Old Bread & New Fish: Salmon Cakes with Dill Breadcrumbs
30 April 2006
Living alone has numerous perils. The second (or third) helping of dessert without the silently raised eyebrow. The singular lack of pressure to wash dishes in a timely fashion. The dinners, eaten alone, of crackers, cheese, chips and salsa. The shocking combinations of wine and chocolate.
But the one most disheartening to me, the one I struggle against constantly, is the presence of sad, forgotten bits of food left uneaten in the fridge, withering away into wasteful scraps of culinary negligence. Sometimes I pull open my cheese drawer and see a beautiful block of cheese with a wasteland of mold - forgotten and unused after ten stressful workdays. Or lovely gemlike plums and grapes, left to shrivel into brown, jellied victims of my forgetfulness. The guilt is nearly unbearable.
But bread has been perhaps the most maltreated denizen of my inner cupboard, the one most often left to rot in suffering silence. I have taken to putting all new loaves in the fridge, prolonging the inevitable end, but it still comes - the last few slices left uneaten, blue and dry.
Therefore, old, stale bread is also the first thing I learned, living and cooking alone, to use up and treasure in its last days. It is the easiest way to absolve myself in some small way of the guilt of wastefulness. Bread is too easy to turn into useful breadcrumbs, golden buttery croutons, warm puddings and gooey, silky panades. Derrick of Obsession with Food seems to agree, since he has set stale bread as the theme of this month's IMBB event. Stale bread - the most plain, unassuming, nearly invisible of all ingredients. To take a few pieces of old bread and use them to their utter end is one of the delights of the kitchen. It's my first step towards being the frugal cooking completist that I want to be - nothing wasted, nothing thrown away, everything used in new flights of creativity to produce food that is good and whole.
I am so not there yet (as my last cucumber would tell you if he weren't unceremoniously dumped, yellow rot and all, into the trash last night) but these salmon cakes are made with the second half of a week-old loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread - a testament to development. The bread was sitting in the fridge, thoroughly old and a little damp. I crisped it up in the oven and made dark and chunky breadcrumbs of it in the food processor, then used them in these little salmon cakes. They are a delicious dinner for one, easy and quick with a taste of summer in the pink fish, the freshness of dill, and golden, buttery crumbs. A worthy use for the last of a loaf of bread. Apologies to the cucumber - I will try harder next time.
1 can (14.5 oz.) cooked boneless salmon fillet
1 egg, beaten
Juice from one lemon
4 TBSP fresh dill, chopped
3 TBSP horseradish sauce
0.25 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
1 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
2 TBSP butter
2 TBSP fresh dill, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Mash the salmon in a large bowl with the egg, lemon juice, dill, horseradish, and bread crumbs.
2. Add salt and pepper to taste. I added no salt because the canned salmon was already pretty salty.
Bread Crumb Coating
1. Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until just foamy.
2. Add the bread crumbs, dill, and some salt and pepper.
3. Fry until toasted and golden brown.
4. Tip out on a plate lined with paper towels to let the extra grease drain away.
1. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.
2. Form small patties of the salmon mixture in your palms, and roll in the breadcrumbs until well coated.
3. Pan fry until crispy and heated through - about five minutes - flipping halfway through. Eat while hot - good crisped up the next day, too.
What's For Pud? Eccles Cakes
23 April 2006
On the weekends I have a routine, with a friend: we like to visit the neighborhood community market and wander the produce stands and bakery tables, get warm chocolate croissants and coffee, and sprawl out to enjoy a weekend breakfast in the sun. The chocolate croissant, you understand, being the cornerstone of the routine.
But last time I was looking over a local baker's spread, and a small round pastry caught my eye. It was neatly stacked on its fellows, each crimped, golden, and speckled with grains of sugar. What's that? I asked the amiable proprietor. Even from my side of the table they looked heavy and firm, like little pats of butter. English Eccles cakes! he said, in a rolling British accent. This sounded vaguely familiar, like something I'd read in a book.
The stack of yellow cakes stood up stolidly from the other goods around it - the delicate French croissants, the decidedly oversized American muffins, the gaudy Danishes and loaves of wheat bread. I'll take one! I said.
