Sunday, August 26, 2007

August Corn: Phase I, Corn Off the Cob

Here in Rhode Island, we’re as corny in August as that Midwest state of Broadway fame. Everywhere you look, the corn’s gone from knee-high to sky high, and with the lengthening season has come variety, lots of it. For many people, the corn of late August brings their favorite variety of white corn, the most popular being Silver Queen, possibly because it is a “standard” or traditional variety, neither a sugar-enhanced nor supersweet, that was once widely available, and is what they know. But there are loads of other white corns, too, and in the corn world, Silver Queen isn’t really queen any more. Some farmers grow it because people ask for it; some, I hear, tell people it’s Silver Queen when it’s not; and others don’t grow it at all, choosing to grow varieties such as Argent, Silver King, Lancelot, Camelot, Treasure, Silverado, and many more. There have even been a few taste tests where Silver Queen comes in far down the list. Me, I tend to be partial to the bi-coloreds, including some early varieties like Temptation.

What’s great about living in a corn-growing area is that you get to sample a good dozen or so varieties over the course of a summer. And because farmers like to mix it up and try new ones, keeping stand-bys and experimenting at the margin with the growing and market qualities of others, over the course of a few years you may get to sample 20 or more. My old neighbor Coll Walker, whose corn is legendary around here, is always trying new ones, looking for the right balance of growability and customer preferences. Lancelot, which I liked when he planted it some years back, was impossible in our coastal climate, where a storm would knock it flat, cutting yields in half and rendering the rest difficult to pick. Coll also tries to provide the longest season possible to the local corn-obsessed, requiring staggered plantings of numerous varieties. So we never know what we’ll find, and the changes bring a mild kind of excitement, as people gather ‘round the cart and baskets to see and exclaim over what’s on offer. Last week it was Montauk (bicolor) and Mattapoissett (white). This week it’s Providence (appropriately for this post on Rhode Island corn, also a bicolor) and Silver King (white).

The dark cloud attached to the Silver King lining is, of course, that all this corny bounty means the end of summer. Soon it, and the corn, will be gone. It’s time to buy lots and lots of peak-perfection corn, enjoy it fresh, and stockpile it and its essence for winter. By all means eat some on the cob, grilled or coddled or however you like it, as you have all summer, but consider moving into off-the-cob mode so you can kill two birds with one stone. You can enjoy your fresh corn kernels sautéed with butter and cream (truth be told, my favorite way to eat corn) or in fresh salsas, corn fritters, corny cornbread, and so on, and at the same time preserve the taste of summer corn by freezing some for your Thanksgiving succotash (a must in my family), making corn relish or jelly, and most important of all, making corn stock from the fresh cobs. How to make corn stock, and the recipe for corn risotto promised in May, will be the subject of my next post.

To cut corn off the cob: Strip corn and hold firmly, tip up, in a shallow dish such as a large pie pate or gratin pan. With a thin, sharp paring knife (I like my beak parer for this), place the blade behind the top kernels and cut the corn in a downward motion close to the cob, turning the ears as necessary. Do not scrape the ears for this, as you want the corn milk for the stock and you want your relish to be as clear as possible.

To freeze corn: There are several ways to freeze corn, but here is what has been most successful for me. Cut corn from cobs as above. Blanch in boiling water for 1-2 minutes only, drain, rinse in very cold water, and drain well again. Spread it out on a towel and pat as dry as possible. Place in measured portions (2 or 4 cups) into doubled zip-lock bags and freeze. I find this works better than blanching on the cob first before cutting the corn off, and I do not recommend freezing corn, either raw or blanched, on the cob. The combination of this corn with another sweet, tender vegetable preserved at its peak, your own home-frozen lima beans, simmered lightly together in butter with salt and pepper, is a true Thanksgiving treat.

To make creamy sautéed corn: Over medium-low heat, melt two tablespoons of unsalted butter, and add the corn from four ears. Toss it around and cook it 2 or 3 minutes, taking care that it doesn’t brown. Pour in a little very fresh heavy cream, about ¼ cup, and cook at a bubbly simmer. When the cream is nearly absorbed, add another ¼ cup cream, repeating this process until the corn is just tender; taste as you go. The cooking will take about 15 minutes; it will not be overdone. Season with about a ½ teaspoon of coarse salt, a twist of the nutmeg mill, and several twists of the pepper mill. Remove from the stove, stir in another teaspoon of butter, and serve.

