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March 17, 2010

I am not always a purist about waiting for things to come into season. Grocery store tulips to speed spring along. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

First tulips


Shedding winter

March 13, 2010

It’s felt like a long winter around here, I won’t deny it. The last month, especially, has felt endlessly full of work and stress and too much grey. So I used my Saturday afternoon to appreciate the much-needed pleasures of napping on the couch. When I got up and shuffled outside to check out the melting snow, I found little surprises popping up all over the place.

First crocus

Crocuses, tulips, daffodils. They’re all pushing their way up through last year’s leaves and debris in the patches where the snow has melted. I love this with my entire winter-chilled heart. There is still snow in these flower beds, did I mention that? Most of the yard and almost the entire field behind our house is still snow covered. But I suppose these sturdy bulbs are just as ready for spring as I am.


Venturing a little optimism, I went to check out the vegetable garden. I really can’t believe this… Spinach, still green underneath the shrinking patches of snow. We always overwinter some spinach and this gives us fresh greens in May, much earlier than if we’d planted in the spring. These guys are a ways away from being ready to eat, but finding them today helped me shed the first icy layer of winter.

Through the snow

Carrots through the snow

But what I did not expect was the neat row of homely looking carrot tops popping out of the soil. I pulled four fat and sweet carrots and sat back on my heels and gaped, mouth open, in surprise (I suspect this wasn’t me at my most graceful). I definitely do not remember leaving these in the ground. And I certainly did not expect to find anything edible in the garden so early.

It felt a little like the Dar Williams song, February. “You stopped and pointed and you said, ‘That’s a crocus.’ And I said, ‘What’s a crocus?’ And you said, ‘It’s a flower.’ I tried to remember, but I said, ‘What’s a flower?'” Sometimes it takes a little while to wake up from winter.

I acknowledge that not every one has lovely golden carrots popping out of garden beds to help them shake off the cold. That’s okay. You’ve probably got other signs of spring lurking outside your door. But just in case you are likewise graced with carrots, I give you a recipe, my personal ode to spring on a Saturday afternoon.

Sweet sweet carrots

Blood Orange

Ginger carrots with blood orange glaze

Gingered Carrots with Blood Orange Glaze

We keep our ginger in the freezer. This prevents it from being forgotten and turning into an unpleasant surprise in the back of the fridge. I sliced thin peels of ginger off the frozen root for this recipe. Grating on a microplane also works well. I might use a little less ginger if you grate it.

4 fat, sweet carrots, sliced into coins
1 generous tsp. shaved ginger
juice of 1/2 blood orange
1 tsp. brown sugar
3/4 c. water
pinch salt

Combine all ingredients into a small saucepan. Simmer over medium-high heat until most of the liquid has evaporated- this shouldn’t take more than five minutes or so. Serve with a sprinkle of coarse kosher salt.

Winter sweets

March 1, 2010

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a baker. It just isn’t what moves me in the kitchen. But lately, I think I’ve been in search of a little sweetness. I currently have the following in my kitchen: spice cake cupcakes with orange sour cream frosting, the lovely almond cake I mentioned several weeks ago, and chocolate meringue cookies in the shape of stars. This may not be a good omen for the onset of bare skin season.

Chocolate meringue cookies

Here at the tail end of winter (is this too optimistic?), when the light is slowly coming back, but real spring warmth is still a ways away, sweets have been appealing. Maybe it’s the warmth of the oven. Whatever it is, here I am with a kitchen full of sugar, eggs, and butter. Learning new things like that cakes can be held together with 8 egg yolks and not much else, and that egg whites and sugar are actually magic together, really. I’m getting sort of a kick out of this all right now.

And so, while the photo is not going to win any prizes, I am really quite proud of the chocolate meringues here. Meringue is picky. Apparently, you shouldn’t make it on a humid day, you must not get even a tiny bit of yolk in with the whites, you have to beat them to the proper stiffness or they won’t hold their shape… the list goes on. Do you see what I mean? This is definitely not my style. How ridiculously fussy can you get?

However, these little things are crisp and light and full of chocolate flavor. They sound like chalk when they knock against each other on the plate. They’re tiny and sweet and I honestly can’t believe I spent last night piping meringue stars through a pastry bag that I actually bought specially for these. It might be an illness. I can’t explain it. But nevertheless, here I am, in need of some sweetness. And you, dear reader, get a meringue recipe. Enjoy.

Chocolate meringue stars

Adapted from a Gourmet magazine recipe from 2007 and found here. I have simplified the recipe significantly, most notably by sticking to one flavor, chocolate, and by not gilding the lily via dipping them in melted chocolate. I do have my limits, after all. Instead of the cream of tartar noted below, I actually added a splash of vinegar. I read somewhere that this will stabilize the whites in the same way as the cream of tartar which I did not have in my cabinet. This could be complete fiction for all I know, so I stuck to the original recipe for you in that regard. I am not an expert here, so if you are, by all means, adapt this to suit your taste.

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch cream of tartar
3/4 c. superfine granulated sugar
6 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 200°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.Sift cocoa powder through a fine, mesh sieve and combine with two tablespoons of the sugar. Set aside.

Beat egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar, a pinch of salt, and vanilla. Beat until egg whites just hold soft peaks. Add superfine sugar, one spoon at a time and increase the speed to high. Continue beating until meringue holds stiff, glossy peaks.  Fold in cocoa mixture gently.

Spoon meringue into a pastry bag with a 1/2 inch star tip on the end. Try not to squeeze it while you’re doing this. Pipe stars onto parchment paper; mine were just about an inch in diameter. Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, switching positions of the baking sheets in the oven half-way through until meringues are dry and crisp. They should pull away from the parchment paper easily when they’re done. (Except that they’re not done yet!) Turn off the oven and leave the meringues in there to cool as the oven cools down. I left mine overnight. In the morning, I had delicately crisp meringue for breakfast.

And by the way, these would taste just as nice without the fancy star tip. Just plop spoonfulls of the stuff onto the baking sheet and enjoy unshaped. The pastry bag and frosting tip (is that even what those things are called?) just may be what makes these over the top for me but you’ll have your own opinion.

Vindaloo cauliflower

February 22, 2010

Vindaloo cauliflower

I had a conversation at work the other day in which I blithely commented that I haven’t been sick once this year. You know what’s coming right? I was immediately stricken with a nasty, snotty cold the very next day! I acknowledge that is probably my due for not providing my co-worker more sympathy for her own cold. Alas. What can I say? Sometimes it takes me more than once to learn a lesson.

So I lolled on the couch all day today, sniffling, sneezing and giggling myself silly over this website, and sniffling and sneezing some more. For breakfast I ate oatmeal that tasted like cardboard, drank tea that tasted like water, and ate chicken soup for lunch that had plenty of texture but no taste. Yes, my taste buds are sadly not registering much of anything right now.

And so for dinner, I pulled out the heavy stuff. Vindaloo cauliflower. It’s hardly a recipe, and I hesitate to post it as though it’s something complex and mysterious. However, I could taste it and today, folks, this was big news. I used a Vindaloo curry powder from Penzey’s Spices. I love this place. They sell herbs and spices that are fresh and delicious and relatively inexpensive as spices go. And the little stories they tell about them make the catalog’s arrival a much-anticipated event in my house. Check out their mini-lecture on peppercorns, for example. Great stuff.

So, tonight, my friends, I give you flavor.

Vindaloo cauliflower

This Vindaloo curry is a blend of coriander, garlic, cumin, ginger, Korintje cinnamon, brown mustard seed, cayenne pepper, jalapeño pepper, cardamom, tumeric, Telicherry black pepper, and cloves. You can, of course, make your own curry powder with the individual spices and tweak the flavors to suit your own palate. But I’m sick, remember? So that was definitely not on my agenda this evening. If I were to make my own, however, I might opt for slightly less cinnamon.

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
2-3 T. olive oil to coat
2 tsp. Vindaloo curry powder
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss cauliflower with olive oil. Add curry powder and then salt to taste. Spread on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until golden and crispy, about 30 to 35 minutes, turning once or twice during roasting. Serve with plain yogurt.

The reluctant baker

February 18, 2010

Lemon-scented Almond Cake

photograph by Ralph

I’m not much of a baker. I’ve never been very interested in baking really, even when I was a gluten-eater. I’m just not that good at following recipes. And since going gluten-free, my desire to bake has dropped to just about nil. Except that lately, I’ve noticed a whole bunch of cake recipes with only 1/2 cup of flour. And these are the easiest recipes to adapt without resorting to funny things like xanthan gum. (And don’t get me wrong, I love xanthan gum just as much as the next girl, but it’s expensive and I’m just not excited by the chemistry part of baking).

This lemon-scented almond cake is heavily adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s walnut jam cake. I did make the walnut jam cake, mostly as she suggests, and it was lovely. I used apricot jam and much less whipped cream than she did, and it was fantastic. But tonight, I didn’t have any walnuts. So I used almonds and didn’t bother to toast them because it’s Thursday night, and really, who can be bothered? And I added lemon zest because when I made the walnut cake, I thought it could use a little zing.

In both the original and my adaptation of the recipe, I’ve used a buckwheat flour that comes from Bouchard Family Farm in northern Maine. This is a silver hulled buckwheat that is lighter in color and milder in taste than regular buckwheat. It just isn’t quite as intense and is nice in something where you don’t want the flavor of buckwheat to take center stage. I can get it at Hannaford supermarkets locally, but those of you who don’t live in Vermont, you can order from Bouchard Family Farm on-line.

If you wanted to spread this cake with jam and top it with whipped cream, I think that’s just fine. But this time around, I was happy to dust it with powdered sugar and call it dessert. Enjoy.

Lemon-scented Almond Cake

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s walnut jam cake.

4 1/2 ounces almonds
2/3 c. brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter cut into pieces
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp. almond extract
zest of one lemon
1/2 c. buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour (buckwheat flour) 9″ springform pan.

Combine almonds and sugar in food processor. Pulse until almonds are finely ground. Add butter and pulse until combined. Add eggs, almond extract and lemon zest, pulse. Scrape down the sides and add buckwheat flour, baking powder and salt and pulse until just incorporated. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake for 30 minutes or until firm and golden and a tester inserted into center comes out clean. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in pan. Then remove from pan and let cake cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.

Homemade ricotta

February 13, 2010

Finished homemade ricotta

I have fallen in love with homemade ricotta. It is so much easier to make than you’d think, and the taste is much, much better than anything you can buy in the store. I first started thinking about making cheese after discovering the New England Cheesemaking Suppy Company. Don’t ask me how I stumbled upon this place, but, people, be glad I did.

Draining homemade ricotta

This stuff is heavenly. Spread it on crackers, stuff it into pasta, spread it on toast for breakfast, top it with berries and drizzle it with honey. The options are many. But try it, do. It’s easy. Really.

I’ve seen a whole bunch of variations on this recipe. Some use vinegar, others use lemon juice, or even buttermilk. This is the recipe I came across first though and I liked it so much, I didn’t feel the need to stray. I’d love to hear from others who’ve tried other methods.

Ricotta with spoon

Whole Milk Ricotta

This is slightly adapted from The New England Cheese Company’s recipe for whole milk ricotta. You’ll need something called butter muslin cheesecloth. This means that the spaces between the threads in the cheesecloth are very small. This isn’t something I’ve been able to find in the supermarket. You could experiment with multiple layers of regular cheesecloth and see how that works, but I haven’t tried it. You’ll also need a thermometer. And finally, it’s important not to use ultra pasteurized milk. Otherwise, this is a piece of cake, you’ll see.

♦ 1 gallon milk
♦ 1 tsp. citric acid
♦ 1 tsp. salt

Gently heat milk, citric acid and salt in a non-aluminum pot over medium heat. Stir frequently until mixture reaches 190-195° F and curds and whey separate. Take off heat and let stand for five minutes. Ladle curds into butter muslin cloth-lined colander. Tie the cloth into a bag and hang to drain until it reached your desired spread-ability. I hung mine from a wooden spoon balanced atop a large glass pitcher.

Incidentally, the ricotta in the top photo was a little dry for my taste. I’d have preferred it to be a little softer. So check it often while you’re letting it drain. Start with 15 minutes and check often from that point on.

Sunday afternoon lunch

January 31, 2010
We have been eating well lately. That trip to Montreal; some cranberry beans simmered in broth with parsnips, carrots, onions; a wicked-spicy Thai-inspired rice noodle dish; and then… then the buckwheat crepes. Last weekend in Montreal, I had another buckwheat crepe with Nutella in the Jean-Talon Market that made me swoon. So when the February Bon Appetit arrived with a feature dedicated to buckwheat, well, the crepes definitely had my name on them.
I made the batter yesterday, actually while Hubby was making oatmeal for breakfast. And we tried just one with melted butter and brown sugar along with our oatmeal. And it was heaven. Brown sugar and buckwheat? Seriously good stuff. So I stuck the batter in the fridge until lunchtime and then sliced a ripe pear and some blue cheese for the second round. Excellent.

But today’s batch was the best. I sauteed some shallots and mushrooms and folded the crepes around the mushrooms along with sour cream- and with that meal, this recipe made it into my canon. It is just enough outside the ordinary standbys to feel a little exotic, but flexible enough that I made three versions without a special trip to the grocery store. I am smitten. And you don’t need a special crepe pan- I used a non-stick saute pan, and it worked just fine (though if you’re the kind of guy or gal who likes an excuse to buy new kitchen gadgets, by all means, don’t let me stand in your way here).

The mushroom crepe, with some red wine, and a little bowl of the aforementioned beans in broth, somehow felt more like a summer lunch than one where the windows are lacy with frost. And smack in the middle of two weeks where the temperature is hovering around zero, that is just about what I need right now. Enjoy.

Buckwheat Crepes with Shiitake Mushrooms and Sour Cream
As I mentioned earlier, I played around with several different fillings for these crepes and none of them disappointed. Feel free to adapt to suit what you have in the fridge, or your own taste.

For the Buckwheat crepes:
(adapted from February 2010, Bon Appetit magazine)

1 1/4 c. buckwheat flour
3 large eggs
1/4 c. canola oil
3/4 c. whole milk
1 1/4 c. water
pinch of salt

Heat oven to 160 degrees. Put large plate in oven to warm. Whisk all ingredients together in a mixing bowl, taking care not to leave lumps. Heat 10 inch non-stick skillet over med-high heat. Brush the bottom of the pan with oil (or not- I kept forgetting and it wasn’t really much different than when I did) and drop a ladle-full of batter onto the pan, swirling it around to coat the bottom of the pan. Cook the crepe for 30-45 seconds or more, until golden on the bottom. Then gently slide silicone spatula around the edges to loosen crepe and carefully flip onto the second side. I used my fingers for this more often than not once I’d pried up the edge with the spatula. Cook the second side for 30 seconds. The slide the crepe onto the plate warming in the oven. Return to oven and continue with remaining batter.

For the mushroom filling:

3 large shallots, finely diced
2 large handfulls shiitake mushrooms, caps sliced
shiitake mushroom caps, diced
canola oil
2 glugs dry white wine
1/2 tsp. dried sage
1 tb. butter
salt and pepper to taste

Heat skillet over medium heat and lightly cover the bottom with canola oil. Add shallots and mushroom caps and saute until softened. Add sliced shiitake mushrooms and sage. Season with salt. Saute until mushrooms are soft and starting to brown. Add white wine and saute a few more minutes until liquid evaporates. Turn off heat and add butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

To fill crepes:

Buckwheat crepes
Sour cream, to taste
Mushroom filling

Take warm crepes out of the oven. Spread a dollop of sour cream on one crepe. Spoon a soup spoon’s worth of mushrooms over the sour cream. Fold crepe into quarters. Serve immediately.