Monday, July 26, 2010

Summer Rolls

Is there any food more appropriate for summer than summer rolls?

Of course not.

Besides being named for the season, summer rolls are everything you want from a warm weather edible. They require little or no cooking, which makes for a cooler kitchen as well as a cooler mouthful. They easily accommodate seasonal ingredients, and more importantly, they're something most of us have only had in restaurants.

There are many reasons to cook for yourself, but the best is vanity. Sure eating at home tends to involve less fat and salt and more community, but what you really want from a home cooked meal is to replicate something that you previously thought only came from a menu, and to gloat about it.

Lording over a plate of pudgy, translucent summer rolls as thick and nutritious as enormous grubs while in the comfort of my own kitchen makes me feel like a king. Knowing that my version costs a fraction of what I would pay at a restaurant makes me feel like a king who is also very rich.

We started making s.r.'s with raw tofu, basil, mung noodles, bok choi and peanut sauce on the side, but the current and preferred evolution involves the same noodles plus fried tofu, cilantro, cucumber and a vat of chili paste in which to schmear these pliant little wraps.

I'd write up a recipe if there were anything to it besides this: buy rice paper wrappers. Moisten them and fill with whatevs.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Quote of the Day

From The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne (1961):

"Swizzle sticks should never be served with champagne except to an invalid whose stomach cannot support the sparkle. Swizzle sticks destroy in a second what required a miracle of years to produce."

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Kale

See here for my piece in today's Globe on kale, including a recipe for the brightly colored braise pictured above.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sumac Agua Fresca

If your soul screams for yet another post about a sour tea made from wild ingredients, read on. If you'd rather read about designer cupcakes, might I suggest another food blog.

To begin, let's play a little game of word association. I'm going to say a word, and I want you to think of the first word that immediately jumps into your mind. Ready?

Me: sumac.

But have no fear. The only similarities between poison sumac and regular -- or "delicious" -- sumac are literary. Though they share a name, they look nothing alike.

And yet a hairy, red, seed-studded head of common sumac just doesn't look like something you'd want to eat. And it isn't. But it is something that you want to drink. Simply muddle a ripe head in cool water, let stand for about ten minutes, strain, and drink. The resulting liquid should be a shade of salmon that can only be described as "lovely." It is to pink lemonade as manna is to food.

Besides za'atar, this simple drink is my only experience ingesting sumac, though I could easily imagine a sumac syrup splashed into champagne, among other possibilities.

Though I have little desire to experiment given the quality of sumac tea and the ease with which it is made. Sumac tea is tart and fruity, part citrus, part berry. It is a dead ringer for a splash of pure cranberry juice in water, which is something I drink all summer but will never need to pay for again. Sumac-ade, as it is often called, is just as good if not better, not to mention carbon-neutral and obtainable without the exchange of currency. Nor does it come in a wasteful container; I carried mine home in a hat.

Brewing a cool, refreshing glass of tangy sumac jus doesn't even require a heating element, and the process could therefore predate the invention of fire. Forget about so-called organic food flown in from China: this stuff is the essence of sustainability.


Sumac Agua Fresca (aka Rhus Juice)
serves 6


1 quart of water
1 ripe sumac berry cluster (dark red, picked in mid-summer to fall)

To test a berry cluster for flavor, gently rub it and then lick your fingers. They'll taste tangy if you've got a winner.

Twist or snip off the berry head. Thoroughly muddle it in the water using a wooden spoon or your fingers. Pour through a fine strainer or cheesecloth removing all seeds and hairs, which can irritate the throat.

Sweeten if desired. Serve room temperature or cold. Connect with nature.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Neo-Oeno's

See here for my article in Stuff Magazine Boston about local neo-oenophiles, or "neo-oeno's:"

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Backyard Iced Tea

The Times' article about the Danish chef who incorporates wild edibles into haute cuisine made me feel three things: hungry, ecstatic, and irritated.

Hungry because I want to eat "pulp of air-dried sea buckthorn with pickled rose hips." Ecstatic that an international star chef is making his name by cooking with undomesticated flora. Irritated for the same reason.

As much as I loved the article, I wish we lived in a world in which it wasn't news. I wish that using the free and compelling ultra-local bounty of the natural world was the default, not a bold move that attracts the attention of the press.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: eating wild edibles is a sublime experience. A bite of your environment will shower you with oodles more terroir than wine from thousands of miles away. It will surprise and delight your palate infinitely more than, say, a potato. And perhaps most importantly, it will give you a glimpse of the interconnectedness with the natural world that used to fuel our existence as a species. Which, if you're spending your free time reading a blog, chances are you could use.

The food world is so gaga for novelty, and yet new and exciting tastes abound right under our feet. Everyone (including me) made such a big stink when black garlic hit the scene, but what about the weeds in your lawn? There you're almost guaranteed to find clover, plantain, poor man's pepper, dandelion greens (and flowers and roots and buds) and chickweed, all delicious, all compelling, all free. You'll also find the source of one of my favorite wild teas: oxalis.

This morning I started the day with an ice cold glass of oxalis tea. Oh, you've never had it? Funny, it grows everywhere, it's as easy to make as microwave popcorn, and it tastes totally crazy.

Oxalis tea is a refreshing summer drink with a surprisingly citrusy twang and just a hint of vegetable funk. Pick oxalis from anywhere that you trust. Oh, you don't trust your own lawn because you spray it with toxic chemicals? Hmm, maybe you should think about that. Boil water. Steep a handful of fresh leaves and stems in the hot water for about five minutes. Strain. Cool. Drink. Call the New York Times.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Navajo Tea

While visiting friends on the Navajo Nation a few years back, Elise and I were given a gift of some Navajo tea. When we got home, I stashed it in the back of my tea cupboard where it would stay preserved in the cool and dark. Which also meant that I would forget about it for a couple of years.

Though this video shows one bundle making one cup of tea, we were told that it would yield about fifteen cups, and so we had to wait an additional few months after rediscovering the tea for a time when we had enough guests to drink it. That turned out to be Elise's birthday. Though techniques vary, we tried pouring a pot of boiling water over the single bundle in a large, ceramic mixing bowl and letting it steep for about ten minutes.

The tea was wonderful. I know it might seem fairly obvious to describe a tea that is essentially dried grass as "grassy," but it was. There was a faintly sweet flavor and an aroma like pungent hay. The liquor was thicker than with most true teas, the color a rich gold.

It is difficult to discuss this tea without hyper-romanticizing the West. So permit me the following: the tea was an expression of the land it had grown out of, and in it you could taste the bare rock, sand and sun-baked wood and herbs that struggle to lay claim to a spartan landscape. Talk about terroir.

To me, this tea is about as sacred as food can be. It was a gift, it is a traditional and culturally relevant food, it has medicinal qualities, and, being a wild crop, the tea was foraged and not cultivated, which means this species has been relatively uninfluenced by our presence on the planet. Compare that to something you might find at the supermarket. Orange juice with fish in it, for instance.

The funny thing is that when we were given the tea we were drinking instant Folger's from a big, red plastic tub. I don't want to give the illusion that most Navajo are out foraging for their food. Like any rural, low-income community, most of their food is store bought and highly processed. But when the conversation turned to traditional crops, our friend went into his pantry and brought out a Ziploc bag bearing three hand-tied bundles of the wild tea.

It was inspiring to see such a traditional food still earning a place on the shelf next to products that are engineered to be addictive and are marketed with millions of dollars. But the best part is that I still have two more bundles.

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