Friday, December 14, 2007

Celeriac & Parsley Soup - a Soothing Recipe

Celery is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean, and it still grows wild there in wetter areas. Not the celery you’ll find in your Waldorf salad, that is, but a leafier, blossom-covered variety, sometimes known as smallage, whose seeds have long been used medicinally and as a flavoring agent.

Celery as we now know it was being eaten in France by the early 17th century, and celery root – or celeriac – showed up about the same time.

I love celeriac this time of year for its cooling, clean flavor. Grated raw for salads or simmered down into simple soups, it makes a soothing remedy for the excesses of the season. Here I add a generous amount of parsley, which belongs to the same family as celery and was believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to prevent intoxication. Very useful indeed if you’re feeling a bit woozy from the previous night’s revels!

I like this soup with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a drizzle of good olive oil, but you can dress it up for company by swirling a little white truffle oil over each bowl instead. A few shavings of fresh truffle over the top would be exquisite, if you happen to have some about.

Serves 6

extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, halved and sliced into half-moons
kosher salt
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
2 ½ lbs celery root, peeled and sliced no thicker than ½ inch slices
6 cups chicken stock
1 large bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, rinsed well, stems trimmed
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large pot over medium heat and add a glug of olive oil. Add the onion and sprinkle with salt. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is transluscent. Add the garlic and stir for another minute. Add the celery root slices and the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover partially, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 45 minutes or until the celery root is very tender.

Strain the soup into a large bowl and place the solids in a food processor. Add the parsley and pulse until a smooth purée forms – you may need to ladle in some of the cooking liquid to help along the process here.

Put the purée back in the cooking pot and ladle in the cooking liquid until the desired consistency is reached – you may want to use all the liquid, but go slowly just incase. Reheat the soup over medium-low heat, stirring often. Season with lemon juice, black pepper, and plenty of salt. Serve hot with yogurt and olive oil or truffle oil and truffle slices.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Wild Mushrooms with Sherry, Shallots, & Parsley - Setas

Setas, or wild mushrooms, are a tapas bar classic in Spain. The term refers to any mushrooms other than the cultivated white champiñón, and you should feel free to use whichever varieties look and smell the most fresh right now where you live. The dish has infinite possibilities depending on the time of year, and our markets here in New York still offer plenty of choices. This time I've used a mixture of oyster, shitake, and hen of the woods.

During wild mushroom season in Spain, setas would typically be prepared with cured ham, but I often omit the meat to keep the flavor lighter and cleaner. The shallots, garlic, sherry, and lemon meld to form an incredibly bright, earthy tang, making this one of my favorite cool weather tapas dishes. And setas also make a fantastic light supper over some toasted bread - especially paired with a glass of crisp white wine or fino.

Charlotte of The Great Big Vegetable Challenge is working on Q is for the Quick Vegetable Quest right now, and these are my contribution to the cause. If you visit her site, you'll find a list of vegetable recipes that take ten minutes or less to prepare. I clocked these setas at 9 minutes, by the way. Charlotte was just nominated for Best Food Blog (Family & Kids) by the Well Fed Network’s 2007 Food Blog Awards judges. Stop by to vote for all your favorite food blogs as often as you like anytime before 11:59pm on December 14th. Congratulations and best of luck to Charlotte and to all the other nominees.

Serves 6 as tapas

extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, minced
kosher salt
1 clove garlic, minced
6 cups assorted mushrooms, brushed clean and torn into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup dry sherry
juice of one lemon
handful of parsley, roughly chopped
freshly ground black pepper
toasted or grilled bread for serving (optional)

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add a glug of olive oil and the shallots. Sprinkle with salt and sauté until transluscent. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring often, for one more minute, Toss in the mushrooms and sprinkle with more salt to release their liquids. Sauté the mixture for 5 more minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the sherry. Return to a high heat and cook until the liquid is gone. Toss in the lemon juice and parsley and sauté one minute more until the mushrooms begin to caramelize. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Trummsbury Farm Christmas Trees

I’m always so pleased when farmers at the market share tips with me. After all, they not only know their crops better than anyone else could, but they also get to know each other’s products in a way no casual shopper ever can. So when Luke from the River Garden flower farm (whose flowers are by far the most fresh and extravagantly beautiful you’ll see at the city’s greenmarkets) told me that the best Christmas trees are brought to market from the Adirondacks by Trummsbury Tree Farm, I knew I would look no further.

There’s nothing worse than bringing home a Christmas tree and watching it dry up and droop before the holiday even arrives – who knows how long it’s been cut by the time it reaches the corner deli. And yes, our delis sell Christmas trees in New York! But this morning, when my husband and I went to choose one from the Trummsbury stand in Union Square, some of the trees still had a powdery snow frozen in their branches.

The fragrance and variety were magnificent: Frasers and Douglases stood in towering rows along with rarer species I didn’t know. One in particular had needles that smelled of oranges when we crushed them in our hands. You must tell me if you know what kind of tree that was.

We chose a particularly bushy Douglas – I have a penchant for chubby Christmas trees – and, as my husband headed for the subway, Kevin of Trummsbury Farm gave me some sage advice for keeping the tree alive as long as possible. His directions were utter simplicity:

1) Use room temperature water – warm water and cold water are both going to turn room temperature in a few minutes anyway.
2) Water the tree copiously during its first few days at home – that’s when it drinks the most. Afterwards, make sure it has plenty of fresh water so it can drink whatever it needs.
3) Keep the tree next to an open window or a cool mist humidifier – heating dries it out.

