Monday, January 8, 2018

Ultimate Farinata (Socca)

This is a lightly baked farinata.  I usually let it go a little longer, so there are more burned bits. 
Farinata has been a regular feature of my cooking repertoire for almost 10 years, so it is a little puzzling that I've never written about it here.  I first discovered it as an unassuming recipe called Easy Whole Grain Flatbread in Mark Bittman's paradigm-changing book Food Matters.  It's simple--chickpea flour, onions, salt, water.  Perhaps some fresh or dried rosemary.  Perhaps some other flours such as whole wheat or corn meal.  Whisk it up, let it sit, and then cook in the oven in a blazing hot skillet drenched in olive oil until it is almost burnt.  The result is a crisp, unctuous, slightly salty, savory confection that always results in someone asking for the recipe.  It is equally at home as an appetizer on a cold winter day when it heats up the kitchen, or on a hot summer day cooked on the gas grill.  It travels well to neighborhood pot lucks, and people always seem happy that I've brought it.
I find the cast iron skillet the ideal cooking vessel.

It works well in a non-stick sheet pan too, but those sheets tend to warp, leading to an uneven outcome, which isn't all bad especially if some of your eaters like the burnt parts!  And non-stick is a relative term.

The original recipe was so good, that it took me awhile to experiment with variations.  At the beginning, I used different mixtures of flours to go with the chickpea flour, tending to gravitate towards corn meal.  The onions were always a must, but the rosemary was optional.  Other flavoring such as cumin and coriander mixed in the oil as it heated was interesting, but not earth-shaking.  And I also played with different pans, such as a square sheet pan, but keep coming back to my cast iron skillet.  I have not yet sprung for a specialty farinata pan.  But by far the best variation involved using dried porcini and shiitake mushrooms, which I'll get to in a moment.

Farinata is native to the northeastern Mediterranean Sea region.  In Italy, you find it in Liguria, in and around Genoa.  In France, you find it in Nice, where it is called socca.  I find the Italian farinata rolls off the tongue more easily and is more fun to say than the hard-c challenged socca.  When Susan and I traveled to that region in 2015, I was thrilled to realize that we were going to the birthplace of farinata, and that one of our goals should be to find the best farinata.  The first place we walked into in Levanto, at the northern edge of the Cinque Terre region was a pizza joint that had slices of farinata that was doughy, not crisp, and not very flavorful.  Truly a disappointment.   When we made it to Genoa, the our AirBnB host's recommendation for his favorite farinata was better, a little crispier, but still somewhat uninspired.  In Nice, we went to a socca place recommended by a nice couple (from Nice!) we met at a bar and found decent, but not spectacular fare. 

I was forced to reckon with the reality that my own humble experiments with farinata were far better than what I could get in its home base.  Since Susan would not let me turn our vacation into a  "hunt for the the ultimate farinata" project, there is a chance I've missed the best.  Further exploration will have to wait for our next trip.  But I am pretty certain the Ligurians and the people from Nice (Nicians?) have never tried farinata with dried porcini and shiitake mushrooms.

Ultimate Farinata (Socca) with Dried Mushrooms

Yield: Serves 2-8 as an appetizer, first course, or part of a simple meal
Total Time: 2:45, including 2 hours of resting time for the batter.
Simple, crispy, healthy, yummy, inexpensive, gluten free and vegan.


  • 1 small handful dried porcini and/or shiitake mushrooms
  • Boiling water to cover mushrooms for soaking
  • 3/4 cup chickpea flour (in Indian groceries, it's called besan or gram flour)
    • Optionally, swap out 1/4 cup of besan for cornmeal
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup water -- use as much of the soaking water from the mushrooms as you can
  • 1 small onion
  • 6 glugs of olive oil
  1. Soak the mushrooms:  Put the mushrooms in a small bowl.  Cover with boiling water, and soak for at least 15 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft and pliable.  Drain the mushrooms and reserve the soaking water for the batter.  Strain out any small particles, if any.  Chop the mushrooms into a small to medium size dice and set aside.
  2. Make the batter:  Whisk together the chickpea flour, salt, and 1 cup of water, using as much of the soaking liquid as you can, adding water if needed.  Cover, and let sit for at least one hour, preferably more than two hours, and up to 12 hours. 
  3. Slice the onion.  Slice the onion into very thin slices.
  4. Prepare to sizzle.   Turn on the oven to 450 degrees.  Put the olive oil and onions in a 12" well-seasoned cast iron skillet, and swirl around to coat the skillet and the onions.  Put the skillet into the heating oven.  After a little while, it will begin to sizzle and smell good.  After 10-15 minutes, the oven should be up to temperature, and the onions should be thinking about browning.  Add the mushrooms to the skillet and put back in for a minute or two, taking care that you don't burn the onions, but don't be afraid if a few start to turn brown.
  5. Add the batter:  Skim any foam from the top of the batter and whisk one more time.  Swirl the batter in to the skillet, starting around the outside, and gently moving to the inside, taking care that all the mushrooms and onions don't end up in one clump in one part of the skillet.  Rearrange them with a spatula or wooden spoon if necessary.
  6. Cook.  Put the skillet in the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes.  Check the progress of the cooking.  It will likely be starting to set up.  Close the door and keep cooking and checking every few minutes until it is done.  Done should at least be that the batter is firm throughout, and the edges are starting to brown.  You might like to go even further.  Some people like some parts burnt. 
  7. Remove, slice, and serve.  When done, remove the skillet from the oven using sturdy oven mitts.  Lift the farinata from the skillet and put on a cutting board.  Slice into pie shaped wedges or slice in half, then into "rectangles" for smaller serving pieces. 
Serve hot but it tastes good even if it sits out for a bit. It will keep covered in the fridge for a few days, warmed in the toaster oven on a tray (my preference) or in the microwave.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Eighteen things I've learned from three years of experimentation with whole grain and wild yeast

