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.

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The weather outside is frightful: Split Pea Soup

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It’s blizzarding and frigid outside here in Hoboken!  Our mayor robo-called today to tell us that “street sweeping rules were not in effect during the winter storm but meters and parking rules were and that cars parked in snow evacuation routes would be towed and sidewalks are to be shoveled within 6 hours of the end of the storm but not to shovel the snow back into the street.” So, while blizzards always make me think of Pa eating all the Christmas candy in the snow cave when he got lost in a blizzard in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek out on the wild western prairie, Winter Storm Hercules is being managed with small-town New Jersey efficiency here. And I’m making soup. 

I cooked this soup after Christmas as my in-laws during a visit when our nephew was about 2. He’s the one that said “Good job” to his grandmother when she made a pan of biscuits that particularly pleased him. He was such a fan of this soup that my mother-in-law decided to make more split pea soup for him a few weeks later. She called me laughing hysterically and asked for my recipe. She had put a bowl of soup on the high chair tray in front of our nephew and after one bite, he looked up at with the absolute crushed disappointment that only a toddler can muster and said “BLECH!” and refused to eat any more. She said “I’m not used to getting ‘blech’ comments on the food I cook!” So for what it’s worth, this soup is toddler-approved.

Split Pea Soup

serves about 8

1- 1 pound bag of split peas

2 meaty smoked ham hocks or 1 meaty ham bone

About 6 cups water

Oil (to sauté’ the vegetables)

1 large white onion, chopped

1 large russet potato, peeled and diced to about ¼ inch dice

2 medium turnips, peeled and diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, minced fine

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, simmer the ham in about 4 cups of water over very low heat until the meat is very soft and beginning to fall of the bones. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat and bones from the water. Allow the meat to cool and then remove from the bones, shred into small chunks, and set aside.

 Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables.

 In another pot or sauté pan, heat enough oil to just lightly coat the bottom and sauté the vegetables in it just until they begin to steam and soften.

 Add the split peas and vegetables to the ham stock.  Bring to a low simmer and cover with a lid, allowing it to cook slowly until the peas are soft and the vegetables are beginning to melt into the soup, probably about 30 minutes, depending on the freshness of the peas. Add more water as needed to keep it from getting too dry or sticking to the bottom of the pot, but not so much that it is watery. Add the shredded ham back into the soup and allow it to heat through.

 Since the ham broth will vary in saltiness, don’t salt until the end of cooking; you may need less than you think and it is easier to add salt than take away. Add black pepper to taste.

A couple of notes:

 1. I am inexact about the amount of water because the amount needed varies so much. Start with the amount on the package of peas, or with the amount I suggest, but use your judgment about adding more; you don’t want it to be too dry and thick.

 2. Cooking the pork slowly in the water first serves a couple of purposes. First, it infuses the water with flavor so that it really mixes into the beans and vegetables as the beans absorb water. Second, if you are using ham hock, shank, or any part of the leg with the bones and all, the connective tissue from the cartilage  melts into the water, giving it a rich texture that makes the stock very tasty and silky, the same as using wings or feet for rich chicken stock.

Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

Here’s another  vacation-conjuring dish, one we had during our trip to Italy last year.

This salad is an example of one of those simple dishes that, when each element is full of flavor, needs no embellishments to sparkle on the taste buds.

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During our stay at La Tavola Marche last year, the farm had just passed its tipping point from summer to fall. The inn was close to the end of its season, the yard-thick stone walls too expensive to heat for guests through the Appenine winter. Jason and Ashley were stripping their gardens of the last of the summery produce, stacking crates of tomatoes to can, drying the stalks of onions and garlic. The days in the valley were warm in late September, but frost was closing in.

Our meals were shoulder-season fare too- warm braised and roasted meats and pastas interspersed with fresh vegetables and salads. Our last evening, Jason pulled the last of the green beans from the vines and made us a delicious warm salad.

As soon as we got settled in our apartment in Siena and found the market, I recreated his lovely combination of crisp, sweet, and piquant so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve made it  lots of time since then, and I can say unequivocally that getting the best tomatoes, green beans, and red sweet peppers is the key to its success. Gardeners, you’re way ahead of the game here.

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

If you’re like me and suffer from garden envy, my tip for finding good tomatoes and peppers elsewhere is to sniff them. Color and texture can be misleading, but a good tomato actually has a fragrance. Green beans are easier, just look for slim, bright pods without discoloration, no lumps from seeds forming inside (these will be too tough for this quickly cooked salad). Although they can be expensive, the little French haricot verts are usually very toothsome and tender.

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We had this salad at the end of the season but it is just as, if not more delicious now at the beginning of green bean season.

Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

1 pound slim green beans, stems removed

1 red bell pepper

1 ripe tomato

1/4-1/2 sweet red onion (depending on the size)

red wine vinegar

olive oil

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil

Meanwhile, slice the pepper and onion into slivers about the same thickness as the green beans. Cut the tomato into thick wedges. Toss together in a serving bowl.

Once the water has reached a boil, plunge the green beans into the water and return to the boil. Cook the beans briefly, for about 1 minute after the water boils. Remove the pot from the heat and quickly drain the beans in a colander. Allow them to cool enough to handle.

Pour the green beans over the peppers, onion, and tomato and gently toss them all together with your hands. The heat from the beans will slightly warm the other vegetables. Drizzle with a tablespoon of vinegar and a couple of glugs of olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Toss to coat everything in the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

Color Inspiration: Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata

It’s funny how a meal can kind of form itself in my mind through a spectrum of memories, visual inspiration, and serendipity at the farmers market.

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I brought home a bag full of produce from the farmers market and was so excited about the beauty of the pile of eggplants, squash, beans, peppers. I spread it out on the table at home like a vegetal color wheel. It was a pastel summer collection with the exception of the tomatoes, a watercolor wash of violet, gold, ivory and green. I loved the tonal spectrum of squash blossoms and wax peppers and decided to play with an old favorite  by adding squash blossoms to a cheese filled pepper frittata.

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This is a gentle dish, subtly  flavored, the mildest hint of heat from the ivory chartreuse peppers softened and mellowed by the creamy eggs and cheese. Squash blossoms infuse their delicate herbal flavor into the eggs as they bake. And if you prefer an even mellower flavor, go with banana wax peppers rather than its younger, slightly hotter cousin the Hungarian wax. The difference between Hungarian and banana wax peppers is maturity and heat level. Hungarian wax peppers are younger, a little thicker fleshed, and mildly spicy. Banana wax peppers are a little larger, mild and sweet with thin flesh.

This dish is easy-going in another way: do you like gooey strings of melted cheese oozing out with each bite or do you prefer the creamy tanginess of fresh goat cheese? Different cheeses produce different results, both lovely depending on your mood.

For a buttery gooey melting cheese, I like a Fontina Fontal or Monterrey Jack. They melt beautifully but have a bit more flavor than Mozzarella. Goat cheese doesn’t melt but since it’s already soft and creamy, you may find its flavor makes up for that. An herb-flavored goat cheese is also a good way to add some extra flavor if you like.

I’ve written this recipe to serve 2 but the proportions of 2 eggs, blossoms, and peppers per person are easy to double. You’ll just need to increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes per additional serving.

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Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata 

4 squash blossoms

4 Hungarian wax peppers or banana wax peppers

4 eggs

2 ounces cheese

salt

Cheese to grate over the top

Preheat the oven to 350

Trim the stem ends of the blossoms to leave about an inch of stem. Gently open the blossom a bit and use your finger to pop the stamen off and remove it. The petals may tear a bit but that isn’t a problem since you’ll be twisting them closed around the cheese.

Make a slit down the length of the peppers with a paring knife and rinse out the seeds.

Cut the cheese into strips and chunks that will fit inside the squash blossoms and peppers, and slip the cheese inside. Twist the tips of the petals to close the cheese inside.  If you are using soft goat cheese, spoon the cheese into the cavity in the blossoms and peppers.

Lightly butter or oil a baking dish. Arrange the peppers and blossoms (I alternated them to make them fit AND make them look prettier.)

Beat the eggs and salt and pour them over the peppers and blossoms in the baking dish.

