My grandma has never smoked nor cursed, but she tells a story about when she was a kid, and how she found a mouse in the barn and picked it up by its tail. Scared that it would bite her, she swung it around and around and around until all she had left in her hand was the little tail. She was a farm girl from the middle of Missouri and remembers days before electricity came to the farm. She taught eight grades at one time in the last one-room school house in the state and smacked the student’s hands with a ruler when they wouldn’t settle down.  I think she tells us those stories so we won’t think she’s gone all soft or too fancy.

After the farm days, she moved to Washington, DC, became a secretary at the Treasury and married an older man (my PopPop) who took her on adventures all over the world.  She became the most cosmopolitan farm girl in DC.  She threw the grandest of parties with hand-made lace cocktail napkins, big crystal punch bowls, and plenty of foreign executives.  She still has every issue of Gourmet ever printed in her basement in chronological order. When she and PopPop retired they went on cruises and danced and she wore pearls and drank expensive champagne.

Now, ninety-three years old, she lives in her own home, gets her hair done every week and puts on her best outfit and jewels when someone is coming to visit. She admits to never really liking champagne—whiskey is her drink now and it’s the only booze in the house.  A handle of Jim Beam or Early Times Old Style Kentucky Whiskey sits on the counter in the kitchen and probably lasts her a full year, maybe two.  My sisters and I all know her cocktail recipe by heart: 1 ounce whiskey, 2 big ice cubes, and half a packet of Sweet’N Low, stirred. Not too fancy, but not too hard either, and never served before 6:00 p.m.

I might skip the Sweet’n Low in mine, but if it’ll have me still telling stories at ninety-three, I’ll drink to that.—Julie Sproesser

 


Spring Sorrel Soup

Poached Wild Salmon with a “Sauce” of Peas, Bacon, and Chives

Young Leaves, Fresh Herbs, and Wild Violets with Lemon and Olive Oil

A Very Ripe French Brie and Crunchy Bread

Strong Coffee and Cookies


The other day the creative crew from Williams-Sonoma came for lunch. It was a beautiful sunny spring day with a blue sky full of big puffy clouds. Thank heavens there was still enough of a chill in the air so we could justify building a fire in the wood-burning stove—a fire always seems to cheer and cozy the whole place up. So we had the best of both seasons that day.

We made a special lunch in their honor and had a wonderful time before they had to run off and jump on a plane back to San Francisco. We talked about all kinds of things but they must have really been listening when we spoke of our love of Meyer lemons. They told us of lemon trees laden with fruit right in their backyards—Oh California!  A few days later a big bulging box arrived at the studio. They had picked a pile of Meyer lemons from their trees and sent the mother lode to us as a thank you present for lunch. Now that was the Thank You “Note” of all times in our book.

Here’s how we preserved the lemons and along with them the memory of the day and their lovely gift.

PRESERVED LEMONS

Everyone needs a few culinary tricks up their sleeve—or, better yet, in their refrigerator. If you live in a metropolitan area with lots of ethnic shops, you’ll be able to find these lemons already cured. Living far from those stores, we make our own—big jars of them that last us throughout the year. And it is so well worth it. These golden treasures are money in the bank as their deep salty-sour flavor can brighten up practically any dish. Actually, we have to restrain ourselves from using them in just about everything.

We like to use Meyer lemons, a sweet, thin-skinned variety (most likely a cross between a mandarin orange and a true lemon). You’ll find them in the market from fall through spring. But any variety of lemon will do. In fact, a thicker-skinned lemon is the traditional choice in Morocco, where this pickling method originated.

Preserved lemons are typically rinsed before they are added to stews, tagines, soups, and couscous dishes. Only the rind is used and the pulpy flesh gets discarded. When our own preserved lemons are still new (aged between one month and about six months), we use both rind and flesh, not even bothering to rinse the lemons. The salty brine softens the rind until it is almost translucent and makes the flesh plump and supple. The longer the lemons cure, the saltier they get, so taste them first to decide how you will cook with them. Preserved lemons will last up to 1 year in the fridge.

Lemons, washed
Kosher salt
Sterilized wide-mouth container with a tight-fitting lid

Cut the lemons (almost all the way through) into quarters, keeping them attached at the stem end. Working over a bowl, tamp the inside of each lemon with salt. Tightly pack the salt-filled lemons into the sterilized container. Pour more salt over the lemons as you fill the container. Cover the salt-packed lemons with freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Store in the refrigerator. Turn the container occasionally for the first few weeks to moisten all the lemons with the ever-accumulating salty brine. The lemons should eventually become submerged in this brine. If the brine doesn’t completely cover them after a month, use a metal kitchen spoon to gently press the lemons under the surface.

Recipe from Canal House Cooking, Volume N° 1

 

 

We’re having a perfect spring.  The mornings are chilly and the afternoons are warm and sunny.  Once a week or so the skies open up and a big shower drenches the earth and swells the canal outside our windows.  They’re having the same weather in the Rhone Valley in France so we’ll pretend we’re there.  While we’re busy tending our young spring gardens, winemakers in the Rhone are tending to vines that are also getting started for the season.

They’re hardly thinking about the rosés they bottled in the fall, but we’re thinking about drinking them.  The best thing to accompany the soft lettuces, sharp radishes, and poached salmon we’re eating is rosé, and Yves Cuilleron makes one of our favorites.  He’s sort of a quiet celebrity in the Rhone, known for his impressively soft Condrieu whites, but it’s the bright, lush, rosé we turn to with its silky texture and coppery pink color.

It’s called Sybel, meaning “belle syrah” and it’s the only rosé Yves Cuilleron makes each year.  From all handpicked syrah grapes this northern Rhone lovely is organically made and delicious.  They’ll be releasing a 2009 vintage in early June, but if you can still find it, 2007 was a special year in the Rhone and this wine is just right, right now.  For around $15 it’s just right for us for any occasion.   The younger brother—the 2008 vintage—has not opened up quite as much, but it’s a stellar steal for $9.99 at 3 Cups.

 

Local asparagus arrived a few weeks ago. Big fat green spears, of course, and a deep reddish purple variety called Viola. The first site of them at a local farm market, standing tall and bending—all wild-looking, loose in their buckets of water—took our breath away. Spring had arrived!

So early this year, as we do each Spring, we’ve begun feasting on these local zaftig beauties and much prefer them to the straight thin asparagus that you find in the supermarket. We take the extra time and trouble and always peel off their skin with a vegetable peeler to just below the tip not only to pretty-up the spears and make them more tender, but especially to rid them of the fine sand lodged in those small flat leaves along the spear that look like fins.  This year, we’ve been eating our asparagus bathed in a luxurious lemony butter sauce, similar to a hollandaise, but better—fresher tasting, not so cloyingly thick.  We first learned how delicious it was at Ballymaloe with Darina Allen—the high priestess of Irish cuisine. It relies on the salted Irish butter we’re so crazy about from Kerrygold—but other brands of European-style high-fat butter will suit. Here’s a preview of the recipe that will be in Canal House Cooking Volume N°4.

It is quite simple and it goes a little something like this:  Whisk 2 egg yolks together with 2 tablespoons of water in a heavy saucepan. Begin warming the beaten yolks over very low heat, whisking all the while. Then gradually add 8 tablespoons of cold salted Irish butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking until each tablespoon of butter has been incorporated into the sauce before you add the next. The sauce will thicken and lighten, becoming almost foamy. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in more or less the juice of half a lemon to your own taste. This sauce isn’t as finicky as most delicate butter sauces. We keep it warm over a pot of hot water.

Maybe you’ll want to honor your asparagus with this deliciousness, too.

 

Today our first day of all things, we are out of the studio shooting the last images for Canal House Cooking Volume N° 4. We give you this picture to remind you to stop and smell the peaches while you’re moving through your day. Come back and see us tomorrow.

Claire Ptak, chef owner of London's Violet Cakes