David’s Feast

French Cheese and Tomatos

On our way back north to Paris, we took a detour into a more austere and less populated region of France–a rocky land of forest, hilly pastures for beef herds, windy and narrow roads, and gray granite barns and houses. Our friends, David and Carrie, have referred to this region of central France as the “Ozarks of France,” and it is a difficult enough place to make a living that many of the farmers moved away and sold their old homes to people like David and Carrie. The thick-walled stone house has been renovated to make a comfortable country retreat where they tend a glorious summer garden and welcome visitors with warm hospitality. They shared with us all the best things–ripe plums picked from the community trees, mushrooms gathered in the fields, ancient stone ruins shrouded in mist, and a well-stocked wine cellar beneath the house. As if that were not enough, David cooked a feast! And he even let me help a little.

Cooking with the French

David cooks the way many good cooks in France cook–deeply connected to local and seasonal flavors and inspired by market or garden produce that looks, smells, and feels most alive. David shopped at the weekly farmers’ market in a nearby village and Carrie gathered beautiful fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden. The cool, rainy fall weather was perfect for a day of cuisine maison, or slow home cooking. Of course, we opened a bottle of good wine to sip with the meal.

 Goat Cheese with Honey

Goat Cheese Appetizers

For an aperatif, Carrie warmed small rounds of goat cheese and drizzled a little local honey on top. Cuisine du terroir of elegant simplicity.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Vegetable Gratin

Roast Leg of Lamb

David likes to cook from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells. This is based on one of her recipes.

Ingredients: 3 medium potatoes (2 lbs.), 3 medium or 2 large yellow onions, 5 medium tomatoes, 8 garlic cloves, 4 to 5 Tbs olive oil, several sprigs fresh thyme (1 Tbs. chopped leaves), 2 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 2/3 cup dry white wine, 5 1/2 to 6-pound leg of lamb

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rub the bottom of a large roasting pan or gratin dish with a split garlic clove.

Slice the potatoes, onions, and tomatoes about 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the peeled garlic cloves. Roughly chop the thyme leaves. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer in the bottom of the pan. Overlap slightly if necessary. Season with salt, pepper and thyme. Repeat with layers of onion followed by tomatoes. Pour on the wine and drizzle with olive oil.

Trim most of the fat from the leg of lamb, leaving only a thin layer. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Place a rack over the pan of vegetables and set the leg of lamb, fat side up, on the rack. Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes for rare lamb, longer if you prefer more well-cooked meat. Let the lamb sit 15 minutes before carving into thin slices. Arrange the lamb slices on a platter and serve the vegetable gratin from the pan.

Chard Tart

Chard Tart

This was really, really good. Leftovers make a great breakfast.

The dough: 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2-tsp salt, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup pine nuts

Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir them together until the dough comes together in a ball. Divide the dough into 2 balls, wrap in plastic, and set aside.

Filling: 1 1/2 lbs. chard leaves (no stems), 1 cup golden raisins, 2 beaten eggs, salt

Wash and dry the chard leaves. Chop them into narrow strips and place them in a large bowl. Season lightly with salt and stir in the beaten eggs. Add the raisins and mix well.

Roll out one ball of dough and press it into a tart pan. Spread the filling over the dough. Roll out the second ball of dough and cover the filling. Pinch the edges together.

Bake in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.

Roasted Beet Salad

Another great way to eat those roasted beets from the street market…a lovely fall or winter salad and a great pairing of walnuts and beets. Roasted or boiled, the beets are delicious.

Ingredients: 4 medium beets, 3 shallots, 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill, 2/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts, 1 Tbs walnut oil, 4 Tbs cider vinegar, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, salt and freshly ground black pepper, 1 1/2 cups arugula leaves

To roast the beets, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and roast for 1 hour or more, depending on size. Beets are done when they can be pierced easily with a thin knife blade. Cool and peel. While still warm, slice the beets into wedges, place them in a bowl, and drizzle with vinegar. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Finely chop the shallots and add them to the bowl. Add the dill, chile flakes, and walnut oil and toss to mix well. Put the arugula leaves on a platter, Scoop the beets over them, and distribute the toasted walnuts on top.

Market Day Cooking–Food, Glorious Food!

French Market

One of the true joys of traveling in France is shopping at the outdoor markets. Our guidebook called them “a barrage of color, sight, and sound.”The abundance and beauty of the produce is astounding–for me, it is Christmas Day. Stalls overflow with vegetables and fruits, nuts and olives, mushrooms and truffles, dried and fresh herbs and spices, cheeses, breads, sausages and cured meats, fish, chickens and ducks, and fresh meat. And then there’s the rotisserie chickens and grilled sausages… Lebanese specialties such as felafel, flatbreads with za’atar, and tabouleh…giant pans of paella, coq au vin…or trays of fresh pasta and ravioli. You can snack on galettes or pommes frites, or perhaps a bowl of onion soup. Oh, and take home roasted beets–what a great idea! One of our favorite markets included a van full of country bread, driven straight from the wood-fired bake oven located on a nearby farm.

