Friday, June 29, 2012

Fruit Juice "Jell-O"

I was saving a bottle of organic Concord grape juice to make some grape jelly (from a simple recipe I’ll have to tell you about some time.) Ever since I bought it, however, cooking and processing jelly have seemed like just too much trouble. Fortunately, I came across the idea in a magazine to make a gelatin dessert with fruit juice. That, of course, is much easier.

In fact, this really is just about as easy as opening and mixing up a box of Jell-O brand dessert. One simply blooms some unflavored gelatin in a bit of the juice, then boils the rest of the juice, stirs it in and waits until it firms up enough to eat. Ta-da! I don’t know why I didn’t know this was so easy.

I had some really good red seedless grapes and decided they were destined to go into the Jell-o, too. I cut each one in half and arranged them in the bottom of a shallow dish so each slurpy spoonful of gelled juice was studded with nice, crisp, sweet-tart grapes. The end result was perhaps more attuned to adult tastes (although not so much as some other Jell-O treatments out there), being less sugary than packaged gelatin desserts. This kind of thing would also be great, however, for parents who would like to control their kids’ sugar intake…like, um, probably every parent. This might not be as cheap as a box of Jell-O, but, seriously, the recipe won’t take much more of your time.

I think you could use just about any juice to make this. Just taste the juice, and if it’s too tart, you could add a bit of sugar. The Concord grape juice was fabulous on its own, and I think cherry juice with cherries would be great, too. Apple cider would be heavenly, especially that wonderful fresh-pressed cider we get around here in the early fall. But, silly me! I can’t be thinking about the fall yet. There’s too much summer yet to come and this refreshing and easy fruit juice gelatin really rides the summer heat waves like a champ.

Concord Grape Juice Gelatin with Red Grapes
Based on a recipe in Martha Stewart Living magazine

You could use any fruit juice and fruit with this method.

4 cups 100% Concord grape juice, divided
2 (¼ -ounce) envelopes unflavored gelatin
2 cups halved seedless red grapes

1. Pour 1 cup of the grape juice in a large bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over it and let stand until the gelatin has absorbed the juice to form a thick gel. This is known as “blooming” the gelatin.

2. Arrange the grapes in the bottom of a shallow 2-quart dish.

3. Bring the remaining 3 cups juice to a boil in a medium-size saucepan.  Pour over the bloomed gelatin mixture and stir to dissolve the gelatin. Pour over the grapes in the dish. Cool, then cover and chill until firm.

Makes about 8 servings

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wheat Berry Salad with Kale Dressing

I grew this Red Russian kale. Really! And so when I wanted to eat it, I went searching for a recipe that would be interesting and flavorful, and maybe even something new that I could post here. Initially, I headed toward a barley and kale gratin recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

I also grew these peas, and picked them the same day as I harvested the kale.

I intended to add these peas to the barley gratin, but then it got too hot to make a gratin in the oven, so I decided to make a salad. I can’t remember exactly why I made the switch from barley to wheat berries, but I think it was simply a matter of not having any barley cooked, but having just the right amount of cooked wheat berries in the freezer.

Anyway, I ended up using an idea from the original gratin recipe of sautéing and pureeing the kale and stirring it into the grains to envelop them with plenty of flavor and the color green. I cooked the kale in olive oil and a little garlic, cooled it, then processed it with some vinegar and a pinch of nutmeg. This became the dressing of my salad, which not only flavored the wheat berries and fresh peas, but also served to hold together these little round ingredients.

The kale “dressing” is much like a pesto, but the flavors are mellower than most raw-leaf sauces. Cooking the kale first softens its flavor somewhat, so it’s not so bitter. It also softens its texture, making it easier to process, and, frankly, a little easier to eat. The kale flavor is still quite present and earthy enough to compliment the sweet, fresh peas. This all goes well with the nice dose of grated Parmesan cheese I added to give a further flavor kick to the salad.

This salad is delicious, probably even more so because I picked the ingredients making up nearly half its volume just before tossing them together. It lasted several days in the refrigerator, with the leftovers making a fabulous brown-bag lunch. It was also a fun idea to see through from the garden to the gratin to the more seasonally appropriate but still hardy salad. And it looks like I should be able to grow enough kale to try that barley gratin some other day.

