Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Poacher: Eggs & Rice

Last night I made what I consider to be a significant culinary achievement.

I poached three eggs. Successfully.

There was a fourth egg, the only casualty. But let me back up a little.

Normally, I am egg-wary. I love eggs. They are my vegetarian gray area (well, eggs, dairy, and honey! Oh, and gelatin - I can't give up Junior Mints, therefore I am not vegan). Side note - I find it ... odd ... when non-vegetarians will question or criticize my choice to eat eggs. Sometimes it's simply a matter of not immediately comprehending where and how I draw the line, which is totally fair. The eggs I eat are not fertilized and therefore were never going to be baby chickens. And, quite honestly, if I chose not to eat eggs, then my world of options for dining out would narrow exponentially, and my time spent in the kitchen (already significant!) would increase dramatically. No cake, no baked goods, no breakfast items. Plus, I'm becoming a believer that every little bit counts. It's not all or nothing. Every amount of animal and animal products that you can reduce from your diet will make an impact on the environment, factory farms and the industrialized food system, and the sustainability of our food sources. I don't begrudge anyone's food decisions. Food is deeply personal and I respect freedom of choice. I am also a champion for educating oneself about those food choices. But back to egg-wariness ...

There is a certain ick factor for me with eggs. They are on my line. Right on it. But they are also a great source of protein and they are tasty when cooked to my picky specifications. I like my eggs to be very, very dead. Cooked all the way through, no gooey bits. My husband has been known to request his fried egg ... a little less fried. For me, the fried egg needs to be OBVIOUSLY fried - browned and crisp. But for some reason I permit a certain amount of latitude to professional food establishments. I will eat huevos rancheros and eggs Benedict (poached eggs) and freshly whipped mayo (raw egg). I eschew classic Cesar salad, but only because of the anchovy, not the egg yolk. But I would never do these things at home! I can't even make mousse - too much potential for undercooked eggs (for mousse, you cook the mixture over a pot of simmering water, double-boiler style).

But last night I made great strides. I figured that I could have control over the done-ness of my eggs, and if I am able to eat them in their oozing form at a restaurant for brunch, why can't I do the same at home?

Guess what? I can.

The poaching process is fraught with anxiety. I read up on it before I attempted anything. I learned that there are multiple schools of thought on how to poach an egg: vortex method - create a spiraling vortex inside your pot and plop the egg into the chaos; vinegar method - add vinegar to the boiling water to discourage "flyaways"; silicone cup method - cook in a special silicone nest designed especially for eggs. I chose to go with the method featured in my recipe, "Poached Eggs Over Rice" by Heidi Swanson, which involved a ramekin, a strainer, and a slotted spoon. It worked decently well, though after the first egg I thought "Oh no, this isn't right, look how much egg I am losing." The dreaded FLYAWAYS. These are wisps of white that fly off the egg during the cooking, so many that the entire egg seems disintegrated. But when I pulled that first egg out of the water - ooo boy! It actually looked good. Diminutive, but good.

Here's what I did to poach the eggs - via Heidi Swanson, who got the original technique from Michael Ruhlman. I served the eggs atop a rice, chard, and tofu mix that came from the same recipe as Heidi Swanson's poached egg recommendations.

Poached Eggs
You repeat this method for each egg, so cook up as many as you like! Just make sure to do them one at a time.

Heat a wide pot of water until boiling, then reduce the heat to simmer. You definitely want to see activity in the pot, but no roiling bubbles.

Crack one egg gently into a small ramekin. Tip the egg into a fine mesh strainer to let some of the white seep away (most of it will remain intact). Slip the egg back into the ramekin.

Gently slip the egg from the ramekin into the simmering water. Sit back and watch the white turn opaque! Don't worry if you start to see clouds and stringy white bits - you will be fine. Unless your yolk starts to look naked and exposed, in which case you aren't doing as well as you might have hoped. I'm not expert enough yet to assess the hows and whys of the flyaways!

When your white is opaque, and maybe a little longer after you would think your egg is done (4 minutes?), scoop it out of pot with a slotted spoon and set aside until you have finished the remaining eggs.

