Archive for the ‘herbs’ Category

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

An Easy Southeast Asian Evening: Thai-ish lettuce wraps

In hot weather  I start to crave the food of hot climates, especially Thai food.  Since I eat as few carbohydrates as possible, much of what I cook is pseudo-Thai, but it can still be delicious.  Having some good condiments on hand can be a shortcut on an evening when I worked late, and my favorite Thai condiment is nam prik pao.  Once I made my own according to the complex directions in David Thompson’s authoritative and addictive cookbook Thai Food,  and it was the best I ever had, but it is quite an undertaking and involves deep frying a succession of ingredients before grinding them together, and deep frying is not my favorite cooking modality.  Too messy.  So except for special occasions, I use the fairly good bottled one from Mae Pranom.  Just as a warning, this excellent Thai company makes several different condiments that all say “Thai chili paste” on the label, and are only fully and accurately labeled in Thai.    So my recommendation would be to order through Importfood.com, a very good US purveyor of Thai ingredients, and get the one that they say is nam prik pao.  While you’re at it, order some Shark brand Thai sriracha sauce, which is different from the Vietnamese style and can be hard to find.

Besides the nam prik pao, you will need a pound of good ground meat.  I used wild boar because I had some in the freezer, but ground goat, ground pork, or plain old ground beef would all be fine.  The vegetable component was a pound of Oregon Giant snow peas. Any good snow pea or sugar snap pea will do.  Lettuce leaves are needed for serving, and I used leaves of the hot climate celtuse-type  lettuce Balady Aswan,  but romaine is fine if you don’t grow your own.  Other needed ingredients are a small knob of ginger, two cloves of garlic,  one large or three small green onions,  fish sauce,  coconut cream (unsweetened) or coconut oil for cooking, sweetener of your choice, and a large handful of chopped fresh mint.

Blanch the snow peas or sugar peas in boiling water for two minutes, drain and cool in ice water, and slice diagonally.  Slice the scallions diagonally, and chop the ginger, garlic,  and mint. Now you’re ready to cook.

Heat a skillet or wok over high heat and boil the coconut cream hard for a minute or melt coconut oil. Stir-fry in the chopped ginger and garlic for a minute, then add 1/4 cup of nam prik pao  and fry until it looks like the picture. Add your ground meat now and continue to stir-fry over high heat. When it’s about half cooked, add the sliced green onions, sweetener to taste, and fish sauce to taste. I used a quick squirt of liquid sucralose and about 3 tablespoons of fish sauce. If you’re being authentic and using palm sugar, I would guess that about two tablespoons would do it. Go easy if you’re not sure, because you can adjust later. Stir-fry until the meat is completely cooked, add the blanched snow or snap peas, and cook over high heat another minute or two until they are heated through. Taste and correct the seasoning if needed.

I should add that I was using my large perennial green onions, and in the hot weather this time of year they take a bit of cooking to become tender and pleasant to eat. If you are using the store-bought kind, you can add them closer to the end of the process. Know your ingredients and adapt your methods to get the best out of them.

Top with chopped fresh mint just before serving and serve with stacks of lettuce leaves. I like to add a sweet-hot dipping sauce made with equal parts fish sauce and rice vinegar, artificial sweetener added until it’s pretty sweet, and sambal oelek or sriracha added until it’s pretty hot.

Once you have the basic formula, the dish is endlessly accommodating.  Use whatever ground meat you have, and I speculate that ground chicken or salmon might work well too. If snap or sugar peas aren’t in season, consider green beans ( be sure to blanch until tender) or greens of almost any kind. Collards could be delicious, especially if preblanched for a minute to improve tenderness.  Even slightly bitter greens are worth considering, although I would reduce the quantity and not use anything more than slightly bitter. But the coconut fat and sweetening does a lot to  ameliorate a small amount of bitterness.  Broccoli would be delicious if blanched and then cut in small cubes to fit into  the general texture of the dish. Mushrooms  are another excellent possibility, and dried soaked shiitakes cut in cubes would be good but mushrooms that you grow yourself might be even better. Some mushrooms such as oysters are pretty juicy and it is worth dry sautéing them in a separate pan to get excess liquid out before adding them to the mixture.

Other herbs are worth considering. Thai basil is a natural, and Italian basil is  something that I would consider if I did not have Thai basil or mint handy.  It just occurred to me that the licorice-sweet leaves of sweet cecily might be really good in this context, so I will be trying that.

Personally I get very annoyed with finding most  Thai food in America smothered in chopped peanuts, but I admit they’re delicious and they do add a good texture. If you want to explore other texture additions, a little chopped jicama or maybe even raw Jerusalem artichokes would add a sweet crunch.

