Carrots, a very good thing

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all trying to stay as healthy as possible.  We are told to drink lots of water, get plenty of rest, exercise, and hopefully, find a dose of sunshine. In times of self-isolation, that can be a daily challenge.

Keeping our immune systems healthy is important, too. One way we can do that to is to eat more colorful vegetables, those that are especially rich in vitamins and minerals.  Sweet, bright carrots fall into that category. Of all vegetables, they are the highest in Vitamin A and beta carotene—known to boost the immune system.Carrots store incredibly well and are nearly indestructible. If the fridge is getting empty, chances are there are still carrots. These days, that is a very good thing.  Here’s a carrot dish that does not deserve last choice.

Carrot Coriander Soup

Carrot Coriander Soup evolved from my desire for something different than the usual ginger-carrot affinity; I wanted more complexity. Coriander, a longtime favorite was the obvious choice, and this soup remains a reliable player in my repertoire.

There’s not much to it, beyond a few vegetables. Once cooked, the carrots are pureed with an immersion blender until smooth, and it is magically transformed. This soup is so good, I can never decide which way I prefer it most, hot or cold?  That’s another bonus.

Carrot Coriander Soup

Ingredients
2 Tbsp butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, mash & mince
2 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp allspice
pinch cayenne
½ tsp salt
2 tsp fresh ginger, peel and grate
1½ lbs carrots (5 medium), peel, cut in half lengthwise and chop
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
cilantro, mint or chopped green onion

Instructions

  1. In a soup pot over medium heat, heat the butter, add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft. Stir in the coriander through the ginger and cook for 1 minute to release flavors. Add carrots tossing for a minute to combine.
  2. Pour in stock, bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 20-30 minutes, until the carrots are tender.
  3. Using an immersion blender,  puree the carrot mixture until smooth.  Reheat the soup and simmer 5-10 minutes; if too thick, thin with a small amount of water. Adjust seasoning.  Serve hot or well chilled with a dollop of yogurt, garnish with fresh herbs.  Serves 3-4.

Optional  Prior to serving, combine ½ cup plain yogurt with ¼ cup hot soup to temper. Stir yogurt into soup but do not boil.

Delicious but not Devastating

Incorporating vegetables into desserts is an appealing way to slip more valuable nutrients into our daily food intake. Carrot and zucchini cakes are solutions, likely loaded with exorbitant amounts of oil and smeared with heavy-duty cream cheese toppings. Any natural benefits have been all but cancelled out.

Delicious but not devastating, that’s my goal. Trying to elevate the plight of vegetable desserts, here’s my latest take on zucchini cake. First, I’ve learned that steaming, rather than conventional baking, can introduce moisture and lower the need for massive doses of oil.

I zeroed in on two other ingredients of interest: chocolate and nuts.  I like the chocolate and zucchini combination—but chocolate easily overwhelms, and I’m not looking for another chocolate cake (probably one of few to so admit). Nuts add deep taste, complexity, and crunch. Then, it made perfect sense: why not keep it simple and go with cacao nibs?  They have all that, and more.

Roasted Cacao Nibs

There is a difference between regular chocolate and nibs. Typical chocolate bars come from cacao seeds, which are fermented, ground, and further processed. Cacao nibs are crumbled pieces from the exterior cacao bean shell, with a bitter chocolate punch and nutty texture. Nibs are rich in flavonoid antioxidants, minerals, and more; they contribute plenty of fiber—but nothing extreme as gnawing on wood.

I’ve included another duo that works well together: coriander and orange. Instead of the usual grated zest, I’ve gone with tiny nibs of minced orange peel (white removed) for a super-charged citrus flavor that’s offset by the exotic perfume of coriander. The backdrop for all of this comes from a huge surplus of green summer squash, rather than zucchini.

Zucchini Cake with Cacao & Orange Nibs

The cake steams in 35 minutes—literally from the inside out—it cooks thoroughly, thanks to the center hole in the bundt pan. You would never guess it had been steamed; once turned out of the pan and cooled, it appears browned and perfectly baked. The cake’s surprisingly light texture is speckled with flavorful flecks from the orange, green squash, and chocolate brown cacao nibs. It’s quite a party!


Update! The pressurized steaming process also softens the cacao nibs. As the cake rests, the nibs seem to bloom (stored in the fridge). Their nubby texture relaxes, and more complex chocolate qualities unfold.  Fascinating… and highly delicious.


Steamed Zucchini Cake with Cacao and Orange Nibs

Ingredients
1½ cups AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp each baking soda and salt
1 tsp coriander
2 eggs
⅓ cup vegetable oil
½ cup each granulated sugar and brown sugar
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1½ cups grated zucchini or summer squash, skin on
2 tsp orange peel, white removed, sliver and chop well
⅓ cup roasted cacao nibs

Instructions

  1. Thinly coat 8” bundt pan with Baker’s or nonstick spray.
  2. Prepare Instant Pot or other multicooker: fill with 1½ cup water and insert trivet. Cut aluminum foil cover for pan and prepare sling for pan.
  3. Combine flour through spices together and set aside.
  4. In mixing bowl whisk eggs, then beat in the oil. Whisk in the sugar to fully combine, and then stir in the yogurt and vanilla. Add the zucchini.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate and finally add the cacao and orange nibs. Scrape batter into the bundt pan and level the surface.
  5. Begin heating multicooker, set to Sauté More. Add 1 ½ cup water and place the trivet in pot.
  6. Cover filled bundt pan with foil. Fold the other length of foil into a long sling. Wrap it under the pan, up the sides, over the top, and lower it into the pot.
  7. Seal pot with lid, reset to Hi Pressure for 35 minutes. When complete, turn off unit, disconnect and let rest undisturbed for 10 minutes. Slowly release remaining pressure and open the lid. Using the foil sling, carefully lift pan out of pot and onto a rack. Remove foil and cool for 10 minutes. With thin knife, loosen any edges adhering to pan and turn cake out to cool onto rack.  Makes 1 cake, serves 10.

Sour Pickle Power

I link sour pickles with old-fashioned New York deli pickles. In traditional delicatessens they were stored in large wooden barrels that seemingly held a lifetime supply of pickles—and you were free to dip in and fish out your own. Unlike most off-the-shelf pickles that use vinegar, ’half sours’ are fermented in a salt-water solution and become only mildly sour.

My recent venture into sour pickle making stemmed from an over-abundance of fennel—and conjuring up new uses for those feathery fronds I have learned to cherish. I knew I had a plan when I coincidentally netted a supply of small Persian cucumbers.  They are similar to Kirby cucumbers, the popular clean-flavored babies used in pickle making.

Persian cucumbers

These pickles couldn’t be easier, they require no canning or water bath.  Brines and marinades, those stalwarts of the small kitchen, both provide natural preservative qualities and the ability to infuse flavors.

Sour Pickles, in the works

The salt water fermentation brings forth pickles rich in probiotics, vitamin B and K.  Depending on ambient conditions, a jar of crisp garlicky pickles is ready to eat in 7 to 10 days.

crunchy sour pickle taste test, yum.

In all fairness, the fennel flavor is not wildly apparent; I know it’s there, and that makes me happy. It’s tough to compete against the power of garlic, and the combination of dill and garlic is doubly hard to beat.

But, for pickle diversity, the fennel is a nice change and it works beautifully.

Sour Pickles

Ingredients
4-6 Persian or Kirby cucumbers; wash, trim halve
1 cup fennel fronds or 4 heads dill
4 cloves garlic, halved
2 cups filtered water, warm
1 Tbsp salt
½ tsp sugar
1 Tbsp whole peppercorns

3-4 cup clean jar with lid

Directions

  1. Dissolve the salt and sugar in warm water. Add the peppercorns and cool.
  2. Place a layer of fennel or dill in bottom of a 3-4 cup jar. Pack the cucumbers upright in the jar, distribute the garlic among the spears, and top with a layer of fennel or dill.  Pour in salt water to cover; reserve any excess.
  3. Drape jar top with a layer of cheesecloth and set on a plate to catch any potential brine overflow.  Let cucumbers ferment 1-4 days at room temperature—the warmer it is, the faster sourness will develop. Top off with more of the salt water to keep emerged. When the brine becomes cloudy and a foam forms on top, taste for sourness. Within 7 to 10 days they should be ready to eat.
  4. Seal with lid and move to fridge to slow fermentation and longer storage.  They will last in the fridge up to a year.  Yields 1 jar pickles.

Ready when you are

If you happened to read the preceding post, you know that this past St Paddy’s Day took a turn and the usual corned beef and cabbage evolved into homemade pastrami.  It wasn’t until well into the pastrami making process that I began to consider new accompaniments.

