Cute and Delicious

I seem to be missing that gene that people have that prevents them from eating animals that were cute when they were alive. In fact, the fluffier and cuter the animal was when it was alive, the more fun I will probably have breading and frying it. Anyway, I have no reservations about eating rabbit, hence a recent farmers market dinner I’d like to share with you, Braised Rabbit Ragout over Cheesy Fresh Corn Polenta with Sauteed Rainbow Chard.

The previous weekend, I had been to the Alexandria, VA farmers market (at 7:30 a.m. in the rain no less, with my friend Christopher) and I had picked up some beautiful white corn and golden beets which I still had on hand. The following Thursday I was at the Penn Quarter market and looking for a few more things to round out a dinner menu for myself and a couple of buddies who were coming over.

Getting meat at the farmers market can be tricky, because even though the quality is fantastic, the meat is often frozen – and on this particular day I needed something fresh for my guests. I was able to find fresh rabbit from Maryland (“Just killed yesterday!” the man boasted), for 9 bucks a pound. Not exactly cheap, but I’ve never cooked a whole rabbit before, and I thought it would be nice braised into a ragout over some polenta studded with fresh corn and cheese. Surely this was more of an autumn-style menu but I was excited about cooking a whole rabbit, and the menu was suddenly taking shape in my mind.

For the first course, I roasted up a few golden beets to make a Golden Beet Napoleon with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon-Tarragon Vinagrette. I love fresh beets, especially the golden ones, because they make the whole kitchen smell wonderful – roasty and nutty – and when you peel them, they don’t discolor your hands like the red ones. I tossed them in some olive oil and roasted them at 350 for about 45 minutes, then cooled them slightly and peeled them under cold running water. While still slightly warm, I sliced them into rings and tossed them with a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette

Lemon-Tarragon Vinagrette

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp honey

salt and pepper

a few leaves of fresh tarragon from the balcony garden

Whisk all ingredients together with a few Tablespoons of olive oil

Toss the excess vinaigrette with some salad greens. Mix a few Tablespoons of fresh ricotta with whatever fresh herbs you have on hand. (I got my ricotta at the farmers market. You can also use goat cheese, which pairs beautifully with beets.) Create a bed of dressed salad greens. Build your napoleon on top of the greens, with layers of beet and herbed ricotta. Garnish with toasted walnut halves. My napoleons looked kind of crazy, probably because I went a little overboard with the cheese. No one complained.

So here’s the basic idea for the ragout. I sauteed 4 slices of chopped bacon and then removed it from the pot. Over medium-high heat, I seared the whole rabbit (seasoned generously with salt and pepper) on all sides in the bacon fat until it was golden brown, then removed it from the pot. I turned down the heat a bit and sauteed 8 oz of cremini mushrooms with a couple of sliced candy onions, also from the farmers market, then set those aside with the bacon. I added a little olive oil to the pot and sauteed a half a chopped Vidalia onion and about 5 cloves of garlic and some chile flakes, then added a tablespoon of flour and let it cook for a minute or so. I deglazed the pan with about 2 cups of wine then added 2 cups of crushed tomato and about a cup of milk. (Before you ask, I’m accustomed to using milk in braises and ragouts, as it helps to break down the meat). After bringing this to a simmer I added the rabbit back in to braise for about an hour and a half. I added in chicken broth as needed to keep the rabbit mostly submerged. I also added: a bay leaf, some dried basil, salt and pepper, and a pinch of sugar.

When the meat was falling off the bone I removed the rabbit from the pot so it could cool down enough to handle. At this time I adjusted the seasoning, added a handful of fresh herbs from the balcony garden (tarragon, oregano, parsley, thyme), and added back in the bacon, mushrooms, and candy onions while allowing the sauce to reduce. I shredded the meat off the bone and added it back into the sauce. The ragout was deep and rich in flavor, and the meat was tender and delicious, which just the slightest hint of lean gaminess that is characteristic of rabbit meat. For me, this is really the main trait that distinguishes rabbit from chicken. In fact, my feeling is that just about any recipe that calls for chicken can easily be made with rabbit.

The rabbit was served over polenta with Parmesan cheese and the niblets from one ear of white corn mixed in. Also on the side was some rainbow chard sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile flakes. Voila!


Farewell, Morels…

What we’re exploring: DC’s Penn Quarter Farmers Market

What We Found: Morel Mushrooms

Cost: Extravagant

Why use them: Incredible taste, Short season

As late spring turns to early summer, we must say goodbye to another one of our dear friends, the morel mushroom. Earthy, precious, and kind of cute – alas, he is only around for so long. The morel is also terribly expensive, so when I do decide to shell out the cash for some, I also take to heart that age-old kitchen advice – “Don’t screw it up!”

Again, these are the days when it’s best to keep it simple and let the true flavors of the ingredient shine through. In fact, morels are so precious, I’d advise you to treat them like a top secret operation. That small paper bag handed over by the farmers market guy even suggests something covert. Just give him and a quick nod and rush home – hide that bag in the fridge until you have a moment alone. I’d advise just a simple saute in butter – this is no time for margarine – finished with some sea salt and black pepper, best eaten alone in the kitchen. Enjoy them one at a time, standing up by the window, savoring the deep, dark flavors of the morel. Let yourself be transformed from the heart of the city to the deep woods in an instant. Mission accomplished. Until next spring…

Myself, I took it a step further and made a simple brunch dish for my buddy Matt and me, with asparagus and another fun farmers market staple, the quail egg.

Morel Mushrooms with Asparagus and Quail Eggs

Serves 2

10 – 12 Morel mushrooms, halved if large and cleaned

8 – 10 thin asparagus spears

1 Tablespoon butter

4 quail eggs

1 Tablespoon minced shallot

2 teaspoons minced chive

Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Bring 2 pans of salted water to a boil – a small one to poach the quail eggs and a larger one for the asparagus. Trim the asparagus and blanche for 2 minutes, then rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Cut asparagus into 2-inch lengths. Dump the water from the pan and carefully dry it so you can use it to saute.

2. Melt the butter in the pan and add the morels and shallot. Saute for about 4 to 5 minutes, until they are just about cooked. Add in the chives asparagus, just to heat through, another minute or two. Divide the morel-asparagus mixture among two plates.

3. Now, poach your quail eggs in the other pan. They just take about a minute each – Carefully crack the quail eggs into the boiling water and and let them boil for a minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and dab the bottoms on a kitchen towel. Top the morel-asparagus mixture with two quail eggs each. (One would suffice, but why not two? They’re ridiculously small.) Finish with salt and pepper.

Ingredients like morels, ramps, the mysterious fiddlehead fern and garlic scape (both of which I have yet to figure out) are all the more precious because of their elusiveness. They’re here and then they’re gone. Joyfully, we can count on them like old friends to return next year for their all-too-brief visits.

I’ll be waiting.

The Gayest Salad in the History of the World

What we’re exploring: Dupont Circle Farmers Market

What we Found: Edible flowers

Cost: Minimal

Why use them: They’re tasty and they look fancy!

Uses: In salads; as a tasty garnish for meat or fish dishes; as a dramatic topping for soups

What do they taste like: Nasturtium flowers – peppery (like arugula); Chive blossoms – oniony (think chives times five)

Wow. To say I’ve outdone myself would be an understatement. I have single-handledly and accidentally created The Gayest Salad in the History of the World. I went to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market again this week, with the innocent idea of grabbing some salad greens, and just look what happened. Here’s how it all came together:

  • Mesclun Mix (including radicchio)
  • Arugula
  • Nasturtium Flowers
  • Chive Blossoms
  • Blueberries
  • Hazelnuts
  • Goat Cheese

The resulting salad has some peppery flavors from the arugula, radicchio and nasturtium, as well as some sweet-tartness from the blueberries and the vinaigrette. The hazelnuts give an earthy crunch and the chive flowers lend a nice oniony hit. The mild creaminess of the goat cheese is a nice foil for the base salad’s sharpness. The dressing is a blueberry-balsamic vinaigrette, using some blueberry-balsamic vinegar I picked up on my last trip to Maine. (The recipe follows; regular balsamic will work just fine.) Just look at the colors – purple from the radicchio, blueberries and chive flowers, orange and yellow from the nasturtiums. As you can see from the photo, the resulting salad, while both tasty and pretty, is without a doubt The Gayest Salad in the History of the World. It needs its own theme music. In fact, I fail to see how you can even eat it without wearing a tiara.

I posted the photo on my Facebook page and here were some of the comments:

Cielo P. show me the flower power…hehehe

Ivan F. Gayer than a clutch purse

John M. Serious LOL

Brant B. It looks delicious, though!

Matt D. Delicious salad Matthew! And it’s so gay, straight men will take 2 bites and switch teams… which is why I am making you prepare it for me as my secret conversion weapon.

Few great things in life are created alone. My friend Matt D. was with me when I made the salad (for our lunch), and he helped to choose hazelnuts as the crunchy element. (The other option was Marcona almonds – hazelnuts were a good choice, Matt!) Also deserving some credit here is Becky, the super-charming Lettuce Lady from the farmers market, who threw in an extra handful of nasturtium flowers with the mesclun mix at my request, even though the boss lady said no. What can I say? I guess I’m charming, too.

Blueberry-Balsamic Vinaigrette

2 teaspoons minced chives

2 teaspoons minced shallot

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 Cup blueberry-balsamic vinegar (or regular balsamic vinegar)

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon blueberries

Whisk together all ingredients except olive oil and blueberries. Slowly whisk in olive oil to emulsify. Stir in blueberries. Allow dressing to sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to blend. Mix again before serving. And remember, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice (see photo – Yes, Micah is actually wearing a t-shirt that says this.)

Later in the day I brought some of this salad to Micah’s birthday barbecue at Seth and Ben’s place. I couldn’t help but notice, even though a few people ate a bit of the salad (what my Mom would call a “no-thank-you helping”), most of the guests simply gawked at it. The one straight male guest actually looked a little terrified when I unveiled it. His girlfriend confessed she was not a fan of goat cheese but politely enjoyed some of the blueberries (Thank you, Terri).

When it came time to leave, Seth asked if I wanted to take my platter, which still had at least half of the salad on it. Thinking back, it sounded rather like a plea. Noting that I would be back next week for another party, I said I would just get the platter then.

Seth agreed, and mentioned that next week I shouldn’t trouble myself to bring anything.

“Just bring yourself,” he said.

I’m not quite sure how to take this.

Keeping It Simple

What we’re exploring: DC Penn Quarter Farmers Market

What we found: Escarole

Cost: Minimal (just a couple bucks)

Why use it: Delicious, simple to prepare, healthy

I just love this time of year. The farmers markets are offering up an abundance of fresh ingredients, and inspiring us with new ideas. The nice weather is making us want to eat light and keep it simple. More and more these days, I’m wanting to make recipes with just a few ingredients that simply highlight the fresh flavors that the season has to offer. It can be a challenge to walk out of the farmers market with just one or two items, but I have to think of my schedule, and realistically plan for what I’ll actually eat. So this week at the Thursday Penn Quarter market, it was a giant head of escarole, and I knew right away that it was destined for the soup pot alongside a can of white navy beans (few things in life pair together so nicely). Now if you’re familiar with my love of pork, you may be thinking sausage or pancetta were in my future, but you would be wrong. I did a nice vegetarian version of white bean and escarole soup – for me, the pure essence of early summer in a bowl. Just a handful of ingredients, made from memory – comforting, light, and simple.

White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 head of escarole, chopped and washed

Olive oil

1/2 small onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)

3 – 4 Cups vegetable broth

1 (15 oz) can small white beans, drained and rinsed (Navy or canellini)

Salt and pepper

Parmesan cheese or prepared pesto, for serving

Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and saute an additional 1 – 2 minutes. Add the escarole and saute until it is wilted. Add the white beans and broth and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cover partially. Simmer over medium-low heat until the escarole is tender, 20 – 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with some shaved parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. Or, for a heartier lunch, top with some fresh pesto and serve with some crusty bread.

It’s as simple as that.