April 24, 2012

Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction

I guess you can't really call yourself a food blogger if you don't gush, at least once, about how excited you are about the farmers' market in spring and the delights of that versatile early spring vegetable whose subtle flavor just isn't quite so good at any other time of year. Of course, I'm talking about asparagus. To be sure, it is basically available year round, but it is best now, recently picked, from a farm within a state or two of here. Is that just some local food brouhaha? Not with asparagus (disclaimer: I haven't actually done a side-by-side taste test, but I'm pretty sure this is true). When you are at the farmers' market this weekend and you are appalled to find that enough asparagus for a meal for four costs six dollars, take a deep breath, hand over the money, and cover the cost by having one fewer drinks at happy hour or by packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch instead of heading out to chop't (or cosi or whatever other establishment was going to make you 10 dollar lunch tomorrow). It is worth it!

There are a lot of delicious ways to prepare asparagus and I like them all. Except for the ones that involve excessive boiling. Over boiled asparagus is disgusting. It smells foul. It looks sad and limp, and you will definitely have wasted your six dollars. Also, I don't like it in any kind of creamy sauce. Cream drags it down! I came across this recipe while looking for a quick weeknight meal. It lets the asparagus shine by pairing it with a pair of other contrasting flavors: the sweet balsamic and the salty parmesan.

And the recipe was true to its promise of quick. Everything can be done within the time it takes to get a pot of water boiling and cook the penne. Speaking of which, I suppose you could use a different shape of pasta, but I really like the parallelism between the penne and the asparagus. I almost bought rigatoni instead, but I thought better of it when it occurred to me that the short slices of asparagus might get lost inside the rigatoni and would miss out on a proper coating of balsamic.

The parmesan is a fairly critical ingredient. You've already made the investment in the asparagus, so don't cheap out on some crappy parmesan! Either a parmegiano reggiano or a pecorino romano (preferably one you grate yourself) will do. You might have to skip two drinks or pack lunch twice to cover this. But it is so worth it! And one large block will last you a while (it keeps for a very long time). Speaking of parmesan, I went for the first time to the Brazilian steak house, Fogo de Chao (which is incredible, if you are up for an onslaught of meat--this restaurant is a bit how I imagined meals unfolding in the capital city of Panem), and at the salad bar they had an entire wheel of parmesan (look for it in this slide show of salad bar images). If you like parmesan and have never had the experience of digging a fork into a whole parmesan wheel and scraping out as much cheese as you'd like, then I highly recommend making yourself a reservation right now.

Back to my light weeknight dinner. I served the penne with a small caprese salad, with small spheres of mozarella quartered, a chopped tomato, and chopped basil. I tossed them in the bowl I used to prepare the asparagus, which had plenty of oil left coating the sides that no more was required. I did add more salt and pepper. A plain green salad would have been good as well.

- Franklin

Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction
Adapted from Food and Wine
Total Time: 30 minutes.
Sweetness Factor: 4; Indulgence Factor: 4; Difficulty Factor: 2; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.

1 pound penne
2 bunches of asparagus
1/2 cup plus two tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
ample salt, pepper, and olive oil
ample freshly grated parmesan cheese

Put up water to boil for the pasta. Preheat the oven to 350. Prepare the asparagus by careful rinsing it and snapping off the tough part of the ends (usually about 1-2 inches). Chop it into 1-2 inch sections. Toss in a bowl with salt and pepper and a table spoon or two of olive oil (enough to for a thin coat). Spread the asparagus out on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, until the asparagus is cooked through and has started to whither a bit.

Once the water boils and the pasta is cooking, start the balsamic. Put it in a small saucepan on medium heat and let it simmer for 5-10 minutes (depending on how hot your stove is, mine is electric, so everything takes longer). Once it has reduced in volume by about two thirds add the sugar, whisk to combine, and cook it down a bit more. Add a dash of salt and few grindings of pepper.

