A Vegetarian Feast in the Peak of Summer

Chilled Summer Greens Soup

Friday night our friends Scott and Carolyn joined us for dinner.  Carolyn is a vegetarian and I always welcome the challenge because I usually include meat or fish in some way. 

On the one hand I thought it would be easy because as vegetables go, this is peak season.  On the other hand, many of the great veggies of the season do not require much preparation.  We had the first cantaloupe and the first watermelon of the CSA season.  We had tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of greens, all of which could easily be set out with no preparation.  But the whole point of being a chef is the preparation!

So I prepared a menu based on the summer’s freshest veggies, some whole grains, and some creative ways to showcase them.

The menu was:

Watermelon Sangria Cocktail

Chilled Green Vegetable Soup

Whole Grain Croquettes with Salsa Fresca

Seared Fresh Cantaloupe with Fresh Mint and a Honey-Butter Glaze

The Salsa Fresca

 The salsa was the first order of business because it would need time to mix flavors.  The preparation is simple, cut the veggies all to the same size and season.  In this case the veggies (and fruit) included blueberries so that would be the size of everything else.  To that I added red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh basil, a Serrano chili, red wine vinegar, lime juice, and olive oil.  I seasoned with salt and pepper and stirred every 15 minutes or so to mix the flavors.

For the Watermelon Sangria Cocktail, I pureed half a seedless watermelon and strained the juice.  I added this to a bottle of dry white wine, a cup of vodka, a half cup of triple sec, and served it over ice garnished with fresh mint.  It had the flavors of summer, a nice kick, and was very refreshing!

The Chilled Summer Greens Soup was made in several steps.  First I simmered fresh kale and chard in vegetable broth.  This took about 5-10 minutes but softened the greens and mellowed the flavors.  I removed the greens and simmered spinach in the same broth for about 3 minutes. 

Two things preserve the bright green color that is so important to the soup.  The vegetable broth was heavily salted.  This would not go into the final soup but draws out the green color from the greens.  As each was finished,  I removed the greens to ice water briefly which locks in the bright green color.

I also sliced a large zucchini crosswise and browned the slices in olive oil with herbs de Provence and sea salt. 

All of the greens and the zucchini went into the food processor.  As it pureed I added a chopped juicy tomato.  The greens when concentrated like this give a heavy earthy flavor and need a light and acidic counterpoint.  The tomato lightens it up but at this time of year they are not very acidic.  I added balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper,  fresh parsley, basil, and thyme.  To get the texture and color I wanted I added a ripe avocado and a cup of heavy cream.  All of this took place in the food processor.  The final addition was a special one, truffle oil. 

Truffle oil is not cheap, but a little goes a long way.  In this case it was the perfect addition to this dish.  I served the soup garnished with fresh mint and a dollop of greek yogurt.  In truth there was so much to this soup it could have been a small dinner by itself with a crusty loaf of bread and a nice white wine!

Whole Grain Croquettes Topped with Salsa Fresca and Served with Seared Cantaloupe in a Honey Butter Glaze

The Whole Grain Croquettes are a great base for all of this fresh and colorful food.  The combination of grains is not critical, but in this case I used cooked chickpeas which I mashed with a potato masher, and to that I added cooked millet which gave it an interesting look because millet looks like little round seeds.  I also added some cooked brown rice for variety.  I mixed these all in a bowl with a couple beaten eggs, lots of chopped parsley, some fairly heavy seasoning and breadcrumbs.  I mixed them all up in a bowl as I would hamburgers and made them into small hockey puck shaped disks.  They were about an inch to an inch and a half thick.

I heated olive oil in a skillet (just enough to cover the bottom) and waited for it to get hot to the point of smoking and then put the croquettes in the oil.  Not only did the hot oil make them sizzle loudly but it also gave then a crisp browned exterior.  I basically cooked them like hamburgers and halfway through flipped them. 

These were served with the salsa fresca over the top and the combination was satisfying and delicious!

Cantaloupe with Fresh Mint and Honey-Butter Glaze

The last dish was the Cantaloupe with Fresh Mint and Honey-Butter Glaze.  This would have been a great dessert but I chose instead to serve it with the meal.  (Next time I would serve it with some ice cream as dessert).

The cantaloupe was a little early as I wouldn’t expect melons before August but this one came Wednesday with the weekly CSA bag and was so sweet and concentrated with flavor it was spectacular. 

