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Lazy, but not local

Making pesto in winter when Mother Nature just dumped a fluffy foot of snow on your house is certainly not endorsed by strict localvores. It’s a task normally reserved for the hazy days of summer, when gardens are busting with basil, not sleeping quietly under a heavy blanket of white.

But I’m a fish taco freak and for me, fish tacos need fresh cilantro. In the winter this means I buy my fresh herbs from Mexico, Guatemala, or where ever else they’re shipped from. Oops.

Wilted cilantro ready for the food processor.

I usually buy a bunch and everything is fine and dandy. I have some delicious tacos, then I toss the rest of the cilantro in the fridge and forget about it. Until a week later, when I’m rummaging in the vegetable drawer, trying to scare up some grub and there it is. A bunch of verdant herbs, now wilted and limp. It makes me feel guilty.

Enter, poor man’s pesto.

Even yellowing and wilted herbs can turn into a bright pesto.

Whatever wilted and forgotten herbs you have on hand (I’ve tried cilantro, parsley and basil all with success), whizzed in the food processor with nuts, a bit of olive oil and citrus, salt and pepper and you’ve got a vibrant, zippy condiment that is great on anything: fish, chicken, tofu, meat, bread, crackers. It freezes well too.

Pesto most frequently presents itself in the pesto alla genovese form, with basil and pine nuts as the base. But “pesto” is really just a term derived from the Italian word for “to crush,” as in to crush herbs and garlic (think mortar and pestle). I stopped using pine nuts in my pesto because they are so expensive and I prefer the flavor of walnuts. Use whatever you like. The best part about pesto is you can use whatever you have on hand. I’ve made pesto with pine nuts, walnuts, sunflower sweets, peanuts, almonds and pecans. Also, herbs that may be too wilted to chop and sprinkle are great for pesto, I’ve never noticed a lack of brightness, even from leaves that look destined for the compost pile. Just watch for the rotten bits. Pick those out.

Some ideas:

  • cilantro, walnut, lime pesto atop a firm white fish like halibut or sea bass
  • lemon, parmesan, parsley pesto tossed with whole wheat pasta
  • sage, walnut, garlic pesto served with roasted pork

This recipe is in the style of Michael Ruhlman author of, “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.” In Ruhlman’s cookbook he focuses on the ratios required in different recipes, rather than give exact measurements of every single ingredient.

The ratio (roughly) =

2 parts fresh herbs 1 part nuts

Sometimes you have two wilting bunches of herbs, sometimes a scant one. Maybe you have a lime to use up, maybe it’s a lemon. They key to success lies in tasting as you go. When you can’t stop dipping your hand straight into the bowl, licking the pesto surreptitiously from your fingers, you’re done.

Note: You need a food processor. Or giant muscles and a mortar and pestle, but that’s a lot of work.

Poor man’s wilted herb pesto

Ingredients

2 cups fresh herbs, stems on, roughly chopped (cilantro, basil, parsley or some combination have all worked well for me)

1 cup nuts (I’ve had success with walnuts, pecans, peanuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts)

1/4 cup oil (olive, or another but stay away from very strong flavors like sesame). NOTE: This is a fairly dry pesto, with less oil than some. Add more if you prefer.

2 cloves garlic (more or less, depending on preference)

lemon or lime juice to taste

salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Skin the garlic and mince it in a food processor.

2. Chop off the end of the herb’s stems, roughly chop the rest. Add into the food processor along with the nuts, no need to chop them. Whiz the herbs and nuts together, drizzling in the olive oil until you get the consistency you’re looking for. I like mine smooth, but with visible specks of herbs.

3. Add the lemon or lime juice and salt and pepper. Whiz everything together, taste, adjust for seasoning. Freeze in small glass jars with an inch of head room or refrigerate for 3-4 days.

Yields roughly a cup and a half.

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Family recipes

I love family recipes. There is just something special about food passed down from generation to generation. It’s not all nostalgia either, although there is a heavy dash of that. Other reasons as well make family recipes valuable.

1. Tried and true. These babies have been in use for years, over and over again. If it doesn’t work, it would have been tossed long ago.

2. Delicious (well, maybe). Barring a few dishes that are kept around for nostalgic reasons (think boiled, sulfurous brussels sprouts) – if someone is going to bother making the same meal over and over again, there is a reason: It’s good. People ask for it, and unless they are ass-kissers, that means they like it.

3. Advice. Confused about when to add the flour, or whether to whisk or fold? Just ask! Unless you are the sole family survivor, which would be quite sad, then you’ve got people you can call and ask questions of when you get mixed up and begin tilting towards disaster.

A prime family recipe. Stained, tattered, notes in the margins. I found this in my mom’s recipe box. It’s for chicken pot pie, a childhood favorite in our house.

I realized all of these benefits on New Year’s Eve, when I made my grandmother Louise’s recipe for coq au vin. Luckily she and my Aunt Christine were both in the house, so I could pepper them with any little concern that came to mind.

Some families guard their recipes, as if they are precious secrets. And I guess I sort of see why. Maybe they want to be able to boast that they make the best corn bread this side of Texas? Either way, I’m all for sharing. Because if you figure out how to do something well, but don’t tell anyone, it doesn’t do much good. Luckily my grandmother agrees, and said I could feature her recipe here.

This was her go-to dinner party recipe that she made most frequently in the 50s and 60s, for all sorts of company. She remembers once making it for her daughter Christine, her college roommate from Brown, and the girl’s parents. Grammy (Louise) said she often gravitated towards this recipe, because she could make it ahead, then relax and have a drink with her guests before dinner while the dish was warming in the oven. I asked her how she found the time to make it (it took me quite a while). She said, “Oh I didn’t have anything else to do.” For those who don’t know her, she had eight children, then earned her masters and went on to practice psychology at Tufts. As a single parent. I’m tired from just typing that.

