The Lessons of Summer–Finally!

Crêpes with Strawberries and Crème Fraîche

Summer has finally arrived in the Upper Midwest. Due to the cold and wet spring, strawberry season has been delayed by three weeks here, making us all the more anxious for the first taste of local strawberries. Some friends gathered for the very first strawberries of the season. Fiona made homemade crème fraîche; I made crêpes, and there was chocolate and whipped cream as well.

Is there anything better than local strawberries, so much softer and sweeter than the sour monstrosities from California? And to wrap those strawberries in a tender, eggy crêpes? But the real revelation was Fiona’s crème fraîche, made with the cream of grass-fed cows and cultured with kefir grains. It was the best crème fraîche I’ve ever had. Nutty and sweet, even without sugar, with the slightest tang; I swear I could taste the grass that the cows ate, the sun, and the land that nourishes them.

Sitting in the sun, sharing crêpes with strawberries and crème fraîche; I wonder if I would be so grateful for all this had I not waited all year for it. Maybe this is the lesson that the seasons teach; experience all that every season has to offer, taste, touch, smell. Gratitude and impermanence can coexist. They must.

Crème fraîche

The better your cream, the better the crème fraîche will be. Grass-fed, organic and raw is ideal. As I mentioned above, Fiona cultured hers with kefir grains. If you aren’t into making your own kefir, use buttermilk. Be aware, however, that buttermilk enzymes do not digest lactose the way that kefir does. (As a side note, how wonderful it was to have cream without getting a stomach-ache immediately afterwards!)

1 quart heavy cream
1 tbsp. buttermilk

Combine cream and buttermilk. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place 18-24 hours. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Crêpes

3 eggs
1 1/4 c. milk (I use lactose-free)
pinch salt
1 c. flour
3 tbsp butter, melted and cooled

Beat eggs until homogenous. Add milk and salt. Mix. Sift flour into egg mixture. Beat again. There will probably be lumps; that’s okay, they will dissolve as the batter sits. Stir in melted butter. Refrigerate overnight. (I have just made the crepes immediately after mixing the batter many times. Aside from the occasional lump, it doesn’t make much difference.)

Heat small (preferably six inch) crepe pan or non-stick pan over high heat. Wipe pan with melted butter or oil. When hot, ladle 1/3 c. batter into pan and swirl to evenly coat bottom of pan. Drip excess batter back into bowl. Cook one minute or until edges of crepe are brown. Flip and cook thirty seconds more.

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Spiced Honey Fruit Salad


In order to be a food blogger, you have to live in your senses: the world of taste, smell, touch. Me, I’ve been in my head a lot these days. I’m spending the summer cranking out my dissertation, day after day. Perhaps that’s why I feel so uninspired about this blog, or perhaps the dissertation is sucking all my writing energy, and I don’t have much left over for anything else. I’ll save you the impenetrably dull details, spare the fact that the other night, I dreamt that I was on a date with John Rawls. Apparently, it isn’t enough that I’ve been spending eight to ten hours a day with Professor Rawls for the past two weeks, now, I have to have dinner and drinks with him in my sleep? (No, I don’t know want to know what this says about my subconscious.)

Fortunately, I have a few friends that regularly drag me away from my desk and out of the house. Even more fortunately, these friends are really into potlucks, which forces me into the kitchen, back into my hands and my body. Is there anything more sensual than plunging a knife into a ripe cantaloupe? Grabbing a slippery mango to slice off its peel? And nothing is better on a summer evening that fruit salad with perfectly ripe fruit.

This salad is an invention of my mothers, combining a subtle kiss of warming spices (cloves, caramom, cinnamon, ginger) with the sweetness of summer fruits. It’s simply perfect.

Spiced Fruit Salad

Obviously, you can vary the fruits, but try to include one melon and one fruit from the stone category.

1/2 stick cinnamon
2 cloves
2 pods cardamom
pinch salt
honey to taste, start with 2 tbsp
1/2 c. fresh orange juice (used commercial in a pinch)

1 fragrant ripe cantaloupe
1 pint strawberries
1 ripe mango
1/2 pint raspberries or blackberries
1 peach
rind from 1/2 an orange
1 handful blanched almonds
1/2 c. crystallized ginger, chopped
small handful mint leaves
squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

In small saucepan, heat spices and salt with orange juice. Add honey. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Add water if pan threatens to boil dry.

