Cucumber, Fennel and Ricotta Salad

In my humble opinion, this is a perfect early spring salad, especially for those of us who live somewhere where the sky and the ground seem irreverent towards the date on the calendar, and to our yearnings for sunshine and fresh food.  It's light and green, like spring, but calls for veggies that are available all year long:  avocado, fennel, cucumber and a handful of sprouts.  The light freshness satisfies my desire to move away from heartier winter veg like kale and squash, although it does little to curb my envy towards people living in warmer climates,  filling their faces with legitimate springtime delicacies.   

This recipe comes from award-winning British food writer and cook Nigel Slater's book Eat, in a section entitled On a Plate.  In the intro to the section he says,"Stuff that goes pretty much straight on to the plate often includes a raw ingredient at it's heart - something so perfect you want to eat it in all its glory."  In this recipe, I think the star is really the ricotta, especially if you make your own (which is surprisingly very simple) or you can get your hands on some that's really fresh.    I love how this salad uses a delicate creamy scoop of quality ricotta as a starting point for a lovely light meal.   In the case of this particular salad,  there are shavings of sweet anise scented fennel, a slight creamy textural variation from the avocado and a bright, refreshing crunch from cucumber and lemon, but this really could go in a variety of directions. Roasted or fresh cherry tomatoes, arugula, smoked trout or salmon, prosciutto, zucchini, pine nuts,  pistachios, mint or basil would all be welcome variations.  

So I will continue to make ricotta salad and eat "spring like" meals until the ground finally yields dusty pink stalks of rhubarb, pungent wild leeks and grassy green stalks of asparagus.  And when they finally, finally do appear I will most definitely feature them, in all their glory, on my plate. 

CUCUMBER, FENNEL AND RICOTTA SALAD
From Nigel Slater's Eat ( the original recipe is in The Guardian here)

2 tbsp. lemon juice
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
3 sprigs of fresh dill (I also added a bit of mint) 
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut in chunks
Small bulb of fennel, shaved
1 avocado, thinly sliced
Several handfuls of sprouts
1 large scoop of ricotta (about 1/2 a cup)
Flakey sea salt
1 handful of shelled, smashed pistachios

Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic and dill in a medium size bowl.  Add in the cucumber, fennel and gently fold in slices of avocado.  Let this sit for about half an hour.

Add in several handfuls of sprouts and transfer to plates.  Top with a large scoops of ricotta, a sprinkle of pistachios and flakey sea salt.  Serve with more lemon on the side.  

Serves 2

Caramelized Garlic Mushrooms

I never gave mushrooms much of a chance until I became a vegetarian in my late teens. The strange, squidgy texture and the fact that my sister loved them, was more than enough reason to reject them outright.  But then one evening, during my decade long stint as a vegetarian, my mother served a mushroom barley risotto that revealed to me the sublime,  natural umami taste of edible fungus.  

This mushroom recipe is inspired by a vegan friend's mushroom cooking method.  The first time I saw her leaving the mushrooms to cook in mounds of garlic, for over 15 minutes, I thought for sure they would be burnt, dry and chewy.  Vegan leather anyone!?  But boy, was I wrong!  The abundant quantity of garlic mixes with the mushroom juices to create a sticky caramel coating that perfectly enhances the natural meaty, umami of the mushrooms.  This dish can easily make a meal served on some sort of mashed root vegetablethese kale mashed potatoes, or polenta.  It would also work as a decadent side dish for any type of meat, particularly steak.  Or it could be served as an appetizer with some toothpicks.  I ate it for lunch with a salad and a slice of focaccia and couldn't stop eating it.  I had intended to save some to eat with eggs at breakfast, but that didn't happen!   

CARAMELIZED GARLIC MUSHROOMS
8 oz whole cremini or other mix of mushrooms
1/2 head or 2 tbsp. minced garlic (I used 1 oz)
1/4 cup white wine or broth
1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 -3 sprigs of thyme
3 tbsp olive oil plus more for drizzling
1-2 tbsp nutritional yeast or parmesan

1.  Pull the stems off of the mushroom caps and discard or save to make vegetable broth.  

2.  Heat the olive oil in medium skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat, and add the garlic.  Cook, stirring constantly, for around 1 minute, just until starting to turn golden. 

3.  Add the mushroom caps, thyme and salt to the pan and coat with the garlic.  Cook for 2 minutes more and then add the white wine to deglaze and coat mushrooms.  If the garlic starts to burn, turn down your heat and/ or add the wine. 

4.  Once the wine has mostly evaporated, turn down the heat to low and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping the mushrooms occasionally and watching to be sure the garlic doesn't burn.

5.  Once the mushrooms are golden brown and coated in a sticky, garlic coating, sprinkle with nutritional yeast or cheese and let cook for 2 minutes longer.    

Enjoy in any or all of the above mentioned ways!  
  
Serves 1 to 2