Wheat Berry Salad with Fresh Peas and Kale Dressing
Partially inspired by a recipe in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

8 ounces fresh kale (I used Red Russian, but other varieties would work, too)
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons water
pinch nutmeg (preferably freshly-grated)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons cooked wheat berries
1 cup fresh or frozen peas (thawed)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese (I coarsely grated the cheese in a food processor)

1. Remove the tough stems from the kale. I like to hold the kale by the long stem and run my hand down the stem to strip off the leaves. Coarsely chop the leaves and discard the stems.

2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the kale, garlic, salt and water. Cook, stirring often, until the kale is tender and well-wilted (it will still maintain some structure, rather than wilting completely like spinach), about 8-10 minutes.

3. Remove from the heat. Stir in the vinegar and nutmeg. Cool.

4. Transfer the cooled kale mixture to a food processor. Process until a coarse paste is formed, stopping to scrape the sides of the processor bowl as needed.

5. In a medium-size bowl, combine the wheat berries, peas and Parmesan. Add the kale mixture and stir everything together to combine well. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt or vinegar if desired.

Makes about 6 servings. Keep leftovers refrigerated for a few days.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cucumber Salsa

Now begins, it seems, the truly lazy days of the year. Not only does the heat and humidity keep me from really wanting to tackle anything too difficult, there also are so many fresh and fantastic foods coming into the markets (and in my garden!) that don’t need much altering to make into simple, tasty dishes. It’s just too easy to toss fresh things together into a salad or with some pasta or into a wok. It’s just too easy to vary a favorite dish by garnishing it with some seasonal variation.

The problem with such a breezy lifestyle is that one’s recipe blog can get neglected. And a neglected blog is a sad thing, wasting away somewhere in the ether. So, I’ll tell you about the cucumber salsa I made. It was much like other salsas and I served it on black bean tostadas much like these.

I made this crisp and refreshing salsa (probably more like pico de gallo in its chunky consistency) with some locally-grown hot-house cucumbers, although I’m looking forward to making it with some of the garden-grown cukes that are sneaking into the farmer’s market. I won’t waste your time with the sad story of the pathetic progress of the cucumbers I planted, but I will tell you that my mint and cilantro are growing well, and I was able to use those to make this.

There’s plenty of lime juice and fresh chile to make this salsa tart and spicy, although you could adjust that to taste. For me it’s mostly about the cucumbers and herbs, and since this is so low in calories and high in fresh vegetables, I feel like I can endlessly scoop it with tortilla chips. I’m not perfect. It also was very nice on my tostadas, and this recipe will probably tide me over until fresh tomatoes arrive. And, with any luck, when they do arrive, I probably will be wasting your time with the story of how they grew so well in my own garden.

Cucumber Salsa with Cilantro and Mint
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 medium garlic clove, peeled
½ teaspoon coarse salt
2 cups finely diced cucumber (peeled if desired)
½ cup finely diced red onion
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 small jalapeno pepper, finely diced (remove seeds and ribs for a milder salsa)
3 tablespoons lime juice

1. Coarsely chop the garlic and sprinkle the salt over it. Make a garlic salt paste and place it in a small bowl.

2. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Makes about 3 cups.

Another recipe like this one: Tomato and Cucumber Pico deGallo

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fresh Peas and Mint

This isn’t really a recipe, I don’t suppose. It’s more of a celebration of being able to grow peas in my own backyard. Real peas that grow in pods on real vines that grow out of the ground. This is why I garden. You can’t get peas like this any other way.

I was able to pick enough, almost 11 ounces, of peas in pods to shell a heaping cup of little jade-colored jewels, about 5 ounces by weight. I love to just eat these straight out of a pod, but this was enough to do something with. This was enough, I decided, to dress with a bit of lemon and olive oil, enough to flavor just a bit with fresh mint (also growing in the backyard.)

I wrote this up as a recipe below, but it really was just a bowl full of all the peas I could pick and shell, a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of olive oil, a pinch of kosher salt, and the finely chopped leaves of a sprig of fresh mint. I recommend just starting with that kind of laid-back attitude and as many peas as you can grow.

