Friday, May 30, 2014

The Spears of Spring

Asparagus, related to lilies, is one of the early crops of spring.  Ancient Egyptians were known to cultivate asparagus as early as 3000 BC.  It's a great source of fiber, folate, vitamins A, C, E, and K, and chromium.  Chromium is a trace mineral in the human diet that helps insulin work.

Asparagus will stay fresh in your crisper drawer for several days, often a week or more.  If you stand the spears up in a coffee cup with an inch of water, they can stay fresh even longer.  If the spears become limp or rubbery, they can be refreshed by rolling them up in a damp paper towel and leaving them sit for half an hour or so.

The thinner the spear, the more tender it will be.  The bottoms of asparagus spears tend to be more woody than the tips, and tougher to eat.  When preparing asparagus, hold it up by the cut end.  You'll see it bend at a point an inch or so up the spear.  Cut off the part that didn't bend and compost it; you'll be left with the yummy tender parts.

I love the combination of asparagus with citrus.  Generally, the spears are either steamed or roasted.  After steaming, a little salt and pepper and a squeeze of citrus, and you have a very fast and tasty side.  To roast, toss lightly in oil, salt and pepper the spears, and roast at about 425 for 10-12 minutes.

From that base, add complimentary flavors.  Thyme always pairs well with lemon, ginger with lime, or clove with orange.  For the non-vegetarians out there, bacon makes lots of things better, even asparagus at breakfast.  Pancetta does too.  Asparagus is also a classic addition to spring pasta dishes, like this one.

Happy spearing!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Creamy or vinegar-y?


It's the eternal debate.  The two major schools of thought for coleslaw.  The dressing is usually either based on vinegar, or on a mayo or mayo-like sauce.  Growing up, my mom always made one based on a creamy Marzetti's dressing.  Sorry, mom.  When I make coleslaw, I base mine on some kind of vinegar now.

Besides the difference in dressing, both types of coleslaw are pretty similar.  It involves shredded cabbage, and often some other veggies.  Shredding cabbages is pretty simple to do with a good, sharp chef's knife.  Quarter the head, leaving the core in place.  Start from the top edge, diagonally away from the core.  Slice down through the quartered head, thinly, working your way toward the core.  The first couple of times, you won't get really thin shreds.  But, a little practice and you'll find that it gets better.

Or, joining the 21st century, run it though the shredding disc of your food processor.  Personally, I'm too lazy to haul it out of the cupboard and then do the extra dishes.  So I've gotten lots of practice with my knife.

Other veggies that work in coleslaw include sweet peppers.  Not just bell peppers, but try a cubanelle or sweet banana pepper and try that with a vinegar-y dressing.  Cabbage and peppers appear together in your CSA boxes in the fall.  The zip really makes it interesting.  Other options include carrots, cucumber, fennel, your Vidalia onions if you have any left, scallions, shallots, avocado (especially yummy in a creamy dressing)... Just remember to either grate or very thinly slice all of it.

You then create a dressing, toss your veggies in it, and (this is very important) let it sit in the fridge overnight.  Slaw is pretty much always better after the goodies marinate for a while.  Stirring in some other additional bits of a different texture really makes it interesting, too.  Try toasted pine nuts, raisins or dried cranberries, sesame seeds, or the like.

As for that dressing, there are some pre-made options, such as Marzetti or Green Goddess dressings.  A little Miracle Whip and some lemon juice works great too.  For those on the vinegar-y side, use some sort of vinegar (obviously) like white, cider, malt, white balsamic, or even a more creative acid like lime juice.  Add some salt and some sweetener (sugar or honey) and it's dressing.  Spices work well in either.  As in our previous discussion on spice palettes, pick a region and use complimentary ones.

And that's how you ad lib coleslaw.  If you'd rather work from a recipe or read some for inspiration, this is my go-to one (the pickled one), but the other ones at the same link are good too.  This one is more creamy, using avocados and tomatillos to make a slaw for salmon tacos -- which are really fantastic.  This one has a vinegar dressing with dijon mustard.  And, as soon as we get fennel in the store, this one is my next one to try.  (link requires a subscription to Cooks Illustrated)

Happy shredding!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bella Cucina

This week’s box features fresh, local kale.  Wandering around the store today, I noticed that there were lots of Vidalia onions as well as beautiful white mushrooms.  Vidalia onions have a mild, sweet flavor that just screams, “Caramelize me!”  While you can use these in any recipe that calls for onions, you might want to save these for something where you can cook them loooooow and sloooooow.  A little butter, a small pinch of salt, and a good bit of time over a medium-low flame turns them into magic.

