Saturday, January 29, 2011
Yes, there are plenty of other choices in Montañita, a chilled-out surf town, popular with good-looking, young Argentines, tattooed hipsters from Peru, and Ecuadorians from other pueblos along the Pacific coast and from Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, but in my mind when you have the chance to eat extremely fresh fish for a fraction of what it costs at home, you have to take advantage.
Life isn't too bad at the beach in January!
Diana Pittet, the surfing cheesemonger
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Want to brush off the ice and snow, warm up, and walk into a little rain forest in your own house? You can if you wander around our greenhouse a bit and see the great after- Christmas selection of houseplants available to push away the snowbound blues. It may be bitter outside, but inside, you can play with your new houseplants and watch them grow close up. At this time of year, you’ll find a great and unusual selection of plants to choose from.
A good plant to start the fun with after Christmas is the Amaryllis. Your Christmas blooming Amaryllis will give you a lot of pride when you cultivate it back into bloom next year. The bulbs are incredibly easy to coax back to a second and even third life, and can live quite long and multiply its magnificent flowers every year.
Amaryllis is a tender bulb— not suitable for staying in the ground through our northeastern winters. With a bit of care (and a bit of “set it and forget it”), you can see them live for years in your own house. After the flowers have faded, cut your amaryllis flower stalks down to the top of the bulb. Water weekly and let the plant continue to grow its green leaves out.
When May comes, take the Amaryllis bulb-- leaves, earth and all, out of its pot, and plant it out in your garden. Any spot that gets a good half day of sun will do. The leaves on your amaryllis will grow lush and plentiful all summer long feeding the bulb below. When fall comes, (September is a good time), dig the amaryllis out of the ground and clean the dirt off. Let the bulb dry, leaves and all, and store in a cool, dark place until October.
The trick is to give the Amaryllis bulb enough lead time to bloom around Christmas. This may be tricky since each bulb warms up and blooms at its own pace. For blooms around the holidays, cut the dried leaves down to the top of the bulb in October after you’ve brought the plant from its resting place. Pick a pot out that’s basically the same size as it came in. Amaryllis like what they call “tight boots” in order to bloom. Plant the bulb halfway in potting soil, and water sparingly until leaves start poking through the top of the bulb. Water a bit more every week when the plant throws out its flower stalk.
You’ll be amazed every year when more and more Amaryllis flowers bloom from the growing bulb. You can have flowers all winter long if you’ve saved many bulbs from year to year.
Playing with plants indoors is close-up and personal. January and February are prime time for planting seeds for summer flowers and vegetables. The store is alive with row upon row of colorful seed packets. There are amazing varieties of tomatos, herbs, annuals and perennials that you just can’t find anywhere else, and which will grow well from seed started now. Maybe you fancy a nice little Tomatillo, or some juicy yellow Cucumbers? We have those too. Pick up some peat pots and a bag of special seed-starting soil and you’re on your way to sprouts in the windowsill. Instead of pouring loads of water on the seedlings, a little spritz from the water sprayer every day will do. Keep the peat pots warm and by the time Mothers Day comes around, the plants will have a great head start for transplanting into the garden plot.
Filling up a bright, sunny windowsill in the house is just the thing to get your green juices flowing when it’s a frozen wasteland outside. Herbs are deliciously easy to grow in a sunny window, and there are varieties to stimulate your senses and your stewpot. A little beauty I saw at the greenhouse the other day is called Broadleaf Thyme. This little unusual beauty has chubby, fragrant leaves. Not only does it wander and trail, it’s perfect for pinching off to use on a fat chicken or chunk of salmon. Herbs in the house are deliciously scented from the warm air, and are at hand when you need them to spice up your cooking. Parsley, Basil, and Rosemary stand up well in the house, create a window alive with greenery.
This is a good time to experiment with plants you’ve never tried before. Phaleanopsis orchids, also known as “moth” orchids, are lush, extremely colorful, and quite easy to grow, despite their allure and mystery. Basically an “air plant”, orchids have aerial roots that grow outside the planting medium. In nature, they grow on trees with their roots attaching to the bark, moss and debris. Moisture comes from the humid rain forest. There’s no need to douse them with water in the home environment like other soil-bound plants. As orchid growers say, “water weekly, weakly”— once a week watering with a very weak solution of fertilizer. A warm, bright window will do, and a little negligence does wonders!
Another charming plant that makes its way to the greenhouse in the dull winter is the Weeping Pussy Willow, or French Pussy Willow. Looking delicate and tender, they are anything but! They have a hardy knot where they have been skillfully grafted onto a strong growing trunk, and the young catkins are exquisite on bending branches. They do extremely well in the house, and after the warm fuzzy buds are gone, they explode with green leaves. A big plus here—you can plant this hardy willow right out in your yard come March. They survive well just like any pussy willow and will bring you soft buds and arching branches every year in February when a touch of spring hits our eastern shores.
