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Posts Tagged ‘cookingwithherbs’

Pear Shadows, by Nancy Merkle.

Recipe below: Pears Poached with Red Wine, Rosemary, and Vanilla

It sure is quiet out on the street. January tends to be a slow month in Manhattan, but this is ridiculous. The only real action I see is from Amazon delivery people. I really need to cook something with movement.   

My usual approach to winter cooking, especially now that it’s pandemic winter cooking, is to keep it vibrating. Produce may not feel completely alive this time of year, but I still want to create living, breathing culinary art. It takes concentration. A game I play is to choose favorite flavors, intense delicious flavors, and work them in a way that makes whatever other ingredients I use just wake up. Red wine, vanilla, and rosemary are three of my vibration flavors. I find them beautiful alone or blended. Here I’ve used all three to poach California pears.

I knew the flavors would be right, but still I had to locate my pears. I looked for ones that felt firm but still smelled like pear. They weren’t easy to find. Bartletts smelled like pear but were too soft to poach. I didn’t want to wind up with mush.  The brownish-skinned Bosc were solid hard and smelled oddly like a doctor’s office (or like the faux leather couch in a doctor’s office). I decided on Red Anjou, which were firm but alive in aroma and true pear character.

This dessert tastes excellent, and I love its look, too. The pears tint up pinky red, and the reduced wine syrup shines glossy like a ruby gem. I served the pears with sweetened mascarpone, but crème fraîche, ricotta, or vanilla ice cream would have been nice, too.

Happy winter Covid cooking to you.

Pears Poached with Red Wine, Rosemary, and Vanilla

(Serves 6)

6 ripe but firm pears (I used Anjou), preferably with their stems attached
1 750-ml bottle red wine (I used Côtes du Rhône, and it worked fine)
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large rosemary sprigs, plus 6 sprigs for garnish
1 mandarin orange, cut into quarters
1 cup sugar
A pinch of salt

For the mascarpone:
1½ cups mascarpone, at room temperature
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Peel the pears, leaving their stems intact if they have them. If you like, core them with an apple corer. That make them easier to eat, but I didn’t bother, plus I didn’t have an apple corer.

Put the pears in a big, wide pot. I used a pasta pot, but anything wide enough so the pears fit in without sitting on top of one another. Add the wine, and then add enough water to cover the pears. Add the vanilla bean and extract, rosemary, orange, sugar, and salt.

Turn the heat to high, and bring it all to a boil. Turn the heat to low, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the pears are tender when poked with something thin and long, like a wooden skewer, which is what I used. Depending on your pears, this may go fast or may take a while. My Anjous needed about an hour. At the end your pears should be a beautiful, consistent light red color, and the poaching liquid should smell like sweet wine but more complex.

Delicately, so as not to bruise them, lift the pears out of the wine bath with a slotted spoon, and onto a platter.

Now you’ll want to reduce the wine. Turn the heat to medium high, and let it bubble away. It will probably take about a half hour, but keep an eye on it. You don’t want to reduce it to a hardball stage; you just want a nice thick, pourable syrup. Once it starts shimmering with big bubbles and coats a spoon, it’s ready.  Next you’ll want to pour it through a fine strainer into a small pot to remove all the bits of rosemary and things. I retrieved the vanilla bean to use as garnish, cutting it into shorter pieces. Let the liquid cool. It will get thicker as it cools.

Mix the mascarpone with the sugar and vanilla extract.

When you’re ready to serve, pour any liquid your pears have released from the plate into the syrup. Reheat the syrup, not to boiling hot but just warm enough to loosen it some and make it glossy. Place each pear in a small bowl, and pour some syrup over the top. Garnish with a piece of the vanilla bean, if you like, and a sprig of fresh rosemary. Plop a heaping tablespoon or so of the mascarpone next to each pear. Serve.

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Still LIfe, by Yana Golikova.

Recipe below: Bitter Greens and Mandarin Orange Dust Salad, with an Anchovy Vinaigrette

After days of post-Christmas fog, both atmospheric and spiritual, I needed a lift, so I decided to dry a bunch of Mandarin orange peels and grind them to a dusty powder. This was so helpful. Sometimes a seemingly small culinary move can lift my soul much more than I expect. I put the dust in a bowl and sniffed it in every time I passed it on my kitchen counter.

I always have a net bag of Mandarin oranges hanging around this time of year. They peel so easily, section without effort, and have a good agro dolce balance. A hopeful note in winter’s bleak culinary scheme. And, as I’ve discovered, their skins can be quickly dried, to give off a concentrated citrus aroma. You know how you can feel yourself downsliding in January? You might be tempted to throw your head under a grow lamp, but maybe try making this Mandarin dust instead. It worked for me.

So I took these dried skins and whizzed them up in my mini spice grinder to create essence of Mandarin. I could immediately see the uses. Sprinkled over a Provençal beef stew, for instance, picking up on the orange rind that’s usually added but doesn’t provide much impact. Same with a bouillabaisse, letting the citrus mingle with the fennely pastis. That’s a match made in my Mediterranean dream head. It was also great sprinkled over my avocado toast.

