Monday, April 27, 2009

Manna from Heaven

Certain things come to mind when I picture a Thanksgiving spread, the most obvious being the bird, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I look forward to eating each and every one of those traditional dishes with absolute fervor but I kid you not, the unexpected star of last Thanksgiving dinner was a loaf of bread.

Our friend Talley made Jim Lahey's celebrated No-Knead Bread that was published in the New York Times a few years back. The one that requires a quick mix of flour, water and yeast followed by a long, uninterrupted rest of about 18 hours. I was intrigued when he explained the process (this is the same guy who cures his own bacon and steeps homemade limoncello for 90 days). And the taste! It had a perfectly chewy, crispy crust surrounding an airy, delicate middle. My beautiful plate of turkey, squash and dressing took a back seat while I buttered and ate one, two, three, oh god knows how many slices of bread. It was that good.

Needless to say, we've been making it ever since. The classic version with a cornmeal crust is a trusted standby but I've been experimenting (I've got a loaf coated with sesame salt in the oven this very moment). I'm not exactly an accomplished baker but this no-fuss recipe turns out glorious, miraculous bread every single time.

The First Taste of Spring

Tristan and I went to the University District farmers market on Saturday with the simple intentions of getting breakfast (buckwheat crepes) and buying a dozen free range eggs. Good thing I brought two bags because we filled them both. Not only did we get three types of lettuce and two parsley starters for our urban garden window boxes, we filled the kitchen counters with curly fiddle heads, butter potatoes, rhubarb, freshly picked spinach, our beloved eggs and, the surest sign of spring, asparagus.

The first of our treasures to be gobbled up were the leafy greens. And what a breakfast it was! I quick boiled the spinach, sprinkled it with a bit of apple cider vinegar, topped it with fried eggs and served the whole shebang with buttered, sprouted grain toast. There's nothing quite like bright, yellowy-orange yolk running into fresh greens. Truly and utterly satisfying.

We decided to have the asparagus for dinner. When I lived in Europe I collected all sorts of recipes and one in particular came to mind. It was from the Swiss magazine Kochen and called for tender white asparagus to be pan fried in a light, crunchy almond coating. The picture alone makes my mouth water every time and I couldn't wait to try it. However, I had green asparagus and something told me it wouldn't quite translate. Back to the bookshelf it went.

My inspiration finally came in the form of Gourmet's May 2009 issue: Lemony Risotto with Asparagus and Shrimp. Bingo! I've always loved the hypnotic process of stirring hot broth into Arborio rice until it gives up its starch and asks for more liquid. I tend to get lost in the creamy swirls. I am happy to say that after 30 minutes, we had a dish that welcomed Spring as if it were royalty.

Lemony Asparagus and Shrimp Risotto
A wonderful way to use the first asparagus of the season. Adapted from Gourmet, May 2009.

4 cups chicken stock
1 cup water
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 glass dry white wine
3/4 lb uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
Freshly chopped parsley

In a medium saucepan, bring broth and water to a simmer. Add asparagus and simmer, uncovered, until just tender and bright green, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer asparagus to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside. Keep broth at a bare simmer.

In a 4-quart pan over medium heat, cook shallot in 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil until softened, about 4 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute. Add wine and cook, stirring constantly, until absorbed. Add 1/2 cup broth mixture and briskly simmer, stirring constantly, until absorbed. Continue adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is creamy and tender but still al dente, about 20 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Stir in the asparagus, lemon zest, remaining tablespoon butter, parmesan, parsely and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Breakfast of Champions

I was five years old when I performed my first cooking demonstration. It was back in New York at the old Clockville courthouse, which doubled as our voting hall. I practiced for weeks under the tutelage of my parents ("don't say 'you,'" "make eye contact," "smile") until it was flawless, by 5 year old standards anyway.

The big day finally came. When my name was called, I got up, stuck out my chin and did was I was trained to do. I placed my recipe poster on the stand, taped a tiny paper receptacle to the table, methodically organized my ingredients and launched into my presentation. I spoke of my family in Switzerland and how we just loved eating Muesli for breakfast. Time whizzed by and before I knew it, it was over. I thought it went swimmingly. Pleased as punch, I glided into my rehearsed closing, "Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes my demonstration. Are there any questions?" A hand shot up. It belonged to my Dad. "Uh, yes. Now what do you do with the oatmeal," he asked? My professionalism went out the window as I dramatically slapped my head and yelled, "Oh no!" Apparently I forgot to add the main ingredient.

