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Herb Salt

Sometimes a person comes into your life just like a shooting star—lighting up the sky and sending sparks into the universe. Rachel Williamson is a person like that. She stayed for a summer on our farm some years ago, and I instantly liked her so much that I gave her a couple of garden beds to tend. She had a lot of seedlings and not much space, so she planted intensively with wild companionship. I admit I had my doubts about the crowded plots, especially when the weather turned dry. Rachel hauled water and brewed 55-gallon tanks of herb tea to water her plants, and everything thrived! I am reminded of her garden each year when the volunteers from her sunflowers come up and brighten another growing season.

Rosemary

Rachel has a farm of her own now, and she makes tea for people. She moved farther north up the Blue Ridge Mountain Range to an acre of land near Afton, Virginia, where she grows herbs and vegetables and turns them into the most wonderfully flavorful teas and culinary herb blends imaginable. You can choose from “Civili-Teas” or “Profani-Teas”depending on your sense of decorum (or lack thereof). Do you feel like “Content-Mint” or want to “Cheer the F***Up”?

She also offers culinary blends with names like “Smoke”(smoked chiles, garlic and herbs—good for all things south of the border), Sicilian”( for the love of Sicily–dried tomato, smoked peppers, herbs…divine on pasta and in olive oil), “First Frost” (lemony, smoky flavor made with all the vegetables saved from the garden before the first frost, smoked and dried), and “Salt of the Earth” (lovage, parsley, onion, sweet and hot peppers, garlic, winter savory, thyme…A.K.A. “Good Salty S***”! Rachel markets her herbs mostly at fairs and farmers’ markets in her area, but offers them for sale on her website, fairweatherfarmers.com.

Seasoned Salt

I mostly avoided using dried herbs before I tried Rachel’s. Hers are the distillation of summer and are so tasty that I lick them off my hand. I pretty much sprinkle her herbs on everything–salads, soups, lentil and bean dishes, grilled or roasted vegetables, rice pilafs and various grains, roast chicken or meat, pop-corn…its an easy way to make almost anything taste more wonderful.

Here are some ideas, or excuses, from Rachel’s website for using herb blends.

Rachel’s Salad Dressing

A note from Rachel: “I don’t actually follow recipes.” I would say she learned that from me, but it is just a trait we have in common.

Ingredients: 2 tsp dried herb blend of choice, 1 to 5 cloves garlic, and 1/2 to 1 Tsp sea or kosher salt (some herb blends include salt), 2/3-cup olive oil, 1/3 cup red wine vinegar

Use an immersion blender or a large mortar and pestle and whisk to make a smooth puree of the herbs, garlic, salt, and oil. Drizzle in the vinegar last.

About garlic: The more garlic, the creamier the dressing. Use an entire head of garlic in the recipe to make a thick aioli sauce.

Winter Salad

“Nothing could make me happier in January than an intensely garlicky dressing over a giant salad of tender baby kale, arugula, and mizuna topped with copious chunks of grapefruit and avocado. It’s enough to make you dream about winter all summer long.” Rachel

Ingredients: 5-clove (at least) garlicky salad dressing, 2 to 3 generous handfuls mixed baby spinach or kale and other spicy greens per person, avocado slices, grapefruit chunks

Follow Rachel’s description and dream.

Herby Oil

Thyme

Ingredients: 1 cup olive oil, 1 Tbs dried herb blend of choice

Rub the herbs between your palms to release their scent as you sprinkle them into the oil. Stir well and allow to steep 1 or more hours before using. Alternatively, warm the herbs and oil gently in a pan over low heat for 1 to 3 minutes. Do not allow to simmer. Pour the oil into a jar or bowl and allow to steep 10 to 15 minutes before using.

Use for dipping bread or toast, drizzle on roasted or grilled vegetables, mix with beans or lentil salads, toss with pasta, brush on pizza dough, broiled fish, or grilled chicken…

Homemade Herb Salt

Herbal Salt

I ran out of Rachel’s herb blends and decided to try some batches of herb salt with the herbs still growing in my late fall garden. I still had rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, cutting celery, parsley, dill, and a few angelica leaves. Oh, and garlic.

