Friday, May 31, 2013

Barley (more to come)

Our cooking inspiration often emerges from a strange mixture of history and opportunity, the books we read and the comestibles we encounter at the Farmer’s Market and at the Co-op. Those books are as likely to be literature, theory, or history as they are cookbooks. What we’re thinking about shapes what we put our plates as much as recipes do. The market and the co-op inspire precisely because their offerings are somewhat unpredictable. This is not just a matter of the seasons but of other changes—new crops attempted, for example. Farmers’ experiments prompt our own.

A productive convergence occurred recently between the words in our heads and the products on the shelves. Just as the Co-op started to display bags of Full Belly Farm’s whole Tamalpais Hulless Barley as well as flour ground from it, we were thinking about Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Really.  Defending her choice to marry (often) rather than lead the celibate life of a nun, the Wife compares herself to barley bread.

Here are her words from her Prologue, with a modern translation provided by Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Page (

I nyl envye no virginitee.
I will envy no virginity.

Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,
Let them be bread of pure wheat-seed,

And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed;
And let us wives be called barley-bread;

And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan,
And yet with barley-bread, Mark can tell it,

Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a m
Our Lord Jesus refreshed many a man.

The Wife here refers to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, by which Jesus miraculously fed a multitude with 5 loaves and 2 fish. It is actually John (6:9) who specifies that those loaves are “barley.” As the New Testament story and the Wife’s reference to it make clear, Barley was considered a humble grain for bread, less luxurious than bread of “pured” or refined wheat. But it was also already familiar in both biblical times and in the middle ages. Now as then, barley can be used to make the malt in beer, as a sweetener (barley syrup or sugar), eaten whole or rolled in soups or grain salads, and ground into flour for bread. The water it is cooked in can be used for barley water or tea. 

Because barley has less gluten than wheat (although it does have some), it can produce a crumbly, low-rise bread. But the breadbaking Sherdo takes a fearless, perhaps reckless approach to throwing grains into bread. Why should barley be an exception? Inspired by Full Belly barley and the Wife’s spirited defense of barley as a symbol of delicious and nourishing imperfection, we started by putting barley in bread. We use our quick-cooking method, described in our post on grains and beans. We soaked the barley in water overnight, then brought it to a boil the next morning, covered it, and left it on the turned off burner (for the residual heat). We then used the cooking liquid and some of the cooked grains for the bread.

It’s surprising how hard it is to find good whole grain bread recipes, partly because it’s hard to get 100% whole grain breads to rise much. For instance, we were disappointed to find how few recipes for whole grain breads we could find even in comprehensive “bibles” of bread-baking. The turning point for us was Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. We have made a habit of Reinhart’s trick of beginning bread baking several days in advance, making a “soaker” of liquid and flour, whole grains, seeds, bran, and whatever else will make up the bulk of the loaf, and a “biga” or starter of flour, water, and a little yeast. This method vastly improves the flavor and texture of whole grain breads and spreads the labor out over several days. Full Belly barley in hand, we used the grain’s cooking liquid in the soaker and big and the grains themselves in the Multigrain Struan recipe. You can find a version of that recipe here: We also substitute Full Belly’s barley flour for some of the whole wheat. And if we’ve got it, a little whole grain rye or pumpernickel too. Is this a soft and lofty sandwich bread? No. But it makes wonderful toast. It’s filling, too, so with a loaf and a fish or two, you could probably satisfy a crowd.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mastering Artichokes

If Pliny the Elder is to be trusted, the status of artichokes in ancient Rome was under some dispute.  Pliny confides to his reader that he accepts class distinctions in prepared foods (including bread and wine), but that he is bewildered that there should be class distinctions in produce. Must the difference of persons according to their purse, appear also in a dish of three farthings price and no better?  Surely I see no sense nor congruity at all in this.  And yet forsooth such herbs there be that the tribes of Rome (the greater part I mean of the Roman citizens) may not presume to eat; as if the earth had brought them foorth for rich men only, being no meat for poor people."   

On the one hand, Pliny thus takes the artichoke as one example of a food forbidden to the greater part of citizens.  On the other hand, Pliny also objects that the artichoke, even as it is elevated as a luxury for rich “wanton and wasting gluttons,” and forbidden to the poor, is fundamentally a weed many animals spurn. "See how vain and prodigal we be, to bring into our kitchin and serve up at our table, the monstruosities of other nations, and cannot forbear so much as these Thistles, which the very asses and other four-footed beasts, have wit enough to avoid and refuse for pricking their lips and muzzles."  
Nowadays, artichokes are doubtlessly one of the vegetables most associated with farmer's markets, so it is perhaps surprising that the Sherdos had to learn, not just to prepare them correctly but perhaps even to like them.  Growing up, we usually had artichoke in either of two very different ways, neither of them especially appealing to us.  First: you took large ones and steamed them whole, and then, at the table, you dragged  leaves across your teeth after dipping them in mayonnaise or melted butter.  Second, we encountered artichoke hearts that came out of a can in a salty brine and got thrown into salad bowls to which they contributed little.   

Later, traveling abroad, artichokes were one of the vegetables that first conveyed the meaning of seasonality.  One of us especially remembers a Roman spring in the late 1970’s, in which the sign “Carciofi” went up on every market stall, and carciofi variously prepared appeared on every menu — fried, braised, roasted, steamed. 
For some reason, however, we always felt a bit intimidated by them in our own kitchen, and never felt we had mastered the preparation of artichokes at home.  Like so many fearsome hurdles, this one ceases to intimidate once confronted head-on, as we've been trying to do this season.  

The only real challenge is trimming them; and we've realized with practice that we have sometimes, by turns, either over- or under-trimmed them.  Once or twice with baby artichokes we cut so much from each side that by the end (like Peer Gynt with the onion in Ibsen's play) we had nothing left.  More often, however, we have  under-trimmed them.  

This season, embarking on "mastering artichokes 101," we began with  the baby artichokes available at the market.  These grow on the same plants as large ones but do not (usually) include the fuzzy choke.  To prep these, you simply pull off all the outer leaves (pulling out and down) until you reach pale green/yellow leaves.  The trick here is to denude with abandon!  Then you cut off the top 1/3 of the artichoke and trim off all the green from the bottom.  To fry, braise, or roast, cut the artichokes in half or quarters.  As you work, pop the prepped artichokes into a bowl of water mixed with lemon juice so that they don’t brown (much).   
You are now ready to cook them.  You do the exact same thing with larger artichokes except that you have to remove the fuzzy choke with a paring knife.  You do so because its texture is unpleasant in the mouth.  There you go.
The first time few times we prepared these, we quartered the baby artichokes and fried them.  One time we dipped the quarters first in egg beaten with a little white wine and then into seasoned flour (by which we mean a rather haphazard mixture of all-purpose flour, salt, pepper, paprika, etc.).  We place the seasoned flour in a pie plate and toss the artichokes in the flour, using a spoon or clean hands to be sure they are coated.  The second time we dipped them first in buttermilk and hot sauce (as we do when frying chicken), leaving them soaking in the buttermilk in preparation for frying when our guests arrived, then again coated them in seasoned flour.  Shake each piece over the plate of flour before adding it to the hot pan, so that you can get rid of any excess flour.  Both times we fried them in shallow olive oil at medium high heat so that the artichokes could cook through as the coating browned.   This takes roughly 4 minutes per side. 

Pretty tasty.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Herbs: A favorite pasta

It's the beautiful early days of spring in Davis: when it's sunny but still cool and the blustery rainy days are belied by the glorious blue skies.  The perennials are leaping after their sleeping, the shoots are shooting up, and the fruit trees are everywhere extravagantly in bloom.  It’s difficult to resist the clichés about the season that come so easily to mind
Bitweene Merch and Averil
When spray beginneth to spring.
This is a pasta dish that we think can be made only in early spring, for it relies on tender herbs at their first growth, and the onion and garlic chives that are everywhere in the market right now.   

We’ve seen many recipes for this basic kind of pasta, but ours is adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s famous The Splendid Table.  Our signal for making this now was seeing the very first basil to appear at the market, at California Vegetable Specialties, who have been bringing little pots of basil not intended for planting but rather, for taking home and snipping leaves as needed (as well as their wonderful, small English and Japanese cucumbers).    

