Sunday, October 29, 2017

Dandelion Greens... In a Gratin with White Beans, Tomatoes & Garlic Sausage

All summer long I have noticed that one of the growers at my farmers' market has had dandelion greens for sale at their stall.  I have intended several times to grab a bunch, but for some reason I never did.  But a couple of weeks ago, I finally remembered to take a minute to ask about them. 

The variety they are growing is a red ribbed Italian heirloom—a member of the chicory family.  They told me that like other members of this family, the dandelion greens can be quite bitter and they have found that they are best when cooked.  Since I love some of the other chicories (endive, frisée and escarole), I bought a bunch.  When treated properly, the bitter edge of these lettuces and greens can be delicious and interesting.  It's just a matter of combining them with things that will balance and compliment the bitterness.  Judicious use of acidity (tomato, citrus, vinegar, etc.), salt (cured meats, anchovy, olives, etc.) and fat (fatty meats, olive oil, etc.) can turn something that is one dimensionally bitter into something that has delicious complexity and flavor. 

The dandelion greens that I purchased—with their ruby colored ribs—reminded me of chard and beet greens...both of which can also be slightly bitter (although not as bitter as chicory).  In the fall and winter I love pairing these kinds of greens with bland starchy things...  Things like polenta, potatoes and white beans.

Considering all this, I decided to use my dandelion greens in a French-style shell bean gratin.  Beans and greens are one of my favorite food combinations.  Whether combined in a soup...or the gratin...the greens that are used for a preparation like this are given ample cooking time to sort of "give up" their bitterness.

When I have prepared gratins like this in the past, I have occasionally included some optional tomato.  Their acidity serves to brighten the blandness of the beans and can be a nice addition.  In the case of my gratin with the dandelion greens, the acidity of the tomato seemed like an essential.

Finally, I added some salty, fatty, garlic sausages to the mix.  Not only did they provide a perfect foil for the dandelion greens, they turned what I have always considered a side dish into a satisfying entrée.   I'm certain you could omit the sausage...but since this makes a fantastic one dish meal when you include it, I'm not sure you would want to. 

One final observation about this gratin:  As you look at the image of the gratin before it goes into the oven and compare it to the image of the finished, baked gratin, you will be struck with how beautiful the unbaked one is.  You might be tempted when you make it to just serve it before baking it.  After all, all of the ingredients are cooked, so why not serve the more beautiful version?  And while I know the unbaked version would be good, it will lack the delicious intermingling of flavors that happens during the baking process.  Just like a good stew or braise that tastes even better after it has had a day to sit, so the baking process of the gratin produces a richness of flavor that can't be matched in the unbaked version.  Besides, making this simple medley of beans, greens, tomatoes and sausage into a gratin allows you to work aheadsomething that is a huge bonus for anyone who cooks.  

I couldn't believe how delicious and flavorful my gratin was.  I don't know if it was the addition of the dandelion greens...or simply the combination of a few perfect flavor partners, but I will definitely be making it again.  And I will certainly be making a point in the future to find more ways to serve dandelion greens at my table. 

Gratin of White Beans with Dandelion Greens & Garlic Sausage

1 cup Great Northern beans, soaked over-night
6 T. Olive Oil, divided
1 well-branched sprig of thyme
1/2 medium onion (red or yellow), finely diced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 T. minced Thyme
1/2 c. diced tomatoes (can use canned plum or a 6 oz. vine ripe, peeled, seeded neatly diced)
1 bunch of Dandelion greens, stems cut off where the leaves start (discard the stems—you should have a scant 2 oz. trimmed greens), leaves and remaining tender ribs cut cross-wise into 1/2-inch wide ribbons and thoroughly rinsed

6 to 8 oz. garlic sausage, browned and sliced into fat chunks on a slight diagonal
1/2 to 3/4 cup toasted breadcrumbs (see below)

Drain and rinse the beans.  Place them in a large saucepan and cover with fresh water by 2 inches.  Bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and skim off the foam that has risen to the surface.  Add 2 T. of olive oil and a sprig of thyme.  Cook the beans at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender.  Or, place the soaked, drained beans in a shallow gratin, drizzle with the olive oil and add a sprig of thyme.  Cover with boiling water by an inch, cover the pan with a tight fitting lid, or a piece of foil.  Transfer to a 325° oven and bake until tender.  Whether you cook the beans on the stove top or in the oven, they will take about an hour and 15 minutes to cook.  Add salt to taste when the beans are half cooked.  Beans may be cooked ahead.  Cool the beans in their cooking liquid.

To prepare the gratin, warm 2 T. of olive oil in a wide sauté pan.  Add the onion, minced thyme and some salt.  Gently sweat the onions until they are tender and translucent (about 10 minutes).  Add the garlic and continue to cook until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the greens along with a ladleful of the bean cooking liquid and cook until the greens are wilted and tender. Taste and salt as necessary.

