Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Famous Spring Asparagus

It’s nearly the end of May, and the asparagus has been at the roadside—and in my kitchen—for several weeks, so before it disappears, I’d better acknowledge the gift. Here in Little Compton, we live in asparagus heaven—sandy soil near the sea—and after its first appearance I’m likely to take it for granted. This really isn’t fair, as fresh-cut asparagus is special in the same way that fresh-picked corn or a field tomato is. Its chemical make-up changes soon after harvesting, so you are eating quite a different product when asparagus is new and local than when you purchase it at a market. It is well worth a Sunday drive to seek out, if that’s what it takes. And of course, Sunday drives are nice.

Asparagus is one of the most nutrient-packed vegetables, and a good source of fiber, which is stored in the skin. Consequently, the larger the asparagus spear, the more tender; many people prefer fat asparagus for this reason. Aesthetically, I like them smaller, and if they are really, really fresh, I notice no difference in tenderness. I peel my asparagus below the belt (you don’t need to), so that helps too.

The most common way to cook asparagus is to blanch it in boiling water until tender when tested with the point of a paring knife, 3-5 minutes depending on size, possibly longer for the really fat (and really old) ones. The stand-up method, in which asparagus is tied and cooked in a tall pot to allow the tips to steam, is theoretically sound but silly, as befitting its name. If you must cook it in water—and only if you must—use a small frying pan in which you can lay the asparagus in a single layer, like little people floating on their backs in a pool, with the their heads out. Use only enough water to cover the stems, and cook at a gentle bubble for a few minutes until tender.

But why, really, would you want to cook asparagus in water unless you were doing something very delicate with it, like serving it with a mousseline sauce? (Which you might, but how often?) It gets cold too fast. It leaches out the flavor, and becomes bland. And (although you should never, ever do this), it turns a dour color if covered with a lid or cooked too long. So don’t steam, and don’t boil. Fancy sauce or to make soup from left-over stems the two permissible exceptions, and even then. . . .

I prefer to grill, stir-fry, or roast; roasting, in fact, is my alternative to blanching for a basic cooked asparagus that can be used for pretty much anything. To cook asparagus by any method, bend it gently so that the woody bottoms snap off, then trim the ragged ends with a sharp knife so they look nice. Swish them in a basin of water to remove any lingering sand, and peel the lower parts if you like; dry between paper towels. For roasting, put a few teaspoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper in an oven-proof shallow dish large enough to hold your asparagus in a single layer (a pie plate works if nothing else is handy), drop in your same-sized spears, roll them around with your hands to coat, and pop into a 400 F oven. Roast until just piercable or, if you want them really charred, longer: 5-10 minutes. Use in any preparation, or sprinkle with fresh parmesan and a little lemon or balsamic vinegar and serve. A few sprinkled herbs for the last few minutes of cooking are nice, too.

To grill, either over charcoal or on an ungreased pan, have your fire hot. Brush each spear lightly with olive oil and throw it down. Cook quickly, turning, two or three minutes. In the photo below, the asparagus was pan-grilled, very lightly dressed with leftover LMC Dressing (last week’s post), and served with a very traditional polonaise of finely chopped hard-cooked egg, parsley, salt, pepper, and a little lemon zest (you can add buttered bread crumbs, too, but I skipped them). This was excellent and different from the usual asparagus polonaise made with blanched spears. You could use any vinaigrette, and any cooking method; serve warm or at room temperature. Slightly chilled is all right, too, but please, not cold.

Asparagus has a particular affinity with Asian flavors, although I don’t think it is a common vegetable in that part of the world. In the recipe below, the asparagus is quickly stir-fried with Chinese seasonings. It is an adaptation and combination of two recipes for dry-fried green beans in one of Fuschia Dunlop’s wonderful Chinese cookbooks. It’s fast and is good on its own or as a side dish for grilled lamb, chicken, or scallops.

