Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Strawberry Basil Sorbet

Sorbets made from fresh fruit are refreshing and summery warm-weather fare (great for the official unofficial first day of summer- or whenever school is out).
Simple to make, they require just a handful of ingredients.

And as far as tools go, all you need is a freezer, large dish, and a whisk. No ice cream maker necessary.
Well, you'll want to pull out that food processor... but the thing is that it's not so much a one trick pony as the ice cream maker. And we can safely assume it's used more year-round than it's kitchen compatriot.

While the ripest strawberries are the best and most flavorful in any case, you don't have complete control of the ripeness of each and every strawberry in your box. The best way to choose a box of strawberries is by scent and color. An undeniable strawberry scent and a large portion of deep red, shiny berries would be the way to go. Large size isn't necessarily the way to go. In fact, the smaller, more intense berries are best if you can find them. And make sure to shy away from berries with white shoulders.

Sugar, the devil to many a diabetic, is integral in sorbet. Other than giving the strawberries an immediate faux ripening effect, it plays a large part in our dessert's final texture.
A thick syrup is produced soon after the sugar hits the berries and they begin to release their flavorful ruby juices. Water in the mix crystallizes when frozen. Those other parts of the sorbet such as the sugar and bits of fruit (softened by the sugar) are best spread thoroughly and evenly throughout the sorbet. Small ice crystals are formed and further broken by agitation as well even distribution among the fruit and sugar.  Smaller ice crystals yield a smoother, creamier result.

That said, it's true, constant agitation is better, and truly constant agitation with a good addition of air is gained with an ice cream maker.
However, the amount in this recipe is probably too much for many ice cream makers, especially since sorbets and ice creams expand as they freeze.

If it happens to freeze solid, just run the tines of a fork over the frozen sorbet to break it up a bit: you then have granita. Of course, it's an easy option with a lot less stirring if that's what you want instead of a creamy sorbet. Just leave it overnight.

The flavor combination is unexpected, but the two pair so well. Some may be able to guess just exactly what it is after a few tentative and curious bites.

The strawberries are a given, but the basil adds a sweet and anise-like freshness- with a little lemon to brighten things up, all the flavors pop.

Isn't it funny though how some flavors you wouldn't expect together work so beautifully as a team?

Maybe a tiny drizzle of good aged balsamic vinegar would add a nice touch...

Dessert enough for a small crowd.

Strawberry Basil Sorbet
adapted from My Darling Lemon Thyme
serves 8-10

3 lb. (1kg plus 350 g) strawberries
1 1/2 c (320 g) sugar
3 oz (84 g) fresh basil (both leaves and stems are fine here)
1/4 t salt 
5 T (75 ml) fresh lemon juice

Wash, hull, and halve or quarter the strawberries into a large bowl.  
Sprinkle strawberries with the sugar and let sit 1 1/2 hours, tossing and stirring occasionally to encourage syrup to form.
Once the time is up, strain the syrup from the strawberries and pour the syrup into a medium saucepan. Reserve the strawberries and set them aside in a bowl.

Add the basil leaves to the strawberry syrup and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture reaches a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and let the basil infuse into the syrup 15 minutes.
Strain the basil from the syrup, squeezing the basil to extract as much flavor as possible.

In the bowl of a food processor, process the strawberries with the basil syrup until smooth. This may need to be done in several batches depending on processor size, but I recommend not attempting to process in less than two rounds.

Stir in the salt and lemon juice until fully incorporated.

Pour into a shallow 3 qt/3 L baking dish and freeze 1-2 hours, or until the sorbet begins to freeze around the edges. Once it's partially frozen, break up the frozen bits with a whisk and whisk them through to incorporate the throughout the sorbet. Place the dish back in the freezer, check every hour or so, re-whisking each time. It will take several hours, so this is a project best begun late in the morning or early in the afternoon it is to be served. The sorbet doneness depends on several factors, including the freezer temperature and depth of the dish used to hold the sorbet.

(If the sorbet is too stiff to scoop, leave it out for a bit at room temperature to soften.)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Spring Salad

Not that I haven't used the phrase before, but I absolutely love this salad.

