Saturday, December 31, 2016

How to make fir sugar

I first used fir needles in January 2016, after not wanting to lose the delicious scent of our Christmas tree (I also cut the branches to lay on top of pots in the garden, through winter - they are a good mulch).

I first wrote about how to use fir sugar on Gardenista, back in early December. But now that Northern sidewalks are becoming clogged with cast off trees, here is what to do with those fragrant needles before all the dogs in the neighborhood pee on them!

Our tree was from an organic grower (Windswept Farm). Warm soapy water may help in washing off any sprays that are on your tree, but only a lab (scientific, not dog) could you tell you that for sure.

After rinsing and drying the plucked needles, combine a quarter cup of needles with one cup of sugar and process in a spice grinder until very smooth and bright green. (Wash the grinder with hot water immediately after use or its blades will remain gummed up with resin.)

After grinding, transfer the highly aromatic fir sugar concentrate to a large bowl and add another cup of sugar to dilute it, mixing it well with your hands, before bottling and storing. You can make fir salt in exactly the same way. The color will fade with time but the scent will remain strong.

I often dilute this blend with either more sugar or salt when using it for gravlax, cocktails or baking, as it is very strong - but this potent batch is much easier to store. When baking you will notice that your cookies will be less fragile that usual - the resin in the needles makes for more substantial mouthfuls.

Head to Gardenista for the gravlax recipe. It is divine. If I say so myself.,

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lambs quarter gnudi

Light, but rich, feathery but filling. Sometimes I call them malfatti, sometimes gnudi - but always inspired by the day in, day out spinach malfatti at Al di la on Brooklyn's 5th Avenue. Once, the Frenchman ordered two courses of them. 

You can use fresh or frozen spinach for gnudi - fresh is softer, less watery and less fibrous. You can use chard, too. But they are very good with lamb quarters, in late spring and again in fall when mown lambs quarters experience a tender green resurgence.

Gnudi Verde - serves 2

If using lambs quarters, remove the leaves from any tough stems. 

8 oz/225 gr cooked spinach or lambs quarters, squeezed dry (about 2lbs/1kg fresh)
1 cup ricotta
½ cup Panko breadcrumbs, or coarse crumbs
1 egg
½ cup finely, freshly grated parmesan
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Black pepper to taste
1/2 cup flour for dusting and rolling

Cook spinach or lambs quarters after washing,  putting the leaves in a pot with lid and no extra water, over high heat. They will wilt and reduce radically in volume. Turn a couple of times with tongs to redistribute the leaves as the lower ones collapse. When tender, transfer to a colander and run under cold water. Squeeze handfuls, till as dry as possible. It helps to wring them out inside a clean cloth, getting every drop of water out. Chop the leaves finely.

In a mixing bowl, combine the spinach/lambs quarters, ricotta, breadcrumbs, egg, parmesan, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and stir thoroughly. Chill for 20 minutes (not you, the mixture).

Remove the mixture from the fridge and scoop into rough balls using two spoons, one to dip, the other to scrape off. Deposit each balls onto a flour-dusted board. Roll each ball gently between your palms or on the board, into oblongs about an inch and a half long and half an inch wide. I dent each one gently along its length with a finger. Put each finished piece onto a plate, also dusted lightly with flour. Once you have used all your mixture, cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes or more.

In a large pot or pots, boil salted water and drop the gnudi in one at a time till there are about 12 on the bottom of the pot. Keep the water simmering. When the gnudi rise to the surface remove (gently) at once to a warm plate and keep warm while the others cook.

Make the quick  sauce while the gnudi are cooking.

Sage Butter Sauce

3 Tablespoons butter
Handful of sage leaves - say, 12 leaves
1 gentle squeeze of fresh lemon juice, less than a tablespoon
Salt and pepper
Grated parmesan

Melt butter, add sage, cook gently (you may allow it to turn barely brown), squeeze the lemon, add salt and pepper. Cook till the sage is crisp. Pour over plated gnocchi, sprinkle parmesan at once and eat at once.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The best banana bread

I hated banana bread when I was little. I don't know why. My mother made a dense, dark version for my brother Francois, who loved it. Then Alice Wooledge Salmon's House and Garden Cooking with Style arrived in our house and I saw the light.

If you are like me, this will recipe will remain in your repertoire until you are no longer able to bend to shove the bread pan into the hot oven. One can only hope that, when the day arrives, someone else will make it for us. Huh. THAT's why one has children. Oops. Oh well.

This is more cake than bread, if we're being honest. I sometimes put lingonberry jam or rosehip jam (not too sweet) on it.

If you don't have wholewheat flour in the house, use all-white flour. I have substituted pecans and hazelnuts for macadamians, have added cranberries (fresh) or cherries or barberries (dried, soaked for an hour). I have used peaches and blueberries in late summer. I use more sour cream or yogurt than AWS stipulates and the milk is all mine. I also use spicebush instead of coriander, for my forage walk snack.

Otherwise this is the impossibly named lady's recipe. If you can find a copy of the out-of-print book, get it. It's wonderful. Near the top of my list for Save in a Flood.

