Thursday, April 30, 2009

First Harvest

As I was poking around in the garden this afternoon mourning the fact that the "last danger of frost" STILL isn't past and it'll be another week before I can even plant any vegetable outside, I almost stepped right into the middle of a big clump of chives. Actually, I have three. Big full clumps of chives, with buds forming.

A tender, mild member of the onion family, chives grow in clumps and look sort of like a big strong patch of overgrown grass until the buds fill out and burst into balls of tiny purple and white flowers. Chives are perennial even in New England, they self-seed so the patch just keeps on expanding, and they come up early (right alongside the first round of grass) and mature fast. Chives work perfectly in containers or in the ground, and start well from seed.

Chives often appear as a garnish, so because I rarely find the time to dribble or sprinkle on little goodies just so a dish is pretty, I rarely use them. But every spring, when they burst out in my garden, I remember that in large quantity, chives qualify as a full-on ingredient. They can be used anywhere you'd use a green onion, and most places you'd use other onions. Chives taste a lot like they look, green, and are best raw, though they cook nicely in certain things like omelettes and quiche. My favorite places to use them are in marinades and salads. In salads, the chive buds are delicious and beautiful - use them before they open as they get a little big and unwieldy once the little purple flowers peep out.

The lemon-olive oil marinade Renee just put in is one of my all-time favorites. The other, and a nice change of pace, is this:

Sweet and green marinade for beef or chicken

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
2-3 T tabasco sauce
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
1/2 cup chopped chives

In a saucepan, melt butter, then add all ingredients except chives and stir until sugar is fully dissolved. Remove from heat. Add chives. Pour over meat in a plastic bag and marinate in refrigerator for 2-24 hours.

Greek Salad with chives

There are a few base items that to me make a salad Greek: feta cheese and chick peas. Then there are a few others that make a full Greek salad: Kalamata olives, tomato, cucumber, red pepper, and onions. Usually, I use thinly sliced red onions in my Greek salads and because I don't like them too strong I try to slice them the night before I want to use them and then soak them in the fridge in a container with water and a pinch of sugar. But this time of year, I use chives!

4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 can chick peas, drained
1/2 cup Kalamata olives
2 tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1/2 cup chopped chives plus a small handful of buds

To dress a Greek salad, I use a lemon vinaigrette or a balsamic vinaigrette:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice or balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. mustard

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Season of the Grill

It's finally warm, which means it's grill time. Oh yeah. Which brings up the age-old problem I have: I start major fires in my gas grill. No one I talk to can explain it, but I do. Black smoke, huge flames, ruined dinner. It's been cleaned by the two king gas grillers I know, and it still happens a few times a year. But that aside, it's still a delightful way to cook. A study just came out about how blackened meat is carcinogenic, which makes my method a bit tough, but assuming you are a decent griller, without my fire problem, you should be able to enjoy many delightful meals cooked outside.

Marinated steak

A few hours prior to grilling, marinate steak in the following mixture, being sure to turn a few times for even coverage:

This will work for 1 to 2 steaks; double as needed.

1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 or 5 cloves garlic, minced

Just before grilling, brush off majority of marinade to avoid excess burning. Heat gas grill to very hot or use hottest part of charcoal grill and sear steak on one side for a minute. Flip over and turn gas grill to medium low or on charcoal move to cooler part, and cook until done.

Onion cradles

Cut onions into quarters and put in a bowl with toasted sesame oil, salt, and pepper. Stir gently. Place on grill and cook over medium heat. As the bottom layer browns, remove it to a cooler spot and cook next layer, until entire onion is separated and gently browned.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

So Close

We joined one of the wonderful vegetable and fruit CSAs that operate in the Boston area! We chose Red Fire Farm because it has a pick-up in our neighborhood, but I took so long to sign up that we've had to settle for the Cambridge pick-up location. So a note on CSA membership: January and early February are the times to shop around and join: by late February and March many of them are already full. Anyone still looking to find a CSA can check out the great list compiled by the Boston Globe.

But that doesn't start till June, and though yummy early spring things like asparagus, spring lettuce, rhubarb, and pea shoots are ready for local sale a few hundred miles to our South, they're really not quite seasonal and local in New England yet. It's a good time to be expansive in our idea of local, but it's also a good time to remember the non-vegetable things that are seasonal and local. Like the delicious meat we've been getting for several months now from the Stillman Farms meat CSA. The next delivery is this weekend, and so I'm down to the last of last month's share: the things I didn't know quite what to do with, or was trying to avoid using for some other reason.

Here's what was left: stew beef and a huge two-inch thick, almost two-pound hunk of bacon.

