Posts filed under ‘Cooking from scratch’

Lemon-Zucchini Salad

Everything good is in season right now, and I have a barbecue to attend this afternoon. So: Farmers’ market for produce, and a big batch of Lemon Zucchini Salad with Tomatoes and Sweet Corn, a fabulously flavorful – and easy! – summer recipe from Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s always-excellent Splendid Table/Weeknight Kitchen. Think “pasta salad” – only with thinly shaved raw zucchini filling in for the pasta, dressed with lemon, basil and garlicky oil. I got this via email subscription a couple of summers ago, and it never fails to make me – and anyone to whom I feed it – happy.

Lemon Zucchini Salad with Tomatoes and Corn

As Kasper suggests, I added More Stuff: cucumber, Kalamata olives, a little diced red onion. My tomatoes were great big heirlooms, chopped in chunks, and I pan-roasted the sweetcorn till it was browned before adding the garlic, basil and olive oil. For the dressing, I went with a 50-50 Greek yogurt-mayo blend, and another half-lemon’s worth of juice to thin it, with crumbled, herbed feta.

I can hardly wait for the barbecue.

(Am I back to blogging? Maybe … this is the peak time of year for the market, and for my garden … and thus my peak time of year for cooking. And my wonky sense of smell continues to improve, to the point where I can just about cook by taste again. Stay tuned …)

August 3, 2013 at 1:02 pm Leave a comment

Making things up: Menus as inspiration

Seared tuna and watermelon saladOur little farmers’ market is getting more sophisticated by the month. One of the latest, and most welcomed additions: Brandywine Fisheries, a family fishing operation out of Charleston, trucking caught-the-day-before fish inland to satisfy my seafood cravings when I can’t make it to the coast.

Yesterday, they had whole albacore tuna loins for $7 a pound, which is an astonishingly good price. Could I resist? No, I could not.

Ever since my trip to New Orleans last fall, I’ve been day-dreaming about the fabulous meal I had at The Green Goddess – and all the  enticing things on their menu that I didn’t have a chance to try.  One, in particular, keeps coming back to haunt me: a dish of seared tuna and diced watermelon, of all things, called Tumblin’ Dice.  Now, I don’t have access to the more esoteric ingredients – fennel pollen, for instance. But the basic concept, pairing warm, barely cooked tuna with cool watermelon, sounded like a fantastic high-summer meal.

Having acquired the tuna, I hit the supermarket and picked up a small, sweet seedless watermelon. After pondering flavor combinations, I came up with this. Call it a Pacific Rim tribute to a great New Orleans restaurant.

Seared Tuna and Watermelon Salad

(Inspired by The Green Goddess)

Ingredients

  • Fresh (or shipboard-frozen and thawed) tuna loin
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp sesame oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced
  • dried hot chili peppers, crushed (I used two fiery little Thai chiles)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 Tbsp sesame seeds.
  • Seedless watermelon,  rind removed, cut into cubes*
  • Sea salt
  • Tender greens of your choice (I used baby lettuce and chives from my garden)
  • Pickled sushi ginger
  • Wasabi mayonnaise (mix prepared wasabi into store-bought mayonnaise at a strength that suits your tastes).

Preparation

In a large resealable bag, combine lime juice, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, chiles and black pepper. Add the tuna loin, seal bag and turn several times to coat the fish with the marinade. Marinate in the refrigerator for an hour or more.

When dinner time rolls around, prepare watermelon by cutting it in inch-thick slices, removing rind and cutting the slices into cubes. Place melon cubes in the fridge (or freezer!) while you prepare the fish.

Remove tuna from refrigerator and drain off marinade. Sprinkle sesame seeds in a plate, and roll the tuna loin in the to coat well.

Heat a large, heavy skillet on high until a drop of water sprinkled onto the surface sizzles and dances.

Using tongs, place the tuna in the skillet (you may want to cut it in half to make it fit) and sear each side for about a minute, if you like your fish, as I do, cooked on the outside but pink and rare-to-raw inside. Feel free to cook it longer if you prefer, although it won’t be as luscious.

When fish is cooked to your taste, transfer to a cutting board. Remove melon cubes from freezer and pile on plates. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cut inch-thick slices off the tuna, and  arrange atop the melon, garnish with greens. Serve *now*, with wasabi mayo and pickled ginger.

Depending on the size of the fish, a whole tuna loin can easily serve 4-6 people. If you wind up with leftovers, as I do, the best bet is to wrap it in foil, pop it in a 350F oven and let it cook through (it should only take 15-20 minutes), then refrigerate. Me, I’m going to be taking fabulous tuna sandwiches and fresh watermelon cubes to work for lunch this week. (-:

Quick links:

July 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm Leave a comment

Cherry pie from scratch

Pie!(Warning: This is a long post, because I’m indulging in some pastry-geeking. Don’t let that deter you. The pie itself took much less time to make than to write about.)

I’m the kind of cook who sees no contradition between a love of the home-made and a love of expedient shortcuts. I’d rather spend an hour making an excellent risotto with boxed stock from the supermarket than spend an entire weekend simmering, straining and clarifying  soup bones and trimmings for a measely quart of home-made.

