Friday, March 23, 2012

it's a curd to me

It’s a birthday again around here, and this one has all the markings of what my mother likes to call a Polish Festival. She had a good friend when I was little who was a Polish doctor, and he clued us in to a host of Polish customs whenever he visited, among them the general principle that one quality that a Pole likes in his holiday is that it goes on and on. “And then on the third day, we dance a little and eat this kind of pastry...” That sort of thing. So in our house growing up, any holiday that had to be celebrated multiple times, say to accommodate both marking the actual date of birth and again later on, to include some key relative who had been absent at the original celebration, became known as a Polish Festival. This was said with the utmost respect for all persons of Polish extraction, not least because we all like to have a reason to eat cake twice and get more presents and would gladly honor anyone who suggests we formalize it into a strategy.

The present birthday has all the makings of a first-rate Polish Festival, as her birthday party isn’t happening for another two weeks. In preparation, a large amount of dessert must be prepared because it is a big party and one that is kind of focused on dessert, much like the birthday girl herself. Now that I am inching off of my sick-bed, I am going to be making lots of little sweeties and sticking them in the freezer, so you may hear a little more about dessert than usual. I'll try to keep a few vegetables in the mix, for fiber and so forth.

As for my continued ill health and how sorry I am feeling for my sad, miserable little self, I am glad you asked. I continue to feel very sorry for myself, mainly because I am coughing so much that the muscles in my earlobes are sore. Thank you for the folk remedy for coughing that you are about to suggest to me, and rest assured I have already tried it, and apparently it does not apply in this case. I just cough and cough, like a Victorian heroine, but with less interesting clothes (can't say the corset would me much of a boon to the proceedings anyway). And I am as sleepless as the mother of a newborn, but without any of the perks of having a baby around.

Oh, enough already. It’s just a cough.

In happier news, I have a LOT of lemons.

When I tried to stick to a 100-mile diet a few years ago, and had to pick the one exception food that each of us were to be allowed, I was hard-pressed to choose between lemons and olive oil. In fact, that was what basically scuttled the whole enterprise, because despite all my bullying none of the little children would use their credit for me. Olive oil is a given, and there is just nothing like a lemon (even sumac, as it turns out--I really tried).

I have just learned that there is absolutely nothing on earth like a really good lemon, one that reaches you 72 hours after being picked, sun-ripe, from the tree of someone who loves you enough to mail you four boxes of lemons. I want to eat these lemons like apples. They are brazenly lemonesque, curvy and fragrant and round and juicy and nearly seedless. You know that scene in Atlantic City where Susan Sarandon stands by her kitchen window and rubs lemons on her elbows? OK. That’s what I’m saying.

Lemon curd is one of the best things I know to do with lemons when you have a bunch of them, and it freezes well so you can make one episode of preparing it last and last. The birthday girl likes to pretend it is pudding and eat it with a spoon, but here are some other things that you can do with it:

1. Spoon it into a tart shell or a meringue, and put blueberries on top, or any other berry, for that matter.

2. Fold it into whipped cream and call it mousse.

3. Use it to flavor a plain buttercream.

4. Serve it with scones.

You could also rub it on your elbows, I guess, but if you do, stay away from the windows.

Rose Levy Berenbaum, author of The Cake Bible, was the one who freed me from the double boiler and the idea that lemon curd was tricky or difficult. Revolutionary. But her recipe uses egg yolks only, and I think that makes the lemon curd taste funny, a little metallic and a little like a wet cat smells. Not very appealing, I think you will agree.

Whole eggs are the answer.

To pull this crazy simple recipe off, you have to have a fine mesh strainer on hand, just FYI. The silkiness of the end result depends on it, and this is all about silkiness.

You probably already know these other two things, but I will go ahead and say that (1) a microplane makes the zesting of lemons a simple delight, and helps you forget the thing you used to have to do with a box grater and a toothpick or some parchment paper, and (2) you can freeze lemon zest, just plop it in a jar or plastic container and freeze it, for instant access to lemony bliss when you are baking but sadly out of lemons.

lemon curd

makes about two cups

1 1/3 cups sugar
4 eggs

3 T lemon zest (about 3 lemons)
1 cup fresh lemon juice (about four lemons)
1 ½ sticks butter, cut in 1” bits

Have a fine mesh strainer over a medium bowl near your stove.

In a heavy saucepan, whisk together the eggs and sugar. The sugar will protect the eggs from curdling when you add the lemon juice. Now whisk in the lemon juice and zest, and then throw in the butter. Cook over low to medium heat, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon, until the mixtures thickens and pales and nicely coats the back of the spoon. Keep it from boiling--if it begins to threaten boiling, raise the pot up off the burner while you turn down the flame--but otherwise do not fret about how thing are going at all, as long as you keep stirring.

