Saturday, July 15, 2006

Summer Carrots with a Snap

I have been so busy lately that while I've taken photos, I haven't had time to write up the things I've been cooking out of the garden. We've gloried in wonderful heirloom golden, chiogga, and oxheart beets, just steamed in their sweet fullness. The Asian spinach came to center stage again recently, with fresh figs and chickpeas in a yummy saute. Another balsamic saute of portobello, rainbow chard, and fresh summer squash was consumed with gusto. But writing this stuff up always seems to get put off! So I have missed Weekend Herb Blogging for two or three weeks in a row, despite my best intentions.

This weekend, though, I really wanted to make an appearance, so here is my very simple steamed carrot dish, a five-minute microwave special! This is the first year that I've grown carrots with any success. The raised beds with 'fluffy' planting mix apparently were the bee's knees, and I got beautiful, stocky Royal Chantenay carrots in abundance. For full disclosure, of course, you see some of the baby ones that got pulled by mistake with the biggies, and a little 'hourglass' carrot that was elbowed rudely by a beet, and thus formed oddly. In a 12-inch raised bed, I could grow Nantes or various other long carrots, and almost certainly will do so later on. There are lovely little ball-shaped carrots that I want to try in my 9-inch self-watering planters, for instance. I had gotten the Royal Chantenay seed as a good carrot for our tough clay soil, as it doesn't have to drill down as far. Since I already had some on hand, I just used that.

If you want a sweet, glazed carrot recipe, this is not it! While sharing some ingredients with one, this recipe brings out the full earthiness of the carrots, and chases it with a snap! of ginger, hence the name. Please note also the little cup behind the casserole dish. I've started setting out a clean cup whenever I prepare veggies. When the prep is done, I add whatever I had to trim off into a plastic bag I'm keeping in the freezer. When I have enough, or feel like it, I'll use these trimmings to simmer down for stock, then strain them out and discard or compost. Of course, if you trim off something because it is sprouted, gone bad, or you find a bug in it, don't save that! :-)

Summer Carrots with a Snap

  • 3 - 4 cups fresh raw carrots, cut into thick wedges
  • Tablespoon of sesame seed
  • Quarter to half teaspoon of ground ginger
  • Teaspoon of honey
  • Water
  • Casserole dish with cover
  • Microwave

Into the casserole dish, put about a fingernail's depth of water. Add the raw carrots, and sprinkle the sesame seeds and ginger on top. Drizzle the honey over the carrots. Cover, and microwave on high for 3 minutes for still-crunchy carrots, and 5 minutes for fork-tender carrots. Note that the 5-minute carrots will lose more of their wonderful orange color, so you might want to try 3 - 4 minutes and see if your eaters are fussy about chewing. :-) I think if I'd used less water, the carrots might have kept more color. Will try that on the next batch.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Early Summer Veggie Mix

It's time for Weekend Herb Blogging, which I've missed for the past week or two-- too busy in the garden, alas. It's that time of year when cooking straight from the garden becomes extra fun, as things are just starting to become ready in small quantities. How to combine them? What shall we try this time?

I'd trimmed the flowering tops from my cinnamon basil (an impulse buy back in March) and had been using some leaves along with lettuce in chicken sandwiches. I'm becoming quite fond of cinnamon basil, it has a nice bite to it and a complex flavor. I started this veggie saute with light olive oil, adding some freshly trimmed cinnamon basil leaves, and lime thyme, along with my standard whole mustard seed and generous sprinkling of paprika. I look forward to when my two Hungarian Paprika peppers start fruiting! But for now, store-bought dried stuff from a good supplier.

The first squashes are coming in now for us, having been lagging due to chilly nights. We are getting a couple of small ones every week or two. I've had to do a little hand-pollinating in the early morning. We have so many ants that they mob the flower blossoms and steal the nectar-- pollinators are not stopping in, as there's no nectar to gather. Pesty, pesty ants. They aerate the soil, though, so without them we gardeners would be out of luck. Moderation in all things, please.

