Potato and leek gratin

So. Many. Potatoes. Normally this would be a good thing, but because I can’t seem to find a place in my house to store the darn things without them going bad asap, I need to keep them (along with my onions and garlic) in my fridge. And those babies take up a lot of room. So I’ve been struggling to keep up with the constant summer influx of potatoes. As much as I like potatoes, they differ from other overabundant CSA veggies in one critical way. I can eat an entire bunch of kale or two pounds of zucchini or head of lettuce on my own in a single sitting and feel quite smug about how many servings of my daily vegetable requirement I’ve just downed.

But eating a couple of pounds of potatoes on my own feels over the top. I’m not a huge subscriber to the empty-carbs-evil-carbs perspective, but that many potatoes feels like a giant wallop of glycemic-spiking starchy calories. Much as I learned during my cauliflower revelations, potatoes are probably actually incredibly healthy, especially with the skins still on, but I still prefer to eat them in moderation.

Another thing taking up an absurd amount of room in my fridge was a leek from a few weeks back. This single leek was so long it fit across almost the entire width of my refrigerator! I’m doing a slow-cooker cookbook exploration this week and came across a recipe for a vegan gratin of potatoes. That sounded interesting because it’s a way to use up a ton of potatoes at once but then dole them out slowly as a small side dish, but doing it in a slow cooker seemed unnecessary when I could just make them in the oven. (Making them in the slow cooker does eliminate the need to precook the potatoes, but this recipe is so delicious I think it’s worth the extra step, though I can’t say for sure having never tried the crock pot version.)

So, using the “cheese” sauce from The Vegan Slow Cooker and a Gruyere-filled potato and leek gratin recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for inspiration, I whipped up something pretty delicious. It’s a bit bland and quite rich, but I think that’s just what a gratin is intended to be. There are some lovely garlicky notes and thyme is the standout seasoning, which is something I really enjoy.

Vegan Potato and Leek Gratin
With inspiration from The Vegan Slow Cooker and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Cheese sauce:
1 C. cashews, soaked
1 C. nutritional yeast
5 cloves garlic
1 t. sea salt
1.5 C. almond milk

3 lb red potatoes, unpeeled, thinly sliced
1 giant leek or 2 regular leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced into half moons
1 quart almond milk (or more if needed)
2 t. dried thyme or 3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 t. salt
Fresh grated nutmeg
Fresh ground black pepper
Garlic and vegan butter for the dish

Heat oven to 375. Run a cut clove of garlic thoroughly over the inside of a large gratin dish (this usually refers to an oval casserole dish – you’ll need either a deep one like I used in the photos above or a very large one, 9×12-ish, or you can just use a regular casserole pan – but if you do, beware of spillage in the oven!). Butter generously.

In a large pot combine potatoes, leeks, milk, thyme, garlic, and salt. Make sure potatoes are at least barely covered by the milk. Bring slowly to a boil, then simmer gently until potatoes are barely tender but not falling apart.

While potatoes are simmering, blend sauce ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Drain potatoes RESERVING THE MILK or you can use a slotted spoon to lift out as many as you need at a time.

Put a single layer (roughly, doesn’t have to be perfect) of potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg and pepper. Top with some of the cheese sauce. The way I did this was to pour a thick line of cheese sauce from the blender down the middle of the dish and then use a fork to gently push it across all the potatoes. It’s a very thick sauce and easy to spread. Continue layering potatoes, nutmeg & pepper, and cheese sauce until there are no more potatoes. Top with cheese sauce. Take the reserved milk and, carefully pushing the potato mixture away from the wall of the dish, pour in a little bit so it runs down through all the layers. Repeat this on all four sides of the dish. You want the milk to come up to the level of the potatoes, but they will probably be quite wet and saturated already so add in your milk carefully.

(Any leftover milk can be saved as a base for soup. Or you can do what I did – I poured my leftover milk, with potato and leek bits, into the blender that still had residue of my cheese sauce and blended it all together. It turned into a pretty amazing cream of potato soup.)

Bake the gratin in the oven, an hour or more, until a bubbly brown crust forms on top. Let sit for ten minutes and serve warm.

Savoy Cabbage and Bartlett Pears ~ Week of December 9th

It has been really cold here. Really cold. And it’s not just me being a thin-blooded California wimp, either. It snowed in the Berkeley Hills a couple of days ago. Snow!

I know, I know. “Boo hoo, cry me a river,” you’re probably shivering at me from the middle of a Minnesota winter. We are spoiled here – even when it’s winter, it’s summer. Or something like that.

