Kathy Gunst is the author of 14 cookbooks; her latest is Notes from a Maine Kitchen (Down East Books, 2011). She writes for Yankee, Eating Well, Washington Post, O, the Oprah Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, Down East, and other publications. She is the "Resident Chef" for WBUR's award-winning show, Here and Now, heard on over 180 public radio stations. She writes regularly for Cognoscenti. Her radio work has received 2 James Beard nominations and an IACP award nomination. She teaches cooking and food writing at schools around the country. She lives in southern Maine.

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Buttercrunch Lets You Slow Down, Enjoy The Moment Image

Have you ever looked at a Twitter stream for more than a few seconds? Just this morning, I called up my Tweet Deck with all those columns of people I know and don’t know and was about to click on a story that interested me. By the time I hit the link, 10 new stories were flashing above it, and the piece I wanted to read was buried by more current, “relevant” news.

Life goes fast. News is fleeting. All those articles, all those links, all those photographs, all those blog posts coming at you like waves on a stormy day. One after another, and just when you catch your breath, there’s another, bigger one ready to take you and twist you around and. …

It’s depressing. It makes me feel as if I can never keep up, never really know what’s happening.

The holidays feel a lot like the Internet these days. With Thanksgiving at the end of November and Hanukkah early and Christmas coming when it always does, it’s hard to catch a breath.

Buttercrunch a recipe that requires your full attention

All this has me thinking about tradition — what it is and why it’s important. The part of the holidays that always makes me feel warm and loved are the traditions my family has established — the ones I grew up with, the ones my husband’s family has taught me and, perhaps most important of all, the ones we established with our daughters when they were young.

About 30 years ago, my sister-in-law brought us a batch of her family’s recipe for homemade buttercrunch. It’s a gloriously sweet concoction of caramel coated in chocolate and chopped nuts. My children would fight over it, and it was always devoured well before the actual holiday. We began eating it for dessert on the first night of Hanukkah.

Then one year it occurred to me to ask her for the recipe, and I started to make buttercrunch myself. The kitchen gets all warm and steamy with the cooking of the caramel — watching the butter and corn syrup cook down and bubble and transform from pale yellow to a gorgeous butterscotch color.

Then there is the part at the end, just before it reaches the desired 290 F temperature, when you can’t answer the phone or leave the room or check your email or Twitter feed. You have to stir and stir and stir because a few extra seconds causes the whole mixture to seize up and become a sugary glop.

Finally, there’s that wonderful moment when you spread the thickened candy on a cookie sheet and watch it begin to instantly harden.

Buttercrunch is a candy that requires patience and several steps, although none of them is too difficult. But you also need to slow down just enough to watch — to make sure that something sweet and good doesn’t go bad.

Cooking in my kitchen, making that candy year after year, focused on not letting it burn, feels like the exact opposite of watching a Twitter stream. The news is flashing by. There goes another photo, another blog post. And suddenly, I no longer care.

Andrea’s Buttercrunch

Start a tradition in your kitchen. Invite your children to help paint on the chocolate and press the chopped nuts into the chocolate. Make a double batch. Youll be glad you did.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: About 20 minutes for the buttercrunch and 5 minutes for the chocolate

Setting (cooling) time: About 30 to 45 minutes

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings. (But once you taste it, it’s hard to stop.)

Ingredients

2 sticks unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

2 tablespoons water

2 large (about 7- or 8-ounce) chocolate bars (see note)

About 1 cup very finely chopped walnuts or your favorite nut (see note)

Directions

1. Line a cookie sheet with a piece of well-greased aluminum foil.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar, corn syrup and water over low heat, stirring frequently. The mixture will caramelize and is ready when it hits 290 F on a candy thermometer. It will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to reach 290 F on low heat. Watch it carefully, particularly toward the end of the cooking process. The mixture can burn easily; reduce the heat to very low and stir constantly if it seems to be cooking too quickly or turning darker than pale golden brown.

3. When the candy hits 290 F, remove from the heat and carefully spread it out in an even layer on the sheet of greased foil. Spread with a spatula to make a fairly thin layer. Let cool and harden. (If you are really impatient, you can place the cookie sheet in the refrigerator or outside in the cold in a protected place so it will harden more quickly.)