Italian Market Vegetables

French Market Sausages

These are traveling markets. In rural France, the small towns host street markets on different days of the week, and various venders make a circuit to augment the more local and seasonal fare. The fall specialties include an array of wild mushrooms, fresh walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts, freshly pressed nut oils, juicy dried prunes, figs and pears, and the most gorgeous garlic I have ever seen. Southwest France is a land of small, traditional, family farms that is overflowing with the good things of the earth–food that is flavored with a benevolent climate, rich soil, and careful tending. This is the home of cuisine du terroir, country cooking seasoned with the flavor of the land.

Mushrooms At A French Market

Our home away from home in Dordogne was in a beautifully converted ancient stone barn, looking out over softly rolling hills toward the river valley and surrounded by fields of just-harvested tobacco, ripening walnut orchards, pasture, and forests of oak and chestnut trees. It felt like home, complete with a rusting vehicle in the field across the way. Each day we foraged at the markets and brought the loot home to our tiny kitchen. We emptied our shopping bags like Christmas stockings, and reveled in the riches. It was truly hard to know what to cook first. When the ingredients are so good, why get fancy? Simple is best.

French Rental Home

Roast Fingerling Potatoes

The markets were full of freshly dug potatoes, full of flavor and smelling of the earth. Fingerlings or other small, smooth-skinned yellow potatoes are first choice. Look for Red Gold, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, French Fingerling, or Russian Banana. They are best when not long out of the ground.

Wash the potatoes and dry them well. Cut fingerlings in half and larger potatoes into quarters so that the pieces are of equal size. Place the potatoes on a roasting pan that is large enough to hold them all in one layer. Drizzle them with a flavorful olive oil (2 Tbs per pound of potatoes) and toss well. Sprinkle on a generous 1/4-teaspoon sea salt and 1/2- tsp chopped fresh rosemary per pound.

Roast the potatoes in the hot oven for 50 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan and flipping the potatoes every 10 to 15 minutes so that all sides turn a toasty brown. They are done when the outside is crisp and the inside tender.

Signature Salad

On our very first day in France we stopped at a small bistro outside the railroad station where I got to eat what turned out to be the signature salad of southwest France. It was sublime.

Fill a bowl with bite-size pieces of red and green loose leaf lettuce (the most common variety we saw in the region was soft, frilly head of green-shading-to-red leaves) and curly endive. Dress the greens with a vinaigrette made with 4 Tbs mild olive oil, 2 Tbs walnut oil, and 2 Tbs wine or cider vinegar. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Top the salad with toasted walnuts and slices of toasted baguette with rounds of goat cheese, placed under the broiler to melt the cheese.

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

Market Veggies in France

It still felt like summer in the south of France in late September, and the deep purple eggplant, vibrant red and orange peppers, ruby-red onions, vine-ripe tomatoes, and shiny green zucchini were irresistible. Add some fat lavender-striped garlic cloves and a bundle of fresh thyme…it’s a lovely way to bake a summer garden. We had this dish as a filling for lasagne at the little railroad station bistro.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Ingredients: 1 large red onion, 1 beautiful shiny-skinned eggplant –12 to 16 oz.(or 2 smaller ones), 1 or 2 red or orange sweet peppers, 2 slender zucchini, 2 medium tomatoes (or 5 or 6 canned plum tomatoes), 3 to 4 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 tsp. sea salt or Kosher salt, 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 3 fat garlic cloves, 3 to 4 Tbs fruity olive oil

Extras: fresh mint leaves, pitted green olives, splash of sherry vinegar

Slice the onion from top to bottom into thin wedges. Cut the eggplant into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips, then each strip into 3 or 4 pieces, slice the zucchini into 1/4-inch rounds. Slice the tomatoes 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the garlic.

Combine the onion, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, and garlic in a large roasting pan. Toss to mix. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss again. Distribute the tomato slices over the top (or squeeze the canned tomatoes with your hand over the other vegetables.

Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown on the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fresh mint leaves and chopped green olives. A splash of sherry or balsamic vinegar is nice.

Smoky Grilled Fish and Beet Salsa

Our farmhouse in Dordogne had a patio and outdoor grill where the barnyard used to be. We brought home fresh fish from the market, and Joe fired up the grill with a bag of grapevine trimmings. The fire turned out to be quite smoky, rather alarming to our host, but the fish was delicious and greatly enhanced by a beet-orange salsa borrowed from a recipe by Yotam Ottalenghi. It’s surprising how many ways you can find to eat beets when they come ready-roasted from the market! The salsa was spiced with piment d’Espelette, a dried pepper from the Basque region. It is medium spicy and very flavorful–somewhat like Aleppo pepper, only brighter and fruitier.

Build a big, smoky fire and grill skin-on fish, whole or fillets, until cooked through–3 to 4 minutes per side. If you don’t like smoke, use a normal grill fire. While someone else deals with the fire, make the salsa.

