One Sunday last spring when we were visiting our friends in Rome, we had the good fortune to accompany them on an outing to the small municipality, Pisoniano, a fifty minute drive east of the Eternal City. Their good friends had invited us to spend the day. Our host, Serge, an architect, had been born in this charming hill town. He knew everyone, and held the title as its unofficial mayor.
This particular Sunday felt magical. On this sun-filled day, the town was celebrating L’ Infiorata, or Flower Art Festival. Through the center of the main street ran a long series of “organic mosaics.” Each one was a vibrantly colored image or symbol of Christian faith created out of flower petals, stems, and seeds. Townspeople and visitors such as ourselves, families and friends, gathered to spend the afternoon enjoying the art and fellowship.
Each intricate image was connected to next, forming a brilliant carpet over the cobbles–a carpet you dared not step on! As meticulous and ephemeral as Tibetan sand paintings, each work was a collaborative effort created over thirty-six hours leading up to the festival. No doubt, there were many months in preparation.
After we spent time strolling the flower carpet sidelines, examining each tableau, astonished by the color, texture, and attention to detail, we all went to lunch at Trattoria Bacco. This was no ordinary meal, but one that had been designed by the chefs in keeping with the season and the celebration. Our multi-coursed luncheon began around 1pm and lasted for three hours!
We began our leisurely meal with a plate of antipasta: folds of prosciutto over melon, wrinkled pungent olives, a whip of ricotta, bites of radish. The pacing of service was slow and deliberate. It allowed for lively conversation–eight of us at a community dining table– and time to savor each dish.
We were able to enjoy our company and each course without feeling stuffed–well, at least, not until the end. The servers brought platters of house made ravioli cloaked in red sauce, followed by Tonnarelli alla Verdure, a Roman square-cut egg pasta tossed with seasonal green vegetables: spinach, artichoke, scallions, and small peas.
The supper’s centerpiece was a pork dish, Coscio di Maiale, a fresh ham long simmered in a wealth of garlic, bay leaf, and fennel seeds. Fresh rosemary and thyme were also in the mix, playing background roles.
The meat was sumptuous; juicy and fatty in its fragrant brown gravy. It was that trio–garlic, bay leaf and toasted fennel seeds, remarkable in combination, assertive in amount, that made the pork shine.
Inspiration! I knew that I would have to make this when I returned home.
I haven’t recreated the dish perfectly, not yet.
A fresh ham is not always available at our market, and this cut, with its bones, rich meat and layers of fat, is key to the dish. For my first try, I used a different cut, the sirloin tip. No bones, little fat. Nonetheless, the pork was delicious. And, the gravy, the result of browning then braising hunks of pork with that trio, came close to my remembrance. What a pleasure to have the connection of food, place, and memory: spending a leisurely Sunday afternoon, in the company of family and friends, at the table, doing as the Romans do.
Quantities for both pork and salad recipes are for a large group—10 to 15. With spring here at last, you might be having family and friends over to celebrate. Take time on a Sunday afternoon to relax and dine and visit.
Also, with beets being such a versatile vegetable for spring and fall, be sure to check out Cooking Light’s Guide to Beets for care, storage, growing, and preparation.
PORK BRAISED WITH GARLIC, BAY LEAF, AND TOASTED FENNEL SEED
8 lb. boneless pork roast, such as sirloin tip
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
coarse ground black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 bulb (8-10 cloves) garlic, peeled and sliced
4-5 bay leaves
4 tablespoons fennel seed, lightly toasted
sprig or 2 of rosemary
4 sprigs thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Rub the oil all over the piece(s) of meat. Liberally season with salt and black pepper.
Heat a Dutch oven on medium. Brown the meat on all sides, rotating the piece(s) every 5 minutes. This could take 15-20 minutes.
When the meat is almost finished browning, add the sliced garlic. Continue to cook for 3 minutes, then dust the flour over the meat.
Rotate the piece(s) around in the pan, so that the flour browns a bit.
Pour in water–2-3 cups—enough to almost cover the meat. Stir, loosening up the browned bits on the bottom and sides of the pot.
Plunge in the bay leaves, fennel seed, rosemary, thyme and red pepper flakes.
Cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Let the pork cook, undisturbed, for 1 1/2-2 hours.
Remove the meat and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before slicing.
Increase the heat on the pot to medium high, stirring the remaining sauce, allowing it to reduce and slightly thicken.
Slice the meat and pour the sauce over it. Pour extra sauce into a gravy boat or bowl.
Delicious with roasted potatoes or rice.
Makes 12-15 servings
BEETS AND BLUE SALAD
1/2 pound spring lettuces
3 ruby beets, roasted, peeled and chilled
2 oranges or 4 clementines, peeled, sectioned, sliced
1/2 cup sliced red onion
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
Place a layer of lettuces on a platter. Slice the beets and arrange over the lettuces, followed by a ring of sliced citrus, and red onion.
Sprinkle crumbled blue cheese. Repeat the layering.
Drizzle with Sweet Heat Dressing and serve.
SWEET HEAT DRESSING
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon minced jalapeno
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup olive oil
Place all of the ingredients into a pint jar. Screw on the lid tightly and shake well. Drizzle over the salad.
Light. This is the challenge, this time of year.
Daily, my work alternates from the kitchen to my home office perch; each space has walls of windows to keep me in tune with the rhythm of the day. Lately I’ve been caught off guard, absorbed by testing recipes, cooking meals, or writing articles, only to look up and find myself shrouded in darkness. The hours move so rapidly, yet I think I’m keeping up.