Grate or sprinkle a little cheese over the top. Bake until the eggs have just puffed and set in the center of the dish, about—— and the cheese is lightly golden on top.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool and set for 5 minutes or so before cutting.

Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

The weather has been a beast here this week. It has been as hot and humid as Satan’s armpit, the kind of weather where your window AC seems to churn the heavy air rather than  actually cool it. We’ve eaten a few of those cold olives and sliced tomatoes and bread and cheese suppers which I think are really lovely in the summer when tomatoes are sweet and juicy and raw or barely cooked vegetables are crisp and tender. Tacos of course required a little cooking, but not a lot. Salsa, slaw, and ice cream for dessert were fresh and light.

While the weather was still hot this weekend, I had worked a long day and  felt like something savory and substantial. I had picked up a handful of slim violet Asian eggplants at the farmers market earlier in the week without a plan for how to use them and decided to quickly wok cook them with a spicy garlicky sauce.  Eggplant can feel really savory and satisfying, soaking up whatever sauce they are cooked in.They are really one of my favorite things to eat. Combined with spicy sauce made with some Asain pantry staples, fresh soft tofu and fragrant Jasmine rice, the meal  was cooked and I was away from the stove in about 20 minutes.

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Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

1 tablespoon fish sauce*

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 cup water

1 tablespoon corn starch

¼ cup water

oil

6 cloves garlic

4 scallions

4 Hungarian wax or Banana wax peppers

3 Asian eggplants

14 ounce package soft tofu

toasted sesame oil

Hot cooked rice

Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce, gochujang, sugar, and water and whisk together until everything is smooth.  Mix the cornstarch and water in another small bowl.

Thinly slice the garlic cloves. Chop the scallions into ½ inch pieces. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise, deseed, and slice them into thin slivers.

Remove the stem end from the eggplant, slice them in half lengthwise, and them chop the halves into 1 inch pieces. Remove the tofu from the package, drain, and cut into 1 inch cubes.

In a large wok or skillet, heat a couple of teaspoons of oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic, scallions and peppers into the oil and stir constantly, cooking until they begin to soften. Add the eggplant and continue to stir. Cook the eggplant until the skin turns from purple to brown and the eggplant begins to soften, about 5-10 minutes. Take care not to burn the vegetables; if they begin to brown, lower the heat and add a small pinch of salt. The salt will help the eggplant release some of their water and help keep it from sticking. Gently stir the tofu cubes into the eggplant. Pour the sauce mixture in and stir. Cover and bring the sauce up to a simmer. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, just to infuse the eggplant and tofu with its flavor. Pour the cornstarch slurry over the sauce and stir. Bring it back to a simmer so that the cornstarch thickens the sauce. Drizzle with toasted sesame oil and stir. Serve over hot cooked long grain rice.

*For a completely vegetarian recipe, substitute another tablespoon of soy sauce for the fish sauce

*For and even spicier Sichuan-inspired version, substitute 1 tablespoon of Sichuan chili bean paste for 1 tablespoon of the gochujang and add a pinch of Sichuan peppercorns.

Tacos with Cactus, Poblano, Charred Onion Rajas

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Tomatillo salsa was just for starters for our last taco night. I made carnitas- style pork tacos with cumin slaw and these vegetarian cactus tacos with avocado cream and cotija cheese. Poblano rajas was the base for the taco filling- strips of seasoned poblanos cooked with charred sliced onions and  spices. Poblano rajas are great as a side with meat, burgers, scrambled eggs, mixed with cream or cheese. Adding the nopal cactus strips made them a substantial and succulent taco with the creamy avocado and salty cheese.

Nopal (prickly pear cactus paddles) are similar to both aloe leaves and okra. They hold moisture in their fleshy paddles with the soluble fiber called mucilage. Cooked, they are a bit like a green bean and a bit like pickled okra, the tender crunch of the green bean and the silky tangy texture of pickled okra. They add a bit of body to soups, a bright crunch to huevos rancheros, and pickled, would probably be great in a Bloody Mary!

