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Making the Best of It – Spinach and Swiss Chard Gratin

I wont lie, this low FODMAPs diet is hard. In order to stave off tummy trouble I have had to write off some of my favorite fruits and veggies. And since, as you all know, I have a bit of a soft spot for produce, a stroll through the grocery store at this time of the year tends to stir up my yearnings for the peak season crops that are on the “NO” list for low FODMAP dieters like myself. Rather than meandering about the produce section in search of the prettiest produce, I make a bee-line for the produce on my list and avoid making eye-contact with fairytale-like stalks of brussels sprouts and crisp ripe apples.

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But truly, its not all bad. In some ways, having less variety of fruits and veggies to choose from has demanded that I dig deep and dust off old food memories to develop exciting flavor profiles. Without the flash and bang of go-to ingredients like garlic, mushrooms, and onion, without that final sprinkling of breadcrumbs, without the inexplicable umami characteristics of Worcestershire or the exotic intrigue of dried fruit, I have noticed new subtleties in the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and even dried goods that are now staples in our home.

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And for those of you following the FODMAP diet, whose ears may have pricked up at my mention of dairy products, I will let you in on some exciting news: I have passed my dairy trial with flying colors. While dairy might not have topped my wish list for foods to reintegrate into my daily meal plans, it is a relief to have such a diverse category of foods back in my arsenal of ingredients.

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In other good news, Monash University has recently put forth a phenomenal application which provides detailed information on ingredients containing FODMAPs. Not only does the app name which foods may pose trouble for individuals prone to carbohydrate-driven bowel irritation but it even delves deeper than most other lists in analyzing which types of FODMAPs may be present in which foods. Better yet, the app provides guidelines around what serving sizes may be OK to try and what quantities of a food might initiate tummy troubles.

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Perhaps one of the most exciting bits of research published in the new app pertains to Spelt. Spelt is a close relative of wheat and, until recently, I was advised to avoid it along with other gluten-containing flours like Rye and Wheat. The avoidance of these had little to do with the gluten compound itself but the correlation between the two is quite remarkable. Based on recent research from Monash University, which is truly driving the field of FODMAP research, most IBS sufferers are able to tolerate Spelt in reasonable quantities. Breads made from a spelt sourdough culture are even more likely to be tolerated by Low-FODMAPers.

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For those of you currently on a Gluten Free diet, either by dietary necessity or because you are simply creeped out at the mere thought of stringy sticky gluten compounds, please, by all means, continue to avoid all sources of gluten in your diet. But for those of you who long for the airy structure and delectable crust that only gluten can provide, spelt might just be your manna. In upcoming posts I plan to devote more writing space to a more thorough discussion of spelt and gluten. I have been experimenting with a spelt sourdough starter and am working to devise some techniques around creating rustic breads and other baked goods that tame the occasionally bitter spelt flavor and show off the starter’s ability to make magic from little more than flour and water.

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In the recipe below I have provided guidelines for making homemade bread crumbs that can be used to top a variety of gratin or casserole type dishes. Both gluten free and spelt based breads would work well. For those of you with no intolerances to wheats or glutens you can substitute any bread ends or stale bits and pieces you have around. Alternatively, panko works well as an easy substitute for those with no dietary sensitivities. I typically keep a bag of these home made crumbs in the freezer to add crunch and texture to a wide array of foods. Depending on the desired outcome, the bread crumbs can be pulled from the freezer and added directly to the dish or alternatively you can up the ante and toss the frozen crumbs in hot oil or butter along with herbs for a more luxurious topping (this option is great on pasta – if this thought is intriguing seek out recipes for pasta with gremolata.)

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While texture is certainly one of the most important parts of cooking, and is one that I have struggled to re-learn, so to speak, since taking on a Low FODMAP lifestlye, one of the most difficult challenges for me has centered around finding suitable replacements for the unctuous characteristics of garlic and onions. The garlic issue is perhaps a bit easier to remedy. As garlic carbohydrates are not oil soluble, garlic cloves can be lightly crushed and briefly fried in oil to create a garlic oil that carries a great deal of garlic flavor. Simply strain out the garlic for a good deal of garlicky punch with out any of the ill effects that can be contributed to the fructans it contains.