Banana Macadamia Nut Bread

100 gr/3.5 oz unsalted butter
100 gr/3.5 oz brown sugar
2 eggs
2 ripe bananas, mashed or sliced thinly (I slice)*
4 Tbsp/1/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp lemon juice
150 gr/ 5 oz unbleached white flour
150 gr/5 oz wholewheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda (bicarb)
pinch of salt
1 tsp toasted and crushed coriander*
1/4 cup (or less) milk
100 gr/3.5 oz macadamia nuts, roasted (substitute pecans or hazelnuts)


1. Instead of coriander use 3 finely chopped dried spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries.
2. Add 3/4 cup fresh cranberries, dried cherries or barberries.
3. Sliced and diced peaches and blueberries instead of the bananas (1.5 cups, total)

Heat oven to 350'F/180'C.

Slice or roughly chop nuts. Roast them if they are raw. The texture and flavor improve.

Butter a loaf pan.

Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Beat eggs into the mixture and add a little flour if (when!) the mixture separates. Add the bananas, cream/yogurt and lemon juice, mix well. Add the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt, and mix thoroughly. The dough will be quite stiff. If it is too thick and dry, add the milk (the variable flour one uses makes a big difference: the more wholewheat the stiffer it will be). Finally, add the nuts, stir again, and transfer to the loaf pan, smoothing a slight hollow down the length of the dough.

Baking times vary, but it will be risen, brown and done in about 50 minutes. Use a sharp skewer to test the interior, if uncertain. If it comes out sticky, not done. Turn out of the pan and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Try not to eat it all at once. Fantastic for breakfast with strong coffee.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Basil and lemon curd ice cream

This recipe was given to me by Connie Finnemore. She served a mysterious, green ice cream after dinner one night in Cape Town, and it was - hands down - the best ice cream I have ever tasted (oddly, for a non ice cream eater, I recently made one to rival it: pawpaw, Asimina triloba. But that is another story).

The combination of lemon, basil and gin in cream is intense, refreshing and surprising. The hard liquor stops the cream from setting rock hard and gives it a lovely texture. Even better, this recipe is very easy.

My Thai basil (from Grow Journey seed) is still producing glut-quantities, and it worked very well, here.

I have also substituted mint for the basil, and white rum for the gin. Keep the lemon curd. And I am thinking of a less sweet version to scoop into gazpacho...

If you can't find it locally, here is my lemon curd recipe.

Connie's recipe calls for 3 "tots" -  a British measure. I take a tot to mean 25 ml, or 1 fl oz.

Basil Ice Cream - serves 6  (two scoops each)

1 cup whipping cream
325 grams/11.5 oz lemon curd
30  grams/1 oz fresh basil (stalks removed )
3 fl oz/75 ml gin

In a bowl, whip the cream till soft peaks form. Place the lemon curd, basil and gin in a blender and puree till smooth (you can also combine all ingredients in a blender, but the cream may thicken before the leaves are fine enough).

Fold the whipped cream into the basil mixture.

Freeze in a glass terrine dish or similar receptacle than can hold the mixture to a height of about three inches (for easy scooping).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lemon curd

Desperate for lemon curd to make a killer basil ice cream for a weekend away recently,  I realized I would have to make my own. Ain't no lemon curd in my part of Brooklyn. I scanned the web. Butter! Eggs! Lemons! In the end I hybridized several recipes.

Lemon curd is easy to make and keeps for just a couple of weeks in the fridge. The basil ice cream uses up one whole batch. and I now make double quantities, so that there is one pot to eat.

Meyer lemons are deliciously aromatic but regular lemons are very good too, and even more acidic (which I like).

Some recipes call for double boilers or for pots poised over hot water baths. But as long as you do not turn your back on the cooking curd on the stove none of that is necessary. Just keep whisking (if you've seen Finding Nemo, think Dory: "Keep whisking, keep whisking.")

What not to do: boil. Do not let it boil or it will separate.

This will make one medium jar of curd, about 300 grams (10.5 ounces). Doubling the recipe works well.

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of one lemon
3 large egg yolks
1 large egg
200 gr/7 oz sugar
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up

Combine all the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, whisking to blend the ingredients and to dissolve the sugar. Keep whisking. Once the butter has melted turn the heat to medium-low. Keep whisking. After 6-8 minutes you'll notice the mixture growing thicker and if you tip the pot to one side it will be coating the bottom. Keep whisking. After a couple more minutes when it is quite thick (it will never be stiff) remove it from the heat.

Push through a fine mesh sieve* into a bowl and transfer into a clean jar. Cool and refrigerate.

How to use lemon curd: spread on hot toasted English muffins, as a cake filling for sponge cakes, as a filling for small pastry shells, as a filling for Graham Cracker pie crusts, mixed with cream and frozen, stirred into Greek yogurt.

* I make a cocktail -  a jumped up Caipirinha - with the concentrated citrusy bits that are left in the sieve. Shaken up with cachaça, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and poured over ice.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Peach soup - cold and spicy

If you like gazpacho, you will like peach soup. I created this recipe for a Gardenista story about peaches, but landed up publishing a peach bruschetta recipe, instead. So here it is.

