Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Compendium of Ingredients

Have you ever had some ingredient on hand that needs to be used up but you’re devoid of ideas for using it?  With all the cookbooks that I have, there are not many that put all the recipes for one ingredient together.  This is my attempt to do just that—hope it helps some of my readers.  I am such a seasonal cook that I may limit the ingredients to those in season but who knows?  If I come across some interesting ideas, I’ll include them here.


Now that you can buy all kinds of produce year round in the supermarket, you can make any recipe you come across, anytime.  This is really great for experimenters or those who are interested in learning how to increase their repertoire of cooking expertise.  Still, there is something about the change of seasons and beginning with a new bunch of foods not used or seen in awhile that strongly appeals to me and, I’m guessing, most people.  There is no dearth of articles on food that begin with “Spring is here, let’s make asparagus”, or “Strawberry season inspires dessert”.  In autumn, we re-fire our ovens and respond to the call of winter squashes, baked with maple syrup and apples in every imaginable guise.  I like it that way. 

Early spring brings the first asparagus as surely as the first robin.  Asparagus, a member of the lily family, is a strange food with an ancient history. It appeared on the menus of the ancient Romans as a delicacy and seems to grow almost anywhere.  It does well in sandy, poor soil which probably added to its cosmopolitan reputation.  It was revered by the South American Indian tribes as a phallic symbol supposedly increasing virility.  It’s been cultivated for over two thousand years.  On the other hand, wild asparagus is not very different from cultivated.  My early memories include my mother and me hunting for asparagus in the spring, out where Southdale is now.  I know I am dating myself, but that really was undeveloped and we who lived in St. Louis Park thought it was “way out of town”.  Later, my mother planted it in her garden and was very proud of her wonderful asparagus, often remarking how one must let the asparagus go to seed every year if you wanted a good crop the next year.

Choose spears that are firm and uniform in size.  Although many people believe that thin is better than thick, it isn’t true, just be sure they are uniform.  The tips should be closed and the stalks crisp without wrinkles.  Forget about breaking them at the natural break and cut the ends off all the same and all at once.  I don’t bother standing them up to cook, as many cookbooks suggest. Just lay them in a wide, shallow skillet and cover with salted water.  Boil briskly, uncovered, for 12 minutes (more or less, depending on the size of the stalks).  Test by piercing with the sharp point of a paring knife; knife should enter easily, but asparagus should not be mushy.  Serve with a classic Hollandaise or just butter and lemon.   Since asparagus does not keep well, it is a good idea to cook it as soon as possible.  If you can’t use it immediately, cooked asparagus is delicious served cold with mayonnaise or in a salad. 
A current way to prepare all vegetables is to roast them and asparagus takes to roasting very well. The intense, dry heat of the oven concentrates and deepens the flavor.  To roast, prepare one and one-half pounds of asparagus as above (peeling outer stalks if tough).  On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with two teaspoons of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.  I use coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.  Roast about 10 minutes.

A lovely way to embellish the roasted asparagus is with a spring-green sauce.  Serve this at a lovely early spring dinner as the first course.

Sauce Verde

2 cups loosely packed fresh Italian parsley leaves      One-fourth teaspoon pepper
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves                     Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice                                  Two-thirds cup olive oil
1 tablespoon anchovy paste                                       
2 tablespoons drained capers                                      2 pounds asparagus, trimmed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard                                           and roasted with 2 tablespoons
1 garlic clove                                                               olive oil

Combine first 9 ingredients in processor.  Blend until smooth.  With machine running, gradually add two-thirds cup olive oil through feed tube.  Sauce can be prepared 2 days ahead.  Cover and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before serving.  Divide asparagus among 8 plates.  Spoon sauce over and serve.

Breaded Asparagus Sticks

2 eggs
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
¾ cup dried bread crumbs (preferably panko)
20-30 medium spears asparagus, trimmed

Preheat oven to 400.  Lightly grease baking sheet with olive oil.  Beat eggs with mustard in shallow bowl. Season with salt and pepper.  In another shallow bowl, combine panko and Parmesan; mix well.  Dip each spear first in eggs to coat, then in crumbs.  Place on baking sheet.  Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden on bottom.  Turn over and bake for another 12-15 minutes until golden brown.  Serve hot or room temperature with lemon wedges. 

Asparagus Fettuccine

1 pound asparagus
1 pound fettuccine
1 large red pepper, roasted and cut into strips
1 pound ricotta cheese, room temperature
¼ cup freshly grated Pecorino-Romano or Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/3 cup chopped scallions
Salt and pepper

Bring large pot of water to boil.  Cut woody end of asparagus and reserve.  Cut the spears into 1 ½ inch lengths.  Add asparagus to boiling water and cook for 2 minutes.  Add tips and cook until tender, about 2 minutes more.  Remove asparagus and keep warm.  Cook fettuccine in the water until al dente.  Remove ½ cup cooking water and set aside.  Briefly drain the fettuccine and return it to the pot, along with the asparagus.  Add roasted pepper, ricotta, cheese and scallions.  Toss well and add reserved cooking water to make a creamy sauce.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot and pass extra cheese at table.

Asparagus Bisque

1 stick butter
¾ cup flour
2 quarts whole milk
1 cup chicken stock
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt (or more, depending on the saltiness of the stock)
1 bay leaf
3 cups cleaned and cooked asparagus, tips and center only, (cut into ½-inch pieces)
Instant potatoes (use to thicken bisque if needed)

Roux:  In stockpot, melt butter; add flour, stirring constantly so mixture doesn’t burn.  Add 1 quart milk slowly to roux mixture, stirring constantly.  When combined and thickened, add remaining milk and chicken stock.  Add bay leaf, white pepper and salt.  Add asparagus.  Cook soup slowly for 1 hour. 

