A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
The first time I knowingly ate anything involving stinging nettles was a jarred salsa sold by a Tibetan immigrant family in Seattle. I haven’t seen their products for years, so I’m not really sure what happened to them, but I guess they haven’t single-handedly pushed the bottled stinging nettle sauce industry past the tipping point.
Every spring, I see some forager offering stinging nettles at farmer’s markets, but so far I haven’t been convinced to take any home. Last spring, Hiromi and I had a late night snack at Poppy, where we had an overly salty, innocuously flavored nettle “risotto” which was interesting but seemed not to do much for the nettles or the rice. I was fairly convinced there’s just not much to the nettle but the sting.
But then, a few weeks ago, Hiromi and I decided to have dinner at our neighborhood Basque restaurant, Harvest Vine, which featured a simple sounding nettle soup on the menu. We decided to go for it.
Wow. It was surprisingly deeply flavored. Served chilled, it came with a side of crouton and not much else, but it totally redeemed the nettle for me.
Granted, I suspect that cream and Spanish paprika pulled more weight than the nettles themselves, but we figured that if that’s all it took to make the nettle great, we could pull off something compelling on our own. A few days later, the guys at Sosio’s told me they had a stash of nettles in the back, and I was an easy mark.
I took some of the same basic inspirations as the Harvest Vine version, complete with the smoky paprika, but I wanted to make it my own. When I got home the night we made this, I spent a few minutes stinking up our home grating fresh horseradish root. Hiromi started tearing up the second she got home. I used some of the root for an oil-based vinaigrette that I reserved for other purposes, but I also whipped some of it into some sour cream.
The sour cream topped the nettle soup when the soup was ready to go. It added a great pungency and a refreshing contrast. Apparently, this particular approach is fairly common in Scandinavian and Northern European preparations of the nettle, but I didn’t know any better.
A dirty secret about stinging nettles: they need to be cooked fairly aggressively to remove their, well, sting. They do have a flavor, but it’s not a really intense one; it’s essentially vegetal. More robust than spinach, not as earthy and chewy as lacinato kale, they seem to respond well to being pureed, but they need a little special treatment. I soaked them in warm, but not hot, water for just about 10 minutes. Then I rinsed them, and cooked them down in a pressure cooker for a few minutes. Not only that, but one of the little stems stuck my finger as I was trying to push down the leaves that were in the way of me closing the lid. For the next twenty-four hours, my finger had a strange tingly sensation.
I did ice-water shock them after the pressure cooker to keep them from turning into something unrecognizable, but right after that, they went straight to the blender. Because the puree is a bit rough, I pushed the remaining greens through a sieve to keep the result smooth, and seasoned them with salt and the paprika before adding cream and vegetable stock.
We served the soup with some little crostini brushed with basil olive oil, topped with mozzarella and scallions.
We also had some black beans seasoned with some chilies, lime and coconut milk, and maybe the Indonesian spice blend that we’ve been using from World Spice, if memory serves correctly.
This is why, given a choice, you should either learn to cook or find someone to spend your weekend mornings with who can cook.
Crullers with cinnamon sugar
Crullers have nearly disappeared from the shelves of most donut shops, mostly due to the fact that they’re seen as a bit more labor intensive than ordinary donuts. I find it hard to believe that there no machines exist that could reduce the burden, but the fact that they’re now so hard to find presents opportunities for the industrious home cook.
And here’s the thing: They’re not really that much work. Perhaps they pennies don’t work out when you’re making them on the scale that a bakery would need to, but I was able to go from nothing to having them on the table in about 35 minutes. I only made six, but I’m sure I could have scaled up the recipe to about 24 pieces without adding more than a few minutes work.
This is just a classic pâte à choux with a little added vanilla. I added salt and sugar in roughly the same ratio I would use for cream puffs, with perhaps a bit more salt than usual. I pipe the dough out onto waxed paper. There are a few ways you can pipe them, depending on the visual effect you want; I piped small stars in six segments. An alternative would be to use the star tip, twisting gradually, making one continuous round shape.
After piping, I stuck them in the freezer for just about 10 minutes to firm up, which makes them easier to drop into the fryer. They could have easily been kept in the freezer for a week or so. This time, though, I took advantage of the simplicity of the ratio and made just the amount I thought we’d need, which was about 60 ml water, 30 grams. butter, 30 grams flour, and 60 grams eggs (about 2 whole eggs). This makes slightly more than 6 crullers.
Last winter, the first time I made these, I underestimated how much they would expand in the fryer. The steam pressure causes them to blow up into about four times their original size, so make sure you keep that in mind when shaping them. Think small.
I fried them for about 5 minutes total, flipping them about half way through to let them brown evenly. They continue to darken a bit after they’re pulled from the oil.
This time, I dusted them with sugar mixed with cinnamon and a pinch of salt. They could have just as easily been glazed, or chocolate dipped.
What I really like about crullers is how sweet they aren’t, even after they’re dusted with sugar.
