My Berkshire Break

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Purple coneflower and a honey bee at Natural Roots, a horse-powered farm in Conway, MA

I spent most of August house sitting in western Massachusetts. I happened to discover that the aunt of a good friend would be travelling and needed someone to stay in her sweet 200 year-old cottage in the Berkshires and take care of her cat. And as anyone who lives in The City knows, August is the time of year when the air starts to reek of hot garbage and humidity, so anyone with half a chance to be elsewhere decamp to more balmy climes. I spent the months before planning my time in the country, looking forward to hiking, biking on the rail trails in the Pioneer Valley, canoeing and swimming in the clear cold rivers, visiting farmers markets, cooking from the garden.

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Pausing for a photo over the Connecticut River, Northampton, MA

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I took Amtrak’s Vermonter up from Penn Station to Springfield, Massachusetts on a Thursday evening. The first thing I did the next morning was go for an 18 mile bike ride from Easthampton, through Northampton, across the Connecticut River into Hadley and back.

The second thing I did was break my ankle. I was walking up a slick slab of  rock beside the South River up in the mountains. I had gone up to the house to get the “tour” before my friends left for their flight, and while checking out a secluded local swimming hole with my friends’s aunt, felt my ankle just go from beneath me. I went down on my hands and knees feeling like a roaring black cloud had just bowled me over. My brain wasn’t allowing for a lot of pain, just a survival rush that almost blacked me out. How was I going to get up the trail and to the car? I steeled myself, trying to still my mind enough to figure out a way out. When the fog began to clear, the roar of blood in my ears receded so that I could hear the waterfall beside me and I found a limb to lean on up the trail to the car, I tried to decide what to do next.

Two things were going through my mind: my belief that if I was able to walk at all, it must be a sprain and not a break and might heal quickly, and my determination to enjoy this time away from the city. I was alone in an unfamiliar area with an unfamiliar injury so I decided to grit my teeth through a trip to the grocery store and hole up at the house with lots of ice and ibuprofen for the next few days to see if this were a short-lived problem. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but despite the swelling, insistent pain, the massive bruising, I hobbled around for the next 3 weeks until I got home and my orthopedic doc, grimacing and shaking her head, told me that the reason I had been so uncomfortable was that I had been walking on a broken fibula.

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The South River, Conway MA

It’s almost 6 weeks from the break now and I’m healing well. I just transitioned from a massive knee-high Velcro boot to a smaller brace and a prescription for physical therapy. I should be able to walk around more easily with the smaller brace, which is a relief; being car-free is really difficult when one of your legs is out of commission. The bone had already begun to knit together and did not need to be re-set. It’s more of a dull ache and an inability to move my foot at this point. Despite it all, I actually did have a good time in the Berkshires.

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Amherst Farmers Market, Amherst MA

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Smokey Bro’s BBQ, Shelburne Falls, MA

The first week I was alone, I explored in the car, turning down any lane that looked interesting, driving through pretty New England hill town. I visited a great horse-powered farm with a CSA and farm store for produce. I sat on the deck in the sun and read, foot in a bucket of ice or perched on a pile of cushions on a chair. I sketched in the art studio in the house, watched the river, cooked. After Scott arrived the next Friday I was able to do a little more with his help; we went to farmers markets and found some good breweries, restaurants, and roadside stands. We cooked together and drove out to Stockbridge to the Norman Rockwell Museum and up to Williamstown and back across the beautiful Mohawk Trail. It was beautiful and peaceful in spite of my pain.

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Tasty Top Dairy Bar, Easthampton, MA

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I feel a little queasy thinking about what I did, walking in the grass, in the river, through the grocery store on a broken fibula for 3 weeks, but I’m glad I was able to spend time up there. It’s one of those places that combines the serenity of natural beauty with the culture of university towns, some notable art museums, and a really strong emphasis on good, well-made food and drink. While I wasn’t able to write the posts I had hoped to while I was there, I did put together a Google map of places we visited, restaurants, farmers markets, as well as some practical stops like grocery stores. I’d like to go back and get a little more of an active experience next time, visit more restaurants, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, so I’ll probably update this map over time. There is a lot still to be explored in the Berkshires.

