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What to Forage Now: Dandelion Leaves and Wild Onions

My basic theory of gardening is that plants want to grow. And if they want to grow — if they spring up on their own and we can eat them, don’t interfere. That means dandelions in the yard and vegetable garden (they grow strongest in the sun). Wild onions have shot up everywhere too.

I’m very much against poisoning them.  Pulling up “weeds” is the most effective way of dealing with them (despite what you’ll read on the internet about vinegar solutions). Dandelions aren’t “weeds” to me. Picking and eating dandelions in the early spring is an ancient ritual. They are filled with minerals and vitamins, and are good for the liver.

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Cleaning the April pickings, dandelion leaves, parsley and wild onions.

Dandelion leaves can be bitter. The are less bitter when small and the flowers haven’t bloomed. Large leaves from blooming dandelions can be cooked to mellow their flavor and make them tender.

Dandelions don’t have poisonous lookalikes, according to Wildman Steve Brill, an expert forager who leads tours in New York and Connecticut. Chicory looks like dandelion and is edible, so if you’re foraging, you’ll probably pick up both.

To counter the bitterness of a wild dandelion and chicory salad, I give it a hearty dressing, an emulsion of olive oil, lemon juice, mashed garlic, and salt. Then add chunks of rich, creamy avocado and slices of crisp, sweet red bell pepper.

You can also subdue a dandelion with a dressings of hot bacon fat, apple cider vinegar, then top with lardons and garlic-rubbed croutons. Avocado works in this salad too.

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To cook, first gather as many as you can. A big bowl of leaves will reduce when cooked.  Wash them — you’ll probably have to soak them in water twice. (I use it to water the seedlings on the back porch.)

Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. Add the greens. When the water returns to a boil, let them cook for a minute. This step removes the bitterness. Remove from water and place in a bowl of cold water.

In a large frying pan, simmer garlic or wild garlic cloves in olive oil until it smells good, but doesn’t brown. Add blanched dandelion greens.  Saute them in the oil, add fresh water, salt, and more olive oil, and bring to simmer. Partially cover and cook for ten minutes or so until the leaves do not resist to the bite. Serve in a bowl with some of the water, drizzle on more olive oil to taste. The water the greens simmer in tastes delicious. I’m certain it’s good for you.

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Another classic  Italian recipe, which Lidia Bastianich told me about, pairs cooked dandelions on top of pureed fava beans. It’s made with dried favas, which are actually less time consuming to work with than fresh.   It’s a dish from Puglia, and the pleasing contrast of sharp greens and rich beans, is eaten in alternating bites, with good country bread.

Giuliano Bugialli has a recipe for dandelions with favas in his book Foods of Italy.  My photojournalist friends will note that John Dominis shot the gorgeous photos. He gave a copy to my mother and inscribed it. I learned to cook from Foods of Italy, and I return to the recipes.

That reminds me of another one of my favorite dishes, which I call Beans Over Greens. Cooked dried beans (white beans or chickpeas), sautéed in garlic, scallions and parsley (which is also flourishing in my garden right now.)  I usually serve this over arugula. It could also be served with a super-early green like mache or ackersalat.

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Mache or ackersalat must be planted in the fall for an early spring crop.

But ackersalat seeds must be planted the previous fall.  Meanwhile, the arugula seedlings have sprouted, and the leaves will be ready to eat in a few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ll eat dandelions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch at The Modern

A great meal, the three-course prix fixe at The Modern in New York City.

First, an amusing amuse bouche. Glasses of shredded, dehydrated beets, into which the server poured warm broth.

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With it, a bowl of fresh cheese with beet chips.  A waiter appeared with a tray holding six adorable mini rolls. I think the waiter told us we could have as many as we wanted. We demurely (so I like to think), took one, a pretzel roll for Paula, and a whole wheat roll for me. It was light textured, slightly sweet.

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My first course, sea bass with sunchokes and watercress. No words needed.

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Paula started with this gorgeous salad. There’s burrata beneath the leaves.

For my second course, beef with marrow, celery root and black truffle. A waiter holding a little copper saucepan spooned truffle sauce onto plate.

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Paula’s second course was seared salmon. Sensible girl. It had Meyer lemon confit, endive and radicchio.

And then, dessert. I had chocolate marquise with earl grey ice cream.

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Paula’s dessert was ricotta cannoli with picked rhubarb and crème fraiche sorbet.

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Service at The Modern was excellent. When I arrived, the hostess told me Paula was already there. The reservationist had noted that we had a theatre date, and our server asked what time we needed to leave. The check was ready the moment I needed it,  prepared but not given until I looked at our server.

The Modern has a no tipping policy.  I’m all for it.  Instead of ending a delightful meal by frowning over the check while trying to figure out the 20 percent tip, one blithely signs.

As we left, we asked if they’d take our picture. A host lead us to The Modern’s kitchen for an awesome backdrop. Which truth be told, has a lot more charm than the dining room, which looks like an airline lounge with a view of a construction site. The atmosphere in the bar section of the Modern is livelier, and they have an a la carte menu. Would I go back to The Modern? Yes!

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Video Prep Chili

After prepping the food for a cooking video last week, I came home with extra prep from a chicken ranch salad.

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At first I thought I’d make soup, so I sautéed the vegetables.

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There was extra chopped red onion and chopped parsley from another dish (we shot five ), so I added those.

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Chopped the remaining half of a jalapeno that had topped the cheese on another dish from the shoot,  deconstructed stuffed cabbage, otherwise known as cabbage-beef casserole.

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Crumbled bacon was the finishing touch on the Ranch chicken salad. Tossed into the pan, along with an extra slice of cooked back-up bacon, rough chopped.  I was reveling in not having to be precise.  I decided to make chili rather than soup.

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Added a can of whole tomatoes and their sauce. In the freezer, I found chicken stock, and added about a cup and a half.  Chili powder, from the cabbage-beef casserole, and a teaspoon of homemade habanero sauce from the fridge. Used my favorite little spatula to cut the tomatoes into quarters.  Look at all those vegetables! Makes me feel healthy just looking at it.

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Two poached skinless chicken breasts were added at the very end, after the sauce had simmered for 40 minutes, and the vegetables were tender. Along with the chicken, I added two cups of pinto beans. These just happened to be in a pot on back burner. I’m lucky to live with another cook.

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You can tell how good this was, right?  Thick with vegetables, bright, spicy, and hearty. We served it straight up in bowls, not wanting rice or even bread. The big pot of Video Prep Chili disappeared in a day.

 

Spring Breakfast

It’s the first day of Spring and the ground is covered with snow, but there’s a change in the light and air. And I didn’t burn the toast.

My friend’s chickens are laying eggs. I felt very lucky when Lynn gave me these beautiful eggs. Her chickens have the best diet, non-gmo grains supplemented by foraging.

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Just look at that yolk.

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Here’s a 5-minute breakfast. Toast some bread. My favorite morning toast is The Luncheonette, which is baked by Fairfield Bread Company. I’m a taste-tester for Fairfield Bread Company.

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Scramble the egg, add lots of chopped parsley because it’s growing in the garden already and it’s filled with minerals, and it will help distract if you’re not using cheese because it’s Spring and it’s time to eat less and move more.

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Pour egg-parsley mixture into an oiled hot cast iron pan. When the eggs are set, remove, fold and place on the toast.

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Assemble and serve. IMAG1279

No Shopping Blizzard Baking

We don’t go shopping before a storm. Storms have taught us that we have enough/too much food in our house. When the storm baking bug struck, I foraged through the cabinet.

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I found a bag of plantain flour. Must have bought it at the International Food Bazaar supermarket in Bridgeport. I wasn’t sure what it would be like. I once used a fresh yellow plantain to make dough for empanadas filled with chicken, olives and raisins, and it came out great.

But this soft plantain flour was different from a mashed plantain. To understand the flour’s properties, I mixed some water with it. It took on a batter-like consistency. It smelled sweet like a ripe banana and tasted sweet and banana-y.

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Marion Cunningham’s Fannie Farmer Baking Book, unfailingly reliable, has a recipe for rum-raisin banana bread that’s not too sweet. I followed the recipe, with a few substitutions. Plantain and water mixture replaced the banana, Amaro grappa replaced the rum (a fitting end for a raisin), and they soaked and pumped up while the ingredients were assembled, rather than overnight. And because we had no walnuts (and no bananas), I added toasted chopped hazelnuts.

The plantain bread turned out quiet well, with a fine tender structure, banana aroma, not overly sweet.

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There’s still more plantain flour in the bag. Next up, gluten-free plantain pancakes.

Top Three Pizza Places in Fairfield County

Connecticut’s reputation as a pizza state rests firmly in New Haven, where Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern play out a long rivalry. New Haven pizza’s roots are Italian immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s. Today, New Haven-style thin-crust pizzas are being blistered in ovens ovens all over Fairfield County.

Pepe’s opened its first outpost in Fairfield more than 10 years ago, and it still can’t shake mutterings “It’s not as good as New Haven,” because how can an old seasoned oven compete with one that’s been firing only a dozen years?  (Take that, futurists and technocrats!)

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Photo courtesy of Tom McGovern

I have enjoyed pizzas at Pepe’s in Fairfield. We met friends who were driving back to New Jersey from a Connecticut casino. They didn’t know that pizza was a Connecticut Thing. The long  lines at Pepe’s, the anticipation, seemed to be a sign it was worth waiting for. Getting a table felt like an honor, followed by the rush of ordering. Our friends loved the pizzas, and packed up half to take home to their kids. When the check came, we were glad they’d done so well at the casino.

 

I wrote about the history of Pepe’s and my love of their fresh clam pie for the Hartford Courant, and here’s a report with more photos from my blog Pepe’s Pizza’s History in the Pies

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Photos by Tom McGovern

I love the pizza at Amore Cucina & Bar in the Springdale section of Stamford. Bruno DiFabio’s mastery of Neapolitan and Roman crusts, and classic and contemporary toppings blends tradition with exploration. I wrote about Amore for the Hartford Courant, and here’s a blog post with more photos Amore Cucina: Great Pizza in Stamford

 

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Fortina is a loud, youthful place in Harbor View, which makes a terrific pizza Margherita.

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You can read more about it here: Fortina Pizzeria Rocks Harbor Point

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But my favorite place of all to have pizza is at home, Tips for Making Great Pizza at Home

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Where’s your favorite place to have pizza?

 

Amore Cucina: Great Pizza in Stamford

Photos by Tom McGovern, Courtesy of Amore Cucina

Bruno DiFabio’s love of pizza came full circle when he opened Amore Cucina & Bar. It’s where he made his first pizza when he was ten. Today, the six-time World Pizza Champion and restaurateur owns the 40-year-old joint in Springdale, Stamford, where he updates  Italian-American classics, and continues his exploration into the artisan pizza he started at RéNapoli (King of Naples) in Old Greenwich.

The original 1975 red neon sign is retro hip. Inside, exposed brick and worn wood, a long bar that seats 30. There’s a dining room too. But if you’re a pizza geek, you’ll want to sit at the end of the bar and watch the pizza guy.

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After making New York-style pizza professionally for 20 years, DiFabio went to Italy to study under a grand master pizzaiolo. He studied the science of pizza making, traveled the world to see where the ingredients are grown and processed. He collected dew in the Dolomite Mountains to get yeast for a starter dough he’s kept going for years. He filmed a pilot. He judged pizza on the Food Network show “Chopped.”

At Amore Cucina & Bar, there are two kinds of pies, the round Neapolitan and square Roman, each made with a different type of dough. The Neapolitan uses the traditional 8-hour process, and bakes in a wood-fired oven, creating a thin, charred, chewy, well-flavored crust. The Roman pizza dough ferments for 72 hours, creating an airy, bubble-filled crust with a crisp, brown exterior.

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The Neapolitan Margherita was glorious, baked quickly in a 900-degree wood-fired oven, to get the distinctive char known as “leoparding,” and topped with a bright, garlic-infused San Marzano tomato puree, pools of creamy fresh mozzarella and torn basil leaves.

The Roman Juliet is sweet with gorgonzola dolce, fig jam, balanced with ham glazed with balsamic. DiFabio’s award-winning pizzas are on the menu, the Roman-style Ferentini, topped with spicy salami, green olives, San Marzano puree and mozzarella.

Shaved fennel salad with avocado, dressed in lemon, olive oil and sea salt, is a refreshing complement.  Pork belly and polenta is an irresistible cicchetti or snack.

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And praise be for short ribs cooked on the bone as they should be (where and why did a trend for boneless short ribs, if that’s even what they are, sweep the restaurant scene?) Same with the Italian-American classic chicken scarpariello, served on the bone, surrounded by a deeply flavored, spicy wine sauce  seasoned with sausage and pickled hot red peppers. Fingerling potatoes cooked in duck fat add a note of luxury.

Duck fat fried potatoes are on the brunch  menu, and while I haven’t had a chance to get there, the savory waffle, with sausage, black pepper gravy and maple syrup, sounds tempting.

But no matter how I’m temped, I can’t help it, I always have Amore’s pizza Margherita

Amore Cucina & Bar is at 921 Hope St., Stamford, CT. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11:30 to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. For more information (203) 357-1066 or http://amorecucinastamford.com

A version of this article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.