Friday, March 20, 2009

Fish on Fridays II

In last week’s Fish on Fridays entry, I mentioned just finishing “On the Line: Inside the World of Le Bernardin.” I definitely had recipes from that book in mind for this week’s fish dish, but once at the fish counter, I didn’t see the types I was looking for. What did jump out was the sole. When in Rome.

To my recollection, there was not a lot of flat fish featured in “On the Line.” So once at home, I resurrected a nearly forgotten treasure, my Eric Ripert-signed copy of The Le Bernardin Cookbook. Copyright 1998 [my edition is 2001], you can really see the difference between what was produced at the restaurant – wow – 11 years ago versus what is done today: more classic French with a twist then, a lot of Asian influence now. And that’s to be expected. It’s evolution. Tastes and sensibilities change across all industries over both short and long periods of time. Trends, however, are hardly more apparent anywhere else than with food.

But the classics never die, and that’s the treatment I executed with the sole. The only additional ingredient I needed to pick up was the endive. Otherwise, everything else was on hand. And the “classics with a twist” spicing was surprising and ultimately a good departure. The spice combination is something I would put together again, perhaps in another dish. The coriander seeds, fresh ground in the mortar & pestle, were quite fragrant and once cooked, lemony. A harbinger of Spring.

Spice Sole with Braised Endive

For the Endive:
4 Endive, halved lengthwise
4T butter
sea salt & white pepper
ginger, coriander, cinnamon, sugar
chicken stock or canned broth
lemon juice

S&P the cut sides of the endive. Place cut sides down in a pan w/butter scattered atop. Sprinkle w/spice. Add stock and braise in 450 oven.

For the Sole:
4 6-oz gray or Boston sole fillets, skinned (I used 6 – I wanted leftovers)
star anise, coriander, ginger, all ground; pinch cayenne
sea salt & white pepper
corn oil, lemon juice, butter & parsley

Season skin side of fish fillets. Sauté seasoned side down, 2 mins. Add butter to pan & sauté further; remove from pan. Add remaining spice mixture & lemon to pan. S&P to taste. Pout over fish and serve w/endive overlapping.

[Copyright law restricts a full reprint of the recipe. This is a good appetizers-to-desserts book, which you could probably pick up online at less than my hardcover price. A nice addition to any collection, signed or not.]

If I can find Escolar (what they call white tuna), I’m doing the “On the Line” treatment. Red wine Béarnaise? I’ve got to try that. Maybe I’ll just get tuna steaks next week and give it a go. But where in the heck am I going to get sea beans?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Black Gold

Once again, I’ve struck gold: rich, organic matter that I call Black Gold.

Every year, my town makes available composted leaves to its residents. All you have to do is pick it up at the Department of Public Works. I wait for it all winter, and once it’s in come Spring, I hit the road to pick-up a trunk load or two of it. But this year, I’m shoveling humus into bags and bins like there’s no tomorrow. And it never ceases to disappoint.

No, that’s not a fingerprint haze on the camera lens. The humus was actually steaming. It was very warm to the touch, alive in fact. The smell is earthy and hot, sweet yet somewhat less than pungent, like sugary hot cocoa, coffee, a tiny spritz of vinegar and the deep forest. I love this stuff! So do the plants.

And it’s not just the crops. For example, you can top dress around the trunks or bases of your evergreens, in a circle at least the width of the plant in spring and fall. It’s free, natural and healthy “food” mulch for them.

Some of the humus I’ve collected so far has been well blended and integrated into the two designated cool-weather crop beds. After turning them over a second time, my daughter and I put in sugar snap peas this past weekend. The chard varieties will fill out the remaining space come Saturday. The second bed awaits, from front to back, carrots, radicchio, cauliflower and kale.

The overhead shot of the long, oval beds shows two of the three for summer production. They are, for now, just top dressed with about eight inches of the composted leaves. With my work schedule and the DPW yard’s limited hours, my main goal over the past two weeks was simply to back into the dirt bay, fill the bins and bags in the trunk of my car, unload, spread, and head back for more before the yard closes at 3:00 p.m., all weather-permitting. My window of opportunity is basically one day per week. The yard doesn’t have weekend hours until mid-May, and that’s just too late in the season for me. And anyway, after a long and largely indoor winter, it feels great to get down and dirty again.