My Berkshire Break Map:

Eats, Drinks, Drives, Views, Shops

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Deerfield River, Shelburne Falls, MA

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5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational

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Sunday night, I went to a cold storage warehouse in Queens to the 5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational, a battle of skill pitting monger against monger in a championship bout – and raucous cheese party. Forty six cheesemongers spent the previous two days in the preliminary stage of competition, judged on their knowledge, skill, taste, and charisma. Sunday night, the mongers presented their “perfect bites” to the public and the finalists (Top 11 this year) battled for the title. And welcoming us all to  The Cheesemongers Invitational this year was an adult man in a cow suit, Mr Moo aka Adam Moscowitz, the tournament’s fearless organizer.

Inside the warehouse, I walked a gauntlet of cheesemongers presenting their perfect bites. I had a clear favorite: Leslie Uhl from Di Bruno Bro’s in Philadelphia’s The Full Cremonty, a bright, fresh concoction of La Quercia, Thai Basil, Whipped Prosciutto, Key Lime Pie, Cremont. I wasn’t surprised when she was called as one of the top three best bites.

The competition rolled through rounds of cutting to weight, wrapping, “selling” the monger’s favorite cheese, a beer pairing, and finally the winner was announced: the first NYC based female monger to win, Emily Acosta of Eataly.

Seeing the group of cheesemongers who were competing, the cheesemakers and writers and business owners attending the competition reinforced for me my belief in the importance of those whose role is to match-make between food and the inexperienced eater. In the hands of a snob, cheese becomes  the apocryphal vol au vent of larks tongue, inaccessible and unappealing; in the hands of a pedant, it becomes boring. But cheese making and selling is hard, dirty work, work that is often fueled by passion above profit, for love of the fascinating world of milk and microbes and cows, goats, sheep, of grass and earth.

For me cheese is the “everyman” artisan food in large part because of the kind of people who make and sell cheese. I don’t want to generalize, but wine can have an intimidating aura surrounding it, walls reinforced by the vocabulary and cost. Cheese people may take their work seriously, but they seldom take themselves too seriously. They tend to be generous people, knowing that what they do enhances and is enhanced by the good work of other artisans.

I also see cheese as the food to help a larger swathe of the public appreciate why a slower food system is worth supporting. It has been exciting to see the growth and refinement in the craft and business of cheese that has taken place in the last few decades; new creameries are coming to market all the time and cheesemakers are refining their skills to produce world-class cheeses that can hold their own against anything from Europe.

The people who sell wine, cheese, or any new food to people are the ambassadors for that product and as such, their approach to neophytes can either open or close the door on exploration. During a trip to Europe in my early twenties, I visited a cheese shop in Rotterdam. I had read  David Lansing’s Confessions of a Cheese Smuggler describing the raunchy sticky glory that is Epoisses de Bourgogne. I really wanted to try it in Europe where it is made with raw milk but being young and on a tight budget and a little intimidated by the Euro I was a little afraid to ask for it lest I accidentally find myself the unwitting buyer of  a ruinously expensive piece of cheese. The shop owner greeted me graciously, asked if I needed help as I wandered around looking at the bounty in the glittering cases. I demurred, but a few minutes later, she persisted, asking if I’d like to try anything. I said I was interested in Epoisses but didn’t know how much it cost. As any good monger slash psychologist would do, she read my unease and said emphatically “Nothing is too expensive to taste.” Looking back, and knowing what I now do about which cheeses are usually sold as whole pieces, I don’t know if she already had a wheel of Epoisses open to sample already or if she broke one open for me, but she gave me a taste of the cheese and then sold me a quarter of it. It was a generous gesture and an approach to the timid eater that has informed nearly every interaction I’ve had with a nervous customer since then.

Here is why I think cheese and cheesemongers are important: cheese reflects certain stages of growth in a culture. Great cheese happens when a society is sufficiently established to advance from a subsistance agricultural existence to an agrarian model with the resources of time and money to support culinary arts. In the case of American artisan or farmstead cheese, it has been formed by advancement from subsistence to industrial and then the fortunate (and progressive)retreat to a “slower food” approach from the goal of peak efficiency that industry forces upon food producers. We’ve seen the shortcomings in an industrial model of food production and have begun the work of establishing a support level for food production that takes longer, is less of a cost/benefit decision, and is more of an investment of time into the quality of the product. It’s a progression that is easy to see in the maturity of American wine making- from the rustic wines of early American vineyards to the jug wine mechanically harvested giants of the mid to late 20th century and now the plethora of smaller grower producer wineries that are emphasizing terroir and healthy ground and the deft touch of the maker’s hands. Cheese has followed a similar route. And with smaller farmers struggling to survive in a bulk commodity crop economy, cheese is a value addition to a raw product that creates more profit for daily farmers who may not be making ends meet selling milk to dairies at constantly fluctuating prices determined by the commodity futures markets.

