Monday, May 23, 2011

Calçots amb Romesco - Grilled Spring Onions with Romesco Sauce

A calçotada is a Catalonian festival that celebrates the harvest of a variety of green onion known as the calçot. The festival is a major event, and with good reason. Not only are the calçots and their accompanying salsa romesco (locally salbitxada) spectacularly evocative of Catalan, and particularly Tarragonian cuisine, but the onions themselves are a year and a half in the making.

When onion seeds are planted, they grow or “set” a bulb, at which point we usually harvest and eat them fairly quickly. But if left in the ground, the onion bulb will enter a period of dormancy until the following season, at which point it sends up several new shoots to flower and seed. The cultivation of calçots interrupts this natural two-season lifecycle. Farmers dig up and then replant the sprouting onion bulbs, pile the earth up around them to elongate the white section of their shoots, and harvest them before they flower, when they are still mild, tender, and sweet.

The onions are grilled over a fire of vine cuttings until the outer layer of green leaves is charred black. Then they’re wrapped in bunches in newspaper to steam the rest of the way to savory sweetness. The long leaves are left on, but only as a handle. It’s the bulb, and the palest green portion of the leaves that are actually eaten.

You don’t take civilized bites here. The method is as follows: Hold your charred calçolt at the tip of its inner green shoot and peel away the blackened outer leaves (“calçot” means “sock” or “cover” in Catalan), immerse the whole in salsa romesco, a smoky, earthy sauce of peppers and nuts, tip your head back, and lower the whole into your mouth in one go. This isn’t date food, or at least not first date food, and the bibs traditionally worn at any calçotada are anything but superfluous. Consider yourselves warned.

And look, let’s just get this out of the way. There is almost no one on this earth who is capable of either peeling the charred outer layer down off of the translucent interior, nor tipping their head back, maw agape, and lowering the long, romesco-coated onion into their mouth without at least one suggestive grin, one roguish eyebrow wiggle. It’s like sausage-making class in culinary school, when the first 10 minutes saw a roomful of grown adults reduced to a helpless, convulsing, weeping heap on the floor. Deep down, when it comes to our baser appetites at least, we are all apparently children to the end.

Here’s an obliging fellow demonstrating the proper technique:

And another:

It’s a little late in the spring for a calçotada in Spain, where the harvest peaks in February or March, but here in New York the scallions, spring onions, and baby leeks are all just coming into their own. My favorite substitute for calçots stateside are young spring onions or large in-season scallions. Whichever you choose, serve with plenty of red wine – the local red Priorat is a perfect pairing – and for the full calçotada experience follow the onions with grilled meat, especially lamb or sausage, which is traditionally cooked over the embers while everyone devours the calçots. Dessert is often a crema catalana, eggy and redolent with citrus and cinnamon. Viva Cataluña!

Serves 4

8 dried ñora peppers (Ancho or New Mexican make fine substitutes)
½ cup blanched, slivered almonds or 3 oz (85 grams) hazelnuts (The natural smokiness of hazelnuts is particularly nice here).
2 medium tomatoes
2 red bell peppers
extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 large slice country bread, toasted
1 pinch cayenne pepper
3 - 6 tbsp sherry vinegar, to taste
kosher salt
5 - 6 dozen calçots, spring onions, very large scallions, or young leeks

Preheat the oven to 300 F (150 C, gas mark 2). Unless you're making the sauce ahead of time, start to preheat your grill for the onions. If you're cooking indoors, a griddle pan, cast iron skillet, or broiler will suffice. Whichever you use, indoor or out, make it as hot as you can.

Pull the stems from the dried peppers, tear apart so you can shake out the seeds, and cover with boiling water to steep for half an hour.

Meanwhile place the nuts in a baking dish and roast for 15 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant. If using hazelnuts, rub in a dry dishcloth after roasting to remove their skins and chop roughly. Meanwhile halve and de-seed the tomatoes, tear apart into several pieces, and roast until lightly caramelized, about 20 - 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the bell peppers directly onto gas burners to char black completely on all sides, or else turn the oven up to broil and blacken them under the grill, turning often for about 30 minutes. Immediately place them in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam for 10 minutes. Then remove the blackened skin and stems, seed (resisting the urge to rinse them under running water, which washes away much of the flavor), and set aside.

Heat a small saucepan over medium heat, add a very generous glug of olive oil and then the chopped garlic. Sauté until just beginning to turn golden at the edges. Remove from the heat immediately and pour garlic and oil into a food processor (or a mortar and pestle, which is traditional). Add the toasted bread and pulse into breadcrumbs. Add the ñora peppers, nuts, tomatoes, bell peppers, cayenne pepper, 3 tbsp of sherry vinegar, and a generous pinch of salt, and pulse to a coarse consistency. Remove to a bowl so as not to over-purée and check the seasoning to taste with more vinegar and salt if desired. You may stir in more olive oil if the sauce seems too thick for dipping. Set aside.

