Friday, June 6, 2008

What lettuce tastes like

When I lived with my parents in Queens several years back, I got to experience the beauty of living off the land. Being Korean and never fully comprehending what a big patch of grass did for anybody, my parents converted the entire back yard into an edible garden. It wasn't a big yard, maybe 10 x 20 feet total, but they managed to plant a plum tree, a pear tree, and an apple tree amongst the pumpkin patch, lettuces, cucumbers, and perilla. I regret not having appreciated this patch of paradise more at the time because I currently long for a garden of my own.

My mom, having grown up on a farm, knew the ins and outs of composting like the back of her hand, so everything was grown organically. It's one thing to be fed by your mom, but another to be fed with ingredients she raised with love and care from a little seed. When preparing meals, she would often ask me to go pick a bowl of lettuce or cucumbers from the garden, and I can't quite explain the sensation that hand-plucking these tender greens produced in me. On the one hand, it was a feeling of subtle caution because they're living things that require care and respect. But mostly I felt a deep satisfaction, knowing where my food came from and what I was feeding my body with - good stuff that would go into my cells and produce more of who I am.

Jamie Oliver's paradise (he's so charming)

One day I hope to have such space of my own - plot of land, however small it may be, where I can simply step out to grab a handful of pungent greens - a simple salad, a daily meal. To me, there's really nothing better than this, a bowl of hand-picked greens with a small drizzle of good vinaigrette. Each bite is an explosion of flavor, and I get completely lost in it's surprising goodness - an entirely different experience from the salads we know of these days. Even the best organic packaged greens will begin losing their flavors the moment they're picked. By the time we wash them and put them on our plates, they'll have been triple-washed, packaged, and shipped across the country and been sitting for days on the grocery shelves before hitting your salad bowl.

The closest alternative to having a garden in Brooklyn is to hit the farmer's market. Although taking a subway to pick my greens is a far cry from the garden experience, I still feel lucky to have even this. I grab a giant bag of mixed salad greens, which oftentimes include beautiful edible flowers. When the salad craving kicks in during the week, I just toss in some Parmesan cheese, some quick-toasted nuts (hazelnut, walnuts, almonds, etc) and maybe some sliced fruit on top of a heaping mound of greens, and I'm a happy camper for a days and days.

Some tips for a perfect salad:
  • Get yourself the freshest greens as possible. If you have a garden, I envy you...
  • Rinse and dry your greens in a salad spinner as soon as you get home, wrap them in a paper towel and store them in a container. This way, you'll have easy access to a great salad any time during the week with minimal fuss.
  • Keep a stash of various dry ingredients always on hand to throw into the salad at whim: nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, sliced almonds, pistachios), dried fruits and/or cheeses in the refrigerator, and some homemade croutons in the freezer.
  • As with any salad, a good dressing is essential. I like to make a large batch at the same time that I wash my greens. Below is a recipe that I posted in a previous post, and it's quickly become my recent favorite - it's very clean and refreshing, perfect for a simple summer salad.
Three-citrus vinaigrette
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon of fresh ginger, rough-cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 cup grapeseed oil (or other neutral-flavored oil)
1/4 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
Fresh-ground pepper

Emulsify all ingredients in a blender and season with more salt and pepper as needed. Makes about 2 cups.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spaghetti with ramps

Last week I brought myself down to the Union Square Greenmarket with the hopes of picking up some final harvest of ramps. If you've never tasted them, I suggest you put it down on your list of must-eats. Ramps are wild leeks, with a soft, almost velvety green body and a scallion-like stem that's slightly more bulbous. They taste like punched-up leeks, made pungent with notes of garlic and onions. And they're delicious. Really delicious. I had ramps for the first time a few years back at Franny's in Brooklyn, sitting at the bar eating small bites with a great glass of red (the best way to eat there, in my opinion). It was a revelation in flavor, and I never forgot it. It was prepared with great reverence, simply sauteed in olive oil with salt, pepper and a perhaps a little lemon. Reverence because with such great-tasting produce, it would be a crime to cook it to death, or cover it up with anything more than just the essentials - oil, seasoning and some acid.

, the painfully short season for ramps (3-5 weeks) fills me with longing. They appear as one of the first fresh new faces of spring, then quickly disappear as if they arrived just to announce that spring has finally sprung. I was tempted to buy up every single one that I saw at the farmer's market, just fill up on as many ramps as possible for the rest of the year. But instead I would come home with just a few bunches and savor them on their own, with eggs, or my favorite, spaghetti with ramps.

