asparagus

PICKLED ASPARAGUS: THE NEW SEASON HAS BEGUN!

The home garden is already showing signs of activity. Overwintered kale and arugula plants are springing back to life, enough for a quick salad. Cool weather seeds that I’ve sown early: peas, turnips, radishes, broccoli raab, and others are sprouting. But nothing says the gardening season is here like my patch of homegrown asparagus taking off!

asparagus2013

Granted, a few shoots breaking through the soil doesn’t qualify as “taking off,” but it’s an exciting time of the year in the home garden.
Asparagus is really easy to grow. You just need the space, and the plants practically do the rest. Space them about a foot apart, and before you know it, you will have a vast network of tasty stalks sprouting through the soil every spring. They are so much better than anything you can buy in a supermarket.
In the start of the growing season, the stalks don’t even make it into the house. I cut them and just eat them straight out of the garden. Eventually, they make the move to the kitchen, where I love to simply place them on a baking sheet and drizzle a little olive oil over them, salt and pepper…and then in a 400-degree oven until they’ve caramelized.

Midway through the season, I have so much asparagus that I just don’t know what to do with them all. My friends don’t want anymore and I can’t bear to throw them into the compost pile. So I pickle them…a really easy process that ensures I’ve got delicious asparagus year-round.

asparagus

Several bunches of asparagus spears
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 cups water
20 peppercorns
Garlic cloves, peeled
Salt (1 teaspoon per quart-sized Mason jar. Use less for smaller jars.)
Bring vinegar, water, sugar and peppercorns to a boil.
Trim the bottom of the asparagus spears so that they are just slightly shorter than the height of the quart-sized Mason jar you will use. Or cut them into pieces that will fit a smaller jar.
Pack the jars as tightly as you can with asparagus spears. (They will shrink when processed.) Add a garlic clove and 1 teaspoon of salt to every quart-sized Mason jar…less for smaller jars.
Fill the jars with the vinegar mixture and seal.
Process the jars for 10 minutes. Let them cool before placing them in refrigerator.
image

THE AGE OLD QUESTION: WHY DOES YOUR PEE SMELL WHEN YOU EAT ASPARAGUS?

Asparagus contains a sulfur compound called mercaptan. It is also found in onions, garlic, rotten eggs, and in the secretions of skunks. The signature smell occurs when this substance is broken down in your digestive system. Not all people have the gene for the enzyme that breaks down mercaptan, so some can eat all the asparagus they want without stinking up the place. One study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that only 46 percent of British people tested produced the odor while 100 percent of French people tested did. (It has to do with your DNA.)

image

45th ANNIVERSARY OF EARTH DAY

I remember when Earth Day was first organized…the enthusiasm we all had to do our part to get our neighborhoods clean. For years, our radio station sponsored Earth Day clean-ups all over southern New England, and we got a firsthand look at just how badly we treat the environment around us, and how we could make a difference.

Today, it seems that Earth Day is simply something on a calendar.

image

For me, Earth Day is the real start of spring. I think about the new growing season and the things I can do in my own backyard to help the planet, even on a very small scale.

 

COMPOST!

If you’ve got a corner in your yard big enough to hold a trash can, you can compost. Now, you’ll never get that “ultimate” compost pile you read about, steam rising out of a pile that’s cooking away, producing usable compost in just a few months. Even the pros really need to work hard to make that happen. But…you can get the pile to warm up and become a happy haven for a colony of worms that will gladly eat your kitchen scraps and make wonderful soil for you in return. And it’ll take about a year to get usable compost.

I have a small metal can with a lid under my kitchen sink and I toss all fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and used coffee grounds into it–no meat products. When the can is full, I bring it out to my compost bins. Successful backyard composting requires a certain amount of “green” products (the kitchen scraps) and some “brown” products (leaves, newspaper, cardboard, saw dust.) Combined, they heat up and eventually break down into nice brown and crumbly organic matter  to be used in the garden. Leaves are the ultimate compost material, but to get them to break down properly, they need to be shredded first. (I use a leaf blower.)

image

 

MULCH!

