3 – Vegetables

Hey folks, we’re going to enjoy a short, simple dish this week. I’m in the middle of prep for a two-week stretch of recipe development, hopefully my last big push in the kitchen before I focus on writing other parts of my next book!

I think there’s something unfairly simple about wedge salads. They’re a cinch to put together at home, but I often find myself ordering them at restaurants, despite the fact that I’m paying someone to simply chop a head of lettuce into quarters. This week’s recipe is the classic preparation of the dish, which is wonderful in its ease and approachability; for something a little more challenging, I encourage you to check out my Muffuletta Wedge Salad recipe from last year.

A little history on wedge salads, from The Ancestral Table:

Salads served wedge-style date back to the 1910s and reached peak popularity in the 1960s. Iceberg lettuce, the staple lettuce used in this dish, has slowly been replaced by leaf lettuces over the years, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for this crispy, blank-canvas lettuce; it stays fresher longer than leaf lettuces and pairs better with creamy dressings and heavier toppings, as in this recipe.

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I realize that this recipe’s title starts with the word “spaghetti”, but make no mistake about it – the meatballs are the star of this week. Since first developing this meatball recipe for Paleo Takeout, we’ve made it often, at least monthly. There are a few little touches that make the meatballs just perfect: a mix of beef and pork so that the meat flavor is prominent but not overwhelming, egg yolks for creaminess, gelatin powder for a smooth and succulent texture, and bacon for little bursts of umami.

One of my favorite ways to describe these meatballs is to say that they’ll make your Italian grandmother swoon. Matter of fact, just as I’m writing this intro, I’ve decided to add them to our dinner menu this week.

Here is the writeup from Paleo Takeout:

It seems like every country has a meatball recipe, from the very popular Swedish meatballs to the relatively unknown Finnish meatballs (Lihapullat), often made with reindeer meat. Italian meatballs are larger than most other meatballs and are prized for their tenderness. Gelatin may seem like a strange addition, but it gives the meatballs a velvety texture, not unlike what you’d expect from eating veal.

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Everyone needs a steady, foundational salsa recipe. One that is worlds better than the jarred stuff you find in the store, but also won’t take a million years to throw together. I like to think that my Simple Salsa Roja easily fits that requirement: unbelievably fresh just as you pull it off the heat, and even richer the following day.

Two elements make this salsa unique. First, I like to use one dried morita chile pepper to add a hint of smoked fruitiness. Next, I simmer the salsa with a couple tablespoon of lard, for a balanced bite and smoother mouthfeel.

Moritas sound exotic, but they are just smoked red jalapeños (also known as fresno chiles), much like chipotle peppers. The difference between morita and chipotle chiles is that moritas are smoked for less time, retaining a bit of fruitiness. To make things even more complicated, this pepper goes by several other names, like blackberry chile, chipotle colorado, mora chile, or black dash red chile. My advice: check out the dried pepper section of your local grocery store (or latin food market), and if you can’t find a morita or chipotle, pick them up online for relatively cheap. They are worth the extra bit of effort, and since only one pepper is needed for the recipe, one bag will last you a while.

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Potato pancakes are kind of a big deal in many homes, and everyone has their own method. There’s a lot of speculation as to what goes into making a good pancake, and my guess is that’s because it’s easy to mess up such a seemingly simple dish. Too many eggs and your pancakes are rubbery; too much flour or starch, and they’re too dense. Some insist on using cooked potatoes, while others insist you can’t.

Today’s recipe is my take on a middle-of-the-road potato pancake. It’s not tied to one specific culture, but takes cues from several approaches; mostly, I like the heft of Belorussian dranikis, but the crispiness of Jewish latkes.

Many recipes use wheat flour to ensure that the potatoes stick together, but I’ve found that my favorite approach is to re-employ the starch from peeled potatoes: dump them in a water bath and allow the starch to settle at the bottom, then pour off the water to use as a binder. This step takes an extra 10 minutes, but is well worth it in terms of reducing food waste (and saving money buying tons of potato starch).

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Every time I make a pot of these greens, it feels like cheating. I make them pretty often for potlucks and gatherings, and everyone always wants to know “my secret”, as if there is some special, sneaky method to make this dish work. The truth is I simply make the dish as it had been made throughout history – with smoked, lesser cuts like ham hocks or neck bones, some liquid, and a bit of cider vinegar – and let the flavors develop on their own time. But I think that in today’s age of canned greens, crock-pot greens, or greens made with bacon (the worst!), people’s expectations of how greens taste have changed. Instead of knowing how greens should taste, we’ve become content with how they typically taste. I think of it like how a quality, handmade cheeseburger runs laps around a Big Mac.

So this week’s recipe will definitely be making it into my upcoming cookbook, and only slightly tweaked from when I first published it in The Ancestral Table, because not much has changed when it comes to these classic flavors. Many recipes you find will insist you add sugar to the greens, to take away some of the bitterness of the greens, or the tanginess of the vinegar, and I disagree; since greens are typically part of a whole meal, I let the other dishes complement the sharp flavor of the greens – that way you’re encouraged to have a little greens with every bite. Our favorite accompaniments to these greens are something with a crunch texture, like Seasoned Southern Fried Chicken, and something with a mild flavor, like Mashed Potatoes.

Here’s my writeup from The Ancestral Table: Greens were popular in the early American South when slaves were forced to survive on kitchen scraps like the tops of vegetables and undesirable pork parts, like ham hocks, necks, and feet. Today, the dish has been refined and remains a favorite in many Southern kitchens. In fact, collard greens are the state vegetable of South Carolina.

