Thursday, October 25, 2007

Purslane: Hot and Steamy

Everything I read indicated that purslane becomes decidedly mucilaginous when cooked. Since I don't particularly enjoy the texture of okra (except deep fried, natch), I wasn't all that excited about this phase of the experiment. But given the nutritional advantages, and my duty to my readers, I was willing to give it a try.

I sauteed a small handful with garlic in olive oil, and it didn't turn slimy at all--and I swear I didn't leave it in the fridge till it was all dried out this time. Really! It was just nicely chewy, and had taken on a distinct citrusy flavor. It would definitely work as the main component in a side dish, particularly with fish.

Next, in the fine, age-old tradition of clean out the fridge recipes, I chopped some up and sauteed it with chopped red pepper, onion, white and crimini mushrooms, and garlic. While I was doing this, I baked some eggplants, then added the pulp, stuffed the skins, topped with cheese and breadcrumbs and baked. It was delicious, but there was so much going on I couldn't really pick out the purslane. Good news for anyone who doesn't care for citrus flavor, but would like to reap the health benefits.

My last purslane experiment was my favorite. I started with a basic risotto recipe, then added chopped purslane with the final addition of liquid. I had some roasted paste tomatoes leftover in the fridge, so I chopped a few and added them with the shaved Parmesan at the end, there was plenty of residual heat in the rice to heat the tomatoes through by the time we ate even though they were cold going in. Topped with more grated Parm and several vigorous grinds of black pepper, it was absolutely scrumptious, with a pleasant brightness. I would like to try it again with the addition of mushrooms to see how their earthiness balances with the acidity of the tomatoes and purslane.

purslane and tomato risotto

But it was delish as it was, and priiittty!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Purslane: Raw and Uncut

So, as I was saying. Purslane. It can take over your lawn in a matter of months, and it could be the savior of starving nations. It's got a lot on its plate.


The batches I got had a fairly generic herbaceous flavor eaten raw. The texture is a sort of meaty crunch, much like sunflower sprouts. (If you don't know sunflower sprouts, go find out immediately. They are the best things ever. They have that nutty sunflower seed flavor, but in the form of a healthier cool, crisp green. They are fantastic in salads, on sandwiches, and just plain for snacky munching. I wish I had some right now.) The next closest thing would be mung bean sprouts.

Its texture and nutritional boost is a great mitzvah to green salads, and in place of lettuce as a sandwich topping, but it's not so yummy I would just snack on it on its own.

I saw several recipes on line pairing it with cucumbers, so I thought I'd try it in the salad my dad's mother used to make for just about every meal all summer long. One or two cucumbers per person, peeled if they need it (she used Kirby's, I use either Kirby's or Persian's, which are like miniature English cukes--seedless, thin skinned, and very regularly shaped so you can get perfectly round, quarter sized slices). Put thinly sliced cukes in a bowl--with thinly sliced onions if you like--and sprinkle two pinches sugar, two shakes or grinds of pepper, and one pinch of salt per cuke over them, then shake some vinegar over it all. Don't drown them, just enough that they're in a good puddle of it. You can use whatever kind of vinegar you prefer. She always used white or apple cider. I've been preferring rice wine lately, but it's variable. Red wine and balsamic also taste good, but they look pretty hideous. Give it a stir and let it sit, at least an hour if you can, stirring every now and then as you think of it. It's a sliding scale--the longer you let them sit, the veggies get more limp, but also absorb more flavor. Every point on that scale--from fresh cucumbers with a slick patina of vinegar, to fully developed pickles (in the fridge a few days later) is scrumptious in its own way. Do experiment. I substituted purslane leaves for the optional onions, let it stew for about two hours, till the purslane just started to wilt, and it was perfectly delicious.