Drain the penne. Combine it in a large bowl with the asparagus and balsamic. Toss to thoroughly combine. I prefer to bring the cheese and a grater to the table and let everyone serve themselves, but you could also grate the cheese directly into the serving bowl and stir it in. Note: If you have leftovers, this is pretty cold on day two.

April 6, 2012

Fried Egg Kale Chip Sandwiches

I heart sandwiches. In my house growing up, my dad was in charge of sandwiches. At lunch time on a weekend, my sister and I would wait for my dad to come home from his studio and announce it was lunch time. Then we would gather around in the kitchen and eagerly await the sandwiches he would set in front of us.

They were variations on a theme: sliced turkey and cheese, often gruyere or goat gouda, on a toasted bagel with some combination of dijon mustard, spicy peppers, hummus, watercress, and tomato from the garden. Often, the sandwiches would contain evidence of last night's dinner: a slice of steak or a sliver of grilled chicken. On a weekends home from college, despite having slept in and had breakfast only just before my dad's lunch hour, I would always raise my hand when my dad asked who else wanted a sandwich.

Now on visits home, nothing has changed. My dad's sandwiches are legendary. But I live pretty far from home. I am working on my own sandwich making skills. There are two types of sandwiches. Throw together sandwiches: which incorporate things requiring no preparation (sliced meat, tomatoes, condiments, leftovers etc.). And project sandwiches: for which you cook things. This past weekend, I stumbled on a project sandwich that was worth writing home about. I had a large bag of kale that needed rescuing and a moment of inspiration.

I set to work on caramelizing an onion (an important first step to any project sandwich). The original plan was: balsamic vinaigrette, caramelized onions, crispy kale chips, and sliced hard boiled eggs, but before the water came to a boil I realized that a fried egg would be a much better way to go.

I made the sandwiches with cheddar, but as my audience pointed out, mozzarella would be amazing. I served them with a side of spicy sweet potato oven fries. But they would also make a full dinner with a bit of salad or any other veggie. I have had these twice already, and will probably have them again this weekend. I will also be doing some grilled cheese sandwich experimentation in the next few weeks in order to enter this competition. (That's right, it is a grilled cheese academy!!).

- Franklin

Fried Egg and Crispy Kale Sandwiches
Total Time: 1 hour 25 Minutes
Makes four sandwiches
Sweetness Factor: 2; Indulgence Factor: 6; Difficulty Factor: 5; Chance I'll Make Them Again: 10.

For the sandwiches:
1 large vidalia onion (I used 1 vidalia and 1 red, so I would have leftovers)
1 bunch of kale (I prefer curly kale for kale chips, but any type will work)
a few tablespoon of olive oil
salt and pepper
4 eggs
8 slices of bread (I used a sourdough batard)
cheese to taste (cheddar or mozzarella or whatever you like)

For the balsamic vinaigrette:
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
two cloves of garlic
ample salt and pepper

For the potatoes:
3 large sweet potatoes
1.5 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Thinly slice the onion. Put over low to medium heat with lid on until onions begin to wilt. Add a tablespoon olive oil, turn the heat down to low, put the lid back on. Stir occasionally. Cook for about 1 hour until soft and mushy.

Preheat the oven to 400. Scrub the potatoes. Slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch spears. Grind up the spices. Toss the spears with the olive oil and spices. Spread out on a baking sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes, stirring once about half way through, until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork and are starting to brown a bit.

For the kale, when the potatoes are done turn the oven temperature down to 350. Carefully rinse the kale. Remove the leaves from the stems. The stems are no good in this meal, but save them because they are excellent in a stir fry or in a lentil stew. Rip the kale up into smallish pieces. Toss the kale with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Spread it out on a baking sheet and put in the oven. Make sure the kale is spread thinly enough (there shouldn't be too many pieces stacked on top of each other) or the kale won't cook evenly. Bake until the kale is crispy and beginning to brown.