Rice with Chard, Tofu, and Poached Eggs
Adapted from Heidi Swanson

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
crushed red pepper flakes
8 oz (1/2 a block) of extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 bunch of greens (I used Swiss chard)
2 to 3 cups pre-cooked whole grain rice (I used a wild/brown rice mix)
Flavorings: balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, maple syrup
Poached Eggs (see above)

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and salt to taste. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions begin to soften. Add the tofu and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally and pressing to encourage browning. Stir in the garlic, then add the greens and a dash of salt, mixing thoroughly. Cook until the greens wilt and soften a little. Stir in the pre-cooked rice and heat through, about 2 minutes. Add dashes of any flavoring you prefer - I did about a tablespoon each of balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and maple syrup. This gave a nice, savory tang to the dish. (Not essential, but good.)

Divide the rice mixture between bowls and top with a poached egg or two.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What's in the box?

This is going to be a FANTASTIC week! Why? Because I am hoping to make one of my favorite spring recipes (look for it this weekend!), and because we are going to embrace beauty and nature and liven up our front flowerbed with our first major gardening project this weekend! I will definitely report back on the progress.

So here's what we will be savoring along the way this week:

Fava Beans!!!!!!!!*
Green Garlic
Mixed Chard
Karanata Kale
Salad Mix
Tokyo Turnips

* Fava beans are ... one of my absolute favorites! Their season is fleeting. They arrive during mid-spring and stick around for a couple of weeks, tops. I think their rarity makes them more precious to me. Certainly, something about them causes me to suffer through the multiple shelling/peeling steps. First, you must remove their outer casing. Then, after a quick blanch, you slice each of the green skins and pop each individual bean out. A huge pile of fava beans in their original form will yield only a small cup of shelled beans. But they are tender and buttery and simply divine!

Here's another week of Tokyo turnips - these are a bit plumper than last week's bunch and would be tasty roasted, as we ate them last night:

And another type of kale!! It looks similar to the Red Russian Kale (oak leaf-like silhouette), but it's identified as "Karanata Kale" by the farm. I will need to do a little digging and see what the difference is.
A lovely stem trio:
The yellow is the chard and the red is the kale. The white bulbs are green garlic.

Now it's time to get cooking! Dinner is calling my name.

How'd we do?

Last week was filled with greens, greens, and more greens! We thoroughly enjoyed all of them, and now my husband is on his way to pick up our new box. I am going to tackle a new technique tonight during dinner preparation - I'm a little nervous! I will be sure to document for the blog.

So how'd we do? Here is how all our veggies were consumed (or ... not consumed):

Asparagus, Green Garlic, & Tokyo Turnips (whew!) - They made a late but significant showing at dinner last night, in a polenta dish topped with herbed ricotta and sauteed veggies, with roasted asparagus and turnips on the side. Mmmmmm.

Arugula - One word: calzones.

Chard - I made one of my favorite Chinese recipes, complete with homemade crepes. Moo shu veggies!

Spinach - Made a lovely partner to a decadent and satisfying grilled cheese sandwich. Sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and balsamic vinegar.

Salad Mix - We ate a big salad which was unfortunately not featured on the blog this week. It contained the salad mix, carrots, red bell pepper, green onions, cranberries, cashews, feta, cubed mozzarella, and chickpeas. I made a quick vinaigrette with olive oil, balsamic, dijon mustard, and a dab of honey. Delicious! We ate the salad with Trader Joe's baked sweet potato fries. A quick and easy meal after a long day.

Sage - Poor sage. I forgot to use it! It was at the bottom of the crisper that held all the other various greens, so it was overlooked. Hopefully I can find a use for it in the next couple of days before I have to bid it farewell ... such a bummer too, because I absolutely LOVE sage!

Well, it was another fine week of thinking about and eating food! We had a few extra "I can't/don't want to cook right now" moments this week, leading us to a brewery for dinner (Hoppy Brewery on Folsom Blvd - I really wanted our East Sacramento fancy pizza joint, OneSpeed, but it was a 45 minute wait and it was already 8 pm) and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op for lunch (I heart their salad bar!!! Tofu-based green goddess dressing = heaven).

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kitchen sink dinner.

In our house, Tuesday night dinner falls in either one of two camps:
1 - The cupboard is bare. We've eaten everything from the box and we're just counting the hours until tomorrow night's box pick-up.
2 - We've got to use up the rest of the veggies!!! But how do we put them all together in a coherent dish?

