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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Win some, lose some: The Homemade Sriracha Experiment

Day 4 of the sriracha fermentation process and I have one disaster and one success.

The disaster: I was gone all day yesterday and didn’t check the sauces last night and unfortunately, bad bacteria took the opportunity to take over the red sauce. There was a thick layer of fuzzy mold in the top and a smell of fruity acetone in the jar. I scraped the mold off just to see what the condition of the sauce was underneath and it was still brilliant red but smelling of pepper garlic alcohol. I think that a combination of very ripe and juicy peppers and a warmer than desirable fermentation temperature got the best of me. I’m going to try it again soon though because up until last night, the mash smelled amazing. Chalk this one up to environmental factors. I’d consider using a narrower mouthed jar next time too to see if that helps, but the lack of temperature control in my apartment is probably a much more critical factor. Once the radiators go off and I can get some more red chiles I’m going to make another batch because it. smelled. awesome.

The green sauce, on the other hand stayed much more stable. A little bubbling but nothing like the jar of red sauce and there wasn’t any mold on the surface. The color softened a little from the original bright green but stayed pretty bright. I added the vinegar and simmered the sauce for 5-8 minutes before blending the mash into a smooth puree and sieving it. The green sriracha is tangy and garlicky and hot hot hot with a little ginger kick that I’m really happy about. I think it will be great in soup and beans and maybe even with some skirt steak with chopped cilantro and onions as a little fusion take on chimmichurri sauce.

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Gingery Green Sriracha 

makes about 1 1/2 cups

3/4 pound green jalapeños

2-3 cloves garlic

1 knob of ginger (about 1 ounce)

1 teaspoon natural sea salt

2 tablespoons raw sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

Snip off just the long end of the jalapeño stems and coarsely chop the whole chile into 5 or 6 pieces; coarsely chop the garlic cloves and ginger. Along with the salt and sugar, put the chiles, garlic, and ginger into the bowl of a food processor. Make sure you cover the spout so you don’t burn your eyes. Pulse the jalapeño mixture until it is a rough purée without any uneven chunks.

Pour the jalapeño purée into a clean glass jar and loosely cover with a lid. Don’t tighten the lid so that the gasses that form during fermentation can escape. Place the jar in a cool (if you have it) dark place and allow it to begin to bubble and expand.  It should smell like garlic and chiles but pay attention to any sharp alcohol smells or excessive mold sprouting on the top. Allow it to ferment for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally.

Pour the fermented mash into a small sauce pan, mix with the white vinegar and bring to a boil. lower the heat and cook for 5 to 8 minutes at a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool off. Pour it into the bowl of your food processor or blender and process until very smooth, 2-3 minutes. Sieve the smooth puree through a fine mesh strainer to remove bits of skin and seeds. Scrape the mash through the strainer until there is just a little dry pulp left in the sieve.

Use a funnel to pour the strained sauce into a bottle or jar; I used a squeeze bottle I got from a restaurant supply store, but a glass jar or recycled sriracha bottle would be great too. Refrigerate.

Shhhhh….Super Secret Valentine’s Gift Experiment

As much as an experiment that I’m posting about on a public blog and which is fermenting odiferously away in our pantry/wine cellar/storage closet, whiffing more and more garlic and chile fumes into the apartment by the hour can BE super secret, I am making a pair of sriracha sauces for my Valentine.

We are the sort of family that has a significant percentage of refrigerator door shelf space allocated to bottles and bottles of hot sauce because each one has a specific and non transferable purpose and we really really need all of them. From classic Tabasco and Caribbean scotch bonnet sauce for black beans to earthy harissa that I use in a lot of my braised sauces and smoky hot chipotle in adobo, amarillo paste from Peru to the green-capped Rooster brand sriracha sauce, we keep adding to our collection.

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Garlicky sriracha is a favorite. It goes so well on so many things and I’ve been wanting to try to make some at home for a while. So I used the impetus of upcoming Valentine’s Day to go ahead and make it. It seems like gifts that can be consumed are a sure hit, particularly since we don’t really like accumulating a lot of stuff.