Ingredients: 1 roasted or boiled medium-large red or yellow beet, 1 medium orange, 1 small red onion, 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives, juice of 1 small lemon, 1/2 tsp toasted and crushed coriander seeds, 3/4 tsp toasted and crushed cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, salt, 1 Tbs walnut oil, sea salt or kosher salt, vinegar

Peel and cut the beet into 1/4-inch dice. Peel the orange and remove all pith and tough membranes from the segments. Chop into small pieces. Finely chop the onion. Combine the beet, orange, onion, olives and parsley in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the spices, lemon juice, and walnut oil and pour over the mixture in the bowl. Mix well and season with salt to taste. Add some toasted walnuts and a splash of cider or sherry vinegar, if needed, just before serving. This salsa is brilliant on top of a winter salad of spinach or spicy greens.

***

For dessert, all I had to do was walk down the lane to a long-empty chateau and pick fresh figs from the tree that hung out over the bank. Not so easy, but well worth the sun-ripened figs, bursting with juice.

In Paris, there are at least 100 street markets that set up in the various neighborhoods on specified days of the week. The market near our apartment stretched for almost a half mile along a narrow greenway between two avenues. It was the Louvre of street markets, and I gazed for hours at frilly green and red lettuce, stacks of wrinkled, moldy-rind cheeses, seductive radishes, and fish so fresh they seem to have just jumped out of the water

Joie de Vivre and Thanksgiving

Last summer, when I couldn’t cook, words I read in Su Mei Yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut, took on new meaning. She gives insight into the cooking of Thailand by explaining that “the Thai people are Buddhists who believe that life is marked by suffering, impermanence, and constant change. They seek and grasp at every chance to celebrate pleasure and happiness. Good food and the community spirits of sharing reflect this philosophy.”

The Thai philosophy of food can be summed up in two words, according to Yu: arroy, meaning delicious as well as “touching one’s heart”, and sanuk, meaning fun and spiritual joie de vivre. Sounds like they celebrate Thanksgiving every day.

We were in need of an infusion of joie de vivre, so we went with friends Joe and Suzy to France. As we traveled south into the Dordogne, I knew immediately that we were in the land of arroy and sanuk, as well as joie de vivre. This is a region of rich river valleys blessed with a temperate climate, ample sun and rain, and a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Contented cows and sheep dot deep green pastures, fields of vegetables and fruit and nut orchards thrive, and the wine is legendary. This is a land where almost every village gives it’s name to a kind of cheese, wine, or sausage–all you need to do is pop into the village baker, and you have a feast.

French Landscape

French Door

Our first stop was in Villaines les Rochers, a village of willow basket makers. We were the guests of David and Judy, who make their home in one of the cave houses common to the area. These houses are dug into the soft rock in the bluffs above the river to create a unique space that is open to light yet insulated from both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The sun-facing rock wall has the added advantage of creating a superb microclimate for tomatoes and peppers and plants like grapevines and figs (even better, you can climb up on the roof and pick the figs!). David and Judy tend a garden that produces some of the most beautiful and delicious vegetables I have ever seen or tasted.

French Tomato Plate

One of the great things about being a traveler welcomed into someone’s home is that they know the flavors of their home terroir and want to share the best food possible. Our hosts gathered sun-ripened tomatoes and herbs from the garden, goat cheese from the near-by town of St. Maure, figs from the tree outside their door, mackerel from the Atlantic, and wine from a small neighboring vineyard to make a welcoming meal full of joie de vivre.

As you will see, this is not fussy cooking–not the image of the French chef. This is wonderful food staight from the earth and the sea, shared with good friends, and remembered forever with gratitude.

Appetizer of Goat Cheese and Figs

French Fig

Cut ripe, fresh figs in half and arrange on a baking pan. Place a 1/4-inch slice of goat cheese (Judy prefers the ash-coated Chevre de St. Maure) on top of each fig. Broil until the figs are softened and the cheese bubbles. Voila!

David’s Tomato Salad

French Tomato

David and Judy grow sweet, richly flavored heirloom tomatoes–Zebra and Corno-de- something, as well as the hybrid “Sungold” cherry tomato. Red, green, and gold create a spectacular mosaic of flavor and color. This is David’s speciality.

Arrange slices of red, green, and yellow tomatoes in a pleasing pattern on a large platter. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper, finely chopped red onion, and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle fruity olive oil over the top. Enjoy!

Grilled Mackerel

We bought whole, fresh mackerel at the local grocery store (cleaned as we waited), and David prepared it for the grill, using fresh herbs from the garden.

Rub the mackerel with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and coat with finely chopped sage and rosemary leaves. Tuck a sprig of rosemary and a few sage leaves into the cavity of each fish and set aside in the fridge while you prepare the grill fire. Grill over medium heat until cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Bon apetit!

Serve with a salad of lettuce and gorgeous red radicchio.

Mia’s Garden Gifts–The Best New Taste Treats

Fermented Garlic Clove

The best thing about running Country Workshops woodworking school classes is the interesting people we get to meet and the many friends we have made over the years. We met Ryo and Mia Iwasaki because they are neighbors of our mutual friends the late Marlin Mathiessen and his wife Kathy, and live just on the other side of the mountain from us in Tennessee. Marlin enticed Mia into coming to woodworking classes, and she soon became a good friend and even serves on the board of Country Workshops. Mia translates when we have Japanese visitors and is my go-to person for any Japanese cooking questions.