Nothing exemplifies a Bay Area winter meal more than what we had for dinner tonight: California Minestrone and Salade Nicoise. Lots of tummy warming goodness from the soup and stick-to-your-ribs heartiness from the potatoes in the salad, but the crazy thing is that it’s December and every single element of these two veggie-intensive meals came straight out of our CSA box. (Except for a couple things in the salad: olives – left over from Thanksgiving – and tomatoes – doubtlessly hothouse.)

I’ve been wanting to make California Minestrone ever since the weather started getting nippy. The recipe is from the fantastic cookbook Spa Food by Edward J. Safdie, chef of the venerable Sonoma Mission Inn. The plating and food design are entirely 80s (the cookbook was published in 1985) but the recipes for healthy, satisfying, sophisticated food featuring California flavors are timeless. I grew up eating from this cookbook (my mom and I have made nearly every recipe in it) and this soup in particular invokes for me both the chill and the bounty of a Bay Area winter.

I was lacking only a leek and some cabbage to make the soup (I often skip the green beans and spinach for my winter version), and when I opened our box today, there they were. Here’s the complete record of what came in today’s size “small” box:

Satsuma Mandarins (2 lb)
Bartlett Pears (1.5 lb)
Savoy Cabbage (2 lb)
Collard Greens (1 bunch)
Baby Bok Choy (1.5 lb)
Broccoli (1 lb)
Red Onions (0.5 lb)
Leeks (1 lb)
Yellow Onion (0.5 lb)

California Minestrone (from Spa Food by Edward J. Safdie)
This is a light but filling soup that can be made with a variety of vegetables, but I think the leek, carrot, cabbage, and tomatoes (I used canned whole tomatoes) are essential for giving it sweetness, acid, and depth. Serve it with a crusty loaf of rustic bread if you eat bread and with a hearty sprinkling of Parmesan cheese on top if you eat dairy.

1 T. unsalted butter or Earth Balance
1/2 an onion, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 leek (white part only), washed and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 carrot, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 garlic clove, minced
3-4 canned plum tomatoes, drained or 2 unpeeled tomatoes, seeded and chopped
6 cabbage leaves, coarsely chopped
6 oz. fresh green beans, ends trimmed and cut on a slant into 1/2 inch pieces
2 quarts stock (I used our latest batch of scrap stock)
10 spinach leaves, washed, drained, and coarsely chopped
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Salt or vegetable seasoning to taste
1 t. pesto (I usually use more like 1-3 T. vegan pesto, which is often pretty mild)
1/4 C. grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

In a 4-quart pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, leek, carrot, celery, garlic, tomatoes, cabbage, and green beans, and saute over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring often.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 25 minutes.

Add the spinach and simmer for 5 more minutes. Remove the pot from heat and stir in the pesto. Taste the finished soup and adjust the seasonings.

Serve in large heated soup bowls and sprinkle with 1 T. grated cheese over each portion.

If you follow the recipe exactly, this will make 4 servings, at 150 calories per serving.

Scrap Stock IV – Mega-edition

Another consequence of being too tired to cook or blog or generally do anything was that my veggie scraps really started piling up. By early this week most of my fridge’s top shelf seemed to be devoted to scraps, waiting like pining lovers for the transformative kiss of the stock pot. So when I finally started to have a bit more energy, it was time to brew up some stock and get that shelf cleared.

I ended up having enough material to make two pots of stock, ending up with 13 cups of rich, savory broth, tinged a beautiful pink from the beet scraps. My freezer is truly well stocked now, which saves me from treating the stock like it is a scarce commodity.

Two pots of scrap stock

In this mega-edition of scrap stock:

Spinach crowns
Garlic peels and trim
Carrot trim and tops
Chard stem
Kale stem
Asparagus trim
Red cabbage trim
Fennel stalks
Apple cores
Radish trim
Leek trim
Green garlic trim
Arugula trim
Sugar snap pea trim
Thyme stalks
Red onion peels and trim
Shallot peels and trim
Mustard green trim
Beet trim
Bay leaves

Scrap stock, III

Getting bored of my surely less-than-engrossing detailed account of what I put in my stock each week? Well, I’d like to keep track of it for my own purposes and something tells me there’s a short life-expectancy for the soggy little scraps of scratch paper I use to record all the components as I toss them in the pot.

