Category ArchiveSeasonal Cooking
Seasonal Cooking 08 Jul 2013 06:14 pm
The heatwaves of the New York City’s early summer are upon us, but fortunately they correspond with the season for shelling peas. That means you can cool yourself down with a refreshing and delicious batch of chilled pea soup. It requires minimal stove time, which is a good thing in hot weather. And except for the time it takes to shell the peas it’s quick enough to prepare that you could fix it in the morning before work and have it chilled and ready when you get home from your sweltering commute.
This version is fairly light: if you like it thicker and more vegetal you can raise the amount of peas. Home made stock is always best but not always feasible. If you must use commercial stock select the highest quality that’s available and always use a low sodium variety so that you have more control over the amount of saltiness. I recommend eating this with a fresh greenmarket salad of watercress or radishes and with your feet dangling over the sides of a swimming pool.
Seasonal Cooking 13 Jun 2013 09:33 pm
Tomatoes don’t worry me, and I don’t fret much over corn and collard greens. Those long-producing veggies will stay in the markets for weeks and weeks. I can enjoy them at my leisure. But the short-season crops — asparagus and peas and cherries and especially strawberries — put me into a panic. They’ll come and go quickly, so I feel I must eat them constantly, at every meal and every snack and then some.
But a guy can only eat so much, even of strawberries. That’s why one learns to preserve them. I can relax a bit knowing I’ve saved some of their piercing sweet-tart flavor for the dark days of winter, when all I can get are those abominable flavorless supermarket berries. And so this past weekend I brought home eight quarts or so of beautiful farmers market strawberries and experimented with three different ways to put them up for winter.
Putting Food By, that revered food preservation guidebook, gives three techniques for packing whole strawberries (as opposed to crushed or juiced) for the freezer: sugar-pack, syrup-pack, or water-pack. I figured water would, well, water them down, and I judged my juicy berries to be syrupy enough on their own, so I opted for sugar-pack. Sure enough, the sugared berries oozed out enough syrup to help preserve them for months in storage and to ward off freezer burn.
The process is simple: after washing and hulling the berries, toss with enough sugar to coat them well, pack them into freezer bags, gently squeeze out as much air as you can, and put them away in the freezer until a strawberry craving hits you sometime around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Putting Food By suggests ¾ cup of sugar for each quart of berries, but I found that one cup coated the three quarts I was packing just fine and so I stopped there. I hope I won’t be proved wrong come January.
This was not only my first strawberry jam but my first ever jam. For guidance I looked to Jam On, the excellent book by jam maker extraordinaire Leana McCarthy of Anarchy in a Jar. Her step-by-step instructions were clear, friendly and an indispensable guide through the jam-making process for a newbie like me. Jam On has a delicious-looking recipe for strawberry-balsamic jam, but I wanted a basic strawberry-only jam, so I devised a this recipe. The jars are supposed to set up for a week or two, but I snuck in a few tastes already and I predict good things come Christmastime.
I’m not sure what possessed me to try this. Without a dehydrator, you must rig up a food dryer by propping open your oven door, setting a fan next to it for air circulation, then leaving the oven running on its very lowest temperature for four, five or even six hours. It reduced a quart of strawberries to about a cup of leathery slivers. But oh my they are tasty. The slow shrinking of the berries concentrates them, and each little piece delivers a blast of flavor. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with them, but I doubt they’ll make it to winter.
Will this be enough strawberries for the season? Maybe, or maybe I’ll freeze another quart or two. After all, I still have plenty of time before pickling season.
Seasonal Cooking 30 May 2013 09:19 pm
Memorial Day has roots, according to Wikipedia, in “decoration days,” post- and even pre-Civil War commemorations and celebrations where people gathered to decorate soldiers’ graves. Afterward they’d have a “dinner on the ground” — a potluck on tablecloths spread on the grass. I guess these potlucks are part of the spirit and the history of the barbecues and feasts we have as Memorial Day traditions today. So even if my friends and I didn’t to pause to remember fallen soldiers when we gathered this past weekend, at least maybe we can say that the barbecuing and feasting was in their honor. Here’s to you old soldiers, and thanks.
And boy was there was barbecuing and feasting. There were hotdogs and chickens and there were sausages. There were burgers and potato salad and deviled eggs. There were (this being Brooklyn) homemade pickles and handmade mustard. And there were ground chicken kabobs and grilled pizza. Maybe those last two stretch the traditions of Memorial Day a bit.
The chicken kabobs were simply ground chicken flavored with fresh herbs, along with onion, garlic, lemon, and lots of salt and pepper, grilled on wide, sword-shaped skewers. When I made them once before a friend said “oh, you’ve made fresh sausages.” That first time the kabobs stayed put, but this time they wanted to peel themselves off the skewers and lay down on the grill to cook like salty, herby burgers. This was no great disaster, judging by how quickly the party guests snatched them up. But still I’d like to know better how to keep them on the skewers. A friend with some experience in the matter suggested tying them in place, so maybe I’ll start practicing my butcher’s knot.
