Archive for the ‘From Maria’s Kitchen’ Category

Two summers ago, my co-blogger Shana posted a brief photo essay and set of instructions on “what to do with squash blossoms.” Let me tell you, that’s the post that keeps on giving. Even in those times when our blog has been most neglected, readers flock to this post, and Shana recently graphed the seasonal trend on squash blossom post viewing . . . when late June hits, the curve goes vertical.  I cook squash blossoms about once a summer myself, and have returned to Shana’s guide each time. Thinking about squash blossoms helps me to remember that one thing a good food blogger can do is give sensible advice on working with interesting foods that we (or at least many of us) didn’t grow up with.

The first time I ever heard of fava beans was in The Silence of the Lambs (search for fava in the memorable quotes — not likely to inspire hunger). I later learned that the British call them broad beans, which sounds much plainer and more boarding school than favas. I never actually tried them until Anne, our sometimes third on the blog, made them for a spring feast a few years back (sauteed with morels and fiddleheads, mmm),and I was immediately hooked on their delicate bean flavor and their tenderness. Since then, like squash blossom preparation, fava beans cooking is an annual ritual around here, and just as ritualistically, I scurry for the internet, trying to recall just what I’m supposed to do with the darn things (there’s like two layers to remove, right??). So in the spirit of squash blossoms (and future reference for myself), I offer a guide to coaxing out the wonders of the fresh fava.

Favas first need to be shelled. This is a fine job for small hands (those in the picture are four and three-quarter year old hands, so favas are not quite as giant as they appear). Simply pull the string along the seam and squeeze gently to pop open the pods, then run your thumb along the pod to loosen the beans.

When you are finished, your overflowing quart of favas will be much reduced, but still ample. You are, however, only halfway done. That thick light green skin needs to be removed so you can get to the heart of fava goodness.

Blanch the beans in boiling water for about a minute, then drain and run under cold water. The beans will now be loosened inside their outer skin and a bit of bright green will often protrude from one end. If you’re fussy you can use a knife, but I find it easiest just to slip my fingernail inside the slit and then squeeze to pop out the bean. Squeeze gently, as the beans can fly vast distances (or at least a foot or two) under pressure. This will amuse four and three-quarter year olds for short period of time but they will soon find this step tedious and will wander away. You will need to call in some older reinforcements (see fifty three year old hands above). When you are finished, your supply of favas will look smaller still. I find a quart really only enough to feed three or four fava lovers as a light side dish. Or me, if no one is looking, and I don’t cook anything else for dinner.

Once you have your fresh favas all shelled and peeled, there are many things you can do with them (purees, dips, a quick saute with pancetta, toss them in olive oil and add some shavings of pecorino cheese . . .). Some recipes will tell you that you need to cook the shelled beans until tender, for as many as fifteen minutes, but I find the heat of the blanching is more than enough to cook fresh beans. My current favorite fava dish is this simple preparation with mint:

Dice a small red onion and mince a good handful of fresh mint.  Warm some olive oil over medium heat, add the onions and cook until softened, about five minutes. Add the fava beans and heat until warm through. Toss in the mint and fold through the beans, then turn off the heat and add a good sprinkling of coarse sea salt.

This year, we’ve eaten favas and mint with smoked duck and grilled lamb chops and those were both Good Things. But all on their own, these beans are a pretty Good Thing as well. It’s a small bowl of goodness for rather a lot of work, but one full of midsummer flavor.

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Sometimes I overestimate my talents, my improvisational flare, my ability to combine a few fine ingredients with a little je ne sais quoi and produce something that can be quite respectably called dinner. One night a couple of weeks ago, I found myself alone with young Nick with dinner coming on and not a menu plan in site. So I parked the boy in front of a bowl of butter noodles and peas, poured myself a gin and tonic and rummaged in the fridge.

