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HOT BISCUITS & BLACKBERRY BUTTER

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Compound butters—butter creamed with different flavorings—may be old-fashioned, but they are versatile as all get outthink of them as instant sauces that add finesse and another layer of flavor to very simple food. A classic French maître d’hôtel butter (softened butter mashed with chopped parsley and a little lemon juice and zest) ennobles just about anything, especially a grilled steak or steamed vegetables. Deep-flavored anchovy butter, with garlic and a couple of mashed anchovy fillets, adds resonance to fish, lamb chops, or broiled chicken. An herby-vervy butter, with chopped cilantro, parsley, and a pinch of cayenne or chile powder forestalls any “corn on the cob again?” ennui at the dinner table.

Below is a compound butter that swings more sweet than savory. Its provenance was a happy accident: After we made a jumbleberry pie the other day, I realized we had a half pint of blackberries left over. Cooking brings out the soulfulness, the winey depth of blackberries, and first I’d thought to make a compote to spoon over pancakes or ice cream, or eat alongside a well-seared pork chop. But then I got to thinking about biscuits, hot biscuits, and well, that pushed me in a butter direction.

Speaking of biscuits, I swear by Scott Peacock’s recipe. He’s a chef in constant pursuit of perfection, and so is constantly tweaking it; the version below is an annotated amalgam of that from the pages of Martha Stewart Living (April 2013) and the one that appeared in The Gift of Southern Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), which he wrote with his longtime companion, Miss Edna Lewis, one of America’s most evocative chefs and food writers. Scott is no slouch himself.

Blackberry Butter

½ pint blackberries

1½ to 2 tablespoons sugar, depending on how tart the berries are

A squeeze of fresh lemon juice

1 stick unsalted butter, softened until very malleable

1. Put the berries, sugar, and lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, smashing most of the berries against the side of the pan to break them down, until the mixture is of a syrupy thickness and smells intoxicating. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool completely.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and mash with a fork until it’s light and creamy. Gently work the berry mixture into the butter, then pack it into a ramekin. Refrigerate for an hour or more to let it firm up and the flavors mingle. Serve with hot biscuits, pancakes, waffles, or toast. It would probably be good in oatmeal, too.

 

Scott Peacock’s Perfect Biscuits

Makes 12 biscuits

5 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour (measure the flour after sifting, not before), plus more for working

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Homemade Baking Powder (see below) or store-bought

1 tablespoon kosher salt

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed very cold lard or unsalted butter, cut into cubes

2 cups well-shaken buttermilk

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 500º with the rack in the upper third. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the lard or butter, coating it well with flour. Working quickly, rub it between your fingertips until approximately half is finely blended and the other half remains in large flat pieces, about ½ inch in size.

2. Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the buttermilk all at once. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon just until the dough is blended and begins to mass. It will look like a sticky, shaggy, unpromising mess and will not form a ball. (Do not panic, but keep calm and carry on.)

3. Generously flour a work surface and immediately turn out the dough onto it. With floured hands briskly knead 8 to 10 times, until it becomes cohesive. Gently flatten the dough with your hands into a disk of even thickness. Using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to a thickness of ¾ inch. Flour the rolling pin as needed, but don’t flour the dough; otherwise, the tops of the finished biscuits will be dusty.

4. Using a dinner fork dipped in flour, piece the dough completely through at ½-inch intervals. Flour a 2½ to 3-inch cutter and stamp out rounds without twisting the cutter in the dough. (Twisting the cutter pinches the edges together, which will inhibit the rising.) Cut the biscuits as close together as you can, for maximum yield. Transfer them to a parchment-lined heavy baking sheet, placing them about ½ inch apart. (Placing the biscuits close together ensures that the sides don’t set early, another rise-inhibiter.) Don’t reroll the scraps. Just arrange them around the edge of the sheet and bake them off as is—cook’s treat. Bake the biscuits until crusty and a rich golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. (“Don’t be afraid of brown biscuits!” Scott always says. That crusty brown exterior provides contrast to the light, tender interior.) Remove from the oven and brush the tops with melted butter. Serve hot. (To reheat any leftover biscuits—you wish!—put them on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and warm them in a 350º oven about 5 minutes.)

 

Homemade Baking Powder

In The Gift of Southern Cooking, Scott explains that, “Distressed by the chemical additives and aftertaste of commercial ‘double-acting’ powders, Miss Lewis years ago started making her own baking powder—a traditional mixture of cream of tarter and baking soda.” He started using her formula, and soon came to appreciate the difference. I’m a believer, too—there’s no metallic aftertaste like there is with powders that include aluminum sulfate.

¼ cup cream of tartar

2 tablespoons baking soda

Sift the ingredients together 3 times and transfer to a clean, tight-sealing jar. Store at room temperature, away from sunlight, for up to 6 weeks.

