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 19, 2013
Artist Piet Mondrian used oil on canvas to create his famous geometric composition of neat red, yellow and blue squares and straight black lines.
Caitlin Freeman’s interpretation of this work of art is slightly different, and sweeter. Her medium? Flour, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a baking pan.
The pastry chef pulls inspiration from art and whips it into cakes, cookies, gelées and parfaits at her café on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Mondrian cake, a compilation of moist yellow cake cubes coated in chocolate ganache, is the best seller at the museum location of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar, which she runs with her husband, James.
In the café’s four years of operation, Freeman and her team have created nearly 100 desserts inspired by artwork that has appeared, at one time or another, on the museum’s walls. Twenty-seven of them, gleaned from works by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse, are featured in her new cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, published this week. Each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the original artwork, with detailed history written by Janet Bishop, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator.
Freeman includes a photo of her very first attempt at a Mondrian cake, which she says is quite embarrassing to look back on. “It wasn’t perfect, but we just had to make a few thousand of them to feel like we had a hang of what we were doing with that cake,” Freeman says. “You don’t know until you do that final cut whether or not it’s all come together, so that one’s a tricky one.”
Crafting art-inspired cakes wasn’t always the plan for Freeman. She studied photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but figured she’d eventually become a dentist—a career goal she explains was likely thwarted by her big sweet tooth. During a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Freeman fell in love with frequent pastry-painter Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes, a 1963 oil painting of a trio of ready-to-eat cakes. Determined to become a pastry chef, she joined a new, small bakery called Miette, learning on the job and graduating from dishwasher to cake decorator (and business partner). She left Miette after seven years. Shortly after, the modern art museum called her and her husband about Blue Bottle Coffee setting up shop in its new rooftop garden.
“My reaction, since I was young, going into art galleries was seeing a piece of art that I really like, and liking it so much that I want to steal it or eat it,” Freeman jokes. “This is my way of doing something about it—just liking something so much that it inspires you to do something.”
How does Freeman move art from the canvas to the cake pan? Countless walk-throughs in the museum’s collections and multiple brainstorming sessions with her team. Some pieces lend themselves immediately to their dessert doppelgangers. For example, artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele I, a one-inch-thick, 18-foot-tall rust-colored oblong steel plate looks like an over-sized fudge popsicle.
But sometimes, Freeman says, the inspiration just doesn’t come. Landscape art, in the style of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, was tough to delineate in dessert form, so Freeman told her baristas to do the best they could with leaf-like latte art.
The colors in a given work of art usually drive the flavors in the resulting dessert. “If it’s all filled with blues and greens, it’s really hard to come up with something that’s tasty that’s blue,” Freeman says. A Ronald Fischer photograph of a shirtless beekeeper covered in bees led to a white chocolate box with a honey-pistachio parfait filling. The deep reds in Roy Lichtenstein’s triptych painting of a French cathedral became a spongy red velvet cake. Andy Warhol’s famous brightly colored print of Elizabeth Taylor gave rise to a neatly stacked gelatin treat of red, pink and mint squares.
Many of the cookbook’s desserts take several hours or even a day to complete, which can seem daunting to the average at-home baker. Freeman lays out a step-by-step assembly guide, instructing readers on how to temper chocolate, master butter cream and use chocolate transfer sheets, which add elaborate, stencil-like designs to finished sweets. “I didn’t want there to be big barriers of entry,” she says.
Frankly, when it comes to dessert, I think most people would agree.
April 5, 2013
Despite recent flirtations with secession and even being accidentally listed as a foreign destination by the State Department, Texas is not its own country. The Republic of Texas may have dissolved in 1845, but the Czech Republic of Texas is doing better than ever, thanks to a surge in interest in Tex-Czech’s most beloved dish: kolaches.
The doughy pastry came over with a wave of Czech migration in the late 19th century and found a happy home in the rural communities like West, Texas (a town of fewer than 3,000 people but which serves as a touchstone for Czech culture in the region) and others at the heart of the state, sometimes called the Czech Belt. For the most part, the culture settled in quietly. Unlike other urban centers in Midwestern cities including Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, rural Czech families maintained relatively traditional dialects and recipes.
“The dialect of Czech spoken here is very old-fashioned. It’s from 100 years ago and people are always amazed to hear it and I think the food is the same way,” explains Austin-based food blogger Dawn Orsak. From her blog, Svačina Project, Orsak honors her Czech grandmother and chronicles her many adventures with kolaches, from judging to baking.
In the Czech Republic, kolaches come in two varieties: dense wedding kolaches that are formed in circles or frgale, which Orsak describes almost like a pizza, and covered in toppings. In Texas, you’ll find both the wedding kolaches and rectangular options with lighter, more bread-like dough. Since coming to the States, kolaches have added a few flavors (you would never find a kolache with meat in the Czech Republic, for example), including one of Orsak’s favorites: sauerkraut. Based off recipes that once used sweetened cabbage filling, sauerkraut kolaches arose only after coming to Texas. Though sauerkraut is now part of the Tex-Czech canon, other flavors still haven’t found complete acceptance within the community.
As big companies inside Texas capitalize on the kolache-trend, Orsak says it inspires her even more to find out about the roots of the food and to get it right. “My friend Laurie and I take pictures of the most bizarre fillings we can find and email them to each other with a subject line that says ‘Eww.’” She remembers one in particular, “There’s a place that makes a cream cheese kolache that has one of those mini Hershey’s bars stuck in the center, it sort of melts in there. I laugh because I am biased.” While she’s open to trying these new takes on the Czech dish, she says she can’t stand when big companies use gelatinous fruit fillings or get the dough wrong.
And she doesn’t seem to be alone in wanting to celebrate the century of Czech tradition in Texas. As a judge at the 2011 Kolache Festival in Caldwell, Texas, she says she was heartened by the number of young people entering the contest.
Her first taste of the pastry, traditionally filled with dried fruits or cheese, was in her grandmother’s kitchen on special occasions. Nowadays, Texans can grab the treat from bakeries and even gas stations on a whim. For the most part, says Orsak, these varieties aren’t true to the Tex-Czech roots of the pastry. The big three traditional kolache flavors are prune, apricot and cheese. But at these combination bakery-gas stations, you’ll often find savory buns with meats and even vegetables.
“It’s funny, there’s a company in Austin called Lone Star Kolaches that now has like four locations and they don’t even sell prune,” she says. “I asked about it a couple weeks ago and they said, we don’t sell that, which I was really surprised about.”
But when Texans find themselves outside the warm, buttery embrace of the Czech Belt, they crave everything from the sweet stuff to the less conventional and their demands are helping spread the dish, from Pittsburgh to D.C.
In February, Shana Teehan, spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin Brady from Texas, begged Roll Call writer Warren Rojas to find her some kolaches in the nation’s capital. “I’ve never had a flavor I didn’t like,” she told him, “whether it was a sweet, fruit-filled bun, or a savory option filled with sausage, cheese or peppers.”
Czech cuisine also enjoys some fame for its influence on Texas barbecue, which owes a lot to Czech and German smoked meats. In fact, the most common place to find Czech food–other than at a bakery–is at a meat market or barbecue.
All of this is helping bring the food of the Tex-Czech community, most visible at festivals and bake-offs but largely tucked away in rural kitchens, onto a wider stage. From a new bakery in Brooklyn, New York to hungry politicians in D.C., kolaches may be ready for their close-up.
Orsak offers up her favorite recipes here.
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.
February 20, 2013
Give a baby her first spoonful of mashed spinach or blended brussell sprouts and you can likely watch her face pucker up in shocked torment. Veggies tend to be a dreaded childhood bane for many youngsters, yet there are exceptions to the vegetable hate rule. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to score highly. But why is that? As a general rule, much of our likes and dislikes spawn from sweetness – or at least our perception of it.
Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to like sweetness, since it’s indicative of calorie-rich sugar. Millennia ago, when we were just beginning our evolutionary journey as Homo sapiens, those individuals who preferred and thus consumed sugar had an edge. Sugar imparts a quick energy boost, so desiring, locating and consuming sugar-rich food could mean the difference between out-maneuvering a predator, keeping warm during a cold night or bearing healthy children. Our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, also share this propensity towards the sweet. Chimps regularly concoct creative ways to brave beehives to reach the sweet honey inside.
In today’s world of car commutes, office jobs and sugary snacks, however, our attraction to sugar turns against us, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity. The processed food industry realized this a long time ago when it dawned on them that cranking up the sugar content of even the most cardboard-like snack automatically makes it delicious to our primitive food brains.
But sugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ”The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. “The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.”
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that “fixing the flavor” of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. “If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,” Klee said. “Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he continued. “We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.”
What we think of as flavor actually has a great deal to do with the subtle smells of volatiles. Not convinced? The researchers predicted as much. In Boston, they whipped out samples of gummy bear-like candy (raspberry and blueberry Sunkist fruit gems to be specific) to prove the power of volatiles to the audience. As instructed by the Klee and his colleagues, I pinched my nose shut tight, then popped the candy into my mouth, chewed and swallowed half of it. As if I had a seriously stuffed up nose from a bad case of the flu, the candy felt squishy and lackluster on my tongue. This bland sensation, the researchers explained, is taste. Now, they instructed unplug your nose, and swallow the rest of the gummy candy. A wave of intense sweetness hit me like a sugary rainbow of fruity flavor. This is olfaction at work, explained Linda Bartoshuk, one of Klee’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Smell and Taste. “Who experienced a rush of flavor and sweetness that seemed about twice as powerful as before?” she asked. In a room of around 100 people, about half the hands shot up.
Several years ago, Klee made a mission of saving the modern tomato’s flavor in the hopes of ultimately improving consumer health. Those efforts have led him down a winding vine of chemistry, genetics and food science.
Rather than starting his investigation with tomato growers–who are paid to churn out attractive tomatoes, not make a flavorful food–Klee began with consumers, or the people who buy and eat tomatoes. He wanted to understand what makes good and bad flavor on a molecular level. Figuring out the formula for creating a delicious tomato that still maintains the high yields and disease resilience of the watery, bland supermarket offerings could give growers an easy-to-implement toolkit for improving their offerings.
Klee and his colleagues ground up dozens of tomato variety, then asked 100 different people to sample the fruits of the researchers’ labor and report back on their favorites and least favorites. Using that feedback, the researchers could identify which of the tomatoes’ more than 400 volatiles actually drove flavor. What they found indicated that consumers prefer tomatoes with a perceived sweetness – emphasis on “perceived.”
For example, yellow jelly beans, a breed of tomato, contain around 4,500 milligrams of sugar per 100 milliliters. A matina tomato, on the other hand, contains around 4,000 mg per 100 ml. Yet people perceive matinas as being about twice as sweet as yellow jelly beans. Volatiles drive the perception of what we think is sweetness in these two tomatoes.
Typically supermarket variety tomatoes vary in their sugar content, but they usually range from around 2,000 to 2,500 mg per 100 ml. The cherry tomato varieties typically sit in the 3,000 to 3,500 mg per ml range.
Just 15 to 20 volatiles control the majority of a tomato’s flavor, the researchers found. ”Some of the most abundant chemicals in a tomato have absolutely no influence on whether people like it or not,” Klee said.
This knowledge in hand, they went about creating a recipe for the perfect tomato, which resembles an heirloom. Their ideal fruit represents the average of what the research participants ranked as their preferred tomato. While absolute individual preferences may vary by demographics, cultures and whether or not someone is a supertaster, Klee believes that nearly everyone would agree that “this is a really good tomato.”
The next step, Klee says, is to move those desirable traits into the high yielding varieties of tomatoes. In the lab, he and his team successfully crossed modern tomatoes with their perfected heirloom, creating a hybrid. The new tomato maintains the deliciousness of the volatile-laden heirloom but produces twice as much fruit and keeps the modern strain’s resistance to disease. So far, yields aren’t quite at the level to convince commercial growers to change their ways, but Klee believes production improvements will get his tomato to the marketplace eventually.
“Can volatiles enhance sweetness while reducing our use of sugars and artificial sweeteners?” Bartoshuk posed. “We think: yes.”