Archive for February, 2010

Kismet & Romanesco

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

The other day I was thinking about food (not, as you can imagine, a novelty) – trying to find inspiration for my next kitchen adventure. Oddly, I was finding it challenging to decide on a direction. So I stopped obsessing and went for a walk with my friend Amy. Off into the forest-lined paths of Carkeek Park we went – Fargo gleefully running about – leash be damned. The sun shone down as if winter was truly and decidedly over. Talking of this and that, our conversation finally turned to food.

Amy mentioned her delight with the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) service she uses and we talked of the merits of this increasingly popular way to buy local, seasonal food directly from farms (stay tuned for more on CSAs in the not-too-distant future). Then she said it. That magical word. Romanesco. My ears pricked up. I could not believe she had received one in her weekly box of produce – one of the few vegetables in my culinary “bucket list.”  The Romanesco has always topped my list of vegetables to conquer before I perish. It was meant to be. 

Like many, my friend was a bit perplexed with the Romanesco and had been putting off trying to figure out what to do with the creature. It is, admittedly, a rather daunting piece of produce. Alien-like in appearance, I like to compare its florets to the bejeweled headpieces the exquisite Thai women wear when dancing so majestically with fingers poised just so. Many compare the almost neon green Romanesco to cauliflower, yet with freakish, jagged peaks. And most people I’ve talked with have never ventured to actually eat, no less, cook this peculiar looking vegetable.

But I was giddy with anticipation. I love exploration and the delight of “going where no (wo)man has gone before.” Soon after our walk I was off to the store. The doors glided silently open and I was surrounded by the Shangri-la that is the Whole Foods produce section. Though I try to do my best to shop local – focusing on farmer’s markets and Seattle-based grocery stores – I was on a mission and made the assumption that Whole Foods would be the most logical destination to search out the often elusive Romanesco. A quick pan of the pristinely arranged piles of shining fruits and vegetables made my stomach lurch. My intended treasure was nowhere to be seen. I continued to look, my heart beating faster and my mind already turning to alternatives. But I would not relinquish my objective. Nothing less than a Romanesco would do.

So I asked the friendly “produce guy” if they had any in stock. He scrunched up his eyes and said, “I think we have a box of those on the dock – but they might have been sent back.” Off he went as I stood shifting my weight from one foot to the other, trying to appear calm. Then I saw him pushing a cart through the double swinging doors. Victory! Out came a box of bright green heads of Romanesco.  As I picked through them to find the most exceptional candidates – I asked “produce guy” if he had ever tried one. “Nope,” he replied. “Not quite sure what to do with them.”  As I suspected – yet another mystified soul.

Then at the checkout stand, the checker asked, “Do these things taste like broccoli or cauliflower?” “A bit of both,” I responded, despite the fact that I had never eaten one. But from what I had read, she had it about right. I then glanced at the young girl who was bagging my groceries. Holding my cloth sack open, she was studying my bag full of Romanesco, waiting for the checker to push it down to her. I was terror-stricken. Surely she wasn’t going to place my prized possesion on the bottom of the bag?! “Um, hi,” I said to her. “Could you possibly put those things on the top of all the other groceries? They’re a bit delicate.”  If she thought I was disturbed, she didn’t let on. She just packed my bag and gently perched the Romanesco on top. And I was off to return to my kitchen for some serious experimentation.

Before the cooking began, I tasted a small floret – raw. A texture and taste more similar to cauliflower than broccoli – yet with a distinct, earthy broccoli essence. My task – to figure out the best way to retain the Romanesco’s unique physical form while making it taste delicious. I didn’t want to compromise the fractal appearance of the florets. So I tried three techniques that I use for everyday cauliflower and broccoli – boiling, steaming and roasting. The results are below but I can say without equivocation that roasting is by far my personal favorite. Granted, the lime green color dissipates in the oven. However the florets retain their structure and the green does peek out against the brown singed edges.

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Roasted Romanesco with Lemon & Garlic

Ingredients

  • 1 head Romanesco, broken into florets (you can use the stalk too – just peel it and slice thinly)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 ounce parmesan cheese – shaved or grated
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (optional)
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

On a rimmed baking sheet, toss Romanesco with oil, garlic, and lemon slices; season with salt and pepper. Roast until vegetables are a bit crispy outside and tender inside, 20 to 25 minutes. Toss the vegetables halfway through.

Once out of the oven, discard any bits of garlic that may have charred in the roasting process. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts and serve immediately. It’s perfectly satisfying on its own or can be served over fresh pasta with a splash of high quality olive oil.

