Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Green Period

If I were an artist, this time of year would have to be characterized as my “Green Period.”  It seems that nearly everything seasonal that I have to cook with, especially if it comes in our CSA box, is green.  It’s easier to list the exceptions: strawberries, radishes, a few hot-house tomatoes, the white parts of scallions, a few chard stems…you get the idea.

And so I set out to try a recipe I had put aside for when such green things were back in abundance, one for tacos made with Swiss chard cooked with onions and garlic.  Now, usually I forgo publishing a recipe that didn’t live up to my unreasonably high expectations, or that I just found only so-so.  In this case, while I did find my attempt at this dish only so-so, I love the idea of the dish, the theory, the method, the very lifestyle of it.  I want to, again and again, eat sautéed greens wrapped in tortillas.  I want you to want to, too.

You see, I had a memory of some delicious sautéed greens with lots of garlic and perhaps some vinegar that I had made as a side dish at least a year ago. That’s what I wanted in my tacos. Earthy greens, really garlicky, a little salty.  I added to that memory of flavor with a big handful of cilantro, a bit of chile pepper, and a splash of lime juice.  Somehow, however, I missed my imagined mark.

These tacos weren’t bad, of course.  Since I sautéed my chard instead of boiling it, it maintained its character and avoided that canned spinach pitfall, the risk of which boiled green are always running. (The original recipe called for boiled chard.)  I just wanted more garlic, chile, lime, cilantro, and, okay I’ll admit it, salt flavor. Perhaps in a second run at this recipe I’d be more extreme, but I’m going to print it as I made it, knowing that it really was pretty good. Good enough to make again.  Good enough to promote the idea of stuffing tacos with sautéed greens forevermore.

I also garnished the greens in these tacos with some homemade fresh cheese, from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.  I used the same ingredients and technique as I did for the cottage cheese in this post, but drained off more of the whey and squeezed the fresh curds into a drier cheese.  It went quite nicely with the sautéed greens on my taco.  So did the tortillas I made (I’m more excited about the tortillas than about the rest of the taco).  More on those tortillas in another post.

So, I say enjoy your own little Green Period if you’re going through one now in your refrigerator or garden or farmer’s market or CSA box.  And put some green things in your tacos!

Tacos with Sauteed Greens and Fresh Cheese
Based on a recipe in Martha Stewart Living magazine

I like to include the stems with the sautéed chard.  Just finely chop the stems before cooking.

1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
1 small yellow or white onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves or 2 heads green garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh chile pepper (or to taste)
6 ounces chard (or other dark greens), chopped
2 tablespoons water
¼ teaspoon coarse salt (or more to taste)
1 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
fresh cheese and flour or corn tortillas for serving

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, or until soft and beginning to brown, stirring frequently.  Add the garlic and chile and cook about 1 minute more, stirring constantly.

2. Add the chard, water and salt and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently, until the chard is tender and well wilted.  Add the cilantro and cook until the cilantro has wilted.

3.  Add the lime juice and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Serve with fresh cheese on tortillas

Makes about 2 servings.  This recipe can be doubled.

Two years ago: Rhubarb Yogurt Cake

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lime Bars

We all know that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. But what if life offers you limes at ten for a buck. Well, I suppose Margaritas come to mind first, but if you’re a dessert-lover like me, you might be thinking lime bars. I know I was.

I was probably thinking lime bars because I had this lemon bar recipe (and nice photos) in my mind when I stumbled across the good deal on limes. It seemed it would be a simple substitution of lime juice for the lemon juice. Harry, who is a Key lime pie fiend, was, of course, enthusiastic, but he wouldn’t let me stop at, “I’m going to make you some lime bars.” No. He, in all his Key lime pie fiend-ness, said, “You could make them with a graham cracker crust and they’d be more like Key lime pie.”

Blink. Blink. “Of course they would,” I said, but I was thinking, “Idiot! Why didn’t I think of that?” The important thing is that somebody thought of it and somebody made the bars that way and they were delicious.

The graham cracker crust does take the bars a little more toward the Key lime pie category. It is fairly thick and sturdy, sturdy enough to allow one to pick up small squares of the dessert with one’s fingers if desired. (We didn’t eat it in small squares.) And if you’ve really got Key lime pie on the brain, you could serve each bar with a dollop of whipped cream. I simply sprinkled powdered sugar on some of the bars, found that it didn’t make that much difference, except to hide the not-that-attractive top of the lime custard layer, and left it off of subsequent servings. No time!

