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Rhubarb: better late than never, and right on time

I’ve been horribly distracted.

Between radishes and fennel, beets and blueberries—not to mention the gaping black hole that was my thesis, which, now completed(!), shall no longer loom darkly over Orangette—I almost forgot about rhubarb, my favorite fruit that’s actually a vegetable. Its puckery yet delicate flavor is, to me, the epitome of spring, and the sound of a sharp knife slicing through its purply-red stalks—like a fleshy, feminine version of celery—never ceases to satisfy. Nonetheless, I’ve had a wandering eye; the generous spread of springtime fruits and vegetables has a way of making a girl terribly fickle. But a couple of days ago—and not a moment too soon—my gaze fell on a very patient basket of rhubarb, languishing on a shelf in the produce section. And that very same day, a strangely fortuitous rhubarb-related fact tumbled into my lap.*

Perhaps you have heard of Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented the modern scheme of taxonomy? We have Linnaeus to thank for bringing a little Latin into our daily lives by creating, in 1758, the system by which we classify plants and animals into genera and species. What you may not know, however, is that while Linnaeus may have completely revolutionized the biological sciences, what he really cared about was rhubarb.

In Linnaeus's time, Sweden was very poor. Being a wise scientist and resourceful citizen, he cooked up a scheme to import exotic plants and animals, hoping that they could be raised for profit in his country. Among his many experiments and test crops—from tea to coffee, ginger, coconuts, silkworms, cotton, clams, and rhubarb—all were failures except the last, and late in his life, Linnaeus would be recorded as saying that the introduction of rhubarb to Sweden was his proudest achievement. Apparently, even the most enduring and far-reaching scientific inventions pale in importance next to a rosy stalk of rhubarb. This was a man who clearly had his priorities in order.

He also must have direct access to powers of divine intervention. As fate would have it, May 23, the day that rhubarb caught my eye and brought me back to my senses, was Linnaeus’s birthday. So I celebrated in the best way that I could imagine, with a warm bowl of baked rhubarb and fresh ricotta. It may have been a big day for Linnaeus and the Swedes, but truth be told, I had plenty to celebrate myself—like a reunion with rhubarb.

*Thank you, Garrison Keillor and The Writer's Almanac.

Baked Rhubarb with Fresh Ricotta
Adapted from Saveur

As with most rhubarb recipes, this one calls for what seems like a truckload of sugar. Be not afraid, and don't skimp: you'll need it to counter the vegetable's natural sourness. This rustic recipe yields wonderfully tender, sweet-tart stalks, which you'll serve in a bath of their syrupy, orange-accented cooking juices. Fresh ricotta makes for a humble and delicious accompaniment—rich, creamy, and with the texture and mild dairy sweetness of a good cheesecake. If you don't have access to good-quality fresh ricotta, skip it entirely; don't use the bland supermarket stuff.

6 good-sized stalks rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Fresh ricotta

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the rhubarb into a medium baking dish, and sprinkle the sugar and orange zest on top of it. Add enough water to the baking dish to just cover the rhubarb (about 4 cups; the rhubarb will likely float). Transfer the dish to the oven, and cook, uncovered, until the rhubarb is very soft but not falling apart, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the rhubarb to a large shallow bowl. Pour the juices from the baking dish into a medium saucepan. Boil the juices over medium-high heat until thick and syrupy, 15-20 minutes; then pour the reduced juices over the rhubarb in the bowl.

Serve the rhubarb warm or at room temperature, with a generous spoonful of fresh ricotta.

Serves 4-6.


Little family, large appetite

I come from a very little family.

My mother Toni and her identical twin sister Tina measure a mere five feet tall in their (very small) stocking feet. Family lore has it that at age seven, they were still sufficiently Lilliputian that the nuns in their Catholic grade school would pick them up, prop them on one habit-cloaked hip, and tote them around. Tina’s daughters, my cousins Sarah and Katie, are likewise petite, having topped out just shy of the five-foot mark. On my father’s side, my half-sister Lisa has done her best to turn the tide, climbing to the unprecedented height of 5’3”, but ultimately I, at a whopping—nay, titanic—five foot five, am the female giant of the family. My father—an inch and a half under six feet and certainly no colossus—must have fought hard to sway the odds, or perhaps it was all the bovine growth hormone I was forced to guzzle with my nightly glass of milk at the family dinner table.

