What to do with the first spring greens of the garden

February 25, 2010

White Beans and Broccoli Raab

The weather has been extremely cooperative, with cool nights, warm to hot days, and enough rain collected in buckets to water this year’s crop of fast-growing greens. I was able to pick some broccoli raab, or rapini, and use it in a simple, hearty dish.

I got the recipe from Bryanna Clark Grogan, although I just searched now on her site and was unable to find it. I think I may have asked her last year for it because I wanted to know what to do with the broccoli raab I was growing for the first time. The recipe is called White Beans and Rapini. You can find a link to her site on the right.

If you ask her nicely, she’s likely to share the recipe with you. Bryanna is extremely generous.

The Basic Idea
Saute some onions and garlic in toasted sesame oil, which adds a lovely flavor and aroma. Bryanna adds it to replace pancetta in a meat-eater’s version.

Add some cooked beans. So far I’ve tried white and pinto. Both were delicious, but the pinto had a bit more pinto flavor–duh!

Also add a touch of salt and some chopped broccoli raab, or rapini. I didn’t have that much, so I also added some Japanese mustard cabbage greens, a variation of bok choy. Saute until the greens are wilted. That’s it!

Both the mustard and the rapini have a slightly bitter flavor which offsets the somewhat creamy texture of the beans, and the sweet crunch of the onions. The bitterness will become more pronounced if you let the greens get bigger and older before picking them. But I wanted to sample from my garden before the bugs, slugs, and diseases beat me to it!

At any rate, it’s a simple, quick, and delicious dish that you don’t really need a recipe for. Use your judgment and let your taste buds decide.

Give the dish a try, and you’ll see why it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite go-to recipes. (Thank you, Bryanna!)

Vegetarian Thai Cooking Class

December 6, 2009

The first thing I did upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was head to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s on Ratchapakinai Road, next to the Sumit Hotel, about 4 doors up from the Thai Red Cross office, which is easy to spot.

Look for the plants in front of the tiny shop.

I had a bowl full of something luscious, with coconut milk curry and vegetables, and I was immediately happy.

Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class from The Farm, an organic farm about 20 minutes out of the city. It was a well-organized class, the food was delicious, and it was a nice break to get out of the city and spend a relaxing day making mouth-watering food. I highly recommend it.

This time I wanted to take a class that was specifically vegetarian, not just a cooking class that substituted vegetarian ingredients. Since May Kaidee’s had a cooking class available, I had to taste the food before signing up.

No use taking a cooking class from somewhere with tasteless, or worse, awful food.

So I was relieved that the food was delicious and that it was close enough to my guesthouse, which meant I would be coming back often to eat. (I did–I went every day except when I was out of commission due to food poisoning…grr.)

Class started at 9 am with a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Then the other three students and I, plus Duan, May’s sister, who runs the Chiang Mai restaurant with her husband, daughter, and brother, set off for the local market.

There Duan pointed out and explained several ingredients crucial to Thai cuisine. She showed us sticky rice, kaffir limes, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, holy and Thai basils.

Choy sum swarming with bees

Most of the produce was already familiar to me, including long beans, choy sum (Chinese greens with yellow flowers that the bees were swarming around), gailaan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli, and what Duan called kale), round and long eggplant, pumpkin (large, flat, and brown, like a more rowdy cousin of the Japanese kabocha).

The Thai papayas are enormous, at least eight inches long, orange and shaped like a cylinder. The papayas in Hawaii are much smaller, shaped like yellow pears on steroids.

We also saw the rice noodles that people ordered by width and watched the vendor chop them with her cleaver before putting them into a tiny plastic bag secured with a rubber band. The thin version, like fetuccini, are what is used to make Pad Thai, the popular fried noodle dish. The uncut sheets are the wrappers for uncooked spring rolls.

After filling our baskets, we walked back to the shop, past a rotund yellow dog that took up half the road. Cars, people and motorcycles inched around it to pass. We couldn’t decide if she was pregnant or just obese.

