Recipe: Fresh Ricotta and Preserved Lemon Spread

April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Are you a kitchen experimenter or adventurous eater? I don’t mean in the Andrew Zimmern “Bizarre Foods” kind of way (although if stinky tofu or rat hearts are your thing, rock on; I’ll hold off, thanks). No, I’m talking about a willingness to try food combinations or flavors that are just a touch out of your comfort zone. Maybe that means ordering something you wouldn’t usually get from your favorite restaurant, testing out foods in à la Waste-Less Wednesday style, or that WTF moment when you throw some random ingredients together in a pan and see what happens. Thinking differently about ingredients or food combinations or preparation techniques broadens our food options considerably, and the discovery process is just plain fun — especially when you find something you want to share.

Which leads me to an inspiring reader comment about preserved lemons and feta cheese:

I’m just circling back to let you know how we used our preserved lemons. The gremolata was delicious — it fed a whole family very happily. But the biggest discovery was what happened when we combined the lemons with feta. We’ve been buying our feta from Rose International Market on Castro St. in Mountain View for 20+ years….The other day I lightly mixed a wedge of preserved lemon with a little bit of leftover Bulgarian feta and served it with crackers and lavash (also from Rose Market). The resulting spread was just heavenly. I didn’t think it was possible to improve Bulgarian feta, but I guess you never know!

Wheee! Gotta love that! “Two great tastes that taste great together.” And how did this happen? Simply putting some leftovers together for a family dinner. (By the way, thanks for sharing, Monica!) What’s the key here? Starting with ingredients that you enjoy, and saying “what if…?” Sometimes you come up with a winner, sometimes you don’t. If the combination isn’t as delicious and craveable as you’d hoped, shrug it off and try something else. (Not-so-big secret: Most professional chefs don’t nail a new recipe the first time. It’s an ongoing process of testing and tweaking over time.)

After I read Monica’s comment, I started thinking about the combination of salty, sweet-tart preserved lemons with a creamy cheese, soft cheese. Mmmm. I’ve been crushing hard on some Petaluma-made fresh ricotta lately (note to self: stop eating it out of the container). Sheep’s milk ricotta would be a nice, less salty stand-in for the feta — although cow’s milk ricotta would add a buttery richness that could play off the tartness of the lemons. I’ll save you the suspense: both versions are lick-the-bowl good. (And don’t get me wrong, the feta/lemon combo is creamy-sweet-tart mouthbomb, but if you can’t get your hands on creamy Bulgarian or French feta, fresh ricotta is a stellar partner.)

As for the lemons, you can use 7-day or 30-day preserved lemons for this recipe, although the flavors will be a bit different. The 7-day lemons give you a brighter, sweet-tart, lemon flavor, while the 30-day lemons are mellower, but have the added flavor dimension provided by the spices preserved with the lemons. Either way, if you’ve been waiting for a reason to make 7-Day or 30-Day preserved lemons, this is it!

Recipe: Fresh Ricotta and Preserved Lemon Spread
Yield: About 7 ounces

Fresh ricotta is essential here, so try to buy a locally made version — or get adventurous and make your own ricotta at home. Homemade preserved lemons are best, but store-bought will work in a pinch. A good, peppery olive oil and some crunchy, toasted pistachios are the finishing touches to this spread, adding flavor and texture. Serve with crisp crackers, lavash, or on a sturdy piece of toast.

Ingredients

6 ounces fresh ricotta
1½ – 2 wedges preserved lemon, to taste
1 tablespoon toasted pistachio pieces
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Fresh sheep's milk ricotta, olive oil, 30-day preserved lemons, toasted pistachios

Fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, olive oil, 30-day preserved lemons, toasted pistachios

How to:

  1. Place the ricotta in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Finely chop the lemon wedges — skins and flesh — and add them to the ricotta, mixing gently with a spoon or rubber spatula to combine.
    Add chopped perserved lemon to the ricotta

    Add chopped perserved lemon to the ricotta

    Start by chopping 1½ wedges and adding those pieces to the ricotta. Give it a taste. If you prefer more lemon, chop the remaining ½ wedge and add it to the mixture. Return any unused lemon pieces or wedges to the storage container.

  3. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
    You probably won’t need much salt, as the lemons themselves provide a good amount of salt from the preservation process, but a little accent of a delicate salt, such pyramid or Himalayan pink, can balance the flavor if your mixture is too tart.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a serving bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and top with toasted nuts. spread-in-serving-bowl
  5. Store leftovers, covered, in the refrigerator, for up to 5 days.

Cook Local: DIY Crunchy Peanut Butter

March 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

If you were following along with last week’s user test of Alice Medrich’s Peanut Crunch Brownies, then you might recall that I found myself sans a key ingredient when it came time to make said brownies. Yup, not a spoonful of crunchy, salted natural peanut butter in the house. Crap. While I will happily make peanut butter treats for other people, I’m not really a fan (see my post about PB&J cookies). Pecan Butter? Yep! Almond butter? Bien sûr! But peanut butter? Meh. And yet, I’m willing to keep giving it a chance when the opportunity to try out some new sweet recipe happens along.

What I did find was a tub of unroasted, unsalted peanuts. (And no, I have no idea why. I’m sure there was a get-around-to-it recipe that inspired that purchase.) Hey, when life gives you peanuts…well, you know what to do. For those of you are peanut butter lovers, well, today is your day. Seriously, it’s National Peanut Butter Lovers Day, so get inspired to DIY!

DIY crunchy peanut butter

DIY crunchy peanut butter

Making peanut butter at home is super-easy and has the added benefit of letting you tweak the sticky stuff to your liking. And good news for those of you following diets that limit your salt or sugar intake: you don’t have to hunt down commercial peanut butter brands when you can make your own — fresh! (Low FODMAPs folks, rejoice! You can use simple syrup, golden syrup, or maple syrup to sweeten your peanut butter!) When you DIY, you can have it your way.

Recipe: DIY Crunchy Peanut Butter
This recipe makes 8 ounces of peanut butter, which is enough for a batch of Peanut Crunch Brownies, with a little left over for noshing while you wait for the brownies to bake. For a creamy peanut butter variation, skip steps 4 and 5 and just grind the whole batch of roasted peanuts.

Ingredients:

8 ounces unroasted, unsalted peanuts
Liquid sweetener (optional): rich simple syrup, honey, golden syrup, maple syrup, or agave nectar
Salt (optional)

What you need:

Half sheet pan, lined with parchment paper
Food processor
Rubber spatula
Measuring spoons
Small mixing bowl

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F. Arrange the peanuts in a single layer on parchment paper-lined sheet pan.
  2. Roast peanuts for 10-12 minutes, turning the pan and stirring peanuts so that they color evenly.
    Can you see it? Peanut butter waiting to happen.

    Can you see it? Peanut butter waiting to happen.

    I like a light roast with a golden color. If you like a more roasty flavor, you can roast the nuts for as long as 15 minutes. Make sure you turn the pan and stir the nuts at five-minute intervals. You don’t want to roast them too long, or they’ll take on a bitter flavor.

  3. Let nuts cool to room temperature.
  4. Place 1.2 ounces (about 3 rounded tablespoons) of roasted nuts in the food processor and pulse until chopped.
    Making the "crunchy" part of crunchy peanut butter

    Making the “crunchy” part of crunchy peanut butter

    In my food processor, this took about 8 pulses, give or take. Want smaller pieces? Pulse more.

