Monday, July 30, 2007

Sour Cherry & Almond Spoon Sweet

Spoon sweets are as integral to the culture of hospitality in Cyprus and Greece as mint tea is in Morocco – though the tradition of spoon sweets is centuries and probably milennia older. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a home in either country where, upon entering, you aren’t offered a small crystal dish with a tiny silver spoon of syrup-soaked fruits. The only accompaniment is a cool glass of water, into which the last few drops of syrup are stirred once the fruit has been eaten. The ritual is so prominent that a spoon sweet set is still a part of most bridal trousseaus.

And there’s something fascinating about an ancient tradition, still upheld today, that requires a sweet, homemade preserve to pass over the lips of a guest upon entry into one's home – remarkably, most spoon sweets are still made by the family of the house, even though they can be bought in food stores now too.

Spoon sweets differ from jam in that the fruits are almost always tart or bitter before cooking, they are usually kept whole, and they are preserved in a spiced or herb-rich syrup boiled down from their own juices and some sugar or honey – though long ago, grape must was the sweetener. Popular choices include apricots, grapes, quinces, figs, pomegranates, and cherries. Vegetables are often used too – especially small eggplant and tomatoes.

And the preparation is not limited to the obvious choices here – cooking something in syrup can be a wonderful way to transform the seemingly inedible into something delectable. Citrus peel or small whole citrus fruits and unripe nuts all make beautiful spoon sweets. I have a jar of black walnut spoon sweet – the nuts still in their shells, mind you – that was boiled in a mastic and raki or “fire water” syrup for 3 days and nights by the chef who gave them to me.

The unifying theme is that the fruit, vegetables, or nuts should retain their original (or enhanced) flavor and shape, which is what I love most about spoon sweet. And sour cherries are a perfect candidate this time of year. This looks to be the last week for cherries here – most certainly for sour cherries whose season is quite short, but the Samascott Orchards stand at the market still has a dwindling yet reassuring heap of them.

I like sour cherries paired with the gentle crunch of almonds and the earthy spice of cinnamon and star anise. You might try your spoon sweet over yogurt or ice cream, tucked between the layers of a sponge cake, or poured into a little bowl on a cheese board. But best of all is my new favorite breakfast: toast spread with a soft goat cheese and drizzled with a few still-plump fruits in their astonishingly fragrant syrup.

Makes 1 Pint

1 very clean pint jar

4 cups pitted sour cherries, cleaned and carefully picked over (buy 2 lbs of fruit to account for stones and bruised pieces)
½ cup blanched almonds
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp brandy, raki, or grappa
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 stick cinnamon
2 pods star anise

Preheat the oven to 500 F

Sterilize your jar by putting it in the oven for at least 30 minutes. Carefully remove with tongs, and be careful not to touch the jar. As I’ve said before: hot glass looks the same as cool glass!

Combine all the ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring gently but continuously. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, for 8 – 10 minutes until the cherries are slightly wilted.

With a slotted spoon, remove the cherries and almonds to a sieve over a bowl, but leave behind the cinnamon and star anise. Raise the heat to medium and reduce the liquid for 5 minutes. Pour in the cherry juices that have accumulated in the bowl, and reduce for another 5 minutes or until well-thickened.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Remove the spices and discard. Stir in the cherries and almonds and spoon into a sterilized jar or jars. Keeps in the fridge for 4 – 6 months.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Melon with Port & Lavender

Musk melons have arrived, courtesy of the Blew family at Oak Grove Plantation. The Cantaloupes at their stand this week are floral, fragrant, and unbelievably yielding when split open – a far cry from the cardboard replicas you’ll find out of season in the local supermarket. Musk melons are a family of melons, named for their heady fragrance, that includes the Honey Dew, the Casaba, and the Cantaloupe. They came to the Mediterranean from Persia a very long time ago – the Ancient Greeks wrote about them in the 3rd Century BCE. Provence seems to have fallen in love with the fruits in the Middle Ages.

Cavaillon, a village in Provence’s Luberon, has long been famous for its melons and throws a great fête du melon each July to celebrate the harvest. There the Cavaillon melon, similar to the Cantaloupe but ridged in green stripes, is found in great heaps at the region’s markets all summer. And it’s eaten cooked and raw, savory and sweet. There are local recipes for deep-frying the Cavaillon in batter, for sautéing it with vinegar and onions, and for slicing it thinly over shellfish.

But the lovely tradition of marinating the juicy orange flesh in Port before serving it forth on a hot summer’s night is my favorite of all. I’ve added a tiny bit of my home-dried River Garden lavender, but don't hesitate to stay purist with this. There is hardly an easier or more restorative dessert, and the port makes the surprisingly complex fragrance and flavors of the melon shine.

Avoid squeezing musk melons, as this can lead to bruising. They should be fragrant and the indentation at the stem end should be smooth – a jagged edge means the melon was picked before it was ripe. And your melon should be heavy for its size – a sure sign of juiciness within. The fridge dulls the flavors of your melon, but once it’s been opened, a melon really must be refrigerated.

Serves 2 – 4

1 ripe Cantaloupe
Ruby Port (no need for anything posh here)
Small pinch of fresh or dried lavender (optional)

Halve your melon and gently scoop out the seeds. With a sharp pairing knife, lightly score the hollow of the cavities in a crosshatch pattern. This will allow the Port to penetrate the flesh. Fill the melon halves about 3/4 of the way with Port and let sit for 15 – 30 minutes. Just before serving, crumble the dried lavender over the exposed flesh.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer Cassoulet

I am a huge fan of battening down the hatches. I believe I touched on this in April, but it would be fair to say that, despite the fact that I don’t even like the cold, things can verge on the maniacal at times. The stories in my family of burns I have incurred making “Christmas Punch” on the first crisp day in, say, October are legion. And I may or may not have told a friend this morning that it could be a good thing if it rained at her September wedding in Maine “for the mood.”

