Sunday, August 24, 2008

Smörgåsbord of Summer

Sometimes there's too much going on to be a loyal blogger. What with pistachio ice cream, and two-lane highways prime for biking (minus the occasional tire spearing the occasional tire), and Hollywood showing up just around the corner, it's been nonstop action around here.

That's not counting the energy it takes to throw crap like this down the gullet:

Summer's good around these parts.

I've been soaking it all in — on occasion, literally:

I'd take beet-pink fingers over sun-pink shoulder blades any day. Who says the kitchen isn't a fine place to enjoy a sweltering August afternoon?

My dear neighborly farmers have led the way lately, coaxing me toward Vitamins C and A, respectively:

And, of course, B,L and T:

Those are pan-fried yellow wax beans, flecked with red pepper, posing as French fries. Tricky little bastards.

On another day an abundance of zucchini and broccoli inspired a primavera-like concoction over fried polenta (star-shaped, no less). Patriotic and, as it turned out, quite good to eat. I cooked the polenta (cornmeal with a fancy name, according to the BBC) with heaps of garlic and Parmesan before spreading it in a baking pan to cool. Then, once its sponginess was eerily evocative of Play-doh, I carved out the stars (some 50 in all, I might note).

Quickly fried up in a bit of olive oil, they were the perfect foil for the bright, tomato-bound vegetable melee. A little more Parmesan on top, and I was more than pleased with myself:

Similar bounty inspired a pizza of Webb proportions:

Per my former roommate's recipe, the above emerged from a box of Jiffy pizza crust mix, a liberal wash of pesto, heaps of mozzarella and kalamata olives and of course, a few vegetables for color.

Preferably consumed in her company, but in a pinch, it worked out. Though I can't guarantee it didn't evoke a little nostalgia.

Such emotions were quelled by a fit of unsuccessful attempts at a lemon cornmeal blueberry muffin. So good in premise, so pretty in pictures, so disgusting in taste:


More successful was a bout of pickling: Tarragon-infused Kirby cucumbers, and crimson beets with onions. Easy! And so, so pretty:

It wouldn't be summer without yet another beet picture:

It's obsessive and abnormal, I know, I know. But I just really like them. They look like blood and squelch in your teeth and have little curling tails! And rings like inside a centuries-old tree. OK, enough.

And, lastly, there was an apricot tart. It was my virgin tart experience. Don't laugh, this is serious business. It involved rolling pins and tart pans and pie crust, that finicky affectation left to my long-lost friend (see pizza, above). I had to suck it up and buy my own pin and pan. I had to labor alone. But, I did. Successfully, even:

Armed with a trusty recipe from Orangette, the trustiest of food blogs, I ventured onward. Glistening apricots from the farmers' market piled into the crust, eliciting what might have been a squeal of glee. They're pretty adorable, you have to admit:

And, once cooked, sweet and tart and syrupy and rather exquisite:

Just try and scare me, Labor Day. I can say with confidence that summer has been squeezed out of every possible stone fruit, steamed from each zucchini and beaten from every blushing perennial. If the leaves fell today, I'd be satisfied.

But I might boil some sweet corn first.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

East Meets Western New York

Inspiration's a funny thing. It can come from a chain "Mongolian" restaurant, or from Googling "Canandaigua." Scraps from here or there stick, and a few find their way onto my plate. Sometimes it just takes a while for it to all rise to the surface. Sometimes these disparate experiences transform into, well, a disparate dish. But sometimes, I get lucky.

This week, I got lucky.

I've been thinking about cabbage for a while now, ever since before I moved here. I heard they grew a lot of it here in Ontario County (yes, Canada's near), so my early visions of upstate New York were of a land of waxy green globes. Sans people. Luckily, a few humans live here, too. But many a Canandaiguan worships the humble food, be it animal, mineral, or ceramic:

Then there was a trip to HuHot® with the family, back in the homeland. YMCA and Love Train grooved over the speakers, occasional wafts of big pretzels and giant cookies filtered in from the adjacent mall, and authenticity generally reigned. OK, Mongolia it was not, but then again, they probably don't have scallops in Mongolia, and that is a shame. At HuHot® the tender globs of faint fishiness heaped the all-you-can eat buffet. Slightly scary in that context, given their usual $14.99/pound list price. Did start me thinking, though.

That trip coincided with the Fourth of July. My knees weren't in any cornfields, but I'm pretty sure the stalks had about zero chance of grazing 'em. There weren't any elephants around, either, but I'm also pretty sure their eyes wouldn't have been lazily batting husks. Iowa, as you may have heard, has had some pretty rough times this summer. The corn has taken a beating. Still, just looking longingly on the (kind of) verdant fields of the first 21 years of my life was enough to hanker up some serious nostalgia. Acting on that nostalgia, however, meant buying sweet corn grown in New York, of all places.

That, more or less, is how my dinner came to be. It was Asian fusion meets Heartland, Yacht Club meets summer picnic. Or, seared scallops over ginger cucumber coleslaw with sweet corn fritters on the side.

Ginger cucumber coleslaw with seared scallops
Adapted from Bon Appetit

For dressing:
• 1/4 cup onion, chopped
• Thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
• 1/2 cup soy sauce
• 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
• 3 T honey
• pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
• 1/4 cup sesame seeds

• 1/2 small head cabbage, finely sliced
• 1 cup mung bean sprouts
• 1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
• 1 cucumber, quartered, sliced
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
• 1/2 pound sea scallops
• 1 teaspoon soy sauce
• 2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Toast sesame seeds in a skillet over medium heat until golden but not burnt, about 3 minutes. Set aside. Combine other sauce ingredients in blender until creamy. Add sesame seeds and set sauce aside.

Combine chopped vegetables in a large bowl. Toss with dressing until well-coated. Refrigerate.

Pour soy sauce over scallops and set aside. Heat oil in skillet over moderately high heat — oil should be hot but not smoking. Add scallops to skillet and cook just until browned, about 2 minutes on each side.

Mound coleslaw on plate; arrange scallops on top. Serve immediately
Serves 2-3

Sweet Corn Fritters
Adapted from Gourmet

2 ears sweet corn, shucked
• 1 large egg
• 1/4 cup cottage cheese
• 1/4 cup milk
• 1/4 cup cornmeal
• 2 T flour
• 3 scallions, finely diced
• salt and pepper
• vegetable oil

Cut corn off cob, scraping and saving juices. In a medium bowl, combine egg, cottage cheese and milk. Add corn, cornmeal, flour and scallions, and season well. It should be like a thick, chunky pancake batter — add flour or milk to adjust.

Heat 2 T oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Drop batter by generous spoonfuls into pan, cook until golden brown. Flip. It should take about 3 minutes per side. Season again with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with queso fresco or other cheese if you like. Keep cooked fritters in a 200 degree oven until ready to serve.
Makes about 8 medium-sized fritters

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Scapes and Sales

It's a treacherous dip into crumb-crusted highchairs and snowman-themed flower arrangements. An errant earring here; a cracked Crock Pot there. But in and among the junk, there's beauty. An exquisite spatula, or an antique whiskey bottle (in my case, American Four Aces Rye Whiskey, made in Quebec). Moments of small glory. Moments offering a pleasure not unlike the warm tinge of an American whiskey. Or a Canadian one.

In other words, I've been getting into garage sales. Especially the country ones, where Ball jars and rusted plows and the occasional Casio keyboard are all spread out on a farmhouse lawn, awaiting the scrutiny of seriously shopping middle-aged women, classifieds tucked under their arms.

My bike kept me in city limits this morning, but I managed a couple good finds.

An oddly intricate kitchen towel (or is it a wall hanging?) for a quarter, for one. I loved the conversation:

Seller: Oh, do you have a rooster kitchen?
Me: Uh, not really. I just thought it was cute.

Then there was the woman with fake pearls and slightly hideous rhinestones and pocket-watches. I scored a lovely orange necklace (plus one, yes one, matching earring) for a dollar.

And at the Farmers Market, not a garage sale but close enough, I stumbled upon some lovely garlic scapes — the green tendrils that sprout from the bulbs we pulse into our pesto and chimichurri. Sort of a hybrid asparagus-green bean-chive, they're a vegetable in their own right, begging to be steamed or sauteed. The flavor's way more mellow than garlic. The texture smooth and snappy. The color brilliant. They are, in a word, perfect.

Plus, I just love their thin curlicue stalks. They evoke the mysterious interwoven vines of a mossy forest, or a fairy tale garden. But thanks to big-shot press in the New York Times and elsewhere, scapes are no longer a secret.

A half-pound of (organic, obviously) garlic scapes set me back $2.50. I could have bought like 15 beanie babies for that. But they were well worth it. Trimmed and tamed, I sauteed the scapes in olive oil and tossed them all into an egg-pesto concoction with broccoli and tomatoes. It was the perfect lunch — bright and fragrant but, to be honest, easy. Sale-ing offered enough strain for one day.

Garage Sale Saturday Green Eggs 'n Scapes

• 1/4 pound garlic scapes (only available spring/early summer, so hurry)
• 1 cup broccoli, florets and peeled stems
• 1/4 cup tomato
• 3 eggs
• splash of milk
• 1/4 cup pesto
• 1 T olive oil
• parmesan for sprinkling

Wash the scapes and cut off the pointy ends. Cut into 2-inch pieces and set aside. Trim broccoli into bite-sized pieces and chop the tomato.

Beat eggs with milk, pesto, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat oil in a skillet on high heat. Toss in scapes, along with a dash of salt, and cook 3-5 minutes, tossing occasionally, or until bright green and tender. Scoop onto a plate and set aside. Reheat skillet and add broccoli and a splash of water and salt. Cover and cook on medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Uncover and add tomatoes; cook another minute until water cooks off.