And for Memorial Day what could be more American than pizza? Cooking pizzas on a grill is quite easy, except for the part that’s always hard: stretching and pulling the dough to make a a thin crust. As usual, mine were fat and oblong, making for pizzas that were bready instead of crackery-crisp. Fortunately, the skilled and versatile Cathy Erway was on hand, and she got the knack of thin crusts down right away.
We’d prepped diligently and so had plenty of toppings: olive oil, canned tomatoes, minced fresh oregano, minced green garlic, chopped spinach, sliced mushrooms, prosciutto, anchovies, Parmesan and mozzarella. The toppings cooked up and melted down quickly on the thin-stretched dough, and the pizzas disappeared as fast as we could cook ‘em.
As for my own skills with stretching dough, well, as with the kabobs it’ll give me something to practice over the summer. I’ll have no problem trying either of them again and again and again. Until then, maybe you’ll have better luck with this recipe for ground chicken kabobs.
Seasonal Cooking 16 May 2013 08:39 pm
Read the Recipe for kung pao fiddleheads
I would love to tell you how cooking with fiddleheads brings the qi of wood, the element of spring, into your food. I’d love to say how traditional Chinese medicine aligns spring with the cleansing powers of the body’s liver meridian, and that the early, bitter-tasting foods of the new season aid in the cleaning and rejuvenation of the body and spirit.
I can’t though because I don’t know very much about traditional Chinese medicine. But I do love to think how the new foods of spring are a symbol and catalyst for the renewal of body and soul. All winter we sustained ourselves with old food – root veggies from last year’s harvest, apples held in cold storage, August tomatoes sealed in vacuum jars — and now finally we’re eating again the young, newly sprouted, living food of the new year. How can you help but feel restored by that?
I was thinking about of all this when I asked Diana Kuan, author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, for help adapting her recipe for kung pao chicken to use stir-fried fiddleheads. Fiddleheads are the young tops of an edible fern, and are among the earliest edible things to grow as the warming sun melts away the last of winter. I thought: if I’m to bring the qi of Spring into this dish, shouldn’t I alter the recipe somehow to maintain the balance if its qi?
I’m sure Diana would’ve thought I was a little nuts if I’d asked her that, so instead I asked her something simpler: how should I alter her recipe to account for the flavor of the ferns? What’s some good advice for composing the sauce for a stir-fry? Her answer was simple as well: as in all cooking, let flavor be your guide. “I usually start,” she said “by evening out the salty flavors (soy sauce) w/ something acidic (rice wine, rice vinegar, black vinegar), something spicy (Sichuan pepper), something sweet (sugar), or something with a deeper flavor like hoisin or oyster sauce. And then throw in extras like sesame oil, chili sauce, or dried chilis.“
My kung pao fiddleheads stuck fairly close to Diana’s original recipe with a couple of adjustments: I wanted a milder sauce that wouldn’t hide the delicate bitterness of the ferns, so I used Chinese wine instead of vinegar. And since I’d backed off the sourness of the vinegar, I used less sugar as well. I was very happy with the finished product. I think it turned out much better since I composed it using flavor, rather than philosophy, as my guide.
Seasonal Cooking 08 May 2013 08:18 pm
If you think making dandelion wine is all about meandering in a green meadow, gathering flowers under a mild morning sun while spring breezes tumble up the hillside to play in the bushes and trees, you’re right. There are some steps to take afterward of course, but if you do it right the recipe begins in a pastoral scene like this. That’s how my girlfriend Karol & I found ourselves last Sunday morning on a grassy Vermont hilltop, looking out at the Green Mountains and picking dandelions. We could have picked them anywhere, but the owners of the beautiful Orb Weaver Farm invited us to pick at their place, so that’s where we went. Recipes for dandelion wine say to pick the flowers away from polluted, trafficy areas. By extension I’m sure that the wine will taste better for having been born in a such a beautiful place.
The idea to make dandelion wine was Karol’s. We were in Vermont at this time last year, and when she saw the yellow dandelions carpeting the ground everywhere she immediately thought of Edna Lewis, the great doyenne of southern cooking. Edna Lewis says, “the blossoms must be picked before noon. At midday they close up tight.” The basics of her recipe are: gather and clean the dandelion flowers ( “clean” means to pinch off as much of the green bracts as possible, leaving only the feathery yellow and white blossoms); pour boiling water over them and leave to steep for three days; strain, and add 3-1/2 pounds of sugar and leave to ferment for three weeks; strain again into jars and leave to ferment for 4 months. The flavor is said to be more like a liqueur or a sweet sherry. We’ll know what ours tastes like some time after Labor Day.
