Saturday, May 31, 2008

nettled

There are some foodstuffs that make you wonder about the mental state of the first person who ever tried to eat them. Blue cheese. Lobster. Green Jell-O.*

And then there are foodstuffs that make you wonder about the mental state of the first person who ever tried to eat them - and then give up, because they must have been hungrier or crazier than you could possibly understand. Like cassava. Or blowfish (fugu.) Or stinging nettles.

When I say "stinging nettle," you might think "backyard nuisance." If your childhood was rich in fairy tales, you might think of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans." If you're botanically disinclined, you may think I'm referring to some variety of insect. (No, those are bluebottles.)

You probably won't think of soup.

But somewhere, somehow, someone figured out that those plants that hurt when you touch them actually taste pretty good when you pick them young and boil them up.** Nettle soup is a lot like spinach soup, but with a fresher, greener taste. Nettles are also rich in iron and calcium, so you get a nutritional payoff in exchange for the trouble of having to handle them with rubber gloves.

If you live in Europe or North America, you can probably go foraging for nettles yourself. If you're not that adventurous, however, you might be able to find them at a farmer's market (I bought mine from a stand at Copley Square). You may have to wait until next year, though, because we're at the close of the season, which starts in early spring.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go sharpen my boning knife. I liberated a blowfish from the Boston Aquarium the other day, and it needs to be filleted.

(The following photo was taken with Bella's camera phone, which is why the colors are a little odd. It didn't really look like a Monet waterlily painting.)

Nettle Soup with Crème Fraîche and Chive Blossoms

Serve this soup hot as a first course at dinner, or chilled with a side of bread and butter for a light lunch.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Heat a generous knob of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Chop a small white onion very finely and add it to the pan. Season with a dash of nutmeg, and cook until the onion is soft and translucent.

Add four cups of chicken or vegetable stock and half a cup of cooked white rice. Bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, put on a pair of thick rubber gloves. Give your bunch of nettles a quick rinse under warm water to get rid of any dirt, and pick all the leaves off the stems. Add the nettle leaves to the pan.

When the leaves have softened and wilted, bring the heat down to a steady simmer and cook, uncovered, for fifteen to twenty minutes. Remove the pan from heat.

Allow the mixture to cool, then blend the soup in batches in a food processor, or use an immersion blender. Return the soup to the saucepan and reheat. Salt to taste. Ladle into bowls.

Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of chive blossoms.

*Maybe it's just me, but I'm convinced that nothing edible should be quite that color.

**Nettles, despite their nutritious qualities, are an ingredient that hasn't caught on with the "raw food" movement.

Monday, May 26, 2008

beneath the frosting

If you've been reading along for the past few months, you'll know that I have an ongoing fascination with baking the perfect scone. By scone, I mean "sk-on," those vaguely biscuit-like British things served at afternoon tea. But not "sk-ohwns." Never "sk-ohwns."

The "sk-ohwn," you see, is an overly sweet, triangular baked good, found at Starbucks and other coffee shops. It comes in dubious flavors (orange chocolate chip?) and is frequently subjected to the indignity of being slathered in even sweeter frosting to compensate for its miserable, bone-dry, crumbly texture. I have been fairly adamant that no sk-ohwn would ever darken the door of my kitchen.

Until now.

Seized by a fit of boredom, and low on inspiration, I asked Alex to suggest something to bake last night. Alex requested something with berries, and then proposed berry scones. "Sk-ons" would never contain berries, so I knew she was referring to the dreaded "sk-ohwn."

There was a hint of challenge in the suggestion, so I accepted. I decided to rework the idea from the ground up, and restore a little dignity to the "sk-ohwn." There had to be a spark of potential in it somewhere, buried deep beneath its carapace of frosting.

I started with my standard scone recipe, adding just enough sugar to sweeten the mixture. Then I pressed a cup of still-frozen berries into the dough, shaped it into a round, and cut it into wedges. The wedges went on a baking tray, and the baking tray went in the oven.

Half an hour later, the sk-ohwns came out of the oven, golden brown and fragrant. They were slightly crisp on the outside, but moist and tender inside. Each bite was pleasantly buttery and just this side of sweet, punctuated occasionally by bursts of tart, juicy berry.

Alex approved. (The other mad hippie engineers enjoyed them, too.)

I still have an ongoing fascination with baking the perfect sk-on. But I think you'll find these sk-ohwns in my kitchen every once in a while. It turns out that once you get beneath the frosting, a sk-ohwn isn't so bad, after all.


