A Pansy Tribute

Pansies are one of those simple plants that just keeps on giving.  There must be a pansy created for every condition and region of the country.  I first became aware of them in Greenville, South Carolina where they bloomed like crazy in the blazing summer heat.   In my McKenzie River garden,  violas and violets,  pansies’ relatives, were the first to poke their tiny purple heads out the early spring snow.

Late this summer, I hastily added a few pansies to fill out a sparse planter in my dooryard garden. Without much effort, they consistently carried on and bloomed with the least amount of care; and still, as  winter approaches,  pansies  remain one of the durable spots of color in my depleted pots.

I tend to go with plants that serve a dual purpose in my garden: I prefer attractive as well as edible varieties. Some are perennials, like herbs, towering garlic onions and nasturtiums.  Annual favorites are mesclun blends, petite tomatoes, and climbing baby cucumbers.  Weirdly, when it comes to harvesting the pansies I have resisted.  I’ve been happy to simply behold their nodding faces in a spectrum of purples, blues, reds and yellows, all perfectly framed by their deep green leaves.

As I headed out this morning, I was alarmed to note that the pot of pansies had diminished to a sad state of drooping heads and withered yellow leaves.  It signaled the end of a season.  Later in a moment of reflection, I decided to stage my own act of thanksgiving—gratitude for my garden and all the pansies that have given so much joy this year.

Back in the kitchen, I set about creating a special salad featuring the pansies in an end of season tribute.  So, here it is, a pre-winter canvas of mixed greens and fresh herbs with a bit of radicchio and shredded carrot for crunch.

The basis of the simple dressing is a mild yet flavorful German mustard blended with a bit of chives and lemon juice all whisked into an emulsion with extra virgin olive oil. Atop the greens, a few dried cherries are scattered with crumbled feta cheese, toasted almonds and walnuts.  Finally, a smattering of pansy blossoms and petals grace the plate with their gentle sweetness and color.

A Pre-Winter Salad with Pansies

Ingredients
Per serving
3-4 organic pansy blossoms
2-3 cups mixed greens with radicchio and shredded carrots
1 tablespoon fresh parsley and/or other herbs
2 tablespoon toasted walnuts and/or almonds
2 tablespoons dried fruit: cherries, blueberries or cranberries
2 tablespoon feta cheese, large crumble
Dressing
¾ teaspoon German or Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon minced chives
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Pinch salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Directions

  1. Rinse and dry fresh pansies and any other available fresh flowers, mixed greens and herbs.
  2. Toast the nuts.
  3. Prepare the salad dressing: place mustard in small bowl, add the chives, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and combine well. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to emulsify.  Adjust seasoning and set aside.
  4. In small mixing bowl, place the salad mix, tear the petals from 1 or two blossoms, drizzle with part of the dressing and toss to coat.
  5. To serve: plate the dressed greens mixture, top with crumbled feta, dried fruit and nuts, and tuck in remaining flowers.  Drizzle with a bit more dressing and serve. Yield: 1 serving.

 

Feta Focus

Feta is a fresh, briny cheese often associated with foods rooted in the sun-drenched Mediterranean cuisines – think olives, capers and vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  Here in the US, feta is often made from cow’s milk which produces a pleasantly mild, slightly tart cheese.

To be called feta in the European Union, it must originate in Greece and be limited to sheep and or goat’s milk, thus offering a rich panorama of flavors and textures. Depending on process and aging time in brine, Greek feta can vary in saltiness, range from soft to hard textured, and taste from tart to tangy.

One popular treatment is to submerge bite-sized feta cubes in olive oil along with assorted herbs, garlic and such, and allow the marinade to infuse into the cheese; the longer the better.  That is certainly lovely with a robust cheese that responds to big flavors, but beware of overpowering a mild flavored feta.  To better showcase feta’s more subdued qualities, I prefer to deconstruct the whole concept.

For this simple method, begin with a block of feta, slice it for easy serving, sprinkle it with herbs and seasonings, and drizzle it lightly with olive oil. Cover it and allow the flavors to meld for an hour or so in the fridge.

When ready to enjoy, bring the marinated feta to room temperature, perhaps drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it appears dry, and garnish with fresh herbs.  Serve with an assortment of olives, crusty bread, pita crisps or crackers, pass a bowl or crunchy radishes, and call it good!

Herb Marinated Feta

Ingredients
1 lb. fresh feta cheese
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon savory, rosemary, or oregano
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme
Accompaniments: assorted olives, fresh bread or pita crisps, crunchy radishes

Instructions

  1. Slice the feta and arrange it on a serving plate.
  2. Sprinkle the cheese with herbs and red pepper flakes. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Cover and chill for an hour or longer.
  3. To assemble, drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it looks dry, dust with grinds of salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh thyme, assorted olives.
  4. Serve with crunchy bread, crackers or pita crisps, and a bowl of fresh radishes.   Serves 4.

Salsa and the Art of Fermentation

The tomato crop is just about over and done with for this highly productive year.  Markets everywhere were awash with heavy, ripe tomatoes.  Across the street, my wonderful neighbor had such a bumper crop on her hands that she kept a steady stream coming, in hopes I would use more.

