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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fettucini with Spinach Roasted Garlic Cream Sauce

I like the idea of sitting down to a big bowl of pasta. In actuality though, it's usually never as comforting and satisfying as it sounds. It always leaves me feeling overly full but never truly satisfied. But I say usually because when I sat down to this bowl of pasta last week I felt so happy and so satisfied. Might I say it lived up to my big bowl of pasta fantasy?

This recipe idea was born out of one of my go-to, "I only have twenty minutes to throw together dinner" kind of pasta sauces. I was going to saute garlic and spinach in a white wine sauce, add in a little cream or butter and toss with fettucini and a healthy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Nothing wrong with that, right? Nope, but I had a new idea. What if I blend everything together and make a green cream sauce? Why not?

So there it is. A simple béchamel sauce, blended with fresh spinach and roasted garlic. Green, roasted garlic cream. It's heavenly, savory and packed with nutritionally rich raw spinach.

Sit down to this bowl of pasta and feel good about getting in a few servings of green leafy vegetables - even if it is in your cream sauce.

Fettucini with Spinach Roasted Garlic Cream Sauce
If you can't find spinach fettucini, any fettucini or long pasta will do just fine.

2 large garlic bulbs, halved
drizzle of olive oil
1 pound spinach fettucini
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 teaspoons cayenne
a couple grates of nutmeg
5 ounces fresh baby spinach

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place garlic cut side up on a large sheet of foil, drizzle with olive oil and seal well to form a pouch. Roast in oven 35-40 minutes, or until garlic is softened and slightly caramelized.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour and stir constantly for 2 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Whisk in milk and stock and simmer, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes or until it starts to thicken. Stir in Parmesan cheese, cayenne and a few grates of nutmeg.

Transfer béchamel sauce to a blender with the spinach. Squeeze the garlic bulbs over the blender to add in the roasted garlic cloves. Carefully puree until smooth and transfer back to the pot. Re-warm over medium-low heat. Season well with salt and pepper.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water. Toss pasta with the green cream sauce, adding in some of the starchy pasta water if needed. Adjust seasoning and garnish with extra grated Parmesan cheese.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shaved Brussels Sprouts in Garam Masala Cream

I can't get enough of these tasty mini-cabbages. I like them prepared in so many ways - sauteed, charred, even raw. But in keeping with my hearty, comforting cold weather themed recipes, I am serving them up for this post in a creamy, spiced, indulgent way that even the most ardent anti-sprout people would love.

Oh, and this is one of the quickest Brussels sprout dishes to make. Normally, the spouts are blanched in boiling water, shocked in an ice bath and then charred or sauteed, which can take a little time. For this dish, I slice them thinly with the help of the food processor, simmer in milk for a few minutes, season with a sprinkle of ground spices - and voila! Done. 10 minutes tops.

One fun way I have been infusing flavor into vegetarian dishes like this one is through spices. The kind of spices you add can transform a dish completely. In this dish, I sprinkle in a little garam masala, which is a blend of ground spices commonly found in Indian and South Asian cuisines. The exact spices used varies on the brand or the region the mixture came from but often contains cumin, cloves, peppercorns, coriander, cardamom, star anise and nutmeg. The combination adds an intriguing complexity, without overwhelming heat.

Shaved Brussels Sprouts in Garam Masala Cream
If you don't have a food processor with a slicing blade, carefully slice Brussels sprouts using a mandolin or sharp knife. If you want an even creamier, richer version, swap out the whole milk for cream or half & half.

1 pound Brussels Sprouts, trimmed & washed
2 tablespoons butter
salt & pepper to taste
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon garam masala

Use the slicing blade on your food processor, thinly slice (or shave) the Brussels sprouts. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add in shaved Brussels sprouts and saute 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add in milk and simmer, stirring occasionally, 7 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in garam masala and serve.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Why does the farmers' market smell so much better than the grocery store?": My web chat with Baltimore 5th Graders

This week I web chatted with a group of 5th grade students at City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore. Their teacher, Ms. Jessica DiLorenzo, has been challenging the students to start discussions regarding our modern food and farming system and the impact it has on our health, community and environment. The further along the class got in the discussion, the more passionate they became. Many showed interest in making changes in their own food choices, as well as implementing changes that would better their local community.

In effort to augment their classroom discussions, Ms. DiLorenzo asked me if I would video chat with the class to try to answer some of their questions. Naturally, I will thrilled to have the opportunity.

I went in not knowing what to expect, but immediately was surprised by how much the kids already knew about seasonal eating. Some of the students not only were interested in learning more about the topic, but many of them were explaining to me why eating locally grown food was better than stored, out-of-season produce. They explained that the food they had tried from the farmers' markets, or in some of their cases out of their family's backyard garden, was so much more delicious than their supermarket counterparts. They also said that picking food out at the farmers' market - or out of their own garden - was so much more fun than grocery store shopping (more like a "treasure-hunt", one student said). Another student noted that the produce at the green market "always smells so much better" than the produce at the supermarket.

