Sunday, June 17, 2018

Braised Greens with Bacon and Onion

Whether it’s because my tastes have changed in adulthood, or because I’ve found a way of serving sturdy, sometimes bitter summer greens that appeals to me, I’m now someone who gets excited about cooked leafy greens. There are so many ways to use them, and they’re abundant in the local farmer’s market right now. They may not need it, but I’ve also found that bacon really doesn’t hurt this kind of dish.

I usually cook kale from my garden this way, with much more thought about stuffing it into cheesy panini than about formulating a recipe. (More about that sandwich another time!) I also usually create more of a quick saute than a flavorful braise, but I wanted to make a bigger batch that I could use for several dishes as well as just eating it as a flavorful side dish.  

I didn’t want to wait for the kale to grow in my garden, so I got some lovely mustard greens and chard from the local farmer’s market to try this out. I started out with bacon, which wouldn’t be necessary if you don’t use it in your kitchen, but which really made for some flavorful greens. Plenty of onions and some garlic are good here, too, and work as well with the zesty mustard greens, as they would with milder greens.

I call this a braise because I added a small amount of liquid to my greens, onions, and bacon fat and let everything bubble away relatively slowly. While I only cooked my greens about 20-25 minutes, that’s way longer than a saute, even if it is far less time than it would take to braise a hunk of meat.

The flavor of the bacon and the onions really permeates these well-cooked greens. You can leave some of the liquid with them, or cook most of it off if you know you’re going to use the greens for something in which the liquid would be a problem. These greens can be served as they are, with the cooked bacon sprinkled over the top. They can go on a bed of rice to soak up the flavorful liquid, or a chunk of bread can do those honors. They can be stuffed into omelets or tortillas (like in this dish), or can be made into a frittata, quiche or other type of savory pie or tart. As I mentioned above, I love to make panini with cooked greens, melting cheese, and a smear of some kind of zesty condiment. With additional bacon, or with no bacon at all, it’s a great way to enjoy some healthy and delicious summer leaves.

Braised Greens with Bacon and Onion
You can use whatever leafy greens you like here, strong or mild in flavor, delicate or more robust in texture. Most recently, I used a combination of mustard greens and chard.

To make this dish vegan, omit the bacon and all the recipe steps that go with it. Substitute your favorite cooking oil for the bacon grease.

3 strips bacon, chopped
1 cup thinly sliced onion
2 medium-size cloves garlic, finely chopped
About 12 cups chopped greens, tough stems removed
½ teaspoon coarse salt, divided, plus more to taste
½ cup water or vegetable broth, plus more if needed

1. In a large pot, cook the bacon over medium heat, stirring often, until all of it is well-browned. Remove the bacon from the pot and set aside to drain on a paper towel. Reserve about 2 tablespoons bacon fat. (Pour off the rest.)

2. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon salt to the hot fat and saute on medium heat for about 8 minutes, or until the onion is translucent and beginning to get soft. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute more.

3. Add the greens, a little at a time, continuing to add the rest as they cook down. Stir frequently. Once all of the greens have been added to the pot, scatter on the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Add the water or broth and cover the pot. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook at a gentle boil until the greens and onions are very soft, about 15-20 minutes. Lift the lid to stir occasionally. Add more water if the greens are getting dry.

4. Remove the lid and continue to cook until there is just a small amount of liquid remaining, about 5-10 minutes more, or until the liquid level is to your taste. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed. Serve the greens with the bacon sprinkled on top. You can serve them in a bowl with a chunk of bread to soak up the flavorful liquid, or drain and use as a filling for a variety of dishes as desired.

Makes about 4 cups cooked greens.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Quinoa Salad with Fruit and Herbs

This salad was just going to be this salad made with quinoa instead of couscous, because quinoa was what I had in the cupboard. I was going to take a photo, and put it on Facebook and Twitter and call it a day. I started glancing around the kitchen and the garden, however, and decided that a fresh pineapple needed to be included, as well as some pineapple sage. The result was a different enough salad to warrant the writing of another recipe.

The dressing for this salad is virtually identical to the original, but since I was going to include the fresh pineapple, I added a couple pinches of ground ginger to the mix. It really goes well with the fruit as well as with the lime, cumin, coriander, and mint. The proportions of herbs and fruit are also similar in this recipe, although I left out the chickpeas from the original. Quinoa is a complete protein, so I felt like the salad was nutritionally significant without them. If you want to make a more substantial meal out of this salad, you certainly could stir in some chickpeas or some black beans.

I love the way this salad turned out! The bright flavors of the fruits and herbs really set the tone, while the slightly nutty flavor of the quinoa could stay in the background, but still compliment the whole salad. I loved the mint with the fruit, quinoa, and dressing, but I have to admit to being of two minds about the pineapple sage. It has a bit of a fuzzy mouthfeel, and its flavor is rather bitter with just a bit of the fruity-floral tone I was hoping for. It was good enough, but I don’t think it’s worth seeking out for this salad if you don’t have ready access to it. I included it in the recipe below, but as “optional”.

