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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lady Fingers

What's in a name? Abelmoschus esculentus. Bhindi. Bamia. Lady fingers. Bendi. Gombo. Okra.
However it's labeled, the slender slime filled pods elicit different responses from different people. It's a love hate thing. Me? I have a total lusty affection for okra and wholeheartedly embrace the slime. That said, it's not all about the slime factor. Granted, when used to thicken Louisiana gumbos or low country okra stews, the mucilaginous stuff melts into the base and disappears. Tricky. It's there without really being there. Makes me smile. Crossing continents and oceans, okra can be found in almost every cuisine throughout the world. While it might not have taken a few European countries by storm, it's revered in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, South America, the Caribbean, the southern United States, and Kentucky.  That's a love thing. Over the years, I've prepared huge vats and steam kettles filled with creole/cajun sauces containing hundreds of pounds of okra for Mardi Gras merry makers. Even the okra haters gobbled it up.

When not in season, frozen okra is a great understudy for stews and gumbos. Fresh okra, on the other hand, is a real game changer in other preparations. Keep an eye out. Fresh local okra is rolling into farmers markets with unabashed abandon. This year, while the small green pods are still the most common, Stonehedge Farm has pulled out the big guns with Red Burgundy okra. Twisted, long, slender, and gorgeous, they're the fancy pants of the okra world.


I adore combining okra with tomatoes. Fresh or frozen okra. Sun-ripened or canned tomatoes. It's a classic pairing. Right now, it's all about fresh okra and sun-kissed tomatoes. As much as I love hoarding the culls and ugly castaway red tomatoes from the market for cooking, I  gravitate toward super ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes during the peak summer season for an okra hoot-a nanny.

Red Burgundy Okra with Sun Gold Tomatoes.
Not quite a stew. Not quite a gumbo or saute'. Simply, okra and tomatoes with a few twists.

I halved 2 pints of Paw Paw Plantation Sun Gold tomatoes and tossed them into dry cast iron skillet. After seasoning them with salt and pepper, I cranked the heat to high and sauteed the tomatoes until they started to break down. When the sweet pulp oozed from the skins, I mashed the tomatoes with back of a fork to release the rest of the juices and deglazed the skillet with 1/2 cup white wine. As the wine reduced, the skins separated form the pulp and floated to the top. I drained the tomatoes and wine through a medium strainer to catch the skins before returning the remaining pulpy juice to the skillet. After the wine reduced to a silken
glaze, I added 2 cups of chicken stock and let the golden tomato stock bubble away until it reduced by half.

Here's the deal. To slime or not to slime? While I could have gone either way, I wanted a bit of crunch to offset the sweet stewed tomatoes. Typically, I blister okra in a very hot skillet to seal the pods with heat. To keep the prep as simple as possible, I took an easier route.  After slicing the burgundy okra pods in half lengthwise, I dropped them into a deep fryer (350 degrees) to flash fry for about 3 minutes. When the split pods were charred and caramelized, I scooped them from the hot oil to drain on paper towels.

I pulled the tomato stock from the heat and tumbled the fried okra into the steaming sauce. To brighten and echo the flavor of the stewed tomatoes, I tumbled a few halved fresh Sun Gold tomatoes around the skillet before finishing (on a whim) with fresh thyme, file' powder, and a heavy-handed dusting of hot smoked paprika.

Simple and rustic, it seemed innocent enough. The okra, suspended over the sauce, crackled and snapped. The stewed tomatoes tasted like wet melted tomato jam. When the okra pods collapsed into the stock and softened, the swollen seeds spilled into the mix like slippery edible pearls. Spice. While the ground sassafras added an earthy level of heat, the hot smoked paprika added pure fire. Innocence lost. The combination of the two added an unexpected explosive depth of flavor and complexity that belied the simplicity of a quick stew/saute'.

Sweet heat.
Lady fingers.
What's in a name?
Fresh Kentucky okra.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hand Pies

My grandmother and Miss Lottie were best friends. Their homesteads in Western Kentucky, separated by a winding narrow country road lined with patches of woods, were perched on two rolling hills adjacent to each other. During the winter, when the trees were bare, their houses were visible through the twisted branches. Country neighbors. They might not have spent a lot of  social  time together outside of church, community functions, or shared telephone party-lines, but it was quite evident they were close. Bonded by parallel life experiences, they were similar in many ways. They raised families through the Depression while tirelessly tending to their gardens, pastures, and barnyard animals. Farm life. While I assumed they were the same age, I always had an inkling that Miss Lottie might have been a few hundred years older than my grandmother. When you're a kid, you simply know things.

As similar as they were, Miss Lottie and my grandmother were polar opposites in other ways. During the summer months, my grandmother floated around the house like an aging wisp draped in lightweight sleeveless floral cotton dresses accented with mismatched terrycloth aprons cinched tightly around her waist. Lovely. Miss Lottie, on the other hand, always seemed to be buttoned up from head to toe in sturdier heavy dresses anchored by ankle high black leather sensible shoes. Scary stuff. Opposites. That said, beneath her rigid exterior appearance, Miss Lottie had a heart of gold. During those  hot summer months, when we weren't fishing, swimming, mowing fields, rewiring  fences, or opening/closing cattle gates, we could count on Miss Lottie for two things: her small black pony she kept loosely tied to a tree in her front yard with a long grass rope for neighboring farm kids to ride and her flaky deep fried apple pies. She was the patron saint of summer. While the pony was a given, we never knew when or where her fried apple pies might appear. They simply happened. Without notice, she'd pull up the hill leading to my grandmother's house and deliver a platter of fist sized half-moon shaped deep fried apple pies carefully tucked under meticulously pressed dish towels. Sweet, without being overly sweet, the cooked apples dripped from the fried crusts faster than we could lick our fingers and arms to prevent the precious goo from spilling onto the ground. I can still smell and taste those summer gifts.

Back in the day, fried fruit pies were made from sun dried harvested fruit. Apples. Peaches. Apricots. Preservation. Waste not want not. Right now, it's all about the abundance of ridiculously ripe fresh summer fruit hitting the farm stands and markets. In the fall, when apples flood the markets, I'll give Miss Lottie's fried apple pies a go. During the peak summer season, I'll stick with peaches, plums, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. The sky's the limit.

I might not be a baker,
but I believe I can fry.

Fried Blueberry Hand Pies.

Tricky business. I suppose just about any good pie pastry would have fried up into  fantastic fried fruit pies.

I went very basic. After sifting together 3 cups Weisenberger Mill all purpose flour with 2 tablespoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of salt, I dumped the mix into a food processor and added 6 tablespoons of chilled unsalted butter. I pulsed the butter/flour mixture until it resembled course crumbs before adding 1 beaten egg and 1 cup milk.

I blitzed the dough until it formed a loose ball, rolled it onto a floured cutting board, gathered it into a disc, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and slid the dough into the refrigerator to chill for an hour or so.

Although blueberries might be hitting their final stretch for the season, they're still plentiful. In fact, they're everywhere. Score. I didn't want to kill the pies with overly sweet filling, so I tip-toed between a pie filling and a compote. I tumbled 3 1/2 cups of beautifully plump Silas Farm blueberries into a sauce pan, added 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons water. After bringing the berries to a boil, I reduced the heat to a simmer and let the filling rip. When the berries collapsed and the mixture thickened, I pulled it from the heat to cool before folding in a handful of julienned 'mini purple' basil leaves and 1/2 cup whole uncooked blueberries.

Chill. Chill. Chill.

I knew it was important to keep the pastry chilled during every step of the process. I failed that test once in a classroom. Once.

I pulled the dough from the refrigerator and plopped it onto a floured cutting board. Starting from the inside out while turning the dough in quarter turns, I rolled the dough into a large 1/4 inch thick circle and used a 6 inch pastry ring to cut the dough into several discs. After covering them with plastic wrap, I slid the discs back into the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

Trial and error. Too little or too much? Like crepe making, the first few sucked. After brushing the edges of the dough with an egg wash, I spooned about 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling onto each piece of dough, folded them over, and sealed the edges before crimping them with a fork to really seal the deal. Back into the refrigerator they went to chill for an additional 30 minutes.

Fry Time.
Although I have an awesome deep fryer, I used a heavy cast iron skillet as an homage to Miss Lottie. After adding enough canola oil to measure about 2 inches in the skillet, I cranked the heat to medium high. Using a thermometer to gauge the heat, I let the oil reach 325 before turning the heat down to medium. When the oil reached 350 degrees, I carefully fried the pies until they were golden brown, turning them occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the hot skillet. After 2-3 minutes on each side, I scooped the fried blueberry pies from the oil and placed them onto paper towels to drain. While they were still hot, I sprinkled them with superfine sugar and Cerulean sea salt. Yep.

I transferred the fried pies to a rack to cool before slipping them onto a cutting board and showering them powdered sugar.

Hand pies.
Fried blueberry pies.

Fistfuls of summer.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Braisin' In The Sun

Braising tends to get put on the back burner during the summertime. Granted, our local markets are exploding with beautiful fresh produce right now that beg for light summery fare.  I get it, I really do. I'm on the bandwagon. That said, it's a shame to shy away from succulent long braised meats just because it's summer. Forget the hot kitchen and steamy windows. Ditch the clunky cookware, keep it fresh, keep it simple, and move the fuss outside onto an outdoor grill.

Grilled/Braised Chicken in Fresh Tomato Sauce.
Simple. Nothing fancy. I used our old charcoal grill with a hinged lid, a few fantastic local ingredients from the farmers' market, herbs from my garden, and a couple of pantry staples to turn a somewhat traditional braise into a riff on a summer cookout.

