Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's Not That Hard to Love Swiss Chard

Over the Winter and early Spring, one of the staples of my CSA box each week has been Swiss chard.  Now, up until the time I joined the CSA last Fall, I’d never eaten Swiss chard in my life, and certainly had never thought about purchasing it or cooking with it.

“The Growing Experience” changed all that.  That’s the name of my CSA, and I love them, and the food they provide to me.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a CSA (which stands for “C”ommunity “S”upported “A”griculture), it’s very similar to a food co-op, only based on a farm, or farms.  Subscribers (the consumer) pay a set rate for a “share” each period of time (mine offers weekly, bi-weekly or monthly shares).  You can also choose how large you’d like your share to be.  Every subscription period, you go to the farm, or to a collection spot, and pick up your share.  You don’t get a say in what will be in your box, but you do have a rough idea, based on where you’re located, and what crops are grown in your climate zone.

The vast, overwhelming majority of CSA’s are based at commercial, for-profit farms.  In many cases, the CSA is a side-business for the farmer, a way to plant and grow smaller, non-commercially viable crops, and also give local consumers an option for purchasing quality produce.  Most, but not all, CSA’s are organic.  “The Growing Experience” is a bit, well, a lot, different from the average CSA (if there is such a thing).  It’s not an offshoot of a commercial farm.  It actually began as a community garden in a low-income, County-run housing project in my city.  There was spare, abandoned land on the property that was overrun with weeds and debris.  The County had decided to turn the abandoned lot into a tree farm for municipal plantings (median trees, highway groundcover, etc.) when the bottom fell out of governmental budgets, and there was no longer any money left for those types of plantings.  But they’d already hired, and budgeted for, the project manager.  He, a passionate gardener, and amateur farmer, somehow convinced the County suits to convert the land into a community garden for the residents, to help them have access to cheap, healthy food.  He also instituted an after-school and summer work program for the project’s youths.  It was so successful, they were able to start selling excess produce to local restaurants, and eventually to offer produce to the community-at-large as a CSA.  They are strictly organic, although not certified (which costs $$$).  They use no sprays, and only non-chemical fertilizers.  They currently farm 7 acres in a heavily urban area of Southern California.  It’s such a cool feeling to know that the food in my fridge was produced less than 10 miles from my door !

Joining a CSA, though, does take a bit of courage (yes, again, Mrs. Child, the “courage of your convictions”), since you don’t know for sure what produce you’ll be cooking with until you pick up your share.  AAACCKKK !!  For a non-intuitive, training-wheels-on cook such as myself, that was a HUGE leap of faith.

You have to be willing to handle what you’ve been given, and face the fact you may end up with things that are, at best, unfamiliar, or at worst, something you really loathe (let’s just say I’m dreading the first eggplant I get….).  However, I made myself a vow I’d cook with everything I got, and I wouldn’t waste anything in a share.  That’s taken some major mind-set changes, for sure (lookin’ at you butternut squash).  However, the absolute delight of fresh-from-the-ground salad greens (SUCH a difference from those in the MegaMarts……so tender and flavorful, wow, who knew??) and the feeling every two weeks of opening up a very special present, made just for me is so fulfilling, and so challenging that I’m firmly committed to keeping this going as long as “The Growing Experience” is around.  You really learn to “cook out of the box” (literally), and start thinking way more creatively and independently from published recipes.

Not that I don’t rely on those, especially when confronted with products with which I don’t have a lot of experience.  But even with those, I’m learning to trust my instincts a bit.  A while back, we got some lovely baby beets, literally just hours out of the soil.  When I got them home, I had to cut off the greens to store them.  I was seconds away from tossing them, and stopped myself just in enough time to have a lovely dish of sautéed beet greens as a side for dinner that night.  Now, I’ve only ever purchased beets in the MegaMarts like once or twice before (although I really LIKE beets), and they’ve never come with greens.  But I knew they were edible, and they were not only edible, but damned tasty too.  As I said, a different way of thinking.

