Archive for June, 2008

Now we’re getting somewhere

Market haul, June 29As Culiaria Eugenius points out, the coming of summer brings a shift from greens and peas and more greens into the rich variety of summer produce. At yesterday’s market, I had to keep reminding myself that I’m heading out of town later in the week, so I restrained myself to one of Wood Family Farm’s excellent rib steaks, a bunch of garlic tops that are already opening (hey, they were only 50 cents a bunch), a few of what will probably be the last sugar-pod peas, some of the first green beans, a half pint of cherries – and two pints of raspberries.

It’s too hot to cook indoors, but I thawed the steak and gave it a good massage with a mixture of smoked paprika, cumin, rosemary and a dash of dried chipotle, plus a little salt, then put it in a bag to soak up those smokey flavors with plans to grill it tonight, once the ocean breezes start blowing in from over the Coast Range and cooling things off. There will be green beans – just gently steamed with a dab of butter – and perhaps a pan of garlic tops and mushrooms set to simmer at the edge of the grill. Some of the steak (I can’t eat it all at one sitting) will get sliced for use in a salad or wrap; there are enough green beans for a second meal, and somewhere along the line I’ll do something with the cherries. This week, I anticipate at least 3-4 meals from mostly local food. And it’s just going to get better as the summer progresses.

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t bring myself to cook at all. I rinsed and nibbled some of the peas, raw, for lunch. And then there were the raspberries.

Raspberries and I, we have history. I love them with a love that surpasseth understanding, above all other fruits, even summer-ripe peaches or the crisp antique apples of fall. Until I moved to the Willamette Valley, I’d never lived anywhere raspberries were grown; they were always rare, imported treats, so expensive that I never bought more than half a pint at a time, and carefully doled them out a few at a time as toppings for ice cream or cheesecake.

I still remember the realization, that first summer living in Oregon, that I could eat as many raspberries as I wanted. Followed, soon afterward, by an encounter with an acquaintance who was complaining that the raspberry canes in her back yard had run amok, and that she didn’t really like raspberries, so if I wanted to come over and pick some, I could help myself.

I think I came close to “too many raspberries” that summer. But never since.

Now I have raspberries growing in my own back yard. In their third year, they’ve spread out nicely along the eastern fence, and they’re thick with nascent fruit this summer; with a few weeks, I should be harvesting bowls full a day.

But not yet, so I snatched up two pints of the first market raspberries – Cascade Bounty, a relatively new cultivar – and brought them home.

There are lots of fine things to make from raspberries: Jam, pie, a simple puree (simmer raspberries an a very small amount of liquid – water, white whine – until they fall apart, sweeten to taste or not, then press through a strainer to remove the seeds) that can be used in everything from drinks (a few tablespoons of raspberry puree + sparkling water over ice!) to sauces to desserts.

But at the start of the season, I don’t bother. I just eat them.

I managed to consume nearly half a pint on the way home from the market. And a few more as I gently picked through them looking for squashed or overripe berries that might promote mold.

And then, for dinner, just this:

Raspberries and cream

Raspberries. Cream. That’s all.

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June 29, 2008 at 3:10 pm 1 comment

How it really works

shrimp and asparagusFoodbloggers sometimes leave the impression that every meal involves planning, shopping, research and recipes. I can’t speak for the rest, but that’s not how it usually works at my house.

Rather, a typical evening meal happens something like this:

  • Get home from work. Feed the cats. Water the garden. Check my e-mail and phone messages. Get distracted uploading photos to Flickr. Realize that my stomach is growling.
  • Wander into the kitchen. Open the refrigerator and stand there staring at the contents. Wonder why I have so many condiments, and how I acquired three half-empty bottles of club soda .
  • Discover something potentially tasty. Think, “Hm, what could I do with that?”
  • Start improvising. Taste. Improvise some more.
  • Declare it dinner. Eat.

