Monday, August 17, 2015

Kitchen Sink Summer Panzanella

"Entirely green salads are boring!" declared Sarah Jampel in her article, 10 Fruity Summer Salads That Aren't Fruit Salad, a few weeks back on Food 52. At first, I raised a defensive eyebrow—being quite the leafy-green aficionado myself— but was quickly persuaded by Jampel’s critique of the wildly incommensurate amount of leafy-greens plaguing the lunchtime staple. It’s a proportion thing, she argues. "Slogging through a leaf-heavy salad” is tiresome! Here, I have to agree—how many times have I grabbed a salad at my office’s corner bodega or Just Salad (which is now sounding quite ironic) only to embark on a seemingly endless quest of picking through layers of spinach or arugula to mine for that final nugget of bean, chopped nut, or grilled chicken? Too many times, my friend. So, how does one take leave of the leafy-green? Drum roll for Jampel's grand solution…. "Add more stuff." And if you add enough stuff, you don't need leafy greens at all.
Which brings me to this recipe for Kitchen Sink Summer Panzanella.  Farmers markets and backyard gardens are boasting summer produce at its most bountiful, a vibrant rainbow of corn, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers. At first glance, these luscious summer staples might seemed geared only for the grill. But as a NYC apartment dweller who’s thrown one too many temper tantrums over the balcony-banning propane laws of Manhattan, I challenge you to err on the side of creativity and instead, try a panzanella—a superb medium for these very vegetables that utilizes them in a new, interesting way. Yes, it’s a salad, but gone are the greens. And you wont find any slogging here—rather, be prepared to consume with unbounded zeal and excitement, because you’ve found the answer to late summer lazy dinners: a dish that delivers consistent excellence yet emphatically encourages ingredient versatility. And is really easy.
Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan salad that tosses cubes of old bread with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, basil, and other seasonal vegetables in a classic mix of olive oil and vinegar. It is refreshing, different, and divine.  Here, a solid base dressing, enhanced with Dijon mustard and garlic, ensures a fresh, tangy coat to any ensuing ingredient. Briny capers add depth to the raw vegetables and dressing, and toasted, cubed bread doused in olive oil and salt is obviously just impossible to dislike. It all comes together in this crunchy, vinegary, croutony melody of summer’s finest.
In terms of vegetables, the market/garden is your oyster! Anything that can be crunched is fair game, though I would always recommend some tomato and basil action. The first time I made this, in went everything I had in the fridge: tomatoes, peaches, string beans, cucumber, yellow squash, and a can of cannellini beans. The next week, I swapped the squash with bell peppers and omitted the beans. Both times, I used whole-grain bread to increase richness and flavor.
I strongly encourage you to consider throwing in a diced peach, plum or nectarine to your panzanella—the sweet notes of a stone fruit are a wonderful contrast to the savory salad, yet blend easily with the acidity from the vinegar.  To elevate from a side to main, add white beans, diced chicken breast, or tofu cubes for protein.

This recipe hails from Smitten Kitchen, so you know it's going to be really good. In addition to giving more options for add-ons, I also drastically reduced the amount of olive oil and in some places omitted salt. (Capers are quite salty, and for me, got the job done.)
Kitchen Sink Summer Panzanella (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

2 tablespoons good olive oil
About half a whole-grain bread loaf or baguette; cut into 1-inch cubes (6 cups)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 colorful bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
½ lb string beans
½ red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
20 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained
Optional vegetable additions/ substitutions: yellow squash or zucchini, coarsely chopped
Optional fruit additions: 1 plum, nectarine, or peaches, diced

For the vinaigrette:
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar (or 1 ½ red wine vinegar, 1 ½ white wine vinegar)
1 tablespoon good olive oil
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the oil in a large saute pan. Add the bread and salt; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently, for 10 minutes, or until nicely browned. Add more oil as needed.
2. Prepare the string beans while the bread cooks. Trim ends of string beans and cover with water in a medium sized pot. Bring to boil. Cook for 3 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water. Chop into approximately 1½ inch pieces.
3. Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients.
4. In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, string beans, red onion, basil, and capers (plus any additional fruits, veggies or proteins.) Add the bread cubes and toss with the vinaigrette. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
5. Serve immediately, or allow the salad to sit for about half an hour for the flavors to blend.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Cold Cucumber Soup with Yogurt and Dill

