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!