Monday, January 24, 2011
I wish I had some poetic, evocative, feast-of-the-senses type limoncello story to tell you, I really do. Maybe something involving a breezy terrace shaded by an arbor of lemon trees, possibly overlooking the sea in Amalfi or the like, in which refreshing little sips of unbelievably fresh liqueur, like bottled sunshine itself and made, of course, with local Sorrento lemons and to the specifications of the proprietor’s ancestors reaching back into time in memoriam, were brought at the end of the most sumptuously gratifying meal to refresh me body and soul.
Unfortunately most of my memories of limoncello involve forcing down complimentary, headache-inducing cordial glasses full of sickly, syrupy, lurid liquid (“so as not to be rude” I tell myself blearily) when I’ve already eaten and drank far too much, brought by well-meaning Italian waiters before they pour me into some long-awaited taxi to trundle home, head propped against the window, and sweat it out alone in misery wherever in that foreign city I’m camping out for the night. “L-cello” my notes from the meal usually trail off in some desperate scrawl.
And yet in theory Limoncello seems like such a good idea, doesn’t it? I mean digestivos can make a wonderfully restorative, even medicinal, end to a special meal, and lemon has to be one of my all-time favorite flavors. It’s so naturally uplifting, so mouth-puckering, so cooling, so fresh. So why does limoncello so often end up tasting like discount cough syrup? Well I’m determined to fix all that. There must be a reason a whole nation of Italians still prepares and serves limoncello. It can’t just be for the tourist restaurants and duty free. I mean no one knows unadulterated, fresh-tasting food like Italians, right?
Just like when I made crème de cassis for the first time, this is an experiment and an invitation to join me in it. I’ve chosen meyer lemons because their flavor is so heavenly, maybe even possibly a step closer to that of the glorious Sorrento lemon originally used for limoncello. Plus meyer lemons are available here for such a short season - they’ve just started arriving in stores in the northeast over the past 10 days - and they're worth celebrating. If this recipe is a success, I’ll have a wonderful new way of keeping their beautiful essence with me throughout the year. But please use regular lemons if that’s all you have on hand – I’m running a test on those too. And take heart in the fact that, just like with the crème de cassis, now a yearly tradition in our house and something friends eagerly request at the end of dinners here, this limoncello has been exhaustively researched before go-time.
I’m using vodka. To capture the delicate, honeyed, floral quality of meyer lemons, you really need a flavorless vodka like Kettle One. Vodka does take longer to infuse than something like grain alcohol, which is so often recommended in online recipes, but the flavor vodka yields is really much better, and that’s the point after all. In Italy they use pure spirits, but the resulting flavor is different than that you get with the grain alcohol we can buy here. Plus the reason so many online recipes call for grain alcohol is that it supposedly infuses in a week or so. But rest assured that in Italy they tend to take a couple of months to steep their lemons in spirits, regardless of alcohol content.
And also be warned I’m planning on cutting the usual sugar by quite a bit, though we don’t need to worry about that step until the peels have steeped in the vodka for a good 8 weeks. Be sure to check back in mid-March for the tasting and to report your own results, and in the meantime I’ll be thinking of some uses for all this seriously good meyer lemon juice. Suggestions please!
So, to begin:
24 lemons, meyer if desired, preferably organic
1 ½ liters (just over 3 pints or 6 cups) good quality, favorless vodka (I’m using Kettle One for the meyer lemons and, in the name of economy, Skyy for the normal lemons, whose flavor is stronger and less complex).
Wash the lemons thoroughly and dry well, discarding any damaged fruit. Zest the lemons with a microplane to remove as much of the zest as possible without including any of the white pith, which will make your liqueur bitter. Put into clean jam or mason jars and let steep in a cool, dry, dark place for 8 weeks.
I'll meet you back here in a couple of months for the next step.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
It's pouring down rain here in New York. Bitter, icy sheets of the stuff. It's not pretty, but there is a silver lining. It's perfect roasting weather.
There is something about having a roast in the oven that makes me feel all is right with the world. There’s real victory in that moment when you close the oven door and realize that your work is done and all that’s left to do is wait for the delicious aroma of Sunday Lunch to fill the house.
