The Secret to Making Vegetables Taste Good

Kale and Kohlrabi Ingredients

I participate in a community supported agriculture program, or CSA for short. It’s a weekly parcel of produce from nearby farms. Most of it is organic.

I love being a part of a CSA. The fruits and vegetables are fresh and delicious and I get a warm fuzzy feeling from supporting small businesses and farmers. But the best part about subscribing to a CSA is the surprise of what will appear in your weekly box of  seasonal goodies.

My CSA program started in May, and throughout the weeks, I’ve gotten fragrant garlic scapes, delicate lettuces, crunchy cabbage, and the most flavorful, tiny strawberries I’ve ever eaten. It’s awesome watching the progression of the growing season through my weekly produce share, except for one thing.

The kale. It won’t stop coming. It is the only thing that has made the CSA cut every week, a curly, leafy invader that just won’t quit. I’ve had 13 straight weeks of kale bunches, and frankly, I’m sick of it. I’ve made Baked Eggs with Sausage and Kale for breakfast. I’ve made Roughed Up Kale Salad for dinner. I’ve snacked on crispy kale chips. But damn, it’s a lot of greenery, especially from a vegetable that up until 2 years ago could only be found state-side in overly-salted canned Italian soups.

Luckily, I won’t drown in this never ending sea of kale because I know how to make vegetables taste good. It’s a simple trick, and one that’s easy to master. It’s so easy that you may already know it and not even realize it.

So what’s the magic trick for making vegetables delicious? It’s salt, pepper, and olive oil. That’s it. Every fresh vegetable is elevated by that threesome. You can roast, saute, steam, and in some cases, even eat veggies raw if you just add olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s the lazy cook’s dream come true!

When you want to up the ante, saute some chopped onions and minced garlic in your olive oil until just golden. The flavor will infuse the oil, and when it coats your vegetables, they’ll be saturated with flavor. Squeeze the juice of a lemon over the top of your veg to add freshness and a hint of acidity. Sprinkle on something crunchy, like toasted nuts, seeds, or breadcrumbs to add another layer of flavor and texture.

Warm Kale and Kohlrabi Salad with Sunflower Seeds
Warm Kale and Kohlrabi Salad with Sunflower Seeds

That’s exactly how I cooked this warm kale and kohlrabi salad, a tasty and easy way to get through one more bunch of CSA kale. If I get it again next week, I’ll start with my basic threesome of salt, pepper, and olive oil and go from there, building flavors and textures into something delicious.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with photographing the contents of my weekly CSA. Follow me on Instagram to see what’s arrived. And tell me, what’s your favorite way to prepare fresh vegetables?

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Baked Eggs with Bacon, Squash, and Kale Hash

I eat almost the exact same thing for breakfast every day of the work week. In the colder months, it’s oatmeal with whatever dried fruit i have in the pantry and a sprinkling of toasted nuts. When the weather warms, I change over to yogurt and granola with fresh fruit, with the occasional change-over from yogurt to kefir, which is…drinkable yogurt. Pretty boring, right? But when I need to get out the door quickly )because I’ve overslept  again, and then idled too long in the shower’s warmth, and forgotten that I needed to pack my bag for yoga after work), these breakfast standards are easy and reliable, and I actually really never get sick of eating them.

Baked Eggs with Bacon, Squash, and Kale Hash

But on the weekends…I’m a sucker for a good breakfast. In my mind, going out for brunch is the ultimate urban luxury, and I do it as often as possible, but I can’t justify spending $20 for a couple of eggs and a plate of fried potatoes every single Sunday. Even if the eggs are fresh out of the happiest, most organic, free range chicken that ever lived, with yolks the color of sunshine and laughter. It’s just not in my best financial interest to indulge  my brunch habit weekly.

So today, I made my own brunch and there wasn’t a fried potato in sight. It cost way less than $20, and I got to eat it sitting on the couch with my favorite guy while watching cartoons for grown ups. It was luxurious in its own way.

Tomorrow, I’m back on oatmeal.

Baked Eggs with Bacon, Squash, and Kale Hash 

2 strips bacon, finely diced
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4 inch pieces
1 large onion, diced
2 cups torn kale leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons fresh minced sage
salt and pepper
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon freshly grated parmesan cheese plus additional for serving

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until it is crispy. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside. Reserve 1 tablespoon of bacon grease and discard the rest.

