Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ideas in Food

After many months of waiting, the new book by Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot arrived in the mail today. For those unfamiliar with the authors, they have diligently maintained daily entries in their blog for years. Their first book, a photo collection of their culinary creations, shows their ingenuity and skill, particularly in developing innovative cooking techniques. They also teach classes and offer consulting. These are enormously creative people.

Their second book, entitled Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work, is filled with all the things I love about their blog. In everyday cooking, they often discover clever ways of making pickles, or melting cheese, and in more technical professional cooking, their innovation is cutting edge. Their courage to constantly challenge convention and ask, "Why do we cook like this?" is rewarded with sometimes surprisingly simple answers.

Almost any serious cook is going to have a copy of Harold McGee's great tome of food science, On Food and Cooking. The great advantage of Ideas in Food is that Aki and Alex are chefs. Mr. McGee is a talented scientist, and his applications of chemistry to cooking operations have had a tremendous impact on modern gastronomy. However, he is a scientist, not a professional chef, and that is how his book reads. When Aki and Alex get technical (and they are very capable of doing so), it is only moving towards the recipes, and illustrating the principles behind them.

In their introduction, their purpose is clearly established. "It is our job to illustrate why a deeper understanding of food and the ways in which it works are so important. Knowledge allows us to improve flavor, efficiency, and functionality in the kitchen. It a nutshell, it enables us to cook better." And cook better you will. There are ideas for everyone in this book, which is the truly beautiful thing about it. My mother could take a few clever tips from it's pages, and yet some of the most creative chefs in the world, like Grant Achatz in Chicago, and Johnny Iuzzini in New York, have been inspired by their ideas. It's worth the twenty five dollars you'll pay for the hardcover.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Wine Became Modern

I happened to be in San Francisco for the opening of the How Wine Became Modern exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit focuses on the year 1976 as the beginning of modern winemaking. The photograph above is a section of the piece titled The Judgment of Paris, 1976. It depicts a parody of The Last Supper. A blind tasting of French and Californian wines was conducted with shocking results. Even French experts found New World wines being made of superior quality. This scandalous scene was depicted in the 2008 film, "Bottle Shock." With this as the starting point of modern winemaking, the exhibit displays the diversity of wine stemware and exotic decanters, aroma samples and various fads of descriptors and flavor adjectives, soil samples from different winemaking regions and definitions of terroir, and a collection of different wine labels and marketing appeals.

There were two parts of the exhibit that I most enjoyed. The design of wineries and modern architecture was inspiring in both form and function. Perhaps the most relevant part of an exhibit entitled "How Wine Became Modern," was left strangely understated; the actual techniques and technologies of truly modern winemaking. Paul Draper, the chief winemaker at Ridge Winery, describes the scene. "In California for at least the last ten or fifteen years we have heard that the wines are now made in the vineyard. What is not mentioned is that in most cases they are then remade in the winery."

The technology Mr. Draper refers to includes not only the architectural facilities, with precise controls of temperature, sophisticated pumps and presses, but also the chemistry of winemaking itself. What that means for today's winemaker is more precise control by means of a wide array of additives, from powdered tannins, yeast superfoods and nutrients, to oak chips, advanced fining and filtering agents supplied by companies like Laffort and Lallemand, Gusmer Enterprises and Scott Laboratories. These companies can also provide analytical services to measure your titratable acidity versus volatile acidity, malic acid, pH levels and whatever else you want to know. Today, many great winemakers use additives to some degree, like the often called "Viagra of winemaking," diammonium phosphate. DAP is a nutrient that supplies yeast with the nitrogen it requires get the job done, and one of many common nutrients used to control modern fermentation.

These are the techniques rarely advertised by wineries. It seemed to me as I was leaving the museum that this portion of the exhibit could have run away with the show, but instead was left as secretive as by the industry itself. Perhaps they want to maintain the romance of nature in a bottle, or perhaps they fear the notion of cheating. Whether that means cheating nature or cheating the consumer may be reason enough to let the juice speak for itself. Like any great tool when used properly, it only enhances and not merely imitates, the fundamental work of the artisan. Maybe one day, the public will be ready to know more about the product.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What to do with a Medlar?

What is a medlar? It sounds like some creature from Harry Potter's adventures. Few people have heard of these esoteric fruits, much less tasted them. They have fallen out of fashion over the past century, perhaps because they aren't very easy to eat. In centuries past, they were more common, with remnants strewn about in English literature. Shakespeare alludes to medlars in "As You Like It," when he says "...you'll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that's the right virture of the medlar." Before they can be used, they must be bletted. What does that mean? There are a few fruits that are terribly astringent in their immature stages, most of them are Asian fruits like the durian, loquat, hachiya persimmons, quince and hawthorns. The flesh must be completely mushy before that astringency is transformed into sweetness and acidity.

Tremaine Arkley sells his quince to Park Kitchen, and we ended up in a conversation about medlars, which his wife planted after reading about them in a Victorian novel. He gave me twenty five pounds of fruits to develop recipes this year. Once the medlars have bletted, they are very soft and oozing with juices. They have a very large seed pod and thick skins, much like rose hips. In fact, it was the rose hips that brought medlars to my door. I was watching the squirrels in my yard as they foraged for food. They were nibbling on the rose hips, high in vitamin C and other nutrients. Suddenly, I though of our conversation about the medlars, and I pictured the birds and squirrels feasting on them in the trees. So I called Tremaine, who had forgotten about our conversation, and he rescued the harvest for me.

I have stewed the medlars into a paste, which can then be used for a number of applications both savory and sweet. I've made some medlar frangipane for apple tarts, and simmered them with bourbon as a glaze for braised pork belly. I just put up a batch of medlar bourbon, a simple infusion of quartered medlars, sugar, vanilla bean and bourbon. It should be ready to taste by New Year's Eve.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chestnuts, Le Pain Des Pauvres

Chestnut season arrives as the night falls quickly, the evening air becomes chilly, and the geese begin their flight south for the winter. By October, the nuts begin falling from the branches. Their fruit is ripe when the fuzzy, spiky outer casings turn from lime green to straw gold. Harvested when the farmer's fields become more sparse, time allows for forest gleaning of autumn nuts and mushrooms. The chestnuts are gathered from the orchard or forest floor and often ground into flour for baking through the winter months. In the old days, chestnuts were regarded as le pain des pauvres, the poor man's bread. Since the chestnut has a low oil content, theree was little worry of the flour turning rancid.

Peeling them from their shells is the kind of chore that would have been done by the family around the evening fire. The European method is to score the shells along the concave side and roast them briefly in a hot oven or skillet. The shell will begin to curl away from the meat, and they must be peeled off while still hot. While they are warm and pliable, the inner papery skin will rub right off, but once cool, this bitter husk clings tight to the nut. The papery husk also comes off if the nuts are dried after peeling the shell. As the nut contracts, the paper separates from the meat much easier. Then the meat need only be reconstituted before eating.

The French regard the chestnut by two names, the marron, in which the nut is one whole piece, and the chataigne, divided into two or three pieces by the husk. The more attractive marron commands a higher price, and is used in ways that show its attractive appearance.

The nut has a strong seasonal charm and fares well in soups and purees, where its rich, woodsy flavor is uninhibited by it's dry and crumbly texture. Usually eaten with wild game, mushrooms, truffles, and roots and fruits of the season. Pumpkins, potatoes, parsnips, celery root, cabbages, apples and pears are great combinations. It has also long been a favorite winter confection in breads, cakes and puddings, or the coveted confection, marrons glacees (pronounced glah-say). Marrons glacees are gently simmered with honey until it becomes translucent, tender and sweet.

