Better Breakfasts: A Love Letter to Skyr

billowy clouds of skyrEven though I am, sadly, growing more lactose intolerant by the day, I love dairy products dearly — perhaps more than ever. Luckily, there are some that I can still consume without too much unpleasant consequence (including kefir, certain aged cheeses, butter, and some yogurts) and I am deeply thankful that one of my most beloved of all — a glorious Nordic product with a nutritional profile that sounds like the stuff of myth — is still within my safe zone. [Cultured dairy products in general are easier for the lactose intolerant to stomach, because the bacteria digest some of the milk sugars for you. And strained cultured dairy products are even easier still, since much of the remaining sugars are strained away along with the watery whey.]

I first discovered skyr ten years ago, on a summer trip to Iceland to visit some friends. When my friend Eyjolfur brought me to a local Krónan supermarket, I was as thrilled as I always am on a first visit to a supermarket in a new country. (Hint: pretty darn thrilled.) Salty black licorice coated in chocolate: wild! Jugs of whey: Who knew you could buy that? But what really caught my eye was an entire refrigerated wall full of colorful tubs of endless flavors of what appeared to be yogurt. “Not yogurt,” said Eyjo. “Better than yogurt.”

Better than yogurt?! This, I had to try. I’d actually never been the hugest yogurt fan until I’d moved to Italy the year before, but discovering that yogurt was not necessarily a watery, gelatinous, preservative-filled substance tasting of chemicals and sugar was quite a revelation. Italian brands such as Mukki and Parmalat already knocked any U.S. brand on its ass, but I fell quickly and deeply in love with Müller, an incredibly rich, creamy German brand with flavors that sounded (and tasted) like a dessert list: coconut, banana, pineapple, lemon, coffee, walnut, hazelnut, chocolate chip, and my favorite, “crema Chantilly” (whipped-cream flavor!). And all with very short and easily comprehensible ingredient lists. No gelatin or other weird fillers. No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. And so my obsession with European yogurt began. It was also in Italy that I first tasted mind-bogglingly thick, smooth Greek yogurt (and on a trip to Greece I was fortunate enough to try the real deal).

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When Eyjo and I got back to his place and set up our Icelandic breakfast, I sampled the blueberry-strawberry skyr that we’d bought and found that he was right: This stuff relegated all those others (wonderful though they are and remain) to the second tier of fermented dairyland. Skyr was even thicker, creamier, richer, and more velvety than full-fat Greek yogurt, and without yogurt’s characteristic strong sour tang. Plus it had more protein than even a strained yogurt like Greek yogurt. And yet — via some sort of Viking black magic — it was entirely fat free. How was this possible??

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As Eyjo informed me, skyr is not really a yogurt at all, though it has been marketed as one since it was introduced to the UK and the US. Yogurt is made by fermenting whole, low-fat, or skim milk with bacterial cultures. Greek yogurt is made by then straining the liquid whey and concentrating the milk solids, resulting in a thicker texture, less sugar, and more protein. While many yogurts are generally well-tolerated by those cursed with lactose intolerance since the bacteria digest most of the lactose (milk sugar) as part of the natural fermentation process, any strained yogurt is even easier to digest since much of the remaining lactose gets strained away as well.

Skyr, meanwhile, also starts with milk fermented by bacterial cultures (different cultures than those used to make yogurt, however), but it is made from skim milk that has already had the cream separated out (to make butter). Rennet is also added to this fermented milk so that it coagulates, and the liquid whey is then strained away, leaving only the milk solids. This makes skyr, technically, a fermented soft cheese.

skyr.is skyr

First available here in 2005, skyr is still slowly making its debut in the U.S. My favorite brand, Skyr.is, is the only one currently sold in this country that’s actually made in Iceland. Though only available in four flavors here (plain, vanilla, blueberry, and strawberry) and only in Whole Foods markets in select regions, it is authentic, made with milk from grass-fed Icelandic cows.

