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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.

Deconstructed Thai Egg Salad

If you have chickens, there are inevitably times when you grow tired of eggs. I had one of those times recently and started to grope for a new way to think about egg salad. Since I love Thai food and keep a lot of the necessary seasonings around, some sort of Thai egg salad seemed like the perfect way to reawaken my enthusiasm. I wanted to make it quick and easy, too, so cupboard condiments played a large role. I used coconut milk, fish sauce, some artificial sweetener (people with no blood sugar problems can just use sugar,) Shark brand Thai  sriracha sauce (important, because it tasted very different from standard Vietnamese-style sriracha,) the excellent Hand brand Matsuman curry paste, and chopped peanuts, and all I added to them was eggs and sliced mint leaves.

For two people I started with three hard-boiled eggs each, and chopped them roughly leaving them in large chunks. I heated the top fat off one can of coconut milk, stirred in a heaping tablespoon of Matsuman curry paste, and cooked a few minutes until thick and smooth. I added fish sauce to taste and sweetened it a bit. I pooled this elixer on a plate, put piles of chopped eggs on top, salted the eggs to taste and then dribbled Thai sriracha (which is not very hot) liberally all over the eggs. Peanuts and sliced mint finish up the seasoning, and a bit of sushi ginger on the side is my own very weird addition.

If the eggs are already hard-boiled, you will be plating your lunch in about ten minutes. It’s ketogenic except for the sugar in the sriracha, which isn’t much. You can use your own sweet-hot dipping sauce for the dribbling if you prefer. The mint could be replaced with Thai basil or cilantro. I speculate that finely slivered leaves of lemon verbena might be interesting here but I haven’t tried it yet. This is of course in the Thai-ish category and I feel free to experiment and find new tastes.

This is a good time to say something about producing the best eggs you can: in addition to a good commercial laying pellet high in an Omega-3 source such as flaxseed, feed your chickens all the greens that they will eat and a good source of calcium. In addition to oystershell I save all eggshells, dry them in the microwave and grind them, and feed them back in any soft foods from the table or kitchen that I have occasion to give my birds. I grow alfalfa patches in the back yard so that I can cut fresh alfalfa for them. Chickens are busy little machines that convert the 18-carbon Omega-3 fatty acids found in plants, which we absorb poorly, into the 20 and 22-carbon Omega-3s EPA and DHA, which we absorb well. (More structural info here.) One small commercial egg producer who feeds this way says he has hit about 600mg EPA and DHA per egg, verified by testing. I haven’t tested mine, but when I watch my chickens chow down greens, I know that it’s happening and that they are the best eggs I can get.

 

A Quick Thai-ish Snack

After yesterday’s brief dissertation on nam prik pao,  it occurred to me that one thing I had not really demonstrated about this Thai seasoning paste is its ability to make something very good very fast.

Today I was not hungry for lunch but did want something healthy in a hurry to tide me over.  I decided on a quick very small bowl of greens. I used mulberry shoots, but any rather sturdy green would do. If you use something substantial like collards or kale, one collard leaf or two kale leaves  would work for a passing snack.  For smaller leaves, a generous handful is the right spirit.

All you need is your leaves, fish sauce, a little coconut oil or other cooking fat, and nam prik pao.  Wash and chop the leaves or, if they are large and substantial, chiffonade them.   Heat your smallest skillet, put in the coconut fat and heat it briefly, and put in a heaping teaspoon of nam prik pao.  Stir it around for about 30 seconds to distribute it through the fat, throw in your greens over medium heat, and stir around for a couple of minutes, drizzling with a little bit of fish sauce but not too much because the small quantity of greens can get too salty in a hurry.  When the greens are done to the degree of tenderness that you like, put them in a little bowl and eat them.  Simple as that. You will feel a pleasant glow of virtue because of the soluble fiber and antioxidants that you have taken in, and it will taste good  and take less than five minutes. The leaves are whatever struck your eye on the way from the garden to the kitchen and took approximately a minute to gather. No fuss no bother.  You can chop some herbs on top if you want to and that will be delicious, but it will still taste awfully good without them.

You could use the same principle to make a side dish for dinner, or for that matter a main dish, and a few different Southeast Asian vegetable dishes with a cushioning bowl of rice if you can eat it make a wonderful dinner full of interesting flavors.  If you are a low-carb person, you can use cauliflower rice instead of real rice, or have both available for the various kinds of eaters at your table.   But the recipe as written is for your own private pleasure.

The Oregon Giant Pea and the Taste of Early Summer

I think that I have written before about my entrancement with the snap pea/sugar pea called Orgeon Giant. In my opinion, it’s the most delicious thing of its kind  and I gorge on this type for as long as its season lasts. I begin to harvest my early spring planting in late May, waiting until the pods are bulging but not round and making sure to pull the strings off, and at first I eat them blanched in boiling salted water for four minutes and then sautéed in butter with a pinch of salt for a couple of minutes. They go well next to everything.

