Mushrooms and More

I am a mushroom lover, something deplored by both members of my own family and certain of my colleagues. The mushroom stand at the farmers’ market is one of my favorite stops, and in August, almost every type of mushroom is available for devouring—porcini, oyster, shiitake, Portobello, puffball, and my favorite, chanterelle.

I first ate chanterelles in Germany, on my honeymoon, and they were a revelation. Both sweet and nutty and utterly themselves, I ordered them at every opportunity, delighting in their burnt orange color, so different than the dark browns and pearls I was used to.

When the first chanterelles of the season appeared at the market this year, Teacherman was out of town. I thought about waiting until he came back to buy some, but couldn’t wait: I bought 6 oz for my very own self.

I barely did anything to them, just swished them through salted water to clean, sautéed them in butter, and scrambled three eggs around them. With the addition of a vinegary salad, it was, as cookbooks of 70 years ago used to say, The Perfect Supper for a Single Girl.

chanterelle scrambled eggs

When Teacherman came home a week later, I was willing to share. (Or rather, I was willing to take another opportunity to eat chanterelles). This time, though, my preparation was more elaborate.

I’d read several recipes for alternative takes on risotto, using different grains, like barley, steel-cut oats, quinoa, or buckwheat groats. I’d been wanting to try the technique using oats, and the flavor of chanterelles seemed as if it would match up well with the oats. I wanted a bit more than just oats and mushrooms, though, and I remembered another recipe I’d seen recently (I don’t remember where) for a sauté of chanterelles and corn, with tarragon. It was a short step to combine the two ideas in my mind, creating oat risotto with chanterelles, corn and tarragon.

I followed the same trajectory as in my original chanterelle outing—swishing the mushrooms clean, then sautéing them in butter with a big pinch of salt. When they were soft, though, I took them out of the pan, and added half a cup of steel-cut oats, stirring to coat them in the butter and the mushroom juices. Once the butter was absorbed, I added vegetable stock in half cup measures, letting the oats absorb the liquid fully before adding anymore. In the end, I added about 2 cups, leaving the oats on the stove for about half an hour. The oats could have taken up a bit more liquid, but I wanted them to be toothsome, rather than mushy.

About five minutes before I wanted to stop cooking the oats, I added the chanterelles and half a cup of corn kernels, cut off the cob, letting them simmer and warm through. I added a few sprigs of chopped tarragon, then turned off the heat.

It was, I think, absolutely perfect. Both oats and chanterelles have a sweet nuttiness, and, as I thought, the two flavors blended very well. The corn added another layer of sweetness, but brighter, the butter added depth, and the grassiness of the tarragon grounded the dish firmly in the savory sphere.

We served the risotto with herb-marinated grilled chicken, but I could have happily left the chicken off the plate, so satisfying was the combination of flavors and textures. It was nubbly, soothing, delicious, and made me wish I’d made double the portion I did.
chanterelles

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Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Colors

One of the many (manymany) benefits of the farmers’ market is the Technicolor burst of summer meals. The colors are brilliant, bright and arresting, drawing you in as they lie there.

Egg Salad
The substitute sunlight of nasturtium blossoms in a morning’s egg salad, accompanied by a midnight dark bowl of blackberries and blueberries.

Dill Salmon
The subtle greens of fresh dill contrasting with the pastel pink of grilled salmon and the earthy depths of cremini mushrooms (not to mention the inevitable nasturtiums on my salad).

Peaches and Cream
Honey-yellow peaches with burnished pink highlights half-hiding a billowing cloud of rich, white cream, freckled with cinnamon.

Blueberry Coconut Crisp
A big white bowl of blueberries, stewed until juicy and glistening, topped with crisp, toasted coconut.

My descriptions are no less purple than the fruit, but it’s hard not to let fly with superlatives when faced with such bounty.

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Breakfast of Blossoms

The best thing about buying food at farmers’ markets is that one is much more likely to pick up something that you’ve never tried before. This isn’t an original statement, I know, but it continues to be true, even for people like me, who are a bit too interested in all the different ways of filling their stomachs.

Who needs to stop at regular cucumbers, when one can try lemon cucumbers, Italian cucumbers, Japanese cucumbers, and Korean cucumbers? Why eat nothing but baby greens when the next bag over contains arugula, perilla, shiso or amaranth? Turnips are great, but what about burdock? Strawberries are delicious, but what look: ground cherries! Saskatoons! Black currants! Not everything ends up being to my taste (the Saskatoons were not a hit) but some become new favorites (I don’t think I’ve ever met a root I didn’t like). Sometimes the untried foods aren’t even exotic or unknown, just things I’ve never gotten around to trying.

