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.

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Chipotle Salsa Roja

For a classically trained chef (in the French tradition, which is what most of us think of when we hear that term) there is a foundational canon of techniques, sauces, stocks, and cooking “systems” like mis en place that form the elements from which many meals are built. For a home cook like me, a streamlined version of this approach is how I cook without recipes. If I can make a good stock, my risotto, soups, and braises will be delicious and richly flavorful. If I can make an emulsion, I can make mayonnaise,  béarnaise and hollandaise sauces.  Making a roux is the first step to bechamel (and then mac and cheese) or to gumbo.

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The globalization of food cultures, particularly in the great American melting pot, means that now home cooks can borrow  foundational elements, not just from classic European chefs, but from the kitchens of great cooks all over the world. I grew up in Atlanta when I was in a small minority that ate soy sauce, tofu, tangy plain yogurt, and stir fries, and yet maybe 10 years ago, I saw a three-year old in a supermarket in Atlanta pitching a fit for his mom to open his tray of sushi. There are 10 different kinds of hummus and salsa in any given grocery store. We are familiar with pesto, curry,  tom yum soup and enchiladas, tzatziki and tagliatelle and paella, at least by name.

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The problem that I find with this accumulation of cultural wealth is that the definitions of these foods are often narrowed to a single version, often created for mass appeal rather than for its integrity to the original recipe. I don’t think there is always a black and white “right or wrong” way to cook something, but we’ll all eat better when we know the difference between a Cool Ranch Doritos Taco Bell taco and a barbacoa taco on a fresh sort corn tortilla. Culinary appropriation doesn’t necessarily bother me – I think it’s one place where borrowing and adapting between cultures makes sense and is more beneficial than not- but I regret when the definitions of a food become so assimilated into the tastes of aggregate culture that they become pale ghosts of the original.

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Salsa is one of these ubiquitous foods that I think has suffered from translation. Until relatively recently, the best salsa I could find in big supermarkets was pressured sealed (so very very cooked) tomato sauce with a tiny hint of onion, maybe a little pepper, cumin, or cilantro. Even fresh salsa is usually really pico de gallo or salsa fresca, a chopped tomato relish with onions, jalapenos, and cilantro. Obviously, I love tomato salsa, make it all the time, but as I once said to someone who posited that you should be able to find good Mexican food wherever good tomatoes are grown, equating good Mexican food to the availability of good tomatoes is like equating good Chinese food to the availability of baby corn. Mexican cuisines are much more tied to chiles than to tomatoes. Go to any taqueria and check out the condiments. There with the pickled vegetables, radishes, and pico de gallo, you’ll find a variety of chile based salsa, each reflecting the flavor profile of the different types of chiles used (as well as their heat levels).

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Drying chiles is a common and practical method of food preservation. When our garden in California was producing 20 pounds of serranos and poblanos week, our house was strung with garlands of ripening and drying chiles, trays of chiles in a very low oven to get the last moisture out of them so I could put them in jars. And every time I open a jar of these chiles, I get a wave of  deep, spicy, dusty berry fragrance.

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This is one of my favorite chile salsa, one of the “mother sauces” I have in my repertoire.  It’s a versatile condiment and sauce I use for chips, as enchilada sauce, to cook with eggs, or to mix into a bowl of beans.

The basic technique is the key, and easily adapted to your favorite chiles. This chart is great for dried chile basics and can help if you want to change it up for different uses. I like the smokiness of chipotles on just about everything, so this is my favorite basic recipe.

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Salsa Roja

Dried Chile Salsa

5 Ancho chiles (dried poblanos)

4 chiles California or Seco del Norte or Guajillo chiles

3 Serrano chiles

2-3 chipotles (canned in adobo or dried)

Boiling water

4-5 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1-2 tablespoons oil

Sea or kosher salt

Break up the chiles into large pieces, removing the stems. You can remove the seeds or leave them for a little extra heat. Put them into a heatproof bowl, like a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup and cover with enough boiling water to make about 2 cups total. Use a plate, sieve or strainer to hold the chiles under water to soak for at least 20 minutes, until they have softened and rehydrated.

Pour the water and chiles into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic and Mexican oregano. Process until the mixture is smooth, breaking down the pieces of chile. Pour the mixture into a sieve over a large bowl and use a rubber spatula to scrape and press the mixture through the sieve; this will remove the seeds and the thin tough skin from the chiles. Once all of the liquid and pulp has passed through the mesh you will be left with a dry paste of seeds and skin, which can be thrown away.

