farewell to the bitter end of winter

Daniel plucking pheasants

Plucking all these pheasants takes my back to my culinary training–a long time ago. Don’t you think my kids should be doing this? How else will they learn?!

Preparing winter meals can be more interesting than those in the summertime. In summer there’s bounty, delicious fresh food practically bursting out of the garden, everything producing and reproducing. Half the time, you use a little splash of olive oil, a little lemon juice, and you’re good to go. If you just look around you and choose what’s ripe at that moment, you can’t go too far wrong.

In the winter it’s different. This season rewards the “long game” in the kitchen, the planning and preserving, where you draw on your root cellar and pantry.  All the different options of game, large and small. All the magic of pickling, aging and preserving get me through these dark months without my garden.

To celebrate what I hope is the end of winter, I’ve scheduled a supper club meal for this Saturday, March 7. I’m using sour cherries I’ve had preserved in spirits since summer, a persimmon vinaigrette, and candied kumquats, among other things.

Also local pheasants that I plucked myself. Having the chance to experience some of these “food handling” techniques is very special to me as a reminder of where food comes from and the time honored traditions of preparing it. After a plucking a few pheasants I had a renewed respect for those who have done and continue to do jobs like this–so that most of us don’t have to!

dinner with Daniel on Saturday, 7 March 2015

  1. Serrano Ham, Daikon, Granny Smith Apple, Pimentón Jelly
  2. Salt Cod Soup
  3. Treviso, Mushrooms, Persimmon, Tomato, Jalapeño Pepper
  4. Pheasant, Foie Gras, Sour Cherry, Butternut Squash
  5. Crémeux de Bourgogne, Membrillo, Albariño, Toasted Oat Sourdough
  6. Tocinillo, Pinenut, Saffron, Lemon, Dark Chocolate

Buen provecho!

Winter sky

Winter has its charms–but they’re wearing thin. ;-)

tocinillo de cielo, a traditional Spanish custard

“Tocinillo de cielo” translates to something like “little bacon from heaven.” I’m not sure how “bacon-y” it is, but it’s definitely a heavenly dessert.

This is probably one of those recipes that came about long ago when egg whites were used to clarify wine. You can’t throw away all those extra yolks, certainly not in a thrifty and egg-loving Spanish kitchen, so somebody whipped up tocinillo with the extra yolks. Tocinillo is not as popular as flan outside of Spain, but it’s a favorite in my house.

If you’re lactose intolerant, this is a great alternative to flan without any need for milk substitutes.

tocinillo de cielo, a traditional Spanish custard

Here is a serving of tocinillo de cielo that I made in a baking dish. If you’re feeling fancy, you can use ramekins for individual servings.

The recipe is simple and very similar to flan. I left it in the metric measurements. For the most part when it comes to baking I really prefer the metric system!

tocinillo de cielo

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 400 g sugar
  • 250 ml water
  • 100 g sugar
  • 1 Tbsp water

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, cook 100 g sugar and 1 Tbsp water over medium-low heat and stir regularly until it comes to a medium amber color. Remove from heat and divide evenly into eight flan ramekins. Set aside. If ramekins are too fussy for you, you can use a single baking dish and it works equally well.

In another small saucepan, combine remaining sugar with water. Bring to a boil. Using a candy thermometer, cook until sugar reaches 220°-225°F. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, the syrup should coat the back of a spoon after it has cool down. If not, cook it for a few more minutes.

At this point, traditional recipes call for a little vanilla extract, lemon zest, or orange juice. Instead, I kept my recipe very plain to enjoy the rich flavor of the yolks.

In a large bowl, whisk yolks and whole eggs to combine. Whisk in cooled sugar syrup until well combined. Strain mixture into a large measuring cup or bowl with a spout so you can pour neatly into the prepared ramekins.

Pour egg yolk mixture into prepared ramekins, dividing mixture evenly between them. Ramekins may not be completely full.

Place ramekins into a shallow baking dish (I use a 9×9-inch pan) and place into the oven. Carefully pour hot water into the baking dish, making sure that the hot water comes about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Make sure no water gets in the ramekins.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, until custards are set. A sharp knife inserted gently into the center of one of the custards should come out clean, and they should jiggle only very slightly when moved.

Carefully remove ramekins from water bath and allow to cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until cold, before serving.
To serve, slide a sharp knife around the edge of the custard and invert onto a serving dish.

Buen provecho!

notes from the windowsill: cocoa nibs

Something very special ended up on my windowsill–a cocoa pod! Just in time for Valentine’s Day.

I decided to see what takes to get from pod to cocoa. After all, chocolate is king this time of year–though it usually comes in the shape of a heart!

cocoa pod

Here’s the cocoa pod that was on my windowsill this week. Let’s experiment!

The most fun I had was probably as I cut into the pod. The inside looks like a fuzzy experimental corn cob, and smelled very much like the inside of a pumpkin.