Suddenly, the curtain drops. Night is here. At 4:45!
Some days I fret at my missed opportunities of sunlight, the better photographs, the lifted spirits. I tell myself–tomorrow, tomorrow—although we know, headed into winter, that each tomorrow means even less.
Moving deeper into the season, I have to capture that light in other ways.
Some mornings Bill and I rise very early, drive to Warner Park, and hike the 2 1/2 mile trail that loops around the wooded hills. Wearing headlamps, we begin in pre-dawn darkness, and find our way along the craggy path. Sometimes I’ll hear the who-who of owls call, or the rustle of a wild turkey flock on its own forest trek. Sometimes I’ll see a set of headlamps on the trail ahead of me, only to realize that it is a set of glowing eyes. A deer!
After thirty minutes of so, we turn off our headlamps. The world is dim, almost colorless, but visible. And then, sunrise.
Ah! Surrounded by hickory and beech trees, their leaves already yellow, we become enveloped in shimmering gold light.
Light and Balance. We need these in the food we eat too.
Today I am sharing two light and leafy recipes–one is a salad, the other cooked greens. Both autumn dishes help to balance out the heavy, hearty fare that defines the approaching holiday season.
I have been relishing fennel, its crunch and lively anise flavor enmeshed in a salad of Honeycrisp apples and clementines. My new favorite! This is a salad of fresh contrasts, melding sweet, peppery, citric, licorice and pungent tastes, with no cooking required. Just skilled prep—apples cut into thin batons, clementines peeled, sectioned and sliced, fennel and red onion almost shaved. Liberally season with salt and black pepper, which will help each element release its juices. Add salted Marcona almonds and your choice of a salty blue (gorgonzola, maytag, danish…)
The dressing is basic. Use a good olive oil—this beauty is from my friends’ biodynamic farm in Tuscany near the Tyrrhennian Sea—and a shake of white balsamic vinegar. As I have learned from Rachel in measuring this, use the Italian sensibility: “q.b.” quanto basto-–what is enough—in other words, use your good judgment.
A member of the chicory family, escarole is a beautiful and mildly bitter green that resembles leafy lettuce. Its core leaves, small and delicate, are ideal in a salad. But the whole head, sliced into ribbons, yields to heat readily, collapsing into a great delectable sopping mound. It makes a sumptuous side dish on its own, or can be spooned over rice or pasta. Served with beans or cornbread, it becomes an Italian dish that has migrated to the South.
In this pot, reds complement the greens. Red onion, red wine vinegar, and a handful of currants to bring pops of sweetness to the dish. You may use golden raisins in place of the currants; either dried fruit will gain a jewel-like glisten in the saute.
I could tell you, “Be grateful for your greens!”–because I am really reminding myself of the same.
Enjoy them chilled crisp in the salad bowl, or braised supple in the Dutch oven.
Enjoy your time with loved ones.
In this season of indulgence, enjoy some time of light and balance.
HONEYCRISP APPLE-CLEMENTINE-FENNEL SALAD
1 Honeycrisp apple, cut into small batons
3-4 clementines, peeled, sectioned, and cut into pieces
1 fennel bulb , shaved or sliced thinly
1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup Marcona almonds
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 pound mixed leaf lettuces
Place the prepared apples, clementines, fennel, and red onion into a large chilled bowl. Add the almonds and blue cheese crumbles.
Sprinkle the salt and black pepper over the salad ingredients, followed by the olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. Top with mixed lettuces.
Toss the salad gently but thoroughly, so that the myriad ingredients are well-dispersed and the lightly coated with the oil and vinegar. Taste and adjust for seasonings.
Makes 8-10 servings
WILTED ESCAROLE WITH RED ONION, GARLIC, AND CURRANTS adapted from Cooking Light
5-6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sliced red onion
3 cloves minced garlic
2-3 dried red chiles
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3-1/2 cup dried currants
1 large head of escarole, leaves washed and sliced into 1/2 ” thick ribbons
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Place a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Stir in the red onion, garlic, and dried red peppers. Season with salt and saute the mixture for 2 minutes. The red onion will become translucent. Add the dried currants and saute for another minute.
Add the escarole ribbons. Stir and fold them in the red onion mixture. The heat will cause the escarole leaves to collapse and wilt. Add the red wine vinegar. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Allow the escarole to braise for 5 minutes.
Makes 8 servings
The unpredictability of harvests causes me to marvel at the steadfast dedication of farmers. One season to the next, they never know how well or poorly a crop will do, despite all care and meticulous planning. And, under the same weather conditions, one planting will thrive, while another fizzles.
In 2010, Gigi had a bumper crop of figs. In the two years that followed, her trees bore meager fruit. It had us worried—was 2010 a fluke? Last week, that notion was dispelled when Gigi called me with this report:
“We need to pick figs. Now!”
Her trees were–and still are—covered. Plump ripe knobs, some royal purple, others streaked greenish-brown, are ready to be plucked and relished. The next morning, I met Gigi at the garden. We picked a fast 100, and two days later, I returned to gather another basketful.
Joy. The figs are back, with the promise of so many more to come. Time to enjoy them now, and preserve them for the future.
My plan was two-fold. I could envision delectable figs roasted to sweetness, tucked in lettuce leaves with goat cheese, chives, and bacon for a summer meal. (almonds for my vegetarians!) What I didn’t use in the salad, I’d put up in mason jars. Roasted Figs in Syrup!
I began by halving the figs and arranging them on a baking sheet scattered with thin lemon wedges. After I dusted them with sugar and a spritz of white balsamic vinegar, I placed them into the hot oven.
