snack for his animals.

Meanwhile, the hoops were stacked and pressed by a homemade system of wooden levers weighted by refilled water bottles.

Marie walked me up the hill to the aging room where fresh rounds of both varieties sat in brine and ripened on the cool shelves.

As Marie and her fellow affineuse (or cheese-ripening expert) Judith explained to me, artisanally crafted cheeses vary slightly from “make to make.” Milk from a single small herd reflects the season and the diet of the cows – just as Steven Jenkins wrote about the Spanish Cabrales.

I met Marie in the rain at the grassy Norwich, VT. Farmers’ Market the next morning and was gifted with a wedge of the Four Corners Welsh Cheddar (pictured below at left), which, along with Ascutney Mountain variety (below right) was heaven for lunch with the pickled green tomatoes and fiddlehead ferns I bought from the Gizmo’s Pickled Plus stand.

I was happy to learn you can buy Cobb Hill cheeses outside of Vermont, though distribution is limited due to environmental concerns. For a taste of the tranquility and slow living that is Cobb Hill, check the list of vendors in your state here, and for more information on sustainable living and the Cobb Hill community, click here.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Roasted Cod with Spring Garlic & Lemon

I started dance school in New York at the same time as a few students from the National Conservatory in Lisbon. One of them was Edgar, and he became a close friend.

I loved the stories he told of family life in the Algarve – his brothers had disapproving wives, his godmother had a beard and lots of gas – I wish I remembered more. Edgar was understandably homesick and at one point decided to make me his mother’s Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (salt cod with potatoes and onion).

The bacalhau had been soaking in his kitchen for 48 hours when we arrived after rehearsal. I think I was 22 and, though ravenous, was absolutely revolted by the oily pungency that filled the air. Fortunately, Edgar found my timidity hilarious and wouldn’t relent until I’d tried the fish. I’m sorry to say I hated it, but I was intrigued. And I’ve tasted salt cod since then, though only in Europe.

Perhaps it’s time for a rematch. I probably prepare fresh cod more than any other single fish. Mediterraneans have dried cod in salt for at least 500 years, and the fresh fish is delectable in soups, stews, fritters, and sautés.

Most often, though, I roast cod. Here with the first spring garlic, not to be confused with the young garlic bulbs that were planted last October and are now available (and delicious). Spring garlic is mild and versatile. It can be lightly caramelized without bitterness, and it can be used wherever mature garlic is called for with a far gentler flavor.

Depending on where you live, spring garlic may have already been available for a few weeks – sometimes it arrives with the ramps. But here in New York, I saw the first basket from Honey Hollow Farm on Wednesday. I’ve obviously stuck to fresh cod this time around, but I’ll let you know if I muster the strength to tackle something similar with the bacalhau.

Serves 3 – 4

1 lb fresh cod fillet, cut into 4 pieces
extra virgin olive oil
zest and juice of 1 lemon
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch spring garlic – about 4 shoots per person

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Rinse and pat dry the cod. Grease a baking dish with olive oil. Rub the cod fillets with lemon zest and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast uncovered for 10 – 15 minutes or just until the fish flakes with a fork.

Meanwhile, rinse the spring garlic well. Slice the white bulbs thinly, the pale green section in inch-long pieces, and the dark green shoots in half.

Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat and drizzle in some olive oil. Add the spring garlic and sprinkle generously with salt. Sauté, stirring often, until the white pieces are lightly browned and the dark green shoots are wilted.

Divide the spring garlic between the cod fillets and squeeze over the lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Restorative Radish

Why is it that when some people come together, they feel they must celebrate, and celebrate, and celebrate their reunion until it is over? In the excitement of seeing certain loved ones, familiar in the way only those with shared history and DNA can be, my regard for balance and moderation deserts me utterly.

For the past 2 days, I have been thus occupied, reveling in the presence of my cousins from Chicago. And now here I sit, uselessly inert on the couch and with a distracting urge to apologize, though to whom or for what I can't imagine. I am munching a bowl of French Breakfast radishes and wishing families still lived closer to one another. Mine is scattered across the face of the earth.

Radishes have long ranked among my favorite refreshments, and my instincts may be right. They’re reported by some to aid liver function, quell inflammation, and sooth respiratory ailments.

Breakfast at a Nîmes inn where we once spent a week was always a bowl of fresh figs and a baguette, spread with good butter, covered with a single layer of wafer-thin radish rounds, and sprinkled with sea salt.

