Recipes that you and your gut flora will love

Yesterday, I wrote about all the amazing things the trillions of symbiotic microbes that live in our guts do for us. If we want to keep them happy, we need to feed them lots of complex carbohydrates, mostly in the form of whole plant foods. Here are some recipes I took to the farmers markets last week for my gut flora talk. Folks gobbled them up, and I’m guessing so did their microbes.

  • Try to incorporate whole grains and new kinds of grains into your meals. Add in lots of fresh herbs and spices for added phytonutrients. Use unfiltered extra virgin olive oil – it has more antioxidants and keeps longer without going rancid than filtered olive oil – and work in kefir or yogurt for their nutrition as well as their ability to lighten dough and keep it moist once cooked. Here’s a recipe that does all that.

 Herbed Whole Grain and Kefir Flat Breads

  • 2⅓ cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup chickpea flour (also called besan)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons minced mixed fresh herbs (I used cinnamon basil, parsley, garlic chives and dill)
  • 1/4 cup packed chopped scallions, white and green parts
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup kefir or plain yogurt

Combine all the ingredients, except the oil and the kefir, in a large bowl and toss to combine well. Drizzle in the oil and toss the mixture lightly to disperse it through the mixture. Pour in the kefir or yogurt and mix in well with your hands.

When well combined, turn out onto the counter and knead well for a few minutes. Cut the dough into 16 equal pieces and roll them into balls. Cover with plastic wrap and let them sit for 1/2 hour or more before rolling out and cooking.

When ready to cook, sprinkle a little flour on the counter and roll the balls out into thin rounds about 6 inches in diameter. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium high heat and cook the breads as you continue rolling.

Cook the breads on one side for a few minutes until small bubbles begin to appear in the surface of the bread. Flip the bread and continue cooking a minute or two. The bubbles should puff up a bit and the bottom will also have several small rounds of brown.

Stack the breads on a plate as you cook them – this will keep them moist. Serve as you go, or when all the breads are cooked. They can be cooled in the stack then covered with plastic and refrigerated for a day or two before serving. Reheat on the skillet or allow to come to room temperature before eating.

  • Eat lots of fresh greens. One way to do this is by turning herbs into sauces to liven up other foods. Check out Indian cookbooks for many such recipes – this mint and cilantro and hot pepper recipe is very common in many parts of India.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney

  • 2 cups mint leaves
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves
  • 2 hot green peppers, such as jalapenos, seeded and chopped (leave in seeds if you want this very spicy)
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until it becomes a chunky puree. Taste for seasonings and add more of any of the seasonings as desired. This will keep, sealed in a jar in the refrigerator for several days.

  • Kamut is an ancient form of wheat from Egypt and is easy to find in grocery stores these days. It stays chewy, even after being soaked and cooked, and adds a lot of body to this Mediterranean style-salad. If you are avoiding wheat of all kinds, simply leave it out.

 Kamut, Feta and Vegetable Salad

  • 2 cups cooked Kamut (follow directions on the package)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 medium sweet red pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 medium chopped cucumber (peel it in stripes, if it’s organic, to leave on a bit of skin)
  • 2 cups chopped fresh cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dill
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped mint
  • good olive oil and vinegar, to taste

Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

  • Try to find ways to make desserts that use healthier ingredients. Here, olive oil replaces butter, nutritious ground walnuts replace some of the flour, and oranges and blueberries (you can substitute other nuts and fruits), add vitamins and antioxidants.

Blueberry Walnut Cake

  •  3 eggs
  • grated rind one orange
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 generous cup walnut pieces
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup white flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (325 if a convection oven). Oil an 8 inch square pan, line with parchment paper, oil the paper, then dust the whole thing with flour. Set aside.

Whisk together the eggs, then whisk in the orange juice and olive oil. Set aside.

Place the walnut pieces, sugar and orange rind in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the walnut pieces are finely ground. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the walnut-sugar mixture and whisk until homogenous. Add 1 cup of the blueberries and toss to coat with the dry ingredients.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and gently fold together using a rubber spatula until well combined and there are no large lumps of dry ingredients remaining.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the remaining berries over the top of the cake. Bake in the preheated oven for 50 mins. – 1 hour, turning once so it cooks evenly.

  • Use local ingredients with short shelf lives as they become available. Yellow Transparent Apples are a tart heirloom variety good for eating and cooking that ripens in August at the same time as mulberries – a sweet, nutritious, dark purple berry that grows on a tree. Both are perishable, which means they’re hard to find even at farmer’s markets. Pick them yourself when you can find them – they’re a summer treat that you will never find in winter. And if you can’t find them, simply substitute another tart cooking apple and whatever berry is available, including frozen ones (just don’t thaw them before adding them to the apples).

Transparent Yellow Apple and Mulberry Oat Crumble

For the Oat Crumble:

  • 1 cup oat flour
  • 1 cup whole rolled oats (not quick cooking)
  • 2 sticks cool unsalted butter cut into chunks (plus a little more for the pan)
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup sugar

Put the oat flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and one stick of butter chunks in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times, until the mixture is crumbly with some chunks about the size of a pea. Put the mixture into a large bowl.