One could make a different version of this dish later in the summer that, like pesto, would center on the taste of the basil, which will then be available in huge bunches everywhere.  But in this version, on the contrary, you use a subtle mixture of young, uncooked herbs including ones like rosemary, sage and thyme that, later in the season, would be too strong to use in this way.  This is not, however, a vegetarian dish, but one that depends on the vibrant interplay of these fresh herbal flavors, the salty savor of prosciutto di parma, and the richness of reduced meat stock.   On our much-used and splattered copy of The Splendid Table, this recipe is annotated: "best in early spring," and "don't stint on the prosciutto!"

From the farmers' market, we brought home a few bunches of spring onions, garlic chives and parsley (as well as  that little pot of basil mentioned above), and then went out to our garden to snip off some of the new leaves of rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and tarragon.  You can find most of these on sale at the market too, which is fortunate since, truth be told, we've often had only modest success growing culinary herbs at home (except for oregano, which comes back every year like a trooper and, of course, rosemary, which grows everywhere in town so abundantly that some people use it as a hedge).  You need a total of about two cups of chopped herbs, the majority of which should be milder herbs like parsley and basil but combined with enough of the others to make the whole mixture complex.  You'll also need a lot of regular onion, at least one bunch of spring onion, and one bunch of garlic chives.  Actually the original recipe uses regular garlic, but we like to substitute the garlic chives that are available only at this time of year.

The recipe ideally needs some home-made meat stock (see our post of April 29, 2012).  Chicken stock is fine, but this dish is especially good with Rossetto Kasper’s recipe from this same book, which uses a mixture of beef bones (which Yolo Land and Cattle usually has for sale) and chicken to produce a somewhat darker and richer stock than those made with just chicken.  When we've made stock with her recipe, we call it "splendid stock" in homage to this wonderful cookbook.

Splendid Table's Tagliatelle with Caramelized Onions and Fresh Herbs
  • Olive oil
  • 4 onions, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups of chicken or chicken/beef stock
  • 1 pound tagliatelle (or substitute fettucine, linguini or spaghetti).  This is a great chance to use the noodles available from Pasta Dave at the market. 
  • About two cups fresh herbs (basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, chives, sage, rosemary and thyme, in roughly that order of priority in terms of relative amount.  You don't need all of these, but some mixture of the sweet milder herbs with the stronger ones is essential.)
  • 2/3 cup of heavy cream
  • 2-3 ounces chopped prosciutto di parma or other good cured ham (such as Bledsoe's from the market)
  • 1 bunch spring onions chopped
  • 1 bunch garlic chives chopped (or 1-2 cloves of minced garlic)
  • 2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste  
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy pan or dutch oven.  Add the onions, salt lightly, stir to coat with oil, then cover and turn down the heat.  Cook covered about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until very soft.  Then uncover, turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions are brown.  You will have made, in effect, a kind of onion compote or marmalade which, as you'll see if you taste it, is surprisingly sweet from just the natural sugar in the reduced onions.

If you're using regular garlic instead of the garlic chives, add it when the onions are almost brown.  Then add the stock, and scrap off any brown glaze from the pan.  Let the sauce simmer until the stock has reduced by half.

Rinse, de-stem, and coarsely chop the herbs, spring onions and garlic chives.  Chop the prosciutto.  Combine all these in a bowl and reserve.

Everything up to this point can be done a few hours in advance if you wish.  

To finish the dish:

Cook your pasta until it is just barely tender but still a bit firm.
Reheat the onion mixture and add the cream.  When your pasta has just been drained, stir the herb mixture into the sauce and stir: you don't want to cook the herbs, just warm them.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce, adding about a cup of cheese, and a very small amount of the pasta cooking water if it seems necessary.

Plate and pass the rest of the cheese at the table.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Pheasant and asparagus

The Sherdos have had a busy and, at times, difficult winter. Although we cook in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, we haven’t had that much to say about it.  Our weekly Saturday pilgrimages to the farmers' market have continued to be a source of solace and joy.  But we have not rallied ourselves into words.  Fortunately, after the winter of our discontent comes a glorious spring.  Is any season in Davis more spirit-lifting than this one?  In an initial celebration of the season, we offer a wintery dish with a spring sidedish.