I’ve seen cactus in several forms in markets: canned in jars, de-clawed and diced in plastic bags, or whole with the larger spines removed but still a bit prickly. I usually try to buy them whole. Most vegetables start to deteriorate once they are cut at all and it can be hard to see their condition when they are wrapped in plastic. If you are shopping in a place with a lot of turnover in the produce department and a clientele that will buy enough pre-cut cactus to make you confident in its freshness, buy them. It will save you a step or two (and possibly a prick in the fingertip). But don’t be intimidated by the whole paddles. It’s a pretty simple matter to de-claw them at home; either stick a fork into the fleshier end and scrape them with a sharp paring knife or singe them over a gas flame until the spines are burned off. Once the spines are blackened, a quick rinse will wash away anything that is left.

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Nopal Poblano Rajas

3 large poblanos

4 nopal paddles

1 red serrano for color

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic

pinch Mexican oregano

pinch ground cumin (if desired)

olive oil

salt to taste

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Start by preparing the nopal. Using tongs, hold the paddle by the thicker end over a gas flame until any spines are singed. Rinse briefly to remove any charred bits of spine. Slice them on the bias into 1/4 inch strips.

Remove the stem ends and seeds from the chiles. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips. Remove the stem and root end from the onion and cut into thin strips.

Smash the garlic and mince into a paste.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the slices of onion to the dry skillet and cook, stirring often until the onions begin to char just a bit. Scrape the onions out onto a plate and set aside. Lower the heat under the skillet to medium low and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the chile strips, salt, garlic, and spices and cook for about 10 minutes or until the chiles are beginning to soften. Add the onions and the cactus strips, stirring to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally and watching that the vegetables don’t stick to the pan until the onions and peppers have collapsed into a silky sticky savory tangle and the cactus has lost its vibrant green color and becomes a soft olive green. Taste for texture- the cactus should still have a bit of a pop between the teeth but be very tender- and salt to taste.

Serve in a taco with corn tortillas, avocado and cotija. Or use as a filling for omelette, on top of a burger, with a smoky roast chicken.

Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

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We had a friend over for tacos last night. I know he has excellent taste in tacos (despite an admitted penchant for Dorito  Tacos Bell Grande)in part because one of the first times we ever “ran into” someone out in NYC, we ran into him at our favorite Manhattan taqueria, the eponymous Taqueria LES, which makes great barbacoa and lengua tacos and chile salsa. Consequently, I wanted to bust out a few of my favorite taco night accoutrements for an especially appreciative audience.

We had this tomatillo salsa to eat while we were drinking margaritas and finishing up cooking the carnitas-style pork tacos with a red cabbage cumin slaw and pineapple salsa and a nopal poblano rajas taco with avocado cream and cotija.

The interesting thing about this recipe is that it functions as two-in-one in a way, depending on how long the ingredients are cooked. The version in the photos is on the less-cooked end of the spectrum, giving a lighter, tangier result. Cook the tomatillos and onions longer and it concentrates their natural sugars and flavor, darkening the color and making a richer, sweeter salsa. I’ve used the more cooked version as a base for pork chile verde as well as a salsa for chips. It’s sweet, tangy, and delicious. But this lightly charred version is the bright flavor I craved during the stultifying heat we are living in this week. It’s also pretty much as long as I could stand having the oven on in the kitchen.

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The grill is also a great way to achieve the smoky char that deepens the flavor of this salsa so intriguingly. Throw the peppers and onions straight onto the grate, but the tomatillos will burst, so keep them on a pan of some kind so all of the tomatillo juice isn’t lost.

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If you decide to go with the more cooked version, you will want a bit more lime juice to balance the sweetness of the tomatillos and onions. And of course, the number and heat level of the chiles you use is dependent on your heat tolerance. This version has a medium heat level- add or subtract accordingly.

Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

2 pounds tomatillos

1 large onion

3 serranos

1 jalapeño

1-2 limes

1/2 bunch cilantro

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon cumin

salt to taste

Remove the husk from the tomatillos, rinse and dry. Slice the chiles in half stem to tip and cut the onion into wedges. Peel the garlic cloves. Arrange everything on a baking sheet in an uncrowded  layer. Do this step in 2 batches if space is an issue, rather than crowding the pan.