Put the whole rolled oats, the other stick of butter chunks and the other teaspoon of cinnamon into the bowl of the food processor and pulse until the mixture begins to come together into loose clumps – don’t over-process. Add the mixture to the mixture in the bowl.

Add the sugar and the pinch of salt to the bowl. Toss with your fingers, until the mixture takes a chunky crumble texture. Place in the refrigerator or a cool spot until the filling is ready.

For the filling:

  • 2 pounds Yellow Transparent or other tart summer apple (2½ pounds if organic and in need of a lot of trimming), peeled, cored, and cut into thin slices
  • 3 cups fresh mulberries or raspberries
  • the juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 cup light summer honey

1/4 cup of Oat Crumble (removed from the completed crumble recipe)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (350 if a convection oven). Butter a 13 x 8 inch oval baking dish (you may also use a rectangular dish of a similar size).

Combine the ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine. Pour into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining crumble evenly over the top of the fruit.

Place in the oven and bake, turning once or twice so the crumble browns evenly. The crumble is done when the crumble is golden and the fruit bubbling in the center.

Allow to cool for at least an hour before serving to set the syrup in the fruit filling. Serve warm or at room temperature.

  •  Soba Noodles are made of buckwheat, and sometimes buckwheat with a little bit of wheat. If you are gluten intolerant, be sure to buy only noodles that are 100% buckwheat. They come in packages with single servings divided out with a paper wrapper. They are often served tossed with sesame oil, chilled and with a variety of toppings.

 Soba Noodles with Toppings

  • Soba noodles, cooked (follow package instructions) one bunch per person, rinsed with cold water and tossed with a little sesame oil to prevent sticking
  • Kimchi
  • cucumbers mixed with a little grated ginger, vinegar, and salt
  • fresh tomatoes chopped and mixed with a little sesame oil, chopped scallions and salt

Place noodles into bowls and then allow diners to top them as desired.

  • Cut back on your meat consumption by mixing meat with grains and vegetables. Here, ground beef is mixed with a quinoa pilaf to make meatballs that are then cooked in a roasted carrot and tomato sauce.

Tomato Carrot Sauce

  • 1 pound carrots
  • 2 pounds tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
olive oil
  • 1 quart water or stock
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons fresh basil chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Clean the carrots and trim them of the leaf end and spindly root end. Cut into pieces that are 3 or 4 inches in length. Toss with a little olive oil and place on a baking sheet and put into preheated oven. Bake for about 1 hour, until tender.

At the same time, cut tomatoes into even pieces and toss in olive oil and bake in the same way as the carrots.

When both are tender, remove from oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Place in batches in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until pureed. Set aside.

Saute the onions and garlic in olive oil heated in a large skillet until translucent, then add the pureed carrots and tomatoes. Add the water or stock, basil and salt and pepper. Allow to simmer for 1/2 hour or so, then remove from heat and either use immediately or cool be before using. It may be refrigerated for a week or frozen for up to 4 months.

 Beef and Quinoa Meatballs in Tomato Carrot Sauce

  • 1 medium onion, peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3/4 cup white quinoa
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 recipe roast tomato and carrot sauce

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Saute the onion and garlic until softened. Add the quinoa and saute for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned and glossy. Remove from heat and cool.

When cooled, mix with the ground beef, cumin and salt and pepper. Form into small meatballs about 1 inch in diameter.

Brown the meatballs in a large skillet in batches if necessary to prevent crowding. When all the meatballs have been browned, put them back into the pan and add the sauce. Cover and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through. The quinoa will have expanded and the “tails” turned white.

Serve the meatballs warm or at room temperature.

Good King Henry and Spring Greens with Feta Cream Sauce over Pasta

left to right: chives, nettles and Good King Henry

left to right: chives, nettles and Good King Henry

Who could resist an edible green that tastes like spinach and also happens to be an easy-to-grow perennial? One that can be eaten as an asparagus-like sprout in early spring, as a cooked green until autumn frosts, and whose seeds (like those of its cousin quinoa) can be used as a grain in winter?

But many gardeners and local food lovers have never heard of Good King Henry, (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) a member of the spinach and beet family also known as Lincolnshire spinach, fat hen and perennial goosefoot (Chenopodium, its family name, means goose foot). Happily, Good King Henry is becoming better known, perhaps because nearly every book about permaculture and perennial vegetables mentions it.

I first discovered Good King Henry in the Fedco catalogue ten years ago; they still sell it for all of $1.30 a packet. Good King Henry seed, like that of many perennial plants, likes to be fooled into thinking it has been through winter before it will sprout. The trick is to “stratify” the seed by tucking it into a plastic bag along with a little moist potting mix, then popping it into the refrigerator for a few weeks. When the seed is returned to room temperature, it thinks spring is here, and comes up. Sometimes it takes two trips to the refrigerator before perennial seeds wake up; I’ve learned to be patient and ever-optimistic when trying to start finicky plants.

