As a first time author of a cookbook, having just passed a milestone birthday, I have found myself in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about my culinary evolution, how I got here today, how I’ve grown up and grown in the world of food. It had a shaky beginning: a girl, born in New York, who didn’t care for most foods at all.
Moving to The South made a big impact. It took time, but I came to embrace its culinary ways. There’s a real focus on vegetables that we never experienced up North.
The climate supports a greater variety, that alone surprised me. I had never seen or tasted okra, crookneck squash, pole beans, yellow wax beans, collards, turnip and mustard greens, October beans, or purple hull peas.
Have you heard of purple hull peas? These are tender pulses belonging to the family of Cowpeas, Vigna unguiculata, whose relatives include black-eyed peas, crowders, lady peas, and field peas. High in protein (24%) and easy to grow: they actually thrive in poor soil, and hot, dry conditions.
Their history in the South has dark roots in slave trade. Their seeds were brought on ships, along with enslaved West Africans to the Caribbean and eastern Atlantic seaboard. Rejected by the Europeans as poor man’s fodder, fit only for cattle, they acquired the name “cowpeas.” Little did the Landed Gentry realize all the good they were rejecting.
Make no mistake, the lowly legume has far-reaching benefits for man, animals, and plantlife. Easy to grow and prepare, the peas are delicious. They are high in amino acids, lysine and tryptophan. According to Cooking Light’s notes on healthy living, they are among the foods that will help insure better sleep. (Ahhhhh.)
And, used in crop rotation, cowpeas infuse nitrogen in vast quantities into the soil. That’s important, as corn, for instance, consumes nitrogen greedily. (NOTE: read Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate–which goes beyond “farm-to-table” detailing an integrated model for vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is truly sustainable.)
As a picky child, I did enjoy corn on the cob–what self-respecting kid doesn’t? Once you got through the task of shucking (and avoiding any green worms!) the prospect of eating it was as fast as a plunge in the kettle of boiling, lightly salted water.
There’s nothing as blissful as sitting on a back porch stoop, chomping on an ear in the summer, hands and face sloppy with kernels, spurted “corn milk” and butter .
But until I came to Nashville, I had never eaten fresh fried corn–cut from the cob, scraped and skillet-simmered in butter and water. More a technique than a recipe–this is not “creamed corn.” No cream, milk, or flour.
I learned about the pure pleasure of this dish at my first restaurant job in the late ’70′s at a Southern style “Meat-and-Three” called “Second Generation” run by Anna Marie Arnold. Anna grew up cooking with her mother, first generation founder of The White Cottage, a tiny yet legendary eatery that vanished–closed and bulldozed in the ’90′s, when a city bridge had to be widened.
Silver Queen was the favored corn of the day–a small kerneled white corn that had candied sweetness.
A delectable summer combination.
One of the shifts in my “food evolution” is using local ingredients in classic recipes. That practice makes good sense, but I didn’t awaken to that sensibility until more recent years. Nonetheless, a creamy risotto lends itself readily to accepting these Southern staples in the stir:
Purple hull peas, cooked in onion, garlic and red pepper
Sweet Corn, cut and scraped from the cob
Short-grain Rice, cooked in tomato-vegetable broth
The tomato-vegetable broth is key too. Certain ripe tomatoes have high water content. When you cook summer tomatoes to make sauce, or chop them to make salsa, if you strain the pulp, you’ll have a lot of remaining juice, or “tomato water.” Use it, in combination with vegetable broth (made with trimmings of carrots, celery, onions, garlic)
Stir—stir—stir. It can be a meditative process. You might find yourself reflecting on your own life in food!
As the rice becomes plump and savory, releasing its starch into the broth, a seductive creaminess results. Fold in the corn and its scrapings, and finally the purple hull peas, along with the “pot likker” in which they were cooked.
Garnish with fresh thyme, if you like, or a few curls of pecorino romano.
But it is not necessary–the risotto is rich with flavor, and wonderful texture. Enjoy it with spoon, to capture every luscious bite.
SUMMER RISOTTO WITH SWEET CORN AND PURPLE HULL PEAS
3-4 ears fresh corn
1 pound purple hull peas (weight is unshelled)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, slivered, divided
2 medium onions, chopped, divided
1 chili pepper of choice, split in half (cayenne, serrano, jalapeno)
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter (may use oil to make this vegan)
1 1/2 cups short grain rice, like Arborio or Carolina Gold
8 cups tomato-vegetable broth
salt and black pepper to taste
Cut the corn from the cobs, scraping the cobs for extra “corn milk,” into a bowl and set aside.