I emerged from this hunt with full hands and a smug sense of self-satisfaction.  Fresh bitter greens? Check. Egg delivered from the farm the day before? Yup. And some really creamy feta and a bit of shallot. Everything shaping up nicely. Saute the greens with the shallot, stir in a little of the chili sauce, fold in the feta and slide a softly fried egg on top.  Great building blocks. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, maybe my confidence was the gin and tonic talking.  Because when I sat down and tried it, the result of this experiment was just, well, weird. The greens cooked down too quickly into mush. The sweet of the chili sauce battled with the saltiness of the feta rather than balanced it.  The egg was too soft, even for me who will pretty much slurp eggs raw out of the shell, and the chili sauce crept into the yoke in a bloodily unappealing way.  Three quarters of the way through, I pushed the plate aside and scarfed the last of the cold butter noodles from Nick’s Spider Man plate and inwardly browbeat my cock-sure culinary self “Thought you could cook, huh Maria?” I vowed never to stray from my (many) cookbooks or the internet again. Improvisation was dead to me.

Until the other night, when dinner came again (it inexorably does that, doesn’t it?), the fridge was full of unused farm share, I had no plan, and Something Had To Be Cooked. This time my hunting and gathering expedition through the kitchen yielded rather a lot of spinach, a big bunch of spring onions, a small clutch of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, and two tissue thin slices of prosciutto hanging around because they didn’t fit on a pizza. And, of course, penne, because I firmly believe penne should be omnipresent.

So,  I started a pot of water boiling and while I was waiting, cleaned the spinach really well (two more rinses than really I was willing to put up with), ripped off the tough stems and tore it into pieces a normal size mouth could accommodate.  Then I sliced up the spring onions. When the water came to a boil, I tossed in the pasta (I know; you know how to cook pasta, I can spare you the details) and filmed the bottom of a saute pan with olive oil. When the pasta had been cooking about five minutes, I tossed the spinach in with it, and paused for a moment to marvel at the immediate collapse of the spinach and to feel grateful for all the room in the refrigerator previously occupied by spinach that could now be filled with more interesting things like berries. Then I slid the onions into the frying pan and cooked them over medium heat, while turning my attention to slicing the sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto into thin strips, then tipped them in with onions. After about eleven minutes of pasta cooking, I drained the pasta and spinach, holding back a slim cup of the pasta water. Then the pasta and spinach went into the frying pan, got moistened with the cooking water, and the whole thing got a good shake and a moment to think about its new identity.

After that moment, it went into a pretty bowl, received a good grating of parmesan cheese and was promptly devoured. It had moments of comfort food, leavened with a little sophistication from the prosciutto and tomatoes, and made virtuous (without pain) by the presence of the spinach. Fine ingredients on hand and a little skill? What could possibly go wrong? Why nothing at all.

Make this. Or riff on the theme. Mix it up. You won’t be sorry. Just maybe avoid feta cheese and sweet chili sauce in combination.

So I’m back to extolling the virtues of a good pantry, a little ingenuity and the improvisational kitchen life. While trying to keep in mind that I’ll be humbled by that life once in a while, and that’s okay, because it’s good to be reminded that improvisation is not the same as haphazard carelessness, even though a gin and tonic might blur the lines between the two. And for such humbling occasions, one should always keep butter and cheese on hand, as well as penne.

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Baby Steps

Testing. Test 1, 2, 3. Hello? Hello! Anyone home?

So, the blog got all big in my mind while I was gone. What could I possibly have to say to fill its vast, empty space? I got a new job which requires, um, rather a lot of attention. And time on email. And time on planes. Because of which,  I went to a whole bunch of places. There was also some pleasurable gallivanting around the southwest in an old VW van packed with kids and dog and an increasing amount of desert sand. None of which has much to do with food, although some good food happened along the way (elk! Utah goat cheese! Indian food in Vancouver!).

In the food department, I made a lot of bread in the weekend cracks of time. I got better and better at making chicken broth from the once a month chicken carcasses subsequent to devouring an Old Pine Farm chicken.  I tried my hand at sole meuniere and learned that it’s true that mushrooms are better cooked at very high heat. I mined the freezer for pesto and tomato sauce lingering from last summer. But writing about any of these seemed like tossing pebbles down the well. The most I could hope for was to catch the echo back a few pings from the big, quiet darkness.

But, you know, it’s spring.  There are flowers and puppies and new beginnings and all that. There also seem to be any number of babies around, born to friends and colleagues and all alive with that densely compacted promise intrinsic to newborns, and soon to be toddlers thinking about trying out their amusing and intriguing legs.  So, in the spirit of spring and of first, fumbling steps, I’ve been trying to note the potential inherent in small things: the spindly stems on the ugly plant in the back yard I suddenly realize is rhubarb, the fat, fleshy mushrooms growing in my compost, my son’s awkward fingers on his guitar strings that now and then suggest real music, the plain swath of dough that blossoms with heat into sweet and fragrant pastry.

