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SCRATCH SUPPER: BROCCOLI RABE WITH PASTA AND OLIVES

blog-broccoli rabe

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

blog-Easter chard

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.

blog-Easter chard2

 

 

A MICROGREEN GARDEN

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In another month, the Union Square Greenmarket will be bursting with young greens—not just the ubiquitous ramps, but dandelion leaves and wild edibles such as chickweed, claytonia, and nettles—spring tonics, all.

Meanwhile, I’m getting my fresh fix from microgreens. Unlike sprouts (the first stage of plant growth), which are germinated in a dark, moist environment, microgreens, the second stage, are grown in soil or organic potting mix and exposed to sunlight, so they produce chlorophyll. Once a specialty garnish destined for starry restaurants (find the backstory in this recent TakePart column), you can now buy flats or boxes of them at specialty markets and, increasingly, farmers markets.

They are also easy to cultivate at home (seed-to-harvest is about two weeks), and tending them is peaceful, contemplative work. Just keep them moist and in the sun, then snip them off right above soil level once their first true leaves begin to emerge. You’ll know true leaves when you see them: They follow the initial, embryonic leaves (which are present in the seed before germination) and look more like the mature plant. You can only get one harvest from each planting, but no worries—scatter new seed in the same containers, cover with growing medium, water gently but thoroughly, and be patient.

I’m still getting the hang of sowing seeds in succession, so we have a continuous supply at the ready. In the little garden you see above are, clockwise from top left, red russian kale, some other sort of kale, arugula, and, well, I don’t know, but it tastes like sorrel—the unmarked box was languishing at Lani’s Farm stand at the Greenmarket, and I couldn’t resist. Once the tart, almost sour greens get a bit taller, they’ll be delicious on top of an omelet, broiled fish fillets, or a bowl of schav, or sorrel soup.

Microgreens taste like the essence of the vegetable. They are handy for punching up a sandwich or typical salad, but, more importantly, they are a welcome relief from the same-old, same-old cooked greens. I’ve been playing chef—topping roast chicken or a made-up lunch of canned American Tuna and white beans with a fluffy tangle of herbaceous celery micros, for instance. Peppery arugula micros are lovely with seared top blade steaks or duck breast, and milder cauliflower micros take roasted cauliflower up a notch. The kale micros give a fresh dimension to any number of  scratch suppers, including sausage and chickpeas over pasta, a recent favorite.

Even though microgreens are intense in flavor, they are tiny and beautiful, thus powerful lures for children or veg-phobic friends. Don’t break the spell by bragging about how nutritious they are; depending on the type, they have from 4 to 40 times more nutrients than the fully mature vegetable (for more details, see the TakePart link, above). Instead, turn your tabletop garden plot into a centerpiece—and give everyone a pair of scissors.

Where to buy seeds

The sources I mention in my TakePart column are Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and, for convenient growing kits, Lucky Leaf Gardens and Gardener’s Supply Company.

PINEAPPLE BLIZZARD

blog-pineapple blizzard

When it comes to dessert, the world can be pretty much divided into chocolate people and fruit people. I myself am squarely in the latter camp, which is why the simple, refreshing dessert known as Pineapple Blizzard is a lifesaver this time of year. The first precious local strawberries—let alone the heavy, ripe peaches and other fruits of summer—seem very far away, and by now I’m bored to death with apple or pear crisps or crumbles. It’s even difficult to get excited about pie.

Pineapple is most famously used, of course, in an upside-down cake—one of America’s favorite homey desserts since the early 1900s, with the advent of pineapple canneries. But the beauty of Pineapple Blizzard is that it’s nothing more than the fresh fruit, sugar to taste, and egg whites whomped up in a food processor and frozen. Nothing comes between you and pineapple’s sweet-tart acidity, in other words. It’s bracing and beguiling, all at the same time, with a texture that becomes almost mousselike when it begins to soften. Even the most polite dinner guests scrape their bowls clean and wonder aloud if there is more.

The dessert was created by the late Abby Mandel Meyer, founder of the Green City Market, in Chicago, longtime Tribune columnist (“The Weekend Cook”), and one of America’s great proponents of home cooking. In the 1970s, she saw the potential in a brand-new appliance called the Cuisinart food processor and parleyed her expertise into a series of Cuisinart cookbooks and cooking demos.

