Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Grilling Whole Fish a la Chef Bill Beck

Grilled Whole Fish from Reading Terminal Market, now that's good eating!

We've talked before about grilling burgers.  And most everybody loves a tasty burger, but sometimes we crave a more elegant repast.  In the summer months, however, that elegance must still be executed on the grill.  I don't care if the Queen is coming for dinner, I am not cranking up my oven in the dead of summer.  Now, for all we know, Her Majesty may love to sink her royal choppers into a thick juicy burger, but probably not with a Commoner, and certainly not an American.  With that in mind, we sought the advice of a pro.  

We caught up with our friend Chef Bill Beck of Beck's Cajun Cafe in Reading Terminal Market recently and he gave us some great ideas for a more refined-though still grillable--repast.
Whole Branzino, before Bill got hold of it.

For the main dish, Bill offered up  a whole branzino, about 1 lb.  He recommends the following preparation:   Stuff the cavity with a handful of fresh herbs--oregano, dill, thyme--whatever you have on hand.  Coat the outside of the fish with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.     Place the fish on the heated grill, and cook about 5 minutes per side til fish flakes easily.  When the cooking is complete, let the fish sit for 5 minutes; this makes for easier serving as the skin and bones will pull away from the flesh.

As a side, Bill suggests grilled sweet potatoes.  These need significantly more time on the grill than the fish, and are cooked at a lower temperature, so should be done ahead of time.  Prick the potatoes and wrap loosely in foil.  Grill them slowly for about 1 hour on indirect heat til completely soft.  (check for doneness at 45 minutes)  Split the tops and serve with a sprinkle of Devil Dust, a slab of butter and a drizzle of molasses.

We're sure even Her Majesty will approve of this spread.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Appetizers for the Shore: Scallop and Bacon Skewers

On the menu last Sunday: Scallop & Bacon Skewers, Grilled Shrimp with Thai Sweet Chili dipping sauce
I'm a sucker for appetizers.  I'd rather pick two appetizers in a restaurant than follow the traditional route through a menu.  I like the delicate scale of appetizers on a small plate, the interesting ingredients featured, and their general razzle-dazzle factor.

Appetizers can save the day at the shore. 

You never know just who is going to drop in, or, more to the point, how many (uninvited) friends they may well bring back with them from the beach.  The key to a perfect beach appetizer is that it must be quick to prepare and must use ingredients either that you keep in your freezer, or that you can source from a local store at the drop of a hat.

This bacon and scallop skewer recipe drew gasps from an admiring crowd last Sunday in Stone Harbor: "you shouldn't have gone to so much trouble," said one guest. 

I didn't, believe me - but why tell your friends that..?

Scallops & Bacon Skewers
* 11b uncooked scallops  (I prefer the clean white disk only, i.e. with the orange part removed. Just looked this up and apparently this part of the sea mollusk is the intestinal tract, so let's give this part a miss.)
* 1/2 packet of smoked bacon
* Pam Spray (or my preference) I Can't Believe it's Not Butter spray, which  has a richer taste.
* Seasonings - your choice.  You can use Old Bay or Beck's Devil Dust, in fact, any seasoning intended for shellfish or sea food would work -- just make sure it's got a kick to it. 

Scallops have a great texture if not overcooked, but can be pretty tasteless.  Combining the scallops with smoked bacon makes them jump for joy.  The smoky saltiness of the bacon leaches onto the scallops, suffusing them with a caramelized saltiness. The whole dish is then lifted by the Old Bay.

The recipe is so simple, I can share it in two sentences...

Cut each bacon slice in half, roll, then thread on a skewer, alternating a rolled piece of bacon with a scallop until you fill the skewer.  Spray skewered bacon and scallop then generously dust with your chosen seasoning and cook on a moderate grill until bacon is crispy.  (The scallops and bacon seem to cook at the same time, so it's a failsafe way of telling when the scallops are cooked through)

A shore-fire winner.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gas or Charcoal Grill? That is the question!

Gas Grill or Charcoal Grill?   It's a question that is starting to rival "Democrat or Republican?",  "boxers or briefs?",  "Ginger or Maryann?",  "red or white?" and "To be or not to be" in terms of divisiveness.

