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!

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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.


Isn’t That FUN?!

What we’re exploring: Our own imagination, New recipes

What we discovered: Pistachios, (and our own irritating habits)

Cost: Pistachios are moderate to expensive (but not bad in a vinaigrette, or in recipes that only call for a handful. They disappear quickly, however, if you are a snack-hound like me.)

Why use them: They’re nutritious, very tasty, and most importantly – fun!

So I have everyone doing this thing. Let me see if I can explain it. It started out with me making fun of these cheerful people who will, like, look at an object (let’s say a red sofa, or a festive pot of flowers) and put their hands on their hips and say, “Isn’t that FUN?!”

So I started putting MY hands on my hips when I see something festive and saying, “Isn’t that FUN?!” in order to make fun of these shiny, happy types. But then, slowly, over the due course of time, I actually BECAME one of these people that do this thing. Then my roommate Scotty started doing it, probably to make fun of me. Then my friend Brant started doing it. Then Eric. You see where this is going. And now it has become this extremely irritating phenomenon that we have now just annoy each other with. It’s actually kind of tragic, really.

Which leads me to my next point. Pistachios are FUN. There’s no denying it. Pistachios are not only delicious, they’re packed with healthy fats, protein, fiber and minerals. And just as importantly, they’re FUN – like little presents. They make you want to put your hands on your hips and say “Awww!”

Having an idea for a recipe, or just a combination of foods and flavors, can be a labor of love. Most of the time it will take several tries to get a recipe just right. So I’m always kind of thrilled when it comes out right the first time. This dish – Seared Scallops with Melted Leeks and Pistachio Vinaigrette – is just such an anomaly. It came out just right and it was simple and delicious – the first time. Now that’s what I call fun.

Seared Scallops with Melted Leeks and Pistachio Vinaigrette

Serves 4

Ingredients

12 sea scallops

2 large leeks, trimmed, thinly sliced and rinsed well

2 cups mâche or baby arugula, rinsed and dried

1 large lemon

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons pistachios, shelled

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon honey

Sea salt and pepper

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Heap in the leeks. They should be crowded. The leeks will cook down as they melt; this will take about 6 – 8 minutes. You want to catch them when they just begin to get mushy, but when they still have a nice texture.

2. While leeks are cooking, prepare the scallops, and make the vinaigrette. Remove muscle from the scallops if present, and season with salt and pepper. For the vinaigrette, chop the pistachios coarsely (I like to leave a few whole). Reserve just a bit of the chopped pistachios for garnish and add the rest to a bowl. Add the honey, mustard, the juice of 1/2 of the lemon (reserve the other half for later), salt and pepper, and whisk together. Drizzle in 2 Tablespoons olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings.

3. When leeks are done, remove them from the pan and set aside. Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Sear the scallops until they are cooked through and just barely firm, about 3 – 4 minutes per side. They should have some nice color. Just before they are done, squeeze the reserved lemon half over them and swirl the pan around to cover the scallops with the lemon and pan juices.

4. For a delightful presentation, I like to spoon the leeks into small mounds and put the scallops on top, then add the greens in the middle of the plate. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the whole dish and sprinkle the reserved pistachios over to garnish.

To be sure, the idea for a pistachio vinaigrette is not mine originally. I’m not sure where I heard of it first, but it sure is tasty. This vinaigrette recipe also works well with hazelnuts. A vinaigrette with a little crunch and a citrus tang is a nice foil for many types of seafood, and you just need a little drizzle to add flavor, and (yes, I’m going to say it again) fun – to your dish and to your table.

Anyway, this is a fun dish to impress your guests with, and it requires minimal skill and prep time. In fact, the leeks and the vinaigrette can be done in advance – just don’t add the nuts to the dressing until just before serving, since they will get soggy. Just reheat the leeks gently before serving. A nice dish for entertaining.

Have fun!