To serve, top bisque with large sourdough croutons and a dollop of sour cream.  Sprinkle with dill weed.  Makes 1 gallon. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Of Cabbages and Kings

First Gudrais' winter in America;
 Hutchinson, Minnesota March 1951

This has been the winter from hell.  Well, actually, it hasn’t been warm enough to be from there—but in other ways, definitely. The weather has been horrible throughout the country with few exceptions but here in the Midwest (Minnesota) we have really had an unbelievably cold and snowy season.  And, there is no end in sight—below average temperatures are predicted for the next two weeks and this is February 22!!!

Then, somehow, I went from a healthy, active, older woman (read sixties) to being laid low for the first six weeks of the year by a nasty strep/staph infection requiring surgery and antibiotics for 9 weeks.  That keeps me largely home bound.  I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that the weather has been so nasty anyway that I haven’t missed going out that much. 

It won’t come as a surprise to those who follow my blog that the first activity I have tried to do is cooking.  Little by little I have resumed my passion.  So—in thinking about what to write about, I was drawn to something spring-like.  But the spring foods aren’t really in the market yet—at least not at their prime and I checked out the most available foods for February and they are cabbages and bananas.

Cabbage, that versatile, homely, inexpensive vegetable and all its cousins—sounds perfect and oh, so healthy!  First, a little background:  cabbage has been eaten by North Africans, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for about 4000 years.  It is revered in its various forms by the Slavic and Germanic people.  Northern Americans took to it a little late.  It arrived in Canada on the third voyage of Jacques Cartier in 1541-42.  The American colonists probably planted cabbage, but it was used mostly for stock feed.  There is no written record of it until 1669. 

The versatility and health benefits of cabbage are huge.  It is great either raw or cooked; it can be harvested young and used for salad greens or matured and stuffed, made into kraut or be the mainstay of many a hearty soup.  Even simply steamed and served with butter, salt and pepper, it is delicious. 

Furthermore, it is a nutritional powerhouse.  Vitamins A, B, and C are plentiful and the minerals iron, calcium and potassium are present—as well as a generous amount of fiber.  Studies have shown it to be a giant inhibiter of the development of many cancers, especially breast, stomach, and colon. Its cousins include collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi and they have the same cancer-fighting properties. 

Most important in my book is that it is delicious.  If your family boiled cabbage to death until it was gray and stinky—it’s time to re-discover this vegetable.  If you eat it solo—don’t overcook it.  Sweat it (cook very slowly) either alone or with some onion or green pepper.  Drain it and pour cream over it (alternatively, add butter) and cook until just hot—don’t boil.  Add salt and pepper—it’s delicious.

Here are a few recipes to try to renew your interest in this venerable vegetable.

Creamy Coleslaw

8 cups shredded green cabbage
3 carrots, shredded
¼ sweet onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 Tbsp. cider vinegar
3 Tbsp. sugar (or to taste)
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
½ tsp. celery seed
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine cabbage, carrots and onion in a large mixing bowl.  Stir together the buttermilk, vinegar, sugar, mayonnaise and celery seed in a smaller bowl until well blended.  Pour the mixture over the cabbage and toss to combine.  Season.  This will become juicier as it stands for awhile in the refrigerator (2 hours).

Asian Cabbage Soup

8 cups chicken broth
¼ cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
6-12 wood ear mushrooms, chopped if large
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 scallions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¾ pound Chinese noodles
1 Tbsp. dark sesame oil
2 cups diced chicken, or 2 cups diced cooked pork or 1 pound silken tofu, diced.
4-6 cups chopped Chinese cabbage, or a mix of cabbage and greens
1 carrot, julienned
Chinese chili paste with garlic

Combine the broth, soy sauce, rice wine, mushrooms, ginger, garlic and
scallions in large saucepan.  Season with salt and pepper.  Simmer for 25 minutes
Cook noodles in salted, boiling water until just tender.  Drain and keep warm.  Add meat or tofu, cabbage and carrots to the broth and simmer for 10 minutes.  Pass chili sauce as a condiment.

This old-fashioned dish is worth the trouble to make—old world goodness at its best!!

My late mother-in-law, Monika, came from Eastern Europe where cabbage rolls were as common as hamburgers are in America.  She made a great stuffed cabbage dish, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the recipe.  So I re-created it as best I can remember and, after a few tweaks, this comes very close.

Daughter-In-Law Cabbage Rolls

½ pound regular ground beef, not extra lean
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green pepper
½ cup chopped celery
2 cups beef stock (divided) 
1 cup water
2/3 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 tsp. Italian seasoning (or use a combination of oregano, basil and thyme)
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
8 medium cabbage leaves
½ cup (2 ounces) shredded American or Cheddar cheese
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp butter 
¼ cup shredded American cheese

In a large skillet cook meat, onion, green pepper and celery until meat is brown and vegetables are tender.  Drain fat, if excessive.  Stir in 1 cup beef stock, water, uncooked rice, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper.  Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

Trim cabbage and immerse leaves into large pot of boiling water for 3 minutes or until limp, being careful not to crowd the pot.  Stir the cheese into the meat mixture.  Spoon about 1/3 cup meat mixture on each cabbage leaf.  Fold in sides and roll up each leaf, including folded sides in roll.  For sauce:  stir tomato sauce, remaining beef stock, sugar, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Pour half of tomato mixture into 9 x 13 oblong baking dish, sprayed with vegetable spray.  Arrange rolls on tomato mixture.  Spoon remaining tomato sauce over cabbage rolls.  Dot with butter.  Cover and bake in 350 oven for 1 hour.  Check to see if cabbage is tender and sauce bubbling.  Dish may be baked for 15 minutes longer, if necessary.  Sprinkle with ¼ cup cheese before serving.