Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Culinary windfall weekend

This weekend = Culinary Bonanza!

I had such a great food weekend, I’m not sure where to start. I guess I’ll go with the tried and true chronological order, since it builds to a great finish.

I went camping on the Boston Harbor Islands this weekend, which was a first for me. I highly recommend it. A subway ride, a ferry ride, and you’ve gone from to city to the great outdoors. There are no campfires allowed, however (though beach fires are okay), so we planned an old-fashioned picnic. I made fried organic chicken, following some tips from a discussion on chowhound, and it was pretty fine, although better fresh from the pan in the morning than out of the Tupperware later in the day. From my farm share, I had green beans, simply steamed, then dressed with a little olive oil and chopped sun-dried tomatoes. I used yellow squash in a tart that I thought came out very well. The shell was a ½ wheat pastry crust I happened to have in the freezer. I spread it with goat cheese, then sprinkled the cheese with shredded basil, then arranged half-moons of lightly sautéed yellow squash over top. Half and half was poured over the top, more basil sprinkled on, and then the whole thing baked off. I think this would work well with feta, too. This was one case where I believe the flavor of whole wheat in the crust was an advantage; its earthiness set off the pungency of the goat cheese and the mild flavor of the squash.

I also brought blueberry cobbler, made from a mix of local cultivated blueberries from the Mission Hill farmers’ market and some frozen Wyman’s wild blueberries from Maine. Blueberries freeze marvelously, and Wyman’s product comes from my favorite part of Maine, the beautiful and unspoiled Northern coast. The tiny wild blueberries have so much more flavor than their cultivated counterparts that I always mix in some when baking with fresh berries. The cobbler was good, but a warning to all: do not rely on the plastic lids that come with the foil pans from the supermarket to keep a cobbler in one piece while being hauled through the T, onto a series of boats, and up a trail to a campsite. Fortunately, cobbler is still edible when smushed. Tasty, too.


I returned from the camping trip on Sunday. Monday I took the day off from work to go with my friend to pick up our half cow. We bought a quarter cow from River Rock Farm back in January, and our supplies were depleted. Since everyone involved in the first beef-buy has essentially been ruined for regular beef (River Rock Farm beef is grass-fed, dense and meaty and flavorful), we decided to go for broke this time with a half cow. Split five ways, that’s over 50 pounds of fantastic meat per person. My freezer is stuffed to the brim with meat. It looks like this:

Freezer of joy. Posted by Picasa

As an aside, the abattoir was a surprise. The farmer delivered our first purchase, but asked that we pick up this order from the butcher/slaughterhouse. I don’t know what I was expecting - a big ugly building with a stench of death, I guess. Certainly I wasn’t expecting this:

An elegant little slaughterhouse... Posted by Picasa

Really. Posted by Picasa

Apparently, there’s more money to be made in the small-slaughterhouse biz than one would expect.


My friend and I got back to her house a bit later than expected, and our other friends who were coming to pick up their share of the cow were late as well. This turned out to be great for me, because my friend and her husband were planning to attend the Farmers’ Market Tasting Dinner at Bistro 5 in Medford, and since they were running too late to drive me home, they invited me to join them. I have lovely, generous friends with great taste in restaurants, which I greatly appreciate, since the only restaurant I frequent is Bistro Moi.

Here’s the menu:

Bistro 5 has a farmers' market tasting menu available every night in the summer. Go. Posted by Picasa

(Sorry the scan isn't very clear. This is the best I could do.)

The produce for the meal came from the farmers’ market in Central Square that afternoon, and the whole meal was fresh, organic and local. The quail came from a supplier in Vermont, who sells fresh, not frozen, game birds. The wines were all either completely organic (no sulfur) or from organic grapes.

Now, Vittorio, the chef at Bistro 5, is basically a genius. This was one of the best meals of my life. A true chef can transform even mediocre ingredients into something complex and interesting, but when the best materials are in the hands of a master, every bite is nuanced, complex, yet at the same time strong and clear in flavor. That may sound like restaurant-reviewer speak, but describing truly incredible food is difficult. I can’t explain why Vittorio’s arugula pesto is better than mine, but it is better, much better: there is more flavor, more arugula bite, more tang of cheese. Everything is just bigger.

(Did I mention that the lamb was to die for? And that nasturium leaves have a spicy flavor like horseradish?)

As nice as it is to enjoy the work of someone who relly knows his way around a kitchen, you don’t need to be a genius to make good food at this time of year. My lunch today, in its humble Tupperware, is still pretty fine. Ingredients: cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, salt.

Simple is good. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Corn Alert!

Grilled corn update - fresh corn now available at farmers' markets! Rejoicing over all the land!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

So after the family dinner Sunday, my mother was pressing leftovers on her children, as a mother will do, and she asked about the grilled corn. I said I would take some for a salsa or a salad or something. One of my sisters commented that that was the difference between her and me: she just heats up leftovers, and I cook with them.

