July 2008 Archives

 

My favorite unexpected pizza* topping is potato. Unlike the carb-fest of pasta on pizza, the earthy flavor of the potato and its soft bite can add another dimension to a suitably thin-crusted pie. My favorite unexpected pizza is the #4 at local spot Emma's: crispy bacon, chunks of yukon gold potatoes, mozzarella, fresh cilantro, and dried cranberries. Pure genius. Before you balk at the cranberries, a cautionary tale: the first time we ordered this, we hemmed and hawed and eventually ordered it sans berries, to the great dismay of the waiter. After much cajoling on his part, we accepted a dish of cranberries on the side - one bite, and we were sold: the sweet tartness partnered perfectly with the cilantro in playing counterpoint to the rich gooiness of the bacon, cheese and potatoes. We spent the rest of the meal lamenting our failure to order them baked on to the pizza.


Perhaps the only thing more genius than this pizza, in fact, is the version I made at home. Inspired by this potato torte over at Smitten Kitchen, I ditched the dough and made the base entirely of partially pre-baked sliced yukons, brushed with olive oil and generously sprinkled with fresh-cracked pepper and kosher salt. A thick layer of grated smoked gouda followed, then several sliced cloves of garlic. The star player was my homemade guanciale, sliced thin and fried until crispy. Providing that sweet counterpoint was a handful of fresh blueberries. Finally, when it was pulled bubbling from the oven, a sprinkling of fresh cilantro. On the side, a restrained dish of wilted Swiss chard.

For comparison, here is the real deal, from Emma's - it looks a little different with crust under it! The #4 is second in the lineup:


Ingredients:
Cheese from Smith's Farmstead in Winchendon, MA
Cilantro and kale from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Potatoes from Parker Farm, Lunenberg, MA
Blueberries from Kimball Fruit Farm, Pepperell, MA
Guanciale homemade with pork jowls from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

*As an aside, may I state how incredibly hard it is to even type the word "pizza" without falling down the rabbit hole of compare and contrast: Neapolitan, New York, New Haven, California, thick, thin, doughy, crackery, saucy, cheesy, oily, et cetera, ad infinitum! I carry a 6-dimensional chart around in my head to categorize them all... maybe some day I will share it.

 

Presenting my first project for the Daring Bakers Challenge: a Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream!


I can't remember the last time I baked a cake before this - I don't bake often to begin with (part of why I joined Daring Bakers) and for the past few years I have been fixated on pie. That being the case, this project introduced me to several new techniques (praline paste, genoise, and swiss buttercream - I will never make a lesser frosting again!) and forced me to practice old ones (cutting and assembling layers, ganache, decoration)


I prepped, baked and assembled this cake, an intricate three-layer production of ground hazelnuts, praline paste, and buttercream, over the course of two evenings, plus, of course, another one to run about buying ingredients. My inner perfectionist kicked in and insisted on fresh hazelnuts, local cream and eggs, and top-shelf chocolate, hoping that quality ingredients would cover for any deficiencies in my skills. I think they did: while I know that the genoise could have been much fluffier, and the ganache smoother, this cake was a delight to eat.


That so many heavy ingredients came together to make something so light and tender is almost magical. The secret to this cake is its delicate contrasts: the sweetness of the praline buttercream was tempered by the fresh whipped cream, the smooth chocolate ganache played off the crumbly genoise, and the backdrop of sultry hazelnut deepened against the hints of apricot and orange liquor.

You can find the recipe here.

 

While a hot meal to start and end the day is a precious pick-me-up, my favorite backpacking foods are the simplest: fruits, nuts, and preserved meats and dairy.


Even better are those simple treats you don't have to pack in. In the Catskills in summer, this means plenty of wild blueberries and raspberries, which spring up in every sunny glade.


Smaller and more tart than their cultivated cousins, nothing is more refreshing than a handful of these little sun-warmed berries. Each one pops open on the tongue with a slightly different character, some small, young and bright, others sweet and mild.

 


Although it isn't local to Massachusetts, I have to give a shout out to Massa Organics brown rice. After a friend introduced it to me a couple years ago, I've been hooked - I brought back several pounds of this stuff in my luggage last time I went to California. It has simply the most tender grains, with the roundest, nuttiest flavor. Seeing a container of leftover rice next to some ground veal and the profusion of summer zucchini in my fridge, I settled on making stuffed zucchini.