When it reaches spoon-coating thickness (it will continue to thicken as it cools, so that’s as far as you need to take it), immediately dump it into the waiting strainer and force it through. All manner of eggy nubbins and lemon parts will stay behind in the strainer, and you should have a lovely, satiny curd in the bowl--unless you did not believe me about the fine mesh strainer and tried to get by with something else.

If you want little flecks of yellow zestiness to perk things up visually, you can stir in another few scrapings of zest at this point.

You’re done. It will keep a week or more in the fridge, and well longer than that in the freezer, and there is a raging debate over whether or not you need to put buttered parchment right on the surface to better preserve it or not, and I say you don’t.

If you'd like to upgrade the lemon curd even further, see here for some wild and sexy additions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

topsy turvy

I have wanted to tell you about this cake since last week, but I have faced a number of obstacles. One, it's supposed to be a rhubarb cake, and the rhubarb is not up yet. Two, my son had the chicken pox. Three, I myself have been just as sick as a dog. I had a workaround for the first problem, as you can see, but nothing but time could address the other two.

In case you are wondering if I am bandying about that expression--“sick as a dog”-- with no serious foundational understanding to back it up, let me reassure you. This was a week which saw my older daughter, my son, myself and one of our actual dogs in the throes of some illness or another, and though our complaints differ it is the dog whom I feel I most closely resembled at the low point. He had one of those epic nights other dog-owners may be familiar with, the ones titled “Upon Reflection, I Probably Should Not Have Eaten That Thing I Found,” and someone could have made their fortune by setting up a camera to capture the raw comedic power of a person in their sleeping attire learning, at 3 am, that the dog crate will not fit through the sliding door onto the porch, but the dog will--and he will also fit through the porch railing onto the second-floor slanted metal roof, off of which, still making the ‘hooka-hooka’ pre-hurling noise, he will try to jump while you manhandle the crate that is corking the door that separates you from him and the possibility of convincing him that life is full and rich and well worth living.

But I think we may have slid off the topic. (The dog, please note, did not slide off the roof).

Cake! Rhubarb cake! Once the first little croci and daffodils begin poking their heads up here, I start getting excited for rhubarb. As fruity as it may seem, rhubarb is in fact a vegetable, one that is not native to these parts (it originated in China as a potent medicinal) but has been cultivated here since the early 19th century. It has the distinction of being one of the first local foods to come into season, so I think it deserves its own holiday.

Judging by the nubbin pictured above, we have a few weeks yet to plan the party, but we can do some pre-season warm-up by trying the cake out with something else in its place.

The cake isn’t very hard to master. It is stupendously simple, in fact, and a great cake to have up your sleeve even when your life is right side-up. On its own it is a very tasty layer cake if you bump into a birthday cake emergency, and a tweak here and there will give you, for example, a lemon-poppyseed cake. But like most of us, its true mettle is revealed when life turns it upside down.

A few notes. Lacking rhubarb, but suddenly rich with lemons, I went with a mixture of those and oranges, but you could substitute apples or pears just as easily. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is ideal here, as it is ideal in many other applications. Mine is 10” in diameter and suits the quantities perfectly and I think everyone should have one, so much do I rely on it.

It helps in the magical process of mixing the batter to have the ingredients for the cake at room temperature, or at least not ice-box cold. Finally, I have made this with a gluten-free flour blend and not minded the outcome, so you could consider that, too.

upside down cake

4 T butter (half a stick)

about 6 stalks rhubarb, sliced into 1/2" slices, or enough of some other sliced fruit to cover the interior of your pan

4-5T light brown sugar

1 ½ c flour

¼ c golden flax meal or almond meal (or equivalent amount of flour)

3/4 c sugar

1 ½ t baking powder

½ t baking soda

pinch salt

½ c buttermilk

¼ c milk

1 egg

2t vanilla

1 stick butter, soft

possibly a scrape or two of lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350.

In a cast iron skillet, melt the 4T butter until foamy. Sprinkle the sugar as evenly as possible over the butter and continue to heat a minute or two, until it is mostly melted (not all of it will be). Remove from heat. Sprinkle the rhubarb slices (or arrange the fruit slices) evenly over this mixture--you should have one flat layer covering all of the sugar. Don't stir.

Put all the remaining ingredients in a bowl (a kitchen aid/stand mixer is ideal); first the dry, then the wet. Mix on low speed until everything is combined, then mix at medium high speed until the batter is uniformly fluffy (1-2minutes). Glop the batter over the rhubarb mixture and gently even it out as best you can, trying not to disturb the fruit layer. It is pretty remarkable how messy a job of this you can do and still have it come out OK--it smooths out quite a lot as it bakes. Bake until cake tests done in center (30 min or so). Cool a few minutes in the pan, then loosen sides with a butter knife and using the necessary hot pads and mittens, invert onto a serving plate.