I had forgotten how effective and deeply delicious this method is. Very quickly the sugar melts as the figs release their juices. The lemon and vinegar meld into the mix, enhancing the figgy taste, while balancing the sweetness. A gorgeous caramel-ruby syrup results, glazing the fruit in the pan. And that tangy syrup becomes the perfect medium to drizzle into the lettuce cups, the salad’s dressing really.
As for the rest, well, I have a few ideas. I love them baked on flatbread with prosciutto, leeks, and soft gorgonzola. The figs in syrup are sublime with mascarpone on a slice of crusty toasted baguette. Check out Cooking Light’s Guide to Figs for other tips and recipes. I am always open to new recipes with this ancient, treasured fruit, and would love to have your recommendations, too.
Of course, we fig lovers know that there is nothing quite like that one, sun-warmed and ripe right off the tree, sticky to the touch and honeyed to the bite.
ROASTED FIG-GOAT CHEESE-BUTTER LETTUCE CUPS
25 leaves butter (or Boston) lettuce, washed and spun dry
1 11 ounce log plain goat cheese
8-10 strips thick slab cut bacon cooked crisp and crumbled -OR-
1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds
1 1/2 cups roasted figs in syrup (recipe follows)
coarse ground black pepper
Arrange butter lettuce leaves on a platter. Cut the goat cheese log into small slices or pieces, placing a piece into each lettuce cup.
Sprinkle the goat cheese with chives.
Sprinkle cooked bacon or toasted almonds into the cups.
Place a fig half over the goat cheese.
Drizzle with figgy syrup and season with coarse ground black pepper.
Makes 25 appetizers or 10-12 mains.
ROASTED FIGS IN SYRUP
15 ripe figs, washed, dried and cut in half lengthwise
1 lemon, sliced into 10 wedges
1/4 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place the fig halves on a baking sheet. Scatter the lemon wedges around the figs.
Sprinkle the sugar over the figs. Sprinkle the vinegar over the sugared figs.
Place into the oven and roast for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan after the halfway (5-6 minutes) mark.
Cook until the figs become puffed and release their juices.
The juices will meld with the melted sugar and vinegar to make a luscious syrup.
Remove from the oven and cool. Place the fig and lemon pieces into a medium bowl or 12 ounce jar. Scrape the accumulated juices-syrup from the pan over the figs.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Note: You may double the batch and preserve the figs and syrup in 3-8 ounce jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.
We are blissfully in the thick, luscious thick of tomato season in Tennessee.
At the farmers’ market, I am agog at the array of bushel baskets, heaped with Bradleys and Brandywines, Lemon Boys and Purple Cherokees. I’m tempted by Mortgage Lifters, if for nothing but cunning name alone, and those crazy striped Green Zebras that don’t taste green at all.
Have you ever tried the red and yellow variegated ones, sometimes called Candystripers? How about those delicate peach tomatoes with the fuzzy skins?
It makes me not mind the thick heat around here—as long as I can include these gorgeous heirlooms in our summertime dining.
So many tomatoes, so many ways to enjoy them, and a few glorious weeks to indulge in the bounty. Salsas, soups, panzanellas, pastas, deep dish pies and napoleons…like you, I’m ever on the lookout for another tomato-centric recipe.
Lately I’ve been in a building mode, constructions! inspired by this stack I found on Cooking Light’s website.
Artful towers of tomatoes get vitality (and height!) from myriad ingredients sandwiched between their slices. These structures require almost no cooking: a few strips of bacon fried crisp in the skillet, a half cup of balsamic vinegar reduced in a pot to a syrup.
That minimal stovetop time is a real boon in summer. Eaten with a fork and knife, the tomato towers have a meatiness that satisfies greedy appetites, while being cool and refreshing. They can be elegant. They are fun.
I’ve taken two different approaches in assembling my towers. The first is a natural–a vertical caprese, brandishing the colors of the Italian flag in tomato-fresh mozzarella-basil. Layer in a sliver of red onion, to give a little bite. I like to use balsamic vinegar reduction–the syrup is deeply sweet-tart and makes beautiful striping over the stack and plate. Use your best olive oil; this is what is was made for!
Going forward, you can get creative; change it up. Maybe add a layer of cucumber or zucchini. Substitute the mozzarella with a slather of ricotta or mascapone. Tuck in a ripple of prosciutto. No basil on hand? Try oregano or thyme.
Tower Two takes a Southern stance, layering elements of my favorite sandwich, the BLT, (actually, the BLTCA: bacon-lettuce-tomato-cheddar-avocado!) under a pour of chive-laced buttermilk dressing. How can you go wrong with that? It could only be improved with some grilled corn, cut off the cob, and strewn over the stack.
Remember–don’t refrigerate tomatoes! Chilling them changes their structure and makes them mealy.
a variety of ripe heirloom tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2 ” slices
a few cherry or grape tomatoes, halved, for garnishing
1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4″ inch rounds
handful of fresh basil leaves
1/2 small red onion, sliced thinly
1/4 cup balsamic syrup
1/4 cup favorite extra virgin olive oil
cracked black pepper
Start with large flat tomato slices as your foundation. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place a basil leaf (or two) on top, then a little bit of red onion. Cover each with a piece of mozzarella. Dot with good olive oil and drizzle with balsamic syrup. Repeat the layering, topping with cherry or grape tomato halves and more basil. Secure with a long toothpick or short skewer. Pour olive oil over each tower, along with a zig-zag of balsamic syrup. Serve.
a variety of ripe heirloom tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2″ slices
a few cherry or grape tomatoes, halved, for garnishing
6 slices bacon, cooked crisp
1/2 avocado, sliced
4-6 slices sharp white cheddar (you may crumble or shred the cheese)
buttermilk dressing (recipe below)
salt and black pepper
Start with a large flat tomato slice as your foundation. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a slice or two of avocado, followed by bacon strip and cheddar. Spoon a little buttermilk dressing over the top. Repeat layers, spooning a generous amount of buttermilk dressing. Secure with a long toothpick or short skewer. Make as many towers as you would like, allowing one per person. Pass a few grinds of black pepper over the lot and serve.
