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.