I first came across the recipe for Pineapple Blizzard in The Supper Book, by Marion Cunningham, another splendid, greatly missed advocate for the family table, whose writing was as honest and unpretentious as the food she championed. “Abby Mandel, an exceptional cook and cookbook author, first made this dessert for me,” she explained in the headnote. “I call it a ‘blizzard’ because it is icy and it drifts up the sides of the food processor like wind-blown snow. It is creamy without cream and it keeps its soft frozen texture in the freezer.” It’s also at its most delicious when made a few days ahead. What is not to love?

We all tend to associate pineapple with Hawaii in our minds, but the fruit’s agricultural history there didn’t begin until the late 19th century, with the crop development trials of English entrepreneur John Kidwell. Today, most of the fresh pineapple in the United States comes from Costa Rica; it’s surpassed coffee to become that country’s number two export crop (bananas are number one).  In February 2010, Dole started offering Fair Trade organic pineapples from Costa Rica to their U.S. market.

Even though it’s available year-round, pineapple is at its best from March through June. For maximum sweetness, the fruit must be picked at the peak of ripeness because it’s nonclimacteric, meaning it can’t continue to ripen, thus grow sweeter, after harvest. When shopping, know that a larger pineapple isn’t necessarily riper or more flavorful than a smaller one, but there will be a greater proportion of edible fruit to thick, bristly outer shell. The leaves in the crown should look fresh. The fruit should smell fragrant, but not like it has started to ferment. The body should feel firm and heavy for its size.

One thing that is not an indicator of ripeness, however, is the color of a pineapple’s shell: A green-skinned one can be just as ripe, sweet, and juicy as a golden-skinned one. In fact, all certified-organic pineapples are sold green (and carefully labeled “ready to eat”), since the use of ripening agents, which give most conventional pineapples their yellow shell color, are prohibited. When you get your prize home, don’t be tempted to style a tutti-frutti centerpiece around it à la Carmen Miranda, or the pineapple will start to rot. Instead, store it in your refrigerator’s damp, dark vegetable drawer.

Everyone has a favorite method for freeing a pineapple from its shell and cutting it into pieces, but I like that used by a “South Seas Island Boy” on the Instructables website. I first saw and used the technique in South India some years ago, and once you acquire a little experience (a boning or other flexible knife is helpful), you can break down a pineapple in no time flat.

As far as the egg whites go, they aren’t cooked in the below recipe. These days, we’re all concerned about food safety issues, and I substituted pasteurized egg whites (found in the supermarket refrigerated egg and dairy aisle) without thinking twice. I would imagine you could also use the whites from pasteurized whole eggs, such as Safest Choice brand.

In theory, pineapple blizzard lasts for two weeks in the freezer, but I’ve never managed to keep it around for that long.

Pineapple Blizzard

From The Supper Book, by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

4 cups fresh pineapple, cut into approximately 1-inch cubes

½ cup to ¾ cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of the pineapple

2 egg whites or 4 tablespoons pasteurized liquid egg whites (such as Eggology or Organic Valley brand)

Spread the pineapple cubes on a jelly-roll pan (I line it with parchment paper first) and put in the freezer for 8 hours. The cubes must be rock hard.

Put the cubes in the food processor and process until drifts of iced fruit are on the sides of the container (ignore the racket these little rocks make). This takes about 1 minute. Stop and scrape down the sides with a spatula, add some of the sugar, about ½ cup, and then add the egg whites. Process, stopping to scrape down the sides once of twice, until the mass begins to flow easily in the processor container. Process for 2 or 3 minutes, taste, and add more sugar if needed. Continue to process another 2 minutes, or as long as it takes for the mixture to become pale, light, and smooth. You will have the most creamy, fluffy pineapple dessert, and it will be difficult to believe it only has sugar and egg white in it.

Cover well and put into the freezer. This keeps for a week or two, but is at its best the first 3 or 4 days after making.

KASHMIRI GREENS

blog-kashmiri greens

As always, March is a challenge. It’s such a fretful month: Snow is still on the ground and the wind has the force of winter behind it, but blazing blue skies, a sun the color of a rich egg yolk, and longer days make it impossible to stay inside, even though I lost my gloves.

In our kitchen, March’s shiftiness translates to ennui. Here in the Northeast, we won’t see local asparagus and other spring vegetables until late April or, more likely, early May. Instead, we’re stuck with the same-old, same-old winter vegetables and greens.

So this is the time for buying a new tub of the Korean chile paste called gochujang and using it with abandon. For tossing broccoli and carrots with gingered butter or lightly coating wedges of sweet potatoes or winter squash with a minimally processed “virgin” coconut oil before roasting to give them a deep coconutty flavor. And as far as pot greens—you know, collards, kale, and other dark leafy greens for braising—are concerned, it’s time to look beyond the influences of the American South (ham hock or other seasoning meat and pepper sherry) or Italy (garlic and red pepper flakes). March requires different flavors to spark interest and appetite.

Perhaps because my sister-in-law is gallivanting around India as I write this, that is where my culinary druthers are taking me. Although Kashmir, up in the mountains of northern India, is renowned for its meat dishes and Persian-style pilafs, the greens there are treated splendidly as well. The recipe below is from New York City chef Floyd Cardoz. About eight years ago, I had the good fortune to work with him on his book, One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors, and this recipe is one of many that has stayed in my repertoire ever since. It’s simple, delicious, and versatile: In Kashmir, you will see it made with kohlrabi greens or collards, but you can use any hearty braising green. Adding bok choy or pea shoots to the pot provides finesse and freshness.

The only specialty ingredient you’ll need is asafetida, a spice that comes from the dried gum resin of the giant fennel plant. It stinks to high heaven (the name comes from the Latin foetidus, “fetid”), but don’t let that put you off; like fish sauce, anchovies, or shrimp paste, it gives balance, a mellow depth, and resonance to a dish. (It’s said to be one of the mystery ingredients in Worcestershire sauce.) It’s also considered a digestive aid, which is why it’s often added to legumes. Asafetida comes in lump or ground form; the latter is easiest to deal with, and Floyd’s brand of choice is Vandevi, available at Indian groceries and any number of online sources. You’ll want to store the tin in a tightly sealed container; kept in a cool, dark, dry place, it will last for ages.

Kashmiri Greens

From One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors, by Floyd Cardoz and Jane Daniels Lear (William Morrow, 2006)

Serves 6

These greens are wonderful with steak, chicken, or fish, but are so full-flavored they can turn a bowl of rice into supper.

4 pounds collards or other pot greens

1 tablespoon canola oil (preferably a non-GM brand) or extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon asafetida

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 large shallots, sliced

½ cup julienne strips peeled fresh ginger

1 small (about 2 inches long) dried red chile, broken in half (or into smaller pieces, if you want a spicier dish)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Discard any tough stems or center ribs from the collards. Chop the tender stems and set aside, then roughly chop the leaves.

2. Heat the oil in a 4-quart pot over moderately high heat until it shimmers and add the asafetida and cumin seeds. Cook, stirring, until the spices are fragrant, about 1½ minutes. Add the shallots, ginger, and chile, and cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, 3 or 4 minutes.

3. Add the tender collard stems and season with salt; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the collard leaves and cook, tossing occasionally with tongs, until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Discard the chile and season with salt and pepper.

THOUGHTS ON CLAM CHOWDER

blog-clam chowder

There are about as many versions of chowder as there are cooks who make it, which is perfectly reasonable when you think about it. Like vegetable soup or gumbo, it’s more a product of circumstance and soulful interpretation than an actual recipe. 

I myself was raised on a brothy Hatteras clam chowder, which tastes of the ocean, not of cream or tomatoes, but this dratted weather (we’re eagerly awaiting an alleged “warming trend”) calls for something more substantial and nourishing. You might think that living in New York City would incline me to Manhattan chowder: Bright with tomatoes, it has a clean, piquant flavor that’s very appealing. The food writer John Thorne, who grew up on Down East cooking, suspects Manhattan clam chowder is a New World variation of the very similar Neapolitan zuppa de vongole. In a masterful essay on chowder in Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots (you can pick up a signed copy at John’s Simple Cooking website), he also noted that some Yankee cooks were putting tomatoes in their chowders from the middle of the 19th century, when tomatoes, whether fresh or canned, provided novelty, much like chiles do today.

“However, if there was one place left mostly untouched by the great tomato craze it was Down East Maine,” John wrote. “In 1855, a decade after the rest of the country was consuming them as if there were no tomorrow, the Maine Farmer was reporting that folks here were just beginning to acknowledge that they might be edible.”

Milk is more of a newcomer to chowder than the tomato, he added, “but it enhanced rather than changed what was an established taste …. The very word ‘chowder’ is simply and unreflectively evocative of a liquid elixir built on a foundation of salt pork, onion, and potato, aswim with seafood in a broth tempered with milk and thickened with a handful of crackers. And there’s no reason in the world to want that to change.”

I couldn’t agree more. And hewing to the New England tradition certainly simplifies a shopping list. Even though salt pork is the quintessential Down East chowder ingredient, I’ve given up finding a convenient source for good-quality stuff in New York. Yes, I know I can actually make salt pork from scratch, but until I get around to it, I’ll automatically substitute bacon. In this household, we’re never short of that, let alone potatoes and onions. I straddled the milk/cream debate by buying a pint of half-and-half at the corner store; it provides richness without slip-sliding into gloppiness. In a perfect world, I would have foraged farther afield for common crackers, but it was so raw and cold, the box of oyster crackers in the pantry would do nicely.