Friday, March 16, 2012

no cake

I know I promised you cake, and I have exactly the cake it was going to be in my mind's eye. I don't have it on a plate, though, because instead of blog posts and baking in our house, today we have the chicken pox. Well, only one of us does: my son, who is enjoying either his second bout of them or a big "Guess You Were Wrong About That!" moment with our former pediatrician.

So, together we can look forward to cake on Monday, among other improvements in everyone's general circumstances. Have a very not-itchy weekend, and if you were counting on me for a recipe, please enjoy the following dairy-rich breakfast items that I think look quite delicious, and if you try them out, let me know how you fare.

These simple and amazing-looking gluten-free African Pancakes

The same chef's equally international and tempting-looking Salvadoran Muffins

These little hand-held cheese pies

This nourishing polenta

Thursday, March 15, 2012

be green and prosper

OK, uncle. Nobody wants to hear about my nice chickpeas. Fine. Just as well, even, because I have my knickers in a knot over something entirely unrelated to chick peas and I am hauling myself and my lathery mouth up onto my splintery-from-overuse soapbox to vent about it.

I waited 84 minutes to get my oil changed today, which is not what I am going to vent about because as annoying as it was ("Should be just a few more minutes" turns out to have so many shades of meaning), even in my peevish state I am able to recognize that it is entirely unimportant. In days of yore I might not even have objected to the delay, seeing how the waiting area was well-stocked with issues of People magazine, but as it happens I am now sufficiently old and out of touch enough to not know who 87% of the People are, so it's less of a thrill. I just flip through the pages, appalled, and muttering in my rocker about why an ad featuring a model--someone's daughter, need I point out--in hot pants, licking some boy's ear, is supposed to make me want to buy perfume, or sunglasses, or whatever it is the young folk today are on about.

Buried inside one of the issues (I was able to commit several of them to memory, so call me if you need to know who got a speeding ticket in Hollywood five weeks ago) there was a review of the recent animated movie version of The Lorax. It wouldn't take much prodding to send me off on a tangential rant about good books that have been pillaged by their movie versions, so try not to get me started on that (RIP, Mr. Popper's Penguins, to pick but one recent example). And trust me, this will all come back around to something edible in a moment.

OK, so, the reviewer praises the pretty visuals of the film, but warns parents:

"[A]s this is one of the Doc's more political stories (it could even be called anti-capitalist), you may want to talk to kids about the issues it raises. After all, the Lorax speaks for the trees, but he may not necessarily speak for you."

Yeah, do be sure to inoculate your tender young ones against the consciousness that we could be doing a hair more to bring our rampant greed into enough control that we might salvage what's left of the natural world, and definitely against any suspicion that you might be in favor of that. We wouldn't want the little tykes growing up (shudder) ANTI-CAPITALIST, would we? Oh, how the neighbors would talk. I hate a preachy, thinky message, don't you? Communists. The whole lot of em. Capitalism pays your taxes, hippie, and don't you forget it. So don't try to bring the environment into it.

All done now. Swabbing the flecks of spittle off the monitor. Going to talk about rice.

Now that Operation Chickpea has whittled our numbers down and only 8 of you are reading this, I can tell you about green rice and it will be our little secret.

This is what we ate with the Thai chicken, but I made it with white rice and it was, frankly, a disaster. I made it again with short-grain brown rice, and it was to my way of thinking a phenom.

I confess that I do not measure the rice and the water when I cook brown rice. If you have some other tried and true method for cooking rice, like a rice cooker, ignore my mumbling and just jump in with your cooked rice at that stage.

green rice
serves 6

2.5 c short grain brown rice

1/2 c coconut milk
1/4 c water
inner tender part of one lemongrass bulb, coarsely chopped (or use a few fresh lime leaves, torn)
a large handful of cilantro
about a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger
sriracha or other chile paste, to taste
1T fish sauce

Put the rice in a medium pot and cover with water by about an inch. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until the rice is al dente, about 25 minutes. Drain almost all the excess water from the pot, cover the pot, and leave on the lowest flame for about another 5 minutes, until the grains are tender and there is no obvious water. Fluff the rice.

Meanwhile, purée the remaining ingredients in a blender When the rice is cooked, pour the sauce over the rice and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

bean there

After yesterday’s detour into the flour bin, we’re back to the whole chickpea today. I am bound and determined to find one way to make everyone try them, which may explain the drop in readership. Friday, there will be cake. But only if you have finished your chickpeas.

This may be another one of those things you have to make without telling yourself or anyone around you what is in it. Like the parsnip oven fries, it sounds like love beads and macramé wall hangings will come in to play. Also like the parsnip oven fries, I will try to distract you for a minute by yakking about how good for you this will be--perhaps misguidedly, because I should just tell you it’s tasty. Then, perhaps, (like the effect I’ve enjoyed recently with the parsnip oven fries) I will begin to be lovingly accosted in public places by beautiful, fresh-faced children who happily ate the thing and want to smile at me because I told their mother to make it for them.

