Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Zucchini Cilantro Soup with Chile and Mint

Several years ago, I enjoyed a brief flirtation with gardening inspired by a book called "You Grow, Girl."

Jay and I nailed small, wooden boxes to the outside of every available windowsill of our San Francisco apartment, and we filled them with soil, seeds and starts. Down in Santa Cruz, we tilled Jay's mom's yard, built a fence, laid chicken wire in the ground to deter the gophers, yanked out the weeds and wild chard that were the only thriving flora, and shoveled buckets of fertilizer into the earth. After agonizing weeks of waiting for the weather to warm, we finally dug starts into the ground: all sorts of herbs, lettuces, summer squash, exotic varieties of cucumber, tomatoes, peas, and radishes.

At home in the city, I watered our tiny beds diligently. Rare herbs like lovage and lemon verbena popped up, cherry tomatoes ripened in pots on our tiny fire escape, and freshly picked parsley and basil found their way onto every plate.

In the midst of my green-thumbed bliss, our landlord appeared one day, ordering us to remove the plants from the fire escape, as per the fire department's behest. We brought the plants inside, and they quickly grew sad and spindly, tomato vines bearing only a leaf or two snaking toward the light like the hand of a drowning person grasping for help.

At home, as I went to lovingly pick a sprig of sage one day, I noticed the the stems and under-leaves of the outdoor plants were completely covered in tiny black bugs – aphids! I consulted You Grow, Girl, and dutifully sprayed the plants with soapy water, rubbing the leaves, trying not to squirm as my hands became covered with suffocated bugs. But my rubbing was no match for the aphids, who, the book told me, were born pregnant ("and that's just creepy").

Come summer, we visited the garden in Santa Cruz. My head buzzed with all the vegetables we would harvest. But we found the yard barren, the dozens of gopher-proof plants mysteriously shriveled to nothing. The only living things were the shrubs of wild chard which towered in the rows between the beds.

We went away on vacation, and our housesitter, who oddly went on to become a farmer, managed to dehydrate our remaining plants.

Today, the only living thing in our apartment, besides us, is the cat and his cat grass, which Jay keeps alive with daily mistings. I occasionally bring home a victim of some sort – a container of thyme which I swear I'll remember to water – but the aphids seems to resurrect themselves from nowhere like un-dead zombies and the plant ends up relegated to the city's compost pile.

The only upside I can see to not having a garden is that zucchini are not considered baseball-bat-sized nuisances to be left in neighbors' unlocked cars, but rather a treat to be purchased in small amounts from the local co-op. The squash are tiny, by zucchini standards, with tons of flavor and not too much liquid.

My very favorite way to prepare zucchini is in this soup, which comes from Soupmaestra Deborah Madison's Local Flavors. When I first made it 8 or so years ago, I penciled into the book, "possibly the best soup ever..." I have yet to disagree. A silky puree of zucchini, onions, fire-roasted chiles, oodles of cilantro, a touch of mint, a corn tortilla, and a generous squeeze of lime, this soup tastes greater than the sum of its parts. It's complex, lively, refreshing, nourishing, and green, green, green. "The corn tortilla," Deborah Madison writes, "thickens the soup and gives it a briny, limed-corn taste," and pan-fried tortilla strips, or totopos, make a satisfying garnish along with a dollop of thinned sour cream. Everyone to whom I've served this soup, including self-proclaimed zucchini-haters, have reacted with a raised eyebrow and enthusiastic requests for the recipe, or at least a second bowl.

One confession: I did some tricky food photography business here to keep the soup verdant for the camera. It will actually turn more of an army green when you follow the directions, but will taste more amazing, and have more voluptuous body, with the components heated and blended together.

Regardless of whether or not you have a green thumb, and whether or not you're frantically trying to use up an over-abundant crop of zucchini, I hope you grow to love this soup as much as we do.

Zillions of zucchini:
Quinoa with Roasted Corn, Zucchini and Mint
Zucchini Pesto Lasagna
Zucchini Tomato Tart

Zucchini Cilantro Soup, with Chile and Mint

Adapted slightly from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors

Chiles can vary greatly in heat, so I'd recommend tasting each one post-roasting and adding them in with discretion. I almost always make this with water, but you can use a mild vegetable or chicken stock in its place; just omit the salt, and it to taste. I've made this soup with olive oil and was surprised to find the flavors conflicting; I highly advise using sunflower oil as the cooking oil here. If you lack an herb garden and don't wish to buy full bunches of mint and parsley only to use a few tablespoons of each, know that I've made this soup many times omitting both and it is still amazing.

