Thursday, June 23, 2011

Limited time only

Are there any other three words that can strike fear into our hearts so easily? (Probably. “I am Megatron!” comes to mind—but let’s move on.) The phrase is designed to play on our fear of lost opportunity, our draw to exclusivity, and our need to beat the clock. Limited time only. It makes me shiver just to think about it, like a 25th anniversary Beauty and the Beast DVD, out for a few months before Christmas, about to be snatched back to the impenetrable fortress known as the Disney Vault.
I saw those three words on a sign at the Nichols Farm stand in Daley Plaza this morning, and my blood ran cold. Fava beans! I have no idea what they are, but they will be mine! I snatched up a carton, but couldn’t shake the fear. Strawberries! Their time is so fleeting! Summer squash with their delicate flowers—pick them up! Now! Garlic scapes, I saw them last week and was afraid—how lucky to have a second chance! The frenzy, the hysteria! The strange choices I made!
Strange, delicious choices. Eating seasonally is hard, but so rewarding. For dinner tonight Alex and I had a farm fresh summer salad that had “limited time only” written all over it.
Pickled spring onions, fava beans, zucchini sautéed with red pepper flakes, goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, and garlic scape dressing. What to talk about first?
Buttery fava beans taste like spring. They need to be shucked like peas, then blanched and removed from their waxy skins. By the time I was done, I had only a tiny pile of ready-to-use beans. If I were a fava bean nut, I’d have bought more cartons.
Despite their elite status, the beans were outshone by a brighter star on the menu: the garlic scape dressing that topped our salad. To make the dressing, I blended the scapes together with fresh parsley, lemony thyme, olive oil, the juice of a lemon, and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt. A cousin of green goddess dressing, this salad topper has the consistency of dip (and serves well as such) and a bright, bold flavor. The garlicky punch is balanced by acid from the lemon, cream of the yogurt, and an herby depth.  We finished the meal dipping bread directly into food processor’s bowl.
And yet. The sun in this solar system of flavors was the item I was most apprehensive about. Stuffed, fried squash blossoms—how long I have dreamed of these delicacies! I was hesitant about making them because the recipes I found all seemed so complicated. The flowers so difficult to work with, the stuffings so elaborate, and deep-frying, a technique that would turn my galley kitchen into a nightmare box.  Would they be the same delectable treat if I dumbed them down?
Yes. Is the answer. To the question. I was able to harvest four blossoms off my squash this evening. After carefully removing the pistil (thanks, sixth grade science), I gently stuffed each flower with crumbles of Dutch Girl Creamery’s chevre frais—a soft goat’s milk cheese, coated with herbs. Traditional blossom fillings are a blend of cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, taleggio) and herbs, sometimes bound together with egg, then piped into the flower. Buying a flavorful, malleable cheese with the extra seasoning built in allowed me to cut a number of corners and made this dish ridiculously easy. Instead of creating a thick tempura batter, and deep-frying the blossoms, I tossed them in egg and then in breadcrumbs (seasoned with salt and pepper) and pan-fried them to create a thin crust. The result? Delicate, crisp petals filled with hot, cheesy tang.
You should make these. Track down some squash blossoms, fill them with cheese, and fry them up. But act quickly, loved ones, squash blossoms are available for a limited time only.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Burrata! That’s fun to say!

… so I know what I said yesterday about booting Ruthie and making dinner tonight. But it is 90 degrees out there and a thousand times muggy. Like everything feels damp muggy. And hot like you don’t want the couch to touch you back.  Too hot to fold laundry (as if I needed a reason not to). Is this what Bieber fever feels like?
While “cooked” might be a reach, I can certainly say that I put dinner together tonight. The pesto was homemade—I stretched some basil harvested from our office herb garden with carrot top greens, adding toasted almonds, garlic, pecorino, and olive oil. How could that ever be wrong? The asparagus was sautéed in the same pan used for almond toasting, which also served as the toaster for our crostini. It’s too hot to use more than one pan. Or plate. Dinner was served platter style.
May I call your attention to the top, right corner? That, friends, is burrata. The fine counter associate at Pastoral heard my call for fresh mozzarella and raised me one injected with cream. Outstanding. True as toast! 
Paper-thin salami, asparagus dipped in pesto, juicy tomato slices, rich mozzarella, and toasted baguette. Still lazy, but back on track. I may not have made it all, but I ate it all. Well, not all of it. Tomorrow’s lunch is going to be wizard.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

Lazy, lazy, lazy.

