Sunday, July 27, 2008

Too Hot to Cook: A Grilled Soup

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         While glorious, this run of spectacular July weather we’ve been having has brought its share of still, humid evenings. For the most part, there’s been a lovely breeze, but the other night was one of those times when the thought of boiling water for the corn—one of my favorite varieties, Temptation—made me wilt. Or turning on the stove generally. I love hot weather, cannot abide air conditioning, and begin to complain of the cold when the temperature drops below about 65, so if it is too hot for me, it is hot.
I’d been planning to make some corn chowder, and was about to give up the idea as too steamy when I thought, why not just grill it? Everything over a single outdoor fire, sort of like camping, but with sleeping inside. This seemed like a reasonable thing to do. After all, here in Rhode Island, and popular elsewhere, we grill pizzas, made famous by Al Forno restaurant. Yes, you’re thinking, but pizza is solid, and chowder is, let’s face it, liquid. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ah, but the liquid is the final stage—sort of the reverse of grilled pizza, where the grilling is the final stage after preparing dough, sauce, and so on. For a grilled chowder, it seemed logical to grill all the ingredients and then add the liquids to them, in a pot set on the by-then moderate-heat grill. The depth of flavor, and the no muss, no fuss, of charcoal grilling--for a soup.
So I did that, and it turned out very well; I’ll do it again. I don’t take any particular credit, beyond the original desperate thought of how to avoid the stove: with fresh-picked corn and tomatoes, locally grown or produced chouriço, corn, garlic, and basil, and your own corn stock from inventory, you can’t really go wrong. Or as we say around here, what could be bad? As it turns out, absolutely nothing.
LCM Grilled Corn and Chouriço Chowder
Except for the basil garnish, this is cooked entirely on the grill. It makes for a summery but satisfying meal; nothing more is needed but a green salad or some buttered (and grilled, of course) common crackers. Serves 4.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
¼ lb lean salt pork, rind removed 
½ lb (1 link) chicken chouriço, such as Sardinha’s
4 large ears of corn, shucked
½ large sweet onion, cut in two
2 large cloves garlic, from a head (see directions)
1 medium-large ripe tomato
2 ½ cups corn stock (see Note)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 cup whole milk
¼ cup sour cream, plus more for garnish
¼ tea salt
4 twists of the pepper mill
Olive oil
About 8 large basil leaves
Prepare a medium-hot fire on the grill. Cut a square of aluminum foil large enough to hold the tomato, a head of garlic, and the onion. Brush the corn, garlic, onion, tomato, and meaty side of the salt pork lightly with the olive oil.
Put everything on the grill, placing the pork meat-side down. Quickly cook the vegetables, allowing them to char slightly but not to burn, turning them over to brown. Turn the chouriço once. After about 5 minutes, remove the corn, the salt pork, and the chouriço and set aside, and move the onion, garlic, and tomato to the square of foil. Put the lid on the grill to continue cooking until the vegetables can be pierced with a knife but still hold their shapes—i.e., the tomato should not collapse, the garlic should not ooze.
Corn Stock 2Cut the corn off the cobs, and slice the chouriço, breaking the slices apart with your fingers and discarding the skin that wants to come off. Slice the onion, and thinly slice 2 fat cloves of roasted garlic, reserving the rest for another use. Remove the skin and stem end from the tomato; cut it in half and gently fish out the seeds with a finger; and chop the tomato flesh roughly. Cut the salt pork into small dice.
Place a 3-qt chef’s or other open pan on the grill; use your flat palm to find a spot where the heat is medium to medium-low (alternatively, use your stove for this last stage, no more than a few minutes). Quickly toss the salt pork, chouriço, onion, and garlic in the pan, adding a teaspoon or so of olive oil if needed to prevent sticking. Add the stock, the corn, and the tomato, and season with the salt and pepper; move the pan to the coolest spot (or reduce the heat to low), and stir in the milk and the sour cream. As soon as the soup is hot through, remove it from the heat, taste it, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Garnish with sour cream and finely cut basil.
Note: As discussed in a post from last year (click the corn stock link above), I try to always have corn stock on hand; it's versatile and flavorful, and it is not much effort to throw a few cobs into water to make it. If you do not have it handy, though, you could use a very light, minimally salted chicken stock.
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Potato Paradise: The Rhode Island Coast

