30 June 2008

Garlic Spears with Tofu on Polenta

Recently I have seen something new in the produce section at local markets, Garlic Spears. They look so interesting, just like little green spears or like arrows, and they have an attractive and informative instruction sheet wrapped neatly around them. I couldn’t resist. On impulse I placed a bundle in my basket and brought them home. I was eating by myself that evening and I thought it would be fun to taste something new.

When I got home, I studied the label and looked them up on the Internet. I learned that Garlic Spears are the tender edible stem and bud of the flowering tops of elephant garlic. The label suggested a simple preparation and I followed the directions. I washed a few of the little spears, trimmed the ends and sauteed them lightly for about 5 minutes as suggested, adding only a little olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper.


The result was a side dish with a slightly unusual garlic flavor. To me the flavor was a little strong on its own. The spears also seemed a little too crisp for my taste. I think I would prefer them mixed into other dishes or cooked a bit longer. Still they were good. I splashed my serving of Garlic Spears with a bit of balsamic vinegar. The directions suggest lemon juice and butter. Either adds another note of interest to the flavor of this simple and unusual side dish.

After my dinner for one, I still had quite a few garlic spears left over. I did an Internet search for another recipe to try and found one that appealed to me at The Garlic Store. This recipe for "Sauteed Garlic Spears" calls for a sauté of chopped and seasoned garlic spears with tofu and a sprinkling of lemon juice, served over Polenta. It turned out to be delicious and was eaten eagerly by my whole family.


Basic Italian Polenta
(recipe adapted from the package of Bob’s Red Mill brand Corn Grits also known as Polenta)

6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups corn grits
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup Parmesan (or other cheese), grated
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Bring the water and salt to a boil in a large pot. Add the corn grits in a thin stream stirring until well mixed. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very thick.

Remove from heat. Stir the cheese, butter and pepper into the corn grits until combined.

Pour the mixture into oiled loaf pans, or other molds. Let sit for at least ten minutes.

When ready to serve, unmold Polenta and cut into thick slices.

Serve warm, topped with Sauteed Garlic Spears (or other stir-fried vegetables), tomato sauce and grated cheese, sauteed mushrooms or other topping of your choice.


Sauteed Garlic Spears with Tofu
(adapted from a recipe at www.thegarlicstore.com)

1 bunch garlic spears, abut 18 to 20 spears
2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
pinch of dried red pepper flakes
salt
1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained
½ lemon
Cooked corn grits or polenta

Slice the tofu into ½ inch thick slices.

Heat 1 teaspoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the sliced tofu and cook until browned. Turn and repeat on the other side. Remove the tofu and set aside. When cool, cut tofu into strips or cubes.

Slice garlic spears in half, lengthwise, and cut into 1-inch pieces.

Heat remaining teaspoon of oil in the skillet. Add the garlic spears and red pepper flakes. Saute 3 to 5 minutes stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add reserved tofu and continue stirring until heated through.

Remove pan from heat and squeeze the juice from the lemon half across the garlic spears, tossing to coat.

Serve Sauteed Garlic Spears with Tofu over prepared Polenta.

Note: If you can’t find Garlic Spears I think this recipe would work equally well with asparagus, or even broccoli, if you adjust the cooking time and maybe add a clove or two of minced garlic to the recipe.

27 June 2008

Strawberries in Golden Sake Sauce


Local strawberries are finally available in abundance at the produce market down the hill. They are medium sized berries, deeply red, fragrant and sweetly delicious.

I tried a new and unusual recipe with them this week. I found it on the same section of newspaper as the recipe for Green Beans with Sesame-Ginger Dressing from my last post. This recipe combines sour cream and sake to make an easy, slightly sweet and creamy sauce to serve over berries. It is pretty and elegant and adds a touch of interest to a simple summer dessert.

A few years ago a recipe with sake in it woud not have appealed to me. The only sake that I had ever tasted was dry and flat. It was served from a large bottle of ordinary sake that can be found at almost any liquor store. This is the type of sake that is often served warmed.