Perhaps it’s the endlessly wet day we had on Monday here in New York, but, at the time, I was truly confused by the odd shadow passing over her face. “Did I really ask this person to be a bridesmaid?” her eyes seemed to say, as I nodded proudly in her direction: “You’ll serve Dark ‘n Stormies – it works!” The fact was that after the heat we’ve had, I’d been thrilled by the prospect of a rainy respite, and, in truth, I had found myself craving that most wintry of dishes: Cassoulet.

For a professional “locavore,” I have a fantastic gift for wanting what I can’t have. Or can I? The cranberry beans have just arrived, plump and mottled with pinkish-red flecks, and the Quattro’s Game Farm market stand has the most delicious duck and pheasant sausages year round. Add a head of young garlic and half a bottle of wine, and you’ve got a seasonal but comforting meal that tastes and smells truly cozy without becoming too heavy for July.

I look forward to discussing traditional Cassoulet at length in the colder months immensely, but, in brief, it’s a Southern French pork, mutton, duck or goose, and white bean ragout whose origin no one agrees on and whose ingredients are much disputed from town to town. Castelnaudry, Toulouse, and Carcassone all claim credit for having created le Cassoulet officiel and deeply scorn other versions. I shudder to think what they’d do to me after reading this recipe, but press on. I promise it’s worth the culinary blasphemy in the name of properly celebrating your next rainy day.

Serves 4

extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, quartered and sliced thinly
1 whole head garlic
1 ¾ lbs fresh cranberry, borlotti, or other beans (1 lb shelled)
½ bottle dry white wine
2 cups beef stock or other good stock
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
freshly ground black pepper
8 good-sized sausages of your choice (I used 4 pheasant and 4 duck, but pork, venison, wild boar, or any other combination you can think of will work here).
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup coarse breadcrumbs (preferably homemade)
kosher salt
small handful fresh parsley, minced

Heat a large casserole or other stovetop and oven-safe pot over medium high heat. Add a glug of oil and then the sliced onion but no salt. You want the onions to caramelize here rather than sweat. Stir every once in a while until they’ve taken on a deep golden color – about 5 – 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, pull the outer layer of paper off of the garlic (it can hold some dirt), but leave the inner layers of paper and the head itself intact. Trim off the roots and then cut the head in half across its equator so that each clove is halved and exposed.

Once the onions are browned, put both halves of the garlic into the pot cut side down. Sizzle for 30 seconds and then add the beans. Stir to combine and then add the wine, stock, bay leaves, and black pepper. Resist the urge to add salt as it will toughen the beans. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Skim off any foam, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, adding more stock if too much liquid boils off.

Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Prick the sausages a few times on each side with a sharp knife tip and add a little olive oil to the pan. Working in batches, brown the sausages well on both sides and remove to drain on paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Once the beans have simmered for 30 minutes, squeeze the head of garlic to release the cloves into the cooking liquid, stir in the lemon juice, and check the seasoning with kosher salt and more black pepper if necessary. Arrange the sausages amongst the beans, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and season with a little more kosher salt. Bake uncovered in the oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven 10 minutes before serving and sprinkle with the parsley.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pattypan, Basil, & Chevre Soup

Pattypan take their name from the pâtisson, a Provençal cake that’s baked in a fluted mold and mirrors the scalloped shape of the vegetable. And the squash's flavor is actually lightly sweet – a characteristic you can enhance with roasting or a quick sauté. Plus the moisture content is low compared to, say, zucchini, so they can take quite a bit of abuse without turning pulpy or watery.

Yuno’s Farm
has such lovely pattypan in the warmer months: plump, round, and striped green, creamy white, or butter-yellow. And, yes, I’ve been shopping at Yuno’s a lot lately – their market stand is irresistible this time of year. I must admit a certain feeling of allegiance to Nevia there, as she was also a professional dancer before going into the food industry. But I assure you I am consistently blown away by the beauty, variety, and quality of the produce her farm brings to market.

In this soup – which is at its most balanced and summery when served slightly less than piping hot – the pattypan lend their gentle sweetness to the blunt anise of the basil (more of a main player here than a seasoning), and the earthy twang of the goat’s cheese stays subtle as it binds the whole thing together.

Just make sure not to add the basil paste until you’re ready to serve. The heat of the soup will dull the cooling jade color, which is too pretty to let your guests miss.

Serves 6 – 8

3 lbs green pattypan or other green summer squash
extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, medium dice
kosher salt
5 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1 ½ cups good chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
freshly ground black pepper
6 oz fresh chevre, plus more for serving, crumbled
juice of 1 lemon
1 large or 2 smaller bunches basil, plus a few extra sprigs for serving
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

Rinse the pattypan and trim off both ends. Slice in half (straight though the center into 2 half-moons, if you catch my drift). Then slice up each squash half quite thinly.

Heat a large pot over medium high heat. Add a glug of extra virgin olive oil and then toss in the onions. Sprinkle with a little kosher salt and sweat, stirring often, until they turn translucent. Add the garlic cloves and stir gently for 1 minute longer. Then stir in the sliced pattypan and cook, stirring every so often for 5 minutes or until a few of the squash pieces are lightly golden.

