Home Cooking III: Getting Out of the Kitchen

Spring is a good time to get out of the kitchen.

As spring fruits and vegetables begin to show up in markets and gardens, it’s an ideal moment to discover how an ingredient can make a difference in your cooking. Much is written about seasonal, fresh produce but what exactly does that mean? How do you determine what’s fresh? Should you only buy organic foods? To be ‘good’, must a meal contain expensive or hard to find ingredients?

Seasonal and Fresh

Some of the answers to these questions can be found by going to a cooking website or your local news source. These are good resources for lists of fruits and vegetables and their seasons. If you have a newspaper, it will list local farmers’ markets and farms. Weekly supermarket ads promote what is most plentiful and will say where it comes from. Eat Local, an NRDC food app (http://www.simplesteps.org/eat-local) lists fruit and vegetable seasons for each state.

Buying local does not necessarily guarantee freshness or quality but it does mean your purchases have made a shorter trip from farm to plate. Recognizing what is in season and what is grown closest to you is a first step. Once you can anticipate a seasonal ingredient, then you are ready to put it to the taste test.

Strawberries are a good example of just how amazing an ingredient can be if it’s fresh. In many parts of the country, late May and June is strawberry season. If you can find a pick-your-own strawberry farm, go pick a flat of strawberries. Of course, as you pick, you’re going to sample some berries and I can assure you your experience will be unforgettable. And that is exactly my point: you don’t want to forget a good thing. A perfectly fresh strawberry smells good, tastes good and is red all the way through.

Once you’ve had this experience, you’ll know what fresh and seasonal means. If you pick berries a few times, you’ll become discriminating and recognize that not every season is perfect. Some years, there’s too much rain or the sun comes a little late which produces berries that are long on juice but shy on sugar. Even then, fresh berries are wonderful and you will pay less for them than at any other time of year.

Lettuce is another spring plant that you can put to a test. Buy a package of pre-washed lettuce and then, find some that just been grown. Maybe your neighbor has a garden and will share or you have a farmers’ market nearby. Make a salad with each of the lettuces and compare. The bag lettuce may be a good mattress for salad dressing but compared with garden lettuce, it will be virtually tasteless. Garden lettuce is loaded with flavor or more accurately, flavors, since there are so many varieties.

Over the next few months, as more vegetables ripen and become available, this local and seasonal business really makes sense. We humans are fortunate to have figured out how to store and dry many of our fruits and vegetables so that we have them in the winter. However, an apple eaten in April doesn’t taste like a fall apple. And why bother to eat grapefruit in July when it’s peach season?

Learning about the seasons is not restricted to produce. If you’re a meat and fish eater, there’s a lot to learn about the seasons. Lambs aren’t born in December and hens don’t lay eggs year round. Blue crabs are a summer thing in Maryland but west coast folks know that Dungeness crabs are a winter treat.

I am grateful for bananas and citrus fruit but the fact that nearly all types of produce are always available is a questionable luxury: not fresh, not tasty, yet costly. This is where personal cooking decisions come into play. If your recipe calls for ingredients that you can’t easily find or are wildly expensive, consider making something else. Of course, I’m not talking about caviar: that’s always expensive. But, back to our strawberries. Eat them in May! Don’t wait for October.

Taste and touch. Go to the store and do just that. I think it’s great that many stores offer you a slice of fruit or a chunk of tomato. How else will you know what you’re buying? If the fruit is rock hard, or the beans are shriveled, ask the produce man if he has better ones. While you’re at it, ask him what’s coming into the market and what he thinks is the best buy that day. It’s not much different than buying shoes. You certainly wouldn’t accept shoes in the wrong size or color, why buy food that isn’t fresh?

Organic and non-organic

Some conventionally grown foods, such as broccoli, asparagus, avocados, onions and bananas are not particularly high in pesticides. Others, like strawberries, potatoes, spinach, peaches and green peppers are loaded with pesticides. Check out the Dirty Dozen vs. the Clean Fifteen, a list which compares organic versus conventionally grown vegetables. See https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ for a complete list.

If your budget can include some but not all organic food, try to buy organic meat and dairy products and those organic vegetables which would otherwise fall into the ‘dirty dozen’ category.

Knowing who produces your food can make a difference. Getting certified as an organic farmer is difficult and you may have access to local farms that produce lots of fresh healthy foods that are low in pesticides. So don’t ignore your nearby sources and above all, don’t stop eating fruits and vegetables!

Gardening

Growing your own vegetables is the best way I know to learn about fresh food. Even in small spaces, it’s possible to grow herbs or tomatoes in pots. I have neighbor who grows several varieties of lettuce on his apartment window sill.

Radishes are wonderful to plant with children, especially if you can find the long French variety that are not too spicy (although radishes get hotter and hotter as the weather heats up). They almost pop out of the ground before your eyes! I love Swiss chard because it’s easy to grow from seed and will keep growing spring, summer and into the fall. True, it’s not as delicate as spinach but it is a tender and sweet green. I’ve had good luck with green beans (the bush variety) but always had to remember to scurry out and pick them before they got large and leathery.

If you’re new to planting a garden, this is the time to scout out what your neighbors are planting. A long time ago, I started a garden the first spring I moved to a new house. One day, my next door neighbor, Mrs. Corella Taylor came over, looked at my little plot, and said,

“Your tomatoes won’t grow there. Move them next to the garage.”

At first, I was a little irritated but then, I thought, “Hey! She’s lived here for 30 years. She ought to know!” And I had a great crop of Rutgers tomatoes that year.

If spring is the hopeful season, getting outside and seeing what’s growing confirms that for me. I hope you enjoy being outside with food and when you come back to your kitchen, you may want to try a few of the spring recipes below.

xoxo, Mary

 

Peas in Lettuce

Peas are one of the earliest vegetables to appear in the spring and they require a lot of garden space not to mention the time shelling them. If you can find very fresh peas and want a special treat, try this method.

  • 3 pounds peas, unshelled
  • 1 head lettuce such as Boston lettuce or other leafy lettuce, washed
  • butter
  • salt and pepper
  • mint or thyme sprigs, optional

Shell the peas – you should have about 2- 3 cups. Put one or two tablespoon of water in a fairly large saucepan and line it with the outer leaves of the lettuce. Place the peas on top. Season with salt, pepper and a tablespoon of butter. Lay one or two sprigs of mint or thyme on top, if desired. Cover completely with more lettuce leaves. Cover the pan and heat until the peas are simmering. Cook only a few minutes. Taste. Discard the leaves and serve at once.

SWISS CHARD

Swiss chard is one of my very favorite vegetables. It is so easy to grow and unlike spinach which bolts at the first sign of heat, chard will grow all summer.

For 3 or 4 servings

  • 1 bunch chard
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Wash the chard. Strip the leaves from the ribs. Chop the ribs into a dice. In a pot large enough to hold the chard, bring about 3 or 4 tablespoons of water to a simmer with 1 tablespoon olive and a little salt. Add the diced ribs, cover and cook over fairly high heat a few minutes. When the ribs are softened somewhat, add all the leaves and stir. Cover, continue to cook quickly. Chard is ready when the leave are wilted and softened. Do not overcook! Drain and taste for seasoning.

Chard Quesadillas

My friend and former chef Susan Lindeborg used to make wonderful chard quesadillas. I remember that she used cooked chopped chard mixed with a few diced tomatoes, some cumin, a little garlic. She mounded this mixture on top of a corn tortilla (which has been briefly sauteed) and then put a little shredded Mexican cheese on top and heated it under the broiler just to melt the cheese. They were served with a little spicy sauce. This makes a great vegetarian meal.

LAMP CHOPS ELEANORE

I got this from Vogue magazine around 1970. Quite rich, very yummy and not a strong liver taste. The recipe called for double rib lamb chops which were so expensive, I often used six single rib but good size chops, seared them and laid them on top of the mushroom/liver mixture and finished the baking that way.

Serves 6

  • 6 chicken livers
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms
  • 4 T butter (or 2 T butter, 2 T cooking oil)
  • salt, pepper
  • 1 T finely chopped parsley
  • 6 rib lamp chops – single or double rib (see above)
  • a little more chopped parsley

Trim and finely chop chicken livers and mushrooms. Saute over low heat in 2 tablespoons of the butter, stirring frequently without letting them brown. Season with salt, pepper and add parsley.

Method 1: For single rib shops, sear them quickly on both sides in the remaining butter or oil, if you prefer. In an ovenproof dish, add the mushroom mixture and lay the chops on top. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Method 2: If you are using double chops, make a slit in each to form a pocket and stuff with the mushroom/liver mixture. Heat remaining butter or oil, add chops and sear on both sides. Place the stuffed chops in the ovenproof dish, cover and bake at 350 over for 25 minutes.

Arrange on platter and sprinkle with a little fresh parsley.

Rhubarb Compote

In spring, rhubarb is at its pinkest! It grows all the summer long but gradually becomes green. It’s delicious no matter what the color but never eat the leaves! (They are toxic.)

The simplest thing to do with rhubarb is make a compote. Cut up about 1 pound in small chunks and put it in a saucepan with a very small amount of water. Add a few tablespoons of sugar, cover and cook over medium heat until it is soft which will take less than 5 minutes! It won’t keep it’s shape and you may have to add more sugar but once it’s cooled, you will have a wonderful dessert to eat plain, with ice cream or heavy cream. In the morning with yogurt, it makes a delicious breakfast.

Rhubarb Crumble

4 servings

  • 6 Tablespoons flour
  • 4 Tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Pan: any small quart size baking dish

  1. Combine flour, sugar and salt. Cut butter in small pieces and work into the flour mixture with your fingers until it is distributed. DON’T OVERDO this step. It’s a crumble after all.
  2. Arrange the fruit in the pan and mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Scatter the crumble mixture over the top.
  4. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. The rhubarb should be tender and juicy.

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