Figs in a Blanket

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Growing up in a humid, mid-Atlantic suburb on the East Coast, the only figs I knew of were the Newton varietal – but man oh man were they tasty!  So when I moved to California and starting expanding my fruit and vegetable repertoire (not a difficult task, when my chosen produce at the time consisted of apples, berries, and iceberg lettuce), what could be tastier, I thought, than the inside filling of a cookie fruited cake.

black figsBleh.  Raw fresh figs do NOT taste like fig newtons minus the cake part, just FYI.  Some people, lots of people in fact, love them, but I am not one of them.  So I thought I hated figs.

But as with  most things in life sliced figs(I swear to you, I promise on all that is good and holy, at some point soon I will post a whole series of posts that are kosher and/or vegetarian and/or vegan and/or don’t negate all their yummy nutrients by simply mixing with bacon and/or goat cheese…but today is not that day) they just needed to be wrapped in pork product to change my view.

Raw figs have a hint of sweetness, and a somewhat earthy, flowery flavor.  When very ripe, they’re quite syrupy and gain sweetness, but to me the flavor is like a mushroom masquerading as a pear, with a suggestion of banana.  fresh figIt’s the mushroom quality I don’t care for, along with the slightly slimy texture broken by the rows of seeds that makes me feel a little like I’m biting into a raw sea creature.  Dried figs, on the other hand, are basically candy, a concentration of sugar so sweet and yet so complex that I knew there was something in there worth exploring, even if it wasn’t eating the fruit raw out of hand.

Do something to a fresh fig, however, and you’re in entirely different territory – and when I say something, I mean almost anything.  Poach in red spiced wine for a winter dessert served over ice cream, roast with any number of meats for a restaurant-quality entree, or bake into pies, galettes, tarts, cakes, or custards for a multi-layered flavor extravaganza of a dessert.  Figs are incredibly versatile, and incredibly delicious if you pair them with anything that stands up to their complexity.

figs and prosciuttoThere are several varieties of figs, ranging in color from dark almost black, to almost lime green.  They’ll get softer and softer as they ripen, and are at their sweetest when fully ripe (edible even to the point of mush if you plan on baking or something), but they don’t travel that well once they get close to that stage, so look for a little softness without bruises.  They should feel slightly heavy for their size, and should smell slightly sweet, not sour.  Very firm figs will not ripen further, so don’t buy them.  To prepare them, I like to slice off the hard bit of stem at the top, but otherwise everything is edible, skin, seeds and all.

I love sweet and savory together.  Medieval cuisine, aka gamey meats and dried fruit? Awesome.  Mediterranean couscous salad with raisins?  Bring it.  Chicken salad with grapes? My favorite.  My husband? Not so much.  And by not so much, I mean I sneak the fancy prepared salad bar at Whole Foods when I have to buy lunch, and that is the extent of my exotic pairings.  He doesn’t even do pork chops with applesauce or lamb with jelly (which, come to think of it, neither do I, so I guess our marriage is saved).  So imagine my delight when I not only discovered this dish, but discovered that he loved it.  Sweet, salty, savory – it could be a dessert if you put a sweet balsamic glaze on it, but makes an even nicer salad on top of a bed of arugula and a simple balsamic vinaigrette; but we like them just the way they are: delicate appetizers that you can pop in your mouth, the prosciutto crisp around the edges and the juices of the meat and fig mingling into a salty sweet syrup that pools beneath each morsel.  As fancy appetizers go, they’re fast, decadent, and would be elegant if we didn’t end up licking our plates afterwards.  A true endorsement, indeed.

figs are doneFigs in a Blanket

      • Fresh figs
      • Goat cheese
      • Sliced prosciutto (2 slices per 3 whole figs)

Options: balsamic vinegar, crusty bread, arugula, blue cheese

Slice the figs in half lengthwise.  Slice each slice of prosciutto into thirds lengthwise.  Place a small portion of goat cheese in the center of the fig.

goat cheese figWrap the fig and cheese in a thin slice of prosciutto

DSCF6335fig in prosciutto

fig wrapped in prosciuttoand place in a 400 degree oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until the prosciutto begins to brown and crisp at the edges.  (We cook them on an aluminum foil-wrapped sheet in the toaster oven for easy cleanup – it gets messy.) Serve warm, but not immediately – the centers get very, very hot and we always burn ourselves when we pop them in our mouth too quickly.

Other options?  Drizzle with balsamic for a little acidity to cut the sweetness, serve with crusty bread to sop up the syrup that will form on the pan, or serve over arugula for an elegant appetizer/salad.  Some versions call for blue cheese instead of the goat, so feel free if that’s your preference, but we’ve tried it both ways and in my opinion, the goat lends a sweet tanginess that goes better with the fig.  If you use blue, I would definitely add the drizzle of balsamic.

figs in a blanket

For fresh figs:

Peel/Trim?  No.  Everything is edible, though I do like to cut off the top stem – just a centimeter or two.
Edible seed?  Yes.  Technically, it’s an inside-out flower, but whatever, you can eat the whole thing.
Edible when raw?  Yes.  Best when very ripe.
Worth the price of organic? Unclear.  Figs aren’t that common,  so they don’t show up on various “Dirty Dozen” or “Safe” lists at all, and from looking into growing them, it looks like they’re easy to grow in the right climate, and the main problems that affect fig trees can’t be controlled chemically, so it’s probably a reasonable assumption that conventional figs are not heavily doused in chemicals.  If you’re buying dried, however, I would err on organic because whatever’s there is going to be concentrated in the drying process, as well as probably have sulfites added, as most conventional dried fruit does to keep them moist.
In season: Early Summer briefly, and then Late Summer through Fall for the main crop – though in a place like Southern California where they grow well, you can usually find them all summer long.
Best with: Almonds, hazelnuts, vanilla, orange, cinnamon, black pepper, rosemary, arugula or other sharp greens, gamey or strong meats, rich/creamy cheeses or desserts (custard, ice cream, etc.), deep red, jammy wines (port especially)
How to Store:  In the coldest part of the fridge for up to 3 days, max.  Don’t wash them before storing – if they get wet, they’ll mold quickly.  If they’re already soft or squishy, use immediately as they won’t keep.

Fava Beans, and the Spring-iest Salad that Ever Was Sprung

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Poor fava beans.  Besmirched by Hannibal Lecter, neglected by most Americans, their fat, lumpy pods looking like just a whole lot of bother.

fava bean podsDon’t get me wrong, favas are a bit of pain in the heinie. (Fun Fact: also spelled hiney!  But not heiny, as I originally thought.  Thanks, dictionary.com!)  As anyone who has read, oh, even one of my posts can attest to, I’m a lazy cook.  I don’t like peeling, trimming, turning, shelling, or barely even washing.  I eat the parts most people toss and if it can all quickly go into one pan, preferably with bacon, and just get stirred around until it looks done, I’m happy.