Enter zucchini blossoms.

Everybody knows about zucchini blossoms—they’ve almost become a cliché of pretentious poseur cuisine. Stuffed with cheese and braised, fried as tempura, poached, the recipes are everywhere. The blossoms are very pretty, but often expensive (after all, each blossom is a squash that will never grow). As intriguing and delicious as the recipes sounded, I had never tried them for one reason: I am cheap.

One recent market day, though, I was under the weather and needed a pick-me-up. In spite of the rather exorbitant price, I splurged on a big bunch of the zucchini blossoms and took them home for lunch. I stuffed them with a spiced goat cheese, simmered them for a few moments in a good broth, and gobbled them up. The combination of the hot, homemade chicken broth and the creamy cheese was perfect for a summer cold, but the strength of their flavors overwhelmed that of the zucchini blossoms themselves. Still—what I could taste was appealing and intriguing, and I resolved to try the blossoms again, but in a more delicate preparation.

The following Saturday, then, I bought another bunch of zucchini blossoms at the market. I didn’t want to eat them until the next morning, so I carefully wrapped the big, healthy bunch in a paper towel, then put it into an open plastic bag and into the lettuce drawer in my refrigerator. (Technically, this crisper drawer has a picture of an apple on it, whereas the other drawer has a picture of a turnip, but I use the apple drawer almost exclusively for lettuce and other greens, and the turnip drawer for everything else).

On Sunday morning, I checked to see if the blossoms needed any washing (in fact, they were pristinely clean), then removed the pistils and chopped the petals from their stems.

Zucchini Blossoms

I roughly tore the blossoms into strips, lightly sautéed them for a few minutes in a flavorless oil, then added three eggs, beaten with nothing more than salt, pepper and a tiny drop of water.
Blossoms in the pan
I let the eggs set on the bottom, then lifted up the edges to let the raw portion flow underneath, creating layers upon layers. In less than five minutes I had a moist, fluffy and perfectly set golden omelet, shot through with the fresh green and deeper orange tones of the blossoms.

Zucchini Blossom Omelet
Indeed, the omelet was a much better way of showing off the flavor of the zucchini blossoms. Unsurprisingly, the blossoms have a flavor strongly reminiscent of zucchini itself, but more elusive, and without the often squishy texture that puts so many people off. The texture of the blossoms, of course, is almost nil, especially after cooking, allowing the flavor to permeate the eggs. The calyx of the flowers has an even stronger flavor of the squash, but with a more toothiness than the blossoms. It’s crisp without being crispy, if that makes any sense; almost like biting into a perfectly fresh slice of ripe zucchini, but brighter, juicier, colder, (the actual temperature notwithstanding) and almost refreshing.

It was a rather austere omelet, given that it contained no butter, milk, or cheese, but the zucchini blossoms gave it a deep and satisfying flavor. The cost may be difficult to absorb, but the benefits are worth it.

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Long and Scattered

Behold, I am alive.  Ambulatory, even.  (Kind of.  I’m walking perfectly easily, just not for very long periods of time). 

What’s more, I have been cooking.  AND going to the newly-opened farmer’s market. 

Given that it’s still so early in the spring, I’ve been able to do very little at the farmer’s market aside from make a considerable dent in the supply of pea shoots and rhubarb every week, but still.  The pea shoots have graced innumerable salads and sautes and stir-fries, and the rhubarb has been part of soup (poached in red wine and cassis), sorbet (cooked with the juice and zest of blood oranges) and smoothies:

Rhubarb Smoothie

(Greek yogurt, fresh ginger: need I say more?)

Unfortunately, aside from dishes containing the just-picked farmer’s market produce, my main meals have been somewhat lackluster.  Nothing has been actually bad, but nothing has excited me or made me want to write about it.  I haven’t saved a recipe I’ve prepared in almost a month. 

I am not entirely discouraged, however.  Even when living on hum-drum lunches and mediocre dinners, breakfast is always there to save me. 

Like probably 50% of the rest of the population of the U.S., when I was growing up, my parents would occasionally fix ‘breakfast for dinner’ as a special treat.  Whole wheat pancakes with scrambled eggs and bacon was the standard meal when the whole family sat down, and enormous potato pancakes–really thinly shredded hash browns bound with beaten egg and served with (forgive me) ketchup–when the food was meant for just my sister and me. 

