March 31, 2009

Appreciate Fennel with a Provencal Dinner

Fennel is much too often overlooked and underappreciated by Americans. It appears in the spring, late summer and early fall as a plump, pale green bulb. Attached to the bulbs are stalks that are topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce seeds. The distinguished sweet and mild anise flavor compliments salads, soups and seafood dishes very nicely. The entire plant can be used in cooking: the tender base is most commonly used, but the stalks can be used in soups and the leaves for garnish or seasoning. The seeds are used as a spice in many cultures, especially India and the Middle East. Fennel is an important ingredient to many Mediterranean dishes but is probably most prominent in traditional Italian cuisine.

I really enjoy thin slices of raw fennel in my salads, but I think it is most delicious cooked—braised, roasted or sautéed are my favorites. Cooking really brings out the vegetable’s natural sweetness and makes the hint of anise or licorice taste virtually undetectable (which is the solution for those who have an aversion to the flavor).

It took me a while to learn how to cut a fennel bulb correctly. The easiest way is to cut the stalks just where they meet the bulb. Then cut the bulb in half and remove the harder core that resides in the center using a paring knife. I usually end up thinly slicing the bulb for recipes, which can be done vertically through the bulb.

I don’t know what it is about fennel and fish but they really are a wonderful combination. The French in Marseilles discovered this long ago and came up with bouillabaisse, the classic Provencal seafood stew that is characteristically flavored with fennel. While the dish is a delicious culinary concoction, it is rather complicated and time-consuming to make.

I had several bulbs of fennel that were in need of some attention. I thought, why not create a simple, bouillabaisse-inspired dish, that features salmon and the distinct aroma of fennel? I was quite pleased with the result but really, I don’t think one can go wrong with the wonderful combination of provençal flavors: fennel, saffron, orange, white wine, garlic and herbs.

Provencal Salmon over Fennel and Cannellini

If you don’t cook many French dishes, you probably aren’t familiar with the term bouquet garni. It is simply a bundle of herbs that is used to season Provencal stocks, soups and stews. The bouquet garni is cooked with other ingredients and removed prior to serving.

For the bouquet garni
1/3 cup fennel fronds (reserve extra for garnish)
4 thyme sprigs
1 (4-inch) long strip orange peel, no pith

For the “bouillabaisse”
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
2 leeks, thinly sliced, white and pale green parts only
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
½ cup cooked cannellini beans (canned is fine, but rinse first)

For the salmon
4 6-ounce skinned wild salmon fillets
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
2 tablespoons olive oil
Fennel fronds, for garnish

1. Stack bouquet garni ingredients and tie together with kitchen twine.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add fennel and leek and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer, stirring frequently.

3. Pour in wine and saffron and bring to a boil. Add broth, bouquet garni and cannellini beans; return to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes.

4. About 30 minutes into cooking, prepare the salmon. Coarsely grind fennel seeds in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, ground fennel seeds, Herbes de Provence, orange zest and olive oil. Generously rub the mixture onto the tops of each fillet.

5. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place the fillets, coated side down, in the pan. Cook about 2 minutes, until the spice mixture forms a brown crust. Remove from pan.

6. Just before the fennel and beans are done, add salmon fillets to the pan, nestling them in the broth. Cover and cook about 5 minutes, just until salmon is cooked through. Divide the salmon and fennel-bean mixture among plates or shallow bowls. Top with fennel fronds and serve immediately.

March 25, 2009

The Versatile Beet

Many people don’t realize that the greens of the beetroot are edible and actually quite good and nutritious. In fact, the greens of the wild beet were a very popular food among ancient civilizations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; the roots were valued only for medicinal purposes. The beetroot and chard come from the same family and have similar characteristics, with the exception of one minor feature…a fleshy, succulent, plump root attached at the base, or what most people have come to know as the beet.

It was not until the sixteenth century that people began to consume beet roots as a vegetable. Europeans began to cultivate different forms and its popularity spread eastward, becoming a staple food in regions like Poland, Russia and Scandinavia. Even today, the beetroot remains an important feature of the traditional cuisines of Eastern Europe (borscht anyone?)

