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.

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Farmers’ Market Friday: Green Garlic

Spring has finally, officially returned and with it, the Copley Square Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a few days, I will start my fantastic new job at America’s Test Kitchen, and since I will only be working half-day Fridays all summer (!!!!), I’ll be able to visit the market on my way home, and early enough in the day that it should still have a good selection. Last year, I had to content myself with whatever dregs were left at the end of the day, and most stands were usually already packing up to leave by the time I arrived at the market. I can’t understand why farmers’ markets in the Boston area have hours that make them practically inaccessible to anyone who works full-time, particularly if you consider their astronomical prices.

This first week, not all of the usual stands were there yet. I saw Old Friends Farm, Iggy’s Bread, and a new fresh-pasta stand, Nella Pasta. At the Siena Farms stand, I was fascinated by the beautiful, long stalks of green garlic. I’d never cooked or eaten it before, so I decided to give it a shot. My goal is to try one vegetable or fruit that is completely new to me each week; I love the challenge of figuring out what to do with it. Green garlic — a young garlic plant harvested before the lower part of the stalk has begun to form the bulbous head of garlic cloves — is a particularly ephemeral item that is only available for a few short weeks in the early spring.

I took the stalk of garlic home, somehow managed to angle it into the fridge (it was nearly two feet long, from the roots to the tips of the leaves), and noticed that the leaves started to wilt soon after. The woman I’d spoken to at the farm stand had told me that the dark green leaves are inedible, in any case. You can only eat the pale green and white parts of the stalk, just like with leeks.

Green garlic can be used raw or cooked. I sampled a small piece raw to see how it tastes. The plant itself gives off a strong garlic scent, and it definitely tasted garlicky, but it’s milder than raw garlic cloves, and with less of a pungent, bitter edge. I decided to cook the garlic into a soup with a bunch of young sweet-pea shoots that I’d also bought at the market. The soup that I made turned out absolutely delicious, tasting of springtime, although it wasn’t as smoothly textured as I’d have liked. I blended with an immersion blender for several minutes but could not get the pieces of pea shoot any smaller. Adding dairy (such as cream or crème fraîche) to the soup might help give it a more velvety texture, but I wanted to keep it light and spring-y.

Green Garlic and Sweet-Pea Shoot Soup

(Serves 2)

1 TB unsalted butter
1 stalk green garlic (white and pale green parts only), finely minced
2 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)
1 bunch sweet-pea shoots
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice

  1. Melt the butter in a medium-sized stockpot over low heat, and then add the green garlic.
  2. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent.
  3. Add water or broth; season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cover pot and bring to a boil, then toss in the pea shoots, cover again, reduce heat and simmer gently for about 5 minutes, or until shoots are wilted and tender.
  5. Puree using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor.
  6. Stir in lemon juice and serve immediately.

This would also be nice served topped with a dollop of crème fraîche, either plain or flavored with fresh mint.

William Woodville: „Medical botany“, London, J...

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Fiddlehead Ferns…Spring?

Fiddlehead Ferns with Browned Butter and Prosciutto

Even though it still looks and feels more like early winter than late spring around Boston, an intriguing local springtime item has suddenly appeared in the produce section of my local Shaw’s (of all places)…fiddlehead ferns. I had never bought, cooked, or eaten them before but was really curious to try.

I decided to cook them as simply as possible in order to see how they tasted. I searched a bit for recipes and ended up using the recipe for “Fiddlehead Ferns with Browned Butter and Prosciutto” that I found here: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/4789959.

I liked the texture of the ferns, crisp and with a bit of snap to them. The flavor is hard to describe — the closest I can come to putting it in words is to say that they taste like the forest. The only feature about them that I found off-putting was their appearance. I hate to say it, but they really did look too much like coiled-up caterpillars for my liking. They will not be available for long, and maybe I’ll try them again next year (perhaps battering and frying them would make them more appealing?).