Or pie: While I’m perfectly capable of making a tender, flaky crust from scratch – hell, I learned it at my mother’s knee – I also think frozen supermarket pie crusts are one of the small miracles of modern life; they let me throw together a tasty pie or quiche on a whim, or on a busy evening, without dragging out the flour and fat and rolling pins.

So I’m here to tell you: If you want to make this pie with a refrigerator-case crust-inna-box, you go right ahead. The food police won’t show up on your door, and whoever you’re feeding likely won’t know the difference if you don’t tell them.

ON THE OTHER HAND … this from-scratch crust, which I’ve made several times without failure,  is good. Really, really good. Good enough to be more than just a container for the tart, juicy local  pie cherries I got  this week; I crisped up the trimmings with a light sprinkle of sugar and can’t stop nibbling them.

What makes it good – what makes any pie crust good – is the combination of a light hand and nice, cold fat – in this case, pure lard and high-quality unsalted butter. Trust me, pie crust is not the place to cut corners on fat. Yeah, you can make a pie crust with Crisco or vegetable oil (or even olive oil). But it will never be as shatteringly crisp and flaky and flavorful as one made from honest-to-god animal fat. And while I’ve tried a crust that purported to be fat-free, it was also free of flavor and texture; it might as well have been cardboard. If you absolutely cannot have fat, then skip the crust, bake the filling in a naked pie pan and call it a baked fruit compote.

Butter and lardI happen to have a quantity of first-rate leaf lard (the delicate white fat from around a hog’s kidneys) in the freezer, frozen in half-cup portions. I will admit to having gone all pioneer woman this spring: I bought five pounds of fat from Heritage Farms Northwest, cut it into chunks and simmered it all one afternoon in my stock pot to render out the pure lard, just to see if I could. You don’t have to go that far; rendered, packaged lard is available in most supermarkets  in the cooler where they keep the butter. Try it, either alone or in combination with butter. You won’t believe how much better your pie crusts taste.

Why is that? Well, for one thing, lard is all fat, unlike butter, which has a fairly high water content; an all-butter crust will taste great, but it will probably be tough, too, unless you go for a pate brisee-style short crust where the fat is more evenly blended into the flour.

As the sainted Harold McGee explains it:

“The methods for making American-style pie dough produce a crust that is both tender and flaky. They disperse some of the fat evenly into the dough, separating small particles from each other, and some coarsely, separating different layers of the dough from each other … the dough is rested in the refrigerator to rechill the fat and let the water become more evenly distributed, and then is rolled out. The rolling stretches the dough and thus develops some gluten, and flattens the fat chunks into thin sheets. The combination creates the layered texture … In the oven, the sheets of fat, trapped air and steam from the dough water … all help to separate the dough into layers and give it a flaky texture.”

– Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking

The way my mom (and her mom, and generations of moms before them) achieved this was to use her fingertips to rub about half of the fat into the flour, and then two dinner knives to cut the rest into the mixture in pea-sized chunks. But mom was baking in a world without food processors. I use mine to achieve the same ends – and better, really, because the fat doesn’t get melted by the heat of my hands – by pulsing in half the butter and lard until the mixture resembles fine corn meal, then adding the rest and pulsing just a few times to chop the fat  into pea-sized chunks.

Here’s the pie I’m feeding my friends this afternoon. I rose early yesterday to make the crust before the house got hot, then spent a pleasant half-hour on the shady front porch pitting cherries with my cheap little mechanical pitter; everything went into the fridge, and then I baked the pie early this morning. The crust is based on a recipe I found on Epicurious.com for the “Best-Ever Pie Crust” and they aren’t exaggerating. The filling is one I’ve improvised over the years to the point where I don’t need a recipe to make it, but I took the time to note amounts, etc. this time around so you can recreate it – or add your own personal touch.

Cherry Pie to Die For

Crust

Ingredients

For two crusts

  • 2 1/2 cups pastry flour*
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chilled, unsalted butter, cut in cubes
  • 1/2 cup chilled lard, cut in cubes
  • 5 Tbsp ice water (or more, as needed)

Method

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt and sugar and pulse to blend. Begin feeding cubes of butter and lard into the processor, pulsing on-and-off until about half the fat is incorporated and the mixture is beginning to look like coarse cornmeal. Add the rest of the fat and pulse just a few times to cut it into pea-sized chunks. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly distributed.

Dump the mixture into a bowl and, using a fork, begin to toss in the ice water a tablespoon at a time until the dough begins to clump together. Depending on the flour, the air temperature and the weather, it may take more than five tablespoons; if so, add more a teaspoon at a time; you want a dough you can form into a neat ball, but it shouldn’t be wet.

Divide dough in half, form into balls and flatten each half into a disk on a piece of plastic wrap. Wrap and refrigerate at least an hour (or up to three days in advance). If necessary, let rest at room temperature for a few minutes to soften before you roll it out.

Sprinkle a large cutting board or pastry cloth with a small amount of flour and roll each disk to about 1/8″ thickness.

