Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Great Squid Experiment, Perhaps Part One

In my last post, I asked for ideas about what to do with the bounty of freshly caught squid that our friend gave ECG and me. I brought the same request to my dad, who, before I was born, used to catch squid off the coast of San Diego. My dad told me about a stew he used to make back then, and while he read the recipe to me over the phone, I could hear my mom hollering in the background about how good this is. And, it is. If you have a friend who just happens to go deep sea fishing, catches a squid, and offers you some (because, you know, that happens every day), I suggest you make this. The squid loosens up with the long cooking, turning velvety and releasing its sweet ocean-y brine into the mess of tomatoes and peppers, eventually combining into a rich, satisfying sea and summer dish.

Dad’s Squid Stew
Adapted from: Complete Book of Italian Cooking, Veronica Sperling and Christine McFadden

Serves 2 generously, with leftovers, or 4 not-so-generously, with the need for extra side dishes

You will need:
2 pounds whole squid or 1 ½ pound tentacles, cleaned and peeled
3 T olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thinly
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1-2 sprigs rosemary (I didn't have rosemary on hand, so I used oregano with excellent results)
1 cup water and 2/3 cup dry white wine OR 1 ½ cup fish stock or water (I used the water/wine combo)
14 ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 T tomato paste
1 teaspoon paprika
2 T basil chiffonade
pound eggplant, gut into chunks (I used a couple of young Japanese eggplants and cut them into rings, leaving the skin on)
Parsley or rosemary to garnish (I garnished with chopped chives because I have so many of them on hand)

To make the stew:
Cut squid into ½ inch by 2 inch slices, and/or cut tentacles into two inch lengths. Heat oil in dutch oven and cook onion and garlic until soft. Add squid. Increase heat and continue to cook about 10 minutes until sealed and beginning to color lightly. The squid will not sear, like other meats, but will release a lot of water and firm up. Add red pepper, rosemary (or oregano), and wine or stock, bring to boil, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.

Discard rosemary (or oregano) sprigs, add tomatoes, tomato paste, and paprika. Taste the soupy liquid for salt, and add it if necessary--you may not need any. Continue to simmer, covered, gently for 45 to 60 minutes, until squid is tender. In the last fifteen minutes, stir in eggplant chunks and basil then continue to simmer.

According to Dad, don’t shortchange the simmer time—at least 90 minutes total works to get the squid relaxed into delicious chunks. When the squid is tender and the sauce is rich, give it a good stir, adjust seasonings, and serve with crusty bread.

One delicious squid meal down, and a few more to go! I'm still open to suggestions.

Monday, June 25, 2007

New, Strange Ground

It's a different world than it used to be for me.

First, I got a letter from my brother.

He included a birthday present for me that he picked up at the garden shop at Monticello. He sent me seeds of all types all types, heirloom vegetables and flowers, some old favorites and some that I've never heard of, all that I can't wait to experiment with once it is planting time again.

Getting a letter (and in this case, a package too!) from my brother is the best gift I could receive for my birthday.

Second, the melons that I've been training up towers I've built by wiring square tomato cages on top of each other are beginning to be quite laden with fruit. I had to grow the melons vertically rather than sprawling because I just don't have the space to do otherwise, and darn it, I want melons! However, as the fruits grow, they get too heavy to be supported by the plant alone. My melons need bras.

According to Tony Keinitz and other resources, this is what I needed for support:

Yup, hose. No one said exactly how to turn pantyhose into melon slings though, so I tried several fairly unsuccessful approaches. I tried cutting off a piece, tying off one end, slipping the melon into the open end, then tying the open end to the cage. That didn't work very well because it made it difficult to attach to the cage, and the fruit fit very awkwardly into the "sack." Other experiments also failed. What has worked best is to cut wide "calamari-rings" of nylons, tie a string to one side of the tube, bunching it together, like this:

Then, I tie the loose ends of the string to the cage, and slip the fruit inside. The melon slings provide support but allow the fruit to expand easily as they grow--the training bras of the cucurbitaceae family.

I know it looks strange, and it is different than what I've seen anyone do before, but it seems to work well.

Third, speaking of calamari:

Our friend PS went deep-sea fishing this weekend and wants to share his catch with us. Anyone have great ideas for how to cook squid steak? It's new to me.

And finally, of course the biggest thing for me right now is the realization that I'm going to get married in the spring. When I was little and would play with my friend Alison on the playground, we'd tell each other our imaginary version of our futures. In it, I'd always have a dappled gray horse named Galaxy, but Alison and I had to negotiate each day over which boy in the class we'd marry. Some days I got to marry Alex, but on other days, she got him.

In high school and even later, I'd envision what I thought I wanted in a spouse. I created, in my head, what I believed would be the ideal husband for me. ECG is not at all like that version that lived in my head for so many years. He's much better.