Spreading mulch on your garden means less weeding (as long as you use weed-free mulch!) Less weeding means no need for nasty weed killers. Mulching also helps the soil retain water, which means you don’t have to be out there with a garden hose every day.

 

KEEP IT ORGANIC!

No how matter how small a garden you have, you can make a real difference by laying off the pesticides and herbicides. Not only will the beneficial insects around “bee” happy, but you’ll be feeding your family healthy fruits and vegetables without harmful chemicals. And there’s no runoff of toxins that wind up in the water, either.

image

 

LESS GRASS, MORE MEADOW

Golf courses are already poisoning the environment with an overload of chemicals. Why should you? I stopped fertilizing and spraying my lawn a long time ago. You know what happened? It’s still green. And in some areas, I replaced the grass with perennial flowers and grasses. You know what happened? I had less lawn to cut. And the toughest thing for me was to let dandelions grow in my yard. There’s something about those yellow flowers that I can’t stand. But they help the bees. Priorities.

 

PICK UP AFTER YOUR DOG!

Dog feces on our streets is the #1 polluter of our waters. Most of the storm water that washes our streets clean ends up in the ocean completely untreated. If you’re a dog owner, one of the most significant things you can do is pick up after your dog and dispose of the poop in your trash. I had a teacher that used the phrase: “Every curb is a coastline.” She’s absolutely right.

image

 

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL ORGANIC FARMER!

Organic farmers are a special breed. They work twice as hard to sometimes get half as much. But it’s worth it to them because they believe in maintaining a natural balance in their world. Organic fruits and veggies are not always as “pretty” as those grown conventionally, but they’re not genetically modified, showered with Round-Up or sprayed with dyes, either.

image

All photos by me. Location: Earth.

BITE THE BULLETPROOF COFFEE

One of the new all-the-rage health drinks is something called Bulletproof Coffee. Bulletproof is a brand name for a coffee that has had “toxins removed” through a special process, according to its creator. (According to my friend, Lee, a PhD in chemistry, that’s a load of crap.)

To make the drink, you combine Bulletproof Upgraded coffee blend, grass-fed butter or ghee (a clarified butter commonly used in Indian cooking,) and their special Bulletproof “Brain Octane Oil.” (The Octane Oil is another product that claims to have beneficial properties far beyond coconut oil. Again…I have my doubts.)

image

They claim this coffee combination gives you a lasting lift, not a spike that many caffeine drinks can, and the good fats in the drink keep your brain and body satisfied all morning long.

Rather than buy all the expensive Bulletproof products, my friends Doug and Jenn here at the radio station decided to make their own version of this drink. Besides tasting incredibly awesome, it definitely feels like it does some good…for a much more reasonable price.

image

It may sound bizarre at first, but you add a tablespoon of grass-fed unsalted butter or ghee (again, unsalted) to a blender. Then you add a tablespoon of coconut oil (replacing the expensive “Brain Octane Oil.”) Brew your favorite coffee (8 to 12 oz.) and add the hot coffee to the blender. Then turn the blender on and let it rip until all the ingredients have been thoroughly blended.

You need to use hot coffee for this so the fats melt and you get a nice mouth-feel. That’s it. Now drink! No cream or sugar needed.

The premise is that your body is starved for healthy fats. This drink supplies some. I’ll be trying this drink for a few weeks to see if it makes any difference in how I feel.

Just remember: just any butter won’t do. It has to be butter from grass-fed cows. (Many Irish brands are grass-fed…just make sure it’s unsalted.) If you can’t find it, ghee is a good substitute.

FullSizeRender (1)

EASIEST BREAKFAST SAUSAGE EVER

Sausage is something most home cooks don’t even try because of the amount of work it needs. You need to grind meat in perfect proportions. You need to keep everything on ice. You need to stuff the sausage meat into casings. It’s a big hassle, requiring some special equipment and a lot of time. And the clean-up is a pain.