 

The hallmark of a good basic recipe is that you rapidly learn how to make it come together easily and adapt to your whim of the day and what is available in your garden.  I always keep ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and some basic Thai condiments in the house, but ultimately your supply of basics may be different.  If you want to announce your food as authentic Thai, then by all means read David Thompson’s cookbook and follow his lengthy and exacting directions. But if what you want is to have delicious food on your table that suits your needs and what is available in your garden, then be imaginative and don’t worry yourself overmuch about authenticity. Just pay attention to the basic logic of the flavors.

Turkish Rocket in garden and kitchen

Last year I finally got around to planting  the perennial vegetable Turkish rocket, Bunius orientalis, and this year I was able to experiment with it in the kitchen. I had read that it was invasive and so I limited myself to five plants that I could watch carefully, meaning that my experiments were on a very small scale. So far, here’s what I found:

As so many have discovered before me,  the leaves are so strongly mustardy that they create quite an unpleasant burn in the back of the throat, and they are not a culinary object as far as I am concerned. Even my goat wouldn’t  eat them.

The bud clusters are used like broccoli rabe.  They can be very delicious, but timing is everything. The proper stage is shown in the photo above, when each stalk has one small bud cluster and the buds themselves are green, not yet showing the edges of bright yellow petals.  At this point, they can be blanched in boiling water for a minute or two, drained well, and then sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chili flakes and have the slight nutty-mustardy quality of good rabe,  with no burn as you swallow. You would need several well-established plants to get enough for a few servings, as far as I can tell, but they would certainly deserve their space.

Here’s a close-up of a stalk in the perfect stage for eating. Snap off the top few inches of stem with the buds and it will cook up beautifully.

This picture shows the next stage in the stalk’s development.  The stem has elongated and the small original cluster has spread into sub clusters. I had hoped that this would be a good stage for harvesting, since you would get more material than at earlier stages, however it was not to be. At this stage, even when  cooked, there is a very unpleasant mustardy burn that continues to build in the back of the throat for a few minutes after swallowing. Not a pleasant experience. Once the subclusters have started to show and some yellow shows on the outermost buds, don’t bother.  It is possible that they could be  cooked longer, cooled, and ground with olive oil, salt, and maybe a little lemon into a sharp mustard-like condiment, but I have not experimented with that and throw it out as a purely theoretical idea, possibly similar to a green horseradish sauce.  Because of the throat burn factor, if you choose to experiment with that idea, try it out privately before you foist it on hapless guests.

Then there is the flowering stage at which it is a bright cheerful yellow and is a fair bee plant, not highly preferred but certainly visited.

This is the stage that I am waiting for, so that I can plant a whole row of it and have a lot more to cook in the future.

For me this perennial vegetable fills a good niche  after the winter broccoli is gone, but before the spring broccoli begins producing. This time of year there are a lot of edible leaves in my garden but not too much else, so some textural variation is very welcome.

Regarding the claims of invasiveness, I am sure that this is true in many areas, but in my desert climate it requires a fair amount of water to grow well, so I doubt that it could grow outside the confines of my fence.

A Hundred Kinds of Chimichurri

I love chimichurri, the ground herb table sauce of Argentina, but I am by no means faithful to the Argentinian version. If you have an active garden, spring offers the first of infinite variations of chimichurri to accent any grilled meat or poultry. These savory herbal sauces also dress up baked and roasted foods, and are a great way to perk up hard-boiled or fried eggs. People who don’t have to stay low-carb may like them drizzled on bread or rice. Vegetarians will like chimichurri on roasted vegetables, and for that matter ardent carnivores would love it on roasted carrots, broccoli, and other meaty veggies. I can imagine it freshening and enlivening roasted or grilled oyster mushrooms.

The basic necessary ingredients are olive oil, garlic, an acid, salt, herbs, and embellishments. Variables are the herbs, the texture, and the embellishments and degree of heat, if any.

So here’s a menu for infinite improvisation:

Oil: I say very good olive oil is a necessity. If you choose to fool around with other oils, feel free. Plan on between a half cup and one cup.

Garlic: green in spring, mature cloves later on. 2-3 large stalks of green garlic or 3-4 cloves of mature garlic.

Acid: vinegar is traditional but lemon juice is delicious with the more delicate spring versions. Consider wine vinegar or sherry vinegar.  Plan on about 2 tablespoons and have extra available to add if needed. Please, don’t use sweet caramelized ersatz “balsamic” vinegars. Yech.

Salt: “Plenty” is the important concept here. Some chimichurris that seem like failures come alive when enough salty element is added. Remember, this is a seasoning sauce, not a main dish.Your salt element may be sea salt, but a good dab of anchovy paste or a glut of the salty-lemony fermented liquid from preserved lemons may attract you.

