Take vegetables beyond routine

Spinach Soup with nutmeg and creme fraiche.
Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Story by Russ Parsons
(Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Mon, Jun 20, 2011
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It occurred to me as I was pulling a pan of roasted potatoes out of the oven for what was probably the third time in as many weeks — I was getting in a rut.

And with the markets flooded with the first spring produce, I was feeling an urgent need to step outside my little roasted potato box and cook something different.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with roasted potatoes, particularly not when they’re those firm little Ozettes from Weiser Family Farms. Cut them in half lengthwise, slick them with olive oil, roast at 400 degrees for a half-hour, then give them a good stir and add seasonings (garlic, of course, salt and pepper, rosemary, onions, in the summertime even slivered red bell peppers) and continue roasting for 30 more minutes or so.

They’re perfect: well-browned, crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.

But three times in three weeks? That’s getting a little much.

So I spent a couple of weekends cooking from a half-dozen recent books — but only ones by authors I’d never read. I found two that I really loved — and they couldn’t be more different.

Well, actually, the food couldn’t be more different. Whereas Skye Gyngell’s food is quiet and (dare I say it?) feminine, Yotam Ottolenghi’s food is so vibrant it practically jumps off the page, with big flavors from what seems like a world atlas of cuisines.

What they have in common is that they’re both popular British chefs, though they are still largely unknown in the United States. That shouldn’t last long.

I first learned of Gyngell from our restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, who pronounced dinner at Gyngell’s Petersham Nurseries Cafe outside London one of her most memorable meals of last year.

The name stuck in my head, for obvious reasons (wasn’t that one of the good elves in “The Lord of the Rings”?). But the food sounded so good too. “Each dish was a perfect expression of the ingredients and the season,” Virbila wrote, adding that Gyngell made even old favorites seem new and exciting.

At the other end of the flavor spectrum is Ottolenghi, who runs four food shops and restaurants in the London area and is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.

He repeatedly refers to “Levantine” influences in his food, but besides the Middle East, there are also strong traces of Indian, Italian and French cooking. I guess in the end it could best be described as “Modern London.” Oh, and by the way, it’s all vegetarian.

In fact, so different are these two books that cooking from them at the same time could give you whiplash. If I had to choose between the two, I’d say I probably had more fun cooking from Ottolenghi — talk about a rut-buster, it’s totally different from my normal food — but I’ll probably wind up going back to Gyngell more often.

To make the tests more fun, I went to the market specifically looking not for my favorite ingredients but for vegetables that have fallen off my playlist — either ones I’ve largely forgotten about or ones I mostly use in background roles.

I mean, really, who looks forward to cooking carrots and spinach?

The first dish I tried was a carrot salad from Ottolenghi’s book “Plenty.” He says the salad is Moroccan — and it’s somewhat familiar in that way, with carrots cooked until tender but crisp and dressed with a complex spice mixture — but the finishing touch of yogurt and a couple of handfuls of cilantro (literally! 2 1/2 cups!) seems to take it someplace else entirely. Maybe Turkey? Who knows, but the flavors really pop.

Gyngell’s book is “A Year in My Kitchen.” Compared to Ottolenghi’s, her recipe for carrots with honey, lemon zest and thyme looked downright placid. Ho-hum. Simmer carrots in water and honey until they’re tender; increase the heat to reduce the glaze. Been there, done that. Cooking 101.

That is, until you taste it. The combination of astringent fresh thyme, aromatic lemon zest and slightly bitter honey (she recommends chestnut, Californians could also try avocado) coax a depth of flavor out of the carrots that is unexpected in such a simple preparation. These are glazed carrots like you’ve always wanted them to taste.

For spinach, I tried Ottolenghi’s pancakes topped with lime butter. Again, what knockout flavors: The pancakes were moist and tender and scented with cumin to complement the spinach. The lime butter was fresh and pointed and slightly spicy.

And again, I couldn’t tell exactly which cuisine it was from, but I am dead certain that wherever it is, I want to go back.

Still perhaps the most eye-opening dish of all was the spinach soup from Gyngell.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the procedure couldn’t be more basic: spinach coarsely pureed in chicken broth — though it does include a surprising amount of nutmeg (a full 1/2 teaspoon).

So simple, right? But it had such amazing clarity and depth of flavor that the first spoonful had me wondering why spinach had fallen from my favor.

Though there is probably at least three times as much nutmeg as I’ve ever used in a soup, it was barely discernable, serving only to make the spinach taste more like itself. I’ve cooked this dish twice more since that test.

Is that the start of a new rut? Maybe, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

———

CARROTS WITH HONEY, LEMON ZEST AND THYME

Total time: 35 minutes  Servings: 4

Adapted from “A Year in My Kitchen” by Skye Gyngell

  • 8 carrots
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 6 thyme sprigs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Peel the carrots and cut them into chunky slices on the diagonal. Place in a large saute pan and pour over enough cold water to just cover. Add the honey, butter, thyme and a generous pinch of salt. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until the carrots are almost tender, about 15 minutes.

2. Now, turn up the heat to boil the liquid rapidly until reduced to a shiny, sweet glaze — there should be 1 to 2 tablespoons of intensely flavored cooking liquor coating the carrots, nothing more. Squeeze over the lemon juice and check the seasoning. You’ll need a turn of the pepper mill and a pinch or two of salt, but no more.

3. Just before serving, sprinkle over the lemon zest.

Each serving: 178 calories; 1 gram protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 31 mg cholesterol; 12 grams sugar; 86 mg sodium.

———

SPICY MOROCCAN CARROT SALAD

Total time: 45 minutes, plus cooling time  Servings: 4

Adapted from “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi

  • 2 pounds carrots
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra to finish
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 serrano chile, finely chopped (and seeded, if you want less heat)
  • 1 green onion, finely chopped
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon
  • Salt
  • 2 1/2 cups cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped, plus extra to garnish
  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, chilled

1. Peel the carrots and cut them, depending on their size, into cylinders or semicircles one-half-inch thick; all the pieces should end up roughly the same size. Place in a large saucepan and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until tender but still crunchy, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and leave to dry out.

2. Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion over medium heat until soft and slightly brown, about 12 minutes. Add the cooked carrots to the onion, followed by the sugar, garlic, chile, onion, cloves, ground ginger, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, vinegar and preserved lemon.

3. Remove from the heat. Season liberally with salt, stir well and leave to cool.

4. Before serving, stir in the cilantro, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve in individual bowls with a dollop of yogurt, a drizzle of oil and a garnish of the extra cilantro.

Each serving: 317 calories; 5 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 14 grams sugar; 193 mg sodium.

———

SPINACH SOUP WITH NUTMEG AND CREME FRANCHE

Total time: 30 minutes  Servings: 4

Adapted from “A Year in My Kitchen” by Skye Gyngell

  • 10 ounces young, tender spinach leaves
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large shallots, finely sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • Generous 2/3 cup creme franche
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste
  • Grated lemon zest

1. Wash the spinach very well in several changes of water. Spinach tends to hold dirt, so make sure you wash it until the water runs clear. Drain and shake the spinach dry.

2. Place a large pan (big enough to hold the spinach) over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook until it just wilts (the water clinging to the leaves after washing generates enough steam for cooking), about 2 minutes. Immediately remove from heat. Drain the spinach in a colander, squeezing out any excess moisture, and set aside.

3. Rinse and dry the pan. Add the butter and melt gently over low heat until softly foaming, then add the shallots and sweat for 5 minutes, or until softened and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two, then season generously with salt and pepper.

4. Add the spinach and turn once or twice to combine, then pour in the stock and turn up the heat to high. Bring to a simmer, then immediately remove from the heat. Don’t overcook it or the spinach will turn color. Coarsely puree the soup using an immersion blender, or using a stand blender, in batches as necessary. Don’t puree it too fine or the soup will seem watery.

5. Return the soup to the pan and stir in the creme franche. Add the grated nutmeg, then check for seasoning — adding a little more nutmeg, pepper and/or salt to taste. Salt in particular is key to the flavor of this soup. Reheat gently and sprinkle with grated lemon zest just before serving. This makes a generous 5 cups of soup.

Each serving: 176 calories; 8 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 32 mg cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 156 mg sodium.

———

GREEN PANCAKES WITH LIME BUTTER

Total time: 45 minutes, plus chilling time for the butter  Servings: 4

Adapted from “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi

Lime butter

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • Grated zest of 1 lime
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon chile flakes

Put the butter in a medium bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon until it turns soft and creamy. Stir in the lime zest, lime juice, salt, white pepper, chopped cilantro, garlic and chile flakes. Spoon onto a sheet of plastic wrap and roll into a sausage shape. Twist the ends of the wrap to seal the flavored butter. Chill until firm. This makes a generous one-half cup butter, more than is needed for the remainder of the recipe; the butter will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

———

GREEN PANCAKES AND ASSEMBLY

  • 1/2 pound spinach, washed
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 6 green onions, finely sliced
  • 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
  • 1 egg white
  • Olive oil for frying

1. Wilt the spinach in a pan with a splash of water. Drain in a sieve and, when cool, squeeze hard with your hands to remove as much moisture as possible. Roughly chop and put aside.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, whole egg, melted butter, salt, cumin and milk in a large mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the green onions, chile and spinach, and mix with a fork. Beat the egg white to soft peaks and gently fold it into the batter.

3. Pour a small amount of olive oil into a heavy frying pan and place on medium-high heat. For each pancake, ladle 2 tablespoons of batter into the pan and press down gently. You should get smallish pancakes, about 3 inches in diameter and three-eighths-inch thick. Cook until you get a good golden-green color, about 2 minutes to a side. Transfer to paper towels and keep warm. Continue making pancakes, adding oil to the pan as needed, until the batter is used up.

4. To serve, pile up 3 warm pancakes per person and place a pat of flavored butter on top to melt.

Each serving: 427 calories; 8 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 96 mg cholesterol; 3 grams sugar; 780 mg sodium.

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