The Gods are Laughing

Somewhere in Heaven or on Mt. Olympus or wherever divine beings congregate, the Food Gods and the Irony Gods are toasting and laughing at me. Because, as I write these very words, I am eating quinoa.

Arugula & quinoa salad with roasted pumpkin, walnuts and yogurt cucumbers

Arugula & quinoa salad with roasted pumpkin, walnuts and yogurt cucumbers

They (those gods) had barely just gotten over their amusement at my new jogging regimen (after years of declaring that I only ran if something was chasing me), and now they had this to entertain them! More

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In Praise of Arugula

The Italians know something we Americans often don’t. That is, that sometimes the most wonderful dishes are the most basic. If you’ve got fresh, great quality produce and make the right flavor combinations, the simplest things will be the most delicious. And here I share with you one of my favorites.

Arugula may be the best of all herbs. It grows wild in places like Greece and Italy, where old toothless guys with walking sticks and baskets and faithful hound dogs named Pirot forage for it on barren hillsides. It’s easy to grow, at least in California. Let it go to seed, and you’ll have little wild arugulas popping up all over your yard. And you and your kids can get a basket and pretend you’re foraging, too.

Peppery, floral and complex, its flavors become even more sublime when it is combined with five additional ingredients — fresh lemon juice, best-quality extra virgin olive oil, shaved aged parmesan, freshly cracked pepper and flaky sea salt such as Maldon. As beautiful and sophisticated as it is simple.

My 7-year-old son who is suspect of anything green will devour as much of this salad as I will serve him, he loves it so. You will too:

Italian Arugula Salad
serves 4

1  cup arugula per person
fresh lemon
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup thinly shaved aged parmesan reggiano
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Choose nice looking plates. Spread a cup of arugula artfully around each plate. Squeeze lemon juice over the top, one or two good squeezes per plate should do it. (You should be able to drizzle all four salads with a single lemon.) Then drizzle each salad with your best olive oil. Sprinkle some salt over the top, and a twist or two of freshly ground pepper. Top each with some shaved parmesan. Serve immediately, perhaps as the first course in an Italian dinner.

Wine suggestion: A nice, light pinot grigio or floral sauvignon blanc.

Coolest pepper mills on earth: www.peppermills.ca

Veggies A to Z

People often ask me what to do with this or that particular vegetable. So I’ve put together a very brief primer with some of my favorite preparations for a variety of veggies, A to Z. (This list is by no means complete, rather just some of the ones that make it to our table the most often. If you have a specific vegetable you’d like some help figuring out, shoot me a message in the “Comments” and I’ll do my best to offer creative solutions.)

I’ve deliberately left out things you already know what to do with (the tomato — which is actually a fruit anyway — lettuce, potatoes, etc.). I’ve also omitted kohlrabi — I have no idea what to do with that thing.

*   *   *

Artichoke
You can do no better than “steamed” (i.e. boiled) artichoke served with mayonnaise infused with a little fine olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and some garlic shaved on a microplaner. Another good preparation is to steam the artichoke until tender, then spread open the leaves as best you can. Drizzle liberally with olive oil infused with garlic shaved on a microplaner, then sprinkle with salt, lots of parmesan and bread crumbs and bake at 400 for 30 minutes. If you’ve got young, tender artichokes, trim off the top, peel off tough outer leaves until you reach the lighter green inner leaves, and shave on a mandoline. Serve as a salad with squeezed lemon, drizzled olive oil, flaky sea salt and shaved parmesan. (My dear friend, Clay, just reminded me to let people with an artichoke fetish know to check out the Artichoke Festival in May in Castroville, California — the “Artichoke Capital of the World”. 2011 is the 52nd annual version. Marilyn Monroe was the first Artichoke Queen. Clay and I once shared this adventure many years ago, and witnessed countless artichoke-related atrocities.)

Arugula
Italian arugula salad. Upcoming post on this. And in a tri-tip sandwich with aioli on crusty slipper bread. Once again, this will be coming in a post soon.

Asparagus
For thin stalks, toss them with some olive oil and sea salt, and roast on a sheet of foil at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes, until crispy. Medium stalks you can do the same prep, but cook on a hot grill outside. For fat stalks, peel with a potato peeler up to the tips, steam and top with butter, a fried egg and shaved parmesan. Asparagus also makes a great soup cooked in chicken broth, pureed and finished with a little cream.

