Archive for March, 2009

More Chard

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I may have to change the name of this blog from Artichoke Heart to Swiss Chard of My Heart (or something along those lines.) Lately I can’t get enough of this leafy green. That Swiss chard, cannellini bean, and barley soup should have kept me satisfied for at least a few weeks, but last weekend Jim and I returned for more, making a meatless lasagna layered with tomatoes, ricotta cheese, and yes, more chard.

The more I cook with Swiss chard, the more I realize how versatile it is. I first discovered it last summer when I made chard leaves stuffed with lemon rice, and since then I’ve tried to cook with it whenever possible. With its mild flavor—it’s not one of those bitter greens like escarole or broccoli rabe—and its sturdy, almost elastic texture, it holds its own in a variety of recipes. And as stated here and here by the New York Times, chard is one of the healthiest foods you could possibly eat, full of calcium, potassium, and vitamins C and A.

I should confess that I had never actually made lasagna before this past weekend. But with the help of this recipe, I got the hang of things quickly. I infused the tomato sauce with onions instead of garlic—I just happen to prefer my tomato sauces this way—and Jim and I used no-boil lasagna noodles. The result was wonderful: a light, healthy pasta dish where the sweet tomato sauce and ricotta cheese were perfectly complemented by the gentle chard. I’ll be honest, I didn’t miss the meat at all. I’m just trying to figure out what to make with the next batch of Swiss chard.

Recipe for Lasagna with Swiss Chard, Tomato Sauce, and Ricotta (Adapted from the New York Times’s Recipes for Health section. Tips on preparing no-boil lasagna noodles adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.)

  • 1 large batch of Swiss chard, washed thoroughly
  • salt
  • 1/2 pound no-boil lasagna noodles
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • a pinch of sugar
  • 5-6 leaves of basil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Put a large pot of generously salted water over high heat. While you wait for the water to boil, make your tomato sauce. Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the chopped onion to the pot and cook, stirring, until soft. This should take about 5 minutes. Remove the onions from the oil and discard. Add the tomatoes, sugar, basil, and a pinch of salt and bring to a simmer. Stir often, until the sauce thickens, about 30 to 40 minutes. When finished, remove the basil leaves and discard. Set the pot to the side and turn to the Swiss chard.

Fill a bowl with ice water. Cut the Swiss chard leaves away from the stems. Discard the stems or save them for another use. When the water in the large pot is boiling, add the Swiss chard. Boil for 1 minute (from the time the water comes back to a boil). You want the leaves to be tender but still bright green; do not overcook. Remove the leaves from the water with a slotted spoon and add them to the ice water; this stops them from cooking further. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop the leaves coarsely. Put the tomato sauce back over low heat, stir in the Swiss chard, and set the pot aside again.

Prepare the lasagna noodles. Fill an oblong baking dish with hot tap water. Add the noodles and soak for 10 minutes, shaking the dish often to keep the noodles from sticking together. Remove the noodles to clean dishcloths and dab excess water.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Add a thin layer of tomato sauce to the bottom of a rectangular baking dish. Add a layer of lasagna noodles. Spread half the ricotta over the noodles and half the tomato-chard sauce over the ricotta. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of Parmesan over the tomato-chard sauce. Add another layer of noodles and top them with the rest of the ricotta, sauce, and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Finish with a layer of noodles and the remaining Parmesan. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top of the lasagna. Cover tightly with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. If you like, finish the lasagna under the broiler for 3 minutes, uncovered, until top is browned. Let the lasagna rest for 5 minutes. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Meal Planning

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Take a look at my refrigerator doors. Sure, I’ve attached all sorts of clutter to them—photos of friends and family, invitations to future events, gym schedules, goofy magnets—but I’ve also made a simple, recent addition that has changed my life. Can you see it? I’ll give you a hint: It’s in the lower left corner.

Let me back up a bit. Before the beginning of this year, I’d often run out of dinner ideas during the work week. If I hadn’t planned ahead, by Wednesday I’d be struggling for inspiration and probably preparing something I’d made a million times before. Then, once the weekend rolled around and I’d had time to peruse my cookbooks and magazines, I’d come across new recipes I wanted to try, older recipes I’d been holding onto for years and never prepared, and favorite recipes I’d forgotten about and wanted to make again.

Because I didn’t have a system in place, this cycle of finding recipes and then forgetting about them occurred more often than not. Putting flags in my cookbooks and folding pages over in magazines didn’t work for me either, as I always failed to remember them as well. So back in January I decided to adopt a different approach. I spent a few hours paging through my books and magazines, and I compiled a list of winter dishes I wanted to make this year. When I was done I attached the list to my refrigerator door. I even added a nerdy little box next to each item, so that I could check off the meal once I had prepared it. I’ve always enjoyed checking finished items off of lists—I used to organize my homework in high school and college with this method—and I still feel a small twinge of satisfaction when I complete an item on my meal planning list.

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As you can see, I am a total dork. But since I’ve adopted this system, not only have Jim and I enjoyed several new recipes, but we’re adding more variety to our diets as I don’t make the same dishes repeatedly. We’re also cooking with more enthusiasm, as almost every meal is a new adventure and something we haven’t tried before. If you look closely at my list, you’ll even see some recipes from my recent blog posts, such as my sweet potato and butternut squash soup and those pork and ricotta meatballs.  That delicious swiss chard, bean, and barley soup? The recipe had been languishing in my recipe binder for years before I added it to my informal kitchen memo. I recently wrote Food & Wine’s green chicken masala on the list, and I am looking forward to making it later in the week.

So, if you are anything like me and need some help organizing your daily meals, I highly recommend my newfound method. I plan on compiling a similar list once spring and summer start. Or, if you don’t have any problems planning your dinners, I hope I’ve given you a good laugh at my food-related nerdiness.

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One More Soup, In Case We Need It

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I’m afraid to say that spring is in the air because I don’t want to jinx it. But I’m starting to make some adjustments: I’ve put the puffy winter jacket away in favor of my lighter wool coat. I don’t know where my hat is. And I’m thinking about dishes with ingredients like asparagus and peas. I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I can’t help it.

So before I get carried away by the warm air and chirping birds outside, I’m going to tell you about another soup, this time a lovely, rustic combination of Swiss chard, barley, and cannellini beans. It’s hearty, healthy, and totally appropriate for fall or winter. Let’s think of it as the final chapter in my cold weather soup series, and perhaps it will be useful when that last gasp of winter rolls around in a week or two. (Come on, you know it will. I’m sure it’s getting ready to pounce.) 

There’s another interesting aspect to this soup, besides its ability to keep the cold weather at arm’s length: It marks the first time I cooked with pearl barley. I’m always looking for ways to increase the amount of grains in my diet, and I have often read that barley works well in soups and stews. Pearl barley is not the most nutritious grain out there—it is polished so that both the outer hull and the nutritious layer of bran are removed. But many people like working with it because it cooks faster and is said to be less chewy than other unprocessed forms of barley.

Mixed with the mild Swiss chard and hearty beans, the pearl barley added a light, spongy element to the soup to create a gentle, satisfying meal from start to finish. The next time I make this soup, I think I will shift some of the steps around and add the Swiss chard at the end instead of cooking it for 40 minutes as suggested in the recipe. Not only would this reduce the cooking time a bit, but I think the greens would retain more nutrients if they were cooked for a shorter period of time. So that’s my only advice for you regarding this soup. But you know what? I hope that spring sticks around and you don’t need it anytime soon.

Recipe for Swiss Chard, Barley, and Cannellini Bean Soup (Adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan that appeared in Food & Wine magazine many years ago. It has been in my collection for a long time, but I cannot find it online.)

  • 1 bunch of Swiss chard, washed
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 celery ribs, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/3 cup chopped canned tomatoes in their juice
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 15-ounce can of cannellini beans, drained
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Cut the leaves of the Swiss chard away from the stalks. Slice the stalks crosswise into small pieces. Slice the leaves into strips about 1/4 inch wide.

Heat the olive oil and onion in a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Stir occasionally, until onion is slightly softer, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the Swiss chard and season with a bit of salt. Cover and cook over very low heat for about 40 minutes. Stir once or twice.

At the same time you start cooking the onion in the large soup pot, bring 5 cups of water to boil in a medium pot. Add the barley and simmer over low heat, partly covered, until tender. This will take about 35 minutes. Drain the barley but reserve the cooking water.

Add the beans and barley to the chard, stir, and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of the barley water, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat. Serve in bowls with freshly grated Parmesan. You can thin any leftovers with water if it seems too thick. Serves 4 to 6. Enjoy!

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A Look at Jamie Magazine

As many of you know, I consider myself a huge fan of Jamie Oliver. I’ve written about his recipestelevision shows, and cookbooks multiple times. I have enjoyed his recent focus on seasonal cooking, and I admire the positive work he has done with school lunches in England and his chain of restaurants called Fifteen. I’ve even become an official fan of his on Facebook. If that doesn’t prove my devotion to this man, I don’t know what else I can do.

My husband Jim is fully aware of my Jamie Oliver love and is not intimidated by it at all. In fact, while walking through the Heathrow airport on his way home from our trip to Prague, he noticed my favorite chef’s face on the inaugural cover of Jamie Magazine. He picked it up, brought it home, and promptly bought me a subscription for Christmas. Now every two months I get an up-to-date dose of Jamie Oliver, delivered straight to my door from the U.K. Unfortunately the magazine isn’t available on newsstands in the U.S.

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As I eagerly flipped through the pages of the launch issue, I encountered many of my favorite Jamie Oliver trademarks. The photography is just as beautiful as in his cookbooks, and the magazine is printed on a gorgeous uncoated paper stock. Oliver’s words are predictably light and goofy, and the design is clean and quirky. As expected, Jamie Magazine is a visual delight.

The content is varied and should interest all types of food lovers. Travel pieces, such as a lovingly photographed piece on Stockholm, alternate with more recipe-based articles. Also included are shorter columns on wine, cookbooks, and harmless celebrity Q&As. (Brad Pitt and Ricky Gervais have appeared so far.) I have always loved Oliver’s recipes, so I tend to pay the most attention to these sections of the magazine. In the first issue, I appreciated the simple tutorial on omelets. The second issue, which I received last week, includes many budget-friendly recipes, as seen in features about one-pot Greek dinners and cheaper cuts of pork. The only problem for me is that the ingredients are listed in grams—I might finally need to buy a scale so that I can make these recipes at home. I also enjoy the special pull-out poster illustrating meal ideas for next two months. 

However, amidst my love for the magazine’s design and recipes, I do have one complaint about the content: the blatant, overwhelming amount of product placement. I guess it wasn’t enough to package the first issue of Jamie Magazine with a smaller catalogue for the Jme Collection, Oliver’s line of house wares. That article about aioli and beautiful wood serving pieces? It also functions as a plug for the chef’s line of all-natural boards and platters. The recipe for orrechiette with lamb ragu? Paired with an article about the designers for the Jme Collection, it’s yet another vehicle for endorsing the product line. And on and on it goes, every few pages containing a short article that also encourages the reader to invest in Oliver’s herbs, sauces, and house wares. I’m happy to say that the product placement in the second issue has been toned down a bit, but there’s no escaping some of the promotional propaganda. I doubt that a feature article on chef Adam Perry Lang, who is about to open a chain of barbecue restaurants with Oliver, would have been included otherwise.

Perhaps I should take a look at other celebrity-driven magazines, such as O, The Oprah Magazine, and Every Day with Rachel Ray, just to see how they compare in terms of self-promotion.  I understand that Jamie Magazine is driven by Jamie Oliver and is meant to capitalize on his name and personality, as well as to sell his brand. But as I turn the pages and see all of his products it tries to sell, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I will stick with my favorite chef and watch the magazine evolve over the next few months. I hope to see more great recipes and articles, and less product placement. Because that’s what true fans want from Jamie Oliver.

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Artichokes for the Choke

When a fruit or vegetable is in season in Italy, you know it. It takes center stage in every type of dish, from the simplest antipasto to the richest, boldest entree. Depending on the time of year, I could be talking about zucchini, tomatoes, or mushrooms. I just happened to get lucky last week. I was visiting Florence during artichoke season.

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Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The sun was shining, the air smelled of springtime, and my favorite vegetable—carciofo in Italian—was absolutely everywhere. From fried artichoke hearts to whole globes stuffed with breadcrumbs, I have never encountered one I didn’t adore.

I started noticing the ubiquitous choke at my hotel’s restaurant. As I perused the menu on the first night, I realized that almost every other dish contained some sort of artichoke option. Among the appetizers were listed both an artichoke tart and grilled octopus with artichokes and citrus fruit. The secondi included a beef tagliata with an artichoke salad, and sea bass with artichokes, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Although they all sounded amazing, I felt like having pasta. I turned to the primi and chose the spaghetti al “macco” di carciofi, which translates to spaghetti with a sort of pureed artichoke sauce.

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A perfectly cooked mound of al dente pasta coated with a creamy, smooth sauce of concentrated artichoke delight was placed in front of me. Rich yet light at the same time, this was possibly the best dish I encountered during my trip. I ate it two nights in a row before I forced myself to consider other items on the menu.

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At lunch one day I was confronted with another choke-based meal, this time in a risotto. For a few moments I wondered if I was going too crazy for carciofi, but I couldn’t resist them. Whole, tender artichoke hearts cooked with firm Arborio rice created a simple and satisfying mid-day treat. It wasn’t perfect—in fact, it was slightly too salty—but the creamy chokes still did themselves proud.

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For my last meal in Florence I seriously considered getting that amazing spaghetti for the third time. In the end I decided to branch out to the secondi and try the beef tagliata with the artichoke salad. This time, the chokes were served raw and dressed simply with vinegar, acting as a crisp, refreshing accent to the rather rare fillet of beef that I received. 

I’m still thinking back to the intense artichoke-related joy I experienced last week. As has been said before and seen here, Italians know the true meaning of eating locally and seasonally. It’s kind of ironic that I had to fly to Italy to experience it, but I was more than up to the task. For my carciofi I’d do almost anything.

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