Now I know to pick them SMALL, no longer than 6 - 8 inches. I missed this courgette, a 'Romanesco Zucchini' from Renee's Seeds, so it's about a foot long. Luckily, still extremely tender. I love this variety-- it has a fresh kind of taste, unlike the blandness of the standard dark green zuke. I also love the little sprocketed shapes it slices into, showing the ribbing along the sides. I saw similar-looking cultivars at a garden show, in a display of seeds imported from Italy. They looked fascinating, but the prices were a bit rich for me at the time. Next year!

Putting It All Together

  • skillet, with cover
  • 3 - 4 Tbsp light olive oil
  • 8 - 12 leaves cinnamon basil
  • 12 - 20 sprigs fresh thyme
  • half tsp whole yellow mustard seed
  • generous dash paprika
  • 3 - 4 cups thin sliced summer squash
  • 1 - 2 cups fresh chard leaf & rib, snipped into smaller pieces
  • quarter to half cup water
  • large bowl or casserole dish with lid

On low heat, in a large skillet that can be covered, combine the olive oil and spices, and stir until aromas are released and hte basil starts to turn light yellow. Add the sliced squash, and increase heat to medium. Saute the squash until the slices are starting to become translucent at the very edges. Squash slices are still rigid-- don't overcook at this step or you'll get mush by the end!

Now add the chard, and continue to saute until the chard leaves are fairly limp, but still brightly colored. At that point, add the water and cover. Let simmer for 1 - 3 minutes, or until chard leaves start to darken, but ribs are still bright. Put the whole skilletful into the bowl or casserole dish and cover to gently steam. Scrape any liquid or stray leaf from the skillet.

  • 1 - 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large portobello mushroom caps
  • 2 - 3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Put the skillet back on the heat, and let any stray moisture evaporate. Now add the good quality olive oil. We're using that for this step, as the taste will be preserved, and we're not doing a full saute here. Snip the portobello caps into small pieces and add to skillet. If you have washed the caps, be sure to have patted them dry first. Break out the center stems first, unless you like those. Save for use in veggie stock, or put in your compost pile.

The portobello pieces will soak up the oil quickly, and you will be basically dry-frying them-- keep them moving, be sure to turn the pieces over. When all the sides have browned up, but the pieces are still quite firm, splash in the balsamic vinegar. Stir quickly, until the mushrooms have absorbed all the vinegar, and fry for a moment more. The vinegar will make almost a glaze on the pieces, but don't let it burn! Now throw the squash and chard mixture in on top of the mushrooms, stir together for a minute, and remove from heat. Yum!

Cooked this way, the squash pieces still have texture and resistance to bite. The chard leaf is largely dark green, and limp, but the ribs still retain some color and texture. The mushrooms are soft on the outside, but substantial and slightly chewy-- meat eaters who complain about veggie dishes will feel they're eating something 'real'. Key to this dish is staging. The actual cooking takes under 15 minutes, and the steaming and resting of the main veggies will result in a limp mass if overdone. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Balsamic Chard Sauté

The garden is starting to overflow with leafy things! Oh no! Fortunately, leafy things are good for you and delicious, so let's use a huge amount of chard and make a balsamic chard sauté. Technically, there's some steaming involved, so it's not officially a sauté, but we who are still culinarily challenged don't know precisely what to call it.

We start with a very large colander of washed and mostly dried chard, snipped into strips a couple of fingers wide. You can just grab a bunch of chard and snip across the top, it's quick and easy. Remember to move your fingers as you get closer to your hand! Especially if you're talking to someone in the kitchen. Not that I've ever, well, nevermind. :-) Include the tasty stalks, cut to about finger-length or slightly shorter. Reserve a large double handful of leaf, with no stems, and set aside. If you have a range of sizes, try to reserve only smaller, more tender leaves to set aside.

Toss the rest into a pre-warmed pan in which a little light olive oil has been warming-- just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Drizzle liberally with a good balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing, or your favorite balsamic, olive, and herb bread dipping concoction. Toss, or stir gently with tongs. As the chard cooks, it will release water, but if the pan looks too dry, sprinkle a little water on top. Lower the heat, put on a lid, and let the chard steam to soften the stalks. As you can see by the photo, which shows our chard about half done, most of the zippy color is still in place. However, we like the stalks nice and soft, and by that time, most of that color will be gone.