Tonight was definitely a #2 night. When I got home tonight, we still had: green garlic, Tokyo turnips, asparagus, sage. I managed to get three of those four items into our dinner tonight. (DANG! Just realizing I forgot to use the sage.) Plus, I used up most of the ricotta that was left over from the calzones this weekend. It was a real kitchen sink dinner!

We had baked polenta topped with herb ricotta and a veggie saute, plus roasted balsamic asparagus and turnips on the side. I meant to sneak some sage in there but forgot. Oh well!

This was an easy dinner that was on the table in about 35 minutes, perfect for a meal after a wonderful 3.5 mile run at the gym. I took my new shoes on an inaugural spin tonight - Brooks Defyance running shoes. My last pair was Saucony and they were definitely more cushy and plush, but I wanted to try something different since I've been experiencing a bit of knee/leg/foot pain as I increase my mileage. Despite one little foot cramp after I got off the treadmill, it was wonderful to be in a pair of new shoes!

So how did dinner get on the table? (Does anybody have a good source for a dinner fairy? I could use one sometimes ...)

Prep the veggies: Preheat the oven to 425. Clean and chop the turnips, then place on a baking sheet and douse in a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pop them in the oven and set the timer for 25 minutes. Clean the asparagus, breaking off the woody bottom parts (you can save these for stock) and chopping the spears in half. Put on a baking sheet and add a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Slice a premade tube of polenta into 1/2 inch slices. Add to the asparagus sheet (make sure you've got some cooking spray on there). Pop these in the oven.

Get the saute veggies ready: thinly slice half an onion, one stalk of green garlic (or some regular garlic), a carrot, and some red bell pepper. Heat about one tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and add the onion. After a couple of minutes, add the rest of the veggies and saute while the items in the oven roast. For the last couple of minutes, I added some water and lowered the heat to low to braise for a bit.

Finish the oven items: After about 10 minutes in the oven, pull the polenta out, flip, and top each slice with herbed ricotta (ricotta + herbs de Provence + salt). Pop them back in the oven to finish cooking. When the 25 minutes are up, dinner is ready! Pull everything out, and add a bit of balsamic to the roasted veggies as well as the ones in the saute pan. Top the polenta with the sauteed veggies and enjoy! (A note - my radishes were pretty small, so I had to pull them out of the oven partway through cooking so they didn't burn. I tossed them back in for the last five minutes so they could heat back up.) This was tasty, quick, and filling! Yum!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Amazing Race - China

We are so close to the finish line on the Amazing Race!! This week, the teams raced through China. I am not a big fan of Chinese restaurants - I can't eat at authentic Chinese places because they don't understand the "no meat" request. I have honestly been given soup with chicken feet floating in it like icebergs, to be told that it was vegetarian. To me, "meat" does not mean red-colored flesh. Chicken is just as animal as cow or fish. I don't get the distinction. I do, however, respect cultural differences, so I have come to recognize that more authentic Chinese, like authentic Mexican, just isn't really an option for me. PF Chang's, it is! My stepmom, who is British, has visited China and reported back that they just don't have a cultural understanding of abstaining from meat as a lifestyle or form of activism. Meat is more readily available to those who have more money, therefore it is assumed that foreign travelers are going to eat meat. But as my stepmom says, the British ran out of things to do on their island, so they took up the cause of animal rights. There are lots of vegetarians in Britain (and fabulous ethnic cuisine for those vegetarians, like Indian food)!

But this week, in honor of racing through China, we had one of my favorite homemade Chinese dishes: moo shu vegetables!

I have fond memories of eating moo shu dishes in my pre-vegetarian days: pulling the soft pancake-like wraps from the container and assembling my own roll at the table, dotting the pancake with a sweet plum sauce or spicy mustard and piling high with a mix of veggies, eggs, and, often, chicken, pork or some other meat.

My version of moo shu is vegetable-based, with tofu and egg. It comes from the wonderful Passionate Vegetarian, by Crescent Dragonwagon. The recipe for moo shu veggies relies on another recipe from the book: neo-classic crepes!

These crepes are neo-classic because they rely on chickpea flour and potato starch. The chickpea flour, according to Ms. Dragonwagon, is made from ground chickpeas and used in both Indian and French cuisine. I don't know exactly why it works, but it does! These crepes are easy - they require no special skills, only a nonstick skillet, and they are foolproof.

