IT'S 10 IN the morning; scents of tea and freshly baked buns waft through Susan Belsinger's Howard County, Md., kitchen. The round wooden table is set with stoneware, crocks of jam and honey, brightly colored napkins and an African violet in full bloom.
It would be an ordinary country scene except that Belsinger brewed the tea from her own mixture of homegrown herbs, collected the honey from family hives, devised the spicy jam and developed the unusual sweet roll recipe as part of an assignment for Gourmet magazine.
This small, 30-year-old woman doesn't look like a human dynamo; nevertheless, she combines the roles of food writer, photographer, caterer, herb expert, biodynamic farmer, craftswoman and wife. And that's when she's not feeding the crew of friends and neighbors helping to build the new passive solar home she and her husband designed, putting up a cold room full of fruits and vegetables or teaching cooking classes.
Belsinger's professional interest in food solidified about 10 years ago during a trip abroad with her husband Tom Sargent. (Belsinger was one of the first women in Maryland to keep her maiden name after marriage.) They spent several months in Morocco, where the abundance of spices in the street bazaars fascinated her.
"There were 50-pound bags of spices I'd never seen or even heard of before," she remembers. "I immediately tried to find out what they were for, but I couldn't speak the language and no one there could speak English." f
She found the best way to learn about such foods was to follow local cooks into their kitchens and make notes on everything they did. She continued the practice in Europe.
Her favorite country was Italy, where she spent six months cooking for the family of an art history professor. It was during her stay there that she met graphic artist Carolyn Dille.
"We had both gone to someone's house to bake bread," Belsinger reminisces.
"It was a marvelous experience! A group of us turned out 27 loaves in a wood-fired oven, and made a huge vat of apple butter." She told Dille about the recipes she had collected, and asked the artist if she'd be interested in illustrating a cookbook someday.
Both Dille and Belsinger shortly returned to the States -- but to opposite coasts. Their writing collaboration didn't begin until 1978, when Belsinger and her husband temporarily moved to California.
"By that time," explains Belsinger, "Carolyn had taken professional cooking classes in Italy, and had a recipe collection of her own, so we talked about writing food articles together." Naturally, they thought of Italian cooking first, but decided the field was saturated. "Then we hit on herbs, because so many people really don't know how to use them."
The first article they wrote was on parsley because they felt it was familiar to almost everyone. However, they tried to think up an unusual approach and different recipes.
They sent the piece to Gourmet magazine, proposing an herb series. The editors found the parsley article so appealing that they asked for two more like it, and then contracted for a 12-part series which ran throughout 1980 as "A Calendar of Herbs."
Belsinger and Dille worked out an efficient system for producing each article. One day was spent devising about 12 to 15 recipes, the next shopping for ingredients, and the third testing the dishes.
Each partner worked on about half of the recipes, with Dille responsible for those containing any meat or fish because Belsinger is a vegetarian (and has been for about 11 years). "Our goal was to finish everything by 7, because we always had a tasting party at 7:30 for 12 to 15 friends," notes Belsinger.
Since that time, the pair also has sold articles and photographs (taken by Belsinger) to national herb magazines such as Whitchappel's Herbal and The Herb Quarterly. They are presently collaborating on an herb cookbook that will stress the "new and modern" recipes that have become their hallmark.
In the meantime, the two women began a small catering business. In 1979, when Besinger and her husband returned to Maryland to live with his parents in their country home, she decided to continue catering -- with her sister, Columbia resident Doneth Hinkleman, as a partner.
Her sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Louanne Sargent and Michael Bower, members of Belsinger's present household, also help out with the cooking, serving and bartending.
Belsinger describes her life style as "give and take with the land and the neighbors." She and her husband still use the biodynamic farming methods they learned in Italy, which include such techniques as planting by the phases of the moon.
"When the moon is waning -- that is, going from full to new -- we plant root crops that grow mainly underground. When it is waxing, from new to full, we plant our above-ground crops. Transplanting is done at full moon."
The couple often trades surplus from their abundant garden and honey produced in their hives for a day's labor on their new home. They sometimes barter their professional talents, as well.
With its curved and windowless north side, dearth of interior walls, and its loft, the structure is reminiscent of a barn. "The whole first floor will be like a big country kitchen," Belsinger says, waving her arms to indicate its location. "I want to put an eight-foot trestle table right here. iI can write at one end of it, and also use it for cooking classes."
She has planned a number of custom cabinets, a special pasta workbench and bins to hold flour and other staples. And there will be easy access to a basement cold room where Belsinger plans to store her enormous larder of home-canned goods and dried herbs.
Following are some of Susan Belsinger's favorite recipes, developed with friend and co-author Carolyn Dille. BLACK AND WHITE BEAN SOUP Black Bean Soup: 1 1/4 cups black beans 1 teaspoon salt 2 large cloves garlic 3 tablespoons vinegar 2 medium chiles, chopped fine 1/4 cup olive oil White Bean Soup: 1 1/4 cup white beans 1 teaspoon salt 2 large cloves garlic 2 tablespoons fresh savory or (2 1/2 teaspoons dried savory) 1/4 cup olive oil
Soak black beans overnight, pour off water, combine in saucepan with salt and add fresh water to cover 2 inches above beans. Simmer beans for 40 to 50 minutes until tender. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer 10 minutes more. In food processor or blender puree the soup in batches.
Soak white beans overnight, pour off water, combine them in saucepan with salt and add fresh water to cover 2 inches above beans. Simmer them for 40 to 50 minutes until tender. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer 10 minutes more. In the food processor or blender puree the soup in batches. Float the white soup on the black or the black on the white depending on what color your serving dishes are. Garnish with an edible flower such as a nasturtium, daylily or orange blossom. CALIFORNIA COUSCOUS (4 to 6 servings)
California Couscous is excellent as a hot salad or an accompaniment to roasted meats. The nutty sweet character of couscous is highlighted by the subtle combination in the sauce. 2 cups boiling water 2 vegetable bouillon cubes 1 cup couscous 1/2 pound mushrooms 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped 1/2 pound seedless green grapes, halved 1/3 pound pistachios, shelled
In saucepan bring 2 cups water to boil with 2 vegetable bouillon cubes. Add the couscous and stir over medium-high heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until most of the water is absorbed. Cover and set aside for 15 minutes.Clean and halve the mushrooms. Saute them in the butter for about 5 minutes, then add the chopped mint leaves. Stir for about 1 minute more and add the grapes and pistachios. Fluff couscous with a fork and put it in a heated serving dish. Arrange the mushroom mixture on top and serve immediately. CHESHIRE PORT PIE (6 servings) 1 single whole-wheat butter crust (recipe follows) 1 egg, separated 1/2 pound cheshire cheese, grated 1 large or 2 small shallots 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup light cream 1/2 cup port wine 1/3 cup minced parsley 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Roll the crust to fit a 9-inch quiche pan, turning excess under edges and crimping well against the sides of the dish. Chill, lightly covered, for at least 30 minutes before baking. Beat the egg egg white until lightly foamy, brush the crust with the white and prick well with a fork. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 10 minutes, remove and cool to room temperature. Spread the grated cheese in the bottom of the crust. Finely mince the shallot and saute in the butter in a small skillet over low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and put in a medium bowl. Add the cream, port, parsley, salt, pepper and reserved egg yolk and beat with whisk until well blended.
Pour the mixture into the crust over the cheese and bake in a preheated 375-degree over for 30 minutes, until the top puffs to a golden brown. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting. BASIC WHOLE-WHEAT BUTTER CRUST Single Crust 1 cup unbleached white flour 1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour Pinch salt 8 tablespoons cold butter 6 to 8 tablespoons ice water
Mix the flours and the salt together in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into 16 pieces. Cut the butter into the flours until the butter is in pieces the size of small peas. Add the ice water, sprinkling it in 2 tablespoons at a time while lifting and moistening the flour/butter mixture with a fork. Form the dough into a ball, wrap loosely with plastic wrap or foil and flatten into a rough round about 1 1/2 inches thick.Chill for 30 minutes before rolling out. Double Crust 12 tablespoons cold butter 1 3/4 cup unbleached white flour 3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour Pinch salt 8 to 10 tablespoons ice water
Follow the directions for the single crust, dividing the dough into 2 portions before chilling. LAMB RAGOUT (6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder 1 cup full-bodied red wine 2 cloves garlic, split and peeled 1 teaspoon salt 1 small bunch tarragon 2/3 cup pitted prunes 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 pound mushrooms
Trim the lamb and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Marinate the lamb in the wine, garlic, salt and tarragon for at least 3 hours at a cool room temperature. Roughly chop the prunes. Saute the lamb over moderately high heat in 2 tablespoons butter for 15 minutes, turning frequently. Add the marinade and the prunes to the lamb and simmer covered for 30 minutes. Saute the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons butter over moderate heat for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms to the lamb. Remove from heat, cover and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Make a ring of rice or riced potatoes on a warm serving platter, put the lamb ragout in the center and garnish with tarragon. Serve hot. JICAMA CHERVIL CUCUMBER SALAD (6 servings) 2 cups jicama, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1/4-by-2-inch strips $51 large bunch escarole 1 1/2 cups seedless cucumber, cut into 1/8-inch slices 1/3 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, julienned 1/2 cup minced chervil 1/4 cup lemon juice 3/4 cup walnut oil 1/2 teaspoon salt
Blanch the jicama for 3 minutes, refresh under cold water, drain, pat dry and chill. Trim, wash and dry escarole. Tear the escarole into large pieces and arrange in a wide shallow salad platter. Toss the jicama, cucumber and prosciutto with half of the chervil and arrange in a shallow mound on the escarole. Blend lemon juice with walnut oil, salt and the remaining chervil. Drizzle the salad with the dressing and serve immediately. r SAVORY SWISS CRACKERS (Makes about 3 1/2 dozen) 1 cup unbleached white flour 3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 8 tablespoons butter, softened 1/2 cup finely grated swiss cheese 3 tablespoons finely chopped summer savory 6 tablespoons ice water
Sift together flours, baking powder and salt. Mix in butter. Add swiss cheese and summer savory. Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is a workable consistency. Roll the dough out to 3/16-inch thick on a floured surface and cut into diamond shapes. Bake on baking sheets in a preheated 375-degree over for 15 minutes or until golden brown. SAVORY CORN RELISH (Makes 6 pints) 20 to 24 ears fresh sweet corn 2 1/2 cups assorted chopped peppers (red, yellow, green) 2 cups chopped onion 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 cup honey 1 cup white wine vinegar 1 tablespoon salt 2 teaspoons celery seed 4 tablespoons finely chopped winter savory 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard 3 cloves garlic, minced 3/4 teaspoon turmeric 6 3-inch sprigs savory
Boil corn in a large kettle of water for 4 minutes. Put immediately into cold water. When cool enough to handle, cut corn from the cob. There should be at least 10 cups corn. In a large enamel or stainless-steel pot combine chopped peppers, onion, 1 1/2 cups water, olive oil, honey, vinegar, salt, celery seed, savory, mustard and garlic. Bring these ingredients to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Add 10 cups corn and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer about 8 minutes. Take 2 tablespoons of the corn liquid and combine with tumeric in a small cup, mixing well, and return it to the pot. Simmer 2 minutes. more and ladle the corn relish into hot pint jars with a sprig of savory in each jar. Seal and process in boiling water for 15 minutes.
