My Search for Ceci Neri

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It all started because I love La Cucina Italiana. The food photography is breath takingly beautiful and my Italian is good enough to get through a recipe or short article.

Recently the online magazine had a little blurb on ceci neri / black chickpeas. Color was amazing. A beautiful deep dark shad of sepia. Destiny was calling. How could I resist?

So I googled black chickpeas and began my search. I discovered these little beauties were declared a heirloom vegetable recently and just in time too to keep them from disappearing forever. Asking around if anyone ever heard of a black chick pea, one of my Italian colleagues said yes she heard of them, even seen them in the market but never tried them. Another colleague, an ex-pat American living in Rome, replied she had also heard it them but thought black chickpeas were only used for animal feed.

One benefit of living in New York City is everything is for sale somewhere. And sure enough in the deepest darkest bowels of industrial Queens I found an Italian wholesale importer who was willing to sell me one kilo bag. I took a subway and walked the rest of the way to the warehouse and returned with my kilogram bag.

Once home, I poured out a third of the bag (350 grams), washed them, and started the soaking process. It takes a long time.  At least 48 hours to soak plus another 12 hours to cook.

Two days later the water was so black the chickpeas had disappeared from view. Usually I include soaking water when I cook, but this water looked ominous. What to do. A third colleague who runs a cooking school near Bari in the south of Italy came to my rescue via Facebook and confirmed that folks usually toss the soaking water.

Now for the cooking. Twelve hours requires starting pretty early so I started at 7am and finished off about 7pm using fresh clear water. Once soaked and hopefully cooked, my black chickpeas were actually sort of soft and strikingly beautiful. That deep dark intense sepia must be brimming full of phytonutrients but I wouldn’t know where to start to track down which ones.

Now what to do with them …

I tried them in a couple of different dishes and got nothing but complaints. Just between you and me, the taste was okay for my palate, more robust and earthy than the usual ones, but even after all that soaking and cooking, they were dense and still distinctly chewy.

The only preparation I could find that worked was hummus. I added lots and lots of tahini along with a good amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. All to taste. I used so much tahini in fact I lost track of how much so I couldn’t run my usual nutrition numbers.

The black chickpea hummus was edible, attractive, and acceptable to the folks at my table.

Waste not. Want not. I am committed to repurposing.

We ate lots and lots and lots and lots of black chickpea hummus.

Culinary excursions are always exciting. Sometimes you discover wonderful new foods you love and can’t live without. And sometimes you learn why you’re the only one out there chasing the illusion ceci neri.

 

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Getting More Vegetables onto the Plate.

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Everybody should eat more vegetables. Okay. We all agree on that one. But what is the best way to get folks to eat more vegetables? There’s no lack of good ideas and suggestions buzzing around up there in the blogosphere and it’s important to do what works for you. Now I’ve tried a couple of options including telling folks they need to eat their veggies, and after a period of trial and error, here’s what I have discovered works the best.

You see, I cook for demanding folks so I need to use my culinary skills to make those vegetables taste really really good. Irresistibly delicious. Seduction works like a charm. Much more effective than laying down some kind of vegetable law. And do you know what happens next? Those same folks who used to call me the food police when I told them how to eat are now cleaning their plates.

Take Brussels sprouts. This dark green nutritious fiber rich vegetable is not always fully appreciated because to some folks it tastes a little bitter. Steaming the sprouts does nothing to counter that bitterness. But roasting Brussels sprouts helps as does salting because salt softens the taste. Even the visual presentation helps because feeding the eyes is just as important as feeding the gut.

Here’s how I do it.

Start with a generous pound of the best Brussels sprouts you can source, preferably seasonal, freshly harvested, local. Next wash and trim the sprouts.

Next step for me because I cook with a metric scale is to put my trusted blue glass baking dish on my scale, zero out, and add the  sprouts. The weight of the sprouts gives me the basis for my ratio of olive oil.

Most folks don’t t have a digital scale on the counter, so here are the proportion scaled to a pound of trimmed sprouts. For each pound of sprouts (about 5 cups) use 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon table salt.

Put sprouts, salt, olive oil, and dried herbs of choice (optional) in a baking dish and mix thoroughly. I use my hand and a latex glove for maximum flexibility because my hand is more flexible than a wooden spoon. Place the dish in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven and roast until sprouts are caramelized. Adjust temperature, time, and convection accordingly.

