Month: April 2016

Spring Greens

Easter, always a gateway holiday for the start of Spring cooking, arrived early this year. Since we were invited to a large gathering celebrating the holiday, I was tasked with preparing some desserts—which I did, reflecting on confections my grandmother and aunt always served on Easter Sunday, an important and fun family holiday when I was growing up. However, it wasn’t until now that I have begun to prepare dishes that celebrate the abundance Spring ingredients have to offer.

Artichokes, asparagus, carrots, chives and chive blossoms, English peas and pea shoots (or tendrils), fennel, lamb, lettuces, onions, garlic, radishes, ramps, rhubarb, salmon, shad, Spring greens, stinging nettles, strawberries, trout, and veal.

In the next several posts I will share recipes and perspectives using as many of the Spring ingredients as the markets have to offer. So let’s begin with two of my favorite dishes that you will always find in my kitchen—a frittata and a minestra. They are easy and quick to prepare, healthy, require only a few ingredients, and offer the home cook many options and combinations as the flavoring possibilities are endless.

Frittata is most often described as a flat, round, open-faced egg dish, the Italian interpretation of an omelet. The basic elements are eggs, cream, onions, cheese, and whatever other filling(s) are combined and mixed into the eggs before they are poured into the hot pan. Frittate are best served warm or at room temperature, can be a first course, a lunch, or even a dinner. They can be presented plain, or sauced, added to an antipasti, and used as sandwich filler, or a picnic spread.

One technique for successfully preparing a frittata is to start with a hot pan. That allows the egg mix to set up quickly. The purists will tell you that in order to finish the cooking process you either have to turn out the frittata onto a plate, flip it over, and slide it back into the pan to cook the opposite side, or if you think you are clever enough, simply flip the frittata over, landing it back in the pan to finish. I am not that clever nor dexterous enough since I have missed hitting the pan dead center with past attempts. Nor do I favor having to handle a heavy hot pan while sliding the frittata onto a plate and flipped back into the pan. The method I prefer is to start the frittata on the stovetop, browning the bottom as it begins to firm up. Then I place the pan in a 350-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes until the frittata completely sets and the top sizzles. A quick finish under the broiler nicely browns the top. Allow both the pan and the frittata to cool for a few minutes out of the oven, then slide the finished dish out of the pan and onto a platter.

Minestra describes a dish that is generally considered a soup, more stew-like and vegetable based rather than a zuppa which is more broth-like, and generally includes a toasted or grilled bread slice rather than pasta, rice, or even potato.

Minestre can be made of countless vegetable and legume combinations; think of Minestrone, finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano or Pecorino.

Derived from the Latin, minestare; “to administer,” it is a dish served from a central pot or large bowl as the main or at times the only course of the meal. For me the minestre is one of those go-to pantry staples, prepared from simple healthful ingredients that functions as an easy-to-assemble light meal.

 

Asparagus and Greens Frittata

Ingredients
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 large thick asparagus
6 chives, minced
12 parsley sprigs, leaves and fine stems minced
6 pea tendrils/shoots
6 large eggs either chicken or duck, separated
¼ cup Half & Half
1 teaspoon roasted garlic jam (puree)
½ cup grated Parmigiano or an aged Pecorino
Salt and pepper
¼ cup bread crumbs

Method
Using a 10- to 12-inch oven-proof sauté pan or nonstick pan, gently heat the oil and butter until the butter melts, keep warm.

Trim 2 inches off the top of the asparagus and carefully cut those pieces into quarters and set aside.

Using a vegetable peeler, scrape 12 to 15 full slices off each asparagus spear and set aside.

Combine the minced parsley and chives and set aside. Separate the pea tendrils so they are not all tangled together and will disperse evenly when mixed within the eggs, set aside. Grate the cheese and set aside.

Separate 6 eggs, putting the whites in a separate work bowl. Place the remaining egg yolks, the Half & Half, garlic puree, the prepared greens, 2/3 of the grated cheese, and some salt and pepper in a separate work bowl. Using a whisk, whip to combine. Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites into a frothy soft peaked foam and then gently fold into the egg mixture.