The thing about roasting is that it takes almost no work on the part of the cook and results in intensified, caramelized flavors that I find immensely comforting. Plus let’s face it, roasting is one-pan cooking, and the less dishes you have to wash, the better. I’ve mentioned how much I like to roast chicken for dinner. Pork tenderloin is a wonderful option to consider at the end of a long day because, unlike said chicken, it only takes 45 minutes to cook.
This is a recipe I grew up eating, prepared by my English mother who is an expert roaster, as was her mother before her. Here I’ve chosen carrots and brussel sprouts to roast with the meat – both because they’re a great seasonal match for the twang of the mustard, and also because they’ll cook in the same amount of time as the pork. If I have more time on my hands, I might add some classic roast potatoes, peeled, parboiled, roughed up to create just the right sort of crisp exterior, and then roasted alone for 45 minutes before the meat joins them in the oven.
Have your butcher trim the fat and silverskin from the tenderloins. It’s not difficult work, but it's still nice when somebody else does it for you.
2 pork tenderloins (approximately 3 – 3½ lbs each), fat and silverskin trimmed
4 tbsp Dijon mustard, plus another teaspoon or so for the pan sauce
9 stems fresh thyme
1 large or 2 small bunches of carrots, scrubbed (no need to peel unless their quite mature), quartered or halved lengthwise depending on width, and cut into lengths
3 cups brussel sprouts, bases trimmed and outer leaves removed
freshly ground black pepper
2 glasses red wine
freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 425 F
Rinse and pat dry the pork. Mix together the mustard, 4 tbsp of olive oil, the leaves from 4 – 5 stems of thyme, and a generous sprinkling of kosher salt. Coat the tenderloins all over with the mustard mixture and set aside.
Put the carrots and brussel sprouts into a medium, stove top safe roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with the leaves from 3 – 4 more stems of thyme and toss all the ingredients together to combine. Spread the vegetables out evenly on the bottom of the pan and then arrange the two tenderloins on the bottom of the pan as well. Put the pan on the center rack of the oven and roast for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 F and roast for 40 minutes more. When finished, the pork should be firm to the touch and ever so slightly pink in the center, but I never cut into it to check – that’s how meat dries out. Unless the meat was almost frozen when you put it in, or unless your oven runs spectacularly low, 45 minutes will do the trick.
Remove the pan from the oven, transfer the two tenderloins to a plate to rest for 10 minutes before carving and tent loosely with tin foil. Remove the vegetables to a bowl and tent with tinfoil. Place the roasting pan on top of the stove. Add the wine and then turn the heat onto medium. Use a spatula to scrape up any caramelized pieces from the bottom and sides of the pan. You need these to flavor the reduction sauce. If juices accumulate in the plate the pork is resting on, add those too. When the wine has reduced by at least two thirds, remove from the heat and check the seasoning with more salt and pepper. You may whisk in a little more Dijon mustard for flavor if you wish, and I usually like to brighten the sauce with a spritz of lemon juice.
Slice the tenderloin fairly thickly (somewhere between ¼ and ½ inch thickness is what I like). Serve with the roasted vegetables and spoon over the pan sauce.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Cooking en papillote is way simpler and less precious than it sounds, and it’s one of the best ways I know to enhance the flavor of fresh fish. Steamed in parchment, all the juices and flavors permeate the fish, leaving it beautifully moist and melding into a light, delicate sauce. I’ve never known a dinner guest who didn’t enjoy the flourish of opening their own parchment bag. And of course the possibilities for flavor variations are endless.
Here I’ve followed a simple Mediterranean theme – the combination of fennel, olives, lemon, oregano, and tomato is one you’ll find all over Greece, and it goes beautifully with the sweet, clean flavor of white, flaky fish. But feel free to vary the herbs as much as your imagination and the season will allow. Try some capers. Try some butter. For a slightly meatier fish, something a little more intense like orange zest, fennel seed, black olive, and red chile is delicious too. Or go a completely different route and try some sea bass with a Southeast Asian bent - maybe some lemongrass, fresh ginger, chile, and lime.
