Archive for the ‘Vegetable dinners’ Category

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.

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.

Food for Thought: A Cookbook for Cooking and for Thinking

I have been  vegetable gardening all of my adult life, and own several shelves full of vegetable cookbooks, and I have a very high bar when it comes to buying new ones.  Actually, that’s not true. I buy new ones in a fairly promiscuous fashion because that is my addiction, but I have a very high bar indeed for recommending that other people spend their hard-earned money on them.

So  here’s what I have to say about  Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden: go buy it.  Now. Read it. Think about it.  It really will bring you to think in a new way about how to handle familiar vegetables.  Take salads, for instance. I like salads well enough but am almost never really excited by them.  They always seem a little predictable to me, and just throwing some meat, cheese, or eggy thing of some kind on top does not make them interesting in my view. McFadden’s  way of putting a substantial “pad” of seasoned nut butter sauce, savory seasoned whipped cream, whipped seasoned ricotta cheese, or other interesting  possibilities underneath the salad does make them seem new and like a real meal that I am happy to eat.

As good as the recipes are, I put this one in the “thinking cookbook” category,  i.e. an idea-rich cookbook that will affect the food you put on the table whether you were actually following a recipe from the cookbook or not.  Take the salad shown above, for example.  I had a lot of lettuce in the garden, including some dark red lettuce that still looked beautiful but had grown the slightest bit bitter  in hot weather.  I kept tasting bits of the leaves, thinking about what would make them taste good.  Ultimately, I whipped and seasoned some homegrown goat ricotta  with olive oil and salt, and smeared the plates with it, then arranged the red lettuce and some sweet green lettuce on top.  Then I put some of the ricotta mixture in the blender with an egg yolk and two cloves of roasted garlic, blended in more olive oil and some salt, and acidified it with lemon juice and white wine vinegar until it tasted just right, added some chopped marjoram because it seemed to fit in well, and used that as the dressing. I slivered shallot greens, soaked them in cold water briefly as McFadden recommends, pressed dry, and scattered them all over, and finished with warm leftover steak and bright sweet crunchy slivers of kumquat rind. The earthy rich ricotta dressing made the faintly bitter lettuce just right and complemented the steak beautifully, and dripped down to the whipped ricotta beneath to season it, while the kumquat rind added an electric zing.   Delicious and interesting to eat. It isn’t a McFadden recipe per se  but was entirely inspired by his methods and I would not have come up with it without reading his book.

The cooked vegetable recipes are very good too, as are the techniques. Just to name one, McFadden recommends grilling your vegetables “dry,” i.e. without oil, and then drizzling them with olive oil afterwards on the grounds that the burnt oil produces strange chemical flavors.   Even if you like the ones grilled in oil, I think you’ll like his method better. Try it and see.  I am also a fan of his section on pickles. These are not pickles that you can put on your shelf and keep forever. They are quick, delicate refrigerator pickles that serve as seasoning and garnish and add wonderful nuances to the flavor of vegetables.

This is a useful and excellent book at any price,  but I do wish to point out that the Kindle version is a special bargain and I highly recommend it.

Pleasures of the Grill: Oyster (and other) Mushrooms

A family member was admiring a picture of my oyster mushrooms, up to 8″ across, and asked if they were too big to eat. Not if you like to grill. I love a plateful of giant oyster mushrooms, as long as they were still fresh and moist and not dried out when picked. The big ones have leathery bases and need to have the stem (technically a stipe) trimmed off to the extent that a little semi-circle is taken out of the base.

Now the toughest part is gone. Clean the rest and rub it on both sides with basic steak marinade. Make sure that the marinade gets up in the gills, since this helps keep them moist while cooking. Sprinkle the gill side with a good smoked salt.

Heat the grill to about 300 degrees and sear nicely on the upper side. Turn and cook on the gill side until done, turning them 90 degrees midway if you want nice crosshatched sear marks. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Put the caps on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, gill side down. Sprinkle lavishly with grated Parmesan, making sure to sprinkle the areas of bare parchment paper to make the lacy garnish. Broil, turning the pan as necessary, until the cheese is just beginning to brown. Eat.

The argument could be made that there’s no point in fussing with crosshatched grill marks since they’re on the bottom and don’t show. This is a fair point, but in good spring weather it’s a pleasure to fuss a bit at the grill.

This is a good meal to share with vegetarians if you don’t use any fish sauce in the marinade. In my opinion the final cheese crusting adds a lot to the flavor and so it isn’t ideal for vegans, but try it if you feel so inclined. If you don’t have oyster mushrooms try portobellos, which come alive with some seasoning. If you find really big meaty fresh shiitakes, they are ideal for grilling whole. If you’re lucky enough to find some porcinis  in the woods or market in the fall, they are superb sliced thickly and grilled.

“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 Miscellany

Tonight I find myself eating a lovely and satisfying dinner out of the yard, and reflecting on a series of happy surprises.

First, I went to the shed to get a tool, and my latest mushroom laundry basket had a gorgeous huge clump of oysters across the top.

The tronchuda, or Portuguese kale, was still tender and sweet from night frosts, and there was a wild abundance of green garlic to cook with it because I finally planted enough to satisfy my taste for it.

The exquisite late Jeanne d’Arc crocuses were finishing the crocus season.

And the garden goods could be washed and prepped right in the garden where the water could do some good. This is an ordinary laundry sink, but I asked the nice man at the plumbing supply store to sell me the correct fittings to hook a garden hose to it. So the water can be turned on and off, and the water drains out into a bed that can really use the moisture. My ingenious yard man got me a 3 foot piece of hose with the correct fittings to attach to the fawcet at one end and the hose at the other, so there is no fumbling underneath when I want to use the sink. And it could be lifted and moved if I wanted the water to land somewhere else.

Life is good, and spring is good.

The Greens of Winter: Soup Base

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Earlier this week I walked through my frost-killed garden to see what was left. For the most part I don’t make any special effort to protect my garden in the fall because after a long summer I’m ready to move on to the things I do in the winter, so the pickings were slim, but I found lots of chicory, dandelion, chard, broccoli leaves, alfalfa tips, celery, and kale, along with green garlic and green onions, and some of the herbs were still in fine shape. I decided to make soup, and since I had a lot more greens than I remembered planting, it occurred to me to make a soup base that could sit in the freezer, ready at any time to be turned into soup in a hurry. To the garden ingredients I added a large onion and a largish handful of sun-dried tomatoes from earlier in the summer. You could also use a jar of dried tomatoes in oil, drained.  The celery was used from base to leaf tip. I used roughly equal volumes of all the greens types, about the equivalent of a medium-sized supermarket bunch of each.

The onion was sliced thinly and sautéed very slowly in olive oil while I washed and prepared the greens. I was aiming for a rich caramel color, which meant low heat and frequent stirring, which is no extra trouble if you’re in the kitchen anyway. I used my wok because I knew that the volume of sliced greens would be considerable. First the green garlic and green onions were cleaned, finely slivered, and held separately, then everything else was washed and midribs removed and cut in cross section into roughly 1/2″ slices.

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When the onion was a nice toffee color I added the chopped green alliums, cooked about another five minutes, then added the other greens and some more olive oil along with about a teaspoon of salt. Don’t stint on the olive oil. You want sautéed flavor, not steamed flavor.  The heat was turned up to medium and the whole mass stirred and turned with a wide wooden spoon about every five minutes to keep it cooking evenly. As soon as the greens were in the pan I ground the sun dried tomatoes into small powdery chunks in the blender and added them to the wok. They rehydrated well enough in the moisture from the leaves.  Keep cooking until the greens are soft when chewed.

When you have a darkened dense mass of soft greens, put the whole business in the food processor and grind to the finest paste that you can achieve. Taste. You want it on the salty side, because that helps with preservation and it’s going to be diluted later. Add more salt if needed. I prefer to use fish sauce rather than salt to season at this point because it adds a wonderful rich savor. I used about a tablespoon. Don’t use this if you might be serving vegetarians.

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Now cool your soup paste and pack it into one-cup containers, each of which makes about a quart of finished soup. Coat the top with olive oil, push lids on tightly, and freeze.

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When ready to use, put a quart of any kind of salt-free or low-salt broth you like in a saucepan, add a cup of soup paste, and simmer until thawed. Correct the texture with a stick blender if it needs smoothing out. Taste for seasoning and adjust in any way you like. The caramelized onions, deeply sautéed greens, and fish sauce gave a meaty-umami flavor to the potful I made for lunch today, so I salted to taste and added a swirl of fat from my homemade bacon and a generous sprinkling of thyme leaves, a meaty-umami herb if ever there was one. Yum. With toasted buttered slices of my low-carb fake-o cornbread, it made a perfect light healthy Thanksgiving brunch to lead into the excesses to come at dinner.

This basic formula can be varied endlessly according to what you like and have available. If you serve vegans at your table, using some miso rather than fish sauce and good olive oil for the final swirl with water or vegetable broth as the liquid would suit their needs while fully satisfying the omnivores. If you don’t like the brownish color, leave the tomatoes out and it will be more green. Pan-grilled small oyster or other mushrooms would make a good garnish. A fried or poached egg adds tremendous heft to soup if you want a richer meal, or some bacon lardons fried crisp would satisfy any ardent carnivore with a minimum of actual meat. You can add cow or coconut cream for a cream soup (try a toss of chopped fresh tarragon for the final garnish,) or some leftover tomato sauce for interesting tartness, or finish it with a handful of good freshly grated Parmesan along with olive oil and let the cheese dissolve in the hot soup. For a more Cretan effect, use crumbled feta and olive oil on top.  There are a hundred possibilities and you can get any of them from freezer to table in well under 20 minutes. Serve any kind of bready stuff that suits your diet alongside, and you and your table mates will be full. I say that a quart of soup is two servings, but I understand that normal people can serve three or four with a quart. Know your family’s tastes.

In my opinion the celery is necessary rather than optional, and I strongly advise including at least a small portion of bitter greens (dandelion and chicory in this case.) When making mixed greens, I’ve often noticed that a savory-meaty element is lost if I don’t include some bitter greens. The proportion is small and the final product isn’t bitter and is enjoyed be people who don’t like strong greens in other contexts. Besides, they’re so damn good for you.

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