At the start of the day, I prefer the French Breakfast variety, which are in season here from late April until the end of the summer. They are elongated and bright pink with white ends and roots, and their flavor is mild and mineral – almost completely devoid of peppery heat. A pile of them in the market always transports me to Parisian markets, where they're far more common. The Migliorelli Farm stand has some lovely ones right now, and I bought a bundle as well as some of the harder, hotter traditional specimens. These I have sliced thin for a spicy sandwich to take on the road. I’ve got a long drive to make today, and I want to bring along a restorative reminder of breakfast in the south of France.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Saffron Bread with Sea Salt - A Taste of Yellow

Walking past the bread stands at the greenmarket this morning, I was reminded of why the great food historian Piero Camporesi called supermarkets “food morgues.” The smoky, sour smell of fresh loaves filled the air in a way the finest gourmet supermarket bakery can only replicate in rounded, dampened tones.

Camporesi wrote much on the folklore of food in pre-industrial Europe, and he detailed how bread has always been a powerful symbol of fertility and regeneration in that part of the world. Bread served as a magical talisman against the evil eye, protection against the underworld’s dark forces, and, ultimately, a swelling sun or pregnant belly – perpetual spring in one’s own kitchen or communal oven.

What more fitting dish, then, to commemorate May 16? LiveSTRONG Day is the Lance Armstrong Foundation's (LAF) grassroots advocacy initiative to unify people affected by cancer and to raise awareness about cancer survivorship issues on a national level and in local communities across the United States.

Barbara Harris, author of Winos and Foodies, the New Zealand food blog, has pledged to post entries to A Taste of Yellow, an official LiveSTRONG Day event for food bloggers. If you check out that website on Wednesday, I’m sure there will be an incredible collection of recipes from food bloggers around the globe, and I’m posting my Saffron Bread with Sea Salt now as a show of support for this all-important cause.

The trick to success with this recipe is to very slightly burn the bread – take it over the edge. The infusion of smoking cornmeal, and the scent of burnt saffron and caramelized crust will express to you in an instant the power of bread and it’s historical symbolization of life itself.

Makes 1 loaf

Not imperative but helpful special equipment:
Pizza stone
Spray bottle

1 packet active dry yeast
½ tsp sugar
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
¼ cup warm water
large pinch saffron
¾ cup boiling water
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the bowl
1 cup cornmeal
good sea salt

Mix together the yeast, sugar, ½ cup of the flour, and the ¼ cup warm water in a small bowl. Cover with a warm, damp cloth and set aside in a warm place until spongy and sour (1 -1 ½ hours).

Crumble the saffron into another small bowl and pour on the ¾ cup boiling water. Leave to steep and cool to warm until the sponge is ready.

In a large bowl or electric food mixer, stir together the 2 ½ cups of flour and the salt. Add the sponge, the olive oil, and the warm saffron-water infusion. Process with a dough hook for 10 minutes on low speed, or stir to combine with a wooden spoon and then knead by hand for 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface.

Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil. Form the dough into a ball and turn it in the oil until coated.

Cover the bowl with a warm, damp cloth and set aside in a warm place until doubled in size (1 – 2 ½ hours).

When the dough has risen, sprinkle a pizza stone or baking sheet liberally with cornmeal. Place in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 F.

Next punch down the dough and knead lightly for a few seconds. Form into a ball, tucking under the edges to create a smooth, taut surface on top. Sprinkle another baking sheet with cornmeal and place the ball of dough onto the center. Cover with a warm, damp cloth and set aside in a warm place until the loaf is close to doubled in size again (about 1 – 1 ½ hours).

Using a very sharp knife, slash three slits across the top of the loaf. Spray or dab with water and then sprinkle liberally with sea salt. Set aside to rest for 10 more minutes.

Slide the loaf onto the toasted cornmeal on the pizza stone or baking sheet. Spray or sprinkle with more water and bake for 30 minutes until golden.

Spray or sprinkle with more water, raise the oven to 500 F, and bake for 15 – 25 more minutes until the loaf is deep brown, smells floral with burnt saffron, and sounds hollow when you rap the bottom with your knuckles. Cool before serving.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Baby Onion Soup with Serrano Ham & Mint

I had a soup similar to this on a research trip in the Alpujarras mountains of Andalusía. Our innkeeper had a stunning kitchen garden on a small terraced field in the side of the mountain. It was early autumn, and we watched him bring a basket of leeks back to the kitchen to make this soup for a chilly evening's dinner.

We were in Trevélez, one of the highest villages in Spain, where Serrano ham is air-cured in vast quantities, and where acorn-fed pork is a part of the daily diet - though the pork is often used as a seasoning rather than as a main ingredient.