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 heaping tablespoons fresh chives, finely chopped
Pour buttermilk into a non-reactive bowl. Stir in lemon juice and white wine vinegar. Allow the mixture to sit and thicken for ten minutes. If it clabbers, don’t worry. It will become smooth again when stirred or whisked.
Add granulated garlic, salt, pepper, and chives. Stir well. Cover and refrigerate. The dressing will continue to thicken and its tangy flavors will develop. (If you want it thicker, (and richer) whisk in a dollop or two of mayo. Whoa.
Makes one cup.
A cool, wet spring has made it positively lush in our little part of the world. Our backyard is a crazy jungle of vines, great leafed-out maples and catalpas, a plum tree dripping with the promise of a bountiful harvest. We’ve got knock-out roses living up to their name in a riot of red. Fragrant peony blossoms so huge they’ve tumbled over, spilling their petals onto the stone patio.
Perennial herbs, my kitchen delight—sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme—are all in profuse bloom too. In our garden, early crops of lettuces, spinach, arugula, scallions, and sugar snaps have taken hold.
It’s been a beautiful time of year, so alive, so fleeting, that I’ve stopped to soak up whenever I could–before summer’s heat sets in.
It hasn’t been as easy as other years; commitments of work, travel, family, community have had our household on the move. Trust me, this is not a complaint. It’s simply how this cycle in life is spinning right now.
I do have some exciting pieces of news to share.
This week, I am happy to report, I clicked “SEND” and my cookbook manuscript whooshed off to the publisher.
Another step, complete. I will keep you posted as the process continues to unfold.
Next week, Bill and I leave for Rome. Fourteen days on an adventure that has little construct! It is rather unlike our other trips, where we’ve had A Plan. This time, we are surrendering to the moment, and we’ll see where it takes us. In a city steeped in history, the arts, cuisine, we’ll have no shortage of things to explore and experience.
What we do know: We have American friends, living there since 2008, with whom we’ll be staying. So, we have a most hospitable base of operations.
And, I will meet Rachel–food writer extraordinaire, Roman resident of nine years, creator of racheleats, –”in real life” as I used say as a child. We’ve come to know each other through our respective blogs. Now, we get the chance to expand that friendship. The world is an amazing place, isn’t it?
Before I start packing for the Eternal City, I want to share a recipe that you might enjoy making for a picnic. In the States, Memorial Day is coming up–when many of us fire up the grill and indulge in those fleeting tastes of spring–and harbingers of summer.
The inspiration for this dish comes from Cooking Light, the food magazine devoted to healthy delicious eating. The folks at CL have invited me to be a part of their blogging community, and as our philosophies about food and health align, I am pleased to join.
The recipe uses ingredients of the season, many flourishing in my garden: sugar snaps, spinach, green garlic, and thyme.
The success of this dish relies on a wealth of fresh lemon juice and thyme leaves, which both marinate the chicken, and infuse the vinaigrette. Don’t skimp! It doesn’t take long for the lemon and herb to permeate the meat. It’s pretty easy to place the breasts into a ziplock bag, add the marinade, swish, seal, and refrigerate—for about an hour.
After a sear on the grill, that juicy chicken gets sliced, then tossed with baby spinach, yellow bell peppers and sugar snap peas. A pour of vinaigrette brings together simple vibrant tastes, appealing colors, and a harmony of textures. If you want to bulk it up a bit for a crowd, as I did for our Third Thursday Potluck, add some mezze penne–a smaller ridged pasta.
When I return from this adventure, I’m sure I’ll have some good food tales to tell. Stay tuned! If you have a Roman Tip to share—something you deem a “Can’t Miss”—art, food, culture, anything!–please let me know in the comments below.
GRILLED LEMON THYME CHICKEN SALAD
adapted from Cooking Light
Marinade for Chicken:
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (3-4 large lemons, 6-8 small lemons)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
zest from 1 large lemon
2 heaping tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
3.5 lbs boneless chicken breasts (6-8 pieces)
Other Salad Ingredients:
1 lb. sugar snap peas
1 lb. yellow and orange bell peppers
1 1/2 cups dry penne pasta
1 lb. baby spinach
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 clove roasted garlic
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Place marinade ingredients into a bowl and whisk well. Place chicken breasts into a one gallon ziplock bag. Pour in marinade, swishing it around to coat all of the pieces.
Seal and refrigerate for one hour. Don’t marinate more than an hour—the acid in the lemon will “cook” the meat.
Remove chicken from the ziplock bag, discarding marinade.
When coals are ashen, place the chicken onto the grill. Cook approximately 7 minutes per side, or until done.
Cook penne pasta according to package directions in lightly salted water. Drain well. Place in large bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Heat a large skillet. Add one tablespoon olive oil. Saute sugar snap peas, in batches, until bright green–about two minutes.
Place in large bowl with penne.
Saute julienned bell pepper strips until caramelized–or–if using baby sweet bells, place them in the skillet whole and let them char on all sides. Remove and cut into julienned strips when cool. Add strips to large bowl with penne and sugar snaps.
