Friday, December 9, 2011

Tea Cakes

I’d been working on a post about Brussels sprouts, when all of a sudden I woke up one morning and Wham! was on the radio singing “Last Christmas”, and the tree people had come down from Vermont to re-forest the corner of Kane & Clinton. This means, by necessity, that letters for Santa have been painstakingly scrawled in childish hand, and Good Curious Elf has begun his nightly patrols. We’ve already been swept into the whirlwind of the Christmas Spectacular and tree viewing at Rockefeller Center, and we've handed the tots off to the grandparents for the more onerous Manhattan errands. So suddenly, shredded Brussels sprouts with lemon and cappellini, as much as I love that dish, seems colossally un-special. It’s time for some baking, and I’d like to share a cookie recipe that, for us, always kick-starts the holiday season. It’s not the most original one you’ll see in this year’s cookie line-up, but it was my great-grandmother’s. That sounds even more impressive when I tell my daughters we are baking their great-great grandmother’s cookies, the ones my mom used to make with my sister and me every December.

Mrs. Julia Butterworth, known as “Juju,” lived in the tiny town of DeWitt, VA. This is not the first time I’ve written about her here. Since she reached the venerable age of 96 I got to know her for a handful of years, but those being my youngest years I only caught her in glimpses, which at this point in my life have gotten muddled together in a grainy black-and-white montage. I imagine her with a nimbus of snow-white hair and old-fashioned eyeglasses, slimly built and simply dressed, with a sweet, old-lady smile. I suppose, now, I know her more from Mom’s stories than anything else and can almost feel the feeling of climbing in between cold sheets in her guest bedroom, peering out at the dark shadows that gathered in the corners of her old farmhouse. I can hear the birds chirp in the morning as I imagine stealing into her garden to pull sweet young turnips from the dirt, warm underfoot in the Virginia sun.

And so, following her recipe for “tea cakes,” rolling out the buttery dough and pressing down onto the cookie cutters and snapping a crisp cookie between my teeth, I almost believe I can visit with her for a while and bring my daughters along to meet her. They don’t yet appreciate time passed and memories preserved as I do, but they adore a good tea cake and beg for them year round. We’ve been known to pull out this recipe at Halloween or Valentine’s Day, too, merely as an excuse to wield cookie cutters.

There’s nothing especially elaborate or new about this recipe, it’s just a good, solid one for this old-fashioned type of cookie, which inhabits the space somewhere between a butter cookie and a sugar cookie. In spite of what the name might suggest, there’s nothing cake-y about them–especially when rolled thin as we’re in the habit of doing in my family. Juju had two different versions: the “everyday” ones baked with Fluffo instead of butter and cut thicker in the shapes of bunnies, with raisins for eyes…and then the fancy “tea cake” rendition for special occasions: made with real butter, rolled thin, cut in a variety of shapes, and decorated prettily with sprinkles. That’s the kind my mother made with us at Christmas. It was part of her slim repertoire of sweet treats, and in fact the only thing we ever baked during the holiday season. But she was a decent baker and had her opinions about how things should be done. The dough had to be stretched whisper-thin and lightly adorned, preferably with 4mm silver dragees. My sister and I used to torture her by loading on the colored sugar, as much as a cookie could physically hold, as soon as she turned her head…and gleefully watched her horror when she turned back around to discover our handiwork. As I make these cookies with my daughters every year, I catch myself falling into the same OCD patterns, tensing up as they pile on the crystallized red dye #5. But I hold myself back, letting them unleash their little creative demons.

Around here, it’s not Christmas until a round of these cookies gets made, and flour dusts the whole kitchen, and the house fills with their buttery-sweet smell. I do roll them wafer thin, a habit which demands a little more work and watchfulness (they burn in a flash). My preference is for cookies that are  golden and a little toasty around the edges, with a hint of caramelized flavor. I am also partial to the glittering dragees, even though I’m not quite sure what sort of metals we’re ingesting (note: I prefer the 2mm size to the 4mm; they’re more like birdshot than BBs and much gentler on the teeth). Brooklynites can find all sorts of pretty sprinkles, dragees, and cutters at A Cook’s Companion on Atlantic.
Truly, the best thing about these cookies always was–and still is–the raw dough. Rich and vanilla-scented, with a sugary crunch between the teeth, it is the very essence of what cookie dough should be, and there is no better anywhere. I still gobble up the scraps as I roll and cut. Mom used to give us each a beater off her 1968 hand mixer–the one she still owns in spite of the gaping hole in its casing and exposed wiring and gears within (“I keep things until they die,” she'll proudly tell you). We would strip off every atom of dough with our tongues and stick our heads into the empty mixing bowl for good measure, until somewhere along the line there was a salmonella scare, and a dough-laden beater acquired the same, suburban menace as a raccoon out in daylight or unwrapped candy on Halloween. It became every parent’s responsibility to keep cookie dough away from children’s mouths, and so Mom fell in line. Still, we managed to swipe our fingers in the dough bowl while she wasn’t looking and later, growing bolder, to steal down to the refrigerator where the dough rested, peel back the plastic wrap and break off hunks of chilled dough, which was even better, somehow, than it had been at the freshly-whipped stage. After she got wise to our ways and threatened to cut us off from Christmas sweets forever, our deceptions grew more intricate, and we honed the art of opening the fridge swiftly with a well-timed cough to mask the sound, and with a potter’s skill, of molding the dough back into place after prying off a sugary chunk.

