Nosh: Apricot-Radicchio Crostini

Who’s ready for a bite of summer?

I was invited to a gigantic, mid-summer girls’ night at a friend’s house, and in the interests of friendship I offered to get there early to help set up. Which, of course, meant I didn’t have the luxury of doing that last minute, panic-and-run-around-while-I-get-something-ready dash through the kitchen. I needed something easy. I needed something portable. And it was summer, so I didn’t really want to tie myself to the kitchen for something fussy and elaborate (and long on the feet and sweaty).  What to do?

Seriously. apricot-radicchio crostini. They are ridiculously easy. A minimum of cooking. You can pack them up and go. And they are delicious. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 long baguette
  • 3-4 apricots (or 3 peaches), ripe but not super-soft; the super-soft ones don’t make pretty slices
  • 1/2 a small head of radicchio (more on this in a minute)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 handful walnuts (or pecans, they’d also be lovely)
  • 1-2 teaspoons poppy seeds
  • shaved slices of pecorino romano cheese
  • chives (or parsley or tarragon) to garnish
  • salt/pepper/oil, as needed

First things first: get the hot stuff out of the way. Brown your baguette and toast your walnuts. This is–really–the only time you’ll need the hotbox for this recipe, so get it over with. Heat the oven to 350°; while that is warming up, slice your baguette into nice even slices, no more than ½ inch thick. Daub the bread generously on both sides with olive oil so it gets nice and brown and crispy once it goes into the oven.

It's an assembly line of deliciousness.

It’s an assembly line of deliciousness.

Put them in; flip once after 7 or 8 minutes. Keep an eye on them, and another 5 or 7 (ish) minutes later, they should be golden and crunchy and ready to eat. Set aside.

While the bread is cooking, toast the walnuts. Set out a heat-proof bowl to pour them into when they’re done toasting. Break the walnuts into small chunks and put them in a dry pan, over medium heat.

Yup. Just like that.

Yup. Just like that.

Stay there with them, and shake the pan every minute or two. When you start to smell lovely, toasty walnut that gives you a warm, happy feeling inside, take them off the heat. They’re done, and nuts will burn easily once they’ve reached the point of doneness. Put your walnuts into the handy bowl you’ve already set up. Put them aside.

 I had some beautiful, rosy-cheeked apricots that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. They were so gorgeous they practically glowed with their own inner light.

Hey there, beautiful.

Hey there, beautiful.

Cut the apricots (or peaches, if you can’t find apricots) into thin slices. Mix with the cooled walnuts. 

Take half a head of radicchio and cut into fine shreds. Mix with poppy seeds and the zest and juice of one lemon. Remember, zest first, then juice.

Oh look, poppies!  *name that movie*

Yesssss, poppies! *name that movie*

Please note a few things about radicchio: it is an incredibly hardy vegetable, so IF you cut half the head, mix it with lemon, and end up with a reasonable pile of leftover lemony radicchio…yes, it will wilt slightly overnight but will retain its overall crunch. And it is fantastic the next day on a pita with some hummus and cucumbers. For the remaining half a head, it’s summer, so fire up the grill (or get out your grill pan if you hate cooking outdoors) and grill it.

Chop chives into little bitses. Get beautiful shavings of pecorino romano cheese thanks to the clever use of a vegetable peeler. 

That's all you need for fancy. A vegetable peeler.

That’s all you need for fancy. A vegetable peeler.

You most certainly may use parmesan cheese if that’s what you have in your fridge, but I think pecorino romano is a better choice for this dish. It’s sharper and less nutty, and I think it’s got more of a salty bite, so it provides a fun contrast. But hey, it’s your kitchen. Go with your heart.

Got everything? Great. Start to assemble the crostini. It’s pretty simple. Lay out your bread, then put down a layer of the apricot/walnut mixture, top that with radicchio, then top that with cheese, chives, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and a little drizzle of oil.

Dig in, y'all!

Dig in, y’all!

Let’s review: Easy? Check! Almost no-cook? Check! Portable? Check! Provides a great contrasting combination of crunchy, sweet, bitter, salty, savory? Check! It’s easy to do something later with unused but prepped ingredients? Check! Super-portable? Check! They taste great the next day?

Ummm.

I can’t tell you that. There weren’t any left to bring back home.

