Vanilla Preserved Strawberries

I hesitated to post this, given that I've done something similar in the past with strawberry jam. I won't lie and say that these preserved strawberries are leaps and bounds different, but they're different enough that I think they're worth a try. Plus, they're less labor-intensive than jam.

The canning bug bit me last summer and I was practically writhing in anticipation of summer's fresh produce so I could get a move on already. There's nothing prettier than a stack of homemade jams and pickles in crystal-clear jars, and the ability to give away to friends what was just ripening in your backyard the day before brings a feeling of community, of old-timey nurturing.

Or, some might say, perhaps I just glorify food too much.

Obviously these preserved strawberries can be used in many ways that strawberry preserves can; they just come out of the jar in whole, plump pieces that break and smoosh under the slightest pressure from a knife.
And, as I learned today, they add a little something to a ham and blue cheese wrap - something summery and just sweet enough that other condiments simply cannot achieve.

Note - I used powdered pectin on a whim, but looking back I would have left it out. If you want to use it for a jammier texture, add about a tablespoon.

You will need:

2 pounds strawberries, hulled but left intact
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbs lemon juice
2 vanilla beans, split and cut in half

If you are canning the strawberries, prepare your canning materials. This recipe yielded two pints.
Place the strawberries and sugar in a heavy, large pot and turn heat to medium. As the strawberries simmer they will release their own juices - once this happens, pour in the lemon juice and add the vanilla bean.
Allow the strawberries to come to a boil, and the second they do, remove them from the heat. If you're not preserving for later, let them cool slightly, then store in a glass container and refrigerate.

If you are preserving, ladle the strawberries and juice into canning jars, being sure to include one half of a vanilla bean in each jar. Leave 1 inch headspace and process for 15 minutes in a water bath canner.

Ricotta Bruschetta (with Homemade Ricotta)

It's going to be really, really hard for me to buy a tub of Ricotta cheese at Publix ever again.

Admittedly, I am a snob about buying stuff in the store that I can otherwise make at home. Cheese, in its difficulty and artistry, is not something I deemed practical or probable for this home cook. But this cheese....oh, this cheese. It's so creamy and light that it doesn't even taste like cheese, but by comparison, it's clear that the plasticky glob that comes from a tub was certainly not the way Ricotta was meant to be enjoyed.

Comprised of 3 ingredients and salt, it's versatile enough that we ate it  in the following ways: off a spoon, piled on untoasted bread with homemade blackberry jam (more on that later), and as pictured, slathered on warm bread, drizzled with garlic olive oil and topped with home grown cherry tomatoes and basil.

For the ricotta, you will need:

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 - 1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (not bottled)

In a medium sized heavy pot, heat milk and cream over medium-high heat until it reaches 190 degrees. Ideally you would hitch a candy or deep dry thermometer onto the side of the pot, but I dropped the probe of a meat thermometer into the pot and it worked just as well. As soon as the milk reaches 190 degrees, take off of the stove and add lemon juice. Stir it gently a couple of times, then leave the pot alone for 5 minutes.

Set a fine mesh strainer lined with a few layers of cheesecloth over a large bowl, and pour the mixture into the strainer. Let the curds drain for two hours, then either eat it immediately or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until you're ready to serve it.

To make the bruschetta, you will need:

6-8 slices of bread from a loaf of Italian or French bread
2 cloves of garlic, thickly sliced
Small handful fresh basil sprigs, 1 teaspoon reserved and chopped
12-16 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Pinch salt and pepper

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a microwave safe bowl for 30 seconds in the microwave. Immediately add the garlic, chopped basil, salt and pepper and put back in the microwave for 10 seconds. Let steep for 5-10 minutes, then brush each side of the bread with the garlic oil. Place bread slices under a broiler set on low, watching very closely until the bread turns golden brown, then flip and brown the other side. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes. Top each slice of bread with a smear of Ricotta, 3 cherry tomato halves and a sprig of basil. Drizzle with remaining garlic oil if desired.

Ricotta recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

Black and Blue Berry Cobbler

When I was 16 with my first taste of freedom in the form of a driver's license and a car, and heavily influenced by the Food Network (which was just gaining ground), one summer night I told my mom I was taking over dinner. I remember it vividly: we were having my and my brother's mutual friend Jeff over for dinner, and I would make chicken cordon bleu, salad and raspberry pie. After an awkward exchange with an ex-boyfriend at the deli counter, I ventured to the frozen aisles for my raspberries - the thought of buying fresh raspberries, in July, in Texas, never entered my mind. Figures. I'm also 99% sure I used a frozen pie crust.

My chicken, while tasty, was laden with toothpicks and dinner became an adventure as everyone compared the amount of toothpicks by which their chicken was fastened together.

The pie, however, was probably doomed to begin with. Had I known the joy of seasonal produce, and had I been working with a recipe (I didn't need one because I was a genius, after all) my pie wouldn't have required the exorbitant amount of sugar I doused it with. Of course I was convinced that it would be glorious and perfect, but I watched in disappointment first as the raspberry juices puddled all over my plate, and again as confused puckering, mirroring my own, spread across everyone's mouths. "I can't decide if it's too sweet or too tart," I wondered aloud.

"It's both," my dad and Jeff answered in unison.

I think I waited until college before I attempted another pie.

Fortunately, cobblers are much more forgiving. A biscuit topping instead of two crusts prevents any sogginess of the bottom crust, and what better way is there to showcase plump summer berries?
For the biscuit topping, you will need:

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
9 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup boiling water

For the filling, you will need:

2 tablespoons corn starch
1/4 cup cold water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2-3 cups fresh blueberries
2-3 cups fresh blackberries
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

To make the topping, whisk together the dry ingredients. With your fingers or a pastry knife, cut in the butter and work through the dough until the flour resembles coarse crubms. Add the boiling water and stir until a sticky dough forms.

Combine all of the filling ingredients, making sure to coat all the berries well (the mixture will appear to be a bit watery). Pour the filling into a 10" deep dish pie plate or cast iron skillet and drop spoonfuls of the dough to cover the top (do not spread the dough over the berries).

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until topping is crisp and golden brown, and berries are thick and bubbly. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Adapted from Cooking for Seven.

Wine-Soaked Grilled Portobella Mushrooms

I have been off on a whirlwind culinary adventure in New York City, the first of at least a hundred trips to New York in which I was in total control of where I went, what I ate and how late I came home. "Home" in this case was my uncle's house, which used to be my grandparents house, which is also the house my dad grew up in. It's been in the family for 40-odd years and while I'm always grateful to consider it my "New York House," the limitations I'm generally under are...stifling.

When I was in college and living in Rhode Island, I'd spend my Thanksgiving breaks with my grandparents. Though I was itching to get out into the city (it was the heyday of Sex and the City, after all), my worrisome Italian-Catholic grandmother would wring her hands and cross herself just in anticipation of all the horrible things that could happen to me on the subway trains. As I got older and my leash was loosened inch by inch, I would venture to the city only after being dropped off at the 7 station, and with my cell phone at my ear every 20 minutes. Of course I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, so I'd often wind up in a semi-untouristy restaurant in Times Square, irritated knowing there was so much more to see. Ultimately I'd decide it wasn't worth it, and would head back to Queens, but not before a phone call to warn my grandfather that I'd need to be picked up at the station in approximately 35 minutes.

I miss my grandparents. They're still all over that house and the scent of my grandfather overwhelms me with nostalgia every time I step through the front door. But I have to say that I don't miss being any younger than I am now, without license to go where I please and be considered an adult. And look, I made it back to Tennessee in one piece. My grandmother, somewhere, is sighing with relief and probably thanking Jesus personally for my safe return.

Underneath this recipe for grilled portobella mushrooms, which are tied to this post inexplicably save for the fact that it was the first meal I prepared after being waited on for 4 days straight at various NYC eateries, is the full list of everywhere and with everything I stuffed my face while there. Do check them all out next time you're in the big city...if you're allowed to leave the house, that is.

You will need:

2 large portobella mushroom caps
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup dry vermouth or sherry
1/4 cup olive oil
Splash white vinegar
3 garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped
Small handful fresh parsley, chopped
Small handful fresh basil, chopped
Small handful fresh chives, chopped
Salt and pepper

Wipe the mushroom caps clean with a damp paper towel. Remove the stem and discard. To remove the gills, scrape them out with a spoon.

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Let mushroom caps sit in the wine bath for up to an hour. Add salt and pepper before grilling over a low flame, cooking until softened.

NYC Eats:

119 7th Avenue, Manhattan
Classic macaroni and cheese, cheeseburger, fries, Mojito, side of pretention.

Lucy's Whey
Chelsea Market, Manhattan
Grilled cheese sandwich, sea salt and beer-pretzel caramels.

Eleni's Cookies
Chelsea Market, Manhattan
Chocolate cupcake with pink buttercream.

Magnolia Bakery
401 Bleecker Street, Manhattan
Magic bar.

Pop Bar
5 Carmine Street,  Manhattan
We came here once a day - I had a mixed berry sorbetto popsicle, a vanilla gelato popsicle dipped in hazelnuts and dark chocolate, and a coffee gelato popsicle dipped in hazelnuts and milk chocolate.

Dean and Deluca
1150 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Everything bagel with cream cheese, strawberry-rhubarb juice.

Corona Pizza
5123 108th Street, Corona, Queens
Slice of Rustica pizza and garlic knots.

80 Spring Street, Manhattan
The most perfect Mojito I've ever had, steak tartare, moules frites, strawberry-rhubarb crisp (best meal of the trip).

Southern Hospitality 
1460 2nd Ave, Manhattan
Fried pickle chips, champagne-St. Germain cocktail (classy, no?).

Brooklyn Brewery
79 N 11th Street, Williamsburg
Wheat beer.

Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
160 Berry Street, Williamsburg
New Orleans coffee, s'more.

220 Waverly Place, Manhattan
Harissa falafel sandwich, fries with saffron aioli, brown sugar lemonade.

MoMA Cafe 2
11 W 53rd Street, Manhattan
Hearts of romaine salad, foccacia, too much of Angela's fontina polenta (sorry girl).