I had been baking no-knead bread since Mark Bittman popularized the technique he learned from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York in 2006. All purpose (or bread) flour, water, salt, and a measly quarter teaspoon of instant yeast. Time—24 hours. A little attention once in awhile and bake in a super-hot covered dutch oven that brought a spectacular oven spring and crackling crust. The result was an incredible bread that rivaled any local bakery. Friends and family would ooh and aah.
Pretty soon I’d moved on from white flour to a 50-50 mixture of whole wheat and white bread flour. This was more robust as well as healthier, but it never quite rivaled the airiness and taste of a white flour loaf, but really didn’t want all that refined white flour. I would experiment now and then with different flours, checked out Jim Lahey’s book “My Bread”, but didn’t go beyond.
Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked” came out in 2013—a transformational book about the transformational nature of cooking. It is a cookbook with four recipes, one per chapter: fire, water, air, and earth – the ancient four elements. The “air” chapter concludes with a recipe for sourdough bread and was inspired. Sourdough is not just an alternative to commercial yeast, but also transforms (there’s that word again) the wheat so that it is more digestible and nutrients are more available. In short, sourdough bread is healthier. And it tastes good.
I made my own sourdough starter, which just needed a little patience and a little attention. I read books, some of which were confusing and some overly prescriptive. The time commitment seemed intrusive—when was I supposed to go to work? But I got over the hump, and now I’m a bona fide bread nerd who grinds his own grain, feeds his sourdough like a pet, and gets a little downcast when I resort to bought bread because my old bread ran out before I could create another loaf.
My sourdough starter is now almost three years old. I’ve learned a few things along the way.
The most important lesson is that there are as many different ways to bake sourdough bread as there are bakers, and that once you get a feel for it, it’s hard to mess up. One loaf may be a little better or worse than the last, but the bread is most likely to be very good.
So, to help you get from the “there’s so much information out there, I’m overwhelmed” stage to the, “OK, I’m ready to give this a try, and I can’t mess up too badly” stage, here are some of the lessons that I learned, as of today.  Since I keep experimenting, tomorrow I'll be even wiser. 
No knead bread is an excellent way to get started.
  1. Getting Started. No-knead bread is an excellent gateway. If you love making it, by all means continue. And if you’ve never baked, it’s a great place to start.
  2. References. There are some tremendous references, some easier to understand than others. Start with one, but try others – there are different approaches. I heartily recommend Josey Baker Bread for its good humor, relaxed approach that encourages flexibility and experimentation. The website is a great online community of bread bakers. And, has great, detailed instructional videos as well as a terrific online store to get baking supplies such as the clay baker and oven gloves.
  3. Learn from doing. At first, it pays to adhere strictly to the formulas and the methods, but you’ll eventually get a feel for what works well for you and be confident enough to branch out.
  4. Be prepared to have some crummy loaves. Try not to be too sad and chalk it up to experience.
  5. Timing is flexible, and the refrigerator is your friend. Baking bread takes a lot of clock time, but the active time is not much. You do have to be around at certain milestones, but there’s a lot of flexibility, and the flexibility increases when you make intelligent use of the refrigerator. Creating a baking schedule that works around your other commitments takes a little forethought, and a little experimentation on weekends when you can commit to being around, so that you can get a feel for where you can push and pull the schedule.
  6. Temperature matters. Pay attention to the temperature in your kitchen (or wherever you let your dough rise). I got the timing down on my go-to loaf one winter, and then spring sprung, and the warmer temperatures led to more yeast activity. By the time I got the loaf in the over it was tuckered out, over-proofed, and I had flat tops on my loaf. There’s a big difference between a 63 degree kitchen and a 75 degree kitchen!
  7. When experimenting, change only one thing at a time. If you want to have any idea of the effect of different ingredients, ratios, and techniques. This is way harder than it sounds. Taking good notes will help you remember what worked and didn’t, and provide a basis for what to try next. I used a spreadsheet until I got a good feel for what I was doing. And ultimately, just try some new things and see how they turn out and don’t stress about it too much.
  8. Making Sourdough Starter. Making sourdough takes a little faith and patience but once you have a starter, it’s pretty hard to kill. After awhile, you get to know how to treat your starter so it so is ready when you are. I learned how to make starter from Peter Reinhardt’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, but there are lots of places to show you how. I use rye starter. With no gluten, it’s less messy and easier to handle than wheat flour. And you can also buy starter online.
  9. Sourdough care and feeding. I use a teaspoon to a tablespoon worth of starter each time I bake, and then if the starter is looking reasonably active, just toss the remainder back in the fridge in a covered container until the next time I bake, usually within a week. Every other time I bake, I refresh the starter by removing all but a teaspoon of it, and add 50 grams of water plus 50 grams of flour (rye). Then I leave it on the counter for a few hours to get active, and then toss back in the fridge. This may not mean much to you until you’ve started baking—sorry!
  10. Making two loaves is no harder than making one loaf. You can keep ready-to-bake bread dough in the refrigerator for up to a week—or so I’ve read—I’ve only tried to do this for a few days though. And you can freeze sliced bread for a long time, which means you don’t have to worry about getting your next loaf baked before you current loaf runs out.

    Making two loaves is no harder than making one loaf.
  11. Think ahead. If you want a steady supply of home baked bread, you need to think about the next loaf while you’re still eating your current loaf. Think a few days out. But if you keep a sliced loaf in the freezer, you will always have your own bread around.
  12. Sandwich loaves make sense most of the time. Boules (big round loaves of bread) look beautiful. But loaves in loaf pans are a lot easier to handle, taste as good, are less messy, and are also beautiful. You can bake any bread in a loaf pan. With loaf pans, use a light coating of oil on your work surface to shape your loaf instead of flour. It works just as well, and is a lot less fussy and easier to clean up. Stack a second loaf pan upside down on top of the first is a lot easier than covering with a tent of foil.

