Friday, April 30, 2010

A Versatile Grain Pilaf

I taught a class this week called "Simple Suppers." One of the things that I wanted to teach when I proposed this class was how to make a grain pilaf that is essentially a one dish meal. We are hearing so much about whole grains and how Americans really need to incorporate more whole grains in their diets. A main course pilaf is a great way to do just that.

A pilaf is a grain that has been prepared in a very specific way. If a grain has been cooked using the "pilaf method", it has been sautéed in some butter, oil or other fat before the liquid is added. Frequently onions and possibly some garlic or spices are cooked in the fat before adding the grain. Grains will vary in the amount of liquid that they require and in the length of time that they will need to cook (this information can be found on the box or the bulk bin), but the basic method will remain the same.

The word pilaf is most often applied to rice dishes, but almost any grain can be cooked using the pilaf method. Some examples include quinoa, bulgur, pearled barley, farro, spelt, and wheat berries. Once you learn how to make a grain pilaf, you will be ready to create all kinds of interesting, satisfying and nutritious, grain-based entrées.

To make any grain into a pilaf:  First, cook some onion (use whatever kind you like—white, yellow, red, shallots, spring onions, or green onions) in a generous amount (at least 2 T. for a cup of your chosen grain) of olive oil or butter. After the onion is tender, add garlic and any spices that you are using—cumin, coriander, fennel seed, paprika, curry, chili powder, turmeric, allspice, ginger, cinnamon, etc.—and cook until fragrant. Add the grain (rinsed, if necessary) and cook for a minute or two to coat the grain in the fat and get it hot. Add the liquid (water or stock) and salt and bring to a full boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until tender—grains vary from 12 to 15 minutes cooking time for quinoa or bulgur, to a couple of hours for wheat berries. When the grain is tender, remove it from the heat and allow it to sit, still covered, for 5 minutes.  The grain will continue to absorb any remaining liquid as it rests.

You could serve your grain pilaf as is as a side dish.  But you can also think of your pilaf at this point as a blank canvas for all kinds of additions and garnishes.  It can become the star of the meal instead of just the supporting player.

To almost any pilaf, I like to add a dried fruit of some kind—I enjoy the sweetness and chewy texture that this contributes. Add the fruit by scattering it over the surface of the finished pilaf while it rests.  This will help the fruit to soften a bit. I think sundried tomatoes also fall into this sweet-chewy category and can be added in the same way. If you want to go in the chewy-salty direction, olives can be added to the final dish.  Whether you are adding dried fruit, sundried tomatoes, olives or some combination of these, aim for about 1/3 to 1/2 cup for every cup of raw grain.

I also like to add about 3 cups of a cooked vegetable of some kind—cooked beans, blanched, sautéed or roasted vegetables, wilted greens, etc.  If you want to add roasted vegetables, think about the fact that roasting shrinks vegetables, so start with a volume of prepared, raw vegetables that is about twice the volume that you want to end with.  So, for example, if you want to end up with 3 cups of roasted vegetables, start with 5 or 6 cups raw vegetables. If you are going to serve the pilaf hot (as opposed to turning it into a room temperature or cold salad-type dish), any vegetable you add should also be hot. If you are blanching or sautéing the added vegetables, do this while the pilaf rests. Roasted vegetables can be timed so they are finished when the pilaf is, or they can be cooked ahead and reheated in the oven.

Nuts are another favorite addition—not only for flavor, but for texture. Good choices include pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, almonds and pistachios. Always toast the nuts (350° oven, until golden and fragrant) before adding them. Toasting nuts deepens their flavors and in some cases gives them a more delicate crunch.  As with the dried fruit, I add 1/3 to 1/2 cup to the basic recipe.

Don't overlook the addition of fresh herbs--they add loads of flavor. Herbs like rosemary, sage, winter savory and thyme can be added to the pilaf with the onions and spices.  Herbs like mint, parsley, basil, cilantro and dill are better added at the end with the vegetables and nuts.

When your pilaf is finished, taste it. Correct the salt and pepper. Don't be afraid to add some lemon or garlic if the flavor seems flat or olive oil if the pilaf seems dry. I like to serve pilafs with a slice of cheese or a little yogurt.

For my class, I planned to teach a bulgur pilaf.  Bulgur is a grain that is easy to like--it has interesting texture without being too chewy and it cooks quickly, making it great for a spur of the moment or weeknight meal.  Since the class was to have a seasonal theme, I had planned to use asparagus as the main vegetable addition—but I wasn't particularly thrilled with this idea because I already had an asparagus dish in the class. Then, while reading up on grain pilafs, I ran across a bulgur and spinach pilaf at 101 cookbooks.  I have not made this recipe, but it looks excellent.  In any case, I thought the use of wilted spinach as a vegetable addition was inspired.  Spinach is also a seasonal addition.  In fact, I already had some on hand from my Saturday trip to the market:

Once I had settled on the spinach, the remaining ingredients fell into place.  Chickpeas are good with bulgur and they are also a traditional Spanish and Mediterranean accompaniment for spinach.  Other flavors that are good with these two ingredients are cumin and mint.  If you are not crazy about mint, dill would also be a good choice.  With the texture that the chickpeas provide,  you don't necessarily need a nut, but I love them, so I decided to add some toasted walnuts.  Pistachios would have been good too (and colorful).  Finally, I added golden raisins.  I also really like the idea of dried apricots with the bulgur and walnuts, so when I made the dish again last night, I made it with the apricots.  It is nice either way.  The whole idea is to make a pilaf that pleases you.  A good friend told me that she made this recipe with Swiss Chard, Currants and Almonds.