Last week, Chowdown Farms were offering for sale what they call Guinea Pheasant, which is something you don't see every day, not even from them. There's some complex terminological ambiguity here that we're unable to resolve, but we suspect that this "domesticated game bird" is the same as, or at least similar to, what we had more often heard referred to as guinea hen or guinea fowl.  A domesticated game bird is, in any case, already a hybrid in which some game fowl (such as a pheasant) is bred with some other kind of barnyard bird, something that has been done for centuries.  Joan Thirk's history of Food in Early Modern England claims that Henry VIII first introduced the labor-intensive process of breeding pheasants into England in the early sixteenth century.  All we know is that we like it, so call it what you will. 

In his poem in praise of a great house, “To Penshurst,” the Renaissance poet Ben Jonson, famous for his huge appetite, claims, improbably, that the game and produce at Penshurst desire their own consumption.  
The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;
The painted partridge lies in every field, 
And for thy mess is willing to be killed.  
In his poem "Inviting a Friend for Supper," Jonson tantalizes his imagined guest by speaking
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there.
And in Jonson’s play The Alchemist, a character with the wonderful name of Sir Epicure Mammon imagines that the great wealth he hopes to achieve will mean that even his “foot-boy shall eat pheasants.”  We too had tended to think of pheasants and other game birds as luxuries — and yet here they are at our own farmers' market, ready to eat for a weekday dinner!

As we’ve mentioned here before, we eat less meat since coming to Davis but we tend to be on more intimate terms with the meat that we do eat.  To cook this particular bird, we followed the instructions of Judy Rodgers, from The Zuni Café Cookbook, for cooking what she calls a "guinea hen."  With this bird, unlike a chicken, you first have to break it down, because the breasts cook very quickly and it is easy to overcook them.  

Chowdown’s birds are frozen.  Obviously, you need to thaw them before cutting them, but you can do that in a basin of cold water on market day if you wish.  It’s also easier to butcher a bird that is not entirely thawed. Rodgers explains that pulling is as important a part of butchery as is cutting—and you need a very sharp knife.  Here are her instructions:  “Make a long incision in the skin between each leg and the breast meat, then tug the leg away from the carcass. Fold it all the way back to pop the ball joint, then fold even farther and use the tip of your knife to carve out the lentil-shaped muscle know as the ‘pope's nose.’ Then tug at the leg as you cut through the remaining muscle and skin. To extricate the meaty wings, tug the wing straight out and make a circular cut around the shoulder joint. Twist the wing, straining the tip of your knife. Continue to twist and fold the wing back, cutting through the remaining muscle, sinew, and skin. To remove the breast meat, first make a deep clean cut with the knife flat against each side of the sternum. Next, tugging the breast away from the collar-bone, use the tip of your knife to make a shallow cut along each arc of collarbone (the wishbone). Pulling the breast away from the sternum, make a series of little cuts flat against the sternum and under the wishbone to progressively free the breast as you go. Repeat with the other breast.”

We are not sure we’ve ever correctly identified or captured the “pope’s nose.”  And the breasts are hard to get in one tidy piece.  But following these directions we have managed to secure 6 pieces of the bird.  We save the carcass for stock.  As Rodgers asks, we salt and pepper the pieces a day before cooking them.  

Roasted Guinea Hen with Bay Leaves, Madeira and Dates

  • 1 Chowdown Farms Guinea Pheasant
  • Salt
  • 3/4 cup guinea hen stock (which we make from the carcass leftover after removing the pieces) or chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 whole cloves or allspice berries
  • 2 small sticks of cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup Madeira
  • 1 strip of orange zest
  • 4 dates, pitted and halved. (Of course, we use Siegfried dates from the market.  Rodgers calls for 8 dates.  But if you use the luscious Medjools, this will make the sauce far too sweet.  Even with the smaller more complexly flavored Barhi dates, the sauce seems too sweet to us with 8 dates.)
1.  When ready to cook: Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Pat the guinea hen pieces dry.
2.  Warm the olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle on contact, arrange
the pieces of meat skin side down in a single layer. Reduce the heat only if the oil starts to smoke. Leave untouched, to set a golden crust, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. 