4. While the buttercrunch is hardening, melt the chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth. If you choose to let the buttercrunch harden outside or in a very cold spot, you must bring it back to room temperature before spreading with the chocolate. If the buttercrunch is too cold, the chocolate won’t adhere properly.

5. When the buttercrunch is hard to the touch (you shouldn’t feel any soft spots) and is at room temperature, use a soft spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the entire thing.

6. Sprinkle with half the nuts, pressing down lightly so they adhere. Again, if you are the impatient type, you can let the chocolate harden in a cold spot. The chocolate should be fully dry — no wet spots to the touch.

7. Carefully remove the foil from the cookie sheet; place the cookie sheet on top of the foil and candy. Gently flip the candy over onto the cookie sheet and peel away the foil.

8. Spread the remaining chocolate on top of the other side of the buttercrunch.

9. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, pressing down lightly. Let the chocolate harden and set in a cool spot.

10. When the buttercrunch is dry and hard, break it into small pieces. You can keep it in a cool, dry tin or tightly sealed plastic bag for two or three weeks.

Note: Buttercrunch can be made successfully with regular grocery store milk chocolate or chocolate chips, but you can also splurge and use fabulous bittersweet or semisweet 60% cocoa chocolate. The choice is yours.

You can use walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios or any type of nut, but it must be finely chopped to adhere properly to the chocolate.

Main photo: Buttercrunch. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Beach Plum Jelly A Metaphor For Happy Marriage Image

Thirty seven years ago, I met a man on an island off Cape Cod, Mass., and we had a summer romance. We made fish stew and grilled local striped bass. We baked bread, picked wild island grapes and took long beach walks. And when the summer was over, I figured I’d go back to my life and he would return to his.

But it didn’t happen that way. The relationship turned out to be the real deal. Thirty years ago this month, we were married, and now we are back on this island celebrating those three decades together.

This island is a place that never disappoints. Every time we come here, I worry movie stars and politicians will have ruined the place. And although there is much hype and McMansions are now littered along some of the shoreline, this is still a place of pristine beauty.

So here we are again, cooking local seafood and taking long beach walks and early morning swims in the almost too cold ocean waters. This year there’s been a bit of a drought on the island, and that has translated to dry fields and spotty lawns. But it has also produced a bumper crop of beach plums.

Each year when we come here in late summer/early fall, I hunt the dirt roads and beach paths for the elusive beach plums. They look like a cross between an oversize blueberry and a black-purple grape. Beach plums are stone fruits, related to other plums, cherries and peaches. They flower in late spring and bear fruit in the early fall, depending on the weather.

They grow along sandy paths near salt water. They are often planted for erosion control and feed off of salty sprays and sandy soil. They are very sour and sometimes bitter, full of a crisp, distinctively fruity, almost earthy taste. They make terrific jelly.

The day we arrived, I walked to the beach and was shocked to find bushes bursting with fruit — thousands of beach plums. I ran back home and got a huge bucket and started picking. It didn’t take long to fill that bucket and then another.

Beach plum jelly a balance of bitter and sweet

Making beach plum jelly is a lot like making wild grape jelly. (In fact, the recipe below works well for both.) If it were a perfect world, I would add a lot less sweetener to the jelly, but the sourness needs balance, and I’ve found a mixture of white sugar and maple syrup works well.

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Beach plums. Credit: Kathy Gunst

This recipe involves several steps, but it is actually quite simple. The gorgeous deep purple-pink color and sweet, tart flavors are at home on the day’s first buttered toast or used to glaze a duck, spread on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich or serve as a condiment with grilled leg of lamb.

The jelly makes a wonderful anniversary gift. Like a long marriage, it is a great balance of sweet and bitter.

Beach Plum Jelly

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 jars

Use beach plums, Concord grapes or a combination to make the jelly. It will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed Mason jar for well more than a month or can be canned and kept in a cool, dark spot for up to a year. More prep time will be needed for picking, and cook time includes time to drain the cooked plums.