When I bit into it I found a firm yet yielding pastry, with tender, buttery layers and a hollow in the center oozing with spiced raisins and their treacly syrup. This was a wholly satisfying little cake - a modest, unassuming exterior, but inside replete with butter, a tender middle, and spicy, mincemeat-like filling. In fact, it was delicious - a finger-licking breakfast with only a buttery paper bag left to show for it.
I wanted to try these things myself. I looked them up and found out that Eccles cakes have been a regional specialty in England since the late 1700s. They're similar to Banbury cakes - another tantalizing, seemingly legendary delicacy from my childhood reading. They were initially sold by a shopkeeper in the small town of Eccles. They became quite the rage, popularized by the local church fairs, and eventually got themselves exported all over the known world.
But the secret of the recipe was kept close and aspiring copycats had to guess at it. One early recipe included "the meat of a boiled calf’s foot (gelatine), plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy." Now, that sounds good. Doesn't it sound good?
So I read a few more recipes, searched out the elusive currant, steeled myself to try puff pastry for the first time, discovered it's not that hard, and made four dozen Eccles cakes for Easter brunch. I saved a couple; they're still holding in the fridge, on hand for the warrior martyr St. George's feast Day - which happens to also be the rather undercelebrated national holiday of England. To remedy the perennial oversight, Sam of Becks & Posh is holding a What's For Pud? event to showcase a stream of uniquely British puddings - that's dessert, to us Americans - commemorating the day of the saint who slew a dragon.
And just for those of us who really have no organic connection to St. George or this particular patronage, I would like to note, helpfully, that St. George is the official patron of a veritable host of nations: Italy, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, and my own ancestral homeland, Slovenia. (Not to mention sheep, shepherds, saddlers, soldiers, and many, many other things.)
But of course jolly England is the focus here, along with what is, apart from milky tea, its most splendid culinary symbol: the pudding. I've always found pudding to be vastly preferable to dessert; dessert in my mind leaving the way open to some insipid piece of machine-made cake from a cart, or an anemic brownie with an obligatory scoop of melting ice cream. Dessert is just sweet. Pudding is substantial - real fruitcake or custard or a trifle layered with just about any good thing you can think of. Or hefty little pastries, like these - flaky and toothsome with a tipsy filling of citrus and currants. You could eat a couple for a meal and not regret it. They're all that's good about butter and sugar and the fruit of the vine. There's a reason those English put a stamp on their world - they got their pudding straight, and here's to it!
Makes about 50 smallish cakes
6 tablespoons of butter
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
0.5 teaspoon of cloves
peel from 2 lemons
peel from 2 oranges
2 cups currants
0.5 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons of brandy
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Melt butter in a small saucepan.
2. Add spices and peel and fry until they are fragrant in the butter.
3. Add fruit, brandy, and juice.
4. Simmer for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Let cool, then put in the fridge overnight to let the flavors really meld.
4 sticks of butter (1 lb)
4 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
Between 1 and 1.5 cups of ice cold water
1. Take three of the sticks of butter and slice them in half lengthwise and then again widthwise.
2. Arrange them into a rectangle on a large piece of wax paper. Put another piece of wax paper on top and roll them the butter out into a 9x12 rectangle between the sheets of waxed paper. (This is the most maddening part - it gets easier from here - I promise.) Chill for at least four hours.
3. Put the four cups of flour into a food processor. Cut up the remaining stick of butter and add it, bit by bit, to the flour and pulse into dusty crumbs.
4. Dump the butter-flour crumbs into a big bowl and add ice water gradually, stirring, just until the dough comes together.
5. Knead for a couple minutes until smooth.
6. Wrap and refrigerate four hours or overnight.
7. Roll the dough out into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle and place the butter rectangle on top.
8. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter and roll out to its previous size.
9. Fold the sides of the dough up to the midle, like folding a piece of paper into thirds, then fold it again in half - like closing a book. You're working the butter into the dough in finer and finer layers; the butter if it stays cold will puff the pastry up in delicious and spectacular ways when you're finished. Wrap this parcel well and put back in the fridge for at least an hour or two.
