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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.

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.

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