ICEBERG LETTUCE

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For years, iceberg lettuce was the red-headed stepchild of the salad family, disdained by the food-obsessed for being watery, devoid of flavor and nutrition, and hopelessly common. Now, of course, it’s retro-chic, embraced by chefs who think nothing of charging top dollar (irony isn’t cheap) for a pale wedge wearing a mantle of (artisanal) blue-cheese dressing and crumbled bacon. I don’t know which position irks me more.

What I do know is that just looking at iceberg makes me feel cooler. And among home gardeners, who have grown this American heirloom since the 19th century (not to mention steakhouse devotees and the country club set), it has never gone out of fashion. “It’s one of our finest and most reliable summer lettuces,” wrote Will Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. “Its early American progenitor was Ice, which began appearing in seed lists in the 1820s.” Iceberg’s developer remains unknown, but odds are he’d be aghast at how commercial producers strip his cultivar of the outer leaves that form a wavy, sometimes fringed ruffle around the compact white, almost translucent heart. The growers who sell at farmers markets know how alluring this party girl can look, though (there is now a red iceberg type that’s even showier), and this time of year, I’ll happily take Iceberg, with its clean, neutral flavor, over an indiscriminate mix of murky-tasting mesclun leaves.

What makes Iceberg so refreshing is that it’s crisp and juicy all at the same time, like a cucumber. It’s also durable in the fridge or tote bag—a boon if you are a peripatetic sort of person. I’m not a fan of serving fat wedges of the lettuce; I like it broken into enjoyable chunks. You can better appreciate the whorls and curls inside the lettuce heart that way, and capture every last drop of dressing. Blue cheese, of course, is traditional, and that combination is especially delicious if you toss the Iceberg with a more assertive green, such as arugula or watercress. On its own, though, I’m partial to something a bit sleeker—sauce rèmoulade, for instance, or Thousand Island. On a hot August night, that’s all I want for supper.

Thousand Island Dressing

From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton-Mifflin, 2004)

Makes about 1½ cups

2/3 cup mayonnaise

4 teaspoons ketchup-style chili sauce [such as Heinz]

2 tablespoons chopped shallots

1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

¼ treaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½ vegetable oil [safflower or canola]

Combine all the ingredients except oil in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running [at slow speed], add oil in a slow stream and blend until well blended.

BARBECUE SHRIMP

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For years, I’ve avoided buying jumbo shrimp (one of my favorite oxymorons), because I’ve never known how to bring out their best. My default method—a few minutes in a small amount of simmering water—is more suited to small or medium shrimp. In my hands, jumbos handled this way become simultaneously tough and mushy on the outside before cooking all the way through. I know plenty of people who can pull this off, but I just don’t have the knack for it.

What changed my perspective on jumbo shrimp (just typing those two words together is really fun) was a closer read of Mom’s Classic Recipes, a privately printed spiral-bound compilation of Sharon Logan’s go-to recipes by her eldest daughter, Lynn. Sharon’s name may ring a bell; she’s a wonderful home cook whose pecan pie and cheesy-sausage english muffins are in my culinary repertoire for life.

I’ve enjoyed that little cookbook no end, but recently I noticed a recipe that specifically called for jumbo shrimp. Titled “Mr B’s Barbecue Shrimp,” it called for baking the shrimp—along with Worcestershire sauce, Creole seasoning, and lots of butter—in the oven just until it turns pink, which takes all of 10 minutes—just enough time to set the table and pour the wine.

Mr. B’s Bistro, on Royal Street, in New Orleans, isn’t on par with Galatoire’s, say, but it’s a place where local people go for local food, and Sharon ate there on her inaugural trip to the city. “I was on a plane to New Orleans for the very first time,” she said. “And a man got up from his seat and asked if he could sit with me. ‘I’m surrounded by children,’ he explained by way of introduction. ‘And I looked over here and saw you reading.’ ”

“Well, we must have talked all the way to New Orleans,” she continued. “One of the restaurants he said I had to go to was Mr. B’s, for the barbecue shrimp.” She paused for effect. “They put a bib around your neck.”

Barbecued shrimp New Orleans style isn’t grilled but cooked in a butter sauce spiked with Worcestershire and Creole seasoning. Sharon came across the below rendition of Mr. B’s barbecue shrimp in a cookbook she saw at an Atlanta bookstore some years later. Today, the version that appears on the Mr. B’s Bistro website calls for sautéing the shrimp in a large skillet and the butter (way more than what’s called for here) is added gradually.

I’m not sure it matters. In Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans, Larry Williamson cooks his on the stovetop, while in the great River Road Recipes, published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge (since 1959), the shrimp is either broiled over a charcoal fire or baked. And in the big-hearted Cooking Up a Storm, a collection of New Orleans recipes culled from the archives of the Times-Picayune as well as readers and chefs after Hurricane Katrina, Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker write that the dish originated at Pascal’s Manale, and there are almost as many versions as there are cooks. In their recipe, sent in by Maria Vicknair of LaPlace, the shrimp is broiled. “Head-on shrimp are always used in southeast Louisiana,” they note. “The fat in the heads melts and becomes the secret ingredient in the sauce.” Next time.