More on the seasoning meat: The richness of salt pork or the smokiness of bacon are marvelous building blocks in a chowder, but given great clams and potatoes, you can certainly live without them—a real boon if you are casting about for Friday-night fish suppers during Lent.

Now, about the clams: All Atlantic hardshell clams are all the same bivalve species—Mercenaria mercenaria. Also called quahogs (pronounced “KO-hogs”), they are distinguished by size. The beauts you see in the above photo are so-called middleneck clams (seven to nine per pound) from the Eastern Shore of Virginia—specifically, from the pristine waters of Quinby Inlet, on the north end of Hog Island. A few years back, I watched them being harvested by Tom Gallivan, who, in addition to running Shooting Point Oyster Company with his wife, Ann, works with JC Walker Brothers (est. 1889) and HM Terry Company (est. 1903) to sustainably cultivate millions of clams and oysters for raw bars and restaurants nationwide. It has been too long since I last visited Tom’s part of Virginia, but Pisacane, our neighborhood’s seafood market for 50-plus years, had plenty of sparkling-fresh littlenecks on hand. I was in business.

About the potatoes: Avoid russet (baking) potatoes, which dissolve in a chowder, and new potatoes, which as John pointed out in Serious Pig, “refuse to interact with a chowder at all.” Instead you need a plain all-purpose potato such as Kennebec, Superior, or even Yukon Gold. Don’t peel the potatoes ahead of time for efficiency’s sake; you want all their lovely starch to thicken the chowder instead of the cold water you’ve put them in to prevent discoloration.

Although I’m usually a huge proponent of cutting potatoes (or any other ingredient) into same-sized pieces so they cook evenly, that is not the case when it comes to chowder. Instead, I’ve learned to cut traditional “thick-thin” slices by standing each peeled spud on end and using a paring knife to whittle off bite-size pieces around the outside so that each piece has a thin edge and a thick edge. “The thin edge cooks off and helps thicken the chowder,” explained food historian Sandy Oliver in Maine Home Cooking. Potatoes cut thick-thin are an essential but too little known trick, John Thorne wrote. “Bits of the edge break away to meld into the liquid as the potatoes simmer in the pot, creating a uniquely creamy body.” And how. My next batch of leek and potato soup is going to be all the better for it.

About the crackers: “You can improve any chowder with a trick my mother taught me,” wrote John. “Crumble a few common crackers in your fist or under a rolling pin and sauté these in the fat with the onion, before pouring in the broth. Then split and toast a few more—or, even better, fry them until golden in melted butter in a small skillet—to float on top of the chowder at the point of serving.” My new favorite croutons.

And there you have it: an alluring balance of spare simplicity and warming good cheer. I could live on this chowder for the entire month of March.

New England Clam Chowder 

With thanks to Serious Pig, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne (HarperCollins, 1996), Maine Home Cooking, by Sandra L. Oliver (Down East, 2012), and The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Makes about 5 cups

3 dozen small hard-shelled clams (less than 2 inches wide), such as littlenecks or middlenecks, scrubbed well

1½ cups cold water

2 or 3 medium potatoes such as Kennebec, Yukon Gold, or “all-purpose” potatoes, plus another 1 or 2 for the pot

Unsalted butter

2 slices bacon, chopped (optional)

Common crackers, split horizontally in half, or oyster crackers

1 small onion, chopped

1 cup half-and-half

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Put the clams and cold water in a 4-quart pot and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Cover and steam the clams until they open, 5 to 10 minutes, checking frequently after 5 minutes and transferring them to a bowl as they open. Discard any clams that have not opened.

2. Pour the broth though a fine-mesh sieve into another bowl, leaving any grit in pot. When the clams are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells and coarsely chop. Add any liquid from the shells and clams to the bowl of broth.

3. Peel the potatoes and cut into “thick-thin” wedges (see above note on potatoes) or, if you choose, irregular cubes roughly the size of the chopped clams. Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over moderate heat. Add the bacon, if using, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 4 minutes. Crumble a handful of crackers into the pan, add the onion, and cook, stirring, until the crackers start to disintegrate and the onion is softened, about 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the potatoes and strained broth. Bring to a simmer, and simmer, covered, until the potatoes are very tender and just barely holding their shape, about 10 minutes or so; the timing depends on the type of potato and the size of the pieces. Stir in the clams and half-and-half; season with salt and pepper. Cook (do not let boil) until heated through, about 1 minute. Let the chowder sit on the back burner for an hour before gently reheating until it’s steaming hot (again, don’t let it boil). You can also make the chowder earlier in the day and let it cool completely before refrigerating it.

