Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spring Stir Fry

In late May and early June, I find the hardest part of gardening to be all of the waiting. I have to hold myself back from going out to the garden two, three, or four times a day to scrutinize my little shoots for infinitesimal growth. If I can keep away for a few days--restricting myself to weeding the flower garden by the front stairs and trying to create a little lawn area--the payoff is incredible. Where Monday were little pokes today are pinkey-sized lettuce leaves. The mounds where I thought my cucumber seeds had rotted are now doppled with little pairs of leaves. And where last week were inch-high pea sprouts, today are hand-high plants with tendrils happily wrapping around the tomato cages I decided to use in place of trellis. I didn't quite plant enough peas to feel comfortable harvesting the shoots, and my plants still have another week or two before they even flower, but I have fresh peas on the mind, and in anticipation of finding them back-yard local, I went out and bought some semi-local snow peas for my favorite fresh-pea dish: stir-fry.

Spring Stir-Fry

Stir-fry is one of the fastest, easiest, most delicious meals. It's almost all prep, but since I'm someone who often preps as I go, let me take moment to say: here's one dish where it's really important to do all the prep first. Otherwise, you'll risk over-cooking which is the one thing that can ruin a stir-fry.

Stir-fry has spring, summer, and fall variations. Here's the basis for my spring stir-fry.

I use a sauce inspired by The Joy of Cooking:
1/4 c. soy sauce
2 T rice wine
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 T corn starch

Mix the sauce. If you're using shrimp (4-6 cooked, peeled, and deveined shrimp per person) or a meat (1/8 lb beef, chicken, or pork sliced very thin and cut into little strips), toss it in the sauce and let sit while you prepare the vegetables.

peel and thinly slice a 1-2 inch chunk of ginger
get out a container of hot oil

Prepare veggies

1-2 cups snow or snap peas, trimmed with strings pulled off
4 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces and then sliced lengthwise
2 cups bean sprouts

Cut into 1/2-inch cubes and set aside: 1 block of firm or extra-firm tofu

Heat 2 T vegetable or peanut oil in a wok or large pan. Keeping the heat quite high the entire time, add hot oil and ginger and toss or stir around for less than 1 minute. Add shrimp or meat and cook until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove meat with juices from pan and set aside. Add a little more oil, then peas and green onions and toss until peas are just tenderly cooked, about 2 minutes. Add meat, bean sprouts, and tofu and toss very gently for less than 1 minute. Remove from heat and serve immediately, with rice.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Weekend of Haphazard Gardening and Cooking

I love long weekends at home. We rarely go away for Memorial Day, and while I always feel a twinge of jealousy when friends drive off to the beach or the mountains, I mostly feel glad I'm not. It's quiet at home and with no one around, we have nothing to do. Hence, home things. I've been gardening all weekend, in fits and starts, weeding here, transplanting there. I'll overhear a snippet from my stepmother or a friend about hollyhocks needing sun or lily of the valley liking sandy soil (I'm making all of this up, but you get the idea), and I'm off, rearranging, filling in holes, buying more favorites at the local garden center.

I had a lovely surprise the other week, upon returning from a week long trip to Nebraska: we had gorgeous pink and purple columbines blooming in the front yard. I vaguely remember buying the seeds three summers ago. I knew nothing about them but had seen them in Colorado and thought that they were lovely. So, I planted them, having no idea what the greenery looked liked. They never came up, and I remember thinking that the seeds must have been bad or I under-watered or the like. So, it was an unexpected pleasure to see them up, and they had lovely greens that I had seen for two summers and specifically not pulled, even though I was pretty sure they were considered to be weeds.

Last year I got some rhubarb from Keja, as she mentioned, and I put it in a nice sunny spot in my flower bed. It is thriving. I had another small rhubarb plant in another spot where very little ever grows. I cannot figure out why, since it's sunny and protected from running children, but I usually end up moving whatever I've planted there. So, a few weeks ago, I moved the other rhubarb next to Keja's. It's slowly looking alive again. It's all about experimenting. Or at least, that's how I go about it. Haphazard gardening is fun.

Strawberry rhubarb pie with an orange twist

Inspired by Keja's post, I went out and cut some rhubarb. It was pretty small and I only got about 3/4 of a cup full. I had imagined a full-sized strawberry rhubarb pie, overflowing with fruit. Instead, I used a cake pan and half of a pie crust recipe. I cut up about 2 cups of large strawberries into quarters. I put them in a bowl with the rhubarb slices and added the zest of one orange. I also added about 1/4 cup of the orange juice and a bit under one half cup of sugar. I don't like using sugar in fruit pies but rhubarb is a special case because it is so sour. I often use honey in a fruit pie, but rhubarb gets watery, as does honey, so I caved and used sugar. Anyway, I used just over half the crust on the bottom of the pan and covered it with the rest. I cooked it at 400 degrees for 20 minutes and turned it down to 350 for another 40 or so, until it was browning a bit on top.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Alongside the chives, the rhubarb began to reach little red-green pokers through the half-frozen earth about a month ago. When I turned the soil to get ready for planting a few weeks ago, I went carefully around the little clump of hand-sized leaves. Their lone presence in that section of the garden was a bittersweet reminder of the harsh realities of New England Spring: only a sinewy pioneer with poison-laced leaves ventures out in April, but there it is, with its bold rich colors bravely settling the bare planes of my back yard.

Rhubarb takes a little longer than chives to be ready for harvest; since you do have to wait past the leaves for the stems to be about finger-thick (they’re usually at least 4 inches long by then). But as soon as you have enough to add up to about ¼ pound (six little stems around this time of year), you can start to snip them off. The more you snip, the more they’ll grow back. I cut off the leaves right there in the garden and toss them onto the compost pile or into a corner (they decompose quite quickly).

Rhubarb isn’t native to New England. Like so many of us who thrive here, it arrived from Asia via Europe probably in the early 19th century. And though rhubarb roots (rhizomes) have been used in Chinese and Greek medicine for thousands of years, the stems only became popular in food around the 17th century, when sugar was becoming a regular ingredient. Rhubarb stems are sour on their own, and most rhubarb recipes are dessert recipes that call on plenty of sweetener and often also a sweet spring fruit like strawberries or raspberries. Last week I jumped on that band wagon and made a delicious rhubarb-strawberry crumb cake that I found in Martha Stewart Living, but my favorite use of rhubarb is actually in savory dishes. A few years ago, overwhelmed by the production of my two huge rhubarb plants (I passed one off on Renee last year and have been much happier since), I started putting rhubarb into everything. In stir-fry, sautéed with greens, and in soup, it’s pretty much a disaster. But in barbecue sauce and glazes, it’s fantastic.

Rhubarb Barbecue Sauce

The super-easy way to do this is to take a bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce, and put it into a pot with about six rhubarb stems, chopped into ½-inch pieces. Bring to a simmer, stirring often, and cook until the rhubarb is mostly dissolved, about 20 minutes. The rhubarb adds a wonderful tangy depth to any barbecue sauce.

Slightly more adventurous, but quite fun and still pretty easy, is to make your own rhubarb barbecue sauce from scratch. You can mix and match these basic ingredients

About 1/3-cup tomato paste or ketchup

A few tablespoons Worstechire sauce

A few tablespoons Rice wine vinegar

A dash of Bourbon or another hard alcohol

Salt and pepper

Pinch of sugar or honey

6 stems rhubarb, washed and chopped into ½-inch pieces

Water to the consistency that you prefer (I like it thick, so I put in a scant ¼ cup of water)

Put everything into a pan, bring to a gentle simmer and cook until rhubarb are mostly dissolved, about 20 minutes. You can use this as a marinade or as a baste-on or both! I think it’s best with chicken but it’s very good with beef and pork as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Garden Blues (A Lament about squirrels)

Yesterday, as I was peacefully eating lunch with my 20-month old daughter, I looked out the kitchen window, to proudly survey the joy that is my newly planted garden, and saw, to my dismay, a huge, insane squirrel running around under the squirrel-proof netting, trying to get out. I ran down, blind with rage and screaming at him, which only freaked him out more.

