Massage Your Greens

So kale may very well be the “it” vegetable of 2013, with the New York Times proclaiming “The fashionable plat du jour these days is the humble kale salad”. And rightfully so, given its antioxident rich nutrient profile. But how about some love for kale’s less trendy cousins? I’ve got some collard greens growing in my garden, and I was surprised to find out that they are actually the exact same species of plant as kale. In fact cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are also different cultivars of that same species, Brassica oleracea. Who knew?

massaged collards

The collards on the left have been massaged for a few minutes, on the right is their natural state

Those veggies all look rather different but share a similar taste, and to a majority of us (about 70%) that taste is bitter. The bitter flavor compounds are related to a chemical called PTC, which you might have encountered in biology class when the teacher gave you little paper strips to taste and 3/4 of the class made “ick” faces as the rest wondered what the fuss was about. That’s because you need a certain gene to taste the bitterness, and if you don’t have it, brassica veggies probably taste pretty good.

Now getting back to trendy kale – that fashionable plat du jour is actually the massaged kale salad, which when I first heard about it sounded like a bunch of foodie crap. But confronted with a harvest of collards and not really wanting to cook in the heat of summer, I figured I’d give it a try. The theory is that by rubbing the leaves together you essentially cause them to wilt – the cell walls break down and enzymes are released, making the leaf both less tough and less bitter. Most recipes also call for working in a dressing with salt, an acid, and a fat, which further cause the leaves to break down as well as working to cut the bitterness on your palate.

Lo and behold, it works! So, if you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for a few minutes, here’s a simple, healthy salad:

Massaged Collard Green Salad
Recipe type: salad
Prep time:
Total time:
Serves: 2-4
Massaging greens like collards or kale softens them and tames their bitterness, allowing them to be used raw as the base for a healthy salad.
  • One bunch collard greens or kale
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Toppings of your choice (bacon bits, parmesan cheese, sundried tomatoes, walnuts - whatever you've got handy)
  1. Wash the greens, remove the stems, and tear the leaves into rough pieces
  2. In a large bowl, add the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt to your greens
  3. Get your hands in there & grasp large handfuls of greens, crushing and rubbing them together like you're kneading bread. Keep this up for 2-3 minutes or until the greens are pretty well wilted.
  4. Mix in your toppings and serve!


Macerate Your Berries


The half on the left was rubbed with sugar, both sat around for an hour

Early summer brings lots of fresh strawberries, and I’ve been happily bringing home a quart or two from the greenmarket over the past few weeks. Strawberries fall into the category of “non-climacteric” fruits. This means that unlike bananas or tomatoes, they don’t continue to ripen after harvest. They’re at their peak when you pick them, and then it’s use them or lose them. To make things worse, they’re also thin-skinned, which allows mold and bacteria an easy foothold. Leave a pint of strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter on a muggy summer day and you can easily come back a few hours later to find them mushy and covered in fuzz!

So what to do with your berries? Personally I like to macerate them. (It’s ok, I’ll wait for your 12 year old self to stop chuckling : ) Maceration is the term for breaking something down in liquid. Much like marinating meat, maceration will soften the fruit by breaking down cell walls, and can also impart flavor, either into the fruit, or from the fruit into the liquid.

With strawberries, you’ll want to start by washing and hulling them (removing the stem part), and then slice them into pieces so more surface area is exposed. Then you’ve got some options. The most common thing to do is simply sprinkle them with sugar. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water. As the liquid is drawn out of the fruit, its cell walls will start collapsing, releasing further liquid until soon your berries have created their own syrup. You can also soak them in alcohol, or in acid like lemon juice. Personally, given how sweet strawberries are already, I prefer using balsamic vinegar, which has both sugar and acid in it, and brings out the fresh strawberry flavor while adding some complexity of its own.

I recently did a taste test and here are some different options you could try:

  • Honey or maple syrup: more interesting variations on plain sugar
  • Balsamic vinegar: Keeps the bright strawberry flavor but adds some notes of dark fruit or prunes, cuts the sweetness a bit. Even better when some chopped basil or mint is mixed in
  • Orange liqueur or rum: If you’re going to go this route, be sure to add sugar or else it will be too harsh. The exception was elderflower liqueur, which is naturally sweet, and would complement strawberries pretty well in a dessert
  • Lemon/lime: sweet-tart and bright, tastes like another kind of fruit entirely. The lime version had a sour candy taste like Smarties.
  • Soy sauce – a salty/sweet combination that your tongue wasn’t expecting. Definitely not for everyone, but it could be a fun surprise if worked into the right dish

In general it will take about half an hour for the magic to happen. At that point, you can top the macerated berries with whipped cream, pour them over ice cream with their syrup, or make a shortcake. You can also strain them out of the liquid and cook with them, since having some of the liquid removed already makes for a less-soggy pie. The season for fresh strawberries is coming to a close here in Brooklyn, but this will also work with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and the other fruits of summer.

Field Trip: Cooking En Francais at Cook & Go

Last week I had a fun time accomplishing two things at once with an awesome “cooking in French” workshop at Cook & Go in Manhattan.  I discovered this through Fluent City, where I’m currently taking a French class and thought it would be great opportunity to bone up on my French culinary vocabulary while also learning some new French dishes.  Cook & Go’s concept is simple but great for a busy New Yorker:  you spend a couple hours assembling a menu of a few courses.  Some of the annoying prep is taken care of for you already, and the remaining execution is planned out in a way that makes it approachable for even a novice chef.  When you’re done with the class, you end up with a set of containers in a takeout bag along with easy instructions on how to pop them in the oven and finish the cooking at home.  Bon appétit!  (Btw, they started in France but since this is NYC most classes are in English, and the cuisine options are geographically diverse.)

Chef Wilson Johnson teaches cooking in French at Cook & Go

Chef Wilson Johnson teaches cooking in French at Cook & Go

[Read more…]

Fond of French Onion Soup

French onion soup (or soupe à l’oignon gratinée, if you’re French) is a classic example of winter comfort food. One plunge of a spoon through the melted cheesy crust to the richly flavorful broth below and you’ll be hooked.

French Onion SoupLegend has it that King Louis (either the 14th or 15th, take your pick) invented this dish after returning to his hunting lodge one night to find nothing in the pantry but onions, butter, and champagne. In reality it was probably created back in Roman times by a much more humble cook facing a similar predicament. This, like all truly great cooking, is a peasant dish born from necessity.

I love this recipe because at its core it’s about extracting as much complex flavor as possible from one ordinary ingredient, and that’s the ethos of Building Flavor!  Now bear with me as I geek out a bit – after a small science lesson you’ll know why each step matters, which means you can cook this without being chained to the recipe. [Read more…]

Be Prepared

Mise en placeImagine this scenario:  you’ve got a bunch of guests over for a dinner party, or the whole family at Thanksgiving.  Everyone is happily chatting away with drinks or snacks in hand, all of them looking forward to the main event.

Meanwhile, in your impossibly cramped kitchen, you’re flailing around desperately wondering where you hid the oven mitts while something languishes overcooking in the heat.  You’ve got a sauce boiling away like Krakatoa because it just won’t reduce fast enough, and you just now realized that this other thing calls for finely minced garlic?

Dinner was supposed to be at 8, and at 8:15 one of your guests pokes their head in with a look of mixed expectation and sympathy and asks… “can we help you with anything?”

Does this seem familiar to you?  Because it’s happened to me way too many times.  And my resolution going forward is to be a better boy scout and simply be prepared. [Read more…]