Add the stock, the wine, the bay leaves, some more kosher salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes until the squash is soft. Then remove from the heat and pour through a sieve over a large bowl. Purée the vegetables and chevre in a food processor and pour back into the pot. Add cooking liquid until the desired consistency is reached and season with the lemon juice and more salt and pepper. The soup should be held at this point until you’re almost ready to serve.

Just before serving, pulse the basil in a food processor until finely chopped. Stream in the 1 cup of olive oil until a paste is formed. Heat the pattypan soup until the temperature is midway between lukewarm and piping hot and then stir in the basil paste. Check the seasoning again with salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve in bowls with more crumbled chevre, a small basil sprig, and a good drizzle of the olive oil.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Squash Blossoms with Ricotta, Lemon, & Herbs

Though they’ve become synonymous with our idea of “Italian” cuisine, it seems there are as many ways to prepare squash blossoms as there are towns in Italy. And I like it that way. Though it’s easy to spot certain regional themes, like the popular deep fried zucchine romanesche blooms stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies from Rome, I think it’s important to resist codifying such things.

Who’s to say, for example, that a handful of Roman home cooks who favor a sheep’s milk cheese or skip the anchovy aren’t actually harking back to an older tradition? Once we take on a stance of knowing what’s “authentic” to a region, it’s so easy to stop noticing new information. I hope I always try to understand the instinctive thought process (what's available locally, what ingredient combinations are intuitive there) behind a region’s cookery rather than simply memorizing what I ate where. In other words, the most authentic thing I’ve ever noticed in Mediterranean food is difference. Difference from region to region, town to town, and family to family.

Here, then, are some squash blossoms I first ate in Rome, but there are no anchovies, and the cheese is a relatively new one. Ricotta was first made in Rome at the turn of the last century, when it was discovered that, after being split from the initial curd, whey could be heated again (ricotta means “recooked”). This second curd becomes soft, blindingly white ricotta, and, though the stuff we buy here in the States is far milder and sweeter than the sheep’s or buffalo’s milk ricotta you’ll find in Rome, I like both versions.

These blossoms are not battered or deep fried, which makes it much more likely that I’ll actually decide to whip up a batch. Psychologically, it seems like less work, and these take almost no effort at all. You can stuff them in the morning and stash them in the fridge until you want to make dinner. Just be careful to check the inside of each blossom for fauna before you add the ricotta-herb mixture. It’s not unheard of for something small to be found jealously clinging to its pollen within.

Squash blossoms are in season from early summer until the first frost, which I hope gives you plenty of time to try this recipe and then experiment with your own variations. That could, after all, be most “authentic” of you!

Serves 4 as an appetizer

16 – 20 squash/ zucchini blossoms
8 oz fresh ricotta cheese
1 egg
zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 stalks fresh oregano, leaves chopped
small handful fresh mint leaves, chopped, plus extra for sprinkling at the end
kosher salt
extra virgin olive oil

Gently check the insides of the blossoms for insects and dirt. Trim the tips of the stems.

In a medium bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg, lemon zest, oregano, mint, and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Go easy on the salt if you’re not frying the blossoms right away – you don’t want the ricotta to go watery.

Gently open one of the squash blossoms and spoon a little of the ricotta mixture as far in as you can. You can use the petals to help you pull the stuffing off of the spoon and into the flower. You really don’t need much stuffing for each flower, and you may have leftover at the end, which you should discard because of the raw egg.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Drizzle in a generous glug of olive oil. Lay in some of the blossoms. Once they are golden on one side, turn them and cook about 2 -3 minutes longer. You may need to add more oil. Remove to paper towels to drain while you finish the rest of the blossoms, adding more oil as necessary.

Arrange the squash blossoms on a serving platter, sprinkle generously with kosher salt (adding more if you went light with the stuffing), spritz with the lemon juice, and sprinkle on some freshly chopped mint. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Marinated Turkish Eggplant with Feta, Chili, and Mint

The eggplant wasn’t well known in Europe until the mid 1500s. Surprising, isn’t it? The Moors carried the fruit back from Persia in the 12th Century, but Europeans - initially suspicious that eating eggplant (a member of the Nightshade family) could cause madness or death – weren’t interested.

And frankly, I’ve spent much of my life in agreement. For someone who enjoys produce as ardently as I, I’ve been oddly reticent about the whole thing. Is it that little tinge of bitterness that can remain even after a proper degorging? Could it be the alarming speed with which the fruits oxidize as soon as they’re cut? Or is it the knowledge that Nightshades can cause that lovely little dab of foot arthritis my dance career left behind to sit up and sing: "Get ready for old age, honey. I'm comin' for ya." That's how foot arthritis talks, by the by.

My eggplant prejudice was probably just something I decided on while I was too young to know any better, and in the past few years, I’ve really done a 180. Clearly the eggplant – so called because some of the first varieties to arrive on the continent were shaped and sized like hen eggs – caught on in the Mediterranean eventually. And there’s been something of an eggplant renaissance (or is it naissance?) in our house too. I think it’s the stunning saturation of color paired with the fruit’s subtle smokiness that got me over the hump and helped me to finally, belatedly fall in love.

This salad is a great way of making up for lost time. Kind Nevia at Yuno’s Farm had a little heap of Turkish eggplants (gently flavored, narrow, no more than 2 oz a piece) at the market on Monday, and she always displays her produce on white linen tablecloths, which made the miniature wine-dark fruits glisten like gems. I snapped them up with this dish in mind. Mint offers up an eggplant’s smokiness better than anything I know, and the lemon vinaigrette that the grilled fruits steep in keeps the flavors light and refreshing.

