Friday, July 30, 2010

Blessed Relief

It cooled off wonderfully last night, allowing for some actual cooking. And the variety of leftovers beckoned to be transformed into something other than themselves, lest monotony make for a sullen, listless dinner. So I pulled out a whole bunch of containers, made a pass through the garden, and got to work.

Since there were lots of lentils and a fair amount of the raw marinated kale (read back a couple of posts and you'll see) I decided to make kofta in a sort of a saag kind of a thing. I had picked more collards to add volume to the greens, so I began by sautéeing onion, shredded collards, and seeds (coriander, fenugreek, mustard, and cumin) and then adding in the marinated kale along with grated ginger, minced lemongrass, lime leaf, and curry plant (not curry leaf, but the silvery, lavender-looking one that smells so strong and good). After some simmering, I puréed it all into an appealingly dense and creamy texture.

As I mixed an egg yolk and some panko into the lentils, the panko got me thinking. So instead of simmering lentil balls in the greens mixture, I instead rolled them in more crumbs and then browned them up good in a bit of canola oil. Less healthy, sure, but not by much. And so very wondrous tasting, with creamy insides wearing crunchy brown jackets. I strew radish thinnings around for some raw green and gentle bite, and we tucked in.

There was the vaguest of tensions between the dill–always an assertive flavor–and the more traditional curry spices, but the various complex overtones of all of the different pungent seeds were sufficient to reduce it to an artful dissonance rather than an off note. These greens were really good. And little fried cakes are hard to hate.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

At Least I Didn't Put A Fried Egg On Top

This hardly merits a post, but it's one of those quintessential summer dishes that one feels obliged to document because it feels somehow like blogatorial malpractice to let summer pass without a post about pesto and tomatoes. Hell, maybe someone in Australia or Antarctica or Northern Canadia needs a provocative hot-weather pornocopia shot to get themselves off. I live to serve, after all.

So, herewith, pesto made from basil, walnuts, olive oil, and sherry vinegar (to pick up on the walnutty goodness) and tossed into whole wheat spaghetti and Sungold tomatoes (with a couple of Glaciers thrown in too; I bought the starts because they claimed to be very early-ripening, and indeed they are). We added crunchy salt at the table, since it makes both pesto and tomato flavos pop with hedonistic abandon. Most interesting in many ways was our salad, which I had made in the morning: chiffonaded kale marinated in more of that cream whey and salt until it got all soft and flavory. Part pickle, part salad, part coleslaw with ranch dressing, it was an instant favorite.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pulse Points

A friend gave me some whey left from making the Persian cream cheese that she always has on hand; dilly and sharp, it's a dreamy dressing for cucumbers. Having that combination in mind, I used it to make a sort of tzatziki, blending in cucumbers, lots of garlic, a bit of yogurt, and enough Ultratex 8 to keep it together as a sauce since it was pretty liquid. Now it sticks to everything, and it's better than ranch dressing by a long shot.

We had some other friends over the other night, and smoked chickens were on the menu, so I had three smoky carcasses ready for the brothing. I simmered them in the big pot with fennel, onion, carrot and celery from the garden for a couple hours while I did other things far from the stove, then strained it into containers, cooled them in the sink, and put them in the chest freezer. 9 quarts in all. I saved one, though, and cooked up a big batch of lentils with it. More of the same aromatics, plus kale and lots of fresh herbs went in that pot, and once done I let it all cool before adding vinegars, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Serving it just warm with the whey sauce, sungold tomatoes, and borage flowers made for a refreshing departure from the recent barely-cooked summer routine: winter smoky stew techniques slathered with cooling summer sauce. The remainder was even better for lunch today, and there's still a bit left for tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Notwithstanding the heat–which is under control lately, hovering in a dry and resplendent range that should be the summer default–it's still hard for me to cook a beautiful piece of sockeye salmon. That was the idea buying it, and it ended up being the result, though not before I had my way with an uncooked portion because I couldn't keep my hands off of it. So dinner ended up being sashimi and then curry, both heavy on the salmon.