American palates have matured too. I remember my grandmother telling me that she had never tasted pasta during her childhood in Montgomery Alabama or her college years in Philadelphia until her husband and brothers returned from Europe after WW2. Food writers like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan fueled American’s curiosity taste for European food and created a market for imported cheeses, wine, olive oil, charcuterie, and daily baked bread. American food began to develop an identity, an aesthetic, a rich broth created by the waves of immigration and the growing ability of middle class Americans to travel. And the rise in awareness of the “slow, local, and sustainable” model of food production has made us more conscious of where and how our food is made.

The Cheesemonger Invitational was a lot of fun. I got to taste a lot of great cheese. but more than a great party, it was a glimpse into the future of cheese and I’ve gotta say, the future looks bright.

Buttery Braised Radishes

Whenever I visit Atlanta, my family tries to have at least one family meal together, gathering at one of my sister’s or my parent’s home to spend the afternoon cooking, playing with the little ones, and finally eating together. My family is big and there are often a couple of friends with us too so Sunday lunch is usually 12+ people. We’re all adventurous eaters and all love vegetables so I like to try to introduce a new vegetable or new way of preparing them whenever I’m there. I doubt anyone would be surprised that when I’m in town, I become the de facto executive chef for the family meal but my siblings make excellent sous chefs. My youngest sister Michal made these braised radishes with me last time and they were such a hit I decided to post the very simple preparation here.

When we had a garden, I always planted radishes because a. they were almost instant garden gratification, b. they were so pretty, and c. radishes are especially nice when they are still young and tender. Leaving them in the ground for a couple too many days and they can get really hot and fibrous. Growing them, you get them at their brightest, crispest, and sweetest. But I alway grew more than I wanted to eat raw so I started cooking them this way, with just a little liquid so that their flavor still shone through, just cooked through but not too soft and mushy. They have a flavor somewhat like a sweet young turnip; in fact, if you find the tiny tender white ping-pong ball sized turnips with the greens still attached, they are also delicious cooked this way. I’ve actually mixed radishes and turnips in the picture below.

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Butter Braised Radishes

serves 2-4

1 bunch radishes

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 small knob ginger, smashed

water

 Wash the radishes thoroughly, remove the greens if they are still attached and trim the root and stem ends. Cut the radishes in half if they are large or leave them whole if they are around marble sized. Place in a frying pan with a fitted lid that is large enough to hold all of the radishes in a single layer. Add the butter, soy sauce, and ginger just a bit of water, maybe a tablespoon. Turn the heat on low and put a lid on the pan. Shake the pan occasionally to roll the radishes in the pan. After about 5 minutes, check to see if the liquid is simmering. The salt in the soy sauce and heat of the pan should cause the radishes to release quite a bit of liquid but if the pan is still a bit dry, add another tablespoon or so of water. Replace the lid and cook for another 10 minutes or so. The radishes should give no resistance when pierced with the point of paring knife but should still be firm when they are done. Remove the lid and raise the heat to reduce the liquid to a sticky glaze. Remove the ginger knob and serve warm.

Rhubarbarita

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I’ve kind of left all of you hanging here for a while! I’ve been busy out of town for weddings, family visits, and a funeral – cooking and visiting, planting my sister’s garden, playing with my nephews and nieces. At home again, it’s that late Spring/early Summer season of long days, cool nights, thunderstorms. I’ve climbed out onto the fire escape to enjoy the view of the wisteria in bloom across the back yard a couple of times. I’ts a nice place to sit with a cool drink while I wait for something to finish cooking.

This drink is a little pink spin on my ideal margarita recipe – tart and limey and mildly sweet. The rhubarb syrup just works so well and it’s just a pretty drink. You can replace the syrup with lime juice for a more traditional margarita which is also pretty awesome on a warm summer afternoon.