The Somphet Market Dog--fat or pregnant?

Back at the shop, we chopped some baby corn, greens, and cauliflower before heading upstairs with bottles of drinking water, to get to work.

Each of us had a station with a wok and shared areas with dark and light soy sauce, chili paste and already-chopped garlic and chilies.

For each recipe, Duan walked us through the steps. “Put one spoonful of oil in your wok. Now add chilies, half spoon, and garlic, half spoon.” Spoons were the Asian soup spoons, the long ones with handles bent upwards, that come with bowls of gau gee min and ramen, Asian noodle soups.

“Now, quickly…KHON!

That meant “Stir!” in Thai. We spent many hours that day khon-ing.

“Next put tofu and vegetables….khon faster!”

And so it went. After the first three dishes, I lost track of how much of what went into what. Fortunately, all the recipes had been printed out for us, so we stopped after a few to make notes about substitutions and anything else not already written for us.

Duan prepares rice wrappers to make uncooked spring rolls.

Each of us had a tasting spoon, which we kept in a pocket in the front of our aprons, for sampling the dishes as we finished. This was an interesting part of the course, because we learned how much of a difference in flavor small substitutions could make.

For example, clear Tom Yum, coconut Tom Yum, and Tom Kha soups were identical, save for the amounts of coconut milk we added, but the flavors were more different than you’d imagine.

Four hours later, we had a spread large enough to feed us all for lunch and dinner. Fried noodles, soups, several kinds of curries, and the famous Kao Soi, a northern Thai curried noodle specialty.

The finished uncooked spring rolls: light, fresh, chewy, crunchy, spicy, and refreshing, all at once.

We also made lip-smacking peanut sauce, and May Kaidee’s famous and possibly the most popular dish on the menu: Pumpkin Hummus. Various seeds, spices, chilies, and cooked pumpkin were pounded with a mortar and pestle. The end result was creamy, complex pumpkin magic.

Duan said it was their mother’s special recipe. She used to make it for them growing up, and they ate it with everything, from balls of sticky rice, to spread on bread as sandwiches, or as a dip with vegetables. It was easy to see why this was such a popular dish.

The only non-vegan things were the yogurt in the morning, plus the egg noodles in the Kao Soi. But that was a variation on a curry dish, so you could leave them out.

I gave my leftovers to my Thai massage friends, since I did not have a fridge in the guesthouse and did not want to tempt fate with even more food poisoning.

Thank you, Duan, An, Nain, and Opal, for delicious food every day, and for your help! Khob kun mahk kha!

If you are interested in taking the cooking class, visit the restaurant and talk to one of them. I highly recommend it.

May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thai Thanksgiving Feast

November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to you all back home in the U.S.!

It’s a day ahead here in Thailand, so my Thanksgiving was celebrated one day before the U.S.

I went to visit my two Thai massage friends at their shop and took some Pad Thai, Penang Curry, and rice from my favorite vegetarian Restaurant here in Chiang Mai, May Kaidee’s.

They had raw cucumbers, blanched cabbage and oyster mushrooms, sticky rice, nam phrik, (hot chile paste, made by pounding chiles, garlic, salt and sugar and frying it for a short while), and egg omelette.

My kind of Thanksgiving spread--vegetarian, mostly organic, and international

We shared food. The nam phrik on the omelette was really spicy, and they laughed at me as I coughed.

They hadn’t really heard of Thanksgiving. I tried to explain it’s a holiday when people eat turkey and just eat too much.

But I had decided to come to Chiang Mai instead and visit the Elephant Nature Park, to remind me to be thankful, which is in line with the true spirit of the holiday.

(I’ll post the sad and happy details of my visit to the elephant park in a separate post.)

I tried to say, “You are my Thai massage family.” That resulted in a lot of confusion and laughter, and they eventually understood me.

My friend June has a northern accent, so her pronunciation is a little different than so-called standard Thai at times. But her animated personality and boundless energy make for a lively time, whether we are discussing politics, massage techniques, animal cruelty and the complete lack of regulation and protection for animals here, or how to eat sticky rice.

She insisted I eat it the traditional way, balling it in my hand, then dipping it into the curry or nam phrik. When she was a child, she used to roll the rice between two palms to create a dense ball that was then too chewy and hard to eat easily.

Kids will be kids the world over.

It took two of them, plus pantomime, to explain how they used to squeeze the essential oils out of a piece of orange peel onto a ruler. Then they touched the ruler to the palm of their hand and pulled it away repeatedly. Eventually the oils created spider-web-like strands. The mandarin oranges we had for dessert (along with apple bananas) didn’t have enough essential oil in the peel to make it happen, so I had to take their word for it.

I laughed so much, I was getting a headache from my cheek muscles contracting. That, plus a sore face from smiling, crying, and trying not to sob at the elephant park, were not helping.

They gave me a kaffir lime (ma kroot) to sniff the peel, which is supposed to help with headaches.

Kaffir Limes, Ma Kroot in Thai

It did, until my friend said she wanted some of my extra weight, because she is too skinny and runs out of energy. I told her to take all she wants, and that the reason she is so skinny is because all her movements are vibrant, full of energy, and overexcited.

I imitated her, and we both laughed until our stomachs hurt. She told me she never guessed I’d be a mirror to her behavior.

Then I had a headache again.

They fed the stray dogs outside, named Ding Dong, Long, and Kencham, then put out a hot water bottle so Ding Dong can sleep on it.

Ding Dong, an old street dog with mange and aching joints

He is old and gets stiff after sleeping when it’s cold like this. When he gets up, he shrieks in pain for a few minutes, until his joints warm up and stop hurting.

Sometimes they massage him, to relieve the pain.

“Khon jai dee,” I tell them often. Good, kind people.

Long sleeps hidden in the plants fronting the shop, two feet away from the mopeds, cars, and traffic.

My Thanksgiving dinner was an international celebration, and I was happy to spend it with my Thai “massage family” of therapists here in Chiang Mai.

And although my time at the Elephant Nature Park earlier in the day was emotional, it reminded me of many things I am grateful for.

This Thanksgiving was probably the nicest one I’ve ever had. Ironically, there was no turkey, no stuffing, no overeating, no blood-related family, and I wasn’t even in the U.S.

I hope yours is as full of warmth, love, and good eats as mine was. Happy Thanksgiving, and please remember to give thanks.

Chocolate Coma: Chocolate Dinner Party (Part 1: Cold Appetizers)

April 18, 2009
Le Menu

Le Menu

The All-Chocolate Dinner Party
Seeing as how the guests “ooh”-ed and “ah”-ed at the appropriate times, ate everything I served them, and then waddled out the door at the end of the evening, I’d say the chocolate dinner party was a success. It was a belated birthday party, and the birthday girl loves chocolate. Thus the theme ingredient.

For the most part, the chocolate in the dishes (with the exception of the birthday cake) provided an earthy richness and depth of flavor and not so much chocolate taste per se. There is not a lot out there in terms of chocolate vegetarian savory dishes that I could find, so it was a bit of a challenge to put dishes together, but I managed a few.

We started with a green salad, topped with chocolate-miso vinaigrette. It was loaded with garden leaves and herbs: endive, beet greens, basil, lemon basil, marjoram, arugula, fennel, green onions, and of course, flowers: snapdragons, pineapple sage and calendula blossoms.

Chocolate-Canary Bean Dip with Organic Tortilla Chips

Chocolate-Canary Bean Dip with Organic Tortilla Chips

The other cold appetizer was a dip made from canary beans I had purchased years ago in Ecuador at a grocery store. They tasted like a cross between a kidney and pinto bean. Blended with cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, semi-sweet chocolate, olive oil, garlic, onions, water, salt, and apple cider vinegar, they made an interesting, complex dip.

As I threw everything together yesterday, it was starting to taste annoyingly like the main course, which would have been redundant, and I was worried I would have to come up with a new main course at the last minute. Fortunately, I managed to tweak the dip enough so it ended up with a mildly spicy, sweet-sour flavor.

Sorry, no recipe, since I just threw things in, tasted, added, tasted, added some more, etc. until I said “Mmm” when I ate it. The deciding factor was my father’s more-like-the-general-public palate. When he said, “Yeah, that’s good,” I stopped.

(Hmm, looks like a chocolate cake crumb at the bottom of that menu above.)

Still to come: Chocolate Vegetable Soup, the main course, and the piece de resistance…birthday cake!

Sauteed Kale with Garlic

April 6, 2009
Sauteed kale with garlic packs a nutritional whallop!

Sauteed kale with garlic packs a nutritional whallop!

    Kale, a Nutritional Powerhouse

I still remember the first time I tasted kale. I was eating food at a camp in Michigan, and it was the green of choice for the day, forgettably cooked, probably boiled and salted.

I took one bite and said, “Wow, what is this stuff?” My fellow campers, who were used to seeing it, answered, “Kale.”

So this was the nutritional powerhouse I had read about so often. As a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables (including cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and kohlrabi,) kale has shown promise as an anti-cancer fighter.

The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that it provides compounds that boost the efficiency of cancer-fighting enzymes produced by our bodies. Several carotenoids in kale, including beta carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, help protect our eyes from UV damage and prevent development of cataracts.

Just one cup of cooked kale provides more than three times the daily recommended intake of Vitamin A and more than ten times the amount of Vitamin K, which is necessary for proper blod clotting. It also provides high levels of calcium and fiber, along with Vitamin C, potassium and manganese. Manganese is important in the formation of enzymes, insulin, and joint material and cartilage.

Blue-green Dinosaur or Lacinato kale is easy to grow and hardy

Blue-green Dinosaur or Lacinato kale is easy to grow and hardy

    Dinosaur Kale

I had no idea we could grow kale here in Hawaii until a neighbor down the street gave me some seeds and told me she had grown it easily. I tried it and have grown it ever since. It is one of the garden crops that is resistant to slugs and aphid damage and not prone to mildew or viral diseases. It takes the heat without getting tough or bitter, and mainland gardeners also report it can tolerate quite a lot of cold, too.

One of my favorite varieties is Dinosaur kale, also called Lacinato kale. It forms a flower-like rosette of elongated blue-green leaves. I have an old plant that has been in the garden for months now, providing greens whenever I need them. It continues to produce smaller clumps of leaves all over the main stem, which is now almost as tall as I am. I can definitely imagine it as one of the plants in the Jurassic Park landscape, although it gets its name from the squarish, bumpy, dinosaur-skin texture of its leaves.

Because it’s a thicker green, not as tender as lettuce, I chop it into small pieces when I eat it raw. But my preferred method is to saute or add kale to soups and stews, where its hearty texture provides great body.

    Sauteed Kale with Garlic

Extra virgin olive oil
Garlic, minced

I usually choose to discard (into the compost pile) the stems and cook only the leaves, since the stems require so much cooking that the chemical composition changes, and sulfur-related compounds are released, producing that much-detested, overcooked, stinky broccoli-like flavor.

Grasp the stem in one hand and wrap your fingers of the other hand around the base of the leaf. Move your hands apart, stripping the leaf off the stem.

Chop leaves. Add them to a pan with some extra virgin olive oil, a few cloves of chopped garlic, and a small amount of water.

Salt to taste, keeping in mind that kale, like all greens, will shrink to half the size when cooked.

Cover and saute, stirring occasionally, until kale is wilted but still bright green, which should take less than five minutes.

Chew well and enjoy, knowing you are eating one of the most nutritious vegetables on the planet!