Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Farro Pilaf with Zucchini & Mushrooms

During a recent trip to the farmers' market, I purchased the first zucchini of the season. I wasn't really in the mood for it yet, but I needed it to test a recipe for a June class, so I was glad to see it. I haven't gotten around to testing that particular recipe yet, but I did use some of the zucchini in a farro pilaf. It tasted really good to me...I guess I was ready for it and didn't know it.

I don't have too many pictures of the pilaf. It was one of those occasions when I wasn't planning a post. I was tired and not particularly in the mood to take lots of pictures and notes. I love what I do for a living, but sometimes having to keep record can be a bit constraining. Sometimes I just want to recipes....just the ingredients and my taste buds. If you have learned basic skills (which is what I always try to teach in my classes), cook with good ingredients, and allow your senses to guide you, you can hardly go wrong. Such was the case with our dinner that night. I don't have super exact recipes to share...but I thought I would post the ideas in the hopes that it will inspire.

Our dinner was a simple herbed roast chicken breast that I served with the tail end of the local arugula and the aforementioned farro pilaf. To begin, I took stock of my ingredients and then went outside to gather some herbs. Since my herb plants have just begun to take off, I didn't want to completely denude any one of them, so I brought in a few sprigs of several: rosemary, thyme and winter savory. I set the thyme aside for the pilaf and then minced up the rosemary and savory and stirred them into a small amount of olive oil along with a few scrapings of lemon zest (use a microplaner for this). I slid some of the oily minced herb mixture under the skin of the chicken breast, rubbed the chicken well all over with the same mixture and followed this with a generous sprinkling of salt and some pepper.

I roasted the chicken in a hot oven (450° to 475°). When the chicken was done to my liking (when I roast the breast alone—no dark meat and on the bone—I take it to about 150° to 155°..the temperature will continue on to 160° as it rests once it is out of the oven), I transferred it to a plate to rest, discarded the fat in the roasting pan and then deglazed the pan with a squeeze of lemon juice. When I was ready to serve dinner, I dressed the arugula with the lemony deglazings and some olive oil and served it with the sliced breast alongside.

In addition to the zucchini I included some mushrooms in the farro pilaf. To be honest, this is not a combination that would have automatically leapt to my mind. Everyone gets in ruts and occasionally when I'm looking for inspiration in combining flavors and ingredients I will check out the lists of ingredients in Culinary Artistry. I looked up the zucchini entry before I headed into the kitchen. Under zucchini, there were all the things I usually think about pairing with zucchini (eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, onions, Gruyère, lemon, walnuts, all kinds of herbs, etc.)....and mushrooms. I'm not sure I have ever combined the two. But, I happened to have some mushrooms in the fridge. And I love mushrooms with farro.

I could have sautéed the mushrooms before adding them, but I used a favorite oven method instead because it produces plump juicy mushrooms that are infused with loads of flavor. To prepare them, cut the mushrooms (I used crimini, but almost any kind of mushroom would work well—shiitake, oyster, white button, etc.) into uniform pieces—I cut mine into halves and quarters. Choose a baking dish that will hold the mushrooms in a snug single layer (a slightly smaller pan will also work). Spread the mushrooms in the pan and add aromatic seasonings of your choice. For the 4 oz. of mushrooms that I prepared, I threw in half of a small clove of garlic (finely minced), a few sprigs of thyme (picked) and a pinch of hot pepper flakes. Season the mushrooms with salt, drizzle with a small amount of olive oil and squeeze a bit of lemon over.

Cover tightly with foil and roast in a hot oven (400° to 475°) until the mushrooms are steaming hot and have barely begun to give up their liquid—10 to 15 minutes. Uncover and let cool.

These mushrooms make a wonderful addition to salads and pilafs—any place a plump, juicy mushroom along with a little bit of flavorful mushroom liquid is wanted. I call them "roasted mushrooms", but because they are covered during the "roasting" process I think they would more properly be called "oven-steamed" mushrooms.

I made the farro using the basic pilaf method and have included a rough recipe below. Some of the quantities are a bit vague because I'm estimating in retrospect. To finish it, I simply folded in the mushrooms along with some sautéed zucchini. It was delicious (I will be looking for ways to partner mushrooms and zucchini again) and was the perfect accompaniment to the lemony chicken and arugula.