Ah, but what about the wine, you’re thinking. Asparagus is the worst possible food to pair with wine, right? Well, it depends. This newborn asparagus has none of that odd grassy, sometimes even metallic, off-taste of the long-ago-picked storebought. It’s true that all asparagus contains sulfurous compounds that do funny things—particularly when overcooked or otherwise aged beyond recognition. But buy it fresh and cook it right and you can minimize its negative transformations, with or without wine. Probably you should avoid already grassy tasting whites, and anything too oaky or tannic. Light, crisp Italian whites are fine, and I’d go that route with plain, traditionally sauced asparagus, and with Asian-inspired dishes (beer is nice, too), but my principle recommendation would be a rosé. Granted, rosé is almost always my preference for flavorful warm-weather food, and for champagne. But really, it’s one of the best choices here, excellent with the polonaise. Look for some of the great inexpensive choices coming out of Portugal these days.

Double dry-fried Asparagus

1 bunch asparagus, about 1 lb, sliced at a sharp angle into 2” pieces
2 T peanut oil
3 scallions, white parts only, ditto
4 -6 dried small hot dried chiles, snipped in little pieces (discard the seeds)
½ tea Sichuan pepper (see Note)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 piece peeled fresh ginger, about the size of a walnut, thinly sliced and then cut into little matchsticks

2 tea Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
2 tea soy sauce
1 tea sesame oil

Heat a scant 2 T of oil in a wok or skillet to medium hot Add the sliced asparagus and stir fry quickly, 2 or 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the chiles and the pepper and stir fry until fragrant, then add the ginger, garlic, and scallions and stir fry an additional minute, ‘til soft and fragrant. Put the asparagus back in the pan, splash with the wine and soy sauce, toss, and remove from the heat. Add the sesame oil and stir. Serve.

Note: You can buy Sichuan peppercorns at your local Chinese grocery or from Penzey’s. Grind in a mortar or spice mill, or put some in a small zip-lock bag and pound.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Potted Herbs for the Nongardening Cook

When it comes to gardening, I am a reaper, not a sower. I rely on the farmers and my gardening friends for my produce. I’ve tried, I really have. I don’t at all mind—in fact, enjoy--digging the dirt and putting things in the ground. But I forget to water. I don’t like to weed. Pests baffle me. I’ve had successes over the years, from amazing beans and cucumbers to seeming bushels of cayenne peppers. But my crop losses have outweighed them, and the fickleness of the weather and its effects is more than I really want to deal with. Or need to. The farmer is down the road, wants to sell to me, and I, quite frankly, would rather buy. One of Nature’s true symbioses.

So my gardening days are over. The only thing I plant, and then only in small quantities in pots, are herbs. There is a particular economy to having your own herbs in pots. Even if your farm stand has herbs in abundance, and even if you frequently buy them, a small selection of certain herbs is important to have on hand. The logic of this is variety, security, and parsimony.

First, variety. While many grocery stores carry a fairly extensive selection of herbs, they are often expensive, skimpy packets that are not fresh, and your local farmer generally will not offer every herb that you might want. Most farm stands will reliably have basil, flat-leaf and curly parsley, and cilantro (coriander), perhaps dill, at a minimum; this is good, because some of these, particularly parsley and cilantro, can be temperamental for the home gardener in the New England climate (at least, for me). Not many farmers grow fresh Greek oregano, sage, tarragon, French thyme, rosemary, or peppermint, possibly due to low demand, as they are all a breeze to grow. So these are what I plant in pots, because each of them is essential in their own way for things I cook.

Security: There is nothing more annoying than not having that one crucial herb on hand that is indispensable to a dish or drink (juleps, mojitos) when you are in the mood for it, or to not be able to find it at your farm stand or market when needed. With your own herbs, this never happens.

Parsimony: Potted herbs outside your kitchen door allow you to step out and snip or pinch only what you need: a sprig of rosemary for the marinade, oregano for the grilled pizza, tarragon for an egg dish, mint for the lemonade. Herbs are highly perishable, both in terms of flavor volatility and condition of leaves, and we have all thrown them away after using a small amount. In New England, a very waste-not-want-not place, potted herbs are a virtue.

