Let me say at the outset, this post is long! Considering that I have been having too much fun working in the new kitchen space I just let the writing part get away from me, making it a little late in catching all of the spring seasonal ingredients at their peak. There is still plenty here to keep you busy!
I don’t expect that everyone will read this whole post at one time, end-to-end, although some of you might. What I hope is that along the way you will discover a new approach or a few new dishes that interest you enough to give them a try. But my overall expectation is for this post to be a reference that you go back to from time to time, discovering a dish you may have skipped over the first time, but with each new spring season go back and give it a try. Meanwhile, enjoy the read.
It has been my observation, over the past several years, that dishes prepared seasonally have become the benchmark of professional kitchens and home cooks around the planet. In the fast-paced “foodie” world today, authors, journalists, celebrity chefs, TV hosts, and bloggers all seem to focus on cooking by the seasons as the right way. Everyone scrambles to get the first harvest of this, and the initial availability of that, preparing dishes that reflect the best of the available seasonal ingredients. But when you stop and think about this cyclical trend the more you realize that this is not new at all. Cooking by the seasons has been around for centuries, around the globe, passed from generation to generation. It just seems to be more formalized today—being advertised, publicized, written about, “liked” and talked about more than ever.
When I was growing up I observed that my grandmothers cooked by the seasons as theirs did before them. They didn’t fuss over it as is done now, because for them it was the natural way to go, just like the ingredients they were working with.
As a child, the seasons to me were simply spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each season has its own characteristics and set of core ingredients, although there are times when the lines blurred and there is overlap.
For example, I first began to focus on the seasonality of cooking and the use of seasonal ingredients, was after reading A Well-Seasoned Appetite by Molly O’Neill, in which she organized the seasons into eight parts, each a segue into the next.
Further inspiration and understanding came from Michael Chiarello’s The Tra Vigne Cookbook, published in 1999, about his take on California seasonal wine country cooking, focused primarily on seasonal vegetable cooking with a Mediterranean point of view influenced by his Italian heritage. Also, 12 Seasons Cookbook by Alfred Portale, in which he makes each month a separate season and builds dishes and meals with ingredients best sourced and available in that month. I thought that was a novel approach.
And, just in case you have an interest in a little more “foodie” reading and can’t locate, or don’t have any of the books mentioned above, I am currently reading an excellent book titled Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables, by Joshua McFadden, which was published this year. His approach and perspective help continue to refine and focus my seasonal cooking in fresh new ways.
A couple more thoughts that influence my thinking around seasonal cooking and ingredients are consideration of the ingredient source location, along with the months and season those ingredients are at their peak.
Today, though most ingredients can be sourced year round, and although I live in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country, zone 7, there are times when I go outside that region to acquire seasonal ingredients at their peak from the best locations. For example, with spring dishes I might seek out artichokes from California; salmon from the Pacific Northwest; Vidalia onions from Georgia; and morels, nettles, and ramps from Michigan.
And, although tomatoes, sweet corn, and watermelon might be available year round, I wouldn’t consider cooking with those ingredients in December. But it would be perfectly fine, from my perspective, to roast a kabocha squash or feast on a dozen briny oysters in that same month.
So with this post I want to share what seasonal cooking I have been doing since early April. You might consider exploring some of these recipes as we approach summer, when a whole new set of ingredients will be available to try. Meanwhile, there is plenty here to keep you busy before we get to the summer season. I think you will find that there is a little something for everyone!
The ingredients I chose to work with for this spring are: artichokes, arugula, asparagus, black bass, lamb, morels, nettles, peas, ramps, rhubarb, salmon, soft shell crabs, spinach, and Vidalia onions. Some of these ingredients will shine on their own, while others have been paired together to highlight how well they complement each other in the final dish. So let’s get started with some seasonal cooking . . .
One sure sign of a change in season, winter into spring, is the availability of artichokes in the markets. Although not a zone 7 ingredient, since nearly 100 percent of the artichokes made available in our markets are grown in California, I wanted to include them in this post anyway.
If you reference the post from April 2015 in the blog archive, you will find information and perspective about the artichoke along with some recipes. I will add to that here, starting out with something so straightforward that you might not have to leave your home to shop at the market if your pantry is adequately stocked.
I am referring to the ubiquitous artichoke-spinach “dip,” served at cocktail parties, taverns, and happy hours alike. Spread on toasted baguettes, crackers, pita, and bread sticks or grissini, a way to get the party started!
Artichoke-Spinach Dip . . . A Variation
1 large bunch fresh spinach, thick stems removed, or 1 package of “baby” spinach
1 15 oz can artichoke hearts packed in water, drained well
1 large garlic clove minced, or 1 tablespoon roasted garlic jam
8 oz cream cheese
2 generous tablespoons mayonnaise
Juice and zest of 1 lemon, zest grated fine
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Grana Padano, or an aged Percoino
Salt, pepper, chili flakes to taste
Trim the spinach stems, thoroughly wash, and spin dry although don’t removing all the water. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the spinach and toss until the spinach begins to wilt, reducing in volume and giving off its water. Once the liquid evaporates, remove the spinach from the stovetop to cool.
Wilt the spinach
Drain the artichokes well. Mince the garlic if using a fresh clove, and finely grate the lemon zest before juicing and removing all the seeds.
Place all the ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine and then process at high speed until a thoroughly mixed, creamy emulsion is achieved. Taste and correct the seasoning to your liking.
Turn out into a large bowl to encourage dipping and serve accompanied with your favorite cracker or toast. Now that was easy!
Staying with artichokes, here are a couple more recipe options for you to explore.
This next recipe has a few more moving parts than the first and combines three predominatly spring ingredients: artichokes, asparagus, and ramps in a pasta dish with a unique pesto sauce and a grilled vegetable garnish.
The artichoke used in this recipe is a long-stemmed globe variety from California. The asparagus are grown on a local farm with its own market so they are available all spring and the ramps came from a source in Michigan although only the leaves were used in this recipe.
Long stem globe artichoke
The pesto is a variation on one I prepare from time to time using cavolo nero/lacinato kale, but the kale is replaced in this recipe by the ramp greens and the braised stem and heart from the artichoke. The asparagus are grilled and presented as the garnish atop the pasta.
Braised Artichoke and Ramp Greens Pesto over Trofie Pasta and Grilled Asparagus
Ingredients (serves 2)
1 large, long-stemmed globe artichoke
1 bunch ramps, bulbs removed and set aside for another use
6 large asparagus
Juice and zest (grated fine and set aside) from 1 lemon, plus another lemon for artichoke prep
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 to 3 bay leaves
¼ cup walnuts or pistachio nuts or hazelnuts, lightly toasted
¼ cup parsley leaves or fresh oregano, or a combination of both
Salt, pepper, chili flakes
½ pound of Trofie pasta (or another shape you might prefer); Trofie, that classic Ligurian pasta often served with the Genovese basil pesto sauce
Grated cheese for finishing
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Fill a bowl with cold water, squeeze the juice from one lemon and place the cut lemon halves in the bowl.
Prep the artichoke by cutting 1 inch off the top and cutting off the stem; set the stem aside; remove all the leaves to reach the heart; lightly scrape the outside of the heart and scrape out the fibrous choke; cut the heart in half and place in the bowl of acidulated water; trim the cut stem of any dark spots and fibrous outer skin, split it in half and place in the acidulated water as well.
In a roasting pan large enough to fit the artichoke stem halves, place them along with the hearts, crushed garlic cloves, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and lemon juice. Drizzle some olive oil over, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and fill the roasting pan halfway with water. Cover the pan with foil punching a small hole or two for ventilation, and braise in the oven for 1 hour or until the artichokes and garlic are easily pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
While the artichokes are braising, remove the bulb end from the ramps, setting aside for another use and thoroughly clean the ramp leaves.
Blanch the leaves in boiling water until just tender, drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside to cool.
Trim the bottom ends of the asparagus, then clean and dry them. Split the asparagus in half starting at the bottom slicing up through the top so as not to break the top off when cutting through. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper making them ready for a quick grill or grill pan until charred and just fork tender. Set them aside to cool.
Toast the nuts in a dry sauté pan, shaking the pan so as not to burn the nuts. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Working with the artichoke stem halves, scrape out the soft center and cut some of the most tender pieces off the stem, discarding the remainder. Place them along with the braised artichoke heart and the garlic cloves in the work bowl of a food processor. Add the braised ramp greens, reserved lemon zest, toasted nuts, and the parsley. Slowly begin to process while drizzling olive oil down the feed tube until a smooth emulsion is achieved. Season with salt, pepper, and some red chili flakes to taste. Process again to blend the seasoning and set aside the pesto to sauce the pasta and finish the dish.