There is no need to degorge (salt and rinse to remove bitterness) Turkish eggplant, or most of the smaller varieties for that matter. If you can only find the big eggplants near you, you might want to consider it, and I’ve included instructions below. In a month or so, I’ll add fresh fig halves to the mix. In the meantime I just count on the honey in the dressing for a lightly sweet contrast to the twang of the lemon and the heat of the chili.

Serves 4 – 6

1 ½ lbs eggplant, small/ Turkish if possible
kosher salt
juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp honey
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 large or 2 small red chilis, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 – 2 oz feta cheese
1 handful fresh mint leaves

If using large eggplant, you may degorge it to remove some of the bitterness: Remove the stems and slice the fruit lengthwise into ½ inch thick slices. Arrange them on a tray in a single layer and sprinkle with kosher salt. Let sit for 30 minutes and then rinse well under running water. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

Preheat the grill on high heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly drizzle in as much extra virgin olive oil as there is lemon juice, whisking as you go. Toss in the chili.

If using small eggplants, remove their stems and slice them in half lengthwise. Working quickly to avoid too much oxidization, lay the eggplant pieces cut side down on the grill. Once the grill has seared the flesh (about 2 – 3 minutes), turn the pieces and grill about 5 minutes more. Remove the eggplant from the grill and toss straight into the lemon vinaigrette. Continue working in batches if necessary until all the grilled fruit is marinating in the bowl. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

Before serving, crumble in the feta cheese and toss well to combine. Taste to see if your salad need more salt or lemon – you may be surprised by how much seasoning it needs if your feta isn’t very salty. Finally, scatter in the fresh mint leaves, toss once more, and serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Blogging for Positive Change

I was amazed yesterday when Charlotte Hume of The Great Big Vegetable Challenge in London nominated me for a Bloggers for Positive Global Change award. The award was originally created by Climate of Our Future to recognize bloggers whose work helps to “form a collective consciousness and wisdom that will help move our world in a positive direction.”

With her commitment to instilling a love of fresh produce and a sense of comfort, adventure, and fun at the table in the next generation, I think Charlotte exemplifies the priorities the award celebrates. And with that in mind, here are my nominees in no particular order:

1. Baking for Britain - Anna in London celebrates and documents the traditional baking recipes of Britain. In the process, she protects the regional integrity of British baking. Without people like Anna and my next nominee, so much might be lost.

2. 18th Century Cuisine - Carolyn Smith-Kizer in the Midwest explores the food of 18th century France before foreign cultural influences had affected the cuisine too deeply. In the process, her work preserves recipes and their roots for the rest of us.

3. Winos and Foodies - Barbara Harris of Auckland, New Zealand organized the Taste of Yellow event this past May to raise awareness for LiveSTRONG Day, and food bloggers across the globe responded en masse.

My last nominee counts as 2:
4 & 5. Ilva of the Tuscan Lucullian Delights and Joanna of the British Joanna’s Food run The Heart of the Matter – Eating for Life, a monthly event which announces a theme and urges food bloggers to create heart-healthy recipes using the chosen ingredient. The result? A blog full of recipes useful for anyone living with or trying to prevent heart disease.

Thank you for your kind words, Charlotte, and thanks to you as well as to Anna, Carolyn, Barbara, Ilva, and Joanna for your wonderful work and food!

Should they wish, nominees may now proudly display the BPGC badge on their blogs. If any nominees have someone in mind that they’d like to nominate in turn, just be sure to pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging.

The participation rules are simple:
1. When you get tagged, write a post with links to up to 5 blogs that you think are trying to change the world in a positive way.
2. In your post, make sure you link back to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Leave a comment or message for the bloggers you’re tagging, so they know they’re now part of the meme.
4. Optional: Proudly display the “Bloggers For Positive Global Change” award badge with a link to the post that you write up.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Crème de Cassis and a Cooling Kir

Like the floral wash of sun-ripe melon or the cool click of metal at an evening game of boules, some sensory experiences so encapsulate French summers that they summon that region and season to mind in an instant. A smooth, tranquil kir does this for me, perhaps better than anything else.

Though famous today, Kir is a relatively new drink. The Burgundian city of Dijon is rich in blackcurrants (cassis), which have been popular for centuries in baking and as a remedy for snakebites. Through the ages, the region has produced a red fruit Ratafia de Cassis – blackcurrant and mixed fruit liqueur that's flavored with peach or cherry kernels and bitter almonds. (For an authentic cherry Ratafia recipe, visit Carolyn over at 18th Century Cuisine).

But 1841 seems to mark the first appearance of the sweetened blackcurrant liqueur Crème de Cassis. The Burgundians approved, and “blanc cassis” (white wine with a little Crème de Cassis) became Dijon’s most popular apéritif, while Ratafia de Cassis faded into the background. By World War II, the blanc cassis craze had been all but forgotten, but then in 1945 priest and resistance hero Canon Félix Kir was elected major of Dijon and made the drink the official apéritif of the city as a way to promote local products. So white wine and Crème de Cassis became the Kir we know today.

This recipe has one major difference from any other I’ve ever published: it isn’t tested yet. Rather, this post is an invitation to join the experiment. If you have access to blackcurrants, you may want to start your own batch now, because the whole thing takes at least a month to steep. So it’s a risk, but I don't want you to miss currant season - blackcurrants are a rare sight indeed at New York markets. And you can take heart in the fact that I’ve been researching this recipe for a while.

