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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

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Grapefruit for Breakfast

The icy wind freezes on my face as I make my way through the neighborhood on my early morning walk. The middle of winter greets us with frigid temperatures, icy roads and sidewalks, and cloudy, shortened days. Bringing winter clothing fashion to new heights, we layer on woolen sweaters. Soft, thick mittens and hats keep our fingers and ears warm. As I come into my kitchen from the stark outdoor greyness, the fresh yellows, oranges, and greens that emanate from the citrus bowl greet me.

It is citrus season, and its arrival could not be more welcomed and appreciated. I have been collecting as many varieties of citrus as I can find. Their colorful freshness adds a much needed sparkle to my menus.

A Little Citrus History

Many kinds of citrus find themselves into my kitchen each winter. These varieties are for the most part hybrids from the three original species, pomelos, mandarin oranges, and citron. The common citrus fruits that we consume every day such as lemons, limes, oranges, and clementines are all hybrids from these three parents.

Citrus originated in Asia, which has the perfect climate for it to thrive. As we have moved down through the centuries, both intentional and accidental mutations and hybridizations have caused the wide variety of citrus fruits we enjoy throughout the world today.

Pomelos

Recently I tasted one of these grandparents of the citrus family, the pomelo. I was surprised at its sweetness. When I included halved sections in a couscous salad, the pomelo added a cool, sweet counter to the toothsome couscous. The pomelo is so large that the meat from a single fruit is enough to meet the needs of the entire recipe.

Grapefruit

Grapefruit are a hybrid developed from an accidental cross between the pomelo and the sweet orange. Juicy ruby grapefruit sections are most often enjoyed unadorned with breakfast. However, I try to find as many ways as possible to include this delicious winter fruit into my winter cuisine. Some of my favorite uses include grapefruit sections in a salad of mesclun greens, squeezed for juice, or made into a grapefruit curd.

I probably received my love of grapefruit from my father. Every morning, like clockwork, he would meticulously carve out the sections of an entire grapefruit and enjoy them with his breakfast. This is one of the many favorite memories I have of him. He always had a large bag of grapefruit taking up space in his refrigerator, hardly leaving room for his other culinary obsessions, French cheese and pickled herring.

Meyer Lemons

Another seasonal favorite is Meyer lemons. They are juicy and sweet with tender, edible skins. I slice them into hearty braises, where they add a refreshing brightness.

Meyer lemons are delicious when slivered into paper thin slices for relishes or marmalade. Strips can be candied and used to garnish the top of sweet confections. Recently I made a relish with fresh lemon, crushed red pepper, red onion, chives, and Italian parsley. This made for a delicious embellishment on savory meat sandwiches. The season for these is not long, so if you see them in the grocery store, snap them up when you can; or wait until next year.

Blood Oranges

Moving on to yet another citrus jewel, blood oranges. Blood oranges are a mutation from a sweet orange and originally grew in Italy and Spain. The red meat of the orange is caused by the water-soluble pigment anthocyanin. I first discovered these beauties in Italy where one is seemingly able to buy fresh squeezed blood orange juice anywhere and often in the most unsuspecting places, even in the roadside convenience stores. It has always seemed so lavish to me that this delicacy is so pervasive and easily available. In the US, I have occasionally found blood oranges in the grocery stores in the winter, so keep your eyes peeled for them. Blood oranges are beautiful when made into a salad with shaved fennel bulb and red onions or simply fresh squeezed into juice for a very unusual and special breakfast juice.

Kumquats

The most recent addition to my “favorites list” are kumquats. Kumquats are small ovals, about the size of a large green olive. They are completely edible. Some enjoy popping these little orbs into their mouths, eating them whole and raw. I prefer to create a sort of spilling fruit compote to spoon on top of a round of Camembert or Brie. The sweet/savory contrast makes for an hors d’oeuvres that will never disappoint.