A peppery rub and time in the smoker had altered this corned beef so greatly that thoughts of traditional boiled vegetables seemed horribly wrong.  Rather, the deli side of the pastrami emerged far more intriguing. As I continued to tinker with the pastrami, visions of an upgraded deli potato salad took form… one with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, carrots and fennel.

pastrami mixed grill deli plate

Pulling it all together, I’d keep it simple (famous last words): throw on a few stashed Red-Hot links during the smoking stage for a little variety and transition to an easy mixed grill. Maybe include some pickled items—no horseradish here, I’d pull out a delicious stone ground mustard.

The trouble with roasted vegetables is that they take so long to actually roast. I decided to help them out by briefly precooking the potatoes, carrots and fennel in the microwave (the fennel really works here). Then, when convenient finish them in a hot oven.

roasted potatoes, carrots, fennel

To be honest, I added a tangy spoonful of aioli to the dressing, rather than garlic and 1 tablespoon of the mayonnaise. It makes a dramatic difference if you have it; but the standard formula works well, too.

Roasted Potato Salad

As with many potato salads, this one improves when made ahead for flavors to fully develop. It will last 3-4 days in the fridge—good on a deli plate whenever you are ready.

Roasted Potato Salad

Ingredients

4 Yukon Gold potatoes, skin on
3 carrots, peel
½ cup fennel stems and fronds, chop
sea salt and fresh ground pepper
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
em>Dressing
2-3 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, crush
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 small stalks celery, chop
2 green onions, chop
1 Tbsp fresh fennel fronds, light chop
1 Tbsp capers
1 tsp lemon juice or caper juice

Instructions

  1. Cut potatoes in chunks, place in microwaveable bowl add 2 Tbsp water, and a pinch of salt. Cover and steam for 2 minutes. Place in colander to drain. Repeat next with carrots and fennel.
  2. Distribute the semi-cooked vegetables on a lined baking sheet, toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes; turn the vegetables . Set broiler to 450°F and cook 5-10 minutes longer until cooked and beginning to brown. Remove and cool.
  3. Meanwhile prepare dressing: combine the mayonnaise, garlic, yogurt and mustard to taste. Add the celery, green onion, fennel fronds or 1 tsp fresh thyme, and capers. Point up with lemon or caper juice, season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the cooled vegetables in a medium bowl, toss with dressing to coat well. Best made an hour or more ahead. Serves 3-4.

So Much for Scraps

Perhaps you too suffer small twinges when faced with throwing away odd scraps of food.  These days I’m becoming increasingly aware of the waste factor and I try to think before chucking food.  In the heat of the moment there are still plenty of times when I’ll do the ‘should I, or shouldn’t I?’ shuffle and toss away—only to regret it later.

The latest such event proved to be a good lesson in why I need to pay attention when that twinge hits.  It happened while prepping tender red chard leaves for a fast brunch dish.  At the time I wasn’t much interested in the stems, they were in my way and I was ready to pitch.  I took another look at the intensely  beautiful burgundy stems, and in that moment my better self intervened. Instead of sending them arbitrarily to the trash I dropped them in the fridge instead. I’d deal with them later.

The next day I consulted Lindsay-Jean Hard’s Cooking with Scraps cookbook to get her take on chard stems. She says they are well worth roasting, grilling, pickling, even steaming… and my plan began to take shape.

I considered my obvious resources and centered on a small spaghetti squash that needed attention and a jar of fresh mozzarella balls marinating in a yummy garlicky evoo herb blend.  I’d keep it simple; I’d steam the squash and stems, liven them up with a little of the marinade, perhaps tuck in a bit of cheese, maybe some fresh basil, and see how that all works.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Despite its appearance, spaghetti squash is very forgiving to prepare—I’ve even had success cooking it in the microwave. For manageability, I prefer smaller squash, 1½ to 2-pounds in size. My plan here is to cook both the squash and stems at the same time in the Instant Pot. It’s the pot-in-pot concept in which you layer 2 or more dishes or items into the pot and steam them simultaneously.

I’ve read cutting spaghetti squash in half, across its mid-line, will cook faster than lengthwise, plus yielding longer strands and using less space. I accumulated over ½ cup of seeds while scraping them out of the squash, and sampled one; they were mild and meaty. Again, my better self stepped forward and I set them aside;  they were well worth saving for a short brine and fast roast in the microwave.  I figured they might not make it today, but they’re enough for a later snack, a salad topping, or other such.   I’m on a roll with scraps—when I’m paying attention there are benefits all over the place!

