Thursday, May 7, 2015

Planet Lovely

May is the month when those of us who live in Vermont (or much of the Northeast for that matter) are transplanted from Planet Harsh to Planet Lovely. The world truly is transformed. For the next six months we live in a state of green, or of green green, as a German friend said to me yesterday, recalling a description from a childhood story. The young grass and unfolding leaves on the trees and shrubs are so vivid they almost glow. At this point early in the season, there are myriad shades of green, too numerous to count. But as the summer progresses, they tend to converge into a more uniform green, for which perhaps the state was named: vert mont, or green mountain from the French. My favorite patch of green though, my herb garden, remains a mosaic of different shades, from the bright shoots of Chives poking up through the ground

to the silvery gray-green Sage leaves soft as my dog's ear.

I’ve been gardening for many years and, much as I love my vegetable garden and flower beds, it’s the herb garden that I find most rewarding. I use herbs in virtually all aspects of my cooking—snipping them into salads and soups, rubbing them onto meats to be roasted or grilled, stirring them into sauces and marinades, and even baking them into breads and cookies. They elevate a mundane meal to flavorful and unexpected heights. Of course you can buy fresh herbs at most food markets, but growing your own is easy and brings bountiful returns. 

Herbs take the least amount of tending out of all the plants I grow, and they produce during much of the year, even in New England—from those first Chive shoots to the frosty Sage that I harvest in early winter for holiday meals. I planted both of these herbs around twenty years ago and every year they faithfully return. The same goes for my other favorite herbs: Creeping Thyme, French Tarragon, Garlic Chives, Greek Oregano, Peppermint, and Winter Savory, all of which are perennial in the Northeast.

In addition to perennial herbs, a few annuals I couldn’t do without and so I add them every year: Rosemary, which I dig up and keep in a pot inside during the winter (with mixed success); Lavender, which sometimes overwinters; Cilantro and Dill; and three kinds of Basil—Spicy Globe, which is small-leaved and compact, Genovese, which is the best for making pesto, and Purple Basil for its color (the latter two I grow in my vegetable garden because I like to have several plants of each and they need more room).

Growing herbs in pots on a windowsill or balcony is rewarding too, but if you’ve never planted an herb garden and have a small, sunny spot, it’s well worth the minor effort it takes to start one. First, although herbs are quite resilient, before putting any in the ground, it’s a good idea to consult a Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out which herbs are perennial in your area. Planting them in a protected spot, such as along a wall or fence, can improve their hardiness, but be sure that they get enough sun. Most herbs like full sun and well-drained soil. Other than that, they’re not very picky and can thrive in a wide variety of locations and soil types.

Still, it’s important to prepare the soil by turning over the top eight inches with a shovel, removing the sod, rocks, and weeds. Healthy soil is friable, meaning that it feels crumbly if you pick up a handful. If it’s sticky and dense, there’s too much clay and it won’t drain well. Adding organic material, such as composted manure (which you can find at a nursery), will improve the soil and enable your herbs to thrive. 

Herbs vary in terms of how much space they need to grow, so follow the planting guidelines for each herb. Some, like Globe Basil, are compact, whereas others such as Peppermint like to sprawl. Herbs can be grown from seed, although buying small plants will ensure that you have foliage to harvest the first year. Water the plants when the soil becomes dry, but be careful not to over water them. If your soil is healthy, you won’t need to fertilize very much. I apply an organic fertilizer around every three years and my herbs couldn’t be more robust. Once your herb garden is established, it’s very low-maintenance; all I need to do throughout the season is some light pruning and weeding.

Now for the best stage of the process—harvesting. You can start harvesting your herbs as soon as there’s enough foliage, and continue as long as at least two sets of leaves remain on the plant. In general, though, don’t remove more than one third of a stem’s length. Most herbs grow quickly, so it won’t take long for you to have more than enough. It’s best to cut herbs in the morning, with a pair of scissors, after the dew has dried but when the plant’s essential oils are still abundant. To strip the leaves from the woody stem, run your thumb and first two fingers along the stem in the opposite direction from which the leaves are growing, et voila!—they fall right off.

The flowers of many herbs are edible as well, and to me are sometimes the best part. Chive and Garlic Chive blossoms, in particular, provide several weeks’ worth of tasty and pretty blooms; just pull off the blossom and then remove its base to separate it into florets. 

Lavender buds, probably the most well-known herbal flower, are versatile in both cooking and baking, and a sprig is also a fun addition to a summer drink. Some herbs though, like Basil, become slightly bitter after they flower. If you pinch off the bud as it starts to form, that will prevent the flavor from turning.

Once you start using fresh herbs in your cooking, it’s hard to return to dried ones (one of my least favorite aspects of living on Planet Harsh). Fresh herbs are more subtle and pure in flavor and have a softer texture. If you’re in the habit of cooking with dried herbs, though, and like a strong herbal note in your food, you’ll need to use around three times the amount of fresh herbs to achieve the same strength.

