Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Forget-You-Not the Flowers

I made a significant sacrifice Saturday night: I shared the last of our chive flowers with dinner guests. Sprinkled over slices of yellow tomatoes, the purple petals provided both color contrast and a lovely light onion flavor.
Although the chive blossoms are gone, deeper purple flowers still top our sage stalks (particularly nice for garnishing cream soups) and before long the basil plants will provide small white flowers to scatter on sauteed zucchini ribbons and rounds of grilled eggplant.
I've garnished my warm-weather fare with these three herb flowers for years, but a recent visit to Love Apple Farm made me realize I've been overlooking other great sources of culinary flower power. J and I were wandering amidst Cynthia's meticulously manicured garden beds and noted a parsley patch that had gone to seed."Isn't this due to be pulled?" J asked, to which Cynthia replied, "No, David wants the flowers and the seed heads."
A big bed of rocket abloom with white flowers? Same answer. Coriander seed heads? Destined for a squash pudding amuse-bouche at Manresa.

When a two-star Michelin chef grants amnesty to elderly herb and lettuce crops I'd have condemned to the compost pile, I start wondering what I've been wasting from our garden.

So now we're letting the French dandelion flower -- I garnished a platter of poached salmon with the pale blue flowers -- and I'm experimenting with the intensely flavored yellow seed heads from purple mizuna.

My new cooking-from-the-garden motto: If you liked the leaves you're gonna love the flowers.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Green Grows the Garlic

A brief post today because much of my time and energy is being consumed with caring for a sweet little boy felled by a shitty big virus. His mother graduates this week with a degree in graphic design (she did this blog's banner) and is slaving away at the installation of the Senior Design Show. While she paints and hammers and worries, I spoon pedialyte into a sad little mouth, sponge a hot little body and worry.
But I did want to report on the deliciousness of the green garlic dip in Daniel Patterson's article in the Sunday NYT Magazine.

I served it with raw florets of orange cauliflower (bought that morning at the Palo Alto farmers' market) rather than with artichokes, but I have enough left over to serve with chokes once I have time to cook again. For now, I need a blood-rare hamburger and a glass of Merlot. Maybe two glasses of Merlot

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tomato Wars

J and I generally agree on the big marital issues: sex, money, travel destinations and the importance of always owning at least two dogs. But seemingly minor matters occasionally rock our relationship; high on the list is his insistence on purchasing crappy tomatoes.
I was taught at an early age that beef should be served rare, broccoli is bearable if blanketed in Hollandaise and tomatoes should be eaten only when they've been ripened on the vine, picked in the morning and bought at a New Jersey farm stand in the afternoon. Consequently, although I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, I ate tomatoes only at the Jersey shore and only from late June through September.
When The Jerseys came in, we ate them every day. Dinner began only after the pitcher of iced tea and the platter of sliced tomatoes were on the table.

The first time J brought home hothouse tomatoes I restrained my horror and asked him not to do so again. I explained that these flavorless orbs had no place in our kitchen, that I was morally opposed to the encouragement of picking green tennis balls and then gas-ing them into faux ripeness, and that some foods are worth waiting many months for. He nodded and the next time he went to the store he bought tomatoes. In December.
After decades of marriage, I've given up. He buys tomatoes from November through May and I complain and he ignores my complaints. A truce sets in as the first local tomatoes arrive at the farmers' markets we frequent and sweet harmony reigns all summer as the dozens of tomato plants in our garden bear fruit.
Two weeks ago he brought home some sure-as-Hell-not-grown-within-a-hundred-miles tomatoes and instead of ignoring them I decided to try to make them meal-worthy. I had a round of Flo Braker's sour cream and cornmeal dough in the freezer so I planned dinner around her Cheese and Tomato Galette, which she demonstrated years ago on the Baking with Julia series on PBS.
This is not a good recipe; this is a marvelous, mood-enhancing, marriage-mending recipe. Even so-so tomatoes ascend several levels on the flavor scale within the folds of Flo's tender, buttery, lightly crunchy pastry.
You can find not only the recipe but also superb step-by-step photos for the dough here -- a new-to-me blog that I immediately added to my RSS feed.
Once you have the dough made, the galette goes together quickly.