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I used two recipe sources: this write-up on Serious Eats  and another on Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. Both compared fresh sauce vs. fermented and had used several different types of chiles. While I’m not trying to duplicate the Huy Fong “Rooster” sauce, I wanted to be along the same lines so I decided to use the red jalapeños and fermentation method they use for the first red sauce. I had bought green jalapeños intending to try to ripen them before I ran across the red ones at Manhattan Fruit Exchange so I used those for a green sriracha with a little ginger addition.

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Yesterday I did the first step, processing the chiles and garlic and then putting them in loosely covered jars in the closet to get the sauce to ferment.

When I checked them this afternoon, some of yesterday’s vivid color had begun to soften and I could smell a mellower garlic and chile fragrance. The puree had separated from the liquid a little and started to bubble and expand. I had expected it to take a couple of days to start fermenting but with it being so cold here, the radiators have been on a lot which makes the apartment a little warmer than normal. Warmth quickens dough fermentation so I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re so active. I stirred and re-covered them and put them back in the closet but I may put them beside a window tonight to cool them down a little. I don’t want to get them too cold and put the bacteria to sleep so I’ll have to keep an eye on it- maybe do a condensation cooler like we do to regulate the temperature of our beer while it ferments.

Here’s a picture of the fermenting sauce:

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So, y’all just keep this surprise between us until Friday and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and write up the process I used, including the recipes and variations.

Have a “super bowl” of Vegetable Bean Chili

As far as I’m concerned, football season was over on January 6 when my Auburn Tigers played (and sadly lost) for the national championship, but we here in northern New Jersey are hosting another big football game this weekend. Like I said in this gumbo post a couple of years ago, I usually pick a team based on the city with the most interesting food, but this year, I can’t dispute that chili is one of the most iconic Super Bowl party foods. I love rich spicy chili con carne, but this year I’m making my just-as-rich but less heavy vegetable bean chili.

To me, a key in making any dish interesting is thinking a lot about texture. Either a single consistent texture (smooth and creamy for example) or a thoughtful combination of  contrasting textures make a dish as much as flavor makes a dish. This challenge has been even more apparent to me when cooking vegetarian dishes without the ability to fall back on the chewy resistance of meat. Finding the right mix of contrasting textures without straying too far from the classic flavors of a bean chili was my challenge- and I really love what I finally came up with; the sweet pop of a corn kernel between your teeth, the silky collapse of eggplant over the tongue, the creamy interior of beans yielding into smooth spicy chili gravy- these take what can be a mushy stew  from utilitarian to sensorily engaging and delicious.

I’ve been working on this chili for a long time and in fact, wasn’t able to decide which chili method I preferred. I’ve done the dry toasting and then grinding to chili powder method and the soak, blend and sieve chili method (the same that I do for chili salsa) and while both were a great way to get that rich chili baseline I want in chili, the trade-off of smooth, skinless chili texture that comes with the extra step of sieving wasn’t absolutely compelling. And I know a lot of people will want the ability to make this with a (very fresh and flavorful I hope) ground chili powder, so I wrote this recipe up with those instructions. I encourage you to try the soaking method- it’s such a great way to make smooth enchilada sauce, chili salsas, and chili based soups and is really worth learning the technique.

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 Vegetable Bean Chili

makes 3-4 quarts

1/2 pound dried red kidney beans

½ pound dried pink or pinto beans

water to cook beans (about 6 cups)

5 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried Serrano chiles, stemmed (or fewer, depending on your heat tolerance)

 or about ¼ -1/3 cup total of ground chile powders

 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 Tablespoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 1 chipotle in adobo

 olive oil

1 large onion, diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, deseeded and minced (optional)

1 cup corn kernels (optional)

2 Asian eggplants, cubed

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 28 ounce can  diced tomatoes

 Sea salt to taste

Rinse the dried beans. Cover them with at least 4 cups of water in a saucepan. Cook them, either by first doing a quick soak, an overnight soak,( or if the dried beans are pretty fresh, without pre-soaking) for about an hour until tender. Keep them well covered with water; this liquid will be the broth for the chili.

 In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast all of the dried chiles in a single layer, pressing them against the hot surface with a spoon or spatula until they become soft and fragrant. After allowing them to cool, blend them all in a spice grinder or coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.

 Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Sweat the diced onion with a pinch of salt until they begin to soften; add the eggplant, garlic and peppers and another pinch of salt. Once the vegetables are soft, sprinkle the oregano, cumin and pepper into the pot and stir into the vegetables. Once they have become fragrant, push everything to the edges of the pan and add a couple more tablespoons of oil. Pour the chile powder into the oil and stir, “frying” the powder in the oil until it becomes fragrant. Stir everything so the spices are incorporated into the vegetables, scraping any that stick off the bottom of the pot. Mix in the tomatoes (including the liquid from the can) and corn kernels and then pour in the beans and their cooking liquid; stir and bring to a simmer.

 Taste for salt; I added a tablespoon (at least- more like a small palmful) of sea salt since the beans were unsalted.  Simmer everything together low for 30 minutes before serving, or better yet, let it sit overnight, reheat and serve the next day.

An Update: Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

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My sister Grace lives in Atlanta and is the new mother of my two scrumptious little nieces. After she traded in her flight attendant’s uniform for maternity jeans a couple of years ago and got a schedule that allows her to be at home for more than a couple of days at a time, she’s become a kitchen enthusiast, even started canning last summer. She texted me this after I posted the split pea soup last week:

Glad you posted that soup recipe. I’m cooking again and it feels nice. I have two comments about the potato leek soup before I forget them.

1. We need proportions and 2. using an immersion blender turns it into paste.

How do you keep that from happening?”

A few months after I started this blog, I wrote a post about a neighbor in our community garden who gave me a bunch of leeks. I used them to make a simple potato leeks soup but didn’t really post a recipe, more of a general description of the process. Grace has been asking me to write down the actual recipe ever since I made it for her and her now-husband when they came out for a visit but I never got around to it. Now that she’s feeding it to her children, I figured it’s time to take my responsibility as an aunt seriously and finally get her the recipe.

The paste issue is another story. We have a family Christmas tradition that my mom started of making a pińata with newspaper and flour paste. Most starch can be turned into some kind of glue when it’s mixed with water and potatoes are no exception. Overworking potatoes, which is easy to do with any tool more powerful than your arm, turns them into paste. I’ve made mashed potatoes that you could mortar bricks with before I learned better.

 So, the goal is to blend the soup enough so that it’s smooth but not so much that it becomes gluey. Julia Child recommends either beating the soup with a fork or using a food mill, but I like a smoother puree than a fork will get me and I know a lot of kitchens aren’t equipped with food mills, so I use a hand-held stick blender as my first choice; it’s the easiest tool to control. A blender or food processor will work, but be judicious and just do a few quick pulses until it is smooth.

Another way to minimize the amount of blending is to cut the vegetables into small pieces to begin with; they will soften a lot while they cook and melt into a smooth puree with the cream almost instantly when they are blended.

Adding turnips to the soup sweeten the flavor a little, lighten the texture and make it less starchy, and also help minimize the glue factor.

Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

 serves 4-6

4 medium-sized leeks (usually about 1 bunch of leeks, about 4 cups chopped)

3 medium russet potatoes (with the turnips, about 4 cups diced)

2 medium turnips

Water

Sea salt

¼ cup organic heavy cream (grass-fed, if possible)

Fill your kitchen sink or a large bowl with cold water. Trim the root ends and dark green ends off the leeks; I hold them by the white end and then use a knife to sort of shave the dark green outer leaves off into a point. Split the leeks lengthwise down the middle. Swish each half in the cold water thoroughly to and then let them float. Grit and dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink and then you can just lift the clean floating leeks from the top. Chop the leeks into ½ inch crescents.

 Peel and dice the potatoes and turnips. The size of the dice isn’t crucial, but the smaller the dice the more quickly they will cook to tenderness and the less blending is needed to make a smooth soup. I try to do about a 1/2 inch dice. If you prefer not to use turnips, use one more potato instead.

 Put all of the vegetables into a large heavy bottomed pot with about ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Add enough water to just barely come to the top of the vegetables. Remember, the vegetables will release a lot of liquid as they cook and we don’t want to water down the flavor with too much extra water, and you can always add a little extra if the pot begins to look a little dry. Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are very tender, stirring occasionally. I mash a piece of potato against the side of the pot to check tenderness. It should give no resistance to the spoon when it’s done.