Herbs: parsley is traditional and great, but don’t feel bound. Cilantro is a great alternative for the “bulk” herb, of which you’ll need a bunch (from the store) or a large handful (from the garden.) Oregano, sweet marjoram, summer savory, thyme, and lemon thyme are great options for the subsidiary herb, of which a small chopped handful (combined if using multiple herbs) is plenty. Combos are potentially wonderful. I don’t recommend tarragon for this sauce, but feel free to prove me wrong, and I think rosemary should be limited to a chopped teaspoon or two if used at all. Some mint is a possibility if used judiciously. Sage is difficult to use and, in my view, not a good possibility.But suit yourself, as long as you are pursuing a coherent taste-vision. Wander your garden, be seducible, and work it out later.

Embellishments: Heat is an important possibility. Hot sauce, harissa, and ground dried chiles can all work wonders, and fresh chopped jalapeños (seeded or not per your preference for fire) can do real magic. Anchovy fillets mashed can add a savor and tang that are the making of rich meats like roasted  lamb or goat. Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped, is highly nontraditional but extraordinary in the right circumstances. A pinch  of toasted cumin seeds, finely ground, can give an earthy, sweaty, quintessentially masculine note that makes a simple grilled steak or chop memorable.

Texture: can be anywhere from medium-fine grind to as coarse as a chopped salad. It all depends on your mood and your main dish.

Procedure:

Chop your garlic coarsely or slice finely crosswise if using green garlic and put in a large mortar or small food processor; I invariably use my little stoveside Mini-prep. Chop or pound to desired degree. Add herbs, salt,  and embellishments and process only until you like the texture. Add the acid and salt, process briefly, and work in the oil. Now taste, and think. If you are sure it didn’t work, think about how to rebalance and save it. Sorry to harp, but insufficient salty element is a common fault. Increase the salt, anchovy paste, or preserved lemon juice, or add a bit of the latter two if you didn’t use them before. If overly salty or acid, add more oil to smooth it out.  If bland, add a little more acid. If just not that interesting, consider stirring in more chopped herb or some heat.

This sauce can be refrigerated overnight and may be even better the next day, although cilantro-based versions tend to lose freshness and pizazz and are best consumed on sight.

“Processed” Food

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Like everyone else who works, I have a lot to do when I get home and some nights I need help to get a healthy dinner on the table. I eat a ketogenic (low carbohydrate) diet and don’t have pasta and rice and bulgur to fall back on. For those nights I keep some “fast food” in the freezer, like riced organic cauliflower. If I’m thinking ahead, I leave a bag out to thaw in the morning. More often I didn’t think ahead and need to thaw it quickly in the microwave. Either way, if you just cook it as is, you are going to have a rather damp mess on your hands, in my opinion anyway. So take the thoroughly thawed cauliflower, bundle it in a dish towel, and squeeze the water out of it. You’ll get a surprising amount out. Now you can throw it in a skillet with some salt, sliced green onions, chopped herbs, olive oil, and sliced almonds, and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes with regular stirring. Don’t add water back. Cauliflower loves to go soggy if it gets a chance. It’s done when the cauliflower grains are done to your preference. I like mine a bit on the firm side, holding their shape briefly to the tooth without any hint of raw crunch.  Check whether it needs more salt before you serve. Meanwhile, grill some salmon as shown here, or warm up leftover chicken thighs, or slice up some warmed leftover meat. Land it on your cauliflower pilaf and flavor it with finishing butter (Montpellier butter with green garlic is shown here) which also lives in the freezer in convenient individually wrapped portions, or just drizzle with your best olive oil.
Some would say that I should grow, grate, and freeze the cauliflower myself if I’m going to use it, and when such people get hold of me, I always suggest that they invite me over for a meal 100% produced from their yard so that I can write about it😉. So far, those invitations haven’t arrived. I am not a believer in making the perfect the enemy of the good, and we are not full-time yard farmers and have to make our modern lives work. Besides, grating cauliflower is one of the few kitchen jobs that I hate and one that I outsource whenever possible. I grow things that are unobtainable at markets or distinctly better when home-grown, and cauliflower is neither. So let somebody else do the work for you.
Regarding the finishing butter above, I am used to horrified shrieks of “It’s GREEN!” Indeed it is, and so are a lot of other good things. Expose yourself (and your family and friends) to green food until you get used to it, and your health will benefit. After all, nobody has ever looked at wild-caught Alaskan salmon at my table and said “Ugh, it’s PINK!” Good food is good food. Close your eyes if you really must, but getting over biases about green is better.

