Carrot Tops Are…Edible! And Make Great Pesto.

Did you know that? Did you? Did you huh?

I'm EDIBLE? --he seemed to say. Photo from rottentomatoes.com

I’m EDIBLE? –he seemed to say.
Photo from rottentomatoes.com

No. Not that kind of Carrot Top. (Not without a nice, long braise, anyway, and who has that kind of time?)

Thaaaat's more like it.

Thaaaat’s more like it.

This kind of carrot top. Yes way! I know, right? What I had always sort of considered a kind of…curious produce by-product is, in its own right, an overlooked potential addition to the dinner table. We got our CSA delivery this week, brimming with all sorts of vegetal goodness, and great fluffy frondy carrots.  Hmmm, I said to myself. It would be a shame if this went to waste. I wonder…. To the internets!

Totally edible. Not poisonous. The stems are a little woody, so they require a bit of work, but in general? Delicious. Kind of carroty and sweet and bright, with a little bit of a parsley bouquet that you almost taste in your nose. I came across a few recipes for pesto, but they served as inspiration more than an actual recipe, so I’m going to claim full ownership of this one.  :) Take:

  • One bunch farmer’s market/CSA carrot greens from your delicious carrot bunch, which you’ll use for dinner (if you have a smallish bunch, like mine, have some additional spinach or baby arugula on hand)
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1 handful (about a half a cup) walnuts, toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 handful parsley
  • 3 slices cotija (or some other crumbly, salty cheese, like pecorino romano)
  • Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste. If you use cotija cheese, DO NOT USE SALT until the very end, if you need it. The cheese is very salty.
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey, for balance
  • Olive oil, as needed

First things first: Toss walnuts in a dry pan and toast them for five minutes, or until they’re fragrant and their flavors have deepened, but they’re not burnt. If you make more than you need, you’ll have extra to snack on, so don’t worry about fastidiously measuring them. Set aside to cool.

Clean the carrots and carrot tops. Chop the carrot stalks into bite-size-ish pieces.

They're so fresh they practically emanate goodness.

They’re so fresh they practically emanate goodness.

If you have mostly stalks (like I had) rather than the airy fronds, you may want to blanch the stalks for a minute or two in a pot of boiling water, just to soften them up and make them more pliable. Drain them, then assemble your goods.

Garlic, cheese, lemon, carrot greens. Sounds like a party!

Garlic, cheese, lemon, carrot greens. Sounds like a party!

A word about cotija cheese: Cotija is a dry, crumbly Mexican cow’s milk cheese used like parmesan. It’s crumbly. It doesn’t melt. It’s salty-salty. It’s DELICIOUS if you crumble it on top of things. And it’s got a brisk, clean taste. I chose it partly because I have it in my fridge, but I also have parmesan and pecorino romano. I wanted cotija for its clean, yet salty, taste. For the purposes of this recipe, if you don’t have cotija, use pecorino romano rather than parmesan. Parmesan’s a little too nutty. Moving on.

Zest the lemon, then juice it. Toss the zest, carrot tops, spinach or arugula if you need it, garlic, cheese, honey, half the toasted walnuts (to start), about half the parsley, and a couple of glugs of olive oil into a food processor, and grind in as much black pepper as you can stand. If you want, you can also put in a couple of shakes of crushed red pepper and some fresh-grated nutmeg. Because I did. And yum.

Let's get rrrrrready to rrrrrrumble!

Let’s get rrrrrready to rrrrrrumble!

Give that a whirl, then taste it for flavor and make requisite adjustments; is it tart vs. peppery vs. oily vs. texturally correct? What do you need?  Does it need a little more oomph because it’s too pasty, or not punchy enough? Toss in some lemon juice. Is it not rich enough? Toss in some oil. Is it too sharp? Add some more walnuts. Does it need to be “green”-er?  Parsley!  And so on. If you pay careful attention to what you want a pesto to taste like, and what’s in front of you, you can tinker until it becomes one harmonious mix of carrot greens and all other good things.

Pestolicious!

Pestolicious!

OK. So you’ve got your pesto. Now what?

Slice an onion into half-moons and caramelize the whole thing. You probably won’t eat all of the onions today, but you’ll thank me tomorrow when you’re looking for something to perk up your salad at lunch.

Cut the carrots into thin slices. We also had a small handful of baby beets from our CSA; I took the stems and leaves and separated them to cook with some kale (recipe coming soon) for a lovely side dish. As for the beautifully sweet baby beet globes, I washed and peeled them and cut them thinly, roughly as thick as the carrots.

And the little stripey chiogga beets are so pretty!

And the little stripey chiogga beets are so pretty!

Then toss them in a pan with some oil, ground fennel, and salt and pepper. Saute them for…oh…however long it takes. Fifteen minutes?  They’re both hard root vegetables, so they do take a while to saute, but they’re also tender baby versions, so exercise judgment. Taste as you see fit. Let them go for at least ten minutes, giving the pan an occasional shake. When they’re almost cooked and ready to eat, take some white balsamic vinegar and pour it in a slow drizzle once or twice around the pan. Let that cook down for another two or three minutes to create a light glaze.

Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!

Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!

Toast some bread. Put down a layer of pesto, add some beets and carrots, and top with caramelized onions, a dash more fresh parsley and another grind or two of cracked pepper and voila! You’ve got a great, summery, no-oven, open-faced sandwich that is as close to nose-to-tail cooking with vegetables as you can get.

I liked it so much, I had it again for lunch.

I liked it so much, I had it again for lunch. Note the beet greens and kale in the background. Don’t worry, I’ll get that recipe out to you.

Served with a green salad and the braised kale and beet greens, this dinner was insanely satisfying. Each bite of the open-faced sandwich ran a wonderful gamut of flavors, from peppery and savory to sweet and brisk and cheesy-rich. Served with a side dish of bitter greens laced with an obscene amount of garlic, this is the sort of dinner that covers all the bases. Relatively easy to make, no oven, barely any refuse to clean up, delicious. What are you waiting for?

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Nosh: Pasta with Baby Beets and Carrots

I recently joined a CSA and got my first installment of fresh, organic goodies this past Thursday.  Among the bounty was a beautiful portion of baby beets.  Beets have been a source of food forever and ever, and were even historically documented as being present in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  This is a huge text file so if you do click this link, use your browser’s “find” feature and type in the word “beet”, it’s much easier than reading through hundreds of pages of info.

More fun facts about the noble beet:

  • Ancient Romans considered beet juice to be an aphrodisiac.
  • They have been prepared in borscht, by astronauts for astronauts, in zero gravity.
  • Australians add slices of pickled beets to their hamburgers (which sounds fantastic).
  • They’re a major plot device in Tom Robbins’s book Jitterbug Perfume.
Could. Not.  Wait.  To eat them.  And the fun thing about the beet is, the entire thing is edible.  Leaf, stem and root, all perfectly edible.  And all delicious in slightly different ways.  So I cruised the interwebs looking for some kind of recipe and found this one, for beets and pasta.  Which was a great idea and a good starting point, but it’s a recipe for one person and here?  There are two, and we dig leftovers.  Don’t worry.  I’ll tell you what I did.
Before I go one step further, do you have some feta hanging around the house?  If you do…before you do anything else…stick it in the freezer.  Yes, that’s right, the freezer, and all will be revealed in due time.  If not, a hard, shreddy cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano (the undisputed king of cheeses) or asiago will work just fine and doesn’t need to be frozen.  Put it down!  It can stay in your cheese drawer in the fridge.  Anyway.  Back to the cooking.
First, clean and prep your beets.  Rinse them off and sort them by beetylicious component, as they will go into the pan at different times.  It’s just easier this way.

Leaf, stem and root, cleaned and ready for action.

Tackle the roots first, and by roots I mean, the round, knobby thing most of us consider to be the entirety of the item “beet”, without regard for stems and leaves.  Cut off the taproot (the long thing coming off the bottom of the beet) while you peel your beets.  Here are a few things to remember:

Beets leak their juice and can leave a significant stain.  If you don’t want your hands to get covered in beet juice, wear rubber gloves.  If you don’t mind, don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.  When the beets are older–and especially if I roast them before peeling–I always wear gloves, and I usually cut them on a plastic board I won’t mind throwing away if it gets too gnarly.  Beet juice was used as a hair dye for a reason.  But in this instance?  Meh.  It wasn’t too bad.  Also, I was worried that a vegetable peeler would take too much of the beet with it, and I thought about just leaving the skins on (which I’m sure would be fine) but here’s a tip: baby beet skins are so tender, you can peel them with a spoon, like you do with ginger.

Peel and trim, easy-peasy.

Slice your trimmed beets into rounds (or half-moons, if needed).  The objective is to have roughly, sort of, uniform pieces of beet so they cook evenly.  Make them so.

I admittedly am a cook by “feel”, so here, my directions can get a little dicey, but I’ll be happy to estimate sizes if you want them.  I used half a medium-sized Vidalia onion, three garlic cloves (because I can’t help myself) and a really good handful of baby carrots.  No, I didn’t use baby carrots because these are baby beets and I thought it would be cute to eat “baby” food.  Baby carrots, FYI, are not young carrots at all but rather, mature carrots that are too unattractive to sell to the buying public and so are whittled down to create the illusion of young carrothood.  And I used them because I had about a quarter of a bag that was in my fridge for a really long time.  I snacked on some as I chopped.  There’s probably about a cup’s worth of carrots here, use whatever you have handy.

Yes, they’re arranged in order from light to dark. What of it?

Next?  Into a nice, big pan.  One with lots of room.  You’ll see.  Give them a few minutes to get their saute on in some olive oil and then toss in some herbs.   Salt and pepper, of course (but watch the salt!  You’ve still got cheese to add), and some fennel seed, rosemary (probably about a teaspoon each, but don’t get too crazy because these herbs are pungent and can easily take over a dish), maybe a half a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, a dash of nutmeg (if I used a quarter teaspoon I’ll fall over in shock) and bay leaf.

Can you feel the anticipation build?

While this sautes, chop the beet stems.  Don’t chop them larger than an inch; just cut them into nice, bite-sized portions.

Stems. Ready for the pan.

While you’re chopping, take care of the leaves, too.  They will wilt to a fraction of their uncooked size, like spinach, so you don’t have to sweat how small they’re chopped.  Just stack the leaves and cut across their width.

Ahhh, beautiful beet leaf ribbons.  Both festive and nommy.

Yes, astute readers, those are indeed a small handful of chopped snow peas on the left-hand side of the cutting board.  Because why not?  They were a fun addition, but not integral to the overall flavor of the dish.  Don’t knock yourself out getting some, but by all means chop ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.

Once the stems have cooked for about five minutes, add your greens and a touch more salt and pepper.

Things will start happening pretty quickly once these go in the pan, so be ready.

What sort of pasta are you using?  When you put the leaves in to cook, the pasta should be about five minutes away from doneness.  If you’re using packaged pasta, it should already be cooking.  If you’re using fresh, the water should be boiling and you should put your pasta in pretty much any minute now.  I had fresh whole-wheat fettuccine, which took maybe three or four minutes to cook.  The best way to test your pasta is to just taste a strand.  Having a mouth is like having your very own built-in timer.

Homemade whole-wheat fettuccine. Life is gooooood.

I gave him the pasta maker for Christmas, but I get to reap the benefits.  Win!  And I digress.

Pasta is boiling?  Check!  Give the beets a minute to cook and then put in a little bit of water or stock–enough to give the veggies something to hang out in, not enough to make it even a little bit soupy.  A quarter-cup is probably sufficient, don’t use more than a half.  (Me?  I “measure” by passing a box of stock around the edge of the pan.  Twice.)  Give that a good stir, make sure anything that’s started to brown to the bottom of the pan has scraped up, and let it simmer together for the aforementioned five minutes.

