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Planning for Inspiration

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I believe that I have mentioned this before, but for all of you who are new to reading our blog, it is worth noting that my husband and I typically squeeze and entire week’s worth of home cooking into two far-too-short weekend days. Perhaps because of this, I approach a weekend full of cooking through the lens of a notorious and slightly obsessive planner.

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Yes, it is quite likely that I spend far too much time during my evenings paging through recipes, perusing blogs and forums, reading online reviews or comments, checking for not-to-be-missed sales, and browsing through pinterest images for new ideas. Often times these searches are shaped by the ingredients included in that week’s CSA haul – search pinterest for “kale” or “garlic scape” and you are quite likely to be entirely overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of recipes and photos that turn up in the query. Occasionally a dish will be planned out to make use of a pantry ingredient that has spent a bit too much time on the cupboard shelf – and I spend my time scanning the glossaries of old cookbooks for “mung bean” or “sticky rice” in hopes of striking upon an inspiring image or intriguing combination of ingredients.

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By the end of the week, my cooking plan for the weekend has taken shape. I have a peg board where I pin up the weekend’s top candidates, including recipes, photos of plating ideas, designs for canning labels, themes for a new blog post etc. I scan our pantry and cupboard for required ingredients, making sure to note what additions are needed. Come Friday morning, my grocery list is well sketched out, organized by section, and I know well which items will require a trip to a specialty store. But unlike my loving husband, who has laser-like focus when it comes to executing on a well-documented shopping plan, I have a tendency to get a bit distracted at the market.

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I have a very difficult time not being swayed by a beautiful pile of peak season produce. I guess this should not be surprising to you given that this is, after all, a blog about cooking with in-season fruits and vegetables. Above all, I have a huge soft spot for heirlooms – if it looks a bit different than the average head of cauliflower, or bunch of beets, I cannot resist the urge to take it home and put it to use, looking for any discernible difference between the standard produce variety and whatever local breed I have happened upon.

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Often times I find that the nuances of a certain type of fruit or even of a variety of veggie at a certain time of year, make the produce better suited to a certain application. Petite early season beets are amazingly tender and their subtle sweetness shines through when simply roasted and served on a salad. Late season beets have a more pronounced earthiness and stand up well to slow roasting on the grill where they pick up a smokey flavor and can then be puréed into a rosy pink beet dip with a bit of dill, yogurt and tahini.

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The point of all of this is that, cooking from the farmers market requires a bit of flexibility. Even my best laid plans for, say, ratatouille can be foiled by a sudden dearth of eggplant. Or I may find that the peaches I purchased were too tart to be simply sliced and served atop pound cake. But all is not lost, the too tart peaches may be better suited to another application, for example – they might be delicious if marinated and grilled as an accompaniment to pork chops.

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I recently made it home from Whole Foods with a curiously tall bunch of celery. As it turned out this celery was far more bitter than the typical variety and, as such, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of munching on it raw, and even a thick glob of peanut butter couldn’t cut the bitter undercurrent. I sat for a while and flipped through cook books looking for a recipe that would make use of the bitter celery. When I happened upon a recipe for a celery and mushroom risotto I was inspired. I suspected that the celery, when sautéed in butter, would take on a softer, nuttier flavor and hoped that the herbaceousness would bring a lightness to the often times heavy dish. Though we did not have mushrooms on hand, they were not missed, but if you are inspired by the idea, feel free to toss some in with the celery as it sautées.

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Celery Risotto – Inspired by The Meat Free Monday Cookbook (Serves 5)

6 C Water or Stock
1 TBSP Butter
1 TBSP Olive Oil
2 Leeks, Halved and Sliced Thinly
2 Sprigs of Thyme, Minced
2 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
6 Stalks of Celery, Cut into Small Dice
1/4 Cup White Wine
460g (2.5 Cups) Arborio Rice
28g (1/4 Cup) Grated Parmesan Cheese
56g (1/4 Cup) Fromage Blanc (or Ricotta)
Chopped Parsley to Serve

Place the water or stock in a saucepan (pick a saucepan with a well-filling lid.) Put the pan over medium high heat and bring to a boil, once boiling, put the lid on the pan and lower the heat to keep the liquid at a simmer.

In a wide sautee pan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and thyme and sautee until soft. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant. Add the celery to the pan along with a small pinch of salt and sautee until the celery softens, stirring occasionally.

Once the celery is soft add the wine and cook until the liquid has almost completely evaporated. Add the rice along with a ladle of the simmering liquid and stir until the liquid has been absorbed by the rice. Continue adding stock, one ladle-full at a time, until the rice is cooked to your liking (I like mine to still have a firm, but definitely not a crunchy, texture.) Once you have reached a nice texture remove the pan from the heat and add the cheeses. Taste the risotto for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Serve hot topped with parsley and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

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Polenta Pizza – Topped with Kale

Spring is settling herself in right now, or at least she is trying. Perhaps its the ever controversial global warming giving our girl a rough run, but she seems to be experiencing some crisis of identity as she navigates the gap between the seasons. Like an awkward tweenager she makes her way in fits and starts. One minute she is demure and sun-beaming, makeup painted on with an expert hand – smiling pretty. Seconds later she has run her stockings, throws a fit, mascara streaking down her face as tears the size of nickels come rolling down. Flurries of laughter lightly mask deep seated angst but there is rumbling still beneath the surface. Sure, it looks pretty today, but don’t be fooled by the Polaroid image – it is only a moment in time. Storms are likely a-coming, and knowing our luck, they will arrive just in time for the weekend.