Now, my sister cooks. She has three kids, and she makes dinner and bakes cookies and all that. But I do think that there is a point in your development as a cook when you start to think, not in terms of meals, but in terms of household food planning. This is a skill that doesn’t come until you’ve been cooking for yourself for a number of years, so that you have the culinary wherewithal to wing it a bit, and you have to be making most of your meals, so that you have ample opportunities to use things up. It takes a while to get there, and I think fewer and fewer people manage it these days, what with all the prepared foods available.

This sort of culinary strategizing really gets my frugal little peasant heart a-beating. Maybe it’s not the sexiest side of cooking, but it has its appeal. There’s a certain thrill in knowing you haven’t let anything go to waste, that all of your sows’ ears have been sewn up into pretty little silk purses.

So here’s a round-up of possibilities for that grilled corn (which by the way, is not quite in season locally yet. Mom jumped the gun. But this summer is hot; maybe we’ll have some soon.):

Salsa – mix with chopped tomatoes, chili, cilantro, black beans if you like, a bit of cumin.

Quesadilla – make a similar mix to the salsa, put inside a quesadilla with cheese.

Cornbread – A local restaurant used to make a specialty cornbread with real corn in it. Frankly, I found it a bit gross. But I had many friends who loved it.

Chowder – Cut the kernels off the cobs. Put the cobs in some chicken broth and simmer ½ hour. (Extra points for use of part of the vegetable normally thrown out). Meanwhile, chop and sauté some onion and red pepper. Add some red pepper flakes, a bit of celery seed. Add the corn-infused broth and a bay leaf, bring to a simmer. Add chopped potato. Cook until potatoes are tender. Add corn kernels and cream (light, heavy – your waistline, your decision). Heat through. Variation: Use sweet potatoes, a chili or two, a touch of cumin, skip the cream, add cilantro at the end.

Pasta – This is what I had for lunch. Cook up some penne. Saute a couple slices Italian sausages. Remove from pan, pour off most of the grease. Add a few cloves of garlic, cook for two minutes, add a bunch of kale, Swiss Chard or other slightly bitter green. Saute until the greens are wilted (if you have a lot of greens, you can lower the heat and cover for a minute or two to let them steam). Sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Add the corn to warm. Mix together sausage, greens/corn, pasta. You could definitely add roasted red peppers, either from a jar or grilled with the corn. A little Parm is nice; a lot of black pepper is necessary. This is a variant of something I used to make back when I had a grill, called “Every-vegetable-you-can-think-of-plus-sausage-over-pasta.”

Salad - Grilled corn, black bean, avocado, arugula salad with cumin-lime dressing.

Corn pudding – Put corn in buttered ramekins, add shredded cheese, pepper. Pour a mix of egg and milk over. Bake in hot-water bath until set in the middle. Again, roasted red peppers would be a nice addition.

There is no need to eat corn on the cob reheated in the microwave. Resist!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Sometimes the leftovers are better than the meal. Posted by Picasa

It's true. This weekend I had a family get-together at my parents' house, which gave me access to a charcoal grill. I saw this as a golden opportunity to grill-roast the pork shoulder which has been waiting in my freezer.

But family events are tricky, and cooking for family events is trickier. I know my mother doesn't like hot spices and my sister doesn't like much of anything, and I try to please them both. I also have to remember to bring everything I need to cook out there with me, because my mother still has spices that were given to her at her wedding over forty years ago. She still thinks I can use them. (You see, my parents and I don't really see eye to eye on the whole cooking thing.) So I have a law:

Pyewacket's First Law of Cooking for Other People: It is impossible to cook transcendent food for one's family.

You can cook good food for your family, even on rare occasions great food. But transcendent food, no. Even if you start with transcendent pig.

The shoulder was rubbed with garlic, pepper, salt, celery seed and a little allspice, and roasted over a low grill for about three hours. It came out juicy and succulent. But I failed to make any sort of sauce or relish or chutney to go with it, out of a combination of feeling overwhelmed by a hectic schedule this weekend and being worried that my sister would hate anything too elaborate. So it was simple, pork and grilled potatoes and grilled corn. Good, not transcendent.

But I got the leftovers.

The sandwich above is the result. Chewy Italian bread. Pork. Grilled corn. A little of Grandmother's Sweet Pepper Relish. Homemade relish would have been better, but we're talking about a work day lunch here. Besides, I have a soft spot for Grandmother's because they used to be a little family-owned operation in my hometown of Natick, Massachusetts.* Anyway, the sandwich, which I just finished eating for lunch, was smoky, a little sweet, deeply meaty, chewy and satisfying. I might even say "transcendent."

*(They're now owned by Allied Old English, which also owns Ah-So and a few other small brands. Not exactly Coca-Cola, but not the Whipple Company of Natick, either)

Monday, July 11, 2005

The ravishing radish

Radishes: A woodcut Posted by Picasa

So I had a funny experience regarding radishes.