Purslane flecked cucumber salad was such a success, I thought I'd try it in another favorite recipe--egg salad. My egg salad comprises boiled eggs, heavily salted minced onions (the salt leaves the flavor while drawing out the harshness of the raw onion--make this first and let it sit while you put the rest of the salad together and it will be a revelation, I promise), and finely diced celery; dressed with a lot of mayo, a little mustard, a little salt and a lot of pepper. Sometimes if I'm feeling frisky I might stir some capers in, but that's rare, as frisky isn't usually the emotion that inspires one to make egg salad. This time I substituted purslane leaves for the celery. I thought I would miss the crunchy, but the the chewycrisp made up for it. And I really liked the faint grassy flavor it added.

After all this enjoyment of raw purslane, I couldn't wait to see how it cooked.

Yes, I'm leaving you hanging again. This time I'm not just stopping to adhere to Andrea Strong's advice about frequent posting. Now, it's self preservation. Corey's mother was in town from SoCal this weekend. Over the last two days we've dined, gloriously, at Morandi, Perilla, The Spotted Pig, and John's of Bleeker Street. At the moment, I feel inspired to fast for a few days, so I need to husband my posts. I'm self aware enough to know there is an 85% chance I'll be starving by tomorrow morning, but in case not, cooked purslane tomorrow!

Friday, October 19, 2007

In Case You Were Wondering. . .

Purple cauliflower is really




incredibly difficult to photograph to look like anything other than a big pile of poo. Those are the good ones, the finest result of at least half an hour of trying. I think the thing that I've learned most forcefully since I started this blog (in addition to the certainty that someone is bound to tell you an unfamilliar leafy green is "just like spinach", though so far none of them have been in the least) is that food stylist is a hard freaking job. You people are magicians, I doff my hat.

Oh, also if you've been wondering, it's just like regular cauliflower, except in my experience the heads are not quite so dense, and therefor easier to break into smaller florettes. And unlike other purple produce (for instance bell peppers, or a certain bean which shall remain nameless), purple cauliflower maintains it's color beautifully through cooking, so really peps up an otherwise bland presentation.

I like mine roasted with caper butter.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Purslane: Pernicious Weed or Ultimate Superfood?

Wait for it.

It's BOTH! What is regarded as an invasive weed by some (one website claims it to be the seventh most pervasive weed worldwide, though I have been unable to substantiate that from other sources) is hailed elsewhere as an easy-to-cultivate, low-calorie source of high levels of several important nutrients, including more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other land-based edible.

Here is a very informative article from local NYC naturalist and foraging fanatic "Wildman" Steve Brill on how to identify purslane in the wild, or if your thing is to gather in the more traditional NYC way, you can simply trade one thin dollar for a good sized bunch at the Paffenroth Garden stand--which has become my go-to purveyor of freaky greens.

Whether purchased or collected, purslane is going to be filthy (ref. above photo--which isn't nearly as bad as usual, don't you think?). I suggest washing just a couple of stems at a time under running water for a little longer than you think they'll need, then visually inspect them to make sure you got all the dirt. Basically, wash them like leeks.

Since they're succulents (like aloe, cactus, and jade plants) I thought the salad spinner would probably bruise them, so I just spread them out on a towel as best I could and ran some errands. If you're in a hurry, very gently whipping them against something absorbent--as a pixie might beat a rug--would probably do the trick.

Now the purslane is clean and dry, it's time to play!

And on that note, I'm going to leave you hanging. Last night I took a food blogging seminar at ICE with Andrea Strong (omg!!) and she made a sensible case for frequent posting. I was concerned about the . . . expansiveness of my weekly posts going into the seminar, so the logical resolution is for me to shut up now and save telling you what I did with my clean, dry purslane for another day. Like maybe tomorrow.

Oh, except a bit more about the class. Unfortunately, the day of our married-to-the-Internet seminar, ICE lost its Internet connection. Fortunately, Andrea (omg!!) and her web designer Harvey Kreisworth were so knowledgeable, engaging, and generous (believe me, they let us pick their brains like they were the paramedics in Return of the Living Dead--it was awesome) that I really felt like I got my money's worth anyway.

Then BONUS! This afternoon I got an e-mail from Kristin James, program manager of the recreational division of ICE, apologizing for the Internet problems and offering to let me either take Andrea's seminar again for free, or apply the full credit to another class--my choice. Seriously, class is the word for that move. And I am SO looking forward to my comped knife skills!!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Consumed Exclusive: Italian Heirloom Eggplant Expose!!

