a book review + watercress pluot salad with lime-nutmeg vinaigrette

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In one of my recent weekly visits to the blog Gluten Free Girl and the Chef I stumbled across an excellent review of a new book, Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. Shauna writes about Robinson’s dedication, research and passion for both wild plants and modern cultivars, and discusses the connection between plants of the past and our diets of the present. That was enough to pique my interest, and as soon as I could get to the library I picked up my own copy.

Early into the first chapter I knew this was going to be a great read. I started keeping a pen and a notebook with me while I read it to jot down interesting tidbits about vegetable varieties and how to make them more nutritious. With recipes, historical anecdotes (with one involving the nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, no less!), gardening advice and shopping tips, Robinson combines all of her knowledge, in a pleasant way, her gentle voice shining through the academic citations.

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Robinson breaks the book down into two parts – fruits and vegetables – and from there divides the categories into chapters for individual varieties. There is a chapter devoted to lettuces, to berries, to apples, to corn. She describes to history of each plant, tracing the modern lineage back to its ancient ancestor, and details how the varieties have developed through science or by accident.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Robinson ensures the reader comes away with an appreciation for a plant’s nutrition – it’s not all about color and flavor, although these usually play a key role in tapping into the nutrients. From this she offers ingenious ideas on ensuring we as consumers can choose the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and then learn how to enhance those nutrients through cooking and storage techniques.

The tip I’ve been remembering the most has to do with garlic. Studies crop up like weeds about the anti-cancer properties of garlic nowadays, and traditional remedies recommend choking down pungent concoctions with the stuff to stave off colds and the flu. Robinson reveals, however, that the disease-fighting properties of garlic are not so easily accessed as to swallow a clove whole. There are two enzymes contained in a clove of garlic, and it is only after the whole garlic has been processed somehow – by chopping, pressing, smashing – that the two enzymes can combine to create the cancer-fighting enzyme that is so often lauded in scientific studies. It is important, as Robinson reveals, to process the garlic and let it rest for 10 minutes to activate the production of the helpful and healthful enzyme before cooking. Through this, and only through this, will you extract the most nutrition and the most disease-fighting properties from your common garlic clove.

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This is just one of many amazing kitchen-nutrition tips that Robinson offers, like the fact that cooking beets with the skins on retains more of the nutrients, or cooking and then chilling potatoes overnight before serving reduces the glycemic load of the starchy tuber. Fascinating!

I kept a running list of interesting varieties of fruits and vegetables to plant in my someday garden, thanks to Robinson’s recommendations at the end of each chapter. From Carolina Ruby Sweet Potatoes to Brigadier broccoli, to Tuscan Kale and Hawaiian Currant Tomatoes, to French Gray Shallots and Merlot lettuce, to Spanish Roja Garlic and Detroit Dark Red Beets, I am inspired to reap the benefits of nutrition and flavor in my own plot of land someday.

Eating on the Wild Side also inspired me to try some new produce at the grocery store. Instead of my typical kale and spinach, I purchased two bundles of delicate watercress. Instead of apples or berries, I chose a handful of translucent-skinned pluots. With a homemade vinaigrette and some gently toasted pistachios, all I needed was that new and vibrant produce to create a new salad. I made this twice I liked it so much – something about the bitter greens, the sweet fruit, the crunch of the nuts and the acidic spice of the vinaigrette combined perfectly.

Truly, as Robinson writes, when the fruits and vegetables are fresh and nutritious, they need but a little dressing up to turn them into a good meal.

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Watercress Salad with Pluots, Toasted Pistachios and Lime-Nutmeg Vinaigrette

1 bunch fresh watercress, washed and trimmed

2 pluots

1 c. raw pistachios

1 lime, juiced

1/4 c. olive oil

1 egg yolk

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. sea salt

Arrange the washed and trimmed watercress in a large salad bowl, Slice and pit the pluots and arrange on the greens. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and toast pistachios with a pinch of sea salt and a splash of olive oil until fragrant, about 5 minutes, before sprinkling over salad.

Meanwhile, whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a bowl or in a food processor. Combine the lime juice with the olive oil, salt and nutmeg, and briskly stir in the egg yolk until the dressing emulsifies. Drizzle over salad and serve immediately.

The salad does not keep well dressed — if you are making this ahead of time or in a large batch, dress only what you’ll be eating immediately, and store the greens, fruit, nuts and vinaigrette in separate containers in the refrigerator to keep everything crisp.