Ryo and Mia tend a small, intensive garden full of wonderful Japanese vegetables like daikon, nira (garlic chives), and kabocha squash. They also planted a grove of bamboo in one corner of their yard to provide both beauty and a tasty spring harvest of bamboo shoots. Mia came over last week with a bag of freshly dug bamboo shoots, another bag of what looked like burnt locusts or grasshoppers, and a small tub of dark paste. She was very excited about what she had to share, so we took a leap and stuck some in our mouths. The bamboo shoots look prehistoric and have a crunchy and mildly wild taste. The unidentifiable black things turned out to be fermented garlic cloves–sweetly intense and can’t-stop-eating-them good. The little tub held fermented garlic butter, which we slathered on bread and everything else in sight.

These are very fun ingredients to play with, so I got the details of how to prepare them from Mia.

Bamboo Shoots

 Bamboo Shoots

Harvest bamboo shoots in early spring when the shoots are 3 to 5 inches tall. Older shoots will become tough and woody if allowed to grow taller. Cut the shoots off with a sharp knife or pruners at ground level, or slightly below if your soil is loose. Mia boils her shoots in water that has been used to rinse white rice. She says the residue that washes off the rice eliminates any bitterness in the shoots. Plain water is fine, also. Boil the shoots until tender, up to one hour for large ones. Let the shoots cool to room temperature in the water. Mia stores hers in the refrigerator in the cooking water until ready to use. Very young and tender shoots are delicious eaten raw.

The bamboo shoots were so beautiful to look at, I served them as they were, as an accompaniment to Thai curry. Here are more ideas from Mia:

* Slice them up and add them to stir-fry.

* Cook them with steamed rice: Wash and drain rice. Place in a pot or rice cooker and cover with slices of bamboo shoots. Add 2 Tbs soy sauce, 2 Tbs sake, 1 tsp dashi powder, and 1 cup water per cup of rice. Bring to a boil and allow the water to boil down to the surface of the rice over medium heat. Cover tightly and cook over very low heat until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Allow to sit 10 minutes before serving.

* Spicy Bamboo Shoots: Sauté bamboo shoots in toasted sesame oil 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 tsp minced ginger, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes (or to taste), and 1 Tbs. soy sauce (Mia adds a little Chinese soup broth powder instead of soy). Stir until the shoots have absorbed the flavors.

Fermented Garlic

Fermented Garlic

Mia made her batch of fermented garlic with 20 whole garlic bulbs. Separate the cloves but leave the peels on. Place the unpeeled cloves in rice cooker or slow cooker set to “keep warm”. Stir once a day for 3 weeks. The fermented garlic will turn very black, soft, and sweet. Peel the garlic before using, or just pop the whole thing in you mouth and enjoy.

We ate the peeled cloves straight, put them on crackers with goat cheese, used them in cilantro/sorrel pesto, and wrapped them up in grilled zucchini. All good.

Fermented Garlic Butter

Fermented Garlic Butter

Mash 1/4 lb best quality room temperature butter with enough peeled fermented garlic cloves to make an impact–12 to 24 cloves, depending on your taste. Use a fork or food processor, whichever you prefer.

We ate our blackened garlic butter on bruschetta and on cornbread, topped with watercress. I used some on top of salmon steaks, wrapped in rhubarb leaves and slow-roasted @ 250 degrees F for about 18 minutes. The butter would be equally good to top grilled steaks and is delicious to flavor plain rice.

Who needs truffle butter?

Hungry Gap

Old English farmers had a term for the time of year when winter’s stores were getting low and spring was still just a promise. They called it the “hungry gap.” It makes my stomach growl just to think about it. Modern grocery store shoppers don’t experience a hungry gap anymore; it’s always summer somewhere in the world, and produce from afar flows in year-round. Asparagus from Peru, zucchini from Mexico, greens in plastic boxes from California…they fill the hunger gap but leave a flavor gap.

Just when I am thinking that the spring garden harvest is a long way off, and we will indeed suffer a hungry gap, the garden and woods wake up. It’s a forager’s paradise; the wild plants and garden survivors offer some of the most vibrant and flavorful food of the year. Chives, sorrel, mint, corn salad, garlic chives, chervil, arugula, and chickweed emerge…full deep green. Last year’s chicory, radicchio, chard, kale, mustard, and celery send out new leaves, full of energy stored all winter. In the woods, the ramps are poking out of their blanket of fallen leaves. I am as happy to see these first leaves of spring as any of summer’s more extravagant bounty.

Eating foraged plants in spring is an immersion in the here and now. Every day brings new growth–mint creeps from between the rocks, chicory emerges from under the mulch, and the winter pea shoots become succulent and enticing. I notice each leaf…its shape, texture, and color, and how it unfurls, almost blinking in the sunlight. Flavors range from  sharp and intense to sweetly mellow, tamed by a long winter.