Unlike most of the population of the U.S., however, my family also ate breakfast for breakfast.  I know that many people are unable to stomach heavy food–or food of any kind–early in the morning, but my family has never been been part of that group.  Toast (with peanut butter and honey) and fried eggs was my default meal through childhood, while my sister took her toast neat and her eggs scrambled.  My parents both consumed large quantities of yogurt and granola, and chili-covered cheese-filled omelets were rampant.  All of this on ordinary weekday mornings, no less. 

I don’t eat quite the same way anymore.  I have to eat my breakfast at 6:30 am to be able to get to work on time, and I cannot allow myself unlimited time to prepare a meal.  I must, however, eat just as heartily as I always have.  My usual lunch break isn’t until 1 pm, with no break for a snack, meaning that my breakfast has to last me more than six hours (and a 1.5 mile walk, when I’m up to par).

On weekdays I stick to my strict schedule: I eat a hardboiled egg, some homemade sausage (variety subject to change at a moment’s notice) and a large serving of whatever fruit is in season. 

Weekends, however, are a different story.  I have much more time to prepare my meal, and, given that I’m an early riser even without an alarm, the kitchen to myself to prepare it in. 

Farmer's market eggs

My weekend meals usually center around eggs.  Sometimes savory–two weeks ago I poached three eggs in the leftover sauce from a curry-roasted chicken.  It was tangy, spicy and absolutely divine.

Curried Eggs

More often, though, I use my eggs for sweet dishes.  Souffleed omelets and jam-filled crepes are my fall-back meals for weekends.  Both are usually topped with fruit, and both benefit from the eggs I get from the farmer’s market.  The yolks are bright yellow and melt into a custard with almost no need for additional flavoring; the whites are stronger than I am and whip up to stratospheric heights. 

Last week I made a very simple souffleed omelet–I whisked three egg yolks with two tablespoons of simple syrup and a teaspoon of vanilla, then folded in three egg whites, whipped to stiff peaks.  I poured the mixture into a hot cast-iron skillet, the bottom filmed with flavorless oil.  After a second on the heat to set the bottom, I slid the pan into the 400 degree oven, for 15 minutes, until it was cooked through–golden on the outsides, but still soft on the inside, like a meringue. 

I topped the whole thing with fresh strawberries tossed with slivered mint.  It looks enormous and sounds decadent, but it was so light on the tongue that the entire omelet disappeared without a second thought.

Strawberry souffleed omelet

Yesterday morning I made crepes.  Three more of those lovely eggs whisked up into the batter, along with a little Amaretto.  I filled each one with apricot jam, dusted the plate with cinnamon and topped it with raspberries.  It was, believe it or not, a clean-out-the-refrigerator meal. 

Breakfast is my favorite meal, and I’ve been having some great ones, but here’s hoping that the other two meals are soon up to snuff.

Published in: on June 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marshmallow Ice Cream

It’s above forty degrees, therefore: ice cream.

Really, I should stop trying to come up with excuses. It’s much more like: I’m alive, therefore: ice cream.

Yesterday the temperature barely made it to thirty-five degrees, work was extremely trying, and dinner did not come together well. (All of my cooking oils have gone rancid, in spite of being practically new. This distresses me). I really needed ice cream.

I’d planned a fruit dessert for dinner, though, meaning that I didn’t have any cream–or dairy products of any kind. I did, however, have coconut milk. I always have coconut milk–it’s probably one of the few canned goods, aside from tomatoes, that I think of as a staple–and I rarely have cream, unless I’ve purchased it with a specific recipe in mind. At least half of the ice cream recipes I make seem to end up being prepared with coconut milk.

Thus: coconut milk! I scanned through my copy of The Perfect Scoop (the best ice cream cookbook I’ve encountered) for a recipe that could easily be adapted to the use of coconut milk. No out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, nothing so simple that it relied on the flavor of cream to be good, etc.

In the end, I chose the recipe for Leche Merengada, a Mexican dessert in which milk (not cream, just plain milk) is mixed with beaten eggs whites and then used as the base for an ice cream. A recipe calling for milk seemed like a better fit for the thickness of coconut milk and there were barely any other ingredients involved. Instant gratification: I love it.

