February 2008 page 2
February’s page became unwieldy, so I’ve begun a new page here. I’ve also added a page in Travels on ROME
and a page about my 30+ year friendship with the band The B-52s
February 26, 2008: Tasting Turkey
There was something a little odd about the entire idea, though I’ve certainly been to stranger food gatherings in much farther-flung locales. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to taste 8 heritage breeds of turkey at Ayrshire Farm
, the 800-acre estate in Loudon County, in the heart of Virginia’s fabled horse country. The county is one of the richest in the country, with a median income of $100,000 per household. It’s also one of the fastest growing, having nearly doubled its population in the past ten years. For three hundred years, it has played an important role in American history, providing the nation with statesmen, battlegrounds, and produce, but, while the western part of the state is still largely rural, there are only about two dozen active farms that remain today.The rolling countryside in western Loudon beyond Dulles Airport is classic Virginia, however closely the urban sprawl approaches. An eighteenth century estate belonging to a former president abuts an early twentieth century estate purchased by an IT mogul. Vineyards flourish where wheat was once grown. Nineteenth century plantations now provide pasture for horses and cattle. Real estate prices are astronomical. There are some charming small towns, filled with shops for the antique collector, huntsman, and horseback rider, and there are historical markers, it appears, at nearly every bend in the winding roads.
I arrived at Ayrshire just before 10 am, along with other writers, Slow Food enthusiasts, chefs, farmers, and gardeners. I met B&B owners, cooks, politicians, and lobbyists. We had all come not only to taste turkey, but also to tour the farm and its operations, and to learn about heritage breeds, organic certification, and humane animal husbandry and processing. It was a gray day with not one hint of the sunshine that my weatherman had predicted. It has been raining off and on for a couple of weeks in the area and there was lots of mud on the farm.
Sandy Lerner, who founded Cisco Systems, owns Ayrshire, with its palatial home, into which she welcomed us with an informative introduction to her passionate involvement with animals. She is a firebrand for organic, local, traditional family farms, with a particular interest in animal welfare. She doesn’t actually live in the 41-room house, but in a rustic cabin on the property. A June 2005 article in The New York Times described her at home:
A selective polymath, Ms. Lerner has, since being forced out of Cisco in 1990 after feuds with the company’s chief executive, started and sold a cosmetics company (Urban Decay), read Jane Austen compulsively, schooled herself in the ways of Colonial farming, studied the history of costume, made period ball gowns, collected books on 18th-century typography and perfected her Regency dancing. “I can dance in five centuries and two sexes,” she said.
She hosts Regency balls in the ballrooms of the neo-Georgain house at Ayrshire, where the vast office building dwarfs the mansion (see photo at beginning of blog). Ayrshire Farm, near Upperville, is the first Virginia farm to be certified both organic and humane. It raises rare and endangered breeds of livestock as well as heirloom fruits and vegetables. Shire horses, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs (only 300 purebred are alive today), several breeds of rare cattle (those are Scottish Highland cows in the photo, below), and a vast array of chickens and turkeys are found on the farm, including the 8 breeds of turkey that we sampled in a blind tasting.
Lerner also owns an English-style pub, Hunters Head Tavern, in Upperville, where they serve the foods they produce on the farm. The restaurant reflects her Anglophile leanings: she owns an 300-acre estate that once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, not far from Bath in Hampshire. And in Middleburg, famous for its horse culture, she has the Home Farm store, a gourmet shop that carries her meats alongside select fare from around the world. The tasting at Ayrshire was co-sponsored by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Humane Farm Animal Care, and Slow Food USA .
We were allowed to taste both white and dark meat of the 8 roasted turkeys, and were encouraged to “treat them like an old Bordeaux wine,” Ms. Lerner advised. “Taste it, chew it, then taste it again before you write down your first impressions. You’ll find that the flavor opens up, like a great wine, after you swallow.”