These bars are pleasantly pucker-y (actually quite tart) and would be nicely refreshing on a hot and sunny summer day. I say “would be” because we haven’t had any of those in a while. Oh well, they’re good in any weather and quite easy to make, especially if you have a food processor in which to mix the crust. (If you don’t have one, you can crush the graham crackers and mix the crust by hand.) And I might as well be making them now, in the cold and rain. As soon as it gets warm and sunny, there could be something else that life might give me that I’ll have to figure out how to use. Like zucchini.

Lime Bars with Graham Cracker Crust
Adapted from a recipe in Baking Bites

8 ounces graham crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
7 tablespoons butter, melted

4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 cup lime juice, strained of pulp
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

powdered sugar to garnish if desired

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray (or brush with melted butter). Set aside.

2. Place the graham crackers in a food processor and process to coarse crumbs. Add the 2 tablespoons sugar and melted butter. Process until well mixed.

3. Pour the graham cracker crumb mixture into the prepared baking pan. Press into the pan evenly and firmly. Bake at 375 F for about 15 minutes or until golden brown on the edges. Remove from the oven.

4. While the crust is baking, combine the eggs and sugar in a medium-size bowl. Whisk together until smooth. Whisk in the lime juice and vanilla extract.

5. Pour the egg mixture over the baked and still warm crust. Return to the oven and bake at 375 F about 18 minutes, or until the filling is set and only jiggles slightly when shaken. Cool completely or chill if desired. Cut into squares to serve. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.

Makes at least 16 servings. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for a few days.

Another recipe like this one: Rhubarb Custard Bars

One year ago: Szechuan Broccoli and Water Chestnut Stir Fry, Broccoli Stem and Kohlrabi Slaw

Two years ago: Sweet and Tart Broccoli Salad

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Three Peas Please

Three bean salad gets all the summertime attention. (No? Well you’ve heard of it anyway.) Before the full-fledged barbecue season begins, however, there are peas that need their moment in the salad spotlight. Sugar snap peas take center stage, at least in my productions, and they deserve it. They’re fresh, sweet and tasteful, and, unlike some other stars we might know, always leave their outfits intact.

The first bag of sugar snap peas we got from the CSA were so super crisp and sweet that they only needed their ends and strings removed to be perfectly and comfortably edible. Sometimes, the pods of sugar snaps, which are more fleshy and tender than those of other peas, can be just a bit fibrous and stringy. If that is the case with your peas, you can blanch them (boil briefly, then shock them in ice water to stop the cooking) before using them in this salad (or any salad.)

Really, I could have eaten all of these sugar snap peas out of hand, like trail mix or potato chips, they were so tender and sweet, but I had had the idea for a three-pea salad for a long time, so I kept some aside to combine with English peas, yellow split peas, toasted walnuts and a walnut dressing. I totally cheated and used some frozen organic peas, which were nice and sweet as well. Fresh peas are pretty hard to find, even when they’re in season, and can lose their peak flavor very quickly once they are plucked from their vines. Packaged frozen peas are picked and immediately frozen while their flavor is just right and are usually a very good substitute for fresh peas, unless you have your own little field of peas from which to pick.

I wrote the recipe below to include cooked yellow split peas because I only used ½ cup of them, and it seemed silly to include instructions for firing up the stove and cooking so few peas. Instead, I recommend cooking up a whole pot of them, putting the ½ cup in this salad and freezing the rest to use in soups, curries, dals, other salads, or a second run at this salad. If yellow split peas are not convenient or desirable, you could probably use another variety of split peas or lentils. They add some starchy body to the salad in addition to their voice as third pea.

The walnut dressing is thick and creamy. It’s kind of a small volume to make in a full-size blender (I did it anyway), so maybe one of those miniature food processors would work better. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was just thinking of how the crunchy sugar snap peas, sweet English peas and starchy yellow split peas were going to taste in a bath of walnuts and lemon flavor. They needed another accompaniment, and Parmesan cheese (I used Parmigiano-Reggiano) did the trick, adding a sharp and salty flavor and a bit more chewy texture to balance out the sweet peas and crunchy walnuts. I sort of twisted my knife through a block of Parmesan to get little irregular shards of cheese.