10. Take the dough out and roll the parcel out into the rectangle again, then repeat the folding process. This is working the butter into the pastry in finer and finer layers.
10. Continue this process - rolling out, then folding. These are called turns. Do at least four turns - six or more is even better. It's very simple: the longer you let the dough rest and chill between turns, and the more turns you do, the lighter and flakier your pastry will be. I did five turns over the course of about 8 hours, and mine was fine - but if I was doing some other kind of pastry I would definitely let it sit overnight at least once.
1 egg, beaten
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Take a third of the the puff pastry dough from the fridge. It should be very cold and firm, but not hard. Roll it out to a thickness of about 1/8 inch.
3. Cut small circles - I used a biscuit cutter that gave me four-inch circles. You could do larger, but I wanted a lot of individual pastries.
4. Put a small dollop of filling in the center.
5. Fold in half, like a potsticker dumpling, and seal the edges with your fingers.
6. Now bring the two pointy edges up and fold them in the center, on the curved seam.
7. Flatten out the little pouch with your fingers, and roll it into a small circle - just thin enough that the filling shows through the dough a little. Try not to let it leak out, though. Which is hard.
8. Put two or three shallow slashes in the top of the finished round cake.
9a. Brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle with sugar.
9b. Note: I think that my pastry dough was pretty warm by this point, from all the handling and rolling. I didn't try this at the time, but in the future I think I would put the finished, unbaked pans of cakes in the fridge or freezer to let them chill again - maybe for an hour. I think this might make a higher, lighter pastry. Somebody try it out and let me know!
10. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and puffy. Try not to eat one immediately - the hot raisin filling will scorch your mouth - believe me, I know. These are amazingly good even a few days later.
Sugar High Friday: Red Plum Sorbet
21 April 2006
It's hot out. Someone turned up the thermostat and turned on the steam. You walk outside at seven in the morning and there's a light sheen of moisture warm and sticky on the car, the walls, and pretty soon your face, too. Summer starts in April, and summer means red, dripping, icy things. Things you get off the ice cream truck, like ice cream sandwiches with chewy cookie covers, tall flag-striped popsicles, and little cups of red, red ice drenched in a syrup you suck away, leaving clear icy crystals that crunch between your teeth and give you a sweet, piercing headache.
Which brings me to Sugar High Friday, one of the most venerable food weblog events, each month circling a different theme of sugary splendor. This month's SHF theme is liquor - wine, brandy, rum, whatever alcohol might strike your fancy.
But when I think of alcoholic desserts, which is rather frequently, I admit, I think of apples and cinnamon, brandy-drenched fruit cakes, dark chocolate mousse and potent rum balls. In other words, desserts that do not consider the present rising temperature. If I was going to cook in this heat I wanted something cool, light, and fresh.
So I turned to Kirschwasser, "cherry water," the clear cherry brandy traditionally made in the Black Forest region of Germany. It has a spiked, plummy taste, like the last, pulpy strands of a cherry after you bite through the flesh and right before you spit out the pit. Fragrant and not so sweet, with a kick.
The Kirsch went into a sorbet with overripe red plums, and a few cardamom pods for spice. These are not too strong - they add just a hint of muskiness. And then, for creaminess and spunk, layers of whipped cream with a syrup infusion of fresh lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is one of those summery smells and tastes; crushed between your fingers it smells like high June in the sun.
I initially tried Thai basil syrup, hoping the licorice and cinnamon notes would come through, but it had an unpleasantly grassy taste. I may have just boiled it too long in the syrup, though, and I would like to experiment with it some more.
But these two things, the cream and sorbet, work excellently together. They have a fresh, wild taste, with a mellow headiness from the Kirsch and high, pungent chirps from the lemon verbena. It's not overly sweet either. But it was still certainly a Sugar High Friday for me; I have little drips of red fruit syrup splattered on my stove and floor, and sticky spoons in the sink.
