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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.

Lighten Up Already – Greens, Grains, and Pecan Salad

Recently, I have developed this obsession for the Food 52 project’s website. Not only is the content great but their new design overhaul has made the site into an elegant source of culinary eye candy. I have found countless great ideas for this year’s thanksgiving dinner on the site and I admit that I may have a bit of blog envy. One of the site’s recent galleries featured a selection of healthy dishes that can be mixed into the traditional collection of classics and I found this a bit inspiring.

For most people, myself included, the holiday season is a time for family, but when it comes to holiday cuisine, for many this means a month and a half of over-indulgence. So this year I am trying to make a break from the norm by mixing in a good handful of healthy recipes to counterbalance some of the traditional, heavy handed staples.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating you completely ditch your family’s favorites for hippy dippy health food. But it certainly cant hurt to cut down on butter here and there and add some delicious salads and whole grains into the traditional mix. One of the inspirational recipes I came across on Food 52 called for mixing together a healthy selection of whole grains, like farro, and black rice, with hearty winter greens, heaps of herbs, pecans, and dried cranberries – it was just what I was looking for a beautiful healthy dish that would delight and nourish my family this thanksgiving.

The nuts and cranberries allude to classic holiday flavors while the grains and greens bring new players to the party. One of my favorite parts of the recipe would have to be the herbs, which make the dish scream with bright and zesty flavors and the radishes, whose bright bitter crunch will brighten up any butter laden holiday plate. So this year, try something different, add new flavors to the mix, and show your family you love them by encouraging them to take care of their health throughout the traditionally gluttonous holiday season.

Greens, Grains, and Pecan Salad – Adapted from Food 52’s Radish and Pecan Grain Salad

2 C. Mixed Grains – I Used a Mix of Black Rice, Farro, and Wheat Berries
3 C. Hearty Greens, I Selected Some Baby Kale Greens But Treviso, Arugula, or Endive Would Work Well
1 C. Minced Parsley
1/2 Cup Minced Tarragon
1/2 C. Minced Fresh Mint
1 C. Pecans
1/4 C. Walnut Oil
1/4 C. Sherry Vinegar
1 C. Watermelon Radishes Sliced Thinly
1/4 C. Shallot, Halved and Sliced Thinly
1/4 C. Olive Oil
1/2 C. Dried Cranberries

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water, add the grains and cook until just tender, about 25 minutes.

Drain the grains into a colander, then set aside until almost cool.

Combine vinegar and oils in a small bowl. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and whisk to combine. Place all of the other ingredients in a large bowl and toss well. Pour dressing over the salad and toss again. Taste the salad and season with salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.

A Side to Remember – Classic Tabbouleh

I love to peruse the New York Times dining section, in particular I am continually amazed by the column called “The Minimalist.” Mark Bittman, it’s author, is a culinary genius, his recipes are so diverse and yet are all reduced quite elegantly to a set of simply choreographed video recipes. The other night I followed Bittman’s advice and roasted a chicken, it was beautiful and golden and juicy. But I’m not really here to talk about the chicken, Mark Bittman’s post does that so well already. What I would like to share with you today is the side dish we enjoyed with that delectable bird.

Tabbouleh is one of the Middle East’s most popular dishes, and eating this it immediately becomes clear why. This flavorful dish is coated with a light lemon based dressing perfumed with the nutty notes of toasted cumin and a slightly spicy punch of cayenne. Actually, the name Tabbouleh comes from the Arabic word Tabil, which means to spice or season, its no wonder that the spices in this dish are featured front and center. Additionally the salad is chock full of one of my favorite grains of all time, bulgur. Bulgur is a whole grain made from white wheat that has been par boiled and dried. The par boiling makes this grain quick to prepare, to make the tabbouleh the bulgur only needs to be soaked in boiled water for about 20 mins and then drained.

I always recommend using farm fresh tomatoes when cooking if they are readily available, however, for this dish, finding the worlds best tomatoes is less crucial than it would be in, say, a tomato mozzarella salad. I used some nice, ripe looking Romas with great success. I am fairly certain that, if you wanted to, you could swap the tomatoes out entirely for some nice crisp cucumbers, though you would not get the striking color contrast of green on red that the tomatoes provide. For this dish you will likely need a little more salt than you initially expect, so season, taste, and season some more. I find that it is helpful to let the dish sit for a few minutes after it is all mixed together, before adding in the additional seasonings as the flavors will meld during those few minutes of rest and give you a more accurate picture of what the dish will taste like come dinner time. The flavors pair quite well with any grilled meat or veggie, lamb or eggplant kebabs would go stunningly with this, leftovers, if you have any, can be served up for lunch the next day in a wrap with hummus or turkey. However you choose to enjoy this dish, share with friends and family and dig in!