Here’s an easy method I can slap together in minutes. I use ground pastured Berkshire pork for this, but any good quality ground pork will do.

FullSizeRender (1)

1 lb. ground pork
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon sage
1/4 teaspoon rosemary
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 egg
avocado oil or pork fat

 

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Place the bowl in the fridge for at least 15 minutes to let the meat rest.

If you’re not sure of the seasonings, break a little piece of the sausage off and fry it in a pan to taste it. If you like what you have, fry away. If not, season the meat before making patties.

Heat a pan over medium-high heat and swirl a little oil or pork fat to coat. Form the sausage meat into 2-inch patties and place them in the pan, cooking them all the way through, about 4 minutes a side, until they’re golden brown on both sides.

My signature marinated beef tenderloin and chive blossom pizza.

MAKING REALLY AMAZING PIZZA AT HOME

There are few foods that people take as personally as pizza. Tell someone that your pizza place is better than their pizza place, and chances are you’ll start a fight. Well, my pizza place is better than your pizza place, because I make it at home. Besides, I can run faster than you.

I’m not going to say that much of the pizza that I’ve tried here in Rhode Island is mediocre, but I was born in Brooklyn and grew up working in many New York pizza places in my youth. So I do have a very strong opinion on what I think makes a good or bad pizza.

My homemade pizza is all about the basics. The better quality my original ingredients are, the better my pizza will be:

 

The dough…

The key ingredient is 00 flour, and it can be found in specialty stores,  or online. My favorite new source is Central Milling in Logan, Utah. They make an organic 00 flour that makes for a great crust. Ratios for this recipe depend on the humidity in my kitchen on any given day, but my basic pizza dough recipe is as follows:

6 cups (16 oz.) 00 flour
1 1/3 cups tepid water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon yeast
a squirt of extra virgin olive oil

I mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer or food processor with a dough blade, then slowly add the water as it mixes. After the ingredients are well mixed, and the dough pulls from the side of the bowl, I remove it to a floured board, where I knead the dough by hand for another 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic, shaping it into a ball. I rub a little olive oil over the ball of dough, place it in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and let it rise for at least 2 hours, punching it down after that, and letting it rise at least another 2 hours again.

The sauce…

I’ve written before about real and fake cans of San Marzano tomatoes. I feel that San Marzanos make the best sauce, but not all cans of San Marzanos are created equal. The only way you can be guaranteed you have a real can of these beauties, grown in volcanic Italian soil in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, is by the D.O.P. designation on the can. (D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione d’Origine Protetta,” and signifies that it’s the real deal.) Anything else that says San Marzano may not be.

San Marzanos are so amazing, that all I do is puree them in a food processor, pour the sauce into a pan, and let it reduce until it has thickened. No spices or additions of any kind.

The cheese…

I don’t need to go super-fancy with mozzarella di bufala (cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo) …but I don’t use the mass-produced supermarket stuff, either. A nice hunk of your favorite fresh mozarella is all you need.

The toppings…

A matter of choice. I wrote a while ago about how I make my own guanciale, a cured meat that comes from pork cheeks. Chopped and fried, that is one of my daughter’s favorite pizza toppings.

But my signature pizza that wows my dinner guests is my marinated beef tenderloin and fried chive blossom pizza. I marinate and grill a piece of beef tenderloin, slicing it thin. And in the springtime, when my chive plants are budding like crazy, I snip the blossoms before they open and place them in freezer bags to use all year long. When it’s time, I grab a handful of the blossoms and fry them in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and sprinkle them over the top of the beef tenderloin pizza. A touch of Fleur de Sel on top seals the deal.

My signature marinated beef tenderloin and chive blossom pizza.

The oven…

Many professional pizza ovens reach a temperature of 1000 degrees. My home oven only reaches 500, but it does the trick. I do use a pizza stone, and place it on the center rack of the oven, and let it heat up thoroughly for about 45 minutes before sliding a pizza onto it for cooking.

Recently, I’ve also started cooking pizzas on my barbecue grill (using a special stone for the grill) to add a smoky component. The grill gets hotter than my home oven, which is great, but it’s obviously a more work to set-up and clean.

 

My favorite pizza?

There are only a few pizzerias that I know of—all in NYC–that make pizza montanara, and for my money, it’s the best I’ve ever had. It’s a small, rustic pizza margherita using mozzarella di bufala and simple tomato sauce, garnished with a basil leaf. What makes it magical is the fact that after they stretch the dough–but before they put the toppings on it–they fry the dough in deep fryer with olive oil for just a minute. It puffs up like a pillow. Then they put the toppings on and quickly bake it in a very hot oven. The end result is a non-greasy, absolutely heavenly pizza cloud…the most delicious I’ve ever had.

I’ve had some great success recreating this pizza at home, frying the dough in a very large skillet of olive oil. The challenge is removing the dough out of the skillet and into a pizza pan without dripping olive oil all over my stove and setting my house on fire! So far, so good!

image

BRISKETTA

There’s a wonderful Italian roasted meat dish called Porchetta (por-ketta). Though there are many ways to prepare it, the classic version consists of a pork belly that is seasoned and then wrapped around a pork loin. The meat is tied, then roasted slowly for hours, basted with wine and the meat juices until the pork is cooked and the outside skin is crackly and crispy. Then it’s sliced like a log and served as a sandwich or a main dish. It’s absolutely fantastic! (If you’re in New York City, go to the small restaurant called  Porchetta on the lower east side and taste this porky awesomeness the way it was meant to be.)

I recently purchased a beautiful hunk of grass-fed beef brisket from Pat’s Pastured, a wonderful farm here in Rhode Island.  I decided to watch the You Tube series “BBQ with Franklin” starring the lord of brisket himself, Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas, to learn how to properly smoke it. What I learned was that the hunk of brisket Franklin was using was a bit smaller but much thicker (5 to 6 inches) and fattier than the really large but thin piece (about 1 1/2 inches) that I had purchased. If I was going to use Franklin’s method of smoking this thing, it would totally dry out.

Then I said to myself: “What if I cook it like Porchetta?” I searched through a dozen Porchetta recipes and used whatever herbs and spices I liked to make my own special seasoning for this slab of meat I now re-named “Brisketta.” For the most part, I used common ingredients in Italian cooking, but I added toasted fennel seeds, an ingredient in Porchetta, as a tip of the hat to that classic dish.

image

I flipped the brisket fat-side-down on my cutting board and carefully sliced it down the middle horizontally to make two large–even thinner–slabs of meat. The bottom half, with the fatty side of the brisket, would eventually be my outside layer. The top half would be my inside layer.

image

I took the top half and slathered some of my seasonings on it. Then I rolled it up into a log as tightly as I could. I slathered more of my seasonings onto the bottom half of the brisket, the rolled it around the first log as tightly as I could, so that the fattiest side of the brisket would now be on the outside of this large meat log. I seasoned the fatty side with any leftover seasonings I had.

Now, rather than having a piece of meat that was only 1 1/2″ thick, I had a meat log that was 6″ thick. Much easier to cook and control. I tied the meat log up tightly with butchers’ twine and let it rest in my fridge overnight.

image

The next day, I removed the meat log from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for an hour, so that it would come back up to room temperature. Meanwhile, I started my digital smoker (an electric one), setting the temperature at 250 degrees. I placed the meat log on a rack in my smoker, and a bowl of water on another rack to help keep it moist during the cooking process. I closed the smoker door, and then cooked it low and slow for about 4 1/2 hours. My smoker has a side chute that lets me drop wood chips inside, and I used slivers of oak to add some smoke. (I decided that a wood like hickory, though one of my favorites to use when smoking, would overpower the subtle seasonings I used.)

