Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Spring Flavors

Artichoke Heartsartichoke hearts

In the last couple weeks, farmers markets have begun opening up all across town, their stalls packed with spring’s earliest ingredients – rhubarb, peas, pea shoots, asparagus, wild mushrooms, young herbs.  All of it so beautiful, so fresh and so delicious.  And such a joy to cook with.  We’ve been eating as much of this beautiful produce as we can now, because we know it won’t be here for long.  Just like spring itself, which always seems to evaporate so quickly in a flash of summer sun, spring ingredients come and go so swiftly.  So indulge!  Eat all the asparagus you can.  Stuff yourself with rhubarb pie.  Let’s celebrate this delicious season!

Artichokes & Lemons

Our guests last week were our new friends, Jenn (Ben’s newest co-worker) and her boyfriend Sam.  Just as you’re certain to see some of my favorite springtime ingredients up on this site again and again, you can be sure you’ll be hearing about Jenn and Sam at least a time or two in the next few months.  Already, we can’t wait to have them over again.  I have a good feeling this way-too-fun couple is going to become a regular installment of Scrumptious Company. 
The menu highlighted some of my favorite spring ingredients – artichokes, veal, fennel, lemons, fresh herbs and peas…

Roasted Shrimp with Capers & Feta in Artichoke Leaves
Grilled Veal Chops with Parmesan-Polenta, Caramelized Fennel
and Tarragon-Three Pea Salad
Meringue Pavlovas with Lemon Curd, Blueberries & Blackberries

The hors d’oeuvres were maybe my favorite part of the entire meal.  Tender artichoke leaves acted as small spoons, each holding a sweet pink shrimp, quickly roasted under a hot broiler, then topped with a zesty marinade of lemon, oregano and extra-virgin olive oil.  Additional layers of bright flavor came with a sprinkling of diced artichoke hearts, tangy capers, sweet and pungent speckles of onions, and a salty crumble of fete cheese.  

First Bites

Each artichoke leaf holds one perfect little bite.  Along with the curled shrimp and its confetti of toppings, the tender artichoke flesh at the base of the leaf is part of the whole bite too.  Your teeth scoop out this sweet pulp, and all that’s left behind is the fibrous outer layer of the leaf.  There’s something intrinsically fun about scooping up your bites with these spoon-shaped leaves, these nature-made utensils.  And along with this bit of fun comes a huge, marvelous flavor.  Each bite is a singular parcel of deliciousness, a small package of fabulous taste.  Afterall, as I believe the saying goes, the most delicious things do come in small packages.

Boiling the Artichokes

For the main course, a few simple components came together into a really great dish.  The parmesan polenta -  a velvety puddle of slowly simmered cornmeal, so soft and warm and smooth.  The buttery yellow color is a fitting echo of its rich, creamy texture.  And its flavor is reminiscent of pure, down-to-earth goodness.  Corn, cream, butter and parmesan.  So simple.  And simply, so good.

And the caramelized fennel.  This on the other hand, tastes like pure decadence.  Again only a few simple ingredients – fennel, butter, salt and pepper.  But when it comes to flavor, there’s nothing simple about this fennel at all.  The slow – and I mean ever so slow – caramelization of the fennel builds layer upon layer of complex flavors, deepening the licorice essence into a dozen subtle tones of sweet, delicious charm. 

Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Chop with Parmesan-Polenta, Caramelized Fennel & Tarragon-Three Pea Salad
As far as peas were concerned, I couldn’t make up my mind.  At the market that morning, I encountered some beautifully snappy snow peas, some freshly shucked English peas, and some wispy curls of pea shoots.  I was tempted by all three, so decided to use them all.  I quickly boiled the English peas, turning them sweet, tender and vibrant green, and sliced the flat snow peas into thin, crunchy ribbons.  A pat of butter, a dash of cream and small handful of fresh tarragon made a quick and simple sauce, into which I folded the peas and their tender shoots.  So fresh and bright and green, this gorgeous side dish was filled with spring!   

Shelling Peas
The pavlova desserts, cups of crisp meringue filled with lemon custard and topped with pile of fresh berries, were a big hit.  I adore baked meringue – brittle and crackly and the outside, dense and chewy on the insides.  The texture alone is heaven to me.  And lemon custard too – it’s one of my most favorite sweets in the world.  So tart and refreshing, I just love it.  Crispy-chewy clouds of meringue, silky smooth lemon custard, and to top it all, fresh juicy blueberries and blackberries.  These pavlovas were as pretty as can be.  And they tasted even better. 


