Archive for May, 2012

Asparagus Carbonara

May 22, 2012

Long before foraging became fashionable and wild ingredients took star billing on prestige restaurant menus, collecting wild edibles outside wasn’t talked about. Few pesticides littered the fields and fencerows in early spring. Wind scattered seeds, birds ate berries and dropped seeds on ditch banks under telephone lines. We wilted dandelion leaves with hot vinegar and bacon for spring salads, cooked pigweed like spinach, and collected mountain serviceberries for blueberry pancakes, but asparagus that grew along the ditch banks was the best of all foraged foods.

On the dry irrigated western farmland, mountain snow melt rushed into the rivers, filled the canals and trickled into shovel- cleaned ditches when the ditch rider turned head gates to release water allotments that would make the land bloom. Asparagus loves water, and the perennial roots living deep in the soil sprang to life with the spring flow, bolted and blossomed when the pickers tired and fell to the summer scythe blade after the birds had their fill. Several decades ago agricultural controllers decided that weeds along the ditch banks were a problem; they sprayed Roundup, cemented the channels, and most of the wild asparagus is gone.

Thankfully asparagus still thrives, cultivated throughout the country and readily available in farmers’ markets. Now is the time to feast on this prized vegetable; for the best flavor, asparagus needs to be selected in season and as close to its place of harvest as possible. Blanche it, steam it, roast it, grill it, season with a little butter, olive oil, garlic and some fresh herbs or twirl it into pasta with some bacon and eggs for Asparagus Carbonara.

Asparagus Carbonara

4-5 oz. thickly sliced bacon*, diced (1 cup)

½ large onion thinly sliced (1 cup)

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

pinch crushed red pepper (optional)

1 lb. fresh asparagus diagonally sliced (see photo)

3 eggs, free range if possible

2 oz. light or heavy cream (1/4 cup)

1 ½ oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup)

8 oz. dry fettuccine of linguine

salt, pepper, fresh mint and chive flowers or parsley

*This is a good place to splurge on sliced-to-order butcher shop slab bacon if it’s available.

Choose a flat-bottomed wok or a large frying pan. Add a few drops olive oil and gently sauté the bacon until fat is rendered and bacon golden but not crisp. Remove bacon with slotted spoon and pour fat into small cup.

Return 2 tablespoons bacon fat to the frying pan or wok and gently sauté the onion until limp. Add garlic and crushed red pepper, cook a few seconds longer. Set aside.

Bring a 3 quarts water to a rolling boil, salt generously and quickly cook sliced asparagus 3 minutes. Remove asparagus with a spider or slotted spoon and spread out on a baking sheet. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for the recommended time.

Meanwhile whisk together the eggs, cream, salt, pepper. Reheat onion in wok or skillet, add bacon and asparagus. Warm thoroughly and turn off heat. As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain it well and turn the hot pasta into the skillet or wok with bacon and asparagus. Toss to combine along with the egg mixture, adding the parmesan cheese. (The heat of the pasta and the asparagus will cook the egg into a delicate coating sauce.) Use tongs to divide the carbonara into warm pasta bowls and top with chopped fresh mint and chive flowers or parsley. Serves 3-4.





Country Rhubarb Cake

May 5, 2012

In the hills near the Irish Sea, a once cavernous apple barn is now a bustling school. A school for baking and butchering, for cheese making and gardening, for braising and grilling and all the skills that bring the land’s bounty to the table. Professional cooks, gap year teenagers, and second career seekers join this band intent on stuffing as much learning and practice into a weekend or a 12-week session as the day’s hours allow. They begin early, stay late, pack extras into the weekends and team up after hours to cook in resident cottages. It’s a cook’s dream, a colony of like-minded souls gathered on an organic farm. The Ballymaloe Cookery School welcomes all who seek the world of good food.

After several years absence I opened the wooden gate, and walked into the familiar halls. They were all still there, Florie whisking a student’s sauce, Sue testing jam for the set, Maime lining cake tins, Rosie checking a roast chicken, Sharon typing away in the office, Emer and Pam filling trays in the larder, Eileen bring in herbs, Julia stirring pesto, Rachel swirling icing, Rory selecting wild garlic flowers, while Darina continued to lead her team.

Morning hours spin through confits, terrines, consommés, croissants, custards, cakes, curries, salads, and stews. Everyone pauses in the sun-bathed dining room for a lunch of the morning’s work, then they’re back for the afternoon session. After crafting a line of fancy pastries, at the end of the day, you’ll welcome a good cup of tea and the comforting slice of a country rhubarb cake.

Rhubarb’s now available in our farmers markets and you’ll find the flavor of garden-grown rhubarb far superior to the blander light pink hot-house rhubarb often available in supermarkets. This simple rhubarb cake from an Irish farmhouse tradition uses a soft scone dough rather than richer pie pastry.

Country Rhubarb Cake  adapted from Irish Traditional  Cooking by Darina Allen

6 oz. all purpose flour (1 cup + ¼ scant cup)

1 oz. sugar (2 tablespoons)

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 ½ oz. butter (3 tablespoons)

1 egg*

buttermilk or plain yogurt*

8 oz. thinly sliced rhubarb  (1 ½ cups)

2 ½ oz. sugar (1/3 cup)

additional sugar for topping

* beat 1 egg in a liquid measuring cup. Remove 1 tablespoon beaten egg and set aside in a small bowl to use for egg wash.  Add buttermilk or plain yogurt to the remaining egg until the mixture measures ½ cup. Yogurt is often thicker than buttermilk; start with 1 tablespoon less if using buttermilk.

Preheat the oven to 375º.  Butter a 7 or 8-inch round, flat baking dish.

Sift together  flour, 1 oz. sugar, salt and soda. Slice the butter and rub it into the flour using your fingertips until it flakes. Make a well in the center and pour in the mixed egg and yogurt or buttermilk. Stir together quickly with your hand or a rubber spatula to form a soft dough. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead very briefly. Divide in half.

Pat and roll half the dough to an 8-inch circle. (To make the circle easier to lift off the counter, roll it on a large piece of plastic wrap.) Slip your hand under the plastic wrap, lift and flop the dough circle into the center of the buttered baking dish; peel away plastic wrap. Mound the sliced rhubarb in the center, leaving a clean inch of dough around the edge. Sprinkle the 2 ½ oz. sugar over the rhubarb.  Roll the second half of dough on plastic wrap to a 9-inch circle. Brush the edge of the dough in the pan with water. Lift the 9-inch circle underneath the plastic wrap, drap it over the rhubarb mound and seal the dampened edges all around making an even decorative edge.

Brush the cake with the remaining beaten egg and sprinkle generously with sugar. Place the cake in the preheated oven and reduce the heat to 350º. Bake the cake 30-40 minutes or until golden. Some juices may run into the crust, but that’s OK. Let the cake stand 15 minutes to settle juices before cutting. Serve with whipped cream and extra poached rhubarb if desired. Serves 4-6

Double this recipe to fill a 9 or 10-inch round pie dish. Use 1 extra large egg and enough buttermilk or yogurt to measure 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon and up to 3 cups sliced rhubarb if it will fit under the larger crust. Bake 10 min. longer and there’ll be enough for 10.