Friday, July 30, 2010

Tristar Strawberry Ice Cream

This is the time of year I start seeing people hauling flats through the Greenmarket with the name Mountain Sweet Berry Farm on the side.  This can only mean one thing:  Tristar strawberries have arrived.  I make a beeline for the stand and get in a long line to buy my pints of berries.  Some things in life are worth the wait and I’m telling you, this is one of them.

The Tristar is a great example of science improving upon nature.  The USDA found a wild strawberry plant near Salt Lake City, Utah and successfully crossed it with several commercial varieties to propagate this natural hybrid for public use.  Very popular in cooler climates like the Northeast, Tristars are day-neutral, meaning the plants bear fruit throughout the growing season.  Other types of strawberries are early-bearing/June-bearing, which fruit once a season and produce the largest berries, and ever-bearing, which bear small to medium size fruit, twice a season.

Specific climate and conditions are required for the plant to thrive but the rewards for such tender loving care are great; the small to medium-sized Tristars possess the heady fragrance and intense, sweet flavor of wild strawberries. Watch this video of none other than Rick Bishop himself for a more in-depth discussion on why Tristars are so fabulous.

Before I even got to the head of the Mountain Sweet Berry line I knew what I was going to do with my berries:  ice cream.  Somewhere in my recent past I had a really delicious strawberry ice cream and it’s been in my mind as soon as Tristars come into season, I was going to make my own.

Now all I needed was a recipe and I knew just who to turn to.  Frank Stitt is one of my favorite chefs even though I’ve never eaten in any of his Birmingham restaurants.  Pick up either (or both) of his cookbooks and I think you’ll understand why I’m a fan.  He combines a sophisticated culinary background (Chez Panisse, assistant to Richard Olney in Provence) with a simple yet spectacular use of the local bounty of his home state, Alabama.  If anyone is heading to Birmingham, please let me know; I’d like to tag along.
Strawberry Ice Cream
Adapted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table by Frank Stitt

Over the years I’ve had trouble with the consistency of my homemade ice cream.  The flavor is fine but the texture is, for lack of a better word, greasy.  I googled my problem and found out I’m not the only one with this kind of result.  The consensus seems to be I’ve been over churning.  Rather than churn for the full 25 minutes suggested in my ice cream machine manual, I stopped at 18 minutes and eureka!, problem solved.

Use the best milk and cream you can find/afford; for me that means Milk Thistle Farm.

Lastly, adding fruit to ice cream can be tricky; the water content in fruit can freeze and cause water crystals to form.  In an attempt to avoid that, I mashed the strawberries a bit with the back of a spoon and, at the suggestion of Chef Stitt, macerated the strawberries in sugar to help break down the fruit.  The result?  No ice crystals.
1 ½ cups chopped, ripe strawberries
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups half-and-half
½ vanilla bean, split
6 large egg yolks
1 cup cold heavy cream

Place the strawberries in a bowl and toss with the 1 tablespoon sugar.  Mash slightly.  Set aside to macerate for 30 minutes.

In a large nonreactive saucepan, combine the half-and-half, the ½ cup sugar, and the vanilla bean and bring to a boil.  Immediately remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until thick, about 3 minutes.

Temper the egg yolks by gradually adding about ½ cup of the warm half-and-half, whisking constantly.  Transfer the yolk mixture back to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the custard begins to thicken.  It should register 176 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer or coat the back of a spoon.  

Immediately strain the custard into the bowl of strawberries and add the cold cream.  Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  Transfer to a freezer container and freeze for an hour or two to firm before serving.

Makes 1 quart

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bowery Lane Bicycles

Local food, local….bikes? Yes, there is a super cool bicycle being built in New York City - Queens, to be exact - out of American steel and I saw it firsthand today in the sweltering heat at the New Amsterdam Market. Three guys with a desire to make a traditional cruising bike at an affordable price founded Bowery Lane Bicycles in 2008. Patrick Bernard, Sean Naughton and Michael Salvatore thought there ought to be a comfortable, easy to maintain, good-looking bike to get city dwellers around town. With leather saddle seats, sustainable cork handles, theft-resistant features (this is NYC, after all), and wood crates handcrafted by a father and son in NJ, the Broncks Black, Broncks Raw, and Breukelen models fit the bill. Big tires absorb the shock of uneven, bumpy roads and single or three-speed options suit the flat terrain of the city perfectly.

I was immediately drawn to the simplicity of the design, not to mention the charming wood box on the back for hauling groceries or “two six packs or 25 LPs” as their website notes. Biking in Manhattan has always seemed like a scary proposition to me, but with a bike-loving mayor putting in more bike lanes every day, maybe it’s time to get a helmet, buy a Breukelen, and go.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Melick’s Town Farm and Sour Cherry Pie

Not too long ago I spent my first summer weekend in New Jersey, gardening at my country home, aka Mom and Dad's.  Before heading outside to tackle the weeds and pots of flowers waiting to be planted, I took the morning to visit my favorite farm stands and markets.

