Magical gardening elves and snap pea potato salad.

We have magical elves for neighbors, I’m sure of it.  Magical gardening elves.  Because every day, on my way out of town, I stop at their shed on the side of the road and find fresh snap peas, or potatoes, or whatever’s been picked the day before. And my neighbors are not just magical elves because they grow and offer this stuff (lots of people have front-yard farm stands around here), they are magical elves because their food tastes magical. Take a look at this pea, for example.

It’s plump, sweet, and fresh-tasting.  I couldn’t even take the picture without stealing a pea first.  My neighbors’ sugar snap peas are better than any I’ve tasted from farm markets, let alone supermarkets.  And once a few weeks go by, the elves will start to put out heirloom tomatoes meaty and bursting with sweetly acidic flavor.  These tomatoes were what made Jim and me wonder last year, when we just moved into town, if we could ever leave.

This potato salad, made with snap peas and potatoes from my magical neighbors, and fresh herbs from my own puny attempts at gardening (why try, when you have gardening elves?), is the kind of potato salad that you can fool people into thinking is healthy.  Very green, full of herbs and peas, it’s almost as if it doesn’t contain a healthy dollop of olive oil and a couple pats of butter. (Unless you are set on making a healthy potato salad, don’t leave out the butter; it melds all the flavors together and keeps it from becoming one of those ultra-vinegary potato salads—the type that make you long for some good mayonnaise.)

Use basil and chives if you can, because the basil plays up the sweetness in the peas, and chives work wonders for boiled potatoes.  You must pour the vinaigrette on before the potatoes cool and don’t be alarmed if it soaks into the potatoes before you can say mum, it’s supposed to happen that way.  Those potatoes will take on the sharp flavor of the wine vinegar, and be better for it.  It’s okay that it seems too dry, that’s why you add the butter. The end product — with the butter and everything mashed up a bit — is soft, creamy, and rich, with a background kick. Bring it to your next barbecue.  You can even tell everyone it’s healthy, I’ll keep the secret.

Snap Pea Potato Salad

The measurements here aren’t exact, I’m using volume because I didn’t weigh the peas and potatoes.  You can tinker with the measurements if you like.

1 quart snap peas, string removed
1 quart new potatoes, washed
2 shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1-2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
pat or two of butter
basil, to taste
chives, to taste
salt and pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add potatoes and a few pinches of salt.  Boil until potatoes are firm-tender, adding the snap peas into the water during the last minute or two.  Drain and transfer potatoes and peas to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette:  In a small bowl or measuring cup, add shallots, garlic, a pinch of salt, a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and mustard.  Add vinegar and whisk with a fork.  Add a drop of olive oil and whisk, adding a few more drops as you whisk.  If the vinaigrette is starting to emulsify, you can add the rest of the olive oil and whisk until the mixture is creamy, otherwise keep adding olive oil in drops until it emulsifies.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour vinaigrette over hot potatoes. Immediately stir to combine.  Stir in basil and chives and, once the vinaigrette has absorbed, stir in butter.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (it can take a lot of both.)

Food Inc., East Hampton, and pickles.

Jim and I drove out to East Hampton this weekend and had a lovely time despite the rain (and rain it did, especially on the drive out, when big chunks of rain fell, and I remembered that I needed to get new windshield wipers).  We did a lot of cooking, but only recipes I’ve posted before, so instead of a recipe today, I’ll just jabber on about some fun things to do in East Hampton, should you be out there this summer.  The East Hampton Farmers Market (in Nick and Toni’s parking lot) was top-notch; the Horman’s Best pickle guys and their “red flannel pickles” alone were worth the trip. (The pickle guys are also at other farmers markets this summer.)  These pickles, in a sweet brine with red peppers, would be worth mail-ordering if the pickle guys offered that, but I’ll certainly be trying to replicate them this summer. If anyone has tips on sweet brine for pickles, let me know (and if the pickles guys themselves would like to send me the recipe—or a pickled present—my email’s on the left.)

We also went to Napeague Beach in Amagansett; Jim and I have been going there since our first summer trip to the area, when we spent a week in his grandmother’s garage-cum-apartment and fell in love.  It was rainy and cold on Saturday, Jim got his feet wet, and I grabbed my polaroid and took some expired-film-shots.

Which is all you’ll get today, since I also got some great photography advice from my favorite photographer this weekend, and I’m waiting until I have a day off to do any photographing of my food, and that day off hasn’t happened yet.  But actually, I’ll give you a look at one of Ken’s (one that hangs on our living room wall), and then you can slip away from this post and go off to his website to oogle and ahh. (And if you happen to be in Amagansett this summer, you can check out the Pamela Williams Gallery, a gallery that often exhibits Ken’s work, and always is fun to visit.)

