Monday, September 29, 2014

Garlic: Don't let a life saver poison you

As part of this mini series on the roots of autumn, here's a reminder to buy all the garlic you can store from your local farmers' market vendors. Even if it doesn't carry "organic" bragging rights, it's going to be a much safer bet than what you might pick up at the local supermarket.

Maybe you forgot or didn't even know in the first place but among the more shocking food practices of modern day China has been soaking its commercially grown garlic in formaldehyde to make sure it's dazzling bright white, the way we are supposed to imagine perfect garlic should be. And that's on top of the fact that Chinese garlic is being grown in highly toxic soils polluted by industrial chemicals and human waste.  Bulbs that grow under the ground, which is to say fatten in the soil, are 100% likely to absorb whatever poisons are in the soil around it.  In other words, the cheap Chinese garlic so abundant in chain supermarkets could be toxic.

Some supermarkets do post their garlic's country of origin. I've seen Argentina mentioned at Whole Foods but have no idea how to evaluate that product. Gilroy, CA used to be the garlic capital of the USA, producing at least 80% of what we all consumed before the 21st Century. Cheap Chinese product has seriously damaged that area but the farmers still grow good garlic. So when your farmers' market garlic runs out midwinter, at least look for supermarket garlic that says: Country of Origin USA. Chances are it's from Gilroy.

And you do want to eat garlic!  Yes it smells and yes that odor can haunt your breath. That's why it's been called Italian birth control. ;o) But that smell is sulfur and it's on your breath because sulfur doesn't get digested in the stomach. It goes straight to your lungs, which it cleans up just like the wonder drug sulfur is. So it could help prevent colds, maybe even the bronchial ailments of winter and flu. That sulfur also gets pumped into your bloodstream, which is why sweat can smell of garlic. It's cleaning up there too.

Easiest way to enjoy a clove of garlic and spread its wealth is to smash one with the back of a chef's knife or cleaver, peel it and mince it. Add the pieces to a simple but simply perfect salad dressing: 1 part Balsamic vinegar to 3 parts good quality olive oil.

Another super easy way to get garlic working for you is to smash the bulb on the counter to separate the cloves, peel them and strew them among some walnut sized potatoes and peeled baby carrots on a baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil on, sprinkle a pinch of salt and roast everything at 450º for 12 minutes, or until the potatoes, garlic and carrots are crunchy on the outside but soft inside. (Hints: line the sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. You can use a toaster oven baking pan if you're only doing this for 3 people.) Serve as a side dish.

You can really go for it with the famed Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, a roast chicken dish that proves how lusciously sweet garlic can become. You'd never know it was that smelly bulb.

Garlicky Bean Soup
Serves 2 - 3

2 cups cooked white beans
1 1/2 cups reserved bean cooking water*
1/4 cup olive oil
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley

Heat olive oil over gentle heat. Add chopped garlic. Let cook for a few minutes, but do not let it brown. Add the beans, and give a good stir. Add the water, and bring to a simmer. Let cook for about ten minutes, covered.

Take off the heat. Using an immersible blender, blend the soup just a bit. I like to have some whole beans floating around, but also like to give the watery broth a thickness.

Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

To serve, ladle into bowls, sprinkle with parsley and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top. If you want to make the dish even more filling, put a piece of toasted rustic bread at the bottom of the bowl. And if you want to add more garlic, rub the toast with a clove of garlic.

*If you are using canned beans, don’t use the water from the can. Instead, use water or else a light broth.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Okay, How to Fix a Leek

It's that leek time of year when the stalks are fresh, cheaply abundant and few people know how to take full advantage of the situation. Leeks add a unique soft, sweet onion flavor to whatever you cook. They don't require much fussing once you clean them. They put iron in your body and like their less sophisticated onion cousins, help your immune system--perfect right now at the change of season. So here are the easiest ways to fix a leek, and in some cases preserve it for winter enjoyment.

