Monday, May 19, 2014

Because it's not too hot for soup: Spring Chicken Soup with Anything Pesto

I do realize that my last few recipe posts have all been of the soup variety, but I thought it would be cruel not to share this pick-me-up in a bowl, with its earthy undertones of spinach and garlic, and its piquant slurry of pesto and lemon juice. I threw this soup together about three weeks ago, back when ramps were still hanging on at the farmers' markets, but the beauty of this springy soup is that any bright-tasting green thing will work just as well instead. Try mint, basil, kale, or parsley instead, and throw a large garlic clove into the pesto to mimic the bright green zing of raw ramps.

There are some recipes that you think will be a subtle twist on your regular weekly routine, but end up tap-dancing all over your taste buds and showing up every other thing you've recently made. With the perfect balance of mellow, earthy, and raw flavors—and a plethora of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to stave off anything that ails you—this soup seems like just the tonic for changing seasons. 
Spring Chicken Soup with Anything Pesto (adapted from EatingWell.com)

Makes 8 to 10 servings

4 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, quartered
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 quarts (8 cups) low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
4 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram leaves
12 ounces baby spinach
2 (15-ounce) cans cannelloni beans, rinsed
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
12 ramps, trimmed of root ends and coarsely chopped (or 1/3 cup chopped fresh kale, basil, parsley, or mint plus 1 large garlic clove)
Juice of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot, heat the 4 teaspoons of oil over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and chicken, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, turning the chicken frequently until it is opaque on all sides and beginning to brown. Add the garlic to the pot and cook for 1 minute; add the broth and marjoram. Increase the heat to high and bring the broth to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes more or until the chicken is cooked through. (Check by taking out the fattest piece and cutting it in half. If it's no longer pink inside, it has finished cooking.)

Using tongs, transfer the chicken pieces to a clean cutting board. Add the spinach and beans to the pot and increase the heat to medium-high.

Meanwhile, in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil with the pecorino cheese and chopped ramps and process until a smooth paste forms. If you are using basil, mint, or parsley instead, throw in one large garlic clove, too.)

Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and add them to the soup. Stir in the pesto and lemon juice. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper and serve hot.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Just around the corner



See the girl in the blue jacket and super cool fanny pack? That's me, pushing through the last quarter mile of my first half marathon on Sunday. What you can't see are the mini-waterfall of raindrops cascading from the rim of my visor, the pat pat splash rhythm of 7,192 pairs of water-logged sneakers hitting asphalt, and the flash of relief washing over my face as a random spectator yelled, "The finish line is so close—just around the corner!" 

In the moment this picture was taken (by my sweet fiance who waited patiently in the rain for me and my running buddy Kara, a bag of clean dry towels tucked under his arm), I could feel the culmination of all my training shove me forward. I breezed past Ms. purple coat and Mr. blue shoes (to the left in the photo above) and finished the race in four minutes less than my goal, 13.1 miles in a cool 2 hours and 6 minutes. After the finish line a volunteer handed me a medal, helped me wrap a crinkly foil blanket around my shoulders, and left me to be swept up by the mass of fellow finishers that surged like lava toward the food tent. 

Fifteen or so minutes later I had reunited with Kara and John, and we were safely in the car, heat cranked up, dabbing our faces with towels. It was then that I found myself having one of those out-of-body experiences, spirit me staring down at pathetic drowned-rat post-race me in disbelief. This thing I'd been training for for almost a year had come and gone—just like that—and suddenly that instant when I was "just around the corner," buoyed by anticipation, felt like it was ages behind me. Though I was incredibly proud to now call myself an official half-marathoner, something about that "almost there" moment tugged at me. I wished it had lasted longer. 

I mean, seriously. I could have finished an ultramarathon with a dislocated hip while joggling, and after (one would hope) a round of applause, I'd still have to do laundry when I got home and write my to-do list for the next day. Isn't it funny how the world keeps on keeping on, business as usual, no matter what monumental event has just occurred in our own lives? As I felt the moment slipping away, I wanted to poke my head out of the car window and yell, "Hey guys! Remember that half marathon I've been training for? Nailed it!" I didn't, of course, but I did do a burger cheers with Kara at our post-shower celebratory lunch. And then, the second I closed the door after sending Kara off, back to her life in Brooklyn, I remembered that I hadn't watered my seedlings in almost three days and that there were at least three unanswered emails from wedding vendors festering in my in-box. Back to life, back to reality.   



