What’s The Big Green Deal?

Spinach, that’s the big, green deal.Did you know that curly leaf, or savoy spinach almost went extinct?  With the advent of the triple-washed, bagged baby spinach the demand for it among the big produce companies pretty much disappeared.  The flavor is less mild, and all those nooks and crannies on the surface of the leaf makes it hard to thoroughly clean a product which already has a somewhat problematic reputation and history concerning sick-making microbes.But Petey and I both love a classic spinach salad: spinach, sliced button mushrooms, hard-cooked egg, shaved red onion (Petey’s a hold-the-onion man), crispy bacon shards drizzled with freshly made buttermilk ranch.

So, I almost always have some greens in the fridge.  But they go wonky quick, and when most leafy greens get past their prime, there isn’t much to do with them, other than adding them to the compost heap.  But spinach is different.  When I have spinach that’s too shop-worn for salad, I cook it, either sautéed or creamed. I put it into a large microwave safe bowl, cover it with a paper towel and nuke it until it’s completely wilted; somewhere between 2-4 minutes depending on how much I have.  Then I turn it out into a colander to drain and cool.

If I don’t plan on making it right away, I put it in a labeled, dated zip-top bag and freeze it.  If you’re not a big salad eater, you could also skip the whole fresh spinach step, and just buy it frozen. For both sautéed and creamed spinach, you start the same way: onions.  Put some butter or oil into a skillet and add chopped onions.  Season and cook until they begin to caramelize (the more color on the onions, the sweeter they’ll be, you choose).  Then add 2 cups of thawed, wilted spinach that you’ve squeezed most of the water from.  Season and add 10-12 gratings of fresh nutmeg.  For sautéed, let it cook until it’s mostly dry, and a little browned around the edges.  Take off the heat, add the juice of a lemon, check for seasoning, and serve.For creamed spinach:

Start like for sautéed, but after adding the spinach, add about 2/3 cup of 2% or skim milk and ¼ cup cream.  Season and add nutmeg, then stir in ¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese (not the stuff in the green can).  Let it cook until the spinach is in a nice thick, creamy sauce (about 10 minutes on medium).Take it off the heat and stir in a couple of heaping tablespoons of whipped cream cheese (this will stabilize the sauce).  Then stir in the juice of a lemon.  Check for seasoning and serve as is, or over a baked russet or sweet potato.

Or.My new favorite thing is to use the creamed spinach in the place of pesto in pasta.  Cook the pasta while the spinach is cooking.  When the spinach is finished, and the cream cheese and lemon juice are stirred in, transfer the pasta into the spinach pan with a slotted spoon.  Don’t drain it, because you’ll then use enough of the pasta water to thin out the spinach, and starch in the water makes the sauce silky and it coats the pasta perfectly.  Then top with more parm.It’s really good, and frankly I’m not sure how this took so long to occur to someone who normally has at least seventy-five varieties of pasta in her kitchen at all times.

Next week I’ll tell you what I got up to tonight with a box of Costco mushrooms and a kitchen full of pasta.Thanks for your time.

This farro, and no farther

You know the very best thing about farro?    Farro’s extremely versatile.  This chewy little grain which can be used in a myriad of delicious ways also tastes awesome as-is, right out of the cooking pot.

Farro is hulled wheat.  Wheat is either free-threshing, which means the outer sheath is soft and easy to remove, or hulled.  Hulled wheat normally includes wild wheat and other ‘ancient grains’.

It’s similar to barley in both taste and texture (but I like farro better).  It’s chewy and nutty.  Or, if you cook it a little less, it will be lightly crunchy and nutty.  I prefer softer, because then it’s as comforting as a new pair of flannel pajamas after a warm bath.  Farro’s also high in protein, fiber and B complex vitamins and it’s pretty low in gluten—so those are some really healthy flannel pj’s.And many fans of old school hot cereal have unknowingly eaten bowls of farro in the form of ‘Cream of Farina’.  But regular farro makes a pretty nifty hot cereal as well.  You can make a big pot when you have time, then just nuke and dress it for breakfast.

The grains actually have two cooking times and procedures to go along with them.

For the crunchier version, put salted water in a heavy saucepan like you would for pasta; but at least 6/1 water to farro ratio.  Bring the water to a boil, add farro, lower the temp to medium and cook, uncovered for around thirty minutes.  Drain and serve.  A serving size is ¼ cup uncooked.

But I just really enjoy the mouth feel that slower cooking gets you.  The other night I made a new farro recipe to go along with some parmesan crusted chicken cutlets.  I did all the prep work well in advance so, when we were about an hour and a half out from dinner, all I had to do was apply heat.

