When did asparagus start to look like it grew up down creek from the leaky nuke plant? Once upon a time all bundles of asparagus resembled packs of Ticonderoga #2’s, except they were green instead of school bus yellow, and tipped with terminal buds instead of pink erasers. And thin. Thinner than pencils. Not these Asparagus with Horseradish Cream, Chervil and Honey. These guys are hefty, but by today’s standards they’re mid-size. Larger examples abound, at least at our local WFM. Blame France–they started it. A handful of Februaries ago, in a more innocent age of asparagus, I was strolling through the open air market near Bastille with a Parisian friend when she paused before a box of giant asparagus, not yet widespread in the US. Gargantuan and lavender. She pincered a particularly fat one with two fingers, cocked an eyebrow upward as she examined it and then said, “C’est genial, ceci.” Nice, this one. Nice embraces a variety of meanings, but for purposes of this post I’m going to take it to mean delicious. After eating some I had to agree and since then, I’ve grown to prefer big asparagus. Once you get past the, uh, big factor there’s more there there, more asparagus flavor. Thin asparagus are the vegetable analog to spare ribs. Crazy delicious, but you need to eat a wheelbarrow of them before you cry, “Enough!” With the new Schwarzenegger stalks the crazy delicious remains, but embodied in fewer stalks to snap and peel (if you’re the snapping-peeling type) and, since asparagus are finger food, sigh, less opportunity to dribble sauce down your front.
Jody cautioned me not to create any titles with “babies” and “blood” in them. Then she made the tactical error of going to work. Herewith Dutch Babies with Blood Oranges. C’mon, like you wouldn’t have done the same thing? Besides, after last week’s Attack of the Devil Baby* prank on New Yorkers, I figured you could handle it. What’s a little shudder when these “babies” taste so good, when the payoff is having a hot air balloon collapse in front of you, its final gasps scented with vanilla, cinnamon, orange and lemon? What name would you choose for this wheezy pastry–Dutch baby or German pancake, the main alternative? Dutch babies sound playful, easy, maybe even good for you. German pancakes, whatever their other virtues, convey an air of seriousness. “Time for German pancakes!” could be a euphemism for “Let’s build a railroad through the Black Forest.” So what’s your choice? Light-cuddly-easy? Or Heavy-serious-Hans-Henry-was-a-steel-drivin’-man? Right. Dutch babies it is. And don’t forget the blood oranges.
As I write this (Thursday) the Big Bad Wolf howls about our house, a slavering gale sniffing out chinks, probing for weaknesses. The temperature is expected to plunge to 5 or 6 above zero by morning, with Boston adrift in over a foot of snow before the blizzard subsides Friday evening. In our current larder we have bread, sweet potatoes and bitter greens that Jody made tonight, chewy papardelle noodles with smoked goose and tomato sauce–the last hurrah of our Christmas birds–and a few precious survivors of this week’s post, Salted Butterscotch Custards. We couldn’t be snugger.
Who doesn’t love sweet potatoes? Culinary gravity inexorably pulls them toward brown sugar or molasses or something candied, even with bacon (candied bacon). But don’t do it, at least not this time. I never encountered a sweet potato during my year abroad in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, a stone’s throw from the town of Gruyères (town, plural: cheese, singular), but I can guarantee that that if there were ever a culinary match made in heaven it’s sweet potato and that most hazelnut and butter flavored of all cheeses, aged Gruyère. Some cheeses should never be melted (sorry, brie en croute is ghastly) but Gruyère is just the opposite. Quiche, the poster child of boring French food from the ’70’s, is redeemed by the addition of aged Gruyère. Fondue without Gruyère is but a pale revenant of the real deal. Gruyère is expensive (around $20/lb.) but the recipe only calls for a cup and half of the stuff, grated, about 3 ounces. Unfortunately, I only found out about the Gruyère after the ingredients photograph had been taken. Jody announced that she’d added Gruyère–I couldn’t even photograph it being stirred into the bowl. I growled and stomped around. I should have waited until I tasted the finished pie. Gruyère and sweet potatoes rule.
Eggs Baked in Avocado is as easy and foolproof a brunch as you’re likely to find, unless your local patissière delivers bags of warm fresh-baked croissants. If you happen to come into some warm croissants or decent bread to serve with the eggs and avocados, all the better. Baked avocadoes are delicious, but it’s hardly surprising most people have never eaten one, not when a ripe avocado is so good with just a squeeze of lime and a bit of salt. A baked avocado has a rich, deep flavor that loves complimentary fat, like an egg yolk or cream, or the acidic contrast of a salad. As we were pulling the elements of this post together I suggested topping the eggs with a spoonful of crème fraîche and calling it a day. Not Jody. The rule in our house is, once you open an avocado, you eat it–or you make sure someone else does–that same day, so just setting aside the cup of avocado flesh leftover from making a bit of room for the eggs was completely unacceptable. You’re the lucky beneficiaries – you get eggs baked in avocados, served with a spicy avocado salad and crème fraîche.
