Buttery Braised Radishes

Whenever I visit Atlanta, my family tries to have at least one family meal together, gathering at one of my sister’s or my parent’s home to spend the afternoon cooking, playing with the little ones, and finally eating together. My family is big and there are often a couple of friends with us too so Sunday lunch is usually 12+ people. We’re all adventurous eaters and all love vegetables so I like to try to introduce a new vegetable or new way of preparing them whenever I’m there. I doubt anyone would be surprised that when I’m in town, I become the de facto executive chef for the family meal but my siblings make excellent sous chefs. My youngest sister Michal made these braised radishes with me last time and they were such a hit I decided to post the very simple preparation here.

When we had a garden, I always planted radishes because a. they were almost instant garden gratification, b. they were so pretty, and c. radishes are especially nice when they are still young and tender. Leaving them in the ground for a couple too many days and they can get really hot and fibrous. Growing them, you get them at their brightest, crispest, and sweetest. But I alway grew more than I wanted to eat raw so I started cooking them this way, with just a little liquid so that their flavor still shone through, just cooked through but not too soft and mushy. They have a flavor somewhat like a sweet young turnip; in fact, if you find the tiny tender white ping-pong ball sized turnips with the greens still attached, they are also delicious cooked this way. I’ve actually mixed radishes and turnips in the picture below.

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Butter Braised Radishes

serves 2-4

1 bunch radishes

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 small knob ginger, smashed

water

 Wash the radishes thoroughly, remove the greens if they are still attached and trim the root and stem ends. Cut the radishes in half if they are large or leave them whole if they are around marble sized. Place in a frying pan with a fitted lid that is large enough to hold all of the radishes in a single layer. Add the butter, soy sauce, and ginger just a bit of water, maybe a tablespoon. Turn the heat on low and put a lid on the pan. Shake the pan occasionally to roll the radishes in the pan. After about 5 minutes, check to see if the liquid is simmering. The salt in the soy sauce and heat of the pan should cause the radishes to release quite a bit of liquid but if the pan is still a bit dry, add another tablespoon or so of water. Replace the lid and cook for another 10 minutes or so. The radishes should give no resistance when pierced with the point of paring knife but should still be firm when they are done. Remove the lid and raise the heat to reduce the liquid to a sticky glaze. Remove the ginger knob and serve warm.

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Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

Here’s another  vacation-conjuring dish, one we had during our trip to Italy last year.

This salad is an example of one of those simple dishes that, when each element is full of flavor, needs no embellishments to sparkle on the taste buds.

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During our stay at La Tavola Marche last year, the farm had just passed its tipping point from summer to fall. The inn was close to the end of its season, the yard-thick stone walls too expensive to heat for guests through the Appenine winter. Jason and Ashley were stripping their gardens of the last of the summery produce, stacking crates of tomatoes to can, drying the stalks of onions and garlic. The days in the valley were warm in late September, but frost was closing in.

Our meals were shoulder-season fare too- warm braised and roasted meats and pastas interspersed with fresh vegetables and salads. Our last evening, Jason pulled the last of the green beans from the vines and made us a delicious warm salad.

As soon as we got settled in our apartment in Siena and found the market, I recreated his lovely combination of crisp, sweet, and piquant so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve made it  lots of time since then, and I can say unequivocally that getting the best tomatoes, green beans, and red sweet peppers is the key to its success. Gardeners, you’re way ahead of the game here.

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

If you’re like me and suffer from garden envy, my tip for finding good tomatoes and peppers elsewhere is to sniff them. Color and texture can be misleading, but a good tomato actually has a fragrance. Green beans are easier, just look for slim, bright pods without discoloration, no lumps from seeds forming inside (these will be too tough for this quickly cooked salad). Although they can be expensive, the little French haricot verts are usually very toothsome and tender.

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We had this salad at the end of the season but it is just as, if not more delicious now at the beginning of green bean season.

Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

1 pound slim green beans, stems removed

1 red bell pepper

1 ripe tomato

1/4-1/2 sweet red onion (depending on the size)

red wine vinegar

olive oil

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil

Meanwhile, slice the pepper and onion into slivers about the same thickness as the green beans. Cut the tomato into thick wedges. Toss together in a serving bowl.

Once the water has reached a boil, plunge the green beans into the water and return to the boil. Cook the beans briefly, for about 1 minute after the water boils. Remove the pot from the heat and quickly drain the beans in a colander. Allow them to cool enough to handle.

Pour the green beans over the peppers, onion, and tomato and gently toss them all together with your hands. The heat from the beans will slightly warm the other vegetables. Drizzle with a tablespoon of vinegar and a couple of glugs of olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Toss to coat everything in the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

Okra Part 2: Maque Choux

My last post was for okra cooked whole, a good way to enjoy okra without any of the “slime” factor. Once you cut into okra, like aloe vera, the mucilage starts to seep out. Adding liquid for a braised or stewed dish enhances this seepage. There are a lot of tricks and techniques that people say will prevent this from happening – cut it in thin slices, cut it as little as possible, sear in with high heat, don’t add any liquid, just to name a few.