  5. Remove chopped nuts from the food processor and set aside.
  6. Place remaining peanuts in the food processor bowl, attach the blade and lid and process until smooth, 4 to 5 minutes. Stop the processor about halfway through (at the 2 to 2½ minute mark) to scrape down any crumblies from the side of the bowl.
    After 45-60 seconds, you’ll have peanut “powder,” and after 1½ minutes, you’ll have a crumbly “dough.”

    After 90 seconds of processing

    After 90 seconds of processing

    Keep going. After about 2 minutes, you’ll have peanut paste, at which point you’ll want to scrape down the bowl.

    Nope, not ready yet.

    Nope, not ready yet.

    I usually let my peanut butter go about 5 minutes so that it’s realllly smooth.

  7. Scrape the smooth peanut butter from the food processor bowl into the mixing bowl and add the chopped peanuts, mixing with a rubber spatula to combine.

    Fold the chopped nuts into the creamy peanut butter

    Fold the chopped nuts into the creamy peanut butter

  8. Optional: Add salt to taste.
    Taste the peanut butter first. Does it need salt? If so, start with ⅛ teaspoon. Sprinkle the salt on top of the peanut butter, mix in thoroughly, then taste. You’ll taste the salt on the back of your palate, so take a minute for the flavor and saltiness to register before deciding to add more. Be conservative when adding more salt: sprinkle on a pinch (or 1/16 teaspoon), mix it in, then taste. Repeat until your peanut butter has the right amount of saltiness for you.
  9. Optional: Add liquid sweetener to taste.
    Choose your sweetener: rich simple syrup, agave nectar, and honey are good options

    Choose your sweetener: rich simple syrup, agave nectar, and honey are good options

    I think peanut butter needs a little sweetening, to balance any salt added and to complement the roasted nut flavor. Start by drizzling 1 teaspoon of the sweetener of your choice over the peanut butter, mixing it in thoroughly and tasting. Need more? Add in another ½ teaspoon and taste again. You know the drill. I used 1½ teaspoons of rich simple syrup (4 ounces of organic cane sugar combined with 2 ounces of water, brought to a boil, then cooled.)

  10. Store your peanut butter in a covered container in the refrigerator.
    It should keep for about two months.
  11. To soften chilled peanut butter, spoon peanut butter into a microwave-safe container and heat for 15-second increments at 50% power.on-a-cracker

User Testing Gluten-Free Peanut Crunch Brownies

February 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

I love cookbooks. Some people collect animal figures, vinyl records, or jewelry. Not me. Nope, I collect cookbooks. Not intentionally. I mean, it didn’t start out that way, but after 30 years of acquiring cookbooks, I think it’s fair to say that I have a collection. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the possibility that exists within cookbooks: a pretty cake that might taste even better than it looks, the slow-cooked scrambled eggs that I’ll linger over on a Saturday morning, or the yeasted waffles for Sunday night breakfast-for-dinner dinner.

Some old favorites and new additions

Some old favorites and new additions

When I was about seven years old, I discovered the cookbook section in my local library, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Poring over each colorful baking book was not only about what I might make, but also what I might learn. Without Food Network and the interwebs to rely on for visuals (it was the olden days), cooking was a trial-and-error experience.  More often than not, it was error, but cooking is something that you learn by doing — and often screwing up — not just by reading about it.

I know people who are fearless cooks — those who will dive right in and try a new recipe on the first read-through or just throw ingredients together without any attachment to the outcome. I’ve never been that kind of cook; I like the guidance of a cookbook, the framework of a recipe. I’m a researcher and a preparer, which is why the sweet kitchen has always been my thing (plus, you know, all those kitchen toys tools rock).

My cookbook collection can be divided into three categories. First, there are the kitchen “bibles,” if you will: the go-to’s, the must-haves. These are the books I’ll recommend or give as gifts because I know the recipes just work, such as Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Then there are the specialty books, usually purchased for a project idea or a skill I want to learn, like canning. (Uh, still working on that. Canning cookbooks purchases to date: 3. Actual jars of jam made: 0). The last group is what I’d call personal connection, whether it’s the cookbook of a restaurant I’ve admired or enjoyed (Boulevard) or a chef who’s inspired me (Emily Luchetti!), these books are reminders of certain points in my life or milestones in my cooking experience.

Before I started culinary school at the CIA, I took a chocolate class at Ramekins in Sonoma, taught by Alice Medrich, Bay Area chocolate guru and James Beard award-winning cookbook author. (And oh hey, did you know that Alice Medrich has a 650 connection? Her Cocolat chain of shops in operation during the 1980’s included an outlet at Stanford Shopping Center.) She’s written 11 sweet cookbooks, many of which focus on chocolate (of course). Her most recent project, Flavor Flours, explores baking with gluten-free flours, such as rice, sorghum, and teff. After hearing her talk about the book at a JCC panel event that also included Beranbaum and Luchetti, it was a must-buy.

I’m not linear when it comes to cookbooks. Some people can cook right through from first page to last, but I like to skip around and make the things that look most interesting first. So, I’d been waiting for an excuse to make Medrich’s Peanut Crunch Brownies — which is basically a fudgy brownie on top of a peanut butter cookie. Yeah, you read that right. Then came National Chocolate-Covered Peanut Day this week. Chocolate brownie covering peanut cookie? Works for me.

Interpreting "chocolate-covered peanut"

Peanut Crunch Brownies

Well, it did, but honestly, not without a bit trepidation and a second run-through. Yes, even after years of baking, working with new ingredients and techniques meant that I was a little uncertain about the outcome. Would the baking times be accurate? Did I really have to bake these brownies in the upper-third of the oven? (still not sure) Could I use a smaller baking pan than the recipe called for? (Answer: yes, but there’s math involved. I don’t recommend it for first-timers.)

What advice would I give kitchen novices or those who have a bit of cooking fear when it comes to trying new recipes?

Read the recipe twice. I usually read through once to get a feel for the recipe, and a second time for details and techniques. Turns out that this recipe was really two recipes — a peanut butter cookie/crust recipe and a brownie recipe — that come together at the end.

Because the recipe has two parts, I set up the mise en place for each part separately. Shown: the brownie batter mise.

Because the recipe has two parts, I set up the mise en place for each part separately. Shown: the brownie batter mise.

Make sure you have all ingredients. One of the ingredients is crunchy, salted, natural peanut butter. I had two jars of peanut butter: both of them creamy, unsalted. *sigh* Did I really want to make a run to the market for a jar of peanut butter, of which I would use 160 grams and leave the rest in the back of my refrigerator for eternity? No. But I did have roasted peanuts, salt, and a food processor — and that was enough to make my own natural, crunchy, salted peanut butter.

Mise en place for the peanut cookie/crust layer: note the homemade peanut butter

Mise en place for the peanut cookie/crust layer: note the homemade peanut butter

Mise en place. Can’t say this enough times: weigh or measure all of your ingredients and revisit the ingredient list to check them off before starting to cook. You’d hate to find out that you forgot to add the sugar as you’re sliding those brownies into the oven. Pro tip: get organized by corralling all of your ingredients on a sheet pan.

Skip the substitutions. When it comes to baking, don’t make any substitutions the first time you make a new recipe, unless you’re really confident. Substitutions can affect weight, moisture, and in some cases, specific chemical reactions are required for a good end product.