When last I saw Stokes Farm's Italian Heirloom Eggplant of Unknown Proper Name, I was picking out the last four edible looking ones from a dozen or so stragglers at what, I presumed at 11 am on a Saturday, was the tail end of their season.

Not so. Another whole bin of magnificent specimens greeted me this Saturday. A got a different woman at checkout this time, so I thought I'd ask again if they had a more specific name. She looked blank, but asked a guy (if I were friendlier or chattier or something, I guess I could supply names for these nice people, but we all work with what God gave us.), who had the goods.
"Bitter Balls". (I instinctively went with the wide eyes, forward head tilt thing; but don't be ashamed to snicker.)

I felt like Woodward and/or Bernstein! The Goods! The Dirt! The Dish! I had it!

But it was after I took a whim to not rest on those majestic laurels and Googled "bitter ball" eggplant, and subsequently "orange eggplant" that I got the real scoop. From web pages like this and this and this, I eventually came to the conclusion that IHEOUPN isn't Italian at all, but African. Although the photo on this site looks even more like the ones I have (or would if the Brazilians would let them ripen all the way) so maybe Afro-Brazilian. How festive!

I hope you're ok with this startling revelation.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Kale and Cress and Eggs--Oh My!

Going to the Greenmarket this time of year always inspires a certain ambivalence of feeling in me. Ordinarily, by the second week of October I'm saddened by the recent finale of tomato season, but amped up at the expected debut of Romanesco broccoli; energized by the need for a sweater, but enervated by the thought of months of chilly dark just around the corner. This year, I've been thrilled that tomatoes are still abundant, but annoyed--and mildly alarmed--that it's still So. Freaking. Hot.

No matter. This week I embraced two new-to-me varieties of something I consider a fall veggie with a visit to the International House of Kale. Red Russian Kale is flatter then regular kale, with jagged edges that make it look a lot like crazily overgrown dandelion leaves (which I didn't get a decent picture of because I'm a terrible photographer and they were all too blurry to use, so thank you to Amy Albert for not suing me for lifting the following from the Fine Cooking website) .

Nice Amy's Red Russian Kale

It doesn't take as long to cook as regular kale, but is incredibly pungent. It would, I think, overwhelm most dishes, and be a bit much on its own. I parboiled it, then did a rough chop before a quick saute with some garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil. I served it piled on toast that had been spread with a garlicky cranberry bean puree, then topped each toast with a grind of fresh pepper and a splash of red wine vinegar.

Black Tuscan Kale (not too-terrible picture below) was as relatively quick cooking as the Red Russian, but not nearly so strongly flavored. Ultimately, the most interesting thing about it was how hypnotically beautiful the wash water was dancing and beading over its alligator skin surface. Yes, I spent almost half an hour washing one more or less already clean bunch of greens. No, I wasn't high.

Pretty Pretty Tuscan Black Kale

Another thing I ran into this week that I hadn't noticed before that bears just a quick mention is Upland Cress.

Upland Cress--the dainty horseradish

The sign (at Paffenroth's, natch) indicated that it was like a slightly spicier watercress, and could be used interchangeably. I disagree. It's not so much spici-er as spicy-different. It tastes just like horseradish. It added a nice little pep to a salad, but I usually eat watercress as a tea sandwich on heavily buttered white bread, and this stuff was NOT working for me in that capacity. Maybe as part of a zakuski spread to go with chilled vodka instead of a tea tray. Hmmm, now that I think about it, I just might have more to say about Upland Cress, later, after all.

Finally this week, I could no longer resist the quail eggs. They were $3 a dozen. I had $3 left in my pocket. It seemed like kismet, no? In the interest of full disclosure, I have prepared quail eggs before, but I don't think it counts. I bought a can of hard boiled ones at a Chinese market because they were so cute and, not really having any other idea what to do with them, made itsy bitsy deviled eggs out of them for a party. A bit twee perhaps, but I liked them. But I've never started with raw ones, so they still fall under the rubric of this experiment.

N.B.: They are tiny. One recipe for a quail egg omelet gave the equivalency of five quail eggs to one hen egg. That seems about right.

Quail egg vs. hen egg
Second note: Priiiiiitty! As it turns out, "brown speckled" covers a rather wide range.

Quail Egg variety

Be aware that tiny literally translates to pain in the ass to crack without breaking the yolk. It's important to know what you're getting yourself into. I'm here to help.

The ideal way to crack a quail egg without breaking the yolk would be to have big, sharp acrylic nails put on just your thumbs. Presuming you won't be using enough quail eggs in your daily life to make that a feasible option, I suggest employing a paring knife. Tap a seam down one side of the egg, breaking the shell but not penetrating the membrane. Go back along the seam with the (well sharpened) tip of your knife to open up the membrane. Thumbs on wither side of the seam, pull halves apart.

Tiny also translates to pain in the ass to peel when boiled. Your only hope is to follow these directions explicitly. This is actually the best way to peel any boiled egg, but for larger eggs it just makes thing easier, whereas for quail it's crucial if you don't want a thimbleful of mush.

1. You must have prepared an ice bath--not cold water, actual ice in water--sitting near the pot you're boiling your eggs in. When they have been in as long as you want (depending on how hard you want the yolk) scoop them out of the hot water and immediately submerge in the ice water. Swirl around in the ice for a couple of minutes until the eggs cool off noticeably. This both stops (or at least retards) the cooking process and causes the egg flesh to shrink away from the shell resulting in easier peeling.

2. Once the eggs are cool enough to handle comfortably, smash the fat end, where the air bubble is, hard enough to crack the shell but not so hard as to damage the egg. Cracking the egg at the air bubble end will allow you to break through the membrane without mutilating the egg itself.

Another challenge I encountered with these little cuties was how exactly to cook them. I found lots of recipes on the net using boiled quail eggs, but only one reference to how long one should boil them. Given that I don't care for eating Superballs, I disregarded that advice--to boil them for seven minutes. Much trial and error revealed that it is best to put eggs in cold water over medium high heat, bring water just to a boil, then turn off the heat.

For soft but not runny yolks, remove eggs to ice bath immediately.

For still translucent but fairly firm yolks, leave, covered, in hot water for 1 minute.

For quite firm yolks, leave, covered, in hot water for two minutes.

Any longer then two minutes, the yolks might still be fine but the whites will turn rubbery.

Frying was equally. . .interesting. Over easy wasn't that hard to get right, just be extra careful when flipping, but you really have to go with the super-cute sunny side up presentation for Barbie eggs, right? Ok, so. . .

Fried Quail Eggs Trial and Error
Ok, clockwise from top left:

1. Fugly chewy. The yolk was a good consistency, but broken. And the whites were rubbery.

2. Yucky slime. The whites were good, but the yolk was barely warm.

At this point it occurred to me that a mold of some sort might be useful. And I was right, it confined everything enough that the yolk and the white at least had a fighting chance of being ready at the same time. Of course the flower shape provides continuity for The Curse of the Twee Quail Egg, but it was all I had small enough, and I think it's cute anyway. So there.

3. Much better, but I missed the target with the yolk, so it's all cockeyed.

4. Yahtzee! Perhaps not Thomas Keller perfection, but the white is just done, and the yolk is just oozy without being really messy. Perfect enough for me!

Oh, how do they taste? A lot like eggs. But really rich, eggy eggs. In fact, they stand up for themselves quite well to Amy's Prosciutto and Black Pepper Bread--
a pairing to which even the best hen eggs bring nothing but texture.

So, overall, I would have to say that, a little like our new puppy, quail eggs are a bit of work, but cute and nummylicious enough to make it worth the effort.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming.

Yet another great thing about the Greenmarket is that it's probably the best place in the City to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger without their thinking you are

a) insane and possibly dangerous,

b) running a con, or

c) sexually available.