Grilling is a quintessential summer food ritual.   It is simple, keeps the heat out of the house during the sweltering months, and without tremendous culinary skill, turns out a delicious result.    I, myself, prefer the convenience of a gas grill--it is instantly usable, affords significant heat control, and stays lit as long or as short as you wish.  "Real" grillers (and many men) turn their noses up at this ModCon, favoring at a minimum, charcoal grills, and at most a full pit-and-spit arrangement.

I think it hearkens back to primitive days when men dragged a woolly mammoth back toward the cave and cooked it over an open fire.  I know of very few women (who are not in the grilling industry) who favor charcoal or wood over the convenience and ease of gas.

My husband and I are currently in a domestic Cold War over a new grill.  Our inexpensive Char-Broil from Home Depot is on its last rusty legs, having spent its formative years outside and unprotected through several harsh Philly winters.  (Living in a city, we don't have a garage or much storage space, so our grill lives in the yard--hence my decision not to purchase a top of the line version.)  My husband, who has developed into quite a cook, was perusing grill websites recently and discovered "The Big Green Egg."

This--no doubt impressive--apparatus requires charcoal. Or Woodcoal.  Or Wooden Charcoal.  Or CharWoodCoal.     It no doubt produces delectable dishes.  But I don't do charcoal.  I don't like the unpredictability.  I don't like to wait (I am notorious for not preheating an oven), and I don't like the lack of control.  (Yes, I fully admit to being a control freak.)  It apparently has the capacity to serve as both grill and smoker.  (When it can clean my house as well, I'm in.)

Husband suggested that we acquire this item.  I replied that he was free to do so but that I would never use it.  As the primary cook in the family, even with respect to the grill, I felt that I should have a weighted vote.  He disagreed.  Words flew.  An early mid-life crisis was mentioned.  "It could be a stripper or Porsche" was fired back.  It was ugly.    And remains unresolved.

I have since consulted several grill mavens. Chef Michael Santoro of Talula's Garden, and my brother-in-law Rex, both say that the Egg is "awesome"--direct quote from both.  Jack McDavid, decorated barbecue champion and chef/owner of the Down Home Diner doesn't even consider gas as true grilling.  But I still can't see myself fiddling with charcoal, waiting for the fire to temper, prodding the coals to achieve the perfect temp in order to chuck two burgers on the grill as a quick weeknight dinner for my kids.  And I can't see having two grills in our postage stamp sized back yard.   Another grill guru, Chef Bill Beck of Beck's Cajun Cafe suggested a reasonable compromise:  Buy some wood chips, soak them in water, place them in an open-topped foil pouch and put the pouch on the gas grill while you cook.  When you close the lid, the wood smoke will circulate and infuse flavor into the food.  Hmmmm. I wonder if he's single.

So, advise me Phoodie Phriends.  What's a Cook to do?

And speaking of couples fighting, here's a clip from my favorite show on this topic.  They weren't fighting about a grill, but it's a hoot just the same.  Enjoy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cheese at Reading Terminal Market - as recommended by the experts!

We assembled our own "flight" of cheeses from merchants at the Reading Terminal Market
What's a cheese condiment?  It's a food that plays a valuable supporting role on your cheese plate.  It includes chutneys, pastes, preserves, fresh or dried fruit, nuts - you name it, use your imagination.  The sensational cheese plate we enjoyed at Talula's Garden (see previous post) tipped us off to how these food pairings enhance one's appreciation of cheese.  We also stumbled upon a learned website, appropriately enough called The Nibble:  Great Food Finds which explains in detail the pseudo-science behind this food combining.  Interesting to note, that no-one mentions crackers anywhere...

To reproduce the visual and epicurean feast we enjoyed last month at Talula's Garden, we nipped into the Reading Terminal Market and interviewed the cheese merchants there; both Downtown Cheese and Salumeria were especially helpful. 

We also loved the labelling at Fairfood Farmstand - you felt like you were on first name terms with the cow that made the cheese by the time you'd read the label. 

Blue Suede Moo Cheese from FairFoods
And, most impressively, Fairfood Farmstand does all the work for you by recommending not only the condiments best suited to accompany that particular cheese, but even suggests the type of beer or wine that will bring out the best in that cheese.