BARBECUE SHRIMP

Serves 2 generously as a main course (turn any leftovers into shrimp salad)

All you need with this is a baguette or other crusty bread and a big green salad to follow. Serving it in shallow, wide soup plates makes it easy to mop up every last bit of sauce.

16 unpeeled jumbo shrimp (about 1¼ pounds, or 1½ pounds with heads)

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into slices

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon Creole seasoning

1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper

Lemon wedges, for serving

Crusty bread, for serving

Preheat oven to 425°. Put the shrimp, butter, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, Creole seasoning, and pepper in a large ovenproof skillet or shallow baking dish and stir to combine. Bake until shrimp just turn pink, about 10 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges and bread.

STRAWBERRIES WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR AND BROWN SUGAR

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They weren’t the most perfect-looking strawberries in the world, and truth is, some were a little overripe. Still, it was the end of the day, and I was amazed the farm stand had any left. Plus, after a few hot, sunny days in the field, they smelled like summer—and just what was needed after a supper that was going to consist mainly of the first local corn and snap beans with bacon.

Consternation ensued when I discovered we were out of heavy cream and goats’-milk yogurt, our two default embellishments, but that didn’t faze Sam in the least. He rummaged around in the pantry and emerged triumphant, holding a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar (a Christmas present that keeps on giving) and a box of light-brown sugar.

Strawberries drizzled with the very best balsamic is a classic in the city of Modena, in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna and birthplace of the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, car-company founder Enzo Ferrari, and aceto balsamico, which is called “liquid gold” for good reason. Made from the “must” (freshly pressed juice) of Trebbiano grapes, it’s been aged and reduced over decades in an increasingly smaller series of wooden barrels, each imparting a subtle flavor depending on the type of wood—cherry, chestnut, oak, or mulberry—that’s used. The result is a syrupy elixir, with an intriguing, lush balance of sweetness and acidity. You get what you pay for, in other words, and once you get a taste for the real thing (Zingerman’s has a carefully curated assortment), you’ll find that supermarket balsamics are either too harsh or have a one-note caramel sweetness that palls quickly.

So there you have it: not just one of the easiest and most delicious things you can do with strawberries, but a great example of the blend of sumptuousness and restraint that is particularly Italian. I suppose you could argue that a bottle of fine balsamic should be saved for company, but what the hell, it’s summer! Here’s to the good life.

Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Brown Sugar

This is more of a guideline than a recipe, for much depends on the sweetness of the strawbs and the quality of the vinegar. In general, though, for a pint of berries, use about one tablespoon balsamic and about half a tablespoon brown sugar. Light-brown sugar is preferable here; it’s more delicate than dark-brown sugar, which is deeper, more molasses-y, in flavor. You want the suave complexity of the balsamic to shine through, and “you just want to tease out the sweetness that’s in the berries,” Sam said. If you are inclined to gild the lily, serve with unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche.

Ripe strawberries, rinsed, patted dry, hulled, and halved lengthwise (quartered if large)

The best aged balsamic vinegar you can get your hands on

Light-brown sugar

Put the strawberries in a bowl. Drizzle with vinegar and sprinkle with brown sugar. Gently toss and let sit about 30 minutes.

SHRIMP BUTTER

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Most brides say they couldn’t eat a thing at their wedding reception, but I was not one of them—in fact, the food was so delicious, so absolutely right, it was one of the things I remember most clearly about the day. Sam does, too.

We were married 16 years ago at my stepmother’s low, rambling house in Savannah. The ceremony took place in the early evening and outside, overlooking the salt marsh, which was as magical as it sounds.

My stepmother, Ann Marshall, and I first bonded over the fact that we had both lost our mothers at a young age. That was one of many things we had in common, and it was a huge relief to have her help in planning such a life-changing event. A month or so earlier, we’d met with the caterers—four women who, as Convention Consultants, graciously welcomed hundreds of visitors to Savannah every year. We wanted them to see the size of the kitchen (small, narrow, and open to the dining room) and get the lay of the land. This wasn’t to be a society wedding, we stressed, but an intimate one in a charming, rustic setting. Rather than a formal reception afterward, Sam and I wanted a cocktail hour that would segue easily into a buffet supper. The Unflappable Four—Mary Ann Smith, Jane Mayo, Laura Wimbish, and Mary Burnett—mentally recalibrated the number of silver trays they would need, and were off and running. The conversation ebbed and flowed, and with all the moonlight-and-magnolia accents, it was difficult to tell who was speaking.

“What about some wonderful garden roses?”

“What we need to hide the kitchen is a screen. Who’s got one?”

“We know someone who can bake the wedding cake. She not only comes highly recommended, but she’s a lifelong friend of your stepsister Ruthie! They went to Country Day together.”

“What about some heirloom peaches, from upcountry?”