Like certain other members of the brassica family, Brussels sprouts taste best when harvested locally after the first frost. We eat lots of roasted Brussels sprouts during the fall here in the northeast. California’s central valley produces most of the commercially grown crop so Brussels sprouts are available year round. I use these sprouts when my local supply stops because sprouts are such a nutritious, healthy vegetable.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

My recipes call for generous amounts of olive oil. These sprouts for example are somewhere between 70% and 80% calories from fat. But those fats are predominantly unsaturated fatty acids and since vegetables have practically no calories, one serving (about 1/4 recipe) puts only 140 calories on your plate. And consider these other ratios. Almost half the carbohydrates are dietary fiber and because sprouts are such a rich source of potassium, you’ll be getting more potassium than sodium.

Most nutritionists agree you can’t eat too many Brussels sprouts. Not all my zealous colleagues however agree with my approach because they are concerned about fat and salt. So if your doctor has told you to cut back on either one, you should pay attention. For the rest of us, however, the goal is to get more vegetables on the plate. And palatability helps. These roasted Brussels sprouts will be relished, enjoyed , and most important eaten. Even by the folks who say they don’t like Brussels sprouts.

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Use lots and lots of olive oil for a good ratatouille.

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Every August I honor the bounty of the season by making ratatouille, but I never use a recipe. Now there are a gazillion recipes out there. Precisely 462,000 retrieved in less than 60 seconds as per a recent Google search. So it’s not because I can’t find a recipe.

Ratatouille is basically just a selection of summer vegetables slowly braised in olive oil. It’s a simple preparation. Nothing really complex. But that is not why I don’t follow a recipe. The real reason is because that’s how I was taught.

My first taste of ratatouille was at a restaurant kitchen in Aix-en-Province during a summer cooking class. The chef spoke only French with a very strong Provençal accent but my French was good enough to follow. He didn’t measure a thing, just cut up vegetables and herbs, and tossed them into the pot. All the while poured on more olive oil than my American eyes had ever imagined was possible. And his ratatouille was absolutely delicious. The freshest most pristine vegetables, basil probably picked that morning, olive oil, and salt. I have honored his approach ever since.

The ratatouille doesn’t taste exactly the same each time I make it, but it always taste good. So each August when the farmers markets are bursting with eggplants and tomatoes and zucchini and peppers and fresh basil, I go out sourcing.

What I do keep an eye on however is ratios. I want equal weight of the four major vegetables. In other words, 1 pound (500 grams) each of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato. I also pick up a bunch of basil, an onion, and sometimes some garlic. Then I add salt and olive oil to taste.*

For those of you who want a recipe, my recommendation is to check the New York Times Recipe box (link listed below under RECIPE COLLECTIONS). That recipe site has only 37 variations, any one of which will probably be delicious. These recipes have been tested and usually work. If you need a recipe you will need one that is reliable.

JUST USE LOTS OF OLIVE OIL. Now some of my zealous colleagues are still reluctant to encourage a liberal use of olive oil and current dietary guidelines still limit calories from fat to 35%. So my zealous colleagues will be upset with my recommendation.

However here’s how I see things. Over time as research nutritionists continue to study fats, here is what I think will probably happen. The print will get smaller and smaller on those limitations. One day they will just disappear altogether from both label and guidelines.  In the meantime, I go with full disclosure. Using a generous hand with the olive oil will get you somewhere between 65% to 70% calories from fat. So if the number concerns you, ratatouille is not a dish you will be able to enjoy.

But that is how the dish was meant to be.

Ratatouille was born in the lovely warm sunshine in the south of France and grew to maturity along the shores of the Mediterranean when folks ate what was available in season with no knowledge of guidelines or limitations other than those imposed by the growing season. Faced with too many vegetables and waste not being an option, the cook did what needed to be done to make the vegetables palatable and delicious.

BUY GOOD STUFF

Source the freshest most recently harvested selection of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and basil you can find at a nearby farmers market. Make ratatouille is August and September. Use a good olive oil sourced from a reliable provider and harvest dated from the prior year.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Don’t skip on the olive oil. And don’t worry about the percentage of calories from fat because since vegetables have practically no calories that percentage will be very high. Unsaturated fatty acids predominate and the combination of salt and oil greatly enhances palatability. Vegetables are an excellent source of potassium especially tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini, so the sodium:potassium ratio is very favorably balanced on the potassium side.

*For nerds like me, here are the ratios used to calculate nutrition numbers: a generous 1/2 teaspoon Kosher flake salt (1.6 grams) and 2 tablespoons olive oil (30 grams) for each pound (500 grams) vegetables.

NB: If you use table salt or coarse sea salt, cut the volume measure for salt by half.

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Delicious, nutritious, sustainable mussels.