4. While reheating the chowder, melt a generous pat of butter in a small skillet over moderate heat and fry a generous amount of crackers. To serve, float the crackers and (gilding the lily here) a thin pat of butter on top of each serving.

KITCHEN SYNC: FREEZE-DRIED SHALLOTS

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The shallot is a workhorse of the restaurant kitchen. It’s reliable and available year-round, and its flavor—delicate, nuanced, and intense all at the same time—gives finesse to dishes that range from classic French sauces (beurre blanc, bordelaise, mignonette) to the seasoning pastes and hành phi, the crisp caramelized shallots that add depth and richness to many Southeast Asian dishes. It’s a chef’s stealth ingredient, in other words—and one that has, in the United States, happily migrated from restaurants and luxurious little specialty foods shops to farmers markets and supermarket bins, where those of us who cook at home can easily get our hands on them.

Except when we can’t. If you don’t happen to live close to a market that carries fresh shallots, or if those you come across are soft in spots, withered, or moldy inside, you are plumb out of luck. Especially if you are devoted to homemade shallot vinaigrettes, this is a hardship—I, for one, really miss that suave, rounded sweetness if it’s not there.

Enter freeze-dried shallots from Wisconsin-based Penzeys Spices. I discovered this genius product through my friend and former Gourmet colleague Zanne Stewart, who has a flair for sussing out culinary shortcuts that don’t sacrifice quality. Even if you happen to have shallots at home, “there’s no rotting, no fiddly peeling,” Zanne said. “My salad dressing ALWAYS has them as a base. About a tablespoon of them, a couple of tablespoons Moscatel wine vinegar to rehydrate them, then mustard, salt, extra-virgin olive oil. The vinegar turns them pink and tender, and they brighten every salad.”

A bottle of freeze-dried shallots is extremely portable, which means it can travel to a weekend party or ski or beach house with ease. During this snowbound winter, I’ve relied on the shallots more and more: They make a great addition to almost any marinade, and can be rehydrated in a little water, drained well, then sautéed and added to mashed potatoes or an omelet.

I’ve also been experimenting with Southeast Asian–style crisp shallots. As usual, Zanne was a few steps ahead of me, although after reading her caveats, I don’t feel so bad about my first attempts, which were more along the lines of sacrificial burnt offerings.

“First, I set a fine sieve over a glass jar in the sink,” she recounted in an email earlier today. “Then I put about a quarter inch of (organic) canola in a small skillet with enough of the dried shallots to cover the bottom. Next, I heat the oil over moderate heat and keep an eagle eye on the shallots. No diversions permitted, because the instant you detect a golden tinge to a few of the shallots, you have to lift the pan from the heat and IMMEDIATELY (did I say, immediately?) pour into the sieve. The shallots are such tiny bits that they burn before you know it, in fact, right in front of your eyes. If all goes well, and, as I said, it doesn’t always, you get golden shallots to spread on several layers of paper towels and then sprinkle with salt. I use them like crazy on soups, in salads, you name it.”

This is a two-fer recipe, for the aromatic shallot oil that’s a byproduct of this venture goes into the refrigerator for another day. And even if crisp-fried shallots do belong in the “Attention Must Be Paid” section of your recipe file, they are worth it. You can stir them into bread crumbs for a pasta topping, or sprinkle them over a steak or burger. You can embellish a stir-fry, Thai curry, or plain-old steamed green beans. They add texture to a creamy soup such as winter squash or sweet potato, and enliven soups that run the risk of being stodgy—lentil, for instance, or split pea or black bean. Or you can simply eat spoonfuls of them when no one is looking.

OBSESSION: MODERN MANNERS

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I’m sure the folks who insist on lumping the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together under the vague-sounding “Presidents’ Day” mean well. It’s tidier than having two separate holidays so close together and gives hope to retailers who won’t have another excuse to slash prices until Memorial Day. But it has the unfortunate effect of diminishing both great men, and I’m delighted that the official name for the federal holiday we observed yesterday, the third Monday in February, remains Washington’s Birthday, as specified under Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code.