Berry Sk-ohwns

Use raspberries or blackberries, or a mixed berry medley.

(Recipe not for one. Makes eight scones.)

Preheat oven to 400F. Grease a large baking tray.

Dump three cups of flour, one-third of a cup of sugar, two teaspoons of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt into a big mixing bowl and give everything a quick stir. Cut in three-quarters of a stick of chilled butter until you have pea-sized lumps.

Add half a cup of plain yogurt, and half a cup of whole milk. Stir the mixture with your fingers just until a soft dough forms. Add two cups of frozen berries and squish them into the dough.

Turn the dough out onto the baking tray and shape it into a round. Squish the round to a one-inch thickness. Cut it into eight wedges, and arrange them on the baking tray.

Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the sk-owns are slightly browned on top. Serve for breakfast, or as an afternoon snack.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

a white cake that ran away to the florida keys

I lied. I'm not quite done with law school for the year. I'm still working on the writing competition, which is used to determine membership for all those law journals I'm not entirely convinced I want to be involved in.

Which is why I have another legal-themed recipe to present: Whiteacre Cake with (Fee Simple) Key Lime Syrup Subject to Condition Subsequent.

I'm not very good at classic desserts. Chocolate chip cookies bore me. Yellow cake (with or without chocolate frosting) makes me yawn. And white cake... white cake gets on my nerves. It's like a perfectly pressed, starched, itchy dress shirt, or an immaculate sundress that you can't sit down in for fear that it'll get dirty smudges.* White cake, in all its pristine purity, just begs to be mussed up.

Which is why I took a classic white cake, added toasted coconut and coconut milk, and drenched it in tart, buttery key lime syrup. You can think of it as white cake that did something not entirely legal, ran away to the Florida Keys with the proceeds, and is now spending its days drinking and lounging on the beach.

In fact, I'm thinking of abandoning this writing competition business and running away to the Florida Keys myself. Anyone know of a source for cheap plane tickets?


Whiteacre Cake with (Fee Simple) Key Lime Syrup Subject to Condition Subsequent

If it happens that any of the parties present are not of legal drinking age, this dessert will contain no alcohol.

(Serves ten to twelve exasperated law students.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9-inch bundt pan.

Place a heavy pan over low heat and dump in one cup of shredded coconut. Toast, stirring occasionally, until the coconut is pale brown and fragrant. Remove from heat.

Transfer the coconut to a big mixing bowl. Add one and a half cups flour, half a cup of sugar, two teaspoons baking powder, and half a teaspoon salt. Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla and a fourteen-ounce can of coconut milk.

Beat four egg whites in mixer on medium speed until very stiff. They are very stiff when you can turn the bowl upside down, and they won't move. If they start sliding, beat them for longer.

Fold half the egg white mixture into the batter to lighten it. Fold in the other half.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes, or until a knife stuck into the cake comes out clean. Turn the cake out and allow to cool.

To make the syrup, heat half a cup of sugar with a quarter cup of water over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and bubbles start to form and break very rapidly in the mixture. Remove from heat and dissolve half a stick of butter in the syrup. Stir in one cup of key lime juice. Allow to cool.

To serve, cut the cake into wedges. Pour on a tablecloth-endangering amount of syrup. Grab a fork and tuck in.

Note: For alcoholic syrup, use half a cup of key lime juice and half a cup of dark rum.

*White cake is also dangerously close to angel food cake, which, I'm convinced, is not so much a dessert as it is an elaborate culinary joke. Karyn of hotpotato said it best: "Rip out some unloved teddy bear’s stuffing. Plate it with strawberries. Call it angel food cake. And excuse me while I eat something edible (rocks, laundry detergent) instead."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

how to pick crabmeat for gumbo

Saturday afternoon at the mad hippie engineer house: there are ten cooked crabs on a platter in the fridge, and the vegetarians are starting to complain about the smell.

Friday night's crab boil was admirable, but misguided - this crowd doesn't have any particular enthusiasm for crustaceans. They've decided that any leftovers will be consigned to the trash by Sunday morning. The crabs will remain untouched as long as they stay whole, classified as too much trouble to eat. You'll reap the benefits of this laziness. Leftover crabs mean gumbo.