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I wanted to figure out a better way to retain the Romanesco’s bright lime green color so I tried both boiling and steaming. Both techniques netted the same result – vivid florets with a crisp texture that allowed the vegetable to be appreciated in its native state. Instructions for both methods are below – and the vegetable is perfectly delicious served just so – perhaps with a dash of salt and a drizzling of olive oil. And traditionally I would also pair it with lemon and garlic – simple, naturally-suited accompaniments. However I wanted to navigate away from the flavor profile used for the roasted version – and curried cauliflower traditionally served in Indian restaurants came to mind. Replacing the pale cauliflower with the bright green Romanesco gives this dish a bit more flair – especially when paired with the vivid gold of the tumeric. The taste is equally, if not a bit more, delicious.

Boiling Romanesco

Cut or break off the florets of the Romanesco. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a full boil, put the florets in, and cook until they are easily pierced by a fork, about 5 minutes. Immerse in cold water to stop the cooking, drain, and air dry on a towel.

Steaming Romanesco

Cut or break off the florets of the Romanesco. Place steamer basket in large saucepan; add 1 inch of water. (Water should not touch bottom of basket.) Place flowerets in steamer. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Steam 4 to 5 minutes until crisp-tender. Remove from heat immediately and leave uncovered so the florets don’t continue to cook.

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Curried Romanesco

Ingredients

  • 1 head Romanesco, cored, cut into florets
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder (I use a mixture of hot and mild)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1 cup vegetable broth

Instructions

Boil or steam Romanesco according to the instructions above. Set aside.

Heat a large skillet on medium. Add the oil and let it heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and golden, 8 – 10 minutes. Add the spices and stir for a minute. Add the coconut milk and vegetable broth. Simmer for approximately five minutes until it starts to thicken a bit.

Reduce heat to low and add Romanesco and continue to simmer another 7-10 minutes to warm through the vegetables.

Serve over your favorite rice, grains or pasta.

For a complete meal – add ½ can of chickpeas along with the Romanesco and simmer.

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End note: The Romanesco is, in my mind, superior to both broccoli and cauliflower – combining a subtle taste with a crisp-tender texture. I can only imagine the fun kids might have with this alien-like vegetable. And the list of health benefits is virtually endless. So I am a bit disheartened that I don’t see the Romanesco prominently displayed in stores in our area. Hopefully we’ll see more as the season warms. “Produce guy” said they don’t often carry them because people are wary and don’t regularly purchase these vegetables, so much of the stock they do carry sadly goes to waste at the end of the day. I am crossing my fingers that many of you will experiment with Romanesco. Because the more we request this odd piece of produce, the more common it will become in the fields and markets that surround us.

Veggies for Breakfast

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

I was taught to appreciate the importance of a good breakfast. Thankfully I didn’t grow up dependent upon sugar-infused cereals – though I was jealous of friends who had Captain Crunch and Count Chocula as breakfast companions. Mom served heartier, healthier fare – oatmeal, eggs and the occasional treat of sourdough waffles with fresh strawberries (a personal favorite).

That said, there have been times when I ignored all the messages we hear about eating a healthy breakfast. I shudder to think of the things I ate in the early mornings during my “I don’t care what I’m putting into my body – I just want it to taste good” years. A large latte paired with a pumpkin scone drizzled with pure sugar icing was standard fare. Close to zero nutritional value and a starch-infused whollop of countless calories that had my energy flagging by mid-morning. Granted, I still enjoy an indulgent brunch of gooey cinnamon rolls or steaming pancakes from time to time. But these days – especially during the work week – I try to navigate to something that will keep my motor running.

Two personal favorites of late …. muffins scattered with bright orange shards of sweet potato and green specks of zucchini and individual frittatas packed with healthy spinach and flavorful leeks. It’s not as hard as you might think to sneak in some extra vegetables and a hit of protein first thing in the morning. I’m a huge fan of preparing meals in advance and if they’re portable – all the better. So I want to take this opportunity to thank whoever invented the muffin tin. Because these two breakfast items I am alluding to can both be prepared in this ingenious kitchen apparatus. I give you Zucchini & Sweet Potato Muffins and Spinach & Mushroom Mini Frittatas.

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 Zucchini & Sweet Potato Muffins 

I stumbled upon a version of this recipe on Epicurious. Thanks to all the kind folks who leave comments about their personal experiences with posted recipes, I was able to develop a beautifully moist muffin chock full of healthy walnuts, nutrient-rich sweet potatoes and vitamin-packed zucchini. And this time around, my improvisation and substitutions paid off – adding whole wheat flour, replacing the majority of oil with apple sauce, cutting the sugar by half. You can elevate the flavor even more with the addition of  ½ cup of dark chocolate chips. Chocolate is made from plants after all, which means it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables (i.e. lowering blood pressure and cholesterol).

