Saturday, June 30, 2007

Freesia and Asters


The humid heatwave we experienced last week (ugh!) seems to have encouraged all the plants on the porch to grow exponentially (hooray!). We somehow managed to keep up our watering schedule, even though it was so hot that we found ourselves watering the thirstiest plants twice a day. I was, naturally, most worried about the spicy peppers, but they seem to have pulled through just fine.

Thankfully, the weather has cooled down a bit for the weekend, and we can turn off the air conditioners and open the windows again.

The freesia- a favourite in bouquets (and high school prom corsages) because of its heady fragrance and long cut-flower life- produced its first blossoms this morning. A mix of hot orange, bright red and wine colours, they're already attracting the neighborhood bees and butterflies!


The Matsumoto Asters have started to bloom, too, and it looks as though the snapdragons aren't too far behind. The gladiolus and oriental lilies still have a few weeks to go.

Matsumoto Aster

Friday, June 29, 2007

Kohlrabi, Tomato and Sugar Snap Pea Salad

We've been eating a lot of salads these days; this particular combination was an attempt to use up an odd assortment of vegetables before they lost their crunch. I'd never tasted kohlrabi before, but I knew that it can be eaten raw. Turns out that it tastes something like a cross between a cabbage heart and a radish, with a thick skin and crunchy, peppery flesh.

I was
pleasantly surprised by how well these vegetables work together! However, I do realize that you might not have all of these things on hand. Substitute whatever seasonal vegetables you might have, but don't omit the macerated onions and lemon juice, as they make up the dressing.

Kohlrabi, Tomato, Sugar Snap Pea Salad

serves 4 as a side course

1 large head red or green leaf lettuce, chopped with a very sharp knife
1 cup mizuna greens or arugula, chopped
1 medium kohlrabi, cut into short, thin slices
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/2 cup sugar snap peas, halved
1/4 cup macerated red onions with liquid
juice of 1/2 large lemon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

Toss tomatoes with the sugar and salt in a bowl. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.

Toss the rest of the vegetables together in a large salad bowl. Add the tomatoes and any juice that has accumulated in the bottom of the bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss well to coat.

Monday, June 25, 2007


I am feeling refreshed after a blissfully lazy weekend. We didn't do much of anything, and though we didn't make it to the Greek Festival held yearly at a nearby church, we did get takeout from my favourite Greek restaurant. I do love to cook, but taking breaks and enjoying the unusually cool air in our kitchen are welcome treats.

The poppies on the porch are blooming like mad. Their vivid colours remind me of summer fruit, and perhaps they will inspire me in the kitchen!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Summer's First Strawberries

Strawberries- tiny, ruby-red, and bursting with flavour- have arrived! We took home our first few pints, straight from the pick-your-own farm and still warm from the sun. My relationship with berries of all kinds is fairly straightforward and absolutely gluttonous: give me a half hour alone with them, and I will eat every single one.

When it comes to the first summer strawberries, I don't do much in the way of heat-centric cooking. We eat them whole and unadorned when impatient, with plain yogurt and a drizzle of maple syrup (L) or honey (me) for dessert, and on top of sweet cream ice cream for special occasions.

If you want a classic technique, sprinkle sugar over sliced strawberries and allow them to sit- they will release juices to make their own sweet syrup. If you're looking for an unusual and refreshing treat, especially one that will surprise your dining mate or dinner guests, drizzle a small amount of good-quality (preferably aged) balsamic vinegar over whole or sliced berries.

Check your local newspaper or town/city/state website for information on pick-your-own farms near you. If you live in Massachusetts, I can give you a head start.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Macerated Red Onions

I found this recipe in one of my favourite cookbooks- Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer. We eat a lot of onions, both raw and cooked, so I was immediately drawn to this half-pickled, half-macerated alternative. I now keep a jar of these with the other condiments in our refrigerator.

When you macerate the onions in the oil-vinegar mix, they turn a vivid translucent cerise
and lose their sulfury-acrid bite. I've changed the oil and vinegar quantities a bit because I like a stronger acid kick, but the result is the same.

These are perfect in sandwiches and spooned over anything grilled. Add them with their liquid
to salads, perhaps with a splash of fresh lemon juice, and you'll have the only dressing you need.