Enjoy this recipe any way you like: pressed thin, left thick, modestly or garishly sprinkled, iced, pale, tawny at the edges, or burnt to a crisp. Enjoy the meditation of flouring the board and rolling out the dough. And if you happen to be making these with kids, savor the way you're forced to slow down a bit during the holiday season. Let go of your control freak side for a moment
and make a terrible, floury, sprinkly mess.

Juju’s Tea Cakes  
  • 2 sticks butter (8 oz.), softened at room temperature 
  • 1 ½ cups sugar (the natural kind works if it’s finely textured)  
  • 2 eggs (large sized or smaller. Just use one if they're "jumbo")  
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour plus extra for flouring cookie surface  
  • 1 tsp. good-quality vanilla extract  
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
With an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until combined. Sift dry ingredients together into a separate bowl, then add to the butter mixture in two additions. Mix until just combined. Scrape out of bowl and shape roughly into four disks, wrapping in plastic wrap or parchment. Chill for at least an hour, or overnight, until firm.

When ready to make cookies, preheat oven to 350º. Leave dough out at room temperature for 20 minutes or so, until softened and workable but still cold and somewhat firm. Prepare trays with either parchment or silpat. Ready a clean surface and rolling pin, along with some extra flour for dusting. Lightly dust your work surface and rolling pin and roll out cookie dough, working from the center outward and rotating the disk for the most even thickness. When you’ve reached about between 1/8" and 1/16” thickness (or as desired), cut out your cookies with floured cutters of your choice. Transfer to prepared cookie sheets (a dough scraper really helps) and decorate as desired. 

Bake, checking frequently, between 15 and 25 minutes. Ovens vary widely, and much depends on how thinly you've rolled your dough. When done to your likeness (I like them golden around the edges), remove tray from oven and cool cookies before handling. They keep in an airtight container for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Got Kohlrabi?

Poor kohlrabi. Hardly anyone pays it any mind. And usually if they do, they quickly dismiss it as “that-weird-alien-pod-looking-thing-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with.” Or worse, diss it as something Jabba the Hutt might snack on between frogs and monkey lizards.

This member of the cabbage family flummoxes people with its unfamiliar shape, which looks as if it must be a missing piece of something else–and surely not the edible part! But yes, that green or violet, bulbous stem (and it is, in fact a stem–not a root) is edible, and once you peel back the rough exterior, the pale celadon flesh is sweet, juicy, and versatile–and fairly cries out for all manner of preparation. If you've ever tasted the peeled stem of very fresh broccoli, think sweeter and milder and juicier, and you've got the general idea. Taste- and texture-wise, it has been compared to a cucumber or a young turnip (or a cross between the two). The dark green leaves, which may or may not still be sprouting from the kohlrabi globes by the time they arrive at market, are similar to collard greens and can be cooked in the same ways (alas, the ones pictured above arrived without their greens).
As soon as I got the hang of what to do with it, I began enjoying kohlrabi’s appearance in our CSA share and at farmers’ markets. Cooked, the vegetable becomes mellower and sweeter, holding its crispness when sautéed and stir-fried, and becoming soft and tender when steamed or boiled for longer periods of time. Cubed, it roasts nicely alongside winter squashes. Pureed into a creamy fall soup, kohlrabi becomes silky and luscious. Elizabeth Schneider, in her always useful Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, offers kohlrabi preparations from around the world, including a spiced Indian soup with chickpeas and tomato; Vietnamese spring rolls; and Swedish meatballs with baby kohlrabis (!). This recipe for kohlrabi tsatsiki, which appeared in New York Magazine, makes a tasty sauce for roasted lamb. And while I'm at it, here are some additional kohlrabi links, from Simply Recipes.

While kohlrabi is mellow and sweet when cooked, my favorite preparation is simple and raw, as a respite from all the roasted and braised fare on the fall table. At the most minimal, it can be chopped and dipped into hummus or herbed, fresh ricotta. But it’s also nice tossed in salads and slaws with other fruits of the season.

This weekend, I picked up pounds of purple kohlrabis, along with my pie pumpkin, from Marble Valley Farm in Kent, CT. Like many farms in the Northeast, this one took a beating during the freakish weather that whipped through this summer and fall. Many fall crops perished, but the tenacious little kohlrabis hung on. Any vegetable that can survive a hurricane, Biblical flooding, more flooding, and 18 inches of tree-splitting October snow is a hero in my book.

If you come across this crazy-looking vegetable in the coming weeks, why not give it a try? Better yet, include some in your Thanksgiving celebration. In the very least it will serve as a conversation starter, and you'll more than likely sell your fellow feasters on the virtues of kohlrabi. Cut the peeled globes into pretty half-moons as a seasonal addition to a healthy vegetable platter (serve raw or quickly blanched). Or if you have a bunch, as I do right now, try the slaw recipe below, which you can think of as an guideline for whatever other flavors and colors you would like to incorporate; think shredded radishes, thinly sliced celery, or a little julienned raw kale. The recipe is a variation on our go-to summer slaw, which we enjoy every 4th of July with slow-smoked pork shoulder, but this version has a bit more snap and substance, in keeping with the season. I use a little bit of mayonnaise to round the whole thing out, but if you prefer to leave the mayo out, you can certainly substitute the equivalent amount oil, or adjust to your liking. Either way, the recipe still comes across as light without being austere, and serves as a refreshing break from the barrage of ultra-rich dishes that are bound to come our way this week. 

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

Kohlrabi and apple slaw  
Serves 4-6  
  • 2 medium kohlrabis, leaves and leaf stalks removed 
  • 1 large, red crisp apple (like Ida Red or Jonagold)  
  • 6 scallions, whites and pale green parts sliced into thin rounds 
  • Optional: 1 bulb fennel and/or 2 medium carrots  
  • 2 teaspoons dijon mustard  
  • 1 Tablespoon mayonnaise (preferably not a sweet one–I like Trader Joe’s organic) 
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar 
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil, sunflower oil, or grape seed oil 
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds (add more at the end, if desired) 
  • Salt and pepper to taste 
  • Optional: sunflower seeds or toasted, chopped walnuts

  • Peel kohlrabi either with a vegetable peeler, or, if skin is tougher, cut off ends with a sharp knife and rest on a flat side on a cutting board, then carefully cut off outsides, going down and around–make sure you remove not just the visible skin, but the fibrous layer just underneath it. Next, julienne or shred either by hand, on a mandoline, or in a food processor. I prefer to cut kohlrabi into thin matchsticks that retain their crunch.
  • Julienne apples in the same manner as you did kohlrabi, keeping peel on (you can toss them in a little lemon juice to prevent browning). If you’re using other vegetables, peel and treat in the same manner. Put all vegetables in a large bowl and set aside. 
  • To make dressing, whisk together mustard, mayo, vinegar, and oil in a separate bowl. Taste, and add salt and cracked pepper as desired. If you would prefer not to use mayonnaise, substitute an extra Tablespoon oil, more if dressing still tastes too acidic for your liking. When ready to serve, drizzle dressing over vegetables and toss. Sprinkle in caraway seeds. Taste, and add more salt and pepper if needed. Slaw can be tossed up to a half hour before serving, and refrigerated.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stocking up

As the weather begins to turn, so do my thoughts–to making stocks as bases for all the soups, braises, and sauces that will warm the kitchen as we descend into winter. I’ve started squirreling away containers of them, as many as the freezer can hold, and I look forward to those rainy days when another fragrant pot of stock simmers to life on the back burner.

This stock-making penchant comes from my Dad, who used to become uncharacteristically quiet when, on weekends, he gathered the kitchen scraps that would transform into demi-glaces or game sauces. As soon as a string of crisp days came along, he lugged down his tallest stockpot, which took its place on the rear right quadrant of the stove, beside the small wooden barrel where he poured leftover wine to make his own vinegar. The first day, the pot sat tranquilly as delicate currents circulated around the jumble of bones, vegetables, and bundled herbs inside. Once the liquid went to gold and had drunk all the essence from the solids, he strained the whole mess through a fine, cone-shaped strainer into a smaller pot, where the clear stock concentrated further, overnight and into the next day, darkening from wheat-colored to ochre, and finally to a rich umber emulsion through which bubbles rose thickly. You could chart the progress of the stock’s reduction by the strata of skin around the inside of the pot, ruffling in the rising steam.

Somewhere during those years, ‘tween self-consciousness kicked in and I bristled at all the elaborate goings-on in our kitchen. I worried ours would be that weird house with the heavy, soupy smell that made visitors want to leave as soon as they walked in the door. And there were other things, far more unsettling things, like the moldy hams curing in his hand-built wine cellar, the shotgun safe, and the sacks of limp birds he toted home from hunting expeditions. All of this felt way too conspicuous in our 80’s Lipton suburbia. Later, Dad took up fly-fishing and practiced his roll cast in the front yard, in full view of the neighbors, and decked in full regalia, to boot: hat, hiking socks pulled up his shins, and a vest adorned with net and scissors and lures (mercifully, he stopped shy of the waders). It was simply too much for a sullen teenage vegetarian to take. I retreated upstairs to the safety of the TV room, where I could see the fishing line whipping back and forth in front of the window as I tried to concentrate on Real World marathons.

Eventually I regained my senses, and I couldn’t deny for long that cooking (and omnivorism) was in my bones. My prescient mother bought me a giant stockpot as a gift for my first apartment in NYC, a tiny studio on the Upper West Side. The kitchen itself wasn’t much bigger than the vessel, which ended up getting used as storage for cookie cutters and pie weights and other things that saw the light of day once a year. I still have that pot, bought at a kitchen outlet somewhere, and from which many stocks have sprung. It’s a good one, even though the glass lid is cracked and it’s a bitch to clean. I also use it to steam lobsters and seal jam jars and, as always, store pie weights.

Making stocks is more than just my chance to wallow in nostalgia–it’s the essence of kitchen thrift, since many scraps discarded as garbage are, in fact, the makings of some of the finest soup bases. Leek tops, wobbly carrots, mushrooms gone slightly soft–and of course bones–are all fair game. If you are an enthusiastic cook but have not yet crafted your own stock, make this your year! What I've learned is that precision is overrated; in cooking school we were handed recipes and expected to follow them to the letter, told to hover scrupulously over the stock pot, ready to skim should any globule of fat or foam rise. Years of casual stock-making at home have taught me that this is unnecessary, unless you strive to create the clearest of consommés. The classic French method dictates that you fashion a neat little bouquet garni–a bundle of herbs–and neatly tie it together. I've found that 1. it's not the end of the world if you don't have every single herb dictated, and 2. it's a waste of time to tie everything neatly together when, after all, you're straining the whole thing at the end, anyway. Amounts don't have to be precise, either–just don't add too much water, or the stock will be diluted.

Below, I’ve included some tips to make stock-making easier and more fulfilling. I’ve also included a recipe for chicken stock. If you can get your hands on them, chicken feet make some of the richest stock possible–I buy mine from Grazin’ Angus Acres at the Carroll St. market on Sundays. In another
family tangent, my Mom loves telling the story of how she and her friend once sneaked a bag of raw chicken feet into someone’s fancy cocktail party, painted the toenails harlot red, and arranged them neatly on doilies, to be passed among the other canapés. Crazy Mom, these are for you.
Stock tips
  • You may have all the makings of a vegetable stock in your fridge: anything a little past its prime yet not moldy works well. At a minimum, you'll want onions and carrots, but try to include celery, as well. You can also throw in garlic, mushrooms, and a little bit of tomato, among other things. Just avoid starchy root vegetables, as they will cloud the stock. 
  • Be a vegetable completist: if you are making corn chowder, use the cobs to make a stock. For winter squash soups, use the skins, seeds, and pulp (along with other aromatics) for a flavorful base (strain this liquid before pureeing with roasted squash).
  • When ordering chicken parts from the butcher, ask them to save the backs, necks and wing tips–stash them in the freezer until you reach critical mass and have a good day for stock-making.
  • For the richest chicken stock, use not only backs but collagen-rich parts such as wings, necks, and feet
  • After roasting a chicken and picking it over, simmer the carcass and leavings in a pot with some vegetables, herbs, and water. 
  • If you make stock regularly, invest in a “chinois,” or fine-mesh conical strainer. Its deep basket holds a lot of gunk and fits nicely over pots.
  • To save space, reduce stock way down to concentrate it. Freeze it in ice cube trays, transfer frozen cubes of stock to freezer bags, and use as needed; you can always add more water to dilute later on.
  • I like this recipe for homemade vegetable bouillon, from 101 cookbooks
  • Doctor the stock–The old man himself recently confessed to buying store-bought stock ("the ready-made kinds have gotten so good," he insisted). His tip: in a pinch, you can elevate it by simmering with aromatic herbs.
Chicken Stock   
  • 3-4 lbs. chicken bones with fat and excess skin removed; include a mix of backs, necks, and feet if possible
  • 2 medium onions, chopped (skins on)
  • 4 large carrots, roughly chopped (skins on)
  • 1 large rib celery, chopped
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • a few fresh sprigs thyme
  • 6-8 whole peppercorns 
  • a few parsley sprigs
Rinse chicken bones and put into a large, heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan–choose a pot that holds the bones snugly, allowing for headway and room for vegetables and water. Cover bones with cold water and bring just to a boil. Lower to the gentlest simmer and allow to continue like this, undisturbed and uncovered. Do not boil. Periodically skim off any foam that rises to the top. After about an hour, add vegetables and herbs. Simmer them together for another few hours (2-3), then take off the heat. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. If you like, reduce stock further by simmering vigorously in a clean pot. Refrigerate and, once chilled, skim off any fat that has solidified on top. It is normal and wonderful for chicken stock to congeal when cold. Freeze your stock in freezer-safe containers. You can also freeze it in ice trays and use the cubes as needed for sauces, soups, and risottos.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In between

There has been some confusion in our house, especially among the small people, about what season this is. There's been some denial, some wearing of sandals (with socks stuffed underneath), even on these 50 degree mornings we've been having. It's hard to part with summer, especially the kind of summer that's likely to stand out in childhood and adult memories. So, when does autumn truly arrive–and has it already? Do we officially cross over to the other side once the school doors open? When the blog returns from a long vacation? Or after the balance of daylight and dark shifts, and the calendar says September 23rd? Maybe it happens in the markets, when pumpkins and mums make their entrance, or in the kitchen, when the urge to bake returns and we break out the red wine again.

Maybe it's not so clear-cut at all, and it doesn't have to be. Though the carefree anarchy of summer vacation was hard to say goodbye to, this limbo time is sweet, before the first frost silences the crickets and banishes sundresses under beds for good. The market stalls are overflowing with both summer and fall produce now, so we don’t have to choose between corn and acorn squash just yet, and we can grill and braise to our hearts' content. And we can even pretend, on the weekends at least, that we’re still on vacation: our feet planted firmly in two worlds as we pick apples in t-shirts and sip rosé in front of the season’s first fire.
Better still, the oven is back in action and late-summer stone fruits are very much hanging around, even though the apples are closing in fast. The recipe below is one of my favorite ways to use all the plums–the beautiful dusty-blue prune variety–we've been getting through our CSA. The original version, from the fantastic David Lebovitz, is for a plum-blueberry upside-down cake, which was just the thing in July, but too late now for local blueberries. So I gave it a try with only plums and loved the elegant simplicity that resulted; we were sneaking slivers for breakfast and enjoying wedges for dessert with plum ice cream from the irresistible Belgique Patisserie, in Kent.

Baking this cake warms the house on a chilly morning and fills it with the scents of browning butter and caramelized fruit. The best part about this easy-to-make dessert, which looks like a flat round of nothing through the oven window, is getting to flip it over and reveal the rosy whorl of baked plums beneath. You hold your breath just a little…like mother nature holding hers right before she puts on her flamboyant fall show.
Plum Upside-Down Cake  
Adapted from David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes


  • 3 tablespoons (1 ½ oz.) unsalted butter 
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar  
  • 7-9 plums, halved, pitted, and sliced into ½ inch wedges  (alternatively, combine 6-8 plums with 1 ¼ cups blueberries or other berries)
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder  
  • ¼ teaspoon salt  
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature  
  • ¾ cup sugar  
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract  
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature  
  • ½ cup whole milk, at room temperature
  1. Preheat oven to 350º. 
  2. To make the topping, put the 3 tablespoons butter in a 9-inch round cake pan or cast iron skillet. Set pan on stove and melt butter over low heat, then stir in brown sugar until it is thoroughly moistened. Spread the sugar mixture evenly over bottom of pan, and let cool for a few minutes.  
  3. Starting in the center and nestling slices close to one another, arrange plums in a pretty pattern of concentric circles, until you reach the outside and cannot see any of the pan's bottom.  
  4. To make the cake, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. In another bowl, beat together butter and sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add the vanilla and eggs, one at a time, beating until completely incorporated. Mix in half the flour mixture, then add the milk, followed by the rest of the flour, and mix until just combined.  
  5. Scrape the batter on top of the plums in the pan, and spread it evenly over them. Put pan in the oven and bake until the cake is golden brown and passes the toothpick test–about 50 minutes to an hour. Allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Run a knife around the side of the pan, then cover pan with a large plate. Using oven mitts and keeping plate and pan firmly together, carefully flip the whole thing over. Lift pan off of plate in one smooth, confident motion.
Serving: Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream. If serving later, re-warm cake in foil, in a low oven.  
Storage: Store at room temperature for up to 2 days, using the baking pan as a lid over the cake.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Black Currants

If you grew up in the United States, chances are good that black currants weren’t on your summer table. Probably, unless you traveled abroad or had a British granny smuggling them in, they weren’t on your radar at all. That’s because even now, the tart, musky little berries are still illegal to grow in some states, with other states only recently having lifted the ban (New York did so in 2003). Though popular in Europe and brought over to America by colonists as early as the seventeenth century, black currants were found to harbor white pine blister rust, and in the 1920s cultivation was banned nationwide. In the mean time, they were all but forgotten in this country. I don’t think I heard of them until traveling to France as a child, when we strolled through the farmers' markets and witnessed such marvels as jewel-like groseilles and live guinea pigs.

For my husband Ben, who landed here from England as a boy, black currants top the list of his all-time favorite fruits. That's not because they are succulent or delicious to eat out of hand (they’re not) but because of his beloved Granny, who grew them and simmered them into a compote for dessert, served with fresh double cream. He still goes all misty-eyed when he speaks of the willowy Granny Mildé, with her lush garden and simple yet impeccable cooking; her army of pugs and her passion for swimming icy waters, owing to a childhood spent splashing in the salmon-rich rivers of Northumberland (seriously. I think she once dove into the Long Island Sound in December). The first time I heard about her, I knew I had a lot to live up to.

It was Ben who introduced me to the powerful flavor of black currants, though at the time we had no access to the fresh fruit or any inkling that it existed in the U.S. at all. When we were first together, our refrigerator was never without a bottle of Ribena (blackcurrant syrup), usually brought back from England by a relative or scored for a pretty penny at Myer’s of Keswick. After work, he would come home and stir a spoonful of it into a glass of cold water, for a tangy purple drink. I learned
quickly that if anyone in his family showed up with a pack of Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, there would be a fight to the death over the black ones. In those early days someone–probably Ben's sister, Chloe–took pity on me and gave me one of the blacks so I wouldn't have to duke it out with the rest of them.

I soon developed a fondness for the musky perfume–which reminded me in a weird way of elderflower. I fell for them without ever having sampled the real thing, and then one summer, black currants turned up practically in our back yard. We were over at Mrs. L’s farm, near our house in Connecticut, picking blueberries. In case you didn’t read this post from last July, picking blueberries at Mrs. L.’s
honor-system blueberry patch is one of my most favorite things on earth. Nine times out of ten she doesn't appear at all, but one day she did, and she was in a chatty mood. I don't remember how the subject came up, but she casually mentioned her black currant bushes. Ben perked up, not quite believing his ears.

“People don't really like them in this country.” She said, waving a hand dismissively. “They don’t understand them. You're welcome to pick some.”

So we set about picking, which is no easy task, and whenever we see her now we delicately wangle an invitation to take some of the fruit off her hands. They also show up some weekends in season–along with the blueberries–at the excellent Marble Valley Farm (Route 7 just south of Kent, CT).

In New York City, Wilklow Orchards sells black currants (along with red currants and gooseberries), as does Red Jacket Orchards. Both farms have stands at NYC greenmarkets, including Borough Hall and Union Square. Wilklow had some fine looking black currants yesterday, but I was told they won't be around for much longer.
How to best eat these dusky little fruits? Cooked! You really do not want to eat them raw, as they are intensely tannic with a strong, almost resinous flavor. My friend Kamila tells me that when she was a child in the Czech Republic, her family grew them in their yard, where she and her sister would hold contests to see who could endure eating the most raw black currants. They also enjoyed them cooked in desserts and in jams, and would use the tines of a fork to “comb” the berries off the stems, which can be an arduous task.

Every summer, I have experimented with and enjoyed black currants in various ways. I have made a concentrated syrup to mix with water (still or sparkling), kind of like Ribena. You make the syrup by stewing the black currants with sugar and a bit of water, then mashing and straining them. Mrs. L. tells us she likes to serve black currant syrup over slices of lemon cake.

I have also made an alcoholic version, using vodka, to fashion a sort of homemade Crème de Cassis, for kirs and kir royals (mix a small amount with crisp white wine or champagne, respectively). 

The venerable Elizabeth David recommended adding black currants to summer pudding, that English dessert fashioned from berries and white bread and served with cream. My mother-in-law, Pauline, makes a delicious summer pudding; she included it in a beautiful handwritten recipe book she gave to all the ladies in the family for Christmas one year. Some day I'll give this recipe a whirl with black currants instead of blackberries.

I have found the most simple, versatile, and delicious use of black currants is to make a puree, which can then be enjoyed over ice cream or folded into sweetened cream as a fool. I have also spun this puree into an ice cream base for a rich, violet-hued cassis ice cream, which my friend Michele also tells me her Swiss father makes every summer. 