Yields: 12 (large) muffins

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup walnut or canola oil
  • 1/2 cup apple sauce
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups zucchini
  • 1 1/2 cups sweet potato
  • 1 cup walnuts

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grate zucchini and peel and grate sweet potato. Chop walnuts.

Spray muffin tins with cooking spray and lightly flour.

Sift or mix first 7 ingredients into a medium bowl. In a large bowl, beat (or hand mix) sugar, oil, apple sauce, eggs and vanilla. Fold in zucchini and sweet potato. Add dry ingredients and walnuts and stir well.

Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins – filling twelve. Bake ~25 minutes. Allow to cool in tins for 10 minutes, then use a knife to cut around each muffin and remove. Let cool on baking rack another 15 minutes.

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Spinach & Mushroom Mini Frittatas

These diminutive treats pack a healthy serving of vegetables and protein and there is no end to the kinds of fresh produce that can be used. You can also jazz them up by tossing in some fresh herbs (or dried if that’s what you have on hand). Rosemary, thyme and/or oregano are all delightful additions. I have even made these without cheese for an especially healthy version and they were still satisfyingly delicious.

Yields: 1 Dozen

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach
  • 2 cups mushrooms (Cremini, button, whichever you prefer)
  • 1 small red pepper
  • 1/2 small yellow onion or a few shallots
  • 3/4 cup cheese (any kind will do – parmesan and goat cheese are personal favorites)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Dash freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray two pans of 6-cup muffin tins with cooking spray. Be sure not to omit this step, or the quiches will stick badly to the baking cups.

Steam the spinach in a microwave-safe container (about 2-3 minutes), press out all juice, then chop. Chop the peppers and onions into a small dice. If using shallots, mince finely. Thinly slice the mushrooms.

Whisk the eggs in a bowl and fold in all the remaining ingredients and stir well.

Fill the muffin tin cups with the mixture. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. You will know they are done when a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

These can be stored in the refrigerator or even frozen in freezer bags.

War and Leeks

Monday, February 15th, 2010

I knew it was bound to happen. Well, truthfully, I had hoped it wouldn’t… But, alas, I am human and, hence, imperfect. Today was a kitchen disaster. Some may say I’m being overly dramatic. And there was nobody else around to witness this tragedy aside from my trusty sous-chef Fargo, the yellow lab. But I just finished cooking what I hoped would be a luxurious, rustic potato leek soup. What is now sitting in a pot on my stove more closely resembles wallpaper paste.  Or what I would imagine it looks like. I am, as you can imagine, less than pleased.

The day started out fine. Off to the farmer’s market in search of leeks – those rods of oniony goodness resembling overgrown scallions. I love their striations of color – it seems like every shade of green is featured throughout the stalk. And they have so very many applications. Braised leeks. Creamy oven-roasted leeks. Crispy fried leeks perched on top seared scallops or nestled over a bubbling gratin. My mouth was watering.

Alas, I wanted to be a bit more virtuous. A little healthier. So I searched for a nutritious potato leek soup recipe. So many were laden with butter and heavy cream. And too, I was concerned about presenting a starch-fest for a meal. So I figured I would “improvise.” I almost always tweak recipes and, for the most part, they work out quite well. Not so this time.

I took a perfectly good recipe for this soup and it went to hell in a … stock pot.  I tried substituting buttermilk for heavy cream. And, feeling bold, I even tossed in some pureed cannellini beans, thinking I’d bump up the protein quotient. Both poor choices.

The lesson I learned is this – not all recipes are meant to be “healthified.” There are likely a number of perfectly good potato leek soup recipes that are more nutritious than the traditional vichyssoise (AKA potato leek soup served hot) recipe I found in the Joy of Cooking. But in retrospect I ask myself this. Can’t we all stand a bit of indulgence, a touch of luxury from time to time? What’s wrong a creamy, leek-infused bowl of steaming soup to dive into from time to time?

After freezing the first batch (I just couldn’t let it go to waste and it was, in truth, not THAT bad – it’s just not something I can, in good conscience, recommend), I searched for another recipe that would satisfy my desire for healthy leek soup. Then I recalled a leek and mushroom soup mom used to make with leeks pulled directly from her garden. I dug through old cookbooks and files and finally unearthed my ragged, spiral-bound recipe “book” – the one I brought to Washington, D.C. when I headed east after college. The one with my favorite, “tried and true” recipes. The one featuring mom’s beloved recipe for leek and mushroom soup. 

Off to the store (the farmer’s market had long since closed) for more leeks and a bag full of mushrooms. Pot cleaned. Ditto the leeks. Vegetables chopped. Soup simmered. One hour later – delicious, satisfying, rich-but-not-too-rich leek soup. Some day soon I will indulge without guilt in a bowl of the Joy of Cooking version.  But for now – contentment.

