Thursday, July 31, 2008

Contemplation on Beets

I'm embarrassed to truthfully admit here that I’ve never cooked a real beet. In my twisted mind I'm thinking, "All that red. What a mess."

However, my personal challenge this summer is to reach out to lesser known produce, i.e. those I haven’t had a previous kitchen encounter. This leaves a very broad field, since without a nudge I tend to gravitate to the same comfortable options. That in mind, beets came into focus at my local farmer’s market this week and I timidly opted for only 4 – just in case. They sat in my fridge for 2 days as I pondered what to do next.

With all the fabulous fresh fruit lately I’ve gotten into deep dessert overload. In fact, I’ve been seriously contemplating a one day fast - a time to halt, to eat simply and meditatively. Only enough to purify the mind, body and soul: a light salad, a bit of fruit, round it out with lemon tea. A very good idea.

In this salad mode I mused, I could kick it up a notch and take the easy way out with those beets! Feature them raw with some edgy greens, a delicious cheese - perhaps a Rogue River Blue or a Basque P'tit Pyrenees, add sweet tangy Australian mandarin orange wedges, some toasted hazelnuts, maybe a few olives, top it all off with a lovely Raspbery-Citrus or Sherry Vinaigrette. Nice. Well, not exactly a simple salad, and likely more than a days worth.

Of course then, Red Flannel Hash was a real possibility… I love Corned Beef Hash; but it seemed the humble beet would slip into obscurity, overshadowed by those hefty hash partners. Besides, I’m trying to go light here… maybe not.

A friend suggested Borscht and we both tittered at the idea! Borscht? Ha! Now that’s desperately dull, isn’t it? I’m sure I’ve had it before, but it left no memorable impression. And so it went. Until I remembered the Smoked Chicken Stock in the freezer; and then Borscht began to make sense. More research, further contemplation. Thus evolves a soup equally worthy of an all day fast, a feast, or a classy chilled starter course.

Good news! I am relieved to reveal that beet juice is not life threatening, although I carefully donned surgical gloves, just in case. The peeling and chopping proceeded quickly, as opposed to roasting them whole (another consideration), and I was done in no time; all surfaces including my wooden board wiped clean without a trace of red! Into the pot they went along with the other veggies and soup was ready within 30 minutes! Next time I will forget the gloves - and there will be a next time!

This is truly a healthful soup, incredibly satisfying, and a stunning ruby red color to behold. I personally like the texture and identity of the jewel-like vegetables and opted not to puree – another option. Although the Smoked Chicken Stock is a fabulous addition, I now recognize that the combination here is so pristine, an excellent vegetable stock would be equally successful. I took my cue from the pickled beets we served at Thanksgiving when I was growing up, and offset the beets’ natural sweetness with a similar touch of cider vinegar. On final, I stirred in chopped dill plus a good hit of fresh lemon juice, and tweaked it with a bit more sugar to balance the sweet/sourness. A dollop of yogurt to swirl in makes this a spectacular summer soup – hot or cold.

Further embellishments: add grilled or sautéed Kielbasa for a full and satisfying meal. If the beet greens are available, cut them up, sauté in olive oil and garlic, add a hint of lemon juice, and garnish the soup.

Beet Borscht
Inspired by 1998 Bon Appetit magazine, per Epicurious

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
¼ teaspoon allspice
6 cups Smoked Chicken Stock, approx., or other broth
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
2 carrots, medium chop
3 red potatoes, medium chop
4 beets, peel, medium chop
1/2 head green cabbage, cored and medium chop
1/4 cup dill, chop, or more
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Additional salt, pepper, sugar, or vinegar to taste
Yogurt or sour cream, lemon, dill

In a large pot over medium high, heat oil and sauté onion until soft; stir in the garlic and allspice and cook until aromatic. Add broth, tomato sauce, condiments and seasonings; add carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage.

Bring soup to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the dill; adjust flavors with lemon juice, salt, pepper as needed, and/or sugar to balance.

Serve hot or cold. Top with dollop of yogurt, sprinkle with dill, offer additional lemon. Serves 6. ~~

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Peach Perfect

With all the hyper-fresh fruit hitting the markets in these last days of July, I’m on a serious dessert kick. Nothing is better than a ripe, juicy peach heavy with the sweet promise of summer; so tempting of late, I barely made it out of the market before polishing off my first one. Heading home and temporarily sated, my mind turned to visions of a glorious Clafoutis with peaches.