Mission accomplished.

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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?

Nosh: Potato Tatin

Lest I run the risk of sounding like I am a corporate shill for a publishing house or for a high-end celebrity chef, I’m only going to say this once: if you want to find new ways to fall in love with vegetables, buy anything ever written by Yotam Ottolenghi. He’s not a vegetarian but he cooks veggies like a superstar, and should I ever find myself in front of him I would fall to the ground and kiss the hem of his robe. Chef’s apron (so long as it was the beginning of his shift). Whatever. He is that good.

This recipe is taken from his book Plentywhich is easily one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever bought and is sort of a gateway drug. After buying it (family, please do take note), his other books have ended up on my Amazon wish list and you all know how I feel about the items on my Amazon wish list: Shop early, shop often. All contributions to my cookery appreciated.

So. Here is a beautiful potato tatin recipe, adapted from Plenty. Ottolenghi calls it a “surprise” tatin, I suppose because tatins are usually desserty and sweet, and this one’s surprise is its savory goodness. Nevertheless, it works. I’ve made this for us, and for guests, and it hasn’t disappointed yet. Be forewarned: this tatin does take a while, but it’s all easy work–the hardest part comes right at the end. It’s a great recipe for kitchen puttering on those long, slow Sundays. You’ll need:

  • 1 pint grape tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 lb unpeeled potatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
  • 1 medium-to-large onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp butter
  • oregano sprigs/thyme sprigs/rosemary, all to taste and to flavor preference
  • 1 4-oz package of goat cheese, sliced
  • 1 puff pastry sheet, thawed
  • salt/pepper/olive oil, as necessary

Preheat your oven to 275°. Take a sheet of puff pastry out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw. Wash the pint of grape tomatoes and cut them all in half. The tomatoes are going into the oven to slow-roast for 45 minutes, so toss them with some oil, salt and pepper, and arrange them on a baking sheet. Face down, face up, it doesn’t matter, since you need to stir everything about half-way through the roasting time and really, we needn’t be so fussy. Put them in, let the oven do the work for you. You can, if you’re pressed for time, use store-bought sundried tomatoes, but, two things: 1) If you’re pressed for time, don’t make this recipe and 2) When you can work with this…

Who needs the sun when you've got steady, dry oven heat?

Who needs the sun to dry tomatoes when you’ve got steady, dry oven heat?

…why settle for anything less?  Side note: should you discover, when you assemble the tatin, that you have more tomatoes than you want or need, then the worst thing that happens is you have leftover slow-roasted tomatoes. You’ll thank me when you eat them in your salad tomorrow.

Moving on.

While the tomatoes roast, prepare your potatoes and onions. Give the potatoes a good scrub, then cut them and put them in a pot of water so you can boil them. You do want them to be roughly uniform one-inch cubes (but don’t make yourself crazy when some chunks aren’t exactly an inch; it will be fine), and yes, cook them thoroughly, but not to the point of mushiness. Drain them and set aside. Slice the onion in thin slices and toss in a big saute pan with some oil and let them get beautifully soft and golden, stirring as necessary so they don’t stick and overly brown. Set aside.

As far as the timing of this recipe goes, it’s very important that all your ingredients are fully prepped before you move on to the next step. You can park this recipe here for several hours or overnight, if you’re not planning to move forward. If you are, then make sure your potatoes are boiled and drained, the tomatoes are roasted, the onions are golden. If you’re using fresh herbs, make sure they’re washed and dried. If you’re using dried herbs, have them at the ready. Because next you’ll be making the caramel, and it will not wait for you.

Take a 9-inch cake pan and brush the sides and bottom with oil, then cut a piece of baker’s parchment to fit the cake pan. Brush the top of the parchment with oil, too.

Seriously. Have this ready.

Seriously. Have this ready.

Take a small pan and add in the butter and sugar. Let both things start to soften in the heat.

I swear, I did NOT arrange my pan this way.

I swear, I did NOT arrange my pan this way.

And then stir stir stir and keep stirring until you get a beautiful, rich brown caramel, which we will NOT stick our fingers in and taste because we never mess with hot sugar and we want to avoid second-degree burns as much as possible.

Look! But no touch.

Look! But no touch.

