Happy Thanksgiving!

When I reflect on this epochal year in my life, it’s too easy to concentrate on the parts of it that have been painful, uncomfortable, overwhelming. And while I know that there is a “time to mourn and a time to dance,” there are so many things that I am thankful for this year; I’m thankful for the grace of enduring friendships, for precious time with my family, a new nephew and brother-in-law. I’m grateful for the stability of employment and healthy babies born to friends, for dear friends beating cancer, for adventure, for a sense of humor, for not going through this year alone, for love.

We’re celebrating the holiday in the South this year at my in-laws. We drove down through nine states and the remnants of a beautiful East Coast Autumn in time for my mom’s birthday, a couple of my youngest sister’s senior year events, had a hilarious evening with friends at our favorite pub in Atlanta. We have eaten a little more BBQ than I care to admit. We’ve been having weather that is warm enough to allow us to sit outside with a fire and play guitar. We’ve had time to connect with friends that usually get squeezed by the holiday rush. It’s been nice.

I’m grateful to have been cooked for a good bit on this trip. In contrast to last Thanksgiving where my brother and I did an Amazing Race-meets-Top Chef Lightening Round style turkey dinner between his kitchen and our hotel at the beach in La Jolla, the only thing I really cooked this Thanksgiving dinner was a rather homely but delicious pecan tart. The recipe comes a little late for all of your Thanksgiving dinners, but it’s also eminently suitable for Christmas dinner, or Thursday night supper for that matter.

Pecan Tart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into squares

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup corn syrup

6 ounces pecans, toasted and broken up into large pieces

1 recipe of Cream Cheese Tart Pastry

With the oven rack in the middle of the oven, par-bake the pie crust at 325 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix in sugar and salt until all of the butter is absorbed. Beat in eggs, then syrup. Return bowl to hot water; stir until mixture is shiny and hot, about 130 degrees. Remove from heat; stir in pecans.

As soon as the pie crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees. Pour pecan mixture into hot pie shell. Bake until the center feels soft-set, like gelatin, when gently pressed, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and let it cool completely.

The tart shell is the same one used for the lemon tart in “Sweetart” except that I omit the pistachios.

Cream Cheese Pastry

Makes 1 9-inch pie or tart crust

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, and salt and mix on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust.

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Ad hoc cooking

On the flight home Tuesday from The Most Relaxing Vacation Ever, I was looking through my photos and recipe files on my Mac and apparently, I used to be a cook! Unless you dig back several months on this blog, you would never know, since most of what I’ve been doing here has been staring straight ahead with a glazed expression on my face in disbelief and horror that I have actually been relocated from California to New Jersey. That or gibbering about the dismal quality of kitchen in which I’ve been cobbling meals together for (can you believe it) the last three months.

I sat there on the plane, scrolling through the pictures of strawberry rhubarb tarts and bi bim bap, grilled strip steaks, orange-and-garlicky pork roasts with caramelized onions, pad thai and artichokes with clarified butter, creamy leek shiitake risotto and duck and andouille gumbo and lemon meringue pie and potato mushroom gratin and chili con carne….man, that looks GOOD! I wouldn’t mind making that bouillabaisse again! It was like that little flame in the back of my brain flickered for a second, reminding me that it is still there. I guess that’s what a good vacation will do for you.

And about that vacation. We were about 3 years overdue for one, what with extenuating circumstances, so when a very last-minute trip to Grand Cayman to chill, see some family, and celebrate our anniversary suddenly worked itself out, I took about 37 seconds to pack, shook the NJ dust off my feet and headed south to balmy breezes, silky warm aquamarine water, powdery gold sand, palm trees with iguanas lolling in their fronds, and a little tropical storm action thrown in the middle to keep me from getting too sunburned. I read books, basked in the sun, lying supine upon a beach chair as much as possible. It was blissful.

Did I mention the incandescently glowing equatorial sunsets?

And the gaudily brilliant blue water?