Before you drain the pasta (which is now, of course, perfectly cooked al dente), save about a half-cup of the pasta water and toss it in with the beets as necessary.  You might not need the whole thing, and that’s fine.  You just want your veggie saute to come together as a sauce, and the starchy water facilitates that.  Also, throw a tablespoon of butter in with the beets; it really “finishes” your sauce and gives it an added boost of homey, sweet warmth.  I added the butter as an almost-afterthought (“Hey, this might be a good idea…”), and was so glad I did.

Now that you’ve starchy-watered your pan, and the butter has melted, add your drained pasta to the pan and pull all the goodies through so the pasta is evenly coated with sauce.  Put it in your serving bowl.

Almost perfect. Almost.

adore how the beets dominated the color profile of the sauce and dyed the pasta pink.  Looks good, yeah?  But we’re not done yet.  Remember when I told you to freeze your feta?  Crumbly cheeses such as feta (or bleu, though I don’t care for bleu cheese and I know you’re all horrified and I swear I have tried to enjoy it but when I eat bleu cheese it only results in tears) don’t shred well…because they crumble, see?…but if they’re frozen, they can be grated on a traditional grater and it looks like you have a beautiful soft topping of snow.

Now THAT is what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

If you don’t have a hunk of frozen feta at your disposal, now is when you top this with one of the other cheeses I mentioned earlier.  It’s all good.

This was fresh, delicious, about as local as I can make something without becoming a subsistence farmer (which, God no, see my previous statements about my black thumb, I would starve and thank you CSA people!), pretty, and jammed with veggies so generally, quite nutritionally sound.  Serve it with a side salad just so you can kick your recommended daily vegetable intake in the butt as you blow past it.  George said, “I just…feeeeeel like I’m eating something good for me, you know?”  Local, groovy, tasty, AND good for you?  Win, win, and extra double-win.  Enjoy.

Nosh: Carrot Risotto

Carrot risotto?  Carrot?  Risotto?  Carrot???

Yeah, dig it.

After getting back from Italy, I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that I’m like a little girl who just discovered something.  Remember, girls, when you were six and decided you loved horses?  And then you had to have horse bedsheets and would draw horses all over your textbook covers and thought the name “Wildfire” was totally awesomely cool and you’d read everything you could get your hands on about horses and would watch horsie-TV and didn’t care about what happened to Bonnie Blue Butler because she was a spoiled prig but cried because Rhett shot her pony?

maybe that was just me…

So now I’m immersed in at-home Italian.  I’m watching movies and trying to remember the Italian names for things, and I’m pondering the ways in which I can make the outside of my house look maintained and swanky but maybe a little beat up (a la Venice).  I’ve also been furiously searching the internet for Italian dishes to make at home, even though it’s not like I need any more random recipes hanging around my kitchen.  I was kind of on the hunt for some kind of fava bean risotto somethingorother, but I wasn’t in the mood for asparagus and I didn’t feel like reinventing a recipe as I went along and every single recipe I came across called for fava and asparagus, fava and asparagus.  I understand the inclination to put spring vegetables together, but meh, I wasn’t having it.  My crazed, currently obsessive search for risotto led me to this recipe and I gave it a resounding hell, yes!  In the interests of full disclosure, I did stick almost entirely to the recipe except, I didn’t have fresh thyme so I used dried, and put it in when I sauteed the vegetables.  The wine I used was a nice, crisp Orvieto and even though the recipe doesn’t call for it, you should top each serving with a little–not much, just enough for contrast and interest–finely chopped fresh parsley.  You won’t regret it.

Anyway.  To the carrots!

Bonus! They're orange, so they're tres retro.

The recipe calls for six medium carrots but for some reason my store was only selling monsters; four did nicely.  Now.  Cut them all into a relatively small dice.

Remember, planks then sticks then dice. Easy and uniform.

And how hard have I been working?

Hard enough to turn my hand orange, that's how hard.

