Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Penne with Green Garlic and Fresh Cheese Sauce

Oh my friends, I made the best gussied up macaroni and cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

With those just-burnt tips of the pasta and creamy cheese, this mac and cheese puts Kraft, Velveeta, and Amy’s to shame. Shame, I say. Plus, we went up to Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station for a tour and a cheese tasting, which would most certainly humiliate Velveeta or any other industrialized cheese.

Committed to keeping cheese both artisanal and farmstead, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (founders of Cowgirl Creamery) have produced a delightful cookbook to accompany their creamery and their shop in Point Reyes Station. At that shop, they sell not only their own cheeses, but also an array of other artisanal and farmstead cheeses, such as Humboldt Fog and Wabash Cannonball. While the words artisanal and farmstead are starting to lose their cache in the United States (in part because they are not government regulated, so just about anyone can slap those two words on their packages), the words do have a specific meaning especially with European cheeses: as Conley and Smith explain in their introduction, artisanal describes cheese made in small batches with local milk; farmstead means that the cheese is made on the same property where the animals are milked. 

Both argue that the artisanal and sometimes the farmstead are essential in good cheese making.

I have been reading Dan Barber’s The Third Plate and Andrew Beahrs' Twain's Feast. Both of these books are interested in the effects of modern industrialization on food, especially post World War II, when food became a convenient commodity rather than a localized and sustainable foundation to a community. Both authors talk about what happens when we lose connection to the sources of our food. For Beahrs, it often means the complete wiping out of a viable food source (such as the prairie chicken). Moreover, Barber argues for a new way of eating—one that is not of handpicked, rarefied produce but the vast array of localized ingredients that support each other (a sentiment I have been taking to heart when kohlrabi and turnips show up in my CSA box. I don’t particularly want either of them; however, I know that their growth adds to the health and sustainability of a local and organic farm I support. Thus, I eat kohlrabi and turnips).

Indeed, the mantra “cook using the best local ingredients you can find” has become rallying cry of our modern food movement. Certainly, Barber and Beahrs and the women of Cowgirl Creamery all agree.

The cowgirls of the creamery have an impressive lineage. Peggy Smith is a Chez Panisse alumna, and Sue Conley is a cofounder of Bette’s Diner, a fabulous retro-diner on Fourth Street in Berkeley that uses the best bread, sources local produce, and whips everything up from scratch (including pies and scones!). Through a series of relationships and connections that both Smith and Conley highlight in their introduction, they bought a barn in Point Reyes Station, and after a grueling three-year process, they opened up shop in 1997. They make their Red Hawk cheese on premises in Point Reyes Station (because the air there contains wild B. linens, a bacterium that creates the distinct taste of that cheese), whereas their other cheeses are made in facilities in Petaluma. Nowadays, they also boast a shop in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. 

During our tasting, led by a woman whose knowledge of cheese was astounding as she meandered from topic to topic, we ate crème fraîche, fromage blanc, a seasonal wildflower cheese Pierce Pt, the wildly popular Mount Tam, the hard to describe Red Hawk with its nutty chewiness, and ended with a dry aged cheese. Our guide instructed us to smell the cheese, to taste it with jam (and also without); she showed us the effects of cutting the cheeses into large curd and small curd; she explained blooming rinds and the difference between crème fraîche and sour cream; she directed us to watch the curds be separated from the whey as a troupe of cheesemakers worked on the next batch of Red Hawk. 

More than anything, our guide (who called herself a cheese educator) spoke about relationships, from Cathy Strange (the global cheese buyer at Whole Foods) to Ellen Straus (of the remarkable Straus Family Creamery which I crow about over and over and over again). She argued that cheese is the product not of Conley and Smith, but of a whole community of individuals who have come together to produce some of the best cheese not only on the West Coast or even in America; indeed, these are cheeses that have been celebrated in France. However, they take a community to produce.

