Winter Kale Pesto

Winter in Colorado is beautiful.  I love snow, and the welcome change from busy outdoor life to cozy fireside planning.  I had hoped to keep a lot of plants alive through the winter months by covering them with a layer of frost blanket and plastic.  Things were going well until our unexpected deep freeze week that hit in December.

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Since then, we've eaten most of the kale that survived the sub zero temperatures and I'm hanging on to a handful of very hardy, if pitiful-looking collard plants which I'm still picking from.

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Over Christmas, the girls and I were enjoying Jamie Oliver's 'Jamie at Home' show on youtube, and were thrilled to hear him describing our favorite kale variety - 'Cavolo Nero' (black cabbage in Italian).  In our area, it's quite easy to find in most natural supermarkets - labeled as 'Lacinato', 'Tuscan' or 'Dinosaur' kale.

He stopped in his garden, picked a leaf of this 'Cavolo Nero' and said "now, this cabbage is grown everywhere in Italy.  Italians have SO many recipes for this variety".  Of course, I was thrilled - since this is the kind I grow a TON of each season, because I love the taste and texture so much.

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He proceeded to share a simple recipe - something I'd never done with it before - a simple kale pesto.

Basically - you strip the leaf away from the vein - so that you are left with the most tender part of the kale leaf:

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Then, you toss a few good handfuls into salted boiling water with a couple of whole garlic cloves for just maybe 3 or 4 minutes.  Drain them, then 'wazz' them up in the food processor with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and salt.

There you have it - a luscious, vibrantly green simple pesto.

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Jamie says that the Italians he knows will toss this with pasta, or drizzle over meats or veg.  This winter, we used it on top of a steaming baked potato, as a dip for crusty bread.  It has a simple mild flavor - since the garlic has been blanched - but I've added red pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon to mix it up. Fun!

Here is another recent meal that we LOVED using the kale pesto:

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I plan to use my winter collard greens in a pesto, since their flavor is very similar.  Winter grown greens are especially sweet, as the frost or freeze makes them less bitter.  I love the challenge of trying to eat mostly what is local or in season.  Eating lots of green helps to subdue my winter woes - and hopefully I can last until our garden looks like this again!:

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First Cucuzza Meal

Ever since last week's momentous meal, I've been in my Italian happy place. Early this spring, my cousin  (Kim Cucuzza) and I found a source for the seed that shares our Italian name.  My mother and Kim's father are twins.  I've always loved my Mom's maiden name: Cucuzza.  Pronounced (ga-gootz-ah).  I had known that the name meant some type of squash, but didn't realize it was something unique - or that I could get it!!  I ordered the seed in April with giddy excitement, amazed that I would hopefully be able to grow this food with such a strong tie to my family name.

Starting this seed carefully in the basement, then transferring it outside once it was warm enough - I watched it every step of the way.

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Would our summer be hot enough?  I'd read that they grow beautifully in the hot, humid south...

Soon, it became evident that I didn't have much to worry about.  The 3 plants I'd started took off!

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Before long it completely took over the whole side of the house!  But then, I began to worry.  Many of the small squash that began to grow would get a few inches long, and then start to rot and die.

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I began to think that I might not get any of this squash at all the first season.  I researched and it seemed it was due to a calcium deficiency in the soil....so I added bone meal to the soil, all the while being realistic that it might be too late.  I even tried a foliar spray to get calcium to those little babies.  The situation was dire!

Before long though, I soon saw one, then two, then three long Cucuzzas forming on the vine.  I read later that the male and female flowers do not open at the same time - making it very difficult for the fruit to set.  So it might not have been calcium issue at all.  At any rate - I had some Cucuzzas and I was happy!  I have been getting out there with a tiny paintbrush to hand pollinate them - I want to make sure I have enough squash growing for when my cousin Kim comes again to visit this fall.

It was SO fun watching these beauties appear.  They were peeking in my windows and grabbing onto the screens...

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When the day finally came to pick one, I was emotional.  For how many years had my famiglia been growing these wonderfully long almost silly looking squash in Italy?  Perhaps they farmed it and were named after it - or it was named after them?

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After picking this 3 foot long squash, we marched inside - uncorked some red wine and turned up the music.  The girls all had a turn being silly and pretending it was a baseball bat, and we made sure we all knew the words to this song:

Pretty cool, huh?  Even Louis Prima knew how special Cucuzza is!

