Monthly Archives: April 2012

Really good, farm-fresh butter.

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If you’ve watched me cook at Eastern Market, or ventured into my home for a meal, you’ve probably heard “the butter story.” It goes like this:

Four years ago I started using farm-fresh butter in an effort to cook with the best ingredients I could find. My husband, upon discovering that  fabulous, farm-fresh butter can cost twice as much as grocery store butter, started giving me a good ribbing. “Local, farm-fresh butter can’t possibly taste twice as good as grocery store, stick butter.”

At the time I was reading Jennifer McLagan’s cookbook, Fat. Extolling the virtues of good butter, she recommended doing a tasting. So off we marched, Jason and I, into the kitchen, with a block of local, farm-fresh butter in one hand and a stick of grocery store butter in the other. One at a time, we cut a small sliver of each and let them melt on our tongues.

The first thing you notice about farm-fresh butter is the rich taste of cream. Then you notice the season and diet of the cows. In spring the butter is herbal and floral, light and perfect against grassy spring vegetables – asparagus, spring onions, fiddleheads and radishes. In summer the butter turns grassy, pairing perfectly with zucchini and tomatoes. In fall and winter when the cows switch to a feed diet, the flavor is rich and mellow, perfect for pumpkin, beets and holiday baking.

The grocery store butter was nearly flavorless. Softening on your tongue it gave the feel of greasy fat with the taste of cardboard.

When cooking from scratch you’ve got six, maybe ten, ingredients in a dish (that’s if you count salt and pepper). You can’t afford to have one of those tasting like cardboard, and not pulling its weight.

That’s the butter story. Every word of it is real and true. Every week I bring home a block of butter from Dan at Agora Farms from his stand at Eastern Market. I finish soups with a tablespoon or two for added richness. I’ll whisk a tablespoon into the deglazed pan juices of a sautéed chicken breast or bone-in pork chop to make a quick sauce.

This coming weekend, as part of my weekly cooking demo, I’m making Hollandaise. It has four ingredients – water, egg yolks, clarified butter and lemon juice (plus salt and white pepper). Strawberries and rhubarb are in season and I’ll make a pie next weekend as well. The dough contains flour, water, a pinch each of salt and sugar, and butter. In each case the butter is on stage, exposed, and it had better be good.

Good butter – good ingredients – matter. And they matter greatly. They also cost more.

A friend of mine passed around a blog entry listing five lessons learned from an evening with farmer, Joel Salatin. In one of those lessons, he challenges, “Do you have a cell phone? Do you have cable? Drink beer on the weekends? I bet you do. If you can afford those things, you can afford to eat good food, real food. And if you tell me you still can’t afford it, I will tell you the issue isn’t with money. It’s with priorities.”

Prioritize good food. Cut out something small this week and treat yourself to a pound of incredible, farm-fresh, Amish butter this weekend. Or local asparagus, really exceptional olive oil, or strawberries that will travel less than 50 miles from the field to your shortcakes. Good food is worth it. And so are you, your friends and your family.

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A bowl full of spring.

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Cream soups always seem institutional, the purview of cans and dining halls. At their best, they are comforting carb and fat bombs, warming us on cold, wet days. But cream soups have never been an expression of the Socratic ideal of their centerpiece, be it broccoli, mushrooms or asparagus.

When I first started working with Alice Waters’ asparagus soup recipe, it was a revelation. Potatoes and onions, not cream or flour, thicken the soup, delivering heartiness without dulling the flavor. The flavor of spring’s fresh asparagus is brought front and center by first simmering the tough ends of the stalks in stock and then cooking the tender ends of the asparagus for as short a time as possible, 5-7 minutes, before running the soup through a food mill or processing it with an immersion blender.

Two pounds of asparagus seems like a lot, but after all, this is asparagus soup and you want that to be the primary flavor. Over time I’ve learned that the soup almost always benefits from a tablespoon or two of rich, farm-fresh butter for richness and a splash of sherry vinegar to brighten the vegetables. Spoil yourself with a dollop of crème fraîche.

