Articles in Vegetables

Sorrel soup with crème fraîche prepared by chef Jacques Fiorentino at L'Assiette Steak Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Puréed vegetable soups make an excellent entrée for a delicious meal consisting entirely of a soup and salad.

Wanting an authentic French recipe, I visited chef Jacques Fiorentino in the West Hollywood kitchen of his restaurant L’Assiette Steak Frites where he demonstrated his easy-to-prepare sorrel soup.

Sorrel brings dark, leafy goodness

Fresh sorrel, Coleman Family Farm (Santa Barbara and Ventura County) at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Fresh sorrel, Coleman Family Farm (Santa Barbara and Ventura County) at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Sorrel is not spinach. The leaves are similar, but the flavor is completely different. Richly flavored with citrus notes, sorrel’s dark green pointed leaves are a good source of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C.

Unlike many leafy greens, sorrel is a perennial. One spring we were given a small plant in a 3-inch pot. During the first year the plant doubled in size. By pinching off the floral buds and harvesting the young leaves, the plant flourished and we enjoyed sorrel soup on a regular basis. After several years it grew so vigorously that it all but took over the garden.

A riff on soupe à l’oseille, a French classic

Calling his restaurant Steak Frites, Fiorentino announced to the world that his restaurant was solidly in the French bistro tradition. The dark wood interior and precise menu puts a spotlight on favorites that would be found in neighborhood restaurants throughout France.

Like Proust and his madeleines, Fiorentino uses a few carefully chosen dishes to evoke his childhood in Paris. For him that means grilled steak, double-cooked french fries (frites), foie gras and sorrel soup with deep herbal accents. As a nod to contemporary preferences he added salmon and, for vegetarians, portobello mushrooms with frites.

Wash. Sauté. Simmer. Blend. Season.

Immersion blender puréeing sorrel soup in the kitchen at L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Copyright2015 David Latt

Immersion blender puréeing sorrel soup in the kitchen at L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Copyright2015 David Latt

Depending on the chicken flavoring used, you will need more or less salt. Homemade chicken stock has the least salt and is preferred. Packaged stock, chicken concentrate and bouillon cubes have considerably higher salt contents.

Good quality concentrated chicken stock and bouillon cubes can be purchased in restaurant supply stores and supermarkets. Since the sodium content varies considerably, delay adding salt to the soup until all ingredients have been blended, then taste and season.

A vegetarian version can be created by substituting vegetable for chicken stock. As with chicken stock, homemade vegetable stock is preferable to bouillon cubes and will have a lower salt content.

In the restaurant, Fiorentino uses potato flakes for flavor and convenience. If you would prefer to use potatoes, boil the potatoes in salted water until a paring knife pierces the flesh easily. Allow to cool, peel, cut into quarter-sized pieces, add to the soup and blend.

L’Assiette Sorrel Soup

Sorrel soup with sorrel simmering in the kitchen of chef Jacques Fiorentino's L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Sorrel soup with sorrel simmering in the kitchen of chef Jacques Fiorentino’s L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces unsalted butter

1 small red onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

1/2 stalk celery, washed, trimmed, roughly chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves

1 medium-sized potato, Yukon Gold preferred, washed

1 1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade preferred) or 1½ cups water and 3 cubes Knorr chicken bouillon

8 ounces whole milk

4 ounces cream

1/4 pound fresh sorrel, washed, leaves only

Sea salt to taste

Pinch freshly ground white pepper, finely ground

Directions

1. Heat a large saucepan over a medium flame. Add butter, melt and allow to lightly foam. Add chopped onion and celery, stir well and sauté until the onion is lightly translucent. Do not allow to brown. Add thyme and marjoram, stir well to combine flavors.

2. Boil a pot of salted water, cook whole potato, covered, for 20 minutes or until a pairing knife enters easily. Set aside to cool.

3. Add liquid, either chicken stock or water, stir well and continue simmering for a minute or two. Pour in milk and cream, stir well and bring flame up to medium so the liquids simmer five minutes to combine the flavors, being careful not to boil.

4. Add whole sorrel leaves. Stir into the soup. Reduce flame so the soup simmers. Stir frequently and cook 25 to 30 minutes to combine flavors. If water was used instead of chicken stock, add chicken bouillon or base, stir well. Simmer an additional 5 minutes.

5. Blend the soup using either an immersion or a general purpose blender, about 5 minutes. Peel the cooked potato, dice and add to the soup. Blend until smooth.

6. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper.

Serve hot with fresh bread and, if desired, a tossed green salad.

Main photo: Sorrel soup with crème fraîche prepared by chef Jacques Fiorentino at L’Assiette Steak Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2011 Lori Shepler

Broccoli is a vegetable that makes for a wonderful salad. Its bright green color and crisp-tender texture can be appealing if cooked properly.

Cooking broccoli properly might seem like a no-brainer, but many people do not do so. Broccoli, and all cruciferous vegetables, must not be overcooked, otherwise chemicals in the plant break down and release sulfurous compounds, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, and interact with the chlorophyll in the plant, which cause the broccoli to turn an unappetizing brownish-grey color and have a very unpleasant smell.

This chemical reaction is probably why some people don’t like broccoli. I imagine that at a young age they ate improperly cooked broccoli.

Broccoli should always be cooked in small amounts of water until it is crisp-tender and retains its bright green color; it should never be cooked until limp. That means broccoli should not be cooked more than five minutes.

Here are five broccoli recipes, all Mediterranean-style dishes that make wonderful accompaniments to your Labor Day grill party.

Broccoli With Golden Bread Crumbs, Oil-cured Olives and Orange Zest

Broccoli with golden bread crumbs, oil-cured olives and orange zest. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Broccoli with golden bread crumbs, oil-cured olives and orange zest. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This is an appealing Sicilian-style salad with a great taste thanks to the orange zest and black olives. It’s important not to overcook the broccoli even by a minute because you want the taste and the beautiful color contrast of bright  green to come through. Oil-cured olives are crinkly skinned, but you can use any good-quality black olive if you can’t find them.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound broccoli

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

15 oil-cured black olives, pitted

1 teaspoon orange zest

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling (optional)

Directions

1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and blanch the broccoli for 3 minutes. Drain, cool and break into florets.

2. In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat with the anchovies and garlic until sizzling. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring until the bread crumbs are golden brown, about 4 minutes.

3. Arrange the broccoli on a serving platter and sprinkle on the olives. Sprinkle the bread crumb and anchovy sauce around and then add the orange zest. Drizzle with olive oil, if desired, and serve at room temperature.

Broccoli and White Onion Salad

Broccoli and white onion salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Broccoli and white onion salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

White onion rather than yellow onion is critical in this broccoli salad not only because of taste but for the color contrast with the green, white and orange. This salad also makes for a nice antipasto or accompaniment, with grilled or roast meat.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

3 pounds broccoli

1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped

Zest from 1 orange

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Orange wedges for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil and plunge the broccoli in to blanch it for 2 minutes. Drain and cool quickly. Return the broccoli to a steamer or strainer and steam until tender with a slight crunch, 6 to 7 minutes. Let the broccoli drain and cool in the strainer.

2. Break the broccoli into florets and toss with the white onion and orange zest in a large bowl.

3. In another bowl, dissolve the sugar in the white wine vinegar. Whisk in the olive oil, oregano, anchovies and garlic. Pour over the broccoli and toss again seasoned with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large serving platter and garnish with orange wedges, if desired. Serve at room temperature.

Green and Yellow Salad

Green and yellow salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Green and yellow salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The colors are startling in this zippy salad. It’s great with something off the grill, and the leftovers can be tossed with pasta and olive oil.

Prep time: 3 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 11 minutes

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound broccoli, broken into small florets

1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Coarse salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the broccoli 5 minutes. Drain well, cool, then toss with the yellow pepper and add olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.

Broccoli With Oil-cured Olives and Lemon Zest

Broccoli with oil-cured olives and lemon zest. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Broccoli with oil-cured olives and lemon zest. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

What a beautiful dish! The brilliant green of broccoli, the pitch black of the olives and the sunny flecks of lemon zest make for an appetizing presentation. In this recipe, you blanch the broccoli first to keep its brilliant green color.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds broccoli

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted or unpitted

1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes

Zest of 1/2 lemon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a rapid boil, then blanch the broccoli for 2 minutes. Drain and dunk into ice-cold water immediately to stop it cooking. Set aside.

2. In a bowl, mix the garlic with the olive oil.

3. Remove and drain broccoli from ice-water bath.

4. Slice the broccoli and after it has cooled, mix it in a large bowl with olives, chile, lemon zest, garlic mixture, salt and pepper.

5. Serve at room temperature.

Broccoli and Roasted Red Bell Pepper

Broccoli and roasted red bell pepper. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Broccoli and roasted red bell pepper. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Good and good for you. That was a phrase I often heard from my mom when I was growing up. She never quite made it this way, but this Italian-American family-style side dish of bright green broccoli and brilliant red bell pepper is a delight to look at, a delight to eat and it’s good for you.

