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Archive for the ‘Farmers' Market Cooking’ Category

Farmers' Market Celery, top; Supermarket Celery, bottom

Until I started shopping regularly at my farmers’ market I was never a big fan of celery. Sure, it’s important as an aromatic vegetable to build a flavor base for soups or sauces, but on it’s own I always found it pretty insipid; pale and watery in both appearance and flavor. All that changed when I bought my first farmers’ market celery. I had a little trouble finding it at first because it looked completely different! Instead of the almost white stuff you get in the supermarket, this was a deep dark green and smelled delicious. I actually felt like just pulling off a stalk and eating it right there. When I got home, I did try some, and from that day on, I was a converted celery lover. The farmers’ market celery takes you on a flavor journey with each bite. It starts with a bright, wet sweetness, moving into a deep satisfying earthy green taste and then finishing with a little cleansing bitterness. The stalks are narrower than supermarket celery and it is a little stringier, but if that’s a problem, you can peel it a bit with a vegetable peeler.

In addition to handling all of the usual celery duties, this celery makes the best cream of celery soup I’ve ever had, try Julia Child’s recipe, it’s a little fussy but you won’t be disappointed. I was inspired to seek out more recipes starring celery and in my research I found a bunch of braised celery recipes. In the past, I had always wondered why anyone would braise celery, I could only imagine that it would become completely flavorless. But with my new best friend, farmers’ market celery, braising made a lot more sense.

So how did this happen? Obviously, if people were braising celery in the past, then it can’t have always been so wimpy tasting as the stuff we get in the grocery store. Celery leaves were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (d. 1323, BCE), so it has a long history with humans. The word in English comes originally from the Ancient Greek selinon which actually means parsley. This makes sense because celery and parsley are botanically related. In ancient times, celery was mainly used as a medicine, and some believed it to be an aphrodisiac. As with many plants taken up for cultivation by humans, we started out with the wild variety of celery, also known as smallage. It was quite bitter which may account for its primary use in medicine. I guess they’ve always thought medicine should be hard to swallow.

In the 16th Century French and Italian gardeners began to grow it, and cooks used it as an herb to flavor dishes. By the 17th and 18th Centuries growers had created a slightly less bitter version through selective breeding, but it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that celery came into its own as a vegetable. Gardeners continued to breed for a sweeter varietal, but more importantly, they discovered that if soil was banked around the base of the plant as it grew, it would “blanch.” Covering up the plants caused them to form much less chlorophyll and so they were a much lighter green and they tasted sweeter.

We’re not sure exactly when celery came to America, but in 1856 a Scottish immigrant named Taylor, brought celery to Kalamazoo, Michigan. At first, it wasn’t too popular, but then a Dutchman named Cornelius De Bruin, began growing it in the rich bottom lands of the Kalamazoo river. He is also said to have made some improvements through breeding to the original variety that Taylor had brought from England. Whatever Mr. De Bruin did, it worked, celery took off and after that Kalamazoo was known as Celery City.

I recently tried to contact the farm from which I buy my super-green, delicious celery, to ask what variety they are growing and if they bank their plants, but I haven’t heard back yet. I suspect their celery is not banked, otherwise it wouldn’t be so green. Have our palates changed since the 19th Century when celery was considered too bitter and had to be made pale and sweet in order to be tolerable? We certainly eat more “bitter greens” like arugula, endive and broccoli rabe, than we did say, 20 years ago. If you think celery is boring, I urge you to find some of the strong dark green stuff and try it out. Below is a fairly simple braised celery recipe from Italian food maven, Marcella Hazen. It reminds me of concentrated bites of cream of celery soup, but with pancetta and Parmesan cheese — far from boring.

Braised and Grantinéed Celery Stalks with Parmesan Cheese

Adapted from Marcella Hazen

Serves 6

2 bunches fresh celery (use the good dark green stuff)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped pancetta or prosciutto
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium store bought stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat your oven to 400 F.

Separate the stalks from the base of the celery and cut off the leafy tops. If you like, save the leaves and use them as you would parsley.

If you find the celery too stringy, use a vegetable peeler to peel the outside layer. Cut the stalks into pieces about 3 inches long.

In a saucepan bring 2-3 quarts of water to a boil, add the celery and allow the water to return to a boil, after one minute of boiling, remove the celery and set it aside to drain.