"Making" sashimi is a pretty funny concept, but I did come up with a pretty skippy sauce that could replace ponzu in many applications: local soy sauce and local cider vinegar (the Monk's Special Reserve, aged over a year). It doesn't quite have the impact of yuzu, but the fruit and acid notes are fully present and it doesn't require importing expensive little citrus fruits from Japan. And it was sublime with the fat, creamy slices of vermilion fish flesh.

Next up, the curry. I invented this years ago in Brooklyn, and it deserves its spot in the rotation. I sweat onion, carrot, minced preserved lemon, and some seeds (green coriander and mustard in this case) then stir in a bit of vindaloo paste, then add pieces of sweet potato. After a few minutes of softening, I add tomato purée and let it simmer for a bit. Then I add cubes of fish (skinned) and, here, beet greens. Then it simmers a bit more. I found a couple of garlic scapes in the back of the fridge so I minced them for a garnish, and unceremoniously dumped it onto brown rice.

Those beet-carrot pickles and sauerkraut from a couple posts back made a wonderful duo of condiments, given that chutneys and such seem to have run out. For wine, I wished for Riesling, which would have been good with both dishes, but there was none on hand. I did have a pretty astonishing white, though, that I need to learn more about before I put up a post about it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Can I Get–If It's Not Too Much Trouble, That Is–A Hell Yeah?

The makings of a pretty damn local (and very damn good) fajita:

1. Grass-fed, local faux hanger steak, marinated in white wine and gochujang, then seared in a very hot iron pan, turning frequently until well-crusted, then rested until a lovely deep pink throughout, then sliced thin against the grain

2. 100% local (and completely homegrown salsa: tomatoes, cucumber, serrano chili, cilantro (and coriander seeds), shallot, and Brother Victor-Antoine's Special Reserve cider vinegar)

3. Sautéed homegrown greens (kale with fennel and shallot) in the meat skillet after meat removal

4. Meat marinade poured into the very hot iron pan and then stirred and poured into waiting bowl and mixed with the juices that have oozed off the meat while resting

5. Sprouted wheat tortillas warmed over the hot burner

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

That Pickles

I soaked some beans overnight, (for once) obviating the need for pressure-cooking, and allowing them to get extra soft and luscious over the course of two simmerings: the first, just with water and a piece of kombu, the second in the company of papaya juice, tomato paste, herbs, maple syrup, three different vinegars, salt, and smoked paprika. As I pondered the seasonings for stage two, I considered the spectrum of beans; a couple of spices make them Mexican, while some pork fat and the sweet/sour opposition yield the Bostonian variant. Since Mexican chorizo was on the menu, courtesy of the farmers' market, I naturally chose the counterintuitive route and got all kinds of retahded with the beans. The result was handsome enough, with dense and toothsome legumes under fat, juicy sausage with wilted greens beside, but honestly I'm not really feeling it in the kitchen these days. My urge to experiment and take risky leaps of imagination has been sapped by the heat. Plus, it's all I can do to keep up with the garden; pick, cook (as little as possible), and eat is the rule right now.

In this season of vegetable excess, even our gardenless neighbors are not sufficient to absorb the surfeit of green goodness that pours forth from within the hallowed fence out back. So I've been making jars of pickles, since they're way more interesting than blanching and freezing. Which I'll also be doing, as soon as standing in front of a huge boiling pot of water seems like a rational proposition.

My Grandfather made excellent dill pickles, and even though I wasn't particularly attentive to the process a few key things took hold in my memory. Now that I'm pretty well acquainted with lacto-fermentation, I've been tinkering ever so gently with his master recipe. To start, I use a less-salty brine than he did. He used round rocks, boiled to sterilize them, as weights to keep the food submerged and away from any mold. I use ziptop bags filled with brine, unless I'm using the big crock which has its own weights. I leave them in the brine for a little less time so the result has a better crunch. But it's the flavor of his that imprinted upon me, and which will always be the baseline for the genre.

The first cilantro planting has gone to seed, so I've been coming up with uses for green coriander. In this case, mixed in with shredded beets and carrots and the first ripe cayenne pepper. They'll add complexity, sure, and help tug the resulting flavor towards places distant and exotic, but let's face it: I really just put them in because they're so pretty against the vivid roots.

Below, from left to right: The dill pickles with lots of garlic (which I just dug up), sauerkraut flavored with mustard, pepper, juniper, and caraway, and the beet-carrot mixture. I stuck them down in the crawl space under the house after a day or so at room temp to really kick-start the hot microbial action. The best thing about doing different batches in jars like this is that it frees up the big crock for another huge-ass batch of kimchi. Which is next in line.

Monday, July 19, 2010

sunday Sunday SUNDAY!

We had a birthday party to go to yesterday, so the afternoon was not as domestic as I wanted. It was leisurely, though, so when we did get home I had lots of energy and got right to work in the garden ripping out the spent peas and replanting the bed with radishes of all sorts. Some dried peas had already begun to sprout, so I gently moved them under the sunflowers at the end of the bed so they'll have something to climb. Peas in the fall are nice, but daikon are better.

I made three big jars of pickles, which I'll post as soon as I photograph them. Dinner was a combination of several dishes prepared separately and eaten all together; a bit more time could have turned this into an elegant multi-course meal if the occasion had called for such. As it was, we enjoyed it out on the screened porch with the breezes and the chirping birds.

I started by seeding and mandolining a couple of cucumbers into a bowl, then kneading them with salt until they gave up their liquid. I squeezed them out, then dressed them with the local soy sauce and cider vinegar. I took a sweet potato and steamed it, then made a variation on our beloved tahini-miso sauce using black sesame paste, white miso, and raspberry vinegar in place of lemon juice. I used the same pan with the steamer in it to cook a small head of local cauliflower that a friend gave us since their CSA had given them too much. I tossed it in olive oil, cider vinegar, and a bit of leftover green mash once it was tender.

I dug what looks to be the last of the Washugyu beef from the freezer (meaning it's time for another trip to Mitsuwa) and thawed it in a marinade of miso and white wine, then gave it a quick sear and deglazed it with soy sauce and more cider vinegar. It's a joyful thing to have high-quality soy and vinegar made locally, and my pantry is much happier for it.

In the same pan, I sautéed oyster mushrooms and garlic, then flamed them with sherry and added sherry vinegar for good measure.

We carried all the little bowls out to the porch and helped ourselves, using my newest plates; I recently joined a ceramics co-op and these are the first to fire there. There's just an electric kiln, so we fire to cone 6, but these look like they fired to cone 10 in gas because of the very nice glazes one can get these days. There will be lots more ceramics in the coming months. And food to put on them.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What The Thunder Said

Our muggy heat broke rather dramatically this evening with a torrential downpour, accompanied by rollicking summer thunder. The rain was perfectly timed, coming as it did on the heels of several very hot days, and we'll sleep better tonight as a result of the front's passage. Such meteorological benedictions were sufficient to inspire me to actually cook something, though the cooking part was mercifully short. Most of the time was spent rolling out fettucine.

We're lucky to live on a nice little road that is a lot like Sesame Street in terms of its child-friendliness, so when I realized that we had no eggs–right after dumping a bunch of flour in a bowl–I sent our small child to the neighbors' house to ask for a couple of eggs. He came back a few minutes later, saying that they hadn't had any so he just went to the next neighbors and got two eggs from them. Cute and smart–I may just keep him after all. I sent him back with a thank you zucchini, and once again thought about getting some chickens.

We mixed eggs and flour together, gave it a quick knead, and let the dough sit for a bit while we picked another zucchini (duh), salad, and basil for the sauce. Which was simple tomato and garlic, with chopped basil added periodically throughout its reduction and thickening to emphatically inflect the red purée with fat green flavor. (I find that adding basil in waves while a sauce cooks makes for a more complete and saturated basil flavor in the result). I sautéed the zucchini, sliced into rounds, in a bit of butter, then deglazed the pan with a drop of cider vinegar. I made a simple but ardently arresting vinaigrette of walnut oil, mustard, and sherry vinegar, and that was dinner.

There's not much in the world that's better than food like this, when the ingredients are perfect and the execution just gets out of their way. There were no leftovers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Let Be Be Finale Of Seem

Another hot-weather dinner, and another round of homemade sushi for the clamoring tribe. Sockeyes are in season, and though very not local, they are sustainably caught and most delicious. This has become somewhat of a weekly ritual for us while our local-ish source is out of town; we get the best fish we can and I make a variety of sushi while the family sits and devours it all. I eat mine intermittently throughout, sometimes with a nice plate at the end after they're sated.

I would have had a better picture but the camera battery died right after this shot. Other components included shiso, spicy sauce (that tomato-cream sauce from the day before plus sriracha and miso), tomato, chard, Thai basil, and avocado. I sautéed some mixed garden greens (chard, red and black kale, collards) with garlic and deglazed with local ponzu. Yup. Read the next article. It's a wondrous way to eat, all gardeny fresh and fishy and cool; I had a powerful yearning to live closer to the ocean so that this sort of occasional indulgence would be more of a logical frugality.

The real star of this meal was dessert, though. Our big blueberry bushes, bought last year from Lee, fruited prolifically, and I netted them in time to keep the birds from stealing all of our berries (though one poor robin got caught and died in the brutal heat before I found and cut it loose). A blue jay also got caught, but we freed it. I'm getting to know our avian neighbors at an intimate proximity, but honestly neither of us are thrilled about it, as much as I enjoy watching them from a foot or two away. Next year I'll be building a birdproof enclosure for all our blueberries, including those in the herb garden which I'll be moving so they can be next to their bigger brethren. Nets are a big pain in the ass even without dead birds; they snag and pop off berries both ripe and unripe as one tries–however gingerly–to remove them come picking time.

So now that your appetites are thoroughly aroused, here's the blueberry ice cream I made. It was a straight up vanilla custard to which I added some blueberry juice, then added a bunch of whole berries as the machine churned. The addition of the juice imparted a luscious blueberry flavor to the ice cream without adding too much color (the insides are white, after all) and the frozen berries had that wonderful tartness which plays so well with sweet cream. This was an ideal straddling of adult sophistication and youthful hedonism, and a most welcome treat on another muggy evening.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Baby, It's Hot Outside

The combination of heat and burgeoning garden have made cooking pretty simple lately. I make the rounds, picking what needs it, and that's what we eat, with as little actual cooking as possible. But I still feel motivated to mix it up a little, since it definitely makes the family happier and more engaged with dinner; heat saps appetites and the boy is obsessed with catching butterflies so he'll dash from the table if he sees one out the window.

The humidity and temperature are creeping up again, and in a day or two we'll be back at full swelter. I took maximum advantage of the cooler spell to do a bunch of outdoor chores, and now I'm back inside with the A/C on 77 (and on the economy setting) in my little office, working on the next article. Once it's done, though, I have to clean out the wood shop, which is going to be an orgy of filthy misery. (It's important that you all understand just how horribly hard it is to be me).

To begin, I took a cucumber, four small tomatoes (they're coming in early), nasturtium leaves, a big purslane plant, and half a zucchini (every meal includes zucchini in some form or another; I've been picking them small to avoid overload) and blended them all smooth with a bit of Brother Victor's sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt. I put the blender jar in the fridge for an hour to chill, then blasted it one more time before serving.

Gazpacho really is a brilliant invention; the relatively low profile of the tomatoes and the lack of peppers in this mix did nothing to diminish the result: a supremely refreshing and ridiculously healthy first course.

Next up, some good ground beef mixed thoroughly with lots of minced green onion tops and a big spoonful of azuki bean miso, then formed into brochettes. There was some tomato purée left in the fridge, and a bit of heavy cream, so I combined them with some mustard and reduced the mixture to a viscous thickness. I sliced the rest of the zucchini into rounds, and toasted some sprouted wheat tortillas on the stove to soften them, and we headed out onto the porch.

I had lit the shichirin about half an hour earlier, so it was incandescently hot. We grilled zucchini, then the skewers, and made little wraps with them and sauce. Not particularly ornate or complex, but extremely tasty. The kitchen stayed cool and cleanup was a breeze. It's hard to ask for more in this weather.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Inverse Correlation Of Convenience And Flavor

It finally rained, and then cooled down a bit to the point where the mere idea of turning on the oven wasn't suicide-inducing. I had planned to grill pizza, but figured out too late that we were out of charcoal. So on went the oven. I also turned on the attic fan, which pulled in cooler air from outside and sucked all the oven heat out through the top of the house. It's a brilliant invention and we use it most summer evenings.