Chop fruit into bite sized pieces. Mix gently with almonds, mint and ginger. Add spiced honey and lemon. Taste and adjust for seasonings.

Source: My mom

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Pizza Crust Reconsidered

Let it never be said that I can’t change my mind.

Remember that Todd English pizza crust I loved so much? It was the only pizza crust I’d made for years, but then, I stumbled upon 101 Cookbooks post of master baker Peter Reinhart’s Neapolitan-style pizza. One bite of this crust, and my stand-by crust was forgotten. It’s everything you could want in a pizza crust: flavorful, light and crispy with big dough bubbles. It has the advantage of being much easier to handle as well.

The key, according to Heidi, is a long fermentation that allows the flavor of the yeast to develop. Even better, the whole process is far easier than my other pizza dough. Just toss the dry ingredients together, add cold water, stir and knead until smooth. Throw into the refrigerator for use anytime in the next four days. By far the hardest part is remembering to take the dough out of the fridge two hours before you plan to make your pizza.

Another trick is that this pizza dough is tossed, thus avoiding the heaviness that comes from the weight of the rolling pin squashing down all the yeast bubbles. Tossing pizza is kind of stressful when you’re having friends over and you’re nervous about pitching everyone’s dinner onto the floor, but it’s not so difficult. The dough has a dreamy texture: soft, smooth and supple. You don’t have to toss very high or flashily, just a few inches will stretch the dough whisper thin and bake up into a crispy, light crust. (If this stresses you out, I recommend breathing deeply before tossing the pizza–in through the nose, out through the mouth and TOSS!)

I resisted buying a pizza stone for the longest time. I just got one, and I can’t imagine what I did without it. I don’t have a peel, so I just use a piece of cardboard sprinkled with semolina to slide the pizza onto the stone.

I’ve linked to Heidi’s recipe above, but my adaptation follows. I use a little whole-wheat pastry flour in my recipe. I like the flavor of whole wheat, and mixing all-purpose with a lower gluten flour mimics the softer flour of Italy.

Overnight Pizza Crust

3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. instant yeast
2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 3/4 c. cold water
semolina or corn meal

Combine flours, yeast, and salt. Add cold water and olive oil and mix until dough is too heavy to stir. On floured surface (or just in the bowl, which is what I do) knead dough 10 minutes until smooth and no longer sticky. Divide dough into six equal parts. Place on well floured cookie sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight, or for up to four days. You can also freeze some of the dough for later.

The next day, two hours before making the pizza, take dough out of fridge. If using a pizza stone, preheat oven to 500 one hour before making pizza. Pick up the dough and place it over the backs of your fists. Gently stretch the dough by moving your fists apart. If you’re feeling confident, gently toss it a few inches in the air. Catch and stretch again. Do this over a clean surface in case of accidents. When dough is as uniformly thin as it’s going to get, place on peel (or piece of cardboard) sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina. Gently place toppings on pizza; avoid pressing dough down into the peel. Slide pizza onto stone, and bake 8-10 minutes. If you do not have a pizza stone, you can bake pizza on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes.

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The Taste of Home

Tricomalee-style Crab Curry

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

They say that you can never go home again. In some ways, the business of growing up and growing old is about coming to terms with this reality. The place you miss, the place you crave, the place where you truly belong–that place no longer exists, if it ever did. Perhaps this is so for everyone, but for us rootless cosmopolitans who belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, the old adage is a truth that defines our lives.

No wonder the smells and tastes of childhood are so powerful; they take us as close to home as we can get, however fleeting the experience may be. In Sri Lanka, our relatives in Negombo would make platters of curry with enormous lagoon crabs whenever our family would come to visit. As a child, I could never eat crab curry without getting the curry all over my hands and wrists, dirtying the glass of water I had to keep handy to douse the fire that burned my lips and tongue. An uncle looked on in wordless disgust–he himself possessed the remarkable ability to dismantle a crab with the fingertips of one hand, keeping even his palm clean. (Breaking things apart while keeping his hands clean was a specialty of this particular uncle of mine, but that is a story for another time and venue.)