After hollowing out the zucchini, I cooked the meat and the centers of the zucchini along with the leftover rice. I had some leftover dehydrated vegetables from the weekend's backpacking trip, so even though they weren't exactly local, I tossed them into the mix, along with an egg, some dried oregano and fresh basil. The mixture went into the hollowed-out zucchinis and they were baked at 350 degrees for about half an hour. Yum!

Ingredients:
Eggs from Oake Knoll Ayreshires in Foxboro, MA
Zucchini, garlic, basil, young white onions, lettuce, carrots, cucumber, and yellow wax beans from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Ground veal from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

Not Local:
Dehydrated vegetables from Just Tomatoes
Brown rice from Massa Organics

 

Last weekend we were in the Catskills, backpacking along the Black Dome Range and Escarpment Trails. We covered about 20 miles and traversed about 11,000 vertical feet over the course of ascending and descending six 3,000+ foot peaks. That kind of hiking can make a soul mighty hungry. (And thirsty, but I'll leave the cumbersome mechanics of wilderness water collection and purification for another time.)

I wanted to create a dish for our trip that would be light to carry, use little fuel to prepare, and provide adequate nutrition. Of course, I wanted it to taste good as well, but I guess three out of four ain't bad.


My first thought was a lentil and couscous stew. Both central components have an excellent weight to nutrition ratios, and are also satisfyingly hearty. I make them frequently at home. The roadblock is that although lentils are the quickest-cooking legumes I know, they still take much too long to attempt over a tiny backpacking stove. There are two methods to make them cook faster, however, and I used them both: grinding and presoaking. In the final, and successful, version, I used a coffee grinder to crush the lentils to a sand-like consistency, and then soaked them in a plastic bag for about an hour before cooking. After soaking, I boiled the mixture until thick, and then added a handful of mixed dehydrated vegetables and some cooked couscous. The resulting stew had a perfect texture, smooth and substantial, just like camp comfort food should be. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the flavor: in addition to burning the bottom of the pot when I made it on the backpacking stove, I had trouble with the seasoning. As someone who seasons food as she goes along, it is hard to adapt to creating a mix, putting the spices into the ground lentils before cooking rather than tasting and adjusting them. It made me really nervous, and I ended up just using salt and trusting that the dehydrated vegetables would add enough flavor - they didn't.


The dish still holds promise, however, and I will definitely be correcting it and packing it on future trips. Next time, I'll try adding some Indian spices, and using individual dehydrated vegetables rather than a mix. I think I will also switch to a red lentil, just to make it look a little more appetizing - without the definition of lentil shapes, the yellow-green gloop wasn't much to look at. Given the flaws, I'm not going to write a recipe, but if you are interested in experimenting, a cup of ground lentils can be soaked and cooked in two cups of water and makes a good serving for three people.


 

Although I have never knowingly tasted preserved lemon, I recently heard a radio segment on KCRW's Good Food, and was instantly convinced to try making them. They are simple enough to make, and although mine have only been fermenting a few days, they already have an incredible scent, like an extra-tangy lemonade.


I'll be sure to let you all know what I do with these when they're ready!

 


Two things are responsible for this week's local meal: the first tomatoes of this summer's CSA share, and the heat that is making me loathe to use the oven. Making granola yesterday was bad enough - just standing next to the stove left me soaked in sweat. So I opted for a dish that would get me out of the kitchen as quickly as possible.

Cube steak is pre-tenderized meat made from a cut that would otherwise be fairly tough, in this case, the pork shoulder. The tenderizing makes cube steak super easy to cook - I just sprinkled mine with salt, pepper and a little cumin and pan-fried it for a few minutes on each side. In the meantime I made a salad ( a couple tomatoes and a small onion chopped and tossed with basil, cilantro, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper) and the yogurt sauce ( plain, tart yogurt with little dill, garlic and salt). Cumin and dill are my favorite hot weather spices, so refreshing and cooling on the tongue, particularly when paired with the tang of the yogurt.