 Using a handheld stick blender (my preference), a food processor, or a blender, puree the soup until it is completely smooth and velvety. Add ¼ cup of organic heavy cream, blend until combined and then check for salt. The cream will coat your tongue slightly so it’s best to wait until after adding the cream to add the final salt.

 Although I don’t have a slow cooker right now, I see no reason why you couldn’t simmer the vegetables on low in a slow cooker for several hours. Add maybe a little less water to the vegetables and stir once or twice to make sure the sugar in the leeks isn’t sticking, then blend and season as you would with a stove top version.

Spicely Organics & Pumpkin Hummus

My recipe for pumpkin hummus went up on My New Usual a couple of weeks ago, a tasty and seasonal alternative to traditional chickpea hummus. My friend Becky was hanging out in my kitchen while I was finalizing the recipe and I used her as a guinea pig to see if I could re-write my recipe to   make the ingredients a little easier for everyone to find. I started making pumpkin hummus when we lived in California and I was buying most of my spices from a San Francisco based organic spice company called Spicely Organics. Long story short, Becky and I agreed that while the simplified recipe was good, the addition of the shawarma seasoning blend made the recipe so much better.

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 I hadn’t been able to find Spicely on the east coast since we moved, and when I had looked for them online, couldn’t find a user-friendly shopping portal. I ran across their booth at the Fancy Food Show in NYC this summer and was excited to hear that they were expanding to sell more nationally and had developed their online presence a lot. After posting the recipe, my friend Kate said she had even found the shawarma spice mix at Whole Foods in Montclair NJ, so it’s become much more widely available recently.

The first thing that I loved about this spice company besides the quality and flavor of their herbs and spices is the packaging. I use a huge variety of herbs and spices in my cooking and I don’t want a load of new glass jars every time I resupply my stock. Spicely’s herbs and spices are mostly packaged in small 1 inch square cardboard boxes with a cellophane bag inside. I also like that they are sold in smaller amounts than the standard jar size. The most important factor in spices maintaining their flavor is freshness and it’s a lot easier to use up the small packages before the fragrance starts to dissipate and the flavor becomes stale, especially if it’s a spice I don’t use constantly. For those go-to spices that I use most often, they also carry cardboard or glass jars in larger sizes and a bulk jar called the “sous chef”. Another benefit to the variety of sizes is that stocking up on a few spices isn’t going to be expensive, especially if you often end up throw away the dregs of an old jar that you never get around to using.

They also have a  tremendous variety of  spices in their line. I’ve bought sumac and mace and nigella seeds, black and green cardamom, whole anise, ground turmeric and juniper berries as well as more everyday spices like Italian and Mexican oregano, cumin, thyme, and smoked paprika. The seasoning blends skew toward more exotic, less standard “steakhouse seasoning”, like the shawarma blend, which I use for chicken and vegetables, not just hummus. There was a curry blend that I didn’t love and I prefer a Cajun blend from Louisiana, but I love the unique Ras El Hanout, the harissa blend, and the za’atar seasoning. They list the ingredients of the blends on the package so you can get a sense of the flavor before buying; I got a lot of inspiration from their blends, new ideas for how to combine flavors. I noticed on their website that they now have tea and spice infused chocolate in their product line, none of which I have tried.

The icing on the cake is that all of their products are organic, non GMO, and fair trade certified. My opinion is that if an organic product doesn’t taste good or isn’t well made, I’m not eating it. I also realize that there are a lot of great foods that are grown or made very naturally that aren’t organic or certified. But if food that I use can taste great and is also organic, I’m happy about it.  The Fair trade certification means that the company sources its spices from producers who do not use forced or child labor, have unsafe working conditions or substandard wages. I don’t want my food to come at the expense of anyone’s health or well-being and I want their work to provide them with a livelihood, so fair trade certification is something that I look for when possible, particularly in categories that have a history of abuse. Going to a little more trouble (or expense) for more carefully sourced food isn’t everyone’s prerogative, but it is important to me. I explained my position in this comment about why Rancho Gordo beans, whose farmers are able to make a living growing the beans, are (to me) worth the higher price:

I grew up eating lots of beans, so I too was a little skeptical when I saw the prices of RG beans. Then I tried them. Their flavor and texture is far, far better than the .69 per pound bags of black beans I’ve always eaten. And while I realize that there is still a big price difference, $5 divided by 6-8 servings is not particularly expensive. 
The real test for me however was when my mom ate RG beans for the first time. She is the one who taught me to use beans as an inexpensive meal. She hasn’t had the extra money to spend on frivolous “gourmet” products, and yet she is sold on RG beans. 
Normally, beans are farmed as a commodity product that has to be produced in bulk for the farmer to make any profit. Steve’s approach is completely different. Smaller yields of more costly beans mean a better profit margin for these farmers. While everyone may not be in a position to buy their food at a higher price in support of smaller farmers, I think it is certainly worthwhile for those who can. It begins to change the food supply system, making it possible for small farmers to support themselves growing better quality produce, enabling more food to be grown locally, and creating a more diverse agricultural polyculture.
If you are a new cook who wants to stock your spice basics or an adventurous experimental one looking for spice inspiration, I think you’ll find something to love about Spicely Organics. I wrote this without any “swag” or payment of any kind to motivate my opinion; I am just really happy that they are now more widely available and wanted to spread the word about something I like and use.
Once you track down that shawarma blend, try this pumpkin hummus recipe:
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Pumpkin Hummus

makes about 2 cups

1 ½ cups pureed roasted pumpkin

3 tablespoons tahini

3 cloves roasted garlic

1 clove raw garlic, crushed or grated on a microplane

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon Spicely organic shawarma seasoning (or ¼ teaspoon each of ground bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander, and thyme)

2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil plus more to serve.

Sumac (optional)

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the pumpkin, tahini, garlic, and spices. Process until smooth. Mix about half of the lemon juice and olive oil in , check for taste and consistency (you don’t want the hummus to be too liquid) and then add the rest to taste.

Hurricane Potluck Mac and Cheese

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This time a year ago, I was standing in the fading light in my kitchen cooking mac and cheese with all of the cheese, milk, and butter I had salvaged from the  fridge and trying to figure out what I could still use in my rapidly thawing freezer. Sandy had hit Hoboken three days ago and we were one of the fortunate few to have no flooding, gas to cook, and some food in the house. Hoboken had become a dark little island, the only sound or light at night  from the police or national guard patrols or the occasional disjointed voices from passersby. During daylight we would walk around town trying to find out how our friends had fared, if there was any prediction about when power would be restored, when the water would be drained out.

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I never posted anything about the storm. During the exciting parts, I was husbanding my rapidly draining phone battery to try to get the occasional update from twitter or to get a text out to our families when I could find some wi-fi. As days began to pass with no clear picture of how or when life would begin to return to normal, I wrote a rambling narrative of our experiences, of the National Guard trucks driving through the flooding to rescue residents, of the restaurants opening to cook in the dark, of the few homes with power running extension cords out onto the street and making handwritten signs saying “Free WiFi/password: sandy/ Charge  Your Phone Here”.  Even after the power came back on a week later, I didn’t post. It was too big and horrible to sum up, it would have felt disrespectful to the magnitude of the situation. And “normal” was so relative. Our main supermarket had flooded so badly that it stayed closed for 15 weeks, the PATH train from Hoboken to Manhattan was closed into February.

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In the middle of that week though, there I was, cooking mac and cheese. We ran into a friend who told us that another friend had power and was an open door for anyone who needed a shower, to charge batteries, to eat a hot meal. We went home and emptied the freezer and fridge of anything 20 or so people could eat and took it over to her house for a potluck.  And in this, I think, I found the bright spot in the hurricane. Hoboken, and my community within Hoboken, pulled together in a really powerful way during the storm. The overwhelming spirit of my neighbors during the crisis was of calm and generosity.  And it was then, during one of its least lovely moments that I resolved that if home is where the heart is, Hoboken was home.

This mac and cheese is of course tastiest when shared with a group of friends in the aftermath of a hurricane, but is not bad on any less dramatic occasion.

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Mac and Cheese

serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk (preferably whole milk)

pinch cayenne pepper

pinch nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

4-6 ounces young gouda, grated

1 ounce pecorino Romano, grated (optional)

8 ounces dry elbow noodles

bread crumbs, toasted in butter (optional)

Cook the elbow noodles in a pot of generously salted water according to the instructions, but drain well just before they are al dente since they will cook a little more in the cheese sauce.