Not so with favas.

broad beansFava beans (also known as faba beans, fave, broad beans, English beans, horse beans, pigeon beans, field beans – I’m getting the sense that these suckers have been around a while, yes?) take a comparatively whole lotta work.  They’re protected from the elements by not just one but TWO casings – the outer pod and an inner soft shell – and you have to shuck both before you can eat them.  Don’t, ahem, assume other bloggers and cookbooks are being fancy pants and take a bite of the de-podded but still white-shelled bean.  It’s nasty.  Not that I did that.

But the good news is that the whole double-shucking process isn’t nearly as time-consuming as it reads.  The beans pop out of the pods pretty easily, and with a good blanching the worst part of the de-shelling is a bit of vegetation under your nails – which might not even be true if you blanch properly.  fave in shellsI never have ice on hand, so my ice water is cold tap water, which if you’ve ever taken basic science class, you’ll realize means that as soon as you add hot favas to the water, the whole thing heats up instantaneously and does a horrible job of blanching.  But good news continues!  Because even with sub-par blanching, the beans are still pretty easy to peel.  It just takes time to go bean by bean.

And then!  You get these squat, nutty, oh so green nuggets of delight.  They don’t taste like beans at all, in my opinion, because they’re not little explosions of mealy mush.  (I’m not a big fan of beans, as you might guess.)  The closest approximation is garbanzo beans, but really only in terms of texture, since fava beans have nothing of garbanzos’ astringency.  Fava beans taste like a nut that doesn’t stick in your teeth, a little sweet, a little buttery, and a wee bit ‘green.’  But what they really taste like is Spring.

English bean in podI don’t know how, I don’t know why – maybe it’s their intense green color, their cute little shape, their inherent freshness since you’re eating them essentially raw – but when you taste a fava, it tastes like a sunshine-y day and a cool breeze.  They were so spring-like that we actually laid out a blanket in the back yard and made a picnic out of our meal rather than eat at the table.  I’m not kidding.

Look for healthy, springy, pale to medium green pods without a lot of brown spots (a few are okay), and in which the beans aren’t bulging out of the pod.  Bulging beans means they’re a bit old and overgrown. (I feel like there’s a pot belly joke in here, but having been pregnant twice in the past 3 years, I have stopped commenting on bulging bellies.)  And then, to the work:

First, de-pod your beans.  There’s technically a string that runs along the back:

fava beanAnd if you can catch it it will peel right open, but if not, just tear it open.  You’ll find 3-6 beans nestled snug in their beds.  The cushioning looks like a pillow:broad bean cushion

While you’re de-podding, boil some water.  When you have your little pile of whitish-looking beans and the water is rolling, toss them in for just 1 minute:

fava beans blanchWhile they’re boiling, fill a bowl with ice water (not just cold tap water).  When the timer goes, toss them in and let them sit 1 minute.  The outer waxy covering should shrivel and pull away from the green legume a little.  Then, bean by bean, remove that outer coating.  On the left, a boiled bean; on the right, the coating removed:

fava with and without membraneSee how green they are?  That’s it.  Now they’re edible.  Some people puree them, some people saute with garlic and lemon (though I find cooking further isn’t necessary), but we chose to make

The Spring-iest Salad that Ever Was Sprung

Prepared fava beans
Breakfast Radishes
Fennel
Cooked Breakfast or Sweet Chicken Sausage (optional)
1 lemon
Olive oil
Sea or kosher salt (you want it chunky, not finely ground)

Slice the radishes into small pieces and shave the fennel as finely as you can.  Mix with favas and and the sausage if you’re using it.   Our fennel was particularly licorice-tasting this time, so we combined in a ratio of about 2:2:1 for radishes, fava beans, and fennel so it didn’t overpower.  Squeeze the lemon juice on top, drizzle with olive oil, and toss to coat.  Sprinkle with salt.

Spring SaladThat’s it.  It was awesome.  The fava beans are mellow and nutty and add an unexpected bit of richness of flavor, the radishes and fennel added a little bite and complexity, the lemon dressing and chunky salt added a brightness that enhanced the freshness of all the ingredients.  It was spring in a bowl and was the inspiration for our impromptu picnic – good crusty bread, a few slices of quality cheese, and very cold wine and you had a happy little family, though the toddler just ate the favas and sausage and ignored the sharp little radishes and fennel slices.  I honestly think I’ll leave out the sausage next time, as we really only added it because we wanted to use it up, and though it added a nice savory sweetness, I think the salad would be even springier without it.  Other additions?  Next time I’m adding thinly sliced asparagus, even garlic scapes if I can find them, but in my estimation, the best Spring Salad is one just like this: find the freshest Spring ingredients you can, toss them together, and put down a blanket in the back yard.  And just this once, leave out the bacon.

Peel/Trim? Definitely.  A few sources say you can eat without the second shelling if the beans are absolute babies, but the casing is pretty bitter in anything bigger.
Edible when raw? Sort of.  Blanch to remove the casing, and then they’re edible.  It’s possible to buy them dried like other beans, and then you have to cook them just as you would black, pinto, kidney, etc.
Worth the price of organic? One of the few foods to which I’m going to say Probably Not.  There’s so much peeling and shelling going on here that any pesticides sprayed on won’t make it to your plate.  It’s true that what you’re eating is the seed, so anything in the soil is going to be concentrated in here, so if you’re that concerned, feel free, but if you’re that concerned, you’re probably buying everything organic already.
Best with:  Do I have to say liver and a nice chianti?  Yes, yes I do.  Otherwise, spring vegetables that taste clean, green, and fresh are the way to go: radishes, young garlic, young onion, mint, dill, lemon.  Ricotta would be lovely, even a mild goat cheese, but anything stronger will overpower the subtle, mild flavor of the fresh nutty beans.
In Season: Spring.  In some areas they grow into the summer, but in Southern California, they’re usually gone by late May.
How to Store: In the fridge.  They should keep about a week in their pods.  After blanching and preparing, the shelled favas keep a few days, but rinse in water before using if you prepared them in advance.
Note: There is a potentially fatal disease called favism, that is an allergic reaction to fava beans.  While very rare, it can affect some people of African, Mediterranean, or Southeast Asian descent.

Stinging Nettles

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I don’t know that I’ve ever been more excited to eat something that I’m afraid to touch.NettlesI first heard of nettles as edibles (whee! That’s fun to say!) years ago when I was reading a book on the Irish famine.  I’m Irish-obsessed, in case you didn’t know (my daughter’s name is full-blown Irish Gaelic), and at the time I found it tragic that they ate weeds to survive when the potato crop failed.  But in a different Irish famine book (yes, obsessed), there was some mention of nettles as actually a staple food before the famine (if you don’t know Irish history, it’s tragic.  TRAGIC tragic.  The English were right bloody arseholes.) because they’re one of the richest sources of iron, vitamins A and C, and a full 10 to even 40 percent protein (and to that I say, what the what??  Vegetarians, get in here!).  They’ve also long been a staple in herbal medicine, since they supposedly are one of the best treatments for hay fever, and also for arthritis.  I was intrigued.  Nettles seemed pretty awesome.