To make this, simply saute slices of kumquats, onions, and garlic in sizzling butter until soft. Add a little brown sugar, white wine, a pinch of red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Let this cook on low for a few minutes to thicken. Spoon the warm sauce on top of a round of room temperature cheese and serve with a crusty baguette. Eh voila, you have just made a gorgeous and delicious yet very easy appetizer.

Cara Cara Oranges

A citrus that looks a bit similar to the blood orange is the Cara Cara orange. These have pink flesh, thanks to the carotenoid lycopene. They are a relative newcomer to the citrus world. Discovered in 1976, it is believed they were a mutation from the Washington navel orange. The pink flesh of the Cara Cara oranges makes the most luscious pink orange marmalade. Paddington bear would even approve.

Fingered Citron

One of the weirdest looking types of citrus that I’ve come across is the fingered citron, or as it’s called in southeast Asia, Buddha’s hand. When grated, its fragrant skin makes for pungent zest. When used in breads, muffins, and cakes, it results in a fruit-forward lemony flavor. Another trait similar to citron is that fingered citrons have no pulp or juice. Rather, their assets lie in their ability to make you think your kitchen is a lemon grove because of their aromatic zest. Recently I used its zest in an Italian lemon almond cake, and it resulted in a delightful lemony flavor.

In this bleak midwinter, we have a refreshing recourse at the ready. A nutrient-packed collection of citrus fruits to enhance your menus, be it beverages, desserts, main dishes, salads, vegetables, hors d’oeuvres, or breads. Their fresh taste is certain to elevate everything they touch, your food as well as your spirits.

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A Year for Beans

“Never ever ever mess around with my greens. Especially the beans!” My sentiments exactly. This line from the musical Into the Woods echoed through my mind as I watched the beans twist and curl their way up the fences. This summer was, for me, an adventurous journey into the world of funky, heirloom beans. 

Too Many Kinds to Count

There were so many varieties, each with distinctive patterns and colors. White beans inside yellow pods, black or brown beans in green pods, pink stripes, purple stripes, deep purple; these are just a sampling of this summer’s collection. Even multiple continents made an appearance. There were beans from Italy, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even a bean developed in good ol’ Minnesota. 

I used the forgotten spaces of the fenceline to plant the pole bean varieties. I tucked the bush beans into open areas or spaces previously used by early spring vegetables like radishes.  Because beans need to be planted once the soil is warm, you can inter-plant them with plants like sugar snap peas and radishes that bear quickly in the spring and then are done. Beans mature much later than radishes or peas, so by planting them in the same space, you are maximizing your garden yield. 

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

Beans are part of the legume family. Legumes are a beneficial type of vegetable to plant throughout your garden because legumes fix nitrogen. They pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air, and then the bacteria attached to its roots convert the nitrogen into a form usable as a nutrient for the plant. When the plant is done, the usable forms (ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites) are available in the soil for the nearby plant roots to use. Biological nitrogen fixation is an example of nature using its own plants to fertilize itself. 

Companion Planting the Beans

This concept is also referred to as companion planting, where plants mutually benefit each other when planted next to one another, a practice that has been done for centuries. Native Americans mastered this age-old practice when they would plant a combination of vegetables they named “the three sisters.” First they buried corn kernels into the ground in the shape of small rings, and then they surrounded the corn with beans. Lastly, they planted squash in the spaces between the corn/bean rings. The beans fertilized the soil for the corn and squash, using the tall corn stalks as a trellis to climb. The squash formed a high thick carpet on the ground that cooled the roots of the beans and corn, allowing them to thrive. The squash’s thick prickly leaves also served as a deterrent for animals that might want to come and nibble on the crops. 

The Health of Beans

Beans are not only good for the soil; they are likewise good for your health. A wonderful source of the B vitamin folate, they are also high in fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium. As a nutrient-packed, low fat, and very inexpensive vegetable, let’s just say their return on investment is huge. For each single little bean buried into the sweet summer dirt, you will reap a hundredfold in harvest.