This soup is best the day it's made, when the color and flavors are bright, but it's still an excellent soup on day two or three, and, in a pinch, can be frozen and re-heated later.

Makes 6 servings

The soup:
1 poblano or 2 anaheim chiles
1 bunch cilantro, about 2 cups total
1 large or 2 small white spring onions (or 1 medium-sized cured white or yellow onion), peeled and chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons sunflower oil
12-14 ounces zucchini (3-4 medium), trimmed and chopped into roughly 1/2" pieces
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped mint
1 corn tortilla, torn into pieces
3/4 teaspoon salt
about 3 cups water (or mild chicken or vegetable stock)
juice of 1-2 limes

The crispy tortilla strips (totopos):
2 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips (approx. 1/4" wide by 2" long)
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
pinch salt
sour cream or crème fraîche, for serving

Make the soup:
Roast the chiles over an open flame until the skins are mostly blackened. (I set mine on my stove's burner over a medium-low flame, and turn them occasionally with tongs.) Set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel, seed, and chop the chiles.

Separate the stems from the cilantro leaves and reserve both. Chop the stems and place them with the chiles and zucchini. Reserve the leaves in a separate bowl.

Warm the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or soup pot. Add the onion and saute until slightly translucent, 5 minutes. Add the chile, cilantro stems, zucchini, parsley, mint and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is fairly soft, 5-10 minutes. Add the tortilla and enough water or stock to come up to the level of the vegetables. Increase the heat and bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the soup, partially covered, until the zucchini is very soft, about 15 minutes.

Let the soup cool slightly. Reserve a few pretty sprigs of cilantro for garnish, and add the rest to the soup. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup completely smooth. (Alternately, puree the soup in a blender in two batches.) Add the lime juice to taste, and more salt if needed. If the soup is thick, thin it with a bit more water or stock; if the soup is too thin, you can add more tortilla, simmer for 5 minutes to soften, and puree again.

Make the totopos:
Heat the remaining oil in a heavy (such as cast iron), medium skillet set over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the tortilla strips, and saute, flipping and stirring frequently with a metal spatula, until the tortillas are golden and crisp, reducing the heat if needed. Season with a pinch of salt.

Serve the soup warm, garnished with a dollop of cream, a handful of tortilla strips, and leaf or two of cilantro and mint.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Plum Biercake

It was love at first sight when I spotted my new cookbook obsession, The Boozy Baker.

Being a bit of a boozy baker myself, I felt an instant kinship with Lucy Baker, whose book brims with recipes for sweets containing wine, beer and spirits, in addition to lush libations. This plum biercake, a fluffy gingerbread-esque cake made with a full cup of German doppelbock beer, was first on my list.

Plums are coming into their own here in California, and while their skins can sometimes be too puckery for me to want to eat them out of hand, I love the way their tartness contrasts with this spicy cake. The flesh bakes into meltingly tender slivers, the plum flavor intensifying in the heat of the oven.

The cake base has the fluff of a yellow cake while conveying the spice of cinnamon and ginger underpinned by dark molasses. The dark beer comes through in rich undertones, its moisture keeping the cake light. Ginger and plums make a snappy pair, enhancing each others' zippy qualities, and here the plums brighten a typically fall-flavored confection. (Speaking of which, this would make an ideal dessert come Oktoberfest, if you can still find plums in your neck of the woods.)

In sticking with the beer theme, I swapped in some barley flour for half of the all-purpose. Barley flour is soft, light and creamy, almost like an unbleached cake flour, with the nutty flavor of whole grain. Tasting it, you wouldn't know this cake is made with whole grain flour, but using it satisfied my inner health-nut. A few small changes also included upping the salt content a bit, and adding a good grinding of black pepper, and sprinkling the plums with sugar, which helps them stay moist.

A slice of this cake makes a heavenly summer dessert, served with a plume of softly whipped and lightly sweetened cream flavored with vanilla, which softens the cake's assertive flavors. We invited some friends over to help us devour it, and they brought what turned out to be the ideal beverage accompaniment: equal parts ruby port and hot water poured over a lemon wedge studded with cloves, which took the chill out of the San Francisco summer night. I think Lucy Baker would approve.

In the spirit of boozy baking, I whipped up yet another granola variation: Maple Bourbon Pecan, made with vanilla bean browned butter, maple sugar, and a splash of bourbon. I've posted the recipe as a variation beneath the original here. It is our new favorite, with plain yogurt and ripe peaches, for breakfast.

Other Boozy recipes I've got my eye on are  Bourbon-Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich Cookies, Cherry Pie with Scotch and Walnut Crumble, Individual Raspberry-Amaretto Cheesecakes, and Beer Profiteroles with Chocolate Beer Sauce. The mouthwatering recipes and stunning photos in Lucy's book are enough to turn anyone into a Boozy Baker.

Boozy Baking:
Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie
Banana Rum Upside-Down Cakelets
Irish Coffee Ice Cream

Ginger Plum Crumble
Easy Almond Plum Tart
Plum Cardamom Crumble Squares

One year ago:
Zucchini Pesto Lasagna
Two years ago:
Make your own Tonic water
Apricot Cherry Clafoutis

Plum Biercake

Adapted from Lucy Baker's The Boozy Baker

If you can't find doppelbock, Lucy says you can use another dark beer, such as porter or stout instead. Be sure to serve this cake with a generous billow of lightly sweetened whipped cream flavored with vanilla. All ounce measurements here are by weight.

Makes 8-10 servings

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons (5 ounces) barley flour
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
a few grinds of black pepper
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
1 large egg
3 tablespoons (2 ounces) molasses (I used unsulphured)
1 cup German doppelbock beer (see headnote)
5-6 medium, ripe but firm plums, halved, pitted, each half cut into 3-4 wedges

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Butter a 9" springform pan.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flours, spices, baking soda and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and 3/4 cup of the sugar until lightened and fluffy. Beat in the egg and molasses. Add a third of the flour mixture, mixing on low to just combine, then mix in half of the beer. Continue like this until all the flour and beer are added, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Give the batter a final stir by hand to make sure it is homogenous.

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Arrange the plum wedges in concentric circles over the top, and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar.

Bake the cake until a tester inserted into a cakey (not plummy) part comes out clean, 40-50 minutes. Let the cake cool slightly, run a thin knife or offset spatula around the sides of the cake, then release the sides of the pan. Let the cake cool until warm; it's still baking from residual heat. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature with ample whipped cream.

The cake is best the day it's baked, but will keep for up to a few days at room temperature in an airtight container.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sweet Cherry Manhattans

Like gin and tonics, I always assumed the Manhattan to be an old man drink.

But one evening, I sipped off of a friend's manhattan (who happened to be an older gentleman) and was delighted at its hint of sweetness and underlying complexity.

The key to the manhattan lies in the addition of sweet, red vermouth, which balances out the tartness of bourbon (which is the whiskey most often used these days, though rye is traditional). A dash of Angostura bitters adds depth, and the drink is served either stirred with ice and strained into a martini glass, or poured over ice in a rocks glass. A glowing maraschino cherry is the typical garnish, and sometimes the dyed-red juice from the jar is added for sweetness and color.

With the abundance of sweet cherries in the market, I decided to make a manhattan the bojon way, by muddling fresh cherries with the other ingredients. The result is a tangy, smooth beverage that's strong enough for an old man, but made for a girly drinker like myself.

I thought of titling these "womanhattans" but a Google search revealed that cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian beat me to it with a womanhattan made with raspberry vodka added to the usual suspects.

So if you think of another clever name for this drink, let me know. Meanwhile, cheers.

Good libations:
Indian Summer Blues (with cardamom, rose and gin)
Sparkling Whiskey Gingerade
Home Brewed Tonic Water

One year ago:
Green Goddess Potato Salad
Two years ago:
Multi-Grain Sandwich Bread

Sweet Cherry Manhattan

Beware of splattering cherries as you muddle; wear an apron, and use a tall, thin vessel, such as a cocktail shaker, to contain the splashes.

Makes 1 beverage strong enough to put hair on your chest

6-8 sweet cherries, stemmed and rinsed, plus 1 for garnish
2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey
3/4 ounce sweet, red vermouth
4 drops Angostura bitters
orange twist

In a tall, thin vessel, such as a cocktail shaker, muddle the cherries to a juicy pulp. Add the whiskey, vermouth and bitters, stir, and strain into a rocks glass over ice, pressing on the pulp to extract as much liquid as possible. (Be sure to eat the boozy pulp, but watch out for the cherry pits!) Garnish with the orange twist and cherry.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Maple Blueberry Buckwheat Scones

"I don't like scones - they're too dry."

This is what a co-worker (who happened to be the boss's son) said to me several years ago when I proffered him a freshly baked scone (which happened to be apricot-sage).

I took offense that he assumed my scones to be as bready and cardboard-like as the mass produced ones we sold to customers. But I kept my thoughts to myself while continuing to restock coffee beans.