I could continue at length about possible combinations--there are so many different directions you can go when putting together a grain pilaf.  You could change this recipe by using quinoa instead of bulgur.  If I had chosen to make a bulgur pilaf with asparagus, I might have then included some roasted artichokes and most certainly would have added some blanched English peas (instead of chickpeas).  I might have added some thyme and fennel seed to the cooking onions and would have finished the pilaf with parsley, mint and pine nuts...and maybe some lemon zest. 

If you need some ideas, recipes for grain based entrées are becoming more and more common and are readily found on-line.  A few years ago Gourmet published a barley pilaf-based salad with roasted summer vegetables that has become one of my favorites.  This past March, Food & Wine ran an article, "Amazing Grains", that included basic pilaf instructions along with a couple of recipes using this basic pilaf.  If you are completely new to the world of grains, Deborah Madison has an extensive and user friendly section on grains in her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.   Madison even gives pointers on which grains are the friendliest for people who are not used to eating whole grains. 

Someone told me recently that people would eat more "healthy" food if it could be made to taste good.  Well, this pilaf tastes really good.

Bulgur Pilaf with Chickpeas & Spinach 

2 T. olive oil
3 or 4 spring onions, including some of the green, sliced--keep the white & green separate
1 fat clove garlic, minced
kosher salt
1/2 t. ground cumin
1 c. (6 oz.) medium bulgur, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 c. water

1/2 c. julienned dried apricots or golden raisins
2 T. olive oil
pinch hot pepper flakes
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
10 oz. stemmed spinach, washed (Cook the spinach in the water clinging to the leaves in a covered pot. When the leaves have wilted, remove from the heat and cool. Squeeze out the excess liquid and roughly chop.)
1/4 c. mint chiffonade
1/2 c. toasted walnuts, broken or coarsely chopped

Warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat. Add the white portion of the spring onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant—about a minute. Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained bulgur. Continue to cook for a minute. Add the water and some salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered until the bulgur is tender—12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and scatter the apricots over the surface of the bulgur. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

While the bulgur is resting, heat 2 T. olive oil in a wide sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the pepper flakes and chickpeas along with the green tops from the spring onions and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the chickpeas are hot.

Scatter the spinach over the chickpeas. Season with salt and continue to cook and stir until the spinach is hot through.

Transfer the bulgur to a large bowl. Scatter the mint over the bulgur, followed by the chickpea/spinach mixture along with the walnuts. Toss until everything is well combined.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve accompanied by some plain yogurt, if you like. Serves 4 to 5 as an entrée.

Note:  I used spring onions for this pilaf because I had some from the farmers' market, but you can use any onion that you have on hand--you'll need about one cup.  Unless you are using green onions as a substitute for the spring onions, omit the addition of the green portion of the onion to the chickpea/spinach mixture.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to Poach an Egg

The spring has been late, then warm, then cool, and now for a couple of weeks, very dry. Then on Thursday, the skies opened up and it poured. The rain has continued with little break since....I love it.  Although some things are now drooping,

and a bit wet,

everything is lush and beautiful. Colors pop against the gray and the green.

As far as cooking goes, the clouds and the rain call for comfort food. I suppose this is part of what prompted the brownies.

Last night we had risotto—the epitome of comfort food.  In this case filled with the bounty of my morning trip to the market—asparagus and spring onions—along with peas (from the freezer...none fresh available yet) and herbs.

I've also been making poached eggs. Soft cooked eggs are a childhood comfort food--I had them often for breakfast with buttered toast. I occasionally had a "poached" egg on toast, but I don't think I ever had a real poached egg until I attended cooking school. I thought poached eggs were these odd little alien looking disks produced by an equally odd looking metal contraption that sat over a pan of steaming water.  Real poached eggs have been cooked directly in the water—without their shell or a metal container to control their eventual shape. They cook magically into a naturally shaped orb that will rest easily on a bed of greens or piece of toast. I've never had one floating in a bowl of broth, but that sounds wonderful, too.

Poached eggs go well with the new green vegetables of spring. They are especially good on a salad, where the runny yolk can mingle with the vinaigrette, making it almost creamy. Most of the time when I have a poached egg, I serve it on a salad that is some variation of salade frisée aux lardons. The classic version is made with frisée or curly endive, bacon, croutons, and a sharp, mustardy vinaigrette made with some of the bacon fat. The poached egg sits right on top. Recently I made it with roasted fingerling potatoes instead of croutons, and I used some of the spicy, substantial greens that I get at the Farmers' market instead of frisée.

Eggs are a classic partner for asparagus, too.  Since we have an abundance of asparagus from yesterday's trip to the market, for dinner tonight we had a poached egg on a bed of asparagus that had been sautéed with spring onions and some bacon—all on top of a buttered piece of toast. This would be what I call grown up comfort food.

To poach an egg, you will need a heavy bottomed saucepan which will help you to maintain an even water temperature. A pan that is wider than it is deep works best. Bring the water just to a simmer and season to taste with salt. Add a tablespoon of vinegar (red or white wine vinegar is fine) per quart of water. The vinegar will help the egg white to set quickly. Reduce the heat so that the water is not actively simmering—it should be still so as not to disturb the whites as they begin to set—around 200° is about perfect.