This one in particular is chock-full of many of the flavors of spring: fresh new green veggies- particularly peas and asparagus, verdant parsley, a little sharpness from alliums, plus bright lemon.
It's the taste of spring on a plate.

Once we start to find lots of green and new vegetables at the market, it's a reminder that warm weather is on it's way.
Fresh cut grass, daffodils, violets, and peonies, new leaves, flowering trees, lighter clothing, allergies, planting the garden...

Everything is fresh.
(And speaking of spring, salads look like little green nests sometimes, don't you think?)

I like a vinaigrette with tons of vibrant flavor. The only real way for me to be sure of this is to measure and pay attention instead of eyeballing things. If I've got too much asparagus, the vinaigrette is stretched a bit too far. If not enough lemon, there's not enough zip.

Plus, you'll want to make sure the vegetables are well drained and dry(ish) before adding the vinaigrette. Water does not tend to help vinaigrettes.

Sorry, I wasn't able to obtain pea tendrils for photographing this post, but if you are able to find them and choose to finish your salads with the curly, delicate things, you won't be disappointed.

The salad components can be prepared in advance, but keep everything separate until ready to serve. Resist dressing the vegetables until right before assembling the salads and serving.

Spring Salad
(serves about 6)

zest of one lemon (plus more to taste, if desired)
2 1/2 T (37 ml) Lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced and mashed to a paste with salt
1 1/2-2 T (15-20 g) minced shallot (depending on how strong you like it)
1 t (5 ml) Dijon mustard
7 T (105 ml) olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

1 lb (454 g) asparagus 
8 oz (227 g) sugar snap peas
mixed greens or baby spinach (about 5 oz or 142 g, but you may not use all of it)
2/3 c (60 g) chopped green onions (or maybe ramps)
1/3 c (20 g) parsley, minced
Parmesan shavings (use a vegetable peeler)
pea tendrils (optional garnish, but both pretty and tasty)

Mix lemon juice and zest,  garlic, shallot, and mustard. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, all the while whisking. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside. 

Bring a pot of water to the boil.
Meanwhile, trim the asparagus and cut into 1 inch lengths. Reserve the tops separately from the pieces of stalk. Remove the strings from the sugar snap peas and cut in half on the bias. 
When the water comes to a boil, salt generously. Make sure to have a large bowl of ice water at the ready.  
Cook the asparagus stems about 2 minutes, remove from the hot water, and plunge them into the ice water. Next, cook the sugar snap peas about 1 minute, and add them to the cold water along with the asparagus. 
Remove the vegetables to a colander to drain once completely chilled. 
Cook the asparagus tips 1 minute and remove to the bowl of cold water. Once these have chilled,  drain and remove them to small bowl separate from the other vegetables. 

Prepare plates with a layer of greens. 
Re-whisk the previously prepared vinaigrette and gently toss the vinaigrette together with the well-drained asparagus stalks and sugar snap peas, green onion and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper as necessary and spoon dressed vegetables into the center of each nest of greens. Divide the asparagus tips among the salads to garnish and top with Parmesan shavings and pea tendrils (if using).

Monday, May 12, 2014

Ras el Hanout and Roasted Chickpeas

Ras el hanout was a spice blend I'd been hunting for a long time.
Moroccan, and meaning "top of the shop," ras el hanout is the best of what a spice merchant has to offer, everything pulled together in one blend.
Needless to say, there's no one specific blend, but many versions.
I suppose it all has to do with what one person's "best" might be, where the quality lies.
Some may contain more than 30 different spices in one blend (in contrast, what I have here is 14).
Potentially including spices such as ginger, saffron, turmeric, fennel, cardamom, rosebuds, lavender, a variety of peppers, cloves, both nutmeg and mace.... somewhat like a curry powder, it's exotic and intensely flavorful.