He was like a circus performer, using the net as a trapeze, and my tomato plants as his trampoline. I tried to help him out but he was understandably afraid of me, and probably had his feelings hurt by the obscenities I was laying down on him, so his judgment and spatial relations were a bit off. He finally escaped, taking the young lives of two of my carefully nurtured and loved tomato seedlings with him. I was so mad.

My daughter kept telling me the story of the fiasco ("out, get out" and clapping her hands) so I relived the pain for a while longer. But, after getting her down for a nap, I went out and surveyed the damage. At first I felt like a pioneer whose crop was just wiped out by locusts or hail, but then I took a deep breath and realized that I have nine other healthy tomato plants, which will produce far more than my family alone can eat. So, I took the netting off, because I'd rather them be able to get out after they get in, and planted the kale and leek seeds Keja gave me in the two spots where the tomatoes had been. I was wondering where they would go, anyway. Thanks, squirrel.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Family Secrets

Blanca’s sister Darling has taken over the kitchen, and I am in heaven. I get the double treat of being cooked for and served, and learning from the Alcaraz family master chef. From everyday standards like rice and beans to holiday delicacies like home-made tamales, Darling has perfected every Mexican dish I’ve ever dreamed of. Her recipes are hard to transcribe because in true Alcaraz family style her standard measurements are “just a little,” to “not too much,” “plenty,” and my favorite, “till it looks about right.” I probably don’t need I say, the result is always perfect.

I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and love new taste combinations, but there’s one Mexican dish I will never order: mole. The combination of chocolate, sesame seeds, hot peppers, and salty broth, usually served over chicken or enchiladas, when I’ve ordered it in restaurants, reminds me of something like spicy cardboard. I never would have imagined that mole could be the taste sensation it is when Darling makes it: perfect delight. Don’t try this in a restaurant.

Darling’s Chicken with Mole

For the chicken and broth

1 whole chicken, divided (she cuts it into legs, thighs, wings, breasts, and a few other chunks)

1 large pot of water

1 onion


Salt and pepper

Boil for about an hour, or until chicken is very tender. Remove from heat but leave chicken in hot broth.

For the mole:

About 1 cup mole. The best is Tecampana’s red mole, made in Mexico. If you have to use a brand more readily available, use Doña María (most Latin American specialty stores will carry this), and as you start to heat it add about ½ cup fresh bread crumbs.

About 1/4 cup vegetable oil

In a wok or large saucepan, heat the oil, then add the mole and stir well. Add about one cup of the chicken broth plus as much of the onion as you can get, leaving the chicken in the remaining hot broth. Stir well. Pour into a blender and blend for a few minutes. Return to suacepan or work and in about 1-cup increments and stirring constantly, add chicken broth which you continue to scoop out of the pot with the chicken still in it, now avoiding any remaining onion. Once you have 4-6 cups of broth mixed in, continue stirring while the sauce thickens. When it’s about the thickness of gravey, turn the heat off and add the chicken pieces. Cover and let sit for about 30 minutes. You can then serve, with rice, or set this aside in the fridge for up to two days and reheat. It gets better with time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Grilling Continued

Grilling is too broad of a cooking method to give one post to. It's so easy to make up a marinade and give it a try. As long as there is oil and an acidic component, you're sure to succeed. Sort of like salad dressing. Lemon juice is my go to acid, and I trade off between olive oil and toasted sesame oil. Always a ton of garlic, salt, pepper. I learned a lot about grilling from my uncle, Ethan. He is a strict hibachi grill man. He uses various types of wood, sometimes soaking them first. Anyway, the following recipe is my version of a recipe he's done for years. I can never remember his way exactly, and we both got sick of me asking, so I made it up as best I could.