And so, back to some words here and there about what goes on in my own kitchen and all the other kitchens of this pleasant Midwestern town.  Since I’ve been gone we’ve gained Cecelia’s pastries and Tomuken Noodle Bar and locally made Grapenuts at the Farmer’s Market and lord knows what else I’ve failed to notice while my eyes have been glued to the computer screen and my shoulders have been hunched up around my ears.

So I’m pulling my head up, looking around and taking a baby step. Perhaps from small posts, great blogs grow. Tonight for dinner there was spinach salad with radishes and lardons and a plate of asparagus on the side, with a board of bread (see cracks of weekend time above) and two kinds of Michigan cheese (and some frankly and deliciously imported salami from the Zingerman’s warehouse sale).  Tonight the air was heavy with the scent of lilac.  Tomorrow, there’s dinner at Pot and Box.  Next week this food blog might even have a real recipe. It’s spring. Everything is possible.

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Not quite sure where I went for the latter half of 2009. I know there was a lot of work and some travel and A Lot of four year old boy and thirteen year old girl and leaves that had to be raked and dogs that wanted walking. There was the pleasure of a warm fall and the sudden shock of winter and some evenings when I read books and some when there was nothing but email until I hauled my weary self up to bed. There was even, truly, a lot of cooking, even if there was precious little blogging about cooking.

Some of you may have noticed me hemming and hawing a bit over in the right-hand column of this blog; Shana and I both started twitter feeds to share some of our gustatory adventures without the overhead of writing full posts. You can follow me @mariaeats and Shana @shanaeats for quick bites, so to speak. I’m a beginning twitter-er, still learning my way around the short form, but really, I’m a long form narrative sort of girl, so I’m looking forward to finding my way back into this space and our communal conversation about food and all that goes with it.

So, with far too much to say, let me use the most favored technique of the last week of the decade and present my top ten food moments of (the second half of) 2009, aka the things I would have written about if the cat hadn’t run off with my blogger tongue:

  1. Raspberry buttermilk cake. Simple as, well, pie, and all about clean, fresh flavor. Equally good for breakfast and dessert.
  2. Grilled halibut with gremolata butter; best when eating fresh-caught halibut outside a beat-up trailer and looking at this view:
  3. “Restaurant style pork chops” with goat cheese and rosemary polenta. Let me tell you, one of those meals where we kept asking ourselves whether we had actually cooked it.
  4. Braised rabbit. Really, not at all good. But I cooked bunny and was inspired to try again some time!
  5. Smoked trout. Two pounds of local trout smoked on the Big Green Egg, with a little guidance from The Smoked Seafood Cookbook by local smokin’ hero, T.R. Durham. We ate it for weeks and were sad when it was gone.
  6. Nick’s discovery of cornichons. The boy is, I tell you, obsessed. A four year old who will trade in chocolate for pickles. We can’t keep them in the house and when they’re not here he asks wistfully after the “little bent pickles.”
  7. Omelette aux fine herbs. Some day in late September, I cracked a few Dragonwood eggs delivered the day before, snipped a few herbs from my garden and cooked them up with some very fresh Calder Dairy butter. Suddenly, after thirty years of omelette making, I understood what the French have been going on about all these centuries.
  8. Thanksgiving dinner with Anne and Shana and an assemblage of men. Not cooked on Thanksgiving at all, but a few days before, and a chance to cook our way without all the pressure of tradition and family palates to please. There were dates stuffed with foie-gras and Seelbachs and celeriac soup with stilton toasts and duck to die for with tart cherry sauce and these little beauties:
  9. John’s Birthday Dinner/our Christmas Dinner. Crab cakes with citrus aoili, a grilled rack of lamb and lovely risotto, molten chocolate cakes and laughter and family until late in the night.
  10. The Great Flour Throw Down, in which John produced 7 pizzas from 3 flours and conferred with our panel of judges to determine the best flour for his pizza making purposes. Verdict: Italian tipo 00. Read all about it