There are a couple of American-made, skyr-inspired products on the market as well, which are more widely available: Siggi’s (made in New York by an Icelandic immigrant named Siggi) and a newcomer called Smári (made in California by an Icelandic immigrant named…you guessed it…Smári). I’ve tried both, and while I think Siggi’s tastes like a very good strained yogurt, to me it’s not quite the same as either the skyr that I tried in Iceland or the imported skyr. It has a thinner consistency, slightly lower protein content, and a more sour taste — closer to Greek yogurt.

Smari skyr

I found Smári to be much closer to Icelandic skyr in terms of texture and nutritional profile, though it’s still tarter — and more yogurt-like overall — in terms of both taste and texture. It does offer the additional benefits of being organic, however, and made with milk from grass-fed cows. I’m not sure that the U.S.-based skyr makers use rennet as there’s no mention of it on their websites — I wonder if perhaps that’s why they don’t resemble the Icelandic skyr as much as you’d expect? Or it could be due to different bacterial cultures.

All this is not to say that I no longer love Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite brand) or regular yogurt. I still have love for them all, and sometimes prefer them. But skyr is still not as well known in this country as it should be, especially for those looking for the most protein bang for their caloric buck. And in a super thick and creamy texture, to boot. Skyr is so thick and creamy, in fact, that sometimes it’s a bit hard to eat an entire 6-ounce container of it. (But I have a fantastic solution for that, which I shall reveal soon in an upcoming post! Stay tuned.)

For the purposes of this comparison chart, I’m only comparing plain skyr and yogurts with nothing added, because that’s how I prefer to buy them, and add my own fruit or other flavorings. Skyr.is is, sadly, only available in plain, vanilla, strawberry, and blueberry in the U.S. (in Iceland the flavor varieties are breathtaking and seemingly endless), Smári offers the same flavor options, and Siggi’s is available in many unusual flavors, including: grapefruit, orange & ginger, pineapple, and peach.

NUTRITION STATS COMPARISON (per 6 oz/170 g)

Calories

Fat

Protein

Sugars

Calcium

Organic

Grass-Fed

Skyr.is Plain 110 0 g 22 g 6 g 20%

Y

Smári Pure 100 0 g 20 g 6 g 20%

Y

Y

Siggi’s Plain* 90 0 g 17 g 4.5 g 23%

Y

Fage 0% Greek Yogurt – Plain 100 0 g 18 g 7 g 20%
Stonyfield Organic Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 8 g 12 g 25%

Y

Y

Dannon All-Natural Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 9 g 12 g 30%
*NOTE: Siggi’s is sold in 150-g (5.3-oz) containers, at 80 calories for plain; I scaled Siggi’s data up for comparison purposes, as all the other brands are sold in 170-g (6-oz) portions.

Some of my favorite ways to enjoy either skyr are:

  • with a handful of fresh blueberries and a dollop of lemon curd
  • topped with fresh raspberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries
  • with a generous spoonful of blueberry-vanilla-chia jam (recipe coming soon!) and sprinkled with Ezekiel 4:9 cereal (which closely resembles Grape Nuts in appearance and flavor, though it’s  more nutritious)
  • in place of sour cream or yogurt in toppings and recipes (it’s particularly wonderful in baked goods, keeping them rich and moist without adding any fat)
  • in a smoothie (e.g., with kefir, bananas, and cocoa powder)
  • drizzled with olive oil and za’atar and eaten with pita bread and some of my homemade kibbeh
  • mixed with chopped mint leaves, Persian cucumbers, and a little salt
  • stirred together with a dollop of spicy Indian mixed pickle

Have you tried skyr yet? How do you like to eat it?

Eventide Oysters

A Tasty Trip Up North – Part II – Eventide Oyster, Portland, ME

Eventide Oysters
The next morning, after our free hotel-provided breakfast (not worth writing on the Internet about), Anastasia and I set out for Portland, Maine. Neither of us had ever been there, but I was armed with enough food recommendations for a week, kindly provided by some equally food-obsessed Cook’s Illustrated colleagues. We found this Portland to be a quintessential New England seaside town with a dash of that other Portland thrown in for some hippie/indie flavor. After another beach stroll, our seafood yearnings not yet satiated, we stopped for lunch at the Eventide Oyster Co.

