January 20, 2010
I met a new vegetable recently, and I’m totally infatuated: fennel.
I’d heard of fennel, but had never eaten it until I visited my husband’s family for Thanksgiving a couple of years ago. The appetizers included a veggie tray with familiar snacks like peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and baby carrots. But there were also some curved, pale pieces I didn’t recognize, with a celery-like crunch and a pleasant licorice taste.
My husband told me this was called anise (pronounced “ann-iss,” although when they were younger he and his brothers preferred a grosser pronunciation), and that was that. I didn’t realize until later, perusing the produce aisles, that I’d actually eaten fennel! (It’s sometimes mislabeled as anise, a different plant whose seeds are also redolent of licorice.)
I’ve incorporated fresh fennel into many recipes since then, and found it wonderfully versatile. Here are a few ways to use it:
1. Soup: Roughly following this recipe, I made a very simple tomato-fennel soup by sauteeing some chopped fennel (preparation tips here) with onion and garlic in the bottom of a stockpot for 5 minutes, then adding a large can of crushed tomatoes and about 3 cups of water. I let the soup simmer (covered) for 40 minutes or so while preparing the rest of dinner, then used the immersion blender to puree it. I stirred in 1/3 cup of heavy cream right before serving, and garnished each bowl with fennel fronds. With some rustic sourdough bread, it made a delicious appetizer for our dinner. Next, I plan to try Sweet Amandine’s carrot-fennel soup.
2. Salad: I’ve made two variations on fresh salads with fennel so far, and both were big hits. Basically, when you combine slivers of fresh fennel with citrus segments (grapefruits, oranges, and/or clementines) and fresh herbs (including the fennel fronds), you’re on to something great. I also love fresh roasted beets, so I added these in quarters (both red and golden), along with some baby spinach (arugula’s good, too). I tossed this combination with a light dressing made by combining a few tablespoons of the following ingredients to taste: fig-infused vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, and spicy maple mustard. If you prefer actual recipes, look to Sassy Radish’s fennel tangerine salad or this roasted beet and fennel salad.
3. Gratin: Depending on what ingredients you have, riff off recipes like Ina Gartin’s potato-fennel gratin and Smitten Kitchen’s swiss chard and sweet potato gratin. I had a small yam and a white potato to use up, so I peeled and sliced both, then layered them in a casserole dish with some cooked Swiss chard (chopped and sauteed with garlic, then squeeze-dried a bit) grated Gruyere and fontinella, and a basic bechamel sauce. I topped it all with a few slices of fresh mozzarella, and baked it (covered in foil) for 45 minutes. It was so good that just writing about it makes me want to run home and make more!
4. Roasted: Couldn’t be simpler! Cut a fresh fennel bulb into quarters or eighths, depending on size, toss with olive oil and vinegar, and roast on a baking sheet until tender (try 20 minutes at 400 for starters). Top with grated fresh parmesan and enjoy as a snack or a side dish.
5. Dessert: There aren’t too many vegetables that work well in desserts, but like I said, this one’s versatile. The Washington Post’s recipe finder offers up fennel panna cotta (though you’d probably have to skip the grilled strawberries this time of year), and the blog My French Cooking suggests a mouth-watering candied fennel sponge cake.
January 13, 2010
I’ve always like jicama (pronounced HEE-kuh-muh), a starchy, slightly sweet root popular in Mexico. It looks like an ugly brown turnip (and is sometimes called Mexican turnip) and, when raw, has the crunchy texture of a firm pear or a raw potato. Until a few weeks ago, raw was the only way I’d ever had it, usually on a crudité platter or in a salad. It had never occurred to me that it could be eaten cooked—but there it was recently, on a restaurant menu, in a jicama and roasted red pepper risotto. I ordered it out of curiosity, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. In the risotto dish it was diced into small pieces and retained some of its crunch, its texture providing a nice counterbalance to the creamy rice.
The experience made me wonder, what other creative ways are there to prepare jicama? It’s not the most nutritious vegetable, but it’s a good source of fiber, potassium and vitamin C.