For years my home-grown Good King Henry, though it has a reputation for being a garden thug and over-running its neighbors, looked wan and spindly. Turns out I planted it in too sunny and dry a spot. When moved to a place with half a day of shade, it quickly began filling up the bed. Luckily I’d planted it alongside mint, another garden thug, and the two plants seem to have called a truce. Good King Henry also drops lots of seed that sprouts readily when exposed to the natural temperature fluctuations of a garden, so if you want to keep it in check, harvest the flowers (which are edible).

A bed of Good King Henry and mint

A bed of Good King Henry and mint

Like its cousin spinach, Good King Henry contains a great deal of oxalic acid, enough that eating it raw might make your stomach hurt and your teeth feel stripped of enamel, so it is always cooked. In early spring, its unexpanded sprouts are picked at about 5 inches tall and and then steamed like asparagus (hence another of its nicknames, “poor man’s asparagus”). In Europe gardeners blanch the sprouts by piling the Good King Henry bed with a deep layer of mulch in fall. When the white tips poke through in spring, the mulch is pushed aside to reveal harvest-ready blanched sprouts.

Both the leaves and flowers can be eaten, steamed or blanched first to remove some of the oxalic acid. Use Good King Henry in any recipe that calls for its relatives, spinach, chard and beet greens. Or use it to replace wild greens, such as nettles and lamb’s quarters (another relative).

I have never harvested the seeds of Good King Henry to use as a grain, but I’ll give it a whirl this fall and report back. If you’d like to try them, keep in mind that like unprocessed quinoa, Good King Henry seeds are coated with bitter saponins and must be soaked and rinsed to remove them before being cooked.

Here’s a delicious way to use Good King Henry, a simple sauce made of spring greens cooked with garlic and olive oil served over pasta along with a contrasting silky sauce made of feta and cream. If you’re avoiding fat, skip the cream and just crumble a little feta over the top of the greens and pasta. And if you’re avoiding dairy, omit the cheese altogether. In any case, serve the pasta with a slice of lemon to spritz over the top – it adds just the right something.

Spring Greens with Feta Cream over Pasta

Spring Greens with Feta Cream over Pasta

Pasta Topped with Spring Greens and Feta Cream

  • 1/2 pound pasta of your choice
  • 1 recipe Spring Greens, below
  • 1 recipe Feta Cream, below
  • the rind of 1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped (optional)
  • red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 lemon, washed and cut into eight slices

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Divide it between four plates. Top each serving with Spring Greens, then drizzle Feta Cream over the greens and pasta. Top with a sprinkling of chopped preserved lemon and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, if desired. Place a few slices of lemon on each plate, if desired, for diners to squeeze over the pasta to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves four.

For the Spring Greens:

  • 1 bunch Good King Henry or spinach (about 10 ounces)
  • 1 smaller bunch wild greens, such as nettles (harvest with gloves to avoid stings), lambs quarters, dandelion greens, etc. or chard or beet greens (about 6 ounces)
  • 1 bunch fresh chives (about 2 ounces, more if desired), cleaned and chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • hot red pepper flakes, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Put the lid on a large pot of cold, salted water and bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile, pull the leaves and flowers from the stems of the Good King Henry and wash in a bowl of cold water. Do the same for the other greens – if using nettles, be sure to wear gloves to harvest and prepare.

Blanch the greens in the boiling water for a few minutes, until they turn bright green. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the greens from the hot water and submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking. Remove them from the cold water, squeeze them to remove some of the moisture in them (but not until they are completely dry). With a chef’s knife, chop the greens a bit, then set them aside.

In a large, non-reactive skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the chives and garlic. Let them cook until the garlic is getting soft, then add the greens and lower the heat a little. Allow the mixture to cook until it is heated through, but not dry, then stir in the lemon juice. Add hot red pepper, salt and black pepper to taste. Serve hot over pasta with Feta Cream.

For the Feta Cream:

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 ounces feta, crumbled

Bring the cream to a simmer in a small pot over medium-low heat. Stir in the feta and let the mixture bubble for a minute, until the feta begins to dissolve in the cream and the mixture thickens. Serve hot over pasta with Spring Greens.

3 Savory Rhubarb Recipes

Pork Chops with Orange-Rhubarb Sauce and Lovage; Rhubarb Marinated Sea Scallops with Orange-Fennel Salad; Fresh Oysters with Rhubarb Mignonette Sauce

Pork with Orange-Rhubarb Sauce and Lovage

Pork with Orange-Rhubarb Sauce and Lovage

Rhubarb is spring’s own zucchini. By which I mean, even if you don’t have your own patch of rhubarb, chances are good you have a neighbor who is swimming in the stuff every year at this time, and who will eagerly foist some off on anyone who asks. That’s because rhubarb seems to live forever, and most folks who live in old houses in New England have an ancient plot that came with the deed. These well-established clumps produce a huge number of juicy pink stalks year after year without any attention at all – though they do like moisture, lots of sun and an occasional infusion of compost.