 My approach is to just go with it: okra contains mucilage, mucilage is slimy, so rather than try to change the nature of okra, I try to make this quality work for me. Okra is commonly used in gumbo as a “thickener”, a term which I don’t think is entirely accurate, or maybe just isn’t the most complete or descriptive term for what okra does for gumbo. I would say that it adds body to the broth.

 I’ll explain what I mean in terms of chicken stock: good gelatin-filled stock slips over the tongue silkily and substantially, filling the mouth with the essence of its ingredients, rich but never greasy.  The richness of a good homemade stock is not from fat but from the cartilage that has been slowly broken down and infused into the liquid. Okra has much the same effect, not creamy or thick, but lip-smacking.

 Gumbo is the obvious and most common way to take advantage of okra’s bodyfying qualities. I have, however posted a couple of gumbos here on the blog, so I’ll branch out and share another favorite: maque choux (mok shoo). Maque choux is like a succotash where the lima beans are replaced by okra. It is a fresh braise of corn, okra, tomato, onion, and peppers. The crispness of corn kernels and acidity in the tomatoes balance the tenderness of the okra. So to make a silky braised okra dish, balance the proportions of ingredients so that the okra doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the vegetables, add some acid (tomatoes), and cook the dish just long enough to get through the slimy stage to a richly flavored but light bright vegetable dish. It’s a perfect summertime side dish for fish or fried chicken (and yes, I know it’s September, sorry. Check back next year?)

 One of the tricks I use for this dish, I picked up from David Walbert’s brilliant chowder recipe: *after stripping the kernels, break the cobs in half and just barely submerge them in a pot or water. Cover the pot and bring it to a simmer for about 20 minutes, or about as long as it takes to prep everything else. All of the flavor that was left in the cob will infuse the water to make the corniest broth you’ve ever tasted. I prefer not to add a lot of water when I cook vegetables, but with all of the natural sugar in the vegetables, it can get pretty thick and sticky. The corn broth adds nice flavor and loosens up the mixture with out watering down the vegetables.

 Also of note: green bell peppers are probably the traditional choice for this dish. I just prefer almost any other pepper to green bells. I don’t think they have a lot of flavor and I also prefer a little heat, so I usually use a combination of poblano and serrano chiles. If you like other varieties better than the ones I use, they will work perfectly well. Feel free to improvise.

And a final note: if you live somewhere where it is difficult to find okra, this one will work very well with frozen okra. I like to get pods frozen whole and cut them up myself, but sliced is fine.

 

Maque Choux

serves 4

2-3 tablespoons oil (or half oil and half bacon grease, if you’re so inclined)

1 medium white onion, diced

2 poblano chiles, diced

1 serrano chile, minced

2 cup sliced okra

3 ears of corn, kernels removed, cob reserved for broth

2 cups diced tomato with their juice

*Corn broth as needed

Salt

Cayenne pepper if desired

Prepare all of your ingredients and start the corn broth.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil and or bacon grease until it shimmers. You need just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the onions and chiles and a pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to soften and become fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, and corn and another pinch of salt, which will help the vegetables release their water and keep them from sticking as much. Cover the pan and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally; the okra will start to look “stringy”but the acid in the tomato juice will begin to break that down and melt it into the sauce. Add about ½ cup of corn broth at a time if the vegetables begin sticking to the pan. Once the okra no longer looks stringy, taste test to see if the vegetables are tender. It will probably take 15 minutes or so, but the main thing is to get them past the stringy stage with enough liquid in the pan to make it a loose but not soupy mixture while removing them from the heat before the vegetables become mushy. Salt to taste and add a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy.

Collard Greens- Southern Food Challenge 2

 

Driving through the Southern country side in the winter:  black trees, bare and sharp against a pearly sky like Japanese ink paintings, maybe the lucky surprise flash of a scarlet cardinal; tawny fields with folds and furrows like the creased hide of a sleeping lion. It’s beautiful and restful in its monotony of winter-softened color, nothing to jar the eye but the occasional murder of black crows, or the pounce of a rusty hawk on some unwary rodent-until late Winter when the forsythia and quince suddenly explode like firecrackers and take your breath away for a second.

Even the winter gardens sitting lonely beside older homes have a subtlety, an unkempt bed-head look to them; mostly left to their own devices while their gardeners stay in the warm indoors, they are patches of root vegetables and earthy greens that burnish and sweeten with a little frost. Collards, with their dusty chalkboard-green leaves like well-worn old leather are the beauties of the bunch. They are Brassica like cabbages and broccoli; the leaves are braised, traditionally with smoked meat seasoning, until they are meltingly tender. Scott likes them with apple cider vinegar mixed into the pot liquor in his bowl; I like them with sriracha sauce (yes, green top, rooster- that one).