Our own cheese plate featured, amongst others Cherry Glen Crottin; Uncle Joe's from Clover Creek Creamery; Bichrun Blue Raw Cow (these last two came from FairFood and have comprehensive 'tasting notes') and best of all a near liquid soft cheese called Delice de Bourgogne from Downtown Cheese.  This cheese is quite soft straight from the fridge; imagine it when served at room temperature!  It turned positively gloopy and was unanimously voted the star cheese on our cheese plate this weekend.  Try it, do.

The following cheese and condiment pairings were suggested by Aimee Olexy, owner and Maitre d' at Talula's.

  1. Parmesan with olives (a dry, crumbly cheese works well paired with juicy olives).
  2. Gouda cheese, which is quite oily and rich, served with caramel provides an unexpected contrast.
  3. Cheddar for good reason is traditionally served with something tart like an apple slice or a quince paste (membrillo is the Spanish name for this conconction).
  4. A fresh local (PA) farm cheese like ricotta or mozzarella is lifted to even greater heights by the addition of sweet - now in season - cherry tomatoes.
Other vendors worth visiting at the Market to source exotic condiments include gourmet grocer Jonathon Best (for marcona almonds and preserves); Salumeria for a wide selection of olives and the Pennsylvania Dutch for preserves and fruit chutneys.

Rhubarb compote, a wonderful flavor foil to cheese, and it beautifies the presentation with its gorgeous color.

Check out the olives at Salumeria.  Ummm.

We also tried this unusual fig bread, a compressed block of figs, which you slice thinly before serving.  This version from Downtown Cheese provides an interesting talking point because it includes chocolate, which we'd never seen before....

So what's your crowd-pleasing combo?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

THE Perfect Cheese Plate

An oasis on Washington Square East

Talula's Garden is a vibrant new restaurant on Washington Square West in Center City, Philadelphia.  Its owner Aimee Olexy is a cheese devotee. At Talula’s Garden, cheese is a well nigh a religion, because it is Aimee’s enduring passion,  While she may have spent her formative years in Chester County, and sources many of her cheeses from the surrounding farms, she also draws deeply from her first hand experience traveling in Europe and California.  Aimee confesses: "I was studying in Provence and Toulouse and cheese crept into my life then.."

On a recent trip to Talula's, Keri and I experienced an oh-so-perfect "flight" of cheeses - a master course comprising eight artisanal cheeses.  I decided to try and emulate this cheese plate, assembling cheese and complementary condiments and nibblies that replicate our restaurant experience, by calling on the services of the cheese experts at Reading Terminal Market.

Aimee Olexy owner and Maitre d' at Talula's Garden
According to Aimee, nothing beats a good artisanal cheese plate:  " It really is 'Art' on a plate both in terms of the talent that goes into cheese production and the care in the execution," she says.  "I love to see people just sit there and chat over the cheese course and appreciate the craft that's gone into the making of cheese."

We asked Aimee to share how best to prepare an awesome cheese flight and she made the following suggestions:

1. "It's important to handle cheese correctly - you need to treat it properly," she confides.  To this end, it is imperative to serve cheese at the right temperature, i.e. it needs to rest for about an hour out of the fridge so that the fats in the cheese have time relax - only then can the full flavor come through.

2. "Consider the visual aspect," Aimee advises.  We enjoy food through all our senses, not just our taste buds.  Smell and taste are important but we also enjoy food visually - so think about how the food appears on the plate; you're looking for contrasting textures and colors. 

3. "Include a wide selection of interesting and varied cheeses," says Aimee. You want to arrange a cheese plate starting with the lightest, softest cheese ending with the most intense or pungent so your palate isn't overwhelmed.  Also consider textures, she recommends, include soft squidgy, crumbly, moist, firm, hard cheeses and maybe for variety include cheeses with nuts or fruits added.

4. Turn cheese into an experience and encourage people to linger of their cheese course.  According to Aimee: "Cheese is a great talking point."  At Talula's they suggest diners graze on a cheese plate even before the appetizers.  This is all part of Aimee's food philosophy, namely that great food deserves to be enjoyed slowly and savored. 