If you can’t wait a month or don’t like the prospect of undertaking such a project before you know whether or not my kitchen blew up, Crème de Cassis is easily found these days – I'm particularly fond of the version made by Trénel Fils. Mix 1 or 2 tablespoons of the liqueur with champagne for Kir Royale – probably the best-known use of Cassis in the States – or with pinot noir for a Communist. But I prefer the less flashy Kir as a quiet, cooling respite from a long, summer day.

Success! Read about the tasting and find French recipes for Crème de Cassis cocktails here.

Mercedes at Desert Candy has tipped me off that without the aid of at least some sunlight, you may want to leave your Cassis to steep for an extra month. Sound like good advice to me. Thanks Mercedes!

Maggie at Salem, Oregon Socialists sources her currants from One Green World. The company ships currant bushes (as well as every other sort of berry, fruit, or nut tree you can imagine) and has fresh fruit sales in season.

1 ½ lb fresh blackcurrants
3 cups vodka
2 ¼ cups granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick, cracked or crushed

Rinse and drain the blackcurrants and remove any damaged fruit. In a large bowl, crush the currants with your hands (or pulse a couple of times in a food processor) and mix well with the other ingredients. Put into clean jam or mason jars and let steep for a month. Some recipes recommend leaving the jars in the sun, but a warm place in the kitchen is fine.

After a month, strain the mixture through a few layers of cheesecloth, squeeze out as much juice as you can, and bottle. I'll meet you here in a month for the tasting.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Yellow Pepper Coca with Capers

The 711 - 1492 AD Moorish occupation in Spain left some incredible marks on the culture and food of Andalusía. Think of the citrus, saffron, almonds, and rice we now equate with Spanish cuisine, not to mention all the spices: aniseed, cinnamon, and coriander to name but a few. Think of the guitar and the possibility of flamenco its invention created. Or the ancient whitewashed villages of the Alpujarras and Granada’s exquisite Alhambra palace and gardens.

And then there’s sugar. Sugar cane and sugar refining both arrived with the Moors, and it’s fair to credit their occupation with that region’s sweet tooth today. The pastries and sweets of Andalusía are renowned, but the regional preference for sour-sweet flavors is something I enjoy even more.

Coca is one such dish. In its most traditional form, peppers are roasted and stewed with sugar, onions, and Andalusían sherry vinegar before being strewn across a yeast-leavened dough and baked – powdered sugar is dusted over the whole thing before serving. But I like my coca with a scattering of capers to cut through the sweetness, and I skip the powdered sugar – by all means try it if the mood strikes though. Recall how refreshing the indulgently sweet Moroccan mint tea is on a hot day? There really is something about scorching heat and sugar that makes sense.

Yesterday, I used prepared pizza dough from the local pizza place for my coca – it’s been far too hot here for much integrity of any sort – but here’s a link to a dough recipe I like if you’re in the mood. Regardless, coca makes fantastic summer tapas. On your next hot day, sip an ice-cold fino, wine, or beer, sit very still, and leave the conversation to someone else while you eat a tangy, savory-sweet slice of coca.

Photo of the Palacio del Partal at the Alhambra with its famous reflecting pool.

Serves 6 - 8

Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, quartered and sliced very thinly
kosher salt
4 – 6 yellow bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and sliced thinly to make about 2 cups total – feel free to use jarred roasted peppers
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
all-purpose flour for dusting
1 portion (about 20 oz.) prepared pizza dough from your local pizza place or supermarket, chilled
2 tsp capers, drained and rinsed

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Coat with a glug of olive oil and add the onion. Sprinkle well with salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Add the peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 more minutes.

Sprinkle over the sugar and vinegar, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to low and allow to bubble gently for 5 - 10 minutes until the cooking liquid is reduced, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, check the seasoning with more salt, and then set the peppers aside while you continue.

Preheat the oven to 450 F and brush a large baking sheet with olive oil. On a floured surface, roll or stretch out your pizza dough until it’s roughly 12” by 15.” Lay out on the baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Arrange the pepper onion mixture on top and sprinkle over the capers.

Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes or until the coca is golden brown. Cool slightly before cutting into rectangles. May be served warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lemon & Bay Pork Chops with Garlic Scape Pesto

I think by now you may have noticed how skittish I get when foods with particularly short seasons are up for discussion – recall the lack of composure with the wintered-over rabe? Or May and the ramps? Well, on Friday, Berried Treasures was the only greenmarket stand that still had a basket of garlic scapes on display.

True, the beefed-up Saturday market offered scapes from 4 or 5 different vendors. But, as my eyes darted between the ever-larger, ever-tougher, ever-more-strongly-flavored specimens, I sensed that scape season was peaking. And you know what comes next: 11 months with no scapes. So I hope you’ll forgive the repeat mention as kindly as you did with the ramps.

Making scapes into pesto is a fantastic technique for preserving their gorgeous color and flavor for the long months ahead. When raw, the scapes are quite strong, and so you’ll find this recipe calls for a fair amount of pine nuts, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil – all of which serve the purpose of balancing out their garlicky bite.

After a bit of kind advice from my friend Lenny, who grows his own scapes, I’ve settled on this formula. The further you are into scape season, the more robust your scapes will taste, and the more of the other ingredients you’ll have to use. Just trust your instincts – the resulting pesto is vibrantly green and superb with pasta or roasted meats. And Violet Hill had some lovely big pork chops this week that I knew were up to the job.