Silica StingersExcept that they will sting you.  The taxonomy derives from the Latin for “I burn” and they’re chock full of little stingers especially on the new growth.  Standard rule of thumb for harvesting is to wear gloves, but I don’t own rubber gloves for cooking, and I was frightened.  The farmer at the market made fun of me dismissed my fears and said they weren’t that bad, but I wasn’t taken chances.  So here was my oh-so-graceful and professional method for dealing with nettles:
1. Let farmer with callused hands and scoffing bravado put them into bag.  Don’t put other veggies in same bag in case the prickers brush up against things and stick to my innocent chard or beets.
2. Remove from bag by grabbing only the bottom two inches of stem and awkwardly hold the whole bunch under the faucet to wash.  Rinse by shaking vigorously, thereby blessing the whole kitchen with nettle holy water.
3. To prepare for cooking, just as awkwardly hold giant nettle stalks over the largest frying pan I have, hot with oil, and chop off hunks with kitchen shears, trying not to get burnt by the spitting oil because the nettles weren’t really dry from the vigorous shaking and in case you haven’t heard, oil and water don’t like each other and in a hot pan they take it out on me.

Miraculously, this method worked out really, really well.

Nettle StalksThe nettles lose their stingers within about 30 seconds of cooking, so you could probably cook them, then slice them more neatly if you liked, but I’m not fussy about presentation so much, and I don’t like getting burned by hot, thornless nettles any more than I like getting stung with raw nettle thorns…  Most sources DON’T recommend my version of preparing them (I can’t imagine why) but recommend blanching instead:

  • Plunge nettles into already boiling water for about 30 seconds to 1 minute to get rid of the stingers)
  • Plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking
  • Roll in towels or paper towels to dry them off

At this point, they can then be sauteed, sliced, frozen for later, whatever, and they’ll be a brilliant green to boot.  I 1) am lazy 2) never have ice on hand and 3) broke my favorite and largest mixing bowl last week, so plunging and bathing and creating more dishes [4) don’t have a dishwasher] is not part of my repertoire.  But if you are the opposite of me in any of those criteria, you can blanch like a normal person.

Nettle branchNettles taste a bit like the lovechild of spinach and an artichoke.  They don’t have the chalky feel of spinach and are milder in flavor, but they do have a little of the mineral/metallic/plastic tang that artichokes always seem to have.  There’s a hint of lemon in there as well, and though they’re a little grassy, they don’t in any way taste like grass or weeds – though if you buy nettles instead of picking them, make sure you pick out the long strands of actual grass that seemed to show up in all the bunches.  Nettles are toothy-leaved and roundish-stalked, not long, flat blades. (Did I, I know you’re thinking, shrug and assume those long blades were perhaps a rogue type of weird nettle stalk among my branches?  Yes, yes I did.)  Look for healthy-looking plants that have not yet begun to flower (flowering makes the leaves turn bitter), the younger the better for sweetness and mildness of flavor.  You can just use the young leaves, not the full stalk and tiny flower buds the way I did, if you want to keep the flavor as mild as possible and still reap all the nutrient benefits.  Nettle soup is a classic way to use them, or nettle pesto once they’ve been blanched, but I liked them sauteed:

Lemon-Parmesan Pasta with Stinging Nettles
Nettles
Olive Oil
Freshly grated parmesan (not the green tub)
Lemon
Garlic cloves
Spaghetti

  • Boil water and start the pasta.  Once you’ve added the noodles to the water, start your nettles:
  • In a very large pan, saute chopped nettles in roughly a tablespoon of olive oil (Use as many nettles as you like – like any leafy green, they cook down quite a bit).
  • When the nettles are wilted, squeeze the juice of one to 1 1/2 lemons into the hot pan.
  • Add a little more olive oil, along with chopped garlic (we used 2-3 cloves for just 2 1/2 people, but we love garlic).  Cook until the garlic smell hits you, just a minute or so.Lemon-Parmesan Pasta with Nettles
  • Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 tablespoon of the pasta water (you can save yourself the trouble of “reserving” boiling hot water by just draining the pasta lazily so a little of the water stays in the pot).  Add the pasta and reserved water to the frying pan, and mix.
  • Spread the pasta dish out in the frying pan to get the most surface area, and grate fresh parmesan on top.  Fold the pasta dish into the serving bowl as if it were an omelette – slide half in, then fold the other half on top – then toss immediately.  This gets the parmesan integrated into the food so you don’t just have hunks of parmesan in certain bites and none elsewhere.
  • Top with salt, pepper, and a little more parmesan if you like.

Next time, I’m making Dungeness Crab and Wild Nettle Frittata or Stinging Nettle and Asparagus Risotto.  They both sounded awesome, but I didn’t find the recipes until I’d already eaten my bunch.  But I’ll buy more.  They’re too tasty not to try again, and besides, I refuse to be intimidated by a vegetable.  I’ll brave you yet, nettle thorns!  Just not, you know, this season.

Stinging Nettle LeafTrim? You can trim a bit of the tough base and eat the rest, or trim off everything but the leaves – your choice.  But watch out for the stingers!  They’re most prevalent towards the tips, so you can grasp the bottoms without getting stung.  Use gloves, or my wimpy method as above.
Edible when raw?  No.  You will get stung, and possibly get burning welts in your mouth and throat, even if you puree them – it’s an acid that causes the burning, and it needs to be cooked to be deactivated.  Unless, of course, you’re part of a contest.
Worth the price of organic? Probably.  Though they’re basically a weed, so there’s no real reason someone should be using a bunch of sprays on them anyway, I’d still go for organic since you’re eating the leaves where the residue will sit.  If you can’t find them organic, I would definitely do the blanching technique and probably toss that water rather than using it for tea (as some people do).
Best with:  Frankly, kind of everything.  They’re such an ancient food and grow in so many places that recipes abound, from Italian pestos to Scottish soups to Indian curries.  I like to eat as seasonally as possible, so I like them with other spring flavors like young garlic ramps, lemon, fresh fennel, asparagus, peas (if you don’t hate them)…  Nettles are a bit more delicate than some other leafy greens, so I personally avoid stronger flavors like anchovies or my beloved bacon as well, but that’s only because nettles don’t need it the way bitter greens do.  It certainly would taste fine if you decided to go that route.
In Season:  In cooler climes, you can probably find them Spring into early Summer, maybe even again in fall, but here in Southern California, you’re looking at a window of just a few weeks in early Spring, so jump on them while you can.
How to Store: In the fridge, in a produce box or plastic bag,  they should keep for a week or more uncooked.  Once they’ve been blanched, use or freeze pretty quickly.
Note: If you get stung, dock leaves are the miracle cure, but since most people don’t have those lying around – make a paste of baking soda and water and apply to the area, and once the inflammation goes down, make sure there are no stingers stuck in your skin.  If so, remove with scotch tape.  There’s no danger in getting stung other than the pain, so it should go away with no ill effects in a couple of days regardless.