Then pour this into your prepared cake pan. Get it to smooth out as evenly as possible, but bear in mind that it won’t be smooth because the caramel will start to seize as soon as it leaves the heat.

Smooth! Meh. We do what we can.

Smooth! Meh. We do what we can.

Top with herbs, then start to arrange potatoes so they sit, relatively neatly, in a tight but not necessarily super-tight formation

Fairly even sizes. See why?

Fairly even sizes. See why?

Then layer with the gorgeous roasted tomatoes, kind of sticking them in the crevasses between potatoes.

Like so!

Like so!

And then layer with onions, doing much the same thing.

Laying things out and then jamming them into corners is *kind of* like how I clean.

Laying things out and then jamming them into corners is *kind of* like how I clean. Only this yields happier results.

Add on the layer of goat cheese and then top everything with the puff pastry, rolling it long enough so it’s an even thickness that you can trim and tuck into the sides of the pan.

Nothing that a good pair of kitchen shears can't fix.

If it’s slightly long, that’s nothing that a good pair of kitchen shears can’t fix.

A word about puff pastry: to dock, or not to dock? It’s a good question. If you dock it (i.e., poke the dough a bunch of times with a fork so the steam that makes the pastry rise escapes instead), it won’t puff as dramatically, but will still be delicious. If you don’t dock it, you’ll get a super-puffy crust that can be intimidating when you have to finish the tatin. It’s up to you. I’ve made it both ways, and they’re equally beneficial…though docked dough is probably easier, in the end, to work with. It’s your call.

Once the dough is placed and tucked, you can once again park this recipe in the fridge overnight; just take it out about an hour before you’re ready to cook it, so it can warm up to room temperature before it goes in the oven. If you’re ready to finish the tatin, then raise the oven temp to 400° and put it in the oven for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, rotate it in the oven (if yours cooks unevenly, like mine does), then drop the temp to 350° and let it bake for another 10 minutes. The puff pastry should be beautifully golden and (if undocked) quite puffy.

Behold, le pouf!

Behold, le pouf!

Let this settle for a few minutes, then (this is the hardest part) place a large serving plate over the top of the crust and flip the whole thing, inverting the tatin onto the serving place like it’s a great big savory upside-down cake. Pie. Tatin.

Which is really what it is.

Et voila!

Et voila!

We had friends over for dinner, and served this with parmesan roasted acorn squash, a fattoush salad and chocolate panna cotta with pepita brittle (recipe coming soon). For real. It was almost too good.

So you see, nothing in this recipe is hard, though it does take time. The hardest part is the inversion to the serving plate at the end. Work out with some wrist weights if that makes you anxious. Otherwise…enjoy!

Nosh: Fattoush Salad

MMmmmmmm….fattoush salad.

I adore fattoush salad; I’ve been known to fall upon it like it was my first meal after a week of starving in the desert, and small children have been warned to stay away from me while I’m eating it. It’s that good. And sadly, it’s not terribly well known in my corner of the world.

Fattoush is a beautiful salad that features a gorgeous blend of bright, citrusy flavors, fresh herbs, and savory crisp shards of pita. It’s an amazing Middle Eastern bread salad, and it’s easy, especially as ingredients are more and more readily available, even here in my centrally isolated little burg.  I’m sure there’s some of you out there thinking, a salad is a salad, right? Raw veggies, a dressing, how exciting can it be?  I hear that, I do, and I understand that raw veggies can seem (seem!) a little…meh, OK, what else you got? But the abundant fresh vegetables serve as a healthy backdrop for a freakishly delicious dressing that, combined with fresh herbs and toasted pita, steals the show.  Here’s how to go about a fattoush dressing:

  • 4 teaspoons ground sumac, soaked in 4 teaspoons warm water for 15 minutes
  • 3 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) pomegranate molasses (local peeps, you CAN get this at the grocery store)
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried mint
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt

Sumac, for those of us unfamiliar with it, is a tart spice that we could, theoretically, harvest from the tons and tons and tons of central PA sumac trees, most of which (I think) are growing in my back yard.

Yep. That stuff.

Yep. That stuff.
Photo from whittleddown.com

Soak the four teaspoons of sumac in an equal amount of warm-to-tap-water-hot water to help the flavors bloom and turn it into a tart, bright flavor base.  Don’t use boiling water; it will turn the sumac bitter. (If you added a cup full of water and then strained it, you’d have a tea, which is apparently a common drink in other parts of the world, and I’ll have to check out for a later blog.) While it’s soaking, assemble things like your lemon and mint.

This is a good start to anything, really.

This is a good start to anything, really.

And yes, of course zest the lemon first. Why wouldn’t you? Lemon zest is just deliciousness; throwing it away seems foolhardy at best.  If you have fresh mint (like I did, see above) use it, just remember to use double the amount of dried mint they ask for in the recipe since fresh herbs are less concentrated than dried ones. And if you don’t have white wine vinegar or prefer champagne vinegar or white balsamic vinegar (my personal favorite), feel free to use that instead.

Once the sumac has soaked for 15 minutes and everything else is chopped/zested/juiced, put it all in a small mixing bowl and whisk in some good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil.  Then tinker. Maybe you want some more pomegranate molasses?  Maybe you want a splash more vinegar? Play with it until the flavors please you, then season with some salt.  The dressing can, of course, be made ahead of time and allowed to sit in your fridge or on a countertop until you’re ready to eat. I always think homemade dressings taste better after giving the flavors some time to mingle, so if you can get this done earlier in the day, bravo! Go for it. As you get closer to dinner time, prep the rest of your salad.  Heat your oven to 350°. Take two (or three, if you want one to snack on later, like I do) pita breads, put them on a cookie tray and brush their tops with some olive oil. Then season them with a dusting of za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend of sesame seeds and (more) sumac and other delicious things as well. Toss the pita in your hot oven and check them after 6 minutes.  They usually take more like 8 minutes to get crispy and golden-brown, but depending on your oven… *shrug*  And there’s no rescue for burnt pita, so check early, check often.

And you’ll get this.

*om nom nom*

*om nom nom*

You want them toasted and brown and dry enough to easily crumble, since they’re going to serve like big flat za’atar-y croutons. Oh, heavens, yes you do want that.

As far as assembling the salad goes, the “official” recipe calls for this.

  • 3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped, or 4 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 pound Persian cucumbers, or one 1-pound English hothouse cucumber, quartered lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 6 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 2 Little Gem or baby romaine lettuces, or 1 small head romaine lettuce, trimmed, cut crosswise into 3/4″ strips
  • 2 cups (loosely packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 cups purslane leaves or additional 3/4″-strips romaine lettuce
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves
  • Ground sumac (optional)

But I’m here to tell you, you can use whatever kind of vegetables you want, in whatever proportion. I recommend going heavy on the cucumber and less heavy on the scallions, and adding in some thinly sliced red onions. Personally, I’m not crazy about carrots or celery in fattoush but will say yes to radishes every time. Don’t skimp on the fresh herbs, but feel free to use whatever ones you have handy: basil, mint, chives?  Go for it.  Parsley or cilantro? Yum! I’d stay away from using fresh rosemary or oregano because I think they’d compete too heavily with the dressing, but otherwise? Play with your food! See what you like.  And I also tend to not garnish with more sumac at the end, simply because I want the dressing to shine and not become overwhelming, with the brassy addition of more sumac.  Sometimes, less is more.

When the pita has cooled and your vegetables and herbs are all chopped and in your salad bowl, crumble the pita and mix it in with the salad. Top with some dressing (yes, I always dress salads at the last minute) and…voila!

Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's when I could eat this.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s when I could eat this.

The tart from the dressing combined with the freshness of the herbs and the savory crisp pita makes the flavors burst out of this salad. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t love it after the first try, so if you’re looking for ways to perk up your drive to eat more healthily, give the fattoush salad a whirl.

Enjoy!

Nosh: Falafel

One of the truths about living in a small town in the US: if you want groovy global cuisine, you’d better learn how to make it yourself.  It’s gotten considerably more food-diverse here in the past few years so I have less and less reason to kvetch, but nonetheless there are foods I like to eat that are difficult to come by. Falafel is one of them. Raw materials = abundant. Final product = scarce. Since we are learning creatures, we adapt. We even compromise. There are not a lot of foods I’m willing to fry in my house, but falafel is one of them. Because oooh, crispy balls of fried chickpeas, how I love you so. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 16-oz bag dried chickpeas, picked through and rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 handfuls fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, leaves coarsely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Candy and fat thermometer (really, you need this)

This is a recipe that requires a bit of prep work, since you need enough oil for frying, a high heat, fat-friendly thermometer, and time to soak the chickpeas overnight. Don’t use canned. Plan ahead. I also highly recommend getting a kitchen spider, if you don’t have one yet, for working with food in hot oil. Anyway.

