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Awake at the Whisk: June 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010


Crawfish Boil

You don't have to go to New Orleans to have a Crawfish Boil. You can do it with freshly-caught crawfish right here in Sacramento.

I love seafood. I love trying new recipes. So, when I saw the sign for Kelly’s Crawfish at the Sunday farmers’ market, I made a v-line. I had read about crawfish boils. They are always described in happy detail as one of those “must” culinary adventures. Indeed, in the tales I’ve read, the boil seems to be half as much fun as the eating itself.

So, in my quest for the next big food escapade, I traded $7 for a few pounds of wriggling, pinching crawfish. Fisherman Kelly Hutson bestowed a few words of crawfish wisdom upon me as he handed over my fidgeting package. “Add lemongrass,” he suggested.

I took the neon blue bag from him and held my crawfish at arms’ length. “Of course they can’t escape,” I told myself.

As if reading my mind, Kelly tossed one last bit of advice in my direction. “When you get to your car, lay your other groceries on top of them. That will ensure they don’t crawl out,” he said.

Feeling utterly reassured, I made haste to get my little critters safely home to my cool refrigerator. Next, I began researching recipes for what would be my first-ever crawfish boil that night. With two hands, I guided My New Orleans off the bookshelf. Written by James Beard award-winning chef John Besh, this book is more than a cookbook. It’s a storybook for people who love food. Heavy, glossy, and oozing with edible photographs, My New Orleans conveys professionalism with every word, every image, every carefully-chosen recipe. I knew I could not fail with this book as my guide.

Yet, under the recipe for Crawfish Boil, the spice list merely read “1 package Zatarain’s Crab Boil spices.” Nooo! This would never do! Then I read further, “Secrets of the boil: What makes it yours are the ingredients you add.” Okay—so he doesn’t want to reveal his secret spice recipe. The man owns a restaurant. I can understand that. But as I read on, I finally found what I was looking for: “Foundations of the crawfish boil: cayenne, salt, and a mix of coriander, allspice, mustard seed, and black pepper.”

Bingo! Now I was ready! I prepped all my ingredients, fired up the grill, and had my stock simmering as our guests arrived. Within minutes of their arrival, the heady scent of spices lifted through the air. Our tummies rumbled.

“I’m going to check the stock,” I said. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I noticed everyone was following. All the stories I had read were right—a crawfish boil was an event! Eyes peered anxiously over my shoulder as I first lifted the lid to the grill, then the lid to the bubbling pot. “Oohs” and “ahhs” were uttered at the site of mere boiling water as the thickly spiced brew introduced itself to our noses.

Into the water went giant chunks of potato, corn, and carrot. As it boiled, we drank beers, but we were drunk on the smells coming from the grill, growing with force by the minute.

Now it was time for my crawling crawfish to meet their fate. The bag in my fridge was still wriggling. I cracked the seal, poured scampering crustaceans into a metal bowl, lifted the lid to their bubbling cauldron, and zoop!—in they plopped. One push of the spoon to sink them deeper into the watery depths, and clap!—I slammed the lid down, trapping all the heat in with them.

I have never before cooked a live fish. As a little girl, I went fishing on the Mississippi River with my dad, and it was his job to remove all creatures from hook. I never saw them again until they appeared on my dinner plate. Similarly, on my honeymoon several years ago, I went deep sea fishing with my husband, and we landed a giant, gorgeous mahi-mahi. As I dreamed lovingly of fish tacos, I had to look away when the fisherman walloped my mahi on the head. Love fish as much as I do, I get a little squeamish when it comes to the process from fishing line to my plate.
But I digress! I tell you this tale only to give you courage. I’m a big girl now, and as soon as the lid came down on that pot, my next thought was of dinner! And a mere 30 minutes later, I was scooping luscious chunks of veggies and crawfish right onto my plate, eager to dive in with both hands.

In every description I’ve read about crawfish boils, the entire contents of the boil are dumped onto newspaper laid across the table. But, since our bar is brand new, I didn’t want to take any inky chances. Instead, I daintily transferred mine into several large serving platters.

With the first messy bite, I learned why others rave about crawfish boils. The corn, which I thought might turn out mushy from all that boiling, was crisp and gushing with spicy Cajun flavor—no butter, no salt necessary. The potatoes were velvety. And the crawfish… the tails were soft and buttery, while the claws (my favorite!) were sweet and bright. As juice ran down our arms, we licked our fingers, cracked more fish, and stuffed ourselves silly on these farm-fresh delights.