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than to receive

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I mentioned earlier this week that over the weekend our neighbor left a big box of bread on our doorstep as a gift. I’ve been thinking about that gesture all week, what it meant for him, what it means for me, and what it means when I read “It is better to give than to receive.” 

Our neighbors aren’t wealthy, by any means. At any one time there are five to seven people living in that house, with two travel trailers parked in the back yard and at least eight dogs barking through the fence. There are a couple of decomposing vehicles, waiting for a little love and repair, sinking into the dust of the driveway. They buy their bread in bulk from the discount bakery and put most of it in a deep freezer to preserve throughout the month.

We aren’t wealthy, either. We’re living off of one paycheck, augmented by sporadic bursts of income from my [freelance] end of the deal. We shop at the commissary, we put money into savings as often as possible, we rarely go out and we buy secondhand. But we have no debt from school or car payments, no crushing loans or credit card responsibilities, and we live comfortably.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about our neighbors when I bring home a big bag of groceries or when I shop at the farmer’s market. The luxury of it all. How is it okay that I’m in my kitchen, cooking macadamia-encrusted cod, while less than fifteen feet away they’re waiting on this month’s disability check? How it it okay that I can choose not to eat grains and sugar and instead buy fresh veggies and some grass-fed meats and eggs from a farmer when they subsist on Subway and Stripes?

I’m living in my own little world and it is insular and protected against the reality of poverty, of hunger, of financial security. What am I doing to alleviate those pressures on the world around me?

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So much is going on in my head and my heart. I’m reading Acts and Galations. “Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.” (Gal. 5:14 MSG) My world is in a tailspin, thanks very much to Jen Hatmaker and her revolutionary book, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. (More about this later.) I’m in the middle of inventory-ing our home to prepare for our move and I’m facing the sheer magnitude of how much stuff we have. All good, beautiful things that we need and use. And all of this to say — we have been given so much, and what are we giving in response?

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I’m thinking about the national socio-economic divide that is displayed in the microcosm of my little neighborhood, my home next to my neighbor’s, and how much that relates to Dr. King’s revolutionary “I Have A Dream” speech we celebrated yesterday. I’m thinking about radical generosity — I am not thinking about socialism or political reform — and how Jesus loved and gave to the least, how Paul worked for what he needed and lived with what he could carry.

I’m struggling to make sense of it all and how it works realistically in my life. How do I give and serve without perpetuating the endless cycle of poverty? It’s the same question I face every time a homeless person asks for spare change: How is this going to help you? Does it make any difference in the long run?

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Heavy stuff for a post about enchiladas. I made these with equal parts joy and creativity combined with a good dose of solemnity, with one eye out the kitchen window to where that little ramshackle house sat. I’m trying my hardest to figure out what place I have in this mess. How to start small but make a big difference. How to get out of my comfort zone. How to shake up my concepts of service and generosity and love.

So far I haven’t accomplished much by way of revelation, and so far these ramblings have very little direction, but I’m leaning into the tension and looking for opportunities to act. To show that I care enough. To give. For it is far better to do that than to receive.

All of this from a box of bread.

SONY DSCVegetable Enchiladas with Salsa Fresca

6-9 med. plantain tortillas (or corn tortillas if you’d prefer)

1 med. butternut squash

2 med. pattypan squash

4 garlic cloves, crushed

2 Tbsp. lard or coconut oil

sea salt + black pepper

1 c. homemade broth

1/2 c. coconut milk

1 tsp. smoked paprika

pinch of cayenne

Incredibly, all of this produce came from my farmers market — except for the plantains, that is. Those were dirt cheap from our commissary. I don’t think anyone else knows what to do with them so I’m counting myself lucky that they even exist in west Texas. 

Begin by making your plantain tortillas or, if you’re short on time or prefer the flavor of masa harina, use small prepared corn tortillas. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large skillet, melt 2 Tbsp. of lard. Peel and de-seed the butternut squash and dice into small cubes. This will go into the skillet first, with a generous pinch of salt, to brown and soften. Once squash is tender, remove half of the amount from the skillet and set aside for the sauce. Add in diced pattypan squash and crushed garlic, plus a little more salt and pepper. Saute until all is tender.

Meanwhile, make the enchilada sauce: in a food processor, combine reserved butternut squash, broth, paprika, cayenne and coconut milk. Blitz until smooth and season to taste.

Begin filling the tortillas with a scoop of the squash mixture and roll into little enchiladas. Fill a 9×11″ glass baking pan with the enchilada rolls — or, if you’re lazy like I was, layer the tortillas with the squash, stacking it up flat. Top with all of the enchilada sauce and bake until tortillas are starting to crisp and sauce is bubbling, about 20 minutes.

Serve with a big scoop of this salsa fresca:

Pomegranate-Sungold Salsa Fresca

2 qt. sungold tomatoes

1 med. pink pomegranate, seeded

1 lg. bunch cilantro, chopped

1 lime, juiced

1/4 red onion, sliced thin

In a bowl, combine halved tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, cilantro, lime juice, and paper-thin red onion slices with a pinch of salt. Toss to combine and let marinate while the enchiladas are baking.

who says you can’t go home

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Last week I was home in Arkansas again for a quick visit – too quick, in fact. The time I spend there goes by at warp speed, particularly in comparison to my days spent traveling to and from. My layover in one airport felt excruciatingly lengthy and the distance between my connecting flight and destination seemed to stretch agonizingly, even though I spent less than an hour in the air. There’s something about anticipating something good that makes time behave badly. It’s the same thing that makes it slip through grasping fingers like liquid when you want it to slow down, to savor something good that’s been a long time coming.

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Flying into the regional airport always gives me a thrill, anticipation notwithstanding: the plane descends over patchwork pastures dotted with grazing cattle or tiny golden bales of hay, casting perfect replicas of themselves in their shadows. Corrals and ponds make crop circles in the fields. We come upon clusters of trees so vibrantly green, rises in the elevation so smooth as to seem like silk. I’m sure the other passengers think I’m a novice traveler because I’m like a little kid peering through the plane window, my eyes stretched wide to see it all and my smile barely contained.

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It was good to be home.

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It was good to see the familiar sights of the chickens, the tangle of garden growth, the way the sun slants over the hill and into the horse barn in the evenings. It was good to walk barefoot on the grass and to ride in the old truck without a seatbelt. It was good to navigate through a mess of junebugs, with their whirring wings like lawnmower motors, just to get at the juiciest wild blackberry. All these things come back to me quickly even though they’re no longer a part of my daily life. Then they stay there, lodged in my heart like the stubbornest of brambles.

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My favorite part of the trip was my first night at home. My parents and I grilled outside on their patio and ate on the picnic table to the sound of peepers and the nudges of a begging puppy’s nose from beneath our seats. We had incredible steaks with truffle butter, grilled white asparagus and fresh tomatoes from the garden, seemingly still warm from the sun. We watched the stars come out from behind the trees and worked our way through a bottle of wine, as if to coax them out with toasts and clinking glasses. A few clumsy bats swooped over our heads. The insects of the night began to warm up their orchestra of wings.

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That was what it felt like to be home – those moments of closeness, of jokes, of intimate conversation with two of my favorite people, with our animals around us and the land of my birthright beneath my feet. If only every meal could be that powerful, that delicious.

SONY DSCSavory Tomato Tart (gluten-free, grain-free)

For the crust:

2 Tbsp. melted butter, coconut oil, ghee or lard

½ Tbsp. raw honey

1 egg, beaten

1 ½ c. almond flour

½ c. + 2 Tbsp. arrowroot (or cornstarch, if you don’t have any)

1 Tbsp. coconut flour

½ tsp. salt

¼ c. grated parmesan

¼ tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. dried oregano

Sift together dry ingredients. Beat together wet ingredients in a separate bowl, and then combine, kneading until a moist dough forms. Roll into a ball and wrap in plastic film – chill in fridge for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and make the filling. After the dough has chilled, press it into a tart pan. Prick the bottom with a fork and then brush with a little egg white. Bake for 10 minutes, until the crust begins to brown.

Filling:

½ lb. fresh tomatoes, sliced thin

salt and pepper

fresh basil

Arrange tomatoes in par-baked crust. Sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, plus a good handful of fresh basil leaves. Cover the tart crust with a foil barrier and bake for another 15 minutes. After elapsed time, crank up the oven to 500 degrees for 5-10 minutes, until tomatoes are beginning to broil. Make sure the crust doesn’t burn. The end result should be a crisp crust with tender, jammy tomatoes and an herbal flavor throughout.

to market

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCYesterday I walked downtown to the farmers market. I wanted fresh air and a good stretch of my legs; the bounty of summer for a dollar a pound was plenty to draw me out.

Made by the sun and wind and soil here, the tomatoes are radiant. The figs smell of honey. The funny little cucumbers taste like sweet cream and the elephant garlic never ceases to surprise me with its hearty cloves, its mellow flavor.

Call me inspired. I went to the market for some vegetables and came back with a  renewed appreciation for those who grow and tend and cultivate — both plants and people.

the peace of my years in the long green grass

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Summer is the season of minimalism. It inspires me. I like to wear the least amount of clothing to be considered decent but still feel cool, to keep the essentials within arm’s reach to be ready for a day at the lake or an impromptu trip at a moment’s notice. I like to live with less, generally, and in the summer time it becomes a necessity. Not every day is like that, of course — there are still appointments to keep, jobs to attend, chores to finish and the like that never seem to end no matter what the season. But summer allows for a little shirking of those responsibilities, I think.

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The long weekend truly felt like summer to us. On the hottest of days we stayed indoors and watched movies and ate homemade ice cream with slices of local peaches and homemade (gluten-free) shortbread cookies. One evening we trekked down to the river to watch the fireworks show with friends, sitting on our blankets on the banks, getting soot and ash in our eyes and drinking Dark & Stormies out of plastic cups. On Independence Day we went to a cookout with friends and spent the evening eating watermelon, smoking cigars and talking outside late into the night to the tune of junebugs and popping fireworks overhead. Another day was spent in the sun, and then we made ridiculous quesadillas and memorized the words to Mackelmore’s “Thrift Shop” just because we could (and because we might be a little obsessed with the song). The next day was full of swimming and playing volleyball out in the sun at another cookout, and we passed the rest of the evening on the lake, learning how to waterski and watching the sun set. It was the most compressed version of all things summer in a four-day span, and it was glorious.

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In those moments I cared less about my lengthening to do list and more about how to soak up every joke, every sunbeam, every bit of stillness. I relaxed, didn’t comb my hair, lived in the same pair of cutoff shorts and the same breezy sundress and felt truly free — physically free, emotionally free, free from the hold my possessions have on me, free to take advantage of the days off and not worry about tomorrow.

I’m trying to bring a little bit of that freedom feeling into the workweek, as I approach deadlines and the start of what promises to be a couple of chaotic months before we move. When it all starts to seem like one big swirling mess, I hope I can stop, slow, breathe, and remember that smooth water in the channel at the lake.

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Tucked between two little weedy islands, the water shimmered like a pane of broken glass, still and yet with ripples of energy just below the surface. The sun was low in the sky but still bright. The wind drowned out every other sound and left my ears feeling dully full of air, so much so that it sharpened my other senses — the smell of the lake water and the trees, the taste of sweat and sunscreen, the copper glare of the water and the low buzzing of the boat lulling me to sleep, lulling me to peace.

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Shrimp and Zucchini Quinoa Pasta with Yogurt, Peas + Chiles

Inspired by Orangette and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

1 pkg. quinoa pasta

1 lb. frozen peas

1 lb. wild-caught shrimp, peeled and de-veined

2 ½ cups whole-milk yogurt (I used some fabulously tart Bulgarian yogurt)

2/3 cup olive oil

2 medium cloves garlic, crushed

Kosher salt, fresh pepper

8 oz. soft cheese (I used Saint Maure goat’s cheese from my farmers market)

3 small zucchini, chopped into coins

red pepper flakes

small handful of nuts, toasted (I used Brazil nuts and pecans)

small handful of fresh mint leaves, torn

In a large pot, boil water with a generous handful of salt and a glug of olive oil. When rolling, add in quinoa pasta; cover and cook until getting soft. Add in thawed shrimp and let cook until the pasta is tender and the shrimp is pink. At the last minute, throw in two-thirds of the bag of peas to thaw completely. Drain and let rest.

In a moderate oven, roast zucchini coins in a drizzle of olive oil and a bit of salt until soft and slightly caramelized. These will be finished cooking by the time every other component is done.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, pulse the toasted nuts until crumbled, with a meal-like consistency. Reserve. Combine yogurt, remaining peas, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil in food processor and blend until smooth and light green.

Toss pasta-shrimp-peas with yogurt sauce. Sprinkle generously with nut meal, chili flakes, roasted zucchini coins and bits of soft cheese. Garnish with plenty of fresh mint and enjoy immediately.

This makes an immense amount of food and is wonderful cold (or warmed over) the next day. However, for a dinner party or a picnic it would be excellent with some chilled white wine and nothing else.

the first day of summer

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A few summer things happening lately: the farmers market has started to sell more than plants and cups of coffee. This week I picked up ears of corn, a bag of arugula, a bunch of carrots, pecans, and the teensiest new potatoes I’ve ever seen.

I spotted my first miniature watermelon on display at the grocery store.

Sno-cone stands have popped up like mushrooms all around town.

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Sunsets are getting lustier.

