Monday, May 25, 2009

Ruby Jewels

There clearly is an army amassing of locavores rallying around the supporting and sustaining local agribusinesses. I definitely count myself as part of that infantry of consumers shaking the dirt off my meal. But I must come clear and admit my role in this movement did not come from some greater calling – rather it was a selfish need for flavor. The longer something can stay on the branch sucking up nutrients through a tangle of roots and basking in the sunshine the more potent my dish.

Certain foods drove me to seek pedigrees that where locally grown, again only to satisfy my mouth’s cravings. I remember the trio of tomatoes my Mom would bring into the house always cradled in a plastic container and loosely wrapped in shrink-wrap. It did not matter that it was the dead of August and a New Jersey farm grown tomato was an easy road-trip away. It seems those vile, anemic orbs from my childhood have been replace by genetically mutated strawberries that seem to only come from Driscoll anytime, anywhere – but not for me. These are one of nature’s offerings that must be allowed to dangle as long as possible on its stem developing in the warming sun to ripen into an explosive crimson berry. Good luck ever getting a sweetly, scent gem on your table if you don’t seek them out locally.

Strawberry Compote with Homemade Ricotta Cheese - yields 6 servings
for ricotta
2 quarts whole milk
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

In a four quart sauce pan bring the milk to just below the boiling point, approximately 180 degrees and remove from the heat. Stir in the vinegar giving the milk about three stirs only. Allow the mixture to sit for 20 to 25 minutes at room temperature. You should notice the milk starting to curdle almost immediately. If the milk does not start to curdle within the first five minutes add in an additional 1/4 cup of vinegar.

Line a sieve with about 4 to 5 layers of cheese cloth and place over a deep bowl or pot. After the milk has sat for the prescribed amount of time gently pour the curds and whey into the sieve. Allow the cheese to sit for 30 minutes to drain off the whey. The curds are your ricotta. Use immediately or store, refrigerated for a few days. You should store the ricotta in a glass bowl with a piece of plastic placed right down on top of it to prevent a skin from forming.

Strawberry Compote
1 quart of strawberries
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup lemon balm - leaves only, roughly chopped (or use mint, hyssop or lavender)

With a damp towel wipe the strawberries clean of any dirt. Cut off the green tops from the strawberries, known as the hull. Then cut the strawberries in half or quarters depending on their size.

In a large bowl mix all the ingredients together. Allow the strawberry mixture to sit in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours.

To serve place a dollop of the ricotta on the plate and then spoon over the strawberry compote.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Pucker up, and enjoy.

Mother nature never ceases to amaze me for just as lemons and limes have become petite and juice challenged I get a readymade, natural substitute. Moving forward I have my go-to citrus note – be it pureed into a pesto; torn into a dish along with ubiquitous salt and pepper, or tossed along with a melody other tender leaves to complete that season to taste commandment sorrel draws my full attention.

Twice, now, I have found French sorrel in the market, which definitely indicates the start of a spring harvest, and admittedly it is one of my absolute favorite greens. It takes turns being used as an herb, leafy green or addition to my salad mix while I can get my greedy hands on it – which fortunately is into early autumn. It looks like a spinach but claims the buckwheat family as its lineage, with none of the nutty quality I affix to its grain-centric ancestor. There is a strong citrus-like note that makes you whip your head around looking for the gremlin that squeezed lemon juice into your dish. But don’t do it, and for that matter, don’t heat sorrel too much either. Both heat and acidity will cause the sorrel’s deep seasonal green to oxidize, and brackish-brown has never been an eye-catching color.

Sorrel Pesto
1/2-pound sorrel – center stem removed
1/4-cup blanched almonds
1-tablespoon lemon zest
2 garlic cloves – roughly chopped
1/2-teaspoon salt
1/2-cup almond oil
1/4-cup canola oil

Place all the ingredients in the blender or food processor, and process until smooth.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lilac my love

Wow, how unexpected that spike of temperature about a fortnight ago, though it was good to shake out my cargo shorts. I never complain about the heat for I rarely welcome a chill. Though this surprising leap into the dog days pushed nature into overdrive. I completely welcome asparagus’ early arrival or the unexpected toss of herbs that really have a scent. But I must confess I got thrown off schedule, and I hope I will be available to recover – if Mother Nature is willing to indulge. I totally know better – one should never make firm plans when you are working with a clock set by nature, not a Swiss timepiece.

