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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Simple Cranberry Bean Salad

Last summer my husband and I spent part of our honeymoon traveling around the Italian countryside. Or maybe I should say we spent part of our honeymoon eating our way through the Italian countryside. Almost every single meal was remarkably delicious. But, at the same time, almost every meal was also remarkably simple in its preparation. That is one of reasons why I enjoy cooking with fresh, local ingredients. They just taste so much better. They usually don't need much manipulation or fancy preparations to taste fantastic. Less work, better outcome.

I had this in mind when making this simple cranberry bean salad last week. I only used a handful of ingredients and couldn't be easier to throw together.

Fresh cranberry beans usually start showing up a little later in the season, but they're available early this year due to the crazy hot weather we've been experiencing here in the northeast. When picking out cranberry beans at the market, look for plump, colorful pods. An
d, quantity-wise, always take a little more than you think you'll need (I need to follow my own advice here, I almost always look down at the tiny pile of just-shelled beans and think, "That's it!?"). So throw a couple extra handfuls in your bag for good measure.

One note on the appearance: As you can see from the picture, cranberry beans are absolutely beautiful when they come out of their easy-to-open shells but lose their vivid color when cooked. I know its a little bit of a bummer, but one taste and you won't care anymore.

Try serving this as a side dish or with an antipasto
course, along with olives, cheese and hearty loaf of bread with good olive oil.

Simple Cranberry Bean Salad
If you're not able to find fresh cranberry beans, use dried. Soak dried beans in water overnight, drain, and increase cooking time to about 45 minutes.

2 lbs fresh cranberry beans, shelled
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Bring a stock pot of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Simmer fresh beans, covered, for 20-25 minutes. Beans are done when they are no longer mealy but still firm. Drain beans and toss with lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Amaranth Leaf Soup

I had never cooked with amaranth leaves (also known as callaloo and Chinese spinach) until this past week. Actually, to be quite honest, I also knew very little about them. So I set about to do some research. Man, I did not know what I as getting into! Over the past couple of days, I have been diving into the suprisingly fascinating history of the amaranth plant. Here is a summary of of what I found out:

Amaranth, in addition to having leaves that can be used as a vegetable in cooking, also contains highly nutritious and protein-rich seeds that have been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years.
The seeds were a dietary staple of the ancient Aztecs, Incas and other Native American people in Mexico and were commonly used by the pre-Columbian Aztecs to prepare ritual food and drinks. Before the Spanish conquest in 1519, the seeds were associated with human sacrifice. Aztec women combined ground amaranth seeds with either honey or human blood (yikes!) and formed this mixture into idols that were eaten ceremoniously. Upon observing this ritual, the horrified Spanish responded by ordering a ban on the cultivation and consumption of amaranth, hoping that it would in turn eliminate the sacrifices. Luckily, a few remote areas of Mexico and the Andres continued to cultivate Amaranth, thus saving this plant from what otherwise might have been extinction.

Amaranth seeds are extremely nutrient dense and highly digestible, and, like buckwheat and quinoa, are a complete protein (which means they contain a complete set of amino acids). Compared to wheat, they boast three times the fiber and five times the iron. They also contains twice the amount of calcium than milk. So, needless to say, in doing this research I have become very excited about trying out recipes using amaranth seeds and will be on the lookout for them when I'm out doing my shopping. When I find them, I'll let you all know. And I'll post a recipe. (Or does anyone reading this already know where to find them in the area?)

Ok, so I know that it seems like the seeds are the historical and nutritional stars of the amaranth plant, but the leaves, which I used in this recipe, are far from disappointing. They are a very good source of vitamin A, K, B6, C, riboflavin, folate and many dietary minerals. Plus, they taste really, really good. I had read that flavor-wise they are most comparable to spinach leaves, but I found the flavor to be quite different (though I'm not sure what a better comparison would be).

Today, Amaranth leaves are popular in many parts of the world including Asia, India, Africa and Europe. I have seen recipes that call for boiling the leaves and then serving them with lemon juice and olive oil (a traditional Greek preparation), to frying the leaves with chilies and onions (an Indian dish called Khada saga). For this recipe, however, I took a cue from a Caribbean preparation. In the Caribbean, where the plant is commonly referred to as callaloo, a popular method of preparation is to simmer the leaves with a host of other ingredients and seasonings until it develops a stew-like consistency. Another popular preparation is callaloo soup, which is what inspired this recipe.

Now I do want to include a disclaimer that this recipe is simply inspired by the traditional Caribbean dish and is most likely far from a traditional version. Although I can make no claims regarding its authenticity, I can however make the not-so-modest claim that it is delicious. My husband will back up that claim too. :)

I found these amaranth leaves (which were labeled as callaloo) at the Union Square farmers market. They were grown on a farm in New Jersey. Apparently, more and more farmers are beginning to cultivate the plants, so ask around for them the next time you visit the green market. If you can't find them anywhere, try substituting the amaranth for spinach or chard leaves.

Amaranth Leaf Soup

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 slices bacon, diced
1 big bunch (about 1 pound) amaranth leaves, stems removed and roughly chopped
1/4 cup parsley
2-3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup creme fraiche, plus extra for garnishing
squeeze of lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste

Melt the butter in olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 5 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the bacon and continue to cook another 5 minutes or so until the fat has rendered. Add the amaranth leaves and parsley and cook, stirring frequently, until greens are wilted and tender.

Add 2 cups of stock to start (you can always add more later) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth (since the liquid is hot, puree in batches and hold down the top of the blender with a kitchen towel). Return to pot and add more stock if it needs to be thinned out a little. Stir in 1/2 cup creme fraiche and the squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Ladle into bowls and top with an extra dollop of creme fraiche.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fried Rice with Summer Vegetables

After work yesterday I took a detour up to the Union Square green market to stock up on some produce for the week. Even though the farmers were getting ready to pack up for the day, there was still an abundance of things to choose from and everything looked good. Fresh microgreens, heirloom tomatoes, crates of juicy fruit, artisan cheeses... how's a girl to choose?! My instinct was to buy a little of everything. I was excitedly wandering around from stand to stand thinking "How can I possibly pass up fresh shiso leaves?? Oh, and look, fresh lavender! And, wow, those eggplants are gorgeous!". After my sudden bout of vegetable induced ADD calmed down, I began to come to terms with the fact that I would have to narrow it down to just a few things. I ended up leaving with some beautiful heirloom bell peppers, fresh cranberry beans, scallions, snap peas, shishito peppers, calaloo (a dark leafy green that is originally from the Caribbean) and a pint of sweet plums. That should keep me busy until at least, say, Thursday?

Now, the question was, what to do with all of this produce? I had plans to make a fried rice dish so I decided to throw in the sweet peppers, scallions and snap peas. The outcome was delicious and tasted much fresher (and much less greasy!) than Chinese takeout. I used these vegetables just because that was what jumped out at me at the market, but feel free to play around with it, almost anything will work in here.

One key to making good fried rice is to use cold, cooked rice. So be sure to plan ahead and get the rice cooking early so that it has enough time to cool completely. I usually spread my cooked rice out on a sheet pan and pop it in the refrigerator to help along the cooling process. Or, as you've probably already guessed, this is a fantastic way to use up leftover rice from last night's delivery.

Fried Rice with Summer Vegetables

2 cups cooked brown or white rice (preferably long grain)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 lb wild shrimp

1/2 onion, chopped
1 large or 2 small bell peppers, chopped
1/3 lb sugar snap peas, chopped into thirds
2 garlic cloves, minced
1" piece fresh ginger, grated
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 scallions, chopped (white and light green parts only)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Heat canola oil in a large wok over med-high heat. When oil is hot add onion, bell pepper and snap peas. Saute for about 3-4 minutes until beginning to soften. Add shrimp and cook just a minute or two until they turn pink on the outside and almost (but not quite) fully cooked. Add the eggs, garlic, ginger and crushed red pepper and stir, breaking up the egg with your spoon. When the egg is scrambled and browning slightly stir in the rice, scallions, soy sauce and fish sauce. Turn off heat and stir in the sesame oil.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Zucchini Orzo

Well, my trip to the farmers market yesterday resulted in several more zucchini to add to my produce drawer. There is just so much of them and I have trouble resisting the low, low price. I had already made a zucchini carpaccio salad earlier this week (see my July 12 entry) so last night I decided to utilize my new zucchinis in one of my favorite pasta dishes, Zucchini Orzo.

One of the most inspiring books I have read on seasonal and local eating is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It's informative, witty and contains lots of fun recipes and cooking tips. This recipe is adapted from one of the recipes in the "Zucchini Larceny" chapter in the book. I have made it at least a dozen times and each time I make it a little differently, but it always turns ou
t well. This time I threw in some sweet little grape tomatoes (first fresh tomatoes I've picked up this season!) to add a little contrast and color into the dish, or you could throw in some sauteed mushrooms, red peppers, basically anything you have on hand.

In our household, I try my darndest to limit our intake of processed white starches to once per week. This is not an easy feat, me being a pasta addict (if that is not an actual diagnosable condition, it sure as heck should be). And when we do splurge and have white pasta, this is a great dish to make because I literally use just as much zucchini as orzo.
When I make this dish for my husband and I, I use a half pound of pasta and we end up eating just half of it-- and that's when we are really hungry.

Now, I have to point out that this recipe uses a lot of zucchini. A lot. So much that you'll proba
bly think you're doing something wrong. When you are mid-way through grating the third zucchini chances are you are going to look at the pile you are amassing and think "this is just an absurd amount of squash" and will double check the recipe. But trust me, it'll be just right.

Zucchini Orzo

1/2 lb orzo
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium zucchini, shredded
1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
salt & pepper to taste

Place the grated zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let sit in the sink for at least 15 minutes to allow the salt to draw out the excess moisture.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and cook the onion over med heat until beginning to soften. While the onion is cooking, drop the orzo in a pot of heavily salted boiling water (the water should taste like seawater, as Mario Batali says). Add the garlic to the pan with the onion and saute a minute or so until the garlic starts to become fragrant. Add the zucchini, tomatoes and stock and cook for a few minutes.

Drain the orzo, reserving a cup or so of the starchy, salty cooking liquid. Add the pasta and Parmesan cheese into the pan, adding a little of the reserved pasta water if it looks dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Zucchini Carpaccio

Every summer there always comes a point where there seems to be more zucchini than we know what to do with. Because they are one of the easiest fruits (yes, I did mean to say fruits... more on that in a bit) to grow in temperate climates, many farmers and home gardeners end up with an overwhelming abundance of zucchini. I'm sure we have all been in the situation where someone has literally begged you to take some zucchini off their hands, or perhaps you were the one doing the pleading. Either way, by mid-summer, when we all have baked 17 zucchini breads and counting, I think we all could use a few new zucchini recipes to add into the mix.

So, getting back to what I mentioned be
fore, zucchini, although regarded as a vegetable in the culinary world, botanically it is a fruit. The zucchini itself is actually the ovary of the female zucchini flower (I know, crazy stuff, right?). The flowers themselves happen to be edible and quite delicious as well. I haven't seen any zucchini flowers at my green market yet this year but am really hoping they make an appearance soon (I just love stuffing them with basil and ricotta cheese and pan frying them in a little butter). But, whether you are eating one, or both, parts of the plant, you are consuming several important nutrients, as zucchini are a good source of vitamin A, folate and potassium.

Super fresh zucchini is delicious raw and does not need much to turn it into a heavenly side dish. In this dish, I thinly slice the fresh zucchini (carpaccio style) with a vegetable peeler and dress it lightly with high-quality extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. It is garnished with toasted almonds, fragrant fresh mint and shaved Pecorino cheese. The almonds add a nice crunch and the Pecorino adds a slight tang. I used Pecorino Sardo from Murray's Cheese Shop in the West Village, but any young Pecorino works beautifully. Just try to avoid an aged Pecorino, as the it may overwhelm the subtle flavor of the raw zucchini.

Zucchini Carpaccio

Serves 4 as a side

3 medium (or 4 small) zucchini
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

handful fresh mint, chopped or chiffonade
3 ounces Pecorino cheese

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste

Using a vegetable peeler, carefully shave strips lengthwise down the zucchini. Arrange slices on a platter and drizzle lemon juice and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with almonds, Pecorino cheese and fresh mint.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

5 Great (Local!) Summer Wines

I'm always amazed by how much the weather influences what I want to eat and drink. During these hot summer months there is nothing better than eating a fresh tomato and basil salad, sweet corn on the cob and juicy slices of watermelon. In addition to these simply wonderful summer foods, I also take great pleasure in coming home and enjoying a refreshing glass of crisp, cold wine. This is a list of a few of my favorite local selections. All but one hail from New York and all ring in at under $20 per bottle. Cheers!

Shinn Estate Vineyards 2009 Coalescense

Shinn Estate, a vineyard located in the North Fork of Long Island, offers many great wines, but one of my favorites for a warm summer night is their Coalescense. The modestly priced wine is a blend Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot Blanc and Riesling. It is aged completely in stainless steel and has a wonderfully crisp and fresh taste with a citrusy, bright finish. It's light and vibrant character make it an ideal wine to sip on while preparing dinner or relaxing on the patio (or stoop). Besides it being a great pre-dinner palate opener, it also pairs terrifically with light, fresh meals such as raw shellfish and summery salads. I pick it up at Brooklyn Wine Exchange in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and it is also available on the Shinn Estate Vineyard website.
$15 per bottle

Ravines 2007 Dry Riesling

This particular Finger Lakes Riesling is produced in a dry style. It has lovely notes of
pear and apricot with a long, minerally finish. This wine is very versatile and can be enjoyed with grilled fish and chicken, as well as with ethnic foods. It is a great wine to have on hand for those times when you have that situation when you say, "Now what wine would go with this chicken/sushi/Thai food delivery?". Available at Heights Chateau in Brooklyn Heights and on their website.
$15 per bottle

BOE Brooklyn Oenology 2009 Cabernet Franc Rose
The winemaking for Brooklyn Oenology wines takes place in New York State and the design, marketing, sales and distribution take place in a converted warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This rose is make from Cabernet Franc grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. It is dry rose that has undertones of watermelon and grapefruit, with a touch of spiciness. This has been my go-to "stoop sipping" wine this summer. Plus, like all of the Brooklyn Oenology wines, the removable label features artwork from a local Brooklyn artist. Check out their website for a list of shops that sell this rose as well as other Brooklyn Oenology wines.
$13 per bottle

Treleaven 2006 Cabernet Franc
The Finger Lakes are most known for their Rieslings and Gewurtztaminers, however this upstate Cabernet Franc is nothing to scoff at. It comes out a small, family run vineyard in King Ferry, New York. It is fruity and light enough to enjoy on a hot summer day, yet has enough structure to hold up to grilled hamburgers and meats. It has a pleasantly earthy taste, with hints of cherry and black pepp
er. Don't be afraid to pop it into the refrigerator a few minutes before serving to help bring out the fruit and boost up the refreshment factor. Check out the Treleaven website to learn more about the winery and for a list of their retailers.
$17 per bottle

Farnum Hills Extra Dry Cider
Yes, this sparking cider is made from apples, not grapes, but it most certainly deserves a spot on this list. I first tried Farnum Hills Ciders, which are produced in central New Hampshire, at a tasting at Heights Chateau in Brooklyn Heights. Some of the ciders were on the sweet side, as I expected them to be, but this particular one was completely dry. It is elegant and complex
and richly aromatic. As an alternative to Prosecco, serve this bubbly as an aperitif at your next dinner party. For a list of retailers that sell Farnum Hills Ciders, check out their website.
$16 per bottle