Although I do not plant most of the herbs that I can, and do, buy in big bunches from the farm stands and use in abundance, I do plant a few basil plants (in a pot). I like to pinch off a few leaves for a chiffonade garnish, or to lay on a tomato sandwich. But for pesto, I go to the farm stand and buy huge bunches for a dollar or so, and because I can reliably do this, I don’t worry when something (snails? I can never figure it out) starts defoliating my few basil plants.

Of course you can put your herbs in the ground. I used to have a rather nice, circular herb garden, about 12’ in diameter and divided like a pie into wedges for different herb combinations, everything edged with granite curbstones. But I now find that a few pots, which I plant anew every year (even the perennials don’t winter over very well here), suit me better. And for the wilder spreading herbs, like mint, there is the added benefit of containment. This, of course, is essential for the urban dweller. Herbs indoors struggle for air and sun, so if you are in the city and have a tiny patio, ledge that doesn’t threaten pedestrians below in a sudden gale, or even a very sunny window that you can leave open and place the herbs right into against the screen, they will do best there. Potted herbs require little attention—forgetting to water is not fatal—and for an investment of perhaps $20.00 plus the pots and soil you will soon have a thriving assortment for most of your summer cooking needs. Indeed, they will last deep into the fall; you can harvest them before the first frost (either leaving them on their branches or stripping the leaves), leave them to dry, and seal in little bags or rinsed spice jars for use throughout the winter.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, select and pot your herbs as soon as possible; it’s time. When they start growing like mad, around the time the first greens appear, you may want to try this dressing. Or you can blend any combination of herbs of your choice with a little (very little) chopped garlic, salt, and pepper into goat cheese or cream cheese to spread on crackers, or into soft butter for superb herb-garlic bread (on the Pao deMilho, last post, would be nice), sprinkled with a little parm and broiled briefly. You can also add a little cognac or calvados and a dash of cayenne to this same herb-garlic butter, roll it in wax paper into a log, chill it, slice it, and drop it onto a hot steak for a quick sauce. Or float it on last summer’s tomato soup, pulled from the freezer, as in the photo. Whip all these up an hour or few in advance to allow the flavors to blossom. You can refrigerate for several days or freeze.

I generally snip most herbs with scissors rather than chop them, which can bruise them too much and press out their oils. For large leaves such as basil or mint, stack and fold them into quarters and snip fine; snip tarragon, oregano, and other smaller herbs while still on their stems. Strip thyme whole by holding the stem between your thumb and forefinger and pushing them firmly along the stem. I do chop when I need something very fine: always use a very sharp small chef’s knife, and draw your herbs into a tight little mound to chop.

LCM Dressing

This dressing is very flavorful; it’s nice at this time of year on peppery baby arugula (which, too, you could grow in a pot…) and pea shoots, both showing up locally now; the salad in the photo is made from this combination of organic greens from my neighborhood. The recipe is proportioned to be rather light-textured so as not to overwhelm baby greens, but for firmer salad items you could cut the coffee in half, or double the cream for more body. I also like this tossed with very lightly blanched (2-3 minutes), still-crisp sliced carrots, or with cold leftover beef or pork. For the carrots, I whisked in an extra tablespoon of cream.

So that you don’t drown your salads, add a small amount of dressing and toss; you can always add more. If you overdo, add more greens and toss again. Same goes for seasoning; taste after tossing, and add more salt and/or pepper if you like.

2 T honey (I use a local raw raspberry honey; you can substitute another raw honey that is the color of a Sam Adams)
1 tea Dijon mustard
1 T heavy cream
1/3 cup plus 2T extra-virgin olive oil
2 T leftover strong coffee (see first May post)
2 T lemon juice (1/2 large lemon)
1/3 tea salt
4 or 5 twists of the pepper mill
2 tea mixed tarragon, mint, and thyme, finely chopped/snipped, roughly 1:1: ½
1 small clove garlic, smashed and peeled

With a small whisk or fork, blend the honey, mustard, and cream; whisk in the olive oil well, then whisk in the coffee, followed by the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the herbs and drop in the garlic. Give it a good stir. Let sit 5 or 10 minutes, then remove the garlic and discard (stick your finger in and taste to decide when). Makes just under 1 cup.