Cheese and Tomato Galette
[adapted a bit from "Baking with Julia" by Dorie Greenspan]

1/2 recipe galette dough, chilled
2 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
2 ounces mozzarella , shredded
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade or torn
2-3 firm but ripe plum tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Fresh basil leaves for garnish

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400-degrees F.
Roll the dough directly onto a piece of parchment paper into an 11-inch circle. (This is a soft dough; sometimes I have to stop mid-rolling and put it into the fridge for a bit to firm up. )
Toss the cheeses and basil pieces together in a small bowl. Scatter the mixture over the dough, leaving a 2- to 3- inch border. Place the tomatoes in slightly overlapping concentric circles atop the cheese.
Fold the uncovered dough border up over the filling, allowing the dough to pleat as you lift it up and work your way around the galette. This happens naturally.
If you see a rerun of the PBS show you'll see that Flo's pastry pleats look like the hem of a Givenchy gown while mine, above, look like a sewing project from a junior high Home Ec class. If your tart look more like mine than Flo's, fear not. It still will taste sublime.
Bake the galette for 35-40 minutes or until the pastry is golden and crisp and the cheese is bubbly. Transfer the entire baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the galette rest on the sheet for 10 minutes. Slip a wide spatula or a small rimless baking sheet under the galette and slide it onto a second cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with fresh basil leaves. Better served the day it is made; best served within an hour or two of baking.

Because I was working with what I had on hand, I used feta cheese instead of the Monterey Jack and mozzarella. Different but still delicious.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

On My Coffee Table

I usually don't play the meme game, but I couldn't resist this one from the Gorgeous Redhead at Gorgeous Things. Gorgeous Things is a sewing blog -- elegant, near-couture-level plumage. Those who know me well would be astonished that I hang out there, seeing as I haven't threaded a needle since The Horror that was Home Ec Class. How did I even find her blog?
I fell in love with her posts at Project Rungay, where her avatar shows her ear lobe to ear lobe with my boyfriend, Tim Gunn. (Does Tim know he's my boyfriend? No, but I plan to enlighten him soon. I'm confident he'll be thrilled.)

So: the rules:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

I'd been reading "Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs" edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman. For a brief moment I considered cheating on the page # here--just a few digits lower would have put me into a Tamasin essay, but I'll do the right thing.
From "Hope for Snow," by Seattle chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas.

After the anger toward my pregnant wife subsided for "making it snow," I had a lemons-into-lemonade moment. Saigon Restaurant in the Pike Place Market, one of my favorite little holes in the wall, makes a delicious bowl of pork wonton soup. This must have been my inspiration, because somewhere during the first hour of service it occurred to me to make a lobster sausage with raw lobster meat and to fill wonton wrappers -- which we happened to have a case of in the refrigerator.

A nice little essay. But if you buy the book, DO NOT MISS Tamasin's chapter: an account of cooking a pheasant dinner in her Cambridge dormitory room. With a brace of pheasants that had gone hideously, maggotty bad.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Conversation with the Chef

Another book recommendation, this one from Chris Avila, the chef at Soif and La Posta in Santa Cruz.
J and I were ensconced in our favorite table at La Posta, right between the front window and the bar, and Chris was polishing wine glasses while we polished off a platter of potato gnocchi with duck ragu.

We were chatting about restaurants and recipe sources when Chris said, "Let me show you the book where I found the recipe for tonight's dessert." He went back into the kitchen and returned with "Cucina of Le Marche" by Fabio Trabocchi.
As soon as I got home that evening I ordered a copy and when it arrived I found it contained not only the dessert recipe but also one for the gnocchi.

For the latter you'll have to buy your own copy, but here's the orange and raisin bread, described by Trabocchi as "unquestionably the most popular dessert in all of Le Marche."

