Thursday, August 18, 2011

roasted green bean, corn and farro salad

Last Friday my friend Barb invited me on a full moon hike to the top of Sugarbush.  It turns out that for the past decade or so, she and a rotating roster of friends have aimed to ascend the mountain on every full moon, whether by hiking, snowshoeing or skinning up on skis. It's a great tradition made even better by a potluck picnic at the top, lit only by the stars and the moon.

I was excited for my first evening hike and the prospect of glimpsing an elusive bull moose known to reveal himself on the hill at dusk. Just in case, I packed my camera with its widest lens, hoping to capture the imposing creature in the full majesty of his habitat. Then I threw together a hearty salad and grabbed a bottle of white wine I had placed in the freezer for a quick chill.

Except for Barb's dog Willie it was a ladies-only 6:30 P.M. turnout, so Barb, Willie, Kris, Kris's dog Ruby and I headed up the mountain on a temperate, bug-free night. We munched sweet cherries along the way, spitting pits into the overgrown grass as we dodged the whirling dogs in our path. A pink horizon was finally snuffed by nightfall as we reached the summit. As we unloaded our packs and the dogs slurped from their water bowls, the moon hovered over us like a watchful parent.

We were just strapping on our feed bags when Barb suddenly swore she heard our resident moose grunting in the shadows, so she and Kris quickly herded the dogs into the shelter of Allyn's Lodge. As they whimpered and pressed their noses to the windows, we circled the perimeter, straining to see in the fading light. Alas, the moose was gone.

So, the dogs were freed and we attended to our feast.

Kris's offering was ambitious and delicious coconut shrimp with a tangy, orange marmalade dipping sauce. Like me, Kris is a bit of a perfectionist about her cooking, and was vaguely concerned that she had forgotten limes at the market and had to substitute lemons. One taste made it clear she needn't have worried; the jumbo shrimp were promptly reduced to their little tails.

Barb, in spite of work day time constraints, managed to grab some artisan bread, heirloom tomatoes and spanking-fresh mozzarella cheese from a local farm, and served it all with a basil and olive oil drizzle.

My salad, as you'll see below, paired roasted green beans and corn with feta and farro - a serendipitous recipe my companions encouraged me to post on this blog.

Once the last of the wine was gone and the remnants of our meal packed, we kept our head lamps stowed and descended by the light of the moon. Trailside trees cast shadows at our feet as we gingerly navigated the uneven, dimly lit terrain, regularly punctuated by - surprise! - deeply dug water bars. The dogs were unfazed, blithely galloping into the unknown at full speed, making light of the dark.

Farro Salad with Roasted Green Beans and Corn

Farro is an ancient wheat popular in Italy for centuries but pretty much unknown stateside until the last decade. Nutritionally, it contains more protein and B-vitamins than contemporary wheat and a lower gluten content. Besides that, it lends fiber and substance to this salad, making it robust and filling.

3/4 cup dry farro, soaked
3/4 pound fresh green beans, stem tips removed
3 large ears corn, shucked
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for roasting vegetables
5 ounces red cabbage (about 1/4 small head)
3 - 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Cook farro according to package instructions. Rinse with cold water to halt cooking, drain well and set aside in a large bowl.

Soaked farro
Cooked farro
Meanwhile, trim green beans and heap on a rimmed sheet pan.

Slice corn kernels from cobs with a sharp knife. Add kernels to green beans on sheet pan. Toss green beans and corn kernels with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, lightly coating them. Spread vegetables out in an even layer and roast 15 - 20 minutes, flipping with a spatula once during cooking, until green beans develop brown flecks and wrinkles and corn is lightly toasted.

Ready for roasting
While vegetables roast, cut cabbage into quarters and core one quarter. Thinly slice cored quarter crosswise into thin shreds, then chop shreds very roughly.

Add roasted vegetables and cabbage to farro in bowl. Add rest of ingredients and toss well. Adjust lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature, preferably under a full moon.


Different brands of farro may have different soaking and cooking times, so pay attention to package instructions for ideal results. I soaked mine 30 minutes, then added to boiling water and cooked another 20 - 25 minutes. Be sure to check farro often as it cooks, and remove from heat when grains start to split but farro remains pleasantly chewy.

This salad is packed with vegetables; the farro adds just enough substance and protein to give the whole thing a robust quality, perfect for eating after a hike!

If you prefer, replace farro with cooked wheat berries or barley.