Marinated Red Chard Stems & Spaghetti Squash

I move on and place the two squash halves in the Instant Pot on a trivet with 1 cup water. The stems are cut into smaller lengths, tossed with a bit of marinade for flavor and moisture, and sealed in a foil packet.  It’s all layered in the Instant Pot and set for 7 minutes under pressure. That’s it.  Once cooked and removed, the squash drains a few minutes to release excess moisture from steaming.

Ah, the stems, the stems… what a surprise. They are earthy, tender, and absorb just enough marinade to elevate them straight to delicacy status.  The sweet spaghetti squash is a perfect foil, lightly seasoned with salt, red pepper flakes, the marinade further helps to separate the strands. The ruby red stems are folded in like jewels and pieces of mozzarella meld into the warm spaghetti squash.  This is an affirmation to slow down and give scraps a chance.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Ingredients
1½ – 2 pounds spaghetti squash
stems from 1 bunch red chard
Marinade
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic mash & sliver
1 tsp fresh rosemary or thyme
¼ tsp sea salt and coarse ground pepper
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 fresh round mozzarella or 1 cup other melting cheese
¼ tsp crush red pepper flakes
fresh basil or other herbs

Instructions

  1. To prepare marinade, combine olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and whisk in the vinegar. If time permits, marinate the mozzarella overnight in the fridge.
  2. If the chard stems are large, cut them lengthwise into ½” thick strips and then into 1-2” lengths and place in medium bowl. Lightly drizzle with about 1 Tbsp of marinade and toss to coat.
  3. Carefully cut the spaghetti squash in half across its mid-section. Remove seeds and set them aside.
  4. In liner of Instant Pot, add 1 cup water and place trivet in bottom.  To preheat, set pot to Sauté More.  Wedge the squash halves sideways in the pot on the trivet.  Place 18” length of foil on work surface and pile chard stems and marinade in center; wrap and fold foil to seal packet and wedge into pot with squash.
  5. Seal lid and set pot to Hi Pressure for 7-8 minutes, depending on squash size. When time is up, disconnect pot, let stand 5 minutes and then release remaining pressure.  Carefully open pot. The squash should be fork tender; remove the squash to drain upside down for 5 minutes. Open foil packet and check stems, they should be tender and fragrant.
  6. To assemble, loosen squash with fork into spaghetti like strands and place in medium bowl.  Season lightly with marinade, salt, red pepper flakes, and toss. Gently add the chard stems. Slice the mozzarella and tuck into the warm squash to soften. Sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serves 2.

Clambering for Clams

In Oregon we love our clams. In fact, steamers are so abundant here we clam for them year ‘round. Still, we keep the old rule of thumb in mind that shellfish is best eaten in the colder months, or those ending in R. That tends to cover most troublesome issues like spawning, red tides, warm water temperatures, and such.

Clammers are a regular site on the Oregon coast, in all weather—you’ll see us out there lining the beaches, optimistically digging for our dinner.  But living further inland, availability can be tricky and we can’t always pick up and dash to the coast for a fresh supply. Local markets do their best to meet demand, but they must also have contingency plans for when that’s not possible. One option is to bring in fresh meaty Venus clams from as far south as the Mexican Pacific coast.

Steamed clams and zucchini

Such was the case this past week when I thought I’d pick up 2 or 3 dozen fresh clams for an easy dinner. I was excited about trying a new twist on an old favorite steamer clam recipe. It’s a cleaver approach inspired by Lidia Bastianich’s Italian pairing of clams with zucchini.

Well heck, back at the store, there were no Oregon clams. Once again, I am confronted with a Plan B situation. Assured they were very fresh, and they looked quite good, I walked out with fat juicy Venus clams.

Clams and Zucchini Duo

Turns out, clams and zucchini are a brilliant combination. They are both mild, neither likes to be overcooked, and they compliment each other beautifully.  In this case, they take on eye-rolling proportions when the usual garlicky clam nectar is further embellished with sweet leeks and tomatoes. It’s all transformed into a charming meal as the clams and zucchini mingle and develop more character in this hearty broth.