Yesterday at the market, Yuno’s Farm had magnificent stacks of purple and white “baby onions.” I recognized the white and green pinstriped bulbs as the spring onions of my youth, though I really don’t seem to cook with them stateside. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of the abysmal green-and-white-striped jabot that was the crowning shame of my school uniform in Scotland. But, of course, these onions were beautiful. They smelled fresh and crisp, and I thought they’d make a wonderful springtime version of our innkeeper’s soup.

If you want to be more authentically Andalusían than I’ve been, you should substitute Serrano ham for the Italian pancetta. I just happen to prefer the way the pancetta's flavor melds into the dish.

If you can’t find Serrano ham near you, you can try ordering from La Tienda. I’ve never bought ham from the company, but they have a good reputation. You should also feel free to use Prosciutto instead.

Serves 4

8 baby or spring onions, rinsed, roots and leaf tips trimmed
extra virgin olive oil
3 oz. pancetta, sliced thin
kosher salt
5 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
1 15 oz. can of cannellini or other white beans, drained and rinsed
freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 bay leaves
4 thin slices Serrano ham or Prosciutto
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 tbsp minced fresh mint

Separate the dark green leaves from the white and pale green sections of the baby onions. Slice this lighter section into thin disks. Slice the green leaves into half-inch wide pieces and reserve separately.

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add a little olive oil and then lay in some of the pancetta slices. Sauté flat until all the fat is rendered and the pancetta is very crisp. Remove to a paper towel to drain and continue with the rest of the slices. You can eat the pancetta then and there or save it to sprinkle over salads and into omelettes.

Add the sliced disks of onion to the pot and sprinkle with kosher salt. Sauté, stirring often, until the onion is slightly translucent. Add the crushed garlic cloves and sauté for a few more minutes.

Add the beans and season generously with black pepper. Stir well and add the broth, wine, and bay leaves. Raise the heat to high and bring to boil. Reduce to low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat a saucepan over medium high heat and add a little olive oil. Gently tear the Serrano ham into strips or pieces, trying not to eat it all while you wait for the pan to heat (this has been known to happen at our house). Working in batches to keep the ham as flat as possible, sauté the torn strips until crisp and remove to paper towels to drain.

Add the sliced onion greens to the soup and simmer for 3 or 4 more minutes until they're tender but still bright green.

Remove the bay leaves from the soup and pour the contents of the pot through a sieve into a large bowl. Purée the solids in a food processor and return to the pot. Slowly add in the liquids until the desired texture is reached. Reheat the soup and season with the sherry vinegar and 2 tbsp of fresh mint. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve hot drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil and garnished with the crisp Serrano ham and the remaining mint leaves

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Asparagus al Gratin

I’m dreaming of Florence. I’ll be back there in a month’s time, thanks to a kind invitation from the professor I studied with at NYU’s La Pietra campus – a 57-acre estate on the northern edge of the city.

Life there was heavenly. Imagine waking up each morning to sunlight streaming through wooden shutters and to the sound of church bells from the nunnery across the Via Bolognese. I would leave my residence, the Villa Natalia, walk through its grounds built after 16th-century Florentine gardens, and out into a vast olive grove. In early June, many of the trees were still blossoming, and the white olive petals would rain down on the students as we rambled through the valley to the Villa Ullivi where classes were held.

Learning about Renaissance literature, art, and culture in that setting could not have been more inspirational. But one of the things I remember the most fondly was the Villa Ullivi café – I suppose I am a glutton to the end.

We could buy cappuccinos and espressos in china cups to sip during class, and I can’t express how civilized and soothing this felt compared to the hurried slugs of spring water or latté I’d take from plastic bottles stashed in my purse or paper cups from Starbucks during class back in New York. How much more satisfying a thing is if done thoughtfully, beautifully, completely.

At lunch, a typical cafeteria-style steel buffet would be wheeled into the café for us to pick from. But an embarrassment of riches lay there for us in those metal bins. Prosciutto and salumis, fragrant melons, broken shards of Parmigiano Reggiano and soft white puddles of fresh mozzarella, tangles of arugula and bitter radicchio, grilled eggplant and peppers doused with balsamic and olive oil, and sometimes a bundle of roasted asparagus, dusted with more Parmigiano and showered with lemon juice and cracked black pepper.

Asparagus has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for at least 2000 years, and before that it grew wild in the sand dunes there. Plants only produce for 6 or 7 weeks a season, but the spears grow incredibly quickly. Early in the season, a farmer can expect to harvest once a week, but, as the weather warms and spears grow up to 10 inches a day, a field might be harvested every 24 hours.

