Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hurricane Salad

Just before Sandy hit us full strength, I went out to the garden to pick some fresh produce in case we were inside for a bit. The wind stole my hat twice, and stirred the lettuces and herbs into a mixed Sandy salad even before I could pick them, entangling the delicate new leaves into nearly inseparable clumps. It was an experience akin to what Dorothy might have had, if she stopped to bale some hay and not proceeded straight away to Professor Marvel's trailer.

I picked more than I needed, not knowing how the fragile vegetables would fare when the real winds picked up, and brought them in.  They were younger than I might have otherwise harvested them, small, tidy leaves still succulent with youth.

As with most cooking you do with superior ingredients, vegetables fresh from the garden don't need much -- a drizzle of olive oil here, a dash of toasted sesame seeds there. The trek to the garden was the most arduous part of the whole affair. (Disclaimer: asparagus was not my own, but a fine snag from the local IGA, grown in someone else's yard.)

Stuck in by the fire as our house kept the howling wind just beyond reach, I cleaned and chopped and cooked a greener than green dinner, baby bok choy, tiny radishes, salad --  nearly two days without power, cats and dogs and kids underfoot. Though I didn't understand it when I braved the wind to gather them, this fall festival of greens not just sustained us, but reminded us: a glimmer of hope the rain would stop, wind might abate, and the greens, resilient, would again spring from the earth and nourish us.

Our thoughts are with all who have lingering trouble from the hurricane.

Radish Jar

Pick small radishes with stems and leaves still attached. Clean if necessary and put in water in a clear jar or glass. Serve with coarse salt.

Mixed Salad
I do this with whatever greens are on hand, chopping herbs and churning them in. A sprinkling of nuts, grated cheese, drizzle of nice vinegar and/or oil, and you've got it made. This one happens to be:

4 cups torn greens (frisee, arugula, cress, mesclun)
3 Tablespoons chopped herbs (mint, cilantro)
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup grated queso
pinch coarse salt
drizzle of Persian Lime olive oil
drizzle of Pomegranate vinegar

Toss together, serve.

Sauteed Baby Bok Choy with Ginger and Garlic

1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 Tablespoon grated ginger
6 cups baby Bok Choy, sliced 2 inches thick
4 cloves garlic, slivered
toasted sesame seeds

Heat oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Turn heat to medium and add garlic, stirring until translucent. Add ginger and a pinch of coarse salt, stir together.

Add bok choi and stir until combined, Cover and let heat through, just until greens are wilted, about 5 minutes. Garnish with sesame seeds.

Steamed Asparagus with Egg and Lemon Zest

2 bunches asparagus, woody ends removed
2 eggs, hard boiled
Zest of one lemon
coarse salt

Prepare a large skillet halfway filled with water. Heat until water boils.

Add asparagus and cook until just tender -- time will vary depending on the thickness of asparagus, but stalk should be crisp, just wilted. Strain water.

Transfer to serving platter. Grate egg over the top, then grate the lemon zest over that and add a pinch of coarse salt. Serve.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cauliflower as big as your head

Once, while visiting my friend Sandra in Milwaukee, near the University of Wisconsin, we saw a restaurant advertising Burritos as Big as Your Head. As I was young, poor and a lover of greasy food, this seemed attractive at the time. Now I am not so sure.

Cauliflower as big as your head, though, which is what Wegmans was selling (2 for $5!) last week, is mighty appealing. Women who did not know each other stood around the cauliflower bin in their Lululemon capris, talking about what the heck to do with such a big vegetable. (What I wondered was how in criminey it got that big, but that is something perhaps we cannot ever know.) Pushing fears of steroid use aside, I heaved a couple into my cart.

As I was trying a new Tandoori chicken that night, I decided to use the tandoori sauce and roast the cauliflower as well. (Plus, there was no space for it in my little fridge.)

With chart-topping levels of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, cancer-preventing antioxidants and phytonutrients, cauliflower is a vegetable that is welcome to the table anytime. This one was so beautiful I could not bear to cut it up, so I marinated it in the rub standing upright in a colander, then transferred that to the oven on a cookie sheet and roasted it whole.