I poured one can of coconut milk into a small bowl, then added several dashes of cinnamon and a big pinch of dried lemon peel (my frozen stash of ‘fresh’ lemon zest was just depleted last week). The original recipe, of course, calls for infusing the milk with a cinnamon stick and fresh lemon zest, but I didn’t have the time. I sweetened the mixture with a little simple syrup–another deviation from the recipe, which calls for sugar, but I wanted to make up the volume of liquid the recipe actually called for, and a can’s worth of coconut milk didn’t quite measure up.

I whipped three eggs whites–the recipe calls for two, but my eggs are local, and thus (given that it’s barely spring) quite small–sweetened them a tiny bit, then folded the glossy, shiny beaten whites into the coconut mixture. It didn’t combine perfectly, but I didn’t really expect it to. I poured the slightly lumpy mixture into the ice cream maker, and Teacherman (he of the strong biceps) set to churning.

Continuing in the spirit of the day, alas, the churning didn’t go very well. The mixture flash froze to the walls of the cylinder, but stayed rather liquid in the center, in spite of a very long churning time. Hmph. We scooped out what we could, hacked a bit at the sides, and gave up. We put our bowls in the freezer for a while, but before more than half an hour had gone by, I got jumpy, and we took them out again, ready to dig in.

Swoon.

I’m not entirely sure how, but the ice cream tasted like marshmallows–or rather, the perfect marshmallows, the platonic ideal of marshmallows that only really exist in one’s imagination.  I suppose that this isn’t too hard to understand, given that the marshmallows I make are based on sweetened, beaten egg whites, sometimes with cinnamon, but still.  The ice cream’s final flavor was more than the sum of its comparatively few ingredients, and, except for the “marshmallow” tag, which immediately leapt to mind, I can come up with few descriptive markers.

The coconut milk made it creamy, without making it tongue-coatingly heavy; the egg whites gave it the light, airy quality of a good, soft meringue; the cinnamon added an indefinable background layer of sweetness; and the lemon added an almost floral note, one that wasn’t at all obtrusive, but that made me stop at the first bite, wondering.

Coconut milk is already a staple; I don’t really need a reason to buy it.  But now I might have to dedicate an entire cupboard to it.

Published in: on April 2, 2008 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Priznel 2.0

The first dish that my husband (then my brand-new boyfriend) cooked for me was a long-standing family recipe called Priznel. Priznel is a kind of a quiche, made with cottage cheese, grated hard cheese (usually jack, or something else white), eggs and lots and lots of cooked spinach.

What Teacherman didn’t know was that I despised cooked spinach. I’d tried to eat it innumerable times–I’ve mentioned my struggles here before–but no matter what I did, I still hated it. (Why, you ask, did I keep on trying to eat something I loathed? It annoyed me that I couldn’t conquer the dislike, so I tried with all my might to get past the raw-metal flavors and the the slimy texture. And yes, I made sure to have spinach cooked by capable cooks, even surpassingly brilliant ones, but nothing worked. I still hated it–cooked, at least).

In any case, Teacherman made me Priznel. After many hours of cooking (we ate ate 9 pm that night, I believe), he proudly presented me with a dish of the only food that I absolutely hated. And I had to eat it.

I did manage to, and I didn’t mention that I was revolted by every spoonful I consumed (it didn’t help that the Priznel never did get fully cooked through). I smiled my way through the meal, but firmly sent all the leftovers home with him. Unfortunately, this politeness meant that I had to eat Priznel at every family function I attended for the next year or two, as Teacherman and I became more and more involved as a couple.

It wasn’t until we were engaged that my mother off-handedly mentioned my wretched feelings about cooked spinach. A look of horror appeared on Teacherman’s face. “Why didn’t you TELL me!” he said, “I would have completely understood!” This is probably true. But my inner politeness switch had refused to budge, and, as I mentioned, I had been trying to learn to like the stuff.

In fact, I’m still trying to learn to like it. I’ve almost succeeded–at this point I can handle wilted spinach, especially if there are lots of spices involved, but not the fully-cooked type. (I should point out, here, that I enjoy fully cooked greens of every other variety, just not spinach. This, of course, is because no other cooked greens taste like rust).

This year, we spent Easter with Teacherman’s sister and her family–my in-laws had driven in from Detroit, and we all contributed to what turned out to be a brunch of epic proportions. My entries? A raspberry-ginger cheesecake for dessert, and, for the main meal, a recipe so similar to Priznel–but, in my opinion, so much better–that I actually may have converted the family.

