Thursday, May 22, 2008

Learning to Love Turnips

The fun part about eating seasonally is getting to try new things. There has been a lot of that so far this spring, what with the ramps and spring garlic. When I was at Union Square last week on one of my semi-regular lunchtime farmers market trips, I came upon turnip greens, and realized they would be the perfect side to the bison flank steak I had marinating in the fridge for dinner. At this time of year, the turnip greens are attached to little turnips freshly plucked from the ground, so you can eat the whole plant.

my how dirty you are

I feel like Alice Waters, cooing over baby vegetables emerging from the earth, such as turnips and radishes, that can be sliced and eaten raw in salads or dipped in mayonnaise or butter and popped whole into one's mouth. I added some baby turnips to a variation on my Greek salad last week and they served me just fine.

before: raw potatoes and turnips

However, I've never been a fan of roasted or mashed turnips, which always seem to more sour and bitter than their raw counterparts. But give that I'd only ever roasted old turnips that had been stored winter-long, I thought I would give these baby turnips the benefit of the doubt and hope that they would come out sweeter. They didn't.

after: rosemary roasted potatoes and turnips

But luckily, I also roasted potatoes alongside the turnips to round things out. I scattered olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried rosemary from my container garden over the veggies, and roasted them until they browned on the bottom. Mmm. I managed to eat all of my turnips, with the help of mouthfuls of roasted potatoes.

before: just-washed turnip greens

As for the turnip greens, I wasn't sure how to cook them. I ended up steaming them and then sauteeing similar to my typical kale preparation, which seemed appropriate because its shape, broad leaves intersected by thick stems, reminded me of kale. However, unlike kale, these greens actually do wilt down - from what seemed to be an overwhelming bunch of greens that I feared we would be eating for days, down to two manageable side portions. And those two portions were delicious, healthy, and restorative - a deep green, a little sweet and not so bitter, warmed up with lemon and mustard. Apparently turnip greens are so full of vitamins that they are on the list of the world's healthiest foods. Paired with garlic, also on the list of world's healthiest foods, extra virgin cold pressed olive oil, lean and iron-rich bison steak, and roasted potatoesand turnips, this was one healthy meal indeed. Nothing like devouring a terrific meal and feeling good about myself while I do it.

after: sauteed turnip greens and spring garlic

Sauteed Turnip Greens and Spring Garlic

1 bunch turnip greens
extra virgin olive oil
2 stalks spring garlic
1 tbsp mustard
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp water
crushed red pepper

Chop baby turnip roots off turnip greens and reserve the turnips for another use. Rinse greens thoroughly. Trim off the stems, and chop rough pieces.

Steam over simmering water for about five minutes, stirring occasionally, until the turnip greens are mostly wilted.

Meanwhile, mince spring garlic and sautee the garlic in olive oil over medium low heat until softened and slightly browed. Add turnip greens and continue to sautee, turning the heat down to low. Whisk together mustard, lemon juice, water, and spices in a bowl, and then add to the pan, stirring to combine. Cook another few minutes, until greens are completely wilted.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas and Spring Vegetables

My dear fun sister Lisa is graduating from college next week, and what would graduation be without a party to celebrate? My mother has relinquished cooking responsibilities for her graduation party to Lisa and I, our family's resident foodies. I love planning and cooking for parties so it wasn't long before we started brainstorming ideas, some of which will surely appear here after the fact. Among those ideas was a light pasta with spring vegetables, which transformed into a rice pilaf instead, because I have a hard time warming up to tomato-sauce-less pasta. I made a test run tonight, and the healthful combination of rice, chickpeas, and tender green vegetables was so wonderful that this one is being added to my rotation.