With so much fresh corn off the cob, you might want to make some corn relish, a versatile garnish, particularly for anything pig-related, from ham and pork roast to hot dogs and sausages. It’s also nice with cheeses, and I find it makes a very popular, old-fashioned sort of appetizer, as described below. Another very old-fashioned way to eat it is simply as a sandwich, between two slices of buttered homemade white bread, with or without a few slices of this month’s glorious tomatoes.

Little Compton Corn Relish

In the ethos of small-batch preserving, this makes about 4 pints. Use any corn variety or mixture. You can have a mix of red and green pepper, which is more traditional, but I like red only. Try to chop all the vegetables to roughly the size of the corn kernels if you can, and make sure your spices are very fresh. A relish should be light and loose, not viscous and gloppy. Many modern recipes call for the addition of a gelling agent, which may make your product too heavy. You can instead add a little cornstarch to the sugar-vinegar syrup if it is not as thick as you like.

8 cups corn off the cob (about 12 ears)
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar (see Note)
1 ½ cups chopped onion
1 ½ cups red pepper, seeded, de-ribbed, and chopped
2 tea coarse salt
1 ½ cups white vinegar
2 tea prepared Dijon mustard
½ tea turmeric
2 tea yellow mustard seed
2 tea celery seed
1/8-1/4 tea crushed hot red pepper (optional)
2 tea cornstarch, stirred into some of the relish liquid (optional)

Put everything together into a large open pan; bring slowly to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer it for 15 minutes. Turn up the heat and boil gently for another 5 minutes or so to reduce the liquid; if you wish, remove a little of it and stir it into the cornstarch, then stir this back into the relish, cooking another few minutes, no more than 20-25 minutes total. Taste as you go; your vegetables should be tender but still crisp. Ladle into clean hot jars and seal.

Note: You could leave the brown sugar out, or reduce the white sugar to 1 ¼ cup and keep the brown, which adds a bit of depth. I intentionally make my relish a tad on the sweet side because I invariably serve it with fairly intense sour, salty, or smokey flavors where a little extra sweetness creates just the right balance.

Ruffled Chips with Seasoned Cheese, Corn Relish, and Pickles

I almost never buy potato chips, and had not bought the ridged kind in my whole life, so I’m not sure why I was possessed to serve this relish in this particular way. But I was, went out and bought the ridged chips, and here it is. Everyone loves it, and I must say the combination of tastes is just right. It’s something my Pennsylvania German grandmother might have made.

3 oz cream cheese, softened
3 oz fresh mild goat cheese, such as Montrachet, softened
1 ½ T finely minced shallot
¼ tea finely minced garlic, or 1 tiny clove
1 T mixed chopped herbs, such as thyme, parsley, and oregano
small wedge of lemon
salt and pepper

Ridged chips

Thinly sliced sour/dill pickles of any kind

Blend the cheeses and seasonings; squeeze the lemon over, mix again and let stand for an hour. With the ridged chips, scoop up a little cheese and corn relish, and eat accompanied by the pickles.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Blackberry Bliss

Summer fruits in season are more demanding than a two-year-old. (Come here! Pick me up! I wanna go home! Do something with me!) The difference is that complying with the demands of two-year-olds might spoil them. With summer fruits, not complying definitely will. Duty calls, and instinctively, I respond.
This week it is blackberries that have intruded on my plans. Eventually, I’ll get to the grilled beet, goat cheese, and corn pizza intended for this post, the discussion of the Trinity (if you’re not from Rhode Island, you’ll just have to look it up), of giant sea scallops or grass-fed beef, all of which have been put aside with the arrival of—berries. Such topics can wait: fruit cannot.
The local blackberries are huge, nearly as big as the ollaliberries of my California jam-making dreamin’. Perhaps because they are local and picked at peak perfection—not a hint of red or purple remains—, they are sweet and soft, without the big hard core and sour edge that commercial blackberries sometimes have. I often prefer my blackberries in jam or pie, but these are really wonderful, worth freezing some (by the same method as for blueberries; do it quickly because blackberries readily develop mold) and good enough to simply eat out-of-hand.
Still, after a few popped into the mouth my thoughts, triggered by their taste, leap ahead to tomorrow’s breakfast, and the possibility of these huge blackberries in a preserve on an English muffin, or of a warm, saucy blackberry cobbler. Of, in other words, decadent self-indulgence, the reward for complying with screams of “pick me up!” I pick them up. I do something with them. Everyone’s happy.
Blackberry Preserves
Like lobsters, blackberries were once considered beneath the notice of all except poor country people, and recipes for preserving blackberries are scarce in old cookbooks, a historical fact that has passed on, genealogically, to all except the most recent modern versions. Yet they are great for jam-making. Remember, when making jams with ripe local fruit, cooking times are likely to be much less than printed in cookbook recipes based on store fruit, so start testing your gel after 5 minutes.
4 cups blackberries
3 cups sugar
¼ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
Toss ingredients in a bowl and let sit for a couple of hours if you have time; overnight on the counter is fine, but if so, add the lemon in the morning. Put into a large open pan, bring to a boil, and cook, stirring occasionally and skimming as needed, being careful to remove only the true sugar residue. When set to your liking, remove any remaining foam, give the preserves a good stir to distribute the fruit, and ladle into glass jars. Wipe the rims of the jars and seal. This batch took 8 minutes to reach the soft, spreadable gel that I prefer. Makes about 1 ½ pts.

