Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summer risotto with zucchini and mushrooms

One of my favorite habits is bringing my own lunch.  It helps that I love leftovers.  Sometimes, it is a simple vegetable salad, like roasted beets and fennel, a bit of local mozzarella with a piece of bread from my favorite Orwashers bakery.  Other weeks, its leftovers from weekend cooking or something I prepared for the week on Sunday.  Almost always, it is better than anything I could buy in one of many "cafeterias" with salad and sushi bars right next to each other (does anybody else find it odd?).  Granted, there are many days when I don't bring lunch, but this week I'm looking forward to a lovely risotto with local zucchini, mushrooms, herbs, finished with freshly grated Parmesan.

Now, I know that we are all very busy and the idea of packing a lunch may seem overwhelming.  Not to channel Jamie Oliver, but I want food that helps me get through a very busy day.  So next Sunday, I urge you to hit the farmers' market (or your local grocer), pull out a skillet, dump some rice, sip on a summer white and stir yourself some lunch.  It is a 45 minute effort (think of it as 9 minutes per workday, which is faster than standing in line at Europa cafe) that will reward you every day of the week. 

Risotto with zucchini and mushrooms

1 large or 2 medium zucchini, rinsed and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 pound of cremini mushrooms, scrubbed and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 medium onion (I used the bulb and the greens of a mild spring onion), diced
3 cloves of garlic or 1 head of spring garlic, chopped
The leaves of 6 6 sprigs of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary or savory (I used dried savory from Keith's Farm)
6 - 8 cups of chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 cup of white wine (no need to be fancy, but use something you would drink)
2 cups of risotto rice, such as Arborio
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan
8 sprigs of parsley, chopped
A dozen basil leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a medium pan, bring the chicken stock to the boil and then reduce the heat to a bare simmer.  Warm a large saute pan over medium-high heat with one tablespoon of olive oil.  Saute the zucchini, stirring occasionally and salting at the end, until yielding and slightly browned.  Move to a bowl.  Add another tablespoon of olive oil and cook the mushrooms over high heat, stirring once in a while until well-browned.  Do not disturb the mushrooms for the first 3 - 4 minutes in the pan.  They will release a lot of water and you want that water to evaporate so that the mushrooms can brown nicely.  Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper and move them to the bowl with zucchini.
Wipe or rinse the pan, then heat the remaining 1 tablespoons of olive oil with 1 tablespoon of butter over low-medium heat.  Add the onion, garlic, thyme, and rosemary or savory, and cook until softened and fragrant, but not browning.  Add the rice and stir for 2 -3 minutes to coat the rice with the fat in the pan.  Pour in the wine and stir until most of the wine is absorbed or evaporated.  Now add the hot stock, 1 ladle at a time, stirring frequently, until the rice is plump with a slightly chewy center and the "sauce"  leaves traces on the bottom of the pan.  You don't want rice soup but you also don't want rice pilaf.  Think of the desired texture as that of rice pudding, but with stock instead of milk.  This usually takes me at least 20 minutes.  Before you add the last ladleful, fold in the zucchini and the mushrooms.  Add the last of the stock and stir for a bit to let the flavors combine.  Turn off the heat and stir in Parmesan, the last tablespoon of butter, the parsley, the basil, and some pepper.  Taste and add more salt, if needed.  Serve immediately and garnish with more Parmesan, if you like to spoil yourself like that.  Pat yourself on the back for making a delicious and healthy lunch that is a lot better than a turkey club sandwich.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Strawberry-rhubarb ice cream

So, my sister is a total morning person.  When I visit her, by the time I wake up, she has cleaned the house, done yoga, finished her weekly grocery shopping, and made us a coffee.  I, on the other hand, crankily get out of bed around 11, searching for that coffee and don't really get going till 1 or so.  In my defense, I am writing this post at 2am. See, we all have our special skills.
Ok, back from the sleeping tangent  (it is 2am, after all).  Our wake-up preferences affect when we shop at the farmers' market.  She is usually there just in time for the opening.  I am usually rushing before the stands close at 3pm or so.  Both approaches have their advantage - she gets the pick of the best stuff, while I get the end-of-day bargains.  I am going to argue that my strategy works really well for produce that is in season and plentiful.  To prove my point, I bought $10 worth of strawberries at about 3:35pm last Saturday that will easily last me for the entire week.  I would have paid $15 for the same berries if I showed up earlier.
Now, I looooove strawberries, but even I have my limits.  It was clearly time for ice cream.  I had some rhubarb at home and thought the classic combo would work really well with cream and frozen.  I was right; the flavors work great.  What I did not realize until later was that rhubarb is high in pectin and adds a particularly luscious quality to the ice cream.  Err, I am eating this stuff out of the tub as I type.

The recipe is based on Jenni Britton's formula that uses cornstarch instead of egg yolks.  I find that absence of yolks leads to a cleaner tasting base that is particularly suitable for fruity ice creams.  I also swapped 1 cup of milk with the fruit.