This recipe is unlike many typical greens recipes, which often add pork or bacon pieces in small portions or as an afterthought; this dish celebrates the savory nature of pork by using both broth and a significant amount of pork. If you aren’t able to find smoked ham hocks or neck bones, unsmoked varieties will do—just be sure to add 2 tsp. liquid smoke when adding the greens to the pot. Alternatively, you can buy smoked turkey necks or smoked turkey wings.

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One of my favorite popular dishes in Indian cuisine is Saag, a leaf-based side commonly served with bread or rice. Years ago, I found myself ordering it in local restaurants, often for a steep price, and wondering how to recreate this dish at home. It’s been a staple in the house ever since, and I even included a popular variation, Saag Paneer (served with homemade, pan-fried cheese), in The Ancestral Table.

While I love Saag Paneer, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with making your own cheese, it is pretty time consuming. Lately, I often stick with a simple version of Saag, which is basically just the greens with some basic spices. Additionally, my friends at Primal Palate recently added Garam Masala to their collection of spices, so it felt like to perfect time to post my Simple Saag recipe.

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The other weekend, I was killing it in the kitchen. I had just finished off development and photos for a couple new recipes (my recent Curried Beef Stew and Garlic Smashed Potatoes dishes), and I was digging into two new creations: this week’s Skillet-Roasted Winter Vegetables, and next week’s Center-Cut Pork Rib Roast. Everything was going well, and my timing was just right – the dishes were going to finish just as the afternoon sun would be in the perfect position for photos.

But as anyone who’s visited Florida can attest, the weather can change in a blink of an eye. Case in point was this day, because in the course of a few minutes, my early afternoon sunshine transformed into a late evening sky, just as a tornado watch warning chimed on my phone. Clouds rushed in, winds gusted; the ambient light near the window I use for photography disappeared. So, picture this: in the middle of a storm, I rushed outside to our screened-in porch, laid down my photography surfaces, and desperately snapped some photos in near-dark conditions. Sure, I probably could have just waited for a different day, but I also enjoyed the challenge that mother nature threw my way.

The point of this story is to say that sure, my picture came out a bit blurry, but I will likely have fond memories associated with this photography session for years to come. I think it’s moments like those that I appreciate having a food blog in the first place; while cookbooks are often very particular – run through a team of editors and designers – blogging can be as fluid as the author defines. And really, the photo looks much better than some of the photos from this site’s early days, anyway!

This week’s recipe isn’t glamorous, and one we make often. Since the vegetables have varying cooking times, the best approach is to par-boil the hardier vegetables – carrots and parsnips, in this case – and then finish them all off together in the oven. Feel free to swap out the carrots and parsnips with other vegetables, like turnips or beets.

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While we typically eat Basic Mashed Potatoes with our daily meals, you can’t deny the fun that is Smashed Potatoes. In few other recipes can you treat a food so poorly–smashing it with the heel of your palm!–and still come away with something that’s both perfectly crispy and secretly fluffy.

This recipe takes a bit longer than a typical mashed or roasted potato, mostly because you’ll need to cool the potatoes for about 10 minutes, but the extra effort is an excellent way to periodically spice up your relationship with America’s favorite tuber.

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Tortilla Española, sometimes called Tortilla de Patatas, is a Spanish omelette unrelated to the corn and wheat tortillas found in Mexico and neighboring countries (in Spanish, the word tortilla means “small torte/cake”). It is often served cold as a tapa, or warm as part of a meal.

References to the Spanish tortilla didn’t surface until the early 19th century, as a quick meal (for soldiers, as legend has it) using readily-available ingredients of eggs and potatoes, and sometimes onion. Common add-ins for Spanish tortillas include chorizo sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, peas, and eggplant; the name of the dish will often change depending on which ingredients are added to the mix.

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I recently completed some housekeeping on the blog, long overdue; I redeveloped the categories on my sidebar navigation, to include specific ingredients (like shrimp and other sub-categories instead of just seafood), as well as certain types of dishes (like soups & stews) or preparations (pressure cooker recipes). I hope this makes this website a little more user-friendly, and please be sure to share any feedback in the comments below.

In the spirit of housekeeping, I recently realized that there are some very basic recipes missing from the pages of this blog. Some are obvious; I don’t expect to ever provide a tutorial on how to fry bacon, or how to slice an onion, as there are many excellent blogs dedicated to kitchen basics. But others are such a fundamental part of my everyday cooking that their absences were missed. One such recipe is today’s post, for basic mashed potatoes.

I grew up with mashed potatoes as a staple starch. Today’s recipe is very similar to my mom’s basic technique: boil some potatoes, then drain and mash them up with a bunch of butter and cream. Although to be honest, I’m a product of the 1980s (knee-deep in the low-fat craze), so our potatoes were likely made with (yikes!) margarine and (ick!) 2% milk. I’m happy to report that after spending time with my parents the other week, they’re back on real butter and cream.

Today’s recipe comes from the pages of Deep Dish: Season One, the project I released with my friend Tony Federico this past May. In it, we explore a classic American meal – Meatloaf – and build a history lesson, radio show, and comprehensive recipe eBook to explore the ins and outs of one celebrated dinner.

One last bit of housekeeping – I’m disappointed to report that the company behind my iOS/Android app will be shuttering their services, and my app will no longer work after the New Year. After spending some weeks researching alternatives, I have not been able to find a solution that fits my budget. One of my goals is to learn programming code well enough to develop my own app, but that’ll be some time from now – I still need to finish writing cookbook #3! So for now, please accept my apologies, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time with my app.

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