3.  Turn over the leg and wing pieces. Remove the breasts and set aside. Pour off all but a film of fat, then tuck the bay leaves, clove or allspice berries, and cinnamon under the legs. Set the pan in the lower half of your oven and roast for 15 minutes maximum.  It may well be done in 10.
4.  Add the breast pieces, skin side up, and roast until just cooked through, another 8-10 minutes—but as little as 5.
5.  Remove the pan from the oven.  If the fat in the pan seems excessive, you should pour some off, but we have not needed this step working with the Chowdown Farms birds. Add the Madeira and orange zest and set over medium heat. Swirl the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape the sides and rub the pan with the orange zest.
6.  After the Madeira has boiled hard for about 5 seconds, add the stock and the dates. Continue swirling and stirring. Taste every few seconds and pull away from the heat once the sauce has a little body and concentrated flavor. Keep in mind that the pan will continue cooking and reducing the sauce until it is served, so be prepared to work quickly. If the sauce does get too strong or thick, add a few drops of water to correct.
7.  Distribute the meat among plates and spoon the sauce over it. 

 On this occasion, we served our hen, or pheasant, with roasted asparagus and a barley pilaf.

As we mentioned almost a year ago, we actually first got the idea for this blog when a stranger at the market asked us: "what do you do with all that asparagus?"  It is true we eat it constantly while it is in season, which it has just come into here in Davis.

With this dish, since the oven is already turned up high, this is a great opportunity to roast asparagus while the meat rests and we make the pan sauce.  
Although we like to roast asparagus, we have learned through trial and error that the trick is to dry the asparagus very carefully before putting it in the oven so that it doesn’t steam.  We’ve also learned that asparagus from the market cooks more quickly than any recipe we encounter suggests that it will.  We wash the spears, trim the ends (but don’t bother to peel), and pat them dry with a towel.  Then we toss them with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and place them in one layer on a baking sheet.  That goes in the very hot oven for 8-10 minutes.  We like to turn it once for even browning on the tips.  We’ve also roasted asparagus successfully in the toaster oven.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Savoy cabbage meets Gnafron and Punch

A few posts ago, we were observing  how some vegetables (such as turnips) that are sturdy, inexpensive, and nutritious, are sometimes ironically disparaged just because as one might put it, they don't play hard to grow.  Another obvious example is the homely cabbage — a vegetable so unsought after that, like the turnip, it is not even listed as a search term on the vendor/product search on the Davis Farmers Market website.  At best, they might come under the "winter vegetables" category.  Who, this suggests, is desperately seeking cabbage?  Who cares when cabbage season begins?  Who mourns when it endsYet last week at the market we noticed that one vendor was announcing that this was the last week cabbage would be available.  So these hearty workhorses are actually as seasonal as berries. 

Dazzled by the color and pattern of the Savoy cabbages at Fiddler’s Green of late, we decided to make a favorite dish showcasing this cabbage.  The dish is gnafron, a dish we learned about from Peggy Knickerbocker’s fabulous cookbook, Simple Soirees.   

Why this dish, a sort of savory flan, should have this name is something of a mystery.  Gnafron is the name of a puppet created by the 19th-century French puppeteer Laurent Mourguet, who began doing shows with the puppet character Polichinelle the same puppet who in English was called Punchinello and who eventually became Mr. Punch of the Punch and Judy show.  Mourguet eventually began inventing new characters based on contemporary working-class types in his hometown of Lyons.  His first was Gnafron, usually described as a cobbler who is very fond of wine.  Mourguet went on to create a character named Guignol, who became the most famous of all French puppet characters, and whose name is now a virtual synonym for "puppet" in the French language.   

Knickerbocker herself tells the story of having this dish at a restaurant in Lyon, and of how she laboriously tracked down the recipe.One can only speculate that somehow this hedonistic mixture of sausage, cabbage and custard suggested to some Lyonnaise chef the kind of dish that would leave anyone who was served it (as we might say in English) as pleased as Punch. 

