Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flavor Profile: Herbs

As third in my series of flavor profiles, I wanted to discuss herbs. I am a fiend for herbs and every time I am at the market, I can't help myself: I am drawn to them. Wrapped in their little bunches, tied together, they look so inviting and smell so heavenly! Some of my favorite fancy gardens are herb gardens and many plants produce lovely flowers that rival "regular" ones. Chives, for example, produce a lovely purple flower this time of year.

I love herbs because they have this natural essence that I find more interesting than salt and pepper and less biting than most spices. There is this sublety to herbs and cooking with them is a delightful experience. As Deborah Madison put it, "Fresh herbs are the greatest joy to cook with. As your hands move through their leaves, the air around you fills with their scents. Their flavors are alive, their leaves and flowers varied and charming." Herbal poetry, that is.

She goes on to explain that despite fresh herbs being superior, sometimes dried herbs are necessary because of the time of year, lack of availability, etc. Dried herbs are usually considered more potent, so less is needed. The rule of thumb is to use 1/2 to 1/3 dried herbs in lieu of fresh. Always crumble them between your fingers before adding to food to release their aromatic oils.

Herbs vary immensely and each is unique. There are so many, and perhaps I'll cover more in another Flavor Profile, but today I'm going to cover my "Top 3 Herbs for Summer". They are (in order of preference) thyme, basil and chives.

Thyme is by far my favorite herb. What aroma! There are several varieties. I grow 3 kinds: regular French thyme, creeping thyme, and lemon thyme (with its lovely hint of lemony brightness). Thyme lends itself to so many wonderful dishes. If I were to describe its aroma, I would say it imparts an earthy fragrance which makes it ideal for so many dishes, especially "comfort foods". My favorite way of enjoying them is with roasted potatoes, but thyme pairs well with: beans, in a bouquet garni, with goat cheese, in and on roasted chicken, fish, Italian cuisine, grilled lamb, meats, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, soups and stews and tomatoes.

Basil is notoriously used in Pesto. I'd include a recipe, but it's in nearly every cookbook. Basil is another one of those all-around herbs but its freshness and brightness are perfect for summer. It can be used both fresh and dried, and both work well, depending on the application. Fresh basil has a bolder flavor than dried and a little goes a long way. It also grows at my house, but it always seems to do better on my kitchen window sill than in the garden. Basil pairs well with the following: cheeses, chicken, eggs, fish especially salmon, garlic, Italian / Mediterranean cuisine especially pasta dishes and sauces, lemon, extra virgin olive oil,  pizza, roasted peppers, salads and dressings, soups, Thai cuisine, tomatoes, summer veggies and zucchini.

Chives are often overlooked, I think. As a friend recently told me, they seem to be used more in Europe than the U.S. In Germany, for instance, there is this fantastically simple dish of boiled little new potatoes, fresh cheese called Quark, and chives. Heaven! I grow 2 varieties of chives in my garden: regular and garlic chives. With a slight onion flavor, they are great with vegetables, cheese, eggs and potatoes, and in soups, salads and dressings, as well as sauces, especially those that are cheese and cream-based.

Here are a couple of herbal ideas I discovered on the blog, which is also doing an article on herbs at the moment.

HERBAL ICE CUBES: Suspend fresh herbs in ice cubes to create a beautiful presentation and to add delicious flavor to your summertime beverages. Just make sure you don’t go overboard. Use just a small amount of any herb – half a pinch of thyme or rosemary or a single basil or mint leaf, per ice cube. Try thyme ice cubes with fresh squeezed lemonade, or mint ice cubes in watermelon margaritas!

HERB-INFUSED BUTTER: This is one of those simple touches that you see at fine dining establishments that helps to separate them from their more casual counterparts. It’s also one of the easiest ways to instantly elevate your next gathering. Finely chop your favorite herb (or combination of herbs) and add to a dollop of room-temperature butter. Mix well, salt to taste and serve in a cute little ramekin. Estimate about ¼ tsp. of herb to 1 Tbsp. of butter. The blog offers several recipes for using the butter (great with either fish or vegetables, or slathered on a baguette).