The most direct (and my favorite) way to eat these wild flavors of spring is to snip the tiny leaves into a salad. The Italians call this kind of salad misticanza, a mix of greens that includes a complex range of flavors and textures. My early spring mix includes peppery arugula, soft and mild leaves of chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste“, crunchy endive or escarole, spicy mustard leaves and flower buds, slightly bitter radicchio or chicory “Catalogna Pugliese” (Italian dandelion), delicate pea shoots, and mild chickweed. Pile the leaves into a salad bowl and toss them with good olive oil, a little salt and black pepper, and a drizzle of wine vinegar. That’s all you need.

spring green salad

Some people aren’t as fond as I am of the intensely green, slightly bitter taste of these wild and wonderful greens. For these taste buds, a little oil and vinegar are not enough. Happily, there is a remedy. Adding ingredients like cheeses, cooked beans, toasted nuts, and crisp croutons soften the overly zealous green-ness and introduce welcome contrasting textures. Crispy fried bacon or pancetta pair perfectly with salads of sturdy greens–a lesson we learned from the local old-timers, who dressed their foraged spring greens with bacon grease.

Spring Misticanza with Marinated White Beans

spring salad with beans

I made this with a perfect head of radicchio “Palla Rossa” that over-wintered under two layers of row cover, surviving sub-zero nights. The beans were big fat Borlotto beans that I shelled out and put in the freezer last September. Any large white beans or cannellini beans will work. The mild, soft-textured beans are the perfect foil for sharp, spicy greens.

Ingredients: 4 cups thinly sliced radicchio, 4 cups mixed spicy salad greens, 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, chives, mint), 1 1/4 cooked white beans, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, feta cheese and/or crisp fried bacon or pancetta

Warm 3 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chile and cook 1 or 2 minutes. Add the cooked beans and 2 Tbs of their cooking liquid, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 to 4 tsp red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and allow the beans to marinate while you make the salad.

Toss the radicchio, mixed greens, herbs, and onion together in a large salad bowl. Drizzle with fruity olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the warm bean mixture over the top and garnish with crumbled feta cheese and pieces of crisp bacon or pancetta.

Frittata with Spring Greens and Ramps

Ramps

Ramps are a special member of the onion family that grows wild in rich, moist mountain coves. They are one of the first signs of spring and much beloved for their pungent flavor and ability to drive off the last of winter.

Ingredients: 5 large eggs, 12 ramps (substitute scallions or garlic chives–about 1 cup chopped), 1 small bunch greens (kale, chard, mustard, nettles, watercress–3 to 4 cups chopped), 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano, pecorino, or grana Padano cheese, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 2 to 3 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, mint), red chile flakes

Heat the oven to 275 degrees F. Clean and trim the ramps. Thinly slice the white ends and chop the greens into 1-inch pieces. Remove any tough stems and roughly chop the greens into bite-size pieces. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in an ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped ramps and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add the chopped greens and saute a few minutes until wilted. The young leaves should cook quickly.

Whisk the eggs with the salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir the ramps and greens and grated cheese into the eggs. Wipe the skillet clean, then set over medium-high heat with an additional 1 Tbs oil. When the oil shimmers, pour in the egg mixture into the pan. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the eggs are almost set, 15 to 20 minutes. Allow the frittata to cool 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

To serve, cut the frittata in wedges. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped herbs and a pinch of chile.

Ramp Butter

I found the instructions for making ramp butter in a cookbook written by the owners of Franny’s, a restaurant in Brooklyn dedicated to simple, seasonal, Italian food. They cure their own meats and like to pair ramp butter with pancetta on crostini. I raided my small ramp patch for this recipe, but had to supplement with wild onions to make enough.

Ingredients: 2 2/3 cups thinly sliced ramp leaves (or wild onion tops), 2/3 cup thinly sliced ramp or onion bottoms, 1/2 lb. unsalted butter, 1 tsp chile flakes, 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

In a saucepan, melt 6 Tbs butter over medium-low heat. Add 1/3 cup ramp bottoms and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chile flakes and stir 20 to 30 seconds. Add the ramp tops and salt and cook until the greens are tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl, and cool to room temperature.

In a food processor, blend the uncooked ramp bottoms with the cooked mixture. Pulse in the remaining room-temperature butter. Transfer to a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Roll into a log and twist the ends of the paper to seal. Refrigerate until used. The butter will store 1 week in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer.

Thai curry with fresh coconut milk

Cooking with coconut ingredients

Su-Mei Yu is right–fresh coconut milk wins hands down over the canned stuff. It is sweet and light and makes you want to lick your fingers after squeezing the milk out of the shredded coconut meat. It also makes you want to cook something really good, like curry.

A pot of Thai curry is aromatic, salty-spicy, slightly sweet, fresh, and bright. The curry begins with a simple combination of curry paste cooked in coconut cream–the most important step, according to Su-Mei. Meat, chicken, seafood, or tofu is matched with the freshest seasonal vegetables or fruit and simmered in a flavorful broth. The dish is finished with fresh herbs and garnishes of lime wedges, chiles, and thin strips of raw vegetables. Ahhh…a whole world of flavor in a bowl.

