April 29th, 2011 § § permalink
Some food moments stay with you forever. For me, it’s that first bite of a pear. Thinking that he’d introduce his only child to a delightful, new food, my father had plucked a pear from his lone fruit tree and handed it over to four-year-old me. Willing to please and try anything, I chomped into the golden skin and pulled off a huge piece. It all went downhill from there.
As the story goes, I grimaced, pronounced the pear “gritty” and spit out the offending, unripened piece. That’s the assessment that I made over three decades ago and the one that I’d cling to for almost as long. Care for a pear? No thank you!
Today, though, I’m quite fond of this bell-shaped fruit. When allowed to ripen off the tree, it can be a divine treat. With over 1,000 varieties and seasons that spread throughout the year I can find a soft, honeyed pear almost anywhere.
Similar to its cousin, the apple, the pear originated in the border between Europe and Asia known as the Caucasus. Spread by traveling Aryan tribes, it moved into North India and Europe. Eventually it arrived in China as well as in America where it became wildly popular in 19th century New England. In the U.S. most of our pears now come from Washington, Oregon and California.
In ancient times the pear was considered superior to apples, more or less the perfect fruit. Its fragrant and juicy flesh made it a beloved dessert. As varieties developed and spread, it also become a favorite for cooking. No wonder. In terms of cooking a pear responds well to a range of methods including baking, grilling, poaching, roasting, sauteing and stewing. It compliments a wealth of foods including almonds, cheese, chocolate, duck, ginger, oranges, pork, raisins, walnuts and wine.
When selecting pears, I look for shiny, firm, unblemished fruit. At home I put them in a cool spot to ripen. When ripe, they are tender, aromatic and easily bruised. I use mature pears right away or refrigerate them to stave off spoilage.
Now that I know how to choose and, most importantly, not to eat immature pears, I use them in an assortment of dishes. I slice and saute them in a sugar and butter and serve them over ice cream. I chop and add them to salads or pair them with Gorganzola, Stilton, Parmesan or Brie cheese and serve them as a first course. My favorite way to prepare pears, though, is to feature them in a tart.
GINGERED PEAR TART
5 pears, peeled, cored and sliced
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 sheet (roughly ½ pound) frozen puff pastry, defrosted and cut to fit a 9-inch frying pan
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Melt the butter, sugar, ginger and cinnamon together in a 9-inch, oven proof pan. Arrange the pear slices in the pan and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until a light colored caramel has formed in the pan.
Place the pastry over the pears. Tuck in any extra pastry and then place the pan in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry has turned golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool.
Invert the pear tart onto a large serving dish and serve warm.
April 21st, 2011 § § permalink
Okay, maybe there isn’t an all-out, nationwide frenzy for falafel. Yet, on the same night this week that I made falafel sandwiches for dinner, I learned that Subway now sells foot-long falafel subs. Although I walk past a Subway shop several times a day – coincidentally, en route to the actual subway — I hadn’t been aware of its new offering. What I do know and have experienced are countless croquettes of spiced, ground chickpeas known as falafel.
A specialty of the Middle East, falafel reputedly originated in ancient Egypt. Today it’s one of the country’s national dishes and served as an appetizer as well as a snack. Among Egypt’s Coptic Christians, it’s acts as a substitute for meat during Lent. Tucked inside a soft, fresh pita and dressed with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and/or tahini or a yogurt dressing, falafel makes a delightful sandwich.
In Egypt falafel are made with white broad beans or fava beans. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel they come from chickpeas or a mixture of chickpeas and fava beans, which is how I know them best.
To make falafel, dried chickpeas or fava beans are soaked in water overnight before being ground together with parsley, garlic and other seasonings. Note that cooked, canned chickpeas or fava beans are never used. These would make the falafel too mushy.