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I made a very simple red sauce with onion, (lots of) garlic, red wine & basil and some Italian sausage.  I added the Cucuzza and cooked it for about 20- 25 more minutes until really soft and tender.

We served the sauce over Farfalle in my Grandma Scarpenti's old stone bowl and served up each plate with some fresh grated Parmesan.  I told everyone to wait to take a bite until we all sat down together ... this was not any ordinary meal and we had to stop and savor it together...

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first bite
first bite

Here's the fun part... I'd assumed that the only unique thing about a Cucuzza was it's odd size.  Once I cut it open and cooked it, I thought it would probably taste like a zucchini or any other mild squash.  (Many recipes I'd looked up said you could substitute zucchini for the Cucuzza).

BUT IT WAS DIFFERENT!!

All of us were so surprised to taste a bright tang with our first bite.  It has a bit of a citrus taste - very unique - which was such a pleasant surprise.  Even more wonderfully, I read that you also can eat the greens!!

The tender young leaves of a Cucuzza plant when harvested and cooked is called Tenerumi.  The leaves and flowers of this plant are totally unique.  They don't have the prickly, hollow stems of a zucchini, and the flowers are a beautiful papery white - instead of yellow.  The leaves are soft, but I still didn't believe they would actually taste good cooked...

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I picked just a couple of small leaves, chopped some garlic and added a glug of olive oil to the pan. I fried those chopped leaves and tasted some on top of some crusty bread.

Mama Mia! They were delicious!!

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Almost too much for one evening...

Since then, we've eaten Cucuzza breaded & fried, sauteed in white wine and we hope to stuff one this week.  I'm thrilled to have this family Italian squash and I plan to save the seeds and pass them on for my grandchildren to enjoy.

I plan to teach them that their Italian ancestors probably closed their eyes, moaned and cried when they ate too.

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Award winning simple salsa!

My hubs tells me I shouldn't share this recipe.  He wants it to stay 'in the family' ... It's been shared with friends and family already, though - and it's such a super-delicious and easy recipe ... what can I say - I'm feeling generous.  ;)

Here's the story.

My brother in law Armando's mother Maria made a spectacular tostada spread for my sister's graduation party several years back.  Being an authentic Spanish-speaking family... it was a wonderful experience (taste buds included)!

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I was enthralled by the simple red sauce that his mother put on the tostadas, and asked Armando to translate - "How did you make this amazing sauce?  It's SO good! "  I was expecting to hear a long-drawn out process of slowly letting the tomatoes cook and simmer... adding secret spices etc...

Instead, with a smile, my brother in law translated back to me "It's called El Pato.  Look for a small can in the Mexican food aisle with a duck on it!"

I was amazed!

I began to experiment from then on with the magical El Pato.  You can find this product in nearly EVERY grocery store's Hispanic Foods aisle.

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On it's own, its a bit spicy... but it adds the PERFECT amount of heat to a medium salsa .  Here is our favorite salsa recipe that came from those beginnings:

Now, I will admit there is a compromise in this recipe.

I typically only purchase canned goods with BPA-free lining because of the health risks involved.  That means I soak my beans (saves money as well as improves digestibility), use frozen corn instead of canned... so really the only canned items that I purchase are  tomatoes and Coconut Milk.  Muir Glen Organics has a BPA free lined can, and so does Native Forest Organics (for Coconut Milk).

But, if you're up for 'tainting' your otherwise pure & organic ingredients a bit... this would be the time to go for it.

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SARAH'S SIMPLEST (not perfectly pure) SALSA 

  • 1 large can whole tomatoes
  • 1 can El Pato spicy tomato sauce (green or yellow can)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (or a large handful)

Empty contents of both cans into food processor.  Grab approx. half of the bunch (or a large handful) of cilantro and throw it into the food processor.  Pulse until cilantro is blended in, but not totally pureed. You want a bit of texture.

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Chop onions by hand (important step) into a small dice.  Add these to food processor and pulse just a few times to incorporate the onion.  If you add the onion and puree it in - the onion flavor will be too strong.

That's about it!

Of course, there are many ways to add or enhance this salsa - fresh corn, jalapeno are just two of the ways you can change it up and have fun with it.

Dig in with your favorite chips, blend it into avocado for a heavenly guac, or top these fabulous Carnitas tacos with it!

I've had friends win salsa contests with this recipe - and it's always a hit wherever I bring it.  Hope you enjoy!

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I shared this Pork Carnitas recipe on the fabulous Plan To Eat blog.  Get that recipe here.