Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Recipes of the Month: Strawberry-Spinach Salad and White Bean-Arugula Soup

Our local farmers' market opened last Friday, though with a smaller selection of vendors than it enjoys at the height of the growing season. In fact, only two stands were there selling produce: the rest were auxiliary foodstuffs like baked goods, pickles, grass-fed meats, "artisanal" cheeses, and fancy baking mixes. (Which, I guess, makes it less of a farmers' market than just, basically, a market.)

I knew that all these more processed goods were out of my usual price range, so instead I just checked out the two booths from actual farmers, where I found that the selection this early in the season was pretty limited. The only fruit I found was conventionally grown strawberries, which were priced at $6 a pound, even though California strawberries were selling at the supermarket for only $2 a pound. (How they can be grown in California and then shipped all the way across the country for one-third the cost of growing them locally in our nice rich New Jersey soil, I can't explain.) Most of the veggies they had were of the green leafy variety, such as kale (which I don't care for) and arugula (which we already have plenty of in our own garden). But it seemed a shame to let the opening day of the market go by without buying anything, so I settled on a bunch of spinach for $2.50.

So, when Brian came home from work that day, the first thing he saw was a bunch of spinach leaves soaking in a bowl of water. (Note: this is a good thing to do with any kind of greens to help them last longer. Soak them in cold water to rinse off any remaining dirt and plump up the leaves if they've wilted a bit. Then shake off all the excess water, wrap them in a clean towel or paper towels, and store them in a bag. They'll keep much better this way than if you shove them straight in a bag.) He asked if I had any particular plans for them, and I suggested making a salad for dinner, along with some of the cheap, non-local, evil strawberries I'd picked up at the supermarket. This wasn't exactly an original idea on my part, as I'd often seen this combination in salads before, but it was the first time we'd ever tried it. To add a bit of extra crunch, Brian threw in some chopped walnuts, and we topped it with the honey-balsamic vinaigrette from our food bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (Basically, it's just a simple vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar, plus a tablespoon of honey and a crushed clove of fresh garlic.) And voila, a light, early-summer salad that's both tasty and healthful (at least if you're not worried about the calories in those walnuts).

I figured this salad, though quite simple, was good enough to qualify as my Recipe of the Month for June. However, before I got around to writing it up, Brian surprised me Sunday night with a new soup he concocted from scratch. I guess his starting point for the recipe was probably all that arugula we had out in the garden, some of which had to be used up pretty quickly because it was on the point of bolting. Thinking of ways to use it, he must have hit on the idea of modifying his favorite Garlic, Chick-pea and Spinach Soup out of Vegetarian: The Best Ever Recipe Collection. However, necessity being the mother of invention, he made a series of substitutions: white beans (which we had already cooked in the freezer) for the chick peas, arugula for the spinach, skim milk for the cream, and some sauteed free-range bacon ends for flavor, rather than the mixture of cumin, coriander, pepper, and tahini that the original recipe calls for. Probably the only ingredients that survived intact from the original recipe were the diced potatoes and onions.

The result, not surprisingly, was quite different from the original soup. The thick, hearty texture was similar, but it didn't have the same curious alchemy of flavors that made the original soup so compelling. We both agreed that his new invention was perfectly eatable, but not exactly enthralling. So we probably won't be making this particular soup again in this exact form. However, if the garden continues to supply us with masses of arugula, we might tinker with the recipe some more in hopes of turning it into something worthy of a place in our permanent cookery collection. If we succeed, I'll share the revised recipe here.
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