Last month, while doing some research on ancient Roman cuisine, I read a lot of cookbooks about food from the modern Mediterranean, in order to become aware of the evolution of various dishes over the centuries. As might be expected, I ended up copying down a lot of recipes, as well as the information I was looking for. In an encyclopedic book on modern Greek cuisine, I found several recipes for egg-cheese-and-greens pies and casseroles. One in particular caught my eye–it seemed almost identical to Priznel, but with a very important exception. Instead of spinach, it used curly endive and romaine lettuce.

Otherwise, the ingredients were incredibly similar. A grateable cheese (kasseri), a soft, creamy cheese (feta), and eggs. The Greek casserole also included herbs–leeks, scallions and parsley, and one extra flavoring: chopped Kalamata olives. I knew immediately that I wanted to make the casserole, and I also knew that I wanted to make it for Teacherman’s family. Luckily, the Easter potluck presented itself, and I set to work.

Saturday night I washed two small heads of curly endive and two romaine hearts, then wilted them in a large pan until they were thoroughly cooked. I drained the greens in a colander, then squeezed them completely dry, and put them into a large bowl. Next, I chopped and washed two leeks and a whole bunch of scallions, then sauteed them in a little oil until lightly browned. I added the aliums to the greens, along with the chopped leaves from an entire bunch of parsley and half a cup of olives, also chopped.

Once the mixture was cool, I crumbled up 10 oz of feta and 7 oz of kasseri cheese (the recipe called for slightly different amounts, but those were the sizes of the cheeses I bought) and mixed the crumbles into the greens, along with a tiny pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

At that point, I covered the bowl and put it into the fridge. I left it there overnight, but this was for the sake of convenience, rather than any necessary ripening step. I wanted to make the casserole right before we left for brunch, the meal was due to take place at 10 am, an hour’s drive away, and the casserole needed an hour in the oven. I didn’t want to get up at 5 am to cook the greens, so I did everything ahead.

The next morning, I let the contents of the bowl come to room temperature while I preheated the oven to 350, then I mixed in four beaten eggs. I poured the mixture into an olive-oil slicked 9*13 inch pan, then let it bake while I readied myself for the family gathering.

After one hour, the casserole was finished cooking, and I packed it–covered in foil and wrapped in many layers of dish towel–in a conveniently sized cardboard box. Away we went!

I was a little nervous about presenting Teacherman’s family with a bastardized version of their Priznel–understandably, comforting traditions often matter far more than taste–but I needn’t have. The group dove into the pan, taking generous portions, and, in many cases, going back for seconds.

“This is definitely the new Priznel,” Teacherman whispered to me.

“Man, I love anything with cooked spinach in it!” said one relative.

Teacherman and I looked at each other. We didn’t say a word.

Published in: on March 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who For Such Dainties Would Not Stoop?

When I was a child, I loved tomato soup.  It was, in fact, the archetypical American-childhood tomato soup–Campbell’s condensed, rehydrated with milk (never water), served perfectly smooth and absolutely unadulterated by additions of any kind, with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side. 

(I understand that the grilled cheese sandwiches, called “cheese toasties” in my family, were one step away from the norm in that they were usually made on caraway rye bread, rather than white [which we never had in the house], and with Colby-Jack cheese rather than American [ditto].  But I’m not talking about sandwiches, here, I’m talking about soup).

I do still sometimes long for that creamy, slightly processed, stewed-tomato flavor, but I’ve come to enjoy the sharper, more acidic flavor of real tomatoes (even when canned, the tomatoes I buy these days are more “real” than those in condensed soup), and the rough, pottagey texture of home-blended soup.  I rarely make tomato soup, but when I do, I make it that way.

Funnily enough, I almost never crave tomato soup during tomato season itself.  It’s when the weather turns cold, dreary and damp that I want it–conditioned, no doubt, by memories of childhood tomato soup lunches on snow days or after being caught in the rain.  Thus, I always make tomato soup with canned tomatoes. 

Though I scorn to peel tomatoes for almost every other application (including even those that I admit to needing it), I prefer peeled tomatoes.  And because diced canned tomatoes almost always have the skin on (indeed, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them otherwise), I use whole, peeled tomatoes, which I then puree before using.  This means that there are fewer discrete pieces of tomato in my soups, but more tomato in every bite, which I enjoy.  In my opinion, a broth–no matter how delicious–with pieces of tomato floating therein is not tomato soup.  I’m sure this is also leftover childhood conditioning.