I keep thinking about my college roommate KRO and her husband. Both are doctors, and in the months before their wedding, KRO's husband was stationed as a Naval doctor in Afghanistan. As any woman who loves her man would do, KRO fretted over his safety and missed him fiercely, and I remember tearful phone calls with her, as both of us cried, wishing her husband-to-be home. While KRO's fiance was deployed, they didn't get to talk to each other very often, but when they did, their conversations weren't about how much they missed each other, how much they couldn't wait to see each other again, or how much they loved each other. Instead, I remember her telling me, almost in awe, that most of the conversations were about medical procedures. He'd ask her advice on patients with whom he worked, worrying if what he attempted to do to help a young girl with severe lacerations is what she would have done as well. KRO provided a steady intellectual support to her fiance while he was in the most stressed of circumstances, and to me this kind of dialogue that the two of them had is more romantic than any declarations of love.

ECG and I are going to have a life time to figure out all the kinds of romance that will exist between the two of us. Some of our ways of being romantic and loving to each other are already as familiar as a favorite pair of jeans, but I look forward to all the unexpected ways that we will be partners to each other, supporting each other through challenges to come, that no matter how good my imagination, are impossible for me to dream up. That imagination of my childhood sure did come up with a lot of pretty possibilities, but truthfully, I never came close to imagining the wonder of my now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

No More Frogs For Me

No recipe today, sorry, but bigger things than food are happening.

It's been good around here lately. Everything grows.

Including me.

Yesterday, ECG and I quietly celebrated my 32nd birthday and decided it was time to make the decision.

I've found the one I want, he wants me, and we're getting married. Yup. This thinking stomach is hitching my fortune to another cerebral digestive system, and we're making a go of it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

O Solanaceae! O Cucurbitae!

Each day I visit my garden, "the octagon"--which is almost every day--I am pleasantly surprised by everything I see. There are bees, bumblebees, and wasps buzzing from flower to flower, ladybugs munching on aphids, spiders, birds, and all sorts of fun-to-watch flora. The air is rich with lemon thyme, the astringent scent of marigolds, and sweet basil. But what thrills me the most, what makes the dirty fingernails and devotion of time worthwhile, is the exponentially growing harvest. The difference from day to day seems impossible: how can melon plants grow six inches overnight and tomato plants put on eight more golf-balled sized fruit? I'm a keen observer. It isn't that I'm missing fruit the first time around.

It is "sexy-time" in the garden and my plants are copulating like the folks upstairs in a frat house. Covered with purple pendulous fruit, my eggplants are a very good reminder of the birds and the bees. The chili de arbol plant sparkles with Christmas-light peppers, and my Chili Ancho hangs heavy with dark green, shadowy fruit.

My sweet peppers, Golden Marconis, are growing too, but since I started them directly from seed in the ground this spring, they're a little behind the seedlings I put in during April. They're sturdy plants and promise a good, but perhaps late crop. However, there is nothing late about my tomatoes. Matt's Wild Cherry is living up to its name, sprawling everywhere like the wild vine that it is, loaded with shiny green dimes. I can tell some of the cherry tomatoes are close to ripening for they've lost the baby fuzz, and are looking decidedly pubescent. Momotaro looks close too (no, that isn't first blush in the picture--that is my glaring orange shirt reflecting off the fruit).

Missouri Love Apple has lots and lots of baby-fist-sized fruit.

And my curly Black Krim appears to be utterly unstoppable.

I've grown tomatoes before, and although not at all jaded, I know the routine and can anticipate the product. I can taste the tomato-basil salads, the sauces, the homemade tomato paste, and all the other delights I'll be able to make come harvest season. What is new to me however, is growing melons.

I became interested in melons last year when I bought my fellow gardening friend RWW a book on melons, a book so good I had to later buy it for myself too. Some of you may have heard of this book, Melons for the Passionate Grower, by Amy Goldman. If you haven't yet, find this book and read it--it will make you a passionate grower of melons. Ms. Goldman has searched out hard to find heirlooms, and this book, along with help from Seed Savers, Baker Creek Seeds and other companies and organizations, is moving a community towards saving melon varieties the way others have already begun saving heirloom tomato varieties. She is one of my many heroes, a group that is exceptionally diverse, but held together by a commonality of inspired dedication. Someday, when I'm in New York in late summer, I hope to visit her stand at the Union Square Greenmarket and sample the melons she's helped save from extinction. In the meantime, I'm growing my own, four varieties I've read plenty about, but have never tasted. Now, as we hit mid-June, they've just begun their female flowering, and are starting to set tiny, incredibly cute fruit.

For curiosity's sake, because I can't get over the pictures of its beautiful fruit, gold and red striped, and promised fragrance (even if the fruit isn't as sweet as others), I'm growing Tigger. This baby is less furry in childhood than its melon-cousins in the garden.

Then, there is Collective Farm Woman, another visitor in my garden from the island of Krim. If it lives up to the expectations that Black Krim has set in my standards of delicious fruit, I may have to make a pilgrimage to the Ukraine.

I've read odes to Charentais before, and am looking forward to experiencing them myself, but in my garden, it has not yet produced female flowers. Boule D'Or, another poem-inspiring melon has though, and I am already in love.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Memory Food

On Saturday, my friend MS and I had a jam making party. It wasn't really a party by most people's definitions, because only two people were invited--MS and myself, but we did listen to good music, laugh, and have a great time. But the best part of the party, two-person or otherwise, was the final product: sunny orange half-pint jars of apricot jam. It's pretty exciting to turn fruit, sugar, and lemon juice into something that will last for a long time and taste good just about everywhere one spreads it, serving as a reminder of how perfect a ripe apricot tastes.

If you haven't picked one off your own tree or purchased one just-picked at a farmers' market in the last, oh I don't know, decade or so, when was the last time you had an apricot that tasted good? What grocery stores sells are not apricots: they are apricots' sour-hard evil twins, deceptively beautiful but mean on the inside. I know people complain about grocery store fruit all the time, but back when I used to shop at grocery stores for produce, I would be able to get good apples and pears, sometimes even good peaches, but never good apricots. They are the worst kind of fruit to ship, for apricots are as fragile as a summer memory.

When I was between the ages of ten and fifteen, my family lived on a small ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. We had cattle and goats, even a horse for me to love madly. We also had a huge vegetable garden and a fruit tree orchard. In the orchard grew two apricot trees, probably the most beautiful trees in the field with their heart-shaped leaves and Asian-inspired architecture, but those trees, no matter how well-loved by my family, rarely produced much fruit. Every year we'd get only a few larger-than-average fruit from each tree. Each fruit was near peach-sized and anticipated with uplifted eyes and occasional prodding for just the right give of a perfectly-ripe apricot. Finally, one would be ready to pick, and whoever found it ready for the picking would get to eat it.

A ripe apricot is soft on the inside, firm out the outside, overall tender and melting with sweet-sharp juice. It won't taste like any other fruit. It will taste like the start of hot days and no school. It will taste like something you've been waiting for for a long time.

Since our crop of apricots was always so sparse, Mom would supplement it with trips to Takahashi's Fruit Stand, where she would purchase flats of apricots to bring home and turn into jam. After washing and pitting the fruit, she'd toss it with sugar, bring it to a boil for just a couple of minutes, then pour the whole mess into large glass casserole dishes which she'd set out in the hot sun for a full day. To protect the fruit from bugs while still allowing the sun to hit the fruit, she'd place "fly-umbrellas," the kind one uses for picnicking, over them. The sun would suck out the water for from the fruit, and we'd be left with the best jam, full of the most concentrated fruit flavor in one tablespoon that any tastebud could handle. She'd pour the sun-warmed jam into Ball jars and place the jars in the garage freezer so we could taste ripe apricots all year long.

Saturday's jam, the simple stove-top, water-bath-sealed jam that MS and I made, doesn't quite taste like early summer concentrate, but it's close. It's enough to make me feel like I'm eleven and I have almost three months of long outdoor days ahead of me.

Last night, I took another walk down memory lane and made a quiche for dinner. I'd never made a quiche for ECG before--I don't know why not--and I was excited to bake one that my mom used to make for us frequently when we lived at that little ranch. It's a simple meal, one that you can build by raiding your pantry, refrigerator, and herb garden without any extra shopping. All you need to bake it are basic items: butter, flour, eggs, cream, and your filling ingredients, in the case of my mom's quiche, canned clams, olives, and chives.

When I told ECG that I was going to make a quiche for dinner last night, we spent a long time making fun of all the different silly ways to mispronounce the word. Right now, our favorite, for obvious reasons, is "quicky." Now that I've made this "quicky" at this golden point of our relationship--for really, it is the best point in our relationship so far, and it keeps getting better and better--I'll always try to remember the two as being attached. This quiche is a touchstone for a new kind of summer memory.

Clam, Olive, and Chive Quiche
You will need:
Your favorite single pie-crust
3 eggs
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
healthy grindings of black pepper
2 6.5 ounce cans of clams
1/2 cup chopped mixed good quality pitted olives (I used a mix of picholine and kalamata)
1/2 cup finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon butter, cut into pea-sized pieces

To make the quiche:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and place the oven shelf in the top third of the oven.

Roll out the pastry dough, line the pie pan with the dough, and crimp the edges. Weight the bottom of the pie crust with pie-weights or beans (to keep the bottom from bubbling up), place a rim-protector over the edges, and place the pie pan in the oven. Bake the empty crust for 10 minutes to firm it up for the filling, helping to ensure a crisp crust.

While the crust is baking, beat the eggs together with the milk and cream in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in all other ingredients, except the butter.

When the crust has pre-baked, remove it from the oven, carefully remove the pie-weights, and pour the filling gently into the crust. Sprinkle the little pieces of butter on top of the filling. Readjust the rim-protector, and place the pie pan back in the oven. Bake the quiche for 30-35 minutes, or until the center of the filling has set and the top has puffed slightly and browned in spots.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Sweet Shot

I still can't believe I managed to take this picture.

The colonies may be collapsing, but happy bees are still out there. With all the news reporting bee disaster in the last few months, I've been thinking about honey quite a bit. I spread it on baked goods, use it salad dressings, and make myself gooey peanut-butter-banana-honey sandwiches, but I haven't really explored this ingredient. That leads me to my question for you: What is your favorite honey-centric recipe?

Thanks for sharing your best ideas.