Toss the squash, onion, and kale with the garlic, olive oil, 1 tablespoon of bacon grease, thyme, sage, and a generous amount of salt and pepper until everything is well coated. Divide onto 2 parchment-lined baking sheets and roast, rotating the pans and stirring the vegetables after 15 minutes. Continue roasting until the squash is fork-tender, 10 to 15 minutes longer.

Spray an 7 x 11 baking pan with cooking spray. Transfer the vegetables into the pan and stir in the cooked bacon bits. Press down on the vegetables so they form an even layer. Crack each egg into a small ramekin and pour slowly it over the vegetables so that the yolk doesn’t break. Repeat with the rest of the eggs, cracking and pouring each egg over the hash, one at a time. Sprinkle the eggs with additional salt and pepper and parmesan cheese. Return to the oven and bake until the whites of the eggs are set, but the yolks are still loose, between 12-15 minutes. Sprinkle with additional cheese.

Makes 3-4 servings, depending on how hung over you are from Saturday night.

Almost-Homemade Biscuits

I’ve had a bag of Hidden Acre Farm’s Southern Snow Biscuit Mix in my pantry for a few months. It was a gift from a test kitchen freelancer whom I’ve worked with a lot. (Whom? Who? Who cares…there are biscuits on the table.) The possibility of a productive Sunday fizzled hours ago, and I’ve wanted to eat nothing but breakfast foods all day long, making it a perfect opportunity to test this stuff.

I don’t purchase many baking mixes. I make most of my baked goods from scratch. It helps me justify the $40K I spent on pastry school, you know? But this one came to me from a food pro whose family owns a pecan farm in South Carolina, where Hidden Acre Farm is located.  Plus, I give this woman a paycheck once in a while. She wasn’t going to give me bad biscuit mix.

There are only four ingredients listed on the packaging: winter wheat flour, calcium phosphate (an acid that is a part of baking powder), baking soda, and salt. Winter wheat flour is soft and has a lower protein content than regular all-purpose flour, making it ideal for tender, light biscuits.

Lots of southerners swear by White Lily Cake Flour for making biscuits. It is also made from winter wheat flour, like the Hidden Acre Farm mix. Southerners hoard White Lily though. It’s not sold nationwide, so we Yanks just don’t get it. I’d love to do some test kitchen experiments, using it to make biscuits  alongside this Hidden Acre Farms mix to see which flour reigns supreme.

Hidden Acre Farm Biscuits with Butter and Raspberry Jam

It’s pretty hard to believe that White Lily, or any other flour or recipe, could top this Hidden Acre Farms mix. They came together in mere seconds, with just the addition of heavy cream. I brushed mine with a splash of melted butter before baking because I’m a sucker for a crunchy top that gives way to a soft, delicate inside. These are everything a homemade biscuit should be – tall, golden and irregular outside, and downy inside. They’re perfect in their simplicity.

My Google research isn’t finding Hidden Acre Farms mixes for purchase online, but maybe if we all like their Facebook page, and ask really nicely, that will change.  If you’re near Rock Hills, South Carolina, consider yourself lucky.  You can get your hands on this mix at Moments In Time and The Peach Stand. Stock up.  Send me a few. If you really want to make my day, throw in a bag of White Lily. Biscuits, for all my friends!

Spaghetti Squash – Accepting It For What It Is

It seems impossible, but somehow I’ve survived 34 years and 2 stints in Weight Watchers without ever cooking spaghetti squash. Starving and delusional, many people following the program gush, “It’s just like eating pasta! You can’t even  tell the difference!”

They’re wrong. It’s funny how we can totally lie to ourselves when we want to drop a dress size.

Spaghetti squash with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, and chicken sausage.

It’s stringy.  Other than that, it’s not like eating noodles, but no matter. Spaghetti squash has it’s own merit. It can be roasted in the oven, caramelizing the sugars and ramping up its inherent squashiness. Or, it can be nuked in the microwave in about 1/3 of the time, leaving it a blank canvas for whatever flavors you  toss it with.

I’ve never made spaghetti squash before, but I’ve eaten plenty of it. Like lots of vegetables, it’s bland when it’s not seasoned properly. That why I chose to toss mine with a whole bunch of bold flavors. I’m not giving a full recipe for this one. I raided my fridge and pantry, using what I had on hand, and eyeballed the amounts of the ingredients. This is my absolute favorite way to cook.  Taste and adjust as you go. You should try it! It’s liberating!

