Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tried and True - Panzanella Salad (Or is it fattoush?)

Panzanella. Fattoush.  Fattoush. Panzanella.  Italy.  Lebanon. Syria.  Whatever you call it and wherever it comes from, bread and tomato salad is a wonderful thing.  During fresh tomato season this dish is a staple in our house.  It is quick and easy to make and serve.  (Oh yes.  The words we love to hear.  Quick and easy.)  It is also healthy and affordable.   It can be served as an everyday family meal or it can be served with pride to guests with some good wine and cheese.  And some rich cornmeal or semolina cake soaked with a honey syrup for dessert.

And it tastes great.  I probably eat some version of this salad once a week throughout tomato season.
This is another one of those dishes which lend themselves to infinite variations, depending on your personal tastes and the state of your larder.

The main difference between panzanella and fattoush is the type of bread used.  Panzanella uses Italian or French "country bread" - bread with a fair amount of substance to it.  Wonder Bread or its kin need not apply.  Fattoush uses single layers of pita bread cut into wedges.  Both breads need to be somewhat dry so they can properly soak up the salad juices and still not get too soggy.  The pitas can be baked in a moderate oven 10 minutes or so - until they are crisp.  The country bread should be cut into pieces about 3/4 inch in size.  If the bread is still pretty fresh, best to bake the pieces a while to dry them out.  Wikipedia says that for panzanella salad you really should use stale saltless Tuscan bread that has been baked in a wood (I think they meant wood fired) oven.  If you can get such stuff, good for you.  But I would not put off making this fabulous salad just because you don't happen to have the right kind of Tuscan bread.

My husband made a batch of his famous homemade whole wheat pita a few days ago, so I decided to use pita triangles.  So really the title of this post should be fattoush, not panzanella salad.

Here are the ingredients and proportions I used.  This is just a guideline - vary according to your taste.  If you want a heartier salad with more protein, consider adding some cooked chickpeas or white beans.  I don't think that is a conventional thing to do - but who is going to stop you?  The panzanella police?

Some people add tuna or anchovies.   I think I am going to try sardines some time soon.  If you like the piquant taste of olives or capers, by all means add one or the other.  (I think it would be too much to use both).  If you are not too worried about calories and want more protein, you could also add some cheese.  Feta would be a good choice for fattoush.  Perhaps a good mozzarella or asiago for the panzanella.  A little goes a long way.

Makes about 8 cups - enough for 4 servings. 
3 heaping cups fresh tomatoes, cut in 1/2 to 1 inch pieces - include all the juices, don't drain
1 1/2 c. chopped cucumbers (peeled and seeded- no need to salt and drain)
1/2 cup cut up sweet peppers
1 cup coarsely chopped sweet or red onion
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/3 cup fresh basil, chopped or sliced
(some chopped mint - optional)
2 t. finely minced fresh garlic
1/4 t. salt (You shouldn't need any more, especially if you use fresh herbs)
2 heaping cups broken up toasted pita triangles
Dressing:  4 T. olive oil, 2 T. red wine vinegar (You may want to increase this a little if you want a juicier salad.  You could also just add a bit of tomato juice or even a tablespoon or two of water.)

Have a nice weekend.  You might want to check your supplies so you are ready to make tomato bread salad when those first fresh tomatoes of the season come in.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Focus: CUCUMBER (cucumis sativus)

If  you are looking for something special to do this weekend, come to Lanesboro on Saturday, July 31 for our Farmers Market Kids' day and also for a special area tour - including a tour of Featherstone Farm -  sponsored by Lanesboro Local.  Sign up details here:

Back to our regular programming:
 "The cucumber is beloved the world over for its cool, crisp, thirst-quenching flesh and clean flavor when raw and for its capacity to absorb salt, vinegar, water and spices as a delectable pickle."  Mi Ae Lipe, The Featherstone Farm Cookbook

Cucumbers are indeed popular the world over.  Most people believe they are native to India, where they have been enjoyed for thousands of years.  Cucumbers made their way to the Romans and to Europe in general and then the Spaniards brought them to America in the 1500's.  They appear in the cuisines of India, Scandinavia,  Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan and the Middle East.

Nutrition and health
Cucumbers are not the most nutritious vegetable (they are technically a fruit)  in the world, but they do contain vitamin C, dietary fiber, potassium and magnesium.  They are over 90% water - and they also contain silica and caffeic acid, all of which benefit the skin.  That is why sliced cucumbers are recommended for puffy eyes or topical burns.
My eyes are not any puffier than usual, but here I am trying out the cucumber on the eye thing.  Don't I look just cool as a cucumber?  I have to say after about 15 minutes of this I felt pretty refreshed even if my eyes didn't look much different.  Maybe the lying down is more magical than the cucumber?  Whatever works.  Do you like the embroidery on the pillow case.  My Grandma's handiwork.

Choosing a cucumber
Good old Irma Rombauer, the Joy of Cooking queen,  said it all with her inimitable style:  "A cucumber fit for use is rigid."  No flabby cukes for you, ok?  If the cucumber is yellow it is too old (unless it is a special yellow variety).  Too big and chances are they are bitter.

Pickler or slicer?
Even though there are many varieties of cucumbers, there are basically two types - picklers and slicers.  Picklers are usually smaller, with spines or warts on their skins.  Slicers are bigger (8-15 inches) with smooth dark green skins.  The modern varieties do not generally have spines.  For this blog post, I am going to focus on slicers, although you could probably make most of the recipes with picklers in a pinch.

To peel or not to peel?
Virtually all cucumbers sold commercially in stores are waxed and really need to be peeled.  For CSA or farmers market or homegrown cukes, peeling is optional and a matter of personal taste.  You might decide that the peel on a particular cucumber is just too tough or bitter for your purposes - then by all means peel.  If you are very thinly slicing the cucumber, usually it is fine to leave the skin on.  Sometimes I just peel off strips - leaving a striped effect and taking off about half the peel.  Another technique is to draw a fork down the sides, creating a scored effect.

To salt or not to salt?
Recipes are all over the map on this question.  If you are making a salad and you don't want the cucumber to be too watery, then it is a good idea to sprinkle on some salt (about 1 t. per cup) and let the sliced or chopped or grated cucumber drain in a colander for at least 30 minutes.  I like to rinse the salt off and then squeeze or pat the cucumber dry.  For some recipes the extra liquid is desirable.  And for others, if you add the cucumber fairly soon before eating, the cucumber won't have time to get watery.  My advice is to lightly salt, drain and dry cucumbers if you are using them in a recipe where you don't want a watered down effect.  Also, if the cucumbers you have seem a little bitter, salting and draining is a good technique for reducing the bitterness. 

To seed or not to seed?
If the cucumber and the seeds are fairly large, it is probably a good idea to seed the cucumber.  This picture shows how to do it.  But if you are just going to throw the cucumber in a blender anyway, I don't see the point of seeding.  Do what makes sense given the recipe you are using and the condition of the cucumber before you.  Many recipes are specific on this point - they will tell you to seed if the author thinks it is a good idea.

Many recipes call for "paper thin" slices of cucumber.   If you like cucumbers and cucumber salads, that may be reason enough to invest in even a basic food processor.  Most will do a much better job than you ever could at making very thin slices.  Some people use a mandoline (all chefs did before electricity and the Cuisinart) but that is something I have yet to master.  The feed tube on my processor isn't quite big enough to handle most whole cucumbers, so I just tuck in two halves. 

Cucumber affinities
Many recipes - especially for salads or soups - recommend using one or more of the following herbs or spices with cucumbers: mint, parsley, dill, garlic, or cumin.  It is very common for cucumbers to be prepared with a sweet sour combination of vinegar and sugar in varying proportions.
Cucumbers are often combined with yogurt, cream, sour cream, creme fraiche or buttermilk.  And cucumbers and beets go very well together.  Thinly sliced cucumbers, beets and onions make a very nice salad, marinated in a little sugar, salt and wine vinegar, then drained and dressed with a mixture of yogurt and sour cream and sprinkled with dill weed.  If you want to go wild, add some toasted walnuts and blue cheese crumbles and a little sliced apple or pear or even prune garnish.  Divine.

Cucumbers can be cooked - but all these recipes use raw cucumber.  Cucumbers cannot be frozen.  If you want to preserve cucumbers, pickling is the way to go.  I will talk about pickles in another post some day.