Slice chicken breasts into 1/4″ thick strips.
Make Lemon-Thyme Vinaigrette: Place all ingredients in a blender and mix until emulsified, or place ingredients in a small bowl and use an immersion blender to mix.
Place spinach leaves in a large mixing bowl. Add penne, sugar snaps, sweet yellow bell pepper strips, and grilled chicken strips.
Pour lemon-thyme vinaigrette over the ingredients and toss well so that all of the salad elements are lightly coated with dressing.
Mound in a salad bowl. Garnish with lemon twists and fresh thyme, if desired.
Cocozelle Zucchinis, Yellow Crooknecks, and now, Buttersticks.
Thanks to our diligent garden, it’s been a squash-filled summer.
Are you familiar with Butterstick Squash?
New to our garden this year, these hybrids have dark green tips and deep gold bodies, with some green streaking. Similar to zucchinis, they grow long and straight. Unlike zucchinis, ( which can hide under vast stalks and leaves until they are baseball bats!) their bright yellow color brashly announces their presence, and readiness for picking.
The flesh is firm, with a delicate, almost nutlike flavor. Seeds are minute. Easily sliced into thin coins, batons, or planks, buttersticks are cooperative. They perform well in all manner of recipes.
This is indeed helpful, because, if you are like me, the quest for different summer squash dishes is a constant from June through September.
Such a tender squash can be eaten raw.
As I was considering a preparation, I recalled a certain post in the delectable blog, My Little Expat Kitchen created by Magda.
A Greek woman living in The Netherlands, she introduces her readers to specialty dishes from her homeland interspersed with other recipes using the fresh seasonal goods found in Holland. Her photography is stunning, and her engaging voice unmistakable in her fine writing. (She also has an abiding love of chocolate, with recipes to match.)
Magda had marinated raw zucchini slices, and layered them several planks high, each in a slather of ricotta-feta cheese mixture with lemon and dill. It was her Tower.
That post was over two years ago—but its simplicity and beauty stood out for me. Whenever you can prepare an exceptional dish without firing up the stove—well, that’s a huge benefit in the heat of August.
With her inspiration, and select ingredients on hand, I decided to make my version, Butterstick Crudo.
It didn’t take long to whip up.
Chevre, churned with olive oil, lemon, green onion, fresh oregano, and just a hint of honey, serves as both slather and marinade for the butterstick slices. I recently bought some local honey that has a light yet distinct floral taste. A scant teaspoon imparts a desired essence of lavender, without being too sweet, or overpowering.
Be sure to season with sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste.
The mixture will be thin–that’s to be expected. After you lay out a row of thin squash planks, get a spoonful and guide a stripe of the chevre down the center of each one. Place another plank on top and repeat the process.
Mine are not towers–just three stories high.
On to the finishing touches:
Scatter more fresh oregano leaves,
Marigold petals–if you have them—give a distinctive pop
A quick squeeze of lemon, and
A drizzle of good olive oil over the dish…
Place in the refrigerator for an hour, if you would like the chevre to set up. The chilled butterstick stacks slice neatly.
But, it is just as delicious at room temperature. Eat with a piece of crusty bread to swipe up all the creamy dressing.
And, use any leftover seasoned cheese blend stirred into scrambled eggs, or spread on a piece of toast. So good!
BUTTERSTICK ZUCCHINI CRUDO
3-4 small to medium sized young Butterstick Squashes or Zucchinis
4 oz. Chevre
2 t. fresh Lemon Juice
1 t. Honey
2 t. Olive Oil
1 Scallion, cut into small pieces
1 heaping Tablespoon fresh Oregano leaves
Sea Salt and Black Pepper–to taste
Marigold petals–to garnish
Wash, dry, and cut of the ends of the squashes. With a sharp knife, cut lengthwise into thin (1/4″ thick) slices.
In a mixing bowl, place goat cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, scallion pieces, and oregano leaves. Using a hand-held blender, process until smooth. Season with salt and black pepper, and mix a bit more. Mixture will be a little runny.
Lay out squash slices onto a serving platter. Spread each slice with seasoned chevre. Layer each with another slice, then more cheese mixture. Finish each with a final slice. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt, black pepper. Garnish with fresh oregano leaves and marigold petals, if you like.
Refrigerate for about an hour to set.
A recipe can be deceiving. We’ve all experienced a seemingly daunting one with scrolls of ingredients, only to find that we can whip it up with panache. Conversely, there’s that recipe with, say, three ingredients that you’d think would be a breeze. And yet, it’s those simple ones that can be trickiest–and require practice. Like making pillowy-light gnocchi, or fluffy biscuits. Or creamy ricotta cheese.
I’d been wanting to make ricotta for a long time. Maggie and I researched and learned that it is, essentially, Whole Milk-Salt-Acid. Sometimes the milk is enriched with cream. The acid can be lemon juice, white vinegar or buttermilk, which is added to the milk-salt mixture after it is simmered to 180 degrees.
For our first foray into cheesemaking, we chose vinegar, as it is the most neutral in taste. We purchased a gallon of whole milk at our local Hatcher Dairy Farm.
Low and slow, the milk came up to a froth at 180 degrees. We added the vinegar, and almost immediately, the curds formed in big clumps, separating from the whey. I scooped them out and let them drain in Maggie’s floursack-lined colander.
The yield: 4 cups of cheese and 3 quarts of whey! (We saved the whey, which Maggie has since used in her breadbaking–with astonishing results. The flavors are enhanced Tenfold.)