Ingredients

  • About 20 cups beach plums
  • 4 cups water
  • About 3 cups sugar
  • About 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 to 2 ounces liquid pectin

Directions

  1. Prepping the beach plums is crucial to good jelly. Remove all stems, rotten or moldy plums, or under-ripe beach plums (which will be hard and pale pink or red like a cranberry). Wash thoroughly and then measure the fruit.
  2. Place the clean beach plums into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  3. Lower the heat and, stirring frequently, cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fruit is softened.
  4. Place a colander or sieve over a large bowl or pot and pour the fruit through it. Let it strain by gently pushing down on the fruit with a wooden spoon or spatula to extract as much juice as possible. I let my plums strain all day, covered with a piece of clean cheesecloth to avoid fruit flies. It can sit for hours.
  5. When you think all the juice has been extracted, measure how much you have. Add about 1/2 cup sweetener for each cup of beach plum juice. (A half-cup will give you sweet-tart jelly, while 1 cup will obviously give you a sweeter jelly). I like to add a combination of sugar and maple syrup.
  6. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
  7. Reduce heat to moderate and let simmer about 10 minutes.
  8. Add the pectin and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook about 10 minutes to allow the jelly to thicken.
  9. Taste for sweetness and adjust accordingly. To test for doneness, add a spoonful to a small plate and place in the freezer for 10 minutes. It should be quite thick.
  10. Put the jelly into sterilized jars and refrigerate or process for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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In Maine, Fresh Air, Fresh Food Give Fresh Perspective Image

It wasn’t until we got off the ferry on North Haven, Maine, and started to move on island time that I realized just how badly we needed this break.

North Haven is tiny — roughly 12 miles long and 3 miles wide. It is situated in Penobscot Bay an hour and 10 minute ferry ride (and a mere 12 miles) off the coast of Rockland, Maine.

Our room at Nebo Lodge wasn’t quite ready, so we headed to one of the many beaches on the north side of the island.

Small-town Maine makes everyone feel welcome

North Haven is a place where everyone who drives, walks or bikes by waves hello when you pass on the road. And you wave back. It’s a place with public-access trails across someone’s gorgeous field where you are welcome to park and hike the mowed trail and climb down the ladder onto the secluded beach facing Camden Hills. It’s a place where you won’t see another living soul in sight when you reach the beach. Instead, you share the beach with 10,000 rocks (Maine’s famed rocky shoreline), two yellow kayaks moored to a tree and many seagulls.

A long swim (yes, the water is icy) woke me up and made me feel so good I just kept swimming. Finally, I headed back to my towel to join my husband, and we fell into a deep sleep. Not even the annoying flies or brisk ocean breeze could wake us.

But when I woke and saw where we were (and did an internal check to see how good I felt), I couldn’t believe it was the same day, the same week or even the same month as the one I woke up to this morning.

We stopped in at the North Haven Oyster Co., but no oysters were to be had because of heavy rains. Try tomorrow, said the oysterman, who was slumped in an old chair smoking a cigarette looking like he didn’t have a care in the world.

When we checked in to Nebo Lodge, our home for the next two days, there was freshly made iced tea with lemon and fresh mint leaves as well as paper thin, almost lacy chocolate chip cookies waiting for us. Suddenly, still in my not-quite-dry bathing suit, I realized we were on vacation.

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A skewer of swordfish and grilled bread on a bed of Israeli couscous. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Nebo Lodge is owned by Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s a woman who fights hard to keep Maine’s food and farming traditions alive, among other important causes. She and daughter Hannah Pingree (also a politician) own the inn. Amanda Hallowell is the talented chef. The food comes from nearby Turner Farm — the island farm Pingree and her husband, Donald Sussman, own — where meat, vegetables, dairy and spectacular flowers are raised.

That night at dinner, at tables decorated with vintage flowered cloth tablecloths and tiny vases full of garden flowers, we sat outside on the porch, no mosquitoes biting our ankles, and started with seared padron peppers in olive oil and Maine sea salt — blistering hot and perfectly cooked. I also rolled up and devoured a Peking duck wrap, with house-pickled radishes, cucumbers and fabulous sticky rice and Sriracha. The harpooned swordfish came on a skewer with chunks of grilled bread on a bed of Israeli couscous. House-made ice cream with a salted caramel sauce ended the meal.

The next morning, we dined on fresh blueberry muffins, Turner Farm yogurt, cereals and fruit. A farm-fresh egg, yolk bright as a garden sunflower, was served with Turner Farm lamb sausage and house-made bread.

Over the next two days, we biked, swam, napped. We ate chowder and lobster rolls, fish sandwiches and ice cream cones. Two days of letting go, Maine style.

By the time we were on the ferry to return home, we were holding hands and smiling, ready to get back to whatever awaited us.

Maine Lobster Roll

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 13 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 2 Lobster Rolls

A classic Maine lobster roll contains fresh lobster meat tossed with mayonnaise and, sometimes, finely chopped celery. That’s it. The salad is stuffed into a buttered and grilled hot dog roll. You can do it the old-time Mainer way, but I happen to like my (slightly yuppie) version better, combining fresh-cooked lobster meat with just a touch of mayonnaise spiked with lemon juice, lemon zest, chives and scallions. And I like serving it on a piece of buttered, grilled baguette because I love the crunch and texture of French bread with the tender lobster meat.

Ingredients

  • 2 one-pound lobsters, or 1 cup cooked lobster meat
  • 1½ to 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (Use 2 tablespoons if you like it creamy, 1½ tablespoons if you like it less creamy.)
  • 1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
  • 1 tablespoon very finely chopped scallions
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 three-inch pieces of baguette or crispy bread, or two hot dog rolls

Directions

  1. Fill a large pot with about 2 to 3 inches water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the lobsters, shell side down, cover and cook for about 11 to 13 minutes, or until a leg pulls out of the body easily. Remove from the boiling water and let cool.
  2. Separate the tail from the body. Using a fork, remove the tail meat from the tail. Crack the claws and remove the meat. Enjoy the bodies. Cut the tail in half lengthwise and remove the thin black vein. Coarsely chop the tail and claw meat and set aside.
  3. In a bowl, mix the mayonnaise, lemon juice, zest, chives, scallions and pepper to taste. Fold in the lobster meat. You can make the lobster salad several hours ahead of time, but not more than three to four hours. Cover and refrigerate.
  4. In a skillet, melt the butter over low heat. Cut the baguette pieces in half lengthwise and brown the inside of the bread in the melted butter until it just begins to turn golden brown. Alternately, melt the butter and brown the hot dog rolls until they begin to turn a golden brown, flipping them over so they get toasted and buttery on both sides.
  5. Divide the lobster mixture between the bread or the rolls.

Notes

To add more crunch or flavor to the lobster salad, you can also add the following: 1 tablespoon drained capers; 2 tablespoons finely chopped celery; lime juice and zest, instead of lemon; buttery, tender lettuce leaves; slices of ripe tomato; a strip of cooked country-style bacon; thin slices of buttery avocado; or very thin slices of red onion.

Main photo: A fish taco from Nebo Lodge. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Don’t Scrap Garlic Scapes: Try 3 Tasty Summer Treats Image

Gardening is an act of faith. If I take care of my plants, water them and feed them compost, the perennials will come back year after year. But still it amazes me.

The peonies I planted the year my father died are in full bloom, showing off their splendid pink and white blossoms like a girl with a new dress. The sage and rosemary made it through another rough winter. They are fuller, sprouting new leaves and branches in a showy well-look-at-me style. The Oriental poppies are doing their scarlet show, with their inky, black-etching insides that scream of illicit things.

Every fall I plant garlic — several types. The scapes, those glorious swirls of “flower stalks” that top off the hard-neck garlic plants in late June and early July, are just beginning to show.

Garlic scapes create a glorious avocado-green twirl with a white bulb at the tip. I had learned it was important to snip them off the plant, or else they would steal energy from the bulbs growing underground. But for years I didn’t quite know what to do with them.

From pastas to salads, garlic scapes add flavor to summer favorites

The bulbs won’t be ready until much later in the season, but early summer is time for garlic scapes. I grabbed a basket this afternoon and pinched off a few dozen garlic scapes. The heady fragrance filled the air as I picked — like adolescent versions of mature garlic, but filled with nuance and garlicky possibilities.

In past years, I’ve chopped the garlic scapes and added them to vinaigrettes and salads. Think of them like a very flavorful scallion. I’ve also stir-fried them whole with strips of marinated chicken, cashews and thin slices of fresh ginger. When I brushed them with olive oil and grilled them outside, I was blown away by their smoky garlic flavor. They make a great topping for grilled steak, chicken or fish, and I’ve sautéed them whole in olive oil and then fried a farm-fresh egg on top for breakfast.

But this year I wanted to try something new.

First I tried a salad. I started with early-summer greens — arugula, butter head and red leaf lettuce — and added a few hard-boiled eggs and placed anchovies, with their briny burst, criss crossed on top of the eggs. I sautéed crusty bread sliced into croute-size pieces in olive oil until golden brown. And then I added the garlic scapes, sautéed in olive oil just until they became tender. The scapes take on an almost buttery flavor in this sauté.

Next up I made a pesto. I started with garlic scapes and emerald-green Greek olive oil, but it needed something else. I opened the freezer and found a bag of shelled and salted California pistachios, which added more green color and lots of good crunch. A bit of grated Parmesan, and I had a brand new pesto.

Try this Garlic Scape and Pistachio Pesto on pasta. You can also spoon it on half a garden tomato and roast slowly for an hour at 200 F or serve it with grilled foods — seafood kebabs, chicken, steak or a pork chop. Or do what I have been doing for days: Eat it straight from the jar.

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Garlic growing in the garden. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Garlic Scape and Pistachio Pesto

If you don’t grow your own garlic, look for garlic scapes at farmers markets or farm stands during early summer.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

4 ounces garlic scapes, about 14 large scapes

1 cup olive oil, plus about 1½ tablespoons

½ cup shelled and salted pistachios

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (Go easy on the salt because the nuts are salted.)

½ packed cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. Place the scapes in the container of a food processor and pulse about 10 times, until finely chopped.

2. Add 1 cup of olive oil and the pistachios and pulse until thick and chunky.

3. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Add the cheese and stir to mix well.

5. Place the pesto in a 2-cup glass jar and cover the top of the pesto with the additional 1½ tablespoons of oil to keep it from discoloring. Seal tightly and refrigerate.

Summer Greens with Sautéed Garlic Scapes, Anchovies, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Croutes

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: about 7 minutes, plus time to hard-boil the eggs

Total time: about 15 minutes

Yield: 3 or 4 servings as an entrée

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 garlic scapes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 slices crusty bread, like Ciabatta, cut into thin pieces

About 3 cups fresh greens (Try a mixture of arugula, butter head and other early-summer greens.)

3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half

12 anchovy fillets

Directions

1. Heat 1½ tablespoons olive oil over moderate heat in a medium-sized skillet. Add the scapes, salt and pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown and slightly softened. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. Heat the remaining 1½ tablespoons oil in the same skillet over moderate heat. Add the bread and cook about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and toasted looking. Remove from heat.

3. Arrange greens on large serving plate. Place the croutes around the outside edges of the greens. Place scapes in the middle. Place eggs on top and criss cross the anchovies over the eggs. Serve with a vinaigrette on the side (see recipe below).

Garlic Scape-Anchovy Vinaigrette

Yield¾ cup

Ingredients

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

1 garlic scape, finely chopped

3 tablespoons lemon juice

½ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon anchovy oil

Directions

1. Mix Dijon mustard with salt and pepper.

2. Add garlic scape, lemon juice, olive oil and anchovy oil. Mix until well blended.

Main photo: Garlic scapes. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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A Flock Of Laying Hens Leads To Fresh Lessons Image

This is the first spring in quite a while that our family hasn’t had a flock of laying hens. When we first moved to Maine more than three decades ago and started a garden, we thought about getting chickens. But we were city folk and didn’t know a thing about raising animals.

Several years later, when we got married at a big outdoor clambake in the field behind our farmhouse, someone gave us half a dozen baby chicks as a wedding present. Rather than being horrified (like my mother who screamed, “They gave you what? That wasn’t on your bridal registry!”), we were thrilled. We built a coop and an outdoor roaming area and became chicken owners. When they started laying eggs in the spring, we squealed with delight. When they were gobbled up by foxes after just six short months, we mourned.

Fresh eggs. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Fresh eggs. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Then we got new chicks the following spring, and this pattern of hope followed by loss went on for years. We rebuilt the coop and secured it underground and overhead, and always — always — a predator got in and attacked. So a year or so ago we gave up. Too much trauma.

I miss the ritual of feeding the chickens our table scraps and collecting the eggs every morning. I marveled over the color range — the pale blue and almost green eggs we collected. But mostly it was the flavor that made me swoon. A brilliant sunflower-yellow yolk and a flavor that made me think I was tasting an egg for the very first time.

Neighborhood source for eggs

I took the dog for a walk this morning and soaked up the May sun. We passed a neighbor’s house, where she raises more than 100 chickens in her backyard. She collects the eggs every morning and places them in a refrigerated cooler and sells them for the ridiculously low price of $3 a dozen. I put three $1 bills in her little cash box, grabbed a dozen eggs (it’s all on the honor system) and brought them home.

I made egg salad for lunch and remembered our chickens. And I thought that maybe I was not meant to be an animal farmer but a supporter of local food instead.

Summer Egg Salad

This is picnic food. I love serving egg salad on thinly sliced whole-grain bread or on top of a mixture of garden greens. You can also serve the egg salad on one piece of lightly toasted bread (open-faced) and crisscross anchovy filets on top.

Makes enough for 2 big sandwiches or serves 2 to 3 in a salad

Ingredients

6 fresh eggs

Summer Egg Salad ingredients include eggs, capers, green onions and parsley. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Summer Egg Salad ingredients include eggs, capers, green onions and parsley. Credit: Kathy Gunst

2 scallions, very thinly sliced (white and green sections)

5 caper berries, thinly sliced, or ¼ cup capers, drained

¼ cup finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 to 4 tablespoons mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

1. Place the eggs in a medium pot of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to low. Let simmer for 6 minutes.

2. Remove from the heat and let sit for 6 minutes.

3. Drain and rinse under cold running water until the eggs are cool to the touch.

4. Gently roll the eggs from side to side in the pot to lightly crack them. Fill the pot with cold water and let sit for a few minutes. The water will fill in the cracks and make it easier to peel. Drain and peel the eggs.

5. Cut the eggs in quarters and place in a bowl. Using a fork or a potato masher, chop the eggs into small pieces.

6. Add the scallions, caper berries and parsley and mix well.

7. Add the mustard, olive oil, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste.

Main photo: Summer Egg Salad. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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‘Milk. Crème. Beware …’ Ferran Adrià’s Leap Into Art Image

What is art? And where do the culinary arts fit into the spectrum of what is referred to as “art?”

These are questions I asked myself at a recent show of Ferran Adrià’s drawings, sculptures, photographs and videos, titled “Notes on Creativity,” on exhibit at The Drawing Center in Manhattan. Adrià, the world-renowned chef of the now-closed El Bulli in Spain and the master of molecular gastronomy, is mentor to many of the most forward-thinking chefs working today. He has also been the subject of several documentaries, including “El Bulli Cooking in Progress.”

From "Notes on Creativity":
"The type of person who carries a pencil around is the type of person who's open to change. Someone who walks around with a pen isn’t; he's the opposite. I always have a pencil with me, to the point where it forms a part of me."  -- Ferran Adrià


More from Zester Daily:

» Chef Ferran Adrià’s talk of innovation still resonates

» A post-El Bulli universe

» The real magic of molecular gastronomy

» Staff meals at El Bulli

In a New York Times review of the art exhibit, Roberta Smith writes, “If his cooking is close to art, then Mr. Adrià is close enough to being an artist to merit the exuberant, engrossing overview of the graphic side of this work at The Drawing Center.”

