Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vacationland

The license plates read, Vacationland. The surf crashes its cold, saline spray upon the promised craggy cliffs. Eagles really do soar. Boats sail. Lighthouses toll. Maine delivers on its legacy and left me hungry for more.

The menu for the trip to Maine Mr. Mix and I took last week was a multicourse affair complete with copious amounts of lobster and blueberry pie. We started our adventure in The Forks, Maine, a town that seemed eerily reminiscent of vampire-strewed scenes from Forks, Washington. (Yes, I saw the movies, I follow the tabloids, and I eagerly await watching the now defunct famous duo break dawn).

In The Forks, the rain made the greens even greener and the grounds even wetter for my first ever camping trip. I won’t say I slept well through showers and snorers, but I wasn’t exactly roughing it either. Inside our six man tent was just us two lovebirds and a queen-sized luxury areobed. There may have been mosquitoes nipping at the nylon door and thunder cracking up above, but wrapped inside my 300 thread-count sheets with the warm glow of a whiskey buzz, I was content.

In the morning, we set off with Mr. Mix’s MBA buddies for an an afternoon of white water rafting along the Kennebec River. Campfires, s’mores and lobster boiled over an open-flame followed. Next we ventured to Acadia National park where we met up with another couple and their five-month old puppy to tackle the trails, dip into icy cold lakes, and lay out atop sun-drenched boulders. We climbed down to remote beaches, kayaked across puddle-still water, and watched the sun set over the Wonderland trail–a most magnificent corner of Maine’s unadorned coast whose curious rock formations seem as close as I’ll ever get to a lunar landscape.

Acadia is the Eastern most tip of the United States, and from its eagle’s nest atop Cadillac Mountain, one can spot the very first rays of sunrise. Not surprisingly for this night owl, I slept through that vista each morning we were there, choosing instead to stay up late watching the stars form perfect constellations in the ink black sky.

The final leg of our vacation to Vacationland took us through Portland and Peaks Island. This was our return to civilization, restaurants, and a king-sized bed. We rode bikes around the island, picnicked on local cheeses and charcuterie (if ever you can get your hands on Hahn’s End City of Ships raw cow’s milk cheese–do), and taste-tested the best of Maine’s capital city cuisine. Of course, hard-shell lobster and wild blueberries were bountiful, but so too was the gravy-laden poutine at Duckfat, the farm-to-table Italian food at Vignola Cinque Terre and the pan-seared seafare at Street and Co.

Maine was one of those trips that you leave already plotting your next return. Mr. Mix has a birthday coming up. I wonder what local Maine lobster tastes like in the crisp, autumn air.

I’ll let you know.

Earlier this week my cousin Natalie trekked it in from Providence to join me in my garden. We pruned tomato plants, staked fava beans and harvested herbs. I had prepared a menu in celebration of my very favorite herb, and as we donned aprons and put a pot of salted water on the stove, basil began to sing out from every corner of my kitchen.

A purple bouquet of rosie basil adorned my dining table. A simple caprese salad took a turn for the gourmet with the addition of grilled peaches and a micro basil garnish; basil gelato churned away inside my ice cream maker as the sweet scent of Thai basil custard still clung to the air. I was adding garlic paste to the classic Italian pesto I was preparing for a pasta dish with penne and sugar snap peas, when Natalie’s glass of Vieux Pontarlier thudded to the table with a start.

“Wha-what is that?” she stammered.

“Just garlic paste,” I responded with the hesitation of the falsely accused.

“Garlic what?”

It seemed so obvious to me that I was startled by her surprise. Truth be told, I hate peeling garlic. It’s a time suck and manicure ruiner. I equally deplore the jarred stuff, so what’s a girl with a penchant for garlic to do?

Make paste! Garlic paste is a cooking staple in my kitchen that I always have on hand–always. It’s nothing more than pureed garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, but it’s nothing short of genius. Garlic paste is a suitable substitute for just about every recipe that calls for sliced, diced or smashed garlic, and it takes only five minutes to make once every 2-3 months.

Simply substitute the paste for the approximate amount of cloves called for in any given recipe. Typically, one clove of garlic accounts for about one half teaspoon of garlic paste.

