Sunday, June 20, 2010

Julia Child's Rhubarb Shortbread

In my opinion rhubarb is totally underrated.  The more I’ve cooked with it over the years, the more eagerly I’ve come to anticipate its appearance at the market alongside more mainstream spring favorites like asparagus, strawberries, and peas.  It seems I may be one of the few feeling this way, though, because there is never a crowd around the bin of rhubarb like I see at the peas and asparagus or a line at the checkout like those at the strawberry stand.  I’m usually alone with the rhubarb, a solitary figure sorting through the gangly stalks.

I realize it doesn’t help matters that rhubarb looks like red celery and who in the history of mankind has ever gotten worked up over a stick of celery?   I also realize most Americans are wired for sweets and rhubarb has the tart/sour thing going on.  But does it really deserve the reaction I often get when I mention that’s what’s for dessert?  I’ve had more than one person wrinkle their nose and exclaim “Rhubarb?!” as if I’d made something out of fish oil…

To be fair, I didn’t always love rhubarb, either.  Growing up in New Jersey we had one rhubarb plant growing alongside our many rows of peonies.  I can’t recall any of it being picked and brought into our kitchen, ever.  In fact, the plant remained untouched every year until it got so big my Dad would cut it back to the ground and toss the stalks and leaves onto the mulch pile.
I’m not sure why the plant was even there in the first place.  It must have been something one of us kids dragged home from school and my parents, not knowing what to do with it, stuck it in a flowerbed in an inconspicuous spot.  Any curiosity I might have had about cooking it quickly disappeared after being warned that rhubarb leaves are toxic and should not be eaten (Not that I made a habit of ambling out to the garden and munching on random leaves, but still.  It sounded like scary stuff.)

No, my love of rhubarb started as an adult when I began shopping the farmers markets in the city and to be honest, it was the color that drew me in, not its culinary reputation.  After a winter of looking at a sea of white, green and brown food at the market, I found the brilliant crimson of rhubarb a visual shock to the system, a welcome breath of fresh spring air.

One year I decided it was time to stop looking and start buying.  No matter I didn’t know what to do with the stuff; I’d figure it out.  I went home and searched through my cookbooks before settling on what turned out to be a wonderful recipe from Carolyne Roehm for rhubarb bread that I’ve been making ever since. 

So what do I find so amazing about rhubarb?  For starters, I love how the jewel–like red of raw rhubarb fades to pale rose when cooked.  Then there is the flavor: the tartness inherent in uncooked rhubarb softens but doesn’t dissipate when something sweet like sugar and/or strawberries (a common pairing) are added.  The result is a pleasant, tangy flavor that gives a little zip to counterbalance the often buttery or creamy characteristics of whatever it is partnered with, such as ice cream, ricotta, or crumble.

Botanically speaking, rhubarb is a vegetable but is typically treated in cooking and baking like a fruit.  It is a cool-season perennial and needs a few months of frost to trigger spring growth.  For this reason rhubarb is primarily a crop of the northern United States and Canada.  It shows up in New York markets around the middle of May and stays briefly until the beginning of July.  The good news is it freezes well so you can stock up before it disappears.  Look for firm, red stalks that are thin; the fatter the stalk, the greater chance of it being fibrous, in which case you may want to peel it as you would celery.

What I neglected to mention before is the people who wrinkled their noses at the prospect of eating my rhubarb desserts all came back for seconds.  Which leads me to believe rhubarb’s lack of popularity has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with perception.  Maybe it’s because it seems old-fashioned?  Has an odd name?  Its homely looks?  Or maybe it’s because, unlike its rival for springtime affection, the strawberry, it can’t be eaten raw and requires a bit of work (i.e. cooking) to make it palatable?  For those of you willing to get over the superficial and spend a little time (not a lot) in the kitchen, give it a try.  I bet you fall in love with it, just as I have. And that’s okay with me; I’ll be happy to wait in line with you to buy it.
Hungarian Shortbread
From Baking with Julia by Julia Child and Dorie Greenspan

Julia Child calls this Hungarian shortbread and although it’s not like any shortbread I’ve had before, who am I to argue with Julia?   From what I understand what makes this Hungarian shortbread and not, say, Scottish shortbread, is the jam sandwiched between the two layers of dough.
Speaking of dough, that’s the crazy thing about this recipe.  The dough is frozen then grated into the pan.  You heard me right – frozen and grated.  Prepare for a serious upper body workout!  It’s worth the effort; the dough turns out crumbly and light.