Farro Florentinefarro florentine3/4 cup farro

2 ¼ cups chicken broth

¼ cup dried mushrooms

¼ cup sundried tomatoes, cut into strips

2 teaspoons umami or tomato paste

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

½ teaspoon dry thyme

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced

4 cloves roasted garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil + 1 teaspoon for roasting garlic

¼ cup Marsala wine

Salt & pepper

3 large handfuls of baby spinach

Parmesan cheese

Roast garlic: Set oven to 350.  Place peeled cloves on a piece of foil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle with 1 teaspoon olive oil.  Close foil, making airtight package.  Bake for 45 minutes, then remove from oven and let cool.

To use, place roasted garlic on a dish and mash it, pouring any remaining oil on top.

Put all the ingredients except the Parmesan and the spinach into a heavy saucepan with a lid.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for 45-55 minutes, or until the farro is tender and all the water has cooked in.

At this point, add the spinach on top and without stirring, re-cover and let sit off heat for 10-15 minutes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo serve, stir in spinach, and spoon onto plate, adding Parmesan to taste.  Serves 3.

I know that earlier I said farro’s like flannel pajamas.  But maybe it’s more like a little black dress.  You can dress this grain up or down, and serve it up plain or with lots of additions.

But maybe it’s more like a pair of bowling shoes, or a well-worn jean jacket, or a lacy bra, or…farro equalsThanks for your time.


So you’ve got a game plan for dinner, you get started in the kitchen, and you run into a couple of roadblocks.What do you do?


It kinda depends on the roadblocks.

My troubles, luckily, were fixable.  One was of my own making, and one was a little bit my fault, but mostly microbiology.

Let me start back at the beginning.I decided to invent a new pasta bake.  It would be orzo, in an asparagus pesto cream sauce, with peas and spinach, all covered in parmesan breadcrumbs.

I cooked the orzo until it wasn’t quite al dente.

While the orzo was cooking I made a basic cream sauce.

Classic Béchamel


¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

2 cups 2% milk

Salt & pepper

Put a saucepan on medium.  Melt butter and whisk in flour; this is a roux.  Let cook for a couple of minutes, then pour in milk.  Whisk constantly until it thickens and comes to a boil.  Season, taste, and season again.

White sauce is one of the ‘mother’ sauces in classic French cooking.  For the casserole I was making, I stirred in ¼ cup of grated Parmesan, a couple tablespoons of snipped Chinese chives, and 10 good gratings of nutmeg.

When I made the roux, I was afraid I’d made too much, so I discarded a little.  Then of course, I realized I actually needed it thinner so that the finished dish wasn’t dry.

Oops—snafu #1.

I was planning to put fresh spinach into the bake.  I’d wilt it in the microwave, squeeze out the water, then chop it.  Instead, I put four big handfuls of raw spinach into the hot béchamel.  This thinned the sauce. Next, I planned on adding half of a jar of asparagus pesto which I had in the fridge.  I unscrewed the lid and looked inside.  Right on top was a big ole spot of mold. I guess I’d had it for much longer than I thought.

Oops—snafu #2.

After some regret and self-recrimination, I grabbed my jar of preserved lemons and a pack of fresh dill from the produce drawer.  I diced up a few lemon slices and chopped about a tablespoon of dill.  I stirred them into my sauce.  This approximated the slightly sour herbaceousness.


Green orzo bake

green-orzo-bake1 batch béchamel, adjusted as above

1 cup frozen peas, unthawed

½ pound orzo, undercooked by about 2 minutes

3 slices multigrain bread, toasted, and ground in food processor

¼ cup grated Parmesan, in addition to the cheese in the sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease an 8X8 casserole dish.  Mix together the first three ingredients and pour into dish, smoothing the top.

Mix together breadcrumbs, cheese, and olive oil.  Sprinkle over top.

Bake for 45 minutes, spinning dish halfway through baking.  Let stand for 10 minutes after removing from oven.  Serves 4-6.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple nights later we had the leftovers.  I added ½ cup more milk, and a cup of some grilled chicken breast I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s.  I stirred it all together, but even without the crispy breadcrumbs on top it was pretty tasty.

Whenever I make a new recipe, I always warn Petey that there’s a possibility we will instead be dining on peanut butter and jelly.

This time, I was able to pull out a “W” for this meal; which is great, because, you know, I’m not too sure that Petey even likes PBJ.

I’ll bet if an eighteen-year-old Swedish bikini model served him this, he’d give up pork chops for this PBJ.

Thanks for your time.