Ingredients:
Yogurt homemade with milk from Oake Knoll Ayreshires in Foxboro, MA
Tomatoes, young white onions, cilantro and basil from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Pork shoulder cube steak from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

 

When I made maraschino cherries, I had a lot of thick, sweet, delicious syrup left over. Drizzled over a fresh peach, it makes a perfect summer treat; the syrup mingles with the sweetness of the peach and simultaneously enhances its tartness.


 

Inspired by these recipes, and overloaded with excess sourdough starter, I decided to make an experimental batch of whole wheat sourdough crackers. I used the first recipe as my template, although I reduced the olive oil by half (a mistake, in retrospect) and added toppings.

My theory was that I would be able to simply substitute starter for an appropriate amount of flour and water. My starter was about a 4:3 ratio of flour to water, so I did some weighing and math (I am a nerd) to find the weight of starter that would contain 1 cup of water and then added the necessary amount of additional flour. This method worked great, and I imagine that after making this a few times, I'd be able to do it by feel, just taking some starter and adding four until the right consistency is reached.


I made two toppings, one of rosemary and black salt, and the other of coarsely ground mixed seeds. I first tried attaching them with just olive oil, but discovered that the egg wash recommended in the second recipe is really the way to make them stick. To cook, I rolled them out thinly and baked them on a pizza tray.

The results? Very tasty, with a sour, nutty flavor that went well with both toppings. I did not pierce the crackers before baking, so they were covered with large, satisfyingly crunchy bubbles.


While the sourdough substitution worked, the recipe could still use a little tweaking; between the bubbles, the crackers were a little too thick and not crunchy enough. I'll be making these again, and refining the recipe. I think next time, in addition to adding more olive oil and rolling more thinly, I will use a regular all-purpose flour starter as the base, and use whole wheat only for the additional flour, aiming for a less dense cracker. I'd also love to try a mix of other flours, like rye.

 

This week we decided to take a break from the red meat and sample some local seafood. My favorite fish market is the New Deal in Cambridge: I am not a fish expert, but everything I have bought there has been excellent. It helps that their staff is incredibly friendly, talkative and helpful. They were happy to tell me the origin of every fish they had available, as well as their flavors and strengths. I choose a large, locally caught halibut steak with beautiful translucent white flesh. The clerk pointed out the fresh, still-red blood that spotted on the cut surface of the steak and showed me where to cut out the bones. Then he suggested searing the steaks very quickly in olive oil over high heat, then, setting the fish aside, sautéing onions, garlic, white wine and tomatoes in the oil. Then the steaks are returned to the pan for a two-minute simmer in the sauce. I took most of his advice, only omitting the tomatoes.


For once, I managed the timing, and the result was perfectly moist, tender and flaky throughout. The mild, clean flavor of the halibut married perfectly with the garlic and white wine. I think it speaks to the freshness and delicate flavor that no fishy smell lingered in the kitchen, nor appeared in the microwave a couple days later when I reheated it for lunch.

The raddichio, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly bitter. It was a gorgeous mottled red and green, with perfect texture, but simply intensely, bitingly, inedibly bitter. It mellowed out in time to eat as leftovers, however. The polenta was, well, the same polenta we've had several times now - still delicious, but no longer novel.

Ingredients:
Halibut from New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, MA (Fish caught off MA shore)
Radicchio and young onions from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Gray's Rhode Island Cornmeal, from Gray's Grist Mill in Adamsville, RI

 

More homemade pasta! I picked up some littleneck clams and wanted to serve them steamed in white wine over pasta, so I decided to give homemade pasta another try. This time I managed to get the pasta thinner, which gave it a more delicate texture. It worked perfectly with the tender steamed clams.

I cooked the clams in white wine with garlic and saffron, and since I remembered just moments before that I had a few strips of leftover bacon, I tossed that in too. The result was clam meat with a fresh kick of wine and saffron, and a rich, salty sauce that provided a very complimentary contrast.


Steamed Clams with Saffron and Bacon

  • 14-16 cleaned littleneck clams
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 pinch saffron (2-3 threads)
  • 2-4 slices thick-cut bacon
  • flour
  • 1 Tbs heavy cream (optional)

Slice the bacon into bite-sized pieces and cook them until they begin to get crisp around the edges, then set aside. Mince the garlic and sauté it in the olive oil until golden. Add the white wine, water, saffron and clams. Cover, and let the clams cook for 3-5 minutes, then add the bacon. Recover and let cook until all the clams are open.