Shortly thereafter, we spread the cheese onto toast topped with slices of Maggie’s garden tomatoes. The ricotta was a bit firmer than I had expected, but delicious nonetheless. It reminded us more of Paneer, that Indian cheese.
However, it became almost rubbery in texture, as it cooled. Had we overcooked it somehow?
I decided to experiment again, this time–a smaller batch, with added cream, and lemon juice as the acidifier.
As luck would have it, I had been asked to review a cookbook scheduled for release next month, JAM ON The Craft of Canning Fruit by Laena McCarthy. McCarthy is the founder of Anarchy in a Jar, making delectable, creative, and wildly popular artisanal jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves.
It’s a beautiful book. The photographs are stunning. Moreover, it is clear in guidance for novice and seasoned canners, and replete with fruit recipes in gorgeous combinations.
Tucked among her recipes for Grapefruit and Smoked Salt Marmalade, and Rhubarb Hibiscus Jam, I found her recipe for Homemade Ricotta. It was just as I had imagined: a small batch, made with whole milk and cream, salt, lemon juice. A-Ha!
I followed her recipe, and to my surprise, the result was almost the opposite of our previous trial. Curds were slower to form, tiny in size. McCarthy writes that this can occur with organic milk that has been ultra-homogenized. (I didn’t use my local milk this time, but Organic Valley brand.)
I let my cooked-and-curdled pot sit and cool to allow the curds to better separate. Then, I poured into my cheesecloth lined strainer. It would take some time–about a half hour—for the whey to drain off.
But what remained was lush ricotta cheese.
I cannot overstate the wonder of its texture and taste–like no other ricotta I have ever had. Rich and smooth, spreadable yet scoopable, as you can see on the spiced peach salad plate.
HOMEMADE RICOTTA from JAM ON by Laena McCarthy
3 cups Whole Milk
1 cup Heavy Cream
1/2 t. Sea Salt
3 T. fresh squeezed Lemon Juice (about 1 1/2 lemons)
non-reactive pan, candy thermometer
cheesecloth or floursack cloth, strainer or colander
In your non-reactive pan set on medium heat, bring milk, cream, and salt to a slow simmer. Stir so that the milk does not scorch or cook on the bottom. The temperature reading should be about 180 degrees F. Stir in lemon juice and reduce heat. Stir for about two minutes while cooking. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
When the mixture is cooled, you’ll notice a thickening. Pour into cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl to catch the whey. Let this drain for about an hour. Place ricotta into a clean container and refrigerate. Makes about one pint. Use within a few days.
There will be about 2 cups of whey, (much better ratio of cheese to whey than our first trial!) which some people discard. But it is terrific in breadbaking and soup making.
SIMPLE SPICED PEACHES
1 c. Cider Vinegar
1 c. Turbinado Sugar
1 inch length Cinnamon Stick
Strip of fresh Ginger
2-3 whole Allspice
3-4 whole Cloves
1/2 t. Kosher Salt
3 or more Fresh, Ripe but Firm Peaches–cut in half, pit removed
Bowl of Ice Water
Place all ingredients into a nonreactive saucepan set on medium heat. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Bring to a simmer.
Place peaches into mixture and allow to poach for about 4 minutes.
Remove peaches and plunge into ice water. The skins will come off very easily.
Drain peaches and refrigerate.
Continue cooking spiced vinegar solution until reduced by almost half. It will be syrupy.
Pour into a bowl and cool.
Place peach halves into syrup. Over the next several hours, refrigerated, they will absorb more of the sweet-sour taste. If you can wait, and let them soak overnight, they will taste even better!
(You could also make this in large quantities, put spiced peaches and syrup into mason jars and process in a hot water bath to preserve them.)
SPICED PEACH-RICOTTA SALAD (makes 4 individual salads)
4 oz. Fresh Arugula
4 oz. (or more!) fresh Ricotta
4 Spiced Peach Halves and syrup
handful of Marcona Almonds
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Mound arugula on plates.
Scoop ricotta and place onto plates.
Slice each peach halve and arrange on plate, encircling the ricotta.
Drizzle syrup over the peaches, greens, and ricotta.
Scatter almonds over the salad
Season with black pepper.
Serve with a sliced of toasted crusty bread, if you like.
Good morning, Friends!
As I write this post, squirrels and birds are finishing off the last of the plums on our little backyard tree. A frenzy, you can believe it. I don’t mind. In my kitchen, there’s a huge pot filled with simmering fruit, a pantry stashed with fresh preserves, and a table covered with bowls of the plucked, all in varying shades of red violet, awaiting their destiny.
So many plums. Too many to count!
Conditions must have been beyond ideal this year. A mild, wet winter and a warm, almost summerlike spring–our tree blossomed 2 weeks early, dazzling in its fleecy whites. Over time, its limbs became vertical, dragging the ground, overladen with ripening fruit.
In years past, I’ve been forced to act quickly, snatching plums as soon as they showed that first rosy blush, in order to garner any before my backyard menagerie decimated the crop. This year, no problem: there’s been a gracious plenty for all.
Now, what to do with them?
Friend Maggie likes to make plum jelly: long-simmer the fruit and skillfully strain it for all its juices to make a pretty, ruby-clear spread for toast.
I’m more of a jam-preserves kind of girl. I’ve been cooking down the plums in a bit of sugar, allowing their skins to dissolve into the mix. The plums are juicy and tart; I cook them with just enough sugar to bolster their flavor, while still honoring that tartness. As they soften and release their juices, I fish out the pits. (Sometimes I run the cooked plums through the food mill to accomplish that.)