In a large skillet or saute pan, saute the onion in the butter until it becomes translucent, add the chopped pancetta or prosciutto. Cook for about 1 minute. Add the celery, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken broth, and bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and simmer until the celery begins to become tender but is still a little firm when pierced, about 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pan, turn the heat up, bringing the liquid to a boil. Cook in this manner until all of the liquid has evaporated.

Use tongs to gently move the celery to a baking dish, then spoon the onion and meat mixture over the top of the celery. Finally, sprinkle on the grated Parmesan. Bake it in the upper part of your oven until the cheese melts and turns a little brown and crusty. Remove from the oven, let stand for 3-5 minutes and then serve.

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Greengage and Pistachio Crumble Cooling on the Windowsill

Somehow foreign names for ingredients always sound exotic. Wouldn’t you rather make aubergine Parmesan, than just plain old eggplant? Or creep away after leaving baskets of excess courgettes on your neighbor’s doorstep in the middle of the night instead of secretly gifting them with zucchini?

One mysterious ingredient I always wondered about in British cookbooks was the greengage. Despite sounding like a sort of lab equipment for measuring chlorophyll, it turns out to be a particular varietal of plum very popular in the UK and not at all well known on this side of the pond. After reading of their preternatural sweetness which is coveted in Britain for desserts and jams, I really wanted to try some. Alas, through the fruit was grown in America when we were but colonies of mother England, it is rarely found here now. Greengages can be difficult to grow and even harder to get to market as they do not ship well, so American farmers switched to less persnickety types of plum.

The greengage (Prunus domestica italica) is originally a French varietal where it is called Reine Claude after Queen Claude (d. 1524), wife of King Francis I of France. Around 1725 Sir William Gage, 7th Baronet of the name, introduced these succulent sweeties into England. An unsubstantiated story tells us that during shipping the labels came off the plum trees. Since they were green and owned by Gage, they became known as greengages.

Greengages?

You can imagine my excitement when I ran across greengages for sale at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers’ Market in Brooklyn last Saturday. When I got them home and started to do a little research into where they came from and how they got their name, I found that in the US other types of green plums are often labeled “greengage” even if they are not. I tasted them and honestly, they didn’t strike me as any sweeter than other plums I’ve had, so I’m wondering, are they real greengages? Or perhaps they were picked a little too soon? I read that they don’t really ripen well after picking. British readers, please have a look at the photo above and weigh in about their authenticity in the comments. For reference they are about the size of a golf ball and the flesh inside is golden.

Whether or not they are actual greengages I decided to make a dessert with them anyway. I chose a Greengage and Pistachio Crumble from a British book called Healthy Fruit Desserts by Christine McFadden which is full of not-too-sweet dishes containing unusual ingredient combinations. I loved the idea of putting green pistachios together with their plum cousins. The crumble was pleasantly tart and I really enjoyed the crunchy topping which the oats made quite substantial. This is one of those desserts that also makes a great breakfast, containing far less sugar than most of what you find in the cereal aisle.

Greengage and Pistachio Crumble
adapted from Christine McFadden

Serves 3-4

¾ lb. ripe greengages
2 oz. sugar (about 4 tablespoons)
2 oz. unsalted butter (about ½ tablespoon)
1 oz. shelled pistachios
2 oz. all purpose flour
2 oz. rolled oats
Demerara sugar for garnish

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Pour boiling water over the pistachios and let them stand for about 5 minutes. Drain the pistachios, squeeze them out of their papery skins and chop the nuts finely.

Cut the greengages in half and remove the pits. Place them in a saucepan with ¼ ounce of the butter and 4 teaspoons of the sugar. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and very gently, until the butter and sugar melt and the greengages start producing juice. Pour the cooked greengages into a 9 inch pie plate.

Stir the flour and rolled oats together. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and use your fingers to rub it into the flour and oat mixture until the result looks like breadcrumbs or peas. Add the chopped pistachios and the remaining sugar and stir. Next, add water 1 teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together into a crumbly mixture.

Scatter the dough over the greengages in clumps and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.

Bake the crumble in the center of the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

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Photo by Wikipedia user Grcampbell

In the past, I have expressed my withering disdain for single-use kitchen gadgets like garlic presses, shrimp de-veiners, and pineapple slicers. Today I’m adding another one to the list, the Raclette Machine. I’m bowled over that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an appliance that makes a dish created by Swiss livestock herders who had nothing but a campfire, some cheese and a chunk of bread. I guess the idea is that doing the cooking at the table preserves the fantasy that we’re all sitting in front of a fireplace in our Swiss chalet? Come on.