Ever since I experienced my first Clafoutis at a charming inn in France I have been smitten by this dessert. It was displayed, somehow oddly appropriate, in welcoming splendor on a large entry table - a large deep pan-full, partially cut, for all to ponder. Ultimately, it was as remarkable as it appeared: thick dense fruity custard loaded with sliced apples, sheathed in a puffed and crisp exterior.

I religiously collect Clafoutis recipes and photos, prepare it, sample it whenever the opportunity is presented. One thing I do know, is that there must be as many ways to prepare this classic as there are ways to make bread pudding. Depending on the proportions of egg, flour and milk/cream, the results can be anywhere from a custard base, to a crepe-like consistency, and even a cake of sorts. I love them all.

One version that caught my curiosity recently comes from The French Farm House Cookbook by Susan Hermann Loomis. This one seemed to have a higher amount of milk/cream and more flour than most; plus requiring a minimal amount of butter. Although cherries tend to be the traditional fruit in the Limousin region, Susan suggests apricots. In the past I have also made delicious Clafoutis with apples, pears, plums, and even mangoes.

As far as I am concerned, this is utter perfection. It has all the attributes I find important: it looks delicate and fragile, however it remains beautifully puffed and light. It stands firm and stable, in wonderful contrast to the thick sumptuous interior custard afloat with intense sliced peaches. To die for!

Peach Clafoutis
Adapted from The French Farm House Cookbook
by Susan Hermann Loomis
4 peaches -- pitted and cut into thick wedges
1 cup flour -- minus 2 Tbsp, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt -- heaping
2 cups milk, divided
3 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar, or more
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon butter -- cut into 6 pieces

Preheat oven to 450 degrees, butter and lightly flour 9 1/2: round tart pan or baking dish.

In mixing bowl place the sifted flour and salt and mix to combine. Whisk in 1 cup milk until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking after each. Whisk in sugar, the remaining 1 cup milk, and vanilla.

Arrange the peaches in bottom of baking dish. Pour batter over fruit. Dot with butter and bake until golden and puffed, 30-40 minutes. Cool thoroughly. Serves 6. ~~

Clafoutis Musings: Be certain to butter and flour the baking dish, it will help the rising process. Another trick is to use a very hot oven. Regarding sugar quantity, depending on the fruit, I sometimes sprinkle additional sugar over it before adding the custard. The peaches are so juicy I would not recommend this and would add a bit more to the custard instead. Milk vs cream: it’s customary in most Clafoutis to include cream in the custard, I find 2% milk suffices nicely, just don’t skimp on using the best fruit available.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kitchen Kuchen

This past weekend I wanted to bake a casual seasonal cake of some sort for out of town visitors and was thrilled to spot marionberries at my neighborhood produce market. These sweet, plump beauties are a coveted specialty crop here in Oregon, and surprisingly as it turns out, marionberries haven’t been around all that long. They were introduced back in the 40’s/50’s as a hybrid cross between two other stalwarts: the small highly prized ollalieberry and the large, prolific Chehalem blackberry.

Here’s a marionberry version of my latest easy dessert and adaptable snack of choice from Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal, a great little cookbook on simple snacks of all descriptions. It’s fairly stingy on the butter and includes yogurt, which I appreciate, with my penchant for pecking….

Some may choose to call this a coffeecake because of the yummy crumble topping; however as a fellow grazer I prefer to loosely refer to it as a kuchen, with its less limiting implications and timeless possibilities. Try other seasonal fruits such as apricots, pears, or other berries, you won’t be disappointed.

Marionberry Kuchen
Adapted from Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 cup plain yogurt or milk
1 1/2 cups berries; 2 peaches, apples, 3-4 plums peel if needed, slice
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons corn syrup or honey
1/4 cup almonds, sliced, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line and spray 8x8” pan or 5x14” tart pan.

In a medium bowl whisk butter and sugar until well blended, beat in egg and vanilla.

Combine dry ingredients separately along with lemon zest: add half to the butter mixture and beat just to blend; add the yogurt and beat just to blend. Add remaining dry ingredients and beat until just combined.

Spread batter evenly into pan. Sprinkle with berries or layer sliced fruit on top, placing slices close together to overlap, the fruit with shrink as it bakes.

