August 26th, 2010 § § permalink
Yeah, a cucumber.
I’ve never thought of the cucumber as particularly cool. Crisp and juicy? Yes. Cool? Well . . ..
Before I start rambling on about the hipness of this vegetable, I should admit that its coolness refers not to trendiness but to temperature — quite simply, a cucumber feels cool to the touch. Yet, this member of the gourd family offers far more than catch phrases and temperature gauges. Available year-round, it’s a staple ingredient in many dishes and a star in its own right.
Rumored to have originated in South India, the cucumber has been cultivated for at least 4,000 years. In spite of its longstanding popularity, it didn’t arrive in North America until the late 15th century. Christopher Columbus introduced the first cucumber to Haiti in 1494. From there demand for this crunchy, green vegetable spread.
And just what do people do with all these cucumbers? A third of the roughly 100 varieties grown are used for pickling. The rest we eat in salads, from crudite platters, in dips, and as garnishes or soups.
One of my favorite cuke offerings consists of chopped cucumbers, thinly sliced red onion, diced kalamata olives and crumbled feta cheese. Making this dish couldn’t be easier. Just toss the cucumbers and onions in a bowl. Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil and ground white pepper. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and then refrigerate. Because cucumbers are 96 percent water, you’ll want to hold off on adding the salty cheese and olives until right before serving. Otherwise, you’ll end up with something more reminiscent of a soup than a salad.
Salads aren’t the only simple cucumber dishes. Dress sliced cucumbers with yogurt and add either a little coriander, mint or garlic and you’ve made Indian raita, Greek tzatziki or Turkish cacik. Place wafer-thin cucumber slices between two pieces of buttered bread for a traditional English tea sandwich. Spoon a dab of creme fraiche or cream cheese, sliver of smoked salmon and sprig of fresh dill on top of a cucumber slice and you’ve got a quick and tasty appetizer. Puree cucumbers with avocados, garlic, and chicken stock and you’ll have a delicious summer soup, courtesy of Canal House Cooking Volume 4.
Serves 6 to 8
While salads aren’t the only way to showcase cucumbers, they still remain my favorite. This particular recipe can be dressed up with a bit of lemon juice and sprinkle of ground sumac or made more simplistic by withholding the Haloumi cheese. No matter how you choose to make it, shepherd’s salad is a refreshing offering that can be served as a starter or side dish.
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes, washed and cut into quarters
2 cucumbers, washed, skinned, de-seeded and cut into cubes
1 small red onion, diced
4 ounces Haloumi cheese, diced
2 scallions, minced
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
dash of salt, optional
Place the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, cheese, and scallions in a medium-sized serving bowl and toss to combine. Add the mint, parsley, and ground black pepper and toss again. Drizzle the olive oil over top and refrigerate to allow the flavors to meld. Before serving, add an optional dash of salt.
August 19th, 2010 § § permalink
This summer it seems as though everyone whom I know has come down with Swedish fever. Maybe you have friends suffering from this affliction, too. They clutch dog-eared copies of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and sit on the edge of their Ikea-designed seats, watching the film adaptation of Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” over and over again. When not hashing over missing Larsson manuscripts or the Kenneth Branagh series “Wallander,” they pound the pavement in search of gravlax and good, strong aquavit.
Believe me, I’m not scoffing at their plight. In fact, I’m battling a similar addiction. From ethereal cloudberry preserves and delicately flavored kanelbullar to hearty root vegetables and tangy fish I’m completely hooked on the wholesome cuisine of Sweden.
It all started with gravlax. Often confused with smoked salmon, gravlax is raw salmon cured in a mixture of salt, sugar and dill. Similar to its smoked cousin, this Swedish specialty originated from the need to store fish in a time when refrigeration did not exist.
In medieval times fishermen salted their freshly caught salmon, wrapped them in birch bark, and then buried them in the ground. This burial protected the macerating fish from wild and ravenous animals. It also provided the preserved salmon with its name. In Swedish “grav” means “tomb” or “grave” while “lax” refers to salmon.
Today’s gravlax skips the birch bark and underground burial. Instead, after being cured with salt, sugar and dill, the salmon is sealed in plastic and refrigerated for 24 to 48 hours. After that time it’s removed from the fridge, rinsed cleaned and then thinly sliced. Once sliced, gravlax will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.
