Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cooking Local: Beautiful Beet Salad

Seasonal farmers’ markets are something of a novelty for me. I’ve been to permanent markets in Montreal, where farmers sell some of their produce, but they just aren’t the same as the lovely little Redmond Saturday Market that I can walk to from my apartment. Redmond’s farmers’ market runs every Saturday from May through October, and seems to be different each week. There are some constants: the quiet farmer right at the entrance whose produce is all organic, though he no longer carries the USDA organic certification, because he “doesn’t need to pay the government to tell (him) something (he) already knows,” the various food vendors, like the crepe stand, the tamale stand, and the Hawaiian ice stand, the eggs and dairy stand where you can get chicken eggs that were gathered that very morning, and the farmer with long hair that runs all the way down his back, who always tells you what he’ll be selling the following week. What changes, though, is the produce on sale because, of course, as the season progresses, the crops that are ready for harvesting change. I try to go to the market without a plan in mind in terms of what I’ll buy: I purchase whatever inspires me and then I work with that.
Recently, what inspired me were a few items that came together in a salad I have made several times before. I don’t know when exactly this salad became popular, and I’m not entirely sure whether or not it’s still considered “in”, or if it has been demoted to passé status, but it is a favorite of mine. I helped to make it at a wine dinner at my school about a year ago, I’ve had it at Seattle’s amazing Crush restaurant, and I’ve seen it on the menu at several other establishments. I’ve also made versions of it at home, experimenting with slightly different ingredients each time.

The salad in question is a beet salad, made with some kind of green, or often a combination of a few varieties, tossed with a vinaigrette, usually balsamic, and dotted with roasted beets, chèvre, and often some kind of nut, usually walnuts or hazelnuts.

This time, I made mine with farmers’ market spinach, and green beans that I blanched and shocked (dropped into boiling water for about 45 seconds, then immediately plunged into ice water to stop the cooking process), unfortunately not from the market …
… farmers’ market beets, which I roasted and quartered …
… and amazing chèvre (goat’s cheese) that I got at Pike Place Market. I had the opportunity to chat with the farmer who makes the cheese and I got to hear all about how his goats live their lives, which was very cool!
I tossed my spinach and green beans with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, then laid it out on my fancy-schmancy square white plate:
I roasted the beets by wrapping them in tin foil, then tossing them in the oven for 45 minutes. When they were tender, I let them cool for a few minutes, then removed the skin simply by rubbing them with a paper towel—trust me, it comes right off! When the beets cooled completely, I quartered them, and then placed them gently in the salad.

Next, I dotted the salad with some of that amazing chèvre, and drizzled it all one more time with the vinaigrette.
I didn’t use nuts this time, but when I do, my favorites are walnuts. I think this salad is visually stunning, and absolutely delicious. The combination of roasted beets and goat cheese is heavenly. Actually, if you’re not a big fan of beets, but you’re willing to try them again, I can’t think of a better way: this salad will please almost any palette.

I won’t give a proper recipe, because you should definitely try making a version of your own. Try different greens, different vinaigrettes, and different vegetables. Go to your local farmers’ market, and see what inspires you!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Copper River Salmon Gravlax

It’s Copper River salmon season! OK, if you’re not in or from the Pacific Northwest, that statement probably means nothing to you. If you had said it to me two years ago, I would have had no idea what you were talking about. I have now been living in Seattle since September of ’09, and I have learned, as everyone who lives here does, I believe, what Copper River salmon is and why it is such a big deal.