If you’re out of baking parchment, aluminum foil will do in a pinch, but then be sure to omit any acidic ingredients like the lemon and tomatoes, or you’ll end up with a metallic flavor. If you’re in need of extra fortification, rice or new potatoes are a nice way to round out the meal, as are those French, dark green Puy lentils. You can boil them with some bay leaf and dress them with good olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper.
2 large flounder fillets or other flat, white, flaky fish fillets (about ¾ lb each)
1 bulb fennel, sliced thinly, fronds reserved
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
leaves from 1 or 2 stems of fresh oregano
2 lemons, sliced thinly across into circles
1 pint cherry tomatoes
big handful good olives
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Cut 4 lengths of baking parchment, each about 18 inches in length (there’s no need to measure – just be sure you have enough room for the fish and vegetables, plus extra for folding. Fold each length in half with a sharp crease. Arrange on two baking sheets.
Rinse the flounder and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, divide each fillet into two portions lengthwise down the natural seam in the center.
Open each piece of parchment as you would a book. Divide the fennel between the four pieces, placing it on the right hand side of the parchment. Season generously with olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Arrange a flounder fillet on top of each pile of fennel, tucking under the thinner end of the fillet to create a more uniform thickness – this way the fish will cook evenly. Drizzle the fish with a little more olive oil and season again with salt and pepper. Tear over some fennel fronds and oregano leaves. Next arrange three lemon slices on each fillet. Finally add the tomatoes and olives.
To seal the parchment packets, make one fold on the diagonal at the bottom left hand corner, creasing it sharply by pressing with your finger, as you would when you fold paper (see photo below).
Add a second fold following a curve so that your packet will eventually form a half moon (see photo below).
Continue adding sharply creased folds, following a curve up and around the ingredients. When you reach the top, twist the remaining paper to seal, (see the completed packet in the close up below).
Repeat the process with the other 3 packets. Place both baking sheets in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, trading the sheets top to bottom after the first 10 minutes so that they cook evenly.
When they’re finished the fish will just be flaky. Gently slide each packet onto a plate and serve immediately, allowing each diner to open his or her own packet.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
There’s really not much in the greenmarkets right now. Well that’s not true, it’s just that there’s much less variety than there was even a month ago. There won’t be any new major field harvests until April at the earliest.
Bins of apples in every color and variety always seem to comprise the majority of what’s on offer from now until May. They really are beautiful, but while they were overwhelmingly fragrant and enticing when they first appeared in July, by midwinter they can start to feel like white noise.
But if you take a more careful look around, past the teams of gardeners clearing out the evergreen decorations, other less flashy treasures jump into view. There are baked goods galore, and honeys and preserves, dried lavender, even lambswool.
Still fresh from cold storage are shell beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, winter squash, and turnips.
There are still some nice pears to be had, and there’s always the hydro tent-grown salad greens, though they pack less of a punch than something grown out in the field.
Thankfully yesterday I spied a small, wooden box of deep, vibrantly green kale all the way at the north end of the market.
Cheryl from Rogowski Farm, at Union Square on Wednesdays from now until March, told me they’d just dug the leaves out of the snow. My kind of greens. They also had some newly dug Jerusalem artichokes and the freshest looking onions around, plus some small, plump pumpkins and winter squash, and even some beautifully delicate green garlic from their tents.
I’m always ready for a return to balance and even a little quiet austerity after the excesses of the holidays, but I’ll admit I was thrilled by my little discovery. Rogowski Farm also has a gourmet supper club that sounds divine for anyone who lives near Pine Island, New York or feels like a field trip.
As always, crop information is available in the sidebar harvest calendar over there on the right all month. The information comes from a guide published by the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. Of course, the best way to familiarize yourself with what's in season where you live is to visit farmer's markets in your area at least every couple of weeks. I truly learn the most of all from the farmers themselves. So ask questions at the market – it’s the best way to find out which crops are not only available, but at their peak. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.
Happy winter, and happy New Year!