Garlic paste is one of those easy inventions I came across when catering full-time in The Dinner Belle kitchen. When you’re making garlic crostini for 300 guests, peeling and dicing that many cloves is really not an option. So when I happened upon a tub of peeled garlic from Whole Foods, I took it home and whizzed it into paste in my food processor. Drizzling in enough olive oil to get a creamy consistency, the paste sits in my fridge for months at a time as I take out a teaspoon or two as needed for any of my many garlic-spiked recipes like tomato ragu, fiddlehead frittatas, pork loin, potato salad, sautéed kale, roast salmon, garlic aioli, and of course, pesto.

Fresh garlic is in season from June-August on the East Coast, but local bulbs are saved in cold storage and can be found aplenty at farmers’ markets throughout the year. Imported garlic can be found at supermarkets all year long, and supermarkets are where I typically find those tubs of peeled cloves. So whether you’re warding off vampires, boosting blood flow, preaching garlic’s healing properties or simply savoring its singular umami flavor, ’tis the season to make haste with garlic paste in the kitchen.

Turning my attention back to my stove, my pasta had nearly boiled over when my cousin picked up her glass of absinthe and extended it toward me with a toast.

“To the best cooking tip I never knew I needed,” Natalie exclaimed. “Please put it on your blog.”

Ask and you shall receive.

Garlic Paste (makes 1 pint)

• 1 pint of whole, peeled Garlic Cloves
• Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• Salt & Pepper

Perhaps the easiest recipe I’ve ever written, garlic paste is nothing more than a puree of garlic and olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper. You can tediously peel garlic bulbs from the store or straight out of your garden for extra authenticity, but out of sheer laziness, I skip that step and buy whole cloves of peeled garlic. They usually come in a half pint container at the supermarket, and I buy two half pints to make a single pint of garlic paste that will last me 2-3 months. As a rule, buy as many pints of garlic cloves as you want garlic paste.

Dump the cloves into the bowl of a food processor or powerful blender (like my Vitamix), and add salt and pepper to taste. Close the lid and puree. Once the garlic has been evenly chopped, continue blending while slowly drizzling in the olive oil through the blender top or the small hole on the food pprocessor’s lid. Add enough olive oil until the paste reaches your desired consistency. Adding about a half cup to one pint of garlic will make a thick pudding-like paste; adding one full cup will create a soupier, thinner oil. Both work, depending upon how you would prefer to use it.

Store the paste in an airtight plastic container or mason jar for months. Over time, the paste will subtly change in both color and flavor, beginning with a sharp, piquant profile in a pale yellow color, and gaining a deeper, golden hue and a rich, caramelized flavor as the months wear on. As it ages, I find myself craving spoonfuls of its sweet and savory flavor and have been known to dip a finger into the bowl for a snappy kick of pure garlic goodness. Make haste with your paste and Eat it Up!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sizzling Into Summer

June has bestowed many blessings; among them, a visit from my Mamma, the Chicago wedding of Mr. Mix’s radiant sister to a wonderfully decent man, and an adventure out to the island of Nantucket with new friends who flaunt great culinary and photographic gifts. Camera in hand, I’ve tried to capture joyful June memories to share with you here, and courtesy of my shutter-bugging neighbor Robert Krivicich, some of these images can quite aptly be called art.

Independence Day may have come and gone, but I’m still sizzling my way into the hot and sticky months (and meals) of summer. Check out my Season-a-Belle Summer Recipe eBook and grace your table with seasonal beans, beets, berries, cherries, corn, herbs, peas, peppers, rhubarb, stone fruit and squash blossoms. We’ll have to wait another month until tomato time truly bursts onto the scene, but for now, we can sate ourselves with liquor-spiked sweet treats like my avocado-cachaça popsicles and strawberry-basil margarita jello shots. If its savory flavor you’re after, try my zucchini ribbon pasta salad with blistered shishito peppers, or watch my photo slideshow for lobster boil and BBQ inspiration…and Eat it Up!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Market Report: Herbalicious

I’m quickly learning that there is something both humbly reassuring and inexorably nerve wracking about growing your own food. I’ve come to accept that these dueling passions are just part of the process, but the slugs and bugs, molds and pests are an education in patience. Having planted my first herb and vegetable garden last March using organic seed from a local Vermont farm, I’ve made a commitment to move beyond my consumer status and upgrade to my new role as a consumer/producer—no matter how frustratingly delicious this task may be.

It turns out that gardening isn’t entirely the romanticized straw-hat vision I once thought it was. I’ve already had to replant and repot after an anonymous critter went wild digging up my seeds. I tried to chase him away (I’ve decided it’s a him) using chili flakes and orange peels to know avail; next it was onto organic peppery spray, until finally, I relented into ugly ass chicken wire fencing. The wire keeps the critters away, but the slugs still slink into my garden and eat up my lettuce leaves. I’ve since taken up a weekly six-pack habit, pouring a Tupperware filled with PBR for the slugs to drown in each night. It makes for gruesome work in the mornings when I go out to water the beds and count the dead (slugs that is), but I like to think it gives me some measure of authenticity as a gardener. Right?

Weeding is another ball of wax entirely. I don’t mind it actually; it’s as close as I get to my romanticized vision, if you replace the straw-hat with industrial strength knee pads. I’m just never quite sure what is a weed and what is a seed that has begun to sprout. I fret and dither with each weed I pull, looking online for images: What does a serrano pepper seedling look like? Is this a baby candy cane beet or an imposter weed trying to pass as a root vegetable? Ultimately, I make my best guess, sure that I’ve pulled up some darling dill seedlings as well as dandelions along the way, but hopeful that I’ve cleared enough space for my remaining plants to take root and grow. And grow they have!

I’ve harvested my first batch of mustard greens and am closing in on my second. My rainbow chard is about ready to pick, as are my watermelon radishes and dinosaur kale. My tomato plants have grown tall, and my snap pea vines have begun to blossom. In the coming weeks, I can do little but coax, water and weed them into bearing fruit, as I likewise cajole my herbs to grow bountifully ready for mealtime plucking. Tomato-basil marinara, dill-spiked spring pea pancakes and five-herb green goddess crudités dip are just some of dinner designs I have in mind. Fresh herbs impart a  delicate flavor boost that make a homemade meal sing with the spice blend of your choosing, and I am eager to build upon that promise with the addition of my homegrown herbs.

Herbs aren’t just sprouting in my home garden; bundles of them are flowering at farmers’ markets and giving off the clean fresh scent of early summer. Officially arriving in June, fresh herbs continue to mark their presence throughout the season, only growing in numbers. The options seem endless; dill, thyme, basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, mint, bay leaf, oregano, sage and chives, are but the heavy hitters. More exotic herbs like chocolate mint and lemon balm, Thai basil and licorice-y tarragon are my go-to flavor bombs when looking to spice up standard summer vegetable fare.

In the weeks before summer squash and heirloom tomatoes take center stage at farmer’s markets across the country, bundles of salad greens, edible weeds and fresh herbs will stake their territory in savory abundance. Each can be adapted to accentuate a dish or act as its centerpiece, but basil may be the most noble of these shape-shifters—and my personal favorite. It hold’s its own in a simple caprese platter or can stand in for less flavorful lettuces in a chopped salad. Use it to garnish a pizza, a lasagna or a cocktail, or grind it with garlic, pine nuts, parmigiano-reggiano and olive oil to make pesto. Either way, the taste is honest and true. Herbs like basil help define the natural, unpretentious taste of summer.

These days, dried and fresh herbs both can be found year round in grocery stores, but nothing compares to just cut chives or recently snipped mint leaves pulled straight out of the earth. You can harvest or forage or shop for fresh herbs, and when you find yourself with more herbs than you know what to do with, freeze them. They can be frozen in water to make ornamental ice cubes for an herbaceous iced tea or lemonade, or saved in a freezer bag to be incorporated later into a sauce or stock. Try fresh tarragon and chives on a side of roast salmon for a time sensitive entrée that offers unfussy, intense flavor. A chicken thrown into the oven or onto a grill is made all the more splendid with a few sprigs of rosemary, sage, thyme and sliced citrus stuffed under its skin and into its cavity. Dill adds Mediterranean flare to what can otherwise be one-note potato salad, whereas my fennel pollen crusted pork loin marries a unique combination of anise flavors with mustard seeds, chili flakes and lavender.

Waking in the morning to see that my basil plants still stand is a uniquely fortifying feeling, as is relishing the woodsy flavor of the fresh-picked thyme I sprinkle atop the quail egg toasts I make for breakfast. Herbs are proof of nature’s knowledge that it takes little more than seeds, water and sun to make an herbalicious meal.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Summer’s Hum

Summer’s hum can be heard beneath the more resonant cries of spring. And it’s only getting louder. Showers of rainfall and cherry blossoms both have readied the soil, and the seeds of summer have started to take root. We are less than two weeks away from the longest day of the year and the accompanying al fresco meals, balmy afternoon ice cream breaks, and wafts of pastry that will fill the air with the promise of the fresh baked berry pies that have always been my signal that the Summer Solstice is upon us.

We are also a mere weekend away from Father’s Day. Pie might suffice is some households, but for Papa Belle, any commemorative meal must start with a gin martini and his all-time favorite appetizer: crudités. I have miles of mealtime summer memories with my father that stretch back to lightening bug-studded picnic fare, brown bag lunches eaten out of the back of our Ford station wagon in amusement park parking lots, and countless BBQ dinners around our family table in Buffalo. But always–whether by picnic basket, plastic baggie or Lazy Susan, there were crudités.

My Mamma was partial to serving sliced bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and carrots with B-lo’s expected bleu cheese dressing. Ranch was her other favorite. I dare not question how popular these dips were (or how much I coveted them before learning what lies beyond the Hidden Valley), but certainly, more exciting, healthy and delicious alternatives are served on my table today. Smashed garlic scape pesto, chipotle aioli and avocado green goddess dressing are my go-to party dip staples. But whether I’m catering for hundreds or just making an intimate father-daughter dinner, the one request I get again and again is for my seasonal, homemade hummus.

This season I’m making a batch with a bit of a bite using sautéed young garlic and grated horseradish root. When I find them at the market, I’ve been known to throw in a handful or two of green garbanzo beans as well. A chickpea and tahini puree spiked with these fresh, fiery flavors adds a grassy note that elevates hummus from the humdrum affair it can so often be when purchased in a plastic tub redolent of the chemically taste and processing plant from which it came. Mine is a recipe for hummus with made with your own two hands in under twenty minutes. You may never eat store-bought hummus again!

Young Garlic-Horseradish Hummus
(makes about 2 ½ cups)

• 2 cups cooked (or canned) Chickpeas
• 2 handfuls Green Garbanzo Beans (fresh or frozen)
• 4 TB Tahini
• 4 TB Olive Oil (divided)
• 1 bunch Young Garlic
• 1 small Horseradish Root
• 1 Lemon (zest & juice)
• Salt & White Pepper to taste
• Warm Water as needed
• Paprika (optional garnish)
• Sliced, raw or blanched Crudités

Welcome summer and celebrate Daddy’s Day with an easy to whip up bowl of hummus and a platter of crunchy crudités. The standard veggie mix my Mamma uses makes an easy offering, but also consider adding more exotic fare, like watermelon and icicle radish, jicama sticks, blanched asparagus, grape tomatoes, cucumber wheels, snap peas, wax beans, sliced summer squash and zucchini, romanesco, and whole, baby, rainbow carrots and cauliflower.

To make the hummus, you must first sauté your garlic. Slice it thinly from about 1 inch above the bulb and sauté over medium heat in a tablespoon of olive oil with just a pinch of salt. You can reserve or freeze the rest of the garlic stalk for making stock. Once caramelized to a golden brown, add the garlic to the bowl of your food processor or blender, along with 1-2 tablespoons of freshly grated horseradish root and the zest of one lemon; I typically zest both the root and the fruit right above my blender using a microplane. It’s wise to be stingy with the horseradish at first, as you can always add more spice but cannot dial it back once it’s incorporated.

Cover and whizz with a slow, steady stream of the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil until a thick paste forms; if using a food processor, the tiny hole in your lid’s liquid measuring cup is perfect for this task. Once all the olive oil has been incorporated, reserve a few chickpeas to garnish your bowl and add the rest to your blender, along with the beans and tahini; cover and whizz for a solid three minutes more until the dip is light and fluffy. Check for consistency and seasoning and add warm water, lemon juice, salt and white pepper to taste. I like my dip thin enough to dig into easily with a fragile veggie stick, but thick enough to cling to even the slickest surface, like tomato skin. The hummus is ready to serve whenever you are, and can be made in advance so the flavors have time to deepen and develop. Garnish with reserved chickpeas, a sprinkle of sea salt, a dash of paprika and a drizzle of olive oil. You can store it covered in the fridge for up to a week and Eat it Up from Father’s Day all the way through the Summer Solstice.

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