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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Risotto with Farmers' Market Fresh Squash Blossoms and Baby Zucchini

Risotto scared me at first. My son Franklin brought a box home from a trip to Italy and it sat in the pantry for years. I had the same fear of risotto I had about cooking a duck. Both seemed to require a skill set that was beyond me.

After much hesitation, I finally took the plunge and you know what I discovered, making risotto is easy, requiring only a little more skill than making pasta.

In fact, think of risotto and pasta as two sisters. The key to both is what goes on top.

Just about everything you like with pasta will work with risotto. Most vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, and fresh herbs if sauteed first can be added to risotto just the way you'd add them to cooked pasta. And both like a bit of freshly grated cheese on top.

This past Sunday at the Pacific Palisades Farmers' Market, I could have chosen any number of fresh vegetables to use for the risotto: corn, tomatoes, asparagus, peppers--red, yellow, orange, or green--carrots, onions, Italian parsley, kale, or spinach. I settled on squash blossoms with baby zucchini because one of my favorite farmers, John Sweredoski insisted that I had to get them, they were that fresh, that good.

He was right.

Risotto with Farmers' Market Fresh Squash Blossoms and Baby Zucchini

Yield 4 servings

Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano rice
10 squash blossoms
6 baby zucchinis, washed, ends trimmed, cut into thin rounds
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
6 shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, thinly sliced and roughly chopped
1/2 yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
4 cups broth, vegetable, chicken, or beef, preferably home made
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Slice open each squash blossom. Cut off the stem and pistil and discard. Flatten the blossoms on a cutting board and cut length-wise into thin strips. In a large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil and saute all the vegetables until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

In the same pan add the other tablespoon of olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the risotto and saute on a medium flame, turning frequently, until the grains start to be translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup of broth, deglazing the pan and stirring the grains with the liquid until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb the liquid. Keep stirring.

After 10 minutes, add back the sauteed vegetables and mix together with the rice.

After another 5 minutes, add the butter and stir well, continuing to add 1/2 cup of broth at a time. Season with sea salt and pepper. From this point on, start tasting the rice.

When the risotto is done to your taste, Make sure you have enough liquid because a good risotto has a nice amount of gravy.

Serve immediately because the rice will continue to absorb the liquid even after you've taken the pan off the burner. Sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese on top.

Variations

Add a roasted tomato, skin removed, roughly torn apart, with its juice

Saute the kernels from one ear of corn with the other vegetables

Saute 1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley with the other vegetables

Add 1/2 cup sauteed diced sausage pieces

Add 2 pounds fresh butter clams, cooked in 1/4 cup water for 5 minutes covered over high heat, add the opened clams and broth at the same time you return the sauteed vegetables to the pan

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Farmers' Markets' Army of Believers

Fueled by the books of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, among others, and by the recent release of films such as Food, Inc. and Food Fight, a lot of people are talking about food policy in the United States.

With so many people suffering from diabetes, Americans have paid a high price for the convenience of fast food. When the First Lady digs up part of the White House lawn to plant a garden, you know we're either at war or there's a problem with what American's are eating.

Knowing that consumers want a reliable, healthy food supply, corporations use phrases like "Organic," "Farm Fresh," "Healthy Choice" and "100% Natural" as marketing tools to keep processed foods in our pantries.

Access to fresh, affordable produce is essential to good health. The big question is how to do that?

Those of us who live in communities with farmers' markets are lucky. In our area, we have two great farmers' markets: the Santa Monica Farmers' Market and the Sunday Pacific Palisades Farmers' Market.

In Southern California the full bounty of summer is apparent on the farmers' heavily laden tables.

Besides being a source of good food products, farmers' markets are good for one's mood. No matter what modern-living crisis we're dealing with, an unhurried walk around the market is calming and reviving.

Sampling the stone fruit and citrus from Arnett Farms, eating a plate of raw clams at Carlsbad Aquafarms, talking with John, the co-owner of Sweredoski Farms, and hearing his stories about being a Marine before he became a farmer, or literally stopping and smelling the roses at Bernie and Linda's Kendall Garden Roses stand. There is something very satisfying about knowing where your food came from and meeting the farmers who brought it to market.

Recently I interviewed master chef Albert Roux, famous for having revolutionized French cooking in England. In March he opened a restaurant outside of Houston, Texas. Since he trained Marco Pierre White and Hell's Kitchen's Gordon Ramsey, Chef Roux is an experienced cook who has seen it all.

What animated him the most during the interview was his joy at having access to American food products. He delighted in the high quality of Alaskan salmon, Maine scallops, and "happy," free range chickens. And what moved him the most was the dedication of the farmers who sold their wares at the local farmers' markets.

Even though, as he said, they knew they would never make a fortune from their farms, these farmers worked hard so that they could proudly deliver to the market the best produce they could.

Chef Roux called them "the army of believers".

But there aren't enough farmers' markets to solve the problems created by America's reliance on processed food.

If you're lucky enough to have one in your neighborhood, that's great. Even if you don't know how to cook it's easy enough to walk over to a farmer's table and buy pesticide-free fruit and vegetables so you can eat a fresh peach or make a salad.

But even if you don't have a farmers' market close to where you live, it's important to understand that learning to cook is important for your health. Supermarket chains and neighborhood mom and pop stores might not have the best produce, but some produce is better than none.

Access to fresh produce is one issue, the other is understanding that learning to cook is important for your health. The problem is many people have bought into the idea that prepared and convenience foods are just easier to deal with and take less time to prepare. But as Tom Laskawy recently pointed out, it's only a little more time-consuming to cook a meal than it is to microwave one.

There are many ways to promote good health, but certainly eating well is centrally important. In the long run, if you know how to shop for good ingredients and how to cook, you'll save money, have better tasting food, and stay healthier longer.

From the Palisades Farmers' Market today, we brought home a bag heavy with fresh ears of corn, ripe peaches and pluots, a tray of sweet red raspberries, just-caught fish, and fresh arugula, spinach, Italian parsley, and Persian cucumbers.

In my posts this week I'll describe what we cooked for our Sunday dinner: a risotto with squash blossoms and baby zucchini and ginger-soy poached black cod with sauteed garlic-spinach.

Both dishes took no more than 30 minutes to prepare, cook, and serve. Virtually all the ingredients came from our local farmers' markets.