Shell the purple hull peas, rinse, drain, and place into a bowl. Set aside.
Place olive oil into a 2 quart sized saucepan on medium heat. Add 2 cloves slivered garlic and 1/2 onion, diced, into the saucepan to saute for 2 minutes. Add chili pepper, purple hull peas and enough water to cover the peas by 2 inches. Season with a little salt and black pepper. Increase the heat to bring it to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, until peas are tender, yet still firm. Let the peas cool.
Place tomato-vegetable broth into a saucepan and warm.
In a large heavy duty pot, (such as an enameled cast iron Le Creuset) melt the butter over medium heat. Add remaining diced onion and minced garlic. Saute for a minute, then add the rice. Stir until the grains are well coated.
Begin adding the broth, a cupful at a time, stirring the rice, watching it plump up from the savory liquid, monitoring its creaminess from the released starch.
This process will take 30 minutes: stirring, pouring in more cups of broth, stirring, stirring, but I do not constantly hover over the pot. I’ll turn my attention to making salad, slicing tomatoes, visiting with my friends…
At the 20 minute mark, fold in the corn. Stir stir stir.
At the 25 minute mark, fold in the cooked purple hull peas. Stir Stir Stir.
At 30 minutes, turn off the heat. Taste for seasonings. Serve
I’m not one to boast, but the scores (hordes, legions, truckloads) of plump, ripe, succulent tomatoes that I’ve been picking from my little garden have afforded me bragging rights.
Never–and I really mean NEVER–have I had such success.
Biggest Juiciest Tomatoes EVER!
Check it out—this handful is more the norm than the anomaly.
My friend Kimmie, an avid gardener who follows the Farmers’ Almanac, tells me that it is because I planted them in alignment with the full moon.
I checked back on the calendar, and why, yes, I did. Unintentionally.
Bill speculated that it is because our winter was extra cold, killing off the destructive insect larvae and/or fungus-mold-rot starters hidden in the soil.
I figured the damp spring got our plants off to a terrific start in making blooms, and now that the hot summer days are here, they are bearing beauteous fruits.
And, maybe, it was just time.
Bill’s dad, who was a dedicated farmer by profession, always said you could count on 1 great growing year in 7. Maybe this is that year.
Whatever the case—and I suspect it is a serendipitous confluence of all these factors—I am the happy harvester of Cherokee Purples, Lemon Boys, Sun Golds, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Bradleys, German Pinks, Teardrops, and one other heirloom variety whose clever name escapes me.
We’ve been eating them all ways—caprese, savory tart, pasta sauce, on sturdy bread swiped with mayo—but this salad, a featured recipe in my cookbook, has been favored both at the dinner table, and in my cooking demonstrations.
Cornbread Panzanella is a Southern take on the much loved Italian bread salad. The season’s bounty of ripe sweet tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and sharp red onion are at the heart of each version. But, instead of using hunks of leftover, stale rustic bread, you make cornbread croutons. (Hint: the cornbread is the only part of this dish that requires turning on the oven. Everything else is either chopped or whisked!)
Instead of tossing the vegetables and bread cubes in a red wine vinaigrette, you make a tangy buttermilk ranch to coat the mixture.
It works beautifully.
After chopping the tomatoes, you put the chunks into a bowl and sprinkle them with salt to coax out their juices. When you toss the mixture with the herbed buttermilk ranch,(enlivened with lemon, flat leaf parsley and scallions) those juices meld with the dressing, creating a luscious rose-tinged sauce.
That soaks into the cornbread croutons, which you’ve toasted to a toothsome crunch. There’s a marvelous combination of textures and tastes.
You could add bits of bacon or pancetta, shavings of parmegianno-reggiano, or a good sharp white cheddar, if you wanted to make it “meatier.” But this big tomato salad makes satisfying summer meal, just as it is. The bread salad theme can be expansive: this BLT version from Cooking Light is mighty tempting.
It has been fruitful outside the garden too–busy promoting the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook. It’s been getting great reviews, I am happy to report, and I’ve been compiling the blogpost and articles here. I appreciate everyone’s kind words and support.
1 1?2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1?2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a baking sheet.
In a large bowl whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Whisk in the eggs, melted butter, and milk until well incorporated. Do not overbeat. Pour onto the baking sheet.
