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Lasagna Illuminated

lasagna with raviolis

Lots of things can go wrong in the kitchen. Anyone who has spent any time cooking has burnt a finger, added too much salt to the sauce, or maybe even dropped an entire pan of food on the floor. Accidents are common and unavoidable and even those competitive souls on Top Chef can completely blow it every once in a while (which really helps ratings). Yet errors can also be illuminating. A few years ago when I added too much salt to a tomato pasta sauce I threw in some leftover mashed potatoes to help soak up the salt. Normally I would never (ever) add mashed potatoes to a pasta sauce, but was desperate. So I was surprised to find that those potatoes gave the dish a uniquely creamy and lustrous texture. It was an enlightening moment.

I was confronted with a similar situation last Saturday. My friend Christina decided it would be fun to have a ravioli-making party with the Italian ladies in her life. What a great idea. So on Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., Christina, her friend Laura and I congregated in Christina’s kitchen to make homemade pasta dough. After comparing methods, we set to work using Laura’s grandmother’s tried and true pasta recipe (use one egg per person plus a half egg shell of water for each two people and then add semolina and flour “l’occhio” (by eye) — brilliant!). Laura had also brought over her Kitchen Aid pasta-making attachment, which had Christina and me oohing and aahing as those strips of pasta beautifully rolled through the press, perfect every time.

Once all the dough was made and laid out on the counter, one of us looked at the clock to discover it was noon. Laura had to take her two-year old home for a nap, Christina had to take her son to a friend’s house, and I had to dash off to my daughters’ soccer game nearby. After a few kisses on the cheeks and promises to be back by four, we all rushed out the door — our morning’s labor deserted.

dried pasta

Dried pasta

After a few hours, we met up again to fill those raviolis, but were horrified to find none of us had actually covered the pasta — which was still sitting on the counter, most of it dry as crackers and not fit to shape around a filling to make raviolis. After staring in horror at the pasta, we laughed at our mistake. I mean, honestly, what else could we do? Thankfully Christina’s husband Marhsall is handy with a shaker and he made us some Manhattans to ease the pain while we put our heads together to find a solution.

Although some of the dough was still pliable enough to make raviolis, most wouldn’t make the cut. We quickly used the most supple pasta pieces to make a butternut squash ravioli, but it seemed obvious we would need to abandon our meat ravioli plans as we quickly ran out of dough that could be shaped. The most logical and natural answer was to just make lasagna out of the dry pieces.

Now the three of us are all from Neapolitan or Sicilian families, so are used to preparing lasagna with fresh ricotta cheese and mozzarella (two ingredients we did not have on hand). The situation, however, demanded that we abandon those traditions. So instead of creating the usual cheesy lasagna, we decided to make the most of the perfectly seasoned and slow-roasted short rib ragù Christina had cooked and then pureed the night before as a ravioli filling, along with the light marinara sauce Laura had made earlier that day. We also chose to make a béchamel sauce to round out the flavors and finally added some aged Parmesan cheese. That’s it.

layering the lasagna

Layering the lasagna

So there we were, making béchamel, lining the dish with sauce and dried pasta, grating cheese, and drinking Manhattans. The lasagna went into the oven and we all sighed, wishing those ingredients had become raviolis instead. When the lasagna came out of the oven a while later, we set the table for the feast and then sat down with the other diners, laughing again about our pasta dough disaster.

But once we started cutting into the lasagna we knew something wonderful had happened in the kitchen that day. We had thought the butternut squash raviolis in a brown butter sauce with fresh sage would be the highlight of the meal, and although they were lovely, they were no match for the cobbled together and impromptu lasagna. Those once-dried noodles, ragù, marinara sauce and béchamel had melded themselves perfectly together. The raviolis were ignored as each person first smelled and then tasted the lasagna. Very few words were spoken — mostly “Wow!” and “Oh!” interspersed with the noise of forks touching plates. Finally one of the husbands said “Boy I’m glad you guys messed up the ravioli dough.” And so was I.