Here’s a tip from Harold McGee: Let the dough rest for 20-15after rolling it out to allow the gluten sheets formed by rolling to relax; that makes it easier to shape the crust without stretching it, which in turn prevents the crust from shrinking when it bakes.

Transfer crust to a pyrex pie plate (the easy way is to roll the circle of dough up onto your rolling pin and then gently unroll it into the plate). Press gently into plate, trim and crimp the edges as you please (unless you’re making a two-crust pie, in which case see below). If your recipe calls for a prebaked crust (this one doesn’t), prick it all over with a fork before baking. and weight it down to prevent bubbles (a handful of dried beans on a piece of tinfoil is as good as expensive pie weights).

Use the second disc of dough to make a lid for your pie, or a second pie, or freeze it for later.

* Pastry flour has a lower protein  content than all-purpose or bread flour, but more than cake flour; that helps produce the tender, flaky result you want in a pie crust (or biscuit), as opposed to the chewiness you get in good bread. I used whole wheat pastry flour, grown and ground by Stalford Seed Farms in Shedd. This flour is ground fairly coursely, and the resulting dough was a bit crumbly, so I had to do some piecing to get it in the pan. And the strips for the lattice topping kept breaking – so rather than fuss with them and risk turning the dough tough, I just arranged them randomly on top of the filling. What the heck: It’s all about “more tasty crust,” and I’m not entering it in the county fair or anything.

Sour Cherry Filling

Ready to pit

Ingredients

  • 1 cup plus 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 3-6 Tbsp cornstarch (depending on how juicy your cherries are
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 5-6 cups of fresh cherries, stemmed and pitted. You want enough to mound a bit in the pie crust, whether or not you’re going to put a top crust on. I like sour pie cherries, but feel free to use your favorite variety; just adjust the sugar and lemon juice to the level of sweetness/tartness you enjoy
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice (for tart cherries) to 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (for sweet cherries)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract OR almond extract, or 1/2 tsp of each
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 Tbsp milk, for glaze

Whisk together 1 cup sugar, cornstarch and salt in a large bowl to blend. Stir in cherries, lemon juice and vanilla/almond extract; set aside.

Preheat oven to 425F.

If you haven’t yet done so, roll out one portion of pie crust and transfer to a pyrex pie pan (you can use the cheap metal ones, but they aren’t as deep and, I think, produce an inferior crust.)

Spoon the cherry mixture into the crust, mounding slightly in the center. Dot with butter. Now you can either

  • Roll out the second disk of dough, cut in strips and make a traditional lattice top crust (here’s a nice little  photographic how-to).
  • Do a standard top crust (don’t forget to cut some vents so the steam can escape)
  • Get creative – use a knife or cookie cutters to  cut shapes from the second sheet of pie crust and lay them on top
  • Leave it open-faced and freeze the other piece of dough for later.

If you do top the pie, finger-crimp the edges together for a tight seal. Brush the top (but not the edges) with a little milk and sprinkle with sugar if you like. To keep the edges from overcooking, I fold a long piece of foil into a narrow collar and wrap it loosely around the rim of the pie; remove it 10 minutes or so before the pie is done.

Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375F and bake until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown, about 1 hour longer. Transfer to a rack (or an unused stove burner) and cool completely. Serve with vanilla (or lemon!) ice cream.

Tart-sweet, with a crisp, tender-flaky crust and the smooth sweetness of ice cream: It tastes like summer to me.

July 10, 2010 at 10:37 am 2 comments

End-of-the-season stews

Autumn harvest still-lifeOur farmers’ market is … diminished. With just three weekends left this season, the number of vendors was down sharply this weekend, filling just half the municipal parking lot where the thing is held. It always makes me a little sad, and fills me with “hurry up and buy stuff before it’s all gone” fervor.

On the bright side, lots of the produce available now keeps well, with a little care. Apples, garlic, hard-skinned winter squash can last for a month or more, unrefrigerated, if you keep them in a cool, well-ventilated place. I’m reminded of the tornado shelter at my grandfather’s north Texas home – I’m not sure he ever used it to shelter from the weather, but his wife called it the root cellar, and stored vegetables and home-canned goods there year-round, because it was dark and cool and dry.

Root cellars have gone out of fashion, but I’ve kept apples for months by wrapping them individually in newsprint and setting them in a big, shallow cardboard box, not too closely crowded and unlidded, down in the garage that occupies half the daylight basement under my 1908 home. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a winter squash go bad on me, even sitting for 5-6 weeks in the basket on my kitchen counter. They’re pretty much built for storage.

This weekend, though, I’m focused on the short term, not the winter ahead. I’m in rehearsals through December, which means I leave the house for work at 7:30 in the morning and don’t get home till after 10 at night. If I don’t spend my Sundays cooking, I’ll spend a whole lot more money than I want to eating during the week. So I’m getting back in the habit of preparing good, hearty dishes that reheat well and lend themselves to portioning into containers I can carry to work for lunch and dinner. I try to come up with strong-flavored dishes, packed with nutrition and taste, so I don’t get bored before the week is over.