Farro Pilaf with Mushrooms & Zucchini

Olive oil
1/2 bunch of small spring onions (3 or 4)—white and some of the green—thinly sliced
1/2 small clove of garlic, minced (use the other half clove in the roasted mushrooms)
2 or 3 sprigs of thyme, picked
1/2 c. semi-pearled farro, rinsed
1 c. water
4 oz. crimini mushrooms, halved or quartered (depending on size) and roasted as described above in the text
2 small zucchini (about 3 oz. each), halved lengthwise and cut cross-wise into 1/4-inch thick half moons

Sweat the onion, along with a pinch of salt, in some olive oil until the onion is tender—about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant. Add the farro and continue to cook and stir until the farro is well-coated in the fat, lightly toasted and hot through—2 or 3 minutes. Add the water, along with some salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook, until tender but still firm in the center—about 25 minutes. Let the farro rest, covered, off of the heat for 5 minutes.

While the farro is resting, heat a small amount of olive oil in a sauté pan wide enough to just hold the zucchini. Add the zucchini to the pan and sauté until tender and golden brown in spots. Season with salt and pepper and set aside until ready to add to the pilaf.

Drain the farro and return to the pan or transfer to a bowl. Add the mushrooms and zucchini and toss to combine. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 2 (generously) as a side.

Printable Recipe

Friday, May 25, 2012

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp with Orange-scented Honey & Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

As we approach Memorial Day—the official kick off of the summer season—I thought I would post a recipe for one of my all time favorite early summer desserts: Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp. I can't think of a better way to end your holiday meal.

Like all crisps it can be made in a big pan for communal/casual/potluck-style dining:

And it can also be made in small individual serving dishes if your party is a bit more formal:

However you choose to make it, make sure your baking vessels are wide and shallow so you get a nice ratio of juicy berries and tart, tender rhubarb to sweet, crispy topping in every bite. If you have time, do make the ice is the perfect texture, temperature and flavor accent. As far as I'm concerned—at least in the dessert department—it doesn't get much better than this.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

1 c. plus 2 T. (225g) light or golden brown sugar
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
9 T. cold unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 c. quick oats

Combine the sugar, flour and salt in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until homogenous. Add the butter and process until the mixture looks like clumpy, damp sand. Transfer to a bowl and toss in the oats. Chill until cold. (If the topping isn't cold, the baked topping will tend to be soft and greasy rather than crunchy and light.)

2 T. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. sugar (see note)
1/4 t. salt
6 c. diced (3/4-inch pieces) rhubarb—1 1/2 lbs. trimmed weight
2 c. hulled and quartered (or halved, depending on their size) strawberries
2 T. water

Stir together the flour, sugar and salt in a small bowl; set aside. In a large bowl, toss the rhubarb with the water. Add the dry ingredients and toss until well combined. Spread the mixture in a buttered 2.5- to 3-quart oval gratin or a 13x9-inch baking dish. Scatter the strawberries over the rhubarb and spread the topping over all.

The topping should generously cover the fruit. Bake in a 375° to 400° oven until the topping is golden and crisp and the fruit is bubbling around the edges (with the occasional bubble seen in the center)—about 35 to 45 minutes.

For eight individual crisps, butter 8 shallow 1 cup capacity baking dishes. Divide the rhubarb (about 3/4 c. per dish) among the dishes. Divide the strawberries over all (about 1/4 cup per portion). Top each with 2/3 cup (70 grams) of the chilled streusel, carefully spreading to fully cover each. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake in a 400° to 425° oven until the topping is golden and crisp and the fruit is bubbling around the edges—about 20 to 30 minutes.  (When building individual crisps, they will seem very full—probably too full—but as you can see from the pictures below, the contents of the dish shrink considerably in the oven.  If you don't fill the dishes generously, the portions will end up looking very meager.)

Cool slightly and serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.

Note: This is the correct amount of sugar. There is plenty of sugar in the topping to sweeten the rhubarb just enough.

(Filling adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis)

Printable Version

Orange-Scented Honey & Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

2 c. milk
1 vanilla bean
5 or 6 strips of orange zest
2 c. cold heavy cream
8 egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. raw honey (4 oz.)
1 t. pure vanilla extract

Place the milk in a medium-sized, non-reactive saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture. Add the vanilla bean pod to the pan with the orange zest. Bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep (covered) for 20 minutes.