But, back to that little flicker in the back of my brain.

I’m still in boxes here, those mysteriously labelled boxes of small paper-wrapped lumps that contain, somewhere in their depths, all of the tools I’ve collected over the years. I am reluctant to do a full-scale unpacking yet, since there really isn’t anywhere clean to put things away until the work in the kitchen is finished, so I’ve been digging through and trying to find the absolute necessities as much as I can. It was a tearful reunion when my two small cast iron skillets surfaced, but a sieve or strainer has remained resolutely beyond reach, so when I decided to blanch  broccoli raab to saute´ with a pork roast and sweet potatoes, red peppers, and pearl onions, I improvised with a little green strawberry basket to stand in for the strainer. It didn’t actually work that well. It was a little flimsy. We did, at the end of the day, have steamed broccoli raab, which was a deliciously peppery counterpoint to the sweet potatoes and bell peppers.

 

Simple and good, I give you-

Pork Roast

1 boneless pork loin roast

oil

salt

black pepper

sage

paprika

1 onion

 

Preheat the oven to a blistering 450 F.

Using paper towels, thoroughly dry the surface of the meat.

Drizzle a spoonful of oil and coat the surface lightly.

Liberally season with salt, pepper, sage and paprika.

Slice the onion into thick rings and make a “rack” in the bottom of a cast iron skillet

or whatever suitably oven-proof dish that will hold the pork roast. Put the pork roast on top, fat side up.

Place in the hot oven for about 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 250 F and continue

to cook for about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes or until your thermometer reads about 150.

Allow the meat to sit, loosely covered for  10-15 minutes. Slice and serve.

Make a sandwich with the leftover pork and onions the next day.

 

I’m back in the saddle.

 

Alma’s ceviche

My neighbor Alma sent her son across the way with a container of  her ceviche, a bag of tostadas, and a bottle of Tapatio sauce for us to eat while we pack. She had made a big batch for a July 4th picnic she and her family went to at a park in Antioch. We ate it from plates on our laps, stopping for a few minutes from the ceaseless rush of last minute tasks to what may have been the perfect meal for the occasion.

It was bright and tangy and chewy and soft and crisp and spicy. It was, of course, cold, which is ideal for a hot July afternoon. It had a couple of tantalizing notes of flavor that didn’t immediately come forward and introduce themselves, but just a hint of intrigue to keep the tongue guessing. The crispy tostadas and hot sauce made it a completely balanced in flavor and texture.

The other thing that I really noticed was the careful attention to preparation which made each element become a part of the whole dish without either dominating the flavor of the whole or disappearing into a mush. The onion was minced just so, the tomato was diced large enough to give a distinct sweet flavor, and the cilantro leaves were beautifully ribboned into the whole, bright green and fresh. It was a carefully made dish, the ability of the cook apparent in the beautiful balance of flavor and texture.

When I went to thank her, Alma told me how she makes her ceviche and said she’d write the recipe down for me. I hope I have time to get it before I leave; I know Scott would love to have it again. He ate four tostadas with a teetering mound of ceviche on each for lunch and asked me to get the recipe at least that many times. It was a kind and thoughtful parting gift. Thanks, Alma.

Alma’s Ceviche

6 tilapia filets minced
1 tomato, diced
1/2 large red onion, minced small
1 jalapeno pepper, minced small
about 1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
juice of 2-3 lemons
Goya Adobo with Bitter Orange seasoning to taste

Mix everything together once everything is prepped. I lightly covered the top of the bowl with the seasoning, mixed it in, and then tasted and added a little more just before serving. After everything is mixed, allow it to sit for at least 1/2 hour until the fish looks white and opaque- which means it is “cooked”. Serve on tostadas with Tapatio sauce.

Bibimbap

I started writing this right before all of the upheaval began, but I loved the way this meal turned out, so I wanted to go ahead and post.

