Saturday, May 26, 2012

A new salad treat

This year we're growing napa cabbage in the garden, and after such an early start with our warm March weather, it's already at the stage of bolting into tall flower heads.  Fortunately we had read that the flowers are edible, so we harvested a few handfuls for the salad.

The little flower heads remind me of broccoli in both taste and looks -- a little blowsier, not so firmly packed, and a bit less assertive.  If you like raw broccoli you would love these guys, and if you don't, don't worry, they're much more delicate.

And beautiful.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Summer's here!

I know that summer is here when the local tomatoes are good enough to eat in a sandwich, and here's my first one.

This one came from the farmer's market.  It was grown in a greenhouse, but in soil, not hydroponically, so it tastes like a real tomato, not a close relative.  Big enough to cover the whole slice of bread, red all the way through -- what could be better?

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Early in the season it's so tempting to grab a bag of your favorite fruit as soon as it shows up in the market, only to realize that you should have waited.  We had a bag of peaches two weeks ago and considering they were the first ones, they weren't half bad.  But a second bag from the same fruit stand was a terrible disappointment.  They smelled great, usually a tipoff that they will taste good too.  But not this time.

When we cut them open, the pits were unformed, and the flesh was so firm that it was hard to remove the pits and slice the fruit.  And they tasted like so much styrofoam.

The next day the peaches were a little softer, so we tried again, but the taste was equally nonexistent.

Coincidentally we had some tasteless apples hanging around, so I cut everything up and made peach-applesauce.  With an hour of long, slow cooking and a lot of fresh nutmeg, the result was pleasant if not great.

We'll probably take a week off before we try peaches again; maybe they'll be better as the season wears on.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Improvisation in green

It's getting hot, and I'm trying to get into my summer eating habits, so I got a big bunch of parsley at the grocery (ours is growing nicely but not big enough for a harvest the size I had in mind) and picked a bunch of mint and chives from the garden and set out to make tabouli.

I washed and de-stemmed the herbs and whizzed them up in the Cuisinart, then put bulgur to soak in warm water.  Oops, not as much bulgur as I wanted -- and after a huge search of the pantry we realized there was no backup package.

I fretted while the bulgur reconstituted itself, realizing that I had way too much green stuff as a proportion of brown stuff.  Parsley and mint are wonderful, but they need a fair amount of some relatively neutral base to play against.

And then inspiration struck.  I got some red lentils and cooked them, which takes less than a half hour.  Perhaps I was distracted, because I got the cooking wrong.  When I returned to the stove, there wasn't enough liquid in the pan to make soup, and the lentils were too far toward the mush end of the spectrum to turn them into a salad, so I poured a can of chicken broth over the top.  Then half of my chopped green herbs went into the pot.

The next day I heated it up and added some spinach from the salad towel in the fridge.

Halfway between soup and porridge, it was a wonderful bowl of springtime.  The big handful of herbs, plus the chicken broth, were all the seasoning it needed.  And the tabouli came out perfect with the rest of the herbs, in just the right balance of green and brown.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The family mint

Today is Kentucky Derby Day, and perhaps you're thinking that it might be just the time for a decadent mint julep.  Even though it's early in the afternoon, thousands of folks out at the track are already indulging, some of them continuously since last night, so why not you?

Indeed, the mint julep is a beloved tradition in Kentucky horse country.  You need to have a real silver julep cup, and some mint, and some Kentucky bourbon.  And ice and sugar.

Traditionally you start with crushed ice in the julep cup, so it will get cold and frosty.  You cook up some simple syrup with the sugar, cool it down, then put mint in with the syrup, crushing the leaves with a spoon or pestle or smooth rock till the syrup gets all green and herbal.  Mix with bourbon and a bit of water.  Pour over the crushed ice in the julep cup, and stick a fresh sprig of mint jauntily on top.

One of the famous Kentucky curmudgeons had his own version of the recipe.  He diligently recited all the stuff about the mint and the sugar and the smooth rocks, and then he concluded, "throw all that stuff away and drink the bourbon."

Although I own several official mint julep cups (they used to be popular wedding presents in Kentucky) they're all tarnished and they live at the storage locker.  But I do have lots of mint.  In fact, my mint is a family heirloom.

My mother acquired the mint in the late 1950s from a neighbor and it grew just outside our front porch. When we moved from New York City to Syracuse in 1960 she dug it up and put it in our "garden" at the new house.  It was newly built, and the "soil" had a high concrete and construction waste content, so getting things to grow was not easy. But the mint survived.

In fact, mint, like cockroaches, is one of the great survivors of all time.  If it weren't so perky and delicious you might be tempted to call it an invasive species, because it not only sends its roots down, it creeps horizontally with great vigor.

When my husband and I got our own garden Mom brought us some mint, which made itself at home and became the mother plant for future generations.  We sent cuttings to other family members as they got their own gardens.  And if you need some I could probably send some to you.

In an attempt to constrain the mint to its own place, my husband put it into a barrel at the end of the driveway, but it escaped and started colonizing the garden.  So last year he exiled it to a spot amongst the ground cover at the far end of our lot, where it's holding its own and by the end of summer may well have taken over.  I have to take a walk to harvest it, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for my juleps or tabouli or ice cream parfaits.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Best service of the month

The other night we ate out and had an experience that I've never had before.  I ordered an antipasto that was supposed to contain Tuscan beans, spinach, tomatoes, pancetta and shrimp.  In fact, shrimp was in the title of the dish -- fagioli e gamberi.

The dish came and after I squeezed some lemon over the top of it, I took up my fork -- and realized there were no visible shrimp.  I poked around in the beans a bit and still no shrimp.  I mentioned this to the others at the table, and tilted the dish just a bit to show the person sitting next to me.  Hadn't even reached the point of looking for our waiter.

And at my elbow a guy appeared to say, "is everything all right?"

It was the owner of the restaurant.  He looked at my dish, said, "oh my, there certainly aren't any shrimp there, let me fix it" and whisked it away.

When it came back there certainly were shrimp there, probably more than there would have been under normal circumstances.  It was a fine dish and I'll order it again, or better yet, try to make it at home.

After dinner the owner showed up at our table again to inquire how we had liked everything.  We told him we all were delighted, and I asked him, "how did you know I was upset?"  He said he didn't really know, he was standing there surveying the scene, happened to look our way and picked up some vibe. I guess that's what makes a great restaurant -- people in charge who stand there keeping watch, and who are attuned to the mysterious vibes coming from their customers.

So my hat is off to Tim Coury, owner of Porcini's in Louisville, where we've never had a bad meal.