I used cilantro because I had it on hand, but I think dill or basil would work well too.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

jordan marsh's blueberry muffins

Recently, I bought a great new kitchen tome: The Essential New York Times Cookbook compiled by Amanda Hesser. This book has over a thousand entries culled from the last 150 years, so it's sort of funny that of all the recipes I could have tried first, I chose this one for department store blueberry muffins. I guess my curiosity was piqued because I lived in Boston for many years without knowing that these muffins, with an apparent cult following, had been only a few T stops away at the now defunct Jordan Marsh. To me, that's like not being aware that Durgin Park was known for its prime rib or Bailey's for its sundaes. How could I have missed this?

The only thing to be done was to bake the muffins at home.

I initially intended to follow the recipe verbatim to see what all the fuss was about, but in end I couldn't bring myself to use the full amount of sugar. Also, I was so surprised that there was no vanilla in the recipe that I convinced myself it had to be a typo and went ahead and added some. Strangely, I discovered afterwards that there are other iterations of "Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins" at which have incorporated these very changes, but it's not clear if these were tweaks made by anonymous people with tastes similar to mine or if Jordan Marsh had a revised version at some point that didn't figure into the Times cookbook.

In any case, these are good, old-fashioned muffins: tender and lightly sweet, buttery but not at all greasy, and bursting with berries. I'd say they're worth making for a special treat.

Jordan Marsh's Blueberry Muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 cups blueberries, rinsed and picked over

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease 12 large muffin cups. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
2. Cream the butter and 1 1/4 cups sugar in a large bowl until light. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add to the flour mixture alternately with the milk, beating just until smooth.
3. Crush 1/2 cup blueberries with a fork, and mix into the batter. Fold in the remaining whole berries.
4. Fill the muffin cups with batter. Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the tops of the muffins. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes before removing from the pan.
5. Store, uncovered, or the muffins will be too moist the second day.

Makes 12 muffins


*I decreased the sugar to 1 cup, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling over the tops. Next time, I'm going to use a coarser sugar, like turbinado (a.k.a. Sugar in the Raw). I also added 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

*I highly recommend using paper muffin liners and greasing the top of the pan. I didn't use liners and mangled some of the muffins trying to get them out of the pan. They're very tender so the tops detach from the bottoms very easily!

*I liked the idea of mashing some of the berries, and wish I had mashed more of them. My berries were on the large side, which isn't ideal for distribution and can adversely affect the muffin's structure. If I have large berries the next time I'll mash half of them. If you have wild blueberries (lucky you!) I would stick with the original recipe in this regard.

My trusted assistant Dee Dee, always ready to help

Thursday, August 4, 2011

cucumber and cantaloupe aguas frescas

Finally, I made a few batches of agua fresca, after thinking about it for years. I can't imagine what took me so long, since it comes together in minutes and is truly a great and unusual thirst quencher.

Agua fresca, or "fresh water," is ubiquitous in Mexico, and consists simply of water flavored with fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds and lightly sweetened with sugar. Once you sample agua fresca, you'll wonder why we have limited ourselves to lemon and limeade in this country, especially since sweeter fruits require less added sugar.

To get an idea of the typical proportions for a classic cucumber agua fresca, I referred to "Paletas" by Fany Gerson, a fabulous book by a chef who grew up in Mexico. Once I had a jug of that beautiful green elixer in the fridge, I decided to apply the same process to a cantaloupe I had sitting on the counter. Ideally, you should use the freshest and juiciest of ingredients, but when I cut into the melon I discovered it wasn't as sweet as I had hoped (don't you hate that?). Happily, this turned out to be a good way to make use of it; with a little sugar and some lime it flavored the drink nicely.

Besides tasting light and refreshing, I love the way the sherbet-like colors add summertime cheer to the table. 

Cucumber Agua Fresca (makes about 8 cups)

1 large cucumber (I used an English cucumber)
6 cups water
1/3 cup lime juice (2 - 3 limes)
1/3 cup sugar, or more if needed

Rinse the cucumber well. Leave the skin on, cut off about 1/2 inch from one end and rub the two flat surfaces against each other (this helps remove any bitterness). Discard the end piece and repeat with the other end.

Slice the cucumber, then put it in a blender. Add the water and blend until completely pureed. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher, then add the lime juice and sugar and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Taste and add more sugar if you like.

Refrigerate until completely chilled. Serve over ice.

Note: If you're unable to find unwaxed cucumbers I recommend using English cucumbers since you'll be using them peel and all.

*Recipe from Paletas by Fany Gerson

Cantaloupe Agua Fresca (makes about 6 cups)

1 cantaloupe
5 cups water
juice of 2 limes
1/4 cup sugar, or more if needed

Peel and seed cantaloupe and cut into large chunks. Add to blender with the water and puree. If fruit and water mixture is very foamy, allow to sit 5 minutes or so until liquid settles out to bottom. Skim excess foam off the top and strain. Add lime juice and sugar to taste.