“That’s a great idea. We’ll serve them alongside the cake, in a cut-glass bowl. I’ll bring the syllabub spoon.”

“You’ll want rosemary in your bouquet, for remembrance.”

The menu included country-ham biscuits and the little tomato sandwiches, cut into half moons, that in Savannah grace almost every summer reception or party. There was salmon, beef tenderloin with soft rolls and various sauces, hot Georgia pecan spread, Vidalia onion cheese puffs, and lots and lots of Champagne and rosé. The cake, a sour cream pound cake, was shot through with orange and almond and frosted with almond buttercream. The peaches were so juicy and had such a deep, resonant sweetness that the last-minute idea of “bourbonating” them was scratched. Why mess with perfection?

The cocktail nibble that Sam especially loved was the shrimp butter, a variation on shrimp paste, a smooth, suave potted meat traditionally made with the small inlet shrimp of the Lowcountry. This sort of thing makes a delicious filling for tea sandwiches, and as Damon Lee Fowler wrote in Classical Southern Cooking, its richness translates nicely to a modern cocktail hour. And, I might add, to a honeymoon breakfast the next morning.

Every so often, Sam gets wistful about shrimp butter, but I’m sorry to say that it never occurred to me that I could make some until just the other day. I don’t have access to those delicate inlet shrimp, but still … what a fun, unexpected anniversary treat. In no time, I found myself on the phone, first with Jane Mayo and then with Mary Ann Smith. They’ve been serving shrimp butter now for 25 years, Mary Ann wrote in a follow-up email. “Happy Anniversary to you and Sam!!!” Maybe next year, we’ll celebrate in Savannah.

Shrimp Butter

Adapted from Jane Mayo, Savannah, Georgia

Serves 12

I’ve added nothing to this recipe, but I did tweak it a bit: I used shallot instead of onion, because that is what I had on hand, and I like its subtle yet intense sweetness. I also bumped up the amount of shrimp, but didn’t go overboard with the garlic or Worcestershire sauce; those seasonings should amplify the other flavors without imposing their own. I’d forgotten that hard-boiled eggs, chopped very fine, were an ingredient, but that makes sense if you think about what a mimosa topping does for a salad dressing—the egg absorbs it and gives it a velvety body. As far as the shrimp go, I buy certified wild American shrimp unless I’m in a place where I know they’re local; you can read about how I like to cook them here, but forgo any Old Bay seasoning. If you chop the cooked shrimp in a food processor, take care not to overprocess them into a smooth paste; you want a more nubbly texture. And although the recipe can easily be halved, I decided against it: The leftovers will be a great excuse for a party.

½ cup mayonnaise

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

2 shakes Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon coarse salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½ clove garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons finely minced shallot or onion

2 hard-boiled eggs, very finely chopped or pushed through a sieve

A generous ¾ pound small to medium shrimp, cooked, peeled, deveined, and finely chopped (see above note)

Water crackers, Melba toast rounds, or toast points, for serving

1. Beat together the mayonnaise, butter, cream cheese, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, garlic, and shallot in a bowl with an electric mixer.

2. Stir in the eggs and shrimp. Transfer to a serving bowl or crock, cover, and refrigerate until cold. Serve with crackers or toasts. Shrimp butter can be made up to a day ahead; before serving, remove from the fridge and let soften until spreadable.

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FAST-TRACKING CHICKEN SALAD

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Aside from the “fiesta” or “Oriental” versions found at some chain restaurants, chicken salad has pretty much been relegated to the Nostalgia Department: suitable fare for tearooms (of the Woman’s Exchange variety and otherwise), drug-store lunch counters (here’s a marvelous Lewis Hine image), and southern porch suppers, circa 1955.

I don’t know why. I suppose people are afraid of the fat in mayonnaise—common to most recipes—or perhaps the technique of poaching—ditto—is a hurdle. This should change. Chicken salad should become a trend.

I’m halfway through the vastly entertaining Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, by my pal David Sax, so I’m practicing that sort of mindset. I mean, if I had a restaurant—a little café, say—I’d feature a chicken-salad sandwich of the week. Or maybe I’d serve nothing but chicken salad; if one of the whiz kids behind the grilled-cheese-restaurant phenomenon wants to diversify, we should talk.

No matter what, though, I’ll keep chicken salad in my regular rotation at home. In a perfect world, obviously, I’d always take the time to gently poach chicken breast halves, complete with bones and skin: Not only is that one key  to flavorful yet clean-tasting meat (along with using a wholesome pastured bird), but the light broth is handy for moistening the salad if it starts to dry out—a trick I learned back in my Gourmet days. Life has a tendency to get in the way, however, and I’m here to remind you that you can make delicious chicken salad from leftover sautéed or roasted chicken … or a store-bought rotisserie bird.