Transfer the clams and bacon to another bowl and thicken the pan sauce with flour and cream. Then toss the cooked pasta in the sauce, serve and top with the clam and bacon. Top with freshly-ground pepper. Parsley or Parmesan might make a nice garnish as well.

 

This article in The Washington Post on homemade cocktail ingredients caught my eye a while ago. I've just been waiting for cherries to show up at the farmers market to make these preserved cherries. (While I am calling them maraschinos, they're not made with Marasca cherries or Maraschino liqueur, but Bings and almond extract. The almond extract gives it that flavor we associate with jarred red marachinos, but that's all they really have in common.)

Pitting the cherries was the most taxing part of the recipe (I don't own a pitter). The ingredients are simple and the procedure is straightforward, with a brief brine that is followed by a soak in almond sugar syrup. The resulting cherries are less sweet and crisp than the neon red maraschino cherries we are used to; although they share the same cloying candied almond allure, they also let more of the original taste and texture of the cherries come through. The process takes two days, and when the cherries were finished, I canned them as if they were pickles.

We enjoyed Old Fashioneds (bourbon with a splash each of Angostura bitters and sugar syrup, garnished with cherries and twists) made with the resulting cherries and syrup. The leftover syrup is also excellent over fresh fruit, yogurt, or ice cream.

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    A small bowl in the fridge.
  • How much time does it take?
    Two days total, about 20 minutes active time, plus a loooong time for pitting the cherries.
  • Does it smell?
    No
  • Does it look grody?
    No, in fact the liquid from the cherries is a beautiful clear ruby red.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    No
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    The cherry-pitting might be a deal-breaker. I'll definitely make a couple jars a year, but I also might invest in a cherry pitter.
 


This weeks local meal comes courtesy of one very non-local appliance, my rockin' Sanyo ECJ-D100S Rice Cooker. This little beauty not only cooks rice, grains and porridges of all sorts to perfection, it has a timer that can have said perfection ready right when you get home from work or up out of bed. It also doubles and triples as a steamer and slow cooker. To be honest, I prefer to steam things on the stove, but the slow cooker works great, and anything that does double duty saves me that much counter space!

I slow-cooked the pork, a meaty country-style rib, with some apple bbq sauce made by a local orchard, and a handful of green onions tossed in at the end. I served it on a bed of that Rhode Island polenta, with a side of sautéed onion and kale. The pork was tender and smoky, the thick bbq sauce forming a gooey coating over it and dripping into the creamy polenta. The kale was fresh and clean, mild-flavored and not at all bitter, the perfect counterpoint to the sweet and salty pork.

Ingredients:
BBQ Sauce from Bolton Orchard in Bolton, MA
Kale, young white onions, green onions from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Gray's Rhode Island Cornmeal, from Gray's Grist Mill in Adamsville, RI
Pork shoulder country style ribs from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

 


This is a light, crisp slaw that makes a great easy side for a humid summer night. Cabbage, hakurei turnips, peach and green onions with a splash of white wine vinegar and salt: together they are sweet, salty, tart, mild, bitter, tangy, and ultimately refreshing.

 

The variety meat of the week is beef heart.


One advantage of beef heart is that since the heart is a muscle, the meat is closest in character to a slice of steak. It is also quite lean and full of nutrients, and can be very tender. The disadvantages are that there is a distinctive, although not unpleasant, flavor, slightly sweet with a hint of liver, and that it is a bit of a chore to trim the various arteries and whatnot away. I also found that I had difficulty finding the sweet spot for doneness and tenderness. I tried to pound out the slices somewhat, and I think that if I owned an actual meat mallet, this would have been a great help. As it was, I had uneven thicknesses and managed to overcook some slices and undercook others, getting only a couple at a nice, tender medium rare.


I cut the heart into slices and pounded them a little with my trusty pyrex measuring cup, then dredged them with flour and fried them in a little butter. I used the pan drippings to make a very good gravy with white wine and thyme, probably the high point of the dish. Next time, I will try the heart meat braised or in a stew, which I think would play to the strengths of the cut, both in texture and flavor.

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