    Sandwich loaves make sense most of the time.
  13. Clay Baker. The best is getting a clay bread baker for oblong loaves. Superb! Use rice flour for shaping the loaf at the end—it doesn’t get gummy like wheat flour (no gluten) and is easier to clean.

    This covered clay baker makes the best loaves!
  14. Whole grain has arrived! When I started with sourdough a few years ago, the artisinal baking books were oriented towards white flour. But the best books are now moving towards whole grains. Hurray! 
  15. Fresh milled flour. Baking bread with freshly milled whole grain flour is way better than any flour you can buy off the shelf. It’s like the difference between freshly roasted and ground coffee and Maxwell House. And healthier.  And I've recently started playing with flour made from sprouted grains.

    Fresh milled flour is better than any  flour you can buy.
  16. Salt. A little more or less salt can make a big difference in the taste. Too little, and it’s noticeably bland. Too much, and you just think “salty”. Pay close attention to the salt amount in the formulas. I’ve found that 12 grams for a loaf with 510 grams of flour and 420 grams of water is perfect. That’s 2 percent in bakers percentage terms.
  17. Covering the bowl. Some sources say cover your bowl with plastic wrap, a towel, or a plate and some have different covering methods for different stages. I found that the plate works pretty well for all uses, and it’s easier to clean up. The “shower cap” bowl covers from breadtopia are even better!
  18. Keep at it. Read books, blogs, articles. Try different formulas, grains and methods. Share your enthusiasm (and sourdough starter) with others.

     Jeff's Current Go-To Sandwich Loaf

    Yield: 1 sandwich loaf

    Total Time: 23 hours, or more.
    This is my current go-to bread that I don't even have to think about.  Since I do keep experimenting, my current go-to loaf a month from now may well be different.  And if you don't grind your own flour, use store-bought whole wheat.  Store the cut loaf cut side down on a cutting board.  Don't wrap in plastic.


    Rye starter2040%
    Red Fife Flour, Freshly ground 50100%

    Final Dough

    Red Fife Flour, Fresh Grind, from Mistybrook31061%
    Another whole grain flour, fresh ground (e.g. Spelt)10020%
    Bread Flour10020%
    Total Flour510100%

    Total Flour560
    Dough hydration75%
    % Whole Grain82%


    1. Make leaven by mixing together all the leaven ingredients, and let stand for a 4-5 hours (if it's warm) to 12 hours or overnight (if it's cold).  You should see some bubbles at the top.
    2. Add the final dough ingredients to the leaven. Let sit for ½ hour.  Do 10 aggressive stretch and folds.  After a 1/2 hour, do four gentle stretch and folds, then repeat at 1/2 hour increments.  Note that there's a lot of flexibility in the timing.  If it's 45 minutes or an hour between stretch and folds, that works too!  Don't stress.  Overall, let ferment at room temperature for 6 hours, or until it shows signs of a good rise.  This could be a lot longer if it's winter and you keep your house cold.
    3. Form into loaf, and put in a lightly oiled bread pan, with with another bread pan inverted over the top as a cover. Let rise 2 hours (or longer if your house is cold).
    4. Bake at 425 with convection, 20 min, after first preheating at 450.
    5. Remove covering bread pan, and bake another 20 minutes
    6. Remove bread from pan, and bake another 20 minutes
    7. Let cool for at least 2 hours before slicing.  Resist the temptation -- the bread is still baking.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

You mean we can eat that?

When we moved into our house in 2009, we discovered that the backyard was covered in something that Susan liked to call pope's weed, but was really called bishop's weed.  We also discovered that it's practically impossible to get rid of.  It spreads by seed, but also by underground rhizomes.  If you don't pull out every last bit, it comes back.  We spent many an hour pulling it out, so now, it's almost eradicated in the garden itself -- seven years later.   But it still lingers up on top of our neighbor's wall -- the one on our side of the fence they built a few years ago.

