If you can’t stand the heat…

Pork Blanquette with Spring Vegetables

Pork Blanquette with Spring Vegetables

If someone had told me two weeks ago that I’d be braising pork on a sunny 75-degree day, I’d tell them they were crazy. I don’t stick to strictly seasonal meals but heating up my kitchen to slow cook something doesn’t make any sense when it’s already hot enough out there.

Nonetheless, I was so captivated by a recent recipe from Gourmandistan that I couldn’t help myself from doing just that. The recipe in question was a blanquette of pork, or braised pork shoulder in a happy broth of stock, cream and lemon. While the pork and the cooking liquid sounded lovely on their own, it was the pretty and colorful spring vegetables that called out to me. Just look at Michelle and Steve’s version of this Pork & Sons recipe and tell me it doesn’t look mouth-wateringly delicious.

And so, eager and excited, I thawed out a little two-pound pork butt that was nestled in my freezer and got to work. While I was clearly easy to convince, here are a few words of encouragement in case you need some enticement  to turn on your stove and make this:

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Summer Pasta: Farmer’s Market with a side of Kitchen Sink

Summer pasta: a combination of all of the Farmers Market finds you forgot to eat!

Summer pasta: a combination of all of the Farmers Market finds you forgot to eat!

I feel like every season has an appropriate pasta sauce to go with it. I can’t imagine autumn without brown butter (and its ubiquitous partner, sage) or winter without a rich Bolognese. Spring seems to be the time for pesto — either traditional basil or a new riff like this parsley version.

Summer pasta sauces seem less structured and more, well, see the title of this post…

They stem from that moment when all of a sudden you realized you bought a bunch of beautiful produce but have been so busy hiking, camping, bbq-ing and river floating that you forgot all about it. And they usually consist of ripe tomatoes, squash, herbs, garlic, peppers and whatever odds and ends you come across while cleaning out your fridge.

I made this pile of pasta last week while I realized (in a slight panic) that I had things that needed to be eaten before they turned to the dark side. I took one look at everything I had pulled out of the fridge, and immediately started digging for some pasta. All types of veggies can find harmony when mixed with pasta. It’s a fact.

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Summer succotash & impromptu dance parties

Summer Succotash (a la April Bloomfield)

Summer Succotash (a la April Bloomfield)

My friend DB and I try to cook together as often as possible — switching off Saturdays so we each get a reprieve from traveling (we live on opposite ends of town). Cooking at his house is always a very different experience than cooking at my own.

I’m courteous with my neighbors, but we certainly aren’t close, and on my weekends to host our cook-fests, it’s almost always just the two of us. DB, on the other hand, seems to know everyone within a two-mile radius of his place, and they know they are welcome to stop by and visit whenever he’s home.

At his house, I’ve become accustomed to having a crowd of hungry, sweaty and slightly intoxicated softball players show up (his housemate plays in a league) or perhaps just random neighbors who heard tales of homemade pizza being made. In the beginning, I was a little awkward, as I rarely saw the same person twice. But now there’s a group of people that I feel comfortable with, and the conversation flows as easily as the beer does.

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Rhizome Roulette: Are sunchokes worth the gamble?

How can something so potentially evil look so innocent?

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled up my sunchoke plant and was greeted with a lovely harvest of the knobby root vegetables. Even though I had been looking forward to that moment all summer, suddenly I felt bewildered. What should I do with them? I haven’t cooked sunchokes in years. So I turned to Google.

Which dropped me down a rabbit hole I had not at all expected — an online journey featuring flatulence and intestinal distress. What I discovered was something I had thankfully been totally unaware of all my sunchoke-eating life. Apparently about 50 percent of people have painful digestive issues fueled by sunchokes — to the point that some of the comments on the recipes I was researching made me cringe. Commenters on some sites cried out that every recipe should come with a written warning that these unassuming tubers could wreck severe havoc on unsuspecting eaters. I was floored.

Some people were so intense that even though I was 99 percent confident in my ability to enjoy sunchokes with no ill effects, I actually became a bit anxious. What if all the times I had eaten them were flukes? What if this time I was part of the wrong half of the population? How would I survive an 8-hour day in a small office with that type of reaction? Finally I set my nerves aside, picked up my knife and got cooking.

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A “much maligned” (and rice-free) risotto

Honestly, it was hard to know where to put the quote marks in that title. The “much maligned” is stolen straight from a menu my husband put together for his restaurant. He used a kid-hated, (hopefully) adult-friendly mix of broccoli, turnips and brussels sprouts as an accompaniment to a steak dish he did months ago. So when I made a cauliflower risotto, it seemed to fit right into that category of things children wouldn’t touch.

However, the “risotto” was not your typical risotto, so maybe the quote marks should have been there. After all, there is no rice whatsoever in this dish. I know what you’re thinking — clearly that means it’s not risotto at all. And yes, you’re technically right but still — it’s delicious! And healthy, so therefore, worth trying out.

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Why I think farro is the shit — with tasty recipes to back it up.

I have become kind of a farro pusher. Not the kind of pusher that stands out on the street corner whispering “Farro? Farro?” while slyly avoiding eye contact. That would be weird. Instead I’m the person who tries to make everyone in my life try farro at least once because I’m convinced they will love it just as much as I do.

Raw farro (semi-pearled)

Farro, for those who may not be familiar with it, is an ancient Italian grain related to wheat. It’s high in both fiber and protein and has a chewy texture with a slightly nutty flavor. You can buy it in a few different forms — from whole grain (which is the best for you nutritionally) to semi-pearled to pearled. You can also buy it as a flour to make things like pasta or bread. It should be noted I am not ambitious enough for that. I mainly just buy it semi-pearled because it cooks quickly, usually within about 20 minutes. Whole grain farro can take up to about 60 minutes to cook, which is way too long for my busy life.