Basic recipe: 1/2 cup coarse sea salt, 3/4 to 1 cup fresh herbs, 1/2 cup fine sea salt

Put the herbs (no stems) in a food processor with 1/2 cup coarse salt. Pulse to chop the herbs and blend them with the salt. Add the fine salt and stir. Spread the herb-salt mixture on a baking sheet and dry in the oven at 200 degrees for about 2 hours.

Sample blends: Rosemary-sage-garlic, rosemary-sage-thyme, thyme-celery leaf-chives-lemon zest-garlic-angelica…mix and match. Add freshly ground black pepper, red Chile flakes, or smoked jalapeno chiles if you like.

Awesome Potato Soup

I made this today using Rachel’s “Barcelona” herb blend. Never underestimate the value of a good potato.

Ingredients: 2 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs olive oil, 2 bay leaves, 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion, 1 diced carrot, 2 thinly sliced stalks celery, 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, 4 cups water, 6 to 8 cups diced potatoes (about 1 pound), 2 tsp dried herb blend (I used a blend of smoked sweet pepper, parsley, parsley, onion, ancho chile, chipotle, garlic greens, and criolla sella pepper…the “Rivanna” mix of dill, lemon thyme, pepper and winter savory would by good, too), 1 cup milk or cream, salt, freshly ground black pepper, chopped fresh parsley.

Warm the butter and oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in bay leaves, onion, carrot, and celery. Cover and cook over very low heat for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute. Add the chicken broth, bring to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes. Add the water, potatoes ,herbs, and 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer slowly until the potatoes are completely tender, about 25 minutes.

Use an immersion blender, blender or potato masher to puree the soup with milk or cream. Taste, and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Garnish with finely chopped parsley.

Salad Days

Salad in a Bowl

Vegetables are so abundant and beautiful right now that every day is a salad day. Salads for lunch, salads for dinner, salads for parties and picnics… Combining lots of vegetables and herbs with whole grains turns salad into a meal-in-a-bowl–perfect for the end of summer. These salads are light and refreshing, they travel well, and they welcome all kinds of garden-fresh vegetables.

Beautiful Floral Salad

Bulgur wheat, an ingredient of Tabouli salad, might be the most familiar of grains used in salad, but there’s a wide range of whole grains to discover that contribute interesting texture and structure to salads. My list includes wheat and rye berries, barley, farro, kamut, wild rice, Bhutanese red rice, short grain brown rice, and quinoa. Their subtle and earthy flavors blend well with vegetables and fresh herbs and support all kinds of flavorful vinaigrettes and add-ins like olives, capers, nuts, and dried fruits.

The first key to making a delicious grain salad is to cook the grains properly. Like pasta, grains for salads are best cooked al dente –they need to be cooked through, but retain something to chew on. When the grains near the estimated end of the cooking time, taste them frequently and remove them from the heat as soon as they taste done. Cooking times for grains vary depending on variety and age (just like beans, old grains take longer) and range from 15 to more than 60 minutes. Soaking long-cooking grains overnight can shorten cooking time by one-half.

 Tips for Cooking Grains

Grains

* Toast grains for more flavor.  Dry-roast grains on an iron skillet to add depth and bring out their nuttiness. Or, sauté them for a few minutes in a little butter or oil for added flavor. Get even more flavor by including finely chopped aromatic vegetables like onion, carrot or celery in the sauté.

* Cook the grains in chicken or vegetable stock instead of water to boost flavor. Add herbs, aromatic vegetables, or whole spices to the cooking liquid.

* Do not overcook! When the grain is done, drain off excess liquid and transfer to a platter or baking sheet to stop the cooking.

*Let the grain cool before mixing with other ingredients. Warm grain will wilt herbs or other tender vegetables and absorb too much vinaigrette.

One cup dry grain will yield 4 to 6 generous servings when used in a salad.

Classic Tabouleh and Variations on the Theme 

Classic Tabouleh

I like to make Tabouleh with roughly equal parts bulgur wheat, chopped parsley, and diced tomato. It’s a great summer meal, served with flatbread or scooped up with leaves of romaine lettuce. What makes it truly delicious are the bright taste of herbs and plenty of fresh lemon or lime juice.

Ingredients: 1 cup bulgur wheat, 4 or 5 medium tomatoes (about 2 1/2 cups diced), 2 cups finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves, 1/2 cup finely chopped green onion, 1 finely chopped jalapeno or mildly hot banana pepper.