Around the same time in France, “a kind of parsnip” that has a “very red and rather fat root with thick leaves, and all of it is good to eat” (French agronomist Olivier de Serres, 1629) began to gain popularity and was known as the Roman beet. In one of the earliest books of modern French cookery, it was recommended that beets be prepared in the following way: peeled, cut into rounds, and fried in butter and a chopped onion and a dash of vinegar. Sounds tasty…

Beets are practically a staple food for me: they are available year round, extremely versatile, loaded with antioxidants, and deliciously sweet. Plus, if I buy the whole plant, I get my greens to cook with too! Beet roots can be eaten raw, boiled, steamed, roasted or sautéed. My personal favorite is roasted beets, as the process allows them to impart a soft, buttery texture and a robust, earthy flavor.

I happened to pick up some golden beets at a local produce market and thought I’d share one of my favorite roasted beet salad recipes. The citrus and mint pair very nicely with the tender beets and add a nice early spring twist.

Roasted Beet Salad with Citrus and Mint

I used blood oranges, but any type of sweet citrus would work well—try navel oranges or grapefruit. Goat cheese or blue cheese would make a nice substitution for the feta if you would prefer. Of course, any color of beet would work well here. The striped beets are especially eye-appealing--try them if you ever come across any.

Serves 4

4 medium beets
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
2 oranges, peeled and separated into segments
¼ cup mint leaves, chopped
1 shallot, thinly sliced
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh baby spinach leaves or mixed greens (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the greens from the beets, leaving a 1/4 inch stub of the stems. Scrub the beets and place them in a baking dish. Cover tightly with foil and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until tender and can be easily penetrated with a fork, about 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the size. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins under cool running water. Cut into small wedges. Set aside to cool.

2. Whisk together the balsamic vinegar, olive oil and orange juice. Season with salt and pepper.

3. In a large bowl toss the beets together with the orange segments, mint and shallots. Drizzle the dressing over and toss to combine. If serving over spinach or mixed greens, divide among 4 plates and top each with the beet salad. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. Serve immediately.

March 22, 2009

The Perfect Pizza

I love homemade pizzas. Maybe it's the creative combinations of fresh toppings or that the process typically draws family and friends to the kitchen, but one thing is for sure: what arrives in a delivery box doesn't compare to what comes out of your oven. In my opinion, the perfect pizza is a marriage between a crispy, chewy crust; a smear of sweet tomato sauce; and fresh, traditional toppings.

The exact origin of pizza is unclear, as people have been adding flavorful ingredients to flatbreads throughout history. It is believed that the idea of using bread as a "plate" came from the Greeks who ate flat bread baked with toppings like herbs, onion and garlic.

It was not until the tomato was introduced from the New World in the sixteenth century that the people of Naples began to create the first simple pizzas with tomatoes. It was sold from open-air stands, wrapped in paper, with typical topping combinations of:

Pork fat, cheese and basil
Garlic, oil and tomatoes
Mozzarella, basil and tomatoes (which evokes the colors of the Italian flag)

In the nineteenth century, Queen Margherita di Savoia was such a fan of the latter combination, that the original creator decided to call it "Pizza Margherita."

Pizza was introduced to America in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1905, the first official pizzeria is believed to have been established in Manhattan's Little Italy, priced at five cents a pizza, or the corresponding price for a fraction of the pie. During WWII, American soldiers stationed in Italy gained an appreciation for pizza and in the 1950's, celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio popularized the dish. The famous song by Dean Martin set America singing and devouring pizzas...

"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore..."

The modern American pizza industry began in the Midwest with the Chicago-style deep dish pizza and home delivery service became a hit. In my opinion, this is when many Americans lost touch with the delicious art of Neapolitan pizzas.