Coq au vin is a classic French recipe, translating to “rooster with wine.” Traditionally a tough old rooster was stewed for hours in wine, until it was tender and juicy. My grandmother’s recipe called for fryers, or small chickens. We used chicken thighs and they worked well. Two buck chuck was our vin, and it did just fine. Anything dry would do.

Serve with a simple salad and crusty bread for mopping up all that wine-y goodness.

The coq au vin right before its long nap in the oven.

I made a few changes to the recipe, basically removing the canned goods and adding a few notes. The original recipe is below.

Louise Heard’s Coq au vin

Serves 6-8, generously

2 cups diced salt pork

2 tablespoons butter

4 fryers (quartered) or 8 chicken thighs

4 teaspoons of salt

2 cans whole onions, or one small frozen bag

4 cups white mushrooms, sliced

1 bunch sliced scallions

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1/3 cup flour

4 cups red wine

2 sprigs parsley

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1. Early in the day: cook salt pork in boiling salted water in Dutch oven for 5 minutes. (Note: the salt pork was very hard for me to slice, until I boiled it, then it was a piece of cake. If your pork has the skin still on: boil first, then chop.) Drain, add butter to pork; saute pork until brown. Remove, reserve.

2. Sear chicken on each side until lightly browned (If you are pressed for time, you can skip this.) Sprinkle with salt, pepper, add onions and mushrooms, simmer covered for 15 minutes.

3. Pour most of the fat, leaving enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Add scallions, garlic; simmer one minute.

4. Stir in flour, cook stirring till thickened, sprinkle parsley, thyme and salt pork. Add wine, stir to coat.

5. Bake covered at 350 degrees for two hours.

6. Serve immediately or cool and refrigerate. Reheat and serve up to two days later.

The original recipe.

Grammy and I have been living together for just about a month now and it’s been so fun. We spend most days by the fire, reading and working on our laptops. This means we’ve a few more family recipes that I will post about soon. Up next, homemade fish chowder that was her mother’s recipe. My mom and I filleted two white bass to make it. There were a few choice four letter words (from me), followed by some very good soup. More to come on that. But for now, do you have special family recipes? What are they? Does your family share them, or are they top secret?

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A parmesan preoccupation

I use an inordinate amount of parmesan cheese. Sprinkled on pasta, stirred into soups and sliced on top of crusty bread.

Perhaps it’s a family thing. And by that I don’t mean I learned to love it from my family. I mean maybe each family is alloted a certain amount of parmesan cheese by some fromage deity, and I have to pick up the slack. For my father, parmesan cheese is like kryptonite. He creeps around bowls of it with his nostrils flared, nervously sniffing for a stinky whiff and eyes us suspiciously when he’s eating something we made. “There’s no pah-masan in this right?”

When you go through a lot of parmesan, you end up with a lot of parmesan rinds. Until a few years ago I always scraped off as much as I could, cutting my knuckles on the grater in the process, and tossed the rind into the trash. Then, I discovered the rind is almost as useful as the block. When stirred into soups, stews, stocks, risottos and broths, it imparts an unctuous umami richness that gently warms the back of your dish’s flavor profile, lending depth and complexity.

I got the idea for  a blog post on parmesan rinds walking through Whole Foods last weekend. They were selling a little plastic tub of four rinds for $6.

Rinds that usually come for free, attached to your parmesan.

I love Whole Foods; If I was rich I’d cruise through the aisles carefree, swatting organic shampoo and pencil-thin asparagus into my cart without a second thought. But even if I was rich, I’d still save my own parmesan rinds. Because frankly, it’s too easy not to. You’ve already forked over the dough for a block of cheese, they store well in the freezer and can be used without any fuss. Just designate a plastic bag in your freezer as your rind bag, whenever you come to the end of your parmesan wedge, carefully scrape off the plastic or wax (if there is any), and toss it into your bag. Pull out and use at will.

Here are a few uses for parmesan rinds. Be sure to gently scrape off any plastic or wax on the rind before using it, a sharp paring knife works well.

  • Crostini: The parmesan rind, once stripped of its plastic, is entirely edible but often too hard to chew. Toast in the oven/toaster oven or over an open flame (like a cheesy s’more) and serve on crusty bread with a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Infused oil: Wedge rind into a little jar, cover with olive oil, let rest over night. Remove the rind and reserve the liquid as an infused oil for pasta, dipping bread or salad dressing.
  • Soups, stews and stocks: Stir into any soup or stew you could picture eating with a sprinkle of parmesan on top. Vegetable, mushroom, minestrone, Italian meatball, tomato, potato leek and kale and white bean soups are all excellent with parmesan rind. Fish out the rind before serving with a slotted spoon.
  • Tomato sauce: Toss a rind into tomato sauce while it’s simmering on the stove, fish it out before serving with a slotted spoon.
  • Risotto: Toss a rind into risotto while you are in the broth-adding phase, fish it out before serving with a slotted spoon.
  • Broths and stocks: Parmesan can enhance stock and broths, or make its own. Gently simmer a rind for 30 minutes and remove with a slotted spoon, use the liquid for soups, stews or braising. Or just toss into whatever homemade stock you’ve got bubbling, remove with a slotted spoon when finished.
  • For Fido: Cut up chunks of the cheese rind to use as dog treats.



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Hello world!

Um. Ehem, ehem. Excuse me, if I could have your attention please.

Hello.

That’s all. Thank you for your time.

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