These are the moments that stand out when I’m here curled in my arm chair on a late December night with a little snow in the air, but really the strongest memories come from the pleasurable sameness of my Ann Arbor days, the little surprises of the CSA box, the treat now and then of a Comet Coffee on the way to work, the crisp delight of fresh apple and sharp cheddar cheese on an autumn afternoon, the reliable deliciousness of a Cafe Japon baguette, the fun of watching my son strike up his independent friendships with his favorite farmer’s market vendors. Nothing special and all so special at the same time. It’s been a good year, and not just in food (although I’m certainly not complaining about the food — except maybe that rabbit). I hope it has been so too for all of you that stop by this blog now and then. I look forward to talking  and cooking more in 2010.

Happy Holidays to All.

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A Dinner for a Hot Summer’s Night

It’s really here now, isn’t it? Summer in all its tomato-eatin’, mosquito-swattin’, water-fightin’ glory. The cicadas are  winding themselves up to a frenzy out there in the night, and there have even been a few days when it’s been almost-but-not-quite too hot to cook. I’m deep into it, reveling in eggplant and ice cream and firing up the grill, but also painfully aware that it’s beginning to slip away already, that the light is almost gone by 8:30, and when I went looking to buy water blasters they had been displaced by school supplies. But I’m an autumnal refusenik right now, digging in my heels against September and stretching each August day to its full length.

In that spirit, I recommend our menu from last night which seems almost too simple to report, but was deliciously and utterly summer. There was gazpacho to start — a very simple gazpacho of tomatoes, seeded cucumber, red onion, some bread crumbs, cilantro, sherry vinegar and water given a quick swirl in a blender (bonus points for a serious dent in the farm share!). There was a bottle of chilled pinot grigio. At the end, there were chilled cubes of watermelon (more farm share, more bonus points).

And in between? There was an amazingly simple and amazingly good fish that caused us to halt conversation every few sentences and say “oh man! How about this? This is good!” I was inspired by a recipe in Lynne Rosetto Kaspar’s book The Splendid Table. She reports that this is a classic preparation from Italian sea side restaurants. The concept and the execution are simple. A paste of herbs, garlic and olive oil, a little time for the fish to soak in the flavor and a few minutes over a hot grill. We used a $6.00 piece of Trader Joe’s frozen swordfish, and it turned out brightly flavored and wonderfully succulent; I can only speculate and drool over what this would taste like with some fancy fresh fish. We may have been sitting on our citronella-surrounded deck in downtown Ann Arbor rather than a patio overlooking the Mediterranean, but it felt like la dolce vita to me.

Mediterranean Grilled Fish

1 lb. of firm fleshed fish fillets (Kaspar recommends bluefish, mackeral, tuna or swordfish)

4 T minced fresh herbs (I used a mix of flat leaf parsley and basil at about a 1:3 ratio)

1 clove minced garlic

2 T olive oil

Coarse salt

Grind the herbs, garlic, olive oil and salt into a coarse paste using the grinding apparatus of your choice. I used the mortar and pestle because I don’t own a food processor, but that’s not a point of pride. Cut a few shallow slits into the fish and rub on both sides with the herb paste. Wrap the fillets in plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for 2-5 hours.

When ready to eat (say just before you sit down with your gazpacho), light a charcoal fire and let burn until the coals are covered with grey ash. With the grill approximately six inches from the coals, grill the fish quickly on both sides (about 2-5 minutes a side depending on the thickness of the fish).  Serve with a squeeze of lemon.

We also had some blanched green beans (see farm share, above) tossed in olive oil, lemon. fleur de sel and fresh marjoram, my new favorite way to eat green beans. I spent the better part of my life despising green beans and now I have a favorite way to eat them!

This menu best if eaten while crickets carry on and the stars shine overhead.

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Those of you who live around Ann Arbor may have noticed something surprising the past week or so. Finally, in its last official month, summer seems to have arrived. Summer of porch-sitting without sweaters, of kids in sprinklers, of downtown strolls for ice cream, of tossing back the covers at night, of sometimes even seeking out shade, that kind of summer.  It’s not dog days yet, not air-conditioning or swimming after work summer, but still . . . it’s a lot more summer than we’ve had this year. And I’ve been so ready for it.

Among the pleasures of summer, have been winetasting on the “patio” (um, sidewalk) at Vinology . . .

Accompanied by lovely little tastes, like handmade pasta with clams and breadcrumbs and just a touch of anchovy . . .

And making mint ice cream with the out of control chocolate peppermint from the front garden and lots of lemonade from scratch (a favorite occupation and beverage for the almost four year old boy) and never, ever being without peaches in the house.

But  mostly, of course, more and more time consumed by consuming the contents of the CSA box, working our way with patience and fortitude through all that Tantre Farm throws at us (duck! more beets! incoming!). With gratitude too, of course. A lot of gratitude.

When the crisper drawer becomes difficult to shut, the Big Salad often comes to the rescue. This one was particularly pleasing to both the eye and our collective palates, first because it was broken down into its constituent parts and not mixed (allowing picking and choosing of ingredients by those who must pick and choose ) and because of this zippy vinaigrette from Bobby Flay’s Grilling for Life.  We made it first to serve on grilled lamb chops, but the drizzle required by that dish left plenty for salad a couple of days later. The oregano gives it a nice punch that paired well with the strong summer flavors in the salad.

We made up this salad, sat on the back deck in our t-shirts and shorts, all four of us shoeless and slightly sunburned and slowly picked the platters clean and watched the fireflies come out.  Summer indeed.

Oregano Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup olive oil

Combine vinegar, oregano, garlic, honey, salt, and pepper in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in oil and blend until emulsified.

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Couldn’t resist the sssssound of that title.  But let’s make this short and sweet.  This post is really by way of a public service announcement. Because, let’s face it, it’s not even August yet and the yellow summer squash . . . well, it just keeps on coming, doesn’t it? I like summer squash, really I do. I like it grilled. I like it julienned and fried in olive oil or butter until golden brown and almost crispy  (kind of like an almost good for you almost french fry). I like it in pasta, with sausage and feta or basil and cherry tomatoes. I like it in a gratin.  But lately, it seems to multiply in the crisper drawer. It’s voluntarily growing in the compost heap. Really, how’s a girl to keep up?

Before you begin to smuggle squash onto your neighbors’ doorsteps at night or start experimenting with whether the dog might like some, consider this soup from Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food. This recipe pleases me in two ways. First, and, I hate to say it, most importantly right now, it uses up a significant amount of squash. Second, it’s light and a bit spicy. I usually think of squash soups as mellow, thick and almost meaty.  Fall food. This one is perfect for summer — it has a little zip and it goes down easy. Don’t neglect to make the yogurt garnish. It really adds to the soup. We had plenty of it, and it’s flavor deepened with a couple of days in the fridge, making it all even better as leftovers.

Spicy Summer Squash  Soup with Yogurt and Mint

Adapted from Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food

For the soup:

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion sliced fine

A pinch of saffron

1 t ground coriander

1 t ground cumin

1 t sweet paprika

1/4 t tumeric

1/2 t cayenne pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

5 medium summer squash, sliced into 3/4 inch slices (I used ten of the smallish ones that have been coming in the CSA box)

6 cups water, vegetable broth, chicken broth or a mixture.

For the garnish:

4 mint sprigs

2 T olive oil

2/3 cup yogurt


Heat the 1/4 cup oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Over medium heat, add the onion, garlic and spices. Stir frequently and cook until soft but not browned. If the garlic begins to brown, splash in a little stock to cool it down. When the onions are soft, add the squash and some salt and cook for about two minutes.  Then pour in the stock or water.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the squash is tender (15-20 minutes). When the squah is tender, puree the soup in a blender or, even better, with an immersion blender , until it is very smooth. At this point, if you are going for an elegant presentation, you may wish to pass the soup through a sieve. I’ve done that and approved of the results, but I also like the one-dish-to-wash simplicity of using the immersion blender and then serving right from the pot. The soup can be gently reheated when you’re ready to serve. If it seems very thick, you may wish to thin it with some additional stock.

Before serving cut the mint leaves into a julienne. Take half of them and grind into a paste, whatever way you can achieve this (I don’t like this task, so my method is to hand the leaves and a mortar and pestle to my husband). Add the paste to the yogurt, olive oil and remaining mint and season with a little salt. Dollop onto the soup as you serve. Season with a squeeze of fresh lime. Feel relieved of the burden of squash until the next CSA pick-up.

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