It’s easy to dry your own herbs harvested from your garden to have on hand throughout the year. The best time to collect them is just before they flower. Gather a few sprigs, wash and pat them dry, and then tie them together with twine. Hang them in a warm, dark, well-ventilated room, and in about two weeks all the moisture should have evaporated. Pull the leaves from the stems, crumbling them if you’d like, and store them in labeled, airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place.

Freezing herbs also works well. I store them in labeled baggies (press out all the air before you seal them), and then pull them out to add to soups and stews all winter long. You don’t need to thaw the herbs before adding them to the pot. I prefer this technique to drying my herbs because they’re closer to the taste and texture of fresh herbs. 

With so many opportunities to incorporate fresh herbs into your cooking throughout the year, herb gardening is well worth a try. The benefits in the kitchen are huge, not to mention the pure pleasure of sitting outside near your herb harden on a warm afternoon and having the breeze carry its fragrances to you. Planet Lovely, indeed.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Printemps Macarons

If spring were a cookie, it would be a macaron. Pastel hued and perfectly formed, these bite-sized, sandwich cookies are so pretty that it almost seems wrong to sink your teeth into one. Almost.

After the brutal winter we’ve had in the Northeast—and my Southern friends tell me it wasn’t much better down there—I am so ready for Spring, and anything that signifies it. Flowers and green grass. Sandals and sunscreen. Bike rides and readying the garden. Even allergies and insects, bring ‘em on (well, maybe not ticks). And bring on the macarons.

Not to be confused with macaroons—the large, egg white confection or the heavier coconut version—macarons are made by baking almond meringue in the shape of small, flat disks, and then sandwiching a filling between two discs to form a single, perfect cookie. Their color, usually pastel but sometimes more vivid, reflects or at least hints at the flavor combinations contained within. Flavors range from classic chocolate and vanilla to the more exotic jasmine, rose petal, or lychee. Sometimes savory flavors are added, such as white truffle, foie gras, or olive oil, which are hit or miss but always interesting.

A few years ago while I was living in Paris with my family, we couldn’t resist when walking by one of the city’s countless pâtisseries stopping in to try just one macaron. This lack of resistance developed into an informal tasting poll to discover the Best Macaron in Paris. Through our “research” we quickly learned that one macaron—crisp on the outside and tender in the middle—is all that’s needed to satisfy a sweet tooth.  And refuel a couple of teenage girls when they’re weary of doing other research around the city guided by their homeschooling teacher/Mom.

Among the various macarons we sampled over several months, our two top winners were Ladurée, considered by many to be the grandpère of macarons, and Pierre Hermé, a relative newcomer that has a fast following and is renowned for bold flavorings (Pierre Hermé’s olive oil and vanilla macaron was my blue ribbon winner).

Ladurée, which claims to have been the creator of the Parisian macaron, now has shops scattered throughout the globe including two in Manhattan. I’ve been to both New York shops, extending our research, and have concluded that Ladurée macarons are just as good stateside. In classic New York spirit, lots of other competing macaron shops have now popped up all over the city, but I have yet to sample those.

As part of our research in Paris, Faye and I took a class at the cooking school La Cuisine Paris to try to unlock the secrets behind making macarons. Over the course of an afternoon we learned the finer points of making these delicacies, and in the end we turned out some decent, if imperfect, ones ourselves.

The ingredients are pretty common—sugar, egg whites, and almonds—and the flavorings need only be as exotic as you would like them to be. The technique, however, can be a bit tricky, and it may take some practice before they turn out just right: not too flat, or too chewy, or too crispy. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the tops are smooth and glossy and you see the frilly “foot” at the base of the cookie, a sign that it possesses the essential contrasting textures of crispy and chewy. At home when I’ve made them, it’s taken me a few tries to get them right and I wish I knew the secret. I don’t know what I’ve done differently when a batch turns out successfully, but this mysterious quality is all part of the allure of the elusive, perfect macaron.

Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe for making the cookies, you can experiment with various flavorings, such as adding a ground spice or cocoa powder to the batter, or using a different ground nut from almonds (pistachios and hazelnuts are both popular variations). The part of the cookie that allows for even more possibilities is the filling, which is usually a chocolate ganache, buttercream, fruit jam, or citrus curd. If you don’t make your own jams and curds (and I have to say I don’t personally know anyone who does), an artisanal product will work fine and no one will notice the difference. To make your macarons pastel, use a high quality powdered food coloring. If that’s not available, drops will work, but be careful not to add too many or they’ll make your batter watery.

Whole recipe books devoted to macarons offer myriad flavor combinations, but experimenting with your own is part of the fun. Here, I’ve included a recipe for a verdant green macaron inspired by the arrival of Spring. It’s filled with jam (in this case apricot), which makes for a simple filling that you can change to suit your fancy.