Bake until set—golden brown—about 20 minutes.
Allow to cool. Cut into cubes and spread out onto a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Toast for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool.
Makes 2 cups.
HERBED BUTTERMILK RANCH DRESSING
1?2 cup buttermilk
1?2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 green onions, chopped finely, tops included
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1?2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1?4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper
In a medium bowl combine the buttermilk, mayonnaise, lemon juice, green onions, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Whisk until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasonings and adjust. This will keep, refrigerated, for a week.
Makes 1 generous cup.
1 1?2 cups diced Bradley tomatoes
1?2 cup peeled, seeded, and cubed cucumbers
1?2 cup sliced red onion
1?2 cup chopped fresh basil
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, basil, salt, and pepper. Add 2 cups of cornbread croutons. Pour the Real Ranch Dressing over the croutons and toss well. Serve immediately.
Cool mornings, steamy afternoons, with isolated downpours daily,
have been the recipe for a lush, dense, almost tropical backyard,
and a happy garden plot:
Chest-high tomato plants are laden with the promise of abundance;
Prolific golden-bloomed squashes double in size overnight, hidden under their great leaf umbrellas;
Aggressive cucumber vines amble over stakes and wires, ever-seeking new places to latch on and climb.
June is done. Summer is here in full regalia.
And, the cookbook is out! Between tending my garden and teaching teen cooking camp, I’ve been making presentations–in book stores, at two restaurants, our farmers’ market, on local television: demonstrating recipes, reading, signing, answering questions, telling our story. The response has been wonderful.
And, it is just the beginning.
In the meantime, I wanted to check in with you and share a recipe. This one is of the quick-and-easy variety: a kind of potato salad (I know, another potato salad recipe?)
New potatoes and string beans are dressed in a Greek yogurt sauce folded with charred red onions. There’s something about it that harkens to old school tastes in an appealing way–however updated. The combination of sea salt, cayenne, a dash of Worchestershire sauce with those crispy onion pieces in thick yogurt cream reminds me of “French Onion Dip.” Only I think you’ll find this one to be much, much better—and certainly healthier.
Stirred into a mixture of petite new potatoes (still slightly warm!) and whatever young string beans you can find (I am partial to yellow wax beans.) the charred red onion dressing (and, yes, it doubles as a dip. Get out your sweet potato chips!) creates a delicious picnic side dish. It is a different take on potato salad.
And goodness knows, as long as there are potatoes and ingenuity, there will always be yet another take on potato salad. Embrace variety!
Thank you all for your interest in and support of my cookbook.
For those of you who have asked “How Can I Buy It?”
Here are the possibilities:
Online at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Books-a-Million (links are upper right on this page)
In Tennessee: All of the SAM’S CLUBS are stocking the book.
In Nashville: These independent booksellers: Bookman Bookwoman Books in Hillsboro Village and Parnassus in Green Hills.
You may also ask your local bookstore to order the book for you.
Garden New Potatoes with Yellow Wax Beans and Charred Red Onion
1 1/2 pounds new potatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
1/2 pound yellow wax beans (or young green beans), ends snapped
charred red onion dressing (recipe below)
Place potatoes into a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a pinch of salt and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Simmer and cook until tender—about 12 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Fill a skillet with water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Blanche the beans in batches (do not overcrowd) for 3-4 minutes.
Fill a bowl with ice water. Plunge cooked beans into the ice water bath to chill and stop the cooking.
In a large bowl, fold the potatoes, beans, and charred onion dressing together until well-coated. Serve room temperature or chilled.
Charred Red Onion Dip/Dressing
adapted from Cooking Light
1 cup chopped grilled red onion
1 cup plain lowfat Greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut the onion into chunks and place onto a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt. Roast until the onion edges become dark brown and crispy.
Remove from oven and cool. Chop coarsely.
Combine the onion with the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir until well combined.
Anatomy of a Salad
The arugula and slices from a lone lemon cucumber? I grew those in my garden patch. The impossibly thin green beans were a gift from neighbor Ray. I purchased the onions and baby new potatoes from Barnes’ stand at the downtown farmer’s market. The ruffled purple basil, flat leaf parsley and garlic scapes all came from our friends at the Fresh Harvest Co-op. I picked up the grape tomatoes and a sweet bell pepper at the grocery store, blocks from my home.
Leaves and stalks, pods and seeds, tubers and fruits: All seemingly disparate parts assemble into a lively composition on this plate.
