Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tales from the Market Part 2: Swiss Chard, Cremini Mushroom & Pork Empanadas from Rice Farmer's Market

Last week I was invited to the Rice Farmer's Market.  The purpose of this visit to the farmer's market was not just to indulge in some chit chat with vendors.  I was brought along to write about my experience and to show people what could be done with ingredients bought at the farmer's market.  When I arrived I had some preconceived notions of what dish I might concoct.  I thought I was probably going to end up making a delicious salad with all the vegetables I was going to get.  But as I went along and started looking at all the different ingredients, I started to tinker in my mind and and come up with a world of possibilities, especially if I allowed myself some ingredients from outside of the market.  What I ultimately ended up deciding to make was a Swiss chard, cremini mushroom and ground pork empanada. The chard, mushrooms and green onions all came from Animal Farm Center and the ground pork from Shiner Pork and Beef.

My goodies from the Farmer's Market

Five buches of Swiss Chard

Two bunches for green onion

About two pounds of cremini mushrooms

Three cloves of garlic

A little over a pound of ground pork
As well as these ingredients I also used two sheets (one package) of puff pastry and about a 1/4 cup of egg beaters for egg wash.

Whisk the egg with about two tablespoons of water for the perfect egg wash.

First I prepared my vegetables.

Chop and wash the chard

Slice the green onion

Slice the mushrooms

Mince the garlic
Next in a large pan I added my ground pork to allow it to start browning.  Normally I would start with a little oil and saute my garlic until it was aromatic.  The pork however, had a good bit of fat, so I decided to let that render out, then add my garlic and let it cook in that fat.  I made sure my heat was not too high as I did not want my meat to burn before browning. I also added just a little salt and pepper to season the pork.  I was taught that when preparing a dish it is always good to season in layers.

Allow your pork to start browning on medium heat and for the fat to render out.

Add your garlic and let it cook in the pork fat.
Next I added my mushrooms and the white parts of the green onion.  The idea is once again to let the mushrooms and onions to cook in the fat of the pork.  I once again added a pinch of seasoning.

Add your mushrooms and whites of the onions.

Stir to make sure everything gets incorporated and cooks evenly.
After I let the mushrooms cook for a while I finally added the chard.  I let the mixture cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, so that the chard could also cook down.

Add your chard and allow it to cook down.

Mixture after stirring.
The last thing I did was to stir in the remainder of my green onions off the heat, taste it and adjust the seasoning.  After I tasting I decided that the mixture did not need any more salt, but a pinch more pepper. Then I let it cool off a bit.

Add remaining green onions and taste. Adjust seasoning accordingly
While I was cooking my mixture I made sure to pull out my puff pastry and allowed it to thaw out.

Thaw and stretch out your puff pastry.
While the mixture was cooling off, I stretched out my puff pastry and cut each sheet into six squares.

Tip: add a little flour to the surface you are cutting the pastry on so it does not stick.
Next, take I took a  couple of baking pans and sprayed them with cooking for baking spray.

This makes sure that the empanadas don't stick after baking.
I then lined the squares on the baking pans so I could make my empanadas.  I lined up the squares as evenly as possible.

Not the most even, I know.
Then I spooned about a tablespoon of the mixture into the middle of each square then I brushed the edges with a little egg wash. After that I simply folded the squares in half to form a triangle and pinched the edges shut using a fork.

Spoon about a tablespoon's worth of mixture in the middle of each square.
Fold each square in half and pinch the edges closed with a fork.
After the empanadas were assembled I simply brushed each one with egg wash before going into the oven.

Brush each empanada with egg wash before going in the oven.
Now all I had to do was bake my empanadas at 350 F for about ten minutes until the puff pastry was golden brown and puffed up.  Once they came out of the oven I let them cool down, then arranged them on a platter to look nice.

Bake until golden brown and puffed. Allow to cool and enjoy!
An alternative to using puff pastry is to use pre-made pie dough.  Since pie dough usually comes in circles, it would be a good idea to use a circle cookie cutter to cut the dough into circles.  Simply follow the same procedure as if you were making the empanadas with puff pastry.  The only real difference is that if you are using pie dough you need to poke small holes in the empanadas to allow steam to vent as they cook.