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         We used to jokingly refer to my old house in Little Compton as “Chateau Potato,” pronounced with a soft ‘a’ so that it rhymed, because half the 175 acres behind it were planted with potatoes. I loved having the endless, purple- and white-flowered potato fields there—except the one year, of course, when a potato bug infestation was so severe that the striped little critters began to show up uninvited at the house after they’d exhausted the plants. Both the farm and my house have now changed hands, but the potato fields are still there, now planted and harvested by my former neighbor, Tyler Young, and sold by his wife Karla.
I stopped in at the farm yesterday and Karla said, “I’ve been wondering when you’d be by looking for those little ones,” nodding in the direction of the basket in my hand; she was right, I always picked the tiniest ones she had. The newest of the new.
Potatoes are Rhode Island’s biggest crop, grown primarily along the southeastern coast. And that’s not the only thing potato about Rhode Island. We are the birthplace and home of the perennially popular and charming toy, Mr. Potato Head. Thanks to the same fine legislature that made coffee milk our state drink, you can get a Mr. Potato Head license plate if you want.
But I digress. Good local potatoes are beginning to appear, and from now until fall they will be available here in Rhode Island. The first ones of the season, freshly dug and cooked while they are barely out of the ground, are always a kind of miracle. Their melting texture and full flavor, at once earthy and delicate, are beyond description. The best advice I have is to treat them as you would a good diamond: solitaire, without too much fussy distraction from the perfection of the thing. Boiled, of course, or fried. Or the simplest of potato salads.
A good, honest potato salad, one worthy of the new potato, is an elusive thing. Here are the rules for the potato salad my family has made for three generations: no hard-boiled egg; no celery, pickles, or other doo-dads; no “salad dressing” or sour cream or anything other than first-rate mayonnaise; no seasonings other than salt and pepper; dress while potatoes are very warm; never, ever refrigerate before serving, at room temperature. The potatoes should be what are generally called all-purpose—those that fall comfortably between waxy and mealy—with a neutral flavor that allows the texture to be the focal point; I think, for example, that Yukon Golds or other yellow potatoes have too strong a flavor. Red-skinned potatoes, except for those that are newly dug as I have here, can be too waxy and hard; go for whites from California, Washington, or Maine if you cannot find tiny local new potatoes.
Lest you think the rules are too rigid, I will just mention that everyone who has ever eaten potato salad at my house, or my mother’s, or my grandmother’s, has said it’s the best they’ve ever had. It’s one of those non-recipes that are about getting just the right taste, and to accomplish which we never measure. But here is my best shot to get you started, in the absence of being able to give you a taste.
The Family Potato Salad

The proportions here are based on 1 pound of potatoes. When you double or triple the amount of potatoes, it is probably about right to double the oil and vinegar, but add additional onion more conservatively—maybe 2 T to start for 3 pounds of potatoes. Serves 3 per pound of potatoes.

1 pound freshly dug potatoes, or the best all-purpose new white potato you can find
1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise, or Hellmann’s® Real Mayonnaise only*
2 tea corn or other vegetable oil
¾-1 tea cider vinegar
1 T finely chopped, almost minced, fresh onion
Freshly ground pepper
In a small bowl, vigorously stir the oil and vinegar into the mayonnaise to lighten it. Stir in the onion and the seasonings, starting with perhaps a scant 1/8 tea salt and 3 or 4 twists of the pepper mill. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Boil the potatoes, unpeeled and whole if they are new and small but peeled and cut up evenly if not, until they can easily be pierced with a fork but are not falling apart; this will take as little as 10 and as many as 20 minutes, depending on freshness and size. Drain, and let stand about 5 minutes, or until you can handle them. Cut into halves, quarters, or slices, depending on how you started out, and toss them into the dressing; it is crucial that you do this while the potatoes are still very warm, which results in a magical melding at the borderline of potato and dressing. Taste for seasoning; add additional vinegar, salt, pepper, or onion cautiously to achieve a balance of flavors; if the potatoes are very absorbent, you may need a bit more mayonnaise as well. Do not refrigerate! Leave on the counter, and serve at room temperature. (Of course, refrigerate left-overs, which will be very good but not as transporting the next day.)
You may be tempted to add some fresh basil, parsley, or tarragon for color or flavor. My advice is: don’t. But if you do, just don’t tell me, and please don’t do it while the potato salad is still warm: the herb will permeate and dominate the dressing, defeating the essential point of this salad.
*Roughly west of the Rockies, Hellmann’s® is known as Best Foods®.
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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Currants are Current

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The brief season of currants, one of summer’s sparkling gems, is here. Hurry! Like summer, they always come to a seemingly premature end. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Indeed, currants vie with sour cherries for summer’s most ephemeral (and beautiful) fruit. It’s something about  July, it seems, the most poignant of summer months. The best weather, the best food, sun and tastes so intense that, as with all perfect moments, their enjoyment is accompanied by a vague sense of mortal dread: this cannot last. Never am I so keenly aware of life’s brief stroke across the universe than when I am eating July-only fruit outside on a blindingly bright July day. We are enjoying the precious gift of a run of these quintessential summer days as I write, so I am particularly happy, and therefore particularly wistful, right deer
But lest you think I am waxing morbid: To borrow and modify a turn of phrase, eating well is the best revenge. When you eat currants, or sour cherries, or peak corn or tomatoes, you engage directly with the endless mysteries of nature and human experience. Our world, concentrated in a transparent red berry—the wisdom of real food.
And if you are skeptical about the abstract Eastern notion of wisdom as joy, consider the concrete reality of finding them dirt cheap—a bargain found produces its own kind of exhaltation. The fruit lady here sells them for an astonishing $3.00 a pint. She seems not to know, or to care (perhaps she is enlightened?), that ¼ pint, roughly a handful, can run you $6.50 in the supermarket—if you can find them. And she sells not only red but also black and sometimes pinky-white currants. All are wonderful, but I prefer the red. I like their glistening color and their classic currant flavor and balanced sweet-tartness. The slightly less-acid whites are my second choice, and the black last—they do make a fine jelly or sauce, but they don’t have the same clarity and brightness. But of course, if that’s what you can find, buy them.
In last last year’s post on currants and sour cherries I mentioned that currants are high in pectin. This is one of several reasons why it makes superior jelly, but also why it thickens nicely without a lot of added starch. In the following recipe for a member of that venerable genre, the breakfast cake, a single tablespoon of flour combines with butter and the fruit to create just the right texture to go with the cakey topping.
Currant and Cardamom Buckle
Delicious for breakfast or a homey dessert, this combination of buttery cake with tart saucy fruit goes together quickly. Plan to eat this the day you make it—preferably while it is still warm. Serves 6.
1 pint red currantsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
¼ lb (stick) unsalted butter
1 1/3 plus 1 T flour
2/3 cup plus 1 T sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
3 tea baking powder
¼ tea cardamom, or a little more to taste
Big pinch salt
Preheat the oven to 375 F. While it is preheating, put the butter into an 8” square pan and put it into the oven to melt. Slosh it around every minute or so, and don’t forget about it or it will brown.
Toss the currants with the tablespoon of flour. When the butter has melted, dump the currants into the pan.
Combine all the dry ingredients and then whisk in the milk just until well-combined. The batter will be thick and will foam up a bit. Pour it over the currants; it should cover the currants easily, but you can help it a little with a spatula if needed. Sprinkle the tablespoon of sugar over the top.
Bake for about 35 minutes, until golden and a toothpick in the center comes out clean—plunge it straight down in the middle to make sure. Cool 10 minutes on a rack. Serve in bowls with a little heavy cream poured over.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Comfort Me with Carrots