I pour the preserves into sterile jars and process them in a hot water bath for 5 minutes. I also keep some handy, in sterilized, but unprocessed jars, tucked in my fridge. (This freezes well, too–for those of you leery of canning.)
This way, I have plums in a plain yet versatile form, ready to slather on crusty bread with goat cheese, ladle over ice cream, blend into a marinade for grilled chicken, or whisk into a vinaigrette. Add ginger, garlic, hoisin, and the plums take on an Asian flair. Lemon and cinnamon for an Italian plum-good cake.
In crisps or crumbles: whole ripe plums lend themselves nicely for this kind of dessert. I’ve concocted a gluten-free version that uses oatmeal and ground toasted almonds that I think you’ll enjoy. I look forward to learning your ideas, too.
Here’s a round-up of my plum goodies.
BASIC PLUM PRESERVES/SAUCE
10-12 c. whole plums, washed
2 c. Sugar
large heavy-duty stockpot, canning tongs, clean jars, lids, seals
Place plums into your large pot on medium heat. Pour in the sugar. Cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so. Uncover. Spoon off the foam collected on the top. Stir and continue to simmer, uncovered for another 15 minutes or so.
When the skins seem to have melted into the liquid, and the flesh of the fruit gives way, you can begin straining the plum pits. Some you will see floating in the red sea–just spoon them out. For the rest, set a strainer over a large bowl, and begin pour the cooked plum and juices through. Press with the back of a wooden spoon to crush the fruit and release the pits. Or, run the plum-mix through a food mill set with the largest openings. You’ll get a lush puree. And the color, a knock-out!
Return the puree to the pot and cook for another 5 minutes.
Pour into sterile mason jars, seal and process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.
Makes 6 half pints.
PLUM VINAIGRETTE/GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD
3 T. White Wine Vinegar
6 T. Plum Preserves
1/2 t. Black Pepper
1/2 t. Salt
1/2 c. fruity Olive Oil
Place all the ingredients except for the olive oil into a bowl. Whisk (or use a hand-held immersion blender) until combined. The plum preserve acts as an emulsifier. Slowly add the olive oil while blending. Makes a thick creamy vinaigrette.
For the Grilled Chicken Salad:
2 boneless Chicken Breasts
1 bunch of mixed lettuces
1/4 lb. Sugar Snap Peas
2 Green Onions
2-3 Nasturtium flowers
Slather a couple of tablespoons of the plum vinaigrette onto boneless chicken breasts and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours.
Grill char the sugar snaps and green onions.
Grill the chicken breasts. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing onto salad.
Compose Salad: bed of lettuces, charred sugar snaps and green onions. Sprinkle with nasturtium leaves for color and peppery bite.
Place sliced grilled chicken on top and dress with plum vinaigrette.
GLUTEN-FREE PLUM CRUMBLE
1/2 c. Oatmeal
1/2 c. Almonds, toasted and finely ground
1/3 c. Turbinado Sugar
4 T. melted Butter
2 c. sliced ripe Plums (about a dozen)
9″ pie dish
Toast almonds in the oven and cool. Place into the food processor fitted with a swivel blade and pulse until the nuts achieve a powdery form.
Mix ground almonds, oats, brown sugar and melted butter. Add a pinch of cinnamon, if you like.
Take half of the mixture and press it onto the bottom and sides of a 9″ pie pan.
Slice plums and arrange in overlapping concentric rings on top of the crust. Continue until the dish is well filled. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and dot with butter.
Take remaining almond-oatmeal crust and press over the top.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
Delicious served warm with vanilla or ginger ice cream. Garnish with some plum sauce. Serves 6-8
Because one lone plant was most prolific last summer, with
Multiple blossomed whorls gone to vigorous seed,
Because the winter was mild and the sprouts hardy
A great patch of dillweed, tall and feathery, took hold in my front yard.
This unexpected abundance has me both delighted and stumped. And while its beauty alone makes the little dillweed forest a welcome presence in our postage stamp garden, I’ve been seeking new ways to use this herb.
In pickling, certainly. Snipped into salads, baked onto a side of salmon, folded into a quickbread batter with cheddar cheese.
I welcome your suggestions.
One way I’ve been enjoying dillweed is in this sauce that uses lush Greek yogurt.
A quick whisk of herbs, coarse grain mustard, vinegar, and olive oil into a bowl of this plain creamy base readily transforms into a sauce, or dip, or dressing. You might relish a dollop of this on a falafel-pita sandwich, or as a cooling dip for a spicy grilled lamb kebab. It stands up nicely alongside a tray of crudites. Or potato chips!
Long ago, I would make something similar, using sour cream. Now, I prefer tangy and thick-bodied Greek yogurt in its stead. So accessible at the market, ( all the yogurt companies have added Greek to their repertoire) it makes a terrific substitute–healthier too.
Today, I used it to dress potato salad–a springtime variation that combines new potatoes and asparagus. So seasonal, both vegetables take well to dillweed, and both work together in this somewhat different dish.
You actually plunge the asparagus tips right in with the potatoes, in the final minute of cooking.
Drain and cool—just slightly. When still warm, the new potatoes tend to absorb the dressing better. That bit of heat blooms the herbs in the sauce. You can serve the salad immediately, if you like. Or serve it chilled.
It tastes fantastic, either way.
If you have any other of-the-moment garden veggies on hand, slice ‘em up and put ‘em in. The crisp bite of French radishes, for instance, would be exceptional in this dish. Cucumbers? Yes. Scallions, too.
And, remember–I’m on the lookout for more ways to use my dillweed forest. Please share!