Never in my life had I experienced such perfect lasagna. The once-forgotten dough that had languished on the counter all day was transformed into a thing of beauty when combined with the meat filling and sauces. And that ragù! If we had used ricotta and mozzarella with it, the cheeses would have blanketed our taste buds with their creamy flavors and textures. Without them, the ragù was the diva of the dish — capturing our attention and mesmerizing us.

So remember that although some kitchen disasters lead to burned fingers, others lead to superlative lasagna.

lasagna in a pan

Lasagna

Superlative Lasagna

Makes: One 9×13 pan

Ingredients:
Homemade pasta dough rolled out into sheets
Christina’s Short Rib Ragù (recipe below)
Béchamel sauce (recipe below)
Marinara sauce (here is Mario Batali’s Marinara recipe if you don’t have a favorite of your own)
Parmesan cheese (enough to thinly coat each layer of the lasagna, about 1 cup)

Preparation:
1. Make and short ribs and marinara sauce ahead of time and then refrigerate. You can do this the morning you’ll make the lasagna or the day before.

2. Make the pasta dough. You can make it a couple of hours ahead of time, but should cover it with waxed paper or dish towels to avoid curling.

3. When ready to assemble the lasagna, make the béchamel sauce.

4. In a large 9 x 13 pan, assemble your lasagna by lightly layering the bottom of the pan with marinara sauce, followed by a layer each of pasta, ragù, béchamel sauce and grated Parmesan cheese.

5. Continue layering until you are out of ingredients, being sure to leave enough marinara sauce to coat the top of the lasagna. Sprinkle on a final coating of Parmesan cheese.

6. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until cooked through.

7. Serve.

Béchamel Sauce

Makes: 1 1/2 cups

Ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup all purpose flour (or enough to create a thick roux with the flour)
3 cups whole milk
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

Preparation:
1. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter on medium low heat.

2. Once the butter is melted, slowly whisk in the flour until the sauce has a smooth consistency.

3. Slowly add in the milk, whisking to avoid lumps.

4. Simmer sauce for a few minutes and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste (I only use a sprinkling of nutmeg, but you can add more of you like a heartier nutmeg flavor).

ragu

Christina’s Short Rib Ragù

Adapted from: Faux Babbo Ravioli recipe; Originally published with THE CHEAT; So You Still Can’t Get a Reservation at Babbo? By Sam Sifton, May 8, 2005

Makes: Enough ragù for one lasagna

Ingredients:

2 lbs short ribs
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 celery stalks chopped
2 carrots chopped
2 1/2 cup red wine
1 cup tomatoes diced drained
2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or oregano

Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Heat a large ovenproof skillet (such as a cast-iron pan) on medium-high heat.

3. Add the oil and then mix in the chopped onion, celery and carrots and sauté for five minutes.

4. Remove the vegetables and turn the heat up to medium-high heat. Brown the short ribs (being sure not to crowd the pan.

5. Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with the wine; add in the tomatoes and herbs as well as salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add in the meat and vegetables and then bring mixture to a boil.

7. Set the pan in the oven and bake for 2 hours or until the short ribs are falling apart.

8. Let mixture cool and then refrigerate overnight or at least two hours. Puree or chop until mixture is fairly smooth.

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Vietnamese-Style Pacific Halibut

vietnamese-style halibut

Let’s face it. Leaving one’s comfort zone is intimidating at best and often downright scary. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing — traveling to a new place, trying a different career, or cooking food from a different culture — entering into the realm of the unknown can sometimes seem like more trouble than it’s worth.

This is why I avoided cooking any type of Asian food for years. My childhood training in my mother’s Italian kitchen made dishes like prosciutto pie, homemade ricotta cheese, and handmade pasta seem easy compared to delving into the unknowns of curries and fish sauce. I preferred sticking with olive oil instead of trying peanut oil. It didn’t help that I never even tried real Chinese food until I was in college. When I was a kid, Chinese food equaled Chow Mein Night, where the chow mein came out of a can and was served with Uncle Ben’s minute rice — mom kept the arborio for risotto and rice balls. I loved Chow Mein Night mostly because we were allowed to eat our dinner on trays in the living room while watching TV, but was always left feeling slightly queasy at the mass of baby shrimp and stringy vegetables on my plate. (My friend Shirley, on the other hand, grew up in an alternate Korean universe, where they would occasionally have Italian night. This meant her mother would cover the kitchen table with a red-checked tablecloth and serve spaghetti with jarred marinara sauce on top. We were destined to be friends.)

Yet once I was introduced to Asian cuisines, they topped my list of favorite foods. I distinctly remember eagerly trying hot and sour soup for the first time. I was in a little strip mall restaurant in Goleta, a town just outside Santa Barbara where I went to school. I was fascinated with the lovely shapes of the tree ear mushrooms and couldn’t get enough of the mixture of vinegar and black pepper. And then there was the Kung Pao, General Tso and so much else, the flavors waking up taste buds I never knew I had. It was all very tame stuff as far as Chinese food goes, but the experience was enchanting and completely eye opening to me. I didn’t explore Thai, Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese foods until after college when I lived in L.A. Again I started with docile dishes, but soon graduated to sucking shrimp heads that had been cooked in spicy sauces. Yum.

But as much as I came to love eating all types of dumplings, savory noodles, and curries, I never really tried my hand at cooking anything more basic than stir-fry until after I had my kids nine years ago. By this time I realized that making dumplings was a lot like making raviolis, and simmering Asian sauces was no more difficult than the multitude of Italian dishes I had made over and over. So I was excited to receive a copy of Food Made Fast Asian when I was working on some Williams-Sonoma books. Inside were easy instructions for making everything from dry-fried string beans with pork to Thai green curry shrimp and lemongrass pork. After trying a few dishes out on my family, I began to feel more confident using fish sauce, hoisin, coconut milk, and peanut oil. I then branched out and tried Asian recipes from other sources, and finally started to experiment on my own. It took a while, but I finally gained enough confidence to vary ingredients and spices to suit my family’s tastes instead of blindly trusting unknown and untried recipes each time.

Following is a dish I created one day when I had fresh Pacific Halibut and a hankering for something made with fish sauce and lime juice. I wanted some crunch so coated my marinated fish in corn starch and then fried until crispy. To add extra flavor, I combined soy sauce, fish sauce and lime with a dash of sugar and then simmered the already-cooked fish in it. If your family can handle some heat, I recommend adding some chile paste to the mix. The dish is simple and uncomplicated to make and an easy way to work in some fish sauce if you’ve never tried it before. I call the dish “Vietnamese-style” simply because fish sauce and lime are often used in that country’s recipes. But let’s be serious, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I am in no way an expert on Vietnamese cooking — or any Asian cuisine for that matter. But we all have to start somewhere. I am unabashedly in love with Asian foods and eager to make them at home, much as my friend Shirley, who was raised on kimchi, now makes some fantastic pasta dishes.

How about you? Still stuck in your cooking comfort zone or have you stretched your repertoire and tried dishes that were once foreign? I’d love to hear some stories.

simmering your fish

Vietnamese-style Crispy Halibut

Serves: 4 people

Although Pacific Halibut works great in this recipe, feel free to substitute another type of fish fillet. Almost anything should work, including shrimp or scallops.

Marinade
Ingredients:

1/4 onion
2 Tbsp ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp water

Crispy Fish
Ingredients:

2 lbs Pacific halibut cut into fillets
1/2 cup corn starch
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)

Finishing Sauce
Ingredients:
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp water
1/2 tsp sugar
chile paste to taste (optional)

Preparation:
1. Puree the onion, ginger and garlic cloves for the marinade and then mix in the soy sauce, fish sauce and water.