Classic Tabbouleh

1 Cup Fine Bulgur Soaked in Just Boiled Water for 20 mins (or until al dente)
6 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 Cup Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
2 TSP Ground Toasted Cumin
1 TSP Aleppo Pepper Flakes
1 TBSP Kosher Salt
5 Roma Tomatoes, Chopped
5 Scallions, Whites Chopped into Thin Rounds
1 Bunch Flat Leaf Parsley, Thick Stems Trimmed off, Chopped
3 TBSP Mint Chopped (or 2 TSP dried)

Soak bulgur in just boiled water until al dente and drain well.

Mix olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, aleppo, and salt together in a small bowl and mix.

Mix together bulgur, tomatoes, parsley, scallions, and mint in a large bowl. Dress lightly with some of the dressing and toss. Taste. Let it sit for 5 mins and taste again, adding additional dressing if needed.

Back to Cooking – Bulgur Wheat Pilaf with Yogurt Sauce

I have been somewhat slightly obsessed with Yatam Ottolengi’s recipes since I first saw his cookbook “Ottolenghi” at Borders bookstore about a year ago. While I have been trying to hold back on buying too many cookbooks, I knew I would have to take this one home, and the reason was simple, I had never seen anything quite like it. There was no particular “cuisine” or ethnic slant to the recipe, this was not a book about making pasta, or baking bread, and there was no specific diet in mind and yet there was a clear point of view that shone out through each and every recipe.

Since that first encounter I have been following Yatam on the web (i.e. flipping through his webpage and restaurant menus and drooling) but more than anything I have been anxiously awaiting the US debut of his new book “Plenty.” Plenty is a compilation of recipe’s from Ottolenghi’s column in London’s “Guardian” Newspaper called “The New Vegetarian.” While Yatam is not, himself, a vegetarian, the dishes featured in the column are and they represent a bright and multifaceted take on vegetarian cuisine that both vegetarians and their more omnivorous counterparts can appreciate and enjoy.

This book had also helped to inspire me to cook more vegetarian friendly foods. As this column is about the wonderful cornucopia of nature’s bounty, it would make sense that many of the recipes featured herein are vegetarian in nature. And I will do my best to feature at least 2 Vegetarian and one Vegan recipe each month. This one, in particular, is one of my new favorites. Ottolenghi originally wrote it to feature Freekeh, but as I had bulgur on hand I opted to use the variation offered in the recipe for bulgur wheat and it turned out wonderfully. Don’t be afraid of the quantity of herbs in this recipe, I was a bit trepidations at first but the volume of herbs really brings big flavor to the table. The yogurt sauce is likely my favorite part of the dish. Its pungent garlic and creamy flavor add new dimension to the slightly-sweet and definitively-herbaceous pilaf.

Bulgur Wheat Pilaf with Yogurt Sauce

Ras El Hanout is a middle eastern spice that can be found at gourmet cooking stores (like Williams Sonoma where I bought mine) and specialty spice shops. If you cannot find it substitute 1/4 TSP Cumin and 1/4 TSP Cinnamon.

2 Medium Onions Thinly Sliced
2 TBSP Butter
1 TBSP Olive Oil
1 1/4 Cup Bulgur Wheat
1/2 TSP Ras El Hanout
3 Cups Vegetable Stock Reduced to 1 1/2 Cups
1/2 Cup Full Fat Yogurt
1 Clove Minced Garlic (TJs Frozen Garlic Works Fine)
1 1/2 TSP Lemon Juice
1/8 Cup Finely Chopped Parsley
1/8 Cup Finely Chopped Mint
1/2 Cup Finely Chopped Cilantro

Heat a large sauce pan (with a good fitting lid) over medium heat. Add butter and, once melted, onions, to the pan and sautee for 15-20 minutes or until the onions are very soft and beginning to brown.

While the onions are cooking place the bulgur wheat in bowl and cover with cool water, allow to soak for 5 minutes and drain well.

Once the onions have browned, add bulgur, spices, and stock and bring to a boil. Immediately cover, reduce to low and simmer or 5 minute.

While the pilaf cooks, mix together yogurt, garlic and lemon juice, along with some salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

When the pilaf has finished cooking remove from the heat and allow it to stand with the lid on for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and let stand for another 5 minutes to cool a bit. Stir in the herbs and serve topped with the yogurt sauce. This dish also tastes great with a light sprinkling of aleppo pepper.

Categories: Grains, Onions Tags: , , ,
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