Roasted Shrimp with Capers & Feta in Artichoke Leaves
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook by Martha Stewart
Serves 4
Shrimp-Artichoke-Feta Hors D'oeuvres
For the artichoke leaves:
2 large artichokes (One will probably be enough, but just to be on the safe side, use two)
1 lemon, halved
kosher salt
Rinse the artichokes in cool water.  Pull away any discolored outer leaves.  Trim the stem to about 1 inch in length.  Over high heat, bring a medium pot of water to a boil.  Slice the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the water.  Add about 1 Tbl salt to the water, along with the artichokes and the halved lemon.  Decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.  Simmer until the artichokes are tender, about 20-30 minutes.  (The leaves should pull off easily, and a knife should easily pierce the bottom end of the artichoke.)  Drain the artichokes and allow them to cool.
Peel away the leaves, reserving all the firm and pretty ones for serving.  Store refrigerated in an air-tight container.  Discard all the leaves that are too small or thin to serve as cups.  Carefully trim away the hairy choke and tough outer edges, until the artichoke heart is neat and clean.  Reserve the heart for the shrimp filling.
Prepping the Artichokes    
For the shrimp filling:
16 large shrimp (31-40 per pound)
1 Tbl vegetable oil
1 Tbl finely grated lemon zest
3 Tbl fresh lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
3 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl finely diced red onion, soaked in cool water for about 15 minutes, then drained *
2 Tbl finely diced sweet yellow onion
1 artichoke heart, finely diced
1 Tbl chopped fresh oregano, plus 16 large, pretty leaves for garnish
1 Tbl capers, drained
16 firm, pretty artichoke leaves
2 Tbl feta cheese, crumbled into small pieces
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Peel the shells and tails off of the shrimp.  Be careful not to rip off the entire tail while you’re removing the shell – An intact tail makes for a much prettier shrimp.  De-vein the shrimp (i.e. remove the intestinal tract).  Use a paring knife to make a shallow slice along the center of the outer edge of the shrimp.  This will expose the dark grey ‘vein’, running along the length of the shrimp.  Scrape it out with the knife.  (You may not even have to do this.  Many times shrimp is already de-veined when you buy it.  If it hasn’t been de-veined, the outer edge of the shrimp will be intact, and you’ll see the vein just below the surface.) 
Preheat the oven to 500°F.  In a small mixing bowl, combine the prepped shrimp with the vegetable oil, and toss to coat.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper and toss again.  Arrange the shrimp, with plenty of space in between, over a wire rack placed on top of a foil-lined baking sheet.  Roast the shrimp until pink, and just cooked through, about 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the oven and set aside.
To make the marinade: In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon zest and lemon juice with a pinch of salt and a couple grinds of pepper.  Slowly whisk in the olive oil until well combined.  Add the diced red and sweet onion, the diced artichoke heart, the chopped oregano and the capers.  Stir to combine. 
Arrange the artichoke leaves on a serving platter.  Top each with a single roasted shrimp.  Spoon about 1/2 tsp of the marinade over each shrimp.  Sprinkle crumbled feta over each, then top with a single leaf of oregano. 
These can be kept for about 1 hour in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.  Return to room temperature before serving.  Serve with a small bowl or cup on the side, to place discarded artichoke leaves.
* Soaking the onions in water takes the pungent edge off, and keeps them from over-powering the rest of the dish.
Parmesan Polenta
Makes about 4 cups
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan
2 Tbl butter
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Bring the chicken stock to a boil over high heat in a medium-sized sauce pot.  Reduce the heat to medium and gradually pour in the cornmeal, whisking constantly as you pour.  Simmer gently until the cornmeal is soft and the mixture is thick and creamy, whisking frequently, about 20 minutes.  Turn off the heat, and whisk in the cream, parmesan and butter.  Season to taste with a good amount of salt and pepper.  Serve hot.