Heat your broiler up and place the tray of vegetables under the heat source. Keep and eye on them, turning the vegetables or shaking the pan occasionally if they are browning too unevenly. Once everything is beginning to soften just a little and some of the surface has a little bit of a char on it, remove from the oven and set aside to cool for a little bit.

Cut the larger stems off the cilantro and roughly chop the leaves.

Juice a couple of limes and assemble your spices

Scoop the tomatillos, chiles, onions and garlic into the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to break the chunks down and allow the mixture to move and mix. Add about half the lime juice and the cilantro leaves and spices and pulse a couple of times. Once you have reached your preferred consistency ( I like it on the chunky side) pour the salsa into your container and taste for salt and tanginess. If it needs more tartness, stir in more lime juice. Otherwise you’re halfway to a margarita.

The flavors really improve after sitting for at least 30 minutes so I would recommend waiting until then to make any major adjustments to the seasoning. If you prefer more heat at that point, stir in a pinch or two of ground cayenne or chipotle.

Sweet Corn Poblano Soup

It doesn’t really feel like summer to me until I’ve had my first ear of sweet corn on the cob. I can eat an outrageous number of buttered, hot, crisp, sweet ears, shearing the kernels off the cob like Mickey and Donald eating it typewriter style.

Fortunately, July hasn’t only brought us a super humid heat wave (hello window AC unit!), it also brought us summer corn season, just in time for the long July 4th weekend.

This light summery soup is a lovely way to enjoy the good fresh flavor of sweet corn. It’s lighter than some creamy chowder style soups,  finished with just a little bit of milk, but the trick of using a corn cob broth that I picked up from David Walbert’s delicious corn chowder post infuses the soup with the flavor of corn without muddling the bright vegetable flavors.

I also use a little bit of corn flour, cooked into the broth like a very thin porridge to thicken the soup without making it too rich and heavy. Soup eaten in summer should be light and fresh, satisfying without weighing down.

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Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup

4 ears sweet corn on the cob, husked and flossed

1 red onion (or other sweet onion)

2 cloves garlic

1 poblano chile

olive oil

1/3 cup corn flour

1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups water

salt

1 cup milk

Stand each ear of corn stalk-side down on a cutting board and cut the kernels from the cob. Break the cleaned cobs in pieces and put them in a medium pot. Once all of the corn kernels are cut off the cobs and the cobs are put into the pot, cover the cobs with about 4 cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, and cover the pot with a heavy lid. Simmer the cobs in water for about 30 minutes. Remove and throw the cobs away.

Meanwhile, dice the onion and poblano and mince the garlic.

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium/low heat. Add the onion, garlic and poblano to the oil and cook until the onion begins to soften and become translucent. Add the corn and stir, then add a pinch of salt. The sugar in the corn will begin to stick and caramelize on the bottom of the pan, so watch the heat to prevent that sugar from burning. Once the corn begins to soften, scrape the vegetables to the side of the pan and pour in a little more oil, maybe a teaspoon, to cook the spices. Pour the chipotle, coriander, and cumin into the oil and stir. Once the spices become fragrant, stir them into the vegetables. Scrape any sticky browned bits off the bottom of the pan.

Once the corn is softened and beginning to caramelize  but still a little bit crisp, stir about 1/3 cup of corn flour (finely ground corn meal) into the vegetables. Stir everything over medium heat just for a minute until the corn flour is slightly toasted.

Carefully pour the corn cob stock into the pan with the vegetables and stir to prevent lumps. Bring to a simmer and stir until the corn flour thickens the broth. Add the milk and simmer for 10 minutes or so to combine the flavors.

Salt to taste.

As with most soups, this one improves after a night in the fridge, so feel free to make it ahead. It will be even better that way.