I removed the meat log from the pan and put it directly onto the grate before cooking.

I removed the meat log from the pan and put it directly onto the grate before cooking.

 

After 4 1/2 hours, I removed the Brisketta from the smoker and tented it with foil, letting it rest for an hour before slicing it.

image

7 lbs. beef brisket
1 tablespoon fennel seed, toasted and cooled
5–3″ strips of bacon, cooked and cooled
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons parsley
2 teaspoons basil
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons granulated onion
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
Grated zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup olive oil

Pour the fennel seed in a hot, dry pan on the stove. Toast the seeds until they release their aroma, but don’t let them burn. Set aside to cool.

Crumble the bacon strips and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add the cooled fennel seeds, oregano, parsley, basil, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and lemon zest.

Run the food processor and slowly pour in the olive oil, until you have a paste much like pesto.

Slice the brisket in half horizontally. Save the piece with the fatty side for last, because this is the piece that will wrap around the others, with the fatty side out. Smear the rub on the first piece of brisket and roll it tightly into a log. Smear the rub on the second piece of brisket and wrap it around the first piece, making sure the fatty side is on the outside.

Once you’ve rolled both pieces into a single meat log, scored the fatty exterior with a knife and rub any leftover seasoning paste onto it. If you have none left, simply season with salt and pepper.

Tie the meat log tightly with butchers’ twine, tucking in all loose ends.

At this point, you can place the meat log in the fridge until ready to cook, remembering to remove it at least an hour before cooking so that it comes back to room temperature.

Pre-heat an oven or smoker at 250 degrees. Place the meat log directly on the grate, with a pan underneath to catch the dripping fat. Place a bowl of water in there as well, to keep the meat moist while it cooks. Cook for 4 1/2 hours, or until the interior temperature reaches 130 degrees. Let it rest an hour before slicing…if you can wait that long!

image

BAD BOTTLED WATER

With the weather finally getting warmer, see if this scenario is familiar to you: We’re going on a family drive. My wife says to put some bottles of water in the car. We go on the drive and drink some of the water, leaving the remaining bottles in the car where it gets hot. My wife tells me to throw out those water bottles, because they’re “bad.” Repeat with every trip.
She’s right in one sense. The heat probably has compromised the water in the bottles, leaching nasty stuff from the plastic. But that didn’t happen in my car. That happened before we even bought the water!
image
The long trip for a plastic water bottle, from a natural spring (or a tap, where most bottled water comes from) to your hands, is not refrigerated. The bottles are filled and sealed. They’re put on pallets. And they are shipped in a hot truck to a warehouse, where they are stored (un-refrigerated) until they are delivered (via hot truck) to a regional warehouse, where it is stored (un-refrigerated) until it is delivered (via hot truck) to your local store, where it is held on the loading dock in the blazing sun until it can be stored in the back un-refrigerated, then brought out to the storefront where you buy it and put it in your hot car until you get home.
And the trip is even longer for water that comes from overseas: stored in the cargo holds of ships, left sitting out on docks, etc.
The answer for your health as well as the environment is simple: stop buying drinking water in plastic bottles! Sure, you can buy water in BPA-free plastic, but now there’s evidence that BPA substitutes are just as bad for your health as BPA. The better answer is to buy a filter, if you don’t already have one in your sink or fridge, and bring your own water with you in a stainless steel or glass container. My container of choice is a glass bottle with a protective silicone sleeve. It’s called Takeya and you can find it at Amazon.
FullSizeRender
In addition to the heat factor, bottled water is bad for other reasons: you don’t know how old the water is…and you don’t know the treatment process used to disinfect the water. Most municipal water sources, which supply most bottled water manufacturers, use a chlorine treatment of the water to disinfect it. Unfortunately, chlorine disinfection produces what’s called disinfection-by-products or DBPs in the water. Some DBPs have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses.
We’re supposed to be drinking more water because it’s good for us, right? I’m going to start by drink better water.