Basic Vichyoisse Soup aka Leek and Potato Soup
This is traditionally served cold but I've served it warm and nobody complained. ;o)
It doesn't freeze well.

two large and one small leek
2 potatoes
1 tsp  thyme
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 -1/2 cup milk or to gild this use cream or compromise for the creamy effect and use evaporated milk
salt and pepper

Clean the leeks carefully and chop.
Peel potatoes and cut into small pieces.
Melt butter in a pot over MEDIUM heat--NOT HIGHEST HEAT.
Put in leeks and thyme and cook until the leeks are covered with butter and soft.
Add potatoes, salt and pepper. Stir to cover potatoes with butter.
Add enough water to cover what is in the pot. You can also add vegetable broth if you prefer.
Cover the pot and cook on low heat until the potatoes are very soft.
Put what is in the pot into the food processor and blend until smooth.
Add the milk and stir to mix everything well.
Serve warm or cool.
You can chop parsley to put on top when serving.

Here's a Turkish leek soup with feta and dill you might prefer:
Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
3 med/lg leeks trimmed, chopped and washed
1 med red onion, peeled and diced
2½ cups vegetable broth or water
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 cup milk
½ tsp salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 oz. fresh feta, crumbled
Smoked paprika or ground chipotle chili powder or paprika for garnish

Heat oil and butter in a heavy pot over med heat. Add leeks and onions. Sauté them until soft, about 10 minutes.  
 Add 2/3 of the dill and broth or water. Blend all ingredients. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes.  
 Cool slightly and puree soup. Add milk, remaining dill, salt and pepper. Heat on simmer until warm. Do not boil.
 Ladle into serving bowls. Top each with crumbled feta and paprika or chili. You can also add any extra dill fronds or minced flat leaf parsley.

And finally, a third soup, the famous Scotch Broth, a one-pot heart and body warming combination of lamb, leeks and barley. This one will serve hearty bowls to 4 or 5.

1 lb lamb stew meat (cut from shoulder or breast is best)
optionally: lamb bones if you want to make a very rich broth
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves
1 medium thick leek, cleaned, slit in half and then chopped
2 medium or 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into very thin disks
1 small rutabaga (this is going to most of the flavor so don't omit it), peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/3 cup pearl barley
Salt and Pepper
Optionally, which means not traditionally because the Scots don't spice anything, 1 tsp ground cumin, broken piece of star anise and a pinch of ginger.

Put the lamb, onion and cloves into a medium size soup pot or heavy gauge lidded pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 1/2 hour, then skim off the foam and impurities. Cook another 15 minutes and skim off any additional foam and fat.

Add the leek, carrots and rutabaga with optional spices. Cook over low heat another 30 minutes.
At this point, you can stop and refrigerate until the next day or two. At this point also, remove any lamb bones you used.

Add barley, at least 1 tsp salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste. Cover and cook 30 minutes or until barley is tender. Serve piping hot.

NOTE: you can also put all ingredients but the barley in a slow cooker and forget about them for hours, then add barley 30 minutes before you want to eat.

Leeks, being soft and not pushy, make a fabulous silent partner for mushrooms in an omelet or a risotto.
They're terrific with ham in a quiche or omelet.

And here's a big winner: Leek Fritters, supposedly a Bulgarian recipe:

 serves 4

3 lg leeks, white and light green parts only
1 tbsp fresh chives, minced
1 tbsp freshly chopped dill
1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper to your taste
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, dill, salt and pepper. Stir in breadcrumbs. (Enough to take up any remaining moisture in the leeks.) Blend in the egg. 

Make 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.
Garnish with chopped flat leaf parsley
Can be served warm or at room temperature. 

The book, How to Fix a Leek... has a wonderful recipe for leeks with fresh salmon that I won't repeat here. And finally the first edition of that book had this great vegetable recipe:
Persian Braised Leeks for 4
8 leeks 1" in diameter
1/4 c olive oil
1 med onion, halved and sliced into thin rings
3 tbsp chopped fresh dill (almost 1/4 cup)
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 c vegetable or chicken broth
3 tbsp freshly squeeze lemon juice (almost 1/4 cup)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste

Cut root ends off leeks, also the green tops 2" above the white stem. Slit each 2/3 lengthwise (leaving 1" at the base) and run under warm water to clean.  Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion and saute until soft. Add leeks keeping them parallel and carefully coating them in the oil. Add everything else. Cover and simmer 20 minutes until leeks are tender. Arrange on a serving dish, pour the juices over the top and serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Onion, without the jokes

The onion is such a common ingredient in recipes, we probably take its ordinariness for granted.
We shouldn't because the onion is actually a nutritional powerhouse that can help power us from the heat of summer to the cold that's just ahead, and partly by heading off colds. That sharpness in the bulb was contributed by sulfur, the same sulfur that's a miracle drug to clean your lungs. Half a raw onion a day can reduce bad and raise beneficial cholesterol. Cooked onions are an anticoagulant, antibiotic, mild expectorant that cleans the lungs and a diabetic balancing aid.  They are thought to support bone density and connective tissue.  

So let's eat our onions. And let's save some for the months to come. Red (aka purple), white and yellow onions are at high tide right now in farmers' markets. Unwashed with their green tops cut off, these will stay healthy in your fridge a minimum of six weeks as long as they're not near potatoes. Onions can be saved for longer by pickling or cooking, cooking them into, say, onion soup that you can freeze. 

I prefer the sweeter red aka purple onions, especially when a recipe wants them raw in salad. If it's still warm, you can thinly slice them in a German cucumber salad, recipe in the book How to Fix a Leek... . No matter what the weather, you can enjoy them sliced into half rings in the fabulous American Fattoush salad, recipe posted on this blog May 2014 (Romaine, arugula, tomatoes, olives, feta, onion, mint and fried pita). In fact onions and mint make a wonderfully startling combination in any salad: chicken salad, Greek salad, the Nepali peanut salad recipe posted April 2014, my arugula salad with fresh dates, onion, mint, black plum, walnuts and salad turnips.

If you can get your hands on sweet white onions, slice them thinly into what I call Sandy's seaside submarine: a demi baguette with some of its insides pulled out so it can be filled with cream or goat or mascarpone cheese, fresh chives, freshly chopped dill, onions, capers, thinly sliced (lengthwise) cucumber, slices of smoked salmon, butter and topped with a bit of grated hard boiled egg and to really gild it, a touch of salmon caviar. But you really don't have to go that far for this to be absolutely delicious anyway.

Many European cultures have some version of onion pie. Many of them can be frozen for reheating in a hot oven--not a microwave which will uncrisp the crust. There's Alsatian flammekuche, the bacon onion "pizza" that's the forerunner of the original Quiche Lorraine: a cheese, bacon and onion tart. I've personally found flammekuche very hard to get right; quiche Lorraine is very easy and can stand a dash of chili if you want a little spark from it.  Pissaladiere is Provence's onion pizza, a rich tart of onions that have been caramelized from an hour's cooking and topped with salty anchovies and black olives. No cheese. Omitting those anchovies, not uncommon, makes this deliciously suitable for vegetarians. Since you can spread the dough into a large rectangular baking sheet, this is a perfect potluck or large party dish. I'm also about to test a British recipe for a pie of balsamic caramelized onions with feta. Stay tuned. 

If baking is not your thing, you can reread the post on cooking fish farmer's market style because you start with a thick bed of sauteed onions, probably the yellow ones.  Small white pearl onions are the other ingredient in France's famed beef bourguignon, a wonderfully warming but light fall and winter dish. You might also peel and core large yellow or white onions so you can stuff them with a mix of breadcrumbs, chopped black olives, pimento or your own chopped up roasted red pepper, thyme, oregano, freshly chopped parsley and sea salt. Splash with olive oil and bake covered in a pan lined with 1/4" water. at 350º until onions are soft, about 45 minutes. You can also microwave these in 5 minutes.