It's prepared in the simplest way, quickly sautéed and simply seasoned, with no other sauce than the oil, salt, pepper, some pasta water and a squirt of lemon. It's one of those dishes that's so simple yet so delicious that you keep looking at your plate, wondering where in the world all the flavors are coming from. Unfortunately you'll have to wait till next spring to try this recipe (no, really can't think of a good substitute for ramps), but isn't there something beautiful about waiting, anticipating what nature will provide, and eating with your head bowed to the seasons?

Some notes:
  • To clean the ramps, just fill a large bowl or pan with cold water, let ramps sit undisturbed for 5 minutes, lift them out gently, then repeat a few more times with a new change of water until water runs clean. Be sure to dry well on paper towels or with a salad spinner prior to cooking.
  • The bulb is incredibly yummy when caramelized, so make sure to give them time to do so. Tand the greens tend to puff up and wiggle around not unlike a worm once it hits the pan so don't be disturbed to see this.
  • I've tried this dish a couple of different times, once with and once without pancetta. It was good either way. If you choose to use it, sautée a slice of rough-chopped pancetta in the pan before adding the minced stems and bulbs.
  • I also liked it with a few thin pieces of shaved Parmesan. I wouldn't recommend grating the Parmesan because it'll muddle up the dish with cheesiness rather than rampiness.
  • Make sure to reserve some of the cooked pasta water to add to the pan.
  • Here, a video of Mario Batali making this dish with Martha Stewart. He's just so fun: Mario on Martha making spaghetti with ramps
Recipe: Spaghetti with ramps
Adapted from Mario Batali's recipe
1 pound dry spaghetti or linguini
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh ramps
1-2 tablespoons red chili flakes
kosher salt
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Fresh lemon wedges (optional)
Shaved slices of Parmesan (optional)

1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Add the spaghetti to the pot and cook according to the package direction, until tender but still al dente.
2. Heat olive oil in a 12-14 inch sauté pan over medium high heat. Separate ramps by the white root ends and the leafy green top. Add root ends to the pan and sauté until tender. Add salt and chilli flakes. At the very end, add the greens and sauté until wilted.
3. Drain pasta and add it to the sauté pan, reserving some of the pasta water. Toss gently to coat the pasta with the sauce.
4. Divide pasta evenly among four warmed plates. Drizzle olive oil over top and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and, if desired, a squeeze of lemon and some Parmesan.
Makes 4 Servings

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

June Lavender Festival in Beaumont, CA

Starting this weekend! I'll be slaving away in the kitchen somewhere on the last two weekends, working with beautiful organic lavender buds. This is an incredibly beautiful property, with hiking trails, fig trees, a wondrous olive grove, and what they call, "The Thousand Year Oak" tree. If any of you are out in California during the month of June, please be sure to stop by. Highland Springs Resort is in Beaumont, near Palm Springs, about 2 hours east of L.A.The festival takes place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the entire month. The entrance fee is only $5.

Crêpes a la Jannette

Ahhhhh... food memories. This is one of the last things I ate before the big stomach trauma, and I think in just about 24 hours, my tummy will be strong enough to revisit this happy moment in my gastronomical life.

As often is the case, the simplest things make the best meals. Here is a basic crêpe rolled in a schmear of glistening butter and strawberry-rhubarb jam, topped with a dollop of crème fraîche. The thing that makes it special is the jam, homemade by my friend Jannette. Thanks, Jannette. This made my mouth very very happy. If you don't know Jannette and worry that you can't find mouth happiness, too, never fear. A good jar of jam from a local farmer's market should suffice.

Recipe: Crêpes a la Jannette
Adapted from Jacques Pépin's Chez Jacques
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoon neutral-tasting oil (grapeseed, canola, peanut)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
A little less than 1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla

For the filling:
4 pats of butter
Good-quality jam
Crème fraîche

1. Blend ingredients in a food processor for 8-10 seconds, until smooth.
2. Melt a generous tablespoon of unsalted butter in an 8-inch non-stick pan (I used a cast-iron pan and it worked out just fine, though a bit heavy) over high heat.
3. When butter sizzles, add about 1/4 cup of batter to the pan and swirl around as quickly as possible to coat the pan entirely with batter.
4. Cook for about 1 minute until brown and lacy around the edges.
5. Flip the crêpe over with your fingers or a spatula. Cook for another minute. When it's browned with a crunchy buttery edge, transfer to a plate into stack.
6. Spread each crêpe with a pat of butter, some jam, roll up or fold, top with crème fraîche, and enjoy!

Yields about 4 crêpes.

Note: Crêpes apparently freeze really well. I say apparently because I've never had the will-power to not gobble up every single one of them. Apparently you can make a large batch, layer a sheet of wax paper or parchment between each one, freeze, and simply defrost when you need one.