Made with pie dough instead of puff pastry.

My experience with making this dish was that since I was experimenting I did not have all the amounts perfected.  That being said, if you make these empanadas the way that I did be prepared to have plenty of leftover mix.  I had enough to make a dozen empanadas from puff pasty, about twenty from pie crust and still have some left over.  That is not necessarily the worst thing in the world to happen.  I will simply freeze what I have left over and use it again at a later date.  I hope this recipe inspires you to forge your own culinary masterpiece using your local farmer's market!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tales from the Market Part 1: From Farm to Fork

There is a phrase that has been circulating in the food circles for a while now.  It is popular with chefs, trendy restaurants and even foodies.  You may have heard it before.  That phrase is "from farm to fork".  The first time I heard it was back in 2008 when the chef I worked for assigned me to the gourmet salad station.  But what does this phrase mean?  It is quite elegant in its simplicity.  The phrase simply reflects that the food one consumes goes directly from the farm where it was produced/grown/harvested to the plate of the person eating it with little to no go betweens.  This is a nice idea in theory, in practice it is much harder to achieve.  What I mean to say is that not many people (including chefs) have a direct line to farm to get the food they want.  A good way to get that connection is via a local farmer's market.  At a good quality farmer's market you will find a variety of vendors that can satisfy your need for a local connection to your food.

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of being taken to the Rice University Farmer's Market by Rice Dining where I had the opportunity to speak and interact with several vendors there.   This was not my first time here, but this was my first time to really explore and see just what the market had to offer.  One of the first vendors we talked to was Chef Chandler Rothbard from Animal Farm Center.  We chatted about what produce he had brought with him as well as what Animal Farm was all about.  I, along with other chefs from work, were able to procure some choice produce. We got some beautiful watermelon radishes as well as some edible flowers.  I personally got some Swiss chard, green onions and some cremini mushrooms. 

From left to right: Watermelon Radishes, Romanesco, Broccoli, Cremini Mushrooms.
Me with Chef Chandler and our haul.
Right next to the Animal Farm stand was one from Shiner Pork and Beef.  I decided to see what they had to offer and maybe pick something up.  At first I wanted some delicious pork belly, but all that they had brought was already accounted for.  I tried bacon next, but it was the same situation.  Fortunately they did have some ground pork for sale, so I snatched up a package.

Cooler for of deliciousness.

Ground pork I was able to get.
I spoke to several other vendors including Patrick Bierschwale from Katerra Exotics, Jim from Jim's World of Worms and someone from Angela's Oven.  They were all very pleasant and very knowlegable about their particular products.  Patrick informed me of how they raise their animals, the bison in particular.  Jim provides sprouts for several of the chefs on campus and I learn about the sprouts themselves.  During my time at the farmer's market I also tried kombucha for the first time from 3rd Coast Kombucha  and even had a delicious lavender lemonade from Ripe Cuisine.

Bread from Angela's Oven

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when visiting a farmer's market.  You can't go to one with a super market or recipe mentality.  What I mean by that is that farmer's markets don't have a specific set of things that will always be for sale that day.  The thing they sell are often seasonal and dependent on many other factors.  So if you are looking for something very specific there might be a chance it is unavailable.  Keep an open mind and maintain flexibility.  It is better if you let the market dictate what you want to purchase and therefore, what you want to create.

Next, take advantage of the people selling you their wares.  More often than not they had a direct hand in growing, making, cultivating what is in front of you.  Don't be shy and ask questions.  They probably relish the opportunity to talk to someone about what they have.  Be adventurous and try new things.  If you don't know what something is or what to do with it, don't hesitate to ask.  This ties back into my previous point.  Don't be afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone.