Here’s what I did:

  1. Cut the spaghetti squash in half lengthwise. Scooped out the seeds and guts and discarded. Sprinkled generously with salt and pepper. Placed cut side down in a glass 9 in. x 13 in. Nuked on full power for 15 minutes, checked to see if I could fork the flesh into it’s characteristic thin strands easily, couldn’t, and then nuked for another 5 minutes. That did the trick. Timing will vary depending on the size of your squash and the pep of your microwave. Everything else happened in the time the squash was cooking.
  2. Caramelized an onion with a few roughly chopped anchovy filets (left over from my kale salad) in olive oil, salt, pepper, and about 1 tablespoon of dry. Onions were cut into half moons so they’d be fork-twirlable like the squash.
  3. Cut a roasted red pepper into very thin strips (also twirlable).
  4. Seared off a couple of chicken sausages (Mild Italian flavor) and sliced on the bias.
  5. Deglazed the pan with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc (it was open). Added a small pat of butter and another pinch of Italian seasoning
  6. Grated some parmesan.
  7. Rough chopped a handful of parsley
  8. Pulled the cooked sqush apart with a fork. Drizzled with a bit of olive oil and sprinkled generously with salt and pepper. Tossed it all together and ate a huge amount. Saved half for an awesome lunch tomorrow.

Is spaghetti squash in your regular cooking rotation? How do you prepare it?

How To Trick People Into Eating Anchovies – Roughed Up Kale Salad

Roughed Up Kale Salad

I had a lovely afternoon yesterday. My sister and her daughter took me out on the town as a belated birthday present. We had matinée tickets to The Little Prince at Lookingglass Theater, and beforehand we dined at Bar Toma, a restaurant just steps off of Michigan Avenue. We were “ladies who lunch,” if just for the day.

The menu at Bar Toma includes antipasti, salads, a few sandwiches, and several pizzas baked quickly in a wood-burning oven. My sister briefly glanced at the menu, and suggested that I pick out a couple of things to share and order for the both of us.

This was a bold move on her part. She’s not picky, but she tends to stick to the standards on a menu. I, on the other hand, am a little more…adventurous when it comes to eating. I’ve willingly eaten crickets and worms. I’m in to offal. And I’m not afraid to order food from the seediest looking street vendor in a foreign country. I just want an authentic experience!

I asked her if she was sure, and then placed our order with our server. One Kale Salad, coming up! Maura and Kaia had never had kale before, which we discussed briefly before I ordered. I knew that the kale wouldn’t be an issue because they’re both salad-loving people. The salad arrived to the table looking fresh and delicious, the kale left in large pieces and fading from dark green at the edges to vibrant purple in the center. There was a soft-boiled egg quartered and laid over the top, and garlicky, crunchy breadcrumbs generously spooned over. We dug in and all three of us loved it.

Several bites into the salad I revealed that the dressing was an anchovy vinaigrette. The world stood still for a split second, before my niece’s chewing mouth fell into a frown. She was pretty disgusted, and I was pretty amused. If either one of them had seen that description on the menu, that salad wouldn’t have ended up in our bellies, much less on our table.

Anchovies get a bad wrap. Sure, as whole fillets they look totally prehistoric and disgusting. I get that. Even I’m weirded out by whole anchovies! But when finely chopped, they melt into whatever you’re combining them with, adding flavor through salt and their natural oil. If you’ve eaten a real, from scratch Caesar Salad, then you’ve eaten anchovies, because they’re a big component in Caesar dressing, too. See? No biggie! Anchovies are delicious!

So, we had a lovely meal, and both Kaia and Maura came away anchovy lovers, even if they’re not ready to admit it. I’m thinking of printing them up t-shirts that say “ANCHOVY LOVER”, with a huge whole fillet right underneath, but I suspect that they would never get worn. That’s okay. Down the road, if either of them considers eating something that contains anchovies, then my work here is done.

If you would like to ease into the flavor of anchovies, give this salad a shot. It’s a riff off of what we ate for lunch, and it’s darn good as a main course, or along side grilled chicken or shrimp.

Roughed Up Kale Salad

10 ounces red new potatoes, washed and quartered
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
1 shallot, finely minced
4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
3.5 ounces fresh kale (about 1/2 a bunch), cut roughly into 2 in. pieces, washed and dried
4 dried apricots, cut into strips
2 radishes, sliced paper-thin
1/4 cup roasted pistachios

Place the potatoes in a saucepan and fill with enough cold water to cover the potatoes by at least an inch. Season the water with salt. Cook over high heat until the potatoes are fork tender. Drain the potatoes and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.

