Wednesday, June 30, 2010

a vegetable in their own right

The bar review lectures have been wreaking havoc on my sense of time.

Today I looked at the calendar and did a classic double-take. I swear it was barely a week ago that I'd finished finals, graduated, and started my bar review course, but the calendar tells me June is almost over, and July is just ahead.

Were it just the calendar, I might attribute it to clerical error or computer malfunction, but the produce at the farmer's market is proof I can't ignore. Strawberries are on their way out. Blueberries and raspberries are coming in. Squash and beets are in full force.

There are two kinds of people who buy beets at the farmer's market: those who ask to have the tops taken off their beets, and those who will raise high hell if anyone so much as hints at removing the greens.

I am one of the latter. I insist that my beets remain wholly intact, and I have been known to take other people's unwanted greens when I've found myself right behind them in the queue.

You can have my beet greens when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers.

Unlike carrot fronds, which aren't good eating, or rhubarb leaves, which are downright toxic, beet greens are a vegetable in their own right. They're a little earthy, like beets themselves, but they have a fresh green flavor that's very close to spinach. (They're similarly rich in iron, too.)

Beet greens make for a good addition to soups and stews, and they're also a tasty side dish when sauteed with garlic, but I particularly like them with eggs. There's an excellent tradition in France and Italy of baking greens into savory tarts, and that was the idea that came to mind when I considered my latest bunch of beets.

The French make tarte aux blettes, a rich quiche of Swiss chard and lardons, and the Italians have torta salata di verdure, which typically involves wild greens and cheese.

I decided to mix and match, starting with a very French pastry shell (made with whole wheat flour for extra flavor) and filling it with an Italian-inspired mixture of beet greens, eggs, sauteed onions, caramelized garlic, and ricotta, with a little goat's cheese sprinkled on top. Baked until just set, the tart, warm and fragrant, was good enough to eat without a fork.

If you're going to pick up beets at the farmer's market, I encourage you to hang on to the greens. Still, if you insist on discarding them, do me a favor and stand right ahead of me in the queue. I'll gladly take them off your hands.

Beet Green Tart

Beet greens are tougher than spinach, and benefit from being blanched before they're sauteed. Blanching and shocking is also a good way of prepping beet greens if you have no particular plan for them - they'll keep longer in the fridge than uncooked greens, which start to wilt after a day or so.

(Makes one eight-inch tart. Leftovers may be frozen, though the pastry will soften.)

Dump three-quarters of a cup of whole wheat flour in a big bowl. Add a generous pinch of salt.

Cut in three-quarters of a stick of cold butter. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture mostly resembles breadcrumbs, but some lumps (pea-sized or smaller) still remain. Add four to five tablespoons of cold or ice water, and mix until everything just comes together. If the mixture is still very dry, add a little more water.

Press the pastry into an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan, and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Set the tart pan on a baking tray. Bake the tart shell for fifteen minutes, then set the tart shell aside to cool (leave it on the baking tray.)

Next, either bump up the heat in the oven to 450F, or turn on your broiler. Take four unpeeled cloves of garlic, put them on a baking sheet, and put them in the oven.

While the garlic roasts, set a pot of salted water on to boil.

Cut the greens off one bunch of beets (around four or five beets) and rinse them well to get rid of any dirt or grit. Cut the greens into wide ribbons.

Cook the greens in boiling water for two to three minutes, then dump them in a colander and shock with cold water. Squeeze the greens to get rid of any water. Chop them finely, and set aside.

Take the garlic out of the oven. Turn the heat back down to 350F.

Cut a small onion into half-moons and saute in a heavy pan with a little olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a healthy sprinkling of fresh black pepper. Peel the roasted garlic and add it to the pan along with the blanched beet greens. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is warmed through.

Transfer the contents of the pan to a mixing bowl. Stir in one-third of a cup of ricotta. Beat in three eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is thick and smooth.

Fill the tart shell with the egg mixture, and sprinkle with crumbled fresh goat's cheese. Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until mixture is just set in the middle. If you like, the tart can go under the broiler for a minute or two to brown the goat's cheese.

