Sea Vegetables: the New Bacon

Does this thing scream "healthful" or what?

If you know anything about me–from this blog, from other social-media sites, or even from real life (whatever that is, anyway)–you know that I love bacon. In fact, I’ve become rather infamous in some circles for my love of bacon, to the point where people think I love bacon more than I actually do. For the record, although I am intrigued by such products as bacon-flavored lip balm, I do also enjoy many things that are neither meat nor meat-flavored. Like dulse.

“But, but, Nick,” I can practically hear you protesting, “dulse is seaweed! I mean, I think it is…I’m not even sure what it is! All I know is that it’s some kind of liberal-commie-pinko-homo-hippie food!”

Yup. It sure is. And it’s also packed with minerals, and vitamins, and vitameatavegamins, and all sorts of good stuff. In other words, dulse is pretty much the anti-bacon. So, for my veg friends who are all baconned out, and anyone else who wants something a little lighter and more nutritious, but every bit as scrumptious, may I present the DLT?

To be fair, I got this idea from the back of the package of my favorite brand of dulse (are you listening, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables? Hint, hint), but it was my idea to make it into a wrap. Dulse is chewy and savory and umami-rich when it’s raw; when it is toasted, however, it turns crisp, salty, indulgent and fleetingly nommable–much like bacon, making it the ideal stand-in as part of the classic BLT when contrasted with sweet tomato, the tang of mayonnaise, and crisp lettuce.

And after all, who doesn't love a wrap?

Don’t get me wrong–you’re never going to bite into a DLT and exclaim, “Damn! That’s the best bacon EVER!” That is to say, dulse will not fool you into thinking it’s bacon, or satisfy you if bacon is what you really want. But it is a fine food in its own right, and the qualities it shares with bacon means that it, too, pairs well with the L and the T.

The DLT (aka the Anti-Bacon Wrap)

1 wheat tortilla
1 generous handful dulse
1 T. mayonnaise
tomato, sliced or chopped
lettuce

Spray a small skillet with olive-oil spray; over medium-high heat, toast the dulse until it turns from a pliable seaweedy color to a rich, dark, crackly brown. If it doesn’t all transform before the rest of it threatens to burn, that’s OK.

Dress the tortilla with mayo (or condiment of your choice), lettuce and tomato. Salt and pepper generously. Add the pile of dulse, roll up, and dig in.

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Nearer, My Carrots, To Thee

Yes, I'm a huge Titanic buff; this is a replica mug from the White Star Line. Fun Fact: none of the dishes on the Titanic or other White Star ships had their own names on them, but were made to be interchanged

I love our CSA, of which we’ve been members for five years now. Each Thursday we get a bag or two of local, organic vegetables; we also get first crack at ordering organic berries, apples, eggs, honey and maple syrup. The CSA has thrown some unusual veggies in my path like a gauntlet, daring me to cook something delicious with them. We’ve found some new favorites (mizuna, rainbow chard, lacinato kale, Japanese eggplant), but there’s also a fair amount of headscratchers (pea shoots, pok choi, watercress) and some things that, if I’m the one picking up the vegetables that week, go right into the share bin (arugula, watercress, broccoli).

Until last year, fennel fell into the latter two categories. I’d either take it home to wither away in the crisper, or leave it to my fellow CSA members who are also fennel lovers. It’s confounding, fennel: the fronds, the bulb, the anise-y taste–and it always struck me as more of a novelty than a vegetable.

Last year, however, I stumbled upon Orangette’s recipe for Carrot-Fennel Soup. Made it, liked it, felt particularly accomplished for putting my fennel to good use.

Fast-forward to this year, about five weeks ago, when we started receiving weekly rations of carrots in our CSA share. Normally, this would be a welcome and useful vegetable, but the beginning of Carrotpalooza happened to coincide with my having won a Sam’s Club membership and $50 gift card from Lea Ann at the excellent blog Mommy’s Wish List, and having spent $3 of that windfall on a bag of organic baby carrots that can only be described as “ginormous.” So the rediscovery of carrot-fennel soup was fortuitous indeed.

This soup somehow manages to be creamy, comforting, light and refreshing all at once. None of its flavors predominate; the carrot, orange juice and fennel harmonize like a really pretty folk trio. You could tinker with the ratio to let one of them shine through in a solo, as it were, but I like it just the way it is.

