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While asparagus at the height of its season is probably best with little more than melted butter or olive oil and lemon, those imported at other times from southern climes shouldn’t be totally ignored. I know this would probably be rejected by hardline locavores, but if you love asparagus as much as we do, there are many tempting dishes that can alleviate your asparagus craving in the winter.

Eggs and asparagus have a natural affinity. They are wonderful companions whether the eggs are boiled, fried, poached, scrambled, or made into an omelette or quiche.

Our favorite is an Italian frittata. There’s not a significant difference between a frittata and a Spanish tortilla, and once you’ve mastered the technique, the sky’s the limit in the variety of ingredients you can use. In addition to the classic potato tortilla, we especially love the combination of onion, shrimp and spinach and the French omelette paysanne which includes onion, bacon or ham, mushrooms, potato and red peppers.

Asparagus Frittata

Serves 4

2-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, sliced thin

12 fat asparagus, tough ends removed

8 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup parmesan, grated

Saute the onion in 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 10″ non-stick skillet over low heat until softened.  Meanwhile, steam the asparagus until they pierce easily with a knife, depending on size, 5 – 8 minutes. Cut each asparagus spear into 3-4 pieces, add them , the onions and half the parmesan to the beaten eggs and salt and pepper to taste. 

Add a second tablespoon of oil to the pan and increase the  heat until the pan is very hot. Add the egg mixture, distributing the asparagus and onion evenly. It will immediately begin to bubble and solidify around the edges.  With a spatula, and working as quickly as you can, start pulling the cooked egg into the center of the pan, releasing the rest to the outside.  If your pan is hot enough and you work quickly, you should have a fairly solid (but not dry) mass within a minute or two. Now comes the tricky part: You need to place a plate slightly larger than the skillet on top of it and invert the frittata onto it.  It may be a bit tricky the first time but you’ll soon get the hang of it.

Now add another half tablespoon of oil to the pan, let it heat briefly, and slide the frittata back into the pan, uncooked side down.

Give it a minute or so (no more) and it’ll be cooked. Many instructions for frittatas and tortillas advise cooking it for several minutes on each side or putting it under the broiler instead of inverting it.  This makes for one tough frittata.  Slide or flip it back onto the (cleaned) plate. Shower with the rest parmesan and serve immediately.

When to have this? It’s great for lunch or a light supper with a green salad,  and wonderful picnic fare, cut into cake-style slices and served at room temperature.

Sam says:

When I was a little girl, my mom used to make us soft-boiled eggs with soldiers whenever we were in need of comfort food, long before the term “comfort food” existed. Soldiers are essentially buttered toast cut into strips, making them ideal for dunking. I loved placing my egg in my little chicken egg cup (which I still have!), tapping off the “lid” of it, and dipping each soldier in slowly to soak up the golden nectar inside.

I still love soft-boiled eggs, though nowadays I prefer using asparagus as the “soldier” or peeling them entirely and placing them atop a hearty salad of greens with bacon and potatoes.

To make the perfect soft-boiled egg, I place an egg in a pot of boiling water, leave it for five minutes, and then drain and run it briefly under cold water.  When it’s cool enough to peel, I do so. Delicious!

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As many of you probably know, San Francisco doesn’t have well-defined seasons. In fact, summer is often foggy, cold and windy. Although we are almost always rewarded with beautiful weather in the fall, it’s easy to reach a point – dare I say it – when you can’t face one more heirloom tomato salad or another picnic in the park, but instead long for a steaming bowl of minestrone or a civilized sit-down brunch.

Being creatures of habit, our Sunday brunch involves two constants: champagne, and eggs in some shape or form.

We  always kick off at noon with a glass of bubbly. Often it’s the real thing, but we are also partial to prosecco, cava, or any other methode champenoise, as long as it’s not sweet.  Sometimes we add a few drops of a fruit liquor, either creme de cassis, peach or raspberry.

Then an egg dish: Maybe a Spanish tortilla, a goat cheese souffle, huevos rancheros, or arguably the best of all: piperade.

A popular Basque dish, piperade is a mixture of olive oil, onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes combined with eggs.  Most recipes add the beaten eggs directly to the cooked pepper mixture but I think this is a mistake as it makes the eggs grainy and an unattractive pink color. Better to scramble the eggs slowly until half cooked and then tip them into the piperade. The heat will complete the cooking.

It’s a simple dish for two or four, but can easily be turned into a festive brunch for a half dozen or more. You would simply need to increase the pepper and egg mixture, add a garnish of ham and, if you want to be really decadent, some fried bread.  I like to serve it on a large platter with the piperade in the middle and the ham and fried bread round the edges. In the Basque country, they use jambon de Bayonne but you can substitute Canadian bacon or any similar slices of cured ham.  For the bread, cut thinnish slices of a baguette and fry them in oil until golden. They are so delicious they could even be worth the million extra calories.

Piperade

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for the ham and bread)

1 large onion, chopped fine

2 red, 1 green, 1 yellow pepper, cut into strips, 1″ x 1/2″

1 large clove garlic, chopped fine

3/4 of a  28-oz. can diced tomatoes (not in puree) 

8 eggs

Salt, a pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette

4 slices ham, about  4″ x 3″, cut in half        

8 slices of baguette, or other bread of your choice

Warm 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan.  Add the onion and cook 5 minutes over low heat.  Add the peppers and cook a further 20 minutes.  Add the diced tomatoes and the garlic and continue to cook over low heat until nearly all the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers have softened but retain some bite.  Season with salt and a pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette.  In a separate (smaller) pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over low heat and add the eggs, stirring, until large curds start to form.  Tip the eggs into the pepper mixture and stir briefly to incorporate.  The heat of the peppers will complete the cooking.  If you’re not planning to add the ham and fried bread, serve immediately with toast or French bread.

 If you’re going for broke, BEFORE cooking the eggs (which will require your undivided attention), and while the pepper mixture is simmering, fry the ham briefly until it starts to color.  Remove and drain on paper towels. Add a few more tablespoons of oil to the pan and fry the bread on one side until golden. Be careful, it can go from golden to burnt in a flash. Turn the bread over, add a bit more oil if necessary and repeat the process. Keep the ham and bread warm while you cook the eggs. Put the egg and pepper mixture in the center of a large platter and arrange the ham and fried bread around the perimeter. 

This is a common dish in the Basque country, such a wonderful place to visit. Tucked into where the north-east corner of Spain and the southwest corner of France meet the Atlantic, it has a character, culture and language all of its own. Lively San Sebastian, famous for its many Michelin-starred restaurants, has a charming old town great for bar-hopping and for sampling the local tapas (called pintxos) – arguably the best in Spain. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao with its mindblowing architecture is worth a trans-Atlantic voyage. The colorful fishing villages along the coast and the picturesque towns that dot the emerald green foothills of the Pyrenees have a charm all their own, and some of the best food you’ll find anywhere.

If a trip there is not in your immediate plans, perhaps a helping of piperade will whet your appetite.

Sam adds: A few years ago I discovered for myself the art of cooking bell peppers: Patience. If you have patience, you can turn out deliciously sauteed peppers every time simply by keeping the heat low in the pan and giving them time to soften slowly in oil. They’re a wonderful thing to know how to make because you can add them to so many things. Two of my favorites: toasted baguette spread with goat cheese and piled high with sauteed red peppers, and sausage and peppers served over pasta. Though I’ve been eating my mom’s piperade for decades, I’ve never attempted to make it myself before last weekend. I was happily surprised to find that it’s much easier to make than I imagined. Essentially it’s simply combining two things I already have a pretty good handle on: sauteed peppers & scrambled eggs. The fried bread, in my opinion, is mandatory when making this dish.

Today we had an amazing, simple lunch on the patio.  Even though we’re into November, this is about as close to a perfect Summer day as we get in San Francisco: Blue skies, 70-odd degrees with just a slight hint in the air of Fall to come.

This morning while passing through the UCSF hospital after an appointment  we came upon a Farmer’s Market right there in the lobby  (only in San Francisco, you might say, and apparently only on Wednesdays). Crates of beautiful veggies, all organic and bursting with freshness. We swooped on the heirloom tomatoes, big bunches of basil and coriander, baby new potatoes, green beans and, best of all, ears of corn picked this morning, the vendor assured us.

We raced home to throw the corn on the stove and made some of our favorite coriander butter in the pestle and mortar to douse it with. (It’s very easy to make: Pound 1/4 cup of coriander with a large pinch of salt to form a paste, then add 1 oz. of butter and keep pounding until it’s a lovely green and easy to spread. If you like it spicy, add a few drops of the bright green Chile Habanero sauce which you can find at most supermarkets.) We sliced up a few of the perfectly ripe tomatoes – not squishy as Heirlooms often are – anointed them with basil, a splash of our olive oil from Provence, a smidgeon of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and dug out the last of the chevre we’d brought back from France and plopped in the middle of the plate. With some crusty bread to mop up the juices, we toasted the end of summer with a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

The rest of the basil was of course perfect to make pesto for our favorite pasta dish from Genoa. A local pasta called trenette is mixed with baby new potatoes, either just boiled or par-boiled and fried until a bit crisp in olive oil, cooked green beans, as much pesto as you think you need, and lots of Parmesan. Although it might seem odd to add potatoes to pasta, the different textures work wonderfully. This is a very old dish – it was eaten by Ligurian monks in the 15th century as a Lenten dish – which has become quite popular lately. However, in most recipes I read, the pasta, potatoes and beans are cooked in one pot and I think trying to get everything to come out cooked just right is way too difficult. It’s not much more trouble to cook things separately and better results are assured.

As for the pesto, I love to make it in the pestle and mortar (yes, I’m a P & M freak!) because the flavor and texture are better, but if you don’t have one, the food processor does a perfectly acceptable job. I don’t put pine nuts in this pesto because I don’t think they add to it, but of course you can if you’re so inclined. I also add the parmesan separately, grating it on top of each serving at the table.

Pasta Pesto with New Potatoes and Green Beans

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3/4 lb. linguine, spaghetti, or pasta of your choice

12 baby new potatoes (preferably red) 

1/2 lb. green beans

2 packed cups basil, large stems removed

1 large clove garlic

salt, pepper, olive oil, parmesan

Make the pesto: Either pound the basil, salt and garlic in a pestle and mortar to form a paste and then add enough olive oil (about 6  or 7 tablespoons) to make a thick emulsion, or do the same in the food processor without letting the pesto become too smooth.

Bring a pot of water to the boil, add the potatoes and cook until almost done (about 15 minutes), or until fully cooked if you don’t plan on frying them. Drain. Cut the potatoes in half  and  fry them in olive oil on medium-high heat until brown and crisp.

In a separate pot of boiling water, cook the beans uncovered (to preserve their color). Cooking time will depend on how large and fresh the beans are, but 5-8 minutes should do it. Drain.

In the meantime, cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water, according to the package instructions.  (I find that although we like our pasta al dente, packaged pasta instructions generally underestimate the cooking time by about 2 minutes.) Drain well.

Finally, put the beans, potatoes and pasta in your serving dish, add the pesto, and mix together well. Allow each person to grate fresh parmesan and pepper on top as they like.  Enjoy!

Sam adds: I make this dish often because it’s so easy and is the favorite of more than one of us. I always fry the potatoes (never just boil them) and I like to add extra pesto and veggies to the mix. For example, I would add 3/4 lb. of beans, 16 potatoes, and 3 cups of basil.  (Of course if you up the basil to 3 cups, you’ll have to adjust your olive oil and garlic accordingly: 8-10 tbsp. of oil and 1 1/2 cloves of garlic.)