Prep time: 2 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds broccoli, sliced and broken into florets

1 roasted red bell pepper, sliced into strips

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Directions

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the broccoli 5 minutes. Drain a bit and transfer to a mixing bowl. Toss with the remaining ingredients and arrange on a serving platter.

Main photo: Broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2011 Lori Shepler

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Charred ears of corn on a grill. The corn will be used in a Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

An abundance of corn in farmers markets is a delight and a challenge. Having already grilled platters of corn on the barbecue and boiled armfuls of shucked ears, it is time to invent another way to enjoy one of summer’s most delicious vegetables. Borrowing the flavors of elote, a Mexican classic, turns grilled corn into a salad that will delight everyone at the table.

Mexican street food delight

An elote, or corn on the cob, sign at Cerveteca Taco & Torta Joint in Culver City, California. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

An elote, or corn on the cob, sign at Cerveteca Taco & Torta Joint in Culver City, California. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Travel in Mexico and you’ll encounter street vendors selling a great number of delicious food snacks. One of my favorites is elote, or corn on the cob, in which an ear of corn is cooked, dusted with dry cheese and seasoned with chili powder and fresh lime juice. The ear of corn is always served whole, sometimes resting in a paper dish or with a stick in the bottom like a corndog.

Elote is delicious but messy to eat. First there is the matter of the whole ear of corn, which takes two hands to manage. And, with each bite, the finely grated Cotija cheese tends to float off the corn and drift onto clothing.

Deconstructing elote

Charred corn kernels cut off the cob in a seasoning pan to make Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Charred corn kernels cut off the cob in a seasoning pan to make Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cutting the kernels off the cobs makes the seasoned corn so much easier to enjoy. In Mexico there is a corn kernel snack called esquites, which employs some of the seasonings used in making elote. This recipe is different because no mayonnaise is mixed with the corn. Mexican Corn Salad can be served as a light and refreshing entrée topped with a protein or as a side dish accompanying grilled vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. The elote salad is the perfect summer recipe.

The best way to cook corn on the cob is a topic of heated debate. There are those who will only boil corn, others who will only grill it. I have seen elote prepared both ways. My preference is to strip off the husk and grill the ear so that some of the kernels are charred, adding caramelized sweetness to the salad.

Just the right cheese

Cotija cheese finely grated to use in Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cotija cheese finely grated to use in Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What gives elote its distinctive flavor is the combination of finely grated dry Mexican Cotija cheese, spicy chili powder and fresh lime juice. Powdery when finely grated, Cotija cheese is salty so you may not need to add salt when you make the corn salad. Often described as having qualities similar to feta and Parmesan, Cotija tastes quite different.

Mexican Corn Salad

Mexican Corn Salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Mexican Corn Salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Total time: 25 to 30 minutes

Yield: 4 entrée servings or 8 side dish servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 large ears of corn, husks and silks removed, washed, dried

1/2 cup finely grated Cotija cheese

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

3 cups Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, chopped

2 limes, washed, quartered

Directions

1. Preheat an indoor grill or outdoor barbecue to hot.

2. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a flat pan and season with sea salt and black pepper.

3. Roll the ears of corn in the seasoned olive oil to coat all sides.

4. Using tongs, place the corn on the grill, turning every 2 to 3 minutes so that some of the kernels char, being careful not to burn the ears.

5. When cooked on all sides, remove and let cool in the flat pan with the seasoned olive oil.

6. To cut the kernels off the cob, use a sharp chef’s knife. Hold each ear of corn over the pan with the seasoned oil and slice the kernels off the cob.

7. Transfer the kernels and the remaining seasoned oil into a large mixing bowl.

8. Add Cotija cheese, chili powder and parsley. Toss well.

9. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the salad and toss.

10. Serve at room temperature with lime wedges on the side.

Notes: Adding finely chopped Italian parsley to the seasoned corn kernels brightens the flavors. Cilantro can be used instead of parsley to give the salad a peppery flavor.

Traditionally, mayonnaise is slathered on the elote or mixed into esquites before adding the cheese and chili powder. I prefer to use olive oil to give the salad a lighter taste.

To use as an entrée, top with sliced grilled chicken, shrimp or filet of fish.

The salad can be prepared ahead and kept in the refrigerator overnight. In which case, do not add the Cotija cheese or parsley until just before serving.

To create a large, colorful salad, just before serving, toss the seasoned corn and parsley with quartered cherry tomatoes, cut-up avocados and butter lettuce or romaine leaves.

After tossing, taste the salad and adjust the amount of Cotija cheese and chili powder.

Main photo: Charred ears of corn on a grill. The corn will be used in a Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Stir-fried Tofu and Beans. Credit: 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Every summer I go to a farmhouse in Provence with friends. We do one major supermarket shop on the first day to stock up on all the staples we will need for the week. We know we’ll eat well with just fun trips to the farmers market for produce and fish. The best news: This quick and easy trick works just as well when I’m home.

You, too, can shop once and then forget those dreary checkout lines. I’ve organized my staples into eight categories and suggest a dish or two for each. There is a lot of room to hack the formula.

With summer’s produce bounty at its peak, the farmers market is the only place you want to shop.

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Main photo: Stir-fried Tofu and Beans. Credit: 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

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Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The grill is blasting away, people are licking their chops, and you’re asking yourself, “what sides?” A great approach is a salad, of course. But why stop at merely one salad? And too often that salad is one of the heavy mayonnaise-based standbys, macaroni salad or potato salad.

An approach I love is four salads, all of which should be easy to make and easy to make ahead of time. The first is a refreshing and simple salad of julienned carrots and a slightly bitter red radicchio that you can put together while the meat cooks. Young carrots are cut into matchsticks with radicchio sliced into strips and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and that’s it.

Make the most of ripe tomatoes

Tomato, egg and olive salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright Photo credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomato, egg and olive salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second nice salad is a tomato, egg and olive salad. You would assemble this beautiful dish as you would a work of art. It’s stunning to look at and eat. Choose vine-ripened juicy tomatoes, preferably from your own tomato plant, and the best olives, not too bitter, not too salty.

Hard-boil the eggs and slice them interspersed with sliced tomatoes and black olives, all arranged in a spiral, and garnish with parsley, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. Do not refrigerate this dish.

Take bean salad inspiration from Greece

Mavromakita fasolia (black-eyed pea salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Mavromakita fasolia (black-eyed pea salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Many people must have a bean salad in summer, and a wonderful Greek version is made with canned black-eyed peas. Canned beans will work fine, as long as they are packed only in water. If you can’t find beans canned in water, you can boil some dried black-eyed peas instead.

After this step, the salad takes just five minutes to put together. For six servings, open two 15-ounce cans of black-eyed peas and rinse them. Toss with two trimmed and finely chopped scallions, a little salt, one small finely chopped clove of garlic, three tablespoons chopped fresh dill, five tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Show off seafood in a rice salad from Sicily

Riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The last of our summer salads is a bit more involved, but not hard, and I provide you a recipe below. Years ago, in Sicily, I had a riso al mare, a seafood rice salad, that was probably the best I’ve ever had.

We were skin diving off the tiny port of San Gregorio and were exhausted and ravenous when we exited the water, which may have helped in the enjoyment of this salad.

Riso al mare (Seafood Rice Salad)

Rice for riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Michelle van Vliet

Rice for riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Michelle van Vliet

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

6 mussels, scrubbed and bearded just before cooking

6 littleneck clams, scrubbed

1/2 carrot, peeled

1 squid, skin pinched off, viscera removed, tentacles cut off below the eyes, washed clean

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 1/2 cups medium-grain rice (Spanish rice)

2 1/2 cups water

Salt to taste

6 cooked medium shrimp, shelled and very finely chopped

One 3-ounce can tuna packed in oil, very finely chopped with its oil

3 ounces Norwegian or Scottish smoked salmon, finely chopped

2 canned hearts of palm, drained and finely chopped

2 teaspoons beluga or salmon caviar (or 1/2 teaspoon black or red lumpfish caviar)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Place the mussels and clams into a pot with a few tablespoons of water and turn the heat to high. Cover and cook until they open, 4 to 8 minutes. Discard any that do not open and remain firmly shut. Let the mussels and clams cool, remove from their shells, and chop very finely. Set aside in a mixing bowl.

2. Place the carrot in a small saucepan, covered with water, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil and cook until crisp-tender (or whatever you prefer), about 10 minutes. Drain and chop finely.

3. Put the squid body and tentacles into the pot you cooked the mollusks. Add 3 tablespoons water and cook on a high heat until firm, about 4 minutes. Let cool, and chop the body finely. Cut the tentacles in half and set aside. Add the rest of the chopped squid to the mixing bowl with the clams and mussels.

4. In a heavy 4-quart enameled cast-iron pot or flame-proof casserole with a heavy lid, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Add the water and 2 teaspoons salt, reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook undisturbed for 12 minutes. Do not lift the lid until then. Check to see if the rice is cooked and all the water has been absorbed. If it hasn’t, add a little boiling water and cook until tender. Transfer the cooked rice to a second large mixing bowl, spreading it out so it will cool faster.

5. Once the rice is completely cooled, use a fork to toss it well with the mussels, clams, carrot, squid, shrimp, tuna, smoked salmon, hearts of palm, caviar, olive oil and parsley. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.

6. Arrange attractively on an oval platter and garnish each end with the squid tentacles and parsley sprigs.

Main photo: Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Summer has yet to deliver its full range of vegetables, but one stalwart crop that keeps on giving is Brassica rapa (from rapum, Latin for “turnip”). Brimming with flavor, this vegetable is known variously in its native Italy as cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), broccoletti di rape or just rape (pronounced räp’-eh), rapi, rappini, friarielli, vrucculi and a gaggle of other aliases, depending on local dialects.

And as “if this is not confusing enough,” says Daniel Nagengast — who imports 700 different heritage seeds to the United States for his company Seeds from Italy — “there are perhaps 15 different cime varieties in southern Italy, and I keep on finding more.” Each has its own physical characteristics, growing patterns and flavor nuances. But what they all have in common is a bold, seductive bitterness in their raw state, not to mention a powerful nutritional profile.

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for  Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Old varieties are new again

Although most Americans are familiar only with the tidy, commercially grown bunches sold in supermarkets under the name of “broccoli rabe” (a debased form of Italian native speakers prickle at), small-scale farmers around the country are creating a new awareness of Brassica rapa’s formidable culinary powers. A wide range of varieties are  popping up in local farmers markets and CSAs, and chefs are demanding heirloom types whose flavors recall the earth they are grown in. “San Francisco and New York high-end restaurants start the trends,” says Nagengast, explaining why he is crisscrossing southern Italy in search of variants unknown outside their native environment. “Then it takes off.” The idea is that savvy home cooks, like chefs, will seek them out for the same reasons they do certain wines and cheeses: distinctive terroir. Several of Nagengast’s transplanted seeds have been sown by Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, who grows them to be served at James Beard award-winning chef Dan Barber’s groundbreaking restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The old familiar ways with rapini

As much as the vegetable intrigues people, the extent of most Americans’ experience with Brassica rapa is as a side dish cooked with olive oil and garlic. Properly, this basic preparation involves parboiling the greens before sautéing them. First, peel the stems as you would asparagus legs to ensure that they cook at the same rate as the tops. Next, parboil them for two minutes — just long enough to bring out their sweet overtones. Then drain them, saving some of the cooking water. From here, you’ll sauté them with good olive oil, garlic and (optionally) chili flakes, moistening them with a little of the water you have set aside. (You could also change up the recipe by substituting onion and bacon for the garlic and hot pepper, the way Southern cooks make collards, kale and other field greens.) Now you can eat them as is or use them as directed in the recipes that follow.

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian "rapi e patate." Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian “rapi e patate.” Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and potatoes

For a more complex side dish, combine your garlicky sautéed greens with other vegetables: sautéed cime di rapa alongside a puree of fava beans, or ‘ncapriata, is food of legend in Puglia, brought together with the magic of high-quality olive oil. Chickpeas or white beans also make delicious and nutritious purees for the greens. Probably one of the happiest vegetarian marriages is between rapini and richly flavored potatoes such as Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds or fingerlings. I like chef Viola Buitoni’s way of tossing her sautéed greens with crisply fried tubers, an Umbrian-style dish she calls rapi e patate. If the greens are the feisty part of the couple, the potatoes are the sweet-tempered half.

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not just a side dish

In Puglia, it is common to cook the greens simultaneously with pasta in the same pot and, after draining, tossing them quickly together in olive oil flavored with garlic. Per the Italian tradition whereby meat is a second course, sausages might follow; but for a one-dish variation, I sometimes add warmed, crushed anise seeds and crumbled sausage to the pasta and greens. And there are so many other ways to dish out rapini and pasta. For instance, you can toss your garlicky sautéed greens together with diced bacon, chickpeas and just-cooked short pasta in a wide skillet; I like to use whole-wheat gemelli (“twins”) or penne imported from Italy. Be sure to save some of the hot pasta cooking water; combined with the olive oil and juices from the prepared rapini, it forms a sauce. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil at the table for finishing.