Macerated Red Onions

1 medium red onion, halved widthwise and sliced as thin as possible
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup good quality red wine vinegar

Mix all ingredients in a shallow nonreactive (glass or ceramic) bowl and allow to sit for at least two hours before using. Onions can be kept covered, in an airtight container, in the refrigerator.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Maine Honey + Peaches

During the Presidents' Day holiday weekend back in February, we were invited up to A's family's farm in Maine. Five of us spent the weekend learning (or in A's case, teaching) to snowboard and feasting on incredible homegrown food. After three days of sausages and bacon from their own pigs, eggs collected each morning, fresh milk and cream from the cow in the barn, and bagels straight out of the oven with last summer's raspberry-rhubarb jam (and much, much more), I'm surprised that any of us could walk!

The morning we departed we were treated to an incredible cheesecake with glazed strawberries (all homemade, and a fabulous surprise as it was my birthday!), and we were each sent home, as if they hadn't been generous enough already, with a huge jar of exquisite honey from the beehives in their apple orchard.

So far, we have been fairly conservative with our jar of Maine honey. I want it to last as long as possible (honey keeps beautifully), and we can get good local honey from my favourite produce store, so I use that when I need more than a few spoonfuls. As A and S are visiting for the weekend, though, I thought it would only be fitting that we bring out the special stuff.

We're starting to see baskets of surprisingly tasty tree-ripened peaches around here, so this morning I sliced four large ones into thin wedges and drizzled 1/4 cup of honey over the slices. After letting the concoction macerate for 15 minutes, we had peach slices in a refreshing peachy-honey syrup.

The honey has crystallized in the jar and is perfectly good as is, but for this I wanted a smooth syrup. I was able to return the grainy honey to its liquid state using a trick I garnered from an old cookbook- by spooning a few lumps into a pyrex cup and letting the cup sit in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.

Note: Do note feed honey to children under 1 year of age.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Brining for Poultry and Meat

If there is a help group for people addicted to cookbooks, sign me up tout de suite!

Shortly after L and I graduated college and moved to Boston, I discovered that our town library has an entire aisle devoted just to cookbooks. This is my idea of heaven! One evening at the library, I came across a copy of The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock at the library. I borrowed it, began reading, and quickly fell in love. I believe that someone once called Edna Lewis "the Julia Child of southern cuisine." How right they were!

One of the first things I came across was a small section called "brining for poultry and meat." I was intrigued, as the only brine I'd even heard of was the juice from the pickle jar that my sister loved to drink when we were kids. At the time I thought it was disgusting, but out of fairness I must note that now, being a little older and much wiser, I've discovered the deliciousness that is sipping the remains of rice vinegar/shoyu potsticker dipping sauce. I'm starting to see her point.

Brining is an ancient process. Preservation brining, which involves copious amounts of salt, dries the meat out, thus preventing unwanted microorganisms from forming in the meat's natural moisture. Flavour brining, on the other hand, flavours the meat, changes its texture, and helps it retain moisture that would otherwise be lost during the cooking process.

The first time we tried it, we brined and then fried chicken legs. Not only did the brine make the meat moist and juicy, but it gave the chicken a wonderful savoury flavour that you just can't get from sauce alone. I was hooked, and these days I make an effort to brine meat whenever I can. If you're doing a whole chicken (which will be fabulously good) it can be hard to find space in your refrigerator for the large container you'll have to use. Trust me- you want to move things around and find a way. It's worth the effort.

These proportions are directly from The Gift of Southern Cooking; I've tweaked the instructions to reflect my own experiences.

Brining for Poultry and Meat

To make the brine, stir kosher salt (do not, under any circumstances, use table salt here) into cold water until dissolved, in the proportion of 1/4 cup salt to 1 quart of water. Mix enough brine to cover the poultry or meat completely in a nonreactive* bowl or pot; if the meat insists on floating to the top, you can cover it with a heavy plate or two to keep it completely submerged. Williams-Sonoma and other cooking stores sell brining bags that can help with this problem; I've never tried one, but I've heard good things. Store refrigerated for the times specified below. Do not brine for longer than the recommended time or your meat will become too salty.

Cut-up chicken: brine for 8-12 hours
Whole chicken for roasting: brine for 8-24 hours
Whole turkey for roasting: brine for 24-48 hours
Pork chops: brine for 2 hours
Pork loin: brine for 8-24 hours
Pork shoulder: brine for 24 hours

*nonreactive = enamel or stainless steel; not aluminum or cast-iron

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Surprise at the Farm

Well, it turns out I was wrong. We got a lot of vegetables at our first farm pickup today, and they all look tasty!

