Back in the kitchen! With collard rolls

I'm so delighted to be getting back to some of the activities I love that I really didn't have time for while finishing my thesis. I'm cooking again, we're getting a CSA box every week, and it's so fun to be challenged by the random veggies we receive in the box.

Normally at this time of year the local farms are just ramping up for their bigger harvests later in the summe that will include a wide variety of species. Which means that the first few boxes are often greens, greens, and more greens, which sprout early and often and are quite hardy. This year, BC has experienced seriously high water levels and many farms and fields have been flooded. Glen Valley Farm, provider of our CSA, has been strongly affected, and while they are optimistic for the season ahead, they're scrambling to reseed and to harvest any assets that can be taken out at an earlier stage than usual. So our CSA box has had a surprising amount of variety in it so far. We've seen gorgeous new potatoes, kohlrabi, fava beans, young carrots untouched by rust flies, bok choy, and fennel. But of course, there are always the greens. Contending with the overload of greens every summer is a task in and of itself, and requires creativity and perseverance. Because if you can stomach all those amazing phytochemicals and  fibre, you will be rewarded later in the harvest with treats like summer squash, green beans (haricots verts to Americans and the French - ha!), and leeks. Yum!

This year is the first year we've received collards in our CSA box. Other than braising it with garlic and something salty (bacon for all you carnivores, soy sauce maybe for us vegetarians), I was looking for new ways to use the broad, flat leaves that are also fairly thick. Scanning food blogs turned up the idea of using collards as wraps instead of tortillas. Some people use them this way raw, and others give the leaves a brief steaming or blanching before using them. I decided to try a baked dish so I opted to blanch them before rolling them up around a yummy ricotta walnut mixture and baking them in a sea of red sauce. It worked really, really well! If we receive collards again this week I'll try them again as a wrap in a different kind of dish because they lend themselves really well to this method, and it helps me to avoid the gluten in flour tortillas or bread that I've developed a bit of sensitivity to.

***I apologise for the crap quality of my photos! I really haven't learned anything about food photography, and my cameras also doesn't seem to be self-producing the right colouring or effects. I'll work on it.***

8 or so collard leaves
1 cup ricotta (light is fine)
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup walnuts, ground fine in a blender
1/4 tsp salt

I used the de-stemming and rolling methods described in the video on Eat Naked Now (tee hee!). Just remove the thickest, toughest stem with a sharp knife, trying to keep the upper part of the leaf in one piece. ENN steams the leaves, but I chose to blanche them because I was already using a pot of boiling water for some accompanying spuds. To blanche the leaves I submerged them two at a time in boiling water for about a minute, then removed them to an ice bath. When they are cool and you're ready to roll, just take them out of the water, shake them off, and make a tidy pile of the leaves laid out with the underside of the leaf up (the veiny side).

In a bowl, combine the ricotta, egg, walnuts and salt. Lay one leaf on your work surface and overlap the lobes of the leaf a little so no gaps are visible. Place a quarter cup or so of ricotta mixture near the stem end of the leaf. Fold the bottom over the ricotta, fold both sides in and over the bottom fold, then roll up all along the leaf so that what you end up with is something like a burrito or cabbage roll. Go see the video I posted to above if you need a little more instruction like I did.

To make the red sauce, I chopped and sauteed half a bulb of fennel, and about half a cup of green onion in olive oil over medium heat. When they were tender I added two roasted red peppers with the skins removed (cut into chunks), and two tomatoes roasted in thick slices then also cut into chunks. Sauteed all that for a minute then added 1/4 cup gin, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp black pepper. Let the veggies simmer until most of the gin is boiled off and that sharp alcohol tang has disappeared. Gin is a very traditional ingredient in Italian cooking, for those of you who are surprised to see it here. The most conventional way of using it is in a light tomato sauce with the freshest of tomatoes lightly crushed and maybe a pinch of fresh oregano or lemon zest. I wanted to add some flavour and liquid to my sauce without adding salt, and the choice of gin resulted in a really tasty and savoury sauce. I blitzed it all in a blender with 1 cup of water. You could definitely use a simple spaghetti sauce in place of a homemade sauce to save on time and effort.

Place the rolled packets in a greased baking dish so they fit snuggly.I poured the sauce liberally over the collard rolls until they were pretty much submerged. This went into a hot oven (uncovered) at 375-400F for about 45 minutes.
Tada! It's like a baked manicotti but absolutely overflowing with healthy veg and immense flavour! The collards really hold up and retain their shape and texture so you get to cut into each roll in a satisfying way, and the ricotta mixture firms up a little bit but stays creamy. In the first image up above you'll see I served two rolls apiece with smashed potatoes. It was nice to have a crunchy starch on the side to help mop up the extra delicious sauce and to add texture to the dish.

Well, that was a long blog, and a long time coming! I'm super happy to be back in the kitchen and back to blogging, so come back soon to see what else I'm getting up to now that the major stress of writing has lifted. Oh yeah, there's still the defence to be stressed about (August 7th!) but I have a few weeks yet to prepare for that one. Thanks for reading! I hope you're all having a fabulous summer!


Vegas trip!

Amazing girls, Dawn, Stacie, and Diedre, whisked me away to Vegas to celebrate submitting my dissertation and many years of friendship. If this is the start of an annual girls' trip, I am SO IN!

And here are a few of the best shots as still photos so you can linger over them. :-)