In North Carolina, making this crab curry was an all-day family event, beginning with an early morning trip to the docks to catch the crabs ourselves. The tide had to either be going out or coming in. If the water level was too low, the crabs would have retreated to deeper waters; too high, and you couldn’t see when they began nibbling at their chicken neck bait. My mother, who only likes to spend time outdoors if there’s a great meal waiting at the end of it, was particularly good at tricking the crabs into her net. Then came the nasty part, from which my sister and I were thankfully excused: maiming the crabs by pulling off their claws and killing them by tearing off their top shells. Once as a teenager, I got stuck with this task when my dad was out of town. I was revolted, but it taught me that I could indeed live up to one of my maxims: don’t eat anything you couldn’t kill yourself. The reward for all this labor came when the large mound of crabs was brought to the table, steaming hot, bathed in a fiery curry fragrant with roasted coconut and spices.

Crack into a crab claw, suck out the mingled juices of the crab and coconut milk. Dig into the sweet flesh of the crab’s body, coated with the dark flavor of roasted coconut, chile, and coriander. Eating crab is a primal experience; you have to get your hands dirty.

How does it taste? It tastes of the sea, of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It tastes of lands both far and near. It’s the taste of the familiar, of family, and of childhood. It tastes of home.

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

Serves four.

Part I: Making the masala
3/4 c. unsweetened dried coconut (you may also use fresh)
1 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
6 fresh curry leaves
2 tbsp. coconut milk

Combine the dried coconut, fennel, pepper, and curry leaves and roast in dry skillet over medium-high fire, stirring constantly, until coconut is the color of, I hate to say it, hamster shavings.

Let mixture cool and grind in a blender with 2 tbsp. coconut milk.

Part II: The Curry
1 med. onion, sliced thinly
1/2 piece of ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 curry leaves
2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 tbsp. Jaffna or Trincomalee-style curry powder (see note)
1 tsp. paprika
1/2-2 tsp. cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tbsp. tamarind pulp, soaked in hot water
1 c. coconut milk
fresh lime juice, to taste
salt, to taste

Heat oil in 6 quart pot. Saute onion, garlic, ginger, and curry leaves until onions begin to color (about 7 minutes). Add curry powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, one teaspoon salt and stir. Cook 1 minute more. Squeeze tamarind pulp and add tamarind water to pot. Add dried coconut masala and coconut milk. Stir and cook 10 minutes, until curry is thick. Taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt, cayenne and/or lime if necessary.

Part III: Cleaning the Crabs

Crab Carcasses

18 Atlantic blue crabs (You may also use Pacific Dungenous, but use fewer crabs)
1 tsp. turmeric

With a pair of tongs, lift each crab out of the bag. Be sure it’s alive and kicking. If it seems to be dead, discard. Here comes the nasty bit. Carefully grasp crab from the back with your left hand. Cover your right hand in a dish towel and pry it’s claws off and reserve. Then, on a flat surface, turn the crab upside down, hold the top shell down with your left hand, and, grasping the crab’s legs with your right hand, pull the body away from the top shell. This kills the crab far more quickly humanely than the barbaric American custom of dropping them alive into boiling water.

Discard top shell. Under running water, pull off the “dead man’s fingers” that cover the body. Clean out any dark green matter and the pink organs (anyone know what these are?). However, reserve the orange eggs from the female crabs. Last, either with a large knife or your hands, split the two sides of the crab in two.

When you’ve done about half of the crabs, sprinkle with a dusting of turmeric. Sprinkle another dusting of turmeric when you’ve finishing cleaning all the crabs.

Add crabs to curry. Stirring and tossing occasionally, cook over medium heat for ten minutes.

Serve with white rice and accompaniments.

Note: Jaffna-style curry powder may be ordered here. You can make Trincomalee-style curry powder by roasting dried whole chilies and coriander seeds separately, grinding in a spice grinder and combining. Use 2 parts dried chilies to 1 part coriander seed (measure by weight). Do not even think of using any other kind of curry powder, particular not the foul substance sold at Western grocery stores.

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Jamaican Locavore

I have a thing for coconut water. Sometimes, in the middle of a hot, humid, American summer, I feel like I’ll just die if I don’t have a coconut right then. So I compromise and have a can of oversweetened Thai coconut juice. Does it taste good? No. But somehow, it assuages the craving.

So, when I’m in the tropics, I make sure to have as many coconuts as possible. As soon as I got off the plane, I asked our taxi driver if we could stop and have a coconut: jelly, as it’s called in Jamaica. And it was good. Sweet without added sugar, sipped straight from the shell with a straw. And after your belly it full of the coconut water, have the coconut split open for you, a makeshift spoon carved out of a piece of the shell, and scrape the young coconut jelly directly from the shell. Heaven.