Gather some chestnuts for the cold months and try some of these simple French recipes, but if you are gathering them from the forest rather than the marketplace, beware of the horse chestnut. Terribly bitter and toxic, it has a similar leaf and shell appearance, but the nut casing is a fleshy green outer husk instead of the spiky straw husk.

In the northern Willamette Valley, there are several chestnut orchards. Ladd Hill Orchards in Sherwood is owned by Ben and Sandy Bole, and they sell all sorts of chestnut products from their website. In late winter, their whole dried chestnuts are wonderful.

Pumpkin and Chestnut Soup
Soupe au Potiron et aux Chataignes

Slice two onions and place them in a pot with a few spoonfuls of duck fat. Simmer gently while you peel a pumpkin and remove the seeds. You'll need about two or three pounds of flesh, roughly chopped. Add the pumpkin and about twenty peeled chestnuts to the pot along with one quart of duck stock, and a bouquet garni. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, season gently with salt and pepper. Cook the squash until tender, about twenty minutes, then remove and discard the bouquet. Puree the soup in a blender, and if you want a little more richness, add a little cream at the end.

Chestnut and Cognac Puree
Puree de Chataignes au Cognac

Simmer about two pounds of chestnuts in one quart of milk with a little salt and white pepper. After about thirty minutes, once the nuts are tender, puree them with the milk and return to the pot. Stir in about four ounces of butter and four ounces of cream. Once you have the consistency that you like, stir in two tablespoons of cognac. This is a great holiday accompaniment to roasted venison leg.

Venison Leg with Pears
Cuissot de Chevreuil roti aux Poires

Trim the venison leg and tie the muscle groups with butcher's twine and season with salt and pepper. Cover the venisoon with milk and marinate overnight. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Drain and dry the venison and sear the meats in a pan to achieve some caramelization. Place the meats in a roasting pan. Peel the pears and toss them in a bowl with a little butter and cinnamon, and add them to the pan. Baste the meats with beurre montee, melted butter emulsified with a little water. Baste and rotate the meat as it cooks, and roast for 20 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the roasts. When the roast reaches medium rare, allow the meat to rest before slicing. Slice thinly against the grain of the muscle, and spread the slices over chestnut puree, on a platter surrounded by the roasted pears.

The Sake Professional Course

Many times when I'm talking about sake with people, I get the impression that they are interested in sake, but feel intimidated by it. The labels can be intimidating when all you see is kanji, so you just buy something based on how pretty the label is. It can be intimidating if you are unfamiliar with terms like tokubetsu honjozo or junmai daiginjo. In the same way that you don't have to speak German to enjoy drinking a trockenbeerenauslese riesling, you don't have to speak Japanese to feel comfortable buying the perfect sake for your palate. If you have ever been curious about sake, whether you are already an enthusiast, an industry professional, or simply want to know more about sake, the answers await in John Gauntner's Sake Professional Course.

Mr. Gauntner has been an educator in all things sake for the western world. His Sake World website is the gateway to an enormous wealth of knowledge and resources. He also conducts advanced classes aimed at understanding sake production, sake culture, and most importantly, sake tasting. Mr. Gauntner is the only non-japanese Certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world. I had the honor of taking his three day intensive Sake Professional Course in Portland earlier this month. As someone who has been studying sake for over a decade, I still left this class with a greater depth of understanding on all things sake.

The course is comprehensive, and covers all the basics of brewing methods, terminology, business, tasting and pairing with foods. His knowledge of the industry extends deep into the sakagura, the kurabito, and the business of buying, selling and tasting this special beverage. The greatest advantage of taking his Sake Professional Course is in his astute selection of vertical tastings. A lecture about rice varietals is followed by a tasting of several sake brewed with different rice, a lecture about yeast and its impact on aroma is followed by a tasting of sake with different yeasts. If you wondered about the difference in flavor between pasteurized and unpasteurized sake, you can taste them side by side and draw your own conclusions. All the books and articles in the world will never add up to the knowledge of tasting the sake in your ochoko and knowing why it tastes that way. This class is definitely worth the time and money, and as John likes to say, leaves no sake stone unturned.

A Small Footnote with a Large Imprint

There are two men who have been outstanding educators of sake for the western world. Ironically, both of these men, John Gauntner and Philip Harper, arrived in Japan independently on exactly the same day in 1988. Mr. Gauntner has focused his years on education through teaching, writing and consulting, while Mr. Harper has focused on brewing, the only non-Japanese toji (brewmaster) in Japan. Their efforts have greatly improved the availability and enjoyment of sake in the English speaking world.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Introduction to Sake (Part One)

Although sake has been brewed for centuries, it has been known in the western world for little over a hundred years. Sake distribution has greatly improved with the export and popularity of sushi culture, but only recently has high quality sake become available in the United States. The rich variety of styles and increased availability add to the appeal of this truly unique beverage, and extend its appraisal far beyond the sushi counter.

Drink of the Gods, a source of purity

In Japan, drinking sake has long been considered a way to get closer to the deities, in both ancient and modern culture. As a symbol, it is intimately connected with social and religious ceremony. The essential elements of sake brewing are rice and water, both powerful symbols in Japan. Rice has long been the staple food of Japan, a symbol of fertility and even a form of currency, while water is a universal symbol of purity.

The water used in crafting sake is perhaps the most defining element of its character, since water makes up at least eighty percent of its final volume. The ideal spring water contains traces of phosphates, potassium and magnesium, which assist in the brewing of sake. Water with these elements is sometimes called goshinsui, "holy water." The presence of iron and manganese hinder the process. The Kansai area has long been regarded as a brewing center because it has ideal water. Whether the water is hard or soft also determines how the sake will be crafted. Kobe is well known for its kosui (hard water), which favors full flavored brewing, while nearby Kyoto has nansui (soft water), allowing for a light and fragrant crafting.

Rice for One Purpose, polishing diamonds of starch

The best rice for brewing sake has a high starch content at its core. In fact, it is too starchy for human consumption. There are over one hundred varieties of rice in use today, some with formidable names like gohyakumangoku, tamazakae, miyama nishiki, and the most widely used yamada nishiki. The climate in Japan varies from region to region, and different varieties grow in these different climates. However, unlike wine, sake is not categorized by rice varietal, but by the amount of polishing the rice undergoes. By milling away the outer layers, which contain the bran, fats and proteins, the brewer reaches a more abundant layer of pure starch.

This high starch interior is called shinpaku, the "white heart." The impurities in the outer layers produce undesirable flavors. The more the rice is milled, the more expensive the sake will be. This is not unlike the higher prices commanded by low yield, high quality fruit on the vines of premium vineyards. The effect of milling the rice has a similar effect on the yield of production. It takes a lot of rice to make sake, since the water to grain ratio for brewing sake is 1.3 to 1 (in contrast to brewing beer, which has a water to grain ratio of 9:1). Obviously, if you are milling away half of this special rice, you will only have half of the final yield.

Koji, the Magical Mold

The polished rice is then washed and soaked in very exacting times, often with a stopwatch in hand. The size of the milled rice grain will affect the soaking time, so that the steaming of the rice can be as consistent as possible. This process is called gentei kyusui, "limited water absorption." The steaming is also carefully monitored, since overcooked rice will ferment too quickly for flavor development, and undercooked rice will only ferment on the outside.

A small portion of the steamed rice is inoculated with a special mold called koji. It takes about two days to complete the inoculation, which then resembles puffed rice with an aroma of roasted chestnuts. This miraculous mold is not a dark mildew, but rather a fragrant white mold that will later break down the starch molecules of the rice, and convert them into glucose, a process known as saccharification. Koji also provides its own unique flavor and aroma to the sake.

Once the koji is made, sake brewing can begin by making a yeast starter called shubo, colloquially known as moto. Shubo means "sake mother." It is formed by combining koji, water, steamed rice and yeast. In the modern sokujo method, lactic acid is added to hasten the development of the shubo. It creates a sour, high acid environment that inhibits the development of unwanted bacteria and wild yeasts. The koji begins to make the mash thick and sweet. the shubo is ready in about two weeks. The old-fashioned yamahai and kimoto methods allow the natural development of lactic acid, which acquires flavor from ambient yeasts and bacteria, and takes twice as long to develop shubo.

The Craft of Brewing

The shubo is now used to create the main mash called moromi. This is one of the most fascinating and unique processes of sake brewing. In order to maintain the temperature and acidic environment for the yeast culture, the volume of the mash must be gradually increased over a four day period. This process is called sandan shikomi, "three stage brewing." The moromi is doubled in size on the first day, then allowed to rest for one day. This is called the oroshi, the "dancing" of yeast cultures as they recover from the culture shock. Then the moromi is doubled on the third day, and again on the fourth day, when it reaches its final volume. With the yeast healthy, fermentation and saccharification happen simultaneously. This process is unique to sake brewing, known as multiple parallel fermentation.

The fermentation happens at low temperatures, a harsh environment for yeast. This stress on the yeast creates the desired fragrances and flavor of sake brewing. After about 25 days, the fermentation is completed between 18 and 20 percent alcohol. There are two classifications of sake in the market today. For honjozo sake, an addition of brewer's alcohol is added in order to extract some of the volatile fragrances that would otherwise remain with the solids that are to be pressed from the sake. No additions are allowed for junmai sake, which means "pure rice."

The sake is pressed to remove the kasu, or sake lees. Sake lees are used for pickles and soups in Japanese cuisine, just as the grape lees were once used for traditional coq au vin in French cuisine. This pressing of sake is achieved by means of a drip method for the highest grade sake, and usually by air pressing machinery (Yabuta press) for the vast majority. At this point, the sake is ready to drink.

Bottling and Sake Styles

There is an expression in Japanese, "sake zukuri ban ryu." They say that sake is the school of 10,000 ways, and this is certainly true throughout the process of making it. In the second part of this article, I will describe the various ways sake may be finished before and during bottling, which highlight different parts of its character. Terms like genshu, namazake, hiyaoroshi and nigori all describe how it is finished in these final stages. A beverage with 10,000 ways has a sake style for everyone.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Interactive Bar Codes reach America

Park Kitchen hosted an interesting business lunch this week. Cellar Key is launching a marketing application for wine which employs an interactive bar code. The 2d bar code are relatively unknown in America. You may have seen them before. Maybe you thought it was one of those holographic images that you have to stare at really hard before it comes into focus, and you just didn't have the time. Not knowing what it was, you didn't give it another thought. I was the same way until I began travelling in Japan, where they are absolutely everywhere. They were invented by Toyota back in 1994, and now they are on everything from posters and billboards to magazines and product labels.

These 2d codes are like a traditional (1d) bar code, but it has URL's embedded into it. Anyone who has a cell phone with a camera and internet access can utilize the interactive content. In this case, you can learn about Argyle Winery, their products and winemaking principles, see a video about the vineyard, and suggested pairings for the wines. If this ever catches on in America, the marketing sector should be the first to emerge from the economic crisis! And if we wanted to throw a really tech savvy luncheon, we would have printed these menus with soy based ink and edible paper, so you could eat the menu after surfing the web!

Cheers for Sake Day

The first day of October is Sake Day. In Japan, this day is called Nihonshu No Hi. The kanji symbol for sake is very similar to the tenth month of the asian lunar calendar, the rooster. This is also the traditional beginning of the sake brewing season, when the brewmaster goes to the shinto shrine to pray for a good brewing season. When the sake brewing culture emerged in the Edo period (1604-1868), the shogunate decreed that sake could only be brewed between the fall and spring equinox.
The traditional labor force was composed of farmers and fishermen, many of whom would be finishing their own trades for the season. After the rice was harvested, effectively a measure of currency, economic stability was determined, and the sake brewery could commence with their season of brewing.
Sake is extremely complimentary with many foods, and the entertainment of sake culture is perfectly expressed in the robust and rustic flavors of izakaya fare. In the vast metropolis of Tokyo, when you pass through the noren curtain of these small, often impossibly cramped, loud and bustling pubs, with every wall covered by hand-painted menu selections of food and drink, the spirit of celebration is captivating. There may be charcoal grilled skewers of chicken or beef, marinated seafood, tofu, pickles, sashimi, or even a few selections of naizo, old-fashioned dishes of innards or organ meats. This may include braised boar intestines, shark heart or fermented sea cucumber guts. The right sake can bring any one of these diverse offerings into an acute focus.
The best way to celebrate Sake Day is a night out at the local izakaya, and Portland is fortunate to have several great pubs to celebrate. Raise a glass at Zilla, Biwa, Tanuki or Yuzu, and offer a toast to the brewer's. Kanpai!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oregon Chanterelles

There is a very good reason why the Pacific golden chanterelle is the official State mushroom of Oregon. With over 500,000 pounds of mushrooms harvested annually, cantharellus formosus is a thing of beauty and abundance in the Northwest. On a foraging trip this week with one friend, we harvested forty pounds of mushrooms in two hours! The chanterelle is one of the most diverse mushrooms in cooking combinations, pairing well with grains, fruits, beans, peppers, tomatoes, summer and fall squashes, poultry and wild game. For those that forage their own mushrooms, the chanterelle is one of the most delightful funghi of the wild, a field of bright orange buttons in on a carpet of green moss is a beautiful sight to behold, and a certain sign of the joy of autumn days.
I know that some restaurants, especially in the New England states, prefer high altitude bouchons, or high latitude chanterelles, such as the chanterelles of Saskatchewan. The Oregon chanterelle does grow quite fast in our climate, and can often become huge ragged trumpets. They aren't always as pretty as the cute little buttons of higher country, but I find the fragrance of our chanterelles to be the finest of its kind.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Chester Story

It is always a delight to read the newsletters from Anthony Boutard of Ayer's Creek Farm. Equal measures inspiring farmer and scholarly historian, his work is a blessing to our agricultural community. This weeks newsletter shares the story of the Chester Blackberry, which I am passing on to all of you:

In the spring of 1968, Robert Skirvin, a student of the small fruit breeder, John Hull, emasculated blossoms on the blackberry selection SIUS 47, carefully removing all of the stamens to avoid self pollenation. The SIUS prefix indicated the plant is a product of the breeding program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Each breeding program has a specific prefix that helps keep track of a variety's ancestry. Later he dusted pollen from the blackberry variety "Thornfree" onto the receptive stigmas. "Thornfree" is a USDA selection of the legendary English blackberry "Merton Thornless." Unlike many early thornless varieties which were chimeric and unstable, the absence of thorns in "Merton" was a stable trait and useful for breeding purposes.

After the fruits ripened, the seeds were extracted and planted. Out of the many dozens of 1968 seedlings, three were noteworthy for their flavor, yield and thornless canes. Two would be released as named varieties, and a third wound up as the maternal parent of a named variety. Skirvin completed his masters and then moved on to Purdue where he studied geraniums and earned his PhD.

In 1973, the Southern Illinois Fruit Station was closed. Hull had the most promising plants moved to other experiment stations. The blackberries were sent to Profesor Zych who ran the small fruits program at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Zych died shortly afterward. Fortunately, Skirvin joined the small fruits program at Urbana and discovered that the blackberries he had bred many years earlier were still growing and producing fruit. He decided SIUS 68-6-17 was worth releasing as a named variety. As John Hull already has his name affixed to one of the 1968 progeny, "Hull Thornless," they decided to honor Professor Zych who acted as guardian of the berry. We were spared a berry named "Zych Thornless," because the breeders had the good sense to use his first name, Chester. SIUS 68-6-17 was formally released in 1985 as "Chester Thornless," and earned the honorific of "Outstanding Fruit Cultivar" in 2001.

Another selection from the 1968 breeding work of Hull and Skirvin was SIUS 68-2-5. That plant was pollenated with a blackberry from Arkansas, AK 545, and one of the resulting seedlings was released as "Triple Crown" in 1996. Its flavor bears the distinct signature of berries from the Arkansas program.

The Southern Illinois Fruit Station operated from 1959-1973. During that short time, four named blackberry varieties were released from its breeding program, in addition to several other small fruits. "Black Satin," "Dirksen Thornless," "Hull Thornless" and "Chester Thornless" remain highly regarded blackberry varieties. The great Senator Everett Dirksen, the master of eloquent barbs, had picked berries as a youth. Dirksen was a champion of the center, and it thrived under his patronage. When you hear people decry "pork barrel spending," and "earmarks," savor a fresh "Chester" and maybe that will soften any rising indignation.

Over the years, we have told the "Chester" story many times. Plant breeding is a craft unto its own, and we greatly admire people who explore the range of qualities available in a crop. The best breeders have this innate sense of how to guide and nudge the plant's unseen genetic qualities. Like other artists, they need patient patrons as well as inspiration.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part Three)

The world's greatest foods are produced in unique geography, the great hams of Spain, the whiskey of Scotland, the spices of India, and the cheeses of the Swiss Alps. Throughout Europe, the migration of pasturing animals is known as transhumance, and each region has it's particular ceremonies. In southern Switzerland, the ritual of transhumance is at the heart of the outstanding milk used to make some of the world's finest cheeses.

In May or June, when the snows have melted and the vegetation is lush and verdant, it is time for the migration of the black cows toward their alpine pastures for the hundred days of summer. These cows are called stacha in the Swiss dialect (or herens in French), meaning "to puncture," since they must battle each other to establish the hierarchy of the herd. This festival is called the Stachfascht, and determines which cow will be the queen for the season. Then the cows are groomed and decked with flowers, adorned with exquisitely embroidered straps and bells, and paraded up the mountain. This pageant is known as the alpaufzug (inalpe in French), and is commonly depicted in artworks, and painted on walls and facades of the chalets and farmhouses of Gruyere.

The summer days are spent in the pristine alpine pastures, and the cows are numbered to identify their various owners. My friends in the canton of Der Wallis (Valais), the Treyer family, have a summer cabin in the high Alps, and they often lease their mountain pastures for grazing. The luscious milk produced during these summer days in the high Alps is very rich in butterfat and herbal nuances, and has established the worldwide reputation of Swiss cheeses. In September, as the days grow cooler on the mountain, the herd is brought down before the snows return, and the celebration of alpabzug (desalpe) begins. For their triumphant return into the valleys, the cows are often immaculately groomed for beauty pageants, and twelve foot trumpets are sounded in their honor.

Regrettably, the variety of Swiss cheeses is little known in America. Generic "Swiss cheese" is often a cheap imitation of emmantal, a firm, sweet and nutty, unsalted cheese whose famous eyes or holes are created by carbon dioxide given off by the bacterial cultures during aging. Gruyere is also quite well known, a little more firm and intense than emmantal. Fresh cheeses like quark resemble the fromage blanc of France, and the outstanding double cream Vacherin Mont D'Or is creamy, with a washed rind, wrapped in a strip of bark for structure and aroma. One of my favorites is the tete de moine, which is a semi-firm, salty and sweet cheese that is made in small cylinders, and shaved into delicate curls with a clever tool called a girolle. The ancient Schabzieger had been made since medieval times, a thousand year tradition. The curd is powdered and ground with herbs like fenugreek and ziegerklee (shepherd's shamrock) before being pressed into little three ounce cones called stockli. At this point, it is a very shelf-stable condiment to be grated over any number of dishes and casseroles.
Most Swiss cheeses are best appreciated soft and warm. The croute au fromage is a rustic lunch of sliced toast and ham smothered with melted cheese, and if you like, a fried egg. It is a deep dish version of croque monsieur. The raclette holds a special place at the Swiss table. A half wheel of cheese is heated near the fire, or under a special grill, and scraped from the rind, served with warm, boiled potatoes, pickled vegetables, a few turns of the pepper mill, and a few glasses of the local fendant.
Undoubtedly, the quintessential cheese preparation is fondue au fromage. Fondue is served over a flame in a glazed earthenware or metal casserole called a caquelon. Grated cheeses are melted with white wine, garlic and kirsch, and eaten with skewers of cubed country bread, which you dip into the molten cheese and pop in the mouth while piping hot. The cheeses used are usually a blend of two or three, gruyere and vacherin, with additions of appenzell or bagnes according to your taste. The age and ripeness of the cheese is crucial to obtain the necessary smoothness in melting.
After the cheese has been devoured, there is often a brownish orange crust of caramelized cheese on the bottom of the caquelon. This is not some dreaded dishwashing chore, but the coveted pinnacle of the fondue experience. Use the skewer to peel the crust from the pot, and enjoy the slightly chewy, deep rich caramel snack the Swiss call the religieuse. It is named after the color of a nun's handmade garments, which it resembles, or perhaps the reverence with which it is eaten.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dew Magic

Last year was my first season making nocino, the beloved digestive elixir made of green walnuts. In Italy, the walnuts are traditionally harvested on June 24th. This is mid summer's day, the day of San Giovanni by the Catholic calendar. They say there is something magical in the morning air, the nuts are covered with dew magic. Well, this year mother nature was moving things a little slower than usual. The nuts were less than half their mature size on mid summer's day. I waited another forty days before harvesting. I didn't know if there would be any dew magic lingering in July, but I was willing to give it a chance.
I wanted to try some variations inspired by Jim Dixon. I would make my traditional nocino, but instead of flavoring it with cinnamon and clove, I would try cinnamon and vanilla. The first stage of making nocino couldn't be easier. You pick the nuts before their hard shells form, slice or smash them, and macerate them with alcohol. If you want to add flavorings, throw them in the jar as well.
Then you wait. I usually just set the jars out in the garden, exposed to sunlight for about sixty days. At this point, you need to dilute the alcohol level with sugar syrup. If you start with 95% alcohol, you will want to cut it at least 50%, but be careful of the balance of sugar and alcohol. It should be bitter, not sweet, and it should be a sipping drink. I like the balance at about 75 proof, but many people like it a little more mellow at 60 proof. It's up to you. After the flavors have fully developed, you'll need to strain it and discard the solids. There will also be a good amount of sediment, so filter or decant, or both. Then bottle it and finish a hearty autumn or winter meal with a nice digestif.
I had heard of another green walnut liqueur, but hadn't tried vin de noix until this year. As the name implies, this is a French variation using both distilled alcohol and wine. I was surprised at how smooth it was, and the flavors were very pleasantly balanced. I was expecting it to be very astringent and tannic, but that wasn't on the palate at all. The method is even more direct, since you use wine instead of the sugar syrup, you can mix everything in one stage. In fact, some people make their nocino in one stage using a lower proof spirit like vodka instead of hard alcohol, but the walnut infusion is not as good. The recipe is very similar, but the leaves are also used in vin de noix.