Either way, if there’s a jar of jam to be fetched from the highest shelf of the cabinet or a cookbook to be brought down from the top of the refrigerator, I’m the woman for the job. My relatively impressive stature comes in handy quite often when we’re all in the kitchen together, because for such a little family, we collectively have a rather sizeable appetite. The demand for hard-to-reach food and food-related items is nearly insatiable. And this past weekend was no exception, when a handful of us convened in California to celebrate Katie’s attainment of a hard-earned B.A. in architecture.

As one might expect, the high point of the festivities was to be a party, involving seventy guests, coolers crammed with beer and wine, white lights strung from the back deck, a rousing lip-sync performance of the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets” by yours truly (a special request from Sarah, who loves to exercise my talent for remembering easy-listening lyrics), a bonfire on the “beach” (the former site of our childhood sandbox and aluminum swing set), and of course, a generous spread on the dining room table. In the preceding weeks, Katie and her boyfriend Andrew had dutifully tasted and tested wines, and we exchanged a flurry of e-mails and phone calls, carrying out the menu-planning ritual that that lays the groundwork for any proper family event. With minimal haggling, it was decided that three sides of salmon, grilled and painted with pesto, would be sufficient, along with chicken sausages; Tina’s trademark corn salad; a green salad with candied pecans, sliced cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes; crudités; an assortment of cheeses; blue and yellow corn chips; and salsa. Most importantly, however, there would be an uncommonly luscious white bean hummus, a recipe created by a Little Family within our little family, a subdivision official enough to require capitalization.

In 2004, when Katie spent several months living in Boston with Sarah and Sarah’s husband Jim,* the three came to call themselves the “Little Family,” both for the size of their household and for the stature of its female members, and for Christmas that year, they assembled The Little Family Cookbook, a compilation of some of the dishes they prepared during those months together. “We did a lot of cooking, a lot of eating, and some might say a lot of drinking,” they explain. “In these pages we share with you the fruits of our labors and the grapes and malts we paired them with.” Full of vibrant color photos, beverage suggestions, and such enticing section headings as “White Beans, White Beans Everywhere!”; “We Love to Coook Indian”; “Baa-Baa Yummy Lamb”; and “Slow Cook This,” it can be hard to decide where to begin. But the white bean hummus—unusually smooth and creamy, with the airiness of whipped cream—isn’t a bad starting point, or even springboard for, say, an entire party.

Nutty with tahini, it finishes with a smart kick of lemon, and slathered on a wedge of pita or scooped up on a carrot stick, it’s rich enough to keep a crowd fueled for hours of rigorous reveling. And at the end of a night of what lesser-than-little people might call a lot of eating and drinking, there’s nothing I like better than being asked to reach up to the tippy-top cabinet above the oven to retrieve a Tupperware for leftover hummus. After all, the next morning, our appetites will surely be enormous, even though we are not.

*For surviving prolonged exposure to two giggly sisters speaking with a faux-Russian accent, Jim deserves a Time Magazine “Man of the Year” Award, or at least, as we say, three “attaboys.”

Little Family White Bean Hummus
Adapted from The Little Family Cookbook

2 large garlic cloves, or more to taste
1 20-ounce can or jar white beans, drained and rinsed well
2/3 cup well-stirred tahini
¼ cup lemon juice, or more to taste
1 tsp salt
Cumin, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, for serving

In a food processor, pulse the garlic cloves to mince them thoroughly. Add the white beans, tahini, lemon juice, salt, and a pinch or two of cumin. Puree well, scraping down the sides of the food processor bowl with a spatula as needed. Add water a couple of tablespoons at a time, until the hummus is as thick or thin as you like (I use about ¼ cup). It should have a very smooth, light, almost whipped consistency. Taste to check for seasoning, and adjust as necessary. Serve the hummus at room temperature, drizzled with olive oil, and eat with pita.


On rewards and radishes

I’m a loyal fan of the carrot-and-stick approach. No matter what the task—a thesis to be written, say, or a shower to be scrubbed, another item to be scratched off the list—the promise of prizes or penalties is an essential motivator. That said, I should add a qualification: my take on carrot-and-stick is, in reality, more often carrot-and-carrot.