Rhubarbarita

makes 1 drink

1 ounce lime juice,

1 ounce rhubarb syrup*

.5 ounce triple sec

1.5-2 oz tequila (to taste)

ice

 lime wedge

Mix the lime juice, rhubarb syrup, triple sec, and tequila. Pour over ice in a shaker or glass jar. Shake to combine and chill. Pour over crushed ice in glasses and serve with a lime wedge (in case you like it a little tarter).

*Rhubarb syrup

3 stalks rhubarb, cut into 1-2 inch pieces

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes over low heat until the rhubarb is soft and the syrup is infused with pink color. Strain the rhubarb pulp (save the pulp to mix with yogurt) and store the syrup in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

My Whole Grain Classics

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My friend Annie and I had lunch this week to catch up and hash out life’s big issues over salad. It has been a long winter for all of us, but she had just changed jobs, travels all over the world, is dealing with a family health crisis and is feeling the effects of stress. She told me she had been consulting with a nutritionist to try to give herself a physical boost, to try to make some healthy adjustments to her diet so that she’s better equipped to face everything she has to deal with. She joked that she was eating nothing but quinoa and kale and was feeling good but a little culinarily one-note.

 I love kale and I can take or leave quinoa, but boredom with your diet is a good way to end up at the bottom of a bag of Cheetos so I always keep a (some might say excessive) variety of whole grains in my kitchen. They each have such different flavors and textures and characteristics that it keeps me interested. The problem is, as Annie said, if you’ve never tried a grain, you don’t know if you like it until you’ve bought that 20 ounce bag that you try once, and then it sits moldering in the back of the cabinet until it gets rancid and you end up throwing it out.

 I decided to put together a little sampler of some of the grains I have at home for her, enough for a serving or so for her to try out before she buys whole bags of them and thought I’d share it with all of you too. I’ve done several recipe posts for whole grain salads but haven’t really put together my “Classics” list for a post. So here are a few of my favorite grains.

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Farro: “Caesar marched his army to the sea on farro” our innkeeper in Italy told us. Emmer farro is an ancient Roman grain variety that is nutty, earthy, chewy, with a similar texture to but not as sweet as barley. It cooks in a lot of water and keeps separate grains so it’s great to toss with other things for a hearty whole meal salad. I especially love farro with sautéed mushrooms. Cook it at a 4:1 ratio of salted water to grain for 20-25 minutes, or until it is as tender as you like it,  in a covered pot. Drain any leftover water. It can also cook much more quickly if it is soaked in hot water for at least a couple of hours before cooking. Low in gluten, high in complex carbs, with protein, fiber, lignans, and antioxidants, it can form the basis for a hearty, healthy vegetarian meal.

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Millet: Millet is a quick-cooking, fluffy grain with a toasty, corny flavor. It is probably one of the most widely cultivated ancient staple grains in the world, a drought resistant crop, but most of us tend to think of it as birdseed. I like it in just about any dish where cous cous would be appropriate. It is gluten free and alkaline which can help balance the body’s tendency toward acidity. I toast it in a pan with a little olive oil, coconut oil, or other fat, add 2:1 ratio of boiling water to grain. Cover the pot and cook for about 15- 20 minutes over low heat until it is fluffy and dry. This is the same technique I would use for a long grain rice. Use a fork to fluff the grains apart.

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Frikkeh: Also spelled “freekeh” “frikeh” and “farik”, frikkeh is a green wheat grain that is toasted and (usually) cracked like bulgher wheat. It has a subtle hint of toasty smokiness and one of the most intriguing delicious grain flavors I’ve run across. It is used a lot in Levantine and North African cuisines, seasoned with cinnamon and coriander in pilafs with toasted pine nuts, as a stuffing, and with lamb. I even love it plain, just salted and buttered, instead of rice. It is especially high in fiber and has a lot of selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Cook it with a little more than 2:1 water to grain ratio for 15-20 minutes for the cracked grain version.

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Wild Rice: I included wild rice because it is actually a grass seed from the Zizania palustris species rather than true rice. In some part of North America, Native American people harvest it by hand from canoes and the specific method of harvest is proscribed by tribal law. Wild rice has a tough outer sheath covering the inner grain that “pops” as it cooks. Second only to oats in protein, it contains b vitamins, lots of dietary fiber and is gluten-free. It has an earthy, spicy, irony flavor, which subtly hints that it was grown in water; it reminds me slightly of kombu or kelp. I pre-soak wild rice for a couple of hours before cooking it in at least 6:1 ratio of salted boiling water for 30 minutes until the kernels have popped and blossomed. Drain and toss with an intense dressing – I’ve gotten raves over the wild rice and Brussels spouts with mustard dressing I posted in December. It is also good with something tangy and sweet like cranberry (another native North American food).