The nutritional values of semi-pearled farro are still pretty good. A half of a cup of uncooked farro, which will plump up to about a cup after cooking, contains around 170 calories, but also comes with five grams of fiber and six grams of protein. This makes it considerably better for you than white rice — no surprise there. But even brown rice has a bit more calories per serving (around 200) and falls short of farro in terms of fiber and protein. Plus since it is harvested with its husk intact, which is then removed when it gets hulled, it is grown without the need for pesticides. Healthy and delicious? Check and check!

Since I  started buying farro regularly and cooking it at least once a week, I have discovered a ton of different ways to prepare it. And honestly, from farro risotto to farro Mexican “rice”, I haven’t made one variation that I thought sucked. I have to change my usages up often though because as much as he enjoys farro, my husband got a bit weary after eating it for dinner for a week straight. Luckily I am not one to suffer from farro burnout.

Cooked Farro (simmered with sliced onions)

To help combat any potential food boredom, a lovely thing about farro is its versatility. It can be served hot or cold in a salad or even cooked like porridge and topped with milk and cinnamon for breakfast.

It can also be used in any application where you would use rice. And since you can cook it by boiling it in salted water and draining it just like pasta, I think it’s even easier than cooking rice. No measuring necessary or keeping the pot covered, just let it simmer away and stir it every five minutes or so until it’s done. If you’re feeling frisky, you can throw some carrots or onions in  while it cooks for extra flavor, but it’s not necessary.

Since I am clearly a huge farro advocate, it’s only right that I would to try to tempt you into giving it a try with some lovely pictures and recipe ideas. And subliminal messages, but I promise you won’t even notice those…

First up is my Farro (better than) Waldorf Salad:

This actually came about because I had been craving Waldorf salad but wanted to make it as an entrée for dinner. I took some leftover cooked farro, probably about a cup or so, and combined it with a chopped Honeycrisp apple, a handful of toasted walnuts and some diced celery. In lieu of a dressing or even a vinaigrette (I was really hungry), I just splashed in a little olive oil and lemon juice to make it moist. Then piled it on a bed of baby spinach and topped it with some chevre.

The finished product was delightful. There was every element you could want in a salad — crunchy from the fruit and nuts, tangy from the cheese and citrus and chewy from the farro. It was light and fresh and I had to restrain myself from eating the container I had set aside for the next day’s lunch. It was hard. I actually had to leave the house to resist its allure.

This was great as a vegetarian meal but the carnivore in me thinks that if I’d had some meat to put on top, it would have been even better. Maybe a grilled chicken breast or some pork medallions. Or some crumbled crispy bacon if you swing that way.

Next up is my Fried Rice-style Farro with Vegetables:

Now I will straight-up admit this was a “kitchen-sink” style of experiment. I had cooked farro and blanched kale leftover from the night before. I had eaten a ton of meat earlier in the day (a requisite of my job) so I was looking for something high in fiber for dinner. This seemed like the easiest way to eat the mixture of random vegetables I had in my produce drawer without just making a boring salad.

I started with shredded cabbage, thinly sliced carrots and minced garlic in a hot lightly oiled pan. Once everything was tender, I threw in some soy sauce, sesame oil, sliced scallions and a dash of rice wine vinegar to keep the flavors bright. Next came the farro, kale and frozen peas which were tossed around until all the ingredients were well combined. Last came the scrambled eggs — which I will admit because I am picky about my eggs, I softly scramble in a side pan and then add them into the rice…err farro…afterwards.

It turned out so good! I shouldn’t have been surprised but I kind of was. This is why it’s always good to try new things.

And finally (at least for this farro post) comes the easiest preparation and the one I use the most often: The catch-all throw-in-whatever side dish. It will go with anything. I promise you.

I started by roasting veggies, a mixture of just about anything will work…Think cauliflower, carrots, peppers, onions, brussels sprouts. Or blanch some kale. Or sauté some mushrooms or cherry tomatoes. Frozen peas or corn? Sure, why not? Basically take whatever veggies you like and cook them however you like them best. While the veggies are working, boil a big pot of salted water. Stir in semi-pearled farro and cook for 20-25 minutes until tender (though still chewy). Drain. You’re halfway there!

I use the same pot and just put it back on the heat — I am all about minimizing dirty dishes. Then sauté up some minced garlic with a dash of chili flakes. Add the already cooked veggies and farro, maybe some stock or even a little water to help things along. Season it well. Add a squeeze of lemon juice or some cheese (goat, pecorino or feta are all delicious) maybe some herbs, chopped nuts or baby spinach. The only rule is make it taste good, though trust me, this won’t be hard to do.

Here’s some examples pulled from just the past few months at my house…

Seared flounder and farro pilaf-style with pecans, green onions and parsley.

Stuffed rabbit saddles with farro, brussels sprouts, carrots and chives.

Quail breasts with farro, roasted cauliflower, grated Parmesan and spinach.

Or if you just want to get a feel for farro in a simple form, try it as a simple substitute for rice. You can use it in soups or as a bed for a curry or a stew. I love to use farro where it has a chance to soak up sauces, like when I used it to sop up some cherry tomato-scallion goodness in my procrastinators chicken. Or when I made April Bloomfield’s Lyon-style chicken…That sauce was phenomenal and the farro let me savor every drop of it.

Plain farro topped with vinegar-braised chicken and roasted garlic. Perfectly simple.

Really — you can’t go wrong with any of these preparations. So, do yourself a favor — buy some farro (usually you can find it at upscale grocery stores but if you strike out there, you can order it online) and give it a shot.

But be careful, you might find yourself pushing it on all of your friends too. At least you’ll be in good company!