Friday, July 31, 2009

Creamy Spinach and Artichoke Pasta

You know that awesome, creamy hot spinach and artichoke dip which often shows up at gatherings and that everybody gobbles up? Because it has spinach and artichokes in it you can justify hefting another glob onto a chip at parties and admiring your vegetable intake. It is divine, but the mayonnaise makes it so caloric you might as well chow down on a Frito-stuffed, deep-fried Oreo while you're at it.

I have a variation recipe on that dip which I blogged about before, which uses Jerusalem Artichokes (or sunchokes) to add a little crunch. Since my introduction to the much healthier Greek yogurt, I've been subbing t in to some of our Crispy repertoire for a healthier switch from sour cream and mayonnaise.

Greek yogurt tastes great in a saucier version of the Spinach-Artichoke Dip idea over pasta. I used fresh spinach, but other greens would probably work in this dish and it would certainly be a great pantry dinner for the winter months using frozen spinach.

To make enough sauce for 1 lb. of your favorite hot, cooked pasta, match a batch of:

Spinach-Artichoke Pasta Sauce

2 Tbsp. butter
6 small cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

4-5 cups fresh spinach, washed, steamed, squeezed dry and chopped (or 1 10 oz. pkg. frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry)
1 (14 oz.) can artichoke hearts packed in water, drained and chopped coarsely

3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 cup ricotta
1 cup Greek yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat butter in saucepan. Saute garlic slices until light golden, about 2-3 minutes.

Add spinach and artichoke hearts and cook, stirring, another couple of minutes. Add parsley, ricotta and Greek yogurt. Let heat through, and then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss sauce onto your cooked pasta and serve immediately with a little extra chopped parsley on top.

Serves 6-8.

In the winter, any frozen, snipped herbs or a dollop of pesto would be a nice substitution for fresh parsley.

I am sending a bowl of this luscious Spinach and Artichoke pasta over to Presto Pasta Nights, a weekly pasta-lover's roundup of recipes, founded by Ruth over at Once Upon a Feast. Ruth is actually hosting this week's Presto Pasta event, so be sure to stop by and see what everyone's cooking up after August 7. You can also shoot Ruth an email if you are interested in hosting an upcoming week.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Braised Tatsoi with Dried Oyster Mushrooms

It's been a rainy garden season here in upstate New York. Something about the jet stream dipping high into our part of the meteorological map, so we're getting a daily shower or two all summer long. It's great for the greens and everyone's flowers and lawns look lovely. But we have yet to have a red tomato, one of life's great garden pleasures. Even the cherry tomato plant has not produced anything except green marbles. I guess we need a blast of sunny days.

Here's a mini garden tour of what is exploding in a vegetable madness. We have lots of cilantro, dill, and other herbs, some Bachelor's Buttons (for the pollinators), and rows of mustard and other mixed greens which are flowering because I haven't gotten out there often enough to trim and eat them:

There are the first tiny yellow string beans, some kale and lots of pickling cucumbers which we've been slinging into salads and making into refrigerator pickles:

And then there are two beautiful rows of glossy tatsoi which have really enjoyed this rainy weather. Tatsoi is an Asian member of the Brassica family of vegetables and is a beautiful plant that produces a pretty rosette of dark green leaves on crunchy white stalks. It had a little problem with flea beetle damage when the plants were small, but it shot up quickly after that little setback and we have tons to harvest now. I previously shared a recipe for Tatsoi with Mushrooms and Indian Spices and now have another recipe which used up a packet of dried oyster mushrooms we had in the pantry.

Braised Tatsoi with Dried Oyster Mushrooms

3 heads tatsoi (makes about 5 cups of leaves)

1 oz. dried oyster mushrooms
1 cup boiling water

1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 tsp. soy sauce

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 (one inch) piece gingerroot, peeled and minced

2 Tbsp. Peanut oil

Separate tatsoi into leaves. Rinse and soak tatsoi several times to remove all dirt. Trim stems and let drain in colander.

Cover dried mushrooms with 1 cup boiling water and let soak 10 minutes. When mushrooms are soft, remove them and crush them in your hands to remove moisture. Chop fine and set aside. Reserve mushroom liquid.

Mix cornstarch, sesame oil, and soy sauce together in small bowl. Add in 2 tsp. reserved mushroom liquid and blend into a paste. Reserve this sauce for stir-frying later.

Heat wok or large skillet over high heat. Add peanut oil and heat 1-2 minutes. Add garlic and ginger, stirring, and saute 1-2 minutes, taking care not to let garlic burn. Add tatsoi and cook, stirring, to coat leaves with oil. Let wilt down a bit, about 3-4 minutes of cooking time.

Add remaining reserved mushroom liquid and chopped mushrooms and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover wok, and let simmer until tatsoi is tender, another 4-5 minutes.