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle, carefully pour the chile puree into the oil and stir to blend. Bring the chiles to a low boil, stir to mix with the oil and reduce slightly the water in the salsa (you should be able to run your finger through it on the back of a spoon and it leave a line without running immediately). Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Salt to taste.

Pour the salsa into a jar and allow it to cool and the flavors to meld- overnight is best. Keep in a jar in the refrigerator indefinitely.

I throw this together at the last-minute when I’m headed out the door for a long day at work and I want something fast and hearty for breakfast:

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olive oil

2 eggs

salt

2 tablespoons salsa roja

2-3 corn tortillas

crumbly cheese like cotija or feta.

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a small non stick skillet for a minute. Crack two eggs into the oil, sprinkle with salt and dollop the salsa over the eggs. cover the eggs with the tortillas where they will warm and wilt with the heat of the eggs while acting as a lid so the eggs will cook more quickly. I leave them for 2-3 minutes to get a set egg white and a runny yolk. Place a plate over the skillet and flip the skillet over on top of the plate. crumble the cheese on top and dig in. If you aren’t in too much of a hurry, diced avocado is also a great addition.

Smoky Spanish Frittata

Just a word of warning: if you tell a butcher that you need  “enough sausage for two people”, the two people he has in mind are not you and your lovely spouse, but two hungry offensive linemen from the Chicago Bears. And by the time you realize his misapprehension, he has already cut, wrapped and bagged your sausage. All that is left is to lug your giant bag of sausage home, use it for its intended purpose and then start figuring out other clever ways to use the rest. Not an unpleasant task, I know.

Spanish chorizo sausage and its cousin Portuguese linguica are, basically, awesome sauce-age. They are typically dried, kind of like a salami, although some are softer than others, and are intensely flavored with delicious things like smoked paprika and garlic and chunks of pork fat that melt out when they are heated, flavoring everything with porky, sausagy deliciousness.

Since I had made this bulk purchase of sausage to make a seafood paella last week, I had a bit of a Spanish theme going on in my mind: what could I do with a jar of fire roasted piquillo peppers, sausage, some onion, and my smoky piquante Spanish paprika? Make one of my favorite quick suppers, a Spanish frittata. All I needed  was some cooked potatoes, eggs, and soft, creamy, tangy chevre.

A frittata is an open-faced omelet with vegetables, cheese, and meat mixed into the eggs rather than being folded in after the eggs are mostly cooked. My frittatas tend to be heavy on the fillings. And while this recipe is one of my favorites, a frittata is just as adaptable to what you have on hand as an omelet is; the important thing to bear in mind is that (and this is especially important if you, like me, like a lot of fillings) you must pre-cook the vegetables before the eggs are added. Raw or undercooked vegetables release a lot of water while they are cooking and that water just makes your eggs awful and soggy. The other benefit to cooking the vegetables ahead of the eggs is that you can add that layer of flavor that a little browning in a bit of flavorful fat provides. The creamy potatoes, sweet peppers and onions, creamy/tangy chevre and smoky sausage give the frittata a full balanced spectrum of flavor.

Smoky Spanish Frittata

serves 2-4

– 1 teaspoon oil (unless you are using a non-stick skillet)

– 2 ounces  chorizo sausage, diced

– 1/3 cup chopped red onion

– 2 small waxy potatoes, peeled, cubed, and roasted or boiled (about 3/4 cup)

– 2-3 jarred roasted piquillo peppers, sliced

– 2 ounces fresh goat cheese/chevre (I used Laura Chanel chevre)

– smoked paprika

– salt

– 1 tablespoon parsley leaves, chopped

– 5 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 or your broiler to medium-high.

If you are using a cast iron skillet as I am, use the teaspoon of oil to lightly grease the entire inside of the pan so that the eggs are less likely to stick. I don’t have non-stick, but I understand that if you do, that step is unnecessary.

Over medium heat, heat the diced sausage through until some of the orange fat begins to ooze out; add the potatoes and onions and saute until the onion begins to soften and the potatoes begin to brown. Dust everything with smoked paprika according to your flavor intensity preference. Scatter the pan with the sliced piquillo peppers; crumble the chevre into the vegetable mixture, leaving rough chunks of the soft cheese. Toss in the parsley and sprinkle with a little salt.