Gluten-free brownie batter: no substitutions

Gluten-free brownie batter: no substitutions

Use baking times as guidelines. Any cookbook author will tell you that there’s no way to test every recipe in every oven. Baking times are usually accurate to within a couple of minutes, but not always. The first time you make a recipe, test it at the low end of the time range first, then give it more time if necessary. The peanut crunch layer, which bakes first, needed some extra time in my oven, as did the brownie layer.

Peanut crunch layer, pressed into the pan: Needed extra baking time in my oven

Peanut crunch layer, pressed into the pan: Needed extra baking time in my oven

Use an oven thermometer when baking. If your oven temperature is off, your baking times will be off. Knowing whether your oven temperature is accurate means adjust time and temperature as necessary for a better outcome.

Make notes. Afterwards, make notes either directly on the recipe or on a post-it note attached to the recipe about what worked, what didn’t, cooking times, and changes you’d like to try next time. For this recipe I would distribute the brownie batter more evenly for easier spreading. It’s a bit stiff and working it too much will pull up the peanut crunch layer. I’d also make sure that the peanut crunch layer isn’t too thick in the middle, pressing it up the sides of the pan more for even baking.

My notes:

First go-round: Already making notes for next time!

Give it a second try. Unless there’s something tragically wrong with a recipe (yes, there are bad and untested recipes out in the world), or you really can’t stomach the result, give a recipe a second go. I did make a second batch of these brownies because my first version was sadly underbaked, despite letting both the peanut crunch layer and brownies bake an extra few minutes beyond the recipe’s instructions. The second time around I pressed out the peanut layer so that it was thinner and baked it until golden brown, which made for a firmer base and a better texture. Muuuch better.

brownie-final-2Usually I have to make a recipe three times before I have all of the notes down and add it to my repertoire. How do you approach trying new recipes? Are you a fearless cook who jumps right in or are you a methodical note-taker? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Waste-Less Wednesday: Preserved Lemons

February 25, 2015 § 8 Comments

Last December, during one of my it’s-the-holidays-so-I’m-indulging excursions to Whole Foods, I spied containers of preserved lemons. Nothin’ fancy, just small, whole Eureka lemons, juice, salt, and citric acid in plastic deli containers. I’ll admit it was a total impulse buy. Preserved lemons weren’t even on my radar, but eh, it was the holidays, after all. (You see how that kind of thinking can get a person into trouble.)

Over-the-fence Meyer lemons: local and organic

Over-the-fence Meyer lemons: local and organic

Turns out that preserved lemons are my new favorite condiment. For the rest of December and through the early part of January, I was finding ways to work preserved lemons into every savory dish I made: baked fish with herbs, roasted vegetables, and pastas. My favorite combo? Soba noodles tossed in olive oil and this twist on gremolata: roasted garlic, sautéed preserved lemon, minced parsley, and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper. Topped with freshly grated cheese, of course.

If you read my post about Lemonpalooza a couple of weeks ago, let me tell you that the abundance of over-the-fence Meyers and backyard Eurekas continues! After some hemming and hawing about it, I finally decided it was time to make my own preserved lemons. I’m still baby-stepping my way into preserving foods. If you’re in the same boat, preserved lemons are a good place to start. There’s no cooking involved, although it’s a good idea to sterilize the jars in which you’ll store the lemons while they do their thing for 30 days. Oh, yeah, that’s the kicker: you have to wait 30 days.

There are a few variations of preserved lemon recipes floating around the interwebs, but Paula Wolfert’s version seems to be the mother recipe; you can find it on Epicurious and Leite’s Culinaria. The Leite’s Culinaria version is more concise, while the Epicurious version provides more detail and includes notes from Wolfert. Read both to get the full picture. To paraphrase one comment I read: “if you’ve got salt and lemons, you can make preserved lemons.” Yep, it’s that easy.

I decided to go with the spices-added version from Epicurious. Because I have 24-ounce jars and plenty of lemons, I scaled up the recipe to make 1.5 times the amount (just multiply every ingredient by 1.5). I don’t have permission to post the recipe here, but I can give you the peep-show version of what I did.

First up: the mise en place. Make sure you’ve sterilized your jar(s) and assembled your ingredients. Tip: Sharpen your knife before starting. It’s a lot easier to slice through citrus peels with a sharp knife.

Ingredients for 30-day preserved lemons: Meyer lemons, Meyer lemon juice, salt, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, and bay leaf

Ingredients for 30-day preserved lemons: Meyer lemons, Meyer lemon juice, salt, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, and bay leaf

I used the muddler from my home bar to press the salt-stuffed lemons into the canning jar and force out some of the juice.

Layering lemons, salt, and spices

Layering lemons, salt, and spices

After I layered all of the lemons and spices into the jar, using the muddler to press down each layer, I added lemon juice to cover everything. (Remember those 10 Meyer lemons I zested to make limoncello? I used the naked lemons for the juice to cover my preserved lemons.) Et voila!

And now we wait...

And now we wait…

Preserved lemons should be stored in a warm spot, so I went up — storing the jar in the wasted space on top of the upper cabinets in my kitchen. (Ah, see — another way I’m reducing waste in the kitchen!)

There’s also a recipe for a seven-day version of Paula Wolfert’s preserved lemons on Epicurious. Not as highly rated, but easy-peasy to make. Hey, I had more lemons, juice, and another jar… not to mention all of that above-cabinet storage space, so I knocked that one out, too. It will be interesting to compare the quickie version with the long, slow version.

Mise en place: no spices in this one, just lemons, salt, and juice.

The seven-day version: simpler and faster. But does it taste as good?

The seven-day version: simpler and faster. But does it taste as good?

Another difference? The prep is super quick. When making the seven-day version, you cut the lemons into slices and toss them with salt. In the 30-day version, you cut the lemons just enough to stuff them with salt.

Toss lemon wedges with salt before packing them in a jar or container

Toss lemon wedges with salt before packing them in a jar or container

Next week I’ll have the quickie version ready for taste-testing. You’ll be able to check out the results on 650Food’s Facebook page! Have you made preserved lemons? What are your tips or favorite recipes using this flavorful condiment?

Waste-Less Wednesday: Carrot Top Pesto

December 17, 2014 § 3 Comments

Do you have a “Leftovers Night” at your house? Or a day when you clean out the bits and bobs that have been lingering in your refrigerator? You know what I mean: those three limpy, sad carrots that are too soft for salad, or one lonely baby bok choy whose only hope of being saved from the compost bin is a last-minute soup craving. Oh wait — that’s my fridge. Well, maybe you’ve got something similar going on at your place.

I’ve declared Waste-Less Wednesday at my house as a way of dealing with the leftovers, the oops-I-forgot-about-that, and the meant-to-cook-it-except-I-ate-cereal-for-dinner. Why Wednesdays? Well, like a lot of people, I tend to do my grocery shopping on the weekends, so by mid-week or so, the supplies are starting to run low, and I need to clear out the old before bringing in the new. Rather than just resigning the old, soft, less-pretty produce to the compost bin, I’m often thinking about ways to use up what I’ve got before that next run to the grocery store or the arrival of my CSA box.

