Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peas

Some may find it crude. Some may be downright offended. I’ve simply decided to fully embrace all the pea-ness that this fleeting spring harvest has to offer. Really, there’s no way of going back at this point. I’ve already pea’d on my pizza. I even pea’d on my toast– At work, no less! Dining alfreso has been a true joy as the weather continues to improve, allowing me to pea outside with Luka, too. It’s safe to say that I’m going to keep on pea-ing everywhere until this stream of inspiration runs dry.

Did you really think I could resist sharing another pea-s of my mind before the short growing season passed us by? Girl, peas.

Hungry but tired after a full day of work, I seriously had to pea by the time dinner rolled around. Riffling through the fridge and pantry yielded a few delectable treasures to create an instant, effortless peas de résistance. Spinach and ricotta ravioli, quickly sauteed in garlic and butter, needs no further culinary intervention to shine, but a light sprinkle of coarse black pepper and crunchy veggie bacon certainly didn’t hurt.

Still, for all that fancy frippery, the real focal point of this meal was still those glorious green orbs; the overall combination easily a-peas’d my appetite.

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Dig In

Unless referring to the planet itself, “earthy” is a descriptor of dubious praise. Much like the ambiguous label of “interesting,” such a word can be interpreted in many ways- Mostly negative. Mushrooms and beets can be earthy, and for as fervently as their fan clubs will tout the word as praise, their detractors just as quickly adopt it as evidence for their disdain. Telling someone to “eat dirt,” is a fairly clear insult, on the other hand, although I have no qualms recommending charcoal, ash, or lava for your next meal. Still, the mental imagery of picking up a handful of soil and chowing down inevitably leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

This was the war of words I battled when agonizing on this new recipe’s title. Designed as a celebration of spring, gardening, and new growth, the original title was simply “Dirt Dip.” The dirty truth of the matter is that each distinctive strata was inspired by nature; worms, dirt, pebbles, and grass. Appetizing, right? Perhaps honesty is not the best policy here. Let’s start over.

Bursting forth with vibrant flavors ideal for celebrating the vernal equinox, I present to you my layered garden party dip. A base of savory caramelized onions sets a deeply umami foundation upon which this dynamic quartet is built. Fresh lemon and mint mingle just above in a creamy yet chunky black bean mash. Briny black olive tapenade accentuates these bold flavors, adding an addictive salty note that makes it impossible to resist a double-dip. Sealing the deal is a fine shower of snipped chives, lending a mellow onion note to bring all the layers together. Make sure you really dig in deep to get a bite of each one!

4-Layer Garden Party Dip

Caramelized Onions:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Large Red Onion, Halved and Thinly Sliced
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Lemon-Mint Black Bean Dip:

1 15-Ounce Can (or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked) Black Beans, Drained and Rinsed
3 Cloves Roasted Garlic
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Tablespoon Fresh Mint, Finely Chopped
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Tapenade:

1 Cup Pitted Black Olives
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Fresh Parsley, Chopped

Garnish:

1/2 – 1 Ounce Fresh Chives, Finely Chopped

The caramelized onions will take the longest to prepare, so get them cooking first by setting a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and sliced onion, tossing to coat. Once the pan is hot and the onions become aromatic, turn down the heat to low and slowly cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 – 45 minutes until deeply amber brown. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, make the bean dip by either tossing everything into your food processor and pulsing until fairly creamy and well-combined, or mashing the ingredients together in a large bowl by hand. You want to leave the dip fairly coarse for a more interesting texture, so stop short of a smooth puree if using the machine.

The tapenade is made just as easily. Either pulse all of the components together in your food processor or chop them by hand, until broken down and thoroughly mixed.

Finally, to assemble the dip, select a glass container to enjoy the full effect of your work. Smooth the caramelized onions into the bottom in an even layer, followed by the bean dip and then the tapenade. Sprinkle chives evenly all over the top. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with cut vegetable crudites, crackers, or chips.

The dip can be prepared in advance if stored in an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

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Ravishing Radishes

Pungent, peppery little orbs hidden beneath crowns of unruly leafy greens, the humble radish is all too often overlooked both in the garden and on the plate. Offering so much more than just fodder for antiquated garnishing techniques, these root vegetables were once so prized by the ancient Greeks that gold replicas would be crafted in their form. Though considerably less valuable but far more delicious, the plain old red radish deserves just as much reverence today.

Best when picked small and eaten moments after brushing away the soil that they grew in, nothing is needed to dress up the bright, spicy flavor concealed within each tiny tuber. The average supermarket radish is sadly so far removed from it’s original glory that it’s no surprise few people share any amount of enthusiasm for this once prized vegetable. Decapitated in the field, denuded of their glorious greens, and shrink wrapped to preserve shelf life, I wouldn’t want to do much more than carve these tasteless marbles into silly sculptures either.