Cucumber lassi (this can be served as a cooling drink with Indian food, or in a bowl with an ice cube for a refreshing summer meal or appetizer.  You could even drink it for breakfast.
Molly Katzen, whose recipe this is, says this "is the cleanest tasting drink imaginable."
It can be multiplied.
Combine in a blender:
1 1/2 cups of cucumber chunks (peeled and seeded)
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt thinned with a little milk or water
1/8 t. salt
2 t. honey or sugar
1-2 T. fresh mint
1 chopped scallion or 1 T chopped onion (optional)
This will keep about a week in a covered jar in your refrigerator.  You could add 1 1/2 cups chopped cooked beets,  1 T red wine vinegar or lemon juice and some more yogurt or butter milk to this and have a eye popping magenta drink or cold soup.  Beet lassi.  Why not?

Raita - excellent served as a condiment with Indian curries
Mix two cups plain yogurt,  one cup finely chopped cucumber, 1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper and one teaspoon garam masala (an Indian seasoning - available where Indian foods are sold)
You can also add salt and garlic to taste.  If you want to make this many hours before serving, it would be best to salt, drain, rinse and dry the cucumber so the raita does not get too watery from the cucumber juice.

Cacik (Turkish) or Tzatziki (Greek) 
These are very similar if not identical dishes that can be used as a dip, side dish, appetizer or accompaniment to pita and meat sandwiches such as gyros.
They consist of a combination of 1 cup plain yogurt; one peeled, seeded and grated cucumber; one clove garlic, 1/4 t. salt and chopped fresh mint and olive oil to taste.  Sometimes cumin is added.  Can be multiplied.

Greek salad
Coarsely chop: cucumber, sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes.  Add Greek olives and crumbled feta cheese.  Dress with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, red wine vinegar and oregano.  Optional: add white beans.

I added both dried mint and dill to this Scandinavian style salad

Scandinavian style salad
For each two cups of cucumbers (unpeeled and sliced paper thin) add the following: 1/2 cup each sugar and white wine vinegar, 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. white pepper, 2 T fresh or 1 T dried dill weed.  Refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours before serving.  Drain.  Optional - add sour cream.

Hands On - Mise en Place

 If you have ever made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you have probably applied the concept of mise en place (meez ahn plahss).  Get the jar of peanut butter and the jar of jelly.  Put them on the counter.  Set out a knife for the peanut butter and a spoon long enough to reach down into the jelly jar.  Put two pieces of bread on a plate.  There.  Now you are ready to make the sandwich. 

A place for everything and everything in its place.  That is mise en place.  It is a French phrase which literally means "put in place."  If you aspire to be a successful, efficient and calm cook then it would be a good idea to develop the mise en place habit.  

Living the mise en place way is a good idea in general.  In these days of instant everything,  the ability to prepare and to think ahead is a vanishing yet still valuable skill.  If you are in a mise en place state of mind, you will be organized.  You will be able to focus on and enjoy the work at hand.  You will have anticipated your tasks and set priorities.  You will have the peace of mind of knowing that you are ready to turn ideas into reality when it is implementation time.  As writer Joshua Longley put it at, "Mise en place makes cooking more of a Zen experience than a drive-through rush hour." 

I apply mise en place in several ways in my kitchen.   In addition to using it when I prepare meals,  I use it to help me organize my storage system.  I group ingredients that almost always are used together.  In my baking corner I keep white and whole wheat flour, white and brown sugar, salt, baking powder, vanilla, baking soda, cornmeal, oil and oatmeal.  This is just common sense.  It is personal.   If you cook Thai all the time, then why not group ingredients somewhere in your kitchen so they are handy when you need them?  If it means you need to get rid of a few gadgets you never use to make room, then do it.

In my oil and vinegar corner I keep - you guessed it - oils and vinegars.  Plus some soy sauce and cooking wine.  I have a drawer where I keep most supplies I need for canning.  And I have most of my spices and salt and pepper all together right by the stove top - and just next to the oil and vinegar department.

I really notice the difference when I jump right in and start cooking something versus taking the time to prep and organize.  (I have not yet achieved my mise en place black belt.  I still have some bad habits.)  It is a rhythm and flow thing.  There is something about having all the ingredients ready ahead of time that improves the cooking process as well as the outcome.  For one thing, you feel more in control.  And who doesn't like that - even if you are not a control freak it feels good to know you have the situation in hand.   Many cooks - even experienced ones - often feel unsure or harried.  Regular application of the mise en place habit will help give you confidence.  And help you relax.

So here are some basic mise en place steps
1.  Start with a reasonably clean kitchen.  Empty the dishwasher if it is full.  Wipe off the counters.  Make sure you have a cleared work space. 

2.  If you are working with a recipe, read it from beginning to end.

3.  Inventory your equipment - do you have what you need?  Appliances, tools,  pot or pan, serving pieces?  Will you need to drain something?  Get out the colander.  Will you need to whip something?  Get out the mixer or whisk now.  Need a 9 x 9 baking pan?  Dig it out and grease it if that is required.

4.  Set out all the ingredients you will need.  Now is the time to discover that you are out of brown sugar - not ten minutes from now when you have something simmering on the stove and the missing sugar creates a crisis.  Prep and measure as needed.  Peel, chop, dice, grate, beat.  If you are going to need chopped carrots, get them peeled and chopped and put them in a bowl.  Same with onions.  If they are going to be cooked together, you can put them in the same bowl.  I have several small, medium and large stainless bowls that are light weight, unbreakable and easy to clean.  I use them constantly.  Also little glass custard cups.

5.  Clean up as you go.  This is a huge timesaver in the long run.  Always have a kitchen towel or two at hand, as well as a wiping up cloth (aka dish rag but I hate the way that sounds.)

6.  Think about what you are doing.  Is there a way you can achieve some economy in motion or time?  With experience, you will discover ways to be more organized or save steps. 

This morning for breakfast we are having potatoes and kale fried with a little salt pork, olive oil and shallots.  Plus eggs cooked right there on top of the potatoes.  And broiled tomatoes.  This is what the mise on place looked like about 30 minutes ago. (Note the presence of vegetables.  We eat vegetables for breakfast all the time.)

This is what the potatoes look like in the pan - I will cover it for a while to help cook the eggs.

Anthony Bourdain, famed chef and writer and cable TV star, says in his first book - Kitchen Confidential -  that mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks.  He tells a story of a chef who would spot a cook falling behind in his work:

He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Bourdain is right.  It is a head thing.   Look at mise en place as good brain exercise.  Mental discipline. I can't promise it will prevent Alzheimer's but it sure won't hurt.  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dig In: Butter - are you anxious?

Butter, used wisely, is good food and I hope you have not banished it from your life.   Butter is a gift from God and cows and Mother Nature and we should be grateful for it and enjoy it.

But before I talk more about the merits of butter and how to make shortbread,  I really need to mention the elephant in the room -  fat anxiety.   I just think it is terrible the way that food manufacturers keep trying to confuse everybody and pander to people's desire to "eat healthy" just so they can keep selling lots of fake butter and cheap and poor tasting cookies, chips and crackers.

Because I believe a well informed consumer is a less anxious consumer, let's have a short course: Fatty Acids 101.  I will try to make this as simple as I can.  And then we can get to the fun part -  a shortbread recipe.

1.  All traditional fats are good and healthy in moderation.  Nina Planck, in her book,  Real Food   What to Eat and Why, speaks of "traditional fats" and defines them as bacon, lard, butter, olive oil, and beef suet - "foods we've eaten for thousands of years in their natural form."   She says that the "bad fats" are the industrial fats recently added to our diet, such as refined vegetable oils and synthetic trans fats formed by hydrogenation of oils.

I use all the "traditional fats" (well, not much beef suet) as well as some nut oils and canola oil and sunflower oil.  I especially love lard for baking,  now that I have access to pork fat from pastured animals.   I am beginning to rethink my use of industrial refined oils.  However, since I consume so little commercially made foods I am probably not in a danger zone.  My fantasy is to someday have access to hazelnut oil processed in Southeast Minnesota.  Maybe in my lifetime.

2.  All fats - even good "traditional fats" or unsaturated fats - are high in calories.  Most weigh in at about 100-110 calories per tablespoon.  That is one reason to consume them in moderation.  Both the U.S. Government and the American Heart Association recommend that no more than 30% of your daily calories come from fat - no matter what kind.

3.  All fats are a combination of three basic fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.  Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and is fully hydrogenated.  There are no trans fats in saturated fats.   Mono and poly unsaturated fats are oils which are incompletely hydrogenated to varying degrees.  Hydrogenating unsaturated fats creates trans fats.

Fats are identified by the predominant fatty acid.  More than 50% of the fatty acids in butter are saturated.  Lard is about 50% monounsaturated, 40% saturated, 10%  polyunsaturated.  Olive oil is 70% monounsaturated (oleic acid) and 14% saturated (palmitic acid).

4.  Trans fats should be avoided.  They raise the risk of heart disease and lower "good" cholesterol. (Since 2000, the American Heart Association has recommended limited consumption of any products containing trans fats.)  For a very good discussion of trans fats, which Mayo Clinic calls "double trouble,  click on this link.  Since 2006, food labels must disclose information about trans fats.  So if you must consume industrially made snacks or baked goods, at least become a savvy label reader.

5.  Margarine is not necessarily healthier to eat than butter.  It is made from soybean oil, which must be hydrogenated to make it hard and "butter like".  Food companies like partially hydrogenated soy oil as an ingredient because of its more solid consistency, low production costs and shelf stability.

Marion Nestle, respected nutritionist, university professor and author, sums up the situation this way:  "No matter what their labels say, all margarines are basically the same--mixtures of soybean oil and food additives.  Everything else is theater and greasepaint." (What to Eat: Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating  2006)  She states her preference for butter: "A good butter is a wonderful treat, and a little goes a long way.  I buy the best butter I can find, store it well wrapped in the freezer, and use it sparingly."

Some types of soft margarine do have less saturated fat than butter and are arguably "healthier" due to that fact.  One would have to know more about the trans fat content of any given product to reach a valid conclusion about its relative health benefits compared to butter or other "traditional" saturated fat.

6.  The real thing is always best.  One of my favorite food writers,  Laurie Colwin, wrote about butter in More Home Cooking:  
"Father Robert Farrar Capon, in his noble book The Supper of the Lamb, suggests that, if you are going to refrain from butter, you ought not con yourself into accepting some nasty imitation.  He feels people ought to use good-quality olive oil and, once in a while, allow a measure of real, true pure butter.  This is extremely sensible advice."
Hear hear.

7.  It is possible to have a good life without butter.  (Maybe a good life, but not a great life?)
The Mediterranean cuisine and most Asian cuisines use virtually no butter.  If you are trying to limit saturated fats,  get more comfortable with the seasonings and ingredients from these food traditions.  Then once in a while you can have an over the top butter experience with no qualms.

You also can have good peanut butter, honey or jams around the house when you want to doll up some bread.  Olive oil also is excellent with bread.  (If you buy or better yet bake very good bread you will not feel so much need for butter or other butterlike spread.)

Try naked vegetables.
"It is always instructive to do without.  A naked baked russet or sweet potato will show you how wonderful these things are by themselves. An unadorned vegetable-a truly fresh vegetable, nicely steamed-is simply full of itself."  Laurie Colwin

(For more facts about butter, check out this website from the Canadian dairy people.

Butter tastes good. Butter makes other food taste good - it carries and disperses flavor.

Butter is a good source for vitamins A and D.

Vegetables are more nutritious served with butter.  Fat is needed for the carotenoids to reach the absorptive intestinal walls.

Butter helps food retain moisture and increases all important "mouth feel".

Butter is unparalleled for baking - especially cookies, cakes and pies.   There is a reason that most butter is sold in the months of October, November and December.

One of the best ways to enjoy the flavor of butter in a cookie is in classic shortbread.  This recipe is from Laurie Colwin, who said "I would turn my back on a chocolate truffle or a banana split for one piece of crisp, melting shortbread,  It is the essence of butter. . . .  The pure plain thing is a wonder in itself.  If you have been a good person for a long time you will want something simple and elegant that cannot be made without butter.  There is only one thing that will do: shortbread."

This is a simple and easy recipe.  Once you get the hang of it you will never buy commercial shortbread again.  (Although I do like Walker's - I wonder what kind of butter they use?)  Make two batches and give one to a friend.

3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup rice flour (If you don't have this you can use 1/4 cup all purpose flour)
1/4 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt
1 stick butter (same as 1/2 cup, 8 tablespoons or 1/4 pound)
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
A few drops almond extract (optional - but I like the flavor)
Cream the sugar and butter and add vanilla and extract, if you are using it.  If you have a stand mixer with a paddle attachment use it and you can make these cookies in a flash.   If not, a wooden spoon and heavy bowl will work just fine.
Combine dry ingredients and stir into the butter mixture.  Dough will be a bit soft and crumbly.  Use your hands to gather dough into a ball.  Work quickly so dough does not warm  up too much.  Pat into an 8 inch circle on an ungreased baking sheet.  Score into 8 or 12 wedges with a sharp knife or pizza wheel.  Using a fork,  prick holes into each wedge a few times.  Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until shortbread is brown around the edges.  Cut into wedges while cookies are still warm.  Let cookies cool on baking sheet.  Store in a covered container for up to a week.  Freezes well.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inspiration: Week #9

In this week's box:  Eggplant, cucumber, onion, beets, potatoes, peppers, green beans, carrots, corn

It is the height of summer and the produce is rolling in.   I know some of you are a bit overwhelmed by the challenge of eating your beets.  But when you think about it, if that is the biggest food problem you have you are pretty lucky.

If you are pressed for time or just want to keep life simple, remember that there is nothing wrong with roasting, grilling or steaming several different vegetables and serving them as a meal - hot, cold or room temperature.  You can cook them ahead and refrigerate until you need them.  Warm them up before serving if you want.  It is fun to arrange the food to make it look attractive.  If you want your veggies hot, you can simply serve with melted butter, salt and pepper.  Maybe a sprinkle of chopped parsley.  If cold, try a simple sauce based on homemade or a good store bought mayonnaise with a squeeze of lemon juice added.  If you have some fresh dill, mint or chives you could add those as well.  For dessert serve some fresh fruit topped with yogurt for extra protein. 

I have already prepped some of my vegetables to make things easier for me the rest of the week.  The beets are boiled and peeled and in a covered dish in the refrigerator.  The eggplant is roasted and marinating in some oil, vinegar and garlic.  Two cucumbers are thinly sliced and mixed with a little dill and mint, sugar, vinegar and a smidge of oil.  I also cut the kernels off the corn cobs, since I am going to make fresh corn fritters.  If you don't have a chunk of time to do these things at once that is ok.  The menu ideas for this week are quite simple.

I filled up my compost container with all the trimmings of these veggies and the carrot tops.  I hope you have figured out a compost system by now.  If not - take another look at my compost post from June 15. 
Menu Ideas -- items marked with an asterisk means a recipe is included below.

Antipasto night - roasted eggplant*, selected Italian meats or cheese, olives, raw fennel if you haven't used your fennel from last week, good bread and olive oil and sliced melon or oranges for dessert.   If you are a wine drinker this would be a good meal to serve with wine.  I can't tell you what kind - that is out of my league.  Comments from any wine connoisseurs welcome.

Farm supper - fresh corn fritters*, cucumber salad, cottage cheese, steamed buttered green beans, pickled beets*, bread and butter sandwiches.  (Serve some jelly or jam for a sweet treat with the bread and butter)

Asian night - Stir fried carrots, onions, green beans and cashews with rice (add favorite meat or mushrooms if desired).  Add about a tablespoon each of minced garlic and ginger to the veggies when you stir fry them.  Make a simple sauce with soy sauce, chile paste to taste, some Chinese wine or sherry, a little toasted sesame oil, some broth and some cornstarch (about 1 t. per 1/2 cup liquid)

Tapas at home - Tortilla espanola* (this popular Spanish dish uses a lot of olive oil, onions, potatoes and eggs)  roasted green beans, roasted egg plant, bread.  Pears or figs or even peaches poached in spiced red wine would be a nice contrast to the richness of the tortilla.

Earthy Nordic composed salad - Serve at room temperature: sliced or grated cooked beets, chopped onion, sliced cooked potatoes, roasted carrots (or grated fresh carrots).  If you have some cucumber salad, include that too.  Serve with a sour cream or yogurt dressing - add to the sour cream some horseradish and a little vinegar and sugar and fresh dill or parsley if you have it.  Serve with pickled herring or sardines on the side and some rye bread.  A fresh apple or an apple dessert would be great with this menu.

Fresh corn fritters - serves 4-6
This recipe is from Country Tastes by Beatrice Ojakangas.  I always make corn fritters every year with the first corn of the season.  You really need to use fresh corn for this recipe.
Cut kernels from six ears of corn - you should end up with about 2 1/2 cups of corn.  I always use the back of my knife to scrape the "creamy" part of the corn left on the cob after the kernels are cut.
Mix corn with 3 eggs, well beaten, and about 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 t. salt.  Add a bit more flour if necessary for the batter to hold together.
Heat a mixture of butter and oil in a heavy frying pan - to a depth of about 1/4 inch.  Fat should hot enough that a drop of water "skitters" when it hits the pan.  Drop spoonfuls of batter in the fat - turning when golden brown.  Keep fritters warm in a 300 degree oven until ready to serve - no more than 30 minutes.
POSTSCRIPT: I made these fritters the day after I originally wrote this post and fried them in the merest film of butter.  They worked just fine.  So maybe you don't need to fry these in so much fat. 