Monday, January 3, 2011
Why don’t we all cook mussels more? They’re so easy to make delicious and so incredibly fast to prepare. I think in this country we all get a little jumpy around shellfish. Maybe we tend to think of them as restaurant food. I suppose we’ve all heard horror stories of food poisoning from one not-so-fresh mollusk, or perhaps we once were sold a batch of spectacularly dirty shellfish that took hours of scrubbing to clean and were filled with grit. But these days none of the nightmare scenarios should be a factor as long as you source your shellfish from a reputable supplier. I’ve had consistently good experiences here in New York at Whole Foods and Citarella.
Once you’ve acquired good quality mussels, keep them well chilled in the fridge in a ventilated bag on ice, and just remember these two rules: 1. If you rap any open mussels with your knuckles, they should close tightly. If they don’t, they’re dead, and you should discard them. 2. Once the mussels are cooked, if any of them haven’t opened, then they should not be eaten either. Live mussels should be closed, cooked mussels should be open. It really is as simple as that, I promise.
And just think what awaits once you take the plunge. Big bowls heaped with blue-black shells, each holding a sweet, tender bite, all sitting in a fragrant, briny, soul-reviving broth of white wine, shallots, and parsley, ready for mopping up with plenty of French bread. It’s absolutely miraculous that it could be so quick and simple to produce. Make this once, and you’ll realize how easy (and affordable) it is to incorporate into your dinner roster.
Serve with a green salad – I’ve included a basic vinaigrette recipe here because meals rarely feel whole to me unless there’s something green involved, and simple salads are often so much easier to contemplate making than a cooked green vegetable. Put out some cold butter for the bread. When you start soaking up the wonderful white wine broth, and the cold butter on the bread melts a little bit…well just trust me on this. And don’t forget a glass of wine. Muscadet, crisp and mineral, is a good place to start, but don’t get hung up on the particulars.
For the mussels:
4 lbs fresh mussels
extra virgin olive oil
4 shallots, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced in half moons (or one white onion in a pinch)
1 clove garlic, crushed, peeled and sliced
half a bottle of dry white wine
freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
handful fresh parsley leaves
Plenty of French bread for serving, split and toasted if you’re feeling motivated
Cold butter, for the bread
For a classic salad vinaigrette:
2 tbsp good vinegar (white balsamic is my favorite lately, also try sherry vinegar and regular balsamic)
freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, lightly crushed and peeled (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Fresh salad greens, rinsed and dried
Start with the vinaigrette, because once the mussels are in the pot, they’re done very quickly and need to be eaten right away before the residual heat overcooks them. In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, a spritz of lemon juice, the mustard, the garlic if using, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Then slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking steadily until the whole is well combined. Alternately you can shake everything up in a jar with a tightly-fitting lid. The extra keeps well in the fridge, and I personally think vinaigrette tastes better if you just keep adding to that same jar without rinsing in between. Either way, check the seasoning with more salt, pepper, and lemon juice as desired. Put the greens into a serving bowl and set aside. You’ll add the dressing at the last moment so the leaves don’t wilt.
Clean and debeard the mussels (by pulling out any little fibers left from the side of the shell) under cold running water. Any shells that don’t close when rapped with your knuckles should be discarded, as should any that are cracked or broken. Set aside. Put in the fridge uncovered if not using within 15 minutes or so.
Heat a large pot with a lid over medium heat. Add a glug of olive oil to coat the bottom and then the shallots. Sprinkle with kosher salt and sizzle, stirring occasionally, until just transparent. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add the white wine, and season with plenty of black pepper. Raise the heat to high and bring to the boil.
Stir in the mussels, clamp on the lid, and cook over high heat for 2 to 5 minutes, stirring once to bring the bottom shells to the top and vice versa, until the shells have opened. Drizzle with the lemon juice and tear in the parsley. Check the seasoning with more salt if necessary. Pile the mussels into big bowls and divide the broth between them. Drizzle some vinaigrette over the salad greens (you will have leftover vinaigrette – just use enough to lightly dress them) and toss to combine. Serve immediately – there is no substitute for a freshly opened mussel – and be sure not to eat any of mussels that haven’t opened during cooking.
For another way to serve mussels, try this spicier, richer Spanish version with Chorizo, Chili, and Bay.
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