But as the season gets into full swing, I have enough of them to get ambitious. I continue to be obsessed with Joshua  McFadden’s new cookbook Six Seasons,and tonight I happened to be struck by his addition of English peas to Pasta Carbonara. I don’t eat pasta for carby reasons, but it occurred to me that the traditional carbonara flavors, while rich, are also rather full and gentle, and might go wonderfully with sugar peas even if there were no pasta involved. I hasten to add that there is no question that a large plate full of sugar peas will not do anybody’s carbohydrate count any good. However, we all have our vices, and I do tend to allow anything green.

Have all the prepping done before you start cooking because it goes very fast.
So I started with 2 quarts of enormous peapods, loosely packed. I picked them over and pulled the strings off, and cut them diagonally into pieces roughly an inch long as you see above.
There is no question that piggy products do peas a world of good. I did not happen to have the classic carbonara ingredient pancetta on hand and so I decided to use a thick slice of mild applewood smoked bacon. I cut it into cubes a little bigger than 1/4 inch square. I chopped two cloves of fresh garlic very fine, finely  chopped a small onion, grated about a cup+ of very good Parmesan, and separated out the yolks of three eggs. A quarter cup of heavy cream ended up smoothing out the mixture.

The bacon cubes were rendered gently over medium heat, and the onion and garlic thrown in when they were about half cooked. This mixture was cooked together until the onions were cooked soft without allowing it to color, and meanwhile a couple of quarts of salted water were brought to a fast boil. The heat was turned off under the bacon mixture, and the chunks of pea pods thrown into the salted water and cooked for exactly 4 minutes. The pea pods were drained well in a strainer but not shaken totally dry, and then returned to the hot saucepan, the bacon mixture added, the cream poured in, and sautéed over medium heat for about a minute. Now, working very fast off the heat and stirring  continually with a wooden spoon because a metal spoon would break up the peapods, the egg yolks were added and tossed around for a little under a minute, until the cream looked a bit thickened. Then the Parmesan was tossed in off the heat. When the sauce amalgam look thick and creamy, about a half teaspoon of freshly ground pepper was stirred in and the dish was immediately plated. You can add a little more cheese on the top if you like. Serve hot with some additional black pepper ground over the top.
This may be the purest expression of the sugar snap pea pod, somehow even more classic than the simple blanched pods. The pods retain some texture, and the swollen peas that float around the finished dish are pure essence of early summer. This is a main dish  and if you accompany it with some good white wine, you are very unlikely to want anything else.

Chard’s Great Moment

I decided to reblog this older post because I want to say again that, although I am not crazy about Swiss chard in hot weather, the fall leaves and most particularly the wonderful meaty sweet early spring leaves are one of the most delicious greens that you will ever eat. So devote some space to it now for a big benefit later.

My urban homestead

image image

In my garden, this is the time to plant Swiss chard. It grows slowly in summer heat and gets a new lease on life in the fall, which is when I start eating it.  It goes dormant for the winter, and then in spring it emerges again and gradually progresses to making enormous leaves over a foot long.  These early spring leaves are very thick and meaty, and have a taste that has the umami elements of meat, but is mild and clean.  These early spring leaves are the ones that I eat, in huge quantities.  They are great cooked, and this is the only time of year that I love chard as a salad green. As soon as the plant starts to bolt to seed, the leaves of the elongating stalk acquire a rather dreadful dirty taste.  Interestingly, the large thick leaves at the base retain their mild…

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Chicken with Double Garlic Sauce

Garlic is wondrous in all its forms. I called this simple chicken sauce  “double garlic” not because it contains a lot of garlic, although it does, but because it contains garlic in two distinct forms. Right now I am harvesting the bulbs of the early Chinese Pink while the late Mount Hood is forming tender scapes. So both went into this dish. For the chicken, I used some leftover plainly roasted thighs. You could also make the very quick seasoning sauce to add interest to a plainly seasoned rotisserie chicken that you bought on the way home after a busy day. Of course you could also cook chicken thighs right in the sauce, but I conceived of this as a way to make leftovers fresh and interesting.

In the spirit of easy convenience, I added some artichoke hearts marinated in oil that I found at a grocery store olive bar. If you have some leftover vegetable that isn’t too seasoned, this is a good place to use it up. Just don’t use marinated veggies that are acidic or pickled-tasting; taste to be sure.