I’ve been to blind olive oil tastings in Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Spain, and to innumerable blind wine and cheese tastings both here and abroad. None was as difficult as this tasting, perhaps because we simply do not have a developed language for the various tastes of turkey, the way we do for wine. We were asked to grade the turkeys on flavor, texture, and appearance. The turkeys were numbered and there was a entire roast turkey of most of the breeds on a table in the center of the room; here they are pictured in the kitchen.
I had a conversation with Jane Black, a food writer for the Washington Post, afterwards. I didn’t think that the way the roasted turkey looked should matter, because I always carve my turkey before bringing it to the table (Carving at table is invariably a mess). I would also probably fry the bird, my favorite way to cook them whole. But Jane disagreed, pointing out that if she were going to go to the trouble to cook a big bird, that she would want it for the presentation as well, which I can understand, especially given the high cost of these very special birds (available only during the holiday season and running from about $100 to $200 per bird, not including shipping).
I also thought it strange that the meat was presented to us on steam tables, thoroughly heated through and sitting in a warm broth (possibly just the condensed steam). It would have been better had they been served at room temperature to better taste the subtle differences. Not that we couldn’t.
A show of hands of the five or six dozen people tasting revealed across-the-board differences in personal preferences, although the Midget White, the most modern of the breeds (from Massachusetts in the 1960s), and the Bourbon Red (a Kentucky variety first bred in 1909) were clearly the crowd favorites. Rob Townsend, the chef for the pub’s prep kitchen, which is on the property, told me that the Royal Palm, a small breed from Florida, is his favorite. It was numbered 1 and was the first bird that I tasted, so I graded it perhaps lower than I would have had I tasted it later; it was my least favorite. I kept wanting a glass of wine to go with the birds, especially since we had been reminded of Bordeaux! I would never be eating turkey plain, the way we did. But I did learn a lot.I wrote down some notes about tastes and textures, but the most telling is what I wrote next to Bird #5: “huge breast, tastes sweet, a cloying cherry flavor.” That was the Butterball® that they had thrown in for comparison. It was the favorite of a very small handful of folks.
I have long known that heritage breeds are more often than not better in taste. Indeed, my whole-grain, stone-ground heirloom corn products consistently win taste tests. And I have been on the fresh and local soapbox ever since I lived in Italy in the early 80s and that was all I could buy. It’s very exciting today to see the owners of these old estates such as St Nicholas Abbey on Barbados and Ayrshire Farm put their fortunes to use restoring the cottage industries that go along with traditional farming and food production methods. But we’ve got a long way to go.
As Ms. Lerner warned, 4 huge conglomerates own 98% of the “farms” in America today and we’re losing another 1% of the small family farms every year.One way you can help is to avoid that Butterball® this year and to order a much more flavorful bird from Ayrshire
, or from the some 50 other producers registered with the ALBC
I always take binoculars with me when I go out into the countryside, so I was enthralled when a red-shouldered hawk swooped down and took one of the chickens at Ayrshire. One of the people taking us on the tour said to us, “We don’t have predator intervention, as you can see, but we don’t encourage them!” When I got back to DC, there were two bald eagles soaring over Rock Creek Park, not three blocks from my house.
It was definitely a day for the birds. (Here’s the red-shouldered hawk at Ayrshire.)
February 21, 2008:Today is my sister Sue’s birthday! You go, girl!
I hope everyone saw the beautiful lunar eclipse last night. I’ve always loved the night sky with its constellations and planets, meteors, satellites, and the occasional comet.If you’ve read my blogs about London, you’ll see how much I’ve come to adore the city. I’ve always liked the British food writers – Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Alan Davidson, and Anne Willan, to name a few – and lately I’ve come to really love the honest fare being championed by British chefs, some of whom have made a name for themselves on this side of the Atlantic as well.
As I’ve been saying and writing for over twenty years now, I’m always surprised to hear Americans malign English cookery when some of the best “American” foods were conjured at English stoves. In the American South in particular, where so many of our dishes – especially our sweets – are purely English in both origin and current form, I find it offensive to hear English food disparaged by folks who have never even been there and who regularly eat industrially baked white bread, fast food, and packaged snacks. Give me some good ol’ fish and chips any day over any of those things!
Two current English chef/writers are being called the best food writers of our time. I have raved about Fergus Henderson, whose restaurants I’ve enjoyed, elsewhere on this blog. Now I must join the ranks of those who are singing the praises of Simon Hopkinson, long a celebrity in England, whose books Roast Chicken and Other Stories and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken are only recently been released here. I have never eaten in his restaurant, so in order to eat his food, I figured I’d have to cook it myself. He’s been called “the best cook in Britain.” Further, Roast Chicken (1994) was named “the most useful cookbook of all time” in 2005 by a panel of 40 chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers. It began outselling Harry Potter.
The magazine’s editor, William Sitwell, said ”Simon Hopkinson won because, ultimately, his recipes really work. He has an amazing ability to write recipes for the home cook that are accessible, practical and sensible, but still challenging enough to be exciting.”
Betsey Apple had praised her friend Hopkinson to me. I was dying to see what made his food so special. The book chapters are arranged by ingredients – Almonds, Lemons, Parsley, Rhubarb, etc. Some of the ingredients you’d, frankly, have a hard time finding anywhere in the United States other than in a few big cities with specialty purveyors. Just finding a real butcher is all but impossible these days. But throughout the British Isles, there are excellent dairy products and meats, good bread, gorgeous seafood, and the Roquefort, tongue, suet, brains, cèpes, and sweetbreads that Hopkinson champions. He also knows that the best rabbits are farm-raised in France, and doesn’t mind saying so. He tells you exactly what to buy, but he also sees recipes as guidelines, and knows that it’s best to work with the best you’ve got, not a mediocre ingredient that may not be necessary for the dish.I had purchased some small rabbits (around two pounds each) from an Asian grocer and began perusing cookbooks looking for recipes. Hopkinson’s are straightforward and classic: braised with wine, shallots, rosemary and cream; stewed with balsamic vinegar and served with a purée of parsnips; a terrine (the last time I cooked a rabbit, I made a compote and wrote about it here
); and roasted with mustard. I don’t know how to say this without sounding cocky, but when I read Hopkinson’s stories and recipes, I feel almost as though I’m reading my own work; that is, it all seems very familiar and comforting, while at the same time being evocative and appetizing. He treats rabbits in nearly exactly the same way that I do.
I found his entry on parsley to be utterly beguiling. I had already gushed over the parsley salad I had had at Fergus Henderson’s St. John restaurant in London, so I was keen to see what he had to say about this perennial favorite. I have long been a huge fan of parsley, having eaten my weight in tabbouleh through the years. And here, beckoning me: a parsley soup! I’ve always felt bad about throwing away parsley stems. They are anathema to classic French stocks because they tinge them green. The stems are a necessary ingredient in this purposely verdant soup.
Alas, I wouldn’t exactly agree with Stilwell about Hopkinson’s recipes “really working.” His soup, to feed four, calls for a mere 2-1/2 cups of stock for two “big bunches of flat-leaf parsley.” I’ve seen the bunches of parsley in London markets and they are even larger than the ones I bought yesterday at a supermarket here (the gathered stems of the ones I got were nearly three inches in diameter). Fortunately, I had a very light rabbit stock on hand (see below) and used a full four cups. I ended up with just enough soup for four. I’ve tweaked the recipe and it appears below.
Don’t get me wrong: I love these books. However, I am not only a good cook, but also a professional writer of recipes. I can usually make a recipe work, even if it doesn’t seem to want to. Hopkinson assumes that you are an accomplished cook, like all of the people who judged his book the most useful of all time. An average Joe could use some more guidance, however charmed he might be by Hopkinson’s recipe headnotes and personal stories. I took issue with very little of what he had to say about the ingredients he writes so beautifully about, but there were a few statements that bothered me. His risotto alla milanese
calls for the wrong kind of rice in the original edition, but, to his credit, he corrects himself in the second book and the recipe has been dropped from subsequent editions of the book, including the American one. I couldn’t disagree with him more about anchovies: he finds whole salted anchovies “disappointing” and “excessively salty.” (This from a man who waxes poetic about salt in his second book.) He does concede, “perhaps I have never had a good one,” while he extols the virtues of Spanish filets packed in oil. I should send him a tin of Agostino Recca’s from Sciacca (see December 15 blog
). Rinsed, and the backbone removed, I rarely find them salty enough!
If you are going to eat anchovies plain, as with an antipasto platter, or barely cooked, such as on a pizza, buy the ones packed in oil in glass, not tins. If you are going to cook with them and want a richer flavor, however, buy salted anchovies. Nearly every book I’ve read on the subject (and I have a vast culinary library) says to remove the backbone while letting cold water run over the fish, and then to soak them for another ten minutes or so to remove excess salt. I simply let lukewarm water run over the anchovies while I remove the backbone, then separate the two sides and they’re perfect for cooking. Often I’ll chop them with garlic and warm them in olive oil to begin all sorts of pasta sauces and meat dishes. They melt into the oil and become a flavor enhancer, like MSG, without drawing attention to themselves.
It began snowing yesterday afternoon and I was so afraid that we wouldn’t get to see the eclipse, so I decided to take my rabbit in a different direction – and head south to Provence with it. Several years ago I had made Richard Olney’s Lapin à la Toucassaine from his Simple French Food. It’s his re-imagined version of the classic rabbit gibelotte, brightened with tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil. I thought those summer flavors might indeed act for us as a harbinger of warmer weather, so I made the following, adapting Olney’s recipe to my own pantry and wording. Some of Olney’s words, though, I must quote. They are typical of this culinary master’s work: Gibelotte is another of those magic words whose mere utterance causes saliva to run in a French mouth…. Today it means only rabbit and white wine stew. It is thought of as vulgar, popular, unrefined (in this context, all considered to be positive virtues): un plat canaille.* And, as if duty-bound to respect the dish’s connate vulgarity, most cooks determinedly prepare it in the sloppiest possible manner, some cookbooks, moreover, specifying that it should be boiled rather than simmered….”
*[I don’t really know how to translate this. Plat is "dish," of course, but canaille means vulgar in a perverse way, as of a rascal. That is, the dish should be too vulgar to be liked, like a charming, however common, thief. It's more at the "dirty" of "dirty rotten scoundrel."]
I’ve replaced the white wine with a Provencal rosé, since I not only had it on hand, but also because it is even more summery. I also made a rabbit stock yesterday afternoon to use in the dish instead of the water that Olney calls for. His recipe also calls for one rabbit, but the rabbits that Olney was buying in Provence were weighing closer to four pounds. I used the two smaller Asian rabbits I had. Since he calls for adding water to the braise until the pieces are covered, I thought it wise to make a rabbit flavored stock, so that when adding the extra liquid, I wouldn’t dilute the flavor. Here’s my version of Olney’s dish plus a more traditional recipe.Saffron Rabbit Stew with Cucumbers
2 rabbits (2 pounds each), fresh or defrosted frozen
1 carrot, broken into pieces
2 celery stalks, cut up
2 large onions
1 bay leaf
1 pound fresh cucumbers (2 medium to large)
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 or 6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
a pinch of saffron threads or 1/8 tp ¼ teaspoon powdered saffron
a pinch of cayenne
1-1/2 cups dry white or rosé wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large, firm tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or one small can diced tomatoes, drained
freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil leavesSeveral hours before you plan to eat, cut the rabbits up into sautéing pieces, using a large knife and firm pressure on the backbone rather than chopping with a cleaver, which causes pieces of bone to fly about and in your stew. Heavy kitchen shears work well to remove the belly flaps. You want to cut off the front and hind legs, then cut the backbone into several pieces about two inches long. You should have about three meaty loin sections from each rabbit. Rinse these choice pieces, pat them dry, and place them in the refrigerator. Place the rib cage, the neck, the belly flaps and any other trimmings in a stockpot. Add the carrot, celery, one of the onions, quartered (no need to peel it), and the bay leaf. Cover deeply with water and allow to simmer until you have a mildly flavored stock, about two hours. Strain, discard the solids, and reserve the stock.
About an hour and a half before you plan to serve, remove the rabbit pieces from the refrigerator, drain any liquid, pat dry again, and season with salt. Peel and chop the remaining onion.
Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, then again into quarters. Slice out the seeds with a knife and then cut the cukes lengthwise again. Cut the strips into pieces about 1-1/2”long. Place them in a sieve, heavily salt them, and allow them to drain while you prepare the rabbit.
Heat the olive oil over fairly high heat in a large sauté pan or Dutch oven. Add the rabbit pieces and cook them without turning them for a couple of minutes, then turn the head down to medium. Cook the pieces until they are browned on the bottom side. Turn the rabbit pieces over and immediately add the chopped onion and the whole garlic cloves. Continue to cook, shifting the pieces around so that the onion and garlic doesn’t brown. When the rabbit pieces are browned all over, sprinkle them with the sugar and immediately turn them over. Cook for about a minute, then sprinkle the pieces with the flour and lower the heat again.
Continue to cook the mixture, turning the pieces about with a wooden paddle to be sure that nothing is browning too much or burning, untill the flour begins to brown. Pulverize the saffron threads in a mortar to a powder and sprinkle the contents of the pot with it and and the cayenne. Continue to toss the ingredients around until everything has been colored by the saffron.
Return the heat to high and add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen any bits of food stuck to it. Add just enough of the reserved stock to cover the contents, return to a boil, reduce to a low simmer, and cover the pot, allowing it to cook until the rabbit pieces are tender, about ½ hour.
While the rabbit cooks, prepare the tomato and cucumbers: Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a heavy sauté pan and cook the tomato very slowly for about 10 minutes, or until no liquid remains.
Pat the cucumbers dry and cook them slowly in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter until they are tender but not breaking apart, about 7 minutes or so.
Remove the rabbit pieces to a platter and strain the sauce through a sieve, pushing everything except the garlic hulls through. Be sure to scrape all the deliciousness from the bottom of the sieve.
Return the rabbit pieces to their pan, add the tomatoes and cucumbers, and season with pepper. Cover the pot and keep in a warm place while you finish the sauce.
Skim any fat from the surface of the strained sauce and bring to a simmer, skimming the skin that forms on the surface every five minutes or so. Simmer for 15 or 20 minutes, or until it reaches the desired consistency. I like it a bit soupy, like gravy.
Pour the sauce over the rabbit, bring again to a simmer, and allow it to cook very slowly for another 10 minutes, or until the rabbit is thoroughly warmed through. About five minutes before serving, add a handful of basil leaves basil, cut up if large, cover the pot again, and allow the basil to perfume the dish.
Serve with rice, mashed potatoes or parsnips, or with hearty, crusty bread.
Serves 4 to 6.
Here’s another version of this famous “dirty dish” from France. I first published it in Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah
. This one is more traditional. I like to serve it with potato croquettes and turnip greens (recipes follow).
2 rabbits (2 pounds each), fresh or defrosted frozen, cut into quarters, rinsed, and patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs such as herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning, ground
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups peeled and chopped vine-ripened tomatoes or one 14-1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes, with
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
Season the rabbits with salt and pepper. Mix the herbs and flour together in a shallow bowl and dredge the rabbit in it, shaking off any excess. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown the rabbit pieces all over, removing them from the pot as they are done. Set the rabbit aside.
Add the onions and sauté until they become transparent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until the juice has evaporated, another 5 to 10 minutes. Add the stock and the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any pieces that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the rabbit, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, until tender, about 1 hour. Serve immediately, napping the rabbit pieces with the sauce. If the sauce isn’t thick, remove the pieces to a serving platter and reduce over high heat until it reaches the desired consistency. Pour over the rabbit or serve in a gravy boat.
Serves 4 to 6.
Nothing could be more southern than stewed greens. As soon as the first frosts arrive in late November, greens appear on the tables of rich and poor alike. It is a misconception that southerners cook greens to death. All greens are cooked until tender. Collards may take as long as 2 hours, but tender young turnip greens should be done in about 30 minutes. Greens are traditionally served with a cruet of hot pepper vinegar. More often than not, I simply wilt greens in olive oil with a little garlic and hot pepper flakes, then braise for 15 minutes (see recipe at December 17
), but sometimes I can’t resist this traditional method.