In a saute pan, cook the breadcrumbs and butter over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Season with a bit of salt while they’re still warm, and remove from pan.

In the same saute pan, heat the olive oil. Add the minced garlic, minced shallot, and chopped anchovy fillets and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the shallot is translucent and the garlic is very fragrant. Transfer to a small food processor or to a pestle and mortar. Add the lemon juice and dijon mustard and process until it is emulsified, but still a bit chunky from the shallot and garlic.

Pour the warm dressing over the kale and use your hands to squeeze and coat it in the dressing. This is often called “massaging” the kale, but what you really need to do is rough it up a little so that it softens to a more appealing texture. After it’s been crunched together for a minute, and the leaves are all well coated, leave the salad to rest for 10 to 15 minutes, and the leaves will continue to tenderize.

Add the cooked potatoes, sliced apricots and radishes, and pistachios and toss to coat. Give it a taste and add additional salt, pepper, lemon juice, or olive oil as needed. The flavors tend to get lost in the kale, so you will likely use more salt and pepper than you would think necessary. Just before serving, top with the toasted breadcrumbs.

Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as a side dish.

Urban Gardening Part 2

There is some truly beautiful veg coming out of the backyard garden already.

Just a couple of days ago we discovered that there is a small grapevine winding its way in and out of a trellis back there. It was pretty exciting to see big bunches of unripened grapes hanging off of it. If anyone would like to offer up wine-making tips, I’m all ears.

Jon is working these into our dinner tonight.  Carrots, baby zucchini, and young garden beans. I’m beginning to realize that the term “victory garden” might have had a double meaning; all of these vegetables in the yard are a definite WIN!

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Japanese Gyoza – I Just Can’t Get Enough

Pork Gyoza
Pork Gyoza with Cucumber and Carrot Salad

My friend Brian and I dine out together frequently. Whenever we go out for sushi, I try to order gyoza, half-moon shaped dumplings filled with pork, shrimp and cabbage. Without fail, Brian mocks me (he’s a little heavy-handed with the sarcasm, but so am I), saying that I should leave all of the room available in my stomach for the good stuff  – fresh raw fish. He’s got a point. Seafood is the star of those meals. But I consider gyoza to be good stuff too, if they’re made from scratch. Sometimes Brian wins this war, and I forgo the gyoza. Now that I know how to make them at home, I may never order them at the sushi bar again.

Gyoza are cousins to Italian ravioli and Chinese pot stickers, and I like them all. Tasty meat and veg stuffed into a glutenous pouch? I’m all in. I made pork gyoza to accompany Chicken Udon Soup last week. The whole process was really fun, and the gyoza were savory and chewy.

I loosely followed this gyoza recipe on Rasa Malaysia.  First, you mix up a filling.  I omitted the shrimp in the original recipe, adding an equal amount of extra ground pork to save a little cash. I also used regular chives in place of Chinese chives. Then you scoop a small amount of the filling into the center of a gyoza wrapper, which are easily found in Asian grocery stores. Speed up the process by setting up an assembly line. Lay out several wrappers in a row, plop filling into all of them, brush the edges of the dough with water, and seal.

Pork Dumplings
Porky Gyoza Assembly Line

Forming the wrapper into little purses was my favorite part of the recipe. There was something very Zen about giving up the idea that each gyoza had to look exactly the same, that each pleat had to be perfectly spaced. Catharsis by Japanese dumpling. What an awesome side effect!

After all of the purses are crimped shut, they cook for a few minutes in a neutral-tasting oil. Rasa Malaysia recommended using a nonstick pan, since the wrappers are slightly sticky. They look like little lightning bolts.

Pork Gyoza Clock
Gyoza Around the Clock

When the bottoms have browned, add a little water to the pan and cover to steam the dumplings. Oops – I don’t have a lid for that size pan, but a smaller lid did the job. The sound of the water repeatedly  bubbling up and hitting the lid sounded like a bad porno.

Steaming Gyoza
Hot, Steamy Gyoza

Because the water won’t evaporate if it’s covered, I poured almost all of it off after 7 minutes, leaving just a tablespoon or so in the pan. Cook the gyoza a bit longer to recrisp the bottom. Dunk into a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and chili paste. Eat as many as you can without spoiling your appetite for sushi, or just treat them as the main event and go nuts.