Wednesday, July 31, 2013

And The Secret Ingredient Is ... Kohlrabi!

I do love a challenge, particularly when food is involved.  The experience of fulfilling the challenge is gratifying and, very often, a lesson in broadening my horizons as I flirt with the fine line of my comfort zone.  Who am I kidding?  The kitchen IS my comfort zone!  At least, however, I gain the knowledge in how to prepare that one dish or work with that one ingredient that I have not previously embarked upon, to boldly go and cook what I have not cooked before.  Case in point: kohlrabi.  No, not call Robbie.  Cook kohlrabi.

I was making my weekly shopping excursion to my neighborhood farm stand, the Pumpkin Patch.  As you can read here, they know me there.  I'm the girl who wrote a blog post about them and touted my heartfelt belief that they are in fact the best farm stand that I have frequented (read the post and you'll quickly understand why).  They also know me as the one who buys produce and local edibles by the basketful every week.  I am often asked, "So what are you cooking tonight?"  A couple of weeks ago, as I hoisted a second full basket onto the counter for tallying, one of the owners gestured toward one of the display tables and queried me, "Have you made anything with kohlrabi?"  Wow, I thought, he did not just ask me that.  I had actually been faced with the dilemma of pondering a vegetable with which I was unfamiliar.  "I've heard of it," I began, and then I sheepishly had to admit that no, I actually have not.  To that, he responded with a grin and said, "Well, what are you waiting for?" and sauntered off to arrange more vegetables.  His daughter's eyes met mine as she continued to tally and I declared to her "I think I've just been challenged!" With a grin, she nodded in agreement.

Well now.  I am not one to refuse a foodie challenge, as long as insects are not involved; I draw the line on insects.  They may be a delicacy on the other side of the world, but I shall refrain; folks there are welcome to them.  This, however, should not be difficult.  After all, kohlrabi is just another vegetable.  I set about contemplating how I was going to serve up the fibrous produce.  First, I learned that kohlrabi can best be described as a cabbage turnip. A member of the turnip family, it is a bulbous specimen whose flavors seem to emulate the cross of a cabbage and a turnip, its outer surface taking on either a pale green or slightly purple hue.  I decided to embrace the so-called cabbage-like aspect and run with that for a take on a summer classic.

When I returned to the stand for the following week's shopping spree, my challenger wasn't on the premises.  His wife was, however, and she promptly informed me that they just got in Swiss chard.  Hmm.  What is this, stump the Cat?  I am suddenly being accosted with our own little reality match of Iron Chef Vegetable.  I laughed and informed her that I had already been challenged by her husband with kohlrabi, to which I accepted the game play as my self-enrichment culinary study for this week.  We both laughed, because I think she knows pretty well that I am enjoying this.

On Sunday, while Brian lost himself in the Internet world, I took up my Santoku knife and took over the prep counter to create this kohlrabi slaw.

Kohlrabi Slaw with Apples and Sunflower Seeds
2 bulbs kohlrabi, peeled
4 carrots, peeled
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored
1 bunch scallions, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/4-cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons whole grain mustard (I like Maille)
1/2-teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/3 cup roasted, salted sunflower seeds

Cut the kohlrabi, carrots and apple into matchsticks and toss them in a serving bowl with the scallions.  In a smaller bowl or a glass measuring cup, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper until blended.  Pour over the kohlrabi mixture and toss to mix and coat evenly.  At serving time, sprinkle the sunflower seeds over the top.
Serves 4.

This slaw is a healthy alternative to the heavier mayonnaise-laden classic Cole slaw.  It pairs well with grilled chicken, duck, fish steaks or pork chops.

I am envisioning a soup that welcomes kohlrabi into the pot for cooler months.  Still only halfway through summer and having just survived a record-breaking heat wave, I think that I'll put off that creation experiment for September.  My idea for this involves Yukon gold potatoes, kohlrabi, chicken-apple sausages and kale ... to be continued this fall.  First, I must ponder the possibilities of Swiss chard.  I do love a challenge.  Next!