In my case gravlax never hangs around for a full 5 days. No sooner have I bought gravlax than I’m ripping open the package and nibbling on a piece. Thanks to its velvety, melt-in-your-mouth texture, subtle aroma, and mildly piquant flavor, it’s become one of my favorite savory treats.
I first sampled gravlax at a quintessentially Swedish place, a smorgasbord. Here paper-thin, coral-colored slices overlapped on a stark white ceramic platter. A border of fresh, feathery dill surrounded them. Pretty to behold, gravlax was even better to eat.
And eat I did. I devoured it atop wedges of dark brown bread, alongside poached eggs, and with stewed potatoes. When I ran out of bread, eggs or potatoes, I ate it on its own with a dollop of sweet mustard sauce. Every bite was an utter delight. And with that my passion for gravlax and all-things-Swedish began.
GRAVLAX WITH SWEET MUSTARD SAUCE
Adapted from “Very Swedish” by Annica Triberg, Per Ranung and Tore Hagman (Bokförlaget Max Ström, 2007)
For the gravlax:
2 1/4 pounds salmon fillet, de-boned but with the skin intact
3 1/2 ounces sugar
1 TBSP coarsely ground white pepper
4 ounces iodized salt
3 handfuls fresh dill
For the sauce:
1 TBSP mild mustard
1 TSP Dijon mustard
1 TBSP sugar
2 TBSP red wine vinegar
1/2 cup oil (not olive)
1/4 cup finely chopped dill
Mix together the sugar, salt and pepper and massage it into both sides of the salmon. Spread the dill on the meat (not skin) side. Place the fish in a plastic bag, seal the bag, put it on a plate and place a heavy cutting board on top of it. Allow the fish to rest at room temperature for 2 hours. After 2 hours have passed, remove the cutting board and refrigerate the salmon for 24 to 48 hours, turning it 3 to 4 times during this period.
Remove the fish from the refrigerator, dry it off and scrape off the seasonings. Slice thinly and either serve or refrigerate. Gravlax will keep for 4 to 5 days in the fridge and can also be deep-frozen.
For the sauce, mix together the mustards, sugar and vinegar. Drizzle in the oil while mixing swiftly. Stir in the chopped dill. Set aside in a cool place.
August 12th, 2010 § § permalink
Whether you grow your own vegetables, frequent farmers’ markets, or grocery shop, you’ve no doubt noticed an increase in the quantity and quality of tomatoes. Yes, it’s tomato time, the period from July to October where locally grown, vine-ripened tomatoes hit their prime. For those who happily chomp on tomatoes as a snack, salad, side or main dish, it’s a highly anticipated season. For those like me who don’t share this passion, it means confronting the quandary of what to do with all those tomatoes.
A well-meaning friend once suggested that I try canning them. After all, doesn’t everyone love home preserving? Apparently not. After one steamy, day-long canning class I learned that, like oil and water, canning and Kathy do not mix.
After ruling out canning, I considered other options, including drying tomatoes in a food dehydrator. While pleasant tasting, dried tomatoes lacked the spark of their fresh, juicy brethren. Realizing that, I scratched dehydrating from my list.
Ultimately, I’ve opted either to cook them or to serve them raw in an endless parade of recipes. Lucky for me, tomatoes pair well with almost everything. They possess a special affinity for such fruits and vegetables as arugula, bell and chili peppers, cucumbers, fennel, garlic, lemon, onions, shallots and watermelon but also partner nicely with avocado, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, mango, mushrooms, peas, raspberries, squash and zucchini. Their sweetly sour flavor compliments bay leaves, cilantro, marjoram, mint, flat-leaf parsley, black and white pepper, and thyme.
Likewise, tomatoes go with a variety of cheeses – blue, goat, Gorgonzola, mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta among them. They also marry successfully with balsamic, red wine, rice, sherry, tarragon and white wine vinegars as well as with olive oil and salt.
Along with countless flavor affinities, tomatoes offer a great degree of cooking versatility. They’re wonderful when baked, broiled, fried, grilled, sauteed, stewed, turned into a sauce or served raw. With the exception of plum tomatoes, which have a fairly tough skin, they don’t require peeling or de-seeding. Just slice and serve them with a dash of salt and black pepper. Easy!
