July 31, 2011

The Art of Toast

Toast: Drop a couple of bread slices in the slots. Wait a few minutes. Pop. Butter. Eat, right?

Not so fast! I realize that it's only toast, but since so many terrific nibbles begin with toast, including a summer radish tea sandwich, perhaps it deserves a more careful look.

Everything I learned about great toast I learned from my Grandpa, and in order to understand why, it would help to know a little about him.

A self-taught but serious student of classical music, my Grandpa was always either quietly humming or gently whistling to himself whatever movement in which he was currently engrossed. His perpetual music making gave me the sense that he was always thinking of beautiful things. Grandpa was a slightly built man with a kind of lithe thinness normally associated with fast movers like runners, or in those with a higher than normal level of internal discipline. Interestingly, I never saw Grandpa make the rapid, reflexive moves of an athlete, but he could sit very still, quietly listening to family conversation the entire afternoon long without necessity of comment. When he did speak, it may have been on a point long since passed over, but with evidence that he'd been thinking it through all the while. And, when he spoke, we all listened.

That level of internal discipline, apparently, is also what it takes to make really wonderful toast. As it is with so many things, the few extra minutes that separate okay toast from really great toast require a bit of self-restraint.

Great toast always starts with great bread. I recently discovered Dave's Killer Bread in the natural foods section of my grocery. For grainier breads Dave's is the bomb. For the radish sandwiches, I choose Dave's 21 Whole Grains. 21 Whole Grains is just what it sounds like, only with a unique combination of seeds added. I am particularly fond of the nutty black sesame seeds speckled  throughout and around this loaf.

Whatever bread you happen to use, toast it until it has at least a medium golden tone. Only then will it have the proper amount of toasty flavor. That is the no-brainer part. But here's Grandpa's big secret: If you are using a toaster, leave the slices standing in the slots until they are completely cool. If you are using a toaster oven or some other device, remove the toast, prop it upright, and allow it to completely cool. By all means, do not lay the bread flat on a plate, cutting board or counter. Steam will build underneath as it cools and completely change the texture of the final product from crispy/crunchy to chewy/flabby.

I hear you... you are protesting that your butter won't melt into the crannies of your slice this way. That is right! It won't. I respect the melted butter perspective on toast, I really do. But please hear me out.

With your toast cooling, we can now turn our attention to the other significant aspect. Butter. For the perfect toast you butter needs to be at cool room temperature. During the winter, this is not a problem, but in the heat of summer, it can be a little trickier. You will do well to store your butter in the 'fridge, removing it just 30 minutes or so before using it for it to be at the proper consistency. Unsalted butter is best, and if you feel like the luxury, European butter, of course, is amazing. I'm sorry that my Grandpa never got to taste European butter, now so readily available in the market, before he passed away. He would have loved it on his toast.

The cooled toasted bread and just barely softened butter make the butter even better. Butter becomes more like a cheese in a way. Slather it on. Go ahead. You will be surprised how little butter it takes to give you a lovely layer of buttery yumminess compared to the melted-into-your-toast method.

For a lovely break on a warm summer day, layer thinly sliced radishes atop the butter, sprinkle with Maldon sea salt flakes and serve with a chilled French Rose'.  Put your feet up in the shade, take a moment to think about the uniquenesses of the people who have loved you in your lifetime, and raise your glasses and your hearts in their honor. And while you're at it, toast your toast!

July 26, 2011

Brown Sugar-Molasses Ice Cream and Apricot Gallette

Brown Sugar-Molasses Ice Cream and Apricot Gallette

My grandmother was a serious, focused woman known for her attention to detail and lack of tolerance for silliness. She was a spectacular seamstress who made things like tailored suits from the best wool, complete with welted pockets, satin linings and bone buttons. While my mother and I sewed so that we'd have lots of fashionable things to wear, Grandma sewed, she once told me, in order to have fine things to wear. It is with the same sense of order and precision that she addressed cooking.

My grandmother was an excellent cook who eschewed the encroaching fast food conveniences like Minute Rice (regular rice is more nutritious, she told me, is less expensive and only takes 15 minutes longer) for seasonally fresh and home-preserved items. As the adept executive assistant to the chief executive of an insurance company, Grandma once told the story of being served turtle soup at a dinner with her boss. As an eight-year-old, turtle soup was the most exotic food I could imagine. I was dually impressed with Grandma's gustatorial bravery. And, I wondered, if a turtle could be prepared and eaten, then what else??