Cook the pasta according to package directions, saving some of the hot pasta cooking water for the sauce. Once cooked, drain the pasta and place in a large sauté pan set over medium heat, adding several tablespoons of the pesto and some pasta water. Mix to combine, uniformly heating everything and lightly coating the pasta with the sauce. Add more pasta water if the pesto seems too thick.
Plate the pasta, drape the grilled asparagus over, and sprinkle the grated cheese around. In this dish Castelmagno, a semi-hard cows milk cheese from Piemonte, was used, however Parmigiano-Reggiano or one of the many aged Percorino cheeses would be a fine substitute.
Trofie with artichoke pesto and grilled asparagus
The last dish featuring artichokes is a savory artichoke stew. The Provençal French call this dish La Barigoule, while the Italians, primarily from Umbria where the dish is a tradition, and in and around Rome, call it Scafata.
There are many variations of this dish, where the artichokes take the lead role in the French variation, while fava beans highlight the Italian, along with other spring vegetable combinations. There is really no right way or wrong way to make this dish as it is a matter more about your personal taste and what ingredients are best at the market. In this variation I used “baby” artichokes because the choke is not yet developed so it makes the prep much easier; instead of fava beans I substituted young sweet green peas, not traditional but certainly colorful, sweet, and delicious. I did not use tomato, as some recipes call for, simply because tomatoes are best left on the vine at this time of the year, and instead substituted a large roasted red bell pepper. Finally, some diced pancetta was included in the braise for additional flavor.
Artichokes A La Barigoule . . . Artichokes Scafata . . . A Variation
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 or 2 lemons depending upon size
12 to 16 young or “baby” artichokes
1 large sweet onion (Vidalia or other)
1 large celery stalk
1 large carrot
1 medium fennel bulb including stalks, separate the fronds and set aside
4 large garlic cloves
2 or 3 sprigs each of fresh parsley, thyme, fennel fronds, and mint
1 to 2 bay leaves
1 large red bell pepper
1 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
1 cup young sweet peas
1 tablespoon vinegar (champagne or white balsamic)
Salt and pepper
Broil the pepper in the oven until charred and blackened, or over the flame on the stovetop if gas fired. Place the pepper in a large bowl covered with clear wrap to steam. Once cool enough to handle, peel off the skin, discarding all the ribs, pith, stem, and seeds; dice the pepper, and save any juices. Set aside.
Set out a large bowl of cool water, adding the juice from the lemons along with the lemon halves. Prep the artichokes by cutting a half inch off the tops, remove the tough outer leaves and any blackened area on the stem, then place them in the bowl of acidulated water until ready to braise.
Baby artichoke prep
To prepare the braising broth, rough chop the onion, celery, carrot, fennel bulb with stalks, and the garlic cloves. Tie together the fresh herb sprigs with the bay leaves. Dice the pancetta.
In a large stockpot over medium heat add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the chopped vegetables, stirring to coat until the vegetables lightly brown and soften.
Add the wine and cook down until reduced by half. Add water, just enough to cover the vegetables and once it begins to simmer again, add the herb bundle. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the broth for approximately 1 hour.
After an hour, remove the stockpot from the heat and allow the broth to cool. Once cooled, strain and set aside, discarding the chopped vegetables and herb bundle.
Wipe out the stockpot, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the pancetta until it begins to soften and lightly brown. Strain the prepared artichokes and add to the stockpot, stirring to coat. Add the reserved broth along with the diced roasted pepper and juices. Salt and pepper to taste.
Gently simmer for 30 minutes until the artichokes are cooked through and can be easily pierced with the tip of a knife.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the artichokes from the broth to a serving dish. Bring the broth to a boil, add the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and the peas. Cook for 2 minutes more until the peas are done and remove from the heat. Check the seasoning and then ladle the broth over the artichokes.
Place the stew in individual bowls, serving warm or at room temperature. The finished dish can be served as a starter course of a light meal, topped with some finely minced fresh herbs or none at all and accompanied by some toasted crusty bread to sop up the broth.
• • • • • •
On May 16, 2016, I published a post titled “Ramps, Not Wild Leeks,” in which I shared some thoughts about ramps along with three recipes, a pasta, a pesto, and a pickle. Since I set aside those ramp bulbs from an earlier recipe, using the ramp greens as part of a sauce for the Trofie pasta, I wanted to share a quick pickle recipe using those reserved bulbs.
Ramps are sometimes call wild leeks. But despite a similar appearance, they taste completely different. Ramps are an all-American vegetable, foraged only in the wild, not cultivated like leeks. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and add an assertive depth of flavor when included in a dish.
Besides an ingredient in a pesto, there are many ways to use ramps in your cooking: ramps can be included in a compound butter; sautéed in olive oil and served as a side vegetable with just a sprinkle of salt and pepper; added to a frittata; folded into a pasta dough; pureed into the filling for deviled eggs; baked in gratins; served raw in salads; and, of course, pickled. The following is another pickled ramp bulb recipe that is less complicated and uses fewer ingredients than the recipe posted in the May 2016 piece.
Quick Pickled Ramp Bulbs
1 bunch ramp bulbs trimmed from the green tops
½ cup plain white vinegar or white wine vinegar
½ cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 bay leaves
1 to 2 dry oregano sprigs (pungent Sicilian oregano used here)
Separate the bulbs from the green leafy tops, and trim off the white roots.
Place all the pickling ingredients in a saucepan large enough to hold all the bulbs. Bring the liquid to a gentle boil, allowing the sugar and salt to dissolve.
Poach the ramp bulbs for two minutes, and remove the pan from the heat, allowing the ramp bulbs to cool in the liquid. Check the seasoning, then place the ramps in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
The pickled ramps, submerged in the pickling liquid, will store well for many weeks in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
Pickled ramp bulbs
They are a nice accompaniment to cheese or cured meat plates, as well as with smoked and grilled dishes.
While on the subject of ramps and going back to working with the leafy green tops, here are two more ways to include the leaves as part of a dish.
• • • • • •
While looking for something food related to read on a flight I was waiting to board, I picked up a copy of a magazine I had never seen before, titled Farm Fresh. This particular 2015 issue featured seasonal recipes and perspectives starting with spring and working through fall.
One of the subjects that caught my eye was an approach to using a pesto in the filling for deviled eggs. I like deviled eggs and am always on the look out for more interesting ways to present them when I include a platter for guests to graze on as an appetizer ahead of the main meal, so I was eager to further explore this enhanced deviled egg filling approach. However, I wasn’t convenience that this filling approach was either new or unique so in doing some further reading my inspiration came from two articles published by three of my favorite “foodie” enthusiasts. Domenica Marchetti, the author, teacher, food writer, blogger, and proponent of Italian home cooking, wrote an interesting piece about her appreciation for deviled eggs, featuring a recipe that incorporated minced giardiniera (vegetable pickle) into the filling.
The other two, the Canal House “girls” as I often refer to them, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, authors, chefs/cooks, editors, food writers, food photographers, and partners in The Canal House Books, published an online piece which was a deviled egg master class.
Now I was ready to take a new approach to preparing deviled eggs and developed the following recipe.
Deviled Eggs with Braised Artichoke and Ramp Green Pesto Filling
6 large eggs, hard cooked
3 tablespoons pesto (reference earlier recipe above)
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Finely grated zest from ½ lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
My approach to hard cooking eggs is to place them in a stockpot with a lid, large enough to hold them without crowding and allow for water to fill to a level 1 inch above the eggs. Cover the pot and bring to a rapid boil. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the eggs to steep in the hot water, covered for 15 minutes. When the burner on the stove top cools down enough so the water doesn’t boil again, the pot can be placed back on top to finish the steeping.
After 15 minutes empty the pot and run the eggs under cold water until they are cool enough to handle, but not completely cold. Starting at the fatter end, tap the egg shell all around and gently peel it off.
Slice the eggs in half, setting the whites on a plate to cool completely and place the yolks in a work bowl to be combined with the other filling ingredients.
To the yolks add the pesto, mayo, Dijon, zest, salt, and pepper. Using a fork, mash all the ingredients together until thoroughly combined, then use a rubber spatula to smooth the mixture into a puree. Check and correct the seasoning as necessary.
Deviled egg prep
Using either a teaspoon or a piping bag, fill each egg white cavity with a generous dollop of the prepared egg yolk filling and garnish each half to finish. In this batch I garnished using half of an asparagus tip and accompanied the eggs with a small bowl of the pickled ramp bulbs.
