Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Blue Heaven

The afternoon is waning, and I happen to mention to my administrative assistant that I’ve signed up for an evening class on blue cheese.

She raises one eyebrow slightly. “Oh,” she says, followed by a moment of discomforting silence. “Blue cheese certainly has an interesting flavor.”

Few people are ambiguous about blue cheese. They either love it or hate it. I fall into the love category. For me, it is an attraction that is deep, obsessive and mildly deranged.

Blue cheese is like the whiskey of the dairy world. Wimps need not apply. You’ve got to have a strong constitution. The aroma resembles that of rich loam, freshly cultivated. The smell alone can grow hair on your chest. But don’t let my clearly obsessive compulsion for the Big Blue scare you from becoming an aficionado.

I am the first to arrive at the upper room at Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village. Murray’s is the destination for cheese-aholics in Manhattan. The education staff is pouring wine and setting out square white plates carefully arranged with wedges of cheese. I take a chair at a U-shaped table that will seat up to 25 people. There is a large glass window at the front of the classroom, and below, I can see well-dressed Greenwich Villagers perusing the glass display cases in search of their weeknight cheese tasting.

The class is aptly titled, “Got the Blues.” At my place setting there are six glasses partially filled with different varieties of sweet wines. They range from deep-red to amber to honey-colored. Before me are six triangles of off-white cheese speckled with veins of greenish-blue on a stark white dish. There is an intriguing, pungent aroma wafting off the plate.

Shortly, the classroom is packed, and I am relieved to know there are others like me in the naked city. The instructor is a young man named Chris Munsey, who works in the wholesale department of Murray’s. He has tousled hair, a cherubic expression and an encyclopedic knowledge on the basics of blue cheese.

We follow a plating chart, that maps out our wine selections and corresponding cheeses. Straight away, Chris warns us that our palates are in for a workout. Blue cheese and sweet wines are the stuff of intense flavors.

We start our tasting in the traditional way – the cheese at the 12 o’clock position on the plate is sampled first, and then you proceed clockwise around the perimeter of the plate.

Chris explains why he has selected sweet wines to contrast the dramatic, earthy flavors of the cheese – “Blue cheese tramples dry wines.”

An important word about that bluish green stuff on the cheese – it is mold, plain and simple. But it’s a good kind of mold, responsible for some of the most amazing salty, earthy, tangy and arresting flavors one can possibly experience. If you think you’ve been living on automatic pilot, have a bite of blue cheese. You’ll snap out of it.

“Blue cheese won’t hurt you. It will just make you stronger,” Chris advises.

He explains the process, which involves aging cheese laced with a mold called penicillium. After some time, the ripened cheese is injected with holes, allowing oxygen to interact with the penicillium and create that distinctive bluish-green shade usually seen in certain Van Gogh paintings. Blue cheese loves humidity and moisture and tends to thrive in caves. Nobody knows exactly how it was discovered, but as is usually the case in culinary one-upmanship Italy, France and Spain all claim credit for inventing blue cheese.

As we circle the plate, we travel the world. There is a mild blue cheese made from raw cow’s milk in France and a creamy gorgonzola. We are told that Stilton from England has a reputation for producing strange dreams. We taste a glorious “Bayley Hazen Blue” from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont and we sample my top choice – Cabrales from Spain. Cabrales has a strong, gritty mineral flavor that practically brings tears to my eyes. The wines mingled artfully with the acerbic taste of the cheese. My head is reeling.

Chris says that the trick to pairing wine with blue cheese is that “both flavors are harmonious, not fighting each other.”

The class is concluded, and I set out for the train feeling slightly intoxicated and a bit heady, and it’s not because of the wine. I’ve had my Blue fix and I feel good. An ordinary evening has tasted extraordinary, and Murray’s has secured its reputation as a Mecca for colorful curds. With all that Stilton in my veins, I am sure I will dream of kings, sea monsters, despots and big blue oceans tonight.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Enchanted Egg Cake

The Easter season always inspires my memories of the Enchanted Egg. While I can barely remember the story, the image is fixed in my mind, an icon of the spring celebration. It was an exquisitely-decorated egg with a mysterious hole at one end. Peer into the hole, and inside you’d discover an enchanted world of eternal springtime.

