Thursday, March 28, 2013

Egging us on

Spring is here but not much else is in a farmers' market. Except for that wonder of wonder foods: eggs! And wouldn't you know it: this is the moment we celebrate them in all their glory. The Easter egg.

There are many theories about why many cultures feast on eggs at the first sign of spring. The most obvious is that like spring, they represent new life. And like life they are round with no sign of beginning or end. (okay, roundish). Another theory dating to early Catholic Lenten practice is that eggs were considered a rich luxury food that had to be abandoned during the lean weeks of Lent, so Easter was the moment to splurge.  And the Mother Nature theory is that hens in colder climates weren't laying eggs in the snow but started again around the spring equinox.

As the symbol of renewal at this moment of spring fever, eggs get the royal treatment on a Seder table and in an Easter basket. They're roasted or boiled, dyed or painted, stuck whole (cooked of course) in the ring shaped Easter breads and cakes of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Chocolates are stuffed and molded to look like them.

This is not supercilious celebration. The egg may be our most perfect food. It comes in its own packaging straight from the source and can last a long time in proper circumstances. It can be boiled, steamed, fried, baked, even roasted. It's the critical binder for the delights of cakes, puddings and cookies. It's the key ingredient in genuine Caesar salad dressing, aioli and mayonnaise. It keeps the coating on the fried chicken.

It's a treasure chest of nutrients. The egg is perfect protein. It has the Vitamin D of sunshine that's hard to find in other foods. It's got calcium and enough magnesium to help us absorb it. It's loaded with trace minerals critical to our health: potassium, phosphorus, selenium, folate. And it's got the goods to keep our eyes from degenerating.

Yes, it's got some fat and cholesterol but by now science has discovered it's all good. Eat eggs.  Science has also discovered it's best not to eat industrially produced eggs which often come with their own salmonella and other horrible toxins. So get them from your local farmer whose chickens ate up the energy of your locale and purvey it back to you this way.

In lieu of all that messy egg dying, especially if you don't have kids, fill your Easter basket with elegantly marbled Chinese tea eggs. A recipe is in How to Fix a Leek...  Greet the morning of Resurrection with a frittata, an omelet you can bake in the oven in a pie pan and slice in wedges to serve 6 or 8 at once.

Greet any morning with a hard or soft boiled egg, a piece of seeded toast and some fruit for the perfect launch to a healthy day. Whip an egg into grated potatoes and onions to make potato pancakes for lunch (served with applesauce or sour cream). Lay a fried egg on a Spanish braise of chickpeas with garlicky greens for a meatless meal. Put yolks into rice pudding and whip the whites into meringues for dessert. Make an angel food cake. What you can do with a few eggs is joyously infinite.

Here's something I've been working on that uses eggs to advantage:

Leek Patties
 (Supposedly Bulgarian)

Makes 8, serves 4

6 lg leeks, white and light green parts only
1 tbsp fresh chives, minced
2 eggs, beaten
½-2/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
1 tsp coarse sea salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp corn or canola oil for frying
1 lemon

Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and crosswise and rinse to clean.
Put leeks in a large saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil.
Lower heat to simmer and cook uncovered about 25 minutes, until leeks are soft.
Drain well. Wrap leeks in a heavy towel to squeeze out as much excess water as possible.

Coarsely chop the leeks. Put in a bowl with the chives, salt and pepper. Stir in the breadcrumbs. (Enough to take up any remaining moisture in the leeks.) Blend in the eggs. 

Make 8 patties that are about ½ inch thick.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Arrange the patties in the pan so they don’t touch (you may have to do this in two batches) and cook until brown on the bottom side, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes so both sides are evenly browned. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.

Serve with a squirt of lemon juice and a wedge of lemon.
Optionally sprinkle minced fresh flat leaf parsley on the plate.
Can be served warm or cold as an appetizer, lunch or side dish. It's as versatile as an egg itself.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Those Other Greens

Late March makes for slim pickings at the Farmers' Market but spring is here and hope is on the way. Very soon now, our local farmers will be putting out herb plants for our gardens, our kitchens and our bodies.  Don't overlook these medical marvels.  Buy a few and find room for them in your life.

Here's are brief, very brief, reasons why you'll want at least the most basic and commonly available potted herbs.

This is the most common of all herbs and sadly, the one most frequently consigned to the side of a plate as garnish. No no. Parsley is incredibly nutritious and deserves to be eaten like any green vegetable, even its cousin, celery. It's loaded with hard to come by Vitamin K, full of Vitamin C and A, and even graced with a little iron.
Parsley contains oils that may inhibit cancer cells particularly in the lungs--just like kale and mustard greens. It's also packed with valuable antioxidants. Eat all you dare.

You can get curly parsley or flat leaf, also known as Italian parsley and best for cooking. When you see the words "green sauce" that usually means parsley based.  How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market has two green sauce recipes, one for mussels and one for chicken, so I won't repeat them here. Lots of chopped parsley brightens any dish of beans. And don't forget, the perennially popular Tabbouleh is traditionally made with as much parsley as bulghur.  It's in there as the summer coolant, vitamin pack and breath refresher.

Our word sage comes from the Latin for this plant, salvia, which comes out of the word  "save." That show the respect the ancients had for this very medicinal plant. It's one of the oldest known natural remedies. From the boondocks of history to our own time, sage has been used as a powerful antiseptic, astringent, anti-inflammatory and relaxant.  It appears particularly effective against night sweats and the hot flashes of menopause.  It's often brewed into a tea and the American Indians burn it to purify a room or a person's aura. The Medieval English included it in their famous song round: "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme."

In the kitchen, sage complements that earthy plant, mushrooms. It's often pared in autumn with butternut squash. I think it adds an appealing mysteriously smokey flavor to turkey, sometimes even grilled chicken. And you can burn it instead of incense.

The helpful properties of dill were already known back in ancient Egypt, a lot of them for such a seemingly delicate plant. Dill magically removes a lot of the acid that causes heartburn, essentially by strengthening the esophagus that can send it straight to the stomach for processing. It helps fight insomnia and its seeds when chewed are an instant remedy for bad breath. Dainty as its fronds may be, dill contains a lot of dietary fiber, and even more crucially, magnesium, a vital mineral for calcium absorption and a powerful antidote for diarrhea. Speaking of calcium,  a tbsp of dill has almost as much as a tbsp of milk.

In the kitchen, the fresh taste of dill brightens omelets, green salads, green beans, grilled fish, crab meat, and anything with beets or cucumbers. The seeds are a key ingredient in pickling.

This is a gift to us from the Greeks who prized it for its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. It helps remedy indigestion and cure yeast infections. It reduces stomach gas and can calm a churning stomach.
Marjoram is a sibling.

Oregano is of course the key herb for traditional Italian tomato sauces, and therefore pizza and meatballs. It's liberally sprinkled on grilled fish in Greece. It's key for tasty corn chowder and does wonders for potato salad.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Well, as far as I can see, with one working eye, the blog news is that organic tomatoes really do have more nutrients, farmers' markets are a bargain priced alternative to low income families, most wine is contaminated by fungicides so if you can find organic go for it but don't stop enjoying wine with your meals, and eating grains with beans, lentils, vegetables, fruits, eggs and yogurt is really good for you. In a major medical study recently released, the so-called Mediterranean diets trumps our junk food red meat fiesta yet again.

So here's hoping our farmers are planning right now to plant all sorts of legumes and lentils, root veggies and greens galore to put sunshine inside our bodies.  And here's hoping markets share their wealth with the financially challenged too.

Meanwhile, as spring breaks through in warmer latitudes and winter continues to grip the north and challenge farmers to bring anything to the market, here is something I've been working on as a goodbye salute to the cold season.

Polenta and Kale Layer Cake
Serves 6

2/3 cup polenta
3 cups water
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbsp minced roasted poblano pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup shredded or grated mozzarella cheese

*carnivore options
2 bunches kale
1 med white onion, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp pine nuts
¼ tsp salt
½ cup ricotta cheese (fat free is fine)

2 lg sweet potatoes
¼ tsp salt
2 cardamom pods, cracked or ¼ ground cardamom.
2 tbsp mascarpone

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
pinch of nutmeg
1 tbsp olive oil for the pan

Grease an 8 or 9” springform pan with 1 tbsp olive oil and set aside.
Preheat oven to 375º.

Peel and coarsely chop the sweet potatoes. Put in a pot and cover with water.
Add the salt and cardamom pods. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and cook until potatoes are soft, 12-15 minutes. 

Remove cardamom pods. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, put the sweet potatoes in a food processor. Add 1 tbsp of the cooking water and hold the rest. Add the mascarpone. Quickly puree.  Set aside.

Remove kale leaves from their thick stems. Wash and drain carefully.
Combine kale, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Using the pulse button, chop the kale into small pieces as though making pesto.
In a small skillet, heat 2 tbsp olive oil over medium/low heat. Add onions and black pepper. Sauté 5 minutes until onions are soft. 

Stir in the chopped kale mix. Sauté 3-5 minutes until kale is soft but still bright green. Remove from heat. Add salt and ricotta and blend well. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sweet potato water with 2 cups water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal and continue whisking until it is absorbed and the mixture starts to thicken, 5 minutes.

Add oregano, pepper flakes and minced poblano pepper. Continue cooking over low heat 2 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add mozzarella cheese, stirring as you go and continue cooking 3 more minutes so all cheese is melted.  Polenta should be thick and creamy now.

Cover the bottom of the oiled springform pan with an even layer of the polenta.
Cover the polenta layer with an even layer of the kale mixture.
Top with an even layer of the sweet potatoes.
Top with the grated parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake at 375º for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking 15-20 minutes until top is lightly brown.

Remove from heat. Cool in the pan 10-15 minutes. Remove sides of the pan.
Serve cut in wedges like a cake.

*Carnivores can add ½ cup chopped chorizo or pepperoni to the polenta or ½ cup chopped garlic sausage to the kale.