Harvesting and Storing

I began harvesting the long, thin French varieties in July. They add a delightful crunch to salads. You can steam them with a touch of butter and lemon or steam and quickly cool them to dip into aioli on an antipasto platter. The wax and purple varieties came next. These went into stir fries, soups, and casseroles. Finally, a breakpoint arrived where I halted harvesting them so the remaining could mature and become dried beans for this winter. 

This is where I find myself now. I have brought all the beans in from the garden. I have threshed the driest of the bunch to get the beans out of the stiff, dried pod. The rest find themselves spread out in the basement until they are also ready for threshing. 

I have pulled out a select few from each variety to plant again next year. I will store these in a cool spot until early next summer when I will plant them. The remaining dried beans are awaiting incorporation into our winter menu of hearty stews, casseroles, bean salads, and dips.

Garden grown beans offer a welcome consolation in these cool, dreary, autumn days. Whether it’s a cassoulet or a bowl of ham and bean soup, these are the gifts summer has given to winter. The memory of delicate purple flowers gracing the tips of vines exploring their way up and over the fenceline. Tiny little bean pods transforming into delicious adult counterparts. I taste these memories as I bring a spoonful to my lips. 

Yes, as the fairy tales have claimed, beans are certainly magical. And they are not to be messed with.

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For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

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That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

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Lettuce: The Shoulder Season Crop

My garden is planted. The carrots, beets, and kale are poking through the ground, the strawberries still little green orbs. Tiny flowers adorn the tomatoes and peppers in preparation for their future bounty. The rhubarb is mostly finished, having been transformed into many toothsome desserts. Alas, as far as gardens go, the middle of June is known as “shoulder season.” We are waiting, waiting for the vegetables we have planted to be laden with their bounty. Yet something is ready to be picked and eaten in all its tender beauty, lettuce.

A Time for Lettuce

My garden is bountiful with a host of lettuces. Purple and red varieties, lettuce with red speckles, lettuce with curly edges, and of course, green lettuce. These colorful leaves grace our gardens and plates.

This green loves to germinate and grow in the cool, wet weather of spring and early summer. In fact, it has a hard time germinating in the heat of midsummer. In the early spring and late fall, however, it goes to town.

The ground was barely free of snow when I planted the first seeds this spring. I’ll do this same thing again when the crisp days of fall are on the horizon. Planting in a sunny spot or one that gets a bit of afternoon sunshine will ensure that the plants quickly poke their little heads through the earth’s surface.

The spring rain showers help keep the ground moist. I usually scatter the seeds randomly in a square space. When they come up, they’ll be very crowded. I thin them as they grow, eventually leaving several inches between plants. In this way I get to harvest lettuce for weeks. I always leave a few plants to go to flower and then to seed. The flowers serve as food to the bees and little beneficial insects that drink their nectar. Once they go to seed, these seeds drop to become new plants next season.

Eating Well with Lettuce

We used to think that lettuce was basically just glorified water. We thought it did not have much nutritional value, but we now know this is absolutely not true. Lettuce and greens of all kinds are packed with nutrients, vitamins A and K, folate, and molydenum to name a few. Flavonoids and phenolic acids are just a couple of the antioxidants present that work their magic in you to help prevent diseases and keep you healthy.

If the nutritiousness does not propel you to make lettuce cups for your grilled salmon salad, the fresh crunchy flavor will. The taste of just picked lettuce is unlike any green I have tasted all winter. This is my launchpad into summer garden goodness.

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Garden lettuce is the first ingredient in any number of salads. It is the thick layer of crispness in my sandwiches. It adorns my platters of hors d’oeuvres. I fill the thicker romaine cups with endless variations of meat or vegetable salads.

Cleaning Garden Greens

One of the deterrents to eating garden lettuce is cleaning garden lettuce. I have found the fastest way to clean a pile of dirt-laden lettuce is to soak it in a sink full of cold water. Stir gently with your fingers to dislodge any soil from the leaves and stems. The dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink so that when you drain out the water, the dirt drains out first. I then refill the sink with cool water and repeat the process until the leaves are clean. This may take two or three rinses.

Finally, I scoop out the leaves and spin them in a salad spinner for a minute until they are dry. You can store it for a few days in the refrigerator by wrapping it loosely in a paper towel and sealing it in a plastic bag. Personally, I upped my intake dramatically once I started washing my lettuce in this way, and I always tend to use things faster that are washed and ready to go in the refrigerator.

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It is the season for eating lettuce. Just picked leaves of all stripes and colors is waiting for you. I, for one, will thoroughly enjoy waiting for the second wave of produce from my garden as long as I have lettuce on my plate.

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Mulberries: The Forgotten Fruit

An Unsuspecting Gift

When we moved into our house, a weird, little tree was growing in the corner of our garden. I didn’t think much about it for a couple of years. One June I noticed berries forming on the branches. They looked like little blackberries. After doing some research, I discovered that this was a White Mulberry tree and that the mulberries were edible. We picked the dark juicy berries and popped them in our mouths. They are not quite as sweet as a blackberry, but they have a very nice taste that the whole family has grown to love.

People tend think mulberries and blackberries are almost the same fruit. While they do look a bit alike, they are actually very different. In fact, mulberries are not even a berry. They are a fruit that grows on a deciduous tree, whereas blackberries are a true berry belonging to the rose botanical family.

Summer Pickings

Ever since the mulberries first appeared on our tree, from mid-June to mid-July, I stop and nibble on these little darlings every time I pass under the branches. In fact, you can count on me taking three to four minutes extra every time I walk under it. One of the most enjoyable things about this tree is to listen and watch the robins go to town in the branches. They sing and fight with each other, but mostly they are busy stuffing their little beaks full of the nutritious, little berries.

People often call the mulberry tree a weed because said birds deposit the seeds elsewhere. For my part, I am glad they do. That, no doubt, is how we got ours. Next time, however, I will tell the birds to plant it on the back corner of our yard instead of the front corner, as I do spend a bit of time sweeping the berries off our sidewalk!

White Mulberry trees are quite a common tree in our region, probably for the above reason. They have an interesting trait in that they have leaves of three distinctly different shapes. One is unlobed, one is shaped a bit like a mitten, and one can look a little like a two-thumbed mitten. The tree originated in China where its leaves are used as the main food for the silkworm. The leaves are edible for humans if cooked first. They can be used in wrapping foods as you would with a grape leaf.

Cooking with Mulberries

This year I’m drying the berries to add to muffins and granola. They are also great served fresh in both savory and sweet dishes. After slightly crushing them, they are delicious sprinkled with superfine sugar and served over a lemon curd tart. They add depth to icy drinks by muddling them with fresh mint leaves. They make for a sweet/savory fresh salsa with lime and cilantro. I enjoy using them as an interesting counter to the savory taste of a bok choi salad. For breakfast, they are a great addition to crepes with brie cheese and cinnamon. Creating with these tasty little berries has kept my creativity working overtime.

Mulberry, brie cheese, and cinnamon crepes.

I love the idea of eating such an interesting berry from a tree that was planted by those chatty, fat robins, that many consider a nuisance. While mulberries don’t come close to matching the sweetness of raspberries or strawberries, I am thoroughly enjoying having this tree around. It is a part of my edible landscape. It truly is a multi-purpose tree: it feeds us, feeds the robin population, keeps us entertained, looks good with strands of twinkle lights wrapped around its branches, and provides nice shade and vertical dimension to that corner of the yard. We don’t dance around it singing nursery rhymes– wait! Maybe we should do that as well…

Mulberries over a lemon curd pie with homemade whipped cream.