I've gotten so used to using our sourdough starter that I had forgotten how quick dried yeast is to raise dough. Since I thought to make pizza the same day, I picked up a bag of yeast and banged out a simple dough recipe from a book I haven't really used before: Eric Kastel's Artisan Breads, which I got (for free) when I wrote my bread piece back in the spring. All my other trusted books require a biga, or preferment, and I was looking for one that did not, since there was no time. It does assume that you'll retard the dough overnight to improve flavor, but I skipped that part. It called for malt syrup and sugar, for which I substituted honey, and I also added about 30% whole wheat flour for taste and nutrition.

In an 80˚ kitchen, and with honey added, this ball of dough more than doubled in volume in about 40 minutes. I rolled it onto the island top, cut it into four pieces, shaped them loosely, and let them sit while I picked, washed, and cut up various toppings. The results, from top to bottom, are as follows:

1. Smoked ham, red onion, leftover sautéed beech mushrooms, and basil
2. Broccoli and garlic
3. Zucchini
(These three all had local fresh mozzarella on top)
4. Pizza rossa with arugula salad added after it cooled to room temp (a personal favorite)

The toppings were all good, especially the insane smoky ham. The crust? Not so much. No character, and the faint sweetness made it taste kind of like a cracker, which I did not enjoy. I'm sure that retarding the dough overnight adds a bit of complexity, but from now on I'm going to think ahead and get our starter fed and ready for this sort of meal. There's just no substitute for a wild starter when it comes to flavor and chew.

The leftovers did make an acceptable breakfast, though.

I'm posting this on yeastspotting, where they spot all kinds of yeast.

Friday, July 09, 2010

That's Not Ironic, It's What Happened

This meal actually took place before this wretched heat wave, which should be self-evident since it involved using the stove for more than 90 seconds. Our meals lately have been quick and minimally heated, and I'm not even taking pictures because it's all I can do to remember to keep breathing. Funny how after last summer's desperate railing against the incessant rain has begotten this desperate pleading for the heat to be broken by some rain (we haven't had any in something like two weeks now). If it doesn't rain tomorrow I'm going to have to put the sprinkler on the garden for three or more hours. The seedlings can't take this.

I rubbed some lovely local lamb chops in some lovely local miso and let them sit, then wiped off most of the miso, then seared them in the iron pan, turning a few times. I pulled them out and sautéed first some locally grown shiitake, then our own mixed greens in the same pan, and then served all of the above with some of the beet-currant sauce from John's birthday appetizers and some leftover escarole mash. Freaking delicious, and way more interesting than the turkey burgers I made tonight. I'm such a giver.

Miso makes an extraordinary marinade for meat, caramelizing to a beautiful and flavorsome crust...

...I swear that if I sit here typing for one more minute with beads of sweat running down my back I'm going to off myself. Turn off your computers and go do a rain dance, for crying out loud.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Joint Custody

John called me a few weeks ago and said "Do you want a whole artisanal Tennessee ham?"

"Sure," I said, on account of I'm not a complete idiot. "Why and how?"

The band's publicist, it turns out, during or after Bonnaroo, had been driving around and stopped at some joint in Gallatin for lunch. The ham sandwich–smoky, fatty, and piled high for $6–was one of the best he'd tasted. So he talked to the proprietor, learned the story, and placed the order. The story is that the owner has been on a mission to revive the tradition of dry-cured country hams, feeling as he does (and rightly) that those icky, rehydrated "honey-baked" hams and their ilk are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. So he's working with a local farmer to raise pigs that are happier and fattier than the awful, industrially produced standard. He's not using any heirloom breeds, because he wants to be able to offer his "prosciutto" sandwich at a price that a truck driver can afford. His hams are cured, aged for a year, and then smoked for a good deal more (making them more like a smoked hillbilly jamón).

Now John has been pretty much off the pig for a while, so he figured I'd be interested in keeping it company. And just this morning I was wondering when it might arrive. Then, after lunch, whilst outside tying our exploding tomatoes to a trellising structure I had just built, who should I see walking up to the house carrying a large white bundle?

