Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for . . . Brussels Sprouts! "Screaming Heads": A Recipe for a Brussels Sprouts Gratin

Brussels sprouts must be like cilantro: People either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Me? I was somewhere in between until I started cooking them myself. We had them at home often growing up, but they were in the frozen boxes and seemed a little mushy to me; maybe we just cooked them too long, or with too much water. A little bacon and butter easily cured that problem, though. (My sister loved the “baby cabbage heads,” but she also liked the canned LaChoy Chinese dinners we had back then, too, the only kind of Chinese food we had available to us in ancient times. After that experience, I was awestruck by what a real bean sprout looked – and tasted – like.)

But when I cooked fresh Brussels sprouts, I was hooked, too. They’re much more readily available these days and even though they’re billed as a “winter vegetable” you can get them year round. I snap them up every time I see them. They’re very easy to cook – steamed, microwaved, or roasted. They can be bitter, but if you trim them and cut an X through the bottom before cooking, you’ll reduce those chances.

And they’re very low in calories -- under 10 per head – high in fiber and all kinds of other good things. I did try growing them last year in my own vegetable garden and they were very good – just didn’t really yield enough to make it worthwhile to repeat. Best just to buy at Davey’s Fruit & Vegetable stand.

But they’re not a very healthy food in this recipe. If there was a Richter scale for rich, creamy, cheesy dishes, this would shake you off the charts. It almost, but not quite, covers the unique flavor and texture of the sprouts. Aside from roasting* this is my favorite way to prepare Brussels sprouts. Reserved for special, indulgent occasions only!

Ready for the calorie truck?

Screaming Heads: Brussels Sprouts Gratin
Adapted from The Cookworks, 2003

2 pounds Brussels sprouts
4 ounces prosciutto, julienned
2 T unsalted butter
1 recipe, Roasted Garlic**
3 T all purpose flour
 ½ C heavy cream
1 C half-and-half
¼ cup sherry
1 C finely grated Parmesan, plus ½ cup
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
1 t kosher salt
½ t freshly grated black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare Brussels sprouts: Trim the stem to make it flush. Quarter each sprout and score the stem on each quarter with a ¼ inch deep “X.”

Score the prosciutto in the butter and stir continuously for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and Brussels sprouts and continue stirring 2 minutes. Add the cream, half-and-half and the sherry. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then reduce the heat and continue simmering for 7 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by 1/3. Stir in 1 cup of the Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Transfer to an ovenproof casserole and cover with remaining Parmesan cheese. Cover and bake for about 25 minutes.

Roasted Garlic
1 garlic head
½ teaspoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut of papery tip of the head, exposing top of each garlic clove. Brush the exposed garlic with olive oil.  Place the garlic, root side down on a piece of foil. Bundle the garlic with the foil, leaving a small vent o top. Roast the garlic for 45 minutes or until the cloves turn beige and are fork tender. Remove from the oven and let stand until cool enough to handle.  Squeeze the garlic head upside down over a small bowl and the cloves will pop out. Will keep refrigerated for up to 1 week.

* I bet that the recipe would be definitely simpler and at least as tasty – if not better – if you roasted the Brussels sprouts – as pictured above -- separately, then made the sauce and then baked them together.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Money from Broccoli: Broccoli "Coins" & Walnut Salad

I really hate to waste food. If a recipe asks for a half of a pepper, I’m thinking immediately what I might do with the rest of the pepper. (Sometimes, it’s “Oh, just chop the whole thing and put it in.”) Same with onion. I know those things can always go in a frittata or a soup, and I often save broccoli stalks for just that very reason. But when I found a recipe that actually specified using the stalks and “save the florets for another use” I had to read on.

The recipe comes from the very first cookbook I ever bought for myself:  Glamour’s Gourmet on the Run, by Jane Kirby. I read the magazine all the time back then and  I read the cooking column before anything else. I loved that book, and still refer to it often. It’s stained and pages are falling out but it still has a place of honor on my bookshelf. I learned a lot from that book; still do. Mostly I learned that you don’t need to follow a recipe, once you get a few what-goes-with-what concepts down. And I learned that good cooking doesn’t necessarily need to take a lot of time; fresh ingredients, not exotic or fancy ones, and an understanding of herbs and spices and various cooking techniques are far more important. (But I still love to spend an afternoon in the kitchen fussing over food prep.)

The coin shapes are really pretty cool looking; kinda like looking at cloud shapes.  I'm sure they'd be just as good served warm as a side.  Below is the recipe from the book.   Here’s what I did differently (probably learned this from the book): I added strawberries, because I had them; I used gorgonzola, ditto; I used red romaine, because that’s what’s growing in my garden, and I just used balsamic vinegar as a dressing. Oh, and I used more that just 1/3 cup walnuts.  (And I forgot to add the cheese before I took the picture.) Now, what do I do with the florets?
Broccoli Coins &Walnut Salad
from Glamour’s Gourmet on the Run, by Jane Kirby
4 stalks broccoli
1 T butter or margarine
1/3 C coarsely chopped walnuts
1 head red leaf lettuce
1/3 C crumbled bleu cheese
Oil & vinegar dressing

With a sharp knife, cut buds from broccoli; reserve for another use. Slice stalks into ¼ in “coins.” Steam for 5 to 7 minutes or until just tender. Drain and run under cold water until cool.

