Saturday, September 29, 2007

Shell Beans

I confess, the first time I bought shell beans it was purely for their looks. Fuschia-red. Dappled. Wavy. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t know what they were, but I bought a few; I wanted to see what was inside.
Inside proved to be even prettier: smooth, pearl-white beans with streaks of scarlet—a sassy riff on the shell. They were shaped like limas but otherwise looked similar to Great Northern white beans, the kind I’d used—dried—to make baked beans for years and years. So, I thought. This is what a fresh bean looks like. How beautiful.
Sometimes you will hear the term “shell bean” applied to any bean in a pod, like limas, black turtles, favas, and others. But technically the shell bean is the cranberry bean, also known as the borlotti bean or Roma bean. Cranberry beans are a traditional bean for pasta e fagioli. By the time I discovered them, I had already had long experience with pasta e fagioli. I had eaten it for the first time in the 1960s at a local college hangout, Giro’s in Peace Dale, RI. Giro’s did two things remarkably well (maybe more, but I always ordered my favorites): a hamburger sub consisting of three burger half-moons in a toasted roll, slathered with mayo and topped with lettuce, and their pasta e fagioli (pronounced “pasta fahd-jole” here in Rhode Island, with a movie mobster accent, one we know first-hand). It was not soupy, exactly, yet not quite saucy—a cross between a soup, a stew, and a sauced pasta dish. I later had it at the home of a friend from Cranston, at a Christmas Eve feast of endless courses; this homemade version, served very fresh, was even better. Naturally I began making it myself when I moved on from college, using dried beans and gradually settling on a thinner soup with a richer stock. It was delicious. But when I discovered the fresh shell beans, with their nutty flavor and meaty texture, it moved into the realm of simple perfection. But then the Italians are masters at that, aren’t they?
When buying, look for beans that are bright and colorful, with a leathery but soft shell and white or near-white seam; pass on any that feel tough or that look green along the edge. Use them as soon as possible, and immediately after shelling, as they begin to dry out quickly. To shell, simply twist the pod and pop out the beans; they should come out completely clean, but if necessary wipe away any membrane with your fingers. Admire their pied beauty as you shell them: they will turn uniformly beigey-white on cooking.
Unless you grow your own beans, if you want dry beans for storage it is best to buy them from a good producer; there are excellent sources, such as Purcell Mountain Farms, for a vast range of rare and common varieties, including the cranberry bean. Dry beans are dried in the pod while still on the plant, and harvested at just the right time. (Your shelled beans will certainly dry hard as a rock in a few days, but will also wrinkle, shrivel, and discolor.) Dry shell beans are a satisfying staple to have on hand for the winter. They go particularly well with lamb or sausage of any kind. You can also stew or braise them on their own in olive oil and liquid with a little garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and a little sage or thyme. Or you can make the incomparable pasta e fagioli.

Pasta e Fagioli
This is an utterly simple and utterly delicious soup. I strongly recommend the use of a homemade stock, especially turkey stock, as the resulting depth of flavor makes this dish rather transcendent. Serves 4.
6 oz lean salt pork or prosciutto end (see Note), chopped to ¼” dice
1 T olive oil
½ cup onion, chopped fine
¼ cup carrot, chopped fine
1 large clove garlic, chopped fine
2 cups shelled cranberry beans (about 1 ½-2 lbs unshelled)
4 cups stock or water, preferably rich turkey, beef, or chicken stock
1 cup imported Italian plum tomatoes
a sprig of fresh oregano or ¼ tea dried oregano
1 cup ditalini
salt if needed
freshly grated parmeggiano reggiano
freshly ground black pepper
chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Put the salt pork or prosciutto and the olive oil into a large open pan over medium-high heat. When it begins to render, add the onion, carrot, and garlic; sauté until the onion is translucent, reducing the heat if needed to avoid burning. Add the tomatoes and cook a few minutes, chopping with the edge of a wooden spoon. Add the shelled beans and the stock or water. Cover, leaving a tiny crack, and cook over moderately low heat, enough to maintain a slow boil, for 45-60 minutes; the beans should be soft, but just soft. Taste for salt; you will probably not need to add any unless you used water. If you like your soup thicker, you can remove a cup or so of the beans and vegetables and pass through a food mill back into the pan. I like it as is, and know that it will thicken up a bit the next day on its own.
In a separate pan, boil the pasta in lightly salted water until it too is just done, about 9 minutes; drain. To serve, place about ½ cup of the cooked pasta in a shallow soup bowl, and ladle in the beans and broth to the rim. Garnish with a generous amount of freshly grated parmesan and black pepper, and a little chopped flat-leaf parsley if you like.
Note: If you live near a busy Italian specialty food store, as I did for several years in Philadelphia, you can probably beg an occasional prosciutto end; another option is to try an authentic tapas bar for an end of jamon serrano. Here in New England, living not too close to Providence, I typically use salt pork, and I really like it for this; you could also use pancetta. These are all cured, not smoked; do not use smoked bacon. Leftover salt pork and pancetta freeze well.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pickling Cucumbers: A Freezer Favorite