So, quickly: arame is a kind of seaweed, but it is not slimy and it does not taste like it was stuck to the bottom of your kayak. It brings you astonishing levels of calcium, iron and trace minerals, plus elusive vitamins and immune-, libido- and joint health-supporting effects that you would be hard-pressed to find on the resumé of other things in your grocery cart.

Plus: we are going to douse it, and the chickpeas it rides in on, with lots of that irresistible triple threat of lemon, olive oil and salt. It’s a flexible set-up, in that you can leave it at that, or continue gilding the lily with a bunch of optional accessory ingredients.

Arame is, like most of its weedy brethren, available on most Asian aisles of the Gourmet Shoppe and/or Wheatberry Emporium type of establishment near you, as well as in any Asian market worth its salt. It looks like the wiring of some motorized vehicle left too long in a damp garage full of mice, but after a quick soak is less unfriendly in appearance. The soaking water is a boon to any houseplants you may have, so give them a treat while you are at it by throwing it into your watering can.

chickpea & arame salad

serves 4-6

One good size handful of arame

2 c cooked chickpeas, drained (if canned, then rinse them)

juice of a lemon

¼ c really good olive oil

½ t cumin

a pinch to 1/8 t cayenne

1/2 to 1 t sea salt, or to taste

large handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped


1 t finely grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, mashed or minced

1-2 scallions, white and light parts only, minced

handful of green beans, blanched and cooled and cut into 1-2” sections

Soak the arame in water for ten minutes or so, and then drain it well, pressing excess water out.

In a medium size bowl, lightly mash some or all of the chickpeas. You can skip this step, but it does help the little fellas absorb more of the flavor. Now combine with the remaining ingredients--the seaweed and the seasonings--and taste to adjust the flavors to your liking. It likes to sit a little before you eat it, but if it will be longer than about a half hour you may want to wait to add the parsley. A long time in that much lemon juice will diminish its beautiful green. If you have let it sit, taste again before you serve as a little booster shot of lemon juice and salt is often desirable at that point.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

more chick lit

Operation Chickpea continues.

A few years ago there was a rash of cookbooks about sneaking food into your family’s mouths, disguising cauliflower as cake and carrots as milkshakes. As I recall a lot of breading was involved (what is in these yummy croquettes, mama?), and there was a backlash condemning the strategies as trickery and dishonesty. I do think people over the age of three should probably know what they are eating. You might be nourishing their bodies with unannounced ingredients, but not their sense of what they like.

I just read a Jane Grigson recipe for French almond cake in which she states, “when you have made the cake a few times, vary it a bit by the addition of a roasted and ground pork kidney. The filling will taste interestingly granular--nobody will be able to guess why.” I reckon not. I don’t think I can really get behind that approach, nor can I muster a whole lot of answering sympathy when she laments that the French themselves, in the very town for which the pastry is named, no longer take the trouble.

Having been a vegetarian on the receiving end of several I-didn’t-think-you-would-notice-the-chicken-stock items, there is a limit to what I’ll try to sneak under the radar. But when serious philosophical or religious objections are not a moral obstacle to the trickery, I freely confess that I am not above a pretty quiet revelation.

I do like to fiddle with the nutritional wallop any given item might pack, too--hence duding up baked goods with extra flax meal or almond flour, and hence this minor cha-cha with the mac and cheese. Using ceci flour in place of wheat flour to make the white sauce base here increases the protein (and varies its source) and the fiber and, if you substitute a suitable alternative pasta, makes it gluten-free. It’s also more savory, with none of the sweetness of white flour that I am always trying to combat in this entrée with epic amounts of salt.

I’ve never made a secret of what I put in it, though no one ever seems to remember that it’s in there, and ruggedly maintain their continued aversion to the chickpea. They do prefer it to the old kind, though--when, in a pinch, I’ve had to revert, they moan about it. Maybe I’ll grind up a kidney or two and see what that does for it.

mac & cheese

5T butter

6T garbanzo bean flour

4 c milk

½ t salt, especially this one

fresh pepper to taste

2 ½ to 3 c coarsely grated cheddar, or a mix of cheddar and Gruyere or Parrano or anything that tastes (and melts) as you like it to, divided

½ c finely grated parmesan

1 # pasta

Cook the pasta in plenty of well-salted water until al dente, and drain. Rinse in cold water to stop the cooking and keep it un-clumped.

Butter a baking dish that will accommodate the pasta and sauce. I use a bid, wide Le Creuset because the crisp cheesy bits are the prime real estate around here, and I need to maximize the acreage. I prefer it to glass because I like to finish this under the broiler, but an 11x13 pyrex dish is a comparable choice in terms of size. Preheat the oven to 350.