Roasted eggplant
Trim stem and bottom ends of eggplant.  Cut into 1/2 inch slices.

Lightly salt slices - this removes any bitterness in the eggplant.  After about half an hour, rinse and drain.

Dry the slices.

Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil.  Place eggplant slices on sheet, turning each once so both sides are very lightly coated with oil.  Add a bit more oil if necessary.

Roast at 400 degrees about 30 minutes.  (Bottoms should be lightly browned).  Remove baking sheet from oven.  Brush a marinade (4 parts olive oil, one part red wine vinegar and chopped fresh garlic) on the eggplant slices while they are still warm.

When they are cool, remove to a serving plate or refrigerate for later use.

Pickled beets
Boil or roast beets until tender.  Peel.  Cut into slices or chunks.  Place beets into a clean glass jar or jars.  Make a brine with: 1 cup light brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar, 1 cup cider vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 t. whole cloves, 1 t. whole allspice, 1 cinnamon sticks.  Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. 
Pour mixture over beets in the jar.  Cover and refrigerate at least one day before eating.  Will keep for many weeks, refrigerated. This brine should be enough for two quarts of pickled beets.  If it is not enough, just add a little more water and vinegar in equal parts.

Tortilla Espanola
Another name for this dish, which is practically the national dish of Spain, is tortilla de patatas.  It is basically a potato and onion omelet.  I reviewed many versions of this recipe - some had shocking amounts of olive oil.  I think this version is reasonable and still quite rich.
1 large onion - cut in half and sliced thin - about 2 cups onions
1 pound potatoes - cooked whole and then diced - about 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup sliced red bell pepper or other sweet pepper (optional)
6 T. olive oil
8 eggs, well beaten (with 1/2 t. salt)
Heat 2 T. oil in skillet, add onions and peppers if you are using them.  Cook until onions are golden brown and almost caramelized.  Add 3 T. oil and potatoes.  Cook another 8-10 minutes.  Add eggs and cook over low heat, covered, for about 10 minutes or until almost set.  Now comes the tricky part.  Place a large plate over the skillet and flip the frittata on to the plate.  Add another 1 T. olive oil to the skillet and slide the frittata back in, onion side up.  Cook until set.  Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Tomorrow:  Dig In:  Butter

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tried and True - Coleslaw

Americans eat literally tons of coleslaw every day.  I do not have a citation for that statistic, but it MUST be true.  Just look at the menus at KFC, most places that serve burgers or BBQ and every grocery store deli from Maine to California.  I do know for sure that about 45% of the U.S. cabbage crop goes to the cole slaw industry.  But I am sorry, most of this commercial cole slaw is just not very good.  Plus it is loaded with fat.

I am not opposed to fat.  I am in favor of butter, cream, bacon, lard, egg yolks and olive oil in moderation.  But since I like all those fats I figure I should cut back when I can.  One way to do that is to avoid creamy coleslaw.  I think the sweet sour vinegar dressing kind is a lot better anyway. 

My goal today is to try to convince you to start making your own coleslaw at home and never buy the "creamy" storebought kind ever again.  It is not cream, you know.  It is some kind of mayonnaise-like salad dressing with oil and sugar and salt and a bunch of other stuff.  The recipe I am about to give you also has oil and sugar and salt and a bunch of other stuff -- but you will know exactly what is in the salad.

If you try this recipe you will end up with over two pounds of delicious and nutritious cole slaw.  It will keep for about a week just fine, if you can keep it around that long.  You can eat this as a side dish or put it on sandwiches.  You can stir fry a little meat, remove from heat and mix in some coleslaw and throw it on top of some cooked rice noodles and you will have a lovely dish that is crunchy and chewy and warm and cool and acidic and sweet all at the same time.  Add a few chopped peanuts and cilantro and a squeeze of lime and squirt of hot pepper sauce if you want to gild the lily.

If you develop a homemade coleslaw habit you might help increase our nation's per capita consumption of fresh cabbage.  In the 1920's we were chowing down about 22 pounds of fresh cabbage per person per year.  By 2003 we were down to 7.5 pounds, despite all the coleslaw we were eating.

Basic NOT Creamy Coleslaw - this will make twelve generous and beautiful servings
It took me 7 minutes to slice the cabbage and 15 minutes to make the entire batch of coleslaw.  This does not count the 2 minutes or so I spent setting out all the ingredients.  You will save a lot of money if you make this with fresh CSA or other homegrown vegetables instead of buying pre-made coleslaw at the store.  You will also be healthier.

2 pounds cored and thinly sliced red or green cabbage or a combination - this much cabbage will yield about 12 cups, lightly packed  This is what two pounds of cabbage looks like
1 or 2 carrots, shredded
1 T. onion, finely minced or grated

Mix together in a small bowl: 1/2 c. cider vinegar, 1/4 c. sugar, 1 1/2 t. Dijon mustard,  1
T. vegetable oil, 1 t. celery seed, 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. black pepper

Friday, July 23, 2010

Focus: FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare dulce)

Don't let fennel scare you just because it is unfamiliar.  It is a lovely and versatile vegetable with a flavor of licorice or anise.  It can be eaten raw in salads or as part of an antipasto.   Or it can be braised, roasted or sauteed.  Cooking fennel mellows the flavor and texture.

In Italy - where it is a favorite vegetable -  it is often eaten in pinzimonio - to be eaten with the fingers.  Thin raw wedges are dipped into very good olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper.  If you have some fine olive oil around that you have been saving for a special occasion - this is the time to bring it out.

Mark Bittman says "Celery and fennel are almost always interchangeable".  This is true even though the flavors of the two are very different.   For example, if you are sauteing diced onion and carrot for a tomato sauce - you can add some diced fennel instead of celery for a special flavor.

There are two kinds of fennel - one is sweet Florence fennel.  It was developed in Italy in the 17th century.  With this fennel, you can eat the bulb - which is really a swollen stem - as well as the fronds or leaves.  The other is "wild" fennel which is grown as an herb.  The feathery bright green leaves are used in salads and sauces (especially good with fish or seafood salads) and the fennel seeds are a familiar seasoning in breads, Italian sausage and other dishes.  Indians chew fennel seed as a breath freshener. 

Remove the stalks and leaves.  Store bulb in plastic bag in refrigerator up to one week.

Wash and dry the bulb and trim away the stalks.  Save the feathery leaves for salads or seasoning.  I often use the stalks to make a stock.  Trim the root end - but not too high up.  You want the bulb to stay intact if possible.  If there are tough, dry or discolored outer leaves, cut those away.  Cut the bulb in half lengthwise.  You can then cut each half - either lengthwise into wedges or crosswise into thin slices.

Cut up the bulb  close to the time when it is needed.  Otherwise the pieces will oxidize and turn brown.

Serving Ideas

Antipasto - Dip thin raw wedges or slices in good olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper. Serve with olives, thinly sliced cured sausage and good bread.  Roasted eggplant or red pepper would provide a nice contrast to the crisp and sweet fennel.

Orange Fennel Salad - Thinly slice fennel crosswise.  Mix with olive oil, fresh orange and lemon juice, orange slices and salt and pepper.  Garnish with fennel fronds.  If you have arugula or thinly sliced sweet onion, add that to salad as well.

Simplest Fennel Salad -  Thinly slice fennel crosswise.  Dress with olive oil and lemon juice and a little salt. Mix in some chopped leaves.  This would be good served with broiled fish.

Roasted - Slice in 1/2 inch wedges.  Mix with a small amount of oil and place on a baking sheet in one layer.   Bake at 375 degrees until tender.

Gratin - Cut bulb in half and cut each half into about 6 wedges.  Cook wedges in boiling salted water about 5 minutes or until tender.  Reserve some of cooking liquid.
Make a thin white sauce.  Cook  2 T. butter with  1 1/2 T. flour for a few minutes.  Gradually whisk in  1/3 cup milk and 1/3 cup fennel cooking liquid.  Simmer about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Season with salt, pinch of nutmeg and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.  Place fennel in one layer in a buttered baking dish.  Pour sauce on top.  Bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees, until browned on top.

Tomorrow:  Tried and True: Coleslaw

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hands On - Straining and Draining

What is the difference between a strainer and a sieve?  Is a metal colander better than a plastic one?  How many strainers do I really need? 

Thanks to you, I have been pondering these draining questions.   I hope you are not disappointed because I don't have hard and fast answers.  I do have some thoughts for you to consider as you equip and perfect your own personal kitchen.  Please note the word personal.  If you have been reading this blog often you may have noticed that I use the "p" word a lot.  That is because I fervently believe that the act of cooking - either for yourself or others - is nothing if not personal.   That is one reason it can be so satisfying and - dare I say - meaningful.