Put a pinch of salt into the beaten eggs and pour them over the skillet, evenly distributing it over the vegetables and sausage. let it cook over medium until the edges become opaque and bubbles begin to rise through the eggs in the middle of the pan.

Place either in the oven or under the broiler to finish cooking the top of the eggs. Keep an eye on it; it should only take a few minutes before all of the eggs are opaque and lightly cooked through.

Let the frittata sit to cool and set slightly before slicing in wedges; it’s also good at room temperature.

Deviled Eggs-Southern Food Challenge 5

Deviled eggs are the edible equivalent of the little black dress: they can go anywhere, adapt to any situation, always appropriate, day – to – evening, dress it up, dress it down. You know.

In its simplest form, I can barely even justify calling the formula a recipe:

Deviled Eggs

For each two hard-boiled eggs (I know, who makes just 2?)

1 tablespoon of good mayo

1 teaspoon mustard

pinch of salt

pinch of cayenne

Whenever I’m boiling eggs, I try to start them in fairly hot, almost simmering water so that my timing is more accurate. I don’t like overcooking them. For deviled eggs, once I have gently lowered them into the simmering water, I set the timer for 11 minutes, then scoop the eggs out and submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking. After they’ve cooled, I peel them, slice them in half (tip: a thin bladed knife like a slicer works well for this job; a heavy chef’s knife blade can tear the whites up), and remove the yolks into a bowl. The yolks get mashed with a fork a little and then I add the mayonnaise and mustard (French’s yellow mustard is the classic in this case) and mix most of the lumps out.

At this point, you can just season the yolk with the salt and pepper, scoop it back into the egg white halves, maybe dust it with a little paprika and be done. You would have a very nice, simple deviled egg such as have graced the tables of thousands of church picnics across the South since time immemorial. Kind of like the equivalent of a black sundress and flats.

For a little dressier but still simple variation, maybe a brunch, I thought “salad nicoise” and chopped up some (2 teaspoons for 2 eggs) rinsed salt-packed capers and used Dijon mustard instead of the French’s. I don’t salt it until after  the capers are added and I’ve taste-tested . Even the rinsed capers may have enough salt. I shave a razor-thin sliver of red onion onto the  top for a contrast in crunch and flavor.

So, day to evening: mix the Dijon mustard into the yolks and mayonnaise and blend them until they are really smooth. When you put the yolks back int the hollow of the egg white, make a little dimple in the top with the back of a teaspoon and fill it with fish roe or caviar, according to your taste, the occasion, and the pocketbook. I used the tiny capelin roe, called Masago. It’s sweet and crunchy, popping delightfully between the teeth in contrast to the smooth creamy egg. It’s the plunging neckline with 5-inch peep toe sling-backs version of the deviled egg.

Deviled eggs are not intrinsically a fussy food. It’s beauty lies in its simplicity, so in that all of it elements should be evident in each bite,  use good ingredients. They are the perfect occasion to bust out the home-made mayo and fresh, sharp mustard (which loses its flavor over time, so it’s good to check that jar in the fridge once in a while to see if it still tastes). And use my suggestions as inspiration; think about how many flavors go well with eggs – smoked salmon, bacon, curry powder. Since it’s pretty risk-free to experiment with two eggs at a time, go for it and try all of them.

Rice rice baby

I’ve been trying to make myself a welcomed and pleasant houseguest these past few weeks. I have a few techniques I try to use. I try to remember the “house guests and fish” rule, by not staying too long in one place. I make myself scarce when my hosts are busy. I try to be charming, an amusing conversationalist, a general pleasure to be around. I tidy up after myself, bring gifts of wine and cheese and cookies. And I cook.

I’ve been staying at Kristen’s house this week. She has two boys. As it turns out, teenaged boys can put away some groceries. It’s like a shop vac gets turned on in the kitchen, and thirty minutes later, they are hungry again. So the other night, I made a huge skillet of fried rice for a very appreciative audience. (That is a nice thing about cooking for teenaged boys- they are very enthusiastically appreciative). It’s quick and easy, a good way to use leftovers, and according to the boys, a crowd pleaser.