Here's the two-tiered recipe - it only takes about an hour to prepare the entire thing, including the crepes. The recipe calls for bok choy, but I used an entire bunch of green chard in its place because that's what I had on hand.

P.S. Can I just say that for the first time in many seasons, I am excited about almost all of the teams in the final four?? Seriously, there is only one team that would make me a bit unhappy to see crowned the AR winner. Versus the usual situation, where I can't stand any of them, especially the obnoxious shrew (there's always one - unfortunately, this time around it was my team, the dating lesbians. They got sent home two weekends ago).

Moo Shu Vegetables in Crepes
Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon's Passionate Vegetarian

For the crepes:
2 tablespoons potato starch
2 1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups white all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chickpea flour (I used Bob's Red Mill brand)

Put the potato starch, 1/2 cup of water, vegetable oil, and salt in a food processor; process until smooth (it will remain liquid), pausing to run a spatula along the inside of the bowl. Add the white and chickpea flours and, with the processor running, add the water in a stream through the feed tube. When smooth, pour into a bowl, adding additional water if it seems too thick (it should be the consistency of thin pancake batter).

Heat a nonstick 6-inch pan over medium heat and spray with cooking spray. When hot, drop one big spoonful of batter (about 2 tablespoons) in the pan; pick it up and swirl it around quickly to distribute along the bottom of the pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the edges begin to curl and the top seems relatively dry. Flip and cook on the second side for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, then slide from the pan onto a cooling rack and let cool for a minute. Stack the finished crepes with sheets of parchment paper in between each crepe to prevent sticking. Make 12 for the moo shu recipe; the remainder of the crepe batter will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. Use it however you would normally use crepes (savory or sweet both work well).

For the filling:

2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/3 cup water
2 heaping teaspoons sugar or honey (I used brown sugar)
2 teaspoons fermented black bean-garlic sauce (check the Asian aisle - you will find it there in a jar)
1 1/2 teaspoons dark sesame oil, divided
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ginger, peeled and minced
2 or 3 large green onions, sliced (white and light green parts only)
2 carrots, scrubbed and julienned
1/4 pound to 1/2 pound bean sprouts, washed (amount to your own liking)
1 bunch green chard, washed, center stem removed, and sliced into 1/2-inch wide ribbons
4 ounces firm, water-packed tofu, drained and pressed, sliced into 1/4 inch dice
Dash of soy sauce, or to taste
Hoisin sauce for assembling crepes

Scramble the two eggs the best way you know how - bonus points for using the large wok/deep skillet that you will be using below to make the veggies. Set aside the eggs until the veggies have been prepared.

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch with the water and press with fingers to dissolve the cornstarch. Add sugar/honey, black bean-garlic sauce, 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok/large deep skillet over medium-high to high heat. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the green onion and carrots, and cook, stirring almost constantly, for about 1 minute. Add the bean sprouts and chard and cook until the chard wilts, about 2 minutes. Make a hole in the center of the veggies and add the tofu, cornstarch liquid mixture, and remaining 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Cook for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly and coating the mixture with the sauce. Add a dash of soy sauce. Place the veggie mixture in a bowl, stir in the scrambled eggs, and serve immediately. Slather the crepes with hoisin and add a spoonful or two of the veggie mixture. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

More guilty pleasures: calzone!

Mmmmm. I have waxed poetic about my love for pizza. Guess what's almost as delicious? CALZONES.

That's right - homemade calzones! With some tasty store-bought pizza dough, you can whip this up in about half an hour. And it's simply delicious.

The recipe comes from Epicurious - I made it almost exactly as written. Click here for the original recipe. Here's what I did:

Wash and spin your arugula - I used one bunch from my CSA box; the recipe calls for 5 oz aka 8 cups of baby arugula. I don't believe mine was baby - but it was perfect.

That's where the magic happens. Now that I've got the weekly box, this salad spinner sees plenty of action. I use it probably three times a week. This sucker has lasted for years, and I love the auto-stop button on the top. Makes fresh greens ... fresh and easy!