For sheer speed and efficiency, it’s hard to beat that last option, so I’m always a little shocked when I meet people in the food world who are snooty about spit-roasted chickens, one of the world’s great convenience foods. Have they ever been to an outdoor market in France, I wonder? The queue for poulet rôti should be a tip-off that it’s an honest, worthy substitute for a home-roasted chicken in many a French kitchen.

And in mine, too. I’ll often buy two on the way home in the evening—one for eating that night, with some harissa-slicked couscous and quick-cooked greens, for instance—and the other for salad, later in the week. While it’s still warm, I’ll strip it of bones and skin, shred both white and dark meat, and combine it with the dressing. Simple.

As far as recipes for chicken salad go, I like having a repertoire. Several old-school renditions are embellished with toasted slivered almonds and grapes, cut lengthwise in half. A famous one, which is rich and light all at the same time, was created by Helen Corbitt, the renowned Texas cooking authority who gave us Texas caviar and poppy-seed dressing. Other versions utilize a 1:1 ratio (or to taste) of mayonnaise and sour cream, and utilize green grapes instead of red ones. This sort of chicken salad is utterly predictable and absolutely wonderful. You’ll want to serve it on your mother’s china.

Another favorite is this one, adapted from the Village TeaRoom, in New Paltz, New York, by my former Gourmet colleague and longtime friend Kempy Minifie. Some of the usual suspects (mayo, sour cream, and almonds) are there, but cilantro, jalapeño, and lime juice add freshness and verve.

Lately, though, I’ve been relying on pantry staples—in particular, Major Grey’s mango chutney and dry-roasted nuts—as well as a picked-up-on-the-run rotisserie bird to put a chicken salad supper on the table fast and without turning on the oven. What takes it out of the Coronation Chicken realm (talk about the 1950s) are the additions of fresh cilantro, basil, and mint (already outgrowing their pots), and large, voluptuous leaves of butterhead lettuce, for making Southeast Asian–style roll-ups.

Fast-Track Chicken Salad with Mango Chutney and Cashews

1 medium red onion, chopped

1  jar Major Grey’s-style mango chutney (8 to 9 ounces), chutney cut into smaller, bite-size pieces if it’s too chunky

½ cup mayonnaise (I’m a lifelong fan of Duke’s brand)

Fresh lime juice, to taste

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 rotisserie chicken (about 3 pounds), skin and bones discarded and meat shredded

2 to 3 celery stalks, chopped

Dry-roasted whole cashews or peanuts, coarsely chopped, to taste

1 large butterhead lettuce such as Bibb, leaves separated, left whole, washed, and spun dry

Handfuls of fresh cilantro, basil, and/or mint sprigs, washed and dried

Sliced radishes and/or seedless cucumber (not necessary, but the crunch is nice)

1. Stir together the onion, chutney, mayo, and lime juice in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. (If you’re going to be adding salted nuts, keep that in mind.) Gently stir in the chicken until thoroughly combined. Give the flavors a chance to mingle for 20 or 30 minutes.

2. Just before serving, gently stir in the celery and cashews. Spoon the chicken salad onto a platter and arrange the roll-up fixings (lettuce cups, herbs, and vegetables) around it so everyone can serve themselves. Your mother’s china, optional.

ASPARAGUS WITH PANCETTA AND PARM

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In the realm of spring vegetables, asparagus is the cook’s greatest ally. It can be steamed, boiled, sautéed, stir-fried, roasted, or grilled. It comes elegantly thin or fat and juicy. It’s impressive on its own, as a first course; as a side to chicken, fish, ham, pork, or beef; or worked into pasta primavera, risotto, a flan, or an omelet. It is delicious hot, chilled, or room temperature. It swings from simple, even austere, presentations (salt, pepper, olive oil, and a hit of fresh lemon juice) to more complex ones (tarragon sherry vinaigrette, say, or a blood orange aioli) without losing its presence.

Plus, everyone just loves it. Although it is basically a seasonless vegetable these days, most people greet their local crop as something special and beautiful, and eat it with joyous, unabashed greed. That is why you must always buy plenty; I usually allot at least a half pound per person. On the off chance there are any leftovers, they’re delicious the next morning, warmed through and dipped into a runny soft-boiled egg.

Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables, and it’s a recurring subject in this space, too—how can I not write about it when I practically live on the stuff this time of year? You’ll find history, buying tips, recipes, and more in the archives—here, here, and here.

The other evening, I was all set to get the cooking out of the way early and serve asparagus room temperature, with a shalloty vinaigrette. My plan changed when in the afternoon, a front bullied its way through, and between the rain and dramatic drop in temperature, something a bit cozier was called for.

So this is what I did. Even though butter and pancetta, with its beautiful, flavorful fat, are involved, it’s lighter (and easier) than a typical asparagus gratin, and I was really proud of myself. Until, that is, I figured I should do some due diligence and found that Nigel Slater has virtually the exact same recipe in Tender: A cook and his vegetable patch. “A rubble of cooked, chopped pancetta, and especially its melted fat, makes a gorgeous seasoning for a fat bunch of spears,” he wrote. And how.