Vinaigrette: 1 garlic clove mashed to a paste with a pinch of coarse salt, 1/4 cup fresh lemon or lime juice, 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tsp salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste. Whisk all ingredients together.

Make the salad:  Heat a skillet and dry-roast the bulgur briefly to toast the grains. Transfer to a bowl, add 1/2 tsp salt, and pour 1 1/3 cups boiling water over the bulgur. Cover and let sit until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Gently combine the chopped vegetables and herbs with the cooked bulgur. Pour on the dressing and toss again. Season with more salt and pepper or lemon juice, to taste.

Variations

Replace the chopped tomato with green beans, Swiss chard, or broccoli: steam or boil the vegetables in salted water until tender-crisp. Drain, cool, and chop before mixing into the salad.

* Replace the fresh tomato with sticky oven-dried tomatoes: cut plum or cherry tomatoes in half, place on an oiled or parchment lined baking sheet cut-side-up, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake at 250 degrees F 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until they are wrinkled and the skins are starting to brown, or roast them at 350 degrees F for 1 hour for juicier results.

* Add diced cucumber, green pepper, and coarsely chopped green olives.

* Make a bulgur-chick pea salad with 1-1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes, and crumbled feta cheese.

  Wheat Berry-Pomegranate Salad

We first ate Coliva–a wonderful mixture of wheat berries, toasted seeds and spices, dried fruit, herbs, and pomegranate seeds–during our long-ago travels in Greece. There it was sweetened with sugar and served as part of religious ceremonies, but I have adapted the flavors to make this salad.

Ingredients: 1 cup soft wheat berries (soaked overnight), 1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds, 1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds, 1/4 cup currants, 1/4 cup golden raisins, 1 cup pomegranate seeds (1 pomegranate), 4 carrots (enough to make about 3 cups diced), 1/2 cup chopped parsley, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 2 Tbs chopped mint.

Spice-oil Vinaigrette: In a small skillet, warm 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 2 finely chopped garlic cloves and 2 tsp lightly crushed cumin seed until small bubbles begin to rise around the garlic. Turn off the heat and let cool 30 seconds, then stir in 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed, 1 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper, pinch cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Let the spice oil steep 1 hour. Whisk in 4 Tbs fresh lemon juice and 1/2 tsp salt.

Cook the wheat berries: Put the soaked wheat berries in a saucepan with 4 cups water  , 1/2 tsp salt, 1 bay leaf, and 2 sprigs fresh thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer partially covered until the wheat is tender but chewy–anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour or more. Cut the carrots into small dice or matchsticks. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil; blanch the carrots 1 minute. Drain and cool.

Mix the cooled wheat berries and carrots with all the other ingredients (save the toasted sesame seeds to sprinkle on top). Toss with the vinaigrette. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Farro Salad with Roasted Cauliflower

Farro Salad

Farro is an ancient form of wheat widely used in Italy. Its large grains cook quickly to a tender-chewy texture. Emmer, spelt, or pearled barley could be used instead of farro.

Ingredients: 1 cup farro cooked with 1 carrot, 1 small onion, and 1 celery stalk; 1 head cauliflower, 1 pint quartered cherry tomatoes, 1/4-cup chopped green onion, 2 cups chopped mixed tender herbs (parsley, cilantro, arugula, mint),1 Tbs chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, 1 Tbs toasted whole cumin seed, 1/4 cup chopped green olives, and 1 Tbs capers

Vinaigrette: 1 garlic clove mashed to a paste with a pinch of coarse salt, 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 1 Tbs white wine vinegar, 1/2 tsp lemon zest, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Cook the farro: Toast the farro on a dry skillet for a few minutes. Transfer to a saucepan and add 1/2 tsp salt, 1 carrot cut in half lengthwise, 1 small onion cut in half, 1 celery stalk, 1 bay leaf, and 2 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 15 -20 minutes, until the farro is tender and pleasantly chewy. Drain any excess liquid and discard the vegetables and bay leaf. Put the farro on a large platter or mixing bowl to cool.

Making the salad: Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Cut the cauliflower into florets of equal size (about 3/4 to 1-inch), toss them with 3 Tbs olive oil and 1/2 tsp coarse salt, and spread them on a roasting pan. Cut the bell pepper in half and place it cut side down on another pan. Roast until the cauliflower is toasty brown and tender (25 to 30 minutes). Flip after 15 minutes. Mix the cauliflower, green onion, tomatoes, herbs, and cumin seed into the farro. Add the vinaigrette and toss to mix well. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Top with chopped olives and capers.