For the dressing, combine the liquid ingredients and the mustard in a jar and give it a good shake. Peel the garlic and press against the cutting board with the side of your knife. Add the cloves whole. Salt and pepper to taste. Taste the dressing and alter the vinegar/ oil ratio to suit your taste.

Fry the eggs. Toast the bread (I have a toaster oven, so I put the cheese on before putting the bread in the toaster). Drizzle one side of the bread with the vinaigrette. Smear on onions, sprinkle on kale, add the cooked egg. Eat!

April 2, 2012

Everyday Granola

Work has gotten the better of me for the last month or so, but I'm back! And I have a backpile of recipes to share. First, granola! I have granola for breakfast almost every single day. I eat it with plain yogurt and, occasionally, with fresh berries. Because I have it every day, I prefer a lighter granola. Almost everything store bought is too sweet. Or, if not too sweet, it has too much going on. I like to keep it simple.

My granola is NOT clumpy. It is more like a muesli I suppose. But I think of muesli as not being particularly crunchy. My granola is crunchy. The crunch comes from the maple syrup. I used to pour the syrup straight into the oats cold, but recently I adopted my mother's strategy of bringing the syrup to a low boil before adding it. Heating up the syrup seems to loosen it, so a smaller volume can coat more oats.

The only fat comes from the almonds; I don't add any oil or butter. Some recipes suggest the oil is necessary to prevent the granola from sticking to the pan, but I have never had a problem with this. I'd say I usually lose about twenty-five to thirty oats to stickage. In other words, nothing to get too worried about. That said, I used to make this with half the volume of syrup and an equal amount of vegetable oil. It was good that way too.

Granola is very personal. And this recipe is endlessly customizable to suit your tastes. You can change the fruit/nut combination. You can add coconut or flax seed or your other favorite superfood of the moment. You can use a different sweetener--agave or honey. You can add chocolate. Finally, of course, the spices are customizable. I've settled into a ginger/cinnamon combination that I love, but you could changes the proportions or ditch both.

Recently, I've started added finely chopped butternut squash seeds. Next time you make a butternut squash, save the seeds, carefully rinse and dry them. Spread them out on a baking sheet and stick them in the oven once your squash is done roasting and you have turned the oven off. Leave them in there a few hours to dry and roast slightly (I've left them overnight before).

It also has a lot of eating possibilities. As I said, I have it for breakfast with plain yogurt. But sometimes I stir it in with some cheerios and milk. Sometimes I sprinkle it on top of vanilla ice cream and douse it with chocolate sauce. Yum.

- Franklin

Everyday Granola
Sweetness Factor: 4; Indulgence Factor: 4; Difficult Factor: 3; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.
Total Time: 1 hour.

6-8 cups rolled oats (not quick oats)
1/2 cup maple syrup (preferably grade B)
1/4 cup toasted almonds, finely chopped
1 tablespoon roasted squash seeds, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
dash of cinnamon
dash of salt
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup dried apricots, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350. Spread the oats out on a cookie sheet with a high rim (I use a jelly roll pan). I usually use enough oats to cover the pan completely and fill it up about half of the way to the rim. If the oats on the pan are too thinly spread, they tend to burn. Put the oats in the oven for 15 minutes, stirring about half way through.

Chop up the nuts and whatever seeds you want to add. Prepare the syrup spice mixture. Heat the syrup in a small saucepan. Add the spices and salt to that mixture and stir. Remove from heat as soon as the syrup begins to bubble.

Combine the toasted oats, nuts, seeds, and syrup in a large bowl and stir until thoroughly combined. Spread the mixture back out on the cookie sheet and bake for twenty minutes. Stir occasionally.

The oats crisp up a bit as they cool, so take them out after twenty minutes even if they are still soft. Leave them in only if they aren't quite toasted enough for your taste (colorwise). I go for a very light golden brown.

Wait for the oats to cool and then stir in the dried fruit. Store in an airtight container 1-2 weeks.