You will need:

1/3 cup very good EV olive oil

7 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

5-6 tender garlic scapes (snap one near the base. It should snap cleanly, with no “bark” peeling at the breakpoint) Chop in bits a little more than 1/4″ long

1/3 cup salted capers, soaked and squeezed dry, or brined capers rinsed and squeezed dry

1/4 cup, loosely packed, chopped herbs of your choice. I used half thyme and half fennel

4 cooked whole chicken thighs, or a disjointed rotisserie chicken

roughly 1 cup of cooked leftover veggies, not too seasoned

Heat a skillet ovet high heat and add the olive oil. Put in the chopped scapes, fry for about two minutes stirring frequently, reduce heat to medium, and cook until scapes are crisp-tender ( the best way to find out is to chew one.)

Add the squeezed-dry capers and cook until they look a bit dry and (ideally) a bit browned. Add the chopped garlic and the herbs, sauté just until the chopped garlic looks cooked, and add about 2 tablespoons of water and the veggies and chicken. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat, stirring and turning as needed, until heated through. There should be little to no water left, just seasoned oil full of delicious bits that can be spooned over the chicken and veggies. Serve with freshly ground pepper, but taste before adding salt, because of the capers and the pre-cooked ingredients.

I have already talked about garlic and garlic scapes at length, so this a good time to talk about capers for a minute. I consider them an essential kitchen staple and my favorites come from Morocco, but they are absurdly expensive, so feel free to buy something much more reasonable. The tiny nonpareil capers are often marketed as the best, but I don’t like them except as a garnish on smoked salmon and generally prefer the largest and most herbaceous that I can find. If salted, rinse the salt off, soak in water to cover for 20 minutes, and squeeze dry. If brined, rinse the brine off thoroughly, soak in hot water for a few minutes, and squeeze dry. There is currently a lot of silly snobbery about brined capers, but they can be delicious and are far preferable to tasteless or oversalted dry capers. I eat capers all summer and try to keep a handful, already soaked and squeezed, ready wrapped in a square of plastic wrap in the refrigerator. They’re astoundingly rich in quercetin, if that’s important to you, and they taste like essence of summer.

 

Harvesting Garlic

In a way the title of this post is very inaccurate, because I have been “harvesting garlic” since February  in the form of green garlic. But this is the time of year when I start to pull bulbs, because the extremely early Chinese Pink comes out of the ground now. So this is a good time to say something about the curing of garlic.

First, the variety matters. Chinese Pink doesn’t last that long for me and is mainly to tide me over until the main crop comes in, since it’s a good six weeks earlier than any other type that I grow.

Second, harvest at the right time. Watch for yellowing, withering leaves. Generally I harvest when there are four green leaves left, but Chinese Pink is prone to splitting and needs to be harvested earlier, when about the four lowest leaves are yellow. The picture below shows “split” garlic which has been left in the ground too long. It’s still useful but harder to peel and clean.

Third, DON’T cut off the stalks. The curing bulbs draw nourishment from the remaining leaves. Do, however, remove any bloomscapes. Also leave the roots intact but shake off soil. Brush loose dirt off the bulbs.

Fourth, DON’T leave them lying in the sun, where they will “cook” and be spoiled. After pulling the plants, lay them in single layers on a dry surface (I use flattened corrugated cardboard boxes that will later go into sheet mulch) and put out of direct light in a place with good air circulation. Leave for two weeks, turning the bulbs occasionally.

Now cut the withered tops off unless you grew a softneck garlic and want to make braids. My favorite types are all hardneck so no braids for me. The remaining surface dirt is now dry and can be brushed off with a soft brush, but don’t get fanatical with the brushing because you can damage the wrapper and impair the bulb’s ability to keep. Leave in the dim airy place and bring a few bulbs at a time into the kitchen.

When ready for curing, they will look like the picture below. Later on when you clean them up and bring them into the kitchen, they will look like the picture at the top of this post.

Before you start using your garlic, be sure to set aside the largest and best bulbs with the largest cloves for replanting.

Use your garlic.  A lot. This is the fresh clean-flavored garlic that makes recipes like Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic or Chicken with Fennel, Pernod, and Garlic such a pleasure to eat. Confit some and enjoy it on toasted sourdough bread or crackers, or alongside roast chicken, or in pepperonata. To confit garlic, peel a quart’s worth of cloves, put in a small heavy saucepan, cover with good extra virgin olive oil and add a heaping teaspoon of sea salt, bring to a simmer, and simmer slowly over low heat with an occasional gentle stir until the cloves just hold their shape but are soft and can be crushed easily with a spoon. If there is any hard “core,” keep simmering. Cool and store in a jar in the refrigerator. Be sure to keep the cloves covered with olive oil and it will keep a month or more. The confiting oil is a treasure, great in dressings or for drizzling.

The image of chicken and garlic above was borrowed from Food 52, my favorite cooking site.

For a far more detailed take on garlic curing and storage, review this excellent PDF from Boundary Garlic Farm.