Sunday, February 21, 2010

Recipe: Quesadillas Made with Smoked Cheddar, Avocado, and Caramelized Red Onions

A lot of my meals are thrown together from whatever I have on hand, and sometimes it all comes together so well that you incorporate it into your regular repertoire. Today's lunch was one such a meal.
I love quesadillas, and I always try to keep flour tortillas and cheese on hand. The girls love them, they're easy to make, and they can be as simple or as fancy and complex as you please. Some days, the quesadilla is nothing but the tortilla and cheese, and some days it include a whole range of ingredients. I started out to make a simple cheese quesadilla today, and spotting a block of smoked cheddar in the fridge, I thought I would mix it up a little. Then I spied the newly-ripe avocados on the counter. A red onion is always on hand in my pantry, and it seemed like the flavors would work well together. Did they ever! This is the kind specialty quesadilla that I would order at a restaurant, but it took no more than 15 minutes to make right at home. A can of black beans spiced up with cilantro, garlic, diced tomato, and topped with the smoky cheddar made an excellent accompaniment. A dollop of sour cream made it absolute heaven.

Quesadilla with Smoked Cheddar, Avocado, and Caramelized Red Onions.
 Makes 2 quesadillas

1/8 of a red onion, thinly sliced and caramelized  in a pan
1 whole avocado, peel and pit removed, and thinly sliced
1 cup smoked cheddar cheese, shredded, divided in half
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded , divided in half
2 soft-taco size flour tortillas
olive oil
In a medium saute pan, heat a few drops of olive oil. Lay one tortilla flat and sprinkle with half of each cheese across the whole tortilla. Lay half the avocado slices on one side. Top with half the onions. Fold the tortilla over the side with the avocado and onions. Heat until cheese is melted and tortilla is slightly golden brown and crispy. Cut into four slices. Repeat for second quesadilla.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Beautiful Soup, So Rich and Green!

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau-ootiful Soo-oop!

~Lewis Carroll

 Want to add a bit of extra nutrition and flavor to your soups? It's easy to do! Just make a broth from any dark, leafy green (such as kale, spinach, turnip, collard, or mustard greens, to name a few). Cover in abundant water, add a bit of salt, and boil until the broth is very dark and rich. You can also add a few more nutrients by adding one can of organic chicken broth with the water. You can eat the greens (which are delicious!) separately and reserve the liquid for a variety of uses. You can add the liquid as a stock to any soup, and one of my tricks to cook purple hull or crowder peas in the stock instead of in water. The peas get so much flavor from the broth! Or you can add it to mashed potatoes instead of milk. The broth is so good, in fact, that you can simply drink it on its own. In her book, Unplugged Kitchen, Viana la Place writes of her grandmother's "Verdura cure." Once a month, her Italian grandmother would fast, drinking only the broth some dark greens all day long. La Place claims this, along with lots of walking, is what gave her little grandmother a long, healthy life.

If you are feeling under the weather, try "the Verdura Cure." According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, broth is so good for you when you are sick because it provides a range of vitamins and minerals in a form that is easily absorbed and very useful to your weary body.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kale: King of the Brassicas! And a recipe for real-life: Braised Kale with Potatoes and Carrots

I love kale! The only place that I can find it here in AR is at Whole Foods. At an independent health food store, I once asked if they carried kale. The reply, "No, because people around here don't seem to know what to do with it, so they never buy it." That is one of the saddest things I've heard, next to a story by Michael Pollan where a group of Oakland middle-schoolers were taken to a garden, where they exclaimed in horror, "the food comes from dirt!?" 

Kale (which is incredibly easy to grow from seed, by the way), is a member of that much-talked about, highly-regarded, loathed by children veggie family the Brassicas. If we were to compare it to the table of elements, the Brassicas would be the noble gasses. It has long been known that regular consumption of Brassicas will reduce your risk of many different kinds of cancer, improve lung function, and improved mental function, but a study by the University of HI found that they contain cardiovascular benefits as well. Consuming even tiny amounts of cruciferous veggies, like kale, can lower your LDL and triglyceride levels, thanks to a phytonutrient called indole-3-carbinol. Indole-3-carbinol signals to your liver to slow production of a cholesterol transporter.

Broccoli and cauliflower are other esteemed members of this family, which are all descendants of wild cabbages. It seems that kale was brought to Europe from Asia Minor by Celtic wanderers at roughly 600 B.C. Our forefathers brought kale to the Americas sometime during the 17th century. And interestingly enough, kale was an important crop during Roman times, and with its nutritional profile, no wonder!