NEW POTATO-ASPARAGUS SALAD with GREEK YOGURT DILL SAUCE
1 1/2 lbs. small New Potatoes, cleaned and quartered
1 bundle fresh Asparagus, cut on the diagonal into small pieces
1 1/2 cups Greek Yogurt
1 T. Coarse Grain Mustard
1 T. White Wine Vinegar
1 T. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 heaping T. fresh Dillweed, chopped
1 T. fresh Chives, chopped
1 1/2 t. Sea Salt
1/2 t. Black Pepper
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and add new potatoes. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 12 minutes.
Add asparagus pieces and cook for another minute. Remove from heat and drain.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together all the remaining ingredients.
Place slightly cooled potatoes and asparagus into a serving bowl. Spoon yogurt-dill sauce over the vegetables.
Toss and fold until well coated.
Garnish with dillweed.
May serve warm, room temperature, or chilled.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Paris, from Two Sides
The first time I visited Paris, I experienced it from its underbelly.
I was 18 years old, an exchange student living in Holland. My companion Jeff and I had planned to travel by train, making a two week loop through Germany and Switzerland before spending a week in the City of Lights. There, we were going to stay with a family, the Reliers, whom I had known in Nashville. At that time, they lived in Sevres, a Parisian suburb. I had mailed them a letter with details of our arrival. Impetuous youths, we embarked on our journey before getting confirmation from them.
Things went awry soon after we arrived at the Paris station, Gare de L’ Est. Immediately, we called the Reliers, but, alas, no answer. We made repeated calls–with the same empty result. It got late, and so we took a room at a youth hostel, simply called Auberge de Jeunesse. It was a cheap hotel, really. At 2 francs a night, it could be safely classified as a dump. We could stand it one night, we thought.
But, the next day proved to be more of the same: no Reliers. Where were they?
And, there was another problem. I had gotten a small burn on my index finger before we left Holland. As the trip wore on, that small burn showed signs of an infection. When I awoke that next morning in Paris, my hand looked angry and swollen. At the St. Louis General Hospital I was chided with a “Le petite boo-boo. C’est rien!” and given a prescription for antibiotics.
Days passed at the fleabag, with calls to the Reliers becoming a joke. My infection was worsening and money was getting tight. We spent our last francs at a doctor’s office, who took one look and immediately scheduled surgery. After my hand was lanced, drained, cleansed and wrapped, I was much better, but we were broke.
We wired home for extra cash. Jeff’s mom sent us a money order, via overnight air mail, to General Delivery at a Post Office near our humble quarters. In another twist, a strike by the French air controllers delayed the mail by several days.
Still, we managed during that bleak and strange week. We walked everywhere. We darted among the Notre Dame gargoyles. We sat on park benches, ate crusty baguettes and cheese. We cooked modest meals, and otherwise amused ourselves at the so-called Auberge de Jeunesse. Moreover, we discovered Travelers Aid, who lent us money until our special delivery arrived.
When I traveled to Paris over thirty years later, I was curious to experience the city from the Up side of life.
Bill, Madeleine, and I had been visiting friends in Amsterdam. From there, we planned to take the bullet train to Paris, (3 hours, 18 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal to Paris Nord!) where I had booked our room at a respectable hotel in the 6th arrondisement.
It was an unseasonably cool July in Holland, blustery with rain. But as that sleek train sped towards France, the skies began to lighten. By the time we emerged onto the streets of Paris, the sun shone brightly. The wind had calmed. The city was golden.
Before we checked into our hotel, we stopped for a bite at one of the hundreds of lovely sidewalk cafes.
I ordered a salad of mixed garden lettuces, scattered with sliced strawberries, dressed in a sharp shallot vinaigrette. Placed on top of the salad was this crisp disc of goat cheese, still hot from the skillet, beginning to collapse and melt onto the greens. The simple combination of sweet and tart, chilled and hot, creamy and crisp, left me speechless.
The sun warmed the air where we sat. Summer in Paris. A spectacular salad. Another adventure. Life’s sweet balance.
With strawberries and young lettuces aplenty at the market, it’s a perfect time to make the crispy goat cheese.
CRISPY HERBED GOAT CHEESE CROQUETTES
1 lb. Plain Goat Cheese/Chevre Log
1/2 c. All Purpose Flour
1/2 c. Panko crumbs
2 T. fresh Thyme leaves
1/4 t. Salt
1/4 t. Black Pepper
Olive Oil—for frying
Heavy duty Skillet
Cut chevre log into 16 pieces. Form each into a disc shape.
Place flour into one bowl, and egg beaten with a little water into another bowl. In a third bowl, mix panko with salt, pepper, and fresh thyme leaves.
Dust each disc in flour, then dip into egg, then dip into seasoned panko, pressing the crumbs lightly onto the goat cheese. Use the “wet hand-dry hand” technique. Use one hand to dip into flour, egg, and place in the bowl of panko—use the other hand to press the panko and remove.
Heat skillet on medium and coat bottom with olive oil. Cook goat cheese discs until brown (about 3 minutes) and turn over to brown on the other side.
Best served immediately over your assembled salad. Spoon over some Shallot-Honey Vinaigrette. Pretend that you are in Paris. On the Up side.
1/4 c. Shallots, cut into pieces
2 T. Honey
1/4 c. White Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 c. Canola Oil
1/4 t. Black Pepper
1/4 t. Salt
Hand-held immersion blender
Place shallots, honey, vinegar, salt and pepper into immersion blender and pulse until smooth. Slowly drizzle in the olive and canola oils. Vinaigrette will become a smooth thick emulsion.