Allow to cool a little before serving, but serve warm.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

granita, even if it doesn't scan

How is love like cherry pie?

It's not a riddle. Not of the raven-and-writing-desk variety, at least.

I ask, because I've been listening to a lot of music on Pandora lately (blame bar review), and for whatever reason, various versions of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" keep appearing on my catch-all radio station.

The song is from the point of view of an obsessed fangirl, singing to the object of her adoration, and it has the line "Loving you is cherry pie."

Given that the lyrics of most pop songs seem to be, at best, an afterthought, you'd think I wouldn't devote too much energy to pondering that line. Still, I can't decide if it's her way of saying "easy as pie," a reference to circus slang, or complete and total nonsense written because it would scan.

It can't be a direct metaphor. Surely she's not saying that being an obsessed fangirl is like eating gluggy, sticky-sweet fruit encased in gummy pastry?

My assessment of cherry pie might be overly harsh. Maybe I just haven't eaten good cherry pie. What I know is that all the specimens I've encountered seem to have been loaded with cornstarch and sugar to the point where the cherries themselves seemed completely irrelevant - a crime against fruit.

Instead, let me propose a cherry granita: macerate cherries with sugar, citrus and a tiny bit of alcohol; blend with water until smooth; pour into a shallow dish and break it up with a fork as it freezes. Of all the members of the ice-cream family, granita is the most undemanding - absolutely no ice-cream maker required.

I offer this observation to Lady Gaga: fangirl love isn't like cherry pie. It's really more like cherry granita, light and sweet and a little insubstantial. Even if it doesn't scan.

Sweet Cherry Granita

I maintain that a cherry pitter is only a sensible purchase if you have a lot of cherries to pit - we're talking annual-giant-batch-of-cherry-preserves quantities. A paring knife works just fine for a pound or two, and won't spray cherry juice everywhere, to boot. Please, do not run out to buy a cherry pitter just for this recipe.

(Makes four cups. Keeps for a week or two in a covered container in the freezer.)

Start with a pound of washed and stemmed cherries. Use a paring knife cut the cherries in half, and scoop out the stones with your fingers. Put the cherries in a big bowl.

Add the juice from one lemon and the juice from one lime, and sprinkle over two to three tablespoons of sugar, depending on the sweetness of your cherries. Add half a teaspoon of amaretto. Give the mixture a good stir, and let it sit undisturbed in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Once the cherries are well-macerated and syrupy, throw in them in a food processor or blender with half a cup of water, and process until you have a smooth puree.

Pour the cherry puree into a shallow baking dish or large cake tin. (Just about anything goes, as long as it's freezer-safe and has a large surface area.) Put the container in the freezer.

Check on the mixture every hour or so, and use a fork to break up the mixture as it sets around the edges. Once the mixture has fully frozen, transfer it to a container with a lid.

To serve, scoop the granita into bowls or glasses. For an interesting dessert-meets-cocktail effect, drizzle with a touch of Campari before serving.

Monday, June 21, 2010

just say O.N.C.E. Cheese, or my evening as a non-minion

What do hooves, feet, and chocolate bacon have in common?

A. Nothing. It's like asking why a raven is like a writing desk.
B. You're asking the wrong question. That should be "Which one is not like the others?"
C. No idea. You need to learn to write a better lead.
D. They all came up in discussion at O.N.C.E. Cheese.

The answer, of course, is D. (C is debatable, but but D is the better choice.)

O.N.C.E. Cheese, the latest in JJ Gonson's One Night Culinary Event series, was a spectacular celebration of local cheesemakers: ten courses built around ten different local cheeses. During the course of the evening, the conversation covered hooves, feet, and chocolate bacon - and their relationships to cheese.

I first heard whispers about O.N.C.E. Cheese at O.N.C.E. Beer. When the event announcement went up, I talked a few friends into making reservations, and I e-mailed JJ to let her know that I would be definitely up for playing minion. JJ had mixed news when she wrote back. The bad news: she couldn't fit any more bodies in the kitchen. The good news: should I be interested, I would be welcome to join my friends in the dining area for dinner instead.

