Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Over the Rainbow with Chard!

Well, it's happened .. the markets are officially overflowing with all things green - and I love it! There seems to be a moment in June where this magic takes place. Every farm table has huge piles leafy greens. Multitudes of lettuce leaves, scallions, onions, spinach, kale, and bright beautiful chard. In particular: rainbow chard and the colors are just stunning.

I picked up this bunch from the Amawalk Farm table at the John Jay Market last weekend. I was there doing my demo and realized I had not taken the chance to walk around  and get a few things, so right at the end of the market I was able to grab that last 2 bunches of these beauties! I also picked up some garlic scapes from my favorite table Gaia's Breath Farm.

You can find chard easily in the produce section at the market, but now is the time to pick some up at the farmers market. Everyone has it and you know it was just harvested before they head to the market, making it super fresh. Chard is a great source of Vitamins A, K and C. The flavor is similar to spinach and beet greens, but I think a little sweeter and distinct. If the leaves are big like the ones above I would recommend a light sauté. If smaller you can add to your salad raw. The stalks, especially the bigger ones are tough, so sautéing is a must.

That said, you typically sauté the chard, maybe adding a little garlic, onion and perhaps bacon? It seems to be the thing to do with it. Or, as I mention above, if the leaves are young and tender it's lovely in a salad. But I've had cold soup on my mind over the past week. It's been just so hot here lately and a cold soup is just about the most perfect thing to have for a light lunch. Something that will fill up up, but not weigh you down. So I got to thinking ... why not try to create a cold chard soup?

Precision is not necessary here ... a rough chop is all you need. It's all headed to the blender when finished. I tossed in my scapes and the stems of the chard just to take the edge off and soften them a bit in some extra virgin oil.

Then I add in the roughly chopped leaves to wilt them down a bit too. After which I set the pan aside to cool a little.

I also spotted some corn this week.  A few farmers have it early, so I grabbed a couple this weekend too. I was thinking that once the soup was done it was probably just going to be bright green, and a bit of color and crunch would probably be really nice. After taking the corn off the cob I was trying to decide whether I needed to give it a quick blanch, but as luck would have it my "taste-tester" hubby showed up and we decided raw was the way to go. Since the corn was tender and sweet we both liked it right off the cob; but you can decide as you make this recipe. If you think they need a little blanch just do it quickly: 30 seconds in boiling salted water then drain in a fine sieve running cold water over the kernels to stop the cooking.

I was looking for simple ingredients here, so I only used water as the base. I wanted the chard flavor to come through. The result was amazing: the color is just so vibrant and the flavor is similar to spinach but earthier and fresh. Corn adds a nice crunch to the texture of the soup.

I hope you like this slightly different take on chard. It's the perfect answer for a hot summer day.

Buon Appetito!

Maria’s Rainbow Chard Soup
Makes about 1 ½ quarts

2 bunches of rainbow chard, about 2 ½ lbs
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic scapes, about ¾ cup roughly chopped
2 ears of fresh corn, kernels removed from the cob
Kosher salt and freshly grated pepper

Chop off the stems just at the base of the leaf. From the top point of the stems chop them in ¼ inch pieces to make 1½ cups. Set them aside in a small bowl while you chop up the scapes. Add the chopped scapes to the bowl and then prep the leaves. Stacking 3 or 4 together roll them like cigar and slice them in to 1” strips. Set them aside. I ended up with 16 cups of leaves. Don’t panic if you have what seems to be a lot, remember, they are going to wilt down as they cook.

Over medium heat sauté the stems and scapes in the oil. Season with ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook for about 3-4 minutes until slightly soft.  Add the leaves to the pan along with 1 cup of warm water and a couple of pinches of salt.  Cook for another 4-5 minutes, tossing with your tongs. You want the chard to wilt slightly, but not burn. Set the pan aside to cool.

Once cool scrape all into a blender. (Depending on the size of your blender you may need to do this in batches.) Make sure you get all the olive oil and rendered liquid too. Add 2 cups of water and start blending. I ended up adding a total of 5 cups of water, but take it slow and keep checking the consistency, until you get it to your liking. Season with a little more salt and pepper, blend again and check the flavor. 

Remove from blender to a container and add 2/3 of the corn.  Place in ‘fridge to cool completely, about 2 hours. Check the flavor after it’s cold and season if needed. To serve garnish with the remaining corn and a drizzle of olive oil.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Eating strawberries and feeling like a kid!

The strawberry - it needs no introduction. We've all tasted them and love them. Sweet and juicy with just a faintest hint of tartness. Just picked they somehow make us feel like kids, silly and giddy as their lovely sweet flavor bursts as we bite in to them.

It's definitely strawberry season. I think in the past week I've gotten at least 10 emails from the various food sites suggesting recipes for strawberries. I can't walk past a magazine in the supermarket check-out aisle without seeing some suggestion for a salad or dessert. Admittedly I've looked at all of them, and scoured my (many) cookbooks. I really try to create things that have my own twist on them, but love to see what other chefs are dreaming up. I like to take bits and pieces from different places and try to make something new.

 I'd been thinking about this beautiful box I picked up on Sunday from Newgate Farm. What could I do with them?  I decided that whatever I was going to write about for you it would have a savory spin on it. When pushed I will make desserts, but it's not my first love. Except maybe my biscotti which everyone seems to love. But even making them I need to psych myself up. The preciseness of the whole baking business bugs me. I prefer to just add and create. That said, I have two fun dishes I think you will like.

 My first dish was actually created last month. I am a long time member and volunteer with the New York Junior League. My friend Mary Cooper  asked me to participate in a friendly "Guacamole Throwdown" competition, as an end of the year event for the Affiliation Committee. How could I say no? (I look pretty intense in this picture as I was in the midst of making my guacamole!)

Other than using the avocado I challenged myself to come up with something completely innovative. (recipe is below.)

Since the competition took place in May, at the height of rhubarb season, I decided to incorporate rhubarb and strawberries. (You can read a little more about rhubarb in my previous post.)

 I also had my first crop of lemon balm blooming and used that in place of cilantro. If you've never tried lemon balm you simply must. It comes from the mint family but has a bright lemony herbaceous flavor. It's super easy to grow right in your yard, or even a pot on the patio. You can also find it at the farmers market too.

 The result was something completely different bursting with sweet, tart and lemony flavors. I'm happy to report my version won "Fan Favorite" at the competition!

I also wanted to create a fun salad with my strawberries, as well. Taking a look around on Sunday after I picked up them up I spotted yellow beets, scallions and arugula. Those were my starters ... at home I pulled out some celery, carrot and parsley (always have fresh in the 'fridge) and surveyed my ingredients.

I needed something to tie it all together and remembered seeing recipe from Gourmet on-line when I was looking for ideas. It's just about the easiest way to make an infused vinegar, and the taste is out of this world. I will also say that to accomplish the right texture for this salad you need to slice the vegetables thin. I used my Benriner mandoline which I've talked about previously. It's one of those little gadgets that is a must in the kitchen - you just need to be careful when using it!

 Everything is raw for the salad so slicing it up super thin does the trick. Once I got it all together I decided a little creamy cheese and crunch might just set it over the edge ... and I was right! I used a little goat cheese which added a nice tang and hazelnuts for additional texture. I will say that the infused vinegar really makes the dish. Even if you just try that recipe I think you will be very pleased!

So what's on tap for Bella Cucina Maria this week? Many demos and an opportunity to taste this deliciousness! Today (June 20) you can find me at the PepsiCo Farmers Market in Purchase, on Anderson Hill Road. That Market runs from 12:30 to 6:00 every Wednesday and I'll be doing my demo today from 1:00 until 3:00.

Tomorrow (June 21) I will be at the Sleepy Hollow Farmers Market at Phelps Memorial Hospital in the Rockwood Hall Parking lot. The Phelps Market is brand new and will run every Thursday through November from 11:30 to 5:30. I will be there  from Noon until 2:00.

Then on Saturday (June 23) I will be at the second season opening of the John Jay Homestead Farm Market located right in front of the Homestead at 400 Jay St., in Katonah. That Market runs every Saturday through the fall from 9:00 to 1:00. For that demo I will be making a tasty smoked trout and farro dish I created just for the opening and using the most delicious trout from Cabbage Hill Farm. I will be there from 10:30-1:00.

It's a busy week for me, but I'm just to excited to be out and about at the Markets. Stop by if you can and say hi! In the meantime, Buon Appetito!

Maria's Strawberry-Rhubarb Guacamole
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

3 avocados, halved and pitted
1/2 cup rhubarb, 1/4” dice

3/4 cup strawberry, 1/4” dice

2-3 tablespoons pickled red onion (recipe follows) 2 tablespoons jalapeno, minced

2-3 tablespoons lemon balm, chopped fine or 1 tablespoon lemon zest

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper

Queso Fresco, optional
Roughly mash the avocados. Add remaining ingredients and combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust as desired.
Serve with tortilla chips and top with queso fresco

Bobby Flay’s Pickled Red Onions (slightly adapted)
1-2 red onions, 1/4” dice
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons superfine sugar 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 small serrano chile, slit down side but kept intact