When faced with a huge mound of these veggies, I dig out my stack of tomato-oriented recipes and get to work. Sometimes I’ll plunk them into my food processor and, after adding cucumbers, peppers, garlic and sherry vinegar, make gazpacho soup. I’ll also plop them into a stockpot with chopped garlic, onions and basil and simmer a peasant-style pasta sauce. With smaller amounts I may pull out a sheet of frozen puff pastry, cover it with sliced tomatoes, and bake a tomato tart. I often just layer sliced tomatoes between fresh basil, grilled Haloumi cheese, and thick slices of multigrain bread or grill them with a little goat cheese on top for a tasty Mediterranean lunch.
GRILLED MEDITERRANEAN TOMATOES
Serves 2 to 4
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon dried oregano or to taste
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon dried basil or to taste
3 ounces goat cheese
dash of freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the grill on high.
Tear off a large sheet of aluminum foil and spread 1 tablespoon of olive oil over it. Place the tomato slices on the greased foil. Sprinkle dried oregano and basil over each slice and then drizzle the remaining olive oil over them. Using a spoon or your fingers, distribute equal amounts of goat cheese on each tomato and then season with ground black pepper.
Lay the foil on the heated grill and allow the tomatoes to cook for 5 minutes or until the cheese has melted slightly and the tomatoes have released some of their juices. Serve the tomatoes on their own or atop steamed couscous.
August 5th, 2010 § § permalink
If you give fresh fruit to me this summer, chances are that I’ll wash and then tumble it into a greased baking dish and bake a fruit crisp. Rhubarb, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and peaches have all bubbled away beneath a blanket of brown sugar, cinnamon, oatmeal and butter. Sure, with the exception of rhubarb, I could have enjoyed any of these raw. Yet, I can’t seem to stop myself from making and eating these treats.
What prompted this obsession I do not know. Maybe it’s a touch of summer laziness for the crisp is one of the fastest and easiest desserts to bake. What I do know is that my crisp often gets confused with other sweets. At countless dinners and parties friends have thanked me for bringing a crumble, cobbler or slump. Who’s right? And just what am I baking?
Although I think of “slump” as what my mother told me never to do, the word actually refers to a luscious dessert. Hailing from New England, it consists of fresh fruit topped with dollops of raw dough. As the ingredients stew together in a covered pot, the dough slowly oozes across the top. Some historians claim that this oozing pastry is how the slump got its name. Others, though, believe that slump refers to how the succulent dessert slouches, blob-like, on a plate.
In the case of cobbler, crust differentiates it from a slump. Rather than spoonfuls of dough, cobbler features a thick crust encasing slices of apples, peaches or other fresh fruit. Decorated with granulated sugar, the cobbler is then baked in the oven until golden and bubbling. When cooled and cut, it brings to mind a slice of deep-dish pie that lacks a bottom crust.
Of the three, it’s the crumble that most resembles my fruit offering. Reputedly invented during WW II, it features a simple pastry of flour, sugar and butter. After mixing the ingredients together, they are spooned over apples and baked. As the crumble cooks, the butter melts into the flour and sugar to form a loose, crumbly covering. Hence the name crumble.
Like the crumble, the crisp’s name is derived from its crust. Made a mixture of flour, oatmeal, brown sugar and butter and spiced with cinnamon and sometimes ginger or nutmeg, the topping becomes crisp and brown when baked. Depending on the time of day and diner’s preference, the crisp either gets topped with scoops of ice cream or caps off a bowl of yogurt.
Whether you opt for a crisp, crumble, cobbler or slump, you’re destined for a delectable dessert, one that you’ll end up making — and eating — again and again.
Serves 6 to 8
Note: To turn this into a blueberry crisp, replace the 6 peaches with 5 cups of fresh or frozen blueberries.
butter, for greasing an 8″ x 8″ baking dish
6 peaches, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Layer the peaches in the greased, 8″ x 8″ glass or ceramic baking dish and sprinkle them with lemon juice.
Place the brown sugar, rolled oats, flour, cinnamon and butter in a medium-sized bowl. Using either a fork or your fingers, mix or squish the ingredients together until well-blended. Place the topping over the peaches, covering them completely. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the crisp is golden brown and bubbling. Remove, cool slightly and serve either with plain yogurt or peach ice cream.