Last night's dinner is today's Waste-Less Wednesday Lunch: Leftover baked radicchio with parmesan, soba noodles, and steamed broccoli

Last night’s dinner is today’s Waste-Less Wednesday Lunch: Leftover baked radicchio with parmesan, soba noodles, and steamed broccoli

As an advocate for reducing food waste, I’ve written a few posts about how I’m walking the talk, so to speak. Broth, roasted and sautéed vegetables, and purées are a few of my quick-and-easy solutions. But I’ve also been thinking about how I can reduce waste even further by finding ways to use all parts of the fruits and vegetables I buy — not just the fruit or vegetable itself. A vegetable version of “nose-to-tail” cooking, if you will. (Not sure what to call it — root-to-leaf, maybe?)

Honestly, vegetable stems are still a tough sell for me, as I learned during my brief dalliance with Swiss chard earlier this year. Fruit and vegetable skins are a different story, though. Unless they’re really bitter, tough, or have a nasty texture, I’ve found that many fruits and vegetables don’t need to be peeled. Carrots are a fine example of a vegetable that I’m now using “skin-on.” Deborah Madison, in her beautiful book Vegetable Literacy says “Much of the flavor and nutrition in carrots resides in the skins, so it’s better to scrub the carrots rather than peel them” (Madison, D. (2013) Vegetable Literacy. Berkeley, CA: 10 Speed Press). If you’re buying locally grown organic or pesticide-free carrots, a thorough washing and good scrub to remove dirt and grit is all you need.

Leaves, on the other hand, have turned out to be oh-so-versatile and are now part of my regular cooking repertoire! (Important to know: most vegetable leaves are safe to eat, but avoid leaves from rhubarb and the nightshade family as they’re poisonous.) Beet leaves, radish leaves, and yes, even Swiss chard leaves pair nicely with most root vegetables and alliums and are delicious when sautéed or braised, then finished with a sprinkling of cheese or toasted nuts.

All of this new love for cooking leaves got me thinking… what about carrot greens? What can you do with those? The Nantes carrots that arrive in my CSA box always have the greens attached, and for months I’ve been cutting those greens and storing them in the bottom of my refrigerator while waiting for inspiration to strike. Didn’t happen. Unfortunately, I ended sending those bunches of carrot greens, along with a serving of guilt, to the compost bin.

Carrot greens

Carrot greens: finally, saved from the compost bin!

Then finally, a few weeks ago, I happened to pick up a copy of Diane Morgan’s Roots cookbook, which is an inspiring source of education and recipes for just about any root vegetable you can think of. (If you love root vegetables, you will want to add Roots to your cookbook collection.) And whaddaya know? In Roots I found a carrot top pesto recipe that I wanted to try — no, wanted to eat. It’s become my new go-to snack/pasta topping/fish condiment. It’s a perfect quick holiday party dip, complement to roasted vegetables, or finishing touch to a comforting vegetable soup.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering whether you can eat carrot greens (there’s some misinformation floating around the interwebs that carrot greens are poisonous), you should know that not only are they are perfectly fine to eat, but they’re good for you. Deborah Madison says in Vegetable Literacy that carrot greens are “[r]ich in Vitamin K, chlorophyll, and potassium,” but “they can be somewhat bitter…. Just use the most tender of the fern-like branches.” Of course, if you’re allergic to carrots or carrot tops, then make sure you take the appropriate precautions, or better yet, play it safe and just enjoy the food porn below.

Recipe: Carrot Top Pesto
Adapted slightly from Roots by Diane Morgan (Chronicle Books)
Yield: about 6 ounces pesto

I’ve modified this recipe based on my home equipment (an 11-cup food processor), and the ingredients I had on hand. I’ve also added tips that I hope you’ll find helpful. Just so you know, carrot greens have a grassy, somewhat bitter flavor, that can dominate the pesto when it’s freshly made. If you can, chill the pesto in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours before serving so that the flavors marry and the mixture mellows a bit.

What you need:

Kitchen scale
Food processor
Rubber spatula

Ingredients:

1½ cups well-washed, loosely packed feathery carrot leaves, removed from the stems (1½ cups is about the amount of leaves from the greens attached to a pound of carrots. To remove the leaves, grab the center of a stem with one hand and use your other hand to pull the leaves downward and off the stem.)
3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, smashed and broken into 3 or 4 pieces
Scant ½ teaspoon kosher salt
4½ tablespoons toasted pine nuts
45 grams (1.6 ounces) shredded or grated parmesan (I used a combo of finely shredded parmesan, asiago, and fontina. I like the rustic texture of shredded cheese, but if you want super-smooth pesto, go with finely grated cheese.)carrot-pesto-ingredients

How to:

  • Technique for toasting pine nuts: Preheat toaster oven (or large oven) to 325°F. Place nuts in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking pan. Heat for about 5 minutes or until nuts are a golden-brown color. Allow to cool to room temperature.

    Mmmm, toasty pine nuts

    Mmmm, toasty pine nuts

  1. Combine the carrot leaves, olive oil, garlic clove, and salt in the food processor bowl. Pulse until the carrot tops and garlic are finely chopped.
    You’ll be pulsing the mixture a few more times when you add the pine nuts and cheese, so don’t worry if everything isn’t finely chopped and smooth. I’ve found that processing the carrot leaves too finely early on brings out the bitterness. (Of course, if you like that sort of thing, then rock on.)

    Carrot leaves, olive oil, garlic clove, and salt in the food processor and ready to go!

    Carrot leaves, olive oil, garlic clove, and salt in the food processor and ready to go!

  2. Add the pine nuts and pulse until finely chopped and combined with the other ingredients.
  3. Add the cheese and pulse just until everything is combined.
    If you prefer a smoother pesto, process the mixture a bit more until you see the consistency you prefer. If you like a chunkier, more rustic pesto, then your work here is done.

    I used shredded cheese, but you can use the classic: grated parmesan

    I used shredded cheese, but you can use the classic: grated parmesan

  4. Taste the pesto and adjust the salt as necessary.
  5. Serve immediately or refrigerate for at least two hours to allow the flavors to marry and mellow.
    Depending on your palate, the pesto might taste very “green,” with the carrot leaves dominating (also, if you processed the mixture more finely at the beginning, you’ll also taste a more green or grassy flavor). Letting the pesto rest and chill brings the pine nut and cheese flavors forward so that the flavors are more balanced.pesto-final

Eat Local: Comfort Me

November 20, 2014 § 4 Comments

FINALLY we’ve been getting some much-needed rain here in the 650. (Damn, wish I’d remembered to cover the patio furniture before that started!) Unfortunately, for those of us prone to sinus-related misery — colds, infections, allergies, and the like — the season’s first round of feeling-under-the-weather ick has blown in with the rain. Ugh.

Yes, I’ve been a frequent flier with this sort of thing, so I have refills of the appropriate pharmaceuticals on speed dial, but I usually go there as a last resort. I’d rather fight the bugs with extra sleep, homemade nourishing food, and lots of filtered water. The problem is that when you’re feeling all draggy-ass and foggy-brained, you don’t really want to be in the kitchen cooking anything. And yet, this is the time when you want — maybe even crave — comfort food: something warming, flavorful, and easy to eat. (Somehow crunchy and raw food just don’t cut it when you’re feeling under-the-weather.)

But what to do when you feel rung out, sniffly, and just want to curl up in a blanket fort? Unless you have a staff of minions anticipating your every need, figuring out what to eat — let alone cook — seems like too much trouble. Here’s where a little advance planning can go a long way. No, I don’t mean stocking up on canned soup and frozen meals. While those might be quick and easy choices, the added salt, fat, and sugar aren’t doing your body any favors. And well, there’s something about homemade that just hits the spot when you’re feeling all yucky. Keeping vegetable stock and some prepared (washed and chopped) vegetables on hand can go a long way toward easy-to-make, comforting dishes that can help you feel better.

