Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cherries Roasted in Red Wine & Sea Salt

As featured on WBUR Boston NPR's Public Radio Kitchen.

I think of cherries as the year's first big flavor. Scarlet, shiny and brash, cherries banish the quiet green flavors of spring. They only appeared at the market about a week ago here, which means they’re nowhere near their tangy-sweet height yet. Don’t get me wrong though. Early season or not, a bag of cherries is undeniably appealing, and therein lies the challenge to making this recipe. Cherry season is short, and when they show up, chances are I haven't had a locally grown cherry in eleven months. That's a long time.

Add to that the fact that I've lived in this neighborhood for long enough that I can’t seem to walk a block without seeing someone I know. That's rare for New York, and I like it a lot, but it also can make it highly difficult to negotiate the two minute stroll home from the greenmarket without losing half my cherries. People can't resist. Their eyebrows shoot up. Their mouths form round "ohs" of delight. "Is it cherry season already?" they ask breathlessly, smiling into my shopping bags.

Take Saturday morning. I snapped up three pounds (we'd have a bowl of them on the counter, I thought dreamily, plus some for the vanilla gelato I'd made, and maybe a clafoutis), and stopped to speak with my friend Luke at his River Garden stand. We nibbled goodnaturedly as we talked, and I left him with an extra handful before heading out of the market, over a narrow cobblestone street, and exchanging pleasantries and another fistful with the owner of a local wine store. Waving goodbye, I walked straight into a good (but chatty) friend, along with her husband and 2 year old son. When it became clear we had much catching up to do, we decided to retire to a nearby coffee place. I'd been sharing politely all the while - she's pregnant, it's bad form not to share your cherries with pregnant people - but I turned away for a moment to retrieve my cappuccino, trustingly stowing my cherries under the bar, only to return to this:

Shameless. A free-for-all. Does that look like three pounds of cherries to you? But it’s summer, and what’s the point of having something as intrinsically jolly as a bagful of the year’s first cherries if you can't share them with your friends? Plus I managed somehow to arrive home with enough left for dessert that night.

I roast my early-season cherries as I’ve eaten them in Tuscany, most memorably prepared by Chef Fabio Picchi: with a healthy dose of red wine, plenty of fruity olive oil, and a good sprinkling of sea salt. Their gentle sweetness intensifies, and the wine and cherry juice meld into a rich, jammy syrup that works as well with fresh ricotta or goat cheese as it does with ice cream. Don’t pit your cherries here – much as with eau de vie, you want that gentle almond flavor that the cherry stones impart during the cooking process. Just be sure to buy more than you think you’ll need. There’s no accounting for what may remain by the time you get home, but just think how happy your friends will be.

Cherries, pits in and stems still on if possible
extra virgin olive oil
a glass or two of red wine
sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C, Gas Mark 4).

Rinse and pat dry your cherries. Spread them out in a single layer over a sheet pan with sides. Toss with a generous glug of olive oil and then spread back out again. Splash over a generous amount of red wine and sprinkle with sea salt. Roast in the middle of the oven until the juices start to thicken and caramelize slightly – 30 to 45 minutes. Serve warm, preferably with good gelato or ice cream.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Herb Season Tea

I've been in need of a little comfort of late. Fortunately it's herb season. Proper herbs from the field, I mean, with character and ugly bits and signs of having made it through a late frost or two. These herbs have weathered the storm that is early spring in these parts, and so, particularly in recent weeks, I feel a certain affinity with them.

During herb season, I keep bouquets of them in glasses on the kitchen counter. I use them for flavoring our food, of course, but I also prize them for making teas far more earthy and mellow than those we drink from store-bought blends the rest of the year. I especially turn to Maureen and Bridget Boland, those dowager empresses of comfort and Gardeners' Lore and all other things wise, for inspiration.

Above I show a simple tea made with some remarkably sturdy organic mint from Keith's Farm. Mint, prized for it's ability to soothe the nerves and refresh the body (yes please) is also touted by the Boland sisters as an addition to bath water for athletes. They hasten to urge that any Olympic competitors first ask permission of the "Committee" before indulging in the sinew-stregthening soak. That must have been some serious mint they were growing.

