Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Italian inspiration on a cool summer night

While Blair's romantic future may be ever in question, while Serena's hips appear ever wider in ever shorter skirts, and while the number of characters Gossip Girl writers manage to write in simply to dream up an elaborate, multi-character, history-spanning deception will never cease to shock, Monday night dinners always satisfy.

This Monday marked both the first Monday night dinner of the summer as well as the last Gossip Girl episode of the season. The meal had to be fresh, part cool and part warm to fit the unseasonable weather, and most importantly, use up a hella lot of basil and other market goodies in the fridge. This is a 3-part menu so get ready for dinner party ya'll.

I'd picked up some large, green kohlrabi from my favorite farmers at Cedar Grove Farm as well as leeks, purple and green asparagus, sweet onions, and radish peas from other Athens Farmers Market vendors. It seemed only fitting to dream up a cool, raw salad to match the hot summer days ahead. I've become obsessed with kohlrabi lately, because they are in season and because I only just discovered how tasty they can be when eaten raw. And radish peas were a wholly new discovery. Apparently, radishes, when left to seed, produce pea-like pods that taste like strong radishes. In Asia, it is more common to cultivate radishes for this purpose than for the radishes we know and love here.

Cold Kohlrabi and Asparagus Ribbon Salad with Radish Peas and a Lemon Vinaigrette

2 large kohlrabi heads, julienned
Bundle of asparagus spears, purple and green if possible, peeled into ribbons
Small bag of radish peas, chopped into small discs
2 small leeks or 1 medium, julienned, optional
Shaved parmesan

Vinaigrette amounts estimated to taste
1 lemon, juiced
2-3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1. Julienne the kohlrabi using a food processor if you have one. Strip the asparagus into ribbons using a vegetable peeler, slicing off the heads to serve intact. Slice radish peas into small discs. Use as many as you prefer to make the salad pack the punch you desire.
2. If a touch of sweetness is something you crave, thinly slice small leeks into matchsticks and caramelize on medium low heat in a touch of olive oil or or truffle oil. I threw in a few fresh tarragon leaves as well. Allow to cool before adding to the salad.
3. Whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients, adding more olive oil or vinegar to your taste. 
4. Toss all ingredients together and serve with shaved Parmesan on top.

Now, if we were really Italian, we'd be going in reverse order, eating our salad last, but it's often at my house that whichever dish is done first, is eaten first. We did begin the evening with a bottle of wine and some crostinis. These could also be eaten as more of a main course as larger open-face sandwiches (which I did tonight with the leftovers.

Broiled Crostinis with Mozzarella, Pesto, Marinated Tomatoes and Fresh Basil

Half loaf of fresh bread, sliced thinly - we used a semolina loaf from Alfredo's Bread
3 tomatoes, sliced
Mozzarella, sliced into discs
Handful fresh basil

Pesto - makes extra for freezing and leftovers
5 packed cups of basil
4-5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts
scant 1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil, add to taste up to 1/4 cup
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cinnamon

1. Marinate sliced tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and rosemary. 
2. Pulverize nuts and garlic in the food processor. Add the basil, Parmesan, salt and pepper, pinch of cinnamon. Pour the olive oil in as you process. Taste and adjust.
3. Turn oven on broil. Slice bread thinly into squares of half loaf slices; remove crusts. Arrange bread on a baking. Spread pesto on each slice. Top with one tomato and one tomato slice.
4. Broil until mozzarella is slightly brown and bubbling, check after 3 minutes. Slide a piece of fresh basil under each tomato and serve immediately.

At this point we were 2 bottles of wine in and ready for a warm soup merging classical technique and seasonal tweaks to adjust for the unusually cool evening. This variation on a ribollita truly hit the spot, with layered notes of flavor, using greens on hand in the fridge, an experiment with veggie boullion and a punch of vegetarian goodness. In place of kale, I chopped up kohlrabi and beet greens. After thumbing through my copy of Super Natural Cooking Everyday, I decided to take Heidi's advice and use bouillon cubes instead of buying veggie stock since I didn't have any homemade on hand. I grabbed a veggie bouillon from the organic section at Kroger and I couldn't have been more pleased with the flavor and the price.

Vegetarian Ribollita

1/2 pound dried Great Northern beans
Kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
3 small yellow onions, diced
1 cup chopped carrots, about 6 small organic carrots
3 stalks chopped celery, chopped
6 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
3 tomatoes, chopped
Roughly 4 cups coarsely chopped greens - I used kohlrabi greens (2 bunches) and beet greens (1 bunch)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
3 bouillon cubes in 6 cups water or 6 cups vegetable stock (I recommend Edward & Sons Garden Veggie Bouillon Cubes)
Roughly 3 cups foccacia bread cubes
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, for serving

1. Soak beans overnight or boil beans for 3 minutes and let soak for 1-2 hours. Drain. Bring the beans to a boil in unsalted water then reduce to simmer for 45 minutes. Add about 1 tsp. salt and cook for another 10-15 minutes or until desired tenderness. Save the cooking liquid.

2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large stockpot. Add the onions and cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots, celery, garlic, 1 Tbsp. of salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the tomatoes, greens and basil, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for another 7 to 10 minutes.

3. In the bowl of a food processor, puree half of the beans with a little of the cooking liquid. Add to the stockpot, along with the remaining whole beans. Add bean cooking liquid (to cups) to the stock to make 8 cups. Add to the soup and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

4. Add the bread and simmer for 10 more minutes. Taste for seasoning and serve hot in large bowls sprinkled with Parmesan.

 Buona sera readers! Buon appetito!

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