Friday, April 23, 2010

Farmers Market-Inspired Spring Dinner

Last Sunday I took a walk through my local farmers market. We've had a mild winter and warm spring up here in the northwest and I wanted to see what was fresh. Among the many flower stalls, fish mongers, and bakeries were the first signs of spring. I found a plethora of spring greens including mizuna, arugula, and mache. Herbs were in abundance - fresh chives, sorrel, mint, and chervil, to name a few. There were a variety of new potatoes as well including dutch babies, red-skinned, and fingerlings.

I also found some young, tender leeks. We don't eat leeks as often in America as they do in Europe. It's a shame because they are a delicious vegetable; an elegant member of the onion family. Their flavor is more subtle and sophisticated than their strong cousins. Leeks are also an excellent source of vitamin c, iron, and fiber.

Inspired by my experience, I started to envision a spring menu. The lovely leeks, fresh spring herbs and greens, baby potatoes...the menu practically wrote itself.

Farmers Market-Inspired Spring Menu

Braised Leeks
Mixed Spring Greens with Fresh Goat Cheese
Steamed Baby Potatoes with Mint Butter
Herb-Crusted Rack of Spring Lamb


Braised Leeks
8 small to medium leeks
1/2cup finely diced onions
1/4 cup finely diced carrots
1/4 cup finely diced celery
2 Tbsp. butter
1 cup chicken broth
4 slices of French bread, optional
kosher salt and pepper to taste


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To prepare the leeks, trim off the dark green stalks. Without cutting entirely through the root, slit the leeks lengthwise and rinse under cold water to remove all of the dirt.

Blanch leeks for about 30 seconds and shock in an ice bath. Cut through the remaining tip of the leek and remove the roots.

Next, melt the butter in a small sauté pan. Add the onions, carrots and celery and cook over medium low heat until the onions become transparent, about 10 minutes. Spoon the cooked vegetable mixture into a medium-size casserole dish (one just large enough to accommodate your leeks). Place the blanched leeks on top of the vegetables and then add the chicken stock, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover with the French bread (delicious when the dish is finished) or foil. Bake until leeks are tender, about 35 minutes.

To serve, lift off the toasted bread, and spoon the leeks onto plates. Garnish by spooning the chopped vegetables over the leeks. Serve with the toasted bread. Serves 4.

Have you visited a farmers market yet this year? What inspired you? Please share your favorite spring dish or menu idea!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Savory Cheesecake Bites

These little cheesecakes a easy and elegant way to start a meal.  Top them with the Spiced Rhubarb Compote recipe below or use them as a garnish on a mixed baby green and herb salad.

Savory Cheesecake Bites
Makes 24

1 cup chopped, toasted walnuts
3 tbsp melted butter
8 oz goat cheese, at room temperature
8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Using 1 tbsp melted butter, brush the cups of a 24-cup mini muffin pan (1 3/4" x 3/4" cups) and set aside.

Place walnuts in a food processor and process until the walnuts are finely chopped. Pour the finely chopped walnuts into a small bowl, drizzle the remaining 2 tbsp of butter over the nuts and mix until thoroughly combined. Spoon 1 tsp of the mixture into each muffin cup. Using your fingers or the back of a spoon, press the walnut mixture into the bottom of the muffin cups to make the crust.

Beat the goat cheese and cream cheese with a mixer until smooth. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well. Add the thyme, white pepper and salt and combine well. Spoon mixture into the prepared pan.

Place the prepared pan in a roasting pan or deep sheet pan. Fill the roasting pan with boiling water half way up the muffin cups. Bake 15 to 20 minutes until the cheesecakes are set.
Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature. To serve, run a thin sharp knife around the sides of each cheesecake.  Serve as an appetizer (see the photo below) or garnish for a salad.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Put Some Zing in Your Spring!

As I sat thinking about spring vegetables for this blog, my first thoughts were about fresh asparagus. Then I thought, "everyone thinks asparagus in spring." Everywhere I turn there's an asparagus recipe. It's not that I don't like asparagus. I love it. I just didn't want to offer the ubiquitous asparagus recipe when there are so many other vegetables popping up in the springtime. So what could I suggest that was unique?

The answer came to me while walking through my neighborhood. I noticed a home with planter boxes overflowing with tawny-pink rhubarb stalks and was inspired.

Rhubarb is one of those often overlooked vegetables but it's delicious, simple to work with, and a great source of potassium and vitamin C. The early pink stems are the best for cooking. You'll definitely have to add some sugar to offset their natural tartness though. Oh! Do remember that the stems are the edible portion of the plant so trim away all the leaves before cooking.

I'm sure that moment I mentioned rhubarb many of you thought of pies, but since I am not much of a baker I decided to develop a different type of recipe - a Spiced Rhubarb Compote.

If you like tangy, sweet and sour sauce, you'll love this compote! It's quick, easy, and so versatile. I've spooned over roasted pork and duck, served it as a condiment for a glazed ham, and topped savory goat cheese cheesecakes with a dollop. So yummy!

Spiced Rhubarb Compote

6 cups diced rhubarb stalks (about 2 lbs)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 ground allspice
1 pinch of nutmeg

Combine all the ingredients in a large sauce pan. Simmer over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the rhubarb is tender, about 20 minutes. Simmer a bit longer to thicken, if you like.

The compote can be served warm, at room temperature, or cold and will keep up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

What are some of your favorite springtime vegetables? Share a recipe with us!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Adios Queso Dip!

While having lunch with my husband a few weeks ago, I noticed the appetizer menu included queso dip and chips. By the description, I was assured that the "queso" dip was made with a liquid cheese-type product - some gooey molten mixture of picante sauce, cheese flavoring, and oil.

We didn't order the appetizer but it stuck in my mind. So much so, that later that day I found myself buying a box of shelf-stable cheese product and a can of spiced tomatoes to make my own "queso" dip. You might be appalled to learn that a trained chef would succumb to thoughts of faux cheese and salty chips but I have to admit that I am occasionally tempted to stray.

I think it's the food memory that pushes me over the edge. There are certain junk foods from my youth that hold a mystique. They were the special treat, the comfort food, the guilty pleasure. Here's the kicker though, my memory has the tendency to exaggerate goodness. My food memory gets wrapped up in other elements - who I was with, what I was doing, where I was.

My fond memories of queso dip were colored by the fact that the last time I ate it was about 13 years ago while living in Japan. My father used to send me care packages of western food. I think he would actually ship me food that he wished he could eat but that my mother wouldn't let him buy. Boxes would come loaded with spiced pork shoulder in a can, faux cheese, cured sausages and more. I would laugh every time I opened a package from him. I would have rarely eaten these items had I been in the US but here they were laid out like pirate's treasure in the foreign land. A glorious reminder of my distant homeland. When presented with snack mixes of toasted soybeans and dried fish, I can't tell you what a wonderful treat crappy queso dip was to me and my western friends!

So, on a rainy afternoon in March, called by a distant siren song of my junk food memory, I made the cheesy, salty, spicy goo was lousy! I mean really a let-down. Perhaps it was the absence of laughing friends, plenty of beer, and Japanese game shows in the background, but sadly my food memory did not stand up to reality. I should have left that bright yellow box on the shelf of my mind but I tempted fate. I thought it was the food that I savored but it was so much more.

Have you ever revisited a favorite junk food only to find that it wasn't as good as you remembered? Or was it? Share your favorite junk food memory!