Now the jars are sitting patiently in the garden, soaking up the sun and the walnut's power. Although San Giovanni wasn't blessing the process this year, I hope I've captured a few drops of the dew magic.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Setting the Field on Fire

Chefs are always looking for great ingredients, whether they are new or unusual varieties of produce, or unique methods of cultivation that will entice their guests at the restaurant. For the farmer, it is a little more of a challenge to grow something little known or understood. First, they have to learn the particulars of how to grow it, often without guidance or counsel, and second, they have to inspire people to try it, use it, and buy it.
I feel grateful to work with a community of such creative farmers who are able to bring new products to market, and take chances year after year. Such was the case in 2006, when I first tasted a mesmerizing whole grain called frikeh, from Ayer's Creek Farm in Gaston. The story begins a few years earlier.
In 2003, Anthony and Carol Boutard bought a small thresher for their dry bean business, and decided to buy some concaves and screens for grains as well. Their dried beans are widely loved, and they had been considering growing some specialty grains. Although grain crops are aesthetically wonderful, the economics are often very difficult for a small farm. Wheat prices usually fall between $4 and $6 per sixty pound bushel, not nearly enough for a small, diversified farm. The Boutards are always looking for exciting new prospects, but they are very conscious of the fact that there must be an economic reality in the market for their enthusiasm.
Anthony and Carol are diligent in their research. Because they come from that ilk of farmers who actually eat from their own crops, they are often inspired by cookbooks, and had read about naked barleys in Jenni Muir's "A Cook's Guide to Grains." These hulless grains do not require pearling of their fibrous exterior for digestion, and are thus more nutritious and delicious than the hulled types. Specialty grains like farro have regained popularity in recent years, and command a higher price than durum wheat or barley, but the Boutards had become interested in harvesting green wheat. In the fields of Europe, they harvest hard wheat in its green stage, called grunkern. In the Middle East, they have an ancient tradition of parching the green wheat harvest, where it is known as frikeh, or farik. The Boutard's had read about frikeh in an online discussion of Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Grains and Greens," and they were hooked on the idea.
Anthony determined that "for a small farm, it was a perfect crop." With a harvest window of about three days, and being labor intensive with no domestic producers, the market price was feasible at $6 per pound! The grain must be parched during the transition between the milk stage and the soft dough stage, halting the conversion of sugars to starches. The grain at that point is still green, with enough moisture to withstand a flame. Despite this advantage, there is still an art to burning the awns all the way down to the tip of the grain, and then cooling the head before the grain gets scorched. Properly done, the crop is uniquely smoky, yet still sweet, grassy and nutty, with a pleasant toothsomeness.
Frikeh is traditionally used in salads like tabbouleh, or fried in minced meat croquettes called kibbeh. I like using it with delicious summer flavors, a grain salad with cherries, cucumbers and feta, or a late summer salad with grilled corn and chanterelles. My thanks go out to Anthony and Carol for bringing an ancient delicacy to life here in the Willamette Valley.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Family Traditions

Some of the most precious food memories are connected to family traditions. I remember my grandfather showing me how easy it is to make his favorite apple crisp, the many casseroles surrounding the Thanksgiving day table, and my grandmother's Christmas cookies of all shapes and textures. I recently inherited my grandmother's recipe collection. It is filled with more than Aunt Ruthie's sweet potato casserole, or Wilma's swedish meatballs. Thumbing through her recipes is like remembering every family holiday and every summer picnic. Even more than that, it is like looking into the refrigerator of an era of American cooking. The recipe folders have sections like chicken, hamburger, casseroles and crock-pot favorites. There is a salad section with hardly a trace of lettuce, mostly chunky compositions covered with mayonnaise or cool-whip. The pages are made up of cute little index cards from the kitchen of Betty Graeff, and clippings from magazines and soup labels. As a chef, looking through my grandmother's recipe book is as reminiscent as a family photo album. My grandmother, being as efficient as she was, bound her recipes in a fantastic binder with a folding cover, so you can prop it open on the counter at the recipe you want to use. It's fun enough to read her instructions.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Deeper Relationship with Garlic

The world is divided over garlic. It has been cultivated by humanity since the dawn of civilization. It has long been a valuable crop, being particularly resistant to both pests and diseases. Despite this, it is long been regarded as a force for both good and evil. Because it repels rabbits, gophers, and insects, European folklore claims that garlic also repels werewolves, vampires, and the forces of evil. Older Christian folklore claims that when Satan left the Garden of Eden, garlic sprung from his left footprint, and onion from his right. It seems that the ancient Asian religions agree with this perspective. Devout followers of Hinduism, Jainism and Shintoism do not consume any plants from the allium family, yet the rest of the world regards garlic as a natural health food.

I can't imagine a diet without the alliums. I eat them raw, cooked, and pickled, chopped, sliced, pureed, marinated, emulsified, roasted and fried. These are also plants that I like to eat and cook at every stage of their life-cycle. This is my first year of growing garlic myself. Armed with enthusiasm, and a copy of Ron Engeland's "Growing Great Garlic," I planted sprouted cloves in early winter. The earliest harvest of garlic, before the bulbs have fully developed, is known as green garlic. In Oregon, we use green garlic in May and June. It looks like a young leek, and you can slice through the entire plant from root to leaf tip. It has a fresh and delicate flavor, very aromatic, and lends a soft touch to the end of a long winter of cooking root vegetables.
Next come the garlic scapes of the hardneck garlic varieties (the rocambole's). This is the young flower stalk, as it curls up from the center of the leaves. If cut before the bulbils begin to form in the spathe, it has a deeper green flavor, not of garlic to me as much as long-cooked peppers and braised kale. By June and July, it is time to harvest the garlic and make way for other crops. This garlic is not cured, but still fresh, soft and moist. It can be sliced and mashed with ease, and it is moister and more aromatic than cured garlic.

Curing garlic takes about two weeks in a warm place with good airflow. The softneck garlic varieties are often braided into long, fancy pigtails during this process. If you want to display these garlic braids, you can weave flowers or decorative ribbons into the braid. I don't go that far, but it looks nice when it is well done. After this stage, the garlic is storable for fall and winter use. This is what most Americans use year round, and most of it comes from China. Also coming from China and Korea is the relatively new tradition of fermented garlic, which is now also produced in California, called black garlic. This garlic is cured over a longer time and at a higher temperature, which results in a deep black flesh that tastes of balsamic, tamarind and molasses. The sweetness and potency of the garlic is very concentrated.
I've always liked using different stages of the same plant in a dish. With garlic, you have a diverse palette of flavors at your disposal. This summer has yielded several garlic entertainments. I really enjoy an appetizer of octopus poached in garlic oil, served with new potatoes and seaweed on a puree of black garlic, and garnished with braised garlic scapes and calendula flowers. It's a nice juxtaposition of delicate flavors with the force of garlic kept on the sweet and earthy side.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rooftop Gardening

I've been jealous of the rooftop garden above Noble Rot since its early days, when it was little more than kiddie-pools filled with dirt and a few small, struggling plants. This morning, I saw how far they have come, with large raised beds filled with garlic, radishes, herbs, kales, peas, strawberries, turnips, young lettuces and a plethora of other delights.

This project was developed by Kevin Cavenaugh, the architect and designer of the Rocket Building, and assisted by Marc Boucher-Colbert of Urban Agriculture Solutions. This rooftop garden is reinforced to transform a normal roof, which can hold 20 to 30 pounds per square foot, to an ecoroof which can support 50 to 60 pounds per square foot. That means the rooftop can withstand the additional weight of 6 to 12 inches of soil bustling with healthy plant life. Sous-chef Greg Smith, on the roof looking northward over Portland's east side from the fourth story rooftop. He's been cooking and gardening with chef Leather Storrs since they were at their old address a few blocks away. Keep up the great work, guys!

