Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Relish Those Cucumbers

I've written before about my brother-in-law Dave's tradition of creating Friday night dinners that provide a quick, flavorful, and satisfying start to the weekend. Since mid-spring, when wild Pacific salmon began appearing in the seafood case at Philbricks Fresh Market in Portsmouth, those dinners have frequently centered around whichever species of oncorhynchus happens to be in season. I'd been dying to try the recipe for Wild Salmon with Vietnamese Cucumbers  from David Tanis' A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, which is probably my go-to cookbook of the moment. As soon as I saw the first cucumbers of the spring at the Copley Square Farmer's Market in Boston, I knew what we'd be serving that Friday.

The key to the cucumber dish is fresh herbs (as opposed to dried!) and the fish sauce, which is made from fish that have been allowed to ferment. Whether you use nuoc mam (Vietnamese) or mam pla (Thai) it has a distinctive, salty, savory taste (umami!)-- and is an essential ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. You don't need to add a lot, but there really is no substitute. Most grocery stores carry it in the International Foods section.
These Vietnamese cucumbers are very easy to prepare, but it's best made about 20 minutes in advance of serving so the flavors can meld. And if there's time to chill it a bit, you get a lovely contrast with the hot fish.

As for cooking the salmon, Tanis drizzles it with a little olive oil and bakes it for 20 to 25 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Dave drizzled ours with a marinade of soy sauce, ginger, and scallions and grilled it. Tanis suggests serving this dish with jasmine rice, but we chose to have soba noodles with sugar snap peas in a ginger sauce and some sauteed tat soi .                                                                                   

Vietnamese Cucumbers ala David Tanis from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes
4 large cucumbers
Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) or  or Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin slices
1-3 tbsp palm sugar (available at Asian or Indian grocers, or use raw brown sugar)
2 or 3 limes
1-2 Fresh Thai chilies (or serranos or jalapenos), finely chopped
A few mint sprigs
A few basil sprigs
1-2 thinly sliced scallions
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds with a spoon, if they are large. Slice the cucumbers into thickish half-moons and put in a large bowl. Sprinkle lightly with fish sauce, then add the ginger and a couple of tablespoons of palm sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (The fish wauce is very salty.) Toss well and let cucumbers sit for 5 minutes or so.

2. Depending on the level of spiciness you desire, add anywhere from a teaspoonful to a tablespoon of finely chopped serrano or jalapeno chilies, (seeds removed if you prefer) or finely slivered Thai chilies. Squeeze in the juice from two limes, toss again, cover, and refrigerate until serving.

3. Just before serving, add a fistful of roughly chopped mint and basil leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning with lime juice, salt, and pepper. Garnish with thinly-sliced scallions.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Feast of Roasted Radishes

A few years ago, when I was reorganizing my cookbooks, I moved my small collection of Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks out of the kitchen and into the bookcase that surrounds my living room mantle. Though they were written by some of the most preeminent food writers of their day -- for instance, Waverly Root wrote the Italian volume, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, the French -- I'd always valued them much more for their evocative photography and storytelling than for the actual recipes. In fact, it was one of the pictures that I saw in The Cooking of Provincial France in the early seventies that changed the way I thought of radishes forever: a tow-haired boy of about four or five eating an open-faced sandwich of long rose-and-white breakfast radishes on a slice of well-buttered French bread. For someone who'd only eaten bright red radishes raw in salads or dipped in salt, it was a glimpse of an unknown, yet exciting world.

I had same thrill recently when I found not one, but two articles extolling the virtues of cooked radishes: one by Melissa Clark in The New York Times; the other by Donna Long in a Saveur article entitled Foods that Inspire. Needless to say, I was incredibly inspired by both. It was early May and the Farmers' Market in Portsmouth had just opened. I found a beautiful mixed bunch of radishes at the Wake Robin Farm stand.
I decided to take Melissa Clark's idea of combining radishes and feta and use Long's recipe for roasting

Then I gave it a twist of my own: serving it on crackers as an hors'd oeuvre, as sort of homage to that tow-headed French boy who had captivated me with his radish sandwich so many years ago.