Return the infused milk to the heat and bring to a boil. While the milk is heating, pour the cold cream into a chilled bowl, set aside. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and pale yellow. When the milk boils, temper the egg yolks by gradually whisking in about 2/3 c. of the hot milk. Stir the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan and place the pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard is thickened and forms a path when you draw your finger across the back of the spoon. Immediately strain the custard into the bowl of cold cream. Add the honey and the vanilla extract and stir until the honey has melted. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to a freezer container and freeze for an hour or two before serving. Makes about 1 quart ice cream.

Printable Version

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gemelli with Spinach, Mushrooms & Ricotta...along with a short discussion of how to clean spinach (and other gritty vegetables)

Hardly a week passes this time of year when I don't come home from the market with a big bag of spinach. Along with asparagus, spring onions and radishes, it's one of the earliest vegetables to appear locally. We eat it in a variety of ways throughout the Spring. Besides being good raw, in a salad, it is wonderful as a simple side dish—wilted in butter or in garlic-infused olive oil, or wilted and tossed with heavy cream or a béchamel to make creamed spinach. But it is also fantastic cooked and folded into a pilaf, made into a filling for a quiche (or a tart or a turnover) or even added to a meatloaf. A few nights ago I wilted it together with some spring onions and sautéed mushrooms. Tossed with some pasta and topped with a blob of ricotta, it was delicious—something I will definitely be making again.

For a good portion of the year, when I use spinach I purchase the organic baby spinach that comes in plastic boxes. Advertised as "triple washed" it is generally pretty clean. It should probably receive a quick rinse, but it is never muddy and gritty. The price you pay for getting this rather pristine, ready-to-use product is that it lacks the flavor and the substance of the stuff that is available in season from local growers. During its season, when it is abundant and flavorful, I want to use local spinach—even if it requires a bit of extra work.

Unlike the baby spinach from the grocery store, the spinach you buy at your farmers' market will usually be pretty dirty. The grower may have given it a rinse of some kind, but even so it will most likely have quite a bit of embedded and very fine grit all over it. Spinach likes to grow in sandy soil. Even if you can't see it, you can feel the grit on your fingers when you touch the leaves. Before it can be used it needs a careful and thorough washing.

To wash the spinach, fill a large vessel with water—large enough so that the spinach can move about freely in the water. I use my kitchen sink (make sure you wash it well first), but if you prefer, you may use a large bowl. Add the spinach and swish it around to help dislodge the dirt. Then, leave it alone for a few moments while you do other kitchen tasks. It is important to allow it to sit because this gives the sand and grit that have been released from the leaves a chance to sink to the bottom of the container. After a few moments, whether you are using your sink or a bowl, lift the spinach out of the water (put it in a bowl...or a colander suspended over a bowl). Dumping the water and the spinach out (and into a colander) all at once will only serve to pour everything you just rinsed off of the spinach back onto it. You want to leave the sand and grit behind. After lifting out the spinach, drain the sink/pour the water out of the bowl, and rinse the sink/bowl. Fill your chosen vessel with water again and repeat the process until there is no discernible sand, grit or soil remaining in the container after the water has been removed (run your fingers over the bottom of the container—sometimes you will be able to feel what you can't see). It is no joke that sometimes you will have to repeat this process three, four...even more...times.

The reason I decided to dwell a bit on this process is that recently while rushing to get dinner on the table, I enlisted the help of someone for the washing of the spinach. I briefly explained the procedure, but didn't belabor it too much. A couple of times, when I noticed that they were racing through the process, I commented that it was OK to let the spinach sit for a minute to allow the water and gravity to do some of the work. But it was clear that they didn't think the spinach could be that didn't really look very dirty and the water after a rinse or two looked clean.

Unfortunately, when we sat down to eat, we discovered that it was still faintly gritty. I had been too busy to pay close attention to what was going on in the sink. And in defense of the person who was helping me, it is hard to believe how important the rinsing process is until you have experienced the results of an inadequate rinse. It is impossible to "eat around" the grit...and there is nothing left but to not eat the spinach...or whatever the spinach has gone into. And who wants to go to a lot of work to prepare a meal/dish that you don't want to eat?

Anything that tends to be grown in sandy soils will need this same kind of treatment. Lettuces and all kinds of greens fall into this category. Leeks do too. Almost every time I teach a recipe that includes leeks I try to emphasize how important it is to thoroughly rinse them. As I do this, I always feel faintly guilty—as if I am somehow over-emphasizing the obvious. But then I have experiences like the one I had the other evening with the spinach and I realize that it really isn't so obvious after all.