Today, with only a few weeks to prep the garden before planting time, and a measly thirty-seven days to go before our wedding, I find myself "just around the corner" from two more significant finish lines. At the first, planting day, I'll reclaim my windowsills from make-shift seed-starter pots, tuck the grown seedlings into their new homes outside, and declare the start of a new growing season. At the second, our wedding day, I'll vow to create a whole life with John, till death and all that. Some might say it'll be the most important and significant day in my whole life, yet I know it will pass by just as quickly as last weekend's half-marathon. And then I'll start training for the next finish line...whatever that might be.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Screw You, Winter: It's Seed-Starting Time!

It snowed this morning. Again. And, sitting at the table with my tea and oatmeal—trying desperately to ignore the flakes that fell in slow motion outside the window, like a fluffy white virus overtaking a computer screen—I soon found myself typing "How soon can I start seeds indoors?" in my browser's search bar. I'd planned to use this rare, calm day for reaching out to potential clients and working on some magazine pitches, but as a fresh layer of snow accumulated on the cement outside the dining room window, I knew that the only thing I could truly focus on today was retaliation. At the PASA conference early this month I'd bought seeds and seed-starting mix for this year's spring, summer, and (hopefully) fall backyard crops. I fanned them out on the table before me, an army of nine bedecked with watercolor illustrations: Nasturtium, Dark Green Italian Parsley, Dark Green Zucchini, Sweet Genovese Basil, Sweet Valentine Romaine Lettuce, Lacinato Kale, Sugar Cherry Tomato, Sugar Daddy Snap Pea, Cherokee Purple Tomato. I might not be able to stop the winter from trudging on outside, but inside our warm house there's no stopping me from getting a head start on spring.

It didn't take long to unearth my copy of Grow Great Grub from the basement and run upstairs to swipe The Backyard Homestead (a Christmas present from my mother-in-law) from the bedside table. And a quick search on the revered Old Farmer's Almanac website told me that now was a fine time to start seeds indoors. For growing containers, I harvested plastic and watertight paper cartons from our recycling bin outside, washed them in hot soapy water, cut them down to size, and poked holes in the bottoms for drainage. It was a motley crew, not quite as elegant as last year's seed sprouting set-up, but how could I argue with free?

Out of the nine types of seeds I had, only five recommended indoor sprouting: basil, kale, romaine, cherry tomato, and Cherokee purple tomato. The rest will be sown directly in their respective containers in mid to late spring, which seems like ages from now....sigh...

I retrieved my garden gloves and trowel from the basement, plopped the bag of seed starting mix on the kitchen counter, and set my prepared containers in a plastic tray (the lid of a big Tupperware storage box, to be exact) nearby. Then I filled each container to the top with seed starter mix, labelled the containers so I'll know which seedlings are which, and pressed in the seeds, one or two at a time, trying to space them at least an inch apart. When all the containers were filled and the seeds were planted, I used a spray bottle to water them all until water began to leak out from the drainage holes in the bottom of each container. [Please excuse the blurriness of this photo!]

It took a while to water them all thoroughly, but once that part was done, my mission was almost completed. I just needed to cover the whole thing in plastic to keep in the moisture and warmth and speed up the seed germination process. Luckily I had a clear-ish plastic bag that did the trick, fastened with a twistie tie.

And there you have it. Finito. The end result is not particularly pleasing to the eye, but I'm not worried. Once those first baby leaves shimmy up out of the dirt and begin to stretch up and up and up, it won't make any difference what they're growing in. Take that, winter. You may have held your ground outside today, but inside...well that's my territory. Let there be spring!


How well do you know your farmer? [Much belated] notes from PASA's Farming for the Future conference


Earlier this month, I hitched a ride with three fellow Farmstand coworkers to attend the PASA (Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture) Farming for the Future Conference up in State College, PA....and after two days of rubbing elbows with the flannel-bedecked farmers who grow, raise, and produce most of the key ingredients of our weekly meal plans, we were left both humbled and impassioned by the experience. These are the folks who were drinking raw milk far before it became the "in" thing for bodybuilders and health nuts nationwide, and who were employing sustainable farming practices far before the term "sustainability" became a popular talking point for politicians, activists, and food writers across the world.

Had sustainably minded farmers been given the proper platform (and some time off from the grueling day-to-day grind of tilling fields, harvesting crops, tending to their animals, etc.), they would have explained to the general public long ago that farming with the environment in mind—ditching the chemicals and toxins of industrialized agriculture; raising animals outside in natural settings on the foods they were meant to eat; putting back into the earth only that which we took out of it in the first place—produces foods and products that are not only superior in flavor and texture and beauty, but also much more beneficial to the soil, to our bodies, and to the environment around us than those raised industrially in chemically fertilized fields and cramped indoor facilities. Many of them have raised their voices over the decades, of course, and as the current "whole foods" and "slow food" movements prove, some people have been listening....but we’re still far from where we need to be.

Anyway, that's all to say/brag that, at the PASA conference, I found myself surrounded by rock star farmers, and it made me feel so invigorated and yet, at the same time, so....uninitiated. Imagine you've just discovered a really unique cooking technique or recipe or ingredient, and then you go to a party and tell a group of people, and they all say, with kind shrugs, that they've known about it for decades....that, to them, it's nothing special—just another taken-for-granted ritual, like salting the water to make it boil faster. Woop-dee-doo. I've been pretty well informed about the sustainable agriculture for about six years now (as long as I've worked in the cookbook/food publishing realm), and yet I still felt like a little kid among adults when I heard a farmer speak about how she lays out and maintains the fields, rotates cattle to new grazing paddocks, makes her own cheese, and prepares livestock for slaughter. Though "sustainable agriculture" is a relatively new buzzword, there is nothing new about it: the practice has been around for centuries. How do you think all our food was produced before the Industrial Revolution? And how many new sicknesses and conditions have cropped up in humans and animals since then?

For more information on sustainable agriculture, visit any of these websites: 

Now excuse me while I step down from my soapbox.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Being a Grown-Up (and Green Ginger Soup)

Suddenly, thirteen days before my thirty-second birthday, I feel like a grown-up. It's not a bad feeling, per se, just a very imposing one, and it hit me early this morning as I stared out the kitchen window, sketching a spring garden plan in my head while waiting for the teakettle to boil.

Lately, my daily writing sessions have begun to morph into massive to-do lists, and my lunch breaks at the Farmstand—previously reserved for people-watching and leisurely book reading—are spent strategizing with wedding vendors, mapping out the weekly meal plan, or sneaking in a few pages of editing. So far, this new year is a year of lists and planning and organization...and as I type those words I can hear my mother's voice saying: "Remember how I told you you'd understand when you're older? Well, now you're older, and this is only the beginning."

Touché, dear mother. Touché.

So here I am, at the cusp of my thirty-third year, with ninety-five days to go before my wedding and two days left before my current freelance project is due. And somehow, though I won't say my blood pressure didn't rise a little as I watched those count-downs appear on the lines above, I feel like I can handle it. Last night John and I made a massive pot of soup that will last for at least two more dinners and a few more lunches...and this morning I started the very last batch of wedding favor preserves (this time apple butter with fresh ginger), which will simmer all day while I write this post and then get back to editing. (More on the wedding favor preserves to come.) Just as she was right about not working on the edge of the counter and washing dishes as you go, it turns out that my mother was also right about planning ahead and using my time efficiently (though that last one I should really attribute to my father, who named our family boat "The Time Manager"). I suppose I never realized until now that all of those lessons helped prepare me for these moments, when suddenly it hits me that I'm an actual grown-up...and that that isn't such a scary thing after all.

Before I get back to work, though, let me leave you with one of my favorite winter soups—a regular on our weekly big-batch rotation, and a perfect way to brighten up the gray winter doldrums. Very slightly adapted from 101Cookbooks.com, this Green Ginger Soup is rich with leeks, onions, spinach, and chard, and a sweet-spicy kick of lemon and ginger. One spoonful will leave you feeling rejuvenated, and the crazy amount of nutrients packed into the bowl (Vitamins A, C, E, K, and B-6, iron, manganese, fiber, beta-carotene, folate, and more) will give your immune system just what it needs to stave off the next wave of cold season. This recipe makes enough for ten to twelve servings, and freezes very well, but if you'd rather make a smaller batch, just halve the ingredients.