Armed with these pointers from Aimee, we ran along to Reading Terminal Market to catch up with Downtown Cheese and Salumeria to assemble our own perfect cheese flight for a weekend at the Jersey shore...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Talula's Garden, Urban Eden

Living in a city, as we do, you may have a tiny back yard--or none at all--and it's easy to blame one's lack of horticultural creativity on space constraints.  The upscale restaurant, Talula's Garden, a newbie to the Philadelphia dining scene, instead celebrates urban gardening.  Owner Aimee Olexy (formerly of the late, lamented Django) takes the concept of 'Garden to Table' Dining quite literally, creating a vibrant green oasis on Washington Square.

Starting the meal off right--cheers!

Peek through the birdhouses and nasturtiums lining the decorative railings to glimpse the secret garden within:   planters are crammed with fennel, basil, tomato plants, edible flowers and even salad greens.  We spotted dandelion, butter lettuce, and mizuna leaves growing sprouting on our visit - these later morphed into a house salad.

With the doors thrown open, the restaurant at Talula's Garden feels like you are dining at a friend's house - well, that is, if you had friends with amazing taste, a beautiful garden courtyard, a world-class cook, and award winning designers.   (We need to find some friend like that.)  The restaurant feels casual, yet special.  But there's nothing casual about the food--the ingredients, the preparation, the flavor medleys or the presentation are all top-notch without being overly fussy.
Lobster and pork belly by Chef Michael Santoro

Prepare to be surprised by some of the combinations.  Highlights of our meal were the roasted goat stuffed ravioli with fresh peas, scallops with kohlrabi puree and watercress salad, spiced lamb shoulder with polenta, a sublime baby beet and almond salad, and a to-die-for "flight" of cheeses.

Talula's cheese course--a highlight of our epic meal.

Our cheese server cooed over the cheese board, as did we.   We picked the "Master Selection" - eight cheeses drawn from European and local farms.  Our cheese expert explained the reasoning behind each selection and recommended wine pairings; the wine list is extensive and spotlights organic wines.  At Talula's, cheese is a religion, in part because it is Aimee's enduring passion, having traveled extensively, researching French and Californian wine and cheese before settling in Philly.  Says Aimee:  "Our menu is most influenced by the restaurants of Northern California, where the emphasis is on the purity of food and chefs showcase the seasons."

Aimee is passionate about both the art and craft behind the making of food and also the dining experience.  She describes herself as a Maitre d' rather than a chef (Michael Santoro is the inspired Executive Chef at Talula's).  Aimee's attested aim is "to slow the whole experience down.  We want people to linger and enjoy the food - whether they come in early for appetizers at the bar, drop in for dessert and drinks to round out their evening, or are here for the full four courses.  I have an old world approach to dining - like New York's Le Cirque restaurant in the old days when you had a meticulous Maitre d' in the front of the house and an avid chef in the kitchen.  I want to encourage the slow enjoyment of food.  I want people to savor their experience."

Rhubarb Gateau, a fine finish!

The menu at Talula's is designed to encourage this leisurely approach.  It features appetizers that hover around $12 and main courses ranging from $25 to $35, with sides all priced at $6.  At  around $15, the cheese course, though pricey,  is not to be missed.   The cheese is prepped and served from a special cheese station, reminiscent of a food 'altar' surrounded by more herb filled window boxes; it makes for a dramatic focal point in the restaurant.

We interviewed other friends and patrons about their dining experiences at Talula's.  Here are some of the choice quotes:
  • "Everything was perfect; the food was perfectly cooked, seasoned and presented.  It was just perfect.  The menu was really interesting, each item was surprising."
  • "I would trade my firstborn for a steady supply of these chocolate salted caramel bars." 
  • "This is the type of place where you can just as easily bring your biggest New York client or your mom to dinner.  The client will be impressed and your mom will be comfortable and happy."  
  • "Top to bottom, this place beautiful--all five senses are positively engaged." 
Needless to say, the Philly Food Lovers are in love.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Greens--Not Always Easy (Sorry, Kermit)

You know how we feel about pea shoots, that oh-so-flavorful green that would make even the most reluctant vegetable eater pause.  I generally procure my supply on Sunday at my local Farmers' Market, and have at least two or three day's worth of fabulous sauteed greens to round out my dinners.  Imagine my shock and dismay when I arrived at my green guy's stall this past Sunday around noon to discover that the pea shoots had sold out!