Once I apply a layer of dehydrated, composted manure, wielding a pitchfork, I’ll turn all of the soil over and integrate the amendments thoroughly into those summer beds. It’s an old-fashioned but tried and true way of doing things. With brand new beds that aren’t as deeply cultivated as my others, it will be somewhat backbreaking this year. But the aches and pains are well worth it: the soil will be aerated, crumbly, well amended and ready to accommodate and nourish tender seedling roots.

Eco-nomics Running Tally:

Seeds, Peat Pellets, other: $36.96
Humus: $ 0.00
Total: $39.96

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fish on Fridays

I feel I haven’t posted too many food entries lately, and that’s likely for two reasons:

- I’ve been starting seedlings and working in the yard more, preparing for the growing season.
- I realize I’ve been putting together a lot of workaday meals lately. You know the sort: thaw some bone-in chicken or the like the night before, broil it, add a veg, salad, complex carbohydrate. Serve leftovers the next night. Wet, lather, rinse, repeat.

Sure, we all do this from time to time. The meals are not uninspired, nor are they so plain. But sometimes we serve them to serve their purpose.

However, with the advent of Lent, it’s fish on Fridays. As an Italian-American, I grew up with that rule [nearly] every Friday. And we go meatless probably more often than most American families, with an ever-growing repertoire of grains, beans and any invented combination thereof. But with the Lent rule in place now, I’m feeling my cooking oats again.

Today’s Scallops in a Beurre Blanc

Dry white wine
Shallots, minced
1 pinch saffron (if desired)*
up to ½ stick unsalted butter
Plain yogurt (heavy cream is classically used in order to stabilize the sauce; you can use plain yogurt for tang if you’re careful not to break it.)
Sea salt & white pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon**

Butter or Olive Oil
1 lb Scallops dusted with fine flour
S & White P

Treat and combine the first six ingredients as you would for a beurre blanc; reduce. Add the lemon juice last. If it is reduced with the other liquids, I find the result to be too lemony. Season to taste.

Pan sear your scallops (bay or sea).

Finish with sauce. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley or chives and serve immediately.

It was delicious – and quick, as most fish dishes can be. It felt good to get my favorite glass-lidded sauté pan back in circulation, breathe in the steam of that simmering Sauv Blanc [with a glass for the cook, of course], manically chop and top with fresh parsley and serve with a flourish in its steaming, aromatic broth. Crusty bread is not optional, but mandatory here.

More adventures begin next week. I just finished “On the Line: Inside the World of Le Bernardin.”

*Note on saffron: I like it – not just for flavor, but for the creamy extra color it imparts. If you want to be generous with the saffron (and who doesn’t?), then go ahead – and try substituting Champagne for the wine. You won’t be disappointed.

**Note on lemon vs. white wine vinegar: This is a taste issue. The lemon is the acid in the sauce, as would be the vinegar. Depending on the fish, I could go either way. It depends on your audience.

Reciprocal Link:
Chefs Blogs

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Every penny counts these days.

I’ve decided to keep a running total of any and all outlays for this year's crops, and this solo "Eco-nomics" entry will become a box in any subsequent gardening entries written throughout the season. But once I start harvesting, I'll tally up what it would have cost to buy at the supermarket. So far, the tally is:

Peat Pellets $ 5.50
John Scheepers Order $24.25
ShopRite 5/$1 Bin:
Buttercup Squash
Butternut Squash
Total: $ 0.60
Home Depot
(Seeds 40% off packet price)
Red carrots
Rhubarb Chard
Total: $ 2.03
(2 of 3 40% off packet price)
Rainbow Chard
Kwintus Pole Beans
Total: $ 5.18

Grand Total: $36.96

To be honest, I was a little surprised that I have laid out close to forty dollars so far on this venture. The Scheepers order was my biggest expense so far, but I love that catalog and its offerings, whether sturdy backbone basics of the home garden or esoteric heirloom goodies you won’t find anywhere else. Each packet is worth every penny. Plus, it is based in Connecticut, a neighboring state, so I may as well keep my semi-disposable income in the metro area.