Green Ginger Soup (slightly adapted from 101 Cookbooks)

Makes 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients:
2 large leeks, trimmed, white and light green parts halved lengthwise and sliced into thin half moons
2 large sweet onions, chopped
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons salt, plus more as needed
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 large bunch spinach (or 8 ounces fresh baby spinach), thoroughly washed and roughly chopped
2 large bunches green or rainbow chard, thoroughly washed, tough ends trimmed, leaves and first few inches of stem roughly chopped
6 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
3 cups vegetable broth
5 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper

Directions:
Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the sliced leeks, separating the half moons with your fingers. Swish the leeks around vigorously in the water for a 10 seconds or so, and then set the bowl aside. 

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions with a few pinches of salt, and cook them slowly, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and caramelized (about 25 minutes). 

While the onions are cooking, place the sweet potatoes in a large Dutch oven or stock pot with 8 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt. Add the spinach, chard, and ginger, and use a slotted spoon to transfer the leeks from the bowl to the pot. Discard the leeks' bathwater. 

Place the pot over high heat and bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer the soup, covered, until the vegetables are very tender (25 to 30 minutes). Add the onions to the pot when they are soft and caramelized. When the vegetables are fork-tender, stir in the vegetable broth and bring the soup back to a simmer. Then, working in batches, blend the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, stir in the lemon juice and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve hot.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Ghost in my Kitchen (and The Simplest Butternut Squash Soup)

There's a ghost in my kitchen, and it looks a lot like a 13-year-old English Cocker Spaniel named Brandy.

Exactly one week ago, after months of vet visits and medications and a sobering diagnosis of kidney failure, John, John's brother Chris, and I had Brandy (their childhood/family dog, the first dog I ever lived with) laid to rest. Nothing prepares you for that decision. For John and Chris, it was the end of an era. With the kind of unconditional love only a dog can exhibit, Brandy was a trusted friend to both of them, and a tangible bond that kept them together through adolescence and into adulthood. For me, Brandy represented a series of very important life events: meeting John, adjusting to an otherwise solitary freelance career, becoming a defacto dog "owner" for the first time, and finding myself a real, permanent, home.

When I first met Brandy it was after my third date with John, two and a half years ago, and by the way he studied her reaction, I could tell that her initial impressions of me would be weighted closely with his own. "She's always been suspicious of women," he warned. So I took it as a good sign that she jumped clumsily onto my lap as soon as he left the room. After I moved in with John, a year or so later, Brandy and I developed a set daily routine for my freelance days. We'd send John off to work in the morning, and then Brandy would escort me to the kitchen, where I'd make my breakfast and she'd lick up the crumbs, yogurt droplets, and rogue pieces of fruit that were inevitably dropped on the floor in my pre-caffeine stupor. For the rest of the day I would type away on the computer or crane over stacks of proofs and Brandy would lie at (or sometimes on) my feet, getting up only for a quick afternoon walk or a stroll around our little back yard. And at the first signs of dinner preparations—the large ceramic bowl being plunked down on the counter, the shish-shish of a knife through vegetables or greens—she'd perk up, scramble to her feet, and hurry to my side.

John joked that he and Brandy had similar roles in the kitchen: he to wash the mess of dishes that I left in the sink, and Brandy to clean up the scraps I dropped on the floor. Soon all three of us learned a new kitchen dance—John moving from counter to sink, cleaning surfaces and dishes as I finished with them, I moving sporadically from counter to stove and back again, and Brandy weaving between our legs, face up, attentive, reveling in my messiness.
It wasn't until she was gone that I realized how much Brandy's presence influenced the rhythm of my daily life. Yesterday, when the doorbell rang (John's wedding suit had arrived!), I opened the door just a crack and shimmied my way out, my back leg sweeping the floor behind me to detain her. And even as I sit here now typing this post, my ears are poised to detect a scratch at the back door or a suspicious scuffle of paws in the kitchen. John was gone on business most of the week, making the house eerily quiet, and each night while I made my dinner I could almost feel her behind me like a phantom limb.

Without my clean-up crew (and in light of my disdain for dish washing) I decided to make one giant pot of butternut squash to last the week. The recipe couldn't be easier, adapted from wholefoodsmarket.com, and since this was the fourth or fifth time I've made it this season, I figured it was as good an occasion as any to finally post it here.

You'd think it would have been easier to chop all those veggies without a Cocker Spaniel under my feet, burrowing herself between my ankles to sniff at the shavings and stray bits of carrot and celery and squash as they fell. But as it turns out, I've never been so clumsy in my life, tripping over my own feet and unconsciously moving with long strides from the counter to the stove and back again...in an effort to avoid the dog who wasn't there.

The Simplest Butternut Squash Soup

Makes 12 servings

Ingredients:
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
7 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 medium onions, diced
8 cups 1/2-inch cubed butternut squash (from about 3-1/2 pounds of squash)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Directions:
Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute, and then add the carrots, celery, and onions. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften and the onion is translucent. Add the squash, thyme, salt, and pepper to the pot and mix well to distribute the ingredients. Cook for two minutes or so, stirring constantly, until the squash brightens a bit in color, and then pour in the chicken broth. Bring the broth to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the squash is fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Carefully pour the soup into a food processor or blender and blend it until it is smooth in consistency. (Of course, if you have an immersion blender, you can blend it right in the pot.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The other white starch: Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic and Lemon


(Image from http://ballardfarmersmarket.wordpress.com/)

One of my first semi-independent culinary memories involves boiling cauliflower in 7th grade Home Economics class and then drowning it in a béchamel cheese sauce. Other than that, the only times I remember munching on this tree-shaped veggie was on appetizer trays with French Onion Dip made from the green-and-yellow Knorr box. She never said as much, but it's safe to assume that Mom wasn't exactly a champion of cauliflower. And so, as I trudged into adulthood and developed a cooking repertoire of my own, the idea of including these mild-tasting florets didn't even cross my mind.

That is, until two years ago, midway through my first fall season at the Farmstand, when I found myself faced with bushels of multicolored cauliflower and a barrage of customer interrogations: How do you cook cauliflower? What are the health benefits? Do Cheddar and purple cauliflower taste much different than white cauliflower? What the heck is Romanesco?

Since the internet could only take me so far, I eventually broke down and brought home a particularly large, Cheddar-yellow head, but my first attempts at purees and raw salads were uninspiring. No matter what the blogs might say, when what you really want is mashed potatoes, cauliflower puree (tasty though it may be) is not a viable substitute. So I gave up on cooking it myself (opting instead for lush winter squashes and sweet potatoes) and I turned to the internet for recipe ideas and talking points to carry me through my next fall-winter season. (Did you know that cauliflower is actually an undeveloped flower? What about the fact that it's a great source of vitamin C, is packed with cancer-preventative nutrients, and has fewer calories than a potato? Fun fact! Romanesco cauliflowers are one of the most perfect examples of naturally occurring fractals.)

It wasn't until this year—my third fall at the Farmstand—that I brought home another head of cauliflower (this time an enormous stark-white one), determined to find a cooking method that would make me fall in love with the stuff. You see, if working in the food industry has taught me anything, it's that whenever you think you don't like a certain food, it's probably just because you haven't had it prepared the right way. This time, inspired by one of Emeril Lagasse's recipes, I decided to roast the cauliflower and serve it with steak and kale as an alternative to heavier baked potatoes. By keeping it in florets, I hoped that the texture and bulk would give it a more substantial, satisfying feel. And my hunch was that the lemon in the recipe would cut the richness of the steak, which I planned to top with coins of herb butter.

When the cauliflower was done, I snitched one caramelized floret from the pan, blew on it a little, and placed it on my tongue. With one bite I knew I'd found a winner. All this time, cauliflower had just been begging to be roasted...and I was only just hearing its plea. With just a few simple seasonings and fifteen minutes in the oven, the sweet, nutty flavor emerged triumphant.

Alas, I am not hosting Thanksgiving this year, but if I were, I would definitely roast up a few heads of multi-colored cauliflower. It takes no longer than 20 minutes—prep included—and just think how the lemony zing and nutty, caramelized flavor would offset rich gravies, stuffings, and casseroles. If you're not yet a cauliflower convert, this might just make you one...

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic and Lemon

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients:
1 large head cauliflower, cut into florets (there should be 5 to 6 cups)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 500°F. Place the cauliflower in a single layer in a roasting pan or large oven-proof saute pan. Drizzle the olive oil evenly over the cauliflower, then scatter the garlic on top and sprinkle the lemon juice, salt, and pepper evenly on top of that. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the edges of the cauliflower florets begin to brown. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the cauliflower with the Parmesan just before serving.