In following the process I gathered up the beans to let them ferment. This stops them from germinating and starts the flavoring of the nib. The white stuff on the outside helps with this, and in six days they are ready to dry. A couple more days and they are dry, and ready for roasting. This is similar to roasting coffee, and a key part of the process of giving the nib its final flavor. I think by now most everyone has had cocoa nibs in fancy candy bars or as a dessert garnish. The ones I toasted had the familiar little bitter crunch of nibs I’ve eaten before. I ground the nibs in my kitchen pestle and then I had my cocoa powder.

Long preparations like these with so many steps always make me wonder how people discovered that we could eat the final product in this particular way. Accident or not, you gotta love the inquisitive mind of those people over two thousand years ago, the first chocolatiers! It was definably worth cutting that pod open.

cocoa beans

These are the cocoa beans outside of the pod as they begin to ferment

cocoa nib

Here is a cocoa nib – a piece of the bean after fermentation and drying.

toasted cocoa beans

This is what the beans look like after they are toasted.

homemade cocoa powder

I used my mortar and pestle to grind the nibs into cocoa powder.

laurino

Northern Spain has a long tradition of flavored spirits called orujo, which is similar to Italy’s grappa. In Spain you can buy these flavored spirits at the store, but it’s also something of a family tradition and a hobby to make them at home. People use many different flavorings, from fruity to very savory, from strawberry to radish. Cherry is popular. One of my aunts has a sour cherry tree for the sole purpose of flavoring her “orujo de guindas.” I don’t think the thought of making a pie or other dessert with these cherries ever occurred to her.

When Michele Savoia from Dish Osteria told me about liquore alloro, also called laurino, I couldn’t wait to try it. Laurino is traditionally made in Sicily and bay leaves are used to flavor the spirit. It was a great after meal beverage.

I have my own bay leaf trees and I never knew of this. So, under the instruction of Michele I made my own. I used locally produced Boyd & Blair Vodka. My laurino was a little different than Michele’s. I made it less sweet but it’s still floral and delicious. Swirling a little glass of this laurino under my nose, I can be transported right into the middle of my garden on a nice summer day, even though my garden is covered in layers of snow. It’s magic.

Believe me, this only my first batch–I look forward to tinkering with the recipe.

bayleaves

Straining the bay leaves

 

Buen provecho!

notes from the windowsill: rutabaga micro greens

I continually experiment with different foods, veggies, seeds, just about anything that could be edible. Lots of times these experiments or projects reside on my kitchen’s window sill. When light and temperature are needed, I find the kitchen’s window sill ideal. Sometimes, some of these experiments might be on the window longer than others might care for, but, hey! It’s all in the name of science!

So when I noticed that one of the rutabagas in the kitchen looked like it was starting to sprout,  I had to find out: If I cut the top off and kept it moist, would it produce enough tiny leaves to be a viable source of micro greens?

This discarded rutabaga top sprouts new, edible greens when kept in water

As you can see, this rutabaga top is flourishing on the windowsill, producing edible micro greens

Young rutabaga leaves are tasty. They can be prepared in the same way as turnip greens, adding zest to a salad, stir fry, or other good old fashioned greens.

After a couple of weeks I came to the conclusion that if these rutabaga tops are kept and planted, they will produce plenty of greens. I even learned that eventually these top “cutoffs” will go to seed!

happy Thanksgiving

Who doesn’t love a holiday that’s all about feasting and giving thanks? Here’s a quick overview of my Thanksgiving. Whether you cooked all day like me or ate a cylinder of cranberry sauce from a can. I hope you had a good holiday and plenty to be thankful for. Buen provecho!

thanksgiving desserts

The array of desserts is obviously the most important part of the meal–at least to my daughters! Carrot coconut bites, my vegan offering. Almond and persimmon tort, and a pumpkin pie.

Sweet potatoes with pecan topping

Sweet potatoes with caramelized bourbon maple pecan topping

Roasted orange and yellow carrots with turnips

Roasted orange and yellow carrots with turnips

These baby brussels sprouts look like a combination between a pea and a cabbage! Very sweet and tender.

These baby brussels sprouts look like a combination between a pea and a cabbage! Very sweet and tender.

Cranberry sauce, not too sweet

Clove, cinnamon, ginger cranberry sauce, not too sweet

Duck confit

Duck confit

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner. Buen Provecho!

 

Mary’s cousin’s squash

The mystery squash, gourd, or melon that grew in my garden in 2014

This strange squash/melon did not look like much when it started to grow, and for all its foliage it only produced a single fruit. But it turned out to be my favorite surprise from the garden this year!

I had a great time this year in the garden growing new things. Different types of beans, brussels sprouts, cucuzza (a kind of squash), just to mention a few. But the most intriguing of them all was the strange Italian squash that grew from a seed that Mary Menetti gave me. Mary runs the Italian Garden Project. She’s always on the lookout for gardeners to grow a few of her heirloom seeds each year, and this year I tried a bunch of different things including this nameless squash. We weren’t really able to gather much more information about it–just that a cousin of Mary’s from Italy gave her the seeds. I’m still trying to find out more about it.

