Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Snippets and snapshots

I'm not sure how I missed my lesson on steamed vegetables, but I am more than making up for lost time, let me tell you.

I remember reading somewhere that the French steam their vegetables more than lots of other cultures. Please don't ask me where, as I have been reading snippets and snapshots of so many different books and cookbooks scattered around the house that my head is feeling a tad bit spin-y at the moment.

Everything fell into place, however, when Susan and I picked up a bouquet of asparagus for the first time at the market last week (from Baptiste, of course).

We had said goodbye to our guests (a small class of three Dutch women in for the weekend) then immediately retreated to our bedrooms for a nap, much to Susan's daughter's (herein referred to as "F") dismay. After I woke up, F and I headed to the hyperChampion to pick up some supplies and give Dusty a bit of a walk.

When we came back, Susan had woken up and put out some gorgeous rust-colored sun-dried tomatoes and some basil-scented goat cheese for dipping, as well as a towering platter of freshly steamed asparagus, accompanied by Piment d'Espelette Fleur de Sel.

Following Susan's lead, I dipped the asparagus ends into the spicy salt and bit in.

Oh, there's nothing like that first taste of honest to goodness spring produce. I love celery root and cabbage as much as (maybe even more than) the next person, but I need seasonal changes to keep me from overdosing on them. Spring vegetables are not only wonderful in their own right, but in the promise of summer stone fruit and berries that they bring with them.

Instead of a firm recipe, I'm going to do a quick tutorial on steaming today. Maybe none of you need it, but I certainly did when I was assigned to steam some beets the other day for lunch (so delicious!).

You'll need a vegetable steamer basket and a large saucepan for this operation. Fill the bottom of the saucepan with a half inch or so of water, then put in the steamer basket to make sure the water isn't coming over the top-you want the water level just below the steamer basket, so add or remove water as necessary. Take out the basket and bring the water to a boil, then carefully return the basket to the pan.

If you're doing a vegetable that steams quickly such as asparagus, then leave the heat up high and dump your asparagus in. Just make sure to snap the ends off of the asparagus (yes, you have to do it individually, and don't worry--the asparagus will snap where it needs to, naturally separating the woody stalk) before putting it in. Steam for just a few minutes, until the asparagus is tender but not limp.

For a sturdy vegetable like beets, you'll follow the same general operation as above with a few notable exceptions.

First of all, peel and cube your beets or sweet potatoes or what have you. Set up the pot, as above, but once the water comes to a boil, lower the heat a bit to medium or medium-high. Put in your cubed vegetables, then cover. These vegetables will take quite a while to steam, anywhere from 30-50 minutes, but you'll need to check the water level every 10 minutes or so, adding more as necessary to ensure that you're not burning the basket and pan (I find that a Pyrex liquid measuring cup is really handy here). The vegetables are done when you can stick a sharp knife in the middle of a cube and feel no resistance.

Beets are especially good done this way when when you toss them with a bit of sherry vinegar, salt and pepper.

P.S. I apologize for my lack of actual food pictures in recent posts. Working in the kitchen constantly has not been conducive to snapping photos all the time. I'll work on making up for it in the coming weeks!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Missed the boat

I want to let you all know up front that this will be a bit of a short post. I just got done with a cooking class from the weekend and am still recovering, even after an hour nap today!


I just don't understand why we're so afraid of desserts in the States.

No, wait, I take that back.

I guess what I don't understand is how we could be so scared to have a dessert on a regular basis. I do it here, and have not suffered any ill effects. It's a puzzle, part of the French paradox maybe...or maybe it's just because we've missed the compote boat.

One of the things that Alice Waters continually preaches is how lovely a perfect fresh piece of fruit is--the ideal dessert, really. Sometimes, however, some of us don't have access to that lovely piece of perfect fruit, or, let's be honest, we get sick of plain fruit and want a little spice in our life.

That brings us to this lovely apple compote I've made a couple of times over the past few weeks. It's the end of the apple season here in Louviers, so I'm gobbling up as many apples as possible, in any form I can think of.

A compote is essentially cooked down fruit, as far as I can tell. Some versions tell you to cook the fruit in a sugar syrup, and you can absolutely do that if you like, but here in France, a compote is kind of a sister to applesauce. It is eaten hot and cold, brought in as a base for a buttery tart and very happily married with flaky pastry for chaussons aux pommes.

Sometimes simplicity is best, and that means tossing cubed, peeled apples into a pot with sugar and some vanilla and calling it dessert.

Apple Compote
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

6 medium-sized firm apples, such as Cox's Pippin
2 Tbs. butter
1/2 Tbs. grapeseed or canola oil
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 tsp. (vanilla) sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice (optional-add in before serving if you've got less of a sweet tooth)

Peel, core and cube the apples.

Melt the butter and oil together over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Once melted, add the apple cubes and stir. Add the vanilla and nutmeg, stir and turn down the heat to medium-low.

Stir periodically until the apples are soft, about 20 minutes. Use a potato masher to mash about half of the apples in the saucepan (you want to leave some big chunks for texture), stir again and serve.

Serves 2-3.

This is great all on its own, and I encourage you to mix it up with other spices such as cinnamon or a touch of pepper. This would also be lovely with ice cream, I imagine, maybe vanilla or cinnamon.