Last year, on a whim, we bought "Backyard Foraging--65 Familiar Plants You Didn't Know You Could Eat," by Ellen Zachos.  We discovered that much of what Susan grows as ornamental, is edible.  For example, those pretty yellow flowers that a friend gave us a few years ago are really sunchokes, which we can harvest every fall after the first frost or two.  And that infuriating bishop's weed is edible!  Use as you would spinach!  It's especially good early in the season, like now.

I pulled up a dozen handfuls, trying to get as much of the root/rhizome as I could, but being careful not to bring along too much other garden detritus (mostly leaves).  Once inside, I gave it a thorough wash in three or four changes of water, and cut off the bottom part of the stems and roots.  For the test run, I simply steamed it as I would spinach in its own water droplets.  It was a bit tougher than spinach, but not overly so.  After it collapsed inside the saucepan, I drained it and served with a little butter and salt, and then a few drops of white wine vinegar.  On its own, it was boring but not distasteful or bitter.  It definitely had potential with a little more effort

The next night, I was ready to roll it out for Susan, added to a saute of onions and oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, also with a splash of white wine vinegar and some salt.   I let it cook a little longer than the previous night's trial run to tame some of the toughness.  It was tasty for sure, but the stems were a bit tough.  I resolved that next time I would have to pick off just the leaves and toss away the stems.  When you're eating weeds from the garden, I don't feel the same imperative to use every bit--it's destined for the trash anyway.

For the third attempt, I added just the leaves to a simple tomato sauce made from diced fire-roasted Muir Glen tomatoes, some onion and garlic, and a little leftover lamb that was sitting in the freezer.   I cooked the tomatoes down until they started breaking down a bit, adding some water so that it wouldn't dry out, then added the bishop's weed leaves to cook for about 15 minutes, to remove any potential toughness.  Here's it's shown with some teff polenta.  It was still a bit tougher than spinach, but tasty nonetheless, free, and a terrific way to weed the garden. 

No "recipe" today -- just a thought that if you are overrun with bishop's weed to the extent that you're pulling out your hair when you pull the weeds -- you might just enjoy it on your plate.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

So THAT'S what you do with porgy!

I got inspired by an Edible Boston article by Sarah Blackburn called Edible Basics: Red Fish, Blue Fish, Flat Fish, Whole Fish?, where she said:

"Generally, though, we’ll go home with the easy catch, species often derided as 'trash fish' since they’re less sexy than the prized striper and not as much fun to fight on the line as a blue. However, scup (also called porgy or sea bream), black sea bass, and even the unsightly—but delicious—sea robin and dogfish (a small, local shark) are all excellent eating once you know how to handle them."

Porgy.  I'd seen porgy in the Burlington HMart fish case for years--so numerous and so inexpensive.  And fresh.  And based on Sarah's article and other sources, I figured they were probably local and relatively sustainable. So, I went up to the HMart on a Saturday morning, armed with some preparation ideas from the article, and the knowledge that if I got there early enough, I could find a parking space and not have to stand in line for too long at the fish counter.  The 10:00 AM arrival proved to be just right, as I only had a few minute wait, but when I left the store 15 minutes later, there were ten people waiting.  If you like crowds and stress, go to HMart on Saturday afternoon. If you don't, stick to weekdays!

If you've never been there, the fish counter at the HMart is enormous.  A mix of the typical and expected, but an abundance of the unexpected.  There is always porgy.  The downside of the HMart is that you have to know what you want.  The folks behind the counter don't speak much English.  I've never seen them dispensing advice about how to prepare their fish, which is why I'd never tried the porgy, even though it sells for a ridiculous $1.99 per pound.

Armed with Sarah's article, and the accompanying recipe, I knew that I should get two small porgy to feed Susan and me.  If that was too much, we could always have leftovers.  And I knew to ask for it cleaned/gutted and scaled, with the fins removed.  The HMart has complimentary ice to help you get your fish home well chilled, and I even brought my little cooler to make sure.

