Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heirloom Tomatoes

Aren't these things just freaking gorgeous?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, farmers enjoy an elevated hero status in my esteem, especially when they grow organic, heirloom produce.

My reason for including the heirloom component is twofold: one, heirloom plants have unique qualities of appearance, flavor and texture that set them apart from all others of their kind, and these qualities make them especially delightful; two, an heirloom plant represents an original strain that has not been modified by crossbreeding, which protects biodiversity and by extension, the future of food itself. I don't think their importance can possibly be overstated, especially in this age, when monoculture is the norm and variety among edible plants is rapidly narrowing.

One of the most obvious examples of heirloom varieties on the produce shelf are tomatoes, owing mostly to their unusual shapes and colors. For cooks, this is a boon because it enables us to create eye-appealing presentations merely by setting them on the plate, whether whole, in cross-sections, or in pieces. They're so out of the ordinary, they're almost startling, and they've never failed to elicit an impassioned remark whenever I've served them. The flavor is even more impressive, especially to people my age and older, because it takes us back to a time when virtually all tomatoes offered such a full tomato experience. This is the way all tomatoes tasted before Big Ag came in and bred them for uniformity, ease of packaging, and shelf life, at the terrible cost of flavor, texture and variety.

Full disclosure: they are a bit more expensive then their blah assembly-line twisted sisters, since they must be grown by real farmers and transported quickly, to a fairly limited local area. However, buying them is not just good for our palate and our health; it also supports the farmers who are wise and dedicated enough to keep growing these wonderful rarities. By buying heirloom plants, we help assure their survival.

Here's another, pretty impressive plus: my son, who rarely expresses enthusiasm for any vegetable--if indeed he even deigns to eat one--was thoroughly enchanted by a salad I made the other day. I had only made enough for my wife and myself, assuming he wouldn't be interested, but something about the exotic appearance of the tomatoes attracted him. I let him have a taste and his immediate response was unexpectedly animated, so I let him have my plate. How rare it is, after all, that a teenager lets slip any hint of approval, let alone such an unabashed endorsement?

So there you have it, the salad that wowed my highly discriminating, near-exclusively meat-and-bread-eating son: Watercress Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes.

Like most great dishes, it's quite simple, relying on the potency of natural ingredients. The green part is nothing but hydroponic watercress and red onion, tossed with a basil vinaigrette. All I did for the tomatoes was to slice and fan them out on the plate, and then drizzle a generous amount of basil oil over them. As a final touch, I sprinkled some oak-smoked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

With its peppery bite and deep green juiciness, watercress makes an ideal counterpoint for any tomato, but especially these luscious full-bodied ripe red heirloom babies. The basil oil was gratuitous, especially next to the basil vinaigrette, but as I'm fond of saying, "nothing exceeds like excess!"


Monday, November 28, 2011

Squash Trumps Turkey

Thanksgiving presents a challenge for those of us who have a wee problem with everything that leads up to the moment when a roasted turkey is being served. The primary obstacle is clear: tradition. Anyone who even considers opting out of gorging on Big Bird must be prepared to take on a convention entrenched for well over a hundred years--and to be singled out in much the same way as a person who may not be entirely keen on Christmas would. There is some irony in the fact that the holiday has its roots in a deeply religious tradition that would have involved fasting rather than feasting on a day set aside for giving thanks. But it's an irony lost on the majority of celebrants, who look forward to packing away their favorite holiday dishes--especially the turkey. Many people today have even dropped all pretense of thankfulness and gone straight to the point, wishing everyone a happy "turkey day."

Forget that the turkey on offer may have been deformed, fed a staple diet of antibiotics, shot up with hormones, and processed in the most unsavory manner imaginable. If you're read "Eating Animals," or seen any of the real-life horror films exposing the grim realities of life on a turkey farm, then forgetting will not really be a viable option. On this day above all, those who enjoy eating meat will have their ignoring mechanisms up and running to protect their dining pleasure from these realities.