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With the winds a-changing we are busily reading ourselves for the onslaught of fresh fruits and veggies that comes with the start of the CSA season. I have been scouring the corners of the deep freezer for any remnants of last season’s produce and am doing my very best to clear out any stragglers hiding out in the “root cellar.” Making room for this year’s haul also entails a desperate attempt to make use of my stockpile of “freshly milled” grains from Anson Mills that have been biding their time in the deep freezer. With only a moment or two spent scanning the contents of the waist-high freezer you will find everything from Red Fife Wheat to Perfectly Milled Grits hanging out in organic looking brown satchels. Though I am embarassed to admit it, I have barely begun to make a dent in the wide array of milled products I ordered from Anson in early February.

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I am all about working with great ingredients, but there is something about working with this amazingly high caliber of goods that is simultaneously exciting and intimidating. For a bit of background on just why I have this amazing respect for what the folks over at Anson Mills have accomplished, the farmers and millers at Anson Mills have toiled for years to recreate heritage milled products grown by Small Farmers (themselves growing grain on about 150 acres) in South Carolina.

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In reviving centuries old growing and milling practices for grains, Anson Mills brings us back a piece of our food culture past. Many of the products in their repertoire, like their widely renown grits, likely also exist in what I hesitate to even call a weak likeness on a shelf in your local Walmart. But Anson Mills have taken these ingredients, food stuffs which, in other hands, have become ubiquitous, commonplace, and so often thoughtlessly processed and have elevated them to their former glory as cornerstones of New American cuisine.

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On their site, Anson Provides copious notes on the origins of each of their products paying tribute to the grain’s history and heritage with a detailed write up on its evolution as a foodstuff and some finer notes on what makes certain varietals of a grain uniquely disposed to a specific type of milling and/or culinary use. I found the write up on corn incredibly fascinating, in addition to delving into the division between flint and dent corn, the author works to provide some fine tuned background on what makes cornmeal, polenta, and corn flour unique; a question I, myself, had wondered for quite some time. And while all of this is immensely inspiring, the grains themselves feel almost too special to put to work.

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And so, dear readers, my satchels of perfectly milled flatbread flour, rye, farro, and grits have sat gathering the freezer equivalent of dust while I have fiddled about looking for the right recipes to showcase these meticulously ground gems. Armed with what I hoped would be a great recipe to show off the proud textures of Anson Mills’ polenta I set off to the freezer to pluck out a bag of their Polenta Integrale. At the same time I “unearthed” a bag of frozen kale that I knew was hiding about the bottom of the freezer and set about making dinner.

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This dish was inspired by a recipe from “Whole Grains for a New Generation” by Liana Krissoff, which has become an indespensible reference for grain cooking techniques and ideas (during a recent purge of old cookbooks for a yardsale, and subsequently, sale on Amazon, I knew this was one book that I simply cound not part with.) While Liana’s recipe is lovely I, as usual, was itching to play with the quantities of the ingredients called for, adding more kale, tossing in some frozen corn, reducing the amount of cheese etc… When making this recipe we tested two different techniques for baking the “crust.” Both methods were delicious though they turned out quite different looking end products. For the first crust we allowed the polenta to cool in the pan for only a short time (5-10 minutes) before releasing the springform. The polenta, which was not yet fully set, poured out into an organic pie shape. Though it could not be flipped to allow the underside to cook as well, we tossed on the toppings, popped it in the oven and pulled out a lovely freeform pie not long thereafter. With the second crust, we poured the crust and baked through the first baking and then allowed it to cool before popping it in the refrigerator overnight for use the next day. This crust was far easier to work with as it had fully set and the polenta was well jelled. Feel free to toy with the amount of time you rest the crust, the fact that it can be so easily poured and par-baked in advance makes it a great make ahead recipe for those with little time in the evenings to get dinner from chopping board to table.

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Polenta Pizza with Sweet Corn, Kale, and Cheddar

1 Large Bunch of Kale (about 450g), Washed Well (Don’t Bother to Dry), Stems Removed and Reserved for Another Use, Leaves Left Whole
OR 1 Bag Frozen Kale, Defrosted and Drained
4 Cups Water
1/2 TSP Kosher Salt
160g Polenta (All Grind Sizes are OK Though Cooking Times Will Vary)
1/2 Cup (about 56g) Cheddar Cheese, Grated*
2 Large Eggs, Lightly Beaten
1 Cup Corn Kernels (Frozen and Fresh Are Both OK – See Note Below**)

The Unexpeceted Cheddar from Trader Joes is mind-blowingly good, the flavor profile strikes a nice balance between sharp parmesean and tangy cheddar and it is on the harder side for a cheddar. If substituting another type of cheese, an aged cheddar would work well, as, I imagine, would an asiago or a mild parmesan*
*We used fresh kernels, if using frozen it may be a good idea to allow them to partially thaw and drain before use

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Preheat the oven to 425 degreese.

