Posts Tagged ‘herbs’

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.

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.

Wild or Cultivated? Both. Also Delicious.

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As a general rule, I try not to review cookbooks until I have owned them for at least a year.  I buy them at retail, paying the same price that my readers will eventually pay, and then I read them, cook from them and think about them.   Many cookbooks that seemed very enticing when I first brought them home are relegated to distant shelves a year later.

This one still has a prominent place at my bedside, which is my favorite place for reading and thinking about food. Chef Emmons  writes about a year that she spent cooking from a wildly varied organic vegetable farm, Eva’s Farm.  This farm seems to be doing on a very large scale what I am trying to do on my property on a very small scale, i.e. there is a little bit of everything and no clear line between the cultivated plants and the wildlings.  Lambsquarters and nettles are given the same culinary consideration as spinach and chard, but there is no particular emphasis on their wildness; they’re just there.  This is absolutely as it should be, in my view. The difference between a cultivated plant and a weed is a rather slight one.

The recipes read as an ongoing series of seasonal improvisations on the level of “see it growing, cook it, eat it.”  They certainly work if you want to follow them closely, but in my view are better read as a vision of the garden through the eye of a cook, who might see infinite possibilities but can only cook one of them at a time. There is an emphasis on frugality but not an obsession with it. The use of herbs in lavish free-form ways is a delightful subtext. The sidebars are full of interesting thoughts about farming, cooking, and just being alive. The recipes include meat and dairy products and, in general, everything that might grow on a vegetable farm or be bartered for.

In brief, I love this book, use it, and recommend it. I put it aside this winter, but when the first greens showed above ground, it was back at my bedside. It looks a bit worn and has a food stain on the cover, which tends to distinguish the cookbooks that I read from the ones that I use.

The greens of fall: Nasturtium

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With the first frost behind us, there are parts of the garden that are just getting into full swing. This is the second great greens season. During the summer I enjoy the beauty of nasturtiums and put the flowers in salads frequently, as well as using the leaves here and there. After a frost, flower production slows way down but leaf production increases, and this is the time to use these wonderful tender leaves with the flavor of watercress. I use them fairly simply. The largest ones always become hand rolls, and my favorite things to put in them are cream cheese with capers and some of their own blossoms, slivered sushi salmon with pickled ginger and other accompaniments, and smoked salmon. I use two leaves stacked to make up each role so that you get a good watercressy flavor in each bite.
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The smaller leaves go into quickly sautéed mixtures of greens and herbs that flavor omelettes. Green garlic is available again this time of year after the summer hiatus, and I like to chop up a small stalk of it leaves and all, chop up a packed pint of the smaller nasturtium leaves and a celery leaf or two chopped fine, and sauté them together quickly in butter and put them in an omelette of eggs from my own hens. Delicious. If you care to gild the lily by adding slivered smoked salmon and bits of cream cheese to the filling, it only gets better. If you can eat outside in the clear October sunlight, that’s best of all.
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Fennel in the Garden and Kitchen; a Nose-to-Tail Herb

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Fennel carries the true taste of summer. I love fennel and always have it around, and my favorite form, the only variety that I keep these days, is the subtly metallic bronze fennel. If you want fennel bulbs you will have to grow a bulbing type, but my interest is in other parts of the plant so the bronze suits all my purposes.
The first pleasure it offers is aesthetic: this is a lovely plant to have around. The color isn’t really bronze but a soft coppery-purple, and when hung with drops from a summer rain it is nothing short of breathtaking, in a quiet way. When dry, it is furry like a cat until the stalks form, and a little later the umbels of tiny yellow-green blooms look surprisingly pretty against the darker background. It would pass muster as a front yard edible in the most exacting neighborhood.
Second, it is beautifully aromatic. I brush my hand down a frond every time I pass it to inhale the anise-y scent.
Third, it’s delicious. I can’t understand why so few people eat their bronze fennel. I admit that my main use of it is to chew up a frond while weeding or doing other garden tasks. The resiny rush is succeeded by a taste of intense sweetness and herbal licorice. I realized years ago, when going through a Greek cookbook binge, that fennel and not dill is a primary seasoning herb for horta, the greens mixture that forms a part of so many Cretan meals and snacks. A generous handful of chopped fennel fronds, sautéed with other aromatics, gives the right flavor to a batch of greens mixture. Chopped fronds are also an essential part of fish marinades and rubs, in my view, and can be delicious on chicken. A little dab of herb salad, made from chopped bronze fennel and chives or garlic chives and dressed with a very good vinaigrette, is good as a seasoning garnish alongside fish or chicken. Chopped fennel fronds are lovely in mayonnaise to sit atop grilled salmon, or yo dress cold fish salad. When grilling fish, consider putting the larger stems of fennel across the grill to make aromatic smoke. I love a small handful of chopped fronds in salads. This is a nose-to-tail herb, since besides using the leaves and stalks you can collect the pollen if you have enough plants (fennel pollen is a common aromatic seasoning in Tuscany,) and the seeds can also be collected for culinary use. One cookbook writer said that she made an anise-flavored pesto from blanched bronze fennel fronds, and that sounds delicious too, although I haven’t tried it yet. On days when I’ve worked late in the garden and the late sunset finds me hot and dirty and with a poor appetite from the heat, I can throw together smoked salmon crostinis with fennel:

Cut a few diagonal slices off a good baguette or, if you are ketogenic, cut a few thin slices of ketogenic coconut bread. Toast them, spread with green mayo Or your own favorite tarragon-seasoned mayonnaise, put on one thick or two thin slices of smoked wild-caught sockeye salmon, smear with some mascarpone or creme fraiche, and top each with a couple of generous pinches of  chopped fennel. It takes five minutes, it’s cool and soothing, and yum.

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Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere long ago that fennel stalks coated with tallow were burned to summon good witches, and mullein stalks were used the same way to summon bad witches, unless maybe it was the other way around. So if you want to try it, you’ll need to get straight which is which. But I can say from experience that a couple of dried fennel stalks tossed on a dying fire in the fall give a lovely aromatic end to the evening that doesn’t summon anything but contentment and sleep.
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Seasonal Reminder:Tarragon

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Tarragon is at its beautiful peak in my garden, and if you have a goodly bush of it yourself, don’t forget to fill a jar with sprigs and cover with wine vinegar so that your salads next winter will carry that delicious flavor. Your own red wine vinegar is preferable but any good grade of wine vinegar will do. If you don’t already have a favorite vinaigrette recipe, try my Opinionated Vinaigrette.