Food for Thought
When scorching summer days leave you feeling sluggish, make a simple dinner by arranging bowls and platters with tasty nibbles that require minimal to no cooking.  Pick up some salad ingredients from your local farm stand to make two or three simple salads that can be prepared ahead.  Add a bowl or two of store-bought edibles, such as olives or nuts.  Round out the spread simply with sliced cheese and a loaf of artisan bread.  Then just pour a glass of wine and let everyone help themselves.  This concept served us well the other day when I was pressed with writing deadlines.  One of the salads was my roast pepper salad.  I also made an easy heirloom cherry tomato salad with fresh basil and toasted pignoli nuts and the third was sautéed sugar snap peas with red onion, pancetta and pecorino Romano cheese.  The cheese was a locally produced fresh mozzarella and the wine was from a local vineyard.  All of the necessary ingredients of this meal were obtained from Macari Vineyards, Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace and the Pumpkin Patch farmstand.  Take it easy this summer and support your local farmers and artisans.  Save the heavy and labor-intensive cooking projects for the winter months.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bowls of Summer's Best

The mercury and humidity is climbing, and so it is time to swap out the soup bowls for the salad plates. One of the commonalities to cross over all manner of summer dining experience from backyard barbecues to picnics in the park to dinner on the patio is the salad.  Salads are humble no more, having evolved from the pathetic plate of flavorless iceberg, anemic supermarket tomatoes and thick bottled dressings poured over as a blanket trying to smother the lack of appeal.  Even the ubiquitous potato salad, Cole slaw and macaroni salad have all been downgraded to costars of the summertime spread.  While certainly still enjoyed by most, one can expect to find an exciting new creation in the salad bowl situated next to the potato salad.

Just today I conjured up two of my go-to summer salads.  One is a three-bean salad consisting of green beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, sliced olives, herbs, onions, garlic and a simple vinaigrette.  The other is a succotash salad of corn, lima beans, red peppers, scallions and a creamy dressing with a touch of hot sauce.  These two salads together took less than an hour to prepare.  The latter has been relegated to the refrigerator to enjoy tomorrow evening, leaving the daytime free for other summery pursuits such as a trek to the beach.

Side dish salads are usually quick to make because some of the ingredients may need little or no preparation.  These salads can also be fabricated with some items from the pantry and whatever odds and ends are left in the crisper drawer.  The succotash salad used frozen corn and lima beans.  I had a red pepper and I had some leftover scallions.    Ingredients can be tailored to suit the ethnicity of the meal.  Combine black beans, corn, scallions, red pepper, jicama and a simple chili vinaigrette for a southwestern or Mexican repast.  Arrange tomatoes of varying sizes, shapes and colors on a plate, drizzle with some olive oil and a quality balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with chopped fresh basil or oregano or some crumbled gorgonzola for a taste of Italy.  The two aforementioned salads that I made will be perfect with grilled meats, fish or poultry with an American flare.  For an Asian dinner, take advantage of the bags of broccoli slaw or bean sprouts and add some red pepper, scallions, peanuts or cashews and whisk together an Asian vinaigrette.  These salads can all be made ahead, freeing up your time to bask in the sun and surf, and the leftovers make a perfect light lunch for the following day.

When it comes to the trinity of potato, macaroni and Cole slaw salads, their classic presentations are always a comfort that we all crave at least once during the season.  They are not, however, immune to a creative boost on occasion.  Todays Cole slaws tend to contain all sorts of additional ingredients from apples to sunflower seeds and everything in between, and they have been lightened up with flavorful vinaigrettes in lieu of the heavy gloppy mayonnaise.  Potato salads have welcomed such additions as blue cheese, bacon, peas, corn and other colorful points of flavor and texture.

