Lemon and Asparagus Risotto

Minnah came and stayed with us a few days this week. She's good at giving encouragement in the kitchen, so we did a lot of cooking. This recipe is for a lemon asparagus risotto inspired by a recipe from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson(You can read some of Nigella's recipes for free at her website nigella.com. Though I don't think this risotto recipe is available there.) I replaced shallot and celery with leek for less punchy flavors that wouldn't compete with our fresh-from-the-farm-market asparagus.

Lemon and Asparagus Risotto

Makes 4 servings

2 large leeks
6 stalks of asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (can be replaced with additional olive oil)
1 1/3 risotto rice (I like Arborio)
approx. 1 quart vegetable stock
zest and juice of 1/2 unwaxed lemon
needles from 2 small sprigs of fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan (I like Grana Padano instead)
4 tablespoons heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

First prepare the leeks. Trim off the roots, leaving the bulb end intact, and cut off all the dark green tops, leaving about 2 inches of pale green stem and all the white part. Halve the leeks lengthwise and splay open the layers with your hands. Rub each layer with your fingers while holding the leek under running water to dislodge any grit. After cleaning the leeks, slice them thinly and set aside.

Heat the stock in another saucepan and, when it is simmering, use it to blanch the asparagus for exactly 2 minutes. remove the asparagus and set it aside. Keep the stock simmering.

At the same time, heat the butter and oil in a large wide saucepan or pot. Add the leek and cook until it's soft, stirring often. Mix in the rice and stir until it is well coated with oil and butter.

Toast the rice until it begins to turn translucent, then pour a ladleful of the vegetable stock into the rice and keep stirring until the stock is absorbed. Then add another ladleful and stir again. Continue doing this until the rice is al dente. You may not need all of the vegetable stock.

Stir the lemon zest and rosemary into the risotto and in a small bowl beat the egg yolk, lemon juice, grated cheese, cream and pepper. When the risotto is ready (when the rice is no longer chalky, but still has some bite) take it off the heat and add the asparagus and the bowl of eggy, lemony mixture. Salt to taste and serve with more grated cheese on top. Garnish with lemon zest if you wish.

Our asparagus came from Monica Bongue at Muddy Fork Farm. Monica was born in Cali, Colombia, came to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from U.C., Davis and now runs a farm in Wooster, Ohio. Her asparagus is wonderful and she sells at the Shaker Square Farmers' Market.

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Strawberry Jam

When working with fresh produce, a less-is-more approach usually produces better results than trying to follow a complicated recipe. And what could be simpler than making jam with berries, sugar, and lemon juice?

[I have to put in a warning here. This was my first time making jam, and having 16 pounds of strawberries to use up, I decided it would be better to make all the jam at once. It didn't hit me until my jam was merrily boiling away at the half-hour mark that the smaller surface-area-to-volume ratio of my giant batch would make my jam much, much runnier than it should have been. Luckily, my jam came out okay (a little on the runny side), but making larger batches than a recipe recommends is a big no-no when it comes to jam making.]

Strawberry Jam

3 lb. ripe strawberries (4 1/2 pints), rinsed and hulled
3 cups sugar (you can use a little less if the fruit is very ripe)
Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Special equipment: eight or nine 8-oz canning jars with lids

To wash the berries, gently scoop them into a sink filled with water. Swish them around a little, and let them sit for a while. The dirt should fall to the bottom of the sink.

Hull and quarter the berries. Put them in a deep pot made of non-reactive material (stainless steel works well). Make sure that there is enough room in your pot! If there is less than 5" between your berries and the top of your pot, you might have a rather anxious time of it. When the jam boils, lots of air bubbles are trapped in the dense liquid, which will begin to rise very quickly.

Pour on the sugar and lemon juice, and mix well with a wooden spoon. Cover the pot and let the berries macerate for about two hours. If you like your jam smoother, you can mash them with a potato masher instead.

While the berries macerate, wash your jars and set them in the oven. They should be in there for at least half an hour. Wash the lids and rings, and set the rings aside. Put the lids in a pot of boiling water to sterilize them, and to make the rubber around the edges a little more pliable.