I love beef stew, but have basically one beef stew, the boeuf bourguignon from the Gourmet cookbook, that I make and while it's delicious, my whole family is tired of it. So I tried a few pages over in Gourmet, and found a wonderful recipe for Ropa Vieja, which I modified a good deal to come up with this half-crock-pot delight.

Ropa Vieja

To prepare the beef, boil in a large pot of water for 1 1/2-2 hours:
1 1/2 pounds stew beef
2 carrots, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 tsp. latin oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 T salt
1/2 bay leaf
1 tsp peppercorns

Let cool for about 30 minutes, then strain the liquid and save as beef stock. Pick out the beef and shred it. Compost the rest.

In the meantime, saute for about 10 minutes
3 red peppers, seeded and cut into strips
1 large red onion, cut into strips

Now, put into a crock pot
the shredded beef
the sauted peppers and onions
1 can or jar of whole or chopped stewed tomatoes or 2-3 roughly chopped tomatoes
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp ground pepper

cook on low for 4-5 hours

Serve with rice

Spinach Salad

This is Darla Alexander's spinach salad recipe, modified to accomodate the slab o bacon, which is really a treat to work with, being in fact just like the French version of bacon, "lardons."

Cut 1/2 pound slab of bacon into fingernail-sized pieces. I find it best to cut the bacon when it's frozen. Saute, with salt and pepper, until just beginning to brown. Put onto paper towels to drain off excess fat.

In the meantime, rinse and rip 4 cups of spinach into bite-sized pieces, slice 2 cups of mushrooms, and toss together.

In a saucepan, combine
2 T soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
4 tsp. vegetable oil
1 large garlic clove, whole
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp ground pepper

bring to a boil and then immediately remove from heat. Toss warm bacon and warm dressing over salad and serve immediately.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Planting Prep and Comfort Pasta

The last frost date in Boston is somewhere around the end of April. Every place I look says something else, but they average out to this, and that is what I'm going with. Except that I'm impatient and want to do it NOW! So, I'm going to start tomorrow, when my cousin comes to help. We're going to put the gardening beds together and buy the vermiculite and peet moss. I'm psyched.

I have 24 beautiful tomato seedlings, which is way more than will fit in my square foot garden, so I'm going to try something my friend explained: hanging tomato plants. You cut a hole in a spackle or similarly-sized clean bucket, on the bottom. It should be big enough to fit the tomato seedling into. Place an old panty-hose or tights or mesh fruit bag on the bottom (with a hole to fit the seedling through) to hold the dirt in. Put the seedling through the mesh and the hole in the bucket, so the roots are inside and the stem and leaves out. Put dirt in around the plant, put the top of the bucket on, and hang from the handle. Water the tomato from the top of the bucket. Supposedly, the plants support their own weight better than when they grow standing up.

Comfort pasta

3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil
4 or 5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, diced
1 lb. ground turkey
1 eggplant, cubed
1 lb. pasta (if spaghetti or linguine, break into smaller pieces)
30 oz. canned tomatoes (if whole, break up or use sauce or crushed) or 2 to 3 fresh tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 lb. mozzarella, broken up into small bite-sized pieces

In a large pot (I use a Dutch oven), saute garlic and onion in olive oil.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a separate pot. Drain when cooked.

When onion is softened, add ground turkey and cook, breaking meat up, until well browned.

Add eggplant. Cook 5 minutes.

Add tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add pasta and cheese, mixing well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fish Bake

The cold of New England Spring feels almost worse than the January chill because in April somehow when I see sun out, or even clouds, I expect something if not warm at least mild. And I’ve put away my silk long underwear and no longer think of getting up at 4am to turn on the oven so there’s warm bread and warm kitchen to eat it in when the family stirs. Luckily, I did remember about slow baked dinners, the kind that keep you warm from late afternoon through evening and beyond as the house holds the rich smell of warm food long after it’s all digested. The light fish (Cod and Haddock) that’s just come into wonderful season makes me think of grills and quick pan-fries with the occasional broiler version, but this slow-baked dish gets the best of the fresh fish and the brisk air that are, alas, both perfectly seasonal. I don’t usually like the smell of a fishy house, but something about the other things that go into this dish make even old fish smell good.

Mediterranean Fish Bake

2 lbs Cod or Haddock (or any white fish-sole and tilapia work well)
3 red, white, or yellow onions, thinly sliced
5-6 sliced tomatoes or 1 jar or can of last summer’s chopped beauties
2 cups kalmata olives
1 lb feta cheese
¼ bottle white wine
Juice of 2 lemons
Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 350. Line the bottom of a baking dish with half of the onions, tomatoes, olives, and feta. Lay fish across evenly. Salt and pepper. Top with the other half of the onions, tomatoes, olives, and feta. Drizzle with wine and lemon juice. Cover tightly with tin foil and bake for at least 45 minutes and up to 90 minutes. (It’ll be done after 45 minutes, but won’t get tough or dry for quite a while longer.