Drain the beans and save the cooking liquid.  Add the beans to the onion mixture and toss to distribute all of the ingredients evenly.  Heat through.  Transfer to a 1 1/2 to 2 quart gratin (or other shallow baking dish).  If using, tuck the sausages into the beans so that they are level with the surface.  Ladle over enough bean liquid to almost cover.  Drizzle the remaining 2 T. of olive oil over the gratin.  (You may prepare the gratin to this point up to a day in advance.  Refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before continuing.)  Cover the top of the gratin with the toasted breadcrumbs.  Bake the gratin in a 350° oven until bubbling and golden brown on top (about 45 minutes).  Check the gratin occasionally while it bakes.  If it appears to be drying out too much, add more bean liquid.  If not browned to your liking when it is bubbling and hot through, briefly run under the broiler until the crumbs are tinged with golden brown.  Serves 2 to 3 

Notes & Variations:
  • Use a precooked sausage such as Kielbasa, Linguiça or Aidells Roasted Garlic & Gruyère Chicken Sausage (my favorite) 
  • To make a simple side dish of beans and greens, simply omit the sausage. Without the sausage, the gratin will serve 4 to 6 as a side dish. 
  • You may use any kind of white bean that you prefer...Cannellini, Flageolet, etc. Just be aware that not all varieties will cook in the same amount of time as the Great Northerns. 
  • You may use greens other than dandelions. A small bunch (or half a bunch, if you prefer) of chard or kale (any kind) will work. If you use a whole bunch, you will have about twice as much trimmed weight as with the dandelions. For the both chard and kale, remove all of the ribs/stems. The chard may be added exactly as the dandelions. The kale should be blanched since it takes much longer to cook. To blanch it, drop the clean, trimmed and sliced kale in boiling, salted water and cook until tender. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool. Add to the onion and tomatoes and heat through. 
  • To make toasted breadcrumbs, use the food processor to process sliced/torn "day-old" bread (crusts removed if they are very hard) until bread is in uniform soft crumbs. Spread crumbs on a rimmed cookie sheet and “toast” in a 350 degree oven until golden brown and dry, stirring occasionally (about 10 minutes). Drizzle crumbs with olive oil and toss to combine. Crumbs can be used immediately or cooled and stored airtight at room temperature for a week or so...or frozen for longer.
  • Recipe is easily doubled. Use a 3 quart gratin/shallow baking dish. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Fall Fruit Compote of Wine-Poached Pears & Dried Fruits

Occasionally I teach a class on autumn desserts.  It includes a nice variety of classics—filled with fall ingredients—that everyone loves...fruit, chocolate and nut filled tarts, a simple cake (featuring sweet potatoes!), and a light and ethereal bread pudding.  I think everyone expects to like all of these things.  But the sleeper hit of the class is always a simple dish of poached fall fruits.  I'm not sure why (perhaps it conjures images of stewed prunes?), but people are always a bit dubious when they see this recipe in their packet.  Then they taste it....

I have not posted this recipe before because I can't make it for you...thus giving you the opportunity to taste it without going to the effort of making it yourself.  I can only ask you to trust me when I say that this is a seriously elegant and delicious dessert.  It is sweet...but sophisticated—definitely a dessert for grown-ups.  I love it all by itself...with maybe a little bit of mascarpone whipped cream...and perhaps a platter of biscotti

If you have never poached fruit, you should give it a tryit is an easy technique to learn.  I wrote a basics post on how to poach pears (for a tart) a few years ago.  The recipe I'm posting today uses the exact same method to begin.  Then, after the pears are done, the dried fruits are steeped—and plumped—in the poaching liquid.  They add rich flavor and beautiful color. 

Depending on the ripeness of the pears (and thus how long you have to cook them), you may need to reduce the poaching syrup by simmering briefly after all of the fruits are finished.  But be careful not to overdo it.  The final syrup should be a light and fluid nectar—perfect for sipping from a spoon...or for dunking those biscotti

Once you try this recipe, you will want to make it for your friends and family.  If you feel the need to tempt people into sampling it, serve it with a slice of pound cake (everyone loves pound cake).  Any good pound cake will do, but I'm particularly partial to an Italian one—Amor Polenta—that I posted a few years ago.  The almond and cornmeal are a fantastic match for the pears and dried fruits.  You can tell your guests that the fruit is a garnish.  Once they taste it they will realize that in this case the cake is definitely the supporting player...and the fruit is the star of the show. 