Post spin.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Get your arugula ready. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large saute pan. Add one minced garlic clove (I used one cube of frozen garlic from TJ's), and cook for one minute. Add the arugula, stirring almost constantly, until wilted. It will reduce significantly in volume:

Yes, that is one whole bunch of arugula! What it lacks in volume, it makes up for in peppery, fresh taste. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, then transfer to a colander and press to eliminate as much liquid as possible. Chop coarsely.

Make the filling: In a medium bowl, combine 6 oz (2/3 cup) of fresh ricotta, 3 oz (or a bit more - I used probably 4 oz?) of grated mozzarella, 2 tablespoons parmesan, 1 egg yolk, salt, and pepper to taste. Add the chopped arugula and mix well.

Prepare the calzones. The recipe tells you to split one pound of dough into fourths; we, however, are more piggy than that - I split ours into thirds.

That is plain Trader Joe's dough, from the refrigerated section. I swear by all of their dough offerings. I split that ball into three separate sections, then rolled/stretched each one out into a "circle" about 9 inches in diameter. Use plenty of flour to keep the dough from sticking while you roll and stretch. Place one third of the filling in the center of each, then fold over the dough to form a moon-shape and press the edges to seal. Here's the cool part: starting on one end of the dough, stretch and tuck the edge back in toward the calzone, twisting along the perimeter to form a rope along the entire edge. Use a pinching/rolling motion. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden and puffed. Cool on a baking sheet for few minutes. Serve with a side of pizza sauce or marinara.

That was a good Saturday night meal! Perfect with a glass of wine and a loved one.

Making Popeye proud.

When planning a quick, box-centric meal on a weeknight, I seem to always gravitate toward the spinach. Leafy greens, spinach included, are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals. Spinach is packed with Vitamin A (for healthy eyes), Vitamin K (for healthy bones and blood), and it's a good source of iron. With my meatless diet, I know that it's important to seek out iron from other sources; historically, I have gone through periods of iron deficiency, so it should be a priority for me. Well, with the CSA box, we've been getting spinach and other leafy greens pretty frequently! I just feel great about all that green.

So tonight we had a little bit of the angel and the devil for dinner - sauteed spinach and grilled cheese sandwiches! I ran 3 miles at the gym, so a grilled cheese sandwich wasn't too overboard, especially when tempered by the delicious spinach. Also, it's a quick and tasty meal that is easy to whip up after a long day at work and the gym. On a side note - I have found a great way to regulate my cheese intake is by using pre-sliced cheese. I know exactly how many calories are in each slice. My preferred brand is the Finlandia cheese from Costco - it's a 2 pound pack (ugh!!) for about 7 bucks - that is an insanely good price for real, tasty cheese! It lasts a long time, and there are four different flavors, which keeps things exciting: colby jack, swiss, monterey jack, and cheddar. Each slice is 80 calories - so if I have two or two and half in a cheese sandwich, that really isn't too bad. Gives me a little wiggle room for some real butter!

We made two different sandwiches and split them in half. One had multigrain bread, and the other was sourdough. Both were divine, but I think I prefer sourdough for grilled cheese.

To make the spinach, I washed the leaves well and spun them in my salad spinner. Then I heated about a tablespoon of olive oil in a wok-like saute pan, adding one cube of frozen garlic (equal to one teaspoon of minced garlic) and cooking for about one minute. I then added the spinach, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh grated pepper, and stirred it almost constantly until it was wilted and very much reduced in volume. A huge bowl of spinach cooks down into two portions of the size on my plate above! When wilted, I added a dash or two of balsamic vinegar and some red pepper flakes. Delicious!

Then I'm sure I swung the scales a bit more toward the devilish, because I'm pretty sure I ate some M&Ms for dessert!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's in the box?

Here's what we have to look forward to this week:

Green Garlic
Salad Mix
Tokyo Turnips

Yes, it's the return of the actual box! The box comes home with us when we forget to bring our bag with us.

Here's the green garlic:

I really love the flavor of the green garlic! Very light, perfect for spring. We got a recipe in our CSA newsletter this week for garlic bread, using the green garlic. It sounds divine! We might have to try it.

These are the tokyo turnips:
They look really tasty! I think I might roast them? I forgot that turnips and radishes aren't the same thing. These are petite - they look almost like large, albino radishes.

And here's the sage - how fabulous! The flowers are so pretty. This was such a neat addition to the box because we've been planning what to do with the flowerbeds in our yard, and I am very attracted to all the different types of sage, with their lovely purple flowers. Maybe it's a sign?