Pickling cucumbers are not just small versions of the large, dark green cucumbers used for salads, usually called slicing cucumbers. While you can certainly eat them in salads, and they often are crunchier than the more moisture-laden slicers, they have been specially developed to retain crispness through the brining process of pickling. They look different, too: they are shorter, blocky or cylindrical rather than elongated in shape, and lighter green in color. Fresh pickling cucumbers should have a dry, bumpy but non-wrinkly skin, and be completely firm under pressure; check the ends when you select them.
Pickling cucumbers have been available at the farm stands on and off for months, but they are inexpensive and plentiful now. They vary in diameter, some suitable for dills, others for bread and butter or other sliced pickles, for which a 1 ½” girth is about right. Over the years I have made lots of kinds of pickles, but I am devoted to one in particular that is the very, very best pickle I know of for freezing. I discovered this when I made them the first time. I wanted something simple to make with my son, then about 8 years old and adamant that he could use my huge chef’s knife. This pickle used small, not-too-wobbly cukes, suitable for little hands, and did not involve the stove. The recipe was from an old New England cookbook, and though selected for safety, it sounded weird. It was called “oil pickles,” and was made with olive oil—which surprised me. But safety won the day, and we forged ahead. This was back before my small-batch days, and we produced, as I recall, gallons of them. I stashed some in the freezer and forgot about them until I was cleaning out inventory the following year. When I tried them in a partially thawed state (they never freeze solid because of the oil), fully prepared to throw them out, they were cooly surprising: crisp, flavorful, like new.
I’ve since seen recipes for oil pickles or olive oil pickles in many old collections, suggesting these pickles were a favorite of some by-gone era that never made it to commercial production—or perhaps disappeared from it due to the cost of the oil. The recipes are all similar in that they call for salted or brined cukes, oil, and mustard seed, either yellow, black, or both; some, like the ones I make now, call for a little onion too. I recommend them.

Oil Pickles for the Freezer
I use part olive oil, part neutral vegetable oil, which makes a less sharp, and less expensive, pickle. You can use all mustard seed or, as I do, a variety. Like any other preserving recipe, proportions are approximate. Makes about 2 pints.
6 pickling cukes, about 1 ½” in diameter
8 small white boiling onions, about 1 ½” in diameter
½ cup coarse salt
1 T black or yellow mustard seed
½ T fennel seed
½ T caraway seed
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup neutral vegetable oil
1/8 tea cayenne
Cider vinegar (1 1/3 cups or more)
Slice the cukes and onions at least 1/8th inch thin. Mix in a bowl with the salt, then place in a colander in the sink to drain for about 8 hours, or overnight, tossing them around occasionally. Divide the cukes and onions between two pint jars. In a 2-cup glass measure, put the spices and the ½ cup of oil, then fill the measure to the 2-cup line with cider vinegar. This should be enough for both jars. If you need additional liquid to cover, add a little more vinegar to each. Screw on the lids and turn the jars over a few times to mix. Put one jar in the refrigerator—they will be ready in about a week—and freeze the other. If you plan to freeze, make sure you leave at least an inch of head space; if refrigerating, it doesn't matter. These wonderful pickles can be eaten almost directly from the freezer; they are excellent with the corn relish appetizer.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Rose Hips

Anyone who has visited the coast of New England in summer has probably noticed the old-fashioned , wild roses that sprawl along the shores, covering dunes like a carpet, and that tumble over split rails, dense as a fence. This is rosa rugosa, an Asian import that has taken to American soil and thrives along the Atlantic’s sandy, salt-sprayed, windswept shores. In fact, we plant it there, where it takes over and helps secure the dunes from erosion while looking New England quaint and pretty.