Eating the Vines (aka Pea Tendrils)

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True Confessions time:pea tendrilsI despise peas.  They are the eyeballs of the vegetable world, quite literally – tiny, pasty eyeballs that show up to ruin pea plantotherwise lovely dishes, like carbonara and shrimp with lobster sauce and, worst of all, the ubiquitous fish and chips “with mushy minted peas.”  How on earth does anyone think that sounds the least bit appetizing???

But I digress.  Spring as they may hearken, it will be a long time before you see a post about English peas on this blog, which is why I felt something of a personal victory in purchasing pea tendrils at the market on Sunday.

I’m not sure if they’re the tendrils of shelling peas or pod peas (HUGE difference to pea haters, by the way – snap and sugar peas are just fine, thank you), or if they just mix them all in the bin and it doesn’t matter, but to purposefully (and rather expensively) purchase things that might have some connection to the peas I deplore is dedication to experimentation, my friends.

curling tendrilsIn short: slap my ass and call my Sally.  Or whatever the expression is.

Yup, you heard it here first: they’re delightful!  I assumed they would taste sort of like peas, so I mixed in the leftover nettle greens I had on hand as well just in case I hated them, but I needn’t have, and maybe even shouldn’t have, as the two greenspea tendrils vines have very different flavors and yes, my plate seriously resembled lawn clippings.  But the pea tendrils had a delicate nuttiness, a vegetative crunch without the grassy flavor so common in most greens, an underlying mild sweetness, and tasted just simply fresh.  It was spring on a plate.  Add to that the graceful curve of the vines’ tiny fingers flash-sauteed in hot oil and fresh garlic, the bright deep green, the shy head of a white flower poking out from a tiny swaddle of leaves and the entire thing took on something of a gentile air.  I wanted to slow sip pea flowera pale sparkling wine while discussing poetry in a cool mid-afternoon sun.  (Instead of shoveling food into my face before I pass out from exhaustion and drinking my wine like it’s shots of tequila while watching DVR’ed shows with closed captioning because the kids are asleep and my house is too small?  Yes.)

Pea tendrils are the young shoots of pea plants, which makes me so happy because snow peas are one of the few things that I have grown successfully more than once, except I forget to water them and they never produce pods.  But now I can just harvest the vines! pea vine climbing The older they get, the tougher, and some people say to ditch the thicker stems, but I used everything in the bag I bought and the thicker stems were simply slightly crispier – mine were probably young enough that nothing had gotten woody or chewy yet.

Look for young, spry-looking pea shoots without wilt or yellowing.  Many people chop them before cooking, and if you purchased long strings of them, you probably should, but my farmer sold them in roughly 3-inch long pieces, and they were perfectly manageable on a fork and retained their beautiful curls on the plate – half the fun in the first place.  The best method for cooking them seems to be exactly what I found:  very hot oil, throw them in for a quick saute and a minute later add garlic until you can smell it (the whole process goes fast – maybe even just three minutes start to finish), put on a plate with salt, and enjoy.  People that like spices add red pepper flakes, too.  I tossed mine with some pasta for a vegetarian dinner.  You might also serve them with a fried or poached egg.  You see what I’m going for here?  Keep it simple, folks.  Simple and spring-like.  And if you have time for a little poetry, let me know how that goes.  I’m jealous already.

curling tendrilsTrim? Conventional wisdom says that if you can see flowers, remove the stems nearby as they’ll be too thick to be appetizing, some even include the tendrils.  I think the tendrils are pretty and had no problem with thicker stems, but if you’re eating raw I would follow the advice.
Edible when raw?  Yes, but trim off the thicker stems.
Worth the price of organic? Hard to say.  Peas are traditionally considered a “clean” food, but I think that’s because you toss the pod.  I would definitely go organic for the tendrils – they just seem to invite pesticide residue based on how they grow.
Best with:  Simple, spring-like flavors – fresh garlic, lemon, radishes, eggs, plain grains – brown rice is as nutty as I’d go; heavy starches like bulgur or barley or beans would overpower the delicacy of the shoots, in my opinion.
In Season:   Spring
How to Store: They don’t keep well.  Use the day you buy them, the next day at the most.  Store in the fridge if you’re keeping them at all, but honestly, they wilt very fast.

Brussels Sprouts

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This is how pathetic my life has become: when my husband goes out of town, I live it up by eating brussels sprouts.  Seriously. (Did you know there was an ‘s’ on the end?  No?  Me neither.  I mean, I know they were named for the city, but I always assumed the vegetable was “brussel sprouts.”  Ah the wonders of google’s super-condescending Did you mean brussels sprouts? as if google was channeling the annoying grammar kid in grade school…)brussels sproutsBut they’re lovely little nuggets of nutty vegetable goodness and he hates them, or did.  Conventional wisdom (read: the label on the bag when you buy them at the store) suggests popping them in the microwave for a few minutes with a hole cut in the corner for venting, and voila! Delicious veggies!  So here’s a tip: NEVER TAKE COOKING ADVICE FROM A PLASTIC BAG.  Even if it does have halved sproutfriendly-looking exclamation points and promising adjectives.

Brussels sprouts microwaved in the bag taste like, well, vegetables microwaved in a bag.  They’re sorta steamed and sorta healthy-tasting and sorta mushy and definitely edible and definitely fast, but when all is said and done they taste a little…sad.  And definitely need to be smothered in soy sauce.

Like any somewhat tough, somewhat bitter vegetable, the key to brussels sprouts is to roast them.  Sweeter roots and tubers like sweet potatoes and beets can be cut thin and survive a quick 20 minute roast and come out just fine, but with brussels sprouts?  You’ve got to roast the crap out of them.  trim

 

Cut off the ends,
trimmed v untrimmed
half sprout

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cut in half,

 

 

 

toss with a bit of olive oil, and pop them in a 400 oven for at least 30 minutes.  About halfway through cooking time, shake the pan to toss them around a bit, and then back in they go.  When they’re done, they’ll be absolute mush in the center, which sounds really unappetizing, but what happens is that all the bitterness dissolves away and the residual sugars caramelize in the heat and the mush you’re left with is a little sweet and a little caramelly and a little nutty and tastes awesome with anything with a little strength behind its flavor – red onion, goat cheese, walnuts, steak, or just very nice sea salt.  They’re very earthy when they’re left almost whole like this, and would probably be wonderful smoked.

shredded brussels sproutsBut if you don’t have time for a long oven roast, there’s another secret that we only recently discovered that makes them even better, and way faster and easier: shred them.  If you have a food processor, run them through the slicing blade.  The resulting pieces are thin enough to pop into any pan for a quick saute or stir-fry with whatever else you’re serving, or even edible raw.  I’ve swapped them out for the kale in my raw kale salad with fantastic results, used them in place of the cabbage in a cole slaw (since brussels sprouts are really baby cabbages anyway), and tossed the shreds into a spinach salad with warm bacon dressing for a little vegetable variety.  When shredded, the natural bitterness is not nearly as noticeable, and just lends a little sharpness; if you’re cooking, you’ll get to that sweet nutty flavor ASAP instead of waiting for the slow roast.

A quick recipe:  Throw some sprouts and a shallot through the processor, and into a pan with a little olive oil.  Cook until everything is soft.  Feel free to leave it without turning much, ‘cuz you know I like my bitter things a little burned.  Splash some champagne vinegar on there if you have it, or cooking sherry, or rice vinegar, or apple cider vinegar.  Sprinkle with salt.  Eat by the panful because it really is that good.tiny cabbages

Look for tight sprouts without yellowing or curling on the outer leaves and few spots.  If you’re buying them from the market instead of the store, you may see them in their natural state, which is attached to a giant stalk, which looks bizarrely attractive but is inedible.  If you do buy them on the stalk, you can cut each sprout off with a knife, or just twist and pull each one off – the little stems that sometimes come off too are edible, but will need to be steamed or roasted very well first.  You get a lot more bang for your buck when you buy on the stalk, but a lot more work, and frankly, my fridge isn’t big enough to hold it…so no pics.  Sorry.  When we move to a bigger house and get a bigger kitchen, I swear I’ll buy a giant specimen just for you.

Trim? Yes.  Slice off the bottom brown edge.  Some people say to just put an ‘x’ in the base, but that seems like more work to me and I don’t like tough stems.  Remove any wilted leaves.
Edible when raw?  Yes, but better sliced thin or shredded first.
Worth the price of organic? Apparently not, though I would have thought otherwise.  Organic brussels sprouts are particularly hard to grow, so they’re not that common, and because each little sprout is packed so tightly, they don’t harbor a lot of bad stuff.  So give ‘em a good wash and save your pennies.
Best with:  Strong flavors with a little sweetness that can stand up to the bitter earthiness but bring out the sweetness of the sprout – shallots, lemon, soft cheeses, pine nuts, walnuts, bacon/ham/piggies…  Strong flavors that have a bitter edge, like marjoram, turmeric, or even my beloved garlic, can heighten the sulfuric edge, making them taste a little like rotten eggs if you’re not careful.
In Season:  Fall through Spring.
How to Store: In the fridge, in a produce box or loosely sealed plastic bag, they should keep for ten days to 2 weeks.  If they start to yellow at the edges, peel off the outer leaves and eat within the next day or two.

Parsimony and Persimmons

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Alright, I took a serious long blog break.  I have unedited photos and half-written posts galore for you all, but somehow (oh, I don’t know, running a new business while parenting a 2 year old and a newborn?) I couldn’t seem to find the time to clean up the posts enough to post them.  So an entire winter has gone by full of turnips and cabbages and various hard squashes and I have left you, the four loyal readers that are out there, bereft of deliciousness.

Fuyu persimmonAnd I’d like to say, but no longer!  But alas, I tried persimmons recently, and, well, I was unimpressed.

I’ve seen persimmons at the market for years now, though before moving to California I had only seen them in still-lifes.  They look like a yellowish to deep orange tomato, or, frankly, rather like a heart ventricle.  [Can you tell my father was a doctor?]  They’re apparently quite popular in Asian and Mediterranean dishes, and that makes some sense to me, as those cuisines tend to not have overly sweet components…but I like sugar in a fruit, and persimmons ain’t it.Persimmon

There are two main kinds you’ll find widely: Fuyu and Hachiya.  The Fuyu tend to be more tomato-y looking while the Hachiya are more oblong, but be sure to ask before you buy.  Both kinds shouldn’t be eaten until they’re ripe, as I guess ‘green’ persimmons are horribly bitter (the Hachiyas are apparently so astringent that they’ll suck all the moisture out of your mouth! sounds horrid), but Fuyus will ripen to pretty firm, something like a pear when it’s just ripe but before it gets juicy, where Hachiyas should be soft and mushy before you eat.  The Fuyus can be eaten when they’re soft, too, but my guy (yeah, that’s right, I’ve got a persimmon guy) said they’re better when they’re a little firmer.  Look for green leaves, not brown, on a Fuyu, and let it get just a wee bit soft to make sure it’s ripe.  For Hachiyas, let them get mushy – go on solidity or lack thereof, not color.

Persimmon seedI didn’t expect the seeds inside, so I’m glad I sliced it open.  I went with Fuyus since spoonable fruit seems like, well, baby food, and I deal enough with that already, thank-you-very-much.  Let me be clear, persimmon lovers, before I get hate mail: I didn’t HATE the persimmon.  I just found it…useless.  It tastes something like an apple or a pear, but without the crispness or juiciness of either.  It’s basically just an innocuous fruit that’s twice the price of more familiar specimens.  That’s it.   You can eat them raw in hand like an apple or slice so you can remove the seeds, and many people like to cook them down into puddings and tarts.  I’ve seen colanders heaped with them at people’s houses and heard exclamations of excitement when the season hits, so I guess I’m turning it over to you, dear readers: What the heck do you do with these suckers to make them worth your while?  ‘Cuz I’m cheaping out.  No more persimmon experiments for me unless it’s going to be fantastic.

persimmon slicesPeel?  No, but you do want to chop off the leaves on top, and if you plan on cooking them, they’re often peeled for texture reasons.
Edible seed? No.  There will be 6 to 8, but they’re pretty big so you can pick them out easily.
Edible when raw?  Yes, though Hachiyas are more often cooked.
Worth the price of organic?  Unclear.  They’re not common enough in the U.S. to make some of the standard Dirty Dozen lists in any capacity – since apples are #1 on the list and other soft-skinned fruits rank in the top 20, I’d err on organic if you plan on eating the skin.  But they’re notably disease and pest-resistant for gardeners, so it’s quite likely that even conventional ones don’t go too heavy on the sprays.
In season: October through February.
Best with: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper (warm spices); apple, pear, orange; cream in puddings, panna cottas and cheesecakes
How to Store:  On the counter until ripe, in a paper bag to speed up ripening.  Once ripe, Fuyus can go in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks; Hachiyas can go in the fridge for a few days.

Haricots Verts, Golden Wax and Other Sorta Green Beans

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I used to hate green beans as a kid.  Frankly, in most cases, I still do.  I don’t blame my mom for this – she bought high-quality frozen green beans as I recall – but to be honest?  They taste like vegetables.  Like the vegetables of kids’ tear-induced tantrums – a little sharp, a little bitter, and very, very green.  And they squeak.  Seriously.  Some people actually know them as squeaky beans.  And God forbid, in my opinion, you buy them canned.  Add to the squeaky bitterness a metallic aftertaste, and it’s like eating medical equipment.

I discovered 2 problems with my green bean past.  1) I was eating the wrong kinds, and 2) I was cooking them wrong.  Most of the time, if you buy something labeled green beans, it’s probably Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake – a relatively fat, fleshy bean with a succulent pod surrounding thin, tiny seeds.  I’m sure plenty of people like the somewhat meaty, earthy flavor, especially when smothered in cream of mushroom soup and fried onions, but I am not one of those people.  I am, however, something of a Francophile, so I’m pretty sure many of those same green bean loving people think I’m merely being pretentious by saying that I hate green beans but I love Haricots Verts.  Which, yes, translates to “green beans,” I know.