Salads are best at cool room temperature, so don't refrigerate the dressing unless you are making it the day before, in which case remove several hours before serving.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

RI White Cap Flint Cornmeal: Jonnycakes and Beyond

Some products are so “local” that they are simply not available anywhere else. While some once-local products, like champagne or truffles, have been successfully reproduced elsewhere to highly competitive standards, a few defy replication and remain the sought-out standard-bearers of their kind. Rhode Island stoneground white cap flint cornmeal is such a product.
It’s not just the mythological power of its Native American heritage, or the romance of its pioneering, stubbornly hard-to-grow nature (low yields, promiscuous pollinating habits that result in contaminated strains and demand distant cultivation). It really does taste different. Exactly what that taste is defies easy, or at least accurate, description. I’d like to say that RI cornmeal has a sharp, somewhat bitter edge to it, and while that would not be wrong, it sounds like a negative, which is misleading, and insufficient. Its rich flavor, its edginess, transforms into a wonderfully round flavor in combination with other ingredients, particularly any form of sugar. This unique taste, these inherent qualities, have not traveled well, and many a chef and farmer insist that RI White Cap can only be successfully grown in…Rhode Island.
Fortunately, Rhode Islanders are provincial enough (in a good way) and stubborn enough that this esoteric item remains not only available, but widely available, and every Rhode Islander keeps a box or bag on hand. Not that most people actually use it. It’s more like wearing a St. Christopher’s medal in North Providence: it’s tradition, and you’d feel naked without it. Rhode Islanders do, however, eat a lot of jonnycakes, the principal dish made from our flavorful, silky-grained RI white cornmeal. It’s a sort of state dish, right up there with the clamcake. So unlike champagne or truffles or other special items that may be consumed by a small percentage of the population at their point of production, this one is consumed by everyone of all ages—at diners, restaurants, and May Breakfasts. Popularity has proved a very good preservative for this always-artisanal product.
Jonnycakes are a large topic in and of themselves, one laden with nuances, controversies (thick? thin? water? milk?), and cooking caveats. But jonnycakes are a discussion better for the long, dark days of winter, when a good debate can help keep you warm, and falling back on the usual is a comfort. It’s spring, and I’d like to talk about using jonnycake cornmeal for something other than jonnycakes—in fact, for some of summer’s most satisfying foods. For one thing, it is a superb ingredient in wet or dry coatings for frying, particularly for fish and vegetables. Ah, frying, one of my favorite subjects—and another large topic: the equipment, the fat, the temperatures, the batter or breading, the food. Next month.
Another wonderful, and very Rhode Island, use of stoneground white flint cornmeal is Pao de Milho, a rustic Portuguese table loaf with a rough exterior and a fine crumbed, dense, moist (indeed, damp) interior. This lesser known sister to Portuguese sweet bread is, for me, a summer essential. While it is fine for its traditional uses in soups or as an accompaniment to meals, and it certainly makes satisfying toast spread with strawberry jam or tomato butter, it is the best grilling bread, bar none, you will ever put down on your Weber™. Grilled Pao de Milho makes a superb platform for all kinds of good things, from cheeses and grilled vegetables to meats, and I often use it as a kind of “plate” for entire pick-up meals outdoors. My favorite way to eat.
Commercially made Pao de Milho is hard to come by, and I have never seen it outside of Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts; if you see it elsewhere, please post to let others know where to find this unusual treat. The best I have ever found is made by Fall River Bakery on Williams Street in Fall River, Massachusetts; its distribution is limited and local, but if you stop by the bakery at around 7 on a Saturday morning, you can buy a loaf from the baker. Another source is Silver Star Bakery on Ives Street in Providence, but in the absence of my favorite from Fall River Bakery, I prefer to make my own.
Pao de Milho is easy to make, so if the idea of baking bread scares you, this hardly qualifies. It’s a straight-method, forgiving dough. The recipe below is how I make it, given together with instructions for grilling and suggestions for serving.