Even if you’ve turned up your nose at radishes in the past, I implore you to give them another chance- Fresh, full of flavor, and treated with respect.

Tossed simply with a bold dressing highlighting its not-so-distant relative, the horseradish, the complimentary flavors sparkle across this crisp salad. Utilizing the whole vegetable, greens and all, this raw preparation comes together very quickly, ready to start off any springtime meal on a high note.

Totally Rad Salad

1 Bunch (About 3/4 Pound) Red Radishes
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers
1 – 2 Tablespoons Fresh Grated Horseradish
1 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
1 1/2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Fresh Dill Leaves, Fronds, and/or Blossoms
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Trim off the spindly tips of the radishes and remove the greens. Rinse and reserve the leaves. Thinly slice both the radishes and cucumbers and place them in a large bowl. Combine all of the remaining ingredients in a separate dish, making sure to break up all of the horseradish so that it’s not ultimately clumped into one bite. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Pour the dressing over the sliced cucumbers and radishes, tossing thoroughly to evenly coat the vegetables. Arrange the reserved leafy greens on salad plates and top with the dressed veggies. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

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Snap Into Spring

Snow peas used to be the only podded legume for me. Thin, delicate green planks that erupted across the miles of twisting vines that proliferated in our otherwise sparse garden, its sheer abundance meant there was never any reason to venture beyond this glorious green bean. The snow peas were always the first vegetables to emerge, welcome each new spring season, heralding brighter days and more bountiful harvests to come.

Now that garden of my childhood is thousands of miles away, sounding like little more than a dream. Farmers markets have come to replace those homegrown goodies, shaking up the standard bill of fare with their comparatively endless, irresistible range of fresh temptations.

Graduating to the thicker, juicier, dare I say, meatier podded delights known as snap peas, I relish snacking on them raw or simply seared. Tossed in a blistering hot pan with a splash of oil and a pinch of salt, their inherent sweetness truly shines through after a scant minute on the fire.

Inspiration to turn this simple concept into a more coherent dish struck while idly browsing through my favorite discount grocery outlet. Fancy pastas, typically out of reach and far out of budget, beckoned from a top shelf, boasting shapes I’d never before seen in semolina format. Though formally dubbed Foglie d’Ulivo, translated as “olive leaves,” I immediately saw noodle incarnations of my beloved snap peas. The two simply had to meet; it would have been criminal to walk away from this particular impulse buy.

It doesn’t take a recipe to explain how simple but satisfying this quick dinner for one turned out. One glance at the photo is likely enough to discern the formula, but in case you need addition reassurance, here’s the full rundown: Seared snap peas tossed with pasta, chickpeas, orange zest, and a handful of cilantro. Garnish with nasturtium blossoms for an extra peppery bite, if you crave a bit more embellishment.

Snappy Snap Pea Pasta for One

3 Ounces Olive Leaf-Shaped Pasta (Foglie d’Ulivo) or Bowties
1 Teaspoon Olive Oil
2 Ounces Snap Peas
1/4 Cup Cooked Chickpeas
1/4 Teaspoon Orange Zest
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1/4 Cup Fresh Fresh Cilantro Leaves

Cook the pasta to your desired state of al dente; drain and set aside.

Heat up the oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Toss in the snap peas, cooking quickly on all sides until the pods are bright green and lightly blistered. Immediately stir in the pasta, chickpeas, orange zest, and salt and pepper. Season to taste before turning off the heat. Toss with fresh cilantro right before serving.

Makes 1 Serving

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Market Fresh

Saturday mornings are the highlight of every week, bearing the promise of exciting adventures around this fine city, without arduous classes encumbering an already overloaded schedule. No matter where the day takes me, each new exploit always begins in the same place: The Ferry Building farmers market, arguably the most renowned year-round source for fresh produce in San Francisco proper, drawing locals and tourists alike. It would be easy to make a full meal of the generous samples, ranging from buttery avocados to sweet dark cherries, but there’s so much more than just fruits and vegetables on offer. Time your visit correctly and you’ll cross paths with some inspiring bay area chefs, freely divulging secret recipes thanks to CUESA‘s Market to Table program.

Featuring the season’s best and freshest offerings, it’s always a treat to see what the innovative food luminaries in the area bring to the plate, and even better when you can get a free taste. The Plant Cafe is a common stop on my market trips, since their Embarcadero outpost is a mere two piers away, so I was especially thrilled when reigning chef Sascha Weiss appeared on the demo schedule.

Presenting chickpea panisse in a whole new light, Mr. Weiss has elevated the concept from french fry-alternative to an elegant plated hors d’oeuvre. Piled high with tender asparagus and mushrooms singing with umami flavor, the whole composition is a shining example of why eating fresh and seasonal is always best. That said, if you make just one part of this dish, it must be the pistachio-pea purée. Somewhere between a pesto and a sauce, the richness of the nuts boosts the sweetness of the tender peas to create a creamy, sublime experience. Rather than reaching for the standard hummus, I think I’ll just call this a dip next time a snack craving hits.

Chickpea Panisse with Pistachio-Pea Purée, Asparagus, and Maitake Mushrooms
Adapted from Chef Sascha Weiss of The Plant Café Organic

Chickpea Panisse:
4 Cups Water
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 1/4 Cups Garbanzo Bean Flour
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Whole Cumin Seed, Toasted and Ground
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
Neutral Vegetable Oil, for Frying

Mushrooms:
8 Ounces Maitake Mushrooms, Cleaned and Halved Through the Stems
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Asparagus:
16 Stalks Asparagus, Trimmed and Bottom 1/3 of Stalks Peeled
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Pistachio-Pea Purée:
2 Cups Sliced Leeks (Washed, Cut 1/4-Inch Thick)
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Shelled Pistachios
1/2 Cup Shelled English Peas, Blanched
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes

Garnish:
1 Cup Arugula, Pea Tendrils, or Other Tender Greens
1 Radish, Sliced Very Thin
2 Teaspoons Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1/4 Cup Vegan “Goat Cheese” (Optional)

For the panisse: Bring the water, salt, and olive oil to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Add the garbanzo flour, whisking so it doesn’t form lumps. Ass the lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and pulls away from the sides of the pan; about 10 minutes. Pour the batter into a greased pan and allow it to cool to room temperature. Slice into desired shapes and pan fry in oil until golden.

For the mushrooms: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toss the sliced mushrooms, olive oil, salt, and pepper together in a bowl. Lay the mushrooms out on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and roast for 15 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Leave the oven on and set the mushrooms aside.

For the asparagus: Toss the asparagus together with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Lay the spears on a sheet pan or baking pan and roast in the oven until soft but not mushy; about 5 minutes. Set aside.

For the purée: In a sauté pan over medium heat, cook the leeks in olive oil until softened; about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender. Add the remaining ingredients, thinning with water as needed to achieve a purée that is silky-smooth and can be spooned on a plate without turning into a soupy puddle.

To finish: Place 2 – 3 stalks of asparagus on each plate. Top each with a piece of chickpea panisse, spoon some of the purée on top, and add a piece or two of roasted mushroom. Toss the greens with olive oil, sliced radish, salt, and pepper. Add the dressed greens to the plate and crumble a small amount of the vegan cheese on top, if desired.

Makes 6 Servings

Printable Recipe

Spring Produce Spotlight: Green Almonds

Standing tall and pert in rows a dozen deep, forests of asparagus cover the tables at farmers markets as far as the eye can see. Classic harbingers of spring, their appearance signals a definitive end to winter, as though the slender green stalks had slain the seasonal demon themselves. Deep green, royal purple, ghostly white; all colors were represented on this early April day, each bundling growing more enticing, glowing more vibrantly in the rising morning sun than the last. With a heavy bag straining under the weight of this spring plunder, it would be easy to call it a day, feeling quite content with a delicious, albeit rather predictable haul. Don’t make that mistake. Delve further into the booths, interrogate the farmers if you need to, and seek out rarer treasures. For a window of about three to four weeks, green almonds may be hiding in plain sight at your local markets, amassed in humble little piles or collected in small baskets, just behind the more popular fare. Off-putting fuzzy exteriors belie a firm, crunchy texture, wholly edible and entirely delicious from the outside shell to kernel. Their short window of availability is dictated by the maturation of the almond, transforming the fresh fruit into the crunchy nut we all know and love. Leading with a pleasantly bitter taste, the overriding flavor is that of lemons and cucumbers, sometimes with a hint of tart grape in the background. Juicy yet crisp, they’re impossibly addictive when eaten with just a light pinch of salt. Sure, you could chop them up and add them to salads, use them for garnishes on chilled soups, or otherwise toss them into any raw or cooked preparation you see fit, but they’re best when allowed to shine solo. At most, go ahead and cure them in a lightly sweet and sour brine, and you’ll have the stuff of pickle plate dreams. One would never mistake them for the roasted almonds they may one day become, which is part of the appeal. You may think you know the common nuts, but catch them on the unripe side and you’ll have a whole new snacking sensation in store.