Monday, January 30, 2012

It's a Twofor! {Puntarelle + Potato Salad}


Resources. Tangible or not, we need them both, and they need us. Teaching English abroad, my students are some of the best resources I've got. Spanning fields such as law, finance, IT, medicine...I've always had my go-to person for basic needs pretty much covered. Funny enough, I've never taught any chefs, restaurateurs, or other food industry folks. But I find almost everyone delights in explaining local dishes, or pointing out the best/worst foodie spots in town, to the newbie.

Puntarelle - native specifically to the Lazio (Roman) region. It is in the chicory family, but different than chicory in the proper sense. From November to February, I am told this veg is found in markets, restaurants, and on mum's table. Although, it looks like I may be needing tips from one of these Italian mums, as my puntarelle didn't curl.

See, puntarelle is an abundant, but bitter, green that some clever peasants back in the day started soaking in cold water to make it more palatable. The fun bit is that then it curls up into little green curly-cues. I thought it would be just like wrapping presents, when the ribbon gets all tightly curled with the scissors (the ONLY reason I wrap.) Not this time. Not this puntarelle. Lack of curls shouldn't get a girl down though. It still tasted great, not at all bitter, especially balanced with the traditional anchovy-garlic dressing.

Now, the confession must come. I did not properly rinse my salted anchovies. At first taste, the salt was really quite overpowering. A potato salad thus enters the scene..the plot (and the salad) thickens. A big bowl of a light and lemony fennel-potato salad was in the fridge from the previous day. It also happened to be low on salt. Perfetto. The combination was so complementary I couldn't believe my luck. I had hoped to bring the puntarelle to a colleagues cook-out and really didn't want to disappoint. While it was still definitely on the salty side, the potato salad muted it just enough. The lemon, tarragon, fennel flavours really made one stellar match for the anchovy-garlic puntarelle.

So, thanks to those resourceful Romans, who left a very practical culinary legacy of bitter-green-soaking, today's post is a twofor - two salads for one. Mix and match as you please, delightful eaten on their own, but becoming a substantial power player when paired together.

Recipe: Puntarelle + Potato Salad
Serves 6-8 as a side
Eat with Sauvignon Blanc

Potato Salad:
4-5 potatoes
1 med (or half large) bulb fennel
1 shallot
juice of 1 1/2 lemons
1 1/2 heaping Tb plain yogurt
1 heaping Tb mayonnaise
1 handful flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp dried tarragon
good olive oil

1) Cube the potatoes and boil until soft (15-20 mins)

2) Finely slice the fennel bulb, reserving the fronds for garnish. Mince the shallots. In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, yogurt, and mayonnaise. Add the fennel, shallots, parsley, and tarragon. Mix well.

3. When potatoes have cooled just a bit, add into the salad. Salt/pepper to taste and toss in those fennel fronds.

Puntarelle alla Romana:
2 small (1 large) heads puntarelle (chicory)
2-3 cloves garlic
5 fillets anchovies in salt
2 Tb balsamic vinegar
5 Tb extra virgin olive oil

1) Cut and soak the puntarelle: follow the pictures here at Giallo Zafferanoa (text is Italian). Great blog posts at Rachel Eats and Apron and Sneakers. Basically, you want to use the hollow stalks, not the greens, and not the really flimsy outer stalks. Pick away the outer leaves, and slice the leefy tops off the tubular stalks. Then slice the long way into 6-8 long matchsticks. Stick in a big bowl of ice water for a good hour. They should curl if sliced thin enough, and not cut too short. If not, don't worry, the bitterness will still be gone, they just don't look as fun.

2) Make the dressing: mash the garlic in a mortar/pestle, or smash/finely mince. Rinse the anchovies very well of salt, and pat dry. Snip of the tail bits, and toss in a bowl with the garlic and vinegar. Use the back of a fork to mash, or two knives like you are cutting butter into pastry. Add olive oil and let sit 10 minutes before using.

3) Strain (or stick in a salad spinner) and pat dry with a kitchen towel. In a big bowl, toss well with the dressing and let sit 30 minutes before eating.

- Jo

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A (and not The) Minestrone

Names are tricky business. When I think about it, people have known about this for ages. I mean, one of Shakespear's most well-known and time-tested soliloquies is based on this point precisely. So a little cross-cultural discussion on the meaning of food names should really come as no surprise.

Minestrone, in my American Italian-deli-experience, is a soup with assorted veggies, beans, tomatoes, herbs, Parmesan, and pasta. So, when I woke up this Sunday and saw that the contents of my refrigerator were positively begging me to make minestrone, I listened.

Asking around, and doing a bit of googlework, only increased my confusion. At this point, I really have no idea what a minestrone ought to include. Pasta, or no pasta, that is the question. But after a handful of conversations, I don't think many Italians know the answer either. And does it matter? Do old men with suspenders holding up their trousers get in arm-flailing discussions when their local trattoria messes with the sanctity of minestrone? My Italian friends assured me they do not. But I will keep an eye out for this...just in case.

The problem with names is that they carry such weight. Another surprise came as I learned Italian woman don't take the surname of their husband. Many women in Rome have assured me that this is quite preferred, and other culture's traditions of abandoning one's name upon marriage are really quite silly.

As I am currently between last names, I can appreciate their point. Why complicate an already complicated balance like marriage and family with the added identity-altering pressure of name conventions? 

Names are loaded. The mere idea of changing one bears all kinds of identity re-configuring implications. But is that really necessary? Just because one does or does not change their name, or the name of something, does it really mean something changes? I don't think it has to.

I've long detested the name of my blog. Cumin in the Cupboard made clear sense to my North American friends, but when mentioning it to non-native English speakers, it needed explaining. And names shouldn't need explaining. So I changed it.

For now, we are just sticking with first and middle name. Nothing cute, kitsch, or clever, as that would imply an expected transformation of blog identity, which you will not find. This space is still about the food I eat and the ideas connected to it. Maybe it will slowly, organically change in the future, as things often do, but big radical changes just seem a bit too try-hard to me. It is what it is.

My soup recipe here is just A minestrone, not THE minestrone. Maybe it's just a minestra. The name doesn't matter. What matters is that it is really quite tasty (even better the next day), and is full of flexibility on what ingredients can be brought to simmer. I find the anchors of this soup to be the pancetta and the Parmesan rinds. For me, it is the flavours imparted by these two salty basics that form the backbone of a minestrone, pasta or no pasta.

Recipe: Minestrone with Borlotti Beans and Chard
Serves: 4 - 6
Eat with: Chianti Classico or Pinot Noir

4.5 oz (125g) pancetta
1 onion, minced
stems of 1 fennel (or celery)
olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
1 large potato, scrubbed and diced
1 large bunch chard
2 16-oz. cans stewed tomatoes
1 1/4 cup dried borlotti beans
6-7 cups chicken broth
1 large Parmesan rind
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme
1 cup dried tempestine pasta (or use another small pasta shape, or rice/semolina grains/couscous)

The dried beans should be soaked and pre-cooked first. Either soak overnight and then cook in boiling water for 20 minutes while starting the soup. Or do a fast-soak: boil for 30 mins and then let sit in that warm water 1-2 hours. Or just use 2 cans of beans.

1) Finely cube the pancetta, and dice the onion and fennel stems/celery. Peel the garlic cloves, but leave whole. In a large pot with a smidge of olive over low heat, gently cook all for 15 mins, until fragrant and soft.

2) Add in the potato and chard. Cook 5 minutes until the volume of the greens is reduced. Add in the tomatoes, pre-cooked beans, broth, Parmesan rind, and herbs. Bring to boil, reduce, and simmer 45 mins.

3) During the last 10 mins, add in the pasta (or if it's a larger shaped pasta, pre-cook and add in...but tempestine is basically semolina that can just be added in.)

4) Serve with freshly grated Parmesan over top.

- Jo

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Avocado Toasts with Pumpkin Seed Pangrattato

Quick bites during this busy time have become my mode du jour. Here is one that kind of rocked my socks off, created from assorted leftover bits. It started with an avocado and green pea spread lightened with lime juice. The kicker is the topper - a pangrattato of toasted pumpkin seeds, Parmesan, and thyme. It adds the perfect savoury crunch atop the rich and creamy spread. Easy, healthy, and tasty. With some fresh fruit or snacking veggies, it's a great light lunch!

Continue to Recipe...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best of Cumin in the Cupboard - 2011

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and tasty start to the new year. Some big changes have been happening in my life...stay tuned for an update in a few days. While my life and wheels are still reeling, though, I thought it might be fun to peek at some of the most popular Cumin in the Cupboard posts in 2011. So here we have it - the first year of my little expat food blog - month by month.

January saw a lot of meaty dishes, like Czech Goulash with Bread Dumplings {Guláš s houskovým knedlíkem}

February found me with a bit of wander lust, so in ode to a new Spanish shop in Brno we had 7 Nights of Tapas - a spread of tiny plates, culminating on Valentines day. 

March saw one of my first blogging events - an entry into the Forever Nigella challenge: Squid Ink Pasta with Sea Bass - (also this month detailed my experience with a Czech pig-sticking, called a zabijačka : Part I / Part recipes but interesting for those of us fascinated with charcuterie / home-butchery)

In April I found myself refusing to let go of winter with a final dish with my all-time favourite squash: Butternut Squash with Lentils.

May kicked off the arrival of the outdoor veg markets, where I found some organic dried lavender. Looking for the perfect dish to experiment with, I stumbled upon a tart recipe once made for the Queen:  Lavender Custard Tart.

June was filled with friends and Summer Entertaining with Guacamole, Mojitos, Gazpacho, and Sangria

July: a simple summer with a  Spinach, Tomato, and Goat Cheese Salad

August found me looking for a hot filling meal without cranking up the heat in my sweltering kitchen: Zucchini and Black Bean Tostadas {with Homemade "Cheats" Salsa}

September was a blog holiday. My mum came over from the States and we headed down to Italy: Eating alla Romana {Carciofi, Fettuccine, & Saltimbocca}

October is my all-time favourite month, and saw another yummy savoury squash dish Butternut Squash & Shiitake Mushroom Risotto

November hosted a long weekend of willpower with a 3-Day Detox Diet

December was a whirlwind of life events where I had no time to make any Christmas sweets (with the exception of posting a friend's homemade eggnog recipe) and enjoyed only the simplest and purest of all foods: How to Poach an Egg {and Eat it with Gouda and Tarragon}

Keep an eye out for the coming Cumin in the Cupboard news!

-- Jo

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