Monday, July 25, 2011

Wild Bramble Cake with Beurre Noisette

My parents live in New Hampshire at the edge of several hundred acres of woods. At the bottom of the garden here, for here is where I am on a visit this week, there grows a healthy, low hedge of wild brambles that has slowly advanced out of the woods and around one side of our sheltered, sunny lawn. The crop is never huge, but it lasts from around the beginning of August until the first frost.

Each morning we traipse down to the westerly-facing edge of the garden to collect whatever has ripened overnight before the birds can get to the glossy, black berries. And every evening before dusk, we pick a second harvest, those that weren’t quite ready that morning but are now juicy and sun-warm and worth rescuing from whatever night creatures might come nosing about.

The berries are similar to cultivated blackberries, only smaller and more tart, and they lighten to a rich red as they cook. Their harvest sets a rhythm to our warm-weather days and to the weeks as well. Every three or four days or so, and if we exert a reasonable level of self-control and provide adequate distraction for the smaller members of the family as we pick, we assemble enough brambles for a crumble or tart. A few summers ago I devised a third option that would frame the earthy-sweet twang of the wild fruit within the nutty warmth of beurre noisette. This cake is moist with olive oil, fragrant with vanilla and lemon, and only very subtly sweetened – an instant favorite for us.

I’ve been anxiously waiting since late September of last year to make it again, and the first few brambles have ripened earlier than normal, thanks to a sodden and, of late, excruciatingly hot summer. Don’t be put off if you don’t have brambles where you are. Blackberries, raspberries and currants of both the red and black variety are all wonderful here.

Butter and flour for the cake pan
4 tbsp (2 oz, 60g) unsalted butter
1 ½ cups (200g) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp baking powder
generous pinch of kosher salt
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs
2/3 cup (135g) granulated sugar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup whole milk
1 tsp good vanilla extract
1 ½ - 2 cups (you'll need the greater volume if your berries are larger in size) fresh brambles, blackberries, raspberries, red or black currants

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

Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan, being sure to tap out any excess flour.

Place the 4 oz. of butter in a small saucepan over medium low heat. The butter will melt, and then foam, and then the foam will subside. When light brown specks begin to form in the butter, test it for a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat as soon as this develops and place the pan on a cold surface to help stop the cooking. The difference between browned butter and burnt butter is just a few moments, so don’t walk away. Allow to cool for about 15 minutes before proceeding.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk in the lemon zest until evenly distributed. In an electric kitchen mixer, beat the eggs and sugar for 3 - 5 minutes, or until pale and thick. Add the browned butter, olive oil, milk, and vanilla extract. Beat until combined.

Fold in the flour mixture with a spatula until just combined. Be careful not to over-stir. Set the batter aside to rest for 10 minutes (a trick I learned from a Patricia Wells book that I find works wonders with all olive oil cakes). Gently stir ¾ of the brambles into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Top with the remaining brambles.

Bake for 50 minutes or until the cake is golden and a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove the springform and continue to cool. Once the cake’s completely cool, store in an airtight container.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cherry Sangria with Apple Mint & Basil

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

The sweet cherries are hopeless this year. As recently as two weeks ago, I could be heard muttering thinly veiled complaints regarding the inferiority of the fruit early in the season. But the joke’s on me, and it turns out that that was the cherry crop’s peak for the year. We had a couple of late frosts this spring, and now there are hardly any cherries to be found at all. Sour cherries, yes. Sweet cherries, apparently an earlier blossom, not so much. Early summer suddenly seems to be slipping away, but I can’t let go of cherry season. Not quite yet.

I always seem to forget how much I love good cherries during the eleven months they’re not available. Those magnetic first flats, which usually appear in the market just as June touches July, bring it all flooding back though. Cherries are distracting, maybe even a little wanton. There’s something almost animate in the way their skins catch on one another when you roll a few in the palm of your hand. And the flavor. Tart and fresh, then earthy and sweet. There's nothing else quite like it. So the prospect of skipping a full season, of waiting another year to enjoy cherries, is a sad one.

Fortunately there is a very good way of stretching a small harvest, not to mention prodding an inferior crop to act as proper cherries should, and that is by crushing the fruit into some well-constructed summer cocktails. I like my cherry-infused drinks a little rough-and-ready, unstrained, with some herbs from the greenmarket (cool mint, peppery basil) and a few wedges of lemon to help the fruit sit up and sing. Even though making simple syrup is possibly the least demanding thing in the world, I just can’t face it. I’d rather pour a good glass of wine. So my cherry cocktails in all their incarnations employ plain old granulated sugar (not even superfine), and an enthusiastic muddle with the less friendly end of a wooden spoon.