Leaves and Rice

Japanese confections are usually quite simple. Seasonal fruit is often the final course of a meal. However, the Japanese take delight in snacks of all kinds. I love the seasonal mochi snacks that arrive in spring. In the photo above, there are two kinds of rice snacks rolled in leaves. The round snack is called kashiwa mochi, pounded nonglutinous rice wrapped around a sweetened bean paste, with an oak leaf wrapped around it. The slender snack is called chimaki, sometimes a mixture of glutinous and non-glutinous rice wrapped in a bamboo leaf. As with so many Asian treats, these are textural pleasures.
Perhaps my favorite of these mochi snacks comes in the earliest days of spring when the cherry blossoms decorate the parks and hillsides. Sakura mochi, also known as domyoji, is much like the kashiwa mochi, although it is wrapped in a cherry leaf that has been salt cured, and the rice is often colored pink to resemble the cherry trees.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Strawberry as a Vegetable

What happens when you can't wait for all your strawberries to ripen? What happens when you simmer, saute, poach or pickle unripe strawberries? Does their firm, tart flesh seem more like a vegetable or a gooseberry? Would you pair it with seafood, poultry, nuts or cheeses?

Mycorrhizal Symbiosis

One of the most prized edible mushrooms is boletus edulis, also known as porcini or cep. This mushroom has a mutualistic relationship with the trees that it grows near, especially spruce, pine, and fir trees. Biologists call this relationship mycorrhizal symbiosis, which means that both the tree and the fungus benefit from the relationship. The mushroom absorbs sugars and carbohydrates from the tree roots in exchange for the mineral salts, nitrogen and water absorbed by the mushroom from the environment.

I've always liked using natural pairs in a dish. In the spring, evergreen trees like fir and pine send out fresh growth from the tips of their branches. These tips do not yet contain the resins that would make them bitter, but instead they have a subtle sweet, grassy forest flavor. They can be used to infuse alcohols, or make a simple sweet tea called "branch water." It's flavor can also be extracted into essential oils or infused in vinegars or creams, and used as a culinary ingredient.
For several years, I have been pairing fir tips (I have several Douglas Firs in my yard) with porcini. This year, the dish is composed with a fir tip custard surrounded by a salad of grilled porcini, toasted pine nuts, blanched celery hearts and leaves, and a frothy vinaigrette made of mushroom stock and fir infused white wine vinegar. How often can you taste a mycorrhizal pairing?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Modern Cookbooks, Modern Techniques

The emergence of more technical cookbooks has become a testing ground for a more technical approach to publishing. For the past few years, publishing houses have been looking more seriously at online and interactive book formats. I remember the first e-book I downloaded in 2005. It was an online book that was never printed, only ever a pdf file.

In 2008, the release of two highly polished cookbooks filled with large, exotic photographs, and promising special online features. Alinea (Ten Speed Press) and Quique Dacosta (Montagud Editores) are both books utilizing modern cooking techniques, sometimes called molecular gastronomy, and both books draw recipes from the famous restaurants of their authors.
The Alinea book was published with extensive recipes, editorials and photos of completed dishes and the processes of creating them. The website for the book, http://www.alinea-mosaic.com/ became interactive the following year, describing the development of new dishes and the ideas behind them. For example, you can read about the idea and development of a new presentation on the spring 2010 menu, of squab with charred strawberries, served on a birch log. Book Cost: $50.
The Quique Dacosta book takes a different approach. At the time of publishing, it has already assembled a website, http://www.quiquedacosta.com/, filled with exclusive photographs, archives and essays describing dishes created at El Poblet restaurant over the past decade. There is not much actual recipe content, mostly full page photography. More substantial content is withheld on the website only for those who purchase the book. Montagud Editores even printed the website along the spine of the book, and promoted the website as part of the sale package. Once you buy the book, you get a special access code. Then you can view a dish from the 2005 menu, sea barnacles with zucchini and stevia. Book Cost: $199.

Even though I understand the high costs, both ecologically and economically, of printing books with ink and paper, I hope publishers continue to actually print books, even if some, or most of the content moves online. The media business is clearly changing, but I plan to keep my bookshelf.

Scenes from La Boqueria, the Mercat de Sant Josep

The main entrance to La Boqueria from La Rambla. This is one of Europe's largest and most famous covered markets. It's a great place for breakfast starting a day of touring the city, or if you're a chef shopping for the restaurant.

In Spain, mushroom foraging is a beloved pastime. Several stalls have an impressive selection of foraged and cultivated mushrooms, morels, hedgehogs, chanterelles, russulas and truffles!

Salt cod has long been one of the staple foods of Barcelona. Spaniards can order specific cuts of bacalao, with or without bone or skin, from the tail or fillet, collar, whatever you want! The price is reflected in it's popularity.

Percebes, the sea barnacle is not pretty, and it's not cheap: a special delicacy for seafood lovers.

Any chef would be envious of the seafood quality and selection, from shellfish to snails, barnacles to cephalopods, small fin fish and their organs, and large titans from the sea.

You can order tapas at the bars right inside the market. Most of the foods for sale at the stalls are served up in their simple glory at bars like Pinotxo and ...

The calcot is one of Catalonia's most celebrated ingredients of spring. These onions (allium cepa) are a specialty of the nearby city of Valls. They are planted in the summer, harvested and cellared, then replanted for the winter. The onion sends out several sprouts, usually four to eight per bulb, and the soil is banked up around them to create a tall, tender white-necked spring onion. Their name comes from the verb calcar, which is an agricultural term for banking soil over the growing vegetable. They are usually char-grilled over wood, peeled and slurped with a spicy romesco sauce, or salbitxada. This year, we are lucky enough to have calcots in Portland, from Leslie and Manuel Recio at Viridian Farms!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part Two)

Swiss Craftsmanship

I don't think most Americans are aware of the high level of craftsmanship that seems to flow through the veins of the Swiss people. For those who have ever known any Amish folks may have an idea of what I'm talking about, since the Amish are of Swiss origin. I'm referring to people who have been using skills from the seventeenth century to make their way in the world. This may not sound terribly romantic to those of us deeply entrenched in our modern gadgetry...but any craftsman would appreciate the skill of making a barn from a six-foot sawblade and a wood plane, or fixing the wheel of a horsedrawn carriage. I grew up in Missouri, so maybe I had more exposure to the Amish community than some, but as a kid, I thought their way of life was pretty cool.

Over the Easter holiday, I was preparing dinner at my friend's home in the Swiss Canton of Valais. They have a fairly modern kitchen, but my eyes lit up at the sight of their mandolin. I always appreciate seeing kitchen gadgets, since a good gadget can make my life so much easier. This was a charming tool made of three pieces of wood, an adjustable blade, and no glue whatsoever. It's a lot like a wood plane, upside down, with a notch in the front leg to wedge against the counter, and a finger hole for ease of moving or hanging. The simplicity of the design and the building materials was a marvel for me, and it was the tool I used more than anything else except the stove.

Of course, there are other designs for the mandolin. The French model (Matfer) shown is all stainless steel, also with an adjustable blade, and can be folded for storage after use. That's nice enough, except that it's heavy and quite expensive. Then there is the plastic Japanese model (Benriner) that has dominated the professional market because it is small and cheap. It also has an adjustable blade, but the plastic parts tend to bend and perform unevenly with sustained usage. So, if you have the space, for the best performance and the most charm, I recommend the Swiss model.

Cool Tools Modernized

One of my favorite things about cooking in another country is finding these special tools. Yes, their mandolin is cool, but I'd used mandolins before. I was pretty excited to see one of their many specialized waffle irons. This dandy is an electric appliance that makes a pressed cookie like something between a tuile and a Belgian Waffle. The Swiss call these treats bricelets or brezeli, and they can be made either savory or sweet. While they are warm, they can be shaped like a tuile, light and crunchy! You can shape cones or cigars, make tile shapes or just leave them flat. The original waffle irons were pattern-engraved cast-iron plates on the end of long iron handles, so they could be warmed in the fire.

