Friday, July 6, 2012

Going green

We’re two weeks removed from our return from Germany (with a short stop in France). The trip was great: good times were had with friends and family, sights were seen and much art, soccer and, of course, beer was consumed. And we ate. In Berlin, we grabbed late night doner kebab to soak up the night’s revelries. In Munich, I tried schweinebraten, a Bavarian dish of slow-roasted pork served with cabbage and potato dumplings. That was great. In Freiburg, we ate schnitzel in the sunshine of the terrace at a country winery and washed it down with an array of dazzling whites. And in Strasbourg we ate coq au Riesling, a ham hock roughly the size of an infant’s cranium and a savoury crème brûlée made with custard and foie gras. You know: light cuisine.

The real culinary highlight of the trip was the meal we had at Little Otik in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood. With its antique light fixtures, mismatched wooden tables and chairs and an ever-changing menu of local and seasonal ingredients, Little Otik isn’t peddling German cuisine, nor is it breaking new ground for anyone familiar with the last few years of North American food trends (no surprise, given the two chaps behind the place are expat Americans). But what it may lack in originality, it nails in execution. I certainly won’t soon forget my slab of perfectly grilled rib eye with arugula, D’s white fish with beets, quinoa and yogurt sauce or the ice cream sandwich we shared for dessert: two homemade chocolate chunk cookies bracketing two scoops of real mint (as in, you could see the little flecks of the chopped mint) ice cream.

We also appreciated the fact that, at Little Otik, you could actually get vegetables with your meal. It wasn’t long before we realized what an anomaly that is for Germany. I love me some meat and starch, but they take that to a whole new level over there. It’s really, really hard to get vegetables (with the exception of the ubiquitous white asparagus). Salads? Sure, if you like bowls of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers swimming in a pool of creamy dressing. After three weeks of that we were ready to come back and dig into some healthy meals.

One problem: summer in Toronto is not conducive to cooking. Since we’ve been back, temperatures have hovered in the high 30s with humidity that has even the thought of turning on the stove making me recoil in horror. So we’ve been doing a lot of eating out. Yesterday, though, we caught a bit of a break in the weather and I jumped at the chance to not only cook, but scratch the vegetable itch we’ve had with a quick pasta featuring some summer veggies.

This dish started with some garlic scapes D picked up last week. I have never cooked with them before, so planning this meal involved a little bit of research online. Turns out that if you leave these things long enough (say, a week) the stalks harden and become basically inedible: whoops. Fortunately, there were enough supple bits left for me to include them with the shaved asparagus and spring onions for a dish that was fast, flavourful and full of freshness.

Lemony vegetable linguine (serves 2)

Two tablespoons of olive oil
Five or six garlic scapes
A small bunch of asparagus (about eight should do)
Three or four green onions, green bits removed
½ cup grated fresh parmesan
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Zest and juice from half a lemon
¼ cup chopped fresh chives
6 ounces linguine or fettucini

Boil the pasta in a pot of salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup pasta water, and set aside.

Using a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife, peel the scapes, asparagus and scallions into long thin ribbons.

Heat olive oil in a deep skillet; add pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add vegetable ribbons and sauté, stirring frequently, for about two to three minutes. Add reserved pasta and stir.

Transfer to a bowl, add reserved water, lemon zest and juice, the parmesan, chives and black pepper. Serve with extra parmesan.

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