Raise the heat in the sauté pan so the oil and butter are hot but not smoking. At the same time preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place a small drop of the egg mix in the sauté pan and if it sets up right away the pan is ready. Working quickly, pour the egg mixture across the surface of the pan, running a spatula around the outside and gently shaking the pan so the egg mixture spreads and heats evenly.

While the frittata sets up in the pan, gently place the 8 cut asparagus tops around the center, sprinkle the remaining cheese, breadcrumbs, and some extra black pepper over the top.

Asparagus frittata in the pan

Asparagus frittata in the pan

Once the frittata is set in the pan and moves easily when the pan is shaken, place it in the preheated oven to complete the overall cooking, for approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Finally, place the frittata under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes more to lightly brown the top.

Asparagus plated

Asparagus plated

Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for a few minutes before sliding it onto a platter to serve warm or at room temperature.

 

Minestra of Greens, Potatoes, and Tomato

Over the years I have prepared this dish using kale, spinach, escarole, and Swiss chard with different but consistently good results. This Spring I have been exploring nettles (stinging nettles) and thought I would give those a try as the green component of this dish.

Until I read about this common edible weed (urtica dioica) the nettle, or stinging nettle, I didn’t know that it is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and western North America. To my eye, the leaves resembles a hybrid combination of cannabis and mint, it softens quickly like spinach when cooked, and has a distinctively earthy, grassy herbal flavor.

The stinging part was annoying because when unprotected skin comes in contact with the plant’s fine hair-like fibers on both the leaves and stems they will impart an irritating stinging or burning which can last several hours. Not to belabor the point or engage in a food science discussion, but the lesson here is wear gloves when handling and quickly blanch the leaves for less than 10 seconds, or sauté them first before proceeding with the recipe.

Stinging nettle leaves

Stinging nettle leaves

As it happens, Italians use nettles often in their cooking as do the Greeks. Having grown up in an Italian-American household one would think nettles were prepared from time to time; however, they never came up on my culinary radar until recently, although I assume that one or both my grandmothers ate and cooked with them back in the day.

Now that I have identified a reliable source (Earthy Delights) for a good quality product when in season, it was time to include nettles in my mix of Spring ingredients to cook.

Initially I prepared a frittata, a pesto with which I sauced pasta and also added to risotto,  and a soup which included onions and potatoes. However, I am discovering they are an excellent green for purees, sauces, savory tarts, filled pastas, tapenade, or to color dough for fresh pasta the same as if using squid ink or spinach.

Once you get beyond the stinging part, nettles have been characterized as a “super food” because they are high in protein and fiber, vitamins A and C, as well as iron. They also freeze well once blanched so they can be used over time in a variety of ways without going out of season.

So with that perspective, here is a minestra recipe using nettles. These humble ingredients—potatoes, tomatoes, and greens—are transformed into a delicious dish. The potatoes are cooked until they are creamy, the tomatoes add a tart sweetness, and the nettles add a soft herbal flavor. It can be eaten warm or served at room temperature, finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and sprinkled with salt, pepper, red chili flakes, and grated aged Pecorino or Parmigiano.

Ingredients
1 bunch of nettles, washed, leaves removed (remember the gloves)
1 pound potatoes, Yukon Gold or other (peeled or not), cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-oz can Italian tomatoes, either run thru a food mill for a smooth base or crushed by hand for a more textured base
1½ cups stock, either vegetable or chicken
Fresh oregano leaves to taste, rough chopped
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes, grated cheese
Olive oil for sauté and to finish

Method
In a large stockpot heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, lower the heat slightly, and sauté the onion until it softens and begin to color.

Add the garlic and stir to combine, adding a pinch of salt and pepper, and continue to sauté until the garlic infuses with the onions.

Add the tomatoes, the stock, the oregano, and an additional pinch or salt and pepper. Adjust the heat to bring the liquid to a simmer, the add the potatoes and cook uncovered until the potatoes are just fork tender.

Add the prepared nettle leaves and thoroughly mix to combine. In this case, since the nettles are being placed in a hot liquid they do not need to be blanched ahead of time. Sprinkle some chili flakes over.