This week was not as successful, I think because of technical difficulties. I left the pot alone for its simmering time (I’m usually in the kitchen with it doing kitchen things, but I was in another room this time) and I think the fire may have actually gone out. So this round of stock is very mild. However it will serve to add a bit of flavor and nutrition to something that wants a mild broth, like risotto, so perhaps it is actually a blessing to have one batch with a decidedly non-aggressive character. I was a bit let down, though, since I felt like I was being wild and throwing caution to the winds, what with all the ginger peels and lemon balm stalks.

More scrap stock fixin\'s

I googled “scrap stock” and found an interesting recipe from the civil war. Inspired by this, I added an apple core to my pot (although I forgot to save most of them this week – I need to get in the habit of putting them in the stock box and not the compost). I quite flagrantly ignored the admonition to never use cabbage scraps, however. Take what you like and leave the rest, right?

Into this week’s pot:

Leek tops
Green garlic tops
Onion skin
Garlic skin
Asparagus trim
Red cabbage trim
Apple core
Lemon balm stalks
Ginger peel
Potato peel
Portobella stems
Chard stalks
Beet green stalks
Kale stalks
Sugar snap pea trim
Carrot trim
Bok choy trim
Fennel trim
Thyme stalks

Lemon balm makes friends

Okay, there’s one thing that I feel needs to be understood right off the bat about lemon balm. In case my previous post’s “it’s like you’re eating in an aisle at Bath & Body Works” description wasn’t evocative enough, or if you have never set foot inside this beauty outlet where the air is heavy with the competing aromas of a hundred “scent collections,” I will say it more plainly. Lemon balm has a definite aftertaste (which I think is actually composed of scent rather than taste) of perfume or bath product, or “dish soap” as my friend labeled it tonight. I really enjoy this strange note, in part because it really lets me know I’m eating something novel, but your mileage, as they are fond of saying here on the interweb, may vary.

Leek-Potato Soup with Lemon Balm

So keeping this all in mind, here are some results of my lemon balm experimentation. I tried the vinaigrette I wrote about in my last post, a simple affair composed of olive oil and rice wine vinegar and lemon balm. It was yucky – too vinegary, too peppery, no lemon balm flavor at all. Dressings are like my kryptonite right now – I get all insecure and clueless around them, where usually I am quite an improvisational, roll-with-the-punches cook. So I called in Duck as a guest dressing doctor, and we added some lemon olive oil, some sesame oil, a dash of maple syrup, a dash of balsamic, and a shallot. And then it was quite decent, but not worthy of topping my lovely tender asparagus as I had hoped. Good enough for salad, though.

Instead, I threw a handful of lemon balm leaves in with my asparagus as I steamed it. I really liked the flavor it imparted. But it got mixed reviews from my dining companions, again because of the B&BW factor, which can go either way for people, I guess.

My final experimental result was much more successful – in part, perhaps, because I’m the only one who ate it. I made the Cream of Leek Soup with Lemon Balm that I mentioned in my last post. It’s kind of a strange recipe, not very detailed (says the queen of excruciatingly detailed and annotated recipes!), so of course I’ve given my annotated and tweaked version below. But in general, I thought it was a very tasty combination of flavors and a terrific easy lunch.

(Incidentally, I’m so excited to have finally written a post that I feel is worthy of submission to Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week at Coffee and Vanilla. Weekend Herb Blogging is a weekly event where food bloggers write about herbs and share their stories and recipes and factoids. Cool!)

Read on for my heavily annotated soup recipe… Continue reading

Scrap stock, round two

I was so nervous making this week’s scrap stock! I think I was worried that last week’s good results were sheer random luck and that it was statistically unlikely I would succeed again if I just did a repeat of last week’s method of simply cooking up all my veggie scraps from the past week, without regard to composition. But I gave it another shot. This week’s stock came out quite rich and quite assertive, which is unsurprising given that there were many asparagus stalks, fennel tops, and even two heads of roasted garlic that had been emptied of their yummy gooey cloves. I think it would make a delicious soup base, but I wouldn’t use it for something like risotto, because it would just take over the dish.

Scrap Stock!

In this week’s scrap stock:
Leek tops
Green onion tops
Carrot tops
Roast garlic bulbs (no cloves)
Red cabbage trim
Red kale trim
Fennel stalks and leaves
Asparagus bottoms
Carrot trim
Shallot peels and trim
Spinach crowns
Thyme stalks
Sugar snap pea trim
Garlic peels and trim
Mushroom stems

Scrap Stock

Some kind of revolution took place before I was born, or at least before the chef side of me was born into consciousness. By the time I made my first forays into vegetarian cooking, there was a kind of stock backlash happening in the pages of all the cookbooks I read. According to all these veg-empowerment cookbooks, people used to make their stock from scraps and trimmings, but now, especially for a vegetarian cook without simmering bones and flavorful marrow to add to the pot, this was highly discouraged. We are worth it!, these books proclaimed. Worth a delicious, savory stock made from whole vegetables and bundles of aromatic herbs. I made vegetable stock from one of these recipes once. I almost cried to see pounds and pounds of beautiful vegetables reduced to a heap of mush and a pot of broth.