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Pearled Barley: I feel like I almost take pearled barley for granted it has been a part of my diet for so long. For me, pearled barley goes in vegetable (or vegetable beef) soup. The pop of the grain adds textural contrast, the sweetness balances flavors, and the soluble fiber (same as in oats) thickens and enriches the soup’s broth. Although it is pearled which means that some of the hull has been buffed off, (meaning it isn’t technically a whole grain) it is much quicker cooking and still has lots of healthy fiber. This sweetness and fiber also makes it great (and filling) for breakfast with fruit and a little brown sugar. I usually just throw it into soup without measuring the ratio, but about 4:1 and a 15 minute simmer works for breakfast barley.

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Hominy Grits: You know I can’t make a list of grains without talking about grits! As a southerner, grits are essential for my mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Nothing soothes the ruffles feathers of my soul like a warm bowl of buttered grits; it was the first meal I cooked when I moved here to New Jersey. Hominy grits are made from dent corn, which has been treated with an alkali (with masa harina it is called “nixmatalization”), a process that makes more of the corn’s nutrition accessible during digestion. In contrast, corn polenta is usually made with flint corn which is not treated with alkali. I like white, organic, stone ground grits, and keep them in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity since I usually have to mail order them in larger amounts than I can use up quickly. 4:1 salted water to grits cooked with butter is the classic bowl of grits. Top it with a poached egg and some sautéed greens and you have a comfort in a bowl.

Honorable mention: Although I don’t use them in the same way I use the other grains, both chia and flax seeds are a regular part of our diet. Both are high in omega 3 vitamins and cholesterol controlling fiber. I treat them more as additions too, rather than main elements of, meals, added to smoothies, yogurts, and granola.

The fiber in all of these grains is important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, healthy blood sugar levels (instead of the peaks and valleys caused by simple carbs) and healthy intestinal bacteria which is critical for digestion and a healthy immune system.

Additional resources:

Wild rice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_rice

Farro: http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/03/20/jane-says-farro

I buy my grain from these sources:

Bob’s Red Mill

Arrowhead Mills

Kalustyan’s

Adluh Mills

Anson Mills

Ragù Guancia

Apparently, Winter is never going to end, my lips are never going to stop chapping and peeling, my flourescent-white legs are never going to see warm sunlight,  and I am never going to have to think about wearing any garment that is more revealing than a down puffer coat that gives me the svelte figure of the Michelin Man. So I’m thinking why not just go all out Winter comfort food like slowly braised meat sauces enveloping homemade egg pasta and showered with a blizzard of parmesan cheese.

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My hands down favorite slow braised meat sauce is this pork cheek ragù. Made out of the flavorful little medallions of cheek in the middle of what southerners would call hog jowls (and when cured, what Italians call guanciale), pork cheeks are tough little morsel of flavor that slowly braise down into the richest, most lip smacking, pasta coating, clingy, delicious sauce. As when you make a good stock with the collagen filled parts of a chicken so that the stock is rich and silky without being fatty, pork cheeks break down with slow cooking to dissolve the tough protein and collagen into a sticky mahogany sauce.

Pork cheeks can be a little hard to track down in a regular supermarket meat case but they are definitely worth asking around for or ordering from a farmer or butcher. I can always find them at Eataly in Manhattan, and since they aren’t a super mainstream cut, they are pretty inexpensive. The sauce freezes really well so it’s not a bad idea to make a double batch when you have a chilly afternoon to spend indoors.

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Ragù Guancia

Olive oil

1 pound pork cheeks

I medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon harissa paste

½ cup red wine

1 -28 ounce can of whole plum tomatoes

1 large bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Unwrap the pork cheeks and completely dry them with a paper towel. I usually get pretty well-trimmed cheeks, but if you see lots of pieces of fat, trim the big chunks.