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         This week I moved my son and one-and-only child to New York, where he starts his first job tomorrow. He’s graduated. He’s grown up. He’s gone. It may take 21 years, but the child’s growing season is the fleetingist of all. One day you are carrying them fresh and new into your home; turn around the next, they have matured on the vine and you are carrying their things out and into their own.
The morning I left New York, after a whirlwind two days of unpacking and settling in, my son and I met for coffee and walked down the street to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, one of his neighborhood’s many small parks, to sit. It was Wednesday, Greenmarket Day, and I was surprised to see a full-blown, well stocked market, a veritable miniature Union Square. There was fresh fish; grass-fed beef, pork, and veal; baked goods; honey; handmade cheeses and eggs; and an excellent selection of fruits and vegetables, everything grown, raised, or produced in New York. Buying to bring back to Rhode Island would have been, for the most part, like bringing coals to Newcastle. But the truly beautiful carrots I could not resist.
Carrots are underrated, I think, even considering my well-known congenital preference for sweet vegetables. A fresh-pulled carrot rates right up there with fresh-picked corn or freshly dug potatoes in the category of transcendent—and transient—unadorned eating experiences. In the desert-island game of foods you would choose if you had to eat the same thing forever, raw carrots with salt are invariably on my list (along with good bread and butter, and steak, and apple pie). I love them glazed with butter, maple syrup, and salt and white pepper, for their taste and for the burst of color they add to the plate. At this time of year, beautiful carrots contribute to crisp (also underrated) coleslaw or other salads, and make a lovely summer appetizer blanched and served with aioli. Either grated or pureed carrot is used in carrot cake (I make a carrot chiffon cake with a puree), but both have myriad other uses. Grated carrots can be used as a crunchy binder in meatballs, pureed carrots in sweet or savory custards, stirred into turnips or mashed potatoes, as a base for soups, or served on their own with lots of butter and herbs. And the nutritional value of carrots, while legendary, is worth a reminder, particularly their astoundingly high level of natural antioxidant vitamin A carotenes.
So consider the carrot. When you see them, tall or short, orange or yellow or red or purple—the variety I saw in Switzerland was lovely—, and intact with their giant tops, buy them. They are a delicious treat, and the simple preparations to which they lend themselves are pretty and satisfying. I found myself, returning home after sending my son off to his life, making this salad from my own youth, one of my Pennsylvania German grandmother’s many sweet-sour concoctions blending sugar and vinegar. Along with a natural casing, snappy beef frankfurter, topped with some of the last jar of last summer’s red pepper relish, it made a simple and yes, comforting, lunch.
Sweet and Sour Marinated Carrots
In a departure from my by-now familiar room-temperature rule for salads and marinated vegetables, serve this one cold. The recipe makes a generous ½ cup dressing; you may have some left over, enough to dress sliced tomatoes the next day. Serves 2.
½ lb carrots, or about 4 medium
2 slices, about 1/8” thick, from a large onion, cut in quarters
½ sweet red pepper, sliced thin
2 T finely chopped parsley
2 T homemade tomato sauce, pressed through a fine strainer (see Note)  
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup sugar
¼ tea salt
1/8 tea white pepper
¼ tea celery seed
¼ tea dry mustard
2 T cider vinegar
Peel and trim the carrots; cut them at a 45° angle into slices about 3/16” thick. Blanch in boiling salted water about 3-4 minutes, or until they can be pierced with a sharp knife but are still firm. Drain and rinse under cold water; set aside.
In a small bowl or glass measure, whisk together the tomato sauce, oil, sugar, and seasonings until thick and well combined. Whisk in the vinegar.
Place the well-drained carrots, the onion, the pepper, and parsley into a serving bowl and pour over enough dressing to just cover—a little more than half, most likely. Toss well, cover the bowl, and marinate in the refrigerator for about 8 hours or overnight. This is a nice side for anything smokey, from ham to grilled sausages, burgers, or dogs.
Note: I like to have fresh tomato sauce, made from imported plum tomatoes cooked in a few tablespoons of olive oil and seasoned with salt only, on hand, and always save even the smallest amount left over from making pasta or pizza. With just a few tablespoons, you can make a dip for fried food or sausages, or use it to add body and flavor to stews, soups, sauces, and dressings. You can substitute canned plain tomato sauce or even thick tomato juice here.
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