I had pretty much forgotten about this plant. I saw it growing by the pole beans, but I didn’t give it much attention. Then I noticed as it grew it started to climb up the pole beans, all the way up to the top and then all across them. At this point it was hard to miss. A few flowers appeared–not many. And only one became fruit. This squash started looking like, well, a squash, like one of those round zucchini. Then it got bigger and started to look like a small pumpkin. It was just different than any other squash I had grown before. I grew very intrigued as time to harvest it approached. The only way to find out more about it was to cut into it.

When I cut into it I found a sweet-smelling squash, with almost a fruity aroma, like spaghetti squash in texture but with whiter flesh and fewer seeds.

I roasted it in the oven like you would a spaghetti squash and ate a portion of it one night for dinner with nothing on it, not even salt. I wanted to get an idea of its most basic taste. And it was sweet! Sweeter than any other squash I had ever had. I didn’t care for it for a savory preparation, but something else came to mind. It reminded me of siam pumpkin (“cucurbita ficifolia“). This melon-looking thing is actually a squash, and it’s used in Spain and other countries for sweet preparations, fillings and jellies. Believe me, it’s good. One of my favorite treats when I was a kid.

So, I added a little sugar, not much, and cooked the squash down until it achieved the consistency of the “cabello de angel” that I remember from my childhood. Looks like golden strands of hair, like an angel’s hair. It is incredibly similar and I can’t get over it! I have saved some seeds and I will definitely try growing it again next year.

This is what the squash or melon looks like cut open

Cut open, the mystery squash has firm, white, stringy flesh and a hint of melon aroma.

The flesh of the squash resembled spaghetti squash, but it had a milder, sweeter, more floral smell.

The flesh of the squash resembled spaghetti squash, but it had a milder, sweeter, more floral smell.

With just a little sugar, the squash cooked up just as I had hoped. It really resembles cabello de angel--angel's hair preserves. This is getting exciting!

With just a little sugar, the squash cooked up just as I had hoped. It really resembles cabello de angel–angel’s hair preserves.

I made a little nest of dough and filled it with the squash preserves. Delicious! It was a big hit--much more exotic than pumpkin pie.

Cabello de Angel in puff pastry bird’s nests. Delicious! It was a big hit.

garden pe(s)ts

Seasons are changing and wild animals are on the move. Our proximity to wild life can be charming. On any given day on my way to or from work I see possums, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, wild turkeys, hawks, geese, and probably too many deer. All within the city limits.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that all these creatures and probably some others wander in and out of my yard.

Last year when bunnies were eating my green beans, I decided to get a humane cage-trap. Lately I haven’t noticed any rabbits in the garden, but I was leaving some fruit in the cage, just in case. When you have two 4-year-old daughters, half-eaten random pieces of fruit are readily available and are a great bait.

For a while the same raccoon would get in the cage, eat the fruit and have to wait for me to get back from work to let her out. I have never noticed any raccoon damage, so I would just release her. I open the cage, she walks out slowly, and looks back at me as if to say, “Get some more juicy fruit in there, and I’ll see you later.” I haven’t been leaving fruit in the cage, so it’s been a while since last time I saw my raccoon pet.

But, without fruit or anything else, last week I came home to find a possum in the cage. I let it out and off it went into the bushes. I really want to know what made it go inside the trap. A week later there it was again! No fruit either. All I can figure is that this poor possum had heard the stories from the raccoon about the cage with the tasty fruit…

An opossum in my garden varmint cage

Last time I let the possum out it was so sleepy that it took a few steps out of the cage and went to sleep until dark.

green coriander

One of my most vivid memories of Iran is the incredibly fresh and fragrant spice markets. Most of those spices can now be found in good spice markets all over the world. Green coriander is not one of them. These seeds are hard to find in the western world, unless you grow your own cilantro. Coriander seeds are a vibrant green before they turn into the coriander seeds we all know. As the cilantro plants start to go to seed–right after tiny beautiful white flowers appear–seemingly thousands of these seeds will start to appear at the top of the plants.

green coriander

As the plant goes to seed is hard to find good cilantro leaves for my salsa. But a handful of green coriander is a great substitute.

Often when I’m around the cilantro, I’ll pick a few of these seeds, pop them in my mouth and chew on them as I garden. Their flavor is a combination of mild cilantro and “orangy-citrusy” coriander. Much bigger range of flavor than what you would get from dried coriander. I love them! I always keep some in my freezer. They stay green this way. Definitely worth trying!

roasted chicken seasoned with green coriander and lime

Green coriander and lime are a great addition to roasted chicken.

beets, broccoli, and beans

beets, broccoli, and beans

beets, broccoli, and beans

Don’t they look delicious? But I forgot to weigh them. Next time!