"Say it ain't so," I said, "you don't close for another two hours!"  But alas, the pea shoots were gone.   A restaurant from 20 miles away had come to the market when it opened and scooped the entire supply, curse them.  "Fear not," said my devoted farmer (I'm paraphrasing a bit), "for I have these daisy greens that I believe will please you.  They have a bit of spice, but saute them as you would the peashoots and I feel sure that you will enjoy them."

What kind of foodie would I be if I recoiled from trying a new vegetable, especially during our A-to-Z produce feature?  So I bought two large bunches and home I went.  The following evening, I rinsed, chopped, and sauteed the daisy greens in garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.  I am sorry to report, Phellow Phoodies, that I did not enjoy them.

Sadly, the greens had an uncomfortable taste combo of acerbically bitter and cloyingly floral-sweet.  Kind of like eating the personalities of Archie and Edith Bunker, but not nearly as funny.

Henceforth, I will roust and motivate myself on Sunday mornings instead of Sunday noons, thus ensuring a better selection at the Farmers' Market.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The S-Z of Summer Produce - featuring Ratatouille Salad

S...Scallions are never really out of season, but they are our onion of choice for salads in the spring and summer.  They keep their crunchiness and have a more gentle flavor than regular Spanish onions.  In second place is the red onion, ideal for a feta, watermelon and red onion salad

This recipe from British cooking queen Nigella Lawson makes an appearance at least weekly on our table during the Summer.  To get the right balance of flavors Nigella suggests macerating the red onion in advance - a posh way of saying chop them up and then let them sit in either citrus juice or your oil/vinegar dressing ahead of the other salad ingredients.  The acid in the dressing reduces the smell of the onion and renders a more subtle flavor. Try it!

This is THE season for delicious little cherry and grape tomatoes.  Nothing tastes so good as fresh picked tomatoes.  Michael Santoro, Exec chef at Talula's Garden on Washington Square suggests we are approaching the time for tomato-based salads and cold soups (gazpacho and the like), "tomatoes capture the flavor of the Summer season," says Santoro.

I'm not usually a fan of cold soups but am partial to a watermelon tomato gazpacho invented by Keri - an accidental but inspired pairing.  Keri used a standard gazpacho recipe but found it bitter; bell peppers can do that sometimes.  Necessity is the mother of invention--she was slated to bring a vat of the gazpacho to a summer party as a first course and needed to sweeten the stuff STAT, so she added a cup of blended ripe watermelon to the recipe.  The end result still lives on in our collective memory.  It was superb!

Umm. moving swiftly on to "V"..

Must be for vegetables in all their gloriousness. 

Now is THE time for vegetables - glorious Summer colors abound at the Market

Now is the time for eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini, all the basic vegetables that make up ratatouille.  One of our go-to salads for Summer is a ratatouille salad comprising grilled eggplants, tomatoes, zucchini and Spanish onions, but unusually served cold with a simple balsamic or oil and vinegar dressing.  A life-saving grill accessory is a vegetable basket.  It looks much like a colander but is grill proof.  To make the ratatouille salad:

* Take a selection of ratatouille vegetables; slice into quite chunky pieces
* Toss in olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper, 1/2 tsp of dried mixed herbs
* Throw in the basket and cook on a high barbecue until the vegetables become tender, but not too mushy
* Remove from grill, allow to cool
* Make up your fave dressing then toss gently and add chopped parsley. 
* Serve at room temperature - marvelous with any grilled meats, fish or seafood.

W... Watercress - gives an earthy bitterness to salads.  I think on the whole I now prefer to use Arugula or raw Spinach to give a salad an edge, however, watercress works perfectly with oily grilled fish such as grilled mackarel or sardines - it's one of the few salad vegetables that refuses to be overwhelmed by the fish!

X...We're stumped.  Any bright ideas or suggestions for what we might showcase for X..?

Y...no competition here

Grilling vegetables transforms them - the charring add sweetness and crunch to them 

Yellow Squash--try it grilled and you'll erase all of those bad childhood memories of tasteless, overboiled, oversalted, and overbuttered mush that you associate with squash.