All the sets of hands that played a part in bringing them: A friend and neighbor, farmers whom I’ve met, farmers whom I’d like to meet, growers in a state not too far away, pickers and truckers and sorters and sellers,
even my own hands.
This salad, which will make a fine dinner, also tells a story about community.
All the connections surrounding this one plate.
All the connections we make at the table.
I am mindful of this, especially at this moment, poised as I am, to launch this cookbook into this world.
Today, June 17, 2014, is the day.
It’s been a long road, from pitch to proposal, contract to manuscript delivery, edits, edits, styling and photography, layout, and more edits. Whew. Here comes the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook.
I couldn’t have done it without my community.
Here’s to Gigi Gaskins, my potluck conspirator and co-host, and all the potluckers who contributed their delectable recipes.
Here’s to my editor, Heather Skelton, who caught the vision for this book, its look and structure. She understood our story, a fluid group of people who meet on the third Thursday of each month, and bring their best efforts, with no assigned dishes, no RSVP.
Together, our recipes and stories travel the arc of the seasons.
Together we celebrate the bounty of the moment.
And, to you all, my dear friends and readers, a community that reaches far and wide.
This is the sort of salad that lends itself well to community. Take what you like, and crown it with a nice dollop of lush green garlic scape aioli.
1 pound young green beans, ends trimmed
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound baby new potatoes
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 sweet onion, sliced
1 sweet bell pepper, cut into strips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 lemon cucumber, sliced
1/4 pound arugula
Blanche the green beans: Fill a skillet with water and place over medium high heat. When boiling, plunge the green beans in to cook for 2- 3 minutes (longer, if they are thicker–you want them tender-crisp) Place the cooked beans into a bowl of ice water to set the color and cease the cooking. Drain well.
Pan-roast the new potatoes: Place a skillet on medium heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the potatoes. Sprinkle with salt, black pepper, and rosemary. Cover and cook for 15-18 minutes, shaking the skillet periodically, until the potatoes are browned and tender when pierced with a knife.
Caramelize the onions and red pepper strips: Place olive oil in the skillet set on medium heat. Saute the onions until browned.
Remove the onions and add the red pepper strips. Saute until tender-crisp with browned edges.
Assemble the Community Salad
Place the salad elements in sections on a large serving platter. Serves 4 generously.
Serve with Garlic Scape Aioli (recipe below)
GARLIC SCAPE AIOLI
2 or 3 loops of scapes, chopped
1 egg yolk
juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup olive oil
Place the scapes, egg yolk, lemon juice, and mustard into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse, then process, slowly pouring in the olive oil. The mixture will thicken and emulsify, resembling a spring green mayonnaise. Taste for salt and add a pinch as needed.
Place into a small serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate. Keeps 3-4 days.
Makes 1 generous cup.
Making those grand “never” statements can get you into trouble. Things will come along in life to prove otherwise. Like when I recently told a friend, “I never fry food.” In a blink, not one but two recipes caught my attention, very different from each another, yet both requiring a plunge into a skillet of hot oil.
Stay with me–they are worth it. In fact, they can be made at the same time and served together–making the most out of the oil-filled fry pan. I’ll amend my grand “never” statement to “I don’t usually fry food, but there are times when it is just the thing.”
The first, Shrimp-Sweet Pea-Rice Croquettes, comes courtesy of Chef B J Dennis. Hailing from Charleston, South Carolina, B J is a personal chef and caterer whose focus is the food of the Gullah-Geechee people, his heritage. Descendants of enslaved West Africans who were brought to this country to work the rice plantations, they live mainly on the Sea Islands dotted along the South Carolina-Georgia coast.
In part, because of the isolation of the islands, in part, because the climate and growing conditions were similar to their coastal West African homes, the people were able to form their own communities, easily adapt their fishing and farming practices, continue their arts, rituals, and cuisine. Because the Africans came from different tribes, they formed their own language, a meld of various West African tongues and English. Over the centuries, the Gullah community evolved and endured.
But with “progress,” the communities have become threatened. Many adult children have the left the islands, seeking work elsewhere. And the islands themselves have seen the creep of gentrification, as land has been sold off for vacation places and resort homes.
B J is seeking to preserve the Gullah culture through food. I attended a six-course tasting dinner here in Nashville where he partnered with chef Sean Brock to educate minds and palates to the cuisine, and its strong connection to West African cookery. His crispy shrimp-sweet pea-rice croquettes, our first tasting, were spectacular: rustic and sophisticated, chockful of shrimp, with green onion, ginger and nuanced heat in the mix.
