TO GET READY for the Fourth of July weekend, I whipped up a couple batches of homemade ice cream. One used vanilla beans and another used mustard.
That's right mustard, Dijon, the pale yellow stuff that the French love. I like it too, but was uncertain about the notion of making ice cream with it. Now that I have done it, I am no longer uncertain. Mustard goes on my hot dog, not in my dessert.
Whoops, my bad. Mustard ice cream is not dessert, it is a savory sauce, something you should serve in the middle of a bowl of cold vegetable soup, gazpacho for example. Or it is something you place beside a piece of grilled fish or chicken. It looks like ice cream but it tastes like cold, creamy mustard. That is what I kept telling myself as I served up scoops.
The concept of savory ice cream, frozen cream that is tart not sweet, is familiar to cooks working on the cutting edge of cuisine. It has been around for a couple of years. But it is not a notion I have cottoned to. As someone who hauls out the household's ice cream maker for special summer feasts, I cope with all the rock salt, the bags of ice and all the noise by reminding myself that it yields a sweet reward.
I was temporarily lured out of the narrow view that ice cream should be sweet by Susan Herr- mann Loomis. She runs a cooking school, On Rue Tatin, in her home in Louviers, France. She has written six cookbooks, including her latest, Cooking At Home On Rue Tatin (Morrow, 2005, $24.95). I read the book shortly before I had a recent lunch with her at Pierpont restaurant in Fells Point.
Feasting on chef Nancy Longo's succulent soft crabs, listening to Loomis and Longo share notes on cooking, I began to feel I should get brave and get out of my rut. I wanted to emulate what Loomis described as how "food fits into the French life."
I was envious as she told me how she rode her bike around her town, shopping for her daily fare, putting "my money in the hands of the person who produced it." She then set a proper table, and cooked memorable meals at which the diners lingered at the table, talking.
I wanted that life. I thought maybe mustard ice cream was the place to start.
The idea of mustard ice cream came, Loomis said, from chef Alain Passard, who was bold enough to serve an all-vegetarian menu at his three-star Paris restaurant, Arpege .
Fueled by a sense of culinary excitement, I decided to broaden the list of ingredients I put in my ice cream maker. Following Loomis' instructions, I made a custard with egg yolks, whole milk, and cream, strained it, and whisked in the 2 1/2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard.
It did feel odd putting a condiment in an ice cream maker. Moreover, every time I licked my fingers I expected to taste sugar, not mustard.
Our ice cream maker is nothing fancy. It is an aluminum canister that fits inside a plastic bucket that is filled with layers of ice and salt. It is powered by a noisy motor that plugs into an electrical outlet. The noise of the ice maker churning away drew the attention of our 20-year-old son.
"Are you making ice cream?" he asked, as visions of sugary delights danced in his head.
"Yes," I replied, "but it is mustard ice cream."
"Ugh!" he said.
Later, at dinner he tried a bite of it; he was not impressed. My wife and I liked it better than he did. We used it as a sauce for some grilled chicken. It goes best, Loomis had told me, with a soup made from vegetables just pulled from the garden. But so far this summer my garden is producing only radishes and lettuce.
The mustard ice cream did have a pleasing tang, once I got over the fact that it was not going to taste like dessert.
Next, as an act of reparation, I made vanilla ice cream. This recipe also came from Loomis. It called for vanilla beans, which I found after a hunt in the spice rack at the Super Fresh in Hampden. I would like to report that, like Loomis, I rode my bike to the market and paid the person who had produced it. Instead I drove my car, paid by credit card, and assumed that a portion of the almost $8 that I forked over for a bottle of McCormick Gourmet Collection Vanilla Beans will find it way from the Hunt Valley offices of the spice maker to the vanilla bean growers in Madagascar. I did put some coins in the hands of some locals, two young women -- one sporting some very interesting tattoos -- who were panhandling in the parking lot for gas money.
Preparing this ice cream was a two-day process. First, I infused some scalded half-and-half with vanilla beans and whisked in some egg yolks. I was supposed to use sugar that had been infused with vanilla beans, but since that required letting the sugar and vanilla beans spend about a week together ripening, I cut that step out. I did add a pinch of sea salt to the custard, to liven up the flavor.
I let the custard sit in the refrigerator overnight. The next night I put it in the ice cream maker.
This time, when my kid heard the ice cream maker he was wary.
What was in there, he wanted to know.
Ice cream, I told him, the All-American kind.
Vanilla Ice Cream
Yield: 1 quart
4 cups half and half
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise
10 large egg yolks
1 1/4 cups vanilla sugar (see below)
small pinch of fine sea salt
Place half-and-half in a large heavy-bottom saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the half-and-half, and add the beans as well. Stir, and scald over medium heat. Remove from the heat and cover, and let infuse for 20 minutes
Set a sieve in a large bowl
In another large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and salt until they are pale yellow and light. Slowly whisk in the warm infused half-and-half with the vanilla bean, then return mixture to the pan.
Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly in a figure 8 pattern until it is thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Strain the custard into the waiting bowl. Remove the vanilla bean from the strainer, rinse it and pat it dry, and return it to the custard.
Let the custard cool to room temperature, then refrigerate it until it is chilled thorough. Remove the vanilla bean and freeze the ice cream in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours before serving.
Yield 8 cups
8 cups sugar
2 fresh vanilla beans
Pour sugar into an airtight container, and push the vanilla beans down into it. Cover and let ripen for at least 1 week.
Replenish the sugar as you use it -- pour out the sugar that is already flavored, add new sugar and top it with flavored sugar. Replace the vanilla beans every 2 months or so.
Mustard Ice Cream
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
2 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl.
Whisk together the milk, cream, and egg yolks in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly but slowly in a figure 8 pattern with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon and your finger leaves a definable trace when wiped across it. This should take about 5 minutes. Pour the custard through the strainer into the bowl. Let cool to room temperature. Whisk in the mustard, then refrigerate ( overnight if necessary).
Remove the custard from the refrigerator. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. If the ice cream is too soft to hold a shape, freeze until firm.
Serve a scoop in a bowl of gazpacho or as a sauce for fish or chicken.
-- From "Cooking At Home on Rue Tatin," by Susan Herrmann Loomis