Stews serve the purpose – and also lend themselves to slow simmering while I go about my other weekend domestic maintenance.

Here’s what’s on the stove today: A rich autumn stew of pork, winter squash and apples, and a spicy vegetarian chili that’s quick to make and wonderful served over brown basmati rice or homemade cornbread. The first is almost entirely made with food I bought at the market yesterday; the second uses local turtle beans I put on to soak before bed last night, but could just as easily be made with canned black beans. These are both nutritionally dense, low-fat dishes, and easy to adjust to suit your own tastes.

The number of servings depends on how hungry people are and whether you’re serving the stew as a one-pot meal or a dinner course.  It looks like I’ll get 6-7 meal-sized servings from of each pot of autumn goodness. With cornbread and rice, I’m set for the week.

End-of-the-Season Stew

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 acorn squash (or other winter squash of your choice
  • 1 lb lean pork, cut in cubes. Most stew recipes call for pork shoulder; I tend to buy tenderloins (because they’re small enough for one person). But you could just as easily use the meat off a few thick-sliced pork chops. Just trim off most of the fat so you don’t wind up with greasy soup.
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 2-10 cloves of garlic, minced (I’m using a whole head’s worth, but I love garlic and got a lot of it at the market).
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cups good chicken stock
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp minced fresh rosemary (or 1/2tsp. dried)
  • 1 tsp minced fresh sage (or 1/2 tsp dried)
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled (if you want) and cubed
  • 2 large carrots, sliced into discs
  • 2 tart apples, cored and cubed

Method

Preheat oven to 350F. Cut the squash in half; use a spoon to scoop out the seeds surrounding fiber. Oil the cut halves and place the squash cut-side down on a baking sheet. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the skin can be pierced by a fork. Remove from oven, let cool enough to handle; peel off the rind (it will come off easily with your fingers) and cut squash into cubes. This can be done the day before.

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat remaining oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the cubed pork in flour and cook in small batches until browned on all sides. Add the garlic and onion, lower the heat if needed to keep it from scorching, and continue cooking until the onion has softened. Add stock and stir to free any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add salt, rosemary and sage, potatoes and carrots. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add apples and squash. Return to a simmer, then cook, uncovered, until potatoes and apples are tender, about 20 minutes more. Taste, correct seasoning, and serve.

Black Bean Chili

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup applesauce (mine’s homemade)
  • Spices: This is where you get to shine. I like a lot of cumin in my chili, and I like heat; I still have fresh herbs in the garden. You know what you like. If your spice cabinet is modest, a couple of tablespoons of commercial chili powder would work. Here’s (approximately) what I used:
    • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
    • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
    • 1/2 tsp dried ground chipotle pepper
    • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
    • 1 tsp fresh oregano (1 /2 teaspoon dried)
    • 1 tsp fresh rosemary (1/2 teaspoon dried)
    • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (1/4 teaspoon dried)
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 cups black beans, soaked overnight (or two cans of black beans, drained and rinsed)
  • 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste (I’m using my oven-roasted tomato goo)
  • 2 -6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms (optional, but they add a nice heartiness to the dish. I’m using chanterelles)
  • Vegetable stock or water to cover.

Method:

In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, combine the applesauce with all the herbs and spices. Stir until well-blended. Stir in remaining ingredients, adding just enough stock or water to cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it’s not thick enough for your taste, stir in a handful of cornmeal late in the cooking. Serve with cornbread and your favorite chili toppings (chopped onions, grated cheese, sour cream, etc.)

As with most chilis, this is better the second day – and I’ve found the heat doesn’t fully develop until then, so don’t get carried away if it doesn’t seem spicy enough to suit your tastes.

 

November 1, 2009 at 12:39 pm 3 comments

Down from the trees

Plum tartEven though I didn’t get a vegetable garden in this year, I still have some tasty things in my own back yard: Herbs, mostly done for the season; the raspberries I ate half the summer – and now, a good crop of Italian prune plums from the ancient (and, alas, ivy-infested) tree by the back fence.

I’ve eaten my fill of plums straight from the tree, and now it’s time to do some baking. Plum tarts are easy as can be, and pretty to boot. This is a variation on an ongoing theme, using what I had on hand, and absolutely delicious. You could easily substitute your favorite custard for the simple yogurt preparation – or use more plums and pack them into the crust without a custard base at all for a densely fruity tart.

Backyard Plum Tart

Ingredients

  • Pie crust to fill a tart pan. Paté sucree is lovely, but refrigerator-case pie crusts work just fine, too.
  • 6-8 plums, washed, pitted and cut in slices
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • 1/4 cup plus 6 Tbps sugar, divided
  • 3/4 cup plain yogurt, drained*
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp almond flavoring (or vanilla, if you prefer)
  • 2 Tbps butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup apricot preserves (optional, for glaze)

Method

Preheat oven to 400F Roll out pie crust to fit in 13″ tart pan. Prick with a fork and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

While the pie crust is baking, mix 6 Tbsp sugar, ground spices and flour; toss the plum slices in this mixture to coat.