But first, a word about the Portuguese in Rhode Island. The Portuguese account for 10% of Rhode Island’s population. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that, according to the 2005 U.S. Bureau of the Census, African Americans make up 13.3% of the U.S. population. And that when I arrived at URI in the 1960s, seven of eight suite-mates (I was the eighth) were Portuguese, my own roommate hailing from Bristol (Portuguese Central), all of whom knew each other. Ah, you see: 10% is quite a lot. Whaling was the lure for the Portuguese, as New England whaling ships, many of them sailing from New Bedford, MA (hard by us here in RI and often funded by Providence owners), fished as far as the Azores, where they picked up willing and able shipmen.
Thank goodness for us. They gave us our beloved chorizo and pepper sandwiches, and taught us how to use kale for food, not just decoration. They share our love for clams, and introduced us to this essential pao de milho. No wonder, here in Rhode Island, June is Portuguese American Month. Visit your local Portuguese Club, and say thanks.
Pao de Milho
1 ¼ cups RI stoneground white flint cornmeal, such as Gray’s or Carpenter’s (latter must be picked up at the mill)
1 ¾ tea salt
1 ¼ c boiling water
1 tea sugar
½ cup lukewarm water
1 pkg active dry yeast
2 ½ -3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 cup white corn flour, plus more for dusting (see Note)
½ c. lukewarm water
Pour boiling water over cornmeal and salt, stir into a mush, and set aside until lukewarm..
Dissolve sugar into ½ c. lukewarm water, sprinkle yeast into water, and set aside. When bubbly, stir with a fork and pour/stir into cornmeal mush. This all takes about 10 minutes.
Add 1 cup of a-p flour and the cornflour to the mush and blend. Gradually add only as much of the remaining flour as needed, alternately with the additional ½ cup water and ending with flour, until you have a dough that will be still-sticky but pulls away from the bowl and can be readily formed into a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead about 5-8 minutes; it is helpful to use a metal dough scraper to aid in folding and turning the dough, as it will remain tacky to the touch. Keep your flour, including what you knead in, to the 3 cup total if possible. If not, so be it.
Lightly spray a large bowl with olive oil, place your dough in and turn once or spray the top lightly, and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel. Let rise ‘til double, 75-90 min. Preheat oven to 450° F.
Punch down, shape into a round loaf, and roll lightly in corn flour. I prefer to bake this bread in an 8” or 9” pie plate. I use a glazed earthenware plate but you can use a glass or metal one (lightly oiled) if you don’t have one; place the floured dough in the pan and cover with the towel. You can also bake this on a pizza stone or cookie sheet (lightly oil, if the latter) if you like. Let rise until double, about 45 minutes, sprinkle with a bit more cornflour, and place in the oven. Spray the oven bottom and walls with water and quickly shut the door; repeat after 10 minutes (spraying is optional). Bake 30-40 minutes until crusty and the bread sounds hollow when you tap the bottom. Turn onto a rack and let cool completely before slicing.
Note: White cornflour (farinna de milho) is a superfine, very white, pulverized flour that looks like, but is not, cornstarch, so do not substitute. If it is not available at your market, ask them to stock it. Antonio’s is a local brand; organic stoneground corn flours can be purchased online.
Grilling and Serving Your Bread
Slice bread into slices of about 1/2”—a standard bread size. Brush one side lightly with olive oil and place face down on a medium-hot grill; brush the other side with oil. When lightly toasted, turn over and finish toasting on the other side. It should be firm but still yielding, not crisp like crostini. This is possible because of the unique moist interior of this bread.
Serve it just as it is with salad, eggs, or soup, or create a hand-held hors d’oeuvre (cut in halves or thirds for this) or stand-up entrée. A thin layer of a fresh, spreadable goat cheese, either plain or blended with herbs, makes a good, neutral adhesive for holding on other ingredients. Some favorites:
  • Goat cheese and roasted red peppers, a little olive oil, salt, and pepper
  • Goat cheese, roasted garlic, grilled pork, grilled peppers and onions, and tomato chutney (preferably a hot one). This is what’s in the photo below.
  • Goat cheese and portabellos sautéed with finely chopped shallots, a splash of sherry vinegar, parsley, s&p
  • Goat cheese, big leaves of basil, sliced tomatoes, s&p
  • Well-seasoned brandade (salt cod fish pureé) with a little chopped fresh tomato and thyme or tarragon
  • White beans mashed with a little olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, topped with thinly-sliced Vidalia onion, s&p, and basil chiffonade
  • Tunafish salad, pureed in the food processor, with salted capers
  • Grated-corn cream or chopeed zucchini and corn cooked down in heavy cream and seasoned with s&p, nutmeg, and tarragon, sliced grilled steak

