Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Peas n' Milk

People, hold your breath: pea season is officially upon us.

We wait for this moment all year. And for me, its the absolute most difficult time to be away from home. Sure, Thanksgiving or Easter are difficult because of the traditions. But anyone away from home can make their own Thanksgiving or Easter tradition. Christmas might be really difficult, but with a good attitude you can make the best of any situation. Those holidays are somewhat transferrable and not necessarily bound to any space, time or participants.

But oh, the peas. I'll never be able to recreate this anywhere or with anyone other than this family, on this farm, in this part of upstate NY. It's the seasonality and the connection to the land that you can't move, direct or change. And while its somewhat predictable, you really never know when they are going to arrive. I was excited for the trip home for the 4th of july this year figuring that with a cool, wet spring I'd be there for all the glory. It was a disheartening phone call to get last friday when mom ringed to say "it's time".

"Mom! We have a board meeting!! Couldn't you just cover them up for a few weeks??" Nature don't wait for no one.

We've been doing this for years. My grandparents did it on their farm, their parents did it on their farms, and I'd love to talk to distant relatives in Poland to see if they had the same connection to peas in the motherland. When did it start, I wonder?

I know that in my lifetime I can safely assume my mom was out picking peas with me in the womb. As soon as I grasped dexterity in both thumbs, I could shuck a bushel fast enough to keep up with the adults. If my friend Dawn is reading this she'll remember the time I baited her to come over and watch a movie in high school and forced her to shuck half my share of the peas for the evening. It's been as much a part of my life as...hmm.. well, there's nothing else like it!

Two memories stick out in my head with regard to peas. First, they somehow always remain cool. It will be a stifling hot day and you've shucked a whole bucket and are beaming with pride at the work you just accomplished, sweating the whole way (sucking on a Genny Cream Ale, of course) Now, reward yourself by sticking your whole hand and forearm down into the shucked peas. They are cool, like a huge bucket of lightweight ball bearings that envelop your appendage. Once as a child I stuck my feet into the shucked bucket when no one was looking. What?? They get boiled anyways.

Second, your dominant shucking thumb remains green for a solid two weeks from all the hulling. At least its a pretty shade of green.

I know there are a lot of pea-haters out there. But just hear me out. Its most likely because you had frozen or canned peas from the grocery store growing up. Those store-bought, heavily processed slandering imposters are huge and olive green and mealy or mushy, with thick skins.

These homegrown jewels, blanched and frozen just a few hours after they've been picked and hulled are unlike anything else you've ever had. While the color is bright, so is the flavor. And since they are frozen on the same day as they are harvested, their flavor remains fresh deep into the winter. Take a pack out of the freezer in January to find they are taut and turgid and resist your bite just a teeny bit before giving way with a tiny little "snap" under your teeth. It's guranteed summer in the dead of winter.

The problem is: it's very difficult for me to prove the Integrity of the Pea to you. You see, I'm a hoarder. I'll admit it. Eric will back that statement up since he found out the hard way when he once dropped a few peas on the kitchen floor by accident. I protect my peas with the ferver of a religious zealot. We get a tiny ration per year and I'm going insane waiting for my freezer to be full again. Soooo....maybe if you beg a little and bring me some dessert, I'll share a small part of a bag with you.

Then of course, there's the smell when they are blanched. Grassy, warm and sweet, its a wonder none of us dug our whole faces into the pile of just-blanched peas. At least, not that I know of anyways.

Then the big reward: lunch on the farm at this time of year consisted of a combination of any three items: fried bologna sandwiches with onions and webers mustard, peas and milk, or strawberry shortcake. Or if you were me, all of the above.

Peas and milk is....well, what is it? It's kind of like a soup. Kind of like a stew. Even possibly a poor man's version of a fettucine alfredo with peas. It doesn't really matter what it is and I can't tell you where this recipe came from. Like the peas themselves, they've just always been there

Peas and Milk

This recipe is for two people, but we've doubled or tripled or made a huge pot when the whole family is around. It's simple and easy to amend.

1 quart milk

2 cups fresh peas that have been boiled for just 1 minute and drained

1 (or more) cups cooked and drained short pasta such as shells or elbows

3 tablespoons butter

generous salt and pepper

Put your butter to melt at the bottom of a 2-3 quart saucepan while you boil your fresh peas for just 1 minute and drain them. Add the milk to the butter and season with fresh pepper and about 1/2 tsp salt. Let it simmer for about 4 minutes, stirring often so a skin doesn't develop on top. Add the peas and cooked pasta and simmer for just another mintue to warm everything through.

If you like more of a stew, make a roux first of butter and flour first and add your milk warmed up and slowly. It will thicken significantly and you can add more pasta. A dusting of parmesean cheese is also good when its a thicker stew.

My most heartfelt and sincere thanks to Grandma, Mom, Aunt Karen (photo credits to AK as well) and Aunt Linda and any other worker bees for doing the peas. Can we take a bag out of the freezer to make peas and milk to share over the 4th?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Celebrity Sighting!!

Remember how a few weeks ago I posted about Comfort, a super-awesome restaurant right across the street from Eric's apartment in Richmond? Well, we went again on Friday. But THIS time we were in foodie-heaven.

As we walked in the front door, I noticed that the silver fox eating at the best seat in the house looked strikingly familiar. And he had several plates of food in front of him. And he was alone. All of those pieces of evidence led me to believe this was definately someone important. Our favorite bartender Patrick confirmed our suspicions: it was Eric Ripert, creator of West End Bistro, Chef of Le Bernadin in NY, and all-around food super celebrity. I would insert lots of gloating here about how we've obviously refined our palates so much so that we choose the same restaurants as famous chefs....but I can't take any credit for that. One visit to Comfort and you just keep going back...

I know what you are all wondering: what did he eat? I snuck a peak onto his plate and noticed the catfish and the mac and cheese. Of course we ordered the mac and cheese, but chose the pan-fried trout this time (with green beans and fried okra too). The trout was topped with a pat of maple-bacon butter that melted into the light, crunchy breading on the fish and left teeny bacon pieces meandering about the plate. I can only imagine how they made this and am hell-bent on figuring it out no matter how much butter I have to plow through! Now that's a promise.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reminder: I still love peanut butter

After a really tough training session and lovely dinner with Joy last night that truly filled me up (she cooked! For me! In a sexy new All-Clad pan!) I got home and my metabolism caught up with my earlier expenditure of energy. It was 10:30 and I had a conversation with the little gnome inside my head.

He said "'re hungry, aren't you? It's 10:30 at night! You always say you can't eat that late, but I know what's going on and I'm going to nag you until you give in". I said "what? Who are YOU calling hungry? I'm just fine. Totally fine. I'm not even thinking about the jar of peanut butter in the pantry" my voice trailed off and I floated to the pantry. The little gnome gloated "I knew it! You think you're so tough. But your willpower can't withstand the tempation of the peanut butter".

And he's right. Who doesn't love peanut butter? I've got three jars in the house right now, all for different moods. I happily dug a soup spoon out, dipped it in the smuckers natural and then re-dipped in the Nutella. I'm a bad, bad, naughty person. And it feels so good.

I started re-reciting my only foray into poetry. For any new readers (uh, yes you, please speak up and comment so I know you're there. Are you there?) two years ago I spent a few months living in a tent on a beach doing an archaeology internship. I lived out of a cooler and cooked on a camp stove and had few supplies. Peanut Butter was my best, most reliable friend and I wrote an ode. I thought I'd re-post it here for posterity.

And if Susanna happens to be reading, this is dedicated to her. She left the island that was her home for more than half a decade this week and I am sharing in her nostalgia. Susanna and Ronnie, best of luck in your move and lots of love.

"An Ode to Peanut Butter"

Oh, Peanut Butter, how you sustain me,

It's been just you and me as of lately.

Silky smooth or crunchy sweet,

almost as much protein as a piece of meat.

I prefer to eat your kind without hydrogenated oil,

but without refrigeration, I fear you would spoil.

You are perfect with jelly and other stuff,

but sometimes I'll even crave you with fluff.

On crackers, on wheat bread, on haagen daas vanilla,

I'll take you with me when we rent the villa.

A fiber-rich food that's good morning, noon or night,

when there's nothing else to eat, you're always right!

Oh, Peanut Butter you make chocolate taste better,

super dark or milky, you're so perfect together.

Sometimes you stick to the roof of my mouth,

unfortunately you are absent from grocery stores waaay down south.(south america that is)

If I become lucky with more fruits from Susanna,

I'll see you tomorrow morning on a banana.

Oh, Peanut Butter the ants share my love.

They often try to get into your tub.

This explains the three plastic baggies....

Just please don't make my thighs look saggy!

Friday, June 11, 2010

A busy weekend....

Eric and I had fun with some new recipes last weekend. My paella pan was just screaming to be christened after FIVE whole years of sitting around untouched. I'm sorry, paella pan. And then a rain storm chased us inside forcing us to make an orange-scented panettone topped with sliced almonds and early season cherries from the farmers market. I'm not kidding. The recipe called out to us from a book saying in Jamie Oliver's cute British accent "bake me!"

Well, the cherries were rediculously expensive so I had to do something extra special with them. We had it for breakfast after a night of HOT Jamblaya. For all of our paella needs, we went to A&H Seafood in Bethesda. This truly spanish fish market is full of awesome imports and have paella pans hanging from the ceiling.

We loosely followed a recipe from the yellow Gourmet cookbook. But instead of sticking to a solely seafood dish, we opted to add the chicken thighs I had to use up from our trip to Polyface Farms last year and chorizo from Whole Foods. WOW what excellent chorizo. It gave the dish a ton of flavor.

Go for some paella this summer. It's just too fun to miss out. I almost said "miss out on" but that would be ending my sentence in a preposition, which would get me in big trouble. Anyways, be sure to play some Gipsy Kings while you cook.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I once remember joining my mother at a baby shower or wedding shower or something at a cozy little restaurant in western NY. I must have been about 7 years old and I believe it was Colden Country Kitchen (is that still around?). Anyways, I don't remember the exact venue or celebration, but I remember all the ladies ordered quiche. All of these grown up ladies celebrating a rite of passage for a fellow female could order anything they wanted, and they all picked quiche. Ever since that moment quiche has remained the absolute definition of sophistication in my mind. Like a good pair of high heels, a sexy black cocktail dress and a cordless drill, its something for every woman to have in her bag of tricks. And for some reason, I thought it would be difficult to make. I was so deceived.

"QUICHE". Even the word is somewhat complicated to spell or say, right? (I always think there is an “s” in there somewhere. I swear that at one point there was indeed an “s” until some Frenchman blackened it out with the end of his cigarette and changed the word forever).

The good news is that while a quiche is, admittedly, just teensy bit fussy to make, once it’s made it’s the most chilled-out food you could ever have in your house. Fill the shell at the last second for unexpected house guests. Cut it into wedges for an impromptu appetizer. I’m toying with the idea of strapping it to my back and carrying in on bicycle to my next picnic. It remains sturdy in your fridge for quite some time. And its versatile…in fact, I just created this filling based on what I had in my fridge!

This tart dough recipe is from James Peterson’s Glorious French Food. James calls this “basic pie and tart dough”. I have to tell you, James: the dough is awesome for quiche. But then I used the scraps to make apple hand pies and it was a little dense. Even Eric, who will eat anything that remotely resembles an apple pie, let it sit in the kitchen until I threw it out four days later. And I couldn’t blame him. It just wasn’t delicate. I suggest we stick to grandma’s proven pie crust and let James Peterson win the blue ribbon for a sturdy, flaky, reliable quiche dough.

Just looking at this recipe seems like its long and tedious. But I promise that once you get the method down, it’s as simple as Kraft Mac n’ Cheese. Well, almost.

1 stick plus 1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
1 and ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 large egg plus 1 yolk beaten with ¼ tsp salt and 1 tablespoon cold water
1 to 3 tablespoons ice water, added slowly

There are two ways to do this: in the food processor or with a pastry cutter by hand. I am usually a traditionalist but am happy that my pastry blender broke within two minutes of using it, forcing me to step into 2010 and use my food processor. It worked perfectly. The downside is that I need a new pastry blender.

First: get your butter really cold by sticking it in the freezer for 20 minutes. Take it out and cut it into about 36(ish) small pieces by slicing the unwrapped stick of butter long-wise, then turn it over and slice long-wise again, then make 8 cuts across it. Toss those pieces with the flour so they are well coated and stick the whole bowl back into the freezer for another 10 minutes. While it’s chilling, beat your egg mixture.

After 10 minutes in the freezer dump the well-chilled flour and butter into your food processor and pulse it about 12 times or until the flour and butter comes together in pea-sized chunks. Don't over pulse. While pulsing, add the egg mixture slowly. Depending on the size of your eggs and the humidity of the day, you may need to add anywhere from 1 to 3 tablespoons of water. Do it very slowly so you don’t over-moisturize your dough. Once the dough comes together in a ball on one side of the blade, STOP. Take the ball out, wrap it in plastic and stick it in the fridge for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours. I like doing this at night so I can start the next morning with dough ready for baking

The next step is to do what the French call “blind baking”: baking the tart shell without filling so it doesn’t get soggy when you add eggs. Get out your tart pan and butter it good. Preheat the overn to 400 degrees (I stick with 375 because I think my oven is a little hot and it browns too fast at 400).