I spent the latter part of it prone on the sofa, absorbed in the newest etiquette book in my collection, What Would George Do? Advice from Our Founding Fathera modern context for the first president’s Rules of Civility, precepts of refinement compiled by French Jesuits in 1590, translated into English around 1640, and transcribed by many young colonials, including George Washington, in the 18th century.

WWGD, which should be required reading for every member of Congress, is the genius idea of the mother-and-daughter team Nan Marshall and Helen Broder. Nan is my stepsister-in-law—more accurately, my ex-stepsister-in-law, since my father and stepmother divorced after ten years or so of matrimony. They’d been colleagues at the Savannah paper before they married and remained great pals after they parted company. I was dubious about that development, but “Why let a marriage get in the way of a beautiful friendship?” Nan said philosophically. She has great dignity, elegance, and wit, and if she hadn’t had such a successful career in business, she could have taken the diplomatic service by storm.

Nan and Helen’s first chapter, “Making Time,” sets things up nicely. “We all need to slow down. Busyness is a poor substitute for genuine living, and it doesn’t fool anyone.” They point out that many people have become addicted to stress, and go on to categorize the various types (self-important, guilty, frightened, crisis-driven, etc.) who use busyness as a prerequisite for feeling good about themselves.

Washington, on the other hand, never appeared to be in a hurry. “Despite the hustle and bustle of war, politics, and farming, he always maintained an elegant air of comfortable ease …. The truth of the matter is time-management challenges have been around forever. Fortunately, so has the cure—social contact …. Detained in Philadelphia and desperately trying to raise the money to pay his army, Washington missed the fellowship of his officers away on the southern campaign. He wrote General Greene, ‘To participate and divide our feelings, hopes, fears, and expectations with a friend is almost the only source of pleasure and consolation left us ….’ ”

I made myself another cup of tea and turned to Chapter Seven, “At The Table,” and Rule 105: “Be not Angry at Table whatever happens & if you have reason to be so, Shew it not but (put) on a Chearfull Countenance especially if there be Strangers for Good Humour makes one Dish of Meat a feast.”

WWGD isn’t interested in finger bowls (“outdated”) or escargot forks (“irrelevant”), but points out that simple common sense underlies table manners. “The rules of communal dining may seem arbitrary, but they are not merely ceremonial …. Seventeen of the Rules of Civility that [Washington] painstakingly memorized dictate ways to keep the experience of eating focused on the pleasure of the food and the company, not on the distractions and distresses introduced by thoughtless diners … They are all based on four indispensable and practical principles: “cooperation, cleanliness, composure, and conversation.” That works for me.

My fascination with etiquette books stems from a very young age, when my parents gave me the Munro Leaf books. There was The Story of Ferdinand, of course, about the world’s most contented bull, which was just as instructive in its way as Manners Can Be Fun (first published in 1936 and just as fresh and spot-on as ever) and How To Behave and Why (1946; ditto)I read them over and over. “Having good manners is really just living with other people pleasantly,” is how Manners Can Be Fun begins. “If you lived all by yourself out on a desert island, others would not care whether you had good manners or not. It wouldn’t bother them …. Most of us don’t live on desert islands so this is what we do—”

I found it reassuring to read about a world in which there was so little uncertainty. In due time, I progressed to Emily Post’s Etiquette (first published in 1922), with its entertaining cast of characters—including  Mr. Bachelor, Mr. Newgold, Mrs. Oldname, Mrs. Neighbor, Mrs. Stranger, Mrs. Kindhart, Mr. and Mrs. Nono Better, the Worldlys, and the Gildings. In our home library, Emily had her place on the shelf next to the dictionary stand (with its solid little step stool, for children), alongside Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (1948; available at abebooks and other online sources), by Millicent Fenwick, the impeccably mannered yet outspoken Republican congresswoman from New Jersey, who was an associate editor at Vogue at the time. Her topics included “A Girl on her own,” “Entertaining without a maid,” “Debutantes,” and “Being invited to the White House,” but I think I enjoyed the chapter on misused words and phrases the most. “Costly,” for instance, may describe a battle but never a fur coat, and “high-toned” has no “permissible simile.”

Recent editions of Emily Post are as authoritative as ever, but lack the personality found in the earlier ones. These days, the most diverting etiquette encyclopedias are those by Miss Manners, a.k.a. Judith Martin. Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility, for instance, is a boon to anyone who has to deal with complex or blended family ties, and it is far less expensive than therapy.

But her definitive work is Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (first published in 1979). Miss Manners isn’t as sedate as Mrs. Post; her forthrightness is more along the lines of Millicent Fenwick, and she’s very good at disentangling etiquette problems from moral or psychological ones. She’s famously funny, to boot. “Fruit occupies the place in the food world that the ingenue does in society,” she explained. “That is, it is usually fresh (but occasionally stewed), and although welcome anywhere for its charm and simplicity, it requires more complicated treatment when going about socially than it does when it is just hanging about the house.”