I've always found it funny that the ubiquitous enthusiasm people have for warm soup on a cold day doesn't translate at all for cold soup on a hot day. For cold soup, the word "cool" can only be applied to its temperature; in terms of trendiness, it sits alone in the cafeteria during lunch—save its super fashionista form gazpacho, which everyone just loooves.  But seriously, why must we solely, and selectively, accept the monotony of the tomato base? Is it because vichyssoise is hard to pronounce, and borsht sounds like the Yiddish antonym of mensch? Well, I—unrelenting advocate of all under-appreciated vegetables, and now, chilled soups as well—will not stand for this temperature discrimination.  I happen to love all cold soups (hello, green juice in a bowl, people!) And today I will share this recipe for Cold Cucumber Soup with Yogurt and Dill to prove my point.
"Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language," Henry James once said. Let me tell you, this is the soup to serve on that summer afternoon. It is the epitome of refreshing, easygoing, insouciant. Cucumbers, summer's most cooling vegetable, veg out on a pool float in a sea of creamy Greek yogurt, peppered with a plethora of verdant, flavorful herbs. Lemon juice lends an easy acidity; olive oil, a grassy twang. The whole thing can be assembled in less time than it takes for your sunscreen to soak in. Prior to serving, top with a quick sprig of dill, handful of minced purple onion, and drizzle of golden olive oil and you've added a complementary rainbow of bright summer hues to the minty green speckled broth.

Here, a big batch works best—you'll be surprised how quickly your bowlfull will empty, once, twice, even three times.  Stick extras in the fridge and work on it for the week: a big, giant bowl of cool whenever you feel so inclined. If you are like me, this guy will make it into the steady rotation of gazpacho substitutes, earning some well-deserved popularity as we glide languidly into the depths of summer. 

Cold Cucumber Soup with Yogurt and Dill (by Andrew Zimmern)

2 large European (Persian) cucumbers, or 2 ¼ pounds, halved and seeded —½ cup finely diced, the rest coarsely chopped
1 ½ cups plain Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 small shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove
⅓ cup loosely packed dill
¼ cup loosely packed flat ­leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons loosely packed tarragon leaves
¼ cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling (can use less)
Fresh ground white pepper
½ red onion, finely chopped
Dill spring, for garnish

1. In a blender, combine the chopped cucumber with the yogurt, lemon juice, shallot, garlic, dill, parsley, tarragon and the ¼ cup of olive oil. Blend until smooth. Season with salt and white pepper, cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
2. Season the soup again just before serving. Pour into bowls. Garnish with the finely diced cucumber, red onion, dill sprig, and a drizzle of olive oil to serve.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