Grandma served me many wonderfully prepared dishes, but one thing stands out as the most simply spectacular thing I ever tasted: Apricot pie. I only had my grandma's apricot pie once, and even though it was close to four decades ago, the memory is boldly indelible. The sweet and tart and velvety fruit, still subtly warm, enrobed in a crackly, flaky crust stole my attention.

Honestly, I've never tried to recreate that pie, and never will. That delicious memory is simply too precious to be tampered with. I'm happy, though, to allow it to inspire new iterations of the theme. My Grandma would have loved this apricot gallette and its accompanying ice cream. I think you might, too.

A fresh apricot is a fine thing, but poaching, roasting or baking turns it into something ethereal and otherworldly, both in intensified flavor and in melting texture. For the gallette I used exactly the same method and pastry recipe as this, substituting 8 large apricots, halved, for the fruit. The crisp and tender butter pastry marries happily with the apricots.

The brown sugar-molasses ice cream (my new favorite flavor) came about as a bit of a fluke. I always make ice cream from a cooked custard, so when I skipped that method in a time crunch I really expected a ho-hum outcome. I am my grandmother's granddaughter, after all, and cut corners are usually noticed. I was very wrong, and will experiment further with this "cheater" ice cream base. The ice cream froze into a perfectly firm yet creamy and scoopable texture free of icy particles, which is what I had always thought I was avoiding with the more laborious custard.

I had planned just the brown sugar ice cream flavor, but as I was stirring it all together, I really wanted a darker color and deeper flavor than I was getting. The addition of molasses was also an experiment and resulted in something lovely.

Brown Sugar-Molasses Ice Cream
2 cups whole milk
2 cups cream
1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons dark molasses
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch kosher salt

Mix all ingredients together in 2 quart mixing bowl until sugar and molasses are completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Freeze according to ice cream maker's manufacturers directions. Cover tightly and place in freezer until ready to serve.

To all the grandma's of the world, let us not underestimate our impact on our grandchildren. We never know just what small thing (perhaps an apricot?) may cause them to think of us when we're gone.

July 15, 2011

A Girl, A Grill and A Gill

Orange and Herb Grilled Oregon Rockfish

It only made sense that I had lost custody of one of the finest grills ever made in my divorce. Yes, I'd flipped a few burgers and steaks and grilled the pizzas over the years, but the grill was for the most part man's domain. So I left behind the gargantuan manly three-element gas grill with an ancillary side burner and all the bells and whistles in exchange for a more diminutive and delicate charcoal-burning Smoky Joe.

My first summer as a suddenly single after 28 years, I learned to love that Smoky Joe. After work on summer nights I'd wrap a meal of various vegetables, maybe a piece of protein of some kind, herbs or a sauce in foil and toss on the hot coals. Meal for one! I had friends over for smoky kebobs or pizzas. It is during this summer that I also made one of my most important pairing discoveries: A charcoal-blackened hotdog is a perfect match for a Cabernet Sauvignon.

A Girl and Her Grill, Then
As I was falling in love with being at the helm of a charcoal fire, a larger grilling surface to cook for a crowd was in order. This is a picture of me, gleeful upon lighting the first fire in my newly-assembled (by me!!) grill. The sense of accomplishment, both on the assembly job and on claiming the title of grill-master was heady.

That was a few years ago. Now, My Baby once again does the majority of the grilling, but knows enough to hand over the matches and spatula when I get the urge to be in charge. I recently read several articles on grilling a whole fish, something I'd not done before and was eager to try.

We are lucky to have a several fine fish markets in our nearby city, and recently went to choose the perfect whole fish. Away we left with a gorgeous orangish-colored Oregon Rockfish.

At home I sprinkled our little fella inside and out with sea salt and pepper and layered a sliced orange, thyme and basil from the garden in his cavity. Slicing deep slits at an angle along his sides was a trick I'd seen done in Mexico, and allowed for even cooked flesh and the smoky flavor to penetrate through.