He happily shared his recipe, which uses Carolina Gold rice. This grain, once the main cash crop of South Carolina, almost vanished with the Great Depression. Post World War 2, rice production became industrialized, and corporately grown Uncle Ben’s took over the market. It wasn’t until the late ’90′s that Glen Roberts decided to repatriate the Southern pantry, and revive lost ingredients. Since 1998, his Anson Mills has brought back native cornmeal and grits, red peas, and the plump flavorful grains of Carolina Gold.
One of the beauties of the recipe is that it makes ideal use of leftover or overcooked rice. The combination of shrimp, onion, sweet peas, sweet bell pepper and ginger laced through the rice is fantastic. The juxtaposition of hot crisp exterior and delicate filling is very pleasing. Someone at the dinner mentioned that it reminded her of arancini, the Italian rice fritters. Yes, in a way. If you want to make the dish entirely gluten free, use a little rice flour instead of all purpose to help bind the mixture.
B J calls his approach to food “Vibration Cooking.” That term was first coined around 1970 by Vertamae Smith-Grosvenor, a food writer, culinary anthropologist, and storyteller. No strict measurements or method, but rather the magical combination of a personâ€™s intuition, attitude, energy, and the ingredients at hand are what make plate of food delicious.
Therefore, in his recipe, he gives a range of quantities. You could add more rice, use whatever kind of onion you prefer, spark it with more than salt and black pepper, serve the croquettes by themselves, or with a sauce of choice. He served his with a Geechee peanut sauce, which is inspired by Senegalese sauce of tomatoes, peanut butter, onions, and spices. He did not share his recipe, but this link to Cooking Light’s version is a close approximation.
I’ll attempt that sauce another day, as I had another sauce to try. Part 2 of my oil-frying includes this simple Fried Broccoli Florets with Vegan Mustard-Shallot Aioli–adapted from a local restaurant, Pinewood Social. The florets are not battered, but simply fried until crispy. After frying, dust the florets with sea salt and lemon zest. So good!
Even better is this vegan dipping sauce, made with ground raw almonds, golden raisins, shallot, garlic, lemon, Dijon and olive oil.
Toss the whole shebang into a food processor and let it rip! The almonds eventually puree and thicken the mixture, but some terrific texture remains. The tang of the shallot and mustard is tempered with the sweetness of golden raisins.
You’d “never” believe there’s nary a speck of egg or dairy in this creamy aioli.
B J DENNIS’ CRISPY SHRIMP-SWEET PEA-RICE CROQUETTES
2 cups overcooked rice or leftover rice,(Carolina Gold)
1 cup seasoned and cooked shrimp (wild American) coarsely chopped (about 1/2 pound shrimp or more)
Â½ cup cooked fresh sweet peas or thawed frozen peas
Â¼ cup minced spring onions (or any onion you like)
Â¼ cup minced red bell pepper
1-2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
2 tablespoons rice flour or all-purpose flour
cooking oil, such as canola or peanut
Pulse the cooked rice in a food processor.
Place all of the ingredients except flour into a large bowl and mix.
Add enough flour just to make sure the mixture binds together.
Roll out into little balls or cylinders, size depends on how big you like your fritter.
Place a skillet on medium heat. Add vegetable oil to 1 inch.
Shallow fry until golden brown and thoroughly cooked, rotating and turning the fritters so that they brown on all sides.
Makes approximately 20 croquettes.
VEGAN MUSTARD-SHALLOT AIOLI (adapted from Josh Habiger, Pinewood Social)
1/2 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
Place almonds, raisins, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, shallot, garlic, and lemon juice into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse and then process, pouring in the olive oil followed by the water. Process until smooth. Stir in a pinch of salt, if desired. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. It will continue to thicken as it sets and chills.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
1 head of fresh broccoli, cut into florets, cleaned and thoroughly dried
zest of one lemon
Fill a saucepan or skillet with 2 inches oil. Heat to 375 degrees.
Fry broccoli until the edges appear crispy. This should take about a minute.
Remove and drain on a paper towel.
Sprinkle with lemon zest and sea salt.
Serve with Vegan Aioli.
Some plants suffered mightily at the hands of this extreme winter. All over town, rosemary, the size of bushes, died in single digit freezes. Fig trees still look skeletal, no promise of buds yet. But winter’s harshness seems to have brought about an unforeseen benefit for others. Dogwoods, redbuds, crab apple, cherry trees have burst out in vivid profusion. Thickets of narcissus, tulips and iris are in glorious bloom.