We came home with two very full paper bags of red and green lettuce, arugula, mizuna greens, spinach, bok choi, kohlrabi (white and red), white Japanese radishes:

sugar snap peas:

and herbs (from left to right: oregano, flowering allium/chives, savory) :

We had some pizza dough in the fridge that desperately needed to be eaten, so for dinner tonight we decided on pizzas with tomato sauce, cheese (provolone, mozzarella, parmesan, romano), and arugula. I've rolled out the storebought dough and let it rest, and now L and I are off to load it up and put our pizzas in the oven (500'F for 10-12 minutes, until the cheeses are bubbly and the crust edges golden). Yum!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Community Supported Agriculture

During the last week of May, I received an e-mail with the news I've waited all spring to hear:

First CSA Pickups at the farm are:
Tuesday, June 12, 3-7:30 PM
Thursday, June 14
, 3-7:30 PM
Sunday, June 17, 3-7:30 PM

Forget the summer solstice. To me, the day our farm share pickups begin is the real first day of summer.

L & I joined the Waltham Fields Community Farm in January of 2005, and I've never looked at vegetables the same way since. As you may have guessed, I am terribly excited about our first pickup. There probably won't be a huge amount- not compared to the heavy bags of vegetables and fruit we take home as the summer progresses- but there will be something, and I know it will be tasty.

The dog will be excited, too. He loves romping around the farm, especially when there are escaped carrots and tomatoes to be found in the long grass leading up to the vegetable rows. One pickup day last year, the Farm Manager (Amanda) gave him some carrots to munch on. He was happy as a clam, and I'm sure he hasn't forgotten it.

Wondering what this CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) business is? According to our farm's
website, "CSA refers to a model of farming in which farmers sell harvest shares (vegetables, flowers, meat, etc.) directly to people in the local community. It was adopted in America from Japanese and European models, largely as a response to the disappearance of the small farm. CSA represents a shared commitment - shareholders commit to the farm for the season, providing farmers with a secure customer base, and farmers commit to doing their utmost to provide their shareholders with the best-quality, most nutritious food around. This direct connection between farmer and consumers bypasses middlemen (e.g., marketers, long distance shippers), benefits the farmer by increasing farm revenue, benefits the environment by decreasing packaging and pollution, and benefits consumers by providing fresh, high-quality produce at competitive prices."

The pitfalls of this system? Well, you are subject to the weather and yearly harvest, which is always a mildly scary thought. What if it's cold until July and frost hits early in the fall? What if it rains for 3 months straight and everything rots? What if something goes wrong and the garlic doesn't sprout (this is one of the worst tragedies that I can imagine)? I suppose anything could happen, but when you throw
hard-working, agriculturally-savvy farm staff into the mix, you're pretty much guaranteed success.

The benefits? Fresh, organic, locally-grown produce for, at the very least, 20 weeks every year. The opportunity to pick your own food- literally- with in-the-field tastings encouraged along the way. The chance to try some cool new things that you'd be hard pressed to find in most stores (mizuna greens, anyone?). Not to mention the nutritional benefits of food that
hasn't been shipped 600 miles, artificially ripened, and waxed to eerie, superficial perfection. And best of all, we've found that the weekly cost is actually cheaper than buying the same things at any of the grocery stores near us.

In addition, Waltham Fields operates a Hunger Relief Program
, multiple Education Programs, and a Farmland Preservation operation. How good can it get?!

Want to find a CSA in your area? I've included some links below, but I am sure that there are more resources out there. Happy hunting!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Heirloom Yellow Pear Tomatoes + Mustard Vinaigrette

This afternoon, after L and I got home from work, the dog and I spent a few minutes on our front porch enjoying the last bit of sunshine for the day. The porch is large enough for a nice container garden, and over the past few years we've managed to grow all sorts of things out there, despite the pup's occasional pruning.

Herbs are a given for us, and we always seem to end up with a wacky assortment of flowers. I definitely go for the unusual ones- I am currently eyeing the
toad lilies at our local garden center, and I'm thrilled that our passion flowers are blooming again this year.