Deviled eggs served
In the second recipe the ramp greens have been paired with spring or English peas. These peas are another of those ingredients that make themselves known in spring. Not sure where the term English peas came from, perhaps dating back to our colonial days, but spring peas have been around long before that, originating and migrating from the Middle East and Asia.
The pods are inedible, although they can be used to flavor a vegetable stock. Some of the peas are so sweet and tender they can be eaten without cooking, but for the most part just 2 to 4 minutes in gently boiling water is all that is required.
As one example, I have included peas in the braised artichoke dish shared earlier in this post, in addition they can also be paired with sweet onions and small button or oyster mushrooms as a side dish, or with pasta or in a risotto dish.
In this recipe, I have chosen to puree the peas with the tender ramp greens to form a “mash” or “hummus” served as a crostini at the start of a meal.
Spring Pea and Ramp Green Mash
Ingredients (six toasts)
2 cups shelled spring peas
1 small bunch tender ramp greens
1 garlic clove minced
¼ preserved lemon peel finely minced (or finely grated zest of 1 small lemon plus the juice)
Salt, pepper, red pepper chili flakes
Toasted baguette or multi-grain bread
Minced fresh mint or parsley for garnish
Drop the peas into a pot of gently boiling water, cook for 2 to 4 minutes, adding the ramp leaves for the last minute of cooking to wilt and soften. Drain well and place in the work bowl of a food processor, along with the garlic, lemon, and seasoning.
Begin to process, slowly adding the olive oil down the feed tube until a puree is formed and all the ingredients are incorporated. Check and correct the seasoning to your taste.
Spring pea and ramp green mash
Cut the bread into thick slices. Using a dry cast iron skillet or grill pan over high heat, toast the bread on both sides, pressing down which promotes toasting more surface and getting some grill markings.
Remove the bread, lightly brush one side with some olive oil and spoon on the pea mash. To finish, sprinkle some finely minced herbs over and serve.
A discussion about cooking with spring peas wouldn’t be complete without including one recipe using the tendrils or shoots that the pea pods actually grow on. Except for the pods themselves, most all the parts of a pea plant can be eaten. When fresh and young, the curly strands and leaves that comprise the tendril or shoot can be eaten raw in salads or lightly sautéed and used in a variety of ways. One dish that I often prepare when I can source young, freshly packaged pea tendrils is a salad with arugula, shaved fennel, and hazelnuts.
Pea tendrils (shoots)
Pea Tendril, Arugula, and Shaved Fennel Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 bunch pea tendrils
1 bunch arugula
1 small fennel bulb
4 red radishes
½ cup hazelnuts
1 small shallot, finely minced
3 tablespoons white wine or champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey (many options)
¼ cup olive oil
Sand and pepper
Prep, rinse, and spin dry the greens. Place in a large work bowl and chill. Using a mandolin, thinly shave the fennel bulb, set aside in a separate bowl, and chill.
Thinly slice the radishes into rounds, then cut across the rounds to form “matchstick” pieces, (also called batons), with red tips at each end. Set aside in the bowl with the fennel to chill.
Thin radish rounds
Lightly toast the hazelnuts in a dry sauté pan. Remove from the heat once toasted and allow them to cool. Once cooled, rough chop and set aside.
In a small jar place the minced shallot and vinegar, allowing that to macerate for 20 minutes. Add the Dijon, honey, salt, and pepper, and cover and shake until the Dijon and honey are smooth and incorporated. Add the oil to the jar and vigorously shake again until a glossy emulsion is achieved. Check the seasoning.
To serve, place all the prepared vegetables in one bowl and toss by hand along with the hazelnuts. Distribute over four salad plates and slowly drizzle the vinaigrette dressing around. Lightly dust with salt and pepper and serve.
Pea tendril-arugula-hazelnut salad
• • • • • •
As we continue to make our way through the dishes I’ve been cooking using spring seasonal ingredients, the focus has been mainly on vegetable dishes. I thought it might be the right time to work with something found in the sea. Soft shell crabs are a quintessential harbinger of spring. In this zone, the season begins in May and, if you are lucky, can extend into early September.
Soft shell crabs are not a different species of crab but are blue crabs that have molted or shed their shell. They molt because their shell has become too small, so in order for them to grow they shed the existing shell and within about ten days’ time a new shell forms and hardens. The window of time to catch and eat the crabs in their new soft shell outfits is short.
There are many ways to prepare the soft shell crabs although the best way is crispy. They should not be boiled like hard shell crabs or they will simply fall apart. They can be battered and deep fried; breaded and pan sautéed; cornmeal-crusted and pan sautéed; served with butter, lemon, and capers on pasta; a sandwich garnished any number of ways; served with an aioli, a tarter sauce, or simply with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sea salt; or better yet atop a fennel and orange salad with an orange vinaigrette.
Here are two recipes that I often prepare, taking advantage of the soft shell crabs when they are at their peak in the market. For each of these recipes, the prep and the cooking of the crabs is the same, so let’s start there. I prefer to pan sauté the crabs crispy, and along with a coating of flour I like to dust the crabs with finely crushed celery seed and smoky pimentón.
Cleaning the crabs is not for the faint-hearted, so ask your fishmonger to do that for you, keeping in mind that if you purchase them cleaned they should be cooked the same day. If you purchase them live, they can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or so, preferably covered with damp newspaper over a bowl of ice but not directly on top of the ice. The chilling effect of the refrigeration and the ice tends to lull the crabs into a very relaxed state making the cleaning just a little more humane.
Using a kitchen scissor cut off the front of the crabs just behind the eyes. Lift the shell on each side and pull out the spongy material that is the gills. Turn the crab over to locate the shell panel known as the apron, which is easily lifted and then can be cut off. The cleaning is done.
Cleaned, ready to cook
The cooking approach I prefer is to dredge the cleaned crabs in a mixture of all-purpose flour seasoned with the finely crushed celery seed and the smoky pimentón.
Heat a large sauté pan, preferably with a lid as the crabs have a tendency to pop and splatter when placed on a hot pan, over medium-high heat with 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter.
Shake off the excess flour and once the oil is hot, place the seasoned crabs, in batches, in the pan to sauté. Cover and cook on one side for 4 minutes or so, then turn the crabs over and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes until they a firm and crispy. Plate the crabs, lightly salt and pepper, and continue cooking the next batch until done.
Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
Ingredients (1 crab per person)
Soft shell crabs, cleaned
Sandwich rolls: Kaiser, Portuguese, olive, multi-grain, ciabatta, poppy seed and onion (many options)
Garnishes: lettuce, tomato, sliced raw onion, grilled scallions, caramelized or roasted sweet onions, pickled vegetables, mayo, tarter, or aioli (many, many options)
Cook the crabs as described above. Lightly toast the sandwich roll you are using. Spread some tarter or aioli on the roll if using, place some lettuce along with other garnishes if using, then place the crispy crab on top. This is a filling sandwich and pairs nicely with a cold beer!
Soft shell crab sandwich with garden lettuce
Ready to take a bite
Soft Shell Crab with Fennel and Orange Salad
Ingredients (salad serves 2, allow 2 crabs per person)
4 soft shell crabs, cleaned
2 oranges (naval or blood, or even pink grapefruit)
1 large fennel bulb, fronds separated
¼ cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, one finely minced, one thinly sliced
1 teaspoon Dijon
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes
Cook the crabs as described above, set aside.
Juice and zest one orange, set aside. Peel and section (known as supreming) the second orange and set aside.
Divide the fennel bulb in half. Cut one half into 4 or 6 thick pieces and thinly shave the other half using a mandolin. Set aside the prepared fennel along with the separated fronds.
In a dry sauté pan lightly toast the pine nuts, remove from pan, and set aside to cool.
Prepare the vinaigrette by placing the reserved orange juice, garlic, and Dijon in a jar. Shake to thoroughly mix and incorporate the Dijon. Add the olive oil, cover, and vigorously shake the jar again until a glossy emulsion is achieved. Set aside.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and when hot but not smoking add the thick-cut fennel. Sauté until both sides are lightly charred, set aside.
In a large work bowl mix, by hand, the shaved fennel, orange sections, reserved zest, and fronds. Season with salt, pepper, and red chili flakes.
To plate the dish, place 2 to 3 large pieces of the charred fennel down first and lightly drizzle with some vinaigrette. On top of that place the shaved fennel and orange salad, sprinkle the toasted pine nuts around and drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette. Place two soft shell crabs on top of the salad and serve at room temperature.
• • • • • •
So how about something sweet? Rhubarb . . .
Rhubarb, another ingredient that makes its seasonal debut in the spring, is one that can be prepared in ways both savory and sweet with equally good results.