Thai curry is a culinary journey, which is why it is so fascinating to me. Traditionally, curries were cooked slowly in clay pots over small fires (hot fires would break the pots).  The method was economical and practical: slow-cooking used little fuel, tenderized tough cuts of meat and poultry, and allowed the cook to accomplish other chores as the food simmered. The practice of making curry with coconut milk may have come from the Ceylonese in the 7th century, and it was Arab traders and missionaries that introduced the use of aromatic dried spices. But it was the Thai Royal Court, Su-Mei says, that perfected the making of Thai curry and prescribed the assortment of seasonal accompaniments that provide complementary and contrasting tastes.

Su-Mei Yu has researched the history and making of Thai curry with passion, or in her words, obsession. The word keang (curry) describes the technique of making stew-like dishes by adding ingredients to a pot of liquid simmered over fire. Keang also describes the practice of using coconut cream for cooking. Though the concept is simple, the process has been perfected over many generations of cooks, and it is the understanding of the nature of fresh and dried herbs and spices and how to prepare and combine them correctly that is the genius of delicious Thai curry. Still, it is the slow-cooking that is the secret of keang.

I love reading Su-Mei’s descriptions of traditional Thai cooking, and try to imagine the forest-dwelling villagers who gathered twigs and dried leaves for their fires, foraged for wild herbs, roots,and tubers, harvested coconuts, and combined them to make the wonderful dish we call Thai curry. Su-Mei doesn’t promise that we can have dinner in 30 minutes (though with canned coconut milk and prepared curry paste, we can). She promises that if we take the time to prepare ingredients carefully and cook them slowly, the results will be well worth the effort.

Thai curry pastes– a blend of fresh aromatics and dried spices–are made with a mortar and pestle. Ingredients include spices, chiles, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, garlic, shallots, wild lime leaves, and shrimp paste…all pounded together to make an intense flavor base ready to explode when stirred into hot coconut cream at the start of a Thai-style curry. Even a simple curry paste recipe has a dozen ingredients, some of them not so easy to find. Luckily, you can buy good curry paste (I like Mae-Ploy brand) at an Asian market. Here are the most common varieties to choose from:

*Yellow: Often fiery hot, this curry paste gets its dominant flavor and color from lemongrass and turmeric. Paired with fish and seafood; great with vegetables and tofu.

*Red: Colored and highly spiced with hot red chiles. A versatile curry paste commonly used with chicken, duck, and beef. Equally good with tofu and vegetables.

*Panang: similar to red curry paste, with the addition of peanuts or cashews. Panang beef curry is renowned.

*Green: Made with fresh green chiles, and very hot. Used in recipes for duck and chicken or pork and eggplant. Serve with fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of coconut cream.

*Masmun or Massaman: Highly aromatic, this curry paste includes more dried spices than other types and is reminiscent of Indian curry.

Notes on ingredients: Su-Mei Yu is very helpful about explaining the role of various ingredients as well as suggesting substitutions. Thai curry recipes often call for wild (Kaffir) limes or bitter orange. Substitute unripe orange, kumquat, or regular lime juice for a sour-bitter flavor, and lime zest in place of lime leaves. Palm sugar is fruity, sweet, and floral. It contributes more flavor than refined sugar. You can substitute maple syrup, light brown sugar, or Mexican cane sugar for palm sugar. Tamarind supplies a sweet-sour-fruity flavor, with a musty undertone like sumac berries. Su-Mei suggests making a puree of tart dried apricots soaked in unsweetened sour cherry juice to duplicate the flavor. Asian markets sell tamarind concentrate as well as blocks of compressed tamarind. To make thick tamarind juice, soak a chunk of compressed tamarind in hot water (1:4 ratio). When it has softened, mash the pulp to help it dissolve. Remove any seeds, and stir until the liquid looks like thin applesauce. Store in the refrigerator.

Meat and Poultry: Su-Mei explains that Thais prefer bone-in meat and poultry, and use a heavy Chinese cleaver to whack it into small portions before cooking (keep one hand behind your back). If you opt for more convenient and quicker-cooking boneless cuts, she suggests slicing across the grain into 1 to 1 1/2-inch strips, and cutting into bite-size pieces for use in curries. Adjust cooking times for thinner or thicker pieces.

Quick Red Chicken Curry

Thai Red Curry

When I first started to make Thai curry, I used directions found in Alford and Duguid’s collection of Southeast Asian recipes, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, for Quick Red Chicken Curry, which they call a “shortcut with culinary traditions.” Using freshly prepared or canned coconut milk, store-bought chile paste, and boneless chicken, this curry is easy to prepare and adaptable. Once you are familiar with the process, you can mix and match ingredients to create many curry variations. If you make your own fresh coconut milk, you will have enough cream and milk to supply all the liquid needed. If you use canned coconut milk, you can use chicken or vegetable broth for the extra liquid.

Ingredients: 1 14-oz can coconut milk (or 1 cup freshly made thick coconut cream and 1 cup thinner coconut milk), 1 to 4 Tbs red curry paste (how much spice do you like?), 1 lb boneless chicken thighs cut into 1-inch bite-size pieces, 1 to 1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or more fresh coconut milk), 1 Tbs fish sauce, 1 to 3 tsp palm or brown sugar, 1 onion cut in thin wedges, 3 cups vegetables cut in 1/2-inch dice or wedges (choose one or two: Thai or Asian eggplant, winter squash, potato, mushrooms…), 2 Tbs thick tamarind juice, zest of one lime (unless you have 3 or 4 wild lime leaves on hand…)

In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup coconut cream (thick part at the top of the can) over medium heat. When it bubbles, whisk in the red curry paste and stir 1 to 2 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until the oil begins to separate and tiny bubbles the color of the chile paste cover the surface.