I love playing with plants inside. Cutting them for rooting is easy and satisfying. Try some easy cuttings first. Cuttings and sprigs that will root in water include the ivies, philodendrons, begonias, and the amazing spider plant. Watching them sprout new roots and leaves is a real joy. Change the water in the glass frequently, and in a week or two, you’ll see roots that can be planted right in potting soil. If you have a beautiful avocado from the market that you’ve just made into guacamole, take the pit and stick it halfway in the soil of one of your plants. No need for toothpicks over a water glass—these babies are more than willing to sprout in a few weeks right in the soil.
Whatever you do to ease your longing for the sight of the good, dark earth in the winter, you can always satisfy the urges with a houseful of plants. The heat is blasting, and it’s a tropical paradise in your house—you just don’t know it yet!
Sunday, January 16, 2011
The start of the new year is a great time to take a good look in your cupboards and get rid of things that have been hanging around for too long and taking up space. As you peer into your kitchen pantry, ask yourself, Why do I need two boxes of Arborio rice, one of which has been open for seven months? How much longer can I ignore that tin of anchovies? Remember, too, that the winter squash that you've saved, since taking down the Thanksgiving decorations won't cook themselves. And that bag of wild rice, also from Thanksgiving, won't be pleased to hang around until next autumn.
By pointing out these neglected foodstuffs, I don't mean to suggest that you should throw them out. Waste not, want not: now's the time to cook with them and then restock your cupboards with something new and fresh.
An upcoming three-month trip to South and Central America is forcing me to do inventory of what's in my cupboards and fridge. It doesn't make sense to go food shopping before a long trip; the goal is to use up what you’ve got, especially the perishable stuff. This means that I've got to get creative and figure out how to construct meals with the hodgepodge assortment in stock.
The first thing I did was to get rid of food items that I knew I couldn’t use before I left: candied orange peel and preserved lemons went to friends, and simple syrup went down the drain.
|Oatmeal and Almonds|
In terms of planning meals without making a trip to the market, breakfast is easy. Every morning starts with a bowl of steel-cut oats sweetened with either homemade beach plum jam or the orange-scented syrup that was left over from making those candied orange peels. To make the first meal of the day even heartier, I add toasted walnuts or almonds that I originally bought for holiday baking. With only a few days left before my trip, I am determined to finish my stash of oatmeal, even if it means eating it when I’d prefer toast. I keep reminding myself that by the time I return in April, the weather will be too warm for this substantial breakfast.
|Sweet Potato and Black Bean Salad|
As for lunch and dinner, the most urgent thing is to use up veggies, since there is no chance that produce will hold up until mid-April. Kicking around in the fridge—some of it for months––are broccoli, beets, romaine lettuce, turnips, scallions, cilantro, ginger, half an avocado, and knobs of cheese; out on the kitchen counter in bowls are sweet potatoes, a variety of winter squashes, and onions and garlic.
|Salad of Roasted Beets, Oranges, & Olives|
The first meal from the veggie stash was my stand-by dish for the autumn: roasted sweet potatoes with black beans and cilantro in a spicy dressing. For this warm salad I followed a recipe by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, but used butternut squash instead of sweet potatoes. A salad the next night was my own inspiration: I roasted wedges of beets, slices of oranges (yes, oranges!), and olives and tossed them with the romaine lettuce and toasted walnuts in a spicy orange dressing, made with walnut oil and walnut Dijon mustard. The sweet potatoes finally made an appearance the next night in a dish I’ve wanted to try for some time, twice-baked sweet potatoes with chipolte chile, from Fine Cooking. All three of these dishes helped me work through an opened can of chipotle chile in adobo.
|Roasted Broccoli with Gremolata|
I had grand plans for the two heads of broccoli––maybe a stir-fry for rice noodles or a hearty addition to a pasta dish, but in a pinch, when I was really hungry, I roasted the florets (as you can tell, roasting chunks of vegetables in olive oil at 425 F is my go-to method in the winter) and flavored the mix with Pecorino Romano and gremolata, which is a condiment of finely chopped lemon zest, garlic, and parsley. The roasted broccoli would be have been a delicious accompaniment to brown rice, enriched with grated Parmesan and lemon juice.
|Spaghetti Squash with Indian Spices|
Spaghetti squash will get me through my final dinners. The first dish I plan to make is the classic preparation, with a homemade tomato sauce of peeled plum tomatoes leftover from Christmas. The second one is more creative, and one I got from a cooking magazine, a medley of spaghetti squash and Indian spices.
I ran out of time for the turnips, which I had planned to sweeten with a cider glaze, the scallions, and the knobs of cheese, and the rest of the winter squash. I’ll probably just give them to my mother, but I’ll use the scallions, cheese, and the avocado to make sandwiches for the plane.
Make the most of the new year by cleaning out your larder and trying your hand at improvisational cooking; it will be good practice when a snow storm hits and you can’t make it to the market.
As for me, this will probably be the last snow of the season before I head to the Southern Hemisphere. Watch out for my blog posts about my food adventures south of the border.
Eat well, be creative, and stay warm!