Currants both black and red also make delicious jam, as well as lending themselves to savory recipes, such as sauces for meat and game. As for Granny Mildé, the compote she served contained all the seeds and skins, at least the way Ben remembers it–and he loved it that way. Little did he know, he was also getting incredible doses of vitamins and other nutrients as blackcurrants, already loaded with Vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants, have high concentrations of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in their seeds. In fact, black currant extracts are touted as medicinal, and black currant syrup was distributed to children in Britain during World War II, when citrus fruits were scarce. If you don't mind a bit of extra roughage, you can follow the recipe below without straining it.
Black Currant Puree
Adapted from Elizabeth David, Summer Cooking

  • 1 pound black currants, rinsed (stems are O.K. if you plan on straining)
  • 3/4 pounds natural sugar, plus more if needed
  • fresh lemon juice
Instructions: Put black currants and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium flame until they begin to bubble. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring and mashing occasionally with a spoon. Once berries have broken down, pass them through a mesh strainer into a clean bowl, pressing to extract all the liquid. Use a spatula to scrape the outside of the strainer, as the fruit contains a lot of pectin and will begin to thicken. Discard solids. Rinse pan and return the strained puree to the heat, stirring in a squeeze of lemon. Taste and add a little more sugar if you'd like it sweeter, and serve hot or cold (puree thickens when chilled).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Whole Hog

Truth be told, it was only a half, but still: a whopping 150 pounds of pig, and we broke it down in my friends Dan and Fran’s entry hall last Saturday, fueled by Negra Modelos and old tango. This butchering session was enlightening, entertaining, and at times absurd (and if this sort of pursuit is likely to offend you, you might want to click away before you get to the pictures below).

Why, you might wonder, would anyone want to take part in such an activity, anyway? Well, why not? For the curious 11 food enthusiasts assembled, it was a rare chance to see where, exactly, the bacon and chops on our plates come from–and to learn a use for every last morsel, even the unsung cuts. You can call it an extension of
the whole DIY thing which, in parts of the country including Brooklyn, is huge right now (backyard chickens! Basement breweries! Flash artisanal markets!)–and though dissed by critics as hipster hogwash, this craft movement seems a healthy backlash against industrial food, in this case factory-farmed meat.

Dan, a whiz at the stove and the grill, hatched a plan to procure the half swine from the Meat Hook and host a workshop/party, where fellow epicureans would learn the art of butchering. Somehow, he convinced a real live butcheress, Sara Bigelow (also of the Meat Hook), to come to his house and show the group how it’s done, and after a string of e-mails peppered with pork puns, there we all were gathered around a dining table lined with cardboard and plastic tarp, a small electric fan whirring in the background. It was a surreal and, well, kind of a sketchy scene. Can you imagine walking into someone’s home and seeing a pig’s carcass all laid out, the head propped up and staring alongside it? Now imagine a ragged circle of onlookers, clad in a motley array of aprons, armed with saws and knives and bottles. There were some pretty earnest documentarians in the group, so if you care to see it in iphone time lapse, you can check that out here and catch the, er, darker version here.  

First, after the unveiling, we met the pig himself: this one came from upstate, from Sir William Berkshire farm (yes, a Berkshire pig), one of the suppliers for Fleisher's Meats. He was a happy hog, I like to think, rooting and rolling in loamy pastures and blissfully unaware of his fate. We learned to look for pigs without bruises or breaks, as either would indicate a stressful demise; this one seemed healthy and unblemished, aside from the obvious. 

Next, Sara showed the tools of her trade, which she graciously shared with us. Her fearsome knives were holstered in a mean-looking metal and chain scabbard, which could kick the ass of the wimpy nylon knife bag I was issued in cooking school.

She then began orientation with the pig, starting with the kidney and surrounding sheet of leaf lard–the purest kind, excellent for baking; I later took this home and rendered it.
Everyone who wanted to, which was pretty much everyone there, had a hand at the saw or knives, as we broke down the pig first into primal cuts–like the ham and the loin–then into the more recognizable retail cuts you usually buy, such as sirloin and chops and spare ribs. It was humbling and disorienting, seeing this huge slab of flesh and bone and not knowing what was up and what was down, or where to find the familiar pieces. In cooking school we were shown our way around cryovacked primal cuts, and in restaurants, the meat guy usually handles everything. With decent markets these days and butchers like the Meat Hook, who can cut you just about any portion you like, you really don't ever need to lay eyes on a side of beef or half a hog at all. 

Even though I watched it happen in real time, it still seemed like a bit of magic seeing a perfect chop, a hock, a sleek rack of ribs, emerge from the chaos.  

The weirdest part was trying to find a place for all of that meat. A home refrigerator just wasn't designed to hold a half an animal, so we did the best we could, stuffing piggy bits into every refrigerator shelf, cooler, and bucket we could find, covering some in ice, marinating others for immediate cooking. We would have been shut down immediately by the health department, which fortunately doesn't care too much about what goes on in people's private kitchens and entry halls. Later, when the rest of the guests had arrived for the after party, I saw a few flip up the tops of coolers in search of beer, only to recoil at the sight of ziplocked bags of bones, skin, sausage scraps.

Was all of this the teensiest bit disturbing? I've gotten used to handling meat and cutting through bone, but I'll admit, I could have done without seeing the pig's lifeless head staring me down (my friend Maureen, similarly uncomfortable, politely arranged an ear to cover the eye). I do appreciate learning how to use all the parts, such as cheeks for guanciale and stray scraps for sausage; a lot of the fat–and there's a lot of it–gets thrown in for sausage, too. I volunteered to conquer my horror of the head and take on the job of simmering it into a rich stock. Ultimately I won't be going Zuckerberg any time soon, but I think it's good to face the beast and be more aware of what you're eating.