Prepare an 8-Inch spring form pan by lightly spraying it with cooking spray. Take a piece of parchment and place it over the insert of the springform pan. Close the rim around the paper leaving long pieces sticking out of the ends. Set the pan on a silpat (or parchment) lined baking tray (preferably with a rim.)

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Wash the greens REALLY well, I typically run this procedure in a salad spinner by filling the spinner with water and dunking the greens in and out of the water, if the water starts to look murky dump it and refill it. (You can “dump” the water in your garden or use it to water house plants!) Kale, especially the curly-leaf varieties has a way of clinging onto little pockets of dirt so as you go about washing the leaves, make sure to agitate the greens with your hands to loosen any dirt clumps that my be hiding in the curls. Drain the leaves but don’t dry them.

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Prepare a large ice bath and set it next to the stove (if possible.) Place the greens in a large pot over high heat. Cook, covered, with just the water clinging to leaves, tossing occasionally with rubberized tongs, until wilted, about 4 to 6 minutes. When the greens are just done cooking transition them immediately to your prepared ice bath to shock them – the shocking process will not only stop the cooking process but will brighten the greens color and prevent the greens from looking stodgy and muted.

Once the greens have thoroughly cooled in the ice bath dump them into a large colander. Grab a fist sized bunch and squeeze it between your palms to extract as much water as possible. Place the well drained balls of greens on a cutting board and chop them coarsely.

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In a medium saucepan, bring the 4 Cups of water to a boil over high heat. As soon as bubbles break the surface, add the salt and corn kernels. Once the water is boiling again, add the polenta in a stead stream, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and allow the polenta to simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened.

Pour the polenta into the prepared baking pan and pop it into the oven to bake for about 25 minutes.

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While the polenta is baking whisk the eggs together in a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the greens, a few hearty cracks of pepper, and the cheese. Mix well and then cover with plastic and pop it in the fridge until it is needed.

Once the 25 minutes have elapsed, remove the polenta and place it on a metal rack to cool for at least 30 minutes.

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OK – now for the tricky part. Pop open the hinge on your springform pan. Depending on how well set the polenta is, it may ooze out a bit. This is A-OK, step back and let it do its thing, this is why we lined the spring form with a long piece of parchment. Take a second piece of parchment and place it on top of the polenta circle. On top of this place a cookie sheet clamp the sheet down tightly atop the baking tray. Now, carefully, and in one smooth motion, flip the entire unit over. Remove the baking tray, the bottom of the springform pan, and the parchment. Your polenta wheel should now be sitting pretty on a cookie sheet with what was formerly the bottom now facing up.

Place the cookie sheet in the oven for 15 mins to begin to cook the top. Remove the pan and scatter the kale topping over the base. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 25 mins or so. I like the kale topping well crisped but take care that it doesn’t burn.

Which came first – the chicken or the eggplant? – Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant

I recently went through a stage of Sweet Corn obsession. You see I found this little, ok, not so little, really, actually, quite big, Amish Stand in Green Hills, next to the Green Hills Y, that had (probably still has but I am trying to avoid making eye contact with this food candy for at least the next few weeks – ok days) the most amazing corn ever (to my former English teachers, yes, that is a run on sentence, and yes there are probably more commas than needed and all in the wrong places, you tried, I know, but I probably wasn’t listening.) This corn made me giddy, it was probably all of the sugary carbohydrates talking, but I wanted to do a little dance when I ate it (which I am wont to do – both the eating and the jig dancing that is.)Image

I am not entirely sure what the Amish Farmers that raise this corn feed their soil, but I am pretty sure it should be examined and exploited to make more delicious corn for the rest of the world. Now most of you probably do not get this excited about corn, I mean, its just CORN, Right? the crop has been around for-ever, we use it to do all sorts of things, and I agree, it has, and we do. And I realize that I am raving on and on about a crop that has gotten a good smattering of bad press in the last few years. Some of that negative image is, indeed, warranted. But, I think there is good reason that man has persisted in cultivating corn for the last 4500 years or so.

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Corn is the most widely grown crop in the Americas. In the United States, 40% of the corn produced goes into our gas tanks, a frightening thought, and a topic for an entirely different debate, the other 60% is divvied up between feed for livestock, and food stuffs for the general population. Corn’s popularity in the states is nothing new, Native American populations fostered a unique growing methodology for corn growing it on the side of steep hills. The corn was planted in tandem with bean crops, the corn provided structure and support on the steep hills for the beans, which in turn provided the much needed nitrogen in the soil to fuel the corn’s growth. This method is still used today around the world where farmers typically employ a crop rotation methodology planting first a nitrogen-fixing crop like alfa alfa or soy beans, and the planting the corn in the enriched soil.

