Archive for October, 2011

How to love Your Carrots

I’m doing a blog series for our local newspaper this month, but some readers had trouble accessing those posts, so I decided to put them on my own blog as well. Here’s the third one:
Eating seasonally is a pleasure for most of the year, and fall is a wonderful time to eat carrots. We all know how healthy carrots are, so I’ll skip over that part and concentrate on how delicious they are. When I cook carrots I make a lot, because they are wonderful for at-your-desk lunching the next day. Usually I retrieve my lunch from the refrigerator at my mid-morning brief break and eat it at room temperature at lunchtime, as long as no egg yolks, mayonnaise, or other extreme perishables are involved. If I plan to eat them at room temperature for lunch I use olive oil instead of butter, since animal fats congeal unattractively when they aren’t hot, but if you prefer to use butter, no problem. Just heat your carrots a little the next day, then carry them back to your desk and eat happily, with the slightly smug glow that comes of doing the right and healthy thing and getting your work done at the same time.

First, catch your carrots. Real carrots come in bunches with the tops on, and if the tops look withered, don’t bother with those carrots. Get some fresh ones instead. Your nearest growers’ market is a great place to shop for them. Here in Albuquerque you can find several colors, including yellow, the standard orange, red, and a glowing royal-purple. I love the purple ones, but any of these techniques can be used for any carrot.

I use the word “technique” with forethought, because it is basic technique that makes it quick and easy to cook and eat lots of vegetables. If you have to read a recipe in the kitchen as you work, you will eventually get fed up, but technique lives in your brain and makes it a snap to blanch, saute’, stir-fry, bake, boil, or grill any veggie that you care to eat. No precise measurements are needed. So here are a couple of basic techniques for carrots:

Blanch, then saute’: trim and scrub four large carrots or six smaller ones of any color. Peel if needed (usually I scrub well with a brush instead.) Slice into slices about a quarter inch thick. Fill a large saucepan with about 2 quarts of water, add 2 teaspoons of salt, bring to a boil, toss in the carrots, boil 5 minutes, and drain thoroughly. If you want to, you can hold the drained carrots at room temperature for 2-3 ours, making it easy to do some work ahead of time if needed. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a frying pan, or use olive oil if you prefer. Put in the carrots, 2-3 teaspoons of honey, salt to taste, and a grating of fresh nutmeg. Saute’ over medium heat until the carrots are done to your liking, and serve. The blanching makes sure that the carrots cook evenly, and the saute’ing brings out their flavor. You can vary this infinitely: add herbs in the saute’ stage; thyme or savory are especially good with carrots. Chop a clove of garlic or half a small onion and cook in the butter or oil until just cooked through before adding the carrots. Use a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar instead of honey. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice for a very fresh flavor. Add half a teaspoon of grated orange rind with the honey. Add a tablespoon or two of dark rum and cook it off thoroughly before serving. Or, if you have access to some good artisanal root beer (I brew my own. Just don’t use the grocery-store glop) you can add a quarter cup of it when you add the carrots to the butter, and cook over high heat until the root beer is reduced to a syrup that just coats the carrots. A quarter-cup of dark ale produces a malty, ever-so-faintly bitter glaze that’s great with game. You can also cut the carrots into chunks about 2 inches long and then cut those into quarters at the initial prep, for a different texture. When using orange carrots, sometimes I cook a couple of purple potates separaely, slice them, and add them in for the saute’ stage.

Grilling: Usually people don’t think of grilling carrots, which is a shame, because the caramelization around the edges is delicious. Just cut them thinly. I like slices about 1/8” thick. Use a griddle or grill-wok so they don’t fall through the grill, and watch them closely so that they don’t burn. I describe a Southeast Asian seasoning here, but again the technique is key, and once you get the hang of it, you can season them any way you like. Trim and scrub 3-4 large carrots of any color, and slice them thinly. Toss with two chopped cloves of garlic, a 1” chunk of ginger grated, a tablespoon of Asian fish sauce (you can use soy sauce instead if you insist,) a tablespoon of agave nectar or coconut sugar, and 2 tablespoons of canola oil or similar. Heat the grill to medium-high and spread the carrot slices out on the griddle section or put them in the grill-wok. If griddling them, turn them in bunches with a spatula about halfway through. If using the wok, you will need to turn several times during cooking. Taste to see when the texture seems just right to you, salt a little if they need it (the fish sauce is fairly salty) and serve with some chopped cilantro on top.

Our Local Mushrooms

Recently I was asked to do a blog for our local newspaper weekly for a month (you can see the first post here) which has left limited time for my own usual blogging. But I did want to throw out a quick reminder of some of our best local delicacies. Among my favorites are the lovely pearly oyster mushrooms from Exotic Edibles of Edgewood, available at the downtown growers’ market and at both Albuquerque branches of La Montanita Co-op.They are delicious roasted and served over polenta.

First make polenta by your favorite method.I like to put one cup of good organic polenta (not any other type of cornmeal) in an unglazed clay cookpot with 3.5 cups of water ad a teaspoon or so of salt. I set the clay pot over medium-low heat, covered, and after ten minutes or so I increase the heat a little, to medium. At some point 15-20 minutes later when the pot is simmering, I stir well and turn the heat to very low; you may need a flame-tamer device if your stove runs hot. It now simmers slowly, covered, for a couple of hours while I do other things. I don’t stir. It’s very like the well-known oven method but relies on the kindly heat of clay. When ready, either stir in some grated Parmesan or pour it into a pan to solidify. You can then cut thick slices to grill and use as “landings” for all kinds of food.

I buy oyster mushrooms by the pound, and a pound is the minimum amount that you need to serve 4 people. Personally, if four hearty eaters were expected at my table, I would get two pounds of mushrooms and double the seasoning ingredients. Pick them over and cut off the tough stem end. I don’t wash them, since I have seen the operation and have no concerns that anything unwholesome is on the mushrooms, but suit yourself. Toss in a large bowl with 3 large or 5 small chopped cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup of olive oil, a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a little chopped celery leaf if you have it. The soy does not add an Asian taste, it just gives a rich meaty savor. Spread the mushrooms on a baking sheet in one layer and roast in a 425 degree oven until they are cooked, somewhat browned, and have exuded juices. Put the mushrooms in a bowl, and if there’s half a cup or less of pan juices, pour it over the mushrooms and serve over hot polenta with shavings of good Parmesan. If you washed your mushrooms, there may be a lot of juice, in which case boil it down in a little saucepan until reduced to half a cup, then proceed as above. A thick pat of very good butter on top of each serving adds a wonderful touch of richness and flavor. If you want to add herbal notes, you can garnish with some finely chopped celery, or you can add a couple of teaspoons of fresh thyme leaves to the raw mushrooms with the other seasonings. Any way you choose to proceed, it’s a wonderful dish for fall, and the main ingredient comes form one of our most interesting and waterwise farm operations. Scott and Gael, the mushroom people, have to truck in all their water, and they don’t waste a drop. For more about their operation, see my website.

The Pollo Real Chicken: A real chicken, indeed

As you may know if you’ve seen my post on The Meaty Issue, I started raising my own meat chickens this summer. The results have been thrilling, but I have been hesitant to write about my kitchen experiments with them because most readers don’t grow their own and wouldn’t have access to this kind of chicken. This problem has now been solved because our local growers of pastured chickens, Pollo Real, have returned to the local farmers’ markets. Their French Label Rouge chickens are absolutely the best that I know of besides my own, and the pasture-raising is humane, environmentally friendly, and results in higher omega-3 content and a better taste. There is no such thing as a completely grass-fed chicken- they just aren’t able to survive on pasture alone- but these chickens have access to all the things that chickens naturally eat. Look for the Pollo Real booth at the Albuquerque downtown market on Saturday mornings and at the Corrales market on Sunday mornings. Ask them about their CSA, and please be sure to tell them that Heather at My Urban Homestead sent you. I want our local ethical growers to know that I’m recommending them.

The first time you get hold of a really good chicken, roast it fairly plainly and enjoy the meaty, nonmushy texture and the full flavor. My favorite method is this:
24 hours before you plan to roast the chicken, salt it generously inside and out or (my preference) put it in a large plastic bag with a brine made from half a gallon of water and half a cup of salt. If just salted, leave it in the refrigerator until ready to cook. If brined, leave it in the bag of brine in the refrigerator overnight, and in the morning pour the brine down the drain. Return the chicken to the bag and put it back in the refrigerator until ready to cook. This lets the added salt and liquid distribute themselves more evenly throughout the flesh.

When ready to make dinner, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Smash two cloves of garlic in a mortar and pestle or chop them finely, add a tablespoon or two of white wine, a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, and two tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon or one tablespoon of chopped fresh thyme. Rub the paste over the chicken inside and out, cut a lemon in half and stick it in the cavity, truss the chicken, and put it breast down in a baking pan. Pour about half a cup of good white wine in the baking pan and set in the hot oven. Roast for half an hour, and meanwhile cut some cleaned potatoes into chunks about an inch on a side. After half an hour take the pan out, turn the chicken breast side up, rub all visible skin well with good butter, and add a little more water if needed to keep the bottom of the pan lightly filmed with liquid. Roast until done, basting with more butter every 15 minutes. When the chicken is done, remove to a platter to rest for 15 minutes and, if the potatoes aren’t done, return them to the oven until they are. Pile them around the chicken and carve the chicken at the table. Pass the pan juices in a gravy boat. A salad and a good bottle of wine are all that you need to complete the meal.

What does “roast until done” mean? Well, it all depends on the size of your chicken. An oven thermometer is an absolute necessity, and oven heat can still vary depending on how often you open the oven. I have been cooking chickens for 30+ years and I roast them until the drumstick wiggles just right in its socket, but this isn’t something that can be conveyed in writing. so it’s safest to use a good meat thermometer and roast until it reads 170 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. Even so, prick the thigh and check for any pink juices running onto the platter. If pink shows, return it to the oven until the juices run clear. Roasting a chicken well is a skill worth mastering. I aspire to roast a chicken on a spit next to a hot wood fire, but I haven’t tried it yet. If you have, leave a comment to let me know how it worked out. For that matter, every enthusiastic cook has a favorite way of roasting a chicken, so feel free to leave yours in the comments. And please, support our great local growers and farmers!