To say that Korean cuisine and I got off to a rough start might be employing the use of descriptive restraint – this was not love at first bite. Despite my lifelong adventurous palate, I wasn’t quite ready for the “guppies” in the panchan to be staring forlornly up at me while I ate them, and it’s possible that I may have used the word “compost” when describing my first impression of garlicky, spicy, fermented cabbage kimchee. The combination of flavors, the pungent and spicy fermented twang of the cabbage – it took me a few determined tries to get through my initial impression and to fall hard for the unique personality of the cuisine.

Korean flavors are among my favorites now. They make my taste buds sing in a unique way, like the intriguing contrasts found in curries, while being specifically Korean. A more gentle introduction through a friendly and adaptable dish like bibimbap may have eroded my resistance a little faster.

Bibimbap is a great casual dinner party meal for the same reasons that it makes a good intro to Korean food. It’s adaptability, use of easy-to-find ingredients and touch of exotic alongside the familiar make it a crowd pleaser and vegetarian friends can just leave out the meat and have the same experience as everyone else. I’ve included a (not necessarily comprehensive) list of ingredients, but use what you like or can easily find.

I’ve written the recipe in a cook-as-you-go style since it can mostly be made ahead and either re-warmed or served at room temperature, so don’t be intimidated by the length of the ingredient list since there are a lot of repeats.

Bibimbap

serves 2

1 1/2 cups cooked short grain rice (like sushi rice)

12-14 ounces ground beef or thinly sliced rib eye cut into thin strips and marinated in

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 garlic clove, finely minced or grated on a microplane grater

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

scant teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon sesame oil

then drained, dried, and sauteed over high heat in a splash of vegetable oil until just seared

10 dried shitake mushrooms (or fresh if they are available), soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, drained well and sliced into strips and saute´in

2 teaspoons soy sauce

scant teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

spinach, wilted and drained well to make about 1 cup (frozen spinach leaves would work) and tossed with

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 minced or grated clove of garlic

splash of sesame oil

handful of mung bean sprouts (or buy the prepared sprouts in a Korean market- they are usually included in the banchan at a meal), blanched in boiling water for a minute or two and drained.

small zucchini, cut into matchsticks, sauteed over high heat with a touch of sesame oil until just barely softened

1 carrot, cut into matchsticks, sauteed same as the zucchini

fern brakes, called kosari (I’d also buy these prepared from a Korean market)

sesame seeds- toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant

2 or 3 tablespoons Korean red pepper paste (gochujang) mixed with

about a teaspoon of rice wine vinegar to about ketchup consistency

2 eggs fried over easy in a touch of vegetable oil

As each element is cooked, pile it on a large platter (think of it as the “salad bar”). When everything but the egg is cooked, scoop a pile of warm rice into your largest soup bowls and arrange all of the bits of mushroom, spinach, bean sprouts, meat, on top. Put a dollop of the gochujang in the middle and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds. Top with the fried egg and then step back and take a look at it; it should look like a very prettily composed salad. Now take your chopsticks (or fork) and mix it all up into a big mess, getting the egg and pepper paste thoroughly mixed into the rice and vegetables.

Potato Leek Soup

It is Allium season. All of the plants that spent the rainy winter in the ground are burgeoning in the warm weather, blooming and ripening. In the garden and farmers markets, broad hipped rosy red onions, mauve puffball chive blossoms, elegant jade leeks, sweet cloveless young garlic.

Weyland from a couple of plots over offered me some of his leeks. He had a beautiful row of slender leeks he planted last Fall and said he didn’t really know what to do with them. I told him how to make potato leek soup, how easy and good it was so he took them home to try the recipe. A few days later, I asked him how the soup had turned out and he said it was great, they had made it 3 times. He was digging more leeks (and not offering me any) so I guilted him into giving me a nice handful.

I think the reason that the Mesdames Child and Beck began Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a recipe for potato leek soup is that it is the sort of recipe that can be related while standing in a garden with a shovel in your hand. It is essentially simple without being plain, and delicious without being difficult.  It always pains me to see new cooks start out with a difficult dish and then become discouraged when it doesn’t turn out well. This soup on the other hand is a great confidence builder.