Empty the bag of dried chickpeas into a strainer and give them the ol’ once-over to check for stray rocks that have been collected with said legumes. Rinse them, then put them in a pot and cover them by 2 inches with water. Lid, overnight, leave it alone on the stovetop, done until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the next morning...

Meanwhile, the next morning…

Next day!  Drain your swollen chickpeas. They’ll be nice and plump and definitely softer than they were, but not smooshy. Which is good; when you process them, you want them to maintain their integrity, not turn into a paste. Take cumin and coriander seeds and put them in a dry pan. Turn your heat on to medium-low and let them start to toast. In about five minutes (give or take) they’re get slightly brown and super-fragrant. Don’t wander too far away because once they reach the oh-hell-yeah fragrant part, they’re close to burning. Take them off the heat and put them in a spice grinder.  IF you don’t want to do this step–you don’t have a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, you just don’t feel like, whatever–that’s fine. You can skip this part. The spices just won’t taste as “deep”. It will still be yummy.  Trust me on this one. :)

Put everything–chickpeas, and everything on the ingredient list from baking powder to fresh cilantro–into a food processor. Whirl it all together until you have a mix that is nicely ground together but not paste-y.  You may have to whirl it in batches (like I do); if that’s the case, once everything is ground to the right size then put it all in one big bowl and mix well until all ingredients are evenly combined.

Et voila!

Et voila!

See how the falafel mix is kind of nubbly and not smooth? That’s what you want. Taste it, then season with salt and pepper and give it another stir.  Roll them into ping-pong sized balls, then put them in the fridge and let them set while the oil heats up.

Of course, the oil is the fun part.

Pour 3 inches of a mild-tasting oil (vegetable, canola) into a nice, deep, heavy pot. I used this fantastic cast-iron Dutch oven my boyfriend has had for years; make sure your pot is sturdy and deep, and can provide a place to clip on a candy and fat thermometer, because you’ll need one.  Clip the thermometer to the side of your pot, making sure the end does not touch the bottom of the pot, since that will give you an inaccurate temperature reading. Turn on the heat and let the oil come up to 375°, which is the temperature you’re going to try and maintain during the cooking process (there will be more on the importance of temperature in a minute). While the oil is heating, set up your workstation. You’re working with hot oil, so you don’t want to mess around.  Get a spider so you can lower the falafel balls into hot oil and retrieve them, with as few burns as possible. Have a plate lined with paper towels as a landing pad. Have more paper towels at the ready so you can stack layers of draining falafel.

Kinda like this. And put away things that can get in your way, like errant cans of spray-on oil. (Whoops!)

Kinda like this. And put away things that can get in your way, like errant cans of spray-on oil. (Whoops!)

Once the oil hits 375°, get to it. You want to maintain that temperature as consistently as possible because it will cook the falafel balls thoroughly and create a lovely crisp exterior with a nice light center, without soaking in and making heavy, greasy balls of oily chickpea meal.  If the oil gets too hot it will scorch the outside while the inside remains untouched.  If it drops too cold it will…well, see “heavy greasy balls of chickpea meal”. Both are bad outcomes.  Ideally, this is what you’ll want in a finished falafel.

Not overdone, not cooked through, not greasy, still fresh and soft inside. Yummmm!

Not overdone, just cooked through, not greasy, still fresh and green and soft inside. Yummmm!

Load up your spider with four or five falafel balls and lower them into the…

Seriously, use the right equipment.

Seriously, use the right equipment.

Please be careful.

After frying each batch for 4-5 minutes, you can go from raw green falafel to beautiful fried goodness.

Dinner, in process!

Dinner, in process!