Other favorites I've gleaned from the series include borage steeped in wine, which they tell us "drives away all sadness and dullness." And on closer inspection I see that basil drunk in wine is recommended too - good to know my instincts are at least occasionally in line - for it's stimulating effect on the nerves and calming effect on the stomach. Tincture of chervil root should be given for courage, lavender soaked in hot water comforts the heart, and a tea made with marjoram "easeth such as are given to much sighing." Next on my list to try? Meadowsweet boiled in wine "to make the heart merry." Hopefully my sense of humor will be back intact in no time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rhubarb Clafoutis

We're off to Cape Cod to celebrate the wedding of a dear school friend. But I couldn't leave town without sharing a recipe from the archives - one I still make with regularity during rhubarb season. And the rhubarb is magnificent right now. The stalks from Keith's Farm have grown to such monstrous proportions that it only took one to make our clafoutis the other night. I hope you enjoy as much as we do.

Though it’s technically a vegetable, I can’t help feeling that rhubarb is the first fruit of spring, and I was thrilled when I saw a great tub of the ruby and jade stalks at the PJ Hoeffner Plants and Produce stand this weekend.

The first recorded planting of rhubarb in the Mediterranean was in Italy in 1608 - though at that point the fruit was used for medicinal purposes (it’s been popular through the centuries as a diuretic and digestive). Rhubarb came to the region from China in the early 17th Century, courtesy of Marco Polo’s visits home to his native Venice. It didn’t really catch on as a food until the mid-1700s was when sugar became more widely available.

I like my rhubarb roasted. I toss it in a little olive oil and dust it with confectioners’ sugar before putting it in a moderate oven for 5 minutes or so. This way the wedges hold their shape even though they’re tender and sweet. They keep well in the fridge for a few days and make a great topping for morning yogurt and evening ice cream. Rhubarb also plays a regular role in our home’s clafoutis.

Clafoutis is a traditional dessert in the south of France. In it’s most original form, clafoutis is prepared with black cherries, which I encourage you to try as well. The sweetness of the dessert is subtle, and the recipe is about as simple as baking gets. I sometimes omit the ¼ cup of sugar and allow the only sweetness to come from the sugar coating the rhubarb. Clafoutis can be prepared a little ahead of time and served warm rather than hot.

Either way, this is true family food, essentially pancake batter poured over fruit. My father has long shunned birthday cake in favor of the more delicate clafoutis.

Serves 6 – 8

¼ cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 cup milk
3 eggs
1 tbsp good vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
extra virgin olive oil
1 – 1 ½ cups fresh rhubarb stalks, sliced on the bias into ½ inch pieces
confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C, gas mark 4).

Using an electric kitchen mixer or blender, pulse together the ¼ cup of sugar, milk, eggs, vanilla extract, salt, and flour.

Heat a shallow, stove-top-safe baking dish (about 7 to 8 cup capacity) over medium-high heat. Add a little olive oil and then pour 1/4 inch batter into the dish. Cook over medium heat for a minute or so until the bottom of the batter has just started to set. Remove from the heat.

Toss the rhubarb with 1 tbsp of the sugar and arrange in the baking dish. Pour on the rest of the batter and smooth. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour until puffed and golden brown. A wooden toothpick or skewer inserted into the center of the clafoutis should come out clean.

Just before serving, sprinkle the top of the clafoutis with a little confectioners’ sugar shaken through a sieve.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The June Harvest Calendar

Things are picking up. I almost miss the quiet of May. Or at least I can feel the cool, green solace of spring ebbing away.

I haven't had a perfect strawberry yet, but they've appeared in the past couple of weeks, they're from the field, and they're getting sweeter.

The ramps are almost done. They're much plumper now - perfect for pickling.

The spring garlic has grown bulbs too, though inside it's mild, still undivided into cloves.

There are still a few fiddleheads to be found.

And there are great tangles of pea shoots.

And spinach.

The heaps of lettuce are getting higher. I'm always surprised to remember how fragrant freshly harvested lettuce can be.

And the chicory is still sweet enough for salads.

The asparagus is in abundance now, and the harvest is far more regular.

Chefs have been making off with great crates of the spears, along with a flat of the first strawberries here, to the local restaurants.

I bring home armfuls of the stuff along with fresh pheasant eggs for a perfect springtime tegamino.

Herbs are everywhere too. The chives are in bloom.

And the rhubarb is reaching its height.

Carciugga is lovely peeled and fried in thin stalks, much as they do in Italy with zucchini.

The first baby beets are being pulled from the field.

And the garlic scapes are ready too.

Spring flowers have always been my favorites.

The lilacs have sadly peaked.

But there's still lily of the valley.

And sweet peas.

The peonies are in wild abundance.

There are even a few foxgloves.

And though summer is still a couple of weeks away, the poppies are starting.

The parsnips are finished now until October, but new harvests this month will also include broccoli, cabbage, peas and swiss chard.

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 June!

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