Fall Fruit Compote of Wine-Poached Pears & Dried Fruit

1 (750 ml) bottle white wine
3 c. sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 cinnamon stick
3 or 4 whole cloves
3 or 4 strips (3- by 1/2-inch) of lemon zest
3 or 4 strips (3- by 1/2-inch) of orange zest
6 firm but ripe pears, peeled, halved (or quartered) and cored
1 c. dried figs, hard stems trimmed
1 c. dried apricots
3/4 c. pitted prunes
1/2 c. dried tart cherries

In a saucepan large enough to hold all of the pears, combine the wine, 3 c. water, sugar and flavorings.  Bring this to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.  While the poaching liquid cooks, cut a round of parchment that is slightly larger than the pan and cut a hole in the center (this will act as a "lid" and help keep the fruit fully submerged in the liquid—it is called a cartouche).  

When the syrup is ready, add the pears, press the parchment round to the surface of the liquid, lower the heat and barely simmer until the tip of a knife will go in and out without resistance.  Cooking time varies greatly depending on the ripeness of the pears—start checking after 10 minutes for very ripe pears.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a platter. 

Return the poaching liquid to a simmer and add the dried fruits.   Simmer gently until the dried fruits are tender (they will soften and some will swell slightly)—5 to 10 minutes or so. 

Depending on how ripe the pears were the liquid may need to be reduced a bit.  If you would like to reduce the poaching liquid at all, lift out the dried fruits and add them to the plate with the pears.  Return the poaching liquid to the pan and simmer until it has thickened slightly (but no thicker than maple syrup...or a dessert wine). 

Remove the pan from the heat and return the pears and dried fruits to the pan of poaching liquid.  Cool and store the pears and dried fruits in the poaching liquid. 

Serve the compote chilled.  Remove the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, cloves and zests before serving.  I like to halve the figs lengthwise before serving to expose their lovely interior.  If the prunes and/or apricots are especially large, you might consider halving them as well.

Whether I am serving this as a stand alone dessert—or to accompany a slice of cake—I like to serve it with mascarpone whipped cream sweetened with some of the poaching liquid (see below).

(Recipe adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties!, by Ina Garten)

Maspcarpone Whipped Cream:  Place 8 oz. of mascarpone in a mixing bowl along with a cup of heavy cream and 1/2 cup of poaching liquid.  Whisk until softly mounding. (To make a smaller—or larger amount—just remember you need 1 T. of poaching liquid for every ounce of mascarpone and ounce of cream.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Nancy's Queso Fundido ...with Goat Cheese & Pepitas

A little over a year ago I sampled something called queso fundido at the home of my friend...and fellow chef...Nancy.  Since Nancy's food is unfailingly delicious I always look forward to gathering around her table.  But beyond that, Nancy has a wide experience of ethnic foods that I lack.  Frequently she will serve something that I have never heard of, much less tasted.  This simple and fantastic little dish of melted cheese was one of those things.

Many people, myself included, have had Nachos—a sort of dumbed-down, processed food variation of classic Mexican queso fundido.  But the dish I had on that particular evening was definitely not an ordinary platter of Nachos.  When Nancy stepped out onto her patio that evening with a piping hot cast iron skillet filled with sizzling cheeses (a nice Monterey Jack and some creamy Goat cheese) and freshly made rajas (strips of onions and roasted poblano peppers with garlic and oregano), studded with crunchy, toasted pepitas, I knew I was looking at something special.  It did not disappoint.  I could have made a meal out of it, but I knew there was more deliciousness to come (Salmon with a tomato and green olive relish, if I recall correctly), so I held back.  But I had to have the recipe.   Luckily for all of you, Nancy graciously shared it with me.

I have since discovered that queso fundido is not as unknown to most Americans as it was to me.  Many, many recipes are available on line.  Nancy's recipe is unusual, first and foremost because of her inclusion of goat cheese.  Most recipes use one (or more) of several good melting cheeses:  Monterey Jack, mild Cheddar, Wisconsin Brick, Chihuahua, Asadero, etc.  But the inclusion of goat cheese into the mix adds a fantastic tang...and also cuts down on what I consider to be the objectionable oily-ness and stretchiness that melted cheeses can sometimes have.  Her other unusual addition is the final topping of toasted pepitas.  They add great flavor and wonderful texture and the dish wouldn't be the same without them.

The rajas are a fairly standard addition.  Nancy's recipe for them follows a Rick Bayless recipe fairly closely.  He calls this sautéed mixture of onions and roasted poblanos an essential element of Mexican food and cooking—something that can be used as a filling for tacos, an addition to soups/stews, an accompaniment for grilled meats, a filling for cheese quesadillas, etc.  They are wonderful in the queso fundido, and they are frankly the reason that I suddenly started thinking about this dish again, one year later. 