Creamy Asparagus Soup

  • 2 bunches asparagus, about 2 pounds
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tbs chopped parsley, reserve stems
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 2 medium red potatoes, diced
  • 2 leeks, white and light green parts thinly sliced
  • Butter
  • Sherry vinegar
  • Fresh parsley

Directions:

  • Snap tough ends from asparagus. Add to a 4 qt saucepan with stock, thyme, bay and parsley stems. Simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Melt butter in a soup pot over medium-low heat. Simmer potatoes and leeks in butter without browning. Add a little water as needed. Cook until potatoes are soft.
  • Strain stock into soup pot and cook for five minutes. Cut asparagus into 2” pieces and add to stock. Remove 10-12 tips after 3 minutes.
  • When asparagus is just tender – no more than 5-7 minutes total – pass soup through a food mill* or processor. Stir through parsley.
  • Season to taste with salt, pepper, butter and vinegar. Garnish with asparagus tips and fresh parsley.

*If you use a food mill, you will end up with a smoother soup, but some of the fibrous asparagus will be left behind. Add the stock back in a little at a time until you achieve the desired thickness.

Kale is nobody’s favorite food.

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Greens get a bad rap.

People say they are tough and bitter, the leaves big and thick, ruffly and ribbed. Those of us not blessed with a southern upbringing look slightly cross-eyed at slow-cooked, grayish collards and kale, smoky with slab bacon and sharp with vinegar. (They are a taste well worth acquiring.) With today’s busy schedules, cooking greens for hours is, at best, relegated to a Sunday supper.

That’s why I love sautéing them, cooking them quickly. Cut into thin ribbons, they no longer have the mouthfeel of a new-mown lawn. Sweet dried fruit, plumped up in concentrated balsamic vinegar cuts the greens’ bitterness and brightens the flavor – as does a healthy pinch of salt and sugar with each batch you add to the pan.

If you hate kale, or have never tried it; if you’ve read about how healthy it is and thought, “so is tee-totalling, but I’m not about to start that,” this is the time to dig in. Enjoy!

Sautéed Kale With Dried Blueberries

You can substitute dried cherries or cranberries, and any good, aged balsamic vinegar will do, but the combination of dried blueberries from Agora Farms and the richly-flavored blackberry balsamic vinegar from Sapore, is magic.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup dried blueberries*
  • 1/4 cup Blackberry balsamic vinegar*
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 pound kale, cut in thin ribbons
  • 2 tsp sugar

*Though not the time to use your 25-year aged, you can substitute any other balsamic vinegar on your shelf. Other dried fruits like cherries and cranberries are great with this recipe.

Directions:
  • Warm vinegar and blueberries in a small saucepan over medium heat, 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add shallot and sauté until softened 2-3 minutes.
  • Turn heat to medium high and add kale in batches. Sprinkle each batch with a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt. Add more when the previous batch has started to wilt.
  • Toss with blueberries and season to taste with salt, pepper, and additional Blackberry balsamic vinegar.

Putting it together.

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At Easter brunch I was speaking with my friend Amy about the live cooking demos I give at Eastern Market each Saturday. She said, “I love it! I always go to my local farmers market and have no idea what to do with the beautiful food there.” I have the same problem.

Each week I talk to the farmers at the Market and ask “what’s going to be at its prime for next weekend?” I head home with bags of food to think and study. I’ll read through recipes in four or five cook books, search on line and wait for inspiration to hit. What flavor combinations sound most exciting with this ingredient? Are there other fresh ingredients I can use? And, what will be relatively quick and easy?

Some weekends, you walk through the market and the produce just speaks to you. Fresh, young, early season arugula that isn’t too peppery yet. The temptation of early season tomatoes that you know could use a little flavor boost, and a wonderful new fresh tomato infused olive oil that I was introduced to by the folks at Sapore, the new olive oil and vinegar store near the Market. The oil takes April tomatoes and makes them taste like July.

Sometimes the ingredients just come together. And it’s truly magic.

Tomato Vinaigrette

The secret to this rich, bright tomatoey dressing is a combination of grated tomato pulp and the fresh tomato infused olive oil from Sapore*.

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3-4 large basil leaves, cut in thin ribbons
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup Ripe Tomato infused Olive Oil, or other high quality olive oil

Ingredients:

  • Cut tomato in half, scoop out seeds with your fingers and grate, cut side in, on a box grater. The skin will protect your hand from the sharp grate.
  • Mash together garlic with a pinch of salt using the flat side of the knife or the tines of a fork. Sharp, hard crystals of sea salt help shred the garlic.
  • Whisk together garlic paste, 1/4 – 1/3 cup tomato pulp, basil and vinegar. Season with black pepper.
  • Whisk in olive oil in a thin stream until thick and creamy. Season to taste with salt pepper and more vinegar or oil as desired.

