Archive for April, 2009

The Greens of Spring: Scorzonera and Chicories

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If all the greens you grow are sweet mild greens, your greens dishes will be bland. You need some vigor and some bitterness to make a hortapita or other mixed greens dish come alive. Chicories are a large, drought-tolerant, highly adaptable family well worth getting to know. Our local company Gourmet Seeds in Tatum, New Mexico has the most comprehensive selection I’ve come across. I bought my seed from them last year, and haven’t had to replant. Above, you can see what radicchio looks like in early life. I plant mine in late summer, harvest a small but usable head in late fall, ands take care not to harm the crown of the plant when I cut it for use. If the root and crown are left in place, next April they will look like “earth roses” as you see above. Cut the outer leaves for cooking. Taste before use, and if they’re very bitter blanch them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes and drain well before cooking further in whatever way you choose. Otherwise, when concentrated by cooking, they will be more bitter than you want. Some people like even the outer leaves in salads. Taste before serving. See my “greens” and “recipe” categories for some dishes made with mixed blanched greens, including the hortapita post, which is a great way to eat a lot of greens and enjoy it.
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This is the chicory usually sold as “dandelion” in grocery stores. Cut the leaves until May or June; keep taking nibbles raw befre cutting, and when they go from pleasantly bitter to unpleasantly bitter, stop cutting or blanch before use. When very young, they’re good in salads. If allowed to go to seed, they’ll get 4 feet tall and seed themselves all over your garden. If this is not what you want, keep cutting back the stalks before they flower.
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I planted scorzonera for the roots, but found that I wasn’t wowed by them. I left the remaining plants in place, and harvest a nice bunch of mild cooking greens from each plant every spring. After one good cutting, I leave them alone for the year. I’ve read that they can be used in salads, but to my tooth they’re  too tough to use uncooked. They require no care and are very drought-tolerant. I prefer to mix them with stronger-flavored greens like chicories, and providentially, they’re harvestable at the same time. Vegetables that come up perennially with no fuss are too good to ignore.
For more about greens, see my “greens” and “herbs” pages on my website.

The Greens of Spring: Green Herb Pasta

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One of the great pleasures of gardening is commemorating each new emergence in spring, and in  food gardening, one tends to commemorate them by eating them. Here, the herbs that are springing up everywhere make a pasta dish that is wonderfully tasty and varies every time you make it. If this doesn’t inspire you to plant your own herbs, probably nothing will.
My instructions will be relatively brief, so if you aren’t familiar with pasta-making, consult a good Italian cookbook such as The Splendid Table by Lynn Rosseto Kaspar. This is one of the few times when I use a food processor to start pasta dough.
This amount serves at least six as a first course, four as a main course, or two real pasta-pigs with lots of leftovers to take to work for lunches.

First, gather your herbs. Aim for a generous bunch. About half should be parsley. For the other half, see what’s springing up outside and decide what you plan to serve with the pasta. I like a good big handful each of chives and cutting celery leaves, the leaves of one small twig of rosemary (more if you plan to serve the noodles with lamb,) a few leaves of arugula, and about a tablespoon of thyme leaves. Later in the season, basil or marjoram might figure prominently. In the winter, green onions (green part only) and chervil might predominate, with some winter savory for oomph. You get the general feel of the thing.
Chop all the herbs coarsely. Put three cups of flour in the food processor, add the herbs, and process until they’re well distributed and finely chopped. Have five very good eggs handy. Add them one at a time, processing for at least 30 seconds after each one. Probably you will only need four of the eggs. When the “crumbs” in the processor bowl just start to come together into a dough, stop and finish by hand. Sorry about the work, but it’s much better that way. Turn out onto a lightly floured cutting board and knead until the dough comes together, adding a little water if necessary, or more flour if that’s what’s needed to make a nonsticky dough. Now knead for ten minutes, until smooth and elastic. Dust the dough ball with a little flour, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit half an hour.
When the dough has rested, roll it into sheets and cut into noodles by your favorite method. If you roll pasta by hand, you will go to Heaven. But if you use your handy machine, either powered or hand-cranked, you will eat fresh pasta a lot more often, and that’s a kind of heaven too. Take your pick.
Either way, when the noodles are ready, you can pack them in plastic bags and store in the refrigerator for two days, or in the freezer for a month. When ready to proceed, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil, and dump in the noodles. As soon as the water returns to a boil, start testing them for doneness. The cooking should take about a minute, but may take longer if you let the dough dry out a lot after rolling.  Be very careful not to overcook. You do want then al dente
Drain the noodles and toss with a good-sized knob of butter or a half cup of heavy cream or both (note to self: stop revealing your spirit of wretched excess) and about a cup of the best Parmesan you can find, grated. Grind a little black pepper over the top, garnish with a little more grated Parmesan, and serve.
If you’d like to add some herbed shrimp to the plate, click here

The Greens of Spring: herb extravaganzas

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As much as I love cooked greens and good traditional green salads, I like to find other ways to enjoy spring greens. Herbs are concentrated little packets of flaror, fragrance, and antioxidants, and will amply repay the time you spend growing them. Right now I’m interested in the multifaceted cuisine of Indonesia, and find their lavish use of herbs very appealing. A pile of chopped cilantro, rau ram, mint, and Thai basil is one of the most appealing “salads” you can imagine, and strewn across this simple dish, it adds freshness and complexity. There is still time to plant some interesting Asian herbs in your yard, and the mint, Thai basil, rau ram, and cilantro are easy to grow. You can order rau ram plants (click “More on Asian herbs” below for a source)or you can buy a bunch of it at Ta Lin or your own favorite Asian grocery and root some sprigs. Clich at the end of this post for more info on growing Asian herbs. Or, you can find all these ingredients at Ta Lin in Albuquerque. Those of us who left a few small onions in the ground last year are harvesting big, beautiful green onions right now, and this is a good place to use them.