You know that game where you figure out your soap opera name by putting your middle name together with the street you grew up on? Well my soap character is Ruth Dorchester. With a name like that, I’m sure to be the matriarch of the rich family that runs the town. My husband is probably the mayor or the police chief. In the ’70s I may have had a run in with a Russian mobster during my wacky cigarette phase. Our love child is engaged to my legitimate daughter, but I can’t tell her to call it off because Cliff will find out about my affair with Stefan all those years ago. I’ll just sabotage the wedding, hiring a hooker to say she’s my long lost niece and seduce the groom. My daughter will thank me eventually. Even if this exacerbates her heart condition and sends her back to that bipolar musician who lives above the coffee shop and “died” in the subway flood of ’92.

If you are anticipating a well-timed, crowd-pleasing “but I digress,” I must disappoint. I am completely on topic right now—I’ve just not yet reached my point. 

I don’t think Lady Dorchester cooks. Sure, she’s mixed sleeping pills into a private investigator’s brandy before, maybe even poisoned a stranger’s hospital food—there couldn’t be any witnesses!  But Ruthie doesn’t roast chicken, mash potatoes, or know where the cheese grater is (even if she has the corkscrew on lock).

On account of having had too many meals away from home with friends and family, I have channeled my inner Dorchester and become estranged from my kitchen. We are accustomed to being served; food appears when we are ready. While Ruthie’s aversion to crafting her meals is no doubt caused by disposable income, mine is caused in part by laziness. My recent eating away trend has conditioned me to expect food without any effort to prepare it. I actually had the thought tonight that pesto would be too much of a hassle. Pesto! I have all the ingredients at hand—wouldn’t even have to go to the store!—and still, I didn’t want to make it because I’d have to get the pulverizer down from atop the fridge... and plug it in.

And lovely not-so-fresh produce that I would like to cook is wilting in my fridge, as I’m either not home to treat it or unwilling when I am. I expressed my frustration and concern to Alex today in what he transcribed as, “Feelings, feelings, feelings—Alex are you listening to me? Feelings, feelings.”

So, in the immortal words of Lucas (quoting the Doors), “The time to hesitate is through.” I’m sending Ruth back to her mansion so I can start reversing these bad habits. Tomorrow I will make dinner. Homecooking or bust! (Where bust doesn’t mean, “Who’s up for Thai?”) 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Summertime, and the [produce] is easy

What is there to say about strawberries that you don’t already know firsthand? A classic element of summer’s bounty, these berries are finally ripe, juicy, and ready to be eaten. Especially those little ones.
I was unprepared this winter, going the long, dark season without a store of preserved summer goods. Potatoes can only get you so far. Lesson learned. Now is the time to prep for next winter—and strawberries are first on my “must-have” list. 
While still investigating canning methods, I decided to start by freezing a batch of berries. At least we’ll have smoothies!
Wash and hull the strawberries and lay them on a baking sheet. Put the sheet into the freezer for a few hours, then, when the berries are frozen, transfer into an airtight container to store in the freezer (I double bagged them in two servings). The fruit should last this way for up to six months. 
I’m planning to do a few more batches throughout the season because, as those of you who do math have probably noted, these strawberries will only take me to mid-December...I think we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Carrot tops: Could they be the new dandelion greens?

Ah, variety! The farmers’ market is beginning to unfold its summer bounty! This may be the last week for my beloved asparagus, but I couldn’t be more excited for peppers, tomatoes, and corn. When was the last time you saw baby carrots that looked like this? Not rounded nubs, strangely wet in their plastic packaging, but red-hued, frothy-topped spears, crisp with flavor.  Admittedly, my three dollars bought me more fringe than fruit, however, a quick Google turned up an unfortunate lot of this and one useful piece of information: Carrot tops are edible.
I was warned by the interweb that the greens would be bitter. Perhaps because mine are of the “baby” variety, I did not find that to be true. Youth! I would liken the taste and texture to curly parsley—not my favorite of the parsley family, to be sure, but a welcome likeness, in any case. While I’ve contemplated carrot top pesto, carrot top soup, and carrot top tea, my first use of carrot tops was less original. Too lazy to walk to my garden, I used the available units as a straight substitute for parsley over fresh ravioli with sautéed asparagus (au revoir ’til next year!). Recipe successipe! Carrot tops are tasty.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Smile like you mean it (and I do)