This dish also works beautifully in the crock pot. Everything’s the same except cook on low 4-8 hours.

If you don’t love fish, this also works perfectly with chicken.

Serve with rice to catch the yummy sauce.

Monday, April 13, 2009


My junior year in college, seven of us shared a 7-bedroom house in Miami. I could tell you many stories about that place and its occupants, but that's for another time. What I will share is my French roommate's recipe for crepes. He and I had many odd conversations in the kitchen, trying to translate the metric system into our cup/tablespoon system (is there a name for that?). Stephane had an old cookbook, probably from generations back, of French culinary classics, but, alas, how to convert? He would approximate the metric amount with his hands or say "it's about the size of one egg," and I would guess how many cups, etc. it would be. Ah, the hilarity that insued. That was ancient time, before the internet, or at least before what we think of today, so there was no google to run to. Anyway, long story short, for my troubles, Stephane bestowed upon me his recipe for crepes. They are a staple in my home for breakfast or dessert. We rarely stray to savory crepes, though it would be easy to throw in cheese and ham and veggies instead of chocolate and fruit. I feel a little odd divulging this recipe, but it is so delightful, I think it should be shared. Enjoy.

Stephane's crepes

In a blender, add:

2 cups milk
2 cups white flour
2 to 3 eggs, depending on size
a small splash safflower (or similar) oil
a sprinkle salt

Blend until smooth and then add more milk until it is thin like melted ice cream. Put in the fridge for at least an hour. Batter lasts 3 or 4 days, though we hardly ever have any left after the second day.

Heat a shallow pan (I use my 10-inch All Clad; non-stick works well if you have it). When good and hot, rub bottom with butter and pour in enough batter to coat in a thin layer. Cook until not sticking and turn with a spatula or flip with the pan. Add chocolate chips and fruit or honey or sugar or butter or lemon, etc., in a stripe down the middle and fold in both sides so it is rolled up. Slide onto a plate and voila! Add more butter to the pan before each crepe.

Stephane wrote into the recipe that the first crepe is for the pan and is always bad. I have to say, I think I have overcome that curse and can get the first one to be pretty nice. The trick is a hot pan.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Some days, I just want to order out, to eat out, to find some way not to cook dinner myself. Of course, those days come about because I'm overworked or overstressed in some other part of my life, and so I haven't had time to look around for any new idea to inspire, or even to go to the grocery story to buy anything to get inspired by (or even to use). And by Murphy's Law, those are also days when there is some practical reason why it really would be best if I cooked. By now it's day three or five (I stopped counting) like this, and I've even used up all of my old standbys. Or so I think. This one was so dusty that when Blanca asked, to help me out, "do we have any clams?" I said "no" and wondered how on earth she thought I'd have stopped at the grocery story to get fresh clams if I didn't even have time to... Then, very slowly, it dawned on me: she wasn't talking about fresh clams. Before I discovered my quick tomato-meat sauce, my old fast pasta standby was pasta with clams. It's about as easy as they come and popular with kids, though seasonal only in as much as it's always this time in the year when I reach this kind of burnout.

Pasta with Clams

serves 3-4
3 cans chopped clams, drained
2 T butter
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 cup grated romano or parmesan cheese
1 lb pasta

Cook and drain the pasta, toss in other indredients, and serve with extra romano or parmesan cheese for sprinkling.

At various moments, I've tried fancying this up by adding all sorts of white wine sauces, and honestly this bare bones version is best. The only way to turn this fancy is to go all the way and use fresh clams. If you are going that far, poach about 1 lb of fresh clams in champagne (Bring 3/4 bottle of champagne to a rapid boil, toss in the clams, shucked and cleaned, for 5-10 minutes). In the meantime make a light sauce by simmering for with the rest of the champagne, juice from 1/2 lemon, 1 tsp lemon zest,salt and pepper. When pasta is cooked, toss with clams, sauce,1/2 cup chopped parsley and 1 cup grated romano.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Asparagus Spring

Asparagus is popping up in the grocery stores now, much to my delight. Look for thin shoots that are not dried out at the bottom. Ideally, the store will keep it on ice.

A nice way to perk up herbs and greens, and even asparagus, is to treat them like flowers. An hour or so before you want to use a limpish item, trim the bottom and put into a glass of cool water. I sometimes just put fresh herbs into water right away and keep them on the counter to double as a bouquet and to use whenever I see them.