I hope I haven't discouraged anyone from using the beautiful spinach available right now at the farmers' market. Washing the spinach thoroughly really isn't that much extra work. Once you have developed a system that works in your kitchen, cleaning the spinach prior to cooking it can be easily woven into the rest of the tasks that need to be done as you prepare for your meal. And you can always enlist the help of a family member or a friend. If you feed them a big plate of this tasty pasta that their efforts help to create, in the end I don't think they will mind the work so very much.

Gemelli with Spinach, Mushrooms & Ricotta

2 to 3 T. olive oil
4 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 to 3 spring onions, white plus some of the green, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 lb. spinach, ribs removed (you should have about 6 oz. stemmed spinach) and well rinsed. If the leaves are large, they should be roughly chopped.
8 oz. gemelli (or other short sturdy pasta)
1/4 c. (3/4 oz.) finely grated Pecorino
2 to 3 T. toasted pine nuts
2 to 2 1/2 oz. whole milk ricotta, room temperature (take the ricotta out of the refrigerator when you begin to cook the mushrooms)

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium sauté pan set over moderately high heat. When the oil is almost smoking, add the mushrooms and sauté until golden and just tender. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions along with a pinch of salt. If the pan seems dry, add another half tablespoon or so of olive oil.

When the onion is tender, begin adding the spinach to the pan a handful at a time, turning to coat in the oil as you add it and adding another handful as the previous one begins to collapse. Season sparingly with salt and cook until wilted and tender—covering the pan if necessary.

Meanwhile, drop the gemelli into a large pot of boiling, well-salted water (it works well to drop the pasta about the time you start to add the spinach to the mushrooms). Give the pasta a stir and cook at a rapid boil until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water.

Add the pasta to the pan with the spinach and mushrooms. Toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of the pasta water. Add most of the Pecorino and a generous drizzle of olive oil and toss again...adding more pasta water as necessary to coat the noodles with a light film of liquid (the pasta should be moist, but not soupy).

Divide the pasta among two or three plates and scatter the remaining Pecorino and the pine nuts over all. Top each plate of pasta with a large dollop of ricotta (to be stirred into the pasta by each diner) . Drizzle with more olive oil if you like. Serves 2 to 3.

• Recipe may be doubled for a whole pound of pasta which will serve four to six.
• Recipe was inspired by a simple pasta of spinach, pine nuts and ricotta in Martha Stewart's Everyday Food.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pizza with Kale, Pancetta & Goat Cheese

I mentioned last month how much I was enjoying cooking and eating kale this spring. My enjoyment has not abated...I have purchased a bag of the early crop kale every week at the farmers' market. More than once I have served it on a pizza. If this sounds like a strange way to eat it, let me assure you that it is delicious. Almost every time I have posted a recipe that includes kale I have pointed out that kale is an excellent partner for bland, starchy foods....potatoes, shell beans...or bread. A couple of years ago I posted a recipe for a Kale, Potato & Black Olive Pizza. This spring I have been making a variation that I described in that post—one with Pancetta and Goat Cheese.

I should point out that the kale that I use for this pizza (and the previous one) is a mix of Red Russian and Siberian Kales. The grower that I purchase them from harvests the leaves when they are still young. As kale goes, they are tender and cook relatively quickly. If you don't have access to this type of kale, you can still make these pizzas...but instead of just wilting it directly in the pancetta and spring onion mixture, I would recommend blanching it first. Simply drop the leaves (after stripping out the stems) into a large pot of boiling salted water. Cook until tender. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool. When cool, squeeze out the excess water and chop coarsely. Add these cooked leaves to the pan just after the garlic and pepper flakes (as directed in the recipe), but only cook for a few moments—until any remaining water has cooked away, some of the leaves are beginning to shrivel a bit and have been infused with the flavor of the spring onions and pancetta.

Wilted kale, pancetta and spring onions

I have made this pizza with both pancetta and bacon. I prefer pancetta...but I would make it again with bacon if that was all I had around. American bacon is usually fattier than pancetta, so additional fat in the form of olive oil isn't necessary. The pancetta that I use is the packaged, pre-sliced kind. It comes fairly thinly sliced and laid out in a shingled strip of slices. Since I don't use large quantities of pancetta at one time, I freeze the whole package and when I want to use a bit, I just pull the package out of the freezer and cut off what I want while it is still frozen and return the rest to the freezer. For the 1/2-inch pieces called for in the recipe, I just cut 1/2-inch strips and then cut these strips crosswise at 1/2-inch intervals. I'm cutting across stacks of slices when I do this, but as the pancetta thaws (which happens very quickly), the slices separate. The resulting pieces of pancetta are fairly uniform—at least enough so that they cook at the same rate.