Like President Washington, Miss Manners is arbitrary, pragmatic, fearless, and views etiquette as something simultaneously fundamental and noble. I could go on and on, but I really must write a couple of thank-you notes, and then call a dear friend and invite her to supper. Somehow, there’ll be plenty of time.

STIR-FRIED GARLIC LETTUCE: FOR THE LUNAR NEW YEAR, VALENTINE’S DAY, AND BEYOND

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A simple stir-fry gives finesse to any meal. It can also make you look at a supermarket staple in a whole new light. Romaine lettuce is a great example of what I mean: Twenty-five years ago, it was either that or iceberg in our salad bowls. Nowadays, it’s usually passed over for more delicate varieties or the Provençal blend called mesclun, which is often a too-bitter or too-bland mix of flabby little leaves. But although the cool crunch of romaine can be just the ticket after a rich meal, it pays to think of it as more than a salad green: Lightly cooked, it turns sweet and succulent, and you can pair it with everything from a mild fish such as halibut to boneless chuck top blade steaks, which balance tenderness with deep flavor.

The practice of cooking lettuce, by the way, is nothing new. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Will Weaver noted that the Romans ate lettuce raw only when it was very young; otherwise, it was cooked like spinach. I’ll take a stir-fry, thanks, and celebrate the Year of the Horse while I’m at it.

Almost every time I set our wok on the stove, I think of Grace Young, whose cookbooks are at once inspirational and practical. The recipe below, from her second book, The Breath of a Wok, is staggeringly easy. The ingredients list is short and the only thing that needs chopping is the lettuce.

As it turns out, “lettuce is an auspicious vegetable to stir-fry for the Lunar New Year,” Grace wrote in the recipe’s headnote. “The word for lettuce in Cantonese, saang choy, sounds like that for ‘growing fortune.’ ” Iceberg is most commonly used in stir-fries, but she prefers hearts of romaine, which, she noted, have crunch and sweetness, while still being tender. “The garlic cloves are edible and delicious, too.”

From overheard conversations at farmers markets and in the grocery store’s produce aisle, I’ve come to realize many people presume lettuces have little nutritional value. That’s a real shame. Lettuces are tender and fragile, true, but they contain vitamins C and K; beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A); minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium; dietary fiber; and even a bit of protein. All lettuces aren’t created equal when it comes to nutritional value; in general, that value increases as the green in the leaves gets deeper.

So what’s the Valentine’s Day connection? Well, the cultivation of the vigorously upright lettuce we call romaine or cos was perfected by the Egyptians, who considered it the symbol of the Egyptian god of fertility, Min, and thus an aphrodisiac. What a really, really fun topic to research! The Smithsonian spells out the details in a piece titled “When Lettuce Was a Sacred Sex Symbol,” and here, an Italian ethnobotanist tries to reconcile the dichotomy between lettuce’s frisky reputation and its purpose as a mild narcotic—which Beatrix Potter surely knew about when she wrote, in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, that “the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’ ”

What shouldn’t make you soporific, however, is the knowledge that all you need to make something delicious year-round (and as quick as a bunny) is some lettuce, garlic, and a few other bits and bobs. And if you’d like some stir-frying tips from Grace, see this week’s food-advice column for TakePart.com.

Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce

From The Breath of a Wok (Simon & Schuster, 2004), by Grace Young

Sesame oil comes in two varieties: an aromatic, golden brown oil that is used as a seasoning, and a lighter-colored oil that’s used for cooking or to dress salads. Here, use the darker variety and choose a pure oil instead of one that’s blended with another oil. Grace Young prefers Kadoya brand, available at Asian markets, some supermarkets, and amazon.com. As for the Shao Hsing rice wine, avoid brands labeled “Cooking Wine”; they are, predictably, awful. Grace likes a brand called Pagoda, but if you can’t find it, dry sherry makes a good substitute.

1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

¾ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

5 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 pound hearts of romaine, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces

1 teaspoon sesame oil (see above note)

1. In a small bowl, combine the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

2. Heat a 14-inch carbon-steel flat-bottomed wok [or a 12-inch heavy duty stainless-steel skillet] over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the garlic, and stir-fry 5 seconds. Add the lettuce and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes, or until the lettuce is just limp. Stir the sauce, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry 30 seconds to 1 minutes, or until the lettuce is just tender and still bright green. Remove from the heat and drizzle on the sesame oil.

RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS: OVEN-BRAISED BEEF WITH TOMATO SAUCE AND GARLIC

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A braise, with its deep, soulful flavor and lush texture, is a stellar example of what can happen when household economy meets benign neglect. Take an inexpensive cut of meat, put it in a heavy pot, brown it (or not, as the case may be), add a small amount of liquid, and let it cook, covered, in the oven for a few hours. In the interim, you can get another meal working on the stovetop. Or, since a braise is such a great party dish (it’s virtually impossible to ruin and at its best when made a day ahead), you can plan an impromptu dinner party. Or, like Zanne Stewart, who developed the recipe below for Gourmet close to 15 years ago, you can get comfortable on the floor and play with your child.

Generally speaking, braising means long, slow, moist cooking—a pot roast, in other words. This unhurried, transformative technique, which incorporates boeuf à la mode and its gently poached cousin pot-au-feu, is one of the cornerstones of French cuisine, as Jim Peterson points out in his Glorious French Food. He goes on to explain how a traditional boeuf à la mode is made with red wine and beef broth, which, in old-fashioned farmhouse cooking, is taken straight from a pot-au-feu—a welcome reminder that “thrift” is often a synonym for “delicious.”

And on several different levels. The last thing you want is the sort of expensive cut of meat that yields steaks and roasts. Nope, the key to success is a cheap, semi-tough cut such as beef chuck roast, known for its balance of rich meat, beautiful white fat, and collagen, which breaks down into silky gelatin during long, moist cooking. The correct cut, not the braising liquid, is primarily what keeps the meat juicy. Other key factors include the right-size heavy pot (the meat should fit fairly snugly inside) and braising liquid that stays at a bare simmer.

Although you can braise a dish on the stovetop, it’s much easier to regulate the temperature in the even, indirect heat of the oven, which is also closer in spirit to the original method. “When cooking was carried out directly on the hearth, braising meant cooking slowly in hot embers,” states the encyclopedic Larousse Gastronomique (2009 rev. ed.). “The cooking container had a lid with a rim on which embers could be placed, so that the heat came from both above and below.” If I had one of those, it would almost make me want to go camping.

A braise will not be rushed. It cooks in its own good time, and there is really nothing you can do to chivvy it along, which is rather freeing, when you think about it. As far as doneness goes, you should be able to slide a kitchen fork in and out of the meat with absolutely—I mean, absolutely—no resistance. That’s one definition of “fork-tender,” but trust Webster’s to cover all the bases; the term also means “tender enough to be cut by a fork.” Although you’ll need to cut slices of the braised beef below with a knife, the slices themselves are cuttable with a fork—a boon if you haven’t let the lack of a dining table prevent you from inviting people to dinner.

The recipe below is staggeringly simple, and it achieved immediate cult status among the Gourmet staff. It’s fabulous with orzo, the suggested accompaniment, but mashed potatoes are delicious, too. Later in the week, shred any leftover meat and serve it and the remaining sauce, ragù style, over egg noodles.

Oven-Braised Beef with Tomato Sauce and Garlic

From The Gourmet Cookbook

Serves 6

This recipe calls for chopping the tomatoes in their juice in a food processor. I rarely take the time to haul ours out of the cupboard; instead, I fish the tomatoes out of the can (saving the juice) and chop them by hand. Or, in a Peg Bracken–style maneuver, I just hack away at the tomatoes in the can with a pair of kitchen scissors. As far as tying the meat goes, I learned from the New York City butcher Stanley Lobel to use a light hand so the string doesn’t cut into the meat (thus releasing juices) as it cooks. The chuck roasts I see are thick and blocky, so I just make one or two loops around the sides; that’s enough to keep the roast together for those hours in the oven. And, like all braises, this improves in flavor if made a day ahead. Cool it completely in the braising liquid, uncovered, then cover and refrigerate. Remove the excess fat before reheating.

1 (28-ounce) can of whole tomatoes in juice

1 (3- to 3½-pound) boneless beef chuck roast, tied with kitchen string

1 head garlic, separated into cloves but left unpeeled

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Accompaniment: cooked orzo

1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 300ºF. Coarsely chop tomatoes, with their juice, in a food processor. Put the chuck roast in an ovenproof 4- to 5-quart heavy pot or casserole dish with a lid, pour tomatoes over it and scatter garlic around it. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Cover and braise in oven until very tender, 3 to 4 hours. Remove and discard string. Cut into ¼-inch-thick slices and serve with sauce, orzo, and garlic.