Caramelized Fennel
Serves 4
Caramelized Fennel
2 large heads of fennel
2 Tbl butter
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prepare the fennel: Slice off the stems, just above the heads of the fennel.  Remove any discolored outer layers, or slice away any bruised areas.  Slice each fennel head in half, length-wise (from top to bottom).  Then slice each of these halves in half again, cutting length-wise to from 8 wedges total.  Trim off the bottom discolored area from each of these quarter wedges.  Then slice each quarter in half again, length-wise, to form 16 wedges total.  With each wedge, slice off the inner part of each core, leaving just enough core behind to keep all the layers of fennel held together.  (Check out the picture below.)
Raw Sliced Fennel
Place a medium-sized sauté pan over medium heat.  Add the butter to the pan and melt.  Arrange the fennel snugly in the pan in a single layer.  Reduce the heat to a low setting.  Try to keep the heat at a low enough temperature so that you hear a very faint but constant sizzle.  Slowly cook the fennel until the bottoms are golden brown, about 20 minutes.  Flip the fennel wedges over and cook in the same way until the other sides are golden brown too, about another 20 minutes.  Either serve immediately, or set aside until you’re ready to serve, and reheat in a 350°F oven for about 3-5 minutes.  Serve hot. 

Three Peas with Tarragon & Cream
Serves 4
Three Peas with Tarragon & Cream
1/2 cup snow peas, stems trimmed
1/2 cup freshly shelled English peas
1 cup pea shoot, tough stems trimmed
1 Tbl butter
1 Tbl heavy cream
1 Tbl chopped tarragon
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil.  (Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean.)  Add the trimmed snow peas and boil until they turn vibrant green, about 1 minute. Drain with a slotted spoon, then plunge the peas into ice water.  Allow the peas to cool in the ice water, about 1 minute, then thoroughly drain.  Slice cross-wise into thin (1/4-inch) ribbons.  Set aside.
Return the salted water to a vigorous boil and add the English peas.  Boil until tender, about 2-3 minutes.  Drain with a slotted spoon, then plunge the peas into ice water.  Allow the peas to cool in the ice water, about 1 minute, then thoroughly drain.  Set aside.
Over medium heat, melt the butter in a medium-sized sauté pan.  Add the cream and simmer until the cream thickens and reduces to about half its original volume.  Add the prepped snow pea slices and English peas, along with the tarragon.  Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Toss to coat the peas with the cream sauce.  Turn off the heat and add the pea shoots.  Toss to combine.  Serve immediately.

Meringue Pavlovas with Lemon Curd, Blueberries & Blackberries
Serves 6
Meringue Pavlovas with Lemon Curd, Blueberries & Blackberries
For the meringue:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbl cornstarch
3 large egg whites (kept at room temperature for 30 minutes)
a pinch of salt
3 Tbl cold water
1 tsp distilled white vinegar
Preheat the oven to 300°F.  Arrange the rack in the middle position. Draw six 3 1/4-inch circles onto a sheet of parchment paper, leaving at least 1 inch between each circle.  Flip the parchment paper over and place on a baking sheet.   
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. 
Add the egg whites and a pinch of salt to the bowl of an electric stand mixer, and using the whisk attachment, mix at medium-high speed until the egg whites become fluffy and hold soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, a point will form then droop down after a second or two), about 2-3 minutes.  Add the water and beat until the whites again hold soft peaks, about 1 minute. With the mixer running, add the sugar mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time.  Once all the sugar is added, beat for 1 minute more.  Add the vinegar and beat at high speed, until the mixture is glossy and holds stiff peaks (The point formed in the whipped cream will stand straight up and not fall over).
Fill a pastry bag, fitted with a 3/8-inch round tip, with the meringue.  Using the circles drawn on the parchment paper as a guide, pipe a single layer of meringue in a circular motion, working from the outside in, to form a circular base.   Create a border of meringue around the edge of the circle, rising about a half inch higher than the center. 
Bake until the meringue is pale golden and has formed an outside crust, but is still a bit gooey on the inside, about 45 minutes.  Turn the oven off and open the door slightly.  Cool in the oven for 1 hour, then remove.  The meringues can be stored at room temperature in an air-tight container for one day. 
Pre-Baked Meringues
For the filling:
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbl cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 stick butter
3 large egg yolks
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup blueberries
1 cup blackberries
Combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium-sized sauce pot.  Stir to combine.  Add the lemon juice and butter and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally.  Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. 
Lightly beat the egg yolks in a small mixing bowl.  Whisk in about 1/4-cup of the lemon mixture.  Then whisk the yolk mixture into the remaining lemon mixture in the saucepan.  Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking constantly, until the curd is slightly thickened.  Do not let it boil.  Transfer the curd to a mixing bowl and stir in the lemon zest.  Chill in the refrigerator, stirring occasionally, until cool, about 2 hours.
Beat the cream until it holds stiff peaks.  Fold the whipped cream into the lemon curd. 
Fill each meringue cup with the lemon curd mixture.  Arrange a mound of blueberries and blackberries on top.  Serve immediately.

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