The other items, generally little nickel, dime and dollar outlays, added up as well. But that’s about all I’ll be spending for a while, as far as I can think.

Now, if you’re reading this and thinking, “I’m starting from scratch and could never grow all of that for forty bucks,” you’re somewhat correct, yet you also could do it for less.

I’m lucky in that all of my seeds from last year are still viable, and I will be planting from almost all the packets. I don't use pesticides or fertilizers, so I'm financially ahead there, too. I use composted leaf humus from my town, which is free; I just have to shovel it into bags and bins in the trunk of my car. Plus, I compost all kitchen scraps in the ground throughout the fall, winter and spring. I will disclose that I have (or had, I spread them this weekend) two 40-lb bags of dehydrated composted manure left over from last year, so I’m ahead there as well. But once I hit the nursery for more, it will be documented here and added to the running total.

And if I weren’t so crazy, fantasizing about the backyard equivalent of a fruited plain with amber waves of grain, I probably wouldn’t choose so many perceived oddities, whether for color, origin or flavor. I really looked at the 5/$1 seed stand at the grocery store this week, and it had just about everything anyone could need to first, get started, and second, really produce the produce: lettuces, two tomato varieties, some herbs, some root vegetables, bush beans, peas, lima beans, radishes – 15 packets of those seeds would be only $3.00. The number of seeds per packet is decidedly fewer, but for 20 cents, how could you go wrong?

However, I like climbing crops, for example: pole beans, the Italian zucchini, and anything else I can train on a trellis. I have limited space, so I try to grow up instead of out.

And yes, I get overly ambitious. And yes, I like making the mess and relishing in all the anticipation involved in growing seeds indoors. But that’s half the fun of planning the garden.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Sometimes hope comes in the smallest of packages.

Garden seeds are the apotheosis of optimism wrapped in a dormant shell, sometimes barely the size of a pinpoint. They hold the promise of Spring, the renewal of life, the anticipation of summer days spent outdoors and summer meals picked fresh.

Nevermind that a Nor’easter blew through, dumping nearly a foot of snow throughout the state from Sunday into Monday. We were darned busy!

It started with Snowball cauliflower on Sunday afternoon.

My daughter and I set up shop on the kitchen counter, soaking peat pellets and fanning out our cool-weather crop seed packets like they were a winning hand of poker. She could hardly contain herself! The cauliflower seeds, those millimeter-sized brown b-b’s that miraculously grow into white basketballs, went in first.

We then started a half-dozen red carrot seeds. Yes, I know they’re probably better grown as direct-sow, but I just couldn’t help myself. While we were at it, we cracked open the rhubarb Swiss chard seeds and progressed right into the bright lights Swiss chard package as well. I love those seeds – they look like spiky landmines washed ashore in an old WWI war movie. That, or like the American sweet gum balls that used to blanket our lawn from the 70+ foot tree that formerly occupied the dead-center portion of our back yard and shade practically the entire lot. It was struck by lightning twice last summer (yikes!) and had to come down in the fall. But now, I’ll have full sun. That’s why I ripped up turf to create beds last fall and why we’re planting so aggressively (and voluminously) this year.

When all was said and done on Sunday, most of our cold weather crops were represented in the pallet of peat-pellets. Then the snow came.

And came, and came.

School was canceled, my boss told me to take the day off, then what else came? My John Scheepers package! This time, we could hardly contain ourselves! We had been reading, re-reading, checking off and adding more varieties since the catalog came in the arctic depths of early January.

Included were Indigo radicchio and Tuscan Lacinato kale – more cold weather crops to pre-sow. We planted only the radicchio into a neat row of six in our seedling terrarium. My daughter checked less than an hour later to see if they had sprouted.

My new Scheepers seeds joined their brother and sister packages of still-viable seeds left over from last year, together with new packages from other sources, including Burpee, Martha Stewart at KMart and The Cook’s Garden, which we’ve picked up in our travels over the past few weeks, waiting, waiting, waiting for the growing season to begin.

We’ll keep you posted.

