Monday, June 21, 2010

Early Summer Pico de Gallo: A CSA Study

This month our CSA has started again! It is so much fun to go pick up fresh vegetables every week - I really missed having a refrigerator crowded with local produce over the winter. While the first couple of weeks are generally loaded with greens, we ended up with some lovely spring onions this week, so I thought I'd use them in a pico de gallo.

Generally, my pico de gallo recipe consists of fresh tomatoes, red onion, garlic, cilantro or basil, and salt and pepper. Maybe a jalepeno if there's one lying around, but otherwise very simple. With these spring onions on hand, I decided to play with the flavors a bit and use them instead of the red onions.

We also got garlic scapes in the CSA - the flavorful part of the garlic plant that can be found for just a few weeks a year (before the flower moves all the way up the stem and/or the farmer cuts off the scape). Instead of the garlic cloves I usually use, I thought I'd just use the scape for a little bit of a brighter flavor.

In addition to the usual cilantro, I threw in a few leaves of mint to change things up a bit, since I got a ton of it in the CSA as well. One thing I learned in the cooking classes I took two years ago was the classic mantra "what grows together goes together." The tomatoes may have been a little off-season, but everything else had not only grown together, but grown together on the same farm. And what do you know, the mantra was right and this pico was absolutely delicious!

Early Summer Pico de Gallo

2 tomatoes, diced
6-8 spring onions, diced
1 teaspoon of garlic scapes, minced
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
2-3 mint leaves, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients. Taste for salt and pepper, and add a dash of hot sauce if you'd like a spicier dish. It is best to let the pico de gallo meld in the fridge for a couple of hours before serving.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Summer Reading

It will come as no surprise that I enjoy reading books about cooking. I do try to break it up a bit, but most of the books I've read in the past year have something to do with food. I recently picked up the book Lunch in Paris, by Elizabeth Bard, taglined "A Love Story, with Recipes." Totally up my alley, but I was definitely worried about the cheese factor.

There are a lot of these "love stories with recipes" books out these days, so many that I've been starting to cringe a little bit (though I read them all). I am embarrassed to admit how much I loved the enormously cheesy Cooking with Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser, mostly because of her writing skills; The Sharper your Knife, the Less you Cry by Kathleen Flinn was endlessly fascinating, and I thought one of the better looks into culinary school that I've read about; Under the Table, by Katherine Darling was pretty terrible, on the other hand.

The thing about these books is that there are so many different aspects to love or hate. Some have terrible writing, but delicious recipes, others include a great love story but lackluster food. While the story was kind of so-so (and I have to say, I wasn't a huge fan of Ms. Bard herself), Lunch in Paris stole the show with its recipes. I would speed read through the chapters, dying to get to the recipes at the end of each one, drooling over ingredients and making notes on methods. Before I even finished the book, I was in the kitchen.

The first thing I made was her Coucous salad, spun out of a chapter on how French women stay thin (and how she tried to emulate the eating habits of her French mother-in-law). This is a light but filling lunch, and it stays extremely fresh and tasty throughout the week. (I pushed it to cover 1 1/2 weeks of lunches to bring to work...) The recipe makes a lot, so I would halve it if you are just making it for yourself, but for a picnic lunch with a group this is ideal. Plus, I found myself even eating it for breakfast it was so good! Don't skip any ingredients until you've made it once before - the way the flavors come together is just perfect.

Summer Couscous Salad
Adapted from Elizabeth Bard, Lunch in Paris

2 cups couscous
2 cups flat leafed parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh mint or basil, finely chopped
4 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
3/4 cup olive oil
juice of 1 1/2 grapefruits
juise of one lemon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
freshly ground black pepper to taste
extra lemon or grapefruit juice, squeezed fresh on top before serving

1. Put couscous in a large bowl and add 1 cup boiling water. Stir and let sit while you chop the vegetables.
2. Whisk together olive oil, grapefruit and lemon juices, and salt.
3. When the couscous has cooled off, fluff with a fork and sift with your hands. Toss in all of the vegetables and herbs. Stir in the dressing and season with spices to taste. Serve cold.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Cookbook Therapy and Rhubarb Cake

Last week, the Sunday paper ran a review of all the stand out new cookbooks coming out this summer. I was positively drooling over each review, and trying to narrow it down to only three purchases was utterly impossible. Of course, I came home and took one look at my cookbook shelf and reluctantly threw away my list. I have way, way too many cookbooks - many which sit for months without my so much as glancing at them. In these days of food blogging, I end up getting about half the recipes I make online, leaving all but my three or four favorite cookbooks practically gathering dust.