Spring garlic, also known as green garlic, has just come into season and is making the rounds on the blogosphere. I was eager to try it when I saw it at Union Square today, especially because I figured it would go perfectly in the rice pilaf I had planned for dinner. Spring garlic looks, slices, and cooks like the texture of a small leek, but with a sharper garlic taste and smell. I wasn't sure if I could cook the whole plant, since google resulted in conflicting advice. In his artful New York Times article, Daniel Patterson seems to be telling us only to use the white and light green parts. Meanwhile, Farmgirl Fare encourages us to go ahead and use the whole thing. So I did what seemed right, which was to use the whole stalk, minus the tough outer dark green leaves. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

This dish is brilliant and warm and very green, like early spring. The creamy chickpeas, heightened by an hour of simmering and a bright tinge of lemon, contrasted perfectly with crunches of asparagus and mouthfuls of soft rice. It would have been more perfect if I were capable of cooking fluffy rice instead of the gummy wet rice that always comes out of my saucepans, but that's a challege for another day. I used a mixture of brown short grain rice and black himalayan rice, lending it a colorfully dark hue, but any rice that pleases you would suit this, as would bulgur or orzo I think.

Likewise, other spring vegetables such as peas or fava beans (which are not yet in season here in New York) would also do well in this dish. I couldn't much discern the green garlic, but I'm sure it helped things along. The parsley came from my herb garden, where it is flourishing over all the other herbs, straight on its way to becoming a veritable bush of parsley. And the cheese is optional, but cheese makes everything better, don't you think? I was out of parmesan, so I used a sharp Edam-like cheese, or a swiss cheese would work.

Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas and Spring Vegetables

3/4 cup dried chickpeas
1 cup rice
2 stalks spring garlic
1 bunch asparagus
couple handfuls baby bok choy
1 tsp lemon juice

The day before or that morning, place chickpeas in a pot covered with a couple inches of water to let soak.

After 6-24 hours, drain chickpeas, rinse, and return to pot. Refill with water, again covering chickpeas by a couple inches, and add a pinch of salt to water. Bring to a boil and then let simmer 45-90 minutes until chickpeas are tender. Drain and set aside.

Just after starting chickpeas, combine rice with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and let simmer until rice is tender.

While chickpeas and rice simmer away, clean spring garlic as you would leeks and dice its stalks, discarding tough dark green leaves. Sautee spring garlic in olive oil over medium low heat.

Rinse asparagus and break off woody ends where the asparagus naturally breaks in your hand. (Reserve ends for future use, such as soup or dip.) Chop asparagus into one-inch pieces and sautee with garlic for a couple minutes.

Rinse and roughly chop baby bok choy and add to sautee pan. Continue to sautee another few minutes until wilted.

Combine chickpeas and rice in pan with vegetables. Stir in lemon juice and salt pepper and pepper to taste. Add grated cheese, if desired, and garnish with parsley.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Brooklyn Kitchen Cupcake Cookoff

dark chocolate buckwheat almond cupcakes with coconut and almond frosting aka almond joy cupcakes

"I'm full of cupcakes," was the refrain tonight at Brooklyn Kitchen's 2nd Annual Cupcake Cookoff. I missed it last year, so I was determined to make it this year. And part of being able to make it tonight involved quitting my choir early in the season. I guess at this point, food has trumped music as the no. 1 interest in my life.

I rushed home from work, changed, fed and walked the dog, downed a shot of whiskey, frosted cupcakes, and raced over to Union Pool, all in less than an hour. Then I was all by my lonesome feeling awkward among the hipsters and meat market men of Union Pool, and thirty entries of fantastic-looking cupcakes everywhere. Luckily my friends Meag and Jess showed up to save the day. Once the cupcake tasting started, everyone was quickly overwhelmed by sugar. Some geniuses started the trend of cutting their cupcakes in halves, or even quarters, to aid the sampling process. It was indeed so overwhelming that I probably only tried about a third of the cupcakes. So when it came time to vote, I felt bad about not being a fair voter.