Cut the roots off of the calçolts and trim the ends, leaving a long green portion to use as a handle. Be sure to have newspaper nearby for wrapping. Line the onions up over the hot coals, blacken on all sides, and immediately wrap in a thick layer of newspaper and set aside in a warm place to steam - about 20 minutes. Serve immediately with bowls of the romesco sauce for dipping.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Things I Love

The Avenue. Early, empty on the way to the Saturday market. No memory of the chill. But no scent of heat yet either.

And the first day each spring of River Garden's lily of the valley crop. It's my favorite moment of May.

How lily of the valley always, like clockwork, seems to mean that the French breakfast radishes are ready too - mild, crisp and tipped with white.

And how they feel like a feast with fresh butter, fleur de sel and a floral glass of rosé.

Sharing them with my fellow radish addict and oldest friend in New York, Georg, whom I met here when we were very young indeed.

And the way my small daughter adores Georg just as much as I always have. We haven't sold her on the radishes yet though.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Asparagus Harvest Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette

It’s sad but true that asparagus mimosa, or anything “mimosa” for that matter, feels woefully outdated. Dinner parties in sunken drawing rooms where food was served in frilly hostess aprons come to mind, as do 3 martini lunches, beehive updos, and the fare at my grandfather’s club, where the menu was about as fresh as the clouds of pipe smoke that hung heavy in the air.

Mimosa is a preparation in which some main player, usually a vegetable, is garnished with hard boiled egg that’s been pushed through a sieve until it resembles, roughly, the overflowing, frothy blossom of the mimosa tree. It was the height of chic about 60 years ago, but one doesn’t run into it too often anymore.

The problem is, of course, that “mimosa” initially caught on, and then stuck around for so long, with good reason. Despite its stodgy visual flourishes, it is inarguably delicious, especially on asparagus. The spears, blanched just to the point of sweetness, are tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette, laced with a touch of that spring-iest of herbs, tarragon. I’ve never been one for “mimosa-ing.” Instead I just slice my hardboiled eggs into rounds and lay them over the top of the warm green spears and season with good salt and plenty of coarsely ground black pepper.

Don’t be fooled by how simple it all sounds. The genius of asparagus mimosa is the sublime rubble that forms as you start to eat. The barely cooked egg yolk crumbles into the twangy mustard and tarragon vinaigrette to form a sunny dressing for the asparagus. Think of it as a wholly modern, deconstructed béarnaise sauce.

I keep hardboiled eggs in the fridge through asparagus season, just so I can make this on market days. We’ve got about 3 more weeks until the field herbs are in, but the dish makes a perfect celebration of spring even without the tarragon. Just remember that, as with all vegetables, the fresher your asparagus, the less cooking time it needs. And conversely, eggs are harder to peel the newer they are. If your eggs are farm fresh, and time (and asparagus season) allow, try keeping them in the fridge for three or four days before boiling them.

Serves 4 as a starter, 2 for a light lunch

Kosher salt
1½ lbs fresh asparagus
1 tsp Dijon mustard
fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp white balsamic vinegar (or slightly less of a less mellow vinegar)
a pinch or two of minced fresh tarragon (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 hardboiled egg per person (Here are good directions for how to make perfectly hard boiled eggs), sliced into rounds

Fill a medium-large pot with a few inches of water, salt well, and bring to the boil over high heat. Snap the ends off of the asparagus spears – they will break naturally where they go from tender to woody. In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, a spritz of fresh lemon juice, the vinegar, the tarragon, a generous grind of black pepper, and a good pinch of kosher salt. Now drizzle in the oil, whisking until combined. Set aside.

Blanch the asparagus until just tender – 2 - 3 minutes ought to do it, especially this time of year. Arrange in bundles on plates. Check the vinaigrette seasoning with salt if necessary and then drizzle as much or as little as you like over the asparagus. Arrange the egg rounds over the asparagus, season well with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The May Harvest Calendar

It's still peaceful.

Don't get me wrong, the greenmarket's been crowded for a week or so already. But the crops, the flavors are still quiet.

Quince blossoms smell like a garden after the rain.

And the harvest has finally begun now too. Fresh, fragrant baby lettuces. Earthily green asparagus, though there will be far more later into the season.

Right now most farmers are getting about a harvest a week, but, as the weather warms and spears grow up to 10 inches a day, an asparagus field might be harvested every 24 hours.

And there are emerald scallions, still young and mild enough to touch to the grill and toss in vinaigrette.

The ramps are suddenly at their height, piled in great velvety heaps that sell all day.

And a few stalks of rhubarb have appeared. Jade.

And blushing into rose too.

Plus some hints of heat and color and things to come.

The field radishes have started to pop up, though not in as much varied abundance as they will be in another week or two.

The world is awash in green.

Also coming into their own right now are beet and turnip greens, mesclun, parnips, spinach and summer squash. And as always from cold storage, we have last year's shell beans, onions, potatoes and apples. The potatoes are wilted but still roast up decently, though I haven't had a respectable apple in months now. And you know my feelings on those old onions. I stick to the scallions, the ramps and the chives in May.

Crop notes are 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. To familiarize yourself with what's in season where you live, I advise a visit to your own farmer's markets at least every couple of weeks. And ask lots of questions – no one knows which crops are at their peak quite like the people who grow them. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy spring and happy May!

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