I'm a regular poster on Chowhound, a discussion board for people who love food in all its forms. A while back, I posted something on Chowhound about the benefits of farm shares (CSAs). A few weeks later I got an email from a Wall Street Journal reporter asking me if I would be willing to talk to her about my experiences.

Now, I'm not very comfortable with the idea of my name being in the paper. Fools' names and fools' faces are often seen in public places, and all that. Also, I get stagefright so badly even a metaphoric stage will set it off. But I believe deeply in supporting local farmers, so I decided that I really should not be such a wimp about something so trivial and should just call the woman and talk to her.

So I called her and talked for a long time about my experiences with the farm share. I stressed the importance of supporting local farming, the value of eating with the seasons. I talked about the sense of comraderie among the people in line to get their weekly boxes, the community that was being built. I talked about the quality of the produce, the heirloom varieties that had been bred for quality of flavor and texture, rather than the ability to be stored and shipped.

She didn't want a quote on any of that. From the article which appeared in the Journal:

And if the farm's strawberry crop is a bust, but there's a bumper crop of kale, you had better like kale. Pyewacket (named withheld for blogging purposes), who joined a CSA in Cambridge MA recalls last year receiving one box that was almost all greens and radishes. "It does push the boundaries of your culinary expertise," she says. "I didn't know you could cook radishes."

There it is, my one moment of fame: "I didn't know you could cook radishes."

Really, I said more interesting things. Honest.

But interestingly enough, every time I tell this story, I get the same response. "You can cook radishes?"

Yes, you can. The best method is a quick saute in butter (of course), preferably finished with a bunch of chopped fresh dill and sprinkle of vinegar. The radishes maintain their crispness and color, but their sharp edge is tempered to something more mellow.

If you roast them, they become mellower still, to the point of tasting a bit dull. But they add some color to a pan of roast vegetables. If you have them around, which I usually do, it's worth throwing a few in.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Ooh, la, la, Canada!

Damned Canadians are spoiled. Really, they’re hopeless. Soft. Like children. For example, a Montreal resident wants to make a nice dinner, what does he do? Wanders down to the Jean Talon market, buys himself any cut of organic meat he desires, picks up organic baby vegetables and fruit, freshly made pasta, maybe a little smoked fish, some local raw milk cheeses, poppy-seed strudel and a few chocolates, made on the premises. Then he goes home, cooks up dinner and enjoys his meal.


In Boston, you would have to order the meat from the farmer, go fetch it. The meat will be frozen, of course, since you can’t eat a side of beef fresh. Or you could go to Savenor’s and pay through the teeth. Your choice. Then to the farmers’ market – which day is it? Check the schedule, find out which market is open. It’s on the other side of town. Go get your vegetables. If they don’t have what you need, as they well may not, run to Whole Foods and pay, pay, pay. While you’re there, pick up the fish. You would like to run into town to another fish market, but you’re running out of time. Fresh raw milk cheese? Well, that’s impossible, because the government is heavily involved in flavor-censorship. Settle for pasteurized. Fresh pasta – great, just run out to Dave’s or Capone’s! In Somerville. Skip the search for poppyseed strudel, if you’re not a masochist. Chocolates, no trouble. Just a quick trip to the Fenway or maybe Harvard Square.

We Bostonian cooks, we WORK for our results. We become lean and tough. Canada, pftth!

Okay, so the Jean Talon market was amazing. If you’re not in the know, the center of the market is a tented area filled with vegetable and fruit vendors, the whole about the size of a city block. The perimeter is filled with bakeries, meat and fish markets, cheese shops and so on. There is a great store just as you enter that sells all sorts of Quebec-made foodstuffs, from venison pate to local cheeses to pickled cattails.

My haul included walnut-sized potatoes (the hazelnut-sized ones sold out just before I bought mine), tiny zucchini, radishes, spinach and lettuce; three local cheeses, all excellent (especially the very creamy, mild blue called “Bleubry”); almond-paste and poppyseed-filled strudels; a bag of dried mixed forest mushrooms; ice-cider (like ice wine, but made from frozen apples instead of grapes); assorted fruit liqueurs; fresh lychees; fresh tortellini, both meat and cheese; chocolates; and of course some maple syrup. I thought I was quite restrained, really. I left behind gooseberries, which are impossible to get in the States, and everything in the fish and meat markets, and all sorts of cheeses, and – well, you get the idea. It’s like paradise, or would be if you actually had a real kitchen to cook in, not just your brother’s bachelor pad with the one pan/one pot mojo.

I wanted to take pictures of pretty much everything, but my batteries died the moment I got there. Grr.

It’s not just the quality of the food, or the abundance, or the variety, or the fact that so much is organic. It’s the display. The vendors put a serious effort into making the booths beautiful. You get a sense that they just care more. It was wonderful to see, but at the same time, a bit depressing. Why don’t we have anything like this in Boston?

A note: I have no idea how to add accent marks. Forgive me.