Wednesday, June 27, 2007

speaking of saffron and spices....

Mr. Tart and I just returned from an idyllic week on the half-French, half-Dutch Caribbean island of Saint Martin. The sea water was calm and clear and turquoise, just like all the photos you see of tropic islands, and the French restaurants remarkable, but the most food-bloggable place we went was the open-air market. The above photo shows the statue at its entrance in honor of all the women who work and shop there.

Now, I love open-air markets in France--the colors, the smells, the funky cheeses, the possibility of stumbling across a little old lady selling dandelion greens who cautions you to pour your vinaigrette over them well before you serve them because they're so bitter. But I think the St. Martin market, though smaller than most of those I've meandered through in France, is a must-see. You can't find buckets of pliable and sticky and relatively inexpensive vanilla beans in Paris, for example!
Or big curls of cinnamon tossed unpretentiously into old tubs of laundry detergent....
Or unidentified tubers sharing display space with home-brewed hot sauce....
Or wrinkly passion fruit looking like rotted apples but smelling like a drink you want to pour into a coconut shell and decorate with a paper umbrella....

You can tell how much I loved this market by the fact that I even took pictures of the stubby bananas--yes, me, who can't stand bananas!

The fresh fish goes fast--only the sign was left when we got there around 10:00 am. (But don't worry, I'll post about our other island lobster opportunities later!)
The market ladies also sell whole nutmegs, curry powders, peppercorns, mixtures for grilling fish, and much more. Including bags of sunshine yellow powder labeled "safran" (saffron) for suspiciously low prices. They were too good to be true, I thought, so I bypassed them. Later on, at a different stall, I touched a knobby root and asked the lady what it was. "Safran," she explained, thus confirming that the yellow powder couldn't possibly be saffron, the world's most expensive spice harvested by hand from tempramental flowers. I felt cheated, even though I hadn't bought any of it. Were they deliberately misleading the tourists? Or is "safran" on the islands different from "safran" on the mainland? I double checked my best bilingual dictionary when I got home, hoping that, say, "turmeric" would be an acceptable less-common translation. But no, "safran" is supposed to be saffron.

But even with the saffron betrayal, the market remained a riotous celebration of intense colors and smells and music.
And finally, another plus the St. Martin market has on the ones in Paris: the view.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 25, 2007

at the market: saffron?

In my continuing effort to eat locally and seasonally, I thought I'd write each week about what's available at my local farmer's market and what I'm cooking with it. The farmer's market has been going for three weeks, but I've been too busy (fishing and backpacking--poor me) to write anything about it. Anyway, here is the first installment.

This weekend, the market was filling out a bit--the veggies moving beyond salad greens and garlic scapes. There were piles of cherries, peas, the first melons of the season. But the real surprise of this week's market was saffron.

Beautiful, delicate, expensive saffron grown right here, in a Salt Lake suburb. A couple started planting saffron crocuses about seventeen years ago. And now it's at the market--tiny jars of the bright orange stigma. And it's only $5 for 6/10 an ounce. Not a bad deal.

Tonight I made a lovely saffron risotto, accompanied by sauteed chard (from the market, of course). I tried to take a picture, but risotto is a fussy subject.

It's easy to perceive eating locally as dull and difficult--especially when you live in a landlocked state with a short growing season. But eating locally can also provide some impressive surprises.

(for anyone in SL, you can find the saffron on the east sidewalk of the market)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

quick pickles

A new Penzey's store just opened in our area -- well, in Rockville, Md., to be exact. So getting out there took some doing, but Penzey's is worth the trip. So yesterday, we stocked up on new-to-me stuff like pink peppercorns, roasted Szechuan-pepper salt -- more on these later -- and pickling spice. Then today at the farmers' market, inspired by my shiny new purchases, I picked up some small pickling cucumbers and some green beans. At home I combined them with sliced red onion and lots of sliced garlic to make these quick pickles:

I used this recipe for my basic proportions for the brine, but added a couple teaspoons of my Penzey's pickling spice (plus some fennel seed) instead of the spices called for here. (If you want the whole breakdown of what's in Penzey's pickling spice, here it is--these are all whole seeds/berries, not ground: yellow and brown mustard seeds, allspice, cracked cassia, bay leaves, dill seed, cloves, ginger, Tellicherry peppercorns, star anise, coriander, juniper berries, mace, cardamom and Sanaam red peppers. Whew!)

They need to sit for a couple hours yet until they'll be ready to sample, so I'll report back later. But this was so easy -- a bare minimum of chopping, and the stove only needed to be on for about five minutes, an important summertime consideration.

As for my other Penzey's buys: the Szechuan peppercorn salt has a nice lemony, coriander/gingery flavor to it. This is going to sound weird, but I think it would be awesome on popcorn. And I'm going to use the pink peppercorns for this ice cream.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the return of Top Chef, and what not to do with plastic wrap

First off, a public service announcement: the new season of Top Chef starts tomorrow! If you have BRAVO and you missed out last time, tune in. Seriously, people, come on. I need somebody to obsess with.

Remember in January when I posted about the amazing dinner we had at Komi on my birthday? I'm pretty sure that was the best meal I've ever had in my life. Well, Komi chef Johnny Monis has been named to Food and Wine magazine's annual Best New Chefs list, an honor whose now-superstar alums include Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se), Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu), Tom Colicchio (Craft; also, these days the head judge on Top Chef), Wylie Dufresne (wd-50) and Grant Achatz (Alinea), to name a few. The announcement itself isn't really news, as the list came out weeks ago. D.C. area food blogs were all atwitter with the news (one headline read: You're Never Getting Into Komi Again). But I'm posting about this now because I finally got the Best New Chefs issue in the mail today, AND because Mark thought ahead and made us reservations at Komi for our anniversary. We ARE getting into Komi again!