In a sauté pan or shallow soup pot, heat a splash of olive oil to a shimmer over medium heat. Carefully place the pork cheeks in a single layer in the oil. Salt and pepper, then flip them with tongs and salt and pepper again once the first side is golden brown. Once both sides of the pork are brown, take them out of the pan and set them aside.

Drain all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and lower the heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot to the oil and sauté over low-medium heat to soften them and remove any brown bits of fond from the bottom of the pan. Once the vegetables have softened, scrape them to the sides to make a space in the center of the pan. Add the tomato paste and harissa to the pan and let it sizzle for a minute or two, stirring gently to cook the pastes together. Stir the paste and vegetables together and add the wine. Bring it to a boil and stir to release any browned bits from the pan’s bottom. Cook until the smell of the wine mellows. Add the pork cheeks, can of tomatoes, bay leaf, and rosemary. Bring to a slow simmer.

Cover and lower the heat to very low, just enough to maintain a low simmer. Cook for at least and hour until you can easily break the pork cheeks up with a spoon. Once the meat is tender, remove the sauce from the heat. Remove the bay leaf and rosemary stem. With a pair of forks or a flat edged wooden spoon, crush the pork and tomatoes into coarse chunks. The sauce should be very thick and sticky.

Toss with pappardelle pasta or pour over parmesan-infused grits. With a vegetable peeler or coarse cheese grater, shave slivers of parmesan over the top.

ASK Christine: Alliums

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I had two questions this week about alliums:

Adam said “I am not entirely sure what the difference between green onions, spring onions, and chives are. Oh, and then there’s leeks….” and then Becky asked “what type/color of onion is best for fajitas?”

Alliums are the plant family that includes onions, garlic, chives, leeks, shallots, and scallions. There are two broad categories by which I divide types of alliums: plants cultivated for their roots and plants cultivated for their tops.

Bulb onions are part of the foundation of most cooking. They are part of the French mirepoix, the Creole and Cajun holy trinity, Spanish sofrito; from West Africa to India to Germany you find onions as one of the basic flavor of nearly every culture’s cuisine.

The common, everyday onion is cultivated for its round bulb root, as are shallots, cipollini onions, sweet Vidalia and Walla Walla onions, and red, yellow, and white onions. The bulbed spring onions sold in bunches with green tops intact are bulb onions that have been thinned out or harvested young. Bulb onions tend to have tough green tops which are typically not eaten. Bulb onions are harvested and dried before being used since moisture can cause them to rot; sweet onions like Vidalias have a higher moisture content than their more pungent cousins which makes them more perishable. That difference is also something to take into consideration when you choose which onion you will use; if you don’t want extra water releasing from the onion into your food, you need to either choose a dry variety like the white or yellow onions you find in the grocery store or cook the moisture out first. Dry bulb onions can be kept in a cool dark spot; sweet onions, garlic, and spring onions will keep better in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.

Alliums grown for their tops and flowers are used more as herbs, fresh and raw, used as a more delicate flavor enhancement at the end of preparation than cooked into a dish. Chives and scallions are cultivated primarily for their green tops; their milder flavor and tender greens make them more palatable raw. Chives, scallions, and garlic chives, are delicate and much more perishable than bulb onions, so keep them wrapped in a paper towel in a bag in the crisper drawer and use them within five days or so before they wilt.

Leeks are a bit of a middle ground allium. They have a delicate savory flavor but are usually used cooked, their tougher upper leaves trimmed. They have the slender shape of a scallion with no bulbous root at the end but are not harvested young like scallions.

The pungent heat from any allium can be tempered in one of two ways: with a soak in something acidic like vinegar – shallots in vinaigrette for example – or by the application of heat – garlic roasted to sugary sweetness.

 I hope this was a good overview from which to start getting to know such a ubiquitous plant family a little better.

Introducing “ASK Christine”

” I bought all these little eggplant on sale- what should I do with them?”

“What knife should I buy for my first kitchen?”

“What is this weird looking vegetable at the grocery store *texts photo*”

” I can’t find ancho chile powder; what can I use instead?”

These are just a few of the texts I get from my siblings. I get questions about the photos I post on Facebook, I get texts and emails from the grocery store or in a panic mid-cook “is it supposed to look like this?” People ask me what to do with the okra I’m picking up at the farmer’s market, how I’m going to cook the bag of nettles I’m gingerly picking up with tongs, what I’m going to do with the chicken feet or skate or pork cheeks I’m buying.