Oysters at Eventide

As you enter Eventide, the first thing that catches your eye is a large concrete trough built into the counter, filled with ice and a tempting display of every type of oyster that they have available. (The second thing is the fact that nearly every male employee is sporting some ironic hipster facial hair.) The oyster menu is divided into two categories: “Maine” and “From Away.” We ordered a half dozen Mainers ($15): two Winter Point Selects from West Bath, two Bagaduces from Penobscot, and two North Havens. With each oyster order, you can select two items from the “Accoutrements” list; we chose simple lemon wedges and kim chee ice (which sounded fascinating, but when we asked about it, turned out to be nothing more complicated than frozen and shaved kim chee juice). Our order arrived with horseradish ice instead, but we didn’t bother correcting the mistake. Nastia and I both agreed that while all three oysters were wonderful, the small Winter Points were the best: perfectly swallow-sized, briny, and slightly sweet. We each had a glass of cool, crisp Muscadet with our oysters — a perfect accompaniment. (Eventide’s cocktail menu was very tempting, but it was a bit too early in the day for that.)

The Eventide menu and business cards feature a lovely quote from poet Léon-Paul Fargue: “I love oysters. It’s like kissing the sea on the lips.” And that is the most perfect way to describe the oyster experience: It’s like frenching the ocean.

Maine Oysters: West Point Selects, Bagaduces, North Havens

Maine Oysters: Winter Point Selects, Bagaduces, North Havens

I also tried the Yellowfin Tuna Crudo ($9), served with ginger, scallions, and radishes, and a side of roasted cauliflower with pine nuts and currants ($4). Both were served in charming glazed dishes reminiscent of oyster half-shells. The tuna was cool, fresh, and tasty; but the cauliflower was a bit limp and disappointing. Had it been a bit crisper and more caramelized, it would have been perfect.

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Roasted Cauliflower

Anastasia also ordered the Lobster Roll in Brown Butter Vinaigrette ($13), which was the smallest lobster roll specimen I’ve ever seen in my life; really “Lobster Bun,” may have been a more accurate name for it — it couldn’t have been more than three inches long. She said that it was tasty, but I’m not sure if it could have been tasty enough to deserve the title (by weight) of “Most Expensive Lobster Roll Ever.”

My favorite touch, though, was the giant oyster shell sink in the restroom.

Oyster Sink

A Tasty Trip up North – Part I – New Hampshire

My friend Anastasia and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to New Hampshire and Maine last week, and fortune favored our trip with unseasonably warm weather: a cloudless, sunny sky and temperatures in the mid 60s. We started out the day with a leisurely hike through Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, MA, and then continued with a walk along Plum Island Beach. On the way to Plum Island, we stopped in a small seaside town and I was fascinated by a sandwich board outside of a store advertising 25-cent hot dogs. Twenty-five cents?! Whoever heard of such a deal? Further investigation, however, revealed that the hot dogs in question were decidedly 7-11-ish in nature and probably not worth even 25 pennies. Disappointment. And apparently over half a million persons have so far been disappointed by these dogs.

Hot Dogs - 25 cents

Hot Dogs

By the time we reached our hotel in Seabrook, NH, we were famished and in the mood for some seafood (Nastia’s statement on the subject: “I love seafood: I see food, I eat it.”). We flipped through the binder of local restaurant menus at the hotel and decided on Master McGrath’s, a pub/restaurant that promised — besides “Dining & Spirits” — some local color.

Master McGrath's - Seabrook, NH

Master McGrath’s – Seabrook, NH

As soon as we stepped through the doors into the dimly lit interior, I was charmed. The dark wood paneling, heavy velvet drapery, and dusty, fringed lampshades brought to mind some sort of cross between a bordello and a medieval roadside tavern.