All of which is to apologize for the fact that a lot of my favorite meals don’t come from, or produce, recipes – they come from inspiration, and keeping good ingredients on hand. Which means either keeping notes as I go (and who does that?), or trying to reconstruct the dish after the fact, and explains why I often use such technical terms as “a handful of this” or “a glug of that.” In short, I cook pretty much like my mother and grandmother did, except that I’m lucky enough to have a much wider range of ingredients at my disposal.

Last night I was inspired to put together what turned out to be an absolutely delicious pasta dish using local vegetables, herbs from my garden and one of my favorite regional cheeses. I would love to give you a detailed recipe, but I don’t have one. So I’ll tell you what I did, and encourage you to try your own improvisation. Like much of what I cook, this dish could spin off in several different directions, depending on your tastes, your dietary requirements and what’s in your own refrigerator. Frankly, about the only thing you could do to mess it up would be to overcook or overseason.

Pasta with shrimp, asparagus and smoked blue cheese: An improvisation

  1. I usually have a bag of quick-peel shrimp in the freezer, in whatever size is the best price at the supermarket. They’re practically a staple. Last night’s dinner started with pouring a quantity of shrimp into a colander, setting that in a bowl in my kitchen sink and filling it with cold water to thaw the shrimp, a process which took no more than 15 minutes or so – just long enough for me to water the garden.
  2. Once the shrimp were thawed, I peeled them, set some water to boil for pasta, and got out my small skillet, which is the perfect size for one serving of pasta topping; it went on the burner with a little olive oil.
  3. While the oil heated, I chopped a bit of sweet onion and a couple of cloves of garlic; those went into the skillet at medium heat. Practically everything I cook that isn’t dessert starts with “chop some onion and garlic.”
  4. The fridge revealed a half-dozen spears of asparagus left from last weekend’s farmers’ market run. Shrimp and asparagus go great together, so I snapped off the woody ends (and tucked them into my freezer bag of veggie trimmings for stock) and cut the spears in inch-long pieces.
  5. Also in stock: An unopened wedge of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue Cheese, one of those “ooh, must try this!” finds from the supermarket. Rogue makes terrific blue cheeses at its creamery down in Central Point (a great side trip if you’re heading down to Medford or Ashland), and I was delighted to discover that Ray’s Market in North Albany currently has three or four varieties (including a lovely Chipotle Cheddar) in stock. I hope they plan to keep the brand in stock.
  6. Brain starts working, inspired by tastebuds: Asparagus … shrimp … smoked blue cheese. Oh, yeah, baby. The water was boiling, so in went the pasta – just good old spaghetti, although I could have chosen rotini, flat egg noodles or Japanese soba; I tend to keep a lot of noodles on hand.
  7. Once the onion and garlic had begun to soften, I tossed the asparagus and shrimp – both of which benefit from quick cooking – into the pan. Some liquid seemed required, so I opened a bottle of Elk Cove Pinot Gris, poured a splash into the pan, filled my glass and let things simmer a while.
  8. I’d pinched some herbs to stimulate branching while I was watering the garden earlier. No point wasting those tender, aromatic bits, so I minced thyme, oregano, Italian parsley and a couple of tiny basil leaves, and tossed them into the mix.
  9. It took less than five minutes for the shrimp to turn a delicate, opaque pink and the asparagus to reach that vivid-green stage that signals crisp-tender. Time to lower the heat waaaaaaay down to continue reducing the liquid, and add some of that blue cheese, crumbled. I thought about adding a spoonful or two of creme fraiche*, but that seemed excessive. A quick taste (blow on the spoon!) confimred that no further seasoning was required.
  10. In less than a minute of stirring and tossing, the cheese had begun to melt and merge with the pan liquids, so I took the skillet off the heat, plated some pasta and spooned the sauce over it.
  11. One final inspiration: Walnuts. I love the combination of blue cheese and walnuts, so I grabbed a small handful from the bulk bag I keep with baking supplies, broke them with my fingers and scattered them on top of the dish.

Holy cow, that was good. And with a pretty good ratio of local-to-not-local ingredients, too:

  • Local: Asparagus, onion, garlic, cheese, herbs, wine. OK, the cheese and wine aren’t local-local, but I’m willing to stretch the boundaries of “local” to encompass Oregon-made food produced within a few hours’ drive.
  • Not local: Shrimp, pasta, olive oil. And everything but the oil could be local, if shrimp is in season and you make your own pasta. For that matter, you could omit the shrimp and increase the asparagus and have a perfectly satisfying vegetarian meal.

* You know about creme fraiche, don’t you? If you don’t, you should. Milder than sour cream, plus a distinctive, almost nutty flavor, it’s great for saucing dishes because its high butterfat content prevents curdling. It’s also lovely dolloped onto fresh fruit or a scone, floated on top of home-made soups or used any way you might use sour cream or whipped cream. Not easy to find here in the Valley, it sometimes turns up as a specialty item in a supermarket cheese section – I last found it at Safeway, but they don’t stock it regularly.

However, you can extend the life of a single small container by using some of it to grow your own. Just warm a cup or so of heavy cream in a small saucepan (don’t let it boil), let it cool to body temperature, stir in a big spoonful of creme fraiche and pour the mixture into a glass jar with a good lid – a canning jar works great. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours until the cream has thickened (I drape a clean dishcloth over the top to keep out stray environmental yeasts, which can spoil the culture) then lid and refrigerate. Creme fraiche keeps for a couple of weeks, and you can keep culturing more from each batch. You can also use buttermilk as a culture-starter, but I find the resulting flavor a bit sharper and less delicate.

June 25, 2008 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

Warning: This post contains decadence

Two-bite berryLate though it may be, strawberry season is finally upon us. And the strawberry lovers rejoice, and little chins drip red with sweet juice, and pint jars are sterilized for the making of jam.

I bought a half-flat of Seascape strawberries at the market this past weekend, with notions of making something special for a going-away barbecue I threw for some friends who are moving to the Virgin Islands. But it was a party, and there was socializing to do, so I wound up just rinsing them and passing around the green pasteboard cartons, to the delight of my guests. And perhaps it’s a sign that after 30 years the Willamette Valley is truly home, but I found myself feeling sorry that my friends would be moving to a Caribbean island where strawberries have to be shipped in from the mainland, and cost more than gasoline.

The berries didn’t all get eaten, though. And on Sunday night, with my visiting sister to egg me on, I used the last of them in a dish that had been tickling my imagination since I first read about it a few weeks back: Deep-fried strawberries.

Hush, now. I know what you’re thinking. This is not some grease-sodden variation of deep-fried Twinkies on a stick. This is pure, delicate strawberry indulgence, wrapped in a crisp-tender, egg batter that reminds me of my mother’s Sunday morning popovers. It’s a little fiddly, but the results are fabulous.

Trust me on this.

Deep-fried strawberriesDeep-fried Strawberries (with Honey Whipped Cream)

1 pint ripe strawberries, rinsed, hulled and patted dry.

Batter:

  • Oil for frying
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup white wine (I used a nice Oregon Pinot Gris)
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil of your choice (not olive oil)
  • Powdered sugar
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1Tsp honey

Method:

I don’t deep fry often enough to own an appliance for that purpose; I use my wok, because the slope of the bottom makes it easy to get the depth of oil required for frying without using quarts of the stuff. You can also use a heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Pour oil into the vessel of your choice to a depth of about three inches, and heat gradually to 300-350 degrees. A candy thermometer, the sort that clips to the side of the pan, comes in handy here. High heat is necessary to quick-seal the surface of the batter, which is what keeps it from absorbing too much grease.

Set a roasting or cake-cooling rack on a cookie sheet drain the berries after frying, or else several layers of paper towels.

Mix the batter: Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, then in a separate bowl (I use my Pyrex measuring cup) whisk together the egg, wine and oil until well blended. Whisk that into the dry ingredients until thoroughly blended; the batter will be fairly thick and not runny.

