Tuesday, 25 August 2009

and then there's no need to hide

You are standing in a room. Perhaps the guest room of an aging aunt and uncle, or the cabin your friend has offered you for the summer. An antique wallpaper covers all four walls. It's browning, but beautiful - it's fraying on the edges. You can't help it. You reach out, you grab a corner, and slowly, you pull.

Gently, the paper tears, leaving a broad strip of bare wood. You know you shouldn't have done it, but it felt good, didn't it? That feeling of satisfation, of relief - you felt it, didn't you?

You walk past a tall redwood tree. It's trunk is wide, the tree is centuries old. The bark is shaggy and rough. Again, you pull. How horrible! It's a beautiful tree being wounded by this unexplainable urge to peel, pick, and pull things! You throw the soft, hairy piece of bark to the ground and hurry away, hoping no one saw.

And then, it's time to peel the tomatoes. You moan to yourself: why did I choose to make this? Couldn't I have found something simpler? Why on earth did I think a vegetable side dish wouldn't be a big deal?

So you start: with a knife, you make an "x" in the bottom of each tomato. Into a pot of boiling water, you drop them. Ten seconds? you think to yourself, that won't do anything! You fish them out of the water, and then you see it: the peel has begun to pull back, crinkling along the edges of the scour mark. You hold your breath. You take a tomato in your hands, warm from the water, and gently you push with your thumb.

The thin skin braces itself, but only for a moment, and then slides off the inner meat, leaving the fleshy remains free and the shiny membrane in your hands. You can hardly believe it. Luckily, there are ten more tomatoes to peel. One by one, you push, you peel, you pick. You sigh as each skin loosens itself, and then again as you realize there is no need to hide the evidence: you are supposed to be peeling these red fruits.

When you are finished, there are the bell peppers. You've roasted them till the skins are black and bubbly. Again, the skins come off. This time it's a bit messier, and you end up with bits of bell pepper skin all up your arms, but it's okay. You have a bowlful of tomatoes, a bowlful of peppers, all beautifully peeled.

And then when you eat them, baked together with herbs and olives and capers, you remember how you were dreading cooking that day. As you soak up the copious juices with a crusty baguette, you think about how many people believe cooking to be a chore. How they don't like peeling things. How this leaves more for you, both to eat and to deface, how you see fit.

Roasted Peppers and Tomatoes baked with Herbs and Capers
adapted slightly from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors

4 big bell peppers, a combination of colors
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, a combination of colors
10 or so sprigs flat leaf parsley, leaves plucked, stems discarded
a large handful of basil leaves
1 garlic clove
2 tbsp capers, rinsed
12 niçoise olives, pitted
3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper

1) Roast the peppers: put the peppers under a broiler. Turn frequently until charred on all sides. Put them in a bowl, cover loosely with a towel and set aside.

2) Make an "x" in the end of each tomato, drop into boiling water for ten seconds, then remove. Peel, then cut across the equator. Gently squeeze out the seeds (set aside for another use or discard). Cut the remaining flesh into wide pieces.

3) Finely chop herbs and garlic and toss with capers, olives, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

4) Peel the bell peppers, then core and remove all seeds. Cut the flesh into wide strips.

5) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss tomatoes, peppers, and herb mixture together in a small gratin dish. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Let cool before serving.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Getting back

The first time I ran into nettles, it was literally. Mauled on my way to the beach, my whole bathing-suited body was stung, and I spent most of my time in front of the waves whimpering from the unfamiliar annoyance.

Since then, I have, of course, done my best to avoid the nettle plant, steering clear of anything resembling the horrible plant.

And then, I learned you could eat it. What better revenge?

The main preparation I had heard of was nettle pesto. But it's hard to beat the fabulous basil and roasted garlic pesto my dad makes almost every week, so I steered clear of that.

Instead, on my drive home through the hills, I got it into my head I would make a frittata. Puffy with beaten eggs, the nettles would sit cozily (yet vigorously chopped!). And then when I opened one of my favorite cookbooks, Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, there it was: a perfectly simple recipe for nettle frittata with soft ricotta cheese.

