Monday, April 30, 2012

Culinary Smackdown: Battle Literary Food

Our March Culinary Smackdown winner, Katie from Taste & See Cincinnati, challenged us to Battle "Literary" Food this month, leaving plenty of wiggle room for our entries to be inspired by fiction, memoirs, or any non-cookbooks. See what Katie's come up with for this battle here, and check the comments section for links to the other fine entries.

Before I'd managed to zero in a book, I stumbled across some fresh favas at Madison's in Findlay Market, and an idea was born. I snatched some up, eager to play around with a spring ingredient I've never worked with before, and picked up a bottle of Chianti on my way home. Neither would have gone to waste, but I was glad to confirm my recollection that the movie The Silence of the Lambs was based on a book, by Thomas Harris. I confess I've never read the book, and was probably one of the last people in America to see the movie, afraid it would creep me out.

I promise you there is nothing creepy about this dinner I made last night. It is most assuredly free of liver (of a census taker or any other critter) and is instead a celebration of spring produce. My fava beans and a nice Chianti had a splendid supporting cast, including ramps, morels, and fiddlehead ferns, also from Madison's.

I'd never cooked with any of them before. So step one was to read up on the basics of preparing fresh favas and fiddleheads. I came across a couple of different ways of extricating the fava beans.

First, you "unzip" the pod to get at the favas, which are similar to lima beans.

But your prep work is far from done at that juncture. Next you have to get the beans themselves out of their "waxy" outer casing. Some people peel away the casing. I decided to go with a method where you dunk the beans in boiling salted water for 30 seconds, drain and shock them in cold water, and then try to "slip" them out of the casings.

The blanch-first method worked pretty well for me. To open the casings I just used my fingernails (which I wished I hadn't cut the night before). Alas, I did not always manage to slip the beans out whole. These are delicate little things that easily split in half. Still, it remained a time-consuming process to free all the favas. English peas, which I was also using, are lot less work, even though they and their pods are much smaller. Here's a comparison shot (with not-yet-freed favas).

Piddlehead ferns always make me smile. They just look so darn fun and unlikely.

I found this handy primer on how to prep fiddleheads, but mine had no chaff to speak of or unfurled ends longer than 2 inches, so I washed them, patted them dry with paper towel, and figured I was good to go. The most important tip I came across was to make sure not to cook them more than 3-4 minutes. I'm not sure how old mine were, but I cooked them less than that and some of them were a bit bitter.

Ramps, sometimes called wild leeks, look a lot like tiny scallions and give off a pungent garlicky onion flavor. There are two good reasons to use them soon after you find them: 1) they are delicate and will taste better and 2) you will be able to smell them not only in the refrigerator but also outside the refrigerator if you try to store them for a while. I used three, slicing the white portion near the bulb thinly.

I figured it couldn't hurt to use the ramp leaves too, along with the leaves from some lovely radishes I'd found at Northside Farmers Market.

I sliced the accompanying radishes, shucked some peas, made thick slices out of the morels, cut some asparagus, stripped some fresh thyme, and ended up with a whole lot to cook with.

I had in mind my own personal pasta primavera, so I cooked off some whole wheat penne and set forth to cook – but not overcook – my bounty of tender young spring produce. I started with one non-herbivore ingredient, a single slice of lamb bacon. I swear I wasn't even thinking about the tie-in to the title of this book/movie when I purchased it, at the new Dutch's Larder in Hyde Park. (Their grand opening is this Friday, featuring Belgian style beers from Rockmill Brewery in Lancaster, Ohio, and the lamb bacon in question is just one of the items they offer from Smoking Goose Meatery in Indianapolis, whose products are also available at Jungle Jim's and served at Enoteca Emilia in O'Bryonville.)

If you've been following this blog, you probably know I'm always curious to try something new, and there are certain questions I am powerless to say no to. Would you like a loaf of homemade bread? Yes. Would you like to try some local charcuterie? Yes. Would you like to go to a pig-tasting dinner? Yes. Never having contemplated the concept of lamb bacon before, as soon as that option was displayed before me, the answer was another immediate Yes.

So I rendered (and removed) the bacon with a sprig of fresh thyme, added some butter to the drippings, and started gently cooking my unfamiliar veg in the order I guessed would be best to get them done, but not overdone. I overdid the "braised" radishes, and would probably have been better off not slicing them. Sometimes you just have to figure things out on the fly, and that's what I did, removing what seemed ready when I still had other veggies to add to the skillet.

A splash of sherry vinegar, some salt and pepper, a drizzle of Chianti, and another dab of butter or two all went in at some point as well (upon reflection, some lemon zest or juice would have been worthy additions). Finally, I added the penne to the pan, along with all its assorted partners, swirled in some pasta water, pronounced my dinner done, and was glad for a glass of Chianti.

Into a bowl it went, dolloped with some herbed goat cheese. And one of the best accompaniments any spring dinner could have: a slice of homemade ciabatta courtesy of Jeff of A Dork and His Pork, who has previously graced our Culinary Smackdown. Jeff brought smiles to many Cincy friends and bloggers Sunday morning by playing bread baking angel, and I'm honored he included me. Let's just say that if he ever opens "Sticky" I will be first in line.

Wishing you all a bountiful spring, and courage to try cooking (or tasting) ingredients and dishes that are new to you. Seize the season. And if you're lucky enough to have a generous angel of the baking or farmer ilk in your midst, say Yes!


GrumpyGranny said...

You had me at Silence of the... It's one of my all time favorite movies, and you really should read the book, too. Thomas Harris is a wonderful writer. And then you had to go and find LAMB BACON??? You are a wicked woman. Have to say, the mushrooms do look a teeny bit like brains (oh, wait, that's "Hannibal", I'm getting ahead of myself). This whole dish is just outstanding. I'm totally blown away. You're amazing. Seriously.


Becca said...

That is quite possibly the most beautiful assemblage of produce ever. Spectacular (and thrilling just like the movie!)!

Dani said...

WOW!!!!! You are quite the cook.

stephie said...

Aside from the delectable looking, but deadly morels..your dish looks absolutely stunning and delicious! certainly my kind of meal [=

Diana Hayes said...

I love all of the seasonal stuff you have in your dish - it's a pretty nifty plate of food.

moi said...

Nicely done! I have been adding lemon zest to just about everything these days. It's such a flavor booster.

Interesting that you mention lamb bacon. Last week I was speaking with a museum director in Baltimore for a story, and towards the end of our conversation he said to me, "I really like the food in your part of the country," confessing a soft spot for menudo and beef tongue--all big out here. Then he told me he'd recently found lamb tongues at the market and didn't know what he should do with them, did I have any suggestions?

So I do believe a lot of spring lambs are "crying" these days :o)

Buzz Kill said...

I have never seen a primavera pasta that looks like that. The morels and fiddlehead ferns really do put kind of a macabre twist on this dish. You sure do some interesting things on these challenges.

We're taking the Pudge out to dinner this Sunday to celebrate his Confirmation and we're going to (what I hope) is a very nice Italian BYOB. I just picked up 2 bottles of a nice "key-ANN-ti".

chickory said...

super exotic. I loved SOTL and read it in almost one night. I was terrified to walk down the hall to the bathroom. Eating morels is almost as scary. grherhahahaha Good Luck on the challenge Eggy!