Small, Snobby Miracles...

It's that time of year when small miracles come out of the garden. It's that time of year when I'm a total snob in the grocery store, self-righteously pushing my cart past the greens, carrots and peas because (sniff) I have my own thank you very much.

I gave peas a chance and as usual I'm glad I did. There's nothing like them. True, it's a lot of work for a small yield, but shelling peas is almost as satisfying as eating them. As for eating, I've been observing and I noticed that as a side dish, you really don't consume more than a serving spoon of peas at a dinner sitting. A little is enough. And when you picked them twenty minutes ago, blanched them for 30 seconds and served them with a pat of butter and a little salt and pepper, it's plenty.

Now you know what else is awesome? Swiss chard. I've never grown it before and frankly, where the hell have I been? I picked yellow and pink because hey, if vegetables come in yellow and pink, you should grow them. And it is a snap. Sow. Grow. Pick. Wash. Chop or don't chop. Saute in a bunch of garlic cloves, olive oil, butter, salt and pepper until wilted. Add a little chicken broth, cover and braise. Flush proudly when your husband drinks the pot liquor and demands, "Grow more."

Oh, by the way, these turkey-veggie meatballs are a knock-off the famous Martha Stewart meat loaf recipe. It's a great way to get rid of any leftover steamed broccoli or cauliflower, or both.  Carrots, celery, onion, garlic—just throw it all in there.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Yellow Rice and Peas


I promised Stacie I'd tell her about yellow rice and peas although there's really not much to tell. I buy it pre-made in the store and it makes itself in like 20 seconds. Yes, one can make their own Mexican-style saffron rice but I've never had good luck with the recipes. I think it's the turmeric. Turmeric and I do not get along.

So Vigo brand it is, Goya also makes a nice mix. For the last five minutes of cooking I throw in half a bag of frozen peas. Redman is very passionate about yellow rice and peas, it's one of his very favorite things for dinner. I love it for sheer convenience but also because it goes with just about anything: it can be the backbone of a vegetarian meal, or it cozies nicely up to roast chicken, breaded chicken, grilled fish, grilled shrimp, meat loaf, tuna cakes. It's the little black dress of your pantry.

I have a soft spot for rice and peas myself. My junior year of high school, I went for two weeks to La Rochelle, France on an exchange program. My host student was named Christophe Roland. He had a reputation as a punk and I didn't know how we were going to get along. We had zero in common yet within two days we were brother and sister. He loved American music and I spent many an hour mooching his cigarettes and translating lyrics for him.

"Listen, what is this," he said, putting on Modern English. "These words...making love to you was never second best. What does that mean?"

I gave him a look. "What does making love mean?"

"I know what making love means, stupid," he said, laughing out a cloud of smoke. "What does he mean was never second best?"

Christopher was something of a loner within the Lycée. His best friend was in his twenties and lived alone in the center of La Rochelle. Christophe took me to his apartment one night and the two young men cooked for me. I was not allowed to help. They were like Oscar and Felix. It was hilarious, and also touching, to watch them collide and bicker in the kitchen, earnestly working to make this meal. Finally they marched out, beaming, bearing grilled fish with a side dish of rice and peas. I was seventeen and felt I had arrived among the ultra hip.

That dinner was not second best.

Amy and the Pesto Pea Salad, three summers ago...maybe four...oh forget it. Once upon a time, we were out in Montauk with our friends Chris and Amy. Amy is a personal trainer, triathlete, and a completely insane cook. Wherever she is, there will be something good to eat.

Before this particular long weekend, I was only vaguely aware of the name Ina Garten (I refer to this era as my ignorant youth). From her kitchen bookshelf, Amy pulled out Barefoot Contessa: At Home, began flipping through pages and said, "There's this little salad I really want to try..."

Little salad. Yeah right. This turned out to be a tremendous salad. It is baby spinach tossed with pesto, peas and pine nuts. Amy whipped it up our first night in Montauk and served it with...I think it was flank steak but I honestly don't remember, I was so consumed with the salad. There wasn't a shred left at the end of the meal and I picked every last pine nut out of the bowl.

The next day, Jeeps and I were hanging around the kitchen while Amy mused about what to make for dinner that night. 

"I have shrimp," she said, poking around in the fridge. "There's this scampi recipe I want to try and I could serve it over pasta, I think I have linguini..."

Jeeps and I exchanged one single, telepathic glance.

"Can we make the spinach salad again?" I asked. "And just serve the shrimp on that?"

Amy popped her head out of a cupboard with raised eyebrows. "Sure!" she laughed. She is an exemplary hostess.

So we ate the salad again with shrimp. That night I ordered my own copy of Barefoot Contessa: At Home so I would never again be without this recipe. I went back home a changed woman. I began bringing that salad with me to parties. Everywhere I took it, it was a hit. 

I give it now to you. Go forth and be a hit.