You can use store bought jam instead of your own but I’m telling you, this jam is super, super easy to make.  The rhubarb cooks down in no time at all and will be off the stove in 10 minutes.

For the jam
1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
1 vanilla bean

For the shortbread
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
4 large egg yolks
2 cups granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Make the jam:  Combine rhubarb, sugar, and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan.  Split vanilla bean, scrape the seeds into the pan, and toss in the pod.  Bring to a simmer over low heat, cook, stirring often, until the rhubarb softens and forms a soft mass, about 10 minutes.  

Remove and discard vanilla bean.  Transfer to a shallow bowl and let cool.  Can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.  If refrigerated, return to room temperature before using.

Make the shortbread:  In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on high speed until pale and fluffy.  Add egg yolks and sugar, and beat until sugar is dissolved and the mixture is light.  Reduce mixer speed to low, and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until the ingredients are incorporated.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and cut into two pieces.  Shape each piece into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap.  Place in freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.  Can be made ahead and frozen for up to one month.  Thaw in refrigerator overnight.

Assemble and bake:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in center.  Remove one ball of dough from freezer and, using the large holes on a box grater, grate the dough into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.  Pat the dough gently just to get it into the corners (you don’t want to press it down), and spread with the rhubarb jam.  

Grate the remaining dough over the jam, and press it lightly to distribute it evenly.  Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar as soon as it is removed from oven.  Cool on a wire rack.  

Cut the shortbread into bars when it is cool.  You can cut whatever size bars please you, although as a rough guide, 3-inch squares, or rectangles 1 ½-inches x 3-inches make nice servings.  Store covered at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Makes 12 – 24 bars

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Amen, Tom Friedman

Amid all of the messes swirling around the world today, here's a voice of reason.  If you are as upset about the BP oil spill as you say you are, then make a change in at least one aspect of your life (hopefully more) and move toward a more sustainable way of living.  Read Tom Friedman's op-ed and get inspired.  Here are a few of my humble suggestions.....

Big picture:  Pay attention to what is happening in the next Farm Bill; it has as much to do with oil and health care as it does vegetables.  Vote for someone who supports sustainable farming practices and reducing subsidies to agribusiness.  Speaking of votes, don’t be so quick to give yours to a career politician unless he or she really deserves another term and has the political will to make the tough calls we need to move America in the right direction.  

Little picture:  Plant something. Stop eating processed foods.  Open your windows instead of using the AC. Get rid of the SUV(s).  Take the subway instead of a cab.  Better yet, walk.  Not only is it good for the planet, it's best for you!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Katherine's Last Day

The beauty of working in an office with a handful of people is you get to know everyone really well.  That is, of course, the downside, too.  For better or worse, the office I work in is like a family – often endearing, sometimes dysfunctional, rarely quiet, and usually chaotic.  We argue, we shout, we joke, we laugh.

Today there was plenty of laughing because, well, it was Friday and it’s summer!  But then it was sad because one of our favorites, Katherine, was leaving us to move on to greener pastures.  Because we are also an office obsessed with food (“it’s 11:30 – time to order LUNCH!!!”), our bon voyage party included cupcakes (delicious, gluten-free, and made by the Departing Katherine) as well as flowers.  That’s pretty typical of AP Interiors special occasions – food and flowers. 

I stopped by my home away from home, Union Square Greenmarket, and picked up bunches of daisies and chamomile.  Aside from on a box of Twinning’s tea, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a chamomile flower before.  Today I saw masses.  Charming and fresh, I’m thinking they would be perfect in my parent’s garden.  Not only would they look lovely, I could dry the petals and make my own tea.  How happy would I be?

Katherine, we’ll miss you!!  Hope to see you on the Vineyard.

Chamomile Tea

Drying Chamomile is so easy, just cut a bundle of these delicate flowers from your organic medicinal garden and hang upside down, set a container or newspaper under the bundle to catch the petals as they dry and fall off. Store in an airtight container and use as needed. It just doesn't get much easier then that, does it?

Brewing a cup of Chamomile Tea:  Steep 2 to 4 teaspoons of fresh or dried flowers with a cup of boiled water for three minutes. Strain and serve. If you like your tea sweetened just add a teaspoon of honey. It's so easy, relaxing and very medicinal.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Memorial Day Weekend on the Vineyard – Mermaid Farm Hamburgers and Hot Dogs

I must have done something right in a previous life because I have been blessed in this one with many trips to Martha’s Vineyard.  I never take a single visit for granted including my most recent over Memorial Day weekend.  I was staying just outside of Vineyard Haven on Lake Tashmoo with my great friend, Larry, who happens to live next door to my great friends, Natalie and Curt.  Another friend (this one Larry’s) generously flew me up from the city with a few others, including a big, sweet dog named Jackson.