Most of the recipes I found online echoed Sarah's suggested technique of making three or four slashes on each side of the fish to allow some flavored substance to penetrate.  Sarah's recipe suggested a melange of herbs--"full of every green herb in my garden", along with a long list of other ingredients.  I'm sure her version was spectacular, but in mid April, my herb garden isn't overflowing with much of anything, so I simplified the chunky "sauce" to parsley, lemon (juice and zest), capers, scallion, olive oil and garlic.  And used the leftover parsley stems, scallion greens, and a few lemon slices to lend their aroma to the cavity.

Together with some super-fresh dandelion greens found in the produce aisle (the other reason to go to HMart) served over polenta, this was a life-altering meal.  
  • Roasting the fish for 20 minutes yielded unctuous but not oily, flavorful, flaky fish that was delicious.   
  • Roasting the fish over a bed of thinly sliced onions is brilliant.  It keeps the fish from sticking to the roasting pan, and browns to the point of almost burning, a delicious complement to the fish and the sauce.
  • The fish itself cost $4.80 for about  2.5 pounds of fish (prior to cleaning).  That was plenty for the two of us.  Salmon for two of us would cost twenty dollars -- at least!  Why wouldn't I have this OFTEN?!
  • I can think of so many other ways to flavor this fish, and I hope to try them all soon:
    • Cilantro, lime, ginger
    • Tomato, basil, garlic salsa
    • Braised in a simple tomato sauce
    •  Marinated with miso
  • It's local and sustainable.  I'm going out on a limb here, because I do not know this for sure.  But if I were HMart selling super-fresh "trash fish" for $1.99 a pound, labeled wild caught, I don't imagine it would travel very far.
Although it would look impressive to serve a whole fish to your guest, removing the bone takes some practice, and you're better off letting guests oooh and aaah in the kitchen, the do the work of boning yourself.  The fish meat literally falls off the bone, but there's still some skill involved to be able to pull off whole chunks of fish (maybe even a whole side) without leaving much bone.  And if you de-bone the fish in the kitchen, you get to keep the fish carcass, and make some fish stock--bonus!!  As you can see in the photo, the bones are large, so they're easy to find.

Better to try this dish many times yourself and practice!  I know I will!

Roasted Porgy (Scup) with Parsley Sauce

Yield: Serves 2-4

Total Time: 45 min
Easy, tasty, and inexpensive.  Just be patient with the bones, and practice removing them until you're an expert.


  • 2 porgy (scup), or similar fish about 1.25 pounds each, cleaned, gutted and scaled with fins removed
  • 1/3 bunch of parsley, with leaves roughly chopped, and stems reserved for use in the cavity
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested
  • 1 TBS capers, rinsed
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 scallions, minced, with the tougher green parts reserved for the cavity
  • 1/4 cup + 2 TBS good extra virgin  olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 thinly sliced lemon wedges
  • salt and pepper to taste


  1. Prepare the fish:  Rinse the porgy, inside and out and dry.  Make 3-4 slashes on each side of each porgy.   Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper, and rub into the slashes.  Set aside.
  2. Make the sauce:  In a small bowl, combine the chopped parsley leaves, lemon juice, lemon zest, capers, garlic, scallions, and 1/4 cup of the olive oil.  
  3. Preheat the oven:  450 degrees.
  4. Prepare to Roast:  Spread the onion slices on a ridged sheet pan, and add the 2 TBS of olive oil
  5. "Marinate" the fish:  Take one or two tablespoons of the sauce and insert it into the slashes on both sides of the fish.  Put the reserved parsley stems and scallion greens into the fish cavities and put the fish on top of the onions
  6. Roast:  For about 20 minutes, or until the flesh is flaky and opaque. Use a small sharp knife to probe gently.
  7. Remove the flesh from the bone:  Starting at the backbone end, gently lift the flesh from the top side of the fish and place on a serving platter, leaving the skeleton in place.  Sarah suggested two soup spoons.  A cake server would also work well.  Lift the skeleton away and put the remaining flesh on the platter.
  8. Serve:  Some of the flesh, roasted onions, and sauce to each diner.  Garnish with a lemon wedge.
  9. Make stock:  Be sure to make a fish stock with the leftover bones and onions.
Click here for printable recipe page.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Late Summer Corn and Tomato Alternative -- Soup but not Chowder

There are only so many times you can have fresh farm stand corn cooked gently on the grill served naked without butter or salt because it's so sweet just by itself, accompanied by a simple plate of heirloom tomatoes harvested from the garden, perhaps with a light sprinkle of salt and pepper and a topping of chopped basil (also from the garden).  With a side dish of grilled chicken.  This is otherwise known as Sunday dinner around here, because I would make twice or three times as much corn as needed so that it could be eaten cold straight out of the fridge or cut into salads during the week (usually with tomatoes).  And two or three times as much chicken.  Only so many times.  Susan was starting to roll her eyes.  So was I.

In my defense, it was a hot summer.  Anything that involved turning on the indoor stove was off limits, and raw tomatoes needed no heat.  But still, there are only so many times.  The temperature had dropped, so a corn and tomato chowder would be perfect.

Here's what I had on hand:  Six ears of white corn from Wilson Farms (the white corn is here, shouted the signs...who could resist?), and some tomatoes from the garden.  The recipe surfing I did for inspiration mostly turned up chowders that relied on cream or milk, but I thought that much dairy would overwhelm the subtle flavors of the corn and tomatoes.  Bacon was a common theme, and I had a few slices in the freezer awaiting a mission.  Bacon would give the soup some depth.  One or two recipes had shallots, which I thought would work well.  I had a few Zavory hot peppers, "the first habaneros with mild heat" from the garden.  My experience with them so far this season was that they were very mild, so I intended to use six or seven, hoping for some mild heat.
An abundance of sage!!

The recipes I found without dairy called for using chicken stock.  My feeling was this would overwhelm the corn and tomato flavor, so I opted for making a corn stock from the denuded corn cobs.  Once I was well into the soup making I realized that some herbs would work well.  Basil would be my usual choice, but just outside the kitchen door was an abundance of sage, which I don't use nearly as often.  So at the last minute I piled up about 10 leaves of the sage on the cutting board, cut them once to open the insides, and tied the stack into a little bundle with a silicone band.  Kitchen twine would work too, or even just chop up the sage and add near the end of the cooking.

The result was a mildly flavored soup, heavily sweet from the fresh sweet corn, with some depth provided by the tomatoes.  Some labneh gave the dish a little tang, and when trying the leftovers the next night I added in a little Cholula hot sauce, and moderately hot vinegar-based hot sauce, where vinegar is an important part of the flavor.  Plain sherry vinegar would work well too if you don't want the heat.

Corn and Tomato Soup

Yield: Serves 4-6
Total Time: 45 min
Great for a late summer appetizer or main dish on a cool evening.  It keeps well in the refrigerator for a few days.