There are of course a lot of other delicious things to do with poblanos, but a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that fresh poblanos were abundant at my farmers' market, this was this dish I wanted to make.  The weather is cooling down...and a dish of hot cheese seemed like a pretty fine idea.  Since peppers freeze well in their roasted form, I bought more than I needed so I would have them handy throughout the fall and winter months when queso fundido would be the perfect addition to a family game night...or a Sunday afternoon football party...or even for a simple evening meal. 

If you have never prepared roasted poblanos, follow the method I outline for roasting and peeling bell peppers on my red pepper and potato pizza post from a few years ago.  If you have access to plastic gloves, it might be a good idea to wear them when you're peeling and seeding the peppers.  Poblanos are sort of mild to medium hot and if you handle enough of them, your hands will definitely feel it.  If you don't have gloves, wash your hands well with soap and water after working with the peppers and before doing anything else.  

And, while on the subject of heat, definitely sample your roasted poblanos before you use them in your recipe so you will know if they happen to be extra hot.  I purchased an extra fiery batch of them last year.  I knew they were hot and still made my queso fundido with the full amount.  It was delicious, but would not have been acceptable to anyone who is sensitive to heat.  If the ones you buy are super hot, you might consider cutting back on the quantity that you add. 

To freeze your roasted peppers, simply lay the roasted and peeled peppers flat, stacking them and  laying a piece of plastic wrap in between each pepper.  Slide the stack of peppers into a Ziplock bag, press out the air and lay the bag on a flat surface until the peppers are frozen hard.  By separating each of the peppers in this way, you will be able take out as few or as many as you like when you want to thaw them.

Not particularly photogenic...but oh so tasty....
Every time I have made queso fundido I have served it exactly as Nancy did...with a big pile of crunchy tortilla chips. I like it this way whether I'm eating it as a shared appetizer...or for dinner with a green salad.  But it also makes a wonderful filling for soft tortillas...or a topping for toast (sort of an open faced and very savory grilled cheese sandwich).  However you decide to serve it, be sure to make more than you think you and your friends will eat, as it is addictively delicious.

Nancy's Queso Fundido with Goat Cheese

1 lb. fresh poblanos (about 6 medium)
2 T. olive oil, plus more for peppers
1 medium yellow or white onion (8 oz.), sliced 1/4-inch thick
Salt and pepper
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 t. dried oregano
1/3 to 1/2 c. heavy cream, crème fraiche, or Mexican crema
1/2 lb. Monterey Jack, coarsely shredded
1/2 lb. soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 to 1/3 c. toasted pepitas (see note)
Tortilla chips...or warm, soft tortillas

Rub the poblanos with olive oil and place on a baking sheet.  Broil the peppers, turning as the skin chars, until they are blackened and blistered all over.  Set aside to cool.  When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the blackened skin, the stems and cores, white ribs, and seeds.  (Use gloves if you hands are sensitive to the heat of chiles.)  Cut into 1/4-inch strips and set aside.

In a heavy oven proof skillet (cast iron is perfect) with a 10-inch cooking surface (see note), heat the oil over moderate heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and cook until soft and beginning to caramelize—about 5 to 10 minutes.  

Add the garlic and oregano and cook just until fragrant (less than a minute).  Add the poblanos, tossing to coat in the onion/garlic mixture.  Heat through and season to taste with salt & pepper.  If you are working ahead for a party, you may stop at this point and set the mixture aside at room temperature for a couple of hours.  If you are working further ahead than that, scrape the mixture into a container and chill.  Return to the pan and heat through before continuing. 

Add the cream to the hot rajas and bring to a simmer (this will happen almost immediately).  Remove from the heat and scatter the Monterey Jack over all, followed by the goat cheese. 

Place the skillet under the broiler (set on high) and broil until the jack cheese is melted, the goat is beginning to be tinged with gold and the cheese is bubbling at the edges.  Sprinkle with the pepitas and serve immediately with tortilla chips or warm soft tortillas.  Serves 4 to 8 (depending on appetites and  other items being served).

(Recipe adapted from The Elote Cafe Cookbook by Jeff Smedstad)

  • Toast the pepitas in a dry skillet set over medium high heat. Cook, tossing and stirring constantly until the pepitas are browned in spots and slightly puffed. Transfer to a cool plate. 
  • If you have roasted poblanos in your freezer (and don't know their original fresh weight), weigh out about 7 oz. of the roasted peppers for this recipe. 
  • A wide skillet (10-inch surface) is the best thing for this recipe. It keeps the layer of cheese thin so it will melt quickly and completely without becoming unpleasantly oily and stretchy. If you would like to make half a recipe, us a skillet with a 7-inch cooking surface. 
  • If you would like to make open faced sandwiches, toast slices of a sturdy artisanal loaf and spread on a baking sheet. Before adding any of the cheese, divide the creamy rajas over the bread slices and top with the cheeses. Broil until melted and bubbling. Scatter pepitas over and serve. 
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