A Visit to the Mercato Centrale

Mercato Centrale Firenze

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As you wander through the maze of vendors hawking leather goods and souvenirs that crowd the streets of the San Lorenzo area, you may notice a large, grey-and-red structure towering above the stands.  Many visitors to Florence never venture inside this building, either unaware of its contents or intimidated by unfamiliar shopping customs, and in so doing, miss out on one of the city’s greatest gastronomical treasures.

Inside, this cavernous, two-storey space is full of bustling shops and stands offering fresh produce, meat, fish, pasta, bread, local cheeses, wines, herbs, and spices – in short, all of the ingredients for preparing fantastic meals at home, packing a gourmet picnic, or to bring home with you as souvenirs of your visit to Florence. You’ll often find higher quality, greater selection, and lower prices than in many local supermarkets.

The iron-and-glass Mercato Centrale (Central Market) was constructed in 1874 as part of a project to renovate the ancient city center, at the same time as the city’s other indoor daily market at Sant’Ambrogio. It was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni and inspired by the Les Halles marketplace in Paris. In 1881, the organization of the stands was entirely changed, resulting in the scheme which continues to this day.

The entire ground floor (piano terreno) is mostly occupied by the butchers (macellerie), delicatessens (pizzicherie), fish vendors (pescherie), and bakeries (forni), as well as several bars, mini-markets, and lunch places.  Most of the fruttivendoli, selling fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, and flowers, are located upstairs on the second floor, or primo piano.  Amidst the shouts and laughter of the vendors you can make out, if you listen carefully, what’s in season and fresh for the day. Italians eat very seasonally – the best tomatoes are available in late summer, citrus from Sicily in the winter months, fresh figs and melons can only be found in late summer, and fragrant porcini mushrooms can only be had in September and October.

Italian cuisine in general and Tuscan cuisine, in particular, can be quite simple in comparison to some other European culinary traditions. The abundance of such fresh, high-quality ingredients often obviates the need for complex sauces and cooking techniques—the pure flavors are able to stand on their own.

A little help with ordering: sliced meats and cheeses are usually ordered in “etti,” with one etto equaling 100 grams, and 2 or 3 etti being approximately equivalent to a package of cured meat as sold in a supermarket. Produce can be ordered in etti or kilograms, or by number of pieces. One of the few disadvantages of shopping in the market is that you are not allowed to touch the produce on display, but instead must trust the vendors to make selections for you.  Attempts to choose your own fruit and vegetables will most likely be met with stern admonitions from the shopkeepers. However, many vendors, particularly those selling meats, cheeses, and sauces, are happy to let you taste their products before buying.

For those without access to a kitchen or with less time to devote to cooking, many vendors on the first floor also offer a wide variety of ready-prepared dishes (piatti pronti), which can be heated for you and packed to-go, as well as marinated roasts and pre-formed hamburger patties in interesting flavor combinations such as alla carrettierra—with garlic and chili peppers—and “braccio di ferro” (“Popeye”)—made with spinach).

For a quick lunch, the Central Market is a great place to stop, and many who work in the area do so regularly.  Following are some recommendations for meals in the market:

Pork’s: Different fresh pasta dishes offered daily.  Every other day Filippo makes lasagna, and his mother Benita prepares Sicilian specialties.  There is always a large variety of panini and grilled, stewed, marinated, or fried vegetables on display in the glass counter, and they can prepare a platter for you based on your selections.

Nerbone: A Central Market tradition.  Famous for panini made with lampredotto (a form of tripe and a Tuscan specialty) or bollito (boiled beef), as well as a full menu which changes daily.  For your panino you can choose the addition of piccante (spicy red chili sauce) and/or salsa verde (green sauce made with parsley, garlic and olive oil), and whether or not you would like your bread bagnato (dunked in meat broth, French-dip style). Friday’s menu usually features fish.  You can either order your food to take away (da portare via) or eat at one of the tables, next to life-size full-color photos of the friendly staff!

The Central Market in via dell’Ariento is open from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday, (closed on Sundays).