To prepare it I peeled and cut up the melon and tossed it with a large handful of fresh chopped mint.  In a skillet I melted a couple tablespoons of butter and whisked in a couple tablespoons of honey.  I added the cantaloupe and stirred them together.  It did not take long for the melon to brown and you have to watch it so as not to burn the honey but because of all the sugar, it browns nicely and creates a delicious glaze. 

By leaving the cubes fairly large (about the size of strawberries) there was still lots of sweet melon and the glaze did not overshadow the flavor of the melon.  The combination of the butter, the caramelized honey, and the fresh aromatic mint made the perfect companion to the cantaloupe’s great natural flavor.

The real star of Friday’s dinner was Mother Nature and the time of year.  Many thanks to my friend Carolyn for keeping my vegetarian skills honed!  Scott if you’re still reading, you were fun too! 

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Iron Chef Garden Edition: What Would You Do With These?

This week's CSA bag: Swiss Chard, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, cabbage, a red onion, a head of garlic, a beet, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, and the season's first tomatoes!

This is the beginning of year 3 of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA for our family.  Every week we get a bag of locally grown and in-season vegetables.  I enjoy it but I have also have had stretches where I was running out of ideas for winter root vegetables, and in the spring when the weather is nice, all we seem to get is greens.

Finally, the real veggies have started to come in!  Yes, I could walk into the grocery store anytime, on any day and buy these and more but it’s not the same.  Aside from the environmental and health issues, these have genuine just-picked flavor.  There’s also a real excitement to see foods we haven’t eaten in almost a year.  Today we got the first tomatoes of the season.

What would you do with these?

I want to hear from you!  Put yourself in my kitchen and tell me what you would do with these veggies.  It doesn’t have to be all one combined dish, just share what, when you look at these, comes to your mind?  What would you need to add?

For my part I see tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic and basil and immediately think gazpacho.

So using the comments section below, consider this your own “Iron Chef basket” and assume you have a modest budget for additional ingredients.  What would you make?  Give as much detail as you like.

And consider this, it’s a simple pleasure to get excited over fresh vegetables!

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Weeknight Dinner: Wahoo!

Grilled Wahoo with fresh sautéed summer vegetables on herbed quinoa.

The grocery store had this beautiful fresh Wahoo at the fish counter and it was calling out to me!  It grills up really white and firm and was completely delicious.  I hope we see a lot more of this fish.

I served it on a bed of herbed quinoa and with sautéed vegetables all local and in-season.  I even paired it with local wine, opting for a Virginia Viognier!  Start to finish, 30 minutes.

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CSA Harvest from Late June: Can You Identify This Vegetable?

CSA veggies from late June, red lettuce, broccoli, basil, dark leafy greens, scallions, zucchini, yellow squash, an eggplant, an English cucumber, and the mystery vegetable in the center.

This week’s bag of veggies from the CSA was the biggest sign yet that summer is here!  In addition to the lettuce herbs, and greens of the past few weeks, there were squash, an eggplant, a cucumber, and one more that is the subject of a poll below.

Southern Style Zucchini

I cut the squash into cubes and tossed it with a beaten egg, Cajun seasoning, and cornmeal.  I put it in a hot skillet of butter and olive oil and pan-fried it.  Huge hit at home!

The veggie in the middle of the picture is, in my mind not well-known, but really delicious and versatile.  Do you know what it is?  If so, share with ToneMan readers how you prepare it!

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Recreating Hawaiian Flavor Back Home in Virginia

Grilled Mahi Mahi with caramelized Maui onions, Asian slaw and slices of fresh papaya.

So what to do when I’m not ready for the vacation to be over–but it is.  I just spent two weeks eating amazing food from 5,000 miles away and now it’s time to go back to eating local and in-season. 

This week’s CSA bag included a lot of greens, a head of purple cabbage, a lot of herbs, and broccoli.

I decided that gave me enough to work with and I would set to recreating some of the bright tropical flavors we had enjoyed.

I started with a treat I had brought back in my suitcase, some Maui onions.  These are sweet delicious onions similar to Vidalia onions.  I caramelized them and tossed them with a small amount of soy sauce and lime juice at the very end.

The dressing for the Asian slaw, peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil.

Next I turned to the slaw.  I had a head of purple cabbage, green onions, and bunches of fresh cilantro and mint.  I chopped all of these and whisked a dressing of peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil.  (proportions were about a half cup each peanut butter and vinegar, a tablespoon soy sauce and two tablespoons sesame oil.)