Heat butter in skillet. Add walnuts and sauté 2 to 3 minutes; drain. Clean lettuce and tear into bite-sized pieces. Add to salad bowl with broccoli and walnuts. Sprinkle with bleu cheese. Add dressing; toss and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Here’s to Substitutes: Teachers and Green Beans

“Hey, it’s Mrs. Wolbert today! Mrs. Wolbert, you’re my favorite sub.”

“I’m a teacher, Caleb, not a sandwich. And the only reason I’m your favorite is because you think I’m nice, right?”

Caleb looked a little sheepish at that. He knew I was right. As a substitute teacher, I learned that I’ll have much easier days being nice and tolerant that being a toughie. (That advice doesn’t go for regular teachers, however; they need to be tough.)  But substitute teachers hoe a different garden. How many times have I heard that I’m “just a sub”? Or seen eyes – from both teachers and students – pass over me like I was invisible. “Subs” are just place-holders. We’re standing in for the real thing.

It’s ironic that I find myself substitute teaching high school English now and again. I got my teaching certificate when I graduated college, even though I didn’t really want to teach at the time. My mother encouraged me that even though I had different aspirations I should to take advantage of the opportunity while I had it because “You never know, honey. You just might need something to fall back on.” I did teach for a couple years after graduation, but I eventually got a job doing what I really wanted – writing. But after twenty-five years of writing employee newsletters, annual reports, sales literature, executive speeches and the like -- not to mention the company’s downsizing and merger – I’m enjoying the semi-retired life with my husband on a 150 acre farm and answering the 5 a.m. phone call to teach a day or two occasionally and doing some freelance writing.

And even though it’s not exactly something I was forced to “fall back on,” as my mother suggested, teaching, even substitute teaching, provides me a very pleasant way to keep my hand in, talk with intelligent people (yeah, the kids, too) and make a little, very little, extra cash, “pin money,” as they used to say. Some days, the kids are a real handful, ready to take full advantage of the sub. But if I’m firm at the start, keep order, and get the kids focused on task, then we can afford to spend the end of the class period doing something fun and I can be the “nice” Mrs. Wolbert, sub. And occasionally I get to really teach . . . and that’s fun. Sharing your enthusiasm for a subject and seeing in students’ faces that they’re “getting” it is sheer joy.

Which brings me to cooking. (Nice segue, eh? Joy. Cooking. Get it?) From time to time, we either have to or want to substitute an ingredient. Pasta for rice. Dried herbs for fresh. Bacon for prosciutto. Well, after seeing the diet success of a friend on the Atkins diet, my husband and I decided to cut back on carbs. We started using tortillas to make wraps instead of bread for sandwiches, practically ruled our potatoes (which I really miss) and just generally cut back on pasta and all things carb. When I found exotic (exotic for these parts, anyhow) mushrooms on sale at our local supermarket, I had to try them. But the recipe I chose, a wild mushroom ragout, called for using angel hair as a bed for the ragout. So, I subbed green beans! It sure made the plate nice and colorful. The ragout? It was good, but probably not something I’ll make again. The tomatoes and herbs seemed too rich for the mild mushrooms, overwhelming them. I imagine the mushrooms would have been better with a more delicate butter, wine, lemon, garlic sauce – and over angel hair! But it was still a good experiment. In the picture, you’ll see we also had chicken, simple pieces of white meat, egged and rolled in breadcrumbs and Parmesan.

P.S. If you know anyone who’d like to share their experiences (or your own!) about substitute teaching for an article I’m writing, I’d love to hear from you –rdwolbert at gmail dot com

Wild Mushroom Ragout
From Low-Fat Lifestyle Forum

• 2 T olive oil
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 1/2 lb fresh wild mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
• 1/4 c chicken stock
• 3/4 c dry red wine
• 2 T tomato paste
• 3 T Italian parsley, chopped
• 2 t fresh sage, chopped
• 1 t fresh rosemary, chopped
• 1 t fresh marjoram, chopped
• 1/2 t salt
• 1/4 t freshly ground black pepper
• 1 lb angel hair pasta
• ¼ C grated Parmesan cheese

For mushrooms, try cremini, portobello, chanterelle, oyster or shitake. (I used cremini, oyster & shitake.) Heat oil in large nonstick frying pan over medium low heat. Add onion and cook until tender (5 minutes). Add garlic and cook another minute. Add mushrooms, stock, wine, tomato paste, parsley, sage, rosemary, marjoram, salt and pepper. Bring to simmer, cover and cook until mushrooms are tender (about 20 minutes). Remove cover and reduce sauce if necessary. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and return to pot. Add sauce and toss well. Serve immediately topped with cheese. Serves 6. Calories: 161, Fat: 8 grams per serving. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pasta Salad 101: Curing the Ubiquitous and the Bland

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m Italian-looking or because my cooking is that good, but I’m often asked to contribute a pasta salad to potluck summer parties. Now that the season has really kicked in, I’m preparing for the onslaught. But I don’t want to do same ol’, same ol’.

They’re everywhere and usually pretty bland, even my own, I must say. So after poring through hundreds (maybe just dozens) of recipes, I landed on an article from Pam Anderson (the cook, not the other one!) that was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a “how-to” rather than a prescriptive recipe. Her tips and hints are explained very well and provide as much inspiration as a pretty picture. I do enjoy understanding the reason we do some of the things we do, rather than just doing them because someone (even if it was my grandmother) said that was the way to do it.

I believe the first time I ever had a pasta salad was about 25 years ago at a Memorial Day party. The pasta was spaghetti and it was reddish in color and everyone was eating it up. The cook who brought it easily rattled off the recipe: a pound of spaghetti, a bottle of Italian salad dressing, a package of dry spaghetti sauce mix, pepperoni, and green pepper. That was it. Maybe black olives. An effortless hit. And perfectly satisfactory, I guess, but not for me. I much prefer fresh ingredients and just a bit of fuss. Easy is okay, but, for me, part of the joy of cooking for others is to show the people I’m with that “I like you guys and I want to make a fuss over you and this is the best way I know how.”

Here’s an abridged version of Pam Anderson’s “Five Steps to a Perfect Pasta Salad”:

Step One. Prepare 1 pound of pasta, bite size shapes (so much for that spaghetti salad of yore!) like farfalle, fusilli, penne, ziti, small shells. Cook in a gallon of boiling water and add 2 tablespoons of salt just until tender. Drain but don’t rinse the pasta. Instead dump onto a rimmed cookie sheet to cool and dry. Don’t worry if the pasta sticks together. The dressing will break it up.

Step Two. Prepare two pounds of key ingredients, the salad’s major add-ins: cooked and raw vegetables, poultry, seafood, canned beans, mild cheeses, cooked or raw vegetables, etc. Choose at least three major flavorings. Let one key ingredient take the lead: 1 pound of asparagus with 8 ounces each of sliced mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, for a total of two pounds.

Options for cooked vegetables
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli or cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Snow peas or sugar snap peas
  • Zucchini
Options for no-fuss vegetables
  • Canned artichoke hearts
  • Bean sprouts
  • Celery
  • Mushrooms
  • Cucumbers
  • Fennel
  • Avocado
  • Zucchini
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Frozen green peas, thawed

Step Three. Add the intense flavors. Add about a ½ cup of one of the following options, but feel free to add 2 or 3 – roasted peppers, feta cheese and pine nuts will give a Mediterranean feel.

Capers, drained (1/4 cup)
Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable
Feta, crumbled
Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
Peperoncini, drained & thinly sliced
Sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, cut into small dice
Bacon, fried and crumbled (8 ounces)
Prosciutto (8 ounces) thinly sliced cut into small dice
Smoked salmon (8 ounces) thinly sliced then cut into thin strips
Toasted nuts – pine nuts, cashews, peanuts
Toasted sesame seeds or sunflower seeds

    Step Four. Add onions and herbs. No matter what else is in your pasta salad, always add three large green onions, sliced, or half a small red onion, diced. Then mince 3 tablespoons fresh herbs and/or grate 2 teaspoons orange or lemon zest.

    Step Five. Make a dressing. You’ll need one cup to coat the salad. Make sure the dressing is thick and emulsified; otherwise, the pasta absorbs the vinegar and the oil clings to the pasta’s surface. Stick with milder rice vinegar or lemon juice for the acid. Although balsamic vinegar is flavorful, it tends to turn a salad and unattractive beige.

    And the best tip of all:  Don’t dress and toss the salad until about 15 minutes before serving.

    I made a pasta salad for a family get together a few weeks ago following Pam’s tips and it really made a big difference. (Attention to detail usually does, doesn’t it?) I made shrimp the main ingredient, mushrooms and broccoli combined for the second pound, then red peppers and feta for add-ins.  Fresh herbs were just a modest parsley, but fresh makes a big difference.  My nephew with the discriminating taste pronounced it “The best ever!”

    Here’s a favorite dressing for pasta salads:

    Creamy Vinaigrette

    ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
    2 tablespoons mayonnaise
    1 large clove garlic, minced
    salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2/3 cup olive oil

    Measure vinegar and mayonnaise into a 2 cup measure. With small whisk, stir in garlic, and big pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Measure oil in another cup. Slowly whisk oil into mixture, first in droplets, then in a slow steady stream to make an emulsified vinaigrette.  (Actually, I prefer to make my dressings in the food processor to make sure they emulsify well.  Then I'll just give a good shake again before using.)