The lemon, oil, and salt just give the peas a little coating of delicate flavor, and the mint, used in this small amount, provides a simple, compatible herbal background. But, really, it’s all about the peas. Sure, we’re accustomed to the humble pea, most of the time in some preserved form that may be pretty good, or may not. This simple treatment of super-fresh, sweet, raw peas, however, elevates their familiar lowliness to something exotic, something so out of the ordinary that you might just wonder how you ever could have thought you knew peas before. I can hardly wait until the next wave of plump pods is ready to pick!

Fresh Peas with Mint
I recommend eating this simple little salad with a spoon, so the little peas don’t roll away.

The amounts given in this recipe are approximations based on the amount of peas I had from one picking. Adjust for your own pea harvest or acquisition and your own taste.

1 heaping cup freshly shelled peas (from about 11 ounces peas in their pods)
1 ½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
pinch kosher salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint 

1. Place the peas in a small bowl. Drizzle on the lemon juice and olive oil, and sprinkle on the salt.  Stir in the mint and serve.

Makes 2 servings.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Potato Soup with Garlic Scapes

I remember the day being a bit gloomy, but I couldn’t tell you the season. Mom decided she would make potato soup. She then decided it would be creamy potato soup, although I don’t recall that she added any dairy. A good handful of fresh parsley was added at some point, and the resulting soup was a sort if iridescent green. And it was fabulously delicious.

Of course, that was likely at least 20 years before I even considered writing a recipe blog (we didn’t even have a computer in the house), so exactly what went into that soup never was properly recorded. All we have is the beautiful memory of the fleeting wonder that is improvised perfection, gone but never forgotten. I think I’ve been afraid to try to duplicate it all these years, sure that I’ll never achieve anything equal to that memory.

Well, I thought of that soup as I was making this one. I realized I was probably doing pretty much what Mom had done, keeping things simple and using what was on hand. What was on hand happened to be a big bundle of garlic scapes, the tube-shaped immature flower clusters that form on hardneck garlic plants. You’ll probably have a hard time finding these in supermarkets, but check your local farmer’s market or natural food stores that stock local ingredients. They are mildly garlicky in flavor, and I like to substitute a handful of them for a few garlic cloves in recipes this time of year.

As I said, I kept this soup very simple, simmering the potatoes and garlic scapes in water, then pureeing the soup to a rich velvety texture that I didn’t even need to enhance with anything creamy. For some subtle flavor additions I stirred in a few splashes of tamari (you could use regular soy sauce), some sesame oil and chopped fresh chives from my own backyard.

I don’t know what made me think the Asian flavors should be included in this soup, although I have a sneaking suspicion that this salad had some influence. The soy sauce and sesame oil were nice companions to the gentle garlic flavor of the scapes, and anyone who has ever put chives on a baked potato knows that they belonged here, too. The flavors are mild, so you could adjust them if you want something snappier. I liked the simplicity of this recipe, but good tasting potatoes are essential. It may not the same as Mom’s improvised parsley-potato soup, but it’s good…and I wrote down what I did so I can do it again.

Potato and Garlic Scape Soup with Chives
The salt will probably need the most adjustment to taste here. This recipe is fairly mild and its saltiness will depend on that of your soy sauce or tamari.

1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola or peanut
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
¾ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 cup chopped garlic scapes
4 cups water
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil (or infused sesame oil)
about ¼ to 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh chives

1. Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until soft but not yet browned.

2. Add the potato and garlic scapes. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the potatoes from sticking to the pan.

3. Add the water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and boil gently for 20-30 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender. (Time is likely to depend on the type of potatoes you use and how small you cut them.)

4. Remove from the heat. Add the soy sauce and sesame oil. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender until very smooth. Stir in the chives. Taste and add salt or other seasonings as desired. Garnish with additional chives or chive flowers if you have them.

Makes about 6-8 servings.