It has been hard on our farmer friends. John’s strawberry crop was threatened by an April 15th freeze. Thank goodness he got all the plants covered with plastic the day before–a trying task for sure. Tally notes that her rows of spring vegetables are coming along…however slowly. In comparison to years past, everything is delayed by at least three weeks.
But, I am heartened by warmer days and blooming trees. Soon, plantings of beautiful lettuces will be big as bouquets.
Already, feathery leaves and tender spears are emerging in asparagus beds.
There was a time when you only ate asparagus in season. Over the past two decades or more that shifted, with the globalization of commerce, and produce from far-flung places got shipped in. Asparagus in December! Tomatoes in February! I am glad that we are returning to the practice of eating seasonally. We appreciate the fruits and vegetables all the more, at their peak, in their time, grown in their locale. Indeed, they taste better.
A long time ago, (pre-globalization!) I remember a very fun Asparagus Dinner that I attended, actually helped prepare. It was hosted by our friend Lanny, who lived in a decrepit warehouse on Second Avenue near Nashville’s riverfront. Lanny was a graphic artist, stained glass craftsman, Karman Ghia mechanic, architectural antique collector, consummate barterer and all-around wheeler-dealer.
His warehouse home/studio was a remarkable chaotic assemblage of these passions. You never asked where he got any of it, but, be assured, there was a story behind it all. Curiously, in one of his deals of the day, he had acquired 8 big bundles of freshly cut spears. Soon to follow was the call for Asparagus Dinner. About a dozen of us showed up to wash, peel, trim, snap, steam, blanch, and stir-fry the formidable stack.
This was sometime in the early 1980′s. Our menu reflected the cooking tastes of the time. I remember some of what we whipped up: old school hollandaise sauce to nap over steamed asparagus, creme fraiche-dill sauce as a dip for blanched-chilled spears, and a creamy pasta primavera sort of dish laced with crabmeat. I remember that it was all delicious, this asparagus feast.
With asparagus as the centerpiece, we celebrated spring.
Today, I am offering two asparagus suggestions, both of which have a more modern spin: An asparagus salad dressed in gorgonzola vinaigrette, and asparagus roasted with a Persian-spiced pistachio blend. I love how different they are from each other: Cold and hot, pungent and fruity, crisp and toasty. For my friends who are not in love with asparagus officinalus: the gorgonzola dressing is delicious on salad greens alone—and the spiced pistachio would be just as incredible roasted onto cauliflower!
Wishing you all the flavors of young spring green things!
ASPARAGUS AND SPRING GREENS WITH GORGONZOLA VINAIGRETTE (adapted from Cooking Light)
1 bundle fresh asparagus (about 1 pound), cleaned, trimmed, and cut on the diagonal into thirds
2 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola, divided
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 pound mixed spring lettuces
Fill a large skillet or pot with water. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and bring to a boil on medium high heat.
Plunge in the asparagus pieces and cook for one minute–no more than two minutes (depending on how fat or thin the spears are)
Drain and place into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright green color. When well-cooled, drain the spears and set aside.
Make the vinaigrette:
Place 1/4 teaspoon salt, minced chives, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper and 1/4 cup gorgonzola crumbles into a medium mixing bowl. Whisk until well combined.
Place spring greens, asparagus and pine nuts into a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss until all ingredients are well-coated. Sprinkle with remaining gorgonzola crumbles and serve.
ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH PERSIAN-PISTACHIO COATING
1 bundle asparagus spears (about 1 pound) washed, dried, and trimmed
1/2 cup toasted pistachios, finely ground
1/4 cup sumac (available at ethnic markets)
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Drizzle olive oil (2-3 tablespoons) onto a baking sheet. Lay the asparagus spears onto the pan and roll, coating the spears with the oil. Add more oil if needed.
In a small bowl, mix the finely ground pistachios, sumac, thyme, salt and pepper together. Spread this mixture over the asparagus.
Place into the oven and roast for about 15 minutes. Spears will be tender-crisp and the nut mixture will be toasty.
In the case of potato gnocchi, I have felt like I’m on a quest for something elusive. Once, a long time ago at a restaurant that no longer exists, I had a sumptuous plate of hand-formed dumplings, pillowy-light bites cloaked in garlicky brown butter sauce: a pleasure to eat. In the wake of that ethereal meal, I would often order potato gnocchi when I’d find it on a menu. Just as often, I would wind up disappointed. The dough was either gummy, or the restaurant had used something pre-fab, vacuum-sealed in a box, a factory line of same-shaped dumplings that cooked up rather dense and chewy. Blecch. No, thank you.
This fall, I had lunch at an eatery in downtown Franklin called Gray’s on Main. They offered a potato gnocchi dish where the dumplings were tumbled with Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and pancetta in a butter sauce. Ah! These cushions of potato had golden butter-crisp exteriors gleaned from a final spin in the skillet. That contrast made them exceptional. At last, I had found the elusive!
Before it vanished.
Their house gnocchi plate is no longer on the menu.
The solution: it’s time to learn to make them myself.
There’s an aspect of gnocchi-making that reminds me of biscuit-making. With a terse list of ingredients, it is not just the quantities of potato, flour, salt and pepper, eggs–or no eggs—that distinguishes the outcome. It’s the process–the light hand in forming the dough. Fluffy biscuits and pillowy gnocchi have this in common. You want to mix and fold the dough deftly, quickly, but not handle it too much. Overworking is what causes that unpalatable toughness.
Indeed, it a matter of practice: Learning the feel of the dough, that “right discrimination” that informs your hands and brain that, yes! this it. This has the right consistency.
The kind of potato you use is critical. Waxy reds or new potatoes won’t work. The humble Russet, boiled in its jacket, peeled and run through a ricer or food mill is The Way. Eggs or no eggs? I have found recipes espousing either. Rachel writes that the Romans prefer the dough with: sturdier in the boil and pan. Head north of The Eternal City, and gnocchi di patate are made without.
While I was mixing up the riced potatoes with flour, I could feel how an eggless dough would work. But I ultimately added the eggs.
It makes a richer dough. And, as I wanted to finish the gnocchi in the skillet–get that lovely crust—using eggs made good sense.
Divide the dough into quarters, rolling each one into a ropey length. After you cut them into little pieces, you’ll roll and press each one with a fork. My gnocchi look a little wonky, I know. No worries. They still tasted delicious. I’ll get better at forming them, with practice.
There is little doubt when they are done—the dumplings will rise to the surface after a couple of minutes in the rolling boil.
Look at these plump dumplings! At this point, they would be delectable, plunked into a red sauce. We are taking it another step:
Pan-seared in a skillet with a saute of shallots and parsnips in butter, topped with a few curls of shaved Parmegianno-Reggiano.
Elusive no more.
PAN-SEARED POTATO GNOCCHI WITH PARSNIPS
adapted from Julianna Grimes at Cooking Light
4 medium Russet potatoes, scrubbed
2 medium parsnips, peeled
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting, rolling out dough
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4-5 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup diced shallots
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/3 cup shaved Parmegianno-Reggiano
2 green onions, finely sliced for garnish
Place potatoes and parsnips into a large saucepan and cover with water. Place over medium high heat. Cover and bring to a boil. After 12-15 minutes, remove the parsnips, which should be tender but still firm. Set them aside on a plate to cool.
Continue boiling the potatoes until they yield to a fork–another 15 minutes. Drain and allow the potatoes to cool. Peel them and run them through a potato ricer or food mill (with a shredder-ricer blade) into a large bowl. Season the riced potatoes with salt and black pepper.
Sprinkle the flour over the potatoes and rapidly mix by hand. Add the lightly beaten eggs. Mix well to incorporate the eggs into the mixture, but do not overwork the dough–otherwise it will become dense and tough. The dough will actually have a light airy feel to it.
Dust your work table with flour. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope. If the dough becomes too sticky, dust it with a bit more flour. Cut the rope into bite-sized pieces. You may then roll each piece gently with the tines of a fork to make the distinctive indentations—but you don’t have to.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil on medium high heat. Drop the gnocchi in, a dozen or so pieces at a time. You don’t want to overcrowd them. Gently swirl them around in the boiling water so that they don’t stick to the bottom. They will cook quickly.
After a minute or so, they will rise to the surface. Allow them to cook another minute, and then scoop them out with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Place the cooked gnocchi in a large bowl.
Slice the cooled parsnips into bite size pieces.