You’ll have plenty of leftover pesto here – that’s the point after all. Lenny suggests using ice cube trays to freeze the pesto in manageable portions, which I think is brilliant. Pour a layer of olive oil over each cube and seal each tray tightly. This pesto lasts under a layer of olive oil in the fridge for about 2 weeks. In the U.S., check the Local Harvest Market Finder or look into Edible Communities for scape sources near you. No scapes to be found? Traditional basil pesto makes a lovely companion for this pork too.

Serves 2 plus a big batch of pesto

2 cloves garlic, crushed
zest and juice of 2 lemons
3 ½ - 5 cups extra virgin olive oil
small handful (about 10 sprigs) thyme
4 bay leaves, fresh if possible
freshly ground black pepper
2 large bone-in pork chops
1 pint mixed small heirloom tomatoes

1 lb fresh garlic scapes
1 ¼ cups pine nuts
6 – 8 oz freshly grated parmesan cheese
juice of 1 – 2 lemons
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

1 glass red wine
1 cup beef or chicken stock
2 tsp Dijon mustard

In a large ziplock bag, combine the garlic cloves, lemon zest and juice, and 1 – ½ cups of extra virgin olive oil. Bruise or crush the thyme and bay leaves, add them to the bag, and season generously with black pepper. Swirl the bag to combine the ingredients.

Rinse the pork chops and pat them dry. With a sharp knife, lightly score the chops in a crosshatch pattern on both sides. Add them to the marinade and squeeze out all the air before sealing the bag. Marinate the pork for a couple of hours in the fridge if you can - up to a whole day is fine.

An hour before you plan to begin cooking, remove the pork from the fridge and allow to come up to room temperature (or close at least). Preheat the oven to 425 F.

In a pan or dish that’s safe for oven and stovetop, mix the heirloom tomatoes with a glug of olive oil and sprinkle them with salt. Season the chops generously on both sides with salt, press a bay leaf into each side, and arrange in the pan. Roast in the oven for 35 - 45 minutes.

In the meantime, rinse the scapes well under running water. Snap off and discard their fibrous ends in much the same way as you would with asparagus. Cut the scapes into manageable lengths of 4 – 5 inches.

In a food processor, pulse the pine nuts until roughly chopped. Add the scapes and pulse to a coarse paste – this may take a while, depending on where you are in scape season. Add 6oz of the cheese and the juice of 1 lemon. Season with some salt and pepper. Pulse to combine and then leave the processor on as you stream in 2 cups of olive oil.

Taste the pesto. If the garlic flavor is too sharp for your liking, you may add more cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil to soften the bite. It’s fine if the pesto ends up being quite a loose paste.

When they pork chops are almost as cooked as you'd like them to be, remove to a plate, tent loosely with foil, and rest for 10 minutes. Put the roasted tomatoes in another dish and cover to keep warm.

Place the roasting pan over high heat and reduce the juices the pork and tomatoes have released until thick and syrupy. Remove from the heat and add a glass of red wine. Return to the heat and reduce by half. Be sure to scrape up any caramelized juices from the bottom of the pan. Add the beef stock and reduce again until the pan sauce is thickened. Remove from the heat and whisk in the mustard. Check the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve the pork chops alongside the tomatoes. Drizzle the meat with the pan sauce and top with a spoonful of pesto.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Roasted Beet & Feta Tart with Red Chili, Thyme, & Oregano

It’s not every day you get dirty food shopping. Especially not in Manhattan. But that’s just what happened when I stopped to admire the golden beets at the Migliorelli Farm stand on Friday. I grabbed a bunch, cool and leafy, from the middle of the heap, and came up coated with the stubborn earth still clinging to the orange-yellow roots. I could tell from the snap of the leaves and the heady mineral-fragrance that these little gems had just been pulled from the field, and I knew they’d be delicious. After all, when was the last time you got dirty in a supermarket?

Even after they’d been scrubbed, the beets held onto their fresh-from-the field aroma. In fact, as Susanna Hoffman tells us in her cookbook The Olive and the Caper , the word “aroma” comes from the ancient Greek verb “to plough” and means “the scent of newly ploughed soil.” So the earthy aroma of freshly pulled beets and the concept of perfume are richly intertwined in linguistic and sensory memory for the Greeks.

Theirs has long been a cuisine that values fresh produce. As Hoffman notes, the Ancient Greeks made offerings to Apollo the sun god of root vegetables forged in various metals. Turnips were made in lead, radishes in gold, and beets in silver. So beets, perhaps not quite as adored as radishes, have ranked pretty highly for a pretty long time in the hearts of Greeks.

I’ve always felt they’re particularly well suited to cheeses. Whether the faint twang of a spring chevre or the earthy punch of savory-sweet gorgonzola, the pairing is one of my favorites. Crumbly, brine-packed sheep’s milk feta is a natural for the earthy “aroma” of fresh beets, and it’s a combination I’ve been served many times – both in Greece and here in the States. I love this tart – so much lighter and cleaner than most set or filled tarts – for showing off the beet-feta affinity. Add the heat of minced chili and the fragrance of some fresh oregano and thyme, and you’ve got a lovely summer lunch or light supper.

Beets are harvested here from June to November, and in the cooler months I swap in some fresh rosemary and gorgonzola or cabrales for a more autumnal feel.