Lots of greens this week! Arugula, spinach, salad mix. Interestingly, I actually find myself craving healthy food more often now. It could be the convergence of adding more vegetables to our diet (more consistently) with my stepped-up running routine. But whatever it is, I'm happy about the change. I definitely wasn't on a garbage diet before we started the CSA, but we ate out more frequently, and when we did it was just as often Dos Coyotes (good, but it shouldn't be a weekly habit!) as it was Jack's (big salads!).

I saw flowers for sale at our local food co-op today - and they were from our farm, Full Belly Farm! I felt a little burst of pride. We have to make our way out there at some point to acquaint ourselves with the farm.

Here's to a delicious and nutritious week!

How'd we do?

It was a delicious week, and we definitely ate well! Here's the dish roundup:

Asparagus & Green Garlic- A spring-inspired strata recipe. Out of this world!

Mixed Chard - A tasty, though possibly culturally confused, tortilla lasagna.

Red Russian Kale - In heaven, the lawns won't be grass - they will be kale. I just love this stuff. Seriously. We had it atop sweet potatoes and ricotta for a healthy twist on baked potatoes (Martha + kale = love at first bite).

Salad Mix & Red Round Radishes - Yum, salad! We ate it alongside the strata, topped with various goodies (cheese, carrots, bell pepper, onions, cranberries), plus a smattering of radishes.

Braising Mix - Ohhh this one was a keeper. In line with my obsession with food on toast, I made a lip-smacking take on beans and greens. I tossed in some of the green garlic for good measure, and to ward off baby vampires (it's not strong enough to keep the big daddies at bay, but none of the offspring will be chomping down on my in my sleep!).

Winter Savory - Erm. I'm pretty sure that there was some kind of mix-up. Here's what the Internet told me to expect. Here's what I got. I'm no scientist, but those just can't be the same plant ... so, I didn't do anything with what I got. Oh well!

GOLD STAR of the week goes to .... beans and greens on toast! If you make just one of these recipes, make it that one.

Great week, here's to another week of fine food and great company ... oh, and if you are wondering, there was no Amazing Race this week. It was on hiatus for a week so that the Country Music Awards could air. I am thankful that AR is back this weekend ... I've already got a plan, and it's a classic.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A spring strata

On Sunday evening, we ate a strata for dinner. What, might you ask, is this intergalactic delicacy?

A strata is somewhat like a bread pudding or a bread gratin, if such a thing exists. I often see it classified as a breakfast item, great for brunch because it demands advance assembly and generous time in the refrigerator to set up before baking. The allure is that you can whip it up the night before your guests arrive, then - voila! - pull it from the fridge bright and early the next morning and pop it in the oven. This requires fluid, dance-like moves (arms extended!), a vintage apron, mid-heels, and sparkling white teeth. A vacuum and a tea-length day dress don't hurt either.

But I'll be honest with you - this is my kind of dinner fare! I forgo the 50s hostess routine and instead prep in the early afternoon to serve by 7. This is a weekend or day-off kind of supper, but it's delicious and only a bit retro-inspired. I mean, bread baked with cheese for dinner? I would even sign up to host some folks so I have a fabulous excuse to eat this constantly (brunch and dinner)! It only feels a teensy-tiny bit like breakfast for dinner, and who doesn't love a little insolence in the evening?

I got my inspiration from Crescent Dragonwagon's "Passionate Vegetarian." Her version includes either zucchini or spinach, and she offers a number of variations on the theme (rancheros flavor! cornbread!). The strata has a tender, spongy quality to it, though the texture varies based on the bread used. I have had great success using crumbled leftover cornbread, as recommended by Ms. Dragonwagon; it adds a richness and sweetness that pairs very well with the egg and the savory, cheesy filling. The entire dish is brightened by lemon, which is a key flavor and is used generously in both zest and juice form. You basically use an entire lemon, plus a bit of mustard and a dash of nutmeg, for the key flavors of the dish. I added garlic because I had lovely green garlic left over from the week's box - the green garlic is a gentle but distinct flavor that I highly recommend. It pairs wonderfully with the asparagus and lemon. I will confess, I haven't made this using regular garlic as a sub for the green version, though I bet it would work if you exhibit garlic restraint. Who doesn't fight the urge to toss in a couple extra cloves every now and then? I would advise against a heavy garlic hand for this dish because the flavors are delicate, fresh, and very springy.