It’s my birthday! (Thanks! And happy my birthday to you!) Mom took me, my sister, and “the last triceratops” (as Alex dubbed himself in a bout of sleep talking) to the Purple Pig for lunch. And I’m sure everyone is curious about what we ate. 
Whipped feta and cucumber shmear with toasted bread. As good as it sounds, a perfectly cool spread for warm crusty bread.
Carrot salad with fig conserve. Very minty, flavorful, and refreshing.
Salami toscana, goat cheese and black-olive tapenade panini. Salty in the best way.
Octopus with green beans, fingerling potatoes and salsa verde. Meaty and light, I wish I could eat this on a bun at a baseball game.
Blistered marconi peppers with sea salt and garlic chips. The epitome of simple being delicious.
And for dessert: Panino con nutella
(“A sweet sandwich filled with a chocolate hazelnut spread, marshmallow cream and bananas”). I loved it. I loved every second of it.
I washed it all down with two glasses of cava. OHF. Oh how fantastic. Happy birthday to me, indeed.
The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Can’t beat the heat

And so—in true Chicago form—we’ve skipped spring and jumped right on into the height of summer. Beer-soaked brats, late night rummy, the sweet musky scent of hippies and their drugs at a concert in the park, crisp wildly expensive Oberon at a White Sox game, street fairs, playing “Burn Wars” with sparklers, sunscreen, and heat that makes you want to avoid fried food. Except, I’m eating potato chips by the bucketful. We had leftover pasta salad, corn, and potato chips for dinner one night. Ah, summer.
I tried to step it up, managing to throw together a purple potato salad with a hint of panzanella (bread salad). I used purple asparagus too, but can never seem to convince the spears to retain their color—even when I blanch.  The recipe I found on smitten encourages ingredient replacement, accounting for the “on-hand” method, so I added toasted stale bread to soak up the excess dressing. However, I’m glad I was able to follow the pickled spring onions portion of the procedure. They were seriously tasty—sweet, tangy, and oniony. I recommend incorporating them into whatever you make next. 
Our other food choices have been less austere. Last night, under the glow of ballpark lights, we were eating hot dogs, listening to classic rock, and enjoying fireworks. It was all very new-school American excess. And despite my penchant for old-school fundamentalism, for now, it seems, I have staved off my fear of corporate corruption and interference with my overwhelming need for sticky, sweet, poison-laced cotton candy.
This counts as eating seasonally, right? Surely Michael Pollan has an exception for this sort of thing? Can I help it if I love Kevin Costner baseball movies? This field, this game: it’s a part of our past—and my past includes cotton candy. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bore da. Dw i'n hoffi Owen & Engine.

I really, really like Owen & Engine. I like their second floor, with its dark wood and flashy wallpaper. I like the paneling and the heavy high-backed chairs. I like their “pubby” sign and their careful service. And I like their menu. Food and beer. I like that they include their farm vendors in the dish titles. I like quality, I like local, and I like accountability. I especially like recognizing names I know from the markets and knowing that we source our ingredients from the same farms. Probably because of these connections, their menu is also geared towards the season, now offering spring onions, peas, and dandelion greens. I like it. I like it a lot.

On our first trip, Alex and I partook only of the beer. We had just come from seeing a movie across the street at the fine Citynorth establishment, and we were taken in by the intimate, lively feel of the bar. As we sat at the counter, drinking from the tap and discussing the finer points of Battle L.A., plates and plates of delicious-looking food passed by us.
It was the fish and chips that caught Alex’s eye—like a magpie attracted to a bejeweled watch—and I knew we’d be back for dinner.
With dinner, there was more beer: Bitter End for me (my go-to when no Oberon is available), cask Gold Sovereign from the hand-pumped engine for Alex. He was disappointed with the flavor (it was not as bold as he had wanted) and was happy to try a second cranberry-esque option from John, our knowledgeable host who started by saying things like “dry-hopped fuggles” and then explained to our blank faces the basics of how the engine actually works.
While Alex gobbled his battered haddock, I enjoyed a trio of seared scallops, each resting on a bed of minted pea puree, accompanied by spring onions, and topped with prosciutto. For dessert, I tried to split the chocolate almond financier with Alex, but he insisted on ordering another Brit classic, bubble and squeak. Classy guy.
One disappointment: The tiny pool of salted caramel on my dessert plate. I want a ladle of salted caramel, poured over the whole dish. And the dish should be a bowl. And it should be called “salted caramel soup with financier croutons.”
As I said, I really, really like Owen & Engine. Admittedly, though, I’ve been partial to all things “Owen” from an early age. First the dog, then the player, then the books. Because of this fascination, I tried to teach myself the ol’ Cymraeg (that’s Welsh for “Welsh”) with an off-brand Rosetta Stone CD. I can count to ten for you sometime, and tell you my name. Let’s all go have a beer first—it will improve my accent.
Owen and Engine on Urbanspoon