One of my stops was Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick, NJ where I found my dad’s all-time favorite pie fruit, sour cherries.  Melick’s makes and sells amazing fruit pies but, me being me, I would rather bake one than buy one.  Thinking a treat would be in order after a weekend spent outside in the Jersey heat and humidity, I picked up two quarts of fresh cherries, hoped it would be enough for a pie, and headed home.

Or at least I thought I was headed home.  On the way down Lamington Road I spotted a sign for a new farm market in Pottersville, a tiny bucolic town that lies alongside the Lamington River.  Again, me being me, I had to buzz by and check it out.  The weeds could wait!

This is the inaugural summer for the Pottersville market, held outside the pretty Reformed Church on Black River Road.  There will be three more markets held from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM on the last Saturday of July, August, and September.  

I found a small and festive gathering of farmers and artisans selling, among other things, eggs, honey, cheese, cut flowers, jams and preserves, vegetables, handmade soaps, beeswax candles, gourmet coffee, and freshly baked breads.

It’s exciting to see more farmers’ markets popping up around New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union.  The bulk of NJ’s agricultural crops come from the southern part of the state but there are still open areas of land being farmed throughout the state, including central New Jersey where I’m from.

For those of you who think all of New Jersey looks like the area surrounding Newark airport and Giants Stadium (and I know you're there!), you should venture off the Turnpike and take a drive through the quaint country towns of Somerset and Hunterdon counties.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how charming it can be.

When I finally returned home I got a big smile from Dad when he learned a homemade sour cherry pie was in his immediate future.  Sour cherries and my dad go hand in hand; anytime they’re on a menu it’s a safe bet that's what he’ll be ordering. Once upon a time we even had a sour cherry tree growing in our backyard (along with sweet cherry, pear and apple trees).  All of our fruit trees faded after several decades of producing and are now gone.  The sweet cherry tree, seen here in the middle ground of the picture, was the last to go.

Sour cherries are also known as tart or pie cherries and as these various names suggest, many people find this type of cherry too acidic to eat out of hand.  They are best used in cooking and baking, which mellows their sharp flavor to sweetness.  Tart cherries are also more delicate than sweet cherries, a major reason you will rarely find them fresh in the grocery stores.  Despite their fragility, sour cherries hold their shape in the heat of the oven unlike their sweet counterparts, making them better suited for baking.

The two main sour cherry cultivars are amarelle and morello.  Morello cherries are generally found in Europe and have a dark skin and flesh.  Amarelle cherries have bright skin and pale yellow flesh and are found throughout the United States, Canada, and France.  The most common variety of amarelle cherry in the US is the Montmorency, named after a valley in France where the first trees were known to have grown.

Over 70% of the United States commercial sour cherry crops are grown in Michigan where the soil and climate along the banks of Lake Michigan are ideally suited for this type of tree.  Utah and New York also have commercial production.  Throughout the US many farms grow the trees in smaller numbers to harvest and sell the fruit locally.

The beautifully translucent red sour cherries I found at Melick’s were picked from trees on their farm and were perfectly ripe. Sour cherries appear in the Northeast for just a few weeks in July and then they are gone.

If you decide to plant your own tree you will soon discover, as my dad did, sour cherries are less prone to diseases than sweet cherries, but the birds LOVE to eat them.  Anyone who plants a sour cherry tree with hopes of picking the fruit will quickly become a bird-netting expert out of necessity!

My first-ever attempt at making a sour cherry pie was a team effort: I made the dough early in the day and chilled it, Dad pitted the cherries, and I put it all together and in the oven before dinner.  The pie was still warm when we ate it with vanilla ice cream later that night.   It was fantastic and I am now officially as crazy about sour cherry pie as my dad.  I just wish the season had lasted a little longer. 

Classic Sour Cherry Pie with Lattice Crust

Chances are the only time you will run into a basket of sour cherries is directly from a farmer.  If you’re smart, you won’t think twice before buying them all up and bringing them home.  The good news is because the cherries are soft, the pits are easy to remove.  Buy as many as you can stand to pit, lay them out on a sheet pan in the freezer until frozen, bag them in a Ziploc, and you’ll be eating sour cherry pie for months to come.

2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
5 tablespoons (or more) ice water

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
5 cups whole pitted sour cherries or dark sweet cherries (about 2 pounds whole unpitted cherries)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (if using sour cherries) or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (if using dark sweet cherries)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 tablespoon (about) milk
Vanilla ice cream

Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in large bowl to blend.  Add butter and rub in with fingertips until small pea-size clumps form.  Add 5 tablespoons ice water; mix lightly with fork until dough holds together when small pieces are pressed between fingertips, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry.  Gather dough together; divide into 2 pieces.  Form each piece into ball, then flatten into disk and wrap in plastic.  Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Do ahead:  Can be made 2 days ahead.  Keep chilled.  Let dough soften slightly before rolling out.

Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.  Whisk 1-cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl to blend.  Stir in cherries, lemon juice, and vanilla; set aside.

Roll out 1 dough disk on floured surface to 12-inch round.  Transfer to 9-inch glass pie dish.  Trim dough overhang to ½ inch.  Roll out second dough disk on floured surface to 12-inch round.  Using large knife or pastry wheel with fluted edge, cut ten 2/3-inch-wide strips from dough round.  Transfer filling to dough-lined dish, mounding slightly in center.  Dot with butter.  Arrange dough strips atop filling, forming lattice; trim dough strip overhangs to ½ inch.  Fold bottom crust up over ends of strips and crimp edges to seal.  Brush lattice crust (not edges) with milk.  Sprinkle lattice with remaining 1-tablespoon sugar.
Place pie on rimmed baking sheet and bake 15 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F.  Bake pie until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown, covering edges with foil collar if browning too quickly, about 1 hour longer.  Transfer pie to rack and cool completely.  Cut into wedges and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Serves 8

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eberhard Muller - Satur Farms

I recently returned to my cooking school alma mater, The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE).  When I attended it was called Peter Kump’s Cooking School and was located on East 92nd Street in a bare bones walk-up.  I can recall opening the street level door and staring at an almost vertical three-story staircase up to the kitchens.  The kitchens consisted of two rooms with a couple of huge Viking stoves, a few refrigerators, no air conditioning (it was summertime when I went), and a black tar roof where we could grill food and roast ourselves all at the same time. Back then I couldn’t cook to save my life; all I could make with any success were Christmas cookies. I had also looked at attending the French Culinary Institute and decided PK was much less intimidating, which I liked given how green I was in the kitchen.

Peter Kump had just passed away when I began my stint at the school and the students were told we could attended his memorial service if we helped pass champagne at the end of the service.  I was happy to do so and it’s there I meet several legendary chefs including Jacques Pepin (somewhere out there is a picture of me and my friend Laura giving him a peck on either cheek) and Julia Child, who was sharp as a tack and very gracious.  We cooked our graduation dinner at James Beard’s former townhouse.  I have wonderfully fond memories of this quirky little place and the people I met there.

Now the school is much fancier and in a new location on 23rd Street.  This is where I went to hear former Le Bernardin and Lutece chef, Eberhard Muller, talk about his current passion and business venture, Satur Farms.  I’ve known about Satur Farms for years; when a chef of Muller’s status quits his day job to do something else, it makes news.  I have seen their delivery trucks around Manhattan and their salad greens at my Whole Foods and was curious to learn more about the farm's operation.

We started with the story of how Eberhard came to own a farm in the first place.  He is German and grew up with the European model of agriculture; food grown seasonally on small, local farms and purchased the same day as harvested.  When he arrived in NYC in 1982 after cooking for several years at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris, Eberhard was confronted with the American model of agriculture:  produce grown on large Midwest and California farms and trucked to the Northeast anywhere from 8 – 14 days after being picked.  As he put it “the quality of food was not there”.

In 1997, Eberhard and his wife and business partner, Paulette Satur, purchased 18 acres of farmland on Long Island’s North Fork.  Initially they grew vegetables for Lutece but word quickly got out among his fellow chefs and soon they were asking for produce for their restaurants, too.  One thing lead to another, he threw in his toque, and today they own 180 acres and Eberhard considers himself a farmer.

And what a farmer!  Satur Farms is the largest vegetable farm in the Northeast, growing over 50 different crops (which include specialty salad greens, leafy vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, root vegetables, and herbs), selling to 250 accounts (from Daniel and Per Se to large scale retailers Whole Foods and Fresh Direct) and employing 60 + people.
It didn’t take me long to realize how dedicated and tireless Eberhard is about bringing the most flavorful, top-quality vegetables to his customers. Take for instance the agreement Satur Farms has with Whole Foods in the Tri-State area.  WF calls in their order by 4:30 PM the day before they would like delivery.  The farm harvests their greens the day of the call.  The greens are delivered to the WF distribution center in Connecticut at 4 AM the next day.  The greens do not enter the facility but go directly onto distribution trucks and must be delivered to the stores by that afternoon.  I’m certainly not an expert on these things, but I find it hard to believe any other produce brand sold in any of my local grocery stores can come close to offering this kind of freshness.