Soup
I know I’ve been hit with a bug when I start craving soup — a bowl of steamy, flavorful broth brimming with a colorful assortment of bite-sized pieces of perfectly cooked carrots, potatoes, and leeks.

Comforting, nourishing vegetable soup made with homemade vegetable broth

Comforting, nourishing organic vegetable soup made with homemade vegetable broth

Here’s where having a batch of Spring Vegetable Broth (I should have called it “Any Season Broth” because it really is) on hand in your refrigerator or freezer is a lifesaver. So, on those days when you need soup — oh snap! — you’re all prepared. Heat up the broth and add whatever you’ve got handy — prepared or leftover vegetables, pasta, rice, tofu, last night’s grilled chicken — simmer on the stove top for about 20 minutes, et voilà: comfort food.

Tip: Need a pointer to a foolproof vegetable soup recipe? Try Chow’s Basic Vegetable Soup. The recipe is really versatile, so you can use whatever you’ve got in the refrigerator or pantry.

Roasted Vegetables
Roasted vegetables are always on in my house. Carrots and sweet potatoes are at the top of my list, and I usually make enough for leftovers (and oh, how those leftovers come in handy when I don’t feel like cooking!). Their bright orange color and roasted, sweet flavor complement so many dishes. Plus they’ve got that whole Vitamin A, good-for-you thing going on.

Roasted carrots (fried sage leaves optional)

Roasted carrots (fried sage leaves optional)

As far as comfort food goes, you can’t beat roasted vegetables for a satisfying flavor-texture combination. Best right from the oven, they’re earthy, slightly caramelized, a little crispy around the edges, with a texture that falls between soft and al dente when you bite into them.

Prep is minimal: cut the vegetables into evenly sized pieces (after washing/peeling as you like), toss them in olive oil, season them with salt and pepper, and roast them in the oven for 20-40 minutes. Sweet potatoes are on the low end of that range, carrots on the higher end. Other root vegetables will fall somewhere in between.

Sweet potatoes ready for roasting

Sweet potatoes ready for roasting: season them your way! Add savory seasoning with salt and pepper, garlic, crushed red pepper. Or, go sweet with a little cinnamon and sprinkling of brown sugar.

Tip: You can make small batches of roasted sweet potatoes in your toaster oven. Preheat the oven to 400℉. Line the baking tray with two layers of foil, then spread the prepared sweet potato pieces onto the tray. Bake for about 20 minutes, flipping the sweet potato pieces halfway through cooking so that the bottoms don’t get too crispy or dark.

Sautéed Greens
Kale, spinach, beet greens, chard greens, and even radish greens can all be sautéed for a healthy, flavorful dish. Need a place to start? Try this Savory Kale Saute recipe, substituting other greens if you like. Aside from being a good source of vitamins and protein, sautéed greens are quick-cooking, filling, and can be paired with pasta, scrambled eggs, soup, or roasted vegetables (see what I did there?).

Quick, savory kale saute with garlic and roasted red pepper

Quick, savory kale saute with garlic and roasted red pepper

Tip: Give yourself a break and split up the prep and cooking times. Wash, dry, then chop or chiffonade your greens and store them in an closed bag or container in the refrigerator until you’re ready to sauté.

Added Bonus: Garlic, Ginger, and Crushed Red Pepper
The power trio of garlic, fresh ginger, and crushed red pepper (yes, together!) are tasty and healthful additions to soups, roasted vegetables, and sautéed greens. All three have therapeutic properties that can help you fight off bugs:

Sure, that’s all good, but flavor is the big draw here. The combo of spicy, earthy, and slightly sweet really amp up the flavor of a dish, making it more interesting and complex. (Helpful if your senses of taste and smell have taken a hit from the winter nasties.)

That’s how I’m trying to handle the latest round of the sniffles. What’s your feeling-under-the-weather comfort food?

Out of the Box: What I’ve Learned

October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

When I started getting CSA deliveries of fresh, organic produce last year, I was like a kid on Christmas morning (the kind of kid who didn’t sneak into mom’s closet to see what Santa was bringing). Every delivery was a surprise — with the added bonus that having fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to my door reduced the amount of time I spent in the grocery store every week.

Once I got past the oh-crap-what-am-I-going-do-with-all-this-food stage, I found myself looking forward to the possibilities of trying new flavors (hey, maitake mushroom!), new recipes, and even attempting food preservation projects. Part of this new approach to experiencing food included giving myself a time limit: use or preserve everything from the current box before the next box arrives. Now that I’ve been at it for a year, I’ll admit that I wasn’t successful a couple a few sometimes, but taking this approach taught me which ingredients had to be used within the first week of delivery…and which could hang on for a couple of weeks, or longer. It also made me more conscious of how I was managing food waste at home.

More than anything, the CSA deliveries have challenged my creativity with regard to savory-side cooking — and yet, I am loving this mystery-basket approach to cooking. What do I mean by mystery basket? If you’ve seen Food Network’s “Chopped” or any similar cooking competition show, you’ll be familiar with the mystery-basket concept. Contestants are given a basket or box of ingredients and have to come up with a well-prepared, tasteful dish using everything in the basket. Doing this on national television? Scary. But in the comfort of your own kitchen, with a glass of wine nearby and your favorite music streaming? Fun. (This assumes, of course, that you like cooking or experimenting with food, or both.) And unlike the classic mystery-basket challenge, you don’t have to use everything in the box at once, but you do get to challenge yourself to see which ingredients might work together.

Over time, I’ve come up with a few go-to combinations to add to my repertoire of quick, fresh dishes. My new favorite? Pairing sautéed leafy green vegetables (bok choy, kale, and even radish greens) with roasted orange and red vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, or red peppers). Serve with a baked or grilled protein, and you’ve got a comforting, healthy, and filling meal.

Lacinato kale — the dark-green, bumpy-leafed variety — has been making a regular appearance in my CSA delivery since fall started. I’m really over the kale salad thing, but I’ve been making a savory kale sauté lately that goes with just about everything, including the fresh, pastured eggs I brought back from my Marin County food fest.

For the kale and eggs combo below, I sauté the kale with a bit of garlic and some roasted red pepper, which enhances the kale’s sweet, herbaceous flavor. This savory sauté is tasty with scrambled eggs, but you could also serve it with baked or barbequed wild salmon, grilled chicken, or tofu. Or, you could take the same kale sauté and tweak it for an Asian-style meal. How about this? Sauté the kale with more garlic, add crushed red pepper, finish it with a grating of fresh ginger, and serve over soba noodles tossed in some sesame oil. I’ll leave it to you to come up with other ideas! For now, try eggs with kale for a savory weekend brunch.

