pici pasta with ramps and dandelion greens

pici pasta with ramps and dandelion greens

Right around this time last year I read a cranky rant (well, okay, I guess you could say rants by nature lean toward the cranky side), can’t remember where. Someone complaining about those crazed foodies who seemed to be suffering from some kind of trendy spring fever, everywhere strewing ramps onto every inch of their food and posting pictures of the resulting culinary mayhem all over the Internets.

Now here I am offering up my gratuitous ramp post. You could call me a crazed foodie I suppose, but it has to be said that there’s a reason people go nuts for these stinky undomesticated onions.

ramps

Ramps are alliums, members of the onion family. They’re wild relatives to leeks and garlic, possessed of a certain mysterious something that makes them exciting to be around, their aroma a presence of musky funkiness that somehow makes you lean in closer, provocatively.

Like your second cousin once-removed who shows up at Sunday dinner just home with his Eurail pass; sporting long ungroomed hair and a 5 o’clock shadow a good month exposed, still shaking out sand from a longer-than-planned sojourn on that beautiful but undiscovered beach located somewhere on the coast of the former Yugoslavia.

Untamed, but something you would very much like to get to know, or better yet devour hungrily with no words spoken. I’m talking about ramps here, remember. This is a family channel.

Dandelion greens are another spring thing that pops up, gets foraged and scattered over food but dandelion greens don’t have quite the sexy cachet that a few bunches of ramps do. Could it be it’s that they don’t have that delicious dirty smell? They are also admittedly bitter and a little tough, especially closer to the stems.

dandelion greens

My grandmother would cook dandelion down to a murky brown, then saturate them with garlicky olive oil. They went on the table once the smaller people had long departed with bellies full of macaroni, meatballs and assorted pastries. It was the comfort food of her generation, and her grown children too.

I can now appreciate – and even crave – all things on the bitter taste spectrum, greens included. I prefer not to cook them down to mush, although I recognize that long, long cooking removes a bit of that. The dandelion greens you can buy in the produce section aren’t wild but cultivated, definitely milder than wild ones from the backyard.

This combination of strong greens is a good match with pasta of the same character. I love these dried thick hollow noodles from Tuscany called pici  – I found a bag recently at An Olive Ovation, a boutique olive oil store in St. Louis.

Chef Jacob Kennedy describes pici in his fantastic book The Geometry of Pasta as “almost brutish in their diameter and lack of uniformity; they go with brutish sauces…”

pici pasta

pici pasta with ramps and dandelion greens

pici pasta with ramps and dandelion greens

Yield: serves 2 - 4

Substitute bucatini or perciatelli pasta for the pici, which are similar long hollow-shaped pasta.

Ingredients

  1. 12 ounces pici, bucatini or perciatelli pasta
  2. 1 bunch ramps, root ends trimmed
  3. 1 bunch (about ½ pound) dandelion greens; washed
  4. ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  5. 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced lengthwise
  6. 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  7. Kosher salt
  8. 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or dried crushed chili

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with 2 tablespoons kosher salt.
  2. Rinse the ramps to remove any dirt or mud. Separate the green leafy tops from the root ends; slice the greens into thin ribbons and slice the ramp stalks and bulbs thinly crosswise.
  3. Slice the woody stems off the dandelion greens until only about ½-inch remains.
  4. Heat the oil and garlic in a sauté pan until the garlic becomes fragrant and starts to sizzle (but not turn brown). Toss in the ramps and greens and move them around in the pan. Cook partially covered until the greens are wilted and softened, about 5 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente – it will take a bit longer to cook than spaghetti or thinner long pasta shapes. Just before draining scoop out 1/3 cup of the pasta water and whisk into the eggs.
  6. Add the drained pasta to the sauté pan off the heat; drizzle in the eggs and toss everything together. Sprinkle with the chili and taste for more salt.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/05/pici-pasta-with-ramps-and-dandelion-greens/

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/

gorgonzola focaccia, chicory and walnuts

gorgonzola-focaccia-walnuts-chicory

I grew up eating a version of pizza made at neighborhood bakeries; long, doughy rectangles layered in wax paper, piled into a brown cardboard cake box and tied up with a piece of string.

After a few hours, the oil would seep through the layers of paper and make random stains on the bottom of the cardboard. We enjoyed it straight out of the box as a snack all through the day, especially during those times between lunch and dinner or to stave off hunger after school.

Unlike the crusty pie ordered hot from a pizzeria on a Friday night, it was best cold or at room temperature and topped simply with a thick layer of rich, reduced tomato sauce – and no cheese.

gorgonzola focaccia with walnuts and chicory

I always knew them as “pizza strips” and I didn’t connect the dots until years later that my favorite snack was a type of focaccia, with a distinctly Italian-American spin.

I still love pizza strips. They are very much a tradition in Southern New England although those family bakeries don’t populate the map as profusely as they once did. My kids chow on pizza strips when we visit my family in Rhode Island – there’s nothing like them in the Midwest where they live now.

The focaccia I’m presenting here – with its topping of sweet-savory caramelized onions, bitter greens, gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts – is only distantly related to the strips I described. It’s the base that bears a similarity; a basic pizza dough enriched with olive oil.

Check out this post from Almost Italian for an authentic take on pizza strips.

Also, Goat Cheese, Roasted Grape and Walnut Bruschette from A Little Saffron are a delicious inspiration.

gorgonzola focaccia with red onion, chicory and walnuts

Serving Size: 8 slices

For this recipe I used Petite Tango, a curly, spicy lettuce I found in an assortment of heirloom greens at the grocery store. If you can't find it, use leaves from a head of chicory or frisee.

Ingredients

  1. For focaccia dough:
  2. 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  3. 1 teaspoon salt
  4. 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  5. 1 tablespoon olive oil
  6. For topping:
  7. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  8. 1 large red onion, sliced
  9. 1 teaspoon sugar
  10. 1/2 teaspoon salt
  11. 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  12. ½ cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
  13. 1/2 cup each shredded radicchio and baby chicory or frisee
  14. 1/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Instructions

  1. Combine the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, yeast and oil in the bowl of an electric mixer. Stir in 1 cup water.
  2. Mix on medium speed until dough comes together, about 2 minutes. Cover bowl loosely with a towel and let rest 5 minutes.
  3. Switch to the dough hook and knead dough for 1 minute – the dough should be fairly sticky but stretchy.
  4. Transfer dough to an oiled bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk; about 2 hours. Alternatively, cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator overnight. Next morning, let the dough come to room temperature and let rise until doubled in bulk.
  5. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, sugar and salt. Stir, then lower heat and cover the pan.
  6. Cook 15 minutes or until the onions are very soft. Uncover and continue cooking until the onions are deep brown, stirring frequently. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and set aside.
  7. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  8. Place the dough on an oiled 13 x 9-inch rimmed baking pan and spread the dough toward the edges of the pan – it will spring back and not quite reach. Cover and let rest 20 minutes.
  9. Gently dimple the dough while stretching with your fingers to evenly cover the pan the rest of the way. Bake 10 minutes.
  10. Distribute the onions over the top of the focaccia and bake another 10 minutes.
  11. Sprinkle the cheese, radicchio, chicory and walnuts over the onions and return to the oven; bake an additional 5 minutes to slightly melt the cheese and wilt the greens.
  12. Cut into serving pieces with a sharp knife or pizza cutter. Serve warm or at room temperature.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/02/gorgonzola-focaccia-chicory-and-walnuts/