FYI: What We’re Growing

Pole Beans: Kwintus, Emerité Filet Beans, Purple Podded pole beans [from last year]
Summer squash: Zuchetta Trombolina Zucchini [last year], miniature yellow Pattypan squash
Winter squash: Buttercup, Waltham Butternut
Celery Root [which I should start soon – 120 days to harvest]
Lemon Cucumbers
Tomatoes: Black Cherry [new], Sun Gold Cherry [repeat performance by request], Black Russian, Husky Gold heirloom, "Mortgage Lifter" red, San Marzano [seeds straight from Italy - I don't mess around]
Climbing sugar-snap peas
Rhubarb Swiss chard, Bright Lights (rainbow) Swiss chard
Nutri-Red carrots
White Snowball Cauliflower [from the 5/$1 bin – nice find]
Indigo Radicchio [bolt-resistant, perfect for our Zone 6]
Tuscan Lacinato Kale [an impulse buy while placing the online order]
Early Choice Sweet Yellow Corn [my daughter’s pick]
Catnip [her choice as well, although I didn't disagree. Nor will the cats.]

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Grains II

The far right jar on my windowsill is nearly depleted: I made rice pudding this afternoon. I also, as in the past, made my daughter promise that she will “never buy a box of pudding mix” in her life. A custard from scratch takes the same amount of simmering time, same amount of milk, but certainly doesn’t taste the same. From my head, I used my basic pastry cream recipe (1 C milk, scant 2 T cornstarch, 2 egg yolks, some sugar, vanilla pod; butter & salt whisked in at the end), and added extra milk for volume. The rice absorbs the rest. Arborio only, please.

My daughter oddly is not crazy about raisins in rice pudding, so made hers plain. However, I plumped some in Bourbon for my husband’s servings, folding them in at the end. I plumped way too many (and they were really moist and delicious) so I garnished the tops as well.

However, you know by now that I can never leave well enough alone. If you have a can of coconut milk in the pantry, try a 50-50 blend of milk and coconut milk for what I like to call “Coconut Crème Brulee Rice Pudding.” It also includes cardamom, and old-fashioned spice that I feel is underutilized today. But it adds both an exotic flavor and that je ne sais quoi that will leave your guests guessing – and asking for seconds!

Coconut Crème Brulee Rice Pudding

1 C Arborio or Calriso rice
2 C H2O, plus extra.

1 C Milk
1 C unsweetened Coconut Milk (not light), well shaken
2 egg yolks
2/3 C Sugar
2T Cornstarch
½ Vanilla bean, split & scraped
2 Cardamom pods (right)
1 generous pinch of salt.
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits.
Brown sugar (garnish)

Bring water to a bare simmer in a lidded pot. Add rice, place cover ajar, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring and adding H2O as needed. Cook al dente, as you would risotto. Turn off burner, stir rice, then re-cover until ready to use.

Meanwhile, whisk together milk, coconut milk, cardamom, egg yolks, sugar & cornstarch in a pot. Turn heat to low, watch and whisk accordingly. This steeps the vanilla and cardamom pods gently and fully. The mixture will thicken slightly, then come to a bare bubble, and really thicken, so watch and whisk.

Whisk the salt and butter and into the custard. Add the cooked rice, whisking to prevent lumps.

Remove cardamom pods and vanilla bean with a spoon, then sprinkle a small bit of brown sugar into the bottoms of clear wineglasses or other decorative stemware. Ladle pudding into them. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of dark brown sugar evenly over the top of each glass. The sugar will melt into a glaze over the top, and bleed into a caramel-y syrup to the bottoms of the glasses. Or you can simply do a true Bruleé over the top, if you have the torch.

Serve warm or chill. Refrigerate unused portions.

Variations, Notes:
For more cardamom flavor, scrape two of the pods over a Microplane rasp (being careful not to reach the inner seeds). Drop the pods and the shavings into the cooking pudding.

For more vanilla and less coconut flavor, use 1 1/3 Cups milk and 2/3 Cup coconut milk.

The egg yolks impart both a silken richness and a wonderful color, but may be omitted for a lighter end product.

Bourbon soaked raisin are an excellent addition.

If using salted butter, reduce the salt.