Well. I wasn't going to turn down an offer like that.

Which is why, come Saturday evening, I find myself booking it down Prospect St and stealing nervous glances at the clock on my phone. It seems that I'm destined to be late (or in danger of being late) for all food blogging events at which I don't do any cooking myself.

Salvation comes in the form of a timely bus headed in the direction of Union Square. I make my way to the usual O.N.C.E. event space, where I'm cheerfully greeted by JJ at the door. She waves me in, and I join Matt and Nathaniel (remember Matt and Nathaniel?) and their respective significant others at a table right by the open kitchen.

The traditional chalkboard menu has been augmented by a printed copy at each table, and I entertain myself by matching the goings-on in the kitchen to the various dishes. I can see Emily picking over greens (probably for the second course), and Kat stirring a pot of what I'm guessing is polenta (fifth course). It's giving me mixed feelings about where I am. On the one hand, I am about to eat delicious food in the company of interesting people. On the other, I could be preparing delicious food in the company of interesting people.

My thoughts are interrupted by JJ's call for our attention: she welcomes us to O.N.C.E. Cheese and introduces us to Vince, the cheesemonger from Formaggio Kitchen who'll be telling us about the cheeses featured in our meal tonight.

JJ hands around platters of our first course, fresh chevre blintzes topped with rhubarb compote, and leaves us in Vince's capable hands. The chevre, he tells us, is made in very small batches at Hillman Farm, a tiny operation in the Berkshires with a herd of just thirty goats. It's a very simple cheese - "letting the milk speak for itself."

It certainly does. The blintz wrapper is appropriately tender, but it's just a vehicle for the smooth, delicate cheese, the richness of which is cut by the tangy rhubarb compote. Appetites whetted, we watch the kitchen eagerly as the crew plates the next course.

(No photos here. LimeyG always does a writeup with beautiful photos, so I feel no guilt whatsoever about leaving my camera at home.)

The next course is a salad of arugula, Bibb lettuce and radishes accompanying a small wedge of Weybridge, a cheese from Jasper Hill in Vermont. The cheese has a soft, bloomy rind and the classic unctuous texture of brie, with a certain sharp, almost bitter aftertaste. It's well complemented by the bitter arugula, the sweet lettuce, and the peppery radishes.

The third course is something I recognize: the Welsh rarebit had a previous incarnation at O.N.C.E. Beer as a fondue with pretzels for dipping. This time, though, it's made with Pawlet from Bardwell Farm in Vermont. Vince describes Pawlet as a solid "American cheese," though it doesn't bear any resemblance to the plasticky substance I remember from college dining hall grilled cheese sandwiches. This cheese has weight and body, and mixed with beer to make a melty sauce, it's delightfully gooey.

Course four is where the hooves show up. The dish, a frittata with a side of sauteed bitter greens and pea tendrils, contains a cheese called Riley's Coat from Blue Ledge in Vermont. It's a raw milk aged goat cheese, and Vince explains that the name comes from the resemblance between the color of the rind and the coloration of the cheesemakers' first dog, Riley.

JJ then confesses that she, personally, doesn't like Riley's Coat. "I don't like hoofy cheese," she declares, explaining that she can taste the goat - grass, hooves, manure and all - in most goat cheeses, and that Riley's Coat is like having goat hooves running across her tongue. I've heard many colorful descriptors for cheese, but I have to admit, "hoofy" is a new one.

I have no complaints. I love strongly flavored cheese, and this one gives the frittata a savory edge. I also love the sauteed pea tendrils, which are fresh and grassy, and come complete with tiny sugar snap peas.

The fifth course is the halfway mark. Jen brings out big bowls of creamy polenta sprinkled with grated Landaff, a raw milk cheese from New Hampshire modelled on Caerphilly, a traditional Welsh cheese.