The vegetables were all locally grown and in season and the dressing gave it the tropical flavor.  The cilantro and mint worked together to give it a great taste.

The fish was simply seasoned and grilled so that the flavor of the fish did most of the heavy lifting.  I garnished it with the Maui onions and some sesame seeds.

Mahi Mahi simply seasoned and grilled; garnished with caramelized Maui onions and sesame seeds.

The final tropical touch was a fresh papaya which was neither local, nor–I suspect–in season when it was harvested.  It goes against everything the CSA stands for but really gave it that tropical touch!

I squeezed fresh lime juice over it and garnished with chopped cilantro. 

The tropical touch, fresh papaya slices with lime juice and cilantro.

It was a nice fusion of ingredients from this region and flavors from afar.  It was a great summertime meal with bright sharp flavors and an appealing mix of colors and textures.

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Salmon Burger on Spring Lentil Mix

Easy to make, low in carbs, high in fiber, and delicious!

What to make on a beautiful weeknight for a quick yet healthy dinner?  I had frozen salmon burgers on hand.  They don’t have to be thawed first, and they’re pretty good.  When I serve it as a simple burger however, it wants more, not to mention the carbs!

For veggies I had some fresh spinach, garlic scallions, the last large parsnip of the season, and green lentils from our CSA.  I also had some homemade vinaigrette salad dressing. (Any bottled vinaigrette  would work just fine).

I put a cup of lentils in a pot with four cups of water and a teaspoon of salt.  Lentils actually require salt to cook, unlike most legumes in which salt retards the cooking.

While that simmered (about 25 minutes) I peeled and chopped the parsnip, the garlic scallions, and the spinach, then heated up the grill.

When the lentils were almost ready, I put the salmon burgers on the grill, and sautéed the scallions and parsnips.

After 4 or 5 minutes I flipped the burgers, and drained and added the lentils to the scallions.  As those got mixed and heated through I added a large handful of chopped spinach at the last minute and a good drizzle of the homemade salad dressing.

The mixture looked so green and spring-like, and the vinegar and Dijon mustard in the salad dressing gave it a bright sharp note that contrasted nicely with the earthy lentils.

I spread a serving on a plate and topped it with the grilled burger.  Here I could easily dress this dish up by using a more impressive and fresher fish, such as a fresh salmon filet, or a nice white piece of halibut, etc.

The lentil mixture would have been delicious on its own, or as a side dish, but this was a quick meal of what was on hand, and healthy at the same time.  The combination when you got a bite of both the grilled salmon and the lentil mixture was pretty good for a casual weeknight dinner eaten out on the deck!

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The First Asparagus of the Season!

 

When we joined a CSA I pointed to asparagus as one of those things that should not be eaten out of season.  It has a very distinct flavor that lasts less than 48 hours after it’s cut.

Yesterday we received the weekly bag of veggies and there it was, the first asparagus of the season.  It had been cut less than 24 hours ago and it had this fresh green flavor! 

When something arrives for the first time of the season, we try to eat that vegetable by itself, in a sort of starring role.  This was lightly steamed, drizzled with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and eaten with our fingers! 

So freaking good!

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The Sobremesa

It was Friday night and Spring Break had begun!  My son was home from work, my daughter had a week off and two friends over–the type of friends who are part of our family.  My wife’s side-kick was over, and everyone was hungry.  How would I pull parsnips, onions, and greens into a meal?  OK, I also had a pork tenderloin!

During the early Spring, locally grown veggies are kind of lean.  The real growing season has not quite begun and those root vegetables that wintered over are beginning to run out.

Colorful Spring Carrots

This week’s CSA delivery did include a few nice items.  Fresh carrots, onions, spring greens are beginning to arrive, kale, chard, spring mix lettuce, etc.  We also are getting mushrooms from Pennsylvania, portobellos and some really beautiful oyster mushrooms.

Golden Oyster Mushrooms

We received what was possibly the last parsnips until next year.  Parsnips have a unique flavor that is both rich and somewhat minty.  They cook to the texture of potatoes and as part of an ensemble cast, they really add depth to a recipe.

Parsnips

I set out to make a one-dish meal but decided to serve the pork separately.  This meant the pasta dish would offer a meatless, vegetarian side.  If done right we would only need to add wine…and we did!

The Pasta Toss:  I began by slicing the portobello mushrooms and tossing them with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce.  This quick marinade gives them a flavor that really works well with mushrooms.  You can do this anytime just as a side dish or topping for salad.  The portobellos can then be pan seared or grilled.  This night they would be pan seared.

Next I cut onions, parsnips, and a clove of garlic into a fine dice.   heated some olive oil in a skillet and cooked these on med-low.  Every now and then I would shake the pan and turn them, but they really need to spend time on one side to brown.  You don’t want them to steam, so it’s important to resist tossing them around a lot.

As the onions began to soften I added the mushroom strips, seasoning everything with salt, pepper, and a few pinches of red pepper flakes.

The initial saute

The pasta had already been cooked.  We had made stuffed shells and there were a lot of unstuffed shells left over.  I sliced them cross-wise and this made these beautiful curly cues.  For the final step I tossed the pasta in the skillet.  This put a slight brown on them and seasoned them with the flavors of the pan

As the pan came off the stove, I added a few handfuls of fresh spinach leaves.  Not only does this improve the nutritional value, but it adds beautiful color as well. I squeezed a half lemon over it all and tossed it.  The final garnish was crumbled feta cheese and chopped fresh thyme.

Pork Tenderloins

The Pork:  The pork tenderloin was easy and relatively little effort.  I seasoned it with salt, pepper, and ground thyme.  I heated vegetable oil in a skillet and seared the two strips of tenderloin on all sides.  They were thick enough to take on a good crust on the outside without overcooking the center.  From there I removed to a hot oven to finish.  The tenderloins were removed from the oven when they reached 145°.  With a loose foil cover they would come up another 5 degrees during the rest before carving.

I carved the strips in thick slices and this too was garnished with crumbled feta and fresh herbs.

Temp will come up another 5 degrees while resting.

 

We sat at our kitchen table on a Friday night, 7 of us and laughed, talked, toasted, and an impromptu meal became this great evening with the dinner table being center stage. 

One of my favorite parts of the meal is when after all the food is gone and everyone is done eating, we continue to sit at the table talking.  There’s actually a word for this, sobremesaSometimes I think the success of the meal can be measured by the length of the sobremesa.  This was a long and happy one!

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What’s for Breakfast? Multi-Grain, Whole-Grain, Amazing Hot Cereal!

The Granary

In our kitchen we have a shelf we call the “Granary”.  It is mostly dried beans, and whole grains.  After years of these things being tucked away in a cabinet and never used, I one day decided they belong out in the open.

Consequently, I use them more.  Still, I wanted to find a better way to use the grains than just as a side dish or traditional soups, etc.  I thought about where in our normal diets we eat the most grain and of course breakfast was the obvious answer!  I would make my own whole grain cereal.

I like oatmeal, but I get sick of it.  Why must oats be the only grain we eat at breakfast?  So I took a look at the granary and decided I would make my own whole and multi grain cereal.

The makings of a great healthy breakfast

 I began with the grains I find most difficult to work into a meal, barley, millet, and steel cut oats.  These were also the grains which would cook the longest.

I then gathered the ingredients which would make it taste good, beyond the flavor of the grains.  I had dried dates, raisins, almonds, honey, and some seasoning.

It helps here to have a basic chart of how long and in how much liquid each grain needs to cook.  You can’t, for instance, throw rolled oats in with barley and cook them for the same time.  The result would be useful for, perhaps, some sort of mortar on an exterior wall.

So here is a basic chart.  If the grains you use are not on this chart it is simple enough to find the information.

Grain                Liquid to Grain              Cook Time

Barley                            3:1                              45 min

Millet                             3:1                              25 min

Steel Cut Oats               4:1                              20 min

Wheat Berries                3:1                              70 min

Brown Rice                    2 1/4:1                       35 min

Farro                               2:1                              25 min

Quinoa                            2:1                              15 min

Buckwheat                      2:1                              15 min

What this means is that you have to start with the sum of all the liquid you will need, and add the longest cooking grains first so that they all finish at the same time.  For example, if you made barley and quinoa together, and used a cup of each grain, you would need a total of 5 cups of liquid (3:1 and 2:1).  You would start the barley, cook for 30 minutes, and then add the quinoa, and cook for another 15 min.

I decided this day that I would use barley, steel cut oats, and brown rice.  I have since recreated this and highly recommend millet for its visual appeal, and quinoa for its texture.

I put the liquid in the pot.  If it were dinner I might use chicken stock or vegetable broth, but today it was straight tap water.  I added the grains and brought it to a boil.  Once boiling, I brought it down to a simmer.