Bring the pot of strawberries to a full boil (you need to boil off the liquid to achieve a jammy consistency). Make sure to stir often (with your wooden spoon) and skim off any foam from the surface. The foam will make your jam cloudy if it's left in the pot, although you can eat it separately (a la Marcel from Top Chef). After half an hour of boiling, your jam should be just about ready. Don't boil the jam for more than 40 minutes, however, otherwise the pectin in the fruit will break down and the jam will turn dark.

You can test the consistency of the jam by chilling a plate in your freezer. Spoon a little bit of jam onto the plate, and check the thickness of the jam once it has cooled. I've found that the jam tends to thicken up a little more than this test might indicate once you've sealed and refrigerated the jars though, so don't think it's the end of the world if your jam is a little runny.

Take a jar out of the oven and ladle the jam in until within 1/4" of the rim. Wipe any jam off the rim with a damp towel, and use tongs to take a lid out of your pot of boiling water and put it on the jar. Quickly screw a ring over the lid (it has to be tight enough to hold the lid onto the jar). Repeat this process until you fill up all of your jars.

Put the jars into a deep pot filled with boiling water; make sure the water reaches above the rim of the jar lids. Cover, and let the jars boil for ten minutes. Remove the jars with tongs and let them cool on the counter. The lids should begin to pop within minutes. If you have any lids that didn't seal (the lid makes popping sounds when you press down on the middle), throw them out or eat immediately.

This jam will keep in a cool, dark place for one to two years. If you haven't already eaten it by then. We can go through a jar of this stuff in a day!

Inspired by this recipe from Gourmet, 1999.

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Strawberry Season

I've been pining for homemade strawberry jam for months. But now, strawberry season is upon us, and I'm determined to make the most out of it!

A good strawberry is a little hard to find. The ones at the grocery store don't really cut it, taste-wise. The strawberries at the farmer's market are delicious, but at $5/quart, they aren't a terribly economical choice for jam-making. There is another choice -- pick your own strawberries. Who doesn't have childhood memories of heading out with the family, baskets in hand, to pick and sample the vine-ripened fruit?

There are a few things you should know about strawberry picking before you go. First, arrive as early as you can. You'll find the best strawberries this way, and there won't be a chance of the farm being picked out before you arrive. It'll also be cooler, and this is better for both you and your berries (if it is extremely hot and you are picking a lot, try to keep the berries under shade). Call ahead of time to make sure that the farm is open, and check to see if they provide the containers. You can find local pick-your-own farms at pickyourown.org.

We went to Patterson Farms. They have PYO strawberries on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (due to the cold snap we had around Easter), provide the containers, and charge $1.40/lb. If you're feeling lazy, they also have pre-picked berries and other fruits at their market.

I'm going to have to admit that I've never made jam before. So, when I estimated the amount of strawberries we would need, I might have gone a little... overboard. We ended up picking almost 16 lbs of strawberries. We turned most of this into jam (see the following post - we ended up with fifteen 8-oz jars!), and froze the other basket.

Strawberries will keep in your refrigerator for three to four days at best, so if you aren't planning on eating them immediately, you should freeze your berries. Wash and hull them first, and dry them on kitchen towels. Then lay them out on a baking sheet (don't let the berries touch). The berries should freeze within one to two hours. Just dump the frozen berries in a ziploc bag, and get as much air out of the bag as you can before sealing it. You can easily make jam with frozen berries, too.

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Grilled Pork or Portabella with Strawberry Fennel Salsa

The fennel and strawberries go ridiculously well together and taste good on top of almost anything savory. We like to serve it on grilled pork but it also works well with grilled portabellas and, however it is served, the salsa looks good on a plate.

Grilled Pork or Portabella with Strawberry and Fennel Salsa Recipe

Makes 4 servings

1 lb fennel (sometimes called anise), stalks cut off and discarded
1 1/2 cups diced strawberries
2 scallions, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
salt to taste

4 (3/4 to 1-inch-thick) pork chops or 4 large portabella mushroom caps
5 tablespoons vegetable oil

Halve fennel bulb lengthwise and core it, then cut into 1/4-inch dice. Toss the fennel in a bowl with strawberries, scallions, cilantro, vinegar, honey, and salt.

Grilling Chops:
Prepare grill for cooking. If using a charcoal grill, open vents on bottom of grill, then light charcoal. Charcoal fire is medium-hot when you can hold your hand 5 inches above grill rack for 3 to 4 seconds. If using a gas grill, preheat burners on high, covered, 10 minutes, then reduce heat to moderate.

Pat pork chops dry and season both sides with salt and pepper. Grill pork chops on lightly oiled grill rack, covered only if using a gas grill, turning over once, until cooked through. Transfer chops to a plate and serve topped with the salsa. Garnish with parsley

Grilling Portabellas:
Still prepare grill with medium-high heat. Brush oil evenly over both sides of mushrooms and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill mushrooms until they're tender, turning occasionally, about 10 minutes. Place mushrooms, gill side up, on plates and spoon salsa into mushrooms. Garnish with parsley.

This is the summer version of a favorite pomegranate recipe. We substituted fresh strawberries from one of our favorite local farmers. (Not only does Woolf Farms sell delicious strawberries, they also wear lots of Ohio State apparel! They're mentioned in this post about the Shaker Square Farmers' Market.)

The fennel we used came from Salash Farm, which also sells produce at the Shaker Square Farmers' Market.

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Shaker Square Farmer's Market

We try to buy most of our food from the farmer's market. Eating locally helps the local economy, and the food tends to taste better -- you can read about the reasoning behind the eat local movement here and about the local vs. organic debate here.

The Shaker Square farmer's market is located in the center green of Shaker Square, Cleveland. Several bakeries bring their goods (Koko bakery being one of them! Alas, they do not bring any of their bubble tea to the market), along with various craftsmen (you can buy hand-made cutting boards) and plenty of farmers.

This particular market is open from 8am - 12pm every Saturday through the growing season. Here are some of the things we picked up:

First stop: Muddy Fork Farm for some Ohio-grown asparagus. Once you've tasted local-grown asparagus, you'll never want to go back to the bland grocery store variety. The asparagus season is winding down though, so this might be the last opportunity of the year.

These blue oyster mushrooms were a steal for $7.50/lb. As you can see, the shiitakes were already gone... :( Make sure to get to the farmer's market early (within-the-first-10-minutes-of-opening early) if you have your little hearts set on these.

Strawberries will not ripen once they are picked from the vine. So, while those strawberries in the grocery may look shiny and appetizing, they'll still taste like tarty little green berries. These ones are from Woolf Farms and are absolutely delicious. I used them in those dutch baby pancakes.

Finally, we picked up some herbs at Meadow View Farm. The farmer's market is definitely the place to go to buy your herb seedlings -- there were at least ten types of basil, and a huge assortment of other herbs. We picked up two shiso plants (a staple in Japanese cooking) and what we thought was Thai basil (turned out to be cinnamon basil when we got home, whoops!). They also had Chinese kale and some gorgeous bouquets of peony blossoms.

We'll post more photos and details as we chomp through this week's haul.

North Union Farmer's Market, Shaker Square, Cleveland OH.

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Dutch Baby Pancakes

Pancakes have never been a food I like to eat; they're always a little too dry and there's always too much of them. I've tried everything to make them tastier -- dousing them in jam, syrup, even hot salsa -- but I'd always rather have a big platter of bacon, done up crispy-style.

However, that all changed when I saw this post on orangette. Jimmy's dutch baby pancakes looked buttery, light, and airy... and I had to have them. The batter is made in the blender, creating little air bubbles that expand when the pancake is baked. You can make this in two small cast-iron pans, or one large one. A glass pyrex dish would also do (I used four small ramekins).

4 tbs unsalted butter
4 large eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup 2% milk

1/2 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 tbs granulated sugar
1/2 tsp red wine vinegar (balsamic would also work)
powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the dish on a baking sheet, and into the oven to heat up. After it has risen to temperature, divide the butter evenly between the dishes and slide back into the oven.

Put the eggs, flour, and milk in a blender and give them a quick spin. After the butter has melted in the dishes, remove from the oven and distribute the batter evenly in each dish. Pop them back into the oven for 25 minutes.

Mix the strawberries with the granulated sugar and vinegar in a bowl. After the pancakes are ready, quickly take them out of the oven, dust with a generous amount of powdered sugar, and spoon the strawberries over the pancakes.

These are best eaten piping hot, so serve immediately.

Serves 2.

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