June 14, 2013
Under the blazing summer sun, they bulge out of fields of parched dirt, dead grass and lifeless dust, almost like a parable for the spontaneous appearance of Earth’s first life: melons. It’s the season, and the hotter and more miserable the weather gets for the rest of us, the better it often is for these juicy sun-lovers. Some farmers don’t even water their melon vines at all—they call it dry-farming, which supposedly intensifies many fruits’ flavors—and still, football-size creatures with names like Rayann, Sharlyn, Charentais and Santa Claus swell toward ripeness.
Scores of melon varieties — beyond just the honeydew and cantaloupe — are available in the United States, especially from smaller farmers. Some of these are favorite heirlooms born centuries ago and maintained by seed saving; others are more modern creations of scientific breeding programs. Nearly all these melons are great when ripe—but some are better than others.
Here are six of the best melons worth watching for this summer, plus great dishes to make with them:
The Hami is a Chinese variety of muskmelon, elongate, with a distinctive spider web pattern radiating over its yellow-gold hide and bearing very sweet peach-colored flesh. We used a jicama-melon salsa recipe from Yum Scrub Organics, replaced the jicama with fresh tomatoes, added red onion and served with homemade tortillas. The salsa resembled a standard pico de gallo with boosted sweetness thanks to the Hami melon. If you have a taste for the spicy, add paprika.
Sharyln Melon Gazpacho
This melon is the shape of a football with the skin texture of a cantaloupe—but so much better than that ubiquitous Budweiser of melons. A ripe Sharlyn—a variety that originated in the 1400s around Algeria and Italy—is fragrant and musky, and a grocer’s stall piled high with them can fill a shop with the fruits’ natural perfume. The flesh is white to pink, juicy and sweet. The fruity, mild taste finishes with a note of cool, spicy mint that may coax one to say, “What is that taste?”—and to have another investigative bite, and another, and another, and another. Be careful or that $10 melon will be devoured before you even get the jalapeños peeled. That was our experience—we couldn’t stop ourselves—though the food blog Carne Diem seems to have done a knockout job on a Sharlyn Melon Gazpacho. Exercise some self-restraint and give it a try.
Spicy Arugula-Avocado Salad with Sweet Corn and Canary Melon
Yellow-skinned with snow-white flesh and named for its islands of origin off the western African coast, the Canary is a melon superstar. Though fragrant, the fruit is less musky than others of the family (called, interestingly, “muskmelons”) and instead emits a mellower, honey-like fragrance. The soft, sweet flesh calls for contrast, so we thought of a salad spiced with arugula, avocado, smoked paprika and a biting vinaigrette. We followed a recipe from Fresh and Foodie for a watermelon-avocado-arugula salad and replaced the watermelon with Canary melon. To further the summer feel, we added toasted corn kernels.
Greek Yogurt and Crenshaw Melon Soup with Cilantro
The Crenshaw seduced us with its powerful aroma, bright yellow skin and soft feel—but inside, we found it surprisingly similar to a cantaloupe. For many, this will be a virtue, but we decided to give the Crenshaw a real makeover. So we puréed it in a food processor as the first step in a Greek-themed yogurt-melon soup inspired by a recipe from the Healthy Foodie. We substituted cilantro for the suggested mint, added cumin to the blend and drizzled over the juice of a lime. Be sure to use a tart yogurt with high fat content to balance the sweetness of the melon.
Honeydew Melon Curry Over Brown Rice
This lime green melon is nothing unusual. But the juicy, fragrant honeydew melon is popular for a reason: it’s one of the best. Good ones smell sweet and flowery, and especially ripe ones may be identified by a rubbery stickiness over the skin. The softer the better, if you like juicy, and as long as the melon bears no bruises or rotten spots, it should be a winner. The food blog A Stack of Dishes provided a recipe for ceviche with honeydew and jicama about a year ago. Inspired, we took a slightly different direction and made a honeydew-jicama coconut curry, served cold over brown rice. We combined in a serving bowl half a large melon with half a medium-sized jicama, skinned and cubed. In went half a can of coconut milk, a tablespoon of curry powder, a half cup of red onion, a cup of diced basil, salt and pepper. Twenty minutes prep time and it’s done—a perfect cooling dinner for a balmy night.
Piel de Sapo: Au Natural
Finally, since melon season is sometimes too hot for cooking, we decided that if there should be one melon to devour whole—and there definitely should be—it must be the best, and that may be the Piel de Sapo, or “Skin of Toad.” Also called the Santa Claus melon, the Piel de Sapo has a mottled skin like a zucchini’s—or a toad’s, if you have a vivid imagination—and this melon, a favorite in Spain, often produces little to no aroma, making it seem like a gamble to buy. However, only occasionally is it a flavorless dud. More often than not, the Piel de Sapo melon is superb—with flesh juicy, white, just crunchy enough and very sweet. Toward the center of the fruit, the flesh is almost velvety and just about melts at the touch of a spoon. Shove aside the recipe book, grab a knife and dive in. You might also want to wear a bib.