Lastly, be prepared to spend a little money.  I will say this, as awesome as farmer's markets are, they are not cheap.  Most of the vendors don't have the luxury of mass producing what they are selling.  That means they have quality premium stuff, but it also means you have to pay a little more than what you might normally be accustomed to.  While a farmer's market might not be an every week shopping trip for everyone, the every once in a while splurge is totally worth it. Houston has several markets throughout the city.  Go out there and experience one.   After all its the only real way to experience the "farm to fork"!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Incredible Eddible Egg..plant

Common Eggplant

I used to think that I was not a big fan of eggplant.  I used to think that I did not like the taste and that eggplant was one of those vegetables that only vegetarians and hippies ate.  Like most things I did not like to eat it was only I had never experienced them prepared well.  It was not until I shared a meal at a Chinese restaurant that I experienced eggplant in a way that I not only liked, but loved.  The dish was simply Japanese eggplant stir-fried with the "chef's special sauce".  I tried the dish if only for curiosity sake and my life has not been the same since.  While the sauce of the dish was a large portion, I fell in love with eggplant itself.  It was soft and almost creamy with an earthy flavor to it and non of the bitterness that I usually thought accompanied eggplant.

So what exactly is an eggplant?  The eggplant, also known as an aubergine, is a fruit (technically a berry) that is consumed like a vegetable that comes from a plant originating in India.  The eggplant has been known to Asia for over two millennia and been cultivated in China since 500 B.C.  Arabs and Persians introduced it to Africa before the middle ages and it was from there that the eggplant was brought to Italy around the 14th century.  The first varieties of eggplant were so bitter that Europeans initially thought it caused insanity and kept it mainly for its ornamental purposes.  Only after years of cultivation and selective breeding has the eggplant improved in flavor.

Japanese, white and common Western Eggplants
There are multiple varieties of eggplants.

There are many different varieties of eggplant with Asian and western being the most commonly available.  Asian varieties are either long and thin or round with skin colors ranging from creamy white to deep purple.  Western eggplants, the more common one in the US, are shaped like a like a big pear with shiny lavender to purple-black skin.  The eggplant grows on a three foot high plant that bears purple-blue flowers.  The yellowish flesh of the eggplant is dense and spongy with a bland flavor that absorbs other flavors well.  Eggplants contain small brown seeds that are edible. The skin is also edible, but can be quite bitter in certain varieties.  Younger and smaller eggplants have less seeds and tend to have skin that is more tender and less bitter.

Eggplant flower

In order to choose a good eggplant look for one that is plump, firm, and heavy. It should be free of blemishes with smooth shiny skin.  Fruits with wrinkled or spotted skin are likely to be old and bitter tasting.  Press the skin lightly to check for ripeness.  If the imprint remains, then the fruit is ready.  Asian eggplants tend to softer than western ones.  Eggplants are available all year long, but their peak season is during the late summer. 

Now that you know what an eggplant is and how to pick one, what do you do with it?  Eggplants are wonderfully versatile and lend themselves to all manner of dishes and cooking methods.  Eggplant can be grilled, baked,stuffed, au gratin, purred, steamed, fried, or sauteed.  It is delicious hot or cold and makes a wonderful addition to any dish or serve as the main ingredient.  Eggplant plays a pivotal role in Asian and Mediterranean cuisines where it is often paired with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.  Some of the more commonly known eggplant dishes are moussaka, ratatouille, baba ganoush and eggplant Parmesan.

Eggplant Hors D'oeuvres

Stuffed Eggplant

Whole Eggplant Being Grilled


Roasted Eggplant

When preparing your eggplant is is important to keep in mind that the flesh of the fruit quickly discolors when cut.  Cooking it soon after it is cut or sprinkling it with lemon juice will help avoid that.  If the eggplant is large sprinkling the pieces  with salt and letting it sit for at least thirty minutes will help draw out some of the moisture from it as well as some of the bitterness.  This process also helps to keep the eggplant from absorbing too much oil during the cooking process.  Soaking the fruit in water will also draw out some of the bitterness as well as peeling it since most of the bitterness is concentrated just under the skin. 

Sliced Eggplant Being "Salted"

Eggplant bruises easily so it should be handled carefully.  It is also sensitive to temperature fluctuations.  Fresh eggplants should be stored in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator where they will keep for about a week.

Hopefully this post inspires someone who has not had or has not prepared eggplant to get adventurous with this versatile fruit/vegetable.  Not only is it delicious, it is good for you.  So get out there and try the incredible, edible, eggplant!