To pick crabmeat for gumbo, begin by spreading sheets of newspaper on the kitchen table. Lay out bowls for the shells and the meat. Gather your tools: cracker, crab fork, knife and spoon. Choose a soundtrack for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Pick up the first crab, and begin.

Technique is a matter of preference. Some begin with the claws, twisting them at the joints, cracking them open for the easiest payoff. Others prefer to start with the delicate work, breaking apart the legs to prise out the morsels of meat within. Each crab can be treated as its own separate task. Or it can be carried out assembly-line style, all the legs in one pile and all the claws in the other.

The meat in the body is the trickiest. It takes a steady hand to pry into all the delicate chambers, gently coaxing the white meat from the crab's pearly inner shell. Patience. The crab doesn't yield its treasures easily. Keep working with the pick. The gumbo will be worth the effort, I promise.

Crab, Chicken, and Sausage Gumbo

This doesn't even begin to pretend to be authentic. Kathleen, if you're reading this, don't kill me.

(Picking crabmeat is an easier task with company, but gumbo will serve one for many days. Like all stews, gumbo tastes even better when reheated.)

When all your crabs have been picked over, take your crab shells and place them in a pot with a bay leaf, a quartered onion, and two chopped ribs of celery. Should you have shrimp shells, add those too. Keep the pot at a low simmer until the liquid is dark brown and aromatic.

Set a large, heavy-bottomed pot on the stove over medium heat. Add a generous amount of canola oil or bacon grease. Heat until not quite smoking, then stir in a quarter-cup of flour to make a roux.

Cook the roux, stirring constantly, until it turns chocolate brown. Add one diced onion, one diced green bell pepper, and two or three diced ribs of celery. Add three or four minced cloves of garlic, a dusting of dried thyme, a dash of paprika, and a dash of cayenne pepper. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is fragrant. Pour in the crab stock, and bring the mixture to a boil.

Peel and dice three or four ripe tomatoes and add them to the pot. If tomatoes are not in season, use a can of diced tomatoes.

Add a cut-up chicken thigh or breast. (Meat from a leftover roast chicken would be ideal, but raw chicken is also fine - just let it cook through before you add any other ingredients.)

Stir in your crabmeat and one or two sliced andouille sausages. Add a few handfuls of sliced okra, and let the mixture simmer for another ten to fifteen minutes, or until the okra is tender.

Serve over white rice with crusty bread. Season to taste with Tabasco. Gumbo goes well with cold beer.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

bake your way through exams

I made it alive through exam period, which means that my first year of law school is officially over. And now I can tackle some of the more pressing items on my to do list: grocery shopping, laundry, reassuring friends that I'm still alive...

And blog updates, of course.

First, let me introduce you to the cake that has kept me sane for the past week and a half: Greenacre Cake with (Fee Simple) Determinable White Chocolate Ganache. I say that it kept me sane because every time I thought I would pitch my outlines into the Charles out of sheer frustration, I took a break and tinkered with the recipe.

As you might guess, the name is another bad Property joke. It's really just a green tea cake with white chocolate cream. The tea in question is matcha, Japanese powdered green tea, which is rich in antioxidants and high in caffeine. So not only is this cake an excellent stopgap measure if you didn't really eat dinner, it also provides nutrients essential to a law student's diet.*


Greenacre Cake with (Fee Simple) Determinable White Chocolate Ganache

This dessert may contain alcohol so long as all the parties present are of legal drinking age.

(Serves ten to twelve sleep-deprived law students.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9-inch bundt pan.

Crack two eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until smooth. Add four teaspoons of matcha powder and a teaspoon of vanilla essence, and beat on low heat until the matcha is no longer rising in powdery clouds from the mixing bowl. If it's clumping on the sides, scrape it down with a rubber spatula. Add two more eggs, and beat at high speed until the mixture is thick and uniformly green, scraping down the sides as necessary.

Get a large mixing bowl and dump in two cups of flour, half a teaspoon of baking soda, half a cup of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Stir the ingredients together with a rubber spatula, then fold in half a cup of applesauce and half a stick of melted butter. Fold in the egg mixture until just combined.

Spoon the batter into the bundt pan. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until a knife stuck in the center comes out clean. Turn out the cake and allow to cool.

To make the ganache, dump one cup of white chocolate chips into your mixer bowl and pour over one cup of warmed heavy cream. Stir until the chocolate dissolves. (You can also add a few tablespoons of white chocolate liqueur, if you like.) Allow to cool, then whip until light and airy. Don't worry if it comes out lumpy. It'll still taste fine.