You can use 4 ounces of cachaça instead of the wine here, swap in lime for the lemon, and you’ll have yourself a seriously good cherry caipirinha. But this version is what I make most often. It’s more delicate and tranquil - approachable in the afternoon without threatening to turn the rest of your day on its ear. It’s a sangria of sorts, though lighter and with no brandy.

Any mint will do, but I am particularly fond of the floral, mild (and almost never apple-y) apple mint some of our farmers sell this time of year. Just be sure to get up early on market day, before the few sweet cherries still to be found have been snatched up. I've noticed it’s getting a little competitive out there.

Makes 2

12 sweet cherries, halved and pitted
6 fresh basil leaves
6 fresh mint leaves, plus 2 extra sprigs for garnish (I like applemint, but any mint you enjoy will do)
4 tsp granulated sugar
2 ½-inch thick rounds of lemon, halved
8 oz chilled white wine

In the bottom of a cocktail shaker, muddle the cherries, basil, mint and sugar. Add the lemon slices and muddle again. Add the wine and fill the shaker with ice. Shake well and decant into two old-fashioned glasses, adding more ice if desired. Garnish with the mint sprigs and serve immediately.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Grilled Summer Squash Salad with Basil, Mint & Lemon

One of my favorite things by far about the summertime is lunch. The meal seems to fall so effortlessly into place in a way it never can in cooler months. After all, it is intrinsically suited to sun-dappled tables, crisp, chilled wine, and a general, intoxicating feeling that one is living well. Especially now, when the heat here in the city hasn’t reached its soul-crushing height yet, and the flavors in the market are still young, floral, sweet, perfect.

During the summer, I keep a bunch of fresh herbs in a glass of water on the kitchen counter (most recently chervil, mint, basil, and a few springs of lavender), ready to adorn whatever I bring home from the greenmarket that day. All that’s really needed is some good, fruity olive oil and salt, maybe a spritz of lemon juice, and a simple midday feast is never more than a few moments away.

This summer squash recipe, infinitely adaptable depending on which herbs you have at hand and what squash looks best that day, is one of the cornerstones of my summer lunches. For preference, I like a mix of colors, shapes and flavors. Nutty pattypan. Floral, young zucchini. Crisp, fluted Romanesco. And a lemony dressing flecked with fresh basil and mint serves to underline the light char from the grill. My grill pan seems to stay on the stove top most of the summer anyway.

This salad makes a lovely lunch with some sliced tomatoes in olive oil and maybe a few velvety curls of prosciutto. If I have the time, I like to sauté some ricotta-filled squash blossoms too. The squash salad works just as well at room temperature as it does fresh off the grill – just be sure to dress the squash slices while they’re hot and can soak up the lemon and olive oil, but don’t add the basil and mint until just before serving.

Assorted fresh summer squash
Juice of 1 – 2 lemons, depending on the size of your salad
Good extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Small handful of fresh basil leaves
A few fresh mint leaves

Heat a grill or grill pan to medium high heat – you want a quick, hot sear here so that your squash will soften and steam on the plate rather than on the grill. Slice your squash lengthwise into thick ¼ inch pieces. Grill in batches, a few minutes a side, just until you can see good grill marks, and remove to a serving platter.

When all your squash slices are done, sprinkle liberally with fresh lemon juice, drizzle with olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. Just before serving, roll your basil and mint leaves into a cigar shape and slice across as thinly as possible into a chiffonade. Sprinkle over the squash, check the seasoning with more lemon juice, salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The July Harvest Calendar

It's summer here.

Really, really.

The lavender harvest is at its height.

And there are summer flowers everywhere.

There is already barley. And winter wheat.

The herbs are suddenly more substantial.

As are the spring onions.

And the garlic.

There is summer squash, bursting with flavor.

And heirloom lemon pickles.

Great heaps of peas.

Whole walls of lettuce.

And my favorite string and wax beans have finally arrived.

Carrots too.

The radishes have a little more kick to them now.

And the strawberries, now in their last month, are jammy and fragrant.

The raspberries are ready too, as are the blueberries, collard greens, cucumbers and peppers.

There isn't an asparagus spear to be found - asparagus season is never long enough - but there are finally freshly dug potatoes, and in the next few weeks there will be corn and plums and apples. I had some spectacular tomatoes yesterday, and I even spied a small heap of peaches at the southwest corner of the market.

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 summer and happy July!

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