Roll out the dough on a cleaned, lightly floured work surface or on a marble pastry board to about ¼ inch thick. I use a 10” tart pan and always find that I have a ton of dough left over. That extra dough is awesome for mini quiches or little cupcake quiches; just stuff the dough into the well-greased wells of mini cupcake tins!

Once you have rolled it out, gently gather it up and lay it into your greased tart pan. Use your fingers to press it into the ridges evenly and cut off any excess dough with a sharp knife. Use a fork to make a few fork marks in the bottom of the crust so it bakes though evenly.

Now, Robert Peterson says to refrigerate the dough-lined tart pan for another hour. The first time I did this I was pressed for time and skipped this step and it came out beautifully. If you’ve got 15 minutes, I say give it a good chill. Otherwise, let’s move on.

The pastry dough will puff up when baked, removing some of your surface area for fillings. So we have to keep it pressed down. Lay a large sheet of parchment paper on top of the dough (NOT wax paper or foil, ONLY parchment) and put dried rice or dried beans or anything else you’ve got on hand that you don’t care too much about in the shell on top of the parchment like so. Put this in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the shell loses its shiny color and becomes golden brown.

Remove it from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before gently lifting off the parchment and discarding your rice or beans (I keep them in a jar and use them over and over for this express purpose). When it’s cool, brush it with an egg wash: 1 beaten egg with about ¼ tsp salt.

Old pal James again says to bake it for another 20 minutes (this time with no beans or rice). I did this the first time and thought the tart dried out, so now just stick it back in the oven long enough for the egg wash to seal: about 8 minutes. Take it out and cool completely. You can do everything up to this step a whole 24 hours before filling it. Just put your baked crust into a sealed Tupperware and keep it in the fridge. Let it come to room temperature before you fill it with custard.

This is where it gets fun! As long as you use an egg and cream base, you can be really creative. Swiss cheese and bacon or lardoons or prosciutto would make it “quiche Lorraine”. Mushrooms are divine in this. So is smoked salmon, scallion and cream cheese. Try asparagus and goat cheese! Or ricotta and layered sliced heirloom tomatoes. Use arugula or chard or dollops of pesto! I can go on and on. This one happens to be feta, spinach, scallion and parmesan.

Basic egg custard:

James uses more cream than eggs. I like more eggs than cream. For a 10” pan, I generally use:

6 whole eggs
3 whites
½ cup of heavy cream
½ tsp salt and a few cranks of fresh pepper

Quiche usually doesn’t call for whites, but I appreciate the lighter custard and I think your heart will appreciate it too. However, if it’s a special day and you are psyched for a rich entrĂ©e, use 9 whole eggs. It won’t kill you and tastes amazing.

The quiche in the photo was made like this: wash, de-stem and roughly chop a big bag of spinach. With the water clinging to the leaves, put it in a big pan or wok and add about ½ cup of water. Cover and steam for just about 3 minutes. Dunk the steamed spinach in ice water for a moment to stop the cooking and let it drain in a colander set over a bowl. When you think its done draining, squeeze any excess the moisture out. If its winter and fresh spinach is hard to come by, use one box frozen spinach. You can skip the cooking but make sure it’s well-drained.

Finely slice the green and white parts of 2 scallions. Flash-fry in about ½ tsp of hot butter for about 2 minutes over high heat. Dump the hot scallions right into the tart crust.

Beat your 9 eggs or 6 eggs plus whites with the ½ cup cream, salt, pepper and about 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan. Dump in the spinach and mix it all up. Pour your custard into the tart crust. It will only puff up a little, so if your pan looks really empty, add another beaten egg. I scattered about 1/3 cup of feta on top and pushed a few larger pieces down into the custard before baking.

This one took about 40 minutes in a 350 degree oven to completely set. I honestly don't know if your use of more egg whites as opposed to whole eggs will have an effect on cooking time. Can a food scientest please answer me this? Either way: it will take at least 30 minutes. Keep your eye on it from then on until its set in the middle and a little browned. Gorgeous!