Rhubarb is sometimes called the “Pie Plant,” for obvious reasons. But rhubarb isn’t just for pies. In fact, it has the kind of versatility that most other edibles lack, happy in desserts as well as savory dishes, good both cooked and raw, delicate enough to take a supporting role in a recipe, and assertive enough to take center stage.

Though many people wrinkle their noses when contemplating the acidity of rhubarb, especially in its raw state, that acidity is probably rhubarb’s best asset. You might not want to eat rhubarb the way Scandinavians do – by the raw stalk, dipped in sugar – or as Chileans do – by the raw stalk dipped in salt and hot dried chile pepper. But if you think of rhubarb as a substitute for citrus fruits like lemons and limes, or as a balancing ingredient in recipes that feature rich foods like pork and shellfish, you will certainly find dozens of ways to substitute rhubarb into your favorite recipes.

Below you’ll find a few recipes I’ve developed for using rhubarb in savory dishes. The first, Pork Chops with Orange Rhubarb Sauce and Lovage, contains another of spring’s vegetable perennials, lovage. Lovage looks like giant celery and tastes like it looks, which is to say a tiny bit of it imparts a highly concentrated celery taste. Used sparingly, it is a wonderful addition to salads, soups and other dishes. Substitute celery leaves or parsley, if you don’t have any.

The second recipe uses rhubarb juice to partially “cook” fresh scallops, just as lime juice is used in seafood ceviches. The longer the scallops marinate, the more the acid will permeate the delicate flesh, and the less time the scallop will need to heat to be cooked through. If you like, scallops that have been marinated for 4-6 hours can be served cold, without the final cooking step. However, I prefer the lovely contrast the warm scallops create juxtaposed to the cold, crunchy fennel orange salad.

The final recipe is my take on a traditional sauce for oysters, mignonette. Usually mignonette sauce is made by combining red wine vinegar, minced shallots and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Here, to balance the tartness of rhubarb, I’ve substituted a mellow-sweet balsamic vinegar (buy a good one – it’s expensive, but worth it) for the sharper red wine vinegar. The resulting sauce is wonderful, not just on oysters, but with any rich food. I’m particularly fond of it spooned over a slice of crusty bread spread with a triple crème cheese, such as Saint André.

Pork Chops with Orange-Rhubarb Sauce and Lovage

  • 4 boneless pork loin chops (or a small loin roast cut into four slices)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter or cooking oil (you may need more if cooking in batches)
  • 2 large shallots or one small onion, minced
  • the juice of 2 large oranges (about 1 cup) and the grated rind of 1 orange
  • 2 cups chopped rhubarb
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1/4 chopped lovage leaves plus lovage sprigs for garnish (you may substitute parsley or celery leaves)

If possible the day before serving, sprinkle both sides of the pork chops with salt and pepper, lay them on a paper towel on a plate, cover with another paper towel and leave in the refrigerator overnight. This dries the outside of the pork and allows it to absorb a bit of salt, which will cause the meat to brown nicely and remain juicy when cooked.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and melt the butter or heat the oil in it. Add the pork chops to the pan, working in two batches if necessary so as not to crowd the meat. When one side is golden, flip the chop and cook the other side, covering the pan to avoid splatters and to cook the meat more quickly. Thick chops will be done in about ten minutes total. Don’t overdo it, as the chops will be resting in a warm place while the sauce is prepared and will continue to cook from residual heat.

When the chops are cooked, set them aside in a warm spot while making the sauce. Add the shallots to the skillet in which you have cooked the pork – if there’s a lot of fat in the pan from cooking, you may pour most of it off. Or, if there is no fat left in the pan, you may add another pat of butter or bit of oil to it before cooking the shallots. Cook the shallots until they wilt, but don’t brown them.

Add the orange juice to the pan and stir well to scrape up the bits of cooked meat juice from the bottom of the skillet. Add the orange rind, rhubarb and raisins and stir well. Turn the heat down so the rhubarb simmers slowly. When it begins to break down after a few minutes, taste the mixture and add as much sugar as needed to balance the sauce. Stir in the heavy cream, taste again and add salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the sauce between four plates, top each bed of sauce with a pork chop, sprinkle a little lovage over the sauce and garnish the top of the chop with a sprig of lovage. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Rhubarb-Marinated Sea Scallops with Orange-Fennel Salad

Rhubarb Marinated Sea Scallops with Orange-Fennel Salad

Rhubarb Marinated Sea Scallops with Orange-Fennel Salad

  • 1/2 pound sea scallops
  • 1/2 pound of rhubarb, cleaned and chopped into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 3 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for cooking the scallops
  • 2-3 oranges, skinned and divided into sections
  • 2-3 baby fennel bulbs or 1 regular fennel bulb
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cut the tough piece of white muscle from the scallops (if necessary) and discard. Slice each of the scallops into three thin rounds. Put the rounds into a non-reactive bowl.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the rhubarb until it is pureed (you may also use a grater to turn it into a puree). Put the puree into a fine sieve over a bowl and press on it to extract all the juice from it (you may also do this by squeezing the puree with your hands.) You should wind up with about 3/4 of a cup of juice. Pour this over the scallops, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to 6 hours. Discard the rhubarb solids.

Wash the fennel, then slice it into very thin slivers and toss with the orange segments. Mix together the chives, parsley, olive oil, hot pepper, a little salt and pepper and set aside. Remove the scallops from the refrigerator and drain, discarding the rhubarb juice.

Heat a skillet, add a little oil to it and then saute the scallops over very high heat, less than a minute on each side. The longer they have marinated, the less time they will need to cook.

Arrange the scallops and orange salad on 4 plates, drizzling them with a little of the oil and herb sauce. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as an appetizer.

Rhubarb Mignonette Sauce and Oysters

Rhubarb Mignonette Sauce and Oysters

Fresh Oysters with Rhubarb Mignonette Sauce

  • 1/4 cup excellent quality balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup finely minced shallots
  • 1/4 cup finely minced fresh rhubarb
  • plenty of freshly ground pepper (to taste)
  • 1 dozen fresh oysters on the half-shell

Combine all ingredients. Serve chilled on fresh oysters or other raw shellfish. The sauce is also delicious on fresh crusty bread thickly spread with butter or a soft, rich cheese, such as Saint André.

Makes a bit more than 1/2 cup.

Ramps, Asparagus and Dandelion Greens Pizza

ramp, asparagus and dandelion green pizza

ramp, asparagus and dandelion green pizza

The longer I garden, the more I appreciate perennial vegetables. Plant them once, take care of them by weeding, watering and feeding the soil around them with good compost, and they’ll return reliably year after year. Many of these perennials are among the first edibles of spring, which seems to make them taste even more delicious to winter-weary taste buds.

dandelion greens

dandelion greens

Some perennial spring vegetables don’t even require planting. Dandelion greens, chicory, sorrel, and, later in spring, lambs quarters and nettles, are all wild plants that are abundant self-seeders (aka, weeds). All of them are best picked young and tender, before they’ve flowered (with nettles, be sure to wear gloves, to avoid the stinging hairs that are destroyed in cooking).

Many of these “weeds” are so delicious that vegetable breeders have come up with more refined versions sold through seed catalogues. Two of my favorites are super-cold hardy Italian Red Dandelion (it’s actually chicory) and Good King Henry, a member of the weedy Goose Foot family that tastes like spinach and can be harvested from early spring into fall.

Asparagus, unlike perennial weeds, takes a bit of work. It likes lots of good compost and requires watering all summer, or it won’t be productive year after year. Too, you have to keep grass from growing in amongst the shoots, and war with the dreaded asparagus beetle, which can wreak havoc.

One method of achieving both weed and bug suppression is to interplant asparagus with parsley and dill, which can out-compete grass and which asparagus beetles hate. The herbs are also a good use of space, providing a season long crop even after the 4th of July, when good gardeners let their asparagus grow into full, tall ferns to gather energy for next season.

purple asparagus

purple asparagus

It’s not too late to put in an asparagus bed this year, though you won’t be able to harvest any juicy spears until a few seasons have passed and the bed has filled in. Though asparagus can be grown from seed, the most productive plants are male clones (they don’t go to seed) bought as 2 or 3 year-old roots. Two widely available and good choices are “Jersey Supreme” and “Purple Passion.”

ramps and dandelion greens

ramps and dandelion greens

Ramps, if you’ve never encountered them, are a wild native woodland allium, related to both onions and garlic and tasting a bit like both. They’re happy at high, cool elevations, in the kind of moist mixed woodlands where trilliums and golden seal grows beneath maples and beeches, and can completely carpet the early spring forest floor. It seemed likely that ramps would grow around here, but though I scoured our woodlot every spring, I could never find wild ramps growing in it.

Finally, a few years ago, I took matters into my own hands and ordered a shipment of mature ramps from Ramp Farm Specialties in West Virginia. Owner Glen Facemire only ships his bulbs in February and March (seeds are available all the time), so when he heard that New Hampshire had a big snow storm brewing just as he was putting my ramps in the mail, he gave me a call to talk me through how to care for his “babies” until I could put them in the ground (it turned out that a couple of window boxes in a cold frame did the trick).

ramps in window box and cold frame

ramps in window box and cold frame

The ramps arrived huge and healthy, and now, a few seasons later, are beginning to spread both where I’ve planted them in the woods, and in the more cultivated sections of my garden. They’re particularly happy growing under the shade of the grape arbor. Though you can buy 3 dozen ramps for $24.75, the most economical way to order them is 1000 bulbs for

ramps growing under a grape arbor

ramps growing under a grape arbor

$194.00 (shipping is free). I’d suggest splitting an order with friends and scouting likely locations this summer (you’ll want to try several spots to be on the safe side). Do order early, so you don’t miss out, and be prepared with window boxes and a cold frame, just in case.

Early spring vegetables fresh from the garden don’t need much in the way of preparation. All of them are delicious cooked fast and hot with olive oil or with chopped bacon. They’re also perfect stir fried along with fresh spring chives, a bit of ginger and a little soy sauce combined with water or orange juice. Ramps and asparagus can be lightly tossed in oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, placed in a grill basket and cooked briefly on the grill.

