Getting down to the bottom

Yesterday I used the last bag of frozen Swiss chard. Seeing the white bottom of the freezer is like seeing the ground again after the snow has melted – an unmistakable sign that it’s spring.

The Swiss chard went into a crustless Italian Swiss chard torte Venetian style, Tegliata di Biete. I based it on Marcella Hazan’s recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking but took several shortcuts. And, more importantly, I did not use pine nuts. I don’t remember the last time I bought pine nuts that did not taste rancid. Chinese pine nuts are quite awful, and the real stuff, pine nuts from the Mediterranean (Lebanese are viewed as the best), are expensive and hard to find. I sometimes food-fantasize about the delicious fresh pine nuts that were floating in the countless glasses of sweet tea I had when I lived in Tunisia. Back then, though, I did not have a garden where I could grow my own Swiss chard. If I had to choose between the two, I would always go for the garden – even if it means using walnuts instead of pine nuts.

Swiss Chard Torte with Raisins and Walnuts

2 pounds trimmed Swiss chard (leaves and small thin stems only)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/3 cup golden raisins

2/3 cup unflavored bread crumbs

1/2 cup walnuts

2 eggs

1 cup freshly grated parmesan (4 ounces)

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon cold butter

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 10-inch cake pan with oil.

2. Chop the Swiss chard finely. With a bit of water clinging to it (or partially thawed), place it in a large skillet and cook, uncovered, until the chard is fully cooked through and wilted, about 10 minutes, stirring often. Remove to a bowl.

3. Heat the olive oil and cook the onion until golden. Add the chard and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove both to the bowl.

4. Place the raisins in a small heatproof bowl and pour hot water over them to soak.

5. Lightly toast the breadcrumbs in a pan on the stove. Distribute half of them in the prepared cake pan.

6. Lightly toast the walnuts in the pan in which you toasted the breadcrumbs. Cool and chop coarsely. Drain the raisins and squeeze dry in a paper towel. Add walnuts and raisins to the bowl with the Swiss chard.

7. Lightly beat the eggs and add them to the mix together with the parmesan. Add salt and pepper and mix well. Spread the mixture over the breadcrumbs and even it out with a spatula.

8. Spread the remaining bread crumbs evenly on top. Dot with butter (I use a lemon zester to produce tiny strands). Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Stock clarity (and a happy dog)

SwissChardWhile I consider myself a somewhat educated consumer and critical food buyer, for vegetable stock I succumbed to the delusion that because it’s organic it must be good. Until Cooks Illustrated found that the brand I usually bought tasted “like dirt” or “like musky socks in a patch of mushrooms”. Yikes. How could I have been so taste-blind? That was in 2008. Since then I either resorted to chicken broth for soup, or, on some rare occasions, made vegetable stock from scratch.

This past summer I finally got into the habit of making vegetable stock more often, usually a large amount, most of which went into the freezer. Maybe the trigger was that the new shiny stockpot I had bought last winter kept looking at me reproachfully for not being used. Or it was the mounds of fresh vegetable leftovers, scraps and peels that went into the compost bin all summer.

Depending on what’s available in the garden, I make vegetable stock in different combinations. For example, today I used, in addition to the staple ingredients onion, carrots, and parsley: Swiss chard stalks, the final eggplants of the season whose skins have toughened because of the cold nights but otherwise are perfectly fine, and a container of frozen tomato skins that accumulated when I made tomato soup a few weeks ago. I did not have any celery, scallions, and leeks but otherwise I would have added them too. Many different vegetables work well as long as they are not spoilt, don’t impart a strong flavor and color (no cabbage, turnips, beets etc.), and don’t fall apart so the stock remains clear. For a more intense flavor, I brown the vegetables and onion in olive oil first, then add the water and proceed as described.

The stockpot gets used, and someone else is happy, too. After straining the stock (salt-free until I add it to the soup I am making) I puree the vegetables. They make several days of veggie add-ons to Woody’s dinner – and he is crazy about it.Woody

Vegetable Stock

4 pounds (1.8 kg) mixed vegetables

2 large carrots

2 large onions

¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil (optional)

3 large bay leaves

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt (optional)

1. If you use organic vegetables no need to peel them, except for the onions. Cut the vegetables into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Heat the olive oil and brown all the vegetables and onion for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn. For the fat-free version, put all the vegetables in a large stockpot right away. Add the bay leaves, parsley, peeled and smashed garlic cloves, and thyme.

2. Add 7½ quarts of water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. Add salt if desired. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze.

Makes about 7 quarts (7 liters)