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I noticed that all of the other diners were elderly and whispered to Nastia that this, in my opinion, was definitely a good sign. An exceedingly friendly innkeeper with a Quasimodo-ish air showed us to our dark wood booth and handed us large menus in sticky vinyl folders. Since we were, according to our hotel’s description, “minutes from the beaches of New Hampshire,” we skipped right over the menu sections entitled “All Time Best Bets,” “Our Program,” and “Hot Box” (is this a menu section or a punishment reserved for unruly diners?) and went straight to “Seafood.” We ordered the Fresh Broiled Scallops ($15.99) and Baked Haddock ($14.99). Both included a trip to the salad bar and were served — coated in breadcrumbs and topped with lemon butter — in brown-and-white ceramic ramekins dating back to at least the 1950s. The fish was fantastic: light, flaky, and tender — not overcooked as fish served in 50s-era ramekins so often is. The scallops were large, sweet, and flavorful, but just the tiniest bit on the rubbery side. Both dishes were accompanied by a pile of flaccid, greyish-green beans that had, unfortunately, had the life cooked out of them. But that’s how they cooked green beans in medieval times, so what the heck did you expect? In any case, two thumbs up for Master McGrath’s — if I ever again find myself in Seabrook, New Hampshire with a  hankering for broiled fish, I know where to go.

scallops

We closed our New Hampshire evening with a bottle of red wine, some excellent blackcurrant dark chocolate, and a hot tub. If only every evening could end that way.

Better Breakfasts: Blueberry-Walnut Steel-Cut Oats

Blueberry-Walnut Steel-Cut Oats

Lounging lazily in one corner of the freezer, there’s a bag of at least a pound of plump blueberries left over from a slightly overzealous blueberry-picking expedition last summer. Every now and then, a handful gets tossed into a smoothie, but they’re starting to show signs of freezer burn and I’ve been trying to come up with other ways to use them. This morning, as I reached into the freezer for the steel-cut oats to make some porridge for breakfast, my eye landed on the neglected bag of berries and I thought of stirring some in with the oats as they simmered. I added some walnut pieces as well (toasted first to bring out their warm, nutty flavor) and a little vanilla extract. The result was fantastic: not only did the porridge taste almost freakishly like a blueberry muffin (a much healthier version, however), it had a gorgeous lavender color, swirled with streaks of bright violet. A cheerful touch to a rather bleak and snowy morning.

Blueberry-Walnut Steel-Cut Oats

1 cup water
1 cup milk (I used 2% — you can substitute with your dairy replacement of choice, or use all water, though the result will be less creamy)
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup quick-cooking steel-cut oats (I used Bob’s Red Mill)
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
2 TB walnut pieces, lightly toasted
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Bring water, milk, and salt just to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
  2. Stir in the oats, turn the heat to low, and simmer 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently with the handle of a wooden spoon (or a spurtle, should you happen to have one). When there are about 4 minutes left (for frozen) or 3 minutes left (for fresh), stir in the blueberries.
  3. When the oats have reached your preferred tenderness, turn off the heat, stir in the walnuts, and let sit for 2 minutes to thicken.
  4. Just before serving, stir in the vanilla extract. Serve as-is or topped with brown sugar, maple syrup, honey…or your sweetener of choice.

Afternoon Tea at the Wolseley

My list of “Things I Absolutely Have to Do in London” is not very long, but one of them is to have a proper afternoon tea, preferably somewhere really posh. It being my birthday, it seemed the perfect time to check this one off the list. After a little research, my friend Francesca and I decided to try The Wolseley on Piccadilly Street in the West End (can you get any posher?). As soon as we walked through the heavy glass doors, I knew we’d chosen well; we found ourselves in a gorgeous, cavernous Art Deco salon (once an automobile showroom) with soaring ceilings, gleaming black and gold geometric planes, and glittering mirrors. As I looked around, I half expected to see Jay Gatsby and Daisy whispering to each other over one of the black marble tables.

We shared the full Afternoon Tea (£22.50. A simpler option is the traditional “Cream Tea,” which includes tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam for £9.75), with Francesca choosing English breakfast while I opted for jasmine green tea. We each received a generously-sized antique pot with a well-worn wooden handle and a printed tea label. Charming!

