May 26, 2014

Asparagus! Now!

Photo by Mette Nielsen

There is a moment, just before the lilacs open, that the early asparagus appear at the farmers market. Tied in bundles these first mauve tipped spears are a delicate confirmation that the spring is finally here. There may still be a crust of snow in the shadiest part of the garden, but there is really no turning back.

Asparagus!. Soon as I get home with my bundles, the first batch is boiled quickly until bright green, then served, per my grandmother's instructions, with plenty of melted butter for dipping. She insisted the spears be presented on a white linen napkin, but I'm always too eager for such niceties. I try to resist devouring them standing at the counter, and at least sit down, attentive to their decidedly grassy flavor. As the season progresses, the spears will be fatter, more succulent, to grace every dinner -- grilled and served with lemon and grated Parmesan, sauteed with shallots for a light creamy pasta, or tossed into a faro salad. By mid-June, there will be but a few spears left, some woody and tough. But by then we will have moved along to early tomatoes, raspberries and summer things.

When you bring your asparagus home, if you're not going to cook them right away, trim the bottoms of the stalks to stand up in a cup or vase, as you would flowers, and store in the refrigerator. Then, just before cooking, snap the ends off where they are no longer pliable.

To blanch, drop the spears into rapidly boiling water and cook until they turn bright green, then drain right away.

To sautee, toss them raw into a pan with a little butter, roll, cover and "butter steam" until tender.

To grill, place them over indirect heat and roll until just tender and nicely charred.

Season asparagus with:
Lemon juice and shaved Parmesan
Melted butter and chopped tarragon
Chopped cooked bacon
Orange zest and freshly chopped mint
Extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Dark sesame oil and a splash of rice wine vinegar

May 5, 2014

Stalks and Eats

photo by Mette Nielsen


My grandmother grew rhubarb in her lush New Jersey garden, those sturdy shoots were the first to appear with the delicate chives. Her rhubarb cobbler wore a dense, butter-rich crumb crust and she stewed it into tangy sauce for plain vanilla ice cream. What's more, she made a terrific rhubarb lemonade and a wonderful glaze for chicken. I learned there's more to rhubarb than dessert. As those valiant stalks appear in my garden and are piled on farmers market stalls, I become that happy kid, joyfully snipping fat stalks to turn into something deliciously pink.

Tangy Ginger Rhubarb Sauce
Makes 2 cups
Great on chicken or pork

3 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
1/4 cup fresh orange juice or dry white wine
3 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
About 1/4 cup sugar, more or less to taste

Put all of the ingredients into a medium pot and simmer until the rhubarb is just soft. Add a little of the sugar and then add more to taste. It shouldn't be too sweet!

Rhubarb Lemonade
Makes 1 quart
This is great with a few sprigs of mint and even better with a couple of shots of vodka

3 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
1 quart cold water
1/2 or more sugar or honey, to taste
Fresh mint for garnish

Put the rhubarb into a glass pitcher and cover with about 1 quart of water. Allow to steep overnight. Strain off the rhubarb. Sweeten with the sugar or honey to taste. Serve over ice with fresh mint for garnish and a splash of vodka (if you like).

March 5, 2014



Last weekend, giddiness was palatable at the Kingfield Winter Market where, on the coldest day of the year, the Wild Acres booth sprouted all manner of greens - lettuce, pea shoots, spinach -- harvested FRESH just that morning. You have to be pretty desperate to fuss over spinach.  I was. With my basket piled full of the vibrant green I sped home before it froze in the back of my car. 

Ravenous, I tossed up a quick salad with blood oranges, avocado and almonds. Grapefruit, navel oranges, or tangerines would have been good, too. The acid and vitamin C in the citrus helps unlock vitamins and iron in the greens and makes these nutrients easier to absorb. What's more, this salad is light and sweet, crisp and satisfying. With few shreds of ricotta salata and chopped almonds, it makes a delicious lunch (if you eat the whole thing, which I did).

Winter Salad of Blood Oranges, Spinach, Pea Shoots, Avocado, and Almonds
Serves 1 to 6

Blood Orange Cinnamon Vinaigrette
1/2 cup blood orange juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon grated blood orange zest
2 teaspoons honey
2/3 cup olive or vegetable oil

3 to 4 blood oranges
1 large avocado, pitted, peeled and thinly sliced
6 handfulls spinach, washed, spun dry and torn
2 large handfulls pea shoots
1/2 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped

In a small bowl, whisk together all the vinaigrette ingredients. 
Section the oranges. In a large bowl, toss together the greens and drizzle in enough dressing to lightly coat. Turn into a serving bowl onto a platter and arrange the avocado slices and orange sections on top. Drizzle with a little more dressing and then scatter the chopped nuts over all.