Strawberry-rhubarb ice cream
5 stalks of ripe rhubarb, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 pound of good local strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of cornstarch (that's 4 teaspoons if you don't want to dirty two spoons)
11/4 cups of heavy cream
2/3 cups of sugar for the ice cream base plus 1/2 cup of sugar for the strawberries and rhubarb
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 tablespoons of cream cheese, softened
1/8 teaspoon of salt

First, cook the rhubarb and 1/2 cup of sugar over medium-low heat until the the mixture comes to a boil and the rhubarb starts breaking down.  Add the strawberries, bring to a boil once more, and turn off the heat.  You don't want to make jam here.  Let the mixture hang out and cool a bit while you make the ice cream base.
Mix well the 2 tablespoons (also known as a bit) of milk with the cornstarch in a small container.  Heat up the rest of the milk, the cream, and the sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat until boiling.  Turn off the heat and whisk in the cornstarch slurry.  Turn the heat back on to medium-low and cook, whisking frequently, until the milk mixture coats the back of a spoon and a trail is left if you drag your finger across it.  Fold in 11/4 cup of the strawberry-rhubarb mixture and cook for another minute.  Off the heat, whisk in the vanilla, the cream cheese, and the salt.   Set the pot with the ice cream base in an ice bath and cool, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes or so.  Don't worry, there are no egg yolks to curdle here, so you don't have to cool it very fast.
Refrigerate the base until cold.  Churn in your ice cream maker per directions.  Try not to eat it off the spoon.  Once churned, move it to another container and freeze for at least a couple of hours to allow the ice cream to "mature".  Have a date.  Eat.  Drink a nice sparkling desert wine (there are strawberries involved, after all).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Perfect brunch - dandelion greens salad with bacon, spring garlic, and soft-boiled egg

One of my favorite restaurants is al di la in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  I love the perfectly shabby, cozy dining room with its big window, pressed tin ceiling and an old chandelier.  I would eat their calf liver weekly, if allowed, and I have friends obsessed with their roast chicken.  I've never met anybody who didn't like the place.  Perhaps if I did, I would not be friends with them.  Last time there, my dear friend Assel and I shared a warm dandelion greens salad, which immediately sprang to mind when I spotted the greens at my Sunday market.  I also spotted spring garlic, odds and ends pieces of local bacon (great deal if your farmer sells it, because it is usually cheaper than sliced bacon), and eggs.  Suddenly, I was looking at an excellent Sunday brunch - bitter dandelions wilted with sharp bacony dressing, mellow bites of garlic and rich egg yolk caught in the leaves, a hunk of  Orwasher's excellent ale bread to sop it all up.  I used about 1/3 a large bunch of greens with 1/4 pound of bacon and 1 egg (well, I added a couple quail eggs given to me at the market as well).  This was a very generous lunch for one, but would also serve two, if you are people with normal appetites or have something else to eat.  I would boil another egg, though; you don't want to fight over egg yolk first thing on a lovely Sunday afternoon.   Follow with a coffee and some local strawberries, as if you needed another reminder that summer is awesome.

Warm dandelion greens salad with bacon, spring garlic, and egg

1/3 bunch dandelion greens, torn into 2 -3 inch pieces, washed and dried well
Parsley leaves, picked off a few sprigs (optional, but tasty)
1/4 pound of applewood smoked bacon, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1 sprig of spring garlic, sliced
1 - 2 fresh eggs, depending if you are sharing or being selfish
1 - 2 tablespoons of olive oil, adjusted to your bacon's fattiness
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 -3 tablespoons Sherry wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste.  I would suggest adding salt to the salad after you dress it, if necessary, because bacon can be salty.

For a perfect soft-boiled egg, put an egg in a small pot with room temperature water and bring to the boil.  Boil for exactly 4 minutes, transfer to a bowl with room temperature water to let cool.  Meanwhile, warm a small skillet with a tablespoon of oil over low-medium heat and cook the bacon to render the fat and let it crisp.  With a spoon (ideally, a slotted one), transfer the bacon to a medium mixing bowl leaving the fat behind.  To this awesome bacon fat add the spring garlic and saute gently until the garlic is softened and it smells like garlicky cured pork in your kitchen.  Turn off the heat and check the amount of fat in the pan.  If it looks dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil and whisk in the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and freshly ground pepper.  Put the greens and parsley on top of the bacon, dump the warm dressing and toss thoroughly. Let the greens sit, wilt, and relax, while you peel the egg, carefully.  Taste the salad and add salt and a bit more vinegar, if needed.  Remember, the egg will bring more fat to the party, so you want the salad on the acidic side to start with.  Put the salad in a wide, shallow serving bowl and top with the egg that you gently split to expose the runny yolk.  Try not to feel like a semi-pro.