Monday, June 27, 2011

Readers, I am about to tell you a very long story with a lot of digressions. Stay with me, though, because this is what you get at the end:

Our story begins with a bunch of arugula from this week's CSA pickup. Normally, salad greens like arugula are sort of a relief for me - I don't have to do anything more creative than whisk up a vinaigrette and may throw some cheese or some nuts or some other stuff on top. Boom! Dinner is served. But there's something about arugula that throws me off. I love the slightly bitter taste, but the texture... not so much. Arugula pesto makes quick work of that problem, though - once the slippery leaves are whirled around in a food processor with walnuts and pecorino cheese and a tiny bit of raw garlic and lots and lots of olive oil, they're completely transformed.

Now what to do with this pesto?

I had picked up some cheese tortellini after work on Friday, knowing that I was heading upstate to go strawberry picking on Sunday with my better half Ed, Emily of Nomnivorous and her friend Autumn. We'd all talked about packing picnic food and I thought a cold tortellini salad would be an easy way to make something sort of compact and filling and a little more interesting than a sandwich. I also thought it would be something that would be relatively easy to eat, should we find ourselves running late, needing to haul ass back to Brooklyn to get the Zipcar back on time and picnicking in a Honda Civic. (Which is, of course, exactly what happened. And yes, in case you were wondering, tortellini is very easy to eat while you're going 85 on the Thruway, especially when your partner shoves forkfuls of it into your mouth from the passenger seat.)

So anyway, we set off on this delightful fool's errand for the love of cheap strawberries. But not just strawberries, of course - we spent far more in expenses to get to our $2.75/lb strawberries than we saved, in the end. But oh, what we gained - a lovely morning drive up through the Catskill mountains, an hour and some change in the fields, getting our hands all stained with pink strawberry juice, straightening up to gaze at the ridiculously idyllic meadows and barn with a silo and pond with two geese... and then three heart-pounding, clock watching hours stuck in Sunday afternoon traffic back to New York, during which I made up all kinds of new swear words and used old ones in new ways. Sure, we could have gone to the farmer's market, picked up a few quarts of strawberries and said to the farmer, "Hey, do you mind if I pay you double for these guys?" But it wouldn't have been the same. It wouldn't have been An Experience.

You know what else is An Experience? Making strawberry jam. Don't get me wrong, I totally love the process and the result and I'm sure I'll be doing this once a year for as long as my pancreas holds out, but let me tell you. It is some hard work. I had originally intended to make a whole ton of jam and share with all of my friends and family, but after spending three hours tonight on a batch of jam that yielded three half-pint jars? Yeah, hell no. This shit is not leaving my kitchen. I didn't work this hard studying for the bar exam.

Anyway, about that pie. One thing that you may or may not know about me is that I am very into pie. I know that everyone is now into pie, and pie is the new cupcakes and all of that, but seriously, you can totally ask my mom, I have always been very into pie. Another thing that I'm really into is vintage cookbooks. I try to steal my mom's ancient seventies-era Betty Crocker cookbook every time I'm at her house, but she's learned and now she searches my luggage for purloined cookbooks on my way out. When Ed and I were in New Orleans, we stumbled across this amazing store called The Kitchen Witch or something like that, and it was full of old cookbooks and Junior League recipe binders and stuff like that, and everything was dirt cheap and I absolutely could not believe my good fortune. But I didn't want to carry stuff around so we left without buying anything and all week I was like "WE HAVE TO GO BACK THERE" but we never made it, so now we just have to go back to New Orleans. Which shouldn't be a problem because, hello, New Orleans.

Wow, I digress and we're not even halfway to the pie yet. So Jessica brought me this raspberry cream pie from Briermere Farms on Long Island the other day and it was so good, I can't even describe it. And I want to recreate it SO BAD, because Riverhead is so far away and as it turns out, Zipcars just give me mild anxiety attacks about being charged for late returns, so the likelihood of me getting another pie any time soon is very, very low. So... I Googled. And picked the recipe for berry cream pie which sounded the most like the Briermere Farms pie, though - spoiler alert! - in the end it turned out to not be much like it at all.

Here is where our story all comes together - this recipe for Strawberry Cream Pie is actually from a 1960's era Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. I found the recipe on The Cooking Photographer's blog, and the writer mentions that by the seventies, BH&G had revamped their cookbooks to include easier, quicker recipes for the working woman of that era. I can see why - after a long day at work, shoving pastry cream through a sieve and boiling down strawberries and cornstarch into a glaze - not to even mention the cutting and arranging of the strawberry petals - made me want to go back in time and give Betty Friedan a giant hug. But there's also something kind of cool about making something so labor intensive and retro and ultimately very pretty. I could totally see myself in 1959, putting on a frilly apron and heels and meeting my man at the door with this pie and a cold martini.

In 2011, though, I think I'd better just do the dishes before he gets home.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Strawberry Cupcakes!

I came across this recipe for Ponchatoula Strawberry Cupcakes on Serious Eats a few years ago... right about the same time I started getting really into local, seasonal cooking. Lucky for me, though, I grew up with an appreciation for the joys of local strawberries - my mom and grandma would never let a June go by without a trip to a pick-your-own strawberry patch and a weekend afternoon dedicated to putting up homemade strawberry jam. And let me tell you, once you go "real strawberries," you never go back to those pale berry imitations from the supermarket.

So I decided to spread the strawberry gospel by baking a batch of these strawberry cupcakes for my coworkers. Of course, with their tender, airy cake and luscious bright pink frosting, they were a real hit! So much so that every time the spring rolls around, my coworkers start inquiring about when they can expect another batch of little pink sugar bombs.