For two very large servings or four small ones, you’ll need:

  • 3 large or 6 small green onions, white parts finely chopped and green parts cut in 1/4″ lengths.
  • one bunch cilantro, leaves pulled off stems
  • 10-12 sprigs each of mint, rau ram, and Thai basil, well washed and all leaves pulled off the stems
  • 1 betel leaf (can be omitted)cut in very fine shreds
  • 2 sprigs of murraya leaves (sold at Ta Lin as “curry leaves”)with the leaflets pulled off the stem and shredded very finely
  • 1″ X 2″ piece ginger, peeled and chopped to matchhead-sized pieces
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled
  • 1/2 pound fresh thin egg noodles, soaked in hot water until softened, about 10 minutes
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk.
  • 1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar or white sugar
  • 1 tablespook sambal oelek, or more to taste.
  • Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce handy by the stove.
  • corn oil as needed for stir-frying
  • 1 lime, quartered

Have everything prepared as described, because this dish takes about ten minutes to cook, and you won’t have time for any prep while cooking. Be aware that you are going to use half the ginger, sambal,  and green onions for the shrimp and half for the noodles.

Heat your largest wok . Keep the heat very high while cooking. When very hot, pour in a glug of corn oil (I’d guess that a “glug” is about 2 tablespoons) and immediately throw in half the chopped ginger. Stir around in the hot oil until very fragrant, about a minute. Throw in half the chopped white parts of the green onions and stir-fry for another minute. Add the shrimp and drizzle fish sauce over them. Probably about a tablespoon is needed. As they sizzle, add a tablespoon of sambal oelek. Cook the shrimp another 1-2 minutes, stirring once to distribute the sambal. If you kept the heat high enough, they’ll be nearly done. Throw in half the green onions, stir in well for about half a minute, and dump the shrimp into a bowl. Set aside, covered, to keep hot. Now wipe out the wok very quickly with a rag or paper towel, return it promptly to the heat, and add another glug of oil. Put in the rest of the ginger and the shredded betel leaf and curry leaves, fry a minute, and put in the rest of the white parts of onion. Cook another minute, then add a tablespoon of sambal oelek, a tablespoon of sugar, and the coconut milk. Boil hard for one minute, drizzling in some fish sauce. Taste quickly for seasoning: it should be fairly salty, since this is the seasoning for the noodles. Now put the drained noodles in the wok with the remaining chopped green onion tops. Stri-fry  over high heat for about 5 minutes. Using a heatproof spatula, keep turning the noodles, drizzling on some  fish sauce if needed. Keep a fork handy and keep tasting the noodles to make sure that you don’t add too much fish sauce; a tablespoon or a little less is about right. When they are very hot throughout and the seasoning is well distributed, toss in half the cilantro leaves and turn out onto plates (2 plates for a one-dish meal, four plates if part of a larger meal.) Quickly finger-mix the cilantro into the mint, rau ram, and Thai basil leaves, and divide the herb salad among the plates, covering the noodles. Now distribute the shrimp among the plates, topping the herbs. Serve immediately, with lime quarters for squeezing over the top. The herbs offer an array of different sensations as you eat, since they are not chopped finely, which would amalgamate the flavors.

Incidentally, please consider buying Alaska prawns when you want shrimp, or one of the other environmentally sound choices on the Seafood Watch list.

Click here for more on Asian herbs and noodles

The Greens of Spring: Greens Enchiladas

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This recipe makes no claims to be authentic Mexican, but it’s healthy and delicious, so enjoy it for what it is. It’s certainly in the Mexican spirit of making use of what comes along. I should mention that the idea came from Rick Bayless’s famous “greens tacos,” so thanks, Rick. I used mild and velvety blanched nettles for the greens . See my earlier post on nettles if you aren’t familiar with them.

For two servings:
6 corn tortillas
A little oil for pan-frying the tortillas
1 cup blanched mild greens; Swiss chard, spinach, mallow, nettles, or a combination.
1 pint Roasted Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa; see my  website Recipes page under “tomatoes,” or substitute your own favorite cooked salsa. Raw salsas like Pico de Gallo won’t work here.
¼ pound grated Monterey Jack cheese
¼ pound Cotija cheese (or use extra Monterey Jack for a milder flavor)
½ cup chopped cilantro

Fry the tortillas briefly, or cook them on a comal if you prefer. Set them aside. Chop the greens well, mix with 1 cup of the salsa, and heat to a full simmer, stirring frequently. Spread ¼ of the greens mixture on each of two tortillas, and scatter a bit of cilantro over. Top each with another tortilla, and spread with the rest of the greens mixture and sprinkle on a little more cilantro. Top each stack with one of the remaining tortillas, spread the tops and any exposed edges of the stacks with the rest of the salsa, and top with a mixture of the two cheeses or just with shredded Monterey Jack. Bake at 400 degrees until hot and the cheese is melted. You can brown it briefly under the broiler, if you wish. Serve garnished with the remaining cilantro.
This makes a wonderful lunch or light supper. For a more filling dinner, top each stack with a fried egg. Good with beer.
In the picture above, some calendula petals are scattered around with the cilantro. They don’t have much flavor, but add a lovely sunny color.