I began hashing out my rewards philosophy back in March, when I entered into the process known ominously as “the thesis.” I decided that for every afternoon spent with my head in the books and my fingers on the keyboard, I would grant myself an evening of Sex and the City. All told, it’s been a lovely couple of months, with social theory by day and Sarah Jessica Parker’s theories by night—although, truth be told, I’ve occasionally been known to skip lightly over the former and head straight for the latter. I mean, really, with four episodes per DVD and only a limited timeframe on the rental, I don’t have much of a choice. And anyway, the whole “stick” part of the equation is overrated.

As one would expect, other rewards have been gastronomic in nature. For example, hand-shaved noodles at Shanghai Garden make for a comforting (and only slightly greasy) pat on the back, and I’ve also found myself unusually motivated by the promise of an early-evening gin and tonic, although any thoughts of further nighttime productivity are quashed—and not unhappily, I’ll admit—with the first cold, limey sip. Of course, chocolate in its many forms is also a good bonus, and a silky wedge of Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam does the trick too, preferably right off the side of the knife, sometime between 4 and 6 pm. But if we’re going to get really precise, lately my carrot is a radish.

You can try to argue, spouting off about snobbery or Chirac, but the French are magnifique: they truly understand radishes. My love for la douce France has long been documented, and now that I’m writing a thesis on the French and their social security system, it’s also engraved in the halls of academia—but my devotion reached new heights a few weeks ago, when I had my first taste of a radish with salted butter. Here in the States, we tend to relegate the poor things to the bottom of the salad bowl, but the French give radishes pride of place, serving them at aperitif hour, halved, dragged through soft butter, and dusted with salt. Though I’d known for years of this sophisticated practice, I hadn’t tried it myself until a recent trip to the grocery store—a late-afternoon break from the computer—when I found myself before a basketful of fat, scarlet radishes. Deep, dark pink with roots tipped in white, they were round as tiny globes and appealingly mottled with dirt.

So I scooped up a bunch, brought them home, poured myself a cool glass of white wine, and pulled from the fridge a foil-wrapped brick of lightly salted Plugra. While the butter softened, I closed the books and shut down the computer, drowning out its chirpy “exit Windows” sound with Jacques Dutronc’s very appropriate “J’ai tout lu, tout vu, tout bu.” And then I turned to the reward at hand: radishes, two ways.

First, I gave them each a good scrubbing and snipped off their ratty roots and water-logged leaves. A couple of them I halved from stem to stern, giving them a generous, satiny smear of Plugra and, just for good measure, a sprinkling of fleur de sel.

They were a play of contrasting textures and flavors: the radish’s crisp crunch cloaked by the unctuousness of butter, its mild but peppery bite tamed by salt and cream. Washed down with a sip of wine, it was quite possibly the perfect reward. But the picture could only get rosier with the addition of another French inspiration, the baguette.

So the radish made a second appearance, and this time in more elegant attire: sliced paper thin like translucent sheets of ice, laid atop a well-buttered slab of baguette, and dusted with finely ground pink Hawaiian sea salt.* Dear reader, this was a radish ready for the ball, wrapped in its finest feathers and frippery—or at least, like the girl consuming it, ready for a night consisting of something more than computers, keyboards, and the old carrot-and-stick.

*Fancy-pants salt courtesy of an exceedingly generous New York-based reader; really, monsieur, you outdid yourself.


She cooks, she tells some more

Over at Saucy, the third installment of “Cook and Tell” awaits. This month is the breakfast edition, titled “The Early Bird Catches the Woo.” Yes, yes, I know: this pun is even worse than the last. It will only hurt for a minute, I promise.

*Special thanks to L. for his sweet tooth; to Keaton for enthusiasm and prompt e-mail responses; to Nina Simone for “Sinnerman”; and to Brandon for Nina Simone, expert visual consultation, and much inspiration, gastronomic and otherwise.


9 am Sunday: cream and creamier

We’ve all been wondering when it would happen. Sure, I may have traveled unscathed down a path slippery with butter, and by an astounding stroke of luck, I didn’t go instantly diabetic while hefting piles of sugar into my mouth on the backs of beignets and waffles. But this time, I overdid it. I was vanquished by a quiche. I would hang my head, but really, there’s no need for shame: this was an exceptionally mighty specimen. This was quiche, Jimmy-style.