Add cooked scapes to other vegetables, reduce to medium heat. Stir in egg mixture. Cook, stirring frequently until eggs are almost set (but still a little runny). Turn off heat, stir in parmesan, and allow to sit for a minute. (If you're me, take a picture at this point).

Enjoy. Makes one big serving, or one regular-sized serving with some leftovers. This is nothing more than a template; you could add or remove vegetables, ham, bacon, or really anything, and I'm sure it'd be good. Maybe even scape-your-plate clean good.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Ice Cream and Prehistoric Reptiles

I was frustrated. It was hot and the middle of the week, and there was no end in sight.

Only one thing cut through the haze: Ice cream.

It didn't seem too towering a request. This is, after all, a resort town, and in resort towns, ice cream flows in the same proportion as Bud Light does in a college town. So I weighed my options. There was the retro place down by the lake...too many screaming brats in the line. Then there was the frozen yogurt joint down the road....yogurt? Pshaw. I decided, after much pondering, on Byrne Dairy, which has been milking cows since 1933.

The place, which doubles as a convenience store, was loaded with celebratory kids (school ended yesterday) and tanned worker types buying cases of Coors. I saddled up to the ice cream counter to place my meager order.

Me: Can I have a small hot fudge malt?
Ice Cream Girl: Uh, like, a shake? (quizzical look)
Me: Uh, sure, whatever
ICG: And what do you mean, like put hot fudge in a shake?
Me: Uh, yeah.
ICG: (after consult with cigarette clerk) Oh, we can't do that.
Me: Fine, a chocolate shake is fine.

So she passed over the long-lusted-after dessert I didn't really order, and I paid. Then I took a sip.


And one more, just to be sure.

Yep, it was disgusting. Gross, maybe, is more accurate. Or just plain bad. It had the consistency of slightly frozen milk, the flavor of chalk, and the distinct honor of being so exquisitely boring, I couldn't stomach it.

I tossed it, barely drunk, atop a pile of shingles in a dumpster.

When it comes to ice cream, I can stomach very nearly anything. In fact, on summer vacations as a kid, I convinced my parents to fill my mini hands with an ice cream cone each and every day. More often than not, the cones came after days spent excavating dinosaur bones in South Dakota or Utah. Along with the bones, we would find gastroliths, rocks polished over years spent in the bellies of the beasts. Some dinosaurs, apparently, would swallow the stones to help break down tough plants. Long after T-Rex croaked, these remnants remain, with all the shine of sea glass.

The fact they got that way thanks to dino-sized stomach acid only makes them more appealing.

So one cloudless day, we were traversing the barren desert per usual when, in a stroke of genius, I proclaimed my own digestive deficiency. Like the dinosaurs before me, I, too, needed digestive assistance. But stones wouldn't do for a little girl sunburned like a Red Snapper. I needed ice cream.

My ice cream stones kept everything copasetic that summer, and many summers after. Until my fated failure in Canandaigua, of course. The not-a-malt was disappointing, to be sure. But when a critical bearer of life functioning fails, I can't just give up. So back I will go into the realm of the iced unknown. Unlike my scaley friends, I'm not waiting for extinction to prove the importance of a well-stoned diet.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

To Fill a Sunday with Jam

I never even considered it.

Canning takes science, and precision, and at least 45 years of age. Or so I thought. It's strawberry season, and the U-Pick farms have been beckoning me with their $1.75/quart prices and general wholesomeness for weeks now. And as it turns out that, despite my scientific and aged-related failings, I, too, can make jam.

Lazy New Yorkers get their berries from roadside stands, where you stick a couple dollars in a jar and take a few flats of strawberries. They run on the honor system. Seriously. The honor system.

But as quaint as that is, picking your own probably tops it. Not to mention, I have far too much free time to buy them pre-picked. So there I was, squatting in awkward positions and swatting gnats and generally suffering for the better part of an hour at the farm, located just outside of town. To be fair, the little crimson jems nearly fell off their stalks, occasionally oozing into my hands with alarming bloodiness. And the thrill of inhaling fresh strawberries all the while tempered the strife.

So, my arms laden with Ball jars and strawberries, I ventured into the domain of grandmothers (great-grandfathers, in my case). And wow. Canning is apparently a well-kept secret of old age.
Though, maybe, a little time-consuming:

- 45 minutes to pick six quarts of strawberries from my local "U-pick" farm
- 15 minutes to decide which 5-quart pans to buy
- 20 minutes to find Ball jars in (shame) Wal-Mart
- 45 minutes to hull said six quarts of strawberries
- 15 minutes to cook them into red sludge
- 1 minute of anxious waiting before the lids popped
- 20 seconds to spread jam onto toasted bread
- 5 seconds to realize it's way better than that Amish crap

As for the cooking and "processing," it was sweaty. And a little scary. All these boil points and pectin measurements and things to be done "immediately." But it turns out, a little fumbling is OK. And my strawberries went from glistening specimens to mushed goop to exquisite jars of jam, without any witchcraft or grandmas (just a little Sure-Jell).

I can't wait for peach season.