Today: An outcast vegetable scrap gets a makeover.
In 1998, when chef Anna Klinger and her husband Emiliano Coppa opened Al Di La in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the neighborhood wasn't yet swanky, and neither were the stems and cores and other less glamorous bits of our vegetables. Not yet.
But Klinger found herself with a lot of lowly byproduct when the restaurant, and one of her signature dishes, took off -- a Swiss chard malfatti, naked dumplings of ricotta and chard. "We made so many malfatti that we ended up with mountains of stems and it didn't seem right to just discard them." Klinger told me. "Not in the Italian spirit of cooking to do that."
Swiss chard's stems have the same mineral flavor as the leaves, but lack their gloss and buoyant texture. The stems instead can be stringy and a little standoffish, and are prone to fraying at their bottoms. It's no wonder so many people quietly toss them at the compost bin.
The most resourceful -- or cheap, or guilt-ridden -- among us have figured out how to chop the stems finely and sauté them with onions and garlic before adding the chopped leaves to the pan: a little whole beast cookery to take pride in. We may also choose to pickle, braise, or gratinée them.
But I think Klinger, faced with her mountains, might have devised the most impressive way to tease out the stems' innate sweetness. (For the record, I have to thank Peter Kaminsky for pointing me to her method.) She blanches them in well-salted water, grills them, then swaddles them in an anchovy vinaigrette.
Give an outcast vegetable scrap a little salty char and a rich, meaty dressing, and you have yourself a side dish. That's an easy takeaway here. But it's also the light hand Klinger uses that makes this recipe more than just that -- it's a true honoring of the stems, wallflowers no more.
For the dressing, she prefers salt-packed anchovies, rather than the tinned-in-oil kind, which she finds can sometimes taste a bit rancid. After rinsing the anchovies, and lifting off their little skeletons and tails, she soaks the fillets in a few changes of milk to mellow out the salt.
(Despite what you might be thinking, anchovy milk actually tastes pretty good. Put that stuff in a bechamel!)
These milk-drunk anchovies are the bulk of the dressing, along with some garlic, olive oil, and a pinch of chile flakes. Only once the stems are grilled soft and lapping up their anchovy sauce, she shakes in a little sherry vinegar too. Now it's a vinaigrette.
"The vinaigrette has become this amazing wonder sauce that we use all over the place." Klinger told me. "It's a wonderful dressing for so many vegetables." (Amanda's kids even ate it on their ham sandwiches last week.)
This recipe makes more dressing than you'll need, but it keeps, so feel free to put it on everything. Your lettuce cores, your carrot tops -- what other gems might you be throwing away?
From Chef Anna Klinger of Al Di La in Park Slope, Brooklyn
2 ounces anchovies (preferably salt-packed, cleaned, rinsed, and soaked in a few changes of milk)
1/2 ounce minced garlic (about 3 small cloves)
3/4 cup + 4 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes (or more to taste)
Grilled Swiss Chard Stems:
Stems from 1 large bunch Swiss chard (save greens for another use)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Splash sherry vinegar
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom