compound butter

Help! My Basil Has Bolted.

My summer lunch staple is often a meal of heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil vinaigrette. Recognizing that the lone basil plant on my window ledge wouldn’t provide enough leaves, I recently added a lush pot filled with three more basil plants. Two weeks ago and well into summer, the plants seemed to pull water the instant they were watered. All of sudden, I noticed tall green flower stalks appear where there should have been new leaves. I remembered the gardening adage, and pinched out the flowers to encourage leaf growth. It was too late as the plant bloomed with white flowers; my basil plant had “bolted” or gone to seed.

A plant bolts when the weather becomes too hot – a survival mechanism for the species. The stalk rapidly produces flowers, which then go to seed. Bolting is a common gardening term, but it represented nothing that I had encountered in all the years that I had grown basil. I would have not even realized the connection, if not for a Skype chat with my uncle who asked me to look out for bolt-free cultivars of spinach. (Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and cilantro are some of the plants that bolt.) Plants that have bolted become inedible, and their stems become woody and tasteless and the leaves turn bitter. The leaves on my basil plant had just started turning bitter, and I immediately stripped them off the plant. I used the basil leaves to make pesto and basil butter in order to preserve what was left of their aromatic sweetness.

Some Common Sense Tips To Prevent Bolting:

  • Move the plants to a shady location once the weather becomes hot.
  • Cover the topsoil with mulch to keep the roots cool.
  • Cut back the existing leaves further down the stem, forcing the plant direct its energy towards producing more leaves.
  • Deadhead or promptly remove the buds as soon as they start to appear.
  • If starting from seeds, stagger when the plants mature (early spring to fall) so as to have a continuous supply of new plants.

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Étouffée (or Etouffee)

Even a week after Mardi Gras’ end in New Orleans, the colorful bead garlands continue to drape trees along the parade route. A time for simplicity that follows all the merrymaking seems harder to shed in the city, especially one noted for its soupy gumbo, meaty jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée (pronounced ay-too-fay). It is here on a cool February afternoon as I was enjoying étouffée, a seafood dish ladled over plump rice grains, that I realized that this dish could be even further enhanced with compound butter.

Étouffée originated in the bayous of Louisiana where crawfish, a small lobster-like crustacean, is plentiful. When crawfish isn’t in season, shrimp is substituted and is “smothered” (from French verb, étouffer) in a creamy roux sauce. The shellfish flavors in the dish are developed through a two-step process. Combining shrimp stock with butter makes shrimp compound butter, and this modified butter provides the base for a rich roux.

Shrimp Étouffée

Raw shrimp (with shells) – 1 lb

Butter – 4 tbsp

Flour – 2 tbsp

Onion – 1 medium, chopped finely

Garlic cloves – 2, minced

Bell pepper – 1, de-seeded and chopped

Celery stalk – 1, chopped

Bay leaf – 1

Seafood stock – 1 cup

Cayenne pepper – 1 tsp

Red chili pepper – ¾ tsp

Fresh pepper – ½ tsp

Salt – ½ tsp

Lemon – ½, juiced

Green onions – 3, chopped finely

Parsley – 3 tbsp, chopped

Cooked rice – for serving

  • To make the stock: Shell and devein the shrimp. Reserve the heads and shells. Make a shrimp stock by adding the heads and shells to 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cook on low for about 20-25 minutes. Skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Divide the stock, keeping one half of the stock with all the shells.
  • To make the shrimp compound butter: Add 4 tbsp of butter to the stock with the shells. Continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Strain the shells, and allow the liquid to cool. The butter will solidify and can be skimmed off the surface to become shrimp compound butter.
  • To make the roux: Heat a cast iron pan. Add the shrimp compound butter. When it melts, add a tablespoon of flour at a time, stirring and incorporating it into the butter. Keep stirring on simmer. As the roux cooks, it loses the floury taste. The color changes from white to cream to brown, and the aroma from sugar cookie to toffee.
  • Once the roux has turned to a rich brown color, add the onions, bell pepper, garlic, celery and bay leaf and cook for about 8-10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened.
  • Add the cayenne pepper, chili flakes and pepper. Sauté for one minute.
  • Add the stock, salt and bring to a boil. Whisk so that the roux and stock are well mixed. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
  • Add the shrimp and cover and cook for 5 minutes until the shrimp has turned pink. Do not overcook.
  • Just before serving, add the lemon juice, green onions, and salt. Garnish with parsley.
  • Serve over cooked rice.

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Compound Butter: Solidifying Flavors

I was alerted to the death of Michele Ferrero, the renowned maker of Nutella, by a flurry of texts from A. and N. – huge Nutella fans. I read in her obituary that Nutella  was discovered accidentally. With cocoa being in short supply during the war, hazelnuts were added to cocoa powder to get the same creamy consistency associated with chocolate. The concept of stretching food is all too familiar to a home cook, and I was reminded of this when I made compound butter.

Compound butter is easily created by whipping unsalted butter with herbs or interesting combinations such as lemon zest and herbs or hazelnuts and cocoa. There are two advantages in creating compound butter;  the flavor and aroma of herbs are preserved, and their essence can be summoned up instantly. For example, in the middle of another cold spell, adding compound butter made with fresh cilantro and lemon zest  gave tilapia the fragrance and taste associated with summer and warmth.

The process of making compound butter is simple. All you need is butter at room temperature, parchment paper or saran wrap (which I prefer), and your imagination. Start with readily-available ingredients like herbs, but before long, you will be trying different blends and pairings. An added bonus is that there are no right or wrong measurements – just trust your taste.

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Lemon Zests and Cilantro Compound Butter

Lemon –1, zest

Unsalted Butter (room temperature) – 4 tbsp

Cilantro – 1/3 bunch, washed and leaves chopped

Salt – ¼ tsp

Saran wrap

  • Whip the butter and all the ingredients in a bowl, until well incorporated.
  • Pile the mixture onto the saran wrap. Form the mixture into a log shape. Roll the saran wrap tightly around the log of compound butter. Freeze or chill until needed.
  • When ready to use, cut a disc or two and add them directly into the skillet to flavor fish or vegetables.

 

 

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Note: The hazelnut and cocoa compound butter that I made worked well as a sweet spread, while the balsamic vinegar and cracked pepper butter was simply tossed with cooked kale and mushrooms.