Recipe: Savory Kale Sauté with Scrambled Eggs
Yield: Serves 2

Spice up your weekend-morning scrambled eggs with this savory kale sauté. You can add caramelized onions, more garlic, sautéed jalapeños instead of crushed red pepper… you get the idea. Make it to your taste. Cooking for one? Cut the recipe in half! Note that cooking time for the kale takes about five minutes, and you’ll want to serve the dish immediately so that it doesn’t wilt too much. Roasted sweet potatoes are a nice accompaniment.served-up-cropped

Ingredients:

Savory Kale Sauté
2¾ – 3 cups kale, chiffonade (loosely packed; cut first, then measure)
1/2 cup diced roasted red pepper
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic (or to your taste)
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (again, to your taste)
1/2 tablespoon olive oil, for the pan
Salt and pepper

Scrambled Eggs
2-3 eggs per person
Butter to coat the pan

What you need:

Large sauté or frying pan for the kale
Large frying pan or skillet for the eggs

Four simple ingredients for this dish: lacinato kale, roasted red peppers, garlic.

Four simple ingredients for this dish: lacinato kale, roasted red peppers, garlic, and fresh pastured eggs

How to:

  1. Prepare your eggs for scrambling by whatever method you usually use.
    I beat them in a bowl with a fork until well combined and yellow; no add-ins, nothing fancy.
  2. Heat the egg pan on medium-high and melt the butter, swirling it around the pan to coat the entire cooking surface.
  3. In the other pan (the kale pan), add the olive oil and heat on medium to medium-high heat.
  4. Turn down the heat for the egg pan to medium and add your egg mixture.
    I wish I had more patience to make the fluffy, slow-cooked scrambled eggs that take 20 minutes, but I go with a quicker approach that takes 5-10 minutes. It’s not as pretty or as fluffy, but is just as tasty. You want the eggs and kale to finish cooking at about the same time, so time your eggs accordingly.
  5. When the oil is glistening in the kale pan, add the garlic, and saute for 15-20 seconds.
    You want the garlic to be soft and fragrant, not browned.
  6. Add the kale and roasted red pepper and sauté for 3-4 minutes until the kale is softened, but not completely wilted.
    Cooking briefly will bring out the kale’s sweetness, while keeping an al   dente texture.

    Quick, savory kale saute with garlic and roasted red pepper

    Quick, savory kale sauté with garlic and roasted red pepper

  7. Season the kale and eggs with salt and pepper to your taste and serve immediately.
    I make a nest of kale in the center of the plate and serve the eggs on top, garnished with fresh chives from my garden.

    Weekend brunch indulgence, inspired by this month's CSA deliveries: freshly scrambled eggs over savory kale sauté, served with roasted sweet potatoes

    Weekend brunch indulgence, inspired by this month’s CSA deliveries. Really want to indulge? Serve with grainy bread or rolls and a round of Bloody Marys.

Bristol Bay Salmon: One Thing Leads to Another

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Salmon. It’s what’s for dinner. And lunch. And well, even breakfast. From Safeway to Whole Foods to the local farmer’s market, you can find beautiful, fresh fillets or thick steaks of this healthful, tasty fish in hues ranging from bright orange to almost-red. While salmon is versatile — it holds up well to most cooking methods and pairs with a variety of flavors — the much-publicized health benefits of wild salmon have helped in making it a popular addition to the dining table. (Wild salmon is high in Omega-3’s, making it heart-healthy and an important source of brain-building nutrition.) Oh, and it’s delicious.

Fresh, wild Alaskan salmon fillets, purchased in the 650

Fresh, wild sockey salmon fillets, purchased in the 650

Our Northern California salmon fishing season varies throughout the year, but you’re likely to find a regular supply of fresh, local, wild salmon if you know where to look. Need some ideas? Try Whole Foods, weekend farmer’s markets, or Cooks Seafood in Menlo Park. Not only do we have access to delicious wild salmon caught right off the Northern California coast, but from time to time Alaskan salmon from Copper River and Bristol Bay makes its way down the Pacific coast to our local suppliers.

I am an admitted salmon convert. When I was a kid, the only salmon I knew came in cans. In my limited, kidhood experience, the only difference between salmon and tuna was the color — pink, not grey — and sometimes the texture. Salmon was crunchier because there were usually some small bones ground in. This salmon is what my mother and my aunties used to make an Australian dinner-table staple: fish cakes. (Canned tuna was an option as well, but somehow the salmon version holds a larger place in my memory). Salmon cakes would be the core of a “lighter” cooked dinner — lighter than, say, steak or roast or lamb chops, which, most nights, were de rigueur for dinner. (British influence, much?) The recipe was simple: combine canned fish, egg, breadcrumbs, and a few herbs into patties. Then, coat them in more breadcrumbs and fry those babies in drippings (aka, lard) until the outsides are crispy and dark brown, occasionally brown-black. Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables, usually the boiled kind.

Fresh fish was not something my mother cooked. She came from a meat-potato-veg-for-dinner generation of Australian women who knew how to economize while still putting out a well-rounded, nightly dinner. Fish sticks, fish cakes, and Red Lobster shrimp cocktail were the limit of my seafood experience until high school, when I tried lox for the first time. I was well into adulthood when I first tried fresh salmon. I was amazed at what I’d been missing for so many years — a flavorful, healthy source of protein that was pulled right out of our West Coast waters!

If you’ve read this blog for a bit, then you know that I’m an advocate for knowing the source of your food — and better yet, for connecting with the producer of that food. What does that mean? It means starting a conversation — talking with farmers at your weekend market, or the manager at a family-run grocery store, or the person in charge of making food at your favorite local restaurant. But what about something like fish? How do you make that connection? When are you likely to run into a fisherman? I mean, most people buy fish, in a package, at the local grocery store (ok, stop that, by the way). But how do you find out the source of your fish: whether it’s farmed or wild, Pacific or Atlantic, sustainably fished or not, and so on? And do fish have seasons? And what does “local fish” mean? All good questions to ponder.

A new book by Paul Greenburg, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, examines some of these questions. Greenburg knows his subject matter; he’s a passionate, lifelong fisherman (not just a consumer) and award-winning author who writes about the state of the American fish industry. The book is an important read for anyone who eats seafood, values sustainable seafood sources, or just wants a better understanding of the seafood we’re eating (or not eating) in this country. The third section of the book focuses on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, currently a rich and pristine source of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon. Within the past decade, Bristol Bay has been threatened by mining interests, potentially sending it the way of so many other natural, American wild-fish sources that have been ravaged by industrial interests.

I finished the book shortly before attending the IFBC conference in Seattle last month, so much of the content — and specifically Bristol Bay’s current issues — were still in my mind. Not to mention the fact that Greenburg made Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon sound so utterly delicious that I was wondering when, if ever, I might have a chance to try it. (You see where this is going, right?) Yep, in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up experience, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon was featured at the IFBC 2014 opening reception. Seriously.

Three Seattle chefs created dishes that highlighted the versatility and flavor of the fish for attendees to try. Bristol Bay folks were on hand to talk about their salmon, as well as the potential risks to their fishing industry. It was an opportunity to taste this product I’d only read about, meet the people supporting it, and even participate in a little food activism. The dishes created by the chefs were tasty and approachable — not “fancy restaurant food,” but something you could cook and enjoy at home. Unfortunately, no recipes were provided, but you creative/adventurous cooks could probably reverse engineer them on your own.

Chef Kevin Davis’ grilled sockeye with tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies was a hearty, flavorful late-fall dish, that I could imagine enjoying with rice and a side salad.

Grilled Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon with dry-farmed tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies, prepared by Chef Kevin Davis of Blueacre Seafood, Seattle

Grilled Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon with dry-farmed tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies, prepared by Chef Kevin Davis of Blueacre Seafood, Seattle

Craig Heatherington’s peppered sockeye on brioche with a little sour cream is satisfying and elegant appetizer.

