sweet pea bruschetta, ricotta and mint

sweet pea bruschetta with ricotta, mint and pecorino

I’ve been wanting to eat at the restaurant A16 for a few years now, and I finally had a chance to go there while I was San Francisco earlier this month.

I dove into the absolutely amazing wine list,  carefully curated by wine director Shelley Lindgren, which contains literally hundreds of Italian labels, so many I’ve never tasted (yet).  If I were lucky to live anywhere near A16, I’d consider drinking wine there as much as possible. It would be an educational journey through Italy by way of wine, and I wouldn’t need a passport.

I sipped a Negroni while studying the list, tasting my starter, a sweet pea bruschetta that could have been a meal all by itself.

sweet pea bruschetta with ricotta, mint and pecorino

Firebrand, a brick oven bakery in Oakland, makes the bread served at A16. It’s the kind of bread that I crave every day. The crust is thick, dark and chewy, with a smoky hint of char. The interior crumb is dense, moist and full of flavor. Cooks at A16 toast the bread in their wood-fired oven before assembling the bruschetta, so it’s like a double-down of deliciousness.

The toppings on the bruschetta the night I was there were house-made ricotta, mashed sweet peas and preserved lemon-mint pesto. Every course I had after that was great, but it was that bruschetta I keep thinking about.

fresh mint

I did my best in this recipe recreation, but – poor me! – lacking a wood-fired oven, fantastic handmade bread and ricotta, it really does earn the label “inspiration”.

Despite the relative poverty of ingredients and firewood, my version took the edge off an urge to book another flight west. It’s fresh pea season somewhere, but not where I live, so I used frozen peas. I think they are a very fine substitute – and I have to say maybe even better than fresh ones. Sometimes after all the work of shucking peas, I find them starchy, hard and not very sweet.

The one element that came from “home” was mint, which has been stubbornly, happily green and thriving in my garden all winter.

sweet pea bruschetta with ricotta, mint and pecorino

sweet pea bruschetta with ricotta, mint and pecorino

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  1. 1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  2. 1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen
  3. Salt
  4. Extra virgin olive oil
  5. Fresh ground black pepper
  6. 4 ¾-inch thick slices crusty bread
  7. 1 garlic clove
  8. Handful fresh mint leaves, sliced thin
  9. 2 ounce chunk Pecorino Romano cheese

Instructions

  1. Drain the ricotta for an hour in a fine mesh colander or cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl.
  2. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil; add a teaspoon salt and the peas. Cook 1 or 2 minutes; drain and transfer to a bowl. Mash the peas to a coarse consistency using a potato masher or wooden spoon along with 2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil, pepper and salt to taste.
  3. Heat a griddle or grill to medium high heat. Brush the bread on both sides with olive oil and toast until dark golden brown on both sides. Remove the toasted bread from the griddle and scrape the garlic clove over the tops.
  4. Spread some ricotta over the bread, sprinkle with mint and spoon some peas over. Use a vegetable peeler to shave Pecorino cheese over each bruschetta. Drizzle with olive oil before serving warm or at room temperature
http://familystylefood.com/2013/04/sweet-pea-bruschetta-ricotta-and-mint/

smoky chickpea tacos

smoky chickpea tacos

I was at 35,000 feet and hungry. Why didn’t I have this taco wrapped, packed and ready to eat during my long day of traveling?

Well, you know how it goes. I had a morning flight to San Francisco (where I’m attending the annual IACP conference), and somehow my priority tasks before heading out the door didn’t include packing myself a lunch. I made do for a few hours with a bag of almonds and my favorite peanut butter-chocolate chip Lara bar.

I finally caved during my layover. I bought a 10-dollar sandwich that promised tomato, basil and mozzarella, but was really just doughy bread, a fat slab of rubbery cheese and half a slice of mealy tomato. It kind of reminded me of Seinfeld’s airport skit and the 14-dollar tuna sandwich.

On a normal day at home, I eat vegetable-based things for lunch. My ideal combo is a pile of salad leaves, some protein (usually in the form of beans or legumes) maybe some leftover roasted vegetables, if I have them, and some kind of grain.

I’ve been cooking up a batch of chickpeas once a week, which are perfect for throwing into my lunch assemblages. The smashed chickpeas topping this taco are a favorite alternative to hummus. They’re somewhat chunky in texture and have an appetizing brick red color – and flavor – that comes from smoked paprika.

smoky chickpea tacos

smoky chickpea tacos

Yield: makes 4 tacos

I won't tell if you embellish these tacos with a squirt of your favorite hot sauce...

Ingredients

  1. 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  2. 1/3 cup finely chopped white onion
  3. ½ of a jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
  4. Salt
  5. 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  6. 1 – 14 ounce can chickpeas, drained
  7. 4 whole wheat tortillas, warmed
  8. 1 avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
  9. 1 ripe tomato, sliced
  10. Arugula greens; a few handfuls
  11. 4 ounces soft goat cheese
  12. 2 limes

Instructions

  1. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Cook the onion, jalapeno and a pinch of salt until softened and fragrant. Stir in the paprika and heat in the oil 30 seconds; add the chickpeas and ¼ cup water and simmer 5 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat and mash the chickpeas coarsely with a potato masher or wooden spoon. Add a little more water if the mixture is too thick. Taste the chickpeas and season with more salt if needed.
  3. To make a taco, spread some of the chickpeas over a tortilla. Layer with some avocado, tomato, arugula and goat cheese. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Squeeze half a lime over each taco and serve.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/04/smoky-chickpea-tacos/

asparagus risotto verde

asparagus risotto verde

Mother Nature dropped more snow last weekend than we’ve had in something like thirty years, but that’s no reason to believe that the vernal equinox hasn’t in fact occurred, right on schedule.