Asparagus with Pancetta and Parm

Pancetta is one of those specialty ingredients that has become a staple, especially with the increasing availability of Iowa’s own La Quercia brand. It’s available at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets (the website has a state-by-state store locator) and by mail order through Zingerman’s.

1 bundle of medium to large asparagus spears

About 1 generous tablespoon unsalted butter

An enjoyable amount of chopped pancetta or bacon

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Romano (use a rasp or the tiny tear-shaped holes on a box grater)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Rinse or soak the asparagus very well to remove any sand or grit. Pat dry, then snap off the woody ends and peel the lower part of each stalk with a vegetable peeler. Lay the asparagus in a large skillet, with the tips all facing the same direction, and barely cover with water. Bring the water to a gentle boil and cook the asparagus until just barely tender, testing the spears with a knife to gauge their doneness. Drain the asparagus on a clean kitchen towel.

2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet or sauté pan over moderately high heat. Add the pancetta and cook until golden. Remove from the heat.

3. Scrape the pancetta and the fat in the pan to one side and add the asparagus. Spoon the pancetta and fat over the asparagus, then sprinkle with the Parm. Put the pan in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted, 5 minutes or so.

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DUKKAH FROM A PARIS KITCHEN

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The subtitle of the recently published My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, by David Lebovitz, may lull you into putting the book on top of your bedtime-reading stack. That’s perfectly fine—it’s a terrific read—but you must be prepared to climb out of the wrapper at, say, 11 p.m. and go into the kitchen to eat something delicious. A handful of olives, say, standing in front of the refrigerator, or a smear of herbed goat cheese on toast, or even, if supper was a very long time ago, a quick scrambled egg and a glass of rosé.

But the book doesn’t just make you hungry. Lebovitz—professional cook and pastry chef (he spent almost 13 years at Chez Panisse), author of cookbooks and a memoir, and uber food blogger—has spent a decade watching how Paris has evolved in a globalized world, and his take is a savvy one. “When I moved to Paris, if someone had told me that one day there would be top-quality taquerias and burger joints here, I would have said they were fou (crazy). And some Americans can’t fathom why anyone would eat a taco or Korean bibambap in Paris, when they don’t think it’s odd to eat them in New York City or Seattle.”

Lebovitz’s recipes are an engaging, accessible mix of the traditional and international. I myself was hooked at the first chapter, on appetizers. To begin with, I’m very fond of the sort of salty and/or crisp nibblies that are delicious with drinks. More importantly, though, for home cooks everywhere, appetizers are the gateway to exotic flavors. In the United States, for instance, people who couldn’t imagine putting an entire Middle Eastern or Mexican meal on the table don’t think twice about offering hummus or guacamole to guests; store-bought versions of those once-unfamiliar foods are available at supermarkets and big-box stores (in bucket-size containers) across the country.

In the what-you-might-expect camp, Lebovitz gives us onion tart (pissaladière), eggplant caviar (caviar d’aubergines), salt cod fritters (accras de more), and, bless him, not one but three tapenades (artichoke, green olive with almonds and basil, and black olive). But interspersed among those stalwarts yet seeming perfectly at home are Indian cheese bread (naan au fromage), spiced meatballs (roulettes de merguez) with Sriracha, baba ganoush (moutabal), and the Egyptian spiced nut-and-seed condiment called dukkah.

I first had dukkah (pronounced “dook-ah” and sometimes spelled do’a, dukka, or duqqa, derived from the Arabic “to pound”) in the Middle East some years ago, and fell for it like a ton of bricks. The coarse, nubbly mixture is generally eaten on bread dipped in olive oil and served at breakfast or as an appetizer. There are innumerable versions of dukkah; according to Claudia Roden’s masterful New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), some people use peanuts or almonds instead of hazelnuts, or no nuts at all; others add dried mint, za’atar, or cinnamon.

I like to think this sort of thing is not such a complete stranger to the French table. Thanks to the Romans and Arabs, spices were used early on in France; a blend called épices à foison (“spices in abundance”) appears in Le Viandier de Taillevent, which dates from the 14th century and is one of the earliest recipe collections of the Middle Ages.

Even though you can buy jars of dukkah in specialty shops, nothing beats homemade, and Lebovitz’s is rich and nutty. “Each spice needs to be toasted separately,” he explains, “because the coriander seeds will take longer than the others and you don’t want to burn the spices, which can make them bitter.” Amen to that. I would also add that it’s important to let the mixture cool before grinding; otherwise, you may end up with a paste instead of a dry, loose, crumbly blend. Because my peppercorns were on the smallish side and so much harder than the other ingredients, I ground those separately so that I wouldn’t overwork everything else in the process.

And before I forget, a shopping note: Buy the hazelnuts, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds from a place with a high turnover, and taste them before using. If they’re rancid, take them back.