Along with the tea pots, we each received a strange silver contraption with a swinging wire basket that was apparently intended for filtering the tea in some manner; we couldn’t figure out exactly which manner. I was about to just drop the thing into my giant tea cup when I spotted the nattily dressed British men at the next table using theirs correctly: Lift by the handle; turn your wrist 90 degrees so that the cup-shaped stand swings to the side; pour tea through the filter basket to catch the loose leaves; flick wrist again so that the cup swivels back into place (neatly catching any drips) and can be used to hold the strainer upright on the table. Got it. (This brilliant apparatus is available for purchase for the trifling sum of  £63.00 – http://www.thewolseley.com/tea-strainer.)

Shortly after, our three-tiered tea tower was placed on our table with a flourish. The dapper, freakishly tall waiter carefully explained each of the five finger sandwiches and the three tea cakes in an unidentified foreign accent so thick he might as well have been speaking another language. We managed to identify the sandwiches by color and taste: 1) smoked salmon and butter, 2) cucumber and butter, 3) celery and roasted toe-mah-toe, 4) cold chicken salad with tarragon, and 5) egg and cress. On the second level were the little cakes: a slice of mini Battenberg, a tiny round Victoria sponge, and a beautiful doll-sized raspberry tart. On the top level, nestled under a heavy, elaborate silver dome topped with a tiny pine cone-shaped knob, were two small currant scones.

I went for the scones first since they were still warm from the oven. They were, in a word, heavenly. Tender, moist, light, and buttery on the inside — crisp and browned on the outside. I slathered mine thickly with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam (both also handily labeled for the uninitiated). The clotted cream was fantastic — it didn’t have the unpleasant sticky consistency of others I’ve tried — instead it was light (If that word can be used to describe a substance that clogs your arteries with a single glance…that’s why it’s called “clotted” cream, right?), smooth, and fluffy. The jam was lovely, too: neither too sweet nor syrupy.

We attacked the sandwiches next. I enjoyed the chicken salad the most — the cool chicken was tender and shredded into generously sized chunks. The other sandwiches were perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write on the Internet about.

And finally: the tea cakes. Battenberg cake is a favorite of mine, so I tried that first. The checked pieces of sponge cake, though alarmingly artificial in color, were moist and pillowy, held together with a thin layer of apricot jam and wrapped in a sheet of dense marzipan that had the same satisfying, firm, fine-grit texture as a bite of Play-Doh. Not that I’ve ever eaten Play-Doh. Next? Victoria sponge. Another favorite! Or should I say, favourite. Although it’s called sponge, this cake does not have the same light, airy texture as a North American sponge cake. It’s sweeter, moister, and denser, a bit closer to what we know as pound cake. The whipped cream that billowed out from between the wee cake layers as we bit into them was absolutely perfect: again, extremely rich cream that somehow tasted ethereal. And all balanced out by a dollop of the homemade strawberry jam. We saved the raspberry tart for last and it turned out to be a wise decision, since it was the best of all — a crisp, buttery tart shell filled with a spoonful of smooth, creamy custard piled high with huge fresh raspberries, velvety-matte under a coating of tiny silvery hairs and bursting with bright red sweet-tartness. “Sono contentissima!” (I’m so happy!) Francesca murmured, and I concurred.

It might all sound too girly for words, but I noticed that the muscular British men seated to our left ordered the exact same thing (wearing pink shirts, no less) and it didn’t seem to threaten their masculinity in the slightest.

We ended with a visit to the ladies’ room, suspecting that it would be as elegant as all the rest, and we were not disappointed: more vast expanses of black marble and mirrors, accented with glimmering gold.

Forget breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tea at the Wolseley is a sure-fire cure for the mean reds, any day.