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With these advancements and subsequently, the relative ease of growing corn in the Americas, we have found ourselves in a situation in which corn can be found far and wide, in or cars, in soda cans, in pretzels, breads, in feed for cattle, and as pale and meager looking ears stacked on Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic. Spread around like this, it is easy to see how corn has gotten itself a bad reputation (what a food industry floozie!) But this recipe, by the ever genius Yotam Otolenghi, takes advantage of (well raised, peak season) corn’s sweetness, its supple texture and starchy consistency, and exploits these traits to create a homey and comforting fresh corn polenta that will make even the best mashed potatoes or restaurant cooked polenta look pale and homely by comparisson.

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This dish to me is the epitome of August cooking, it employs foods that are the glut of the late summer harvest and turns them into a truly comforting and elegant meal of restaurant quality. I made some significant changes to Ottolenghi’s methodology in devising this dish, First, though I am typically not a huge fan of microwave cooking, I had heard that microwaving cubed eggplant sandwiched between layers of paper towels and plates would prevent it from absorbing nearly its body weight in oil during the initial sauteing process. I placed the cubes on a single layer on a large paper towel lined dinner plate and microwaved them for three minutes to steam them. Once all of the cubes had been cooked in batches I sauteed them in a non-stick skillet with minimal oil. An addition of tomato paste during the sautee helped create a brilliant crust on the eggplant as the paste created a caramel-y sear.

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Trying to be true to our “healthy cooking” identity, I significantly reduced the amount of butter and cheese in the polenta itself. To me, and to Dustin – who happily gobbled it up by the bowlful, the fat was not missed, in fact, I suspect that the nearly double dose of Feta would overpower some of the sweetness that I loved so much about the corn mash. I blended the corn in my food processor, which, with its long flat blade and smooth spinning motion, were perfect for the job. If you don’t have a processor, a food mill or stick blender will work well. Just let the mixture cool slightly before processing with these tools (especially the stick blender) to keep the mixture from hopping out of the pan (or mill) and singeing your skin. I would caution against a high power blender, like a vitamix, for this endeavor. The high velocity vortex that these contraptions create may make the corn simultaneously too aerated, and even gummy.

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Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant (Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty)

1 Medium Eggplant Cut Into 1/2-Inch Dice
1-2 TBSP Olive Oil
2 TBSP Tomato Paste**
1/4 C. White Wine (Dry – I Used a Cheap Dry Chardonnay)
1 C. Chopped Fresh Tomatoes*** (You Can Use Canned If Fresh Aren’t Available)
1/2 C. Water
1/4 TSP Salt
1/4 TSP Sugar
1 TBSP Chopped Fresh Oregano

6 Ears Sweet Summer Corn
2 1/4 C. Water
2 TBSP Butter
3 Oz. Crumbled Feta (I Used a Strong Brined Feta)
1/4 C. Sour Cream
1/4 TSP Salt
Freshly Cracked Pepper to Taste

Notes: **Trader Joes sells tomato paste in lovely little tubes, like the ones that you buy anchovy paste in, that you can keep in the fridge to use as needed, no more opening cans each time you need paste for a recipe and wondering what to do with the leftovers.

*** The original recipe called for skinning the tomatoes, my tomatoes were nice thin skinned heirlooms (Brandywines, I believe) I didn’t bother with the peeling and the sauce was delicious. If you have something against tomato skins or are just particularly sensitive to their presence, cut an x in the bottom of the tomato and drop it into coiling water, as soon as the skins start to loosen at the bottom, drop it into a prepared ice bath. Proceed to peel and chop as normal (careful, peeled tomatoes are particularly wily and try to flop off of the cutting board and flee.)

To start off, place the eggplants on a paper towel lined (microwave safe) plate in a single layer. Place another sheet of towels on top of the eggplant cubes and a plate on top of that and microwave for 3 minutes. Repeat in batches until all of the eggplant has been steamed in this fashion.

Heat oil in a large nonstick saute pan (I used a 12 inch scanpan with nonstick coating) add eggplant and sear, stirring often for 4-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook until the tomato paste starts to form a crust on the eggplant. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add the wine and allow it to cook off before adding the remaining ingredients. Sautee for another 4-5 minutes and then remove from the heat and set aside until needed.

Place the corn in a large pot and fill with water until covered by about 1 inch. Add a pinch or two of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 4 minutes. Drain the corn in a colander set inside of a large bowl. Place the drained corn in a food processor along with about a cup of the reserved cooking liquid and puree. The mixture should still look a bit coarse and gritty but with no visible whole kernels remaining. Return it to the pot along with another cup or so of cooking liquid, it should look like a potato soup consistency, we want to reduce this now, over medium low heat, until it looks more like mashed potatoes.

Once you reach a consistency you like, remove it from the heat and add the feta, butter, and sour cream. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.

Serve topped with a mound of the eggplant in the center (see photos above) and enjoy!

Roasted Baby Broccoli and Grain Salad with Broccoli – Almond Pesto

March 22, 2012 1 comment

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With just one episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown changed my views on broccoli forever. This life altering event occurred around the time that Dustin and I first moved in together. We were sitting on the couch one night studying for goodness only knows what classes and watching the Food Network when an episode of Good Eats came on that featured a better way to cook typically distained vegetables, like brussels sprouts and broccoli, which when steamed or boiled take on that distinctively stinky vegetable smell.

