April 29th, 2010 § § permalink
After an endless winter of eating root vegetables and dreaming of lighter cuisine I now am basking in the bounty of spring. So much color, crispness and flavor! So many different seasonal offerings. It’s no wonder that my kitchen counter overflows with the produce of the season.
While curved fiddlehead ferns, honeycombed morel mushrooms and ruby red rhubarb may catch my eye, several of the more traditional foods have stolen my heart. My main heartthrob? The plump, piquant lemon. Ever present in the produce aisle, it hits its prime in the springtime.
A relative of the lime and citron, the lemon performs multiple roles in the kitchen. Wedges serve as as a garnish for seafood and drinks while the zest acts as a flavor enhancer in stuffing and baked goods. Its juice pumps up the flavor in such fruits as peaches, nectarines, guava and papaya. It also balances out rich sauces and vinaigrettes and works as a preservative and anti-browning agent for fragile foods. Talk about a versatile fruit!
Lemons keep at room temperature for one week or in the refrigerator for one month. Choose plump, firm citrus that are heavy for their size. Avoid overly large ones as they will contain mostly peel and little juice.
Named for its resemblance to a pinecone, the spiny, green-topped pineapple peaks from March to June. When ripe, its rind varies in color from dark green to orange-yellow. Deep green leaves, flat eyes and a pleasant aroma are also indicate freshness.
When sprinkled with brown sugar and rum and then grilled or broiled, fresh, juicy pineapple makes a decadent dessert. Slices of it compliment grilled lamb, seafood and stir fries and decorate the eponymous pineapple-upside down cake.
The trumpet-shaped chanterelle mushroom rears its wavy, apricot-orange head during the rainy Southeast spring. It possesses a scent similar to apricots and a flavor ranging from meaty to peppery.
A companionable ingredient, these mushrooms form pleasant partnerships with poultry, pork, fish and beef. Likewise, they serve as wonderful fillings for crepes, omelets, and tarts, as well as toppings for pizzas. They can easily be stewed or marinated. Sautéed in butter with a little minced garlic, salt and pepper, they make an irresistible side dish.
When buying this exquisite fungus, choose plump and spongy ones. Steer clear of those with broken or withered caps.
Serves 6 to 8
Inspired by a recipe for lemon drops in Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer (Hyperion, 2003), this cocktail turns the rainiest spring day into a warm, sunny afternoon.
6 organic lemons, skins removed
12 ounces limoncello
12 ounces Triple Sec
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 to 8 strips of lemon zest, curled
Place the ingredients in a blender and blend until well combined. Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the drink into a large glass pitcher. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Before handing out the drinks, pour the lemon drops into cocktail/martini glasses and drape a strip of curled lemon zest over the rim of each.
April 22nd, 2010 § § permalink
This Earth Day I’m hitting the farmers’ market. To me, nothing says “green living” or springtime like locally grown food. From familiar spring vegetables such as asparagus and leeks to the rare morel and rhubarb the market provides a wealth of vibrant, flavorful produce for my dinner plate.
Of all the vernal offerings the most unusual has to be the fiddlehead fern. Resembling the carved head of a violin, fiddleheads are the unfurled shoots of an ostrich fern. One of the last true wild, foraged foods, they grow in moist woods, floodplains and, in my case, in the damp soil bordering my 19th century farmhouse.
When told by a neighbor that the two-inch long, tightly coiled fern leaves tasted like a cross between asparagus, artichokes, and okra, I assumed that he was joking. Making fun of the city slicker, eh? What would he say next? That sautéed maple leaves reminded him of syrup?
Skepticism aside, I gave fiddlehead ferns a try. Boiled in lightly salted water for 10 minutes or steamed for 20, they do evoke this unusual combination of flavors.
Although traditionally topped with butter, salt and pepper, the vegetable’s distinct taste and firm texture make it a good match for stir fries as well as Hollandaise, cheese and tomato sauces. If stir-frying, remember to blanch the ferns in boiling water before tossing into your wok. Some food-borne illnesses have been attributed to raw or undercooked fiddleheads.
With a season of just two weeks fiddleheads fly out of markets. As they have a short shelf life, they should be consumed within two days.
Along with fiddleheads I stock up on stalky, red rhubarb. Although botanically a vegetable, rhubarb has masqueraded as a fruit since 1947. That year the United States Customs Court in Buffalo, New York deemed it a fruit because of the manner by which it is eaten. In the U.S. rhubarb is traditionally coupled with strawberries and baked in desserts, particularly pies. In fact, its popularity as a pie filling has garnered it the nickname “pie plant.”
Elsewhere rhubarb retains its vegetable identity and appears in savory dishes. In Poland it is cooked with potatoes and spices. It turns up in stews in Iran and with spinach in Afghanistan.
Because of rhubarb’s intense tartness and my lifelong preference for sweets, I invariably pair it with a generous amount of sugar. Once sweetened, it creates velvety jams, sauces and desserts such as rhubarb crumble, trifle, and pie.
When selecting rhubarb, look for moderately thin, pink or red stalks. Thicker, greenish stalks will be sour and stringy. Use non-aluminum cookware with this fruit. Otherwise, the rhubarb will react with the metal.
4 cups of rhubarb, cut into 1” pieces
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
juice of half of a lemon
¾ cup of light brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup of all purpose flour
¾ cup of rolled oats
¼ cup of unsalted butter at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375˚. Grease a 9”x 9” baking dish then set aside.
In a bowl mix together the granulated sugar, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon of ginger.
Place the rhubarb in the baking dish then sprinkle the sugar mixture and the juice of half of a lemon over the top.