I started thinking that it might be fun to have some kind of “Ask Christine” feature here at Cognitive Leeks- it’s the reason I started this project in many ways. I love the interaction of a question instead of just sharing what I’m cooking .

It seems like a lot of my friends agree. When I asked on Facebook, I got an enthusiastic response- and my first question from Heidi:

“I can’t seem to get fish to ever taste right when I make it at home. Do you have some tips to foolproof a fish dish?”

First, choosing the fish: generally, I think that round bodied fish species like salmon, cod, snapper, grouper, and arctic char are easier to handle than flat species like flounder and sole. The flatter and thinner the fish fillet, the less time it takes to cook (which makes them much easier to overcook), and the more fragile it is to move and flip while cooking. A 4-6 ounce filet of a fairly thick fish is a great place to start. It’s easy to handle, and doesn’t have a lot of bones. If you are shopping in a store that has a seafood department, ask for something with a little more oil- something flaky or meaty. And be picky- if it smells “fishy,” it’s not fresh. The piece of fish should be smooth- if it looks like the fish is starting to flake apart, it’s getting dry and starting to break down- that’s not fresh fish.

Second, the hardware. I usually only use non stick cookware for eggs and fish, so I recommend a non stick skillet large enough for all the fish filets you plan to cook to fit without touching.

Unwrap the fish you have bought and dry it off with a paper towel. This will help the surface brown a little. Season the fish with a little salt. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet and turn the heat on to about medium. After a minute or two, place the filets in the skillet “presentation side” down first- meaning the side you want to be showing on the plate goes into the oil first. The more things heat and cook, the stickier they tend to become, so cooking the presentation side first means you have a better chance of the fish staying in one piece and looking nice when it’s done.

If the fish is close to an inch thick, turn it with a wide spatula after about 3-4 minutes- thinner pieces should be checked after about 2-3 minutes. Move it gently and don’t be afraid to use your fingers to guide the flip- the top probably won’t even  be warm at this point. The bottom surface should have a hint of golden brown and the bottom half should just be beginning to become opaque.

Lower the heat to low and put a cover on the skillet. A little condensation will form and finish cooking the fish gently with a little help from steam. Check it after about 3 minutes; you should get a hint that the flakes of fish are starting to loosen. It should be springy (not mushy, not hard) to the touch and the fish will be opaque – no raw line. A sign that you’ve gone too far is that the filet will be completely firm and then some of the protein will begin to seep out between the flakes and will become white “bubbles” on the fish’s surface. Slightly underdone is better than overdone when you turn off the heat. Leaving the fish inside the skillet with the lid on for another 5 minutes while you warm the plates will give it time to cook through with a gentle moist residual heat that will keep the fish from drying out.

If you want to make a simple sauce, a squeeze of lemon juice into the pan after you remove the fish, whisked with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt is always nice.

Fish usually takes less time to cook through than you might think. It is also usually leaner than any meat you are used to cooking so there isn’t much fat to keep the flesh from drying out. Just like you don’t want to over cook a beef tenderloin filet,  and chicken breast gets tough and dry when overcooked, you don’t want to overcook fish. And simple is usually better when it comes to the delicate flavor of fish- a little salt and a hit of lemon is often all it needs.

I also wrote a post about poaching fish, another gentle cooking method that minimizes the risk of overcooking your fish.

I hope that was helpful. If you have more questions, Heidi, you know where to find me.

If anyone else has a burning question I might be able to help with, email me at cognitiveleeks@gmail.com or send me a message on the Cognitive Leeks Facebook page and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Meatballs Braised in Tomato Sauce

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Many cultures have some version of a meatball in their cuisine: sweet and sour Swedish meatballs, lion head Chinese pork meatballs with cabbage, fish balls in Viet phò, albondigas in Mexico and Levantine kibbeh. Although it seems the odds were against it, I do not come from a culture of meatballs. Southerners will eat the living daylights out of a sausage ball or a meatloaf, but I can’t really say those qualify as meatballs and in a household that skewed toward vegetarian, we didn’t eat them at home anyway. They were not part of my kitchen vernacular.