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In his typically zany way, Alton described the benefits of high-temp roasting and grilling, in digestible chunks of chemistry. Essentially, it all boils down to the Maillard Reaction. What, you might ask, is the Maillard Reaction? The Maillard Reaction is the reaction which caramelizes sugars in food to turn it brown. There are many examples of the Maillard Reaction in modern cooking, from the browning of butter solids to form a nutty and complex browned butter to the charring of vegetables over an open flame. But really, when any browning of a food takes place, the Maillard Reaction is present, from grilling steaks, to making toast, to roasting vegetables or chicken, browning changes the flavor profile of a food in a way that most of us find delicious.

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Why, you may ask, do we not get the same trans-formative qualities from steaming or boiling that we do from grilling and roasting? The answer lies in the presence of water (or lack thereof.) No matter how high you crank up your burners, water’s temperature will max out at around 212 degrees, after that it is transformed into steam. In order for the Maillard Reaction to occur you need to have amino acids (protein) a reducing sugar (like glucose) and temperatures over 250 degrees. Therefore, in the presence of lots of water, no browning will occur.

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I bought these baby broccoli on sale at Whole Foods, broccoli, regular broccoli, or even Brussels sprouts, would work well in this recipe. The broccoli is divided and cooked two ways, quickly blanked for the pesto, and roasted at high temps till lightly browned to form the bulk of the salad. The salad is filled out by cooked grains, you can use any whole grain, wild rice, red quinoa, wheat berries, and bulgur will all be nice here, from a visual perspective adding some varied color into the dish may add some sex appeal to this homely looking side dish. I saved the broccoli cooking liquid (from blanching) and used it to cook the grains, not only does this save on water, but it allows some preservation of vitamins and flavor that leeched into the water during the blanching process. This dish pairs well with a lean protein such as roasted chicken, tofu, or pork for a healthy dinner or can be served as a dish of its own on top of some arugula with additional nuts and some crumbled tempeh.

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Roasted Baby Broccoli and Grain Salad with Broccoli – Almond Pesto — slightly adapted from 101 Cookbooks

3 C Cooked Grains (I used a mixture of Bulghur, Quinoa, and Wheat Berries)
2 Large Heads Broccoli, Stems Chopped, and Tops Cut into Florets

3 Medium Cloved Garlic, Smashed
2/3 C Toasted Almonds
1/3 C Freshly Grated Parmesan
Pinch of Aleppo Pepper Flakes
2 T Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice (optional – zest of 1 lemon)
1/4 C Olive Oil
1/4 C Heavy Cream

Heat oven to 455 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a low boil.

Divide broccoli in half, toss half in a very light covering of olive oil and lightly season with salt and pepper. Spread out on a sheet pan and roast until just browned, flipping half way through. Remove from the hot pan and place on a plate in a single layer to cool.

Place other half of the broccoli in the lightly boiling water for just a minute until just brightened, you don’t want these to be “cooked” we should just take the raw off of the veggies.

Cook grains in batches in the broccoli water according to cooking directions.

Place garlic and almonds in a food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times until “minced.”

Remove broccoli from the pot with a slotted spoon and drain fully in a colander. Add broccoli, Aleppo, lemon juice (and zest if using) several turns of freshly cracked pepper, and Parmesean in the processor and pulse again until small chunks appear (should not be a paste.) Add olive oil and heavy cream and process until it appears emulsified.

Place grains and roasted broccoli in a large bowl and toss. Add some of the pesto and toss until well incorporated. Add remaining pesto as desired and reserve any remainder for another use. Season with salt and pepper to taste and enjoy!

The Winter Season – Greens and Grains Gratin

At times, its hard to find inspiration for a new post. Or really to get excited about cooking anything at all. Writers block seems to strike at the oddest and most inconvenient of times and I find this only compounded during the winter. Its ironic, really, that during the season when we have the most time and desire to stay in the house, the availability of fresh crops is at its lowest point. During the summer months I tend to find my culinary muse in markets, the desire to write about a dish often stems from my interaction with its grower – from seeing tomatoes piled high in barrels, or melons, still covered in dirt, sitting in an old wheel barrel. We are so fortunate that during the spring, summer, and early fall, there is a weekly farmers market held on our block, local farmers bring their just picked crops,and locals make their way down to mingle, and seek out the week’s best wares.

Buying veggies from a supermarket, however nice that market may be, just isn’t the same. So much of the personal nature of the food buying experience, which, for me, really drives a connection to quality, sustainable wares, is lost. No wonder we Americans eat so much mass produced product, its hard to get excited about local, sustainable agriculture and humanely produced meats and dairy when shopping in a florescent lit, big-chain market. And, unfortunately, many of the smaller local stores in Nashville, can’t pull in enough volume to drive the turnover rates needed to keep local veggies at peak freshness. Alas, during the winter months, I find I need to dig for inspiration elsewhere.

A lot of times, when the season deals a blank hand, and am suffering from a lack of inspiration, I turn to my much neglected pantry for ideas. Surveying my shelves and jars for items calling out to be used, I noticed that an overwhelming wealth of grains had taken over my closet and sought out a recipe. I started searching the blog-osphere for recipes and came across a site I had never seen before called “The Yellow House.” Their stories and photos are incredible, and, for me it was an immediate source of the inspiration I so sorely craved. My eye caught on a recipe for “Greens and Grains with Browned Yogurt Topping.” The authors intro, with beautiful pictures, and a compelling story on recycling leftovers won my heat and I was sold on giving this odd sounding dish a try.