Blackberry Roly-Poly Slices
This is suitable for a crowd that likes sweet things for breakfast. The large amount of syrup is partly absorbed into the dough as it cooks, enriching it and making a delicious sauce for spooning over the slices. Juicy sour cherries, peaches, or peaches and any sort of berry together, can be used as an alternative to blackberries alone.
1 ¾ cups sugar
¼ pure maple syrup
2 cups water
1 tea vanilla
pinch salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 ½ cups a-p flour
2 tea baking powder
½ tea salt
½ cup lard or shortening
1/3 cup thick unhomogenized heavy cream, or whole milk
3 cups blackberries tossed with 1 tea flour, ½ tea each cinnamon and cardamom, and a dash of cloves
additional heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Make the syrup: combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and heat until it just begins to bubble and the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
Make the roly-poly: Place the stick of butter into a 9x13 pan and put it into the oven to melt, being careful not to brown or burn. Set it aside.
In a medium bowl, place the dry ingredients. Cut in the lard or shortening roughly with a fork, until the mixture has largish, coarse crumbs. Add the cream or milk and blend with a fork just enough to incorporate flour; reach in and turn over gently a few times, pulling it together into a ball. Turn out onto a floured board and pat gently into a small rectangle, then roll, with a light touch, out to about 12 x 10 inches. Turn the spiced blackberries out onto the dough, spreading them in a line down the middle (alternatively, you can spread them evenly over the dough, which produces a different look when baked and is a bit easier to handle). Roll the dough up from the long side, tucking in any escaping blackberries and pushing the dough ends in lightly with your pin. If you have time, chill it for 10-15 minutes on a cookie sheet. With a floured bread knife, slice the roll into 12 slices, lift them with a dough scraper or spatula, and place cut-side up into the pan (reliquifying butter first if necessary). They will not fill the pan at this point, but will swell when baked. Pour the syrup around the slices and bake for 50-55 minutes, until golden. Cool on a rack at least 15 minutes, then serve, spooning additional sauce onto the plates; a little cold heavy cream poured over helps balance the sweetness. This is nicest, I think, at the border between warm and room temperature (if too warm the sugar is too pronounced for my taste); it’s best fresh, but can be reheated if there are leftovers. If serving for dessert, garnish with vanilla or coffee ice cream.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Heirloom Apples: Early and Evocative

