Well, when we were in Southern California, it was all very well to subsist on loads of mandarins and quick meals of tacos or lemon fettucine (along with twice-weekly fabulous huevos rancheros breakfasts at Esau’s Cafe).
Back in the Pacific Northwest, it’s still winter and something heartier is needed. I made my usual round of soups — minestrone, potato-leek, mushroom-barley and lemony lentil with spinach — and then looked around for some non-soup inspirations.
In a used bookstore in San Francisco, on our way south to Carpinteria, I had picked up a book by Diana Henry, called “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons.” (See why I had to buy it? … and more about those pickled lemons later.) Henry is a food columnist for The Telegraph in London and her writing is very appealing, as are the recipes.
Henry offers many Middle Eastern recipes, but this one is not traditional, as sweet potatoes are seldom eaten in the Mediterranean. I think it would be excellent with regular baking potatoes too, and it’s simple and quick to put together.
Break up 6 or 7 ounces of feta cheese and mix with 1/2 a tablespoon of fennel seeds, a medium red chili, seeded and cut into fine slivers, a crushed garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed coriander seeds and enough olive oil to moisten. Cover and set in a cool place or refrigerator to allow the flavors to blend.
Bake four medium sweet potatoes until tender. Split them open lengthwise and sprinkle with a little olive oil and freshly ground black pepper, then fill with the marinated feta and sliced kalamata olives. Scatter chopped cilantro over all and serve.
Another recent inspiration was from the engaging Italian cook, Lidia Bastianich, whose braised Swiss chard and cannellini beans recipe is very satisfying. It was similar to some greens-and-beans I make, but in this case the chard is cooked till very tender, and crushed tomatoes add a lively note. The original recipe called for more olive oil than I thought it needed and for a dab of tomato paste, which I didn’t have. I’m sure it’s dandy as she made it, but I’ll give you my slight adaptation, below.
Cannellini Beans with Swiss chard, adapted from Lidia Bastianich
- 1/2 pound dried cannellini beans (or 3 cups canned beans, drained and rinsed. You can also make this with Great Northern beans)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- a big bunch of Swiss chard
- about 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes (such as San Marzano)
Rinse the beans and soak overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain, transfer beans to a large saucepan and cover with fresh cold water. Boil for about 40 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Turn off the heat, stir in 1/2 teaspoon of salt and let the beans cool to absorb the cooking liquid.
Rinse the Swiss chard and cut off the stems (save for soup stock). Slice the leaves crosswise about every two inches.
Fill a large pot with water and bring it to the boil. Drop in all the chard at once, stir and cover the pot. Cook for five to ten minutes, until the chard is thoroughly tender. Drain the cooked chard well in a colander. Also drain the beans.
Heat 3 tablespoons of oil with the sliced garlic in a skillet over medium-high heat, until the garlic is sizzling. Toast the red pepper flakes in the skillet, then pour in the crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil.
Add the beans, season with salt, and heat rapidly, stirring. As it’s simmering, stir in the chard and bring to a boil over high heat for a couple of minutes, tossing the mixture and stirring constantly. As the juices thicken, drizzle in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and simmer another two or three minutes.
Oh yes –what about those pickled lemons?
Diana Henry’s recipe for pickled lemons is very simple: sliced lemons, sprinkled with salt and paprika. How do they taste? I don’t know yet… it takes about three weeks before they’re ready. Stay tuned.