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 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.
March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.
March 26, 2013
These days, the classic wedge salad—wherein the chef smothers a chunk of crisp Iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese dressing, and crumbles bacon all over the top—is seen as a cornerstone of American “comfort food.”
The dish is also often credited with single-handedly causing an “Iceberg comeback.” All of this raises the question: Did this crisp salad green, the “polyester of lettuce,” really go so far away that it needed to come back? And if so, can one menu item really make a difference?
But first a note—for those who aren’t old enough to remember—about just how ubiquitous Iceberg lettuce once was. Introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s, Iceberg (or crisphead) lettuce was the only variety bred to survive cross-country travel (the name Iceberg comes from the piles of ice they would pack the light green lettuce heads in before the advent of the refrigerated train car). Therefore, throughout the middle of the century, unless you grew your own or dined in a high-end establishment, iceberg essentially was lettuce.
Most of the nation’s lettuce is grown in California, and in 1974, leafy green “non-crisphead” varieties of lettuce still made up only around five percent of the total acres grown in California. Then things changed. For one, consumers became more aware of the nutritional value of greens that are, well, greener. (Made of a high percentage of water, iceberg has only around 1/20th the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.)
America’s everyday lettuce for half a century was losing market share. By 1995, other lettuce varieties made up to around 30 percent of the lettuce American’s ate, and it has been rising steadily since, according to the California Leafy Greens Research Programs (a salad industry group). That’s precisely why, by 2007, the Salinas, California-based Tanimura and Antle—the nation’s largest lettuce supplier—decided it needed to start promoting Iceberg. And rather than compete with varieties that have more flavor or nutrition, Tanimura and Antle went straight for nostalgia, and opted to draw a connection to steaks, fathers, and sports. A press release from the time reads:
Mother’s Day has strawberries, Thanksgiving has celery, but historically no holiday has been associated with Iceberg lettuce,” says Antle. “What better product to claim ownership of Father’s Day than the cornerstone salad of steakhouse menus?
Wal-Mart, Albertsons, and several other big retailers hung signs and banners promoting the campaign, and sales got a boost. The company also planted wedge salad recipes around the food media world, in hopes that they would inspire chefs to return to this American Classic.
It’s hard to say whether the Father’s Day angle made a difference, but the larger effort to reconnect to Iceberg to simpler times with fewer complicated health choices appears to have worked. Sort of.
On the one hand, chefs like the fact that Iceberg is a completely neutral way to add crunch and filler to an otherwise flavorful medley of ingredients. So it appears that this classic salad will be sticking around on menus for a while. (Last fall the San Francisco Chronicle ran a list of nearly a dozen upscale restaurants serving some variation on the wedge salad, including everything from croutons, to apple, walnuts, and avocado. One Napa restaurant even serves it with the Iceberg frozen for extra crispness.)
On the production level, however, Iceberg may never return to it’s reigning position. It’s a little cheaper to grow and has long been easy to ship and store (the name Iceberg is said to come from the way the round lettuces were shipped by train in big piles of ice), but it has a hard time standing up to romaine, butter, and all the other specialty greens that have become popular in recent years.
This also appears to be true outside the U.S. In 2011, for example, UK-based Telegraph declared: “The era of Iceberg lettuce is over,” as “bagged leaf varieties such as [arugula] and watercress are up by 37 per cent compared to last year.” Of course, it may never be hard to find Iceberg lettuce in fast food tacos and Sizzler salad bars. But the decline of Iceberg might also signal some good news for Americans’ diets.
“Iceburg sales have gone down, but romaine has gone up,” says Mary Zischke from the California Leafy Greens Research Programs. “Tastes have changed. And the darker, leafy greens have a better story to tell from a nutrition standpoint.”
Compared to 20 years ago, Zischke added, “there are a lot more choices. Especially in some parts of the country, like the Midwest.” Overall, she’s glad to report that: “The product mix has changed, but our [greens] industry has also gotten bigger.”
March 20, 2013
The most-visited tourist attraction in the state of Hawaii is the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (also known as the Pearl Harbor bombing site). The second most visited attraction is about 20 miles north: the Dole pineapple plantation. In peak season between March and July, this tropical fruit evokes the 50th state in the Union for many. It’s a strange notion considering that, of the 300 billion pineapples farmed worldwide, only 400 million come from Hawaii. That’s only .13 percent. And while it’s true that Hawaii was once the big kahuna in global pineapple production, it’s an American industry that had a meteoric rise and fall over the course of the 20th century.