I think almost any cheese would be good on this pizza, but I'm particularly fond of the tang that a nice goat cheese adds. I used a soft Montrachet style...but an aged Bûcheron would be good too. Additionally, I always like to put a nice melting cheese on a pizza—something like Fontina or low-moisture Mozzarella. I used Dubliner on this pizza. If you read my blog regularly you will have noticed that I use Dubliner quite a bit. It's one of my favorite all-purpose snacking cheeses, so I almost always have it on hand. It happens to be very good on pizza.

If you are looking for a new way to use kale (maybe some nice young leaves that have appeared in your CSA box), pizza would be a great place to start...particularly if you are trying to convince a dubious family that they would really like kale if they would just try it.  Pizzas are a great place to improvise, so don't feel like you can't turn your kale into a pizza if you don't have all of the ingredients in your pantry that I have used on my pizzas.  If you cook the kale as directed here (or in the other post), use a light hand with the toppings (pizzas with too much topping tend to come out a bit soggy) and consider that kale really shines when combined with tangy and salty foods, you should end up with a delicious pizza that you will want to make again and again.

Pizza with Kale, Pancetta & Goat Cheese

1 T. olive oil
2 1/2 oz. pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large spring onions—white part and a few inches of green—trimmed and thinly sliced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
a pinch pepper flakes
1 bunch Kale (about 1/2 lb.), ribs removed and very coarsely chopped
Pizza dough (see below), rested
1 T. olive oil
3 1/2 oz. coarsely shredded Dubliner—or any nice melting cheese (Fontina, White Cheddar, low-moisture mozzarella, etc.)
2 1/2 oz. crumbled goat cheese

Warm the olive oil in a wide sauté pan over moderate heat. Add the pancetta and cook until rendered and just beginning to brown and crisp. Pour off all but about a tablespoon of the fat. Reduce the heat slightly and add the spring onions to the pan along with a pinch of salt (be careful, pancetta is salty). Cook the onions until wilted and tender. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant...a minute or two.

Begin to add the kale to the pan a handful at a time, turning it as you do to coat in the hot oil and adding another handful as the previous one begins to collapse. When all of the kale has been added and it has all collapsed. If there was still some water clinging to the kale after washing it, simply cover the pan and reduce the heat. If the kale was dry, add a splash of water to the pan before covering. Cook until tender—about 20 to 30 minutes. Check the kale occasionally as it cooks, adding water if the pan seems very dry. When the kale is tender, remove the lid and increase the heat. Continue to cook until all of the liquid has evaporated and some of the kale has begun to look shriveled. Set aside to cool.

Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan, baking sheet or pizza peel that has been lightly dusted with semolina, fine cornmeal, or flour. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim. Spread a thin layer of olive oil over the crust. Scatter 2 to 2 1/2 ounces of the Dubliner over the crust. Scatter the cooled kale mixture over the cheese. Top with the remaining Dubliner and crumble the goat cheese over all.

If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes).

If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling—about 8 to 12 minutes.

When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

Pizza Dough (adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins):

1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 3/4 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth.  Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Sprinkle some of the remaining quarter cup of flour on a smooth surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface and roll it into a tight ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped and topped.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fresh Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote

Rhubarb is one of my favorite spring flavors. Because the frozen product is so inferior to the fresh, rhubarb is truly a seasonal treat. While it is fresh in the market I use it as much as I can. It's wonderful on its own, but it's also pretty fine in combination with spring and early summer berries—strawberries and raspberries in particular. One of my favorite ways to use it when the local strawberry crop begins to appear is in a quick strawberry-rhubarb compote.

I prefer to eat most spring and summer fruits raw...with maybe just a touch of sugar. Even when made into a compote, stone fruits and berries only require a bit of sugar syrup and possibly some flavoring in the form of an herb, a spice, some citrus zest or a liqueur. Rhubarb—although edible in its raw form—is much better when cooked.  Cooking softens its texture, making it more appropriate for a compote and more compatible with other, softer fruits that might be in the compote.  Cooking also happens to enhance its rosy color—even if the rhubarb you are using isn't one of the deep red varieties.