A note on corn flour:

Corn flour is just a finely ground corn meal. In the UK, corn flour is the term used for what I call corn starch which is often used to thicken clear sauces. American corn flour is a little more substantial but finer than the grittier texture of corn meal. I typically use Bob’s Red Mill Corn Flour

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Italian Inspiration: Farro Arugula Salad

No one is going to be surprised to hear that our trip to Italy last September was inspirational to my cooking. After living in the city for a couple of years, we opted to go country to start our vacation way off the beaten path. We drove from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport up through Umbria on the back roads and across the spine of the Appenines into Le Marche, to Piobbico specifically, down a dusty road through the hills to La Tavola Marche, an agritourismo owned by hosts extraordinaire Ashley and Jason Bartner.

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Driving in, we passed a few cars parked in the grass on the sides of the road, saw a man disappearing into the trees with a stick and a basket: mushroom hunters! With the cooler weather and fall rain, the mushrooms were starting to pop up on the hillsides. Ashley and a friend of the farm, a local cardiologist and mycologist took a few guests on a mushroom hunt one afternoon. We were lucky to find a couple basketfuls of mushrooms during our scramble through the trees and underbrush.

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Our visit being during the shoulder season (not dissimilar to the cool wet Spring we’re having here this year), dinners were a mix of the last of the garden produce and heartier cool weather fare. Everything Jason cooked was incredibly delicious, simple but beautiful ingredients prepared in interesting ways, unpretentious but as good as any white tablecloth meal I’ve ever tasted. We ended up eating every dinner there, unable to resist the nightly feasts.

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I love the intimacy with which Italians (born and adopted) dealt with their food: the mushroom hunts, the seat in the sun with a glass of beer to clean each mushroom by hand, the well-attended weekly markets in each town, the cheerful and lengthy discussions about gelato flavors, the long family lunches we saw on the Adriatic in Fano, the resourcefulness of “eating up the garden” before the weather turned. It’s a characteristic of that culture that places a high value on the fellowship of the table as well as the food that is placed on it, a congenial community feel to the act of eating.

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This was a salad we were served as part of a prima course, but so immensely satisfying that I’ve adapted it to be a really delicious main course salad. A couple of the ingredients, farro and porcini, might be a little exotic, but are two of my favorite pantry staples. Farro is the grain that fueled the Roman’s armies, an ancient grain that is similar to spelt. It is chewy but not sticky with a hearty flavor ( a bit like wild rice). Porcini – I very occasionally see fresh porcini for sale, but they are usually pretty expensive and a bit battered and bruised so I use dried porcini instead. Porcini (which means “little pigs”, isn’t that awesome!) have a rich earthy meaty flavor that I love. I use them crumbled in my meatballs and meat sauces and to flavor risottos. I’ve also added fresh crimini mushrooms to this recipe for substance, flavor and texture in lieu of foraged mushrooms. The nuts and arugula add crunch and a peppery bite and the salty tangy pecorino cheese rounds out the flavor chord.

I’ve adapted this recipe from my memory of the meal we had in Italy and have posted it with the Bartner’s permission.

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Farro Arugula Salad

the farro method:

1 cup whole grain farro

4 cups water

¼ cup dried porcini pieces, crumbled

sea or Kosher salt

Rinse the farro under running water to remove any dust or husks. Add the dried porcini, cover the grain with the water and let it soak for a couple of hours or overnight in the fridge.

Add salt as if you were salting pasta water. Cook the grain in the soaking water for 20-25 minutes until the farro is chewy but not mushy. Drain thoroughly in a sieve to remove any remaining cooking liquid.

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the salad:

1 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

olive oil

1 sprig fresh rosemary, roughly chopped

sea salt

1/3 cup raw walnuts, pecans, or almonds, coarsely chopped or broken into pieces
fresh ground black pepper

12 ounces arugula

pecorino romano cheese

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally until they become bronzed and golden. Add a pinch of salt and the rosemary, lower the heat and stir in the chopped nuts, Stir together over medium heat until the nuts are lightly toasted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the farro. Toss in the arugula and another drizzle of olive oil, allowing the arugula to wilt a bit in the residual heat. Serve at room temperature with pecorino romano shaved over the top.

A note about dried porcini: you may notice that your dried porcini look very unprocessed, maybe some bits of straw or grit on them. If so, give them a toss in s bowl of water before adding them to a recipe. Some producers sell a very clean product but others are a little rawer and earthier. It’s simple to clean them so don’t worry if yours look a little dirty

Okra, the Finale: Fried Okra

Well, I’ve pretty much laid bare my okra loving soul to y’all over the past three posts. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but I’m hoping it’s enough to get some of you over the fence and back into the fold.