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If you’ve never cooked mussels before but are willing to try, you get a gold star. So go for it. And trust me, mussels are delicious no matter how you serve them.

A good place to start would be with a mussels and pasta dish for supper this evening. Proportions are for two people. Not hard either once you get the hang of it. Here is what you will need to get started:

  • 1 kg (2 pounds) farm raised mussels, rinsed and sorted
  • 100 ml (1/2 cup) white wine or dry vermouth
  • 40 grams (3 tablespoons) olive oil
  • 70 grams (2 1/2 ounces) linguine, measured dry
  • couple cloves smashed garlic
  • handful chopped parsley

Rinse mussels and check each one, removing any that do not close when tapped. Add dry vermouth or white wine to 3 liter pot, pour in mussels, raise heat to high, cover, and steam mussels until they open. Discard any that do not open. As mussels begin to open, remove the meat from the shell being careful to catch every drop of cooking liquid, a delicious combination of “mussel liquor” and wine. Discard shells.

Meanwhile, start pasta water to boil. Add olive oil to a sauté pan and gentle sweat crushed garlic. Add chopped parsley. Set aside until mussels are cooked and shells discarded. Then add mussels along with the cooking liquid to the olive oil mixture. Add salt to boiling water and cook pasta al dente. Combine with mussels, olive oil, garlic herb mixture, and serve.

Taste always comes first. That’s the delicious part and it’s easy to like these tender little mussels sweet like the sea, steamed in wine, steeped in olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs, and served over linguine.

Some of us are adventurous eaters and some of us just want good taste. And that’s okay. Next step for folks like you is to go out, get yourself some very fresh recently harvested mussels, start cooking up a storm, and have fun.

Some eaters demand transparency and full disclosure. They expect more from the plate and have the patience to dig a little deeper. So here’s an ingredient audit, nutrient analysis, and allergen alert.

Mussels – Mussels grow wild in shallow waters along the east coast from Long Island to Newfoundland and are sustainably farmed in Canada.

The mussels I used for the recipe were farm raised from Prince Edward Island. The mussel seed is collected from the wild, not hatcheries, and mussels are harvested from collector ropes suspended in the ocean. Mussels feed on natural food particles, which are present in the water column and do not require feed. They get all their nourishment naturally, from the pristine ocean waters that surround them while they grow.

My preference is farmed from an environmental perspective and from a convenience perspective. Farmed mussels aren’t muddy or covered in silt and usually don’t have “beards” those pesky little hairy outgrowths found frequently on wild mussels.

Mussels also bring minerals like manganese, selenium, iodine, iron, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, copper, potassium. Sodium is just part of the total mineral package.  And like all seafood, mussels are a source of omega 3 fatty acids (1 mg per 100 grams cooked).

Linguine – Refined durum wheat slow dried bronze cut imported from Italy. Refined grain has the fiber removed. The linguine is deliciously chewy when cooked al dente, but had I used whole wheat linguine, the fiber count would have been higher.

My pasta amounts are small by American standards. The usual amount of pasta listed in most recipes is 2 ounces (56 grams) per person. The bigger the portion size of pasta, the more calories you put on the plate

Olive Oil – Extra virgin olive oil from trustworthy brand harvest date clearly marked. Use within a year or two of harvest.

Dry Vermouth – Good quality imported vermouth. White wine is a good substitute.

Nutrition Analysis per 1/2 recipe: 520 calories, 25g fat, 470mg sodium, 35g carb, 28g protein.

CONTAINS: SHELLFISH, WHEAT

 

 

 

Recipes, Ratios, and Green Split Pea Soup.

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For the longest time I never wrote down proportions for my green pea soup. The soup never came out the same way twice but always tasted really good. Now the way I see it, variability is part of culinary creativity so having my soup just a little different every time just meant it was hand crafted and artisanal.

I still don’t use recipes very often, especially when I’m putting together a meal for supper. You don’t need to either and here’s how:

Start with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery, roughly 2 parts chopped onion to 1 part each chopped celery and carrot. It’s okay to use your eye here.  An onion or two, a carrot, a couple stalks of celery for each pound bag of green split peas should do it.

Now pull out the soup pot, pour in a generous amount of olive oil, add the onions, and let them sweat. As the onions start to caramelize, add the carrot and celery.  While the veggies are sweating, wash the split peas. Sometimes it takes a while for the veggies to release moisture, but when they’ve given up all they can, the mixture starts to sizzle. At that point, in go green split peas and 2-3 liters of water.  Throw in a thyme branch if you have one handy.