Good additions or substitutions: Chopped artichoke hearts, shelled peas or edamame (green soybeans), roasted zucchini and eggplant, toasted nuts or seeds, nasturtium flowers…

Wild Three-Grain Salad

Sometimes I like to substitute one grain for another in a salad or combine them for their different textures and flavors — a good opportunity to use up left over cooked grains. This salad combines three grains, kamut, quinoa, and wild rice, which have very different qualities that complement each other well. Kamut is an ancient strain of wheat with very large kernels and a nutty flavor. Quinoa is the seed of a plant related to lamb’s quarters, and true wild rice is the seed of a grass that grows in rivers and lakes and is harvested by hand (I feel very lucky when I get some delivered from Minnesota!) The grains should be cooked separately because of their different cooking times.

Ingredients: 1/2 cup kamut or triticale (soaked overnight), 1/2 cup wild rice, 1/2 cup quinoa, 1 finely chopped small red onion (rinsed in cold water), 1 finely chopped carrot, 1 diced red bell pepper, 1 diced green or yellow bell pepper, 3 or 4 chopped sundried tomatoes, 1/3 cup dried cranberries,  1/2 cup chopped green onion, 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, 2 Tbs chopped mint, 2 Tbs chopped basil.

Vinaigrette: Mash 1 garlic clove to a paste with a pinch of coarse salt. Whisk in 2 Tbs fresh lime juice, 3 Tbs fresh orange juice, 1/2 tsp orange zest, 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper.

Cook the grains: Put the kamut in a saucepan with 1 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat 35 to 45 minutes. Wash the wild rice, drain, and put in a saucepan with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat 15 minutes (true wild rice cooks very quickly!). Dry roast the quinoa briefly, stirring, in a saucepan. Add 1 cup water, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over very low heat 15 minutes.

Mix the cooled grains with the prepared vegetables and cranberries. Toss with the vinaigrette. Stir in the herbs. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve on a bed of baby arugula, spinach, or curly endive, and top with crumbled feta cheese.

Smoky the Dog

Smoky the dog supervising.

Spring Vegetable Explosion

It’s an explosion! Asparagus spears rocket out of the ground…mountains of cauliflower erupt…a forest of broccoli unfurls…and garlic scapes twirl into the sky. After waiting and waiting, it seems as if I turn my back there’s another wheelbarrow load of vegetables bursting out of the garden. What to do with all these vegetables? Roll the wheelbarrow into the kitchen and invite your friends over for a party. Vegetables make great starters…or a whole meal.

Broccoli “Strascinato”

Broccoli

Strascinato means “dragged” in Italian. In this case, dragged around the pan with olive oil, garlic, and hot red pepper. Nothing better could happen to a head of broccoli.

Cut a large head of broccoli into florets of equal size. Cut large ones in half, and cut the stems into pieces, too. Boil the broccoli in a large pot of salted water (2 Tbs salt for 4 qts. water) for 3 to 5 minutes, until tender-crisp. Drain and cool.

Warm 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil over low heat in a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan with a generous Tbs minced garlic and 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or a small minced hot pepper). Cook the garlic, stirring occasionally, until softened. The garlic should not color.

Add the cooked broccoli to the pan, stirring well to coat the florets with the garlic oil. Season with salt to taste.

Cauliflower with Black Olives and Mint

Break or cut a large head of cauliflower into floret. Cut the large ones in half to make even-sized pieces. Boil in well-salted water (3 Tbs kosher or sea salt for 4 qts. water) for about 3 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender-crisp. The cauliflower can be steamed, if you prefer, but the salted water seasons it as it cooks. Drain and cool.

Put the cooked cauliflower in a large bowl and toss gently with 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and 2 Tbs white wine vinegar. Add 2 Tbs finely chopped fresh mint leaves, 2 tsp capers, and a handful chopped black olives (oil-cured or brined). Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and more vinegar to taste.

Gerardo’s Cauliflower with Egg and Cheese

Gerardo made this dish for us at Tenuta San’Arcangelo, broiled in individual custard bowls and deliciously browned on top. It can be cooked in a hot skillet just as well, as Arthur Schwartz describes in his cookbook, The Southern Italian Table.

