Rosemary vs. Lavender

Photos by Kerri Conan

They’re twin herbs separated at birth. Rosemary was raised in the kitchen. Lavender got stuck in Grandma’s underwear drawer. It’s time to reunite them for a cook-off.

In starkest terms, the difference between rosemary (shown on the left) and lavender is akin to pine needles versus peach-tinted rosebuds. Each has a place and a purpose but one is easier to cuddle up with.

Rosemary has the advantage of familiarity. Unless you or someone you know grows lavender it can be tough to find it fresh. Ask around your farmers market for someone to start bringing it. If you can only find dried, that’s fine; like rosemary, lavender dries well with a similar concentrated potency.

Twice last week I took the lavender path to great success. First I pushed a couple sprigs under the skin of a spit-grilled chicken. As the drippings bubbled and reduced before straining and serving, I dropped the leaves in the pot to eke out the last bit of flavor…

And here are those leaves again, barely visible minced into mustard-seed-balsamic vinaigrette for grill-roasted beets…

In both cases, rosemary would have been appropriate. But lavender was understated in the chicken, not easily identifiable. You knew it wasn’t rosemary and it tasted almost like bay leaves. As a dressing for warm, slightly charred beets, it amplified their sweetness, where rosemary’s pineyness might have provided a more one-dimensional counterpoint.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use lavender: in the pot with white beans or lentils, rubbed on lamb or duck, steeped in simple syrup for cocktails or punch (lavender julep anyone?), brewed for herb tea, scalded with the milk or cream for custards (and strained out), in marinades for olives and feta, baked into focaccia and socca, or snuck into blueberry pie filling.

You’ll chart your own course but a good place to start is to try lavender whenever you’d consider using rosemary—if only it weren’t so harsh.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Bait Plate

Photo by Mark Bittman

One of the things I look for in food when I’m in a place is a sense of place; you get it in those farmers’ markets that limit their vendors to actual producers. You get it in the best, most honest restaurants. (You don’t get it in dishonest restaurants, which probably comprise the majority.)

I’ve complained for years that Cape Cod restaurants don’t strut the Cape’s stuff—which, despite declining stocks of cod and other fish, is still a pretty rich place—as well as they might. (By the way, note that that link goes to a piece I wrote nine years ago, so the information in it is way out of date.) So it was with delight that I recently visited Terra Luna, whose site (I assume kiddingly) describes the restaurant’s cooking as “rustic neo-pagan,” and was served, as an appetizer, what chef-owner Tony Pasquale calls the “bait plate,” a pile of what were once considered trash fish, all (or nearly all; depends on the night) sourced locally.

Razor clams from Eastham, which have been scarce—not because they’re not there, but because no one’s bothered to forage for them—are often on that plate, as are Eastham mussels; these are also hard to find, because almost everyone is selling the vastly inferior farmed mussels from Prince Edward Island. There’s also squid caught off the pier in Provincetown (such an easy catch that even I’ve done it), and a couple of small baitfish, which might be sardines (not always local, I’m sad to say), mackerel, eel, and the awesome Cape herring.

The cooking of these fish happens to be perfect, although—not to downplay it, kudos to the kitchen—that’s the easy part. It’s making the effort to deal with local fishers and ensure the product is genuine that’s tricky. This kind of behavior has got to be applauded.

– Mark Bittman

Posted in American, Seafood

Cooking with Almost Nothing

Photo by Emily Stephenson

I’m cooking in a vacation rental this week, and I only brought my knife with me, which means the tools in “my” kitchen reflect the generosity of the owner and the cooking inclinations of previous tenants. I’ve found one pot, some bowls, a couple skillets, a wooden spoon, a can opener, and a colander. But I can still do almost all the summer cooking I want.

I left the tools to chance, but I knew there would be no ingredients in the house. I packed the pantry items that seemed summer-appropriate, and I stopped on the way to pick up everything I thought I might need. In truth, I think I could have gotten away with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar, but I brought a bit more.

Summer is the best time for pared-down cooking. You don’t want to apply much heat to anything because it’s so ripe and full of flavor. I’d happily eat tomato sandwiches and salads and grilled vegetables (if I had a grill) through September.

Inspired by a really great noodle salad we tested a few weeks ago, fish sauce was one of the things I brought, as well as buying tofu and rice noodles. A cold noodle salad is perfect summer fare.

I knew it was going to be a time investment, but I didn’t have anything else better to do, so I started by julienning lots cucumber and carrots (knife). I didn’t do it perfectly as you can see, but, hey, I’m on vacation. I boiled water (one pot) to steep the rice noodles, then drained them (colander). I cubed tofu, chopped cilantro, and minced onion (knife). I whisked together lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and salt until it tasted good (fork), then I tossed everything together.