In a large skillet set on medium heat, melt the butter. Saute the diced shallots until translucent. Add the parsnips and thyme. Continue to saute for 2-3 minutes. Remove the mixture. Increase the heat to medium high and add a layer of gnocchi to the skillet. Sear the gnocchi until they are nicely browned on one side and remove. When all of the gnocchi are browned, toss them with the parsnip-shallot mixture until well combined.
Portion into warm bowls. Sprinkle each with shaved Parmeggiano-Reggiano and sliced green onions.
Serves 4 as main dishes, 6 appetizer/first course
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
How has your summer been?
It’s hard for me to accept that September is almost here, and the moments of leisure, like dips in the pool, are vanishing.
As August wanes, I’m reminded that soon we will be transitioning. Daylight hours will visibly shorten; leaves will begin to turn; sweaters will be pulled out from the back of the closet; and heartier foods will be prepared in the kitchen.
Already, the bounty of the garden is shifting, as heirloom tomatoes dwindle, and winter squashes–acorn, butternut–appear ready to harvest.
You might find, as I did, a handful of summer stragglers. An ear of corn or two, a big red bell pepper, a few squashes, a fistful of green beans.
Each, on its own, is not enough to make much of a meal.
But combined, have the ability to make something great.
Inspired by the summer stragglers, this vegetarian pot pie fits right into this time of transition. Pot pies–in their best form–embody comfort and offer one-dish ease. We often think of chicken or beef as being the central ingredient, but roasted vegetables can make a rich and satisfying filling on their own.
Roasting, of course, brings out all the caramel sweetness of the veggies. The other key is making a rich veloute for the filling. For a vegetarian version, I started with a saute of onions and garlic, and made a simple roux. Lightly browning the flour-butter mixture helps to bring a deeper layer of flavor to the sauce. Vegetable stock (store-bought is fine) heightened with a splash of white wine makes a fine base, especially enhanced with the onion-garlic roux. I finish the sauce with some fresh thyme leaves.
The other important element is the pot pie topping. Crust or biscuits–which do you prefer? I like both, but the biscuit topped pie ( made with chicken) that I saw in the September issue of Cooking Light really appealed this time.
In the time it takes for the veggies to roast, you can put together the biscuit dough. Here’s a couple of biscuit-making tips:
Start with very cold butter, cut into small cubes, to blend into the flour-soda mixture. If you don’t have a pastry blender, use two knives. You can also rub the butter into the flour by hand. It should resemble coarse meal.
After you add the buttermilk, work quickly. The dough will start out being sticky, but soon will come together into a ball.
You want a light touch, rolling out the dough, and cutting out the biscuit shapes. Overworked dough toughens–beware!
The buttermilk biscuit recipe is very easy to put together, roll out and shape.
The biscuits puff and brown beautifully, encasing the savory vegetable filling. As you scoop up a serving, you’ll notice how the veloute has baked into the bottoms of the biscuits. Mercy.
SUMMER VEGETABLE POT PIE
2 yellow squashes, diced
2 zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, large dice
1 jalapeno or cayenne pepper, small dice
1/2 pound green snap beans or pole beans, cut into 1/2 pieces
1-2 ears corn, cut off the cob
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup white wine (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place chopped vegetables on a baking sheet and toss in olive oil. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt and place in the oven to roast for about 12 minutes. Remove from oven.
In a 2 quart saucepan set on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and saute for 2 minutes, then add the garlic and continue to saute for 2 more minutes.
Stir in the flour, coating the onions and garlic. Continue stirring, cooking the flour to make a light roux. Pour in the vegetable broth and wine, stirring all the while. The mixture will begin to thicken. When it looks like it has nice sheen, remove from heat.
Coat a 2 quart casserole round with butter or pan spray. Add the roasted vegetables, and then pour the sauce over them. Stir to coat all the vegetables.
Make the biscuits (recipe follows).
Arrange the biscuits over the top of the casserole. Dot with butter and sprinkle with paprika, if you like.
Place into the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes–until the biscuit tops are browned and the filling is bubbly.
BISCUITS FOR POT PIE TOPPING from Cooking Light
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into cubes
1/3 cup buttermilk
Place a level cup of flour (4.5 ounces, by weight) into a medium bowl. Mix in the baking soda and salt.
Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a coarse meal.
Stir in the buttermilk.
Form a doughball and gently knead 5-6 times. It is important to NOT overwork the dough.
Roll into a circle–about 9 inches round. Use a 2 inch biscuit cutter, ( or a flour-dusted glass of approximate size) and cut the biscuits.
Arrange them over the top of the pot pie.
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.