On May 23, 2016, I wrote about rhubarb and shared two recipes–yes one savory and the other sweet. To avoid repeating all that was discussed about rhubarb in the last post I would simply like to add two more rhubarb recipes to the blog. Oh, did I mention one is savory and the other sweet?
The savory offering is a recipe for a rhubarb chutney or relish that I developed some years back and revisit every spring. A work in progress so-to-speak, in that I try to refine and improve each new batch I prepare.
In general, I enjoy sampling many different chutneys, relishes, or marmalades and this recipe makes a fine accompaniment to a cheese platter and a toasted baguette, or as punctuation for roasted or grilled pork, chicken, or turkey.
The sweet offering pairs rhubarb with strawberries, a natural combination, in this recipe prepared in the form of a crisp enhanced with crystallized ginger and topped with toasted almonds, hazelnuts, and breadcrumbs.
Ingredients (yields three 13 oz jam jars)
3 cups of rhubarb stalks cut in large pieces (2 inches)
1 large tart apple (skin on), coarsley chopped
½ cup raisins
Juice and zest of 1 orange (zest coarsely cut)
1 vanilla bean scraped (save pod for another use)
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground ginger (or 1 tablespoon finely minced crystallized ginger)
½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds, lightly toasted
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and gently cook the mixture down, stirring frequently, for 45 minutes.
As the fruit cooks, the rhubarb softens and the finished chutney has thickened.
Remove from the heat, allow to cool completely, and spoon into small jam jars. It stores well in the freezer for up to 6 months. Thaw in the refrigerator and is best served at room temperature. Any leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for a week, or can be refrozen just as well.
Rhubarb Crisp with Strawberries and Ginger
3 cups rhubarb stalks cut into large pieces (2 inches)
3 cups hulled strawberries, halved if small, quartered if large
Scant ¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons finely minced crystallized ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
1 scant teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ pound butter, softened
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup toasted and finely ground breadcrumbs
¼ cup toasted and ground almonds
¼ cup toasted and ground hazelnuts
½ cup brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon finely minced crystallized ginger
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Generously butter a 2-quart baking dish.
In a large work bowl place all the filling ingredients, mixing to combine thoroughly. Place in the buttered baking dish, spreading evenly.
Rhubarb and strawberries
In another work bowl cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces. Add all the topping ingredients and use your hands to combine until large sand-like “crumbles” are formed.
Sprinkle the topping “crumbles” over the filling in the baking dish and place in the oven for 50 minutes or until the topping is golden brown and firm.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the crisp to cool for 20 minutes before serving.
This dessert can be served alone or paired with a scoop of your favorite ice cream, or better yet, with a dollop of mascarpone flavored with finely minced crystallized ginger.
Plated cobbler (photo by Dave Maialetti)
• • • • • •
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, in the spring you could find yourself swimming up stream with some wild salmon or with black bass along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida.
When thinking about salmon I’ll not forget the first time I visited Seattle, Washington and sampled the early arrival of king salmon caught in the Copper River as they began their spring spawning run. Whether poached, grilled, pan roasted, or baked, fresh king salmon should definitely be on your list of spring ingredients to use. Paired with a fine bottle of pinot noir, some spring vegetable sides, and a spring fruit or berry chutney like it is done in the Pacific Northwest is a must-have meal.
There are countless recipes for cooked salmon dishes, however the recipes I am sharing with you in this post might not be the first that come to mind but should not be overlooked. One is a recipe for cured salmon, known to some as gravlax, and the other is a recipe for salmon rillette.
The curing process is straightforward in that salt and sugar are the main components, which dehydrate the filet and eliminate any unwanted bacteria that could cause spoilage. The spice mix makes up the flavoring, differentiating the outcome of one recipe from another. I have experimented with different cures over the years, substituting different spices, pairing different peppercorns, seeds, citrus zests, and herbs. Most recently I read where one British chef, Daniel Doherty from the London restaurant Duck & Waffle, added a small amount of smoked vodka (James Chase Smoked Vodka) to a mackerel tartare, so I thought I’d add that same ingredient to the aromatic curing mix I had been exploring. I was pleased with the results.
Salmon Cure with Smoked Vodka
1 2-pound center cut wild salmon filet, skin on
13 juniper berries
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds
¼ cup salt
1/8 cup sugar
Zest from 2 lemons
½ cup chopped herb mix (parsley with tender stems, mint, fennel fronds, lemon balm, chives)
¼ cup James Chase Smoked Vodka
Remove any pin bones from the filet using needle-nose pliers or a kitchen tweezer.
Using the point of a small pairing knife, perforate the skin side of the filet.
With a mortar and pestle coarsely grind the curing ingredients together, crushing all the seeds. Add the vodka to moisten the cure, forming a thick paste. Spread the cure out on the flesh side of the filet patting it down to cover completely. Wrap the filet in clear film, place it on a sheet pan with a plate on top and weigh down the plate using a large can or two. Refrigerate for no longer than 36 hours.
Remove from the refrigerator, wash off the cure mixture and dry the filet. Wipe a very thin film of olive oil on the flesh side of the filet that is now ready for cutting.
Using a very sharp knife with a thin, flexible blade, trim thin slices from the filet and plate, ready to serve any number of ways.
Slicing cured salmon
One example would be to make a tartine by placing thin slices of the salmon on top of grilled rustic bread slices spread with herb seasoned cream cheese, and topped by either grilled asparagus or shaved raw asparagus.
Cured salmon with grilled asparagus
Another dish would be to mix thin slices of the salmon with a simple salad of thinly sliced raw zucchini, thinly shaved fennel, fennel fronds, capers, and a drizzle of white balsamic vinegar syrup.
Plated-cured salmon (courtesy Mario Batali)
This piece of cured salmon keeps well in the refrigerator for a week, using a clean piece of clear film after each use. It also freezes very well and once thawed in the refrigerator its taste and texture are just fine. If you like this cure recipe, you might consider making more than one piece and freezing one for later use.
I sampled this salmon rillette the very first time I dined at Le Bernardin, the acclaimed seafood restaurant in NYC. They call it a fresh and smoked salmon spread. A small serving is presented to every table during the lunch service with thinly sliced baguette toasts. It is so addictingly delicious that it is difficult not to finish the whole serving. Once I found the recipe in one of the Le Bernardin cookbooks I’ve been making it ever since. It is good and relatively easy to prepare, so I thought as the second salmon recipe I would be share it with you here.
Although this recipe is courtesy of Le Bernardin restaurant, there are two ingredients I would like to mention which deviate from the original recipe without any negative effect.
The bottle of dry white wine called for could be most any dry white wine, and as such will flavor the poached fresh salmon slightly differently depending upon what grape varietal is being used. I have even explored the use of dry white vermouth but I prefer the dry white wine called for instead.
Along with the shallot, I also add a piece or two of fennel stalk cut from the top of the bulb, but this is entirely a matter of personal taste and optional.
Fresh and Smoked Salmon Spread . . . A Rillette
Ingredients (4 cups)
1 2-pound center-cut filet of wild fresh salmon, skin and any pin-bones removed, fat trimmed, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 750 ml bottle of dry white wine (many options as noted)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons chopped shallot plus fennel stalks if using
6 oz smoked salmon cut into small dice
2 tablespoons finely sliced chives
¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ teaspoon finely ground white pepper
Place the wine, shallots, fennel, if using, and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the fresh salmon and poach for 40 to 60 seconds. Drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking, discarding the poaching liquid. Allow the salmon to drain well, removing the shallots and fennel. Refrigerate until well chilled.
Salmon mise en place
Place the chilled salmon along with any gelatin that has formed, in a large work bowl. Sprinkle the chives over and use a wooden spoon to shred the salmon while mixing in the chives and the diced smoked salmon.
Add the lemon juice, mayo, and pepper, and continue mixing to thoroughly combine. Check seasoning and add salt to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve. This recipe can be assembled up to 6 hours in advance.
Serve with thinly toasted baguette slices, or topping toasted rustic bread as a tartine.
Salmon rillette tartine
• • • • • •
Black bass or black sea bass is purely an ocean species, a true bass. It is available all year round but is at its best from May through September, which is why I like to include it among the spring ingredients that can segue us into summer. It has a delicate flavor, with lean white flesh and a moderately firm texture when cooked. It lends itself well to most cooking methods; poach, steam, bake, broil, grill, and pan sauté; the latter being my preference.
In this recipe I have paired pan-sautéed filets of black bass with charred fennel and a bean salad with a confetti vegetable sauté.