Break a head of cauliflower into florets, cutting the larger ones to make even-sized pieces. Boil the cauliflower in well-salted water until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Mix together 3 beaten eggs with 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, 1/4 tsp black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. Stir the cooked Cauliflower into the egg mixture, tossing gently to coat well.

Transfer the mixture to a buttered gratin dish or individual custard dishes. Place under a pre-heated broiler 6 to 8 minutes, until the egg is set and the top is browned.

Alternatively, heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. When the oil shimmers, stir the cauliflower and egg mixture well and transfer it to the hot pan. Drizzle the remaining egg over the cauliflower. When the egg is set, flip the cauliflower over to brown the other side. Continue to turn the florets to lightly brown all sides. Remove from the pan and serve hot or at room temperature. A squeeze of fresh lemon is nice.

Garlic Scape Pesto

Garlic Scape Pesto

Garlic scapes are the wild-looking seed heads that a garlic plant sends out toward the sky, twisting and twirling on the way. Snapping them off results in larger garlic bulbs for harvest as well as a potent ingredient for cooking. I chop them up and use them in place of garlic cloves in a sauté or stir-fry.

To make a brilliant green garlicky pesto, chop a bunch of garlic scapes into 1-inch pieces  (to make about 1 cup) and toss them into boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain. Put them in a food processor with a handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, a handful of sorrel, a small handful arugula, and 1/3 cup Parmesan. Puree and add 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil and salt to taste.

Serve smeared on bread, tossed with pasta, or added to other dishes like Cauliflower with Eggs.

Garlic Scape Sauté with Mushrooms

Garlic Scapes

Heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet. When the oil is hot enough to shimmer, add about 8 oz chopped mushrooms, 1 medium-sized chopped sweet onion, and about 1/2 cup chopped garlic scapes. Sprinkle with salt, and sauté until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add 1 large roasted red pepper, diced. Stir and cook until the pepper is warmed, about 1 minute. Taste for seasoning, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar.

I served this as a topping for fish; it would be equally good with stir-fried tofu.

Our Favorite Asparagus

Asparagas

We love asparagus, and our favorite way to cook it is stovetop grilling. Grilling (or roasting in a hot oven) concentrates the asparagus flavor and results in spears that are caramelized outside, tender inside, and delicious.

Heat a large iron skillet or griddle over medium heat. Place clean, dry asparagus in a salad bowl and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Roll the spears around so they are well coated with oil. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt. Place the asparagus on the hot griddle in a single layer. Leave them for several minutes. When one side is browned and sizzling, turn them over. Roll the spears around occasionally until they are browned all over and tender inside, about 10 minutes. Medium-thick asparagus cooks best this way.

Peas, Glorious Peas

I grow Sugar Snap peas these days, and love to eat them right off the vine. If they get cooked at all, it’s very briefly–30 to 60 seconds in salted boiling water, or steamed 1 or 2 minutes. The brief cooking softens them just enough to let them absorb flavors from a vinaigrette better.

*Most simple: 2 tsp soy sauce, 2 tsp rice vinegar, and 1 Tbs toasted sesame oil

*Poki: In a small saucepan, warm 3 Tbs peanut or grapeseed oil and 3 Tbs toasted sesame oil with 2 Tbs finely chopped ginger, 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic, and 1 finely chopped hot red pepper (fresh or dried). Heat until small bubbles rise around the aromatics. Remove from the heat and set aside for 1 hour. Strain the oil (or not) and whisk in 3 Tbs soy sauce, 3 Tbs rice vinegar, and 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, and 1/2 tsp sugar.

*Citrus-Nut Oil: Whisk together 4 Tbs fresh orange juice, 1 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 2 Tsp orange zest, 1 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1 garlic clove mashed with 1/4 tsp kosher salt, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, and 6 Tbs walnut oil. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Dress the freshly cooked peas with the vinaigrette of choice. Sprinkle with finely chopped fresh mint or cilantro. Serve the peas straight up, or on a bed of Asian noodles tossed with pea shoots.