I was hoping to time the arrival of lilac, which has the habit of blooming in May, in order to execute an idea. The lilac started to come out about two weeks earlier then my radar would have detected due to that race to achieve abnormally timed heat wave. Yes, I had seen some and thought the lilac needed another week on the branch to develop a bit longer and get even stinkier. How could one expect a fever to set in so quickly -- I let the week pass little did I think of rain. It has now been three days and counting of precipitation – not good at all. My nightly prayers are for clearing skies and daily rays that dry out the petals, and hope they are not too worst for the wear. Alas, otherwise this will be another desire filed away until next year.

This member of that big ‘ole family the lilies, lilacs are not just beautiful to behold but edible to boot. While their aromatic presentation may be a tad redolent of grandmother’s eau du toilet judiciously they offer a floral explosion that few other buds can match. I tend to capture the boldness of this perennially blooming bush in sugar or salt. This year I want to make an essence – meticulously plucking the buds free from their branches and cramming them into a jar. Weight them down with a rock, and douse them with grain alcohol. Sitting quietly in the dark for a few months I will then filter this tincture of spring just as I am returning to layering with wool, and anticipating the frost of a winter’s slumber.

I am off to the market to see if this will be the year for my eau du vie du Lilac.

Monday, May 4, 2009


At long last an old friend has returned – though as always but for a few fleeting weeks. Fiddlehead ferns are a harbinger of the march into summer coming out of the warming moist richness of the primordial forest sparking the hunter/gather in me -- always a pleasant find. Their flavor is unique though we try to pigeonhole them…a little reminiscent of artichoke: a tad crisp lettuce but without a doubt completely individual. They are definitely the grooviest of spring’s burgeoning growth and only available for us grazers before they start to unfurl and show their feathery, frond foliage.

While they bring on the funk visually, fiddlehead ferns are a skosh high maintenance for they need to be thoroughly washed, in several changes of water, and blanched to leach out some of their bitterness. I have had been told stories of really negative experiences with these pre-Neolithic holdouts which I have never fully appreciated or believed. I think it is vital to buy them from a local forager, and that the fern be a tightly wound spiral that is firm and crisp. I have seen them in “better food stores” for an outrageous-per-pound-sum that is all around offensive – I could not even begin to image how they would respond in my kitchen.

Tomato-Fiddlehead Ferns – yields 6 servings
1-pound fiddlehead ferns – washed well
1/3-cup Lebanese couscous
1/4-cup whole almonds – roughly chopped
1-can (15 ounces) chickpeas
4 garlic cloves – finely minced
3-cups pureed tomato
1/4-cup pitted green olives
1/2-cup chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring 2 cups of water to a full boil, and cook the fiddleheads for 3 minutes. Drain, and immediately run under cold water. Hold to the side.

Heat a 2-1/2 quart saucepan over a high heat, and add the couscous and almonds. Toast the couscous and almonds for a few minutes stirring the contents occasionally. Add in the chickpeas, olives and garlic mixing to combine. Pour in the pureed tomato, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and allow the mixture to cook for 10 minutes.

Mix in the reserved fiddleheads, chives, salt and pepper. Cook to for a few minutes to completely warm through, and serve.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Greens is the season

While I am attracted to the various fragrant signatures of spring’s bloom I am simultaneously called to the tender greens that are begging to be used. It is the verdant season, and my eye is spying the nascent offerings of the recently thawed earth.

Warmer weather immediately prompts more strolls and bike-rides that in turn, for me, tend to end up with a meandering through the farmer’s market. The broccoli rabe is so tender with the tiniest little buds with just a hint of yellow peeking through. It is at its least bitter, and asks to be gently cooked. Of course, the fast to disappear ramp is always on my radar and then so is French sorrel – oh, the pleasure in that puckering leaf that tolerates only the slightest of heat. As a matter of fact, I find much of what I am cooking right now is seeking a light cooking technique – stored away are my casseroles and soup pots for the season. After months of inviting long-simmering concoctions I welcome the quick rinse-spin-wilt meals that are dominating my daily feeds.

Wilted Greens with Coconut - yields 4 servings
2-tablespoons sesame oil
2-pound greens - such as spinach, bok choy or Chinese broccoli washed well
1- red Thai chili - minced
3 scallions- roots discard - sliced
1/4 cup un-sweetened shredded coconut
1/4-cup soy sauce

Heat a pan or wok to hot , and add the oil. Cook the greens, chili and scallions until just wilted then add the coconut and soy sauce, and toss to combine. . Depending on what greens you decide to use will determine the cooking time. Spinach takes all of a few minutes where Chinese Broccoli will take at least five minutes. Serve immediately.