Black Bass over Charred Fennel with Cannellini, Fava Bean, and Confetti Vegetable Salad
Ingredients (serves 2)
2 2-pound black bass, gutted, scaled, and fileted skin on (approximately 4 6 oz filets)
1 medium fennel bulb, cut from the top down into 4 to 6 pieces
1 15 oz can of cannellini beans well, drained and rinsed
¼ cup blanched and shelled fresh fava beans
For the confetti: Finely minced celery stalk, fennel stalk, small carrot, shallot, scallion, red radish, watermelon radish. Finely minced herb mix: In this salad I used fennel fronds, mint leaves, and purple shiso leaves.
Flour for coating the filets
Salt and pepper
Have your fishmonger prepare the fish. Keep in mind that black bass are bony so there may be some small bones left in the filet.
Black bass filets
Also, if the filets are small, score the skin side 3 or 4 times to keep the filet from curling during the sauté (you will note in my photo that I did not do this).
Bass filet sauté
Mix the beans together in a work bowl and set aside. Mince all the vegetables for the confetti and set aside. Trim the fennel and lightly coat with olive oil and salt and pepper for the charring in a stovetop grill pan.
Salad mise en place
Heat a dry grill pan on high heat and once hot, char the prepared fennel slices, turning frequently until nicely colored, remove from the pan from the stove and set aside.
In a large sauté pan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, put in the confetti vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently, until they soften but do not color.
Remove the pan from the stove and allow the confetti to cool. Once cooled, fold the confetti sauté into the beans, along with the finely minced herbs. Check and correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed. If you like a little heat, add a pinch of red chili flakes, mixing in to combine, then set aside.
Two bean salad
In another sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon or two of butter over medium-high heat. Dredge the filets in the flour and shake off the excess. Once the oil/butter has heated but is not smoking place, the filets skin side down and cook for approximately 4 minutes. Using a spatula, carefully lift and turn the filets over and cook on the flesh side 1 to 2 minutes more.
To plate the dish, place 2 to 3 pieces of the charred fennel down first. Place two filets per plate skin side up on top of the fennel and spoon the bean/confetti vegetable salad around.
• • • • • •
One sure sign of a seasonal ingredient change is the emergence of asparagus. Even though asparagus are available in the markets all year long from places as far away as Peru, Mexico, and China, the latter being the largest producer and exporter, for me there is nothing better than the locally grown asparagus. I am fortunate to live very close to a local farm/market that cultivates beautiful green and purple varieties. Although their availability falls within a limited growing window, starting in April and ending in mid-June, I was able to take advantage of the beautiful crop again this year.
Asparagus date back to antiquity, enjoyed by both the Romans and the Greeks. The French would later get credit for the development of the technique back in the mid-1600s used to cultivate white asparagus which soon spread to Germany and later throughout Europe.
At harvest time, the Germans celebrate the white asparagus with festivals and whole menus featuring dishes based entirely on this vegetable.
I have read, that back in the 1920s asparagus cultivation and production grew rapidly in western Massachusetts in an area the locals called Pioneer Valley. As the farming flourished and the bounty began to spread throughout the region and the country, the Valley became known as the “Asparagus Capital of the World.” Seems to me we have a knack for crowning food capitals around the country, such as Gainsville, Georgia for chicken; Gilroy, California for garlic; and Castroville, California for artichokes, which sounds more like an itinerary for a culinary road trip … but I digress!
Western Massachusetts is still producing asparagus, although today much of the seasonal crop in our regional markets is grown in southern California.
Asparagus are a versatile vegetable, in that they can be steamed, sautéed, roasted, grilled, or eaten raw. I enjoy them prepared all ways, and generally picking a cooking approach depending upon the size of the asparagus I am able to find. Rule of thumb is to try and gather each batch relatively uniform in size so they all cook at the same rate no matter what the cooking method.
Asparagus have already been included in a couple of the recipes featured earlier in the blog, but there are still so many more to explore. Here is one that I have often read about this season, in which the asparagus are left raw and thinly shaved into strips that are included in an easy-to-assemble, refreshing salad.
Shaved Asparagus Salad
Ingredients (2 to 4 servings)
1 pound thick asparagus (approximately 12 large spears)
3 to 4 cups arugula
Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
3 tablespoons white wine or champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 tablespoon honey (many options)
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the vinaigrette by placing the finely minced shallot in a small jar along with the vinegar and lemon juice. Allow the shallot to macerate for 15 minutes.
Add the honey along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover the jar and shake the mixture several times to dissolve the honey. Add the olive oil to the jar and shake again until a silky emulsion is achieved. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary and set the vinaigrette aside.
Prepare the asparagus by first cutting the woody bottom off. Making this salad I learned that asparagus tips can be torn off when using a vegetable peeler. To prevent this and make a nicer presentation, cut off the tips by ¾ inch or so and using a very sharp knife cut the tips into quarters or thirds depending upon their size, and set them aside.
Using a vegetable peeler or a mandolin, shave the asparagus stalks into very thin ribbons. Discard the first cut, and after several passes turn the stalk over to get the most uniform ribbons.
Using the mandolin again, thinly shave the cheese into ribbons that will be used to garnish the salad. Alternately, the cheese can be grated on a box grater and later sprinkled over the salad.
In a large work bowl place the arugula, shaved asparagus stalks, and the sliced tips. Gently mix with your hands to evenly distribute the ingredients evenly and then plate to serve.
Shake the vinaigrette one more time and use a spoon to drizzle some over and around the plated greens. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, then either drape the shaved cheese over the top or sprinkle the grated cheese over and around to serve.
Although optional, a nice addition to this salad would be to include toasted and cracked hazelnuts sprinkled around.
Shaved asparagus and arugula salad
• • • • • •
I never met a mushroom I didn’t like. I prefer morel mushrooms—one of those quintessential seasonal ingredients, that poke their conical heads out from the underbrush in April, and luckily for us their season can run all the way to September. Because morels are unlike any other mushroom variety, they are a prize that foragers seek. They smell like the dirt they grow in, are at times elusive, and can be found in abundance beneath charred trees after a wildfire. They are often found in old orchards, beneath elm trees, and on damp forest floors from Oregon and northern California, to the Midwest and further east to Virginia.
There are several varieties depending upon where they are foraged. The color ranges from a tan or cream, sometimes referred to as “white” morels, all the way to very dark brown or black. The caps should be dry when purchased, an indication of the freshest product and should be kept dry if refrigerated since moisture breaks down most fresh mushrooms quickly. They should be cleaned well with a pastry brush since dirt and sometimes “creatures” can get trapped in the caps or within the stem, and they should always be cooked.
One final thought: If fresh morels are not in season, you can use dried morels to take advantage of this flavorful ingredient all year long. Reconstitute the dried morels in warm water and once softened rinse them to remove any dirt or small stones that may have been scooped up when the mushrooms were foraged, dried, and packaged. If strained, the soaking liquid makes a good addition to pan sauces, stews, and risotto.
Here are four recipes using fresh morels that I prepared while writing this post.
Herb and Mushroom (Morel) Toast
This recipe can be prepared with most any mushroom, either fresh or dried reconstituted, so since we were already working with fresh morels, why not continue with them? Also, this recipe is a good way to use any smaller morels or the bits and pieces that generally accumulate at the bottom of the bunch.
½ pound mushrooms (morels), cleaned
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
1 to 2 scallions, finely minced
Fresh herb mix: lavender blossoms, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, thyme (some or all, whatever your preference, since fresh herbs are a nice complement to the earthiness of mushrooms well), plus some additional for garnish, such as a julienne of green and purple shiso leaf (just happen to have in my herb garden), along with finely minced chives and chive blossoms if available
½ cup dry red vermouth or Marsala wine
Butter, olive oil, mayonnaise
Salt and pepper
Rustic country bread or baguette
Slice the bread and lightly spread one side with mayonnaise. Place coated side down in a hot, dry grill pan and char the bread leaving grill marks. Turn the bread and repeat the process on the second side (sans mayo). Set the bread aside when done toasting.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Once heated but not smoking, add the mushrooms (morels) mixing to coat and sauté until lightly browned. Sprinkle the herb mix over and season with a little salt and pepper, again mixing to thoroughly incorporate the herbs.
Lower the heat, add another tablespoon of butter and the vermouth or Marsala if using and simmer until most all the liquid has cooked off.
Remove from the heat and allow the sauté to cool in the pan to room temperature. Spoon the sautéed mushrooms (morels) on top of the toasted bread, sprinkle with the selected garnish herbs and serve.
Morel mushroom herb crostini
The inspiration for this next recipe came by way of an article I re-read in a back issue of Saveur magazine. The article was written about the iconic Ojai Ranch House Restaurant and visionary culinary pioneer, Alan Hooker, the “original foodie” as the Los Angeles Times crowned him. It’s a fun story and interesting history, still going today, albeit with a couple of ownership changes over the years. Perhaps you’ll want to consider a dinner reservation as the Ranch House Restaurant which was at one time voted one of the most romantic restaurants in America.
