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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Blame the Weather

Behind all of the dark clouds in my life as of late, there are a few rays of sunshine peeking through. No, literally there are. It's sunny outside and everything is freshly washed down from weeks of rain. Is it that Spring has Sprang?

Sprang…this is how we say it in North Carolina. It's Sprangtyyyme.

If you would've met me 5 years ago, I would've told you what I told everyone who brought up the subject of the great outdoors: Nature Is Overrated. Not only had I become, over a period of time, suburbanized, I had become certifiably citified. Skyscrapers were my redwoods; my bare toes would run over concrete, not grass. Pieces of broken glass were my gemstones, sparkling San Francisco sidewalks my stars, and homeless psychotics my wildlife. Somehow, all of that has been tweaked. I blame food. But, then I blame a lot of different things. That's what I do, I blame.

The latest ray of sunshine in my citified life is finding asparagus at 99 cents per pound. The asparagus I've seen in the market is fairly fat and sturdy looking and could move storage boxes or work construction, unlike those skinny, wimpy, pencil-pushing asparagus spears I saw a few months ago. This is California asparagus, as thick, blunt, and cheap as a Central Valley Okie.

While artichokes, asparagus, and avocados are at rock bottom prices, there is one veggie that hits rock bottom and keeps on digging. Namely, wild fennel, collected freely from cliff sides and empty lots. We in the Bay Area are privileged to have a few free culinary treasures among us, such as the one-two punch combo of Candida milleri and Lactobacillus sanfrancisco, the Umbellularia californica, and Foeniculum vulgare.

Young and Wild: Wild Fennel

Wild fennel is a non-native plant, likely introduced by Italian settlers (blaming again), that has become an invasive species, to say the least. Unlike the fennel you buy in the store, wild fennel doesn't have a bulbous lower body, and consists solely of stalks and fronds. All parts of the plant are used in all sorts of culinary and medicinal manners. Holistically, it is used in tea for lower gastrointestinal distress, gas, and as a diuretic. In Italy, they collect the pollen and sell jars of it to cooks and chefs who sprinkle it over roast pork and other dishes. The young, inner fronds can be used as you would use any strongly flavored herb, while the outer, tougher ones can be used as a bed for grilled fish. The stems can be steamed, grilled, baked, and used in soup or salad. And the seeds can be used in spice mixes, most famously in Sicilian-style salame, or chewed after a meal to cleanse the palate.

Many don't realize it, but there are edible plants growing wild or semi-wild all over San Francisco. So far, I've seen miner's lettuce, dandelion greens, porcini, chantrelle, and morel mushrooms (well, not yet, but I know others who have), passion fruit, pink pepper trees, bay trees, olive trees, and of course, wild fennel. I'm sure there's more, but those are what immediately come to mind. I've even heard of wild asparagus patches in the Sacramento Delta area.

Pink Peppercorn Promise, March 2005

So since we are on the subject of asparagus and fennel, you should probably know that if you do buy asparagus, pick those whose tops haven't opened and bottoms have no or very few holes. When picking wild fennel (or other edibles), pick those far from the road and off limits to dogs (I learned this the hard way; shoo-oo-way!).

Everyone should store their asparagus standing up halfway in water and covered in the fridge. A few years ago, a company I worked for ordered pretzels from Office Depot for people to snack on. These pretzels came in gallon-sized, wide-mouth, clear plastic containers with screw on lids. I collected these when they were empty and they are perfect for storing flour, sugar, salt, and pasta. Recently, I've learned they are perfect for storing your asparagus. When I get home with my precious bundle, I take off the rubberbands (I love how they say "asparagus" across the rubberband; easily amused), and place them in an empty container. Then I fill the container halfway full of water and screw the lid on. Then, like a washing machine, I slosh and shake it around, cleaning the asparagus on the low or "delicate" cycle. I then spin myself around a couple of times to mimic the spin cycle, and then drain the container. And if I spin myself too much, I may have to drain myself! Then I refill the container about halfway up the asparagus, screw on the lid, and cram it into the fridge. As long as you treat your asparagus like this (you can leave out the psychotic part), it will keep fresh for a week or two.

Asparagus Container: Half Empty or Half Full?

Treat your wild fennel like you would any green leafy vegetable. So, wash it in a large pot of cold water, then spin it gently (if you have a salad spinner, which if you don't, sigh, stop reading this now and go out and buy yourself one…Geez! What is wrong with you people!), wrap loosely with paper towels, seal in a zip loc bag, and place in the crisper section of your fridge. It's amazing how long greens with stay fresh when you treat 'em like this.

This photo was taken in a downtown residential area.

Roast Chicken with Wild Fennel and Lemon serves 3

Roast chicken is easy to prepare and delicious, yet far too many people are intimidated in doing it themselves. But you are not like that. You are brave. You will not let anything stand between you and that chicken, so that is why you are going to make this and love it! When buying a chicken, you have the choice of buying a free-range (also called "cage free") or a cage-raised chicken. Frankly, taste wise, I can't tell the difference. As it stands, unless it says "pasture-raised" or something similar, free-range is an illusive and misleading term and because of that, I say go with what suits you, especially if you are on a budget.

4 - 5 pound roasting chicken
1 lemon, cut in half
3 medium to large cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 or 2 cups of chopped wild fennel fronds
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons or more olive oil
Some melted butter or olive oil for basting
A roasting rack and roasting pan
A little white wine or water

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and prep your ingredients.
2. While your oven is heating, rinse out the insides and outside of the chicken, remembering to remove the neck, giblets, or whatever happens to be left inside. Usually with most chicken you buy at the supermarket, these things are removed for you or are wrapped up inside the carcass for easy removal. After rinsing the bird, pat the outside dry with paper towels. Cut off any fat from the tail area, save a little, and throw the rest away. (Optional: After this step, you can leave the bird in the refrigerator uncovered for about an hour. This will allow the skin to dry out which will make it more crispy after cooked.)

On a serious note, whenever you work with chicken, you must practice extreme cleanliness. Remember to wash your hands or anything else that has touched the raw chicken. Raw chicken is a breeding ground for E. coli and other harmful bacteria, so in addition to washing your hands, you should also keep the chicken very cold or very hot. Try to minimize the time it sits out of the fridge or out of the oven.

3. Combine the fennel fronds, garlic, salt & pepper, and olive oil. Use just enough olive oil to make a slurry that will be able to cover the outside, under the skin, and the insides.
4. Rub the chicken with the fennel slurry both inside and out. Also, lift the skin around the breast, thighs, and legs and rub the slurry in between the skin and the meat. Once you have done this, squeeze 1 half of the lemon over both sides of it.
5. Place the roasting rack in the pan and place the chicken on it, breast down. Yes, I said breast down.
6. Place the butter, the chicken fat, and the other half of the lemon inside of the carcass. It is not necessary to close up the carcass, but I sometimes do using some cooking twine or something similar to tie the legs together over the body cavity opening. Just do your best or leave out this step.
7. Place the chicken in the oven, uncovered. The easy formula to follow in cooking a chicken is 20 minutes per pound, plus 30 minutes added to the end. So if you have a 5 pound bird, you will be cooking it at 400 degrees for a total of 2 hours and 10 minutes.
8. About 45 minutes before the chicken is due to come out, deglaze the pan with the wine or water. If you plan on adding any chopped vegetables (any root vegetable and onions work well) to the pan or oven, now is the time.
9. About 30 minutes before the chicken is due, turn it over so that the breast side is now facing up, baste if you want using melted butter or olive oil (healthier choice) and any juices in the pan. Baste again in another 15 minutes.
10. When the chicken is done, you can test it by poking it with a fork into the thigh area. If it you see a little blood run out, let it cook for another 15 minutes. If the juices run clear, it's done. Before you cut the chicken, let it rest for about 5 minutes so that the juices are absorbed back into the meat. Ideally, when the chicken is done, the legs should easily pull away from the body and the meat should fall off the bone. Then carve the bird starting with the wings, the legs & thighs, then the breasts. You're rocking!

Roast Chicken with Wild Fennel and Lemon

The following recipe for asparagus is not an attempt to couple it with the chicken, although feel free to do so. Personally, with the chicken I would have a side of slowly sauteed onions and a big chunk of Acme's Sour Batard.

Pan Roasted Asparagus serves 3

I love Cooks Illustrated. Not only do we subscribe, but we own several CI books. It's no secret that some of their recipes are the best and most precise in the cookbook/mag industry. Only once or twice have I made a recipe they published that came out wrong. This asparagus recipe is not one of them. I've modified this recipe slightly.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound of thick asparagus, ends trimmed
1/2 lemon, or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Fleur de Sel or other chunky salt

1. Heat oil and butter on medium high in a 12 inch skillet. When hot, add the asparagus so that it fits in one layer in the pan. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
2. After 5 minutes, turn the heat to high and cook uncovered another 4 to 6 minutes, moving the spears around the pan for even browning.
3. When done, plate and sprinkle with lemon juice. Sprinkle with chunky salt.



Anonymous mark huffaker said...

Great Stuff here boys! I haven't even gotten around to fixing the sandiches yet, and now you've got us drooling over Chicken.

10:39 AM  

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