Sunday night, I wanted tomato soup.  Teacherman and I had been out of town all weekend, and had driven 5 hours back from a warm and balmy St. Louis, to find our home city gripped by sneaky cold winds and lowering skies.  There was almost no food in the house, but when I opened up the pantry cupboard, a big can of whole, peeled tomatoes stared back at me. 

I sauteed shallots–lots of them.  I added two minced red jalapenos, three big pulverized garlic cloves and about 2 Tbsp of minced ginger.  When they began to caramelize, I added some lime zest from my frozen stash and stirred it around. 

While that became lovely and fragrant, I pureed the can of tomatoes in the food processor, then added that to the pan along with several cubes of frozen chicken stock and two Tbsp of Thai fish sauce.  I covered the pan and let it simmer for about half an hour.

At this point, it could have been done.  It was a hearty, thick soup that would have been lovely on its own–the ginger, lime and especially the fish sauce giving it an unidentifiable, but distinctly moreish depth–but we were both in need of something substantial, so I determined to add protein.  I pulled out the last carton of farmer’s market eggs and cracked six into the wide skillet, sprinkled them with salt and then let them gently poach in the tomatoey depths.

A mere five minutes later we were at the table, scooping up thick spoonfuls, some enriched with egg, some not.  Without egg, the soup was rich, but still sparkling with acidity; with egg, it mellowed until it almost resembled a sauce.  Both ways were comforting, sustaining and, most importantly, satisfying.    I wanted to wrap my arms around the bowl and huddle into it, letting the steam fog up my glasses and open my pores. 

We scraped the bowls clean, and sat at the table, content.  Tomato soup can do that to you. 

Published in: on November 19, 2007 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Crepe-tastic

I have been on a bit of a crepe kick recently.  At least one morning of every recent weekend has found me whipping up a batter, forming myriad paper-thin rounds of sweetness and filling them with whatever my latest passion is. 

First, I made pear crepes.

I flavored the crepes themselves with vanilla, filling the tender circles with cardamom-caramelized pears.

Next, it was apple-black currant crepes, made with the last of the farmer’s market apples and a handful of the black currants from the freezer.  The currants turned the filling a deep purple and brough an almost woodsy, piney flavor to the meal.

I got a little crazy with the cinnamon.  Both the filling and the crepes were flavored with it, and it was, as you can see, dusted liberally over the top. 

My last crepe experiment, though, was defintely the most elaborate.  A few weeks ago I was reading a novel that mentioned a particular Austrian dessert–crepes layered with apricot jam, toasted ground pecans, and grated chocolate.  This idea wedged itself firmly into my mind and would NOT dislodge.  After weeks of dealing with apricot-pecan-chocolate daydreams, I gave up and made the thing.  And, given that I’ve never seen a recipe for anything like it, made it up, as well.  (That is, I certainly don’t believe that I made up the recipe or the idea, but I made up what I was doing as I went along).  Also, I made it for breakfast. 

I arrayed my ingredients next to the stove: 1. a food processor bowl full of my thinnest crepe batter.  2. a jar of my apricot jam, lightly sweetened (my jam is essentially just concentrated apricot puree, so it needs a little additional sweetener sometimes).  3. a bowl of toasted pulverized pecans (which I could not keep from eating with a spoon as I progressed).  4. a small bag of cacao nibs.  Yes, I could have used grated chocolate, but the idea of the nubbly, bitter cacao nibs lodged itself in my mind right next to the original recipe, and they merged almost without my knowing it.  To make up for the extremely dark flavor of the nibs (and the intensity of the apricot puree), I sweetened the crepe batter much more than I usually do. 

The assembly began.  A crepe.  A smear of jam.  A sprinkling of nuts, then nibs.  Repeat.  Repeat ten times.  Repeat until there is a cake-sized edifice of lacy crepes and gooey filling, waiting to be eaten. 

Eaten it was.  I took the picture after I cut the whole cake in half, the better to see the innards.

It was delicious.  The light sweetness of the crepes was a perfect foil for the tartness of the jam, the toastiness of the pecans and the bitterness of the cacao nibs.  Every bite tasted buttery, even though I’d used no butter in its making.

We ate it all, instantly and eagerly, in spite of the fact that it was so rich and intense that we almost couldn’t stand it.  It was truly a confluence of disparate factors creating a harmonious whole. 