Tandoori Sauce
adapted from Edible Blue Ridge

1 cup plain yogurt
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T fresh grated ginger
juice of 2 lemons
1-1/2 T garam masala
1 t turmeric
2 t ground cumin
1 t coarse salt

Mix in a bowl and rub over whole cauliflower, as well as 6 chicken thighs, front and back. Marinate in refrigerator for at least one and up to 6 hours.

When you are ready to cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees. 

Pull chicken and cauliflower out of refrigerator. Arrange chicken on a wire rack over a baking sheet and leave out. Roast cauliflower at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, or until you can easily insert a knife into the stem section -- this is a good judge of how tender it is.

Let the cauliflower rest on top of the stove and increase heat to 500 degrees. Cook chicken 10 minutes, or until internal temp reaches 170 degrees.

Serve with rice and garnish with cilantro and raita. Oh, sorry.


1 cucumber, grated
1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon light-colored vinegar (I like coconut vinegar but was out, so used white wine vinegar) or juice of one lemon or lime

Grate cucumber into a bowl and toss with the rest of the ingredients. Keep refrigerated until ready to use. Can make up to 2 days ahead but will have to stir as cucumber is very liquidy.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Get Figgy with it

I am not the most patient of people. Pretty much anyone who knows me will tell you this, and the authority on the subject would be my mother.

But sometimes, one has no choice. No choice but to slow down and take time, trust the process, hope for the best -- such as with children, small puppies and, it turns out, trees.

Four years ago, I decided I wanted figs. Actually, long before that, but it was just four years ago that I was in any position to do something other than hope a carton of ripe figs would magically show up in the produce aisle, or the farm market.

My amour of figs began long ago, when I was working in New York City during college. I didn't have much available cash, but I had a place to live (a room which was mostly a bed with a path to the closet and the bathroom alongside it.) It wasn't a great place to hang out, but I worked most of the time, and the rest of the time I took to the streets. Saturdays I picked a vertical street and walked the length of it. During the week I walked to work. All of these walks included a cup of coffee and produce carts, with inexpensive seasonal fruit which I would buy to eat while I strolled.

In the fall, there were figs. I would buy a carton of the purple, bursting fruit for about a buck fifty, and one by one bite into the fleshy pink centers until I by the end of the day had devoured the entire box.

This was living.

Then I moved to a place where figs were hard to come by -- and by that I mean impossible -- but I still, when visiting New York would devour whole boxes of figs, keeping them in their paper bags to hoard them away from my companions. "You can get your own," I would say, trying to be polite. I had an unreasonable affinity to this practice of eating figs in the autumn while walking down New York streets. At the time, I didn't even know how good figs are for you: one fig has only 37 calories, but is high in fiber, which helps in everything from losing weight to preventing breast cancer, as well as potassium (helps control blood pressure) and calcium (increased bone density).

One day I read a story in the paper by a woman from Brooklyn, who moved into a brownstone with an old fig tree in the yard behind. Each fall, she had so much ripe fruit that she didn't know what to do with it. I read the whole article. (Already this was good, often I am too impatient to follow an article all the way to the end.)

This sounded to me the best kind of problem one could ever have. So four years ago, when we moved to a farm in Virginia, I ordered two fig trees, one Brown Turkey fig and one Kadota fig, to plant. I didn't even know the difference. It didn't matter: they didn't take. I started reading about them, and the second year moved them to spots I thought would be much more suitable. Sunny spots, protected from wind and weather, where they could stretch their limbs to the sky and provide me with loads of juicy figs.

Still nothing. They didn't die, but they didn't do much of anything. They stayed small and straggly, shrugging off one or two figs a year, which mostly the birds got. (I know this because they taunted me by dotting the ground nearby with blotches of purple poo.) But I didn't have the heart to move them, something akin to giving up (besides impatience, I am also blessed with stubbornness). Then this summer, I returned after a long vacation to a summer which had been long, hot and dry to a landscape overgrown with weeds, bushes grown unruly and wild.  I parked my car next to a big bush that most certainly had not been there when I left. I took a closer look. It was my Kadota fig tree, nearly tripled in size, and laden with green fruits the size of ping pong balls.