Reserved chard to the rescue! Toss in the snipped leaf-only chard that you set aside, give it a good stirring, and remove the pan from the stove. If you are going to be waiting to serve this for more than about 10 minutes, I recommend keeping it warm and tossing in the extra chard about 3 - 4 minutes before serving. That will give it time to soften, but not to lose its bright tones. Taste, and possibly add a last minute splash of pure balsamic for added zing. If you like slightly crunchy stalks, though, you can skip all this 'reserved chard' business and just stop when the color is about where it is in the photo.

Here is our yummy balsamic chard, plated with some lemon-dill halibut and fresh linguine. Doing this again, I think I'd have trout almandine as the fish, since the crunch of the almonds, and the brown color, would go much more nicely. As you can see, the chard cooks down to a small fraction of its former glory. The stems retain their color, but much of the leaf color is lost-- hence our tossing in the reserved chard leaf at the very end.

Hop on over to My Bay Area Garden to learn how easy it is to grow this beautiful and delicious veggie in your garden or on a sunny windowsill. And be sure to visit Weekend Herb Blogging, guest-hosted by SweetNicks, to see what other folks are up to in their kitchen gardens this weekend.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Little Taste of Italy: Greens & Chickpeas

We made a nice Italian-style dinner with fresh garden produce and herbs the other night, which took only about 20 minutes to prepare. It looked so nice when plated up that I decided to take a picture and feature it in Weekend Herb Blogging. The inspiration was a dish I saw on, of all things, the Victory Garden, where an Italian chef created a fresh chard dish. I came back from vacation last Monday to find the Asian spinach starting to bolt, so I snipped the whole patch down to a few leaves and had a huge colander of fresh spinach. I also had to pinch off all the basil tops so that the plants would get bushy, so I had a handful of fresh basil. Hmm, what to do? Aha!

Chickpea & Greens over Pasta

Get a pot of your favorite pasta going so that it will be ready about 15 mins after you start the steps below. This would be heavenly over fresh linguini, but I've had a cold and am not going to taunt my wheat allergy right now-- I used Tinkyada brown rice spirals.

Heat a little olive oil in a deep skillet on medium; add snips of fresh marjoram, thin slices of garlic, shredded fresh basil leaves, and a little of the lemon basil leaf from the freezer. Once it gets nice and sizzly, add a double-handful of frozen sungold or yellow pear tomatoes (with a few late red ones mixed in). These are super-ripe and very sweet. Add the liquid from a can of organic chickpeas, and let things bubble around. Keep it moving every few minutes, break up the tomatoes as they unthaw, smushing them flat with your spatula. This is going to be your sauce base.

Work the sauce base with the spatula, letting it reduce but taking care not to burn it. When it is about half reduced, and still watery, and all your tomatoes are smushed, add the chickpeas themselves, plus about a half tsp of coarse salt if your chickpeas are canned unsalted. Simmer together for another minute, stir it up, then reduce heat to low and throw all that nice spinach (or chard, or arugula, or ?) on top and cover-- no stirring anymore. After approx 1 minute, turn off heat; the spinach will continue to steam while you drain your pasta and put a nice mound of it in bowls.

When the spinach on top (you do have a glass lid, right?) has fully changed color, uncover and pull portions off with tongs or chopsticks, setting to the side of pasta. Spoon the chickpea sauce on top of the pasta. We 'garnished' with these incredible balsamic vinegar cipolla onions that Safeway is carrying in their olive bar. Two or three go a long way, and are fabulous. Enjoy!

I'm still learning this fine art of food blogging. Does it help to have stuff in 'recipe' form? If so, here's a shopping/picking list. The Asian Spinach has a sweet, nutty flavor, and the leaves are very tender even when of a large size-- pinching can bruise them. If you are using coarser greens, such as regular spinach, or mature chard, I recommend shredding the leaves, omitting the stems, and starting them steaming while more liquid remains in the pan-- perhaps reduce only a quarter instead of a half before you add the greens. Or steam the greens separately. I just didn't want to bother using another pan. :-)

