05/04/12 12:48pm
05/04/2012 12:48 PM

I’m Popeye the sailor man,
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
I’m strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach,
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
— famous cartoon lyrics

Chenopods are a subfamily of the flowering plant family known as amaranthaceae. They are commonly called the goosefoot family of plants and consist mostly of weeds. But the goosefoot family also includes four of the healthiest plant foods known to man: spinach, Swiss chard, beets and quinoa. These foods continue to show an increasing number of health benefits not readily available from other food families. Betalin pigments, carotenoids and antioxidants are unique to them, along with many vitamins, minerals, proteins and dietary fiber.

Quinoa, a seed that resembles grain, was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Incas. Today, it is prized for its high protein content and the fact that these are complete proteins containing all of the essential amino acids. In addition, quinoa is gluten-free and a great source of fiber.

We are well familiar with the benefits of spinach, thanks to Popeye, but Swiss chard and beets offer much culinary diversity along with their nutritional values. Here are some ideas for including these chenopods in your diet:

Asiago Spinach Cakes
Remove the stems from 1 pound of fresh farm stand spinach. Wash leaves thoroughly in cold water and drain. Chop the leaves coarsely with a chef’s knife and place them in small batches in a food processor. Pulse to chop fine and put them in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine 2 eggs, 1 cup ricotta cheese and 1 cup shredded Asiago cheese. Season with 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg, 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Stir this mixture with a wooden spoon and fold in the finely chopped spinach.

Spray 4 to 6 porcelain ramekins (depending upon size) with no-stick and divide the spinach mixture between them, pressing it down firmly with a spoon. Place the ramekins in a 400-degree oven and cook for 25 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack for 15 minutes, cut around the edges with a knife and turn out onto a plate. Serve as is with an entrée or make a bechamel sauce to serve over them for a first course.

Serves 4-6.

Sautéed Beets and Swiss Chard
Purchase 1 bunch of beets with the leaves on and 1 large bunch of Swiss chard (either red or white stems). Trim the leaves off the beets and place in cold water. Remove the leaves from the stems of chard and place the leaves in the water with the beet leaves.

Rinse the chard stems and chop into half-inch dice. Rinse the beets, leaving the skins on but trimming off the root end and the stem end. Cut the beets into quarters (or sixths if large) and place them in a steamer pan on the stove. Bring the water to a boil and steam the beets for 20 minutes or until just tender. Remove the beets from the pan and slip off the skins and set aside.

Meanwhile, remove the beet/chard leaves from the cold water and drain in a colander. Chop the leaves coarsely into 2-inch squares and set aside. In a large sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons canola oil and place on medium heat. Add 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 2 tablespoons sliced garlic to the pan and cook until soft. Add the chopped chard stems and quartered beets and cook for 5 minutes. Add all of the leaves along with 1/4 cup white wine and 1 tablespoon cider vinegar. Season with 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.

Turn the heat up high and toss the ingredients together until the leaves are wilted, about 5 minutes. Remove the beets and greens to a serving platter and boil the remaining liquid down before pouring it over the vegetables. Garnish with a little horseradish on the side if desired.

Serves 4.

Quinoa & Brown Rice Entrée Salad
Bring 1 quart of water to boil in each of two separate saucepans. Add 1 cup brown rice to one pan and 1 cup quinoa to the other. Let them cook (like pasta) at high heat, stirring every few minutes. The rice will take about 45 minutes to cook and the quinoa about 25. When tender, drain each and combine in a large bowl.
Slice 1 red onion and sauté in 1 tablespoon olive oil until soft, and set aside. Combine in a bowl 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Whisk in 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and set aside.

Toast 1 cup of pistachio nuts in a dry sauté pan and add to the rice/quinoa mixture. Finely slice 4 scallions and add to the mixture. Add the sautéed red onions along with the dressing. Dice 1 cup dried apricots and add to the mixture along with the zest of 1 orange. Peel the orange and cut into small segments for garnish. Check for seasoning and serve.

If desired, garnish the top with a sliced ripe avocado that has been tossed in lemon juice, and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

Serves 4-6.

Swiss Chard, Potato and Chickpea Stew
Soak 1 pound dried chickpeas overnight. Drain the soaked chickpeas and simmer in 2 quarts water until tender, about 45 minutes.

Remove the leaves from 2 large bunches of Swiss chard and wash in cold water; save the stems. Drain and chop the leaves coarsely and dice the stems, keeping them separate. Slice 1 pound of red potatoes, leaving the skins on.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the chard stems for 2 minutes and add the chopped leaves. Cook 2 minutes and drain, plunging them into cold ice water to cool. Drain and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons canola oil and turn up the heat. Add 1 sliced Spanish onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add the sliced potatoes and continue cooking until potatoes start to brown. Add 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes.

Add the cooked chickpeas and the drained chard (squeeze out all liquid). Add 1 cup vegetable broth and cook, covered, until potatoes are tender. Check for seasoning and serve in bowls.

Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]

03/09/12 12:01pm
03/09/2012 12:01 PM

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging. …

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
to scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

excerpt from ‘Digging’  by Seamus Heaney

On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, we seek out the corned beef and cabbage dinners at home and around town. But in Ireland, this dish was rarely served until it was popularized in America, especially in New York. Back home, shepherd’s pie and Irish lamb stew more accurately reflect the traditions of the Irish.

The potato has played an enormous cultural role in Ireland, in both good and bad ways. In the late 18th century, Ireland adopted the potato (which originated in Peru) for its nutritional value and its ability to feed many people cheaply. But when the great famine struck Ireland in 1845, it was largely due to potato blight and the dependence of the population on the potato. The result was starvation for some and emigration for others.

The original meat pie with a potato crust was called “cottage pie” and was made with any leftover meat. The term “shepherd’s pie” came to mean a meat pie made with mutton or lamb. In modern Ireland, shepherd’s pie is commonly made with ground beef, vegetables and potatoes. Here are some examples of this delicious Irish dish:

Shepherd’s Pie with Lamb
Remove the meat from the bones of 4 shoulder lamb chops (about 2 1/2 pounds) and cut away most of the fat and gristle. Cut the remaining meat into half-inch pieces. Combine 1/4 cup flour with 1 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss this mixture in a bowl with the meat until it is evenly coated.

Heat a Dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons canola oil. Add the lamb pieces, making sure they are separated and not too crowded. Brown the lamb at high heat and remove.

Lower the heat and add 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 2 tablespoons minced garlic to the pan. Quarter 1 package of cremini mushrooms and add them to the pan, adding a little more oil if necessary. When the mushrooms are brown and have released their liquid, stir in 1 cup diced carrots and 1/2 cup diced parsnip. Add the meat back to the pan along with 1 tablespoon tomato paste and 1 1/2 cups beef broth. Season with 2 bay leaves and 2 sprigs of thyme and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, or until lamb is tender.

While the lamb is cooking, peel 1 1/2 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes and cut into large chunks. Peel 1 small celery root and cut into small chunks. Combine the potato and celery root in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash, adding 1 tablespoon butter and 1/4 cup milk. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Finely mince 3 scallions and add them to the potato mixture.

Check the lamb mixture for seasoning and place it in a casserole. Spoon the mashed potato mixture over the top and place in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Serves 4.
Note: This recipe was adapted from a recipe in the Williams-Sonoma book “Potato.”

Shepherd’s Pie with Ground Beef
Heat a Dutch oven on the stove and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. Add 2 cups diced onion, 2 cups diced carrots and 1 cup diced parsnip. Cook at medium heat for 5 minutes and add 1 pound lean ground sirloin. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme.

Raise the heat and cook the ground beef until brown, breaking up chunks of meat with a wooden spoon. Add 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons flour, stirring to incorporate the flour. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce and 1 cup red wine. Continue to cook, stirring, until sauce becomes thick and add 1 cup chicken stock. Cook for another 15 minutes and add 1 small package of frozen peas. When the peas are soft and tender, check for seasoning and transfer to a casserole.

Prepare mashed potatoes by placing 6 unpeeled Yukon gold potatoes in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer about 25 minutes, or until completely cooked. Remove, drain and cool slightly. Peel the potatoes and squeeze them through a potato ricer. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg and 1 teaspoon pepper. Moisten with 1/4 cup warm milk (or heavy cream) and check for seasoning.

Spoon the potatoes onto the shepherd’s pie in the casserole and brush with 1 beaten egg. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese if desired and place in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Serves 4.
Note: This recipe was adapted from a recipe on Food.com.

Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
Simmer 1 cup black beluga lentils in 4 cups water until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Blanch 12 white onions in boiling water for 2 minutes and drain. Cut off the stem ends and slip the skins off the onions and set aside.

Heat a Dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 2 cups chopped leeks (white part only) and 2 tablespoons minced garlic. Quarter 12 ounces of cremini mushrooms and remove the stems from 6 ounces of shiitake mushrooms. Add the mushrooms to the leek mixture and cook at medium heat until lightly browned. Add 2 cups diced carrots and 1 cup each diced parsnips and turnips. Add the blanched white onions and season with 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary and 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves.

Cover the pot and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in the cooked lentils along with 2 tablespoons butter. When the butter is melted in the stew, add 2 tablespoons flour and stir. Add 2 cups red wine and bring to a boil. When thickened, stir in 2 cups vegetable broth and 1/2 cup chopped parsley. Season with 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for another 15 minutes and transfer to a casserole.

Peel and cut into large chunks 1 1/2 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes and 1 small celery root. Place these in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash, adding 1 tablespoon butter and 1/4 cup milk. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Spoon the mashed potato mixture over the shepherd’s pie and place in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]