Ok, not laden, but enough so that I could walk round the house with the pup and a coffee, and pull off a fig. In fact, I had to do this every day or the ants would get there first. It wasn't New York, and it wasn't a whole carton, but it was so satisfying.

So this is why patience is a virtue.

I shouldn't mislead you that I am totally cured: I have to admit that since my tree only put off about nine figs so far, this fall I have been to New York twice and both times loaded up with figs to bring home. (The good news: a carton only about two bucks fifty now!) I found them at the Whole Foods ($3.99), and the Dupont Circle farmer's market in DC ($6 apiece, but right from the farmer). And to prolong this oh so good feeling (and because I finally just got more than I could eat) I started making jam. So in the middle of winter, on the shortest, darkest day when you begin to doubt the sun will ever warm the fig tree again, I can make a fig jam and almond butter sandwich (if you haven't tried this, I highly recommend it -- I use Corn Thins or spelt bread from Le Pain Quotidien) and get the feeling.

That figgy feeling.

Fig Jam
Figs are so sweet that I used only a pinch of Stevia to sweeten -- if you require a sweeter condiment, use sugar in a ratio of 3x the Stevia.

Figs, any kind, 2 pint cartons
Sure-Jell, or any pectin, 1 box (to buy this you have to decide what sugar you will use as you need to look at the packet to make sure you are buying the right pectin for your sweetner. I used the low sugar SureJell.)
1/3 cup Stevia (or 1 cup sugar, honey or agave)
1/4 cup water
Juice of a large lemon
1 t cinnamon (optional) or 1 Tablespoon lemon zest (optional) or 1 Tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 dozen small quilted canning jars

Wash and quarter the figs, paring off any remaining hard stems. Put them in a medium saucepan with the Sure-Jell, sweetner, lemon juice and water. Bring to a boil. When it boils, add the spice or zest or herb, if you like, and bring to a boil. (I made a batch of each.) Turn down the heat and let simmer about 10 minutes. Mash with a potato masher until the consistency desired (I didn't leave any large pieces of fruit.)

While the jam is reducing at the simmer, bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove. Put the jars and the lids in separately for 3 minutes, take out with large tongs and set on clean dish towel. After the jars and lids are sterilized, do not touch the inside of the lids or the tops of the jars, because you will have germs on your hands which could desanitize the contents.

While jam is still hot, spoon contents into canning jars, taking care to leave an inch of room on top of each for breathing space. Tighten with a rubber lid grip and put in boiling water for 20 minutes. You may have to do this in batches. Let cool, label and store.

Until winter, if you can wait that long.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Morel of the Story

It occurs to me that I didn't mention how I know my friend is addicted to the foraging for morels, as opposed to the outcome.

Here's how.

1. She is infinitely fair dividing them up at the end. Even if everyone keeps their own bucket, they all go in a pot and are divided at the end of the day.

2. Past scarfing that first batch, she doesn't down them. A great many are still strung on thread and hanging from her mantle to dry as I type.

3. She sings to the morels as she roams, eyes to the forest floor,  and believes they have superpowers.

I am starting to believe she is right. Nutritionists certainly do.

In clinical studies in which subjects were randomly assigned diets of  either mushrooms or beef, participants eating the mushroom meals consumed 430 calories and 30 grams of fat LESS per day. Most astonishingly, they didn't report any difference in satiety than did the beef eaters, nor did they compensate for their mushroom meals by pigging out later. Another study suggests that if the average American male substituted a 4-ounce Portobella mushroom for a 4-ounce grilled hamburger every time they ate a burger for one year, and changed nothing else, they could save more than 18,000 calories and nearly 3,000 grams of fat. That's roughly equal to 30 sticks of butter.

Magic? Perhaps. The magnificent mushroom is also the bearer of vitamin D -- scientists say a serving of mushrooms, with 20 calories and no fat, provides 100 % of our D goal after just five minutes of contact with sunlight. And they're packed with nutrients like selenium and niacin, which provide antioxidants to boost immune systems, combat cancer and break down fats and carbohydrates.

It's starting to sound as if we can't afford not to eat them. With eggs from the neighbors and spring greens and asparagus from my garden, they are as beautiful and tasty as they are healthy.

Morels on Asparagus

2 handfuls arugula
sprig of mint
four stalks of asparagus
2 eggs, fried in coconut oil

Rinse arugula and mint and shred on a plate. Bring water with a pinch of salt to a boil in a flat skillet, add asparagus (pinch off the rough ends) and cook until tender. Add a spray of coconut oil to the skillet and quickly fry two eggs. Top the greens with asparagus and egg, then flash fry morels (I cut large ones in half -- and remember, they aren't the biggest fan of water, wipe any dirt away gently with a damp towel) with a few more grains coarse salt, just until warm.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Mother Load

I have a friend who is as addicted to hunting morels as I am.

The first batch she got this spring she sauteed up when she got home and ate before her husband returned. After all, we rationalized, it was only 9 mushrooms. Hardly enough to share. And just the beginning of the season.

A week later, we walked up a hillside staccato with poplars, on an East facing slope, scattered with May apples and Jack in the pulpit underfoot. If you know the terrain morels like, you'd know this was perfect.

Except it wasn't. Oh, there was one here, and after a great long while maybe another, but nothing to write a blog about. And to top it off, we went with our children, one of them dramatically and actively unhappy. The kind of reticence that gets expressed like: "This is the worst day of my life."

For a mother who ranks these few morel-gathering weeks in Spring among the best of the year, this is bad news. The dilemma -- to press on and risk turning the poor tired thing against mushroom scavenging for the rest of her natural life, or give in, potentially leaving the elusive morels to shrivel without being found, or worse, snuffled by a passing bear? (This last is my imagination. I have no idea if bears eat mushrooms.)

We tried cajoling, creating a scavenger hunt in the woods, flat out bribery. We tempted with snacks, and let the tykes rest on a log while we foraged in circles around them. We crooned, "c'mon sweetie, Mommy only gets to do this once a year,"  and when that didn't work, "buck up, it's just an hour of your life." (Face it, if you're a mom you've been there.)

In the meantime, up we walked, over fallen logs, scanning the thick carpet of dead leaves covering the forest floor for the honeycomb caps, camouflagued by the matching downed foliage. They gave us only enough to keep us from quitting -- just as we decided we'd leave, another would show itself, teasing us, daring us, taunting us to find the next. On we went, led by the morels, from one slope to the next, prodding the exhausted tyke to hang in just another moment.

When it seemed we had come up blank, the day a bust (plus, we were late for soccer practice) we headed back to our car.

"Over here," yelled a kid, running down the wooded slope ahead.

"I found one," screamed another kid, the one who just a minute ago had been seemingly near extinction. I looked down to make sure I wasn't going to trip on my way to see, and spotted a big black morel, just by my foot. As I reached for my pocketknife to cut it neatly at the dirt, I saw there were -- 6. Right in a row.

"JACKPOT," I heard a scream, and it wasn't me. From then on it was a frenzy, everywhere we turned, and sometimes where we stepped, a virtual dell of morels. We collected 2 pounds in the last half hour alone.

This is how morels operate.

It was a very good day. We div'ied them up, (this was our share, above) and left. We were late to soccer. And later, over a large glass of red wine (or lemonade) and morels sauteed in butter, as we replayed the last half hour, and plotted our return to the woods, no one cared at all.

This is how morels get you. Reel you in. To be fair, though it may be a lot of effort to find them, once you find them you need do nothing to them, indeed, they are best that way. Morels, like cats, do not like water, and keep themselves extremely clean. Cut them clean off at the bottom, and brush off any dirt before you put them in the paper bag or coffee can you collect them in and they will stay that way.

Melt a little oil and butter in the pan with some coarse salt and stir in the morels. Slice the big ones in half and leave the littles, add some shaved parsley if you have some in your garden. Stir them just until they soften, then serve.