Ethan-Inspired Grilled Chicken Thighs

I hate to give this tidbit up, but chicken thighs are the most tasty, the easiest to grill, and the cheapest cut of chicken. Breast schmeast. Seriously.

This recipe is easily doubled, tripled, etc. More chicken can be fit into the marinade than doubling requires, so just guess! At worst, you will need to turn the marinating chicken more to get all pieces equal coverage. At least an hour before grilling, or up to 2 or 3 for a more intense flavor, marinate 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs in the following:

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup toasted sesame oil

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup Red Hot or similar hot sauce

4 to 6 minced garlic cloves

freshly ground black pepper

Turn at least once.

Heat grill to good and hot and cook chicken until done, very approximately 15 minutes but it totally depends on grill, heat, how you cook, etc.

When cooked, sprinkle chopped cilantro over chicken. Serve with brown rice and salad. Yum.

Well, oddly enough, between writing and posting this, Ethan sent me his recipe. His ears must have been burning. Or he must have sensed the disgrace I was placing on his good name at the complete hack job I did of remembering his recipe. I will say, I like my version and it works well. But Ethan's is spectacular, so here it is. Enjoy.

Ethan’s Pan-Asian Chicken Thighs

20 – 24 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Juice from fresh limes, lemons, and oranges (3 – 4 of each)

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 cup good-quality tamari, (San-J is a good choice)

1/3 – 1/2 cup Sriracha sauce

6 garlic cloves, pressed through garlic press

2 tablespoons fresh, grated ginger

3 tablespoons toasted sesame seed oil

1/2 – 2/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together citrus juices, brown sugar, tamari, and Sriracha until sugar is dissolved. Stir in garlic and ginger and then whisk in sesame seed oil until well-blended.

Put the chicken in a lidded plastic storage container; give the sauce a good whisk and pour over chicken. Cover and let marinade for 1 – 2 hours in the fridge, giving the container a good shaking periodically to mix things up.

Grill over medium to medium-low heat so that there is only a little bit of blackening. You can use a turkey baster to squirt marinade on the grilling chicken once or twice. (You can also bring the remaining marinade to a boil and reduce until thickened slightly to serve with finished chicken for those adventuresome souls that like it spicy.)

Arrange grilled chicken on a platter and and sprinkle liberally with chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Proof Is In The Fool

I love many things about being a teacher, but sometimes I look around and wonder: what do I have to show for all of this work? Final projects and end-of-term assessments only show what students have processed over the course of the semester; the real proof of effective teaching as far as I’m concerned is if six months, six years, sixty years later my students find themselves drawing on, being inspired by, work that they did in a class with me. I’m sure one of the reasons I so love to cook lies in the immediacy of the result. But this semester proof came in the form of an email asking to retrieve an old final project. Soon Robbin Crandall was in my office talking about her plans for pieces and ideas developed in the Food Writing course I taught last Fall. But actually, I can take little credit. Robbin is a foodie and a writer, an accomplished home cook with gourmet tendencies and patience for the aesthetics of presentation that I can only admire from afar. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce Robbin Crandall as a guest contributor. I think this will not be the last time we’ll hear from her.

“New England Spring-Summer Recipes”
by Robbin Lynn Crandall

Anyone who has spent any time at all in New England probably knows that some years, spring can tend to bleed into summer, with the lines of demarcation between the two being somewhat blurry and squishy. And along with that smudgy line between spring and summer, comes a pretty fuzzy line between spring and summer fruits and vegetables as well. But we just go ahead and give both seasons the benefit of the doubt because it is during both that we get some of the finest and most tender fruits and vegetables.

