22 June 2010

Modern Alchemy and Radish Leaf Pesto

For centuries alchemists tried to turn base metals into gold and discover the elixir of life, a preoccupation that ebbed perhaps with modern science, but still features often in modern fiction. It seems to me that it's not just the end result that's important, but the fact of starting with nothing, or something that isn't worth anything. Actually, this may be what seduces people about magic in general, making something wonderful out of something useless (a ball dress out of a rag, a sparkling coach and four out of a pumpkin and mice). It's something children are quite good at - "let's say the slide is a castle and under it is the dungeon!" - and something postmodern artists try very hard to recapture.

But, of course, the easiest way to perform this sort of transformation magic, is cooking. The whole point of putting together ingredients is to come up with something better than the sum of its parts. Often the ingredients are magic in themselves: fresh fruit and veggies in season, choice cuts of meat, dark chocolates, fragrant wines and oils. But not always...

The idea for making radish leaf pesto came from a comment Camille left on my post about Delicate Radish Leaf Soup. Already, I was excited to have found a use for a part of the radish I had been previously throwing way, but I have to say I felt like a true alchemist after making this radish pesto. Here were these prickly, unappetizing green leafy things turning into something divine that could be used in a hundred different ways (see photos for a couple of the ones I tried). Pure culinary magic!

Do any of you have recipes like that? Ones that start with an unassuming ingredient, or one that you don't very much like, and end up amazing? I'm pretty sure every foodie has a bit of alchemist in there somewhere.

Radish Leaf Pesto

2 cups radish leaves, washed and tightly packed
1/2 cup walnuts (or your nut of choice)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (or the hard cheese of your choice)
1/2 cup olive oil
pepper to taste

Put the radish leaves, nuts, garlic and cheese in a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Add the olive oil in a thin stream while pulsing until you reach the desired consistency. (Some people like it more or less thick. It also depends what you plan to do with it!) Add pepper to taste. (I don't add salt because the cheese is salty, but taste it and see what you think.) Adjust balance as desired.

Serve with pretty much anything you like: on pasta, on fish, in salads. You name it, pesto probably makes it better.

15 June 2010

Cherry Almond Muffins

Last week, there was a large bag of fresh peas in the panier bio. Fresh peas are delicious but rather time consuming and so they sat there, in the fridge, waiting... Then one afternoon, the mom of one of the kids I babysit for called to say that she'd kept her child home for the day and she didn't need me. At first I thought "oh good, I can catch up on the million things I have to do" but these days I spend all my time running around already. So, I decided to spend the afternoon shelling peas instead. Let me tell you, it was one of the best afternoons that week.

I find there's something meditative in those sorts of cooking tasks:

Snap one end
Pull down the fiber
Open the pod
Run thumb down the middle
Listen to the peas fall into the bowl
Throw pod on the pod-pile

My mind just goes blank, or else muses slowly over its thoughts, stopping only shortly on one thing or another. I imagine myself in a time when life was slower, when you couldn't buy everything easily frozen, peeled, cubed in the supermarket, where cooking was what you spent a large part of your day doing (unless you could hire a cook and then she spent her day doing it). I'm not saying I'd want to go back to that. I'm very grateful for a number of time-saving conveniences in the kitchen. Still, there's something satisfying about doing things by hand or from scratch from time to time. It's like taking the scenic route. Sure, it's not the fastest way from A to B, but it does get you there and you're liable to see some beautiful views along the way.

What about muffins?? Yes, I'm getting there (I'm taking the scenic route, see?). Shelling peas reminded me how restful cooking can be and, as a result, I got up early on Saturday morning to make muffins. Well, to be honest, I got up early because the cats wouldn't stop meowing, scratching the door, and then, when I let them in, biting my toes.

I decided to let D. sleep in and keep the cats company while pitting cherries from the panier bio. The cherries we got were not the best for eating (some were too ripe, some not ripe enough), but I thought they'd be perfect for cooking. Don't worry, you can also make this recipe with canned or frozen cherries. But if you need a break from this quick-turn-around-fast-fast world, I recommend pitting fresh cherries by hand and letting the juice run down to your elbows to stain the placemats.

wet ingredients:
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
1/2 tsp almond extract

dry ingredients:
3/4 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (you can use all white or all wheat, but I like a combination)
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

1 cup cherries, pitted and halved

1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 Tbsp brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 400F. Grease muffin tin or put in liners. In a large bowl, beat the egg and add the milk, oil and almond extract. Stir well. In a separate bowl mix together the dry ingredients. Add to wet ingredients and mix batter. Don't overmix! Gently fold in the cherries. In a small bowl, combine the sliced almonds and brown sugar and mix.

Fill each muffin cup to about 2/3 full and sprinkle each muffin with the almond/brown sugar mixture. Bake at 400ºF for 20 min or until the muffins are plump and golden brown on top.

10 June 2010

Suspicious Translations

One of the joys of living in another country is seeing how people translate their language into yours. In Paris, approximate English is something of a local sport. Something great is "top"; someone who goes on and on about themselves "raconte sa life"; when a French person says his "planning" is full, he means his schedule, and if you are pretending to be offended by something you might say "I am shocking!" (I've tried pointing that this has the opposite of the desired meaning but no one seems to care.)

Of course there are these sorts of abuses of the French language in English too. "A la mode" certainly doesn't mean with ice cream, au naturel has nothing to do with being naked, an entrée is an appetizer, and a début (as in first performance) in French is actually called a première.

My favorite though is the ways menus and signs are translated, like this gem I found near metro Rome in the 17th arrondisment. Oh good, alcool (a cool dude named Al?) and stranger wine. I usually buy the kind of wine I share with friends, of course, but you never know when you might need some to give to a stranger. Problem solved!