Saturday, September 26, 2009

On a clear day

Today was one of the days when the morning air clearly signaled the onset of autumn. That initial cool gave an indication that the sun was never going to warm the mid-day to a shorts and flip-flop kind of day. One could taste the frost of the future on the dawn of this day.

My day otherwise started as many of my Saturdays do – up early with a scheduled rendezvous with a group of people known to me only by theirs names on the list of participants for my Green Market class. It is a class where I have no planned recipes; there is no idea what the culinary desires of the assembled students might be. The schedule is to shop the seasonal bounty of the market with the rules being if we like it we buy; if we have never seen it before, we buy it, then head back to the kitchen and play with it.

I have been facilitating this program for years now, and revel in the excitement of the un-planned. Many great ideas for recipes have come from this – my cookbook was one of the most exciting ideas that came from this almost weekly adventure. Today we came back with a harvest of pumpkin, black radish, lamb bacon, Roxbury Russet apples to name a few ingredients.

We also bought grapes. We are at the emergence of the grape season here and upstate New York is delivering more than the iconic concord variety. We carried back explosively sweet Mars and Candice jewels. Then came the question of what to do with them. We had gotten some fish, and we could have gone in a French la Veronique direction or perhaps baked them in a cake with a brown sugar crumbled. But we had gotten some cheese, and my mind was sipping the autumnal moment. I offered we try caramelizing them in the fashion of a brittle. A curious chorus egged me on, and so we were off. To our collective surprise and pleasure the concept worked – with the resulting crackling pop of the grapes a new application for this seasonal player.

All I needed was a glass of Port and a roaring fire to finish this newly formed inspiration.

Glazed Grapes
1-/2 pounds grapes (ideally small Champagne grapes)
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4-teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4-teaspoon coarsely ground coriander seeds
Scant1/8-teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne

Separate the grapes from its stem and place them on a silpat lined baking tray, or a lightly oiled one.

Place the sugar, fennel seeds, coriander, black pepper and cayenne in a 2-cup saucepan with a quarter cup of water. Bring to a boil over a high flame, and cook to an amber hue – which is a caramel.

Remove from the heat, and allow the sugar to cool for a few minutes. Then drizzle the sugar over the grapes in a thin stream.

Allow the caramel to cool completely, and gently break the grapes into small clusters.

Serve with almonds, and cheese such as Manchego, Stilton or Parmesan chunks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Oh, brisk, clear new sky

A shift of mood…apples

Change is more than in the air

Jicama/Asian Pear/Apple Salad – yields 6 servings
1-pound jicama
1 Asian pear (approx. 1-pound)
1 Granny Smith Apple (approx. 1/2 pound)
1 small red onion
1/4-cup chopped chives
2-tablespoons raspberry vinegar
1-tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Peel the jicama and slice it into thin julienne. Julienne the Asian pear, apple and onions and add to the jicama. Toss all the ingredients together, and refrigerate an hour. Serve on a bed of greens.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hail green

I grew up in the northeastern suburbs at a time when iceberg lettuce ruled the salad bowl and frozen blocks of spinach always found themselves nestled deep within the freezer. There was no thought that Swiss chard, mustard, or arugula would possibility work as the magical key to that cartoon hero’s muscles. No, it was a serving of over-cooked brackish-hued leaves that continually showed up.

Now, while I must claim the New York suburbs for my entire attitude it is the south that gets the honor be being my birthplace. In the spirit of full disclosure we left before I was able to stand on my own. The few return trips we made as a family back to Atlanta to reconnect with friends and family showed me the accent I wish I got, and the possibility of replacing spinach. My cousin Edith was a grand cook and the first foodie I ever knew. She had a spare room with all four walls lined with cookbooks; had a penchant for collecting exotic cookie cutters. I remember a hunt we took to Chinatown when I was in my early twenties, and she was now visiting us, to a store she read about for a very intricate dragon shaped cookie cutter. We found it. I don’t recall ever eating one of her cookies though.

It was those foreign meals I had in the south that stuck with me. In particular were the collards cooked with bacon that shone a whole new light on the green. We ate bacon but never after breakfast. Mind you I was not adverse to spinach it was just so limp or drowned in a creamed style boil–and-serve pouch in my mother’s kitchen. There was a bitterness laced by the smoky bacon with the add bonus of the bacon bits hidden among the leaves of those left-behind collard greens.

Migration is a good thing for now in the market I can the find Brooklyn-ease accented collards. A countertop resplendent with these board leaf greens seems more apt to act as a fan for some young lady suffering the vapors than a component of an idea. My kitchen is alive with the possibilities that only memory and desire can inspire.

Black Bean Stew – yields 6 to 8 servings
2-bunches scallions – trimmed of roots
1/2-pound dried Spanish chorizo
1-pound boneless and skinless chicken thigh meat
1 poblano – seeds discard; and chopped
5 garlic cloves – roughly chopped
1 jalapeno – minced (seeds discarded to lower heat)
1-teaspoon whole cumin
1-teaspoon whole coriander seed
1-pound ripe tomato – roughly chopped
1-cup chopped Italian parsley
3-cups cooked black beans
1-bunch collard greens – center rib discarded
Salt and pepper to taste

Separate the onion portion of the scallions for its green tops. Cut each into 1/2-inches keeping them in separate bowls.

Cut the chorizo into 1/2-inch pieces and place in a 6-quart pot over a medium heat. Allow the chorizo to release its fat and brown. Once the chorizo has browned remove from the pot and add the chicken. Brown the chicken. Remove and hold with the chorizo.

In the pot add the scallion whites, poblano and jalapeno, and cook to lightly caramelize the scallions. Then add the garlic, cumin and coriander cooking for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Return the chorizo and chicken back to the pot along with the tomatoes, black beans and chopped parsley. Stir in one cup of water, and allow the stew to come to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for one hour.

In the meantime, wash and chop the collard. Bring a full kettle of water to the boil. Place the collards in a colander and pour the boiling over the collards allowing them to wilt. Let the collards cool in the colander.

After an hour add the collards and scallion greens, and continue to cook the stew for 20 to 30 minutes longer. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve over rice with a wedge of lemon.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

And, it turns......

How do we measure the seasons? What seasons are we measuring…that of the table we lay out for people we love; the moments of our lives or, those significant passages that is part of the collective consciousness?

Yesterday witnessed the anniversary of an episode that is seared into many of our memories. The pure brilliance of the morning sky on that warm late-summer day and my routine of taking an early yoga class thwarted by a phone call from overseas asking me what is happening seems will never fade from a vivid recall. I remember the relationship that got started in part due to the events of that day eight years ago that was more about needing to feel safe than feeling in love. The relationship might have failed the needs of that time has not.

The farmer’s market was a vital source of grounding for me that week reassuring in its continued offering of life. The work of assembling meals for the many hard working rescue respondents allowed me to cope on a societal level it was the small, human purchases that fed my temporary partner and I that confirmed we were still here. The Saturday after the events of the 11th I hosted a group of friends and friends of friends at my home were we put up peach butter; pickled cucumbers and beets all taking home small jars of security during a rather insecure week.

Time moves on; people fade in and out of our lives, memories remain but its daily potency diminishes. This past week will most likely be forgotten it was just another post-Labor Day work week when the weather took a sharp turn from the 80-degree warmth of that dominated that almost decade ago day into the rush of an autumnal chill. Will I remember that peaches were pushed out of my shopping cart and replaced with pears a tad earlier than usual? It is doubtful as noteworthy as it might be today; this shift in time is a gentler non-scarring moment of a season. I continue to remember and embrace the fragility we all faced, and the preciousness that is a loved one’s smile; the seductive call of a peach, and the deep comfort of knowing community.

Caramelized Seckle Pears – yields 6 servings
6 seckle pears
1 lemon – cut in half
1/4-cup brown sugar
1-tablespoon roughly chopping pine nuts
2-teasoons chopped tarragon leaves
1/8-teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4-pound Manchego cheese - sliced

Cut the pears in half from the stem to its base. With the tip of the paring knife or a small melon baller remove the seed core. Rub the halved pears with the cut lemon.

In a small work bowl mix together the sugar, pine nuts, tarragon and pepper. Divide the sugar mixture among the pear halves, and place the pears onto a baking tray.

