Saturday, July 18, 2009

Salad: The Xtreme Edition


Today's topic? "Xtreme" salads. For a post with this kind of title, I'd ordinarily start off with some kind of apologetic, sarcastic bit about how my yuppie life is so predictable that eating salad might qualify as being extreme.

But not today. Because even if my yuppie life was completely wild and crazy (and not, um, boring), today's salad would still be extreme. And not because it has raisins, or buttermilk, or (gasp!) mayonnaise, but because the main ingredient is kale. No, not kale. RAW kale.

Honestly, I didn't ever expect the words "raw kale" to appear in a recipe on Red Ramekin. Indeed, the only time I'd ever encountered raw kale in my kitchen before was when I was reaching deep into my refrigerator, pushing the raw kale aside to get to that jar of something or other, or perhaps when I was depositing the now rotting (raw) kale into the trash can despite my good intentions while grocery shopping.

The thing about kale is that it often just doesn't taste all that good. Sure, I've done the reading and seen the stats and know just how unbelievably healthy kale is. It is, after all, one of the darkest and leafiest greens I've ever seen. It's mostly for this reason that I'd tried time and again to prepare it so that I actually want to eat it. But, while I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, I'd never been successful. In soups it's too tough, in sautes it's too bitter, and in general, eating kale usually brings to mind an image of the cook chopping up dark green rain slickers and tossing them into a frying pan with garlic and olive oil. Garlic and olive oil can hide some flaws, but not flaws of kale-like proportions.


Since I'm into the whole "health" thing, it always bothered me - just a little bit - that I didn't like kale. But despite my healthiness, I don't eat food that isn't delicious, and chard or spinach or bok choy always seemed like an infinitely more appealing source of leafy-greenness than kale. However, I'm not one to just give up on something kitchen-related, especially if it involves vegetables.

I've been inspired by the regal-looking lacinato kale at my farmers market this season to finally find a good way of preparing it. After a bit of experimentation, I can finally say that I've found it. And, as you might have guessed, the method doesn't even involve cooking.

But let me just be frank for a moment. Kale is still kale. Although now that I've learned how to use it and I really and truly like it, it's not going to replace my soft bunches of rainbow chard or my always-have-it-on-hand frozen spinach. What I've learned about kale is that although you might think it's like chard or spinach - versatile and easy to toss into sautes, soups, stews, and anything else you can think of, it's not. It's more like broccoli, in fact, both in terms of flavor and texture. It has a distinct sulfury potency (which can be delicious, but not in everything), and even after a veritable braise it will hold its shape, sometimes quite stubbornly.


No, kale is no chard, which will become supple with a bit of heat and oil and yield to a pinch of curry powder or some minced garlic. When it comes to kale, you need to douse it with vinegar, drown it in buttermilk, pummel it with almonds and raisins, and beat it into submission with a healthy glop of mayo. But damn if it's not tasty, and we all know that no amount of mayo can take away the unadulterated healthfulness of the stuff (but don't worry, I only used a smidge).

So, here it is. My raw kale salad, most notable for the fact that it actually tastes good. Almost like a good cole slaw, but kale-ier. Kale slaw, if you will. The recipe below was inspired by the recent proliferation of raw broccoli salads on the blogosphere (see here and here), all of which seem to include buttermilk, mayonnaise, and a dried fruit and nut combination to round out the taste of the raw vegetable. Given the afore-mentioned similarities between broccoli and kale, I thought this technique might be a winner with kale, and I was right. I considerably reduced the amount of mayo in this recipe because it's not something I usually use, but I happened to have some on hand and it does help the consistency and flavor of the dressing (and seriously, it's just canola oil and eggs - not nearly as "gross" as people claim it to be).

The key to this salad is slicing the kale in very thin ribbons, to ensure that it gets appropriately softened by the dressing. I slice it by first removing the stalks (you must remove them), then by laying the leaves on top of each other and slicing almost into a chiffonade. You should also let the salad sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving, if possible. And finally, this amount of dressing is perfect for an average-sized bunch of kale; adjust accordingly for larger or smaller bunches, but be aware that there is supposed to be a good amount of dressing on the greens. I'm all for a lightly dressed salad now and then, but you don't beat kale into submission with a drizzle of your finest olive oil, trust me. This should do the trick, though. Who knows? Maybe you'll be the next convert to the wonderful ways of kale.


Extreme Raw Kale Salad

1 bunch lacinato kale (also called dinosaur or Tuscan kale)
4-5 scallions, minced
generous 1/3 c. buttermilk
2-4 tbs. plain yogurt
1 tbs. mayonnaise
1 tbs. apple cider vinegar
generous 1 tbs. grainy mustard
1 tsp. honey
salt and pepper, to taste
handful of raisins
handful of chopped or sliced almonds

Directions:

Carefully wash kale and remove the stalk from each leaf (the entire stalk, not just the bottom part). Stack leaves and slice into very thin ribbons. Place kale in a large bowl, and add the minced scallions. Toss to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, yogurt, mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, and honey. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour dressing over kale, and toss until kale is evenly coated with dressing. Add raisins and almonds and toss again, lightly. Transfer salad to a container with a lid and let sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving. Adjust for seasonings once more before serving.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jicamuffins


In my kitchen, there are generally two types of recipes that come to be made and eaten. The first are the planned, schemed, dreamed, or otherwise formulated recipes that I make after lots of thinking about ingredients and flavors. They are the ones that start with a simple idea or combination (pistachio and coconut? beets and curry? tahini and lemon?) and then finally come to fruition after lots of thinking, mental tweaking, and, generally, a trip to the grocery store.

And then there are the by-the-seat-of-your-pants recipes - the ones that just sort of happen, depending on my mood or the time of day or the slightly past their prime specimens in the refrigerator that need to get used up sooner rather than later. No, I don't dream about the happy marriage of things like cabbage and goat cheese, but sometimes the whims of my pantry demand a little open-mindedness.

Today's recipe is of the latter variety; something born out of a combination of necessity and curiosity. The starring ingredients? Jicama, cottage cheese, and Chinese 5-spice powder. Just like mom used to make, right?


Well, though they may not sound like a winning trio, they sure got the job done with these quick and lovely mini-muffins: jicamuffins, if you'll indulge my weakness for cloyingly cute recipe titles.

So how did they come to be? It started with the farmers market. Here in cold and dreary Boston (It's rainy day #14 and I'm about to build myself an ark), the farmers market doesn't get started until May, and even then, it's slim pickings. When I went during those first couple of weeks, all I could find were a few greens and an army of seedlings, which don't really have a place in my balcony-free apartment.

But I've resumed my semi-weekly trips recently, and it seems that in a matter of mere days, the farmers market has exploded into summer and is bursting with all sorts of good things to eat. Which is all to say that, when I used only half of that bulb of jicama a week ago, I wasn't expecting it to get fully eclipsed by so much delicious, fresh produce. But it did, and there I was, with an unloved, half-eaten, slightly desiccated chunk of the stuff in my refrigerator.


And then there's the cottage cheese. Fat-free cottage cheese, no less, which seemed like a fine and proteinacious idea when I was at the store, but ultimately, was not. It's that kind of fat-free stuff that has a weird texture to over-compensate for its leanness and that really has no place in my fridge when for about 2 calories more I could just eat a perfectly reasonable 1% version. Without the sliminess.

Finally, there's my 5-spice powder, the product of a recent buying spree at one of my favorite online retailers, Penzey's Spices. Every time I go, usually just to stock up on cinnamon or Telicherry peppercorns or some other necessity, I find something new. And this time, it was 5-spice powder. I had seen it used before and it seemed like something I would love, and I was so excited when it arrived a week or so ago. However, I hadn't yet found the time to use it, and I was getting anxious, so jicama and cottage cheese seemed as good complements as any, and before I knew it, there I was, mixing up a batch of jicama, cottage cheese, and 5-spice mini-muffins.

The verdict? Well, I am in love with the 5-spice powder, that much is obvious. The subtle hit of anise, mixed with warm spices and, my favorite, ginger, is really wonderful. And the muffins? Surprisingly enough, they were a hit, too. Even Jonathan sang his praises, despite the relative healthiness of this recipe and the chunks of chopped, crystallized ginger that I couldn't help but add to the batter.

It turns out that jicama, when grated and added to baked goods, lends an apple-y sweetness and plenty of moisture, almost like carrot or zucchini in their respective baking applications. And the ginger, of course, is perfect with the flavor of the 5-spice. It also serves to add a little extra sweetness to these generally not-too-sweet muffins. While I found the mini size to be perfect for these muffins, I've received several (OK, one) request to make them standard size in the future. That must be a good sign, right?

As always, a couple of notes: I grated the jicama for these muffins using the large holes of a box grater. Once grated, I gave the jicama a good, hard squeeze to get rid of extra water. I then fluffed with a fork and measured. I decided to weigh the jicama, because when it comes to volume of grated, squeezed, fluffed jicama, my 2 cups could be somebody else's quart, or teaspoon, for that matter. So, 200 grams of squeezed jicama it is. But if you have to use volume, shoot for about 2 cups. Or a big ole' bunch, or a small-sized bulb's worth...you get the idea.


When mixing up the batter for these, you'll see that it is at first very dry. This is because the jicama has lots of moisture, and a wet batter will results in overly chewy, gummy muffins. And I like my muffins a tad on the crumbly side. So, just keep stirring and smooshing until the batter is uniform and moist. It should be a bit stiff, but definitely still muffin batter-y. If it is truly too dry, add a splash or two of milk to moisten things up.

Finally, I used cottage cheese for the afore-mentioned reasons, which necessitates a spin in the food processor (to get rid of the chunks). Although I haven't tried it, using yogurt, sour cream, mascarpone, or some other soft dairy product would probably be fine, too. I'll leave it to you, and to whatever your fridge happens to be demanding of you at the moment. Enjoy!


Jicamuffins (makes 24 mini-muffins)

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 tbs. turbinado sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. Chinese 5-spice powder
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch ground nutmeg
200 grams grated, squeezed jicama (about 2 c.)
1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 c. cottage cheese
1 egg
2 tbs. olive oil
1/4 c. applesauce
1 tbs. agave nectar or honey

Directions:

Mix flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and spices in a mixing bowl, and set aside. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the cottage cheese, applesauce, agave, oil, and egg. Blend until smooth, and set aside. Grate a large chunk of jicama using a box grater, and thoroughly squeeze to remove excess water. Once squeezed, weigh jicama using a kitchen scale - you should have 200 grams, or about 2 cups' worth of squeezed, fluffed jicama. Add wet ingredients, jicama, and ginger to the flour mixture and stir to combine. The batter will seem very dry at first, but continue mixing; the jicama will still have plenty of moisture to release to create a stiff muffin batter. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into mini-muffin tins, filling to the top. Bake at 375 degrees for about 18 minutes, until golden brown and firm to the touch.