Raw or cooked: that is the toss-up. Some vegetables are most commonly eaten raw — cucumbers, lettuce, radishes for example — but they can also be sautéed, braised, or even grilled. I happen to have a fondness for cooked cucumber, which becomes a very different experience when sautéed lightly in a little butter or olive oil, sparked with a splash of white wine vinegar and tossed with a seasonal herb. It’s almost lemony without the vinegar, and the addition of the acid sparks the character without having to add salt. Tarragon is especially great in early spring and my over-wintered pot full is already big and bushy. Its licorice-like grassy flavor is a terrific counterpoint to the cucumber. Serve the warm cucumbers alongside chicken or fish or combine them with steamed potatoes.
Archive for April, 2012
During seasonal transitions like early spring, I find myself cooking warm comfort food and dreaming about summer food. There’s a great Italian rice salad that I sometimes make for a summer picnic, laced with tuna that’s been poached in oil (or good quality canned tuna in olive oil). It’s loaded with crunchy celery, abundant finely chopped parsley and fruity olive oil, and make piquant by the addition of capers and sometimes, tiny pieces of anchovy.
Meanwhile, back here in springtime, I’ve had a hankering for stuffed peppers. I often rescue some good ones from the markdown bin at our local organic produce store. Many people don’t like stuffed peppers – or green peppers at all. Too grassy. Personally, I find them a great convenience as a vehicle for all kinds of mixtures, and a great way to use up stray ingredients or stretch the ones you have on hand. What brought this combination of peppers, tuna and rice to mind was a craving for a certain Italian antipasto of roasted green peppers and anchovies. There was something about the memory of those salty tidbits that made me think that a tuna-rice combination would make a good filling for the peppers.
So where’s the waste-not-want-not lesson? I had made a delicious tuna confit that we’ve been gradually eating for a while now; it involved slowly cooking locally sourced tuna in olive oil and storing it in a jar in the refrigerator. Now that the tuna is gone, except for bits and pieces, I had a jarful of delicious, fishy and fruity olive oil. I didn’t want to throw it out, but what could I use it for? I decided it was the answer to the dryness sometimes experienced with that Italian summer rice salad. I was right. It imparted both moisture and a terrific depth of flavor.
I combined tuna (a combination of my homemade confit and some from a can), chopped green and yellow bell pepper, finely chopped parsley, a little onion, some leftover rice and the olive oil. After taste testing, I added a heaping tablespoon of capers and freshly ground black pepper. Stuffed into peppers that had been halved, seeded, plunged in boiling water for 5 minutes, drained and cooled, the tuna-rice mixture was sprinkled with feta cheese, and the stuffed peppers were baked for 25 minutes. They were even better eaten cold the next day.
Tuna and Rice Stuffed Peppers
3 green peppers
1½ c cooked white rice
1 small onion, diced
½ green pepper, diced
½ yellow pepper, diced
Approximately 3 tbsp olive oil (new or leftover from tuna confit)
½-¾ c tuna confit (or 1-2 cans good quality tuna in oil)
1 tbsp capers
Optional: 1 tbsp minced anchovies
¼ c parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
Optional: feta cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Lightly oil a baking dish large enough to hold 6 pepper halves.
Wash the peppers and slice them vertically through the stem. Remove the seeds and membrane. When the water boils, plunge the peppers into the water and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the peppers are slightly tender but still crisp. Remove the peppers to a colander to cool. place them in the baking dish, cut side up.
If you don’t have pre-cooked rice, cook about 3/4 cup of rice in boiling water turned to low as soon as the rice is added, covered, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly and add some olive oil to it while cooling.
Saute the diced onion and peppers in a small amount of olive oil until tender but still slightly crisp. Combine with the rice. Add tuna, capers, anchovies if using, parsley and freshly ground pepper. Add additional olive oil to bind the ingredients.
Spoon the rice and tuna mixture into the prepared pepper shells in the baking dish. Sprinkle with feta cheese if using and bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes.
Those enchanting wood violets that appear in the spring make victims of proper lawns. Our lawn, already tainted by a towering black walnut tree, is anything but proper, and so it has become a field of mostly edible “weeds.” No pesticides or herbicides here. After making a delicious batch of violet jelly – the one that went viral on the Internet last spring — I decided to take the experiment a step further and made two types of violet vinegar. Two types because I wasn’t sure about the base. I used white vinegar for one and champagne vinegar for the other, on the theory that anything more flavorful would mask the floral tones.
