Articles in Vegetables w/recipe
Hearty stews are one of the universally appealing slow-cooked foods that you can find in many parts of the world. When it comes to stews, Japanese cuisine has a large repertoire, one of which is nishime, a stew made with chicken and vegetables cooked in a dashi stock and seasoned with soy sauce, mirin and sake.
Unlike many Western stews, it doesn’t use any flour or butter for seasoning or thickening. You can eat it cold or hot, and like all stews, it improves in flavor as the days pass.
Nishime is eaten throughout the year, but it is a particularly popular Japanese holiday food. At year’s end, the cooks in my family gather around the kitchen table to prepare a large pot of nishime to last several days, so there is something to eat for family and friends who may decide to drop by at the spur of the moment. The dish has regional differences, but for the most part, it features chicken; root vegetables; konnyaku, a non-caloric, jelly-like food made from potato that is enjoyed mainly for its texture; and snow peas or green beans.
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I make nishime for the holidays, but I also make it for my husband when I go out of town so he has something of sustenance to eat. I do give him some credit because he actually tries to do some cooking on his own during my absences; he stocks up on cabbage, green beans, carrots, frozen cooked shrimp and cans of mackerel. How he cooks them is a mystery about which I don’t care to know too much. But I can tell you that most of the produce ends up shriveled in the fridge. Things can get uglier, as they did recently when I found a whole case of instant Cup Noodles ramen stashed away in his studio cabinet. It couldn’t be returned because he had already opened the plastic wrapper and begun to work his way through. Call me a snob to deny my husband Cup Noodles ramen, the world’s favorite convenience food, but I gave him an ultimatum. His solution was nishime.
More than one style of Nishime
You can cook nishime in a variety of ways. The meat and vegetables are cut in uniform, bite-size pieces. I bevel the edges of potatoes and carrots so the shapes remain clean and intact while simmering in the dashi stock, which can be made with bonito flakes, konbu seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms, or any kind of stock you have on hand.
Japanese home cooks make nishime by cooking all the vegetables and meat in one pot from the start. The more refined way of making it is to cook each vegetable separately in stock and then combine them for only a short time so the individual morsels of food maintain their own flavors. For example, if you combine burdock and taro potatoes together, the earthy burdock will season the potato. Some vegetables, like lotus root and the potato-derived konnyaku, have a bland flavor so they need to be cooked a long time in a seasoned stock or with other vegetables to become flavorful. Some green vegetables, such as snow peas, cook fast and turn unappealing in color if you leave them in the nishime stock for too long. To combat that, precooked greens are added at the last minute to brighten the earthy holiday stew. However, you can try making the all-in-one-pot version to see how you like it.
Nishime (Chicken and Root Vegetable Stew)
Serves 4 to 6
1 piece of konnyaku (optional)
6 taro potatoes, peeled and beveled
1 burdock, peeled
1 medium lotus root
12 snow peas, veins removed
200 grams (about 7 ounces) cooked bamboo shoots
6 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated and with stems removed
½ teaspoon salt to cook the snow peas
1 pound boneless chicken thigh
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups water
3 ounces light-colored soy sauce (Usukuchi soy sauce)
3 ounces Koikuchi soy sauce
6 ounces mirin
2 ounces sake
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6-inch piece of konbu seaweed
1. Blanch the konnyaku in boiling water for a minute. Drain and discard the water.
2. Peel and slice the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root and konnyaku into bite-size pieces, about 1½ to 2 inches wide.
3. Blanch the snow peas in salted boiling water for a minute. Drain and set aside.
4. Bring a medium-sized saucepan full of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Blanch the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root, bamboo shoots and mushrooms in the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain and set aside the vegetables in a bowl. Repeat the process with the chicken pieces.
5. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, konnyaku and the blanched vegetables (except the snow peas) and sauté for 5 minutes.
6. Add water, the soy sauces, mirin, sake, sugar and seaweed and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken, potatoes and carrots and set aside. Continue cooking the vegetables remaining in the saucepan for another 15 minutes. You can make the stew up to this point and leave it overnight in the fridge. Reheat before serving.