There they are, sitting right next to the blueberries, producing that cognitive dissonance, that feeling of unease, that always accompanies the reminder that the hottest month of summer is teetering at the apex, ready to tip over into fall at any moment. Joe Pye Weed pinkening at the edge of the pond. Apples at the side of the road.
We do associate apples with fall, after all. But some of the best apples begin appearing in August (even July!), and by late August and early September there are several varieties to choose from. Most people have their favorites, and their favorites for different purposes. For me, they are the ones my grandmother insisted on: Stayman Winesaps, Baldwins, Jonathans, Macouns, Gravensteins, Northern Spys, for eating and for pies; Macs for applesauce; and Rome Beauties for baked apples. Many of these are 19th century varieties, but many are still grown and, depending on where you live, with a little effort can still be found--even those old pie paragons, Baldwins and Gravensteins. Where you live also dictates what is grown, as apples, like people, have their climatic preferences. In Rhode Island, we have our own Rhode Island Greening, an excellent late-season, all-purpose apple that dates to the 1600s (but is scarce even here in Rhode Island now). When you do find these special apples, it is invariably from individual growers and small farmers; commercial growers breed and select varieties for uniform (often large) size, pretty appearance, and shipping and shelf qualities--for their needs, not yours. The selection is a miniscule percentage of the varieties that were commercially available before World War II, and many of the new, "improved" varieties, like modern tomatoes, are all show and no go. I prefer the taste, texture, and cooking properties of the old ones and seek them out.
The apples that have appeared locally in the past week or so are Lodis and Yellow Transparents. Lodi, a hybrid developed in 1924, is a cross between a Montgomery and a Trasparent; the Yellow Transparent was introduced from Russia in 1870. They are similarly crisp, very juicy, and sweet/tart, and are good for both applesauce and pies. All to the good. But, like dear friends who show up too soon for dinner, they find me unready to fully engage: early applesauce or early apple pie is just too. . .early. A light, simple, free-form tart, however, offers the pleasure of the first apples without the dread sense that it’s time to order the firewood.
Rough Apple Tart
Sometimes called a galette or a crostata, neither of which is technically correct, a spare, free-from tart is a nice casual summer item. It can be made with most any fruit or combination; if you have a peach or some berries hanging around, feel free to add them. It is best when very fresh, so try to plan on removing it from the oven within an hour or so of when you want to serve it. The glaze is optional, but I like it for this otherwise monochromatic tart, all flaky pastry and barely tampered-with fruit.
1 1/8 cup flour
¼ cup RI johnnycake cornmeal or other fine white cornmeal
½ tea salt
1 tea sugar
8 T cold unsalted butter
2 T lard or shortening
2-3 T ice water

Pulse dry ingredients briefly in the food processor. Drop in butter and toss to cover; pulse 8-10 times until butter is distributed but some is still in large pieces. Add lard or shortening and pulse until mixture is coarse crumbs, about 10-15 more pulses. With feed tube running, add only enough water and run only enough time until dough comes together into a ball; turn out onto a piece of wax paper, wrap, and chill.
Filling, Assembly, and Baking
6 small apples
2 T brown sugar
1 T flour
pinch salt
1 T slivered almonds (optional)
2 T sugar
1 T unsalted butter
2 T currant jelly or apricot jam, plus water to thin (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Toss the apples with the brown sugar, flour, and salt. Roll the chilled dough out into a rough circle or oval directly onto a flat cookie sheet (it is soft, and difficult to transfer). Don’t worry about the shape; you want it to look thrown together, which it is. It should be about 1/8” thick. Place the apple mixture into the center and spread out evenly and thinly to about 2” of the edge, then roll the edge inward to form a rim. Some empty spots of dough are fine, and desirable. Sprinkle with the almonds and distribute the sugar over the top, including the rim. Dot with the butter. Bake for 25 minutes; the crust should be golden and the apples starting to brown at the edges. Reduce the heat to 350 F and bake about 10 minutes more, until the tart is a nice color; remove to a rack. If you are glazing, melt the jelly or jam, thinning with water if necessary, and glaze the tart lightly, using a dabbing motion, while it is still hot. Let cool on the rack for 15 minutes, then slide tart onto the counter. Cut with a pizza cutter or bread knife, transfer carefully to plates with a spatula (the crust is very thin and flaky—and delicious), and serve plain and pronto, either warm or at room temperature.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Freshly Dug New Potatoes: Pommes Perfection

The coastal areas of
Rhode Island are blooming with potato plants right now, and the first early potatoes are coming to the roadside stands. Down the street, my former neighbors at Young Family Farm are offering white Norwis potatoes and a red variety; their Yukon Golds are on their way.
Except in the literal sense, their appearance is no small potatoes. A potato fresh from the ground is one of the very best, maybe the best, of the incomparable “first tastes” of summer. Better than the first tender Boston lettuce. Better than the earliest sweet corn. And, I can’t believe I’m saying this, better than the first full-flavored field tomatoes. There is nothing quite like the impossibly creamy texture and sweet-earthy taste of a boiled new potato, simply dressed with butter, salt, pepper, and a little chopped parsley (and sometimes lemon, in New England), or the crisp-creamy combination of a French fry made from a potato dug that morning. The frying properties of new potatoes, with their optimal sugar-starch balance, are simply amazing: you get thin, golden, slightly puffed crusts that shatter through to tender centers. Freshly dug potatoes taste, and cook, completely differently from their stored and transported counterparts; their skins are so fine they rub off easily with a towel.
Though potatoes are grown in virtually every state in the country on some 1.2 million acres—14.5 million pounds from 500 acres are harvested in Rhode Island alone in a good year—most people go through their entire lives without eating a local, freshly dug potato. Potatoes from Idaho, California, and sometimes Maine are what’s on offer, no matter where you live. So here in Little Compton, where potatoes are grown in abundance, the local supermarket, five minutes from where I live, sells potatoes grown hundreds or thousands of miles away. Old potatoes, that is.
This is partly because many potato farms grow their products for commercial uses. A major potato farmer in my area, for example, grows his for potato chips; his yield is pre-sold, under contract, to a large food corporation. But he does put a few table potatoes, in assorted colors, shapes, and sizes, out on his wall for people to pick up, and they are wonderful. Unless you persuade your market to bring in some local potatoes (which of course you should try to do), going to farm or roadside stands is the only way you are likely to enjoy the revelation of taste and texture hiding inside a boiled new potato.
So if you do find some, showcase them. I used to live in a house that backed onto 175 acres, half planted with potatoes, half with corn, and I could pick up tiny little potatoes that were lying above ground, about the size of large marbles, on my early morning walks out the farm road. They became one of my favorite cocktail appetizers, microwaved briefly with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and popped in the mouth. If you come across such tiny potatoes, try it. It is not going too far to say that when you find new potatoes, you should make your meal of them: simply boiled, or if you have the patience, French fries, or if not, sautéed potatoes with roasted garlic or sliced potatoes grilled in foil packets with butter, thyme, salt, and pepper. A Tortilla Espanola is another nice focal point.

Tortilla Espanola with Roasted Pepper Garnish
Except for the olive oil and seasonings, this typical Spanish tapa, visible on the counter of every tapas bar worth its salt, can be made with all local, farm-sourced ingredients at this time of year. Per tradition, it is mostly potato; if you like more egg, add another; proportions here are malleable. Flipping a tortilla, as with a tarte tatin, requires more nerve than skill. Be firm, and confident. Serves 8-10 for an appetizer.
7 small freshly dug potatoes, about 1 ½ lb
1 medium onion, peeled
5 large fresh local eggs
½ cup olive oil, preferably Spanish
½ cup vegetable oil
salt (about 1 teaspoon)
1 whole red pepper, roasted
1 T olive oil, leftover from cooking the tortilla
¼ tea smoked paprika
¼ salt
freshly ground pepper
fresh basil (optional)
Briskly rub the skins of the potatoes under water. Slice potatoes and onion about 1/8” thick. Put the oil into a large skillet or sauté pan, layer in the potatoes and onions as they are sliced, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low but still bubbling, and cook the potatoes until they are just tender, pressing them lightly with a spatula occasionally and moving them around gently so that they cook evenly but do not stick or break up; you are really stewing, not frying them. They will take 10-15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, reserving the oil. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the potatoes, press them down to submerge, and let sit for about 15 minutes. In a 9” sauté pan, put 1-2 T reserved oil; heat to smoking; and slide in the eggs and potatoes (it will have congealed a bit while sitting, and should slide in pretty much en masse), distributing evenly if needed. Immediately reduce heat to medium and cook, shaking the pan, until the bottom is brown and the edges, which may puff up a little, are firm; this will take just a minute or two. Put a large lid over the pan and cook another minute, or until the top of the tortilla looks firm enough to turn. To turn: Invert a dinner plate over the pan. With a kitchen towel, grasp the handle of the pan as close to the pan as you can and, with your other hand firmly holding the plate in place, turn the pan over, depositing the tortilla onto the plate, bottom, browned side up. Return the pan to the heat, add another T of the reserved oil, and slide the tortilla off the plate into the pan to brown the other side. Turn it out onto a platter and let stand to room temperature. Serve in small wedges, topped with the red pepper garnish and chopped basil. It's also good with aioli.
Garnish: Roast and peel the sweet red pepper (I use the toaster oven on broil when doing one pepper); slice into thin strips and cut in half; mix with the salt, pepper, oil, and smoked paprika. Let marinate for an hour or so.