And, boy, am I sure glad I took the leap. This dish is certainly one of my new winter favorites. The combination of grains and creamy topping is at once homey and comforting – almost reminiscent of a holiday casserole – and at the same time it is a reassuringly healthy one pot meal. As I started to combine the ingredients, I noticed a lot of similarities between this dish and an old Greek Diner Staple, Moussaka. Moussaka is an eggplant and ground meat based dish, with a creamy and decadent bechamel topping and spiced tomato sauce. I have always likened it to a Greek sort of lasagna, minus, of course, the noodles. This wholesome dish embodies the same textural and flavor couplings as moussaka by contrasting the taste of a creamy topping against spiced filling and the sensation of smooth sauce and toothsome grains. Musing on Moussaka, I was inspired to put my own twist on the author’s recipe by incorporating Middle Eastern spices, such as hot smoked paprika, lemon, aleppo pepper, and sumac into the dish.

I purchased ground Sumac, which I use in this recipe, from Whole Foods, but it can likely be found at many middle eastern markets as well. The spice has a distinctive citrusy flavor and a beautiful burgundy color. While, from a flavor perspective, there is no real substitute, the sumac is not integral to the success of the dish and may be omitted if not available. The sumac used for culinary purposes comes from a variety of non-poisonous sumac that grows wild in the middle east. Aleppo pepper can be purchased at many culinary stores and gourmet food shops, I have seen it both at Williams Sonoma and Whole Foods, but if neither of these are located near to you it is also available for purchase online through Penzy’s Spices. Aleppo is a ground pepper flake made from a moderately hot Turkish pepper. It is far more flavorful than it is spicy, if none is available Ancho Chili Powder makes a fine substitute.

Greens and Grains Gratin Adapted from a recipe by The Yellow House

1 Large Bunch of Winter Greens (Swiss Chard, Kale, or Mustard Greens work best), Stems Separated from Leaves, Washed
2 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
2 Shallots, Minced
1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
3 Cups Cooked Grains (I used a mixture of Quinoa, Wheat Berries, and Farro)
Juice of 1/2 a Lemon, Plus 1 TSP Finely Grated Lemon Zest
1/2 TSP Hot Smoked Paprika
1/2 TSP Aleppo Pepper Flakes
1 Cup Greek Style Yogurt (I used a 2% variety)
3 eggs
Ground Sumac for Sprinkling on Top

Preheat the oven to 350 degreese

To prep the greens, take the washed stems and chop into 1/2 inch pieces. Stack the leaves of the greens on top of one another. Orient the leaves so that the long side faces you and roll into a long, tight bundle. Cut the bundle into 1/2 inch segments. You should be left with long ribbons. Keep these separate from the stems as they will be incorporated at different times during the cooking process.

Heat a large cast iron skillet (see note above for alternatives*) over medium high heat. Once the pan is hot add about 2 TBSP of olive oil until shimmering. Add shallots and garlic and saute until fragrant, if they start to really brown turn down the heat so that they become soft and translucent. Add the grain stems, paprika, and a pinch of salt. Saute, stirring occasionally until the stems are slightly softened- 2-3 mins. Add the leaves to the pan along with the Aleppo Pepper and sautee until the greens are just tender. Remove from the heat and place in a large bowl along with the grains.

Toss the grain and greens mixture with your hands. Add lemon juice and 1/2 of the Parmesan and mix well. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Mix in one of the eggs until well incorporated and spread into the bottom of the cast iron skillet (if the skillet is not well seasoned, oil it before adding the grains.)

In a medium sized bowl mix eggs with yogurt and remaining Parmesan. Spread on top of the grain and smooth out the top. Sprinkle a light covering of sumac on top.

Bake in the oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until the topping is set and slightly browned. Serve along side a light salad and enjoy this homey and healthy winter feast. The dish keeps well wrapped in saran wrap for 3 or so days.

Tarting it Up – Sunchoke and Tatsoi Tart

In my mind there are few things more perfect than a french tart filled with peak season vegetables. And there are few things that give me more joy to pull out of the oven. That is what I am here to talk to you all about today. A tartilicious creation of perfect proportions, and one that I think you should try out in your own kitchen. Before we get too far in this dialogue, I will admit that, yes, a proper french tart can be a bit of a time suck to produce. However, like bread, most of this time is down time when little active work needed. In fact, in some ways, it is even simpler to produce than bread as the crust can chill in the refrigerator for an extended period of time, and the success of the tart does not require that you are in a specific place at a specific time to conduct the next step of the process. Additionally the tart crust recipe listed below produces not one but two tart crusts, so you can use one for this tart and reserve a second for a later use.