I'm so excited. I don't even care what's on the menu: I will eat anything Chef Monis puts on the table. If he were to open up a box of Kraft Mac n' Cheese, I would have utter faith that it would be better than anything I could ever make.

I remember I said back in January that the attention to detail at Komi was amazing. Well, this slightly obsessive-compulsive quote from Monis in his Food & Wine Q&A made me laugh. After having seen him back there in the kitchen, crouched over dishes he was plating as if he were defusing a bomb, it just seems so apt. When asked about his pet peeve, he says: "I very much dislike when people rip into the plastic wrap covering something-when they make a hole and dig in. It takes seconds to just unwrap something properly. I can’t tell you why, but it has always bothered me. Improper use of plastic wrap, that’s what I call it."

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 09, 2007

looking forward to airport food

I've spent the past week in Louisville, KY, scoring essays for this year's AP French exam. We meet in a convention center and have our meals in a huge room where we are herded like sheep to buffet troughs full of either very dry or very soggy food doused in salt and surrounded by white rolls, potatoes, and rice. (Even the leaders refer to the dining hall as the "House of Starch.") It is uniformly dreadful. It is the worst institutional food I have ever had. And it's not even a cafeteria--they're caterers!

Now, I understand that feeding 2000 people quickly presents lots of challenges. But surely they don't have to boil every ounce of flavor and texture out of the vegetables. And can't they bring themselves to put more than one tablespoon of marinara on each manicotti? Doesn't "chicken piccata" imply a sauce with lemons and capers? Or at least a sauce? Why not yogurt and granola for breakfast instead of gummy reconstituted powdered eggs and flavorless donuts?

To be fair, the vegetarian meat loaf today was actually tasty, and desserts like lemon cake with cream cheese frosting and brownies crusted with chocolate chips help me get through the meals. But when the cereal guy confesses that all the milk in the carafes marked "1%," "2%," and "whole" is actually skim, you start to wonder what else they're misrepresenting and what other corners they're cutting.

The lowest point was yesterday's vegetarian lunch selection: bean curd stir-fry with vegetables. I still had enough optimism left to be excited about that. Turns out it was the previous night's overboiled green beans mixed with the previous lunch's overboiled carrots with some tofu thrown in. No soy sauce, no ginger, no garlic, definitely no stir frying involved.

And these are French teachers they're feeding--the most culinarily discriminating of all the possible graders!

Let's just say that I'm actually looking forward to eating breakfast in the airport on the way home tomorrow. And then I'll spend the rest of the morning drooling in anticipation of lunch at my chef extraordinaire mother-in-law's!


Sunday, June 03, 2007

get 'em now: three ultra-seasonal vegetables

It's raining today, but we doggedly walked to the farmers' market anyway, and I'm glad we did: I finally got to try garlic scapes! June is the season for these tender young garlic shoots, which are full of flavor but lack the harsh bite of raw garlic. I thought of Melissa's garlic scape frittata recipe but, as Mark's not a huge fan of egg dishes, I opted for garlic scape pesto instead. Delicious! Mild enough to eat as a dip on bread or crackers because of the lack of that raw bite, but packs enough flavor to stand up to whatever pizza or pasta creation you dream up. A little of this made into a vinaigrette would be nice drizzled over fish, I bet. Next week I'm going to buy more scapes so I can make more of this and freeze it.

Garlic Scape Pesto

12 or so garlic scapes, coarsely chopped
3/4 c. olive oil
3/4 c. parmesan cheese
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt & pepper to taste

Blend the scapes, oil and parmesan in a couple batches in a food processor/blender, then stir in lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste. If you're in the market for any new kitchen toys, I should mention that I love my immersion blender -- the main attachment is great for blending soups and sauces right in the saucepan, but it also comes with several other attachments, including a mini food processor that's perfect for this sort of thing.

Our CSA deliveries start this week, and I think we get more garlic scapes there too. I think I'll try this recipe next (scroll down to the Garlic Scape Pesto/Hummus Dip recipe in the comments). I would've tried that today if I'd had any tahini on hand, but I wasn't about to venture back out into the rain for it...

But anyway, that's not the only ultra-seasonal vegetable we've tried for the first time in the last couple of weeks. I was shocked to find fiddlehead ferns at my local Trader Joe's, so of course I had to try them. These are another short-season spring treat, and they grow best in the Northeastern U.S. They're the young, tightly coiled ends of the ostrich fern, and they're almost too pretty to eat. I sauteed them with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and swirled in a little butter at the end. I'm glad I didn't try to do anything more elaborate with them, because they have an intriguing flavor on their own: a lot like asparagus, but with a sort of nutty flavor too that we found irresistible.

And finally, one whose season is probably just about done for the year: ramps. These wild leeks are sort of an Appalachian specialty (Any of you who don't live in the Mid-Atlantic region: have you ever seen these in your farmers' markets? I'd never heard of them until I moved out here). They grow wild in the Blue Ridge mountains just west of here, and their season is just a few short weeks in the spring. Lately they've been showing up on several local chefs' menus. These too I gave the simple treatment: sauteed and tossed with pasta. They were good, but frankly, they were no garlic scapes. I hear pickled ramps are good, but I think I missed the season to try them. Alas, there's always next year.