I had a pretty torrid affair with spruce this spring, and there are still a couple of containers of dried but unused tips lurking around in the corners of the kitchen as I write. I’ve used it to cure meat, flavor sauces, and dehydrated and ground it to make a spice. The spruce vinegars smell absolutely heavenly, though they’re not ready yet. But this summer I may have found something as profound and versatile that threatens to usurp the hallowed number one spot that spruce has so far nobly and justly occupied in the “fragrant garnish/condiment/stealth aromatic” category for 2011.
The lemon marigold (Tagetes Tenuifolia) is something I grabbed back in the spring as part of my cart full o’ starts that got the garden going in such fine style. Ironically, many of those starts were ravaged during the woodchuckalypse, mooting their ultimate usefulness, but the varmints had no interest in these pungent plants so they’re thriving and covered in flowers. The broccoli? Not so much. This plant has deeply cut, feathery little leaves, and in general is a bushier yet daintier version of the marigolds that we all plant at the ends of our beds to deter nematodes and other pests. Even a slight brush against them unleashes their strong aroma into the air and gets the mind thinking about dinner and how it should be inflected to allow this unique flavor to augment the result.
The classic marigold profile is there, but balanced with an assertive, citrusy note that makes it much more culinarily versatile than the regular types. So far I have had good luck using it with fish, poultry, and red meat to equally tasty effect. Fresh, the leaves or flowers used as an herb or a garnish really do go with almost anything. I’m only just beginning to explore what else it can do. In the meantime, here are a few dishes that have benefited greatly from the pungent note this plant provides. I often think about umami (in the form of stock, mushrooms, seaweed, anchovies, soy sauce, tomatoes, or dashi) as adding a bass note–a meaty, hearty, flavor that can make delicate food taste more substantial–but lemon marigold is more like the treble equivalent. It’s so rich and bright and complex that it brings other flavors into sharper focus. And it pivots effortlessly between Asian (East and South) flavors and those of North Africa and Europe.
Here’s a chicken leg, floured, crisped and then pan-roasted on a ragout of gardeny goodness–just like the last post was all about–that included salivational lashings of homemade maple-sumac vinegar and a garnish of both leaves and flowers. The fact that they look sort of like kinome is wonderful, but their flavor is different, if no less interesting.
The meal I want to talk about, though, was tonight’s dinner. Nothing revolutionary, but it succeeded in large part due to some diligent work forestalling that perennial enemy of elegant plating: syneresis. These were local lamb loin chops, seasoned with salt and pepper, seared à point, and then rested. What made the plate special were the supporting players, vegetables all. To start, I took an enormous cucumber that had grown unmolested beneath a profusion of foliage and cut it in half lengthwise, scooping out all the seeds with a spoon. Then I cut the two halves into thin slices on the mandoline and kneaded them with a pinch of salt until they gave up all their liquid. A squeeze, a rinse, some more squeezing, and they were transformed into firmer, tastier cucumber slices. I dressed them with some of the most recent batch of yogurt, which I also strained for a few minutes to firm it up, plus minced coriander seeds and marigold leaves and salt and pepper.
I went out and picked a fat bunch of mustard greens at their very peak and cooked them with a minced shallot in some chicken stock (made with the bones from that other dish) until tender. Then I stick-blended them, adding the liquid strained from the cucumber-yogurt salad and a knob of butter until smooth and strained it into a smaller pan. Since it was so runny, I added a pinch of xanthan gum and a heaping spoon of Ultratex 8 and stick-blended it into a silky yet viscous sauce with generous dribbles of mustard and truffle oils for good measure. It’s funny; the mustard greens were so visibly begging to be picked and eaten that they were the original inspiration for this meal; I began by thinking “what likes mustard?” and mentally scanning the freezer to find the right match. It’s good to have a garden.
Having seized upon lamb for dinner, I had meant to dig a couple of potatoes to go with it. But I forgot, and the fact that there were a couple of smallish new potatoes on the counter from a couple of days before meant that I didn’t have to go back out into the buggy dusk after I was all showered and fresh. To compensate for their inherent lack of mass, I cut them into a brunoise and cooked them in some rendered lamb bacon fat until they were crisp and crunchy. I used a metal spatula to flip and separate them as they cooked so they weren’t matted together like home fries. Lastly, after taking them off the heat and salting them, I crumbled them all through my fingers to ensure a uniform texture.
After the meat came out of the pan, I added some whole wheat flour to make a roux with the rendered fat, and then poured in some of the mustard-chicken stock mixture, a glug of raspberry vinegar, and a fat dollop of basil pesto, stirring it until it thickened into a luscious and fragrant gravy. I cut the meat off the bones, using the trimmings for Milo’s plate and the main chops for ours. The result was rich meat surrounded by a harmonious collection of plants in a variety of pleasing forms. Crispy, addictive brunoise added a decadent note that supplied the meat-and-potatoes element, while the gravy was deep and earthy (especially with the nutty whole wheat flour) and the mustard green sauce was light as air but sharp with mustard and sensual with truffles and butter. And the cucumber salad was sour and tangy from the yogurt and bright with coriander and marigold leaves, and thanks to the kneading with salt and the straining of the yogurt, it didn’t ooze liquid all over the plate.
These techniques–the Japanese salt-kneading of the cukes and the hydrocolloidal additions to gravy and sauce–made the difference between a plate of food that was poised and elegant and sensually gratifying and one that was a soggy mess of leaking liquids that robbed all the components of their distinction and character. It took a bit more time, and dirtied a few extra dishes, but the result was a hundred times more interesting and gratifying than it would have been otherwise. As it was, it delivered impressively hedonistic bites no matter what the combinations: crunchy, silky, spicy, meaty, sour, sharp, and creamy. The portion size was ideal, too; had these plates been twice as big we surely would have eaten it all, but we didn’t need that much. Stone fruits are finally, blessedly coming into ripeness now, so a few fresh apricots for dessert were all that we needed to make this a complete feast.
Along with, of course, a bottle of good rosé. Château de la Selve is an organically farmed estate in the Coteaux de l’Ardèche, a much-neglected region that lies between the Northern and Southern Rhône regions, where wine has been made since at least Roman times. Their “Maguelonne” is a Grenache-Cinsault-Syrah blend (50-30-20%) that did such elegant work accompanying this plate of food that one could be forgiven for thinking that I also might have also had it in mind while cooking. Whether the plump lamb with a generous rim of fat left on it, the earthy potatoes, or the bright marigold, coriander and mustard, this wine was right there alongside all the flavors, supporting and enhancing them with lip-smacking fruit and acidity and a subtle yet insistent minerality. This is why I love rosé, and why I drink little else all summer long. And a bottle like this, along with a peaking garden, offers an irresistible incentive to make the food shine.