Adapted from Epicurious
About 6 small red or black plums, pitted and quartered
3 bruised cardamom pods
0.5 cup of sugar
4 tablespoons Kirschwasser
1. In a small saucepan combine the plums and enough water to just cover them and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft - about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the 0.5 cup sugar and 3 cardamom pods with 0.75 cup water in a smaller saucepan and lightly simmer for a few minutes. Stir in the Kirsch. Take off the heat and let cool.
3. Puree the plums, skins on, in a food processor until smooth.
4. Add the syrup and puree again.
5. Strain mixture through a fine sieve and refrigerate until very cold - preferably overnight.
6. Freeze in an ice cream maker for a short period - just about fifteen minutes.
7. Put in the freezer, sealed and covered with foil or plastic wrap touching the surface of the sorbet. This is better after it has cured for a day or two.
0.5 cup sugar
0.25 cup fresh lemon verbena leaves
1 cup whipping cream
1. Chop and bruise the lemon verbena.
2. Put sugar in a small saucepan with 0.5 cup water and stir to dissolve as it comes to a simmer over low heat. Let it simmer for just a couple minutes.
3. Stir in the lemon verbena and take off the heat. Let steep for fifteen minutes, then put in the refrigerator to cool completely.
4. Whip the cream in a food processor, then add a few tablespoons of the lemon verbena syrup. Add as much syrup as you can without deflating the cream.
5. Serve sorbet and cream layered together in glasses or small bowls.
Easter Brunch: Braised Polish Sausage
17 April 2006
I really do not like sausage. At all. I leave it up to you to judge whether my summer of dishwashing at Bob Evans instilled this firm distaste for the classic breakfast of the Midwest - links and maple syrup, sticky and cold on the heavy plates by the time they got to me.
But whatever the reason - those dry, crumbly breakfast patties? No way. Maple flavored links? Oh no. No thank you. I prefer the bacon. Really.
But here I was, cooking brunch for over 30 people on Easter, and I could not offer just almond croissants, hot cross buns, Eccles cakes, egg salad in foofy pastry cups, and quiche. All that and the Cadbury Mini Eggs would not quite cover it for those who prefer a heartier start to their day.
A large quantity of meat was clearly required. Sausage was the obvious choice, and I felt quite glad, actually, to find fresh Polish kielbasa at the grocery, along with some hot Italian sausage. My family is Slavic, Cleveland born and bred, good football fans and Catholic faithfuls. Kielbasa runs in the family, so to speak, and I have a marginal tolerance for it.
But there was one problem. I was going to church on Sunday morning. This is somewhat out of character, as my little church generally meets on Saturday evenings. (It's wonderful - you should try it sometime. Sleep in on Sunday! Shocking, I know, I know...) But we decided to visit an Episcopal cathedral on Easter morning. It was beautiful - the sun streaming in, the soaring music, the people of God, whatever their background or present condition of their faith, gathered here together for just a few moments to celebrate the one thing we had in common. It was new and yet familiar. Strange people, unfamiliar place, but a common hope. It was stirring and wonderful to sit through a service that has brought some small stirring of life and hope as it's been heard and remembered by millions of people for over a thousand years. Easter is very precious to me, and this was a good one.
All that being said, I still had sausage. Sausage that didn't have time to cook after church, and if I cooked it before and left it lukewarm - well, I didn't want everyone coming down with a nasty souvenir from Easter brunch. That would not be hope-conducive. Quite the contrary.
So I got up early, started with the standard Publix-issued recipe from the package of sausages, and improvised. This was the first time I had ever cooked sausage, after all, so I went with the basic recipe. But I wound up startled - a three-step cooking process, ending with a braise, produced something wonderful and tender. Gone was the chewy, crumbly sausage I abhor. Gone was the boiled taste of pig fat.
First, following directions, I steamed all the sausages to cook them through. Then I sliced them in half and fried them well with some onions and garlic, so the edges caramelized and nearly burned, giving them a deep, dark flavor.
Then, the improvisation. I put them all in the oven on very low heat during the whole time I was at church. No, my apartment didn't burn down. But I was worried the sausages would. I was worried they would get all dried out. So I put a glug of red wine in with the kielbasa, and white with the Italian. Then I covered them and left them to steep safely in the oven for four hours. (It was a long service.)