It arrived swaddled (from the inside out) in: a recent copy of the Tennessean, a black trash bag, and a complete layer of white duct tape. It weighed close to 25 pounds. I say "weighed" because we accidentally ate some of it after unwrapping it. Just to be sure it was OK. And it's quite a lot more than OK. There's a fair amount of pepper in the cure; after the silky, smoky bite there's a lingering heat not unlike good pastrami. And as you can see, there's plenty of fat. I'll be using the fat for cooking for the forseeable future, even as we slowly whittle this leviathan down to the bone.

I went and found a heavier-duty hook amongst my vast collection of random hardware and installed it in a choice location where it is unlikely to concuss any passing friends or family, and there it hangs. That's it on the right, next to some guanciale, duck breast, and bresaola, all the products of the meat-curing class we had here a couple of weeks ago. The kitchen smells GOOD.

I told John that he can have visitation rights. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go carve off a few more slices. Just, you know, to make sure it's still OK.

Monday, July 05, 2010

I Love A Parade

We were in Vermont for the weekend, enjoying some absolutely perfect weather. Some swimming, a little (unsuccessful) fishing, and general relaxation were the totality of the agenda. And eating. That too.

I brought a cooler full of garden, and we worked our way through it over the course of our stay. To begin, a glorious treat in the form of our first zucchini flowers stuffed with local smoked gouda, dredged in local eggs and whole wheat flour, and fried quickly. I served them on a plate that my Mother made sometime before she made me.

Next up, we had a variation on many of our recent meals: some form of protein on top of stir-fried garden on top of a starch. They're all sort of phone-ins, but as long as I keep mixing up the specifics and the ethnic leanings, I can create the illusion of variety. In this case it was beautiful grass-fed ribeye atop broccoli, peas, carrots, zucchini, green beans, and herbs on brown rice vermicelli with a somewhat spicy Thai-adjacent sauce of sesame oil, rice vinegar, nam pla, soy sauce, curry powder, and a bit of maple syrup. Lots of Thai basil helped.

The next night, we had wild sockeye salmon with garlic scapes and an interesting sauce that I'll be working on over the coming months; it was sort of an accident, and got me excited about an intentional version that could go one of several ways. I seared the salmon in an iron skillet, which was pretty hot, and as I messed around with my sauce components it got hotter still. So when I went to deglaze with wine, and found that there was hardly more than a sip left in the bottle, and then followed with maple syrup, the syrup caramelized pretty hard before I added more moisture in the form of vinegar and soy sauce. So I whisked in a bit of sesame oil and poured it over the fish. It hardened into an almost candied crust with excellent flavor and a too-durable chew, but it got me thinking of Heston Blumenthal's salmon with licorice crust and how the caramel could be modified to be more supple and seamless with the meltingly tender rare-in-the-middle fish. So I'll get back to you on how that goes.

After dinner I turned some local strawberries and rhubarb into that perennial favorite, even adding a lattice because I was asked nicely.

Our last night we had Vermont-raised quail on garlic scape risotto with sautéed bok choy. We bought the quail at the Saturday farmers' market, and they were very tasty, but I was pretty mad that I had been sold six semi-boneless birds frozen in a pack only to find that there were in fact just four in there. I will be contacting the farm to determine whether this was an honest mistake or just sleazy hucksterism.

We returned home to a happy garden (a friend watered it ) and ate stir-fried garden with tofu on leftover refried brown rice. Tonight we ate penne tossed with sautéed garden and guanciale. See what I mean? But because I care, I'm not going to bore you with those pictures. Instead, I'll leave you with a couple of shots of a very unhappy mouse who we found upon our arrival in Vermont. It had probably eaten a crumb of old poison somewhere in the house, and was easily scooped into a container and released outside. Milo was very taken with its fuzzy cuteness, as we were too; if they didn't gnaw and shit on everything and carry deer ticks, I wouldn't mind their ubiquity. There was much other captured and released wildlife as well–butterflies, a frog, a salamander, tadpoles–but none had the nimbus of fuzz that this little varmint did.

Sour Grapes (But In A Good Way)

I was out of town, so this link is a few days late. The new issue of Chronogram came out on the first, and in it is my profile of a Benedictine monk who makes extraordinary vinegars. I've been messing around with them a great deal in the kitchen, and they are a joy to use and to eat.

photo by the not-at-all sour Jennifer May