Saute the carrots in some butter and a tablespoon of oil until they are caramelized.  I almost never measure out my oil by the tablespoon but as I am newly the proud owner of the cutest measuring spoons in all of creation, I had to use them.

I want to pinch all their tummies.

Yes, so, saute.  The carrots do take a while to caramelize, so make sure you give yourself ample time for this recipe.  But once they start to get all glisteny and take on spots of brown…

In all seriousness, these make me swoon a little when I look at them.

…divide them.  One half goes in a blender, one half is set aside for later use.  The portion in the blender gets…wait for it…blended!..with hot water into a nice, loose puree (the texture should be somewhere between paste and and a thick soup), and then also, but much more temporarily, set aside.

Risotto, for those who have never cooked it (and frankly, for those who have), can be a bit of a pain in the ass.  You need to use a rice with a high starch content that can absorb a lot of liquid and will also retain some kind of “al dente” quality, because who wants a plate of dried out yet gooey mush-rice?  Not this girl.  Arborio is probably the risotto rice that’s most readily available–hell, I can easily find it in the wilds of central PA–but I understand you can also make a lovely risotto with carnaroli or vialone.  Some day, I’ll try them all.

The starch content of the rice is particularly important for risotto because drawing it out of the rice is what gives the dish its creamy quality.  So what you’ve got to do to get this going is…well, of course get some onions and garlic, and my errant thyme, cooking in a pan with a little more butter and oil, and once they’re nicely softened, add the rice.  You want to saute that until two things happen: one, the rice will start to turn somewhat more translucent, and you only see a small spot of solid white in the middle of the grain, and two, the rice will start to exude some of its starch; you’ll see trails of it when you push the rice back in the pan.

See? Small opaque spots in the middle of the grains of rice, trails of starch in the pan. Perfect! This is ready for the next step.

The recipe says this should take about a minute, I say it should take a little longer.  Just wait until it’s ready, and then stir in your wine and, after about a minute, the carrot puree.

Funky!

Yeah, it looks a little bit, at first, like you dumped a jar of baby food on your rice.  Get over it.  Soon it will be deliciously savory and you will thank the heavens that this made its way to your kitchen.  But first…

Remember all that talk of “exuding starch” so the risotto can have a “creamy quality”?  Well.  This is when that magic happens…but it doesn’t happen quickly, or on its own.  You need a pot of warm stock and some patience, and you pour the stock in a little at a time, and you stir, and stir, and stir.  As the stock is absorbed, the starch will come out of the rice and you’ll have a lovely pot full of deliciousness.  It should probably take about twenty more minutes, so if you have a risotto stirrer, now’s the time to bust it out.  It should look something like this:

*ba-dum CHING*

Yes, yes, yes.  It certainly helps to have a boyfriend whose OCD manifests in an uncontrollable desire to stir things on the stovetop.  Anyway.  Keep stirring away until the rice is done; theoretically, you’ll also have used up all your cooking liquid as well but the determinant is whether your rice is ready.  You may need more liquid, you may need less, but you want a nice, loose, creamy risotto that isn’t super-sticky or looks dry or gooey.

So so SOOO almost ready to eat.

Mix in your cheese and then adjust for seasonings.  You shouldn’t season your risotto with salt too heavily when you start cooking, since you’re going to incorporate cheese into the dish.  Pre-seasoned risotto could turn inedibly salty if you go overboard early.  Just wait and see how it tastes at the end.  And then put it on your dish, garnish with a little more cheese and some parsley, and…

Yes.

If this isn’t a happy, sunshiny-looking dish, I don’t know what is.  Maybe it’s not exactly “traditional” Italian food (I confess, I’m a little intimidated by the idea of making cacio e pepeit’s only three ingredients, what if I screw it up?  There’s no recipe rescue to be found in that case…), but it is a celebration of rice and cheese, and it’s straightforward ingredients that are cooked in a way that maximizes their inherent deliciousness.  And that?  Is pretty Italian indeed.  Enjoy!

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