Published in: on November 7, 2007 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Small Packages

I have always loved tiny things. As I child, I was not only the caretaker of the aforementioned tiny green alligators, but also myriad other tiny plastic animals, old-school metal matchbox trucks (yes, trucks–I don’t think I had any cars at all) a ramshackle dollhouse (built by my mother at half-inch scale, making it even smaller than other dollhouses), and innumerable random small things–woven baskets, wooden ducks, teeny-weeny shells, etc.

Even if nearly all of the ones I owned as a child have disappeared into the ether, I still love tiny things. These days, though, I coo over tiny, perfectly constructed foodstuffs. It grew, I’m sure, out of the tea parties that my best friend and I used to have. Given that we started having them when we were both nearly 18, these were real tea parties, with actual tea and delicate miniature fingerfoods. I don’t think that I ever prepared the ubiquitously expected tea sandwiches, but I made a lot of miniature scones, jelly-tots and comfits. When I wanted something savory, I went for miniature quiches, made in muffin tins, sometimes even mini-muffin tins.

It was only last year that I discovered the perfect tiny savory, though, far too late for my high school tea parties. This paragon? The fritter.

Well. Not really. The recipe title called them fritters, but given that they’re neither deep-fried nor breaded, I don’t know if they can truly be considered anything of the kind. The original recipe was for corn fritters and simply called for beating two egg whites until stiff, then whisking the two egg yolks until smooth and creamy, stirring in a cup of fresh corn kernels along with some salt, pepper and maybe a little herbage if necessary, then folding the egg whites into the corn mixture. Drop by tablespoons-full into a nonstick pan sprayed with oil and saute until browned. Voila–the ersatz fritter.

Simple as they were, those corn fritters were really very good. The result was much more like a silver dollar pancake than a true fritter, but the poppable morsels were light in texture and suffused with the flavor of corn–anyone who objects to ‘eggy’ flavors wouldn’t have been able to muster a single complaint. For a few months after I made them first, pick-a-vegetable fritters appeared at any or all meals of the day; eventually I even branched out into sweetened fritters with fruit–blueberry and apple were my two favorite variations.

Fritter-mania lasted the length of the summer and a short way into autumn, but when the temperatures started falling my cravings inclined towards heartier fare. I hadn’t thought about those pseudo-fritters in months until last week, when I saw a recipe in a newspaper food section for crab, corn and red bell pepper fritters. The recipe was for a real fritter–deep fried and coated in dry breadcrumbs, the internal ingredients bound together with flour, with the final result, if the picture was to be believed, looking like a lumpy hush puppy.

This was less than appealing. The combination of flavors, though, caught my imagination–crab, red bell peppers and corn are all sweet, but their sweetness is different enough that I didn’t think any of the three would overwhelm the others or be so sweet that the whole would be cloying. Contemplating the word ‘fritter,’ my mind flew back to the un-fritters of last summer, and a plan was formed.

For a solo dinner on Thursday night I whipped up an egg white, creamed its egg yolk, then stirred in crab, fresh corn kernels, diced red bell pepper, a chopped scallion, salt and some pepper. I folded in the egg white carefully, but it deflated a bit when confronted with the quantity of filling; the final mixture was still fluffy, though. I added a bit of canola oil to my biggest nonstick skillet, and, when the oil was hot, dropped in diminutive spoonfuls. After about 7 minutes (flipping halfway through) the tiny cakes were entirely golden and caramelized on their flattest sides. I slid them out onto a plate and, armed with a fork, ferried the lot into the dining room for immediate consumption.

As I had thought, the combination of corn, bell pepper and crab was inspired. I had prepared a vaguely Asian dipping sauce to dunk the fritters in, but ended up neglecting it entirely, so much did I love the flavor of the fritters on their own. The natural sugars in the bell pepper increased the amount of caramelization, the sharpness and crunchiness of the scallion contrasted beautifully with the crab, both in texture and flavor, and the corn added bursts of mellow sweetness in the midst of everything else. It was a thoroughly satisfying meal, in spite of its lightness. I have no plans to make this particular variety of fritter in the near future (the farmer’s market is too full of exciting things to repeat a recipe), but its deliciousness was a reminder of how good the little pseudo-fritters can be. I have no doubt that some new vegetable fill find itself fritterized some day soon. I can only hope the resulting morsels will be as toothsome as these were.

Published in: on June 9, 2007 at 7:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Green

My mother loves to tell me about the time, in my extreme youth, that I refused to eat a vegetable (green beans?) at dinner, citing its green color and pointing out that green is also the color OF ALLIGATORS.  I cannot recall if this objection was because alligators are vicious, frightening beasts, and thus the green vegetable had sympathetic magic, or because I had two tiny, much-beloved, bright-green plastic toy alligators, and thus eating the green vegetable would be cannibalistic.  In any case, No Green.

