Growing up a chubby, freckle faced strawberry blond in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in western New York State on the boarder of Pennsylvania and southeast of Buffalo, winter was the longest season of the year. You always knew spring was in the air and Easter was right around the corner when my small town hosted its annual ham and leek dinner at the Community Center. It had once served as the one room schoolhouse that my grandparents attended and still stands a century later with all the run down charm it always had in my youth.
The leeks of my childhood weren’t the kind we think of today that are a thick cylinder with a white base and variegate into shades of green with spiky stiff leaves at the top. No, the ones I recall had a white bulbous head similar to a scallion but with flat green leaves, the total leek being about ten inches long. Townspeople would gather to trudge through the tree lined hills, slipping and sliding in mud worn paths to scavenge and hunt the tender green sprouts popping out of the snow-moist earth amongst the dead leaves of the previous fall. It was a tedious job and took days to gather enough for the hundred or so folks that would partake in this spring festivity. Children weren’t allowed - we’d trample the delicate plant, or so I was told.
The flat green leaf and bulb stayed intact and were thoroughly rinsed of dirt and grime before being added to the cauldron of simmering ham and stock. Although of the onion family, these wild leeks, also known as ramps, have always been more of a green in my mind. The leaf is the predominant part of the plant. They have a very pungent taste, a combination of onions and garlic. If you eat them, be cautious, people know it for days!
As the sun continued to warm the earth and spring progressed, trees were budding and the lawns were returning to their vibrant green, another delectable plant began pushing its way through the soil. My Grandmother would don her apron, wrap a kerchief around her blond head and make her way to the out-of-doors to the sloping lawn. On hands and knees, she would begin digging into the earth and prying out young, toothy leaves of the dandelion plant. Catching these leaves shortly after they sprouted before they flowered would guarantee the most tender of this green.
I would sit on the grass and watch, relishing the feeling of the sun as it beat on my back in the spring air. “Gotta make sure you get the root and all,” she would say as the perspiration dripped off her forehead as she plunged her trowel back into the earth. I was one of two-dozen grandchildren, and always cherished the moments I had alone with her as they were few and far between. She was always in the kitchen and inspired me at a very young age.
At afternoons end, with her basket piled high with the dandelion greens and her finger nails full of soil, we’d make our way to the laundry tubs and wash and rise, and wash and rise, and wash and rise once again for safe measure. How’s that old saying go about eating a ton of dirt before we die . . . well, my Grandmother wasn’t going to feed her family any! Now they were clean enough for the kitchen sink, where they’d get one more bath before being cooked. Nipping off the roots from the tender greens, they’d go in the stockpot with some water and salt. I don’t recall any other ingredients or spices . . . As they simmered under the flame, the air began to smell of the bitter earthiness these greens are known for.
It would be hours before we’d be having them for dinner, but Grandma would pull two bowls out of the cupboard and fork a hefty portion into each. This was a rare treat. She’d make her way to the table with the two steaming bowls of greens and douse each one generously with vinegar, butter, salt and pepper. We’d each pull a fork full of greens from our bowl, blow to cool the temperature and not burn our tongues, and slurp them into our mouths. The bitterness of the green combined with the acid in the vinegar and the velvety smoothness of the butter was an explosion of flavors on my taste buds.
Those early days of my youth laid the foundation for my adventuresome foray into foods and spending time in my kitchen. Thanks, Grandma! I’ve always enjoyed a variety of greens and if I’m just having them steamed and plain I still douse them with vinegar; however I’ve replaced the butter with olive oil.
It’s that affinity for the explosion of tastes and textures that I look for in recipes today. I love whiling away the hours, in one of my Grandmother’s old aprons. They give me the courage and strength to experiment and to keep trying and not ever feel defeated by ingredients and processes. I am the cook I am today partly because of her, the other part from her son, my Dad. Grandma passed away in May 2003 at the ripe old age of 91. Hope I have her longevity!!
One of the most adventurous dishes I’ve done in a long time, I did for my Sweetie and me for Valentine’s Day just a couple of weeks ago. It was braised lamb shanks with kale. The shanks were generously coated with a spice mixture of cinnamon, cardamom and flour and seared until brown on all sides. The spice mixture was then combined with scallions, garlic, tomatoes, golden raisins, saffron threads, ground cloves and beef stock and cooked down to a bubbly, thick sauce in which to braise the shanks. Braising takes hours, but when the lamb falls off the bone, you know it’s done! Now is the time to stir in the kale (the recipe actually calls for Swiss Chard but I don’t see it holding up to the headiness of the spices like the kale did). If you added it any earlier in the braising process, it would melt away to nothingness.
I choose Lacinato kale, also known as Tuscan. I’d heard and read about it a lot and had never had the opportunity to try it before. I saw it at the supermarket and knew it was exactly what I was looking for. Well . . . it’s a keeper!! Thank you to all who recommended it . . . Very dark green, less curly leaves but the taste and meatiness of this plant was superb; as well as a wonderful compliment to the plethora of spices and the lamb. The shanks and sauce were succulent and the accompaniment of roasted beets and bulgur topped off the meal nicely.
Memories are a wonderful thing . . . greens conjure up images and smells of decades past for me. And as I continue to make new memories for myself, in my kitchen, in my Grandma’s apron, those of my childhood will always be the first to come to mind. I raise my glass of Petite Syrah and toast my Grandmother and thank her for all that she taught me! Salute!!
Braised Lamb Shanks with Swiss Chard
Bon Appétit February 2011
· 1 cup all purpose flour
· 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
· 1 3/4 teaspoons ground cardamom, divided
· 6 1- to 1 1/4-pound lamb shanks
· 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
· 12 green onions, chopped, divided
· 6 large garlic cloves, chopped
· 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
· 1 3/4 cups (14 ounces) beef broth
· 1/4 cup golden raisins
· 1 tablespoon tomato paste
· 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
· Large pinch of ground cloves
· 1 to 1 1/4 pounds Swiss chard (about 2 bunches)
· 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Preheat oven to 325°F. Whisk flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cardamom, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper in pie dish to blend. Working with 1 lamb shank at a time, coat shanks in seasoned flour. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 3 lamb shanks. Sauté until brown, turning occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer lamb to large roasting pan. Repeat with remaining 3 lamb shanks.
Add half of green onions to same skillet. Reduce heat to low; stir 2 minutes. Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add tomatoes with juice, broth, raisins, tomato paste, remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 3/4 teaspoon cardamom, saffron, and cloves. Increase heat and bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Pour broth mixture over lamb.
Cover roasting pan with foil; place in oven. Braise lamb until tender, turning every 30 minutes, about 2 1/2 hours. Transfer lamb to large rimmed baking sheet. Set pan aside.
Meanwhile, cut center rib (including stem portion) from each chard leaf. Cut chard ribs crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide pieces. Stack several leaf halves at a time and cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips.
Tilt roasting pan and spoon off all fat from top of sauce that pools at lower end. Set roasting pan over 2 burners. Add chard ribs and remaining green onions and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Return lamb to roasting pan. Cover and return to oven. Braise until chard ribs are tender, about 20 minutes. Uncover; mix chard leaves into pan juices. Return pan to oven and roast uncovered until chard softens, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.
Transfer lamb to rimmed platter. Season chard mixture in pan to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon chard mixture over lamb. Sprinkle with parsley; serve with bulgur.