In the pasta pot, melt the butter until it foams. Whisk in the bean flour until the mixture is entirely smooth, and sauté for a minute or two, stirring all the while. Now, with your whisking arm all revved up, pour the milk in slowly and stir, stir, stir. Bring this to a simmer, stirring often, and cook about five minutes, until you see the mixture thicken. It won’t be terribly thick; kind of like heavy cream consistency. Stir in the salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Remove from the heat.

Stir in the pasta and about 1 ½ c of the cheddar, plus the parmesan. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Pour into your prepared baking dish and top with the remaining cheddar.

Bake about 25 minutes, until golden on top. If not browned to your liking, run under the broiler a moment but learn from my terrible example and do not walk away for a second while this is going on. It’s a short hop from toasty to heartbreak.

If you’re making this ahead, I find it’s better to make and bake it, then reheat it later. Maybe under-bake it in this case, but if you let it sit, all combined, before baking then the noodles drink up all the liquid.

Monday, March 12, 2012

ceci ceci bang bang

It’s true I’ve done the rutabaga no favors in my house by using its name as an expletive, though I did raise its social capital a notch recently by pureeing it with coconut milk. But the tarnish on its reputation around here is a smudge compared with the chickpea. The chickpea is mired in a PR disaster in my house. I actually have done nothing active to lower the chickpea in my children’s estimation; in fact, we have a dog named after it, and I also use ceci flour here and there to very satisfying effect (little do they know). But each one of them, if asked to name a food they loathe, will finger the garbanzo bean. It’s reflexive; my son actually kind of likes them, but like the young kangaroo in Horton, he just pipes up with a “me, too!” How did this admirable legume sink so low?

Part of the trouble is that none of them like hummus (if you do, definitely try making it with preserved lemons; I learned early in life by living near a Middle-Easern market that maximum amounts of lemon, salt and olive oil are what makes hummus rock and roll, and if you can work some cumin and green olives in there, all the better). The rest of the trouble is mindset, I think. I’ve seen my offspring tuck greedily into foodstuffs that depend almost entirely on the chickpea in some unrecognizable form (falafel, pakora, etc). A portion of the trouble may be the taste of the canned chickpea, and that is why I have called us all here today.

Canned beans have always been a go-to solution for me--one can on hand and you are moments from a burrito, a nacho, a hearty pasta with greens or a deeply satisfying salad. But the BPA issue took the fun out of that for me, and once it did, once I started making some effort to start with dry beans (which, when cooked, freeze beautifully), then the cost savings and the flavor improvements were not lost on me. I’ve got a pinto bean recipe in the chute for you for next week, so make some room in the freezer for that. Just so I don't get too bad a rap as a buzz-killing naysayer, I will report that there are canned foods available without BPA. But they still taste like canned food, still cost more, and still suck you in to the packaging undertow, with all its attendant environmental issues, and the solution to all of this is not a terribly arduous one. It's not like shooting your own pork chops, is what I am saying. You can cook a mondo pot of beans over the weekend, when you will be home for a few hours at a stretch, and set yourself up for a week of 30 minute stove-to-table fun.

Meanwhile, a word about seaweed. Adding a strip of dried kombu seaweed, commonly available in any decent Asian section of a market, or in your local Healthe Foode Shoppe, to the cooking water will enhance the flavor and tenderness of any dried legume. Kombu, an essential ingredient in Japanese dashi stock, is high in natural glutamate, which is the root principle of the elusive umami flavor everyone is yapping about these days, and is the reason some whiz kid cooked up its frankencousin, MSG, in a lab and unleashed it on the public all those years ago. It makes stuff taste better.

Seaweed or no, a huge leg-up in terms of tender beans is to cook them slowly (extensive boiling toughens the skins, as does salting before they are cooked through) and covered. Even my friend Julie, known to all who love her as the undisputed Queen of the Bean, has abandoned her once-favored pressure cooker method to favor the dutch-oven-in-the-oven method. This can be approximated nicely with a crock pot, if you own one, which I don’t.

However you do it, when you do it I recommend you double it, and freeze the extra beans in one- or two-cup containers. Your future self will thank you.

This recipe was inspired by one in an Italian magazine, which featured octopus. The first step in the recipe was “cut the tentacles cross-wise into one-inch rounds,” and I did get a perverse little mental lift out of imagining the little children coming in to the kitchen to see what was for dinner that night. Chickpeas AND octopus legs! Mwa ha ha. But then I remembered I was working for the chickpea, and moved on.

chickpea soup with pasta and greens

serves 6

for the beans:

2 c dry chickpeas, soaked overnight or by the quick method

1 strip kombu seaweed

2-3 cloves garlic, peeled but whole

water to cover

some fresh thyme, if you have it

for the greens:

1 bunch of kale, washed, center ribs removes, coarsely chopped

1-3 cloves garlic, minced

2T olive oil

a large handful of chopped parsley

zest of half a lemon

to serve:

about a pound of pasta--a mixture of shapes is the most amusing, and I made this with a GF pasta

copious amounts of fresh grated parmesan

lemon wedges

Preheat the oven to 325. Drain the beans of their soaking water and bring them, the seasonings and the new water to a slow boil in a heavy pot that takes a lid. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, stick it in the oven, and go on about your day. Periodically check to make sure the beans are still under water, and maybe give a stir. Depending on the age of your beans, 1-2 hours should do it. Sample six beans from different parts of the pot; when they are all push-apart tender, they’re done. Don't lose faith. You can't ever know how old a bean you've purchased, and older beans take longer to cook.

