6.26.2010

The Sweet (Fleeting) Life of Strawberries


For me strawberries signal the start of summer. They remind me of twin popsicles and water sprinklers. For a split second I am eleven again, just finished with school for the year and ready for a strawberry shortcake kind of summer, light and filled with whipped cream clouds of hope. As adults, we don’t always get those kinds of summers. Sometimes we get summers when biscuits taste almost arid and it rains a lot, or at least enough to make dry biscuits simply intolerable.

This summer I am fully committed to a carefree existence, one with tan lines and little deuce coupes. That said (and as good as Brian Wilson may be), I still have adult-type problems from time to time and on this particular Tuesday, I was feeling a little vulnerable for biscuit making. I couldn’t take a biscuit calamity. You have to know your limits, especially when in proximity to knives.

Despite my fragile state, I still wanted to enjoy some strawberries. Their season comes and goes so quickly, if you aren’t careful you’ll miss it. So I racked my brain for a light dessert that would honor the strawberry, without sending me searching for xanax. I thought about making a pavlova with fresh strawberries on top, but who wants to eat a dessert named after a ballerina when you are in a bit of a mood. Also, I knew I didn’t have the patience for egg whites and so I went with something I knew I could handle: vinegar.

Flashback eight years: I was living in Rome for the summer and my roommates and I were each in charge of making a dish for a special lunch. I decided to attempt homemade pasta in our sweltering, bare bones kitchen. My roommate went out and bought a great bottle of balsamic vinegar di Modena to drizzle over berries she had picked up in the market that day. Brilliant. I am not sure what she did the rest of the day while I cut pasta in our kitchen sauna, perhaps took a carefree dip in the Trevi Fountain La Dolce Vita style. The pasta was fairly good, but the berries were complex; sweet, tart, addictive and spot-on summery.

And so I went “the sweet life” route this time around. I simply mixed the strawberries with a reduction of balsamic vinegar, black pepper and vanilla bean: a very adult dessert. (Almost the anti-strawberry shortcake.) The berries were good and would have been even better if I had some homemade vanilla ice cream, but I didn’t have any and wasn’t going to succumb to Haagen-Dazs. So I settled for a sprinkling of pistachios and ate dessert first that night. While it is really wonderful being an adult, it helps to be a kid every now and again, especially during the summertime.

Vanilla Black Pepper Balsamic Strawberries

1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out
Black pepper, to preference

Heat balsamic vinegar with vanilla bean seeds and pod on low until reduced by a little more than half. Discard pod.

Makes about 1/2 cup or so, depending on how far you reduce.

Notes:

The slower you reduce the better. If you reduce the vinegar too quickly it will remain fairly sharp. It took me about 30 minutes or so to do this. Chef Thomas Keller has a recipe that calls for 2 cups balsamic to be reduced over 2-3 hours. I am sure the result is glorious, but I have yet to make it this far and find it unlikely, at least in the summertime, that I will get there anytime soon.

Be sure to look at the balsamic vinegar you are buying to ensure it doesn't contain any additives or caramel coloring. A cheap vinegar is a good indication there are things sneaking in that aren't supposed to be there.

If you can afford aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena it is worth the money. It's aged for at least 12 years and has passed a taste test indicating a higher quality balsamic. (Many balsamic vinegars are watered down and mixed with boiled red wine vinegar.) For a real treat, look for the extravecchio variety, meaning it has been aged for at least 25 years. Its syrupy and sweet and would be lovely on berries and ice cream. No reducing necessary.


6.18.2010

Garlic, I Lost You To the Summer Wind


I’ve been looking forward to home grown garlic since I planted it last fall. Garlic requires a bit of forethought, as it isn’t supposed to be ready for harvesting until summer is in full swing. A 10-month commitment: and so I planned and planted.

Plant garlic before bone-chilling New England winter sets in. Check.

See green shoots emerge a few weeks after planting. Check.

Look for shoots to reappear in spring. Check.

Come back from vacation on the Cape to find all traces of growing garlic completely gone. CHECK.