This had to change. I absolutely love cooking from my cookbooks - making notes in them, re-reading them to discover new recipes, pulling sticky pages apart and oogling over the beautiful photos. I wanted to get back into cooking from my cookbooks, and enjoying it. So, I've set a new goal for the summer. One by one, I'm going to focus on a cookbook, making at least three recipes from it. I think this will help me get a better sense of the recipes that I have sitting right in my kitchen, and maybe it will even help me clean out my shelves (hey, three duds will just have mean the recycle bin for some of these). Then, eventually, I'll allow myself to add a few new ones to the stock.

I started with the wonderful cookbook Hollyhocks & Radishes, by Bonnie Stewart Mickelson. My grandmother gave it to me for my birthday this year, as it has been a favorite of hers and my moms for years. Mickelson had a summer home on the Michigan shore, cooking with many local fruits and vegetables for her large family, so the recipes are all fresh and seasonal, with that wonderful family feel to them. Without the flashy pictures of cookbooks these days, it could easily be passed over at the bookstore, but it really shouldn't.

The first recipe I made was the Rhubarb cake. I made it twice, and ended up adapting it a fair amount, first to put it in a loaf rather than a bundt pan, and then adding some whole wheat flour to make it a little bit more rustic. The flavors are wonderful, and I've found it to be a perfect spring coffee cake. Don't be put off by the rhubarb - it creates a lovely sweetness that balances the cinnamon well.

Rhubarb Cake
Adapted from Bonnie Stewart Mickelson, Hollyhocks & Radishes

1 cup finely chopped rhubarb (about 2 large stalks)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, separated
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick butter, softened
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a loaf pan and line with parchment paper.
2. Combine rhubarb with 1 tablespoon sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.
3. Sift together flours, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.
4. Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then oil, lemon juice and vanilla.
5. Fold 1/3 of the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Stir in half the milk, then half of the remaining dry ingredients, followed by the remainder of the milk and finally the remainder of the dry ingredients.
6. Put about a third of the batter into the loaf pan. Spread half the rhubarb on top. Repeat and finish with remaining third of batter.
7. Bake for one hour, or until cake is set in the middle.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Diner's Journal

Is everyone else as obsessed as I am with the re-vamped Diner's Journal blog from the New York Times? They recently combined it with Mark Bittman's and Eric Asimov's blogs, and added some fantastic new features. My favorite is Dear FloFab, where Florence Fabricant answers questions about dining etiquette. I've always liked her writing, but had no idea she was such an expert on things like what to do if your waiter takes away your plate but others are still eating, or whether you have to open and serve a bottle of wine that someone brings to your dinner party. She has such great advice!

Just a few days ago they added another feature, which is quickly hitting FloFab status in my book: Hey, Mr. Critic!, where the food critic Sam Sifton gives advice on restaurants to go to. His lighthearted writing is perfect for these quick responses in blog format, and he's actually been posting quite a lot!

Of course, there are also wonderful posts from all of your favorite Times writers, and they update fairly frequently. The only thing I haven't quite figured out yet is how to make sure I don't get sneak previews of the articles in the Wednesday Dining section, obviously one of the highlights of my week. Oh well, I'm sure I'll get the hang of it soon! Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Cookin' Lobstah

Wright and I had the house in Maine to ourselves this weekend so we decided to be adventurous and cook up some live lobsters. I'd been eagerly anticipating this activity for a few weeks, excited to try something so drastically different from anything I'd done before. I pictured us cheerfully picking out the liveliest lobsters at the pound, laughing as we had lobster races around the kitchen, and gleefully popping them into the pots, only to pull out beautiful, bright, red dinners.

For some reason, it hadn't occurred to me to be all that nervous. I'm not exactly someone who thinks lobsters are cute, nor did I have any real issues with the killing factor. I loved the farm-to-table idea, and pictured a rather idyllic time as we listened to the ocean crashing outside the window, thinking about how these guys were out there just that morning.

This was not, I repeat not how it went. The minute the man at the lobster place put our two lobsters into our pot, I panicked. And not just silly, oh-boy-they-are-really-moving-in-there panicked, but full on went white and felt my entire body start to shake as I grabbed the pot. I walked about two feet out the door, felt something move and started screaming for Wright.

He, of course, could not have found this funnier if he tried. He immediately staged a photo-op in the parking lot while I tried my hardest not to cry and/or drop the pot and run. There was something so creepy about having these live crustaceans in the back of the car... at one point I literally put my feet up on my seat, imagining them escaping and crawling under the chair to attack me.