This week, the lucky ducks of cluster 2 - and anyone else fast enough to grab one while the grabbin' was good - got a sweet little taste of sugary summer goodness. My advice? Make this recipe now! Strawberry season is quickly drawing to a close, and when it's done... it's nothing but styrofoam from the supermarket until next May.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On a warm and sunny day last week, two zucchini sat side by side in my refrigerator complaining about me, their neglectful owner.

"What is wrong with this lady?" one zucchini said to the other one. "What, she can't think of a single thing she wants to do with us?"

"And she calls herself a food blogger," the other zucchini said, shaking his head.

Properly ashamed, I consulted the internet for advice. No, not advice on how to shut the zucchini up - though I probably should have looked into that - but advice on how to make a delicious pasta and zucchini dish. I knew I wanted something without tomato sauce, something more exciting than just "sauteed zucchini with olive oil on pasta," but also something I could make without running to the store. I really hate running to the store.

Mark Bittman to the rescue! This recipe from the New York Times' Diner's Journal was quick, easy and super duper delicious. It really couldn't be easier - while the spaghetti boils and the sliced zucchini fries up in a drizzle of olive oil, you whisk together two eggs and half a cup of grated cheese until it forms a thick, polenta-resembling paste. (Note: the paper of record recommends Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I used pecorino because it reminds me of spring.) Then when the pasta is done, you drain it, return it to the pan and add the egg-and-cheese mixture, stirring with vigor and purpose, until it turns into this luscious, creamy sauce that clings to every strand of pasta. Oh, and then you add an absolute ton of fresh pepper. And the cooked zucchini, of course.

Hello, gorgeous! If this doesn't shut those mean zucchini up, nothing will.

Check out these stuffed peppers, too. Ed made these!

It's a little early in the season for bell peppers, of course, so these bad boys are from the store... but those peas are from the farmer's market, which means that as soon as Ed pulled the peppers out of the oven, I pulled out my camera.

These were so good - warm and fresh, full of soft rice and savory ground beef and smothered in a sweet tomato sauce. What an awesome tease - now I can't wait til pepper season! Someone's gonna have to make these at least once a week in August.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tonight's dinner began with a surplus - a massive surplus of zucchini, that is. When I saw the green and golden squash at the farmer's market last week, I started craving the incredible zucchini carpaccio salad I'd made so many times last summer. A few moments with a mandoline, a sprinkle of olive oil, sea salt, pepper and basil, and voila! Raw perfection. But, as is my luck, when I carted all three pounds of zucchini home, I discovered that I had misplaced my mandoline... and was fresh out of olive oil to boot. Bummer!

So there the zucchini sat, gently aging in the refrigerator, until this morning. I knew I wanted to make some of my friend Batya's famous Zucchini-Basil Soup, but even that only takes two pounds of squash. What to do with the rest?

Zucchini bread, natch! I used this recipe with a few alterations: I substituted applesauce for vegetable oil - getting right with my life! - and used half a cup of brown sugar and half a cup of white instead of all white sugar. I really like the depth that brown sugar brings to baked goods, and I think it was a good call here.

And what's that spoonful of lovely crimson goop on the spoon? Why, strawberry-rhubarb jam, of course!

I made it last weekend after going slightly insane buying greenmarket strawberries and pounds upon pounds of rhubarb. The recipe and technique comes from the excellent Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff, and basically involves cooking the two fruits with sugar until they release their juices, then boiling those juices with fresh lemon juice to concentrate and gel them. The resulting jam is a bit runny - probably due to my endemic lack of patience - but also bright, lemony, almost herbal... and never too sweet. It goes just as well on zucchini bread as it does on biscuits.

And speaking of biscuits...

Ed and I went up to spend a weekend with my parents last month, and my mom pulled out all the stops for dessert. She made her family-famous strawberry shortcake, which is exactly as dreamy and spectacular as it looks. Chunks of syrup-soaked jewel-colored strawberries meet clouds of freshly whipped local cream and cascade down the craggy peaks of shortbread. Ridiculous. So good.

Ed liked it, too - a lot! So I decided to re-create it at home for him. I called up my mom for the shortcake recipe, and our call went like this:

Mom: Now you have to promise not to tell anyone this recipe, okay? This is a family secret, passed down from generation to generation.
Kat: Okay! I promise.
Mom: Okay. You got a pen? Because this is kind of complicated.
Kat: I got a pen and paper right here!
Mom: Good. Okay... now you get a box of Bisquick.
Kat: One... box... of Bisquick...
Mom: And you turn it over.... and read the recipe on the back of the box for shortcakes.
Kat: Oh. Mom!
Mom: (giggles)

Anyway... aren't we supposed to be talking about zucchini?

And Batya's famous Zucchini-Basil soup? Which, believe me, was the best possible way to turn my gigantic pile of zucchini into something warm, delicious, filling and delightfully basil-flecked. I used chicken broth instead of veggie because that's what I had on hand, and I doubled the garlic because that's just how I roll. Oh, and I added a dollop of greek yogurt because why not?

As Batya might say: Looove it!

And though I'm out of clever segues - and some might argue that none of them were clever to begin with - I want to show you something.

Peas! Lots and lots of fresh peas!

Peas with tons of butter and a sprinkling of fleur de sel - hands down, one of the best things about June. Along with beach days, backyard barbecues with friends and cold beers in cans, shorts and sunglasses... and that strawberry shortcake. Oh man, is that stuff good.