One of Hooker’s recipes featured in the Saveur article was Fresh Mushroom Cutlets with Mornay Sauce, which I adapted for this post sans the mornay sauce. Along with the morels I combined wild Hen of the Woods mushrooms and some cultivated white mushrooms to add some bulk. To the cutlets I added a minced herb mix from the garden and a mix of grated Grana Padano and the saffron-infused Piacentinu from Sicily. The sauce used was a simple pan sauce.
Ingredients (makes 8 patties ½-inch thick)
2 cups of finely minced mushrooms
2 large scallions finely minced
3 large garlic cloves finely minced
1 large shallot finely minced
½ cup finely minced herb mix: basil, fennel fronds, parsley with tender stems, shiso leaf, thyme
1 cup finely ground plain bread crumbs
1½ cups grated cheese
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Olive oil and butter
Dry red vermouth or dry red wine
Salt and pepper
Mise en place
Clean the mushrooms, chop and place in the work bowl of a food processor. Process, scraping down the sides, until a thick paste is formed.
Whip the eggs and place them along with all the other ingredients in a large work bowl deep enough so that you can mix all the ingredients with your hands to thoroughly combine and form the patties.
Place the patties on a platter in one layer and refrigerate for 30 minutes allowing them to set.
Once ready, heat 2 tablespoons of butter in 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Once the pan is heated but not smoking, sauté the patties in batches so as not to crowd them. Cook 3 to 4 minutes per side until browned and crispy.
Re-plate the cooked patties and deglaze the pan with the vermouth or wine if using. Scrape up all the brown bits remaining from the sauté and add a tablespoon or two of butter to the sauce. Cook down until it has reduced by half, spoon over the patties and serve.
I didn’t think that a post about morels would be complete without a pasta dish. I paired the morels in this dish with chickpeas (ceci), spring peas, and red wine. This could be a sauce used to flavor a risotto dish, but I thought the ditalini pasta (“small thimbles”) made the dish more interesting. It is a loose adaptation of a dish I posted on this blog back in November 2015, Pasta e Ceci.
Ditalini Pasta with Morels, Spring Peas, Ceci, and Red Wine
Ingredients (1/4 pound of pasta per person)
Ditalini pasta (enough for four people)
1 pound fresh morel mushrooms, cleaned, larger mushrooms halved
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves
1 large celery rib
1 large carrot
2 to 3 fennel stalks
1 15 oz can chickpeas, drained, 1/3 coarse pureed
1 cup spring peas
2 tablespoons tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup dry red wine
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes
1 cup pasta cooking water for the sauce
Minced fresh parsley for garnish
Optional grated cheese to finish (one of many aged Pecorino, or Castelmagno)
Mise en place
Clean the mushrooms and set aside. Prepare the soffritto by first finely chopping the onion and set aside. Using a food processor, mince the garlic, celery, carrot and fennel, set aside. Coarsely process 1/3 of the chickpeas and set aside.
In a large saucepan heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until they begin to soften. Add the soffritto mix, stirring often to combine and sauté for 10 to 12 minutes until the vegetables begin to color.
Stir in the red wine with the dissolved tomato paste and continue to cook down. Add the morels, lower the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, set a pot of salted water over high heat to boil. Once boiling add the pasta, stirring occasionally. Follow the package cooking instructions but taste to check doneness.
Add 1 cup of the pasta cooking water to the saucepan, along with the chickpeas and the coarse puree of chickpeas. Raise the heat just to a boil and cook the sauce down until it reduces by half. Add the peas and mix to combine.
Drain the pasta, saving 1 more cup of the cooking water. Pour the drained pasta into the saucepan and stir so that the sauce coats and finishes the pasta cooking. If the sauce seems a too thick, add just enough of the reserved pasta water to thin it a little.
Taste it for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Sprinkle a pinch of red chili flakes over the pasta, if using, remove the saucepan from the heat, and plate the dish. Sprinkle the minced parsley over and serve passing, the grated cheese separately.
• • • • • •
In November 2015, I posted my Thanksgiving menu for that year, without sharing any recipes but instead used the post to wish everyone well for the holiday and hopefully provide a little inspiration for their holiday meals on that day.
There were two variations for stuffed turkey breast roulades on the menu, an example of which I will share here using morels as a key stuffing ingredient.
Roasted Stuffed Turkey Breast Roulade with Morel Mushrooms
Ingredients (4 servings)
1 half of a large turkey breast, skinned, butterflied, lightly pounded flat
1 large shallot minced
1 to 2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups mixed greens; in this recipe arugula, kale (lacinato), and pea tendrils were used
2 cups morel mushrooms, both whole and pieces
1 cup bread crumbs
Minced parsley and thyme
2 cups dry red wine or dry white wine
Salt and pepper
Butterfly the turkey breast and gently pound it out between two sheets of clear film to an even overall thickness and an area of approximately 8 x 13 inches.
In a large sauté pan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the shallot and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and stir until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the greens and another tablespoon of olive oil and toss the greens to coat and mix together with the onions and garlic. Next add the morel mushrooms and again toss to combine and coat. Continue to sauté until the greens release some of their moisture and the entire mix softens.
Remove from the heat and place the sauté in a large work bowl to cool. Once at room temperature, add the breadcrumbs and a pinch more salt and pepper. Thoroughly mix together with your hands.
On a cutting board or countertop lay out the butterflied, flattened turkey breast. Spread the stuffing mixture evenly over the turkey, leaving an inch border all the way around.
Starting from a long edge, roll the breast up, tucking the stuffing as you go along. At the end gently press the seam to seal and the roulade is ready for tying. Using kitchen twine or cotton twine, tie the roulade in even intervals so that it remains rolled and in place during cooking.
Rolled and tied turkey roulade
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In an ovenproof sauté pan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. When hot but not smoking, work quickly and turning with tongs, sear the roulade starting with the seam side down. Keep searing until a nicely charred crust is achieved.
Add 1 cup of wine to the pan and place in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Once cooked, place the roulade on a platter to tent and the sauté pan back on the stovetop. Over medium-high heat add the remaining cup of wine to deglaze the pan, and use a wooden spatula to loosening all the toasty bits left from the roasting. When the wine begins to simmer, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and swirl around to make a simple pan sauce. Add any juices that have accumulated under the tented roulade to the sauce.
Place the roulade on a cutting board and slice in thick 1-inch intervals. Rearrange on the platter and pour the sauce around to serve.
Sliced to serve
The last recipe featuring morels pairs the rich woodsy flavor of the mushroom with roasted, bone-in chicken thighs, spring peas, scallions (although young leeks or ramps would work fine here), and a pan sauce with a little cream. Dried reconstituted morels would make an excellent substitute if the fresh are not available. Use the strained soaking liquid to build the pan sauce, and finish the dish with a sprinkle of minced fresh herbs.
Morels and herbs
Note: This dish can be made a few hours ahead, refrigerated, and slowly reheated before serving.
Roasted Chicken Thighs with Morels, Spring Peas, Scallions, and Cream
Ingredients (serves 2 to 4)
4 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
All purpose flour
Salt and pepper
3 cups fresh morel mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed with some of the smaller mushrooms sliced
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
½ cup Half & Half
1 generous cup of dry white wine or dry white vermouth
1 cup spring peas
Olive oil and butter
3 to 4 tablespoons of a mix of finely minced fresh herbs (many options)
Coat the whole scallions with olive oil and place in a dry grill pan over high heat. Working quickly turning with tongs, cook until the thickest part is easily pierced with the tip of a knife and they are nicely charred all around. Lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.
Salt and pepper the chicken thighs and dredge in the flour, shaking off the excess. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large ovenproof sauté pan with a lid. When the pan is hot but not smoking, place the thighs in the pan (covered) to sear and brown on both sides, approximately 5 to 6 minutes per side. Once browned, place the pan in a pre-heated 400-degree oven for another 5 to 7 minutes for the chicken to finish cooking. Remove the pan from the oven, plate and tent the cooked thighs, set aside.
Place the same sauté pan back on the stovetop over medium-high heat with 3 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot but not smoking, add the morels and sauté stirring frequently until they begin to soften, approximately 5 minutes.
Raise the heat while adding the wine to deglaze the pan and capture all the toasty bits from the chicken sauté.
Stir in the Half & Half, incorporating it into the sauce and cooking it down until it begins to thicken. Add the peas, stirring to combine and coat, cooking for another 2 minutes.