Add the chicken, stirring to coat the pieces, and cook over high heat until the chicken changes color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the coconut milk and broth (2 cups total), fish sauce, and sugar; taste and add more fish sauce or sea salt as needed (saltiness of curry pastes and chicken broth are variable!). Bring to a simmer and stir in the onion and other vegetables. Adjust the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked and the vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the tamarind and lime zest. Lower the heat and cook 1 minute. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

Garnish with fresh cilantro, fresh Thai or Italian basil, coconut cream or toasted coconut flakes, thinly sliced hot chiles, thinly sliced cucumber, arugula leaves

Red Curry with Roasted Pork

Possible Coconut Curry Additions

Su-Mei Yu says that roasted meats and chicken are a treat in Thai curries, and her book includes a recipe for a roasted pork and green banana curry. I improvised with some leftover roasted pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes, to delicious results.

Ingredients: 1 lb pork tenderloin, 4 cups sweet potato or winter squash, 1 14-oz can coconut milk (or 1 cup freshly made coconut cream and 1 cup thinner coconut milk), 1 to 4 Tbs red curry paste (or more, to taste), 1 cup chicken broth or more fresh coconut milk, 1 yellow onion, 1 to 2 Tbs fish sauce, sea salt, 1 or 2 tsp palm sugar, 3 or 4 wild lime leaves or grated zest of one lime, 1 or more lightly crushed fresh hot chiles, 1/2 cup Thai or Italian basil leaves

Su-Mei’s marinade for pork: 3 lightly crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1/4 cup pineapple juice, 1/4 cup soy sauce

My marinade: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, 1/3 cup orange juice, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 2 tsp toasted sesame oil

Combine the pork and marinade and refrigerate 1 to 4 hours (turn over a few times while marinating). Heat the oven to 350 degrees, F. Remove the pork from the marinade and roast 25to 30 minutes, until the meat registers 155 degrees F. Cool and cut into 1-inch cubes.

Peel and cut the sweet potato or winter squash 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut each slice into 1/2-inch wide bite-size strips. Peel and cut the onion into 1/2-inch wedges.

In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup thick coconut cream (scoop from the top of the unshaken can or use fresh coconut cream) over medium-high heat. Whisk in the red curry paste, lower the heat to medium and cook, continuing to whisk, 1 to 2 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 6 minutes, until the oil rises to the surface. Stir in the pork and onion. Add an additional 2 cups thinner coconut milk (or coconut milk combined with chicken broth to make 2 cups). Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a simmer. Season with fish sauce and sugar to taste. Add the sweet potato and simmer, uncovered, until the sweet potato is tender and the broth thickens, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the lime zest, crushed chile, and basil. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

Garnish with thinly sliced fresh chiles, thinly sliced cucumber, and lime wedges.

Peanut Sauce

Something else to make with your fresh coconut milk! This is quick and easy, using prepared curry paste and your stash of tamarind juice.

Ingredients: 1/2 cup thick coconut milk or cream, 1 Tbs Thai curry paste, 5 Tbs peanut butter, 1 Tbs palm sugar, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1/2 tsp cayenne (optional), 1/2 cup water, 2 to 4 Tbs thick tamarind juice, fresh lime juice

Heat the coconut milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the curry paste and cook 1to 2 minutes. Add the peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce, cayenne, and water. Stir and cook until the sauce is bubbling and well blended. Remove from the heat and stir in the tamarind juice. Add 1 or 2 tsp lime juice, to suit your taste.

Curry Ingredients

Cracking the Coconut

“Learning to crack open a coconut is essential to becoming a Thai cook.” Su-Mei Yu

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One good thing about winter is that people go to Florida, and they bring back coconuts. That’s how I happen to have a real live coconut–hairy husk and all–sitting on my kitchen counter. It’s an awesome package–a thick, fibrous outer covering and tough, hard inner shell protecting the sweet aromatic coconut meat. How do you turn this hairy ball into coconut milk?

Su-Mei yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut has the answer. I love reading this book about ancient Thai cooking traditions and the intricacies of Thai curry. Su-Mei writes that coconut is to the Thais what butter, cream, and oil are to Western cuisine, but more than that the coconut is the “spirit of Thai cooking.” The coconut tree spiritually and literally “anchors, protects, and secures the land” and is second only to rice as Thailand’s most important crop. The rich coconut cream extracted from the grated flesh is essential to the Thai way of stir-frying, and just one coconut can provide enough milk and cream for a sumptuous pot of curry.

Even though I often make Thai curry, I have always relied on canned coconut milk and cream. But Su-Mei says there is no comparison between the taste and aroma of fresh coconut cream and the canned product. I believe her, so I gather up the tools she says are necessary to the endeavor: heavy hammer, Phillips head screwdriver, regular screw driver, dish towel, potato ricer, 3 or 4 bowls, vegetable peeler, and a metal spoon. It sounds like preparation for major surgery, but Su-Mei considers it “coconut therapy.”