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In the end it all comes back to this theme of discovery. In a process where seemingly so many things are taken away, I have uncovered this amazing opportunity to find new properties in the beautiful bounty that remains. In this dish I actually leverage the chard stems to create a sautee reminiscent of onions. The stems are cooked in garlic oil until soft and ever so slightly caramelized to provide textural variance as well as a lovely savory flavor.  Stems that might otherwise have provided little more than compost fodder are used here to bring an unctuous savory flavor to this gratin. In the end what was unearthed was this amazing potential and distinct flavor that onion could not provide and this gratin shows the amazingly dynamic properties vegetables have to be used in different manners to produce distinctively different but yet harmonious components to a dish.

So my challenge to you is to open your eyes and your mind to the many wondrous possibilities at your fingertips. You may be surprised at what secrets you discover and what amazing qualities you can unlock with a little imagination and a small leap of faith.

Spinach and Swiss Chard Gratin – Serves 8 (as a Side Dish)

To Make the Bread Crumbs – Like other elements in this dish, the homemade breadcrumbs have the ability to turn odds and ends that would otherwise be considered refuse into an amazing component. I typically save bread ends in a bag in the freezer for this exact intent. Especially in the case of costly gluten free breads this helps get the most use out of the full loaf. Additionally any stale bread ends can be sliced or cubed and then frozen. Sliced is perhaps easiest as the slices can be popped out of the freezer and then into the toaster and transitioned to a food processor for pulsing. In the event that you don’t have a food processor don’t fret! The toasted bread pieces can be cooled completely and then sealed within a plastic bag and crushed with a rolling pin. If any large pieces remain you can rub them between your fingers or smash them with the back of a spoon to break them into smaller bits. The bread crumbs can be frozen in a (labeled) airtight freezer bag for a few months.

1 Large Bunch of “Adult” Spinach (about 450g), Washed Well (Don’t Bother to Dry – Same Goes for the Swiss Chard)
2 Bunches of Swiss Chard (about 900g), Washed Well, Stems Separated and Chopped Finely (1/4″ Segments – See Photo Above), Leaves Left Whole
2 TBSP Home Made Garlic Oil or Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Cup Milk
4 TBSP Flour (Most Gluten Free Blends are OK – I Used King Arthur’s Gluten Free Multi-Purpose Blend)
1/2 Cup Home Made or Store Bought Bread Crumbs
1/2 Cup (about 56g) Aged Gruyere Cheese, Grated
Small Sprinkling of Aleppo or other Pepper Flakes (If Desired)

Preheat the oven to 375º. Spray a 12″ × 12″ gratin dish with olive oil spray (or if you are feeling indulgent you can grease it with butter) and set aside.

Wash the greens 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. Both Chard and Spinach have a way of clinging onto little pockets of dirt so make sure to agitate the greens as you dunk them in and out of the water. Drain them but don’t dry them.

Prepare a large ice bath and set it next to the stove (if possible.) Starting with 1/2 of the chard, 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 for the chard leaves. 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. Repeat the process with the  spinach.

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.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or sautee pan. Add the chopped chard stems and sautee them over medium heat until soft. Add the greens and sautee or 2-3 minutes to remove any remaining moisture. The minute the spinach starts to stick to the pan add the milk 1/4 Cup at a time stirring until each addition is absorbed. Once all of the milk has been absorbed sprinkle the flour evenly over the greens and stir. Season with pepper and a bit of salt (the cheese will add additional saltiness as will the breadcrumbs so don’t go overboard.) You can also add a tiny pinch of nutmeg for a classic french “Je Ne Sais Quoi.” A tiny bit of Ras El Hanout would also lend some intrigue though you will need to be sure it meets your dietary requirements before adding it.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and top with the bread crumbs, followed by the cheese. Top with a smattering of pepper flakes if using (if using Aleppo you can add about 1/2-1 tsp depending on how dominant you want for that flavor to be, other flakes may be stronger and you should use sparingly.) Place the dish in the center of the preheated oven and bake it until the spinach is steaming and the cheese and crumbs have browned slightly (this should take about 30 minutes.) Serve immediately.