With summer a mere three days away, and my growing garlic mysteriously nowhere to be found, I can’t help but feel a bit betrayed (also bothered and bewildered). When I planted the garlic last fall, I imagined all the fun we would have come summer: pasta pomodoro, roasted garlic hummus, ratatouille … the list was endless. I thought we both wanted these things. Did I do something wrong? Did I water too much? Not enough? I will never know.

Heartsick over this unexpected loss, I turned to the one person that I knew would understand: Sinatra. And oh boy, did he. Just listen in:

Like painted kites, those days and nights, they went flyin’ by. The world was new, beneath a blue umbrella sky. Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you. I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind. (From Sinatra’s song “Summer Wind”)

So what would Frank do when faced with broken summertime dreams? He’d cut his losses and trade ole’ garlic in for a younger, fresher broad. This is where the garlic scape comes in. During late spring and early summer, the garlic bulb begins to grow underground, while its above ground green shoot starts to curl. Once the shoot starts to loop de loop, it’s time to chop it off to allow for the garlic bulb to mature: what’s left is the "green" garlic scape.

The scape is delicate in flavor, milder than traditional garlic and quite tender if harvested young. It makes a great substitute for garlic, especially if you find raw garlic to be harsh (which I do). Turns out the garlic scape is also a great stand in for both garlic and onions and doesn’t require any cooking. Ah dear garlic scape, it's almost summer and I’ve already got you under my skin.

Garlicky Gorgonzola Dressing

3 ounces Gorgonzola (or other blue cheese)
1/4 cup Greek Yogurt
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
About 1 garlic scape, finely chopped
2 chives, finely chopped
6-8 basil leaves
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste (for salt I used about 1/3 tsp)

Combine all ingredients.

Yields about 1 cup.

Notes:
If you find raw garlic overwhelming you may want to start off with 1/2 a garlic scape and then add more to taste. Now is the time (late spring/early summer) to look for the scape at your local farmers' market. I've even seen it in grocery stores.

I used 0% Greek yogurt because it was what I had around and the dressing was great, but you could certainly use a higher percentage; I imagine things would only get better for you.

This dressing will be fairly thick, if you wish you could thin it out with more vinegar (or a little buttermilk); it would also be great as is as a vegetable dip.

6.12.2010

The Crab: Good with Mayo, Bad with Monogamy


Mating for life: an interesting concept. I’ve always found it intriguing the variety of species that will stick with one partner. (This is one odd top ten list, so brace yourself.) 1. Swans. 2. Termites 3. Turtle Doves 4. Black Vultures 5. French Angel Fish 6. Penguins 7. Albatrosses 8. Bald Eagles 9. Wolves 10. Worms

During my research, I also found that rodents are quite promiscuous, though I suppose it makes sense given their disease-carrying reputation. Interestingly enough, the blue crab is stuck somewhere in between. A female crab mates only once in her life, while the male continues to mate with other she-crabs. Hmmm.

Blue crab season ironically coincides with wedding season. We humans have the option to choose whether we will mate for life and—whatever the decision—it’s okay as long as you find someone with the same view. Simple concept, but it tends to get a little sticky, as our intellectual capabilities are a bit more complicated than that of the blue crab. Case in point: lately I’ve been surrounded by a boatload of people getting married and others getting divorced. Personally, I adore the idea of having a life buddy to pal around with, through the good times and bad souffl├ęs. I also understand that not everyone is lucky enough to have that. And that’s okay.

The good news: no matter what happens in life, food provides unwavering support. It is there to have and to hold: to comfort and to energize, to cook and to eat. Whatever the mood, there is always a food—somewhere out there—to match. And on this particular day, I was feeling crab salad. I was also feeling like a puffer fish, recently back from a friend’s bachelorette weekend in Florida. I needed something decidedly “light” for dinner. And so I hustled my swollen body to the Copley Square farmers’ market on my lunch break, in search of vegetables to aid in the de-bloating process.