I've been looking forward to this dish. Polenta and cheese is one of my favorite comfort foods, and this version is a delight. The polenta is of medium grind, but a little uneven, giving it a toothsome texture almost like that of slow-cooked oatmeal. It's deliciously buttery, with just the right amount of salt from the cheese. I'm glad to see that there's extra in the serving bowl: there's no question about having seconds.

The aroma of sizzling beef, garlic and onions fills the air, and we come to, if you'll pardon the pun, the meat of the matter: Philly-style cheesesteak with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, topped with sauteed garlic scapes and onions.

Vince begins his explanation of the Cabot Clothbound with the declaration that it's the most important cheese he sells. He goes on to explain that the Cabot co-op in Vermont wanted to produce an English-style, clothbound cheddar, and approached Jasper Hill to discuss the possibility. The cheese is aged at Jasper Hill, which also markets the cheese, but it's with Cabot's full backing. The Clothbound comes in huge wheels, and when shipments go out, smaller cheeses from smaller producers can piggyback on them, resulting in lower transportation costs, which ultimately means lower prices for the consumer - and more revenue for the small cheesemakers.

I'm familiar with the Clothbound Cabot: I cut a big block of it to make ploughmen at O.N.C.E. Beer. But cheddar on crusty bread, even with homemade chutney, is very different to cheddar melted on thin shavings of eye round beef, topped with sauteed scapes and onions. The beef is wonderfully juicy, and I definitely prefer the sweet, fragrant garlic scapes to the traditional green peppers. (They're not in season, so JJ got creative.)

Course seven is another I'm excited about: roasted Hakuri turnips with Ascutney Mountain cheese from Cobb Hill in Vermont. A roasted Hakuri turnip half and a tiny wedge of cheese don't look like much on the plate, but eaten together, they're fantastic: the turnip is just a little crisp on the outside, and soft and tender inside. Ascutney is styled after Gruyere, and it has a wonderful sweet nuttiness. (JJ uses it in her "world's best breakfast sandwiches.")

I can't help but think that Vince missed a sales opportunity: if he had come with a cooler full of cheese, I would put down money for a half-pound of Ascutney right now. I'd have the self-control to not eat it immediately. I think.

Our last savory course is one that everyone has been oohing and aahing over: mac and cheese with a potato chip topping, made with Butterwick from Twig Farm. Butterwick is a washed rind cheese, and like all washed rind cheeses, it gets its strong smell from certain bacteria that also cause body odor. It's why, explains Vince, people will describe particularly pungent cheeses as smelling like feet.

I adore particularly pungent cheeses. Even so, I'm not very excited about this dish: mac and cheese usually has a bland, overcooked, wet texture that puts me in mind of lumpy mashed potatoes. When the bowl is passed to me, I take a very small spoonful and put fork to plate more out of duty than anticipation.

The first mouthful is startling: this mac and cheese is made with big, thick ziti that have remained satisfyingly chewy. The dish is flavorful, and barely wet at all. I can't say I like the potato chips, but I love the edges where the pasta has gone brown and crusty. I end up taking a second spoonful from the serving bowl.

Course nine is what JJ describes as "first dessert," but it's really more of a bridge between the savory and sweet courses: the ever-evolving "Bacon is Meat Candy Tart."

JJ introduces Matthew Stein of Happy Pig Salumi to explain the bacon she used in this iteration: "chocolate bacon," which is not the same as chocolate-covered bacon (or bacon-infused chocolate, for that matter.) The bacon is cured with cocoa nib dust (a byproduct from the chocolate-making process), and then smoked over cocoa shells.

Matthew and JJ swear that the bacon smells like chocolate when it's frying, though to tell the truth, I can only taste bacon. Excellent bacon, but no chocolate. Then again, the bacon is just one topping on an oat cookie base. There are also caramelized vidalia onions, Bayley Hazen Blue cheese, and caramel drizzle vying for my tastebuds' attention. The tart should, by all rights, be complete and total overkill, and yet it's a spectacular combination of salty and sweet.