Late summer, and basil and peaches are a surprisingly good combination. And perilla, while a weed in some parts, but also a prime ingredient in Japanese kitchens, adds a rose-petal flavor. If you do not have perilla, use mint (different, but compatible).

Apart from being delicious, this as is also self righteously healthy.

Cold Peach Soup - serves four as an appetizer

3 ripe yellow freestone peaches, skinned and pit removed
1 cup cucumber (peeled and seeded if fat, entire if Persian)
1 jalapeno, seeded or not (your call)
2 scallions, cut into chuncks
6 perilla leaves
16 basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
lime juice

Pack it all into a blender. Whizz in stages, pushing down periodically to encourage the bottom bits to juicify. Puree till very smooth. Taste. Add a squeeze of lime juice if it seems too sweet. Pour into a jug or carafe, and chill.

Just before serving, stir the soup, as the solids may have separated a little from the juice.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Stuffed tomatoes

Made for August.

It may seem - it is - counter intuitive to turn on a hot oven on a hot day but for 40 minutes I grin and bear it. The result is worth it. If you are clever, make more than you need: These tomatoes are also very good cold, for a picnic or a cool supper, later in the week. Or a hungry neighbour, for that matter. Vegans, venture near: No animal was involved in this dinner.

This is fragrant, filling, quite addictive. 

4 large or 6-7 medium tomatoes
1 medium onion
3/4 cup of basmati rice
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup olive oil
5 allspice berries
8 black peppercorns
3/4 cup water
2 Tbsp chopped mint
4 Tbsp chopped dill
1 tsp brown sugar

Cut the tomato tops off to have a  lid. Scoop out the flesh with a spoon - chop it and reserve in a bowl. Salt the insides of the tomatoes. Chop the onion finely and saute in half the olive oil over medium-high heat till golden. Add the rice and stir till glistening. Add the chopped flesh of the tomatoes, the juice from their bowl and 3/4 of a cup of water to the rice with another - generous - pinch of salt, peppercorns and allspice.

Cover and cook slowly until liquid is absorbed (I bring the liquid to a boil and then turn the heat off, and wait about 12 minutes). Add the chopped dill and mint and mix well with a fork. Taste for salt and add a little more if necessary. Stuff the tomatoes. Place in a baking dish and pour the remaining olive oil over so that some of it goes into the tomatoes. Now lock and load them (put on their lids). Distribute any leftover rice mixture between the tomatoes in the dish. Sprinkle the sugar about. Cook in a 400' oven till the tops begin to brown.

Very nice additions/variations:

Per my friend Mr Christie: 2 tablespoons of currants (tiny raisins) and 2 tablespoons of pine nuts*. Toast the pine nuts with the rice and add the currants with the liquid to the rice. 

*I avoid Chinese nuts as I have an inexplicable reaction to them, known as pine nut mouth.

Or, per me: dried barberries instead of currants, and urfa biber ( a dark Turkish chile pepper) instead of black pepper.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Cherry Pie

I have always made apple pie, but other fruit pies seldom appealed, perhaps because I have eaten one too many that is gloopy, starchy and oversweet.

I love fruit, though, and have now discovered - perhaps addictively - the unctuous, deeply compelling flavour of warm cherries. And this is really only cherries, with some sugar. There is no thickening, and no overcooking. I think the result is simple, and fresh.

Cherry pie filling

2 1/2 pounds of sweet, firm black cherries
1/3 cup of brown sugar

Rinse and de-stem the cherries, and pit. Add them to a saucepan with the sugar and heat very slowly, covered. As juice starts to be released from the cherries, increase the heat. Simmer until the cherries are just cooked - about 8 minutes. Pour off and keep the juice. When it is cool, bottle and refrigerate it for using in drinks, and pouring over ice cream. Let the cherries cool a little.

Make the pastry.

I stick to my favourite pastry recipe, known as "Molly Bolt's" in my house. It has homely feel that feels right for all pie.

175 gr/6 oz butter
75 gr/2.5 oz sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
300 grams/ 10.5 oz flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt

Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add the egg. Beat again, adding a little flour if it separates. Gradually beat in the flour, baking powder and salt. shape into two balls, one larger than the other (1/3 and 2/3 of the pastry, respectively). Flatten each ball. The pastry does not need to chill.

Roll the larger ball out thinly into a circle that will cover the bottom and sides* of a buttered, spring form cake tin (wrap the pastry around your rolling pin for the transfer from board to cake tin). Patch any breaks or tears with extra pastry - it's a forgiving recipe.

Fill with the cooled cherry filling.

* If this seems like way too much work skip the step of lining a tin with pastry and simply put the cherry filling into a pie dish and proceed as below.

Roll and cut out a pastry disk to cover the top*, crimping the edges in the way you know best. Make a few slits for steam, and bake in a 350'F/180'C oven till the pastry is pale golden and crisp. Baking time varies, but it is in the realm of 30-35-40 minutes.


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