Once the outer packing is removed, you will see three indentations, or “eyes” on the top of the coconut. To extract the juice, position a Phillips head screwdriver in one of the eyes and tap it with the hammer to punch a hole. Repeat on a second eye. Drain the juice into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for drinking or other use.

Place the coconut on the center rack of a preheated 375 degrees F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Put the coconut on a hard surface (preferably concrete) and strike it with the hammer to crack it open. Break into four or five pieces. Hold a piece of coconut with a dishtowel to protect you hands and pry the meat loose with a flat-blade screwdriver. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the dark outer skin off the white meat (I saved these peelings and toasted them on the wood stove…they were delicious).

Now cut the coconut meat into 1-inch pieces and use a food processor with a metal blade to chop the chunks into very small pieces. Pulse and blend until the coconut turns to pulp. Add 1 cup warm water and process for 30 seconds. Transfer the pulp to a large mixing bowl and “milk” the coconut by squeezing and rubbing with your fingers. Massage and squeeze 89 times–this is the ritual number required to produce rich and creamy milk.

Cracked coconut

Put the pulp into a potato ricer or fine strainer over another bowl. Press to extract the liquid. Refrigerate the liquid at least one hour to allow the cream to rise to the top. Skim off the cream and refrigerate the cream and milk in separate containers. Meanwhile, put the coconut pulp back into a mixing bowl and add 3 cups warm water. Repeat the massaging and squeezing process 89 times. Strain, as before, and refrigerate the liquid at least one hour. Skim off the cream and add it to the first batch of cream. Refrigerate the thin milk separately.

Su-Mei Yu recommends cracking and extracting the meat from more than one coconut at a time. The extra coconut can be frozen up to a month for making more coconut milk or toasted coconut flakes. Once you make a batch of fresh coconut milk, you will be hooked and never want to go back to the canned stuff again.

Freshly grated coconut flakes: the pulp left over from making coconut milk may be saved for baking or dry-roasted to use for a topping on salads or stir-fry.  Flakes made from coconut before the milk is extracted have a richer flavor. Roast about 1 cup freshly grated coconut in a large dry skillet over medium heat, shaking and stirring until evenly browned. Cool completely before storing in a tightly sealed glass jar.

Coconut Snacks: Miang Kati and Miang Kum 

Coconut chutney in lettuce leaf

This snack from northeastern Thailand–a fresh chutney wrapped in leaves– is the perfect way to sample freshly made coconut flakes and cream. Traditionally, native bitter greens are used, but tender sorrel, spinach, radicchio, or even bib lettuce leaves all make good wrappers. The bundles make great appetizers or snack with afternoon tea.

Miang Kati

This version is adapted from Su-Mei Yu’s recipe (I used much less sugar). Miang means “leaf bundle” and Kati refers to the coconut cream drizzled on top.

Ingredients: 20 to 24 well-washed and dried spinach, radicchio, or lettuce leaves, sunflower or peanut oil, 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots, 1/3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 2 Tbs palm or brown sugar, fine sea salt, 3.4 cup dry-roasted freshly grated coconut flakes, 1/3 cup fresh coconut cream, lime wedges, minced fresh chiles

Warm 2 Tbs oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Separate the shallots into rings and add them to the oil with a pinch of seas salt. Fry slowly, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Transfer to a plate to cool. Add 1 or 2 tsp oil to the pan, if needed. Add the peanuts to the pan with 2 Tbs sugar and 1/4 tsp sea salt. Stir to coat the peanuts, 1 minute. Add the fried shallots and toasted coconut flakes and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Serving: Set out a platter of leaves of your choice next to the bowl of miang kati. Set small bowls of coconut cream, minced chile, and lime wedges nearby. To eat, place a spoonful of filling in the middle of a leaf, drizzle with coconut cream, add a pinch of chile and a squeeze of lime juice, wrap it up and pop in your mouth.

Miang Kum

This second recipe is adapted from a coconut-lime chutney found in Mollie Katzen’s Still Life with Menu Cookbook. Again, I decreased the sugar–feel free to re-instate it if your taste runs sweet.

Ingredients: 8 oz spinach or radicchio leaves, 1 small lime, 1/3 cup chopped sweet onion, 1/3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 1/3 cup toasted freshly grated coconut flakes, 2 Tbs palm or brown sugar (Mexican piloncillo cane sugar is very tasty), 1/4 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp red chile sauce, 2 tsp minced ginger, 1/4 tsp shrimp paste (optional)

Wash and cut the lime into small dice (remove seeds). Put the lime and all the other ingredients into a food processor and pulse to make a coarsely chopped mixture. Adjust the seasoning to suit your taste.

Serving: In addition to the chutney, Mollie sets out small bowl of finely chopped onion, lime, and ginger, as well as more roasted peanuts and coconut flakes. A pinch of each is placed on a leaf with the chutney before rolling it up to pop in your mouth. As usual, I would add a bowl of minced chiles to the assortment.

Coconut Sides