Below you’ll find a recipe that combines dandelion greens, ramps, and asparagus cooked with bacon as the topping for pizza. Though the pizza dough needs a full day to rise (or overnight in the refrigerator), once it’s ready, the recipe goes together in a snap. Feel free to substitute store-bought dough if you’re short on time. Too, feel free to leave out the bacon if you’re a vegetarian, and to substitute in whatever fresh spring vegetables you have on hand. Spinach or escarole would be delicious.

And if you’re only feeding two people, divide the topping recipe in half. Store the extra pizza dough in the refrigerator in an oiled plastic bag and use it later in the week. It will be good for several days.

Ramp, Dandelion and Asparagus Pizza

for the dough:

  • scant 4 cups flour (can be up to ⅓ whole wheat)
  • ¼ teaspoon dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt (can be up to 2 teaspoons, if desired)
  • 1½ – 1¾ cups water (if your water is chlorinated, use spring or filtered water)

for the topping:

  • 4 slices thick bacon, cut into ½ inch chunks
  • 1 large bunch dandelion greens (about ½ pound), trimmed of roots, well washed in cold water and chopped
  • 1 large bunch ramps (about 10), trimmed of roots, well washed and chopped; or use 6 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large bunch asparagus (about 1 pound or more), trimmed, washed and chopped
  • 1½ pounds fresh mozzarella, broken up into chunks
  • hot red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper, to taste
  • good olive oil for drizzling

For the dough, combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the water (you will need the larger amount if using whole wheat flour) and stir well with a spoon until well combined – do not knead. If the mixture seems too dry (it should be quite sticky), add a little more water to incorporate all the flour.

Cover with plastic and set on a cool counter to rise. If it is very warm or you’d like to use the dough more than 18 hours later, place in the refrigerator. Allow the dough to rise until doubled – if it’s warm this will happen in about 12 hours, if it’s very cool, in about 18 hours.

When ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 450-500 degrees (my oven doesn’t go to 500 – use the higher heat if you can). If you have a pizza stone, place it on the top rack.

Divide the dough into 4 balls. Lightly oil them with olive oil, cover them with plastic and set aside on the counter to rise and soften while make the topping.

Heat a large skillet and add the bacon if using (otherwise, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and continue with the greens, below). Cook the bacon until it is beginning to brown. Remove the bacon from the pan, pour off most of the fat, and return the skillet to the heat. Add the dandelion greens, ramps or garlic, asparagus and bacon pieces, if using. Cook, stirring, until the greens are wilted and tender. Season to taste with hot red pepper, black pepper and salt (you may not need any salt, depending on the bacon). Remove the greens from the pan and set aside.

Turn the oven to broil to super-heat the pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza stone, place a large aluminum sheet tray in the oven to heat (do not use a tray that has a non-stick coating as it will burn).

Stretch the dough either by rolling with a rolling pin (you’ll need to use flour to keep the dough from sticking) or with your hands to a very thin, approximately 12-inch rough circle. Place the round on a well floured pizza peel (if you have one), or onto the back of a well floured aluminum sheet tray. Cover the dough to within about 1 inch of the edge with ¼ of the greens and then ¼ of the mozzarella (leave spaces between the pieces of cheese). Drizzle the pizza with a little olive oil.

Open the oven door and slide the pizza from the peel onto the pizza stone. If you are not using a pizza stone, carefully remove the hot sheet tray from the oven, sprinkle it with a little flour, then slide the pizza from the overturned sheet tray onto the hot sheet tray and return it to the oven.

The pizza will cook very quickly – in about 2-4 minutes, depending on your oven. If the pizza begins to burn (a few black spots are desirable, but not an over-all char), turn the broiler off, but leave the oven temperature at 450-500 degrees.

You may need to slide a spatula under the pizza and turn it, or turn the sheet tray, so that it cooks evenly. It is done when the edges are well browned, and black in spots. Remove from the oven, slide onto a cutting board, and cut up and serve immediately.

Repeat with the other three pieces of dough. Serves 4 generously.

Home-made Silken Tofu

One of my favorite restaurants in New York City is Kyotofu in Hell’s Kitchen.

silken tofu with maple syrup and walnuts
silken tofu with maple syrup and walnuts

I’d walked by the place for years and hadn’t been tempted to go in – a restaurant based around tofu just didn’t hold much appeal for me. But one day when my vegetarian son was fed up with pizza and Chinese food, we decided to give it a try. Which is how I discovered that freshly made tofu is as different from the store-bought variety as a fresh loaf of crusty sour dough is different from Wonder Bread.

My favorite dish at Kyotofu is a pristine white mound of silken tofu (made daily in the restaurant) served with three different sauces, olive oil and tomato, soy and sesame, and kuromitsu (made from unrefined brown sugar). The dish is simple and perfect – the cool, ethereal tofu balanced by the dark, earthy, flavor-packed sauces.

When I recently discovered Andrea Nguyen’s beautiful cookbook, Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook it at Home, I decided to see if I could duplicate Kyotofu’s

silken tofu with dipping sauces
silken tofu with dipping sauces

wonderful appetizer. It turns out that making silken tofu is easy, and that yes, my homemade version was as good as Kyotofu’s.

It does take a little preparation, however. Silken tofu only contains three ingredients: good water, good dried soybeans and food grade gypsum (calcium sulfate). It’s not worth making unless you have the best quality of each on hand.

Food grade gypsum is used by home brewers, and is available at beer-making supply shops and on-line. My husband happens to be a beer-maker (an amazingly good one, lucky me), so I had a supply of gypsum available – it looks a lot like powdered chalk. As for water, if yours has chlorine in it, you will need to filter it, or buy/collect some good spring water.*

The soybeans can be found at health food stores, Asian markets and some grocery stores, or can be ordered on-line. I bought mine over the internet from Fairview Farms in Iowa, a family-owned business that sells non-GMO “Laura” soybeans. The beans are excellent,

Laura soybeans from Fairview Farms
Laura soybeans from Fairview Farms

big, yellow-skinned and very fresh, but they aren’t organic as far as I can tell. The ordering process was simple using a credit card and the beans arrived here in New Hampshire in under a week.

The first step in making silken tofu is to make rich soy milk. The soy beans are soaked overnight until plump, then ground with water in a food processor or blender to a thick slurry. This is then heated with more water, strained, and heated again (soy needs to be cooked throughly to make it digestible). The milk is then cooled and mixed with gypsum, which acts as a coagulant. This mixture is then gently steamed until it sets. The cooked tofu is refrigerated for several hours, after which it is ready to eat.

One trick I learned from Nguyen is that ingredients like citrus rind and maple syrup can be mixed into the soy milk before it is steamed. The results are like no tofu you will ever buy from a grocery store, good enough to turn even tofu-haters into tofu lovers.

The recipes below are based on those in Asian Tofu; if you like making things from scratch, I recommend you pick up a copy or take it out of your local library (though be warned, it is not strictly vegan or even vegetarian, though it does contain both sorts of recipes ). And while you’re at it, look for Andrea Nguyen’s other cookbooks – they’re all terrific.

Rich Soy Milk

  • 6 ounces dried soybeans, rinsed, then soaked overnight at room temperature until swollen and soft (soaking time depends on temperature – if your house is cold it will take longer)
  • 4-5 cups of water
  • you will also need a strainer lined with muslin or a clean linen or flour sack dishtowel

Combine the soy beans with 2 cups of water (you can use the soaking water, or use fresh water) in a food processor or blender. Pulse the mixture until the beans are chopped into

soybean puree
soybean puree

very small pieces. There should be no large pieces or whole beans left in the mixture; it will be quite pale and fluffy.

Pour the mixture into a large pot. Swirl 1½ cups of water in the bowl of the food processor or the blender to coax out any remaining bean puree, then add this to the pot. Turn the heat to low and, stirring frequently to keep the bottom of the pot from burning, bring the mixture to a simmer.

A white froth will float on top of the mixture, which makes it a little hard to see if the mixture is simmering or not, so peek beneath the froth from time to time to check. When the mixture comes to a simmer, let it bubble for several minutes, then turn off the heat.

froth on soybean milk
froth on soybean milk

Allow the mixture in the pot to steep off the heat for 5 or 10 minutes, while you prepare the strainer. Rinse the muslin or other liner with cool water, then line the strainer with the wet cloth. Place the strainer over a large bowl or pot to catch the soy milk.

Scoop the hot soybean mixture into the lined strainer, pressing down hard on the pureed beans (the “lees”) to extract all the milk from them. When all the liquid has drained, twist the top of the cloth closed and squeeze as much more liquid as you can from the lees. Finally mix about 1/2 cup of water into the lees and give them another squeeze. (The leftover lees can be added to soups or stews, or stir-fried with vegetables. In Japan they are often sold as animal feed – my chickens love them).

Return the milk to the pot (be sure to rinse it out first) and bring it to a simmer over low hit, stirring often to prevent scorching. Let the milk bubble slowly for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour the milk into a clean container (a metal bowl is good, because it helps to cool the milk quickly). Allow it to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold.

Makes about 3 cups.

Silken Tofu

  • 3 cups chilled rich soy milk (if the milk you made measures less than this, add enough water to it to make 3 cups)
  • flavorings, if desired, such as grated orange or lemon rind (use organic fruit and wash well), maple syrup, etc.
  • 1½ teaspoons food-grade gypsum
  • heat-proof ramekins or custard cups
  • a large pot with a lid
  • a steamer rack to fit the pot

Put enough water into the pot so that it comes up to just below the steamer rack; put the lid on the pot. Turn on the heat and bring the water to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, combine the gypsum with about 2 teaspoons of water – just enough to make a paste. Stir the gypsum slurry into the cold soy milk and stir very well to combine completely.

Divide the soy milk between the ramekins (how many you need will depend on their size – probably around 5 or 6). At this point, you may add flavorings to the soy milk, such as a teaspoon or two of maple syrup or a pinch of freshly grated citrus rind.