Don't worry, it didn't scar me for life. I received a blue ribbon that night and was determined to do it better next year when I was six.

As far as breakfasts go, I'm not a huge fan of mainstream fare and tend to prefer savory things like soup, sprouted grain toast with avocado and salt or last night's leftovers. Then a few months ago I wrote an article all about the benefits of soaking grains, which naturally conjured up images of my beloved Swiss muesli. I've been on a serious kick ever since.

Strawberry Muesli
Bircher Muesli is most often prepared with shredded apple but feel free to use whichever fruit is in season.

1/3 cup rolled oats
1/3+ cup milk
Splash of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup sliced strawberries (or 1/2 a grated apple)
3/4 cup plain kefir or plain yogurt
1 tablespoon moist date pieces (or dried fruit of choice)
Chopped nuts (I like roasted pecans or crushed hazelnuts)

Place rolled oats in a small bowl. Add milk to cover and a splash of lemon juice. Refrigerate overnight. 

In the morning, add sliced strawberries, kefir/yogurt and dried fruit. Mix well and sprinkle with nuts.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stock Options

One thing a pantry shouldn't be without is stock. I always have a few cartons on hand for a quick potato leek soup, creamy risotto, or one of my favorite wintertime dishes, Italian beans and greens. All of these come together in a snap with the magic of store-bought broth. But lately I'm feeling haunted by the army of vegetable skins and nubs I throw away without a second thought. Oh sure, I've heard the merits of homemade stock and even encouraged others to have a crack at it. But I never managed to do it myself. For someone who tries to live sustainably and prefers making everything from scratch, I'm quite a hypocrite, aren't I?

This pretense has gone on long enough. About a month ago I was scrubbing and peeling a sizable amount of vegetables when the thought hit me: why not throw the scraps into a Ziploc bag and freeze them until I'm ready to give this homemade stock thing a whirl? Well folks, today is that day.

So I unearthed my gigantic stock pot and began sauteing a mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots). My frozen treasures came next. There were potato and carrot peelings, fennel fronds, mushroom stems, leek greens, turnip ends, Swiss chard stalks, onion skins and leftover celery root. Could it really be this easy? Whole peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic cloves, salt and a generous handful of parsley were added for good measure followed by cold water to cover. My work was done. Now it was up to the stove to patiently turn that motley crew of scraps into liquid bliss.

And did it ever. The apartment filled with the unmistakable aroma of a grandmother's kitchen - anything smelling this good was surely a favorable sign.
After straining out the vegetables, I was left with a rich, savory, brown broth, which is waiting patiently in the freezer for its unveiling. I'm thinking miso soup might be first on the docket.

I was so charmed by this experience that I'm ready to tackle homemade chicken stock. And fish bone broth (I've been wanting to make an incredibly indulgent cream of scallop soup for quite some time).

Watch out, I'm just getting started.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Roasted Roots

It's April in Seattle. This means a few tantalizing, sunny days sandwiched between 25 days of umbrellas and rain boots. This year, just for kicks, Mother Nature decided to play a cruel joke on us sun-starved Seattleites: she let it snow on April 1st. Ha ha, good one. Now I get April Fool's.

As long as this chilly, damp weather remains, I'll continue craving me some stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. Luckily yesterday, I had a beautiful assortment of farmers market root vegetables to play with: tiny potatoes, yellow
baby carrots, celery root, turnips and garlic. A few minutes of peeling and chopping, a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt and pepper and a nice roast in the hot oven is all it took to turn that crunchy produce into sweet, caramelized heaven.

Simple dishes like this warm my soul and make me hopeful of what's to come.

Go ahead Mother Nature, bring it.

Roasted Roots
Simple oven roasting imparts an intensified, concentrated sweetness to root vegetables. Roast with a few sprigs of sturdy herbs (like rosemary) or toss with soft, leafy herbs (like parsley) after vegetables are cooked.

2 lbs root vegetables of choice, washed, peeled (if desired) and chopped
Whole garlic cloves, skin on
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a shallow, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place vegetables on baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper and toss to coat evenly. Spread to a single layer and roast in oven 40-50 minutes or until vegetables are tender, golden brown and beginning to caramelize. Be sure to stir once or twice during roasting.

*Serving ideas: roasted roots taste scrumptious alone, on pizza, in soups, as a sandwich filling with goat cheese or tossed with pasta.