A Tower of Boxes – Turkish Pita Nachos

Packing is such an emotional roller coaster of a process. As I will spend a good portion of our remaining month in Delaware traveling for business I spent most of Sunday packing items into boxes, labeling their contents, and arranging them in miniature towers on the back stairwell.

When it comes to moving I am by no means a “keeper of things” the logical portion of my brain insists that there is simply no sense in packing, transporting, and unpacking things that aren’t needed or used. Dustin on the other hand likes to hold onto sentimental nick nacks – bottles filled with sand, old letters, used beer caddies – things which on first glance offend my “if you don’t use it toss it” sensibilities. But as I knelt sorting through drawers and baskets and uncovered treasured items tucked away around the house I wished just a bit that I was a keeper of things and that I had my own trove of souvenirs and memories secreted away.

I believe that part of my desire to create this blog stems from own will to create a trail of memories – to tell stories of get togethers, share tastes of market adventures and to chronicle my own successes and failures in the kitchen. Feeling a bit nostalgic, I flipped through pictures of some of the recipes we have managed to pull together in our tiny kitchen here in Delaware. That is when I came across this photo of the Turkish Nachos we concocted earlier this spring. They were inspired by a post from the Travelers Lunchbox which I adapted and adjusted to come up with the recipe that follows – I think its a real keeper!

Turkish Pita Nachos

For the Spinach

1 TSP Cumin Seeds, Toasted and Ground
1 TBSP Olive Oil
1 lb. Merguez Sausage Casings Removed and Chopped Finely
2 TBSP Butter
1 Lg. Spanish Onion Chopped
2 Garlic Cloves Minced
1.5 lb. Frozen Spinach, Washed and Drained
½ TBSP Pomegranate Molasses
1 TBSP Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
Small Pinch Cinnamon

Thin Pita Chips (I recommend Trader Joe’s low fat sea salt pita chips, their thinner than the regular variety)

Toasted Slivered Almonds

For the Yogurt Sauce

1 Cup Whole Milk Greek Yogurt
2 TBSP Tahini Paste
2 Cloves Garlic Smashed
Juice of ½ a Lemon
Salt and Pepper

I Bunch of Cilantro Chopped
Ground Aleppo Pepper (optional)
Ground Sumac (optional)

Starting with the spinach. Toast cumin seeds in a dry pan until fragrant. Grind finely in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat (I use a 14″ deep sided cast iron pan) once oil is hot evenly disperse the chopped lamb sausage meat into the pan and fry until lightly browned.Remove the cooked meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Depending on the amount of oil left from the lamb sausage you will want to add between one and two TBSP butter to the pan – you want to have around 3 TBSP total in the pan. Add chopped onion and minced garlic and sautéed until onion is translucent. Add spinach and cumin and sautéed one to two mins or until spinach is warmed. Add pomegranate molasses, reduce heat to low and simmer 15mins.

While spinach is simmering move onto the yogurt sauce, in a small food processor combine all ingredients and pulse until mixture is smooth. Add a small pinch of salt and a bit of pepper.

When the spinach has simmered for 15 minutes remove pan from heat, add lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a healthy amount of freshly ground pepper (5 or so turns of the mill.)

Taste! This is the most important step in the process! I recommend using a pita chip to taste for balance – on a small plate or napkin spoon a bit spinach mixture onto a pita chip and top with a dab of yogurt sauce to gauge if more salt and or pepper is needed, remember that you can add aleppo pepper before serving to kick up the spice factor. Add additional lemon, salt and pepper, and or tahini paste to the yogurt mixture to achieve a balance of flavors that suits your palate.

Yogurt sauce and spinach mixture can be prepared a day in advance. If serving immediately I recommend plating individual portions as it is difficult to divide up a large presentation at the dinner table. Arrange a layer of pita chips in the bottom of a dish and top with a thin layer of spinach, drizzle yogurt sauce. Sprinkle on toasted almonds, cilantro, a small pinch of sumac and Aleppo and serve immediately. I like to serve this with slices of lemons tucked into the side of the bowl so that diners can add an additional zing to the dish if they desire.

Categories: Lamb, Spinach Tags: , , , ,
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