Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring Has Sprung Pasta and Pesto, Part Deux

Fiddleheads, watercress, ramps, yes, please!  You know that Spring has finally arrived when you see those ridiculously cute little buggers otherwise known as fiddleheads in the produce section.  And, Oh!  Ramps!  With their pungent garlic flavor and their gorgeous, bright green leaves, they are so well-suited for pesto, it's stupid!

Pesto really is one of Italy's greatest culinary gifts to the world.  The uses for it are quite possibly endless, it's incredibly simple to make, and it makes any pasta dish taste downright sexy!  I love to create unusual pestos using somewhat unexpected ingredients and watercress definitely fits the bill.  I've seen a lot of recipes for ramp pesto that I've found quite pleasing, but I wanted to create something sweeter and gentler - consider it a "Thinking Man's" pesto, if you will.  The subtle hint of mint with the sharp, spicy taste of ramps become absolutely elegant mixed with the sweet, refreshing, and peppery taste of watercress.  Use it in the pasta recipe below, spread it on your toast with a little ricotta cheese, thin it with extra olive oil and lemon juice to make a dynamite dressing, or come up with your own fabulous way to enjoy it!

Spring Has Sprung Pasta and Pesto, Part Deux
serves 6

1 lb. Pasta (any kind will do!  I used whole-wheat spaghetti)
1 1/2 cups fiddleheads, rinsed
10 oz (1 package) frozen peas
1 1/2 T butter
salt and pepper to taste

1 bunch (5-7 stalks) ramps
1 bunch watercress leaves (about 4 cups), rinsed well
1 cup mint leaves
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4-1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add pasta.  When pasta is about 2 minutes from being done (still crunchy in the middle but pliable in texture) add the fiddleheads to the boiling water.  Cook for a minute and a half or so, then add the frozen peas.  Cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, then drain. 

Meanwhile, assemble the pesto.  In a food processor, add ramps, watercress, mint and pine nuts.  Pulse a few times and then set the processor to "on".  Slowly drizzle enough olive oil for the pesto to be slightly moist and hold together.  When pesto is blended, add cheese, salt and pepper and mix to combine.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss about 1 cup of pesto (or more, if desired), butter, and pasta together until the butter is melted.  Season with salt and pepper and serve with a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on top (and a poached egg, if that's how you roll). 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spring Vegetable and Mint Polenta

I will readily admit that one of my all-time favorite foods is polenta.  I love the stuff!  And frankly, it makes for an incredibly simple and wholesome meal when you cook it using this no-fuss method borrowed from the great Marcella Hazan (all hail the Queen of Italian cuisine!).  While Marcella, unsurprisingly, favors the labor-intensive method of constantly stirring, she offers a wonderful alternative method in her masterpiece, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, one of my most treasured cookbooks (and while we're on the subject - if you don't own a copy, yet, you should immediately run out and purchase one!).

My Spring-time version of polenta is light, colorful and full of flavor.  The sauteed leeks add richness and depth while the peas add a pleasant sweetness to the dish.  The bright, cooling burst of mint adds an unexpected element to the flavor profile and makes the polenta taste decidedly Springy.  As I am incredibly fond of poached eggs, I love serving one on top of this dish, but it would certainly work well as an accompaniment to roasted chicken or lamb. 

As far as the polenta, itself, I am absolutely crazy about Anson Mills' Polenta Integrale.  It is a rustic, coarse polenta milled from an Italian heirloom red tentrino flint and has a lot more texture and flavor, when cooked, than any other polenta I've tried.  If you don't feel like seeking out the fancy stuff, regular ol' polenta grain will work just fine.  But, for heaven's sake, don't buy that instant stuff!  It is pallid and lifeless compared to slow-cooked polenta and since the cooking time is mostly inactive, anyway, why on earth would you cook it any other way?  Marcella would be so proud...

Spring Vegetable and Mint Polenta
serves 6-8

7 1/2 cups water
scant 2 cups polenta
3 T butter
1 large leek
10 oz peas (thawed, if using frozen)
4 cups spinach leaves, chopped
1/4 cup chiffonade of mint leaves
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot, bring water to a rolling boil.  Pour polenta in a very slow, thin stream, whisking constantly.  Switch to a wooden spoon and stir for two minutes.  Reduce heat to lowest setting and cover pot.  Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring for one full minute every 10 minutes.

While the polenta is cooking, prepare the vegetables.  Cut off the tough green ends of the leek and slice in half lengthwise.  Thinly slice the leek and rinse very well with cold water.  Allow to drain.  In a large, shallow pan, add butter and melt over medium-high heat.  Add leeks and saute until slightly caramelized and soft, about 10 minutes.  Add peas and cook until warmed through, another minute or so.  Add cooked vegetables, chopped spinach, and mint to the cooked polenta and stir well.  Add plenty of salt and pepper, to taste.  Serve immediately with a poached egg on top, if desired.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rainbow Latkes

Latkes are a traditional part of celebrating Hanukkah, but I often see them make their way into Passover Seders.  And why not?  They are the ultimate crowd pleaser!  If you are planning on including them in your Seder this year and want to impress your guests with something a little out-of-the-ordinary, look no further! 
These Rainbow Latkes look like a major departure from the traditional russet potato version, but those who are die-hard fans of the original might find these to be surprisingly similar.  They take on a beautiful ruby hue thanks to the beets, but are also studded with carrots and purple potatoes to give you almost all the colors of the rainbow (once you sprinkle on the chives, all we’re missing is blue!).  The flavor is more complex and layered than the all-potato latkes while still maintaining that homey, comfort-food taste.  The parsnips add a hint of herbal sweetness and the beets lend a pleasant, earthy fragrance to the dish. 

I love to pair these latkes with MM Local Pear Sauce.  The rich, brown-sugar sweetness of the pears adds a wonderful contrast and feels unexpected and yet familiar at the same time.  MM Local items are unique to Colorado and are made entirely with locally-grown produce.  Their products are available in many markets across Colorado, but if you can't find the pear sauce, regular ol' apple sauce works just as well.  Once you try this version of the traditional side dish, you might just want to adopt a brand new tradition!

Rainbow Latkes
makes 12-14 latkes

1 medium russet potato
2 medium purple potatoes
1 large carrot
1 small parsnip
1 medium red beet
½ yellow onion
¼ cup matzo meal
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying
¼ cup chives, finely sliced
MM Local Pear Sauce

Scrub root vegetables well and peel, if desired.  Shred the potatoes, carrot, parsnip and onion on a box grater (alternatively, a food processor on the grater setting makes fast work of this step).  Place grated vegetables in a large bowl and set aside. 

Lay out some old newspaper to protect your work surface and grate the beet.  Set the grated beet aside in a separate bowl and toss with the matzo meal.  Add egg, salt and pepper to root vegetable mixture and toss well to combine.  Add matzo-coated beets and toss quickly with a fork to minimize “bleeding.”

Place a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan well.  Once oil is hot, reduce the heat, slightly, to prevent smoking.  Wet your hands with cold water and form vegetable mixture into flat cakes, using about 1/3 a cup of the mixture per latke (you can use more if you like larger latkes).  Gently place each latke in the hot oil and fry until golden and crispy, about 3 minutes per side.  Allow to drain on newspaper or paper towels and serve hot, with pear sauce (or applesauce) on the side and plenty of chives sprinkled on the top.