In a bowl, mix drained yogurt, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, egg and flavoring until well blended. Spread on the baked crust. Arrange the spiced plums in concentric circles on top of the yogurt mixture. Drizzle melted butter over the fruit.

Bake for 35-40 minutes until custard is set and the plums are browned and bubbling.

Melt preserves in a small pan and brush over the fruit while still warm.

Serve warm or at room temperature (with or without ice cream!)

* Drained yogurt: Fold a length of cheesecloth and fit inside a strainer, with the excess fabric hanging off the edges. Set strainer over a bowl. Spoon plain yogurt (I like Nancy’s) into the cheese, fold the cheesecloth over the top and put the bowl in the refrigerator to drain for several hours until the yogurt is nice and thick. I often do this with an entire container of yogurt and use the resulting “yogurt cheese” as a tangy substitute for cream cheese.

September 20, 2009 at 7:14 pm Leave a comment

It’s been a rough summer

… but I’m slowly starting to get back my sense of smell. Having learned way more than I ever wanted to know about anosmia, I’m thankful that my doctor’s initial diagnosis – a lingering, low-grade sinus infection left over from an awful cold I had in April and May – appears to have been the right one.

It’s been very little fun being unable to smell – or, really, taste – much of anything. Takes the fun right out of eating and cooking, I tell you; I haven’t even bothered going to the market for the past month.

That said, I do have one just-in-time-for-the-season treat to recommend, courtesy of my friend Lisa, who blogged about it:

Smitten Kitchen’s take on tomato pie

Tomato Pie

Tomato pie

Since I still can’t cook by taste, as is my habit, I made this last week following the recipe to the letter (well, OK, I used my food processor on the biscuit crust, and I did follow the advice of some of her commenters and drained the tomato slices before putting them in the shell, with a layer of cheese on the bottom to help seal against sogginess).

And then I invited a friend over for dinner, because while I knew there was nothing about this recipe I shouldn’t like, and it certainly looked wonderful, I couldn’t tell if it tasted as good as it looked – although the biscuit crust was wonderfully flaky and crisp.

My dinner companion, however, deemed it “fabulous.” And had seconds.

(Don’t be put off by the mayonnaise – it merges with the tomato-corn mixture and – again, according to my friend – isn’t identifiable beyond “yum!”)


During the flavor hiatus, and particularly while on the antibiotics that appear to have killed off the sinus ick, I’ve found myself drinking a lot of Reed’s Extra Ginger Ginger Ale. I’m not much of a soda drinker, but ginger calms my stomach and stimulates my appetite, and Reed’s is pungent enough I could almost taste it.

However, it’s spendy, and the bottles aren’t refundable in Oregon. So I rummaged around my bookmarks and found a recipe for home-made gingerale that I’d been meaning to try.

Since one of the things I like about Reed’s is its citrusy base, I altered the recipe a little and came up with something pretty doggoned tasty, at a fraction of the cost of the bottled stuff. If you’re a ginger fancier, try it out. It’s very refreshing – and it also works as a great base for my favorite warm-weather adult beverage, the Gin Gin Mule.

Home-made Gingerale

Ingredients

  • 1 hand ginger, about 4 inches worth, sliced into 1/8″ disks
  • Juice of 4 Meyer lemons
  • pinch salt
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • Seltzer water

Combine ginger, lemon juice, salt and water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in sugar until it dissolves; allow to cool. Pour into a glass jar and refrigerate.

When you want ginger ale, mix a standard shotglass of the ginger syrup with 1 cup seltzer; serve over ice.

I was a little short on ginger last time I made this, so I substituted an inch or so of galangal I had in my freezer, sliced. It adds a lovely floral zing to the syrup.

September 6, 2009 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

It’s hot …

Marionberries and blueberries… and cooking is the last thing on my mind.

Thank heavens for the farmers’ market, and for that magic moment at the height of summer when all the berries converge.

On Saturday, our market still had strawberries – last of the crop, according to the vendor who had sold out by 11. Raspberries were everywhere, the first fat blueberries had arrived, and one vendor even had early Marionberries. Another had ripe, tart red currants, glowing like rubies. I bought some, though I have no idea what to I’ll do with them.

There were also loads of cherries – this seems to be a bumper year for the cherry crop. I bought a bag of those to take to a barbecue, but I saved the berries for myself, and I’ve been eating them by the handful and the bowlful – mostly just as they are, sometimes with a little cream and (in the case of the Marionberries, which haven’t reached their sweet peak yet) a sprinkle of sugar. I did make an easy cobbler with some of the blueberries this morning, heavy on the berries and light on the sugar. That’s breakfast for the next few days.

I’d live on fruit alone right now if I could, but my body has a protein habit. Finding a way to satisfy that with a minimum of kitchen time can be a challenge. Not so this week; the young fisherman who’s been bringing live crab to market also had smoked tuna loins. I threw together a simple rice-and tuna dish that’s a distant cousin to the tuna noodle casseroles I grew up with. You don’t need a recipe for this kind of thing, just a general method.

