A wake-up call for color in winter salads

February 14th, 2012

Coming out of hibernation….

In the middle of a snowy day – our week of slick and thick wet snow now turning to slush – the vagabond weighs the options for a bright Valentine’s day lunch.  Maybe you have the same instincts if  your February is one of icy winds, snow flurries or driving sleet…oh, I remember those Midwest winters so well.  Checking out the seasonal side of color, what is on hand in my pantry or available in the local shops now?

The first dish out of the fridge holds a glowing red pomegranate half, then a Portuguese orange, a sweet clementine and a local shallot.   A protein component could be jambonneau – my favorite form of ham – or cold salmon, shrimp, slivers of last night’s wine-poached turkey, chicken or even julienne strips of firmMontbéliard sausage.  For this mix-up of textures, my only cheese suggestion would be snowy white cubes of Greek fetaWhat about the basic salad itself, the diagonally sliced Belgian endive, sucrine lettuce or romaine?  If you have a penchant for slaw-style salads, shave some firm red cabbage and shred a chiffonade of garnet leaves of Italian trevise for an edgy wake-up call to any jaded winter taste buds.  Color-wise, this tips the palette towards the deep jewel reds.  Another obvious winter-red option would be some juliènne slices of cooked beet root, especially good with endives and feta.  Last night’s florets of steamed cauliflower are naturals in this salad combo, as well as steamed paper-thin slices of turnip.  Depending of course on how many are lunching chez toi on this wintry day, toss your choice of the above elements – whatever strikes your fancy and is available – with a citrus-based dressing to pull the flavors together.  For a more French attitude, a salade composée (and the dressing will give it Attitude), rather than tossing the chosen ingredients, spread the lettuces and arrange the protein and vegetables on each plate, topped with the glowing pomegranate seeds.  Drizzle a little dressing over all, and diners (or The diner) can ladle out  more from a pitcher at the table.

Now, a basic vinaigrette (moutarde de préfèrence) will dress your salade – with a few suggested twists depending on ingredients on hand. The following will cover 2 or 3 salads, is best made an hour or more in advance; it works well for marinating cooked vegetables, shrimp or salmon chunks.

Whisk in a small bowl:  1 T. Dijon mustard (Maille is available in most regions) with 2 Tablespoons lemon juice  + 1 teaspoon sea salt (hold the grated black pepper for the table, to be grated individually)

gradually whisk in:            3 or 4 Tablespoons best olive oil

Variations:  If using beets & oranges, add 1 T. orange juice+ 1t. orange zest, plus a grating of nutmeg + more grated black pepper. Trimmed and thinly sliced shallots add dimension to this version.

If using Trevise lettuce, whisk 1 or 2 t. sugar or light honey into the dressing.

Add a teaspoon or two of toasted cumin (does wonders for beets) OR fennel seeds to the endive salad.

Dry toast (2 to 4 minutes in a hot skillet) freshly shelled walnut halves or natural (skins on) almonds for texture and a nutritional boost to any of the above ….Enjoy!

Up Next:  Piggy hams it up, and a hungry reader’s notes on A Homemade Life.

Flickers of Spring….and a pinch of cardamom

February 9th, 2011

A drift of sweet scent wafts through the window as I lift a pot of deep blue and punchy pink hyacinths from the window sill and close the shutters every night. Fragrance, color, what healing powers the senses convey.  I turn to spices as the soup, sauce or chops are cooking, digging in the spice drawer for brilliant turmeric, tiny cumin seeds, ginger and crushed cardamom.  Cumin seeds send a smoky hint of the east  as they toast in the old Griswold skillet before I add sliced onions and then sear the turkey or sausages for supper. Just a dash of Nouilly Prat white vermouth deglazes the pan, a knife-tip of ginger and a pinch of sea salt are sprinkled in before the lid goes on and flame is turned down.  Using cardamom in savory dishes has become a habit as I stretch from accenting apple cakes or poached pears with this member of the ginger family.  Beyond its presence in Scandinavian sweets and pastries, where I first encountered it, cardamom is a great team player.  Indian and eastern Mediterranean cooks have known this for eons!

Black, crushed or green in the pod?