But Haricots Verts are a different breed entirely from the fleshy cut variety that taints many a side dish.  For one thing, they don’t have to be green.  They come in purple and yellow and speckled and all sorts of beautiful colors.  Haricots Verts and their slender brethren are thin, dainty, unimposing in their somewhat parched state.  They crisp easily or soften and blend in with the crowd when necessary while still maintaining a wee bit of vegatative flavor.  They’re milder than their heartier cousins.  They still squeak, but I like to imagine more of a dainty accident than the bold mouse-like squeak of their friends.

As for eating them wrong, every blog and recipe I can recall commands steaming, blanching, boiling or microwaving.  And to that I respond: bleh!  It’s a good way to release some vitamins, sure, and to soften them up, of course, because they can get a bit stringy or a bit of a chewy-wood thing going on when they’re not cooked enough.  Sure.  But…bleh.  What a way to make them taste like earthy, mineral-y mush.  Nope, the trick I discovered?  Burn them.  Burn them all.  (And if you’re not picturing a creepy Donald Sutherland in Backdraft right now, you don’t watch nearly as many movies as I do, and also, I envy your uncluttered brain.)

I don’t like burnt food.  I scrape burnt toast, pick around burned roasts, hell, I throw out burned cookies and if you know me that’s practically a hangin’ crime for all the rules it violates, but green beans, as far as I can recall, are my one exception.  Get a little burn on them and all that metallic minerality takes on hints of something akin to a savory caramel, the last wee traces of succulence get dessicated into crispness, and you’re left with something sharp and sweet and so tasty we always end up eating all the green beans before we even touch the main.

When buying haricots verts and their friends, look for fleshy, bright beans that snap easily.  They shrivel and get tough and bendy as they dry out and get older, and as much as I like them drier, you want to do the drying, in the pan, not nature on the vine.  Any variety that’s young and slim will do (have I lived in Hollywood too long?) but I like ones labeled Haricot Verts,  Haricots Jaune (the thin yellow ones at the top), Golden Wax for something a bit fleshier (the ones in the red bowl), or these Purple Queens for Halloween – they look almost black.  All of them, really, are varieties of filet beans, so you can look for those, too.  Snip off the ends with the stem still attached, and burn away.

Burnt Green Beans

Any color Green beans
olive oil
Herbes de Provence (or at least Rosemary)
garlic cloves
sherry (optional)
goat cheese (optional)
sea salt

Heat enough olive oil in to lightly cover the bottom of a pan, preferably cast iron (you want a pan that will get nice and hot, and that’s not a brand new non-stick – the non-stick doesn’t give a great burn, though it’s serviceable if that’s all you’ve got).  Toss the green beans into the pan, and let them sit.  This is the hard part.  DON’T TURN THEM, toss them, or otherwise touch them.  Make something else, do the dishes, whatever, until they start to get a little burn on the bottoms.  (If your beans are on the fleshier side, you may want to add a healthy dose of sherry here to steam them open a little, then let them burn afterwards.)  Toss/flip and let them start to get a little burn on the other side – you don’t want them burnt beyond recognition, but you want some blistering/black color going on.  Chop the garlic (I like 2 cloves, but one will do.)  Sprinkle liberally with herbes de provence and stir.  Add the garlic and cook very briefly, until you can smell it, maybe 1 minute tops.   Put on a plate and sprinkle well with sea salt.  If you like goat cheese, mix some in just before you remove from heat – they’re AMAZING with goat cheese, but just as nice on their own if you’re not the dairy type.  Added bonus?   They don’t work well if you fuss over them, so screaming babies, rambunctious toddlers, and a big, balloon glass of wine can all be addressed while your green beans get nice and crispy.  THAT’S the kind of side dish I like.

Trim? Yes.  Snip off the stem end.  If they’re larger or fleshier, you may want to peel the string down the side as well, but younger specimens don’t need it.
Edible when raw?  Yes.
Worth the price of organic? Yes.  Green beans don’t make the Dirty Dozen, but they make the Dirty Twenty, and that’s enough chemicals for me, thanks.
Best with:  Stronger flavors – goat cheese, lemon/citrus, garlic, ginger, vinegars.  Woodsy flavors  like rosemary, sage, thyme and mushrooms complement nicely.  They hold up well as a side dish from everything to the lightest sole to the meatiest steak, so there are really no holds barred.
In Season:  Summer, though in warm-season climes like here in L.A, that actually means Late Spring and Early Fall, since the hot months are too hot for the vines to flower.
How to Store: In the fridge, in a produce box or loosely sealed plastic bag, they should keep for a few days.  If they start to get bendy or a little shriveled, they’ll still taste fine if you crisp-cook them as above; if you can see bean seeds outline through the tight, shriveled skin, they’ve crossed the hump and are no longer very tasty.

Swiss Chard (now with Sweet Potato! and of course bacon…)

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There’s a lot of repetition in my recipes and posts, if you haven’t noticed already.  Greens are greens, and they all go nicely with bacon.  That’s not my fault.

Swiss chard is no exception.  Of all the bitter greens you’ll find at the market, swiss chard is the mildest and the prettiest.  Rainbow chard is the most common variety, simply because it’s so pretty.  Red, white and yellow stalks wink at you as they snake up the center of the phenomenonally large, deep green leaves.  Look for fresh looking leaves with slightly firm stalks – ignore a few rips, tears, or bug holes.  Chard leaves aren’t as hearty as something tougher like kale, so they do rip easily.  The stalks do bend a little, but they shouldn’t be bending on their own or wilting.  The leaves can range from almost purple in the red varieties to kelly green in the yellow or white, so look for those signature brightly colored veins, rhubarb-like stalks, and wide, soft leaves.

Wash well – I recommend at least 2 rinses – scrubbing the stalk with your thumb under the faucet.  They trap a lot of dirt.  

Chard is slightly sweet as greens go and a little nutty.  (I feel like I should make some sort of vaudevillian pun here.  I’ll resist the urge.)  Because it’s a little milder, it can sneak its way in to almost any recipe, though it really shines with other fall vegetables – winter squashes and pumpkins, walnuts, root vegetables.  I had planned to use this chard in a sneaky green way by slicing it up very fine, mixing with ricotta, stuffing it into giant pasta shells, covering with sauce and cheese, and baking.  But we had our very first fall day in Los Angeles last week – cold and rainy and absolutely delightful – and I wanted something far more Autumnal.  (I don’t think that word means what I think it means…  Autumn-y?  Sure.)  So instead, I made a Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin.  I made enough for the husband and I to have some for dinner, to save some for the toddler for tomorrow’s lunch, and maybe even a little leftover for my lunch.  No dice.  We ate the whole pan.  Oops.

Sweet Potato and Chard Gratin

This is not a real gratin because there’s no bechamel.  I like to think of it as lazy (wo)man’s gratin – mix ricotta with another soft cheese or a splash of whole milk and you have something not at all as rich and delicious as bechamel, but serviceable and super fast for a work night supper.

  • Sweet potatoes – I used 3 smallish/medium-sized for a 2 1/2 qt oval casserole dish, but if I’d used the giant ones in the bag I might have only used one.  You’ll have to eyeball.  And yes, botanically I think these orange ones are yams, but I call ‘em like they’re labeled.
  • Swiss chard (I used 4 or 5 giant leaves)
  • Ricotta (I used about 1 cup)
  • Goat cheese (I used about 3 inches from a goat cheese log) – as above, if you don’t like goat cheese, you can sub in something else like farmer’s cheese – very mild – or just a splash of whole milk to thin it out
  • Cheddar or other melting cheese (I used about 2 oz)
  • 1-2 slices bacon (If you’re lucky enough to have a Trader Joe’s, get the bag of Ends and Pieces – a steal at something like $2.99 a pound and perfect for recipes in which you’re cutting up the bacon anyway.)
  • olive oil

Chop the bacon into bite-sized pieces and fry until almost crispy.  Preheat oven to 400.Slice the sweet potatoes into long, thin slices.  Drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom of your dish to coat.  Layer one layer of sweet potato into the dish.

Slice the chard into thin strips, discarding the bottom stalks. Layer half the chard on top of the sweet potatoes.

Place the goat cheese in a bowl in the microwave for 20-30 seconds to soften (not melt).  Mix thoroughly with ricotta.  Using about half the mixture, dollop spoonfuls on top of the chard and use the back of the spoon to spread them over the layer.

Sprinkle half the bacon on top.

Place the rest of the chard on top.  Layer another layer of sweet potatoes to cover.  Spread the remainder of the ricotta mixture on the sweet potatoes.  Sprinkle with the remaining bacon.  Grate the cheese or break into chunks and disperse over top to cover up any “holes.”  Bake at 400 until sweet potatoes are soft when stabbed with a fork and cheese is melted, about 20 minutes.

ugly but delicious!

For Chard:
Trim? Yes, at the bottom of the stalk where it gets tough and splintered, though some people lose the whole portion below the leaves as well.
Edible when raw?  Yes, when young.  It’s very chewy, however, so if you get large/older leaves, definitely cook the stalks, and probably the leaves as well.
Worth the price of organic? Yes.  Greens are generally considered high on the Organic Preferred list.
In season: Fall, Winter.
Best with: Fall foods – winter squashes, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, even apples and dried fruit like raisins.  Walnuts, pecans, bacon or sausage for protein – earthy, smokier flavors do well.  Garlic, carmelized onions, goat cheese – sweeter flavors complement the greens’ slight sweetness.
How to Store: Like other greens, wash in warm water, give them a cold bath, and store in the fridge for a few days or possibly as long as a week, though that’s pushing it.

Kale Chips

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I was a little slow to the Kale Train, I think.  The only kale I’d ever seen or heard of prior to a year or so ago was Curly Kale, the green kind sold in supermarkets that looks a little like brain coral and gets chopped up very fine and stirred into Irish Champ.  Or at least, that’s the only thing I knew to do with it.

But kale comes in plenty of other varieties, and the one that was most revelatory to me was Tuscan Kale, also called lacinato kale or dinosaur kale.  Flat and deep green with a giant kale-like rib up the middle, Tuscan kale begs to be made into chips.  You can eat it any other way you like – sauteed into other dishes, or as a side, or my personal favorite, as with all bitter greens, prepared in any way, shape or form with bacon – but kale chips are really the perfect venue for this particular kind of kale to shine.  They’re quick, they’re easy to make, they keep for a good week if you can actually keep them around that long, and best of all:

My toddler loves them.  Ask any parent what they do to make their kids eat their veggies, and you’ll get various purees and promises and smothered in cheese and snuck into brownies, but my answer always is: Kale Chips.  On those days where he refuses everything, throws even fruit and generic O’s I bought because they were organic and it turns out they’re chock full of sugar, he’ll eat kale chips.  And for that, I love kale.

Look for dark, deep green leaves, ranging almost to a blackish-green in color, with a pale thick rib up the center.  The leaves look like they’re almost flat, though they do curl a bit at the edges, but up close you’ll see that the surface of the leaf rises and falls with the veins, like rolling hills.  Leaves can be smallish (4-6 inches), but usually range much larger than that, as much as a foot or two in length from stem to top.  Most recipes will tell you to remove the rib from all kale before eating, but we often don’t.  I usually get rid of the really tough splinter-y looking part at the bottom, but the rest can usually be sliced up small and tossed into whatever you’re putting the kale in.  Kale chips, however, are the exception to my lazy/cheap tendencies: lose the rib.  If you do plan on using the stem, be sure and scrub it with your thumb when washing – dirt tends to stick to the thicker part of the rib.

It seems like everyone has a recipe for kale chips out there, from Martha Stewart to Epicurious to Smitten Kitchen and thousands of other sites in between, but after making them week after week, I’ve discovered a few hints:

  • Lower temp is better.  I’ve seen 250, 275, 300 and 350 on different sites, and in my experience, anything over 300 ends up tasting burnt, even if they don’t look it.  Use an oven thermometer if you have an old gas contraption like mine, because the first time I made them, I made the 350 version, but it was pre-thermometer, so it turns out it may even have been more like 400.  That first batch was definitely burnt.  Subsequent attempts have taught me to dry them out rather than roast them.
  • Don’t use canola oil.  We don’t use canola oil for anything anymore, but when we first tried kale chips, we did and we did.  They were awful.  Canola can get a strange fishy taste to it (I read why once but I forget now) and it definitely came through on something as delicate and spare as kale chips.  If you like seaweed snacks, give the canola a try.  Otherwise, go for olive.  (Side note: I’m curious what sunflower seed oil would taste like – since nutty flavors go so well with bitter greens, I imagine it might be quite nice.  Anyone tried it?)
  • Spice it up.  As much as I try to eat greens at every dinner, I have to be honest: I don’t love them.  Hence the predominance of bacon in all my favorite bitter greens recipes.  Kale chips according to most recipes consist of olive oil, salt and kale.  And guess what?  They end up tasting like kale.  Crispy kale, sure.  Salty like a snack?  You betcha.  Kale?  Yup.  I prefer mine with garlic powder, but I’ve done them with garlic, ginger and a dash of soy in with the olive oil for an Asian-inspired version that were quite nice as well, and I imagine if you were someone that could handle spicy foods, some cayenne pepper or chili powder could be really interesting.  Definitely put something on there.  Weirdly, as an FYI, garlic and parmesan?  Not as good as I thought it would be.  It wasn’t BAD, they just taste better with straight garlic.

So my version in a nutshell:

Kale Chips
1 bunch Tuscan kale
olive oil
salt
spices of choice (garlic powder is my go-to)

Preheat oven to 275 or 300 – I usually just turn it on to somewhere in between.

Remove the rib from each leaf by flipping the leaf upside down and slicing on either side of it.  I often ignore this advice when cooking with kale, but with chips, you do not want it there.  Baby leaves or thinner rib near the top can be left alone if you’re feeling lazy, but you really want all leaf for these.

Slice the kale leaves into relatively uniform pieces.  You’ll have a few super skinny ones that were next to the rib and maybe some giant flat ones from the bigger leaves – that’s okay, you just want to try and get everything to be finished cooking at the same time.

Put all the kale leaves in a ziploc bag or bowl.  Add spices, and olive oil enough to coat – don’t be too stingy here, but don’t drown them.  I often go as much as a whole tablespoon, but I eyeball it – start with a little and if that’s not enough, add more.  They’re very flexible, but too much oil will make them begin to wilt.

Toss around the ziploc to coat the leaves, or toss gently with your hands if they’re in a bowl – do use your hands for the bowl.  Utensils tend to rip them to shreds.

On a large cookie sheet (I usually end up needing 2), lay down parchment paper or aluminum foil – this is not necessary, but it makes cleanup a breeze.  Spread out the leaves so nothing’s overlapping; but you can get them quite close to each other, like a game of Healthy Tetris.  Bake about 20 minutes or until crispy.  If they start to turn brown, your oven may be too hot or you’ve baked too long – they’re still edible, but they will taste more bitter.

Remove from the oven, and slip the parchment or foil off the pan with the leaves still on it onto a table, counter, or rack to cool.  Voila!  Clean cookie sheet and you don’t have to burn your fingers transferring leaf by leaf to a rack.  They’ll keep up to about a week in a jar or ziploc bag.  They don’t look pretty, but they sure taste awesome.

*Special Note for people with toddlers and/or people that are stronger than you think you are: You will accidentally crumble half of them into bits when you absentmindedly grab for one.  Save the bits!  They’re great hidden in a quick quesadilla or shaken into any pasta dish to get some quick extra greens that, at that point, just taste like garlic salt.

Looking for how to prepare Tuscan Kale?  Just like Frilly Purple Kale -

Lemon Verbena

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There’s something so quintessentially farmer’s market-y about herb stands.  With their rows and rows of woody, leafy, flowery bunches, the scents mixing and wafting down the lanes, that absolutely evokes some hippie fantasy of strewing my front stoop with fragrance, medieval-style, and hand-crushing leaves into a peaceful cup of herbal tea which I will then sip on my hand-hewn wooden rocker while I watch the sun set over an uninhabited landscape.

But alas, I live in Los Angeles, so there’s no such thing as an uninhabited landscape, and frankly, I think herbal tea mostly tastes like lawn clippings.  Or punishment.  But I still love herbs – fresh ones and dried ones and flowering ones…  I grow them by the untended bunches, and then forget to use them in cooking because, let’s face it, they’re in the back of the yard that we never cut so I’d have to hike through calf-high grass to get to them, and I never remember I want to use them until I’m cooking dinner at ten o’clock at night (we keep odd hours in our household) so we’re also looking at slogging through dew, spider webs, and possibly encountering a pile of dog poop along the way.  Needless to say, I end up using my overgrown plants mostly as decoration, and annoyingly enough end up buying my fresh herbs.

But I was determined to find some more uses for the plants in my yard, and I started with lemon verbena.  All I knew about it when I planted it is that it smelled lemony (natch) and it would grow well in our I forget to water arid climate.  And it’s in my soap.  As a result, frankly, it smells kind of soapy.  But I think that’s just me.

This is actually an older picture. It’s now tied back with zip ties because it’s taking over the entire yard.

Well, grow well it did.  What started as a tiny little herb in a 4 inch pot that I was pretty sure wouldn’t last the month because I am a HORRIBLE gardener has become a tree threatening my tomatoes (the only thing I ever grow reasonably well.)  So I’ve got to use it for something.

If you’re buying it at the market, they’ll sell you a few small branches rather than the jungle that I own, but the first thing you’ll probably notice is that the leaves are sticky.  It’s weird.  They’re not sticky like honey, they’re sticky the way I imagine Spiderman’s hands.  And that proves I’ve lived with a nerd too long.  But it’s true!  They have fine hairs or something covering each leaf so they grip.  This is annoying when you’re trying to separate the leaves, but really really nice for the recipe that follows.

The leaves are pale to bright green, long and thin, and a little on the tougher side, as herbs go, so you’ll want to infuse them in something (tea, oil, vinegar) or chop them up small – they’re not particularly fun to chew, though they taste fine.  Though they smell almost overpoweringly lemony and sweet, the taste is actually slightly bitter and green with mere lemon overtones.  Imagine lemon zest if you also got a little pith in there.  It’s not a bad bitterness, just be forewarned if you’re expecting a lemon substitute.  It’s not.

But it’s lovely for an unexpected hint of lemon.  We added some to a rosemary pesto to give it a slight zing (recipe to follow with Rosemary post), but our favorite use for it (other than cocktails…yum!) was with salmon.  The grip of the leaves allowed us to layer them on top of a very nice fillet, bake/broil it quickly in the toaster oven, and voila!  A very, very quick meal that looked gorgeous and tasted very sophisticated.  The lemon verbena added a hint of citrus without blasting the fish with acidity, and the slightly vegetable flavor of the green leaves added a complexity that cut through the meatiness of the fish – though I think they’d work just as well if not better with a lighter fish or even chicken to play up the lemon flavor even more.  Next on the lemon verbena experiment train?  Lemon Verbena Sorbet.  I’m very excited, but also quite afraid it’s going to taste like old soap.  Anyone tried this before?

Lemon-Scented Salmon

Press lemon verbena leaves (sticky side down) in single layer on salmon fillet.  Feel free to place them prettier than I did.  Drizzle lightly with olive oil to protect the leaves from burning.  Bake or broil at 400 until fish is just barely cooked – it should be opaque pink rather than glassy in the thickest part, or flake easily with a fork.  Remove from oven, sprinkle with sea salt, and let sit 3-5 minutes to finish cooking.  If you prefer a more lemony flavor, squeeze half a lemon on top before serving.  You can eat the leaves if you like, or peel them off as you eat.

Parts Used? Mostly leaves.  The flowers are supposedly edible also, I just haven’t found anything on using them other than in teas.
Worth the price of organic?  I always think herbs are worth the price of organic since you’re using them in their raw form, often as an addition just at the end which means nothing is getting cooked out (which I guess makes no sense at all, but it’s my gut reaction), and sometimes in relatively large amounts.  If you’re drying them, all their properties are getting concentrated, which makes me even more inclined to go organic.  But it’s not like they’re on the Dirty Dozen or anything, so, you know, go with what makes you happy.
In season: Summer, though all year in warm climates.
Best with: fish, stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, cherries), sugar, infused in anything liquid that you want to smell like lemon (sugar syrup, oil, vinegar).
How to Store: Place the stems in water like flowers, or store wrapped in a damp paper towel in the fridge.  Cut branches don’t last long – maybe 2 or 3 days, and get woodier as they dry out, so use quickly.

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