It being May, I've started to dig around in my garden. I was hoping to make you something that screams spring, something crunchy and bright that I've pulled from the ground. The only likely candidate is my rhubarb plant, a dutiful perennial I inherited when I moved to Jackson nineteen years ago. I'll be transforming it into your next favorite cocktail when it gets a tad taller.
Think of all the Caesar salads you could make...
In the meantime, how about I give you a tour of my favorite garden? Last winter I attended cooking school at Rancho La Puerta, a fitness spa just south of the border from San Diego. Guests are served incredibly delicious vegetarian food from the 6 acre organic garden, planted by the founders in the 1940s, before anyone even knew what organic meant.
I'll give you one of my favorite rainbow chard recipes below.
These gardens have been lovingly tended for over seventy years in the shadow Mountain Kuchumaa, Tecate's sacred mountain.
Mt. Kuchumaa looms in the background of this 60 year old organic garden.
Happy rows of spinach.
Nasturtiums are beautiful in the garden and fun to eat.
Cabbage the size of my head.
Cooking classes at Rancho La Puerta start in the garden as guests are charged with gathering ingredients for the meal. Ellen and I--escaping the Jackson Hole winter--could hardly contain our glee at pulling fresh food from the ground.
Ellen pulls carrots from the ground with tops that are even greener than her puffy.
That's me picking spinach, and taking the job very, very seriously.
I can only dream of such specimens sprouting up from my Zone 3 high altitude Wyoming garden.
Salvador Tinajero is the head gardener at Rancho La Puerta. A rock star of a gardener, he believes that plants have personalities. I never tire of listening to Salvador wax poetic about his radicchio, which he says needs lots of elbow room. Or hear him describe the sex life of the fennel plant, which he sees as a symbol of tolerance.
Salvador Tinajero, head gardener.
Salvador gave me a handful of Nasturtiums seeds--those bright and peppery edible flowers--as we walked through half an acre of the yellow and red blossoms. I promised him I'd smuggle the seeds through customs and plant them in the ground in Wyoming. He laughed, loving the idea of spreading his beloved plants so far north.
Cookbook author Joan Nathan gathers Nasturtium seeds with Salvador.
Once we were done playing in the garden, we headed into the kitchen to cook. Joan Nathan was there to teach classes on healthy Moroccan cooking. Her first class began with a lesson in preserving lemons
; I knew she and I would get along just fine. Not only has Joan authored ten cookbooks (The New American Cooking
earned a James Beard award), she is an expert on Jewish food and has spent time all over the Middle East peering into kitchens and learning to cook dishes authentically. I followed her everywhere, trying to learning everything I could.
This just-picked chard was pristine, but I found a nice bundle at the grocery store today to toss with my new favorite pesto.
Joan taught us how to take a nose-to-tail approach to beets: roasting the beets with cumin and cilantro, and braising the green tops in paprika and harissa, the ubiquitous hot sauce of Morocco.
This huge pile of beet tops cooked down into a warm salad spiked with cumin, paprika and harissa.
The beets were roasted and tossed with the juice of a lemon and an orange, cumin and balsamic vinegar, then sprinkled with cilantro. Mmmmm.
Joan uses preserved lemons liberally in everything to add a bright citrus "ping" of flavor. She sprinkles them on roasted fish, purées them into her salad dressing, and adds them to her lentil soup. She even incorporates an entire preserved lemon into her famous hummus.
Joan making preserved lemons: pack lemon halves with kosher salt, then pickle them in their own juice.
Whole corvina (like a sea bass) are stuffed with braised fennel, leeks and onions, roasted on a bed of fennel, and sprinkled with preserved lemons, sumac and za'atar.
I'll keep all of Joan's recipes on the back burner for now; they'll be perfect mid-summer when the farmers' markets are overflowing with produce.
This week, big bundles of rainbow chard from the grocery store will have to do. Slivered and gently sautéed in olive oil, the chard gets tossed with pasta and Sicilian White Pesto--made with pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and golden raisins. It's nutty and sweet, garlicky and spicy, a combination of flavors you just have to try.
Rainbow chard and Sicilian white pesto--honestly, you don't even need to add pasta.
Salvador would be happy to know that my smuggled Rancho La Puerta Nasturtium seeds are sowed in the ground waiting for the fickle sun to warm up the soil. Soon we'll all be seeing green.
Pasta with Rainbow Chard and Sicilian White Pesto
The Sicilian White Pesto is adapted from a recipe by Eugenia Bone in her book Well Preserved. I changed it up a bit, adding pistachios and red pepper flakes, and increasing the amount of golden raisins. The sweet golden raisins are essential to balance all the nutty, garlicky flavors of the pesto, so be sure to seek them out.
If you can't find good pine nuts (or they are prohibitively expensive), use more walnuts instead.
Leftover pesto can be stored in an airtight jar, covered with a film of olive oil, for up to 10 days.
Serves 3-4, with about 1 cup of leftover pesto
For the pesto:
For the rainbow chard:
- 1 cup shelled pistachios (I found these already shelled and on sale at Smith's grocery store)
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 10 garlic cloves, sliced
- 3 tsp. dried oregano
- pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- 3 T. olive oil
- 3/4 cup golden raisins
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
For the pasta:
- 1 bunch rainbow chard, washed, patted dry and cut into 1 inch slivers, woody stems discarded
- 1 T. olive oil
- 3/4 lb. fettucine or other long pasta
- 1 cup Sicilian white pesto
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1/4 cup pasta water
Pasta, Rainbow Chard, and Sicilian White Pesto
- Bring a large pot of water on the stove to boil. While waiting, sauté the rainbow chard in the tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan. After 5 minutes or so, or as soon as the greens are wilted and soft, set aside in a bowl. Keep the frying pan out to saute the pesto; no need to wipe it clean.
- Make the pesto by placing the pistachios, walnuts, pine nuts, and garlic in a food processor. Pulse until it resembles wet granola. Add the oregano and red pepper flakes. Pulse a few more times.
- Heat the olive oil in the frying pan over low heat, add the pesto, the raisins, salt and pepper. Sauté gently, stirring continuously, for about 5 minutes.
- Once the water boils add 1 T. Kosher salt and then the pasta. Cook until just tender to the bite. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta water.
- Toss the pasta with one cup of the pesto and the chard. Add a little pasta water if it seems dry. Top with the Pecorino Romano cheese and toss well.
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May 1, Jackson Hole, the day I had earmarked to plant my herb garden.