While the basic recipe requires only five ingredients- potatoes, leeks, water, salt, and cream- I sometimes augment or adapt it by adding some turnips and substituting chicken stock for water or milk for cream. The crucial step is to get all of the vegetables scrupulously clean. Leeks are notorious for hiding grit amongst its cracks and crevices. I get it all squeaky clean by first cutting off the darker green tops of the leeks, then quartering them and rinsing them in a bowl of water deep enough for the dirt to settle on the bottom while the leeks are being swished around above them.  Be thorough, because “earthy” isn’t the flavor we’re going for this time.

After the leeks are clean, chop them into chunks. Peel and cut the potatoes into large chunks. Dump them into a pot; add a generous amount of salt (although you will want to leave room to adjust it later) and just cover with water. Cover the pot and bring it to a low boil and cook for 20 minutes or so, until the leeks have softened and the potatoes are tender enough to crush with a fork. Using an immersion blender or canister blender, puree until quite smooth. Pour in cream, bit by bit, tasting as you go. I tend to use very little cream, just enough to enrich with out obscuring the flavor of the vegetables. Taste for salt and soup is ready. I drizzled a little olive oil and chives on top- but that embellishment is entirely optional.

Start from the beginning- Roast Chicken 101

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been doing some  cooking lessons with my sister and a friend back East. Joy and Elisa are interested but inexperienced cooks. Since I’m not there in person to explain things verbally I realized that writing these lesson means writing from scratch; I begin from the assumption that every step, from ingredients, to tools, to the actual cooking should be broken down and presented as simply and thoroughly as I can.  I try not to assume that the reader will necessarily know the difference between a simmer and a boil, a mixer and a blender, a chef’s knife and a paring knife so that I am sure to explain it clearly.

It’s a little different when my brother Peter calls me with a food question (I’ve gotten several calls that begin “Hey, I’m at Trader Joe’s and I was wondering….”). Peter is an experienced cook- he made the turkey last Thanksgiving- and when I tell him to “blanch” something, he doesn’t think I’m talking about A Streetcar Named Desire. So I start explaining a recipe or technique from a different place with him.

Most of what I’ve written about on this blog assumes some knowledge of cooking. However, in the posts tagged “101” or “how to cook,” I’ve tried to include a little more explanation of a foundational technique or recipe. Learning the techniques has been the most important part of learning to cook for me. It’s like having a map so that if there is horrible traffic on the freeway, you can still find a way to get to your destination because you can see the big picture of how things work instead of being completely dependent on a recipe.

I wrote a lesson for how to make roast chicken for my sister that I thought I’d share; let me know if you think it’s user-friendly for a new cook:

“Roast Chicken-

First thing you do is arrange the oven shelves and turn on the oven. You will probably want to have a lower shelf for vegetables and a middle shelf for the chicken. It should be about 425°. Ask Mama if the oven runs hot or cool- you may need to adjust it a little depending on the stove, but it should be close to 425°.

What you will need-

-One whole chicken, probably around 3 pounds

-Salt, pepper and paprika (paprika is optional but very nice). You will need enough to season both the inside and outside of the chicken. It’s good to have as much as you think you’ll need separated into little saucers or bowls so that if you touch it with chicken hands, you don’t contaminate the whole container or have to wash your hands every time you need more salt.

-Oil or melted butter (probably 2 or 3 tablespoons, enough to coat the outside of the chicken)

-Optional- you can use a couple of cloves of garlic, or a cut up onion, or a lemon half, or herbs like one of the following: sage leaves, tarragon, or rosemary,  inside the chicken cavity  for  flavor. All are optional. Probably best to stick with the basics until you get the hang of it.

