Thursday, September 29, 2011

Spuds: Gnocchi with leek, kale and sage butter

From the Potato Festival at Sentry Hill Historic House, UK

Potatoes are starting to come in from the farm, and so I've been giggling about potatoes a lot recently.

Why are potatoes so damn funny, anyway?

Way back when I was an active linguistics major, a friend and I half-seriously started developing a phonetic theory of humor. Which is to say, determining which sounds produced by the human vocal tracts and which features of them were inherently funny. We compared oodles of words that made us giggle. We looked at beautiful sounding things, like cellar door, and inverted their qualities. We combined a number of funny features and found ourselves in a Swedish Chef routine. I don't remember everything about our inquiry and findings, but as far as I remember, it doesn't quite predict the humor of potato. It doesn't have any awkward consonant clusters, its vowels display one or fewer of the funny features (high, front, rounded). Still, again and again, it comes up as hilarious, context or no.

Cheryl Wheeler sings about potatoes to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance

Maybe it's the humble simplicity of the potato. Maybe it's just that it's hard not to smile about potatoes, all or part of many classic comfort foods. Gnocchi is one such dish, an Italian pasta which often features...potatoes! I mean, seriously, does it get any more comfort food than that? (Answer: you fry onions in butter and put them on the potato pasta)

Potatoes, of course, are a relatively recent addition to European cuisine, not showing up on the scene until at least the 16th century, which makes their relative ubiquity throughout Europe and its cultural progeny all the more staggering.
Gnocchi's history in Italy goes back much farther than that of the potato. The earliest versions, dating back over 2,000 years, involved mixing leftover semolina porridge with eggs and cutting it into small pieces. Gnocchi made with ricotta also have a long history. All versions, though, produce tender little pillows of dough, boiled to perfection and hard to resist.

As far as homemade pasta goes, this one is fairly easy. It doesn't beg for special equipment like a pasta roller, and doesn't entail the same kind of bicep-building battles as does a stiff semolina dough. They pair well with most deep fall flavors, but here we've pretty much kept it to butter, sage, leek and kale. Even from this, you can pare it down to butter, sage and black pepper and still be blissful.

Potato Gnocchi with Leek, Kale and Sage Butter

vegetarian, optionally vegan/dairy-free
Serves 2-3

    The Gnocchi:
  • 3-4 med. peeled potatoes (about a pound), boiled or roasted, then milled, riced or mashed
  • 1 Tblsp. butter or olive oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour (plus flour for dusting)

  • The Rest:
  • 2 Tblsp. butter, olive oil or margarine (we are not kidding around)
  • 1 leek, cut into long thickish strips about 5" long
  • ¼ chopped fresh sage and/or tarragon (or to taste)
  • 8-10 stems kale, destemmed and roughly torn
  • ½ c. mushroom, veggie or chicken broth
  • salt and pepper to taste

Traditionally, the potatoes for this are cooked whole and in their skins, then peeled and ground up into mush (Note: good use for leftover baked potato!). I'm not sure exactly what the logic behind this is, though I suspect it's about trying to keep the spud's moisture balance. If it takes on too much liquid, you'll be forced to add more flour and make a tougher, less potato-y end product. Too little, and you won't get smooth potato taste. That said, I haven't experimented with other ways of cooking a potato for this, so I can't tell you that they don't work.

In any event, once you've reached the point of cooked and peeled, you want to put it through a ricer or food mill. You want a pretty smooth mashy texture. Work in the butter or oil and salt, then start working in the flour. Unlike most pasta dough, where you are trying to develop the gluten pretty strongly, you want to knead this just to the point of coming together into a ball.

Once you have incorporated all the flour, cut the dough into 4-5 sections and roll each into a snake about ¾" in diameter. Cut into ¾-1" sections. Flatten each slightly against the back of a fork with your thumb. At this point, you can boil them for prompt eating, or freeze them for later. If eating now,
boil in at least 1 gallon lightly salted water in a big pasta pot. While you're waiting, prep the leeks, kale and herbs. Melt butter over medium heat in a 10" cast iron skillet or similar, and let butter brown a little before adding leeks. Once leeks start to get soft, season with salt and pepper, add kale and broth and cover. Shortly before adding boiled, drained gnocchi, add herbs and toss. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quick Hits: Panzanella

We have kind of a unique problem - we have too much artisan bread hanging around on a regular basis. Maybe it sounds a little less whiny if I tell it like it really is: we have too much half-stale artisan bread hanging around. Maria works most of the week as a farmstand muffin and cookie-slinger, but one night a week, she puts on her cape and cowl and takes on her real passion: bread. Every Monday, after working a full shift at the regular baking job, she heads out at 11 o'clock at night to go shape bread at El Jardín, one of a few local bakeries that focus on wood-fired, sourdough bread. She returns, half-delirious, at about 9 o'clock in the morning, often towing several loaves of day-old sourdough, and proceeds to sleep for most of her Tuesday off (and then wakes up in the afternoon and commences cooking again for her weekly pot luck).