Lebovitz writes that dukkah is a great base for the world’s fastest-to-make dip, and it’s true. Mix it with good olive oil—I like to use a mild, fruity French one, such as Alziari—to make a paste and serve with slices of seeded baguette, fresh pita bread, or raw vegetables, cut into sticks, for dipping. I’ve been sprinkling the dukkah, straight, onto fried egg sandwiches, or hot buttered toast. And if you’re tempted to eat it directly out of the jar with a spoon, know that you are not alone.

Egyptian Spiced Nut Mix (Dukkah) 

From My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, by David Lebovitz (Ten Speed Press,  2014)

Makes 1½ cups (150g)

½ cup (50g) hazelnuts

1/3 cup (50g) sesame seeds

¼ cup (35g) hulled pumpkin seeds

2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1½ teaspoons black peppercorns

1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

2. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast them for 8 to 10 minutes, until the nuts are lightly browned and most of the skins are loosened. Remove from the oven. When the nuts are cool enough to handle, rub them briskly in a kitchen towel to remove as much of the skins as possible. Put the nuts into a bowl.

3. Heat a skillet on the stovetop over medium heat. Start with the sesame seeds, spreading them in an even layer in the pan and shaking or stirring them frequently, until they crackle and become lightly browned. Scrape them into the bowl with the hazelnuts. Then toast the pumpkin seeds, then the coriander, the cumin, and finally the fennel seeds in the same way, adding each to the bowl as it is done. Finally, toast the peppercorns. Most will take less than a minute. Add the salt.

4. Grind the nuts, seeds, and spices, in a mortar and pestle, with a spice grinder, or in the bowl of a mini food processor, working in batches if necessary, until the mixture is well ground together, but not too fine. Dukkah will keep for about a month stored in an airtight jar at room temperature.

Variations: Use toasted almonds, peanuts, or cashews in place of the hazelnuts. Make a quick dip by stirring together ¾ cup (75g) of dukkah with 6 tablespoons (90ml) of olive oil in a small bowl.

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SCRATCH SUPPER: BROCCOLI RABE WITH PASTA AND OLIVES

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If it’s April, I’m eating broccoli rage. Drat—Wordpress autocorrect did it again—I mean broccoli rabe. Despite its name (the last bit is pronounced rahb), it’s more closely related to turnips (Brassica rapa) than to regular broccoli (Brassica oleracea), and although it’s commonly described as a bitter green, I happen to think it has more of the hot, mustardy bite you’ll find in turnip greens. It makes a bracing spring tonic, and this time of year, when the rest of the world is mad for ramps, I can’t get enough of it.

Surprisingly versatile for such an assertive vegetable, broccoli rabe makes an ideal bedrock ingredient for any number of scratch suppers. You can push it in an Indian or Asian direction (flavor cues: mustard seeds, ginger), but I generally take the path of least resistance and look to Italy, where the vegetable is prized, for inspiration. Broccoli rabe packs too much of a wallop to eat raw, but cooked, it’s wonderful tossed with good-quality canned tuna (these days, I buy pole-caught American Tuna brand) and white beans; spread, along with crumbled cooked sausage and fresh white cheese, on a pizza; or served on top of polenta, with or without roast chicken.

The recipe below lends itself to improvisation, depending on time and the contents of pantry and fridge. The ingredients list calls for meaty black olives, but you could substitute roughly chopped prosciutto or even deli ham. Instead of brightening the finished dish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, drizzle with balsamic vinegar instead. My pasta of choice, by the way, is Barilla brand penne rigate, mainly because Sam bought a vast quantity of it the last time he swung by Costco, but really, any short pasta will do.

Shopping & cooking notes: Broccoli rabe (a.k.a. broccoli raab, broccoletti, broccoletti di rape, rapini, or cime di rapa) is available year-round, but it’s at its best during the cooler months. Choose a bunch that smells fresh, not cabbagey, with stems that are on the thin side, juicy looking, and smooth, not fibrous, where cut. There should be few to no yellow buds or opening flowers. When you get the bunch home, remove the twist tie that holds the stalks tightly together and store in the crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag (or damp linen towel). Broccoli rabe is more perishable than you might think, so cook it as soon as possible. Unless it is ultrafresh and tender, blanch it briefly in salted boiling water, then drain and pat dry before sautéing. Blanching also tones down the intensity of the green, which is something to keep in mind if feeding it to children or wary adults. In general, I don’t like undercooked vegetables—they squeak when chewed and can be tough or rubbery—and broccoli rabe is no exception. Overcook it just slightly, and you’ll be rewarded with tender, soft greens that turn almost saucelike when allowed to meld with hot pasta.