The legend of the Enchanted Egg appears to spring from a children’s book of the same name, written by Peggy Burrows in 1956. The cover looks very familiar to me, but the tale has faded into my distant memories.

Richly decorated eggs have been a part of the Easter celebration for centuries. Ukrainian Easter Eggs, called "pysanka" were given as gifts as a symbol of spiritual rebirth. For many years, jewel-encrusted Faberge Eggs were presented by Russian Tsar Alexander III to Empress Maria as an annual Easter gift. Each egg contained a surprise hidden inside.

In the holiday television special, It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, Snoopy picks up an Enchanted Egg in a department store and gazes in. He even leaps into the egg and dances a minuet in a meadow filled with cuddly white bunnies.

When I was a just a youngster, my grandmother Hilda even found us an Enchanted Egg, probably in the local candy and stationary store. It was made of white granulated sugar with squiggly pastel yellow trim. When you looked into the spy-hole you were treated to a bucolic spring scene. We kept it for several years and displayed it every Easter. In elementary school, I even crafted an Enchanted Egg the color of a robin’s egg out of paper Mache in Mrs. Shaw's art class. My mother still displays it each Easter in her home.

I decided to recreate the Enchanted Egg as a cake for our family’s Easter Dinner, decorated with butter cream and fondant. Before you leave, click below to take a peek inside the Enchanted Egg and revel in a sweet and magical melody of spring.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Asparagus Tart and Rites of Spring

March seems just a little early for a change of seasons. There’s still a distinct chill in the air, but now and then, I will encounter a tantalizing hint of spring. A bashful lavender crocus pokes through the once-frozen ground. If I am particularly alert, I might spot a robin. And, of course, there is the appearance of a massive flock of canary-yellow Marshmallow Peeps in the supermarket.

For me, the real harbinger of spring is the arrival of pencil-thin shoots of emerald-green asparagus. Certainly, asparagus is available year-round, but the tastiest are those tender, impossibly-green shafts topped with feathery deep-purple buds that show up in the best markets about the time of the Vernal Equinox.

Asparagus is an ancient, perennial plant from the lily family. It was cultivated in Egypt and the Roman Empire. The Roman cookery manuscript Apicius – from the third century – recommends cooking asparagus upright in hot water. Asparagus took root in France in the 1400s, and England in the 1500s, and eventually migrated to North America in the late 19th century.

This Asparagus Gruyere Tart from Everyday Food has become one of my annual rituals of spring. A flaky, buttery pastry frames the slender stalks, highlighting their earthy beauty. It is a delicacy worth savoring in a ethereal season that often times seems fragile and fleeting.

Happy Spring!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Torta di Ricotta (Ricotta Cake)

I’ll always have Tuscany.

I’ll never forget my culinary travels through Italy in 2006. From Emilia-Romagna to Florence, the ingredients of the land defined what we cooked and ate.

At Fattoria del Colle in Trequanda, one of the rare wineries in Tuscany owned by a woman and staffed by women, I would walk in the vineyards – bursting with dark grapes – with the sun beating on my neck. In the evening we would work with the serious and practical Italian cook in the kitchen to prepare sumptuous, rustic dishes from simple, abundant ingredients – Panzanella (Bread Salad), Zuppa di Trequanda (Swiss Chard and Cabbage Soup with Cannelini Beans), and Schiacciata All’uva (Sweet Focaccia with Wine Grapes). Recipes were effortless to assemble, fed the body and the soul, and tasted exquisite with a glass of Brunello as we dined on the patio of the Osteria and the blazing sun set over the ancient Tuscan hills.