You can of course cook rhubarb by chopping it up, placing it in a saucepan with some sugar and water and then simmering it until it is tender. It tastes just fine this way, but it tends to fall apart into a rough purée—often one that isn't so attractive. There are many tricks that cooks and chefs have come up with to try and preserve distinct pieces of rhubarb—leaving it in long pieces, roasting it, removing it from its sugar syrup before it is fully tender, etc. All of these methods work to one degree or another (depending on the rhubarb) and are useful for a variety of purposes.

For my compote, I use a method that is sometimes employed in the process of making preserves. Frequently a recipe for fruit preserves will direct you to combine the cut fruit and the sugar the night before you plan on making the preserves.  One of the effects of this process is that the fruit becomes firmer and will be less likely to immediately reduce to a purée as it cooks.  Also, because the sugar draws water out of the fruit, sugaring the fruit ahead will allow you to cook the fruit without adding any extra liquid—the fruit juices and sugar form a natural sugar syrup poaching medium.  Since the cooking process doesn't have to be prolonged in order to boil off added water, the fruit can be cooked minimally—in the case of my rhubarb compote, just to the point of tenderness and no further.

The rhubarb and sugar after sitting overnight

There are a couple of other tricks that in my experience will further aid in maintaining the integrity of the rhubarb. First, even if the stalks of rhubarb are very fat, don't split them lengthwise...simply cut the rhubarb across the grain into slices. Slices that are entirely surrounded by the rhubarb "skin" are more likely to stay intact as they cook. The other thing that will help is to refrain from stirring the rhubarb too much as it cooks and cools. The rhubarb should be cooked in a pan that is wide enough to hold it in a snug single layer—or double layer at most.

simmering in its own juices in a single layer...

As it simmers, simply swirl the pan occasionally to redistribute the syrup and make up for possible hot spots in the pan. If absolutely necessary, use a heatproof rubber spatula to gently move the rhubarb around the pan as it cooks.

A rhubarb compote that is made using this method will be thicker than a traditionally stewed rhubarb and will contain more recognizable pieces of rhubarb. It does not produce a pristine compote of intact chunks of rhubarb floating in a clear pink syrup (there are other methods for achieving that), but I think the resulting mix of chunks and purée is rather charming and perfectly acceptable for a compote.

The finished compote (after chilling)

To prepare the strawberry-rhubarb compote, simply pour the finished rhubarb over a bowl of strawberries that have been cut into pieces that are the same size as the slices of rhubarb.

Doing this seems to heat the strawberries just enough, so that their flavor mingles nicely with the flavor of the rhubarb, without really cooking them. Strawberries also tend to turn into a purée when cooked. And since they are already pleasantly soft, cooking them isn't necessary.

The warm rhubarb poured over the strawberries...
After a quick fold, just to distribute the rhubarb. 
Don't stir again until chilled....stirring too much will tear up the fruit.

I find this compote to be extremely versatile. For my Mothers' Day brunch class I served it with some delicious ricotta fritters (flavored with orange zest instead of lemon—orange is wonderful with both rhubarb and strawberry). It would be equally good with French toast or pancakes. I love it for breakfast, stirred into plain yogurt (with maybe some added slices of banana if I am especially hungry).  It is a great thing to have on hand to serve with a plain a pound cake...or with ice cream. But I think my favorite way to eat it is with both cake and ice cream in a strawberry-rhubarb shortcake.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote

2 c. rhubarb, sliced cross-wise into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1/2 lb. trimmed weight)
1/2 c. Sugar
1/2 lb. strawberries, hulled and cut into pieces the same size as the rhubarb (about 1 1/2 cups)

Combine the rhubarb and the sugar in small bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to make the compote, place the strawberries in a medium-sized glass or ceramic bowl and set aside.

Remove the rhubarb from the refrigerator. The rhubarb will have given up quite a bit of liquid and most of the sugar will have dissolved. Stir the contents of the bowl to help dissolve any of the remaining undissolved sugar. Place a strainer over a wide saucepan. Scrape the macerated rhubarb into the strainer. Let sit for a minute or two to allow all of the syrup to drain into the saucepan. Set the rhubarb aside for the moment.