April 30, 2013
In April, most seasonal restaurants tend toward green foods. As the weather shifts, and new crops come to life, plates are decorated with tender young peas, asparagus, green garlic, and spring onions. And now, the green strawberry is joining the ranks.
Picked earlier than their red cousins (and abundant this time of year), green strawberries have been popping up on high-end menus for the last several years. And they show no sign of going out of style any time soon. Evan Rich, chef at the new San Francisco hot spot Rich Table, decided to take the plunge this year after noting the presence of green strawberries on a number of menus he admired. Then the underripe berries made an appearance at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Yerena Farms, a small organic berry grower based in California’s Monterey County was promoting the unusual item, and selling them to a number of prominent local chefs.
Rich bought several flats of the berries and pickled them using a simple brine of champagne vinegar, sugar and salt. Now he’s serving them with yogurt atop a scallop chip (the result of a process wherein the inventive chef purees, flattens, dehydrates and fries a local scallop).
So far, Rich been pleased with the results — a tart, perfumy flavor that catches diners just a little off-guard. “They have all the qualities of a strawberry without the sweetness,” he says. “They also provide a little hint of the sweet summer fruit to come.”
In cities like Portland, Oregon, where spring goes on a little longer, chefs have been seen pairing green strawberries with things like duck confit and rhubarb well into May. But green strawberries aren’t just for savory dishes. Brooklyn’s hipster pizzeria Roberta’s makes a green strawberries shortcake and at San Francisco’s Perbacco, pastry chef Laura Cronin regularly incorporates this unusual ingredient into her desserts this time of year.
“They have a more acidic flavor than red strawberries. I candy them or toss them in a sugar syrup seasoned with bay leaf and other spices and herbs,” she said recently. “I love the crispness they bring to the dish as well as the kiwi-like flavor they take on when macerated in sugar.”
Cronin’s latest creation? Candy cap mushroom donuts filled with green strawberry compote.
Unless you grow them yourself, finding a regular supply of green strawberries might be tricky for the average consumer. But it’s worth asking the vendors at your local farmers market if they’d considering picking a few flats of the fruit a week or so earlier than planned. Of course, green strawberries probably won’t ever ripen up to peak sweetness, so if you do pick or buy them at this stage, be sure to have a plan on hand for how to use them, like this simple pickling recipe that Yerena Farms has been handing out at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
For the pickling:
1 part rice wine vinegar
1 part sugar
½ part water
¼ part lime juice
For the flavoring:
Dissolve the sugar into the vinegar with water. Cool completely. Combine strawberries, flavorings, and brine in a mason jar. Refrigerate for 2+ days. Get creative with flavorings. Have a pickle party and pair with cheese!
April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
April 11, 2013
No one knows exactly when they’ll come out of hiding, but if you live on the East Coast – anywhere form North Carolina to Connecticut, to be precise – you might start thinking about the brood of cicadas scheduled to make an appearance this spring.
Yes they’ll be loud and inconvenient, but they’ll also be a free, plentiful source of protein (and one that’s not generated in a factory farm).
Here’s what you should know about foraging and eating this extremely rare food.
1) First off, don’t pick up or eat dead cicadas. Gathering live ones shouldn’t be very hard, especially if you pick them up “early in the morning when the dew is still on the ground and the cicadas are still drowsy,” says one expert. The easiest way to kill them is by placing them in the freezer.
2) Gather twice as many as you and your family think you can eat. Van Smith, who wrote about his experiments eating cicadas for Baltimore City Paper, explains why: “Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance. When hunting them, though, I found it nearly impossible to tell the difference–until cooking, when the males’ bodies shrivel up. Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys (the vinegar in the sauce slow-cooks them, so they start to collapse) while tenderizing the ladies.”
3) Think of them like “land shellfish.” Like shrimp, lobster and crabs, cicadas are
anthropods arthropods. Gaye L. Williams, an entomologist from the Maryland Department of Agriculture told the Baltimore Sun: “They’re in the same animal group as shrimp and crabs, and people don’t think twice about that.” (If you’re allergic to shellfish, exercise caution when experimenting with cicadas).
4) Like many things, cicadas taste best fried. Here’s a simple recipe that only requires living cicadas, flour, eggs, salt, pepper, and oil. If they’re newly hatched, you can fry them as-is, but after they’ve been alive for several hours (or few days), their wings and legs might need to be removed, as this recipe for deep dried cicadas calls for. In Asia it’s not unusual to find the pupa, or young cicadas fried and served on a stick like this.
