Sunday, October 31, 2010

Raise High the Brussels Sprout

I have only a vague memory of Brussels sprouts from my childhood. On the list of the best (Ruebens) and worst (liver and onions) recipes that made our regular rotation it didn’t really even stand out.

I remembered it as a bland side dish that didn’t come with much fanfare. Touted as “diet” food in the same way iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese, and for some reason, toast, was in the late 70s and early 80s, it was celebrated for its limited calories and not much more. Occasionally as an effort was made to cut back on calorie, the tiny cabbage heads appeared on our plates. They were served whole and left a puddle of water that had soaked in between their leaves as they bobbed around in a pot on the stove. They tasted like nothing really, or possible an inert gas.

As I grew up, my encounter with the Brussels sprout was rare. In fact I don’t think I saw them again until one November when my Cooking Light cooking group celebrated our annual Thanksgiving dinner. Held in the weeks before the holiday, it gives us a way to try out some new side dishes and desserts that may not be served at our own feasts. That night as I scooped the shredded vegetable side dish onto my plate, I had no idea what I was taking.

I suspected it was cabbage, the only other vegetable in a similar shade I had seen cut in such a way. As I took my first bite, I was delighted. It was wonderful, a tangy tart bite and of course a little bacon. As I would later find out it was the lowly Brussels sprout in the recipe, which I now know is Warm Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Red Onions. The apples, onions and sprouts were pan fried in a bath of water and vinegar.

I liked it so much I brought it to my own family banquet and it was as appreciated and loved there as well. Since then, I have passed the recipe on a number of times to family and friends who often think it is cabbage, but are surprised to find out they have just traveled to Brussels.

This year was the first I kept my CSA share through winter, making it the first that Brussels sprouts have appeared in my box. When I picked up my last delivery, I piled my box high with bags of it, trading my now lesser favorites, lettuce and radishes, for extra portions of the tiny cruciferous vegetable.

I tried a new recipe and was surprised to find out, it too was quite good. I had long thought the secret to eating the sprout was shredding it up until you weren’t sure what it was. But it turns out, you can eat it almost whole and it is just as lovely. The recipe I made, Eating Well’s Brussels Sprouts with Bacon-Horseradish Cream, is a new favorite, featuring steamed sprouts cut in half. The sauce is simple, just horseradish and reduced-fat sour cream, but it is a perfect pairing for the vegetable’s slightly biting taste. It was also versatile, tasting delicious both hot and cold.

Of course the recipe also features bacon, as does the Warm Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Red Onions, which always adds that special something to a recipe. But I’m sure it’s the Brussels sprouts that are doing it this time. After all, bacon was served with liver and onions too and that did nothing for that dish.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ending One Season, Beginning Another

I picked up my last CSA delivery this week. Which means the winter I’ve been dreading since it turned cold over Labor Day weekend is really coming. We’ve had such a beautiful fall it’s hard to believe the party may soon be over. But as the trees become more and more bare every day, their leaves piled up beneath them, it’s easy to see it’s the end of the growing season.

As such, I’ve been switching from my summer recipes to my winter staples. Last week I made Borscht with about half of the beets I’d been storing, some carrots that had been collecting dust in the crisper, and a few of the tomatoes I oven roasted a few months ago. It's not a stapel yet, but I first made it last fall and liked it so much, I’ve been craving it for a while. But somehow hot beet soup didn’t sound so appealing in the summer heat. Now its crazy colorful look and acidic taste is a perfect match for fall’s show.

Tonight I made another favorite winter recipe, Spinach Pesto and Chicken Couscous, with one of the bags of spinach I picked up this week. It’s nothing like the spinach pesto I made a few weeks ago, even though I used pretty much the same ingredients. For some reason, probably because the couscous is warm, I only make this in the cooler months. After a summer of cold couscous salads, it is comforting in a non-cheesy casserole way on a night when it is dark way too early.

Although my deliveries have stopped I have enough vegetables to keep cooking for a month or two. I’ve been stockpiling the hearty vegetables such as squash, onions, garlic and potatoes. And without the humid weather, the vegetable that seemed so perishable in the summer, such as broccoli, are lasting a little longer. Beyond that I have a few casseroles, pesto, and more tomatoes stored away in the freezer.

I plan to keep writing over the winter as I dip into that stash, and make use of whatever else I can find locally at the winter farmer’s market and from other local sources. Winter may be the dead season outdoors, but it’s often the time when the kitchen comes to life.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A New Take on a Comforting Casserole

When my sister called to tell me about an update she had made to the Chicken Divan recipe we knew and loved, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I made a version of it myself. I remembered the casserole, which was made with cream of chicken soup, mayonnaise, chicken, broccoli, and cheddar cheese, as a comforting dish of cheesy goodness.

My sister had upped the ante, substituting Swiss cheese and adding ham and cauliflower along with the broccoli. She told me I had to make it. I knew I would, but I wanted to give it my own twist. It wasn’t long after I hung up the phone until I started researching.

As if by destiny I happened upon a chicken cauliflower casserole in an old stack of Eating Well magazines. It’s wasn’t exactly the same as either the original Chicken Divan or my sister’s updated version, but it did call for Swiss cheese. It also added pasta to the mix, but being a fan of carbohydrates I didn’t mind.

Instead of cream of chicken soup and mayonnaise, the recipe had me making my own cream sauce with skim milk and flour and then adding the Swiss cheese. For the tang of the missing mayonnaise, I added apple cider vinegar instead of the white wine the recipe called for.

Since the chicken was the main ingredient of chicken divan, I even used two chicken breasts in my recipe. Since I’m not a huge meat fan, I normally only use one chicken breast no matter what the recipe calls for, especially in casseroles with other ingredients.

The finished product was a pretty good imitation of the original. The sauce tasted pretty close to what I remember and because of my extra chicken it was definitely meaty. I used a small head of broccoli and about a half a head of cauliflower and the addition of green crucifer made the casserole more colorful than the original Eating Well version.

And as with the best casseroles, it was definitely comforting. It’ll find a place in my ever-expanding recipe collection. It won’t be something I make every week, but when I need a little dish of cheesy goodness I have a couple recipes to choose from.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When the CSA Box Hands You Spinach …

I love spinach. It’s one of my staples. During the winter I buy one of those plastic tubs every week. So when I saw a bag of fresh spinach in my CSA box yesterday, I was excited. I don’t remember eating the green since last spring.

I usually make a salad of it, along with feta cheese, walnuts, balsamic vinegar and oil. I had that for lunch today, even though I was craving the pesto cavatappi from the Noodles down the street.

By dinnertime, my pesto craving hadn’t subsided and I knew I had to take care of it. My own basil plant had withered up and died weeks ago and there hadn’t been basil with a vegetable delivery in a while. Without any basil in sight, and not wanting to dip into the pesto I had preserved in the freezer, I almost found myself at the store buying a jar of the pre-made stuff.

Luckily my guilt got the better of me. How could I justify buying something off the shelf when I had a load of fresh produce at home? As I whizzed past the grocery store (and Noodles) I told myself I could make something better at home. And, if it had to be pesto, it was perfectly acceptable to dip into my winter stash in early-October. But back at home, I wasn’t giving up so easily. I wanted to satisfy my craving, but I also wanted to come up with something creative on my own, without the frozen stuff.

The answer, of course, was spinach pesto. Just because I was used to making my recipe with basil that didn’t mean it was the only way to make it. I had seen plenty of recipes for pesto using other ingredients, from arugula to sun-dried tomatoes.

So before I knew it I had exactly what I was craving, if only in a different way. I used the spinach as well as the same-old garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, added a little leftover parsley and substituted ground almonds for the pine nuts.

After processing it all together, it looked pretty much the same as my old recipe. The only difference I could see was that it was a brighter shade of green. It definitely looked better than any jarred pesto I’ve seen. And on top of whole-wheat penne, it definitely satisfied my craving and tasted pretty close to Noodles.

I also felt pretty satisfied with my little exercise in problem solving. I think that’s one of the best parts about a CSA share. No matter what the box gives me, I get a chance to make something good with it.