Gratin typically brings to mind a rich and cheesy dish of root vegetables (pronounced by all American children to rhyme with “all rotten”). Nutritional guilt over this fat fest drives food bloggers to frantic rearrangements of their refrigerator poetry magnets into epithets like “a holiday indulgence” and a “once in awhile treat.” But in the Adams-Rivard kitchen we scoff at a such reservations. We eat gratins when we feel like it, whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is joining us for dinner or not. Thank God for bicycles. Which offers me a segue into this week’s dish, Eggplant, Pepper and Tomato Gratin. While pedaling through Provence a month ago we couldn’t help but notice how much lighter a Provencal gratin is than its Gerard Depardieu-like cousins to the north. The cream had vanished, along with much of the cheese, both supplanted by olive oil, bread crumbs, and fistfuls of crushed herbs. Olive oil, we were reminded, transforms the flesh of vegetables into something unctuous. Caramelization is the gilding on the lily.
Oh, the things we do, the torments we endure, so you don’t have to. The week’s Fig, Plum and and Hazelnut Tart didn’t start out as the walk in the park below. After helping everyone become a tart shell master last week we thought we’d put the technique to good use with a simple fig and mascarpone tart. However, after half our figs disappeared the night before we were scheduled to blog, we had to rethink our plan. Nearby Allandale Farm had no figs, but they did have plums. Voilà fig and plum tart.
Mexican Corn Salad is a riff on the south-of-the-border street food classic – grilled corn served with lime, mayo and cheese. Except there was no room on our grill, so Jody’s sister Ginny, the creator of the dish, threw it in the oven just to see what would happen. It didn’t get smokey or charred, the way it would have on the grill, but it worked out fine nevertheless. Testing the salad four times in the last two weeks (i.e. fed our kids and their friends), confirmed what we’ve always suspected: whether the corn is local or not is way more important than whether it’s cooked on the grill or in the oven. We sampled corn from Whole Foods, from a farmers market down on the Cape and from our neighbor outside of Boston, Allandale Farms. That latter two choices made corn salads that sing – the Whole Foods option was okay (the kids hoovered it up), but not in the same league as the farm stuff. Don’t cheat yourself. If you’ve got local corn available, use it–even if you just steam it. People get a little loopy about corn, perhaps because it shows up so late in the season. I’ve seen people who would sneer at an out of state tomato pawing through a mound of imported supermarket corn in June, obsessively wrenching apart the husks to peer into the crown, invariably disappointed. What are they hoping to find? Do they really think that the starchy ears trucked in from ten states away will be any good? Have tomatoes taught them nothing? If peace, love and happiness aren’t growing in your own back yard–at least when it comes to corn and tomatoes–then they probably aren’t growing anywhere at all.
I’m not a fan of cherry pie (too sweet). How un-American is that? You can practically hear George Washington grumbling as he rolls over in his grave. Oh wait, George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, at least apocryphally. Maybe he wasn’t a fan of cherry pie either. Maybe if George had enjoyed a Cherry Goat Cheese Clafoutis once in awhile the father of the United States might have been depicted by contemporary artists looking as if he were actually pleased about it. Clafoutis can cheer anyone up. As a student without much money in the French-speaking part of Switzerland I would sometimes treat myself to a slice of a beautiful clafoutis displayed in a pastry shop window. It was one of those dependable, not terribly expensive indulgences that made me feel comforted and sophisticated at the same time. With one foot in the tart world and another in the cake world, a medium that tasted a bit like crêpes and felt like custard, how could it not brighten my day?
Our summertime preferences for sweets run to the light and refreshing, as versus the dense and sensual. I want to rise from the table and feel as though I’ve beaten the heat and humidity, not stoked the furnace, which makes Chili-Ginger Granita with Watermelon and Pistachios the ideal dessert after a meal of grilled lamb and eggplant, or just a treat to dull the edge of a blistering afternoon.
If you’re unfamiliar with granita, think of it as the crunchy version of sorbet. Granita’s gravelly texture would seem to make it the coarse country cousin of sorbet, yet somehow it manages a rude elegance, like handmade orecchiette, that sorbet can’t quite touch. Aside from the fact that sorbet often contains egg white, and granita does not, the primary distinction between the two is that sorbet is made in an ice cream machine. The machine churns as the sorbet mixture freezes, breaking the ice crystals into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in a dense, even texture. Granita predates the ice cream machine. The basic method begins with a frozen block of fruit flavored ice, then scraping it apart with a fork. Surprisingly, this is quite easy. A subtler approach is to stir up the granita a few times during the process of freezing, then scraping this somewhat looser product after it has frozen completely. We tried both. Both work. The freezer interruptus method results in finer crystals. Your call.