Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chicken-Sitting (yes, that's a thing)

These are my friend Robin's chickens. She went on vacation, and I chicken-sat for a few days. I was excited to care for them because I really like the idea of keeping chickens, but I hesitate to volunteer to take responsibility for another living thing. Between my kids and my dog, I brush a lot of teeth that are not my own (yes, I know chickens don't have teeth - I'm just making a point).

Anyway, these chickens are wonderful. They are really fat and fluffy and soft and clean. Every day they each lay a perfect light brown egg. Which I experimented with happily. I fried, I soft-boiled, I poached, and I scrambled. The yolks are bright orange, and bigger than the yolks in my supermarket eggs; they also have much more flavor. I didn't even put salt on the soft-boiled egg, and it was delicious. One day I fried an egg that was minutes old, and one that was a day old, and now I can tell you to let an egg cool before you cook it. The ridiculously fresh egg was much thinner in consistency, and made a very flat and thin fried egg. The cold one was amazing - the yolk sat so proud, and the white held together so beautifully, there was no frilly edge at all. The biggest cooking difference I found was with poaching. I cracked the eggs one by one into a small measuring cup, and poured them into the water, and they didn't spread AT ALL. They were the most perfect poached eggs I've ever made (or eaten, for that matter) - I didn't even make a little whirlpool to drop them into like I usually do. 

I really only had one problem while Robin was gone. On the evening of the day she left town I checked on the chickens. They have two nests which they share for laying. As you can see in the photo, there is a light brown chicken, a speckled chicken, and two black chickens. When I first checked on them, there was a black chicken laying, so I left her alone and collected two eggs from the other nest. The next morning when I checked, there was a black chicken in the same spot. I went back later that day to check for eggs, and, yet again, there was a black chicken in the same spot. It was at this point that I wondered if perhaps the same chicken had been sitting there since Robin left. She looked at me when I lifted her roof, so I knew she wasn't dead, but other than that, I had no idea if she was sick or sad, or if my timing was such that there was always a black chicken laying whenever I went over there. 

The next day when I went to check I wasn't even surprised to see a black chicken in the nest. I texted Robin (don't you love when your chicken-sitter texts you with a chicken emergency when you are on vacation?) and she suggested that the black chicken was "broody." Since there's no rooster, she said that all I could do was get the black chicken off the nest, but to be careful, because she would peck me. So I put on two thick sweatshirts and headed back to the coop, a little terrified. Then I remembered that when my father was a child he had kept chickens, so I called him. He lives 3000 miles away, so I had to settle for a phone consultation. He suggested I just lift the chicken up from under her wings, take the eggs, and put her down in the coop. He made it sound so easy. So I did it. I lifted her up and saw three eggs underneath her. I took them away and balanced them on Robin's picnic table along with the egg I took from the other nest (I think you know where I'm going with this). Then I put a cup of seeds in front of her, let her take a few, and then I threw the seeds into the coop. She flew down and started eating. Just then I heard a loud squawk, and by the time I looked over at the picnic table, a crow had pecked a huge hole in one of the eggs and it was almost empty. I was furious! I hadn't done much for the other eggs I'd collected, but I'd worked for these. I didn't have an egg crate with me, so I carefully nestled the three remaining my purse. When I was ready to go, I very carefully carried my purse to the car, wondering if this was the last time I would get to use it. But they arrived home safe and sound. 

Robin's back, and although I enjoyed chicken-sitting, I'm glad to hand the reigns back to her. But just look at my perfect poached eggs:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pelindaba Lavender Festival

Although much of the rest of the country is experiencing a heat wave and a record drought, our weather here in the Pacific Northwest continues to approximate early Spring or late Fall. 

Pelindaba Lavender Farm is located inland on San Juan Island in a lovely warm, dry microclimate, just perfect for lavender, but on Sunday we velcro'ed down the sides of the tents to keep the rain out, and bundled up in sweatshirts and windbreakers. The photo above is of me with Pelindaba's Stephen Robins during a sun break. I think the weather might have been my fault because I made hundreds of bite-sized lavender meringues especially for the festival, and meringues don't like rain. So...

Despite the weather, my family and I had a terrific day. The brave souls who ventured out in the rain were interesting and interested, and I met many incredibly kind and friendly islanders. My kids ran through the fields, made crafts like lovely smelling soap balls tied with ribbon, and paintings of the fields in bloom, and Pelindaba's kitchen sold an array of delicious choices for lunch. I had a flaky, flavorful lamb pie with lavender and ended my day with an unbelievably decadent ice cream sandwich made with two rich and chewy chocolate cookies filled with chocolate lavender ice cream. A 9-person Marimba band played under a tent and their music was joyous and spirited, and you could tell they were having as much fun as their audience was. 

All in all it was a beautiful day; the lavender fields are in bloom, and the rain made everything smell particularly fresh and clean. Pelindaba began as an open space preservation project, and that same generous spirit comes through in everything they do. There was a real sense of community at the farm - islanders greeting each other with hugs, strangers introducing themselves, and a whole lot of milling about admiring the lavender. 