Let it all simmer very gently on the stove partially covered for an hour or until the peas have softened. Remove the thyme branch, pass soup through a food mill, adjust seasoning, salt to taste, and voilà a couple of liters of delicious green split pea soup.

But don’t get me wrong, I know the value of a standardized recipe and what they are good for: food service, nutrient analysis, ratios, and editors. So there is a time and place for a standardized recipe and here’s what mine looks like:

  • 500 grams of split peas (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 200 grams onion (about 1 1/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped carrot (about 3/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped celery (about 1 cup diced)
  • 100 grams olive oil (about 7 tablespoons)
  • 3 liters water (about 12 cups)
  • 10 grams salt (1 tablespoon flake salt or 1/2 tablespoon table or sea salt

If I run the numbers using proportions listed above in compliance with the Nutrition Facts protocol for a serving I get a label that looks like this:

Nutrients per serving (1 cup / 245g):  240 calories, 10 g fat, 29 g carbohydrate (11 g fiber), 10 g protein, 400 mg sodium.

Serving sizes are determined by the FDA and required for health or nutrient contentment claims. The RCAA (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed) for soup is one cup and so that’s the amount I used to run the numbers. I needed to adjust the water because during the cooking process some water is absorbed by the split peas and some water is evaporated so the analysis is based on the cooked weight.

Green pea soup has an exceptionally good nutrient profile. Plant based protein. Good ratio fiber to carbohydrate for a healthy Microbiome. Good source potassium for a favorable sodium to potassium ratio.

 

 

 

Will 2016 be the Year of the Kitchen Scale?

 

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2016 has been declared the Year of the Pulse. But will 2016 also be the year of the scale?

Fannie Farmer published the Boston Cooking School Cookbook over 100 years ago and Americans have practiced her sifting, spooning, and leveling technique ever since. But things may be changing. Consider this. A prominent New York blogger starting adding weights to her recipes back in 2010. And as each year passed since then, the buzz has gotten louder. More books and articles and food writers are including weight measures in their recipes, especially for home baking.

Most professional bakers and pastry chefs already use weight and most food service recipes are written with weigh measures. A recent check of  The New York Times recipe box, a collection of over 17,000 recipes, showed more and more recipes with weighted ingredients. Most of the rest of the cooking world already writes recipes by weight and I am wondering if 2016 could be the year the practice goes mainstream in this country.

ROLLED OAT, WALNUT, AND APPLESAUCE COOKIES – about 25 cookies

  • 100 grams unsalted butter (7 tablespoons)
  • 100 grams turbinado sugar (1/2 cup)
  • 100 grams canned unsweetened applesauce  (7 tablespoons)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 100 grams walnut (1 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams whole wheat flour (3/4 cup fluffed, spooned, leveled)
  • 100 gram rolled oats (1 cup)
  • 100 gram raisins (2/3 cup packed)

Besides the scale, you will also need one larger mixing bowl, a couple of smaller bowls, an electric mixer, and baking sheets. Remember to remove one 4 ounce stick of butter from frig or freezer a couple of hours before starting so the butter comes to room temperature.  Also remember to preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit at some point before starting to bake.

Turn on the scale. Place a small bowl on the scale, zero out, and weigh sugar. Place another small bowl on scale, zero out, and weigh applesauce. Set both sugar and applesauce aside.

Place the larger mixing bowl on scale, zero out, and weigh the butter. Remove bowl from scale and cream butter using the electric mixer. Add sugar slowly to creamed butter and continue to mix until thoroughly blended.  Then add applesauce, eggs, vanilla, and just a dash of salt (optional). Mix thoroughly and set aside.

Place smaller bowl on scale. Weight walnuts and remove. Chop walnuts and set aside. Return bowl to scale and weigh flour, rolled oats, and raisins, zeroing out after each addition.  Add the dry ingredients from the smaller bowl plus the walnuts to wet ingredients, folding in gently with a spatula.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper or use silicon liners. Form the raw dough into little balls about the size of a rounded tablespoon and arrange these rounds on the baking sheet leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) distance between each one. Flatten each cookie before baking. Place cookies in oven and bake until cookies start to darken, about 17 minutes.  Cool on rack. Store in air tight container.  Or freeze for long term storage.

Deciding to bake my own cookies was an easy decision. They are better, healthier, and cheaper than the competition.  My cookies are better because I can control the sweetness and if you’re like me and do not like your cookies too sweet, you can adjust any recipe to just enough.  My cookies are healthier because I source really good quality ingredients like whole grains, whole nuts, and seasonally dried fruit.  And my cookies are cheaper. Each pound costs me a little over $6.00.  And those are New York City dollars.  Prestigious artisan cookies say from a farmers market or pricy bakery boutique cost as much as $20 per pound here in the Big Apple. And even more, sometimes a lot more.

CONTAINES: WHEAT, TREE NUTS, EGGS

Nutrients per one cookie serving: 120 Calories, 2 grams Protein, 14 grams Carbohydrates, 7 grams Fat, 1 gram Dietary Fiber.

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Homemade artisan vinaigrette.

 

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Why do I bother making vinaigrette?

Because I really like good olive oil. And no one makes a bottled dressing made with olive oil!

I used to cheat and buy the bottled stuff and believe me I bought the most expensive stuff on the shelf. I looked for front of the package labeling and when I found one with olive oil, that’s the one I picked.

Then one day I turned the bottle around and read the ingredient list. The first thing I noticed was the olive oil was not listed first.  What I found was canola oil or soybean oil. Those are not bad oils, but they are NOT olive oil. And where was olive oil listed? Much further down on the list.

Ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. For those of you who are not label mavens, it’s okay to market a product and label it olive oil on the front of the label as long as olive oil is listed somewhere in the ingredient list.

That was the day I started making my own homemade artisan vinaigrette.

Now take a look at my vinaigrette pictured above. The ingredient list is short and simple. Olive oil, vinegar, salt.

I should add my cost for ingredients is about three times what I would pay for even the most expensive brand of bottled dressing because good olive oil is not cheap.  This cost factor explains why most people are okay with a blend.

My oil of choice is Arbequina olive oil from California. Olive oil is shelf stable, but unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t benefit from aging. Every November after the harvest, I order 6 liters so my vinaigrette is always made with an oil that is less than 12 months old. I use a good vinegar (7% acidity) and salt.

Most recipes I see for vinaigrette are volume based. My preference is weight based and I use my scale. No measuring cups to wash. No waste. And that’s good because at the price I pay for my olive oil, I can’t afford to waste a drop. Both volume and weight are referenced below however because most of you probably do not have a scale yet.

275 grams extra virgin olive oil like Arbequina (300 ml or 1 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon)

100 grams Sherry or wine vinegar (100 ml or 7 tablespoons)

5.8 grams salt (2 level teaspoons)

Working my way through the CSA.

leek, potatoes, rutabaga, nutmeg
leek, potatoes, rutabaga, nutmeg

Picked up my last load from the CSA the day before Thanksgiving and am still working my way through. Over the six months of the season I got 270 pounds of vegetables. In other words, I picked up and brought home 10 to 20 pounds per week. Every week for 26 weeks. My goal was to eat or distribute everything and on that count I’ve done an outstanding job. So far. But I’m not finished yet.

Pictured above are some potatoes and a lovely bunch of leeks for my soup. Up in one corner is a rutabaga which I’m going to use with the potatoes and in the other corner a nutmeg which I will grate as the soup finishes cooking. An appreciation goes to James Beard for the suggestion of using nutmeg in leek and potato soup. I’m pretty creative in the kitchen, but I never would have thought of that one on my own.

I love leeks but they are sometimes a pain in the neck because they can be full of sand. These leeks were comparatively sand free so in no time I have them washed and sliced them.

Now I put a couple of tablespoons olive oil in the 4 liter soup pot, toss in the leeks, and let them braise. As the leeks soften and get aromatic, I scrub and cut up the potatoes leaving the skin on for extra fiber and nutrients. The rutabaga got added because I don’t know what else to do with it. It’s the same color as the potatoes and hopefully it will all just blend right in.

I add a liter of low sodium stock, chuck in the potatoes and the rutabaga, and let it all come to a boil. Then turn the heat down and gently simmer until the potatoes are soft.

My preference is low sodium stock not because I don’t want salt but because I want to add the salt to my taste. Also the presalted stocks do not taste as clean to my palate as the low sodium ones.

When the potatoes are soft enough to mash, I pull out the food mill. A wonderful kitchen devise that manually pulverized vegetables into chunks or purée pieces. The food mill is much gentler than the food processor. What is really cool about using the food mill is that the potatoes and leeks go in one end and out the other end comes soup. Back into the pot. Adjust the seasonings. Grate in some nutmeg. I used half the piece. Add more water or stock if the consistency is too thick. And as a final touch, I stir in a good sized piece of butter.

And there you have it, a nourishing late fall soup.

Best of all my leeks and the rutabaga are gone. And all I have left is 7 pounds of potatoes in my pantry. Hummmmmm …