After our tasting, we purchased on-site sandwiches (my ham sandwich was layered with Mount Tam while the husband’s vegetarian option was slathered with Fromage Blanc) that we carried off to eat in a nearby park with picnic tables. The sun was hot, much hotter than we anticipated that Friday, and we both ate our sandwiches entirely, almost licking our fingers as we finished. Afterwards, we wandered around town (and I even found our next book club book in the used section of the bookstore). What a lovely Friday; if you’re in the area, I highly recommend the tasting and then the requisite sandwiches afterwards. You won’t be sorry.

Another thing I promise you won’t be sorry about is this fancy macaroni and cheese. While you don’t need to have Cowgirl Creamery cheese, you should get the best crème fraîche and dry cheese you can find. The pasta itself is absolutely delightful. I know, I know, it's fancied up macaroni and cheese; however, this is the macaroni and cheese you serve to company. Conley and Smith argue that this dish is reminiscent of a light lasagna. I argue it’s just good pasta: the crispy ends of the noodles (produced after a quick spin under the broiler), the addition of green garlic and fresh herbs, and the creamy cheese (secret: cottage cheese whirled in the blender then added to the dry-aged cheese) elevate this simple and homey dish to one that you have to savor.

If you are not anywhere near Cowgirl Creamery, I still recommend this cookbook. Substitute your own locally produced cheese or get to know your local cheese shop, who will have all kinds of international and domestic substitutions. And then you can make some of the best mac and cheese around.

Penne with Green Garlic Fresh Cheese Sauce
Adapted from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks

Serves 6-8

8 ounces cottage cheese
8 ounces crème fraîche
8 ounces whole milk
1 lb penne
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced spring onions
1 cup diced green garlic
1 TBsp red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 Tbsp minced fresh chives
1 tsp sea salt
1 lb grated ends and bits of cheese, such as dry jack, manchego, parmesan

1.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2.  While the water heats, puree the cottage cheese in a blender on high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Pour in the crème fraîche and milk and blend until just combined. Set the mixture aside.

3.  When the water boils, add the penne. Don't overcook it; drain the paste when it is just al dente. Spoon the cooked pasta into a 14-inch round baking dish or a 13x9 inch rectangular baking dish, and toss with the butter. Set the pan of pasta aside.

4.  Pour the chopped tomatoes into a strainer and set aside to drain. Reserve the juice for another recipe or dish.

5.  Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the olive oil. Add the spring onions and green garlic and cook just until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the drained tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes are soft and there is not much juice in the pan, about 8 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes, parsley, chives, and salt; stir and then transfer the tomato-herb mixture into the pan with the buttered pasta. Stir the grated cheese into the cottage cheese-milk mixture, then pour intot he pan and stir again. Stir in half of the grated cheese and pat the pasta smooth with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake for about 40 minutes; when the pasta is done, put under the broiler for 1-2 minutes until the top is browned and crisp and bubbly. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving. 

(Serve with Old Bay Seasoning, as the husband would insist.  Without, if you're a purist.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Apricot Upside-Down Cake

The CSA box keeps sending us apricots. Lovely, plump, fresh apricots that should probably be enjoyed solely on their own because they are so sweet. However, the sheer abundance of them demands that we find multiple ways to use them in a week (there are only so many apricots one can snack on). So here we are.

I have had apricots on my mind, far beyond the CSA box's insistence that I eat them and eat a lot of them now. For you see, I just finished Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby. You may know Solnit from her lovely book-length essay entitled Men Explain Things To Me or her whimsical look at San Francisco in Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (which is how I was introduced to her). However, this past spring break, I was wandering around yet another local bookstore, looking for something to read. 

For whatever reason, The Faraway Nearby jumped out at me, and I snuggled into a booth at the nearby coffee shop and was immediately taken in by Solnit's story of a mound of apricots from her mother's tree that arrived at her doorstep. Using the pile of apricots as the first of many metaphors in the book, Solnit confronts her own mortality, our need for storytelling, and her mother's descent into Alzheimer's. The essays in this book meander and digress but always loop back upon these apricots, as Solnit eats them, as she cans them, and as they decompose. While she cannot solve the mystery of her mother, she can try to confront the impossible "abundance of unstable apricots." Her inheritance seems to be the underripe, the ripe, and the decaying.