1. In a Mexican fruit salad. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, Mexican street vendors sell fresh fruit—like mango on a stick—from push carts. But the best thing they offer is a delicious fruit salad, with some combination of chunks of mango, pineapple, jicama, watermelon and cucumbers, seasoned with lime juice and chili powder. The combination of textures and flavors is divine, and beats the heck out of the flavorless melon melanges so many places pass off as fruit salad.
2. Sautéed. I’m guilty of being pretty unimaginative with vegetable side dishes, rotating among a few standard steamed or sautéed veggies that my fiancé and I can agree on—broccoli, green beans, spinach (sadly, I have not found the recipe that will convert him to brussels sprouts—yet). Epicurious suggests a bright-sounding jicama and celery sauté that might enliven the rotation.
3. As a canapé canvas. Perhaps the most surprising recipe I found was one for jicama-date canapés, also from Epicurious. Again, something that never would have occurred to me, though reviewers said it was a cocktail-party hit and a refreshing palate cleanser. I imagine jicama wedges would make a great platform for all kind of toppings, including (judging from my risotto experience) a roasted red pepper spread.
4. In a stir-fry. Jicama has a similar texture to water chestnuts, so it makes sense that it would work well in an Asian stir-fry. Cut it into chunks and throw in anywhere you’d use water chestnuts, or try this Chinese stir-fry recipe at Cooking Crave (in China, apparently, jicama is known as yam bean). I would probably leave out the cuttlefish, mostly because I don’t know where I’d find them where I live, but otherwise it sounds delicious.
5. As mock green papaya. The only salad I might love more than Mexican fruit salad is Thai green papaya salad—the mixture of tangy, sweet, salty and crunchy is the best of all worlds. But where I live, far from an Asian grocer (and far, far away from the tropical climate that produces the fruit) the chances of finding anything but an overripe papaya are slim to none. As Mark Bittman points out, though, jicama makes a pretty good substitute (and travels a lot better than papaya).
January 4, 2010
Post-holidays, most people take at least a passing interest in eating healthier. I know I do, anyway. That’s what motivated me to pick up a whole, fresh pomegranate at the grocery store a few days ago—I’d heard that this round, red fruit is a “superfood,” packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Never mind that I hadn’t a clue how to open the thing, let alone prepare it! That’s what the Internet is for…
In case you’re clueless, too, here are a few tips on what to do with fresh pomegranates.
1) This video on Food52, a wonderful recipe-sharing site developed in part by former New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser, shows a simple technique for extracting the pomegranate seeds. Related recipes on the same site include an arugula, pear and goat cheese salad with pomegranate vinaigrette, a cranberry pomegranate compote, and roasted brussels sprouts with hazelnut and pomegranate (mmm, I might make that one tonight).
2) Add an exotic twist to fresh salsa by incorporating pomegranate seeds. I like the look of this kiwi-pomegranate salsa from Simply Recipes, and I bet some chunks of fresh mango would taste great in there, too.
3) The Wednesday Chef has another intriguing idea: carrot soup topped with pomegranate seeds. This recipe also calls for a touch of pomegranate molasses, which you can find at Middle Eastern grocery stores (I even found a few bottles for sale at the falafel shop in my neighborhood) or in the international aisle of larger chain supermarkets. It’s delicious in muhammara, a spread/dip made with roasted red peppers and walnuts.
4) Liven up a grain dish with pomegranate seeds—that could mean simply tossing a handful of them into couscous, or going uber-healthy with this bulgur, celery and pomegranate salad from 101 Cookbooks. They also taste great in hot oatmeal with a drizzle of maple syrup, as I learned this morning!
5) Drink up. You can buy pomegranate juice, but you can also squeeze your own from fresh pomegranates. It tastes good on its own, or mixed into everything from cocktails to smoothies. Food & Wine has a recipe for sparkling pomegranate punch that combines both juice and seeds with Prosecco, and Martha Stewart has a non-alcoholic variation. The doctor/blogger at Basic Eating recommends a simple pomegranate banana smoothie (he also has a related post with general pomegranate information).
That’s five, but here’s a bonus link, to celebrate the new year: the lovely new blog The Cooks Next Door recently had a pomegranate-themed post that includes helpful preparation tips and three recipes, such as chicken with yogurt and pomegranate.