There are two important things to remember: first, start with cold rice, and second, don’t be afraid of high heat. Most other things in fried rice are negotiable. These are not, so no back talk. The reason for cold (and even a little dry) rice is that it holds up much better under the stirring and tossing. Fresh rice just gets mushy and beat up. And the high heat, which I think is one of the most important things to get comfortable with as a cook, cooks everything fast enough to get done before it starts getting mushy. Fresh rice and a tepid pan makes for a sodden greasy grease bomb and nobody wants that. You want glossy individual grains of rice, emollient but not saturated with sesame oil, lightly bound with a bit of just-cooked egg and studded with vegetables and shrimp, chicken, pork or sausage.

 

 

Fried Rice

Here is what I used :

5 or 6 cups of cold or room temperature long grain rice- leftover is perfect. Use your hands to gently separate the grains into a bowl, ready to pour into the wok

Oil (corn, canola, peanut etc.) to generously coat the bottom of the pan

Toasted sesame oil

1 clove garlic minced or crushed

1 tiny knob of ginger finely grated

3 or 4 scallions, sliced

A cup or two of cooked vegetables (I used a frozen mix of water chestnuts, baby corn, snow peas, mushrooms, and edamame, thawed and drained , but frozen peas work well too; whatever you like )

3 beaten eggs

Teriyaki chicken

Soy sauce, or

Salt to taste

White or cayenne pepper to taste

 

Fried rice takes minutes to make once you get started, so have everything ready to go when you turn the heat on. You will need a big flat bladed spatula and a big pan. (I use a wok at home, but used Kristen’s electric skillet on its highest setting this time). Get you large wok or skillet as screaming red rocket hot as you can and then pour the oil in, probably about a 3 to 1 ratio of regular oil to toasted sesame oil. As soon as it starts to shimmer, add the garlic and ginger. Keep it moving, stirring or shaking the pan. You’ll get that hit of fragrance and then it’s time for the vegetables and scallions to go in. Keep moving and tossing with one hand, and then scatter the rice across the whole of the pan’s surface so that it gets as much rice-to-hot-pan exposure as possible. It should be pretty noisy and hissy; that means it’s frying and not getting all steamy. Once the rice grains starts to look glossy and separate, scoop them up the sides of your pan, leaving an empty well in the center. If you are not using a non stick pan and it looks pretty dry, add a little more sesame oil to the middle. swirling it slightly to get it hot and distributed. Pour the beaten egg into the well and immediately begin folding the rice into the egg, gently stirring and folding to distribute the egg throughout the rice as it cooks. Turn the heat off as soon as the egg thickens. If you want to, toss in some chopped up meat, whatever you like. Get a fork and taste for seasoning. I personally like a few tablespoons of salty soy sauce stirred in instead of salt. White or cayenne pepper for those who wish it.

Fried rice is pretty negotiable, like I said, so use what you have or prefer. If you want to it vegetarian, just bump up the proportion of vegetables. If you aren’t cooking for teenaged boys, use less rice. And if you can find some Chinese sausage, that’s very good too. I’m hoping this one bought me at least a couple more days of houseguest goodwill.

 

Happy Cinco de Mayo, y’all!- Huevos Rancheros

When it comes to celebrating Cinco de Mayo, there are a few directions you can take. First, you could ignore it, because it’s just a Wednesday and you don’t even know what it’s about. Second, you could consume far too many margaritas at your local cantina, after which you still have to get up and go to work on Thursday. Third, and I’ll allow that this is an unconventional idea, you could really mess up a French recipe in honor of the French’s defeat by the Mexican army in 1862. Or fourth, and this is the method I recommend, you can make some great Americanized Mexican food, because doesn’t that really capture the spirit of the holiday?

Huevos Rancheros

Serves 2

4 corn tortillas, as fresh as you can find them. I get some that still have steam in the bag from a tortilla factory near me.

4 eggs

1 cup chunky fresh salsa- I like Salsa Especial from Trader Joe’s if you don’t make homemade

2/3 cup cooked pinto or pink beans or refried beans –   Rancho Gordo beans are my favorite

Monterey Jack cheese

Oil of butter to cook the eggs

Cilantro, stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped

Scallion, sliced

Avocado, about 1/2 sliced for 2 people

Nopal, briefly cooked in boiling water, drained and salted

Warm your oven at it’s lowest setting to keep the plates and tortillas warm while everything else is prepared.