One thing I forgot when I was thinking about how non-cute they are was how ugly and scary they are! When Wright pulled them out of the bag I felt like I was six years old - they were big and black with all sorts of arms and legs and pinchers and feelers and they were moving like crazy. Literally, going nuts (which apparently is a good thing - you know they are not only fresh but healthy). My earlier excitement was long gone as I watched Wright try to control the two lobsters as they flapped their tails vigorously. Again, he only found this funny and proceeded to chase me around the kitchen, until I finally ran into the bathroom, closed the door and locked it.
All plans of back-rubbing, freezing, cutting through the head between the eyes, etc. were completely out of question as I barely completed my role as Official Pot Lid Slammer. Wright put the wriggling lobsters into the pots of boiling water and I immediately slammed on the lids. Voila! Look at me go! Thank goodness there were no screams from the pots and barely any movements. Larry and Linda Lobster R.I.P.

To settle down, I quickly set out to make guacamole and set the table. My shaking hands were visible and I was called out for being a complete and utter wuss many, many times. But that's okay. When we pulled the lobsters out about 15 minutes later, they were absolutely gorgeous. We ate with excitement, and the taste of the fresh lobsters was indescribable - even with all of the disastrous stress levels during the cooking (that, let's be honest, took years off my life), there was something so cool about this dinner. And we could taste it.

To boil live lobsters, pick them up right before you are going to eat them. If you are near Ogunquit, Maine, we'd recommend Brass Plum Farm, right on Route One. We got two 1 1/2 pound lobsters. Fill the pot(s) up about a third of the way with water and a lot of salt, and bring to a hard boil. Place lobsters in, lid(s) on, and let boil for about fifteen minutes (longer if they are bigger lobsters). Serve with melted butter, lemon, and celery salt. Wash down with a Maine beer and enjoy by the ocean.

Fresh Berry Scones

I have an announcement to make: I have discovered a scone recipe. A scone recipe that is out of this world - crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and not too difficult to make. Scones are one of those pastries that usually allude me. Often hard as rocks or unbearably buttery, I rarely find a scone that doesn't disappoint, whether from my own kitchen or purchased at a bakery. But I am thrilled to have found a perfect recipe.

The key to this recipe is grating frozen butter. Sounds strange, but it works like a charm. It makes it to much easier to incorporate the butter into the flour (no exhausting pinching until you get pea-sized chunks - just a simple stir with your hand) and the butter ends up distributing very well, making for a moist but not too buttery scone.

When I told Wright that I was bringing scones up for breakfasts in Maine, he promptly inquired as to what, exactly, a scone is. In my mind it should be somewhere between a muffin and bread, both cookie-like and cake-like, but not too sweet. They are leavened with baking powder, like many sweet pastries, but the dough and process feels closer to making bread. There is a brief and uncomplicated folding and rolling situation included in this recipe that at first looks daunting but couldn't be simpler.

I was lucky enough to have some leftover strawberries that I picked up at the market last weekend, so I chopped those up along with blueberries for the filling. The neat thing about scones is how endless the possibilities are - think cinnamon scones, currant scones, orange chocolate chip, pistachio... anything you have! These fruits turned out to be perfect for Memorial Day weekend - fresh and summery, the scones were a perfect way to start out mornings in Maine after a refreshing walk on the beach.

And the best part? They can be made ahead and frozen, which is how I brought them up to Maine. Freeze the scones unbaked (but cut into their triangle shapes) and bake right from the freezer. Just brush on some melted butter, sprinkle a little sugar on top and pop in the oven. If you're simply making them a day ahead, you can also just stick the unbaked scones into the refrigerator and do the same the next morning.
Fresh Berry Scones
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Makes 8-10 scones

1 stick of butter, frozen
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting surface
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup blueberries
1/2 cup strawberries, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Sugar, for dusting

1. Grate frozen butter and place in refrigerator until needed. Note: it is easier to grate two halves of whole sticks of butter, so that you have something to hold onto while grating.
2. Whisk together milk and sour cream in a small bowl and set aside until needed.
3. Whisk flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and lemon zest in a large bowl. Mix in grated butter with your hand, gently until evenly distributed.
4. Add milk and sourcream mixture, stir with a wooden spoon until it comes together, then dump onto floured work surface. Knead a few times with your hand until you have a large ball of dough.
5. Spread dough out, using your hands or a rolling pin, into a 12- to 14-inch square. Fold bottom third onto middle third and then top third onto middle third (as if you are stuffing a business envelope). Then fold two side into the middle. Place in refrigerator for 5 minutes.
6. Roll out dough again into a 12- to 14-inch square, and sprinkle blueberries and strawberries all over the square, pressing them lightly into the dough with your hands. Starting from the bottom, roll the dough up to the top, until it forms a log. Pat down the log a little bit, so that it ends up 12- to 14-inches long and maybe about 4- to 5-inches wide.
7. Using a pastry cutter or knife, slice out scones in triangles.
8. To bake immediately, brush melted butter on top and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 425 degrees for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown all over. To freeze, place on a tray or plate in the freezer overnight, then transfer the frozen scones into a plastic bag to keep for longer. Bake them the same way, but for more like 20-22 minutes.