Satur Farm is not certified organic but they grow by organic standards as much as they can, using as little synthetic materials as possible.  They practice crop rotation and use cover crops, planting 140 - 150 acres and leaving the rest to fallow.  This is an expensive way to farm but does wonders for the farmland, returning nutrients to the soil that in turn produce healthier, more nutritious crops.  Satur Farms’ commitment to sustainable farming is as meaningful as any organic certification they might receive from the USDA.

In the little downtime they have, Eberhard and Paulette search for interesting seed varieties while traveling.  During the talk we were served a sampling of raw vegetables harvested that morning from the farm.  The arugula was grown from seeds from Italy, the Bibb lettuce seeds came from Holland, and the turnip seeds from Japan.  Their flavors were intense.   As Eberhard pointed out and I can attest is true, the taste of a Tokyo turnip is sweet when eaten immediately after being picked.  Two days later, the taste will become pungent and spicy.
Eating locally really does make a difference, first and foremost in taste.  In the debate over which is better, local or organic, I tend to side with local, the above being an important reason (with supporting the community and preserving the land also up there at the top of the list).  I have found many, if not most, of the farmers that frequent farmers markets are organic in everything but name. And given it’s a known fact produce begins to loose its flavor the moment it is picked, how tasty can that organic salad mix from California really be?
Satur Farms uses a blend of European and American farming practices out of necessity; Eberhard seemed acutely aware that his days of having a small, personal garden are long gone.  His farm is a business and he is responsible for the livelihoods of 65 – 70 people so concessions are made to the demands of the American market such as selling arugula year round even though, if left up to nature, it would grow only in the late spring and summer in the Northeast.

Another nod to American tastes is mesclun, which originated in the south of France.  Mesclun is a mix of young, tender salad greens that are traditionally found early in the growing season when the leaves are little.  As the season progresses and the leaves get bigger, it is no longer available and people buy larger, more mature lettuces.  In the United States, we want little lettuce all year round so Satur Farm sells it, even though it shouldn’t be available (and yes, I admit it; I’m one of those who love my little greens in July....and January).
For two months during winter the growing portion of the farm is moved to 150 acres in Florida, a location chosen over Arizona or California because the produce can be trucked to the farm on Long Island and washed and packaged for sale in just 36 hours. When asked about his packaging Eberhard told us when Walmart decided to go organic (a very good thing), they bought up ALL the available corn-based plastic containers on the market.  All of them!  Satur Farms prefers boxes to bags because the greens last longer and do not bruise, so at the moment their boxes are made of petroleum-based plastic.  The good news is more supplies of eco-friendly boxes appear to be on the horizon at which time the farm will make the switch.

One of the more intangible aspects of Satur Farms’ success comes from Eberhard’s years as a chef at high-end restaurants.  Even though he now considers himself a farmer, he still thinks like a chef.  He knows from experience how important it is for chefs to be aware of what is available in the market so they can plan their menus with confidence.  If a chef has ordered tomatoes from the farm and the farm runs out because of a heavy rain or unusually high temperatures or a million other possible reasons, someone will call the restaurant in advance and let them know rather than have the delivery truck show up and the driver say, “Oh, sorry, we ran out”. Keeping surprises to a minimum in the raucous world of restaurants is an invaluable service.   

This subtle but important commitment is just one of many interesting attributes I discovered about Satur Farms this night.  If you can’t tell by now, I was so impressed with the chef/farmer and his wife (whom we didn’t meet but whom he talked about throughout the evening.  Paulette oversees the accounts, makes the sales calls, and handles the administrative end of the business).  It's terrific so many of us are getting turned on to locavorism but it takes doers like the people at Satur Farms to make real change happen. Thank goodness for them!
This past winter when the farmers at the Greenmarket ran out of - yes - mesclun - I went to the grocery store looking for an alternative.  That’s when I discovered they carried Satur Farms.  When I saw it was grown in Florida I thought “Really?  Why so far away?”  Now I know why and I will buy their mesclun in a heartbeat, no questions asked.
Eberhard’s Citrus Vinaigrette
From Eberhard Muller via Martha Stewart’s website

Throughout the night, whenever Eberhard spoke about eating his greens he invariably would say, “All they need is olive oil, a little sea salt, and an acid.  That’s it.”  He mentioned that sometimes he adds a little water to his dressings because he finds most dressings too thick.  They are there "to enhance, not mask” the flavor of the greens.
This is one of his simple vinaigrettes, light and refreshing.  Try it with the freshest local greens you can find.  Satur Farms, if you’re lucky.

Juice from 1 grapefruit
Juice from 1 lime
Juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Course salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl, combine grapefruit, lime, and lemon juices.  Sprinkle in sugar, and whisk until it dissolves.  Gradually add olive oil, whisking vigorously to create an emulsion.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.