Bread, especially sourdough, is kind of a family legacy. We grew up with perpetual sourdough. Mom began baking when pregnant with me, and, for several years, plied her bread at the Brattleboro Farmer's Market out of the back of the 1970s Volvo with her spokesbabies. When I was about 5, she got a job baking in the kitchen at The Putney School, where she was encouraged to further develop her sourdough wiles. We also grew up in the back of that kitchen, warming ourselves against the huge, ceramic-lined ovens and sampling whatever came down the pipeline. As such, we grew up with the idea the sourdough wasn't a big deal. Folks' ability to normalize their childhood is remarkable sometimes. All that said, we only eat so much bread before it becomes almost unslice-ably stale. I guess it's better than it going moldy, with which you can do very little, but we store it at room temperature and not in plastic, which will get you stale over moldy most days. For better or worse, once bread has gone totally stale and lost all its moisture, it really won't go moldy.

So, we end up swimming in stale sourdough, and having to find creative ways to use it up outside of making breadcrumbs in quantities of epic proportion. Leading up to the end of summer, here's a quick favorite: Panzanella, a quick, Italian bread-tomato-basil salad full of simple, fresh, summery flavors that we always have trouble not picking to death before it makes it to its destination (the same can be said of another favorite stale bread usage, a savory bread pudding, but that's a story for another, cooler day).


    vegan, about 20 min. start to finish
    serves 4-6
  • 1 loaf half-stale bread, large dice
  • 2 med-large tomatoes, large dice
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, slivered
  • ¼-½ c. olive oil
  • 1-2 tsp. salt (this is a good opportunity to break out the good salt)
  • 3-4 stems (15-20 leaves) fresh basil, chiffonaded
  • fresh ground black pepper to taste

  • Optional:
  • 1 chile, seeded and minced
After prep, toss all ingredients save the garlic. Toss garlic in a skillet with some of the olive oil over med-high heat until it starts to smell toasty, then sprinkle on top. Let sit for as long as you can stand it, or at least 15 minutes. Crank black pepper to taste over the top.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Art in and of the Orchard: Baked Apple Pancake with Bourbon Caramel Sauce

Art is never far from hand here in the Valley. Park Hill Orchard, here in Easthampton, is currently hosting a sculpture exhibit, which I finally got around to checking out this weekend. It features a variety of sculpted pieces from mostly local artists, ranging from abstract collections of wood and metal to found-object metal insects to a tree studded with plaster lips. Also, they were handing out a tart Paula Red apple to everyone who showed up to walk the exhibit path. As one of the owners explained, “We're not so much farmers who go into art as artists who got into farming.” The exhibit's been up for almost a month now, but it's almost a more rewarding trip the farther into fall we go, as there's more apple opportunities to take advantage of at this point. The advertising of the free apple worked well enough for me to take a ¼-peck home, and they had cold, fresh cider for sale at the stand as well.

Chris Woodman
Robert Markey
View of Mt. Tom from the orchard

As much as I try to avoid snobbish attitudes around food, I haven't been able to completely avoid being a bit of a cider snob. I grew up with Vermont's largest contiguous apple orchard in my backyard, and spent falls in high school making fresh cider, many gallons at a time, to be served in the school dining hall. I'd take home a half-gallon from the cider house and drink it almost to the point of causing intestinal unrest. When you've drunk enough cider that way, bright, fresh and right off the press, it's almost impossible to tolerate the pasteurized apple juice that passes for cider in most supermarkets (which can make decent mulled cider, so I guess it's not a total waste of space). It even seems like a waste to heat it up with mulling spices or save it to make hard cider because that would mean not drinking it fresh. I can get good hard cider all year round and lesser ciders will do for mulling, but there's only a few months' window for good, fresh cider. It's my annual torrid fall love affair.

I'm not quite so passionate in my opinions where it comes to apples (except in my repudiation of so-called Red Delicious "apples," which is probably stronger than my opinion on cider, but doesn't come up as often). If I'm having a torrid seasonal love affair with cider, apples and I are like friends from summer camp: you hang out a lot more for a short part of the year, but you keep up on and off the rest of the year, too. You probably know them better than you know tall, dark and thirst-quenching. My favorite apples are still pretty bold and tart, varieties many consider to be pie apples: Northern Spy, Cortland and Empire are some favorites. The Paula Reds that I brought home are an evolved version of the McIntosh that have a bright sweetness when very fresh that mellows the more time they're off the tree. I mostly eat them fresh this time of year, sticking a few a day in my lunchbag.

However, we turned up with several people for brunch this Sunday, and turned some of the apples into an apple pancake baked in a cast iron skillet and dusted with cinnamon sugar. It tastes a little like a warm cider donut. This is a recipe we came up with a while ago, and is notable partially because it represents Maria and I equally contributing to a recipe without feeling the need to squash each other for territorial reasons. It has a delicate, spongy texture, different from the other baked pancakes and Pfannkuchen to which it's related, due to volume of whipped egg whites, which take on the whole leavening job. We also happened to have some bourbon caramel sauce lying around, like you do, which we drizzled over the top of each slice to dramatic effect. If you don't regularly happen to have bourbon caramel sauce lying around, but would like to, the recipe for that follows as well. Additionally, one of our brunch guests took some gorgeous photos of the finished dish while we were busy, putting our usual photo stylings to shame.

    Baked Apple Pancake

    vegetarian, optionally dairy-free
    serves 4-6, start to finish in 30 minutes or less
    Dry Mix:
  • ½ c. flour
  • 3 Tblsp. sugar (+ 1 Tblsp. for dusting)
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon (+½ tsp. for dusting)
  • ¾ med. apple (about 1/2 lb apple – I used a Paula Red), cut into ½” chunks (the last ¼ will be used for decorative slices on top)
  • Wet Mix:
  • 2 Tblsp apple cider (you can omit the yogurt/milk and use ¼ c. cider to make this dairy-free)
  • 2 Tblsp plain or vanilla yogurt OR 2 Tblsp. milk plus about ¼ tsp. vinegar
  • 1 whole egg*
  • Whip to stiff peaks:
  • 3 egg whites*
  • 1 Tblsp. butter or margarine
  • *We often have spare egg whites hanging around. You can get away with 3 whole eggs, separated. Mix the yolks in with the wet mix and whip the whites separately. You could even try it with just 2 eggs divided this way.
Preheat oven to 400°F.

Put together dry mix ingredients in a 2 qt. bowl. Make sure apple pieces get well coated with dry mix, as it well help them from clumping in the final product. The wet mix ingredients (which do not include whipped egg whites) should fit in something 1-2 c. in size. Mixing them in a measuring cup with spout makes the whole deal very easy to add. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. Add wet mix to dry mix and stir to combine, then fold in the egg whites.

Melt 1 T butter in a 9” cast iron skillet, then pour in the batter and spread out evenly. Arrange apple slices on top, then put it in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until it gets toasty-brown on top and a toothpick comes out of the center clean.

Combine reserved tablespoon of sugar and ½ tsp. of cinnamon, then use to dust the top. Let sit for 5-10 minutes (or as long as you can stand it). It should slide out of the pan with minimal coaxing. Slice as you see fit and serve, with or without caramel sauce.

    Bourbon Caramel Sauce

    Recipe adapted from David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert
    Lebovitz's blog, Living the Sweet Life in Paris is always a good read as well.
  • ½ c. (1 stick) butter (salted or not, up to you), cut into pieces
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1-2 Tblsp. water
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • ¼ c. bourbon (a little more than a shot)
  • ¼ tsp. salt, or to taste
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan (deep is important because it will bubble up pretty aggressively after the cream is added), melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sugar and water to cover. Stir occasionally until the sugar begins to caramelize. When it reaches a dark amber color and smells on the verge of burning, remove from heat and immediately add the cream. Stir until smooth, then stir in salt and bourbon. Sauce can be stored for up to 2 weeks if refrigerated, but let it come to room temperature before using.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fall Fungus Foraging (and Fairytales)

Battle cry of the week: “Hey, I know what that is – you can eat that!”

I've always been timidly fascinated by mushroom hunting – it's always seemed just out of reach. It's always played a bit like a Red Riding Hood fairytale in my head; skipping through the forest with a basket under my arm, with danger lurking ominously around every turn in the form of the wrong mushroom. It should be as simple as one of those fairytale tests where you have to choose the simple thing and not the pile of jewels, but, sadly, the moral (morel?) of this story is not as clearly pre-defined. My father tells stories of going out mushroom hunting with his Polish grandparents as a kid in New Jersey, but has never felt confident enough to identify anything from that. It's too bad - it feels like losing some piece of my heritage, especially because his grandfather died before I was born and his grandmother wasn't able to communicate much the few times I did meet her as a little kid. They almost feel like as much of a fairytale as the mushrooms they gathered, or the fabled orchard they kept in the middle of Jersey City. As far as mushrooms go, I guess the invitation I was hoping for was to see it happen – to have some guidance from someone in person rather than just a book.