It’s fast and fabulous. Within 20 minutes it’s ready—the clams have popped open and released their brininess into the pot. You could serve smaller portions with drinks. Or, as a lingering meal, ladle it all into wide bowls over crusty grilled bread. It’s lovely followed by a lush salad of blue cheese, apple and caramelized nuts with vanilla balsamic vinaigrette…

Steamed Clams and Zucchini

Inspired by Steamed Clams & Zucchini in Lidia’s Celebrate like an Italian by Lidia Bastianich

Ingredients
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup leeks, halve lengthwise, cut into ¼” slices or ½ onion, slice
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
¼ tsp each dried oregano & red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
1 cup crushed diced tomatoes
½ tsp sea salt
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1½”x ¼” strips
2-3 doz. or more butter or steamer clams
Finish:  ½ cup parsley, olive oil for final drizzle, toasted or grilled sliced baguette

Instructions

  1. In a large pot set over medium heat, pour in olive oil. When hot, add leeks and cook to soften @ 2 minutes.
  2. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes to taste; , cover and cook 3 minutes. Add the white wine, cook down briefly; add the tomatoes and set to simmer. Cook 5 minutes reducing slightly to a thick broth and set aside.
  3. When ready to serve, bring vegetables up to a simmer and add the zucchini; cook 2-3 minutes, until softened.  Increase heat to a boil, add the clams and enough fresh water to barely cover.  Add lid, reduce heat slightly, and steam for 5-6 minutes until shells open.  Discard any that remain closed. Ladle into shallow bowls over toasted bread. Sprinkle with parsley, drizzle with more olive oil.  Pass more bread.  Serves 2 or more.

Curds the Word

It was my buddy Keith’s birthday this past Sunday (also Groundhog’s Day & Super Bowl Sunday), so there were plenty of reasons to celebrate. For my part, I made my first batch of homemade cheese curds the day before… and oh, were they good!

Fresh cheese curds

I won’t bore you with the tedious details. Suffice to say, it was a marathon 8-hour procedure which I further complicated by throwing in a sous vide for temperature control, but well worth it. If you happen to be a curd lover, you might want to check out the thorough directions at New England Cheese Making Supply Co.

Mild cheese curds are at their best when eaten fresh, while their prized squeakiness is at its peak (within a day or so of making). Keith got his lovely curds on time and I had enough left for a very tasty riff on a pizza Margherita. I realize I am past due for a [Friday] pizza blog, so here we go!

I was curious to see what the curds would do on the pizza. Would they melt or turn rubbery? I would keep ingredients on the tame side as to not overwhelm the curds. All that was left was to assemble a few ingredients and give it a quick bake in a hot oven.

I started with a pre-baked crust made earlier in the day. To get my quota of garlic in, I opt for a gentle smear of garlic confit. I like to keep a jar of it in the fridge for occasions such as this, as it gives a mellow garlic flavor that blends well but does not dominate. For a substitute, see the recipe for easy alternative.

Pizza with Curds and Tomatoes

In rapid succession, it’s layered with sliced onion and spicy pasilla pepper; then a bit of salt and pepper and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary and thyme. Our featured sliced tomatoes and cheese curds get dotted about; if you don’t have curds, use any fresh cheese, such as mozzarella. It’s finished with a light dusting of Asiago or Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, and popped into a hot oven until the top is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. Once baked, fresh basil is scattered across the top and it’s served.

Final curd outcome: the curds melt slightly, brown on top, and become creamy. Once cooled, they firm up and go back to their original texture, albeit a tad drier. Pretty much what you would expect. No rubbery cheese here!

Pizza with Cheese Curds and Tomatoes

Ingredients
½ recipe pizza dough, or medium purchased
1 Tbsp garlic confit, or 1 Tbsp olive oil heated with 2 cloves garlic, smash
½ onion, slice
½ pasilla or other pepper, slice
salt and pepper
1 tsp fresh rosemary and/or thyme
3 Roma tomatoes, slice
1 cup fresh cheese curds, cut bite-size
½ cup Asiago or Parmesan cheese, grate
2 tsp olive oil
5-6 fresh basil leaves, tear smaller if large

Instructions

  1. Prepare one 9-10” crust. Preheat oven to 425-450°F.
  2. On fresh or pre-baked crust, evenly spread garlic confit over the surface, coating edges.
  3. Add a layer of sliced onion and pepper. Season lightly with salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh herbs.
  4. Top with sliced tomatoes and dot with fresh cheese curds. Sprinkle with aged Asiago or Parmesan cheese and drizzle the top with olive oil.
  5. Bake 15-20 minutes, until bubbly on top and crust is golden brown. Scatter with fresh basil leaves. Makes 1 medium pizza.