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Growing and Cooking Asparagus

There’s nothing like asparagus that has been picked within hours of cooking. They are so sweet and juicy. Asparagus is at its best right after picking, because the sugars start converting into starches, and the longer it sits around, it loses flavor and toughens. Which is why we started an asparagus patch years ago. Growing asparagus is a bit of an investment, in time (the plants start producing two years after planting) and space (the patch will be fallow from July to April). But so worth it.

 

I never know how many I’ll find. On a good day, a dozen, on an average day a few.

IMAG2939The spears range from thick to thin, and I’ve observed no rhyme or reason why. I like the thicker ones because they are juicier and meatier. But the thin ones have their own concentrated flavor.

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The way I cook them is like this:  First, peel the bottom third of the stems.  I don’t snap or cut the ends off because the asparagus are so fresh and the stems aren’t woody. If you’re buying them in the store, cut off the woody ends rather than snap them. You’ll get more edible asparagus. Peeling the lower third is essential. You can save the peelings, adding them to a bag in the freezer to make stock for asparagus soup.

I cook them in a large stainless steel saute pan, wide enough so I can lay the spears in the pan. Saute a clove of garlic in olive oil.  Add the asparagus, and over high heat, saute them in the oil, sprinkle with salt, then add a little water and cover.  Cook until tender. I like my asparagus cooked. Neither crunchy nor mushy.

To serve, spoon the garlicy, aparagus-y, oil from pan over the asparagus. Squirt with lemon or lime, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then eat the spears with your fingers.

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A friend asked for a Vegan Asparagus Soup. I’m not vegan, but I enjoyed the challenge. It turned out to be absolutely delicious. This is how I made it.  By the end of the season, I had a big bag of asparagus peels. I simmered them in a pot of water with a few wild onion bulbs and salt.  Then I turned the asparagus stock into a vegan béchamel, using olive oil in the roux instead of butter.

Two dozen fresh, cooked asparagus met their fate in a food mill. Remember to save some asparagus tips to garnish the soup.

 

It produced a lovely bright green puree.

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Added this to the asparagus béchamel. Corrected the seasonings with salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice (I used lime cause that’s what’s usually in the house.)

Ladle into bowls, garnish with minced chives, chive blossoms, and the tops of asparagus spears.

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We savored every spoonful.

Strawberry Pie

In the spring in Santa Barbara, I’d put off riding back up the canyon after school, and pedal the much flatter streets to a bakery on State Street.  I’d never had anything as delicious as their strawberry pie, whole fresh strawberries suspended in a strawberry glaze, topped with whipped cream.

For many years afterwards, Santa Barbara Strawberry Pie remained an elusive, happy memory. I never found a pie like that again. But strawberry season is here, so I tried to recreate this memory.  I used a recipe in the Fanny Farmer baking book (Marion Cunningham edition).

First I made a crust. Making pie dough in the food processor is so easy. That’s coming from someone who made it by hand for years and years. The other thing about making pie crust is that the more you do it, the better you get. That’s coming from someone who taught herself how to make pie dough, and had a tough time figuring it out.  but look at this, I rolled out this dough in a circle in about a minute. Best job I’ve ever done.

 

Baked it covered in silver foil for 6 minutes, then uncovered for about another 10.

 

The recipe called for slicing half of the berries and crushing the other half with a fork.

 

The smashed ones, mixed with sugar, lemon juice, and cornstarch, simmered until translucent. Then the sliced berries were added.

 

When it cooled, I poured it into the shell.

How did it turn out?  It was very strawberry-y, like super fresh strawberry jam in a wonderful crisp crust. But the filling didn’t hold together. When I cut the first piece, the filling slumped into the void.  But the most important question is, did it recreate Santa Barbara Strawberry Pie. Ummm, no.  But my quest is not over. I’ve discovered the Cook’s Illustrated version of Fresh Strawberry Pie. There’s another pie coming soon.