Besides, the snow has almost completely melted already and there’s been a pair of busy cardinals right outside my window, getting their nest ready for…new carpeting?

Melissa Clark’s latest recipe feature in the New York Times is all about the comforts of pale (read:white) food. Maybe that’s what inspired my green risotto; all I know is that I imagined eating a bowl of something that looked and tasted of springtime.

asparagus risotto verde

I had hopes of laying hands on some asparagus. Lucky me! – my local grocery store has gorgeous, fat bunches from California on sale for $1.99 a pound (heads up, Saint Louis readers).

I’ve been getting comfortably reacquainted with one of my favorite cookbook authors, Marcella Hazan. Her basic risotto recipe is a standard in my cooking, but once I’d envisioned a particular very, very verde shade of green, I had to stray a bit from her method; stirring and cooking the risotto with the asparagus in it.

Nothing wrong with that, but by the time the risotto is done the asparagus has taken on a dull gray-green color; not exactly the intense, chlorophyll color of my springtime dreams.

I employed a color-saving culinary trick instead: blanch the asparagus, then puree the stalks immediately with a bit of parsley or spinach. This not only preserves the greenness, but really intensifies the flavor of the finished dish. I add the beautiful, tender tips to the risotto at the end.

verde asparagus puree blanched asparagus

Here are a few things to take away from Marcella regarding the techniques of a classic risotto:

  • Use a mild-flavored brodo, or light broth, as the cooking liquid; it will reduce and become more concentrated as it cooks down and becomes absorbed by the rice. A rich meat or even vegetable stock will overwhelm the delicacy of the risotto and become “distracting” to the balance of flavors.
  • The type of rice used to make risotto is important. Special varieties familiar to cooks as Arborio, as well as Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, are all defined by short grains and the amount of starch surrounding the kernels. You can use any kind of rice (or grain, for that matter) in the method of risotto-making, but there’s probably some Italian law ready to decree that what you have is a pot of boiled rice, not the true, creamy amalgamation of rice, broth, butter and Parmigiano known as risotto. Don’t blame me! Italians can get testy on this subject.
  • Finally, use the right pot to cook risotto. I almost always use an enameled cast iron Le Creuset casserole. Marcella advises that lightweight pans “are not suitable” because they will not retain heat at a moderate level. Moderation is key. A heavy 18/10 stainless-steel clad type of pan will work just fine.

asparagus risotto verde

asparagus risotto verde

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  1. For brodo (optional – use 2 cups light chicken or vegetable broth diluted with 2 cups water if you’d rather):
  2. 1 peeled carrot
  3. 1 small onion, peeled and halved
  4. 1 small fennel bulb or 2 celery stalks; roughly chopped
  5. 1 garlic clove
  6. 1 very small ( less than 2-inches diameter) waxy potato, peeled and chopped
  7. For risotto:
  8. 1 pound asparagus
  9. Handful parsley tops or spinach leaves
  10. Salt
  11. 2 tablespoons butter
  12. 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  13. ½ cup finely chopped shallot or onion
  14. ½ cup pinot grigio (or other dry, white wine)
  15. 1 cup Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
  16. 4 cups brodo or light broth, as noted above
  17. 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana cheese
  18. Fresh lemon juice from half a lemon
  19. Thinly sliced red radish, watercress and fennel fronds (optional) for garnish

Instructions

  1. Make the brodo: put all ingredients into a large saucepan and cover with 5 cups water. Bring to a simmer; lower heat and cook 30 minutes. Strain the brodo into another pan and keep warm.
  2. To make the risotto: Bring a small pan of salted water to a boil. Trim off the bottom inch of the asparagus and discard. Cut off the first 3 inches of the tips; slice the remaining stalks into 1-inch lengths. Drop the tips into the water and cook 1 minute; remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl filled with ice water. Drop the chopped stalks into the boiling water and cook exactly 3 minutes. Immediately remove the stalks with a slotted spoon and put in a blender along with the parsley or spinach. Add a pinch of salt and ½ cup of the cooking water and puree until very smooth.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon butter and the oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat until the butter melts and sizzles (but doesn’t turn brown); add the shallot and 1 teaspoon salt and cook it softened, 1 minute or so. Add the rice and stir to coat with the fat, cook until the rice begins to crackle, 1 minute.
  4. Pour in the wine, stir it around and boil until it’s evaporated. Pour in 2 cups of the brodo; bring to a steady bubble (not a violent boil) and cook until absorbed, stirring frequently for 7 – 10 minutes.
  5. Add another cup of brodo, another ½ teaspoon salt and continue cooking until almost absorbed. Watch carefully at this point – the rice will be nearly ready when the grains have swelled in volume and the liquid becomes thickened. Taste the rice – it should be tender all around, and very slightly al dente at the core. Add more liquid if needed, ¼ cup at a time until you feel it’s done. There should be some thick, starchy liquid still left in the pot. You might not use all the brodo.
  6. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the reserved asparagus puree, remaining butter and half the cheese. Stir in the lemon juice and taste the risotto for seasoning, adding more salt to taste if needed. Gently stir in the asparagus tips.
  7. Serve in bowls, topping each one with some radish, watercress and fennel fronds with additional cheese on the side.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/03/asparagus-risotto-verde/