At some point after all the cookbooks and TV talking heads and blogs and grocery store displays and kitchen equipment stores and CSA boxes --  it is just you and the food.  You and the food will work out accommodations and routines and habits and preferences  - like we all do in any good relationship.  And you will make personal decisions about practical matters like tools and equipment - such as how many and what kind of strainers and colanders you need to accomplish your cooking goals.  You probably won't talk to friends about this at dinner parties.  (If you do I think we need to talk.)  But you and I know this is important quality of life stuff on the domestic front lines.

Even if you are an old kitchen hand like me it is never a bad idea to evaluate your equipment situation for convenience, efficiency or even safety.  Probably no one is going to give you a colander for your birthday.   So go on.  Treat yourself.  Buy yourself a nice big colander if you don't have one.  If you can find a good one at the Salvation Army or a garage sale, all the better.  I gave my favorite 30 year old aluminum colander to my younger son several years ago and still am making do with an old blue enameled metal colander that my Dad didn't need any more.  Some day the colander of my dreams will come along and I will upgrade.  It's something to look forward to.  Better than furs or diamond jewelry in my opinion.  With those things you just have to buy more insurance and worry about someone stealing them.   With a big new colander you can serve spaghetti to lots of friends at once.  And hardly anyone steals colanders.  If they do they must really need one.

Sometimes I just make do with a medium sized stainless steel strainer with a coarse mesh that I use like a colander.   It is starting to collapse on one side but I think I can get another year or two out of it.  Kitchen tools sometimes get to be like old friends.  So you keep them around even if they are falling apart.  Because they are comfortable and familiar.  Because you have been through a lot together. 

The Fannie Farmer cookbook advises that you "Get a big substantial one made of metal."  I tend to agree.  And Jane Brody says it should be big enough to hold one pound of cooked pasta.  Good advice.  You can spend a lot of money on a big stainless steel colander or you can still find basic aluminum ones at a hardware store.  I am partial to the basic aluminum.  I don't think you really need stainless steel to do the jobs a colander does.  You can get plastic colanders but I don't think they will hold up like you would want them to.   On the other hand a good quality heavy duty plastic might serve you better than a cheap metal colander with feet that break off in year one.  No matter what your colander is made of - look for some quality.

I use my colander all the time.  I  drain pasta or dried beans,  wash and drain fruit like grapes, cherries or berries and to drain vegetables like chopped eggplant or grated squash or cucumbers after salting them.  (This is a good technique to use for some salads and other dishes where you want to remove excess moisture.)

Somebody has invented collapsible colanders made of silicone.   I am skeptical as to their reliability.  They seem a bit gimmicky to me.  You definitely don't want your colander collapsing on you when you are trying to drain a bunch of hot pasta.  But since I have never used one I can't really give you an opinion either way.  Do you have one?  Do you like it?

You can get a classic Portuguese aluminum colander (made in Portugal of course) for about ten bucks on sale from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is minimalist in design and only has holes on the bottom.  Easier to clean and probably quite functional.  You really don't need all those holes just to drain something.  Check it out.

A strainer is used to separate solids from liquids - like lemon seeds from juice or tea leaves from tea or canned beans from the canning liquid.   A sieve could be used for that purpose - but usually when a sieve is referred to the job at hand is separating solids.  For example, ground grain may be sieved to separate larger from smaller particles.  Sometimes a sieve or a strainer can be used to make a puree by pressing solid food (usually cooked or otherwise softened) through the mesh.  In these days of food processors, I think this process is much less common.  A food mill can also be used to separate out unwanted skins or seeds or simply to puree foods.

I think you should have at least two strainers - one large and one small.  At least one should have a fine stainless steel mesh screen.  It is easy to find strainers - even in very good condition - at second hand stores.  I just like how the old ones look and feel, so that is what I use.  The old ones are not generally made of stainless steel.  It is easy to find very nice stainless steel strainers at places where kitchen tools are sold.  It is best to wash strainers immediately after use to keep the mesh clear.  It is a good idea to keep an old toothbrush around to remove any stubborn food that might get stuck in the holes of the mesh.

These are the strainers I use all the time.  Four of them have a fairly fine mesh.  The one on the right isn't really a strainer - but it is great for lifting poached eggs or other foods from cooking water.  I like it better than a slotted spoon.  

If you are still with me, thanks for sticking around.  I am feeling a bit drained, so I will say goodbye for now.

Tomorrow:  Focus: Fennel

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dig In - Vegetable diversity

I have talked to or corresponded with enough Featherstone CSA members by now to know that most of you care a lot about how your food is grown.  You want your food dollars to support farming methods that are good for soil, water and people.   You want food that is fresh and tastes good.  And I am pretty sure that you value the natural world in all its glory.   So you will be happy to know that just over the southern Minnesota border near Decorah, Iowa exists an organization devoted to preserving vegetable diversity -  the Seed Savers Exchange.  The mission of Seed Savers is to save the world's diverse but endangered garden heritage for future generations.

Here is one of their many garden plots.  And their visitor center, with hollyhocks in the foreground.

Whether you are a gardener, a CSA member or simply an eater,  I think you can admire and benefit from the work of the Seed Savers Exchange.    I happen to be married to a passionate gardener who enjoys growing many varieties of vegetables and fruits.  I used to think- like most people - that an onion is an onion.  Okay, I knew there were red and yellow and white onions and that once a year for a few weeks we could enjoy sweet Vidalia onions.  But that was about it.  But now I know better.  I have cooked with many types of onions and can notice differences.   Some are easier to peel.  Some store longer.  Some are sweeter.  Some mature early and some late.  Some are drought tolerant.    I just like knowing that there are lots of kinds of onions in the world and that someone is making sure that they survive.  I wouldn't want to live in a world where there were just three or four kinds of onions any more that I would like to live in a world where all musicians played the violin and there was no such thing as a timpani.  I love the violin - my mother plays the violin.  But I like the deep boom boom of the timpani too.  (Of course it helps that one of my sons is a percussionist.)

Onions are just one small example.  A few summers ago Frank grew at least fifteen kinds of melons - almost all from seeds purchased from Seed Savers.  It was amazing how different they were - in appearance, flavor, ripening characteristics and more.  The more I observe Frank and other farmers and gardeners - like Jack Hedin and the folks at Featherstone Farm - the more I appreciate the breadth of knowledge, skill and plain old sweat required to produce good tasting, bountiful and nutritious fruits and vegetables.

I know that everyone does not want to grow produce - especially without chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.  Or is able to do so - for many reasons.  That is why CSA's and farmers markets are so great - non-food growers (like me) can still have access to excellent food.  You can feel good knowing that Featherstone grows many varieties of vegetables - some of which are not ordinarily available commercially.    The "crops" section of the website lists many of them.

If you have a patch of ground somewhere that you can call your own (or that someone else will let you borrow or even rent) - I really encourage you to plant a few seeds - maybe even seeds from Seed Savers Exchange.  It might not even be too late to plant some this year, depending on the seed.    I am not worried that you are going to put Featherstone Farm out of business any time soon.  Growing food simply requires too much work, knowledge and infrastructure for most people to become independent of professional farmers and growers.  But you could certainly decide to try ten different tomato plants.  Or five kinds of radishes.  Or eight kinds of peppers.  (Seed Savers sells 57 varieties in their catalog and members offer 859 varieties! )  Or beans.  (Members offer 1,477 of those - 37 varieties in the catalog.)  And then you can decide if it is really true that variety is the spice of life.

(This recipe is from the 2010 Seed Savers Exchange catalog)
1 1/2  cups Lina Sisco's Bird Egg Bean ( or any combination of favorite dried beans)
1/2 pound green beans or yellow wax beans or combination
1 small red onion, sliced into thin rings
3 T. chopped fresh basil (or parsley or cilantro)
Salt and pepper to taste

Vinaigrette -
1/4  cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sugar
2 t. Dijon mustard
1 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper

Cook dried beans (see June 5 pinto bean post for bean cooking directions).  Steam green/yellow beans until crisp tender.  Prepare vinaigrette.  Add dressing to all ingredients while beans are still warm.  Chill for several hours.  Serve chilled or at room temperature.  Garnish with basil leaves.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Inspiration - Week #8

In this week's box:   garlic, eggplant, fennel, basil, potatoes, green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, swiss chard, green cabbage.  These boxes are getting pretty heavy.  I hope you are keeping up!

I am writing this post Monday evening for early Tuesday morning "publication".  I hope your Monday night dinner was as good as mine.  I had to travel out of town on business and did not get home until almost 7 p.m.  Thankfully Frank was able to preside as cook today and all I had to do when I got home was sit down at the table and be served.  I like to cook and enjoy serving others, but boy is it nice to be just the eater once in a while.  Frank made simple boiled potatoes with butter, steamed green beans with a little sauteed shallots and pancetta and some pieces of fresh tomato dressed with oil, balsamic vinegar and chopped basil.  (He scored the tomato at the farm today -- right place. right time.  Soon there will be many more.)  Perfect.  I hope once in a while you give yourself permission to just steam or boil or saute or roast up a few different vegetables and eat a plateful of them with very simple condiments like butter, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar or fresh herbs.  If you want some extra protein, just drink a glass of milk with your dinner.  Or have a few nuts and a little piece of cheese before or after the meal.

I think that is a good theme for this week:  Less is more.  When you have access to good food, you really don't need to work very hard to create fine meals.  This week's menu ideas borrow from cuisines of many lands - an advantage of living in a melting pot nation.  If you are having a hard time keeping up with your basil and don't want to make more pesto-- just chop up the basil with a little garlic, cover with olive oil and refrigerate - use it for salad dressings or marinades.  Or chop up a bunch of basil and mix with softened butter.  Refrigerated and well covered this will keep at least a week.  Smear some under the skin of a whole chicken and roast.  Throw some cloves of garlic in the pan for the last 45 minutes or so, too.  Make sure you have some good bread for sopping up that basil and melted butter and roasted garlic.

I have just included one fennel recipe in this post.  For more about fennel, check this Friday's Focus post.

Scandinavian brown cabbage soup*; Bread; Fruit crisp or cobbler made with summer soft fruits (try a little basil in the fruit crisp)  Some potato salad would be nice as a first course.

Cold cucumber yogurt soup*; Baked stuffed zucchini (See July 15 post); Pita bread; Fresh melon

Pasta with basil, swiss chard, garlic and cheese*;  Orange, beet and fennel salad*; dried fruit and nuts

Chicken - grilled, roasted or baked; boiled or baked potatoes with basil butter; cole slaw (recipe  in Saturday's Tried and True post); biscuits

Eggplant potato curry*; rice;  yogurt with chopped mint; lime sherbet

Baked marinated eggplant*; green beans with egg lemon sauce*; grilled meat or fish, simple cucumber salad (sliced thin with equal parts vinegar and sugar); pita bread

This is a very simple recipe from Epicurious.  If you want you can add some onion or smoked sausage or both.  Serve with a hearty bread or even Scandinavian style rye crackers.  Jarlsberg cheese would be good too.

This recipe is from the Middle Eastern volume of the classic Time-Life cookbooks of the world series. Each book came with a small spiral bound supplement - they can often be found at used bookstores for about $3.00 each.  They are all good - but I have found the Middle Eastern volume especially useful over the years.
This recipe is of Turkish derivation and will serve 2 - 4.  It is very refreshing. 

1 medium cucumber (about 1/2 pound)
2 cups yogurt
2 t. white vinegar
1 t. olive oil
2 t. chopped fresh mint
1/2 t. chopped fresh dill
1/2 to 1 t. salt, to taste

Peel the cucumber and slice lengthwise.  Scoop out the seeds.  Coarsely grate the cucumber.  Stir the yogurt until smooth and add the other ingredients.  Taste and adjust seasoning if you wish.   Refrigerate at least 2 hours.  Serve in small cups or bowls.   You may add an ice cube to each portion if you like.

Wash and dry a bunch of chard.  Chop stems, cut chard in one inch strips.  Chop 2-3 cloves of garlic.  Saute stems and garlic in olive oil until softened.  Add chard leaves and some chopped basil.  Cook, partly covered, until chard is tender.  Serve on favorite cooked pasta.  (Add a little pasta cooking water if chard seems too dry.)  Pass grated Parmesan  or crumbled feta or blue cheese.  Toasted walnuts or pine nuts also are a good garnish.

(adapted from Molly Katzen's Vegetable Heaven - if you don't have beets, you can make the salad with just oranges and fennel.)
about a pound of beets - boiled or roasted, peeled and thinly sliced and cut into half moon shapes
medium fennel bulb - raw - thinly sliced
four oranges - peeled with a knife, sectioned (cut away pith and membranes, save any extra juice produced during cutting to add to salad)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. finely minced garlic
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
2 t. honey

Mix all together, gently.  Chill at least several hours.  Serve garnished with chopped fennel fronds.

Will serve about six, served with rice
4 cups cubed eggplant (If you are using Asian style eggplant, it is probably not necessary to peel.  (Asian style is longer and thinner than most Italian varieties)  Sometimes it is recommended to lightly salt eggplant, let sit an hour or so and drain to remove any bitterness.  If you are working with a young Asian style eggplant this salting and draining is probably not necessary)
1 cup chopped onion
2 cups cubed potatoes
1 cup chopped fresh green beans
2 T. oil
1 t. salt
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. turmeric
1 t. chopped fresh ginger
1-2 t. fresh minced garlic
1 t. mustard seeds or ground coriander (optional)
1/2-1 t. crushed red pepper flakes or green chilis
1/2 c. thinly sliced fresh basil
Broth, water or coconut milk
Saute all the vegetables in the oil.  After they are softened, add spices and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. 
Add water, broth or coconut milk as desired.  Stir, cover and simmer until all vegetables are tender.  Serve over rice. 

Slice eggplant lengthwise.  Cut gashes in cut side, about 1 inch deep.  Mix olive oil, minced fresh garlic, fresh herbs (e.g. basil, parsley, mint or oregano) and freshly ground pepper and brush on to cut surfaces.  Salt lightly.  Let marinate at room temperature about 1-2 hours.  Bake, cut side down, about 45 minutes hour at 350 degrees or until tender.   Turn over eggplant and bake about another 15 minutes, basting with pan juices.  Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the eggplant and serve. May also be served at room temperature.

1 pound fresh green beans
2 eggs
juice of one lemon
1-2 T. grated Parmesan
1 T. olive oil
Cook beans in boiling salted water.  Drain (save one cup cooking water) and keep beans hot.  Whisk eggs to a froth and add lemon juice, cheese and oil.  Place the egg mixture in a pan on low heat.   Gradually add 1/2 cup of the hot cooking water, whisking all the while.  The mixture should thicken in a few minutes.   Add more water if desired.  Serve over beans. Also good served cold.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tried and True - Vegetable pancakes

I don't know anybody who doesn't like pancakes.  When you say the word "pancake" most Americans will conjure up a vision of a stack of hotcakes, topped with a big melting pat of butter and maple syrup (most likely maple flavored syrup) dripping down the side.  Now there is nothing wrong with this vision.  One of these days we can talk about those kind of pancakes, because I really want you to know how to make the real thing.  It is SO EASY and QUICK.

Vegetable pancakes are EASY and QUICK too.  They are great for a quick lunch, supper or brunch in the summer when you don't want to turn on the oven or do any long slow cooking.  You are going to need a grater or a food processor with a grating attachment, however.  If you use a food processor, it helps to chunk up the squash first so it fits sideways in the feed tube.

Today I give you a recipe for zucchini pancakes that has been a favorite in my family for years.  When my boys were in grade school and junior high they even asked for them!  Which was pretty amazing because at that time they were mostly into their mac and cheese, hot dog and meatloaf phase.  Once you get comfortable with this basic recipe, you can vary it according to your tastes.  You can use other vegetables (or a combination) as well as herbs.  You can vary the cheese or omit the cheese. 

This recipe makes three supper servings or four first course or side dish servings.  It can be doubled.

2 eggs, separated
2 1/2 - 3 cups grated zucchini - lightly salted, drained well and squeezed dry (note - one medium zucchini will yield about 1 cup grated zucchini.
1/4 cup finely chopped onion or scallion
1-2 cloves minced garlic
1 T. each - fresh minced parsley and mint (if you don't have fresh herbs use 1 t. dried mint and omit parsley.  Dried parsley is icky.  1 t. dried dill weed could also be used with the mint)
1/2 cup flour (I like to use half white and half whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)  You could also use cottage cheese or other type of grated cheese - whatever you have on hand.  The feta is the most wonderful, especially with the zucchini.)
1/4 t. freshly ground pepper and if you like a little heat, a few shakes of red pepper flakes

Beat the egg whites until stiff and set aside. 
Mix together all other ingredients in a large bowl.  Then gently fold in the egg whites. 
Drop batter in spoonfuls in a preheated pan.  I like to add a little olive oil or butter before each batch.  This time I decided to make larger pancakes in my favorite little cast iron skillet.  I like this pan so much I am thinking of buying another one so I can turn out more pancakes faster.  I am working on seasoning it and this was a great project for that  purpose.   You only need a teaspoon or so of fat for each pancake. 

These pancakes are excellent served with a spoon of plain yogurt and a sprinkling of more fresh mint. 

You could make these pancakes with grated raw carrot, kohlrabi or chopped broccoli.  If I was going to use kale or chard, I would blanch and chop it and squeeze it dry first.  I think they would work with finely sliced green or red cabbage too - but I haven't ever tried it.  If I had some fresh bell pepper I might dice some and add it too.  The possibilities are endless.   Raw potatoes, because of all their starch, require a little different treatment. We can talk about potato pancakes another day. 
If you have nice potatoes around, I would roast them and serve them alongside the vegetable pancake.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Focus: ZUCCHINI (Cucurbita Pepo)

We can thank Italian immigrants for bringing their favorite summer squash back to America in the mid-1900's.   I say back because zucchini (which means "little squash"in Italian) originated in this country.  The first settlers were introduced to askutasquash by New England Indians.  The seeds were brought back to Europe by traders - various varieties were developed in different countries - and the Italians made it popular again in their adopted country.  (I am all for local food - but this kind of seed trading makes a person think.  I am glad that lots of seeds have traveled around the world.  Our culinary life is much more interesting.)

Zucchini plants are very prolific -  and it is true that there are times during the summer when we must contend with an excess of this tasty vegetable.  I can think of worse problems.

(Did you hear about the man who parked his car on the street and forgot to lock it?   Sure enough - when he returned someone had invaded his car!   The shameless criminal had left his calling card - a half bushel of zucchini was on the back seat.)

If you are looking through cookbooks for zucchini recipes, remember that the French call them courgettes and the English use the term marrow.  Either way, they are popular in soups, stews and salads.  They are wonderful served on their own as a side dish - grilled, steamed, sauteed or baked. 

Zucchini squash is 95% water - so it is low in calories.  In half a cup are 20 calories as well as 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of dietary fiber.  Zucchini is high in vitamins A and C.  The beta carotene is in the skin - so don't peel zucchini.  The skin is tender and very edible.

Storage and preservation
Zucchini is quite perishable.  Store, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator - best if used within 4-5 days.  Handle gently - the tender skin is easily cut.  If you just can't keep up with your zucchini, you can cook it and freeze for later.  I like to slice and saute it with a little onion and garlic and sweet red bell pepper if I have any around.  A mixture of zucchini and yellow squash is very nice.  Add fresh herbs such as parsley, basil or even dill.  This can be frozen in a freezer bag or other container.   Some winter night this will make a great meal served as a pasta sauce with some grated cheese.  It might get  a little watery - but you can just cook that off.

Some people like to make zucchini pickles or relish.  That is another good way to preserve a bumper crop of squash.

It seems to me that most gardeners let their zucchini get way too big.  I can understand how this can happen. One day they seem tiny and the next day they are huge.  Or they hide under a leaf so you can't find them and then they are overgrown.  Your CSA squash have been harvested at a nice practical size.  Large enough so you have a good quantity to work with but small enough to be tender and good tasting.

Three medium sized squash equal about one pound, or three cups sliced or chopped. If you grate and drain one pound of zucchini, you will end up with about 2 1/2 cups grated vegetable.  To wash, scrub gently with a soft brush.  Cut off stem and blossom ends.  Don't peel - the skin is tender and edible.

There are many ways to prepare zucchini.  Ten million eight hundred thousand, to be exact (yes - that is 10,800,000).  At least that is the number that came up when I Googled "Zucchini recipes".  That seemed a little overwhelming, even to me.  So I went to, one of my favorite recipe sites.  A search for simply "zucchini" resulted in 580 recipes. So I really don't think you need to worry about finding new ways to use zucchini. Here is one recipe from Epicurious that looked very good.  Little galettes with a lot of zucchini and some ricotta cheese.  A bit time consuming but worth it.

If you are grating zucchini to use raw or cooked,  always mix with a little salt (about 1/2 t. per pound) and drain for an hour or so to eliminate excess water.  Squeeze squash dry in a towel or with your hands.

Serving ideas
Slice or cut into sticks and eat with a dip or in a salad

Grate raw,  salt and drain and mix with a mustardy vinaigrette and some chopped mint and parsley and maybe a little bit of onion

Grate or chop and saute with some onions.  Add fresh herbs and well beaten eggs for a frittata.  Feta cheese is a good addition to a zucchini frittata.  Sometimes I add a few diced cooked potatoes if I want something more substantial.

Slice zucchini - 1/4 inch -  toss in a small amount of oil.  Bake in one layer on a baking sheet at 400 degrees about 20-25 minutes, or until tender. Serve with fresh herbs as desired.  A mixture of mint, parsley and oregano would be good.

Dice zucchini into small pieces and use raw (or lightly steamed) in a pasta salad with peas, sweet onion, peppers, tomatoes, olives and other favorite seasonal vegetables.

Make a simple casserole with milk, egg, cheese and bread crumbs.  (see my post for July 6 for a classic squash casserole recipe.)

Stuff and bake:
Baked stuffed zucchini - Middle Eastern style - Serves 4
4 medium zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
1 pound ground lamb
olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1 t. dried mint (or 1 T fresh.)
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
1/2 t. allspice
1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
1 egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
optional - grated sharp cheese such as kefalotyri or asiago
Use a small spoon to scrape the inside of the zucchini halves.  Leave a wall of about 1/4 - 1/2 inch.  Chop the zucchini insides.  Saute meat in a little olive oil with onion, chopped zucchini and garlic.  When meat is browned and onions are soft, add spices and herbs.  Let cool.  Mix in egg and bread crumbs.  Mound the stuffing into the zucchini halves.  Place zucchini in a baking pan with 1/4 inch water in the pan.  Cover and bake about 25 minutes at 375 degrees.  Uncover and bake another 15 minutes.
If desired, serve with a fresh or cooked tomato sauce or plain yogurt or both.

Tomorrow:  Tried and True - Savory Pancakes - including a basic zucchini pancake recipe

Hands On - Cast Iron

I pump iron.  In the kitchen.  I figure as long as I can heft my large cast iron frying pan and dutch oven,  I am in good shape.  That is one reason I use cast iron -  I can get weight bearing exercise without having to hit the gym.

My first set of pots and pans was harvest gold Club aluminum.  Coated with first generation Teflon, which I hope doesn't kill me some day.  Those pots served me well for a long time, but somehow over the years they wore out, were burned to death or otherwise didn't survive divorce or cross country moves.  My 70's Club aluminum is never going to make it to the next generation. My mother's large Club hammered aluminum kettle, which was used to sterilize family baby bottles in the 50's, did manage to make the jump, however.  I plan to use it this Thanksgiving to make a mountain of mashed potatoes.   Someday I will have to decide who has earned the right to be keeper of that kettle when I am gone.  Over my dead body will it end up on E Bay.

As the Club aluminum gradually vanished, I acquired several pieces of cast iron cookware.  I use many of these pieces daily.  They are on their way to becoming future heirlooms - hopefully treasured ones.  I like the idea of my children and grandchildren feeding my great grandchildren with the same tools I used.  I can't prove it, but I think it will make them stronger,  smarter and happier.   For sure not lazy.

One of my favorite pieces of cast iron - a small Lodge two handled pot -  came with a story.  I purchased it new at an old fashioned hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi about a dozen years ago.  The store owner was eager to tell me and my husband about his store's place in history.  It seems that once upon a time a young man showed up at the store with his Mama.  He really wanted to get a gun.  But his Mama talked him into getting a guitar instead.  His first guitar.  His name was Elvis Presley.  So my cute little cast iron covered pot came from the store where Elvis got started. I think I need to name it.  How about the "love me tender" pot?

There are lots of reasons why you might want to acquire a few cast iron pans aside from achieving some measure of immortality. 

Cast iron pots are made from an alloy of iron (about 97%) and carbon (3%).  Cast iron is a very efficient thermal conductor.  Heat distributes evenly with no hot spots.  Cast iron retains heat very well.  A cast iron pan will absorb more heat and hold it longer than an aluminum pan of the same thickness.  Tip - the pan is hot enough for most purposes when a few drops of water skitter around on the surface.  If the water lies there - too cold.  If the water instantly turns to steam - too hot.

Cast iron is very affordable and widely available.   You can often find good used cast iron at second hand stores or auctions.   Griswold and Wagner are two respected brands.  Or you can buy a pan new from Lodge Manufacturing, located in Tennessee.  It is a family owned business that has been producing cast iron cookware since 1896.  Even Lodge is now importing enameled cast iron from China.  But their classic plain cast iron is made in America.