Remove the kombu. Puree the chickpeas and about 1.5 cups of their liquid and the cooked garlic until quite smooth in a blender and return them to the cooking pot; work in batches if the beans are still hot, and adjust the final consistency with water or the broth of your choosing until you have a thick but soup-like puree. Salt to taste, and if you have a few springs of fresh thyme, throw those in there to flavor the soup while it heats. You can pause at this point; in fact, like all bean dishes, the flavor and texture just improve with waiting all day or overnight.

When you are ready to eat it, put the pot over a low flame and stir occasionally while you get everything else ready. If you have paused overnight in the fridge, yo may need to thin it a little.

Cook the pasta in plenty of well-salted water, drain it and toss with a little olive oil.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat, and when it is hot throw in the garlic, stir once, and then add the greens. If they do not have washing water still clinging to them, splash in a few T of water. Stir well, and cover briefly. When the greens are tender but still bright, a few minutes at most, remove from the heat and stir in the zest and parsley.

To serve it, ladle the hot soup out, drop a cup or so of cooked pasta into the bowl, hit it with a scoop of greens, and garnish with a squeeze of lemon or scratch of parmesan.

Friday, March 9, 2012

pick my brine

You know how sometimes you have to have something quite cheesy and melty, and other times it’s salad or bust? How certain things appeal at certain times, while at other moments, they stand before you and there is no answering hanker? Me, too. Except for Southeast Asian food. Despite my genetic routing through Eastern Europe, it is the call of lime, cilantro, chile and basil that dial direct to my appetite. I am always hungry for it.

I just came back around to eating meat, after many years off. I am a pretty reluctant carnivore, and it takes a fair amount of seasoning to make it at all palatable to me. We had a good-size roasting chicken in the freezer, thanks to a farmer friend, and when I began to think about steering it toward the table I aimed right for my favorite page of the culinary atlas.

It isn’t out of the oven yet, but it smells like I was on the right road.

Brining serves the same flavor-enhancing function as marinating, plus thanks to the salt’s effects on the molecular structure of the protein, allows more moisture to be absorbed by the meat, giving you a juicier outcome.

Thanks to playing hookey from my life yesterday, in the name of research of course, and to a small detour on that trip, I was able to lay siege to a massive Asian grocery store and load up on all manner of things to enhance this dinner, including some fresh shiso leaves so I can finally make Laura’s shiso pesto (so unbearably good, even if you have to substitute sunflower seeds for the almonds and preserved lemon for the yuzu, that I may have none left by dinner time, especially since it sounds like my husband just found the bowl). There’s going to be some green rice (more on that later), and stir-fried Chinese chives. Ding ding goes the bell, and I start drooling.

This sounds like a lot of fish sauce, but conventional brines seem to call for as much as cup of salt, and fish sauce is about 25% as salty, spoon for spoon, as salt is, but packs a humungous flavor wallop. In fact, if you like things super-salty, you may want to add a few tablespoons of kosher salt to the brine.

Looking ahead to next week and all the fun we are going to have, you might want to consider laying in some dried chickpeas. I said I was back to eating meat; I didn’t say I eat it all the time. Old habits die hard.

thai-brined chicken

1 c fish sauce

1 c water

1-2” fresh ginger, peeled

2 or 3 dried red chiles, or ½ t sriracha chili sauce

5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed with the side of a broad knife

1-2 T honey

stems of one large bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped (or use basil stems, if cilantro does not appeal)

3-5 fresh lime leaves, torn (or use a stalk of lemongrass, outer leaves and woody tip trimmed, bulb smashed with the side of a broad knife)

1 roasting chicken, rinsed

ice cubes

about a tablespoon of some mild oil

In a small saucepan, bring the fish sauce, water, ginger, garlic and dried chiles to the boil. Remove from heat, throw in the tender herbs and honey, cover and let steep a few minutes.

Pour this mixture into a lidded container large enough to snugly contain the chicken, and add a handful of ice cubes to cool it down. Put the chicken in the container, and add enough cold water to make the brine cover the chicken as much as the container will tolerate. If it is not entirely submerged, as mine was not, just make a mental note to turn the bird a few times. Refrigerate the container. You can brine to for as little as 4 hours or up to 24, I’m told.

When you are ready to roast, let the bird come to room temperature in its bath. This will take an hour or two.