Today is day three. We’ll drain and sugar the wine tonight. The blossoms had to be transported to my Brooklyn kitchen from their Vermont meadow, and I hope the wine won’t suffer too much for it. When I poured boiling water over the dandelion flowers their buttery smell turned vegetal, like broccoli being steamed. After a day the odor mellowed and became grassy. On day two it became riper and sweeter and took on a fermented smell. Today the fermented smell is more pronounced. To me it smells earthy and full and pleasant. To Karol it smells like cat pee. Either way, I think it’s on its way to becoming wine.
I suppose it can be said that everything we humans eat compensates in some way for the fact that we can’t just eat sunlight like plants do. Instead we eat things that capture sunlight for us: leafy greens, fruits swelling up from the sun on their leaves, animal muscle built up by the sun-fed grass. In all my years of cooking, I’ve never handled anything quite so sun-like as those golden dandelion blossoms. When our first bottle of wine is uncorked under the chilly skies of autumn, I know that Sunday’s warm spring sun will come back to me.
Seasonal Cooking 24 Apr 2013 08:34 pm
Little by little, spring food is seeping into the local markets. At the Carroll Gardens greenmarket in Brooklyn last weekend, I picked up a very tasty bunch of tiny radishes. They came from Lani’s Farm in South Jersey, and they were grown in the real ground under the real sun, not in a greenhouse. I also got a beautiful bunch of pea shoots from Fishkill Farms, and a pint of (hooray!) strawberries. Both were greenhouse-grown but both tasted very much of spring.
What I really was hoping to find though were fiddleheads. An inside source at GrowNYC told me I might find some at the Rogowski Farm booth, but no luck. At Rogowski’s booth they told me that either the fiddleheads weren’t up yet or the farmer hadn’t yet made it out to the woods to get them. There were ramps and nettles in the market, but I’d have to wait for my fiddleheads fix.
In the meantime I’m enjoying those pea shoots (the strawberries I bought are long gone), and rummaging through my freezer for the last of what I put up last summer. This simple corn and jalapeno salsa could easily have been made with canned or commercially frozen corn, but it tasted much better with the corn I froze myself. Brightened with cilantro and lime, it lit up a dinner of black bean and adobo shrimp tostadas (topped with those radishes). Its sunny taste was a happy memory of last summer and, at the same time, with the spring sun finally warming the ground, a preview of the summer to come.
Seasonal Cooking 07 Apr 2013 09:40 pm
I do my best in this food-conscious era to stick by my locally grown principles all through the winter. I do without spinach and fresh tomatoes and instead cook with the squash and turnips stored from last year’s local harvest. I do it with an idealistic belief that I’m doing my part for a food system that’s healthier, safer, and more environmentally and economically sound (and sure, I also do it out of affection for the old fashioned idea of putting food up for the winter).
If only my love of winter vegetables could measure up to my political ideals and romantic notions. Honestly though, by this time of year I can barely stand the sight of another parsnip. In December and January when cold weather is still a cozy novelty I love the heartiness of winter veggies sticking to my ribs. By March though, I’m dying for some strawberries.
But of course there are always those last few root veggies in the fridge and I’m pledged not to let them go to waste. And so I faced the challenge, one more time, to come up with an interesting way to prepare them. This recipe had actually tossed around in my head over much of the winter, whenever my girlfriend brought home yet another kohlrabi from the Paisley Farm CSA. It’s a classic gratin, but with the twist of mushrooms to flavor the béchamel sauce it’s cooked in.
Karol & I served this with a roasted chicken, and despite my late-season aversion to root-cellar veggies it actually tasted quite good. By the time the last bites are gone, maybe, just maybe, there’ll be some fresh, green, spring vegetables in the markets.
Seasonal Cooking 26 Mar 2013 08:19 pm
here’s the recipe for shakshuka
When it comes to making up my own recipes, I can do pretty well combining ingredients and wrangling techniques. But I have a lot less confidence with mixing spices. I grew up with curry powder and Lawrie’s seasoned salt – that is, pre-made mixtures that add a pre-fabricated flavor to a dish and spare the cook the need for – and knowledge of — composing flavors for himself. This dilemma is especially true when I’m approaching a cuisine that I don’t have much experience with. A cuisine I haven’t spent a lot of time cooking or even eating. A cuisine, say, like Moroccan.
I first heard of shakshuka in a bagel shop in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. Along with their bagels and cream cheese they offered as short list of special menu items. I was crazy for one of them, a dish of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, but I could only ever refer to it as “Moroccan eggs” since I could never quite memorize its strange and usual name. By the time I was finally able to say “shakshuka,” the shop had closed and I was left to search the neighborhood for another place that served this delicious dish. Much later, I came to learn that shakshuka is a common staple throughout North Africa. It came to be popular in Israel as well, brought over by immigrating Tunisian Jews.