Place the chicken back in the pan along with any juices that have accumulated while tented and cook for another 2 minutes to reheat the thighs through.
Reheating in sauce
Divide the grilled scallions between the plates, and place the chicken thighs on top of the scallions. Spoon the sauce around and over the chicken distributing the morels and peas evenly. Sprinkle with the minced fresh herb mix to finish.
• • • • • •
Lamb is a staple in Mediterranean, Indian, Irish, Middle Eastern, North African, and Mexican cooking, and is considered the national dish of Australia. While it is available all year long, it is most commonly associated with spring. More lambs are born in the spring through the summer months since the ewes need the availability of grass to provide the milk necessary to initially feed young lambs who, after about 4 weeks, are grazing on the grass as well. From early May onward new seasonal lamb should be available.
Lamb can vary in flavor, based upon its age or the type of pasture it was grazed on. New season lamb has a delicate, succulent flavor and a tender texture. It pairs well with several spices such as cinnamon, cumin, or sweet paprika, or herbs such as oregano, thyme, and mint, as well citrus and mustard.
It is often reserved for holiday meals, being served during Passover or Easter, for example. Very often a whole roasted leg is prepared or perhaps loin or rib chops. In the past I have prepared spicy lamb sausage (Merguez) roasted or grilled, or an herb and garlic-studded roast leg, where the leftovers were made into lamb burgers. With this post I wanted to share something different and present the same cut two different ways.
A boneless lamb loin roast is one of the most tender cuts. Weighing approximately 3 to 4 pounds, it can be butchered with enough of a fat cap to keep the meat moist during cooking. The piece I used was a perfect size to be split in half evenly so that I could prepare it two ways, one as a long slow braise and the other on the wood-fired grill.
Rolled lamb loin from butcher
Whole butterflied lamb loin
In December 2016, I posted on the blog, “Not Your Mother’s Pork and Beans,” which includes a recipe for a slow-braised pork tenderloin. I wanted to try and prepare the lamb in the same manner for comparison.
In the second recipe the other half of the loin roast was coated with a spice rub and grilled over hardwood coals. Both were very different but equally good, and actually provided enough leftover meat to make up another batch of lamb burgers which could even be frozen and cooked later for another meal.
For the boneless lamb loin roast, ask the butcher to bone, trim away some of the fat, roll, and tie it. Once you are ready to prepare it with either one or both of these recipes, simply cut it in half.
Slow-Braised Boneless Lamb Loin Roast
Ingredients (serves 4)
1/2 of the boneless lamb loin roast (approximately 2 pounds)
3 tablespoons soy sauce (Note: I used Bourbon Barrel Foods Bluegrass small batch micro-brewed soy sauce from Louisville, Kentucky)
1 generous teaspoon porcini mushroom powder
Juice and zest from 1 lime
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup honey (Note: These are many options; I used wildflower honey from California)
½ teaspoon ground, powdered ginger
3 garlic cloves minced
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
Lightly coat the loin roast with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. I also coated it with some roasted garlic jam that is one of my pantry staples.
Sear the loin in a hot pan to form a crust all around.
Pour the braise sauce ingredients over, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and braise for 3 hours.
Braised lamb loin
Test the loins for tenderness, they should be easily pierced with a fork. Remove them from the pan and tent on a platter.
Raise the heat and cook the braising liquid down by half to thicken, adding any juices from the tented loin roast, and serve as a pan sauce for the lamb.
Slice the lamb onto a serving platter and drizzle the sauce over. Alternately the lamb can be served on a toasted roll with some lettuce from the garden and a spoon or two of the sauce over.
Plated braised lamb loin
Braised lamb loin sandwich
Grilled Spice Rubbed Boneless Lamb Loin Roast
Ingredient (serves 4)
1/2 boneless lamb loin roast (approximately 2 pounds)
Spice mix for the rub: 3 tablespoons fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon celery seed, 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 2 tablespoons smoked paprika or sweet pimentón, 1 teaspoon red chili flakes, 1 teaspoon black pepper corns
If using a woodfired grill, start the fire ahead of time so that an ample bed of white hot coals has developed for cooking and lightly charring the loin roast, not burning it with flame.
Lightly toast the seeds in a dry sauté pan. When cool, add the toasted seeds and other spice rub ingredients into a spice grinder and grind until a fine, thoroughly mixed rub is achieved.
Using your hands, spread 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the loin roast on both sides. Salt the loin and then coat both sides evenly with the spice rub. Allow to rest for 20 minutes so that the flavors meld and permeate the surface of the meat.
Spice-rubbed lamb loin
When the fire is ready and the bed of coals is sufficiently hot and glowing, set the loin on the grill fat side down first. Keep the roast moving as the dripping fat may spark a burst of flame. When the fat side has crisped and lightly charred, turn the roast over and continue grilling on the other side. Keep the roast turning over side- to-side to avoid burning. With a sufficiently hot coal bed the loin roast should cook in 5 to 7 minutes overall per side for medium rare.
Lamb loin on grill
Plate the loin roast and allow it to rest 5 minutes before slicing. Serve with any number of complementary sides.
Grilled lamb loin plated
When I first made lamb burgers they took on the flavor personality of the herb and garlic-studded roast leg that the leftover meat was trimmed from. For these lamb burgers, I simply coarsely ground any of the leftover braised lamb loin roast and the grilled spice-rubbed lamb loin roast, and placed it in a large work bowl. To that I added ½ pound of coarsely ground pork shoulder, 1 beaten egg, ½ finely ground breadcrumbs, and 1 medium sweet onion, finely minced.
All the ingredients were mixed together and the ½-thick patties were formed by hand. They can be quickly cooked in olive oil over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan. I like to serve them on a toasted roll, with garden lettuce and a dollop of home-made BBQ sauce.
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Another vegetable often associated with the start of the spring season is the Vidalia onion. Although it is not grown in the region in which I live, I often seek them out because quite simply they are really good to eat and to cook with.
A sweet onion variety born quite by accident out of Depression-era farming, its unique sweetness is attributed to the terroir of the land where it is grown, similar to what is often expressed about wine grapes.
Named after the town of Vidalia, Georgia, the onion is cultivated in a twenty county area comprised of approximately 14,000 acres. It has become a substantial farming business in Georgia today.
In 1986, the Georgia state government passed a law that controls the “brand” in that any onion grown outside the designated twenty county area cannot use the name Vidalia. By 1990, the Vidalia onion became the official onion of Georgia.
Vidalias can appear as early as January but are generally considered a spring-to- summer crop. Through a process known as controlled atmosphere storage (California), a technology similar to one used in apple farming, literally millions of pounds of Vidalia onions can be stored for up to 6 months, essentially making Vidalia onions available all year long. A modern-day root cellar!
Even though Georgia holds the claim to the Vidalia name it is not the only sweet onion grown in the country, nor is Georgia the top producer. Other fine varieties such as the Walla Walla from Washington state (the leading producing state), Imperial Valley Sweet from California, and the Maui from Hawaii, are other available choices. Since the others noted have to travel a much longer distance to get to market here in the East, the Vidalia is my go-to sweet onion of choice; however, the recipes that follow could be made with any of those sweet varieties.
Here are two approaches to cooking with Vidalia onions, where their sweetness improves the flavor of the finished dish. The Vidalia onion is mild and sweet enough to eat raw, however a quick char in a hot grill pan brings out that sweet component as only grilling can. Another way to emphasize their sweetness is to slow cook the onions, as in confit, until they take on a smooth jam-like consistency.
Grilled Vidalia Onion with Raw Mushroom and Arugula Salad
This recipe is loosely based on one shared by Chef Frank Stitt, featured in the Bottega Favorita Cookbook.
Ingredients (serves 2)
1 large or 2 medium Vidalia onions
4 large, raw, white cultivated mushrooms
2 cups arugula leaves
White balsamic syrup
Salt and pepper
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano or an aged Pecorino (many options)
Trim and peel the onion, slicing it into rounds ¾-inch thick. Lightly oil both sides of the slices and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the slices in a dry preheated grill pan over high heat, careful to keep the slices together and preventing the rings from separating. Cook approximately 6 minutes per side, carefully turning with a flexible metal spatula, allowing each side to char and become marked by the grill. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the onion slices to cool to room temperature.
Brush the dirt off the mushrooms, slice the very bottom of the stem off, and then slice the mushrooms through the remaining stem end into generous 1/8-inch-thick slices.
To assemble the salad, place 2 to 3 slices of the charred Vidalia onions on the plate, surround the onions with the sliced mushrooms overlapping to form a semi-circle three quarters of the way around. Top the mushrooms with one cup of the arugula per salad.