Earlier this summer, I signed up for Elmwood Stock Farm's FarmFan program (It's still available). With the program, I receive points for every purchase and text notifications before each market telling what they'll have on hand. Pretty nifty. Because of the program, I knew in advance that they'd have fresh (never frozen) organic free-range chicken at the next market day (while they lasted). Niftier still, I reserved one and didn't have to awake at the crack of dawn to snag a bird before the market madness began. Booya. Sold. Fresh chicken.

Game on.
Using a sharp paring knife, I broke down the gorgeous 4 pound chicken into eight good sized serving pieces. After slicing the thighs and legs from the breasts, I separated the thighs from the legs and set them aside. Using kitchen shears, I snipped the backbone from the breasts, tossed it into the freezer with my other chicken parts, and sliced the large breasts in half. After seasoning the chicken pieces liberally with salt, I slid them into the refrigerator to dry brine.

Sure, I like the pretty tomatoes. The jewels of summer. There's nothing better than a sun-kissed warm tomato sliced into thick pieces and sprinkled with flaked sea salt or beautiful heirloom tomatoes sandwiched between slices of white bread or Caprese Salad or gazpacho. On and on and on.

However, when I intend to cook the tomatoes, I head straight for the ugly ones. The culls. The throwaways. The ugly ducklings. I needed quite a few fresh tomatoes for the braised chicken, so I bagged a few pounds of gigantic puckered ugly tomatoes from Henkle's Heirlooms and Herbs "Uglies" bin before stopping by The Paw Paw Plantation to bulk up the tomato factor with a few almost overripe pretty tomatoes.

To keep it fuss free, I eschewed the blanch and peel method and simply cored the tomatoes, chopped them into manageable wedges, and ran them through the course disc of a food mill. After scraping the disc clean, I ended up with about 5 cups of outrageous blood red tomato pulp.

I thought about using a large cast iron skillet for the braising vessel, but because the chicken pieces were quite large, I opted to use my well-seasoned grill tested 14" paella pan.

With everything on deck, I lit the coals,  pulled the chicken from the refrigerator, and quartered 4 small Scott County candy onions.

So, here's the deal. Most traditional braises (pick a meat) include aromatics, herbs, seasonings, wine, and stock. Pretty basic. I stuck to most of the basics, but switched out the wine for a good quality red wine vinegar. A little twist with French and Spanish influences.

When the coals settled into their glowing/grey ashen mode, I scooped the coals to the sides of the grill to create an outer ring of heat as opposed to an intense direct heat source. I place the paella pan over the grill and drizzled it with olive oil. When the oil started to smoke, I lightly dredged the chicken through flour, carefully placed them into the hot oil, browned the chicken on all sides, removed the pieces to a side plate, and added 1/2 cup minced candy onions. When the onions turned translucent, I scattered 3 crushed garlic cloves into the pan and deglazed the pan with 3/4 cups red wine vinegar. After allowing the vinegar to reduce to a loose glaze, I added all of the tomato pulp and 1 cup of chicken stock.

When the tomato sauce started to pop and spurt, I nestled the chicken pieces into the sauce, tucked the candy onions around the chicken, slipped a few bay leaves under the chicken, swirled stems of fresh lovage throughout the sauce, covered the paella pan with aluminum foil, lowered the lid of the grill, and let the chicken braise for 60 minutes, removing the foil and lid for an additional 20 minutes to allow the sauce to reduce.

The timing was perfect. At first, I thought I was killing the chicken with the heat. As time went on, the coals burned down a bit and regulated the heat inside the grill. After an hour and 1/2, I pulled the chicken from the grill to rest. To freshen the sleepy braise, I finished with tiny halved Madison County sun gold tomatoes, fresh lovage leaves, and snipped chives.

I was amazed at how a few simple ingredients could offer such crazy multi-layered depth to a simple braise. While the candy onions melted into the sauce, the humble old fashioned lovage packed  intense celery flavor both in the braise and as a garnish. Celery essence without chunks of celery. Win. Tarted up with subtle piquant undertones from the reduced red wine vinegar, the tomato pulp bathed the tender chicken with soft acidic smoky sweetness. Perfect balance.

And the chicken? Organic free-range fresh (never frozen) chicken. Think about it. The meat was so unbelievably moist and tender. We couldn't tell the difference between the breast meat and the thigh meat. They were literally  interchangeable in a weird how-did-this-happen kind of way. Sure, my off-the-cuff method added tons of unexpected flavor, but the chicken was key. Even after a long hot sunny braise, it didn't shred or fall apart. Every messy fistful (trust me) yielded juicy succulent shards of flesh that slipped from the bones like butter. Pull. Swipe. Suck. Repeat.

Braisin' in the sun.