My love of history leads me to do my best to make dishes the way they were (or are) traditionally made by the people who first thought them up. Consequently, I think I’ll take some Raclette along on my next camping trip. Meanwhile, I’ll enumerate below several ways it can be made easily at home without fancy, expensive equipment

Raclette is the name of the finished dish and the name of the cheese which is the main ingredient. The semi-firm cheese is partially melted in front of a fire and then scraped (“racler” means “to scrape” in French) onto a plate filled with freshly boiled new potatoes, cornichons, pickled pearl onions, and crusty bread. Other popular accompaniments include thinly sliced cured meat such as the Swiss air-dried beef called Bündnerfleisch. To drink there is usually beer, tea or kirsch, although a nice dry Swiss white wine won’t go amiss either.

But before we start cooking let’s talk about the most important component of this dish, the cheese. There are lots of cheeses out there labeled “Raclette” and they are certainly not equal. If you have access to a good cheesemonger who will discuss the cheeses and allow you to taste samples before cutting a piece the size you desire, go have a chat with them about Raclette. If you’re stuck buying pre-cut cheese from the case in an anonymous supermarket, learn to read labels. Good Raclette is a raw milk (au lait cru), semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese made in Switzerland or France and aged for three to six months.

The Swiss Canton of Valais is particularly known for the high quality of its Raclette. So much so that the Swiss Department of Agriculture registered “Raclette du Valais” as an AOC (controlled designation of origin) product. If you have a chance to look at the whole or half rounds of the cheese, you might see the name of the village where it was made imprinted on them. Names to look for include Bagnes, Conches, Gomser, or Orsières. Raclette made in other parts of Switzerland might be labeled “Raclette Suisse.” These are not necessarily bad, but beware of industrially produced cheese made from pasteurized milk, it won’t be as good.

Because Switzerland is not in the European Union, the AOC status for Raclette only applies within its own borders. That means that anyone from outside the country may make a cheese and call it Raclette. For example they have been making Raclette in the eastern part of France which borders on Switzerland (Savoie and Franche-Comté) for a very long time. It is done in a slightly different style which makes it softer and milder than its Swiss cousin. I’ve also had very nice Raclette from Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne region of France. Try a few and see which you like best.

This gooey comfort food does cry out for a chilly autumn night in front of the fire with friends, but new potatoes are in the farmers’ markets of the Northeast right now, so I couldn’t resist making it in Summer. I used a milder French Raclette which was warm and cuddly, sliding like a lava flow over my plate of potatoes and pickles.

Raclette with a Fireplace or Oven

Adapted from James Peterson

This is a fun dish to serve to a large group. Everyone can take turns heating up the cheese and scraping it onto their plates.

Serves 6-8 people

1½ – 2 pounds Raclette cheese in a half-round or wedge shape.
3 pounds new potatoes
sea salt or fine Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 jar good quality French cornichons
1 jar of pickled pearl onions
2 good quality French baguettes

Method for a fireplace or campfire (see below for several other methods including using the oven):

Build a good fire. Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind from the cheese. If it is too thick, cut it off with a sharp knife. Put the cheese on an oven proof plate or a stone. Put the plate or stone right next to the fire with the cut face of the cheese (not the part where the rind was) facing the heat.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan with salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit, and remove their peels. Keep the potatoes warm by putting them near the fire or in a 200 F. oven.

When the potatoes are ready and the cut face of the Raclette is soft and gooey, put a few potatoes on a serving plate, carefully pick up the cheese (use oven mitts if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape along the cut face, pushing melted cheese onto the serving plate. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Put the cheese back in front of the fire so it will be soft for the next round. Any leftover cheese can be wrapped and chilled to be used another time.

Method for Oven:

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan of salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit and remove their peels.

Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind off of the cheese. If it is too thick, use a sharp knife to cut it off. Slice the Raclette into ¾-inch thick slices.

Place the potatoes in a baking dish and arrange the sliced Raclette on top of them. Bake until the cheese is totally melted and covering the potatoes (about 10-15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon some potatoes and cheese onto serving plates and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Other alternative methods:

As above, for either of these methods you first must scrape or cut the rind from the cheese. Then prepare your potatoes.