Bring the syrup to a boil. Add the rhubarb and simmer, regulating the heat as necessary to maintain a simmer and swirling the pan occasionally, until the rhubarb is just tender—about 5 minutes. Some of the rhubarb will be beginning to fall apart, but much of it should hold its shape. Scrape the rhubarb into the bowl with the strawberries and gently fold together. Cool to room temperature without disturbing. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 2 cups compote.

Note: If you don't have time to allow the rhubarb to sit with the sugar overnight, toss the rhubarb with the sugar and add a tablespoon or two of water. Let the rhubarb sit at room temperature—stirring occasionally—until the rhubarb has given up some of its liquid and most of the sugar has dissolved. Proceed as directed. The rhubarb will not hold its shape quite as well using this method, but the compote will still taste very good.

Printable Version

With plain yogurt...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Smoked Salmon with Fresh Fennel & Radish Salad

I taught a Mothers' Day Brunch class yesterday in Lawrence. Rather than doing the same old traditional (often heavy) brunch foods, I thought a menu featuring a trio of light salads would be a nice change. Two of the salads were the vegetable-centric kinds of things I typically gravitate towards...a roasted asparagus, goat cheese and walnut salad and a green salad featuring baby potatoes and snap peas. It was a surprise to me when the third salad—Smoked Salmon with Fresh Fennel & Radishes—turned out to be my favorite.

I included the Smoked Salmon Salad in the class mostly because it was a bit different for me (I hate to be too predictable) and because Smoked Salmon is a popular item for brunch menus. I love smoked salmon in rillettes, but other than in that particular form, smoked salmon is not something I think about very often. I don't dislike it...there are just other things I like better. As a chef, I think it's important to occasionally incorporate foods into my menus and my classes that might not be my favorite—they are after all sure to be a favorite with someone.

Occasionally when I prepare something that falls into the "not my favorite thing" category, I will have the delightful experience of discovering just how wonderful that particular food can be (and why so many people love it). So it was with the salad I made for this class. There was something about the crisp sweetness of the fennel and mild heat of the radishes—simply dressed with lemon and olive oil—in combination with the slightly salty, slightly smoky salmon that tickled my taste buds in just the right way. When I made a small salad for lunch one day so I could write down the exact quantities of ingredients for my recipe handout, I couldn't believe how good it was. So good that when I finished it, I got up and made myself a second salad.

I went ahead and wrote the recipe for the salad with specific quantities of the ingredients, but these measurements should only be used as a starting point and a rough guide—this salad should be a lively, "to taste" affair. When making it, simply add a small handful of shaved fennel to the bowl for each person, followed by a few slices of radish and a little parsley for color. Finish with some salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

Ruffle the sliced salmon onto the plate(s), scatter a few capers over the salmon, top with a nice fluffy pile of salad and drizzle the whole thing with a bit of olive oil. A recipe really isn't necessary.

The salad can be served on a platter as part of a buffet or a family-style spread, or it can be served on individual plates as an elegant first course. If serving it on a platter, choose a long and narrow platter and arrange the salmon in a wide swath down the length of the platter with the salad of shaved vegetables arranged in a narrow strip down the center of the salmon. If serving in individual portions, arrange the salmon in a solid round on each plate and layer the vegetables onto the center of the salmon so that some of the salmon will peek out around the edges of the salad. For either presentation, carefully layer small handfuls of salad on to the plate so that the salad will have a bit of height. No matter how you choose to plate and serve it, I think you will be very pleased with how easy it is to make...and even more pleased with how fabulous it tastes.

Smoked Salmon with Fresh Fennel & Radish Salad

8 oz. thinly sliced smoked salmon (see note)
2 T. capers, rinsed
1 large or 2 small heads fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and very thinly sliced cross-wise (using a mandolin)—about 3 cups
4 to 6 radishes, scrubbed and trimmed and sliced very thin—about 1/2 cup
1/2 cup Italian flat leaf parsley leaves—chopped coarsely if the leaves are very large
Salt & freshly ground pepper
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T. Extra-virgin olive oil

Arrange the smoked salmon slices on a large platter or on 6 to 8 individual plates. Scatter the capers over the salmon.

Place the fennel, radishes and parsley in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add the lemon juice and toss to combine. Taste and correct the seasoning. Pile the fennel salad on top of the salmon. Drizzle the olive oil over all.  Serves 6 to 8.

Note: Use any style of cured, cold-smoked salmon that you prefer.

(Inspiration for recipe is from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food, May 2010)