Finally, we come to dessert: a semifreddo made with Capones fresh ricotta in a pool of strawberry and pinot noir soup. Strawberries and cream, of a sort. The semifreddo is light and creamy, and the strawberry soup bright and glorious. I can't help but think the same recipe, tweaked just a little, would make for wonderful sorbet.

A little while after we're done with dessert, the rest of my table decides it's time to call it a night. That's my cue to start stacking plates and clearing tables. I want a chance to catch up with the kitchen crew, and ask JJ about O.N.C.E. Oregon. Though I did enjoy my evening in the dining room, it's just not the same as the kitchen.

Besides, it wouldn't feel like a proper O.N.C.E. if I didn't stick around to crash the afterparty.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

the scent of lavender

My bar review course is driving me around the bend.

The material is much as I expected: dull, tedious, pedantic and mind-numbing. I didn't expect that the lectures would offer me a whole new definition of stir-crazy, however.

It's a given that I'll start getting distracted as soon as the weather starts to warm up, but sitting through hours with singing professors, professors who tell rambling, irrelevant anecdotes, and professors who make appallingly bad jokes has made me desperate to flee class. (The fact that my course location is in a building where the thermostat is set at a temperature more suited to chilling meat than cooling people also doesn't help.)

Tuesdays are the bright spot in my week. On Tuesdays, I'm packed up and ready to bolt even before the lecture winds down. On Tuesdays, I head to the Copley Farmers' Market on foot. The walk is long enough for me to work off some of my restless energy, and being out in the sunshine gives my body temperature a chance to climb back up to normal levels.

My purchases at the market have largely been what you would expect in June: garlic scapes, beets, young zucchini, and plenty of strawberries. A few weeks ago, however, at the stand run by the Herb Lyceum, I also picked up a packet of dried lavender.

Like basil, lavender is a herb that makes me think of summer and sunshine, a herb whose scent alone is enough to brighten my mood.

Though dried lavender is most frequently used in sachets for freshening linen (the name comes from the Latin lavare, meaning "to wash,") it can also be used as a seasoning herb.

Lavender goes nicely in savory dishes with lamb or goat's cheese, but it can be put to striking effect in sweets and desserts. A little lavender is enough to make for powerfully aromatic sablés, delicately perfumed ice-cream, and hauntingly fragrant caramels.

A bonus: lavender also has calming effects - perhaps enough to make me less stir-crazy during lecture.

Lavender Sablés

(Makes three dozen two-inch sablés.)

Melt one stick of butter in a saucepan over very low heat. Stir in one tablespoon of dried lavender blossoms. Allow the mixture to cool before pouring into a mixing bowl and chilling in the fridge until no longer liquid, but still somewhat soft.

Cream the lavender butter with a quarter-cup of white sugar. Stir in a generous pinch of salt, followed by one egg yolk. Add one cup of flour a quarter-cup at a time, working it gently into the mixture until you have a soft dough. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Lay out a sheet of wax paper and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Place the dough on it. Cover with another sheet of wax paper, and roll out to a one-eighth-inch thickness. Remove the top layer of wax paper, and use a two-inch cookie cutter to stamp out rounds. (Dough scraps may be gathered, re-chilled briefly, and rolled out again.) Place the rounds on the baking tray. If you like, you can sprinkle the sablés with sanding sugar to decorate.

Bake for fourteen to fifteen minutes, or until golden in color. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Meyer Lemon-Lavender Ice-Cream

(Makes one-and-a-half cups, give or take.)

Stir together half a cup of milk, half a cup of heavy cream, a quarter cup of sugar and a generous pinch of salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat until the sugar is dissolved, then add a tablespoon of dried lavender blossoms. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, beat three egg yolks until smooth. Set a fine-meshed sieve over the bowl.

Pour the lavender-infused cream mixture through the sieve. Stir until well-combined, then pour the egg-cream mixture back into the saucepan.

Wash the bowl and strainer; dry thoroughly. Pour another half-cup of heavy cream into the bowl, and add the zest from one Meyer lemon. Set the strainer over the bowl again.

