Friday, May 17, 2013

Meet Maurita!

My name is Maurita Plouff, and I'm a rustic cook. 

When I was growing up, I was only allowed into the kitchen to dry the dishes. I started cooking when I went off to college, because I figured it would be cheaper to cook for myself. I was right, but along the way, I had to learn to accept some fairly horrible meals. Thus I had an interest in improving rapidly, and fortunately I learned quickly. Cooking soon became an abiding interest. Sometimes I wonder if this is an ongoing act of rebellion, because to this day I refuse to dry the dishes with a towel.

My interest and skills grew over the years. I have worked in the food biz as a personal chef, and my business did well for 7 years, but I'm cooking only for my family and friends now. I prefer to eat local foods in season - they're fresh! they taste fabulous! - and do my own canning and preserving. I suppose I'm an old-fashioned cook. 

The best word to describe my cooking style would be 'rustic' - with connotations of homemade, charmingly simple, imperfect in appearance. I would much rather cook (and eat!) simple food prepared well, than an ambitious concoction that's been tortured into a perfect sphere. In my kitchen, food isn't ever fussy. 

Inspiration for my cooking comes from the season, the weather, what's in the market, and what I have on hand. Today it is grey, rainy, and cold; I don't want to go out of the house. Hm, what to cook? I rummage through my preserves cupboard, and find a big jar of peaches I put up in the summer. Ahha! That will become a cobbler, and I'm off to the kitchen.

I give up: choosing just one recipe to represent what I cook wasn't going to happen; I rarely cook the same thing twice. Instead, I thought I would write about a typical "Market Day Menu". Now this does represent me, my approach to cooking, my recipes, my lazy Saturdays, and my philosophy in the kitchen. 

I cook local and seasonal food, and I take a relaxed attitude toward cooking it. Saturday mornings will typically find me at the local Farmers Market. I have special connections to some of the farmers, and go back to them week after week for the best food around. Last Saturday was absolutely typical: I got to the market early, walked around to check out all the stalls. I went home with the first rhubarb of the season, leeks, and two whole chickens. 

The rhubarb came from a greenhouse, and oh, it's wonderful after the long winter. I sit down with a cup of strong tea, and start to plan. Hm, it's chilly: let's use the oven. Rhubarb crumble, it's the easiest ever, get it in the oven first. Then prep the chicken with the last of my winter citrus and a handful of hardy sage. There's enough to invite friends over, and we'll hang out in the kitchen, playing cards or chatting, during the lazy afternoon. 

Welcome to my rustic kitchen!

Rhubarb Crumble
serves 6-8

2 pounds rhubarb, washed, cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 to 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar 
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Crumble Topping: 
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar (packed) 
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick, 4 ounces), very cold

Heat the oven to 375F. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the rhubarb and the sugar -- use more sugar if you prefer it sweeter, though I rather like it tart. Mix in the flour, cardamom, and vanilla extract, and toss to combine. Spoon into a 3-quart (9" x 13") baking dish. 

Make the topping: put the flour, salt, and brown sugar into a food processor and pulse to combine. Cut the butter into small cubes, and add to the dry ingredients. Pulse several times, until the bits of butter are pea-sized. (If you prefer, use a pastry cutter or two knives for this step.) Spread the topping mixture over the rhubarb. 

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the topping is lightly browned. Let cool for at least half an hour before serving.

Roast Chicken with Lemon and Herbs 

1 4-pound chicken 
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 lemon (or 2 Meyer lemons) 
1 bunch herbs (sage, rosemary, and thyme are all great) 
1 Tablespoon oil 

Prepare the chicken: remove the neck and any bits left ragged around the cavity. Dry the cavity, then sprinkle 1 teaspoon of kosher salt inside the cavity. Chop the lemon(s), and put the pieces, along with the herbs, into the cavity as well. 

If you're not going to use a rack in your roasting pan, position the wings to stabilize the bird: twist them so that the bird is "crossing its wings behind its back". Spread oil over the bird, so that the skin will brown nicely all over. 

Put the chicken in a shallow baking pan, and roast at 375F. After an hour and a quarter, check the bird for doneness - I wiggle the drumstick, and if it falls off in my fingers, the bird's done! - and let it rest at least 20 minutes before carving. 

TIP: roasting 2 chickens in a larger pan takes about the same effort and time as roasting one. And you get all that lovely chicken meat to use later! 

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