Greens, Eggs, and Ham

You know those wooden pork stands in the grocery store, back by the meat department?    If you’ve ever checked out this porcine scaffolding, you’ve likely noticed they’re stocked with just about every part of the pig, save face and squeal.  From fat back to ham steaks, it’s there.

They have packs of bits and pieces of country ham.  Which is what I picked up to make Puerto Rican rice and beans.

There was enough, even in the small package that I divided it u and threw them in the freezer for a meal to be attempted at a later date.

Then I had a food chat with the former chief of the Durham Police Department, Jose Lopez, and his wife Becky; both Puerto Rican.  They invited me into their home, and gave me a comprehensive class in the cuisine of the island.   

She taught me a few dishes and one of them was a big pot of beans.  They were delicious and tasted and smelled just like Puerto Rico.

There was only one problem.  There was pork in the recipe, but not ham—ham hocks.

So now I had a couple bags of ham pieces, and nothing to do with them.  There was no way I would toss perfectly good meat.  But I had an idea; I would use it for a pot of not beans, but risotto.

Ham and egg risotto

ham egg risotto

½ cup country ham trimmimgs, cut bite-size

½ onion, diced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup arborio rice

½ cup white wine

3 ½ cups chicken stock (approx)

12 ounces frozen peas and carrots, thawed

¼ cup parmesan cheese

¼ cup butter

3 cups raw baby spinach

Salt and pepper to taste

6 eggs

1 tablespoon vinegar

Heat one heavy saucepan to medium-high. 

Put stock into another saucepan, and set to medium-low.  You only want the stock to simmer, turn down if it starts to boil.

Put oil, ham, and onion into another saucepan, and sauté until the onion releases its water, and starts to caramelize.  Add Arborio and toss until the rice starts to toast and a little browning occurs on the pan bottom.

While the risotto ingredients are browning, put a shallow bottom pan on the stovetop poach eggs.  Fill with water, and add vinegar.  Turn on medium and bring to very gentle simmer.

Back at the rice pot; pour in wine, and toss until the wine cooks out.  Constantly stirring, add about ½ cup of hot stock to rice until the liquid is absorbed, then add more.  After about 2 1/2 cups stock, start tasting for doneness.

At this point, start poaching eggs n the simmering water, 3 at a time for about 4 minutes.  Remove from water with slotted spoon, and place on clean kitchen towel to keep warm, and dry.

When the rice is cooked through, add peas and carrots, butter and cheese.  Gently stir until butter is melted. 

To plate: Lay a big handful of spinach on plate, then spoon about 2 cups risotto over spinach and place 2 poached eggs on top.  Serves 3.

dancing pig 1

Cute, right?

This dish is very versatile.  You could eat it for any meal, and if you have any rice left, it heats up very well in a microwave with a little water added.  Or, you could make cakes, or arancini, which are breaded and fried rice balls, each one stuffed with a piece of mozzarella.

Oh yeah, the ham hocks needed for the rice?

dancing pig 2.png

Yet this one is deeply unsettling.  Why is that?

I found them on that ham kiosk in the back of the grocery store.

Thanks for your time.

The big chill

Cryostasis. According to the Oxford dictionary, it’s “A frozen state of a person…induced in order to preserve it for long periods; cryosuspension.”

Well, it’s not just for deep space travel and Walt Disney anymore.

The Kid and I adore avocados.  It wasn’t always this way.  We developed our love for them through their most famous gateway drug; guacamole.  But we now love them on toast, sliced and salted; just about any way.

Avocados can be a giant pain in the keester, though.  If you’re buying and eating on the same day, good luck.  Stores get them in as hard as a baseball; they ripen on the grocer’s shelf as they wait to be picked to go to a new home.

So choose them according to when you need them.  4 or 5 days out?  Buy rocks.  For a couple days from preparation, pick ones that give just a little to gentle pressure.

At Costco there’s plenty of choices.  Take your time, and pick out a bag of boulders.

I buy a bag of six from Costco, and try to get the hardest ones they’ve got.  This gives me a few days grace to get my ducks in row, and be prepared for when they’re ripe.

But what to do when the avocado is ready and you’re not?  Because everybody knows that when a good avocado goes bad, it joins a gang, gets a face tattoo, and starts bullying onions and tomatillos for their lunch money.  And they only possess perfect, delicious ripeness for twenty minutes or so.

This is where the cryostasis comes in.  If you have a mess of fully ripened avocados (they’ll give to the light pressure and be slightly softened all over,) lying around the kitchen, set them, unwrapped, in the fridge.