Serve slices of cake with dollops of ganache and cups of green tea. Wait half an hour for the caffeine to kick in (you can spare half an hour - yes, you can) before resuming any study sessions.

*The antioxidants will tide you over until you have the time to prepare and eat a nutritionally sound meal, and the caffeine - well, if I need to explain what the caffeine does, you're either not a law student (commendable) or you're doing something wrong.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

still alive

I'm still here. My Civ Pro exam didn't eat me, although it certainly made a good faith effort to do so. This blog will return to its (ir)regularly scheduled programming after my last final on Wednesday. There will be Greenacre Cake, provided all the kinks get ironed out of the recipe this week.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

an offering for the first of may

The first of May is la Fête du Muguet in France, or lily-of-the-valley day. It celebrates the arrival of spring, and people pick (or buy) little bunches of lily-of-the-valley to give to family and friends to wish them happiness. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Definitely not mine.)

I learned about la Fête du Muguet during my semester abroad in Paris. Like most college students, I studied on a program that arranged for accommodations with host families. Unlike most students, I lived with just a "host grandmother" - a sweet little old lady named Madame Philippe.

Though Madame Philippe had a rather impressive grasp of modern technology (she had a laptop, looked at bridge scores online, and even exchanged e-mail with her grandchildren), she had firmly old-fashioned notions about food. She served meals that my professors told me I would be unlikely to encounter at a modern French dinner table: tripes à la caen, boudin noir, and langue de boeuf aux cornichons (braised beef tongue with sour gherkins.)*

Beef tongue is one of my favorite kinds of offal, so langue de boeuf aux cornichons was the dish I immediately thought of when I read about the offal-themed Meat & Greet event hosted by Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. It has a long cooking time, but the preparation is fairly straightforward, and I tend to think it's one of the tamer forms of offal when plated and dressed.

Braised beef tongue has a rich, beefy flavor (it doesn't taste "gamey" the way a lot of other offal meats do) and an exquisitely tender texture. Sliced and dressed in a light tomato sauce with cornichons and capers, it's not all that different from brisket.


I don't know if Madame Philippe has discovered the food blogosphere yet, and if she has, she's probably not reading English-language blogs. Still, on the off chance that she does come across this page: Bonne Fête du Muguet, Madame Philippe!

Beef Tongue with Cornichons and Capers

Langue de Boeuf aux Cornichons et Câpres

To make this recipe gluten-free, just omit the flour in the sauce.

(Serves eight normal people. Serves one if you're like me. More leftovers = more cold tongue sandwiches.)*

Take a nice large beef tongue, about three or four pounds in weight, and give it a good rinse so that it's free of blood and any gunk that might be sticking to it. Yes, it looks like a tongue. You can close your eyes if you find this particularly disconcerting.

Bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the tongue. Cook the tongue for twenty minutes, then remove it from the pot and discard the water. Rinse out the pot.

Add one chopped carrot, one chopped onion, a teaspoon of peppercorns, six cloves, six juniper berries, two bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a glug of white vinegar, and a tablespoon of salt. Put the tongue back in the pot. Add enough water to just cover the tongue.

Bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer and put a lid on the pot. Cook for three hours or so - until tongue is tender when poked with a fork, and it looks as though the skin is starting to peel away. If you have any doubts, cook it for longer. Add more water as necessary. Turn off the heat when the tongue is done.

To prepare the sauce, make a roux with a generous lump of butter and a teaspoon of flour. Add a splash of white wine and a cup of tomato puree (canned is fine, though fresh is better), then add several teaspoons of capers in vinegar (with the vinegar) and ten or twelve sliced cornichons. Season with salt and pepper. Let the sauce simmer.

Remove the tongue from the pot. It will look whitish and alarming; this is normal. By this point it should be cool enough to touch without burning your fingers (or burning them too badly). Take a small sharp knife and cut through the outer layer of skin. Peel away the skin; it should come off in strips. The meat beneath will be pinkish. Slice the tongue into rounds.

To serve, place rounds of tongue on a bed of white rice, and dress with the sauce. Poached leeks are a good accompaniment.

Leftovers are best slathered with grain mustard and served on rye bread with more cornichons.

*For a Parisian restaurant that still serves offal, and is an interesting historical place to boot, try the Crémerie Restaurant Polidor, at 41 Rue Monsieur-Le-Prince (near Métro stop Odéon.)