That’s it! No sugar water, no 7 UP, nothing. And the Trummsbury Tree Farm makes it a point to plant more trees than they cut, so supporting them helps the environment too. They can be found at the Union Square Greenmarket on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays, they also sell fresh wreaths, swags, and garland, and they deliver for free.

Tonight our home finally smells like Christmas. Happy tree hunting!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fig & Apricot Orange Cake with Spiced Wine Syrup for St. Nicholas’s Day

Tomorrow December 6th is St. Nicholas’s Day. In Greece, St. Nicholas (or St. Nikolaos) does not bear gifts – rather he is the patron saint of sailors, travelers, and children – particularly orphans. In that region, he’s often depicted fresh from another ship rescue, drenched in seawater and covered with seaweed.

In fact traditionally, Christmas in Greece is not the apex of celebration that it is in English-speaking cultures. Instead, the day is marked with religious services and a feast to end a 40-day Lent. The real flurry of preparation, and gift shopping occurs in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. That’s when homes are decorated, presents are wrapped, bonfires are lit, and when more Westernized homes put up their Christmas tree. And it’s St. Basil who brings the gifts to open on New Year’s Day.

But St. Nicholas’s feast day is still a joyous occasion that’s happily anticipated by children across the country for its name-day parties. Nicholas is a popular name, and any child named in the saint’s honor is celebrated with something akin to a birthday party.

The rounds made from house to house can become Bacchanalian for young and old alike. Adults are served brandy, wine, and seasonal sweets – somewhat grueling when you consider how many Nicholas’s they may have to visit. This cake, scented with the season’s fresh oranges, studded with the region’s walnuts, dried grapes, figs, and apricots, and drizzled with fragrant spiced wine syrup, is just the sort of thing you might be served.

This is a traditional preparation, but it’s just as often seasoned with the Greeks’ beloved mastic as with cinnamon and cloves, and you should feel free to experiment if you have any handy. The olive oil adds an unexpected fruity punch, and I think you’ll agree that this is a delightfully Mediterranean twist on the classic Christmas fruitcakes we prepare in the States and Britain. This one’s better the next day, which makes it perfect for the feast tomorrow. Happy St. Nicholas’s Day!

olive oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup almond flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 large pinch kosher salt
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
2 ½ tbsp orange zest
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups orange juice (preferably freshly squeezed)
½ cup brandy
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
½ cup black raisins
½ cup chopped dried figs
½ cup chopped dried apricots
2 cups red wine
1 cup granulated sugar
4 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise pod
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
confectioner's sugar for dusting
extra orange zest for serving, in narrow strips

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Brush a deep loaf pan with olive oil and line with parchment paper that comes up out of the sides of the pan by at least 2 inches.

Sift together the flour, almond flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Sprinkle in the orange zest and stir to distribute evenly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil and sugar. Add to the dry ingredients with the orange juice and brandy and stir until only just combined. Add the walnuts and dried fruit and stir briefly to combine.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan, place the loaf pan onto a sheet pan to protect your oven against overflow, and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a wooden skewer comes out of the center almost clean.

Meanwhile, make the spiced wine syrup. In a medium pan, combine the wine, sugar, spices, and citrus zest. Place over low heat and stir until the sugar’s dissolved. Simmer over low heat until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain and reserve.

Cool the cake on a rack for at least 30 minutes before removing from its pan. Just before serving, dust with confectioner's sugar through a sieve. Slice and serve drizzled with warm wine syrup and topped with a few slivers of orange zest.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The December Harvest Calendar

It’s funny how the excitement of a December farmer’s market can match the height of the harvest in August or September. The sun shines low and pale now, and it’s gone altogether by 4:30. And the vibrant colors of late summer and early autumn have been replaced by the staid deep green of kale and collard, the quiet buff of parsnips, and the often-drab pods of fully matured shell beans.

But in spite of the change in season, farmers, chefs, and shoppers still crowd the Union Square greenmarket, stamping their feet and puffing great clouds of breath into the chilly air. There’s an atmosphere of expectation, though it’s hard to tell how much of it is the invigorating end of the heat and how much is the bracing perfume of evergreen that suddenly envelops the market.

The first time each year that I see those stacks of wreaths, coils of garland, and miniature forests of fir trees, I can't help but smile. And the amaryllis bulbs, cyclamen, and poinsettias are all out in full force now too. Plus the annual Union Square Holiday Market opened the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s been wonderful to buy a cup of hot cider from one of the apple vendors and wander to the south end of the square to browse through the stalls of ornaments, toys, and gifts.

Make the most of those apples, by the way. They’re still crisp and fragrant, but they’ll loose their fresh crunch before too long. And though the beet, cabbage, carrot, leek, onion, potato, winter squash, turnip, and pear harvests are all officially over now too, these crops are available from cold storage and are still full of flavor.

Still being harvested this December are the parsnips and shell beans, plus collard greens, kale, and other hardy greens until the first snow. Enjoy these crops while they’re fresh from the field – there won’t be any new harvests now until April.

Find a guide to New York’s holiday markets here. And, as always, the harvest calendar is available in the sidebar over there on the right all month. The information comes from the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy December, happy winter, and happy holidays!

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