Last night, after the coastal breezes blew the heat away, I cooked up a pot of brown Basmati rice and put it in the fridge overnight. This evening, I mixed it with some finely diced onion, fresh peas, and about half of the tuna, shredded with my fingers. To boost the smokey flavor, I crumbled up an ounce or so of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue cheese, mixed that in with the tuna and rice. The zest and juice of half a lemon and a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise to keep everything moist, a sprinkle of parmesan and half an hour in a 350 oven and I’ve got dinner (and a couple of days worth of lunch).

These are the kinds of dishes summer calls for: things you can throw together quickly, filling but not heavy, and full of flavor. Not to mention endlessly adaptable. No peas? Dice up some summer squash, or broccoli, or whatever you find at the market. No rice? Use pasta. Trying to watch the fat content? Moisten the casserole with stock instead of mayonnaise.

And then have berries for dessert.

July 5, 2009 at 6:49 pm Leave a comment

Adventures in dairy

Adventures in dairy

Dairy trio

“When denatured in acid conditions, with relatively little casein around, as in cheese whey, lactoglobulin molecules … bind to each other and coagulate into little clots, which can be made into whey cheeses like true ricotta.” – Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

I’ve been having a week of dairy experiments. It all started with a pint of heavy cream bought as a treat for guests who take their coffee light (I take mine black). They didn’t use much of it, so I decided to use the rest to make créme fraîche, that thick, tangy, cultured cream that’s far superior to sour cream in almost any use.

It’s as easy as can be: Heat a pint or so of cream until steam rises from the surface and bubbles form around the edge, stir in a few tablespoons of cultured buttermilk, pour it into a glass jar and let it sit on the counter, loosely covered, until it’s thick (roughly overnight). Refrigerated, créme fraîche keeps for a week to 10 days, and can be substituted for sour cream in virtually any use; it also makes a superior base for cream sauces, because the culturing prevents it from separating and curdling when heated. And it’s lovely on a biscuit, with just a dab of jam.

However, that meant buying buttermilk, which around here comes in nothing smaller than a quart container. I don’t drink buttermilk. I do bake with it (buttermilk biscuits are wonderful!), but I wasn’t in a baking mood.

So I decided to experiment, and that led me to ponder the wonders of milk and milk products, and how the same basic ingredients, treated differently, can produce remarkably different results.

I could write a treatise on the subject, but I’d rather point readers to Harold McGee and his fascinating book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” First published in 1984 and revised in 2004, McGee’s is not a recipe book, but it’s the text for the cook who wants to know why and how food behaves the way it does, from “why do beans cause intestinal distress” to “why can’t I make a decent meringue on a stormy day?” And the very first chapter is all about milk.

In short, McGee tells us that how milk behaves in cooking is based on its complex chemistry of microscopic fat globules and protein bundles, along with dissolved salts and sugars, vitamins, minerals such as bone-building calcium, and other compounds suspended in the water that makes up most of the fluid. The most important components to cooking are fat, protein and milk sugar, or lactose. (I’m among the majority of adults who no longer produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, and am grateful for the over-the-counter tablets that allow me to enjoy dairy products without unfortunate consequences).

A serendipitous aspect of milk is its relationship with a friendly little bacteria known as Lactobacillus. The bacteria renders milk slightly acidic, which helps keep it from spoiling – but it can also be introduced to fresh milk to increase the acid level and create cultured milk products such as yogurt and fresh cheeses.

I’d like to say a word here for whole milk, and against the reduced-fat varieties that threaten to crowd it out of the supermarket dairy cases. Drink 2 percent or skim milk if you must, but understand that cooking with it will produce inferior results. The *behavior* of milk in cooking depends to a large degree on its fat component, and how the tiny globules of fat suspended in the liquid interact with other ingredients. Among other things, McGee points out, “Interactions between fat globules and milk proteins are … responsible for the remarkable tolerance of milk and cream to heat.” A sauce made with cream can be simmered and reduced to velvet smoothness; make the same sauce using low-fat milk and it’s likely to curdle and develop a grainy texture.

Enough chemistry. On with the buttermilk cooking. My little Donvier ice cream freezer has been sitting empty in the freezer for far too long, and the notion of buttermilk ice cream seemed appealing. I had a bunch of lemons in the fridge. So I tweaked my standard ice cream base recipe to come up with:

Buttermilk-Lemon Ice Cream

Ingredients:

  • Juice and zest of one large, well-scrubbed lemon
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 large egg yolks

Method:

In a small, non-reactive saucepan, combine lemon juice, half the sugar, and the finely grated lemon zest. Heat over medium-low heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Take off heat and allow to cool.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the buttermilk, cream and remaining sugar. Heat until steam rises from the surface and tiny bubbles appear at the edge of the pan, stirring occasionally to keep the bottom of the pan from scorching. Remove from heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until well-blended. Keep whisking and slowly drizzle in about a cup of the hot milk mixture to warm the eggs. Pour yolk mixture back into the saucepan of milk, return it to the burner on medium-low heat, and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture has thickened slightly.