The subsequent paste is shaped into balls or patties. I use my hands to do this but you can employ a special tool, aleb falafel, to form them. An aleb falafel looks a bit like an ice cream scoop and possesses a lever that pops the ball into the bubbling cooking oil. If you’re concerned about your falafel falling apart or splashing oil as it enters the deep fryer, this is a handy tool to have.
Once the falafel balls have turned a golden brown, they’re plucked from the oil and placed on paper towels to drain. From here they’re served warm, over lettuce or in an open pita. In my opinion, they’re absolutely delicious. Delicious on a hoagie roll at Subway? I’m a tad skeptical. However, if you’re curious, check out this review from NPR.
Courtesy of Clare Ferguson’s Street Food (Time Life Books, 1999)
1 1/4 cups skinned, dried fava beans
2/3 cup dried chickpeas
8 scallions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 cup chopped parsley
3/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
olive oil, for deep frying
6 pitas, for serving
sliced lettuce, onion, tomato, cucumber, for serving
tahini, for serving
Soak the beans and chickpeas separately in cold water for 24 hours. When ready to prepare, drain the beans and chickpeas, put into a food processor and puree to a coarse paste. Add, in batches, the scallions, garlic, parsley, cilantro, chili powder, cumin, coriander seeds, salt and baking powder.
Scoop out golf ball-sized spoonfuls of the mixture and press between your palms into sauce-shaped disks. Repeat until all the mixture has been used.
Fill a large saucepan 1/3-full with the olive oil and heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or until a cube of bread browns in 40 seconds. Add the falafel, a few at a time, and deep-fry for about 2 minutes, turning them over halfway through. Remove from the oil with tongs or a slotted spoon, drain on crumpled paper towels and keep warm in the oven — oven on low — until ready to serve.
Place the falafel inside the pitas, add the lettuce, tomato, onions and cucumber and drizzle with tahini.
April 15th, 2011 § § permalink
They’re Americans’ favorite shellfish and, after canned tuna, their preferred seafood. Yet, until the 20th century, shrimp were not readily available to diners. Unless you lived in the South, where shrimp were sold live, you missed out on these flavorful, little crustaceans. By the early 1900′s, though, advances in fishing trawler refrigeration allowed the mass marketing of and subsequent nationwide craze for shrimp.
Over 300 species exist worldwide but I tend to find six or seven in our markets. Gulf White, Pink and Brown, Ecuadoran or Mexican White, Chinese White, Black Tiger and Rock are the types that I see. As the names suggest, Gulf shrimp hail from the Gulf Coast, Chinese and Black Tiger come from Asia, etc. Of these Black Tiger is the largest, growing up to one-foot in length. It’s also one of the more expensive. As a general rule, the larger the shrimp, the higher the cost.
Buy shrimp and you buy according to number per pound or count. The smaller the number in the count, the larger the shrimp will be. You’ll need only 10 or less colossal shrimp to make a pound. With jumbo shrimp it’s 11 to 15 per pound. Extra-large is 16 to 20. Large needs 21 to 30. Medium requires 31 to 35 while small has a count of 26 to 45.
When purchasing shrimp, you’ll end up buying frozen or frozen that has been defrosted and displayed in your fishmonger’s case. As there’s no benefit to defrosted shrimp, go with frozen. That way you don’t have to use it right away. Nor do you need to fret over how long it’s been hanging around in the case. If you do opt for defrosted, smell the shrimp before buying it. If you get a whiff of ammonia or other off odors, skip it. Likewise, stay away from shrimp with pitted, yellow or spotted shells and those that feel mushy.
Why do Americans love shrimp? I can think of a slew of reasons, including simplicity, versatility, ease of preparation and flavor. I can bake, boil, broil, deep-fry, grill, poach, roast, saute, steam or stir-fry these guys. I can serve them with a splash of lemon juice or cocktail sauce, lay them over a bed of lettuce or pasta, layer them in a sandwich or feature them in a stir fry. They require only a minimal amount of cooking — just until they turn pink — and have a wonderfully nutty taste.