While this was all happening, I was preparing and adding the flavor ingredients.  I added a handful of raisins, and also had golden raisins, so I added those for color.  I then chopped a handful of almonds.  You could use almost any nut but these seemed to really add a great flavor.

I also had dried peach slices and dried dates so I chopped these and added them.  Dried fruit has really concentrated flavor so it stands up to the long cook time.  I also made sure to cut everything small so that a giant hunk of fruit would not dominate the small grains.  the largest item in the pot was the raisins.

I seasoned it with cinnamon, vanilla, and honey.  Also important is a couple good shakes of salt for each cup of grain in the pot.

Once it was all in the pot I covered it and let it simmer, adding grains at their appropriate time and giving it a stir every now and then.

This was a Saturday morning and as my family woke up, everyone thought I was cooking something different.  “Are you making a pie?”  Do I smell pancakes?”  “Cookies!”

The cereal I made was great!  It had a warm homemade flavor and there was a lot of it, so I was able to microwave a bowl of it all week on work days.

I served it with a dollop of yogurt, and as is often the litmus test in my household, everyone enjoyed it, teenagers included!

It has real staying power too!  You will not be hungry for several hours after this breakfast!

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The Mung Beans and the Rutabaga Two Unusual Ingredients Curry Favor!

I love the challenge of the CSA.  Every Wednesday we get a bag of vegetables from a local farm and in our case it is supplemented with grains, fruit, legumes and eggs.  You have a rough idea of what will be in the bag–and what won’t–but there’s always a surprise.  It’s like your own little Iron Chef competition at home.

This week the challenge was on.  A grapefruit sized rutabaga was in the bag.  This long maligned poster child for winter vegetables has a simple elephantine beauty.

The Rutabaga

I knew it had the ability to be delicious, but it wouldn’t be as simple as slicing a fresh summer tomato and serving it.

We also received a bag of Mung Beans.  These tiny legumes resemble green peppercorns.  Fans of the TV show The Office will remember that the creepy character Creed keeps Mung beans in his desk drawer and “they smell like death’.  Well I think Creed was sprouting them and these were dried.  They did not smell like anything.  The next morning before work I put the mung beans in water to soak.  I was determined to make these unlikely ingredients into something my family would enjoy.

I was inspired by a note left at the CSA pick-up site about an Indian recipe for mung beans.  I got to thinking that these beans, and the rutabaga could become the foundation for a great curry style dish.  I also happened to have some Indian Chapati Bread I had purchased which needed only to be heated on a dry skillet and it was delicious!

Roti-Chapati. Quick and easy Indian bread at home

I started with some basic Indian spices.  Turmeric, black mustard seeds, and whole cumin seeds, about a teaspoon of each.  It’s such a wonderful start because the spices look like the beginning of a work of art with their earthen colors and warm complimentary aromas.

I heated oil in a sauce pan and cooked these spices in the oil for about a minute until I could hear the seeds popping like popcorn.  (Note:  Put the lid on the pan!) 

Simple yet beautiful palate of spices

 
Once the seeds started popping, I added chopped garlic, ginger (I did not have fresh ginger root so I used dry ginger), coriander, ground cumin and a small amount of sugar.  I also salted it.
This cooked for a few minutes and when the garlic had mixed with the spices and permeated the kitchen I added the rutabaga.  I had peeled it and cut it into a medium-sized dice.  I sautéed this and watched it take on the characteristic yellow color of any dish made with turmeric.  Once it had sautéed a bit I added a can of diced tomatoes, covered it and let it simmer on low for 20 minutes.
During that time I put the mung beans in fresh water and boiled them for the same 20 minutes.  When both were done I combined them, removed them from the heat and added a double handful of fresh baby spinach which had also come that week in the CSA bag.  This added bright color and flavor.
The result was a complete success!  When told that morning that we were having mung beans and rutabaga for dinner everyone began to make alternate plans.  When it was served with the Chapati bread it had an authentic flavor, a beautiful look and was the surprise hit of the week! 

The finished dish, as pretty as it is delicious!

 The mung beans could easily be replaced with lentils, or really any dried bean (and lentils would not require soaking).  The rutabaga likewise could be replaced by any firm strong vegetable such as turnips or beets.  I hold this up as one more reason why I’m a fan of the CSA.  I doubt that I would have ever walked into the grocery store and bought these ingredients, and yet they were delicious, in season, and locally available. 

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