February 4, 2014

Tico Cuisine
Don't Believe the Bad Rap 

Classic Costa Rican Dinner

Let's be clear. Costa Ricans don't care much for haute cuisine. Why should they?  Between all the hiking, surfing, snorkeling, bird-watching, and beer sipping, who has time to cook? The weather is perfect, the water is warm, beaches stretch for miles along the coast. Inland, the cloud forest rises far above the rainforest canopy. Who needs TV in this playground of monkeys, scarlet macaw, parrots, whales and dolphins? On an adventure with Wilderness Inquiry, along beaches, hiking through the jungle and trekking up Mt. Chirripo, I found the food to be straightforward, easy and fresh.  

Unlike their Central American neighbors, Ticos (nickname for these gracious people) don't care much for spice. Their flavors run more sour and sweet. No tamales, no jerk, no spicy chicharrones. The salsa is Chilero, thin as Worchestershire but with a little more kick. Ticos love mayonnaise, endearing their coleslaws to this Minnesota cook. Lime spiked Hellman's graces most grocery shelves.

The mainstay meal is "casado", meaning "man of the house." It's a big plate of rice, lime and chili seasoned black beans, fried plantains, and simple grilled or sauteed fish or chicken. The salad of mixed greens, diced peppers, tomatoes, hearts of palm is served with cruets of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar to dress yourself. salad with a side of vinegar and oil to dress yourself. (It sounds weird is actually pretty darned good.) 

Fruit -- pineapple, melon, papaya -- in generous portions, with slices of lime and a sprinkle of salt, often served with each meal, is so sweet and satisfying that on a 90-degree day, it's all I'd have for lunch. Call the food boring, I call it good.

Here's the recipe for a simple black-bean casada. Add grilled fish or chicken and a salad and wedges of lime. Though there's are no monkeys jabbering or parrots fluttering by, the scent of frying plantains carries with it a hint sea salt and tropical sun.

Spicy Black Beans
Serves 6 to 8

Serve these with white or brown rice and fresh tomato or pineapple salsa.

2 cups (about 1 pound) dried black beans, picked over and soaked overnight
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Lime juice for seasoning
Lime wedges 

Drain the beans. In a large pot, heat the oil, add the onion, jalapeno pepper, garlic and bay leaf and cook until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the beans, cover with about 1-inch of water and simmer until tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Taste the beans and season with salt and pepper and lime juice. Serve along side rice garnished with chopped cilantro and wedges of lime.

December 26, 2013



I was the kid who wept Christmas night. How could it be over so soon? The twinkling lights, the endless, wishful lists, the scent of ginger and cinnamon, of damp fur coats and Channel No. 5. My mother and aunts dressed in their finest for Christmas Eve brunch at 2:00 am at my grandfather's home following Midnight Mass. He was a Christmas maestro. Short man, and plump, a New Jersey state senator, he wore a gray suit with striped vest, gold pocket watch, a pince nez perched on his beak of a nose. This self-taught pianist played carols as we entered his sweeping home. In the entrance hall, an artificial white Christmas tree glowed with red bulbs on the balcony right off the dining room. His table set for twenty of us -- aunts and uncles and cousins, the Arch Bishop, friends -- gleamed with silver against the starched white linen, readied for the smoked salmon, rye toast, poached eggs, orange marmalade, ham and sweet rolls. We trundled home before sunrise, lifted from the couches where we'd  curled up and placed in the back seat of the warming station wagon.

Christmas Day at my mother's mother's, a staunch Episcopalian, was a much stiffer affair -- roast beef, potatoes au gratin. The adults sipped Sherry from tiny glasses, milk for the children in fat tumblers. (Did I mention that Christmas Eve, the kids were poured a little red wine with water in the wine goblets). Christmas dessert was always, always plum pudding with hard sauce. While the adults drifted off to the living room to smoke, we kids snuck into the attic's collection of ladies' button down shoes, a doll house with real electric lights and teeny braided rugs, musty volumes of Winnie the Pooh. We'd horse around with the crutches my uncle needed after the war, and rifle through issues of National Geographic's looking for naked African women.

Thank God for Boxing Day. It celebrates left-overs and keeps festivities alive. Like every mother and wife at Christmas, I admit I'm exhausted. But, I'm never quite ready to quit.

Gingerbread is the cake to celebrate the end of Christmas celebrations. It's
simple and innocent, dark, and mysterious. Rich, spicy comfort this time of year.

Makes 1-9 inch square cake
Serve with spiked whipped cream

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup softened butter
1 egg
1 molasses
2-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
1/2 cup chopped crystalized ginger

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan. IN a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg, then the molasses. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, spices and salt. Stir this into the creamed mixture then stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crystalized ginger over the top. Bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool in the pan before cutting into squares.