So when the woman next to me at Paffenroth Gardens told the guy bagging her stuff that the stinging nettles were also hers, I just had to ask. As it happened, she was captain of the Stinging Nettle Cheerleading Squad, so she was a good person to ask.

"Oh it's fantastic. You cook it just like spinach and it's loaded with nutrients. It strengthens your hair and nails, it boosts the immune system, it's a blood and liver cleaner, . . ." She went on about its virtues for a while, but honestly she had me at liver cleaner (Cheers!). Besides, stinging nettles. It just sounds so delightfully Hogwartian.

And as it turned out, they are definitely from Advanced Herbology.

itchy stinging nettles--yum!

I want to be very clear on this point, so in case you can't make out the sign hastily snapped with my cell phone camera, the highlighted bit reads, Be careful when handling - can cause ITCHING.

Hungry yet?


At least two really important factors distinguish stinging nettles from spinach:

a) A tidy bundle purchased at an urban farmer's market stand can, in fact, cause itching. Running into a patch of them in the wild could, conceivably, result in modest blood loss.

b) They contain little moisture and retain less, so should therefore be prepared as quickly as possible after harvesting. After three days in the fridge, they were heading closer toward dried herb than leafy green.

Regarding a, use gloves when handling raw nettles. Seriously.

Regarding b, well, yeah. That was kind of a shame. Sauteeing and steaming were just ghastly--the worlds thinnest show leather. The scary spiny bits had cooked down (away?) so it was no longer dangerous, but tough and weirdly fishy smelling--like spirulina. Dis. Gus. Ting. Corey, my puppy daddy, physically recoiled when I shoved it under his nose.

But, thanks to Julia Child, all was not lost. I've recently discovered that it's rather useful to keep some of her potage parmentier base (the slurry of potatoes and leeks, before the cream is added) in the fridge. Mine isn't religiously adherent to hers, I use Vegeta instead of salt and a bit less water, but still. Delightful on it's own--once the cream is added, of course--it's also handy for absorbing any extra crisper items that might be on the train for Funkytown. Particularly those few too many mushrooms I always end up with. And now those dried out nettles.

Coupla pints of potage, coupla hands full of nettle leaves, simmer 10 minutes, hit it with the immersion blender (sorry again, Mrs. Child), and add cream. Hmm, still a little fishy. No! I can make this work, goddamit!

Actually, after a bit of tinkering, it wasn't that hard. Big knob of butter, tad more cream, several vigorous turns of the pepper grinder, and--crucially--a big splash of white wine vinegar. And just like that, magically delicious!

Stinging Nettle Soup

Blast from the Past: After several weeks of non-appearance on their part, I got what seem to be the four very last Italian Heirloom Eggplant of Undetermined Proper Name of the season from Stokes Farm last week. As I suspected last time, stuffing them was the way to go. The skins are inedibly tough, but a stunning color, so perfect for presentation.

I pricked their circumference with a skewer just below the stem then baked them whole. In retrospect, 15 - 20 minutes would have been plenty, but I was keeping one eyeball on several things I was cooking at once and the other eyeball on a rather sprightly puppy, so these specimens were perhaps a moment or two past ideal, though I don't think you could tell it by the finished dish.

melted eggplant

After they cooled a bit, I cut off the stem end at the perforations and used a demitasse spoon to scrape out the meat. If you do this carefully, you can get out every last molecule of edible matter and have a perfect skin to stuff. I pulsed the eggplant pulp with some fresh bread crumbs, and dried basil and savory in the Cuisinart till gooey then stirred in two chopped leftover fried green tomato slices. Then I stuffed the skins and put them back in the oven long enough to boil, drain, and toss spaghetti with homemade pesto, about 12 minutes. Voila.

final eggplant presentation

Finally, if I may, I'd like to give a well deserved shout out to my fantastically talented friend Carla. Actors, singers, executive directors, and all other performing artists--your attention please. If she can present a spastic, squirmy 11 week old as this noble beast,

Good Boy Max!

just imagine what she could do with your headshot.