Creamy Carrot and Fennel Soup

(adapted from Orangette)

Several bunches carrots, depending on the carrots’ size–approximately 1-2 pounds, chopped
1 fennel bulb, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
5 c. chicken or vegetable broth
juice of two oranges
2-4 oz. cream cheese, or crème fraiche if you have it on hand
salt and pepper to taste

Heat garlic in olive oil in a stock pot or large sauce pan until aromatic. Add carrots, fennel bulb, bay leaf and stock; simmer 20-40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf. Add the cream cheese (if using crème fraiche, wait). Use a blender or immersion blender to puree the soup, adding additional broth if it is too thick for your liking. Add the orange juice, crème fraiche if using, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. If desired, garnish with reserved fennel fronds; either in a sprig as I’ve done in the picture, or chopped and sprinkled over the soup. I found that, even chopped, they added a texture to the soup that was a bit off-putting, and did not add flavor. Of course, it’s up to you.

Oh, and if you need any organic baby carrots, just holler.

It’s Beginning To Taste A Lot Like Nickmas

If you like potato pancakes, and corn, and zucchini, and Tex-Mex flavors, and standing over a stove in August frying things, you'll love these!

Years ago, before I met the man who would eventually become Long-Suffering Husband, I briefly dated a man from Buffalo. We’ll call him “Briefly Suffering Boyfriend.” I remember only three things about him: he had a tattoo of an old grandfather-clock face, showing the time his son was born, on his arm; he had a room in his house called Jesus’ room because there was a Jesus statuette in there, and not much else; and he coined the term Nickmas, to describe the period of celebration, merriment and indulgence otherwise known as my birthday. He didn’t last long–it could have been the distance between us, or it could have been the Jesus whiff, although as I recall, the statuette was ironic–but “Nickmas” has entered my lexicon, and that of many others, I daresay. The Nickmas season lasts anywhere from a week or 12 days to several weeks, depending on what festivities are planned. This year, since there will be an auspicious, if alarming, number of candles on the cake, I plan on living it up from today right until Labor Day, but the high holy day is the 14th.

Last year, I hosted the First and Only Annual Girls-Only BaconFest, at which eight of us consumed approximately 10 pounds’ worth of bacon, wrapped-and-toothpicked around various small pieces of food (olives, Townhouse crackers, water chestnuts, dates, etc.). I had planned on making an entire bacon-themed menu, from goat-cheese-and-bacon lollipops to peanut-butter-bacon truffles to bacon-dulce-de-leche ice cream, but–due to some BaconFest Eve celebrations that got slightly out of hand, I was too whooped to do more than shove toothpicks in shit and call it a day. What can I say–people get carried away with the Nickmas spirit. Or spirits. Did I mention that we also had bacon-infused bourbon and vodka? Yeah.

This year things are going to be a little tamer and a little less artery-clogging–but no less delicious, I hope. Tonight we kicked off the season with the traditional Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters. After all, it’s right around this time of the year that local sweet corn and zukes tend to overflow the farmer’s market, and taste their most delicious. Since I love Tex-Mex flavors, I spice my fritters with cumin, chili powder and jalepeno, and serve them with a cilantro-lime sour cream. They’d be equally good with some freshly made pico de gallo, or even just plain sour cream.

Nickmas Fritters are both a half-year reminder of Hannukah–the deep-fried holiday–and a tasty way to make the most of seasonal produce. They freeze well (although they won’t be as crisp upon reheating, of course) and also make an excellent breakfast, topped with a fried egg, a spoonful of that pico, and perhaps some queso fresco or shredded jack cheese.

Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters

1 ½ c. masa harina or cornmeal
½ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. parmesan cheese
1 t. baking powder
1 t. garlic powder
½ t. salt
½ t. cumin
½ t. oregano
½ t. chili powder
2 c. fresh corn kernels
3 c. shredded zucchini
2 eggs, beaten
¼ c. minced onion
1-2 jalepenos, minced
1 c. milk
oil for frying

Place shredded zucchini in a colander; sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Let sit 15 minutes in a bowl or in the sink. Squeeze zucchini, removing as much water as possible; you may wish to place it in several layers of clean dish towels and wring. Combine corn kernels, zucchini shreds, eggs, onion and jalepeno.

Stir together dry ingredients. Add to wet ingredients. Begin adding milk, a splash at a time. Depending on how much you squoze your zucchini, you may need anywhere from ½ – 1 cup or even more. You want this about the consistency of pancake batter.

Heat a generous amount of oil in a skillet (hey, if you need more explicit instructions than that, go ask someone who gets money for writing recipes). Using a 1/3 c. measure or ice cream scoop, make pancakes with the batter, flattening slightly. When they brown around the edges, turn. When the bottom is brown, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate (I mean, c’mon, you know how to fry things, right?).

Serve with:

Cilantro-Lime Sour Cream

1 c. sour cream or Mexican crema
juice of 1 lime
½ c. cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

P.S. Why, yes, I do! Thanks for asking.

Back in the Saddle Again

My ego was recently punched in the nuts. It started with an article I wrote and published (for money, I might add–well, PayPal, but same diff) and which got some — how shall I say this? oh, gloves off, I suppose — sanctimonious, snippy, unkind and just plain wrong criticism. I made the large-marge mistake of Googling myself and found this post criticizing not just my writing, but me (again, same diff); I won’t recap the whole thing. Suffice it to say that one participant said I had no more grasp of satire than a duck.

Because, as everyone knows, ducks suck at satire. Wait, what?

Several glasses of wine later, my blood pressure’s nearly back to normal and I have almost ceased trying to think of clever retorts that have a creamy, well-reasoned center underneath a deliciously snarky shell. So I’ma get back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend, and do some preachin’ to the choir of the church of Nick.

Let’s talk about zucchini. Much loved, much maligned, far too often the subject of corny Garrison Keillor jokes (“Hahaha, we’re unemployed Lutheran English majors with too much local produce”), zucchini is nevertheless one of my favorite veg. I like to have it on hand at all times. It can be a snack (raw, with ranch), a side dish, a soup component (minestrone, anyone? Well, that will have to wait for fall), an entree (stay tuned for the Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters, which I promise are forthcoming), a quick bread or a dessert (throw some frosting on them thar zucchini muffins and children under the age of 8 call ’em cupcakes. Motherhood — it’s all in the marketing).

The first batch of zucchini from either our garden, the CSA or the local market, I like to do Gram’s Way. Or, if you’re feeling continental, Zucchini ala Gram. This is the way my Grandmother made it, and probably her mom before her. I don’t remember my mom making it this way, but maybe zucchini skips a generation, like twins?

So my stove's dirty. You wanna make something of it? I've knocked a woman to the floor before, and I'd do it again.

Anyway, so easy you would think I was patronizing you if I posted an actual recipe. All you do is put a general pat/chunk/stick (your choice!) of butter in a skillet. Iffen you’re feeling health-conscious, use half butter and half EVOO or regular OO. Let it melt a bit. Throw in some sliced sweet onion. Vidalias are nice. Throw in some sliced zucchini (here I used a mixture of zucchini and yellow zucchini. You could also use yellow squash. Same diff yet again? Maybe. I don’t know, I got my info from the Mennonite veggie stand) or pattpan squash or whatever crazily shaped summer squash your CSA throws at you. Throw in a cup or so of water. Sprinkle generously with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Let it bubble, stew and sing in your kitchen until most of the water’s gone and the squash is soft and lovely. Pour it into a dish and fork up some summer. Try not to eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Forgot to pepper after I plated. Use the Photoshop in your brain to add some flecks of black pepper, will you please? Thanks.

What recipes did you inherit from your Grandmother — or wish you had?

Because That’s How I Escarole

Looks like lettuce...

Do you know from escarole? Despite my self-proclaimed status as a “foodie,” it was only this last winter that I discovered escarole. Picked up a head on a whim, which turned out to be one of the smartest whims I’ve ever had (which, frankly, isn’t saying much, as most of my whims end disastrously–being wiretapped by the USMC, for example. Or stranded at a train station, 60 miles from my ultimate destination, with three pillows, a large comforter and only $40 to my name).

I’ve heard that you can enjoy escarole raw–and, indeed, it looks much more like lettuce than any of my standard green leafies–but the way I prepare it is just so darn good that I can’t bring myself to deviate. I’m stuck in a bit of an escarole rut, but what a yummy rut it is.

I think my only qualm with escarole is that is morphs from that nice, vibrant, healthful-looking green to a sort of military drab color (although that might be my lingering fear of the Marines speaking). I mean, this ain’t pretty:

...cooks like: greens, leafy, standard issue

but, like a lover who is only moderately attractive but who has other virtues, I’ve learned to love the way it looks, because I love the way it tastes. Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right…

Braised Escarole with White Beans

1 head escarole, cleaned and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
pinch red pepper flakes
splash EVOO
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 ½ to 2 cups cooked great northern, navy or butter beans
juice of one medium lemon
good dry Italian cheese—parmesan, asiago, romano, etc.

Heat the olive oil, red pepper flakes and garlic together in a large, shallow pan. When the garlic is fragrant, but before it browns, add the chopped escarole—it’s OK if it’s still very wet from having been washed. Toss to coat with the oil, then add the stock. Stir, bring to a bare simmer. Cook for a few minutes, tossing occasionally, until the escarole is wilted down. Add the beans, then cover.

Cook until the escarole is tender, 15-20 minutes. If you like, you may uncover to evaporate some of the liquid. Remove from heat. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of the cheese.

Serve in a wide soup bowl, preferably with crusty bread. You could also certainly add some small pasta shapes to this—orzo would be nice, or tiny shells.

Enjoy!

Kale Chips. Sing Hallelujah.

Spreadin' the Gospel Since 2009

Are you like me, kids? Do you sometimes have trouble figuring out what in tarnation to do with yet another one of those ginormous bundles of greens that your CSA unloads on you? If you answered yes, I have two words for you: Make kale chips. Whoops–that’s three words, isn’t it? Math was never my strong suit.

If you answered, “Hahahaha! Yeah, right” (as I know most of you probably did), my message is the same:

Make kale chips.

Seriously. Stop reading right now, put your trusty flip-flops on, go to the store, and buy some kale. Buy two bunches. That’s how confident I am that you will like these chips.

Back so soon, are you? OK. Start by stripping the leaves from the stems, and tearing the leaves into bigger-than-bite size pieces. About the size of, say, your iPhone. They’ll shrink.

Wash your kale by immersing it in a big vessel of water, like a stockpot or bathtub. Lift them out and spin them in a salad spinner or dry them on layers of paper towels.

Next, dash some olive oil into a big bowl. Add kosher salt, pepper, some garlic powder, maybe some red pepper flakes. Keep it simple, snacker. Throw the kale pieces in and toss with your hands. Yes, your hands. Dump the whole mess onto a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. Put this into an oven that’s 400°-ish.

Now, and here’s the important part: don’t go far. These babies will burn.

After a few minutes, toss with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. Repeat. When they seem about half crisp, what I do is turn off the oven and let them continue to dehydrate as the oven cools. It’s OK if a few of them get caramelized; you just don’t want to burn the whole lot.

It’s a fine line between caramelized and burned, you know.

When they are cool, dig in! Kale chips are salty and crunchy, and some greens-hating bairn (in my house, that would be Thing 2) have even been known not only to eat and enjoy them. You can do this with other greens, too, like collards. Or spinach, although I would use the crinkly mature spinach, not the delicate baby spinach–that would melt into nothing, I’m afraid. Plus, we have better uses for baby spinach, like smoothies.

Now, go forth and spread the gospel of the green chips, my children. Hallelujah.

Charred Meat and Swiss Chard

This is why I don't grill.

I love to entertain. In my secret Walter Mitty life, I’m a trophy wife with more money than God and a cadre of devoted and adoring friends who spend weekends at our lake home; I spend hours planning and preparing elaborate dinner parties and brunches and picnic lunches to take on the yacht. I make things like “reductions” and “coulis.” My butcher knows me by name. And of course I have a personal trainer and/or liposuctionist to help me fit into sleek Prada cocktail dresses, so I look fabulous while refilling everyone’s Prosecco (it’s the new champagne).

The reality, however, is that most of my entertaining is done in a backyard littered with brightly colored plastic toys, and the menu usually involves some form of processed meat. I do love me some Zweigle’s.

I burned the bread, too!

This weekend’s festivities were pretty impromptu; Long-Suffering Husband was out of town fetching some heirloom furniture from his folks, so I gathered a few good family friends to grill up some dogs and burgers. At the eleventh hour, I stumbled upon this delectable little number over at Sippity Sup: Chard Wrapped Grilled Mozzarella.

Unfortunately, I skimmed the recipe and missed the step in which you blanch the chard leaves, so they were a bitch to fold around the cheese. And I had no kalamatas, but I did have roasted red pepper. The end result was, as is so often the case with my cooking, not so very nice to look at, but pretty darn tasty nonetheless.

We plopped ’em atop the burned bread (or in the case of a gluten-free guest, atop a burned hamburger). They were the hit of the afternoon, not least because they weren’t charred to a cinder like the other foods. I’m excited to make them again, the proper way, and to experiment with other add-ins.

All in all, it was a good time. Much laughter, much shrieking from the children, and when it was all over (to quote an ex-roommate), my feets hurt. Both of them. Still, I’m glad that next time, I can turn the BBQ tongs over to my husband, and go back to swanning around with a bottle of Prosecco in my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even act like a trophy wife and share.

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