The Late-Night PFC Experience

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So I’ve been out with friends in Chelsea tonight. I take the night bus home and God bless the night bus. Even though it takes freaking forever, at least there’s a way to get home past midnight that doesn’t involve dropping a fortune on a cab ride (ahem…Boston, take notice). When I finally get back to Clerkenwell from Chelsea, it’s about 2:30 a.m., I am starving, and I am wondering: What on earth is open at this hour? Where can one get some soakage? Lo and behold, the N19 drops me off right in front of a PFC, and oh yes, I am gonna get myself some. What is PFC, you say? Allow me to explain. Although they do have KFC in England (though British KFC franchisees are apparently ignorant of the meaning of “crispy”), KFC is not generally open at this ungodly hour. They don’t eat this late in Kentucky. But they do wherever the people who run this Perfect Fried Chicken joint are from, and I am gonna have myself some perfect fried chicken. I march right into the harshly neon-lit place (I’ve always wondered about this. Nobody looks good after 1 a.m., much less in this kind of lighting. Is it a ploy to make you hurry up and go home faster, after you’ve caught a glimpse of your horrifying, melting face in the side-wall mirror?) and am immediately flummoxed by the backlit menu. Fries? Aren’t they called “chips” here? This must be some American-style joint. That makes me feel at home and gives me the confidence to order, very loudly, in my blatant American accent, four pieces of fried chicken and a regular fries. No, I’m not eating it here! I’ve seen that mirror, for God’s sake! Take away, please! I then march on home, clutching my warm cardboard box of deep-fried soakage.

When I open the box and sample the fries, my first thought is “Dirty, dirty oil!” That oil may very well be the same oil that fueled the miracle of Hanukkah. They’re still reusing it, up here in Islington. How thrifty. Then I try the chicken. Hm. Greasy, yes, but not so “perfect.” Apparently the PFC folks, just like British KFC owners, are unaware of the fact that the whole point of deep-frying chicken is to make it crispy. It’s sog city up in here, and the “just the way you like it!” slogan on the cardboard box is mocking me, because “cold and soggy” is NOT just the way I like my fried chicken. Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. It was PFC or some mediocre kebab, and I was not feeling the kebab tonight. But probably the only cure for this bitter disappointment will be some Full English Brekkie tomorrow.

“Hot & Tasty” – maybe the ironic quotes should have been a tip-off, but legend has it that vodka makes it harder to see ironic quotes.

Green Walnuts, Nocino, and Baptist Johns

The green walnuts have arrived!

Today, June 24th, is the day that Florence celebrates its patron Saint, San Giovanni (a.k.a. John the Baptist), and traditionally it’s also the day when unripe green walnuts are gathered for making nocino, a complex, nutty, and slightly bitter dark brown liqueur. It’s usually served as an after-dinner digestivo, but can also be used to “correct” a shot of espresso, poured over gelato, mixed into cocktails, or used in place of vanilla extract in baking (biscotti would be a a good application for that). Green walnuts are only available for a brief span of time every June and last year I missed the window of opportunity, but this year I managed to get some before it was too late. I ordered 5 pounds of green walnuts (about 40 walnuts) from Haag Farms in California; they were delivered to my doorstep just in time (I’m leaving soon for a trip to London). Although I’ve spent some time on walnut farms, I’d never really examined a green walnut up close. I sliced one in half to see what it was all about. The fetal walnut looked like nothing so much as a tiny, translucent brain. It had the shape and form of a walnut but was clear and jelly-like. Weird! Fascinating!

A green walnut, halved. It’s like “The Nut with Two Brains.”

Cutting through these suckers was not easy, even with a sharp chef’s knife and even though the immature shells lining the inside of the green husks were still quite thin. It took some muscle to cut them. (Also note: If you care at all about your manicure, wear gloves for this part. The walnut juice will stain your fingers, nails, and cutting board an icky yellow that later turns dark brown.) Once I had 25 of them quartered, I placed them in a large glass jar with 1 quart (4 cups) of 190-proof Everclear. What’s that you say? Everclear is illegal in Massachusetts? Yes, I’m aware of that. Let’s just say I had it smuggled in from a less puritanical state where people have the freedom to infuse their own liqueurs. I also added the zest of one lemon, a few cloves, a stick of cinnamon, some coffee beans, and half of a nutmeg. Recipes vary wildly on the spices — some add juniper berries, vanilla beans, or orange zest. I decided to be very sparing with them, since a good nocino doesn’t taste strongly of any individual spice; the hard-to-describe green walnut flavor should predominate: nutty, slightly bitter, a touch oaky and medicinal, and a bit vanilla-y and sweet as well.

What you need to make nocino.