Roasted Radishes
with Feta Cheese on Crackers
Based on a recipe from Saveur Magazine

1 bunches assorted radishes
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Half cup of feta cheese, crumbled
8 large flat water crackers

1. Heat oven to 425˚. Trim radish greens; reserve for another use. Wash radishes, pat dry, and transfer to a large bowl with oil and thyme. Toss to combine; season with salt and pepper.

2. Cut radishes in half and put them into a shallow baking dish and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown and a small knife slides easily into radishes, about 20 minutes.
3. Sprinkled crumbled feta on the radishes and put back into the oven for a few minutes, until the cheese has melted.
4. Place on crackers and serve.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Get Your Goat

My cousin Christy was coming for a visit last weekend, and Robin, Dave, and I wanted to make her a special dinner as an early birthday celebration. She requested a tagine made with either veal or lamb, as she knew we have access to local meat that's humanely raised. We had recently purchased some goat kabob meat from Riverslea Farm in Epping at the Portsmouth Farmers' market, so we asked Christy if she would mind having her birthday tagine made with goat instead. Happily, she agreed.

Some people are skeptical about goat meat, fearing it will be tough and taste strong and, well, "goaty". We've found the goat meat we've bought at the Farmers' Market to be tender and delicious. Usually we have chops, so we were eager to cook with the kabob meat. We were also excited to try our new, bright red Le Creuset Moroccan Tagine. It's basically a shallow enameled dish with a tight-fitting conical lid, which keeps everything moist during the long simmer that makes a tagine so delicious.

Dave looked through a pile of cookbooks before deciding to adapt David Tanis' recipe for chicken tagine with pumpkin and chickpeas for the goat -- and for spring. Tanis, who spends half the year as chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the other half living in Paris, had suggested that tomatoes could be substituted for the pumpkin. As we happened to have a can of chopped tomatoes in the pantry, we were all set.

The spices in both the goat and the chickpeas are fragrant and heavenly. Dave substituted his favorite maras pepper for the freshly ground black pepper called for in the recipe. It's bright red, with a deep flavor -- there's some heat, but it's not overwhelming. Long before we ate, the smells coming from the kitchen were exotic and inviting. And when we finally sat down, we had a meal worth celebrating.

Goat Tagine with Tomatoes and Chickpeas
Based on the recipe for chicken tagine with pumpkin and chickpeas in A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis
Serves 6

1 lb. (2 cups) dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) , picked over and soaked overnight in cold water (I used the quick-soak method from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, a great basic cookbook: put the chickpeas in a pan, cover with cold water to cover, boil for two minutes, then soak for 2 hours in the cooking water, drain, then cook in fresh water per your recipe.)
1 large onion, quartered
1 cinnamon stick
A few cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Minced parsley

1 medium can of chopped tomatoes
Coarse salt
2 teaspoons maras pepper
3 pounds of goat meat cut for kebabs
3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and roughly ground
2 large onions, diced small
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons butter
6 garlic cloves, sliced
Large pinch of saffron
Red pepper flakes or cayenne

Harissa Oil (see recipe below)

1. To cook the chickpeas (or garbanzo):, drain the soaked chickpeas, put them in a saucepan, and cover with 3 quarts of water. Add the onion, cinnamon stick, cloves, a splash of olive oil, and a little salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently uncovered, for about an hour, or until the chickpeas are tender. Taste for salt
and adjust. Leave the chickpeas to cool in the cooking liquid.

1. Season the goat meat with a little salt, the cumin seeds, grated ginger, and the maras pepper. (If you don't have maras, use freshly ground regular pepper.) Set the meat aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. In a skillet over medium heat, saute the onions in a combination of butter and olive oil until softened. Season with salt and continue cooking until the onions are lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the sliced garlic cloves. Crumble the saffron over the onions. Stir the onions and season to taste with red pepper.
4. Arrange the onions in a tagine or shallow earthenware casserole (or two if necessary), and then top with the tomatoes and their juices. Now, put the goat over the tomatoes in one layer. Add 1/2 cup of chickpea cooking liquid or enough to barely cover the meat.
5. Cover the casserole and bake for 20 minutes or so, until the liquid is bubbling briskly. Reduce the
heat to 375 degrees and continue cooking for another 30 minutes, or so until the goat is tender and yields
easily to a probing fork. Take the casserole from the oven and skim any surfacing fat with a shallow ladle.
6. Warm the chickpeas in their cooking liquid, then drain and deposit them in a warmed bowl. Swirl in a little butter, the cinnamon, and some chopped parsley.
7. Give each diner a serving of goat with some tomatoes and a good ladle of broth, Spoon some chickpeas over each serving. Pass a bowl of the spicy harissa oil for drizzling