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Flinders Lane: Australian Fusion in Stamford

 

Flinders Lane is a culinary destination in downtown Melbourne, Australia, filled with restaurants and cafes offering a range of ethnic and contemporary cuisine.

Summer street is a culinary destination in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. And that’s where you’ll find Flinder’s Lane, a contemporary Australian-fusion restaurant.

Immigrants always improve the food, especially if the culture has been dominated by English settlers. At Flinders Lane in Stamford, there are Asian and Mediterranean influences on the English food, too.  A classic sausage roll in puff pastry is jazzed up with sambal mayo.

Among the small plates, tuna tartar is accented with a plantain chip. Dumplings are filled with chicken and lemongrass.  Italian meatballs are filled with veal and pork, served with tomato sauce and grilled bread.

An Australian native species is represented by barramundi perch (the Aborigines have a legend about the fish), which is steamed in green chile lime sauce, and dressed with mint.

The other native species on the menu is kangaroo. I tried it in a salad, based on Thai Yum. It tastes like beef, with more of a gamey flavor. Flinders Lane also offer a kangaroo burger at brunch, and roasta kanga loin at dinner.

For dessert, Lambington, is the way to go. It’s considered the national cake of Australia, white sponge cake, filled with jam, covered in chocolate and dusted with coconut.

For more information, go to Flinders Lane.

 

 

Prime: American Kitchen and Bar

The location is prime. Right on the water in Stamford, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a harbor filled with pleasure boats. Comfortable, contemporary, and sophisticated, Prime serves an updated American surf and turf menu. Start with sushi, and end with steak. That’s what we did.

Prime, which opened 2 years ago, wasn’t on my radar, until I was invited to dinner there by Carolyn Izzo of CIIS.  It’s one of the 8 restaurants in the Bohlsen Restaurant Group, which runs another Prime across Long Island Sound in Huntington, N.Y.

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From back, Green Lotus, Stamford Landing Roll, and Miso Brûlée roll at Prime American Kitchen and Bar in Stamford.

The intriguing avocado-wrapped Green Lotus revealed an interior of spicy tuna, lump crab, and Asian pear. The Stamford Landing roll wrapped tuna over shrimp tempura and avocado. For those who avoid sushi, a starter of prosciutto and caramelized figs, with almonds and goat cheese, drizzled with balsamic glaze, was sweet and salty.

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Prime lived up to its name with this 21-day aged USA Prime porterhouse steak for two.

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It had a good char on the outside, and was pink, well-marbled, tender and full of beefy flavor.  It had been cooked on the bone, and was presented in thick slices.  The sauce at the bottom of the pan was rich and winey. Yet we had to order an “enhancement” as the menu rightly calls it. Bernaise sauce. It’s not necessary, but why not? And whipped potatoes and spinach gratin, too.

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(I took most of this home, and yes I did eat steak and creamed spinach for breakfast the next morning.  I woke up craving it.)

Prime has a large wine list, and knowledgeable staff to guide you through matching food with California and European wines. They also have a wide selection of after-dinner drinks, single malt scotch, port, and grappa. After a big steak dinner, a small, strong digestivo is in order.

Desserts were homey, traditional American, like cheesecake , s’mores, and, my favorite, key lime pie.

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Prime’s Key lime pie bites topped with meringue.

Prime has a lot going for it, waterfront location, great food, professional service. And it also has mooring for boats, and is soon opening a dock-side cabana for the summer. For info on wine dinners and Sunday Jazz Brunch (great idea for when guests are visiting), go to Prime.

 

Brindavan

I recently discovered an awesome Indian restaurant called Brindavan. It’s about a 25 minutes drive from my house in Fairfield, and the distance is a good thing, because if I lived any closer, I would have been back a dozen times by now. I kept thinking about the aromatic, spice-filled food for days afterward.