Homemade Traditional Pizzas

You cannot make a good pizza without mastering a good dough, which I have learned is always made by long slow fermentation. Pizza dough is essentially a classic bread dough enriched with olive oil and if done right, will yield a light, sturdy and flavorful crust. Although I can make a mean pizza using commercial fresh dough, many of my attempts to make my own pizza dough have been disappointing. That is, until I discovered the delayed-fermentation method, which is quite simple but requires some planning ahead.

Peter Reinhardt is accredited to have mastered the delayed-fermentation process and introducing it to many home bakers in his book The Bread Baker's Apprentice and his new follow-up, Whole Grain Breads. The popularity of his books made me think that maybe I really can create artisan-quality bread. I attempted to tackle his 50-50 pizza dough recipe and the result?...divine.

For now, I will leave you with the pizza dough recipe. I make pizzas regularly so expect postings for specific pizza recipes in the future. My favorite toppings include fresh mozzarella, roasted garlic, basil, prosciutto, and fresh vegetables depending on what's in season (braised chard, roasted fennel, asparagus, mushrooms, etc).

50-50 Pizza Dough

Adapted from Peter Reinhardt's Whole Grain Breads. In order to fully master Reinhardt's bread-making technique you really need to read his books, but to summarize, his recipe is a two-day process. On Day 1, the pre-doughs are made (soaker and biga) and on Day 2, they are combined with additional yeast, flour and olive oil. Because the pre-doughs have had time to develop flavor, fermentation and proofing times on Day 2 are much shorter than conventional methods.

Makes 2 large pizza crusts.


Soaker (hydrated grain with salt but no yeast)
1 3/4 cups fine grind whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur's White Wholewheat Flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water

(pre-fermented dough with commercial yeast)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water at room temperature

Final Dough
1 recipe prepared soaker
1 recipe prepared biga
7 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Day 1
1. Mix all of the soaker ingredients together to form a ball of dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours.
2. Mix all of the biga ingredients together to form a ball of dough. Knead the dough for 2 minutes and make sure the ingredients are evenly distributed. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes and then knead again for 1 minute until the dough is smooth and tacky. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8-24 hours.

Day 2
1. About 3 hours before you want to make the pizzas, remove the biga from the refrigerator to take off the chill. Let sit for 2 hours.
2. Chop the soaker and the biga into 12 smaller pieces each and sprinkle them with flour to keep the pieces from sticking to each other.
3. Combine the pieces in a bowl with the remaining final dough ingredients. Knead for 2 minutes in the bowl until the ingredients are evenly integrated.
4. Dust a work surface with flour and knead the dough for 4 minutes until the dough is soft and very tacky. Let rest for 5 minutes and resume kneading for 1 minute; the dough should feel soft, supple and almost sticky. If not, continue kneading for 1-2 minutes.
5. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and oil it with olive oil. Divide the dough until 2 equal portions and form into balls. Place the balls on the prepared pan and roll to coat in oil. Cover loosely with wrap. The dough should be ready to shape and bake in 1 hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 475 with a baking stone (which I highly recommend). Use floured hands and knuckles to stretch the dough into a wide disk, approximately the size of your pizza stone.
7. Sprinkle cornmeal on the hot stone and lay the dough on the surface. (I like to pre-bake my dough for about 5 minutes before adding my toppings. Some prefer to go straight for it.) Once toppings are added, bake for 10-12 minutes until bubbly.

March 21, 2009

Celebrating Spring with Pasta

Spring is an exciting time for the seasonal cook, as tender new shoots start to emerge and appear at local markets. I am lucky to live in a warmer climate with an earlier spring; therefore, I am beginning to see produce like asparagus, fresh herbs, artichokes, avocados, green peas, and fava beans…to name a few.

