Saturday, September 29, 2012

Greening the table

Cool weather greens and orange squashes now dominate farmers' markets. I'll save the orange ideas for  October and say goodbye to September with the another easy way to fortify your body in all this changing weather with greens that survive it: chard, spinach, kale--and the ever stalwart dill. We can never have enough recipes for these incredibly nutritious, medicinal plants that many people still don't know. Kale, in most of its varied forms, is thought to be, bite for bite, the densest nutritional care package grown and known, yet a friend of mine who constantly eats in the fanciest restaurants never heard of it until last week when her 4-year-old granddaughter confided she liked kale. (The child likes it because it's been mixed in a baggie with olive oil and salt, then baked in the oven at 400º until it's essentially dried into crunchy "chips.")

Greens Ensemble for 6-8 (think of 4 people with leftovers)

Olive oil (enough to cover the bottom of your sauté pan)
1 bunch Swiss chard, thick stems removed
1 bunch spinach, washed, leaves only
1 bunch Tuscan/lacinto/blue kale, thick stems removed
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1 large onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp freshly ground or cracked black pepper
a pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar
salt to your taste (the cheese will be salty)
4 extra large eggs
1 heaping cup shredded or grated Parmesan, Pecorino or Asiago cheese
1/4 cup breadcrumbs

Heat the oven to 350º. Lightly oil a medium earthenware casserole or glass pie dish.
Chop the greens coarsely.  Cover the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil. Heat it over medium flame and add the greens--best a batch at a time until the preceding batch shrinks. Cook about 5 minutes until the greens are wilted, kale will be toughest. Blend in the dill and put the pot contents into the oiled casserole.

Pour a bit more oil in the saute pan and add the onion, garlic, black and red pepper. Cook over medium heat until the onion is soft. Add the pot contents to the greens. Add the vinegar and salt, and blend everything well.

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Blend the eggs into the greens.
Top the greens with the cheese, distributing it evenly.
Top the cheese with breadcrumbs.

Bake at 350º about 30-35 minutes or until the eggs are set and the cheese browned.
This should slice into wedges like a pie.

Serve warm, or even at room temperature tomorrow. Serve with pork chops or fried chicken--anything cooked on the grill or stovetop. If you are vegetarian, serve with a bean or chickpea salad. And if there are still fresh tomatoes to be had, everybody serve these greens with a tomato salad for a real blaze of color on your table.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Farmers Market Garlic could save your life

Just a reminder: to save your life, make every effort now to stock up on as much local farm grown garlic as you dare. There's plenty of it at farmer's markets as September ends, all sorts of varieties with varying degrees of hardiness. Any of them will keep you going strong.

Remember, garlic is a vital medicine for the body. Ancient people knew that; they said it dispelled demons, which probably meant parasites and bacteria that made people abnormal.  That smelly odor that puts some people off comes from the sulfur in it and sulfur is a wonder drug. Garlic can clean your lungs, kill bad bacteria in your gut and act as an antioxidant.  Here's a tidbit from a 2007 New York Times story, if you don't believe me:

"...researchers show that eating garlic appears to boost our natural supply of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is actually poisonous at high concentrations — it’s the same noxious byproduct of oil refining that smells like rotten eggs. But the body makes its own supply of the stuff, which acts as an antioxidant and transmits cellular signals that relax blood vessels and increase blood flow.

"In the latest study, performed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers extracted juice from supermarket garlic and added small amounts to human red blood cells. The cells immediately began emitting hydrogen sulfide, the scientists found. The power to boost hydrogen sulfide production may help explain why a garlic-rich diet appears to protect against various cancers, including breast, prostate and colon cancer, say the study authors. Higher hydrogen sulfide might also protect the heart, according to other experts. Although garlic has not consistently been shown to lower cholesterol levels, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine earlier this year found that injecting hydrogen sulfide into mice almost completely prevented the damage to heart muscle caused by a heart attack."

So don't fool around taking chances with the garlic you put into your body. You want as much locally grown nonpoisonous garlic as you can store. Don't go into the supermarket for any. Most garlic sold in big stores is now coming from China and much of it can be seriously toxic. If it isn't laced with all the heavy metals dumped into the soil--and remember, bulb crops like garlic grow down inside the soil where they soak up everything in it, it could be thoroughly laced with lethal pesticide residues or other chemical fertilizer residues the Chinese so liberally pump out without caring about the side effects. 

Worse, it's been revealed that some Chinese vendors marinate their garlic in formaldehyde to turn it bright white, thinking that's what we think garlic should look like. So if you're not keen on eating poison like formaldehyde, and have to buy garlic outside a trustworthy farmers market, go for garlic that's streaked with gray or that dull red. If it has a little local dirt on it, that's a good sign it could even be local and thus probably safe.

Another seriously good reason to shop at farmers' markets where you shake the hand that feeds you.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Farmers' Markets Can be Your Pharmacy

More and more research is confirming what some of us already suspected: vegetables and fruits are lifesavers. They have all the medicinal qualities of pills and chemotherapy and are of course much tastier and friendlier.  So think of it this way as Hippocrates did in his famous oath to doctors: "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food."

Latest news is that once a cancer appears in the body, its spread to other organs--metastasis--can be thwarted by the glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kohlrabi and kale; lycopene, which gives tomatoes their red color; and lupulone, a flavonoid in hops which is the essence of beer.  This potential to turn on metastasis-suppressor genes is distinct from  and possibly far more important than a vegetable's ability to act as an antioxidant.

This is only the beginning of understanding.  Last fall, British researchers found a compound in leafy greens that appears to be a critical factor for "keeping infections at bay and maintaining a healthy gut."

So think of your Farmers' Market as your local pharmacy and your insurance carrier all in one. Shop so you don't drop.

Easing into Autumn

As we passed the autumn equinox on Sept 21, we entered new produce time at our farmers markets. Gone are the Himalayan high piles of hot weather crops like eggplant and cucumbers, replaced by piles of various kale and bitter greens, mounds of orange squash and baskets of garlic, onions and leeks. So it's time to ease into cooler temperatures without blowing your winter wad of squashes and root vegetables. You don't want to be already sick of them by October, do you?

Stick to cool weather greens for now. Your body can use their super nutritional boost as it prepares for the winter slowdown. And if you cook them now, your freezer can save them for you to enjoy in February. Greens in February!

Here is a simple, tasty, surprisingly hearty and very nutritious way to do that: Kale and Lentil Soup. It uses much of what's most available just now: garlic, onion, carrots, and nicely answers the question I am so often asked: what do I do with kale? It's a very inexpensive pot luck contribution that will warm up a cool evening party. Plus it takes less than an hour to make, start to slurp.

Serves 4 hearty portions or 6 smaller ones

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp. cracked black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp celery seeds or 1/4 cup finely chopped celery leaves (available now at markets)
1 med onion, diced
3 whole cloves
2 med carrots, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
2 lg garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cup lentils, washed
pinch of cinnamon
4 cups vegetable broth (if it doesn't contain tomato, add 1 small roma tomato diced)
2 cups water
1 cup loosely packed chopped kale, no stems (I just now used 4 large leaves of Tuscan kale)
1-2 tsp salt (to your taste)
1/3 cup Ditalini pasta or very small macaroni
juice of 1/2 lg lemon
 a few sprigs of flat leaf parsley, chopped for garnish

Heat olive oil over medium flame in a large saucepan, casserole or small soup pot.
Add spices including celery and sauté 1 minute to flavor the oil.
Add onions and sauté 2-3 minutes until they are soft. Add cloves, carrots and garlic.
Sauté 3-5 minutes to soften.
Add lentils and cinnamon and stir to blend.
Add broth, water and then the kale.
Bring the soup to a boil over higher heat, reduce heat to medium low, cover the pot and cook 25-30 minutes.
Add salt, pasta and lemon juice. Add 1 cup of water if the soup looks too thick. Stir to blend. Cover and cook 15 minutes.
That's it!  Ladle into bowls and garnish with a pinch of the chopped parsley to serve.

Serve for lunch with a simple green salad that has some cheese in it or with a cucumber salad.
To turn this into a mighty vegetarian meal, serve with a slice of tomato or green tomato pie. Or serve with a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.  If you are not vegetarian, you can add sausage to the soup, or you can serve it before the meat course.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Saving for a Zany Day

There's nothing quite so joyful as recycling all the miscellanea in the fridge into something absolutely fabulous. And this point in September when the season is switching, new vegetables coming on, is the perfect time to scoop up all those farm fresh leftovers and recycle them into something to savor later on when you're way to busy to cook but need something to save the day. Do not throw those precious tidbits away, not even in compost.

I say this as someone who just cleaned out the refrigerator and in less than 30 minutes had such exquisitely thick and tasty minestrone soup, I wanted to eat it all instead of saving it for a snowy day. But what joy it will be to pull this from the freezer: pure and perfect soup stocked with the warmth of summer. I also have to say mine was stocked with a secret piece de resistance, a real Reggiano Parmigiano rind I had been saving for a moment like this. Once you taste minestrone laced with the richness of that cheese, you'll start collecting them like I now do. And the Italians do. (Store in the freezer.) I only had a tiny sliver of one but it still imparted plenty of magical flavor to my soup.

There is no fixed recipe for this treat. Just take all the leftover vegetables you find in the fridge. You're in luck if a tomato is among them. Hopefully also an onion. I had two inches of a leek, a handful of cooked green beans, a tomato, a small red onion, a piece of green pepper, 1 inch of a tiny eggplant (zucchini would be much better), a dying heart of celery and two smallish carrots. I also fortunately had leftover fresh basil and flat leaf parsley, necessities for this. Minestrone needs beans or lentils and I had a 1/2 cup canned cannellini beans just sitting there waiting to be useful. And they were. (The last time I threw this together I didn't have beans ready so I threw in raw brown lentils, which an Italian would do too.)

Gathering all that up was the hardest part. I covered the bottom of a large saucepan with olive oil and heated it over medium flame. I tossed in 1 tsp of dried oregano, 1 tsp dried rosemary and 1 tsp cracked black pepper to season it. Then I threw in the onion, minced, that shred of leek, also minced and the piece of green pepper chopped. While these were softening up, I sliced the carrot into thin strips, chopped the green beans and celery into bite sized pieces, and sliced the eggplant very thin. I threw all this into the pot, stirred and poured in a box of vegetable broth. Then I dunked that Parmigiano rind.

I seasoned the soup with a big sprinkle of red pepper flakes and a tsp of salt. I chopped the tomato, threw it in with all its juices and and left the soup to come to a boil. While waiting, I chopped the basil and parsley leaves and tossed them in. When the soup began to boil, I added 1/3 cup Ditalini, a very small pasta, but orzo will also work in a pinch. As I said, there is no fixed recipe here. In fact, at this point I decided to add water to make more soup and probably put in two cups. Finally I threw in those cooked cannellini beans. If I'd used lentils, they would've gone in with the vegetables because they need 20 minutes minimum to cook.

I let the soup boil 15 minutes to cook that ditalini, which helped to thicken it. The cheese rind fell apart, which is what it's supposed to do so it gets absorbed into the soup. The soup was done. Of course I had to taste it to adjust the salt and other seasonings, and that's when I found I couldn't stop tasting it. It was extraordinarily delicious. And it's going to be even more so when I dig into it later on and remember the summer that created it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Getting Crusty

As the days grow a bit cooler and the produces piles higher and higher, it's time to take a little more time to get creative with all those fruits and tomatoes. Last week when I overdosed on peaches, I found I just couldn't make one more crisp, not matter how much everybody loved it, not one more peach crisp. (although I did just put one in the freezer using up the peaches that were sitting in the fridge with no place to go. That taste of summer will make a very welcome dessert in winter chill.) So I started playing and came up with a winner: peaches and cream pie. Easy as pie!

For starters, I made a thick cookie dough crust. I quickly combined in a food processor 1 1/4 cups flour, 5 tbsp unsalted butter, a pinch of salt, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 cup brown sugar. When that was blended, I added an egg to bind it into clumps. I buttered a 9-10" pie dish and patted the dough into it--which for me is a lot easier than rolling. To be sure the crust would really brown, I pre-baked it at 350º for 10 minutes. (I had to put another pie plate on top to keep it from rising.)

While that was happening, I sliced up 3 large, juicy peaches and arranged those petal like slices in concentric circles over the pie crust--three layers. I sprinkled the peaches with cardamom and nutmeg. I also had a tiny bit of shredded coconut to use up so I threw it on top. So far so good. Now in a medium bowl, I whisked together 1 cup heavy cream (the first time I used plain, thick yogurt, which you can do, but I like the sweetness of the cream better) with two extra large egg yolks, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tbsp flour and 1 tsp vanilla and a splash of rose water. I poured this over the peaches. (It's so thick it has trouble getting down among them so you have to help by shaking the pie plate slightly.) I baked the peaches and cream pie at 350º about 35 minutes until the custard was set and lightly browned on top. Also the crust was brown around the edges. That was it! Didn't need to serve it with whipped cream or ice cream. The crust was as crisp as a cookie, the custard perfect with the sliced peaches. The first group who ate the first pie scarfed all down but two pieces which they greedily set aside for breakfast. The second group two days later took seconds and I finished the last piece for breakfast.

Then came the tomatoes and the idea of a tomato pie. Not a pizza, mind you, a real pie dish pie. I reviewed a pile of recipes, some with a double crust, some with sliced tomatoes instead of chopped, some with cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella, etc etc. And decided to make my pie up. It wasn't that hard. You can buy yourself a 9" pie crust or you can whip one up in a food processor as I did. I whizzed together 1 cup flour, 6 tbsp unsalted butter, a dash of vinegar (makes crust flaky) and a pinch of salt. Then I added 3 tbsp heavy cream to blend it all. I rolled this out for a 9" pie dish which I faithfully buttered before fitting it in. Thinking the tomatoes would be juicy, I brushed the crust with a beaten egg to "seal" it. I plunked a heavy weight on it and baked it at 350º for 10 minutes to be sure the bottom would be nice and crisp in the end.

As for the pie, I chopped a small red onion just plucked from the farmers market and spread that on the bottom of the warm pie crust. Then in a food processor I combined 8 large basil leaves, 1 clove garlic, 1 tbsp pine nuts and a sprinkle of black pepper into a paste which I spread over the onions. I cored 3 large tomatoes and cut them into chunks which I lifted off the board in order to leave all that juice behind and arranged them evenly in the pie shell. I sprinkled 1 tsp dried oregano over them, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes and 2 tbsp fine breadcrumbs that I hoped would soak up any excess juices. I did not put in salt because salt would've drawn all the juice from those tomatoes and made a very messy pie. Best to salt when eating. Finally, in a small bowl I combined 1 cup grated pecorino cheese (I happened to have that around but parmesan or asiago work just as well) with 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese and 3/4 cup mayonnaise (which was in all the recipes I read). This makes a gooey paste to be spread across the top of the pie. I drizzled 2 tsp fruity olive oil over the top. That was it! Baked at 350º about 35-40 minutes until the crust was brown, the tomatoes bubbly and the cheese top lightly browned. I ate this immediately with an ear of fresh corn and cucumber salad. I can see serving it with grilled chicken or flank steak. It serves 6 easily. If you aren't so anxious to dig right in, you can keep it overnight in the fridge and reheat it to serve the next day. This cooler time of September, it's a really warm, welcome way to gorge on all those precious tomatoes. And something different for a change.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Seeing Red

Now's the moment to take advantage of all those tomatoes flowing into farmers' markets, heirloom or not, because they're not going to be around for long. And winter is long. So for a few minutes on a rainy day, you can sock away some delicious tomato dishes to pull from the freezer in February. That's how you carry the goodness on and treat your body.

The easiest trick I know for preserving the color, taste and nutritional bounty of fresh tomatoes is a simple Provencal soup made almost entirely from them. All you need is a fresh onion diced, 1 tbsp dried thyme or 4-5 fresh sprigs, 4-6 tomatoes, a dried chili or pinch of red pepper flakes and about 15 minutes. Start by melting two tbsp of unsalted butter in a medium or large heavy gauge pot. Throw in the diced onion and thyme and sauté over medium low heat until the onion is soft. While it's cooking, chop the tomatoes. (If you really want to be fancy you can blanch them first in boiling water for 1 minute, run them under cold water and slip off their skins but I don't bother anymore.)

When the onions are soft and translucent, add the chopped tomatoes, some ground black pepper and the dried chili or flakes. Cover and cook over medium low heat until the tomatoes dissolve and you have what looks like thick sauce --depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes 5-10 minutes. Stir to blend, add salt to your taste and a handful of fresh parsley. You can now purée the soup--it should stay thick--and ladle it into freezer containers. Serve it with buttery garlic croutons and drink up the soul of summertime.

If you are more ambitious, you can make tomato jam, which usually goes on bread with cheese. It's especially tasty with the softer goat cheeses. I am still working on the optimum recipe for a tomato pie.

If you just plain want to eat those tomatoes right now but can't think how to be creative beyond mozzarella and basil salad, try stuffed tomatoes: You have to start with equally sized medium sized ripe tomatoes. Cut them open at the stem end and hollow them out, leaving a good inch for your container. For 6 tomatoes, cook up a cup of orzo according to package instructions, drain it and coat it with 1 tbsp olive oil and a pinch of salt.
Put the orzo in a large bowl, add 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro depending on your taste. Add 1 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 1 tbsp toasted pine nuts and 1 clove garlic minced. Add 4 scallions finely chopped and 1 can tuna fish packed in olive oil. Blend everything and dress it with the juice of 1/2 lemon and olive oil. Stuff this into the hollowed out tomatoes, arrange on a platter and serve with crusty bread and a platter of cheeses.