Dip the berries into the batter and swirl to cover throughly. I found a wooden barbecue skewer worked best for this. Transfer a few battered berries at a time to the hot oil and fry for about 60 seconds, turning once to brown evenly. As soon as the batter begins to brown, remove the berries from the oil and place on rack to drain off excess oil. Once all the berries are cooked and drained, arrange on plates and sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar. For extra indulgence, whip cream with honey until soft peaks form, and serve as a dip for the berries.

These are best eaten still warm, but not piping hot (as I discovered when I burned my palate on the first one). A pint ought to feed 3-4 people, but my sister and I ate them all, just the two of us, because we could.

The eggy-ness of the batter surprised me, but it makes sense: When subjected to high heat, the berries begin to give up their juice; the egg creates a sticky and somewhat water resistant batter; when it hits the oil it seals around the berries, containing their liquid. A different style of batter – tempura, for instance – would melt under the juice and dissolve into mush

June 23, 2008 at 9:11 pm 1 comment

Peas and turnips, late-spring style

Baby turnipsA cold, wet May caused setbacks for some local crops: Strawberry growers were struggling, for instance, until the sun came out last week, and some of our usual other late-spring crops have been slow to show up in the markets.

Sugar-snap peas, which love the cool and damp, are an exception: I’ve been buying and eating them weekly, mostly raw (three days last week the lunch I packed to work consisted of a big bag of peas and a dip made from Nancy’s plain yogurt and various dried herbs – yum!). I can’t get enough of these babies.

Speaking of babies: Saturday I got to the market late, but not too late to grab a couple of bunches of baby turnips. Like most “baby” vegetables, these aren’t early versions of regular turnips, they’re a Japanese variety bred for their small size and delicate flavor, and if you’re not fond of big turnips, don’t let that stop you from trying these. No bigger than golf balls, they’re crisp and mild enough to slice and eat raw – but they’re also lovely to cook with. It would be a waste to treat them like their winter cousins, boiled and mashed or thrown in with a pot roast. Like many early-season vegetables, they work best with quick cooking and simple preparations.

I ran across a recipe for baby turnips and peas that sounded delicious, but a little fiddly, what with the blanching and sauteeing. So instead, I combined the vegetables in a quick vegetable roast, and served them alongside smoked pork and home-made apple-and-quince sauce from the freezer. Fabulous.

Baby turnips and sugar-snap peasRoasted Baby Turnips and Sugar-snap Peas

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch baby turnips
  • 1/2 cup whole sugar-snap pea pods
  • 4-5 garlic scapes* (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp dried herbs (I used a lemon-dill-garlic blend)
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon zest
  • Sea salt

Preheat oven to 375F.

Trim toff the turnip greens (and save them for another dish!), scrub turnips and pat them dry. Cut larger ones in half so all pieces are roughly the same size. Remove strings from peas if necessary. Cut garlic scape stems in half-inch lengths, leaving the bud and a bit of the curled stem. Toss everything in olive oil and herbs.

Put turnips on a baking sheet, and roast for five minutes. Then add peas and garlic scapes, sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and roast five minutes longer. Toss with lemon zest and serve.

Serves two as a side dish; if you increase the recipe, you probably won’t need more oil.

* Scapes are the flowering buds of plants in the allium family. Hardnecked garlic produces scapes that curl attractively and eventually straighten out to bloom; at the curled stage, they’re a tasty vegetable with a mild garlic flavor. I got mine from my garden, but you can often find them in the market. Try them lightly steamed, or in a stir-fry.

June 15, 2008 at 9:24 pm 2 comments

Keeping it local in the larder

I was out of town last weekend and missed the farmers’ market: How was I going to meet my weekly Eat Local Challenge goal? All I had left from the previous week’s market were a couple of bulbs of kohlrabi (a good keeper, fortunately), and that didn’t sound like much of a dinner.