Make a roux with the butter and flour, cooking the flour just until it is a pale blonde color. Whisk in the milk, stirring to incorporate the roux. Cook over medium/low heat, stirring almost constantly until the milk begins to thicken. Whisk in the spices and mustard. Once the sauce comes to a simmer and has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Stir the drained noodles into the cheese sauce; it will seem very soupy at this point but the noodles will soak up the sauce and thicken. Taste for salt.

If you like a baked casserole style mac and cheese, pour it into a buttered baking dish, top with bread crumbs and a little pecorino cheese and bake at 250 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and the pasta is bubbly.

Since everyone in my house doesn’t like the bread crumb topping, I usually toast the bread crumbs and just spoon them over each serving for a little crunch.

Note about the cheese: I like the taste of sharp cheddar in my cheese sauce, and the sharper the cheese, the more the flavor comes through in the sauce. The texture of cheddar, however, is not ideal for melting, so I add another melting cheese, one with a creamy buttery texture to make the sauce rich and silky. Young gouda is nice as are most alpine style cheeses, Gruyere, Havarti, or even Monterrey Jack. You’re looking for something both flavorful and one that will give you those nice gooey strings of melted cheese when you make a grilled cheese sandwich.

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.

Color Inspiration: Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata

It’s funny how a meal can kind of form itself in my mind through a spectrum of memories, visual inspiration, and serendipity at the farmers market.

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I brought home a bag full of produce from the farmers market and was so excited about the beauty of the pile of eggplants, squash, beans, peppers. I spread it out on the table at home like a vegetal color wheel. It was a pastel summer collection with the exception of the tomatoes, a watercolor wash of violet, gold, ivory and green. I loved the tonal spectrum of squash blossoms and wax peppers and decided to play with an old favorite  by adding squash blossoms to a cheese filled pepper frittata.

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This is a gentle dish, subtly  flavored, the mildest hint of heat from the ivory chartreuse peppers softened and mellowed by the creamy eggs and cheese. Squash blossoms infuse their delicate herbal flavor into the eggs as they bake. And if you prefer an even mellower flavor, go with banana wax peppers rather than its younger, slightly hotter cousin the Hungarian wax. The difference between Hungarian and banana wax peppers is maturity and heat level. Hungarian wax peppers are younger, a little thicker fleshed, and mildly spicy. Banana wax peppers are a little larger, mild and sweet with thin flesh.

This dish is easy-going in another way: do you like gooey strings of melted cheese oozing out with each bite or do you prefer the creamy tanginess of fresh goat cheese? Different cheeses produce different results, both lovely depending on your mood.

For a buttery gooey melting cheese, I like a Fontina Fontal or Monterrey Jack. They melt beautifully but have a bit more flavor than Mozzarella. Goat cheese doesn’t melt but since it’s already soft and creamy, you may find its flavor makes up for that. An herb-flavored goat cheese is also a good way to add some extra flavor if you like.

I’ve written this recipe to serve 2 but the proportions of 2 eggs, blossoms, and peppers per person are easy to double. You’ll just need to increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes per additional serving.

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Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata 

4 squash blossoms

4 Hungarian wax peppers or banana wax peppers

4 eggs

2 ounces cheese

salt

Cheese to grate over the top

Preheat the oven to 350

Trim the stem ends of the blossoms to leave about an inch of stem. Gently open the blossom a bit and use your finger to pop the stamen off and remove it. The petals may tear a bit but that isn’t a problem since you’ll be twisting them closed around the cheese.

Make a slit down the length of the peppers with a paring knife and rinse out the seeds.

Cut the cheese into strips and chunks that will fit inside the squash blossoms and peppers, and slip the cheese inside. Twist the tips of the petals to close the cheese inside.  If you are using soft goat cheese, spoon the cheese into the cavity in the blossoms and peppers.

Lightly butter or oil a baking dish. Arrange the peppers and blossoms (I alternated them to make them fit AND make them look prettier.)

Beat the eggs and salt and pour them over the peppers and blossoms in the baking dish.

Grate or sprinkle a little cheese over the top. Bake until the eggs have just puffed and set in the center of the dish, about—— and the cheese is lightly golden on top.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool and set for 5 minutes or so before cutting.