All the scraps, ready to go into the stock

And so the scrap stock experiment was born. For a bit more than a week I saved all the trimmings from every vegetable I ate. Brown or yellow bits went straight into the compost, but everything else was washed and put into a tightly sealed plastic tub in the fridge. At the end of the week, I made an experimental stock. I had no idea how it might turn out. Really bitter, I suspected, because the majority of the heap consisted of the green, almost leathery tops of leeks, green garlic, and spring onions. But I figured, what do I have to lose? All I’m really wasting is the water I’m adding – everything else was compost-bound. At the last minute I almost chickened out and added a whole onion, a whole carrot, just a few things to boost the flavor, but I decided to really go for it this first time and just see what happened.

Here’s what ended up going into my scrap stock pot:

Leek greens and ends
Green garlic greens and ends
Spring onion greens and ends
Swiss chard stalks
Onion ends and peels from red and white onions
Red cabbage leaves from the outside of the cabbage
Spinach crowns
Garlic ends and peels
Thyme stalks
Carrot leaves and trimmings
Cauliflower leaves
Kale stalks
Radish trimmings
Sugar snap pea tops and strings

All the scraps in a pot, turning into stock

I cut everything into pieces and then first sauteed the allium trimmings (leeks, garlic, onions) for a bit in 2 teaspoons olive oil, then threw everything into the pot and stirred it over pretty high heat for about ten minutes. Then I added 3 quarts of water, 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 3 bay leaves and a few peppercorns, brought it to a boil, turned it down to a simmer, and simmered it, uncovered, for about half an hour. I let it settle for a few minutes and then strained it right way (I’ve heard stock can get bitter if you let the bits sit in the broth too long after cooking). And I have to say, it is quite, quite tasty. Certainly head and shoulders above the bitter brews that pass for vegetable broth in those vacuum-boxes. I can’t wait to freeze it and have it on hand the next time I need veggie broth for something. Best of all I am so tickled to have created something really valuable from something I’ve been throwing away. There may have been a broth revolution, but I guess I’m just an old-fashioned girl.

The stock, rich and flavorful, made totally from scraps!

Leeks and Chard and Lentils and Rice

I’ve been leaning a lot on lentils lately. I’m really trying to cut down on my intake of soy, especially non-fermented soy like tofu and soymilk (as opposed to miso and tempeh) and this has left me without a staple source of protein. Unlike beans, which I fear for their pre-soaking needs, their long cooking times, their gassy powers, lentils are quick and still packed with protein, a potential answer to “What’s for dinner?” when I didn’t have the foresight to ask the question a day ahead (which is basically every night).

So I was intrigued to come across a recipe for Risotto with Swiss Chard and French Lentils (how international!). Rice plus legumes equals happy, happy complete proteins, chock full of all the amino acids I need for a healthy vegetarian existence. In addition to trying to avoid soy and still get enough protein (while being vegetarian and trying to eat local and getting all my produce just from my box) I am also embarking on a low-key but concerted effort to get my freezer stocked with some meal options. There are nights when even my old stand-by of tofu, greens, and quinoa wouldn’t be a fast enough answer to the dinner question, so it would be great to have some options tucked away and waiting for such desperate times. Risotto is one of those dishes I’ve seen mentioned as freezing and reheating well, so I thought I would combine all my new pursuits and give this one a try.

Risotto with Lentils, Swiss Chard, and Leeks

I made the recipe exactly as written, except for my actual risotto-cooking technique, which is a quick ‘n’ dirty way from an old Sunset Magazine cookbook that we always use in my family and the risotto comes out just fine, thank you very much. I just don’t have the patience to do the whole gently-simmering-broth added one cup at a time thing. I would just never make risotto.

I made the risotto for my mom and myself the other day for lunch when she was visiting (I had already cooked both the lentils and the chard the day before, as they need to be cooked separately first). It has a bit of an odd texture, as even French lentils have a graininess to them that feels a little strange when your mouth is expecting only the creaminess of the risotto. But it has a hearty, chewy quality that my mom and I both enjoyed, and it made terrific leftovers for breakfast over the next few days. I also did manage to freeze one serving of it, so I will have to report later on how it does with reheating.