One of my favorite ways to prepare shrimp is to saute them with a bit of ginger, garlic, spring onion, olive oil and sherry. It’s a quick, easy and delicious dish.
SAUTEED GINGER-SCALLION SHRIMP
1 pound frozen jumbo or extra large shrimp
3 scallions, washed
1 medium-sized fresh ginger root, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
generous splash of Tio Pepe sherry
Defrost the shrimp in the refrigerator or in a bowl of cold water. Peel them and set aside.
Slice the scallions, ginger and garlic into spiky matchsticks. Place them in a large saute or frying pan, add the oil and heat on medium, stirring occasionally. Once the vegetables have started simmering, add the peeled shrimp and toss to combine. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, tossing periodically. When finished, the shrimp will have turned coral pink in color. Add the sherry, toss to combine again and serve immediately with slices of Italian or French bread.
April 12th, 2011 § § permalink
Whether you’re dusting off your grill as the weather warms or toughing it out and grilling year-round in snow, sleet and freezing rain, you’ll want to check out Francis Mallmann’s Seven Fires Grilling the Argentine Way (Artisan, 2009). Employing time-honored techniques, South America’s most celebrated chef shares how to grill, both expertly and easily, meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits and breads. Everything that I’ve wanted to know about good grilling I’ve found in Seven Fires.
Mallmann’s seven fires are seven methods of wood-fired cooking. These consist of cooking in wood ovens (horno de barro), spits (asador), cast-iron grates (parilla), sheets (chapa) and kettles (caldero) as well as in embers (rescoldo) and extreme heat (infiernillo). Early in the book Mallmann details how to work with these seven fires. He also covers how to build and light wood fires and how to gauge cooking temperatures. In essence he takes all the guesswork out of grilling.
Fundamentals finished, Seven Fires moves on to the meat of the cookbook — recipes. Although Argentinian cuisine strongly favors beef, Mallmann gives equal billing to other meats, seafood and produce. In fact, I’ve used his caramelized endives with vinegar, smashed potatoes with tapenade crust and stacked ratatouille as a meal for vegetarian friends. For the pescetarians in the bunch I’ve also made his burnt carrots with goat cheese, parsley, arugula and crispy garlic chips as an appetizer, grilled scallops with endive and radicchio as the main course and burnt oranges with rosemary for dessert. Sophisticated yet simple, his recipes never fail to please. I only wish that he included more than 100 or so dishes in the book.
For those unable to build a big wood fire, get an infiernillo going and grill outdoors Mallmann has adapted his recipes. Many can be executed by placing a two-burner cast iron griddle or grill over your cook top or firing up your oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The experience won’t be as atmospheric as cooking outdoors but it will still yield highly flavorful foods.
Similar to other favorite cookbooks, Seven Fires can serve as both a cookery and a coffee table book. Flip through the illustrated pages and you’ll embark on a cultural journey through Mallmann’s homeland, Argentina. Sumptuous color photographs of the Argentinian landscape, people, and, of course, food accompany Mallmann’s well-written and thoughtful text. No question about it. Seven Fires is a visual as well as gustatory delight.
This spring, as you reach for your grill tongs, be sure to grab Seven Fires, too. Insightful, sensible and beautiful, it will change the way that you grill forever and for the better.
April 7th, 2011 § § permalink
If you live in the Northeast, the arrival of spring means many things. Warmer temperatures. Less snow. More rain. The end of maple tapping season. Starting in mid-February and lasting for roughly six weeks, maple trees across this region get tapped for their sap. Once warmer weather hits, tapping season ends and my quest for the tastiest maple syrup begins.
Every time I pour rich, Grade A syrup over my French toast, waffles or pancakes, I should thank the Native Americans for this lovely sweetener. As they did with so many other useful foodstuffs, Native Americans taught the early settlers how to tap maple trees and create maple syrup and sugar.