Though there would be no obscene sugar consumption on this occasion, Rebecca’s invitation still came with a warning: “the fat, the sacred fat, will be more extreme than ever. And did I mention salt? The fat and the salt. . . . I suggest not eating from Friday on.” But as I’ve been known to do from time to time, I shrugged off her suggestion as simple hyperbole. It takes more than mere words to keep a fork out of my mouth, and anyway, I have a strict chocolate quota to fulfill. But I was sorely mistaken. It’s downright dangerous to be flippant about anything that involves this much cream.

I arrived at nine in an unusually trashy-tiny vintage Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups t-shirt, planning to carelessly consume vast quantities of fat and salt and hoping to have nothing to show for it. Rebecca had already taken up her usual position on the couch and was sipping her tall glass of morning iced tea through a straw, while Jimmy presided over the stove with his usual effortless grace, tending a large skillet full of new potatoes, onions, bell peppers, and of course, butter.

He had slipped the quiches—each individually portioned and breathtakingly beautiful—into the oven shortly before my arrival, and the air in the kitchen was almost palpably thick, heady and rich with butter and cheese. The quiches, Jimmy explained, had been layered with cheese and spiral-cut ham, over which he poured a custard of cream (milk being far too moderate) and eggs, topping each with delicate spears of pencil-thin asparagus. I kneeled to peer at them through the oven window and watched as they began to bronze and puff like miniature soufflés.

When I sat down with my plate, I suddenly began to regret my choice of clothing. There would be nowhere to hide the evidence.

This was no typical quiche, and a far cry from the prissy pastry so common of the genre. Whoever said that real men don’t eat quiche has obviously never had breakfast at Jimmy’s. This was serious sustenance: though deceptively dainty, the quiche was bold and lusty. Eggy, creamy, and yet somehow surreally light—in the way that whipped cream feels "light" on the tongue—its intense richness was barely balanced by the saltiness of ham and the green, vegetal flavor of asparagus. As a rule, I love to clean my plate, and this was no exception. It took stamina, however—not to mention willful denial of the fat-induced hot flashes I was suddenly experiencing. Upon scraping up the last heartbreakingly flaky crumb of crust, I quite nearly passed out.

But thank goodness for Jimmy: having foreseen the onslaught of my cream coma, he’d already written down the recipe for me. And happily so, because after a few days’ recovery and some long walks, I’m sure I’ll be hungry again. There’s already a pint of cream in the fridge.

Jimmy’s Souffléd Quiche with Ham, Cheese, and Asparagus

Vegetarians, take note: though the flavor of the ham plays an integral role in Jimmy's recipe, this quiche would still be lovely sans pork. It's the creamy custardy egg filling that's the true star here. [Jimmy, forgive me; I know this is blasphemy, but I'm an equal-opportunity quiche baker.]

½ recipe Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
4 large eggs
1 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
A small pinch each of salt, cayenne, and nutmeg
1 cup grated cheese (Jimmy used colby, but I imagine that a nice gruyère or cheddar would be delicious as well)
1/4 lb. cooked ham, preferably spiral-sliced, cut into bite-sized pieces
12-16 skinny asparagus tips, steamed just until they turn bright green

Divide the pastry dough into 4 equal portions. Roll each portion into a circle 6 to 7 inches in diameter, and press the circles into 4 individual-sized tart pans (4-4 ½ inches in diameter; or, if you prefer, you can use 4 4-inch springform pans). Trim excess from edges. Refrigerate the tart shells while you prepare the filling.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a medium bowl, combine the cream, eggs, flour, salt, cayenne, and nutmeg. Beat on medium-high speed for 2-3 minutes. Set aside.

Remove the tart shells from the refrigerator, and divide half of the ham among them. Do the same with the cheese. Repeat with another layer of ham and of cheese, and then divide the egg mixture equally among the four tart shells (you may have some egg mixture left over). Distribute asparagus tips evenly among the tart shells, laying them in parallel lines over the top.

Bake the quiches for 30-35 minutes, until the filling has puffed and the tops are lightly golden. Allow to cool on a rack for a few minutes; then unmold and serve.