Here’s another version tricked out with capers, green garlic, thyme, pine nuts, and castelvetrano olives.

Spring Alliums

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One of the many reasons that I love green garlic and green alliums generally is that they are among the earliest things to come out of the garden, assuming that you planted in early fall. I have plenty of summer veggies in my freezer, but as the days start to lengthen I get ravenously keen for the first real, fresh greens, and by mid-February I’m eating out of the garden again.

For early green alliums, plant some in a block that you can cover with Agribon or other frost blanket material. I like to put a short row of my regular yellow storage onions in this block in September, and each will divide and make four or five superbly sweet green onions in early spring.

Garlic is another must, and my favorite for early green garlic is Chinese Pink, because it is super-early and is eight inches tall and half an inch in diameter by mid-February if frost protection is used. Plant your early block with the cloves about three inches apart each way. When I’m ready for green garlic I pull alternate stalks, and leave the rest 6″ apart to mature for my earliest garlic bulb harvest.

In the case of leeks, there isn’t even any need to replant in fall. Plant extra in spring, cover with frost blanket in late fall, and they will winter over nicely for February eating.

Contrary to much popular advice, I don’t suggest that you even think about cutting the green leaves off and discarding them. They are delicious. They are also the healthiest part of the plant, full of the antioxidant allicin which has multiple health benefits. Do cut them in fine cross-sections, about a quarter inch long, to  eliminate  any possible stringiness  in the leaves.

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I love a good assortment of green alliums chopped up and sautéed in butter with salt to taste until they are succulent and sweet. Keep the heat medium-low and let them cook at least twenty minutes for best flavor. I eat them as a side dish, but they would also be great on slices of crisp baguette, in an omelette, over scrambled eggs or rice,  on a broiled fish fillet, or nearly any other way that you can imagine.

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Two years ago I stuck some garlic cloves in a flower bed planning to harvest them for green garlic, but forgot all about them in spring. After two growing seasons they’ve divided so much that the leaves are as fine as grass. I’ve started harvesting the tops and chopping them finely to use as a fresh seasoning. They have a stronger but cleaner flavor than garlic chives. I love them over egg salad, green salad, broiled or grilled meats, on soup, or anywhere that you might crave a hit of freshness and garlic. They give some distinction to a regular or low-carb pizza.

A Grand Mess of Greens

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I love the various vegetables that the seasons offer me, and for the most part prefer to eat what my environment is offering me fresh that day. I do freeze greens mixtures, though, so that I never run short and have them all winter. Recently I came across a forager’s description of his “56 species calzone” and it made me want to count up the number of species in the large batch of cooked seasoned greens for the freezer  that I’m working on today.

The main components: chard, dock, lambs-quarters, spinach, nettles

Seasonings and minor components: mulberry leaves, hops shoots, lettuce ( about to bolt,) dandelion,  scorzonera, salsify, sunflower, green onion, young leeks, elephant garlic, corn poppies, young grape leaves, marjoram, mint, fennel, mustard, cattail shoots, pea vines, broccoli leaves,  arugula, sow thistle, wild lettuce

Sauteed separately and added: chopped broccoli stems, grape leaves, green garlic

So, 30 species, a thoroughly respectable count for an average early summer morning,  and a potential treasure on winter days when I need to be flooded with the antioxidants of summer. In general I blanch the bulk greens in a fairly small amount of water which I later drink or make soup from, saute the chopped alliums and seasonings, then combine all and saute together for five-ten minutes or until the flavors have blended.
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The true Cretan diet, the one that nourished some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world, was based on huge numbers of wild mountainside greens. It’s said that over 300 edible greens grow on Crete, and the average citizen can recognize over a hundred, making my 30 seem limited. But be assured that if you can learn to recognize ten of your local edible weeds and know when to harvest them and how to prepare them, your health and table will improve.  I’ve been tracking the preferences of a vegetable-despising friend, and he will eat greens, sometimes even second helpings, if they don’t look like greens on the plate. An example is the horta egg cake that I make often. He will even eat plain greens if they have a sweet component and a bit of texture, and an easy way to provide this is to douse them in the Quasi-Korean Sauce that I always have in the refrigerator and put a handful of roasted peanuts on top. If you eat bread, toasted sourdough bread crumbs provide delicious crunch on greens sautéed with garlic and chile flakes.
Be aware that greens have a remarkable capacity to absorb and mute flavors, and may need more seasoning than you think. Salt seems to disappear into them, and enough seasoning may be key to getting your loved ones to eat them and even like them. So keep tasting and adjusting until the flavor is right.
If you want to learn to identify some wild greens, gather them at the right stage, and cook them well, there is no better foraging author than John Kallas.