For more uses for herbs this summer, try this Green Goddess Dressing, or my all-time favorite Potato Salad.
Warm Italian Potato Salad (Insalata di Patate)
2 lbs. waxy potatoes (I like Yukon Gold, they are nice and buttery)

For the dressing:
6 Tbsp. olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, basil, thyme or oregano (I prefer thyme)
salt and pepper to taste

Do not peel potatoes but boil them until tender. Then peel them. Cut them into a dice or however you like. While the potatoes are cooking, make the dressing. Pour the dressing over the potatoes while they are still warm so they absorb some of the dressing. Mix well. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sides for Summer Grilling

This week I made 2 things I wanted to share with you that are perfect for summer. One is a Tangy Coleslaw and the other a Grilled Summer Squash served with a Green Sauce. They are both excellent, and would do very nicely alongside your main entree, preferably grilled, such as burgers, barbequed chicken, sausages, or fish.

I hate most coleslaws. They are either too mayonnaisey, too sweet, or dreadfully boring. I found a recipe that is different: it's very flavorful and uses very little mayo, so it's low in fat. And because of all the fresh veggies, it's a healthier version of the typical slaw.

The other recipe is another lovely veggie side that you will not be able to get enough of. I wished I had made more. Just be careful not too cook the zucchini too long. You want them to hold up on the grill. I ran out of propane tonight, so I used my stovetop grill instead. I actually liked that better than using the BBQ. I was able to retain some of the marinade and scoop that up when I served it. And trust me, you don't want to lose that marinade, with all that lovely garlic!

Tangy Coleslaw

7 cups finely shredded green cabbage (I cheated and bought a pre-shredded coleslaw mix at Pavilions with red and green cabbage as well as grated carrot in it. Your work is done)
1 cup thinly vertically sliced red onion
1 cup grated carrot (not needed if you buy the coleslaw mix I mentioned earlier)
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. whole-grain mustard
2 Tbsp. reduced-fat mayonnaise
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground red pepper
Optional: add a dash of hot sauce if you like it a little spicier.

Combine cabbage, onion and carrot in a large bowl. Combine vinegar, sugar, mustard, mayo, and spices in a small bowl, whisk well. Add the mustard mixture to the cabbage mixture, and toss well to coat. Cover and chill 20 minutes. Stir before serving. Doesn't store too well after a day or two, so eat it up or make less.

Recipe adapted from Cooking Light Magazine, June 2008.

Grilled Summer Squash with Green Sauce

For the green sauce:
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 shallot, chopped
2 tsp. capers
2 anchovy fillets in olive oil (optional, I don't use them)
1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (reserve a little for garnishing)
1/4 cup (or more) chopped fresh basil (reserve a little for garnishing, if you like)

4-5 small zucchini or yellow squash or a combo of each, cut lengthwise into 1/4" thick slices
4 minced garlic cloves
6 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Make the green sauce in a food processor and process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate.

Place zucchini in a shallow non-aluminum dish. In the food processor again, combine the garlic, olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper and pulse. Pour over the zucchini slices and let "marinade" for 30 minutes.

Prepare your grill. Place zucchini on rack about 4-6 inches above the fire. Cook, turning once, until just tender, about 4-5 minutes per side, or less, if you like it a little crunchier, but make sure you get grill marks (they add flavor and interest). Transfer to a serving dish and spoon green sauce evenly over the top. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from Williams-Sonoma.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Flavor Profile: Black Pepper

Black pepper (piper nigrum) is a flowering vine cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity. It is one of the most common spices added to food, and like salt, is integral to enhancing flavor. My charming 1964 cookbook that I inherited from my mother-in-law, called simply "The Spice Cookbook", says that "during all ages people have found its aroma to be provocative, irresistible".

Pepper has been called the "master spice". The world spice trade is, after all, a history of pepper. Native to India, it has been making its way westward for well over 4000 years. Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa travelled there from India, but by the 16th Century, due to Portuguese influence, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Spices really did change the course of world history. Because they were so precious, Portuguese efforts to find a sea route to India during the age of discovery consequently led to their colonization of that country, as well as the European discovery and colonization of the Americas. Eventually we Americans could not consume as much pepper as was being imported and much of it went onward to Europe.

As with most spices, they were initially used by the wealthy due to their exorbinant cost, but as trade increased and prices were driven downward, they became more and more readily available to the masses.

Varieties are as endless as with salt. There is white pepper, which is sometimes used in dishes like light-colored sauces or mashed potatoes where ground black pepper specks would stand out (Again, aaccording to my Spice Cookbook, Europeans use a lot more white pepper than we do. We use more black). Green peppercorns are unripe pepper berries, and are treated in a way that retains their green color, usually by freeze drying. Pickled peppercorns are preserved in brine or vinegar.  Red, pink or orange peppercorns come from plants of a different family such as the Peruvian or Brazilian pepper tree.