One year ago: Rhubarb Custard Bars

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sugar Snap Pea and Radish Salad

The English peas, that is the peas one eats after removing them from the pod, that I planted in my backyard garden are getting close to the edible stage. I didn’t have to be all that patient if I wanted some kind of pea, however, because the sugar snap peas, those one eats pod and all, have been fabulous in the farmer’s market. I recently combined them in a salad with another great spring offering: radishes.

This recipe was written for green beans, basil and Parmesan, but the author, Jerry Traunfeld, was kind enough to suggest some variations in herbs and cheese, one of which was feta and dill. I like to start with something like this that looks fabulous (and is usually pretty simple), then swap in what I have, often using various green vegetables interchangeably. For example, asparagus, green beans, snap peas, and even broccoli perform fairly similarly, especially in stir fries, pastas, salads and soups. They don’t taste all that much alike, so sometimes the other flavors in the dish might need an adjustment. The dill was great with the snap peas and radishes, but I have to admit that I used it because 1) I love it, and 2) I didn’t have any basil, but there was some lovely dill available, again, at the farmer’s market.

I can’t seem to grow my own dill from seed, which is totally hilarious to the folks from whom I bought a big, cheap bundle. The stuff pretty much grows willy-nilly from self-sown seeds in just about any garden where it has ever been planted at any time in history. I do not seem to have the magic it takes to make that happen. So I bought some and stirred it into my lovely snap pea and radish salad along with its bosom companion, feta cheese.

I loved this salad and can’t wait to make it again. The snap peas I had were delicately crisp and didn’t need any cooking, but if you have some whose jackets have become a little tough and stringy, a 2 to 3 minute blanching should make them more palatable. The radishes are cut into wedges rather than sliced in this recipe, which I think is a brilliant idea. For one thing, it’s a little easier to cut them that way. For another, you get more radish taste in a forkful of salad and the chunky shape is more compatible with the pea pods. There’s just a light dressing of lemon vinaigrette on the vegetables, so it’s the crisp sweetness of the peas, zesty radishes, briny feta, and lots of dill that make up the big flavor combinations.

Don’t let this recipe as it is written be a restriction. I don’t plan to. Like so many other Messy Apron recipes, it’s more of a guideline and platform for improvisation. Whatever’s green (or yellow in the case of yellow wax beans) and in season could probably work here along with a compatible herb and cheese. I might even try something like this with the peas that are ripening on the vines in the garden. Perhaps mint would be the operative herb. At least I know how to grow that!

Sugar Snap Pea and Radish Salad with Feta and Dill
Based on a recipe in The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor by Jerry Traunfeld

If your snap pea pods are tough or stringy, you can blanch them, then shock them in ice water before using them in this salad.

2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon lemon juice
8 ounces sugar snap peas, ends and strings removed, cut in half or thirds
4 ounces radishes, cut into wedges
¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill leaves
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese 

1. In a small bowl, combine the onion and the lemon juice. Let stand while preparing the rest of the ingredients.

2. Combine the snap peas and radishes in a medium bowl. Stir in the dill.

3. Add the salt, olive oil, and black pepper to the lemon juice mixture. Whisk well to combine. Pour over the snap pea mixture and toss to coat. Gently stir in the feta cheese.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Three Pea Salad with Walnutsand Parmesan, Wheat Berry Salad with Sugar Snap Peas and Lemon Vinaigrette, Feta and Lemon Vinaigrette (I think this would be good with some fresh dill in place of the dried oregano.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Rhubarb Custard Pie

This might not be the prettiest dessert to appear in a photograph. My continued failure to snap shots of it in full daylight probably didn’t help that much, either. (What can I say? I tend to eat dessert in the evening.) But one bite of this somewhat less attractive duckling will reveal its swan nature. If you like rhubarb, that is.

Instead of a rhubarb studded custard, the filling for this pie is really a large pile of well-sweetened rhubarb held together by a small amount of custard. It’s kind of pie magic, really. Rhubarb is notoriously juicy and often, at least in my experience, makes for runny or gooey desserts (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) This little bit of custard, just two eggs and a splash of milk in a 9-inch double-crusted pie, corrals the unruly rhubarb, making it stand high in a cohesive, cobbled wall in every slice.