Honestly, it was worth the price of the plane tickets alone just to have one coconut a day for six days.

Coconuts aside, no report on Jamaican cuisine would be complete without jerk. I’ve made jerk before, but jerk was meant to be eaten seaside, appetite sharpened by a morning of swimming and sun,
the scent of wood smoke on the breeze. In these seaside shacks, the meat is slowly smoked over embers of the allspice tree, which impart their distinctive flavor to the meat. I went around and tasted the sauces of all the jerk stands at Boston Beach. When I found the best, I flattered and flirted and tried in vain to extract a recipe from the proprietor. No such luck. At least I brought a bottle back for Kassie and CJ, who looked after my cats while I was gone.

Our most memorable meal, however, was in a seaside shack in the quiet fishing village of Manchioneal. On the heels of yet another fruitless expedition, we stopped in Manchioneal on the way back to Port Antonio, ravenous. The locals said that the best restaurant in town was Dada West. “That’s the name of the restaurant?” I asked. “No, that’s the name of the person who cooks there.”

Dada West’s could only be loosely termed a restaurant. It was a tin roof shack with a floor of sand and an enormous stereo system pumping reggae beats to the breeze. In the immaculate kitchen, Dada West cooks up pots of lobster curry, fish stew, and red beans and rice. We laid waste to plates of sweet and sour fish stew within minutes. For dessert, I had tucked a stolen mango from that morning. Dada West lent us a scotch bonnet pepper and some salt, and watched incredulously as my dad cut into the hard, green mango. He was good enough to try a slice, sour as a green apple and fiery with chile. I’m not sure he will be munching on green mangoes himself anytime soon, but it was nice to share something with him after he fed us so well.

It only occurred to me after I returned home how very ascetic our diet in Jamaica was in some ways. Portland was the most lush place I’ve ever been. Look up, and the trees above your head are heavy with bananas, ackee, star and sour apples. The sea teems with fish. We ate local vegetables simply stewed with fish for breakfast lunch and dinner. The funny thing is that I never missed butter, dairy or rich food. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps I was fish-starved from living in the Midwest. Perhaps, I just fell in love with Jamaica, its people, and the food that comes from its land and sea.


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Destination: Jamaica, Port Antonio

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog terribly of late, and when I do show up, I whine endlessly. As my inner reserves of sunlight and warmth dwindled through the winter, I became more and more cranky. So when the opportunity arose to spend spring break by the sea in warm and tropical Jamaica, I grabbed it.

Needing a vacation away from work, I dragged my parents away from the spring-break craziness of resort-infested Montego Bay to serence Portland parish, on the northeastern coast of the island. I won’t lie; there’s not much going on in Port Antonio, the main town. It turns out that when you avoid tourists, you also avoid first-world tourist amenities. In order to have a good time, you must abandon all expectations of what will happen and when. If you hike a mile up the top of a steep hill in search of an art exhibition, only to find that you were misinformed not only about the hotel in question, but also about the date of the exhibition, the only thing to do is to be thankful for the hike itself, through the lush rainforest as beautiful as any nature preserve.

And who can be disappointed when confronted with a view of the sea coming into the cove from the top of the hill?

It was enough, I found, to sit in a park and watch a cricket game, breathing the salty ocean air that I’ve missed so much, feeling the sun on my skin after a winter indoors, and call to a herd of goats going by.

It was lovely to be there with my parents, who, it turns out, feel perfectly at home in tropical islands formerly occupied by the British. The flora of Portland is similar to that of Kandy, the hill town of central Sri Lanka where my mother grew up. In Sri Lanka, vendors on the side of the road sell green mango dipped in a mixture of chile powder and salt. Raw mango is hard to find Stateside, so when we saw an enormous mango tree near our guest house, it’s branches bearing hundreds of hard, green mangoes, we couldn’t resist helping ourselves.

To hear my mother tell stories from her childhood, mango theft is practically in my DNA. We ate our green mango with a generous sprinkling of salt and a chopped Scotch bonnet pepper in place of chile powder.

Of course, my vacation wasn’t all mango-thievery and cricket-watching. I had only five days to make up for my five month sun and sea deficit.

This lagoon is fed both by the sea and by under-water springs, some of which spout hot water. Like many things in Portland, there’s no tourist infrastructure to the lagoon, just a gravel road leading to a cement boat ramp. To swim in the lagoon, you squeeze by the boats and try not to cut your feet on the sharp stones that line the bottom.

I arrived back in Minnesota almost a month ago now, to a stack of papers to be graded, another snow storm, and thankfully, a house full of friends for whom to cook dinner. I was exhausted at work on Tuesday, but I didn’t regret my vacation excess for a second. My sun reserves topped up, I could patiently wait through another six snow storms for spring to finally arrive.

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Easter Lamb

The magic number, my friends, is 118.

My first roast lamb, the main course for an Easter meal I cooked for thirty people in college, was woefully overcooked. It was the first meal I had ever cooked for more than four people, and I was more anxious about the lamb than any other part of the meal. Without a meat thermometer, I cooked the lamb to a perfect rosy-red by slicing into it at regular intervals. I then happened upon the brilliant idea of keeping the lamb warm in the warming compartment of the church kitchen’s oven. Unfortunately, over the course of two hours, the lamb changed from rosy-red to an unappetizing grey, and although the meat was perfectly tender (due to the low temperature of the warming compartment), it wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind.

My second roast lamb became my responsibility when my mother fell sick over Christmas several years ago, leaving most of the cooking for our dinner guests up to me. Between the stress of cooking dinner for ten people and convincing my mom to leave the kitchen and go back to bed, I just forgot how long the lamb had been in the oven. That particular lamb was not so tender. I tried to hold back tears as my parents’ dinner guests lied enthusiastically that they loved their lamb well done.

Eventually, I got better at lamb. Having a digital kitchen thermometer works wonders; no more blood letting to determine doneness. But the best thing I did both for my roast lambs and for my dinner guests was to read Judy Rogers’ recipe for roast lamb in The Zuni Café Cookbook. Like everything else in this cookbook, Judy’s instructions are detailed, meticulous, verbose, and a headache to follow the first time through. Like everything else in the cookbook, Judy’s instructions produce the perfect result:, tender, just-pink meat every time.

The biggest revelation was not in the technique, but in the cooking temperature. Unlike every other recipe which suggests 125 degrees for rare meat, Judy insists that a winter leg of lamb (between 6-8 pounds) should only cook to a temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit. “Barely warmer than body temperature!” my dad protested when I floated this idea by him. After baking in the oven, the lamb rests under a tent of foil while its proteins relax and reabsorb the moisture and its internal temperature continues to rise to 140 degrees.

I followed Judy’s techniques for the first time over Christmas, and the result was the best lamb I’ve ever had. The meat was perfect medium-rare, tender and juicy, fragrant with garlic and rosemary. I repeated the procedure for Easter with the same results. And so I pass this recipe onto you: a hybrid of the family marinade and Judy’s guidelines for roast meat. Get yourself a digital thermometer and never stress about your roast again.

Roast Leg of Lamb

Winter legs of lamb are larger. If you have a smaller, spring leg of lamb, this method will not work. Unfortunately, in Minnesota, Easter is for all intents and purposes still winter, and the available legs of lamb from family farms are still enormous.

1 6-8 lb. leg of lamb
4-5 cloves garlic
2 branches rosemary
1 tsp. peppercorns
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tbsp capers
olive oil to moisten

The day before you plan to serve the lamb, make the marinade by crushing garlic, rosemary, pepper, salt and capers in a mortar and pestle. Drizzle enough olive oil to moisten (usually about a tablespoon). Untie leg of lamb, remove bone, and trim of fat. Rub marinade all over lamb and refridgerate overnight.

The day of the big feast, remove lamb from fridge four hours before you plan to put it in the oven. Without bone, tie tightly into a cylinder.

Preheat oven to 325. In a large frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel without wiping off the marinade. Lower heat to medium-high, and sear lamb on all sides until a medium brown. This should take 4-5 minutes per side.

Place lamb in a roasting pan and place in the preheated oven. Let roast undisturbed for one hour. At the end of the hour, take the temperature of the lamb, it should be about 100 degrees. Roast 10-15 minutes more until the lamb is 118 degrees (for medium-rare meat), 113 degrees for rare meat.

Let lamb rest in a warm place (your stove top is ideal) under a tent of foil for 20-30 minutes. Carve thinly against the grain.

Sources: My mom, Judy Rogers’ Zuni Café Cookbook, Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Meditterraen Kitchen

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