-Paper towels

-A pan to hold it in the oven. This pan should be close to the size of the chicken. I often use a cast iron skillet to roast chicken. If the pan is too big, the juices that come out will spread out too much and burn. If it’s too tight, the liquid will steam the chicken too much.

-A small paring knife

– A cutting board or plate to set the chicken on while you prepare it

While the oven heats, take the chicken out of the wrapper in a clean sink. Reach inside the cavity to check if there is a package of giblets and necks inside and remove it. Wash the chicken inside and out in cold water. Shake off as much as you can or put it in a colander to drain. Dry the whole skin of the chicken off with paper towels. The wetter the skin, the more difficulty it will have in browning, and crisp brown skin is one of the best parts of a well-roasted chicken.

Look at the large cavity opening where the legs are. If there are any big pieces of yellow fat there, pull them out.  Generously salt, pepper and paprika the inside of the bird. Turn it around to the neck end. If you stick your fingers into that smaller opening and feel right under the breast meat, there is a bone there. It is the wishbone and if you remove it now, it makes carving the chicken breast easier after it is cooked. You may need to slit through the meat a little with the paring knife, but then you should be able to just pull it out with your fingers. This is not necessary, but try it sometime.

Place the chicken in the pan and flip the wingtips inward and tuck them behind the rest of the wing to hold it closer to the breast and keep the tips from burning. Take the oil or butter and pour it over the top of the chicken. Use your hands to rub it over the whole surface to coat the chicken. If you have a basting brush, you can use that to brush the butter over the chicken instead. Now salt, pepper, and paprika the whole outside of the chicken, trying to evenly coat the skin. If you are going to add any aromatics to the bird’s cavity, now is the time to stick that lemon or garlic inside. Now it is ready for the oven.

It should start making a fair amount of noise in 10- 15 minutes. If not, turn the heat up 10 degrees. If it’s going crazy and the juices or skin are starting to burn, turn it down a bit. But the sizzling noise is normal. Chickens usually take me between 45 minutes to an hour to cook depending on the weight. Check it at about 45 minutes. Wiggle the leg and see how loose it feels. If you have a meat thermometer, use it in the thigh meat, or, if the joint feels really loose, use the little knife to jab a little hole in the thigh meat. If the juice is still coming out really pink, give it 10-15 more minutes, if it comes out mostly clear with maybe a little drop of reddish, it is probably done. It just takes a little practice to be able to tell, but with the nice crisp skin preventing evaporation, it shouldn’t get dry. If you have a meat thermometer, slide the tip into the thickest part of the thigh meat. “Done” is about 165°.

When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and set it aside for 10 minutes. This will let it settle a bit so less of the juice flows out when you carve it.

I’ll link a video for carving a turkey which is the same concept, just bigger.”

“But you ain’t ever had my cornbread….”

I expect I might get a few “she’s an idiot, bless her heart”s for this one. I’m sort of messing around with one of the quintessential elements of a regional cuisine; but I have my reasons.

Although I hail from Atlanta, Georgia, and although my Southern roots spread deep and wide, my childhood did not really establish me with the fundamentals that constitute the canon of “real Southern cooking”. We didn’t eat pork  (so no BBQ) or seafood, we didn’t fry anything, and we weren’t allowed to eat white sugar. I knew more about tofu, bean sprouts, and carob (which in my opinion is the devil’s sorry substitute for chocolate) than I did about catfish or country ham or peach ice cream.  Our biscuits usually had whole wheat in them, and our (freshly ground before our eyes at the health food store) peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread were PB&”M” for molasses instead of “J” for jelly.

This lack of orthodoxy in my education has enabled me to come away without a dogmatic position on what constitutes “real Southern cornbread.”  I do prefer a crispier cornbread, made in a cast iron skillet, to the cakier moister versions I’ve tried. But I don’t like cornbread so gritty that it feels like a mouthful of sand crunching between my teeth. And while I don’t want it sweet, I don’t mind a little sugar in the mix. This sort of precluded most buttermilk-based recipes also, since they are subtly sour.