Diana Pittet the Cheesemonger
Thursday, January 13, 2011
|Bacon Ice Cream|
With everyone’s tail in a twist over bacon, the marketplace is teeming with pork belly products. Navigating the terminology and brands can be overwhelming, to say the least. In the United States, bacon is traditionally the underbelly of the pig. The slices of bacon are called “rashers” and they can be wet or dry cured. The dry cure is the traditional artisanal method and uses curing salts and spices that are rubbed into the meat, followed by smoking, with different kinds of wood chips, such as applewood or hickory. The wet cure is used by industrial producers and the meat is injected with salt water to speed up the curing process. There are different kinds of pork as well, commodity pork from large scale producers and pasture-raised free-range hogs. If you are looking for all natural meat, you might want to try the Heritage Breed Berkshire pork, also known as the “black pig.” These animals are free range (not kept immobile in pens), antibiotic free, and have no nitrates, MSG, preservatives, or harmful chemicals added to the process. D’Artagnan and Iowa Duroc Applewood Smoked are two examples of Heritage Breed brands. Vande Rose Farms Applewood Smoked Dry Cure Bacon is another superior bacon worth checking out. Vande Rose has all vegetarian-fed hogs raised on independent Iowa farms with no added growth hormones.
Bacon is truly the flavor of America. It adds zest to our cuisine and captivates us in our kitchens. As James Beard so aptly put it: “Nothing is quite as intoxicating as the smell of bacon frying in the morning… “
Cheri the Cheesemonger
Monday, January 3, 2011
What a dud to find at the bottom of my fuzzy, red Christmas stocking—a single navel orange. Bummer! When you’re a ten-year-old American kid, you want fistfuls of chocolate, not one piece of healthful fruit. The holidays are meant for indulgent treats from Santa.
Not that long ago, a sweet orange was considered a special treat and not one to be scorned. My mother, growing up in post-war England in the 1940s, looked forward to receiving one in her stocking at Christmas. It was a rare indulgence, tasting of sunny, exotic locales, worlds away from the dispiritingly short days of a dark and wet winter in Britain, where food rationing continued until 1957. Seeing my disappointment about the orange, my mother tried to jolly my spirits by describing the joy of receiving citrus at Christmas when she was a wee lass, but I would have nothing of it. Give me chocolate or give me nothing!
Thirty years later, I wouldn’t be at all upset to receive an orange (a whole box would be grand!) for Christmas because I now know that winter is when citrus fruit is at its best, when they are juicy and the rind-to-pulp ratio is just right. Off season, you risk eating fruit that has more rind than pulp and that has lost its sweetness and gone tough and dry. I didn’t pay attention to citrus’ seasonality until a trip to Egypt in January 1988, when I marveled not only at the pyramids but also the stacks of oranges in outdoor markets, wonderfully contrasted against the dizzyingly blue sky of the dessert.
The season for citrus fruit is just beginning and will carry on until the early days of spring (how far off that seems!). Already adding vibrant color to Sickles’ produce section are Satsuma mandarins, Mineola tangelos, Cara Cara pink navel oranges, heirloom navel oranges, with their leaves still on, Meyer lemons, and blood oranges. Don’t delay in buying them; their season is short and can disappear from the market before you know it. Once in hand, you can simply peel and eat them (except in the case of the lemons), or you can be more creative and cut a mixture of citrus fruit into thin rounds to make a sweet salad with vanilla syrup or a savory one with red onions, fennel, black olives, and a drizzle of green olive oil.
Another reason that I would now appreciate receiving citrus at Christmas is that as an adult, I now respect tradition. Before the custom of Christmas trees spread throughout Britain, following the marriage of Queen Victoria to her German cousin Prince Albert, homes were decorated with bowls of clementines, mandarins, and tangerines which would perfume drawing rooms and remind their inhabitants of the glow of the now absent sun. My mother (though born well after Queen Victoria!) still decorates our house during the winter holidays with a cheerful bowl of citrus fruits, especially kumquats.
I have developed my own traditions. Each Christmas I make candied orange peel, which I present to friends and incorporate into spiced Italian panforte and boozy Jamaican black cake. With the leftover oranges, now denuded of their peel, I make a simple yet sophisticated dessert for Christmas Eve, orange slices in a syrup flavored with Maraschino liqueur. In early spring, just as the season wanes, I make preserved lemons which flavor dishes all summer long. One tradition I have not yet adopted but keep meaning to is making marmalade, as my grandmother did each winter in Britain when Seville oranges, the bitter variety for making marmalade, arrived at the market. Until I get around to doing so, I’ll enjoy Sickles’ fine selection, especially Les Moulins Mahjoub’s Tunisian bitter orange marmalade and Casa Forcello’s Sicilian blood orange marmalade, both delicious on toast and with an aged goat cheese.
Of course, I don’t limit myself to using citrus in the winter, though I firmly believe in consuming produce only when it’s in season. You can’t prepare the light foods and refreshing beverages of summer without them. To make the most use of lemons and limes, I zest the rind before juicing them and then freeze the rind for later use. This way, when a recipe calls for the zest of a lemon or lime, I don’t need to buy more fruit, which can be quite expensive out of season.
On that note, enjoy citrus fruit now. It will cheer you on these cold, snowy days.
In the meantime, I wish you a zesty new year!
Diana the cheesemonger