My manager (who was not related to the boss or his son) rolled her eyes and devoured one.

Made with butter, heavy cream and loads of fresh berries, I would dare anyone to declare these blueberry buckwheat scones "dry." Minimal mixing leaves pebbles of butter which release steam in the heat of the oven, creating craggy tenderness. A hot oven ensures that the crusts brown while interiors stay damp and the berries turn to jammy, indigo pockets.

Blueberries are finally both affordable and deliciously sweet, and we've been enjoying them for breakfasts with yogurt and granola on warm mornings, and baked into these crumbly scones when the fog rolls in. They would be superb with huckleberries or small, wild blueberries when in season, both of which contain more flavor and less water than their cultivated counterparts.

I make no secret of my love affair with buckwheat flour, and here it does triple duty: it imparts an earthy flavor of nuts and spice, festoons the dough with black flecks and healthfulness, and its lack of gluten keeps the scones extra-tender.

I use maple sugar as the sweetener, which creates a rich backdrop against which the berries and buckwheat shine. The flavors blend beautifully, adding depth and intrigue to a grown-up breakfast pastry that reminisces of cakey childhood muffins and pancakes. These are austerely sweetened, the crunchy sugar top a welcome addition. One leaves you satisfied by your breakfast, but not overly-so.

If you're still concerned with dryness, serve the scones warm, dabbed with crème fraîche and more berries. If you live in a sweltering part of the world, my heart goes out to you in a big way from our currently glacial micro-climate. Keep these in mind for when you can bear to turn on the oven again! Meanwhile, I've got a refreshing beverage ripe for posting before I leave for the scorching Sierras next week.

Getting the blues:
Lemon Huckleberry Tea Cake
Berry-Peach Oven Pancake
Sweet Corn Grits with Berries and Honey

Buck up:
(Gluten-Free) Banana Buckwheat Pancakes
(Gluten-Free) Hazelnut Buckwheat Brown Butter Cake
Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Maple Blueberry Buckwheat Scones

This recipe also works beautifully with wild blueberries or huckleberries, which are smaller and less liquid. If you lack maple sugar, you can substitute white or brown sugar, or mix 1/4 cup maple syrup with 1 cup of heavy cream. The scones keep well for several days; re-heated in a toaster oven, they taste freshly baked. Serve them warm with crème fraîche and extra blueberries. 

Makes 8 medium scones

1 1/2 cups blueberries (or huckleberries), fresh or frozen

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup buckwheat flour
1/4 cup maple sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2" pieces

about 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
about 1 tablespoon coarse sugar, for sprinkling

If using fresh berries, rinse and dry them, then place them in a loaf pan or pie plate in a single layer and freeze until firm, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle), combine the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter, and work in with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or mix on low) until the butter has broken down into tiny bits with some larger, pea-sized chunks remaining.

Use a rubber spatula to gently stir in the frozen berries. Begin drizzling in the cream, tossing gently with the spatula (or a plastic bench scraper or your hands), adding cream directly to the dry bits, until the dough will hold together and no floury bits remain.

Gently press the dough into a ball and place on a surface dusted lightly with buckwheat flour. Pat the dough into a 6" round that is 1 1/4" high. Cut the dough into 8 wedges. Place the scones evenly apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Freeze until firm, about 45 minutes. (At this point, you can wrap and freeze the scones to bake off later.)

Meanwhile, position a rack in the upper-center of the oven and preheat to 425ºF.

Remove the scones from the freezer, brush with cream and sprinkle with the coarse sugar.

Bake the scones until they are golden-brown, 20-25 minutes. Remove immediately from the pan to prevent blueberry goo-induced stickage. Let cool until warm as the scones are still cooking from residual heat. Serve warm with crème fraîche and extra berries.

The scones will keep for up to 3 days at room temperature. For most delectable results, re-heat in an oven or toaster oven before serving.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Quinoa with Roasted Corn, Zucchini and Mint

I know a cat named Happy Boy. Happy Boy lives in an impressive house built vertically into the Berkeley hills and overlooking the East Bay. Happy Boy is black and white and very fluffy, with a pink nose and brilliant green eyes. In spite of his good looks, Happy Boy is not the cuddliest soul, preferring to keep his distance, staring cooly at his guests, turning on his pink toe pads and making a run for it when a feliphile tries to pet his soft coat. Perhaps "Dour Boy" would be a more appropriate name.