Preheat the oven to 450. Pull the chicken out, pat it dry, and set it on a roasting pan. Strain the solids from the brine and stuff those in the cavity. Discard the brine. Rub the whole exterior of the chicken with some oil.

Put the chicken in the oven, and after about fifteen minutes, reduce the heat to 350. Roast for about 15 minutes to the pound (to help you estimate the time) and to an internal temperature of 170 (the only way to be sure you have thoroughly cooked and not overcooked the chicken). If, after the estimated time has passed and things are not quite at the desired temperature, but you don't want things to get much browner, reduce the oven heat to 325 for the rest of the cooking time. Starting with a cold chicken will make the cooking take longer, natch, so factor that in if you rushed the coming-to-room-temp step.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

egging you on

Back when he was president, and corpulent, and somewhat indecisive, Bill Clinton was represented in the Doonesbury comic strip by a little hovering waffle.

C’est moi. I am the waffle.

I told you on Tuesday that you didn’t have to look up what goes on at a conventional egg farm, and that you could go ahead and buy eggs marked “free range,” even though the standard is largely meaningless. The chickens outside my door are taking me to task on this, quite rightly, and I am changing my stated position.

All of us, collectively, walking around with our fingers in our ears saying “LA LA LA,” and buying food without thinking about it very much or questioning it at all, have driven the bus to this place. We gotta get out of this place. Forget the nice picture on the egg carton label in the store. An egg factory can say its hens are “free range” if, at one end of the cavernous warehouse that houses tens of thousands of birds, there is a cat-door that leads outside. It doesn’t matter where it leads, and it doesn’t matter if none of the very miserable birds ever use it. Hey, man--they have the option. To make it possible for miserable birds, denied most of the happy jobs that occupy a hen’s day (picking through the grass, rolling in the dust, finding some privacy to lay an egg) to live in close quarters without pecking each other to bits from boredom and hysteria, the birds are de-beaked. “De-beaked” is an awful word, but let me assure you it is a euphemism even so.

Are your fingers creeping up towards your ears? It isn’t pretty information, I know. But this is all done for us, the consumer. In our names, and then we support it with our dollars. We do have to start somewhere if we are going to fix this mess. Why not with eggs?

I stand by a couple of things I said: one, buy eggs from people, not corporations. I gave you some links to find some of those near you, if you don’t have a ready source, and here they are again: one, two and three places to look for good eggs. Two, pastured hens lay tastier eggs, so you will be well-rewarded for the little bit of expense and trouble.

In compensation for harshing your mellow, here is a recipe for muffins that taste like cheesecake, and yet are good for you. They are even better for you if you add a quarter cup of oat bran to them, but that’s all up to you. Happy eggs make them a vivid yellow that will give you pleasure in the morning light.

ricotta muffins

adapted from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café

makes 12 muffins

2 c flour

½ t salt

1 ½ t baking powder

1/8 t baking soda

finely grated zest of a lemon or orange

½ to 2/3 c sugar

the optional 1/4 cup of oatbran

1 c ricotta cheese

1 c buttermilk

2 eggs

1 T fresh lemon juice

2t vanilla extract

4T ( ½ a stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 ½ c frozen strawberries

Lay the strawberries on a cutting board to thaw slightly while you get everything else in order, otherwise the berries will fly around the kitchen like asteroids when you try to chop them.

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly grease your muffin pans, or line them with papers.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar.

In another medium bowl, beat the buttermilk into the ricotta, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in the vanilla and lemon juice.

Coarsely chop the now-slightly-relaxed strawberries.

Add the ricotta mixture and the strawberries to the dry ingredients, stir once, then dump in the melted butter (you just don’t want the melted butter to hit the cold stuff first, or it globs), and combine the mixtures quickly and lightly. Don’t over-beat; just make sure all the dry stuff is wet, and accept a few lumps.

Portion out among the cups, filling them to the top.

Bake in the center of the oven for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly browned and the top springs back when you poke it gently. Let cool in the pan for ten minutes if you can stand it, as these are soft and will benefit from the chance to firm up a bit, then remove to a rack.

The original recipe called for cherries, which has merit as an idea, and I think peaches or raspberries (no chopping!) would be delicious, too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

which came first

actual photo of actual first egg ever laid here on our farm, december 1999

We have acquired chickens by several methods over the nine years that we've been chicken-keepers. We have ordered them by phone and then received them in the mail. We have driven long distances to buy them from crazy people who are bizarrely devoted to some arcane heirloom breed (arguably, by finding these people and then driving miles and miles to their remote location for the purpose of this exchange, forfeiting our own claims to sanity.) We have gone to time-consuming lengths to incubate eggs in our house, only to see a justifiably snooty hen march out from under the coop with a family she hatched the old-fashioned way.

We have some spectacular pure-bred, pedigree, fancy-dan chickens that we ordered: Crested Golden Polish, Frizzle, Silkie, etc.