2. Cover halibut with the marinade and refrigerate for at least one hour. When ready to cook, scrape the marinade from the fish.

3. Heat a large pan until it’s hot and then add 2 Tbsp vegetable oil plus 1 tsp sesame oil.

4. Gently coat each halibut fillet with corn starch and then lay in the hot oil. Fry for 2-4 minutes on each side (depending on the thickness of your fillets) and then turn. Cook the other side.

5. In a separate pan, heat the finishing sauce ingredients until everything is combined and the sugar has disolved. Turn off heat.

6. When all fillets have been cooked through, lay the fish in the pan with the finishing sauce mixture, turning the burner onto medium heat. Gently sauté the fish in the sauce for about 30 seconds on each side and then serve.

7. Serve with steamed or fried rice.

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Don’t forget your local farms, Mr. Bittman

As evidenced by my ode to Mark Bittman last year, I’m a fan. But I was disappointed with his article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, titled “Faster Slow Food.” Although I agree with the general premise of his piece, I was sorry to see that he didn’t promote the idea of using local farms and CSAs as shopping resources. Here’s the letter I sent to the Times today on the subject:

Normally I see eye to eye with Mr. Bittman’s philosophies on cooking and shopping for food, but in last week’s “Faster Slow Food” article, I found myself shaking my head. I agree that Mr. Bittman’s hopes for easier shopping through the use of “computers, including hand-helds and smartphones” so “we can make our preferences better known to the people who bring us the food we buy and eat” is something we should strive for, but hoping to find these solutions through large online grocery stores is not the answer. Why should MyWebGrocer.com be promoted in the article and local farmers and CSAs ignored? Many local farmers are striving to update their own distribution and ordering systems to create real local and organic solutions for customers who live nearby (often in cities). At this point, we all know that shopping locally guarantees that shoppers get the freshest foods available, which are usually organic and have the fewest food miles to boot.  What people may not know is that these farms often strive to personalize their services: one of the  local CSAs I use in the  Bay Area offers shoppers the option to state preferences in their account, so if you really hate broccoli, it will never be delivered.

As an advocate of local food, Mr.  Bittman should have mentioned that the convenience of shopping online doesn’t mean you have to abandon shopping at your local farm.

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Hot Dogs 101

hot dog on a bun

“On Independence Day, Americans will enjoy 150 million hot dogs, enough to stretch from D.C. to L.A. over five times.”
National Hot Dog and Sausage Council

My first reaction to this quote was “is there really a national hot dog and sausage council?”; while my second reaction was mild nausea mixed with a hankering for my own dog slathered in mustard and relish.

The all-beef American hot dog should not be confused with its namesake the frankfurter, which is a German regional sausage made from pork. Nor should you think it tastes much like an Austrian wiener, which is a pork and beef delicacy. Sure, frankfurters, wieners and hot dogs are all sausages, but there’s very little that is European about a hot dog. Mass produced, precooked, and stuck in a bun it’s as American as a food can get. Dirty Harry even eats one right before famously saying his “Do you feel lucky” line. So here’s Clint, eating his dog, for you to enjoy.


Unlike Harry, my family and I don’t eat a lot of hot dogs. Nothing against them; we just tend to eat more sausage when we want some sort of meat product in a tube, probably due to my Italian upbringing. I’m also not a big fan of processed foods. But there are certain occasions when a hot dog is the perfect meal, especially if you have a couple of hungry kids with you. Baseball games and the 4th of July top that list.

hot dogs in wrapper

So in celebration of National Hot Dog Month, and also to better educate myself about American hot dogs, I have created an unscientific comparison of the major brands. Included in the list are organic, nitrate-free, and standard hot dogs that you can find locally. I am not recommending one frank over another as I did not try every brand, and, honestly, I’ve only tasted a few. Rather, I wanted to share the nutritional information and ingredients lists provided by the manufacturers so people can make their own educated decisions.

The following list is also limited to beef hot dogs as these are the traditional choice at block parties, backyard barbecues, and baseball games. Plus including chicken, turkey and tofu dogs would make the list ridiculously long. Please note that my inventory is in no way complete. I am not attempting to compare all the brands; just the ones I see most often. If I have missed something obvious, or something you really like, feel free to add the information in the comments section. Finally, I should say that I don’t distinguish between kosher and non-kosher brands.

When comparing the hot dogs on the list, you should note that each brand’s hot dogs vary in size. So while the Nathan’s Famous beef franks look at first to have the most sodium, they are also twice the size of many of the other hot dogs, so be sure to look at the size column when comparing products.

Here are the lists. I have grouped the brands by type for easier viewing and listed the size, calories, calories from fat, saturated fat grams and sodium levels, along with ingredients lists. I was very interested by what I found. I hope you will be too.

Organic and Grass Fed Hot Dogs
These hot dogs are all made from organic, and often grass-fed, beef. No nitrates are used for organic hot dogs.

organic and grass fed hot dogs
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Nitrate-Free but not Organic Hot Dogs
Non-organic beef but no nitrates are used.

nitrate free hot dogs
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Standard Hot Dogs
The hot dogs are all beef and the meat has been preserved with nitrates and other preservatives.

standard hot dogs
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Grilled Lobster Tacos with Mango and Avocado Salsa

avocado mango salsa

Growing up in San Diego really fed my love for Baja Mexican food. In addition to the extraordinary taco shops up and down Highway 1 –- Juanitas, Robertos, Albertos –- Mexican food was an integral part of daily life in the area. Many people had mothers and grandmothers who made superb homemade tamales (especially at Christmas), others had fathers or brothers who would fish (yes, they were pretty much always the men in the family) and then bring home their catch for homemade fish tacos. In my family, the fish was caught by my brother-in-law Joe. I always loved when he would come home and toss the freshly caught rock cod or halibut on the grill while we all rounded up some tortillas and salsa.

Even better than the fish catch, however, was the lobster he would bring home from his diving stints during the short lobster season. Sitting out on the back patio with a plateful of just-caught and grilled to perfection lobster, drinking a cold cerveza and hanging out with my family is my idea of heaven. So last week, once the sun had broken through the June gloom, school was out, and summer was all around us, I just couldn’t pass up the lobster tails I saw on sale for $7.99 each. Sure, they weren’t caught that morning by Joe, but I figured they would make great tacos nonetheless. Plus west coast lobster is considered a “best choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list, so I knew we could eat it guilt free.

lobsters on the grill

As I had three ripe mangos sitting on my counter with three ripe avocados by their sides, I decided to veer from the normal salsa fresca we usually serve with our tacos. The mango and avocado salsa I whipped up went nicely with the lobster. Tossed with lime juice and diced jalapeno peppers, the salsa was sweet and slightly tangy with the perfect amount of heat. I decided to then top everything off with a blended sauce made from sour cream and avocado, which melded all the flavors together perfectly.

Sitting on our back patio, I knew summer had really arrived. The only thing missing was my family in San Diego. Guess I’ll have to make this again when we visit them in August.

Note: This dish could easily be made with shrimp. And, of course, grilled fish is not only an acceptable alternative, but a fantastic one.

Grilled Lobster Tacos

Makes: 6 – 8 tacos

Ingredients:
2 medium-sized lobster tails
3 limes
2 Tbsp olive oil
6 – 8 corn tortillas

Preparation:
1. Drizzle juice from two limes plus the olive oil over lobster tails, coating them evenly. Let marinate for 15-20 minutes.
2. Heat grill.
3. On maximum heat, lay lobsters with the heavier part of the shell on the bottom and grill for 5-7 minutes or until the meat becomes pinkish and opaque.
4. Remove lobsters from the grill and set on a plate to cook for a couple of minutes.
5. Cut through a line down the thinner side of the shell and gently pull the meat from the shell. Set meat on a separate plate. Do the same for the other lobster.
6. Cut meat into ½-inch chunks and squeeze the last lime the lobster chunks. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Heat corn tortillas on the grill (about 30 seconds on each side).
8. Lay about ¼-cup lobster meat on each tortilla. Top with Mango Avocado Salsa and Avocado Crema. Serve.

cutting a mango

Mango Avocado Salsa

Makes: 3 cups salsa

Ingredients:
3 small or 2 medium mangos
2 medium or 3 small avocados
½ to 1 whole jalapeno (depending on how hot you’d like the salsa). Remove stems, membranes and seeds.
2 limes
Salt to taste

Preparation:
1. Remove meat from mangos and avocados and cut into ¼-inch chunks. Place in a bowl.
2. Dice jalapenos into small pieces and add to the fruit.
3. Squeeze lime juice on top.
4. Add salt to taste.
5. Serve on top of tacos or with corn chips.

Avocado Crema

Makes: 1 cup

Ingredients:
1/2 an avocado
1/2 cup sour cream
salt to taste

Preparation:
1. Place avocado and sour cream in a small chopper or blender and mix until thoroughly combined and smooth.
2. Add salt to taste
3. Add as a topping to lobster or fish tacos.

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Meyer Lemon Tart with Berries

meyer lemon tart with berries

One of my favorite spring and summer desserts is a lemon tart with berries and whipped cream. This is one of those pastries where everything melds into the perfect balance of flavors and textures — the lemon’s tartness nicely contrasts the sweetness of the berries and the luscious cream ties it all together. If you have Meyer lemons, so much the better as they are sweeter and have a more complex citrus flavor then the standard variety.

Lemon tart with berries is also the ideal dessert for anyone wishing to make a dish from local and seasonal ingredients. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are popping up in markets and backyards throughout the area. Meyer lemons are also in abundance right now. You can find them at most farmers’ markets, and maybe even closer by in a neighbor’s yard (or your own) as they grow beautifully in the Bay Area. If you don’t have your own tree, but have seen one at someone else’s house, I bet they’d share if you asked nicely and promised to bring over a nice slice of tart.

meyer lemon tart

I’ve tried numerous lemon custard recipes, but my favorite is the Tarte au Citron recipe in the Bouchon cookbook by Thomas Keller. And, as luck would have it, this recipe is freely available at Epicurious.com, so you don’t have to buy the book to get it (although if you’re in the market for a gorgeous book full of amazing recipes, I recommend it). I love Mr. Keller’s lemon sabayon because the consistency lies beautifully in the tart crust, it isn’t too eggy and the lemon flavor really shines through. Also, don’t let the fact that you need to cook the custard in a bowl over a pot of simmering water dissuade you. This is not hard to make.

The Bouchon recipe calls for a pine nut crust, which I have made in the past and liked. That said, I prefer to make a regular butter crust for my tart as I think the lemon and berry flavors are interesting enough on their own and don’t necessarily need a nutty component.

This is a great dessert to prepare ahead of time and then serve chilled. Topped with some berries that have macerated in a bit of sugar and lemon juice, along with a dollop of freshly-made whipped cream, you have the perfect seasonal dessert.

sabayon

Frameline33

Lemon Sabayon

from Bouchon by Thomas Keller

Makes: Enough for one tart

Ingredients:

2 large eggs, cold

2 large egg yolks, cold

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces

For preparation instructions, go to Lemon Tart recipe at Epicurious.com

Sweet Berries with Lemon and Sugar

Makes: Enough berries to garnish each tart slice

Ingredients:

2 cups berries, washed and stemmed

¼ cup sugar

1 Tbsp lemon juice (preferably Meyer lemon)

Preparation:

1. Wash and hull berries. If using strawberries, cut into slices.

2. Place berries in a bowl and mix in sugar and lemon. Stir and set aside for at least ten minutes.

3. Refrigerate until ready to use.

tart crust

Flaky Pie or Tart Dough

Adapted from a recipe by Kim Laidlaw

Makes: Enough for one 10-inch tart

Ingredients:

1 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

6 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1/4 cup ice water + 1 tablespoon

Preparation:

1. To make the crust, in the bowl of a food processor, stir together the flour, and salt. Sprinkle the butter over the top and process for a few seconds, or just until the butter is slightly broken up into the flour but still in visible pieces. Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture evenly, then process until the mixture just starts to come together.

2. Dump the mixture out of the bowl onto 2 large sheets of plastic wrap. Press the dough together into a mound and then wrap with plastic and press into a flat disk. Refrigerate the dough until chilled, about 30 minutes or up to 1 day, or freeze for up to 1 month.

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Fresh Spring Pea Soup

english peas

I think that I shall never see
A vegetable as perfect as a pea

It’s not often that I resort to poetry. Well, I guess my feeble attempts are more rhyme, but whatever the case, I stand by my plagiaristic attempts at verse. English peas really are the perfect vegetable. You can eat them in pasta dishes, soups, casseroles, or in rice. They’re great raw or cooked. Pureed is nice as well. And then there are always dried peas for split pea soup. They are also highly nutritious. And oh, did I mention they’re delicious as well?

English peas shouldn’t be confused with snow peas or sugar snap peas. Unlike those varieties, you cannot eat the pod of the English pea. Only the actual pea is edible. Most people purchase their shelled peas in plastic bags from the freezer section of the grocery store. When not being used as malleable ice packs for bum knees and bumps on the head, freezer section bags offer a pretty decent cache of peas. Manufacturers shell the vegetables at the height of the season and then immediately freeze them, so you can usually be assured that those frozen green dots will be sweet. As for canned peas, I won’t even raise the topic except to say they are mushy and should be avoided at all costs unless you need something green in your earthquake supply bin.

But why use frozen peas now, when they’re available fresh and ready to be shelled? There’s a reason the term “sweet pea” is so pervasive. Peas just picked have a bright sweet flavor that is just not available in the freezer section. When newly picked, peas have a lush verdant flavor that just screams SPRING.

Don’t be put off by the idea of shelling your peas. First of all, most farmers’ markets offer a stand with already-shelled peas for lazy customers (including me). But if you can only find peas in the pod, rest assured that it takes less than five minutes to shell a batch. And, if you have kids, they will most likely think that shelling peas is fun, so you can pawn off the job while also getting them excited to eat the peas later (and they may even steal a few morsels while they labor away).

There are a lot of great recipes for peas, but one of my favorites is Fresh Spring Pea Soup. Cooked with caramelized onions, plus a hint of basil and mint, the peas sweet earthy flavors really burst through; plus the soup’s vivid green color is quite pretty.

So start shelling and take advantage of one of spring’s most memorable treats.

fresh pea soup in a bowl

Fresh Spring Pea Soup

Makes: 2 large or 4 small servings

Ingredients:
3 cups shelled English peas
1 cup sliced cipollini or spring onions
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
¼ cup crème fraiche or sour cream
1 Tbsp chopped basil
1 Tbsp chopped mint
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:
1. Heat a soup pot on a medium flame.

2. When pan is hot, add olive oil and onions. Lower heat and cook for about five minutes or until the onions start to soften and become golden in color.

3. Stir in your shelled peas and add a dash of salt. Cook uncovered for about five minutes, stirring every so often.

4. Add the broth and cook until everything is heated through. Taste the peas to see if they’re done. Like pasta, they should be al dente: not mushy but cooked through.

5. Add the basil and mint and then puree everything using either a hand or stand blender. If using a stand blender, be sure to allow an air hole at the top or else the steam my cause the soup to shoot through the top.

6. Return the soup to the pot, adding the crème fraiche or sour cream along with some salt and pepper to taste.

7. Serve immediately with croutons or good bread.

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