I tried the ATK Best Recipes version, probably a pretty classic Southern style cornbread that involves pouring boiling water over part of the cornmeal to make a mush before mixing it into the rest of the ingredients.  While it does enhance the corniness of the flavor, it left me wanting more. I’ve always used a little milk in cornbread; I thought about substituting milk for water in which case I could heat the cornmeal in the milk and which honestly, I’m not going to do, one of the chief benefits of a quick bread being its quickness.

There were a few dismal failures, not even worth mentioning in detail, but I did have the foresight to write “not good” in pencil next to the cornbread recipe in one cookbook to save myself the trouble next time.

My next good attempt was with the 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking’s “Method I.” for cornbread.  The recipe itself has a pleasing symmetry – ¾ cup flour, ¾ cup cornmeal, and ¾ cup milk – that is helpful to the “number remembering deficients” among us (me).

It was still a little on the gritty side for me, so I modified it ever so slightly, using half cornmeal and half corn flour (very fine cornmeal, not cornstarch) to make up ¾ cup. The recipe also stipulates an 8×8 square pan, but I use a buttered and pre-heated cast iron skillet.

So, with minor adjustments, here is The Joy of Cooking‘s

Corn Bread

Method I.

Heat the oven to 425° Grease or butter a cast iron skillet. Five minutes before the batter is ready to bake, place the pan in the oven until it becomes sizzling hot.

Mix:

¾ cup all-purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

4 teaspoons sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

¾ cup cornmeal (made up of half cornmeal and half corn flour)

In a separate bowl, beat together

1 egg

2-3 tablespoons melted butter of bacon fat

¾ cup milk

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry, mixing minimally. Pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake at 425° for about 25 minutes.

When life hands you lemons: Sweet Milk Scones with Candied Orange Peel

Every cook goes through slumps; meals that should have been spectacular are insipid, the weather sets the chemistry of a baked good off, the no-fail recipe is a dismal failure. All of the above happened to me this week. Venison steaks with blackberry mustard sauce, rhubarb strawberry crisp, and most spectacularly, candied orange peels, while not being inedible, we’re not what my mouth was set for when I started cooking.

So what does one do with two large baking trays of candied orange peels that just won’t dry? I’ve made candied citrus peels before. They should be tender, but not soft, the translucent color of shards of stained glass.These, not even close. More like those candy orange slices, which I realize is not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting.

But I started thinking about the cake I had heard of, a Southern recipe, that includes Orange Slices. A simpler thing to make would be candied orange scones. Scones are very similar to Southern biscuits with a hint of sweetness in the dough and usually some sort of fruit or flavoring mixed in. I found a basic sweet milk scone recipe by America’s Test Kitchen.

I incorporated about a half cup of the candied peel into the dry ingredients and formed it into a disk, cutting it into wedges before baking it instead of using a round biscuit cutter. I sprinkled some of the sugar from the peels over the top and into the oven it went.

Oh the agony of waiting! would I break my losing streak or break my teeth on a rock hard scone?

I think I did it! And the orange peel is perfect. It has subtly infused the scones with their fragrance, and are soft and chewy bursts of flavor through each bite I take. The blood orange lemon curd isn’t bad either. Perfect with a cup of black coffee.

Everyone has their off days (weeks). Sometimes it is equipment or ingredient failure. Sometimes the elements just don’t add up. Julia Child said “never apologize” and I think she has a good point. Just keep trying and looking forward to next time, when you can turn those lemons into candied orange peel scones.

Sweet Milk Scones with Candied Orange Peel

 2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 tbs sugar

4 Tbs unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

3/4 cup milk

 Optional:

½ cup chopped candied orange peel

Granulated sugar to sprinkle over the top

 Preheat oven to 450F

 Whisk dry ingredients together in a large bowl until mixed. Add the cold butter pieces and use either a pastry cutter, a couple of forks, or your fingertips, mix the butter into the flour until the mixture has a pebbly texture.