Strain into a bowl and place in a bowl of ice water to cool. Once cooled, whisk in the lemon syrup and stir well. Transfer to ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes about a quart of tangy, lemony ice cream that reminds me of lemon cheesecake. I can’t wait for strawberry season so I can try this again topped with fresh local berries!

I still had just over two cups of buttermilk remaining. What to do, what to do? A friend recently described a method for making home-made ricotta cheese, using lemon juice to acidify the milk and transform it into curds and whey. Hm. Buttermilk is acidic, too. Google revealed several recipes for buttermilk ricotta. Oh, hell, yes.

This is so easy you’ll wonder why you never tried it before:

Buttermilk ricotta

Ingredients:

  • Four parts whole milk, or part-skim milk plus cream. Do not used ultra-pasteurized milk products for this recipe; the prolonged heating of the pasteurization process will prevent it from making curds. Reduced-fat milk will curdle, but it won’t produce enough cheese to bother with.
  • One part cultured buttermilk
  • Pinch of salt

Method:

Have ready a large bowl and a strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth. (Have you tried to find cheesecloth in a supermarket lately? I couldn’t – so I used a Handiwipe ™ having run it through the washing machine to get rid of the fragrance the manufacturer insists on adding to the things. Worked like a charm.)

In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, combine all ingredients and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly until the milk begins to steam and curds start to form. Stop stirring, but continue heating until the mixture reaches 175F and has formed fine curds. Remove from heat and pour carefully into the cloth-lined strainer. Allow to drain until most of the whey is drained off, then gather up the curds in the cloth and hang it from the faucet, or from a spoon laid over a bowl, to continue draining until it’s as dry as you want it. Pack into a clean refrigerator container. Keeps as long as commercial ricotta, but tastes sooooo much better.

The amount this makes depends on a lot of variables – the fat content of the whole milk, the acidity of the buttermilk, and other factors that are hard to judge in advance. I used a pint of buttermilk to two quarts of whole milk, and got almost two cups of cheese – enough for the artichoke-and-pea lasagne I plan to make tomorrow night.

What about all that whey? I confess that I tossed it, but there’s still a good deal of food value there, and I’ve used it before to enrich home-made soups, or to substitute for water in bread recipes.

These recipes would be even better with fresh, whole, local milk. Midway Farms, on Highway 20 between Albany and Corvallis, sometimes carries local milk. I’ve also heard that several local farms offer fresh goat’s milk, which also makes a nice ricotta, but I haven’t investigated.

Four weeks till the Albany Farmers’ Market opens!

March 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm 6 comments

Cooking from the larder

Two months till the farmers’ market opens for the season, and I’m in “OK, time to start polishing off the things I put in the freezer last fall” mode. Including, this week, a 4-pound boneless pork shoulder from Wood Family Farms.

Four pounds is a lot of pork roast for one person. But pork shoulder is a lovely cut. More fatty than the overrated tenderloin, but slow-roasting melts most of the fat away, basting the meat as it goes and leaving a tender, flavorful meat that’s not only lovely on its own – with a side of potatoes, perhaps, and some of the remarkably cheap California asparagus that’s been showing up in Safeway – but also useful in wonderful second- and third-day meals that turn the word “leftovers” into something magical. Cuban pork sandwiches, for instance, or a hearty, spicy New World stew.

Slow-roasted Pork Shoulder

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 pound boneless pork shoulder.
  • Rub:
    • 2 Tbsp mustard seeds
    • 2Tbsp cumin seeds
    • 2 Tbsp black peppercorns
    • 1 Tbsp garlic powder
    • 1 Tbsp kosher salt
    • 4 Tbsp brown sugar

Method:

Make the rub by grinding together the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns and salt. I keep an old electric coffee grinder for grinding spices; a food processor or mortar and pestle will do, too. Mix in the brown sugar.

Rinse the pork roast and pat dry. Turn the fatty side up and use a sharp knife to score it in a diamond pattern, making sure the cuts go clear through the fat and into the meat.

Using your hands, pat the rub firmly all over the pork, bottom side first; turn it over and massage the rub deeply into the cuts in the fat (the salt content will help draw moisture away from the surface and create a nice crust.) Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate from 3 hours to overnight.

When ready to cook, remove the roast from the refrigerator, take off the plastic wrap and place the meat on a rack in a roasting pan. Pour a little water in the bottom of the pan to prevent smoking, and cover the pan with aluminum foil Let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Roast, covered, for two hours; then remove the foil and continue roasting for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until an instant-read thermometer inserted at the thickest point of the roast reads 170F. Remove from oven; let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Cuban-Style Pork Sandwiches

Now, that's what I call a sandwich.It’s been years since I had a real Cuban sandwich, bought from a stand-up roadside joint in Florida. I have no idea if this is authentic, but it’s the result of a good deal of Googling and some experimentation that led to the flavors I remember. I’m told that in Cuba, the mojo would be made with the juice of sour oranges, which aren’t available here, but lime juice is terrific.