Combine lime juice, vinegar, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
Put the onions and chile in a small glass bowl. Pour the warm vinegar mixture over and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 48 hours, stirring the mixture a few times

Maria's Strawberry and Golden Beet Salad
Serves 4

1/2 cup strawberry vinegar (recipe follows)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 cups of arugula

4 carrots sliced very thinly

4 celery stalks, sliced very thinly

2 -3 golden beets, sliced paper thin

2 scallions sliced thin, reserving a little of the green top for garnish

1/4 cup loosely packed parsley, roughly chopped

Kosher Salt and Freshly grated black pepper

8 oz plain goat cheese

1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts, or a nut of choice

In a small bowl combine the strawberry vinegar and olive oil with a whisk. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large bowl lightly dress the arugula with a little of the vinaigrette and divide between 4 plates. In the same large bowl add the sliced vegetables and parsley. Toss will with the vinaigrette and divide between the 4 plates.

Break up the goat cheese and again add to the large bowl tossing to lightly coat with the dressing. Divide between the salads.

Top with the crushed nuts and reserved scallions and serve immediately.

Strawberry Vinegar (from Gourmet On-Line)
Makes about 2 cups

1 lb strawberries, trimmed (3 cups)
2 tablespoons sugar if berries are not sweet

2 cups white balsamic vinegar

Pulse berries with sugar (if using) in a food processor until finely chopped and very juicy. Transfer to a bowl and add vinegar. Let stand 1 hour. Strain vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids.
Cooks’ note: Vinegar keeps, covered and chilled, 1 week.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Purslane: a wonderful weed!

There are a few great things about visiting different Farmers Markets. First, you always find the nicest Market Managers willing to help you find just want you need – and second, you can find different vendors at different markets. I had my mind on doing something with lettuce greens this week and remembered a vendor at the Greenwich, CT Farmers Market: Two Guys from Woodbridge. Since I live in Port Chester that market is a breeze to get to. The Two Guys do a wide a variety of hydroponic greens on their farm and bring them contained in their root balls. That allows the greens to continue to thrive until you get them home. (Brilliant!) As I perused the table I noticed a small bunch of greens called purslane and decided to give them a try.

Let’s talk about Purslane. Yesterday I posted a picture of it on my Facebook page and my friend Ersilia, who owns Olive Oils of the World commented that she thought that was the stuff growing around her driveway. Well, truth be told, purslane is considered a wild weed in the U.S. So you’re probably saying to yourself: “Okay Maria, so why would I want to eat a weed?” Here is the amazing thing about this edible leafy plant: it’s completely loaded with vitamins and nutrients. It has more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other green leafy plant. It’s a rich source of vitamins A, B-complex, C, Iron … the list goes on and on. So my response: “Why not?” (Although I would add that it’s probably makes more sense to get this from a farmer rather than foraging around your driveway!)

Purlsane has a complex flavor, it’s slightly sour, salty and herbaceous. In scouring through my many recipes I wondered just how it might play in a soup? I came across a Food and Wine recipe that looked pretty interesting – so I thought I would give it a try. I did a little adjusting based on some things in my pantry, with great success. The result was a lovely cold zucchini soup that I would like to share with you today.

The original recipe suggests that arugula would be a good substitute if purlsane is not available. Since I had some in the ‘fridge I thought I would just add it to the soup.

Then everything goes in to the blender to be pureed.

After which you add some ice to thin it out. This took me about 20 minutes to put together, but the key is in the chilling. You could make this on a Sunday afternoon and enjoy it during the week. Just for good measure I added a dollop of plain yogurt which added a nice “creaminess” to the overall flavor.

I’ll have a few more cold soups coming for you as the summer kicks in to full swing. In the meantime, next week I’ll be talking trout – smoked trout that is, from Cabbage Hill Farm in Mt. Kisco.

Until then, Buon Appetito!

Cold Zucchini Soup with Purslane and Arugula
Serves 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
½ cup onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, smashed
2-3 small zucchini, about 1 pound, sliced thin
2½-3 cups vegetable stock
3 thyme branches stripped, about ½ teaspoon
1 small bay leaf
1 tablespoon to chopped basil, more for garnish
¾ cup each of purslane leaves and baby arugula
1 cup of ice
Zest and juice of ½ a lemon
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Plain Greek yogurt, optional

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and ¼ teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Cook over medium heat until translucent and soft. Add the sliced zucchini with another ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, 2½ cups of stock and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes. Try to submerge the zucchini under the stock. (You might need to add a little more if necessary.) Simmer for about 5 minutes then remove from heat to cool. Discard the bay leaf and stir in the chopped basil, purslane and arugula. Mixing the greens into the pot.

Working in batches, carefully puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Transfer the zucchini puree to a large bowl and stir in the ice, zest and lemon juice. Taste the soup for seasoning. It’s important to check the flavor before it cools completely. (Flavors incorporate better when something is warm rather than cold.) Refrigerate the soup for at least 3 hours, until thoroughly chilled.
Just before serving add a dollop of yogurt, a little basil for garnish and a drizzle of olive oil.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Garlic Scapes

Garlic Scapes, or “scape” for short, is another really cool ingredients you can typically find in the late spring and early summer at the Farmers Market. If you love garlic – then this is the ingredient for you!

Scapes are the long twisty tendril that grow above hardneck garlic. There are several varieties of garlic that are divided into basically two categories: hardneck and softneck. Hardnecks have a hard stalk running through the center and the cloves are circled around it. Softneck has no stalk and the cloves are tightly packed around each other. What you generally find in the grocery store are the soft neck varieties. Hardnecks are what yield the scape and usually are found at the farmers market.

Scapes are harvested when the plant is young so the bulb will grower bigger. These curly tendrils are smooth and dense to the touch, and have a sharp garlicky bite in flavor. Scapes contain a fair amount of protein, vitamin C and calcium. They are a versatile ingredient to work with: you can eat them raw, grilled or combined into something. The most typical application is making them into a pesto.

After doing a bit of research I decided to go ahead and do a pesto for you .. but of course put my own spin on it! Most articles and recipes I came across talked about using the scapes in their raw state. I wondered how the flavor would change after I grilled them? The result, after getting a nice char, was a beautiful mellowing of their sharpness with a hint of smokiness.

This pesto (recipe below) can be used a couple of different ways: first, you can spread a little on a crisp slice of bread and top with some grilled squash for an appetizer; or you can add it to your favorite pasta.

But wait! Last night I ended up making another dish. I saved a couple of tendrils to add to our dinner salad, but had another idea: what about hummus? After spotting a half bag of edamame beans in my freezer I wondered how that would taste.  Edamame are young soy beans harvested when they are still green. They are packed with protein, fiber and a just a small amount are nutritionally a big bang for the buck. I always keep a bag on hand to toss in to pasta or over a salad.

The only ingredient you may not have on hand readily would be lemon balm. I happen to have it growing in my backyard. Lemon balm comes from the mint family and grows like crazy. The next time you are at a nursery or at the Home Depot flower department look for it and bring it home. You can easily grow it in a pot on the patio. It’s flavor is a revelation: herbaceous and lemony. I love adding it to anything that I want to extend a lemony flavor-note. If you don’t have lemon balm you could easily add cilantro, which would work well with the cumin in the recipe. I think a nice herb kick sets this dish over the top.

If you are in the neighborhood, you will find me at the  Hastings Farmers Market on Saturday (June 9) morning. I’ll be working up these great scapes there! Please stop by and say hi.

Garlic scapes: if you’ve always wondered about this whimsical ingredient and never knew what to do with them, I hope these two recipes will change your mind.

Buon Appetito!

Maria’s Garlic Scape Pesto
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

½ cup blanched slivered almonds, toasted and cooled
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
8 oz garlic scapes, cut in 3 or 4 big pieces
½ cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
1 Lemon, zested and juiced
Kosher Salt and Freshly Grated Black Pepper

Toss the scapes with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and place in a hot grill pan. Cook until slightly charred and soft. Remove and cool. Place the scapes and their juices in a food processor with ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and whiz until finely chopped. Scrape down the sides and add almonds, lemon zest, juice and cheese; processing after each addition. With the processor running slowly drizzle the olive oil in until the pesto comes together and is the consistency you like; about ½ to ¾ cup. Taste for seasoning.

This super easy pesto has a nice refreshing bite to it … and works perfectly with pasta or even spread over a little toasted bread with grilled veggies.

Cooks note: If you end up with leftovers freeze it in an ice cube tray and place in a zip lock bag.

Edamame and Garlic Scape Hummus
Makes about 3 cups

1/2 cup garlic scapes, about 2 tendrils
2 cups frozen edamame
1 lemon juiced and zested
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt and freshly grated black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon balm, finely chopped (optional)

Rinse the beans and set in a glass bowl. Cover with a damp paper towel and microwave for 2 minutes. Remove paper towel and allow to cool.

Roughly chop the scapes and place in a food processor. Add the cooled edamame, lemon juice, zest, cumin, coriander and 1 teaspoon of salt. Process until you have a thick paste. With the machine running slowly add the olive oil and then the water until you get the consistency you like in a hummus.

Taste for seasoning and add the chopped lemon balm if desired.