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Leek & Mushroom Soup

 Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
  • 2 large leeks
  • 3 cups chopped mushrooms (Cremini or button – or any kind you like)
  • 1/2 yellow onion
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 32 ounces vegetable or chicken stock
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/3 cup sherry
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions

Thoroughly wash the leeks. Dirt and grit loves to hide amongst the layers of the leeks and needs to be gently coaxed out with water. Try cutting the leeks lengthwise down to ½ inch above the root and running water down toward the dark green part. Or chop all your leeks and soak in a large bowl of water, allowing the dirt and grit to drift to the bottom of the bowl. Then place in strainer and rinse again.

Thinly slice leeks into half-moons. Finely chop onions and celery. Thinly slice mushrooms.

In a stock pot, heat oil or butter over medium. Add all vegetables and sauté until tender – about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir well to coat all the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper (about ½ teaspoon of each). Stir well. Add stock and sprigs of thyme. Simmer on low for 15 minutes. Add sherry and simmer another 5 minutes. Remove sprigs of thyme.

Season to taste. You can add some wild rice to make this more substantial.

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Final lesson of the day. Don’t let one kitchen nightmare deter you from exploring other avenues. There is always a solution. More importantly, if you are patient (a skill I am trying to develop), there is almost always a tasty reward.

Beet It

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Despite the jewel tones in the picture above, beets do not look like this upon being pulled from the soil. I think Mother Nature has a twisted sense of humor. Who else would produce a dark, ruddy tuber with alien-like tentacles (AKA roots) that most people, upon discovery, would leave in the ground rather than yank into the sunlight? Yet it takes only one slice with a sharp knife to unveil the splendor … shadowy crimson or vivid yellow the color of a school bus or the spectacularly vibrant concentric circles of fuchsia and white featured in the more elusive Chioggia, (currently available at local farmers markets). I just love them.

This wasn’t always the case. As has been a popular theme of late in my blog posts…I only recently came to enjoy vegetables like beets. In years past, I associated these vegetables with the soft, floppy, artificial-looking slices swimming in burgundy-tinted liquid in a salad bar. Or the canned monstrosities that I used to eat on this crazy diet I followed on and off for years. They were a mandatory ingredient in said diet and I recall opening the can, standing over the sink and gagging them down – all the while trying not to breathe or inhale so I wouldn’t have to taste them.

It took one bite of a properly roasted beet propped atop a bed of crisp greens with a smattering of goat cheese to change my mind. Prepared correctly, beets offer a sweet, earthy taste with a buttery texture that can be heightened with a little carmelization in the oven.

And beets are almost always mentioned on the “healthiest” food lists. Though high in sugar (according to Wikipedia, beet sugar accounts for 30% of the world’s sugar production) beets are very low in calories.  They also protect against heart disease and many cancers as well as increase antioxidants in the liver and help lower cholesterol levels.  

A few words of caution before you head into the kitchen – I would advise against wearing white.  If you’re working with the traditional dark red beets, a few slices and your kitchen may start to resemble a murder scene on steroids – electric magenta streaking the knife as the garish juice seeps into the cutting board. An easy fix – choose golden beets. They are just as sweet and tender as their flamboyant counterparts. If you decide to go with the red variety and the juice leaches into your hands – try rubbing in some lemon juice. And if it bleeds into a cutting board, a bit of water, a sprinkle of coarse salt and a little elbow grease will do away with most persisting magenta splotches. 

Please don’t let these minor culinary hurdles sway you from enjoying beets. The three following recipes show off the versatility of this delightfully nutritious and delicious vegetable. I hope you’ll try them.

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Oven-Baked Beet Chips

I love Terra Chips – those root vegetables sliced thin and fried to crispy perfection. And the bright red beet chips are among my favorites. So I thought I’d try a homemade baked version – and they actually turned out to be satisfyingly crisp and savory.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large red beets (or any variety will do)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Peel the beets and cut as thinly as possible – trying for a uniform thickness. Toss in a bowl with olive oil and salt. Spread on baking sheet in a single layer.

Bake in oven 20 minutes. Turn all slices over and continue to bake another 20-25 minutes. Watch closely toward the end as the high sugar content makes these chips burn rather rapidly. Sprinkle with additional salt and serve immediately.

 

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Roasted Beet Salad with Walnuts & Goat Cheese

This salad can be made with any variety of lettuce, roasted nuts and cheese you prefer.