Then there are the creamed onions somebody brings to Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps an improvement on that is Onion Puree, here for 6:
2 lbs onions
1 cup water
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp dried thyme
pinch of ground cloves
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup heavy cream or creme fraiche
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp celery seed

Peel and slice onions very thin. Pile them into a large stainless or enamel (NOT aluminum) pot and add the water, thyme, bay leaf, cloves, celery seed, oil, salt and pepper. Over high heat, bring to a boil, stir, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook 35 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Sprinkle cornmeal evenly on top, then stir it in. Cover again and cook 15 more minutes, occasionally stirring. Once mixture is soft, whisk it into a puree. You can use an immersion blender if you prefer. Stir in the cream, bring the mixture almost to a boil and immediately remove from heat.  Serve immediately. It's a great foil for very spicy grilled meat or chicken. It's also perfect for a vegetarian platter with bitter greens and garlic, kidney bean chili and cornbread.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Farmers' Market Chitchat

So here's what we talk about at the local farmers' market:

The award winning artisanal goat cheese lady couldn't answer a customer's question about why goat cheese doesn't melt and kept the conversation going with me. "I've been trying to figure it out for years but nobody seems to know," she said. "And it's also true that goat cheese sticks to itself, like clay. So for sure, it's easier to clean up. I know that."  I said that might be why the French now use soft goat cheese in lieu of softened butter to dip their breakfast radishes in before rolling them in sea salt.  The cheese seems to adhere to the moist pink radishes.  "I'll have to try that," she said. "Sounds mighty good. But I'd still like to know why goat cheese behaves so differently from cow's milk cheeses."  I asked if it really matters... to her making the cheese and her fans gobbling it up. "Not really, "she admitted. "But I'd just like to know. I like mysteries solved."  

One of the newer organic farmers had puntarelle, a beloved and rare southern Italian chicory. He had absolutely no idea how to cook it; he'd just decided to grow it along with its cousins the radicchio and treviso that restaurants were buying.  Puntarelle was a seriously exciting Eureka! it's so hard to come by in California, gourmet cooks and chefs complain all the time. Admittedly the bunch I got was thin but it's enough to get going. Bitter greens are crucial to a healthy diet because their nutrient dense immune system builders, stimulate digestion and have no calories. Arugula is less exotic than Puntarelle as are  turnip greens, mustard greens, chicory, radicchio, dandelion and endive. Don't forget them.

Romans have an eponymous, legendary salad made from this particular winter green, Puntarelle. They strip the leaves and slice the stems lengthwise into thinnest strips. These are soaked in cold water for at least an hour so they soften and above all curl. Then the curlicues are dried and served with an anchovy garlic olive oil dressing. Nobody whose eaten bitter puntarelle served salty like this ever forgets. I'm on it for tonight!  The leaves, which look like the dandelion's twin, are good for sauteeing with lots of garlic. In fact that's what made me so excited about this find: in Puglia, the southern tip of Italy often called the heel of the boot, natives famously eat a noontime dish of mashed fava beans laced with bitter chicories--an extraordinarily healthy, lo cal and colorful meal with crusty bread and a chunk of hard cheese. I love it and keep cans of fava beans on hand. So now I can make the real thing...

(Canned fava beans are often sold by Arabic brands as Ful; I use Sahadi cans. You can empty the can into a pot and make delicious Ful (recipe in Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking,  or you can go a step further by cooking it a bit longer then pureeing it with extra olive oil before you add the garlic sauteed greens. )

Still high from the prospects promised by the puntarelle find, I went to the fruit man to check out what he had. "Not much," he said. "Just fresh crop of rhubarb."  Rhubarb redux!  What wonderful news. I spent much of late spring cooking it down with vanilla, star anise, currants and cardamom into a thick, tasty sauce for spicy fried chicken. Everybody wanted me to make them some. When I got really lazy I just stewed some up with raisins and orange juice for breakfast. Now it's back just when melons have disappeared throwing my daily breakfast fruit in jeopardy. I grabbed a pound for $3.00.

Then I got garlic I know isn't tainted by Chinese chemicals or night-soil like the cheap supermarket bulbs could be, and fresh ears of corn not genetically engineered with pesticide inside. My basket was heavy. "You certainly look very happy," someone said watching me head toward my car. "Yes," I said. It's only 9:30 and already It's been a banner day."