In fall, when the pink or white flowers fade and their petals fall, the hip left behind develops into a bulbous red fruit, sometimes called a haw. They often hang in clusters and, when truly ripe, look like cherry tomatoes. The entire rose plant is edible, but historically the hips have been used more than the leaves or rose petals because they were valued for their medicinal and health properties, now being rediscovered. Among other qualities, rose hips contain substantially more vitamin C than oranges and other citrus fruits, and are popularly considered beneficial preventatives or remedies for colds, sore throats, and infections.

Rose hips themselves have a slightly citrusy tang, following on a smooth, honey-ish taste with a hint of spice. They make delicate jellies and syrups that come with the extra satisfaction of having gathered them yourself, for free.

It’s time to harvest rose hips when you notice on your walks along the coast that they have turned really red; I’ve been watching them ripen for a week or so, and decided that yesterday was the day. Bring a basket and a pair of gardening gloves down to the beach; wear closed shoes, as sometimes you need to wade into the shrubs a bit to reach for your prize, and the bushes are thorny. Choose hips that are not only true red (as opposed to orange) but also that give slightly to the touch, like a ripe tomato; they should come off the stem easily if they are at the right stage. Pass up any that are either too hard or too soft, particularly any that have begun to wrinkle. Also pass up those that have any of their internal hair-like prickers poking through the skin.

Rose Hip Syrup

In addition to pouring it over pancakes, waffles, or ice cream, rose hip syrup is a versatile flavoring and part sugar substitute for baked goods and frostings, and an interesting ingredient for salad dressings (especially for tomatoes) and even cocktails made with sugar syrups.

Most recipes for rose hips call for removing the fine hairs and seeds before cooking. This is time-consuming, and I don’t bother when making jellies or syrups because I strain the fruit through a high-thread-count bag that catches everything. Simply trim the blossom ends and any stems.

Put your rose hips into a stainless steel pan (aluminum discolors them and breaks down the vitamin C), add water to barely cover, and bring to a boil. Cook at a steady, medium boil for about half an hour, pressing the fruit down firmly toward the end of the cooking to mash it a bit. Turn it into a large jelly bag or clean pillowcase (an old one that you don’t mind staining, or even throwing out when you are done still containing the pulp, which is quite liberating) and hang it over a bowl, twisting the bag to squeeze out the juice. You will see that it already has a gelled quality, as rose hips contain a good amount of pectin.

Measure the juice and taste it before adding sugar. If it is a little tart, add more; if it seems sweet, add less—from ¾-1 cup of sugar per cup of juice. Bring the sugar and juice to a boil, and cook, skimming, for three or four minutes until it is a light syrup or the viscosity you like. Add a drop or two of red food coloring if you want, which will give it the color of rose gold. Pour into jars and seal. Store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Coastal Rose Cupcakes

This is a variation on an old-fashioned hot-milk cake, with an old-fashioned boiled frosting. The addition of the rose syrup to both the batter and the frosting make these a true local specialty, with a taste of yesteryear. Makes 9 cupcakes.
The hot-milk cupcakes
1 cup a-p flour
2 tea baking powder
¼ tea salt

2 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1/3 cup rose hip syrup

½ cup milk
3 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350 F and drop muffin papers into a muffin tin. Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until foamy, and whisk in the sugar, then the syrup, gradually until thick and well combined. Fold in the dry ingredients. Heat the milk with the butter until hot and the butter is melted; while still steaming, stir gradually into the egg-flour mixture. Fill 9 cups, starting at the center, about 2/3 full; fill the remaining 3 with water. Bake, turning once, about 20 minutes, or until the cupcakes have pulled away from the side and the tops are springy. They will not color. Remove to a rack to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then, with the aid of a table knife, remove each cupcake to the rack to cool completely before frosting.