Night Pear by Ken Robbins

Finally, and you don’t need to be in East Hampton for this, we had a lovely engagement party at my—soon to be bona-fide— aunt and uncle’s house.  There was lamb tava, and gorgeous cheeses, and mojitos made with the mint growing outside, and talk of Food Inc., which is what you should be watching this weekend.  I know I’m preaching to the choir on a food blog, but I imagine a lot of people could eat better, more locally and ethically, then they do.  So let’s all watch this movie, and have the fear of God E. coli put in us.  Let’s all remember that if we eat out at a place that serves meat from industrially farmed animals, we are doing things inexplicably horrendous and unethical, things we would never, ever do to a living, breathing, thinking animal—but are doing through buying the meat and supporting the torture.  Now, I understand that not everyone lives next door to humanely raised cattle, hogs, and chickens—I’m very fortunate in that way.  But I believe it’s almost always possible (and certainly possible for anyone who has a computer, and the internet, and the leisure time to sit around reading food blogs) to eat ethically.  Take the money that you would spend on cheap meat and spend it on a smaller quantity of humanely raised meat.  Mail-order.  Search your area for farmers, where you may end up finding cheap, humanely raised meat, and where you’d definitely end up meeting people, making friends, feeling better about your choices, taking more care in your food, having it taste better and be more satisfying, needing to eat less, losing a few pounds, and fitting into that gorgeous black bathing suit this summer.  No kidding.

Cowboy steaks, fried potatoes and artichokes, onions and green beans.

I consider myself lucky.  I live within ten-minutes of this steak.

The Highland Company Gourmet Market in Kingwood Township, New Jersey, sits on lush green where Highland cows (and a rather menacing bull) hang out all day, chomping on the grass or watching the family soccer games across the fence.  These cowboy steaks, however, don’t come from those Highland cows (the punk-rock of cow breeds), but considering the care and love that Dee gives her own, I’m sure the local farms that she chooses to distribute from are just as good.  (I’m sure, also, because we asked.)

Steak aside, I also consider myself unlucky, or at least lazy, because since our neighbor Bob moved away, Jim and I have been without a grill.  So far this season, I’ve been able to satisfy my grilling urges through dinners at my parents’, where my dad charcoal grills spare ribs, or porterhouse steaks, or hot dogs with deliciously crisp charred edges, but when we saw the cowboy steaks at the market this weekend, we knew we’d have to find a house with a grill.  This wasn’t hard; Jim’s parents have a grill and were away for a few days and we gleefully took on the job of feeding the cats (and playing house.)

Besides a grill, there was also a pretty little herb patch at my disposal and the perfectly purple sage leaves did not go untouched, (thanks, Lydia!) destined to be a garnish on our fried potatoes and artichokes.

Because our date with a grill had become something of a grand affair, I picked up a few artichokes and some colorful potatoes—purple, red, and white; dolling up Tesa Kiros’ recipe of fried russet potato and artichoke bottoms.

If you’ve never pared down an artichoke before, make sure you have two knives: a serrated knife and a sharp chef or paring knife.  You need a serrated to cut off the top half of the artichoke and the chef knife to slice off all the leaves.  You also need a spoon for gouging out the choke.  And maybe a y-shaped peeler to peel the very bottom.  And surely this guide to help you along.

I fried the potatoes in corn oil (a lot of corn oil), putting them in the oil about 10 minutes before throwing in the artichokes.  The whole mess fried for about a half hour; long enough to make me get very worried that the potatoes would never brown, long enough so that they finally did brown, got crisp on the outside and mashed-up creamy inside, with a best freakin’ fried potato in the world taste.  The artichokes were a definite plus, elevating it from french fries to elegant, and the sage must be used, it’s non-negotiable; it added a serious pop of flavor whenever you came across it, and was paper-thin and crunchy like a chip.  I scattered fleur de sel over everything as soon as it came out of the oil.  The mineral-tasting salt was just the thing.

Jim marinated the steak in garlic, thyme, rosemary, and sage, then cooked the steak mostly on the grill, finishing in the oven.  In hindsight, he says he would have done the whole thing on the grill (something I thought from the beginning, but you can’t question a man with a plan) and that’s what you should do, too.

Oven, grill, whatever; the steak turned out fantastic (I don’t imagine it could turn out any other way.)  Rare in the middle with some char all around, garlicky and well-seasoned, we happily ate it up, saving some for a midnight snack, and lunch the next day, before handing off the bone to a very eager dog.

We also made some green beans and cippolini onions, which were fresh, buttery, and sweet.  A rather good steakhouse dinner date, if we do say so ourselves.  It’d go over fabulously for father’s day, without a doubt, if you can find a good cowboy steak (and if you live anywhere near Kingwood, New Jersey, it’s worth a drive.)  I’d be making it for my dad, but we’re away for the weekend attending another engagement party in our honor, this one out in East Hampton.  Luckily for me, the Highland Market is going to have these every weekend.