Unfortunately, the green garlic called for in the recipe is long gone at the market, and I didn't have any fresh ricotta on hand either. But a few mature garlic cloves and a soft goat cheese paired beautifully.

Just out of the oven, the frittata had an earthy smell - distinctly different than something a bit more tame like spinach. Just in those first few whiffs, we could tell there was something wild going on, and then when we tasted it, the deal was sealed. The earthiness of the nettle with the tang of the goat cheese played perfectly with the each other. With some bright red tomatoes on the side, we had a fast a delicious dinner.

Hardly tamed, the nettles were still beaten.

Nettle Frittata with Goat Cheese
adapted from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors

1/2 - 3/4 pound nettles, rid of large stems
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
6-8 eggs
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
1/3-1/2 cup goat cheese
1 1/2 tbsp butter

1) Bring a large pot of water to boil. Plunge nettles into water, cook for about two minutes until limp and bright green, then drain. Press out the extra water then chop.

2) Preheat broiler. Chop garlic and onions. Warm oil in a 10-inch skillet, add garlic and onions, cook until softened. Add nettles and cook until all water has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.

3) Beat the eggs with a bit of salt, then stir in the parmesan and the nettle mixture. Crumble in the goat cheese, gently mixing so there remain blobs of cheese.

4) Wipe out the skillet and heat butter. When pan is hot, pour in eggs. Let cook for 2-3 minutes on medium-low heat, then slide pan under broiler and continue cooking until eggs have just set and are beginning to turn golden.

Serves 4 generously

Friday, 7 August 2009

a notion for a blackberry

Despite my woes about leaving the great city of San Francisco, there are perks to this place.

Instead of walking down the street to the market, I step outside and pluck strawberries and blueberries from the vine. I harvest zucchini blossoms, I cut herbs and their flowers, I eat plums ripe from the tree.

The chard starts are strong, the mustard greens will flourish, and we all hope the gophers don't find the baby beets too tempting.

Of course we have to share a little bit, so I watch quietly while the Bluejays swoop down and pluck the yellow raspberries from the patch by the front door with surprising delicacy. They cackle with victory and fly back into the top branches to finish the sweet treat, then fly down again for more.

And sometimes, we are forced to share too much, like when the rabbits sneak into the garden and nibble away at all my carefully coddled kale and broccoli starts.

Still, I'm learning that there is little more satisfying that putting together a meal from your backyard.

Yesterday was a small flashback to me: a dinner with some folks from high school and one of our favorite teachers. A teacher so stellar he took us (a group of ten seniors) all the way to Lousiana, and then the next year to the Baltic states. Just because he could, just because we wanted to.

We were meeting to discuss one of my favorite books, Sometimes a Great Notion, and, like all good meetings, the meeting surrounded food.

In between discussing how much acid Ken Kesey was probably taking when he wrote the bizarrely structured prose, there was homemade tapenade, fresh pasta with herbs and garden zucchini, plenty of green salad, and the first corn from a friend's garden. Finally, there was the blackberry clafoutis.

I can never get enough of these blackberries. The same fruit was used to make the jam, and also innumerable pies over the past years. Tasting them, you can taste the heat, you can taste the wild, and you can taste the pure, unfettered abandon with which they grow on the sunny ridge above our house. No one takes care of them, no one pampers them, and they flourish.

Better than any other berries I've had, I still hesitate to say they taste like summer - but really, that's exactly it. I eat them, and I realize with a satisfied sigh, it's here. Summer that is. Even if it's verging on the middle of August, it's the thick of the season, the time to savor, the time to overheat and enjoy the hell out of it before the rains begin again.

For this family, it's always jam or pie. Usually pie. And a great pie it is: flaky and buttery crust, a filling just barely sweetened and oozing juices through thin slits along the carved top crust. But this year, I wanted to try something different.

Maybe it was having Louma here, and thinking about my times in France. Maybe it was remembering the last French exchange student who came to stay a few years ago, who claimed she couldn't cook and the next day whipped out a fabulous fruit and egg custard.

Whatever it was, I wanted to tackle a clafoutis.