After harvesting the flowers at midday from a shady spot (when they’re most aromatic), I shook them in a colander to loosen any dust. I mixed them with the vinegar in a 3:1 proportion (three parts vinegar to one part violet leaves) and placed them into very clean jars that had been doused with boiling water. Tightly capped, the violet mixture was set aside for 10 days, though I turned the jar upside down then right side up every day. The liquid started out clear and the violets blue and by the end, the violets had released all of their color into the liquid. I carefully decanted the vinegar into bottles that I am storing in the refrigerator, discarding the violet flowers.
So, was this a matter of color or did the flowers infuse the vinegar with flavor? I had saved each type of vinegar to compare with the violet vinegar, and yes, they had changed, becoming mellower and subtly floral. The two vinegars both worked well and so far, I haven’t decided which I like better. I went back to the lawn and garden, harvesting some baby kale and a bunch of violets, with their stems and tender leaves, for a lightly dressed salad that we ate outside in our lawn chairs. How’s that for local?
Someone could make a jingle out of that title. Ricotta frittata is a springtime refrain for casual living. It reminds me of that Swahili phrase “hakuna matata” (no worries), made famous by two meerkats in The Lion King. That certainly is the case with frittatas made from locally grown seasonal produce and really fine eggs from a local farm. I could have gone so far as to make the ricotta from local organically produced milk, but I didn’t. I was actually trying to use up the big tub I bought for our Easter pancake breakfast.
A frittata, if you’re not familiar with it, is an open-faced omelet favored in Italian cuisine, cooked very slowly on top of the stove and sometimes finished under a broiler if you have one (I don’t). You basically cook some compatible vegetables and cool them, and combine them with grated cheese and/or herbs if you want, and some lightly beaten eggs. You heat a heavy pan on the stove over pretty high heat, add butter to coat the bottom and sides, and pour in the egg-vegetable mixture. You then turn the heat to a very low setting and let the frittata cook slowly for about 20 minutes. Pass it under a broiler to brown the top if you want, and serve hot, warm, or cold.
No worries. The perfect antidote for that blank stare at the open refrigerator after a blasting day at work when you need to get dinner on the table in half an hour and don’t have a clue what to cook. Hakuna matata.
The inspiration for this frittata started with spring onions, gorgeous violet, white and green bulbs that I found at the farmers’ market. I split the bulbs completely along their length, sprinkled them with olive oil and salt and roasted them in a 400-degree oven, cut side down and then flipped them, roasting for a total of about 5-7 minutes. They were the vegetable foundation of the dish, along with local, freshly picked asparagus.
So where does the ricotta fit in? Dollops of ricotta combined with herbs (I used chives to complement the spring onions) are placed carefully on top of the egg mixture after it’s been poured into the pan and before it’s cooked. The ricotta sets up beautifully along with the rest of the frittata, and it provides another layer of flavor and texture to the dish. This was an experiment on my part and I was pleased that it worked. Especially since we were really hungry.
1½ – 2 c cooked vegetables, lightly salted (I used sliced grilled spring onion and asparagus)
Optional: 1/4 c grated Parmesan of other hard cheese
1/3 c ricotta cheese
Snipped herbs (I used chives)
1 tbsp butter
Assemble the ingredients. Cook and cool the vegetables. Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl and add the vegetables and grated cheese, if using. Combine the herbs and ricotta.
Heat a heavy pan (I use a 9-inch enameled cast iron pan) over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the butter and tip the pan to coat the bottom and sides. Add the egg and vegetable mixture and turn down the heat to very low. Place four spoonfuls of ricotta on top of the eggs. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the top is no longer runny. Pass under a broiler for a few minutes to brown, if desired. Serves 3-4.
Ah April, when the asparagus stalks emerge all spindly from the bare ground and plump violet spring onions are bunched for sale at the market. One of our local farms has a pick-your-own asparagus field, which I visit on my way back from the farmers’ market on Saturday. It’s rejuvenating to know that our local earth is starting to produce our daily meals once again. And yet the weather, ever so fickle (climate change?) vacillates between a dry 80 degrees and below 50 in a chilling rain. That’s when spring risotto comes in. It perfectly balances our yen for the freshest ingredients with the comfort of a warm and unctuous, satisfying dish.
Risotto is not hard to make, and it is not particularly time-consuming when you realize that it can be a meal-in-one in about 30 minutes, including a little prep time. Sometimes when I make vegetable-laden risotto, I cook the rice and vegetables separately. While this is my typical practice with asparagus, I realized that adding finely cut raw asparagus at the end of the cooking time works well, especially since the young vegetable mellows under little heat. I said 5 minutes in my recipe since that’s what I did, but it could be less. The other trick here was to cook the trimmings from the asparagus (just the ends here but peeled lower skin later in the season) to flavor the stock or broth, adding to the asparagus experience. I separately cooked a spear or two for garnish and considered adding a garnish of lemon zesty to pique the flavors.
Vegetarians can use vegetable stock instead of chicken and dairy-free folk can simply omit the butter and cheese.
1 small bunch asparagus
4-5 cups chicken stock or vegetable broth
1 medium spring onion or leek, white/violet and light green parts only (or use scallions)
Olive oil and/or butter (about 1 tbsp)
1 cup Arborio rice
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (or to taste)
Salt to taste
Optional: lemon zest, garnish of steamed asparagus
Snap the ends from the asparagus, rinse them well to remove any grit, and add them to a saucepan containing the chicken stock or vegetable broth. (If your asparagus is woody as it sometimes is later in the season, peel the ends and add the peelings to the liquid.) Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook slowly for 15 minutes.
Cut the asparagus into ¼-inch slices and set aside if cooking with the risotto, or parboil it separately for a few minutes in boiling water and drain, setting it aside to add at the end.
Split the spring onion or leek in half vertically and then slice it crosswise. If using scallions, cut them (white and light green part only) into ¼-inch slices.
Saute the onion slowly in the oil and/or butter. Add the rice and stir to coat. Add 1/3 cup of stock, turn the heat to medium low or low (so it just simmers) and stir until the stock is absorbed. When the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/3 cup of stock, wait until it’s absorbed, stirring occasionally, and then repeat until the rice is tender but still al dente. This process will take about 20-25 minutes. About 5 minutes before the risotto is finished (when it is getting tender but still a little chewy), add the reserved asparagus pieces, stirring them well. (Alternatively, you can cook the asparagus separately and add it at the end.) When the risotto is finished, add the grated cheese, season to taste with salt and a pinch or so of lemon zest if you choose. Serves 4.
These are not your mother’s pasta fazool. But true to the peasant origins of the traditional Italian dish, they both use seasonal ingredients along with pantry staples. Just what we need as the earth reawakens in April, and spinach and spring onions are found in the market or garden. I made two version of this during the week, both with snowcap beans, a flavorful two-color cannellini, organic whole wheat pasta, and a dollop of ricotta cheese. Traditionally, pasta e fagioli would be made with short stubby pasta, but since I was creating long stands of zucchini, spaghetti felt like the better option.
The first one combined strands of green zucchini and lemon zest, and was overtly the more flavorful of the two. The second was made with sliced spring onions sautéed lightly in butter and spinach. Wash spinach leaves well, shake out excess water and wilt them in the water that clings to the leaves. Again wring out the excess water and chop the spinach into ribbons to add to the pasta. I added a little lemon zest and a lot of cracked black pepper to the spinach version to spark it up a bit.
One trick with whole wheat pasta, which has a tendency to resemble shredded cardboard, is to cook it thoroughly and, as soon as it’s drained, sprinkle it with a little salt and olive oil. I never feel the need to do with whole grains, so I’m guessing it’s because of the character of the pasta. For both of these dishes, I reserved a little pasta cooking water to moisten the mixture, though I used only a few teaspoons.
Since dried beans take a while to cook, I typically make extra whenever I’m cooking them. As I wrote a few days ago, these are large meaty beans that are as delicious by themselves as in combination with other ingredients. You can also freeze them so that they can be on hand pretty quickly. Alternatively, you could use good quality canned beans; I’m skeptical about the amount of salt and preservatives (usually for color) but they’re fine in a pinch.
