Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tip 17: See red

We had a very cherry Sunday. The trees are laden with the little red bombs, and we pitted three flats in an evening, with lots of talk and tea. Our fruit is sweet enough to eat off the tree, but definitely needs sugar to create dessert fare.

Problem was, I had no sugar. No refined sugar that is, which every recipe called for. So I improvised, using raw sugar to make flavored simple syrups that sweetened our goods just enough to eliminate pucker. They also added a subtle flavoring that infused the cherries, taking them to dimensions which previously I hadn't prodded them to ascending. I used mint to infuse one simple syrup, from the patch that grows wild in our yard, and lemongrass frozen from last year's monster plant to flavor the other. Any herbs will do; I particularly have a hankering to try a cherry-thyme thingy. That is a technical term.

Anyway, the more cherries the better. If you know any good recipes, share. Cherries are being touted as the new American superfood, claiming to help arthritis and gout, lower weight and reduce factors for heart disease and diabetes. And cherries supposedly contain melatonin, which helps regulate sleep, prevent memory loss and delay the aging process. My mom and aunt both quaff cherry juice daily, and say it helps their joints.

And the number one reason to ingest cherries: they taste good.

Cherry Mint compote

2 cups cherries, pitted
handful of mint leaves, shredded
1/2 cup mint simple syrup, below
2 teaspoons cornsyrup

for the simple syrup:
1 cup water
1/2 cup raw sugar

2 stalks mint, quartered

Make the simple syrup: combine ingredients in saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer 15 minutes very slightly. Let cool on stove. Strain mint out and bottle.

In a separate pan, combine cherries, simple syrup and mint. Cook until cherries are soft and syrupy, about 20 minutes on low. Take some syrup and stir in 1 teaspoon of cornstarch until smooth. Add back to cherry sauce and let simmer. Repeat if not thick enough.

Serve with lamb or salmon. Or both.

Cherry Lemongrass Gelato

2 cups frozen cherries, pitted
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup lemongrass syrup

2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 stalk of lemongrass

for the lemongrass syrup: combine ingredients in saucepan and boil. Off heat and simmer 15 minutes very slightly. Let cool on stove. Strain off lemongrass.

In the Vitamix, combine frozen cherries and lemongrass syrup and blend until smooth. Add milk and blend. Freeze in ice cream freezer according to manufacturer's directions. The mixture made more than the freezer held, so we served it as a smoothie. Also a good choice.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Kitchen reform tip 16: Grow Some

So yesterday, on the hottest day of the year thus far, I visited the sun-scorched organic gardens at Airlie conference center, and talked to their creator.

Pablo Elliot (who majored in African Studies at Vassar) walked me through the organic garden project, which was started 10 years ago to provide food for the center.

"All the veggies we grow are sissies," he declared, after confiding his plan to build 5 raised beds a day for the next week, for a total of 30. "Tomatoes have to be held up and staked, lettuce hopes for a cooler breeze -- the clay soils here can get very compact, but the raised bed aerates it. It's luxury living for vegetables."

Elliot's breezy demeanor serves him well as he imparts information to local farmers, amateurs and guests to the sustainable center interested in organic gardening. The garden supplies about 8 percent of the center's food -- he works closely with chefs to grow what they need -- and the rest they source, preferably from other local growers.

The premise of organic gardening is to create a chemical free environment that is biodiverse enough to keep pests at bay by making the soil as fertile as possible with compost, and planting crops that will complement each other, cutting down on loss. Bugs are encouraged; garden supply chains even sell them.

To that end, Elliot recommends 3' x 30' beds, small enough to walk around and commune with your plants. "The best fertilizer is the footprint of the farmer," he says. His favorite tool is the broadfork, which pushes about a foot into the soil, then lifts up without turning to aerate the bottom, while leaving the best soil on top. Compost, at a rate of a wheelbarrow full per 100 square feet of bed, is added each season.

"Nothing we do here is rocket science," says Elliot. "I am into simple methods. A farmer once told me, 'Tickle the soil and it laughs with a harvest.' It stimulates soil in a way that microbes feed the plants. Keeping the habitat diverse encourages beneficial insects and birds and pollinators. That's how organic gardening works. You feed the soil, and the soil feeds the plants."

He does test the soil about once a year; Virginia's clay soils have a low pH and often have to be amended with calcidic lime. But the end result is a thriving garden, full of lettuces, which he staggers in small plantings so the chefs have a constant supply, herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, the summer crops of eggplants, squash and melons, not to mention a fall corn maze. They have a hoop house that allows starting seeds sooner, and extends the growing season for fall greens into cold weather months.

"We try to transplant as much as possible -- they aren't as delicate as when you start from seeds. The chefs like the little greens but it is a lot of work," he says. One hurdle for organic farmers, he says is getting chefs to recognize that organic produce might have a hole here, a blemish here, that they have to make pretty on the plate."They are into the challenge."

Mesclun salad with chevre dressing

4 - 6 cups mesclun or any salad greens
any vegetables, nuts or dried fruits

1/2 cup chevre or cottage cheese
1/2 cup dill
2 T skim milk
salt and pepper to taste

Clean greens and shred into bowl. Whiz cheese and dill in small food chopper. Add milk to thin, salt and pepper to taste.