It was a great summer dinner that required just four basic tools, and felt like much more than the sum of its parts.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce

Smoke a Tongue Tonight

Finished

Photos by Pam Hoenig

There’s a headline I never in my life thought I’d write. But after tasting a slice of succulent beef tongue I smoked with hickory wood chips this afternoon, how could I not share the love?

Yesterday I was shopping for plum tomatoes to smoke on the grill and decided to swing by the meat counter to see what was out. My local store sources a lot of meat from the Hudson Valley and what they carry can change from day to day. Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Fun with Frenching

Photos by Kerri Conan

Friday night, one glass of wine into firing the grill for steak with a pile of farmers’-market string beans in the sink, I decided to kill some time Frenching.

The plan was to stir-fry the beans in olive oil with lots of garlic and shallots until droopy, then add tomato wedges, cover, and let them stew just long enough to release some juice but not their skins. Off heat, I’d stir in a handful of basil leaves from the back yard, adjust the seasoning, and serve at room temperature. Splitting the beans lengthwise—like fancy canned and frozen green beans—would help the pods soften and absorb flavor, and I liked the idea of getting random bites with baby seeds.

My ad hoc by-hand technique varied: For straight beans, I lined the business side of the knife on top and pushed down with conviction, pretending not to care when the odd end slipped free of the hack. If they were curved, I used the seam on the bean as a guide to run the tip of the blade from the middle outward in both directions, turning each between strokes. I’m pretty fast with a knife and like the practice but apparently you can also lay them horizontally in the feed tube of a food processor and let the slicing disk do the work.

Whatever your method or recipe, try Frenching at least once this season. There’s a reason why they’re cut that way for green bean casserole. This quick braise had all the freshness you want from summer vegetables, without the squeaky stick-to-your-teeth chalkiness of lightly cooked green beans. Instead their exposed insides provided a silky counterpoint to the crisp skins. And the leftovers can become anything from a three-bean salad or toast topper to a rich frittata.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce

Sweet Serendipity

Photos by Pam Hoenig

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made multiple (unsuccessful) attempts at smoking salt on the grill. On one of my test runs, I also put a pan of regular granulated sugar on the grill. During a check-in, I found that it had melted, caramelized, and hardened into beautiful golden brown translucence.

I moved the pan over direct heat, then ran inside and scooped vanilla ice cream into a bowl. I carefully poured the now bubbling caramel over the ice cream, where it hardened on contact into a lacy cage. Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Apricot Madness

Apricots

Photo by Mark Bittman

It wouldn’t be right to say that I went to California last week to look for apricots—I had a lot to take care of—but that definitely played a part. Since some time around 15 years ago, when David Karp—not the Tumblr one, the fruit-whisperer one—met me at the Santa Monica farmers’ market and introduced me to real apricots, I have been, well, interested. (NOT obsessed.) Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce

Pan Drippings in the Dressing

Chicken Salad Photo

Photo by Kerri Conan

The roast chicken carcass sat in a covered casserole with a wee jar of leftover pan sauce balanced on top, lest the two ever be separated in the fridge. With a 50/50 fat-to-sauce ratio you could easily see re-purposing the meat into a stir-fry or pasta. Only I wanted to make chicken salad and there was no way I was wasting this stuff. Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Foraging for Dinner

Milkweed

Photos by Mark Bittman

These are unopened milkweed flowers; I began to eat them while first learning how to forage in central Vermont in the 70s. (How’d I learn? Euell Gibbons , of course.) The season is very short—just a couple of days for each plant, spread out over a period of maybe a week or two in any given location—so you have to be lucky to find them. Once the buds start to open up, they’re done. But when they’re tight and broccoli-like, as these are, they’re sweet, and cook instantly. I parboil them for a minute or two before incorporating them into other things. (Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to gather a big mess, and then I parboil them and toss them with vinaigrette or melted butter.) Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce, Slow Food

Potato Tacos

Potato Taco

Photo by Emily Stephenson

I bought some adorable tiny potatoes and mini zucchini this week and my mind immediately went not to showcasing their tiny cuteness but to how I could transform them into that day’s lunch (I was hungry when I went shopping).

I have a hard time with lunch. The ideal lunch dish to me has multiple components (i.e., is fun to eat) but requires no more than an hour of prep and is something I will be happy to eat several days in a row, if not the whole week. With my mini vegetables in hand, my thoughts when to tacos. Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes