Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spring Vegetable Lo Mein and an Asparagus Festival

While Memorial Day weekend is often for getaways and cookouts, I did something a little out of the ordinary this past weekend.  I attended an asparagus festival in Concord, a town once considered the "asparagus capital of the world."  Who knew?  The asparagus capital of the world right in my home state of Massachusetts.

We spent some time perusing the farm store and spotted a beautiful display of asparagus as we walked in the door.  The store was chock full of gorgeous produce in addition to locally sourced eggs, cheese, milk, and ice cream.  There were plenty of specialty food items, cookbooks, and baked goods.  We decided on an impromptu picnic before the festival started, smearing sourdough bread with honey lavender fromage blanc.

We walked around the grounds to take in the surroundings.

And spotted rhubarb with massive leaves.

We drove a few miles out to the asparagus fields led by Steve Verrill, who began planting asparagus here twenty-five years ago.  He talked about the history of asparagus in this town, how it grows, and how it's harvested.  I learned what a labor-intensive process it is.  Imagine someone having to bend over and pick and sever each individual stalk one by one.  Now that's a hard days work.  So the next time you see asparagus for five dollars a bunch, I would argue the price is certainly warranted.

Notice how sandy the soil is.  Asparagus also require plenty of sunlight.  Steve shared that spears can grow as much as a few inches on a bright sunny day.  Have you ever seen asparagus up close and personal like this?  I hadn't.

After our trip to the fields we drove back for an asparagus themed lunch under a tent, where Chef Kevin Carey held a cooking demonstration.  He prepared Spring Vegetable Lo Mein, a vibrant display of fresh seasonal greens.  I never think to use Lo Mein noodles at home, but loved them with the combination of asparagus, bok choy, and pea tendrils.  The vegetables were tossed in sesame oil and soy sauce.  It was my favorite part of lunch and lucky for you, the recipe was passed along.  I think you'll really enjoy this one.  It was definitely one of the highlights of the day.

In addition to the Vegetable Lo Mein, we were also served asparagus crostini, asparagus soup, asparagus quiche, salmon with asparagus and mixed vegetables, and a spring salad.  Steve came around to joke with those of us eating lunch, saying they've yet to serve asparagus ice cream.  There's actually a place called Flayvors at Cook Farm in Hadley that serves asparagus ice cream this time of year.  It's called Hadley grass out there.  It's mixed with almonds and is apparently a popular seller.  The next time I'm driving west, I'll definitely have to get my hands on it.

We each got to choose a bunch of asparagus to take home with us.  I picked a deep purple bunch.  I had never seen such big, thick purple spears.  I know people are usually in one or two camps in regard to the spears; thick or thin.  I'm in the thick camp myself.  I reflected on the time and hard work invested in my bunch, thinking of those who harvested each and every spear I held in my hand.  I was grateful for my bunch and I was grateful for a lunch shared on a sunny day in May.

~Spring Vegetable Lo Mein Recipe~
Courtesy of Kevin Carey

2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 cups asparagus, cut into 1" pieces
1 cup sliced leeks
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups spinach leaves
2 cup pea tendrils
1 1/2 cup bok choy
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 lb Lo Mein noodles (spaghetti or udon would also work)

Boil the noodles according to the directions (this can be done ahead of time).  Heat the oils in a pan over medium high heat.  Add the asparagus and leeks and cook for two minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for one minute.  Add the remaining greens and mix until they begin to wilt.  Add the soy sauce and noodles and cook until the noodles are heated through.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Save Your Scraps: Homemade Vegetable Stock

I have a confession.  I've been collecting trash, vegetable trash to be exact.  Normally, I'll cut up an onion and toss the scraps away.  The same goes for vegetables slightly past their prime, like limp celery stalks.  But I hate to waste anything.  Someday I will compost, but until then I decided to repurpose these veggies into homemade vegetable stock.  I usually buy a few cartons of organic vegetable stock at the market each week, but it's certainly more economical and less wasteful to make it myself.  I've been tucking away these limp celery stalks, along with carrot shavings and onion scraps in a bag in my freezer.  At the moment, I'm cooking a good deal of asparagus, so there's plenty of asparagus ends in this batch.  You'll be amazed at how quickly the scraps accumulate.  Just be sure they're clean before adding to your bag.

Once my freezer bag was about three quarters of the way full, I added it's contents to my biggest pot, along with some whole peppercorns, a generous amount of sea salt, bay leaves, and a few cloves of smashed garlic.  As you can see, it's not rocket science.  It's pretty imprecise.  I covered it all with water, brought it up to a boil, and simmered it for about an hour or so, covered.  Just be sure it has cooked long enough to remove any bitterness.  Taste the stock and adjust the seasonings if you need to.  I strained the liquid from the vegetables, which left me with a dark, rich, amber stock I can now use in soups, risotto, stir fry, and anything else I cook during the week.  Earlier this week I made a batch of French onion soup with some of my stock.  Do any of you make your own stock from scraps?  I'd be curious to hear your methods.  I'm glad I discovered this before my CSA starts.  It's a true trash to treasure scenario.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rhubarb Asparagus Couscous

Remember how you felt when you learned a tomato is really a fruit?  Well that's exactly how I felt when I learned rhubarb is really a vegetable.  It took me a minute to wrap my head around that one.  Truthfully, I know embarrassingly little about rhubarb.  I know it pops up in the spring, but it's somewhat of an enigma to me, and maybe to you too.  I've had rhubarb sure, but always paired with strawberries in pies, tarts, crumbles and jams.  Perhaps this is why I assumed rhubarb was a fruit.  It always collides with strawberries.  I make my fair share of strawberry rhubarb crumbles each spring too.  I assumed rhubarb needed its strawberry counterpart, the two calling for each another on the brink of spring's arrival, bleeding together in a vat of sugary sweetness.  If you were to ask me what rhubarb tastes like, I couldn't tell you. 

So I bought a few stalks of rhubarb.  Earthy and tough, they're not the most beautiful specimens.  They look like celery stalks dunked in Kool-Aid.  I discovered that eating rhubarb raw is like biting into a lemon, extremely tart, mouth watering and lip puckering.  I'm willing to bet that instead of grabbing a coffee during that late afternoon crash, you could gnaw on a rhubarb stalk with excellent results.  If that doesn't awaken your senses, I don't know what will.  But don't be scared.  When you cook rhubarb down, it mellows out a little.  It doesn't completely lose its tartness, but if you're into squirting lemons over your food like I am, you might be inclined to give it a try.  Cooked rhubarb is almost like a cross between a lemon and a pear.  It doesn't look particularly enticing when cooked down, but that doesn't bother me so much.  I've been seeing rhubarb more and more in savory dishes and it got me thinking.  If rhubarb is technically a vegetable, maybe rhubarb could be paired with a vegetable of the spring variety.

This all came to light when I cracked the spine on a special cookbook I've been meaning to spend some time with.  I intended to dote over it much sooner, but suppose I've been distracted.  I received Didi Emmons 'Wild Flavors'as a gift for Christmas and sadly have just gotten around to reading it.  I regret it's taken me so long to do so.  The book chronicles the year Boston chef Didi Emmons spent cooking from Eva Sommaripa farm.  Eva supplies Boston restaurants with her sought after bounty, an eclectic assortment of prized organic herbs, edible flowers, and specialty greens.  She's somewhat of a legend.  The book is full of charm and humor, and educates about lesser known herbs and edible weeds.  It's an interesting perspective on a way of life that's unfamiliar to most of us.

I began flipping through the book's section on spring, and more specifically on rhubarb.  There's a great selection of intriguing rhubarb recipes, including one with an unlikely combination of asparagus and rhubarb.  It was exactly what I was looking for.  So long rhubarb and strawberries.  Hello rhubarb and asparagus.  The two share the same harvest season after all.  Didi's recipe appealed to me because of its unlikely duo yes, but also because of its quick preparation and short ingredient list.  By using fresh seasonal ingredients, there's little work left on my part.  The asparagus and rhubarb are thinly sliced and cooked in butter over warm heat.  The asparagus remain crisp and tender while the rhubarb mellowed, but still tasted bright and slightly tart.  It gets served on a bed of Israeli couscous and topped with chives and slivered almonds, making for a most interesting springtime lunch.  It feels good to shake up the springtime status quo.

~Rhubarb Asparagus Couscous Recipe~
Adapted from Wild Flavors, Didi Emmons

2 cups whole wheat Israeli couscous 
4 cups vegetable stock or water
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 lb asparagus
2 small rhubarb stalks, or 1 large
3 tbsp butter
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Handful of chives, snipped
1/4 cup slivered almonds
In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add couscous and allow to toast for about 3-5 minutes.  Add in vegetable stock or water.  Bring up to a boil and simmer, covered for about 15 minutes, until the water has evaporated.

While couscous is cooking, prepare your asparagus and rhubarb.  Remove tough ends of asparagus and cut into 1/4" diagonal slices, leaving the tips in tact.  Cut rhubarb into 1/4" slices also.

Heat butter over medium-high heat in a cast iron or skillet pan.  Add the asparagus and tips, cooking, stirring, and tossing for about 3 minutes.  Add in rhubarb and continue to toss and cook for another few minutes.  Keep an eye on the rhubarb, as it can turn mushy quickly.  Remove from the heat when the asparagus is a bit crispy but also tender.  Season with salt and pepper.  

Transfer couscous to a serving bowl or platter.  Drizzle with a little more extra virgin olive oil if you'd like.  Transfer the asparagus and rhubarb mixture over top.  Top with chives and slivered almonds.  Serve immediately.  Serves 6.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Goji Berry Trail Mix

I love the sense of accomplishment I feel after a hike.  Sometimes the climb is slow and gradual.  Other times it's more intense and grueling.  It doesn't feel much like exercising.  Sure I can feel my heart pumping and my body warming, but it's a sensation I welcome.  It's one I'll take over the elliptical at the gym any day, especially come spring.  The elliptical kind of makes me want to poke my eyes out.  I step on and cover the 'time to completion' countdown with a magazine.  I push like a robot and go nowhere, thinking only a fool would work up a sweat and remain in place.  I can't help but peek under the magazine, over and over, convinced it N-E-V-E-R moves.  Everyone around me is huffing and puffing, increasing their resistance, battling the road to nowhere.

This doesn't exist on a hike.  I never look at the time and the only music I need is the soundtrack nature provides.  Best of all, I'm moving forward.  I can see where I'm going and where I've been.  This is progress.  It's relaxing and invigorating all at once.  Yager is always by my side, so we of course stop and smell everything.  And while we're at it, decide to pee on everything too...he, not I.  Sometimes my dog looks as if he's walking around on three legs.  I always get a kick out of him. 

I thought I'd share a new snack I've been packing for our recent adventures.  Many of you seemed to like this one from the last time.  Are you familiar with goji berries?  I'd describe them as a cross between a cranberry and cherry, somewhat tart and slightly sweet.  I've been eating them by the handful and tossing them into my muesli for breakfast.  You can purchase goji berries in their dried form in health food stores, but be prepared for a little sticker shock.  I think they're worth the occasional splurge.  I pulled out one of my favorite resources, David Grotto's, 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, to learn a little more.  Here's what I found.

~Goji berries are indigenous to Tibetan and Mongolian regions
~Have a long history in Chinese and Eastern medicine, used to treat inflammations, skin irritations, nosebleeds, aches, and pains.
~Are recommended for sharp eyesight, healthy liver function, and to improve circulation.
~Studies found goji fruit extracts significantly reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol and raised HDL (good) cholesterol
~Are filled with powerful antioxidants that may help prevent cancer and other illnesses, including heart disease
~Are rich in vitamin A

Not too shabby for a little berry, eh?  I feel pretty good about all this snacking.  Trail mix is the best kind of snack really.  It has variety, crunch, and sweetness.  I was always a fan of the classic peanut, pretzel, and M&M version, but thought it was time for a healthier makeover.  This version is pretty alluring and packs a wallop of antioxidants and protein.  Purchasing the ingredients separately, as opposed to buying pre packaged trail mix, gives you more bang for your buck.  Besides, it's more fun designing your own.  I pack bags for hiking and send some off with Donny and his friends when they go fishing.  The rest is stored in small glass containers on my counter and never lasts very long.  I hope I've convinced you to try some goji berries, or at the very least, to step outside and get lost in the sniffing process.  

~Goji Berry Trail Mix Recipe~

1 cup almonds
1 cup walnuts
1 cup pumpkin seeds
1 cup goji berries
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup raisins

Mix ingredients together with your hands or in a large bowl.  Transfer to an airtight container or individual bags for traveling.  Makes plenty for sharing.  Serves a crowd.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Strawberry Banana Smoothie

Sometimes I act on impulse, like yesterday, when I bought this bag of organic strawberries from the freezer section.  We're still a solid month away from strawberry season here in Massachusetts, and patience is not always my strong suit.  I generally avoid strawberries in the grocery store year round.  They're missing ripeness, sweetness, and va-va-voom.  Well needless to say, it's been a long year, and I've made an exception to my rule, in part, to ease the painful waiting process.  I've made room for frozen strawberries this month.  Cheating?  Perhaps, but they work just fine in a smoothie, because you'll never find me massacring June strawberries in a blender.  This classic combination is blended with almond milk and ground flaxseed for a quick nutritional boost.  It's my latest five-minute breakfast with a side of nut butter toast.  If June is for strawberries, maybe May is for frozen strawberry banana smoothies (and ramps, asparagus, and the arrival of weekend farmers' markets!).  With each sip, my thoughts remain set on lush strawberries ripening on the vine.  Soon enough.  They're worth the wait.