Pepper gets its spicy heat from a compound found in both the outer fruit and the seed. The outer fruit layer, left on black pepper, also contains important odor-contributing compounds which give off citrusy, woody, floral notes, and which are largely missing from white pepper, which has been stripped of its fruit layer. Pepper loses flavor and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve it's spice. It's also wise to keep it away from light. Avoid the pre-ground variety and invest in good quality whole peppercorns from a reputable spice company, and grind them as you need them for maximum flavor.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flavor Profile: Salt

Since this blog is all about flavor, I thought I'd do a series of profiles on ingredients to add to food to maximize flavor. The obvious first choice is the most ubiquitous: salt. A key ingredient to all savory dishes, and even to some that are sweet, it cannot be denied that salt is the most important addition to the food we prepare.

Salt has been around a long time. Its ability to preserve food was a valuable aid in the foundation of civilization. It eliminated the dependence on the seasonal availability of food and it allowed travel over long distances. Salt was difficult to obtain, so it was a highly valued trade item. Cities grew along "salt roads" all over Europe - one such road was even called the Via Salaria (which means salt) in Italy - some of which had been established in the Bronze Age.

There are 2 main sources for salt: rock salt and sea salt. Rock salt occurs in vast beds of sedimentary evaporite minerals that result from the drying up of enclosed lakes and seas. Sea salt is of course obtained by the evaporation of sea water.

Varieties of salt abound. The most common that many of us grew up on is table salt (think "Morton's"), which is a highly refined sea salt to which iodine was added in the early 1900's because of goiter. Though this is hardly a problem in America any more, it still is in various countries around the world. There is considerable dispute among gourmets concerning the taste difference between regular table salt and sea salt, and though some claim there is none, others believe that sea salt has a mouthfeel that table salt simply doesn't, and I agree. Table salt, however, is quite economical.

Kosher salt gets its name because of its integral role in making meat kosher. Jewish law dictates that blood must be extracted from meat prior to consumption, and kosher salt's texture was created during the evaporation process so that it could better absorb blood. (Wish you hadn't learned that?) This shows that salt is a great extractor, which is why many eggplant recipes, for instance, call for each peeled, sliced piece to be sprinkled with salt and allowed to sit for 1/2 hour in order to extract the bitterness out of the vegetable before cooking. I've noticed that kosher salt is used quite frequently by celebrity chefs. It does not dissolve well, however.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, there's Fleur de Sel, a type of sea salt obtained by harvesting the crystals that form on the surface of salt ponds. The harvesting of this type of salt always takes place in the hotter summer months, and now almost exclusively in the Mediterranean region. Most fleurs de sel often smell like the sea. Sea salt comes in a variety of colors other than white, such as gray, pink, black and even red salt! For a great description of salt varieties, click here.

Salt is what brings out food's true flavor, but it should enhance, never mask, the food it is added to. It should be in the background: there, but not noticed. Pay attention to when a recipe states to add the salt. It makes a difference to what you are cooking when the salt gets added. I usually add a little less than what's stated in the recipe and add to it if I feel it needs more. You can always add - it's much more difficult to take away!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Curried Tofu Dip

Under "Favorite Cooking Reads" I just added a few more of the cookbooks that I use on a fairly regular basis. As I added one of them, I realized I wanted to share a recipe from it. The book is called "Delicious Dips" and it has some great ones that span from veggie and herb dips, to salsas and guacamoles, to cheese, bean and legume dips, to meat and even dessert dips. A little of everything.

I love to snack, and to do this more healthfully, I wanted to make dips for the veggies I was trying to eat more of. I've prepared a lot of the recipes in this book, but one of my favorites in this one: a curried tofu dip. It is alive with flavor and totally addictive! It's a great way to get some healthy soy in your diet but you'd never know it was there.

Curried Tofu Pate

1 lb. firm tofu
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 green onions, including tops, finely sliced
1 celery stalk, finely sliced
1 Tbsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/8 tsp. cayenne powder
1/2 cup mayonnaise (soy-based, or regular, whichever is your preference)
1/3 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp. honey
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Drain tofu and blot completely dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel. Let the tofu sit in the towel while you saute the vegetables.