The recipe calls for Napa cabbage, but we liked it even better with the greener, thicker leaves of the Savoy. 

Peggy Knickerbocker’s GNAFRON 
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-2 carrots, diced
1/2 pound andouille sausage or other flavorful, fully cooked, spicy sausage, finely chopped (be sure to skin the sausage to make the custards as delicate as possible)
1 medium onion, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Splash of white wine
1 Napa or Savoy cabbage, separated, tough parts of the ribs removed (16 to 20 leaves)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter for greasing the ramekins
4 large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream

For the Garlic Cream:
3 cloves garlic
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
Splash of white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream

In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the carrot, sausage, onion, thyme, and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute slowly for 15 minutes. When the mixture becomes slightly dry, add the wine and stir well.
When the sausage mixture has become soft and aromatic, at least another 5 to 10 minutes (but don't rush this stage), remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool for about 10 minutes.  You want it cool so it won't curdle your eggs.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, bring 4 cups of salted water to a simmer over high heat. Blanch the cabbage leaves, a few at a time. Remove with tongs and allow them to drain on clean kitchen towels.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Grease 6 small ramekins or souffle dishes with butter. (We use 4 larger--that is, 6 oz.--ramekins.) Line the dishes with the cabbage leaves, allowing them to overlap so that when the sausage mixture is spooned onto them, they can be folded over to make a little package.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs with the cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir the sausage mixture into the egg mixture and mix well. Divide the mixture among the lined ramekins and fold the overlapping leaves over the top. Knickerbocker advises you not to worry if the mixture leaks out around the leaves. We would advise you not to worry at all.  This is a pretty forgiving recipe.

Place the ramekins in a deep roasting pan large enough to hold them all. Pour warm water around them so that it comes 3/4 of the way up the sides. Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the Gnafron has set and the top is firm to the touch. Knickerbocker suggests an hour but we've never had it take that long.  If the tops begin to brown or get too dark, place a sheet of foil over the tops. It’s okay if the tops get golden brown.

While the Gnafron bakes, make the garlic cream. In a small heavy pot, combine the garlic, sugar, salt and a splash of water; cook over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes. Add a splash of white wine, and allow it to cook down for 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the cream, and warm it for about 3 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow the garlic to steep in the cream until the Gnafron comes out of the oven. Reheat the garlic cream over low heat; it will be slightly thin. Remove and discard the garlic.
To serve, run a knife around the sides of the ramekins to loosen the mixture. Turn out onto plates. Serve with a little garlic cream drizzled over and around each custard.

We served these with some of the baby leeks we also got at Fiddler’s Green, seared over high heat.  They were wonderful.  We have also made these in advance for a dinner party and then warmed them before serving.  That worked well, although they had an especially luscious texture fresh from their bath.  Fiddler's Green Savoy cabbage produces an even prettier and tastier Gnafron than we've ever made with Napa cabbage. 

As Punch might say, “ain’t she a beauty?”

Sunday, January 27, 2013

More words about turnips (and mushrooms, and baby fennel)

Last week the profusion of brilliant red and white turnips beckoning to us everywhere in the market inspired us to some historical reflections on this vegetable that never seems to get enough respect.  Here’s another easy recipe in which you cook a chicken on a bed of turnips, potatoes, shallots … and one slightly unexpected ingredient, dried prunes, which add a welcome note of sweetness to complement the slightly “radishy” taste of the turnips.   

This is an almost infinitely flexible template for a dish.  To begin with, all the amounts below are negotiable, depending on what you have on hand.  You can make it with only turnips (or only potatoes), add other root vegetables such as parsnips or rutabaga, use a coarsely chopped regular onion instead of the shallots, use different kinds of wine (such as Sherry or Marsala), use a little brandy in addition to (or instead of) the wine, or use another kind of dried fruit.  If you want to be a little more fancy, you can remove the chicken at the end and finish the vegetable mixture with a touch of cream.  It's pretty hard to go very wrong with this dish, no matter what you do.