Shopping List for Greens & Chickpeas

  • 3 Tbsp light olive oil
  • 2 - 3 fresh 1-inch sprigs of marjoram (or 1/4 tsp dried)
  • 1/4 - 1/2 c fresh basil leaves
  • squeeze of lemon, or several large lemon basil leaves
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, yellow/red mix ideally
  • 1 can cooked chickpeas
  • 2 qt volume fresh tender greens, whole (chard, arugula, Asian spinach, baby spinach) (1 standard package should do for 2 adults)
  • Pasta to serve this over

Sunday, April 09, 2006

One-Pot Polenta with Herbs

Having a little herb garden next to the back porch makes it easy to just go out with scissors and snip some goodness to put into a simple dinner.
Here's an easy one-pot polenta dinner that you can make in the microwave. Cook and prep time together is less than a half hour, part of which you can use to put together a nice green salad to go with it. I might add cooked chickpeas or beans to this when I next make it, for more complete protein.

In microwave-safe dish, put:

  • 1 c polenta

  • 2 c hot water

  • 1/4 c red onion

  • 1 c frozen corn kernels

  • paprika

  • fresh herb snips

  • dash of light olive oil

  • dash salt or soy sauce (optional)

Microwave on high for 4 mins covered, stir, nuke for 4 mins uncovered, stir, nuke another 3 mins, stir. Cover and let set for 3 or 4 minutes. Ta-dah! You'll probably want to add salt, we tend to cook without it and add it to taste, or crumble a salty cheese like havarti or feta into this dish at serving time.

Weekend Herb Blogging

Monday, April 03, 2006

What's cooking?

As someone whose system was just cleared out rather forcefully (ugh) by some kind of virus going around, I'm trying to use this 'fresh start' (did I say UGH) yet to change some eating habits. There's nothing like an antagonized system to make one carefully re-examine what one is eating-- just think about eating it, and you get instant, gut-level feedback saying 'yes!' or 'aieeee! no!'.

Somewhat old news, but still not widely known-- the Harvard School of Public Health Healthy Eating Pyramid, a real contrast with the USDA food pyramid we all learned in school. The pyramid is depicted here, but go read the really good stuff, explaining the research behind it and contrasting it with the USDA one.
From EAT, DRINK, AND BE HEALTHY by Walter C. Willett, M.D. Copyright © 2001, 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Free Press/Simon & Schuster, Inc

If you're more ethnically or culturally inclined, the Oldways Institute has traditional-diet pyramids for the Mediterranean, Latin American, Asian (seems like a BIG category for just one pyramid to me, but hey), and vegetarian.

Eh? Where were these 'traditional vegetarians' from, anyway? Ah. Variations of this traditional healthy vegetarian diet exist throughout the world, particularly in parts of North America, Europe, South America, and most notably, Asia. Given these carefully-defined parameters, the phrase traditional healthy vegetarian diet is used here to represent the healthy traditional ovo-lacto vegetarian diets of these regions and peoples.
For persons who wish to improve their diet, this model provides a highly palatable, healthful framework for change. Equally positive results can be obtained either by entirely adopting a vegetarian diet, or by alternating meals based on this vegetarian model with meals inspired by healthful dietary traditions of other cultures in other parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin American diet models. Evidence is clear that people enjoy the foods of other cultures, and partake of these foods to enhance and augment their knowledge and understanding of different cultures. This food guide pyramid is the fourth in a series that has been developed during the past few years to illustrate graphically the healthy traditional food and dietary patterns of various cultures and regions of the world. This initiative is a result of a multi-year conference series, Public Health Implications of Traditional Diets, jointly organized by Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation Trust. It is an element of the Cultural Models for Healthy Eating project, a long-term Oldways educational program.

In that spirit, last night's dinner was a simple rice-cooker meal that I seem to have handled ok.

  • 1 'cup' (rice cooker cup, about 1/4 c english measure) brown long-grain rice
  • 1 'cup' (ditto) yellow split peas
  • 5 - 6 'cup' water
  • dash each of thyme, basil, paprika, bell's seasoning
  • about quarter tsp of whole yellow mustard seed
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons light olive oil
  • double handful frozen chopped tomatoes (2005 garden)
  • small handful frozen chopped green onion (2005 garden)
  • 7 dried apricots

    Came out very nice. Keep an eye on it, the crust will brown/burn when the water is gone, so when the dinger dings, scoop it out of the cooker into another dish. If your rice cooker is nonstick, attempt warily.