For crumble: In a small bowl, stir sugar, flour, cinnamon together, add the butter and crumble with fingers or fork. Stir in almonds if using and sprinkle the topping evenly over fruit. Bake 30-40 minutes or until golden and springy to touch. Cool in pan; or if using tart pan cool briefly and unmold sides, allow to cool and remove bottom. Serves 4 to 6. ~~

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Soul Food

Nothing speaks to me on a primal level more than a dense, tangy loaf of crusty bread; it's appealing, satisfying and comforting, a tangible link with the past when bread had revered status, and it wasn't about the carbs. I am completely in awe of the talent and dedication involved in creating a well crafted loaf. Upon reviewing the possibilities of producing a fool proof first-rate version at home from I was instantly intrigued: billed as an ‘artisan no-knead bread baked in a dutch oven’.

Thanks to its originator, Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan, this formula is approachable for the most novice baker. The dough requires a pittance of ¼ tsp. yeast with a first rise at room temperature taking up to 18 hours; this slow process produces an active highly fermented biga of sorts. Baking the dough in a heavy covered pot (a dutch oven) produces the moisture necessary for a dense crust and intense crumb.

Call it providence, about this time my sister-in-law steps forward bearing an unwanted dutch oven – with no inducement on my part! My mind is already processing the necessary time requirements for the ‘artisan no-knead bread baked in a dutch oven’. I start my dough before dinner; it takes minutes to whip up and set it aside for its overnight rise. By mid morning the dough is light, the surface dappled with bubbles. Since this is a wet, somewhat awkward dough, a dough scraper helps to gently move it about. A couple more flip-roll-and-rest sessions and by late morning my bread is in the oven sending off a marvelous, yeasty perfume. I can hardly bear not lifting the lid for a quick peek but resist. Finally, it’s baked and cool enough for lunch. Well, actually, it was lunch.

Note to self: Plan ahead.
I’ve made this loaf several times now, using different flour combinations, adding seeds, nuts, herbs and various flavorings to satisfy my mood or complement a meal. With my recent glut of garlic whistles, this week’s solution was obvious: French Onion-Garlic Bread, pungent with green garlic and Parmesan cheese and topped with caramelized onion and more cheese - truly outstanding. In lieu of garlic whistles, substitute sautéed garlic slivers.

French Onion-Garlic Artisan Bread
Inspired by Manhattan Sullivan Street Bakery
3 cups flour
1/4 tsp active yeast, or quick rise
1 3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups water
olive oil for coating
extra flour, cornmeal, or wheat bran, etc for dusting

Filling Additions: 1 Tbsp olive oil, 2 Tbsp chopped garlic whistles or fresh garlic slivers, 3 Tbsp. chives, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese,grated
Topping Additions: 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 sweet onion sliced in half through center and cut into strips, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
Tools: 1 or 2 bowls, wooden spoon, scraper, large cotton towel, 2 3/4 qt. dutch oven

Ahead prepare any additions to bread: saute 2 Tbsp chopped garlic whistles or garlic slivers in olive oil to soften.
For bread dough: In a medium bowl combine all of the dry ingredients, including dough additions of garlic, chives and cheese. Using spatula add water and stir for 30 - 60 seconds to incorporate and form a loose wet dough, it will be sticky and shaggy.

Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil, place dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let dough rest at room temperature (70 degrees) for 12-18 hours,until light and bubbles form on surface.

On lightly floured surface, gently turn out dough sprinkling lightly with flour and fold once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 15 minutes on the work surface, or in a bowl.
Next, shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, cornmeal, or bran; place dough seam side down onto the towel and dust again. Cover the dough with the towel and let rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.

At least 30 minutes before dough is ready, put cast-iron pot (or stoneware) in oven; preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove pot from oven when it has been heated. Carefully slide hand under towel and flip dough over and into hot pot; it will look messy. Cover with lid, bake 30 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare Caramelized Onion Topping: in medium saute pan heat oil and onion, saute over medium heat about 20 minutes until onion begin to turn golden. Allow to cool.
After bread has baked 30 minutes, remove from oven, sprinkle top evenly with caramelized onion and grated Parmesan cheese. Return to oven and reduce heat by 25 degrees, bake uncovered until loaf is browned, 15 - 30 minutes more. Remove pot to wire rack to cool briefly; carefully turn bread out of pot to cool on rack. . Makes one 1 1/2 pound loaf. ~~

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fava Beans and Garlic Whistles...

Back in the land of milk and honey, last Saturday I ventured downtown to the very established Eugene Saturday Market. After struggling with the sadly under performing downtown farmers market in Greenville, SC my spirits soared with this robust, ebullient, slightly off tilt extravaganza in full glide.