I refrigerated ripe ones with the idea of using them in a few days.  But I figured what would happen is that I’d cut into one and discover something so bruised it would be as appetizing as a cigarette put out in a piece of birthday cake.  Last Tuesday, 2 days after stashing them in the chill chest, I took out a perfect avocado; no strings, no bumps, no bruises.

And then I made my new favorite avocado dish.

Avocado and spinach pesto

avocado pest ingredients

12 ounces short pasta

3 ½ cups raw baby spinach

2 avocados

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Juice of 2 lemons (bout ¼ cup)

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup chives or scallions

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper

1 cup reserved pasta cooking water

Cook pasta according to directions in heavily salted water.  Microwave spinach for about 1 minute 45 seconds or completely wilted.  Place into food processor.

When the pasta has five more minutes, make sauce. 

Add the avocado meat, cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Process, adding enough hot pasta water until it’s sauce consistency.

Drain pasta and return to pot.  Pour sauce over and gently stir to coat.  Garnish with chives.

Serves 2-4.


The pesto would also make a good dressing or dipping sauce. 

This stasis trick is even more amazing.  Last Tuesday, 2 full weeks after entering stasis, The Kid cut into a refrigerated avocado.  It was perfect and delicious.  I think we’ve cracked the code.  No more waste.  With all the scary avocados I’ve tossed in my life, I could probably finance a week’s vacation to Kill Devil Hills, and bring along Petey, The Kid, and the dog too.

Best of all, avocado’s pernicious stranglehold over me has been broken.  They’ll be eaten and used at my pleasure.  I will never again be a slave to botany.

Thanks for your time.

Hello Yellow

It’s a bum rap.

Calling a faulty piece of machinery a lemon—it’s wrong and unfair.  It’s just blatant anti-lemon propaganda.

It may not look like much, but don’t you dare call it a lemon.

Lemons are one of the tastiest and most versatile items in any kitchen.

The other day I was waxing rhapsodic about lemons, and said, “Lemons make everything better.”

A miracle can grow on a tree.

And Petey said, “Not if you don’t like ‘em.”

Well first off, I don’t think that person exists.  But, for the sake of argument let’s say that this freak of nature is out there somewhere, leading a lonely, lemon-hating life.

There are unconfirmed reports coming out of North Korea that this man is an unrepentant lemon hater. Figures.

Unbeknownst to him, he probably ingests them all the time.

Many fruit juices add lemon to keep them from becoming cloyingly sweet.  Lots of salad dressings contain a spritz or two.  And all kinds of dishes, especially long cooked ones, are finished by squeezing a bit of lemon juice into them.  Just enough to perk up the flavors, but not enough to taste.

Recently I cobbled together a recipe for sautéed spinach.  Except for creamed spinach, I’ve never liked it cooked, because it seems bitter and slimy.  But I read about a method that’s easier, and less messy.  I had a surfeit of spinach in the fridge, so I decided to experiment.  Besides, The Kid loves sautéed spinach, and I get a kick out of giving my culinary schooled child a little schooling from me.

Popeye called. He wants in.

To my surprised delight, wilting the spinach by microwave gets rid of both bitterness and sliminess.  I loved it.

Sautéed spinach

32 ounces fresh baby spinach (2 large boxes)

*1 tablespoon garlic oil

1 large shallot or 1/2 red onion, diced

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Juice of ½ lemon

Kosher salt to taste

Cracked black pepper to taste

*To make garlic oil, peel 2 cloves garlic and bruise by giving them a whack with a spoon.  Place into skillet with olive oil.  Warm until fragrant, then remove cloves with slotted spoon and discard.

Directions for spinach: Place raw spinach into very large bowl, pressing down to get it all in.  Cover with damp paper towel.  Microwave for 2 minutes.  Toss and put back into microwave.  Cook in 2 minute increments until completely wilted.

Put into colander and let it cool enough to handle.

Once cool, squeeze with your hands to get out as much water (and the bitterness it contains) as possible.  Put it on a cutting board and roughly chop.  Return to colander and squeeze it again to get out all the liquid you can.  Let rest in colander until ready to cook—or refrigerate and hold for up to 6 hours.

Heat skillet, add garlic oil.  Add shallots, season, and cook until translucent.  Stir in spinach, and nutmeg.  Season.  Sautee until it’s hot and it seems almost dry.

To preserve color of the spinach, take pan off heat then stir in lemon juice.  Check for seasoning, and serve.  Makes 4-5 servings.

Even though there’s lemon in the spinach, it only brightens the flavor.  So, there you go, mythical lemon hater.

But if you like lemon, there’s all kind of places to put it for a kick of citrus.

Lemon can make a good thing better.

Add it to scrambled eggs—but only after cooking; adding it to raw will curdle them, which is a pretty unappetizing sight at breakfast.  Give soup a hit; I recently added lemon juice to both Panera’s cream of chicken, and a bowl of egg drop soup.  Turned out awesome.  But lemon loves salt, so taste and re-season if needed.

Not just savory, lemon’s heavenly in sweets.

For a quick delicious dessert that will impress and delight your diners, make a granita.

A granita is a frozen non-dairy dessert that when placed in a goblet, looks like a million bucks.

See how pretty?

Just make a pitcher of lemonade and pour it into a baking dish and freeze (add a splash of grenadine for pink lemonade).  Every 15 minutes, take it out and scrape with a fork.  Keep doing this until it’s completely frozen and looks like snow.  Scoop into wine glass, and garnish with a sprig of mint or a twisted strip of lemon peel.

I hope I’ve convinced you to appreciate this sunny, daffodil-colored fruit so much that you, like me, are beseeching life to give you some lemons.

May I some more, please?

Thanks for your time.

Notes on a spinach salad

When I was first given the opportunity to write this weekly love letter to food and the Bull City, I was completely at sea.  I had all kinds of questions.

What can I write about?

What can’t I write about?

What if nobody likes my recipes?

What if I stink at this?

To my surprise, I really only had two commandments.  The column should have something to do with food.  And, it should be warts-and-all-honest.  That’s why you have access to multiple humiliating facts about me, and all of the friends and loved ones about whom I write enjoy aliases.

So sit back and relax.  I’m about to share two strange personal mental facts, one mildly embarrassing, and one just plain bizarre.

First, the red-faced factoid: unlike the vast majority of preschool-aged children, I don’t know my right from left.  I’m not completely ignorant, if I really think about it, I can usually get it right two times out of three.  But it’s not instinctual the way it is for everyone else.  For the love of all that’s holy, do not ask me for directions.

The other odd fact is I hear numbers in a rhythm in my brain, and so remember them forever.  I know phone numbers from junior high, zip codes from places I haven’t written to in decades.  Driver’s license number?  Petey’s social?  Expired credit card numbers?  Yep, yep, yep.

And this, unfortunately, is pretty much it for my arithmetical prowess.  I’m straight-up bad at math.

But there’s one algebraic formula that I know inside and out.

Spinach salad computation.

Along with ranch dressing, this is another food I ate for the first time at Mama Cat’s table.

Her components remain the classic elements of anything calling itself a spinach salad.

Spinach: Years ago, when purchasing spinach at the grocery store, it was usually mature, and curly-leafed.  The pre-washed baby variety is currently everywhere.  Curly-leafed is now so rare, it is literally almost extinct.  I like a 5-6 leaf to bite ratio.

Mushroom: About ¾ cup of thickly sliced mushrooms should be in a main-course sized serving.  Use button, cremini, or portobello.  The ‘shrooms are important, but should be of a milder type, so as not to hijack the rest of the elements.

Red onion: Slice them paper-thin into half-moons.  Use about ¼ cup (although true raw onion-haters, like Petey, can be forgiven for omitting).

Bacon:  Was there ever a lovelier word?  The only constraint here is your own concern for cholesterol levels.  I use 3-4 slices, cooked until very crispy, and broken into the bowl at the very last minute, so as to retain that crispiness.

Eggs:  Two per, hard-cooked.  But hard-cooked skillfully.  No green yolks or funky odors.  To achieve this, place eggs in a pot of cold water and add a handful of salt and 2 tablespoons vinegar.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  At that point, remove from heat, cover and let sit for 13 minutes.  Then drain and peel right away under cold water.

Cheese: Not in that first salad, but optional and acceptable.  Diner’s choice as to type.

Dressing:  Ranch, of course.  But the original, made from a packet with mayo, and real buttermilk (use fat-free buttermilk, you’ll never notice the difference).

Just like all of cooking, balance is key.  Balance between flavors and balance of textures.  You need sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.  You need silky, crispy, juicy, and soft.

All you need is a fork and a bowl...

All you need is a fork and a bowl…

The one item which would have perfected the balance of that first salad was something sweet and juicy.  Tomatoes or berries are traditionally used for this.  But last week I used fresh clementine segments, and it was really good.

You can also add nuts, or replace your bacon with them (1/4 to 1/3 cup).  It will bring the same crispy, salty crunch.  They’re also much more nutritious.

And because it’s a salad, each forkful will have a varied combination of ingredients and amounts.  So each component should be tasty on its own, and play well with everything else.

With a little practice and experimentation, you can produce your own stellar salad equation.  But if you stumble, just add more bacon or ranch, and it’ll be tasty enough.

Thanks for your time.