Beets
Best fresh and not out of a can. Boil, peel, cut into cubes and toss with greens (oak leaf lettuce, arugula, etc.), candied walnuts and blue cheese. Dress with olive oil and sweetened rice wine vinegar. Or make borscht.

Broccoli
I have traumatic memories of steamed broccoli from childhood. I overcame them with an Italian preparation — douse liberally in olive oil, sprinkle with flaky sea salt and crushed red pepper, and cook in a small baking dish in a hot oven until all soft and crispy. You can also add bread crumbs and parmesan for a treat even your picky kids will love.

Cabbage
The three best uses for cabbage, in my humble opinion, are 1) Korean kimchi, 2) shredded in Baja fish tacos, and 3) Irish corned beef & cabbage. Oh, and cole slaw with some good BBQ.

Cardoon
Most people make a look like a dog hearing a high-pitched noise when I mention cardoons. Beloved in Italy, they are relatively unknown in the U.S. Closely related to the artichoke, they are massive gorgeous plants. You eat the stems instead of the blossoms (as with artichoke). They have a celery-like texture and a mild, lemony artichoke flavor. Remove fibrous strings, cut into 2-inch segments and blanch in acidulated boiling water for 20 minutes. Then sauté in olive oil or butter and serve in a pasta. Or dip in egg, flour and then fry in olive oil as a appetizer.

Cauliflower
The can’t-miss preparation for this I discovered when I accidentally forgot that I had cauliflower in the oven and cooked it for 3 hours. It had caramelized and basically turned into candy. Cut or break apart the cauliflower into lots of pieces. Douse liberally in olive oil and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Cook in a 375-degree oven for 60-90 minutes, tossing once or twice, until soft and golden. I also like cauliflower in a pureed soup, with a little cream. Shave white truffles over the top if you’ve got ’em. (And who doesn’t?)

Celery
Celery is a great flavor in other things (i.e. chicken stock, brunoise for bolognese sauce, etc.). On its own, I like it poached, breaded and fried (that’s one preparation, not three!). Or shaved thin and served as a salad with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a little crumbled blue cheese.

Celery root
One of the great unsung heroic vegetables. With a subtle celery flavor and big meaty potato-ish heartiness. Wash well, peel. And then either make a soup by cooking it a long time in chicken stock, pureeing and adding a little cream at the end. Or grate with carrots and onions and dress as a salad with a French vinaigrette that incorporates a little mayonnaise.

Corn
The preparation that launched a blog! Shuck the ear, brush it with mayonnaise, squeeze lime juice over it, sprinkle with chili powder and flaky salt, and grill on a hot BBQ until golden and brown in places. Crumble queso cotija over cooked corn and serve. I also like to cut the ears off, puree them with water and a little cream, and add at the last minute to a risotto. Corn risotto with grilled salmon will be a keeper in your recipe file.

Eggplant
Cut into chunks, boil in water until soft, drain and mash up, add some sweetened rice wine vinegar, chopped cilantro, cumin and a little tomato paste for a killer Moroccan salad. (I’m planning a Moroccan post soon and I’ll do a better version of this recipe). If you have one of those huge eggplants, cut it into big disks, dip it in egg then bread crumbs, fry in olive oil then sprinkle with salt afterward. Helpful eggplant hint: if you sprinkle salt on the cut pieces of eggplant after you’ve sliced it, the vegetable will release much of its water, which makes it easier to cook.

English peas
Risi i bisi, a Roman rice dish: Heat a quart of chicken stock, add 1 cup arborio rice and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the shelled peas and cook another 10 minutes until rice is done. Spoon porridge-y mixture into soup bowls, top with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped Italian parsley and freshly grated parmesan. Fresh peas are a gift from the gods.

Fava beans
One of my favorites! In the spring when they’re young and fresh, peel the beans from their pod and skins, and serve as a salad with nothing more than fruity olive oil and flaky salt. Or cook in chicken broth, puree and add a little cream for a great soup.

Fennel
Shave thinly on a mandoline and serve as a salad (see above preparation for artichokes, and simply substitute the fennel). Note — the inside of fennel bulbs can be sandy, so be sure to soak and/or wash carefully. I also like fennel caramelized and cooked on pizza. And cooked,  pureed and strained through a fine sieve, it makes a great flan.

Kale
My two favorite kales are Russian kale (which is pretty and feathery when young) and Tuscan black kale (cavolo nero). I like kale sauteed with chopped garlic in olive oil, and then tossed into a pasta.

Okra
This is an odd vegetable but fun to cook with, fun to eat, even fun to say! I skewer them, drizzle with oil and soy sauce, and grill on the barbecue as part of a sumiyaki dinner. They’re also an essential part of gumbo.

Peppers
This is a pretty broad category. Bell peppers I like to roast at a high temperature until blistered, then rest in a plastic bag, peel, cool and make an Italian salad — strips of pepper, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, capers, salt, pepper and a few little strips of anchovy. For peppers like Anaheim, pasilla or poblano, I do chilis rellenos — cook, rest and peel in the same way as above, then carefully open, de-stem and de-seed, and then stuff with cheese of your choice, dip in flour then stiffly whipped egg whites (with yolk folded in at the end) and fry in canola oil until golden on both sides. Serve with a tomato sauce.

Radicchio
Douse with olive oil, sprinkle with flaky salt and grill until wilty. Serve grilled in a salad. Or cut into eighths lengthwise, brush with olive oil, and cook on a pizza with caramelized fennel, sausage and freshly cracked eggs.

Rutabaga
What!?

Spinach
Spinach salad with mustard vinaigrette, bacon and blue cheese. Spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic as an Italian side dish. Spinach sauteed in butter and ponzu as a Japanese side dish. Here’s a fun technique: Heat about an inch of oil in a wok, fry a few spinach leaves at a time until crispy, and serve on top of grilled fish with butter and lemon.

Summer squash (inclusive of zucchini, yellow squash, etc.)
My yoga teacher sister likes to slice squash in little circles, douse them in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, lay them out on foil and cook until they are caramelized and crispy. This is one of the best preparations. You can also shave them into long, thin strips on a mandoline and use in place of wide noodles as a kind of veggie pasta. Or slice thick, dip in egg and bread crumbs, and fry in olive oil.

Swiss chard
This is one of my favorite veggies! Especially the kind with the golden stalks, which add a gorgeous color to pastas. Chop roughly, sauté in olive in which you have crisped a couple pieces of pancetta. Toss with penne, deglazing the cooking pan with a little pasta water. Crumble pancetta in and top with freshly grated parmesan. My other favorite use for swiss chard is in Mexican tortilla soup, pureed into a smooth silky green soup. I’ll do up a post about this soup one of these days…

Winter squash (inclusive of kabocha pumpkin, acorn squash, butternut squash, etc.)
Roast until caramelized and serve with butter. Or peel and throw in water with an onion, cook for an hour, puree, add salt and pepper to taste and finish with a little cream.

Yam/Sweet potato
I peel these, cut into batons, cook in boiling water for 5 minutes, then drain and lightly fry in a large pan in grapeseed oil until golden, then sprinkle with a little kosher salt and a bit of sugar. They’re also great as tempura.

The Emperor of Steaks

This blog spends a lot of time in Italy, particularly the north. (In our mind, at least, if not in reality…) And now, I humbly present the king of all carnivorous northern Italian preparations — Bistecca alla Fiorentino.

6 lbs. of dry aged porterhouse, courtesy Harvey's Guss Meat Co.

If you have a crappy steak you bought from Costco, by all means — smother it in A-1, teriyaki sauce or sauteed mushrooms. If you have a good steak or a great steak, there is no option but Fiorentino. This will be the simplest recipe I have given you yet. And perhaps the most important. Unless you are a vegetarian. This will not work with a tofu cutlet.

Bistecca alla Fiorentino

rib-eye or porterhouse steak on the bone (about 1/2 lb or more per person), cut at least 1 inch thick
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup arugula per person
lemons
sea salt & pepper

Take the steaks out of the fridge an hour before you will cook them. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.

Get the grill as hot as it will get. 600 degrees or above is good. Sear the steaks on each side, about 3 minutes per inch for medium rare. (Use a sharp steak knife to poke into the steak and make sure it is cooked to your liking.)

Here’s a neat trick my friend, Greg, taught me: On a cutting board, drizzle a little more olive oil, squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle some salt and pepper. Remove the steaks from the grill and place on the cutting board to rest for 5 minutes. (The olive oil and lemon juice you put on the cutting board will soak into the meat when you cut it, and will bind to the meat juices so the steak will remain juicy.)

When they are done resting, slice the meat first off the bone, and then cut across the grain into 1/3 inch thick slices. Spread half a cup of arugula on each plate, arrange 4 or 5 slices of steak on top of the arugula. Squeeze lemon juice over the meat and arugula, drizzle some olive oil over the top as well. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper.