Monday, June 18, 2012

Hood Strawberry Shortcake

Pretty much every American kid can easily remember Cookie Monster, the prototypical chaos muppet who roamed Sesame Street in search of, well, cookies. But evidently Cookie Monster now sings a slightly different song. One of balance and moderation. Who knew? In a nod to our lackluster national eating habits, Cookie Monster now sets an example by enjoying a healthier spread of fresh fruits and vegetables. He still eats cookies—I mean, after all, he's still Cookie Monster. But the new mantra is that a cookie is not something to go batshit crazy for in a flurry of noms and crumbs. No, a cookie, Cookie Monster now realizes, is a sometime food.

I should probably be dismayed at the tempering of such pure sugar-seeking id. But in truth, I find it kind of adorable. And totally understandable. A cookie is a sometime food. As it should be. Fresh fruit is usually a perfectly reasonable dessert, especially in these sweet harvest days. But sometimes, you want something a bit more indulgent.

Like many parts of the country, Oregon has a spread of unique strawberry cultivars. But the most beloved of these are the Hoods. People await their all-too-brief season with a sort of fanaticism, and farm stands will often put out signs with the single word, "hoods," that causes lines of cars to pull over. They're sweet, they're tart, and they're just so intense that they pretty much put you off of the tasteless supermarket behemoth strawberries forever. I'm happy to eat them out of hand, or stirred into a bit of yogurt. But every now and then, I want something a bit more.

Strawberry shortcake is my sometimes food. I take the nature-perfect, good-for-you hood strawberries, and ruin it all with a warm, crumbly, buttery biscuit, and a big blob of barely-sweetened cold whipped cream. And I'm not sorry. Occasionally I'll toss a bit of cornmeal into the biscuit dough, some fresh herbs into the berries, or some leftover creme fraiche in the whipped cream. But really, it's delicious as is. Because yes, hood strawberries are perfect as they are. But a bit of shortcake can make things even better. Sometimes.

Strawberry Shortcake

adapted fairly heavily from James Beard
yields 8 shortcakes

2 pints strawberries
3 Tbsp sugar (or more, if your strawberries aren't as sweet as our Hoods)

1 2/3 cups flour (I like to sub in 1/3 cup rye or whole wheat pastry flour), plus more for rolling/cutting biscuits
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (substituting coconut oil for part of the butter is particularly lovely)
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
scant 3/4 cup half and half or heavy cream

1 egg white, slightly beaten, or a splash of cream
a few spoonfuls sugar (coarse sugar is especially nice)

1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Slice the strawberries, and place in a bowl with the sugar. Mash about half of them with a potato masher, leaving some whole but creaming enough smaller bits to hold the mixture together. Set aside to let the juices come out.

Preheat oven to 375ยบ Farenheit, and line a baking sheet with parchment or grease it well.

Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut the butter in pats into the flour, and press with the heel of your hand to form fat flakes. Turn from the bottom to bring up the flour mixture, and repeat the process until all of the butter is reduced to flakes or bits. Press the hard-boiled egg yolks through a sieve into the bowl, and toss a few times, until they're coated with flour and mixed throughout.

Pour the half-and-half or cream into the flour mixture, and toss together until most of the flour is incorporated (as with most baked goods, under-mixing is better than over-mixing).  Lightly flour a counter or work surface, and gently knead the dough until it just comes together.  Pat or roll it out to a 3/4" thickness, and cut into rounds with a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Gently press together any scraps and cut until all the dough is gone.

Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, brush with the egg white or cream, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until set and just beginning to brown, ~12-15 minutes. Let cool very slightly.

While the biscuits are cooling, whip the cream to soft peaks and add the vanilla and sugar. Taste and add more if desired.

Split the still-warm biscuits, and top with the berries and whipped cream. Devour.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Israeli Couscous with Garlic Scapes, Shrimp and Feta

The first green asparagus of spring get a whole lot of love. Which I wholly understand — it's been a long winter, and they're totally delicious. But just a month or two behind them, there’s another green shoot that deserves its own parade: the garlic scape.

Garlic scapes, also known as garlic curls, or, adorably, whistles, are the twisted green tops of garlic plants. They’re generally cut to about eight-inch lengths, ranging from slightly bent stalks to irregular curlicues. Scapes are harvested in late spring/early summer (the season is hard-to-predict and fairly brief, but is happening right now in Portland) as a neat little gardeners trick: trim off the tips before the seed pods swells and matures, and in exchange that energy goes towards making larger garlic bulbs underground. And, as an added bonus, you get to eat the scapes.

Like garlic itself, scapes pack a punch when raw (though they’re not quite as intense as the bulb). You can use this to your advantage, adding a fine mince to dishes that will benefit from a strong flavor. But with just a bit of heat, scapes’ harshness softens, leaving a mellower garlic note, paired with their spring-green taste.

Scapes are easily turned into a pungent pesto—it's got some bite, but can be tamed by tossing with hot pasta or spreading on bread and placing it under the broiler. They can be brushed with oil and tossed directly on the grill, or bathed in vinegar for a pungent pickle. Like spring ramps, scapes work especially well when paired with mellow ingredients that let their flavor shine through: cook them up with eggs, pasta, or creamy dairy-rich dishes.