Yield: 4 individual-sized quiches


On springtime, with a beet-feta tart

I have a confession to make.
I have a dark, dirty, now-not-so-secret fascination with the “missed connections” listings on craigslist. It’s not that I go there expecting to find a message left expressly for me, although I suppose it wouldn’t be entirely out of the question to see “Hottie buying Chocolove 77% at Whole Foods - m4w – 28,” or perhaps “Saturday Pilates vixen in black ninja outfit – m4w – 26.” No, mine is, as you might expect, a curiosity vaguely informed by anthropology. After all, it is springtime, and true to our most basic animal instincts, humans everywhere—but especially on craigslist—are on the hunt for a mate. It’s very entertaining to watch and read, and cheaper even than a trashy romance novel. And anyway, sometimes anthropology is nothing more than glorified voyeurism.

Although this is not exactly the kind of study that will help me to finish my thesis, it does get me thinking. In springtime, any space with or without four walls starts to look like a bedroom, from buses to bus stops, elevators, and entire streets—not to mention my personal weakness, the grocery store, where the term “check-out line” takes on a whole new meaning. At this time of year, everything is an aphrodisiac, from ginger to gas fumes. And though we seem to be feeling unusually hopeful and open-minded about the sexy possibilities around the next corner, I’d like to point out one that you might not have dared to consider: beets.

Beets aren’t your typical erotic fare, I know. But given the proper context and care, they—like so many others who are rough, misunderstood, and given to spending lots of time underground—can be transformed into something surprisingly luscious. Take, for instance, a beet-feta tart.

I first tasted this tart at a loosely aphrodisiacs-themed dinner party back in late February. For the occasion, Kate had roasted a chicken and served it on a platter of red rose petals, with handcuffs around its legs and a thin black satin ribbon tied around one of its wings. Margot and Todd arrived with a perky green salad served in a bowl looped with a danger-sexy spike-studded belt, and for my part, I whipped up a rum cream pie topped with chopped pistachios and shaved chocolate, banking on the age-old formula of booze plus whipped cream. There were also, of course, the standbys: oysters, strawberries, wine, melted chocolate, and so on. But the vedette of the evening was the beet-feta tart brought by a friend of a friend whose name I can no longer remember. I didn't, however, forget the important details: the tart looked like a sheet of hot-pink satin overlaid with off-white lace, and it was blush-inducingly delicious. It brought together the dark, earthy flavor of beets—sweet and rich, with a welcome bitter edge—and the salty tang of feta, binding them in a smooth, eggy custard.

The party didn’t exactly turn into a display of our most basic animal instincts, but the tart was plenty satisfying. And now that the season is optimal for both beets and bedrooms, it could only get better. I’m sure I'll see you in the check-out line.

Beet-Feta Tart

Adapted from a very nice woman at a dinner party

1 half-recipe Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée without sugar (flaky pie dough, enough for one 9” tart)
2 medium-sized red beets, washed, roasted (at 400 degrees in an aluminum foil packet for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until very tender; you don’t want a crunchy beet here), and peeled
2 large eggs
¾ cup milk (I used whole)
4 oz French feta, crumbled
A pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pâte brisée into a circle large enough to line a 9” round removable-bottom tart pan. Transfer the dough into the pan, pressing it gently to the edge and up along the sides. Line the dough-lined tart pan with a sheet of aluminum foil, and place enough beans, rice, or pie weights in the aluminum foil to cover the base of the tart pan in a single layer. This will prevent the dough from puffing when you blind-bake it. Place the tart pan in the oven, and bake for 15 or so minutes, until the edges of the tart shell look set and barely golden. Remove the aluminum foil and weights from the tart pan, and continue baking until the tart shell is light golden. Remove the tart pan from the oven and allow to cool.

Turn the oven down to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, cut the roasted and peeled beets into ¼-inch slices. Mix the eggs, milk, feta, and salt in a small bowl or measuring cup.

Arrange the beet slices in the blind-baked tart shell, taking care to cover the base of the shell as well as possible. It is preferable to only have one layer of beets, although you may want to add an extra beet here or there to cover an empty spot. Pour the egg mixture over the beets.

Bake the tart for 40 minutes to an hour, until the filling is set and lightly golden in areas. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.