Saturday, July 30, 2011

Whole grain goodness, in shades of pink

In my last post I talked about the wonderful CSAthat's the Crown Heights CSA, to be exactthat I joined at the beginning of the summer. The produce I've been picking up weekly has been unfailingly fresh, great looking and even better tasting, and this Tuesday's haul was no exception. Among other items, I received a thick, verdant bunch of scallions, a large handful of palely golden wax beans, and three fat beetsone of my favorite vegetables of all time. With temperatures holding steady in the 90s the whole week, I knew that these veggies were destined to be eaten cold. The question was how to bring them together into harmony.

I thought about the different kinds of cold salads that we eat during the summerbeets with goat cheese, a pasta salad to chuck the beans intoand immediately dismissed them as been there, done that. I wanted to try something new. That's when I remembered the cold rice salads that my mom often made when I was growing up, usually with brown rice, vegetables, toasted nuts, etc. (my mother was really ahead of the curve when it came to eating and enjoying whole grains). I decided to take a cue from her, but also to go a step further into unknown territory by using a less common grain. My first thought was spelt, but the only version the Co-op carried was imported from Italy and a small bag cost a whopping six dollars. Right nearby, though, was a bag of equal size of wheatberries, priced to move at an incredible 55 cents. That's my kind of deal, people! I grabbed it up.

At home, I simmered the wheatberries in salted water for about 40 minutes (contrary to popular belief, wheat berries do not need to be soaked before cooking) until they were tender, then drained them and allowed them to cool. In the meantime, I boiled up my beets, peeled and diced them, and cut up and blanched my wax beans. I combined everything in a big bowl, adding liberal amounts of sliced scallions and chopped parsley, as well as a lemon-olive oil dressing. And then I took a picture:

But the story didn't end there, folks: oh no, it had just begun. You see, I wanted to take the photo a) while there was still natural light; and b) before the beets totally took over and dyed everything magenta (as opposed to the early, and still quite beautiful, subtle stage of blush that you see here). But there were more things to come for this salad: right before serving it, I dotted the top with fresh Spanish goat cheeseyou could also use something like feta or ricotta salataand sprinkled on some chopped toasted walnuts. With the snap of the beans, the sweetness of the beets, the nuttiness of the wheat berries and the creaminess of the cheese, I'd say this summer salad definitely achieved the harmonynay, the symphonythat I was looking for.

Wheatberry Salad with Beets, Wax Beans and Fresh Cheese
Serves 6 - 8 as a side dish, 4 as a main

1 cup wheatberries, picked through to remove any debris or hard grains
1/2 lb. wax beans, trimmed and cut into halves or thirds depending on length (or substitute green beans)
3 large beets, trimmed and cut into quarters, but not peeled
3 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
Olive oil
4 oz. fresh cheese, such as goat or sheep's milk, or use a mild feta or ricotta salata, cut into cubes or broken up into pieces
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted and chopped


1. Fill a medium pot with water and set it to boil. Add a generous amount of salt, then add the wheatberries. Drop to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 40 - 50 minutes, or until wheatberries are tender. Drain and allow to cool.

2. In the meantime, fill a second medium pot with water. Set it to boil and salt generously. Drop in the beans and cook for exactly two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoondo not drain, you'll need the water for the beetsand immediately rinse beans with very cold water to stop the cooking process.

3. Bring the bean water back to a boil and add the beets. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the beets are tender. Drain beets, then place them in a bowl while they are still hot. Cover bowl with a large plate (or with plastic wrap) and let the beets steam up as they cool down. This will make it a cinch to peel them. When cool enough to handle, peel beets and cut them into small pieces.

4. When wheat berries, beans and beets are cooked and cooled, combine in a large bowl. Add the scallions and parsley.

5. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice with olive oil to taste, probably about the same quantity, or slightly more, as of the lemon juice. Season generously with salt and pepper. Pour over salad, and stir to combine. Chill in fridge until ready to eat.

6. Before serving, garnish the salad with the cheese and the walnuts.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Back, with a bushel of zucchini

I've been back in the States almost two months now and this is the first free moment I've found to write on the blog. Life has been a flurry, of moving around, job hunting, catching up with friends and visiting all the New York spots that I missed while I was away. But things are finally taking on a sense of normalcy, allowing me some time to tell you about something important: summer zucchini.

When I got back from France, I did two things almost immediately: one, became a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op, that alternately venerated and misunderstood Brooklyn temple of local and organic food; and two, signed up for a CSA share of local fruit and vegetables. Having spent a long time in Europe, where, it seems to me, people are both more passionate and more discriminating than the majority of us Americans when it comes to the quality of their food, I would say that my growing interest in healthy, sustainable produce pretty much reached its peak. I didn't want to go back, upon returning home, to eating ordinary supermarket items flown in from California or Argentina or wherever. And I haven't looked back.

Anyone even marginally familiar with vegetable gardening knows about summer squash and, well, what a beast it is, basically. This vegetable (I suppose it is biologically a fruit) just erupts out of the ground come late June, fruiting and fruiting and producing tons of zucchinis. Gardeners sometimes don't know what to do with all their bounty, giving them away to neighbors, turning them into breads and cakes. There are even numerous gardeners' sayings about zucchini (here's a sample one "Zucchinis, terrific/Like bunnies, prolific!"). I've grown zucchini myself so I know this to be true, and just in case I'd forgotten, my weekly CSA share has certainly reminded me. For weeks now we've been getting bunches of small squash in all varieties: yellow and green; pattypan, crookneck, and everything in between. Fortunately for me, I love zucchini. Not so fortunately, I've been super busy at work lately, leaving little time to cook. So quite inadvertently, a small stockpile of squash began building up in my refrigerator's crisper drawer, until I finally found the time, yesterday, to deploy my arsenal.

Like any true NYC summer, this one, so far, has been humid and blazing hot. So what I wanted from my zucchini was something to cool me down. I improvised a simple chilled soup, first sautéing chopped green onions and garlic (also from my CSA) in olive oil, then adding a whole mess of chunked zucchini. I let that sweat down just a little bit, then added water almost to cover (the zucchini will let out a lot of liquid as it cooks, so you want to be careful not to add too much water). Once the squash was tender, I puréed the soup in batches in the blender, adding a couple of dollops of plain yogurt, plus a few fresh mint leaves and some additional seasoning, as I went. When everything was smooth and light green, I let the soup chill in the fridge before enjoying it with some homemade croutons. Say hello to my new favorite summer lunch:

Chilled Summer Squash Soup with Yogurt and Mint

Serves 8


- 4 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 bunch scallions, trimmed of any brown or stringy parts, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 lbs. summer squash of any variety, chopped into rough pieces
- Water
- Salt
- Pepper
- About 1 cup plain yogurt
- A handful of fresh mint leaves, washed


1. In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the scallions and stir; add the garlic a few minutes later. Season with some salt and saut
é for a few minutes, until the scallions start to break down.
2. Add the squash along with a few pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper and stir to combine. Let the squash sweat for 4 or 5 minutes, then add just enough water to almost cover the squash, about 4 cups. Cover and bring to a boil, then drop to a steady simmer and leave partially covered.
3. Cook soup until squash is just tender, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and, working in batches, ladle the soup into a blender (you can also leave the soup in the pot and use an immersion blender). Pur
ée, adding a dollop of yogurt, plus a few mint leaves and additional seasoning, with each batch. If the soup is looking too thin, try to leave behind some of your cooking liquid, and if too thick, add more.
4. Check soup for seasoning and allow to chill in the fridge for several hours. Serve, garnishing with additional chopped mint and, preferably, some homemade croutons (see recipe below).

Homemade Croutons
Makes two cups


- Day-old bread, preferably crusty (ie, a baguette), cut into small cubes and yielding 2 cups
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- Salt
- Pepper
- Dried herbs, such as thyme, oregano, sage, etc.


1. In a bowl, toss the bread cubes with the olive oil, a generous amount of salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of the herbs. Make sure each cube is coated in oil.
2. Place bread cubes in a large wide skillet set over medium-low heat and cook, tossing occasionally, for about 6 - 10 minutes, or until bread is fragrant, golden, and crunchy. Let cool completely before serving.
3. Alternatively, you can bake the croutons in a 325
° oven. Set bread cubes on a sheet tray and bake, stirring occasionally, for about 6 - 10 minutes, or until bread is fragrant, golden, and crunchy. Let cool completely before serving.