This week, it began with a puffball. You know the ones. You've probably spent fall romps hoping to find the mature ones that burst out a smoky puff of spores when you jump on them. We were on a walk around the neighborhood with the dog and friend that tends to show up with edible gifts (always a good friend to have) when he was the first to whoop into the battle cry at the sight of young puffballs on the field across the street from the house. We twisted them out of the ground and brought them home to confirm them on the internet.

The internet has done fabulous things for empowering folks to try out what have classically been specializations that border on gnostic. While a good mushroom hunting guide is still invaluable, being able to cross reference with others from varied locations with lots of pictures is great for confirmation. You can even reverse-search from images to help you get started. To be sure, there's a limited number of mushrooms you want to collect and eat without consulting an expert mushroom hunter, as there are many edible varieties of mushroom that have poisonous lookalikes. However, there are several common tasty varieties that you can confidently confirm without delicate identification work. Puffballs happen to be among them.

Our specimens happened to be from one of a few common varieties that grow on lawns. In fact, we're still not quite clear whether they are Purple-spored Puffballs (Calvatia cyathiformis) or Skull-shaped Puffballs (Calvatia craniformis), which can be impossible to tell apart until fully mature and beyond eating (one has purple spores, the other, brown, but both are white on the inside at the stage you eat them). Luckily, the difference is largely irrelevant for the purpose of eating, as they're equally tasty and safe, and, while it can be difficult to tell them apart while young, they have no dangerous doppelgangers. Here's what you need to know to identify the young puffball on your lawn for eating:
  1. It has a globish shape, possibly lumpy.
  2. It is creamy white, possibly with some crackly brown on top.
  3. When you flip it over, you will not see any of the gills usually on the underside of the cap of mushrooms.

  4. If it meets these criteria, it's worth cutting open for the last:
  5. When you cut it open, the interior flesh is uniformly smooth white.
This last criteria is essential to determining its edibility. If you see what looks like a cap and stem developing inside, get rid of it, as you may have found the closest thing to a dangerous puffball lookalike: a young Amanitas mushroom, commonly known as a “Death Cap” or “Destroying Angel,” which can kill you if you eat them. Thankfully, the developing cap inside is pretty hard to miss (see picture, right). If you don't see any cap developing inside, but it's not uniformly white, usually with gray-brown patches, you have probably found a more mature puffball. This means you can't, or more likely don't want to eat it, but it does mean that where you found it is a good place to watch for them and you can throw it back in the hopes of growing more.

I brought this new-found confidence on a hike yesterday on one of my favorite spots, a local section of the Metacomet-Monadnock trail. It's the height of mushroom season right now, and the many varieties of fungus seemed to jump out, and not in a fairytale-werewolf sort of way. I spent most of the walk looking down, observing the many different mushrooms along the path, occasionally stopping to snap a picture with my phone's camera to look up later. Along the way, I found the other edible fungus I was sure I could identify: Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), a bright orange and yellow ruffle growing out of the side of a dead tree trunk. I also found another variety of puffball, the Pear-shaped Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) I had read up on while trying to type the ones from the lawn, but had ruled out because it only grew on wood.

Puffballs have a much softer texture than the common supermarket mushroom varieties, somewhere between white bread and marshmallow. The first day we found the edible puffballs, we ate them savory french toast-style, cut into thick slices, dipped in egg, milk and herbs, then pan-fried. We spread a little tasty yeasty goo and sprinkled fresh thyme on some of them, which added to the deep savory flavor. After the hike, we cut up the few little puffballs into bite-sizes pieces along with the Chicken of the Woods, which is far on the firmer side of the texture spectrum, and fried them in butter with fresh garlic and thyme. I have yet to come across a mushroom variety that is not delicious sauteed in butter with garlic and thyme. However, this is far from the only thing to do with them; the most creative mushroom preparation I've heard involves giant puffballs, which regularly grow to the size of a soccer ball and larger. Some folks take thick cross-cuts of them, put them on an oiled baking sheet, and top them like a pizza. It takes mushroom-lovers' pizza to a new level.

This promises to be a fall for looking down. From the photos we shot on our hike, we probably found at least one more edible variety: the honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea). While it grows widely on the east coast, it's also a popular eastern European variety, and one that Dad used to harvest with his grandparents, whom we never really got to meet, despite their being key figures in Dad's growing up. It's a circuitous path to knowing them, but finding the same treats in the woods they did, being let in on that quasi-gnostic foraging knowledge feels like getting to know them in some way, even if we couldn't learn it from them. This is part of what's so powerful about family recipes: they make a far more visceral connection to the past than simply hearing stories. In eating what they ate, you feel you have an understanding of them that you can, quite literally, internalize. It makes for a more powerful connection than seeing a picture or hearing a story, and saves the past as a tangible reality rather than what amounts to a fairytale.


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