Peppered Bristol Bay Salmon on toasted brioche, prepared by Craig Hetherington of Seattle Art Museum Restaurant, TASTE

Peppered Bristol Bay Salmon on toasted brioche, prepared by Craig Hetherington of Seattle Art Museum Restaurant, TASTE

Chef Sean Ellis’ gravlax was probably my favorite of the three. Ok, let’s be honest, I’m not likely to make this one any time soon, but I do love me some gravlax!

Dill & Vodka Marinated Bristol Bay Sockey Salmon Gravlax with tarragon creme fraiche, prepared by Chef Sean Ellis of the Westin Seattle

Dill & Vodka Marinated Bristol Bay Sockey Salmon Gravlax with tarragon creme fraiche, prepared by Chef Sean Ellis of the Westin Seattle

Sourcing was included in the presentation; a sign was placed near each dish, crediting the chef, as well as the provider of the salmon itself. Seattle seafood processor, Icicle Seafood, provided the salmon for the the tomatoes and chilies dish, as well as the gravlax. However, the sockeye for the peppered salmon on brioche was provided by a single fisherman and vessel: Matthew Luck, MegJ LLC dba Pride of Bristol Bay. That’s something I’d like to see more often!

So how do you find out more about the source of the salmon you’re about to buy? Simple: ask. “Is this local?” If not, where is it from? If the guy (or gal) working the fish counter doesn’t know, ask if there’s someone else in the department who does know. I’ve ended up having some really good conversations with the folks working the fish department where I shop. You’d be surprised how knowledgeable your local fish supplier (or butcher, for that matter) can be!

Recently my local grocery store had two kinds of wild salmon in the fish case: king (aka, Chinook) and sockeye. I asked about the source of both, and the fish guy was on top of it: king from the California Coast and sockeye from Alaska. That rich, red-orange color of the sockeye, not to mention the “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch, won me over. The fillets were perfect for baking and enjoying over a simple green salad. Next time I’ll have to buy extra and try my hand at those salmon cakes.

Baked Alaskan sockeye salmon, served over a green salad of red leaf lettuce and baby spinach, finished with chopped chives and toasted pumpkin seeds

Baked Alaskan sockeye salmon, served over a green salad of red leaf lettuce and baby spinach, finished with chopped chives and toasted pumpkin seeds

Look Ma, No Hands: Cooking Without a Recipe

September 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the universe sends just what you need before you realize you need it. Earlier this week, as my friend Amy was getting ready to head to the East Coast to visit her daughter, she offered me… groceries. Groceries. I wanted to say yes, but um, have you seen my fridge? It’s still packed full of untouched produce from last week’s CSA delivery, which arrived right before IFBC weekend in Seattle. I wasn’t sure I could get through the food I already had, but she insisted, and I’m glad she did. Lucky me, I came home with a container of arugula (excellent, because I’d just run out), a half pint of blueberries (my favorite addition to breakfast cereal), one plump, must-use-now tomato to add to my collection at home, and a small bunch of basil.

Funny thing about that tomato and that basil. Last weekend, during a pre-lunch session at IFBC 2014, Seattle-based chef Thierry Rautureau demonstrated a quick-and-easy tomato-basil soup. The soup is a simple solution to an end-of-summer tomato and basil surplus. Or, depending on your perspective, it could be a last celebration of summer’s bounty. As far as recipes go, it’s the kind of no-recipe recipe that you’ll either love for its simplicity or hate for its lack of detail. Why? Because he didn’t give any quantities — not a one. The ingredients are olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper. That’s it. The technique? Briefly sauté the ingredients together, then purée them in a blender. You can then either freeze the soup, or serve it immediately with a garnish of goat cheese and drizzle of good olive oil. Ta-dah! Wait, what?

Chef Thierry Rautureau blending Tomato-Basil Soup at IFBC 2014

Chef Thierry Rautureau blending Tomato-Basil Soup at IFBC 2014

In fact most of his presentation was about using what you have on hand to create a dish, or even a meal. After the soup demo, Chef Thierry played an audience-participation game in which he’d ask someone to list the contents of his or her refrigerator, then Chef would come up a recipe idea. It’s basically the exercise that most of us do every day, standing there, in front of the fridge, door open, gawking at the contents, hoping that a delicious dinner will magically reveal itself. Except that Chef Thierry can put those ingredients together in his head, et voilà! Dinner. Nifty.

I could think of just as many friends who would be all over this no-recipe cooking approach as I could those would be paralyzed with fear by it. I’m a big believer in cooking to taste and adjusting ingredients as you like them (for savory cooking, that is — not for baking. Uh uh, no way.). But as I was watching Chef Thierry’s demo, my methodical, technical-writer, pastry-chef brain was squirming. How many tomatoes was that? How much basil? Eek, what if you overdo the basil? How do you fix that? How much olive oil? I don’t have a blender. Can I purée the soup in my food processor? Yep, I’m just as susceptible to recipe fear as anyone else. And yet, that’s the beauty of “savory” cooking — there’s room to adjust as you go, and even right until the end (which is why most recipes have you check your seasoning at the end and adjust to taste as a last step). It’s also the beauty of working with good, fresh ingredients. If they’re flavorful and tasty, that’s half the work done for you.

Yesterday, as I was looking at my really-must-use-now tomatoes, I thought: I should make that soup. What the hell. I’ll make a small portion to test the basil-to-tomato ratio (hello, methodical, technical-writer, pastry-chef brain). Hopefully I won’t overdo the basil. And, if all goes well, I can freeze the soup, saving it for a cold, rainy day, aka, winter here in Northern California. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that, before I went to culinary school, I would have waited to try until it was an hour past dinner time, and I was starving — well, maybe not starving, but definitely hangry. Let me tell you that those sorts of experiments never go well when it’s 8 o’clock at night, and you still haven’t figured out what’s for dinner.

So, with lunch over and done with and a sunny afternoon ahead of me, I pulled together my ingredients, got out a frying pan — and yes, the food processor — and got to work. In short, the whole thing was as easy as Chef Thierry made it look. It was over in about 10 minutes, and yes, I got the tomato-to-basil ratio right — for my taste. My advice, if you’re a cautious cook:

  • Taste your ingredients first; they’ll guide you as to freshness and how much seasoning you might need
  • Assemble everything you need, or think you might need, before you start cooking (aka, mise en place); believe me, you’ll have less stress if you chop those tomatoes before you heat up the oil in the sauté pan
  • Add spices, herbs, salt, pepper in small increments, tasting as you go, so that you can figure out what you like and minimize the risk of overdoing your seasoning
  • Trust your instincts in the kitchen; they’re better than you think

If you’re the kind of person who’s happy to experiment in the kitchen and good with the on-the-fly approach, then you’re probably already off making batches of soup. If you need a bit more structure, here’s my version with quantities. Consider it a gentle guide — a framework for creating your tomato-basil soup.

Tomato-Basil Soup ingredients: Olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper

Tomato-Basil Soup ingredients: Olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper

Recipe: Tomato-Basil Soup
Adapted from Chef Thierry Rautureau’s demonstration at IFBC 2014
Servings: 1 large bowl or 2 cups of soup

Feel free to adjust the quantities of everything to your taste. If you prefer more basil, go there. Use whatever tomatoes you have on hand, as long as they’re flavorful and not too soft. This soup is meant to be served cold or at room temperature, so there’s no need to return it to the heat after you blend it.

