Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sweet Pea Smothered Starch Stacks

Well it’s hard to explain how this recipe came to fruition. It went from a request for polenta to a glance at ramekins with a need for green in between.

It’s no secret: I’m in love with spring flavors right now. Even though our spring doesn’t consist of the same edibles I was used to growing up, there is still a lot of freshly picked produce to play with in the Southwest and planning meals around seasonal ingredients is a fresh and inspirational no matter what’s in season where you live. Right now we’re getting lots of roots and greens which were lovely in this recipe. But in this case, contrary to most cases in which the produce drawer is where the recipe starts, the idea came from a request for a common Italian staple. From there I tried to branch out with other ideas to include spring elements.

Springtime polenta? Does that even make sense? I always think of polenta as a rich, warm, comfort food – not a light, fresh, seasonal dish. That’s what I like about cooking though. Trying to figure out how to play with flavors in unusual ways is my favorite way to spend a Thursday night. I know that makes me a dork, but those I feed don’t complain. In my mind, I just had to mix in some green shades to make polenta taste a little lighter.

I can’t really explain the whole stack idea other than wanting an opportunity to use my ramekins, but the stack style worked (somehow). Peas stood in very well for basil in the pesto and gave this a bright and lovely hue. Sweet and savory with a nice little garlic punch. Though the polenta and spinach slid out very easily, the vegetables actually stuck inside the ramekins. I just scooped em out and spread em over the stacks as best I could (you can’t win them all). It was still delicious. The process was actually much less labor intensive as it seems and really didn’t take long to prepare. If anything, you could just prepare each layer and skip the assembly. If you’re adventurous, happy stacking!

Polenta Stacks with Sweet Pea Pesto
Makes: 3-4 servings
Cook time: 1 hour


Layer 1
1 large parsnip, grated
1 large carrot, grated
1 small red onion, grated
1/4 c. water
1 1/2 T. egg replacer or garbanzo flour
Dash of nutmeg

Layer 2
4 c. spinach

Layer 3
4 c. water
1 c. polenta
1/4 c. nutritional yeast
1 T. yellow mustard
1 T. mellow white miso
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. salt
Dash of white pepper

Finishing touches
2 c. fresh or frozen sweet peas
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 lemon, peeled and seeded
3 T. nutritional yeast
3 T. pine nuts
Veggie broth
Salt to taste


Preheat oven to 400F. Coat 8 ramekins with cooking spray and set in a roasting pan or cookie sheet.

For the first layer, combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Scoop about 1/4 cup of the mixture into ramekins and press to make an even layer. Bake in oven 20-30 minutes while you prepare the spinach and polenta.

Next, blanch the spinach. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and add spinach. Cook about 30 seconds or until spinach is bright green and just wilted. Drain and run under cool water to stop cooking. Set aside.

To make the polenta, bring 4 cups of water/broth to a boil in a medium sauce pan. When boiling, stir liquid in a circular motion and slowly pour in polenta. Whisk polenta well to avoid clumping. When polenta begins to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer over low heat. Stir every minute or so until polenta starts to get sticky, switching from a whisk to spatula or wooden spoon as it becomes more and more sticky. Add remaining ingredients and cook until polenta pulls away from pan. Turn off heat.

Remove baking veggies from oven and increase heat to 450F. Carefully layer a few tablespoons of spinach and about 1/3 cup of polenta evenly over veggies. Press to ensure polenta completely seals the tops. Place stacks back into oven and cook another 20-30 minutes or until polenta is firm and starts to brown on top.

Meanwhile, make the sweet pea pesto. Combine first 5 ingredients in a food processor (yep, the whole lemon flesh, not just the juice). Process on high with an S blade until mixture is pureed. While processor is running, add veggie broth 2 tablespoons at a time until desired consistency is reached. Season with salt to taste and white pepper if desired.

To serve, remove ramekins from oven when done and let cool 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle with a dish towel. Place a small salad plate over the top of one ramekin and flip over. Tap the ramekin with the butt of a knife or spatula to loosen the stack. Slowly lift the ramekin. If the veggies stick, just scoop them out and layer them on top of the stack. Repeat with remaining ramekins and serve each with a dollop or drizzle of sweet pea pesto.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Springtime Udon Bowl

Springtime in Arizona feels a little different than the rest of the country because the temperature change involves the 70s, 80s, and 90s which are not typically numbers associated with this particular equinox. However, the blossoms, smells and flavors help remind us of the lovely transformation going on everywhere else. On my morning runs, I’ve been almost overwhelmed by the smell of citrus blossoms and almost injured by the rogue oranges covering the sidewalk. Spring is light, lovely, and inspirational. Most importantly it’s a sign of abundant produce starting to clutter tables at farmers markets. Time to grease up those elbows and fight your fellow hippies for that last bunch of pea tendrils!

Stir fry is a terrific way to catch seasonal flavors. It’s versatile, delicious, fast and easy to prepare. Having been out of town all weekend and unable to cook, I was itching for a stove session. I hadn’t even looked inside my produce drawer in 4 days so I had no idea what was in stock. This of course made the plane ride that much longer, because I couldn’t distract myself with dinner details… what to prepare first, how long it might take, spices I haven’t used in a while, etc. I seldom travel without concocting a recipe at some point out of boredom.

I did know one thing though: despite my eagerness to cook, my arrival time plus the transit home put me in my kitchen at about 8:45 pm and I did not want an elaborate or difficult dish. The source of this recipe was one from which most of my best meals originate and one regular readers will be familiar with – kitchen cleansing. Getting rid of the last cup of beans, the last leaves of spinach or that last handful of pasta. Taking an oddball combination and slapping a good dose of garlic on it.

Most people feel lucky to find a $5 bill in their jeans pocket, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of local chard in my refrigerator that I had totally forgotten was purchased on impulse last week. Not a typical ingredient in Asian cuisine, I thought chard would stand in nicely for bok choy. The other ingredients here could be replaced with any number of veggies typically found in stir fry: snow peas, red pepper, mushrooms, etc. But the combination I used produced such a fresh, springtime taste that I highly recommend taking some seasonal picks that wouldn’t normally end up in a stir fry and seeing how they mesh with standard stir fry flavors: garlic, ginger, soy sauce with a little sweet ‘n spicy touch. You could use rice here as well, but udon noodles are more fun to eat.

Springtime Udon Bowl
Makes: 1 serving
Cook time: 15 minutes


1-2 tsp. Sriracha
½ tsp. cornstarch
½ T. brown sugar, agave, or raw sugar
½ - ¾ T. soy sauce or tamari
¼ c. water

1 tsp. coconut oil
2 T. shallots, sliced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. fresh ginger, minced
1 medium celery stalk, chopped
½ c. green beans, chopped
4-5 swiss chard leaves, chopped, stems and leaves & divided
½ c. purple cabbage, chopped
Fresh cilantro

2 oz. udon noodles (about ½ ” thick stack of dry noodles)


To make the sauce, whisk first 5 ingredients together in a small bowl and make sure cornstarch is well dissolved. Set aside.

Heat a wok or skillet over medium high heat and melt coconut oil when pan is hot. Reduce heat to medium and add shallots, garlic, and ginger. Stir fry for about 30 seconds or until fragrant and add celery, green beans and chard stems. Cook for 3-4 minutes until vegetables become translucent, adding 2 tablespoons of water (or sake or mirin if you have it) at a time if pan becomes too dry. Increase heat back to medium high and add chard leaves and cabbage and cook until chard begins to wilt, 2-3 minutes. Finally add stir fry sauce and cook until thickened, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and set aside.

While the stir fry is cooking, bring water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Cook noodles 5 minutes or until tender. Drain and mix in with vegetables when done. Top with fresh cilantro.