Once everything was in the jar, I closed the lid tightly and gave it all a good shake. Most recipes for nocino instruct you to leave it in a bright, sunny spot to macerate, but that seems counter to all logic about infusing liquor. Light can degrade and destroy flavor/aroma compounds, so I chose to store my big moonshine jar in a cool, dark cupboard, just like I do when I make limoncello.

All ready to hurry up and wait.

Just a few hours later, a peek into the jar revealed that the walnuts had already begun to oxidize and turn black (particularly any that were sticking out above the water line) and the liquid had turned a dark, evil-looking, greenish-black. Yikes. Just what exactly was I brewing up, here? The last nocino that I had was an ersatz commercial version, which had been tinted brown with caramel coloring. I assume that the real deal is supposed to be this scary color.

Mmmm, delicious?

And now…the wait begins. Most people advise letting it sit for about 40 days before adding simple syrup, then letting it sit for at least another month before straining out the solids. At that point it is, in theory, ready to drink, but common wisdom–and the “Order of Modinese Nocino“–dictate that to really get something special, you need to then let it age and mellow for at least a year (better yet, two). I’m not sure I have that kind of patience, but we’ll see what happens. As it is, it’s torturous to have to wait two months to taste it. This will be a long-term project, obviously, and I’ll post follow-ups as it progresses. If you want to try your hand at nocino as well, get your orders in quick — the magic time for green walnut gathering is just about over (if not over already).

The formula that I used is a mixture of one from my friend Judy, one that Haag Farms sent along with the shipment of green walnuts, and my own inspiration (nutmeg just seemed to go well with walnut).

Nocino

25 green walnuts, quartered
1 quart (4 cups) Everclear
4 cloves
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 nutmeg (grated on all sides)
10 coffee beans (I used Blue Bottle Finca El Majahual)

Simple syrup: 3 cups sugar dissolved in 4 cups water

  • Wash walnuts and quarter lengthwise.
  • Place walnut quarters in large glass jar with Everclear and spices. Seal tightly and shake well.
  • Let sit in a cool, dark place for 30-40 days.
  • Add simple syrup and shake well. Return jar to a cool, dark place and let sit 30-60 days.
  • Strain out solids. Store nocino in tightly sealed glass bottles or jars. It can be used immediately, or aged for an additional 1-2 years for the best and most complex flavor. The bitterness lessens with time.
Homemade shocking-pink strawberry ice cream.

Strawberry Picking Ice Cream

Berry picking in Ipswich.

This past Sunday, I went strawberry picking with my friend Denise. Our trip to Russell Orchards in Ipswich was not very fruitful (pun most certainly intended). The place was pretty much picked over (I meant that one, too). After hours of backbreaking manual labor we’d each managed to collect barely a quart of tiny, sort-of ripe, slightly shriveled berries that had already started molding the next day.

Strawberries picked at Russell Orchards. “Slim pickin’s.”

But Denise was not about to settle for such substandard strawberries, and tried again yesterday at Verrill Farms in Concord. This time, she hit the jackpot: shiny, sweet, deep red, flavor-packed gems. Armed with this luscious new supply of fruit, I was ready to try out my brand-new ice cream maker, the Cuisinart ICE-21.

Strawberries picked at Verrill Farms. “Super berries.”

Besides the poor quality and scarce quantity of berries, the oppressive heat this past week deterred me from making ice cream, since all of the recipes I found called for cooking a custard base. As soon as I saw the words “double boiler,” I was put off. But then I spotted this beautifully simple GourmetPerfect No-Cook Strawberry Ice Cream” recipe and regained interest in the Strawberry Ice Cream project. My only modifications were to sub whole milk for half of the cream (sometimes I find ice creams made only with heavy cream a bit greasy) and to add a bit of vodka to keep the ice cream from getting too rock-hard in the freezer. This was my first go with the Cuisinart, but clearly the yield of this recipe was a bit much for it, since it started overflowing within the first five minutes. Next time, I’ll either halve the recipe or freeze it in two batches. If you have an ice cream maker with a larger capacity (the ICE-21 allegedly holds up to 1-1/2 quarts, but couldn’t contain this recipe, which supposedly yields exactly 1-1/2 quarts), then go for it all at once. As I frantically spooned the excess into a bowl, the ice cream stopped rotating around the blade at one point, and I couldn’t tell if this was because my machine was malfunctioning (hope not) or because I’d poked at it with a spatula, and it was annoyed. We’ll see how the next batch goes.

As for the ice cream itself, it was fantastic: rich and smooth, and a stunning deep pink color. Actually, though completely natural, it was kind of a crazy pink color — it could easily have been described as either “shocking pink” (my mother’s favorite color) or “Pepto-Bismol-y.” Since it was uncooked, it had retained the tang of fresh berries and wasn’t overly sweet. Ice cream success!

Homemade shocking-pink strawberry ice cream.

No-Cook Strawberry Ice Cream
Makes 1-1/2 quarts

1 lb strawberries, washed and trimmed
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
pinch salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vodka (I used Smirnoff 100 proof)

Partially mash the strawberries with the sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a large bowl, using a potato masher. Let sit for 10 minutes. Transfer half to another bowl and puree with an immersion blender until smooth. Mix the two halves back together, stir in the cream and vodka until well combined, and chill in a metal bowl in the refrigerator for about 3 hours, then freeze in an ice cream maker. Transfer to an airtight container (tightly covering the surface with a piece of plastic wrap before putting on the lid) and freeze until firm (another few hours).

D.I.Y. Frappuccino

I’m an admitted coffee addict. I need my caffeine fix every morning, or I’m a cotton-headed ninny-muggins and irritable as heck. In the summer I usually opt for a caffè shakerato (a shot of espresso vigorously shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice until frothy). But in the midst of a heat wave like the one we’ve been suffering through here in Boston (97 degrees yesterday!), even turning on the smallest burner to brew coffee in my tiny 1-cup moka pot is unbearable. I’m too thrifty to shell out three or four bucks a day for some blended iced coffee concoction at the local Starbucks or Double D, and also way too much of a snob to stomach the crappy stuff they call coffee.

So my solution was to use my larger 3-cup moka pot for a few days at the beginning of this week (when temps were in the more-reasonable 70s range) to brew up some Illy, which I then poured into ice cube trays and froze (thanks, CR, for that great idea!). Today I pulled out my handy immersion blender, popped the frozen shot collection into a tall container, poured in a little milk, and ecco fatto — your own homemade frappuccino in a matter of seconds, but it tastes so much better. (It might be easier to sweeten the coffee before you freeze it, unless you have some simple syrup on hand.)

Stay cool!

Farmers’ Market Friday: Chive Blossoms

Today I was entranced by the stacks of small, clear containers packed with fluffy, lilac colored chive blossoms at the Siena Farms stand. They’re beautiful, have a lovely onion-y scent, and feel almost weightless in your hand. I’d never seen them before! I bought a package and when I got home with them this evening we ate them fresh, just broken up and sprinkled into a salad. They tasted wonderful: like chives but slightly sharper. The man I spoke with at the Siena Farms stand told me that he likes to batter and fry them. I haven’t tried that yet, because I always like to try something new in as simple a preparation as possible to really understand what it tastes like first. But it sounds great — sort of like a high-end “Awesome Blossom.” I would use the same batter that I learned to make in Florence for frying fresh sage leaves and zucchini blossoms, because it’s a very light, airy batter that would lend itself well to these delicate flowers.

Fried Chive Blossoms

1 egg, separated (you will use both the yolk and the white)
1 cup flour
dry white wine
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 pint of fresh chive blossoms
salt
oil for frying

Lightly beat the egg yolk. Stir flour into the egg yolk to mix. Add a little bit of white wine, about 1/2 tsp at a time, to thin the batter to a reasonable consistency for dipping and frying. Grate a pinch of fresh nutmeg into the batter. Whip the egg white until it forms soft peaks and gently fold it into the batter. Dip the chive blossoms gently into the batter (note that they must be dry or the battery won’t stick), shaking off any excess batter, and deep-fry until lightly golden. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate, salt lightly, and serve immediately.