17 April 2011

She's back

Better than ever? Time will tell.

My continued descent into internet obscurity was not entirely my choice. I have been cooking, but for weeks I've been trapped in a cycle of pasta, simply dressed with tomato sauce or aglio e olio; grilled cheese sandwiches; and nachos. I did make desserts twice—one was a Very Secret Recipe, while the other is already on this site.

The worst of it is over now. Ever since last weekend, when I finally pulled my head out the sand, I have been relishing my free time. I've been cooking every day—and even washing the dishes. I have more ideas than I can fit in my weekly menu plans (and than I have time, but that's nothing new). My weekly trip to the farmer's market is not a chore to be completely as quickly as possible, but a leisurely Saturday morning stroll.

I am grateful that I came back to life before spring passed me by. The next few weeks are some of my favorites: strawberries, drool-inducing after months of apples, grapefruit, and tangerines, are appearing in the markets; great heaps of fava beans, high-maintenance or not, one of my favorite legumes, made their way into my bag on Saturday; and sugar snap peas are appearing at every corner, a reminder that English peas will be here soon.

In general, my favorite produce is at its best in the summer: eggplants and apricots, chiles and cherries, tomatoes in any shape or color. However, the explosion of spring fruits and vegetables after months of braises and soups (even I can get tired of cabbage and cauliflower) is a welcome jolt of variety, and I find myself getting greedy at the market, trying to buy enough food to feed twelve instead of two.

I generally prefer to keep spring vegetables simple: fave dressed with olive oil and sea salt; artichokes with homemade aioli; radishes with a smear of cold butter. More often than not, I roast asparagus with olive oil and a generous topping of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which goes crispy and golden in a hot oven. However, my vegetable avarice has left me with more bunches of asparagus than I could handle this past week, so I decided to branch out.

salad!

Returning home from the market with four bunches of asparagus, a tub of feta from my favorite Greek restaurant, and some much-prized green garlic, I set to work with big plans for a light lunch. I've always preferred so-called continental salads to green salads—they're more filling, and while a nice green salad makes a welcome meal with a hunk of bread and perhaps some cheese, sometimes (oh, all right, usually) I crave a one dish meal.

asparagus salad with quinoa and feta


Warm Asparagus Salad with Quinoa and Feta
For an equally-delicious but very different salad, try replacing the quinoa with freshly-cooked (or canned, well-rinsed) beans like cannellini or peruano—see the note below for more information. Also, I like using skinny asparagus because it sautés evenly and quickly; if you prefer thicker spears, I recommend blanching them first.

olive oil
2 small heads green garlic, minced (white parts only) (or 2-4 cloves garlic)
¼ small onion, thinly sliced
¾ cup white quinoa
1 ½ cups water
2 sprigs fresh oregano, or any other fresh herb that you like, minced
salt and pepper
one bunch skinny asparagus (about 8 ounces)
2 ounces feta cheese
red wine vinegar (optional)
very good olive oil (optional)

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and add the onion. Cook until translucent and just beginning to brown in a few spots, about 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir well, then add the quinoa. Stir well until coated with the oil, adding a bit more oil if needed. Cook, stirring often, until just beginning to color and pop, about 5 minutes. Add the water, stir well to mix, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and let cook until quinoa is tender and the water has evaporated, about 20 minutes. When quinoa is cooked, transfer to a large plate or bowl and let cool.

Wipe out the skillet and set the heat back to medium-high. While the pan is heating, trim the ends of the asparagus and cut into 2-inch lengths. When the quinoa has mostly cooled, season with the fresh oregano and with salt and pepper.

When the pan is hot, coat with olive oil and add the asparagus. Cook, stirring constantly, until the spears are bright green and tender, about 5 minutes for skinny spears. Transfer to a plate and spread out to cool slightly.

Crumble the feta over the quinoa and stir lightly to mix. Add the warm asparagus and a bit of vinegar, if desired, and toss well to mix. If desired, drizzle the top of the salad with a bit of excellent olive oil.

Makes 2 meals or 4 side dishes

asparagus salad with peruano beans


Ridiculously Simple & Delicious Beans
These are so delicious it's stupid. It's also not much of a recipe, but so many people I know eat canned beans because they're "easier" that I feel duty-bound to add this. I try to make these every weekend, and I use them for salads, in pasta, with rice, or cold & straight from the fridge. For beans with much more character than your standard grocery-store varieties, check out your local Mexican/Caribbean market or go online to Rancho Gordo and treat yourself.

1 cup medium dry beans, such as cranberry or peruano (sometimes called canary beans)
¼ large onion, peeled and cut in half
3-4 cloves garlic
4-6 sprigs of your favorite fresh herbs (I usually use thyme and oregano because they are always threatening to overtake my garden)
1 bay leaf (optional)
salt

Place the beans in a medium heavy pot and rinse well with cold water, then add water to cover by about 1-2 inches.

Note: some cookbooks will say that you absolutely must soak all beans overnight, or that you should discard the soaking water due to "accumulated gases". I rarely do either; unless your beans are very old, they probably don't need an overnight soak (and you'd be happier buying fresher beans), and I have experimented with discarding the soaking/early cooking water—the only difference I ever noticed was that with some varieties of beans, the discarded-water versions end up with less flavor. Add to that the vitamins and minerals that are inevitably lost by discarding the water, and I keep all the liquid, invariably resulting in a rich, unctuous pot liquor.

If you prefer to soak overnight, cover the pan and stick it in the fridge or in a cool place. If not, place over high heat and bring to a boil; boil for about 5 minutes. To save a bit of energy, I then cover and turn of the heat and ignore the beans for about an hour, but it's not necessary. Add the onions, garlic, and herbs (do NOT add the salt) and either reduce the heat (if it's boiling) or heat (if you let it cool) to a simmer. Cook until the beans are just barely tender, then turn off the heat and cover; the beans will finish cooking in their juices. When tender, add salt to taste (it is thought that salt "gets stuck" in the pores of the beans and impedes water absorption, so salting at the end results in more tender, flavorful beans).

Drain the beans if desired (save the delicious juices for soup or some other use—even pouring over steamed brown rice is delicious. If using for a salad like above, drain about 2 cups of beans, let cool to room temperature or barely warm, then treat it like you would the cooked, cooled quinoa.

Makes about 3 cups—increase amounts as desired

5 comments :

  1. It's so nice to see you here again! My cooking was becoming decidedly monotonous without your weekly inspirations.

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  2. Aw, thanks! My cooking was pretty monotonous, too - in another day or two I'll actually be caught up on all the blogs I read, too :)

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  3. Thanks for all the tips on beans. I stopped buying canned beans because of the nasty stuff they put in the lining of the cans. Sometimes I buy cans in a jar. Or fresh. Or dried. But it's nice to have that info about soaking or not soaking, etc. Glad you are enjoying Spring. The quinoa salad looks delicious. Keep at it!!

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  4. P.S. I made your asparagus quinoa dish and IT WAS AMAZING. In fact, I thought about making it for dinner every night all week long. That's how much I loved it.

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  5. PunkRizz - I'm glad you liked it. Asparagus is one of my favorite things about springtime. (In fact, I'm making more tonight!)

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