Falafel is often served as an appetizer, or in a wrap or pita with lettuce/tomato/cuke/red onion and a tahini dressing, which I love and you are more than welcome to do. BUT. What I don’t love is buying an entire can of tahini paste to make the dressing, using a small portion of it for one recipe, and let the rest go bad in my fridge. Or, I’ll feel a bizarre pressure to use it all (and experience a sense of failure when I have to throw out the gone-bad portion anyway). Who needs their dinner to shame them?  So.  We had a mid-east feast and served the falafel with a super-simple tzatziki sauce (recipe coming soon), over fattoush salad (recipe coming soon).

Dig it.

Dig it.

This recipe will make a ton of falafel and those of you cooking for one or two…or might have a large family with eaters who wouldn’t dream of eating this so you’d only be making it for yourself…cheer up! Cooked falafel freezes beautifully, so you can stash them in your freezer for months with the help of a little wax paper and an airtight container.

Enjoy!

Nosh: Sweet and Spicy Brussels Sprouts

I know they’re a trendy vegetable, but the fact is: with or without the trend, I love Brussels sprouts.  That wasn’t always true but then, that wasn’t always true for me and most vegetables.  We live, we learn.

So.  What do you do when you’re handed something that looks like this?

Fun with CSA produce!

Fun with CSA produce!

  1. Shake it like it’s a set of maracas.
  2. Check it for alien spawn.
  3. Eat it.

Happily, “eat it” is correct.  Brussels sprouts still on the stalk may look a little daunting but appearances can be deceiving.  Or…well, not deceiving, really, because I think it’s pretty obvious what you’d need to do, which is cut them off the stalk.  It’s just unfamiliar to the average US supermarket shopper. Normally, I opt to roast Brussels sprouts (with just a little soy sauce and some olive oil…yum!) BUT in the interests of branching out–one can’t live on roasted sprouts alone–I figured I’d try something that involved shredding and sauteing said sprouts.  So I made a little sweet and spicy sprout concoction, and it was one of my better ideas.  Here’s what I used:

  • 1 stalk Brussels sprouts (or a bag of, what 20 or so, for two people?)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, dry toasted*
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • Salt and black pepper to taste (and I recommend going a little heavy on black pepper, but more on that later)

*You probably won’t need the full half cup of walnuts to make this dish work, but I always prep extra because–not gonna lie–I snack on them like crazy while cooking.  Adjust accordingly.

First, cut the sprouts off the stalk and rinse them, then trim them by removing any weird, gnarly outer leaves.  You’ll go from the mutant alien arm pictured above to…

Want. To eat.

Want. To eat.

…beautiful compact mini-cabbages just waiting for you to have your way with them.  They’re much more recognizable this way, not so far a cry from the sprouts my mother used to get in those cellophane-wrapped cardboard tubs (remember those?).  Anyway.

I usually take care of toasted walnuts first, for two reasons.  Once you get them started, you can leave them alone for a couple of minutes with minimal attention while you tend to other cooking tasks (but don’t wander too far, they will burn easily) AND once they’re ready, the snacking can begin.  So.  Take your walnuts, put them in a dry pan (as in, no oil), and set them on your stove over medium heat.  Let them go–giving them the occasional shake to aid in even cooking–for five minutes or so, until they brown in spots and start to smell toasty and warm.  If you think they’re ready, then pull them from the heat, because it’s better that they’re less browned than if they’re burnt.  There’s no recipe rescue for a burnt walnut.  Once they’re done, set them aside but don’t let them sit in the pan since the residual heat from the pan can push them over the edge.  Put them in a bowl.

Commence nibbling.

Commence nibbling.

Slice the Brussels sprouts into thin ribbony bits, and don’t try and use anything fancy like a mandoline for this.  You don’t need perfectly even shreds, and you’re just asking to slice into fingertips since the sprouts are so small.  Just have at it with your knife, and while you’re at it?  Mince the garlic.  You’ll have a glorious, fluffy mound of sprouty-garlic goodness that will cook very quickly, once you get it in hot oil.

I don't know why; I just thought the border on this pic was funny.

I don’t know why; I just thought the border on this pic was funny.  Probably because I’m trying to distract you from the reality that this is not one of my best pictures, but it’s what I’ve got that fits this section of text. And I digress.