Roasted Asparagus Two Ways

Preheat oven to 375.
Snap stalks off at the bottom where they naturally break.

First way: on cookie sheet, add olive and/or toasted sesame oil, salt, and pepper. Roll stalks in oil mix and spread out evenly. Roast until tender and tops getting crispy, approximately 20 minutes.

Or: In a broiler grate/pan combo (usually comes with your oven), put a 1/4 to a 1/2 inch of water. Put grate down and place stalks evenly on it. Drizzle with toasted sesame oil and sprinlke with salt and pepper. Roast until tender, approximately 20 minutes.

Asparagus Strawberry Salad

I bunch asparagus
1 cup strawberries
Balsamic vinegar

Steam asparagus over water until bright green and just tender.
Cut into bite-sized pieces and put in a bowl
Cut strawberries in half or quarters, depending on size, and add to asparagus
Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with salt and pepper

Thursday, April 2, 2009

There’s stock and then there’s…

A few months ago, in a post on soup, I mentioned making stock and gave my basic recipe. What I didn’t mention, was that I was relatively new to stock-making. What I didn’t know was that I was a novice.

Let me explain: I always knew how cheap, easy, and delicious home-made stock is, but somehow I never got into the habit. Every time I looked at the price on the boxes or cans of chicken broth as I tossed them into my cart, I would shudder. And I’d curse myself when I forgot to get enough of those and ended up with water and bullion cubes as my soup base. Somehow, the simplicity of just making my own stock took a long time to sink in. It shouldn’t have. I grew up with pots of stock simmering in the big cast iron pot on the back of the stove all winter and jars of it defrosting in the sink all summer. Was I grossed out by skimming the fat off the top of a cooled jar before taking it down to the freezer? Did I somehow mistake how long the pot boiled for how much work it took to make the stock? Luckily, whatever it was that I had to get over, I’ve finally gotten over.

Having an extra freezer started the change: there might be someplace good to store 2 or 4 cup containers. And not having a compost pile left me staring in a different way at carrot peels and leek ends. That’s where I was the last time I wrote about stock. In the meantime I’ve discovered, not all stock is the same. In fact, you can set up different stocks that will be ideal for different soups. I now have a whole array of stocks that not only make my soups rich and fully home-made, but deliciously distinct and perfectly paired from start to finish.

All of my stocks have a similar base:

Left-over meat: chicken is the easiest because the carcass is always left over and untouched after a whole roast chicken. I’ve started to keep the different meats separate because they each have a distinct flavor and because of friends who stay away from various specific meats.
Celery tops and ends
Left over onion bits (I’ve read that onion skin can make a stock bitter, but I have not had that experience)
Carrot tops, bottoms, and skin
The bottoms and tops of any kind of green (kale bottoms, carrot tops…)
A garlic clove

Then the real fun begins…

Italian stock: add a hunk of parmesan or romano cheese, the hard rind works perfectly, and some basil and parsley

French stock: add a bouquet garni (thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano) and leek tops

Mexican stock: add a dried chile, mexican oregano, cilantro, and a little cumin

Asian stock: add a dried Chinese red pepper, ginger, green onion tops and bottoms, and one star anise

One exception: beef broth made only from the water left over from boiled flank steak or skirt steak that I later use in various Mexican dishes. The simplicity of this stock is wonderful.

For any and every stock, simmer on low heat 1-4 hours or cook in a crock pot on low 4-8 hours.

In the past week, I’ve made two scrumptious soups using these different bases

Looks Like Spring Soup

2 cups beef stock
2 cups French stock
4 carrots, roughly diced
2 cups chopped parsley
2 cups frozen or fresh lima beans
1 cup orzo

Bring stocks to a boil. Add carrots and cook about 10 minutes. Add lima beans and parsley and cook 10 more minutes. Add orzo and cook 10 more minutes.

Mexican chicken soup with corn
4 cups Mexican stock
½ pound chicken breast, cut into small squares
1 jar or can of diced tomatoes
1 jar or can of green salsa (tomatillos, cilantro, jalapenos, onion)
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 cups chopped cilantro
½ onion
2-3 limes

Sauté the chicken in the bottom of a soup pot. Add in stock, tomatoes, green salsa, and juice of one lime. Bring to a boil, then simmer 30 minutes. Add corn and cilantro and cook 10 minutes more. Meanwhile, finely chop ½ onion. Set out small bowls with chopped onion, remaining cilantro, and remaining lime(s) cut into quarters--after hot soup is poured into bowls, people add these in as condiments. Serve with corn tortillas.

Crock Pot Variation: put chicken, stock, tomatoes, green salsa, and juice of one line in crock pot. Cook on low 4-8 hours. Proceed as above.