Simmer the minestra for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to partially break up the potatoes and thicken the overall broth.

Once the potatoes are fully cooked, the minestra can be served. Check and correct the seasoning adding salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste.

Ladle the minestra into warm bowls, drizzled with good olive oil and a sprinkle with the grated cheese of your choosing.

Minestra plated

Minestra plated

That begins our cooking journey exploring dishes using Spring ingredients. A frittata can be a blank canvas in which any mix of greens can be paired with the asparagus, or simply use the asparagus spears by themselves, shaving and cutting them in various ways to create some texture in the mix. And, I hope you get to try the nettles in the featured recipe or in one of the many other ways listed because they are tasty and fun.

Eat well. Be well.
DM
“Taste, observe, and adjust as needed. Cooking is as much about following instinct as following recipes.” SPQR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Conch Republic . . . Conch Capital of the World

We recently returned from a short visit to Key West, Florida and I want to share some recipes and my perspective on conch.

I couldn’t help but notice as I left the plane and walked across the tarmac to the terminal entrance, the big sign and colorful figures welcoming me to Key West, the Conch Republic.

The Key West moniker, Conch Capital of the World, is not unlike others I have seen or read about around the country. I wrote about Castroville CA, the Artichoke Capital of the World, and have read about Gilroy CA, the Garlic Capital of the World, Gainesville GA, often called the Poultry Capital of the World, and not to be out done, both Gordonsville VA and Barberton OH, bill themselves as the Fried Chicken Capital of the World. I’m certain there are others here and in other places around the world, a kind of folksy “branding” approach, naming your city after a food. Although when a city or a region focuses much of its resources and attention on one crop or food, the end product is usually better, there is much cooking to be discovered, and the dining is generally quite good.

So while in Key West I spent some time exploring a little conch history and some of the favorite preparations of the locals, or “Conchs” as they call themselves.

Growing up in an Italian household, my introduction to conch was in the form of scungilli. However, scungilli is actually an Italian word used to describe a whelk that is a similar creature to a conch. They are both essentially large edible sea snails, whelks being the carnivores generally found in colder waters, and the conchs, the herbivores are found mostly in tropical waters.

Conchs have been a cornerstone in the Caribbean diet and culture while the whelks are better known in Italian and Chinese cooking. While exploring Key West I learned that in the very early 1800s conch was a food staple throughout the Florida Keys due mainly to the migration of people from the Bahamas. By the late 1800s it was estimated that one-third of the population of Key West was Bahamian and as such much of their diet included conch. Today the most popular dishes are conch fritters and conch chowder, which can be found everywhere in this laid-back Florida town. I also found salads, ceviche, carpaccio, and even conch burgers on menus, and also learned about a traditional breakfast dish enjoyed in Key West’s Bahamian community consisting of stewed conch with peppers, tomatoes, and ham.

You should be familiar with the creature’s shell­­—you know, the large pink-and-white spiral that ends in a point. The shell you put up to your ear when you were a kid so that you could hear the ocean and the waves breaking. The resourceful island natives used the shells for all sorts of tools and crafts. They fashioned axes, fishhooks, jewelry, carvings, floor tiles, and even musical instruments. It was always a treat for me whenever I was able to catch the talented and creative jazz trombonist Steve Turre break out his set of conch shells and play a few tunes while performing.

Like several ocean species, conch stocks dwindled, forcing the state of Florida to ban commercial harvesting in the mid-1970s, and ten years later ban conch fishing altogether. Today, most fresh conch served in the Keys comes from the Bahamas and Costa Rica, while frozen conch is brought in from the Bahamas as well as Nicaragua.

If you are unable to find already cleaned fresh or frozen conch, I have had good results over the years using a canned product packaged by La Monica labeled Scungilli Sliced Conch, as well as others packaged by Roland and/or Geomar imported from Chile. All of these products have been properly tenderized.