This is the salmon of—you guessed it—the Copper River in Alaska. The fish that swim in this river must battle a long, cold, and rough journey through it, resulting in salmon that is rich and more flavorful than any other salmon. Another reason for the craze for C.R. salmon is its brief season: it is only available from mid-May to mid-June, so there is always a scramble to get some while it lasts.
This year, I did get some. I bought myself a nice big fish and used it for several scrumptious and simple meals that Andrew and I enjoyed thoroughly. I say simple because when you have good ingredients like this salmon, you don’t need to do much with it: a basic sear and good seasonings makes for a memorable meal every time. I have a chipotle rub I like to make and use on salmon, sear it or grill it, and then serve it up with a dollop of chipotle crema. I also like salmon smeared with pesto, and then baked. To add a little variety to my salmon creations, and to make it last a little longer, I decided to use my last few pounds to make gravlax.
If you weren’t already aware of gravlax, allow me to be the first to introduce you to this delicious creation. It is salt-cured salmon that concentrates all the good flavor of salmon without cooking it and changing it from its beautiful raw state. As long as you use fresh salmon and follow the directions carefully, there is almost no risk of food borne illness, though, I must warn you, that risk always remains. It makes for a visually stunning and delicious appetizer.

Though it takes 48 hours to make gravlax, it is a very simple process, and requires little work on the part of the cook (can I say cook when there is actually no cooking involved?). The process basically consists of covering one fillet of salmon with dill, then a cure mix of salt, sugar, and cracked black pepper.
That fillet is then covered with another fillet, and then the whole thing is weighted down, put into the refrigerator, and then forgotten about for twelve hours.

After twelve hours, the salmon gets turned, and then it goes away again. The process is repeated until 48 hours has gone by when it is finally ready to eat. To serve, slice it thinly off the skin.
You can use gravlax pretty much any way you would use smoked salmon. It is delicious on bagels and cream cheese, or as an hors d’oeuvre, served on a toast round with crème fraiche. You can mix it up a little, and replace the toast round with a mini potato latke like I did here, or with a potato chip. You could use gravlax on a pizza covered with cream cheese, or in sushi.
Whatever you choose, this salmon is sure to look impressive, given its brilliant pink color, its glossy texture, and its delicate appearance when it is thinly sliced. It is perfect to make in the summer since no cooking is involved, and tastes fabulous with chilled cocktails enjoyed on a patio on a hot day!

Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, p. 59

2 fresh salmon fillets (about 3 pounds), center cut and skin on
1 large bunch fresh dill
¼ cup coarse kosher salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons crushed black peppercorns

Pat the salmon dry and remove any small bones. Place one fillet, skin side down, in a deep, flat-bottomed glass baking dish.

Spread the dill evenly over the fish. Combine the salt, sugar, and pepper, and sprinkle the mixture evenly over the dill. Cover with the other salmon fillet, skin side up, so that the two flesh sides face each other.

Place a piece of plastic wrap over the salmon, then put a dish over the salmon and weigh it down with heavy cans of food, or bricks, making sure the weight is evenly distributed. Refrigerate for 48 hours, turning the salmon over every 12 hours and basting with the marinade that accumulates, letting it flow between the fillets.

When the gravlax is finished, remove the fillets from the dish, separate the halves, and scrape off the dill and seasonings. Pat dry with paper towels. Refrigerate until served. To serve, place the fillets skin side down on a cutting board and thinly slice on the diagonal and off the skin.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Perfecting Potato Gnocchi

If you’re a home cook with a penchant for making different, possibly challenging, foods, there’s a good chance you have at least tried to make gnocchi before. You’ve heard people say “Making gnocchi is so easy!”, and, “You’ll have so much fun making your own gnocchi, you’ll never buy it premade again!” Bolstered by promises of the pleasure and simplicity of creating these little potato dumplings, you sought out a recipe from a book from your cookbook shelf, or maybe your favorite recipe website. You start out strong, cooking your potatoes, and lining up your ingredients. Things are still going all right when you mash your hot potatoes with flour and egg to create your gnocchi dough.
Here’s where you hit your first bump, though: the dough is not a dough at all, just a goopy, mushy lump that you can’t imagine will ever be gnocchi. Not to worry, though: just work a little more flour in, and let it absorb some of that excess moisture. Soon enough, you do have a dough-like mass that you can divide up and roll into long strands that you can cut into gnocchi. It isn’t as elementary as your recipe suggests, though: the dough doesn’t roll out easily—it breaks, and is uneven, creating gnocchi of every imaginable shape and size, other than, of course, the perfect little dumplings you desire. There is flour everywhere and all you can think is how certain you are that this will not come out as you had hoped, and how long this will take to clean up. When finally you have a sheet pan of gnocchi in various forms, you get a pot of water up to a boil, and then skeptically dump the little lumps in, hoping for a miracle.
Just as your recipe says, you wait for the gnocchi to rise to the surface of the water, and then remove them to a separate bowl. The first few come out looking all right, but then the gnocchi still in the pot, waiting to be removed, are beginning to disintegrate in the water. You frantically try to get them all out, but meanwhile, those first few are getting covered in the mush you’re pulling from the pot, and beginning to fall apart themselves as the heat from the rest of the gnocchi steams them. What you’re left with is a watery bowl of mashed potatoes, and the feeling that if you can’t make the apparently simple potato gnocchi, what kind of a cook are you?

I use the second person in the story above in the hopes that you, reader, can empathize with me since this is exactly what happened to me the first few times I tried to make gnocchi. After a few failed attempts, though, I started to realize what was causing me problems, and I have figured out a few tricks to make gnocchi that is, I daresay, enjoyable and straightforward to create.
I have provided a recipe below, but the truth is, making wonderful gnocchi is not about having the perfect recipe. Getting gnocchi right is about knowing the right techniques, the right tricks, if you want to call them that, to creating this Italian classic.
First: you will need to cook your potatoes, but do NOT boil them! Boiling adds even more moisture into to your already water-filled potatoes. Instead, bake the potatoes in their skins. They will lose moisture this way and concentrate the starches, which is what you need to hold your gnocchi together.
Next, get the consistency of your dough right, but don’t over-mix it. You do want a dough that is slightly moist, but not overly wet. I find it best to be conservative when adding flour, then continue to work in just enough to get your dough to the right consistency. Be careful about over-mixing, though: mixing develops gluten in the flour, toughening your gnocchi. You want gnocchi that is light and fluffy.
When rolling out the dough to cut the gnocchi, divide the dough into small portions and roll gently, exerting only the slightest amount of pressure to create long “snakes”. Try to cut them into evenly-shaped dumplings, but don’t worry too much about this. As long as they’re roughly the same size, they will cook evenly.
Finally, you need to get the cooking right. Get a large pot of salted water up to a rolling boil, and have a large bowl ready to the side. When the water is ready, add the gnocchi, being careful not to crowd the pot. If necessary, cook the gnocchi in batches. Now, as soon as the gnocchi rise to the surface of the water, remove them using a slotted spoon and place them in the bowl. It’s good to allow the gnocchi release some steam for a few seconds after they’ve been pulled from the water. After a moment, add them to your sauce, which you should have gently simmering on another burner. Once all the gnocchi has been added to your sauce, give it a toss and serve it up right away.
Now, a note on sauces: there are endless possibilities in terms of what sauce you can serve with gnocchi, but personally, I prefer something not too heavy. This time, I made a cream sauce with leeks and bacon, and it was good, but maybe even a little too rich. Gnocchi is fabulous with a braised meat sauce, as long as it isn’t too thick. Small, spring vegetables are also good, or try a fresh tomato-basil sauce.

Potato Gnocchi
Serves 4
1 ¼ lbs. russet potatoes, washed and dried
¾ cup flour
2 eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Poke a few holes in the potatoes to allow the steam to escape. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes. While potatoes are still warm, peel, then mash them, or pass them through a food mill or ricer.

Mix in ½ cup of the flour, eggs, salt, and pepper (this is best done while potatoes are still warm) until dough is formed. The dough should be wet, but not too sticky or gooey. Add more flour if necessary.

Roll the dough into two rolls, about 1 inch thick on a lightly floured surface; cut them into ¾ inch pieces. Place the pieces on a sheet pan, lightly dusted with flour.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the gnocchi. As soon as they rise to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon to a bowl on the side. Serve immediately with sauce.