Place the ramekins on the rack over the gently simmering water and return the lid to the pot. You may need to cook the tofu in batches, but that is fine. The tofu is done when it is set and no longer liquid in the center. How long this takes will depend on the size of your ramekins, but will probably be 15-20 minutes. A skewer inserted in the center of the tofu will leave a small hole behind when they are ready.

Lift the ramekins from the rack and set them on a tray to cool to room temperature. Cover the cooled tofu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. To unmold, run a knife around the sides of the ramekin to loosen the tofu, place a plate on top of the ramekin and invert. You may also serve the tofu in the ramekin.

Silken Tofu Serving Suggestions:

These ramekins are delicious with warm maple syrup and toasted walnuts. Or, serve them in Kyotofu’s style with three dipping sauces.

My three dipping sauces are:

  1. Equal parts chopped cilantro and basil, mixed with grated fresh garlic and good olive oil
  2. Equal parts fish sauce, water, and lime juice with a pinch of sugar, sliced limes, and hot pepper flakes
  3. 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon maple syrup, 2 tablespoons water, 2 chopped scallions.

*Many people in NH rely on wells rather than municipal water supplies, and sometimes the wells provide water that’s a little too full of iron, or even arsenic. Which is why locals always know where there’s a good spring from which to collect pristine water. You’ll see people by the side of the road with empty gallon jugs, holding them under an endlessly gushing pipe. No one ever seems to know who put the pipe there, who it was who decided to share that bountiful spring, because it happened a long time ago. Talk about paying it forward. I’m pretty sure no matter how much of a jerk that person was in life, sharing that water supply was enough to get him or her into heaven.

Puff Pastry Recipes

Puff pastry is a sublime demonstration of the power of mathematics. You begin by layering a block of butter between two layers of dough. Fold the dough in thirds, and now there are 3 layers of butter between the layers of dough. Let it rest, roll it out, fold it in thirds again and now there are 9 layers of butter. Repeat – 27 layers of butter. Repeat – 81 layers of butter. Repeat – 243 layers of butter. And one last time – 729 layers of butter, and 730 layers of dough (including the top and bottom layers).

As the puff pastry bakes, the butter fat melts, which separates the layers of dough, while the butter liquids turn to steam, forcing the layers apart and causing the pastry to rise in a spectacular fashion. And unlike a soufflé, which must be served immediately before it falls, properly baked puff pastry will maintain its loft even after it cools.

When golden brown and fully cooked, puff pastry is a delight in the mouth, melting almost as soon as it hits the tongue into rich, delicate shards. And rich as it is, puff pastry provides a neutral backdrop, working well with both sweet and savory fillings.

I think puff pastry’s reputation for being tricky to make has more to do with the cultivated mystique of the pâtissier than the reality of the recipe. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process, though it does require a cool kitchen and patience through all the resting and rolling. It also requires care in choosing ingredients – the butter needs to be cold, the flour needs to be bread flour.

It also requires care in measuring. I recommend weighing ingredients whenever you’re baking, for this recipe in particular. If you don’t have a scale, make sure you fluff up the flour, dip a measuring cup designed for dry ingredients into it, and then use a knife to level the cup (rather than tapping it on the counter, or pushing it down with your fingers, which compacts the flour). Here’s a link to my recipe for Puff Pastry.

The best thing about puff pastry is how flexible it is. Once it’s in your freezer, you’ll be able to throw together an impressive and delicious main dish or dessert in an hour or less. Here are links to three recipes that use puff pastry (either purchased or home-made):

Spinach Feta Tart

Spinach Feta Tart

A Rhubarb Tartlet

A Rhubarb Tartlet

A slice of maple tarte tatin

A slice of maple tarte tatin

Beet Recipes

March is the month when gardeners begin starting seeds inside and eating the last of the vegetables stored in their root cellars. They’re called “root” cellars for a reason, because roots, like carrots, rutabagas, storage radishes (such as daikon) and beets, are what keep there best.

This is because most root vegetables are designed for a winter of storage below ground. They’re biennials; that is, they live for two years. The first season, they turn out leaves above ground for photosynthesis, and large swollen tubers below ground in which to store energy for the following year. If left in place or replanted in spring, these tubers would send up flowers in their second year of growth, go to seed, and, having reproduced successfully, die.

At the end of the winter, stored root vegetables have a remarkable ability to tell that their second growing season is approaching. They sprout new leaves and use up their stored sugars, going limp and bitter. It’s time to use them up and seed in new plantings.

Beets are one of my favorite root vegetables, sweet enough to moisten a cake, yet full of antioxidants and folates, B vitamins and potassium. Raw grated beets tossed with lemon juice and olive oil make a great salad; roasted beets are delicious tossed with butter and dill, or in one of these recipes:

Beet Hummus

Beet Hummus

Borscht

Borscht

Spicy Beet Soup with Turmeric Rice

Spicy Beet Soup with Turmeric Rice

Beet Tzatziki

Beet Tzatziki