~Strawberry Banana Smoothie Recipe~

1 banana
5 whole, frozen strawberries
1 cup almond milk
1 tsp ground flaxseed

Combine banana, strawberries, almond milk, and flaxseed in a blender.  Process until pureed and mixture is smooth.  Pour into glass.  Makes 1 serving.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tempeh with Peanut Satay Sauce

There are times when a sauce makes a dish.  This is one of those times.  This satay sauce hits all the right notes.  It begins with ginger and garlic sautéed in peanut oil.  There's coconut milk for a sweet flavor to balance out the salty peanut butter.  Tamari, red Thai curry paste, and lime juice are at play too.  It's worthy of spoon licking.  What this lead photo doesn't show you is the ridiculous amount of sauce that actually covered my plate.  You're only seeing the photo shoot version.  This delicate drizzle is not an accurate representation of what I consumed after putting down the camera.  I covered every angle, dripping the plate in a heavy flood of peanut satay sauce.  And lucky for you, this recipe will yield plenty of sauce because believe me, you won't want to skimp on it.  Heavy handedness is encouraged.  

Inspiration for this sauce came from a lunch Donny and I recently had on our way to visit friends at their farm (where I rode a horse for the first time!)  Our friend Tricia guided us, and we walked very slowly, but I'm still counting it.  The restaurant we stopped in had a tempeh dish similar to what you see here.  I decided I'd rework it at home, and it turned even better than the restaurant version I remember.  I don't know how authentic it is, but I think it's a home run.  The most important factor in a peanut sauce for me is one that isn't overly thick.  If you've ever had a bad Pad Thai experience, you know what I'm talking about.  No one wants something that sticks to the roof of his or her mouth.  That sort of thing is best reserved for dogs.  While this sauce is thick and rich, it isn't overly so.  The same can be said about the peanut flavor.  It's prominent without being overwhelming.

It's an excellent companion for tempeh.  Although I haven't posted many tempeh recipes before, it did appear in this soup a while back.  I eat tempeh about once a week, but truthfully, haven't been very innovative with it.  I fry it up in olive oil quickly after work and sometimes smear it with Dijon mustard or shake some tamari on it.  Maybe that's why you haven't seen many tempeh recipes around here.  I like it for many reasons; it's easy to prepare and has an ability to round out an otherwise dainty meal with some bulk.  And just like tofu, it's very adaptable to a wide range of flavors and spices, another blank canvas in the vegetarian world.

For those unfamiliar with tempeh, it's made from slightly fermented soybeans.  It's high in protein and contains probiotics, essential to our health and immune function.  While it may be new around these parts, tempeh originated in Indonesia and has been around for hundreds of years.  When you buy tempeh, it comes packed in a firm rectangular shape which can then be cut into small pieces, or crumbled and used as a meat substitute.  Like I mentioned, frying is usually my method of choice.  I like to get a nice crunchy golden exterior on each side.  This version was served with brown rice and steamed broccoli, but any grains and veggies will make a complete meal.  Whatever you serve on the side, it will likely benefit from a few extra scoops of sauce.  It can't hurt.  And go ahead and lick the spoon while you're at it.  I won't tell.

~Tempeh with Peanut Satay Sauce Recipe~

8 ounces tempeh
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Satay Sauce
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp minced ginger
1/4 cup smooth, organic peanut butter
1/2 cup canned coconut milk (full fat)
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp red thai curry paste
1 tbsp tamari
juice of 1/2 lime

Cut tempeh into 3/4" pieces.  Add olive oil to a large saute or cast iron pan over medium heat.  Fry tempeh pieces for about 3-4 minutes on each side, or until crispy and golden.

While the tempeh is cooking, heat peanut oil over medium heat in a small saute pan.  Saute garlic and ginger for about a minute or two, taking care not to burn the garlic.  Reduce the heat to low and add in peanut butter and coconut milk, stirring to combine.  Take off the heat.  Add in water to thin out the sauce, continuing to stir until incorporated.  Stir in red thai curry paste, tamari, and lime juice.  Serve sauce warm over tempeh.  Sauce will yield about 3/4 cup.  Serves 2.