This relish is a superb accompaniment to lunch or dinner, and is as esthetically pleasing as it is palatable. HONEYDEW CHERVIL SORBET (8 to 10 servings) 1/3 cup sugar 1 cup boiling water 1 large honeydew melon 4 tablespoons packed chervil 1 cup asti spumante
Dissolve sugar in boiling water and let the syrup cool. Remove seeds and scoop enough pulp from honeydew melon to measure 3 1/2 cups. In the food processor or the blender, puree the honeydew with the syrup and chervil in batches. Pour the puree into a 9-by-12-inch glass or ceramic dish and freeze for 1 hour. Remove the sorbet and break it up with a wire whisk or a hand-held mixer. Repeat the procedure twice more, stirring in asti spumante after the sorbet has been stirred for the last time. Ten minutes before serving, break up the sorbet and process to a smooth puree in the food processor. Transfer into chilled serving glasses return to freezer for 5 minutes. PINEAPPLE PYRAMID CAKE (12 to 14 servings)
A spectacular dessert for special occasions. The cake and custard may be made up to two or three days ahead. If you do this keep both tightly covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. Plan to assemble the cake in the morning of an evening party. Refrigerate the cake and remove from refrigerator 2 hours before serving. Cake: 2 sticks butter 6 large eggs at room temperature 4 egg yolks at room temperature 2 cups sugar 2 1/2 cups pastry flour 1/2 teaspoon salt Grated peel of 1 lemon Pineapple Cream Custard: 2 cups milk 4 egg yolks 6 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons arrowroot powder 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 20-ounce can crushed pineapple, well drained Pyramid Construction: 1 cup dark rum 1 cup unsweetened coconut shreds 2 15-ounce cans pineapple rings, well drained
To make the cake: Melt the butter over a low flame and set to cool. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat 4 cups of water until almost boiling. Pour the hot water into a large bowl which will hold another large bowl. Beat eggs, egg yolks and sugar in the other large heat-proof bowl. Beat the mixture over the hot water with an electric beater until it becomes very pale yellow and thick and warm to the touch. This should take about 5 minutes. Do not let the mixture get too hot. Remove the bowl from the water and continue beating until the mixture is completely cool and very thick, with all the sugar completely dissolved (about another 3 minutes). Sift the flour 3 times, adding the salt. Very slowly fold the flour, 1/3 at a time, into the egg mixture. Very carefully fold in the melted butter, 1/3 at a time. When thoroughly blended, fold in the grated lemon rind. Butter and flour an 8-inch square cake pan and a 12-by-8-by-2-inch cake pan. An aluminum baking pan will give a more tender crust. Pour the batter into the pans so that the depth is equal in both. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. The top of the cakes will be pale golden brown. Test with a cake tester after 20 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool completely before removing from pan.
To make the custard: Scald the milk and keep it hot. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar and salt with an electric beater until they are pale and fluffy. Then, using a whisk, beat the hot milk into the egg mixture slowly, incorporating 1/3 of the milk at a time. Put the custard over a low heat or a double boiler, reserving 1/2 cup in a small bowl. Add the arrowroot to the reserved custard, beating well to completely dissolve the arrowroot. Add this mixture to the custard in the pan and stir constantly, cooking just until the custard is thick enough to coat a wooden spoon (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and add the vanilla. Let the custard cool to room temperature and add the pineapple, beating it in with a whisk. Refrigerate the custard until it is firm and you are ready to spread it between the cake layers.
Trim the sides of the cakes 1/8-inch all around. Cut the larger cake into the following pieces: 6 1/2-inch square, 4 1/2-inch square, 3-inch square and 2-inch square.
To construct: Pour rum on a plate. Soak the 8-inch cake briefly on top and bottom, and place on a serving platter. Cover entirely, but not heavily, with custard, using a rubber spatula. Soak the next-largest layer, top and bottom, in rum and center it on the bottom layer. Cover with custard. Repeat this procedure until you have built a pyramid. Sprinkle the coconut over the entire cake, pressing it lightly into the custard with a rubber spatula. Decorate the layers with pieces of pineapple rings: Cut 6 rings into halves for the base layer. Cut the rest of the rings into eights for the top layers. Center 3 small pieces in a pyramid shape on the top layer of the cake.