Lightly drizzle the white balsamic syrup and an extra virgin finishing olive oil over, sprinkle some salt and pepper around, and top the greens with the grated cheese.
My inspiration for cooking Vidalia onions as a confit came from a recipe published in The Cook and the Gardener, by Amanda Hesser. A confit essentially refers to a preserved food, whether it is meat or vegetables cooked in some combination of fat, or fruit generally cooked in simple sugar syrup. Cooking onions slowly over low heat in oil and butter renders them succulent and jam-like, emphasizing their natural sweetness. To punctuate this confit further, a full-bodied red wine, thinly shaved garlic, fresh thyme, and a few bay leaves are added. Depending on your wine choice, the cooked onions take on some of the flavor characteristics of that wine along with the color, be it a deep ruby or a darker burnt umber.
This onion confit pairs well with roasted duck or porchetta, braised rabbit, or pan seared venison. It can be included in a frittata, served on grilled bread as part of a cheese plate or charcuterie, or as a side condiment served with roasted sausage and potatoes.
The flavor improves a day or two after the confit is cooked, and it can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or easily frozen for up to 6 months. It is best served at room temperature or gently warmed.
Vidalia Onion Confit and Red Wine
Ingredients (serves 6)
6 medium Vidalia onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, shaved very thin
1/3 cup olive oil plus 4 tablespoons sweet butter
2 cups dry red wine (many options)
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
1 bunch fresh thyme sprigs bundled and tied together
2 to 3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
In a large saucepan over low heat, melt the butter in the oil. Once the butter melts and the oil is warmed add the onions, garlic, thyme bundle, bay leaves, and sugar, seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir the onions to mix and thoroughly coat with the butter and oil, simmering for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Cooked down ready for the wine
Continue cooking to allow the onions to soften, release their liquid, but not color. Once the onions have softened and released most of their liquid, pour the wine over. Raise the heat slightly and continue to cook for another 45 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the confit has thickened to a jam-like consistency and turned a deep red-wine color. Remove the thyme sprigs, check and adjust the seasoning as necessary, and transfer to a dish to serve warm or at room temperature.
Vidalia confit at the table
• • • • • •
And finally, the last call on this post goes to pasta, gnocchi actually, spinach gnocchi in keeping with the ingredients that have been featured.
It has been said that the only way to make really good fresh pasta is to make it over and over and over again. Now that I am retired, I have more time to devote to making pasta. I prepare it more often now although it does require some practice to get the texture and consistency of the dough just right. A few additional pieces of equipment are required, lots of flour everywhere, and additional cleanup time since I don’t employ the minions often found in professional kitchens. That said, there is nothing like a bowl of pasta once a week at the very least.
Gnocchi has been part of the pasta tradition for as long as there has been pasta. Almost every region of Italy has its own version, many of them part of the local folklore. In Verona, famous for the Bascilica San Zeno often associated with Romeo and Juliet, one of the oldest carnivals in Europe called the Bacanàl del Gnoco (gnocchi carnival) is hosted, where everyone enjoys a bowl of gnocchi. In Rome on Thursday seemingly every trattoria features gnocchi on the menu.
Gnocchi are made in many styles: basic flour and water, or with semolina flour or polenta; potatoes or squash; with eggs or without; using ricotta and sometimes bread crumbs in place of the flour; or incorporating spinach or arugula or fresh herbs—there seems to be many ways and none right or wrong. Much has been written about gnocchi and every nonna, home cook, or professional chef who enjoys pasta has their own favorite recipe and approach. I have learned there are a few fundamentals to understand and it takes a little trial and error to get them right, so don’t get discouraged. For me it is still a work in progress as I continue to refine the techniques and explore many gnocchi variations.
The two recipes I am sharing here are both made with potato as part of the dough. One is cooked in a large pot of water, the more familiar method, the other is simply pan sautéed to finish. The use of spinach adds some additional flavor, color, and texture to the pasta, as does each flour (the all-purpose versus semolina).
The second recipe, Chicche Verdi Del Nonno, is tethered to a bit of that folklore I mentioned earlier. As the story goes, which I first read in a 2009 issue of Saveur magazine, and the in 2015 as a head note to the same recipe as interpreted by Portland, Oregon, chef, restaurateur, and author Jenn Louis, in her book Pasta By Hand. Apparently this gnocchi variation was a favorite of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, a gastronome and renowned cook himself. While growing up in the province of Parma (famous for Parmigiano-Reggiano), his mother made this regional dish for him in the family-run osteria.
Ingredients (serves 4)
2 pounds of russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
8 oz cleaned fresh spinach, stems removed or use baby spinach leaves
1¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Grana Padano, or an aged Pecorino (many options) to finish
The potatoes can be cooked either of two ways—boiled in their skins until fork tender, or baked in a 350- to 400-degree oven for an hour or so until fork tender. If boiled, the potatoes must be allowed to dry completely before incorporating into the dough, allowing for less absorption of any cooking water that can make the dough soggy. Peel the potatoes as soon as they are cool enough to handle and pass through a potato ricer or a food mill into a large work bowl.
The spinach can be quickly cooked in the potato water if they were boiled, or dropped into a pot of fresh boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes to wilt. Drain very well and remove any remaining water by squeezing the spinach in a clean dishtowel. Finely chop and add to the bowl with the cooled potatoes.
Add the flour, eggs, and salt and pepper to the bowl and mix the dough together with your hands until combined. It should resemble the texture of biscuit dough, although if very sticky add some additional flour 1 tablespoon at a time until the desired texture is reached.
Spinach gnocchi dough mix
Before forming the entire batch into the individual gnocchi, a good practice is to test one or two to determine if the dough will stay together during cooking. Drop two gnocchi into the pot of gently boiling water and after 2 minutes they should float to the top, if not and they seemingly fall apart, add some additional flour to the dough and remix to combine thoroughly.
Set up a sheet pan with a full piece of parchment paper and dust with some semolina flour.
Flour a board or your countertop and turn the dough out. Flatten to a piece approximately ½-inch overall thickness. Using a bench scraper or knife, cut off a piece and shape (roll) into a long ½-inch “log.” Using that same scraper or knife, cut the “log” into ½- to ¾-inch individual pieces and place on the prepared sheet pan.
Rolling dough to cut gnocchi
Continue with the remaining dough until all the gnocchi are formed.
At this point the gnocchi can be left just the way they have been cut, or gently indented with your thumb or the tines of a fork.
The gnocchi are now ready to cook, or freeze (they freeze very well), are actually easier to handle, and can be cooked the same way as fresh. To freeze, place the entire sheet pan in the freezer until the gnocchi are completely frozen. They can then be placed in freezer-type plastic bags without sticking together. Do not thaw before cooking.
Gnocchi ready to cook or freeze
To cook the gnocchi, add to a pot of gently boiling water in two batches if necessary. They will initially drop to the bottom, but after 2 minutes or so will rise to the top and should at that point be removed with a slotted spoon or spider to a platter and kept warm until all the gnocchi are cooked.
To serve, divide the gnocchi among warm bowls, spoon whatever sauce you are using around and sprinkle grated cheese over the top to finish. These gnocchi lend themselves to many different sauces—from a basic tomato sauce garnished with fresh basil, to a sage and brown butter sauce, or perhaps a cream and cheese sauce such as a mix Gorgonzola and Fontina with black pepper. The choices are many which adds to the fun of making this pasta.
Chicche Verdi Del Nonno
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 pound russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
4 oz cleaned fresh spinach, stems removed or use baby spinach leaves
1¼ cup semolina flour
2 large eggs, beaten
Olive oil and butter
Salt and pepper to taste
10 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 sprigs fresh sage
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Follow the instructions as described for the spinach gnocchi above, substituting the semolina flour for the all-purpose flour as indicated in this recipe.
Make the sauce by melting the butter in a small skillet or saucepan until it browns lightly. Add the sage and nutmeg, season with salt and pepper, set aside.
Mixing chicche verdi dough
Working in batches in a large sauté pan, melt 2 to 4 tablespoons of butter in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the gnocchi and cook on one side until golden brown, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Use a slotted spatula to flip the gnocchi over and repeat the sauté on the second side again until golden brown.
Pan sauté side 1
Pan sauté side 2
Toss the sautéed gnocchi in the reserved brown butter sage sauce, and sprinkle with the grated cheese and black pepper to serve.
Well, there you have it, a little something for everyone to try. I hope you will take advantage of one of more of these recipes and enjoy cooking your way into the summer months ahead.
Eat well. Be well.
“Nothin’ you can’t handle; nothin’ you ain’t got; Put your money on the table and drive it off the lot . . .” —Boz Scaggs