Friday, May 22, 2009

Enigma On Toast

How is rhubarb like an avocado?

For just one tiny second, avert your thoughts from pies and strawberries and jam and cream, and think about this (just one second, I promise). We all know avocados are fruit, but generally not thought of as anything but a green veggie ideally paired with chips and a salted margarita. In the same way, rhubarb, technically a vegetable, is nestled in with pie pans and jam jars and all the sweet, fruity desserts of spring. A gardener's enigma: in a world of fruit parading as vegetables, is rhubarb the only vegetable playing dress up as fruit?

Just some fruit (or vegetable) for thought. And because disguise or not, it does seem that rhubarb belongs in sweet pie shells rather than salad bowls, lets get back to the sugar.

If you don't have time for cutting butter into pie dough, or you find your store shelves still waiting for summer strawberries...the answer is jam. Its quick, its sweet, and as you will see in a few short scrolls of your mouse, quite versatile in those moments requiring attention to sweet tooth needs (which can be very serious indeed).

From long, lanky stalks, rhubarb cut into little pieces turns to a confetti of pink and green, tart and tasty. Add a little sugar, a little heat, and one (heat resistant) spatula...

Jam baby!

Even if it weren't sweet and drool-inducingly delicious...not that I drooled..., this jam is soft and pink* and cheery. Vegetable? Good disguise indeed. I strongly believe that sometimes you need something lovely like this in your fridge, even just to look at while scanning the options. It is no coincidence then, I should note here too, that this simple recipe comes from a woman who I believe has mastered the art of using sweets to sweeten up more than the dessert hour, my favorite pastry chef Nancy Olson.

We've covered that this fruity vegetable is sneaky, pink, cheery and occasionally inducing of a lip smack or two... but is it all just for toast? Oh no. No my friends. Think ice cream. Stir it into your oatmeal. For a hot-like-summer spring day, just mix in a bit of the syrupy smooth part into a glass of tonic water for rhubarb soda.

And toast works too.

Fruit, vegetable... a little sugar and jam is the word. I suppose you could also call it a compote, but calling it jam makes its something you can eat for breakfast without flirting at dessert. And I think that's grand.

So go think biscuits, ice cream, ricotta, crisp sodas, toast, yogurt, cereal, shortcake...

*The color of your jam will depend on the color of the rhubarb you buy- if its a greener bunch, don't be discouraged if your jam turns out a little brownish. It will still taste great!!

Nancy Olson's Rhubarb Jam

360 grams rhubarb
250 grams sugar

125 grams rhubarb

125 grams rhubarb

1. Over medium-high heat, let a medium sized sauce pan warm up, empty.
2. Once the pot is hot, add the first amount of rhubarb and sugar.
3. Cook, stirring constantly, until the rhubarb cooks down to a thick, jam like consistency. As it get thicker, the sugar will want to start caramelizing; if you see it turning brown on the bottom of the pot, take the pan off the heat, stir some more, and then throw it back on. Make sure you stir constantly! Use the spatula to scrape the bottom and the edges around the pan.
4. Once the rhubarb is thick and you can almost smell it caramelizing, add the second amount of rhubarb.
5. Stir until rhubarb softens, and mixture returns to a boil.
6. Add the last measure, stirring for just a minute or two, until the mixture returns to a boil again.
7. Let cool in a heat resistant bowl...the jam will be really hot when it comes out of the pot!
8. Once cool, refrigerate (or eat).

Yield: a little over half a quart.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's ALIVE!! A tale of soft shell crabs

I tell you, times as of late have been scary in my kitchen.

First, it was the invasion. Coming out of that on the winning side with bread pudding leftovers for days, the coast seemed clear. At the Greenmarket beautiful piles of greens, towers of asparagus and the first bright pink stalks of rhubarb started to fill in around the ramp mounds. A curvy bunch of baby bok choy stole my heart and with the sun shining, my flip flops flopping the pavement, I headed home, unknowing all the way, to see what Russ had picked up from the fish market.

Part of me feels as though I should stop letting him go. If you recall the last thing he pulled from that brown paper fish bag... Well this time it was worse. Or better. Depending on if you asked me before or after I ate it.

We'd been planning on taking a stab at cooking soft shell crabs for a few weeks and gathering information on how to do it right along the way. Most reliable sources said, "Buy the ones that are still moving. If they don't move, don't bother." This advice was largely why I was responsible for picking up the produce. I'm an adventurous eater but much more so when the breading and batter and heat has been applied. I'm not sure how much movement I expected but when Russ pulled out the first crab, legs squirming violently in the air around his hand what I didn't expect to do was to scream like a girl.

Which I did. In response to my squimish squeeling he replied, "All you have to do is cut off their faces and rip out their gills." Unassumingly charming as he tickled their bellies, I silently wondered if there was an evil side to this man before me. Watching the poor little crabs tapping their frenzied little legs on the cutting board as the knife came down on their soft little shells... So violent.

But. So. Delicious. Once I successfully repressed the image of that one, still-twitching claw, covered in egg wash and cornmeal, not yet fried and not yet dead...I could let myself enjoy the explosively rich, velvety, salty and amazing flavor of the crabs. They were aboslutely as insanely delicious as the scene in my kitchen was perhaps insane during their preparation.

The steamed bok choy was light and good for the heart, but as the crabs sizzled in the pan all I really wanted was a plate piled high exclusively with soft shells. After I took this picture I added another one to my plate on the spot.

If you aren't so lucky to have a fresh fish market around the corner (or aren't so brave or don't have a crazy bearded butcher for a kitchen companion), you can make a delicious soft shell crab meal from fresh, non-moving crabs that have simply died in refrigeration; it happens quickly once the crabs are put on ice (you'll still have to clean them!). Just make sure you know where they came from and when they arrived in your store.

I know I've painted a gruesome picture here. But I promise I did it because I believe you can't make it through the season without having at least...6 crabs. They are highlight-of-your-week, worth-cutting-off-a-crabs-face scrumptious. And sometimes you need to see proof that you can make it through the other side to get there.

Well I'm on the other side. And I'm going back for more.

Cornmeal Battered Fried Soft Shell Crabs

5 Soft shell crabs
2 eggs
Cornmeal to coat
Sea salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Fresh thyme, to taste

1. Using kitchen shears, snip off the eyes and mouth of the crab. (This will be about 1/8 of an inch behind the eyes, cutting straight across.)
2. Snip around the edge of the body, folding back the top of the shell. A fingerlike structure should be visible inside the body.
3. Either with scissors or with your fingers, remove this structure from both sides.
4. On the belly, pull back the flap, referred to as the apron, and snip it off as well.

For help with cleaning your crabs, check out this video.

5. The yellow gel-like substance you'll see in the crab can be clean out, or left to be eaten. Its edible, but it may make you feel better to clean it out.
6. Rinse crabs thoroughly under water. Pat dry.
7. Dip in egg wash.
8. Mix salt, pepper and thyme into cornmeal. Coat crabs with mixture.
9. Coat the bottom of a frying pan in a thin layer of olive oil. Heat.
10. Over medium heat, place crabs in pan. Cook on both sides until golden brown.

5 crabs