The boiled frosting
This is not as scary to make as it sounds; it’s actually rather easy. It produces a fluffy, marshmallow-like frosting with true rose-hip flavor. You will have leftovers; it refrigerates or freezes well (as do the frosted cupcakes themselves) and, given we are now into cool mornings and nights, makes a nice topping for hot chocolate or, as in photos, a mocha cappuccino.

1 large egg white
pinch of cream of tartar
1 cup rose-hip syrup

Using a standing mixer or hand-held electric one, beat the egg white with the cream of tartar until it is stiff and glossy. While beating, put the syrup into an open pan and bring the syrup to a boil. Cook until it reaches the thread stage, about 223-235 F, depending on where you live (the higher your altitude, the lower the temperature; average is about 230). If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test it by dropping some of the syrup into cold water; it will remain in loose strands rather than form a soft mass. Because you are starting out with a light syrup already, this process will not take long, so watch it.

With the motor stopped and the beater lifted, add a few tablespoons of the syrup to the beaten egg white (pouring it in while the motor is running tends to spatter it against the bowl, as it hits the beaters). Beat until incorporated, then stop the motor and add and beat some more. Repeat until all is incorporated, the mixture has cooled down, and you have a beautiful fluffy, glossy frosting.

To frost: With a clean, frosting-free hand, pick up a cupcake, turn it upside down, and sink it into the center of the frosting bowl to the level of the cupcake paper. Twist it clockwise several times, exerting pressure and tilting it slightly as needed to cover all exposed areas of cake. Lift it briskly straight up to form a little peak. Voila!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Sweet Peppers: Red and Ripe

The sweet red peppers of late summer are starting to come in, and they are beautiful, smooth and shiny, and really, really red. (There are yellow and orange ones now, too.) They are one of my favorite vegetables, so I’m happy to see them.

A red pepper is, first and foremost, a ripe pepper—what a green pepper evolves to if not picked early but left to become what it was meant to be. A member of the nightshade family, like the tomato, red peppers are, also like the tomato, loaded with vitamins A and C. Their sweetness is thanks to a recessive gene that knocks out the hotness compound of chili peppers, capsaicin, and the sweetness of local peppers is usually superior to that of the red bells imported from Holland or Canada, which can be iffy--even downright flat. And of course the peppers from your neighborhood farmer are less expensive, too.

Local red peppers will be abundant now through September or early October if this glorious weather holds, giving you ample time to find a few hours with which to make something fresh-tasting for the dark days of winter—a crisp and juicy red pepper relish, your own roasted peppers preserved in oil, a soup base or sauce for the freezer. In fact, peppers themselves freeze well, without blanching, just like blueberries. Trim, core, de-seed- and de-vein them; cut them as you wish (quartered, sliced, diced); spread them out on sheet pans and freeze until firm; transfer to doubled Ziplock® bags and store in the freezer.

Little Compton Red Pepper Relish

You can use any combination of pepper colors, but the all red is just so brilliant. You can make a “sweet” or “hot” version, or both. If possible, especially given the small quantity, dice by hand with a very sharp knife. Like the corn relish, excellent on hot dogs and sausages, burgers, with cheese and meats. Makes 1 ½ pints.

5 cups red pepper, diced small
2 cups sweet onion, diced small
1 tea coarse salt
boiling water

1-1 ¼ cups white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup white vinegar

2 tea crushed fresh hot red pepper (optional; see Note)
1/8 tea cayenne (optional)

In a large pan, cover the pepper, onion, and salt with boiling water (a cup or so), and let stand for 5 minutes. Drain and return the vegetables to the pot. Add a cup of the white sugar, the brown sugar, and the vinegar. Bring to a boil and reduce to medium, still bubbling briskly but not a wild boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Taste and, if desired, add the remaining ¼ cup sugar. If you want it a little hot, also add the crushed pepper and cayenne at this point. Cook another 10-15 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed/evaporated, and a wooden spoon drawn across the pan bottom creates a gutter in the relish mixture; the relish should hold together lightly and have a slightly syrupy quality. Taste again; if it needs a dash of salt, add it, and cook a few more seconds to dissolve. Ladle into clean hot jars and seal. Store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Note: I use a local product, Grampy Paul’s crushed hot red pepper, prepared in Westport, Massachusetts, but you can finely chop or grind fresh hot red chili pepper. Start out with a teaspoon and go from there.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

August Corn: Phase II, Corn Stock

Long in the habit of making stocks with the odd carcass or limp vegetable, it was a short step from regarding a pile of corn cobs, shorn of their golden kernels in the interests of corn fritters but still fresh and moist, to tossing them into a stock pot. They were, after all, a kind of boney skeleton, and their network of cells contained a milky marrow of its own. In the waste not, want not spirit in which I do everything in the kitchen, spurred by visions of my grandmother refrigerating a few tablespoons of leftover spinach, I thought, why not?