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium beets (I like to use a variety of colors)
  • 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 medium lemon
  • 1 small clove of garlic or 1 teaspoon minced shallots
  • 1 bunch frisée lettuce
  • Goat, feta or blue cheese (approximately 2 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Peel the beets and cut into 1/4 – 1/2 inch pieces. In a large bowl, toss together the beets, 2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 tablespoon vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Arrange beets in a single layer on baking sheet and cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes, then uncover and bake until tender, about 20 -30 minutes more. Set aside and let cool.

Drop oven temperature to 200 degrees. Place the walnuts on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

Whisk together remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil with juice and zest of the lemon and minced garlic or shallots (I prefer shallots as garlic can overwhelm the beets). Season with salt & pepper. Toss in beets and mix to coat. Place lettuce onto four plates and top with a quarter of the beets. Top with crumbled cheese (goat is my preference as blue can also overwhelm the beets) and roasted walnuts.

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 Grilled Beet, Kale & Leek Quesadillas

If you’re fortunate enough to live in the Seattle area and have visited the Ballard Farmer’s Market – you have likely (hopefully) stumbled up on Patty Pan. Devra and her team cook up the most incredible veggie quesadillas every Sunday – handing them out to waiting crowds who scurry away to find a place to squat with these steaming wedges of grilled vegetables and melting cheese. She was kind enough to share some tips on how to reproduce them – and I think I’ve come up with a decent semblance. As Devra points out, they are best enjoyed outside in the crisp Seattle air amongst bustling crowds of fellow farmer’s market shoppers. That said, this recipe should do in a pinch if you’re not able to get to the market.

Note that I have included three different vegetables but you can add any variety you wish. Carrots, onions, broccoli, zucchini, etc. – all make wonderful additions. This recipe is approximate – I usually just toss in veggies and spices and cook until everything is nicely grilled. The amounts below should make three quesadillas. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 2 beets (any variety will do)
  • 1 bunch kale
  • 2 leeks (or ½ an onion if leeks aren’t handy)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 6 whole wheat tortillas
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 ounces Jack cheese – grated
  • Salsa and/or hot sauce

Instructions:

Peel beets and thinly slice. Wash kale and discard stems and ribs – tear or slice into 2-inch pieces. Wash leeks and slice into thin strips.

Heat a large sauté pan over high heat. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil until almost smoking. Add the beets and sauté for about 3 minutes – turning after a minute or two. Once they start to soften, reduce the heat to medium high and add the leeks. Continue sautéing another 3 minutes. Sprinkle liberally with garlic salt, chili powder and cumin. Add the kale. Continue sautéing until vegetables are cooked through and kale is wilted.

In a separate pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Place 1/3 of the cheese in the center of one tortilla and place in pan. Warm until cheese begins to melt. Place a generous amount of the grilled vegetables over the cheese and top with a second tortilla. Spray the top tortilla with olive oil cooking spray and flip over. Continue to cook until the quesadilla is crisp and brown. Remove from pan, cut into wedges and serve with your favorite salsa.

If you like a bit of heat, add your favorite hot sauce or chili peppers before placing the second tortilla on top.

An Apple a Day

Monday, February 8th, 2010

The other day I was talking with a friend, trying to come up with easy recommendations for increasing his daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Like many, if not most, people, he is challenged to meet the recommended daily allowances of fruits and vegetables (essentially 4 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables a day for the average adult). So I thought I’d start with an easy one, especially considering the season. “Why not add an apple a day to your diet?” I asked. His response stunned me: “I don’t like apples.” I was speechless. What? Really? Who doesn’t like apples? So I talked with him about the plethora of delicious varieties available today and he agreed that he would try some new ones.  A few weeks later, I was telling this story to another friend and she responded, “Yeah, I get that. I didn’t like apples until a year or two ago.” This friend made me realize that, to many, an apple meant one of those red, somewhat mealy fruits that we used to eat in our youth. The ones that, when sliced, the skin would bleed into the white flesh of the apple. The ones with little to no taste. The ones I didn’t like.

I have been taking our amazing array of Washington-grown apples for granted. I didn’t realize that many people might not be aware of the tangy crunch of the Honey Crisp or the tart yet sweet bite of the Braeburn. And I myself get confused and overwhelmed by the incredible selection of apples piled high at farmer’s markets and grocery stores. So I can understand that people might just go with what they know – which might be standard “Delicious” variety. And I really don’t want to disparage this brand as it might do the trick for many. I’m only hoping to expand the horizons of those looking for more flavor, more crunch. Just more.

Considering I rarely remember which apples are best for what purpose, I wanted to feature a few links that summarize which are most appropriate for baking, canning and just plain eating. The Washington Apple Commission has a great usage chart that summarizes some of the most popular varieties. Tiny’s Organics, one of my favorite apple vendors at the Ballard Farmer’s Market, features detailed information on their apples including when they are harvested and available. The friendly guy at Tiny’s stand even told me the other day that they are working on a new variety called the Jolly Rancher that will taste of watermelon. Just imagine!

