Asparagus, Pea, Spinach Lasagna

By this point in the season we’re all anxious for something that comes out of the ground, preferably in our own backyards. Any green sprout, edible or not ,is a welcome sight.

Today I took the fir boughs off my asparagus and raked out the bed in hopes of a sighting. Nothing yet, there’s still frost in the ground. But very soon there will be a thrilling crop of my very own asparagus…….and it took four years to reach this moment!

This is what I will make:

ASPARAGUS, PEA, SPINACH LASAGNA serves 8 -10

INGREDIENTS
4 # trimmed and quickly steamed asparagus, cut into one inch pieces
1 large white onion, peeled and diced, sauteed in a generous amount of.olive oil
3 cups cooked, well drained spinach, chopped
1 cup of stemmed and finely chopped parsley
2 cups of goat cheese crumble OR FRESH RICOTTA, IF YOU PREFER ( Lakins’ Gorges Cheese in Rockport ME makes a fantastic fresh handmade ricotta!)
2 cups or good Parmesan
2 cups of shredded mozzerella
1 quart of your favorite Bechemel recipe, or you may use a jarred white sauce, add a pinch of nutmeg to it.
A cup of heavy cream
Salt and pepper
12 or more no boil lasagna noodles

PREPARATION
Combine all the vegetables, spinach asparagus, onion and peas, with a bit of white sauce and season with salt and pepper

In a greased deep lasagna pan, cover the bottom with white sauce thinned with heavy cream.

Layer in noodles, vegetables, cheeses and sauce until you’ve used everything up OR reached the top of the pan. Finish with a layer of noodles and white sauce, sprinkle on more cheese.

Using your best judgement, add a little more heavy cream in the layering process if you think the lasagna needs it, you don’t want it to be dry.

Cover tightly with parchment lined foil and bake for about an hour at 350 degrees.

Let it rest for 20 minutes, covered ,before cutting. Enjoy with a big spring salad!

Grilled Duck Breasts with Savory Rhubarb Sauce

One of my favorite company “go to” meals in the summer is duck breasts on the grill. I purchase the frozen (fat on) breasts of duck at Curtis Meats or other quality purveyor and simply defrost them overnight in the fridge. I trim the fat but leave a generous pad in the center to protect the meat, which I score. This helps keep the meat moist. I love duck rather rare and generously salted and peppered. Otherwise, leave it alone and focus on the show stopping rhubarb sauce, flavored with lemon and star anise.

While my rhubarb is in its prime, I make plenty of this sauce, which cans nicely, so it may be enjoyed year round. I have noticed that I get better visual results if I make the pieces of rhubarb slightly larger, maybe 2 inches long rather then one.

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Using Sorrel: Soup of Mixed Spring Greens

What’s the first weed you can remember eating as a child?

For me it was sorrel or “sour grass” as we called it. I am speaking about oxalis or wood sorrel. Remember the one that looked like lime green clover with a little yellow flower that turned into something (now I know it was a seed pod) resembling a tiny green banana? It was puckery. But there is garden sorrel too, beloved by the French and originating in France’s southern highlands. It’s in the garden now and widely available year round at specialty markets.

A relative of buckwheat and with broad leaves that remind one of spinach, but more lemony, sorrel’s acidic finish is due to its high oxalic acid content, the same as rhubarb. That makes sorrel a natural pairing with rich or fatty fishes and meats as a sauce. It also makes a nice purée or soup.

In preparation, be sure to use a stainless knife or tear the leaves by hand. Sorrel will discolor a traditional French iron cooking knife as well as erode pots and pans, so use a stainless knife and enamel pot when cooking it.

I like to use an array of spring greens in my spring greens and sorrel soup. Try mixing fresh spinach, sorrel, and arugula with a handful of green garlic leaves for this energy boosting and easy soup. I am making this version a little bit leaner than a traditional French style sorrel soup. Sorrel is famous for turning an off-putting sludgy green color when cooked on its own. That’s why I like to mix in brighter greens like spinach for the soup. Much more appealing!

Herb-soup-garnished

Argentine Foodways

Argentine Foodways

Let’s begin by defining “foodways”. Wikipedia defines this term as “the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food tied to larger social and economic factors.

100_2834Immediately noted by me, an enthusiastic eater of regular meals, Argentina is a night culture and a cafe culture.Meals do not occur on an American schedule. The Argentine people eat four meals a day, which must be necessary for staying up half the night.

Their breakfast or desayuno is a light meal of coffee or mate, medialunas ( pastry) and jam or dulce de leche, sometimes bread and cold cuts. Mate is worth a discussion. While everyone drinks it and it is traditional to do so,it seems to be considered a bit of a vice. Probably much like drinking coffee is here in the US. Less fortunate folk drink it to excess to stave off hunger, I was told and it’s not uncommon to see working class people carting around their thermos of hot water along with their mate gourd or calabazo and straw or bombilla. While it contains caffeine and is stimulating, it is also relaxing with a deeply vegetal flavor which is quite enjoyable.

100_2643Lunch, or almuerzo, features meat and vegetables or salad. In the larger cities I noted several vegetarian buffets, popular as lunch spots and incredibly good values. Perhaps a rebuttal to the famous Argentine beef, which is heavily favored in most meals, sometimes prepared in the Milanese style, or pounded and breaded.

After work its “tea time”, which means time to linger forever in one of the ubiquitous street side cafes, over either tea or a “cafe solo” and lots of conversation. Maybe you prefer yours “con leche?” At this time tapas- like snacks or little pannini are consumed with gusto. This is a good thing since dinner won’t be until 10 p.m. or later. My traveling companion and I got called “grandmothers” for wanting to eat by 8 or 9 pm. Hey, we’re not even mothers, just can’t sleep on a full stomach. Returning to the cafes …many are associated with particular artistic or literary, political or student groups and are important within the social context of the city. It’s nice to see people giving themselves permission to converse passionately and spend time together with nothing seeming to pressure them. I feel it’s time well spent.

100_2818The people in Buenos Aires love their snacks. I noticed the bakeries doing a booming business at all times of day selling delicious varieties of empanadas (think beef, chicken, seafood,Caprise, mushroom, pork….) and other savory snacks or cookies galore. Like the Alfajore sandwich cookie. They ought to be illegal and are so good with their filling of dulce de leche or jam and chocolate coat. I saw more carbonated water being consumed that sodas, but the show stopper of any drink I had in the country was a fabulous “slushy” of heavily gingered lemonade. Completely refreshing , you can bet I will be making this at home this summer.

Cena, or dinner, is unfathomably late in the evening and is the largest meal of the day. Since Italians settled this place, it’s all reminding me of Rome. You can get Italian bitters like Frenet Branca anywhere after a meal. Even on your mini bar . Oh joy! I ate at some great steak joints and I can tell you that the beef is amazing, thick, juicy, delicious and all grass fed. usually, a steak dinner is offered with salad choices, side vegetables and lots of good red wine. I didn’t notice many desserts eaten in the evening.

If you want a traditional “asado” , or barbeque, you must go into the country where the cattlemen are……. or befriend a traditionalist and hope for an invitation to a family affair. The religion is to cook over wood coals, never flame. 100_2631A full compliment of meats (beef, lamb, sometimes goat, always sausage) will be roasting , often flayed open and whole. Grilled vegetables and many side salads will be offered up as well a Chimichurri sauce.Everything is mopped up with crusty bread, washed down with good red wine and eaten off wooden plates.

Back in the city, those out for the evening will continue drinking and dancing…tango is huge, tho sadly not with the youth so much. But you’d better pace yourselves. Oh, and bring your sunglasses. The younger set strike out after 1am. Things heat up by 3 am and, to our surprise, they’re still at it Sunday morning at 10 am, sunglasses on and piling out of the clubs and onto the sidewalks. Suddenly eating dinner late is making all the sense in the world!

I noticed salmon on most restaurant menus in Buenos Aires and , while on a side trip to Chile, I remembered why. we saw salmon and mussel farms everywhere while traveling thru the fiords of Chile. 100_2981They look innocent enough but the waters, once pristine, are suffering and the eco systems are dying. Most of the world’s salmon is now coming from Chile and while tasty, is it good to remember the cost of farmed fish. I am happy to report that the wild trout are still plentiful and were biting for me! I caught an 18 inch beautiful brown trout, with sweet pink salmon-like flesh.

Did I mention ice cream? It is done in the Italian gelato style and called helado. The ice cream of Argentina is very rich and wonderful and comes in very exotic flavors, Andean chocolate became my favorite ( a mix of bitter chocolate, dulce de leche and Patagonian walnuts), but you can get rosehip too and a variety of other inventive flavors!

100_2746About visiting Argentina in December……..it’s early summer there, the lupines , wild orchids and Scotch broom are in full bloom, kids are getting out of school for summer vacation and it’s Christmas! The farms are also producing wonderful vegetables, nuts and fruits, honey, hops and berries of all varieties, cherries, strawberries, gooseberries and calafate, the mystery berry of Argentina. It’s a type of dark berry from a barberry bush. It’s said if you eat these berries, you’ll return for another stay. I bought some jam which I’ve not tasted yet, but I will keep you posted! I fully intend to return to this beautiful place for further adventure in the Patagonia.

Annato, Adobo and Sofrito, a Latin Culinary Mystery Solved!

latin1.1Can’t go tropical this year due to personal budget cuts? Me either. But I am revisiting one of my favorite recent vacations, Puerto Rico, from a culinary point of view. We’ll just have to imagine the sea and sand and tropical breezes……

Sofrito, Adobo and Annato were terms much bandied about in Latin cooking, but that didn’t mean that i really understood what they were. That is until I visited the magical island of Puerto Rico. I soon decided that “getting into one’s bathing suit” and Mofongo, their national dish of plantains with pork cracklings and pork stew didn’t really go together.

I came to love the island cooks delicious and deeply orange-y take on Arroz con Pollo, colored with Achiote oil or Annato seeds, Adobo,the richly flavored rub for meats or poultry and the basic seasoning behind so many traditional island foods we call Sofrito.

Here are recipes for preparing each
and a recipe to practice your “Latin’ on……
latin1

ANNATO OR ACHIOTE is the seed of a tropical tree. If you can’t find them in a speciality market, i sometimes use a good paprika to achieve the rich reddish color that predominates in much Latin cooking.

FOR ANNATO OIL…..All you do is cook the ANNATO seeds, good paprika or saffron (if you are feeling flush and can’t find annato) until sizzling in lard or oil until you get that nice red-orange color. Do not overheat the oil or it will turn an off color. Cool a bit then strain out the seeds. Keep this oil in the refrigerator and use by the spoonful for recipes like Chicken with Rice.

latin3ADOBO is a blend of ingredients used to rub a unique flavor into meat or poultry. This recipe is appropriate for one pound of meat or chicken.
1 tsp black peppercorns, whizzed in a coffee blender (I keep one in my kitchen for nothing but pepper)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 tsp. of fresh or dried oregano, minced or crumbled.
1tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp. fresh lime juice

Mix all ingredients together and rub into your meat or chicken throughly, let marinate for several hours for the best taste.

latin4SOFRITO the seasoning behind so many native dishes
1 oz salt pork
2 oz. lean cured ham these are optional, you can make a great vegetarian version. You may want to add some salt to this recipe if salt pork is not used.
1/4 cup vegetable oil or lard
1/2 lb green pepper
1/2 lb. white onion, peeled
1/4 lb sweet red peppers
1 small head of garlic peeled
a small bunch of cilantro
1 TB dried oregano

DIRECTIONS
Wash all ingredients, seed them and cut into small pieces

Additional 1/4 cup of vegetable oil

Pour the first 1/4 cup of veg oil into a blender and gradually add all the pork, vegetables and oregano and grind them up.

In a heavy kettle, pour the second 1/4 cup of oil into the pot. Bring to a medium heat and add the ground mixture. Bring up to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Allow to cool, season with Tabasco to taste.

A great way to use and keep Sofrito is to make ice cubes with it and keep them handy in the freezer, pulling out a few at a time to make a dish. They don’t stick together.Two to three cubes will suffice for a dish that feeds 6-8 people.

latin5ARROZ CON POLLO serves six people
1/4 cup of annato oil
1- 4 pound chicken, cut into ten pieces
kosher salt and ground pepper
1/2 cup sofrito
1/4 cup coarsely chopped green pimento stuffed olives(alacaparrado)
1 tsp. cumin
pinch of ground cloves
4 cups of long grain brown rice
5 cups of homemade chicken stock
11/2 cups of roasted red peppers, cut into strips

DIRECTIONS
Choose an attractive Paella pan or something that you can bring to the table for serving.It must have a tight fitting lid. In this large shallow pan , heat the Annato oil until it ripples. Add the salt and pepper seasoned chicken to the pan, only as many as you can without crowding them, so you’ll be working in batches browning the chicken and cooking it almost through. Set it aside.