Other herbs would be great here, too, I’m sure, and a salad like this would be a good place to experiment with them if you like to grow them. You also could swap in different fruits depending on what you can get or what you like. This particular combination was delightful, gently sweet, well-complimented by the earthy cumin and coriander, and enhanced by the bright flavors of the fresh herbs. A really fun way to eat well this summer!

Quinoa Salad with Nectarines, Pineapple, and Mint
Don’t worry about getting your hands on pineapple sage for this recipe. The mint is great, however, and worth putting in.

Swap another liquid sweetener for the honey to make this salad vegan.

2 cups cooked and cooled quinoa
1 cup finely chopped nectarine
1 cup finely chopped pineapple
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
¼ cup finely chopped fresh mint
Up to ¼ cup finely chopped pineapple sage, optional
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander seed
¼ teaspoon ground ginger

1. In a large bowl, combine the quinoa, nectarine, pineapple, onion, mint, pineapple sage if using, and lime zest. Gently toss together to combine.

2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Whisk together until very well blended. Pour over the quinoa mixture and gently toss together to coat.

Makes 2-3 main-dish servings or about 6 side-dish servings. Refrigerate leftovers.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Spring Vegetable Risotto

At least one more run with asparagus, please. It’s been such a good year for it that I’m wondering if the asparagus spears are in cahoots with the rhubarb in its plans for world domination. The important part is that I can still get asparagus in the local farmer’s market, so I can try out my dreamy idea of a Spring Vegetable Risotto.

I don’t make risotto very often, although I feel like I’m getting more proficient at the process of making it. It really doesn’t need a precise recipe if you like to be more free-wheeling in the kitchen. You just need enough broth to make your rice as tender and creamy as you like it, and an appropriate proportion of mix-ins and flavorings.

I started to get more comfortable with making risotto when I made the switch from cooking it in a deep saucepan to cooking it in a skillet. I feel like the risotto cooks more evenly, and, well, I can see it all better when its spread out in a large skillet in front of me. It also seems to cook faster this way, but I can’t say I’ve ever done a minute to minute comparison between saucepan risotto and skillet risotto.

In this version I featured blanched asparagus and peas, along with some finely chopped arugula. My home-grown arugula is at the end of it’s good run in the pot on my back patio, and is getting rather bitter, but I found it a good compliment to the sweet peas and asparagus. I flavored everything with fresh thyme, garlic, shallots, parmesan cheese, and a light, homemade vegetable broth.

It probably goes without saying that you can customize the flavors and seasonings in this recipe, using other seasonal vegetables as they become available, perhaps some blanched sugar snap peas, for example, or lots of flavorful herbs. You can also customize the texture. If you like that little almost crunchy bite of starch in the middle of Arborio rice, you can stop cooking at that point. If you like your rice softer, like I do, you can continue to add broth and keep going. If you would like it to be extra creamy, you can add extra liquid at the very end and don’t let it all get absorbed. Or, you could add extra butter or cream, or more cheese.

I gwrote down exactly how I made this particular seasonal version of risotto, so I give you a recipe rather than guidelines below. I loved the way it turned out, with the mild, creamy rice working as a good base for bright and fresh spring vegetables (although I did use frozen peas), and a soft, slightly creamy texture. The parmesan cheese is wonderful here, as is the bit of fresh thyme, and an occasional peppery bite from the arugula.

Yes, risotto takes a little time to make, but you don’t really have to attend it as meticulously as legend has it. I usually can at least put together a salad between frequent stirrings. And it seems that “frequent” is indeed the operative word when it comes to risotto stirring. It should also be the operative word with regard to making risotto, too!

Spring Vegetable Risotto
I used a homemade vegetable broth, but you could use a store-bought one that you like or chicken broth, which will add a significant chicken flavor. I prefer to use a light-colored broth for appearance, but flavor is, of course, most important.

5 cups vegetable broth
1 cup finely sliced asparagus
½ cup peas, fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
1 medium-size clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon coarse salt, plus more to taste
1 cup risotto rice (I used Arborio)
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
¼ cup finely chopped arugula
½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1. In a medium-size saucepan, heat the vegetable broth to a full boil. Add the asparagus and peas. Cook until the asparagus is tender but not mushy, about 3-4 minutes. Remove the asparagus and peas and set aside. Keep the broth hot, but not boiling.

2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until it is translucent, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook about 1 minute more.

3. Add the ½ teaspoon salt, rice, and thyme. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and cook, stirring constantly for about 1 minute. Stir in the wine and cook, stirring frequently, until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice.

4. Add about ½ cup hot broth. Cook, stirring frequently until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. Continue to add the broth ½ cup at a time and stirring the rice until the liquid is absorbed until the rice is tender, but not yet mushy. You may not need all of the broth to cook the rice. The whole process will take 20-30 minutes.

5. Stir in the cooked asparagus and peas and the arugula. Stir in the parmesan and butter. Taste the risotto for seasoning and add more salt if desired.

Makes 2 large main-dish servings or 4-5 side-dish servings.