If you have a gas stove, you can remove the grate and put your cheese on a fireproof plate or stone with the cut face as close to the flame as you can. I tried this, and it works pretty well. Make sure it is good and hot before you start scraping because it cools rather quickly.

I haven’t tried this last suggestion but I think it would work. If you decide to give it a shot let me know how it turned out in the comments. Put nonstick pan over high heat on your stove top and put the cut face of the cheese facing down in the pan. When the cut face becomes soft and gooey, carefully remove the cheese from the pan (using gloves if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape it over your serving dishes as above. Repeat as necessary when guests request further helpings of cheese.

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Photo by Flickr user ka_tate

You know those recipes you hear about and then tuck away in your mental “must try that” file? Today I’m pulling one out from way back in 2003. At that time I was an avid reader of Julie Powell’s groundbreaking blog, the Julie/Julia Project, in which she cooked all 536 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. Food blogs in those days didn’t have photos (really!), so It was like an old fashioned radio serial — think Flash Gordon — with readers tuning in every day (there was no RSS either) to see what (mis)adventures had befallen our cook-heroine during last night’s dinner preparations.

One of the dishes from the project which always stuck in my mind was Baked Cucumbers with Cream (Concombres a la Crème). The idea of hot cucumbers sounded really odd to me, but Julie gave them a rave review. In fact, her post on the subject is a fine example of her bold style which was sadly lacking in the recent movie-version of events. Here’s a sample:

Cucumbers baked with cream, I got to tell you, are fucking fantastic.  This baking of cucumbers has changed my life, I shall never be the same.  I’ll be one of those moms who puts disgusting looking shit in their kids’ lunchboxes so everyone thinks their freaky little monsters.  But I’ll have baked cucumbers to sustain me.

For all this time I remembered how amazed she was, and I finally got around to trying this recipe. It’s good. I don’t know that I’ll go with “life changing,” but it’s certainly unexpected. The cucumbers are sweet and slightly nutty and all the cream and butter makes for a rich treat. It’s sort of like a warm Tzatziki sauce. It would make a smashing side dish for lamb chops.

Baked Cucumbers with Cream

Adapted from Julia Child

Serves 4

6 cucumbers (each about 8 inches long)
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoons salt and more for seasoning
⅛ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup fresh dill, roughly chopped
4 scallions, minced (white and light green parts only)
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and more for seasoning
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley

Peel the cucumbers, slice them in half lengthwise, and use a small spoon to scoop out the seeds. Next cut the cucumber halves into strips about ⅜ inch wide and cut each strip into 2-inch pieces. Toss the cucumber pieces with the vinegar, 1½ teaspoons of salt and the sugar and allow them to stand for a minimum of 30 minutes. This draws a lot of the water out of the cucumbers, making them easier to cook.

Drain the cucumber pieces in a strainer and pat them dry with a paper towel.

Preheat your oven to 375 F.

Put the cucumber pieces in a baking dish with the melted butter, dill, scallions and ⅛ teaspoon of the black pepper, toss to coat. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour, stirring 2-3 times during the baking. They will not brown very much at all. When they are done take them out of the oven and keep them warm while you make the sauce.

In a small saucepan, boil the cream until it is reduced to ½ cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour it over the hot baked cucumbers, stirring gently to coat them. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

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Next month I’ll be attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in the UK. Each year, this conference on food, its culture, and its history focuses on a different theme; this year it’s Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods.

Living in a New York City apartment, the temperature and humidity of which is difficult to control at the best of times, it will be a while before my fantasy of making my own Prosciutto is realized. Smoking can be a bit easier. I have a friend who makes tea smoked duck, and homemade smoked sausages using a large wok with a rack and a lid. However, there is that pesky smoke detector to contend with. On the fermenting side, the only thing I’ve tried is homemade yogurt. In preparation for my upcoming trip to Oxford, I thought it high time I explored another aspect of this intriguing method of food preservation.

If I were living about 3000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, I don’t know that I would have come up with the idea of soaking cucumbers in salty water and spices in order to preserve them, but our Indian friends certainly knew what they were doing. In many English speaking countries the word “pickle” by default means a pickled cucumber, even though we humans have been pickling lots of other fruits, vegetables, and meat for thousands of years. Cucumbers are believed to have arisen in India. From there they spread to Ancient Greece, and the Romans took them all over the empire.