Torta di Ricotta, a feathery Ricotta Cake, always brings back those memories. The ingredients are sheer simplicity – mounds of ricotta cheese, fruity olive oil, lemon zest and brown sugar. It takes only moments to assemble and the creamy texture and sparkling citrus will have you dreaming of a late-summer evening of wine, good food and friends.

Torta di Ricotta (Source: The Silver Spoon)

Butter for the pan
2 ¼ cups all purpose flour; extra for dusting the pan
4 eggs
½ cup light brown sugar; extra for sprinkling
1 ¾ cups ricotta cheese
Grated zest of ½ lemon
5 tablespoons olive oil
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease deep tart pan with butter and dust with flour. Whisk eggs and brown sugar together until light and foamy. Stir in ricotta cheese, lemon zest, olive oil and milk. Shift flour and baking powder over egg mixture, mix well and pour into cake pan. Sprinkle with additional brown sugar. Bake for 40 minutes. Remove from oven, cool and turn out. Serves 6.

I’m submitting my Torta di Ricotta to the Festa Italiana event hosted by Marie of Proud Italian Cook and Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Spring Forward: Lamb Stew with Dill, Sweet Peas and Root Vegetables

The following is a public service announcement from Culinary Types: Check the time. Did you set your clocks ahead one hour last night?

Here in the United States, we just marked the return of Daylight Savings Time. The “Spring Forward” event, which used to happen in … the Spring … has now been moved forward by an act of Congress so that we can lose an extra hour of sleep and enjoy an extra hour of daylight in the dead of Winter. Very useful.

About the only benefit I can see here, is that I can now place the blame for all my chronic time management and sleep deprivation issues squarely with the U.S. government.

Fortunately, for those of us pressed for time, struggling to adjust all of the digital clocks in our homes and still needing to get a meal on the table, there’s Lamb Stew with Dill, Sweet Peas and Root Vegetables.

Lamb was not a common dish growing up in “The Casserole Corridor” on suburban Long Island. It was costly and considered exotic. The only time we ever had it was during an occasional Sunday Dinner at Nana’s house in Laurelton. As multiple generations of brothers, sisters, spouses and cousins sat down at the table, Nana would announce, “I made lamb, because I know you never get it at home.” The traditional preparation was a roasted Leg of Lamb, served with iridescent green Mint Jelly that looked like it came straight from the dinner table of the Wizard of Oz.

We knew that Nana spent hours preparing those Sunday Dinners, something most of us rarely have the time to do these days. But, lately I’ve been dreaming of lamb, perhaps as a more delicious way to accelerate the arrival of Spring, beyond simply pushing the clocks forward on some arbitrary date. Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” offers many variations on Lamb Stew that require about as much effort as tossing several ingredients into a Dutch oven. Frankly, turning all the household clocks forward is taking more time than was needed to prepare this stew. Served with fresh pasta, the lamb is rich, succulent and earthy, the sauce is light – more like a broth – and the addition of sweet peas and fresh dill makes this one-pot dish a welcomed harbinger of Spring.

Lamb Stew with Dill, Sweet Peas and Root Vegetables

Adapted from “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

2 pounds boneless leg of lamb cut into cubes by the butcher
1 ½ cups sliced onions
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 to 3 cups liquid – I used one cup of Cabernet Sauvignon and two cups of beef stock
3 pounds of root vegetables cut into 1 inch chunks – I used two pounds of pre-cut baby carrots and one pound of small red potatoes, peeled and sliced
One large bunch of dill with stems
About one cup of frozen sweet peas

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the lamb cubes and onions in a Dutch oven, add one cup of red wine, one cup of beef stock and season with salt and pepper. Cover, bring to a boil and place in the pre-heated oven for 45 minutes.

Remove the leaves from the bunch of dill and tie the stems together with cotton cord. Add the carrots, potatoes and dill stems to the pot along with the remaining one cup of beef stock. Cover and return to the oven for about one hour.

When the lamb is tender, remove the dill stems from the stew. Chop the dill leaves fine and add to the stew, reserving about one tablespoon for garnish. Stir in the frozen peas. The hot stew will warm the peas. Add some freshly squeezed lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped dill and serve.

