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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.

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.