A few minutes on each side over medium-hot coals rendered a truly delightful pescine dinner. Served with a warm potato salad, grilled whole carrots and asparagus and our delicious leaf-to-root salsa verde, it was a lovely summer's eve meal.

A Girl and Her Grill, Now

One of our favorite Oregon wines from one of our favorite Oregon wineries provided the perfect backdrop for the fish. Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2008 Sauvigonon Blanc carries many qualities of the New Zealand sauvies My Baby and I grew to love while honeymooning there. Perhaps the most playful of Reustle's mostly elegant wines, their 2008 (a sold-out vintage) Sauvignon Blanc has notes of passion fruit and other tropicals atop bright limey citrus, and a zippy acidity for an overall experience I can only sum up as fresh and summery.

Carrot Top Salsa Verde Condiment

To the Ladies: For a Thrill, Seize the Grill!

July 6, 2011

Leaf-to-Root Eating: Carrot Top Salsa Verde

Snout-to-tail eating has been the rage, but let me tell you about my recent experimentation with another eating concept I hereby deem Leaf-to-Root Eating.

My wheels first started spinning on this idea after reading Lindsay over at rosemarried a couple of weeks ago. She made a radish leaf pesto pasta salad that sounded pretty good, but made me realize that I didn't really know what radish leaf tasted like at all. Or a carrot or beet top for that matter. In 50 years, I wondered, how many carrot, radish, beet and turnip tops had I let go uneaten?

Lindsay's post completely transformed my Saturday farmer's market experience. Instead of seeing the leafy aspect of all the veggies as merely a freshness indicator or handy carrying device, I saw it as potential addition foodstuff.

Not only did the shiny vermilion radishes, snowy white baby turnips, topaz and ruby-hued beets and carrots no bigger around than a sharpie catch my eye, but I really noticed their fronds. The carrot tops were feathery and light, the beet greens crisp as lettuce, and the radish leaves had a nap much like a cat's tongue. The green stuff was just as inspirational as the rest of the plant.

At home, I felt a little like Alice Waters. I was surrounded by heaps of beautiful fresh food purchased directly from the eager curly-headed young men and sunburn-faced young women who had just that morning picked it from the fields where they had spent previous months non-chemically tilling, composting, planting, watering and weeding. I was actually a little ashamed of myself that it took me so long to realize the utility and joy of the above-ground parts of these plants.

Ms. Waters' book The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, has a nice recipe for Salsa Verde, which she considers one of four essential sauces and recommends served with grilled fish, meats and vegetables. Her recipe (printed with her permission here in the NYT) is one I've used before. She uses a myriad of finely chopped garden fresh herbs, lemon zest, garlic, capers, salt, pepper and olive oil in this bright, lush condiment. (Do try her version including salt-packed anchovies. It is stellar.) Think chimichurri, and you're getting the idea.

My version used all of one bunch of carrot tops, about a half-bunch of radish tops and several sprigs of basil, parsley and mint from our garden. Instead of lemon zest, I used orange zest. Garlic, good olive oil, and salt and pepper. And while Ms. Waters prefers to use nothing but a sharp knife, I shamelessly resort to my good ol' favorite Cuisinart.

Veggie-top Salsa Verde Even Makes Murray the Amazing Wonderdog Smile

The finished sauce was amazing. Carrot tops, I learned, taste a little carroty and a lot herby. Radish leaves have the spicy aspect of radish roots, but also an obvious green flavor component. It's like the world of herbs just opened up a whole new branch to me.

We used the sauce with a heavenly grilled fish and roasted vegetables, and of course a wonderful Oregon wine which reflected the green notes of the sauce. Next post, I'll go into those details. In a feat of versatility, the next morning a couple of tablespoonsful of the salsa verde was whisked into cracked eggs for a summer vegetable frittata with feta cheese; and the day after that My Baby stirred some into the pulp of a grilled eggplant for a delicious version of baba ghanoush.

Leaf-to-Root Eating, like its Whole Beast counterpart snout-to-tail, is ecologically sound, economically sensible, healthful and practical. After all, even the biggest compost pile can only handle so much nitrogen-based leafy matter. But most importantly, leaf-to-root eating is delicious.

Quick Linker