Archive for November, 2009

Cooking from the CSA: Collard Greens

After almost three years of writing this blog, I have finally realized something fairly obvious: When I come across a food-related issue I’m excited about—no matter whether it’s a restaurant, recipe, or trend—I need to write about it immediately. Putting the story on the back burner just never works; the struggle to get my words down becomes more intense, convoluted, and difficult.

Take this post, for example. I’ve wanted to tell you about the great fun I had last month cooking collard greens for the first time. Did you hear that—I cooked them last month! Twice! But first I decided to write about that farro soup I made sometime in October. And then I didn’t have any time to blog last week or over the weekend. So before I knew it, even more time had passed, the collard greens were a faint memory, and I dreaded trying to write about them. But while blogging about them was hard, it doesn’t mean I enjoyed the collards any less. Here, I’ll try to remember everything that happened:

When I received my first bunch of this floppy, wide-leafed vegetable from my CSA, I had no idea what to do with it. I knew collard greens were often used in Southern cooking, and a little research confirmed that they are traditionally cooked for a couple of hours, perhaps with some ham hocks, and served as a side. Not that this is necessary—further reading confirmed that a 30 to 45 minute simmer is usually enough to adequately soften the leaves. As with many greens, collards are high in several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, and potassium. With all this good news about collards, I started to wonder why I hadn’t worked with them before.

For my first attempt at cooking them, I tried this spicy white bean and sweet potato soup. (Another reason why I need to blog about these meals right away: Weeks later, I can’t find any of my photos of this soup. And it was truly gorgeous, a beautiful mix of vibrant colors. Sigh.) The thick greens held their own against the other hearty elements in this sweet yet spicy soup, and I strutted through my apartment afterwards, proud of myself for creating a successful meal with this foreign vegetable.

But then I received another bunch just two weeks later in my CSA shipment. While I briefly contemplated another soup, I really wanted to try something different. I guess great minds think alike, because that week both Mark Bittman and I decided to use these leaves as wrappers. Mr. Bittman encased Middle Eastern-inspired meatballs in his collard greens, while I adapted Claudia Roden’s recipe for hot dolma, using collards instead of grape leaves.

The process of making hot dolma is not much different from making cold ones, and using fresh collard greens instead of jarred grape leaves makes the process much simpler. (Jarred leaves require soaking, which fresh ones do not.) After blanching the leaves for a few minutes, I simply stuffed them with a mix of rice, ground lamb, spices, and tomato paste. Then, after an additional hour on the stovetop, they were ready.

Jim and I ate them for dinner, eagerly biting into the compact little bundles of spiced rice and meat. The lemony collards yielded easily to the tomato-spiked rice mixture inside, and I just couldn’t get enough of this sturdy, versatile, and healthy green. Although it was a struggle to write about these collard greens, there’s no way I could forget about them.

Recipe for Hot Dolma with Collard Greens (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

  • 1 bunch of large collard greens

For the filling:

  • 1/2 cup long-grain rice
  • 1/2 pound ground lamb
  • 1 small tomato, peeled and chopped (We actually just chopped up a bunch of cherry tomatoes, and they worked fine.)
  • 1/2 white onion, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • salt and pepper

For the pans/cooking time:

  • 1/2 tomato, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Prepare your collard greens. Wash them thoroughly under running water, and remove the stem from the bottom of each leaf. Simmer the leaves in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Blot the leaves dry and let them cool completely. Then cut the leaf into 3 equal pieces: Slice once across the top of the leaf, and set the top aside. Then cut the remaining part of the leaf in half, discarding the thick center stem. Continue with the rest of the leaves.

Wash the rice in boiling water, then rinse under cold water and drain. In a large bowl, mix the rice with the ground meat, chopped tomato, onion, parsley, cinnamon, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.

Now stuff your collard leaves with the mixture. Take one slice of the collard leaves, and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold the end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.

Line the bottom of a large, high-sided sauté pan or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired. Sprinkle the bundles with lemon juice, and add about 2/3 cup water to the pan.

Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pan with a lid, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Serve hot. We made about 20 dolma with this recipe. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Gina DePalma’s Zuppa di Farro

Have you ever come across a recipe—whether online, or in a cookbook or magazine—and fallen in love with it immediately, before even tasting the results? Similar to finally finding the one, I think you just know when it happens. Lucky for me, I’ve been struck by this culinary bolt of lightning more than once, most recently with chef Gina DePalma’s recipe for zuppa di farro (farro soup). I found it at the beginning of last month on Serious Eats, bookmarked it immediately, and couldn’t wait to try it.

soup

I’m not sure what inspired my strong feelings about this recipe. Perhaps it was DePalma’s evocative prose about discovering this soup in Italy during lunch on a blustery day, or maybe it was her appetizing photo. In addition, a closer look at the recipe revealed two things: many of my favorite ingredients were included (tomatoes, farro, pancetta, parmesan cheese) and I had almost all of them in my pantry or refrigerator. Like any great love story, it was meant to be.

All I needed was time, as DePalma suggests soaking the farro for two hours before cooking. Most recipes I’ve seen soak the grains for 20 minutes, but on a chilly Sunday afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to be, I did as the recipe instructed. The rest of the steps were simple: I sautéed the onions, garlic, and pancetta, then added the tomatoes, farro, and some homemade chicken stock (instead of DePalma’s suggested beef stock). The soup simmered for a while on the stovetop, and then rested so the flavors could come together. A cup of the mixture was pureed and then added back into the pot before serving, creating a more liquid base of flavor.

