Thursday, September 26, 2013

Eating Fall: Dealing with All of that Basil

It's time to start figuring out what you are going to do with all of the beautiful Basil growing in your garden.  Basil is a very popular choice. It's easy to grow, depending on the overnight heat, it will grow like crazy - even in a window box. It's a wonderful herb if you only have a small space or a window box, fire escape, or whatever as long as it has sun and warmth and water it will do very well.  Basil is also a versatile herb.  It's great in sauces, soups, eggs, and makes delicious flavored oils. And of course, Basil is the main ingredient in traditional Pesto.  A jar of pesto will hold well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks if you keep a half inch or so of extra virgin olive on top of the pesto as you use it. 

For long term storage of my tons of beautiful Basil, I use three basic techniques:

     Freeze leaves
     Freeze a purée of leaves and extra virgin olive oil
     Freeze Pesto

For the first technique, wash and dry your Basil (always wash any herbs before you use it; you never know who's set up housekeeping in there!).  Pat it dry, pull the leaves from the stems and add the leaves to a good freezer bag. After you fill the bag squeeze out all of the air, label and pop it 
in the freezer. The leaves will turn black but they will maintain their flavor for sauces, soups, etc. When you take leaves out let them sit for a few minutes to defrost and give off excess moisture.

For the second technique, just add the leaves - treated as above - to your blender with extra virgin oil and just a touch of kosher salt.  Purée the mixture and pour it into ice cube trays.  Now I know you may have to go out and buy ice cube trays because of the ice making capabilities of many refrigerators but it's worth it.  Plastic trays stack together nicely for storage and if that ice maker ever goes south - you're ready!  When the "cubes" are frozen, pop them out, put them in a good freezer bag, label it and put it in the freezer.  With a couple of cubes, you have a delicious fat for pan roasting fish, steaming clams, spreading on hot bread or just tossing with hot noodles.  Wherever your imagination takes you, they are very versatile. I can tell you that they don't work as cubes in a Bloody Mary - nope not at all. Trust me.  It's an oil thing!

The last technique uses the blender method but does it with actual Pesto in place of just leaves and olive oil.  I keep the cheese out of my Pesto cubes but I do add the Basil, the extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves to taste and a bit of salt to the blender and give it a good whirl. When it's incorporated I add some pine nuts and just stir them through. Pour into the ice. Use trays and repeat the freezing and bagging process. I like to vary the pesto a bit; I'll freeze a bag of "spicy" pesto (with some dry hot pepper flakes blended in), and a "traditional" pesto mixture.  Be sure to mark your bags!

Note:  I am not a fan of dried basil.  Some herbs, like oregano and marjoram, develop wonderful flavors when they are dried. In my opinion basil loses flavor when dried.  I always dry a little because I have so much, but I try to use it quickly and invariably I don't use it all.

With these techniques - especially the second and third ones, you can walk in the door on a weeknight and have a nice start on something delicious. And if you look in the cold cases at the supermarket you'll notice these "flavor starts" packets or whatever the various manufacturers call them. The packages say that you should just start with the cube or envelope and add your ingredients.  Well I have to say, somewhere in the mix of those things are olive oil and herbs. But - and this is a big but - there's a ton of chemicals and additives in there too.  

Yours will be pristine and delicious!

A Jar of Homemade Pesto  

Some of My Genovese Basil

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eating Fall: Second in a Series - The Incredible Fig

In the past few weeks, Figs have been front and center in the Farmers Markets. We're really lucky here in South Philadelphia to have tons of mature fig trees all over the neighborhood - and owners of those trees who sell their figs through local markets.  It's not unusual to get to the checkout and see beautiful figs in egg cartons with a sign that says, "Guido's Figs, one dollar each/$9.00 for a dozen". These figs are, as you can imagine, incredibly fresh, delicious and raised pretty much in an organic fashion.

Certainly Fig Jam is a great product to make with wonderful fresh figs. Our local canning guru, Marissa McClellan, has a great and easy recipe for fig jam in her wonderful book, "Food In Jars". We used her recipe to put up a dozen jars this year.  

But there are many other things to do with this heavenly fruit.  Below is a picture of a Fig Tart that we made recently.  It's simply one sheet of Puff Pastry, rolled out a bit, scored  around the edges, and filled with quartered figs.  My better half does the beautiful placement of figs onto the dough (second picture). I drizzled a bit of local honey over the figs and baked it at 375 degrees convection (400 degrees regular oven) for about 12 - 15 minutes.  Be sure the underside of your crust has a chance to get crisp - figs give off a lot of (heavenly) juice as they bake.  The accompaniment for this tart is three tablespoons of crushed shelled pistachios into a cup of thick Greek yogurt, sprinkle a little honey or sugar into the mixture and whip it together. Serve a dollop with each slice of the tart. 