 Add the candied orange peel and the milk, stirring just until the dry mixture is moistened and forms a ball, being careful not to overmix. Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead 4-5 times to form a ball. Flatten the ball into a round disk and place on parchment on a baking pan, in a large cast iron skillet or on a non-stick baking sheet.

 Using a bench scraper or other blade, score the disk of dough into wedges, like the spokes of a wheel. Sprinkle the top of the scones with a light coat of granulated sugar.

 Bake for 10-12 minutes until the top is golden.

Spring green: Roast Asparagus

I think it is safe to say that Spring has truly arrived. Capricious weather, wildflower covered hillsides, and that brief ten minutes of overlap in the year when the hills are green at the same time that trees are in leaf – these are my first clues. But the real indicator is my insatiable craving for fresh foods like bright peppery watercress, sweet green peas, crunchy lettuce salads, and emerald stalks of asparagus. I want the unadulterated flavors of green things, no fussy seasonings or rich preparations to mask their delicate essence; if not raw, then not far from it.

photo by Israel Holby

I realize that this is hardly an original sentiment. Food blogs, websites and magazines are full of “fresh flavors of Spring” features. But, hey, I live no more than 25 miles from the feathery fronds of California Delta asparagus farms; I’m not going to eat butternut squash risotto just to be an iconoclast.

Asparagus is a vegetable that in my mind generally needs no improvement other than salt, pepper and olive oil and a quick roast in a hot oven. Remembering that water is a colorless, flavorless liquid and that most vegetables are made up in large part by water indicates to me that in order to enhance or highlight the essential flavor of the vegetable, water should be removed, not added. Hence, I roast asparagus.

When buying asparagus,  I take a minute to look the bundle over. The cut ends should not look like the desiccated grain ends of a block of wood, the stalks should be firm, smooth, and evenly green, and the tips should be largely intact tight buds. I usually trim the ends just above the white part of the stalk and don’t bother to peel any further north than that. Rinsed and dried, the stalks are laid in alternating directions on a sheet pan to allow as much surface to touch the hot pan as possible. Drizzled with olive oil, then shaken around to coat and then salt and peppered, these beauties are ready for a blistering hot oven, about 425°.

I keep an eye on them. Since asparagus varies so much in thickness, I don’t have a set time to roast them, but I look for the color to be brilliant green with a few edges just beginning to crisp and brown in the heat. I want the stalks to still be firm enough not to double over when I pick one up.

And that’s it. Bright, sweet and juicy, they need nothing more done to them. I’ll be virtuously devouring these naked (the asparagus, that is, not me) for weeks before I even think about dipping them in Hollandaise sauce or wrapping them in prosciutto. It’s fresh, brilliant Spring on a plate.

Sweetart: Lemon Curd Tart

We drove up into Napa Valley for dinner tonight. We waited for our table out on the patio with a gin and tonic, enjoying the last of the February sunshine. After dinner we headed home for a slice of sunshine I had made earlier today, a Valentine’s Day lemon curd tart for my sweetheart. I love the tangy curd with a buttery, nutty crust, the sunshine yellow contrasting the bits of green pistachio.

Lemon Curd Tart in Pistachio Pastry

I used this recipe from Fine Cooking for lemon curd. The technique is unusual but makes a smooth lemon curd almost fool-proof.

Pistachio pastry

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup coarsely ground toasted pistachios

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, pistachio meal, and salt

together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, salt, and pistachios  and combine on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust. remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.

I made the lemon curd while the crust was cooling so that it wouldn’t have time to cool and set before pouring it into the crust. For a really good basic pie or tart crust, omit the pistachio meal. I use this recipe for a pecan tart at Christmastime and for any other pies or tarts I need to get right because I am not a confident baker and have yet to fail spectacularly with this recipe.

Chill the tart to firm up the filling. A spoonful of whipped cream or whipped crème fraîche and a shower  of acid green pistachio slivers and let love abound.