My Whole Grain Classics

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My friend Annie and I had lunch this week to catch up and hash out life’s big issues over salad. It has been a long winter for all of us, but she had just changed jobs, travels all over the world, is dealing with a family health crisis and is feeling the effects of stress. She told me she had been consulting with a nutritionist to try to give herself a physical boost, to try to make some healthy adjustments to her diet so that she’s better equipped to face everything she has to deal with. She joked that she was eating nothing but quinoa and kale and was feeling good but a little culinarily one-note.

 I love kale and I can take or leave quinoa, but boredom with your diet is a good way to end up at the bottom of a bag of Cheetos so I always keep a (some might say excessive) variety of whole grains in my kitchen. They each have such different flavors and textures and characteristics that it keeps me interested. The problem is, as Annie said, if you’ve never tried a grain, you don’t know if you like it until you’ve bought that 20 ounce bag that you try once, and then it sits moldering in the back of the cabinet until it gets rancid and you end up throwing it out.

 I decided to put together a little sampler of some of the grains I have at home for her, enough for a serving or so for her to try out before she buys whole bags of them and thought I’d share it with all of you too. I’ve done several recipe posts for whole grain salads but haven’t really put together my “Classics” list for a post. So here are a few of my favorite grains.

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Farro: “Caesar marched his army to the sea on farro” our innkeeper in Italy told us. Emmer farro is an ancient Roman grain variety that is nutty, earthy, chewy, with a similar texture to but not as sweet as barley. It cooks in a lot of water and keeps separate grains so it’s great to toss with other things for a hearty whole meal salad. I especially love farro with sautéed mushrooms. Cook it at a 4:1 ratio of salted water to grain for 20-25 minutes, or until it is as tender as you like it,  in a covered pot. Drain any leftover water. It can also cook much more quickly if it is soaked in hot water for at least a couple of hours before cooking. Low in gluten, high in complex carbs, with protein, fiber, lignans, and antioxidants, it can form the basis for a hearty, healthy vegetarian meal.

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Millet: Millet is a quick-cooking, fluffy grain with a toasty, corny flavor. It is probably one of the most widely cultivated ancient staple grains in the world, a drought resistant crop, but most of us tend to think of it as birdseed. I like it in just about any dish where cous cous would be appropriate. It is gluten free and alkaline which can help balance the body’s tendency toward acidity. I toast it in a pan with a little olive oil, coconut oil, or other fat, add 2:1 ratio of boiling water to grain. Cover the pot and cook for about 15- 20 minutes over low heat until it is fluffy and dry. This is the same technique I would use for a long grain rice. Use a fork to fluff the grains apart.

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Frikkeh: Also spelled “freekeh” “frikeh” and “farik”, frikkeh is a green wheat grain that is toasted and (usually) cracked like bulgher wheat. It has a subtle hint of toasty smokiness and one of the most intriguing delicious grain flavors I’ve run across. It is used a lot in Levantine and North African cuisines, seasoned with cinnamon and coriander in pilafs with toasted pine nuts, as a stuffing, and with lamb. I even love it plain, just salted and buttered, instead of rice. It is especially high in fiber and has a lot of selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Cook it with a little more than 2:1 water to grain ratio for 15-20 minutes for the cracked grain version.

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Wild Rice: I included wild rice because it is actually a grass seed from the Zizania palustris species rather than true rice. In some part of North America, Native American people harvest it by hand from canoes and the specific method of harvest is proscribed by tribal law. Wild rice has a tough outer sheath covering the inner grain that “pops” as it cooks. Second only to oats in protein, it contains b vitamins, lots of dietary fiber and is gluten-free. It has an earthy, spicy, irony flavor, which subtly hints that it was grown in water; it reminds me slightly of kombu or kelp. I pre-soak wild rice for a couple of hours before cooking it in at least 6:1 ratio of salted boiling water for 30 minutes until the kernels have popped and blossomed. Drain and toss with an intense dressing – I’ve gotten raves over the wild rice and Brussels spouts with mustard dressing I posted in December. It is also good with something tangy and sweet like cranberry (another native North American food).

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Pearled Barley: I feel like I almost take pearled barley for granted it has been a part of my diet for so long. For me, pearled barley goes in vegetable (or vegetable beef) soup. The pop of the grain adds textural contrast, the sweetness balances flavors, and the soluble fiber (same as in oats) thickens and enriches the soup’s broth. Although it is pearled which means that some of the hull has been buffed off, (meaning it isn’t technically a whole grain) it is much quicker cooking and still has lots of healthy fiber. This sweetness and fiber also makes it great (and filling) for breakfast with fruit and a little brown sugar. I usually just throw it into soup without measuring the ratio, but about 4:1 and a 15 minute simmer works for breakfast barley.

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Hominy Grits: You know I can’t make a list of grains without talking about grits! As a southerner, grits are essential for my mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Nothing soothes the ruffles feathers of my soul like a warm bowl of buttered grits; it was the first meal I cooked when I moved here to New Jersey. Hominy grits are made from dent corn, which has been treated with an alkali (with masa harina it is called “nixmatalization”), a process that makes more of the corn’s nutrition accessible during digestion. In contrast, corn polenta is usually made with flint corn which is not treated with alkali. I like white, organic, stone ground grits, and keep them in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity since I usually have to mail order them in larger amounts than I can use up quickly. 4:1 salted water to grits cooked with butter is the classic bowl of grits. Top it with a poached egg and some sautéed greens and you have a comfort in a bowl.

Honorable mention: Although I don’t use them in the same way I use the other grains, both chia and flax seeds are a regular part of our diet. Both are high in omega 3 vitamins and cholesterol controlling fiber. I treat them more as additions too, rather than main elements of, meals, added to smoothies, yogurts, and granola.

The fiber in all of these grains is important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, healthy blood sugar levels (instead of the peaks and valleys caused by simple carbs) and healthy intestinal bacteria which is critical for digestion and a healthy immune system.

Additional resources:

Wild rice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_rice

Farro: http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/03/20/jane-says-farro

I buy my grain from these sources:

Bob’s Red Mill

Arrowhead Mills

Kalustyan’s

Adluh Mills

Anson Mills

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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.

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.

Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

The weather has been a beast here this week. It has been as hot and humid as Satan’s armpit, the kind of weather where your window AC seems to churn the heavy air rather than  actually cool it. We’ve eaten a few of those cold olives and sliced tomatoes and bread and cheese suppers which I think are really lovely in the summer when tomatoes are sweet and juicy and raw or barely cooked vegetables are crisp and tender. Tacos of course required a little cooking, but not a lot. Salsa, slaw, and ice cream for dessert were fresh and light.

While the weather was still hot this weekend, I had worked a long day and  felt like something savory and substantial. I had picked up a handful of slim violet Asian eggplants at the farmers market earlier in the week without a plan for how to use them and decided to quickly wok cook them with a spicy garlicky sauce.  Eggplant can feel really savory and satisfying, soaking up whatever sauce they are cooked in.They are really one of my favorite things to eat. Combined with spicy sauce made with some Asain pantry staples, fresh soft tofu and fragrant Jasmine rice, the meal  was cooked and I was away from the stove in about 20 minutes.

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Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

1 tablespoon fish sauce*

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 cup water

1 tablespoon corn starch

¼ cup water

oil

6 cloves garlic

4 scallions

4 Hungarian wax or Banana wax peppers

3 Asian eggplants

14 ounce package soft tofu

toasted sesame oil

Hot cooked rice

Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce, gochujang, sugar, and water and whisk together until everything is smooth.  Mix the cornstarch and water in another small bowl.

Thinly slice the garlic cloves. Chop the scallions into ½ inch pieces. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise, deseed, and slice them into thin slivers.

Remove the stem end from the eggplant, slice them in half lengthwise, and them chop the halves into 1 inch pieces. Remove the tofu from the package, drain, and cut into 1 inch cubes.

In a large wok or skillet, heat a couple of teaspoons of oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic, scallions and peppers into the oil and stir constantly, cooking until they begin to soften. Add the eggplant and continue to stir. Cook the eggplant until the skin turns from purple to brown and the eggplant begins to soften, about 5-10 minutes. Take care not to burn the vegetables; if they begin to brown, lower the heat and add a small pinch of salt. The salt will help the eggplant release some of their water and help keep it from sticking. Gently stir the tofu cubes into the eggplant. Pour the sauce mixture in and stir. Cover and bring the sauce up to a simmer. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, just to infuse the eggplant and tofu with its flavor. Pour the cornstarch slurry over the sauce and stir. Bring it back to a simmer so that the cornstarch thickens the sauce. Drizzle with toasted sesame oil and stir. Serve over hot cooked long grain rice.

*For a completely vegetarian recipe, substitute another tablespoon of soy sauce for the fish sauce

*For and even spicier Sichuan-inspired version, substitute 1 tablespoon of Sichuan chili bean paste for 1 tablespoon of the gochujang and add a pinch of Sichuan peppercorns.

Tacos with Cactus, Poblano, Charred Onion Rajas

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Tomatillo salsa was just for starters for our last taco night. I made carnitas- style pork tacos with cumin slaw and these vegetarian cactus tacos with avocado cream and cotija cheese. Poblano rajas was the base for the taco filling- strips of seasoned poblanos cooked with charred sliced onions and  spices. Poblano rajas are great as a side with meat, burgers, scrambled eggs, mixed with cream or cheese. Adding the nopal cactus strips made them a substantial and succulent taco with the creamy avocado and salty cheese.

Nopal (prickly pear cactus paddles) are similar to both aloe leaves and okra. They hold moisture in their fleshy paddles with the soluble fiber called mucilage. Cooked, they are a bit like a green bean and a bit like pickled okra, the tender crunch of the green bean and the silky tangy texture of pickled okra. They add a bit of body to soups, a bright crunch to huevos rancheros, and pickled, would probably be great in a Bloody Mary!

I’ve seen cactus in several forms in markets: canned in jars, de-clawed and diced in plastic bags, or whole with the larger spines removed but still a bit prickly. I usually try to buy them whole. Most vegetables start to deteriorate once they are cut at all and it can be hard to see their condition when they are wrapped in plastic. If you are shopping in a place with a lot of turnover in the produce department and a clientele that will buy enough pre-cut cactus to make you confident in its freshness, buy them. It will save you a step or two (and possibly a prick in the fingertip). But don’t be intimidated by the whole paddles. It’s a pretty simple matter to de-claw them at home; either stick a fork into the fleshier end and scrape them with a sharp paring knife or singe them over a gas flame until the spines are burned off. Once the spines are blackened, a quick rinse will wash away anything that is left.

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Nopal Poblano Rajas

3 large poblanos

4 nopal paddles

1 red serrano for color

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic

pinch Mexican oregano

pinch ground cumin (if desired)

olive oil

salt to taste

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Start by preparing the nopal. Using tongs, hold the paddle by the thicker end over a gas flame until any spines are singed. Rinse briefly to remove any charred bits of spine. Slice them on the bias into 1/4 inch strips.

Remove the stem ends and seeds from the chiles. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips. Remove the stem and root end from the onion and cut into thin strips.

Smash the garlic and mince into a paste.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the slices of onion to the dry skillet and cook, stirring often until the onions begin to char just a bit. Scrape the onions out onto a plate and set aside. Lower the heat under the skillet to medium low and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the chile strips, salt, garlic, and spices and cook for about 10 minutes or until the chiles are beginning to soften. Add the onions and the cactus strips, stirring to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally and watching that the vegetables don’t stick to the pan until the onions and peppers have collapsed into a silky sticky savory tangle and the cactus has lost its vibrant green color and becomes a soft olive green. Taste for texture- the cactus should still have a bit of a pop between the teeth but be very tender- and salt to taste.

Serve in a taco with corn tortillas, avocado and cotija. Or use as a filling for omelette, on top of a burger, with a smoky roast chicken.

Corn and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

I love those puffy crisp chile rellenos covered with their golden eggy batter, deep fried, filled with oozing cheese and served with a scoop of salsa. If a restaurant or cook can make that dish well, without being soggy or bland or greasy, they have my respect and admiration.

It wouldn’t be wise for me to indulge in that particular version of the chile relleno very often though. They’re a little too rich for everyday (or every week) consumption and they are time-consuming to make well. But “relleno” just means “filled” or “stuffed” in Spanish so I make my version with poblanos baked and filled with vegetables and just a little cheese. It’s satisfying without being too heavy and a lovely way to enjoy more peak summer corn and chiles.

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The only fiddly thing about this recipe is charring the peppers to remove the skin. I’ve made a lot of stuffed peppers of all types over the years and I cannot make one that I like if I don’t start with a somewhat cooked pepper. The timing of cooking is always off somehow, the pepper is still crunchy when the filling is disintegrating or the filling gets watery from the liquid that the pepper releases while cooking. So bear with me and try charring the peppers at least once.

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Dicing the vegetables into somewhat uniform pieces makes for a better bite; the combination of a fork-full of sweet peppers, creamy black beans, and the pop of sweet corn and salty cheese all at once is better than stabbing at lots of disparate chunks.

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I also like to add a little cheese to the filling right before I stuff the peppers. It adds a little bit of tang and richness and the fat brings the flavors in the filling together. If you live somewhere that has good salty crumbly fresh Mexican Cheese available, use that, but I have used feta and fresh chèvre when I can’t find the Mexican cheese and the flavor works well.

Since cilantro can be such a polarizing flavor, I’ve omitted it from this recipe but if you like cilantro, stir some torn leaves in with the cheese.

The amounts in this recipe can be adjusted according to the size of the poblanos. Think of it more in terms of proportions rather than exact measurements.

Corn and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

4-6 poblano chiles

oil

1 medium red onion

1 red sweet pepper

1/2 jalapeño, seeded

1 1/2 cups corn kernels

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

salt to taste

1 large ripe tomato

1 1/2 cooked black beans, rinsed and drained.

3 ounces fresh cheese such as cotija, feta, or chèvre

First, char the poblanos, either on a grill, on the burner of a gas stove, or under a broiler. Turn to blacken the skin evenly. When the chiles are blistered all over, put them in a bowl with a plate to cover them to steam a little and cool down to the point they can be handled. Pick the blackened skin off the outside, although this is not the time for perfection, a little of the char left behind adds flavor.

Prepare the filling: dice the onion, peppers and tomato into pieces not too much larger than the beans and corn. This will help the ingredients cook evenly.

In a large skillet, heat a splash of oil to a shimmer. Add the onion and peppers and sauté for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and spices and raise the heat, stirring to let the corn caramelize a little. Lower the heat and gently stir in the tomatoes and beans. Once they have warmed, remove the pan from the heat and set aside. Stir in 3/4 or so of the cheese, trying to keep it in chunks.

Heat the oven to 300

Make a slit down the side of each poblano and scoop and rinse the seeds out. Place the, slit side up in a baking dish that just holds the peppers without a lot of room to spare. Spoon the vegetable filling into the poblanos, filling them generously and pouring any accumulated juices over the pan. Crumble the rest of the cheese over the top and bake for about 15 minutes.

Serve with rice and a drizzle of chipotle salsa roja (if you like).