  • Olive oil for frying
  • 1 whole chicken (we used a “l’argent” chicken from Chowdown Farms at the market
  • Two small bunches of turnips, one red and one white, scrubbed and trimmed (which you'll find at Towani and Good Humus at the market): whole, halved or quartered, depending on their siz
  • A handful (perhaps 12) small red or white fingerling potatoes (or whatever you've got; we used the smallest potatoes available from Zuckermans at the market), halved if needed
  • About six shallots, peeled
  • A small handful (about 10) prunes (we got ours from Cadena Ranch), soaked for 15 minutes in hot water and drained
  • A few sprigs of thyme or rosemary (optional)
  • A crumbled dry red chile pepper (optional) 
  •  ½ cup dry white wine
  •  ½ cup chicken stock 
Preheat your oven to 350.  Salt and pepper the chicken.

In a dutch oven in which your chicken will fit fairly snugly, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, and brown the chicken on both sides (about 15 minutes).  Remove to a plate.

Add all the vegetables and herbs and sauté lightly for a few minutes.  Then add the wine and stock.  Bring to a simmer and return the chicken to the pan, breast-side up.  Cover, place in the oven. 

Check after about half an hour and turn the chicken over, adding a smidge more stock if it looks dry.  Cook until your chicken is cooked to your satisfaction, the vegetables are tender, and the sauce slightly thickened — usually about one hour altogether, depending on the size of your chicken.

This week at the market we also picked up a few great looking wedges of Maitake mushrooms from Solano Mushroom Farmsa consistent and beloved presence at the Davis Farmer's Market.  This is an exquisitely simple recipe from what (as we explained in a previous post) is one of our "guilty pleasure" cookbooks, Homecooking with Jean-Georges.   

All you do is put the wedges of mushroom on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then roast in a very hot oven (450 degrees) for about twenty minutes.
When they come out of the oven, put one wedge of mushroom on each plate, sprinkle with sesame seeds and a little chopped parsley, and serve with a lime wedge for each person to squeeze a little juice on the hot mushroom.

Finally, the lovely baby fennel bulbs at Good Humus (another beloved market stalwart and visionaries who helped create the Davis market, as many of you know) inspired us to revisit a salad that we wrote about in one of our first posts as "winter turns to spring salad."  It remains a favorite.  

Since we already did a post on it, we won't linger over the recipe but will just remind you of these ingredients now available at the market and how good they taste together:  baby fennel and a bit of chopped fennel fronds (Good Humus), navel oranges (lots to choose from but ours are from Rainwater Ranch), blood oranges (Schletewitz), chopped dates (Siegfried), yuzu-scented olive oil (Yolo Press), pecans (Cadena Ranch) or pistachios (Fiddyment), and Foggy Morning cheese (Nicasio).  Get that tender baby fennel while you can!  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Words about some Turnips"

It may be winter but this week's still life of our market purchases rivals those of late summer. This time of year, turnips sometimes seem to plead pitifully from the market tables for you to buy them. Cheapened by their own abundance, turnips don’t get much respect. This has long been the case in part because, as one seventeenth-century writer about agriculture commented, “Turnips will grow on the meanest ground with little labor, & without muck.”  

Emily Cockayne, in her book Hubbub, explains that even in eighteenth-century England, turnips were disparaged precisely because they were so easy to grow. “The criers who touted exotic or seasonal foods on the city streets were more respected than those selling mundane ones such as turnips. Appearing for only two months a year, dill and cucumber purveyors enjoyed great popularity, unlike the scorned sellers of cabbages that were available all year and distinctly bucolic. Cabbages were unpopular and cheap” (93). Ditto turnips.
Perhaps this is why we have even found several English crimes associated with turnips, including a husband and wife who “had Words about some Turneps,” leading to a fight to the death (hers)
Valued as livestock feed and a cover crop, the turnip first graced the tables of the poor. As a consequence, as early as the first century writer Pliny, it was necessary to defend turnips as suitable “not onely for beasts of the earth and the Foules of the aire, but also for men." The sixteenth-century British apothecary John Parkinson both defends turnips as food for people and acknowledges that they are most often eaten by the poor: "Being boyled in salt broth, they all of them eate most kindly, and by reason of their sweetnesse are much esteemed, and often seene as a dish at good mens tables: but the greater quantitie of them are spent in poore mens feasts.”