Ingredients:

Olive oil
3/4 pound tomatoes (about 3 medium-large), cut into quarters or eighths
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade (cut into thin strips)
Salt
Pepper
Optional garnish: More olive oil, goat cheese

What you need:

Large sauté frying pan (I used a 12″ pan, but scale up if you increase the recipe)
Blender or food processor

How to:

  1. Add 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and heat on medium-high.
  2. When the oil is glistening, add the tomatoes and any juice to the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring to combine the tomatoes, juice, and oil.
    Adjust the heat if necessary (you don’t want to sear or break down the tomatoes, just cook them enough to enhance their flavor).
    Things will start to look a little saucy as the tomato juice and oil come together.

    Is it soup yet?

    Is it soup yet?

  3. Add the basil, salt, and pepper to the pan and stir to combine. Cook another minute longer.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the tomato mixture to your blender or food processor.
    If you have a blender, I recommend using it. You’ll end up with a soup that has a silky texture and lighter orange-red color. My food processor does a great job, but takes longer than a blender and doesn’t produce the same light, silky texture. My food processor soups tend to be more “rustic.”
  5. Purée the tomato mixture until the soup is smooth and has a light-orange-red color.

    Puréed soup in my food processor: your mileage may vary

    Pureed soup in my food processor: your mileage may vary

  6. If serving right away, stream some good olive oil into the puréed soup while running the blender, then ladle into a bowl (or bowls) with a dollop of goat cheese and garnish of chopped chives.
  7. If not serving now, don’t stream in the extra olive oil, but do pour the soup into a freezer-safe container and freeze for up three months. To serve, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, drizzle with good olive oil, and garnish with fresh chives and a spoonful of goat cheese — or enjoy plain.

Grow Local: Pick a Pepper

September 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

Oof — last week was full of, well, for lack of a better way to summarize: fixin’ stuff. The warranties on the car, household items, and yes, yours truly, are wearing thin. Mechanics, plumbers, and physical therapists are my new BFFs. That’s why, when the weekend finally arrived, I was looking forward to doing whatever was low-key and relaxing.

And yet, the plethora of peppers from my garden were calling me.

Passel of peppers: ancho chiles, jalapenos, and sweet red bells

Ancho chiles, sweet red bells, and two kinds of jalapeños

They’ve been in cold-storage limbo for the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been trying to find some time to preserve those beauties so that I can enjoy them for a few more months. Finally, with a little free time on my hands this past weekend, I got to it. What better way to get a big sense of accomplishment with small effort than to fire up the grill and roast an assortment of Anchos, sweet reds, and jalapeños!

Roasting the peppers really brings out their flavor and sweetness, and it’s one of my favorite ways to enjoy them. As with slow-roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers complement a wide variety of savory dishes. Some of the ways in which I use roasted peppers:

  • Add chopped, roasted sweet red peppers to salads (delish on a Niçoise!)
  • Make a quick pasta with strips of roasted anchos, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, feta cheese, and olive oil
  • Spice up scrambled eggs with roasted jalapeños
  • Stuff roasted, peeled Anchos (or poblanos) to make chiles rellenos

Once you’ve roasted and peeled the peppers, you can store them in the refrigerator for about five days, or in the freezer for up to a year.

So, if you’ve got a passel of peppers, and you’ve been wondering how to preserve them, get ready to fire up the grill.

Technique: Roasted Peppers

Below I describe how to roast peppers on an outdoor grill, however, you can also get the same results by roasting peppers over an indoor gas cooktop. (Be sure to place a metal rack over the burner to prevent the peppers from falling into the flame.) Be forewarned: if you decide to roast your peppers indoors, you must have a powerful range hood/fan to suck up the roasty smell and any smoke. Also, peppers can give off sparks or catch fire if you get them too close to the flame, so be careful! If you’re roasting more than a couple of peppers, an outdoor grill is a better solution — faster, safer, and less cleanup.

Tools:

Outdoor grill
Long-handled tongs
Brown paper bags (I used lunch bags, aka brown sandwich bags)
Large colander or medium sheet pan

Ingredients:

Ripe peppers

How To:

  1. Heat your grill to about 450 – 500ºF.
  2. Arrange peppers on the grill and turn the heat down a bit.
    Place smaller peppers, such as jalapeños, across the grill’s grating so that they don’t fall through (they’ll soften as they start to cook).

    Fresh and shiny peppers on the grill

    Fresh and shiny peppers on the grill

    The heat from the grill will roast the pepper, charring and blistering the skin. Timing will vary depending on how well your grill holds heat, outdoor temperature, and the type of pepper. Anchos and jalapeños don’t take as long to roast as the thicker red bells.

  3. Every five minutes or so, use the tongs to pick up your peppers and check their undersides for blistering and charing.
    Once the side touching the grill has blistered and charred, turn the pepper. You’ll need to keep roasting and turning the peppers every five minutes or so.

    These guys are just getting started!

    These guys are just getting started!

    Repeat until each pepper’s skin is blistered and charred all the way around. You don’t want to burn the peppers, but you want to cook them enough to give them a roasty flavor and easily remove their skins later, when they’re cool.

  4. Once the peppers are roasted all the way around, they’ll start to deflate or flatten out. Using the tongs, remove them from the heat, and put them in a paper bag, then close the top of the bag.
    It's in the bag: roasted ancho chile going in for a steam.

    It’s in the bag: roasted ancho chile going in for a steam.

    I put two large peppers and several jalapenos in each bag. The heat and moisture of the peppers creates a steam-room effect, making it easier to remove the skins from the peppers once they’re cool.

  5. Place the bags of peppers in a colander or on a sheet pan and allow the peppers to cool to room temperature in your kitchen.
  6. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove them from the paper bag and peel away their skins.
    The easiest way to start peeling is to find a split or blistered spot on the pepper and slowly pull the skin away from the pepper (it’s kind of like pulling the film off the screen of a mobile phone).
    As always, I strongly recommend wearing gloves while handling spicy peppers, such as jalapeños. Afterwards, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands, cutting board, any utensils you used when peeling spicy peppers. Don’t touch your eyes, mouth, or other, er, sensitive parts immediately after handling — wash your hands first! Better safe than sorry.

    Peeled peppers, ready for storage. Front to back: Anchos, jalapenos, "purple" jalapenos (red when mature), and sweet bells on the right.

    Peeled peppers, ready for storage. Front to back: Anchos, jalapeños, “purple” jalapeños on the left (red when mature), and sweet bells on the right.

  7. Stored peeled peppers in container in the refrigerator for up to five days.
    You can layer peppers in a single container, placing parchment in between the layers.
  8. To freeze, place a single layer of peppers in a plastic freezer bag, squeeze out all of the air and place either in a freezer-safe container or directly in the freezer.
    Be sure to label your bag or container with the contents and date.

There are other ways to preserve peppers, including drying and smoking. I haven’t attempted smoking yet, but it’s next on my list for the jalapeños! Aside from roasting my Ancho peppers, I’ve also dried a few to use this winter. Simple sun drying on my kitchen window sill takes about three weeks, and then I store the peppers in a plastic bag.

Ancho chiles: fresh, mature and drying, completely dried, roasted and peeled

Ancho chiles from L to R: fresh, mature and drying, completely dried, roasted and peeled

How are you preserving peppers? Have you tried roasting your own yet?

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