[Sweet Orange and Raisin Bread]

1 1/2 cups dark raisins
1 1/2 cups finely diced candied orange peel
1/2 cup Italian anise liquer
7 cups Italian 00 flour or bread flour
3/4 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
15 large egg yolks
grated zest of 3 lemons
Grated zest of 4 oranges
1 1/2 cups whole milk

Combine the raisins and candied orange peel in a small bowl, pour in the liquer, and let soak for 30 minutes.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350-degrees F.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl and set aside.
Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until smooth and pale. Reduce the speed to low and add the yolks, a few at a time, and then the zest, mixing until incorporated.

Alternately add the milk and the flour mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Switch to the dough hook and, with the mixture on low speed, add the raisins and candied orange, with the soaking liquid. Mix until fully incorporated.
Generously flour a work surface. Place the dough on the work surface and shape it into a loaf about 14 inches long. Place it on the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with sugar.
Bake the bread for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Chef Avila used golden raisins instead of dark and served the bread slices with a ramekin of homemade strawberry jam. A sweet finale to another splendid Sunday night supper at La Posta.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Brilliantly British

According to my brother, I was born bossy. Since he didn't enter the world until I was nearly four, he clearly exaggerates. I prefer to describe myself as evangelical about my enthusiasms. When I find a book I love, for instance, I want others to love it too. Lots of others.

Right now I'm preaching the virtues of "The Pedant in the Kitchen" by Julian Barnes -- a mini-book brimming with wit and wisdom. The much-honored author of "Flaubert's Parrot," "Arthur and George" and "Nothing to be Frightened of" describes himself as "a late-onset cook" who now cooks with pleasure, but "tense pleasure."

In the kitchen I am an anxious pedant. I adhere to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated.

I admit to a positive prejudice towards British food writers. If you've read previous posts here you know I love Nigella, Nigel, Tamasin and the ladies of The River Cafe. Barnes's writing centers on novels, short stories and literary essays rather than cookery, but I find his tales of the kitchen just as irresistable as those of my other favorite Brits.

One more excerpt to whet your book-buying appetite;
Like most people I annotate my cookbooks -- ticks, crosses, exclamation marks, emendations, and suggestions for next time. In certain cases next time is never. My annotation of [Richard] Olney's Courgette Pudding Souffle (and I apologize in advance for the language) goes as follows: This dinner for two took me four hours, The mouli doesn't work as he says, and on turning out the souffle collapses flat and the sauce becomes a quarter deep layer on top of it, i.e. a fucking disaster, But all the same: fucking delicious.

In defense of Olney's recipe, Barnes admits he failed to use the right sort of mold. A dish designed to be cooked in a ring mold rarely transfers happily to a different type of pan. But doesn't the above make you want to sit in Barnes's kitchen and peruse the rest of his margin notes?
If you aren't invited to his home in the near future, your next best course is to treat yourself to a copy of "The Pedant in the Kitchen." It's a small book, with a small price tag, packed with entertaining prose. As soon as I finish writing this I'm going to call my brother and command him to buy a copy.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Food Festival: Finale


Because our own garden is rich with lettuces and herbs right now, we didn't buy much produce at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market -- a couple of apples, a few fava beans, some heirloom tomatoes -- but filled our shopping bags instead with organic lamb and pork, several loaves of bread and eggs with pastel shells and deep orange yolks. But my favorite items came from the sublime Boulettes Larder.
By shortly after 10 am the little shop already had sold out of the stuffed quails I'd had my taste buds set on, but there was still a thick slice of pork rillettes available, as well as canneles as good as any I've eaten in France and some muhammara -- a Middle Eastern red pepper, walnuts and pomegranate molasses spread I adore.
Since we finished off the muhammara within a few days, I've been experimenting with making my own. So far, I like best this recipe from Paula Wolfert, found on David Leite's excellent website, Culinaria.

And since the two canneles lasted only a couple of hours after our arrival home, I'm contemplating making a batch of them as well -- although they'll require considerably more time and culinary skill than making muhammara does. I have the molds -- bought in Paris -- but not sure I have the requisite patience.

Oh, and if you think I bought this cheese mostly because I loved the label, you think the truth.