But, oftentimes, outside assistance is still needed.  Swiss chard, as I said, has been a regular over the Winter and early Spring, because in our climate zone, it’s hardy all year.   As I said in an earlier post (about my dolmades-inspired stuffed chard leaves), I’ve used it a lot of different ways.  Some have worked, some have been stellar and some, well, I didn’t even give to The Grrrlz.

But these Swiss Chard Pancakes, from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table are absolutely the bee’s knees.  If “The Growing Experience’s” chard crop were to suffer some horrendous blight tomorrow and be wiped out, I would *WILLINGLY* buy Swiss chard at the MegaMarts to make these frequently.

You start by mixing some milk, some all purpose flour, some eggs, some coarsely chopped onion and shallot, some garlic, parsley and chives in the jar of your blender.

I didn’t have either parsley or chives the day I wanted to make these, and since what I *DID* have was rapidly sliming chard leaves, I really needed to make them pronto.  So I subbed some dried basil and dried thyme leaves.  It worked, so I’d say whatever fresh/dried herbs float your particular boat will do just fine.

You buzz that around for a bit until it’s all nice and smooth.

I think that rogue chard leaflet was attached to the spatula that I used to scrape down the sides.  He wanted to get to the party first, evidently.  Overachiever…..

In batches, add in your cleaned chard leaves.

You don’t want to over-process these.  Leaving some nice ribbony pieces adds some interest to the texture of the pancakes.

You could do this in a food processor, but mine is one of those EVIL Cuisinarts that spew stuff all down the sides if you process more than a cup or so of liquid.  So the blender is better for me.

Once the chard is blitzed down, set the mix aside while you heat some oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Once it’s nice and shimmery, add the batter in sparse 1/4-cups for each pancake.  Space them apart pretty well, and don’t crowd the pan.

Lay some paper towels on a plate, and preheat the oven to 250° for holding the finished cakes.  Cook each chard cake for about 3 minutes, then carefully flip over and cook for another 2-3 minutes on the second side.

Drain on your paper towel-covered plate, transfer to a cookie sheet in the oven, and repeat with remaining batter.

This time around, I don’t know if the chard itself had more moisture, or I didn’t dry the leaves well enough, but the batter on the first batch was a bit too runny, so I mixed in a bit more flour to thicken it up a bit for the later cakes.  You want it the consistency of a thick pancake batter.

Et voila !

The cakes do make a nice, light main dish, especially with a salad.  The full recipe makes enough for 8-main course servings.  They also work well as a side dish, which was what I did with this batch (with broiled bratwurst).  They can also be cut into smaller pieces (or made in a smaller size) and served as an appetizer.  They’re good at room temperature too, and I nibbled on a couple straight from the fridge the next day as lunch.  Oh, and they freeze well, too, just place in a warmish (300°F or so) oven for about 15 or 20 minutes, or until they're warmed through.

Here’s the recipe.

Swiss Chard Pancakes
8-main course servings
From Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table

2C whole milk
2&1/2C all purpose flour
3 large eggs
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 shallot, coarsely chopped (no shallot, up the onion a bit…)
2 garlic cloves
Leaves from 10 parsley sprigs
10 fresh chives, snipped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
5 large or 10 small Swiss chard leaves (ribs removed) washed and dried
Olive or vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 250° and line a cookie sheet with foil.  Place a couple of layers of paper towels on a large plate.

Put all ingredients but the chard leaves in the jar of a blender, or in a food processor, making sure to season generously, and blend until smooth.  Little by little, add the chard leaves and blend to incorporate.  Leave some ribbony strands of chard.

Pour 1/4- to 1/2-inch oil in a pan.  Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering.  Using a scant 1/4C batter for each cake, pour batter into hot oil.  Do not crowd pan.  Cook for about 3 minutes, flip and cook an additional 2-3 minutes on the second side.  Remove to paper towels to drain, then to sheet pan and place in oven to hold.  Repeat with additional batter until used.

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