Main dish salads can be the star of the show, requiring only a nice, crusty loaf of bread as an accompaniment.  Even a classic Caesar salad becomes an entree when cooked shrimp is added into the mix, or when the salad is topped with a grilled tuna steak or a fried egg.  Embrace the coastal theme of summer by incorporating seafood into your salad bowl.  Add some bacon and scallops to a bowl of lettuces, endives, radicchio, grape tomatoes and green beans.  Try some cooked lobster meat in a salad of potatoes, green beans, celery, tomatoes and a creamy garlic dressing.  For the ultimate one-dish meal, create a classic French Niçoise salad platter with grilled tuna steaks, potatoes, olives, green beans, tomatoes, watercress and hard-boiled eggs.  Accompanied by a baguette and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, even ravenous hubbies won't walk away from the table unsatiated.  When grilling chicken or beef for dinner, always grill extra to utilize in a salad later in the week.

For a summer green side salad thats packed with crunch, try serving up my summer green salad.  For some coastal main dish refreshers, try lobster potato salad aioli or Asian shrimp and noodle salad.  Present an impressive arrangement of spectacular color to your table with my heirloom tomato salad platter.  A main dish variation of an Italian panzanella salad needs nothing more than a glass of pinot grigio and a light dessert for a satisfying summer sunset dinner on the patio.

Here is my twist of east meets west, as the shellfish of northeastern U.S. join with a tapestry of Asian ingredients.  My rendition contains peanuts, but for those with nut allergies I would recommend wasabi peas as a crunchy and flavorful substitute and swap out the peanut oil for a vegetable oil instead.

Asian Seafood Salad
1/2 pound thin rice noodles
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound bay scallops
2 dozen littleneck clams
2 pounds mussels
Peanut oil
1 bag broccoli slaw
2 red bell peppers, cut into matchstick strips
1 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
6 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1 teaspoon Asian chili-garlic sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 limes, quartered

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat.  Cook the rice noodles for four to five minutes.  Drain the noodles and rinse them well.  Set aside to cool. 

In the same pot, heat 2 tablespoons peanut oil over medium heat.  Add the 2 cloves of minced garlic, the shrimp and the scallops.  Sauté until the scallops are opaque and the shrimp are pink.  Transfer the shrimp and scallops to a large bowl from the pot and set aside to cool.  Add 1/2 cup water to the same pot and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, add the clams and then the mussels on top.  Cover the pot and allow the clams and mussels to steam.  After five minutes, check and remove any that have opened, adding them to the bowl with the shrimp and scallops.  Replace the cover and check again in two minutes, removing opened shellfish.  Repeat this until all of the shellfish have been opened and been removed.  Discard any shellfish that fails to open after fifteen minutes.

While the shellfish cools, combine the broccoli slaw, red peppers and peanuts in a mixing bowl.  Place the next seven ingredients in a glass measuring cup with a pour spout and whisk them together until combined.  Drizzle one third of the dressing over the slaw mixture and toss to coat.

Divide and arrange the rice noodle on four individual plates.  Divide and arrange the broccoli slaw mixture over each, leaving a visible border of the noodles.  Divide and arrange the shellfish over each and then drizzle with the remaining dressing.  Serve each salad with two wedges of lime on top.  Serves four.

Whether you enjoy the cool simplicity of a main dish salad that's fully loaded with fresh ingredients or an imaginative combination of delectable edibles for a spectacular meal opener or a perfect accompanying side, there is no limit to what you can toss together in a salad bowl.  Take ethnic cues from your menu, suggestions from your pantry shelves, use up a left over stray article or produce or two and fill out the rest with fresh seasonal gems from your garden or local farm stand.

Food for Thought
Local farmers and artisans are getting into full swing as the farm stands sell off the gardening plants and replace them with colorful piles of the freshest produce you can buy.  Tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, string beans, eggplant and summer squashes and all about to make their grand entrance.  Leave the supermarket fare behind and support your local growers.  Youll taste the difference.  Many farm stands also offer locally produced cheeses, jams and baked goods.  Pick up some local fresh mozzarella or goat cheese, some tomatoes, some fresh basil and a fresh, crisp loaf of bread and you have a perfect lunch.  If you are lucky enough to live in a wine region, pour a glass of local wine with that salad or bruschetta and appreciate the local flavors of the season.