Making this soup was a real stumble-on event. I had picked up a giant head of red mustard at the farmers’ market, not having any idea what I would do with it. Then, as I was getting ready to plant another portion of my kitchen garden, I was leafing through Sylvia Thompson’s excellent volumes, The Kitchen Garden and The Kitchen Garden Cookbook, and came across a recipe for Spicy Mustard Leaf Soup. Ta-da. And there was a bonus: it used corn kernels and vegetable broth. One of my pantry dilemmas at this time of year is using up last year’s produce, including the cold cellar (still full of sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash and onions) and the freezer, which luckily for me is small. I’ve been noodling about what to do with the couple of quarts of corn broth and couple of bags of corn kernels. Here’s my big chance to take care of at least some of both.
Full-grown red mustard has wide leaves that are dark red on one side and green on the other, and a thick stalk. I cut off the leaves and sliced them into ribbons, and I chopped the stems into 1/4 -inch pieces. While the leaves are pretty pungent when eaten raw, they mellow significantly when cooked. And the stems cook more quickly than the leaves, surprisingly, since I do the same thing with collards. It must be the age of the plant.
I used a combination of corn broth and just-made chicken stock. The recipe called for fresh tomato. I tried that with some success, even at this time of year, since I salted the diced organic tomato (on-the-vine type) and let it accumulate flavor and shed water. Tomatoes aren’t worth it except in local season in my view. Thompson added ground coriander and lime juice to the finished product, which she decided was slightly Indonesian. I tried a little as a taster and left it out.
This was very flavorful, and it tasted like a good tonic for the springtime, getting rid of the winter blahs, if you still have any. I wasn’t fond of the addition of ground coriander and lime juice so I made them optional. I could imagine this instead with some smoky ham, making it more Southern U.S. than Southeast Asia. That’s what I’ll do with the leftovers.
Mustard Greens Soup with Corn & Black Beans adapted from Sylvia Thompson
1 large bunch red mustard (about 1 lb, yielding 6 c slivered leaves and 1½ c chopped stems)
1 large onion, quartered lengthwise and sliced crosswise
4 cloves garlic, slivered
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1½ tsp turmeric powder
8 c vegetable broth or chicken stock or a combination (I used half corn broth, half chicken stock)
1½ c corn kernels (2 ears)
1½ c black beans
Optional: 1 tomato, diced, marinated with salt, and drained
Optional: 1 tsp ground coriander
Optional: Lemon or lime juice
Place the mustard leaves and stems, onion, garlic, peppers, turmeric and liquid in a large soup pot and simmer for 20 minutes or until the mustard leaves and stems are just tender. Add the corn and black beans and cook for another 10 minutes. Add the tomato, ground coriander and lemon or lime juice, if using, and serve in wide soup bowls. Serves at least 8.
In early spring, the leeks and spinach from the farmers market are unbelievably sweet and delicious. The spinach has none of that slight taste of minerals that it will later have, and it’s available in abundance. Combined with local mushrooms and locally fished flounder, they made for a flavorful and healthy supper.
I have been asked a few times for simple ways to make a foolproof fish dish, and this is one. I cook the three vegetables one at a time in the same pan to avoid too much cleanup. I’ve made this twice in the past two weeks. The first time, I combined the spinach, leeks and mushrooms as a base, reserving some of the mushroom-leek mixture to scatter on top with tarragon. The second time, spinach alone made the base and the topping of leeks, mushrooms and tarragon nearly smothered the fish and kept it moist during its time in the oven. This dish feels very clean and healthy for this time of year.
Baked White Fish with Spinach, Leeks and Mushrooms
½ lb flounder or sole (3-4 small pieces) or fluke flounder (1 piece)
1 bunch spinach
6-8 cremini mushrooms
Fresh green herbs: tarragon, parsley, dill or lovage, or a combination
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a baking dish that will just hold the fish in one layer.
Stem the spinach and wash the leaves well. Shake them to remove excess water and wilt them in a large pan on top of the stove. Remove the spinach to a colander to cool and drain. Wipe out the pan since you’ll use it for the leeks and then the mushrooms. When the spinach is cool, squeeze out the excess moisture and place the leaves in the bottom of the baking dish (you can slice the leave if they’re very large). Place the fish on top.