Really it's only a simple custard: flour, sugar, eggs, and milk. Whisked together, poured over piles of fresh berries, and then baked until golden and puffy, the custard rises like a soufflé and then sinks into itself as a bed for the blackberries. Cooled until dense and then cut into thick slices, the berries take in just enough heat to release their juices and yet retain that fresh, just-picked quality that sets them apart from anything found in a store.

The great thing about blackberries at the height of summer? Even if the birds eat all they can handle, there are still plenty left for the rest of us.

Berry Clafoutis

2 cups berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, or a combination)
3 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup milk
2 tsp vanilla
a pinch of salt
1/2 cup flour

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 inch pyrex dish, round or square. Spread fruit evenly in dish.

2) Whisk eggs and sugar together until light in color, about a minute. Whisk in milk, vanilla, and salt. Whisk in flour, thoroughly removing lumps, then pour gently over fruit.

3) Bake until golden and puffed and the middle has just set, about 45 minutes. Let cool (at least mostly), before serving.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

best of the green, best of the berry, best of intentions

I came with the best of intentions. Really, there was a plan, there was enthusiasm, and there was the jam.

Blackberry jam, to be precise. I was going to telling you all about how I sterilized the jars, how Louma and I picked the blackberries, how I boiled the shite out of those berries once mixed with sugar...(the supposed joy of cooking, according to that classic book, is not needing any precision in terms of boiling times, and winging it until the sides of the pot are scorching and the fruit hisses whenever a wooden spoon touches it).

But hasn't everyone done this? When I told people it was my first time making jam, I was rather proud of myself for the 4 pounds of fruit and the 8 jars of jam and the battlescars from the vines etc etc. That is until everyone seemed to say "Oh yeah, when I used to make jam...,"a story that inevitably ended with some tale of a mother or grandmother coaching small children through the ratio of fruit to sugar and that perfect boiling point.

Of course it's great when everyone wants to help. But jam is one of those things that everyone has an opinion about. Everyone has their two cents, and everyone likes it done just so.

So I don't really feel like going there anymore. Instead, I'll tell you about something much less common than boiled fruit and sugar: kale salad.

Kale is one of my favorite vegetables. Especially Tuscan kale, which I have talked about numerous times here.

Green, hearty, healthy, it's hard for me not to feel good after I've eaten a bowl full of kale. Boiled, braised, baked, and sautéed, it's all good.

And today? Ribboned.

Sliced into ribbons that is. Tossed with some toasted pine nuts, a bit of parmesan, and a handful of dried red currants, a delicious salad was born. Sturdy enough to stand up to a side of barbequed meat, the salad was also perfect on its own for one of these beautiful and hot Cazadero afternoons.

Followed up with a smear of jam on toast for dessert, I didn't feel as guilty for not going on and on about jam.

Kale Salad with Pine Nuts
adapted from Bon Appetit, February 2009

Note: This recipe originally calls for white balsamic vinegar, and for soaking the currants in that white balsamic vinegar overnight. Because I lack things like funds and forethought, there was only regular balsamic available, and the currants got less than their fair share of soakage. It was still delicious, but if you are a purist, set aside those dried fruits overnight in a bath of white balsamic vinegar.

2 tbsp dried currants
7 tbsp regular (or white) balsamic vinegar, divided
1 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar (seasoned will do fine)
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 bunches Tuscan kale
3-4 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
parmesan cheese (either shavings or a generous sprinkling of grated)

Place currants in a small bowl with 5 tbsp vinegar. Leave overnight or while you work.

Get to work on the kale. This may take some time, but it's nice work. Meditative, you could say. Slice out the stems from each leaf. Then stack a few half leaves and finely slice them crosswise into green ribbons. Toss into a large bowl as you go. Discard stems.

When kale is done, whisk together 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, honey, oil, and salt in a large bowl. Pour over kale, and toss to coat. Let sit at room temperature, tossing every once in a while, for about a half an hour. Think of it as a slaw: the longer the kale sits in the vinegars, the less toothsome it will be.

Finally, drain the currants and add the the kale. Add the nuts and the cheese, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Serves anywhere from 2 to 8, depending on different affinities for raw leafy greens