When the chicken has been cooked, add the sofrito and alaacaparrado, season to taste with more S&P and the cumin and clove. Raise the heat and simmer off some of the water from the sofrito.

Stir in the rice and coat with the seasonings. Return the chicken to the pan and add enough broth to cover the rice by a width of two fingers (an inch ,basically). Bring the rice to a boil and cook until the broth reaches the level of the rice. Stir and cover the pot tightly, reducing the heat to low. Let it cook until the rice is tender but firm, about 20 more minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork, garnish with the red pepper strips and bring the whole pot of chicken and rice to the table. If you don’t have a great looking pan, you may arrange the contents attractively on a large platter and dig in while hot.

Absolutely delicious and cheaper than air fare! Laura

Adventures in Costa Rica at the Bull Riding Fiesta

bull1When you sign on for an exotic trip, one has a good idea that there will be a deviation from the norm. Some of these detours may take you out of your comfort zone and that’s when the fun begins. Call me an optimist, but when the going gets tough, that’s when I hope to learn something about myself.

New sights and smells abound in a new country, new attitudes about all facets of life emerge….. usually different and interesting foods …..and protocol to go with them. Then there is the organic element, microbes, sun and heat, unfamiliar farm animals and fry oil. Add to that a noisy crowd, neon and raging bulls, stifling heat and unfamiliar snack foods. That’s a costa Rican rodeo or “fiesta” and EVERYONE from miles around is there. Happening but once a year,it’s a long awaited chance for cowboys to show their “stuff”…..bulls, horses, western wear and skill. I soon realized that it’s a rare chance to “see and be seen”, a happy hunting ground for both sexes.

That’s where I found myself on one tropical night last February ,flanked on either side by my knowledgeable and excellent hosts, both veterans of these things.Wisely, we’d had several cocktails at home to bolster us before the grueling and bumpy ride to the fair grounds. Seems it is OK to drive under the influence in Costa Rica. They have bigger problems. Like fixing the roads.

bull2.2The “feel’ of the place when we arrived was like a Dead concert, swarming with young people. But these kids were high on warm beer and chicharrones. That’s fried pork rinds for the uninitiated. The dust is thick, the place swelteringly hot, the smell is unabashedly of horse ,sweat and manure.

So what does one wear to these things? Why, six inch heels, skin tight jeans and a peek-a-boo top. Silly me , I’d chosen flats, linen and “not your mothers jeans”…….hmm, maybe that’s why I wasn’t getting noticed. Until I stepped up to the snack bar. THAT’S where I can strut my stuff. I’ve been told “for a lady, you sure can chow”, not the best thing to hear on date night. But amongst Central American farmers and teenagers I gleaned a bit of respect for my adventuresome spirit  and awe inspiring capacity ,if nothing else. Yup, that was me, sampling the empanadas with spicy pork, chicken tamales in banana leaves, the fried rinds,  fried rice and fried egg rolls (don’t ask me why, but there is a lot of Chinese food around) AND more of the local beer over ice cubes. Oh yeah. It’s a boiler maker of food.

bull2Time for the action to begin and we enter the bull riding arena. We try to find a spot away from the loud speakers and the dust. Not too high up on the bleachers, please. I am feeling queasy even before the deafening music begins and the riders and cowboys are introduced. Folks are guzzling warm beer and munching banana chips, the smell of greasy pulled pork is wafting my way. I begin to sweat in ernest. The locals are watching with interest as their homeboys are announced. Two handsome cowboys and their shiny Pasofino horses enter the ring done up to the nines in show tack. They  prance in showing off their  unusual gait. The cowboys’ entertain us with  their roping skills using the lariat. They’ll be the ones controlling the bull for safety when he throws the rider off.

Of course their are clowns, some really scary clowns. They help too. It’s quickly becoming  like a Fellini film and the arena is beginning to spin, the crowd tilting sideways. Did I mention the very drunk college kids on spring break jockeying for position in the ring  while taunting the bull? Try texting while you cheat death. They were. I learned that there is some kind of warped honor in touching the bull without getting killed. Drunk American kids! At least I know MY limits

bull3Suddenly, it was me wishing for death as all the foreign elements of my snacky meal began to do combat. Just in time for the first bull out and the immediate and highly unfortunate goring which quickly followed. They took him out on a stretcher, not to return and I ran out right after him to wait in the car.

Not sure I ever need to view another “fiesta”, but if I do, it will surely be on an empty stomach.

Laura