At the Atlas Farm stand, I found some lovely French breakfast radishes and purple scallions. The colors were so vibrant that as I walked back to work, it looked like I was carrying a bouquet. I chuckled as I thought how nicely the hot pink radishes would pair with a crisp white wedding dress, apparently still having my prior wedding-filled weekend on the brain. (And perhaps triggering me to put the therapist back on speed dial.)

Alas, I am decidedly like a black vulture when it comes to my mating habits. Or perhaps more appropriately: an albatross, given her crustacean diet. As for our dear friend, the crab? Well, I ate him and perhaps a few of his buddies. I don’t agree with their skewed social views, but they make one hell of a marriage when partnered with mayonnaise.

Crab Salad

12 ounces shelled crab (fresh or about 2 cans if fresh is unavailable)
2 scallions, sliced
2 radishes, diced
3 sprigs each of tarragon, lemon verbena and dill, minced
1 tbsp capers
2 tbsp mayo
Juice of one lemon
1 tbsp grainy mustard
Pinch cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients.

Serves 4.

Notes:

The bite of the radishes and scallions is a great contrast to the sweetness of the crab, but if you are looking to tone down the intensity you could always substitute more mellow vegetables, like red peppers and celery.

The crab salad was great on top of greens to help balance out the debauchery of the past weekend, though putting it on a brioche bun would be decadent.

Blue crabs are currently fairly sustainable. For more info on sustainable seafood check out Monterey Bay Aquarium.

6.03.2010

You Say Potato, I Say Paesano

The poor potato. It has sure put up with a lot over the years. First, it was attacked by blight in the mid 19th century, during the infamous potato famine in Ireland. Then, in the mid 20th century (and again in the late 20th century), a flock of bacon-eating Atkins dieters attacked the potato, in a last-ditch attempt to shed pounds. I don’t know which is worse: a moldy, spore-spreading fungus causing massive starvation or doughy carb-deprived potato haters. I imagine in both camps people were pretty irritable.

Frankly, I get a little defensive when it comes the potato. I feel like it is misunderstood: the Marlon Brando of the vegetable world, if you will. And so, I often find myself defending them.

Yes, they are a “carb,” but so are peas and corn and you don’t see them terrorizing the neighborhood. Potatoes also have vitamin C, potassium, fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals, the inner dietitian in me wants to scream. Instead, I usually just reach for the ketchup.

The more potatoes are defamed, the more I like them. Thankfully, I am not to only one. In May, I was at a Slow Food Boston book discussion with author Amy Cotler; she was speaking about her book, The Lovacore Way, when the issue of Maine potatoes came up.

Apparently, they are not easy to find in Boston, though Maine is one of the only East Coast states with prolific potato production. A woman in the audience waxed poetically about Maine potatoes like they were rare Afghani opium. She was clearly jonzin’ for a fix. I was intrigued. The very next weekend—oddly enough—I stumbled upon some Maine potatoes at Harvest Co-op in Cambridge. I was giddy.

I bought up a hefty few carb-loving pounds and headed for home. Now, I’ve made oven fries many times, but these were by far my best. Ever. Maybe it was the use of herbs from my garden. Maybe it was the new bright green, intensely grassy, Paesano olive oil I bought. (I kid you not, that was the brand name. Oh, the irony.) Or maybe, just maybe, it was the Maine potatoes. Whatever it was that fateful day, the oven fries were fabulous; crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, golden brown and worth doing hard time for. So, should you encounter a potato-phobe in your future, simply buy some Maine potatoes and make him an oven fry he can’t refuse.

Oven Fried Herbed Maine Potatoes

3-4 large potatoes, cut into long wedges
3 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tbsp herbs, minced (such as rosemary and thyme)
2-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Place potatoes on a baking sheet and toss with garlic, herbs, olive oil and salt and pepper (until potatoes are thoroughly coated and shiny). Roast at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until deep golden brown.

Serves about 4-5.

Notes:

The russet potato has a high starch, low moisture content, which makes for great oven fries.

Some recipes say to turn potatoes in the oven every so often. I found that turning these potatoes once, towards the end of their cooking, was sufficient.

Don’t forget to check the farmers’ market for local potato varieties; you should see them start to pop up in Boston July through November.