Place the pears under the boiler, and cook until the sugar melts. Serve the pears warm bedded on the sliced cheese.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ants not invited

So, we are given permission to spend one more lazy weekend sleeping in late, coloring our skins, and perhaps, catching the US Open. Starting Tuesday our work lives are revived with office cubicles filling back up with vacationed employees, and buses with a cautioning stop sign make the rounds filling up with children slouched over by weight of their backpacks.

If these are one of the last guilt-free dog days then why I am up early – shopping, planning, chopping and packing it up. This is what happens when romance creeps back into your life and you dust-off the tools of courtship. For me, this means an immediate morning beeline to the farmer’s market to secure nature’s best to assist in sprinkling a bit of Cupid’s magic over a budding pairing. It is my skill set as a chef I am using to seduce the moment, with a long view eyeing a roaring fire on a Valentine’s getaway.

For now, as the full moon graces our Labor Day weekend I am spending the morning plotting. In a few hours a soft cotton blanket will be spread out under the shade of Chestnut tree. The wicker basket that has sat idle for a few years now has been wiped down, and is being filled. A bottle of Prosecco is well chilled, and I pray the neoprene wine sleeve will keep it just right. I hope the china plates and champagne flutes don’t crack in transport, and no uninvited nibblers will spoil the fairy-tale being played out.

Most importantly, may the foods I make work their alchemist powers causing this end of summer weekend be the beginning of another season.

Cherry Tomato and Potato Salad – 4 to 6 servings
3/4-pound baby new potatoes (mix of red and white)
2-tablespoons olive oil
1 pint yellow cherry tomato
1 small red onion – diced
1orange bell pepper – diced
zest of 1 lime
3 scallions – slice
1/4-pound sorrel leaves – roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pre heat the oven to 350-degree.

Toss the potatoes with salt and pepper, and place a baking tray. Roast the potatoes until slightly blistered, about 20 minutes. If your potatoes are not particularly small cut them in have – ideally, the potatoes are should be around the size of the cherry tomatoes.

In a large work bowl place the cherry tomatoes, red onion, bell pepper, lime zest and scallions. Once the potatoes are cooked immediately toss with the tomato mixture. Allow the potatoes to now cool completely then add the sorrel. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve room temperature to chilled.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The long of it

It has been many years since I was first exposed to Chinese long beans. I believe it was at an Schezwan restaurant in the West Village, that an ex-boyfriend and I use to frequent. It was the source of my first serving of cold sesame noodle. I remember the place so well from the deep red wall coverings to the rattan chairs to the spicy ground pork that garnished the cold noodles. It was the first Chinese restaurant I had ever been to where I was not confronted with the always-unfulfilling column A or B choice that was the typical menu selection of the Chinatown joints my family would visit. As a young adult, in my own relationship I actually got to order my own dish, and not necessarily share it.

It was the long beans that rocked my budding world having just emerged from the limited life of middle class suburbia. They were not like the string beans I know from my mother’s kitchen – sometimes freshly overcooked, more frequently canned. No, these were so much chewier with a dense, nutty flavor. Back then I had to travel to Chinatown in order to find the fresh long beans to play with and explore their possibilities. So, glad those food days are behind us, and now I can find slightly tough long beans in my local markets, but right now, spectacularly tender versions in green and purple are starring in the farmer’s market. And, the purple variety is heat set, so you can serve up a plate full of aubergine hued long beans. As opposed to the purple string bean, that while funky raw, when heated the bean will turn green.

In my travels through Asia I have had these legumes sautéed; dehydrated; stewed with tomatoes, and floating in a sharp Malay curry. Here at home I find a simply sauté extremely satisfying not to mention quick to the plate.

Blistered Beans - yields 6 servings
2 shallot - thinly sliced
1/4 cup sesame oil
1-pound Chinese long beans – cut into 1-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves - chopped
2-tablespoon sesame seeds
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/8 cup rice vinegar

Heat a wok to very hot and add the shallots and sesame seed oil. Cook the shallots until they start to brown lightly. Add in the beans and toss to coat the bean with the oil. Let the beans blister on one side before moving them in order to blister them further. Add the garlic and sesame seeds and continue cooking for a few minutes longer. Pour in the soy sauce and vinegar and toss to coat. Remove from the heat and serve hot.