Lately there has been a lot more publicity for higher quality Junmai Ginjo sake, a finer quality of sake that is better served chilled, much like a glass of white wine. This type of sake comes in bottles much like wine bottles and is described according to flavor topnots and type of finish. These sakes are often rated according to a scale of sweetness that helps the consumer to make appropriate food and sake pairings. I have tasted some delicious sakes in this category.

One of my favorite sakes is made right here in the Pacific Northwest. It is produced at the only American owned sake brewery in the world. The brand is Momokawa and it comes in four distinct varieties, Silver, Diamond, Ruby and Pearl. It is readily available at most grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest. It is sold in a distincitive blue bottle.



Strawberries in Golden Sake Sauce

2 pints fresh strawberries, (or other fresh local berries)
1 cup sour cream
1 heaping teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
¼ cup (sweet) sake (Momokawa diamond or ruby works nicely)

Rinse and trim berries, removing the stem. Pat dry. Combine sour cream, sugar and lemon peel. Stir until the sugar is fully incorporated. Mix in the sake.

Serve by places the berries in serving dishes and spooning the sauce over the berries. Garnish with lemon zest and/or sprinkled brown sugar.

24 June 2008

Green Beans with Sesame-Ginger Dressing


As a girl, my absolute favorite vegetable was green beans. My aunt cooked them one way, long and slow with salt, pepper, a little onion and a good dollop of bacon grease. By the time they were served they were soft, salty, bits of wonder.

Served carefully with a slotted spoon, to keep the bean wet from touching any other individually portioned food on my plate, green beans were one vegetable I would eat reliably and since my aunt believed in eating your vegetables, they were served often.

Others at our family table came to complain about the frequency over the years but my aunt still made them for me …southern country style.

Since then my tastes have matured … a bit. Oh, I still love soft, salty green beans, cooked for hours with onion and ham, as do others at my table, but now I serve them rarely. Instead I have discovered that green beans are also delicious, as well as quick and easy, when cooked just until bright green and crisp tender.

I found this recipe in my kitchen files. It has been clipped from a newspaper. It has yellowed slightly but no longer carries the name of the publication or the date. Like several recipes I have tried lately, it uses ginger in an oriental inspired dressing over crisp tender green beans. It has a light fresh taste that is great with summer menus.

Green Beans with Sesame-Ginger Dressing

1 pound green beans
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
1½ tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

Trim and cut green beans as desired. (I cut mine into two inch pieces. If they are small they would be pretty whole.)

Arrange beans in a steamer basket over boiling water. Cover and cook beans until bright green and crisp tender (approximately 15 minutes.) Drain and transfer to a serving bowl.

In a small bowl combine the toasted sesame seeds, sugar, mirin and grated fresh ginger.

Toss beans with sesame mixture and serve.

4 servings.

19 June 2008

Sangria Fruit Salad


When I went to the market a few days ago I was thrilled with the selection of fruits to choose from. It seems that summer is finally here. There were cherries at reasonable prices, peaches and nectarines, melons, apricots and an abundance of local strawberries. They looked so sweet and delicious I brought home more than I could be sure my family would eat.

To help make sure these lovely fruits didn't go to waste I looked for some recipe to fill the kitchen with enticing aromas and invite everyone to indulge in the bounty of the season. One of the recipes I found came from the Accidental Hedonist. In a post titled "Macedonia", Kate shared a recipe for an appealing fruit salad as well as sharing my disappointment that summer weather seems to have gone missing in the Pacific Northwest this year. It seems Kate has come up with an answer. She has found summer in a bowl! What’s more the recipe is fairly easy to make and temptingly gorgeous.

So I gave it a try. I topped strawberries, pitted cherries, and sliced apricots. I didn’t have a bottle of Marsala but I did have a bottle of dessert wine that my husband and I bought on our anniversary trip a couple of years ago. I have been wanting to try it but I had been waiting for a reason. This beautiful fruit salad celebrating summer seemed like a good one. The wine is a vanilla infused port by Knipprath Cellars, called "LaV!", and the description of the wine made it sound like a perfect complement for this recipe.

I opened it, and I was not disappointed! I used the ¼ cup in the salad and set the rest aside to serve after dinner. To the wine I added the orange zest, ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract and vanilla sugar. As the fruit macerated the kitchen was filled with the transporting aroma of good sangria. What’s more the sun came out and suddenly I believed in summer! I could feel it, smell it and now I could even taste it in this beautiful fresh fruit salad.

Sangria Fruit Salad

½ lb strawberries, sliced
½ lbs cherries, pitted
½ lb apricots, sliced
Zest of 1 orange
¼ cup dessert wine (LaV! Vanilla port, Marsala or other)
3 Tbsp sugar (vanilla sugar if you have it)
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup pistachios (or toasted sliced almonds, see Note below)

Combine the fruit in a large bowl.

Stir together the wine, orange zest, sugar and vanilla until the sugar is dissolved.

Pour the wine mixture over the fruit and allow to sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

Stir and sprinkle with nuts.

Serve and enjoy!

Note: The original recipe calls for pistachio nuts which are quite beautiful in this salad. Still I didn’t think they added a lot to the flavor. To draw on the Spanish influence of Sangria I might substitute toasted sliced or slivered almonds next time. I think they would provide the same contrast in texture while possibly adding a bit more of a Spanish flavored accent to the taste. In the same vein I would also feel free to substitute orange sections for the apricots when convenient.

16 June 2008

Asparagus with Crystallized Ginger Vinaigrette


Over the weekend I used asparagus in another new recipe. I cut this recipe from my local newspaper a few weeks ago. It turns out that it originated in The Washington Post. The article featured Peter Smith in a Chef’s Challenge to create a “family friendly weeknight menu for four costing as little money as possible.”

Great concept! Who couldn’t use a little advice on creating a delicious family meal on a limited budget? What’s more his menu includes a Potato Rosti, a delicious comfort food I had never heard of until my son spent a year in Switzerland and came home making them for a casual dinner or snack.

Even more appealing to me was Peter Smith's recipe for Asparagus with Crystallized Ginger Vinaigrette. I love the flavor of ginger! I almost always have a bag of crystallized ginger slices from the Asian market in my cupboard. Crystallized ginger keeps well and is a wonderful after dinner treat when dipped in dark chocolate or even just straight from the bag. When I saw that this recipe used crystallized ginger in a cooked vinaigrette I was intrigued and decided to try it. It sounded like a delicious and practical way to impart ginger's sweet and spicy goodness to a vegetable recipe.

Despite it's billing as part of a "family friendly weeknight menu" this recipe isn’t as simple as the Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Vinegar recipe in my last post. In fact it calls for taking a few more steps and making a few more dirty dishes than I would probably be willing to do for a weeknight meal. While the onions were pretty and they added a nice flavor to the oil for the dressing, and while I did love the contrast in color, taste and texture between the crispy browned onions and the spicy sweet ginger dressing, in my life this recipe, as written, is best saved for special occasions.

Still I think I can adapt this recipe to better fit my weeknight style of cooking. On an average weeknight I would skip the onions, sacrificing some of the rich contrast, while still savoring the pairing of asparagus and crystallized ginger. I would make the dressing using plain canola oil and perhaps try a touch of garlic or a few drops of sesame oil to compensate for the lack of onion infused flavor. Also, instead of plunging the asparagus into a large bowl of ice water, I would just rinse it well in cold water and pat it dry. I think those few changes would simplify the process and would significantly cut down on clean up time while still creating an interesting and delicious side dish to accompany a weeknight meal.

Asparagus with Crystallized Ginger Vinaigrette

¾ cup canola oil, or enough to fill a pan at least ½ inch full
¼ medium yellow onion, cut into thin strips
1 pound asparagus, washed and trimmed
1 ½ Tablespoons crystallized ginger, cut into thin strips
¼ cup rice vinegar or cider vinegar
salt
freshly ground black pepper


Crispy Onions

Pour enough oil into a medium saucepan to cover the bottom to a level of ½ inch. Add the onion.

Cook over high heat, stirring after the onion has begun to brown, until the onions are golden, approximately 6 or 7 minutes.

Strain the onions, reserving the oil. (Reserved oil, beyond the 2 Tablespoons needed for this recipe, is a great addition to other recipes like Peter Smith's Pan Stew of Bottom Round Steak With Rosti Potato.)

Place the onions on paper towels to cool.

Asparagus

Prepare a large bowl of ice water and set aside.

On your stove top, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the trimmed asparagus and cook for 2 minutes, or until just tender.

Immediately drain the asparagus spears and transfer them to the bowl filled with ice water. When they are cool, drain and wrap the asparagus in a clean kitchen towel. Place the asparagus in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Crystallized Ginger Vinaigrette

Combine the crystallized ginger and vinegar in a small skillet. Cook and stir over medium heat until the vinegar is reduced by half, approximately 2 – 3 minutes.

Transfer to a small bowl and let cool for 5 – 10 minutes.

Whisk in 2 Tablespoons of the reserved oil from the onions.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, arrange the asparagus spears on individual plates. Drizzle the Crystallized Ginger Vinaigrette across the spears and sprinkle the Crispy Onions across the top. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4

11 June 2008

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Vinegar



Summer will be here in another week but I am still finding pretty bundles of local asparagus at the market. I brought home another bunch just yesterday. It is such an elegant vegetable. With very little preparation it is ready to cook and always looks fantastic on a plate. It seems that no matter how I cook it, asparagus is always a smart complement to almost any entree.

When beautiful tender shoots of fresh asparagus were first showing up at the produce stand this spring I searched for new recipes that would showcase their supple beauty and intriguing taste. I served asparagus with a great Asian dressing in Asparagus with Walnut Dressing, I tried it with a Spanish influence in Asparagus with Toasted Bead Crumbs and Olives and I added it to Spring Paella. In every recipe it met or exceeded my expectations.

But now that spring has raced into summer asparagus and I are on much more familiar terms. Our relationship has grown more routine. Even on a weeknight, when my family's schedule is crazy, and dinner is rushed, asparagus is still there. I know that, even if I don't have much time to spend with it, I can count on it to perform. Time after time, as I search the produce aisle for a quick dinner side dish, asparagus is the answer. I have grown to trust it to shine, to share its flavorful goodness, even without a lot of thought or effort on my part.

For those kinds of evenings, here is another recipe from Donata Maggipinto's "Real-Life Entertaining". It is a very simple recipe. No shopping list required. It takes you from gorgeous produce purchased on impulse at the market to the dinner table without a lot of fuss. All you need is the asparagus, a little olive oil and some balsamic vinegar. Then season to taste and you have a quick and easy side dish that is appealing and delicious.

Enjoy!

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Vinegar

Medium sized asparagus spears work best for this dish.

1 pound asparagus spears
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper


Preheat broiler.

Wash and trim asparagus.

Fill a large saucepan with 1/2 inch water. Bring the water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and the asparagus spears and cover.
Steam for 2 minutes.

Drain asparagus spears and arrange on a baking sheet. Drizzle them with the olive oil turning them until they are completely coated with the oil.

Broil under preheated broiler for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer asparagus spears to a serving platter. Sprinkle with the balsamic vinegar. Season as desired with salt and pepper.

08 June 2008

Arugula and Ham Strata


Family

When my oldest son is home from college we often spend time together in the kitchen. He is an imaginative cook and likes to add a touch of his own flair and drama to the process of creating a meal. When he is in the kitchen he is driven and works quickly as if he were competing on Iron Chef. I function more on the side of slow and contemplative. At times our styles clash.

The last time he was home we ran some errands together and ended up stopping at Barnes and Noble. We browsed through the books then went to the cafe to consider our purchases over coffee. As we passed the pastry case I noticed a delicious looking slice of egg-rich Strata. My son thought it looked good too and we began to discuss what would be involved in making one ourselves for the next day's breakfast.

Collaboration

On the way home we stopped by the market to collect some ingredients. We hoped to make a Strata that would taste as good as the one in the coffee shop looked. My son suggested a combination of flavors I would not have leaned toward on my own. He selected a loaf of rustic artisanal Italian bread, some Gruyere cheese and arugula. At home I had ham in the refrigerator and fresh thyme growing in my herb garden. We settled on a collaboration of flavors and ingredients.

In my kitchen files I found a recipe for Sausage Egg Casserole that had originally been given to me by a friend at church. My friend relied on this recipe when she organized a huge community breakfast and had a group of volunteers cook from this same recipe to supply the main dish. Her recipe provided a good outline of proportion, baking time and temperature to work from. Remembering those friends in another state, and the community we were a part of when my children were young, added a note of nostalgia to the occasion as my son and I worked together to adapt the recipe and create our own version of a delicious Strata.

The Good Life

Our collaboration in the kitchen was a success that afternoon. The blending of generations, styles and ingredients along with fond memories had a certain synergy all its own. When I put the Strata in the oven the following morning it gradually filled the house with a pleasant aroma and provided a warm and nourishing breakfast as the family climbed out of bed and began a new day. My life isn't perfect but on mornings like that it is really good!


Arugula and Ham Strata
Based on a recipe from my friend Leslie in Texas

8 large eggs
1 pound ham (1 to 2 cups), chopped
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 to 2 cups baby arugula leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
6 or 7 thick slices of good Italian or french bread,
crust removed and cut into cubes (4 to 5 cups)
dash of cayenne pepper
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Spray 9x13 casserole with cooking spray. Spread ham across the bottom of the pan. Add half the bread, followed by the cheese, onions, arugula and thyme. Spread these evenly over the ham. Scatter the rest of the bread cubes across the top.

Beat the eggs slightly. Add the milk, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, salt and black pepper. Stir until combined. Pour the mixture over the contents of the casserole dish, stirring slightly to gently mix. Make sure bread cubes are in the egg mixture and the arugula leaves are mixed throughout.


Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Bake at 325 degrees for 45 - 60 minutes or until browned on top. Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Approximately 10 servings.

Note: This is really just an eggier version of Bread Pudding made with savory, rather than sweet, ingredients. It is an adaptable and forgiving recipe. It can be made out of whatever is on hand or, with some planning, can be made with a variety of ingredients. Recipes vary widely for this dish, using soft white bread or heartier loaves, more or less eggs, skim milk or even cream for the liquid - so feel free to experiment! Add whatever meat and cheese combinations appeal to you or just add vegetables, leftover or freshly sauted, instead. Then add herbs and seasonings to taste.

Enjoy!

04 June 2008

Coconuts and Crocodiles


My husband traveled to India not long ago. He told me the food was wonderful. He took many beautiful photos of the dishes he tried there and their preparation. I'd write about them if I knew enough about Indian food to figure out what they were called. They sure looked delicious!


Still, there was one food experience which he documented that was simple enough for me to approach. This experience made quite a strong impression on him. I think it rated right up there with floating in a tiny row boat within splashing distance of an enormous crocodile and then being rowed, in that same boat, beneath trees dark and heavy with huge resting fruit bats.


The food I am talking about is a coconut he purchased from a roadside vendor. The vendor took a sharp machete and with one quick swing lopped off the end of the green coconut and put a straw in it for him to drink the clear sweet milk.


When my husband finished drinking the milk the vendor took the coconut from him again and, with a few deft swipes of his huge knife, he prepared the soft meat to be enjoyed with a small scoop cut from the husk. While my husband enjoyed the fruit of the coconut the vendor cleaned his knife and put it away.


I have to say, it does look fresh and delicious. The question is, what lengths would you go to to taste one? Do they have these same coconuts at a local market? Or must one brave crocodiles to have a taste?