It just so happens that my local farmers’ market currently has piles of Kirby cucumbers of just the right size for making pickles. As a New Yorker, I couldn’t resist trying to make Kosher dills. Technically, since my kitchen is not Kosher, the pickles aren’t either, but the name refers to a particular style of pickle found in New York Jewish delicatessens that is known for containing plenty of garlic.

I was surprised at how easy these are to make. They don’t take nearly as long as some other fermented foods (sauerkraut, for example). The pickling spice I used contains some red pepper flakes which produced a pleasant spicy kick along with all that lovely dill and garlic. Plan ahead and make a couple of jars to bring along to that lucky friend’s house who has a grill.

“Kosher” Dill Pickles

Adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Makes one 1-quart jar of whole pickles

1 quart-sized canning jar with lids
2 quarts water
3 tablespoons kosher salt
10-12 small Kirby cucumbers, scrubbed
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly crushed
2 teaspoons picking spice (see below for recipe)
2 whole bay leaves
4-6 fronds of fresh dill, washed
cheesecloth
1 rubber band

Sterilize your canning jar by baking it in a 225 F oven for 5 minutes.

In a medium saucepan heat the salt and water until the salt is dissolved. Turn off the heat.

Cut both ends off of each cucumber. The blossom end contains an enzyme which can cause pickles to go mushy, it can be difficult to tell which end that is, so just cut a little off of both ends.

Pack the cucumbers into the jar vertically, as tightly as you can. Distribute the garlic, spices, bay leaves, and dill around and between the cucumbers as you are packing. A clean chopstick can be helpful for pushing the dill and garlic into small spaces. If you quarter each cucumber lengthwise you will be able to pack more into your jar. If you do it that way, buy more cucumbers than listed above, so they will be packed tightly.

When the jar is packed ladle the warm brine into it. Fill the jar so that the tops of the cucumbers are completely covered with brine. You probably won’t use all of the brine, but it’s better to have too much than not enough. Cover the top of the jar with a piece of cheesecloth and secure it with the rubber band.

Put the jar in a cool dark place for 3-6 days to allow the pickles to ferment. After 3 days taste them and see if they are to your liking. If you chose to quarter your cucumbers they will be finished sooner. A longer fermentation time makes for a more sour pickle. When they taste the way you like, remove the cheese cloth, put the lids on the jar and refrigerate your pickles.

Pickling Spice

Adapted from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Makes about ¼ cup

1½ teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1½ teaspoons mustard seeds
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
1½ hot red pepper flakes
1½ whole allspice berries
½ teaspoon ground mace
½ small cinnamon stick, crushed
1½ teaspoons whole cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger

Put the peppercorns, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds in a small dry skillet. Toast them over medium heat until fragrant, stirring constantly. Transfer the toasted spices to a mortar and pestle and crush them slightly.

Combine the toasted, crushed spices with the rest of the ingredients, mix well. Store in an airtight, opaque container.

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What was the latest fashion at court of Versailles in 1696? Why English peas of course, hadn’t you heard?

The ladies of Versailles knew a good thing when they tasted it. In the late 17th Century fresh, green English peas were all the rage. It may seem odd to us, since today peas are seen as quite a pedestrian vegetable. Thanks to Mr. Birdseye we can get them all year round. But until about 400 years ago, the only peas in existence were much larger, starchy, field peas which were usually dried and then used to make pease porridge (split pea soup). This is the way peas had been eaten for thousands of years.

Imagine the stir caused by small, sweet, green peas that were meant to be eaten fresh. This new variety was developed by English gardeners, and soon became the object of singular desire at Versailles. The courtiers paid astronomical prices for the delicate, verdant, pleasure that is the English pea.

Madame de Maintenon (King Louis XIV’s second wife) wrote that, “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness. ”

English peas (sometimes called garden peas or green peas) are only in the market for a short time here in the northeast, so run out and get some while you have the chance. When shopping for English peas, look for pods that are plump but not too fat. The really swollen ones will have larger peas in them which won’t taste as sweet. Please don’t buy pre-shelled peas, they start to loose their sweetness as soon as they come out of the pod. For that same reason, don’t open them up until right before they’re going in the pot. You’ll need a lot of peas, and I mean A LOT. One pound of unshelled peas will yield about a cup of the little suckers, so make sure you get enough.