Z...Zucchini--See Y, above, only more so.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Eating Our Way Through the Produce Alphabet

Continuing with our march through the produce alphabet made me recall a book that I used to read with my children when they were small:  Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert.    This colorful board book pictures fruits and veggies from A to Z.   Reading it did not in any way ensure that my children ate a wide variety of said fruits and veggies, but to this day, they know kohlrabi from kale.

Today we feature J to R....

J...Jalapenos.   Whether it's a three course dinner featuring various peppers or a spicy take on brownies, we love chilis of all types! 

K...Are Kiwis in season?  I don't think so.  But they are delicious and very good for you; filled with potassium!

L..Lemons and Limes.  Ok, they're neither seasonal nor local, but we'd be lost without them.  A wedge in a glass of ice water turns nondescript into refreshing and delicious.  Not to mention the possibilities when we start talking margaritas, lemon martinis, mojitos.  I'm getting thirsty.  And when it comes to cooking--well, in salads, on fish, in marinades or over fresh fruit, a splash of citrus is just what the doctor ordered.  I can't forget dessert, either--my favorite course.  Key Lime PieLemon Souffle Cake.  I really, really like citrus.

M...We adore Mache lettuce for its sweetness.

N...Napa Cabbage.  Any variety of cabbage sauteed in olive oil with a dash of salt and a generous sprinkle of black pepper will pleasantly surprise you--it bears no resemblance whatsoever to that stinky boiled mush that you may have suffered through as a child.  If you want to get fancy, try this Indian recipe that blends cabbage with mustard seeds, ginger, chilis and yogurt.  It will knock your socks off!

O..Onions.  Sliced raw and placed atop a juicy burger.  Grilled and served as a stand alone side.  Caramelized and slathered over steak or salmon.  Chopped coarsely and tossed in a salad.  Pickled and served with cold meats.  Red, white, yellow, green, sweet, strong, pungent or mild, onions are a cook's best friend.

P..Peas in all forms.  How did we ever live without pea shoots?  Make a salad from pea shoots, shavings of parmesan, Marcona almonds (ie the Spanish salted variety).  Toss with olive oil and a sprinkling of pepper and salt.  A worthy dinner party salad this!  Can't find Pea Shoots?  (We're on the tail end of their season right now.)  Grab a few handfuls of snap peas.  Even the most reluctant vegetable consumer can't resist these sweet, crunchy pods served raw with a dip or quickly sauteed with garlic, soy and ginger.  And Claire still recalls fondly the hours she spent as a child shelling the  fresh peas that her family grew in the garden.  (I suspect that she was less fond of the task while she actually performed it, but hindsight isn't always 20-20.)

Q...Quince.  Ok, we're not exactly conversant in these either, and we can't even reliably claim that they are in season now, but quince paste, aka membrillo, is a divine accompaniment to a cheese plate.  Our friends at Salumeria assembled this lovely ensemble--membrillo, manchego, and crackers specifically made for sheep milk cheeses.  They highly recommend serving membrillo with sheep milk cheeses (hence the Manchego selection--but Pecorino or Roquefort would be admirable pairings as well).   With a salad, a well-assembled cheese plate can serve as a lovely, light supper on a hot day when cooking is abhorrent.

R...Radiccio has an intense flavor, so a little goes a long way.  It introduces a beautiful bright color to contrast with the greens in your salad and that slight bitterness is a lovely flavor match with the sweetness of balsamic.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The A-B-C's of Fresh Produce

Instead of wasting multitudinous words extolling our admiration for the latest seasonal early Summer produce hitting the stands at Reading Terminal Market, we've run around visiting the Merchants and snapped what's in season NOW.  We also recently fell in love--with Talula's Garden. So brace yourselves for frequent references to this glorious new addition to the restaurant scene--more on Talula's in the coming weeks.

In order to avoid biting off more than we can chew, we are breaking the alphabet up into thirds.  Today, we'll tackle A-I.

Starting with A...
Arugula--We love it tossed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette--salt, pepper, garlic powder, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

B..Beets (divine as a side at Talula's Garden - why did their beets taste so good?  Perhaps it was the sprinkling of fresh herbs grown  right in the courtyard garden.)