There was chatter among the vendors, some thought it a little slow for this time of year. Were the nearby Olympic Trials creating competition instead of a draw? From my starving perspective there were plenty of folks milling about, shopping, chatting up the eclectic artisans and vendors promoting their tie-dyes, pottery, astrological advise and such. The food booths were surrounded by swarms of hungry diners and undecided debaters, others simply gawk and support nearby impromptu musicians.

The real sensory overload for me was across the street on yet another block showcasing a bustling assortment of local farmers, nurserymen, bakers and related merchants. To this point, I have maintained some level of composure, but fully loose it here! Healthy, charming plants I've never seen before are provided with personalized handling instructions; abundant displays of handcrafted breads and fresh baked sweets are intertwined with artisan honeys, jams and preserves; a procession of booths brimming with pristine organic produce: multi-colored radishes, fresh berries, cherries of every type, kales, lettuces...

At one booth, Jessie stops mounding green beans long enough to tell me about their latest crop of fava beans - something I've always wanted to try. Shell them like peas she explains, they are so young and tender they haven't yet grown the tough outer skin that can form around more mature beans.

Next to the fava beans are tidy bunches of thin green, snaky looking things Jessie calls Garlic Whistles. I love it! Alice Waters also refers to them as Green Garlic, they are the tender stalks of the garlic plant plucked before the bulb forms.  Into my politically correct market bag they go!

Much later... I stand transfixed in my kitchen staring down at my morning haul.  When I was little I could not abide lima beans - my mom's version were were flavorless, dry, and chokingly inedible. As I begin the tedious shelling process my biggest nightmare sets in:  these guys remind me of those dreaded lima beans.

Nevertheless, with ultimate faith in Alice Waters' judgement and Jesse's encouragement I cautiously press on. I cook them only long enough to soften them, al dente perhaps, but not bleach out their vibrant green.

Whoa!  Delicious and creamy, with a slight bit of texture from the skin - their subtle flavor reminds me of roasted chestnuts. So simple, so complete, the crunchiness of the mild garlic whistles, the fresh herbs and the pasta all soar in a triumphant symphony. Unfounded fear, thank you, Alice.

Fava Beans and Pasta
Adapted from Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook by Alice Waters
1 lb pasta, garganelli, penne, or a shell of some sort
3 cups fava beans, young and tender; 2 lbs in shell, blanch, peel
3 tbsp olive oil, more if needed
1/2 cup garlic whistles, mince, cut off the tough flower end
1/3 cup green onions, chopped
1 tsp winter savory
1 tsp rosemary
lemon juice, a few drops to taste
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
4 oz feta cheese, crumble or shave
olive oil for drizzling

Cook the pasta al dente. Reserve a cup or so of pasta water.

Meanwhile prepare fava bean ragout by heating about 3 tbsp olive oil in skillet over moderate heat. Add the fava beans, the garlic whistles, the herbs, freshly ground pepper and salt to taste. Gently cook until onions are soft and beans are tender, about 5 minutes. Add a splash of pasta water to keep moist, stir in the green onion towards end of this process to avoid overcooking.

Drain the pasta and combine the ragout and pasta in pot over low heat to gently heat and coat pasta thoroughly; add pasta water if dry. Squeeze lemon juice over the mixture, season to taste. Transfer to serving platter and garnish with cheese and parsley, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve. Serves 4 or more. ~~

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Relocation Fixation

One year, two moves, 3,000 miles later and I'm back!

A re-location to Greenville, South Carolina seemed like a terrific opportunity and I was right. New surrounds, new friends, and efforts to support the Sustainable Ag movement was thrilling and distracting, posting here shifted to low priority.

This spring an unexpected series of events surfaced and in mid-May I re-valuated, minimized my life, re-packed my van, and ventured west on a life altering trip across the US with a return to Oregon and family.

Too much infomation for now, but enough to say there is a vibrant thread from those days still running through me, evident in a deepening thoughtfulness and appreciation for my daily food supply - with all that entails.

Very early this morning, in twilight thought, I realized how much has happened - and continues to play out each and every day. I'm guilty of not fully acknowledging these times and for not placing more importance on the simplest pleasures. It's a little late for regrets, the immediacy of the moment is lost, but there's a great likelihood that there will be more to come and more to share.
"Take the time to give each task its due -
it comes out in the food: a generosity of spirit.
Call it rejoicing, tenderness, graciousness,
or simple attention to detail,
the quality of caring
is an ingredient everyone can taste."
- Tenzo Kyonkun


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