Broccoli Rabe with Pasta and Olives

Serves 2

1 bunch broccoli rabe (about 1 pound)

Coarse salt

A scant ½ pound penne or other short pasta

About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 fat garlic cloves, minced

About 12 Kalamata or other meaty brine-cured black olives, pitted and sliced

Red-pepper flakes

Lemon wedges

1. Trim off any tough or wilted leaves from the broccoli rabe and trim the stalks as well; if the stalks look fibrous, trim as much as you need to get to the juicy-looking bits. Rinse the broccoli rabe well, then add to a pot of salted boiling water.  Cook until stems are tender, 3 to 5 minutes; remove from water with tongs and drain in a colander; when cool enough to handle, coarsely chop. Return the cooking water to a boil and add the pasta; cook until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water before draining pasta.

2. While pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large skillet over moderately low heat. Add the garlic, olives, and red-pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until the garlic is golden. Add the broccoli rabe and season with salt. Increase heat to moderately high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli rabe is hottened up, 3 minutes or so. Add the pasta and toss until combined well, adding some reserved pasta water if the mixture seems dry. Serve with lemon wedges.

By the way (shameless self-promotion, here): You can find a very kind, enthusiastic write up of my blog—and some of my favorite restaurants—at thebesty.com.

CHARD FOR THE EASTER TABLE

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Easter will be celebrated on the fly this year, so I’m keeping it ultrasimple—good smoked salmon to start, herb-crusted rack of lamb, boiled little potatoes, and something lemony for dessert.

As far as a green vegetable goes, the gorgeous rainbow chard I’ve been seeing everywhere has been pulling me in a Mediterranean direction. I do love a gratin, but that feels too heavy and wintry for April; instead I’m resurrecting (sorry) a Provençal favorite from The Gourmet Cookbook. Golden raisins, olives, and garlic provide sweetness, a bit of brininess, and depth of flavor to the greens, which turn from lightly crinkled, or savoyed, and fleshy to satiny when cooked. Although the stems, which need a slight head start in the pot, lose their vivid color, they become mild and firm-tender, and toasted pine nuts stirred in before serving add richness and crunch. The overall character of the dish is, well, suave, and far more than the sum of its parts—qualities lacking in so many recipes I see in magazines today.

So, okay, here’s what I know about chard. A member of the beet family, it gets its name from its prominent ridged stems, called, yep, chards. Front-loading “Swiss” onto the vegetable’s name confuses instead of clarifies: In Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference (2001)—an instant classic if there ever was one—Elizabeth Schneider notes that after 25 years of futile probing, she found no significant reason to keep the adjective. Even the international authority Brian Ford-Lloyd, of the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham, “could offer no more explanation than that ‘there is a Swiss national collection of leaf beet [and chard]  genetic resources, which I assume means that the crop is of some importance to the Swiss.’ ” Chard was cultivated in ancient Greece and Rome, Schneider writes, and probably earlier in the Arab world. 

I’m a relatively new convert to chard, by the way, and I think it’s because what I buy at the farmers market and supermarket is younger and fresher than it used to be. In overly mature leaves and stems, the minerally character of the vegetable veers into muddy; until I tasted it at its earthy, mellow best in the south of France, it was my braising green of last resort.

It’s easy dismiss the showy bouquets called rainbow chard as a “designer” variety, bred to appeal to consumers wanting the newest, brightest, shiniest toys at the market, but Schneider cites Sturvenant’s Edible Plants of the World, in which the author informs us that red chard was noticed by Aristotle about 350 B.C.,  and Theophrastus knew two kinds—the white and black, or dark green. In 1596, Bauhin describes “dark, red, white, yellow, chards with a broad stalk,” and Fearing Burr, in The Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865 edition), includes five types, with green, white, purplish-red, and bright yellow stalks. The multicolored mix called Bright Lights has green or bronzed leaves with stems ranging from gold, pink, red, and orange to pastel variations; it was developed by the late New Zealand amateur breeder John Eaton, and seeds are available through Johnny’s Seeds and other sources. It’s fair to say that the flavor is milder and the texture is more tender than other chards.

One characteristic of rainbow chard that you may find as fascinating and otherworldly as I do is that the pigments in the stems carry through to the roots. Scroll down to see a photo I took last year of the hydroponic rainbow chard from Stokes Farm, at the Union Square Greenmarket. Easter egg colors!

[Swiss] Chard with Olives and Raisins

From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Serves 4

I know this recipe calls for 1½ bunches of chard, but it is very forgiving—and what in the heck are you supposed to do with that remaining half bunch? Use two bunches and add a smidge more of everything else. Save any leftovers to serve over pasta.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)

1½ pounds Swiss chard (1½ bunches), center ribs discarded, leaves and stems separated, stems finely chopped, leaves coarsely chopped

¼ cup golden raisins

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

8 Kalamata olives or other large brine-cured black olives, pitted and finely chopped

½ teaspoon coarse salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

1. Heat oil in a 5-quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes.

2. Add chard stems, raisins, and garlic, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until stems are tender, about 6 minutes. Stir in chard leaves, olives, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until leaves are wilted, about 3 minutes.

3. Remove lid and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of liquid chard gives off has evaporated and leaves are tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in pine nuts.

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