Wrap the tortillas in foil or put them in a cast iron skillet and cover with foil in the oven to warm.

Warm the beans.

Have the cilantro, scallions, avocado, nopal, and cheese ready.

Heat a drop of oil or butter in a small nonstick skillet, and crack 2 of the eggs into it. After the whites have begun to turn opaque, pour a little of  the salsa and a teaspoon or so of water into the pan and cover. Cook until the whites are firm, and the yolks are still a little runny. If you have two skillets and the skills of a short order cook, try cooking all the eggs at the same time; otherwise repeat with the other eggs.

To assemble, place two tortillas on a dinner plate. Spread half of the beans onto the tortillas and top with the eggs. Pour half of the salsa over the eggs, grate a little cheese over the top and sprinkle with the cilantro, scallions, avocado, and nopal.

Salad Lyonnaise

I was meeting a new friend for lunch. We were actually meeting for the first time- it was one of those mutual friends saying “you both live in the same city and would like each other- let me introduce you” set ups- and I ordered a salad. She shot me one of those quirked eyebrow looks across the table as if to say,  “are you THAT sort of girl, one of those pick-at-a-salad-and-declare-yourself-stuffed females?” I quickly reassured her that it was actually a lettuce vehicle for bacon, blue cheese, chicken, hard-cooked egg. In other words, a Cobb Salad. Or maybe it was a Prawn Louie with avocado, grilled prawns, and Thousand Island. Either way, it was a salad you could sink you teeth into.

There is no sense of deprivation or denial with this Salad Lyonnaise, or salad frisée aux lardon.  It provides all of the elements of “the perfect bite”- crunchy, salty, bitter, tangy, rich. I was inspired to try it at home by Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, one of my favorite cookbooks, loved as much for it’s narratives as for the actual recipes. I combined the basic recipe found in this book with some other classic ingredients in the dressing, mustard and shallots.

Salad Lyonnaise

White vinegar

1 large head frisée, washed and torn into bite sized tendrils

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into wide matchsticks

3 tablespoons minced shallot

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

4 eggs

Optional

4-8 slices of baguette for croutons (depending on the size)

Olive oil to fry croutons

-Fill a shallow saucepan with water and a generous splash of white vinegar and bring it to a gentle simmer. The bubbles should just be barely shimmering. One at a time, crack the eggs into a small bowl, then gently slip them into the water. Use a spoon to try to maintain the shape of the egg, but don’t worry if some of the white drifts off. You just want most of the egg to congeal together. Cook until the whites are set, for between 3-5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, scoop the eggs out of the water and drain on a paper towel while you finish the rest of the salad.

-While the water is heating for the eggs, begin to fry the bacon in a skillet. Once the bacon is brown and crisp, remove it from the pan, leaving the rendered fat in the skillet. Stir in the shallots for about a minute. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the mustard and 3 tablespoons of vinegar, whisking well to make a creamy dressing.

–  Toss the frisée in the dressing, then season with salt and pepper if desired. Divide the salad greens between 4 plates, sprinkle each with bacon and gently nestle a poached egg on the top of each. Grind a little pepper over the top.

– Optional: to add croutons, heat a little olive oil in a small skillet and fry the slices of baguette until golden brown and crisp on each side. Sprinkle with salt.


Frisée is also known as curly endive, a part of the chicory family. It has a distinctive pleasantly bitter taste. If you like arugula, give this lovely lettuce a try. It provides a lovely contrast to the other flavor components of this dish.

Mustard Greens

After the interminable rain we’ve had this winter, I finally made it into the garden last week. All of my recent attempts had been foiled by either bucketing rain or hip- deep mud on all of the paths. It turns out that we have a lush crop of grass covering most of our plot, with one corner thick with mustard greens, collard greens, and kale. My basket was pressed down and running over, let me tell you. Fortunately, we love greens in many guises and have been busily eating them up this week. One of my favorite iterations was last Saturday and inspired by a very inspiring friend’s suggestion. I wilted a bunch of the mustard greens and then lightly sautéed them with garlic and olive oil. This went on top of a bowl of Parmesan polenta with some chunks of pork belly I had braised with sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, and Worcestershire sauce and finally, a lightly poached egg. Lovely! The sharp pungency of the greens was the perfect foil to the rich pork belly. The greens also allowed me to feel smugly virtuous while eating what really boils down to bacon, cheese grits, and eggs.