7. Garnish with snow peas before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Nishime, a Japanese stew. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
I’ve been reading with fascination Michael Moss’ often hilarious and deeply thoughtful article in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine. Moss — his book “Salt Sugar Fat” is a must-read for anyone who wonders how the American diet got to its present parlous state — approached a top ad agency, Victors & Spoils. (I thought it was a joke at first, but no, that really is an agency, renowned for provocative crowd-sourcing campaigns.)
What would happen, Moss proposed, if you created an ad campaign for, let’s say, broccoli, probably one of America’s most hated vegetables. The Times article follows Moss through his research on how a Coca-Cola type of campaign might approach the problem of vegetable dislike. (On the way, he looks at another key link in the chain — how American farmers could produce more vegetables and why they don’t.)
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Because the fact is, if you look at statistics, we hate vegetables. Oh, I know, someone is going to respond by saying, “No, no, we love all vegetables, we eat nothing else.” But you, dear reader, are a sadly diminishing minority. Moss cites a 2010 study by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services that concluded only 5% of Americans younger than 50 are getting the recommended five servings a day. Most Americans consume daily only half as many vegetables and less than half the fruit they ought to be eating. (And most of that fruit is in the form of juice — the least healthful way to get it.)
That five servings a day, recommended by no less an authority than the World Health Organization, is itself a bit of wish fulfillment.
No one in fact knows for sure whether fruits and vegetables on their own will have an effect on chronic disease rates. (There is some skepticism about cancer protection, as noted in this BBC report.) But it’s very clear anecdotally at least that a diet high in a variety of fruits and vegetables has a positive impact on health.
So why don’t we eat more?
Probably because it’s too easy not to. Junk food, fast food and the like are all around us, mostly at arm’s reach. If you’re going to eat more vegetables, you have to prepare them — wash ’em, trim ’em, look ’em over for slugs or bugs or worse and then … cook ’em. (Unless you prefer to live on salad.)
What’s a busy guy to do? Reach for the microwavables. Maybe Healthy Choice’s Chicken & Potatoes with Peach BBQ Sauce, which has a whopping 24 grams of sugar and just 5 grams of dietary fiber, plus about a third of the total daily sodium intake recommended for people older than 50. Maybe not such a healthy choice after all?
Kale, leafy greens are worthy additions to your menu
Nonetheless, the selection of greens in most produce markets, even in the most ordinary supermarkets, grows greater every year, and somebody has to be buying, cooking and eating them. Along with the usual spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, we find such offerings as broccoli rabe (aka rapini), collards, turnip greens, kale in many varieties, mustard greens, bok choy, beet greens and dandelion greens. The list goes on and on.
Nutritional powerhouses, these are often, sad to say, the most detested items on any menu, especially for children. But here’s the secret: It’s all in the cooking. No one could possibly love greens if they’re steamed to a limp, gray mash, then dumped on a plate with a blob of cold butter stuck on top. But done the Mediterranean way, they reveal, first of all, flavor. Then texture. Then an overpowering deliciousness. Garlic, oil, a little chili pepper, a scrap of citrus juice — they make all the difference in the world.
I just made the following utterly simple recipe using Tuscan kale, aka lacinato or dinosaur kale, the kind with long, dark green, slightly blistered leaves that is a growing presence in supermarket produce sections. You could do the same with spinach (much more cleaning, much less cooking time), chard, turnip greens (cutting away tough stems, otherwise leaving whole), ordinary kale (de-stemmed), broccoli rabe (trimmed of tough stems) and many other greens you find.
Braised Kale With Oil, Garlic and Chili Pepper
Makes 6 servings
3 pounds fresh Tuscan kale, lacinato kale or dinosaur kale
Sea salt to taste
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for garnish
1 small dried hot red chili pepper or a pinch of chili flakes
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice or aged red wine vinegar (not balsamic)
1. Prepare the kale by stripping the leaves away from the stems. (Hold the stem in your right hand; grasp the leafy part in your left hand and simply slide down the stem, releasing the leaves.) Rinse thoroughly in a couple of changes of water.
2. Transfer the rinsed greens to a pot large enough to hold them all. Add a sprinkle of salt and a couple of tablespoons of boiling water. Set over medium heat and cook, covered, until the greens are wilted.
3. Remove and drain, then transfer to a chopping board and chop the greens coarsely in several directions.
4. Set a skillet large enough to hold all the cooked greens over medium heat and add the garlic and olive oil. Cook, stirring, until the garlic starts to soften, then add the chopped greens, stirring and turning them in the aromatic oil until they have completely absorbed it.
5. As soon as the greens start to sizzle in the pan, remove from the heat and taste, adding more salt if necessary. Stir in the chili pepper and lemon juice.
6. Pile the greens on a heated platter and garnish with a dribble more of oil. Or serve the greens atop crostini, toasted slices of Tuscan country-style bread rubbed lightly with a cut clove of garlic and dribbled with a small amount of oil.
Top photo: Baskets of greens for sale at a market in Camucia, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, has quickly become my favorite winter squash. The texture is somewhat like a chestnut or potato, unlike most squash and pumpkins, which, when cooked are very soft.
Kabocha can be cooked in a multitude of ways, including roasting, mashing, baking and even in soup. They can be used to make pies and other desserts. When eating in a Japanese restaurant, if there is kabocha in the vegetable tempura, I will always get an order.
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I often substitute kabocha squash in recipes that call for other winter squash, such as butternut or acorn squash. The difference in flavor profiles can completely change an old standard into a brand-new classic.
One Thanksgiving, about five or six years ago, I decided to add a kabocha squash recipe to my dinner. Every year I used to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family and extended family. This is usually very traditional fare, featuring turkey, dressing, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, green salad, maybe a Jell-O mold fixed by my mother, and rolls. My sister would always make the candied yams and sweet potato pie, and bring them over.
Interested in bringing slightly healthier fare to my Thanksgiving table, I wanted another option to balance the buttery sugary overload of the candied yams. I brushed the kabocha squash with a very small amount of melted butter and spiced it with warm spices, including cinnamon. When the squash was done, I drizzled pomegranate molasses over the top. The tart and sweet molasses blended beautifully with the spiced sweetness of the squash.
Of course, once the family saw the kabocha squash, everyone asked what in the world it was.
One cousin even remarked, “Black folks don’t eat that!” I replied, “You do today” and explained what the dish was.
Gamely, everyone took a small piece to try. And wouldn’t you know, they loved it. They all came back for more. So I guess black folks do eat kabocha squash.
This soup has an additional layer of flavor added by roasting the squash before use in the soup. You can roast the squash a day before, or if you have leftover roasted kabocha squash it can be repurposed in this recipe.
Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup With Kale
3 pounds kabocha squash, seeds removed, cut into 4 pieces
3 (15 ounce) cans low sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground ginger powder
½ teaspoon ground smoked paprika
2 cups torn kale
1. Heat oven to 400 F.
2. Place squash onto a baking sheet skin side down. Roast squash for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender.
3. Remove the squash from the oven, set aside to cool slightly. (This step can be done a day ahead.)
4. Scoop the flesh from the squash.
5. In a large saucepan, combine the cooked squash, chicken broth, salt, allspice, ginger and smoked paprika.
6. Using the back of a spoon or a potato masher, break the squash up.
7. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook the soup for about 30 minutes, until the flavors have melded.
8. Carefully purée the soup using a blender or food processor.
9. Return the puréed soup to the pot, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
10. Add the kale, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the kale is tender.
11. If needed, add a small amount of water to thin the soup if it becomes too thick.
Top photo: Roasted kabocha squash soup with kale. Credit: Cheryl Lee
Thanksgiving dinner in my family is not the time for experimentation. We have old favorites whose recipes we pull out because, after all, we make and eat this food only once a year. Turkey may be the star of the show, but side dishes, including Brussels sprouts, deserve some spotlight treatment too with preparations that go beyond everyday recipes.
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Two of my children were born in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where we lived for 15 years, so we still lean toward traditional New England Thanksgiving food even though we’ve all moved to Southern California. On Thanksgiving Day nary a jalapeño would appear on our table but rather maple syrup, cranberries and bread stuffing. We’re very “pilgrim” in our approach. Although Thanksgiving dinner is not codified, there is general agreement as to what will be on the table.
Many families make the turkey the centerpiece of the whole experience, and it should be. But this is no time to relegate the side dishes to the sideline. If you put as much care, consideration and love into those side dishes Thanksgiving dinner truly becomes memorable.
A real winner of a green vegetable dish is our hash of Brussels sprouts with maple-glazed bacon and hazelnuts.
Making new Brussels Sprouts fans
A New England Thanksgiving menu — the only truly proper one, I believe — has some prescribed dishes besides turkey, pumpkin and cranberry, and one of them is Brussels sprouts.
I like Brussels sprouts but many people don’t care for them. For people who don’t like them, this may be the ideal preparation because the final dish is hardly recognizable as Brussels sprouts. This is a terrific recipe and everyone at our Thanksgiving dinner always takes big servings.
This dish can be made Thanksgiving morning and left in the skillet to be reheated for 2 minutes on high when it is time to serve. Be careful not to overcook the Brussels sprouts.
Brussels Sprouts Hash With Bacon and Hazelnuts
Oil for sautéing
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
Coarse sea salt
8 thick-cut rashers maple-cured bacon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup crushed or chopped blanched hazelnuts
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium heat for 10 minutes. Pour enough oil into the skillet or griddle to cover the cooking surface with slightly more than a film of oil.
2. Place the Brussels sprouts in the skillet, cut side down, and cook until blackened in spots and golden brown. Turn the vegetables with tongs and cook until the convex side is also browned, 5 to 8 minutes in all. Sprinkle with sea salt and set aside. By the time you place the last cut Brussels sprout down you will probably need to begin turning the first. Chop the cooked Brussels sprouts coarsely.
2. Lay the strips of bacon down in the skillet or griddle and cook until browned and crispy, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon and cool, then break it into ½-inch pieces.
3. In a large sauté pan or flameproof casserole, melt the butter over medium-high heat and cook the hazelnuts, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Return the chopped Brussels sprouts, bacon and cooked hazelnuts to the pan and season with pepper and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.
5. Serve or reheat when Thanksgiving dinner is ready. (If reheating, do not cook for more than 2 minutes.)
Top photo: Brussels sprouts for hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
My first serious cookbook, “European Peasant Cookery,” published in the United Kingdom in 1984 and still in print with Grub Street, was published in the U.S. the next year as “The Old World Kitchen.” Now, it is again available in the U.S. in print, in a splendid new edition from Melville House.
Initial research, a matter of filling gaps because I’d already been collecting raw material for years, was conducted among the shelves of London Library’s Topography section. (I’d already exhausted Cookery.) There, I quickly discovered that the only authors of 19th- and early-20th-century travel books — the glory days of the genre — who can be relied on for details of the domestic — meals as well as interiors — are vicars and women.
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That said, it can generally be assumed that travel writers, men and women, fall into two categories: those who tell you what they eat and those who don’t. And complaints can be just as interesting as praise. Among those who share their dinner is Mark Twain, whose low opinion of the European breakfast is set against lyrical memories of the same meal in his native land: “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery,” he explains sorrowfully, “would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away and eventually die.” This was true enough at a time when the hungry hordes were emigrating in droves to the New World: “Imagine,” he continues dreamily, “an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porter-house steak an inch and a half thick, hot and spluttering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy; archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellowish fat …” and so forth till the hungry reader could eat a horse. And did, in those more omnivorous times.
If American Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) didn’t think much to what came out of the Old World kitchen in the 1880s, English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (read all about him in Artemis Cooper’s fine new biography) appreciated the asceticism of supper with the Benedictines of St. Wandrille-en-Fontanelle near Rouen in northern France in the 1950s: “As the monks tucked their napkins into their collars with simultaneous and uniform gesture … the guest-master and a host of aproned monks waited at the tables, putting tureens of vegetable soup in front of us and dropping into our plates two boiled eggs, which were followed by a dish or potatoes and lentils, then by an endive salad, and finally by disks of camembert, to be eaten with excellent bread from the Abbey bakery.” Sounds pretty good to me.
The monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in southern Belgium — half an hour as the crow flies from St. Wandrille — keep the roof on their beautiful medieval buildings by providing monastic rations of potage du jour with their own good bread and cheese to tourists by the busload, myself among them. What goes into the pot depends on season and availability, as was always the way for the independent peasantry on whose good will and labor the monasteries depended. More such down-to-earth recipes are included in “The Old World Kitchen.”
For the soup:
8 ounces (250 grams) mushrooms (wild or cultivated)
2 ounces (50 grams) butter, divided
2 shallots or 1 onion, diced
Salt to taste
1 celery head, finely sliced with leaves
2 large leeks, sliced including both white and green parts
1 to 2 mature carrots, scraped and diced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 pints (1 liter) water
Pepper to taste
1 pound (500 grams) potatoes, peeled and diced
A generous handful parsley, finely chopped
1. Pick over the mushrooms, trim and dice.
2. Melt half the butter in a roomy pan over a gentle heat. Add the chopped onion or shallots, salt lightly and fry gently till golden and soft — allow at least 10 minutes.
3. Add the rest of the butter. Wait till it melts before stirring in the mushrooms. Continue frying till the mushrooms release their water and begin to caramelize a little.
4. Add the celery, leeks, carrots, bay leaf, thyme and nutmeg and stir in the oily oniony juices over the heat for a minute or two.
5. Add the water to the pan, then add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover loosely and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, till the vegetables are soft and the broth well-flavored.
7. Add the diced potato and continue to cook gently for another 10 to 15 minutes, till the potato is soft enough to mash a little to thicken the broth. Taste and correct the seasoning.
8. Stir in the parsley and ladle into bowls. Accompany with a bowl of radishes, thick slices of sourdough bread and soft-boiled eggs or your local cheese.
Illustration: The interior of the abbey. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to revisit the year past, particularly for a wild foods enthusiast. This last foraging season was a doozie in my little corner of the Rocky Mountain region. It was a hard year for the plants, even harder for the people who endured the natural disasters, which only increases my gratitude for the wild foods I was able to pick, including porcini mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner.
Rough year for wild food
Despite what was, in nearly every way, an unusually hard year for foraging, I was still able to harvest foods throughout the growing season.
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This year there were regular snows and hard freezes right up into May, which meant that nearly all of the tree fruit crops were lost, including wild plums and apples. Summer looked to be a repeat of the previous years’ droughts, complete with destructive forest fires. Then, just as summer was about to end, a flooding rainstorm hit the area, shredding the landscape and forcing people from their homes.
I won’t forget my joy in finding the first green tops of wild onions in the spring, and preserving them in butter kept safe in the freezer. High summer scented my fingers with Monarda fistulosa, also known as beebalm or wild oregano. As summer started to drag its heels, I made my annual trek into the forest to chase down Boletus edulis, porcini mushrooms.
Even now, in what I’ve taken to calling “the year without fruit,” months past the first freeze, and having endured many snow storms, the land still provides. Some hardy greens still cling tightly to the ground, and I’m looking forward to a quiet snowy day in the coming months when I can pick black walnuts out of their shells. My pantry is wonderfully well stocked.
Foraged Thanksgiving classics
I will revisit my year of foraging at Thanksgiving with dishes tickled with wild ingredients. They will taste distinctly of this place I love and cement my foraging memories. It is possible to make a nearly all-wild Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve done so in the past. But because the holiday is a time to be surrounded by friends and extended family, many of whom are unfamiliar with wild cuisine, I usually restrain myself from making an all-wild meal. Instead, I prefer to make a wild twist on traditional dishes — cranberry sauce mixed with highbush cranberries, turkey basted with wild allium butter, or pumpkin pie made with a black walnut crust.
Among my most successful wild-infused Thanksgiving dishes is a stuffing loaded with foraged porcini mushrooms, which can also be purchased from a store if you aren’t lucky enough to find your own. Stuffing made with porcini mushrooms tastes at once wild and luxurious, but also comfortingly familiar. Using the porcini soaking water in place of the traditional broth adds an extra dimension of mushroom flavor to the dish. The eggs in this recipe add extra binding power to the bread cubes, but they may easily be omitted if you are serving vegans or those with egg allergies. This Thanksgiving stuffing may also be made gluten-free by using gluten-free bread.
Wild Porcini Mushroom Stuffing
Serves 8 to 10
1 pound sourdough bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
3½ cups boiling water
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
8 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, sliced
8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems
½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
10 fresh sage leaves, chopped
Freshly cracked pepper
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
3 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, chopped
1. Evenly spread the bread cubes on two baking sheets, and toast them in a 350 F oven until they dry out and the edges begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini mushrooms. Set it aside.
3. In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, thyme. Salt to the skillet and cook them until they turn soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
4. Use a strainer to fish the mushroom slices out of the soaking water. Let the water drip out of them for a few seconds before adding them to the skillet with the onion and celery. Continue to cook the vegetables and mushrooms for another 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, and add cracked pepper, plus more salt if necessary, to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat.
5. Gently pour the mushroom soaking water into the skillet full of vegetables and mushrooms, taking care to leave behind any dirt that has settled in the bottom. If you are using eggs, whisk them into the liquid.
6. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl. Pour the contents of the skillet over the bread cubes and toss until the bread cubes have absorbed all of the liquid. Stir in the parsley.
7. Transfer the mixture into a greased two-quart baking dish, and bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is heated through and the top looks crunchy and brown.
Top photo: Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty
L’orto del professore, the professor’s garden, is riotous, an unruly tumult of beans and squashes, tomatoes and peppers, cabbages, kale, lettuce, cucumbers and wild things, too. When I visited il professore a few weeks ago at his home near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily, there were green beans twining up poles and low borlotti bush beans (the kind that, when dried, get turned into zuppa di fagioli); there were climbing squashes, long, pale, snake-like squashes — Sicilian favorites called cucuzza – and big, round pumpkins in various shapes and shades of yellow-stained orange; there were eggplants and tomatoes and cabbages and peppers in all sizes and degrees of heat.
Everything grew together in helter-skelter fashion, and there was also growing everywhere a surfeit of what you (and I) might call weeds — but they all had names and they all had purposes, from familiar purslane, growing close to the ground, so healthy and delicious in salads, to tall plants of amaranth with their graceful pink flower stalks laden with seeds. There was also lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), nettles and mallow (Malva sylvestris), all valuable sources of food for anyone who knows what he’s about.
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And the professor knows what he’s about. He is a noted gardener, forager and expert on all manner of living creatures, but especially those that grow in the ground. My friend Salvatore, himself no mean forager of wild greens, always tries to spend time with the professore when he’s visiting his native Sicily from Umbria, where he’s lived the last dozen years or so. It was Salvatore who took me to meet the professore after a morning during which the two genial gentlemen had rambled through the pine forest above Piazza Armerina, looking for mushrooms but without notable success. Salvatore had supplied the professore last spring with seeds of cavolo nero, a type of kale that’s a foundation of wintertime tables in Tuscany and Umbria, and now he wanted me to see how the plants had done in the unfamiliar environment of central Sicily. In brief, they had done spectacularly well in this hotter, drier climate, growing thick, dark, blistery, blue-green leaves that, when stripped of their tough central stems, would be steamed or fried or added to soups.
It’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand the kind of niche levels of consumption that exist in Italy. It’s fewer than 400 miles from Salvatore’s garden in Umbria to the professore’s in central Sicily, and yet cavolo nero is as exotic in Sicily as some Chinese herb might be in New England. Just as no one in Umbria would think of using the fragrant dried oregano that is so ubiquitous in Sicilian cooking, so no one in Sicily, as far as we could tell, had ever tried to grow cavolo nero. (In U.S. markets, where it’s been appearing for several years now, cavolo nero is sometimes known as Tuscan kale or lacinato kale.)
Is there religion in a garden’s riotous profusion?
I admired the professore’s success with cavolo nero, but I was more interested in the garden as a whole and its riotous profusion. I can’t think when I’ve seen a garden that looked more undisciplined, even abandoned. Used to the trim and tightly weeded rows of a New England vegetable garden, I was undone by what looked like an uncontrollable wilderness. And yet the plants were healthy, with no trace of bugs or diseases. As we stalked through bean patches and clambered over pumpkin vines, it suddenly struck me. “This is a very Catholic garden,” I said. What did I mean? “Well, it’s wide open to anything and everything, saints and sinners alike.” (At least that’s how I see it.) The professore laughed. “I’m not a Catholic,” he said. “I’m somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic.” “So was my father,” I replied, “but he had a thoroughly Protestant garden, straight rows, tidy, neat, disciplined.”
Can that be? Is there really such a thing as a Catholic garden or a Protestant garden? It’s fun to think about, and maybe there’s a bit of truth in it. We continued our banter as we made our way back to the house, where a lovely lunch awaited us — pasta with tenerumi, fresh from the garden; a sweet-and-sour braise of rabbit with caponata, that great Sicilian combination of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic and olive oil (talk about Catholic!) on the side; and a dessert of simple slices of chilled melon. All prepared by the professore’s wife, whose 94-year-old mother, a testament to the virtues of this Mediterranean, fresh-from-the-garden diet, joined us at the table.
Now, you may be asking, what exactly are these tenerumi? Tenerumi are the tender (tenere — get it?) green leaves and budding tips from that same cucuzza squash, the long, snake-like squash I mentioned earlier that is such a favorite in Sicily, and, like the oregano I also mentioned above, quite unknown in more northern parts of Italy. The squash itself is a summertime favorite, harvested when young then chunked and stewed gently with other vegetables. It’s considered cooling, according to the Doctrine of Signatures, which goes back to Hippocrates, if not earlier. But the leaves and tender shoots of the plant are also edible, and indeed prized in Sicily, and they were growing all over the professore’s orto, putting out delicate white flowers. (The white flowers mean that technically this is a gourd not a squash, which has yellow flowers.) I’ve seen tenerumi leaves sold in New York City Greenmarkets and I imagine they’re probably seasonally available in other parts of the country as well. They are deliciously refreshing and slightly astringent and, when cooked with pasta, make an exciting and unusual first course. The professore’s wife prepared her tenerumi by slicing the leaves and part of the stems, discarding any tough or wooden stem ends along with the tendrils, which won’t soften with cooking. You should have about 4 cups of fresh sliced tenerumi for the following recipe.
Could you make pasta con tenerumi with other types of squash leaves, too? I don’t see why not, as long as they are not too big, old, tough or covered with prickles. The leaves and shoots of young zucchini and other types of summer squash would be just fine, but I wouldn’t use the big, old, hairy leaves of pumpkins or hard winter squash. You can also order seeds for cucuzza from Growitalian.com (search for zuchetta) and plant them in your garden next spring, just like zucchini. Harvest the squash (sorry, gourds) when they’re not more than a foot long, and pull off the leaves and tender shoots whenever you feel the urge — you can go on with this all summer long.
Pasta Con Tenerumi
This makes enough for 4 servings — and note that it’s more of a soup than a pasta and should be eaten with forks and soup spoons.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to garnish the bowls
About ½ pound small cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 small fresh chili pepper, seeded and chopped (or to taste)
A big bunch of tenerumi leaves and shoots, prepared as above, to make 4 cups
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups of water
1 pound spaghetti, broken into 1-inch lengths
Cheese to grate over the top (pecorino Siciliano or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
1. Add the garlic and oil to the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart stock pot and set over medium heat. Cook, briefly stirring, until the garlic has softened, but do not let it brown.
2. Stir in the halved or quartered tomatoes and the chili pepper and continue cooking, stirring until the tomatoes start to give off juice and the bits of chopped chili have softened.
3. Add the cleaned tenerumi leaves along with a generous amount of salt and black pepper. Stir very well to mix all the ingredients together, then add about 6 cups of water and bring it to a simmer.
4. Let the liquid simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the leaves are tender but not falling apart. While the leaves are cooking, break the spaghetti into approximately 1-inch lengths.
5. When the leaves are sufficiently cooked, stir the pasta into the pot along with another pinch of salt. Let it cook till the pasta is done — approximately 8 minutes, or according to your own preference.
6. Serve immediately in soup bowls or on plates. Add a generous dollop of extra virgin olive oil to the top of each serving along with a handful of freshly grated cheese. This is often served in summertime at room temperature, but in the chilly days of autumn I prefer it as the professore’s wife served it — hot from the pan.
Note that some people like to add a potato or two, peeled and cubed, right at the beginning, along with the tomatoes.
Top photo: The professore in his garden, holding up one of the cucuzza squashes he grows. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Root vegetables play an essential part of my family’s Thanksgiving meal, along with turkey, cranberries, pumpkin and corn. Kinpira — a classic Japanese stir-fry root vegetable dish — celebrates my family’s heritage and brings comfort to the table. And like the symbolic foods of American holidays, it’s a metaphor for life. The name kinpira is derived from the folk legend Sakata-no-Kinpira: a brave samurai Japanese people associate with strength. Japanese have used the term kinpira not only for their popular root vegetable dish, but also for bean cakes, candy, dolls and even footwear.
My grandmother taught me that root vegetables are winter healing foods. They warm the body and make you more grounded. I never heard her speak of food in any scientific terms — how these root vegetables carry nutrients like vitamin B, minerals and fiber. She told me root vegetables are themselves the roots of plants. They grow to deliver nutrients to the leaves and flowers above ground, so the roots were nutrient-rich. What mattered to her most was that we ate whole foods in season, and root vegetables were one of them. That was a sensible lesson on food.
More from Zester Daily:
Root vegetables can be broadly divided into two categories: taproot and tuberous. Taproot vegetables have one main root, which is capable of growing very deep and can access deeper soil levels to obtain the necessary water to sustain itself. They include the long burdock; conical and tapered carrots; and lighter, creamier-colored parsnips. Tuberous root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes and ginger, have an enlarged storage structure to store starch. Depending on the type of root vegetable you use, kinpira will have a savory, spicy or sweet flavor. Farmers are growing a variety of heirloom varieties you can experiment with. Try Nante carrots, daikon radish, Milan turnip or Gobo (Japanese burdock). I make kinpira with whatever root vegetables appeal to me at the farmers market.
You can make kinpira with either peeled or whole root vegetables. You can use just the vegetables peels to make kinpira and then use the rest of the vegetable for another dish. It’s in the skin that the best flavor is hidden. If you are using the whole root vegetables, try gently scrubbing the skin with a brush to remove the dirt and hair fibers.
Burdock is the most common ingredient for making kinpira, but the long and skinny root is still unfamiliar to most American cooks. You may wonder how it’s going to fit in your fridge. Just break it in half.
When using root vegetables like burdock, avoid rinsing them until you’re ready to use them. In markets, burdock is often sold with the dirt still clinging to the roots because it is quick to wilt when washed. Like any root vegetables, look for burdock that is firm and not fibrous at the center. The white flesh immediately discolors once peeled and sliced. To maintain the color, you’ll want to soak it in a mild rice vinegar solution until you’re ready to cook it. Burdock has a nutty taste and is crunchy in texture. It’s delicious sautéed in combination with carrots. Kinpira Burdock and Carrots will make a delicious addition to your holiday menu.
Kinpira Burdock and Carrots
1 large burdock (Gobo) root
2 large carrots
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 Japanese dried chili pepper, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons soy sauce, or more or less to taste
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon sugar, or more or less to taste
1 tablespoon sake
Red cracked pepper or shichimi pepper
Roasted ground sesame seeds
1. Scrub and clean the burdock and carrots. You do not have to peel the vegetables unless you prefer to eat them without the skin.
2. Julienne the vegetables and soak in a bowl of water with the rice vinegar added until ready to fry.
3. Drain the rice vinegar-water solution from the vegetables.
4. Over medium-high heat, sauté the burdock and carrots in the sesame oil for 3 minutes. Add the chili pepper, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and sake, and simmer for another 8 minutes, or until the vegetables absorb most of the liquid.
5. Taste to see whether it needs more seasonings and adjust accordingly.
6. Top with garnish if desired. The cracked red pepper will give it a zing. It’s nice, too, with roasted sesame seeds. Serve warm or at room temperature. It will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
Top photo: Kinpira. Credit: Sonoko Sakai