Oh boy, were my instincts right about this soup. The chewy grains melded with the tomato-infused broth to create a rustic, hearty-but-not-heavy dish that delighted with each spoonful. Meaty chunks of pancetta swam here and there, peeking out between the sprinklings of tangy parmesan cheese and spicy fresh parsley. Jim and I ate it for two nights in a row, almost reluctant to finish it off; we just didn’t want this love story to end. But by the end of the bowl, I realized that although recipes may come and go, at least this one would have a permanent place in my heart.

Recipe for Zuppa di Farro (adapted from Gina DePalma’s recipe on Serious Eats)

  • 1 cup farro
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1-1 1/2 ounces of pancetta, diced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • a dash of dried sage
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup canned plum tomatoes, crushed and chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 to 6 cups good-quality chicken stock

Start by placing the farro in a medium bowl, and covering the grains with cold water. Soak for 2 hours. Drain and set the grains aside.

Heat the olive oil over low heat in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it starts to brown, then remove it and discard. Add the onions and the pancetta to the pot and stir. Season with a pinch of salt and keep stirring. Sauté the onions and pancetta until they soften and turn translucent at the edges, then add the herbs. Sauté for another minute, but don’t allow the mixture to brown.

Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir. Then add the farro, about 2 cups of the stock and 1 cup of water. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cover and lower the heat. Simmer the soup while covered for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so. As the soup thickens, add ladles of stock to the pot. The soup shouldn’t be too thick; the grains should be loose and floating in liquid.

When the farro is tender, the soup is ready. Allow it to cool for 30 minutes in the pot. Remove 1 cup of soup to a blender and puree. Stir the mixture back into the soup, and add more stock if necessary.

Heat the soup a little bit before serving. Garnish with parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, and grated cheese.

Serves 4. Enjoy! (Jim and I ate this soup over 2 days. On the 2nd day it had absorbed quite a bit of moisture, so I added some stock to thin it out.)

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Artisanal Junk Food: Roberta’s and Bark

Last weekend was all about the junk food: pizza and hot dogs, I am sorry to say. Now, before you get all upset about my unhealthy gluttony, can I explain that said junk food was made from primarily local and seasonal ingredients? That the purveyors were true artisans who cared deeply about their high-quality hot dogs and pizza? After all, transforming once lowbrow food items into more gourmet fare—such as the fried chicken craze currently storming the city—is certainly the trend right now. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at what we sampled last weekend:

robertas

Roberta’s
Jim and I began our weekend on Friday night at Roberta’s in still-gentrifying (yet very hip) Bushwick, Brooklyn. Open only since January 2008, Roberta’s immediately garnered attention for its pizza topped with high-quality, seasonal ingredients in unique flavor combinations. Its young owners Carlo Mirarchi, Chris Parachini, and Brandon Hoy even shipped a wood-burning oven back from Italy in their quest to make a great pie; it occupies the front of the long, warehouse-like space. Although the menu has gradually expanded to offer more refined items such as hen of the woods mushrooms and orecchiette with duck ragu (Roberta’s now offers a fried chicken platter as well), Jim and I were there for the pizza. But in a concession to slightly healthier eating, we started with the kale salad. The deep-green, curly leaves were adorned with thick chunks of guanciale, sweet pickled onions, and pecorino cheese that packed a flavorful punch with each bite ($9). For our pies we decided to stick with the house-suggested flavors instead of creating our own combination of toppings. I selected the RPS, which came with creamy mozzarella, tomato, roasted red peppers, and soppressata, while Jim ordered the Crispy Glover, a pie covered with tomato, taleggio cheese, guanciale, onion, breadcrumbs, and pepperoncini oil (both $14). We both found the flavor combinations a little too strong overall—in particular, the red peppers on my pie overwhelmed all other flavors, and Jim’s guanciale was burned—but we agreed that the crust was practically perfect. Light and crispy, with just the right amount of char at the edges, it was the best part of our pies (gourmet toppings included). 261 Moore Street at Bogart Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. T: 718-417-1118

bark

Bark Hot Dogs
The next day we finally tried the artisanal hot dogs at Bark Hot Dogs in Park Slope. Made from a combination of pork and beef by Hartmann’s Old World Sausages in the Finger Lakes, and basted with smoked lard and butter, these were some serious wieners. Owners Jeff Sharkey (formerly of Cafe Grey) and Brandon Gillis (formerly of Franny’s) have put their personal touch on every aspect of the place, from the house-made toppings to the recycled wood tables. As at Roberta’s, instead of choosing my own toppings I let Bark guide me: I started my lunch with the Pickle Dog, which was covered with house pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise ($5.50). The tart toppings didn’t obscure the light, almost sweet flavors inside these snappily cased sausages. Jim and I also split the NYC Classic Dog with mustard and sweet and sour onions, while Jim’s Bark Dog came with sweet pepper relish, mustard, and onion (both $4.75). Each delicately flavored hot dog paired wonderfully with the Bark-suggested toppings, and I was grateful that I didn’t strike out on my own. The onion rings, on the other hand, were a bit of a disappointment. Coated with too much batter, I was left searching for the onions within ($3 for a small order). As a quick side note, I did find the list of food and beverage sources on each table a bit precious. I am all for organic, locally farmed produce and free-range meat, but putting this extensive list on repeated display seemed like overkill to me. But damn, those dogs were good. 474 Bergen Street at Flatbush Avenue, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. T: 718-789-1939

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