Return the saucepan to the stove; cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon (about a yogurt-like consistency.) Pour this custard through the strainer, and stir to combine with the cream in the bowl.

Cool the custard in an ice bath, or chill in the fridge.

Once the custard is cold, pour into an ice-cream maker and churn according to manufacturer's instructions. Serve garnished with a sprinkling of lavender flowers. Lavender sablés go well on the side.

Lavender Caramels

(Makes anywhere from sixty to a hundred, depending how large you cut them.)

Line a deep baking sheet or baking tray with parchment paper.

Pour one cup of heavy cream into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir in a tablespoon of dried lavender blossoms. Place over low heat; once the cream reaches the temperature of a warm bath (stick your finger in to check), turn off the burner. Strain out the lavender blossoms; keep the cream warm.

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine one-and-a-half-cups white sugar, a quarter-cup of golden syrup, and a quarter-cup of water. Place over medium heat. Once the sugar dissolves, the mixture will start to bubble rapidly.

Let the mixture boil until it turns golden in color, then whisk in five tablespoons of butter and a teaspoon of salt. Whisk in the lavender cream.

The mixture will continue to bubble away; once the bubbles start forming and breaking more slowly, stick a candy thermometer into the mixture. Cook until you hit 240F, then remove the pan from the burner and pour the caramel into your parchment-lined pan.

Allow the caramel to cool until it is barely warm to the touch. Cut the caramel into squares or logs with oiled scissors or a knife. Let the caramels cool fully, then wrap in wax paper. Store in an airtight tin.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

by popular demand

I can never tell if a recipe is going to be a success.

Oh, I know whether not it's going to be successful - once it's on the stove or in the oven, I can gauge if things went right or wrong - but predicting the reception it will get is entirely another matter. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

I'd like to say I know when I've created winning recipes, but the truth is, I'm always surprised. Recipes I love sometimes get only lukewarm responses. And recipes I haven't been very happy with have garnered rave reviews.

And sometimes there are recipes I improvise that get a response I would never have anticipated.

I moved again at the end of last month. Knowing that (heavy) kitchen equipment and supplies make up the bulk of my wordly goods, I figured I should at least try to cut down on some of the stuff in my pantry. In the runup to moving day, I baked a lot of cookies.

For one batch, I thought I'd make a basic cookie dough and use up the ends of several chocolate bars. Unfortunately, in the course of packing up my kitchen, I misplaced the vanilla, and so I added a generous measure of Frangelico instead. After a moment's consideration, I threw in some cocoa powder too.

They baked up just fine, smelling pleasantly of chocolate. I expected that they'd be perfectly serviceable cookies. Nothing too unusual, but a decent accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.

Then I started offering them to people. They took seconds. They took thirds. Some of them even asked me if they could find the recipe on my blog.

I was startled. I was surprised. Maybe even a little flabbergasted. I wouldn't have called it an extraordinary recipe.

But here it is, by popular demand. And if someone has a surefire way of determining when a recipe will be a smashing success, please, do let me know.

(Sorry, no photos. They were all eaten before I could muster the energy to fight with my digital camera.)

Chocolate-Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

(Makes one dozen. Dough will freeze.)

In a bowl, cream together one stick of butter and half a cup of brown sugar. Beat in one egg.

Stir in one tablespoon Frangelico, a quarter-teaspoon salt, and three tablespoons cocoa powder; mix until the cocoa powder is fully incorporated.

Stir in one teaspoon baking powder. Fold in one cup of flour until you have a smooth, thick dough.

Stir in one cup of chocolate chunks or chips (milk or dark, your choice), and half a cup of hazelnuts, if you'd like them.

Chill the dough in the fridge until firm, then divide into a dozen balls (dough may be frozen at this point.)

To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the cookie dough balls on the baking sheets, and flatten them slightly with the palm of your hand. Bake the cookies for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until golden brown.

Allow cookies to cool for five minutes on baking sheets before transferring to a cooling rack.