Nothing says summer like sweet, juicy tomatoes fresh off the vine. They were everywhere this year and they went into everything!

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One noteworthy success worth sharing came by way of an outstanding homemade fermented salsa, which started out as a fairly basic version.  Earlier, I had tested a batch of fermented baby cucumbers and hot peppers, and they were crazy good. The cukes were reminiscent of old fashioned half-sours. Well, why not salsa?

The ferment process is fairly intuitive; there is no cooking required, just a scrupulously clean work space and tools.  All it takes is a little time and salt to transform vegetables into a new realm of complex flavor and nutrients. The salt acts as a natural preserving agent while tiny microbes busily gobble up the sugar and transform it into lactic acid—which in turn serves as a natural preservative. It’s a happy environment for beneficial bacteria to flourish, to keep harmful bacterial in check, and to become rich in probiotics.

There are a few simple tricks that will help ensure proper fermentation and prevent the risk of food-borne illness. As with all pickles, the vegetables need to be kept completely submerged below the surface of the liquid solution.

C02 builds up during fermentation and those bubbles need to go somewhere. I started out with the jar loosely covered with cheesecloth and lid, set in a small bowl for run-off, and knew I could do better.Salsa Ferment.ph

I found a handy fermentation lid that works like a charm and I’ve since learned there are many similar devices on the market.

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Once a mason-type jar is properly filled, the lid is screwed on and water is poured into the well on top which creates a vapor lock.  A small cap is then placed over a center vent which allows pressure to release safely.

When the salsa is prepared and in the jar, it’s a simple matter of topping it off with brine to secure it all.  It is left to ferment on the counter for 2-5 days or longer, depending on the temperature of the room. The warmer it is, the quicker the process.

As it ferments the salsa mellows and develops robust but nuanced character; the harsh saltiness shifts into an intriguing, pleasantly sour taste. The longer the salsa ferments, the more pronounced the flavor. Once achieved, enjoy the salsa as is or refrigerate for longer storage. It will hold for several months.

Likely it won’t last that long, though.

Naturally Fermented Salsa

 Ingredients
1 cup onion, dice
3 cups tomatoes, seed & dice
1 cup mixed peppers, seed & dice (serrano, jalapeno, pasilla are good)
2 cloves garlic, mince
Handful of fresh cilantro
Lime juice to taste (start with ½ lime)
1 teaspoon salt
Brine ratio: 1-2 teaspoons salt to 1/4 cup water

Instructions

  1. Mix together all the ingredients including the salt.
  2. Place the salsa in a 1 quart mason jar, pressing down to release some liquid. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid.  Place a lid or other weight to submerge the salsa.  Finish with a bit of extra brine if needed and top off throughout fermentation process.
  3. Ferment for 2+ days at room temperature (mine took 5 days, then sat in fridge 4 more days before using).
  4. When  the fermentation period is complete, the salsa is ready to eat or can be stored in the refrigerator for several months.  Yield: about 1 quart

Socca: Guilt-free, Gluten-free

Ever need a flat bread or cracker with character to fill in as a snack with drinks or as an alternative bite with soup or salad?  This one is even gluten-free.

Socca is a fascinating chickpea based ‘crepe’ popular in the south of France.  In northern Italy, Farinata is a variation sold along-side pizza and focaccia.  No shaping or patting required, Socca is a simple batter built on chickpea flour, salt, water, and a bit of olive oil.

If time permits, let the batter rest overnight for it to relax and thicken. The flavor and texture will improve, resulting in a creamy interior and crisp exterior texture.  When ready, spread it into a pizza pan and bake in hot oven to set. Remove briefly, add toppings, and return to finish.

As you can imagine, this chickpea treat is full-flavored and needs little more than a light topping of olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, fresh herbs, perhaps a few olives for embellishment…  Rosemary is one such herb that is assertive enough to do well here.

Or, if you are feeling adventurous, try Zhoug Sauce , a highly addictive condiment from Yemen made with cilantro, jalapeno peppers, chile flakes, garlic, cardamom, and cumin seed.  I was lucky enough to discover the sauce at Trader Joe’s recently and it was a big hit on a recent Socca batch.  Be prepared, Zhoug packs quite a punch.  I liked it so much, I even added feta cheese.  So much for keeping it simple.

Socca

Inspired by King Arthur Flour, Socca

Ingredients

Batter
3 cups chickpea flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/3 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil, more for the pan
Toppings
½ cup olive oil or sauce of choice
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
3/4 cup pitted and sliced Greek olives
1 cup feta cheese (optional)

Directions

  1. Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add the water and olive oil and whisk until smooth. Cover and let the batter rest at room temperature for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Spread 9” pizza pan liberally with olive oil. . Place the pan in the oven to preheat for 5 minutes.
  3. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and pour in the batter, spreading to edges in an even layer. Bake for 7 minutes and remove from the oven.
  4. Lightly spread top with olive oil, fresh herbs or sauce of choice. Add feta cheese if desired, and return to oven for 7 minutes longer until the surface takes on color and browns. If the top doesn’t brown, turn the oven from bake to broil until crisp and blistered.
  5. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges to serve warm. The top and bottom should be crisp, and the center creamy and moist.
  6. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week. Reheat in a preheated 400°F oven for 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 3 – 9” rounds cut into portions.