One student described for me and the class how the carrots that his mom grows in the backyard vary from those in the stores. "They just have a green weed-like tops sticking out of the ground that kind of looks like parsley. And they are always really lumpy, like a long, skinny potato." That led into a great discussion on why all supermarket carrots look almost identical to each other and are usually free from lumps and bumps. To note, the reason carrots become lumpy is because they grow around rocks and stones in the ground. The soil used in industrial farming has long ago removed all of these "imperfections" in order to achieve uniformity.

The students raised a lot of really interesting questions, ranging from "why do I write this blog?" and "how did I become interested in seasonal/local eating" to very specific questions like "describe the perfect tomato" and "can you explain the purpose and benefits of composting?". We also talked pretty extensively about the impact of preservatives and chemical fertilizers on our food and on the environment. One of the students, who inquisitively asked how the pickles that her family bought two years were not yet expired, was
able to answer her own question after our discussion on preservatives.

The class is eager and excited to start testing out some seasonal recipes and visit the local farmers' market to pick out produce. I suggested kale chips for an easy-to-make and delicious wintertime snack food - which they made later that week (and sent me this photo of the outcome)! In the early summer, when cucumbers come into season, I suggested trying out making their own homemade pickles.

In the meantime, Ms. DiLorenzo is continuing the discussion with the students and plans to start a blog for the students to chronicle what they learn and experience (both inside and outside of the classroom) regarding sustainable, local eating. They are also researching the various non-profit organizations that help local, urban communities set-up rooftop gardens.

A huge thank you to Ms. DiLorenzo for facilitating this discussion with the students. I hope we can continue the discussion and I hope to hear about the successes and challenges you encounter. I look forward to checking in with the class soon - I learned a tremendous amount and felt hugely inspired by their excitement and enthusiasm.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Zippy Chard and Leek Gratin

I've been eating a lot of vegetarian fare lately. The more I read about the modern food system the more I find myself veering away from eating meat. Not that I have declared myself a vegetarian but I have been challenging myself to make a good percentage of our meals meat-free. Sounds great - even noble if you consider the environmental and animal welfare issues - but how does it work in practice? Keeping a mod-vegetarian diet was pretty doable in the summer months when I crave light, fresh fare, but now that the temperatures have dropped and the gloves and scarves are making regular appearances, I find myself craving hearty foods that are as satisfying as a winter roast or stew. This recipe, and several others that I'm equally excited to share with you in upcoming posts, is one of my favorite vegetarian dishes that won't leave you wondering "where's the main course?"

This vegetarian entree is a lighter and zippier riff off the classic dish Potato Gratin. The potato version has it's place - no one would argue that this decadent, starchy, creamy side dish isn't absolutely divine when done well - but I wanted to create something that could serve as an entree. I replaced the potatoes with loads of vibrant, leafy swiss chard and aromatic leeks. The béchamel sauce is jazzed up with a grate of nutmeg and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper. The cayenne pepper gave the dish a brightness that keeps you coming back for "just one more bite". Top it all off with crunchy parmesan panko breadcrumbs and you've got yourself a fabulous version of a steakhouse classic side dish (and you won't miss the steak, I promise).

As a side note, I served this along side a mixed green salad dressed in a light red wine mustard vinaigrette. The light, fresh salad served as a nice yin to the gratin's rich, creamy yang.

Zippy Chard and Leek Gratin

2 big bunches swiss chard
3 large leeks, washed and sliced into thin rounds
4 garlic cloves, minced
6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup flour
2 cups whole milk
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup gruyere cheese, coarsely grated
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove bottom 2" of chard stems and discard. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch chard leaves 2 minutes and transfer to ice bath (or place in a colander and run under cold water). Using a clean kitchen towel, squeeze excess liquid from chard leaves. Coarsely chop blanched leaves and set aside.

Heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy bottomed pot or dutch oven. Cook leeks over medium heat for 7 minutes, or until tender. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add in chard leaves, stir to combine, and lower heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

In a separate small pot, melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in flour and stir constantly for 2 minutes. Add in milk and vegetable stock and raise heat to medium. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick and creamy. Stir in gruyere and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Grate in the nutmeg directly into the pot and stir in cayenne pepper. Pour cheese sauce over the chard and leek mixture and stir to combine.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in panko breadcrumbs and remaining 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese and toast, stirring constantly, for 1 minutes. Remove from heat.

Transfer chard mixture to a buttered 8" x 8" baking dish. Top with buttery, panko breadcrumbs and bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until top is golden brown.