Adrià’s food is inventive, outside the box and beautiful. Although I never had the chance to eat at El Bulli (it closed in 2011), I was curious to see his recent show. The press release from The Drawing Center describes it this way: “This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the visualization and drawing practices of master chef Ferran Adrià. The exhibition emphasizes the role of drawing in Adrià’s quest to understand creativity. His complex body of work positions the medium as both a philosophical tool — used to organize and convey knowledge, meaning, and signification — as well as a physical object — used to synthesize over twenty years of innovation in the kitchen.”

Does Adrià’s translate to art?

I meandered through the three rooms containing Adrià’s work, including notebooks, drawings (some of which were created in conjunction with Marta Mendez Blaya) and photographs of chefs working at El Bulli. I couldn’t help thinking that the wall of colorful drawings looked a lot like the kindergarten classroom at my daughter’s old school. Oversized words were boldly colored and in childlike print: “Milk. Crème. Beware. Cheese. Yogurt,” read one drawing, like a warning to a lactose-intolerant child. Some drawings had a primal appeal, like the one with stick figures seated around a large oval table with the word “PARTY” printed at the bottom. My favorite drawings involved gardens and vegetables, primitive, colorful sketches of radishes, carrots and other root vegetables coming out of the ground. There is a sense of playfulness and harmony in these drawings that lets you know the sheer joy Adrià must feel when he’s in the presence of truly fresh, seasonal food.

As a cookbook author, food writer and recipe developer, I, too, have notebooks filled with drawings and diagrams of how I arrange or plate recipes I’m working on. Are they museum worthy? Certainly not. In the same way, my journals, for the most part, are not meant for anyone’s eyes but my own. So I have to ask: Is this art because Adrià is world-renowned? Is it art the way Picasso’s doodles are art?

At first, I wasn’t clear. I felt cynical even. But as I took my time and looked at the work without judgment, I began to understand that this is a show about process. It provides a glimpse into the mind of a mad (and I use this word with the utmost respect) scribbling of a genius chef who thinks about every aspect of what goes on a plate and into a diner’s mouth. His almost maniacal attention to detail, the rethinking of every possibility of flavor, is revealed in this show.

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One of several in a wall of drawings on display as part of the "Notes on Creativity" exhibit at The Drawing Room in Manhattan. Credit: Kathy Gunst

For instance, a large table contains an exhibit of 247 colorful, plasticine molds that look like fossils or papier-mâché rocks, designed to show the chefs who worked with Adrià exactly how a dish should be shaped and sized. “In cooking, dimension and proportion are very important, and the more sophisticated the style of the cuisine, the more decisive these can become … For a time the kitchen resorted to photographs,” Adrià writes. “But these did not completely solve the problem, because the proportions of each element continued to be difficult to determine.”

The working boards of Ferran Adrià

In another room, an entire wall displays oversized “working boards.” Adrià explains the idea behind these boards: “The process of creating a dish is meticulous but very simple; first jot down an idea, then develop it; if it works, develop it further.” One board, titled “How to Create a Dish,” is a crude pencil drawing of ravioli with various shapes and filling and plating ideas. Ideas are expressed on paper before they go to the kitchen, showing where food will be placed on a plate — oval shapes next to rectangles, triangles surrounded by tiny circles.

These working boards are fascinating for anyone who cooks and thinks about the colors, textures, shapes and flavors of food. And it is a great contrast to the modern world of looking at plates of food on Instagram and Facebook.

In the end, after gazing and considering Adrià drawings, working boards, journals and photographs, I left with more questions than answers. And then I realized: Isn’t that the real definition of art?

Top photo: A wall of Ferran Adrià’s drawings on display as part of the “Notes on Creativity” exhibit. Credit: Kathy Gunst


Exhibition schedule: “Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity,” curated by Brett Littmann, begins an international tour after wrapping up at The Drawing Center in February. Dates include: May 4 to July 31, 2014, at Ace Museum in Los Angeles; Sept. 26, 2014, to Jan. 18, 2015, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland; Sept. 17, 2015, to Jan. 3, 2016, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; March 20 to June 12, 2016, at Marres House for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

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