Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farro with farmers' market greens and vegetables

I went to a party last night carrying a big bowl of farro salad and it turned out to be such a hit, three women asked me if the recipe was in my book How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market. They were very disappointed it wasn't. But how could it have been? Farro, the wheat berry of ancient Rome, is not a local farmers' market product; it mostly comes from northern Italy, places like Umbria and the Abruzzo. Also I was inventing that salad as I went along, ad libbing to get something very colorful and flavorful, appealing to the eye and stomach. I also wanted it to be very healthy.

But I don't like to disappoint. So here's essentially what I did. I cooked up a package of Umbrian farro found at a high end supermarket: in boiling heavily salted water for 15 minutes, just like pasta. In this case though, I flavored that water with peppercorns and celery seed so the already nutty farro would have even more distinct taste.

While the farro was cooking, I roasted a small head of cauliflower--broken into florets, and a red bell pepper, both doused lightly in olive oil, for 15 minutes at 450 degrees. And in a food processor, I chopped a bunch of flat leaf parsley, a bunch of arugula, a bunch of young purple onions in the fat scallion stage and three garlic cloves. By hand, I diced a large, juicy tomato, and then the roasted red pepper. I cut the cauliflower florets into tiny bite-size pieces. All those greens and vegetables had been purchased two hours earlier from my local farmers' market.

Once the farro was drained and cool, I put it in my large serving bowl and tossed in the dark green contents of the food processor and the chopped vegetables, red and white. The effect was confetti, which is to say delightful. I heavily salted and peppered. I had in front of me a picture of perfect health: grains and greens with Vitamin A and C loaded vegetables.

Then I whisked together a tsp of capers, the juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 tsp zest of that lemon, 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar and 1/2 cup very fruity olive oil. Something like that because I don't really measure. I wanted a salty, slightly tangy vinegar taste to brighten the nutty farro.

And somehow that large bowl of a vivid and vivacious salad came together in a half hour, perfect for a summer night. I ate the little leftover for lunch today with some Kalamata olives and a side of homemade tzatsiki flavored with mint instead of dill. It's all gone now but it's definitely a keeper.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Old King Kohl…rabi

I did a cooking demonstration and book signing this past weekend and the most mentioned and queried product included in my book was kohlrabi. It’s that outlandish looking light green or purple balloon now appearing regularly at farmers’ markets, with or without its leaves. Some people remembered eating it with immigrant relatives, others wondered what it is.

It is crisp like an apple or water chestnut and bittersweet, although its flavor could best be described as meek and mild. We use its German name, which literally means cabbage turnip, and indeed it is a cross between the two. It’s not however an underground bulb like its turnip ancestor. It grows above ground like a cabbage but throws up turnip-like leaves that make it look like a hot air balloon.

Frankly, I knew little about kohlrabi myself until a German friend came to visit me and immediately scooped up a few at our farmers’ market. She sliced one raw into salad to add delectable crunch. She diced another and sautéed it with onions and potatoes for a very tasty side dish with fish one night and chicken another. She grated it with carrots into slaw. I was hooked.

Kohlrabi is an ancient vegetable known to Pliny the Elder and Apicius, who in imperial Rome wrote our oldest known Western world cookbook. Charlemagne, who when crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD ordered kohlrabi to be grown in all lands under his reign. It eventually made its way into Northern India with the English Raj and more recently into the cuisines of Israel and China.

Kohlrabi was actually king of kitchens from India to Sweden, for peers and peasants alike, until Columbus discovered America and its potatoes. It’s fallen in stature but it’s still beloved from South Asia (especially in Kashmir) to the North Sea and in parts of Africa. And why not? It’s full of vitamin C, potassium, calcium and dietary fiber, but not calories. And it lasts uncut in the refrigerator up to a month while you figure out how you want to serve it.

Kohlrabi can be treated like potatoes: fried, mashed, stuffed and baked. It can be prepared like cabbage: grated, as I said, into slaw. I use the large slicing side of a stand up grater or a strong peeler to make fat curly-cue strips, do the same with a few carrots and a daikon, and dress the slaw with cider vinegar with a splash of oil and dill seeds. Salt and pepper of course. It’s a no brainer, low cost preparation surprisingly refreshing on a hot day or beside a burger.

Kohlrabi is best when small and purple ones are said to be sweeter than the green. But there is a caveat: like asparagus, cabbages and even potatoes, they have a juicy white chemical, oxalate, that can induce swelling in the human body. The week I spent kitchen testing kohlrabi recipes for my book and ate about ten of them, my left index finger swelled miserably and ached, so I can attest to this.

Those with arthritis or gout may want to avoid it. Those who don’t suffer like that should just not fall too far in love with this modestly amazing vegetable and gorge on too many.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Keeping your cool

The extended weeks of withering heat we've been having may be unusual for New England but they're the norm in the eastern part of the Mediterranean where cultures have learned to cope by eating oily, salty foods. That's right: oily, salty foods--but not the no-no oily salty industrialized fare of our mass produced culture. I'm talking about vegetables grilled and braised in olive oil, fish served with capers, everything accompanied by salty cheese and olives. The salt helps the body retain moisture while it's sweating and the oil lubes joints so membranes don't dry out. It's food as efficient fuel.

In this light, look at the strategic brilliance of pesto. Its name derives from the pestle, the heavy implement that grinds ingredients in a mortar--for medicine or food or actually both since historically they have always been one and the same. Although we see it as deceivingly simple and ordinary, pesto is a concoction of fresh vitamin packed greens (basil), protein packed nuts (pine nuts), antibiotic garlic, salty protein filled cheese (usually Reggiano Parmesano or Pecorino) and lots of lubricating olive oil. Everything the body needs on a steamy day.

Here's a great way to benefit from it. Get a pound of fresh peas from the farmers' market and shell them. Put the pods in the water you boil for the pasta and when it's rapidly boiling, pull them out. They will have flavored that water. Cook up a mess of small pasta like ditalini or rotini or those small squiggles now available from Puglia. Three minutes before it's ready throw in the peas. Drain and rinse and combine the peas and pasta with fresh black pepper, cooked Maine shrimp or a roasted white fish and fresh pesto. Mound on fresh lettuce from the market and enjoy your lunch.

So now is also the time to braise, say, a pound of green beans in 1/2 cup olive oil with lots of garlic, onions, tomatoes, parsley and dill until they're soft. Chill and serve--perhaps with real feta (which should be slightly salty) and olives and a mound of fresh crabmeat blended with capers, parsley and lemon juice.

Or look up recipes for plaki or the Turkish classic cold and oily eggplant dish: imam bayildi. Or simply slice zucchini, eggplant and bell peppers into long strips and lavishly brush them with olive oil. Sprinkle salt over them and grill until soft. Then brush again with olive oil and serve garnished with chopped olives.

Or try roasting/baking a fresh caught halibut or cod or even flounder Greek or Yucatan style in a baking dish coated with olive oil. Put chopped tomatoes, pitted black or green olives, parsley, ground black pepper and capers on top and bake at 350 degrees until the fish is flaky. Serve with roasted or grilled new potatoes.

Cucumbers are here and to be cool as one of them, finely chop a few picklers into some thick yogurt. Toss in a minced garlic clove, salt and a chopped fresh mint. Serve as a salad.

In other words, you don't have to sweat it--even in the kitchen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

No grill but still...

It's mid July and the heat is on. Not just from summer sun but all those grills fired up for Father's Day. The patio in most households has probably now become the kitchen since throwing food on the grill is the easiest, most popular way to eat in the heat. Except at my house. I don't have a grill. I'm not against them, I just can't have one more thing to take care of. I don't want to be worrying about full propane canisters and the cancerous chemicals in briquets. And frankly, since everybody else grills when I visit them, I don't really miss it. The oven, indeed even the toaster oven, makes a very handy substitute.

Take those small potatoes showing up now at markets. I collect the bite-sized ones, line the toaster oven tray with foil, turn up the bake temperature to 450 and pile them on. I lightly salt and sprinkle olive oil over them, since oil will conduct heat into their core. Sometimes I toss a pinch of dried rosemary over them too. Ten minutes at 450 puts a smoky grill-like crunch in the skin and makes the potato itself melt in your mouth. Serve hot in a bowl with freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of good salt like Fleur de Sel. Sprinkle on chopped chives or parsley as eye catching garnish if you like.

Better yet, mix up the baby potatoes with baby onions and cloves of garlic.
Or don't just serve them plain. Serve them as an hors d'oeuvre with toothpicks, surrounded by a colorful array of dips: sourcream/onion, pesto, smoked salmon with dill and capers blended into whipped cream cheese, chili sauce, yogurt with cucumbers and garlic and mint, red pepper relish, black olive paste thinned with pureed cooked white beans.

You can give asparagus, shallots, red bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini and pattypan squash the same 450 oven roast "grill thrill" for 10 minutes too. Cut the peppers into thick strips, the eggplant into thin slices, zucchini into 1/4" thick slices.

One of the easiest, tastiest treats I know is to slice a yam (or sweet potato) or two on the diagonal into 1/8" thick disks, brush each on one side with a half olive oil and half soy sauce mix and roast the same way for 10-12 minutes until tender to a fork. You can treat eggplant this way too. This healthy preparation makes a great patio/porch hors d'oeuvre.

Great food with great taste doesn't get easier--or more delightful. About six years ago now, I told a friend's daughter to roast vegetables this way so she could impress the guy she'd decided was a keeper. Instead of going out to dinner on the third date, she volunteered to cook and produced roast leg of lamb with roasted vegetables. When four months later I actually met her chosen at the engagement party, the very first thing he exclaimed was: "Did you know she is an amazing cook ?!?!"