When I opened my freezer to take the above photograph, I got a small glimpse of why my freezer can be so packed but whenever I look in there for something to eat it registers as “empty.” In addition to the risotto in this shot, you can see the almond meal I use for gluten-free baking and a container of plain lentils and a bag of pesto cubes. But everything else – the butternut squash dumplings, the ribollita, the massive hunks of potato-rosemary bread – are in there as a result of their wheatiness. Whenever I give in to culinary temptation and make something that contains wheat, I eat a little bit, my body reminds me that wheat and I do not mix, and then I stuff the rest in my freezer. It was good to take a hard look at what’s in my freezer – I think there may be some frozen-food trading in my future!

Experimental Quiche: Pea Shoots, Stir-fry Mix, Spinach

I had all this stuff for stir-frying: pea shoots and the aptly named stir-fry mix. But even though I’ll order pea shoots every time I see them on the menu, I haven’t been too successful with them at home in the past and I basically just didn’t want stir-fry. No Asian flavors, no lovely bright vegetables that have to be individually chewed. No, I wanted a soft, dense pile of comfort food.

So I thought I would try another variation on the Spinach, Chard, and Onion Torta that was one of my first box meals, using eggs, leeks, green garlic, pea shoots, the chard-heavy stir-fry mix, and a bag of spinach for the filling. I had a cup of cooked black rice and a cup of cooked quinoa in the fridge, both a day or so from going bad. And with no plans to eat stir-fry any time Rice and Quinoa Crust for Quichesoon, the likelihood of those grains being eaten was slim to none. That’s when I came across a terrific-sounding recipe for quiche crust made from cooked rice and an egg – a perfect solution to my leftover rice problem that would also allow me to avoid the gluten-heavy breadcrumb crust of the original torta. The crust came out of the oven looking so beautiful – all purple and golden from the grains – that I know this will become a staple solution for the piles of grains that I make ahead for convenience but sadly sometimes end up throwing away. It tasted merely neutral, providing good texture but not contributing anything to the flavor of the quiche, but I feel confident that some doctoring ahead of time with herbs and garlic and salt and pepper will turn it into something magnificent.

Box Bonanza: Butternut squash, carrots, leeks, green garlic, cilantro!

Butternut Squash and Carrot Stew with Quinoa Pilaf

Having dealt so successfully with the leeks, it was time to turn my attention to the carrots. Using them up one at a time in salad was barely making a dent in the carrot logpile in my crisper. I started googling for carrot dishes. Carrot cake. Carrot soup. And… more carrot cake and carrot soup. Did you know there’s an Indian dessert made from carrots? But I didn’t want sweet, and I didn’t want wheat, and I didn’t want more soup to rot in my fridge. At last, on Epicurious, I found a recipe for roasted carrots and meyer lemons that sounded great, but I thought I would search just a little bit further. And that’s when I found it – the magic recipe that would use up almost everything still left in my fridge.

Epicurious is an interesting place to look for recipes. It has a very lively and active community of commenters – to find out more about Quinoa with Moroccan Winter Squash and Carrot Stew I was able to read through 13 pages of comments from people who’d tried the recipe. The commentary ranged from people who loved the stew so much they were determined to make it once a week and people who’d brought dinner parties to standing ovations with this single dish, to folks who found it incomparably revolting and people who made so many changes and substitutions that it no longer resembled the original recipe.

But the recipe used a lot of carrots, and I love quinoa, and one of the Epicurious commenters considerately linked to a page detailing how to peel and cube butternut squash with ease, which ultimately helped me to throw off a lifetime of butternut squash intimidation. I was able to substitute leeks for the onions in the recipe and green garlic for the garlic cloves, and I even had cilantro still green in the back of my fridge.

And so I made it. The butternut squash was no problem – I timed myself and it took 8 minutes from start to peeled and cubed finish, and that’s me with my semi-functional hands. Somehow the whole thing ended up taking 2 hours (I will admit to listening to NPR and talking on the phone and washing dishes at the same time) so I’m not sure if this recipe goes into the “worth the effort” category, but it did make a lot of very delicious, wonderfully healthy-feeling food that used up a lot of my box, so I guess the jury is still out on whether I’d make it again. It has a really great flavor to it, sweet from the carrots and savory from the quinoa pilaf. It is particularly tasty with the mint yogurt I made to go along with it, at the suggestion of one of the Epicurious reviewers.

The original recipe can be found at Epicurious, here, and my adapted and annotated version can be found beyond the Continue reading