Sink your teeth into a macaron and enjoy April in Paris, or wherever you are.

Printemps Macarons (adapted from La Cuisine Paris)


1 cup confectioners’ sugar
¾ cup almond flour
2 large egg whites (at room temperature)
¼ cup granulated sugar
green food coloring
½ cup apricot jam

Sift the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour into a large bowl and set aside. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with a mixer on medium speed until they’re foamy, about 2 minutes. Add half the granulated sugar and continue mixing for another minute, then add the rest of the sugar. Increase the speed to high and whisk until the egg whites are glossy and form stiff peaks, about 6 minutes. Add the food coloring and whisk until the color is well blended, about 2 minutes.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the confectioners’ sugar mixture into the egg whites a little at a time until the batter is just smooth and has the consistency of lava. Be careful not to over mix the batter (this seems to be the make or break step and is where you might need to practice your technique a few times).

Line 3 flat baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer the batter into a piping bag. If you have a ½ to ¾ inch tip for your piping bag, using that will give you more control. (If you don’t have a piping bag, you can improvise by snipping off the corner of a large freezer baggie.) Pipe the batter onto the sheets in one-inch rounds of ¼ inch thickness, spaced 1½ inches apart. Tap the bottom of the sheets to release air bubbles and then let the batter rest 20 to 30 minutes to croûter, or form a crust.

In an oven preheated to 325˚F, but then turned down to 300˚F just before baking, bake the cookies in the lower third of the oven. Bake one sheet at a time, about 12 minutes, or until the tops are just turning golden but not browning. Watch them carefully because they brown quickly. After each batch, increase the temperature to 325˚F for 3 minutes and then turn down to 300˚F to bake. Cool the cookies on the sheet for 3 minutes and then remove them from the parchment paper and transfer to a rack to finish cooling.

Match the cookies up in pairs by size. Spoon 1 teaspoon of jam onto the bottom half of one cookie. Top it with the other half and gently press the two together so the filling reaches just to the edge.

Let the macarons stand a few hours before serving, to blend the flavors. You can store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. They can also be frozen for up to one month. Open the container when you bring them to room temperature so they don’t become soggy.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Bread Beast

Nothing goes better with French press coffee in the morning than a thick slab of homemade bread. For me, anyway. Dense and chewy whole wheat or light and airy ciabatta, I love it all—as long as it’s made with high quality, unadulterated ingredients.

Monday, March 9, 2015

French Press Morning

Life tweaks— I recently made two to my day, in an effort to break up the monotony of winter.  Both happen to involve the morning. The first is that I’ve left behind our old, plastic drip coffee maker and moved on to a shiny 100% stainless steel French press. I have no idea why I’ve waited so long to make this change to something that gives me so much pleasure. I was stuck in a rut, I guess. Sure, it takes a bit more time, but oh is that cup of coffee with the froth on top and the dense mouthfeel and the bit of sludge in the bottom ever worth it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ottawa Calling: Canal Skating, Beavertails, and a Cold North Wind (guest post by Chris)

Our first evening in Ottawa we found ourselves in front of a goofy photo of President Obama in the Byward Market before dinner. Obama had just purchased a maple leaf cookie and stood surrounded by employees at the Le Moulin de Provence bakery as he proclaimed, “I love this country!”

Like Obama, I too love Canada. Growing up in Williamsville, outside of Buffalo, Canada was a constant presence—from the trips to the beaches and amusement park at Sherkston, to the occasional forays to Niagara Falls, to the television stations streaming in different shows and lots of hockey. And, of course, when I became of legal age, the Canadian beers that were a mainstay of our local bars—Labatt, Molson, O’Keefe. Since we’ve lived in Vermont, our family has made many trips to Canada—usually the short trip to Montreal, sometimes just Sheila and me, other times with Faye and Isabel. We enjoyed a wonderful two week vacation to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and Sheila joined me for several days at a conference in Vancouver. But I had never been to Ottawa—nor had Sheila or Faye. (Isabel went with her 6th grade class from Bristol Elementary, before everyone needed passports.) 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crossing Cultures in Marrakech

“Hello, you remember me?” the man asked, with a wide smile. “I carry your bags this morning, remember?”

Chris and I nodded blankly and smiled back at the man as we walked out the front gate of La Mamounia in Marrakech. We weren’t, in truth, staying at this renowned hotel. We had simply wanted to stroll its magnificent gardens, usually reserved for guests. But we were dressed for dinner at a nearby restaurant and thought we’d try to sneak in, striding past the uniformed doormen just thirty minutes earlier like we owned the place.

Monday, January 5, 2015

On Montreal, Music, and Memory

It’s a new year, not only in the larger sense but, since Chris and I got married on December 29th, we’re also beginning a new year of marriage. We celebrated our anniversary in Montreal this year, taking in the Francophone culture, the art scene, and some excellent food, bien sûr.