To the Slow Food movement: A culinary adventure in Piemonte, Italy

I recently experienced one of the most, if not the most, incredible food experiences of my life. Last week, I visited the Piemonte region of Italy, which encompasses the tiny town of Bra: the birthplace of the Slow Food movement.  Here, Slow Food living is not just a philosophy that one aspires to; it is the true way of life. Firsthand, I witnessed the practices, principles, traditions, culture, and mindset that cultivated the movement that so greatly captivated me 6 years ago—and, I realized after, still emphatically guides me today. So rather than share a recipe, I’d like to dedicate this post wholeheartedly to the Slow Food movement. 
In 2009, I co-founded the Emory University chapter of Slow Food. I simply loved everything the organization stood for: good, clean, and fair eating; with an emphasis on community and the social, familial aspect of preparing and enjoying meals together.  After I graduated college, I kept the Slow Food mantra close to my heart: I shopped at farmers markets, made an effort to get to know individual producers, cooked dinner together with friends. But for some reason, the spark the movement had in Georgia didn’t glow as brightly in New York City. Everything moved too quickly, the farms were further away. I soon lost touch.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I’m finalizing the itinerary for my trip to Italy.  I’m thrilled to have discovered Piemonte—an Italian “gastronome’s delight” of vineyard-dotted rolling hills and forests filled with hazelnuts and truffles—and also super excited to visit Slow Food’s home.  Our wonderful guide, Val, has arranged for her good friend, a pasta-maker, to prepare us lunch. “He’s super old school Italian, very fanatical about his methods and ingredients,” she writes. I know the experience will be special, but I don’t yet realize just how impactful it will be.
We arrive at Mauro the pasta-maker’s house on a scathingly hot, humid day. It is 100 degrees, and Italy is experiencing a heat wave with temperatures unseen since 2002.  Mauro—decked out in Birkenstocks with socks, and sporting bifocals—invites us upstairs. He has spent the morning cooling the dining room to make sure we will be comfortable at lunch. Val’s husband, Evan, translates for Mauro—he doesn’t speak a word of English.
As Mauro begins to tell us about his pasta, his love for his craft grows palpable.  “I only use ancient grains to make my pastas,” he explains, “and always a mix.” Ancient grains, also called heritage or super grains, are cereals and seeds whose rich nutritional content and “whole” form have allowed them to thrive, unaltered, for thousands of years. By avoiding hybridized (genetically modified) grains, Mauro is able to preserve the kernels’ naturally occurring protein structures, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
It is common knowledge that genetically modified wheat, bred for rapid growth and easy milling, is the likely cause of the prolific wheat intolerance we see today. Even if a person has an intolerance, he adds, using a combination of different grains will diminish the effect a single type has on the consumer. A strong proponent of organic flour, Mauro points out that some of his producers follow organic practices but cannot afford the costly certification to carry an official “organic” label—a common issue small, local farmers face in the US, too. 
The main style of pasta Mauro produces is called tajarin. It has a long, narrow, flat shape and is the moniker behind his entire business, “Casa dei Tajarin.” Mauro also produces a variety of eggless pasta called casarecce, made specially for people with egg intolerance.
For the first pasta course Mauro prepares for us, he uses a tajarin infused with 9 different kinds of herbs, which he calls Stravaganza “Nel Prato Estivo”, or “extravagance in a summer meadow.” He originally began adding herbs to flour to serve as a digestif, or to help aid digestion. The herbed tajarin—boiled at a precise temperature with ample salt and prepared al dente— is tossed simply with olive oil and salt. The herbs’ subtle botanical notes, harmonized with the grassy olive oil, is simply divine. Upon tasting, I declare it is the best pasta I’d ever had.
For the second pasta course, Mauro uses his eggless casarecce, mixed with a homemade pesto incorporating basil from his garden and local hazelnuts from the Langhe. The casarecce is rustic and hearty; a mixture of spelt, rye, and kamut. I love the whole grain overtone, and pairing with the sweet basil and nutty hazelnut is nothing short of perfection.  Wait, this may be best pasta I’ve ever had!
 Mauro hand selects a wine to pair with each course. For the first two, he chooses Carica L’Asino, a white wine made from an ancient (I’m seeing a theme here!) grape from the Liguria/Piemonte border. Carica L’Asino , or “load up the donkey”, refers to the legendary requirement of a donkey to transport the grapes from the steep, rocky terrain on which they grew. Only 3 producers bottle this indigenous grape variety in the world.
We are expecting the next course to be dessert, but Mauro asks us if he can prepare one more course (um, duh!) first.  This pasta is tajarin tradizionali di Lange, the traditional tajarin of the Langhe region. He tosses it in an eggplant and tomato sauce—his mother’s homemade—that reminds me of a caponata. It is otherworldly. For this course, we switch to a red wine. There is now a 3-way tie earning the title for best pasta I’ve ever had.

Mauro’s cookbooks. I wanted to steal all of them!
Somehow we find room for dessert. Mauro woke up at 6:30am this morning to prepare a bônet, a traditional Piemontese cake made with cocoa powder, eggs, milk, sugar, coffee, rum, and amaretti cookies. It is light as a feather and obscenely moist. With dessert, we drink  Bera Moscato d’Asti, a sweet dessert wine produced by a brother and sister team who run a small winery close by. The moscato grape was first planted on the Bera estate in the 13th century, and the vineyard has been maintained by the family since 1785. All the wines we drink are from producers who practice organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Before we go, Mauro insists on a shot of grappa for the table to close out meal. My head is floating above my body, but it’s not from the wine or the heat. Rather, I am intoxicated by the experience of the past few hours. I’ve been consumed by Mauro’s passion; enthralled with his steadfast commitment to preserve centuries of tradition yet also remain forward-thinking about health and the environment.  It is so crazy to me to think how today’s lunch, the genesis of Slow Food eating, ignited the same fervor in me as when I joined this movement over half a decade ago, thousands of miles away, swayed by Georgia jams and collard greens. It is at this moment when I realize that my dedication to Slow Food had never left me at all. It’s been here the whole time.
I’d like to thank everyone who made this experience possible: Mauro Musso for cooking a fantastic meal, Val of Girl's Gotta Drink for organizing the best Piemonte daytrip ever, and Evan for translating Mauro’s words for us. But, I’ve saved the best for last: you can buy Mauro’s pasta in New York City! Formaggio Kitchen carries Casa dei Tajarin at its lower east side location. Ciao!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sugar Snap Pea & Strawberry Salad with Garlic Scape Yogurt Dressing

As of the past few weeks, I've been on a binge sugar snap pea diet: crunching my way, oh so earnestly, through a pound of sweet, snacking goodness every day. I just find everything about the tiny pods so satisfying: the crisp edible casing that hugs the tiny sugary peas, the confirmation of each bite with that signature audible snap. Speaking of, I must offer my sincerest apologies to my coworkers...a good desk mate does not a snap pea addict make.

Like any addict, I have to work diligently to keep my stash plentiful. On Wednesday, this involved trekking to the Union Square Greenmarket in balmy, humid heat (sans my trusty travel deodorant) with full knowledge that I'd return to the office glistening with a full body sheen of perspiration, aka, a hot sweaty mess. But I had no choice. (Coworkers, again— sorry!)

As I pushed through the crowds to get to my hands on the much anticipated heaping bundle of snap peas, I passed a tent where chefs from the Natural Gourmet Institute were distributing samples from a cooking demo.  I stopped for a taste—and was absolutely blown away by the glorious Christmas-colored flavors in my cup, bursting like a symphony on my tongue. What is this!?  I inquired, noting that my drug of choice, le sugar snap pea, was a leading ingredient in the salad. It's a Sugar Snap Pea & Strawberry Salad with Garlic Scape Yogurt Dressing, the chef replied, adding that 4 of the 8 ingredients are prime seasonal produce at the farmers market right now.

This salad is seriously fantastic. The two main ingredients, sugar snap peas and strawberries, play off each other brilliantly: the earthy, peppery peas against the confectionery field strawberries. The dressing is divine: creamy yogurt dotted with garlicky scapes, refreshing balsamic and basil, and cooling olive oil. It's simple, but with such fresh, quality ingredients, it's simply outstanding.  My raw sugar snap pea addiction had met its match.
Garlic scapes, known for their serpentine shape, are abundant at the market right now. But if you can't find them, feel free to substitute 1 large minced garlic cloves and 2 minced scallions. Also, I encourage you to extend the dressing to other types of salad—it will work well any time a creamy balsamic vinaigrette seems fit.

Sugar Snap Pea & Strawberry Salad with Garlic Scape Yogurt Dressing (from the Natural Gourmet Institute via GrowNYC)
Serves 6-8

1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed and de-stringed*
1 pint strawberries, chopped*

For the Garlic Scape Yogurt Dressing:
1 cup plain yogurt (Greek is OK)
2 tablespoons white wine balsamic vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
4 garlic scapes, minced*
1/2 ounce fresh basil, chopped* (about 1 tbsp; I recommend doubling)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (OK to half)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch black pepper

*Ingredients available seasonally at the Greenmarket

1. In a small bowl, whisk together yogurt, white wine balsamic vinegar, garlic scapes, and basil. Slowly stream in olive oil while stirring, then season with salt and black pepper. Set aside.

2. Steam sugar snap peas until barely tender, about 2 minutes. Let cool for a minute before slicing diagonally into 1/4 inch pieces. Toss with strawberries and let cool completely.

3. Toss salad with dressing and serve.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Green Bean Salad with Mustard Seeds and Tarragon

Spring is a tough time for us farmers market fanatics, when the crown jewels of summer (peaches, cherries, watermelon, corn) are popping up all over supermarkets but the local farm fare remains lovable yet limited. Don’t get me wrong, I jump for joy every time I see a fresh bundle of asparagus, bin of snap peas, sheaf of radishes, or swirl of fiddlehead ferns, but when I get home and lay out all my crunchy vegetables on the counter, my mind goes recipe-blank! I end up eating the peas and radishes raw, like crudités, and they never even make it into dinner. While usually a stickler for hot supper meals, the balmy, humid weather has me uncharacteristically craving cold evening fare. But will a cold salad fill me up for dinner? Ruminating this thought over my not quiet chewing, I couldn’t think of a solid recipe candidate. And now, half of my potential meal is gone.
But alas, the problem is solved with this Green Bean Salad with Mustard Seeds and Tarragon recipe! (I should’ve known that Ottolenghi, master of le vegetable, would have the answer.) After picking up a bunch of fresh tarragon from the greenmarket last week (I was seduced by its intoxicating, anisey fragrance, more on this later), I realized I had absolutely no idea how to cook with the common French herb.  Heading straight to “T” for tarragon in my cookbook recipe indexes, I came across this vibrant, robust salad in Plenty, and what else did I see on the ingredient list? Snap peas and string beans, with the potential to add any or all of my crunchy spring crudité friends. Sold.
What’s so great about this salad is that seasonally, it works right now. Start with your base of winter leafy greens (I know in your mind that season has passed, but they are still abundant at the market, and need your love now more than ever!) such as kale, arugula, spinach, or chard. Next, commit to the crunch: the recipe calls for peas, snap peas, and string beans, but any desired spring munching vegetable will work here.  Finally, err on the side of abundance with the herbs. They are prolific at the market, and a bundle of anything fresh literally defines spring. Tarragon is the first choice here as its mollified licorice scent harmonizes with the earthy greens and sweet peas—a complexity of flavor subtleties that’s as varied as the shades of green in the salad—but lovage, chives, savory, chervil, basil, or mint can substitute.  With its spice-shrouded dressing and lemony zest, the salad is complete here: seemingly so simple, but riddled with flavor intricacies underneath.  But by all means, you don’t have to stop just yet. Those tiny field strawberries, bursting with sugary sweetness, at the market right now? Throw in a bunch to offset the hot red chile. To ensure the green salad filled me up for dinner, I added garbanzo beans and feta cheese; when I made it again the next night, in went diced sweet potatoes and chicken breast.
Just like the vegetables, the dressing of this salad is versatile. Although the tiny whole spice seeds add lovely texture to the dish, no worries if you don’t have them: use ground coriander and mustard seed instead, or, a heap of Dijon mustard, which contributes a nice vinegary punch. If using mustard spice, you may want to add a tablespoon of white wine vinegar and the juice of the lemon as well as the zest to satisfy that acidic tang you expect from a vinaigrette.
As for the tarragon, I can’t wait to keep cooking with this regal herb.  In France, it’s known as the “King of herbs”, and now I get why. The pungent perennial adds flavor to a multitude of dishes, pairing seamlessly with chicken, hollandaise, pestos, aiolis, potatoes, and eggs. Even if you’re not a licorice lover, I urge you to try it—or least take a whiff next time you come across it. The licorice flavor is totally tempered, and the sweet scent is absolutely divine.

Green Bean Salad with Mustard Seeds and Tarragon (derived from Plenty)
Serves 4

1 ¼ cups green beans, trimmed
2 ¼ cups snow peas, trimmed
1 ¾ cups green peas (fresh or frozen)
¼ cup thinly sliced radishes
2 tsp coriander seeds, roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle (or ground coriander)
1 tsp mustard seeds (or ground mustard/ 2 tsp Dijon mustard)
3 tablespoons olive oil (1 is plenty)
1 tsp nigella seeds (optional, I used sumac instead)
1 mild fresh red chile, seeded and finely diced 
½ small red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar (optional)
2 Tbsp chopped tarragon
Coarse sea salt
1 cup baby chard or other winter green leaves
Optional add-ons: garbanzo beans, feta cheese, diced sweet potato, diced chicken 

1. Fill a medium saucepan with cold water and bring to the boil. Blanch the green beans for 4 minutes, then immediately lift them out of the pan and into iced water to refresh. Drain and dry.
2. Bring a fresh pan of water to the boil and blanch the snow peas for 1 minute only. Refresh, drain and dry. Use the same boiling water to blanch the peas for 20 seconds. Refresh, drain and dry. Combine the beans, snow peas, and peas in a large mixing bowl. Add radishes.
3. Put the coriander seeds, mustard seeds and oil in a small saucepan and heat up*. When the seeds begin to pop, pour the contents of the pan over the beans and peas. Toss together. In a small bowl, combine nigella seeds/sumac, red onion, chile, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vinegar. Add dressing to large bowl, along with tarragon. Mix well and season with salt to taste.

4. Just before serving, gently fold the chard leaves in with the beans and peas, and spoon the salad onto plates or into bowls.

*If using ground spices and/or Dijon mustard, mix directly into dressing ingredients.