So when we got two bags of apricots (another apricot-themed post promised in the future, I assure you), I kept thinking back on Solnit and her beautiful book.

This recipe was not on page 215; however, it seemed so promising, I just had to make it (plus, I needed to make a dessert for family dinner, and this recipe just waltzed right in). 

We all, of course, are familiar with the upside-down-pineapple cake complete with canned rings of pineapple and lurid maraschino cherries. Don't get me wrong--I love me some upside-down-pineapple cake. However, the fine folks at the Ferry Building with their lovely little cookbook have other ideas for what to make upside down. In fact, they insist that basically any fruit can be done so (and is backed up by the empirical evidence of cranberries, peaches with bourbon, salted caramel apple, raspberries with blackberries, and blueberries with lemon). All you need is fruit, a gooey butter and brown sugar base, and a tasty cake to top it all (which of course gets flipped and made into the base).

The making of the fruit layer is as easy as can be. Melt butter, add sugar, spread over the bottom of a pan. Then comes the hard part: the tough work of deciding just how you are going to slice and arrange your fruit. With apricots, it might be just as good to slice them into little crescents as it is to leave them in halves (as I chose), but I liked the idea of a big mound of sticky and sweet apricot in every bite.

This particular recipe tops the apricots with a lovely spice cake of cinnamon and vanilla and almond rather than the traditional white cake one finds with the pineapple variety. The contrast of the spice cake with the apricots ratchets this cake up a couple of notches and brings it out of homey fare and into downright special. Plus, I always love the pairing of apricots and almonds--so sweet and nutty.

I did find the cake a little dry, perhaps because the butter and sugar didn't get a chance to permeate all the way down. Next time, perhaps, I won't put quite so much cake on top of the fruit. Because, people, there will be a next time, I promise.

Now for the part that most people dread when it comes to the upside-down cake: inverting the cake. Indeed, it is a science. If you do it when the cake is fresh from the oven, the butter and brown sugar haven't had a chance to set. If you do it when the cake is too cool, then the butter and brown sugar stick to the bottom of the pan. However, do not fear.

Ten minutes seems to be the optimal time for flipping the cake. So set your timer and trust in the butter. A motto, perhaps, to live by. When the time comes, invert a serving plate on top of the cake pan, hold onto the edges with your oven mitts, take a deep breath, and then flip. Perfect results. 

(Okay, I did have one apricot that got left behind in the bottom of the pan, but I simply took it out and placed it on the cake. I dare you to figure out which one it was.)

Ah, I am so glad my CSA box keeps sending me apricots: from the jolt back to Solnit's book to the necessity of making apricot-themed desserts, such additions of these fruits have been fine ones to my summer.

Keep 'em coming, Full Belly Farm!


Apricot Upside-Down Cake

Serves 8-10

For the fruit layer:
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp packed light brown sugar
8-11 firm, ripe apricots (about 1 1/2 pounds), halved and pitted  

For the cake layer:
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract  

1.  Position the oven rack on the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x2-inch round cake pan.

2.  To make the fruit layer: In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 5 minutes. Add the brown sugar and stir to combine. Spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Arrange the apricot halves, cut side down and tightly pushed up against each other, on the sugar mixture. Set aside.

3.  To make the cake layer: All ingredients should be at room temperature. Sift together the flour, baking bowder, cinnamon, and salt into a bowl. In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy and smooth. Add the sugar and brown sugar and continue to beat until the mixture is fluffy (about 5 minutes).

4.  Add the eggs one at a a time, beating well after each addition. Measure the milk into a measuring cup and then add the vanilla and almond extracts to it. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in 2 batches alternatively with the milk mixture in two batches, combining thoroughly until smooth after each addition.Spread the batter evenly over the fruit layer. 

