Articles in Technique

Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

For many people the arrival of vine-ripened tomatoes marks the beginning of summer. But for me, it’s the mounds of corn at our farmers market. With countless ways to enjoy corn, one of the most delicious is to use corn kernels in an Asian-style congee or rice porridge.

Certainly the easiest way to enjoy corn is to strip off the husks and place the cobs into boiling water or onto a blazingly hot grill. Featured center stage, a bowl of freshly cooked corn on the cob is wonderful. But corn is also an able supporting player when the kernels are cut off the cob and added to salads, soups, stews and pasta.

Congee, the best kept secret of the Asian kitchen

A meal in itself, congee is Asian comfort food. Putting good use to leftover rice, the most basic congee is a stew of boiled rice. Many cuisines have made the dish their own by layering in flavor with combinations of stocks, fragrant oils, fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.

Congee comes in many consistencies. Some feature the broth as much as the rice. Other versions have very little liquid and the congee has a consistency similar to porridge.

Any rice varietal will work nicely to make congee. Short grain, long grain, white or brown rice, it doesn’t matter. When the cooked rice is added to a liquid over heat, the starches thicken to create a sauce. Water can be used as the liquid, but a home-made stock adds much more flavor.

My congee borrows the general technique but is not an attempt to create an authentic dish as prepared in the Philippines, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam.

Because the starting point for congee is so flavor neutral, a variety of vegetables, seasonings and stocks can be added. A fine dice of carrots, green beans or broccoli works well, as does a shredding of kale, spinach or sorrel. Instead of olive oil, use sesame or truffle oil. Add aromatics such as raw garlic, fried garlic chips, turmeric, cilantro, cumin, saffron, pimentón or oregano. Homemade broth brings another level of flavor. You can use a dominating liquid like beef stock flavored with anise or take a more delicate approach using shrimp stock with a saffron infusion.

As an ingredient in congee, corn is an ideal companion because the firm sweet kernels contrast well with the creaminess of the boiled rice.

Corn-Lobster Congee

Corn-Lobster Congee in stock pot with corn kernels, lobster meat, chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Corn-Lobster Congee in stock pot with corn kernels, lobster meat, chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

If lobster is not available, another protein can be used. Cooked or raw fish, crab meat or shrimp can be substituted for lobster. Or, shredded roast chicken or roast pork will pair nicely with the corn. A vegetarian version is easy to make by using homemade vegetable stock and fresh farmers market vegetables and herbs.

Cooking a lobster is probably easier than you might think. Bring 3 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Hold the lobster’s head submerged in the boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid. Cook five minutes. Remove the lid, submerge the part of the lobster that is not yet red. Cover. Cook another three minutes. Transfer the lobster to the sink. Reserve the water in the large pot.

When the lobster is cool to the touch, hold it over a large bowl. Remove the legs, claws and tail, reserving any liquid to add to the stock. Discard only the dark colored egg sack. The green tomalley is a delicacy and should be saved to be eaten warm on toast.

Removing the meat from the tail is relatively easy. Use kitchen shears to cut the shell underneath lengthwise and across the top of the tail. The meat will come out without effort. Cracking open the claws takes a bit more work and sometimes requires the use of a hammer. The body meat is especially sweet and requires the use of a pointed stick to separate the meat from the cartilage.

Some of the meat will be cooked. Some will be raw. Both can be used in the recipe.

Place all the shells into the pot with the cooking water and simmer covered thirty minutes. Strain out the shells and reserve the lobster stock.

Refrigerate the lobster meat and stock until needed. The preperation of the lobster can be accomplished a day ahead. If all that sounds like too much effort, use the other proteins mentioned above.

Homemade stock is preferable to canned, boxed or frozen stocks, which are often overly salted and can have a stale taste. Homemade chicken stock is a good substitute if other stocks are not available.