It’s also fabulously delicious. Again, that is if you like rhubarb. It loses none of its perky, tart character, but bakes into soft, fruity bites enhanced by brown sugar, a whiff of cinnamon and just a splash of vanilla. I went with the brown sugar because I was out of white sugar (?!), and knew it was good in this rhubarb compote. I have no regrets about the brown sugar, nor the bit of vanilla I also added (again, inspired by the compote.) This pie is somewhat rich (hey, its custard encased in two pie crusts), so I’d suggest being serious about wanting dessert before diving in. The tart fruitiness of the rhubarb does keep it at least a little bit light on the palate, however, and the amount by which it outweighs the custard makes it feel like a fruit pie rather than a heavy custard or cream pie.

While I had plenty of fresh rhubarb from my own plants to use, according to the original recipe, you could use frozen rhubarb. The authors suggest you let it stand in the sugar mixture (Step 2 in the recipe below) until partially thawed (15-30 minutes) and bake it an extra 25 minutes (Step 5). This is a big pie for two people to eat, so I won’t be making it again right away (the leftovers have been keeping well in the refrigerator), but if I ever do get a chance to try it with frozen rhubarb, I’ll update the recipe with suggested changes.

You could use any double-crust pastry for this pie, including unbaked store-bought pie crusts. Actually, making the pastry and slicing the rhubarb are the most difficult parts of this recipe, so buying crusts might just be a good idea. I made an all-butter crust with some whole wheat pastry flour and I whipped it up in the food processor to save some labor. It turned out to be one of my best attempts at pie crust, so I’m glad I made the effort. It held together well and made a pretty fantastic case for this really fantastic custard-wrapped rhubarb filling.

I really think this is my new favorite rhubarb dessert. I was thrilled by the full flavor and pleasantly surprised by the sturdy texture. It’s a very happy spring dessert, or perhaps a dessert with which to say “Happy Spring"...and if you don't happen to like rhubarb, never fear. The strawberries are here early this year!!

Rhubarb Custard Pie
Adapted from Midwest Living magazine

See the text above for suggestions on using frozen rhubarb.

Remember, this pie bakes for nearly an hour and requires 4 hours of cooling time, so plan accordingly!

Pastry for a double-crust pie (I used the Whole Wheat Pastry recipe below)
4 cups fresh rhubarb, thinly sliced
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. On a floured surface, roll out half of the pastry (one of the prepared disks from the recipe below) into about a 12-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick, or unroll one packaged pie pastry. Gently drape the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate, arranging it so that it fits well, and being sure not to stretch it. Roll out the second pastry disk the same way as the first (or unroll a second prepared pastry). Set aside.

2. Place the sliced rhubarb in a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt, and toss to coat the rhubarb.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla extract until the eggs are well beaten. Pour over the rhubarb mixture and stir to combine evenly.

4. Pour or spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie plate. Lay the second crust over the filling, being careful not to stretch it. Press the excess crust together at the rim of the pie plate. Trim if there is too much excess. Crimp, or flute as desired. (I don’t do anything fancy.) Cut a few slits in the top of the crust to allow steam to escape.

5. Cover the edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil to keep it from overbrowning in the oven. Bake at 375 F for 25 minutes. Remove the foil from the crust. Bake an additional 20-25 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a wire cooling rack. Cool at least 4 hours.

Makes at least 8 servings. I think it’s a good idea to refrigerate the leftovers, which are still pretty good after a couple days.

Whole Wheat Pastry
This is a food-processor method for pastry. You could cut in the butter and mix in the flour by hand if desired.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ teaspoon fine salt
11 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup ice water, plus more as needed

1. Place the flours, salt and butter pieces in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the butter is cut into pieces the size of small peas that are well-coated with flour.

2. Add about 2/3 cup water and pulse until the mixture can be squeezed together to make a crumbly dough. Add more water if needed.

3. Remove the dough from the processor and divide into two equal balls. Firmly press the balls into disks, wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour or until ready to use. (I ended up chilling mine for a whole day.)

Make enough pastry for 1 double-crust pie or 2 single-crust pies.

Other recipes like this one: Rhubarb Custard Bars, RhubarbGinger Galette