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The 'Tween Months

Like their adolescent counterparts, the ‘tween months of March through May are an awkward way-station on to bigger and better things. Down on the farm, they are a lot of work, with the pay-off out ahead on a still-soggy horizon. Here in the kitchen, they are their own odd combination of waiting and make-ready, punctuated by the occasional glimpse of things-yet-to-come. We wait, at this point in near desperation, for that first decent greenhouse tomato and tiny head of soft Boston lettuce. We make-ready, if we have been clever or greedy or both, by drawing down inventory from our freezers, and using up odds and ends form our pantry, making room for the new. We drive to the source for a quart of this year’s maple syrup—in Rhode Island, I buy Rhode Island made—or the local asparagus or green onions, all sure signs that spring is here.

The asparagus is, of course, iconic, but it is the make-ready, and make-do, part of this time of the year that have a kind of perverse charm. What’s in the freezer that you have been hoarding for fear of being without in the dark of winter? What can you do with what’s on hand? How combine the old with the new?

For me, the answer to the first question is always (as it is as I rummage around now) berries (red and yellow raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries), corn stock, corn cut off the cob, whole tomatoes, sour cherries in light syrup, and strawberry preserves. These items I never completely finish off until May, when I know more is on the way. Being without a taste of summer—and it is amazing how perfectly preserved that taste of summer can be—would be like running out of water. So I hoard. This year I also find about two cups of shelled lima beans.

How to freeze for a taste of summer is a subject for when the time comes; right now, it’s what to do with the remains of the last year’s day, today. The goal is to marry last summer to this spring. Two things I generally make are a risotto with the corn stock and the new asparagus or snap peas, seasoned with a little lemon zest and mint, and sour-milk pancakes with the virgin syrup. Since you probably don’t have corn stock, I’ll save the risotto recipe for later. But you can make the pancakes with fresh or store-bought frozen berries if you don’t have your own in the freezer.

I like my pancakes thin and tender, never cakey, and my berry flavors distinct (raspberries are intense in a pancake, and can overwhelm others); I don’t mix berries, although two different kinds on a plate are fine, and satisfying. The ones in the photo are raspberry and cranberry. Here’s how I make them:

Sour-Milk Berry Pancakes

So the first lesson, obviously, is: don’t throw out that sour milk! In fact, be intentional in your refrigerator neglect—let some go sour, to have it on hand for all kinds of baking.

This batter should be made in the evening and stored overnight; in my opinion, it improves, developing its sour tang and crepe-y texture, over the next several days, so you can make a batch and cook as many as you, and you alone, want to eat. Stir before using each time, adding a bit more milk to thin as needed. And don’t add your berries until cooking, as described below. Serves 4-6.