In another bowl mix together the brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, flour, and rolled oats. Using your fingers, break up the butter into small pieces and add to the dry ingredients. With a fork mix the butter, oats, sugar and flour together until they are well combined. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the rhubarb.
Place the baking dish in the preheated oven. Bake until the crust has browned and the rhubarb is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Serve with a scoop of vanilla or strawberry ice cream.
April 15th, 2010 § § permalink
Among all the places that I’ve visited Portugal may become one of my favorites. Along with an abundance of pleasant weather, charming people, beautiful sites, relaxed atmosphere and efficient infrastructure, the Iberian country boasted of some of the freshest cuisine that I’ve found.
In Lisbon Sean and I roamed the cobblestone streets, nibbling on warm pasteis de natas, the custard cream tarts discussed in a previous entry. While bakeries have become a rarity in the States, in Lisbon they appeared on virtually every street corner. In addition to the luscious de natas these shops offered such delicacies as egg-topped Easter loaves, powdered sugar-dusted coconut puffs, almond cookies, honey cakes, crusty breads and small cups of strong coffee or uma bica. Needless to say, he and I both suffered from a major case of bakery envy.
Since we spent much of our time along the coast, we often dined on simply prepared, local seafood such as tuna, mullet, clams, barnacles and bass. Sardines popped up not only in restaurants but also along the beaches, where they were split, placed on wire racks and dried in the sun. While dried sardines didn’t strike my fancy, I did appreciate having them grilled and served alongside a salad of chopped tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers or sauteed greens.
A dried fish that did intrigue me was bacalhau or dried, salted cod. A national favorite, bacalhau must be soaked in water for several days so that it plumps up and loses some of its intense saltiness. Not that this fish won’t seem salty to the uninitiated. Still, most will find it delicious.
In the northern coastal city of Porto Sean and I indulged in the drink for which Portugal and Porto are famous, port wine. Fortified with brandy, this sweet, rich red wine brought a pleasant conclusion to our evening meals. It was dessert with a soothing after effect.
As elsewhere in Portugal, we weren’t far from our food and beverage sources in Porto. Made in the Douro Valley, port wine is blended and aged directly across from Porto, in the lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia. These riverside lodges sample and sell their world-famous ports seven days per week. Needless to say, our visit to Porto included a stroll to and through the lodges.
The Portuguese specialties didn’t end here. Lively yet inexpensive wines, flavorful goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses, vibrant soups, hearty breads and succulent salt-baked fish all enhanced our time in this lovely land. Great food. Great trip. I cannot wait to return and see — and eat — more of Portugal.
April 9th, 2010 § § permalink
Spend a week in Portugal and no doubt you’ll end up with a serious addiction to pasteis de natas. Sweet and creamy yet with a slight crunch, these small custard tarts line the windows of most bakeries and coffee shops. The locals blanket them with cinnamon and a smidgen of powdered sugar before consuming them at breakfast or as a snack. In my case no day in Portugal was complete without at least one of these bite-sized treats.
Although I found them throughout Portugal, legend has it that de natas originated on the outskirts of Lisbon, at Belem’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. There lay bakers produced pasteis de natas for the general public. In the early 19th century, when the monastery closed, a neighboring confectioner, Domingo Rafael Alves, bought the recipe from one of the out-of-work bakers and started offering them in his shop.
Today Alves’ Pasteis de Belem has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Made using the monastery’s original, secret recipe, Pasteis de Belem’s tarts draw countless customers to the cafe seven days per week. On the late afternoon that I visited, a dozen people lined the stone sidewalk outside, patiently waiting for their turn to buy boxes of this delectable sweet. Just remember that here they are called pasteis de Belem while everywhere else they’re known as pasteis de nata.
What makes this pastry so delicious? Perhaps it’s the de nata’s light shell. Reminiscent of puff pastry, its airy crispness provides the perfect contrast to a velvety custard. Then again, maybe it’s the custard. Whipped together from fresh cream, egg yolks and sugar, its warm, gentle flavor makes me yearn for more.
If traveling to Portugal isn’t in your future and you don’t have a Portuguese bakery or restaurant nearby, try baking pasteis de natas at home. Serve them warm, with a demitasse of espresso or cup of strong, black coffee, just as they would in Portugal.
PASTEIS DE NATA
From “Portuguese Cooking” (Casa Editrice Bonechi)
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup butter, softened
8 ounces cream
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
¾ cup superfine sugar
zest of one lemon
powdered sugar, for decorating
cinnamon, for decorating
Special equipment — 6 (3 1/2-inch to 4-inch) tart pans
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Using a hand mixer, mix with enough lukewarm water so that a soft dough forms. Allow to stand for 15 minutes. Place on a lightly floured surface and knead briefly before forming into a block. Roll out to about 1/2-inch thick. Spread 1/3 of the softened butter over the dough, fold over into thirds, knead and shape into a block again. Repeat these steps for the remaining two-thirds of butter. When finished, allow the dough to rest for 15 minutes.
Roll out the dough to 1/3-inch thick. Cut into 4-inch wide strips then roll these, one by one, into tight cylinders. Cut the cylinders into 1/2-inch thick slices and place each in a tart pan. After wetting your fingers, fit the pastry over the bottom and sides of the pans to line them; don’t allow the pastry to go over the rims.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make the custard, whisk together the cream, egg yolks, flour, sugar and lemon zest in a medium-sized saucepan. Heat the mixture over low heat and slowly bring to a boil, stirring the entire time. As soon as the custard starts to boil, remove from the heat and allow to it to cool to room temperature before pouring into the individual pans. Smooth out the surface of the custards and then bake them until golden brown on top, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool in their pans. Dust the tops with cinnamon and powdered sugar and serve.