Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obscene Fist-Full of Basil

This time of year my time spent in the kitchen is an emotional roller coaster. On one hand, I get overwhelmed at daily harvests well beyond the appetite of my two person household. (Even though the chickens are picking up the slack nicely. They LOVE cucumber.) But then, on the other hand, the sickening out-of-control feeling ends quickly. I have a couple quiet days at work, or I spend a whole weekend at home without getting called up to substitute teach out of state. Or perhaps the weather decides to cloud over for several days straight and without so much sun the zucchinis and tomatoes, for the briefest moment, have decided to stop falling of the vine in voluptuous ripeness.

This is the time, then, when I can finally catch my breath and catch up with the bounty of the garden. This is the exhilarating side of the roller coaster. This is when having such a wonderful garden feels like cheating.

I've said before that I am a gardener because I am an eater. I am a hedonist of culinary delights. I am a taster, so a plain flowerbed just doesn't do it for me. I am an artist, whose medium just happens to be edible. So, just to be clear here, I am a lot like a painter. A painter, who just happens use most exquisite, bright, succulent, paints and expansive canvases, and who just has to pick them up from her front yard to begin creating with them.

Today, I realized my basil plants were dangerously close to going to seed again. So I judiciously pruned them back until they looked fat and bushy, just as a healthy basil plant should. Which, just to be clear, means that they looked like I hadn't even touched them, even after I harvested this much basil:

This is 1 lbs. 3 oz of sweet Italian basil. This much basil has a street value of $37.81. (Anyway, that's the going rate at the local grocery store before sales tax).

This much basil can only mean that I desperately needed to make pesto. The aroma of basil alone makes me swoon. How can I even begin to describe how seductive it is? It is sultry. Basil is not quite earthy, not quite forestry, not quite sweet, and not quite peppery though it evokes all of these. No, basil is more like getting a whiff of an old lover's cologne, but not not being able to remember the name (of the cologne, not necessarily the lover).

Making pesto in bulk is like stretching and priming a canvas. Although fresh pesto tossed with al dente pasta and a few sun dried tomatoes is a dish everyone should have in their repertoire, today's creation was more about preserving pesto for later, for having pesto on hand as a base or for a subtle flavoring in other recipes. This pesto is for using in the dead of winter when fresh basil at the grocery store is $31.84/lb.

Pesto is super-easy. Basil. Garlic. Pinenuts. Olive oil. Parmesan. Salt. Pepper. In that order. I'm not going to give you a recipe because the amounts are fairly flexible, and honestly, it's easy to find a good pesto recipe anywhere. I like Mollie Katzen's from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.

When it's all pureed together, I simple freeze the pesto in ice cube trays, and once they're frozen transfer them to a freezer bag. (Some advise against freezing pesto with Parmesan in it, but I've never had a problem.) Then, all winter I can grab pesto from the freezer by the cubed tablespoonful. And when I do, I'll remember this day in July. This day when I was throwing an obscene amount of basil leaves around like fist fulls of waded up cash.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Over-ripening...

Phew! So far July has been a crazy month. For the past five weeks, I've been living the life on an itinerant reading teacher, which has meant that for I've been on the road more than I'd like. And not in the Kerouacian sense either, more like the Seussian sense of teaching kids about The Cat in the Hat.

So when I have been in the kitchen this month, it's been more about adverting over-ripening disasters and damage control than actually lingering over the aromas and textures of all this glorious produce that's coming my way, from every direction. Which is to say, I have not been playing around with new recipes.

Somehow, my garden when from this:

To this:

And from this:

To this:

Monday, July 6, 2009

Berry Pavlova with Rhubarb-Lime Custard Filling

Ever since smoke bombs, sparklers, and those black tablets that turn into little writhing snakes lost their childish appeal , I haven't been one to celebrate the Fourth of July much. It's a wild and reckless holiday. Noisy and violent.

This Fourth of July, however, I celebrated in a fittingly low-key way. First, I should mention that it turns out that of all my neighbors that live within ear-shot distance of bottle rocket launching, not a single one actually launched a bottle rocket or similar firework devise. (Again, I'm finding the benefits of living on the wrong side of the tracks. Neighbors don't give a damn about their garbage blowing on to my lawn, but they also don't give a damn about the chickens in my backyard either. And since, this isn't really the family friendly side of Bowling Green--no kids = no fireworks.)

Kent and I went to a party a couple of friends hosted. They served sweet/spicy vegetarian sloppy joes, baked sweet potato french fries, and real-deal made from scratch coleslaw. (Since they live in apartment, we didn't have to do any stereotypical grilling out). I was asked to bring dessert.

I managed to whip up this pavlova:

Another reason, I don't like the Fourth of July is because it's an excuse for tacky people to have a tacky theme party--mainly by drenching a meal and its acutriments with anything red, white, and blue or anything that resembles the stars and stripes. However, strawberries and blueberries are in season and I just couldn't resist using them.

I recently discovered pavlovas, thanks to Martha Stewart. I found a recipe this winter for a chocolate pavlova that was a crowning achievement and was the start of my recent meringue obsession.
Now, it seems that pavlovas are everywhere. For instance, Gourmet has ran a pavlova recipe in both its April and July issues this year. The pavlova I made, I adapted from Gourmet's July issue. At its core a pavlova is a meringue nest, into which a layer of custardy-type filling is nestled, and then topped with whip cream, and traditionally garnished with fruit, particularly tart berries. Giving my angsty attitude toward gaudy displays of patriotism, I was pleased to find that pavlovas are not American at all.

It isn't clear where the dessert was invented. New Zealand and Australia fight over the title of first pavlova makers. It is clear, though, that pavlovas were named after Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova when she toured both New Zealand and Australia in 1926. Putting dubious food folklore aside, pavlovas are amazing because they are such a delicate artistry of contrasts. Not unlike Anna's dancing, I guess. The meringue is crisp on the outside and gooey marshmallow on the inside. The pudding-thick rhubarb custard is assertively tart, but soothed by sweet, fluffy billows of whip cream and then the slight crunch of strawberry seeds and the gentle pop of blueberries make gentle explosions between your teeth. This slightly wild dessert seems an appropriate match to roman candles.

(And we did go to see the public display of fireworks after dinner.)

Berry Pavlova with Rhubarb Custard Filling

For Meringue Nest:
1 cup sugar
1 T. cornstarch
3 large egg whites at room temperture
3 T. cold water
1 t. distilled white vinegar

For Rhubarb Filling:
2 cups rhubarb, in small dice
1/8 t. salt
juice of 1 small lime
4 T. unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks

For Topping:
freshly whipped cream (sweetened) made from about 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
berries of your choice

Preheat oven to 300 degrees with rack in the middle. On parchment paper, trace a 7-in circle (I like to use a pie pan) in pencil. Turn parchment over and place on baking sheet.

Whisk together sugar and cornstarch.

Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt using a stand mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks, then add the water and keep beating until they hold soft peaks again.

Increase speed to medium-high and add sugar mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Add vinegar and beat at high speed until meringue is glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes.

Gently spread meringue inside the circle, making a slight nest for the filling with the back of a spoon.

Bake for 45 minutes until meringue is pale golden and has a crust. Turn oven off, and let meringue cool in oven for at least one hour, or up to overnight.

Meanwhile, make the custard. Stir rhubarb, sugar, and salt together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Once sugar is dissolved and rhubarb begins to let off its juice, adjust heat to high and cook until rhubarb is the consistency of baby pap.

(If you want a really smooth filling you can blend the cooked rhubarb with an immersion blender.)

Add butter and lime juice and whisk until dissolved.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat egg yolks. Add about 1/4 cup of hot rhubarb mixture to the eggs to temper, and whisk well. Then add egg/rhubarb mixture to the saucepan with the rest of the rhubarb mixture.

Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking constantly, until custard is thickened about 2 minutes, but do not let mixture boil.

Transfer to a bowl, cover with parchment, and let cool in fridge, at least 1 1/2 hours.

Just Before Serving:

Whip the cream. Assemble. If you assemble it too far in advance, the meringue will get soggy. Mine sat for about two hours before we ate it and it was fine. But, I imagine the relative humidity could effect it quite a bit.