 

 

Since most of the work of cooking collard greens is in the preparation, I always make a big potful and freeze the leftovers for a busy day. I fill the kitchen sink with enough water to float all of the leaves so that any dirt or grit can sink to the bottom and then swish and wash the leaves really well, checking for ugly leaves and little creatures that may have tucked themselves into the bunches (this is probably more critical if you are growing them yourself- we found plenty of little caterpillars on the greens we brought in from our garden last year). I usually slice out the fibrous stems, cut the leaves in half long ways and stack them up like bundle of  dollar bills to cut them across into wide ribbons.

Meanwhile, in a big stock pot, I bring about a quart of water to a simmer. I don’t always use the same meat, but something with a little fat and some deep smoky flavor – diced bacon, smoked ham hock, a ham bone, or smoked turkey legs. While I’m cleaning and cutting up the leaves, I let the meat simmer in the water, covered with a lid, to start infusing the broth. Because I love their smoky heat, I usually throw in a dried chipotle or two. I add the greens and a little salt, clap the lid on again and let them collapse in the heat, with an occasional stir, checking they don’t steam out of liquid, slowly braising them to tenderness.

 

 

I usually like my vegetables on the crisp side- not the stereotypical “boiled to death” green beans and carrots and peas and spinach that give vegetables a bad name. But collards are an exception: like a tough, lean veal shank reaches its apotheosis as osso bucco after a long gentle braise, so the relatively fibrous collard leaves become rich and tender and flavorful. I don’t mean boiled though, a low simmer really, and I use a minimal amount of water so the flavor of the greens isn’t diluted too much. If I’m using anything but bacon, I’ll get tongs and pluck the bone out of the pot toward the end and shred the meat off to add back into the greens.

We’re still sort of in that “mud season” between winter and spring up north;  the Union Square Greenmarket stalls carry parsnips and turnips and cold storage apples (and I got sleet burn on my face last time I was there). I’m beginning to crave something sharp and fresh and green but for now I’m taking advantage of the last of the gifts of the winter and making a pot of collard greens. It’s especially good with beans and cornbread.

Collard Greens

what I put in the pot

2 bunches of collard greens (or more, if they are stingy bunches)

about a quart of water

3 slices of bacon, diced, or

2 small smoked ham hocks, or

1 meaty ham bone, or

1 nice big smoked turkey leg

salt, to taste (start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of flaky Kosher or sea salt)

1 or 2 dried chipotles

 

Braise over gentle heat for at least 45 minutes for a big pot, until the leaves are tender, but are not so cooked as to disintegrate when stirred.

 

Sweet sweet peas

Chuck, my across the path garden neighbor, is a smart guy. He figured out that as a gardener, you’re going to be more popular if you show up with your hands full of flowers than zucchini. So every year, he plants a long fence full of sweet peas on the east side of his garden. They come up during the late winter and bloom until it gets really hot, every shade of violet and blue, white, rosy and salmon pink, crimson, and this year a cross-pollinated volunteer of deep purple with crimson-ruffled edges. The breeze from that side of the garden is intoxicating. Chuck takes armloads of sweet peas to work, to his friends, and home to his wife, and sometimes, if I’m at the garden at the right time, he hands me a big blowsy fragrant gorgeous bunch. Sweet!

Seeds of hope

Forget robins- my harbinger of Spring is the arrival of the year’s first seed catalog. Mine came this week from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, full of sexy full-color photos of beauties like Rossa Bianca eggplants, Charentais melons, and Southern Night tomatoes. Seed catalogs bring with them the hope of hot sun and warm dirt and fried squash blossoms and  bruschetta. This winter has been a long, gray, and stormy one. I’ve breathed more stuffy indoor air than I ever care to, but the Weather Channel keeps showing images of big pink blobs churning across the country on the weather radar, unabatedly blanketing us with rain, snow, sleet and gloom. But don’t abandon hope. Peruse a Seeds of Change catalog or Park Seeds and let hope arise anew.

Close your eyes, sitting in front of a sunny window if possible. You are outdoors in your yard or garden. Image the pinch of sun on the bridge of your nose and highest planes of the cheeks. There is a bead of sweat that has collected at the top of your spine, about to slip down between your shoulder blades. You  hear a dog bark in the distance, and if your memory banks had any deposits made on the East coast, a blue jay jeering. A bumblebee may come by, loudly bumping and buzzing its way past. If you happen to have an African Blue basil, there will be a constant high-pitched hum emanating from the swarm of honeybees hieing thither and fro. There is a rustle of breeze through the trellised pole beans and as someone has just started up a lawnmower a block or so away, a waft of fuel mixed with fresh mown grass arrives on the same breeze and invades the edges of your senses. The marigolds edging your garden bed are stridently bright orange, yellow and red, their scent an herbal twang. You have a couple of tomato plants, maybe a vining golden pear cherry or a tumescent Cherokee Purple, and as you reach your hands under the branches, feeling for ripe fruit, you brush the velvet covering the leaves and foliage, releasing the spicy/bitter tomato smell. If you’re really lucky, there is a chicken wire fence nearby covered in pink and violet sweet peas that are beginning to wilt slightly in the heat and their fragrance mingles with the warm smell of dirt and tomatoes…..Ahhhhhhh. Summer is coming. I promise.