Over a rare veal chop:

And if you have enough, the next morning, over eggs and toast:

It was after all, first batch of the spring. And to our neighbors, thanks for the woods. Sorry you were Ghana.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eat British

I lived in London in my teens, and don't remember much about what I ate those five years but Cadbury Creme Eggs, oh, and  kebabs cut from big hanks of spitted meat from shops in Gloucester Road. This last was much to my father's dismay; he'd lecture on dangers of street food to the point where I no longer copped to my transgressions.

 Much of the food was actually inedible. A burger from the chain Wimpy was just that, with soft bread mixed in the meat, chickens that tasted of the fish meal they ate, orange "juice" like flavored water.  Visitors from the States were requested to bring boxes of Captain Crunch cereal.

Clearly, I was no epicure. I thought tea at Brown's  Hotel divine -- way before it's chic reno -- we sunk into the shabby floral couches, with plates of cucumber sandwiches (white bread, thin sliced cucumber, butter, no crusts, cut on the diagonal), stirring brown crawly sugar and milk into the fine china cups. For tea at home I favored Bakewell Tarts, individual pie shells filled with jam and gooey almond-flavored fondant. Many of my teeth were also filled in this period, no surprise.

But the UK has had a food revolution. It's one trying to happen here, though they are light years ahead on this one.

It's organics, local food, grown, raised and procured by folks with passion that comes through in every bite. It's a thriving restaurant scene, pubs being refurbished and adding menus taking advantage of seasonal treats -- a welcome change, one cabbie told me, from drinking establishments that might just have the odd Scotch egg (a hard boiled egg wrapped in sausage) to coat your tummy. 

The impetus for this State-supported revelation was Mad Cow, the bovine disease that decimated England's food chain in the '90s. Since then, with establishment of the Department of Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and their popular "Buy British" movement, farmers, producers and purveyors have gotten grants and education to strengthen the local food chain.

While it's become stylish, as here, to eat organic, it's even chicer to be involved.  D’Aylesford Organic, the brainchild of Lady Carole Bamford, sets the standard for farm-to-fork in the UK, with 7 shops and restaurants throughout the country selling the bounty of their Gloustershire estate. Emma Holman-West, steward of her 4,000-acre family estate near Stratford-upon-Avon, has reinvigorated the local 18th-century coaching inn, The Bell, with groovy decor and sophisticated local food.  Charlie Luxton, a former suit with Soho House (he was aboard for the luxury hotel's debut in NY's Meatpacking District) has turned the Beckford Arms, on the Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire, into a destination for those wanting the idyll of the country, the laid back comfort of a pub, but the style of boutique hotel.

The drive to the Beckford Arms, a scant 2 hours from London, is open motorway until a veer left at Stonehenge, just 15 miles away. Entering the magnificent Fonthill Estate through a graceful stone gateway, past a manicured swan lake, feels noble. We arrived in time for a walk before dinner -- the area is crisscrossed with public footpaths that take you off road through fields and over dams, where only sheep tread.

Before dinner, we chose to have a champagne in front of a vast stone fireplace on cushy sofas  -- but the inn is riddled with charming niches, from the bay window in the pub to the bar itself, a dining room that opens onto the garden, or the cozy sitting room, set with tables before wavy glass windows that reflect the candle's light. Our son, age 7, instantly felt comfortable rambling his way to the bar for a lemonade, where Colin the barkeep threw in a few magic tricks and friendly locals encouraged his imitation.

Dinner, after all this splendor, was hardly the point. We could have had a burger and chips, then crawled under the thick duvet and watched the inn's DVD of Dr. Doolittle with a cocoa -- but chef Pravin Nayar is having none of that. Recently proclaimed one of the finest gastropub chefs in the UK, his menu is nothing short of mouthwatering, a showcase of local bounty and simple, elegant technique.

I started with pigeon, served with a divine black pudding and roasted hazelnuts. Next, a local Brixham hake, pan-sauteed and served with salt-roasted beetroots from South Petherton and a poached egg, all drizzled in brown butter. Nayar was only too happy to give the recipe -- so easy, he came out and explained it himself instead of sending out a written page as many other chefs do. You may not be able to get Brixham hake (or hake at all for that matter, I substituted wild halibut  -- any thick white fish will suffice. )

Do try this at home.