What came out was something deliciously savory, all the flavor of the wine and the pork emerging in gentler, less aggressive ways. The onion and the garlic added some high notes. There was a rich broth surrounding the melting, broken pieces of sausage, steaming fragrant.
So I actually tried a nibble, and I liked it so much I had a whole plate of leftovers for dinner. I liked it so much that here I am submitting it to the fourth Weekend Cookbook Challenge hosted by the very kind Sara and Alicat, who let me bend the rules and claim a Publix sausage label as an untried, untested (to me anyway!) cookbook recipe. I liked it so much that I want to play around with it some more - add more onions, some sage, some mushrooms or artichokes. Maybe there is some hope for sausage after all.
1 lb fresh, uncooked sausage (Polish, Italian - whatever. Use what you like.)
1 cup of wine (Red or white - depends on your taste and the sausage.)
4 cloves of garlic
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
2. Slice the onion and sliver the garlic.
3. Put the sausages in a large pan with a heavy bottom (preferably one that can go in the oven) and add a cup of water. Bring it to a boil, then turn to medium low and cover the pan. Steam for 15 minutes or until the sausages' internal temperature registers 160 degrees F. [This probably isn't necessary if you're going to braise them in the oven, but it's what I did, so I'm documenting it here.]
4. Drain the water from the pan and take out the sausages. Slice them in half lengthwise, then crosswise, so each sausage is now in four pieces.
5. Put a bit of olive oil in the pan, now emptied of water, and heat to medium high. Brown the sausage on all sides. Brown it well - this is where the principal flavor comes from.
6. After about five minutes add the garlic and onion and stir until slightly softened.
7. If this is the pan that's going to go in the oven, put in the wine now. If not, turn off the stove and transfer the sausages to an oven-safe pan and add the wine.
8. Cover and put in the oven. Leave it there for about four hours.
9. Take it out and serve with rice or potatoes and a good green salad. Just leave the maple syrup for the pancakes please. For my sake.
And below, the aforementioned hot cross buns. These were delicious, but so ubiquitous at Easter that I am not posting the recipe. I find that two-day old buns, toasted with butter, are very good indeed.
The Spice is Right: Cumin & chickpeas for one
14 April 2006
I have many, many spices in my kitchen. They are in small clear topped jars, fixed by magnets to my backsplash, colorful in their reds, greens, browns, and black. They are different, every one, and each a taste, I am finding, marked with millenia of history. I have been reading Jack Turner's erudite and entertaining Spice: The History of a Temptation. He wanted to tell the story of spices - not just the search for their routes and sources and the politics of trading and empire that sprang up around the status of spice - but how, instead, spices have changed the world around them. How has the appeal of certain spices been so powerful as to set ships sailing? It is a fascinating read, and the story of spice is far more complex than you might think.
But the thing that strikes me, reading this book, is that the spices I look at when I cook, hanging colorful on my wall, they form a bright thread from my stovetop to the cooking fire of someone else, real people, thousands of years ago. The spices in my cupboard today have changed very little from the ones that Ovid, Cleopatra, and the Roman emperors ate. A set of common tastes runs from their palates to mine.
And while certain spices like pepper and cinnamon were perhaps the most sought after, and clearly representative of this unbroken chain of tongues, dishes and tables, cumin, to me, is itself the warm, earthy taste of the past.
Cumin has a long history in both the Western and Eastern worlds. Turner's book deals more with the classical, Western side of history, touching on the East primarily through its dealings with the West - which is rather one-sided; I would love to read a historical or anthropological study of the use of spices in India and the Far East. But I still learned many things about this spice, so widespread throughout the world that almost any given cuisine can be seen as its home.
Wealthy Greeks ate cumin long before the coming of Christ, as evidenced by its mention in plays of the period. The Romans used it in rich sauces of various types and purposes. When excavations were done at Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon, commander and hero of the Trojan War, tablets were found that listed cumin in its curiously unchanged spelling of kumino. This word is Semitic in origin, and the spice was certainly known to the Hebrews. Isaiah spoke of planting dill and cumin, scattering them upon the ground. Jesus knew the spice well, as he roundly rebuked the religious authorities for tithing the very tiniest seeds and spices to God - doling their righteousness out to the precise length of requirement - yet neglecting the mercy and justice that gave their religion its heart, counting out mint and dill and cumin while ignoring faithfulness.