My second favorite use of fresh figs is pizza. As you know if you follow the blog, we love to have Pizza Night at our home. One of the things that has made it so enjoyable is the fact that we buy pre-made thin pizza crust (Pillsbury, usually displayed with the rolls, in the dairy case).  Yes, from time to time we go the whole "scratch" road and we usually alway have a local bread or pizza makers dough in our freezer.  But on weeknights there is nothing like unrolling a lovely thin crust onto an oiled cookie sheet and getting creative.  And this is the perfect crust for Fig, Goat & Blue Cheese Pizza!

Oil the baking sheet with a bit of good EVOO.  Spread out the dough as close to the edges of the pan as you can - you want a thin crust after all - see photo.  Then pre-cook the pizza dough for 5 - 7 minutes at 400 degrees.  See photo. You don't want it very brown or anything, you just want a nice mild crispness.

Add your cheeses.  In this one we are doing one half chèvre, one half chèvre and blue cheese, with thinly sliced red onions and good EVOOO and chopped fresh rosemary over all. See photos. 

And then add the figs, sliced into rounds in our case because we are getting a little low on figs. The entire pizza is drizzled with a good extra virgin olive oil and popped into a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes.

Let the pizza rest for about five minutes and slice. This is a great pizza for snacks with cocktails, as a first course or as a main with a great green salad.  

Go get some Figs and, at the very least, just stand there and eat them!

Fig Puff Pastry Tart with 
Pistachio, Yogurt topping 
Fig Tart - Pre-Bake
Fig Pizza dough prep

Post pre-cook of pizza crust
EVOO and cheeses added
Thinly sliced red onions and 
Fresh, chopped rosemary 
Figs added, with another 
overall drizzle of EVOO.    

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Eating Fall: Easy Coq au Vin for Two

Fall is a great time for cooking and eating.  Over the next few weeks I thought it would be interesting and fun to share some recipes that seem to fit the return of cooler weather.  This first recipe is adapted from Ian Knauer's great cookbook, The Farm.  This version is just right for two people and if you round it out with some late season corn, and a salad or some sautéed greens, it makes an elegant and easy early Fall dinner.

Easy Coq au Vin for Two


Two chicken legs ( whole legs and thighs)
Salt & Pepper
1 Tablespoon of Fat - Bacon Fat or Duck Fat or a combination (which I used) OR 1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil (see note)

One leek, cleaned and chopped
One celery stalk, leaves included, chopped 
One carrot, sliced
Three garlic cloves, smashed

One cup of dry red wine - whatever you would drink
One bay leaf
One large sprig of fresh thyme


Pat the chicken legs dry
Season the legs with salt and pepper

Heat the fat in a heavy skillet (I used a medium cast iron skillet)
Bring the fat to a shimmer
Sear the chicken, skin side down, until the skin is golden brown - this should take about five minutes - do not turn the chicken over, just remove it to a plate

Add the leeks, celery, carrots, and garlic to the skillet and cook - remember to scrape all of the brown bits (called "Fond") as you cook the aromatics.
Cook until the vegetables are golden, but not quite brown, about 6 - 8 minutes.

Add the wine, bay leaf, and thyme to the skillet and bring to a boil.

Put the chicken back into the skillet, skin side up, and simmer with a cover on the skillet for about 20 - 25 minutes.

Uncover and simmer for another 5 - 7 minutes to slightly reduce the sauce.  

Remove the chicken to a warm plate. 

Add one or two tablespoons of unsalted butter and whisk until the butter is incorporated into the sauce.

Remove the bay leaf and season the sauce with salt & pepper.

You can strain the sauce if you wish.

Serve the chicken with the sauce ladled over it.  Good crusty bread also makes a nice accompaniment.

Note:  I - and this idea is right from Ian Knauer's Book - keep a jar of mixed fat in the refrigerator.  What Knauer calls a Master Fat. So when I make bacon - and this kind of fat keeping is what we are most accustomed to - I pour off the fat (keep the brown bits out) into the jar. When I cook duck breast, if I am not using the rendered fat for fries, I pour it into the jar. Recently, I roasted a piece of Peameal Bacon. Some of that rendered fat is in the jar.  Knauer suggests that every few weeks you can sit the jar in warm water to incorporate the fats. This makes for a very, very delicious cooking fat and in this recipe it really adds a flavor level! Master Fat - highly recommended.