Known for having the “biggest lunch buffet,” Brindavan is in a strip mall in Milford, CT, and on a recent weekday lunch, the long room was filled with a mostly Indian crowd. A woman serving herself from the abundant trays, said she and her colleagues worked at a near-by pharmaceutical company.  A waiter who brought warm naan to the table,  told us that “if we had the time,” come back on the weekend, when the buffet expands to 35 dishes.

Brindavan is about the food, not the décor.  Unlike the dingy atmosphere, the food is bright, warm, filled with spices and flavors that made us smile and feel a buzz.  The Manchurian vegetable balls really stood out for, may be because it’s one of the first things we tasted, and we loved how spicy they were.  The idly had that wonderful sour fermented flavor, there were sauces to drizzle over them. Onion fritters, dal, curries, tandoor and more.

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Lucas Local Oyster Bar and Woodfire Cookery

Oyster lovers, head inland. The best oysters to be found in Fairfield County are not on the coast but in Newtown, CT, at Lucas Local Oyster Bar and Woodfire Cookery. The other day I sampled some of the freshest and most expertly opened oysters, pristine, glistening, and briny.

This contemporary American Sea and Land restaurant is housed in an antique house, renovated with rough hewn repurposed boards, and calming gray walls. Lucas is relaxed and fun, a place to enjoy life by eating well. Owner Vince Capelletti is a seasoned restaurateur, and the kitchen is kicking out some excellent dishes. We were recently invited to a tasting by Max Ex, the restaurant marketing firm.

The dish that stayed in my mind afterwards? Shrimp and grits.

IMAG2601Coarse stone-ground grits, lightly grilled red shrimp, sprightly fresh scallions, basil oil, and a poached egg. At brunch it’s like the best adult porridge you could imagine. At dinner, pure comfort food, where you’re saying, “ummm,” after every bite.

Seared Stonington scallops were simply paired with grilled frisée.

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Octopus was finished over the wood fire, and paired with hummus and crunchy chickpea. Nice double use of the chickpea.

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Mussels Isabella is a stand-out. Maine mussles steamed in pesto sage cream, garnished with deep-fried sage leaves.

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Lucas is now open for brunch, and while I would seriously recommend the shrimp and grits, the traditional brunch favorites, are pretty damn good too.

Lobster bene was particularly luscious due to a frothy, lemony Hollandaise, and perfectly poached eggs whose yolks soaked into the airy baguette beneath.

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For kids, waffles are served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which is the best idea ever, and maple syrup and crisp house-cured bacon.

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Desserts feature local Ferris ice cream.  A bourbon adult sundae–vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, bourbon, and maple foam–was the perfect end to brunch.

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Lucas Local Oyster Bar and Woodfire Cookery

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A Soup to Cure You

At the first hint of a scratchy throat, I make a potent garlic soup, boosted by healthy herbs and spices.  The basis of this soup is my beloved Garlic Soup from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  It’s made with garlic, sage, thyme, fresh parsley, thyme, and water.  I veer off the original recipe to include inflammation- reducing, circulation-enhancing, immune-strengthening herbs and spices.

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Start with a head of garlic, add mushroom, onion, thyme, black peppercorn,  clove, hot pepper, cardamom pods, cumin seeds, bay leaves, galangal, ginger, turmeric, and Sichuan peppercorns.  If there are other healthy spices you love, add them too. The only reason I didn’t include sage and parsley is because I was out.

Add real olive oil.

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Garlic soup can be veggie, made with water. Or you can use chicken stock.  I needed extra fortification, so I used chicken stock .  Add salt accordingly.

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Bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered for 40 minutes. Strain, and mash the garlic cloves through the strainer.

If you’ve used water, before serving you could enrich the soup with an egg. Use a farm fresh egg to make a quick mayonnaise, or add a poached egg to the soup.

Final garnishes can included a crouton, with or without grated gruyere, a chiffonade of greens, or sprinkling of herbs.

Did it cure me? I believe so. Give it a try.