Amber’s Sacramento Crawfish Boil
1 large grapefruit cut into 1/8ths
2 large stalks celery, cut into large chunks
2 large cloves garlic, cut in ½ crosswise
2 ½ large, red onions, quartered
2 Tablespoons each: mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, mild paprika, torn lemongrass, salt
1 Tablespoon allspice
½ Tablespoon each cayenne pepper, rosemary, and fennel seed
4 bay leaves
1 ½ lbs purple potato cut in half
5 ears of corn, shucked and halved
4 small sweet potatoes, whole
2 lbs crawfish
4 carrots cut in large chunks
4 washcloths
Juice from half a lemon

Farmers' Market Fare: garlic, onion, purple potato, corn, sweet potato, crawfish, carrots, lemon
Fresh from My Garden (and my neighbor's tree): grapefruit, lemongrass, rosemary, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, fennel seed
Non-local Supermarket Ingredients: celery, mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, paprika, salt, allspice

Fill your largest soup kettle ½-full of water. Add the grapefruit, celery, garlic, onion, and spices. Bring to a boil on your grill. Reduce heat, cover with a lid, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Now add the potatoes and corn. Return to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for 15 minutes more.

Add the carrots and crawfish, being sure to dunk the fish under the water. Cover and cook for 10 more minutes.

Without removing the lid, turn off the heat and continue to let the crawfish stand in the pot for 20 minutes more.

Strain the liquid. Dump the remaining contents onto newspaper on your picnic table, or be dainty and distribute it among several large platters.

When the meal is finished, submerge clean washcloths in a bowl of very warm water. Add the lemon juice. Squeeze the excess water from each washcloth and place them in a metal bowl with a lid to trap the heat. Hand one to each guest. Their hands will be messy, and they will thank you for this lovely gesture!

Serves 4.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Grandma Betty’s Famous Rhubarb Pinwheels

Do you have that one family recipe that you guard with your life? The one that everyone begs you for, but you’re just not willing to give up? Well, this is one such family recipe of mine. My mom made it, my grandma made it, and my great-grandma made it. In fact, this is the recipe that best defines my kitchen memories. I almost named my blog after this recipe. It means that much to me.
This recipe was passed on to me when I first left home. Grandma wrote it on a slip of scrap paper and mailed it to me while I was living in Denmark as an exchange student. I made it for my host families, who immediately begged me for the recipe. It’s a one-of-a kind. It’s the best rhubarb recipe there is, using almost five cups of chopped rhubarb. It has everything a great dessert needs: it’s served warm; it’s covered in a rich sauce; the pinwheel dough is moist and comforting; and it pairs wonderfully with vanilla ice cream. It's tangy, sweet, and like the vegetable that gives it its name, utterly unique.

If I gave you the recipe as my grandma gave it to me, I doubt you’d have much luck. The instructions reflect the hands-on learning that’s associated with a family recipe. For example, she lists all the pinwheel ingredients, and the directions simply state, “Mix in order given. This is the dough.” Yet, I had to call home to ask whether the butter was cut in like scone batter, or blended like cookie batter.

Of course, like everything I do, I have altered her recipe ever so subtly to provide a slightly healthier version of this luscious dessert. I have decreased the amount of sugar, added some extra spice, and added wheat flour. The wheat flour makes a slightly chewier pinwheel, but I think only Grandma will notice.

Lucky, lucky, lucky you! I am not only sharing our family’s most treasured recipe with you, but I have also rewritten it so that you will understand the instructions clearly. When you make this, I only ask that you give my grandma credit!

Grandma Betty’s Famous Rhubarb Pinwheels
4 cups water
3 cups organic sugar
1 cup diced rhubarb (1/2-inch pieces)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 Tablespoons organic sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ cup cold butter
1 scant cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups diced rhubarb (½-inch pieces)
1/3 scant cup sugar
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ginger

Farmers' Market Fare: whole wheat flour, butter
Fresh from My Garden: rhubarb
Local California Ingredients: buttermilk
Non-local Supermarket Ingredients: sugar, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, combine water, 3 cups sugar, and 1 cup diced rhubarb. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Then remove from heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flours, 2 Tablespoons sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and ginger. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter until it forms a coarse crumb. (I like to grate the butter with my cheese grater—it quickens the job.) Add most of the buttermilk—depending on the humidity, you may not need all of it. Mix until a solid dough ball has formed. Let rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

