mint

Fennel orange olive salad

It sounds sort of weird, but I really hope a big fat man in a red felt suit gave you everything you wished for this weekend. I am a happy girl, surrounded by family and friends. I could complain, because I’m quite good at complaining, but I won’t. I don’t dare. I’m too lucky with this lot I’ve been cast with to dare whisper the hint of complaint.

I am, however, a bit full. My solution? This fennel orange olive salad. Lively, bright, wintery, Sicilian, crunchy, sweet, salty, cleansing. It’s everything I want to put in my mouth after the last few days of overindulgence.

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This is how cooks roll…

We were headed out of town. We needed to eat dinner. I wanted to use what was in the house. I didn’t want to put a bunch of effort into anything besides packing and trying desperately to clear crap off my desk. A quick reflection on what was in the house revealed unto me the wonder twin combination of spaghetti carbonara and a salad. Done and done. Easy peasy.

Except when I went to start cooking I realized I had thought we had bacon and we did not. I also realized that the parsley I had pictured sitting in the vegetable drawer was equally absent.

Some people might have panicked. Plenty of folks would have headed out for tacos or pizza or called up the Thai delivery place. Not this one. This one rooted around in the fridge just a moment longer and came up with the end of a salami and a bunch of fresh mint and proceeded as much as planned as possible under the circumstances.

What we then ate wasn’t spaghetti carbonara, that’s for sure. But it was also totally and completely delicious. I will make it again.

That spaghetti carbonara recipe is delicious, to be sure. But practiced cooks know that no recipe is so good or so perfect that it can’t bear to be toyed with and tweaked and modified as taste and supplies and audience demand. As I like to say, one way or another there is always dinner in the house.

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Green pea, mint, and bacon risotto

If anyone out there is re-doing their kitchen I have one piece of advice: for the love of all that is holy, do not go with black granite for your counters.

We inherited ours from the previous owners of our humble abode. They are out of sync with the rest of the very 1912 house, but that isn’t why I hate them. I hate them because 1) they look dirty when they aren’t – water spots, for example, can be seen from two rooms away – and 2) they look clean when they aren’t. Coffee grounds and grease splatters aren’t as obvious as one might hope when one is cleaning, and – I cannot begin to express the degree to which I wish I didn’t know this – mouse droppings blend right into the surface.

Mice have taken refuge from the rain this winter by scurrying into our house. They seem to find particular comfort hanging out in the closet in my study. They also enjoy the space behind the bookshelf in the kitchen. They are not eating our food, which is odd because our food is crazy awesome delicious, but they are leaving droppings on the counters every now and again and while that makes me not thrilled with the mice, it makes me furious at our counters.

Then this morning I edited the pictures I took of dinner last night and a new surge of hatred welled up inside me. After months of shooting dishes in the light box I made out of white foam board and packing tape (it folds down for easy storage!), my kitchen is finally staying light enough late enough for me to take pictures of our dinners in natural light. And so shoot I did, but I was in a rush and didn’t bother to check them very carefully. I’d forgotten that when the sun is shining into the kitchen from the west the black granite counters act as a mirror – as you can see from my hands and camera reflected in the surface of our evil counters above.

We brought our bowls into the dining room (onto a glass table that requires endless cleaning to look streaky at best) and tucked into the risotto of green peas, mint, and a bit of bacon topped with plenty of pecorino cheese and black pepper that came to mind when we were at Zuni Sunday night for spur-of-the-moment drinks and nibbles with a friend. My dashing husband’s mussels with peas and mint and our friend’s risotto with sorrell and pancetta were each tasty, but I saw them as perhaps benefiting more fully from one another. I’ve written here about Zuni before, so I won’t sum it up again, but we grabbed a table in the bar (walked right in and sat right down at 6 on a Sunday – I didn’t steal the table from anyone, but I did see it from half a block away, make a decided and serious bee line for it, and feel like a rock star for nabbing it). As always at Zuni, I felt very much in San Francisco in the very best of ways.

I couldn’t help, though, eying that shiny copper bar: easily stained and highly reflective, but you would be able to see mouse shit on it from a mile away.

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Manti lamb pasta

I’ve written before about my obsession with manti, those tiny Turkish lamb dumplings. I’ve been insane enough in the past to make them and, if I’m being honest, it is highly likely that I will be that insane again.

Not this time, though. This time I got the general flavor delight by making the filling into a sauce and putting it on noodles. I got the idea from Melissa Clark, who did the same thing a few years ago. Her version had eggplant in it, which sounds good but not really so much like manti. My version sticks a bit closer to the original taste profile, with the exception of the fact that I ended up dolloping some harissa on it and being thrilled with the results. Authenticity be damned.

Is it as good as the dumplings? Absolutely not. Is it a delicious dish that was made and ready to eat in about 30 minutes instead of 3 hours? Yes it was.

Manti lamb pasta

The optional hot sauce is absolutely optional, but know that it is also absolutely delicious. Some kind of thick or even paste-like chile concoction works better than sauce-y condiments, but that may just be me.

1 pound ground lamb

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced (divided)

12 leaves mint, cut into ribbons

1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/2 pound farfalle pasta

1 cup thick Greek-style yogurt

3 tablespoons butter

Chile powder

(Harissa, or other hot sauce type item for them that like it – while true manti are not traditionally spicy, this pasta is awfully tasty with an extra kick)

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.

Meanwhile, pat the lamb dry. Heat a large frying pan over high heat. Brown the lamb in the olive oil. When about half the lamb is cooked, add the onion and 2 cloves of the garlic. Cook, stirring, until lamb is cooked through and onion is soft, about 3 minutes. Add 3/4 of the mint, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Add broth and simmer until almost completely evaporated but a bit saucy on the bottom of the pan, 3 to 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta. While the pasta cooks, combine yogurt with the remaining 1 clove of the garlic and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Cook until butter starts to brown. Remove from heat.

Divide pasta between 4 plates, top with lamb, top that with yogurt, drizzle each serving with some browned butter and garnish with chile powder and some of the remaining mint. Serve with hot sauce on the side for people to add themselves.

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Lemon garlic artichokes with plenty of mint

Can we all agree that cleaning artichokes completely sucks? I mean, there isn’t anything fun about it. You can’t even get all meditative because the minute you do one of those thorns is going to embed itself under a fingernail and torture you for days after wards.

So those artichokes above – which were tasty delicious, by the way – were perhaps not the freshest and most divine of all artichoke specimens I’ve ever encountered. They were tough and fibrous, so cleaning them was extra super sucky. It took forever to clean just four of them.

Luckily, I passed the time with my hands-free and a friend in Seattle. We were strolling along, exchanging news and thoughts about kids and parents and husbands and friends and selves, when I quite rudely interrupted her by yelling “fuck.”

I know, classy.

She kindly asked what happened. I explained that I was cleaning artichokes and a thorn attacked me. She said quite firmly and with great conviction that she never, ever, under any circumstance, cleans artichokes.

Never.

I just might have to join her. The thing is, these artichokes really were crazy delicious. But, as I found upon a second cooking, you can get a similar result with a method that leaves the labor happily in the hands of the eater. Both methods are included below.

Lemon garlic artichokes with plenty of mint

To clean the artichokes or not? That decision is yours.

4 to 6 large artichokes (depends on how many people are being fed and how many artichokes they want to eat; the method and sauce amount really works for the range just dandy)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (1/2 cup if you’re cleaning them)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons

1 teaspoon salt

3 clove garlic, minced

12 sprigs mint, leaves minced

Trim the stems of the artichokes and clip off their thorns if you like the people for whom you’re cooking, or go ahead and really trim them into fully edible specimens: set up a bowl of cool water with 1/4 cup of lemon juice in it, trim stem, pull off outer leaves until a solid 2-inch section of them are very light green (really almost yellow), cut off green tops of the leaves, use a paring knife to cut off all the dark or medium green stuff around the stem and heart, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the heart, put in the lemon water and repeat with the remaining chokes (this guide to cleaning baby artichokes shows everything except scooping out the choke; this step of cleaning artichoke hearts shows scraping out the choke).

Put the 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup of the olive oil, salt, garlic, and half the mint in a saucepan large enough to hold all the artichokes with 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add artichokes, stem-end down (or in whichever way you can if you’ve cleaned and halved them), cover, and reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook, undisturbed, until the bottoms of untrimmed artichokes or the entire cleaned artichokes are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.

Lift artichokes out of the cooking liquid. Transfer trimmed artichokes to a baking or serving dish and full artichokes to individual serving bowls.

Increase heat to boil the liquid left in the pan is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Pour evenly over artichokes and sprinkle artichokes with remaining mint. Serve warm, at room temp, or even chilled. Any leftovers are to die for.

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Harissa and how to swing it

There is usually a jar of harissa – the top assiduously covered with a fairly thick layer of olive oil – sitting somewhere in my fridge. It sits waiting for me to make couscous (the dish not just the teeny tiny pasta), at which point I remember to pull it out of the fridge and dollop it on dinner.

Alas and alack, I am at the family cabin and there is no jar of homemade harissa sitting in the fridge. There are about a dozen jars of jam, four of which are strawberry. There are plenty of bottles of hot sauce, three of which are Tabasco – not even, I feel the need to add, different types of Tabasco; just three bottles of Tabasco so if, say, three people were eating they could each have their own bottle of Tabasco at the ready in case something remotely bland went down. There are eight different jars of mustard opened and ready to spread on sausages.

There are, in short, plenty of condiments. We lack not for condiments here on our little bit of Northern Minnesota. But is that good enough for me? Absolutely not. So I made some homemade harissa. Since I knew we would use the whole batch, I made it fancy, with herbs. It was crazy delicious.

Homemade harissa

If you like things hot, quite hot, toss a few arbol chiles in with the larger red ones.

2 ounces of large dried red chiles (ones labeled “New Mexican” work well here)

4 cloves garlic

4 stems of flat-leaf parsley

16 large mint leaves

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles. Put them in a medium bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let that all sit for about half an hour. Lift the chiles from the water and put them in a blender or food processor (let some of their soaking liquid cling to them). Toss in the garlic, parsley, mint leaves, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Whirl this into a relatively smooth paste-like sauce. You can add a few tablespoons of the chile-soaking liquid to thin it, if you like. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice, if you like.

Now what to do with it. Dollop it on stuff you want to taste hotter and more delicious. Steak, chicken, and vegetable stews are some of my favorites. Or, and this worked out quite well, use half of the above batch as a marinade for 1 1/2 pounds of chunks of leg of lamb, letting it all sit together for a few hours or overnight, and then grill those lamb chunks until browned and cooked medium rare. Serve with the reserved harissa.

Notice how the lamb is not all jammed onto the skewer. Notice how each lamb piece has a little room to breath. Please feel free to mimic this skewering method.

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Chickpea salad

So simple it hurts.

Summer chickpea salad

All together now: 2 cans chickpeas (drained and rinsed), 6 green onions* chopped up, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of lemon juice, about a teaspoon of finely shredded lemon zest (gotten off with a box grater – no fancy microplane zesters here!), salt, plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Then  4 sprigs of mint cut into ribbons and a pint of grape tomatoes tossed in at the last minute.

* chives, garlic scapes, green garlic, or minced red onion would all be lovely as well

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Zucchini mint pesto

It may not be as green as real pesto – the kind made with basil and pine nuts and so forth – but it is awfully green, all the same. Toss it with hot pasta, as is the way with pesto, or use as a sauce on grilled chicken or fish (it is completely and utterly yummers on grilled salmon), or use as a dressing on a pasta salad. I have done all of these to great satisfaction.

In the interest of full disclosure, I got the idea for this “pesto” at an event hosted by the Walnut Board. Yes, things like that go down.*  The walnut people’s people’s assistants invite people like little old me to come up to Napa and eat walnut-laden foods and listen to all-walnut talks and be generally wined and dined and walnuted and put up in places that iron the sheets, all in the fervent hope that we will write something about walnuts. Funny thing is, I like walnuts a lot and am fully aware of how chock-full of omega-3s they are. The other funny thing is that the best recipe I took away from the whole thing was “zucchini mint pesto” but made with way less mint than used here and, obviously, with walnuts. As I was eating it I thought the heretical thought, “this is good, but it would be way better with pistachios.”

And so it is.

Zucchini mint pesto

By the way, this pesto oxidizes (turns brown) just like the real thing, so cover it with olive oil or cover with plastic wrap by pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce.

2 medium zucchini

10 – 12 sprigs of mint

1 small clove garlic

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup shelled pistachios

1/3 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino

Chop zucchini and put in a blender or food processor. Pick leaves off the sprigs of mint and add them to the zucchini, tearing any larger leaves into smaller pieces if you’re so inclined.

Chop the garlic and throw it in along with the oil and salt. Whirl until a more or less smooth paste forms – this will take a minute or two of running the blender, so be a bit patient.

Add the pistachios and cheese and whirl until smooth again, another minute or two. Taste and add more salt to taste, if you like. Use fairly quickly or cover (plastic wrap or waxed paper or parchment paper pressed to the surface). You can keep it at room temperature for a bit while you prepare the rest of the food or chill up to two days.

* I will never, ever, be able to explain fully to my parents why on earth someone would fly me somewhere, put me up, and stuff me full all in the name of walnuts or lemons or Oaxaca. But they do. I don’t go on very many press trips because, quite frankly, most of them are boring, exhausting, useless, or all three.  Some, however, are insanely useful and informative and fun, and I fully cop to going on those when I think I can smell one from some alchemy of the itinerary, the list of attendees, and the person putting it together.

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Kumquat endive salad

We ate dinner last week in an industrial space that had been re-done into a residence and studio that was so stunning that Ernest jumped up and down as he shouted “Mama, this is so cool!”

I had to agree. The space was cool, the company delightful, and the food perfection. I was offered the serving bowl filled this endive, herb, kumquat salad and took way more than my fair share. I have since made it three times for myself for lunch. I’m making it now, while the kumquats are plentiful.

Kumquat endive salad

This is the ultimate end-of-winter-almost-spring salad. The bitter chicory of winter with the bright tart sweetness of citrus and the fresh green promise of spring herbs. You might not be able to have a real spring salad yet – there is no asparagus in here, no hidden fiddleheads – but it’s starting to seem like you will if you just hang in there.

4 Belgian endives

about 10 sprigs parsley

about 10 sprigs mint

10 kumquats

2 tablespoons lemon juice (Meyer lemon juice works nicely here, too)

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil (nothing too strong!)

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

Cut off ends of the endive and pull apart into leaves. Cut leaves into bite size pieces, if you like, and put all leaves into a salad or serving bowl.

Pull off the leaves from the parsley sprigs and put them with the endive leaves. Pinch off the mint leaves and tear them into smaller pieces and add them to the mix. Cut the kumquats into quarters and throw them in.

In a small bowl, mix lemon juice, oil, and salt. Stir or whisk together an drizzle over salad. Toss salad to coat everything evenly with the dressing.

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Winter tomatoes (in spicy yogurt sauce)

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It ends up that yes, you can freeze tomatoes. Not tomato sauce, not tomato paste, not tomato puree (although all those things freeze just fine, too), but actual tomatoes.

I learned this indirectly from my aunt. Indirectly because she was not talking to me, but rather had left instructions with my cousin (her son) while she was out of town to pick the tomatoes from their ample garden as they ripened and put them in the bag already started in the freezer that she kept for all the tomatoes they couldn’t keep up with.

It’s been a great tip – especially since my dashing husband overestimates even his impressive tomato-eating ability when tomatoes are ripe and plentiful and cheap at the market. Once frozen, the tomatoes won’t work as fresh tomatoes – you wouldn’t want to make caprese salad with these, for example – but if you’re going to cook them anyway, it’s perfect. If you were going to peel them in the process then freezing has the bonus prize of making the tomatoes extremely easy to peel without the usual step of blanching them first.

So when I found a bag of Early Girl tomatoes from last summer in the freezer the other day, I decided to pretend it was summer (I needed a distraction from these gray days we’ve been having on the West Coast), if just a little bit. I smeared petrale sole with a paste of ginger and mint (notice all the mint on my table lately? That’s because mint grows like an invasive weed in Northern California, especially when it rains) and baked them, cooked a pot of rice, and peeled a few frozen tomatoes and then gently heated them up in a spicy yogurt sauce. I know it sounds a bit weird, but it is an unbelievably delicious flavor combination. The delicate fish – rice – tomato in spicy yogurt sauce combo was sublime.

Tomatoes in spicy yogurt sauce

I developed this recipe when I was working at Sunset and can never get over how good it is, or how tasty that sauce is on rice. I can now add to its many wonders how delightfully it makes use of frozen tomatoes.

8 ripe but firm tomatoes

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 small hot green chiles, seeded and minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup plain whole milk yogurt (low-fat or fat-free versions will curdle)

If you’re using fresh rather than frozen tomatoes, blanch tomatoes to make peeling them easier: bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water, cut a small “x” in the bottom of each tomato, dip tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds and then use a slotted spoon to transfer the tomatoes to the ice water, drain tomatoes and pat them dry.

If you’re using frozen tomatoes, just take them out of the freezer. In any case, the next step is to use a paring knife to gently peel off the tomato skins and set tomatoes aside, whole or at least as whole as possible.
In a large frying pan, heat vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add cumin seeds and mustard seeds and cover. The seeds will start popping within about a minute. Cook until the popping slows down, about 2 minutes total.
Remove the lid and add the butter. When the butter has melted, add turmeric and cayenne. Stir and cook until brightly fragrant, about 1 minute. Add garlic, chiles, and salt. Cook, stirring, for about a minute. Reduce heat to low and add yogurt. Stir to combine.
Add tomatoes to yogurt mixture, Gently stir to coat the tomatoes with the sauce. Cook over low heat until tomatoes are just warmed through, about 5 minutes. Serve warm.

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