Mosquitoes are emerging.

Our air conditioning unit is getting a daily workout.

I’m craving iced coffee and ice cream.

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A few “new” pairs of thrifted shorts were totally justified.

I’m antsy to get out of the house every morning for a daily dose of sunshine.

Freshly polished toes are the best dress code.

Heaping salads are plenty for dinner.

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If I could celebrate the first day of summer in any way I could, I would cancel work and delete deadlines, pack a picnic and find the nearest creek. Mandatory naps would be taken under shade trees, beers would be drunk with cold pork tacos, guacamole and a big salad. We’d cut into a watermelon and eat it with the juices dripping down our arms. There would be books and hats and maybe a campfire in the evening, and then there would be stars.

Instead, it’s just another Friday, and later we’ll be heading into the big city to see family and lounge in a nice hotel. Not quite my first day of summer fantasy, but I’ll take it.

I made this salad for a dinner with friends, served alongside roasted pork, bacon-mushroom-onion gravy and mashed cauliflower. If you can recreate that entire meal, I would certainly recommend you do so.

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Smoky Roasted Corn + Kale Salad with Basil-Avocado Dressing

3 ears fresh sweet corn, husked and cut from the cobb

1 Tbsp. ghee

1-2 Tbsp. smoky spiced salt blend

2 bunches curly kale, washed and torn

extra-virgin olive oil

handful of fresh basil leaves

1 large ripe avocado

1 lemon

sea salt

For the spiced salt blend: In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbsp. chipotle powder, 1 Tbsp. smoked paprika, 1 Tbsp. garlic powder, 1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon and ground black pepper, and 1 Tbsp. sea salt. Whisk to combine.

For the dressing: In a food processor, combine the flesh of an avocado, the juice of a lemon, a small handful of fresh basil and a generous pinch of salt. Process until smooth, adding a bit of water to thin.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a large baking dish, melt ghee and toss in corn. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until charred and slightly crisp. Stir in 1-2 Tbsp. of smoky spice mix and set aside.

In a large bowl, massage a hefty drizzle of EVOO into the kale, working the oil into the leaves until the kale begins to soften and decrease in volume. Pour dressing over and top with warm smoky roasted corn.

daily dose of green

SONY DSCMy dad tells a story about how his grandparents would, in the springtime, hunt various roots and shoots and make them into a spring tonic. These concoctions were meant to clean the blood after a long winter of eating canned food, heavily salted meats and little fresh produce.

I can imagine them, savoring the first weak rays of sunshine as they foraged garlic scapes, combed the fencerows for baby ferns, tended to the well-kept secrets of wild berry bushes. What joy those first harvests must have brought!

How different that is from the way we eat and live today. We can go our entire lives without understanding the seasonality of foods, taking all that we can get from our ’round the clock grocery stores and co-ops. Thanks largely to the state of California, I can buy engorged strawberries in March and artichokes in November if I want…but who wants something like that after the first taste of a real June berry, tiny and sweet like a gem.
SONY DSC In the early summer, old timers start talking about poke salad, or poke sallet, as another tonic for the impending hot months. Taken from the back forties or the fencerows, baby shoots of the pokeweed plant would be peeled, boiled, and tossed in some mixture of butter or bacon fat or raw egg to make a fresh, mineral-rich side dish that must have been so refreshing to palates dulled by winter’s dark.

This is my equivalent of a tonic – a jolting shot of fresh green juice, full of vitamins and water and feel-good freshness. Instead of sasafrass tea or plates of poke, I’ve been putting my birthday present from Andrew to good use each week, churning out a few new combinations of juice, but mainly sticking to this recipe, my old standby. (It is fitting that my birthday present is helping me recover from a two-week-long birthday celebration full of too much cake and wine, isn’t it?)
SONY DSCVibrant Green Juice

1 head of romaine

1/2 bunch of kale

2 Granny Smith apples

2 cucumbers

4-6 stalks of celery

1 inch of ginger root

1 lemon

Thoroughly wash and chop juicing materials and, bit by bit, feed into juicer. Make sure to follow softer, juicier vegetables with something more firm, like an apple after a cucumber. Stir to combine and serve over ice.

This is also a great way to use up organic vegetable scraps from the week — trimmed kale stems, cucumber peelings, lemon rinds, and the like. We’re working on putting a backyard composter together to continue to reduce waste and recycle, plus I’m working on learning to cook and bake with my fruit and vegetable pulp. My first experiment was with these muffins, and I’m hoping to turn some savory scraps into a binder for meatloaf or meatballs sometime soon.