It turned out to be a very good show. Good enough to run again. This is good, because even though the Summer Solstice has come and gone, the weather in this part of the country has not been conducive to full-fledged summer eating. Sugar snap peas may have to be the stars for some time to come.

Three Pea Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan
The dressing for this salad is based on one in Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables by John Peterson

If your sugar snap peas are a little tough or fibrous, you can blanch them briefly before using them in this salad.

¾ cup chopped walnuts
2 cups sugar snap peas, strings and ends removed, blanched if desired (measure after trimming)
1 cup fresh or frozen peas (thaw and drain well if frozen)
½ cup cooked yellow split peas
¼ cup Parmesan cheese coarsely crumbled (about ¼-inch pieces)
1 tablespoon walnut oil
2 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

1. Place the walnuts in a small skillet over medium heat. Toast for a few minutes, stirring or tossing often, until they are just beginning to brown. Set aside to cool.

2. Coarsely chop the trimmed snap peas (I cut them in half or thirds). In a medium-size bowl, combine the snap peas, peas, yellow split peas, ½ cup walnuts, and Parmesan cheese.

3. In a blender jar or mini food processor, combine the remaining ¼ cup walnuts, walnut oil, lemon juice, water, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth, adding additional water if the mixture is too thick to blend. Pour over the snap pea mixture. Be sure to scrape as much of the dressing out of the blender jar as possible. Mix well to coat.

Makes 4-6 servings. Store leftovers for a day or two in the refrigerator.

Another recipe like this one: Wheat Berry Salad with Sugar Snap Peas and Lemon Vinaigrette

One year ago: Rustic Homemade Crackers with Thyme, Green Bean and Shiitake Salad with Creamy Wasabi Dressing

Two years ago: No-knead Bread

Monday, June 20, 2011

Garlicky Carbonara

Our CSA has its own blogging diva (Peggy at Cook Out of the Box), an experienced cook, ingredient expert, and veritable walking encyclopedia of home-cooking knowledge. Her “Inspiration” posts help us subscribers, who are often a bit panicky at the site of a box full of seemingly unrelated and occasionally unfamiliar fresh ingredients, out of a lot of scrapes. Or, in the case of a recent post, out of some scapes as well.

In last week’s CSA box we received a bundle of garlic scapes, which are twisty curly stems that bear the immature flowers of the garlic plant that will grow up to give us the garlic bulbs we all know and love. They taste like mild garlic and are easy to chop up and sauté to add to just about anything that might usually contain garlic and onions.

Alongside those great scapes many of us also received a bunch of garlic chives. I’ve heard of these, and even tried to grow them (without success), but I don't recall ever eating them before. With flatter leaves than common chives, they look more like grass blades, and they really taste like a combination of mild garlic and mild onion. Subtler than either, mellow and delicious. Assuming you like garlic.

Peggy, in her Inspiration post, suggested tossing sautéed garlic scapes and garlic chives with pasta and Parmesan, creating a sauce with a bit of pasta-cooking water. I almost made just that recipe, but then I remembered that I had some bacon, purchased for BLT sandwiches featuring the fabulous lettuces we also got in our box. I would take the garlicky pasta idea, add bacon and eggs, and make it into a carbonara.

If you’re a genius of Italian cuisine, you’ll probably be turning up your nose at my version of this dish. You will see clearly from the photos that I did not achieve a delicate, creamy slurry of barely-cooked eggs and cheese. Those are quite obviously curds of scrambled eggs nestled amongst the pasta, bacon and green things. All I can say is that I tried. I transferred the hot noodles right to the pan along with hot pasta water, hoping they would quickly heat the eggs without overcooking them. It looked pretty good in the pan, but I’m afraid in the time I took to take the photo, I may have lost some of the intended traditional carbonara texture. Oh, the sacrifices I make for The Messy Apron.