Pan fried Brixham hake with beetroots from South Petherton, brown butter and poached egg
 courtesy of Pravin Nayar, The Beckford Arms

Thick fillets of white fish, 1 lb will serve about 4
8 beets, medium sized
coarse salt
4 good fresh eggs
1 teaspoon vinegar
butter, half a packet
fresh horseradish root
rapeseed oil

First, salt roast the beets. Pack the beets in salt and roast, about 40 minutes for medium size beets. Pierce and peel. Cut in quarters.

Pan fry the fish, skin side down, in rapeseed oil (the fields here are full of rapeseed, (a name we change to grapeseed) and he uses local oil-- do what you can) and butter, until the flesh starts to separate and is no longer opaque.

Boil water in a small pan with steep sides and about a teaspoon of vinegar. (To keep the shape of the egg.) Pull the pan off when it begins to boil and let sit on the edge of the flame. You want the water to be about 90 degrees, for if you poach it too high the egg "goes all sloppy." Add the eggs and poach about 3-4 minutes depending on the size of the egg. (Nayar's tip: "If you can lift it and it wants to stay on the spoon it's ready, but if it wants to fall off the spoon, not ready.")

For the brown butter,  heat it over a low flame in a small skillet until it is copper in color, the hue of a nice ale. Strain through a cheesecloth to get the brown bits out, if you like. (You can do this up to a week in advance, if you like, then reheat.)

Plate the fish and surround with beets. Top with egg and drizzle with butter.

For my version:

grapeseed oil
coarse salt
large bunch parsley
two cloves garlic
one lemon
one pound wild Alaskan halibut
1/2 cup butter plus two teaspoons
4 eggs

Heat a tablespoon of grapeseed oil in a small skillet and add a pinch of coarse salt after a few minutes. Let salt emulsify. With a scissor, cut parsley in about 1 inch widths over hot pan. With a microplane or grater, grate about a teaspoon of lemon zest over. When crisp, set aside.

Melt a tablespoon butter and a tablespoon of oil in a skillet big enough to hold the fish. When the oil is hot, swirl it around in the skillet, return to heat and add a pinch of salt. When the salt emulsifies, add the fish. Cook until the flesh separates and is no longer opague -- but not too long, or it will go tough.

Cook the butter and the eggs as above.

Plate: Spread a spoonful of parsley and top with fish; layer on the egg and drizzle brown butter.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Donuts for Peace

The favorite mornings at my mother's house are those she makes donuts. Little bits of fried dough, shaken in a bag of cinnamon sugar, seem to make everyone's day. Grandad walks by and snags the holes, not so subtly.

Doughnuts have been around since the dawn of time, and have always brought such joy. When my son learned from a friend  they served doughnuts at Hannukah, he requested to be Jewish.

Let's be clear, these are neither healthy nor gluten-free, but as they bring so much happiness there has to be room for them at the table. In reading up on donuts -- also known as doughnuts -- I found a reference to the Civil War, an incident where the Ladies Auxilliary of Augusta, Me., literally smothered their troops in donuts of every ilk. "Never before was seen such an aggregate of doughnuts since the world began," reported the Baltimore American of the "doughnation". "It was emphatically a feast of doughnuts, if not a flow of soul."

That is what it is like on doughnut morning, a flow of soul, on a river of cinnamon sugar. Try it.

Gram's Donuts

I package Pillsbury Buttermilk Biscuits
Oil for frying, about 4 cups (I like vegetable oil, or grapeseed oil. I do not recommend canola.)
Sugar and cinnamon, for dusting

Heat oil in a deep frying pan. Take a melon baller and take the hole out of the biscuit, making a donut. Reserve holes. Fry donuts and holes in the hot oil, turning once, until golden, about 3 minutes a side when oil is hot.

Put sugar and cinnamon in a plastic bag or a bowl. Coat hot donuts with sugar and serve.