Blood orange scones
Not that long ago, I posted about some very basic scones served with blood orange jam. Hiromi was craving scones for breakfast yesterday. I remembered that I had recently prepared a pseudo-marmalade of blood oranges meant to serve over waffles not that long ago. The leftovers contained only a little liquid, and a lot of blood orange peel.
So I thought I might make good use of them by incorporating them into the basic scone pastry. I placed the peels on a cutting board and chopped them a bit more finely than I had them originally, then added them to the dough just before the final splash of milk that holds them together.
The result? Success! The scones needed only the slightest splash of milk since they still had a little residual liquid from the blood oranges. The blood orange added a great aroma and a little bitterness. I was worried that they’d get a little tough since I was adding another step to the process, but they turned out tender yet crisp, just as I wanted.
Rare only for me, of course. As regular readers know, I’m as close to vegetarian as possible for someone who travels to Japan on a regular basis.
Hiromi’s doctor said she’s got somewhat low iron levels. We’ve been mitigating that a bit with supplements and with a heavier use of beans and darker greens, and Hiromi’s been consuming a fair amount of orange or tangerine juice to help absorption. But it’s a lot easier to deal with this kind of challenge by incorporating more red meat and liver in to a diet than to rely on vegetarian sources of iron, and Hiromi only practices vegetarianism when I cook, and I’m far from dogmatic. So we’ve made some little adjustments.
Cooking is usually my job, though, and since Hiromi usually cleans up after the aftermath of my food, I don’t mind making the occasional carnivorous dish for her benefit.
I took some aniseed, coriander seed, allspice, black pepper, some dried smoky chilies, and the seeds from a couple of cardamom pods and ground them in my spice grinder, then mixed this with a bit of salt. I rubbed the pork with this mixture and some olive oil, then I added the seasoned meat to a hot pressure cooker. I let the meat brown a bit, then turned each piece to brown on at least two other sides. I pulled the browned meat out of the pan and let it rest while sauteeing some onions with some young ginger.
I tossed in some quartered mushrooms with a bit more salt. Finally, I added some rolling-cut carrots and a stick of chopped celery to the mix, completing the mirepoix trinity. Then I added a half cup of read wine and a half cup of water, and restored the meat to the pan. I put the pressure cooker’s lid in place. Once it reached full pressure, I let it cook for 10 minutes.
Hiromi discovered it wasn’t quite perfectly tender when the valve released, so I brought it back to pressure and reduced the temperature to the lowest possible setting that would keep the pressure up. I’m not quite sure how long we let it cook, but it was probably about 25 minutes total.
When the valve released the second time, it seemed ready to serve. When Hiromi tasted it at the table, she reported it was surprisingly tender. We only served about half of it, and it was more than enough with the other dishes we had prepared, so she had a bit leftover for lunch the next day or so.
It was pretty easy to pull off, apparently satisfying enough, and probably no more complicated than anything else we made that night. Braised pork. Pressure cooker. I can work with that.
Last night we visited a friend who had planned a sort of traditional lamb dinner, to be followed by Easter egg decoration. I don’t really remember much about Easter dinners from my childhood, since we focused more on the egg thing, so I brought some gougeres made with Valdeon blue cheese (which I’m sure I’ll make again, but I didn’t take a photo), and pressure-cooked baby artichokes prepared with shallots, Meyer lemons, garlic, butter, olive oil, and a splash of wine, and a broccolini dish.
The one child present fell asleep before we got to the egg decoration, so the adults took over that very important responsibility. We took a few of them home with us for breakfast this morning.
Hiromi made Doraemon. Mine is the ugly one in back. It was supposed to be an owl, but turned out to look more like Frank Zappa.
For breakfast, I made an apple coffee cake with a little allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and grains of paradise. It’s topped with a simple salted butter streusel. I was a little careless, so it turned out slightly underbaked, so it was a bit pudding-like, but still perfectly serviceable. I used very little sugar, so it was more spicy than sweet. Next time, I should let it bake a bit longer.
Hiromi always says that when I’m trying to use up ingredients, the results are often more exciting than when I do something more planned. I think that’s been the case since I was in college, when I would sometimes change course after I started cooking if a particular whim struck me as a good idea.
Usually on weeknights, I’ve got a few ingredients in less than ideal condition that have been sitting around too long. The purple mashed potatoes from my previous entry were in that category, and the ton of bell peppers in that Pope’s bean dish were also completely driven by excess.
I don’t know how many times I’ve made some variation of this simple side, but we always like sautéed green beans. This one had onions, mushrooms, red bell peppers, garlic, and smoked paprika, and was made with those skinny so-called French style green beans sometimes called haricots vert. “Green beans” apparently sound much more sophisticated when rendered literally in French.
Normally I don’t attempt to make anything remotely like insalata caprese this time of year, but we had some better-than-average-for-this-time-of-year strawberry tomatoes, which are slightly larger than cherry tomatoes and a bit more flavorful. If I were a little more industrious, I might have roasted them a bit first, but this was still pretty good for a completely out-of-season dish. I’d be a little embarrassed to serve this for company, as the tomatoes were a lot more tart than they were sweet, but they beat anything you’d find in a supermarket this time of year.