Anyway, guess what. I don’t care. The dish is still delish. The meld of egg, cheese, bacon, and mellow garlic flavors is still delightful (perhaps even addictive), and if you’re not that hung up on perfect texture, the leftovers are great, too. All in all, a fabulous use of pantry and refrigerator staples and a couple of unusual ingredients from the CSA box. Of course, a real Italian chef would probably use Pecorino Romano cheese instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano in this dish, but, since I’m not even a fake Italian chef, I’m not beholden to culinary tradition and am free to love the dish just as I made it. Imperfect as it may be.

Pasta Carbonara with Garlic Scapes and Garlic Chives

3 strips thick-cut bacon (or 4 strips of thinner bacon)
8 ounces uncooked long pasta (I used linguine)
salt for cooking pasta
½ cup finely-chopped garlic scapes
½ cup finely-chopped garlic chives
3 large eggs, beaten
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese (preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano), divided

1. Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium-low to medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon from the pan and set aside on paper towels to drain. Chop or crumble when cool. Remove all but about 1 tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat from the pan. Return to medium-low heat.

2. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until tender. If possible, time the cooking of the pasta so that it is ready to go straight from the water to the pan (see step 4).
3. Add the garlic scapes and garlic chives to the bacon grease in the heated skillet. Cook 4-5 minutes or until the garlic scapes are tender, stirring often.

4. Remove the cooked pasta from the cooking water and transfer it directly to the pan with the garlic scapes and garlic chives. Toss briefly. Add the eggs, ½ cup Parmesan and about ½ cup pasta-cooking water. Turn off the heat and toss just until the eggs start to thicken. Serve immediately topped with the remaining Parmesan.

Other recipes like this one: Pasta with Yellow Squash, Corn and Bacon; Spaetzle with Cabbage, Bacon and Onions

Two years ago: Eggs Benedict Salad

Friday, June 17, 2011

Curds and Whey

I used the first bag of CSA spinach to make this casserole, which I had been hoping to try for a long time. The recipe was from a magazine clipping, so didn’t seem poised to get me anywhere in my self-imposed Cookshelf Challenge. The recipe called for cottage cheese, however, and I knew right where I could acquire the knowledge to make my own: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. And so the Cookshelf Challenge is rolling again.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is one of those “stranded on a desert island” books. One that I could survive with very well if there was some kind of cookbook apocalypse and it was all that I had left. It really does seem to have the “Everything” it claims and I’ve found it to be a great resource for making my personal diet more creative and more sustainable, and using my CSA subscription to greater advantage. I’ve had success with the recipes for homemade seitan and falafel as well as a safety beet recipe that I adjusted to be even more safe (ie, to hide the taste of beets, which I pretty strongly dislike). I’ve also made homemade ricotta, which is a variation of the Fresh Cheese, the Easy Way recipe in the book as is my most recent experiment: homemade cottage cheese.

Fresh cheese is actually stunningly easy to make. Just bring milk to a boil add something acidic, in this case cultured buttermilk, let it turn into curds and separate the curds from the whey. Separating out the curds is where this recipe gets nice and messy, but a little patience can get you some tasty homemade cheese. I like to use the finer-mesh cheesecloth I got from New England Cheese Making Supply Company, which I highly recommend. The more usual cheesecloth that is easy to find at grocery and hardware stores will also work. I just make sure to use 3 or 4 layers to keep the curds from going down the drain with the whey.

Well, I don’t really wash the whey down the drain anyway. Instead I set the cheese to drain into a large container and save the whey. I then use at least some of it to replace the liquid in bread recipes. (It works well in this bread and this bread and probably would be good in this one as well.) The original recipe calls for draining the cottage cheese for 30 to 60 minutes to reach the desired moistness, but I found that most of the whey had drained from my cheese in less than 10 minutes, so I recommend paying pretty close attention to determine how fast your cheese is draining.

This cottage cheese is wonderful, rich and creamy with a greater taste of fresh milk than I’ve ever found in commercial cottage cheeses. I also put very little salt in my cheese, so the taste of the creamy dairy proteins, sugars and fats were not dominated by over salinization. The recipe makes quite a bit of cheese (I’m betting you could make a half recipe), so it’s a good idea to have a few recipes ready or some other plans for finishing it off. Personally, I like black olives, herbs or tomatoes mixed with my bowl of cottage cheese, but a retro spoonful in a peach half might be just fine as well.

Thanks to How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, it looks like I’ll be adding cottage cheese to my made-from-scratch repertoire. With a refrigerator full of curds and whey, Little Miss Muffet ain’t got nothing on me!

Homemade Cottage Cheese
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

I used half 2% milk and half whole milk, simply because that’s what I had. You could use any milk with at least 1% milk fat depending on how rich you want your cheese.

½ gallon (about 2 liters) milk
1 quart (about 1 liter) cultured buttermilk
salt to taste (I used a large pinch of kosher salt)

1. Line a large colander or sieve with 3 to 4 layers of cheesecloth (or 2 layers of finer-mesh cheesecloth). Place the lined colander in a sink. Place a large bowl or pot under the colander if you wish to save the whey for baking.

2. Heat the milk in a large pot over medium heat just until it begins to boil. The milk should just be gently bubbling under the surface. Try not to let it come to a heavy boil. (Many recipes that involve bringing milk just to a boil will tell you to heat the milk until bubbles form along the edges of the pot. I’ve found that if I stir the milk –ever- there are always bubbles on the edges, and, even if I wait for more obvious boiling bubbles, the milk is already bubbling away nicely in the middle of the pot. So, I’d say just listen to the milk. You may be able to hear it boiling before you see it boiling and if you do see it boiling on the edges or otherwise, move on to the next step.)

3. Pour in the buttermilk. Stir constantly until the mixture separates into white, opaque curds and yellowish whey. Remove from the heat.

4. Carefully pour or spoon the mixture into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Let the whey drain away for 5-15 minutes or as long as it takes to get the consistency you desire. Stir salt into the cheese (to taste - I used a large pinch, which resulted in a very non-salty cheese) while it is still quite loose. Spoon the cheese into a container. Cover and refrigerate.

I clean and reuse cheesecloth many times. Rinse out as much of the clinging cheese as possible. Machine wash, preferably in a mesh bag such as those used for delicate washables. Use a mild detergent and no fabric softener. Line dry.

Other recipes I’ve adapted from this book: Black Beans with Beets and Oranges, Homemade Seitan, Mediterranean Vegetable Salad with White Beans

Two years ago: Hot and Sour Lettuce Wraps with Pork

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spinach Casserole

One good thing about spring spinach is that, since spinach was also in our fall CSA boxes, there hasn’t been quite enough time for me to completely lose the spinach casserole recipe I had set aside but never got around to trying. Said recipe is for a dish loaded with spinach and quinoa and held together with cottage cheese and eggs. And, since spinach is in season and in the CSA box, when the recipe writers (the people at Martha Stewart Living magazine, no less) indicate a whole pound of spinach is required and I’ve only got half of that, the casserole is going to get shorted. Don’t worry. It turned out delicious anyway.

I used a couple other seasonal substitutions when bending this recipe to my will, including green garlic, which is the immature bulb of the garlic with which we’re all familiar, and some beautiful locally-grown scallions. I also adapted the procedure of the original recipe to streamline it a bit by sautéing the spinach rather than blanching it, which also resulted in fewer pots, pans and bowls to wash.

I might have taken things a bit too far in the made-from-scratch department by making my own cottage cheese, using a recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. You, of course, could use store-bought cottage cheese, and you probably will if you’re not as inclined to make messes as I am. You might want to taste the cheese for salt before deciding how much additional salt to add to the casserole. I made very lightly salted cheese, and would have liked more than the ½ teaspoon or so of salt that I put in my casserole. I think, however, that a commercial cottage cheese might have enough salt in it to carry the flavor of the whole dish. Here, you’re going to have to be your own judge. And more on that homemade cheese in another post.

I want to say that this casserole has a mild flavor, but I don’t want you to get the impression that it is bland. The taste of the spinach, whole grain quinoa and mild cheese are enhanced nicely by the onions, garlic and herbs. I cut the casserole into serving-size rectangles that we ate with a fork, but I think you could cut it into small squares and serve it as finger food, even at room temperature. The cut pieces hold their shape firmly, thanks, I suppose, to the eggs and cheese.

In case “mild” does read as “bland” to you, I think there could be many variations that would work well with this basic recipe. Crumbled feta cheese could replace some of the cottage cheese. (You could probably use ricotta instead of cottage cheese as well.) Different grains, such as barley, brown rice or millet might be good in place of the quinoa. You could probably substitute chard or other greens for the spinach. This time of year, when it’s just getting exciting to find and cook with locally-grown produce, you can take something relatively simple and basic (but not bland!) like this casserole, or another recipe you’ve been saving, and add to it all the best of the fresh and delicious ingredients available.