Happy Boy the cat bears no relation to Happy Boy Farms; though, luckily for us, he and organic farm owner Greg have mutual friends in Jay's folks.

While I can't vouch for Greg's cuddliness, I can attest to his generosity and mad vegetable-growing skills. When we visited Corralitos last weekend, Greg had bestowed upon Jay's folks full cases of exquisite vegetables: tender baby greens, variegated cherry tomatoes, summer squash in all shapes and colors, freshly-dug potatoes, rotund Nantes carrots, red and white spring onions, and plump ears of yellow corn. I had never tasted corn and summer squash more sweet; seasoned simply with olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled, they tasted almost like dessert, and I could live on his potatoes' creamy golden flesh flavored with butter and salt.

When Jay's folks sent us home with a shopping bag full of produce, I was inspired to create a summer version of the Quinoa, Kale and Sweet Potato Salad that we practically lived on last December, perhaps as an antidote to too much pie.

Inspired by a recipe in Gourmet, I toss roasted corn kernels with fluffy quinoa and slivered mint, and add more vegetables, and a bit of goat cheese, to turn the side dish into lunch. I also add a bit of preserved lemon, which is a cinch to make following this video from Chowhound (though you can omit it if you don't wish to wait 2 weeks to make this).

Corn and quinoa, both New-World plants, go together exceedingly well, while the lemon and mint give the dish an unexpected, Moroccan flair. Sweet vegetables obliterate any lingering bitterness from the quinoa, though a quick soak prior to cooking removes the bitter coating, letting the rich nuttiness of the grain come through.

Serve this as a side dish to grilled meats, or eat alone as a light lunch. This quinoa keeps well and travels better; it would make a welcome addition to any potluck (4th of July BBQ?) or picnic. And it's of course gluten-free and vegan (if you omit the cheese).

If you're a grill-master, this dish would be stellar with the onion, squash and corn grilled instead of roasted. Either way, it's guaranteed to turn you and your guests into happy boys and girls.

Keen on quinoa:
Quinoa, Kale and Sweet Potato Salad
Curried Quinoa with Spring Veggies

One year ago:
Ginger Pineapple Upside-Down Cake (with Coconut Lemongrass Ice Cream)
Two years ago:
Crispy, Clumpy, Stolen Granola

Quinoa with Roasted Corn, Zucchini and Mint

I jumped at the chance to use my preserved lemon in this dish, which can be found in the Middle-Eastern section of well-stocked grocers, and is a snap to make following this quick video from Chowhound. Don't fret if you don't have any; add a grating of lemon zest and a little extra lemon juice and salt. I like this dish best at room temperature, when freshly assembled, but it keeps well in the fridge for up to 3 days. Vegans will be happy to know that this dish is also excellent without the goat cheese.

Makes 2 1/2 quarts; 8 servings

1 1/2 cups quinoa (white or multi-colored)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 large red spring onions
1 pound summer squash (about 4 medium zucchini), cut into 1x1/2" chunks or half-moons
juice of 1/2 large lemon
3 medium ears sweet corn
large handful of mint leaves, slivered
2 tablespoons finely chopped preserved lemons (see headnote)
1-2 cups cherry tomatoes, whole if very small, halved if larger
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled

Place the quinoa in a very fine-mesh strainer and place the strainer in a bowl or large measuring cup. Cover with cool water and let soak for 5-10 minutes.

Drain the quinoa, rinse it again, drain well and place in a large saucepan with 2 1/4 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the flame to low and cook, covered, until the quinoa has absorbed all the water and is tender to the bite. Let the quinoa sit, off-heat, for 10 minutes, then remove the lid and fluff with a fork and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 425ºF. Wash the onions and peel off any papery outer layers. Cut off the greens and discard (or save to use in stock). Cut the onion in half through the root, then in half crosswise. Slice lengthwise into 1/4" thick pieces.

Place the summer squash and onions on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Toss to coat, then spread into a single layer. Roast in the oven until tender and beginning to color, 15-20 minutes, turning if necessary. Let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, shuck the corn and rub off the silk. Hold the corn upright in a wide, shallow bowl and use a sharp knife to cut off the kernels. (See photo here). Toss the kernels with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a big pinch of salt. Spread on a small rimmed baking sheet and bake until crisp-tender and beginning to color, 8-10 minutes. Let cool slightly.

In a very large bowl, combine the cooled quinoa, squash, onions and corn. Toss with the lemon juice, mint, preserved lemon and tomatoes. Sprinkle over the goat cheese, and taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice or salt if needed.

Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled. The quinoa will keep, refrigerated, for a few days.