Luckily, my pantry (and the big old freezer in my basement) usually contains a good supply of canned, bottled, frozen and dried foods of local origin. Jams and jellies, of course (but a person can only eat so much apple butter, as tasty as it is), but also dried fruits and wild mushrooms, frozen meat, locally produced sausages – and seafood.

OK, the coast is an hour and a half’s drive away, but I still consider it local, especially at the height of the fishing season. There’s no fish fresher than the fish you can buy right off the docks in Newport, for instance, headed and gutted (and if you sweet-talk the fisherman, sliced into filets or steaks) and packed in a cooler full of ice for the drive home.

But thanks to a growing number of entrepreneurial fisherfolk, some seasonal seafood is also available canned: Pacific albacore, brined or smoked, salmon (yes, even with this season’s harvest restrictions, some varieties of Pacific salmon are available) – and Dungeness crab.

Last winter, I splurged on a case of crab canned by my friend and former Oregon Sea Grant colleague Ginny Goblirsch and her fisherman husband Herb under their Oregon’s Choice label, which they sell on line and from select Newport markets. One of the things I appreciate about Herb and Ginny is that they’re committed to sustainable fishing practices; their albacore is caught with hook-and-line, a method certified as eco-friendly by the Marine Stewardship Council. The other seafood they can is caught by similarly sustainable methods, and when they decided to begin canning their own products, they worked closely with OSU seafood specialists to come up with production methods that follow “best practices” for both quality and safety.

The big canneries that used to dot the Oregon coast are pretty much history, but the boutique seafood canners who’ve emerged in recent years represent a real, local-food treasure. While much of their output gets sold in gift shops or shipped outside the region, there’s nothing to keep us from trying it, too, if we can get hold of it before the tourists do. The price may be premium, but so is the quality.

Most of that case of crab got used up last winter, in crab bisques, crab dip for holiday pot-lucks and crab salad. But I still have a few cans left, and when I happened on them tonight while foraging for dinner ideas, crab cakes came to mind.

Crab cakes can be an iffy thing; I’ve had way too many that were all cake and not much crab, like greasy wads of vaguely crab-flavored fried dough. Through trial and error – and tips from a couple of excellent restaurant chefs – I came up with a recipe that’s both easy and light, crisp, moist and very, very crab-by. They’re astonishingly good when made with fresh crab meat, but between you and me, when Dungeness crabs are in season I rarely bother making anything elaborate from them – I just boil them and eat them, armed with a nutcracker, a bowl of melted butter and a lot of napkins. Picking crabs to produce enough meat for a recipe is just too darned time-consuming when you could be eating crab.

So I let people like Ginny and Herb do the hard work, and I get to enjoy the results. And boy, did I enjoy tonight’s crab cakes, served with an improvised Asian-style slaw of kohlrabi I’d bought at the market the week before.

Dungeness crab cakesLight and Crispy Crab Cakes

(This recipe uses one can of crab to make four modest crab cakes – more than enough for one person, or a light meal or appetizer for two. You can easily scale it up to make more).

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh Italian parsley; other fresh herbs, added sparingly, can be lovely, too.
  • 1/2 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp real mayonnaise (do not, under pain of banishment from my blog, tell me that you used Miracle Whip or “lite” mayonnaise. Seriously.)
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 6 oz. can Dungeness crab meat
  • 1/4 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs), or other light, dry bread crumbs, plus extra for coating
  • Salt and pepper if you want it. I never do.
  • Equal parts butter and oil (I use canola) for frying

Method:

In a bowl, combine parsley, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, egg, mayonnaise and lemon juice and stir until well-blended. Lightly fold in the crab meat and bread crumbs until just mixed – try not to break up the crab too much.

Heat butter and oil in a skillet until fragrant and sizzling.

Spread extra bread crumbs on a plate. Using a large spoon, scoop up a fourth of the crab mixture (it will be quite wet) and press first one side, then the other into the crumbs. Transfer to hot skillet, flattening a bit to shape. Repeat to make four cakes.