Because rice varietals absorb liquid at differing rates, have enough stock on hand. Adjust the amount of stock as you cook until you have the consistency you enjoy. If you want your congee to have more soup, use six cups of stock. If you would prefer less soup, use four cups. Taste and adjust the seasonings as well.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3 ears corn, husks and tassels removed, washed, kernels cut off the cobs

1 medium yellow onion, washed, root end, top and outer skin removed, roughly chopped

4 large scallions, washed, root end and discolored leaves removed

4 to 6 cups homemade stock, lobster stock if available or use chicken stock or water

4 cups cooked rice

3 cups cooked or raw lobster meat (approximately two 2-pound lobsters) or another protein

1 basket cherry tomatoes, washed, each tomato cut into quarters

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cayenne to taste (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Add olive oil to a heated pot on a medium flame. Sauté corn kernels until lightly browned.

2. Add chopped onions and sauté until lightly browned.

3. Fine chop scallion green parts. Cut white part into ¼-inch lengths and reserve.

4. Add scallion green parts to the sauté.

5. Pour stock into pot, stir well and simmer five minutes.

6. Add rice. Stir well. Continue to simmer.

7. The longer the rice cooks in the liquid, the softer it will become. If cooked too long, the rice will dissolve creating an unpleasant texture. When the consistency is what you like, shred the lobster meat and add along with the chopped cherry tomatoes. Stir well. Simmer two minutes.

8. Season to taste with sea salt, black pepper, cayenne (optional) and sweet butter (optional).

9. Serve congee hot in large bowls. Top with white scallion lengths.

Main photo: Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Charred garbanzo beans, shiitake mushrooms and onions in a carbon steel pan. Credit: Copyright2016 David Latt

Going vegan tastes so good when you turn up the heat on garbanzo beans and create a beautifully charred vegetable salad.

Carbon steel pans and their close cousins, cast iron pans, love heat. Turn a burner on high, place the carbon steel pan on the fire, and you’ve pushed the pedal to the metal. Used by chefs to create crispy skin fish filets and perfectly seared steaks, carbon steel pans can also be used to give vegetables a beautiful, carbonized crust that deepens their flavor.

Hot, fast and easy

Everything is faster with a carbon steel pan. Cooking is quick. And so is cleanup.

Unlike stainless steel pans that must be scrubbed clean after each use, once cured, a carbon steel pan needs only a gentle washing to remove leftover oils. After that, it can be dried on a high flame.

If you have not used a carbon steel pan, think of it as a wok cut down to frying pan size. What carbon steel pans bring to the party is the ability to create rich caramelization quickly. In a matter of minutes, the high heat chars the garbanzo beans and vegetables with a small amount of oil.

Because the temperature of a carbon steel pan can reach as high as 700 F, a blend of oils works best. Eighty percent canola manages the heat with less smoke, and 20% olive oil adds flavor.

Flash cooking adds flavor and seals in the healthy qualities of fiber-rich garbanzo beans, a good source of protein and essential minerals such as manganese and folate or B-9. Also called chickpeas, the legumes provide a starchy contrast to the vegetables.

To make a delicious salad, toss the charred garbanzo beans and vegetables with olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar together with finely chopped Italian parsley or fresh leafy greens like arugula, green leaf lettuce, romaine or frisee.

Mise en place, tongs and a good over-stove exhaust fan

One new, two tempered de Buyer Carbon Steel pans. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

One new, two tempered de Buyer Carbon Steel pans. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

What restaurant chefs call mise en place is all-important when cooking with high heat. Because the dish will cook in a matter of minutes, all the ingredients must be prepped ahead of time. Peel, chop and arrange all the ingredients on the cutting board before you fire up the carbon steel pan.

Remember, the pan can get as hot as 700 F, so have a good pair of 12-inch tongs at the ready. Turn on the exhaust fan so any smoke from the pan will be pulled out of the kitchen.

Charred Vegetable Salad With Garbanzo Beans

Charred garbanzo bean salad with Italian parsley, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, broccoli and onions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Charred garbanzo bean salad with Italian parsley, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, broccoli and onions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Use any fresh vegetables you enjoy. Besides broccoli, carrots and onions, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, turnips, Chinese bok choy and celery are also delicious when charred.

All the vegetables must be cut into small pieces so they will cook evenly. Leafy greens can be shredded. Calculate the order in which you add the vegetables based on how long they take to cook. For example, broccoli, carrots and turnips take more time to cook than does spinach.

Because carbon steel pans are relatively nonstick, less oil is required when cooking. The recipe calls for a minimum amount of blended oil. Use more depending on taste.

Reducing balsamic vinegar creates a thicker sauce and adds sweetness, offsetting the acid.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, washed; skin, root and top removed; thin sliced

1 15-ounce can cooked garbanzo beans, organic if available, drained

2 cups shiitake, portabello or other brown mushrooms, dirt cleaned off, stems trimmed on the end, thin sliced

2 cups broccoli crowns, washed, each floret cut in half lengthwise

1 large carrot, washed, stem and root ends trimmed, peeled, finely diced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 large bunches Italian parsley, washed, stems removed, leaves finely chopped

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan over a low flame, reduce the balsamic vinegar to one quarter the original volume. Set aside to cool.

2. Arrange all the prepped vegetables on a cutting board or in bowls for easy use.

3. Place a 10-, 12- or 14-inch carbon steel pan or cast iron pan on a high flame. When the pan begins to smoke, turn on the over-the-stove exhaust fan.

4. Drizzle a teaspoon of blended oil on the hot pan and immediately add the thin-sliced onions. Using tongs, toss the onions in the hot oil, turning frequently to avoid burning. When the onions are lightly browned, add drained garbanzo beans. Mix together. Add another drizzle of blended oil. Using tongs, toss frequently to avoid burning.

5. Add mushrooms. Stir and mix well until lightly browned.

6. Add broccoli crowns. Stir and mix well until lightly browned.

7. Add finely diced carrots. Mix well and drizzle with blended oil. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

8. Taste a broccoli crown and carrot dice. When they are al dente, with a little crispness, remove from the flame.

9. Transfer to a bowl or large plate to cool.

10. Place the finely chopped Italian parsley into a large salad bowl. Add the room-temperature charred garbanzo beans and vegetables. Toss well. Season the salad with extra virgin olive oil, reduced balsamic vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Adjust seasoning and serve.

Main photo: Charred garbanzo beans, shiitake mushrooms and onions in a carbon steel pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

 

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Fritedda with spring vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

In the springtime in Sicily a simply named dish reveals an explosion of flavor that belies its satisfying complexity. It is a dish special with spring vegetables — fava, peas, scallions and artichokes — and called frittedda (or fritedda).

In western Sicily, where frittedda was born, it is served as a grape ‘u pitittu, a Sicilian expression that means “a mouth-opener,” a culinary concept much closer to a Middle Eastern meze than an Italian antipasto. Pino Correnti, a leading Sicilian gastronome, believes that the name of this preparation comes from the Latin frigere, because it is prepared in a large frying pan.

The young artichokes needed for this dish can be hard to find. They are very tender and have not yet developed chokes. Because this dish is affected by the age and size of the vegetables, you will have to judge for yourself the right cooking time and how much salt, pepper and nutmeg you want to use, so keep tasting. This is a good time to use a very good quality estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil from Sicily.

This is most definitely a labor-intensive preparation. However, it tastes so good and can last so long to be served successively as antipasti and side dishes that a Sicilian cook never shies away from the work. It is a time to grab a glass of wine and with a friend or lover shuck the pods of fava and peas.

Frittedda. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Frittedda. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Spring Vegetable Frittedda

Prep time: About 1 hour

Cook time: Between 1 hour and 1 hour, 40 minutes

Total time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh peas, shelled (from about 2 1/2 pounds of pods)

2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled (from about 5 pounds of pods)

10 young artichokes, each not more than 3 inches long (if you use older artichokes, with fully developed bracts and chokes, cook them longer in Step 2)

Juice from 1 lemon

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound scallions, white part only, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg

4 large fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

4 teaspoons sugar

Directions

1. Rinse the peas and the fava beans and set aside. Trim the artichokes, quarter or halve, and leave them in cold water acidulated with the lemon juice until they are all prepared. In a large sauté pan (preferably a 14-inch sauté pan), heat the olive over medium-low heat, then cook, stirring, the scallions until soft, about 3 minutes.

2. Add the artichokes and cook for 5 minutes longer (15 minutes if they are fully developed globe artichokes), then add 2/3 cup hot water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peas and fava beans. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.

3. Moisten the vegetables with more hot water if they look like they are drying out. Cook another 20 to 40 minutes or until tender; keep checking. Stir the mint, vinegar and sugar together and then pour over the vegetables while still hot. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl and let it reach room temperature before serving.

Fritedda with spring vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Salt-roasted sea bass. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Dinner-party ready and perfect for everyday meals, a whole fish roasted in salt puts “wow” on the table. A whole fish cooked inside a dome of kosher salt looks beautiful and is easy to make. Ten minutes to prep, 30 minutes in the oven, a salt-roasted fish on your table will make everyone happy.

Using whole fish costs less per pound than filleted fish. Cocooned inside its salt blanket, the protein rich-fish cooks in its own juices.

The technique is very low-tech. No fancy machines or tools are required. Some recipes call for egg whites and water to moisten the salt, but from my experience, water alone works perfectly. After the fish has cooked inside the coating of moistened salt, a fork will effortlessly peel back the skin and a chef’s knife easily separates the meat from the bones.

When creating the salt coating, it is  important to use kosher salt. Do not use table salt and definitely do not use salt that has been treated with iodine, which has an unpleasant minerality.

When you buy the fish, ask to have the guts and gills removed but there is no need to have the fish scaled because the skin will be removed before serving. If the only whole fish available in your seafood market is larger than you need, a piece without the head or tail can still be used. To protect the flesh, place a small piece of parchment paper across the cut end, then pack the moistened kosher salt on all the sides to completely seal the fish.

Even though the fish is cooked inside salt, the flesh never touches the salt. The result is moist, delicate meat.

After removing the salt-roasted fish from the oven, let it rest on the table on a heat-proof trivet. The sight of the pure white mound, warm to the touch and concealing a hidden treat is a delight.

What kind of fish to use?

So far I have used the technique on trout, salmon, sea bass, salmon trout and pompano with equally good results. This makes me think that the technique can be used with any fish.

Salt-roasted trout filleted. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Salt-roasted trout filleted. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Choose a fish that is as fresh as possible, with a clean smell and clear eyes. When you press the body, the flesh should spring back.

The cooking time will vary depending on the size and thickness of the fish.

In general, a whole fish weighing 3 to 5 pounds will require a three-pound box of kosher salt.  Since that is an estimate, it is a good idea to have a second box of kosher salt on hand. Personally, I prefer Diamond Crystal kosher salt because it is additive-free.

Salt-Roasted Fish

Use only enough water to moisten the kosher salt so the grains stick together. Too much water will create a slurry, which will slide off the fish. Because kosher salt is not inexpensive,  use only as much as you need. A quarter-inch coating around the fish is sufficient.

Placing herbs and aromatics inside the fish’s cavity can impart flavor and appealing aromas when the salt dome is removed. Sliced fresh lemons, rosemary sprigs, parsley, cilantro, bay leaves or basil all add to the qualities of the dish but discard before platting.

Depending on the density of the flesh, generally speaking, one pound of fish requires 10 minutes of cooking at 400 F.

The mild fish can be served with a tossed salad, pasta, rice or cooked vegetables. The fish goes well with freshly made tartar sauce, salsa verde, pesto, romesco, chermoula or pico de gallo.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes if the fish weighs 3 pounds, 50 minutes if the fish weighs 5 pounds

Resting time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 or 65 minutes depending on the size of the fish

Yield: 4 to 6 servings depending on the size of the fish

Ingredients

1 whole fish, 3 to 5 pounds, with the head and the tail, cleaned and gutted but not necessarily scaled

1 3-pound box kosher salt, preferably Diamond kosher salt

½ to 1 cup water

2 cups fresh aromatics and lemon slices (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Wash the fish inside and outside. Pat dry and set aside.

3. Pour 2 pounds of the kosher salt into a large bowl. Moisten with ½ cup water. Mix with your fingers.  If needed, add more water a tablespoon at a time until the salt sticks together.

4. Select a baking tray that is 2 inches longer and wider than the fish. Line with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet.

5. Place a third of the moistened salt on the bottom of the lined baking tray.

6. Lay the whole fish on top of the salt. Place aromatics and lemon slices inside the fish, if desired.

7. Carefully mold the rest of the moistened salt over the entire fish. If more salt is needed, moisten an additional amount of salt.

8. Place the baking tray into the pre-heated oven.

9. After 30 minutes for a 3-pound fish and 50 minutes for a 5-pound fish, remove the baking tray from the oven and allow the fish to rest for 5 minutes.

