Friday, August 30, 2013

Summer Herbs

When I first moved to this house, I had a garden. I was trying to be thrifty and sensible, but as things turned out I was neither. I grew all sorts of vegetables and some cutting flowers. Over time, I realized that it was actually more economical to buy vegetables, since I always grew more than I could eat at one time. I couldn't store lettuce, and what I didn't eat went to seed. Even a single zucchini plant produced more squash than I could enjoy. I tried freezing the extra but did not like the texture. I canned tomatoes for years, but I was never convinced that they tasted any better than storebought.

Economical it was not. I bought tools, seeds, labels, fencing to keep out critters,  and companion plants to keep away bugs. I purchased little plastic greenhouses to start seeds indoors. If I factored in the hours spent planting and weeding and staking plants and mulching and drowning slugs, it really made little financial sense, and it was certainly not my idea of fun. So I stopped. Now I buy fresh produce at farmers' markets or a local farm stand, with one exception—herbs.

Growing most kitchen herbs is easy, inexpensive, and immensely satisfying. Each spring, I buy a few small plants for just a few dollars each. Then I let them grow. A single basil plant, for instance, will provide enough flavoring not only for a summerful of salads and spaghetti sauce but also for a freezer full of pesto. Parsley, thyme,  and sage are also simple to grow and provide a lovely lift to dishes. The herbs I cannot grow (dill, for instance—I've never had luck with that), I buy. I have never eaten better than I do now.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Classic Fruit Tart

your fruits may vary
Last year, I wrote about a quick and easy fruit tart that was pretty to look at and good to eat. It is a good dessert but not a great one, made as it is with premixed cookie dough. However, I make it at time because it is so quick and simple.

For my birthday last March, my daughter Kate made me a classic fruit tart, knowing I was not much of a cake eater. Her tart was absolutely delicious—it immediately became a favorite dessert—and Kate gave me the recipe. I tried it myself yesterday and realized it is not that much harder than the quick tart I've made for years; however, it requires different ingredients (and a tart pan, which I borrowed from same daughter) and a bit more time.

Essentially, it's a four-part process. You wash and dry the fruit first. Then you make a shortbread crust, fill it with a creamy filling, and decorate with fruit.

Start by making a shortbread crust: Place 1 c. all purpose flour, 1/3 c. confectioner's sugar,  and 1/8 tsp. salt into food processor. Pulse once or twice to combine. Then add 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces, and pulse until it starts to come together in clumps. If it doesn't clump, add 1-2 tsp. cold water. Grease an 8-9 inch tart pan with removable bottom, or spray with a nonstick cooking spray. Spread the pastry evenly in the pan and press into the bottom and sides, using your fingers or the back of a spoon. Pierce the bottom with a fork and place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425, with rack in the center. When dough is chilled, place tart pan on a baking sheet and bake until golden, about 13-16 minutes. Remove and cool on a wire rack. (You can cover and store this for a day or so if the weather isn't humid.)

They day of serving, make the cream filling. Mix 1/2 c. room temperature mascarpone cheese with 1/2 c. cold heavy cream, 2 TBSP granulated sugar, and1/2 tsp. vanilla extract. Whip until soft peaks form. Spread into the baked and cooled crust. Now arrange the fruit on top. I really like berries of all sorts, but peaches, kiwis, bananas, plums, whatever you like, can be used.

I like to finish with a light jam glaze. It adds a nice shine, and it keeps the fruit from drying out in the fridge if the dessert has to wait a few hours. For a glaze, put a heaping 2 TBSP apricot jam in the microwave for 15-20 seconds on high until melted. Add a few drops of fruit juice or grand marnier to thin until spreadable. Then lightly brush the fruit with this. Refrigerate, lightly covered, until ready to serve.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Joys of Summer: Salad Greens

In my parents' home, "lettuce" meant iceberg lettuce, which was usually served in a wedge alongside cruets of oil and vinegar. This lettuce might also appear in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich or underneath a few slices of fresh tomato. It is the most common type of lettuce found in American homes. according to the Dept. of Agriculture.

