Category ArchiveSeasonal Cooking
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.
Seasonal Cooking 01 Jul 2012 09:50 pm
Mike Kokas of Paisley Farm says on his website that he “plants with the chef in mind.” That is, he grows things he thinks adventurous cooks are going to like. This year he’s growing something called “Chicory Catalogna Puntarelle.”
The leafy bundle of chicory greens was a curious sight to Paisley’s CSA members when they picked up this week’s delivery. My girlfriend Karol (a site coordinator for Paisley Farm’s CSA) wanted to find the best way to use this unfamiliar vegetable, so we asked our friend Inger-Lise McMillan to come over.
Lise is an excellent cook and an inveterate Italophile. She spent an undergraduate year in Bologna, then went back after graduation for a three-year stay. While she was there, one of her roommates taught her the classic Roman preparation for puntarelle dressed with a rustic sauce made from anchovies and garlic.
The long-stemmed leafy greens we got from Paisley were not actually the same puntarelle that Lise was familiar with. She was used to seeing the pinecone-shaped puntarelle head, which Romans slice thinly and cause to curl by soaking in water. What we got in our CSA delivery, apparently, were the puntarelle leaf ends.
Puntarelle chicory is a bitter-tasting green, and the pungency of anchovies is a perfect match for its bold flavor. If you want to take the edge off of puntarelle’s bitterness, a quick blanch in boiling water or a long soak in cold water is said to mellow them. When Lise came over to teach us her recipe, however, she opted to give the leaves a quick soak then chop them. Instead trying to make them taste milder, she upped the amount of anchovies in the dressing to balance the flavor.
For the dressing, she pounded several anchovy fillets in a mortar with garlic, salt, white pepper and white wine vinegar, then added just enough olive oil to bind everything together. If you prefer a smoother consistency you can mix everything in a blender or food processor, but we all liked the way the rustic, slightly chunky texture mixed with the crunchy greens.
The punterelle salad was ready in a flash, and we still had plenty of wine left to drink, so we set out to make orecchiette to accompany it. Pasta making is formost among Lise’s culinary talents, and none of us were quite able to match her perfectly-shaped “little ears” of pasta. We made a quick tomato sauce loaded with Paisley Farm basil to complete this great summer night’s dinner.
Seasonal Cooking 23 Jun 2012 08:59 am
Read the recipe here.
I’m happy as a clam because it’s early summer and that means peas in the farmers markets. Sugar snaps and shelling peas are at their short season’s peak and I’m eating them at every opportunity. I’ve made some simple dishes like steamed shelling peas with roasted potatoes, but this week I wanted to get a bit fancier. Crepes, I thought, would make a nice wrapper for some sautéed sugar snaps, and would put a dent besides in the binfull of buckwheat flour aging in my fridge, needing to be used up.
Wilkow Orchards always has great sugar snaps at Brookyn’s Boro Hall farmers’ market: plump, crisp, so tender you can eat them raw. I brought some home and prepped them carefully, snapping off the stem ends and pulling them down along the pods’ undersides to pull out any strings. For good measure I do the same along the backside of the pod, in case there are any ‘back’ stings, but these were so tender I needn’t have bothered.
I sautéed them together with turnip greens from the Paisley Farm CSA and a nice, fresh spring onion. I finished the mixture with goat cheese for a simple and tasty crepe filling. I used my standby Joy of Cooking recipe for the buckwheat crepes, though of course you can use whatever crepe recipe you have on hand, however plain or fancy.
So far so good, but the dish needed a sauce to round it out. My repertoire of sauces is, I must confess, pretty limited, so at first all I could think to do was make some variation on that familiar mainstay, the Béchamel. But a flour-thickened sauce didn’t seem quite right. It wouldn’t be summery enough for this dish.
I’m lucky to have on hand a copy of Sauces, the excellent cookbook / reference book, by James Peterson. There I learned that one can use reduced cream in place of a floury roux to thicken a sauce. I used this technique to thicken a flavor base made from the greens tops of the spring onion, sauteed in butter. To this I added white wine and stock, cooking until the liquid was mostly evaporated. Then I added a mixture of cream and crème fraiche, and cooked it down until it reached a thick, spoon-coating consistency. I flavored it with some prepared mustard, chopped herbs, salt and white pepper. (I’ve written up these steps in recipe format here.) The result was a perfect topping for my crepe-wrapped peas and greens.
Paradoxically, though rich, the cream sauce tasted lighter than a floury béchamel would have. I’m very happy to add reduced-cream sauces to my arsenal, but I must admit it’s a bit of an embarrassing discovery: it’s such a simple and basic technique that I’m sure it’s already well known to many home cooks. I’m excited to experiment with more variations soon, assuming of course that I don’t use up all of my cream by spooning it over strawberries.
Seasonal Cooking 01 Apr 2012 01:37 pm
Every year on St. Patrick’s Day I make a corned beef and cabbage dinner, and every year I seem to have a ton of cabbage left over. So this year I found the smallest cabbage in Brooklyn.
A bowl of my corn chowder looks pretty tame next to the photo in the James McNair cookbook I got the recipe from, but it was awfully tasty anyway. I used sweet corn that I’d frozen at the peak of the season last summer. I’ve been eating my frozen corn all winter, and there’s still a lot left. Even seven months after it went into the freezer, it still tastes way better than Green Giant.
In late January, for Karol’s birthday, we had a festive potluck party at our favorite local pub. Our contribution to the spread was these homemade egg rolls, filled with cabbage and ground pork. They were a team effort as usual: Karol rolled them & I fried them. I made a spicy mustard dipping sauce simply by grinding a generous scoop of mustard seeds in a mortar and pestle, with some water and rice wine vinegar. Our friend Cathy also brought eggrolls, and wrote about the novel process she used to make them, with no deep frying required.
I’m still making whole wheat leavain bread, every other weekend or so. It’s coming out pretty good every time, though I’m still not getting that professional, crackly crust that home bakers strive for. It’s possible I’m getting the best crust I can make in my non-professional home oven (and it’s a crappy rental-apartment oven at that), but I’m searching the Internets for tips and tricks from other bakers anyway. The bread is quite tasty, and hearty enough to keep me on me feet. I eat it for breakfast, smeared with plenty of yogurt cheese and the peach butter that I canned last summer.
Another recipe from the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book, and another use for the natural-yeast levain that make my homemade bread rise. I start these waffles the night before, by mixing some levain into whole wheat flour and water to make a sponge that ferments overnight. The next morning I use the sponge to make a batter. The waffles are hearty but not heavy, and deeply rich with flavor. They make a white flour waffle seem as satisfying as a saltine.