Cast iron is virtually indestructible.  The only way to ruin a pan is by exposing it to a sudden dramatic change in temperature.  Don't ever add cold liquid to a hot pan -  it may crack.  But other than that, cast iron will not let you down.  If the pan gets rusty or the seasoning wears away,  it can always be scoured and re-seasoned.

Cast iron is a source of dietary iron.  If you consistently cook with cast iron you are much less likely to ever have a problem with anemia due to iron deficiency.

Cast iron is versatile.  It can go from stovetop to oven to table.  (I do not recommend freezing or storing food in cast iron.)

Cast iron can withstand very high temperatures, which makes it good for frying or browning foods.  My small cast iron skillet is perfect for pan frying pork chops or steak for two.

Properly seasoned and maintained, cast iron is virtually non -stick.  If you do not have confidence in safety of the various modern non stick coatings, cast iron is for you.

Alice Waters, author of The Art of Simple Food and other cookbooks, says "If I could have only one pan, it would be a cast iron skillet.  The heavy iron heats evenly, making it a wonderful vehicle for browning and frying.  An added bonus is that a seasoned cast iron pan is virtually non-stick."

One drawback of cast iron is that it is not a good choice for some acidic foods.  It may slightly discolor some light colored foods.   I often use my Dutch kettle for spaghetti sauce, however, and have not had a problem.  

I have a cast iron pan that is rusty and has lost its seasoning.  How can I bring it back?
First, scour the pan well with steel wool or a wire brush to remove all the rust and to smooth the surface.  Wash with water and dry thoroughly. Some recommend cleaning the pan with oven cleaner.
Using a brush or paper towel, rub the entire pan and lid - inside and out - with a flavorless vegetable oil (flaxseed oil is considered by some to be the best) or even a little lard.  You want just a very thin coating - don't use too much.  Wipe off excess.  Place pan - upside down - and lid in a 350 degree oven for about two hours.   Turn off oven and leave pan in the oven until it is cool.  Repeat this process several times.
(Note - you can use the same process for a new unseasoned pan, except it will not be necessary to scour off rust.)
Use the pan for frying or sauteing a few times after this first seasoning so that the cooking oil provides some extra sealing of the pan's surface.  The more you cook, the smoother the pan becomes.

How do I take care of my pan once it is seasoned?
Wash with water and dry well.  Sometimes I use a very light duty scouring pad which does not seem to hurt the seasoned surface.  Some people recommend using salt if you need a little abrasive action to remove any stubborn food.  Every so often wipe on a little oil after the pan is thoroughly dry.

Pineapple upside down cake
This is a classic dessert which requires a well seasoned iron skillet.  This is a good recipe from Epicurious, but I would omit the cardamom and use about 1/4 cup of minced crystallized ginger in the topping instead.

Tomorrow:  Focus - ZUCCHINI SQUASH

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Inspiration - Week # 7

In this week's box: blue potatoes, 1 bunch basil, zucchini,  green garlic, Alisa Craig onions (sweet), red leaf lettuce, beets, kale.

I just spent about two hours in the kitchen having my own personal CSA party.  I know two hours sounds like a long time, but I did get a lot done.  It was more fun than watching reality TV, that is for sure.   I will sleep better knowing that the vegetables are snug in their bags and jars and meal time will be easier all week.  I made another batch of pesto with the basil and popped it right into the freezer.  I roasted some garlic and even caramelized about half the onions. (The onions can cook away whilst you do other chores.  Multi-tasking is the cook's friend.)  The lettuce is washed and dried and bagged.  Kale washed - half cut up and braised.  The other half shaken dry and bagged.  Potatoes in the refrigerator too because they are "new" potatoes - not cured.

Plus I triaged the vegetable crisper.   I try to do this once a week - it really helps me stay on top of the produce situation.  I like to empty the whole thing and give it a quick rinse.  Then I dry it and repack the veggies.  This way I am much less likely to forget what I have - like the little bag of green beans I found tonight.   I know some of you are thinking - man, she needs to get a life.  Rinsing the vegetable crisper once a week!  But it really goes fast and trust me, this is a good habit to develop.  Helps prevent waste.  You can skip a week once in a while - I do.

Now for some meal ideas.  Dishes marked with an asterisk means recipe is included in this post. 
Note that I have included a recipe for roasted garlic - that can be served with bread for any meal if you wish.   Roasted garlic is a great addition to mashed potatoes, salad dressings or greens.  Or just mixed with a little butter or oil and used as a spread for bread or crackers.  It can be frozen.

Minestrone Soup*; simple leaf lettuce salad; grapes

Marinated raw beet salad on lettuce leaf*; Baked blue potatoes; sauteed sliced zucchini; meat, poultry or fish

Caramelized onion and kale over pasta*; goat cheese or blue cheese with nuts and dried fruit

Cold beet borscht* with boiled blue potatoes; rye bread or crackers; chocolate ice cream

Frittata with sauteed grated zucchini, caramelized onion and basil (or pesto); corn bread

Minestrone Soup
Minestrone soup can take many forms.  It is basically a hearty vegetable soup with Italian seasoning.  Ingredients can vary according to what you have on hand and the season.  This recipe is only a guide to help you get started.  This soup is nice served with grated parmesan cheese on the side.

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped carrot
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
About one cup each: diced zucchini, diced potato, chopped green beans (or peas if you have them)
About 2 cups chopped kale (or spinach or chard)
One can tomatoes (28 oz. is a typical store size.  I would use one quart home canned.)
about 1 1/2 cups cooked white beans
handful of chopped basil or a few spoons of pesto
salt and pepper to taste
a bay leaf is nice if you have it

Saute onions, carrot and garlic in olive oil until softened.  Add all the rest of the vegetables along with about 6 cups water or broth.   (More or less broth/water depending on how thick you like your soup)  Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer, partly covered, until all vegetables are tender.  If you need to stretch this soup because a few unexpected guests arrive, then add a few cups of cooked macaroni and some more water or broth.  This soup is even better served the second day.

Marinated raw beet salad
Click this link for a good basic raw beet salad recipe - along with several very other recipes for beets.
If you are still resisting beet literacy, this link might get you started.  If you absolutely insist on maintaining beet resistance - then look for a beet buddy.  Because I have to tell you, if you are going to be a happy Featherstone CSA member, you will either need to learn to embrace beets in all their glory or else find a beet buddy.  If you feel you need some one on one personal beet counseling or encouragement, I am at your service.   You can contact me at

Caramelized onions and kale over pasta
It is really easy to caramelize onions.  You do not need to go to a fancy restaurant to get these. You can make them at home.
Start by thinly slicing a few cups of onions.  I like to cook my onions with a mixture of olive oil and butter - about 1 T. fat to 1 cup sliced onions.  Cook the onions in the butter/oil in a large skillet over medium heat about 15 minutes.  Then add a little salt, lower the heat and cook about another 10 minutes.  If desired, you can add a little white wine to the onions if they seem too dry.  Or just a pinch of sugar if they need more sweetness.
Wash kale, cut out tough rib and chop or cut into strips.  Saute in a little oil and garlic, add a tablespoon or two of water and cover.  (You can also add some bacon or pancetta or sausage along with the garlic.)  Braise until kale is tender - about 10-12 minutes. Stir every so often to make sure kale doesn't dry out too much.
Combine the onions and kale and serve over cooked pasta.  A little crumbled feta or blue cheese is a good complement to this dish.  Toasted walnuts would also be good.

Cold beet borscht
This recipe is adapted from a Molly Katzen's recipe in the Moosewood Cookbook (new revised edition)
4 large beets (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 t. salt
1-2 T. lemon juice, to taste (you could also use red wine vinegar)
2-3 T. sugar or honey, to taste
1-2 T. fresh dill, minced (or 2 t. dried dill)
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and grated
1/4 cup finely minced sweet onion
2 c. buttermilk

Scrub beets and trim.  Cover with water, bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer until beets are tender - time will vary depending on size of beets.
Remove beets from cooking water.  Save 3 cups of cooking water in a bowl or pan.  When beets are cool enough to handle, peel and grate beets.  Stir together grated beets, cooking water and all other ingredients except the buttermilk.  After all ingredients are cold, stir in the buttermilk.  Taste and adjust seasonings.
Serve with slices of potato.  If you have blue potatoes, the combination of bright pink soup and blue potatoes should be quite striking. 

Roasted garlic
Trim top and root end of bulb.  Place several bulbs in a heavy pan with a cover.  Add about 1/4 inch of water to the pan and drizzle a small amount of olive oil over the garlic.  Cover pan and bake at 375 degrees about 30 minutes - or until garlic is tender.  Once it is tender, drizzle on a little more oil, uncover and roast another 7-10 minutes.  To serve, just separate the cloves and squeeze out the roast garlic.  You can squeeze out a quantity of roast garlic and freeze if desired.