For much of my life, the approach of summer signalled a season of blissful slackness — a languid three-month-long stretch free of responsibilities and obligations and schedules. Then I became a grown-up, a grown-up with year-round responsibilities and obligations and schedules that, because I live in a resort town, seem to multiply rather than diminish as summer approaches. Fortunately, there’s gin for that.
This time of year, at the pinnacle of pre-summer stress, there’s also rhubarb. And, as we’ve already established, gin and rhubarb are really quite lovely together. For this year’s version I added another layer of aromatic astringency with a few sprigs of rosemary. The sweet, piney notes of the herb mingle with the subtle botanicals of gin, softening the sharp edges of bracingly tart rhubarb to create a cocktail that’s smooth and dry and delightfully assertive.
And if your equally assertive husband insists that you quit worrying about things and spend the afternoon sitting on the deck sipping gin while the newly opened apples blossoms sway delicately in the breeze, I suggest you listen. I also suggest that you don’t embrace the relaxation thing so fully that you find yourself five cocktails in at 4 pm, but that’s entirely up to you.
2¼ cups water, divided
2 Tbsp. + ½ cup sugar
½ cup fresh rosemary leaves
3 cups diced fresh rhubarb
6 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1½ cups good gin
Place 1 cup water and 2 Tbsp. sugar in small saucepan and simmer, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and add rosemary leaves. Cover and steep for 5 minutes. Strain through fine-mesh sieve, pressing on leaves to extract liquid. Cool syrup to room temperature, then chill for 4 hours.
Puree 1¼ cups water, ½ cup sugar, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice and rhubarb in blender. Strain through fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl. Squeeze the remaining rhubarb pulp to release as much liquid as possible. Chill the juice for 4 hours.
Mix the rosemary syrup, rhubarb juice, remaining 5 Tbsp. lemon juice, and gin in a pitcher or large jar. Pour over ice and garnish with fresh rosemary sprigs, if desired.
Leftovers (ha!) should keep in the fridge for 2-3 days.
This the third week of the farmer’s market and the first week there was any fresh produce for sale. Here’s what I bought. Not pictured: a cookie for Chris because, as he explained to me, “I came to the farmer’s market with you. And I didn’t complain!”
It started with the pan. Last year, around this time, I added a lovely swirled bundt pan to our wedding registry and Chris said what he always says when I attempt to acquire something new: “Don’t we already have a bundt pan/sofa/shower curtain/cat?” In this case, we did already have a perfectly serviceable bundt pan, but I hypothesized — on the actual registry — that I’d bake five times as many cakes in such a pretty pan.
And then, a few days before our wedding last August, Chris’s mom gave him the bundt pan for his birthday, with the understanding I’m sure that it would soon be filled with cake batter. Preferably chocolate. Since then, I’ve baked exactly zero cakes. Much to his credit, Chris hasn’t said a word about the superfluous pan or the lack of baking. That man really deserves a cake — a pretty cake, a cake filled with the sweet, mapley promise of spring.
I know most people associate maple with autumn, but maple is now. Sap runs as snow melts in the early, barely-warm days of just-spring. Before buds burst on branches, before blades of green poke up through the soft muddy ground, before watercress and wild leeks and asparagus and morels there is sap, the Earth’s first gift of spring.
The pure, clear sweetness of maple syrup is the perfect flavor to build a cake around. Here, the syrup is mixed with butter, flour and chopped pecans to form a sweet filling that bakes up crunchy and gooey inside a surprisingly light cake with a moist, tender crumb.
It’s exactly the kind of cake you want to eat in the pre-green days of late March — light but not fluffy, moist but crumbly, rich and golden and tender with a sweetness that whispers of the coming spring.
For the Filling
1 c. all-purpose flour
2 T. butter, softened
1¼ c. chopped pecans
½ c. grade B maple syrup
½ t. cinnamon
For the Cake
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
9 T. butter, softened
¾ c. superfine sugar
1 c. sour cream
1) To make the filling, place the flour in a medium bowl and cut the butter into the flour using your fingers or a fork. Add the pecans, maple syrup and cinnamon and mix to form a sticky paste. Set aside.
2) Preheat your oven to 350°F. Sift together flour, baking soda and baking powder. Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, then add flour mixture. Beat until incorporated and then fold in sour cream. The batter will be thick and sticky.
3) Grease a bundt pan and spoon a little more than half the batter into the pan. Spread the batter up the sides and funnel about an inch – you’re creating a little indentation in the batter to keep the filling from leaking out. Spoon the filling into the indentation as evenly as you can. Cover carefully with remaining batter and smooth out the top.
4) Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar to serve.
Grade B maple syrup is darker and more flavorful than Grade A syrups, which results in a stronger maple flavor here in the cake.
Superfine sugar is often used in cake baking to yield lighter, more tender results. If you don’t have superfine sugar (or don’t want to buy it for just one recipe) plus regular granulated sugar a few times in a food processor to grind it more finely.
I know I said I had everything under control in terms of cooking real food, and I did. Briefly. But then I decided to renovate our little log cabin — a rather ambitious project that involves messy, time-consuming things like drywall and terribly inconvenient things like gutting the entire kitchen (the entirety of which is a mere 62 square feet, but still). And a couple of months ago, Chris popped into our not-yet-gutted kitchen to announce that he wanted to be with me all the time forever, so I’m also planning a wedding. It’s a very small, very casual wedding (as far as weddings go), but still. Then there is also the small matter of my actual job and the fact that I’m pretty obsessive about pretty much everything.
These are not the sort of conditions that foster creativity in the kitchen. These are more the sort of conditions that foster major meltdowns in the grocery. I know this because I recently had such a meltdown. It involved a box of Rice-a-Roni, which is pretty much rock bottom for me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy Rice-a-Roni. Actually, yes, I am saying that. You shouldn’t buy Rice-a-Roni. I shouldn’t buy Rice-a-Roni. Nobody should buy Rice-a-Roni. Real food is important, and it is really really easy to make rice. Sometimes we buy Rice-a-Roni anyway. I get that.
But I firmly believe that is it just as easy to make good food as it is to make bad food, and it generally takes about the same amount of time. Lately I’ve been making asparagus. I bring a basketful home from the Farmers Market every week and delight in figuring out how to turn those pretty green stalks into dinner. Asparagus pesto is an old standby, but my favorite of this season is an asparagus bread salad. It’s bright and fresh and hearty all at the same time, with dainty slivers of asparagus and tender white beans nestled in among chunks of crusty grilled bread. The bread soaks up a bit of the lemony dressing without becoming soggy and the whole dish is accented with bits of parmesan. All of this comes together beautifully and quite deliciously, in a way that says, “Oh yes. Food. How lovely to see you again.”
Despite the home renovation and the wedding plans, I intend to do more with this blog than pop in every four months to announce that I got too busy to cook anything worth mentioning but I promise to be good from now on. A girl can only do that so many times (two?) before she starts to look silly. Plus, maintaining a blog about seasonal cooking helps discourage me from buying packaged crap.
Asparagus & White Bean Bread Salad
adapted from Gourmet
I tossed in a handful of salad greens, but I think the salad is actually better without them. The greens appear in the photo but not in the recipe. Feel free to add them if you like.
1 lb asparagus
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ c. + 2 T. olive oil
1 15 oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed well
½ t. finely grated fresh lemon zest
2 T. fresh lemon juice
½ t. salt
¼ t. black pepper
4 slices thick, crusty bread
4 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano
¼ c. chopped parsley
1) Trim woody ends from asparagus and slice on the diagonal into ¼” thick slices.
2) In a large sauté pan, heat ¼ c. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds. Stir in the beans, lemon juice and zest, then season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let stand, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
3) Brush both sides of the bread with remaining 2 T. olive oil and grill (or broil, if you’d prefer) over high heat until nicely browned, about 3-5 minutes. Cool slightly and tear the bread into bite-sized chunks.
4) Spoon asparagus & bean mixture into large bowl, add torn bread, and toss to combine. Shave cheese over salad, sprinkle with parsley, and toss again before serving warm.
When I discovered beets in my CSA basket this week I figured I had two choices: toss them directly onto the compost heap or bake them into a cake.
I don’t like cake and I don’t like beets, so I’m not sure what made me think I would like a cake made out of beets. Possibly it was the assurance that “even confirmed beet-bashers will love this cake” in the introduction to the recipe or the fact that my foodie friend Katie mentioned that she’d tried it and liked it, but I suspect it was the chocolate. Of all the ingredients on this earth, chocolate seems the most likely candidate for transforming beets from a mouthful of musty dirt into something that people might actually want to eat.
My to-do list is kicking my ass. And not in the normal boy, am I busy way, either; it’s kicking my ass in more of a it’s 10:00 — do you mind if we just have pickles for dinner? way. My point here is that it’s been a busy week — the sort of week in which last week’s clean laundry languishes unfolded at the foot of the bed and dust bunnies gather in corners to plot their eventual takeover of the living room and minor concerns like eating and sleeping slip to the bottom of the priority list. After a week like that, a girl really deserves a cocktail. Or seven. Preferably in a warm, sandy spot near a large body of water, but the important thing is the cocktail.
On an unusually warm afternoon in the summer of 1980, my sister and I wandered into a little thicket of shade created by enormous ruffly leaves curving out from bright red stalks just tall enough for little girls to play beneath. Elated at such a discovery, we raced home to collect our buckets and shovels and then, for reasons intelligible only to little girls, spent the rest of the afternoon happily digging in the cool dirt amid those leafy stalks. I’m not sure if this memory has stuck with me for nearly thirty years because that patch of shade was such a lovely place in which to play or because of the boatload of trouble we got into when our favorite digging spot turned out to be the rhubarb patch of a neighbor lady whose Navy husband significantly outranked our father.