I voted for a peach champagne cupcake as well as a ginger spice cupcake, and my own almond joy cupcake of course. The ginger cupcake was just my style - hearty and cinnamony. At one point, I had even contempated making gingerbread cupcakes with vanilla frosting and red hots. But I didn't. Because the combination of chocolate and coconut always wins the day for me. So at least if I didn't win, I was pleased to see the ginger cupcakes win a prize. It made me wish I had made my cupcakes a little heartier, with more whole wheat, true to my own heart.

the judges take stock of their picks during announcement time

The inventive flavors ran the gamut - from rainbow red velvet to mint julep to pistachio to mint chocolate chip to boston creme to chocolate stout with salted caramel (the ultimate best in show), and so on. So the comptetition was original and fierce, and I didn't win any prizes. Sad day in cupcake land. I wasn't really expecting to win, though, because I know I'm not a good baker. Or maybe I'm just too hard on myself. In any case, we thought these cupcakes were delicious, even if everyone eles didn't agree.

I was going for a rich dark chocolate with subtle hints of nutty flavor from the buckwheat flour, ground almonds, and almond extract. And a rich almond joy-like frosting because, as I said, I love coconut and nuts. The recipe was somewhat modeled after my German chocolate cupcakes, adding in a darker chocolate and cocoa powder for a more intense, less cloying chocolate flavor. I think the end result is an improvement on my German chocolate cupcakes. So here goes, made with mostly local and organic ingredients, of course:

Almond Joy Cupcakes
dry ingredients
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

wet ingredients
5 tbsp butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg (or 2 smaller eggs, mine was humongous!)
1/2 tsp almond extract
3 oz dark chocolate (70% or 85% percent cocoa)
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup boiling water
3/4 cup milk

2 cups powdered sugar
4 tbsp butter
1 tbsp + 1/2 tsp milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup coconut flakes

Toast 1 cup slivered almonds in a dry pan over medium heat for about five minutes until some of the almonds turn golden-brown. Most of them may not look toasted, but it will subtly enhance their flavor nonetheless. Do not let them burn. Remove from heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, bring 1/3 cup water to boil. Break chocolate into pieces and combine in a bowl with cup cocoa powder. Pour boiling water over chocolate and stir until dissolved. Let cool.

Preheat oven to 350 and grease two cupcake tins.

Process 1/2 cup toasted almonds in a food processor until finely ground. Reserve remaining 1/2 cup toasted almonds for frosting.

In a bowl, cream butter and sugar until combined and fluffy. Beat in one egg and then the almond extract. Add chocolate mixture and then milk, stirring continually until combined.

Combine flour, ground almonds, and baking soda in a larger bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and fold in wet mixture. Beat until smooth. Fill cupcake tins two-thirds of the way full and bake in the oven for 12-18 minutes. Make sure to check so they don't burn. Cupcakes are done when a knife or toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool.

Meanwhile, combine the frosting ingredients in a bowl, beating until smooth. Add additional sugar or milk or butter depending on how stiff or creamy you like your frosting. I like mine stiff and sugar-coma-inducing over soft-grocery-store-like buttercream.

Combine coconut and toasted almond slivers in a small bowl. Frost each cupcake and then dip upside down in coconut almond mixture to coat. Continue until all cupcakes are frosted. Makes 12 large or 18 small cupcakes.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Impromptu Greek Salad and Homemade Hamburgers

Ever since I eagerly devoured an awesome Greek salad at Westville in the West Village, I have been craving the combination of leafy greens and creamy feta. So Wednesday during lunch I followed my cravings. I wandered through the Union Square Greenmarket, beginning with a selection of a variety of lettuces, bright red radishes that were calling out to me, a red onion, and finally, feta cheese from Lynnhaven Farms. Back in midtown, I stole little plastic cups of balsamic vinegar from the deli across the street (shhhh). Then at my desk, I chopped and assembled the. best. impromptu lunch ever. The lettuces had that lively tenderness that signaled freshness.

So I assembled the same salad to accompany burgers for dinner that night, and then for lunch a couple of days later. By then, it was clear that two days in the refrigerator had taken their toll on the lettuce, and they now had the more wilted quality of supermarket mixed greens. See, the difference is noticeable! And although $6 per little tub, the feta cheese was worth it for its creamy, salty tang. It was reminiscent of the goat cheese my mom made when I was a child from the milk of the goats raised in our backyard barn. I didn't know how good I had it then.