While its exact origins have yet to be determined, botanists agree that the pineapple originated in the Americas, most likely in the region where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet [PDF]. As to how the plant arrived, and was domesticated, in Hawaii is apocryphal. Some sources point to Spanish sailor Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who arrived in the Islands in the early 1790s. In addition to serving as an interpreter for King Kamehameha I, Marin had a reputation for being an ace horticulturalist credited with introducing citrus and mangoes to the island nation. He does, however, provide us with the first written record of this fruit in the New World, the simple January 1813 diary entry: “This day I planted pineapples and an orange tree.”
But to enjoy pineapple meant you had to buy local. In the age before refrigerated transportation, ripened fruit spoiled easily during shipment to the mainland, resulting in high losses of product. Even if pineapple were shipped green, the premature harvesting severely impacted the flavor. The 19th-century development of canning technology provided the much-needed, failsafe delivery mechanism for the fruit; however, high tariffs placed on the good exported to the mainland from Hawaii caused the first canning companies to fold. The Hawaiian pineapple industry wouldn’t take a turn for the better until the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898 after the Spanish American War and the arrival of 22-year-old Massachusetts native James Dole the following year.
Despite knowing nothing about canning, Dole opened the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901, which the local press begged as being “a foolhardy venture.” And in its early years, it did indeed operate at a loss. However, Dole invested in developing new technologies—notably hiring a local draughtsman to develop machinery that could peel and process 100 pineapples a minute. He was also savvy to the power of advertising. Banding together with other local growers, Dole mounted an aggressive nationwide advertising campaign to make consumers aware of his product.
Dole was certainly not the first to introduce pineapple to the mainland American market. Rather, his business savvy and the economic conditions of the times allowed him to champion the fruit. Pineapple was cultivated in Florida, but recurring frosts destroyed the crops and what survived was of sub-par quality. Baltimore had a canning industry, but its fresh fruits were imported from the Bahamas, which heightened production costs due to importation taxes. With the combination of ideal growing conditions, the consolidation of cultivation and production and advertising that asserted the superiority of Hawaiian pineapple over all competitors, Hawaii was poised to dominate the canned pineapple trade. And it did. By the 1920s, it developed into a culinary fad, most notably in the form of upside down cake. (Author Sylvia Lovegreen collects a number of recipes from this era, from classic to questionable, in her book Fashionable Food.)
By 1923, Dole was the largest pineapple packer in the world. The agricultural sector took note and pineapple industries sprung up on other islands. Between 1930 and 1940, Hawaii dominated the canned pineapple industry and at its mid-century peak, eight companies were in operation and employed about 3,000 people. After World War II, the canned pineapple industry spread to other parts of the world, namely Thailand and the Philippines. Not only did these countries provide an ideal environment for growing, but labor costs were significantly lower. (Where U.S. labor accounted for about half of the cost of production, ranging between $2.64 and $3.69 per hour, compared to the 8 to 24 cents per hour paid to Filipino workers.)
The Hawaiian industry began to collapse in the 1960s. In response, the industry tried to focus on growing and shipping fresh fruit with faster, refrigerated means of transportation now readily available. Additionally, the development of the pesticide DBCP in the 1950s was invaluable to the industry as a means of protecting the pineapple tree’s root systems from attacks by ground worms (the EPA would ban the chemical in the late 1970s).But those innovations weren’t enough. Dole’s Honolulu cannery closed in 1991 and competitor Del Monte moved production out of islands in 2008.
The state’s pineapple industry currently exists primarily to satisfy local demands, much as it did before the arrival of James Dole. It is, however, worth noting the one element we lose with pineapple produced on a global industrial scale: flavor, or rather, variations thereof. Chances are, the fresh pineapple you find in your supermarket is the MD-2 cultivar, a hybrid developed because it’s sweet, low in acid and not susceptible to browning when refrigerated—a common problem in the Smooth Cayenne, which had been Hawaii’s industry standard variety cultivated since the 1880s. But there’s a host of other varieties that come in different shapes, sizes, colors and flavor profiles.
Dissatisfied with the taste of fresh, industrially-produced pineapple, the husband and wife team of Craig and Lisa Bowden developed their own variety that evoked the flavors of fruit they enjoyed in their youth. Together, they founded Hawaiian Crown, an independently-owned company in Honolulu. Though just a 20-person operation, Hawaiian Crown has not only carved out a niche for itself in the local farmer’s markets, but is finding distribution in grocery stores. Although the fruits of Hawaiian Crown’s labors are currently available only on the islands, here’s hoping that a new wave of pineapple innovation can re-invogorate an American industry.
Taylor, Ronald. “Hawaii Study Links DBCP to Reproductive Problems.” LA Times, 28 November 1980, pg. B31.