I'd love to grow roses, but we rent our apartment, and I have a hard time with the thought that we may someday have to leave them behind. I've thought about trying my hand at growing vegetables, but we get so many from our CSA (more on that next week) that I've decided to forgo those. For now, anyway.

Last year, I started tomato seeds in regular old highball glasses at the beginning of January (I honestly don't know where I found the energy for that!), transplanted them to big pots in May, and in July we began to harvest a bumper crop of sweet heirloom Yellow Pear Tomatoes.

There seems to be some argument about what constitutes an heirloom plant. Some people say it has to be at least 100 years old, others say only 50; some say it should have originated before 1945, others say before 1951. In any case, everyone agrees that to call a plant an heirloom variety, it must have been originally bred using classic breeding practices (i.e. not genetic modification) and open-pollinated (i.e. naturally- by birds, insects, and wind).

I wholeheartedly recommend this variety of tomato; give the seeds extra time to germinate and sprout in the winter if you can, transplant them to a sunny spot after the last frost in your area, and make sure they get enough water. With very little effort on your part, you can eat tomatoes all through summer and long into the fall. We ate as many as we could and did our best to freeze the rest.

I like these tomatoes two ways, the first being very simple: toss a few pints of tomatoes with sea salt and olive oil, perhaps some sprigs of thyme, and roast them in any pan at 425'F until slightly deflated and wrinkled. Roasting brings out their sweetness, and they're almost as good as a warm tomato straight off the vine.

For those craving a good tomato salad, I'll share another favourite of mine. Slice up a few pints of tomatoes (mixed varieties, if possible), cutting large tomatoes into wedges and small tomates in halves. These can sit out at room temperature for an hour or two. Never refrigerate tomatoes- it makes them go mealy. When you're ready to serve, toss the tomatoes with your favourite dressing- I love Ina Garten's Mustard Vinaigrette in this dish. If you're worried about the raw egg in this vinaigrette, you can substitute a tablespoon of good mayonnaise so you don't lose the lovely creaminess of the dressing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Google Conversion Tool

Have you ever found yourself staring in frustration at conversion tables or algebraic conversion formulae meant to "help" you convert cooking/baking temperatures?

I have. They drive me crazy.

They invariably omit the temperature I need, or they involve a calculator more powerful than my brain.
For example, if you're fond of math, you can convert using the following formulae:

Fahrenheit -> Celsius:
Tc = (5/9)*(Tf-32)

Celsius -> Fahrenheit:
Tf = ((9/5)*Tc)+32

Don't get me wrong. I loved math, calculus in particular, in school. But converting things on the fly in the kitchen? It's not for me.

Want an easier way to convert in your head? I've tried this, and I can say from experience that it's not a very good idea. At least, not in the kitchen.

When I was a theatre school student in Moscow, I would pass a large thermometer hanging outside the main post office every day on my way to class. During my first few weeks there, I often converted the outside temperature this way: multiply the Celsius temperature by 1.8 (ok, let's be honest here- I would multiply by 2, then subtract a tiny bit here or there), then add 32. It's not terrifically accurate when you're fudging numbers as you slip and slide over ice patches on the way to 8 am dance class, but it gave me some sense of the temperature in familiar terms.

This method is fine for gauging, in vague terms, just how frozen your nose is, but there is something fabulous out there that beats my lazy-day method hands-down.

If you have web access while you're cooking, check out Google's conversion feature. Simply type your conversion- for example, convert 140 Celsius to Fahrenheit (no quotation marks needed) into the search box and and hit Google Search. Google will give you the conversion for anything- temperature, weight, volume- in no time flat! I discovered this last year, and it has been my secret weapon ever since.

Of course, you can still use those annoying formulae or conversion charts... but why bother?

Monday, June 4, 2007


(ready for the oven)

It's been a while since I've written- work has been insane, and I haven't managed to find the energy to write. I'm hoping to be better about it this summer (and beyond...).

The first order of business is a movie that I am very excited about. On June 29, Pixar Animation Studios (now part of Walt Disney Pictures) will release... Ratatouille! I knew it was coming, but I only saw my first preview this weekend. It looks fabulous, and I can't wait!

UPDATE: I finally saw Ratatouille. I love it! Je l'aime! If you haven't already, go see it! And if you'd like to try the real thing, check out my recommendation here...