When I learned to cook as an adult, I would occasionally dabble in meatball cookery, the odd broiled lamb and cherry meatball with saffron rice, spaghetti with meatballs every once in a while, but it just seemed like too much trouble to roll them all up, fry or bake them, and then mix them with the sauce. But then I cubed up some leftover meatloaf once and used it to make spaghetti sauce and I “got” it. I got the appeal of the Italian style meatball with sauce, seasoned, tender chunks of meat- not like a stew, not like ground meat. The meat was at once distinct from and at one with the sauce. I was in. I wanted more. So I set about making the best meatballs I could. And what it boiled down to was getting a technique I liked and layering a lot of complex flavor into the meatballs.

Braising them made a huge difference for me. No more extra cooking step, no more lopsided meatballs, with hard edges. Braising, they cooked beautifully and tenderly, exchanging their flavor with the sauces, rich but not greasy and much, much easier.

The real key for me though was in layering so much really good seasoning into the meat mixture that it was like a really glorious rich music chord- high notes of sweet tomato and fennel, sharp notes of capsicum and, deep down the mushroom and pecorino flavors, all seasonings that I pull from my pantry or refrigerator over and over to build these exciting and complex chords of flavor in the cooking.

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Harissa is a North African chile sauce. As far as I can tell, there is no a definitive formula for harissa; I’ve had harissa so hot I can only tolerate a few drops on my falafel sandwich and harissa that is thicker, made with some vegetables as the base instead of just peppers and spices. Each serves a purpose, but the second is a pantry staple that I always keep on hand to add a spicy earthy savoriness. It doesn’t  add much heat, maybe just a subconscious tingle to your taste buds, but it isn’t as sweet as tomato paste so I often use a combination or harissa and tomato paste to create a broader flavor profile. I keep a tube of DEA harissa in the refrigerator all the time.

 Another of my flavor must-haves is dried porcini mushrooms. A few dried porcini added to risotto or meat sauce or a vegetarian sautéed mushroom sauce just brings so much depth of earthy savory flavor. I soak them in hot water to rehydrate; after the mushrooms are removed, the water has a lot of flavor and usually gets added to the dish too.

 And finally, whether you are jarring your own homemade marinara sauce from farmers market tomatoes or you’ve found a  brand that  you love, a few jars of simple but flavorful tomato sauce are great to have on hand. I like a sauce with as few ingredients as possible, maybe a basic marinara or one with a little hit of capsicum heat. check the label though, a lot of commercial sauces have a lot of sugar, soybean oil, and other ingredients that don’t need to be there.

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Tomato Sauce Braised Meatballs

serves 6-8

1 pound Italian sausage (I use the spicy version)

1 pound ground beef chuck

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg

2 tablespoons dried porcini (rehydrated in boiling water and chopped fine)

1 tablespoon harissa

3 cloves garlic (minced or grated on a microplane)

1/4 cup minced onion

1 ounce finely grated pecorino cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/3 cup milk

1 jar marinara sauce

1 14 ounce can tomato sauce (unseasoned)

Mix the meats, bread crumbs, mushrooms, and seasonings gently in a large bowl. mix the milk, egg and any leftover porcini soaking liquid, and incorporate into the meat mixture.  Let the breadcrumbs soak up the milk and seasoning for about 10 minutes. Roll meatballs the size of  the circle made by the tip of your index finger against the top knuckle of your thumb. In a large sauté pan or stock pot, place the meatballs close to each other but not touching in a single layer in the bottom. Pour marinara and tomato sauce over them just to cover and bring to a simmer. As the first layer begins to get firm, add another layer and more sauce. Continue this process until all of the meatball mixture is used. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Higher heat can break up the meatballs and cause them to release more fat making a greasier sauce and a tougher drier meatball.

If there is a lot of fat rising to the top, skim it off. I have found that a coarser more handmade style of  sausage seems to be less fatty and I get less fat in my sauce, but a little of the seasoned sausage fat mixing into the sauce isn’t a bad thing in my opinion; you just don’t want it to be greasy. These meatballs are even better if made a day ahead, refrigerated in the sauce and then re-heated right before serving. Toss some of the sauce with pasta, pile a few meatballs on top, grate on some more pecorino and enjoy!

These meatballs also freeze in the sauce really well.

I have a meat grinder and grind the beef for the meatballs at home. If you want to do this too, choose a cut of beef that doesn’t have large pieces of fat or cartilage, cut it into 1 inch cubes, and grind it on the small or medium grinder die.