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Shell Peas Shelled

I love eating fresh English shell peas.

And when I see them at the farmers market,

I always buy a big bagful.

Then I get them home.

And I look at them.

And I remember how long it will take to shell them all.

And I wonder what I was thinking when I bought so many.

But I sit down at the table,

Or I stand at the kitchen counter,

And I start removing the tiny peas from their protective shells.

And it never really takes as long as I fear.

And when I’ve blanched them in salt water,

And tossed them in a little butter,

And popped them in my mouth,

I remember exactly what I was thinking when I bought so many.

Shell Peas Shelled

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Off the Wagon

More than 95% of my meals are eaten at home, and more than 95% of my food is sourced from local farmers.  But when I do “fall off the wagon,” I like to do it right. 

My latest culinary binge took place at Rosarito Fish Shack in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC.  I had octopus wrapped in bacon on a brioche roll topped with cole slaw.  It was so worth it.  

Off the Wagon

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Edible Stonecrop

One of the things I love most about going to the farmers market is discovering new things to eat.  My latest discovery comes courtesy of Lani’s Farms, which sells edible stonecrop, commonly known to the average gardener as “sedum.” 

Slightly lemony and a bit astringent, these beautiful little plants are a surprisingly pleasant addition to any salad, and make a striking garnish on any fresh fish filet.  While not inexpensive, it takes only a few tiny plants to make your dinner guests wonder aloud, “Can you eat these?” And, when they try them and proclaim them delicious, you can enjoy hearing their praise as much as you enjoy eating the stonecrop.

Stonecrop

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Arugula Flowers

If I told you this was some kind of exotic bug, you might believe me. 

If I told you that it was some kind of prehistoric plant, you might believe me. 

If I told you that it’s my dinner, you might tell me I’m nuts. 

And I might be. 

But that has nothing to do with the fact that arugula flowers are delicious.

Arugula Flowers

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Less Can be More

Once upon a time, I would spend days preparing a dinner for friends.  A typical meal at my home included six courses served on my great-great grandmother’s bone china, and could take three hours to eat.  I spent more time working in the kitchen during dinner than I spent with my guests at the table.

When I moved from a single-family home in Chicago to a small New York City apartment, I left my heirloom china behind in my brother’s custodial care for my niece. As a result, my friends  now enjoy eating simpler dinners in my home, and I enjoy having more time to spend with them during the meals. 

The focus of a meal is no longer on the culinary skills I worked so hard to acquire and perfect.  Instead, our attention is on the incomparable produce and heirloom grains grown by local farmers, and the fresh fish or succulent piece of meat sold to me that morning by a local fisherman or rancher.  After all, a good cook without talented and dedicated farmers is like a writer without an alphabet.

It took me years of study and decades of practice, but I now understand that — more often than not — less can be more.

Swordfish & Sorrel Sauce

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Veal Tongue

One of the unfortunate consequences of growing up in a wealthy country is that most Americans children don’t learn to value the offal and other under-appreciated — though wonderful — parts of an animal.  Even as an adult, I find that most of my friends wince when I mention dishes such as braised sweetbreads and tripe tacos.  I, on the other hand, was lucky enough to have grown up with a father who loved calf’s liver, a mother who ate chicken hearts, a grandmother who cooked veal kidneys, and a neighborhood Chinese restaurateur who routinely used chicken feet in his meal preparation.

So, when our favorite New York dairy farmers, Tim and Mary Tonjes of Tonjes Farm Dairy, mentioned last week that they had veal tongue for sale, I bought one and brought it home.  Having not cooked one for about 15 years, I found an easy recipe on the internet, and threw it in a pot of celery, onions, carrots, thyme, bay leaves, salt, pepper, and gently boiling water for about an hour and a half.  Then I turned the burner off and let the meat sit in the cooking juices for another hour.  When I finally removed it from the liquid, I peeled the off the outer layer, discarded it, and sliced the tender meat.  The aroma and flavor are delicate and meaty, and the texture is somewhere between corned beef, though not stringy, and stew meat, though far more tender.

I served the meat on a crunchy baguette with horseradish and lettuce.  It was simple.  And simply delicious.

Veal Tongue

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Ugly Kohlrabi

When I was a kid, my father would periodically decide to plant a vegetable garden.  He didn’t plant one every year, and he didn’t even plant it in the same spot in our suburban yard each year.  But, when he did, it always meant we’d soon face the prospect of weeding, watering, and eating things we’d never heard of before.

The first year, he disassembled our swing set so that he could plant his crops and, needless to say, this didn’t endear us to his farming endeavors.  In subsequent years, though, he’d find a place along some ratty-looking shrubs, dig up the sod, and stick some stakes in the dirt.  Then he’d plant lots of seeds, most of which would grow into the mysterious produce we’d later come to know as “slimy okra,” “crazy kale,” and “ugly kohlrabi.” 

Why, I wondered, couldn’t he just be a normal dad and plant normal things like carrots, corn, and tomatoes?  Why couldn’t he just leave the science experiments to Dr. Frankenstein?  Nonetheless, despite the still-apt monikers, I learned to love the varied look, feel, and taste of vegetables rarely found on the plates of typical Midwestern kids during the Vietnam war era

Today, I find myself smiling as I think back on those gardens.  And I’m grateful to have been part of a generation that was required to clean our plates, no matter what kind of mysterious produce found its way there.

Ugly Kohlrabi

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Rhubarb Season

We can have a legitimate discussion about whether rhubarb should be classified as a fruit or a vegetable, and whether is it best used in sweet or savory dishes.  But please don’t try to convince me that the arrival of rhubarb season isn’t a reason to celebrate.  If you do, I won’t invite you to the party.

Rhubarb Season

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Only Opportunities

Recently, I was Marion Nestle’s guest at a luncheon hosted by the Food Studies students at NYU.  As Marion proudly showed me through the kitchen, she introduced me to a young woman dressed in a chef’s jacket and wearing a dismayed look on her face. 

“Oooooo!  Can we try some of those?” Marion asked the student when she spotted the sheet pan of coconut concoctions nearby. 

“Oh, those.  They didn’t turn out right.  They spread out too much, and I don’t know what I’m going to do with them now.”

We tasted them anyway, and they were fabulous.  The batter seemed to have separated as they baked, with the butter and sugar falling to the bottom and caramelizing into a sweet, brown, nutty, crispiness that turned ordinary macaroons into something extra special.

“Really?  You like them?” asked the student, seeming surprised as we helped ourselves to seconds.  “I’m glad.  I guess I’ll serve them, but I still don’t know what am I going to do with these completely flat ones on the other tray.”

“If they were mine,” I replied, “I’d chopped them up and used them as a crust for a cheesecake.  I think it would make a fantastic combination.”

“That’s a great idea!” she said, a genuine smile finally on her face.

More importantly, it was a good reminder for all of us that, in cooking, mistakes are really only opportunities to create something new.

Coconut Macaroon

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Rainbow Chard

While standing at one of my favorite greenmarket stands, I overheard a couple speaking to each other while gazing at the rainbow chard.

“Look at this.  It’s absolutely beautiful,” one said.

“Yes it is,” said the other, “but I never know how to cook it.”

I apologized for eavesdropping on their conversation, and quickly explained that cooking rainbow chard is as easy as chopping it up and sautéing it with some oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and — if they liked — a squirt of fresh lemon juice.  Then, I promised them that it would be delicious.  They thanked me and bought a big bunch, as did I.

On my walk home, I wondered how many twenty-first century Americans believe they no longer know how to cook.  It’s a shame that our society has become so intimidated by the concept of turning on a stove, throwing some fresh food in a pan, and seeing what happens.  

So, if you think you may be letting fear keep you from expanding your culinary repertoire, buy something you’ve never bought before, bring it home, research a simple recipe or two on the internet, and give it a shot.  Chances are, it will be easier than you think, taste better than you expect, and give you a well-deserved reason to pat yourself on the back.

Rainbow Chard

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Hard Boiled Eggs

Recently, a woman selling me eggs at my farmers market apologized for the price.   At $6.00 a dozen, she felt they may be too expensive.  I assured her they were not.  What else can you buy for fifty cents that is high in protein, low in salt, sugar, and fat, and contains only about 80 calories?  Add to that the versatility of eggs, and they seem like a genuine bargain to me.   When I got home, I hard boiled a few and added them to some fresh salad greens, homemade croutons, and sliced red onion, and tossed it all together with some mustard vinaigrette.  It was delicious.  In fact, it was a lot tastier and healthier than a large coffee beverage that costs nearly as much.  So, the next time you hear someone complaining about the price of eggs, you may want to politely suggest that they think again.  

Bacon and Egg Salad

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Spring Pizza

This spring pizza was brought to you* by:

*Okay, that’s not entirely true.  The pizza was brought to me by all of those wonderful farms with all of those wonderful farmers.  You didn’t actually get any.  Sorry.  But now you have the shopping list, so you can make it yourself.  Just add yeast.

Spring Pizza

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A Genius in the Kitchen

When guests eat at Chez Ks, they invariably praise the pasta, polenta, and desserts.  As the chef, I would love to be able to accept their compliments.  However, I’ve been cooking long enough to know that the real genius in the kitchen is farmer Thor Oechsner, of Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg, New York.  He and his partners grow the most delicious organic, heirloom grains from which they mill the flours that I use to create everything from simple dinner entrées to complex desserts. 

As a farmer, Thor plays the roles of scientist, mechanic, engineer, construction contractor, and teacher, when he isn’t doing the actual plowing, planting, and harvesting.  The fruits of his labor become all-purpose flour, high extraction bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, corn meal, polenta, white pastry flour, whole wheat pastry flour, whole spelt flour and — my personal favorite — whole buckwheat flour, have all played a starring role in my cooking and my diet for the past several years. 

So, the next time you see a bag of Farmer Ground Flour at your farmers market, grocery store, or specialty store, take a bag home and have a genius help you make dinner.

Farmer Ground Flour