  • 6 ears corn, kernels stripped off, ears reserved for use in the stock
  • 4-6 small tomatoes, or 1-2 large
  • 1-2 habanero peppers (optional, more or less to taste)
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 3 strips bacon, chopped
  • 10 leaves fresh sage, more for garnish
  • 4-6 teaspoons of labneh or greek yogurt or creme fraiche or sour cream (one per serving bowl), or to taste
  • Vinegar based moderate hot sauce (such as Cholula) or sherry vinegar, depending on your taste.
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. In a large saucepan or dutch oven, cook the bacon on medium-high heat for about 10 minutes until the bacon is crisp.  Reserve the bacon for later, and pour off all but one tablespoon of the bacon fat.
  2. Saute the shallot and peppers in the bacon fat for a few minutes, until translucent.
  3. Put the corn cobs in the pan, and CAREFULLY add water to cover cobs (water and hot fat will spatter!)  If your cobs don't fit in one layer, only cover the first layer.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Rotate the ears of corn so that they all get some time in the water.  Remove and discard the cobs.
  4. Add all but 1/2 cup of the corn kernels and all of the tomatoes.  Cut the sage leaves once to open them up, and tie with kitchen twine or a silicone band so that they can be easily removed. (Alternatively, cut them in a chiffonade and add them toward the end of the cooking time.)  Cook for 5-10 minutes, until the corn gets a little tender.
  5. Remove from the heat and use an immersion blender to buzz the soup to whatever texture you like.  Alternatively, use a blender and blend in batches filling to only 1/3 full to avoid overflow of hot soup (not good!)
  6. Return to the heat and add in the reserved corn kernels.  Cook for a few minutes.
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve in soup bowls with a dollop of the labneh or sour dairy of your choice and some drops of the hot sauce or vinegar, if desired, to taste.
 Click here for printable recipe.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pesto, without the nasty cleanup

It's September, and our three basil plants have been supplying us all spring and summer.  As long as I keep up with the occasional flower, they seem happy.  With the season winding down, it was time to give them a major haircut, which means it's pesto time!

I love pesto, but I loathe the mess.  Typically, I dump the ingredients--basil leaves, oil, garlic, pine nuts (or walnuts), salt and pepper into the food processor, give it a whir, rearrange the leaves several times, and repeat until I get a nice "paste" of tiny basil bits suspended in the oil.  (I typically add the Parmesan cheese later, because I often make enough to freeze, and pesto laden with Parmesan doesn't freeze well--or so I've heard).  But the result is an oily food processor with those tiny basil bits splattered all over the food processor parts--a chore to clean up.

So it was with great excitement that I read the following lines from one of the e-mail blasts from Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI):  "My preferred "presto with little mess-to" method is using a stick blender which I find easier to wash up and less wasteful than a food processor."  I assumed that a "stick blender" was British for an immersion blender, and was game to try this.  

I found the method worked best by turning the blender on and stirring it around the bowl to make sure to capture all the basil.  The stirring was the same motion you'd use for stirring anything else in a bowl.  After about a minute or so, I had a nice creamy pesto sauce, which I added to the homemade pasta dug out of the archives in the freezer (May 2015). and topped with some grated Parmesan cheese.

So thank you KGI!  And thanks for the video showing how to make TRUE pesto as done in Genoa, with a mortar and pestle.  (And if you need a pesto recipe, the proportions there are as good as any).  Some day I will try this, but until then, I'm sold on the stick-blender method.

Also, a by-the-way shoutout to KGI.  If you're at all into gardening, or think you might want to be into gardening if only you knew what to do, this is a must-have resource.  They have a great website with articles and videos.  But best of all have an online garden planner that lets you lay out your garden and it generates a planting schedule and shopping list.  It also keeps track of what you've planted for next year, so you can take advantage of succession planting concepts.  It costs $25 per year once you've used up your free month, but it's well worth it.  ESPECIALLY because they plow the money back into all sorts of good causes.  Last year, they gave grants to 200 community gardens around the world in their Sow it Forward Food Garden Grants!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The heirlooms are here!

This should be a festival day.  I have a garden with lots of vegetables -- eggplant, cucumbers, herbs, zucchini, butternut, snap peas, carrots, and peppers.  And I have a few hybrid tomatoes that were nice enough to give give fruit starting in late June.  But these are all supporting characters to the star of the show, the heirloom tomatoes.  There's nothing like ambling up the backyard stairs, plucking one of these off, and doing something simple, like hearty bread spread with thick Greek yogurt from Sophia's Greek Pantry in Belmont (labna if you can't get yogurt this thick--I'm pretty sure it's the same foodstuff), some fresh oregano, and thick slices of heirloom tomato. These are purple Cherokee, an all time favorite.  The Brandywine's are close behind.


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