I’m sorry to say that, in the end, the pig’s head didn’t fare so well. When it was delivered to my house in a cooler the following Monday and we opened the lid, it was way beyond ripe; I sent it packing down Columbia Street. I'm not quite sure where that head ended up, and I don't think I want to know.

But as for the rest of the beast, I would say it was put to excellent use, some of it enjoyed at the festivities that followed. During the workshop, one of the parts that elicited the most interest from the group was the shoulder. Pork shoulder is a beautiful thing, rippling with fat and dark, rich meat, and its awesomeness only multiplies when it’s cooked slowly, bathed in wood smoke. For many years over the fourth of July, we have dedicated a full day to the smoking of a Boston butt (which is actually not what it sounds like, but the shoulder). It's an all-day endeavor (stick around and plan to babysit!)
that rewards with incredibly tender and flavorful meat which we shred and heap on a flimsy bun with some coleslaw and tangy, Carolina-style barbecue sauce. That's our tradition for Independence Day weekend, and here's the recipe:

Smoked Pulled Pork
Serves approx. 10 people


  • 1/8 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons dry mustard
  • 2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander seed
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 6-8 lbs. pork shoulder–a cut such as Boston butt or picnic
  • Barbecue sauce (see below)
Other implements:

  • Smoker or charcoal grill with a cover
  • Grill tongs and spatula
  • Long-handled basting brush or similar tool
  • Hardwood charcoal
  • Optional: wood chips (preferably a fruit wood, like apple or cherry)

  1. The night before, mix together all dry ingredients. Rub mixture into the pork butt so it is coated evenly.
  2. Take the meat out of the refrigerator and build your fire–we start very early in the morning. If using a smoker, fill bottom with wood charcoal. If using a grill, keep the charcoal to one side of grill (meat will go on the other side, far enough so it won’t touch flames or cook too quickly). Light charcoal and allow it to fully catch fire then die down–we use a chimney starter. If using wood chips, soak them in water and keep them nearby. Once the flames have subsided and temperature registers around 200°, place meat on grate—it should be well clear of any flames. Cover smoker or grill, venting slightly, and allow meat to roast very slowly, keeping temperature stable. Check occasionally so flames do not burn out, adding charcoal as needed. If using wood chips, throw on a handful from time to time. Every hour or so, mop meat evenly with barbecue sauce (below).  
  3. After about 6 hours, carefully turn the pork butt. Cook for about 6 more hours, or until meat feels soft and shred-able. Cooking times may vary widely according to size, temperature, and the particularities of your smoker. Meat should be cooked through and tear away easily with tongs–optimal internal temperature is around 190°; meat will at some point plateau at around 160°, but if you can wait it out, your patience will be rewarded with amazingly tender meat that you don’t have to cut at all–just pull! Remove from fire and allow to rest at least fifteen minutes before shredding with a couple of forks, then serve on buns with sauce and, if you like, coleslaw.   
Carolina-Style Vinegar Sauce  

  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1-inch segment ginger, thinly sliced
  • 1 large clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 generous pinch red pepper flakes
  • Hot sauce, such as Frank’s Red Hot or Tabasco, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Starting the night before cooking begins, mix together all ingredients in a bottle or jar and shake well. Refrigerate and let infuse overnight.
Just before using, strain mixture. For stronger flavor, do not strain. Reserve half of sauce for "mopping" meat and put the other half in a squeeze bottle for serving.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Strawberry muffins

Our summer CSA kicked off last week, which was the starting gun, of sorts, for summer cooking. Now, instead of beginning with a recipe and wrangling the necessary ingredients, the ingredients wrangle us. Imagine a benign but insistent band of curly cress, sunchokes, and sweet potatoes twirling and hurling a lasso at this family of four, because that’s kind of how it is. Funny salads are born, piquant green sauces evolve, spur-of-the-moment pastas and gratins equal dinner–and it's usually pretty delicious. 

What's headline-worthy right now are the glorious strawberries, the best we've had in years–I exaggerate not. They should be insipid and half-drowned from all this rain we've been getting, but instead they're concentrated and perky and sweet, the very essence of what a strawberry should be. I’ve followed Wilklow Orchards, our fruit CSA, to the Borough Hall and Fort Greene markets because we keep emptying our little green baskets of fruit and wanting more, more, more. I have a drawer full of those little red berry hairnets. As with the rhubarb, I’ve been compulsively hoarding and overstocking, because I know strawberries will be on their way out soon (This trait comes from Mom, who crams her cabinets with lotions, potions, and incandescent light bulbs, for fear her favorites will be discontinued).

I’ve been keeping this recipe for strawberry muffins up my sleeve for the past few years, and it makes nice use of the berries once the shine goes off them–which believe it or not happens very quickly if the berries last that long–because we're not talking about giant styrofoam strawberries here. The recipe somehow sprang out of one for blueberry muffins, from the Gourmet Cookbook (the big yellow tome), but it bears only a passing resemblance to the original. I did away with the suggested crumb topping (overkill), scaled back on the sugar, and substituted almond flour for some of the all-purpose flour, for a gentle nuttiness and tender consistency. The strawberries create fierce little pockets of fruit, and their juice runs a little bit into the nutty sweet batter; they remind me vaguely of the financiers I used to mix by the hundreds in a Hobart. 