1 small piece of smoked ham hock (about 1/4 pound)
A bunch of young turnip greens, about 2 pounds
Place the hock in a stockpot and cover with 3 or 4 inches of water. Cook at a low boil about 30 minutes until the water is pleasantly infused with flavor. In the meantime, clean the greens by placing them in a sink filled with cold water. Shake them around in the water to loosen any sand or grit and repeat until they are thoroughly cleaned.
Cut any tough stems from the greens and discard, along with any yellowed or blemished leaves. Tear the leaves into several pieces and add them to the pot. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until they are tender, or to taste.
Serves 4 to 6Potato Croquettes
These fritters can be made while the rest of the dinner is cooking. You can set an oven to its lowest setting and place the fritters on racks in the oven to stay warm.
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, boiled and peeled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon chopped mixed fresh herbs, to include mint, thyme, and parsley
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
Mash the potatoes in a large mixing bowl or run them through a ricer or food mill into the bowl. Season them with salt and pepper. Add the shallot, herbs, and one of the eggs and mix well. Place the mixture in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.
Place a wire rack on a baking sheet and turn the oven to its lowest setting. Begin heating the butter over medium high heat in a sauté pan.
Place the bread crumbs in shallow bowl. Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl. Remove the potato mixture from the refrigerator, and, with moist hands, form elongated croquettes of the mixture about the size of 2 fingers. Dip the croquettes in the egg, then in the bread crumbs. Fry in hot butter until golden brown all over, about a minute or so on each side. Remove the fritters to the prepared baking sheet to keep warm or serve immediately.
Makes 16 croquettes.
adapted from Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson
You can use a potato to bolster this soup, and then swirl in 1/2 cup of cream, as Hopkinson does, or you can omit the potato for a purer parsley flavor, the way I did. I also used egg yolks to thicken it simply because I didn’t want a creamy soup, but both serve the same purpose of adding a velvety texture. This soup is unlike most and can easily be made for vegetarians.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 large leeks, white parts only, chopped
2 big bunches of flat-leaf parsley, stems and leaves separated, and stems chopped
1 large potato, peeled and chopped (optional)
4 cups light stock such as chicken, rabbit, or vegetable
salt and pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream or 2 large egg yolks
Melt the butter in a heavy, nonreactive (stainless or enameled) saucepan and add the leeks and the parsley stems. Cook over medium low heat, sweating the vegetables until they are very limp, about 20 minutes.Do not allow any browning whatsoever, neither of the butter nor of the vegetables. Add the potato, if using, and the stock and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for another 20 minutes.
While the leeks are cooking, plunge one of the bunches of parsley leaves into a large pot of rapidly boiling water and leave to boil for 30 seconds. You do not want the water to stop boiling, so you will need a large pot on very high heat. A smaller pot of water on a typical home stove will probably lose its boil when you add the parsley. If that happens, let it come back to a boil and count 15 seconds. The parsley should remain bright green. Dump into a colander or sieve under cold running water, then gently squeeze dry in a clean towel. Chop the blanched parsley.
Coarsely chop the second bunch of leaves and add to the leeks and stock and allow to simmer for two minutes. Add the blanched parsley to the soup and put in a blender “to make a vivid green purée,” as Hopkinson says. The color really is the bright basic green, like Crayola green.
Pass the soup through a fine sieve into a clean pan. You’ll probably have to work the mixture back and forth with a spatula many times in order to get it to go through, but be patient and press as much through as you can. If you have a professional China cap and wooden mortar, by all means use it.
Add the cream to the soup and gently reheat before serving, or, if using the egg yolks, beat them in a separate bowl, slowly add a cup of the hot purée, and then add the yolk mixture to the soup. Gently reheat, being sure not to let the soup thickened with egg yolks to come to a boil.
Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper and serve, per Hopkinson’s suggestion, with a strip of lemon peel in each bowl. You may want to add a dollop of sour cream, crème fraîche, or yogurt as well.