For those of us who have trouble ignoring what we already know, but still want to participate, a little creativity can go a long way in keeping pace--if not peace--with tradition (and I'm not talking Tofurkey).

This year, I had a plan. A friend gave me a most unusual vegetable from her garden, which she called a "Pikes Peak" squash. It's the only squash I've ever seen that appeared to have two stems, a feature which made it look a little bit like a bird with a beak, a tail, and its wings tightly folded. I'd been thinking about how I might use this squash for several weeks, and as Thanksgiving approached, it came to me: use it as a stand-in for the turkey!

The concept and the execution were simple. All I did was carve out an oval section in the "top," using the "Jack-o'-lantern" technique of cutting at a sharp angle so the piece can be replaced to form a lid. I scraped out the seeds, poured in a little vegetable broth, added a sprinkling of salt, and set the "lid" in place. Then I rubbed a light coating of  olive oil on the skin and baked the squash in a moderate oven until just barely tender. I fortunately had enough foresight to attach a handle, made out of kitchen twine, to facilitate lifting the lid.

While the squash was baking, I made my "Three Sisters Soup," which is a fairly quintessential harvest-celebratory dish in its own right. I used butternut squash for this, since the one I was baking would later act as a tureen, and needed to be kept in one piece. You can see an earlier version of this soup here, and read a little about the origins of the three sisters here, but basically this is a combination of corn, beans, and squash. I happen to love all three components, and I've been experimenting with various ways they can be presented. Look for them all in my next book (title yet-to-be-determined; stand by).

I had been spared the task of making the Thanksgiving meal, which has been my job for many years, because my sister-in-law asked to have everyone over at her house this time. Fine with me, seriously. So when it came time to go, I took along my bird-squash--fresh out of the oven and wrapped in foil to keep it hot--and the soup. Just before serving, I reheated the soup and poured it into the hollowed-out squash. I served it up with my usual accompaniments of lime wedges, diced avocado and chopped cilantro.

I doubt there was even the smallest bit of envy on anyone's part that I was eating a far healthier dish, with a much smaller carbon footprint--not to mention one that was cruelty-free--since everyone was happily chowing down and having a jolly good time. Nor did anyone appear to notice that when the meal was over, my "bird" looked just as good as had before, whereas the turkey looked, well, butchered.

Me? I was just thankful that I brought my own food, and didn't need to rely on the odd bits on the menu that didn't include any animal products (I'm pretty sure they all did, in one form or another--I've made this much-anticipated traditional feast many times).


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hydroponic Watercress

Watercress is a superfood, in the sense that it provides high doses of important nutrients and disease-fighting compounds, and in the sense that it delivers great pleasure.

When I first began preparing watercress salads, soups and sauces, the only kind available in markets was harvested from streams. It was dark green, with a rich, assertive peppery flavor, which made it a wonderful component in a mixed salad or a sandwich. One downside to this watercress was that, like many fresh herbs and lettuces, it was often bruised from handling, and had to be picked over thoroughly before washing. Well worth the effort, certainly, but a hassle nonetheless.

Because most Americans in those days were unfamiliar with this incredibly healthful lettuce--and probably because it didn't really travel well--watercress was sold only in upscale markets, and even then unreliably. This was nerve-wracking for a private chef, because very often you would have to present a menu first, and then go out and track down your ingredients. If a central item was unavailable or in too poor a condition to be useful, you then had to fudge the menu a bit, eliciting whiny remarks if your clients happened to be the picky, demanding sort. My job was to please, after all, and I took it seriously enough to stress over this sort of detail.

Now, I'm glad to say, hydroponic watercress has become widely available--which is a boon to all cooks. The product itself is much fresher, too (it comes with roots still embedded in "soil").  It's infinitely easier to clean, and the stems are quite tender, so they can be eaten along with the leaves. I have to admit, I still prefer the old "natural" watercress as far as flavor goes, but given the choice between hydroponic and none at all, well, there is no choice. Now that I know I can pick up a bunch, nicely sealed in a protective package, almost without fail at my my local supermarket, I eat watercress at least three times a week. This is a wonderful thing.

Watercress is high in iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, and folic acid. Like most greens, it's also packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants, putting it right up there with blueberries in the cancer-fighting, free radical-thrashing category. And it's just a delicious, gorgeous leafy thing to eat, period. So there.

Now that we have a virtually ready-to-eat source of watercress, the possibilities are wide open for quickly prepared salads. Here are two I made just recently:

1. Watercress and Beet Salad

How fast--and nutrient-dense--can a succulent salad get? All I did was cut the stems to roughly 2-inch lengths, put them in a bowl, add some grated beet and some thinly sliced celery, and then toss with some Balsamic Vinaigrette (which I just happened to have in the fridge). Bada-bing.

2. Watercress, Fennel and Apple Salad

This one is a little fancier, But it didn't take too much longer to assemble. I took only the leaves and upper stems for this, because I wanted to make sure the watercress would be buttery-tender, with no distractions. I added sliced fennel, thin wedges of winesap apples, and walnut halves.

I tossed the salad with a light, quick dressing made with apple cider vinegar, walnut oil, Dijon mustard, fennel pollen, Celtic salt, and freshly ground mixed black, white, green and pink peppercorns.

After mounding the salad on plates and placing a few of the walnuts strategically, I drizzled a little chive oil over and around it. I chose apple cider vinegar, walnut oil, and fennel pollen, to spark against the apples, walnuts, and fennel. It also made a mild, unobtrusive foil for the salad, enabling each ingredient to speak its own note clearly. The chive oil was an afterthought--a rash intrusion to bring in some wildness.

Easy. Tasty. Fun.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Winesap Apples

A couple of friends from Denver came to dinner recently, and brought with them a sack of fresh-picked winesap apples (from another friend's tree).  I had never tried these little beauties, but they proved to have all the quintessential attributes one might expect from an apple--deep red color, firm, crisp texture and full-flavored juiciness, neither too tart nor too sweet. They also had that unmistakeable right-off-the-tree rustic feel to them. Just perfect, really.

Of course I had to read up on them. Apparently the winesap is an American heirloom cultivar, originally grown in Virginia, dating back to some (unknown) time in the 18th century. As good as it is to bite into and eat, it was considered a "culinary apple," used in cooking, and for cider. Some winesaps have a yellow-greenish base under the red color; some are dark red all over. Because of their classic apple-red color and small size, they've been widely used in wreaths and other decorations (kind of a waste, if you ask me).

A couple of nights ago, I had my mother over for a dinner party to celebrate her 87th birthday. I made her a flourless chocolate cake, which I served accompanied by tiny baked apples. Winesaps are perfect for this--at least the ones I had--because of their size, ranging from about 1 3/4" to 2 1/2" in diameter (4.5 to 6.5 cm).  The prep is very quick and easy:

Wash and core the apples. Combine some coarsely chopped walnuts, currants, coconut oil, palm sugar, ground cinnamon, allspice and cardamom, kneading to blend well. Jam the mixture into the apples' cavities, building up a small mound on top. Place the apples in baking dish. Pour a couple tablespoons each of water and dark rum in the bottom of the dish, cover, and place in a moderate (350F / 177C) oven. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, until tender. Their skins will shrivel just a bit, which is normal, but don't overdo it, or they will dry out and taste mealy. That's it. The combined aroma of apples baking and the spices (not to mention the rum) will fill the house, evoking some sort of pagan autumnal feast.

Last night, I noticed the remaining apples were beginning their decline, so I gathered them up and made an apple chutney. I've become a "food as medicine" enthusiast in the last several years, and even more so since my wife successfully survived breast cancer earlier this year, which would help explain why so many of my dishes tend to include anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory ingredients like turmeric, ginger, chili, cinnamon, and garlic, to name a few. There are many foods that support the immune system, such as fresh greens, berries, mushrooms, fermented beans and vegetables, and seaweeds. And they all feel great going down, but few pack the punch that I get from garlic, ginger and chili. Anyway, back to the apple chutney...

I began by heating a spoonful of coconut oil with cumin and brown mustard seeds, swishing the saucepan around, encouraging the aromatics to spread. As soon as the seeds began to darken slightly, I added a red onion, diced coarsely, and stirred to coat with the oil. Then I added minced ginger and garlic, and stirred until everything began to soften. After a bit, the mixture began to dry out, so I added a little water, followed by ground turmeric, red chili, coriander, garam masala, and salt. Once the vegetables were tender, I added the apples, coarsely diced, some currants, a couple of bay leaves, a little tamarind paste, and palm sugar. Then I covered the pan, turned the heat down to the lowest setting, and let it bubble away until the apples were soft and the moisture had been reabsorbed. After that, it was only a matter of letting the chutney cool to room temperature.

I had pushed the envelope a little on the chili; it turned out pretty hot, which is just fine with me, but I think it might be over-the-top for most people. I hope my wife will be able to enjoy it--she's trying to eat spicier foods, now that we've acquired the information that chilies are the most anti-inflammatory foods you can eat, but everyone has their limits!

When I went to take the picture, I was concerned that it might come off a bit on the monochromatic side, so I microplaned some lime zest over the top. Lemon would have been more in keeping with the chutney's flavors, but 1) I didn't have any lemons, and 2) the whole point was to create a little color contrast. So there you have it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Celeriac (a.k.a. Celery Root)

I've never met anyone who didn't know green celery on sight, but I've come across many who needed help identifying this weird, gnarly root--and even after a concise explanation (it's basically the root of the celery plant), their faces often exhibit a look of confusion (is it, like, edible?).

The difference between celeriac and the more familiar green celery stalk is at once minor--they both taste like celery--and stark. Whereas the top is green, juicy, crisp and stringy, with a fresh, almost herbal taste, the root, once peeled, is dense, with a creamy white color and a richer, more earthy taste.

Celeriac may be a much better name for this plant, because although it is technically a celery root, it's a specific cultivar, grown for its root vegetable qualities, as opposed to the leafy stalks. The tops don't grow in a tight bunch, the way "regular" celery does, but rather in thin, separate stalks. I love both forms, as each brings a unique character to any dish, whether cooked or raw, but celeriac is truly special.

If you're shopping for one of these, there are two main attributes to look for. The first is size; smaller ones, with more knob and less hairy, twisted root, will generally yield the best inner flesh, suitable for both cooking and serving raw. The other is weight; sometimes celery roots become porous, especially as they grow larger, so pick one that feels heavy for its size, indicating a more solid flesh. Of course, if you're planning to make celeriac puree, or a cream-style soup, this won't really be much of an issue, since you will be blending it to smithereens anyway, and the flavor will be the exactly same.

I included celery root in a soup I made a few days ago, just before a predicted snowfall that never happened. It was still chilly out, so a hot soup was much appreciated. This one began as yet another way to consume curried yams--I still have nearly half a case left--along with a few parsnips and some still-fresh ears of corn. I would have used the regular green celery, but I did have this one smallish celeriac that I knew would dice up uniformly and meld nicely with the other ingredients. So here's how it went:

I heated a couple tablespoons of coconut oil in a large pot and added 2 large onions, diced. As soon as they had softened and become very fragrant, I added parsnips, celeriac, and yams, also diced, and continued stirring until they had begun to color just a bit around the edges.
I added some minced garlic, stirred a minute longer, and then poured in a couple liters of boiling water and 3 vegetable bouillon cubes. When it came to a boil, I cut the kernels off a few ears of corn, directly into the pot, and then scraped the starch off the cobs with the back of the knife and added it, along with salt and a generous spoonful of Maharajah Style Curry Powder, stirring thoroughly. Then I adjusted the heat to maintain a vivacious simmer, and let it cook until all the vegetables were tender. Just before serving, I stirred in a handful of coarsely chopped cilantro. The curry powder I used contains whole saffron stamens, which add tiny red flecks of visual interest and a sublime aroma back-note.

Now, having green celery in this soup would have provided its characteristic qualities, but they would have washed into the background--as I would have wanted. But the celeriac retained its flavor, even after bleeding some of it into the soup base, and even surrounded by the heady spices in the curry mixture. It could be savored clearly, just as much as the yams, parsnips and corn--and that's what I call character!

That's how celeriac distinguishes itself in a cooked dish. For a raw example, here's a salad from Speed Vegan:

Beet and Celery Root Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

This visually stunning salad is a meal that will fill you up but won’t weigh you down. If you have trouble locating both arugula and watercress, simply use a double quantity of whichever one you find. I like to cut the vegetables into very fine julienne (thin as matchsticks), but if this seems too taxing, just grate them. If you can’t find celery root, substitute with celery stalks, peeled and cut the same way.

1 bunch arugula
1 bunch watercress
1 large beet
1 small celery root
1 tart apple
1 small red onion
1⁄3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons Roasted Garlic Purée (see video here)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper                                                                 1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup flax oil
1⁄2 cup broken walnuts
Remove any coarse stems from the arugula and wash in plenty of water along with the watercress leaves. Allow the greens to soak and crisp while you prepare the rest of the salad.
Peel the beet, celery root, and apple. Cut them into fine julienne or coarsely grate them. Cut the onion in half lengthwise, and then thinly slice it crosswise.
Combine the lemon juice, Roasted Garlic Purée, mustard, agave nectar, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Whisk until well blended. Whisk in the olive and flax oils and continue whisking until emulsified. Add the julienned vegetables and toss until well coated. Let sit for about 5 minutes.
Drain the arugula and watercress. Dry it in a salad spinner or roll it gently in a towel to absorb the excess water. Add to the vegetables and toss well. Divide among 4 to 6 plates. Sprinkle the walnuts on top. Serve at once.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Yam Curry, Two Ways

Yams, as Americans know them, are actually a variety of sweet potato, so-called perhaps to differentiate them from the pale-fleshed, comparatively boring version. In Mexico, street vendors would push carts up and down city streets, hawking steamed yams. These guys would sometimes sell tamales (also steamed) from the same cart. At intervals, they would pull a lever and blow steam through a whistle, yelling a gutteral/nasal "caaa-mooo-tes!" (or "taa-maaa-les," depending on what they had to offer). I never bought any yams, because I had only ever had them baked, mashed up with brown sugar at Thanksgiving, and seeing them limp and plain like that was unappealing to me.

Since that time, I've broadened my horizons, and now I enjoy yams in all sorts of ways. I especially like them--and other sweet vegetables--in spicy dishes, such as tagines and curries. I recently bought a small case of garnet yams, opening the door to a rash of experimentation. Two favorites, both very quick and easy, were:

1. "Leek and Yam Curry"

This was partly an effort to use up some leeks before they went south. It consists of just two vegetables, with a little cilantro, coconut oil, hot curry powder, and Celtic salt. I selected a couple of the longest, thinnest yams, peeled them, and then cut 1/4-inch thick coins. The leeks I slit lengthwise in order to easily wash out the grit, and then sliced them.

First I heated a couple tablespoons of coconut oil in the pot, seared the yam slices on both sides, and removed them to a plate. I added the leeks to the pot and sauteed them until they softened slightly, adding a hefty spoonful of the curry powder and salt about halfway through. Then I returned the yams to the pot and stirred them into the leeks. I added just a splash of water to prevent sticking, and covered the pot until the vegetables were tender. Just before serving, I stirred in a bunch of coarsely chopped cilantro. The whole process took only about 20 minutes, but the dish had a sophisticated aura, with interesting flavor and texture contrasts--not to mention the fact that (as far as I know) it was a combination that had never been tried before.

2. "Yam and Baby Bok Choy Panang Curry"

This one was even faster, in part because that's just the nature of Thai-style curries, but also because I cut the yams a little thinner. I found some perfect little bok choy yesterday, and was determined to use them right away (versus waiting until they're on their last gasp, and their outer leaves are beyond salvage). So last night I made the second yam curry in a week. I sliced the stem portion of the bok choy roughly 1/4-inch thick, and cut the leaves roughly an inch square, keeping the two separate. The yams I just peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced about 1/8-inch thick.

I heated about a tablespoon of coconut oil in a large pot and added the yam slices, stirring for about a minute before adding a gigantic gob of panang curry paste. I continued stirring for another minute, until the curry paste was well incorporated, and then added the bok choy stems. I stir-fried the mixture for another minute, and then added a can of coconut milk, using the spoon to dislodge any bits that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot. I covered the pot and let the mixture cook until the vegetables were just tender--just about 4 minutes. I removed the cover and added some diced "sprouted" tofu and then the bok choy tops, stirring until they wilted.

To serve, I pulled the pot off the heat and stirred in a large handful of coarsely chopped basil. I had intended to use two cans of coconut milk, but discovered only one remaining in the pantry, so that was it. (Note to self: don't let that happen again!) This made the dish a little less rich, but no less spicy. It was more like a vegetable dish with a fair amount of sauce, instead of the way I normally make it, which is almost like a creamy soup. I liked this lighter version, even though initially I had to get over the fact that it wasn't what I had intended (sometimes that's not easy). It was pretty spicy for my wife--who is trying to eat more chilies these days, to benefit from their anti-inflammatory qualities--but I used the sriracha liberally.

More and more, as time goes on, I'm gravitating towards nutrient-dense, highly medicinal foods. My body responds enthusiastically to my choices, and my palate could not be happier. Must be doing something right...


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Romanesco Cauliflower

Perhaps you've seen this exotic-looking vegetable on the produce shelf during fall and wondered what planet it came from, or whether it's edible.

One of the most beautiful vegetables ever, the broccolo romanesco has been cultivated in Italy since the 1500s. It's the only edible plant I can think of offhand that sports a fractal design--meaning that each part is made up of smaller versions of the overall shape, repeating with each subsequent part, down to the infinitesimal. To be accurate, it's only an approximate fractal, since it doesn't go on forever, but stops at the point where it becomes too small to replicate. No matter how you slice it (no pun intended), it's one gorgeous eye-popping vegetable, and a fairly cogent argument for both intelligent design and evolution.

To answer the other question, it's not only edible, but combines the best attributes of cauliflower and broccoli--with a flavor more to the broccoli side (hence the Italian name), but creamier, and without that slight bitter edge. It can be prepared in all the ways you might enjoy cauliflower--steamed, gratinéed, à la Grecque, and in other ways, such as purees and cream soups, in which the original shape is no longer visible. I like to separate the florets and keep their fractal pattern intact, to provide visual interest--let's face it: the main appeal of this vegetable is the outrageous shape!

I recently made a salad with romanesco cauliflower that, in hindsight, makes it look even more other-worldy, sitting on a bed of mixed microgreens that appeared somewhat alien themselves. This may be hard to duplicate on demand, since the microgreens themselves can be difficult to find, even in a wilted form, let alone farm-fresh like these were. But if you happen to have taken the plunge and purchased a romanesco cauliflower, you'll get noteworthy results by simply doing your best to play along with this as a guideline:

First, I separated the florets, blanched them in boiling salted water, drained them, and then immediately plunged them in ice water. I spread them out to air-dry while I prepared the other ingredients: roasted and peeled red pepper, fennel bulb, preserved lemon, spicy green olives (pitted), and a little red Swiss chard--all cut into 1/4-inch dice; 2 small shallots, thinly sliced; and a simple vinaigrette made with sherry vinegar, Dijon mustard, freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, white, green and pink), Celtic salt, and "Old Grove" Greek EVOO. When everything was ready, I tossed it all together in a large bowl.

To serve, I spread a generous bed of very fresh mixed microgreens--radish, bok choy, onion, buckwheat, and arugula--on each plate. I mounded the romanesco mix in the center, surrounded it with cubes of ripe avocado, and drizzled a little of the leftover vinaigrette in a circle over the greens.

The result was an explosion of textures and flavors that oddly enough complemented one another nicely. Those thin green things that look like stems are the onion microgreens, which pack a distinctly pungent allium punch--just one note in this little riot of sensations. In a single bite, you might have a bit of Morocco, a dash of Provence, some Italian smatterings, a vague Greek hint, a stout Mesoamerican presence (the avocado), and that potent tangle of infant greens, each with its own distinct character. You almost forget that this was all about that weird-looking vegetable you decided to bring home.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

A New Take On Cabbage Rolls

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had been developing some vegan entrée recipes to go in an article for Delicious Living Magazine. Typically, the entrée (a term I've personally rejected) centers around some form of protein, so I included this in each recipe--being careful not to disappoint anyone.

As I began imagining various options, a classic northeastern European dish came to mind: cabbage leaves stuffed with kasha, or buckwheat. This seemed a good starting point for one of the recipes, since buckwheat is a whole protein, and cabbage is pretty widely known to promote health in a number of ways. An immediate problem with this idea was the amount of time cabbage rolls take to cook, because the assignment stipulated that my recipes needed to take a maximum of 30 minutes to prepare.

Not wanting to give up on a good thing, I let the idea roll around in the background as I designed a few other "quick & easy" dishes. Then a possible solution popped up: switch out the cabbage with radicchio--which is a member of the same family  as cabbage (the cruciferae), but cooks up in much less time. The challenge would be radicchio's characteristic bitter taste (which I love, but many people do not). I figured that baking the rolls in a tomato-based sauce would compensate for the bitterness to some extent, but just to be sure, I added a generous amount of currants in the filling. It worked.

First, I separated the outer leaves from the center of the radicchio, collecting eight of the largest. The inner leaves I diced finely and set aside to add to the filling. I blanched the large leaves very briefly in boiling water and laid them out on a towel to dry a bit.

The old Russian method for preparing kasha is to beat an egg into the raw groats and then cook them in a dry pan, stirring constantly, until they dry and separate. Then water or broth is added, and the groats are boiled until tender. This keeps the groats from getting mushy and sticking together in clods. My method is actually much easier, requires no egg, and takes only a few minutes. All I do is drop the buckwheat groats into roughly five times their volume of vegetable broth, boil them like pasta for about 7 minutes, until tender, and drain them. Easy. I save the broth, which will have thickened considerably, for another use.

While the buckwheat was cooking, I sautéed some onion and garlic in a little EVOO until lightly colored, and then added the diced radicchio. I continued stirring until the vegetables were tender--just a few minutes--adding salt, pepper, and allspice about halfway through. Off the heat, I stirred in the cooked buckwheat, a little maple syrup (again, just to mollify the bitter-averse), some currants, and a hefty amount of chopped fresh mint. This became the filling.

After filling and rolling up the leaves, I made a quick sauce. I heated just a bit of EVOO in a pan and  added some tomato paste, stirring to spread it out and get it bubbling. then I added some of the liquid left over from cooking the buckwheat, forming a sort of brothy tomato sauce. I poured a small amount of this into a large sauté pan and placed the radicchio rolls on top, fitting them in snugly, with the seam side down. Then I poured the remaining sauce over the rolls, covered the pan, and set it over medium-high heat for about four minutes. The radicchio leaves were just tender.

I served two rolls per person, with the sauce spooned over them and garnished with sliced Italian parsley. They definitely did not have the same flavor as the old familiar cabbage rolls, but they passed my wife's scrutiny, and I personally loved them.

So there you have it: a bold, new take on cabbage rolls.