So if we have to go working in the mud of the garden a bit to get at that first tender spring bounty, then so be it. It’s worth it. For those of us who are a bit faint-hearted and know that digging around in the mud is not exactly our thing, there’s always the anticipation of the first open farmers’ market or farm stand. Oh, one will still likely encounter mud and have to go traipsing through it from the parking lot to the stand itself, but there’s a lot less to deal with in a parking lot than wrestling with it oneself out in the garden.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes that use those first lovely spring-summer fruits and vegetables: tender, young asparagus; succulent, red rhubarb; and plump, juicy raspberries; all of which are so plentiful during our best New England spring-summers. 
Smoked Turkey Salad with Raspberries and Asparagus

Inspired by the recipe in Country Living Magazine, June 1996
12 stalks (about ½ lb.) asparagus
Raspberry Vinaigrette (recipe follows)4 slices (4-oz.) smoked turkey breast, about ¼” thick each
4 c. mixed salad greens
½ c. (½ half-pint basket) fresh red raspberries

1. Trim and discard tough stems of asparagus stalks. (Once trimmed, if the ends are still tough or pithy, I also peel them a bit with a vegetables peeler.) In a 3-qt. saucepan, heat asparagus and enough water to cover to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook one minute. Drain asparagus in colander and set aside to cool to room temperature.
2. Prepare Raspberry Vinaigrette. Set aside in blender.
3. To serve, arrange three stalks asparagus side by side on each of four serving plates. Place one slice of turkey on top of asparagus. Cover stems of asparagus on each plate with one cup of salad greens. Divide fresh raspberries among serving plates. Pulse Raspberry Vinaigrette in blender several times; pour into pitcher and serve over salad.
Raspberry Vinaigrette:
In blender, blend: ¼ c. olive oil, 3 Tbls. raspberry vinegar, 2 Tbls. fresh raspberries, 2 tsps. sugar and 1/8 tsp. salt.
Serves: 4 main-course salads

¬Roasted Asparagus
Robbin Lynn Crandall

1 lb. asparagus
2 -4 Tbls. olive oil
Kosher salt

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Trim and discard tough stems of asparagus stalks. (Again, peel ends if necessary.) Cut into diagonal 1-inch pieces. Toss the asparagus in a bowl with the olive oil. There should be enough oil to coat the asparagus, but not enough to puddle in the bottom of the bowl.
2. Turn asparagus out onto a baking sheet and place in the oven. Roast for about 10-12 minutes, or until the asparagus is sizzling and is a bit wrinkly and browned, stirring once or twice.
3. Remove from oven, sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper and serve.

Rhubarb-Ginger Fool

The original recipe, which I’ve modified, comes I think from somewhere in my cookbook collection, but I can’t seem to actually find it. Wherever it comes from, it is
guaranteed to delight rhubarb and ginger lovers alike!

1 ½ to 2 lb. rhubarb, ends trimmed (about 8-10 short stalks)¾ c. granulated sugar, more or less to taste
2 Tbls. chopped candied ginger
2 Tbls. freshly grated ginger
1-1 ½ c. heavy cream

If the rhubarb stalks are more than 1-inch thick, cut them in half lengthwise; trim ends. Cut the stalks into 1-inch long pieces. In a stainless-steel or non-stick Calphalon pan with a tight-fitting lid, combine the rhubarb, sugar, candied ginger, and fresh ginger.*** (You will be tempted to add water, but there’s no need to add any; though it will look dry at first, the rhubarb will release enough water to cook without scorching.) Cover and cook over low heat (if using the non-stick pan, start with a medium-high heat and lower once the rhubarb starts to bubble) until the rhubarb is tender and falling apart, about 30 minutes. Let cool and then refrigerate until well chilled.

Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Gently fold in the chilled rhubarb mixture until well combined. Spoon into serving glasses and chill until ready to serve. Decorate with mint leaves and/or extra pieces of chopped candied ginger, if desired.

Yield: 7 cups; serves 6.