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon sweet paprika or mild ground red chile
1 teaspoon Aleppo, cayenne, or other powdered hot red chile
1 to 2 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste with a little salt
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil
A few drops of red wine vinegar

1. Toast all the seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until they are fragrant. Grind the toasted seeds in
a mortar or spice mill, then put them in a bowl.
2. Add the paprika, red pepper, garlic, and salt. Stir in the olive oil and vinegar. The harissa will keep in
the fridge for up to a week.
Makes about 1 cup.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Give Peas a Chance

I try to eat seasonally, but sometimes (all too often, really) my mouth gets ahead of things. I feel that way about peas. To me, peas seem like the perfect spring vegetable, like artichokes or asparagus. Alas, in New England, fresh peas are rarely available until late June -- hence that traditional Fourth of July dish, salmon and peas.  Fortunately, I've found a way to get the pea fix I've been craving. Right now, a number of the farmers at the markets in Portsmouth and Boston are selling pea tendrils. These actually aren't really tendrils at all, but rather the leaves and shoots of a young pea plant. I've discovered that they have a surprisingly strong, authentic pea flavor.

Last week, we found fresh pea tendrils at the Meadow's Mirth stand in Portsmouth. Usually we serve pea tendrils raw in salads or lightly sauteed as part of an Asian stir fry. This time, we decided it would be fun to try using them instead of basil in a pesto sauce for homemade pasta with smoked scallops. While Dave and Robin made the pasta and smoked the local day-boat scallops in our Bradley smoker, I made the pesto, using the blender pesto recipe from Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook. (I, however, find it easier to use the Cuisinart rather than the blender.)

The pea tendril leaves are about the same size and texture as basil leaves, but they don't bruise as easily and don't discolor. I toast the pine nuts just a little before adding them to the pesto and I don't use the butter as Marcella suggests.

By the way, this recipe freezes well, as long as you don't add the cheese until you're ready to serve it. In the fall, we often use it to make huge quantities of basil pesto before the frost does in that tender herb. This year, I might try making some pea tendril pesto for the freezer as well. After all, sometimes, I get a hankering for peas in winter, too.

Blender Pesto
ala Marcella Hazan from The Classic Italian Cookbook
Enough for about 6 servings of pasta

2 cups fresh basil leaves (I used 2 cups of pea tendrils. This recipe also works for parsley, cilantro or garlic scape pesto.)
1/2 cup of olive oil (I use extra virgin)
2 tablespoons pin nuts (I toast them briefly)
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed with a heavy knife handle and peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated Romano pecorino cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature (I eliminate this -- and add more cheese, if the texture isn't right.)

1. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in the blender and mix at high speeds. Stop from time to time and scrape the ingredients down towards the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. [Using the Cuisinart, I pulsed the pea tendrils, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt, then added the olive oil in a stream to make an emulsion.]
2. When the ingredients are evenly combined, pour into a bowl and beat in the two grated cheeses by hand. (This is not much work and results in a more interesting texture and better flavor than you get when you mix the cheese in the blender.) [When I'm using the Cuisinart, I take out the blade and mix by hand in the bowl.] When the cheese has been has been evenly incorporated into the other ingredients, beat in the softened butter. [I usually eliminate this step.]
3. Before spooning the pesto over the pasta, add to it a teaspoon or so of the hot water in which the pasta has been boiled.

If you want to freeze the pesto, follow the recipe in Step 1. DO NOT ADD CHEESE OR BUTTER. To take up less room in the freezer, I put enough for a portion in a Ziploc freezer bag, flatten, seal tightly, and freeze. Before using, thaw overnightin the refrigerator. When completely thawed, beat in the cheese and butter as in Step 2. Before spooning over pasta, add the pasta water as in Step 3.