On a clean, floured surface, roll the dough into a long oblong, about 19 inches in length and 6 ½ inches wide. Cover the surface of the dough with the remaining 3 ½ cups diced rhubarb. Sprinkle the rhubarb with 1/3 cup sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. Roll the dough like you would roll cinnamon rolls or a jelly roll, maintaining the 19 inch length. Using a butter knife, slice the roll into 1-inch thick pinwheels. Lay them side-by-side in a 9” X 13” X 2” pan so the cut end is facing up in the shape of a pinwheel. Pour most of the sugar syrup over the pinwheels, making sure to leave 1 inch of space at the top of the dish so the sugar doesn’t boil over into your oven. (Use any remaining syrup over ice cream. It will keep at least a week in your fridge.)

Bake in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. When your taste buds become giddy with joy, yell, “Thanks, Grandma Betty!”

Makes about 16-19 pinwheels.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Epiphany Farms: Three Vegas Chefs Take on Farming in Rural Illinois

When I picture farmland in Illinois, I imagine the farms of my youth with their high, green rows of corn that stretch as far as the eye can see. These are precise, square plots; the kind that look like building blocks if you were peering down from an airplane. The rows are tidy, the colors uniform.
These are the farms of industrialized agriculture with its mono-crops of corn and soy brought to life through the heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

My childhood vision of the typical Illinois farm was shattered on Sunday when I visited Epiphany Farms, an organic farm in Downs, Illinois (population 760). Run by three guys in their mid-twenties, the farm looks like the creative doodles of a preschool drawing—not the clean design of an architect. This is farming as the earth intended.

In the front of the property, sloping into the south-facing sun leans a greenhouse constructed of curving wood. Next to that are three cold frames built entirely from recycled window panes. These stand not far from a pig pen. Around the bend is a field planted topsy-turvy by hand with slanting rows of beans, lettuces, and broccoli, and decorated by weeds. Adjacent are more pigs, most of them babies suckling on their mother. Farther a-field are cattle and chickens. Around the corner are bee hives and fruit trees.

The life on this farm teams with diversity, leaving no square outline to be seen from the air above. Instead, it winds with the hills and the forest tree line.

This is Epiphany Farms, the brainchild of Ken Myszka. He’s actually not a farmer, though he’s learning to become one. He’s a trained chef by trade, having worked for some of Vegas’s finest restaurants. But the more he has learned about cooking great food, the more he has wanted to be responsible for every step of the cooking process—including growing his own groceries.

So one year ago, Myszka packed up and moved back to his childhood home, conveniently located on 72 acres of farmable land in central Illinois. He brought along two buddies and fellow culinary geniuses Mike Mustard and Stu Hummel, who were also cooking in Vegas at the time.

Mustard is a native of Sacramento, California, while Hummel’s roots are from Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Like Myszka, the two wanted to be responsible for the production of the food they serve their customers.

Together, the three spent their first year as farmers studying and learning as much as they could about the craft. This year, they’ll see how successful they can be at harvesting bounty from their fields. And by next March 2011, they hope they can finally pull their vision together to start feeding the good folks of Bloomington, Illinois from their farm-to-fork restaurant. Vegetables and farm-fresh produce will be the stars of their menu, while protein (including their own grass-fed beef) will simply run support on the plate.

After touring their farm this past weekend, the chefs-turned-farmers offer me and a group of about 20 interested patrons a sampling of their cooking. This is no ordinary farm BBQ. Instead of hotdogs and chips, we are served a gourmet lunch of garden herb-seasoned potato salad (the lightest, freshest potato salad I’ve ever enjoyed), Asian noodle salad studded with grated carrots and radish (bright and flavorful), giant burgers made from Epiphany cattle and topped with both homemade mayonnaise made with their farm eggs and caramelized onions. For dessert: alpine strawberry muffins and coriander custard topped with powdered oats. Divine.

We dined as we looked out at cows chewing grass, chickens pecking, and vegetable plants blowing in the breeze.

Although other farmers and chefs will tell you that Epiphany Farms is breaking the mold, Myszka will tell you, “I’m not inventing anything. I’m not trying to be the first.” Instead, his goal is practical, “When I research about eating locally and eating healthy, and then I try to educate others, where can I tell them to go?”

For decades, there wouldn’t have been many answers to that question in rural Illinois. Today, there’s Epiphany Farms.

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