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and seafood

Or consider seafood. The Venetians have a particular fondness for the charms of bitter ingredients, including cime di rapa (to use their term); surrounded by water as they are, they often combine the vegetables they cultivate on the lagoon islands with their Adriatic catch. Here is a heavenly dish I ate in a trattoria some years ago on the little island of Burano. It was originally made with fresh tagiolini and a local species of prawn called cannocchie, but it is just as good with linguine and shrimp (or other types of fresh seafood, such as clams or scallops). Start by parboiling your rapini (save the cooking water) and sautéeing the shrimp in fragrant olive oil with garlic and red pepper in a skillet wide enough to accommodate the pasta later. As soon as the shellfish is lightly colored, add dry white wine and let simmer gently for a minute or two, until the alcohol evaporates. Finally, toss in the rapini, cover the pan and turn off the heat. In the meantime, cook the linguine in the reserved cooking water. Drain, again reserving a little of the water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss the ingredients together gently, moistening them with a little pasta water if necessary.

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional "gai lan," Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional “gai lan,” Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

When bitter is sweet: An Asian spin

Author Jennifer McLagan has devoted an entire book to explaining why a taste for bitterness is the hallmark of discerning cooks and educated eaters. “Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity,” she writes in “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.” I rather like the gentle Chinese way of describing the yin-yang perfection achieved when balancing bitter, salty or sour flavors (yin) with sweet and spicy ones (yang).

“We love bitter melon and flowering mustard greens and things like that,” says Hong Kong-born American chef Rosa Ross, author of “Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables” and other Chinese cookbooks. So, for example, in the original Chinese version of the dish Americans known as beef with broccoli, the bitter green called gai lan must be used — but “when I can’t find it here, I substitute Italian bitter broccoli,” Ross says.

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizzas and pockets

Many pizzerias offer pies spread with vegetables — but they can be more alluring to the eye than they are tasty. A pizza topped with rapini, sausage and tangy cheese is a different, flavor-packed story. To make it, start by preparing your own dough; while it rises, parboil and sauté the greens per our basic recipe and, separately, sauté some crumbled sausage. Spread them both over the dough before baking; scatter cheese on top only in the last few minutes of baking to prevent it from burning. (Mozzarella is too bland in this case, so best to use a young, melting sheep’s cheese or soft Asiago fresco.) You can use the same ingredients as filling for calzones.

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie

On a similar theme, last spring I created a new interpretation of the traditional torta pasqualina (“Easter pie”), a savory pastry made of strudel-like dough filled with spring greens such as chard or spinach. Once again, I used an American-style pie crust because I love its structure and crumb — and I also substituted rapini in the filling, mixing them with egg and freshly grated Parmigiano to yield astonishingly good results. They have so much flavor that no additional ingredients are needed, save salt and pepper. Along with a side dish or two, this pie is substantial enough for a dinner; it can also be cut into smaller servings for an appetizer. I’ve been known to improvise with good frozen puff pastry as well, using the same filling to make small hand pies.

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Purees and pesto

We are nearly there, dear reader, but how can we overlook transforming these mighty greens into a purée for eating as is or making into a sauce? If you will first peel the skin from the stalks, you will prevent its fibrous texture from getting in the way of a silky creamed side dish or a velvety pesto. Then cut the stalks into several pieces to make them easier to work with and boil them, along with the leaves and buds, for at least seven minutes. Be sure to drain the greens well before pureeing them in a food processor with a little softened butter or good olive oil. You can eat them just as they are, creamy and hot, seasoned with another dab of butter or dribble of olive oil, plus a touch of coarse sea salt — they’re as good as creamed spinach, even without the roux.

Or, for a gorgeous and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous basil pesto, blend the purée with a touch of garlic; grated, aged sheep’s cheese or Parmigiano; and a little olive oil — because the cooked stems are full-bodied and naturally creamy, you’ll find it unnecessary to use as much oil as many pestos call for. You can also include pine nuts or almonds if you’d like. Like its basil counterpart, rapini pesto should accompany pasta cuts sturdy enough to carry it — linguine, bucatini, medium macaroni, potato gnocchi — or you can stir it into minestrone.

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Back to the beginning

It’s only too well-known that a preponderance of American children and adults alike hate vegetables — a fact that people in other parts of the temperate world find puzzling, especially as plants are the very stuff that humans most need for proper nourishment. I could write a book exploring the reasons for this, but consider just one for a moment. Although the theory that children need bland foods until they are old enough to handle more intense flavors is bandied about in credulous circles, experts tell us that the taste for particular foods is developed in infancy. The fare we are fed as children — whether it is good or not — is what we crave as adults. Pastina (“miniature pasta”) with butter is an Italian baby’s first solid food, revisited in adulthood whenever comfort food is in order. When my children were babies, I stirred rapini puree and butter into pastina for them, and they loved it. (Like any pasta, pastina tastes best served piping hot immediately after cooking — but naturally, it should be cooled down to warm for babies.) This is an ideal way to develop an infant’s taste for these miraculously healthful greens.

Main photo: Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Mushrooms and wild rice for pressure cooker porcini wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

We’ve all heard some version of the story that has kept us from using pressure cookers. “A second cousin of a friend of a friend of my grandmother’s exploded a pressure cooker once upon a time. Her precious pet poodle lost his eyesight and an ear, and they were picking pieces of shrapnel out of the ceiling for 18 years after.” I knew the story so well that I was convinced it has happened to someone in our family, though upon investigation, I could find no evidence of any of my relatives having ever experienced an exploding pressure cooker.

Still, the vague feeling of unease surrounding pressure cookers followed me well into my adulthood. After watching an Indian friend use a pressure cooker daily, I started to reconsider my fear of them. The idea of being able to make all of my favorite boiled, steamed, and braised dishes in a fraction of the usual cooking time was very appealing. So I did what we all do in this age, I researched pressure cookers on the Internet.

I discovered that modern pressure cookers are different from the ones our grandmothers used. While some are still sold with a weighted jiggling valve, most come with a spring-loaded pressure-release valve, known as second-generation pressure cookers. Third-generation cookers are the new electric models. These modern pressure cookers have redundant safety mechanisms that make catastrophe nearly impossible.

I found that there were some variables to consider. Stovetop or electric? Four-, 6-, 8- or 10-quart pot? Multiple pressure settings or just one? The brand that consistently won comparison testing was out of my price range, so it was a matter of finding the right combination of these variables that would work for me. My research led me to conclude that one could nitpick the details, but as a novice, so long as I selected a second-generation stainless steel model with a stated operating pressure of 15 PSI, I’d be in good shape.

Though electric pressure cookers are credited by some as being responsible for the renewed popularity of the appliance, I quickly eliminated this option. Most electric pressure cookers operate at a slightly lower PSI than stovetop models. Knowing that I was also losing some pressure due to living at high altitude, the combined loss of pressure made this a less desirable option for me.

Deciding on a size

I had thought for certain I’d get an 8-quart model. After all, why wouldn’t bigger be better, especially for making stock, which was one of the main reasons I wanted a pressure cooker? I soon learned that a larger pressure cooker may be too big for my small household for most occasions, and if I really needed to make a greater quantity of stock, the speediness afforded by pressure cooking would make it possible to run two consecutive batches.

Some pressure cookers have low- and high-pressure settings, or in the case of some electric models, many settings. Again, I had initially thought that more would be better. Then I found out that the low setting is mostly used for cooking things such as tender vegetables and desserts. I knew I wasn’t likely to make those foods in a pressure cooker. Deciding to purchase a cooker with only one pressure setting gave me more budget-friendly options.

In the end, I purchased a respectable 6-quart stainless steel stovetop model with one pressure setting for a reasonable price.

To be honest, my first time using my new pressure cooker, despite having read extensively about how safe modern ones are, I was terrified as it came up to heat. I kept picturing that poor poodle and pieces of metal embedded in the ceiling. I didn’t want to stand near it, and seriously contemplated wearing safety glasses.

Now, after several months of using it regularly, I fear my pressure cooker far less than pot handles overhanging the stovetop when kids are around. In the worst case scenario, if I forget to turn down the heat or the vent clogs, the silicone gasket will tear and the steam will escape quickly, but without an explosion. Far from maiming a pet and needing to remodel the kitchen, this would mean investing in a new $10 gasket.

My pressure cooker has simplified my meal preparation throughout the week. I use it to put large quantities of staples into the refrigerator that I can and recombine with fresh vegetables throughout the week to make quick meals. Most weeks, I use the pressure cooker to cook a few pounds of potatoes, a pound of beans, some wild rice, and meaty bones provide pieces of meat and stock.

I’m in awe of the fact that I can cook a roast in an hour, or go from dry, unsoaked beans to a meal in about the same time. These tasks used to take hours, and forethought.

One of my favorite foods to cook with the pressure cooker is wild rice. I had some wild rice in the cupboard that was given as a gift from a friend who harvested it. I’d put off cooking it for an embarrassing length of time because it requires so much time to cook. The pressure cooker cooks it up beautifully in half an hour. Each piece cooks through but remains wonderfully chewy between the teeth. I like it so much that I quickly used all that my friend had given me, and make a big batch every week to eat on its own, to combine with grains, and to add to soups.

Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice

Prep time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup wild rice

1/2 ounce dried porcini, crumbled

1 head wild Allium bulbils (substitute a clove of garlic)

1 bay leaf

Pinch of salt

3 cups water

Directions

1. Add all of the ingredients to the pressure cooker, and give them a quick stir just to make certain everything is wet.

2. Close and seal the pressure cooker, bring it to pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes.*

3. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it depressurize on its own.

A tiny amount of water will remain along with the cooked wild rice. This is a good thing because it has kept the wild rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot while it cooked. You can either use or drain it.

*For every 1,000 feet of gain above 2,000 feet in altitude, increase the cooking time by 5%.

Main photo: Mushrooms and wild rice for Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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Carrots can pair nicely with traditional Middle Eastern flavors. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

Here’s a vegetarian idea — carrots with tahini. Think hummus, only with the mild sweetness (and vitamin A) of carrots.

The Middle East has an ancient tradition of meatless dishes. As the 13th-century cookbook “The Description of Familiar Foods” shows, Christians in the Arab world approached Lenten cuisine differently than did the Europeans, replacing red meat not with fish (since the eastern Mediterranean is relatively fish-poor) nor with almonds (which probably didn’t have the same luxury appeal as they had for, say, the French, since one might have an almond tree of one’s own in the backyard). Instead, they mimicked the richness of meat by stewing vegetables long and slow with oil. This tradition survives in Turkey as a class of dishes called yağlı yemekler, and it eventually entered French cuisine under the name légumes à la grecque.

Some of the fast-day recipes in “The Description” use sesame oil rather than olive oil, and this gave me the idea of replacing the meat with sesame paste, better known as tahini. You want heft and meatiness? Tahini can handle that, as any hummus eater knows. (But as any hummus cook knows, tahini separates easily and must be thoroughly stirred up before use.)

Here are two versions of my idea. The first is modern in style; in effect, it’s hummus made with carrots instead of chickpeas. It’s bright and savory and has a charming salmon color. The other gets its exotic, intoxicating sweet-sour flavor from honey, vinegar and sweet spices. It’s based on the medieval dish sikbâj, which was always flavored with vinegar and saffron, whatever other ingredients it might contain. In the late Middle Ages it traveled to Europe, where it evolved in two directions: aspic (which requires the use of meat, of course) and the Spanish preparation of cooked vegetables dressed with vinegar known as escabeche. Both words, aspic and escabeche, come from sikbâj, by the way. (Take my word for it.)

It’s clear that tahini existed in the Middle Ages, because cookbooks of the time call for it in a number of recipes — but none contain carrots. I can’t say that either of the following dishes has ever actually been made in the Middle East, but that has not stopped me from giving them plausible Arabic names.

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots With Tahini (Jazar bi-Tahini)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Directions

1. Peel the onion and slice half of it crosswise as thinly as possible (reserve the remaining half onion for another use).

2. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes or so over high heat. Add the onion slices and fry for 10 minutes, stirring often to separate the rings and prevent uneven browning. Reduce the heat to medium and stir continuously until golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the onions to a paper towel to drain. Pick out any excessively browned bits.

3. Peel and trim the carrots and chop roughly. Bring the water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the carrots and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, transfer to a food processor and purée, about 40 seconds.

4. Add the tahini, lemon juice, salt and cumin to the carrots. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds. Adjust the seasonings to taste. To serve, garnish with the browned onions.

Carrot-Tahini Escabeche (Sikbâj Muzawwar)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients 

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

10 threads saffron

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

2 to 3 sprigs mint leaves

Directions

1. Peel and chop the onion. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes over high heat. Add the onion and fry until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often. Transfer the onion to a paper towel to drain.

2. Peel and trim the carrots, then cut into chunks about 1/3-inch long.

3. Pour the water into a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and cook until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the carrots to a bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, crush the saffron to powder with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in the vinegar, then add the honey, cinnamon and coriander. Add the tahini and thoroughly stir everything together. Adjust the vinegar, honey, spices and salt to taste.

5. Mix the carrots and fried onion with the tahini-saffron sauce. To serve, garnish with mint leaves.

Main photo: Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright 2015 Charles Perry

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