The process is fairly simple. Put in spout in a sugar or black maple tree. Attach a bucket to the spout. Collect the tree’s sap in this bucket and then boil it down so that the most of the water evaporates and the sap becomes thick and dark. Want maple sugar? Just keep boiling the sap until it becomes granulated like sugar.
Until the late 19th century maple sugar, not syrup, was the preferred product. Today, though, it’s the syrup that we all crave. Whether I’m pouring it over my pancakes, glazing vegetables with it or adding it to baked goods, it’s a delightful way to enliven a variety of foods.
As I’m a bit of a maple syrup snob, I tend to splurge on darker, bolder ones. When searching for true palate pleasers, I look at the grade, color and ingredients. “Maple-flavored” gets set aside immediately for this indicates a high percentage of corn syrup with a splash of maple added for color and taste. What I want is pure maple syrup.
Once I’ve established that it’s pure syrup, I consider the grade. Rated according to flavor and color, American-produced maple syrup comes in Grades AA (also known as “Fancy”), A, B and C. Grade AA possesses a very mild taste and light amber hue. Grade A is slightly stronger in color and flavor while Grade B boasts a hearty taste and dark amber shade. Grade C, which isn’t table-grade, most closely resembles molasses.
For the following recipe I use Grade A maple syrup. Since pure maple syrup must be refrigerated after opening, I allow it come to room temperature before measuring and adding it to the muffin butter.
VERMONT MAPLE SYRUP MUFFINS
from The Joy of Muffings by Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher (Golden West, 2002)
Makes 12 muffins
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 12 muffin cups.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Form a well in the center of the ingredients and set the bowl aside.
In a separate bowl whisk together the egg, milk, syrup and butter. Gradually pour the egg mixture into the well at the center of the dry ingredients and stir together. The batter should be lumpy. Do not overbeat or the muffins will be tough. Spoon the batter into greased muffin cups and bake until brown, about 15 minutes.
April 5th, 2011 § § permalink
Due to health, environmental and animal welfare concerns we eat a lot of seafood in my household. If it’s considered safe and sustainable, then it probably will end up in my oven or on my grill. Frequently aiding me with all this fish and shellfish has been New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman and his cookbook Fish (Wiley Publishing Inc., 1994). In Fish Bittman covers 70 types of seafood. Standards such as salmon, shrimp and tuna appear alongside the less commonplace cobia, eel and wolffish. In all likelihood, if my fishmonger carries it, this cookbook will it, too.
Fish begins with sections on how to purchase and prepare seafood. Cleaning, filleting, and cooking all get equal due. Likewise, techniques such as smoking, grilling, poaching and roasting are explained in detail.
Arranged alphabetically, the subsequent entries provide a history and/or physical description, buying advice and recipes for each fish. In a few instances, such as with bonito, cobia and John Dory, specific recipes don’t appear. Instead I’m directed to consult entries on similar seafood for cooking tips. Nonetheless, I still receive general descriptions and buying advice. Believe me, those tips come in handy, particularly when I’m dealing with an inexperienced or apathetic fish guy.
The recipes in Fish work well for beginners as well for more seasoned cooks. Take, for instance, the entry on cod. Here novices find out how to broil it with butter, salt and pepper and serve it with wedges of lemon. Meanwhile, old hands learn how to create the more complex creamed salt cod mousse.
Like most cookbooks, Fish is not without flaws. For me, the greatest is its failure to provide complimenting flavors and foods for each fish. Unless the reader already knows his flavor affinities or has side dishes in mind, he’ll have to look elsewhere for seafood pairing advice. That might not sound like an inconvenience but the last thing that a time-pressed cook wants to do is waste hours scouring the Internet or rummaging through books, searching for the right side for sturgeon or tilefish.
In spite of imperfections Fish offers a great deal to cooks. From the conventional to the exotic and a wealth of seafood in between it guides them through successfully selecting and preparing fish and shellfish. No wonder it remains one of my favorite cookbooks.