For this dish, I put the scapes up against a backdrop of saffron-scented couscous, along with briny-sweet shrimp, creamy feta, and bright fresh mint leaves. It's simple enough to throw together for a weeknight dinner or picnic, but elegant enough for a fancy meal. I trimmed the scapes into bite-sized lengths, to make it a bit more manageable, but if you're game it's far more fun to leave them as they are — like little green scraps of ribbon from your own spring garden party.

Israeli Couscous with Garlic Scapes, Shrimp and Feta

yields ~4-5 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cups Israeli couscous
1 ½ cups water
1 cup vegetable broth (or just use all water, and add a bit more salt)
½ teaspoon salt
1 hefty pinch saffron
juice of ½ lemon
6-8 garlic scapes, cut into pieces or left whole
1 pound shrimp, shelled
⅓ cup crumbled feta
a handful fresh mint leaves, roughly torn if they’re large
salt and pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add the couscous, and cook for a few minutes, stirring so that the couscous is coated with oil and lightly toasted. Add the water, broth, saffron and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until it’s just high enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer, covered, until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is tender, ~8-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered, to absorb any remaining liquid for a few minutes. Then add the lemon juice, stir to fluff/combine, and add salt and pepper to taste (you can also drizzle in more olive oil if you want). Transfer to a serving platter.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over a medium-high heat. Add the garlic scapes, and saute for a minute or two, until they turn bright green and tender. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, and scatter on top of the couscous.

Add the shrimp, and saute for a few minutes, stirring, until pink and cooked through. Season with salt, and scatter, along with any pan juices, on top of the couscous and scapes. Top with the feta and fresh mint, and serve.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Gujarati Dal

I have a friend who spent some time working as a printmaker, designing beautiful works of art on hundred-year-old presses. I was impressed with the intricacies of her craft, but even more struck by the fraternity among its adherents. Wherever she was traveling — Northern Minnesota, Northern Scandinavia — she would find other printmakers, and forge an instant connection. There would be shared cups of coffee, tours of studios, and hours of conversation on a level of detail few could appreciate.

As someone with a mild degree of social awkwardness, I know that it can make a huge difference to have a shared language with someone. You can skip all of the where-are-you-from/do-you-have-any-children/what-do-you-do/is-that-a-real-job interview questions, and have an easy intimacy around a common love. Everyone gets a chance to shine and share, and come away with a deeper understanding of a person and a place. And, if you're me, with some recipes.

I'm spending the week with a dear friend out in the Midwest, catching up and cooing over her three-week-old baby. Through an accident of scheduling, her in-laws were around for the first couple days of my visit. At first, there was some scrambling over what we would all do together (beyond stare at the baby). But the answer was easy: cook.

Although my friend's father-in-law was born in Gujarat, he didn't learn to cook until coming to the United States (where he had the good fortune to live next door to someone from the same part of India where he grew up). When you're chopping, prepping, and picking up little culinary secrets (like, say, taking a few minutes to roll cilantro in a dishtowel before chopping to render the leaves dry and separate instead of clumped together), there's no worry about awkwardness or different backgrounds or politics. There's only the rhythm of the kitchen, a shared nod when something tastes just right, and a beautiful meal at the end.

Gujarati Dal

as made by Sunat Kumar Shah
serves ~6 as part of a larger spread

2 cups dried red lentils (we used oiled dal from an Indian grocery, which yielded a more traditional result, but red lentils are a fine substitute), soaked overnight in water to cover
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
1 small onion, diced
1 small green chili, minced
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp coriander
1 Tbsp coarse salt
1 Tbsp brown sugar
juice of 1 lime
3 Tbsp prepared Mexican mole sauce (this ingredient, admittedly, is not traditional in India, but adds a nice depth if you've got it)
1 tomato, chopped
2 Tbsp high-heat oil, such as grapeseed or canola
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 large handful cilantro leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped

Drain the dal and place in a large pot, and add water until it's covered to a depth of ~3 inches. Cover with a lid and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a healthy simmer. Simmer for ~30 minutes, until the dal is cooked and just barely beginning to break down. Add the garlic, ginger, onion, and chili, and simmer an additional 15 minutes.

After the dal has simmered, add the turmeric, cayenne, coriander, salt, sugar, lime juice, and mole (if using). Continue to simmer until the dal totally breaks down to form a smooth, soupy puree (it's pretty hard to overcook this — it will probably take another ~20 minutes to fully break down, but tacking an additional half hour on after that doesn't hurt). The dal will be fairly soupy, but if it's too thin for your liking, uncover for the last part of cooking until it reduces to a slightly thicker consistency. Taste to adjust seasonings, and add the chopped tomato.

When the dal is done to your liking, heat the oil over a high heat in a small saucepan with a lid. Add the mustard and fenugreek seeds, cover, and cook until the seeds pop. Dump the seeds and oil into the dal, and stir to combine. Remove from the heat, top with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro, and serve.