3 c. unbleached flour, such as King Arthur
2 c. whole fresh milk
4 tea baking powder
¼ c melted unsalted butter
1 tea salt
1 c. or more sour milk
2 large brown RI eggs
Any combination of blueberries, raspberries, or cranberries, fresh or frozen

Sift together flour, b.p., and salt. Beat the eggs; beat in the melted butter and fresh milk, and add to the dry ingredients, stirring just until combined. It will be thick. Add sour milk, mixing, until it is the consistency of heavy cream. Refrigerate overnight or two.

If you don’t plan to use all the batter at once, ladle some into a 2-cup glass measure, and stir. Add as many blueberries or raspberries as you like (less is more, 5 or so/pancake). Heat a griddle medium-hot; if it is well-seasoned, like my prized old stovetop rectangular griddle, no need for added fat, otherwise lightly grease. Quickly pour out batter into 5” rounds, perfect pancake size, which is about 1/3 cup according to your glass measure, depending on your batter thickness. When bubbles have formed on top, turn and cook ‘til lightly golden; these pancakes will be paler than most. If your first batch seems a little thick, thin with additional sour milk. If you are sharing, you can keep your pancakes warm in a 200 F oven while you make more.

Serve with butter and pure Rhode Island maple syrup that you have picked up at the farm (see source links to left). Maple syrups vary in subtle and delightful ways from state to state and, of course, season to season and farm to farm. Why not try them all? Hold a taste test or, as we did when we were kids, a pancake-eating contest. Any excuse will do.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

First, the Coffee

Like any urban-leaning, Europe-traveling girl, I love my morning lattes, and the wonderful Gaggia I have at home to make them.

But for my early-morning walks down the farm road, or through wet fields in search of wild blackberries, you want something suited to your outfit of red Wellies, faded farm dress, and old sweater. Something really hot, flavorful, and abundant, comfortable in an Amazon.com thermal cup from back in the day when they sent Christmas presents to their good customers. In short, the good old-fashioned perked coffee of your father (or grandfather, as the case may be).

My percolator looks just like my father’s, except that, alas, it has a plastic rather than a glass dome. It cost $5.00 at Wilbur’s store in Little Compton, bought during Hurricane Bob in 1991 when the electricity was out for a week and all I had for cooking was a charcoal grill and, luckily, a propane-fueled commercial catering burner. Like all post-war children, I already knew how to make perked coffee, having seen my father make it some 5000 times while growing up. But I had no idea, until a hurricane, how satisfying it was.

Here are simple and imprecise directions. Go to the hardware store and buy an aluminum percolator that looks like mine in the picture. Mirro, of cheap cookware fame, makes a perfectly good one. If you can find them at your hardware store or at a good ‘ol 5&10 (if you can find a good ‘ol 5&10), also buy a package of Gourmay brand filters for percolators. These filters, made of a kind of fine rice paper, are great, but not to worry if you can’t find them. Of course, both items can be bought online; if you pay more than $15 for your pot, you’ve been had.

Remove inserts and fill pot with water to one of the marked lines—say, 5 cups. Line basket with a filter (if using), and add coffee to the comparable mark in the basket, folding the filter corners down over it. If making 5 cups of coffee, use approximately 6-7 tablespoons of ground coffee of your choice. For this purpose, I like Melitta Colombian Supreme, right from the market. No, it is not too fine. You can get the pot ready the night before if you want.

Bring the pot to a boil over high heat; stick around, because as soon as it starts to perk (as soon as the water is forced up into the dome repeatedly) turn the heat down moderately low, but still perking steadily, and perk 3-4 minutes. Feel free to lean in and breathe in the steam: it’s tantalizing, and full of antioxidants. The coffee is done when it smells wonderful and is the color you like; you can lift the pot up off the stove and pour a bit into a white cup to check the color until you get your timing right. A lightly spattered stove after making perked coffee is acceptable and even a mark of distinction, but do not let the pot boil over. Burned coffee is bad coffee.

The hardest thing is the last. Remove the coffee from the stove and let it sit a full minute to “set.” This is a personal discovery, highly recommended. Remove the inserts before pouring.

This coffee is wonderfully hot and flavorful. Pull your boots on, and head outside.