So pull out the mimosas and invite the gang over for brunch. You can roll out of bed exactly one hour before they arrive, serving a piping hot, tasty dish the second they arrive. Or you can be like me and horde the entire thing to yourself (and husband!) for dinner, knowing that the leftovers are destined to reemerge as lunch the next day.

Asparagus Strata
Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon in Passionate Vegetarian

Note: You can use lots of barely-cooked veggies in this strata. Crescent Dragonwagon suggests zucchini or spinach in her recipe. I can vouch for the zucchini!

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 stalks of green garlic, thinly sliced (alternatively, you can use 2 cloves regular garlic, or omit)
1 1/2 to 2 cups of asparagus, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal in 1-inch slices
1 large lemon, including the juice and 1 teaspoon of zest
1 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese (or you could do gruyere - would be lovely)
1/4 of a large red onion, finely diced
4 eggs
2 cups low-fat milk
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Nutmeg (a few dashes)
Day-old country bread (white or wheat), equivalent to about 8 regular slices of bread - torn into large crumbs

Make the veggie filling: Heat the olive oil over medium heat; add the garlic and cook for about 3 minutes for green garlic, 1 minute for regular, stirring occasionally. Add the asparagus and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and place the mixture in a medium mixing bowl. Add the 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and the juice from the lemon to the bowl; stir to combine. Mix in 2/3 cup of the grated cheese and the red onion. Set aside.

Prepare the eggs: Whisk the eggs lightly in a medium bowl. Add the milk, Tabasco, dry mustard, nutmeg, salt and pepper, mixing well.

Assemble the dish: Spray an 8x8 inch baking pan (or another of a similar size) with cooking spray. Spread about half of the bread in the bottom of the dish. Pour one-third of the egg mixture over the bread. Spread the asparagus mixture over the bottom egg/bread layer. Top with the remaining bread, then pour the remaining egg mixture evenly over the to. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the surface. Cover and refrigerate overnight or, at minimum, four hours.

Cook: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, for 40 to 50 minutes. When it's bubbly and lightly browned, it's ready. Remove from the oven and let stand for about 5 minutes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Visions of spring

Today the weather was beautiful and my husband and I spent some quality time in the garden. We just bought our first house last September, and we are attempting to learn lawn and garden care. It's a pretty steep learning curve! The one plant that I am pretty good with is roses. At our last house, there were a number of pretty rose bushes. We had a gardener, but they didn't really care for the roses. I couldn't let them flounder, so I learned the very basics of how to care for them. I just love them! I think part of my love stems from wonder - roses did not flourish so easily in Virginia, where I grew up. It was possible to grow them with the right care, but in Northern California, you pretty much just need to prune, water, and feed every once in while, and they simply thrive.

Here are some of the blooms from our garden this afternoon:

Eventually, we'd like to have a small vegetable and herb garden. We spent some time at the neighborhood nursery after our weed-a-thon session, planning for the future of our flower beds. In the backyard, we have a great flower bed that runs along the perimeter of our yard, along the fence. In the front yard, there is a bed along the wall of the garage, next to the sidewalk leading up to our front door, and a garden extending along the exterior of the structure from the front door to the edge of the house. Needless to say, we've got lots to do! These are some of the plants on my wish list: butterfly bushes, azaleas, lilacs (some are more hearty than others), gardenias, camellias, foxgloves, and lilies (I like calla lilies better than day lilies). And two special plants: a Meyer lemon tree (dwarf, probably - we don't have a large yard!), and a bird of paradise. The bird of paradise has great sentimental value because my husband and I got married in Maui. We have always loved tropical plants, and that one especially reminds us of our wedding. Plus, we had one in our backyard at our last house, the one with the roses. It was such a special day when we came out and saw it blooming for the first time.

We are going to hopefully work on our yard some next weekend, but until then - I've got about eight to ten rose bushes that are just bursting with buds. Some of them probably have 20 buds just waiting to bloom!

I am so thankful for California's bounty. The vegetables and now the flowers! It's just a wonderful time of year, and this is an amazing place to experience spring.