Remove cover, add sauce ingredients and cook, stirring, until sauce thickens. Season with additional soy sauce if needed and serve hot.

Makes 4-5 servings. Great over rice for a quick vegetarian dinner.

This recipe is being submitted to Anna's Cool Finds for Weekend Herb Blogging #194. This weekly blogging event celebrates members of the Vegetable Kingdom and was started three years ago by Kalyn's Kitchen. It is now headquartered at Cook (Almost) Anything At Least Once.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

An Adirondack Stream Side Picnic

What could be lovelier than to finish the day by a cool Adirondack stream, with fishing pole in hand and some excellent company?

Summer is a fleeting season here in upstate New York and we like to take advantage of being outside and feeling the sun and wind on our skin (under a little sunscreen of course) as much as possible. July and August are also our two busiest months at the bookshop, between the larger crowds of summer customers and numerous calls to buy and haul new inventory. We also try to get out in the garden each day for a little bit to prune, weed, harvest or mulch. Add the juggling of two teenagers on summer vacation in the mix and you can see that we are kept on the go through this summer blur.

It takes conscious effort to step away from all of these obligations and just relax in our beautiful part of the world, and so it was without a heartbeat of hesitation that I agreed to my husband's suggestion that we pack up a picnic and our trusty hound for a quick ride up into the Adirondacks for a streamside evening of fishing and relaxing. Our two daughters wanted none of our romantic date, so that was all the better. Solo time with my man, whoa! What a concept.

We headed out towards Warrensburg, an interesting village in Warren County where they host what is billed as the World's Largest Garage Sale in October, but which we like for the electic mix of Victorian homes, antique shops, and stately trees and flowers planted in almost every front yeard. Our favorite fishing spot will remain our little secret as we don't want to run into anyone when we're trying to decompress. Suffice it to say that it is due north of Warrensburg, on a cool, leafy dirt road, where every bend in the stream is a Sierra Club photo opportunity.

Those northern mosquitos were as ravenous as we were when we arrived, so we slathered up with bug hats (ball caps loaded with insect repellent) and even sprayed the canopies of our folding chairs, while Dan pulled on the waders and broke out his fishing equipment. I concentrated on not having my 80-lb. mutt Martha knock me into the stream while rock hopping.

So you ask, what did we bring on this gluten-free picturesque picnic? Enough fishing foreplay, let's discuss the food. It was quite simple, really, and it was extra-succulent because our little picnic was so impromptu. We basically just ransacked the kitchen and slapped together a feast of tuna fish sandwiches on Dan's homemade GF rolls with home grown lettuce, homemade refrigerator pickles on the side, some carrot sticks with radish dip from the last of our spring crop, and the greasy remains of a bag of potato chips. All of this was washed down with a couple of cute little bottles of Sutter Home Pinot Grigio that we picked up in a Warrensburg liquor store on the ride in. A memorable meal made so not from the simplicity of our hastily gathered ransacking of the kitchen, but by the elegant, cool greenery and soothing rushing water accompaniment of our venue.

Life's simple pleasures....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Legume Love for Fava Beans

The fresh fava bean is a legume I have heard people swoon over and certainly Hannibal Lecter's infamous comment about them pairing well with liver and a nice Chianti in the book and film "The Silence of the Lambs" is arresting, so they have long "bean" on my list of vegetables to try out in the Crispy Garden. The seeds are huge: as big as my thumb and look as magical as any fairy tale bean, so they were easy enough to plant.

The plants are unusual and lovely as well. They grow fast into crunchy, squared off stalks with graceful leaves and black and white blossoms.

Unfortunately, as soon as the plants started to blossom, regiments of black aphids invaded, with accompanying camp followers of ants to stroke their adbdomens for some sort of insect "honey". They must have taken Lecter's culinary advice, because they were all over the delicate tips of my fava plants and I couldn't really squish them off without hurting the plants. I tried blasting them with water, but again, the fava tips are somewhat delicate, so I had this black blight on some of my fava beans when they developed their large seed pods. They come right out of the stalk of the plant, so this is truly an unusual looking vegetable to have in the garden.

The yield from one packet of seeds was not huge, but I did harvest one colander's worth of fava pods. They are very cute legumes, all snug in their downy sleeping bag pods. It is somewhat laborious wrestling them from these coccoons, sort of like waking up a teenager on a dark winter's morning. You can't just split open the pod and shake out the beans, like one does with fresh peas, as the pods are very fibrous and the favas each have a tough little umbilicus that one has to snap individually with a fingernail. After my wrestling match, my colander's worth of produce had shrunk down to 2 cups of favas.

Now I had still one culinary prep step to go with my favas. The bigger beans have a tough membrane that needs to be slipped off, so I prepared a hot and salty water bath for my favas and blanched them for 5 minutes. After they cooled, I again had a laborious project of attempting to slip off their skins, which worked on the bigger beans, but which only served to smash up my smaller favas, so in the end, I left the membranes on the smaller ones.

From two rows of fava plants to one colander of bean pods, now I had only one cup of precious, delicious, buttery favas. Such green gold must be accorded the finest treatment, so I hovered over cookbooks, cooking websites, perused my friend Linda's multiple fava recipe emails (she had been over for a garden tour earlier) and ended up making a simple, but luscious sauteed fava topper for some pasta.

It's a simple recipe: I heated some olive oil in a skillet, sauteed a few cloves of sliced garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper and added my favas for the last couple of minutes to heat through and then added this green crown to our bowls of pasta with some slivered fresh basil for an elegant Spring supper. Legume love indeed.

I'll have to consider planting favas again in another garden season. While the plants were gorgeous, if aphidious, the harvest was somewhat meager. I enjoyed picking them and cooking them, but it does seem unproductive to end up with one cup of edible greens after all that time and effort. Sort of like trying maple syrup production when one has only one tree.

Perhaps if I can research aphid control, it would make sense to grow them again if I could grill them in their pods as per this delectable recipe for Grilled Fava Pods with Chile and Lemon, and avoid the arduous shelling. I (with Linda's guidance) also noticed some other tasty recipes for favas which intrigued me for the future: Saute of Fresh Favas with Onions and Fennel, Tagliatelle with Favas and Romano, and Persian Sabzi Polo.

My kitchen and garden experiments with fava beans seem like a good submission for one of my favorite monthly food blog events, My Legume Love Affair, the brainchild of Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook, which is being hosted this round by TongueTicklers. You can join in the fun by submitting a post about your favorite legume to TongueTicklers by July 31st. There are even a couple of prizes involved, including a cookie cook book and a collection of dried beans, so be sure to check out the MLLA Event this month.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Return of the Green Lance: Braised with Ginger

Previously, I filled you all in on a new resident in our garden, the Green Lance, a hybrid Chinese broccoli variety (also called gai laan, spelled various ways). It is a very attractive Spring vegetable, a cruciferous family member that sets up a fleshy stalk that one cooks after there are several flowering buds. Inspired by the superhero name, I pounced upon some Green Lance recently

and harvested some more stalks to cook up in the Crispy Kitchen. The stalks definitely were woodier after some toughening in the early summer sun, so I would peel them at the base like one does to asparagus next time. I braised them with lots of slivered fresh ginger after learning a little bit about traditional Chinese cooking and the medicinal properties of various foods in "The Last Chinese Chef" by Nicole Mones. This book is the current selection of the foodie book club, Cook the Books, hosted this round by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen. If you would like to join us in reading this book and cooking up something inspired by your reading, check out the Cook the Books blog. The deadline for reading and blogging about our current book is August 28.

Anyway, we like the flavor of the Green Lance and it was braised up with some ginger to reduce the "wind" that has been causing various members of the Crispy Casa to sneeze and get congested during this damp and cool summer.

Green Lance Braised with Fresh Ginger

1 bunch Green Lance (or gai laan or Chinese broccoli), woody parts trimmed and sliced into one inch sections

2 Tbsp. peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 (1 inch) piece gingerroot, peeled and slivered

2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. sesame oil

Heat oil in wok until very hot. Add garlic and stir constantly for one minute. Add ginger and stir 1-2 minutes more, or until very fragrant.

Add Green Lance and stir-fry 3-4 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and cover wok to steam another 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove cover and add soy sauce and garlic and stir-fry another several minutes, or until Green Lance is tender.

Serves 4.

Haven't been blogging as much as I have been gardening and working hard at the bookshop (it's our busy season) but I will return soon with more gardening/cooking posts and a fuller Cook the Books post about "The Last Chinese Chef", which was a terrific read. It made me want to explore Chinese cooking and try out some new kitchen techniques, so stay tuned. And you never know when the Green Lance might just show up again.....

Monday, July 6, 2009

Creamy Garlic Scape & Greek Yogurt Dressing

I wasn't aware that like Alexander the Great, Greek Yogurt has lately taken over the dairy case at my local supermarket. I usually would buy plain store-brand yogurt or the Yoplaits my daughters enjoy and then cruise onto the next item on my grocery list. But after being sent some free coupons by the Stonyfield Farms company, I am now enamored by the thick and creamy Oikos Organic Greek Yogurt.

Greek yogurt has a lower whey content than regular yogurt, so it's thicker and creamier, similar to the consistency of sour cream. While sour cream has 480 calories per cup, and mayonnaise more than triples the calorie count, a similar quantity of Oikos Greek Yogurt has only 136 calories. I perused some of the recipes on the Oikos website and got inspiration to make my own Creamy Garlic dressing using garlic scapes trimmed from my garden patch and Oikos yogurt to sub in for mayonnaise. It was tangy and delicious over some tender mixed garden lettuces.