General Tucker Stinkyfanny, Second Assistant Vice-Rooster, a purebred Frizzle

But the home-brew chickens are among the handsomest on our farm; witness the Golden-Frosted Mullet Mezzo-Frizzle:

Chicken genetics turn out to be fairly simple for the lay-person (you should pardon the term) to understand, in that crossing a green-egg-layer with a speckled-egg-layer tends to produce a speckled-green-egg-layer, and crossing a poofy-head-feathered one with a poofy-cheek-feathered one will net you a bunch of demi-head-poofed, demi-cheek-poofed chickens. And so on. Mullet Boy is not alone--our flock has a bunch of stunning examples of these principles. My friend Suzi says they look like extras in a Metropolitan Opera production set in Paris.

On most farms concerned with things like profit margins and feed-to-egg ratios, chickens head for the soup pot when they stop laying a reliable one egg per day and start laying, erratically, eggs too large to fit in the standard egg carton--by two years of age. Around here, we run a retirement home for chickens and should probably sell eggs for about eleven dollars apiece. A fresh barnyard egg tastes good enough to warrant that charge, but I don’t think the market will bear it.

Whenever I begin to feel weary of stepping in chicken poop and shooing dusty birds off my porch, I steer my thoughts to the eggs, and a memory of one of my then-tiny daughters ordering three scrambled with a side of toast while we were traveling. “Mama, what’s wrong with these eggs?” she asked me after the waiter set them down in front of her. I peered. Eggs scrambled at home are a vivid nasturtium-y turmeric color, while these were the same color as the butter in the butter dish. I suppose that’s worth a little poop on the shoes.

Even if you do not have an opera company of chickens in your yard, you probably have access to a better class of egg than the stupormarket has to offer. I could point you towards plenty of horrifying literature about the egg industry and sobering facts like two hens to a cage the size of a piece of printer paper and eggs warehoused for months before they reach the store shelves, or I could spare you that and just plead with you to fork it over for good ones. If you want a simple guideline, don't even make eye contact with a carton that does not promise at least "free-range." It's not a reliable standard by any stretch of the imagination, but it's the barest minimum standard we should accept. Just try to buy eggs from people, not corporations, when you can. "Pasture-Raised" is a much, much better standard to go by, and here is a resource to help you find those near you. Here is another one, and here is a third.

I can't say we ever get tired of eating eggs, but it is nice to stumble across a new way to feature them. This is one of those endlessly variable deals that you can also make ahead, reserving the prepared crust, covered, in the fridge for as long as a day, or you can finish making the tart and underbake it, to be finished in a hot oven when you are ready to serve it. Everyone here seemed to be happy to gobble it up, with some soup and salad. In place of or in addition to the greens, you could use artichoke hearts, as the original recipe did, or any of the other things you like to throw into a frittata or omelette or quiche.

polenta pie

inspired by Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

for the crust:

1c +2T coarse polenta

3 c water

1t salt

1t chopped fresh thyme, if you have it around

1/2 c grated parmesan

1 egg

olive oil, to grease the pan

for the filling:

4 eggs

1c plain yogurt, preferably Greek and NOT nonfat

1 T olive oil or butter

kale or spinach, one bunch, cleaned and trimmed and coarsely chopped or torn
scallions, about 5, minced, or a leek, cleaned and minced
3-4 oz feta, crumbled or similar tangy, zippy cheese
fresh pepper to taste
more grated parmesan, to garnish, if you feel up to it

Thinly coat a 10" ceramic baking dish with olive oil and set aside.

To make the crust, bring the water and salt to a boil in a heavy saucepan, and sprinkle in the cornmeal, stirring with a whisk to prevent lumps. Stir for about a minute, until the meal is in a nice suspension, then reduce heat as low as possible and cover the pot. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring vigorously about every 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, for another 10 minutes. You should have a nice, thick porridge. Stir in the cheese, egg and a few twists of pepper. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking.

Have a glass of cold water handy, and a soup spoon. Glop the polenta into the prepared baking dish. Dip the soup spoon in the water and use it to push and spread the polenta as evenly as possible across the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Keep dipping the spoon to prevent stickiness. Let the crust rest about 15 minutes before you proceed.

Preheat the oven to 375.

Heat the oil or butter in a skillet with a lid, and saute the scallions or leeks a minute or two, until just soft. Toss in the greens (ideally with a little of their washing water clinging to them) and stir, then cover the pan. Cook just until softened, and remove from the heat and let stand uncovered while you mix the filling up.

Beat the eggs and the yogurt together with a twist of pepper and maybe a pinch of salt, depending on the saltiness of your chosen cheese. Arrange the greens and half the cheese in the prepared crust, pour in the filling, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top, maybe along with a scratch or two of parmesan.

Bake about 45 minutes, until filling is set and golden brown on top. Best to let it cool about 20 minutes before eating, to firm up.