Shelling takes time, but once you get the hang of it, it can be quite meditative and relaxing. A few tips: Pour yourself a nice cold drink, a Campari and Soda is a classic summer cocktail, just the thing to rouse the appetite. Put on some good music, if you don’t already know about Radio Paradise, give them a try. Finally, use a nice deep bowl, so when you run your thumb down the inside of the pod to loosen the peas, they don’t go bouncing all over the floor. Oh, and if you’re feeling frugal, save the empty pods and use them as an ingredient in homemade vegetable stock.

This soup makes for a refreshing supper on a hot summer night. The mint (a classic pairing with English peas) gives a heftier green undertone to the light, sweet peas and the crème Fraîche enriches the soup without overwhelming the delicate flavors.

Fresh (and Fashionable) English Pea Soup

Adapted from Ina Garten

Serves 2

1 small onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped (white and light green parts only)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cups shelled fresh English peas (about 3 lbs. unshelled)
3 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium commercial stock
⅓ cup chopped fresh mint, plus a bit more for garnish
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons crème fraîche

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and cook the leek and onion over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, until soft.

Add the chicken stock to the pot, turn up the heat and bring it to a boil. Add the peas and cook for only 3-5 minutes, Do not overcook them, they should be a bright green and still pop in your mouth when you taste them.

When the peas are done, remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped mint, and salt and ground pepper to taste.

Puree the soup with a hand blender, or in batches using a countertop blender or food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl and a sprinkling of the remaining chopped mint on top.

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Borlotti Beans / photo by Flickr user The Ewan

“Is Slow Food Really Slow?” is a series here on Comestibles in which we explore the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe.

Unless you’ve come up with a way of folding time and space in the kitchen, it does take longer to cook with dried beans than canned ones. However, the flavor and texture is vastly superior, and there are some things you can do to make it go a little faster.

I know I sound like your mother, but plan ahead. If you make a big batch of beans on the weekend when you have more time, you can store them in the refrigerator (7-10 days) or freezer (2-3 months), with or without their cooking liquid, to use later in soups, salads, purees, etc. To prevent them from growing mushy in the fridge or freezer, mix in a little lemon juice or vinegar, the acidic quality of which will help them retain their structural integrity.

Another important consideration is the age of your beans. Often the dried beans found in the grocery store are 2-3 years old. The older the beans, the more slowly they absorb water, which makes everything take longer. Older beans can also have a flat, cardboard-y flavor. Unfortunately, there aren’t any use-by dates on packages of dried beans, but there are ways to find fresher beans, which will cook faster.

It helps to buy from a store that has good turnover in their bean section. Look for ethnic markets where beans figure prominently in the cuisine (e.g., Central or South America, or the Caribbean). Another option is to buy from a local bean farmer. You’ll pay a little more (about the same price as canned) but they’ll be very fresh with complex earthy flavors and a firm creaminess you won’t find in the grocery store. At the New York City farmers’ markets there are several good options. Cayuga Pure Organics from Brooktondale, NY sells organic beans for $4/lb. on Wednesdays at Union Square and Saturdays at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, and Maxwell’s Farm of Changewater, NJ whose beans are priced at $3/lb., can be found at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on Mondays and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Saturdays.

Once you have good, fresh beans, you do need to soak them, but not necessarily “overnight” as most recipes direct. According to food science maven, Harold McGee, soaking beans for more than four hours doesn’t gain you anything. See, we’ve cut some time out already!

Next, be sure to use enough water. Beans should be cooked in three times their volume of salted water; adjust the heat so they are simmering and not boiling hard, and partially cover the pot. Depending on the type of bean, they can take anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour to cook. To avoid over cooking, taste them every 15 minutes or so during the cooking process. They are done when they are tender, but not mushy, with a creamy interior.

Finally, if you’ve made the classic mistake of not reading the recipe all the way through, discovered that you were supposed to have soaked the beans, and your dinner party guests are arriving in 3 hours, here’s a trick to shorten the process. Put the dried beans in three times their volume of water and bring them to a boil, boil for 2-3 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the pot to stand, covered, for 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans and cook as usual. They will cook in about the same amount of time, and you didn’t have to soak for 4 hours. This method also has the advantage of removing some of the chemical compounds which cause digestive issues with beans for some people.

Yes, cans are easier and faster, but using fresh, dried beans from a local farmer, reduces kitchen waste, supports your local food economy, and just plain tastes better.

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