February 16, 2008
Yesterday I intended to cook the gorgeous, fresh, plump quail that I buy at a Hispanic market in my neighborhood, but when I was out shopping I found a pretty whole rockfish (striped bass) instead, so I grilled it whole.
Grilled Whole Fish
I cook all fish very simply, whether fried, steamed, baked, smoked, grilled, cured, or in stews. In none of my recipes is the flavor of a fish covered with another flavor. I avoid the heavy dairy overtones of cheese and cream and the earthiness of mushrooms when I cook fish. I dislike heavy breading, and I rarely cook fish mousses or stuffings, though I do occasionally make the Charleston classic, stuffed founder. There are excellent fish cookery books on the market that will show you how to cook fish in every imaginable fashion. But the rule is the same to test for doneness, no matter what the cooking technique or the fish: gently pry the meat with a fork. It is done when it flakes moistly from the bone.
My best advice to those of you who do not catch your own is to find a reliable fishmonger, ask him questions, trade regularly with him, learn to know what he has and when, and, foremost, don’t overcook your fish. The most elegant sauce in the world cannot save an inferior piece of fish or an overcooked one.
And remember: clear eyes, bright red gills, and a clean, fresh smell are the signs of fresh fish. Have your fishmonger clean the fish for you if you will, but always save the heads and bones for stock. Be sure to ask him to remove the gills as well; some of them don’t automatically do it and it can be difficult for the novice. The local Giant supermarket in my neighborhood often has gorgeous local rockfish . They’re all tagged, so you can see exactly when it was caught and where. Unfortunately, the fishmongers aren’t properly skilled or trained, so if I have them do anything, I simply have them gut them. They don’t even have any shears, which facilitate removing the gills.If you are a fisherman, gut the fish and ice it immediately upon capture, but do not scale it as the scales will help keep the flesh fresh and firm. I cook fish two ways to cook fish over 3 pounds with the scales on: in rock salt and on the grill. Be sure to save any roe that you find: even strongly flavored roe can be delicious when mixed with sausage. If you have friends who bring you fish, be sure to gut it immediately upon receiving it, keep it well iced, and cook it as soon as possible.
Grilling has become the preferred method of cooking fish for many Americans. A light sprinkling of most fish — whether whole, steaks, or fillets — with salt, pepper, and olive oil is often the best preparation for grilling. Ten minutes of cooking per inch of fish is still a good rule of thumb, but the best guideline is to remove the fish from the grill as soon as the flesh flakes moistly when lightly pried with a fork. Nearly all of our pelagic species of fish grill up nicely — marlin, swordfish, king mackerel, dolphin, wahoo, and tuna. The oily flesh of bluefish takes to the coals well, as does shark. Fish over three pounds — say, a sea trout (the southern form of weakfish) or a channel bass (also known as redfish or drum) or this rockfish – grill beautifully when left unscaled. The scales form a seal and the flesh steams perfectly. The scales come off all at once with the skin to reveal delicate, steamed flesh (see photo). You can stuff the inside of a fish with sliced fresh ginger or with fresh fennel stalks. You can sprinkle it with lemon juice. Or you can wrap it in banana leaves before you grill it, to impart a tea-like flavor.
With the rockfish I bought last night, I stuffed it with what I had on hand in my kitchen: parsley, cilantro, ginger, onions, and lemongrass. I also lightly oiled some grapefruit slices and grilled them, too, and served it all with pan-fried potatoes and creamed peas with onions and mint. I didn’t even oil the fish, just the grill. Notice how the skin pulls off in one piece to reveal perfectly moist fish.
Creamed Peas with Pearl Onions and Mint
Fresh green peas are a harbinger of spring, even if they come from Florida in February. They are delicious with potatoes, mushrooms, or onions, and they can accompany any simple roast meat, fowl, or fish. Nearly all of the good recipes for English peas have been around for centuries, though today’s varieties will cook in less time.
When fresh peas arrive at the market, I can’t resist pairing them with pearl onions. The addition of mint, found in nearly every southern yard, is classic; Elizabethan and Jacobean cooks invariably included it.
Freshly shelled peas fade rapidly. If you can’t cook them immediately, you are better off with frozen peas.
10 ounces pearl onions
2 cups freshly shelled or frozen green peas (about 2 pounds in the shell)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons finely cut mint leaves, plus a few leaves for garnish
Drop the whole onions in boiling water for 3 minutes, then remove them with a slotted spoon to a colander. Rinse them well under cold water, slice off the base of each onion, and pop it out of its skin. Set aside.
Rinse the peas well and remove any that show any sprouts or bruises. Put them and the sugar in the boiling water and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes depending on the size and age of the peas. Drain in a colander.
Put the cream, salt, and mint in a pan with the peeled onions. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute. Add the peas to heat through. Serve immediately.
February 15, 2008
All that reminiscing about Rome
and southern Italian cooking got me thinking about artichokes and how much I love them. Since Mikel and I don’t drink during the week, artichokes would be a wonderful thing to cook one night next week (like asparagus, they can really throw the taste of wine for a loop). I hope I can find some this weekend so that I can make the following recipe.
Fried Baby Artichokes
I lived on the Italian Riviera, where garlic, basil, and olives are grown on the rocky cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean. In the far western corner of the region, however, San Remo is the center of one of the world’s largest flower markets. Artichokes are grown in the little coastal plain there. San Remo artichokes are considered the finest of Italy; they are the small purplish artichokes that are grown on other European coasts. These artichokes are not simply “baby” or immature globe artichokes, but a different variety entirely. They can be eaten raw, but are most often fried and served as a first course.
This dish is found throughout the Mediterrean basin — in Sicily, Provence, and Spain as well as in Italy. Elisabeth Luard is an English food writer who learned to fry in Andalucia. “That,” she says, “to an artist, is like mentioning you wielded a brush in Goya’s studio, or chipped a marble with Michelangelo. The frying pans of Andalucia, say the rest of Spain, turn out the food of the angels. And cooks of Cadiz, says the rest of Andalucia, can fry the very seaspray.” She recommends serving Manzanilla, the salty dry sherry of Sanlucar, with this dish.
You’re not likely to find the European cultivars in this country, but you can use baby globe artichokes for the dish. Artichokes are grown in California; baby ones are shipped in the spring. For this dish, be sure they are truly immature and lack the spiny choke or they will be bitter and tough. Most Sicilian-Americans coat the artichokes with flour or batter, but I like the unadulterated version here. Be sure to use a stainless steel knife to cut the artichokes and lemon; carbon will stain them black.
12 baby artichokes with stems, 2 to 3 1/2 inches above the stem
coarse sea salt
olive oil for frying
Plunge the artichokes into a nonreactive (no aluminum or cast iron) pot filled with rapidly boiling water and cook them until they have just changed color and give slightly to the touch. It will take from 2 to 5 minutes, according to their size. If you have the genuine small artichokes from Europe, no longer than 2 inches, you can eliminate this step.
Fill a large bowl with ice water and squeeze the juice from half of one of lemons into it. Drain the artichokes and immediately plunge into the iced water. Squeeze the juice from the second half of the cut lemon into a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes.
When the artichokes are cool enough to handle, place each one on a cutting surface and cut off the sharp pointed end with a sharp knife. Trim the tip of the stem off, but leave the stem intact. Begin peeling back tough outer leaves and any stringy tough covering on the stem, stopping as soon as you have reached tender or light green leaves. Slice each artichoke lengthwise through the stem in half. If you have large artichokes, quarter them. Prepare all of the artichokes, placing them in the bowl with the lemon juice and tossing them around in the bowl and sprinkling them with salt as you go.
Heat 1 inch of olive oil in a heavy skillet over a medium flame until very hot, but not smoking. Pat the artichokes dry and drop in the pan, not crowding it. Allow them to fry in the oil until golden brown and crisped on the edges; they should be fork tender, but not falling apart. It will take about 2 minutes on each side. Remove the artichokes from the pan and drain on paper towels. Serve 3 whole artichokes per person, with a lemon quarter.