Ingredients

  • Roast pork, sliced thinly.
  • Onions, sliced thinly
  • Hearty bread or Panini-style rolls, split. You want bread that’s substantial enough to stand up to the juiciness of the filling; I’d just made a loaf of the infamous New York Times no-knead bread, and it was perfect.
  • Mojo sauce (see below)
  • Butter

Mojo sauce

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • Juice of a lime

Method

In a very small saucepan, combine olive oil and garlic. Heat till oil is bubbling, then reduce heat to a slow simmer. Cook 10-15 minutes until garlic is golden and soft. Stir in cumin and lime juice. Remove from heat.

Making the sandwiches

Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet. Add onions and sautee until they begin to soften. Add thinly sliced pork and stir until the meat is hot.

Brush both halves of a roll or two slices of bread generously with Mojo sauce. Pile meat on one slice of bread or half a roll; top with sauteed onions and the second piece of bread/roll

Wipe skillet clean and return to burner. Add a small amount of butter and heat till melted. Grill the sandwiches, pressing down with a spatula and turning when one side is done, until golden brown. Serve with beer and lots of napkins.

New World Pork and Pumpkin Stew

New World StewI had a lone sugar pumpkin left from my last market trip in the fall; stored in the cool basement, it’s kept well but I noticed a spot of mold forming on the skin and decided it was use it or lose it. Google turned up a number of recipes combining pork and pumpkin, many of them Thai or Burmese, along with an interesting-sounding stew that contained ingredients I’m not crazy about (turnips) or didn’t have on hand (kale). Improv time! I went for flavors native to the Americas, and what resulted was easy, relatively quick (as compared to starting from raw pork) and extremely tasty. That’ll be lunch for most of the week.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs roast pork, cubed. If there are fatty bits, render them to substitute for:
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp crushed dried red pepper (I used some peppers I bought at the market last year and threaded on heavy thread to dry. Hot, but not too incendiary).
  • 1 cup good vegetable or chicken stock (from the freezer)
  • New potatoes, scrubbed but with the peel left on, cut into bite-sized pieces to make about 1 cup
  • 1 small pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut in 1–inch chunks
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, drained.
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Put oil or rendered pork fat in the bottom of a heavy, lidded pot or dutch oven. Heat and add onions and garlic; cook until golden brown. Stir in the cumin and chiles. Add the cubed pork, and cook, stirring, till thoroughly heated (if you roasted the pork with a rub, the yummy browned crust will come off and incorporate into the onion/garlic/spice mixture. This is a feature, not a bug). Remove meat to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Add potatoes and pumpkin to the pot. Stir to mix well with spices and onion. Add stock; bring to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes or so, until vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes and pork, stir well, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes to combine the flavors.

Like most good stews, this one’s even better the second day. Serve with a green salad and hearty bread.

February 15, 2009 at 7:54 pm 1 comment

Winter food: Apples and sweet potatoes

Apples and baby sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes, apples, etc.

It’s turning out to be a busy January for me. Between work and play rehearsals, I have little time to cook most evenings, so I try to find time on the weekends to make two or three good-sized dishes I can reheat through the week to keep me from resorting to drive-through meals.

This weekend it’s a pair of roasted pork tenderloins and a hearty, aromatic side dish of apples and baby sweet potatoes that isn’t much different in preparation from good old apple crisp, except that it’s considerably less sweet. I use about one part sweet potatoes to three parts apple, but you can adjust the proportions to suit your own tastes.

Have you tried baby sweet potatoes? I first encountered them last winter, and was glad to see them at the supermarket again this year. Like most “baby” vegetables, they aren’t immature, they’re just a pint-sized variety of their bigger cousins. I love them; well-scrubbed, rubbed with a little oil and tossed in a hot oven, they roast up in under 30 minutes. Or try this recipe for salt-crusted baby sweet potatoes – delicious!

The bags I buy include both the sweet, creamy red varieties and their less-sweet yellow cousins (yes, these are both sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, not yams. True yams are members of the Dioscorea family, and aren’t much found outside of South America). They are not, alas, local – they come from California – but the apples were!

Apple and Sweet Potato Crunch

Ingredients

  • 3 Granny Smith apples, or other tart variety, peeled, cored, cut in half-inch thick chunks
  • 5-6 baby sweet potatoes, or 1 (peeled) regular-sized sweet potato, cut like the apples.
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
  • 1/2 cup uncooked steel-cut oats (or regular old rolled oats, as long as they aren’t the instant kind)
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp each of cinnamon and allspice
  • a dash of cloves
  • a dash of nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp of high-quality candied ginger (try Trader Joe’s Ginger Chips if you can find them!), chopped
  • 1/4 cup butter, cut in small pieces

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F. Place apples and sweet potatoes in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Mix remaining ingredients except for butter, and toss half of that mixture with the apple-sweet potato mixture. Place in a baking dish – shallow or deep, it’s your choice, and sprinkle the rest of the spicy oat mixture evenly over the top. Dot with butter.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the apples and potatoes are fork-tender and juice is bubbling up. Serve hot, as a side dish – or as a not-too-sweet dessert with cream or ice cream on top.

January 11, 2009 at 8:38 pm Leave a comment

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