You pour the batter into the press and close it. The batter cooks very quickly, and stays crisp as long as they are dry. I wanted to use them as a kind of tartine covered with sweetened ricotta, poached rhubarb and mandarins, not a traditional preparation, but tasty nonetheless.

The Swiss Betty Crocker

If there is one cookbook author that is universally recognized in Switzerland, it is Betty Bossi. She has collected and published extensive recipes from across the country. Taken as a whole, her works are much like a Swiss Joy of Cooking. I found a nice bricelet recipe, but perused another hour through the culinary repertoire.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part One)

Foraging in the Alpes

Several years ago, I was working at a small chalet in Switzerland. As the Spring snow began to melt, the chef would take me into the wooded hillsides to gather young shoots he called "l'ail des ours," or bear's garlic. As the name indicates, this is one of the first foods of the bear's coming out of hibernation. I had never heard of them before. They were very fragrant, and patches were abundant. We would gather large bags full of the leaves and make them into pureed sauces or pestos with a flavor and aroma of leeks and green garlic.
On a recent visit to Switzerland this Easter, I saw them again at the farmer's market in Zug. This beautiful lake town is in the German-speaking region, where the plants are called "baerlauch," or bear's leek. What I did not know of until then was the two toxic look-alikes of baerlauch, the herbstzeitlose (colchicum autumnale), and maiglockchen (convallaria majalis). I thought about how carefree I used to gather them with my chef. He didn't seem too concerned about the toxic imposters.
Every year, as the season approaches, newspapers and televisions show pictures of the three plants to minimize the annual incidents of food poisoning. If this sounds unfamiliar to most American cooks and foragers, it is because the bear's leek, ramsons (allium ursinium) as they are known in English, do not grow in North America. Instead, we have ramps (allium tricoccum), whose name comes from its European cousin. Ramps have fewer leaves and a handsomely developed bulb. To my palate, the flavor of ramson is more like wild garlic, whereas a ramp tastes more like a wild spring onion. The ramps pictured below are the first of the season. As time goes on, the bulb near the roots becomes more pronounced.
Both plants offer an early taste of spring in these fresh, green and fragrant plants. It is a fleeting harvest with a season of usually less than a month. In Switzerland, we were canning ramson sauces to extend the season into summer. We'll be pickling ramps in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, my foraging friends and I have finally accepted the fact that ramps do not grow in this part of the country. What we have comes to us from the Great Lakes and the Appalachians, but we'll enjoy whatever they send our way. We often yearn for distant flavors, and the memories that come with them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Noble Spring Vegetable

Asparagus has a long and proud history. It was cultivated by the ancient Romans, and brought into prominence in the French and Italian aristocracy around the sixteenth century. Today, asparagus retains its noble character, while being available to the everyday citizen. It is a vegetable we love for more than it's own virtue, but what it represents. It announces the end of winter roots, and a new season of colorful vegetables and variety.
Asparagus spears do not come from planting seeds. They are the young shoots of a perennial fernlike plant in the lily family. It thrives in cooler climates with sandy soils, especially along riverbanks and valleys. The "crown," or root mass stores its sugars and energizes the rapid growth of spring shoots. The eight inch spears we buy at the market are usually one days growth.

In Europe, especially France, Germany and Belgium, they cultivate white asparagus by gradually banking the soil over the shoots as they grow, or covering the beds with plastic. This technique protects the plants from the sunlight that triggers photosynthesis, yielding the prized pale blanched spears. White asparagus is very brittle, since it lacks the more pliable chlorophyll cell walls. If you manage to find it, handle with care. They are gaining popularity in American markets and restaurants, but the extra labor involved makes them considerably more expensive. Those who prefer white asparagus swear it is worth the extra effort. So beloved is this vegetable in Alsace and Western Germany, the entire spring season seems to revolve around it. When I was working in Switzerland, where they simmer the spears in water with salt and a little sugar, they even drink the cooking liquid with a squeeze of lemon juice as a digestif. It seemed to me like an asparagus hefeweizen.
When buying asparagus, pick out smooth, brightly colored spears with tightly closed, firm and nascent tips. Fresh asparagus is sweet, and has the feel of squeaky, wet rubber. Old asparagus will begin to look wrinkled at the base, where it is dehydrated, or the tips will have begun to bolt, or flower. The leaves will have elongated, opening and spreading apart. These spears will be tougher, more bitter, with a fainter sweetness. Asparagus spears continue to grow even after they are cut. They are usually stored and transported lying on their side. This is why you often see the tips curving sideways, still trying to grow toward the sun until they run out of energy. Like most vegetables, the natural sugars begin converting into starches the moment they are harvested, so the fresher the better.
The stalks vary in size, from pencils to cigars in thickness. As for a preference between thick and thin spears, it depends on what cooking method you intend. The thin stalks are ideal for grilling, stir fry or saute, which gives them an earthy, caramelized depth of flavor. I prefer the thick spears, which have a higher ratio of tender inside to fibrous outside, and have a more pronounced grassy, herbal flavor. Some people don't like the extra step of peeling the skins from these larger stalks.
When preparing asparagus, the root end needs to be trimmed of its tough, woody base. Hold the stalk in the center, grab the root end and bend it sharply. It will snap off the woody stem at just the point where it is too tough to eat. Of course, we rarely use this method in the restaurant, because we are working with a higher volume. We usually cut the spears evenly to about six or seven inches from the tip for speed and uniformity. To peel the thick stalks with a swivel peeler, pinch the tip and peel off the fibrous layer, starting one or two inches from the tip to the root end.
When cooking asparagus, eggs have long been considered the perfect compliment, whether in an omelet, baked in a quiche or frittata, poached or fried over easy with some mushrooms. They are especially good with spring morels and verpas, if you can find them. The Europeans prefer their asparagus with an egg sauce, a cool mayonnaise or aioli, or a warm hollandaise or maltaise, a special hollandaise sauce finished with blood orange juice. My grandmother used to serve it over toast with a cream sauce, and on warm spring days, my friends always look forward to my chilled soup, a sort of asparagus vichyssoise.
Asparagus shines in simple presentations as well. It can be thinly sliced raw, dressed with a nice, grassy olive oil and sprinkled with grated parmigiano reggiano, or toss them with some olive oil and salt and simply throw them on the grill with some chicken or sausages, and drink a hefeweizen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Color Purple

As soon as the cold nights give way to warmer days, nature begins her vibrant show of purple blossoms. They often start before the first day of spring and continue into midsummer. This year, rosemary blossoms have come quite early, to be followed by a parade of purple lilac and chive blossoms in April, borage, thyme and gentian sage in May, then anise hyssop and lavender in early summer.

In these last days of winter, I like to use them to bring a little color to my cooking. I decided years ago to bring savory herbs and vegetables into my desserts rather than use tropical fruits. This way, I can stay local and the dishes offer more than just sweetness at the end of a meal. I like them to offer a little reflection on the flavors used throughout the meal. At the moment, Park Kitchen serves a rosemary infused panna cotta, with a sweet and sour huckleberry sauce, and garnished with salted pine nuts and rosemary blossoms. The blossoms bring more than just a pretty color. It has a slight earthiness and of course, a bittersweet floral note. It creates a nice bridge between the herbal cream infusion and the rich sweetness of the huckleberry puree.

The chef who first inspired me toward this idea of savory ingredients being used in the final course was Pierre Herme. I remember the revelation of his desserts in 1996, particularly a cake accompanied by strawberries, red beets and a black peppercorn syrup. I had been thinking about a dessert of chocolate and red beets ever since. This year, it finally came onto the menu with a rich chocolate cake covered by a beet flavored ganache and beet chips, and served with pistachios and a pistachio puree. Okay, so beets aren't exactly purple.

