Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fava beans

It must be fava bean season because all the merchants were selling some at the farmers' market last Saturday. I had never cooked fava beans in my life before. And I'm not sure if I had ever eaten fresh ones either. Two good reasons to buy some! Trying to evaluate how many handfuls of pods would be necessary to feed two persons, I filled up a bag with almost 2 pounds of these long, slightly twisted, dark green vegetables, guessing that the weigh of beans would be much smaller than that of the pods.

Pierre just turned 29 and he got a cute little Belgian cookbook called "Le Produit" (by Filip Verheyden and Tony Le Duc) from my parents. It's the second volume of a trilogy, printed in a classy black fabric hardcover with "gold" edges. The first book is called "La Base" (the basics). The one Pierre got is an index of products (veggies, fruits, meats, fish, spices, herbs) with a beautiful picture and a very simple recipe involving this ingredient alone (along with the necessary spices). We took advice for our fava beans.

  1. First we removed the beans from the pods.
  2. We blanched the beans in salted water for 1 minute.
  3. We rinsed the beans in cold water to stop the cooking process.
  4. We removed the thick, light green envelope around the beans. The bean itself has a nice and flashy, darker green color (as you can see on the above picture). As the book explained it, some beans split and some others didn't.
  5. We sautéed the beans in butter for a few minutes. That's all the book recommended. As we had prepared lamb leg steaks (just salted and peppered and sautéed in butter), we simply added the beans to the pot. The lamb steaks could have used a little more seasoning but the fava beans didn't need anything else: they were delicious, not too soft and extremely flavorful.
I've seen a mouth watering recipe of fava bean, green bean and asparagus salad in my Jamie Oliver book. And I'm sure they would go well in a Mediterranean-inspired recipe too, with tomatoes, spices, herbs, roasted meat... There's room for many experiments.

A few statistics on fava beans:
  • There are about 5 beans per pod.
  • We paid $1 per pound of pods last week at the Sunnyvale farmer's market.
  • Weight of the pods: about 800 grams (almost 2 pounds)
  • Whole beans (with skin): about 300 grams
  • Ready to eat (once skin was removed): about 200 grams
  • Which means we ate 25% of the initial weight.
  • Nutrition facts

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Carrots, beets and tomatoes

Spring calls for refreshing salads. And sometimes a mosaic of various tastes and colors is better than tossing everything together! “Assiettes de crudités” (literally “raw vegetable plates”) can be served as an appetizer or even as a lunch on their own. The palette is almost infinite, from vibrant reds to bracing greens: sliced tomatoes of course, but also shredded carrots and red cabbage, cauliflower bouquets, sliced cucumber, lettuce, mâche… Green onions, olives and fresh herbs (chives, parsley…) can be used as condiments along with the inevitable vinaigrette dressing (or simply olive oil and lemon juice). Some cooked (but cold) veggies can also find their place among crudités although they don’t really belong here: diced beets, shredded celery root, sweet corn, macédoine salad (a mix of boiled green peas, green beans, diced carrots and turnip coated with mayonnaise)… Even non-veggie ingredients make their way to the dish: hard-boiled eggs, anchovies. The important thing is to dress a good-looking dish that emphasizes the variety of shapes, colors and flavors. And with so many options, you can have a brand new appetizer each time!

On my plate the other day were simply tomatoes, spiced carrots and beets. I cooked the carrots and beets the day before since they needed some time to cool down.

The carrots (skinned and thinly sliced) simmered in water (3 cups water for about 2 pounds carrots) with olive oil (3 tbsp), crushed cumin seeds (1 tsp), Cayenne pepper (a pinch), garlic (1 clove, crushed) and salt (a pinch) until all the water evaporated (a good 30 minutes on medium heat). The empty pan was then deglazed with red wine vinegar (2 tbsp) and this juice was poured over the carrots.

The beet root was boiled (whole, with skin) in a pressure cooker (in salted water, for 30 minutes after the whistle started blowing), then sliced (1/2” thick) then cut into 1/2”x1/2” squares.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Pain d'épices

Pain d'épices (literally "spice bread") is the French version of gingerbread. It's not as crispy as the little men American kids bite into. The texture is closer to a dense country bread than a cookie. The ingredients are very similar, though: spices, honey...
According to Wikipedia, some breads were already prepared with honey in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. But the Pain d'épices recipe used nowadays in France was borrowed from China in the Middle Age.
Pains d'épices come in all shapes and forms and there are many variants to the recipe: use of different spices, different types of honey, nuts (usually walnuts or almonds), citrus peels (orange), glazing... Regions and cities like Alsace, Reims, Dijon, have renown specialties but pain d'épices is also widely baked at home.

The bread on these pictures was inspired by a recipe in Bahadourian's excellent cookbook "Epices et Aromates". Mr. Bahadourian is the owner of a famous spice shop (épicerie fine) in Lyon, where many of the Lyon region top chefs get their spices and herbs. The book has a first section on spices themselves: where they are from and how to use them. There are several very interesting chapters (for spices, herbs, and blends like curry). The second part of the book is a selection of classic, well seasoned recipes from all over the world (from Indian samosas to Provence bouillabaisse, Hungarian goulash, Sicilian preserved pears and many more). There's even a bonus section with more elaborated recipes by Lyon chefs. It's a relatively small book but I love it. It's full of really useful tips.

The recipe in the book was for a bread loaf but I made my pain d'épices flat instead, to mimic Swiss Laeckerli's shape (my sister Emilie studies in Lausanne and made me discover these sooooo delicious almond cookies). Here's what I used:
  • 1 pound (or 500g) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 pound (or 500g) orange blossom honey from California
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 clove
  • zest (peel) of 1 organic orange (I harvested an orange in my backyard one minute before using it: can it get any fresher?)

The recipe is very simple. It's best to bake the bread a day or two in advance and store it in an air-tight container. Here's what I did:

  1. Sift the flour in a large bowl and mix with the baking soda.
  2. In a pot, heat the honey, milk and salt until they are almost boiling.
  3. Pour the hot honey on the flour and incoporate. You could use a bread machine here... I don't have one so I had a nice workout, using a wooden spoon!
  4. Grind the spices. Chop the orange peel thinly. Incorporate them to the dough.
  5. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spread the dough on it. The parchment paper will save you a lot of time and energy... Pain d'épices is pretty sticky.
  6. Let the dough cool down for at least one hour before baking.
  7. Bake at 300F (150C) for about 40 minutes, until the top gets a nice golden color.
  8. Once the bread is cool, cut in rectangles of about 1.5"x2".