The package labeling can be somewhat confusing. I noted earlier that scungilli is a word used to describe a whelk. However, conch is more recognizable in the Keys, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean, while the whelk is more readily found in New England, the Atlantic coast, and in some European waters. I have cooked with both, and find conch the more difficult of the two to source. It think that given the recipes featured in this post, conch or whelk would be interchangeable.

So let’s do some cooking. I was able to source a cleaned, cooked, frozen product said to have been caught off the coast of Rhode Island, that indicates to me these were whelk, not conch, because the waters off Rhode Island are cold. In the end, I don’t believe it makes much difference which one you use—perhaps only to the purists—a Bahamian or a “Conch” from Key West!

I have read that freezing helps tenderizes the meat, which is a plus since conch can have a very firm texture. To revive cooked, frozen conch, place in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, then drain and cool enough so it can be handled. The texture of the meat will be similar to abalone or very large chowder clams. If you want to further tenderize the meat, gently pound it using a meat mallet, or if you don’t want to deal with that at all, then use the packaged products which are all well tenderized.

Here are three recipes using conch (or whelk or scungilli), as I prefer to call them. After trying several offerings in Key West, I’ll share my adaptation of the classic chowder, then an interpretation of the fritter, and finally the dish I have enjoyed many times over the years, scungilli in a spicy tomato sauce, no pasta required.

 

Bahamian Conch Chowder

Chowder

Ingredients
1 pound fresh or frozen conch; cleaned, cooked, and trimmed
Juice of 2 limes
5 tablespoons tomato paste

1 small smoked pork chop or smoked hock; meat removed from the bone and finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
2 fennel stalks, finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped (broiled and skinned optional)
1 medium chipotle chili, seeded and finely chopped

1 28 oz can plum tomatoes; drained and chopped
¼ cup rum
¼ cup dry sherry
8 cups of fish stock or lobster stock or shrimp shell stock
1 cup of the juice from the tomatoes
3 to 4 medium potatoes, diced
2 to 3 bay leaves
6 springs fresh thyme, tied together
10 to 12 springs fresh parsley, finely chopped including the fine stems

6 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced
Worcestershire, Tabasco, salt, pepper, lime juice, parsley

Method
Cut the conch into rough pieces and coarsely grind in a food processor. Place the ground meat in a work bowl and to that add the lime juice and the tomato paste, thoroughly mixing to combine. Set aside.

Remove the meat from the bone of either the smoked pork chop or hock, rough chop and coarsely grind in a food processor. Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat and sauté the ground pork until it begins to brown.

Add the prepared onion, garlic, carrot, celery, fennel, red bell pepper, and chipotle chili to the stockpot. Stir to combine and sauté with the pork until the vegetables begin to soften and take on some color. Stir periodically.

Add the chopped tomatoes and increase the heat to high. Add the rum and the sherry, bringing the pot to a boil.

Stir in the potatoes, the stock, tomato liquid, the herbs, the conch mixture, two tablespoon of Worcestershire one tablespoon Tabasco, along with salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the pot back to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and allow to cook uncovered for 1 hour or until the conch is very tender.

The chowder can be served after the initial cooking, although I have found that chowders, soups, and some braises are better served the following day because their flavors further develop overnight.

To serve, gently reheat the chowder, check and correct the seasoning by adding more Worcestershire, Tabasco, salt, pepper, and or lime juice to taste. This dish should be well seasoned. Ladle into warm bowls, topping with some minced green onions and parsley.

 

Conch Fritters

Fritters plated

These fritters can be found everywhere in Key West, and there are probably as many variations of this tasty morsel as there are restaurants and taverns that serve them. One good accompaniment is a roasted garlic aioli, the recipe for which I am including here; however, there are many other options for you to choose from.

Ingredients
Makes 24 Fritters

½ pound fresh or frozen conch (cleaned, cooked, and trimmed)
1 large egg and 1 egg yolk, beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons beer (drink the rest)

1 medium chipotle chili, seeded, and finely chopped
1 small leek, white and light green parts, finely chopped
½ large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped (broiled and skinned optional)
1 large celery rib, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
¼ cup sweet corn kernels, rough chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups bread crumbs for coating
2 cups vegetable or peanut oil for frying

Method
Cut the conch into rough pieces and coarsely grind in a food processor. Set aside.

Mix the flour, baking powder, eggs, yogurt, and beer in a large work bowl to the consistency of a thick but smooth batter. Fold in the conch and vegetable mix, the season with salt and pepper.

Using a spoon or your hands, scoop out some of the batter mix and roll into approximately 1-inch in size. Dust the rolled fritters with the bread crumbs, shaking off the excess. Place on a sheet pan and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Ready for frying

Ready for frying

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a sauté pan with high sides. Drop a few bread crumbs in the oil and when they bubble the oil is ready. Cook the fritters in batches, turning often until they turn golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain. Keep warm in a very low oven until all batches are cooked.

To serve, arrange on a warm platter accompanied by the aioli or another favorite dipping sauce of your choice.

 

Roasted Garlic Aioli

Ingredients
1 large head of garlic
Olive oil for roasting plus 1½ cups to finish the dipping sauce
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
¼ cup water
Salt and red chili flakes to taste

Method
Cut a thin slice off the top of the head of garlic and discard. Place the head in a shallow baking dish, drizzle with some olive oil, cover the dish with foil and bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 1 hour or until the garlic is very soft when pierced with the point of a knife. Allow to cool enough to handle.

When the garlic is cool, squeeze out the cooked pulp from each clove into the workbowl of a food processor. Add the yolks, vinegar, water, and seasoning, and then puree to a smooth paste. Scrape down the sides.

With the food processor running, slowly drizzle the 1½ cups of olive oil down the feed tube until combined and a smooth emulsion is formed. Transfer to a serving vessel to accompany the fritters.

 

Scungilli in Spicy Tomato Sauce

Scungilli spicy tomato

This is a simple preparation and a personal favorite I continue to enjoy whenever I make a batch. My best memories are sharing this dish over lunch with a friend and former co-worker. We discovered this dish at a small Italian deli in a strip mall not far from the office. We used to stop in the liquor store on the corner and pick up two extra-large cans of the Foster’s Lager and order a bowl of scungilli served in red sauce accompanied by a side salad and a hot crusty loaf of bread. A fine way to decompress for an hour!

Ingredients
1 28 oz can of plain Italian plum tomatoes
Olive oil
3 to 4 large garlic cloves
Tomato paste (optional)
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes
½ pound fresh or frozen conch; cleaned, cooked, trimmed, and thinly sliced
Minced fresh parsley and red chili flakes to finish

Method
Using a food mill drain the tomatoes into the mill over a large bowl and churn the tomatoes, breaking them up to allow all the juices to drain into the bowl, leaving behind all the seeds, touch fibers, and any remaining skin.

If using, whisk in 2 to 3 tablespoons of tomato paste until completely dispersed. Set the bowl aside.

Peel the garlic cloves, crush the cloves, and slice in half. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat, adding the garlic to sauté and infuse the oil. Add ½ teaspoon of red chili flakes (or more), and continue to sauté the garlic until it browns lightly, being careful not to burn it.

Remove the garlic, lower the heat slightly, and pour in the prepared tomato liquid. Stir with a wooden spoon or a whisk to thoroughly combine the oil with the tomato liquid. Lower to a simmer, cover the sauce pan and cook down to whatever consistency you prefer for this simplest of tomato sauces. Check and correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper along with more red chili flakes if you like a little extra heat with this dish.

To serve, divide the prepared scungilli between two shallow bowls, ladle the hot tomato sauce around, scatter some minced parsley over the top and sprinkle additional red chili flakes.

Toasted bread and a mixed side salad or sautéed greens are good accompaniments.

I can see why the chowder and the fritters are so popular—they are simply good, flavorful, ethnic regional cuisine. And what’s not to like about a dish served in a pool of spicy freshly prepared tomato sauce? Even if the pasta wasn’t invited!

If you don’t get around to making one of these dishes on your own, you might just have to plan a trip to the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. Either way, you should definitely give them a try.

Eat well. Be well.
DM
One of the best things about cooking is that it is an on-going learning experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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