Sunday, October 18, 2009

As Corny as NH in October

It's mid October. The temperature is 20 degrees below normal. A nor'easter is heading up the coast. But there's still fresh sweet corn at the Seacoast Growers Market in Portsmouth and that makes me very happy.

For the few first weeks of the season, I can't get enough of corn on the cob. But then, I start to hunger for other ways to enjoy it. If there ever was a day that cried out for corn chowder, this is it, so Robin, Dave, and I picked up half a dozen ears from Heron Pond Farm's stand.

Normally, I'd start my chowder by frying up some local bacon, but we have ham left over from last week's ham and string beans, so I decide to use that. I like to make a "corn stock", by simmering the cobs in milk seasoned with onion, bay leaf, thyme, and sage. I decide to add the ham to the steeping milk mixture to warm it up and to add some smoky flavor to the stock. I take care, though, not to let the milk come to a boil.
As for a recipe, I quickly scan a few cook books with an eye toward creating the ultimate chowder experience. I discover an interesting technique in The Greens Cook Book by Deborah Madison; she thickens her chowder by pureeing half of the corn kernels in a blender before adding them to the soup. I like that idea, though I decide to first saute the corn with onions and some minced chili pepper before pureeing.

Once the milk has warmed up sufficiently and developed a nice smoky taste, I remove the corn cobs, add the uncooked corn kernels and the corn puree, simmering gently, until the corn is cooked and the soup is hot. We sit down to eat, oblivious to the cold outside and grateful to be enjoying the taste of fresh corn in October.

Corny Chowder with Ham

6 ears of corn
1 quart whole milk
1 large onion, diced
1 bay leaf
1 sage leaf
1 sprig thyme
2 cups cubed cooked ham
1 T butter
2 small hot Hungarian wax peppers, minced (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Slice the corn from the cob and set kernels aside in a bowl. Press knife to the cob to extract some of the milky liquid and add to bowl.

2. Cut cobs in half and put in a large sauce pan. Add the milk, half the chopped onion, bay, sage, and thyme to a large sauce pan and gently heat to a bare simmer, stirring frequently to keep stock from sitcking to pan. Do not let stock come to a boil.

3. While stock is heating, add butter, remaining half of the chopped onion, half the corn kernels and the minced chili to a saute pan and saute until fragrant and heated through. Add ham and remaining corn kernels to the stock, continuing to stir frequently.

4. Puree the sauted corn mixure in a blender for at least 2 minutes. If it is too thick, you can add a little water and puree some more.

5. Remove corn cobs and bay leaf from corn stock. Then add the corn puree to the stock. Put cobs in a bowl to capture any corn stock, then add to sauce pan.

6. Cook soup over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Check for salt (if the ham is salty enough, you may not need any.) Add some freshly ground pepper to taste.

Serves 4

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Green, Green Beans of Home

It was just getting dark when I pulled into the Iron Moon Farm stand on Route 1A in Newbury. I was on a mission to find local potatoes and onions, the last of the ingredients I needed to make a traditional Schweikart family favorite: ham and string beans. My sister Robin had picked up one of Tendercrop Farm's corn-cob smoked hams the week before, and the last of the green beans from Wake Robin Farm's stand at the Portsmouth Seacoast Growers Market were in the fridge.

Wendy Smith, the proprietress of the Iron Moon Farm stand, assured me she had just what I needed.  "What are you cooking?" she asked. "Ham and string beans," I replied. She nodded in recognition. "My grandmother used to make that with salt pork, instead of ham," she said. "I wish I would have remembered that last week when I had the last of our green beans."

I quickly learned that while Wendy's grandmother was from Oklahoma and mine was from Pennsylvania Dutch country, both were of German ancestry. "It's not a New England dish," Wendy said softly, her mind in Oklahoma at that moment, I'm sure. "No," I said, thinking of our old family farm in the Oley Valley, " but it sure tastes just as good here."

It's one of those recipes that, every time I make it, the very smell in my kitchen transports me back in time. And because the beans braise for a while in ham broth, it's a perfect way to use up green beans that have been toughened a bit by the cold. One caution: you want to be sure the ham isn't too salty. The Tendercrop ham was perfect, and is well worth searching out. (Their chicken is also some of the best around.)

Maz's Ham and String Beans

1 non-factory-farmed smoked ham, preferable bone-in, as the bone will add flavor.
(Our Tendercrop ham was a boneless 3-lb, but we had a lefteover ham bone in the freezer. If you don't have one, buy a ham hock to supplement a boneless ham. The size of the ham doesn't matter as leftovers can always be used for sandwiches or soup.)
3 medium onions, rough-chopped (about 1 3/4 pounds)
2 1/2 to 3 pounds potatoes
2 pounds green beans, ends removed and snapped into 1 1/2" lengths
1 quart chicken stock, prefereable homemade or low-salt
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Put ham in a Dutch oven with chopped onions. Add a mixture of water and chicken stock to go about 2/3 of the way up the ham, and simmer, covered,  for 1 1/2 hours.

2. Turn ham over, and add potatoes, cover, and simmer for another 1/2 hour. Broth should cover 2/3 of ham. If not, add more water.

3. Add the green beans, cover, and simmer for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes until the potatoes are done and the beans are tender and just about falling apart.

4. Remove ham from broth and let sit for 10 minutes or so. Check broth for seasoning and add salt, if necessary, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Cut ham into thin slices and arrange in a soup bowl. Add beans, potatoes, and broth, and serve.

Serves 4-6 with ham left over.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Adios Tomatoes!

Here in Portsmouth, the swamp maples are turning red. Our winter feeder birds—juncos, bluebirds, and white-throats—have arrived. Migrating warblers are passing through. Signs of deepening fall are everywhere, but I can’t stop thinking about tomatoes.

Earlier this week in Boston, when a timely flyer on my car windshield reminded me that the Farmers Market at Prudential Center was still open, I'd headed right over. Immediately, my eye was drawn to the colorful selection of beautifully ripe heirloom tomatoes at the stand run by MacArthur Farm of Holliston, MA. That's when I realized I’d yet to make one of my favorite summer recipes: tomato paella.

I first discovered this dish two years ago, thanks to Mark Bittman’s Minimalist column in the New York Times. Because it's so simple, the quality of the ingredients is key here, especially the tomatoes. Don’t try it with tomatoes you find in the supermarket, unless they’re local, farm grown. The recipe itself is pretty straight forward. You core and cut the tomatoes into wedges, season them, and put them in a bowl, so you can capture all the wonderful juices.

Next, you fry up some minced onion, garlic, and a chili pepper (my addition), then saute with saffron and smoked Spanish paprika. The recipe says these are optional, but to me, they form a deep, essential flavor base.

For the rice, a quality short-grained rice is a must. This time, I used a Carnoroli "risotto-style" rice, but I've successfully substituted short-grained brown rice as well.
I also prefer the richness provided by homemade chicken stock, but if you don't have any, you can use water.

You’re welcome to turn this into a traditional paella, adding meat and seafood like shrimp, mussels, or clams. But I love it this way, as a main course on a hot summer night, or as a side to roast pork or chicken on a cool October evening. It’s a great way to say “via con dias” to last of the season’s tomatoes.

(By the way, the Prudential Center Farmers Market is from 11 to 6 on Thursdays through the end of October, on the Boylston Street Plaza.)

Mark Bittman's Paella With Tomatoes
The Minimalist, New York Times, September 5, 2007

3 1/2 cups stock or water
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into thick wedges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 small minced hot pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Large pinch saffron threads (optional)
2 teaspoons Spanish pimentón (smoked paprika), or other paprika
2 cups Spanish or other short-grain rice
Minced parsley for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Warm stock or water in a saucepan. Put tomatoes in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle them with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat.

2. Put remaining oil in a 10- or 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic (and chili, if using), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, saffron if you are using it, and paprika and cook for a minute more. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is shiny, another minute or two. Add liquid and stir until just combined.

3. Put tomato wedges on top of rice and drizzle with juices that accumulated in bottom of bowl. Put pan in oven and roast, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Check to see if rice is dry and just tender. If not, return pan to oven for another 5 minutes. If rice looks too dry but still is not quite done, add a small amount of stock or water (or wine). When rice is ready, turn off oven and let pan sit for 5 to 15 minutes.

4. Remove pan from oven and sprinkle with parsley. If you like, put pan over high heat for a few minutes to develop a bit of a bottom crust before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.