Corn stock, it turns out, is so good and so useful that it is its own excuse—as if one were needed—for eating corn off the cob. Over the 15 or so years that I’ve been making it, I’ve found that it makes wonderful soups, including very good versions of tortellini in brodo and tortilla soup in addition to the more obvious corn chowder. It adds intense flavor to polenta, and makes a nice substitute for shrimp stock in shrimp Creole. Anywhere you would use chicken stock, or even water, consider whether corn stock would serve as well or better.

Corn stock is a great inventory item for the freezer, and during the ‘tween months, corn risotto with new asparagus is a lovely harbinger of summer. Now, as summer wanes and cool evenings begin, risotto with summer vegetables, including the corn cut off the cob to make the stock, makes another fine transitional, but still light, meal.

To make corn stock: Cover a dozen corn cobs with 10 cups of water. Add half of a large onion, unpeeled and cut into two pieces, and nothing more. Resist the temptation to throw in carrots, or celery, or herbs and spices: you want only the essence of corn. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, leaving the lid ajar, to medium-low, or enough to keep a steady, slow boil going. Cook for about an hour, or until it has a sweet, pure taste of corn. Do not salt. If you are going to use it within two days, refrigerate it; otherwise, freeze the stock in pint or quart containers. Makes about 6 cups.

Golden Risotto

End of summer brings lots of yellow: golden zucchini, yellow peppers, yellow tomatoes, and corn itself. Combine them all, touched with a little saffron, to make this sunny, refined risotto. Use all butter as indicated, and don’t over-season. This should have a full but delicate flavor. Serves 6.

3 T unsalted butter
2 T minced shallot
1 cup sweet yellow pepper (about 1 medium)
1 ½ cups sweet corn off the cob, preferably yellow or bicolor (about 3 ears)
1 cup golden zucchini (about 1 medium)
½ tea salt
1/8 tea white pepper

3 T unsalted butter
¼ cup finely minced sweet onion
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
¼ cup dry white (non-oaky) wine
5-6 cups corn stock
¼ tea Spanish saffron, preferably coupe grade
¼ tea salt
¾ cup freshly grated Italian parmesan

A little chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)
A little chopped yellow tomato (optional)
Additional grated parmesan

Prepare and cook the vegetables: Trim the pepper, remove the seeds and veins, cut into ¼” strips, then cut cross-wise into ¼ inch dice. If you have not reserved some corn when making stock, cut the kernels off of three ears. Trim the ends from the zucchini and cut it in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon, then, cut side down, cut the zucchini into ¼” strips and cut cross-wise into ¼” dice. In a small frying pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and add the shallots, letting them foam up, and sauté for a few minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. In the order listed, add the vegetables one by one, cooking about 2 minutes after each addition, being careful not to brown them. Stir in the salt and pepper, and set aside.

Make the risotto: In a saucepan, heat the stock until steam rises; keep it just warm, without a ripple. In a 3- or 4- quart pan, preferably with sloped sides, melt the butter over medium heat and sauté the onion until transparent. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the rice and toss it around in the butter to coat well, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until it is absorbed/evaporates. Add a ladle-full of stock and cook until absorbed; the stock and rice should simmer gently. Repeat, adding a ladle of stock at a time, until the rice is nearly cooked, about 20 minutes. Crush the saffron between your fingers and stir it into the rice, together with the ¼ tea of salt. Add a little more stock and cook until the rice is tender, loose, and creamy, about 25 minutes total. In the last minute or so of cooking, stir in about ¾ of the reserved vegetable mixture and the parmesan. Turn out into a bowl, garnish with the remaining cooked vegetables, the tomato and parsley if using, and additional parm. Serve immediately.