Sautee until golden brown, turning once (3-4 minutes per side). Drain on paper towels and serve while still hot. No condiments required, although a dollop of mayonnaise with prepared wasabi mixed in can be tasty if you like that sort of thing.

Asian-style Kohlrabi slaw

(I don’t actually measure the ingredients for salad dressings – I work by the proportions-and-glugs method. This is my best estimation; feel free to taste and experiment)

  • 1-2 kohlrabi, peeled, sliced and coarsely julienned
  • Pickled sushi ginger, minced
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar. If you have seasoned sushi vinegar, use that and omit the following two ingredients)
  • 1 tsp Mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine) OR 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • Black sesame seeds

Method:

Mix the kohlrabi and pickled ginger. Whisk together the vinegar, Mirin (or sugar), salt and sesame oil and toss with the vegetables. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds. This is even better when it’s sat overnight in the refrigerator.

June 11, 2008 at 9:17 pm 1 comment

Food for body and soul

Happy birthday, Albany Farmers' market

Happy birthday, Albany Farmers’ market,
originally uploaded by kightp.

You can’t tell it by the weather, but summer is almost upon us, and here in the mid-Valley that means the arrival of the Season of Too Many Things To Do. I look down the calendar and despair of being able to find the time and energy for all the wonderful, interesting – and tasty – events coming up in the weeks ahead.

It’s already starting: This weekend I’m heading out of town and while I’m looking forward to the trip, I’m also regretting that I won’t be here for two terrific celebrations.

The Albany Farmers’ Market turns 30 on Saturday. According to market manager Rebecca Landis, who’s combed decades worth of newspapers, our little market is believed to be the oldest continuously operating open-air farm market in the state.

Until last year, it even operated in the same location – a parking lot off Water Street, on the bank of the Willamette River. It was with some trepidation that the market relocated last year to the 4th Avenue, between City Hall and the Linn County Courthouse, but the move seems to have paid off in higher visibility and more buyers. I’m constantly running into people there who say “I didn’t even know Albany had a farmers’ market.!” And the more shoppers, the more encouragement local growers have to get up in the wee hours, pick and clean their crops and haul them to market for us to buy and enjoy.

I’ll miss the birthday party, but Rebecca tells me good things are planned – including free strawberry shortcake! If you’re reading this and have never visited the market, or have a friend who’s never been, this should be a great weekend to change that. And bring a shopping bag: The variety of produce and other delicious things available at the market is swelling week by week, and we’re rapidly moving toward the days when entire meals can be planned and made from local ingredients.

The weekend’s other oh-I-hate-missing-that event in our area is the Corvallis Music History Project, a two-day gathering of some of the best musical talents who’ve graced the Corvallis folk, rock, jazz and world-music scene over the past 50 years. It’s happening at the Old World Deli on 2nd Street in Corvallis, home to many a concert and dance over the years.

It’s not a concert, exactly, although much music will be made, and there’s no admission charge. Rather, it’s being billed as an all-comers reunion of people who’ve been involved making, producing or just enjoying music in Corvallis, ever. You can read all about it at www.corvallismusic.com.

And a lot of those people will be playing. I look down the list of folks who are scheduled to perform a number or two, and oh, my, does it stir up memories: Ramblin’ Rex Jablonksi, The Vanilla Syncopaters, Nancy Spencer and her amazing musical saw, Cliff and Cheri Perreira , Tom and Ellen Demarest – all musicians I heard often when I first moved to this valley 30 years ago – along with dozens of younger artists.

Bring your local-music-scene stories to contribute to the oral history that’s being compiled; bring your memorabilia from concerts past to be photographed. Bring your dancing shoes (although I’d be surprised if there’s a lot of room for dancing). It’s the first of what are planned as several events, all of which will be recorded for posterity, some of which will be broadcast. And it sounds like an absolute blast.

If you go, have a ball. And let me know how it went! Me, I’ve got a train to catch this afternoon…

June 6, 2008 at 9:27 am Leave a comment


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