After admiring the sculptural qualities of my scape harvest, I made the following recipe:

Creamy Garlic & Greek Yogurt Dressing

6 garlic scapes, finely minced (you can substitute 3 Tbsp. minced scallions or chives if scapes are not available)
4 Tbsp. plain Greek Yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a cruet and shake vigorously. Pour over a simple salad of mixed greens.

This simple dressing really lets the vibrant taste of the garlic scapes shine. Next scape season I am going to try it over plain boiled potatoes for a little extra zing.

You can print out a coupon to try the Oikos yogurt line (including honey, blueberry and strawberry flavors) yourself at the Oikos website and check to see which local stores carry the brand. In our Capital District area, the Hannaford Supermarket chain carries Oikos and Stonyfield Farms products.

Overall, I am pleased to offer an enthusiastic recommendation for a healthy, organic and tasty product.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Luscious Lobster Pasta and Some Kestrel Photos

We've had a cooler and rainier than normal last couple of weeks so I haven't had much to report on the Spring Garden. We've been munching away on home grown lettuces, snow peas, English peas, daikon radishes, lots of herbs and even a couple of heads of broccoli, but all were eaten raw or cooked simply, so no fabulous garden recipes to report.

There is an exciting development in the garden, however. We have had a thrilling front row view of three baby kestrels fledging from their nest box. Several years ago Dan made a big birdhouse and popped it onto a maple tree in back of our house in hopes of luring pileated woodpeckers to nest there. Instead, one year we got a pair of kestrels, small, shy falcons with beautiful markings, that enjoy snacking on rodents (yay!) and other birds (there goes my bird sanctuary!). They returned again this year and chased away various hopeful starlings and grackles, but we hadn't seen them nesting once the foliage grew out. To our delight, one by one, we heard baby bird chirping and saw one, two and then three fuzzy kestrel chicks leave the nest.

We believe we have three young boy kestrels, whom we've alternately referred to as Chip, Robbie and Ernie ("My Three Sons") and Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe ("Bonanza"). Little Joe is runtier than his two bigger chick mates so we've become particularly attached to him, rooting him on in his short fledgling flights from nest to ladders to our backyard swing set. Glad to see that's getting some use again.

Dan is particularly enraptured with raptors, so he's been nonstop wearing a pair of binoculars around the house most days. We saw one of the parents (they zoom in and out so fast you can't focus on their plumage to determine their gender) drop off an enormous snack for one of the older kestrel chicks. It was the size of a pigeon, but it had some big old yellow chicken feet, so we're still trying to guess what that unfortunate fowl was. My neighbor down the road does raise turkeys, so maybe this was an early Thanksgiving for Hoss or Adam. We never found any remains, so those gnarly, huge feet must've gone down the hatch too.

Enough ornithology, this is a food blog after all, and since we didn't poach one of our Three Sons, I will focus on a fabulous Lobster Pasta that I made for Dan on Father's Day. My own egg chicks and I went off to the grocery store and had them steam up three lobsters for us and then hied away home to cook them up. It was a lot of labor to crack and pick out the lobster meat and I made a mountain of pots, but luckily my two daughters incorporated dish washing and other kitchen labors as our Father's Day present to our patriarch.

Luscious Lobster Pasta

3 medium (1.5 lb.) lobsters, steamed
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch garlic scapes, finely chopped (or scallions)
3 large stalks celery, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. butter
1 handful basil leaves, slivered (I have purple and green garden basil which made it very colorful)
1 lb. cooked pasta
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove meat from lobsters, chop coarsely and refrigerate until later. I don't personally like the green liver, but you could add that if you enjoy it. I did add the red roe from the female lobster in our mix. Removing lobster meat requires hand strength, good cracking tools (and a handy mallet for the big claws), as well as a hot, soapy shower afterwards for the prep cook.

I saved the lobster shells, clipped of the feathery gills and eye stalks and placed them in a stock pot with water to cover. I brought this to a boil, then simmered it for 1 hour for a nice lobster broth to add to my pasta sauce, with plenty of stock leftover to freeze.

Heat heavy sauce pan. Add olive oil and heat. Add in garlic scapes and stir 2 minutes. Add celery and saute another 3-4 minutes, or until it is softened. Add 1-1/2 cups lobster stock and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer until it is reduced by half. Through in butter to melt. Add reserved lobster meat and basil and just heat through. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook up pasta and when it is al dente, drain and toss it into lobster sauce. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

I am submitting this elegant, if laborious and therefore reserved for special occasions, pasta dish to the weekly Presto Pasta Nights event, started by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast, and hosted this week by Katerina of Daily Unadventures in Cooking.
Looking forward to another roundup of great pasta dishes after today's deadline. Dan certainly loved this recipe!