The turnip turns up in many surprising places. Although one might more commonly hear a familiar proverb as being about a stone, it has also been common to say "you can't get blood out of a turnip." According to The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, a turnip, like a stone, often figures an "unyielding or unlikely substance," bloodless and inanimate. A thirteen-century folk tale called “The Turnip Tale” focuses on a turnip of enormous size. We’ve found many versions of a jest about turnips including one in which King James I gives a man a hundred pounds for a prodigiously large turnip. A courtier thinks to himself “if the King regards a Turnip so much, and rewards the Giver of it so nobly, how much more nobly will he reward me for a greater present?” He gives the king a race horse and the king rewards him with the turnip, which he presumes to be worth what he has paid for it.

But if the turnip makes its way into literature as both insensible and enormous, it has long been recognized that the tastiest turnips are the smallest. The popular seventeenth-century cookbook The French Cook explains “the lesser are the best, and most agreeable to the taste.” This history probably contributes to the emphasis on dainty little turnips on our market tables. The turnip also once had a versatility it now seems to lack. We’ve found recipes for supposedly toothsome, wholesome Turnip bread “which we have eaten at the greatest Persons Tables, hardly to be distinguished from the best of Wheat." Some early reader penciled "Turnip bread p. 71" on the flyleaf of the Huntington’s copy of John Evelyn’s Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets (from 1699). So at least one reader was enthusiastic at the prospect. Turnips were also turned into cider, wine, oil (probably from the seeds, since the turnip is related to rape, the source of canola oil). Turnip roots and greens were also pickled and turned into soups of various kinds, which were deemed especially suitable in Lent.

The medical uses assigned to turnips are quite staggering. By various accounts, the turnip taken in various forms can increase breast milk, provoke urine, and “pricke forward to Venus," that is, act as an aphrodisiac. According to various herbals from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the turnip can also suppress “noisome and troublesome dreames,” quell a cough and hoarseness, break up congestion, cure worms and scurvy, treat gouty or frostbitten feet, and temper steel. It is “sovereigne for eyes and Bees” and an antidote for poison. And yet, despite all of these claims for the turnip’s virtues, it remains in need of defense. As an example, look up turnip in the index of various cookbooks focused on vegetables and you will find that it makes rather a poor showing.

So, in honor of our research into the humble turnip, and its abundance at the market right now, we are committing ourselves to a few recipes featuring turnips. First, following our principle that what ends up in a market basket often constitutes a recipe, we roasted purple turnips, shallots, and apples together, dressed only in the usual olive oil, salt, and pepper. We peeled the apples, didn’t peel the turnips, and removed the papery skin from the shallots but left them whole. They looked lovely in the pan before they went in the oven. Roasting for about 45 minutes at 375 degrees faded the purple of the shallots and turnips, but they became beautiful in another way, burnished and soft.

To mention another easy possibility: we are convinced that a combination of bay-leaf and turnip complicates and improves split-pea soup, somehow making this humble recipe slightly strange and unfamiliar. This combination brings to light in a special way the slightly aromatic or "radishy" flavor of the turnip, and, along with the bay leaves, moderates the earthiness of the split peas.

Split pea soup with turnips, carrots and bay leaf
1 cup of split peas, picked over and rinsed
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 bunch of turnips, halved, quartered or diced (depending on their size)
2 carrots, chopped
2 bay leaves
6 cups of water or vegetable stock (we sometimes make a quick stock or savory "tea" from the trimmings of the onion and carrot we're using in the soup and use that as the liquid)

Brown the onion in olive oil for a few minutes.
Add the carrots and turnips and saute for a few more minutes
Add the split peas, bay leaf and stock.

Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 1/2 hours or until the split peas are tender.

The thickness of the soup can be easily adjusted either by adding a little more stock to taste or simmering a little longer to thicken.

If neither of these recipes is quite suited to be the centerpiece of a king's feast, we're pretty sure neither should be a provocation to murder.