Posts Tagged ‘cook’s treat’

The Greens of Fall: Nasturtiums II

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After several light frosts and a couple of hard frosts, the nasturtiums in my front yard are still holding their leaves in good condition, and still blooming a bit.  They won’t last much longer though, so this is the time to take advantage of them.  They are always good in salads or used to make hand rolls as suggested in my last post, because they combine a snappy watercress peppery flavor with a tender texture.  Cooked, they lose a lot of their sharpness but remain delicious.

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I grow the trailing nasturtiums that wind so nicely among other things in the bed, and at this time of year I grab about the last foot of stem. I snap them off wherever the stem snaps cleanly, which is usually while they are still smaller than a pencil. I take everything above that into the kitchen  for cleaning. I wash them and lay them out on the cutting board. The flowers are devoured on the spot as a cook’s treat, or can be saved for the top of a salad.  What remains is cut crosswise into half-inch segments. It’s important to keep them out about this length, or the stems can seem fibrous.

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Now  stir the sections around a bit with your fingers, then lift off the leaves which are mostly on top and set them to one side, leaving most of the stem segments on the other. There will be a few of each item in the pile of the other, and it doesn’t matter.  This step is so you can give the stems a bit more cooking than the leaves.

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Now, cook them in any way that you would use other greens, cooking the stem sections for a couple of minutes longer than the leaves. I have two favorite ways. One is to sauté them fast in a tablespoon or so of hot flavorful olive oil, putting the stems in, sautéing for two minutes, then add in the leaves and sauté in for another minute.  Serve with salt and freshly ground pepper. Simple and good.

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My other favorite use for them is a quick sort of sweet and sour pickle, which I like with grilled meat or dishes in the Japanese fashion.   For a heaping a handful of chopped nasturtium, eat half a cup of water in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar and 1 tablespoon of sugar or to taste, or you can use artificial sweetener if it is one that does well with cooking.  And a scant teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. When it is boiling, put in the stems, boil for about two minutes, and the leaves, and take off the heat immediately and let it sit in the “pickling liquid” until room temperature.  serve immediately or keep in the refrigerator for a day or two.

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For my taste the flavors in this quick “pickle” are too strong to use it as a side dish, but you could always use less vinegar and sweetening and salt, and use it as a side dish if you prefer that. When I was growing up in the south, collards were sometimes cooked this way, and I seem to remember that they were good.

Some people think highly of the nasturtium as a medicinal herb. If you wish to research this, please keep in mind that the nasturtium flower we are dealing with here is Tropaeolum majus, while  Nasturtium officinale is actually watercress.  This is why we use botanical names; in the long run, it avoids a lot of confusion.   In my view, the fact that they are green and lovely in cold weather and taste good is reason enough to eat them.

 

A Hot Treat

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I love hot food, and one of my favorite snacks when other heat-lovers are around is stuffed jalapeños. Couldn’t be easier: slice 2 or 3 jalapeño chiles in half lengthwise, pull out the seeds and veins, salt liberally ( helps keep the heat in check,) put a piece of good cheddar about 1/2 inch square and two inches long in each half, and bake at 425 until done or cook on a part of the grill that you’re not cooking something else on, being careful not to burn the jalapeños. Eat with fingers. This amount of cheese will overflow a bit, causing crisp cheese crust to form on the baking pan. Yum. It’s low-carb and suitable for ketogenic eaters.
One split pepper makes a good cook’s treat when you have things in the oven anyway, and if you have a willing sous-chef don’t forget to roast a second one.
Jalapeños are good for growing in the front yard because they are sturdy and attractive. They may need a little judicious staking to keep them upright. They can get hot as blazes. The longer they’re left on the plant, the hotter they get. 1 or 2 plants per person are plenty.

Crazy Salad

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“‘Tis certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat…” Yeats
And so they do, sometimes crazier than others. The one shown above is one of my weirdest so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
When cooking dolmas recently I felt the need for a Cook’s Treat, and there were some nice grape leaves left over that I had no other immediate use for. I heated my little 6″ skillet over medium heat and, when hot, brushed a grape leaf generously with good olive oil on both sides and put it flat in the hot pan, pressing down a bit with a spatula to make sure the leaf cooked evenly. Flip and repeat. Put on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. If the heat is right, the leaf will cook in about 20 seconds or less per side, will be darkly browned in spots but not blackened anywhere, and will be crisp as an ultra-thin potato chip, with a light, delicate crunch and a hint of lemony-sorrel flavor. Have at least 3-4 extra leaves to get the heat right, but once the heat is adjusted, you can make and plate a serving in a couple of minutes. It is easy to do for two but would be fiddly for four. I like to oil all the leaves at once and then have nothing but the frying to concenrate on.
Why do it? Well, it’s different and it tastes good, at least if you like grape leaves and olive oil. The texture and flavor are not quite like anything else, and pleasant novel experiences delight me even when they’re minor. I can imagine a more substantial meze made by adding delicately spiced little fried meatballs to the plate. Little cubes of marinated feta would be another option.
Incidentally, the grape leaves that you use must be suitable for cooking. Please see my notes from my dolmas post on choosing grape leaves for cooking. A grape leaf that has papery unchewable fibers when raw will chew like a fried paper bag when fried.
I also tried frying a pruned tendril. The stemmy part was tough chewing. It looked charming in a rather baroque way, but probably should be considered a garnish rather than part of the Crazy Salad. That said, I ate mine.
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Unexpected Dolmas, and Notes on Grape Leaves