Much later, in the Middle Ages, the heads of executed criminals were preserved and put on grim deterrent display with the help of cumin, the more expensive embalming spices like cinnamon and cloves being reserved for worthier (and wealthier) subjects. Monks grew cumin themselves, dusting the seeds from the feathery, parsley-like plant - although such spices went in and out of favor with Church authorities. It was believed, as St. Bernard writes in concern, that spices "delight the palate but inflame the libido."
It's featured in Indian, Spanish, Mexican, Greek, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines. It has many names - jeera, zeera, ziran. Like other spices there's a host of medicinal claims attached to its use: it's been a diuretic, and a stimulant to the appetite and lactation. Some think it relieves the hiccups. It's still used in veterinary medicine.
But the thing, for me, that I love most about cumin is its warmth. It has this toasty, slightly bitter aroma that fills your mouth with warmth and the taste of something that has been sitting out in the sun all day. It feels like all those years of use and familiarity have bred into modern white cumin a fullness of taste and history. Something so small and nearly unseen, passed over by stately history, can still create a strong thread of connection between my plate and that of people long, long gone.
So, a rumination on spice, ancient, for Barbara's The Spice is Right event, designed to get people blogging - this month anyway - around an ancient spice. I respect Barbara as a food writer and weblogger very much - not the least because she used to live just up the road from my parents, and writes about local Ohio food and markets in such a way as to make me rather homesick. I also was amused by the fact that we could define an ancient spice however we liked, whether that be mummified with Egyptian pharoahs, or simply a jar of mustard we've had since Easter 1999. I went the obvious route, and the dish I made is designed to show off cumin in all its warm, toasty, earthy glory.
Chickpeas themselves are rather old, a basic human food for many, many years. You take some cumin, heat it with oil, then add crushed pepper and garlic, fry it until it's fragrant and heady. Then add sundried tomatoes and their oil with all their own baggage of late summer and sun, and cook with the chickpeas. Lemon juice and cucumber and parsley round it out.
The textures are wonderfully varied - the soft, toothsome chickpeas, the cool cucumber, the chewy tomatoes. And above all, the toasted cumin, somewhere between a spice and a tiny nut, crunching between your teeth. The flavors here are so primal that nearly any Old World culture could lay claim to them - the garlic, olive oil, fresh green parsley. And the cumin, which nearly every one has.
2 15.5 -ounce cans garbanzo beans (chickpeas), rinsed, drained
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped (about 1 1/3 cups)
0.5 cup chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
0.25 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
dried crushed red pepper, to taste
5 garlic cloves, minced
0.33 cup thinly sliced drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
0.25 cup fresh lemon juice
1. Rinse and drain chickpeas thoroughly.
2. Chop cucumber and put in largish bowl. Set aside.
3. Chop parsley and put in a separate bowl.
4. Chop and mash garlic. Chop tomatoes.
5. Prepare lemon juice and set aside.
5. Heat oil in a heavy pan - cast iron is nice. Add cumin seeds and crushed red pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the seeds are toasted and the pepper is smoking. Hold your head over the pan and inhale deeply. (Just kidding!)
6. Add garlic and cook until golden.
7. Add tomatoes and cook until soft.
8. Add drained chickpeas and cook, stirring, until they take on just a bit of color and have started to absorb the garlic and tomato flavors.
9. Add lemon juice and stir. Simmer until a little reduced.
10. Add parsley and stir until slightly wilted.
11. Take pan off heat and let cool slightly.
12. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add pan's contents to bowl with the chopped cucumber. Stir.
13. Refrigerate. This is best after it's had a chance to sit overnight in the fridge, letting its spices and juices soak together into more than the sum of its parts. Serve slightly warm or room temperature. Really good at any temperature, actually.