Don’t crinkle your nose over plain ol’ white mushrooms, either.  Chefs around the world prize these mushrooms, due to their versatility and flavor.  Remember to never wash mushrooms.  All they need is a soft brush to remove any debris on them (a clean paper towel works well too), and they’re ready to go.  Quarter the big ones and halve the small ones, toss them in with your caramelizing onions, and you’ll have a great side for steaks or topping for brats.

Kale has become quite the nutritional star lately.  It’s a great source of fiber and vitamins.  If you’d like to show off your skills in the kitchen a bit more, make a frittata.  Sounds impressive, right? 

Just between you and me, that translates to, “Fancy Italian omelet.”  It sure sounds more impressive to say frittata, though.  Making them is about as simple as an omelet, too.  So, your mushrooms and onions are done caramelizing, right?  The kale goes quicker.  First, tear off the leafy part from the firm stems.  You can save the stems for stock, or even prepare them like a root vegetable.  In a hot skillet, add a little olive oil and put in the leaves.  Toss them with tongs, and in a minute or two they’ll wilt.  You still want them to be bright green, so take them out as soon as they do wilt, and mix with your mushrooms and onions.  Now, the omelet part.  It’s meant to be shared, so figure 2 eggs per person and beat them all together.  A splash of milk in the eggs makes it fluffy.  With a frittata, you beat the eggs until they’re a little foamy so that it’s lighter.  The “fixins,” meaning your kale, mushrooms and onions, are mixed in with the eggs, too.  Don’t forget salt and pepper.  Pour into an oven safe skillet (a cast iron pan is even better) over medium to medium-high heat and just let it sit.  Yes, the bottom and sides will set up before the top does.  When all but the top has set, sprinkle with parmesan cheese and place under a low broiler until the top sets.  See, now you’re impressing everyone!

When I told one of my foodie friends what would be in the box this week, she said, “Oooh, you have to tell them to make Sexy-Time Pasta!”  Pardon me…?  Well, here’s the details: 
Sexy-Time Pasta
1-2 tbsp olive oil 
3-6 slices of thick cut bacon, cut into bite size pieces
(the more bacon you use, the less olive oil you'll need)
10 oz sliced mushrooms
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 med onion, diced small
1 bunch of kale or baby spinach
1 lb short pasta (e.g., rotini)
3/4 c. grated Parmesan (Or more. I love cheese.)
Salt & pepper to taste


1) Heat olive oil and bacon in skillet over medium heat until bacon is golden. 

2) Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and spinach, cook about 3 min until spinach is vibrant green. Scoop out spinach and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well and set aside. Continue cooking pasta for another 7 min until almost al dente. When draining, reserve 1 cup of pasta water.

3) Move bacon to edges of pan and add mushrooms, onions and a pinch of salt to middle of pan, in as close to a single layer as possible. Turn heat up to medium-high and cook until mushrooms and onions start sizzling and turning brown (about 5 min). Reduce heat to medium, add cherry tomatoes and stir bacon and mushrooms together, cooking until mushrooms are tender. (5-7 min)

4) Reduce heat to low. Add drained pasta to skillet. Gradually stir in 1 cup of pasta water. Toss over low heat until sauce is silky and pasta is well coated.

5) Turn off heat. Add spinach and cheese and season with pepper. Toss well. When serving, sprinkle more cheese on top. (And then maybe some more. Because really, I love cheese.) Serve immediately for best results, but can also be served cool as pasta salad.
(Adapted from this recipe.)

It’s a variation on pasta carbonara, with tomatoes instead of the rich egg, and you could easily merge the two recipes.  Yes, I asked her why it’s called “Sexy-Time” pasta.  And no, she wouldn’t tell me.

Oh, did you see the cool trick for slicing cherry tomatoes?  What a time saver!

Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry Fields Forever
There is no surer sign of spring turning to summer than when the red tidal wave of strawberries hits.  This week we’re getting strawberries!  Can you tell I’m a little excited?  Every year, I buy ridiculously more than I’ll ever need or use.  Why?  Do I really need to answer that?  We all (my wife, 5-year-old son, and I) eat them until we’re pretty much sick.  Let’s just say, during strawberry season, vitamin C intake isn’t a problem for us.
But when you do have more than you can use, or in my case way more than you can use, what are your options?  Preserves!  I know, I know, everyone’s intimidated about preserving.  I was at first, too.  Causing my family a slow, agonizing death by food poisoning isn’t high on my list of things to do, either.  With a little care, and follow the rules, your jars will fill with deliciousness and not disease.  For some basic reading, Ball’s website (they make jars) is very helpful.  There are a number of fantastic canning blogs around, too.  My favorite is Food In Jars.  Lots and lots of good recipes.
First, you need some jars and lids.  They’re easier to come by than you think.  You can get them from Amazon, or two really good local sources are the Ace Hardware in Old Town and the Shoppers right near Nalls.  For fruit preserves, you will mostly want half-pint jars, but pint jars work as well.  I don’t know about your house, but to eat a quart jar of preserves would take the three of us forever.  I also like using the Weck jars, which are popular in Europe.  World Market has a good selection.
Remember that everything needs to be sterilized before putting food in it, preferably as close to the time you fill them as possible.  To do this, the jars need to be completely submerged in water at a rolling boil for at least 10 minutes.  After filling, the jars are sealed by again immersing them in boiling water.  For most fruit preserves, 10 minutes is enough to seal the jar, but follow the instructions in the recipe.
My favorite way to make strawberry preserves is a just plain old-fashioned strawberry jam, with a little vanilla added to it.  Here’s the recipe.  (By the way, I bought the tall pot mentioned in the article and it’s one of the most useful things in my kitchen!)  I always make way more than we’ll eat, but they make great gifts.  My coworkers really appreciate a little flavor of summer as a Christmas present.
There’s an old saw that says, “Bakers can’t cook and cooks can’t bake.”  In my experience, there are very, very few who are both talented in and passionate about both.  I definitely fall on the cooking side, but I keep trying and trying.  Maybe one decade I’ll get the hang of baking.  But my strawberries went to make a “strawberry galette,” which is basically a free-form strawberry tart.  It was pretty easy and fantastically delicious.  I guess I just need more practice in rolling out dough and making it even and circular…

So what are you doing with your strawberries?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Battle of the Leafy Greens

The Battle of Leafy Greens
Spring and fall crop share boxes are a steady stream of leafy green stuff.  It comes in a variety of sizes, and often times with yummy things attached to the bottom of it.  Beets, for example.  Or the kohlrabi you made a couple of days ago.  This week, we saw Swiss or rainbow chard in our boxes.  Lettuce is another staple seen often this time of year.  Southern traditional cooking has myriad tasty ways to prepare leafy green stuff.  Many involve bacon, which in my book isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Okay, having it every day, or even alternating days between bacon and salt pork, probably isn’t what the local cardiologist wants to hear about. But geez, bacon makes lots of things tasty.
My wife is vegetable-phobic.  Don’t get me wrong, she loves broccoli.  Adores it.  Pretty much anything other than broccoli, however, I’d need a pile driver to get down her throat.  (Alright, alright, since she’s probably reading this, I’ll be nice from here on out.  Or do my best to anyway.)  She’ll enjoy a salad with most types of lettuce, and eat her broccoli, but anything else I have to get really creative to get her to eat it.  When I first started getting a crop share, one of the first boxes had beets, greens attached, and collards.  I started simple, and there on the table they sat.  Determined, I would make greens she’d eat.  Grrrr…  So I put on my war paint and my toque.
Yes, I actually have a toque.  My godson gave it to me for Christmas one year.  No, I don’t ever wear it.  Ever.  But the white jacket is awesome and since I’m messy, it covers more than an apron.
I dug around looking for dishes using greens and having strong flavors.  Is there anything out there that uses half the spice drawer?  I stumbled across this.  I loved it.  My wife?  Not so much.  She has an aversion to anything with a strong vinegary taste.  So I dissected the recipe a bit.
It involves wilting the greens (chard, beet, almost anything will work), using a particular spice palette, and finishing with a dressing.  In the case of the above recipe, the spices are North African in origin:  cumin, paprika, harissa.  Let’s see how we can modify that.  She likes Greek cuisine.  A Greek palette would have some combination of oregano and dill, garlic, and lemon juice.  Modifying our basic recipe, a dash of dried oregano and dill, a little garlic sautéed in the oil before wilting the greens (briefly, garlic cooks quickly and remember light brown = good, black = bad).  Sprinkle some cardamom in too, and maybe nutmeg.  We’ll skip the hot sauce.  For the dressing, a Greek dish would commonly use lemon juice.  Sprinkle a touch of crumbled feta cheese on top and…
Holy cow, she ate it!
And that was fun!  Sprinkling something extra on top can definitely kick it up a notch.  The feta would give a wonderfully salty flavor to greens.  If you like the North African spices, try some raisins and toasted pine nuts.  (That’s essentially this recipe, which she also ate.)
Hmm… shall we try another?  Something a little farther afield?  French, perhaps?  Awesome!  First off, what are the three main secrets to French cooking?  Butter, butter, and… butter.  Seriously.  Instead of olive oil, we’ll wilt the greens in a bit of butter.  Herbs de Provençe usually contains marjoram, oregano, thyme, and rosemary.  We’ll use that.  Season with salt and pepper too.  Instead of strong white vinegar, try a bit of Balsamic.  Very nice!
What I’m trying to condense here is several years of my life spent screwing things up in the kitchen, and countless hours reading cookbooks of all sorts.  This is the approach I use to “branch out” recipes.  First, figure out what palette the seasonings come from.  Switch to a different palette, and use the same techniques in the recipe.  Give this a try with any recipe you’ve prepared often enough to be very familiar.  Pick a different region’s flavors, and you’ve just invented something new and fresh.  Trust me, there will be plenty of, “Uh, yeah, that particular combination doesn’t work and let’s not do that again.”  By and large, experience will be your teacher but only if you give her a chance.

If you modify one of your recipes, post a link to the original in the comments and tell me what you changed.  I can’t wait to see how creative you can be.  Happy cooking!

What the heck is kohlrabi?

What the heck is kohlrabi?
More importantly, what do I do with it?

First off, let me introduce myself.  I’m Burt, and I’ll be writing most of the posts on this blog.  This is my first foray into food blogging, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time.  I’m really looking forward to sharing my culinary experiences with you, and learning of yours as well.  Ideas, recipes, questions, comments and rude remarks are all welcome at . Well, not just yet, though. Waiting for the technology fairies to set it up.  Bonus points for the first one to tell me who the quote “Questions, comments, rude remarks?” comes from.

Kohlrabi is a vegetable common in northern Europe.  The name even comes to us from German.  It’s an amalgamation of the words for “cabbage” and “turnip.”  That sort of explains the taste as well:  a mild cross between turnip and cabbage.  (Quite logical, those Germans, aren’t they?)  You can eat it raw, or boil it until tender and then do lots of different things with it.

I’m from the northern Midwest, and there are lots of German influences in that part of the country.  Growing up, my mom would make kohlrabi frequently when it was in season.  When we had it, the preparation was quite simple:  boil them until tender, then make a simple cream sauce and bake for a couple of minutes.  mmm… I can still remember having that.  As a matter of fact, I think that’s what I’m going to do with the ones in my box this week.

Here’s what you do.  While the entire plant is edible, I just use the root bulbs.  Take off the stalks, and either save for stock or compost.  Peel the bulbs until you just see the white flesh.  Slice into disks about ¼ inch thick, cutting in half if they’re large.  Boil the kohlrabi until you can pierce them with a fork, drain, and set aside.  To make the cream sauce, over medium heat melt some butter or margarine (maybe 2 tablespoons, more if you’re feeding an army).  Add an equal amount of flour, and continuously stir.  This is called a roux, and you can use it to thicken sauces and soups.  You can use flour and an equal amount of any liquid fat:  oil, butter, bacon grease, duck fat… okay, let’s not get too crazy.

The longer you cook the roux, the darker it’ll get.  The darker it gets, the stronger (more smoky) the flavor becomes.  When your roux is ready, add maybe a cup of warm milk, whisking to make sure it doesn’t get lumpy.  Let it thicken just a little, then add the kohlrabi and some salt and pepper.  If your sauce doesn’t cover all of the veggies, then add a touch more milk and let it thicken again.  Bake it in a 350-ish oven for maybe 10 minutes, and enjoy!

I’ve heard you can make a simple au gratin with it as well, but I’ve never tried it.  If you do, let me know how it goes.

Kohlrabi can also be eaten raw, usually by cutting it julienne and making a slaw.  I’ve used this recipe, which includes apples and parsley.  Another thing on my list to try is to use it in the slaw for fish tacos.  I’ve found some likely candidates for recipes here, here and here.

One last parting word.  It’s also Herb Season.  It’s not too late for you to plant some pots of herbs.  If you don’t think you’d like to go through the trouble, just take a stroll through a grocery store and see how much fresh herbs go for.  Buying one plant is about the same cost as one package of cut herbs, which will last you maybe a week.  Plus, growing herbs is pretty fool-proof.  Trust me, I’ve tried to mess it up.  If I can grow herbs, you can too.  If you don’t have a lot of space, you only need a couple of small pots to tuck on a windowsill here and there.  Fresh herbs are one of the best additions you can make to your cooking.  Stop by and ask one of Your Friendly Neighborhood Nalls Employees, and they’ll have plenty of advice to get you started.

If you have more interesting recipes or tips for this week’s CSA contents, please leave them in the comments.  One of the great things about Nalls is that it’s part of the community, of which you are also a part.  Join the discussion, and we’ll all be fantastic home chefs.  Happy cooking!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Tarte Aux Blettes

Don't ask us how to pronounce it! My guess is tart-oh-bley. Please correct me if I'm wrong and save me the embarrassment of having people over for an elegant feast of tart-oh-bley. Swiss chard and apples work very well together. Even just lightly baked in olive oil, the two make a wonderful combination. Toss them both in a green smoothie or a salad for some extra color and flavor too. 

This recipe from Urban Cookery looks quite scrumptious and would make for an ideal Mother's Day brunch! With ingredients like swiss chard, apples, gouda and rum, you can't go wrong.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Eggplant Snack Sticks

It's here! It's here! It's Spring Crop Share time! Although it's starting to feel a whole lot like summer around here. For this round, we will be seeing more and more local produce. The first of the season local tomatoes we had last week were already on point. Makes me so excited for tomato sandwiches, watermelon and all things summer.

I came to love eggplant kind of late in life. I really discovered it when  I went vegetarian for a few months and had the most delicious eggplant lasagna. Something I would never order before. Since then, I've used eggplant in stir-fry, pizza, burgers and more. Having it lightly breaded with a little mozzarella, marinara and basil is probably my favorite way to have it. Turn it into a fun appetizer, and I am in.

Try out these snack sticks as a side dish or an appetizer at your next gathering. Get the recipe from Taste of Home here.

Want to make your own dip for these? Use those grape tomatoes and try this recipe.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Melon & Mint Salad and Bittersweet Goodbyes

Sometimes procrastination really pays off, because I waited until late this week to finally cut into the cantaloupe we got in the last share of the Early Spring Crop Share (which speaking of, are you registered for Spring yet, because if not, you should be!  Register online, as the Spring round kicks off on 5/9!), and oh holy night it was perfectly sweet and juicy.  Possibly one of the best cantaloupes I've never had and it's not even the peak of melon season yet!

Some friends were making shrimp kabobs at their place, so I contributed Quinoa Tabbouleh and then used up the rest of the mint to throw together this lovely Melon & Mint Salad.  While it was crazy juicy, I wanted some sort of added dressing that wasn't loaded with sugar, so I just whisked up 1 tsp each of local honey and lemon juice, and added some extra juice from the melon and ta-da, a perfectly fresh and fragrant melon salad.  Which good thing I added the mint since I also made garlic sauce, and we were all fire breathing dragons by the end of the meal!  So as we head into summer, make this your go to fruit salad base or any melon.  Mmm, mint and watermelon might actually get me over my watermelon phobia!

And now for the bittersweet part of this post's title...this is my last, official post at the helm of Nalls' Kitchen.  I'm still sticking in as a Crop Share member and I'll definitely still send the Nalls team guest posts when I come up with a winner, winner veggie dinner, but after today I'll be turning the reigns back over to Valerie and the rest of the Nalls Produce team.  I would have loved to continue this indefinitely, but any of you who've followed since my departure from Nalls, back into my family's business, know that the posts have been getting fewer and not coming as prompt as they once did.  That's not fair to you all or to the team at Nalls.  So gear up for a new round of Crop Share and a new voice here in Nalls Kitchen!

Now onto the food!

Melon & Mint Salad

1 cantaloupe, skin removed, seeded and cubed (save any juice to use in dressing)
2 Tbsp mint, chopped
1 tsp local honey
1 tsp lemon juice

Toss cantaloupe and mint together in a large bowl.  Whisk honey and lemon juice, and any reserve juice from the cantaloupe in a separate bowl, then pour over fruit and toss to fully coat.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes up to 1 hour to allow flavors to set up.

Alright folks, that's all she cooked!

Keep it fresh in your kitchens, and if you must "selfie" do it the foodie way and shove ignorant bits of delicious food into your mouth.  Because, it makes it classy.

Kale-ly Yours,