*”You want me to buy an entire bottle of olive oil for one recipe?” Absolutely! First, this dressing is delicious and you’ll make it again and again. Secondly, you’ll want leftover oil to drizzle over your early or late season tomato sauces to give them fresh, summer flavor.

Never turn down good advice.

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Celery root is a disturbingly ugly vegetable with tan skin and a gnarly, knobby top. Once the top is cut away and the skin peeled, it reveals creamy, slightly starchy flesh, with the sharp, but delicate flavor of celery. It is generally served roasted, braised or boiled – mostly in purées and soups, like this one that I served at Eastern Market last fall.

Last week, Dan from Agora Farms suggested trying it raw in a coleslaw with poppyseed dressing. I never turn down the advice of someone who knows his produce well enough to check the pH of a melon to see if it’s at the perfect stage of ripeness, so I headed into the kitchen.

The shredded celery root was delicate and easily overpowered by other flavors. Researching poppyseed dressings, I discovered two types: oil-based and mayonnaise or yogurt-based. The lighter-flavored, oil-based option was definitely the right choice. They also contain a lot of sugar, which again sounded overpowering. The milder sweetness and floral notes of honey seemed a better choice, and played perfectly with the herbal flavor of the celery root.

The finished product was fantastic. Definitely a keeper. And remember, Dan gives good advice. In fact, his whole team does. Ask for some this weekend.

Celery Root Slaw

The texture of the raw celery root is a bit grainy when you first prepare it. Give this dish a little time to come together in the fridge – at least a half hour. It is even better made a day ahead.

Ingredients:

For dressing:

  • 3 tbs grated onion
  • 1/2 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp Hungarian paprika
  • 1 tsp poppy seeds
  • 1-2 tbs honey
  • 1/4 cup Sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil*

For salad:

  • 2 cups grated celery root
  • 1 tbs chopped fennel fronds or tarragon
  • 1 tbs chopped parsley

Directions:

  • Begin dressing: Whisk together onion, mustard, paprika, poppy seeds, honey, vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside.
  • Toss together celery root, parsley, and fennel fronds or tarragon in a medium bowl.
  • Finish dressing:  whisk in oil in a thin, steady stream. It will form a creamy emulsion. Season to taste with salt, and pepper. Adjust vinegar and honey to achieve desired sweetness/acidity.
  • Toss salad with a couple tablespoons of dressing. Add more to taste. The celery root is distinct, but mild and you don’t want to cover up the flavor. Let rest for thirty minutes before serving.

* “Why not olive oil?” you ask, with the derisive scorn we all reserve for evil oils that come in large, plastic bottles. Olive oil is a powerful flavor. Vegetable oil is fairly neutral. Grape seed oil is neutral as well, and would be a great alternative.

Comfort food.

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On the last Saturday morning in March, cool and with a constant, unrealized threat of rain in the air, the marble potatoes tossed with sautéed Oyster mushrooms were the perfect comfort food. Hearty, earthy and coated in a bit of farm-fresh fat. This is where great ingredients truly matter: firm, small potatoes – each a perfect bite, low in starch so they are light, not gummy. Fresh Oyster mushrooms are delicate and mild but still earthy, chopped fine and sautéed they have no tough chew. Anchovy paste makes the flavors come alive in your mouth without ever making itself known, leading from behind. And, of course, farm-fresh Amish butter, lightly salted, tasting of rich cream and new spring grass. Truly a pocketful of marbles, a simple prize, deeply treasured.

Wild Mushroom Tossed Potatoes

Eat the leftovers for breakfast the next morning, at room temperature. Or make a fresh batch.

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 cups marble or fingerling potatoes
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 2 cups finely chopped oyster mushrooms
  • 1/4 tbs anchovy paste
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tbs chopped thyme
  • 1 tbs chopped parsley
  • 2 tbs butter

Directions:

  • Bring a pot of water to boil, salt and add potatoes cook until they can be easily pierced through with a fork, but are still firm. If using fingerling potatoes, cut them into 1″ pieces as soon as they are cool enough to handle.
  • Heat oil in large pan over medium heat. Sauté mushrooms until soft, 3-5 minutes.
  • Add anchovy paste and shallots to center of pan and cook 2 minutes, until shallot begins to soften.
  • Add wine and cook until nearly evaporated.
  • Add herbs and butter. Cook one minute longer.
  • Toss potatoes with mushrooms. If potatoes have cool, cook a minute or two until they have warmed through.

NOTE: The mushroom sauce is also wonderful over pasta. Or just about anything else. Try it with roast chicken or a sautéed pork chop.