As for the burgers, the meat was ground chuck from Hawthorne Valley Farm, picked up from the Greenmarket a week ago and frozen solid. While it took its time defrosting in a water bath, I improvised some hamburger buns that came together surprisingly quickly. The key was taking the necessary amount of flour and yeast out of the refrigerator that morning so they were nice and warm when it was time for baking after work. I used half whole wheat and half all purpose flour to give it a little more fluff than my usual dense all whole wheat bread.

It was a test run for my locavore potluck next month, and they came out good enough that I will be serving them again then. They may not be perfectly round and airy like store-bought buns, but they will be wholesome, made with simple ingredients, and hot from the oven. The recipe below is more for my reference so I can replicate it. And not so much a hard and fast recipe. Because there are things I'm not sure about. Like the ideal size of the pan, and whether the pan needs to have sides so that the buns rise upward. Advice is welcome.

I prepared the burgers with worcestershire sauce, and some freshly chopped sage from the deck. They were grilled to medium-rare perfection served with those salad ingredients again - sliced red onions, lettuce, and feta cheese, albeit non-local ketchup of course. Yum. I'm glad it's grilling season again, that the grill is fixed after a two week hiatus, and that I have another package of local hamburger meat awaiting me in the freezer for a future barbecue.

Hamburger Buns
2 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup warm water
1 tbsp olive oil

Combine yeast and 1/2 cup warm water and let sit a few minutes until bubbly.
Meanwhile, combine flour and salt. Then add olive oil, yeast mixture, and half the remaining water. Combine in bowl with a rubber spatula. Add additional water as necessary until a slightly sticky dough forms.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and need 10 minutes, adding flour as needed so it doesn't stick to everything. Return to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in warm place for 40-60 minutes until doubled in size. (My warm place is inside my gas oven with the door propped open, and in that situation, the dough was over-ready and sighing back on itself when I poked holes into it at 45 minutes, so make sure you check on it periodically.)

Preheat oven to 400. Grease two small or one large baking pan. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and gently press down, pressing out air bubbles. Divide in half and set one half aside under the bowl. Divide each half into five balls (ten balls total) and place on pan. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let sit 25-35 minutes until proofed - the rolls will touch each other slightly. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, removing when rolls are golden brown and hollow when you tap the underside.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Bicycling vs Spinning

May is Bike Month here in NYC, and I think I know why...because it's finally consistently warm enough to encourage the public to ride outside. Likewise, I've been biking a lot more these days. Although my bike is an old piece of junk that clanks obnoxiously, it still plugs along reliably, and I've gained enough confidence that I can now ride solo in Manhattan. Just this week, I commuted to work by bike for the first time, and I can't wait to do it again next week. Although, as I crawled across the steady upward incline of the Queensborough bridge, I thought to myself, it must be like childbirth, whereby you only get yourself to do it again by blatantly ignoring the pain it takes...BUT the "biker's high" I get afterward helps too.

Last weekend, I rode about 25 miles in one day, beginning with a refreshing but leisurely paced morning 10 mile ride: we got up early for the Brooklyn Greenway Waterfront Tour. Although I was running late, I was lucky enough to catch up with the mass of bikers at the East River Park in Williamsburg and continue southward on Kent Ave in Williamsburg, where they have just approved construction of a protected bike lane. The tour continued into the gated-off industrial innards of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They're in negotations with the development corporation to push back their fences for a Greenway alongside the water.

Next we had a pit stop at Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park, where they were nice enough to set up port-a-potties and offer water and donuts (which I happily used my willpower to reject). We headed past the future site of the Brooklyn Bridge park, where they have already started to demolish pier structures, and then down the first actual completed segment of the Greenway on the Columbia Street waterfront. It looks like an elevated paved sidewalk/bike path, and they had just planted little trees earlier that morning! Our tour finished at Valentino Park in Red Hook where there's a nice view of the Statue of Liberty. It was an interesting ride, although disappointing to learn how long they expect the completed waterfront to take (approximately another 5-10 years), but I really respect the vision and dedication of the Brooklyn Greenway organization.