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The tiny dolmas that you see on the edge of the plate above were never meant to be a post; they were meant to be a sort of amuse-bouche incorporated onto the main plate. But they were so delicious that I ended up writing about them.
They are simplicity itself. For two servings, start with eight fresh grape leaves, chosen according to the notes below. You pull a splendid chunk of Mount Vikos feta out of its wrapper, or if you have a really good locally made feta, you drain a goodly chunk of it and cut slices about half an inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long, or smaller depending on the size of your grape leaves. You need eight slices. Center each slice on a grape leaf, put a large pinch of chopped dill or chopped fresh fennel on top, and roll up the dolmas. The fresh leaves are a bit stiff and you will have to coax them. Heat up a nonstick ceramic skillet, and when it’s good and hot put in about 3 tablespoons of good olive oil. After a few seconds for the oil to heat, put in the dolmas with the last fold downward, to hold it in place. Fry until browned but not blackened, flip, and brown the other side. Serve. Eat. Simple as that. I can’t help noticing that these would make a great Cook’s Treat, a meze for one, eaten standing while working on other aspects of a large meal.

Now, about catching your grape leaves. I don’t know why some are tender and tart and others are papery and  unchewable, but I do know that it’s imperative to taste a leaf from the plant before you try to use them in cooking. I have two wine grape vines, a Syrah and a merlot, that have delicious leaves even when they have been on the vine a while, and a Concord that has totally inedible leaves even when tried very young. But I have tasted wine grape leaves that were awful, so taste your own vine or the vine that you have (legal) access to. If the leaf chews up without much of a problem, you are good to go. If you are left chewing something that feels like a papery candy wrapper to the teeth, no skill on the cook’s part will overcome this and you are better off with commercial brined grape leaves.
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These are the leaves of my Concord vine, and they look perfect for stuffing, but don’t try to eat them unless you want an impaction.
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These are the leaves of my Syrah grape, and they look too deeply lobed to cook with, but they are tender and sorrel-sprightly to eat.

The Cook’s Treat: Lambs-quarters

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I am the cook in our household, and one of the reasons that I love my kitchen work is that I can have cook’s treats, little experimental dishes that I cook up while working on something else and eat standing up in the kitchen. They are something like impromptu tapas for one.

Recently I was preparing large quantities of tender lambs-quarters tips for the freezer, and began to speculate about how a handful of the tops could be turned into a cook’s treat. I have been very happy with some recent experiments that involved pan-frying hops shoots or scorzonera shoots over medium-high heat with just olive oil and salt, but hadn’t tried it with a leafy green vegetable.

I was delighted with the results. I chose about a dozen small tender tips, maybe three inches long on average, and washed them but didn’t make any special effort to dry them beyond setting them on a towel to drain.  While washing them, I set my little 7 inch skillet over medium high heat to heat up. When the pan was hot, and my greens were washed and drained, I put in a glug of good olive oil. I never measure olive oil, but I would guess that the glug that looks right in my small skillet is about 2 tablespoons. You do need enough oil in the pan for the greens to be able to fry in spots. Wearing an apron and standing back a bit from the stove, I threw the greens into the skillet. They spat and hissed ferociously. After a minute, I sprinkled on a generous pinch of salt and turned them roughly. After another minute I turned the heat down to medium and continued to turn them over every minute or two until the stems were tender enough to eat and many ( but not all) of the leaves were browned and crisp. I turned them out onto a small plate, sprinkled on a bit of Fleur de Sel, and ate them hot in between other kitchen tasks. Yum. The flavor is fuller and maybe slightly more bitter than mild lambs-quarters can usually reach, and the crisped leaves crunch delicately between your teeth, like very thin ice.
They have to have enough space in the pan to crisp up and not steam each other into softness. I think that my large skillet would probably hold enough for three people, but not more. To serve more people, possibly one batch could stay hot in the oven while the next was frying, but I haven’t tried it yet. I do know that from thought to finished cook’s treat took about seven minutes, and that the cook, thus treated, returned to her kitchen tasks very happily.

Addendum: I did try making it for more people, and the hold-in-the-oven idea doesn’t work, I regret to say. The greens rapidly go soft, and taste fine in a toasty way but the delicate crunch is lost. So this is a treat for one or two people. But then, it’s very romantic to have a special treat that simply can’t be shared with a larger group.