It wouldn’t really be an okra series without talking about probably the most popular way to cook okra: I’m talking fried, baby!  It’s the first thing most people think of when you say “okra”But never fear, I am not without sturdy opinions on the topic. Let’s talk technique.

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I am neither a frequent nor enthusiastic deep fryer.I’ve never had a kitchen with a ventilation system that could stand up to it and that day old fried smell is enough to stop me. I like to pan fry okra about waist deep in hot oil. It’s quick and effective and it suits my dredge approach to the okra’s crust without the mess or commitment of deep frying.

On to the next point: dredging versus breading. As you may know, if I want a deep fried corn bread nugget, I’ll go with a hush puppy every time. The breaded version of fried okra is just a substandard tiny hush puppy with a piece of soggy okra inside, which is neither want I look for in a hush puppy or in fried okra. The beauty of fried okra is the okra. Covered in a thin crunchy carapace, it’s the okra that you taste, not the pouf of breading, and the moisture released from the cooking okra has more of a chance to escape. I think the texture of the cooked okra is superior to the swaddled steamed version that happens when you have breading. I just like it better. I think it’s a better bite. This is why I dredge my okra.

Having established my position on pan versus deep fry and dredge versus bread, let’s move on to the ingredient portion of the dredge. I’ve gone through several versions of the dredge over the years and have found my favorite. I started with a mixture of regular corn meal, all purpose wheat flour and seasonings, but found the contrast in texture between the corn meal and flour too extreme. The okra stayed gritty or fell off and burned leaving me with a thin veil of flour dredge. I discovered corn flour, a finer grind of corn meal that I use a lot not only in cornbread but in pan fried recipes because it adheres evenly and cooks quickly without leaving behind the sensation of a mouthful of sand. I mixed it with wheat flour as I had with cornmeal, which was fine, but when I tried the corn flour by itself once, I found that I preferred just the corn flour. It coated the okra evenly, had a good flavor, and gave it a nice crunchy (but not gritty) texture. It seems to fulfill the roles of both cornmeal and wheat flour without the drawbacks of either.

As far as recipes go, this is necessarily an “eyeball it” recipe. The measurements really depend on the amount of okra you have, the moisture in it, and your preference in seasoning. It’s more of a guideline than a recipe, but that’s all you really need.

 Fried Okra

1 pound of okra

About ½ cup of corn flour, enough to evenly coat the okra slices

Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

Corn, vegetable, or peanut oil, enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan by about ¼ inch

Rinse the okra and remove the stem ends. Slice the okra into about ¼ inch rounds. I usually cut them a bit thicker toward the pointed ends so that everything cooks in more or less the same amount of time. Don’t dry the okra off; in fact, if it gets dry, I usually sprinkle a little water or buttermilk over the slices to make it damp enough for the dredge to stick.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the corn flour, salt and peppers over the okra. I usually just start with a generous handful or two, not even bothering with a measuring cup. Using both hands, toss the okra with the dredge until all of the surfaces are covered. If any of the slices have stuck together, separate them. If the okra is sticky, add a little more corn flour until everything is dry and no longer sticking together. Any extra dredge usually settles into the bottom of the bowl

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Try a test piece; the okra should immediately sizzle. Some of the corn flour is going to fall off into the oil but if the oil is hot enough, most of the dredge should stick and start to cook immediately. Working in batches if you need to, add just enough okra to make one layer in the pan with a little elbowroom. Allow it to sit in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes without moving it; then after checking the bottom side to see if it is brown enough, use a wide spatula and turn the okra over so that the other side can brown. Other than shaking the pan occasionally to even the layer, don’t mess with it. It needs to stay in contact with the hot oil to crisp and brown. Once the okra has gotten as dark as you like, scoop it out of the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula onto absorbent paper to drain off any leftover oil. Sprinkle with some flaky salt and eat it while it’s hot (or cold- it’s awesome both ways).