Lemon balm makes friends

Okay, there’s one thing that I feel needs to be understood right off the bat about lemon balm. In case my previous post’s “it’s like you’re eating in an aisle at Bath & Body Works” description wasn’t evocative enough, or if you have never set foot inside this beauty outlet where the air is heavy with the competing aromas of a hundred “scent collections,” I will say it more plainly. Lemon balm has a definite aftertaste (which I think is actually composed of scent rather than taste) of perfume or bath product, or “dish soap” as my friend labeled it tonight. I really enjoy this strange note, in part because it really lets me know I’m eating something novel, but your mileage, as they are fond of saying here on the interweb, may vary.

Leek-Potato Soup with Lemon Balm

So keeping this all in mind, here are some results of my lemon balm experimentation. I tried the vinaigrette I wrote about in my last post, a simple affair composed of olive oil and rice wine vinegar and lemon balm. It was yucky – too vinegary, too peppery, no lemon balm flavor at all. Dressings are like my kryptonite right now – I get all insecure and clueless around them, where usually I am quite an improvisational, roll-with-the-punches cook. So I called in Duck as a guest dressing doctor, and we added some lemon olive oil, some sesame oil, a dash of maple syrup, a dash of balsamic, and a shallot. And then it was quite decent, but not worthy of topping my lovely tender asparagus as I had hoped. Good enough for salad, though.

Instead, I threw a handful of lemon balm leaves in with my asparagus as I steamed it. I really liked the flavor it imparted. But it got mixed reviews from my dining companions, again because of the B&BW factor, which can go either way for people, I guess.

My final experimental result was much more successful – in part, perhaps, because I’m the only one who ate it. I made the Cream of Leek Soup with Lemon Balm that I mentioned in my last post. It’s kind of a strange recipe, not very detailed (says the queen of excruciatingly detailed and annotated recipes!), so of course I’ve given my annotated and tweaked version below. But in general, I thought it was a very tasty combination of flavors and a terrific easy lunch.

(Incidentally, I’m so excited to have finally written a post that I feel is worthy of submission to Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week at Coffee and Vanilla. Weekend Herb Blogging is a weekly event where food bloggers write about herbs and share their stories and recipes and factoids. Cool!)

Read on for my heavily annotated soup recipe… Continue reading

Umami, yummy

Pizza with lemon ricotta, grilled portabellas, grilled asparagus, toasted walnuts, blue cheese, and arugula

I don’t remember when i first learned about umami, the “fifth flavor element,” but I know I was pretty young and already a burgeoning food snob. Let the yokels in my class naively recite the four tastes – sour, salty, bitter, and sweet – and eat their repulsively bright Sour Patch Kid candies. I was busy nibbling on aged parmesan and bonito, thank you very much. And I have to admit that not much has changed. I am now a full-fledged umami addict, although I like to think I’m no longer a snob. (And non-snobbish me wants to make sure no one feels left out, so I’ll explain what on earth I’m talking about: umami is a Japanese word for a particularly wonderful taste that doesn’t fall into any of those four traditional categories, but is a savory, rich experience that is as much about the mysterious “mouthfeel” as it is about flavor. Umami is what gives MSG its magic and is also found in aged cheeses, fishes, and meats, mushrooms, Marmite, and dashi, which is broth made with seaweed and bonito (fish) flakes.)

Scientists are theorizing now that, the same way we are attracted to sweet flavors in order to ensure we eat enough carbohydrates, we are attracted to umami in order to ensure we get enough of the right kind of proteins. Umami is apparently one of the things that make meat so satisfying to eat, so as a vegetarian it seems like a particularly good element to attend to.

Last week I hadn’t renewed my CSA box in time, which meant I actually had to go to the grocery store. It was overwhelming but fun, and also meant I got to bring home some varieties of non-box produce I haven’t had in a long time, like mushrooms. I still tried to buy local and seasonal, though, and I spent a painfully long time in the cheese aisle trying to apply my humane/local/vegetarian-rennet matrix to actual cheese buying. (I’ll write more on my dairy adventures in another post, I think.)

The best thing about the day after a trip to the grocery store is always the sexy pair Vicolo cornmeal pizza crusts waiting to be filled with whatever I can imagine. And as I fantasized about fillings, it became clear that I was dreaming up a very umami pizza.

I zested a lemon (a gorgeous lemon from a friend’s aunt’s tree) and mixed the zest into fresh Bellwether Farms ricotta. I spread a light layer of this over the cornmeal crust, then topped it with grilled balsamic portobello mushrooms, grilled lemon-oil asparagus, and little chunks of Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese, and, once it was out of the oven, finished it off with toasted walnuts and fresh arugula. I also made a less dairy-heavy one with roasted garlic, lemon olive oil, and lemon zest in place of the ricotta.

Oh yum, yum, yum. Umami heaven, served hot in a pie!

Spinach for breakfast, the sequel

I’m totally enjoying the feature on wordpress that lets me see what google search phrases have led people here, to my box. I get a lot of visitors on “aphid” related searches, and surprisingly few on “community supported agriculture” related ones. (Although I get a lot of CSA-specific visitors clicking over from the Eatwell list of member blogs and from the post on Chowhound about choosing a CSA.)

Frittata with spinach and Humboldt Fog cheese with salad

Super Easy Pan-Cooked Spinach Fritatta with Humboldt Fog cheese, green garlic, spring onion, and thyme (medium-pan sized, cut in half) with a salad of lettuce, red cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, and sugar snap peas

One surprising search phrase that shows up almost every day, sometimes in multiple versions, is some variation of “spinach for breakfast.” Which is, of course, the title of a post I made back in February extolling the pleasures of spinach as a breakfast food. My first thought of course is, “Wow, there sure are a lot of people who want to know about eating spinach for breakfast. Huh.” My next thought every time I see that someone’s search for breakfast-spinach information led them here is a bit of guilt. Because my first Spinach for Breakfast post is more about my personal, heartwarming journey to spinach acceptance than it is a helpful guide on how to use spinach in one’s morning meal. Which I assume is what all these googlers are googling for.

So I decided to revisit the topic of spinach for breakfast. It gives me an excuse to share a recipe I’ve been wanting to share. The other morning I was cooking breakfast (it involved spinach, of course) and thinking about how much this one recipe, which isn’t even a recipe but more of a technique, completely changed my breakfast life. I used to think I was “not a breakfast person” and “not an egg cooker” because fried eggs bored me, scrambled eggs eluded me, and frittatas were special occasion food involving all kinds of fancy cooking and flipping using plates or pans with heat-proof handles so you could finish them in the oven.

Frittata with thyme and Carmody cheese, tempeh bacon, pomelo fruit salad

Super Easy Pan-Cooked Frittata with Carmody cheese and thyme (small-pan sized, whole), tempeh bacon, and fruit salad with pomelo, kiwi, apple, and mint

This technique is usually how spinach ends up in my breakfast, but it’s also a great, simple way to incorporate most any kind of leftover into a hot, pleasing morning meal. It’s so obvious that I feel a little silly even writing it down, but I so distinctly remember the change in breakfast, from before I practiced this to after, that it seems worth taking the time to share it.

Recipe below… Continue reading

On the Pulse and a Cheese Dilemma: Lentil Salad with Feta, Mint and Orange

Lentil Salad with Mint, Feta, and Oranges

So this lovely little bunch of mint arrived in my box, two boxes ago. And then sat in my fridge for over a week because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. Well, I did know what I wanted to do with it, but it was impossible. I wanted to make a yummy lentil salad with feta and mint, only the lentils and the feta are so heavy that they need a light, moist addition like tomato or cucumber. But it is not the season for tomatoes and cucumbers, and I get so much produce in my box that I’m really trying not to buy extra, save for onions, garlic, and lemons. So I pondered, and the mint sat in my crisper (which apparently has remarkable powers of crisping, lucky for indecisive me). Finally I decided to improvise and see what happened, and walked over to my local cheese shop for some feta.

“Do you carry local feta?,” I asked my neighborhood cheesemonger, hoping he might even carry feta from one of the local cheese companies I’ve been researching that seem to treat their animals humanely.

“Why would I do that?,” he almost sneered back to me. Seriously. I am not exaggerating for dramatic effect here. “The best feta is made from sheep’s milk, or a mixture of sheep and goat.”

I nodded back at him. I’m not cheese-illiterate, I know this. Impatiently he continued. “No sheep around here.”

“What about goat’s milk feta?,” I asked, politely, though perhaps through slightly gritted teeth.

“There is no feta from around here that is of the quality we would carry in this shop,” was basically the patronizing response. (I’m paraphrasing a little because by now I had that kind of shame-induced adrenaline rush that makes it hard to remember things later.) A lengthy discourse on French cheese, how I should not be worried because all French farmers treat their animals well, and an underlying total disregard for any reason why I want might to favor local products followed.

The whole time he was talking I was saying to myself, “I can’t wait to get out of here!” but somehow, towards the end of my lesson, I found myself buying a small piece of French feta. It was either that or forgo the feta and head back to square one with the mint, or get in the car and drive to another store, and I was exhausted.

This was my first foray into a local/sustainable/humane commitment in my cheese buying. Cheese is, at this point in my life, a real staple food for me, both as an anchor in my cooking and as a source of comfort and satiety. But I’m also basically at the point where I don’t feel right buying cheese anymore unless I am putting some serious consideration into the conditions it comes from.

It was helpful to get a taste of what I may be up against – it kind of blows my mind that there’s anyone left in San Francisco who is both into food and at the same time doesn’t give a crap about sourcing locally. My cheesemonger’s rant about how he refuses to eat anything that doesn’t taste good (with the implication that any kinds of limits, like trying to eat local or humane food, will interfere with his RIGHT to tasty food) reminded me so much of Anthony Bourdain’s vitriolic attack on vegetarians in his book, Kitchen Confidential. When I first read Kitchen Confidential I felt the same kind of shame and confusion I felt in the cheese shop today, like it was somehow contradictory and even absurd for me to love food, to adore it so passionately, while at the same time having principles that might put any kind of limits on my eating.

Happily for me, the folks over at Hezbollah Tofu, my new favoritest project in the world EVER (check out their site if you’ve never seen it) have come up with a funny, “foodie,” not-bitter-but-grounded response to Bourdain (or “Tony” as they call him), which in turn inspires me to try to stay a little more grounded in interactions like the one I had today.

ANYWAYS, in case you’re really just here for the lentils, I come at last to the very happy conclusion to my confusing day. I reviewed what I had in my box to find an acceptable tomato substitute and decided to try oranges. Which turn out to be delicious in a lentil-mint-feta salad. The recipe is below.

And this post got to participate in a fun food-blog event, Waiter, There’s Something in My… Pulses, a round-up of recipes featuring pulses (legumes) hosted over at Cook Sister!

Recipe follows… Continue reading