In a small saute pan, warm the olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the green onions and celery and saute until beginning to soften, about 1 minute. Add the curry, turmeric, and cayenne. Saute, stirring constantly, until the spices are fragrant, about 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a food processor, puree the tofu, add the curry mixture and the mayo. Add the remaining ingredients, pulsing until just blended.

Great with crudites (cut veggies), pita chips, or bagel chips.

What's in Season?

If you've been following along here, you know I previously posted about farmer's markets and eating locally. I am really trying to do this but I'm finding that it isn't as easy as it sounds.

I've been a diligent label reader on bottles and cans for many years, but recently I realized I never paid much attention to that when it came to produce. Now I'm making a more conscious effort to buy produce grown in my state.

Naturally if I'm going to farmer's markets on a regular basis, I am eating locally and in season but I also searched the internet and found a resource that lists it for us. Here's what they say is "in season" in early July in SoCal:

Apples, Apricots, Asian Pears, Asparagus, Avocados, Beets, Blackberries, Blueberries, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Cherries, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Fennel, Grapefruit, Grapes, Lettuce, Mushrooms, Nectarines, Okra, Onions, Oranges, Peaches, Pears, Peas, Pistachios, Potatoes, Radishes, Raspberries, Rhubarb, Scallions, Spinach, Squash, Strawberries, Tomatoes, Turnips.
My mission, should I choose to accept it: to utilize as many of these items as possible in my cooking in the next few weeks because the list is updated on this website every 2 weeks - then there will be new things to eat. I'd better get busy!

Monday, July 5, 2010

What to do with all those cherries!

Last week I purchased a large bag of lovely-looking cherries, but again, mesmerized by their beauty, I bought far too many and had to find something to do with the rest after I was done snacking on them out of the bag. The first project was a batch of Cherry Walnut Muffins, which were wonderful, particularly 15 minutes after pulling them out of the oven. The second project was a custard-y cake I had remembered making many years ago and as I flipped through my recipe binder, I found it: Clafouti. Pronounced claw-foo-tea, it is a fruit-filled custard that originated in Limousin, France's cherry-producing region. Traditionally filled with cherries, the clafouti adapts well to any fresh seasonal berry such as raspberries, blueberries, etc. Here, the recipes for both the muffins, which I made Saturday morning, and the Clafouti, made on Sunday.

Cherry Walnut Muffins

Wet ingredients:
6 Tbsp. melted butter
2-3 eggs (2 large or 3 medium)
3/4 cup milk, yogurt, sour cream or buttermilk (or any combination thereof)

Dry ingredients:
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup sugar

Grease muffin tins with butter or cooking spray.

Mix wet ingredients together in your mixer. In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Add the dry to the wet gradually, but do not overmix!

To the basic batter above, you can then add 1/4 - 1/2 cup chopped nuts (in this case, walnuts) and 1 cup fresh fruit (I added cherries that had been pitted and sliced in half). You may need to reduce the liquid a bit if the fruit is very juicy. Fold the nuts and fruit in very gently.

Fill the muffin tins each 2/3 full of batter, and depending on the quantity of batter, fill either 10 or 11 of your 12 holes with batter and in the last 1-2, fill with water. The steam produced by the water will add moisture to your little muffins. I never used to do this but since I have, I've noticed a moister consistency. If you have too much batter and need to fill all 12 holes, then perhaps adding a small ramekin or other dish filled with a little water and placed along side your muffin tins will work equally well. If you try this, let me know.

Bake at 400F for about 25 minutes. Leave in pan for 5-10 minutes to cool and settle. Muffins are best eaten the same day, and ideally right after those 10 minutes of "settling"!


1/2 Tbsp. butter
4 eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
3/4 cup cream
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup pastry flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups cherries (or other berry), washed, dried and pitted
1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375F with the rack placed in the center of the oven. Lightly grease a shallow, 12-inch round baking dish (such as a quiche pan) with butter or cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, cream and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, sugar and salt. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet and beat until smooth and foamy.

Pour a layer of the batter 1/4 inch deep into the prepared baking dish. Place in the preheated oven for 5-8 minutes, just long enough to set the batter. Remove from oven and scatter the berries in a single layer over the batter. Pour the remaining batter evenly over the berries and return the clafouti to the oven to bake for an additional 35-40 minutes until puffed and golden brown.

Let cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

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