There’s nothing exotic or mind-bending about this recipe, it just works and always, like strawberries themselves, aims to please. It makes a nice breakfast for those days we’re a bit late out of the starting gate, lying too long in bed listening to the birds outside, hearing the second wave of dogs go by on their walks. These muffins have rescued us on many a lazy morning. They’re not exactly health food, but they are pretty wholesome, tasty enough to tempt the most breakfast-averse among us to eat. And, since they're packed with fruit and a few almonds (almonds are a super food, right?), I don’t feel too guilty pressing one into a small, camp-bound hand and calling it the start of a day.

Strawberry almond muffins   
Makes 12 muffins

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour   
  • ½ cup almond flour (a.k.a. almond meal or finely ground almonds)  
  • 2/3 cup sugar  
  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder  
  • ½ teaspoon salt  
  • ¾ stick (6 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing tins  
  • 1/3 cup whole milk  
  • 1 large egg  
  • 1 large egg yolk  
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract  
  • 2 cups chopped strawberries, in blueberry-sized pieces
Preheat oven to 375°. Generously butter muffin cups. In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. In a small pot, heat butter until just melted, and remove from heat. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then whisk in milk, eggs, and vanilla until just combined. Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients, then carefully fold in strawberries. Fill the muffin cups about ¾ way full, dividing batter evenly. Place in the center rack of preheated oven and bake, rotating about halfway through baking, for 20-30 minutes–or until tops of muffins are golden and they pass the toothpick test. Cool at least 15 minutes before removing from tins (I run a blunt knife around the edges of the muffins, then give them a little twist).

Friday, June 3, 2011

Days of rhubarb and roses

Each June, just before the wealth of summer fruits bursts onto the scene, I go completely rhubarb crazy. Never mind that we have our own patch, or that our vegetable and fruit CSAs both flood us with rhubarb; I just can’t stop myself. Seduced by the ruby bundles in the farmers markets, which until recently were dominated by the beige of overwintered roots, I stagger away with armloads. That's fine at first, before the heat has withered my enthusiasm for baking rustic tarts or roasting the chopped stalks with wine and vanilla. Although a few strawberries are just coming into the markets, rhubarb is still the default spring fruit here.

It is my secret shame, though (secret no more), that this rhubarb usually sits in the fridge too long and goes all bendy in the vegetable drawer. This year it happened when, in a fit of optimism, I overbought right before Memorial Day weekend, and then left town before I could fire up the oven; I arrived home to a heap of limp stalks. If this is you, too, or if you are otherwise over your head in rhubarb, all is not lost. There’s a solution: rhubarb syrup. It’s bright, it’s tangy-sweet, and it’s a versatile mixer for potions both virgin and spiked. Scroll down to the bottom for the how-to on rhubarb syrup, which can be mixed with a little fizzy water for an all-ages pink drink. We also enjoy the occasional  rhubarb mojito, which I stumbled upon a couple of years ago at Brooklyn Farmhouse. Other ideas are a rhubarb basil cocktail from The Kitchn and the rhubarb and Aperol cocktail from Franny's, one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurants.

*Tangent Alert* Instead of posting a bunch of boring pictures of rhubarb, I decided to ply you with the lushness of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, a treasure we’re so lucky to have within a stone's throw. If you live in the area and haven't become a member, do it! You can go every two weeks and have a completely new experience each time. City kids can roll in actual grass. There are amazing members' nights in the summer, when you can linger until bats swoop down over the lawn, and you might even spy a star or two. Did I mention it's one of my most favorite places on earth? 

This week featured rose night, a sprawling picnic with live jazz, hats of all kinds, and strolls through the Cranford Rose Garden with drinks in hand to see the colors pop in the fuzzy dusk light. A rosy rhubarb cocktail would have been nice (we had rosé, which was nice, too).
One of the most delightful things about roses is their cultivar names. When I was growing up we had Dolly Parton roses in our garden. They were the color of dress-up lipstick, and brazenly perfumed.
You could get drunk on those masses of blooms. One of the children in our midst exclaimed "I think I'm gonna faint!" and I suddenly remembered feeling that same wooziness when, as a child, I stumbled through the Bagatelle rose gardens on my first visit to Paris. 
And now, back to the rhubarb: 

Rhubarb Syrup
  • 10-12 medium stalks rhubarb, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Cold water 
Put rhubarb and sugar in a heavy pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and then lower to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. The pieces will break down fairly quickly. Simmer until rhubarb fibers are evenly dispersed into the liquid, around 15 minutes. Remove from heat and pour contents through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Using a large spoon or spatula, stir and press pulp to force all liquid through. Clean out pot and pour strained liquid back in (reserve pulp as a topping for ice cream or Greek yogurt, or simply to eat like apple sauce). Simmer for 10 minutes or so, until liquid has thickened to maple syrup consistency. Pour into a clean jar and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. 
To make a simple spritzer, pour one part syrup and three parts seltzer over ice, and add a squeeze of lime.
Rhubarb "Mojitos" 
Adapted from Brooklyn Farmhouse

(Amounts per drink–multiply for each drink you make)
  • 4 tablespoons rhubarb syrup 
  • 1 fl oz. white rum
  • 6 (ish) mint leaves, finely chopped or torn
  • 1/4 lime–for juice and a slice for garnish
  • 3-4 fl. oz. seltzer or club soda
  • ice cubes
In a glass, stir together rhubarb syrup, rum, a few mint leaves, and a healthy squeeze of lime juice. Pour in soda, and top with ice cubes and a slice of lime, or a swizzle of rhubarb. Note: Consider these amounts guidelines, adding more rum, more soda, etc. as desired.