 

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

For a casual brunch following St. Paddy’s Day, I opted to configure some of my fabulous corned beef hash into a riff on Scotch Eggs.

Often eaten as a cold snack, Scotch Eggs are hard cooked eggs wrapped in sausage and deep fried.   As such, my version included just enough of the corned beef hash to tidily encase a hard cooked egg. It was then treated to a gentle sauté in a thin layer of vegetable oil until hot and crispy.

Since I had hard cooked eggs ready to go, this treat took no time at all.  My yolks were more cooked than I normally prefer— the perfect enhancement would be a slightly moist yolk.

Once I had a grip on the egg preparation this was a fairly effortless undertaking. The lively plates consisted of the highly entertaining Irish Scotch Eggs along with a mild mustard sauce, pickled onions, radishes, sharp cheddar cheese and warm soda bread slathered with cranberry apple jam.  Irish Eggs,  Scotch Eggs, Irish-Scotch Eggs… enjoy and call them whatever makes you happy!

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

Ingredients (per serving)
½ cup heaping, Corned Beef Hash (see blog recipe)
1 hard cooked egg, peeled
1/3 cup flour (approx.) lightly seasoned with salt and paprika for dredging
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for pan
Accompaniments:  mustard sauce (see below), pickled onions, cheddar cheese, radishes

 Directions

  1. Heat a skillet with oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Place flour in wide bowl and lightly dust the egg with flour.
  3. Mound hash in palm of hand and make an egg-sized indentation in the center. Insert the hard cooked egg into the center and mold the hash around the egg to completely encase it. Lightly moisten hands with water if it becomes sticky.
  4. Carefully dust the exterior with flour and place egg in hot pan. As the surface begins to take on color, roll it over slightly with spatula, continue until entire surface is crisp and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes.  Serve with accompaniments of choice.

Light Mustard Sauce: combine ¼ cup sour cream and ¼ cup mayonnaise, blend in 1 tablespoon deli mustard, or to taste.

Party Time

Who doesn’t love a good Reuben sandwich?  What a combination. A flavorful dressing spread on pumpernickel or rye bread and topped with layers of corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese. It’s definitely over the top when grilled  until toasted and  the cheese is melted.

Here’s a Reuben riff that brings it into the realm of mass production for entertaining and game days.  It’s an open-faced sandwich that can be prepped ahead and run under the broiler for a last minute fix.Mini Reubens

My chief hang-up on the Reuben has always been the sandwich spread, with a definite thumbs down on sweet ones, like Thousand Island and most Russian dressings.  A simple solution is to go with a straight forward, unadulterated combination of mayonnaise and sriracha with a little minced green onion for interest.

For maximum compatibility, serve these tasty morsels with sour dill pickles and crunchy sweet potato chips.

Open-Faced Mini Reubens

 Ingredients
1 loaf cocktail rye or pumpernickel bread
Dressing
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
1 green onion, minced
Toppings
3/4 pound thinly sliced corned beef
1-1/2 cups sauerkraut, rinse and drain well
3/4 pound sliced Swiss cheese
Garnish:  ½ cup chopped dill pickle or gherkins

Instructions

  1. For dressing: blend the mayonnaise and other ingredients and set aside.
  2. Preheat broiler. Set rack about 6” from top.
  3. Warm the sauerkraut. Slice the corned beef into 1-1/2” strips to fold neatly across the rye. Cut the Swiss cheese slices into quarters.
  4. Arrange cocktail rye slices on a baking sheet. Spread each slice liberally with a heaping teaspoon of dressing. Fold the corned beef in 2-3 layers over the bread. Drape a forkful of sauerkraut across the corned beef. Cover the sauerkraut with 2 pieces of Swiss cheese.
  5. Run the open-faced Reubens under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped pickle if desired and serve warm. Yield: 36 or more pieces

 

Danger Ahead

The convenience of having soft spreadable butter within arm’s reach is a wonderful thing, especially when warm bread is around.  But, it can be hazardous to ones health.  I only say that as a friendly reminder to those of us who received butter crocks for Christmas.

For anyone unfamiliar with this cleaver amenity, the butter is suspended in water as a way of preserving it at room temperature for up to 30 days.  This is not a new idea.  For centuries folks have known this to be a welcome safety method when refrigeration was not an option.

According to the Butter Bell website, this is their explanation:

The French have benefited by this practice, and I say, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.  To a degree.  Perhaps they are able to show more restraint than I.  It’s important to regularly sample my butter, I reason, to make certain of its creamy texture and delicate flavor, and that is it is soft, spreadable, and safe.

Now, I am looking for French and imported butters, purely for comparison purposes, you understand.

It’s my job to know these things.  I am completely smitten by my new butter crock and reason this is all purely educational. 

Which also means that the butter is bypassing my hips and waist at this time. No matter, I tell myself.  It’s the holidays.