The “apple a day keeps the doctor away” adage isn’t just an old proverb. Apples are packed with fiber and phytonutrients that have been found in studies to lower blood cholesterol and may be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes and some cancers. And they can be easily added to a daily diet. Because apples are so readily available during the winter, I find myself substituting them in salads for tomatoes and peppers which are not grown locally this time of the year. And a favorite snack is a Braeburn sliced and paired with locally made Marilyn’s Nut Butter – the “Pistachio with Fennel” variety is blissfully savory concoction that only serves to heighten the sweetness of the fruit. With apples, there exists an indefinite array of tastes and textures and applications and I’ve included a few of my favorites below.

Finally, I am happy to report that my friend with the apple aversion is today a new man. He is happily eating an apple a day. Hurray!

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Fresh Apple Cake

Growing up, we were lucky enough to have an apple tree in our front yard. Mom would make this cake throughout the harvest. I remember sneaking into the drawer were it was kept, protected by tin foil, and trying to carve out a hunk without anyone being the wiser. More recently, dad has become quite the baker and whips this one up for birthdays and family celebrations. I’ve substituted some whole wheat flour for some of the all purpose flour. Which makes me feel a bit better when I slather the cake with Butter Rum Sauce. I’m including the recipe for this sinfully decadent delight after the cake recipe. And please know that the apple cake is definitely tasty enough to stand on its own. However from time to time, a girl’s gotta indulge.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups apples (approximately 5 large apples – I like Braeburn)
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½  teaspoon salt
  • 2 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon mixed with 1 tablespoon white sugar

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare apples by peeling, coring and chopping in a ¼ inch dice. In a large bowl combine eggs, sugars, vanilla and oil.  Fold in apples.

In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.  Mix into apple mixture.  Fold in the walnuts.  The batter will be very thick.

Pour into a lightly oiled and floured 9×13″ baking pan.  Pat out evenly.  Mix cinnamon and sugar together and sprinkle over the top.  Bake for 40-45 minutes or until nicely browned and a toothpick can be inserted and come out clean.  Serve alone or with Butter Rum Sauce (recipe below) and ice cream of a decadent treat.

Note – this cake freezes exceptionally well.

 

Butter Rum Sauce   

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 2 tablespoon rum or 1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions

Bring butter and brown sugar to a low boil.  Mix in cream and rum or vanilla and remove from heat.  Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator and reheat in microwave before serving.

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Baked Apples with Cherries & Almonds

The following is loosely based on a recipe I found from the Mayo Clinic – which means it is packed full of healthy ingredients. Use a good baking apple like a Granny Smith or Jonagold. It’s a delicious light dessert or can be paired nicely alongside roasted pork.

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup dried cherries, coarsely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped almonds
  • 1 tablespoon wheat germ
  • 1 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 6 small apples
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl, toss together the cherries, almonds, wheat germ, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg until all the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.

The apples can be peeled or left unpeeled. I find that leaving the peel on helps maintain the shape. Working from the stem end, core each apple, stopping about 3/4 inch from the bottom. Check to ensure all seeds have been removed.

Divide the cherry mixture evenly among the apples, pressing the mixture gently into each cavity. Arrange the apples upright in a heavy ovenproof frying pan or small baking dish just large enough to hold them. Pour the apple juice and water into the pan. Drizzle the honey evenly over the apples and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until the apples are tender when pierced with a knife, approximately 50 minutes.

Transfer the apples to individual plates and drizzle with the pan juices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Rooting for Sweet Potatoes

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

In my mind, sweet potatoes are inextricably linked with Thanksgiving dinners of yore.  We weren’t a family that served them covered in puffed marshmallows. Mom baked them with a glaze of sweet orange juice. For years, they were the one thing my brother would not eat. And for whatever reason, I took great pleasure in taunting him – trying to shove a forkful of the gooey disks covered in orange onto his plate. Today, I believe he has finally come to terms with this nutritious vegetable. And I am hoping the recipes I am featuring in this post only increase his acceptance of sweet potatoes as they are, without question, one of my top five favorite vegetables of all time.

Their placement on my top five list is not exclusively due to their health benefits, though they are one of the most nutritious vegetables around. Sweet potatoes are neck and neck with carrots as sources of beta-carotene – which means they are first-rate for fighting chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as diseases related to inflammation, such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. They are high in fiber and also rich in potassium and vitamin C; a small potato provides almost half the daily allowance.

My love for sweet potatoes centers on their versatility and comforting texture.  Whether I blend them into soup or roast them in the oven, their sweet, rich flavor never fails to bring solace during these dark winter months.  They are currently all over the local farmer’s markets so this time of year, I always have a few on hand. A favorite meal is an oven-baked sweet potato, covered with garlicky sautéed chard, roasted walnuts and a drizzle of balsamic reduction.  But when I’m feeling a bit more adventurous I turn to the following favorite recipes, which never fail to elicit sighs of satisfaction from whoever is joining me around the table.

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Thai Sweet Potato Soup

I have been making this for years. Even before I fell in love with vegetables and learned of the great nutritious benefits of the mighty sweet potato, this soup was a source of comfort. The sweetness of the sweet potatoes and coconut milk intertwines with the heat of the red curry and the zing of the fresh lime – resulting in a flavor profile that never fails to make me smile.

 Ingredients

  • 1 ½ tablespoons canola or olive oil
  • 1 ½ cups yellow onions – chopped (about 1 ½ large onions)
  • 5 cloves garlic – chopped
  • 2 tablespoons red curry paste (Mae Ploy is my favorite – can be found at Asian markets)
  • 6 cups peeled and chopped orange sweet potato—about three somewhat large sweet potatoes
  • 1 heaping tablespoon freshly grated ginger
  • 1 can coconut milk (Chaokoh is a great brand)
  • 6-7 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
  • Zest and juice of two medium limes

 Instructions

Heat oil in large pot or dutch oven. Add curry paste and cook on medium heat for about 2 minutes. Note that 2 tablespoons gives this soup some kick. If you like a bit less heat, adjust accordingly. Add onions and garlic and sauté until soft – about 5 minutes. Add chopped sweet potato and continue to cook over medium, stirring constantly, for another 5 minutes. Add ginger, cilantro (reserve a few sprigs for garnish) and coconut milk, stir well. Lower heat to medium low and cook another 5 minutes. Add 6 cups of stock, soy sauce and brown sugar. Cook over medium low for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure potatoes don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.

Check potatoes to ensure they are cooked by pressing a cube in a spoon. If it mashes easily – they are done. Allow mixture to cool for about 20 minutes.

 In batches, transfer soup into blender and blend until smooth. Return blended soup to pot and add lime juice and zest.  Add another cup of stock if it’s too thick. Bring back to a simmer and cook another 10 minutes. Taste and add additional soy sauce and/or brown sugar if needed. Garnish with cilantro and serve. This goes well with a serving of brown rice.

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Sweet Potato Oven “Fries”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have never been able to produce truly crispy sweet potato fries. I have done countless cook book and Internet searches for solutions and tried lowering and raising the oven temperature, par-boiling and soaking. Try as I might, however, a crunchy sweet potato fry eludes me. Regardless, the roasting lends a caramelized flavor and the plate is always emptied within minutes.  

 Ingredients

  • 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

 Instructions

 Heat oven to 425 degrees.

Peel sweet potatoes and cut into uniform matchstick size slices – approximately ¼ inch wide. Toss in bowl with olive oil, cumin and salt.

Once the oven is heated, place baking pan in oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and toss cut sweet potatoes onto pan in a single layer, ensuring there is room between all slices.

Turn sweet potatoes after 15 minutes. Bake another 20 minutes. They should be nicely browned at this point. For a bit of additional browning, turn on broiler and cook another minute or two – watching closely.

Salt liberally and serve immediately.

Note: try replacing the cumin with freshly chopped rosemary – delicious.

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End note: sweet potatoes have endless possibilities. I plan on trying sweet potato gnocchi in the not-too-distant future. And my foodie friend Caitlin has raved about whipped sweet potatoes and banana – which sounds heavenly. Stay tuned.

Dreamy Dips. Super Snacks.

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Those who know me well know that I am a bit of an efficiency freak. I don’t especially like to waste time. So it should come as no surprise that the Cuisinart is one of my all-time favorite kitchen tools.

 A lesser-known fact …. I adore appetizers. A spread of delectable finger food can easily out-trump a sit down dinner. All those little bowls spilling over with exotic tastes and surprising textures, and plates laden with cheeses and breads and unidentifiable yet tantalizing canapés … heaven.

Combine these two loves with my keen interest in making dishes equally healthy and delicious and you have … dips and spreads.

Now, I hesitant to even attempt making this blog post germane to the pending Super Bowl extravaganza. However nearly every food site known to man is currently rife with recipes for the BIG GAME.  So I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that the recipes featured below might just be an option for next Sunday. The traditionalists will likely balk – shaking their fists and insisting upon their screaming hot chicken wings, their nachos oozing with melting cheese and jalapenos, their crispy, bear-battered onion rings. I am certainly not proposing that anyone forgo these hearty finger foods. After all, for many the Super Bowl is one of the best excuses to eat with abandon. And I will admit to a certain fondness for my beloved Velveeta and Rotel dip. But if you’re looking for something different – or even just one dish to balance out the time-honored, albeit not terribly wholesome fare – you might consider these recipes.

One final note. Many of us struggle to come up with nourishing snacks for that time between lunch and dinner when our energy ebbs and we start to dig around in purses and pockets for enough spare change to feed the vending machine. And I know I’m always searching for easily transportable, yet nourishing lunch options. I have found that these dips and spreads fit the bill. Whether it’s packing a container of colorful vegetables to dip in garlicky hummus or stuffing a whole wheat pita pocket with cool cucumber slicess layered on a spread of Edamame Dip, these are nutrition-packed solutions that will satisfy any hunger.

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 Asian-Inspired Edamame Dip

 Ingredients

  • 16 ounces shelled, cooked, and cooled edamame
  • 1/4 cup diced onion
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • Zest of one lime
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons Sriracha chili sauce
  • 1 heaping tablespoon freshly grated gingerroot
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 5  tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons water

 Directions

Place all ingredients except for the olive oil and water into the bowl of a food processor and process for 15 seconds. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl and process for another 15 to 20 seconds. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Once all of the oil has been added, stop, scrape down the bowl and then add water and process another 5 to 10 seconds.

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Italian Cannellini Bean Dip

 Ingredients

  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini (AKA Great Northern) beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about ½ medium lemon)
  • Lemon zest from ½ lemon
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • Dash red pepper flakes
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 Instructions

Place all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is well blended. Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste.

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Traditional Hummus

 Ingredients

  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 15-oz cans of garbanzo beans (AKA chickpeas), drained and rinsed
  • 1/3 cup of tahini (roasted variety)
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper

 Instructions

Place all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is well blended. Season with additional to taste.

Note: a number of ingredients can be added to this basic hummus recipe to alter the flavor. Roasted red peppers add a sweet note. Hot chili oil and toasted pine nuts can spice it up and add some dimension. A large dose of roasted garlic can also give it a different spin.

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 Roasted Butternut Squash Dip

 Ingredients

  • 1  (2-pound) butternut squash
  • 1  small sweet onion, peeled and quartered
  • 5  garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • 2  tablespoons  crème fraîche  (plain yogurt or sour cream are other options)
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/8  teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/8  teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons real maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon fresh sage, finely chopped

 Instructions

 Preheat oven to 350°.

Peel squash, cut in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Chop into small cubes. Line a large baking sheet or jelly roll pan with foil and spray generously with olive oil spray. Place cubed squash, quartered onions and garlic cloves (unpeeled) onto foil. Spray all vegetables generously with olive oil spray. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Remove garlic cloves and set aside. Continue baking squash and onions another 15 minutes or until caramelized and tender. Cool slightly. Squeeze garlic cloves to extract pulp.

Place all ingredients except for squash into the bowl of a food processor; process until smooth. In a separate bowl, mash squash. Or use a ricer to process. Add mixture from food processor into bowl and combine. Serve warm.

Notes:  

  • In my attempt to save time, I initially tried roasting the squash whole in the oven, cutting it diagonally and placing it cut-side down in the oven. I was left with a rather soupy version of this dip. So I turned to my culinary guru John Sarran, CIA-trained chef and owner of Bubba’s Diner in beautiful San Anselmo Calfornia (if you’re ever down there – you MUST visit. Bubba’s is an organic, certified Green Business in Marin County with the best Ahi Tuna Potstickers this side of… well, anywhere). He recommended peeling and cubing the squash, which helps roast out a lot of the moisture.
  • It’s tempting to toss the squash into the food processor with all the other ingredients. However it makes the dip a little overly smooth in my opinion.
  • To make this even richer and more divine, replace crème fraiche with 2 tablespoons Mascarpone Cheese and top dip with roasted, chopped hazelnuts. Also try drizzling balsamic vinegar reduction on top before serving. Another of John’s suggestions – add some grated parmesan or goat cheese. Delicious!

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Toasted Pita Chips

If you want to serve something alongside these dips instead of or in addition to crunchy vegetables, try making your own pita chips. Super easy, and just a touch healthier than the pre-packaged variety.

Ingredients

  • 6 whole wheat pitas
  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • Kosher salt

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut each pita in half and then into 4 wedges. Divide so each side of pita is its own “chip.”  Spray baking sheet with olive oil spray. Arrange the pita wedges on sheet and spray tops with olive oil spray. Sprinkle with salt. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until toasted and golden in color.