10. Using a chef’s knife, slice into the salt dome on the back side of the fish, along the fin line. Make another slice on the bottom of the fish. Lift the salt dome off the fish and discard. Using the knife, make a cut across the gills and the tail. Insert a fork under the skin and lift the skin separating it from the flesh.

11. Have a serving platter ready. Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, slide the blade between the flesh and the skeleton along the fin line. Separate the flesh from the bones. Try as best you can to keep the entire side of the fish intact, but no worries if the flesh comes off in several pieces. When you place the flesh on the serving platter, you can reassemble the fillet.

12. Turn the fish over and repeat the process on the other side.

13. Discard the head, tail, bones and skin or reserve to make stock. If making stock, rinse all the parts to eliminate excess salt.  Place into a pot, cover with water, simmer 30 minutes covered, strain and discard the bones, head, tail and skin. The stock can be frozen for later use.

14. Serve the fish at room temperature with sauces of your choice and side dishes.

Main photo: Salt-roasted sea bass. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Fennel granola. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Granola is a marvelous vehicle for foraged seeds. When I harvested more than a quart of fennel seeds last fall, I never could have imagined that I’d have used them all by spring.

Thanks to the delicate anise cookie-like taste of fennel granola, I believe my demand for fennel seeds will always outreach my supply. Fennel granola is so delightful that even those who don’t have access to wild-harvested seeds will want to make it. Store-bought fennel seeds are slightly less flavorful, but work well in this recipe.

As a forager, I find wild seeds to be fascinating, particularly in fall, when the number of other crops to pick diminishes. Every year, I work hard to collect all manner of wild seeds. Some of these, such as seeds from the mustard family, are very flavorful and can be used as spices. Others, such as lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium spp.) and its cousin kochia (Kochia spp.), need to be processed to remove bitter components before they can be utilized as food. Other seeds, for example evening primrose, a high source of gamma-linolenic acid, are relatively flavorless but powerfully nutritious.

Seeds such as amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), nettle (Urtica spp.) or evening primrose (Oenothera spp.) are easy to bring into the kitchen, requiring little more to process than simply shaking them off the plant and some minor winnowing. These seeds are a dream to harvest, but because they have little flavor, I often forget about using them over the course of the winter. In theory, they can be ground to better access their nutrition, then used atop or mixed into pretty much anything you could cook, from salad to breadcrumb toppings to dessert. In practice, these flavorless wild seeds sit unused in my kitchen. A foraging friend, Erica Marciniec, mentioned using her seeds in granola. I followed her advice and it worked brilliantly. Finally, with granola, I’ve found a way to use these wild seeds in a way that is convenient for me to cook, and that the whole family will enjoy.

While I really enjoyed eating my wild seeds in a typical cinnamon-flavored granola, I knew I could somehow boost the flavor.

That’s when I rediscovered my quart of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds. Initially, I added only a teaspoon of fennel seeds. I discovered that I loved the taste so much that I omitted cinnamon entirely and increased the fennel to further enhance the flavor of the granola.

I ran nine test batches of fennel granola, tweaking every detail you could imagine. In the end, leaving it in the oven produced the most consistently brown and crunchy granola. The addition of the egg white helps to form clusters. Of course, it could easily be omitted if you are making granola for someone with an egg allergy.

I tried making this granola with honey, but found the flavor competed too much with the fennel. Using brown sugar as a sweetener makes this recipe budget friendly, too. If you’d prefer to use honey, substitute 2/3 cup honey, and omit the brown sugar and water.

Fennel Granola

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 to 12 minutes

Total time: 6 to 8 hours (including cooling time in the oven)

Yield: 5 cups

Ingredients

½ cup butter

¾ cup packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups quick oats

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal

¼ cup fennel seeds, lightly ground in a spice mill

2 tablespoons other wild seeds such as evening primrose (optional)

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup slivered almonds

1 egg white

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a small pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the brown sugar and water, raise the heat to medium, and let it bubble for 2 minutes. Remove it from the heat, and stir in the vanilla.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the two kinds of oatmeal, seeds, salt and almonds.

4. Pour the warm liquid ingredients over the dry ones, and make certain that they are mixed very thoroughly, so that all of the oatmeal appears wet.

5. In a small bowl, whisk the egg white with a fork until it is frothy. Add it to the oatmeal mixture, and again, stir very well.

6. Pour the granola mix onto a greased 12×17-inch baking sheet. Use a spatula to press it down and make it evenly thick. This will help to ensure that you will have big chunks once it is cooked.

7. Place the granola in the oven and bake it for 10 to 12 minutes. When that time is up, turn off the oven, and leave the granola inside until it is cool. From the time the granola goes into the oven until the oven is cool, do not open the oven door.

Main photo: Fennel granola. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Black kale with vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Although vegetables — especially dark leafy greens — are often treated as a side dish, they also can be served as an appetizer; as a bed for other foods; a dish on their own if made in quantity; or just cold as a kind of tapas.

The attribute I like most about dark leafy greens, perhaps excepting spinach, is that they are rugged vegetables that can handle a variety of cooking methods including long cooking times.

These three simple recipes each result in a surprisingly delicious dish, but also in three quite appropriate appetizers for a follow-up dish the next day should you have leftovers. The recipes for the kale and the dandelion are Italian-style, sweet-and-sour preparations, which I find work particularly well (as the Italians discovered long ago) with bitter greens.

Black kale and vinegar

Kale is a bitter cruciferous plant and the so-called black kale, also known as Russian or Tuscan kale, is a particular cultivar that has very dark green, oak-like and crinkly leaves. The following is an Italian method of cooking, and it also makes the preparation very nice served at room temperature.

Prep and cooking time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 side dish servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

One 1/8-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into strips

10 ounces Russian or black kale, rinsed

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic and pancetta over medium-high heat, stirring, and once the pancetta is slightly crispy in about 4 minutes, add the kale.

2. Cover and cook on low until the kale is somewhat tender, about 30 minutes. Add the vinegar with the sugar dissolved in it to the pan, cover, and continue cooking 10 minutes.

3. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.

Sweet and sour dandelion

Sweet and sour dandelion. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Sweet and sour dandelion. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

In Italian they would call this kind of dish agrodolce or sweet and sour. The sweetness added to the bitter taste of dandelion is a contrast that many gourmets swoon over.

Prep and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 side dish servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 ounce pancetta, diced small or cut into thin strips

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Four 1/4-inch thick slices onion

1 bunch dandelion (about 3/4 pound), bottom quarter of stems removed, washed

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat with the pancetta, garlic and onion and cook until softened, stirring, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the dandelion and mint and cook until they wilt, tossing frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar then pour over the dandelion and cook until evaporated, about 3 minutes.

3. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Drowned mustard greens

Drowned mustard greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Drowned mustard greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

This Sicilian-inspired recipe is derived from a recipe originally for broccoli, but it works spectacularly with mustard greens. The Sicilians call this kind of dish affucati, ”drowned,” because it’s smothered in wine. It’s terrific as a room-temperature appetizer the next day too. If serving the next day as a room temperature antipasto, let the Parmigiano-Reggiano melt and then drizzle some olive oil to serve.

Prep and cooking time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 side dish servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

1 pound mustard greens, heavier stems removed and discarded, leaves washed and shredded

3/4 cup dry red wine

8 imported black olives, pitted and chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion and garlic until soft, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn’t burn, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the anchovies and once they have melted add the shredded mustard greens, cover, and cook until they wilt, about 5 minutes.

2. Pour the red wine into the sauce with the olives, salt and pepper. Cover again, reduce the heat to medium and cook 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter with a slotted spoon and sprinkle on the Parmigiano.

Main photo: Black kale with vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Steamed rice is a perfect side dish.  Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.

Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ  is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.

An unlikely path to becoming a chef

If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses.  Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.

Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.

He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up.  He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.

Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook.  A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.

Korean flavors for American palates

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.

Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.

Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg.  Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.

Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.

Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.

Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.

For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg

Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up

1 tablespoon sweet butter

2 tablespoons sesame oil

¾ cup chopped kimchi

3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese

Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt

2 tablespoons kimchi juice

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic

2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped

2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish

1 teaspoon furikake for garnish

Directions

1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.

2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.

3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.

4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.

5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.

6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.

7. Add scallions and stir well.

8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.

9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.

10. Serve hot.

Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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