I also thought about all the bitter greens that are so good this time of year. They would be beautiful in a salad tossed with a bit of my Mandarin dust. So I went to the Union Square Greenmarket looking for the radicchio man. He usually has the Treviso variety, both precoce and tardivo, the latter being the same plant but left in the field to mature and grow long purple-striped fingers. He also grows the Castelfranco type that looks like a big, pink, overblown rose. He has puntarella, too. It’s all so beautiful. But unfortunately he wasn’t there. So I went over to West Side Market and settled on decent looking heads of frisée and escarole and a white endive. I did see dandelion bunches there, too, and they would have been a nice touch, but they were all wilty.

Anchovies seemed a natural for the dressing, as their flavor tends to both heighten and sweeten the bitter greens (if you’ve ever had puntarella salad in Rome you know what I’m talking about). You can add sliced fennel and a handful of its fronds, if you like. However you put it together, this is, in my opinion, as vibrant and appealing as winter cooking gets. And the dust seals the deal.

Bitter Greens and Mandarin Orange Dust Salad, with an Anchovy Vinaigrette

(Serves 4)

For the mandarin orange dust:

As many Mandarin oranges as you want to dry
Salt

For the salad:

A large head of escarole or frisée, or a little of both
2 red or white endives or Treviso radicchios, if you can find them, the leaves separated
A handful of dandelion leaves, if available
2 mandarin oranges, peeled and sectioned
1 scallion, cut into thin rounds
4 oil-packed anchovy fillets (I like Ortiz brand), well chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed with the side of a knife
Black pepper
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons

To make the Mandarin dust: Peel the oranges. Use as many as you like, depending on how much dust you want. It lasts for a while but starts losing a bit of aroma after a few weeks, so bear that in mind. Next, dry the skins. I have a countertop Breville mini oven with a convection mode, but any regular oven will work fine. If you have a dehydrator, you can use that. I don’t own one, so I laid the peels out on a grill rack, set the oven at 250 degrees, and stuck them in with the convection on. The peels took about an hour to dry out. Pretty fast.  After that I turned off the oven and left them in it for about a half hour just to make sure they were really bone dry.

Then, working in small batches, I whizzed the dried peels to a powder in my mini spice grinder, adding a pinch of salt to each batch (this, I find, helps bring up their flavor). That’s it. I made about a cup of dust, which I’ll be playing with over the next few weeks.

To make the salad: Put all the greens in a big salad bowl. Add the orange sections and the scallion. Put the chopped anchovies in a small bowl. Add the garlic clove, the vinegar, and the pepper. Give it a stir. I like to keep the anchovy in discernible bits, but if you prefer you can mash it up more. Add the olive oil, and season with a little salt, if you think you need it. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad, and give it a toss. Sprinkle a little of the dust over the top, or sprinkle it onto your individual servings, or both.

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Baccalà is a Christmas Eve necessity for me. Many of my other fishes have fallen, either from streamlining the night or for lack of interest, but the baccalà stays. It’s special. It’s intense. It requires me to think ahead. And what an aroma! I’m not kidding. I love smelling it while it soaks, briny and pungent, and then after, when I poach it in wine, broth, tomatoes. Wherever I go with it, that soft poaching lets its sea perfume shine through. I’m talking about salt cod, baccalà, not stockfish, air dried cod, because baccalà is what my Southern Italian ancestors tell me to use.

There are various Christmas Eve preparations. There’s one with lots of potatoes and onions, the baccalà left in big chunks, everything simmering up together. I’ve gone the tomato, white wine, and black olive route more than once. I love that too. You can fry soaked baccalà to make a kind of fritter. Nice. But over the years baccalà mantecato, a dish associated with Venetian wine bars, has become my Christmas Eve tradition (an almost identical dish called brandade de morue is made in Provence). I poach the cod and then whip it up, with lots of olive oil, a little garlic, a bit of potato, occasionally a splash of cream, into a fishy mashed potato. I also add fresh herbs and often lemon zest. Often I smooth the mash into a gratin dish and run it under the broiler with crumbs on top, for good texture. Then it gets scooped out and spooned on toasted crostini. A wonderful party antipasto to serve with prosecco.

If you’d like to try some baccalà for Christmas Eve, remember that you’ll need to presoak it. Allow two days for that. You might not need all two days, but you could, depending on how salty your cod is. I’d rather have it oversoaked than not soaked enough. You can always add salt if you’ve washed all the salt down the drain. And when you buy your baccalà, look for thick, white center cuts, avoiding skinny little grizzly tail sections that’ll be mostly skin and bones. The stuff I got last year was from Canada and very good. A few days ago I saw nice looking baccalà at Eataly, so this year, I’ll probably go back and try that. To make sure your baccalà cooks up tender, not dull and dry, be gentle. Once the salt is soaked out, that hard board you started with will revert back to being almost fresh fish, so if you think of it that way you won’t be tempted to hammer the hell out of it. Soft heat, soft music, nice aromatics (fresh bay is wonderful for poaching salt cod).

If you grew up with baccalà, you know what I’m talking about here. If it’s your first time, you are in for a treat. It’s so exciting. I wish it were my first time.

Have a great Christmas Eve.

And here are three of my favorite Christmas Eve inspired baccala recipes:

Baccalà Mantecato for a Winter Lockdown

Baccalà with Marsala, Roasted Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts

Baccalà with Potatoes, Black Olives, and Marsala

Here’s my baccalà mantecato after a quick gratinée.

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