To cook: Give the shredded sprouts and garlic a stir to make sure they’re all evenly mixed. Put some olive oil in a pan that’s ready to go at a medium heat, then add in the shredded sprouts and garlic.  Add in thyme and crushed red pepper flakes, give it all a stir in the pan, and then spread it out so it’s one even layer across the pan.  Leave it alone for a three or four minutes.  You want the sprouts on the bottom to start to brown, but don’t go too far because once they brown this dish is almost done.  Give the sprout mix a stir and a shake to knock loose anything that might be adhering to the bottom of the pan and let it saute for a minute or two longer.  Stir in the honey and give that a minute to incorporate evenly through the dish, then add salt and pepper to taste and remove it from heat.  I like a lot of pepper, both for its lovely bite and for the subtle woodsy-floral component it brings.  Mix in the amount of walnuts you feel is appropriate, and kind of crumble them before tossing them in so you have big, rustic walnut chunks.  And that’s it.

You’re done.  Really.

Quick, easy and delicious. Does it get any better than this?

Quick, easy and delicious. Does it get any better than this?

The walnuts keep this dish grounded, the sprouts and garlic bring the savory, the red pepper flakes add fire and the honey balances everything with sweetness.  This could, possibly, be a perfect dish.  I’m not sure.  I’ll have to eat a lot more of it to find out.

We served this with two-way fennel and capers with pasta and a crisp green salad, and celebrated the very good fortune we have in available vegetables.  Make this.  Enjoy it.  And when Brussels sprouts stop being trendy, you can still make it and enjoy it and rattle your cane at those crazy kohlrabi-eating kids who don’t know a modern classic when they see it.

Nosh: Two Way Fennel and Capers with Pasta

Hi folks.

Good to see you all again.

I know, it’s been a few weeks.  I had a rough one.  I had a bout of the blues, a touch of PTSD after my car accident, and a major funk when I reflected on 2013, which was a dismal year for me.  Thankfully I have a patient boyfriend and friends who care enough to let me open up to them.  Right now, it’s all good.

So I’m back!  And I want to talk to you all about the savory goodness of fennel.  Consider it a New Year’s gift.  Resolutions often involve eating more vegetables.  Sticking with more vegetables means eating them in surprising and tasty ways.

Fennel, fennel, fennel.  Big oniony-looking bulb, stalks that resemble celery, frothy fronds at the top.  Vaguely smells of licorice. What. The hell. Does one do with that sort of thing?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

The answer, friends, is a simple one.  EAT IT!!!

Currently in the US, fennel is mostly seen a sort of curious, marginally exotic mystery vegetable that one can only cook if one is a wizard or a professional chef.  In the US the bulb usually shows up sliced thin and raw, in salads, with oranges, which is certainly delicious but, limited in its scope, a sad underuse of fennel and all its works.  If a vegetable is nose-to-tail friendly, as it were, this would be the one.  The fronds are a fantastic garnish for everything from chicken to pasta to green beans to potatoes to hummus.  The stalks are nice and crunchy and would be a great addition to any snack bag or crudite tray, and they shave nicely into salads.  The bulb, though…you can do anything with it.  Saute it.  Fennel is fantastic grilled.  Braise it in milk (yes, really).  You’ll thank me for it.  Or…

You can turn it into healthy and delicious pasta sauce.  Because yum.  Here’s what I used:

  • 2 medium-to-large fennel; stalks very thinly sliced, bulbs cored and diced, fronds set aside
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (to taste)
  • 1 teaspooon thyme
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 cup (ish) of vegetable broth
  • 2 generous tablespoons drained and rinsed capers (or more, if you’d like)
  • A handful of fresh chopped parsley

And I always cook for one package of pasta, because I completely lack the patience to measure ounces of pasta.  I’m no stranger to leftovers, and this sauce is even better the next day.  Moving on.

The first thing to do is attack the fennel, so to get started…scroll back up and look at the picture above.  Halve your fennel bulbs and cut out the knobby core at the bottom of the bulb.  Cut off the stalks and slice them very thinly; set them off to the side.  Dice the bulb like you would an onion: planks, sticks, then cubes.

planks sticks cubes-001

Straightforward, no?