Slice the white and light green part of the leek lengthwise and clean well. Slice it crosswise into thin slices. Melt a small bit of butter (a teaspoon or less) in the pan and place it over medium-low heat. Saute the leek lightly until coated with butter. Add a teaspoon of water and cover the pan. The leek will cook until tender in a couple of minutes. Spoon it over the fish.
Wipe the mushrooms with a cloth to remove any loose dirt, trim the stem if necessary, and chop them in to 1/4-inch cubes (or slice them thinly). Add another teaspoon of butter to the pan, turn the heat to medium-high, and cook the mushrooms in one layer until lightly browned on one side. Toss to cook for another minute, and add to the leeks on top of the fish. Add a few chopped herbs.
Bake in the oven until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Let the dish sit for a minute or two after removing from the oven to let the fish firm up a bit.
Alternative: add most of the leeks and mushrooms to the spinach base and scatter the rest on top before baking.
Those big oval creamy lupini beans from the so-called olive bar at grocery stores are deliciously addictive eaten as part of an antipasto or tossed into a salad. I haven’t found a good or reasonably priced source for them, and I hear they need quite a lot of preparation. Those beans are native to Italy and are very high in protein, similar to soybeans. I finally found a great alternative: dried snowcap beans. Snowcap beans are beautiful, rusty orange and white.
They’re the size of pinto beans when dried but expand to nearly the size of lupini when cooked, ½-¾ inch long. Creamy in texture and very flavorful, they nearly begged for a light marinade of oil and vinegar. I added very finely diced red pepper and minced parsley, along with a little salt and pepper. You could also add garlic, but I wouldn’t add raw garlic to the beans. Rather, I would marinate sliced garlic in the oil and vinegar and discard it before dressing the beans.
Snowcap beans are available from Rancho Gordo, a California grower. I brought mine back from the San Francisco farmers’ market but you can order them online. I soaked them in water for 2 hours and then simmered them on the stove until tender, a little over an hour. I dressed them with salt and a little olive oil as they were cooling, and saved the bean broth for soup.
Simple cakes that can be eaten as is with seasonal fruit are very appealing to a person who has no sweet tooth (me). I call them “amiable cakes” and I’ve posted a few examples in the past. This one, from Nigel Slater’s brilliant book, Appetite, is one of the best. (He’s a hoot – check out his column in The Guardian or his other books). I made this cake at Easter and served it with terrific strawberries from California. I don’t often buy fruit that typically grows here but is out-of-season, but these babies were irresistible.
The cake has a substantial texture, almost chewy, and sparky flavor from the tartness of the lemon zest and the sweetness of the apricots. The texture is the result of ground almonds and finely chopped dried apricots. I have made the cake numerous times, and I’ve decided that I like the almonds crunchy so I don’t grind them to a paste or use pre-ground almond meal. Same with the apricots. However, since the ingredients contain no leavening agent, it is important to cream the butter and sugar until very light, and combine the ingredients in batches. Those instructions don’t make the recipe hard, but don’t expect a throw-it-in-a-pan approach or you’ll get a leaden cake.
Apricot Almond Cake adapted from Nigel Slater
¾-1 c blanched slivered almonds (enough to yield ¾ c ground – see below)
2/3 c all-purpose flour
1 scant c (4 oz) soft dried apricots
1 lemon, preferably organic and/or unwaxed
1 c softened butter
1¼ c sugar
4 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper and lightly butter the sides.
Grind the almonds in a food processor until they resemble coarse meal. Do not allow them to turn to paste. Measure ¾ cup. Add the flour and stir to combine well. Set aside.
Grind the apricots in the food processor until they are finely chopped. Stop before they turn to paste.
Grate the zest from the lemon and squeeze the juice. Combine the zest with the almonds and the juice with the apricots.
Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the lightly beaten eggs to the butter and sugar mixture, a little at a time, continuing to beat it.
With a large spoon or spatula, fold in the almond and flour mixture in three batches. Fold in the apricots and spread the batter in the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top.
Bake for about 35 minutes or until lightly browned and firm to the touch. Test with a fine metal skewer; if it comes out clean, the cake is done. If not, bake a little longer.