Nosh: Herb and Cheese Grits

I am, undeniably, a northerner. I come from a land where the word d-o-g is pronounced “dawg”, where the temperature has to dip far below 60°F before we even consider a sweater. I come from a place where we say “youze” instead of “y’all” (or “all y’all”), and where calling someone “ma’am” is the polite way to insult someone to her face, kind of like how “bless your heart” actually means, “you idiot”. (To my friends from the south…you know what I mean.) But despite our cultural differences, there is one thing for certain that we can agree on.

Grits. Beautiful grits. I love ’em. Weird, right? I know! It surprised me too, but my love runs deep. I love ’em for breakfast with bacon and hot sauce and toast. I love them smothered in onions and cheese. I would love them with shrimp but I’m allergic, so I’ll leave that low country treat to the fine Carolinians that it won’t kill. And I love them when they’re quick-cooking, when they’re slow-cooking, and either makes me happy when I have them for dinner. I’m not talking about the grits’ cousin, the finely-ground, smooth beauty that is polenta. I love that too, but in a different way. I love the nubbly, hearty, coarsely textured porridge that is a beautiful serving of pure comfort. And it warms you from the insides on a cold winter’s night, like the ones we’ve been having here in the frozen northeast. Here’s what I used:

  • 1 medium onion, cut into a small (ish) dice
  • 2 or 3 (or more) cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons oil (olive, vegetable, sunflower, whatever you prefer)
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • Salt and black pepper (season now, and again at the end of the cooking time)
  • 1 cup corn kernels (frozen is fine)
  • 2 cups almond milk (or regular milk, if you prefer, but almond milk = OMG YES in grits)
  • 2 cups water or broth
  • 1 cup grits, quick-cooking grits are just fine
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 Tablespoon each of chives and parsley, finely chopped

There ain’t much about making grits that’s pretty, so let’s just get right down to it. Get out a fairly large pot-one big enough to accommodate 4 cups worth of cooking liquid, plus vegetables–with a heavy bottom. Put oil in the bottom of the pan over medium heat. While the oil is heating, chop onions and garlic.

Yes. That really is how much garlic I used. And I'm not ashamed.

Yes. This really is how much garlic I use. And I’m not ashamed.

When the oil is hot, add onions and garlic, and a shot of salt and pepper. Let them saute together for a few minutes, then add thyme leaves. Give the leaves a few minutes to incorporate themselves with the onions and garlic, then add in the corn and, if you’re at all like me, another mega-hit of black pepper.

IMG_0107-001

There is so much good happening in this pot, I swear it should almost be illegal. Almost.

Be careful with adding too much salt at this point; you’re going to put some cheese in soon, and that will bring a load of salt to the dish. Patience. You can always add more at the end.

Let the corn and onions saute together for a few minutes. Grate the cheese and chop the herbs you’re going to finish the grits with, in the meantime. Once the veggies have had a few minutes to cook together, add the almond milk or milk, and water or broth. It’s up to you as to what you have and what you prefer to use. Scrape up any brown bits that have cooked onto the bottom of the pot and let that incorporate into the cooking liquid. Bring that to a boil and once the boil happens, you can whisk in your grits. BEAR THIS IN MIND: if you use quick-cooking grits, the dish will move very quickly to completion once the grits hit the liquid. Make sure your finishing prep work is done before you pour the grits in so you can add everything with smooth assurance and you’re not frantic.

Back to the instructions. When it boils, whisk in your grits.

Everybody in the pool! Wheeee!

Everybody in the pool! Wheeee!

Stir stir stir! Again, if you use quick-cooking grits this will start to thicken almost immediately; check your container to see roughly how long the cook time will take. (I sound like a shill for the quick-cook variety but if that’s what you use, this whole dish can come together in about twenty minutes.) When the grits have thickened into a creamy mass, add the cheese, chives, parsley, and butter.

I know it looks like an insane amount of parsley but I also chopped a bunch to add to my salad. Plus, I like it.

I know it looks like an insane amount of parsley but I also chopped a bunch to add to my salad. Plus, I like it.

Stir that in and before you know it, you’ll have a beautiful, rich, fragrant batch of grits that will warm you to your bones. Check for seasonings and add more salt and pepper, if necessary. I would add more black pepper, just because I can’t help myself. But that’s me.

The grits you’ll end up with will be richly textured, simultaneously creamy and coarse. They have a savory bite from the onion and bursts of sweetness from the corn kernels. And they’re satisfyingly warming in the winter cold, but also promise a little bit of summer thanks to corn and herbs.

Oh hell yes.

Oh hell yes.

We enjoyed our grits with roasted zucchini coins and a green salad. And then I ate grits again for lunch. Why? Because I could, that’s why. 

Bon appetit, y’all! And to my fellow Yankees, do yourselves a favor and give grits a chance, huh? Eh, c’mere, youze. Ahhhh, fuhgeddaboudit.

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Nosh: Roasted Spiced Beet Tatin

I’m not sure why, but I woke up yesterday with a hankering for beets, and a desire to putter around in the kitchen. Sometimes, good things happen when I start to putter. Mmmm, beets. Sweet, earthy, dense, jewel-colored, beautiful. Beets!

A few days ago a friend of mine posted a link to a beet tarte tatin, which is basically beets made like an upside down cake, topped with puff pastry. Savory beets + buttery pastry? I’m in! But here’s the thing: every single recipe for a beet tarte tatin that I found online involved drowning roasted beets in butter and sugar, before baking them inside pastry that is inherently butter-gorged. It’s a delicious idea in principle, but this? Is totally unnecessary. Beets are the candy of the vegetable world. They’re grown FOR their sugar. Adding sugar to them is overkill. And how much butter do you really need to eat at dinner? Save your butter intake for the shortbreads you’re sure to encounter this holiday season.

So what’s a girl to do? We improvise.

Here’s the basic principle of a tarte tatin: arrange edibles in a pleasing design in the bottom of a cake pan, cover with puff pastry, bake, invert, eat. Got it. Now let’s get to it! REMEMBER: This is a dish made for a day you have time to putter; it will probably take about an hour and a half (maybe even closer to two hours) from start to finish, between the prep-work and the cook time. And so, with no further ado…

  • 3 good-sized beets, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into quarters, then roasted according to this recipe (so you’ll also need thyme/rosemary/cinnamon/red pepper flakes, red wine and balsamic vinegars, salt & pepper, see recipe link for specifics)
  • 1 large red onion
  •  1 smallish handful (1/4 cup, maybe?) pine nuts; walnuts (chopped) would also be nice here if you didn’t have pine nuts on hand
  • 1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
  • 1/2 cup grated horseradish cheese or Swiss cheese (optional)
  • olive oil

Take the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter to defrost. Don’t leave it in the fridge to defrost; I’ve found out the hard way that it won’t defrost in there as much as you would like. Just set it on a plate on your counter top and forget about it for the next 50 minutes or so.  I’m assuming you’re using frozen puff pastry, because… No reason. Just because. Look, I make a lot of stuff from scratch. But delicate pastries like this? I’ll buy it pre-packaged, thank you very much.  Preheat the oven to 400°, because the first thing you’ll want to do is peel and roast the beets. Bear in mind that you want them to look pretty post-roast, so when you prep them for roasting, cut them into uniform-looking quarters. 

Now get to roasting, gorgeous beetses!

Now get to roasting, gorgeous beetses!

The fatter ends of the beets are pretty dense, so give these about 40-45 minutes to roast. Toss with herbs, spices, vinegars, salt and pepper, and oil, and put it in the oven. Turn once about halfway through. When they’re done, set them aside, but you’ll be using them fairly soon after they’re out of the oven so don’t worry about letting them cool completely. Drop the oven temperature to 350°.

While the beets are roasting, thinly slice the red onion into nice, big rounds, sprinkle them with some salt, toss them with oil, and get them in a pan over medium-low heat. These are going to caramelize, and that takes…oh, about 40-45 minutes. Once they start to soften and turn gold, then brown, you will need to pay a little attention to them. You don’t want them to get crisp, just soft and sweet, so stir them fairly often. If you notice them starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, you can do one of two things to loosen them. You can 1) add more oil, which I don’t favor, because I feel like it just fattens up the works, or 2) toss in a little veggie broth or water, which I do favor. It also helps steam them into softness, and is that much less oil you need to worry about. Eventually, the onions will turn rich and brown and soft and super-sweet, and you’ll remember that the world is indeed a beautiful place, that you can extract such gorgeous flavor from a sulfuric root vegetable.