Last week I also went to a spinning class at the gym with coworkers. I was curious to try it out and see if it would be a good way to train for biking outdoors on bad weather days. In truth, I found it to be godawful boring and torturous. I often have that experience with gym classes, since I'd much rather be working at my own pace or stop when I want to stop. In this case, it felt pathetic to be biking and sweating away in a black box or a room, spinning our wheels, and going nowhere.

Like A New Old-Fashioned Gal has said, in olden days, life incorporated a lot more manual labor, including the exercise involved in transporting oneself around. It seems silly the way people stop and take the time to run in place on treadmills at the gym. To that end, I really like the idea of getting my exercise by commuting by bike or walking partway to work on perfect-weather days.

Pros for Biking:
- Great exercise
- Contributes to my health
- Get home earlier than I would if I went to the gym after work
- Fun
- Biker's high afterward
- Makes me feel badass
- Helps me indulge my inner map geek when I figure out routes
- Could save money on metrocard if I bike enough
- Could save money by cancelling my gym membership, but see below
- Electricity-free workout (unlike the gym)
- Gas-free transportation (unlike the subway or car)

Cons against Biking:
- I sweat. A lot. As a result I get weird helmet hair.
- I have to get up earlier in the morning to have time to stop at the gym near my office to shower off my sweat before work.
- Bridges or anything resembling a hill is hard (New York City may look flat, but as soon as you're on a bike you learn it's not)
- Higher risk of intaking the pollutants from New York City air

And the pros outweight the cons! The bike wins! Now let's see if I can keep it up. And if I ever find a nicer bike. If you want to join the fun, check out all Transportation Alternatives for rides, resources, and volunteer opportunities, and Bike Month for bike events this National Bike to Work Day next Friday May 16, complete with snacks provided by eco-friendly City Bakery at all East River bridges. Guess who's looking forward to that?!

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Perfect Spring Dinner

Now that it's spring, what better way to celebrate than to head to Brooklyn Botanic Garden to see the cherry trees in bloom. Admission is free on Saturdays if you can manage to get there before noon. So last weekend after our hearty breakfast of eggs and ramps, we biked down to the BBG. Well I thought it would be mostly downhill. I'm not sure why, except that going south always seems like it should correspond with going downhill. Little did I know that it would actually be uphill most of the way on Washington Ave to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I guess that would be why they call it Prospect Heights. I was huffing and puffing, and the hill seemed to have no end, with just ten minutes to go before noon. But we managed to make it with minutes to spare. And it was worth it to see tons of pink cherry trees in full bloom.

I particularly liked the culinary beds, to indulge in fantasies of my own vegetable garden. I think swiss chard is such a pretty plant, with its bright colors and shiny leaves.

I also liked the garden paths winding around a pond with Japanese sculptures, lined with elegant weeping cherry trees, willows, and Japanese maples, complete with cute turtles sunbathing on rocks!

There weren't a lot of flowers out this early in the spring, but there were pretty tulips.

I'd like to go back later in the summer to see how the garden changes with the seasons, to enjoy more colorful flowers, and to see how the vegetables and herbs in the culinary beds have grown.

Later that night we enjoyed a great dinner that felt so wonderfully springy because I was lucky enough to find the first asparagus of the season at the Greenmarket the day before. I snapped the tough ends off the asparagus, rolled them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then roasted them for 10 minutes at 400. Meanwhile, I let some quinoa simmer away while Jesse pan-fried thin flounder filets in olive oil and seasoned them with salt pepper.

To top it off, I mixed up an herb mayonnaise using garlic, lemon juice, and some parsley from my urban garfunkel garden. I'm not a big fan of quinoa. Although Jesse loves it for its high protein content, and we often substitute it for pasta or rice for that reason, I think it has a dull soft taste that can sometimes ruin a dish. But with a dollop of lemony fresh mayonnaise, the quinoa was transformed into something I could enjoy. And that is something to cheer about.

We enjoyed dinner with cold mugs of Wiesen Edel-weisse beer. It cloudy wheaty bright taste, great for warm spring or summer days, was the perfect complement to our meal.