Kale really packs a one-two punch for immune support, with tons of vitamin C and vitamin K (an oft-absent nutrient from our modern diets, critical to immune health). Kale is also an excellent source of dietary fiber, vitamin E, manganese, and vitamin A, a smattering of B vitamins (including folate), a few omega-3 fatty-acids, and potassium. Holy brassicas, Batman! With all those vitamins, it must taste like a certain four-letter word, right? Wrong again! It actually tastes like chocolate!

Ok, not really. Kale certainly has a strong flavor (stronger than, say, spinach), and if not handled properly, it can be bitter. I love kale sauteed in olive oil and topped with freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese (If you're feeling really decadent, you can fry up some bacon first to render the fat, then saute the kale with the bacon in the pan juices. Oh, my!). Don't forget the sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper! I've also just hand-torn the leaves and tossed them in salads. Lacinato, or the smoother variety of kale is better for that, as it is slightly sweeter than the curly kale. Ornamental kale is also edible (though not recommended), and when you cut out the center core, the outside purple leaves make a stunning living bowl for dips.

But what I really love about kale is that it has so much heart. No, I don't mean like celery or artichokes. There is such a heartiness to kale, that when cooked, it can make you forget that you're not eating meat. This quality, so rare in veggies, makes it an excellent choice for vegetarians, and those on special diets because it can actually fill you up. And the calorie content? Almost miniscule. Here is my favorite recipe for cooking kale. The kale takes on an almost smoky flavor, and the hearty stew quality makes it perfect on cold winter nights with nothing more than a thick slice of rustic bread. It's so delicious, in fact, that you won't even miss the red meat!

Braised Kale with Potatoes and Carrots

2 bunch kale, leaves removed from stems and sliced into thin strips
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
olive oil, several turns of the pan (about a TBSP)
4 yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cubed into small pieces
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 leek, white and pale green parts thinly sliced (make sure to wash away any grit between layers)
coarsely ground sea salt
freshly ground pepper (to taste)

In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add leek, and saute until just tender. Add kale and saute until just wilted. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for ten minutes. Add potatoes and carrots, then cover dish and simmer until tender, at least 30 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste (note: start out light with the salt, as most chicken stock varieties are very salty)

Note: I plan on adding diced turnips (one of my favorite veggies!) the next time I make this. Just peel, dice to same size as potatoes, but turnips take longer to cook, so add them when you add the kale.
UPDATE: 3-14-10-- the turnips were a delicious addition!

Gardener's note: Kale is so very easy to grow from seed. It will germinated even at low temperatures (50 degree F), and will grow through the winter in the AR 7 climate. Kale is relied upon in very cold climates, such as the Icelandic countries and Russia, because of its ability to tolerate the cold. In fact, a light frost just seems to make it sweeter! Fast maturing-- an excellent early spring or fall crop.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Things Are Growing In the Garden!

Despite the below-freezing temperatures, there's been some action in my garden. Despite the fact that I got it in the ground appallingly late, my garlic has sprouted! What a joy to see tender green shoots emerging in the middle of winter. In the middle of an ice storm, at that!

And speaking of tender green...My onions seeds are germinating! I started my onion, shallot, and German chamomile seeds this weekend, and some of the onion seeds have already lost their hard seed-coat. Hopefully there will be some green shoots by next week.

I've got an ambitious garden planned this summer, but hopefully it will not be all-consuming. In his book, Square Foot Gardening, Mel Bartholomew promises less work and more harvest. Sounds like a gimmick, I know, but his book has been a best-seller since its publication. Also, before retiring to full-time gardening, Mr. Bartholomew was an--get this!--"efficiency expert".  I love his book. It's full of lots of information. He tells you how to build or get what you need at minimal cost (which is so helpful!), and gives you several options, while telling you which method has given him the most success.

I'm planning a garden of four 4' x 4' squares. This is the minimum we will need to meet our family of six's vegetable needs. I've got lots of things planned, including:

tomatoes (a few varieties)
eggplants (three varieties)
peppers (two varieties)
lots of different greens
beans (pole only)
squash (both summer and winter!)
and lots of herbs (but mostly in containers)
Nasturtium and marigolds

Mr. Bartholomew promises that you can grow even heavy winter squash and watermelon vertically, so I'm giving it a shot. Both of my varieties, an acorn squash "Table Queen" and an ice-box watermelon, shouldn't be too heavy.

I've also got strawberries that will grow in one of those bags....Off the ground! Hopefully, this will deter pests. And in a new raised bed will be two dwarf blueberry bushes.
I plan on doing lots of succession planting, companion plantings, and inter-planting for the biggest harvest. I've already got an exact planting schedule typed out so I know what to plant each week. We'll see how I do! My biggest fear is just becoming totally over whelmed.