Crack an egg into a saucer or ramekin (that way you can pick out any bits of shell). If the yolk breaks, reserve the egg for another use (you could always make brownies or cookies...or cake...). Lower the ramekin so that it is touching the water and tip the egg into the water. Then just let it be. If you have beautiful, farm fresh eggs, the white should form a soft pillow around the yolk with very few straggly bits of white floating around it. I think a poached egg is perfect at 4 minutes—the yolk is mostly runny, but beginning to thicken around its edge near the white, and it is warm through. If you like your yolk more set, let it go for another 30 or 60 seconds. After a few eggs, you will know how you like it done.

If I am poaching more than one egg (you can poach as many as your pan will accommodate), I use a digital timer that counts up (rather than down). To keep track of when each egg should come out of the water, just note when (at :00, :15, :30, etc.) you put each egg in.  Then you can take each one out at the appropriate mark on the timer (4:00, 4:15, 4:30, etc.). Also, if you are poaching more than one or two eggs, you may need to raise the heat a bit to maintain the water temperature.

When the egg is done to your liking, carefully lift it out of the water using a slotted spoon. If serving right away, gently set it on a paper towel to blot it dry before transferring it to the plate.

If you are making poached eggs ahead of time, immerse the finished eggs in cold water and refrigerate until ready to serve. To serve, immerse the eggs in simmering water just to warm them through (3 or 4 minutes).

If you have never poached an egg, I hope you will give it a try. They are quick, nourishing and comforting.

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Excellent Brownie Recipe

Tonight turned out to be a brownie kind of night. I had intended to write about what I made for dinner, but I wasn't very happy with how it turned out. It was entirely edible—good, in fact—just not what I had in mind. And not up to the standards of the kinds of things that I want to post on my blog. The subtitle of my blog is "in pursuit of everyday excellence." It is not subtitled "everyday excellence".  From my perspective, it's about the pursuit, every day.  But I want people who try the recipes that I post to know that they are going to get something that meets a high standard. Someday I'll make a better version of tonight's dinner and post that one. But, for now, I'm making—and writing about—brownies. These brownies hit the mark.

When I was growing up my Mom had two brownie recipes. The first one was out of a Betty Crocker cookbook. It was a good brownie. The kind that everyone thought of when they thought of a brownie. This was before the advent of mixes.  It is so unfortunate that the ease of use of a mix has made it so that there are actually people out there who have no idea what a real scratch brownie tastes like.

At some point during my childhood my Mom acquired a cookbook called Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah written by Dinah Shore. You have to be of a certain age to remember that Dinah Shore, in addition to having a singing career, had a talk show. She would occasionally cook with her guests. The next step must have been to write a cookbook. There was a recipe in her book called "Bea's Brownies". But we never called them that. They were always "Dinah Shore Brownies" to us. They had a rich, deep chocolate flavor unlike anything we had ever experienced. My mom didn't make them very often. I think the main reason for this was that they were more expensive to make because they had more chocolate and butter in them. But there was also an issue with the way they baked. My mom found them to bake unreliably with a strange hump or bubble that would rise up in the center of the pan as they baked (this didn't affect the taste).

My mom eventually amended the Betty Crocker recipe to include the things we loved about the "Dinah Shore Brownies". These of course became "Mom's Brownies" and when my brothers married and their new wives were given handwritten recipe books of my brothers' favorite foods, "Mom's Brownies" made the cut.

In recent years, I wanted to revisit Dinah Shore's original recipe. I discovered something interesting in the very simple mixing instructions: "Beat eggs, adding sugar slowly..." This to me is a good example of how a basic technique can be hidden in a recipe and an experienced cook will see it and one who is not so experienced won't. After all, what does "adding sugar slowly" mean? Well, I read it as "beat the eggs, adding the sugar slowly, until they are thick and pale—not quite to the ribbon stage".

(I don't think my Mom was beating the eggs and sugar long enough.)  When the eggs and sugar are whipped almost to a ribbon, the resulting brownies are "light, yet dense" (a quote from one of my brothers) with a nice level surface (slightly rounded at the edges).

This then became one of my regular brownie recipes--it is very good. Then about a year ago I acquired an unusually small square casserole—perfect for fruit crisp for two and other items made on a small scale. I figured out that it was also perfect for a 1 egg batch of brownies.  I calculated that if I amended the original recipe (which called for 4 oz. of unsweetened chocolate and 1 1/2 cups of sugar) to include 6 oz. of 70% bittersweet chocolate and 1 cup of sugar, that the recipe divided evenly into a 1 egg batch with no odd amounts of leftover ingredients (like 2/3 of a square of unsweetened chocolate). This size batch is a much better amount for me to make since there are only two in my household. As it turns out, I like this version even better.

If you are looking for a traditional chewy or cakey brownie, this one isn't it. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a brownie that is "light, yet dense" and deeply chocolaty, you have found it.


6 oz. Bittersweet Chocolate (70% cocoa solids--preferably Lindt Excellence--see note)
12 T. unsalted butter
3 eggs
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. sifted all-purpose flour (3 oz.)
pinch of salt
1 1/2 t. vanilla

Melt the butter and chocolate over low heat; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until smooth. Gradually whisk in the sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. (If whisking by hand, this will take 2 to 3 minutes). Add the melted chocolate mixture to the eggs and sugar. Fold in the flour & salt, followed by the vanilla.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8-inch-square baking pan. Bake at 350° for 20 to 25 minutes. The brownies are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Do not over bake—the brownies should still be very moist in the center.  Makes 24 small brownies (they are very rich).

Note (added 6/21/10):  I recently made a small batch of these and couldn't get Lindt Excellence 70%, which is the chocolate I have always used.  I purchased Scharffenberger Bittersweet 70%.  The brownies were not very chocolate-y and disappointingly average overall.  I was surprised since both Lindt and Scharffenberger are considered to be quality chocolates and both are labeled 70%.  After I made the brownies (which even looked a bit pale as I was mixing them up using the Scharffenberger) I tasted the two chocolates side by side.  The Lindt was discernibly more intense in chocolate flavor.  Such is the mystery of chocolate.... The moral here is that if you cannot get Lindt Excellence 70%, then I can't vouch for your results.  To get the desired result, I would make the brownies using the original recipe, which called for 4 oz. of unsweetened chocolate and 1 1/2 cups of sugar, instead.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

One More Artichoke Recipe & a Simple Pan-Roasted Chicken Breast

I say "one more" artichoke recipe, but in reality there is every likelihood that I will post more before their season is over. My previous recipes used roasted artichokes and gently stewed artichokes. Tonight I braised them with some potatoes and the last of my spring onions from the market. It's only Wednesday and I have gone through everything I purchased at the market except for some salad greens and the rhubarb—the rhubarb will go in a coffee cake tomorrow. In a few weeks, running out before the week is over will not be a problem—the sheer abundance or the summer and fall market always makes me want to purchase far more than we can possibly consume in a week.

Although our artichokes come from California, I associate artichokes with Provence. In the quintessential artichoke dish from that region of France—Artichauts à la Barigoule—the artichokes are gently cooked in a bath of aromatic vegetables, herbs, white wine and lots of olive oil. When I braise artichokes I almost always borrow from this famed dish. Tonight my aromatics and herbs were the aforementioned spring onions, plus garlic, bay leaf and thyme.

As with any braise, I first gently colored the artichokes in a little bit of fat—in this case butter and olive oil.

I then added the spring onions, garlic and thyme and cooked these briefly. Since braising is a moist heat cooking method, the next step is to moisten the vegetables to be braised. This could be done with just water or stock, but I used white wine. After reducing the wine to soften and concentrate its flavor, I added enough water (you could use stock) to come about 1/4 of the way up the artichokes. After this moistening, the artichokes are cooked covered at a gentle simmer. The artichokes will take 30 to 40 minutes to cook—they should be tender to the tip of a knife.

Many things can be added to the braising artichokes to cook along with them. Carrots and Fennel come to mind. I thought about finishing my braised artichokes by adding some sautéed mushrooms towards the end and then adding and reducing some cream. Artichokes are wonderful with mushrooms (and cream), but I feel like I have been using a lot of mushrooms recently. So I added some fingerling potatoes to my braise when I added the liquid (potatoes are another good partner for artichokes and will take the same amount of time to cook) and then finished with a few Niçoise olives. If I had had some parsley or basil on hand, I would have added one or both at the end. They would have added some freshness and color. Patricia Wells has a wonderful ragoût of artichokes and new potatoes in her Provence Cookbook that she finishes with a persillade of parsley, mint, garlic and pepper flakes—a nice touch.

I served the artichokes and potatoes with a simple pan-roasted chicken breast. I used a bone-in, split breast. Even if you like to eat boneless breasts, you should try and cook the chicken on the bone. Meat cooked on the bone always has more flavor and in the case of the chicken will be juicier.

To pan roast a split breast, season the breast liberally all over with salt & pepper. Brown the breast, skin side down in a little bit of oil in a hot ovenproof sauté pan. When the skin is browned and crisp, turn the chicken over (the bone provides a convenient roasting rack) and transfer to a 375° to 400° oven. Roast until an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 155°--about 25 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes—the internal temperature will continue to rise as the chicken rests and will easily reach the safe temperature of 160°.   Add the resting juices to the artichokes. Using your hands, pull the bone away from the breast, starting at the point where the breast was attached to the wing.  Slice the breast at an angle, across the grain and serve.  A large split breast (12 ounces) will yield about 8 or 9 ounces of meat and make two nice portions. 

Braised Artichokes with Fingerling Potatoes & Olives

1 lemon
3 Globe Artichokes
1 T. butter
olive oil
1 lb. Fingerling potatoes, scrubbed
3 fat cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 T. picked thyme, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
Several spring onions, including some of the green, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1/2 c. dry white wine
1 to 1 1/4 c. chicken stock (or water)
1/3 to 1/2 c. pitted Niçoise olives
Salt & Pepper, to taste

Turn the artichoke, rubbing with lemon juice as you work. Cut each bottom into eight wedges.

In a large sauté pan with a tight fitting lid, melt the butter in a little olive oil over medium heat. When the foam has begun to subside, drain the artichokes, pat them dry, and add them to the pan. Gently cook the artichokes, turning once, for about 3 to 5 minutes. While the artichokes are cooking, cut the potatoes into uniform chunks. You may halve them lengthwise, or cut on a short diagonal if they are very thin. When the artichokes are beginning to color, add the onions, garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and reduce by half. Add 1 cup of the stock and bring to a simmer. Add the potatoes and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and cook at a bare simmer, stirring/shaking occasionally, until the artichokes and potatoes offer no resistance to the tip of a knife—about 30 to 40 minutes. Add the olives after 15 minutes of cooking. If the ragout becomes dry, add some more of the stock.

Swirl in more olive oil if you like. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Market Inspirations--Asparagus, Spring Onions & the Return of Old Friends

When I arrived at the market this week it was a more active place....more cars in the parking lots, a visible hum and bustle of early market activity, and Shaver Creek Produce, with their strawberries, had moved back to their regular stall on aisle three (to make room for regular aisle one vendors):

As I made my way down the first aisle I spotted the asparagus. The grower told me that this is the earliest that he ever remembers harvesting asparagus for the market. The weather has cooled down to normal range in the last day or two, but we have been in the 80's all week—the asparagus must have gotten a jump start.

As I was purchasing my asparagus, as well as some beautiful rhubarb (I don't seem to be able to pass it up), a familiar face walked up to talk to the grower. Thane Palmberg occupies the first stall at the market—his family has been bringing their produce to the market longer than anyone else there—and I had passed his stall thinking he wasn't at the market yet. He was on his way to get coffee but told me he had spring onions and spinach.

Thane grows some of the most beautiful produce at the market and supplies many of the small, locally owned restaurants here in town. When I stopped back at his stall he told me that both the onions and the spinach that he had with him had wintered over (next week there would be onions from new plantings...and perhaps some radishes) and that even with the cold snowy weather we had had this year he had been able to harvest leeks and parsnips for his restaurant clients through the winter and up until a couple of weeks ago. (Too bad I'm no longer at a restaurant—I would have loved to have had some of those parsnips.)

I stopped to purchase salad greens at Nature's Choice and asked about arugula. Fred Messner held up his thumb and forefinger to show me that it was only an inch or two out of the ground.... Then I was off to aisle three for some strawberries. There are of course still lots of plants for sale at the market—and will be through June. I hope to be ready for some plants in my garden in a week or two...I'm still a bit behind.  (The nice thing about Spring though, is that even if I'm behind in my garden, it still looks good

and makes me happy just to wander through it.  I better get busy though, or it won't make me so happy in July.)

For mid April, I feel like I brought home quite a stash—Asparagus, Spinach, Spring Onions, Salad Greens, Rhubarb and Strawberries:

As soon as spring onions appear at the market, regular onions pretty much fall out of use in my kitchen.  Spring onions take well to the gentler cooking methods that are appropriate for other spring vegetables--wilted with some spinach, used as a base for a spring vegetable ragoût, etc. 

For dinner on Saturday I needed to test a recipe for a Mushroom & Potato Spanish Tortilla that I am teaching in an upcoming class (the class that will include the Rhubarb Cake).  The recipe is normally made with a yellow or white onion, but I think it will be fine--better in fact--with the spring onions.

For the Tortilla, I will use all of the white and pale green parts of the spring onion (added as I would a regular onion). I will then add some of the green of the onions towards the end of the cooking so that they will stay bright green.

A Spanish Tortilla is a thick, flat omelet.  The classic Spanish Tortilla, or Tortilla Española is made with just potatoes.  The potatoes are sliced or diced and poached in olive oil before they are drained and mixed with the eggs.  Sometimes onions are cooked in the oil with the potatoes.  In my mind, the tortilla needs to have the olive oil-poached potatoes, or it isn't really a Tortilla Española, but this isn't actually the case. At its most basic, it is simply a flat omelet, filled with all manner of cooked ingredients.  Almost anything can be added: cooked artichokes, sautéed mushrooms,  blanched green vegetables (asparagus, peas), roasted or sautéed peppers, chorizo, seafood, etc.  I will be adding sautéed mushrooms to mine.

Potato & Mushroom Spanish Tortilla

about 3/4 c. olive oil
2 large spring onions or several small ones, pale and light green portions plus a few inches of the green, thinly sliced cross-wise (about 1 cup in all)
10 to 12 oz. Yukon Gold or Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/3-inch dice
6 oz. Crimini or button mushrooms, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T. minced Italian flat leaf parsley
6 eggs, room temperature
kosher salt & pepper, taste

In a 10-inch non-stick skillet, heat 2/3 cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat for a couple of minutes. Add the potatoes along with 1/2 t. salt. The potatoes should be just barely covered by the oil.

If necessary, add another 1 or 2 T. of oil. Maintain the heat at medium until the oil returns to a simmer—a minute or two—then reduce the heat to medium low. Gently poach the potatoes at a gentle simmer in the olive oil until tender (be careful not to let the potatoes get brown or crisp).  This should take about 10 to 15 minutes. During the last couple of minutes add some of the thinly sliced green tops of the spring onions to the pan. Transfer the potatoes to a colander set in a bowl and let drain.

While the potatoes are poaching, heat another non-stick sauté pan over medium high heat. Sauté the mushrooms in a tablespoon or so of olive oil until tender and caramelized. Reduce the heat and add the garlic and parsley to the pan. Toss to combine and continue to cook until fragrant. Remove from the heat and season with salt & pepper.

In a large bowl, briefly whisk the eggs together with another 1/2 t. of salt and some freshly ground black pepper—the eggs don't have to be completely smooth. Add the drained potatoes (they should still be hot) and the mushrooms. Gently fold until all the ingredients are well combined. 

Wipe the skillet the potatoes were cooked in clean and return to medium-high heat. Add just enough of the drained oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan—about a tablespoon. When the oil is very hot (just beginning to smoke), pour the egg mixture into the skillet. Immediately begin to shake the pan vigorously and continue for 10 to 15 seconds while stirring with a heat proof spatula. The eggs should begin to scramble immediately. Then, cook for 15 to 30 seconds without shaking or stirring to allow the bottom to set. Reduce the heat to low, run the spatula around the outside of the tortilla to create a nice even edge, and continue to cook for a minute or two, gently shaking the pan occasionally (to make sure the tortilla isn't sticking). When the eggs are set around the edges (and the tortilla does not appear to be too liquid in the middle), flip the tortilla. Invert a large round plate over the skillet. Hold the plate firmly with one hand and turn the skillet over with the other. If the pan seems dry, add an additional tablespoon or so of the reserved oil to the pan; increase the heat. When the oil is hot, slide the tortilla back into the pan (cooked side up), tuck in the edges neatly (using the heat proof spatula), reduce the heat, and cook until the omelet is cooked through—another minute or two. The goal is a thick soft cake that is a pale golden color on both sides.

Transfer the omelet to a round platter, cut in wedges and serve hot or at room temperature. If you like, serve garnished with sour cream. Serves 4 to 6 as a light entrée.


I served the tortilla with some of the asparagus I purchased at the market--blanched and lightly dressed with olive oil.  Asparagus is great with both eggs and mushrooms and this made a lovely dinner.

Since I had some mushrooms left over, I continued my mushroom, asparagus and spring onion theme for dinner this evening in a quick pasta.

Penne Pasta with Mushrooms, Spring Onions & Asparagus

1 to 2 T. olive oil
3 or 4 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 small spring onions, thinly sliced (white and some of green)
2 T. toasted pine nuts
6 to 8 oz. asparagus, trimmed and cut on the diagonal in 2-inch lengths
6 oz. penne pasta
1/3 c. freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Heat some olive oil in a medium sauté pan over high heat. When the oil is very hot add the mushrooms. Sauté, regulating the heat to maintain an active sizzle, until the mushrooms are browned and tender. Reduce the heat, season with salt and add a teaspoon or so of butter. Add the spring onions and cook until softened—about 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and add the pine nuts.  Toss to combine and set aside.

While the mushrooms and onions cook, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Salt the water generously. Add the pasta and cook for 4 or 5 minutes. Add the asparagus and continue to cook until the pasta is al dente and the asparagus is tender—about 3 minutes more. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water. Add the pasta and asparagus to the mushrooms along with a generous drizzle of olive oil and toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add some of the cooking water. Add a few tablespoons of the cheese and toss again. Divide among serving plates, sprinkle with more Pecorino and serve immediately. Serves 2.

I'm fairly picky about trying to eat things only when they are at their seasonal  peak--and one taste of a simple dish like this, made unbelievably good by the local, fresh asparagus, reminds me why I do it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Simple Rhubarb Cake

Rhubarb has been making an appearance at my grocery store for almost a month now. But it is just now coming into its own in my garden:

I don't think that it is technically the first fruit of spring (come to think of it, it isn't a fruit at's a vegetable), but I begin to crave all of my favorite rhubarb recipes just as soon as there is a hint of Spring in the air.

A couple of years ago I was counting on rhubarb's early annual arrival. I had promised to demonstrate a rhubarb upside down cake for an episode of Jayni's Kitchen. We were to film at the end of March. I looked everywhere for rhubarb and there was none to be had. Knowing that I would have to make something, I tried some frozen rhubarb to see how it would work in my cake. I discovered that with some manipulation, I could make it work, but it was not very nice and I really don't recommend it. (One of the difficulties of working with rhubarb is that it is very watery when cooked.  Also, it doesn't hold its shape. It is crunchy one minute, mushy the next. The freezing process exacerbates all of these problems.) On the morning we were to film, I made one last ditch effort to find it at a grocery store on the way out of town. There it was. The first rhubarb of the year. Just in time.

This year I have promised to teach a "Cornmeal Cake with Fresh Fruit" in a class at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence at the end of this month. Since getting rhubarb hasn't been a problem this year, I want the "fresh fruit" to be rhubarb. I have been enamored with the idea of rhubarb in a cornmeal cake ever since I read about Shuna Fish Lydon's cake. I made her version, and it was very good, but it just wasn't quite what I had in mind. So I have been testing cakes for a couple of weeks now. When I have something particular in mind, I can be kind of obsessed.

The cake I had in my mind was light, moist and tender, with a bit of crunch from the cornmeal. I also wanted it to have a nice balance of sweetness from the cake and tartness from the rhubarb. I was telling a chef friend (Nancy, who makes wonderful cakes) about my current mission. She commented that I should just start over by taking one of my tried and true cake recipes and tweaking it to include the cornmeal and fruit. That evening, I made the winner (Thanks Nancy!).

The cake I finally came up with is based on one of my old favorites—a European-style fruit torte. I altered the original recipe by substituting cornmeal for nut flour. Also, inspired by the similar, lovely little cakes I made from Cannelle et Vanille, I added some buttermilk. This seems to make for a moister, more tender cake. I kept all the things I especially liked from Shuna's cake—the rhubarb, cornmeal, cardamom and final sprinkle of turbinado sugar.

My last adjustment was to make a thinner cake by baking it in a larger than usual pan—a 10-inch fluted tart pan instead of a 9-inch cake pan:

This way I can maintain a nice ratio of fruit to cake just by sprinkling the rhubarb over the surface (and not folding any into the batter itself). The fact that the rhubarb gives up so much liquid as it cooks makes it difficult to put inside a cake. The rhubarb collapses as it bakes, releasing water into the baking cake. The cake is good the day it is made, but gets pretty soggy after that. Another advantage of having the rhubarb on the surface is that as it begins to release water as it cooks, some of that water will evaporate into the oven—the cake won't get soggy and the pieces of rhubarb themselves will have a more concentrated flavor.  In addition to all of this, I love the look of the fluted edge.

When you purchase rhubarb, make sure that it is firm and unbruised.  The leaves contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid, so trim them completely away (they always leave a small amount of the leaf on at the store).  Deep red stalks will produce the prettiest cake. 

If you don't care for rhubarb, I'm certain this cake would be great with other fruits—berries in particular are good partnered with cornmeal. Prune plums and apricots would also be tasty.

Rhubarb Cake with Cornmeal

1 c. flour (120g)
1/4 c. cornmeal, preferably stone ground (35g)
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. ground cardamom
8 T. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. light brown sugar (100g)
1/4 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar (75g)
Zest of 1 orange
1 t. vanilla
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/3 c. buttermilk (75g)
1 1/4 c. rhubarb, sliced crosswise 1/2-inch thick (5 oz. trimmed weight)
2 to 3 T. Turbinado sugar

Butter and flour a 10-inch fluted, removable bottom, tart pan (use a 10-inch round cake pan if you don't have a tart pan—line the pan with parchment). In a small bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and cardamom. Set aside.

Briefly cream the butter and sugars until smooth. Add the zest and vanilla and continue to cream until light and fluffy—3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. After adding the last egg, briefly beat until the mixture is once again light and fluffy. Fold in half of the dry ingredients, followed by the buttermilk and finishing with the remaining dry ingredients. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spreading evenly. Arrange the fruit evenly on top and sprinkle with the Turbinado sugar. Bake the cake in a pre-heated 350° oven until a toothpick inserted in the center (in the cake, not the fruit) comes out clean—about 35 to 40 minutes. Cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Serves 8.

We had some for dessert while it was still a bit warm:

Ice cream, crème fraiche or whipped cream would all make fine additions, but the cake was great all on its own. For me, the acid test would be how it held overnight. I had some for breakfast. It passed the test.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Salad Season

I thought I would devote a short post today to how to store salad greens. It seems like a timely topic. It's true that nice greens are available year round (shipped in from California), but locally grown salad lettuces seem to have a fairly short season where I live because of our hot humid summers. Spring, to me, is salad season.

The other reason that this seems like a timely topic is that I have heard several people recently saying they wanted to include more salad in their diets, but that the lettuces seem to go bad before they can be consumed. One solution to this of course is to purchase fresh local greens—the closer one is to the harvest, the longer something is likely to last. But even store bought greens can be made to last longer if they are handled properly once you get them home.

To make sure that your greens will last as long as possible, the first thing you should do is pick through them and get rid of anything that is already beginning to decay. If you buy greens at the farmers' market, this shouldn't be an issue. Always try and purchase greens and lettuces that look fresh and crisp. If you are purchasing boxed or bagged lettuces at the grocery store, don't just look at the date. Look at the lettuce itself. Containers that have lots of humidity/water in them are a sign that the lettuce has begun to break down. Avoid bruised/crushed lettuces and greens that are beginning to turn yellow. Lettuces that are not crushed, slimy or yellowed, but look a bit limp can be refreshed by soaking them in water (Shirley Corriher recommends a 30 minute soak)—they just need a drink.

Whether or not your lettuces need refreshing, they should be washed. Fill a large bowl, or the kitchen sink, with cool water. Add the lettuces and swish them around. Let them sit for a minute so any dirt or grit that has been dislodged can settle to the bottom. Lift the lettuces out of the water. If they are very dirty or sandy, you may need to rinse them in several changes of fresh water. Continue to wash them until the water is clear.

When the lettuces are clean, spin them dry. A salad spinner is a great investment—it is not expensive and will make a huge difference in your salads. Salad greens that are stored wet will decay more quickly. Also, lettuces that still have water clinging to them will dilute any vinaigrette or dressing that is applied to them. If you don't have a salad spinner, let the lettuces drain in a colander and then spread them on towels. Then, gently blot them dry.

The washed lettuces should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Zip lock plastic bags and Tupperware-type containers work well. Zip lock bags are good because excess air can be pressed out. If you choose a Tupperware-type container it should be just large enough to hold the greens snugly. Exposure to oxygen will encourage decay, so you want as little air as possible in the container. I also like to line the bag or container with paper towels. This accomplishes two things: The paper towels will absorb any water left on the lettuces which would cause the greens to mold/decompose more quickly. At the same time the paper towels, having absorbed the water, will keep the environment in the container itself humid, which will help to keep the greens crisp.

Here is how I stored the lettuces that I purchased and washed on Saturday:

And here is what they look like today (Wednesday):

Even the freshest greens, properly cared for, will not last that long—a week, maybe a little more, at best. I suspect that one of the reasons that people find rotting greens in their refrigerator is that they purchased salad greens with the noble intention if eating healthily and then got tired of eating salad. I understand this, because salads were never something that I wanted to eat very badly. I associated them with diets and deprivation. Also, the salads that I was exposed to as a child were filled with lots of crunchy, and to my taste, flavorless ingredients—raw carrots, cucumbers, hot house tomatoes, radishes, green onions.... Not that there is anything wrong with most of these ingredients if they are fresh. The problem with these ingredients is that all together they make for a salad that is uniform in texture and flavor. These ingredients are crunchy and overwhelmingly watery. If you are a person that craves raw vegetables (or you're a rabbit) then you might enjoy a salad like this. But a person who loves raw vegetables probably wouldn't have a problem eating a 5 oz. box of lettuce before it went bad.

I began to enjoy salads when I realized that salad greens can be used as a vehicle for all kinds of wonderful ingredients. They can be a bed for a grilled steak, a sautéed piece of fish or some roast chicken. They can include roasted or blanched vegetables, dried fruits, interesting cheeses, freshly fried croutons, toasted nuts, raw fruit, hard cooked or poached eggs, crispy bacon...even raw vegetables. The key is to use quality, fresh ingredients and combine them as you would for anything—thoughtfully, with an eye towards varying textures and flavors.

We are so fortunate today that in almost every grocery store there is an amazing variety of salad greens—mixed baby lettuces, arugula, baby spinach, mâche, chicories, romaine hearts, heads of butter and leaf lettuces. You will find an equally amazing array at your farmers' market. With all of this variety and a little creativity, you can create truly wonderful and satisfying salads.

If I had not promised a short post today, I would go on about how to combine ingredients, how to dress a salad, how to make a great vinaigrette....all fodder for upcoming posts, of which I'm sure there will be many, since this is after all salad season.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Market Inspirations--Beginnings

I made my first trip of the season to the farmer's market yesterday morning. I look forward to that first trip every year—my own personal "kick off" of the season. It is a quiet kick off. There aren't many people coming yet....there aren't many farmers there yet. For the most part, the stalls that are occupied are filled with plants. As usual, I'm behind in my garden, so I'm not really ready for plants yet. But I want to be there for the beginnings of the local harvest.

I think the thing that drives me to visit the market so early in the season is the same thing that gets me out of bed at the crack of dawn every Saturday from April through October (I think my friends think I'm a little nuts about this). During the height of the season, arriving early means that I get to see everything the farmers have to offer before it has been picked over, sold out or wilted by the heat of the day (not to mention not having to navigate the crowds...). Starting my visits in early April means I won't miss the first crops to come in for the year.

There are three long central aisles at the Kansas City River Market where the farmers set up their stalls. Yesterday the third was completely empty and the second only about half occupied. As I have mentioned, I didn't expect there to be much in the way of produce at the market...hopefully some lettuce and some spring onions. As I approached the first aisle I noticed a grower that usually sets up on the third aisle. They had a table spread with rows of containers of strawberries. The sign said homegrown, but I thought "No way. It's too early." and passed by to start down the first aisle. I figured I could stop and examine the strawberries more carefully on my way out.

Half way down the aisle one of my favorite growers, Nature's Choice, had their usual stall set up. They always have lots of plants in the spring (really nice herb plants and later on tomato plants, among other things), but they also usually have lettuce this time of year. I wasn't disappointed. They have a mix of hearty salad lettuces that I like, so I purchased a bag of that.

I finished my walk down the first aisle and came back up the second. I didn't see any spring onions. But that's OK. I know they are coming. Asparagus is just around the corner as well.

As I headed out of the market, I stopped at the table of strawberries. I decided to purchase a pint. They looked homegrown--they were deep red and small. As I reached to pick up the pint I wanted, my thumb touched one of the berries. I could feel by how tender they were that they were local berries. Wow! What an unexpected find for the second week in April! I purchased a second pint.

When I got home, I had some of these first-of-the-season strawberries for breakfast. They made me inexplicably happy. I could have eaten strawberries all day. Instead, I went out and wandered through my garden to see what was new and then spent some time doing some much needed work there.

We had salad for dinner—a variation on the baked goat cheese salad made famous by Alice Waters. Nature's Choice salad mix is substantial enough to handle some warm roasted vegetables. A mustardy vinaigrette (1 t. Dijon, 2 t. Sherry vinegar and 3 T. Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and some toasted walnuts and Niçoise olives pulled it all together.

To make the baked goat cheese salad: pour some olive oil in a shallow dish. Dip the rounds of goat cheese in the oil, turning to coat. If time allows, add a sprig of thyme and some cracked black pepper to the oil. You could also add a bruised clove of garlic. Allow the goat cheese rounds to marinate in the oil for a day:

 Dip the marinated goat cheese rounds in some toasted breadcrumbs, turning to coat and pressing lightly to help the breadcrumbs adhere. Place the rounds on a lightly oiled baking sheet. When you are ready to serve the salad, place the goat cheese in a 400° oven. Bake the goat cheese rounds until the cheese is soft and lightly bubbling (about 6 minutes). While the cheese is baking, toss the lettuces with the warm roasted vegetables, walnuts and olives with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the greens. Divide the salad among individual serving plates. Place the goat cheese next to the salad and serve with a crusty bread.

My last bite of food of for the day was the same as the first. Strawberries. Only instead of having them with my yogurt, I had them with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Sugared strawberries, lightly mashed and served over vanilla ice cream is one of my favorite childhood desserts. It brings to mind warm June nights and family dinners at my Grandmother's house. My favorite part is still the pale pink liquid at the bottom of the dish created by the intermingling of the juicy berries and the melting ice cream:

One of the things that I would like to do with this blog is keep a written record of what I find each week at the farmers' market as the season progresses. I have for years kept a spiral journal of spur of the moment meals born of the food of the moment. Here, on my blog, I hope to share those things I am inspired to make by the ever changing palate of the Midwestern growing season. Hopefully this will in turn inspire and encourage you as you open your CSA box or return from the market with your finds.