Eventually I grew up and one day, out of the blue, began eating green vegetables.  (Really–it was that sudden.  I remember looking into the refrigerator and thinking “I think I’ll have a salad for lunch,” and then recoiling in shock).  These days I eat and enjoy almost every vegetable I come across–I even have a secret pride in the fact that I love vegetables.  There is, however, one major exception.

Cooked spinach, as I may have mentioned here previously, is one of my last culinary hurdles.   It’s not that I can’t cook it, it’s that I don’t want to.  Raw spinach I love–the chewy texture and slippery way it behaves make a wonderful contrast to romaine in a salad, much like butter lettuce, but with more body.  The mild, raw, vegetal flavor is something that I actually occasionally crave. 

Cooked, though, spinach changes completely.  What was chewy becomes slimey and what was fresh-tasting becomes metallic.  Large quantities of cooked spinach actually make me gag. 

This is very frustrating, since I WANT to like cooked spinach (see previous note about my bizarre pride at loving vegetables).  Also, Teacherman adores cooked spinach.  One of the very first things he ever cooked for me was a family specialty called Priznel, a kind of spinach quiche, made from spinach (a LOT of spinach), eggs, butter, cottage cheese and hard cheese, with a little wheat germ on top, for textural contrast.  He was very proud to serve me a family favorite, just as I had been when I served him my favorite family recipe (poulet basquaise, naturally).  I managed to choke down a serving, but then “generously” insisted that he take the leftovers home with him.  That was the day that I determined that my aversion to cooked spinach Must Be Overcome.

I’ve had varied success.  Cooked spinach with Japanese flavors (which I’d never contemplated)=good.  Cooked spinach with Indian flavors (which, given its long tradition, would seem like a natural)=bad.  Cooked spinach in soups=iffy.  The key seems to be to make sure that the dish isn’t packed with cooked spinach (which, I’m sorry to say, Priznel is), and that there are further strong flavors to mask the metallic taste. 

The past weekend Teacherman and I took a trip out of town, and, as is our wont, packed up a cooler with enough food for every meal away from home.  I made and purchased various portable foods–stuffed eggs, whole fruit, pickles, dried sausages, etc.  While contemplating the second day’s breakfast, I glanced into the freezer and noticed the remnants of a bag of frozen cooked spinach left over from making a dip.  (Many dips seems to require cooked spinach purely for color–I don’t know why none of the other herbs and greens are up to snuff).  Obviously suffering from masochistic delusions, I decided that the perfect portable picnic breakfast would be miniature spinach fritattas, very much like Priznel. 

Mindful of my strong-flavors requirement, though, I did diverge sharply from Teacherman’s recipe.  No cottage cheese, no butter.  These things add almost too much richness and seem to intensify the metallic flavor I find so objectionable.  After reconnoitering the refrigerator, I turned up a little sharp cheddar (one couldn’t entirely banish cheese from the dish), and the one thing that I thought would save my tastebuds–prosciutto. 

I lined half a dozen muffin cups with foil liners, then draped a piece of prosciutto across the bottom and up the sides.  I distributed the (defrosted, drained, squeezed-dry and fluffed) spinach loosely among the cups, then ground on a little pepper.  Over the top went four beaten eggs, then a little grated cheddar.  I folded the dangling prosciutto flaps over the top of each cup, then baked them in a moderate oven until done. 

I was right about the prosciutto.   Given the mini-fritattas’ existence as a food to be eaten out of a cooler, I didn’t taste them until two days later, on a muggy Ohio morning at 8 am.  Nevertheless, they were fabulous.  The salty crispiness of the prosciutto cut through the richness of the cheese, the greater quantity of egg and lesser quantity of spinach was smooth and light instead of dense, and the cheese and the prosciutto combined to obscure any metallic taste from the spinach.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, without any misgivings; I would even make it again.  Teacherman liked it too, though I imagine he didn’t like it as much as he likes Priznel, which is understandable, and as it should be. 

I still worry about cooking spinach, and know that I can’t assume that I’ll automatically like it, but I’m happy to know that I have another acceptable recipe in my arsenal.  Teacherman, I’m sure, is happy as well.

Published in: on May 28, 2007 at 6:59 pm  Comments (1)