What is cardamom, anyway?  Happy growing in rain forests and tropical climates, the seeds of the pod of Ellettaria cardamonum are prized from India to Sri Lanka, and east to Malaysia.  It is a member of the ginger family (as noted), with long flat and pointed leaves.  The cardamom tree grows to ten feet/three meters high, and bears white flowers with a blue or lilac stripe in the center.  Cardamom appeared in Europe about 1200 A.D. – possibly another import brought with the courageous crusaders on their return from the middle east.  Its attributes are not only fragrance and flavor, but as a digestive aid and as a breath freshener.  Many cooks prefer to buy the green pods and to seed them as needed, certainly keeping flavor longer -  do avoid the finely ground caradamom found in supermarkets, which loses flavor once uncapped.  The pods mixed in with coffee grounds add an eastern Mediterranean tone to a French press or drip coffee.  This cardamom fan uses it so often,  I find the long glass tubes of crushed Guatemalan cardamom sold in Scandinavia keep the parfum longer when tightly re-corked and kept in a cool place.

It is a spice with character; a pinch is enough.  What was I saying about this team player:   skillet-toasting cardamom with cumin seeds before adding onions perks up a weeknight meal.  It adds an intriguing note to carrots cooked with garlic and sliced fennel.  Include cardamom in a “rub” for pork or duck, or even in a marinade for fish to add a new dimension to supper for a valentine….

Last call for dill pollen

September 24th, 2010

Dill's last re-seeded crop is up

Fresher morning air, cooler evenings with dusk falling so quickly that  twilight time, entre chien et loup, now  drives us inside by eight o’clock:  autumn is definitely here.  While September’s gloriously sunny days are warm, it is the chilly nights that slow down the herb patch.  Other than a burst of chive spears poking through and promising shoots in the sorrel clump, the basil is tired, the coriander umbrels droop with new seeds.  But the stalwart of the patch is dill that re-seeded in a corner of the potager. The flavor of dill’s fringey leaves seems fuller now that long weeks of heat are past. Last spring I was inspired by a grilled scallop finished with lime juice and dill…(?), and planted more in June.  It was in Minneapolis that I watched a young chef at the Guthrie Theatre restaurant’s oyster bar produce this revelation:  plating a grill-blackened scallop (still raw inside), he dressed it with lime juice and something yellow with the complex fragrance of dill.  What could this yellow dust be?  His whispered response to my question was: dill pollen.  The amount to use is a matter of supply and taste; a seasoning for two is about all of the golden dusting available in any one day.  Wondering where I could get more – thinking ahead to an entrée for four or six, I found both fennel and dill pollen to order from www.earthy.com/wildfennelpollen.  Prices reflect the products’ delicacy, dill pollen going for $9.75 per half ounce. Their wild fennel pollen runs $10.50 per ounce. A scattering on delicate fish or seafood (or even on new potatoes, beet salad, salmon soup…) so accents the flavors, your taste buds will thank you.  Somehow, a pinch of dill keeps summer on our plates… just a little longer.

Last hours of summer's glory

Add snap to April salads with Sariette d’hiver

April 21st, 2010

Winter savory, ready for a spring trim

This week, suddenly sariette’s tender shoots are ready to be clipped,  strung up in the attic to dry – and while I’m snipping, the peppery fresh taste will also perk up a bean salad for lunch today. Associations with beans – fresh fève or dried cocos- are so strong that in German, it is referred to as the bean herb: Bohnenkraut.  Whether you call it winter savory, sariette des montagnes, savourée, or poivre d’âne, this ancient potherb goes by many names. Greeks dedicated the spicy leaves to Dionysos, dubbing it Herbe à  Satyre for what they considered to be  savory’s aphrodesiac effects. Egyptians used it in medicine for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and Romans carried savory with them as they settled into far flung lands* and islands  of Europe. Clearly, it was a highly appreciated aromatique.

Poked into a bottle, the herb flavors vinegar

Running through a list of savory’s virtues, I found not only the peppery flavor (giving a bite to Italian salami), its antibacterial effects valued by beekeepers (the chemical thymol in savory used against the varoa mite), and best known is the natural antiflatulence effect of savory cooked with beans and cabbage (as we were saying…Bohnenkraut).  Used before peppercorns were shipped into Europe, as well as during war times when spices were scarce, savory replaces pepper as a seasoning for those with a pepper intolerance.  In Quebec, savory is whisked into mashed potatoes to spark up the purée.  So, if sprigs of this simple herb do everything from aiding digestion to providing more anti-oxidants than many fresh vegetables, why – I wondered – is sariette not more commonly used?  For iron, calcium, manganese, and magnesium, a little savory in salads or snipped into a pot of butter for seasoning vegetables does us all kinds of good. Minced with other herbs, it seasons discs of fresh chèvre – a favorite, I discovered, in markets around Banon where poivre d’âne grows wild in the rugged Provence uplands. Closer to home, take a handful of tender new savory shoots to fill a sterile bottle, fill it with white wine vinegar and cap tightly – then let the sun accent the infusion by putting it on a windowsill for a month. Don’t wait until late in the summer to collect savory, for by then the leaves turn to stiff little spears (not a gum-friendly seasoning at that point)….April is savory harvest time!

The vagabond’s  last note on this ancient herb is a quote from Jean Giono’s  novel set in Provence, where he evoked the power of sariette’s aroma in Le Serpent d’étoiles. Children were bedded down for the night on layers of herbs…”and the weight of their movements released fragrances of savory and lemon balm.”

.”et, sous le poids de leurs gestes, jaillisaient des odeurs de sariette et de citronnelle.”

*A point for gardeners:  Satureja montana grows in zones 6 to 10, and is winter hardy with some protection against long periods below 0°c/32°f.  It becomes a low woody bush and needs pruning both before and after delicate white blossoms appear in May.  The annual, summer savory, has pink blossoms and is easily grown from seed.  For more on the savories, see:  www.herbalcuisine.com/savory.html

Viva i Grissini !

January 28th, 2010

I fell for grissini in Turin one winter weekend, and although it was a few years ago, it was a memorable gastronomic crush.  Bakers’ windows,  steamed up from the warmth inside, all displayed individual styles – some straight, some knobby – of these long, crisp fingers of bread.  To call them “bread sticks” doesn’t seem quite fair, for they ran from delicate wands to thicker, shorter sticks studded with herbs or seeds. All variations are very crisp, wonderful for nibbling with a bowl of thick, hearty soup. Every winter I indulge in a nostalgic trip back to Turin via a batch of homemade grissini.

Savory wands, Grissini banish the winter "blahs"

If you can’t find frozen pizza dough, or if your favorite bakery doesn’t take orders for unbaked baguette dough, simply make your own. This can be made the day before, kept to cool-rise overnight and rolled out, shaped to bake for the next day’s lunch. If you do this, let it rest at room temperature before working the dough. It also can be rolled into a long log, sliced into rounds and patted flat to make pitas.  Simple, economical grissini can be on the table in under two hours. Begin by proofing (sprinkle yeast over the water, cover and let it rest for 10 minutes in a warm place) until the surface begins to show some tiny bubble activity :

1 teaspoon dried yeast sprinkled over 1 + 2/3 cup/14 oz/400ml warm water

4 1/2 cups to 5 cups/1 lb.4 oz. unbleached white flour – this will vary with the flour you use; allow more for dusting the work surface)  + 1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons each mixed herbs and seeds for rolling each wand: oregano, thyme, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, Hungarian sweet paprika, celery salt, crushed black pepper – choose 2 or 3, as you like – mixed on a plate.

olive oil for your hands and to brush over grissini before baking

Put the flour in a warm bowl, gradually pour the water + yeast in along the inside of the bowl, stirring to incorporate it without becoming lumpy – pinch any lumps with your fingertips and keep working it into a ball. Cover and let this rest for about 30 minutes. Prepare 2 large baking sheets by lining each with a piece of baking paper, preheat the oven to hot:  450° f./230°c. When the dough has almost doubled, oil your hands and knead, slapping the dough and turning it over until it feels elastic. Slice it into 6 parts, roll one by one into a long rectangle 1 1/2 inches/3 to 4 mm thick, and cut evenly into 6 parts. Pick each one up, roll and begin to twist – the dough will stretch – so cut each strand in half, roll in the mixed herbs and place on the baking sheet. Brush each with a little olive oil. Let rest while shaping all the grissini, then bake for 10 minutes - just as you put them in, spray the oven interior with a water mist (to crisp edges) – until lightly golden. Then turn off the oven, open the door slightly and watch closely that they are not too brown, but leave to crisp for about 10 minutes before taking them out to cool on a rack.  Depending on how thin you shape them, this should make 2 to 3 dozen grissini. In metal tins lined with aluminum foil, they will keep at least a week in a cool place.  Serve short ones with apéros to dip into a tapenade, brousse or soft cheese dip – save the long grissini to enjoy with  salads and soups… to chase away any winter blues or blahs.

Every recipe has its source, an inspiration to try a new angle. I must thank Alba Pezone for clarifying steps in making grissini, as found in Elle à Table, December 2009.

4th of July Crackers

July 1st, 2009

dsc_00481 vagabondgourmand crackers

Even as the temperature mounts, 33° celsius and rising, prepare for the convivial crowd around your July 4th grill with a batch of crackers. Not fireworks, no firecrackers yet, just a tray of zippy biscuits – as munchable with cold beer as with a glass of fruity sangria.  As I made these, variations on the theme were reeling round my culinary imagination.  For openers, make the Almond Sesame version, then try your own riff using other flours, seeds and spices.  Made in the cool hours of a summer morning, this type of cracker/biscuit can be sealed away in a tight tin for a week – if there are any left.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients, then cut in tiny chunks of cold butter with a pastry blender as for a pastry crust; stir in the yogurt and form a soft dough. Let the dough chill for 15 minutes, then take a quarter from the fridge to shape each batch. For crisper crackers, roll thinner (a bit trickier to manage) or cut back the baking powder by 1 tsp. Tasty gâteaux savoreux, rolled 1/4 inch thick and cut into diamonds, are perfect partners for dips.  This recipe makes about 60 to 70 crackers.

1/2 cup/85 g. ground almonds+ 2 tsp. Hungarian paprika (hot)

1 c./120 g. wheat flour (organic if possible) + 1/2 c/60 g. fine cornmeal

2 tsp. brown sugar + 1/2 tsp. fine salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda mixed with 2 tsp. baking powder

2 T. white sesame seeds, dry toasted + 1 T. black sesame seeds, dry toasted

1/2 cup/1 stick/115 g. cold butter chopped into bits

2/3 c/150 ml whole milk Greek style yogurt

extra sprinkling of flour for rolling out the crackers

Coat your fingers with flour, then work the dough into a ball in the bowl. When it pulls together, turn it out onto the flour-dusted work  surface (a cold slab of marble for shaping pastry works very well in warm weather). Work the dough gently, kneading as for bread dough for just a few minutes. Put it into a smaller, clean bowl, cut the ball of dough into 4 and cover. Chill for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°f/177°c. Remove one quarter of the dough at a time to shape each into a rectangle 10″ long and 3 to 4 ” wide, less than 1/4 ” thick. Cut into three parts lengthwise. With a long spatula, slide a strip at a time onto the baking sheet, prick with tines of a fork, brush with a beaten egg, and cut diagonally to form diamonds – or rectangles. Sprinkle with sea salt mixed with ground black pepper. Use a finger’s width spacing between them.  Bake on the top and lowest racks of the oven for 20 minutes if rolled thin; baking time is closer to 25 minutes for 1/4″ – until golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes, then shift to a rack.  Store in metal tins lined with baking paper.  These festive bites were inspired by Ruth Cousineau’s recipe in June 2009 Gourmet magazine, using cornmeal and green peppercorns.

Floralies, plant shopping heaven

May 29th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand, image of poppy

Fête des Plantes, Floralies, Foire aux Fleurs…anywhere in France during May and June, plant-shoppers flock to their favorite plant specialists’ stalls to bring color back home.  In fact, color, fragrance, and taste are all to be found  in every Foire aux Fleurs. Vendors gather in a church square, or on the grounds of medieval monasteries to tempt gardeners of all stripes.  Geraniums for your balcony? Maple trees and bushes of great diversity to enhance your slopes or lawns?  A Meyer Lemon tree for the terrace (and pies in good time), bamboos or ferns, perennials or old roses are all to be admired – and bought – in this season’s floralies.

Vagabond Gourmand, photo of poppy

Two of the vagabond’s favorite plant festivals are set against 13th century walls.  In Cadouin, between Bergerac and Sarlat, stalls sprawl across the square of the grey stone abbey church that was once a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to St. Jaques de Compostella. Now, the village May Floralies draws some of the finest plant specialists in  southwest France.  Whether one is searching for a special cyclamen or pots of lavender, a wide variety of greenery and related wares tempt gardeners.  How many new kinds of peppers can you find for the potager?  The vagabond succumbs to enticing piments et aromatiques each year at the Cadouin fair.

At L’Abbaye – Nouvelle, a 13th century Cistercian site in the Lot  south of Gourdon, a Fête des Plantes in May brings together vendors of everything from bonsai to aquatic plants, as well as camelias and jasmins.  Usually held on Sunday, floralies fit into my calendar of special markets, a visual feast as well as  a chance to bring fragrance home….and to watch a new season unfold in the garden.

A note on the Poppy shown above:  the star of the borders this week is Picotee, a robust poppy found at a plant fair three years ago.  Picotee has a different tint or orange sorbet blush every year.  And the seed pods are always left to dry, ready to poke open and sprinkle a few black seeds into yogurt cakes or for an added crunch in a crumb crust for fish.  Any poppy seed recipe ideas are welcome…to include in the Poppy Seed file – comments and tips bienvenue!