Kirk Moore, who calls himself the “Cicada Chef” also recommends marinating them overnight in Worcestershire sauce in this YouTube video from 2004.
5) Dry roasting them – on a cookie sheet at a low heat — is another popular approach. If they get too crispy to eat as-is, they can be crumbled to add crunch to a dish or even ground into a high-protein (gluten free!) flour.
6) Young cicadas can also be used in a “low country boil” or a “spice boil” in place of shrimp.
7) Have leftovers, go fishing! Cicadas are rumored to make excellent fish bait.
Editor’s Note, April 15, 2013: Entomologist John Cooley of the University of Connecticut chimes in with a note of caution: “We actually try to discourage eating cicadas. There’s a body of literature showing that periodical cicadas are mercury bioaccumulators and some can have relatively high mercury levels.”
April 8, 2013
Chia seeds are gaining a reputation as a superfood, joining the ranks of açaí, pomegranate, goji berry and the most recent favorite, quinoa (the United Nations dubbed this year the International Year of Quinoa.) But unlike its health food brethren, which few knew of before they became ubiquitous, the ingredient once enjoyed some unusual success outside the kitchen: it gave life to Chia Pets, ceramic turtles, cows, pigs and other creatures that sprouted plant-hair and sat atop living room tables across America in the 1990s.
Chia, a flowering plant in the mint family known as Salvia hispanica, is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Domesticated in 2,600 B.C., the seed is said to have been a staple of the Aztec and Mayan diet. The Tarahumara of Mexico, famous for their incredible endurance running, consume a blend of maize and chia seeds while pounding the desert sand.
At just 65 calories per tablespoon, chia seeds are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds transform water into a gooey, gelatin-like mixture one can drink (slowly) straight out of the glass. Their unassuming mild, nutty flavor can disappear into countless different dishes, from pancakes and mashed potatoes to barbecue sauce and Jell-O. Here are five ways to cook with chia seeds that go beyond breading and salad garnishes.
Smoothies. Chia seeds can be ground down into a fine powder in a blender. Now a nearly invisible ingredient, chia powder can be swirled around with countless combinations of fruits, veggies and syrups. This recipe pulverizes the seeds with yogurt, blueberries, mangoes and vanilla extract for a tropical shake, while this one blends them with strawberries and apple juice for a quick breakfast beverage. For a brightly colored shake that tastes better than it looks, combine baby spinach leaves, chunks of kiwi, almond milk and a frozen banana and blend till smooth. Toss a few tablespoons of seeds with peanut butter, frozen bananas, chocolate-flavored coffee creamer, cocoa powder and milk to create a rich dessert smoothie. If the mix is too thick, add milk until it thins out.
Pudding. Some drink chia seeds straight with water, but if the gooeyness minus the flavor is too much for you, try pudding. Fold chia seeds into a mixture of cocoa powder, brown sugar, instant coffee and milk and stick them in the fridge for two hours to create decadent chocolate pudding. Combine the seeds with milk, sugar and vanilla extract and refrigerate overnight for a tapioca-like treat, sprinkling it with shredded coconut. For a breakfast pudding, toss water-soaked cashews with maple syrup, vanilla extract and chia seeds until smooth. Refrigerate eight hours or all night, and or top with dried or fresh fruit.
Breads. When chia seeds absorb water, they create a gelatinous mixture that can replace eggs, oil and butter in baking. In this recipe for pumpkin bread, chia gel takes on the role of butter and oil. Blend it with sugar, eggs and pumpkin puree. In another bowl, sift together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the pumpkin mixture in gradually, then fold in chopped walnuts for crunchiness. Spread the batter out into a pan and bake for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s transformed into a spongy loaf and cooled, smear with a sweet glaze of cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Swap pumpkin puree for bananas for classic banana bread.
Burgers. For an extra protein kick at the picnic table, use chia seeds in homemade burger patties as a binding agent. Stir them in water to create a thick gel-like mixture. Saute chopped onion with olive oil in a pan until it begins to caramelize, then add minced garlic. In a bowl, combine them with ground meat, grated carrots, seasonings and the chia seed mixture. Using a large spoon or glove hands, mold the mix into 4-inch patties that are about half an inch thick and freeze them for an hour. Then, toss them on the grill, letting them sizzle for three minutes on each side.
Soups. Water-laden chia seeds can help thicken soup for a hearty comfort meal. For creamy cauliflower soup, boil chopped onion, cauliflower and vegetable stock. Ladle out half of the broth and stir in ground chia seeds. Return the mix to the pot and continue cooking. Garnish the soup with chopped parsley and black pepper, and serve with a crunchy slice of bread.