As we were getting ready to board the ferry for the ride back to Anacortes at the end of the day, we ran into friends who had sailed to the island. We hadn't seen them in ages, and running into them in Friday Harbor felt like the cherry on top of a perfect Pacific Northwest summer day -- the weather may not have cooperated, but there's no place more beautiful or warm in spirit.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Superb Summer Sockeye

I picked up 6 pounds of fresh sockeye salmon from Loki Fish Co. on Saturday morning. I sincerely wish I had a photo to show you. I have to admit that when I see beautiful food shots on blogs (and goodness, there are really some amazing ones out there - have you seen la tartine gourmande or smitten kitchen?), I not only admire their photo skills, but also their patience. I make food, and then I eat it. Later I think about how I should have stopped for a moment and attempted a photo. But it probably wouldn't have been a good one anyway, and so my regret is short-lived.

Back to the salmon: It was the most magnificent, intense, corally-red color. It glistened. It was striped white with silky fat. It was firm and supple, and smelled of the sea. I showed immense self-control by only buying 6 pounds of it.

It came in 3 pieces. The first piece I grilled and we ate it as a salmon nicoise with a mustardy, shallot-heavy vinaigrette, hard boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes, and barely blanched vibrant green beans and boiled Yukon Gold potatoes from Alvarez Family Farm. It felt like summer had finally arrived.

Tonight I slow roasted the other 2 pieces the way I learned from Jerry Traunfeld's The Herbal Kitchen: Simply "slather" both sides of the filleted, skinned salmon with olive oil, season with salt, and bake at 225 degrees F just until a little of the white stuff starts congealing around the salmon. The cooked color is the same vibrant color it was pre-cooking, and the texture is as silky as it was raw, but the layers separate when prodded. I have never served salmon cooked this way to anyone who didn't absolutely love it. Of course, the better the raw fish you start with, the better the result, and so tonight the salmon was just amazing. I made (another!) batch of Kelly Daly's kale and wheat berry salad and served a 6 ounce piece of the shimmering roasted salmon on top of each serving. I went light on the smoked salmon in the salad, and I lightly salted the salmon I roasted, and we just loved the combination.

So next time you've got a fabulous piece of salmon, try cooking it Traunfeld's way. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can never have too many ways to prepare fresh salmon...

Friday, July 6, 2012

Chef Kelly Daly, Inspired by the Market

This is Chef Kelly Daly, from the restaurant Ravish on Eastlake. Last weekend Kelly demonstrated at the University Farmer's Market in conjunction with Washington Food Artisans. She made the dish that she contributed to my book (Asian Beef Satay with an orange-coconut curry dipping sauce) as well as a Wheatberry Salad with Kale and Smoked Salmon inspired by what was fresh at the market. Not only were both of her dishes absolutely delicious and very well-received, but I think she might be the next Food Network star!

The people who were lucky enough to score a chair in front of the demonstration tent were entranced - not only is Kelly totally adorable, but she's a natural-born teacher. She shared her knowledge about every ingredient she touched, and I learned at least a dozen pieces of new and useful information. About blanching kale, for example. I've always cut the leafy part from the rib, then submerged the leaves in boiling water, then fished them out with a spider and dunked them in a bowl of ice water. Kelly simply held the bunch by their stems, pushed them into the boiling water and swirled them around a bit, all the while holding onto the stems. Then she pulled the whole bunch out and submerged it into the ice water, still holding onto the stems. Then she pulled them out of the ice water, shook them off, and then cut the ribs out of the leaves. It was so much quicker and neater, and there was no fishing around for anything.

Kelly used the wheat berry salad she made as a filling (along with the blanched kale and some beautifully moist smoked salmon) for fresh rolls, and she demonstrated how to soften the wrappers and assemble the rolls. I loved the salad filling so much that I went home and made it immediately. It held beautifully overnight, and we ate it (as a salad, with a drizzle of creme fraiche) with friends on Sunday who loved it as much as we did. It's really the perfect picnic item because it's a full meal in salad form, can be made a whole day ahead, and it's beautiful.

So here you go, with huge thanks to Chef Kelly Daly. Ravish, by the way, is located at 2956 Eastlake Avenue E.

