Greens with an Italian accent

Tuscan kale from Blue Heron Farms at the Aptos Farmers Market

Italians call it cavalo nero, or black cabbage.

Here it’s known as Tuscan, lacinato or even dinosaur kale – a relatively tender and mildly bitter member of the hardy brassica family. Although it’s not as beautiful as some of its ruffled, brightly hued cousins, it’s prized by cooks for its deep, savory flavor and meaty texture. It’s all 0ver farmers markets at this time of year, a sturdy bearer of calcium, iron and vitamins C and A in the heart of winter.

Tuscan kale is the star ingredient in Italian dishes from robust ribollita soup to a wintery bruschetta. It has a real affinity for beans and grains, making it a favorite with vegetarians. But it also partners well with pancetta or bacon.

Simply braised, kale can be a bit austere. Paired with garlic, onions and a little red wine vinegar, it becomes more interesting. Dressed with olives, red pepper flakes and a little lemon, it becomes a delightful side dish for roasted meats and poultry. Continue reading Greens with an Italian accent

Winter pasta worthy of a party

I know, I know. The rest of the country is shivering. Just look at those hundreds of thousands of hardy souls at the Capitol Mall, all bundled up with hats pulled down over their ears and scarves wrapped up to their chins as they witnessed history earlier today. The inauguration of our nation’s first African American president, a man who brings hope to so many, was an incredible moment and an inspiring sight. But it looked unbearably cold.

There’s a reason I live in California, albeit in the northern half of the state, which does get a taste of real winter now and then. Even so, it’s been unseasonably warm for the last week. With temperatures in the mid-70s, it’s felt as if spring had come and summer was on its way.

In the market, though, there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s winter. We’re down to root vegetables and hardy greens in the produce section unless we want to buy imported vegetables, which never taste as good as they look anyway.

This is the most challenging time of the year for anyone who wants to cook and eat seasonally. Thank goodness for canned tomatoes. They bring the bright flavors of summer to our winter meals.

I’ve been experimenting lately with a baked pasta that would bring out the best in winter produce while delivering the fresh, acidic jolt of ripe tomato. Continue reading Winter pasta worthy of a party

Tastings: A couple of products I like

For the first time in several years, I won’t be attending the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this weekend. If I were, I would be heading straight for the Food Should Taste Good booth to get another sample of their terrific tortilla chips flavored with black, green and kalamata olives.

A neighbor brought these chips to a New Year’s Eve party and I’ve been hooked ever since. I took them on a hike with some friends a few days later and they couldn’t stop eating them. The sturdy texture also made them good dippers for hummus.

Now, I’m not a big junk food eater and I generally avoid processed foods, but I make an exception for tortilla chips. Life is too short to pass up all the great flavor and satisfying crunch of good chips. I try not to buy them very often but I’ll rarely turn one down despite all the fat and sodium I know they harbor.

These chips remove a little of the guilt. They’re made with real food, including stone ground corn, sunflower or safflower oil, evaporated cane juice, sea salt and natural seasons – all organic. There isn’t an ingredient listed on the package that I can’t pronounce. Still, their calorie, fat and sodium counts are nearly as high as the big name commercial tortilla chips.

The brand offers a number of unusual flavors, including a chocolate version that I found a little odd but not as strange as I expected. Still, I’m sticking with the olives. It’s an inspired flavor combination. Continue reading Tastings: A couple of products I like

Soul-warming cassoulet in a slow cooker

Some people drool over Neiman-Marcus catalogs filled with designer clothes and $600 shoes. My guilty pleasure is cookware catalogs abrim with pricey pots and clever gadgets.

I always make time to thumb through the Williams-Sonoma catalog even though I rarely can afford anything on its glossy pages. That’s how I ran across Thomas Keller’s slow-cooker cassoulet, photographed temptingly in All-Clad’s shiny, deluxe slow cooker ($279.95, gasp, plus tax and shipping), last week.

Keller, of course, is All-Clad’s celebrity chef spokesman. He’s paid to tout their products, which always are top of the line with prices to match. On the other hand, he’s the man who turned The French Laundry into arguably the best restaurant in the country. His palate is pitch perfect.

If Keller was willing to put his name on a slow cooker cassoulet recipe, I felt compelled to try it.

Continue reading Soul-warming cassoulet in a slow cooker

Broccoli gets a makeover

Let’s face it, broccoli gets no respect.

George H. W. Bush won’t touch it and neither will my dad.

Even those of us who eat it all the time, don’t give it much thought. It’s the old reliable, always waiting in the market for that day when nothing more glamorous beckons. It’s pleasant enough when cooked properly, and no one disputes that it’s good for us with all those vitamins, calcium and fiber. Yet it’s rarely a show-stopper.

What broccoli needs is a makeover. That’s just what it gets from Ina Garten, the television cooking show star known as the Barefoot Contessa. In her latest cookbook, “Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics” (Clarkson Potter, 2008), she transforms the humble vegetable from a bit player into a star. Parmesan-roasted broccoli is guaranteed to impress even the skeptics still among us. Continue reading Broccoli gets a makeover