Cowboy Steak

serves 2

1 cowboy steak
olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
handful or herbs (we use thyme, rosemary, and sage)

A day or two before you plan on eating the steak, salt it generously on all sides and return to the fridge.  The day of, take the steak out and transfer to a plate.  Combine some olive oil, the garlic cloves, and herbs.  Massage into steak and let sit for a few hours.  Grill according to how you like you steaks (we don’t own a grill, so don’t want to act like authorities.)

Fried Potatoes and Artichokes

serves 6

2 1/2 lbs potatoes, preferably mixed varieties (we used purple fingerling, red bliss, and new), cut in halves or quarters
6-8 medium artichokes, trimmed and cut into halves or quarters (you can peel and halve the stems, too)
small handful sage leaves
corn oil for deep frying
fleur de sel

Prepare your potatoes and artichokes.  Fill a large saucepan or pot halfway full with corn oil and turn heat on the stove top to medium high.  When the oil reaches frying temp (350F-375F), add your potatoes.  Let them settle for about five minutes then give them a good stirring with a wooden spoon.  Let fry for about 8 minutes, then add artichokes and give a good stir.  Continue to fry for another 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are golden brown and crunchy.  Add sage leaves and fry 1 minute more.  Remove everything to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and serve with lemon wedges.

Cippolini Onions and Green Beans

serves 4-6

1 1/2 lb green beans, trimmed
5-6 cippolini onions, halved and peeled
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 teaspoon olive oil
fresh thyme
salt, pepper

Add 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat.  Carefully place the onions cut-side down.  Season with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves to taste.  Saute for about 5-10 minutes, until the onions are darkly caramelized.  Turn onions on their sides with tongs.  Add green beans and stir to combine.  Add about 1/4 cup water and cover.  Cook for 5-10 more minutes, or until the green beans are tender to your liking.  Serve hot or warm.

Tava (Cypriot baked lamb and potatoes with cumin and tomatoes).

I had a birthday yesterday.  My 25th.  It went by quickly; I was in a haze all day from the black sea bass with syrah sauce that I had at Daniel the night before.  A swooning, satiated haze. Daniel has recently been redecorated; the white, Greco-Romanish dining room is enough to make you woozy and the 15th anniversary three course with wine pairing event (offered weekdays from 5:30 to 6:30) will without-doubt knock you off your feet.  If you can go, go.  And email me to tell me all about it, please. And order the black sea bass with leek royale and chived potatoes. And don’t worry if it makes you teary-eyed with happiness; I totally understand.  But this has nothing to do with lamb tava, which has nothing to do with my birthday since I made this a few weeks ago, but I just reached a quarter century, and I think that’s worth mentioning, no?

So on to the lamb tava.  The recipe is from Tessa Kiros’ Falling Cloudberries, a deliciously gorgeous book that was featured in Gourmet’s Cookbook Club a month or so ago.  Gourmet called it a memoir, though it’s nothing like the other food memoirs that I love.  There’s not much in the way of food writing; Kiros’ life is revealed through the recipes.  I’ve spent hours reading recipes from all the places that Kiros has lived, or visited, and been inspired by, beginning with Scandinavia and ending with a mélange of worldly dishes from her traveling.

The food is simple but polished—the kind of recipe that seems like it was passed down by generation upon generation of wise old grandmothers, tweaked but never messed with, resulting in the most perfect milk tart, dilled pickles, or lemon-vanilla jam.  They aren’t recipes that you need to follow to the tee, but you’d benefit it you did.

This tava (tava refers to both a kind of round griddle—not used by me here—and a kind of cooking) features lamb chuck (the recession-friendly lamb), whole cumin seeds, and oven-roasted tomatoes (as well as red onion, crispy potatoes, and butter).  It’s easy to put together, you just layer everything in a roasting pan, and once you cook for a few hours the result is a heady combination—very savory, buttery, and scented.  The cumin seeds offer up all their flavor, mixing into the potatoes.  The lamb is tender and falling apart and it also flavors everything else (this is why you shouldn’t substitute another meat for lamb, its mild goatey flavor is important.)

It’s probably the most interesting one-pot meal I’ve ever made; one to serve to guests, maybe with a dressed butter lettuce salad on the side, a glass of wine, and some good music.  We’ve had this a few times now and I’m never disappointed, even if the potatoes don’t crisp up as well as the last try, or if the lamb is not cooked perfectly; it’s one of those if you mess up it’s still good dishes, and who doesn’t need a few of those up her sleeve?

Tava (Cypriot Baked Lamb and Potatoes with Cumin and Tomatoes)

adapted from Falling Cloudberries

2 red onions, chopped roughly
2lb 12 oz new potatoes, quartered
2lb 4oz lamb, cut into chunks
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly crushed
1/2 cup olive oil
4-5 ripe tomatoes, sliced
2-3 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 350F.  Put the onion, potatoes, and lamb in a large roasting pan or baking dish.  Season (generously) with salt and pepper, then add parsley, cumin and olive oil.  Using your hands, mix everything up well.  Place the sliced tomatoes on top of mixture, season lightly with salt and pepper, and then dot with butter.  Pour about a 1/2 cup of water around the edge of the pan.  Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, tilting every once in a while to distribute the juices.

Remove the foil and increase the oven temperature to 400F.  Cook for another 45 minutes or longer, until the tomatoes and potatoes are golden browned and the liquid has all but evaporated.  This is delicious served hot or at room temperature.

Our little carnivore.

I’d been holding back from posting about the newest member of our family but I snuck up on Muntz filtching chicken from our dinner plates the other night and oo! This is food-related! I can post this on my blog!

Jim found Muntz in the middle of the road a few weeks ago; his mother was crossing the road with him in her mouth but she dropped him when she saw oncoming traffic.  Jim saved him from the road, tried to find the mother, and knocked on a few doors before taking him to the vet and then home to meet me, Champ, and our other rescued cat, Lillian.  We had the silly notion that we’d find him a home or bring him to a rescue shelter but come on, look at that face; we knew we’d keep him by the second day.

Muntz was three weeks old when we saved him, and three weeks later he’s twice the size, five times as feisty, and already a real gourmet.  We feed him a very fancy, all natural cat food, but he’s still constantly hunting for our leftovers.  The chicken was marinated in Chinese five-spice and garlic before cooking under the broiler.  I don’t imagine much was left on those bones but you can’t blame a kitten for trying.

Moonfish with feta and lemon.

In sticking with my new fearless food-self, embracing the foods I’d heretofore hid from, I bought feta for dinner.  As much as I love cheeses, I’ve never had a thing for feta.  Too salty, or spongy, and I’d tasted it as too-large chunks in otherwise delicate salads too many times before.  Things like that can turn a girl off if she’s not set on food fearlessness.

Thank goodness for that, too, or I would have never tasted melted feta.  Now, if you’re like me and you hold things against feta for it’s spongy saltiness, then do yourself a favor and melt it; with a little help from added ingredients, the cheese transforms, no sponginess and nothing overly salty, a creamy coat of cheese spiked through with little chunks of not-yet-melted feta.  By broiling it you even get little browned spots that will certainly be your favorite part.

The fish we used was opah, or moonfish.  The skin has the prettiest pattern—little moons—and even though it’s too tough for me to eat, I left it on.  Unless you want to tell guests too take off the skin before eating, I suggest you skin the fish beforehand.  Opah is a meaty fish, a lot like swordfish or tuna, and can be used interchangeably with other meaty fishes.  Like these other fishes, though, opah, as pretty as it is, has high levels of mercury.

I mixed the feta with some mayonnaise for creaminess, fresh dill and orange mint, a delicious breed of mint that I’ve been growing and raving about.  It’s slightly citrusy with a touch of orange, not overpowering like lemon or cinnamon mint is—perfect for salads or fish, or eating little leaves as you water.

The herbs flavored the fish perfectly; with the feta and mayonnaise it was a lot like a tangy compound butter.  Try to slice the lemon as thinly as possible, with a mandoline or a very sharp knife, because I have a feeling too much lemon would overpower. We served the fish with toasted orzo with fennel and saffron (from the recent issue of Gourmet, where I found the recipe for the fish) that was so good, it deserves it’s own post (after I make it again with a tweak or two).  It would be good served with rice, but not as good, I think, so here’s the link to the orzo in case you can’t wait.

Moonfish with Feta and Lemon

adapted from Gourmet, June 2009

2 pieces moonfish (opah) fillet, or substitute mahi-mahi or swordfish
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup crumbled feta
2 tablespoons chopped orange mint, or substitute regular mint
1 tablespoons chopped dill
squeeze of lemon juice
8 very thin lemon slices

Preheat broiler. Put a cast-iron skillet in the oven to preheat as well.

Season fish with a little salt and pepper.

Whisk together mayonnaise, feta, herbs, and lemon juice and spread over top of fish. Put 2 lemon slices (slightly overlapping) on center of each fillet. Drizzle lemon slices with oil.

Broil fish 8 inches from heat until just cooked through, about 8-10 minutes. If topping browns before fish is cooked, cover loosely with foil. Serve fish with orzo.