Smoked Salmon, Kale, and Wheat Berry Fresh Rolls
1 4 oz. piece of smoked salmon, sliced into long thin sticks
1 package round spring roll wrappers
8 large green kale leaves
¾ cup wheat berries
¼ cup rye berries
4 oz. snap peas- shells removed
 cup red onion- minced
1 Tb. chopped fresh dill
Salt and pepper to taste
1 yield Basil-Arugula Vinaigrette (See recipe below)
1 cup crème fraiche (see recipe or can be purchased)
Simmer wheat berries in 5 cups of water for 10 minutes, then add the rye berries and cook for another 30 minutes. Remove from stove and drain, rinse under cold water then drain again.
Bring another pot of salted water to a boil and lightly blanch the kale by dipping the leaf into the water and holding onto the stem, then plunge into ice water. Lay the greens on a paper towel to dry. Save blanching water for rice wrappers.
Into a mixing bowl remove peas from pods and mix in grains, red onion, dill, and ¼ to ½ cup vinaigrette and toss. Season with salt and pepper.
Using the tip of a knife, cut out large part of the kale stem by cutting down each side so leaf stays intact. Set aside until ready to use.
Using your blanching water, dip the rice wrapper into lukewarm water until tender. Do not leave in the water too long or the rice papers will begin to deteriorate. Lay wrap onto a cutting board, and place salmon onto center of the wrap. Place half of a kale leaf on top. Spoon in ¼ cup of the salad mix onto kale. Fold up both sides of wrap to center and then roll paper like a burrito. Be careful not to tear the wrap. You may leave these whole, or cut them in half on the bias. Serve with crème fraiche, and chopped fresh basil or dill. 
Basil-Arugula Vinaigrette
½ cup loose packed basil
3 cups loose packed arugula
2 tsp. honey
½ a lemon juiced
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the top 5 ingredients in a blender till smooth. Slowly add olive oil till emulsified. Season to taste.
Crème Fraiche
1 Cup Heavy Cream
3 Tb. Buttermilk
Heat cream until just warm (90*-100* F). Pull off stove and put into metal or glass bowl. Add the buttermilk and stir to combine. Wrap tightly with saran wrap and place in warm area in the kitchen. Wait at least 24 hours until cream thickens, then chill. Pour off excess liquid and whisk to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lavender Fields Forever

For the last week, every surface in my kitchen has been covered with Hershey-kiss sized meringues in varying shades of white and beige. I am healthy enough to realize that the first batch was fine, but sick enough that I had to alter everything about this incredibly simple recipe in every way possible to make sure that the result is the Absolute Best Fail-Safe Lavender Meringue Ever. Done.

The reason I've blown through 10 pounds of sugar in one week is that I will be at the 2012 Pelindaba Lavender Festival on San Juan Island on Sunday July 22. My plan is to come with enough lavender meringues for everyone, although I have no idea what that means. There are a number of beautiful dishes in the lavender chapter of my book, but none that would lend themselves to hundreds of servings on a hot summer's day, a drive and a ferry ride and a taxi ride from my kitchen. So I was inspired to make my own. So here I am, a very experienced meringue maker (in the end I tested four methods, with varying quantities of lavender, at three temperatures, with two baking methods), with the ultimate recipe (which I will give you!).

When I first started planning Washington Food Artisans, I knew that I had to include a lavender farmer. I find it really fascinating that lavender grows here at all. Years ago, my husband and I spent a few months in Provence, France, and honestly, the weather could hardly be more different. And yet there are a number of lavender growers here in Washington. The farm I chose to write about, Pelindaba, interested me for a number of reasons: It's always open to the public (always), the owner (Stephen Robins) is originally from South Africa (so am I), and farming is far from his original profession (medical doctor). So I was curious. And his story is even more fascinating than I'd imagined.

Pelindaba's fields are stunningly beautiful when they are in bloom, and well-worth the trip to see them anytime. But every summer they hold a lavender festival that makes the trip even more appealing. And this year I'll be there for an afternoon to talk about Washington Food Artisans and Pelindaba, give out meringues, and sell books. And I hope to see you there.

Lavender Meringues

Pelindaba’s aromatic fields inspired the recipe for these delicate, bite-sized, crunchy morsels that I created especially for the 2012 Pelindaba Lavender Festival. Serve them scattered over ice cream, with fresh berries and whipped cream, alongside coffee or tea, dipped in chocolate, or just as is.  Store them in an airtight container.

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon dried lavender buds
4 egg whites

Put the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Make a bain marie by heating 4 inches of water in a saucepan large enough to hold the bowl of a stand mixer without letting the bottom of the bowl touch the water.

Grind the sugar and lavender together in a food processor until the lavender buds are finely ground, about 30 seconds. Use a hand whisk to blend the lavender sugar with the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer. When the water in the saucepan has come to a simmer, reduce the heat to low and place the bowl of meringue mixture onto the saucepan. Whisk gently until the sugar has melted and the mixture feels very warm (test occasionally using a clean finger). Move the bowl to the mixer and use the whisk attachment to beat the meringue at high speed until it is cool, about 10 minutes (the bowl may still feel slightly warm).

Transfer the meringue to a piping bag fitted with a plain tip measuring about 1 cm in diameter. Twist the bag tightly to close, and then pipe small kisses about 1 inch apart to cover the paper on the prepared cookie sheets.

Bake the meringues for 1 hour and 45 minutes. They should stay white and feel dry to the touch. Let them cool completely on a wire rack before storing.

Makes about 12 dozen bite-sized meringues.