First things first, I always take a walk when I get on the island.  Many of the homes on the Vineyard can be found down country roads like this one.  

There is plenty to see on my walks, especially if I take the time to really look around.

I pass a few farms on my way to and from the beach, one of which I mentioned in a post this past Easter.  

Back then we saw piglets that weren’t even 24 hours old.  Those same little ones are not so little any more and getting bigger by the day!

These cows belong to Liz Thompson, another farmer on the road.  

I’m not sure what breed they are, I just know they are beauties, especially with the sunlight dappling through the trees and hitting them just so.

After my walk and some sort of food consumption, it’s off to one of the many other island farms (add in a boat ride and that’s pretty much my routine while I’m there).  Larry is my partner in crime for farm hopping; we both love to stop and chat with the farmers.
One of my favorites is Mermaid Farm and Dairy on Middle Road in Chilmark. The 36-acre farm, owned by husband and wife Allen Healy and Caitlin Jones, is the only dairy on MV.  Larry and I first visited them about a year ago; I had heard they sold raw milk and coming from a state (New York) where its sale is illegal, I wanted to get some.  We stopped for a minute and ended up staying an hour.

Caitlin and Allen are typical Vineyard farmers:  laid-back, smart, and as nice as can be.  They took the time to talk to us about everything from farming to dairying to local gossip about cell phone towers (We quickly found out the latter is a topic near and dear to Caitlin’s heart.  She’s quite passionate and outspoken about her desire not to have radio frequency emissions anywhere near her kids or her organic farm!)

In addition to unpasteurized, unprocessed milk from grass-fed cows, Mermaid also offers yogurt (they just got approval from the state to sell it), grass-fed beef and lamb, nitrate and MSG-free hot dogs, flowers, herbs, and all kinds of amazing, chemical-free produce.   

On Saturday we swung by to pick up the main course for dinner that night. The house on Tashmoo was filled with a bunch of newly graduated high school boys having fun as well as Larry’s sister, Randy, who did an admirable job of keeping some sense of order.  Add in Curt and Natalie (who is eating for two nowadays) and we had a hungry crowd awaiting.

Like most farms on the island, Mermaid is self-serve.  There is a small shed just as you turn into the drive where Caitlin’s gorgeous fruits and veggies can be found.  We groaned when we heard she had sold out of her strawberries by the time we got there.  But after picking up ground beef and hot dogs from the freezers in the barn, Caitlin met us at the car with a pint of just-picked strawberries.  She is the best!  And so were the strawberries….

The weather was terrific all weekend long – except the night of our locavore barbeque.  Not to be deterred by the lousy weather, Larry donned foul weather gear to man the grill, Curt supervised (sort of), Natalie supervised Curt (definitely) and a feast was soon on the table.  

The hot dogs were unbelievable and Larry’s hamburgers so full of flavor they didn’t need any dressing up. 

We drank wine from a barrel Larry made himself at City Winery in New York City.  The labels weren’t ready yet so with a bit of improvisation with a wax pencil we had one of the first tastes of 2008 Tashmoo.  

His cabernet, made with grapes from Napa’s Bettinelli Vineyards, was still young and oaky but had wonderful structure and was quite delicious.  We toasted to the prospect of experiencing this lovely wine mature over the coming years…and to Caitlin and Allen for their hard work and exceptional food.

Larry’s Pasture-Raised, Grass-Fed, MV Locavore Burgers
Recipe courtesy of Larry 

2 pounds Mermaid Farm ground beef
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large bowl mix beef, shallots, green peppers, Worcestershire, and Tabasco with hands until everything is neatly blended.

Form burger patties by hand, making sure patties aren’t too thick or they won’t cook correctly.

Preheat grill to high.  On both sides, lightly brush burgers with oil and season with salt and pepper.

Once grill is heated, cook until burgers are just barely medium-rare.  The idea is to quickly sear them but not overcook.  With the low fat content of grass-fed beef this is critical, as they will very easily dry out.

Place burgers on a plate and let stand two minutes while toasting buns on grill until slightly blackened.

Serve burgers with lettuce and tomato and nothing else or you won’t taste the wonderful meat.

Before eating remember to give thanks to the beautiful animal that gave his or her life for your pleasure.

Makes 6 burgers