Spanakopita (Greek Spinach Pie)

Spanakopita

I always make a big tray of Spanakopita to take to the Skemp’s Easter party. It’s the perfect time of year to make this dish because the ingredients come straight from the garden–the last of the winter leeks, chard or spinach, fresh herbs…and the chickens provide the eggs. I learned to make this delicious spinach pie with a crust of filo pastry  in Greece from the formidable Spitidoula, who ruled over a massive indoor wood fired oven and brazier of glowing coals. Her kitchen was filled with the smell of bubbling stew,  heady with the aroma of lemons and herbs gathered from the rocky hills. We made Spanakopita at Easter time, when it was all right to use eggs and cheese again. In the weeks before during the fast of lent, she and other village cooks made hortopita, a version of the pie made only with a mixture of wild greens and herbs. I remember them foraging beneath the olive trees as I forage in my own spring garden, looking for early volunteers and the fresh growth of over-wintered greens and herbs.

Ingredients for Spanakopita: extra virgin olive oil, 2 lbs. washed spinach or chard leaves, 1 1/2 cups chopped onion or leeks (white and tender green parts), 2 or 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1/3 cup chopped fresh dill, chervil, or parsley, 1/2 cup chopped arugula, 2 or 3 eggs, 8 oz crumbled feta cheese, a pinch of red chile flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. A cup of ricotta or other soft fresh cheese is optional. This recipe calls for 1/2 package frozen filo sheets. Thaw them at least 2 hours before assembling the Spanakopita.

 Garlic chives, Arugula, Sorrel and Italian parsley

To make the filling, heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with the onions or leeks over medium heat and sauté 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. If the pan is big enough, the chopped spinach can be cooked with the onions. If not, steam the leaves until wilted, drain and chop, and add them to the skillet. Season lightly with salt and black pepper and a pinch or red chile flakes. Remove from the heat and drain any liquid from the vegetables. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the vegetables to the bowl and stir to combine. Add the herbs and cheese and mix again. Check the seasoning.

Chard

Assemble the Spanakopita: Unwrap the filo sheets and cover them with a damp towel to keep them from drying out. You will need a 9 x 13-inch pyrex baking dish or a larger baking pan at least 1-inch deep. In a small bowl, combine 3 Tbs melted butter and 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Brush the bottom of the pan with the butter/olive oil and spread one layer of filo in the pan. Brush the filo lightly with butter/oil. Repeat this step until you have used one half the filo sheets (six to eight layers).  Spread the filling over the filo. Layer on the rest of the filo, brushing each sheet with butter/oil. Cut through the pastry to the bottom of the pan to make 3-inch squares, then diagonally into diamonds. Bake the Spanakopita in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

Traveling the Silk Road

Tapenade

We liked the Caspian Olives with Pomegranate (a.k.a. “Silk Road Tapenade”) so much that it was eaten before I got a photograph. So, I had to make it again. This time I had a big bunch of coriander (cilantro) and plenty of mint. I chopped the herbs, olives, and chile by hand and used the mortar and pestle to mash the garlic and salt to a paste. I left the walnuts very chunky and used dried cranberries as a stand-in for the pomegranate. I much preferred the chunkier, hand-chopped version

Salmon with TapenadeThe new tapenade made a perfect topping for pan-seared salmon–and was even better with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Najmieh Batmanglij, the author of Silk Road Cooking, suggests using the tapenade with flatbreads, or as a topping for rice or pasta. I think it would be very good stirred into tiny pasta like Greek orzo or Israeli couscous. But it also occurred to me that the de-constructed tapenade made a very good collection of ingredients for a pilaf or grain salad. So that’s what I made.

Start the pilaf by sautéing 1/2 cup chopped onion in 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes. Stir in 1 cup farro (a very pleasing grain that is sort of like a cross between kamut and barley) and toast the grain in the oil for a couple of minutes. Add 2 cups water and cook the farro like rice: let the water boil down until it almost meets the level of the grain, reduce the heat to very low, cover the pot, and steam until all the water is absorbed. Farro takes about 35 minutes to cook. Allow the grain to sit, covered, 10 minutes after you turn off the heat. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a serving dish or bowl.

PilafWhile the grain cooks, prepare the other ingredients. I used basically the same ingredients as for the tapenade, but changed the proportions. This pilaf got about 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves (or substitute parsley), 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, a couple of Tbs chopped chives, a few chopped fresh oregano leaves, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, a few grinds of black pepper, one minced jalapeno, 1/4 cup dried cranberries in lieu of pomegranate seeds, a handful of chopped green olives, and maybe 1/2 cup of toasted walnut pieces. Stir these ingredients into the rice and season with salt and fresh lemon juice to taste.