As you’d expect of a dish that’s widely enjoyed across a huge area, there are myriad and widely varied recipes. When I set out to make my own, though, I didn’t find a recipe that quite matched how I’d imagined it. It made me realize that I wanted to invent my own version, according to my imagined idea of what “Moroccan” tastes like. And I wanted to face up to my spice-mixing phobia.
I got a little help from an unusual book called The Flavor Bible, which purports to be a guide to the components of the flavors created by chefs across the globe. But otherwise I trusted my instincts. “Moroccan,” for my first shakshuka, would mean lots of cumin, balanced by citrusy coriander, parsley and mint. For spicy heat I used peperoncini or “Italian hot peppers.” I could’ve also used paprika, or cilantro, or tumeric, or even cinnamon, but I resolved that for this first batch to keep things simple.
The result, if not exactly how I remember it from the bagel shop, was awfully tasty. I served it up with plenty of feta cheese on the side, and some thick pillowy pitas I’d picked up in the Middle Eastern enclave of Astoria. When I make this dish again I might add a teaspoon or two of paprika, but at least I’ll be a little less afraid of dipping into my spice rack without the guide of a recipe.
Seasonal Cooking 24 Feb 2013 05:58 pm
I’ve gotten a lot of great new cookbooks recently, but one that I’m particularly excited about is Diana Kuan’s The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. You may well have heard about it already, as it’s getting a good amount of press. In case you haven’t, as its name suggests the book consists of recipes for the familiar staples found in a typical Chinese takeout joint.
This isn’t the book to go to for “authentic” Chinese cuisine: these are, as Diana says in her introduction, Americanized dishes. But it is the book to go to if you want to learn to cook crab Rangoon, or sweet and sour pork, or mapo tofu, or whatever your own most-craved takeout dish might be.
It’s also definitely the book to go for an accessible, friendly starting point for Chinese cooking, and for relief from daunting, weightier Chinese cookbooks with recipes for things like tea-smoked duck. The dishes in The Chinese Takeout Cookbook are eminently familiar, and the recipes for them are extremely well-written and clear. The friendly presentation makes you understand that these are not complicated dishes and are well within the reach of any cook.
For Diana’s Chinese New Year Virtual Potluck, I prepared her recipe for Kung Pao Chicken (one of my own very favorite takeout dishes). It was delicious. It took well under an hour to prepare, start to finish, rice and all, even though I was making this dish for the first time. I can’t wait to try the beef and broccoli, egg rolls, and the beautiful marbled tea eggs. Highly recommended!
Seasonal Cooking 23 Sep 2012 06:25 pm
As a kid I used to swipe Concord grapes off the vine growing out back of a neighbor’s shed. Their deep musty smell and rich sweet taste say “grape” to me, much more than those green gumdrop orbs called “seedless grapes.” It’s a fragrance and flavor very much of autumn, of sugars mellowed slowly on the vine all season, concentrated by a full summer’s worth of sun.
In upstate New York it’s a seasonal specialty to make pies from these grapes, as I’ve written about before on this blog. Prepping the grapes for the pie involves pinching out the green pulp into a saucepan, heating it until soft, then pushing it through a strainer to remove the seeds. The hot, strained pulp is then steeped with the purple skins. It’s a great cool autumn morning’s chore that leaves you smelling – and smelling like – Concord grapes for the rest of the day.
Concord grape season is also apple season, and I like a half-grape half-apple pie filling. This week my girlfriend Karol brought over the year’s first Honeycrisps from Paisley Farm CSA and a box of Concords she’d gotten from Stone Arch Farm’s booth in the Union Square Greenmarket. We rolled up our sleeves for some pie making.
Concord grapes are the inspiration (and usually also the ingredients) for grape jelly, so it only made sense to add peanut butter to the crust. Karol and I have done this in the past and have gotten a great peanut-butter-and-jelly taste. We have found, though, that incorporating peanut butter into a traditional pâte brisée crust can make it a little dry. This traditional pastry just seems too fussy to accept such a change.
This time, Karol, who’s well known around here as a pie genius, thought to use a peanut butter-laced pâte sucrée instead. This cookie-like crust worked perfectly (though next time we’ll likely skip the blind-baking, since the edges of the crust ended up a shade or two darker than we would’ve liked). As a riff on the traditional ‘floating crust’ Karol cut squares of the peanut butter pâte sucrée and arranged them in a beautiful Mondrian-esque lattice. I did mention she’s a pie genius, right?
Mixing apples into the grape filling lightened the intensity of those pungent Concords and added some texture by way of crisp apple crunch. And the crust had a delicious peanut butter flavor with a soft, moist, slightly crumbly texture. I think our peanut butter and jelly pie recipe is just about perfected.