At this time of year, the best dishes are those that make the most of all the new, delicately flavored vegetables. To me, the essence of the spring season means fresh, light, and usually green (more sun = more chlorophyll).
Many of you are familiar with spaghetti carbonara, which traditionally features eggs, black pepper, crispy bacon, and a hard cheese. I created a spring-inspired take on the pasta dish, lightened up with asparagus, fresh peas and herbs, along with a modest amount of sharp cheese. I love poached eggs on almost everything—lentils, salads, toast—so why not pasta I thought? Placing a delicately poached egg on the pasta would allow the creamy
yolk to ooze over the warm pasta and create a silky sauce. Before you continue on with my recipe, I thought I’d enlighten you with some interesting tidbits about two of spring’s finest crops: asparagus and green peas.


Asparagus is celebrated as the start of spring in many cultures as the tender shoots reach the surface of the earth. The plant is a member of the lily family and the edible “spears” are harvested when they are still immature. White asparagus, which is prized in Europe for its delicate flavor, is genetically identical to green but is grown underground to prevent chlorophyll production.

Asparagus has been used in the kitchen since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and has long been thought of as a delicacy. It was also valued for its diuretic effects and aphrodisiac properties (likely due to its phallic shape). There is an interesting recipe for cooking asparagus in one of the oldest known cookbooks, “De Re Coquinaria”, that was published in the third century AD. It appears that culinary technique has come a long way: check out an excerpt from a translation of the original recipe:

" take cleaned asparagus, you will rub it in the mortar, you pour in water, you will rub all over, you filter through a strainer and throw incomplete figpeckers.”

*Apparently, figpeckers are a small bird. For those who are curious, the author then proceeds to add, pepper, wine, fish sauce, raisin wine, oil, and eggs.

Culinary use of asparagus really began to flourish in the seventeenth century, and the shoots are served in a number of ways in traditional cuisines around the world. French-style with hollandaise, Asian-style in stir fries, Italian-style paired with eggs or in soups, to name a few.

Fresh asparagus, consumed soon after its harvested, as always best. The stalk will become woodier and the flavor will deteriorate after a few days.

Green Peas

Most people think of peas as a vegetable but they are actually members of the legume family. There are three types that are commonly eaten: green or garden peas, snow peas and snap peas. The pods of snow peas and snap peas are edible and they have a slightly sweeter taste than the green pea. Green peas are usually available at the beginning of spring—inside of the rounded pods are pea seeds that are sweet and starchy.

“Pease” or field peas, were grown specifically for drying, and were one of the earliest cultivated food crops. Street vendors in 500 to 400 BC were recorded to have sold hot pea soups as street food. During the Middle Ages, dried peas (which are chock-full of nutrients) provided basic sustenance for the poor and helped to avoid a famine in England in the sixteenth century. The familiar Old English rhyme is a reflection of the meals typical to a young peasant child growing up during those times.

Pease porridge hot,

Pease porridge cold,

Pease porridge in the pot

Nine days old.

It was not until later that more tender varieties were developed and people began to consume peas in their fresh state. The French King Louis XIV popularized garden peas in the 17th century and eating fresh peas from the pod became à la mode almost overnight.

Spring Pasta Carbonara with Poached Eggs

Serves 4

2 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, diced

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

½ pound asparagus (about 8-10 spears), cut into 1-inch lengths
½ cup fresh shelled green peas

½ cup good quality chicken broth

1 pound spaghetti

½ tablespoon butter

½ cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

4 medium organic eggs

1 tablespoon fresh chives, minced
2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1. Heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta; cook until crisp, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.

3. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and asparagus, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Add the green peas and chicken broth and simmer over moderately low heat until reduced by half and asparagus are tender, about 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until it is al dente. Drain the spaghetti and add to the vegetables in the large skillet. Toss with the butter and grated cheese until the pasta is well coated. Season with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm.

5. Pour enough water in a large skillet to reach a depth of 1½ inches; add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer. Stir in the vinegar. Crack an egg into a small bowl and carefully slide it into the simmering water. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Simmer over low heat until the whites are set but yolks are soft, about 3 minutes.

6. While the eggs are cooking, divide the pasta among 4 shallow serving bowls, using a spoon to create a slight indentation in the center. Lift the eggs from the pan with a slotted spoon and place in the center of each bowl. Sprinkle the herbs and pancetta evenly over each dish. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.