While you’re at it, cut an onion in the same way, and mince however much garlic you’d like.  Get a big pan warming to a steady medium-level saute heat, and when it’s hot enough (you don’t need it screaming hot, just hot), add oil and toss in the diced fennel.  Fennel can be dense and it often surprises me that it takes longer than onions to cook, but there’s the truth.  So.  It goes in first, and let it cook happily for a few minutes.  It may start to brown; that’s fine, just don’t let it burn.  After five minutes or so, add the onions, garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes and some fresh-ground pepper.  Zest the lemon right over your pan; the essential oils that spray out of the skin when you zest will go directly into the pan, adding to the subtle, but present, lemony goodness.

Like so.

Like so.

Juice the lemon and set the juice aside.

Get a pot of water going for your pasta, if you haven’t done so already.  When your water is ready and you cook the pasta, you’ll take it to not-quite-doneness, as it will finish cooking when you add it in to the fennel sauce at the end.  And before you drain your not-entirely-cooked pasta, reserve a half-cup or so of pasta water, some of which you’ll add to the fennel sauce to finish.

Let the fennel and onion mixture all cook together in your pan, over a nice medium heat.  You’ll want to see the onions get soft and the garlic fragrant, which should take another 8 or 10 minutes.  Again, some browning and sticking to the bottom of the pan is fine.  Desirable, even, since it creates the fond which, when pulled up with some stock and stirred back into the pan, adds a tremendous flavor boost.  When the fennel is soft and the onions are translucent, pour in the stock and stir well with a wooden spoon, so any browning on the bottom of your pan comes up.  Add the bay leaves.  Simmer for 10 minutes or so.

This is moving along as it ought.

This is moving along as it ought.

You can also deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup of white wine before adding in the stock, since fennel loves to work with white wine.  I just didn’t have any in the house.  If you do, then pour in the wine, give it all a stir to pull up the fond.  Simmer for a few minutes, until the alcohol cooks out and the wine smells more like sauce and less like hot wine.  Add the stock at this point and carry on.

A note about the amount of stock: I say use about a cup, but this is entirely dependent on how you prefer your pasta sauce.  I want the sauce to be nice and thick, so I’m not going to use enough stock to make the sauce soupy.  The stock is going to cook off a little in the simmer, and then the entire thing will be blended together.  You’ll have an opportunity to thin the sauce after blending if you’d like, so my advice is to approach stock with a gentle hand and see how it goes.

Anyway.

Get another pan going and add your very thin slices of fennel stalk, with just a little salt and pepper added to bring out the flavor. You’re going to want to get these nice and browned and yummy, to serve as a crisp contrast to the soft fennel of the sauce.

Truth: cut them thinner than this.

Truth: Next time, I will cut them thinner than this.

Once these are nice and brown, remove them from the heat and top with the reserved lemon juice.  Set aside until the pasta is complete.

When all the contents of your pan have cooked together and the veggies are nice and tender, remove the bay leaves and give everything else a whirl in a blender or food processor.  Put the blended sauce back in the pan and back on the heat and if you feel like it’s too gloppy for your liking, thin your sauce by adding very small increments of stock.  Add in your drained pasta and the grilled fennel stalks, and a splash or two of reserved pasta water.  Let that cook together a minute or two longer, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has become a lovely, clingy unit.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.  Chop some fresh parsley, and drain and rinse your capers.

Normally I’d say capers and parsley are optional, but…not in this dish, they’re not.  The capers add a playful, deep, briny punch to the mellowed aroma of the fennel and heightens the hints of lemon in the sauce, and the parsley adds a fresh green pungency that lifts this dish off the plate and right into yo’ mouth.  You can also add some of the fennel fronds as a garnish, but I used most of them in the salad.

I want to make this again.  Right now.

I want to make this again. Right now.

When we sat down to eat dinner, my boyfriend took his first bite, then looked at me with a big smile on his face and said, “Wow!  And it’s not…totally weird!  You don’t need some fancy palate to enjoy this!”

Ummm.

Actually, though, that’s really cool.  Reviewer Number One thinks my fennel pasta sauce is yummy and generally accessible.  I’ll take it!  As this dish stands it’s entirely vegan, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be amenable to a shot of cream or butter at the end, or a sprinkling of good, hard cheese.  We ate this with a fresh salad and sweet and spicy Brussels sprouts that were insanely good.  We ate it the next day, too.  We’re going to eat this again and again.  Yay for fennel!  Eat more of it, because it’s delicious!  You don’t even have to be a wizard.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

Enjoy!

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