Almost too good to be true.

Almost too good to be true.

Once the beets are cooked and the onions are caramelized, take an 8-inch cake pan and grease it with a little bit of olive oil (meaning: pour a little dime-sized spot of olive oil in the cake pan and rub it around the bottom and sides with a bit of paper towel). Start to arrange your beets in a pretty pattern. Pay attention to this detail because it will figure into the presentation later. When you invert the tatin to serve it, you’ll want the beets to be the stars of the show. Try and imagine how they’ll look, upside down and backwards. 🙂

It's worth it. Trust me.

It’s worth it. Trust me.

Nice, evenly-spaced circles look great and require practically no skill to arrange. That’s what I went for.

Top this with caramelized onions, and then top the onions with a sprinkling of pine nuts.

I love it when a plan starts to come together.

I love it when a plan starts to come together.

The beets and the onions are both seasoned with salt and/or pepper, so I wouldn’t opt to add any more seasoning at this stage. Just let the foods as they’ve been cooked come together. Top the beets and onions with the sheet of puff pastry. You may need to roll the puff pastry out to get it to cover the entirety of the pan, but that’s easy to do. Just lay it on a flat surface and make a few passes over it with a rolling pin. It should readily stretch. Then you just lay it out on top of your cake pan, trim off any crazy excess corners, and tuck the pastry all around the edges of the pan.

See? Easy-peasy.

See? Easy-peasy.

Note the holes. This dough is docked, which means I poked a bunch of holes in it with a fork. Now it won’t bake up to be super-puffy, just kind of puffy, yet still totally delicious. Put it in the oven for 30 minutes, turning once half-way through. When you take it out, it should be toasted and beautiful.

Golden perfection!

Golden, slightly puffy perfection!

Let this sit for 10 minutes to give the tatin a chance to set. Now is the time to decide what to do: do you want to serve it as-is? Or do you intend to top it with cheese and broil it for a few minutes? Because…

If you want to serve it as-is, put the serving dish you plan to present it on, on top of the cake pan. If you want to top it with cheese and put it in the broiler, put a cookie sheet on top of the cake pan. Then: FLIP!

YES!

YES!

I told you that my anal-retentive attention to detail would pay off. 

Wait, let’s get another food-porn look at this, shall we?

Well, hello, beautiful.

Well, hello, beautiful.

I did choose to top this with horseradish cheese, because I think almost everything is better with horseradish cheese. But for real, it is perfectly heavenly right now. You could go cheeseless and be fine. But me?  I cheesed it up and stuck it under the broiler for a few more minutes.

Now I'm sad I don't have any more leftovers.

Now I’m sad I don’t have any more leftovers.

We ate this with a simple tossed salad with arugula, and a roasted pear and pumpkin soup (recipe coming). It was a table full of warm, wintery comfort. It wasn’t a speedy dish to put together, it was absolutely a “Sunday in the kitchen” sort of meal, but it’s surprisingly easy and oh, so, so satisfying. Enjoy! I know I did.

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: 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!

Nosh: Roasted Spiced Beets and Sauteed Beet Greens

What do you do when you have a beautiful batch of beetses?

Are they tasty, Precious?

Are they tasty, Precious?

We got these from our CSA and they were totally gorgeous.  Plus, somewhere along the line (and I really don’t remember how) we ended up with extra beet greens.  So.  Beautiful beets, and a ton of beet greens; this sounds like the beginnings of a feast to me.

I love…LOVE…LOVE roasted beets (as I’m sure you may have noticed from previous posts) but the thing about them is, they’re so distinct in their flavor I often find that recipes don’t do much other than emphasize their beety goodness.  Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you.  But, you know.  Beets is beets.

However.

My restless search for beet diversity paid off handsomely when I came across this recipe, which plays on different nuances of the flavor of the noble beet.  Of course, because I am me, I had to change it a little, largely because who has fresh lemon thyme laying around?  (OK, I know some people do, but I don’t.)  And I wanted a peppery bite because I totally dig the interplay between cinnamon and black pepper.  Here’s what I used.

For the beets:

  • 2 cups of beets (-ish, that’s hard to measure, it may have been more like 2.5 cups, but ultimately, use what you’ve got), trimmed and peeled and cut into thick wedges
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper (admittedly this can be a little intense, so if you’re not ready for that much black pepper, be kind to yourself)
  • 1/4 tsp (or more, to taste) Aleppo pepper/crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp each Balsamic and red wine vinegar
  • salt to taste

For the greens:

  • One large bunch beet greens, with leaves separated from thicker stalks (this saute would also work nicely with Swiss chard, FYI)
  • Half a medium yellow onion
  • As much garlic as you’d like (I generally use 3-4 cloves)
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 c veggie broth/water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and drain your beet greens and stalks, and then set them off to the side because you won’t need them for a while.  Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Scrub, peel, and trim the beets, then cut them into nice thick chunks.  Be forewarned…beets have…you know…THAT quality, wherein the beet juice will get all over your hands and the cutting board if you don’t coat yourself in rubber and…oh, GOD, the stains, the stains…

Really, I’ve discovered that beet juice stains are not so tragic.  It washes out.  If you don’t have a plastic cutting board and rubber gloves to protect against stains, then do yourself a favor: Don’t panic.

Toss your chopped beets into a baking dish.

Ooh, chunky.

Ooh, chunky.

Aren’t they pretty?  I think they’re kind of bad-ass.  Anyway.  Once your beets are in the roasting pan, add in everything else.  Yes, everything else that is beet (not greens) specific, and toss it with a nice glug of oil.

Yup. That's it.

Yup. That’s it.

And into the oven wit’ ye!

Not bad.

Let these cook for 25-30 minutes, turning once halfway through the cooking time.

While they’re in the oven, turn your attention to your beet greens.  I love beet greens!  The sweet flavor of the beets is somewhat preserved in the greens (primarily in the red stalks) but there’s also the peppery bitterness that you find in all good greens.  They’re an awesome flavor package.  Beet greens are nutritional powerhouses (as opposed to rhubarb greens, which can kill you), packed with Vitamins A, C, and K, and are also a good source of calcium for those looking for non-dairy calcium sources.

Yes, you can get calcium from something other than milk. No, you don’t need a supplement if you eat right.  Moving on.

Cut the onion into a small-ish dice and chop your garlic.  Get them off the cutting board if you don’t have a spacious one; chopping large amounts of greens can take up a lot of room, so you’ll need as much choppable workspace as possible.  Take your rinsed and drained greens and separate the stalks from the leaves–both are perfectly edible, but the stalks are thicker so you need to start their cooking earlier and give them a few extra minutes.

Just hack away, where the leaf meets the stem. Done!

Just hack away, where the leaf meets the stem. Done!

Start the onions and garlic sauteing with some salt and pepper, and after a minute or two add thyme.  Chop the stalks into delicious bite-sized morsels and then?  Once the onions are nice and soft and translucent?

You know what fate awaits these beet stalks.  NO MERCY!

You know what fate awaits these beet stalks. NO MERCY!

Oh, yeah.  Don’t forget to use a nice, roomy pan that you can cover, because there’s a lot of stuff you’re going to try and cook and later you need a lid.  So.  Beet green stalks are in the pan, getting chummy with the onions and garlic.  Start on your leaves.

The easiest way to chop leaves like this is to stack them and cut them into ribbons.  If you want smaller greens after that then have at it with your kitchen knife.  What can I say?  It’s not rocket surgery.

Give the stalks a few minutes to cook in with the onions, and by a few I mean a few.  No more than five minutes, really.  Then toss in your greens, and sprinkle nutmeg (or freshly grate it if you have the whole nut and a handy microplane) and a shot of salt and pepper on the greens.  Give it a stir and let them saute.

Almost home, my brothers and sisters.

Almost home, my brothers and sisters.

They’ll probably start to sound kind of loud and angry pretty quickly as the water cooks out of them, which is fine, but don’t let that go on for more than a minute or two, because you want to make use of their moisture (plus some).  Give another stir to make sure nothing’s stuck to the bottom of the pan, then add the 1/4 cup broth, put the lid on the pan, and remove it from heat.  The objective is to let the greens finish cooking in their own steam.  If the rest of the dinner is still cooking and you aren’t ready to eat the greens after a few minutes of steaming, knock the lid back so the steam can escape.

Put it all together.  If you can put it on polenta, it’s a happy day!  When corn (polenta is corn, after all) and beets get together, they pull out each other’s green grassiness.  When that’s combined with the sweet and the cinnamon and the pepper and the bitter-ish crunch?  OMG yes.

THAT is what I'm talking about!

THAT is what I’m talking about!

We ate this with Baked Pumpkin with Yogurt Sauce, roasted parsnips (recipe coming soon) and George’s extraordinarily delicious polenta, which is his specialty so you may have to ask him how to make it.  I’ve never done it.  He’s good at it.  Win!

Do you have a favorite way to eat beets?  And do you always eat the greens?

Enjoy!

XOXO —  Terri

Nosh: Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce

There isn’t much in this world I like more than savory winter gourds, like butternut squash (or, “pumpkin” if you live anywhere outside the US) and not surprisingly, I am happy to eat them in just about any shape or form.  But, because I am an unrepentant carb-girl (gimme STAAAAAAAARCH!), I’m even happier to eat squash if it involves something like pasta as an accompaniment.  Imagine my delight when I discovered that butternut squash makes a spectacular, silky, savory, comforting, beautiful pasta sauce that will keep you nice and cozy on the coming winter nights.  You’ll need:

  • 1.5-2 lb butternut squash
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of dried thyme (or two teaspoons of fresh)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried sage (or a teaspoon of fresh, finely chopped, if you have it)
  • a few shakes of crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/2 c vegetable broth
  • 1/4 c milk
  • a food processor or blender

The hardest part of this dish, as I’ve mentioned previously while pontificating on the virtues of butternut squash, is getting the damned squash prepped for eating.  That shell is hard!  And so is the squash flesh, when you first cut into it.  Slow and steady, friends.  Take a look here for some love and guidance on how to prep butternut squash, provided by yours truly.

Got it?

Get yourself ready.  Start to warm up a large pan so you can saute your squash, eventually.  Dice the squash into a half-inch dice and cut the onion the same.  Mince garlic (or leave it out entirely; while I adore garlic there’s enough going on in this dish that it won’t suffer without it).

See?  It can be done.

See? It can be done.

Toss the squash, onions, and garlic into the warm pan you’ve already added oil to, so it’s all nice and hot.  Add some salt and pepper, to get the veggies cooking right.

I just had this the other day; I already want to make it again.

I just had this the other day; I already want to make it again.

Leave the butternut squash and onions alone for five or ten minutes; you want the onions to start to break down and get translucent and soft, though the squash will still be plenty hard.  Add the other spices–thyme, sage, crushed red pepper flakes, and nutmeg.  A word about fresh vs. dry herbs: when you saute, use twice as much of a particular fresh herb as you would the dried (provided, of course, your dried thyme hasn’t been sitting around in your pantry for three years; in that case, no amount of dried herbs will give you any flavor worth talking about, since their essential oils are long-punked-out.  Throw that away and start over).  The flavor has concentrated in dried herbs and they will be more pungent than fresh, so use them accordingly.  Let everything saute together for a few minutes, until your veggies start to develop a rich, lovely fond (the brown bits at the bottom of your pan that you have to scrape off, and don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ve messed up and burnt anything because you haven’t and fond makes food gooo–oooo-ood).

This isn't burnt by any means. It's an achievement.

This isn’t burnt by any means. It’s a pan full of happy.

Add the broth and scrape the pan to pull up the fond.  I start with a half-cup, but feel free to add more as you start to cook if your squash and onions look like they’re starting to dry out.  Just give them a little while to cook to see how much liquid they’ll release into the pan on their own.  The squash and onions will need to cook in the pan, in the broth, for another 20-25 minutes.  This would be a good time to get your water boiling so you can make the pasta and have the sauce and pasta ready at roughly the same time.  Did I mention that my fabulous boyfriend made homemade pasta?

Who knew pappardelle could be so sexy?

Who knew pappardelle could be so sexy?

It was semolina pasta, so it was super-dense and fully complemented the autumnal feel of this dish.  I highly recommend it, if you are lucky enough to have a pasta-making partner hanging around the house.  Otherwise, look for a thicker, fuller pasta.  I wouldn’t go anything smaller than fettuccine if you want a long pasta, but if you use short choose something like rigatoni.

Once the squash cooks through and turns nice and soft…

Into the blender.  Or the food processor.  Or mash and whip by hand, if you’re a pioneer.  Whatever method you choose to whirl your squash into submission is entirely up to you, but your objective is to make it a smooth and delicious puree.  Once the solids have been pureed, add them back into the pan, and then add in the milk and give it all a stir.  I like to add milk because it thins out the sauce to the texture I want and does add a touch of creaminess, but if you’re on a dairy-free diet then by all means, leave the milk out and just factor in a little bit more broth to get it to a desired consistency.  Even without the milk, it will still be delicious.  When the pasta is almost cooked through (try and get it about a minute from doneness), drain it and add it to the sauce.

Hallelujah! You've entered the final stage of cooking.

Hallelujah! You’ve entered the final stage of cooking.

Let that cook together another minute or so longer, then give it a final taste to adjust salt and pepper if necessary, and sit down for your feast.  It’s easy enough to make all the time, and fancy enough to serve to dinner guests.  You can top this with fresh parsley or chives for an added herbal kick, or you can add shredded cheese for that great salty bite it gives.  We served this with roasted cauliflower (recipe coming soon), roasted kohlrabi, bread with tapenade (a fancy word for “ground up olives”, so good and so easy!) and a green salad.

Dinner, voila! She is served.

Dinner, voila! She is served.

Nosh: Braised Eggplant with Mushrooms

Ahh, the cooler weather is settling in (unless you live south of the Equator; in that case, happy Spring!) and–I know, people don’t get this, there’s such a cult of summer, but whatever–I am glad to see the heat gone.  I admit that flip flops are my favorite form of footwear, but I’ll happily trade them for tights and cute shoes and the likelihood that I won’t break out in a sweat when I get up from the couch to get a glass of water.

Anyway.

Cooler weather means a return to using the oven on a regular basis, and the oven is one of my favorite ways to cook.  You get your food going, and then?  You walk away and let heat do the work for you.  Amen.

I already had an eggplant in my fridge, thanks to my mom unloading the contents of her home on us at the end of a visit (“Here, take these eggplant.  And some lettuce.  These onions. This stepstool.  Some recycled newspapers.  And the neighbor’s new dog, I really don’t like the yappy little thing.”…and I digress…Love you, Mom!).  We had two eggplants at one point, but the first had already been used for parmesan and two large eggplantses parmed up for two people?  More than we needed, really.  So.

I am here to sing the praise of the braise.

Braising, basically, means “browning your food and then letting it cook for a while, and it’s best if it’s a steady, constant heat”.  I grew up eating pot roast; it’s the same principle here, only applied to eggplant and mushrooms.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 medium-to-large eggplant
  • 1 medium-to-large onion
  • 6-7 white button mushrooms (or cremini, if you prefer), coarsely chopped in big chunks
  • Approximately one ton of garlic, minced, or a tonne to my UK/Canadian/Aussie friends (honestly, I think I ended up using like 8 cloves)
  • 4-5 stalks of Swiss chard, stems chopped, leaves sliced (totally, entirely optional; I had these on hand and wanted to use them and only mention chard because it’s in the pictures)
  • 1 large heirloom or 2 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 2 large handsful (3 tablespoons, if you’re a measurer) pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup raisins/golden raisins/currants/any combination thereof
  • 1 teaspoon sumac (we’ll talk about this in a minute)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth or water
  • 2-3 Bay leaves
  • Salt & Pepper to taste (go heavy on the pepper)
  • Chopped parsley to garnish
Chop everything first so it's all ready to go.

Chop everything first so it’s all ready to go.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

FIRST, I must disclose: my boyfriend is a fastidious eggplant salter.  I don’t care about it at all and think it wastes time and paper towels.  If you must salt your eggplant and press it, by all means do it first, do it now, so you have time to let it sit for 20-30 minutes before you rinse it, dry it and saute it.  Otherwise, just chop it into a nice dice and set it off to the side.

You need a large pot or Dutch oven, something that can go from stovetop to oven.  On the stovetop, start heating up said large pot since you’re going to brown everything first over a medium heat.  Once it’s hot add some olive oil and then toss in your coarsely chopped mushrooms.  Grind some pepper onto them but don’t add salt, since that will leach the water out of them before you want that to happen.  Leave them alone in the bottom of the pan for a few minutes–don’t stir them, don’t touch them…don’t even look at them–and they’ll get all nice and caramelly brown.  Only after that can you give them a stir and then remove them from the pot into a bowl you have waiting to serve as a landing pad.

In the same pot, add more oil if necessary and your onions.  Give them a few minutes to cook and then add the garlic, chard stems (those red things, upper right, in the picture above) and pine nuts.

"Two large handsful" is accurate enough, people.

“Two large handsful” is accurate enough, people.

Let these cook together for five or seven minutes or so, until the onions get soft and translucent and your ridiculous amount of garlic gets beautifully fragrant.  And then?  Into the same bowl with the mushrooms, so they can hang out together and start to let their flavors mingle while you get busy with the eggplant.

There's a party in my kitchen!

There’s a party in my kitchen!  Woot!

Now.  Eggplant.  Your lovely diced eggplant needs to be rinsed and dried if you salted it, or…picked up and tossed into some hot oil if you didn’t.  However you prepped your eggplant, add more oil to your pot if you need it, get it nice and hot and toss the eggplant in.  Let the eggplant start to saute for a few minutes before moving on to the next step, but once it starts to sort-of stick it’s time to move on.

And moving on means adding spices.  Assemble your (clockwise from the top) sugar, cumin, sumac, cayenne and cinnamon.

Mmmm, here's where things start to get awesome.

Mmmm, here’s where things start to get awesome.

A word about sumac, which isn’t common in American pantries: it’s delicious, you should get some.  It adds a particular tart tanginess to your food and there isn’t really a good substitute for it.  But.  If you can’t find it/don’t want to buy it, then add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your dish instead.  It won’t match the flavor but will bring in the tartness.  Only don’t add lemon juice until just before you’re ready to eat, as prolonged exposure to heat can turn lemon juice bitter.

Toss your spices in.  Add in some salt and pepper.  Right on top of the eggplant.  And let them simmer together until the spices get kind of dry and everything starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, which shouldn’t take more than a minute or so.  Deglaze with the peeled and chopped tomatoes (the acid in the tomatoes will start to pull up the brown bits on the pan right away) and the quarter-cup of vinegar. Give that a minute or so to cook together, and add the raisins or currants and the chopped Swiss chard leaves.  Stir it all together then add the mushrooms and onions back into the mix with the vegetable stock and bay leaves.

You say stew, I say braise. Whatever, so long as it's dinner.

You say stew, I say braise. Whatever, so long as it’s dinner.

Put this in your nicely preheated oven and leave it alone for the next 30-45 minutes.  Enjoy the smells, because they will be extraordinary.  At the end of its time in the oven everything should be soft and delicious and thoroughly cooked in a rich, fragrant, spicy sauce (you won’t have much sauce, but you will have some).  Taste, as always, to adjust your seasonings.  Garnish with chopped parsley and enjoy the heck out of your dinner!  It makes for some amazing leftovers, too.

I can almost smell it anew.

I can almost smell it anew.

We served it with roasted potatoes with rosemary and roasted kale (which I have to walk away from if it’s on the table as I will eat every last morsel of it in one sitting), since we had the oven on so why not?  Ohhh, so good.  This will go into my make again and again file.

I hope you enjoy!  I know I did.

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