5.  Bake the cake until it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Using a thin-bladed knife, gently release any portion of the cake sticking to the sides of the pan. Then, wearing oven mitts, slightly tilt the pan to ensure the cake is not sticking to the sides, invert a serving plate on top of the cake pan and invert the cake and the plate together. Then, gently lift it off.   

6.  While the cake is still warm, spoon any brown sugar "sauce" that remains in the pan onto the apricots. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ottolenghi's Lamb Shawarma

Summer. Summer. Summer.

Hello Summer. How I  love you. How I am delighted to meet you again after you have been away for a year. How I have plans for us. Big plans. Most of them involve books and napping, but still big plans. Some of my plans also include cooking. So much cooking. Stay tuned for pasta dishes, peanut butter shakes, ceviche, pastry cream. It looks like's going to have fun together, Summer.

One of my first plans was to make Yotam Ottolenghi's Lamb Shawarma. Shawarma is the Arabic fast food of choice that is closely related to the Greek gyro, the Turkish doner kebab, and the Armenian tarna. It is also big on heavenly goodness and is brought to you from Jerusalem via London from the dear, sweet, culinary mind of Ottolenghi.  What a good man.

From the Turkish word çevirme, which means turning, shawarma can be made from chicken, veal, goat, lamb, even fish. We're going to focus on the lamb--which Ottolenghi ensures will get us as close to authentic shawarma without having a vertically rotating spit in your home from which you can shave off a thin layer of meat whenever the fancy strikes you.

Ottolenghi assures us that we should not fret: the secret to good shawarma (and its distinction from the more mildly spiced and pork-based gyro) is all in the marinade anyway. And that secret boasts garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, paprika, nutmeg, cardamom--you name it. Once you master that secret, just wrap up the cooked meat in lavash, pita, or laffa, and you're got Arabic fast food.

Or you can spend the afternoon braising the lamb in your oven and serve it with potatoes roasted in the cooking juices of said lamb. Either way, you're going to be pleased.

When it came time to price the leg of lamb, I found that it was less expensive to buy a boneless haunch instead. (The logic there seemed a little messed up to me, but who am I to judge?) That threw everything off, given that Ottolenghi calls for bone-in lamb, and I had to really rethink how to make this dish.

Some websites suggest that you cook a boneless leg for about an hour and a half, but such cooking is done at a much higher temperature and supposes that you want your lamb to be medium or even medium rare. I wanted my lamb to be fully cooked, even on the well done side, and to be able to fall off the bone if it had one. Thus, a lower and longer cooking time was needed than those suggested, but not as long as Ottolenghi suggests with the bone-in leg. I have made adjustments below, but it took about 2 1/2 hours all told.  Thus, not quite as much time as I imagined when I set aside the day to do my cooking. 

No matter. I had books to read (people, I just finished The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and it was just downright breathtaking. More on that in an upcoming apricot-themed post), and we had people to fête, most notably one of the fathers-in-law (it being Father's Day and all) and one of the mothers-in-law (it being her birthday this month). All the more reason to set aside some time!

As for the dish itself, well, the spices were perfection, the meat was remarkably moist despite having been cooked to well-done (although I appreciated both the yogurt sauce and the reserved drippings that we served alongside the meat), and the taste was complex without being needlessly complicated. The in-laws brought two remarkable wines to have with dinner, which we ate outside until it got too dark and too cold. Then we came inside to blow out candles and to talk some more.

Side note: can we pause for some somewhat interesting facts about sheep?

Did you know that the sheep industry is accounts for only 1% of the agricultural industry in the United States. Sure, one would imagine that it would be big in Australia or New Zealand or Ireland.  However, the country with the highest total number of sheep is none other than China, followed by India. However, some 5.3 million head of sheep are raised in the top 10 sheep-raising states in the US. Texas comes in first, followed by California. But what I find most interesting here is that most sheep farmers own fewer than 100 total sheep. Yet, they comprise only 17% of the total sheep. In other words, it's most likely that when you eat domesticated lamb in the United States, you're eating lamb from very large agricultural ranches that dominate the market.