Barefoot Contessa Pesto Pea Salad

(This is the exact recipe measurements from the book; eventually it becomes something you don't measure)

  • 2 cups frozen peas, thawed (about 1/2 bag)
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted (toast them in a dry saute pan over medium heat, tossing often, until browned. Babysit them as they will burn easily. And by the way, 2 tablespoons turned into more like 1/3 cup for me because I do love me some pignolis)
  • 2 1/2 cups baby spinach (I know, I've never measured cups of salad leaves either)
  • 4 tablespoons pesto (according to your methods, you can hear about mine here)

To assemble the salad, put the spinach in your salad bowl, sprinkle 3/4 of the peas and 1/2 of the pine nuts over the spinach.  Add the pesto and toss. This is more blithe than it sounds. In the beginning the pesto will just be glop and you will fret that it will never distribute evenly over the leaves. It will. Keep scraping it off the salad spoons and keep tossing. It eventually incorporates and it will be beautiful. 

Once it's beautiful, sprinkle the rest of the peas and pine nuts attractively over the top, and then give a nice sprinkle of parmesan. Step back and admire. It's beautiful. You are beautiful.

This salad goes with everything and it can even stand alone. It's terrific with steak, chicken, shrimp and fish. In summer, it goes great with a big platter of corn on the cob, and another plate of sliced tomatoes.

Note: if you bring this salad to a party, don't bring it composed. Bring the ingredients and your salad bowl and assemble it just before the meal is served. Reason being the salad leaves absorb the pesto and very quickly go limp. Which is not beautiful.

A Creative Use of Leftovers

Redman loves rice, all kinds. Yellow rice and peas especially. But what can you do with the rest of it two days later? Or any kind of leftover rice/pea or rice/bean dish?

You can mix 2 or 3 eggs into it, form into patties and fry them up. They go well on top of a salad, or on the side of soup. Served with steamed broccoli and fennel-celery slaw, it all makes for a very nice vegetarian meal.

Speaking of which, some of you have asked if I am striving towards more vegetarian fare. I'm not, although it is a healthier way of eating and I get a lot of good ideas from the Moosewood Cookbook, and also from Stacey Snacks, who has her Meatless Mondays. We're not shy about eating meat around here, but Jeeps and I are pretty in sync about when we need to pull back and go with the plant life. When my vegetable garden is in full swing, we definitely eat less meat.

By the way, the rice-and-pea patties were the perfect vehicle for pickled red onions. Even Pandagirl tried them in combination and liked them.

Asparagus Ricotta Tart (With Variation)

I've long wanted to try this Asparagus Ricotta Tart that I saw on Stacey Snacks. Look how pretty:

I've held off for two reasons. First, I had a feeling 50% of the household wouldn't dig it. Second, despite being the season for asparagus, I have to say what I've seen in the stores looks pretty awful. Maybe it's not yet quite the season?

But that box of frozen puff pastry in the freezer is calling me. I think it's the concept of the tart that I find so appealing, more than the ingredients. Can I make this more kid friendly, or at least appeal to 75% of the household? Forget Redman, he can have a scrambled egg. Let's see...

Ricotta Tart with Ham and Peas

  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup cubed prosciutto or ham
  • 1/2 bag frozen peas, thawed and drained
  • zest of a whole lemon
  • salt and pepper

Roll out puff pastry in a tart pan, or lay free-form on a baking sheet. You can use whole, or cut into individual "tartlets."

Mix ricotta cheese, egg, zest, salt and pepper. Spread in the center of puff pastry. Sprinkle with ham and peas (if you are making an asparagus tart, use pre-blanched spears).

Let cool 5 minutes then slice with a pizza cutter. This wasn't as pretty as Stacey's, but it was a total hit. We killed it to the crumbs. "We" meaning 75% of us: Redman took no notice of it but Panda had three pieces. Definitely making this for a party, and with the asparagus.

Gnocchi with Ham and Peas

A ham steak is a useful thing, I'm finding. I bought one a while ago, on impulse, either vaguely recalling an interesting recipe that called for a ham steak, or simply figuring I could use it for something, by golly. I threw it in the freezer and promptly forgot about it. Such is how I roll.

But recently pried from its frozen grave, I've used this one steak on two occasions. Half of it went into split pea soup, made in David Crockpott. 

I used a quarter of the remaining steak tonight with gnocchi and peas. I almost used all of it and I'm glad I didn't because it's really quite salty, especially when paired up with a packaged sauce mix. I used Knorr Garlic & Herb. Remember these? They came out in the 90s, I still remember the radio commercials. Being young and broke in the city, Jeeps and I lived on pasta and we became Knorr Whores for a while. I don't use them as often now but they are handy to have around.

Gnocchi with Ham and Peas à la Knorr Whore

  • 1 package potato gnocchi (bowties or oriechiette are a nice substitute)
  • 1/2 ham steak, diced
  • 1/2 bag frozen peas
  • 1 packet Knorr Garlic & Herb pasta sauce mix, made according to package directions

Bring water for pasta to boil but do not salt water. Add gnocchi and cook until they rise to the surface. Add the peas and cook another 1-2 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water, then drain pasta and peas in colander.

Return pasta to pot, add diced ham and the sauce and toss well.