Too bad, because iceberg lettuce is perhaps the least nutritious of the common lettuces, and also has the least taste, although it does have a satisfying crunch. But romaine also has crunch; it is equally crisp and much more nutritious and versatile—good in salads, on sandwiches, and in wraps. If I had to stick to just one kind of lettuce, romaine it would be.

In general, lettuce commonly comes in four main types : crisphead (iceberg, for instance), butterhead (Bibb lettuce, Boston lettuce), cos (romaine to most of us), and leaf lettuce (green leaf, red leaf).
Most supermarkets carry a variety of other salad greens besides lettuce. These include arugula, curly endive, which is also known as frisee and chicory, escarole, spinach, watercress, and that mix of baby greens known as mesclun. Most tasty green salads contain a mixture of lettuces, as well as bland and sharp other greens. Some of these other greens can have strong definite flavors; these work well in salads that contain fruits, bacon, or other powerful flavors. For example, both spinach and arugula pair  well with orange, onion, and avocado, or  with strawberry and goat-cheese.

If you are an iceberg lettuce fan, don't let me discourage you; it's great for lettuce wraps, sandwiches, and wedge salads. But try branching out a bit; most other lettuces are far more colorful than iceberg and also much tastier. The fact that they're also better for you is a plus but not reason alone to switch.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Artisan Cheeses: Never the Same Twice

a 5-inch round fresh from the farmer's market
There is no cheese I don't love. My refrigerator always contains at least three kind of cheese (cheddar, cottage cheese, blue cheese) and usually several other types as well. Recently, I have become enamored of a locally produced artisan cheese called Wheyside, named in honor of the Wayside Inn, a nearby landmark. The cheese is made by Nobscot Artisan Cheese, a neighborhood company that sells at my closest farmer's market, which is where I tasted their cheeses. Nobscot is committed to making cheese using milk from a local farmer. They have several different cheeses, but the Wheyside won me over immediately and continues to do so. I buy it regularly, and it's always delicious but never exactly the same twice.

That lack of uniformity is the real difference between artisan cheeses and mass-produced cheeses. While the mass producers strive for perfect consistency, artisan cheeses are quirkier. They are made by hand, following traditional techniques, and all sorts of factors can affect the final outcome: whether the cheese is made with raw or pasteurized milk, the weather, what the cows ate, the length of ripening, whether the cheese is washed in brine, cider, or something else, as well as mysterious factors.

Years ago, I read a book called The Cheese Book by Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell. It recounted the story of the Borden's Liederkranz cheese factory, which moved to Ohio from NY. The owners were scrupulous about moving everything: the equipment, the method, the original culture and recipe. But the new cheese was unsatisfactory. Finally, some genius decided to smear some of the original Liederkranz cheese on the new factory walls. (I love picturing this, and I wonder how that idea was originally received by management and by the people working there.) Voila! Future batches were successful, because now the very air was correct, filled with the perfect beneficial bacteria.

If the Nobscot folks ever move their cheese works, I will send them this story. I don't want my Wheyside influenced by foreign microbes.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Planked Grilled Salmon

ready for cooking
Last year I grilled salmon for the first time and loved it. I followed a recipe given to me by my dentist, a fellow foodie. I wrote about this in an earlier blog posting. At the time, I mentioned that I wanted to try cooking the fish on a plank, since I had heard that it was delicious.

I finally tried it. Basically, you prepare the fish the same way you would for grilling, but instead of placing it on a hot oiled grill you place it on a plank that has been soaked in water. Then you cook it using indirect heat. In other words, you heat up the grill, turn off one side of it if it is a gas grill (for charcoal, you pile the coals on one side when you start the fire), and place the planked fish on the cooler side. Then you cover and cook. No turning is necessary, although you do have to allow extra time.

The result is a moist fish with a silky even texture. The color is uniform throughout, with no blackened or crisp places. When I ate the first piece hot, I missed the slightly charred taste and texture of fish grilled directly on the rack. However, when I ate cold leftovers, I was stunned by wonderful it was. The fish practically melted on my tongue. I ate it for two meals in a row.

I cooked this salmon on a maple plank, which a friend had given me. I'd also like to try a cedar plank, which imparts a bit of its own flavor to the food. Whichever I use, the next time I make this fish, I will cook one piece directly on the grill to eat hot, and then I will plank the rest to serve cold afterwards.