C..We spotted cherries on the shelves last week!

D..Dandelion.  Hmmm.  Aimee Olexy, the owner of Talula's Garden, swears by both Dandelion and Mizuna leaves which she grows onsite and combines in a fresh spring salad.  Are we bold enough to try to recreate it..?

E..Eggplant.  We've said it before Iovine's Sicilian (football-shaped) eggplant runs rings round the conventional variety.

F..Fresas.  That's Spanish for strawberries, and there's nothing better right now.  Try Talula's Garden Chef Michael Santoro's simple preparation for a staggeringly impressive and very unique dessert:  2 cups strawberries, quartered.  Set aside an additional 1/2 cup of the damaged berries, and mash them with 1/4 cup Minus 8 Vinegar (a sweet vinegar made from post-frost grapes--hence the name--when the sugars are uber concentrated in the late-harvest fruit).    Serve the strawberry-vinegar mixture topped with crumbled meringue and sprinkled with chopped fresh mint .    Or, you could keep it really simple and buy a beautifully baked strawberry something from one of the Market's bakers.
Termini's Strawberry Shortcake
G..Greens, glorious greens.   Remember, Jack McDavid gave us his secret to cooking them--don't miss it!

H..Haricots Verts--these lovely baby string beans are divine roasted briefly with rock salt, olive oil and cracked pepper or sauteed in garlic and tossed with cashews.

I...I give up.  Can't think of any fresh produce that begins with an "I".  Can we count Iceberg lettuce?  Let's!   True confession, this crunchy head is great in a chopped salad or served retro as a wedge slathered with blue cheese dressing, but it's a bit of a guilty admission in terms of fresh, authentic, local produce consumption.  Maybe our "I" should be anything from Iovines.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Easy Asparagus

Having promised easy...this one's for the more adventurous amongst you!  Asparagus tart...

Asparagus is a favorite vegetable because it's impossible to mess it up.  In fact, the less you muck around with it, the better it tastes.  Over the years, we've steamed, stir-fried, sauted and even grilled this distinctive, unassuming Spring vegetable -- but now conclude that roasting is the cooking method that brings out the best in asparagus. 

While asparagus is usually served with a lemony Hollandaise sauce, to our mind, lime knocks the socks off lemon as a pairing.  We're not suggesting that you try and make Hollandaise using limes - what a novel thought! - but rather try dousing your asparagus with a good squeeze of fresh lime juice and a smidgen of pepper and rock salt to dust your asparagus before you roast it in a hot oven (around 400) for 10 minutes or so.  A quick blast in the oven retains the crunchiness of the asparagus, while the lime gives it an unusual edge.  Many people enjoy grilled asparagus but, unless you keep a close eye on the grill, then the tops of the spears tend to get frazzled and quickly burn, particularly on the spindly young Spring asparagus that I prefer. 
So roasting's the way to go.

Another oh-so-easy idea for asparagus is to steam a bunch (either use a steamer or cheat and cover spears with water and cook in the microwave until it acquires the texture you prefer), allow to cool and then wrap with a small slice of proscuitto. 

If you like the flavor of black truffles then you can make this nifty appetizer even more memorable by drizzling a teensy amount of truffle-flavored oil on the proscuitto spear, or another option, serve with your favorite dip - I'm currently infatuated with a ricotta truffle dip...

Our friend in the U.K., Jenny Cowell, who is an adventurous cook and likes to share both her successes (and failures) on Facebook, baked and photographer a truimphant asparagus tart using pre-made filo or puff pastry and Spring spears.  Ravishing.

The first ever Asparagus King - newly crowned in the U.K.  But is that a cowboy hat he's sporting..?
While we're talking about life on the other side of the pond, we wanted to bring your attention to the British Asparagus Festival which is running from April to end of June in a quaint little village in the U.K., called Evesham.  At the Festival launch - on St George's Day naturally enough - all sorts of merriment was had.  Apparently festival organizers have created an online petition to replace the traditional symbol of England from the red rose, which dates back to the War of the Roses (1455-1487), to the asparagus.  If you feel strongly enough about the noble asparagus then join their campaign...