I found these lovelies at the Cherry Lane Farms stand, and my thoughts immediately turned to the café at La Pietra. They stand on their own and make a lovely spring lunch with a glass of sparkling water or wine. As with all food this simple, each ingredient is vital. So careful not to scrimp on the pepper or lemon – they really underline the earthiness of in-season asparagus and brighten the caramelized cheese, which is more another seasoning element here than anything else.

Serves 2 – 4

Extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh asparagus, rinsed and patted dry
kosher salt
fresh parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
coarsely ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Cover a baking sheet with foil and drizzle on a little olive oil to coat. Bend the bottom halves of the asparagus spears – they will snap where the fibrous section meets the tender, edible stalk. Discard the tough bottoms.

Arrange the asparagus on the baking sheet and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and toss to coat. Grate a scant dusting of parmesan cheese over the top of the asparagus - the finer it’s grated the better. I used my rasp.

Roast until the asparagus are just tender and the cheese is lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Immediately douse with lemon juice and season generously with freshly ground pepper. Serve hot.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Arugula Blossoms

Before I went to culinary school, I worked in the fashion industry. It was never a perfect fit, but a wonderful stepping stone to finding my place cooking and writing about food – and something I stumbled into, quite literally, when a foot injury ended a fairly brief and inconspicuous dance career.

Regardless, fashion’s what I did for the 5 years after I left dance, and I managed to see quite a bit of the world, cleaning everyone else’s plates along the way. Too chic to eat? Come sit by me.

I also became close friends with my boss, whom I’ve mentioned before, and our friendship quickly transcended the office grind. Was it when I plead our crew’s way through customs in Jamaica and tracked down missing models in Marseilles? Was it when she nursed me through food poisoning in Rio and took me in for a summer like the urchin I was? However it happened, we became family. “She’s my wife too!” my friend ribs my husband every time we see her.

And so, when she called on me earlier this week and asked if I might help her on a job for old time’s sake, my answer was yes. It’s been 4 years since I saw the inside of a fashion magazine office, and I must say it’s lovely to be back at work with her for a few days.

Though we can’t help laughing about the differences. Yesterday she breezed in, as effortlessly stylish as ever, and I threw open my door with a mouthful of the arugula blossoms I’d discovered at the Windfall Farms greenmarket stand earlier that morning.

I couldn’t stop munching them throughout our meeting, though I felt rather bovine about the whole thing. I’m obsessed with the wild arugula I buy in great bundles at the Saturday market, so how could I resist when I spotted the little tubs of fragrant cream and yellow blooms?

They smell honey-sweet, and the flowers taste sweet too – especially the cream-colored ones. The unopened buds deliver a great verdant crunch, and the tender stems are peppery slivers of heat. It’s 3 snacks in 1, and we agreed it was a little like swallowing spring. I scrambled the remaining blossoms with some eggs for a quick lunch before my friend rushed off to her afternoon appointments. After all, a good wife wouldn’t let her go out into the world on an empty stomach now, would she?

Check the Farmer's Market Locater for sources near you.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur

The summer sheets are on the bed, the vase on the table is crammed with cherry-red tulips, and I've discovered something new to incorporate into my warm weather drinks repertoire. St-Germain is a new French liqueur made from elderflowers. It was launched this March by Robert Cooper of Chambord fame. And whether it’s straight up, on the rocks with soda, or drizzled into my white wine or prosecco as an alternative to kir, I can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. This is no small problem, as it’s apparently quite rare.

Elderflower or Sambucus Nigra season is impossibly short-lived. Apparently said Mr. Cooper has about 45 men with bicycles in his employ – the company terms them les hommes bohemians – who ride into the foothills of the French Alps for a few days each spring to harvest the blossoms and bring them back down to market.

As the St-Germain blurb points out, “To put this in context, we can safely say that no men, bohemian or otherwise, will be riding the hillsides of Poland this spring gathering wild potatoes for your vodka.” Fair comment, I say.

The flavor of the elderflowers is extracted through maceration with eau de vie, citrus essence, and cane sugar, making this the first ever alcoholic elderflower drink – remember how popular elderflower cordial was in cocktails a few years ago?

The end product, presented in a belle-époque-inspired glass bottle, is soothing to the sight – a pale, floral, greenish hue imparts a feeling of tranquility and refreshment before I even pour the first glass. With the first sip comes lychee and grapefruit, then meyer lemon and pear. At the back, a little green apple (and maybe white pepper?)

The end result is a deep feeling of contentment. I’m soothed and revived, wanting neither more nor less. And that’s exactly how I like to feel at the end of a warm spring day. I'm sure les bohemians would agree. Serve chilled.
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