Other grains could replace the farro: Brown or white basmati rice, long or short-grained brown rice (short is best if serving at room temperature), Bhutanese red rice, kamut, wild rice, wheat berries, quinoa, barley…I often like a blend of different grains in pilaf or grain salads, but they should be cooked separately because the cooking times are not always the same.

If I were serving this as a salad, I would most likely add more chopped herbs and vegetables. Diced carrot, fennel, sweet pepper, tomato, celery, avocado…whatever is fresh and available. Save the toasted nuts for last, to keep them crunchy. Drizzle the salad with extra virgin olive oil and a little fresh lemon juice before serving.

 

 

 

 

Silk Road Cooking

Herb Basket

I see exciting culinary travels ahead in my kitchen. Dear friends Joe and Suzy sent a cookbook for my birthday entitled Silk Road Cooking, by Najmieh Batmanglij. It is a gorgeous book, full of wonderful photographs and stories of the author’s Iranian childhood and travels along the Silk Road over the last 25 years. I love the way she weaves together the history of ingredients, people, and recipes…and that the subtitle is A Vegetarian Journey. She reminds us that cooking is sharing, and is a joyful communal activity. It seems to me perfect that her travels from Xian in China through Samarkand, Isfahan, and Istanbul ended on the shores of Southern Italy. So, I too feel connected to the cultures of the Silk Road…to people celebrating vegetables and keeping alive a legacy of “tasty, inexpensive, and cheerful food.”

Of course, I wanted to cook something from this book right away. The very first recipe in the book–“Caspian Olives with Pomegranate and Angelica”–fit perfectly into my celebration dinner menu. The only problem was that I couldn’t go to the store, so everything had to come from the garden or pantry. No problem! I had the 1 cup toasted walnuts and 5 peeled garlic cloves. Instead of a whole cup fresh mint leaves (my mint is still tiny), I used 1/2 cup mint and 1/2 cup parsley. There’s no cilantro in my garden yet, but I have wonderful sorrel, so in went a cup of tart sorrel leaves. I had the 1 Tbs fresh oregano, 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, and a fresh jalapeno pepper. No angelica powder, so I used 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed. I didn’t have the 1 lb. green olives–I only had about 1/4 lb.–so I added 2 Tbs capers to the mix. The most important lacking ingredient was one cup fresh pomegranate juice. I had fresh cranberries (which are sour but not quite as bright as pomegranate), so I used about 4 Tbs cranberries, 1 tsp honey, the juice of one small orange, and the juice of 1/2 lime.

Tapenade

All of this went into the food processor with about 6 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. I pushed the pulse button to make a chunky paste. It was fabulous! Very herby, but not so strong that the other flavors didn’t get their chance. I felt that it could have traveled on the Silk Road. I have named it “Silk Road Tapenade”.

We ate the tapenade with bread and crackers. Najmieh suggests combining it with chunks of avocado for a salad. Maybe with watercress and sections of orange? I can’t wait to try the recipe again with cilantro, and someday sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

I made cranberry sauce from the rest of the fresh cranberries. I cooked them in fresh orange juice and added the zest and a couple of Tbs orange marmalade for sweetening. Then, in the spirit of the Silk Road, I chopped some fresh mint and sprinkled it in. That was perfect.

Cranberry Sauce

Lentil Soup

Lentil Soup

I make soups for lunch all winter long for my husband, Drew, and his woodworking students. Many of the soups begin at the beginning…heat some olive oil with onion, carrot, celery, garlic, red chile…But many others start by foraging in the refrigerator. I call these “serendipity soups”. For instance, I suddenly had extra guests for lunch and needed enough soup to go around . I found a quart of cooked lentils (with onion, carrot, and celery), a cup or so of extra marinara sauce, a couple links of cooked smoked sausage, some chard leaves, and a jar of salsa. I put the lentils in a pot with the tomato sauce and added chicken broth to make it “soupy”. I diced the sausage, added it to the lentils and left it simmering on very low heat. It was a little thin at this point, so I  cooked about 3/4 cup tiny pasta called “aci di pepe”  in boiling, salted water (the chard got blanched in there, too). The drained pasta and chopped chard went into the soup with a few spoonfuls of salsa, and a little chopped parsley and a few grinds of black pepper  on top. Then I found out this soup has a name! Sicilian Pasta and Lentil Soup.

Today it will be a different lentil soup. I have  leftover rice pilaf made with brown basmati, red bhutanese, and wild rice with sauteed carrot and onion… and a pint or so of delicious cabbage braised with garlic and thyme in red wine.  Oh, and a few garbanzo beans from a dish I call “Delicious greens and beans” that I named after eating garbanzo beans cooked with chard in garlicy, chile-hot olive oil –a dish made by my friend Vicki Skemp.

I didn’t have the lentils this time, so I simmered a cup of green lentils in about 6 cups of water with a bay leaf, whole red chile, whole garlic clove, a couple of shallots, and a big sprig of fresh thyme. Lentils cook quickly, so in about 20-25 minutes they were almost tender. I added about 1/2 tsp. salt and some freshly ground black pepper ,  and turned off the heat to let them absorb the flavors of the broth. I removed the herbs and chile before I  stirred the lentils together with the rice, cabbage, and garbanzo beans.

The components of this soup are very much like a Moroccan soup called “Harira” that I used to make with lentils, garbanzo beans, and bulgar wheat. Harira  is made with lamb and eaten during the fast of Ramadan. It is a very hearty meal-in-a-bowl, and delicious garnished with chopped  fresh parsley and cilantro, as well as a squeeze of fresh lemon. I still have parsley in the garden, but my cilantro is gone, so I will go find some fresh mint leaves to use instead.

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If you are starting from the beginning, make the soup like this. You can simplify things by starting the sofritto  and  just add the lentils and water into it, but I prefer to make the soup in two stages. A pot of lentils simmering with fresh herbs and garlic smells quite wonderful.

 

Lentil Soup with Sofritto 

The lentils: 1 1/2 cups green or brown lentils (rinsed), 2 garlic cloves  (lightly smashed), 2 shallots or 1 small onion, 1 dried red chile, 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1 tsp kosher salt.

Put the lentils in a pot with the garlic, shallots, chile, thyme, bay leaf, and  8 cups water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over low heat until the lentils are barely tender, about 20-25 minutes. Add the salt and turn off the heat.

While the lentils cook, make the Sofritto:

3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion (about 1 cup diced)

2 carrots (about 1 cup diced)

1 celery stalk with leaves (about 1 cup diced)

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 tsp. red chile flakes

1/3 cup chopped parsley leaves and stems

1 14-oz can whole Italian plum tomatoes with juice (or substitute home-made tomato sauce, puree, or fresh chopped tomatoes)

1/2 tsp kosher salt

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, carrot, and celery. Stir often until the vegetables are softened, about 7-8 minutes. You want them to release their flavor into the oil, but not to brown. Stir in the garlic, chile, and parsley and cook about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking the tomatoes into pieces, and the salt. Stir to blend well, and simmer gently 10 minutes. When the lentils are tender, stir the tomato sofritto into the pot and continue to simmer another 10 to 15 minutes to blend the flavors. Stir in any of the following additions:

*crumbled, cooked bacon

*2-3 links cooked Italian sausage, sliced (substitute diced smoked ham)

*1 bunch broccoli rabe, chard, or kale, steamed or blanched until tender, drained, and chopped

*1 tsp. toasted and ground cumin seed

*Leftover roasted vegetables: potato, winter squash, parsnip, carrot…

*Fresh tomato salsa

Simmer another minute or two. Taste and adjust the seasoning—salt, pepper, chile, a squeeze of lemon juice or red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley or mint leaves.

How to make Lentils taste wonderful!

Herbs

Lentils have an earthiness about them…they are unassertive, but quite lovely cooked with just a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme, a hot chile, and garlic. Add some sauteed onion, maybe carrot, and a dressing of sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil with freshly toasted and ground cumin seed. Fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, and mint add a little sparkle.  Toasted walnuts or hazelnuts add crunch.

Lentils pair well with all kinds of sausage, and equally well with deeply flavored green like broccoli rabe, chard and kale.

Citrus FruitCitrus brightens a lentil dish. Use lemon or orange juice  and zest to season a soup or salad at the last minute.