Green, green: Leeks and fettucine
10 April 2006
When I talk about the local farmer's market, it sounds impossibly idyllic to my jaded ears. Saturdays in the sun, wandering among shining organic vegetables, tiny pots of new basil, the smell of fresh-roasted coffee, flats of bright flowers and perfumed gardenia bushes with their creamy blooms, yuppies with their rarified breeds of dogs - you get the idea.
But I go, and boy do I enjoy it. Saturday mornings at the community market I enjoy myself thoroughly, talking with the garrulous guy selling nuts and organic trail mix, avoiding the realtors handing out flyers, checking out the gorgeous little jars of homemade jams, feeling good about supporting local businesses. And this indulgence of local spirit has yielded some fine loot in these last couple weeks - all, fittingly, in shades of green. There's my new Thai basil - cinnamon and licorice and spicy basil all wrapped together. And half a pound of spinach garlic fettucine, to indulge my newly renewed love of pasta.
And then, last week, the gentle, quiet older couple who sell me my bulk almonds (they're not so talkative as the other guy) they had just a few bundles of some obviously home-grown vegetables - onions and leeks. How could I resist? Those dark green bundles with white bulbs, like scallions all grown up. I didn't know what I'd do with them, but I snatched.
I went looking for something that would take full advantage of my leeks - something that would do for a weeknight in at home. I wanted something warm, soft, not too difficult - I went searching blind with my fingers - garlic should be involved, I decided. At some point the word braised entered the picture, and I ended up with a take on Jamie Oliver's Braised Leeks with Thyme.
This was a sweet, silky, dish - soft cooked garlic in an extremity of butter, tossed with round thick slices of leek bulbs and a little salt and pepper. Add homemade chicken stock, cheap white wine, some lemon for tang and braise in the oven for half an hour and you have something so drippy and delicious, with delicate, tender spring leeks cooked through like soft artichoke hearts, in a marvelous broth, that I could gladly eat spoonfuls from the pan, standing over the stove.
To take the meal to an even greater height of green, I quick boiled some of my fresh fettucine and ate it with leeks and parmesan and a little grated mozzarella. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a bowl of this and a plate of tomato slices, a glass of white wine - it was just too good. The farmer's market - yeah, I'll be back next week.
4 big leeks
4 big cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
6 tbsp butter
2 wineglasses of white wine
1 cup chicken stock
half a lemon, sliced
sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
1. Trim the ends of the green leeks and discard. Then cut the rest of the fresh, green part of the leeks away from the round white bulbs.
2. Finely slice the green parts and reserve.
3. Tear back and discard the first two layers of the leeks, leaving the tender whiter flesh. Rinse well and slice into 1 inch rounds.
4. Have a square baking pan ready.
5. In a large shallow frying pan melt the butter over medium heat. Slowly fry the garlic in the butter with the dark green leek tops until the garlic is softened but not colored. Go slow and let the garlic infuse the butter.
6. Add the pieces of white leek and toss them in the flavoured butter.
7. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss as well.
8. Pour the contents of the frying pan into the baking pan, squeeze the lemon over, then pour the wine and stock in and cover with a square of baking parchment.
9. Bake in the oven at 350°F for 35 minutes or until tender and tasty. The butter should emulsify with the stock and wine to create a slightly shiny broth.
10. Pour over a batch of pasta - or eat directly from a bowl with a large spoon.
Almonds & oranges: Spanish for 20
6 April 2006
A few weeks ago my friends Aura and Sarah decided to make paella for a church meal. This glorious dish is a famous meal from Valencia on the east coast of Spain. It's one pot cooking at its finest: layers of bright, saffron-tinted rice, spicy chorizo, shrimp, chicken and mussels in their sharp black shells, opening to a pearly nugget of flesh. You get a different taste of rice and meat in every mouthful. In Spain it's often cooked in the spring, or for picnics outside, the pot presided over by the men of the family.
Sarah and Aura wanted to do a full Spanish meal, with all the proper accoutrements for such a classic and laborious dish. So I volunteered to cook pretty much everything else, and buried myself in Spanish recipes and menus for a week. (Obsessives unite!)
