Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My herb garden and some culinary doings

I'm very pleased to announce the arrival of my herb garden, such as it is. Nothing in the ground, everything planted in a few smallish containers, thus far. I've gotten a book called The Bountiful Container, and with its help hope to plan for an expansion next Spring, with some bigger containers, some seed purchasing and a more thoughtful approach to placement and soil preparation. In the meantime, I've started using little bits and corners of my herbs. I've got a pot with basil, lemon basil and sage. Another pot with parsley, chives, and struggling dill and cilantro. Another pot with sorrell and rocket, my spicy salad greens. And two pots on my indoor kitchen windowsill, one of rosemary (creeping) and one of tarragon, which seems to be taking its time getting started.
I've only dared to use these herbs once or twice, preferring to let them get settled before I make any heavy demands on them, but I have added sorrell and rocket to a couple of salads and I made a 'pasta with handfuls of fresh herbs' from the gourmet cookbook the other night and I used a little tiny bit from several of my budding plants (basil, lemon basil, chives, parsley and sorrell). For future reference: use only one or two herbs - I think the flavors will be clearer and stronger, and skip the toasted breadcrumbs - they just make the dish too heavy and mask the delicacy of the herbs. In fact, though they are found commonly in many Italian pasta recipes, I don't believe that I am a big fan of the use of breadcrumbs in general, finding them at best unecessary and at worst gritty and unappetizing. Please let me know if you find them an important asset in some dish or another and I'll file the advice away. I've enjoyed them on baked macaroni and cheese before, but even there I'm not sure they've really added much. A browned and bubbly cheesy top seems more than adequate.
I've been trying to do more 'instinctive' improvising in the kitchen lately, largely from reading the Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook and a new book about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. I've always done most of my cooking out of cookbooks, except for meals of convenience or dishes I've made many, many times - basic red sauce, pesto, regular salads and vinagrettes, fried egg sandwiches, pasta with garlic and oil, trout amandine, etc. And I enjoy using cookbooks, but I'd like to see what my more creative juices are capable of, out of curiousity and to give myself more flexibility when exploring the contents of my larder or running across good-looking produce at the market, and also out of inspiration from the great creative cooks out there.
Last night I went for it. I was at the market and decided I wanted some seafood, that had some decent looking Florida shrimp in the shell that was priced well, so I got half a pound and decided to do something spicy. I got some jalapenos and a poblano pepper. When I got home I broiled the peppers until they were black and made a salsa of them with some roasted garlic, and marinated the shrimp in lime juice and salt before cooking them on my black iron. Then I made a salad of quartered radishes with shallots, sorrell, lime juice and cayenne pepper. My starch came in the form of a few homemade corn tortillas. If I was writing the menu for Chez Panisse it would look something like this:
Radish Salad with Lime, Sorrell and Cayenne
Griddle-Seared Gulf Coast Shrimp with Relish of Roasted Poblanos, Jalapenos and Garlic
Homemade Corn Tortillas
Store-Bought Chocolate-Chip Cookies
What do you think? As it turned out, the shrimp was very flavorful and I was surprised to find that my poblano and jalapeno relish didn't really stand up to it very well - a traditional salsa with cilantro and tomato would have been better, and serve the poblanos on the side. I enjoyed the radish salad a lot, and I always love fresh tortillas. I'm getting better at them, and can really make a few of them happen pretty quickly without much fuss.
Adios, amoebas! (have I used that before? It's from an old Gary Larson cartoon that still cracks me up).


Meghan said...

I have a question about those tortillas. Have you ever tried to make them with flour? I have (no corn meal in Asia), and it always seems to take me hours. Everything just sticks to the rolling pin, and then it all tastes pasty. What do you think?

Brian C. Kenney said...

I think making flour tortillas is a totally different procedure. Corn is easy, as long as you have masa harina and a tortilla press. You make a soft dough and then flatten ping-pong sized balls of it in the tortilla press, protected between two plastic sheets (I use the sides of a ziploc bag). Peel it off and toast it on both sides. I'll look into my cookbooks and see if I can give you tips or a method for flour tortillas.