Serves 4 – 6

1 package frozen puff pastry
2 bunches of beets in different colors if possible, trimmed and scrubbed
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
4 sprigs fresh thyme
flour, for rolling out the pastry
1 large red chili pepper, seeded and minced
2 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves minced
freshly ground black pepper
scant ¼ lb feta cheese, sheep’s milk if available
1 egg

Put the puff pastry out on the counter to defrost for 1 - 2 hours (2 - 3 hours in the fridge).

Pack the beets in foil packages keeping the colors separate. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with some salt, and tuck a thyme sprig into each package. Seal loosely and place in an ovenproof pan or dish. Place in a cold over and turn the heat to 375 F. Roast for 30 minutes – longer if your oven’s a slow preheat.

When the beets have softened slightly but are still very firm, slice them into thin rounds, keeping the colors separated at all times. Slice the darkest beets last and wipe the cutting board carefully.

When the pastry’s thawed, sprinkle both sides with flour and roll out to a rectangle about 12” by 15”. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil and place the pastry in the center. Brush the top of the pastry with more olive oil. Arrange the beet slices on the pastry sparingly – you’ll probably have extra that you can save for salads or snacking. Sprinkle with half the minced chili, half the minced oregano, and the leaves of 1 of the thyme sprigs. Finish by crumbling over the feta, drizzling the whole thing with a little more olive oil, and seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Remember, though, that the feta already adds salinity, and, though deseeded, there's still a little heat in the chili.

Whisk the egg with a teaspoon of water and brush the tart’s edges with the mixture. Place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven, still at 375, and bake until the feta is caramelized and the pastry doesn’t fall when you remove it from the oven – about 30 to 40 minutes.

Transfer the tart to a cooling rack. Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then sprinkle with the remaining chili, oregano, and thyme leaves. Slice into 8 or 10 wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Moroccan Mint Tea

When considering nations enthralled by tea, you might think of Britain, Japan, China – even India and Sri Lanka - before your mind's eye falls on Morocco. But, since the British brought tea to Morocco in the 1800s, the drink has become as interwoven into the fabric of life there as it is anywhere. Anytime a guest enters a café or someone’s home, mint tea is served as a vital symbol of hospitality and cultural cohesion.

And by Moroccan Mint Tea, of course, I mean the decadently sweetened Gunpowder tea that's infused with great bunches of fresh mint and poured from silver teapots held at dizzying heights above narrow glasses.

A Moroccan tea service is a stunningly beautiful thing to behold, as is the traditional tea set used for the ceremony. Typically a set includes an ornate tray (usually silver), the pot itself, a bowl with domed lid for holding the fresh mint (spearmint’s preferred – add fresh orange blossoms if they grow where you live), and a cup or goblet for foaming.

Creating a frothy head of foam on the tea is considered the most important part of serving. The feat is accomplished by first pouring the tea from a great height into the glass. But this is only the start. The glass is then lifted and the tea is poured again into the aforementioned cup or goblet. Back and forth the tea goes between these two vessels until the host is satisfied with the resulting froth.

Moroccan tea is served scalding hot, and 3 glasses are traditionally drunk at any sitting – not what you’d expect for a country that lies on the northern Sahara Desert. But trust me: it’s refreshing and wonderfully balancing on a hot summer day.

Serves 4 (3 glasses each)

7 cups boiling water
2 tbsp Gunpowder green tea
½ cup granulated sugar
2 handfuls fresh spearmint, plus extra for garnish
½ cup fresh orange blossoms, plus extra for garnish, (optional)

Rinse your teapot with about a cup of boiling water to heat through. Use a towel or potholder if your teapot has a metal handle – it gets hot!

Put the tea, sugar, mint, and orange blossoms, if using, into the warmed pot. Pour over the boiling water to cover and steep for 3 minutes. I like to wrap the pot in a tea towel during this stage to keep in the heat.

Banish small children and pets from the area. Lift the teapot 6 inches above the first glass and slowly pour a stream into the glass. As you gain agility and courage, you will be able to lift the pot higher. Now hold the (very hot) glass over the goblet (or any other cup) and stream in the tea. Repeat at least once more until there’s a light foam on the surface of the tea. Cappuccino lovers and those of you with leather skin continue as long as you like though. Repeat with the other glasses, garnish each with a spring of fresh mint or an orange blossom, and serve hot.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Brief History of Tapénade or Happy Birthday MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher would have turned 99 today, and her writing and straightforward food are still balm for the over-exposed palate and mind. She is timeless, tasteful, restrained, and self-possessed – a true antidote to the onslaught of heaving bosoms, bleached smiles, and vulgar contractions so many celebrity chefs subject us to these days.

Yet she was anything but timid. As Laura Shapiro has noted, Fisher once said: “I know what I want, and I usually get it because I am adaptable to locales…I order meals that are more typically masculine than feminine…I like good wines, or good drinkin’-likka, and beers and ales…Women are puzzled…I make it plain that I know my way around without [men], and that upsets them.”

It would be impossible and inappropriate for me to try to sum up Fisher’s life and work in a blog post, but you can read tributes written by her friends at the website maintained by Les Dames d'Escoffier International here.

I think it’s only fitting to cook MFK Fisher’s food today, and next year I’m planning an event for her birthday – you’ve been warned! For this year I’ve chosen 2 recipes from her 1968 book With Bold Knife and Fork. Both are for Provençal black olive spreads – she and her husband spent a few years living in France just after they were married in 1929.

The first, Olive Paste Provençale, is meant to be served frozen and has quickly become my favorite lunch. She calls the freezing a “little trick…in order to keep the oil which holds the whole together as thick as soft butter, to be spread easily upon bread or waifers.” Fisher imagines this incredibly simple Mediterranean ancestor of tapénade to be several thousand years old – snow having been used to solidify the garlic-infused oil in ages past.

Fisher also reveals that, despite the hype, tapénade was invented in a restaurant in Marseille less than a century ago (make that 150 years now I reckon). She readily concedes that, though relatively new, tapénade “tastes as subtly ancient as Time itself can taste.” Her recipe calls for tuna and brandy, and excludes garlic altogether – all firsts for me. But it’s deliciously balanced, as is everything of hers I’ve ever tried.

Fisher writes that in Provence, tapénade is traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs, “often cut in halves and laid face down on a shallow dish thickly coated with the unctuous heady mixture.” Sometimes though, she adds it is spooned onto the open halves, which appealed to me more. I also suggest the addition of some seasonal crudité, like the blanched wax beans and crisp radishes I’ve used here.

The only other adaptation I’ve made is to call for oil-cured olives rather than canned – I feel sure that Fisher would have used the same whenever she had access to them, but they were tough to come by state-side until surprisingly recently. Incidentally, your olive pastes will have more flavor if you start with olives that still have their stones. I suppose it comes down to how much time you’ve got on your hands – I am certainly not going to tell if you use pitted.

Enjoy both these recipes, and know that the flavors – particularly for the tapénade – will develop if they’re left to rest for a day or so. And remember that no mention here can substitute for Fisher’s own subtle, addictive prose. 3 of my favorites for anyone who feels like a grand read: A Cordiall Water, How to Cook a Wolf, and Long Ago in France. Happy Birthday Mrs. Fisher.

Olive Paste, Provençale

(adapted from With Bold Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher)

4 – 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
cayenne pepper to taste (start with 1 teaspoon and work up from there)
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
2 cups pitted chopped oil-cured black olives

Heat the garlic, salt, pepper, and cayenne gently in the olive oil over low heat. Once the garlic cloves are lightly golden, remove from the heat and cool the mixture slightly. Then remove the garlic cloves and discard. Mix the olives into the seasoned oil and pack firmly into small pots or bowls. Press down so that the oil rises to the surface to form a firm seal once frozen. Cover and freeze for a few hours or up to 1 year.

Serve on a bed of crushed ice. The back of a spoon warmed in hot water can be used to smooth the surface if it's cracked from the cold, and you should let the little pot sit out for 10 minutes before serving so it's easier to lift up little curls of the heavenly oil and olive paste.

(adapted from With Bold Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher)

1 cup pitted chopped oil-cured black olives
1⁄2 cup anchovy fillets preserved in oil, drained
1⁄2 cup canned/jarred tuna in water, drained
1 level teaspoon dry mustard
freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup capers, drained
1 scant cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 jigger good brandy

In a mortar and pestle (or an electric blender if you prefer), pound or pulse the olives, anchovies, tuna, dry mustard, pepper, and capers until roughly combined. Gradually add the olive oil and then the lemon juice. Finally stir in the brandy and store covered in the fridge up to 1 week.

Fisher, MFK. "With Bold Knife and Fork." New York: Counterpoint, 2002.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Cherry Lavender Harvest Cake

Luke and Paul at the River Garden greenmarket stand have the most decadently fragrant bunches of lavender right now. And, as they told me last week, it’s a good time to stock up, because the harvest is almost over. There’s a second cutting in August, at which point I’ll buy more to dry and store away for the long months ahead, but on Friday, I brought home a couple of bunches to use this summer.

I adore lavender in food, both sweet and savory, and it’s a thrill to have such high quality blooms in my pantry. As Luke explained to me, all that’s involved in drying your own lavender is laying the blooms out in a thin layer, away from direct sunlight for a couple of days. I used the tissue that Luke had wrapped the flowers in, but a clean tea towel or two would work just as well. Once dried, the tiny buds can be gently pulled off the stems, and they keep for a year or more if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Not to mention the free aromatherapy session you get into the bargain.

It’s something I urge you to consider doing yourself if you happen to have access to culinary-grade lavender. Even if you don’t enjoy the flavor in your food, you could follow Susan of Porcini Chronicles’ lead and make some lovely sea salt scrub infused with the soothing aroma. And I imagine it could be a real treat, if you have a fireplace, to stash the dried stems and throw them on the fire the next time you get a chilly night...Don't you love how I romanticize the life of anyone not living in a Manhattan apartment?

There’s a harvest cake I bake, fruity and moist with good olive oil, that varies with the seasons. The cherries have just arrived in full force, and I love the way the earthiness of the lavender underlines their bright sweetness. This cake celebrates summer – perfect for early July before the heat’s completely wilted our spirits and turned our thoughts longingly to crisper weather.

1 1/2 cups sweet cherries, halved and pitted
extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of table salt
1 egg
1/2 cup granulated sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp lemon juice
1 scant tsp lavender
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup milk
extra granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F

Brush the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with olive oil. Cut a circle of parchment paper to cover the bottom of the pan, and then brush that with olive oil too.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. In an electric kitchen mixer, beat the egg and sugar for 5 minutes or until pale and fluffy. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, lavender, ¼ cup olive oil, and milk. Beat until combined.

Fold in the flour mixture with a spatula until just combined. Be careful not to over-stir.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Top with the cherries. Sprinkle with a little more sugar.

Bake for 45 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes. Remove the springform and continue to cool. Once the cake’s completely cool, store in an airtight container.

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