This meant salad, tapas, and, of course, dessert. Tapas were relatively simple. I am not as familiar with Spanish cuisine as, say, Italian, and it was interesting to explore the basics. Sharp, pungent Manchego cheese with quince paste - soft and a little gritty - all in one sweet and salty bite. A wonderfully comforting potato and egg tortilla - which promptly went in my file-away-for-easy-supper pile. Olives, chickpeas, cumin, little pieces of toast with tomatoes and peppers. And of course, I could not resist the tiny red tin of anchovies sitting in my cupboard. I mashed them with a little pepper and butter and smeared them on toasts for a salty shock of an appetizer. Delicious with sweet, fruity sangria.
But, as you know, no meal is complete without something sweet, and I simply could not decide on a dessert. I didn't want to default to flan, the most standard Spanish dessert going, apparently. It was like, look! A Spanish menu. What's for dessert? Flan! So that was just too obvious and out of the question, unfortunately, since I really do love custard. I wanted something instead that expressed the character I saw recurring in Spanish cuisine, and so the recipes I ended up choosing are not necessarily Spanish - except for the natillas, a very traditional Basque dessert - but I liked the flavors and textures against this meal.
The centerpiece, an orange almond cake produced by both Claudia Roden and Nigella Lawson, was a deliciously easy, a bittersweet and nutty homage to the almonds and oranges of southern Spain. I served it with sliced oranges, drizzle-soaked in a deep, dark, rich wine syrup, infused with cinnamon. Cooking this is the shortest route to making your kitchen smell like heaven. Really. Like heaven.
On the side I had natillas, a cold custard sauce, and tiny shooters of a heavily brandied dark chocolate mousse, decorated with my first attempt at burnt sugar decorations. (Ha!)
I felt a little guilty - we had this long, rather extravagant meal during the first week of Lent. We're obviously not observing the traditional Christian calendar here. Oh well. Feasting and rejoicing instead.
This was the final menu:
Tapas & Starters
Tortilla - Spanish omelet with onions and potatoes
Crostini with a chunky deconstructed gazpacho
Crostini with anchovy and garlic paste
Sarah's olive salad
Chickpea salad with cumin and sun-dried tomatoes
Manchego cheese wedges with membrillo (quince paste)
Aura and Sarah's paella
Aaron's eggy almond bread
Spinach salad with artichoke hearts and red Sevillana dressing
Natillas: Cold custard with fresh ground cinnamon
Brandied chocolate mousse with burnt caramel topping
Clementine almond cake
Spiced wine syrup and orange segments
My natillas and chocolate mousse. Don't laugh at my burnt sugar "decorations." They may have looked like bug feelers, but they tasted good, darnit!
1 750-ml bottle dry red wine
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
1. Bring wine, 1 cup sugar, and cinnamon to boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves.
2. Boil until reduced to about 1 cup. About 25 minutes. Watch near the end to make sure the wine doesn't caramelize.
3. Cool syrup completely. Cover and keep chilled. Can be reheated gently in the microwave or on stovetop before serving.
Note: The simmering wine leaves a fine mist of spattered syrup on everything around it. So use a high pot, stay out of the way, and be prepared to scrub your stove afterwards. Small price to pay, though. This stuff is amazing. It's good on anything.
4-5 clementines (about 1 pound total weight)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2.33 cups ground almonds
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Butter and line an 8 inch springform pan. Not necessary, but helpful: Line bottom with buttered parchment paper.
2. Put the clementines in a pot with some cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, pull each clementine apart and remove any seeds.
3. Dump the clementines - skins, pith, fruit and all - into the food processor and give a quick blitz.
4. Then tip in all the remaining ingredients and pulse to a pulpy liquid.
5. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for an hour, when a skewer will come out clean; you'll probably have to cover with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top burning.
6. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, but in the pan. When the cake's cold, you can take it out of the pan. Store in the fridge, tightly wrapped. Bring to room temperature to serve.
I like to dust this with a layer of powdered sugar to give a sweet top to what is a very grown-up cake: tart, slightly bitter undertones, but lush and sweet as well. Very dense and soft. It stays good for up to a week, when refrigerated.