While we are on the subject of peak season produce, I want to talk to you about the two, slightly unusual, vegetables used in this dish. Lets start at the source. As I may have mentioned before, I am not the biggest fan of the large Downtown Farmers market, most of the vendors there seem – well, not so farm like. It has always stuck me as more of a big farm farmers market, where the largest of the area’s farms come to sell truck loads of mass produced fruits and veggies. But, after a recent Saturday morning trip to the downtown venue I realized that there are some real gems at the market that I had not noticed before.

The tatsoi is from one of my favorite farms in the Nashville area, Devlin Farms, which also makes an appearance at the weekly east side farmers market on our block. Dustin and I have a particular penchant for greens and I was excited to see this varietal I had never from one of my favorite growers. I didn’t hesitate to buy a bunch and took the green goodies home in hopes of transforming them into some delicious recipe. As it turns out, tatsoi tastes quite similar to one of my favorite leafy green vegetables, mustard greens. Like mustard greens the tatsoi is relatively quick cooking, especially when compared with tougher greens like collards.

But the true star of the show in this dish, and the highlight of my Saturday morning trip to the market were the Sunchokes. As of late, I have been visiting a new stand that makes an appearance at the market on saturday mornings. This small farm reminds me so much of the CSA I joined back in Philly, their produce is so clearly small farm produced, each week new veggies make an appearance picked just at the peak of ripeness. This week, sitting in a basket at the front of the stall was a grouping of odd shaped, craggy tubers. I asked the stall owner what they were and he explained to me that they were jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, a North American root vegetable that is a member of the daisy family. I had had sunchokes in purees at upscale restaurants before and remembered that they were potato like with a slightly sweet and distinctly nutty flavor. I bought just under a pound and took them home to plot out a plan of attack.

Scouring through stacks of cookbooks for recipes incorporating sunchokes, I came across a recipe in the “Ottolenghi” cookbook for a sunchoke tart with kale and feta and it stuck me that I could use both of my farmers market finds to make one of my all time favorite treats, the savory tart. And, TADA, we come full circle, to this recipe below for a french style, quiche-like tart which marries seasonal nutty sunchokes and herbaceous tatsoi into a single cohesive dish with relative easy. I highly suggest you try it out at home, it is simply outstanding when paired with a simple salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. I warn that you though, that you may get hooked, as I have, on making tarts – but luckily, your family and friends will love you for it.

Sunchoke, Tatsoi, and Feta Tart

Start with the flaky pastry dough – this will require making the dough, chilling it, rolling it out and forming the crust, and chilling again before baking. Start this one day ahead of when you want to serve the tart.

Flaky Pastry Dough

2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 TSP Salt
1 TSP Baking Powder
12 TBSP Unsalted Butter, Cut into 12 Pieces
2 Lg Eggs

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine.

Add butter and pulse in 1-second intervals until the butter appears in small pieces that are no more than 1/4 inch across.

Add eggs and pulse until the dough almost forms a ball (don’t over do it – over mixing will make the dough tough and less flaky)

Invert the dough onto a floured work surface and gently press into a cohesive mass.

Divide the dough in half and gently flatten each half into a disc (again, remembering not to over work the dough here.)

Wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm (about 3 hours.) Dough keeps in the refrigerator for around 3 days and can be frozen to use at a later date for about 3 months.

Once dough has chilled remove it from the refrigerator, unwrap it and place it on a floured work surface. Roll the dough into a large circle, being careful to flip the dough and re-flour after every few strokes. The circle should be about 13 inches in diameter.

Gently fold the dough in half and slide your hands under it. Lift and place atop the pan. Unfold the dough onto the pan. Evenly fir the dough into the pan making sure it is flat against the bottom. Fold the extra dough in against the sides, if there is a lot of extra in a single area trim it so that there is only about 1/2 inch hanging off the edge before turning it in to reinforce the sides.

Wrap and chill for at least 6 hours – if you have the type of tart pan that has a removable bottom – be careful how you carry it as the bottom will pop out and create a mess. If you have room for it in the fridge, you can place the pan on a baking sheet which will make moving it a lot easier.

While the dough is chilling start on the filling. (I’m quite the poet aren’t I)

Filling

3/4 Lb Sunchokes, Scrubbbed (not peeled) and Sliced into 1/2 cm Slices
1/2 a Large Bunch of Tatsoi, Chopped Crosswise into 1.5 Inch Strips and Then Halved Down the Center
1 Small to Medium Yellow Onion Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic Smashed and Roughly Chopped
1 1/2 TBSP Olive Oil
1 TSP Kosher Salt, Divided
1/2 TSP Freshly Cracked Black Pepper, Divided
1 Cup Half and Half
2 TBSP Creme Fraiche
2 Eggs Beaten
1/2 Cup of Feta, Broken into Small Pieces
2 TBSP Flat Leaf Parsley, Thick Stems Trimmed off, Chopped

When the tart shell has about 30 mins left to chill preheat the oven to 375 degrease.

Place sunchokes in a large sauce pan, cover with water and bring to a boil until softened but still toothsome, don’t overcook – they will become rather mushy in the center.

Drain and place in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

Set a large frying pan over medium het. Once the pan is hot add olive oil and heat. Add onions and sautee until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sautee until fragrant about 30 seconds. Add tatsoi and toss to combine. Cook until just wilted, remove the mixture from the pan and set aside.