The number of small flocks are increasing in the Eastern half of the United States which is also the area of the US that consumes the most lamb. The peak of the market was in 1945, when the US boasted 56 million head of sheep. The lamb industry is growing, or at least it was in 2012, when this report from NPR came out--with growing immigration from the Middle East, where lamb and goat are highly favored, sheep farmers are growing the sizes of their flocks.

Further side note:  Sheep are mentioned over 500 times in the bible.

(Thank you for indulging me.)

Okay, back to the point.  Finally, a note on accompaniments:

One directly from Ottolenghi: "Take six individual pita pockets and liberally brush the insides with a spread made by mixing together 2/3 cup chopped tinned tomatoes, 2 teaspoons harissa paste, 4 teaspoons tomato paste, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper. When the lamb is ready, warm the pitas in a hot, ridged griddle pan until they have nice char marks on both sides. Carve the warm lamb into slices, then cut these into 2/3-inch strips. Pile them high over each warm pita, spoon over some of the reduced roasting liquids from the pan, and finish with chopped onion, chopped parsley and a sprinkling of sumac." 

We, however, had a fresh cucumber and tomato salad dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and parsley, a side of warmed pita bread, and yogurt with cucumbers (1/2 pound of cucumber (thinly sliced), 2 cups yogurt, 1 clove garlic (crushed), 1/3 cup chopped fresh mint, juice of one lemon, and a pinch of cayenne, salt, and pepper each--all mixed together). The yogurt isn't typically served with shawarma because it is not kosher to mix meat and dairy (that's more akin to Greek gyros that are often served with tzatziki, but we are creatures of habit). We also put a few handfuls of small potatoes into the roasting pan about 1 hour into the cooking process.

Okay, people. Time to get braising.

Summer, my dear friend, I don't want you to waste away!


Lamb Shawarma

Adapted from  Ottolenghi's Jerusalem

8 servings

2 tsp black peppercorns
5 whole cloves
½ tsp cardamom pods
¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 star anise
½ cinnamon stick
½ whole nutmeg, grated
¼ tsp ground ginger 

1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp sumac
¾ tbsp Maldon sea salt
1 ounce fresh ginger, grated
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2/3 cup chopped cilantro, stems and leaves
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup peanut oil
1 bone-in leg of lamb, 5 1/2-6 1/2 pounds, or 1 boneless leg of lamb (2-3 pounds)

1 cup boiling water

1.  Put the first 8 ingredients in a cast-iron pan and dry-roast on medium–high heat for a minute or two, until the spices begin to release their aroma – take care not to burn them. Add the nutmeg, ginger and paprika, toss for a few seconds, just to heat them, then transfer to a spice grinder. Process the spices to a uniform powder, then transfer to a large bowl and stir in all the remaining ingredients, apart from the lamb.

2.  Use a small, sharp knife to score the leg of lamb in a few places, making 2/3-inch-deep slits through the fat and meat to allow the marinade to seep in. If using a bone-in leg of lamb, place the leg in a large roasting pan and rub the marinade all over; use your hands to massage the meat well. Cover the pan with foil and set aside for at least a couple of hours or, preferably, keep it in the refrigerator overnight.  If using a boneless leg of lamb, you can just add the lamb to the marinate in the bowl. Again, rub the marinade all over, including inside the cavity left by the bone. Cover the bowl with foil and set aside for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

3.  Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

4.  Take the foil off the tray or bowl (reserve it for later). If you are using a boneless leg of lamb, truss the lamb (I used this youtube video to show me how).

5.  For both boneless and bone-in, put the lamb in a large roasting pan with its fatty side facing up. Roast for a total of about 4 1/2 hours (bone-in) or 2 1/2 hours (boneless), until the meat is completely tender and the interior reaches about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

6.  After 30 minutes of roasting, add the cup of boiling water to the pan and use this to baste the meat every hour or so. Add more water, as needed, making sure there is always about 1/4 inch in the bottom of the pan. For the last 3 hours of cooking, cover the lamb with the reserved foil to prevent the spices from burning.

7. Once cooked, remove the lamb from the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving.