Thursday, June 19, 2008

in search of a wild rosebush in the middle of boston

"Barefoot. And with rose petals in your hair. You look like something conceived under a mushroom."

Meet Rois Melior, narrator and protagonist of Winter Rose. Written by Patricia McKillip, Winter Rose is loosely based on the ballad of Tam Lin, and rife with echoes of fairy tales. It's a gorgeous, eerie story, and my inspiration for the 2008 summer edition of Novel Food.

Though most of the book's events take place during the winter, the story begins in the summer. Rois spends her time in the woods, exploring and foraging:

"I had learned where to find wild ginger, and what tree bled a crust of honey out of a split in the wood, and where the blackberries would ripen."

Rois lives with Laurel, her father, and their cook in an lovely old farmhouse with worn flagstones and tilting doorframes. Her father's farm is prosperous, with fields of wheat and an apple orchard. Beda, the cook, prepares dishes that use both the products of the farm and the fruits of Rois' foraging: roast chicken with wild herbs, raisins and nuts in a sweet, sticky sauce, mushroom soup, and blackberry pies flavored with a nip of apple brandy.

I decided to prepare a dish using ingredients mentioned in the book: chicken, apple cider, honey, and rose petals, because roses, as you might guess from the title, are a major theme. Getting all the ingredients was a piece of cake... with the exception of the rose petals.

Most florists will look at you oddly if you ask for pesticide-free flowers, and they'll look at you really oddly if you tell them you're looking for roses you can eat, so I went looking for an unsprayed rosebush from which I could snag a bloom or two.

Rois might find a profusion of wild rosebushes in her wood, but I can tell you that they're a lot more difficult to find in the middle of Boston. Just about every rosebush I saw was safely ensconced behind a fence - and most looked well-groomed, which suggested that they'd been sprayed with pesticides, anyway.

I was saved from having to resort to trespassing and petty theft by the discovery of a large, unkempt rosebush outside an unspecified apartment building in Brookline. I clipped three roses and took them home, flush with victory, and carefully washed and dried them before adding them to the chicken.

Where they added nothing to the flavor or aroma.

I don't know if I used the wrong variety of rose, or if they were past their prime, but the rose petals were completely tasteless. Fortunately, I think the chicken was fine without the additional flavor, and I admit, they did make for an attractive garnish.

Braised Chicken with Apple Cider, Honey, and Rose Petals

Cooking onions in a dry pan may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it's actually a neat little trick I read about in the New York Times. Something about the dry heat makes the sugars caramelize faster.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take two small white onions, or four shallots, and slice them up finely. Put them in a dry pot - no oil - over low heat. Season with a sprinkling of salt and a dash of nutmeg, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and start to caramelize.

Brown two chicken breasts, or two thighs, or four drumsticks, and add them to the pot with the onions. Cover with hard apple cider (I used a variety called Newton's Folly, from Vermont) and bring the mixture to a boil, before turning the heat down to a low simmer.

When the chicken is tender and close to falling off the bone, stir in a generous drizzling of honey and the petals from two or three small, pesticide-free red roses. Check for salt; adjust to taste. Remove from heat and serve over rice, with a green salad on the side.

Blackberries with honeyed whipped cream and candied ginger would make for a nice dessert.

Note: Leftovers can be shredded and used to make chicken and apple risotto.

Friday, June 13, 2008

a kitchen of my own

I've moved.

I've left that dark four-bedroom place with the three roommates I never saw, and now I'm settled into a tiny studio with high ceilings and big windows. And a proper kitchen space.

It's a tiny kitchen space, but the gas(!) stove is full-size, with a proper oven, and the sink is decently-sized too. There's very little counter space, but I have a butcher block on the way.

And now I can cook whatever I want for dinner. I think I'm in the mood for artichokes.

Stuffed Artichokes with Blue Cheese and Hazelnuts

Despite appearances, this isn't a gluten-free recipe unless you have a source for gluten-free blue cheese. You could try substituting a creamy, nutty goat cheese, though I make no promises about the results.

(Allow one artichoke per person for a starter; two per person for a light meal. They are deceptively filling.)

I should explain something before we begin. The only reasons why you'd ever want to make stuffed artichokes are if you're trying to impress company, or you have masochistic tendencies. The process of preparing stuffed artichokes is a pain in the neck.

If all you care about is getting artichokes with blue cheese and hazelnuts, then the process is simple: Steam your artichokes. Melt your blue cheese, thin with milk, add chopped hazelnuts. Serve alongside as dipping sauce. Tuck in.

Of course, if you insist on doing things the hard way, it goes like this:

Take your artichokes, wash them, and cut the stems off at the base so that the artichokes sit on a flat surface without tipping over. Take a pair of scissors or kitchen shears, and cut off the thorny part of each leaf. When you get to the crown, just cut off the top quarter-inch entirely.

Next, part the leaves at the crown until you reach the leaves in the very middle, which are thin like flower petals and have unpleasantly sharp thorns. Try not to prick your fingers. (You won't succeed.) Take a teaspoon and scrape out these leaves, along with the choke. The choke is soft and furry. Try not to scatter fuzzy bits everywhere as you do the scraping. (You won't succeed at this, either.)

When you've finished scraping, the artichokes will have nice little hollows for stuffing. Give them a rinse to get rid of any stray fuzzy bits, then put a tablespoon or two of crumbled-up blue cheese in each hollow. Follow up with another tablespoon or two of chopped hazelnuts.

Place your artichokes in your steamer basket and cook until the leaves detach easily from the artichokes - about twenty-five to thirty minutes. Transfer the artichokes to plates or a serving platter. Serve.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

an apology in peaches and raspberries

I need to apologize to all of Boston and a large chunk of the Northeast. Apparently the heatwave is all my fault: according to Matt, I displeased the weather gods by complaining about the wet, cold weather we had last week, and they responded with a vengeance.

So to everyone in the Northeast: I'm really, really sorry.

Consider the following recipe a peace offering. I know it won't make up for the heat, but it might make it a little more bearable.

Does anyone have any advice on how to un-displease weather gods?

Poached Peaches with Raspberries and Basil

This makes for a good weekend breakfast, or a light dessert.

(Serves one)

Take one ripe peach or nectarine, skin it, and cut it into slices. Put the slices in a small saucepan with just a little sugar - a teaspoon or two - and cover with water. Bring to a low simmer and cook until the peach is soft.

Add a generous handful of raspberries to the pan. Cook until the mixture is tinted pink and you can smell both the peach and the raspberries.

Remove the pan from heat, and add a few torn leaves of fresh basil. Transfer the mixture to a big bowl and allow it to cool. Serve at room temperature, or chill further in the fridge.

Serve with thick Greek yogurt, fresh ricotta, or mascarpone.

Friday, June 6, 2008

an excuse to eat melted chocolate

Well, it's now technically summer, but you wouldn't guess it from the weather we've been having in Boston lately. It's been grey and cold and drizzly, and my plans for colorful salad and grilled fish have been put on hold until the sun comes out again.

Instead, I've been keeping company with a mug of tea and oven-warm baked goods. Continuing in the vein of making over American-style baked goods to my taste, I set my sights on creating a more palatable brownie.

You see, I maintain that the brownie is a miserable tease of a dessert. Brownies smell like the essence of chocolate... but taste like failed fudge. It's excess gone wrong: put that much butter and chocolate and sugar together, and something has to give.

Given my fondness for cakes that consist of butter and chocolate and very little else, it probably won't come as a surprise that I chose to jettison nearly all the sugar and substitute an appalling quantity of cocoa powder and chocolate chips. I also decided that it would be neater to bake the batter in small muffin tins, rather than one big pan.

The resulting cakes had a light texture and a slightly bitter flavor, tempered by plenty of molten chocolate. My first attempt used semisweet rather than dark chocolate chips, and the flavor put me in mind of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut Bars, which taste best when slightly melted.

So I treated it as a natural progression, and added raisins and hazelnuts. As you might guess, the finished product is almost, but not entirely, unlike a brownie.

But it is a very nice excuse to eat melted chocolate. Need I say more?

Unbrownie "Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bar" Chocolate Cakes

Feel free to vary the exact quantity of fruit and nuts to your taste. And should anyone decide to experiment with a splash of Frangelico... well, I'd love to hear about the results.

(Recipe not for one, unless one wishes to be very, very sick. Makes around a dozen muffin-sized cakes)

Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a twelve-cup muffin tin.

Cream together half a stick of softened butter and one-eighth of a cup of sugar in a stand mixer. Add one egg. Add half a cup of cocoa powder and blend on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary.

When the cocoa powder has been well-incorporated, stir in a quarter-teaspoon of salt, a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda, and a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. Using a rubber spatula, stir in a half-cup of flour, then a half-cup of milk, followed by another half-cup of flour, and another half-cup of milk. Fold in one-and-a-half cups of semisweet chocolate chips, half a cup of raisins, and half a cup of chopped toasted hazelnuts.

Spoon the batter into the cups. Bake in the oven for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until a knife stuck into a cake comes out with only melted chocolate on it.

Serve warm. You may want vanilla ice-cream if you're a fan of brownies à la mode, but I think these taste better with a sprinkling of sea salt, or just as they are.