As I said, I'd been trying to find this spice blend for quite a while, but was never able to find any in stores when I looked. Online, yes.
After tasting someone else's gorgeous spice blend which was inspired by ras el hanout, I thought I'd mix up some of my own.
Yes, there was a jumping off point (found on about.com), obviously there had to be a jumping off point since ras el hanout is pretty far from my own personal background, but things can be very easily made your own when cooking.
Change a bit of this and that, add some of those... and obviously since there are no "rules" per se as everyone seems to have his or her own special recipe, if you like it, it works.

Everything rolled into one when it comes to spices, it runs warm, sweet, savory and spicy. Certainly flavorful and deep, spiced, but not overly spicy, the scent is pretty amazing. I wish you could at the very least smell it (I think it very easily elicits a well-deserved "wow").
I've been finding myself putting this spice blend on everything.
Eggs, roasted vegetables (great on sweet potatoes), chicken, fish...
Though it hasn't been attempted yet, I think it would be equally nice on freshly stovetop-popped popcorn.

It's also very great mixed with a little olive oil, minced garlic, and preserved lemon peel to make a paste as a rub for roast chicken.

Add to a saucy chicken dish- perhaps a tagine?

I'm finding it does well with things that are particularly bland.
Thus the recipe for roasted chickpeas below (which would be really good on top of a salad)

Some of the spices called for are definitely going to be previously ground, no two ways about it over here. This is due in part to the fact that some are more difficult to find whole, maybe they don't "exist" whole, but others are more difficult to grind (I can't find pre-dried hunks of whole ginger to grind myself and I decided it wasn't going to be time-effective to open 50 cardamom pods to get the seeds I needed). If I DO call for grinding spices, it's only because it's definitely do-able in the situation called for.

Coriander seed, for example, is something I can occasionally find at a specialty grocery store. But, of course, I can't find it when I need it.
I can go to the spice shop, sure, but I don't always physically want to go there.
Sometimes there's something to be said for ease.

BUT, if things are accessible to you, and if you have the capacity, I would encourage toasting and grinding your own spices. The flavors will be much more present, as with pre-ground spices the flavors from the oils can quickly dissipate.
For example, I NEVER choose pre-ground nutmeg.  The flavor and taste of freshly ground does not compare to the dustiness frequently found in the jarred, pre-ground stuff.
Please invest in whole nutmeg if you can.

Here goes...

Ras el Hanout
Makes about 1/2 c (about 45 g)

2 t (5 g) ground ginger
2 t (5 g) ground cardamom
2 t (6 g) ground mace
1 1/2 t (4 g) ground cinnamon
1 1/4 t (4 g) ground cumin 
1 t (3 g) ground allspice
1 t (3 g) ground coriander seed 
1 t (3 g) ground turmeric
1 t  (3 g) ground nutmeg 
3/4 t (3 g) cayenne pepper
1/2 t (2 g) ground white peppercorns
1/2 t (2 g) ground black peppercorns
1/2 t (2 g) ground anise seeds
3 whole cloves, ground 

Mix all spices thoroughly and store in a covered container away from light and heat.
Use as desired.  

Ras el Hanout Roasted Chickpeas
makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 T (15 ml) olive oil
2 t (5 g) Ras el Hanout
1 t (5 g) salt
2 t (10 ml) lemon juice
15 oz can (425 g) chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Preheat the oven to 425 F/ 220 C.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Mix the olive oil, Ras el Hanout, salt, and lemon juice together to make a paste. Stir in the chickpeas, toss and fold the mixture so that the chickpeas become well-coated. 
Pour the chickpeas out onto the parchment paper, making sure to spread into a single layer. 

Roast the chickpeas 20 minutes, stir, and cook another 10-15 minutes, stirring every few minutes so that they cook evenly. 
When the chickpeas are golden brown, remove the pan from the oven and let cool completely. Store any extra in a covered container. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Simple Cheese Course

Shards of Parmesan cheese and toasted walnuts drizzled with honey.
That's it.

The crevices in the Parmesan and walnuts catch the drips of honey, and the dish becomes a combination of salty, crunchy, nutty, sweet and sticky all at once.

Nothing need be exact, everything is made to taste.

It's a simple and unexpected pleasure.
It makes a satisfyingly different dessert- and it would be a fantastic midnight snack.

Maybe with a little cordial glass of Port?