Friday, August 28, 2009

You Know It's August When....

You know that it's August when you have more tomatoes than you know what to do with. I want to show off some of my outstanding tomatoes, tomatoes that you could eat tonight at the restaurant were you so inclined. First, here's the artsy magazine cover shot of some of our organic cherry tomatoes in all shapes and sizes.

Next, here is a top view of some of the haul from the market this morning. You see the lemon-shaped tomato at the top that is called imaginatively enough Lemon Tomato? To its left are two Pruden's Purples and to the right is a Caspian Pink. Just below it are two unindentified round red tomatoes. To the right of the Caspian Pink are two tomatillos, not even tomatoes but pretty nonetheless in both green and purple forms. The large red and yellow tomato below the tomatillos is known by many names including Old German, Pennsylvania German, Mr. Stripey, and Big Rainbow. To the right are a few black cherry tomatoes. Just below that is a very interesting fuzzy lemon yellow tomato called a Peach Tomato. Continuing clockwise you see a yellow plum tomato and then a Red Zebra, the small red and orange striped tomato which looks amazingly like the Green Zebra, none of which I have this year. Above the Zebra you see the pink Brandywine and flanking it, two green cherry tomatoes and an unidentified round red and yellow tomato.

Feast on!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nepalese Bell Pepper

You know why I love going to the farmer's market? Because sometimes I run into something that I've never seen before. Check out these small peppers that Seed Savers lists as Nepalese Bell Peppers. They are about as interesting looking a pepper as I have seen in years, almost hat-shaped. Here they are on a three-year old plant (yes, some peppers are perennials in their native habitats) that overwinters in the greenhouse. These peppers are starting to ripen into their orange phase and ultimately they will go red-orange.

Here are two green ones that fell off in transport. They are very thin-fleshed peppers and the bottom of the hat is very mild. Up around the stem and seeds, however, they have a good spike of heat that lasts several minutes. We're thinking that if we had enough of these little guys, we'd stuff them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

2009, Summer of the Beet

I'm starting to get something of a reputation for cooking one of the world's most humble and underappreciated foods: the beet. And I'm fine with that. I'm especially fine when I visit tables and I hear the common refrain, "I hate beets, but..."

I grew up eating beets directly from our garden, so I never understood why people dislike them so until I was a teenager when my family ate at a Holiday Inn, probably because my grandfather who had terrible taste in food wanted to eat there. The beets on my plate were disgusting and the rest of the food wasn't much better. My parents explained to me that they were canned beets, something I had never eaten before. Gross. I understand where you beet haters are coming from. Now I ask you to put aside your hatred and read on.

Back to the present and our annual Harvest Dinner this past week when we celebrate the hard work of our friends Gene and Beth Nowak at Mayfair Farm by putting on a multicourse vegetarian menu using only the produce from their farm. It's our way of thanking them for supplying us in good weather and bad, year in and year out.

I was determined to put on an entirely new menu this year, largely because we have the same devout customers attending from year to year and I wanted to show them some new dishes. Because this summer of 2009 has been abnormally cool, we have been blessed with fresh baby beets all summer, and this is unprecedented in my lifetime. To have baby beets coincide with the height of summer produce (corn, peaches, tomatoes, peppers) season just doesn't happen and I wanted to take advantage of that.

As I mentioned at the start of this meandering post, I'm getting a reputation for beets. It's not intentional: I assure you that I am not proselytizing for beets in any way. It's just that I cook what I like and I like beets. I like beets a lot. And so do our customers.

My Baby Beet, Goat Cheese, and Walnut Salad is the simplest thing to make and it is so delicious that customers actually decide to come to dine with us based on whether this salad is on the menu. I quote a customer's email to me: "If I wasn't already married and there had been a preacher in the house, I would've married the beet, walnut and goat cheese salad." This seems a bit extreme, but there is no denying that this salad is one of our top five most popular appetizers ever. Beet haters: understand that this is a beet dish so popular they'd be after me with a noose if I suddenly stopped making it.

Each year before the Harvest Dinner, the speculation starts about the menu. I always keep this menu a secret because I want to surprise everyone. On market day before the dinner, I see everyone peeking in the back of my truck to see what I am taking back to the restaurant. And people will have been bugging Beth for weeks about the menu. There was no hiding that I was serving beets—a very significant quantity of beets. And so I knew that in no way could I put the beet, goat cheese, and walnut salad on the menu because that would be what everyone expected.

In the end, I had three really neat ideas and couldn't make up my mind what to put on the menu, so I did a trio of all three ideas, which you see here. On the left is a beet chutney, more properly called as my Indian friends would remind me, a beetroot pickle. In the center is one of my goat cheese truffles, in this case with roasted figs and roasted beets, rolled in crushed walnuts. On the right you see BBQ beets, about as inspired an idea as I have had in a very long time. Its genesis lies in a conversation that one of the cooks and I were having during a brainstorming session on the deck. He was talking about a dry rub of brown sugar and pimentón for something and somehow I got the idea of making it into a sauce for beets. The result: primo!

Several people asked for the recipe for the beet chutney and here is my recreation as best as I can recall, scaled to human size, rather than the 100-person batch I made this week.

Beet Chutney

2 pounds beets (two nice bunches)
1 tablespoon mustard oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 yellow onion, finely diced
1 poblano chile, finely diced
1 green Thai chile, finely minced
3 curry leaves
2 tablespoons ginger, finely minced
2 tablespoons garlic, finely minced
6 green cardamom pods
6 black cardamom pods
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup rice vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar
salt and black pepper to taste

Well, isn't this a prodigious list of ingredients? If you cook a lot of Indian food as I do, you'll have all these ingredients already. If not, there's no time like the present to start!