Part of the pleasure of tasting these flavors in a sweet context is that they create entirely new associations for our taste buds. By adding the earthiness of beets to the bittersweet chocolate, you taste something unexpected, like a hint of coconut or berries. In the panna cotta, the rosemary and salty pine nuts make the cream taste sweeter against the huckleberry. I've never had a sweet tooth, so I had to find a way to make dessert more exciting for myself as well as the guests.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are!

Gleaning the First Flavors of Spring

The warmth of this month has many of our food plants in a state of confusion. A mere three weeks after Groundhog Day, we have nettles on the menu at Park Kitchen. This is the earliest I've ever seen so many foods we normally associate with the coming of spring. The Spring Equinox usually arrives without much fanfare in the garden here in the Northwest. Our first local peas and rhubarb are still some weeks away. We have to find other means of bringing some color and vibrancy to the table.

This is where Oregon shines. Foraging here is a wonderland of wild edible plants. Most climates provide a few edible weeds, like nettles, dandelion, miner's lettuces and chickweed. We really have it all, our forests filled with wild mushrooms year round, fiddlehead ferns and wood sorrels, rivers and streams lined with ramps and watercress, and on and on...

Here is a winter bed of treviso radicchios, surrounded by a wild ground cover called chickweed (stellaria media). It is one of the early wild greens I use to bring some freshness to a dish while we wait for the first spring produce. These nutty flavored leaves garnish a dish of egg, artichoke and leeks with a nettle puree and grated grana padano.

Of course, stinging nettles (urtica dioica) are a well known weed, sometimes more cautionary than culinary. Their tiny stinging spines contain an irritating toxin that dissolves rapidly with cooking. They are usually plunged into boiling water, then pureed or chopped before use. Their flavor to me has always been like a deeply flavored spinach with a resemblance to seaweed. Like those greens, it is very high in vitamins and nutrients.

Another early wild edible plant is the dandelion (taraxacum officinalis). The name comes from the French term "dent de lion," meaning lion's tooth, describing the sharp ridged leaves. When I was working in Switzerland, we made the famous Salade Lyonnaise of egg, bacon, croutons and dandelion, and in that archaic region, we called it Salade Dent de Lion. Today, most of the French speaking world call the dandelion "pissenlit," which means "piss the bed," because of the diuretic nature of the root. It is a very nutritious weed, albeit a bitter one. It must be gathered before it begins to flower or it becomes irretrievably bitter. The young plant can be tamed by pairing it with flavors rich in fats, like cheeses, eggs, bacon or duck confit, and the acidity of citrus or vinegars. It is perhaps the most widely known and loved edible weed.

Another wild edible weed I enjoy is miner's lettuce (claytonia perfoliata), also known as claytonia or spring beauty. It has two types of leaf shape, the cordate basal leaves, and the petiolate head leaves shown in the picture. As with most wild plants, the eating is good until the flower develops too much. This plant has a delicate texture and a subtle earthiness that I like to use with mushrooms and seafood.

Another nice way to bring some life to a late winter dish is by sprouting beans or nuts, and using them in salads as you would any hearty grain salad. Shown here are bean sprouts with miner's lettuce, pickled elderberries from late autumn, and a puree of nettles. I have a dish on the menu at Park Kitchen right now that uses this format, although it is composed of sprouts, sunchokes and radishes, and garnished with the tartness of wild wood sorrel (oxalis acetosella).

These are the first tastes of spring that nature offers here in the Northwest. With our extensive transportation agriculture, we see the early signs of spring in the grocery store long before they are local, asparagus from Mexico, peas and favas from California. These are often good, but not great. In the days before spring begins in earnest, greatness comes from the little things.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Reason to Love January

There is something I always look forward to in the New Year, and it's not a new winter reading list, or a new batch of New Year's resolutions. It is a new edition of the Ayers Creek Farm calendar. Everyone who knows Anthony and Carol Boutard, the keepers of Ayers Creek Farm, appreciate more than just their wonderful grains and roots and berries. With each of their harvest newsletters, they share their keen observations of life on the farm, and this has been extended to the photos and captions of their calendar. In years past, they have shared the beauty of speckled eggs camouflaged in a killdeer nest, or the wonder of wild watercress on the banks of the canyon where water drains from their fields. One of my favorite photos came from the 2008 calendar, a deep burgundy head of Rossa di Chioggia radicchio covered with frost, which increases the sugar content of these bitter winter greens. In their own words, the Boutards introduce this years calendar:
When we published our first Ayers Creek Farm calendar in 2005, the text merely identified the various crops shown in the photos. Over the next three years, this simple caption evolved into a short essay about the photo's subject. Last year, we balked at the increasingly formulaic approach of scenic farm pictures, and put together a thematic calendar exploring the various legume crops we grow. This 2010 edition takes us to a level of the farm most people never see.

At heart, we are naturalists as well as farmers. No, we are not that type of naturalist; we remain fully clothed on the farm befitting our straight-laced New England upbringing. We grew up with Golden Nature Guides and the nature writing of Jean Henri Fabre, Rachael Carson, Edwin Way Teale and others. In that spirit, this edition of the calendar will provide a glimpse of the natural history of the farm. We will show you life beyond the fruits, grains and vegetables we sell, the non-monetized and usually unseen world of the insects, spiders, slime molds and fungi at Ayers Creek Farm.

In The Life of the Ant, the Belgian naturalist and playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck, calls these "pastoral ants." They tend flocks of aphids like sheep, protecting them from predators such as syrphid fly maggots. In exchange, the ants draw honeydew from the aphids to sustain the ant colony. One of the ants on the left has collected some honeydew in its mandibles. The aphids are parthenogenic and viviparous through much of their life, that is, producing live young asexually. Like nested Russian dolls, you can open a large aphid and find smaller ones inside, open one of those and yet smaller ones will be found. They molt periodically to increase in size. These aphids have colonized the husks of late ripening corn ears, rich in available sugar and minerals. The last generation of the season's aphids, winged and sexual, will mate and lay eggs. Some of the pastoral ants collect the aphid eggs and store them in their nests, setting them out the next spring to generate a new flock.

The slime mold, fuligo septica, starts life as individual amoeboid creatures, visible only with a microscope. A chemical stimulus brings the individuals together and they fuse to form a new organism. The slime molds aggregate and sally forth in July and August, moving across the ground consuming yeasts, bacteria and fungi. Their movement is determinant, not random, guided by chemical cues released by their food sources. Research has also shown they develop memories, even keeping track of time, and can navigate mazes, wrinkling some of our measures of intelligence. Despite the name, they are completely unrelated to fungi. In fact, there are three major categories of slime molds that are unrelated to one another. These ephemeral colonies are harmless in every respect. As the food supply dwindles, the slime mold produces spores and collapses.

No, we are not lapsing back into the old plum-in-September formula; the creature upon the violet ovoid is the object of this snapshot. The Pacific Tree Frog, hyla regilla, is found throughout the farm, more often heard than seen. Here one awaits the evening upon a Seneca Prune, over a half-mile from the nearest pond. They need open water only for reproduction. The frogs' coloration is variable, and changes with habitat. Those living in the sweet potatoes assume a distinct purplish hue, while in other crops they are pure green or brown. Less frequently encountered are the Red-Legged Frogs, rana aurora, that live in the canyon bisecting the oak savannah at the heart of the farm.

These are not merely indulgent diversions unfolding like an episode of Planet Earth. At the simplest level, every gardener knows what benefit or harm comes from bugs and critters. Every organic farmer knows that living with these insects and micro-organisms makes up the complex biosymbiosis of a healthy farm, and a way of life that chemicals and fertilizers have not been able to supplant.