This recipe makes 4 to 6 servings and will put a spring in your step if Daylight Savings time has left you sleep deprived.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Decluttering the Imperfect Pantry

No doubt you visit Culinary Types to meet some fascinating epicureans, sample some witty prose, or feast on a banquet of food history.

A visit to my kitchen is a far more frightening scenario. Something along the lines of Jacques Pepin meets Jackson Pollack.

There comes a time in every chef’s life journey when he must admit that the kitchen system just isn’t working anymore and needs a complete overhaul. The pantry is in fact, imperfect. The canola oil smells funny, that pancake mix from 2001 is probably dicey, and the special-edition commemorative Heinz Green Ketchup is now far greener than when I first bought it.

It doesn’t help that dear Lydia from the Perfect Pantry is currently highlighting “Other People’s Pantries” each weekend. The immaculate photos from my fellow food bloggers make me feel like a pariah. I have to admit it. My kitchen cabinets are chaotic and I’m a slob. I need help.

Enter Rosemary Flannery, expert declutterer and owner of the service “No More Domestic Drama.” She promises to devise a strategy for downsizing and managing the mess behind the curtain – “Find what you need, when you need it!” She’s one part Felix Unger, one part Sigmund Freud.

I am clearly uncomfortable when I meet Rosemary at the train station. It’s not easy to reveal your dirty little kitchen secrets. Will she think less of me for co-mingling Pfaltzgraf dishes with plates from IKEA and Flintstone Jelly Glasses?

Fortunately, she is non-judgmental and we get to work immediately in systematic fashion to set things right. Every parcel of food is removed from the cabinets, the expiration date is checked, and items are grouped into similar categories – Pasta, legumes, grains, sugars, flours, spices.

I feel a cold sweat coming on as I am forced to choose between mini-muffin pans and an over-supply of spring form pans. Rosemary is brutally efficient, but supportive. “Will you ever use it again?” she asks pointedly. “How are you feeling?” she’ll also enquire periodically.

We start a “Toss” pile, a “Donate” pile, and a “Maybe” pile. Dropping the rusted tart pan on the “Toss” pile is a no-brainer, but I’m really torn over the salad spinner. It goes to the “Maybe” pile, although after Rosemary leaves, I regress and put it back in one of the cabinets. Ah well. Therapy is a process, not an immediate transformation.

As the afternoon wears on into evening, the donate pile gets larger, and the cabinets start to look roomier as well. All baking items are consolidated and grouped together into one large cabinet (although later I discover some additional cake pans hidden away in the guest room). I can actually see every item.

Mini-casseroles and baking dishes are stored together over the stove. Rosemary is creating a strategy of storing items where you use them. Already I can see that my trips back and forth across the kitchen will be reduced.

We sort through many stacks of dishes, and the treasured mustard-colored stoneware from Bennington, Vermont and my Liberty Blue Ironstone with scenes from the American Revolution is brought up from the basement and given a home in one of the large cabinets. Rosemary maintains that you should use your nice things and enjoy them, instead of packing them away.

We make a trip to a home furnishings store and purchase additional shelving and quilted China storage sets for larger seasonal collections of dishes. These will be stored, but easily accessible for more elaborate celebrations.

It is hours past dinnertime and I am drained. Rosemary surveys the room briskly and declares, “I think we managed to get about a third of the kitchen in order.”

“Couldn’t we round that up to half, just so I feel a little better?” I beg her.

There is still work to be done, but I am on the road to recovery. I make a conscious choice not to purchase the snazzy Rachel Ray mixing bowls in Bed, Bath and Beyond because they will clutter my cabinets, and my multi-vitamins are in easy reach when I pour my orange juice in the morning. I’m looking forward to my next cooking project.

I am still thinking of fishing that mini-muffin pan out of the donate box, but I have time to work on my willpower. In the meantime, the pantry, while hardly perfect, feels far less dramatic, exceedingly more functional and a bit more serene, at that.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved