Three Lovely Salads

by Caroline

As I approach my tenth wedding anniversary, I’ve been reminiscing about our extravagant celebration of my parents’ fiftieth, a cruise in southern France, guided over by a wonderful crew, including the inimitable Chef Charlie. Charlie made every meal an event, and now when Eli asks to light the candles or Ben folds all our napkins in a new way, I think about what we all learned at Charlie’s table.

Of course, life is not a cruise through southern France, and there is no Chef Charlie here to make one of the things I loved most about this trip: our daily lunch of les trois salades. Here, it is just me with my vegetables, but with the farmer’s market and the CSA ramping up, I’m doing pretty well with some new combinations. Check these out:

wild rice salad with oranges & pumpkin seeds

The recipe came in our CSA box, and is credited to Jonathan Miller:

2 c cooked rice (I used a mix of brown and wild rices; this is, of course, a perfect use for leftovers)
the zest and juice of one orange
3-4 more oranges, peeled, sectioned, and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/3 c toasted pumpkin seeds
a handful of chopped cilantro or parsley
a handful of spinach leaves

Toss all the ingredients in a bowl, and season with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. You could also add some grilled fish or chicken to this, or crumble in some feta or ricotta salata.

Salad #2

chickpea and dried cherry salad

This one came from Real Simple magazine; the amounts are for 4-5 people, but, like any salad, it scales up and down easily, and to taste.

6 cups of mesclun (I had baby romaine, arugula flowers, and miner’s lettuce, so it was particularly pretty)
2 carrots, scrubbed or peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 15 oz can chickpeas, rinsed
1/2 c dried cherries (a staple in my house since I discovered this recipe)
1/4 c fresh dill sprigs
4 – 5 T vinaigrette

Toss all the ingredients together, season to taste with salt & pepper, and serve.

And finally, courtesy of one of my food heroes, Jamie Oliver, comes the tarragon salad.

tarragon salad with grapes & shallots

Again, the measurements aren’t entirely precise here (I’m sure my handfuls are smaller than Jamie Oliver’s) but it’s a salad: use amounts that look good to you.

2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
a pinch of sugar
4 T white wine vinegar
4 small bunches of fresh tarragon, leaves picked from the stems
4 handfuls of green and red seedless grapes, sliced in half
ricotta salata or pecorino cheese, grated on top, to taste

salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste

Toss the shallots with the sugar and vinegar and let sit a few minutes, while you pick over the tarragon and slice the grapes. Toss the tarragon with the grapes, shallots, and some of the shallot-y vinegar. Grate cheese over the top, and season with salt, pepper and olive oil.

If you don’t have lots of tarragon, or don’t want a full salad of it, by all means augment with other greens. But try it just once with nothing but tarragon; it’s delicious, and truly, you will feel transported. Perhaps not all the way to southern France, but pour a crisp white wine and slice some crusty bread, and you’re almost there…

The 2A Farmer’s Market

by Caroline

The 2nd grade curriculum at my son’s school is built partly on the study of communities, so every month or so there is a field trip to a different part of the city, where the kids hear stories about the neighborhood and eat some snacks: fried chicken feet in Chinatown, tacos in the Mission, you get the idea. The Civic Center field trip was timed to hit the Farmer’s Market, and although Ben missed it because of a nasty case of strep throat, the kids had such a ball, tasting fresh produce and chatting with the farmers, that the 2nd grade teachers decided to put on a classroom farmer’s market the following week.

The kids were assigned a single fruit or vegetable, and worked with partners to create informational posters about their produce:

Ben was assigned the orange, and not only did it give us a nice excuse to talk with the orange farmer at our neighborhood market, but (at my dad’s suggestion) we checked out John McPhee’s lovely book on oranges and learned this:

“Botanically, [oranges] are spectacularly complicated. They can be completely unripe when they are a brilliant orange and deliciously ripe when they are as green as emeralds. An orange grown on one side of a tree is better than an orange grown on the other side. Citrus is so genetically perverse that oranges can grow from lime seeds. Most California lemons grow on orange roots. Most Florida oranges grow on lemon roots.”

Oranges are crazy! And they’re also delicious. The farmer’s market offered naval oranges, Valencia oranges, and Moro oranges, so we bought some of each for Ben to cut up and share with the students, parents, and school staff who came to the market. He even wore an orange shirt for the occasion.

Ben loved the project, as his enthusiastic classmates clearly did, too. And I loved seeing food and farming get such close attention in the classroom. Now all we have to do is find room at the school for a garden…

Chard with Caramelized Shallots & Orange

by Caroline

This recipe, from Mark Bittman’s indispensable How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, is my new favorite way to eat chard; the only flaw in the recipe as he writes it, I think, is that he calls it simply “Chard with Oranges and Shallots.” Why, when you have the chance to use one of the most appealing food words in the English language, would you skip it? But Bittman is a busy guy with a thousand recipes to cover, so I can understand why he skips the adjective. Not me, though. The shallots and orange are caramelized here, and that adds greatly to the appeal of the dish (if you really don’t think you’ll like the chewy bits of peel, then by all means, peel the fruit before you add it, but I think it adds a nice contrast to the tender chard leaves).

This would make a great side dish, of course, but I’ve been eating it all week on a bed of Trader Joe’s harvest grains, a pilaf you can recreate yourself with Israeli couscous and lentils or split peas. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and maybe add a drizzle of yogurt, and you’ve got yourself a terrific lunch.

1 lb chard
2 T olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 T sugar
1 small, unpeeled orange or tangerine, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 T sherry vinegar
salt & ground pepper

Strip the chard leaves from the stems. Cut the leaves into wide ribbons — the quickest way to do this is to stack a number of leaves, roll them up into a cylinder and then slice the cylinder. Then, keeping the stems separate, slice them into bite-sized pieces.

Pour the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and sugar and cook for a minute, then add the orange or tangerine bits and lower the heat to low. Cook, stirring frequently, until everything is caramelized, about 10 minutes. Stir in the vinegar. It looked so beautiful at this stage, and smelled so fabulous, that I paused to take a picture:

Raise the heat to medium and stir in the chard stems. Cook, stirring once or twice, until they soften a bit, just a couple minutes. Add the chard ribbons, cover the pan and turn off the heat. Let the chard steam for a few minutes, then stir and recover the pan for another 2-3 minutes. I didn’t really believe this would be enough time or heat to cook the chard, but it absolutely is — the chard turns out beautifully tender.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve right away, or within an hour or two at room temperature.

Social Shopping

by Caroline

I love peeking in other people’s shopping bags and baskets. The other day a fellow Trader Joe’s shopper snagged my cart by accident and as I wheeled hers up and down the aisles, I marveled at what different groceries she found — it was as if we were shopping in different stores — but after I retrieved my cart, I paused at the cookie aisle to pick up a box of the maple leaf cream sandwiches I’d seen in hers.

At the grocery store, I like to imagine what’s on a fellow shopper’s menu based on what I see go down the conveyor belt ahead of my purchases. Recently, it was 4 white onions, a can of frozen limeade, and a bag of ice. Um, onion tart and margaritas? One can only hope. For me, the grocery store is more for last minute pick-ups than the big weekly shop, so I wind up with random assortments like this:

That’s a basket that says I’m really hungry (sushi & mojo bar), Eli is hungry and I’m too hungry myself to maintain high standards (Annie’s canned spaghetti-Os); but I have Ben on my mind, too: there’s a birthday cake to decorate (milk chocolate for the frosting; candles; colored sugar sprinkles); and I’m wondering if he might like adzuki beans better than cannellini (I’m trying to up his iron intake) so I grab a can rather than invest the time in dried.

But nobody asked me about my basket, because at the grocery store, it seems, that’s unseemly. Is it because at the grocery store we’re more likely to buy packaged foods — dump and heat things — rather than items we actually cook? Or is that just me? Maybe it’s just the atmosphere of the store which makes it a place folks don’t typically chat about their choices.

Regardless, it’s one more reason why I love shopping at the farmer’s market. Here, we’re all buying fresh ingredients, and both the other shoppers and the farmers are happy to share ideas about what to do with them. Don’t know how to prepare agretti? Ask the guy who’s buying a pound! We ate broccolini recently, and the boys studied the buds closely, unable to remember what a broccoli flower looks like. At the Sunday market, one of the farmers had both flowering broccolini and flowering arugula, which I’d never seen. What to do with them? Saute the first, salad the second, said the nice farmer from Marin Roots. So I bought bunches of each and the boys nibbled on the flowers like little goats. The verdict? thumbs up on the flowering broc, but the arugula flowers, while tasty in my salad, were too spicy for the boys’ taste. This time of year, the farmers are starting to pile up all sorts of new greens on their tables, and if you ask me, it’s fun to share what we’re doing with them.

California out the window

by Caroline

Every Sunday morning, just two blocks from my house, our neighborhood farmer’s market lets me witness the seasonal cycles of California produce and other farm products. Valentine’s Day was the last day for satsumas, for instance, so I bought several pounds for our trip; the woman who sells me eggs explained she’d run out earlier than usual because “The ladies are slowing down.” Our farmer’s market, like many, is made up of small family farms: they bring their kids; they borrow change from the neighboring stand; they may run out of produce and close up early. California agriculture as seen from my farmer’s market every week is low-key and pretty casual.

The California agriculture I saw out the car window last week on our road trip is an enormous machine; it’s the California that feeds this country. One statistic I read says that the state grows “more than half the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts from less than 4% of the nation’s farmland.” Driving across that less than 4%, as we did on our drive east and south to Yosemite, and then south some more and west to Santa Barbara, is hugely educational and although I’ve done the drive before, doing it with the kids this time I paid even more attention than usual. I highly recommend loading up the car with the kids, snacks, and books and doing it yourself some day if you can.

This time of year, the orchards are just starting to bloom; we passed almonds, walnuts, peaches and other stone fruit (it’s hard to tell the difference between all the different trees from 70 mph). We saw orange groves that stretched out to the horizon, the trees heavy with big orange globes, and then, as we got closer to Santa Barbara, the spreading branches and shaggy leaves of avocados, their fruit hanging like so many heavy green rain drops. We passed farm stands advertising lobster tails and avocados at 10 for a dollar but because we were nearing the final miles of a six-hour drive and a stop would have made it hard to get the kids ever back into the car, I thought a little sadly of lobster tail burritos with guacamole, and we drove on.

In southern California I was lucky enough to visit two farmer’s markets: a small one in Montecito, and a much bigger one in Santa Barbara. I counted five different kinds of avocados (Pinkerton, Fuerte, Bacon, Hass, Zutano) and was amazed to see that it was already spring, from a produce perspective: the farmers offered snap peas, asparagus, strawberries and loads of tender herbs (at which point I finally remembered to take out my camera):

Then there was the small slice of California agriculture we saw out the window of our cousins’ home; they’re renting a place where the backyard is planted with a half dozen avocado trees. The New Yorker in me was amazed at the bounty (sadly none of it ripe):

The kids just loved playing with the great sticks and the dried-out pits that had fallen from the trees. Our cousins have a lemon tree, too, and this again, for someone who is tending one small potted lemon tree and finally got one planted in the ground this spring, amazed me; even the kids were notably impressed by the size of some of the fruits:

Driving from Santa Barbara back home, our car now fragrant with a grocery bag full of lemons, we crossed miles of grape vines, producing for both wine and table; acres of romaine and other lettuces; and plenty more fruit and nut orchards before the landscape gave way to the beautifully soft, uncultivated green hills of the South Bay. The farms represented at our neighborhood market aren’t visible from these big highways, but now that we’re home I can’t wait to see what they’re selling this week.