Quinoa and Spinach Casserole
Adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living magazine

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped scallions
2 cloves garlic or 1 small head green garlic, minced
8 ounces fresh spinach
a pinch or two of kosher salt, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup cottage cheese
2 eggs, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat a 2-quart casserole dish with cooking spray, oil or butter. Set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add the scallions and cook about 2 minutes or until just beginning to brown. Add garlic or green garlic. Cook about 30 seconds, stirring constantly.

3. Add the spinach and salt to taste. Cook until completely wilted, stirring frequently. Stir in the thyme, rosemary, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Remove from heat and set aside for a few minutes to cool.

4. Stir in the quinoa. Gently stir in the cottage cheese and eggs.

5. Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Bake, uncovered, at 350 F for 60 to 70 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cut into squares or rectangles and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Broccoli Cheese Casserole with Mustard Rye Croutons, Chard Tart with Feta Cheese and Olives, Spinach and Feta Souffle

One year ago: Asparagus and Goat Cheese Dip

Two years ago: Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce and Strawberry Rhubarb Fool

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rhubarb Custard Bars

I suppose many of you are already enjoying true-summer true-fruits, while here in the Upper Midwest, we’re still pretending rhubarb is a fruit, just so we can have something seasonal and refreshing to eat for dessert when the temperatures outpace the calendar to an uncomfortable level. At such times I’m really inclined toward rhubarb compotes (on ice cream) or strawberry-rhubarb crisp (again, with ice cream), but the first rhubarb dessert I tried this year was a little different: Rhubarb Custard Bars.

This pan-ful of creamy treats has the elements of three great desserts all in one place. It has a crust like a shortbread cookie, a custard filling studded with sliced rhubarb and a topping like a spreadable cheesecake. Each of those elements is prepared separately and makes this dessert a bit of a long-term commitment, but none of the steps is excessively complicated and most of the delayed gratification is due to the need to wait for cooling and/or chilling.

The crust is not too sweet and forms a nice, firm foundation that didn’t fall apart for me when I cut the dessert into squares for serving. The richness of the custard is nicely cut by the tart fruitiness of the rhubarb. It is baked right on the crust and doesn’t require any of the fussy steps with water baths or temperature-reading that can often accompany a custard recipe. It’s much more casual, but still creamy and satisfying. The topping is simply a blended concoction of cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and whipping cream. I’m going to have a hard time not making this on its own and calling it something like Cheesecake You Can Eat with a Spoon, C’mon You Know You Wanna.

All together, these layered elements form a delicious dessert that is even greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a bit rich (you can cut it into small pieces if you like), but not overly sweet, thanks in part to the inclusion of rhubarb and not an excessive amount of sugar. Of course, there should be nothing keeping you from eating any leftovers for breakfast, especially since the crust does start to become soggy (but still pretty good) after about a day. I made a smaller recipe than the one on which I based it from an old clipping from Cooking Light magazine. Since I also made it significantly less “light,” it’s probably a good thing that I scaled it down to sixty-four square inches of temptation.

If rhubarb is already so six weeks ago where you live, I think the custard filling could also be made with other fruits, such as berries or peaches. I’d really like to try it with blueberries and a bit of lemon zest, but until then, I’m going to be stuck eating local rhubarb as my sole seasonal fruit. Just to let you in on a secret: it’s really not a sacrifice.

Rhubarb Custard Bars
Adapted from a recipe in Cooking Light magazine

The crust of this dessert does begin to get soggy after about a day.

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup milk (I used 2%)
2 eggs
2 ½ cups rhubarb, sliced into ½-inch pieces

¼ cup sugar
3 ounces cream cheese (I used reduced fat), softened
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup heavy whipping cream

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. To make the crust, place the ¾ cup all-purpose flour, ½ cup sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the butter and pulse until all of the butter is incorporated and the dough looks like coarse meal.

2. Firmly press the crust mixture into the bottom of a 8-inch square baking dish. Bake at 350 F for 15-20 minutes or until the crust is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack.

3. To prepare the rhubarb custard filling, combine the 3 tablespoons flour and ¾ cup sugar in a medium-size bowl. Add the milk and eggs and whisk together until very smooth. Stir in the rhubarb.

4. Pour the custard mixture over the baked crust. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes or until the custard is only slightly wobbly when shaken. You do not want it to appear runny. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature. (You can refrigerate to speed up the cooling process.)

5. To prepare the topping, combine the ¼ cup sugar and cream cheese in a medium-size bowl. Beat together with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and whipping cream. Beat with the mixer, beginning on low to medium speed and increasing the speed as the ingredients become well combined for a minute or so, until the mixture is thick and creamy.

6. Spread the topping mixture evenly on top of the cooled custard. Chill for about 1 hour. Keep any leftovers refrigerated. For best texture, serve within 1 day.

Makes about 9-12 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Rhubarb Yogurt Cake, Cherry Clafouti, Cranberry Swirl Cheesecake with Chocolate Crust

Thursday, June 2, 2011


There used to be just a couple of recipes I would make when asparagus was in season. One has sautéed asparagus with tarragon, bacon and balsamic vinegar and was the inspiration for this pasta dish. The other is a quick and delicious salad of tender-crisp lightly steamed asparagus with a sesame-soy dressing. I should really have been perfectly happy with these two recipes, since they are satisfying enough to carry me through the short local asparagus season. I had to get all fiddly and experimental, however, especially when I got bold and silly enough to start flinging my food thoughts and recipe journal out into the infonet super blogway or whatever the kids are calling this here series of tubes these days.

The result was my loss, since, in spite of getting at least a few pounds of fresh and lovely organic asparagus from the CSA, I’m pretty sure I didn’t make either of these dishes at all last year. It may even have been two years since I made the sesame-soy asparagus. That’s just sad. In fact, I found it so sad that as soon as I got my CSA box and washed and packed the perfectly beautiful baby lettuces and spinach, I made the sesame-soy asparagus.

Okay, so maybe I did some other things before I got to it. It was really a beautiful day. The point is that I got to eat this dish, and I’m feeling really foolish for having gone without it during any asparagus season since I discovered it.

This dish is so easy to make, you might be surprised at how flavorful it is. Soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and garlic, plus the fresh ginger that I added to the original recipe, make up a fragrant and tasty dressing that simply needs to be stirred together before it is poured over asparagus that has been steamed for a few minutes in the microwave. The dish needs to chill for an hour or so while the asparagus soaks up the dressing, but still maintains its quintessential green-as-spring flavor.

If you like Asian flavors and the sharp zing of garlic and ginger, this could really be the only asparagus recipe you need to know. Memorize it and shape it to your liking. Keep a bowl of it in the refrigerator all season long. (It will keep for at least a few days.) Whatever you do, don’t neglect it like I have. It has taken me some time to realize my error, but now I think I’m fully recovered. Sure, I’ll probably continue to flirt with other asparagus recipes. I’m just too exuberant about the stuff…and about new recipes. But I do have a feeling that I’ll always be coming back to this one.

Sesame-Soy Asparagus with Garlic and Ginger
Adapted from a recipe in Cooking Light magazine

1 pound asparagus, woody ends trimmed
2 tablespoons water
¼ cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce (I use reduced-sodium)
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1. Cut the trimmed asparagus into 1- 1 ½ inch pieces, keeping the tips intact if desired. Place the asparagus and water in a microwave-safe dish. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Poke several holes in the plastic wrap to allow steam to escape while cooking.

2. Microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients to make the dressing. Very carefully remove the plastic wrap from the asparagus. (Avoid any steam that may still be trapped in the dish. I’ve burned myself this way, and don’t want you to get hurt!) Pour the dressing over the asparagus and stir.

4. Cover the asparagus and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. If you have a chance, stir a few times while it is chilling. Refrigerate leftovers for a few days.

Makes 4 side-dish servings.

Other recipes like this one: Asparagus and Pasta with Balsamic-Tarragon Sauce and Bacon; Seitan Stir Fry with Asparagus, Green Beans and Black Bean Garlic Sauce

One year ago: Noodles with Cilantro, Green Onions and Peanuts

Two years ago: Deconstructed Spanakopita Salad