Mix together half and half, creme fraiche, and eggs, add a pinch of salt and pepper and set aside.

Remove tart shell from the fridge and place on the counter, unwrap. Layer (drained) sunchokes, feta, parsley, and tatsoi on the bottom of the tart shell. Pour the filling over the top being careful not to entirely submerge the filling, you  want to be able to see specks of greens and bits sunchokes peeking over the surface of the egg mixture.

Place the tart, on a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins. Remove from the oven and carefully tent with tin foil, making sure to cover the edges of the crust with the foil to protect them from burning. Place back in the oven for an additional 30 mins.

Once the tart filling has set, and the tart is no longer wet in the center, it is done. Place on a cooking rack to cool and serve warm.

It is just so good that I recommend you try to remember what your kindergarten teacher taught you, and share with others.

A Summer Specialty – Squash Blossom Omelette

September 26, 2011 2 comments

My first culinary encounter with squash blossoms was in Florence, Italy.  I had traveled to Italy on a vacation with my mother and sister – a “girls getaway.” We spent a week in the country, starting with a requisite few short, bustling, days milling around the tourist destinations in Rome before moving on to Florence. In comparison to Rome, Florence was a breath of fresh air. The town was quaint and no where near as touristy, the markets were perused by foreigners and locals alike and the food was simply divine, the dishes we enjoyed were far more rustic than those we had tried in Rome, with a distinct flair for bringing out the best in fresh, regional produce. We quickly decided that we would spend the remainder of our time in Italy in this beautiful Tuscan City.

On our second day, after spending the morning and better portion of the afternoon walking around local markets, we wandered into a small hole-in-the-wall cafe for a late lunch. At that hour, they were in between their lunch and dinner seatings, but we were hungry and they agreed to cook us a snack. We happily volunteered to make lunch of whatever was easiest for the kitchen to prepare. What emerged about 15 minutes later were some of the most beautiful butternut squash raviolis in a butter sauce and a plate of crispy golden flowery parcels. These parcels turned out to be squash blossoms, which were stuffed with freshly made ricotta, deep fried and then plated up on a rustic platter surrounded by a shallow puddle of homemade tomato sauce. It was love at first bite.


When I saw these delicate little gems at one of my favorite stalls at our weekly farmers market I knew I needed to take them home and try my hand at making magic with the paper thin blossoms. The blossoms come from a local Tennessee farm, “Devlin Farms,” which hosts a stand and enviable CSA at the Wednesday afternoon market located quite literally (and luckily) on our block. As I didn’t want to pull out the deep fryer I needed to come up with an alternative to the stuffed squash blossom fritters I had enjoyed in Italy, something that would transforming the flowers into a homey meal for Dustin and myself without veiling the beautiful color and delicate texture of the blossoms. I remembered seeing a “squash blossom omelette” featured on a brunch menu at a small cafe back in Pennsylvania and decided to take a stab at making my own rendition.


True to our breakfast loving roots, Dustin and I are quite practiced at making omelettes. The fantastic thing about an omelette is that it serves as a fantastic palette for any seasonal produce we have on hand, well, with some notable exceptions (ask Dustin about the time he tried to make apple omelette, not exactly a stroke of culinary genius, but a valiant effort.) In any case, I started to think about flavors that would complement the blossom’s delicate nature, I indexed these musings with what we had on hand and came up with an egg dish that featured some nice nutty manchego cheese, bold and herbaceous cilantro, and slightly sweet caramelized onions. I have to say this one was a big winner and will likely make its way back onto our plates next year during squash season. Make sure you inspect the blossoms well before cooking, if yours are freshly picked as our were they may be harboring some friendly critters inside, also you will need to carefully remove and discard the pollen filled stamen from the center.

Squash Blossom Omelette with Caremelized Onions and Herbs

For 2 Omelettes:
5 Eggs
2 TBSP Whole Milk
1 TBSP Butter
1 Onion Sliced Thinly
Salt
4 Squash Blossoms
1 – 2 Oz Manchego Cheese Chopped into Small Pieces (about 1/2 inch little squares)
1 TBSP Chopped Cilantro
Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

In a medium sized bowl beat the eggs and milk together until frothy and set aside.

In a 9 inch skillet melt the butter. Once melted, toss in the onions, sprinkle in a pinch of salt and allow them to cook over medium high heat until they just begin caramelize (about 6 or 7 mins) remove the onions from the heat and set aside on a small plate.

Clean the skillet and wipe it dry. Set it heating over medium heat and spray it with a bit of non stick spray (we use an organic one from Trader Joes.)  Pour in half of the egg mixture, allow it to cook for about 30 seconds and stir, allowing the runny bits on top to fall below the already cooked base. Springle some onions on top followed by the cheese, two blossoms, and the cilantro. Cover immediately and allow to cook for another minute over low heat before lifting the lid, check the omelette for doneness (if it is not done cover the pan for another 30 seconds or so before checking on it again.) Sprinkle on a liberal pinch of pepper.

Delicately fold the omelette in half and gently tip it out onto a plate.

Repeat the same steps for the second omelette and enjoy a wonderful seasonal meal!

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