Cut the tops off the beets, leaving about an inch of stem attached and place the beets in a single layer in a foil packet on a sheet pan, and then roast the beets in a medium oven until tender when pierced with a knife. For golf ball or smaller beets such as those shown above, this will take a half an hour or so. Let the beets cool in the foil packet until they are cool enough to handle, but still warm. Wearing gloves, slice the stems off the top of the beet and squeezing the beet gently, slip the skin right off. Trim the root and dice the beets.

Next, heat the mustard and vegetable oils in a heavy bottom pan big enough to hold the beets, until the oil is almost smoking. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook until they really start popping, like popcorn. Quickly add the onions and cook until the edges are starting to brown, then add the rest of the wet ingredients: the poblano, Thai chile, curry leaves, ginger, and garlic. Cook a few minutes longer until the onions are nicely caramelized.

At this point, add all the remaining dry spices, the brown sugar, and the vinegar. Mix well. Add the diced beets and turn the flame down. Let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes or so to come together and until the mixture is almost dry. Adjust the sweet and sour balance with more vinegar or sugar as necessary. Adjust the spice level to your taste. Correct the salt and pepper seasoning.

Although you can serve this immediately, it is much better if it cures in the refrigerator at least for a day and preferably for several days.

Variations. I often use tamarind instead of vinegar and frequently I add a dried fruit for sweetness, such as golden raisins. For texture, sometimes I will add lotus seeds.

Friday, August 21, 2009

So Many Beans, So Little Time....

In speaking with customers and shoppers at the local farmers market, I can sense a little confusion about some of the lookalike shell beans that are for sale now. Here are three that I picked up this morning. From left to right, bird egg beans (which are very similar to Italian borlotti and inspired a Virginia Living article on the restaurant), dragon tongue beans (which are a wax bean used both as a fresh bean, shown here, and a shell bean later in the fall), and cranberry beans.

From a culinary point of view, these beans are all interchangeable. You can use any of them with excellent results in any fresh or dried bean recipe. What you don't want to do is mix them in the same recipe, unless you cook each type separately, because they all have different cooking times. As you can see, the rounder bird eggs are significantly larger and will take much longer to cook than the smaller and longer cranberry beans. For my trivially simple and utterly favorite recipe for fresh shell beans, refer to the bird egg post from last summer.

And now I'm off to the deck to shell some beans before lunch starts. It will be great to sit and be productive while letting my mind wander, and the results are going to be incredible tonight as a base for the lamb shanks from Virginia Lamb that I braised last evening.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cape Gooseberry

This week I ordered a bunch of mixed cherry tomatoes from my favorite local organic farm and as I was unpacking the crate of tomatoes, I spied a pint of husked groundcherries, looking for all the world like miniature golden tomatillos. I was pleasantly suprised because if I were growing groundcherries, I'd be telling all my chefs that I had them and not just throwing them in with mixed cherry tomatoes. I was also very surprised because I love the tasty little nickel-sized treats.

Groundcherry is the generic name for most of the small fruits of the Physalis genus, excluding the larger ones such as tomatillos/tomates verdes (P. philadelphica). I wasn't sure which ones I had received, not really being well versed in Physalis taxonomy, but once I tasted the caramelized pineapple brûlée custard flavor, I was pretty certain that these little guys are the groundcherries known as Cape Gooseberries (P. peruviana).

These little fruits are extremely versatile. I use them in fruit salads, salsas, cobblers, flambéed over coconut sorbet, in mixed tomato dishes, in trifles, and in dozens of other applications, both sweet and savory.

As versatile as cape gooseberries are, these will no doubt be relegated to that most mundane of uses: the chef snack! Ah, sometimes it's good to be king!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pickles on the Hoof

I'm always making some kind of pickles (see Dill Pickles and Zanahorias en Escabeche) to accompany the charcuterie that I make in house and when I ran across this cornucopia this morning at the market, I knew I had to start a new batch of dill pickles today.

At the top of the photo, the small round yellow cucumbers are called Lemon Cucumbers and just below that are the standard European/Burpless/English cucumbers we call Eurocukes. Below and to the right, the pale green ones are Armenian cucumbers, which I have read do not make good pickles: we shall see. At the bottom left are typical small pickling cucumbers that the vendor called Tiny Toms. These are about half the size of a typical Kirby pickling cucumber.

We'll know how this batch of pickles turns out in a couple of weeks.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Peach is a Beautiful Thing

About 7 or 8 years ago, I started seeing these flat peaches for sale in the local area. Being the sort to adopt any stray produce with which I am not acquainted, I brought a bunch of these peaches home to try, after first inquiring what they were called. I was told that they are called Saturn peaches, after the rings of that particular planet. I've since learned that they are also called doughnut peaches, for obvious enough reasons.

I can tell you from a vast amount of personal experimentation on the subject that a tree-ripened Saturn is an ambrosial, juicy delight. These may be the juiciest peaches I've ever had the pleasure of letting dribble down my chin! I've had them in both yellow and white flesh, the preponderance being white. They have very thin skins, making them difficult to transport, and almost no fuzz, making them a joy to eat out of hand without peeling. Of course, I've never let a little fuzz stand between me and any peach. And they are freestone to boot.

Thanks to our friends at Rutgers (anyone remember the old light pink to orange Rutgers tomatoes?), more and more Saturns are finding their way to market. The breeders at Rutgers developed a tree that is more cold tolerant than its Chinese parents, allowing peach growers in most areas of the US to grow this wonderful peach.

And wonderful it is. I really really love this peach and that is saying something because I really really love peaches and this one stands out head and shoulders above most of them. They are best tree ripened and those you find in the grocery store were picked green, of necessity, because of their thin skins. Look for Saturn peaches at a farmers market near you. You will thank me.