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TIP OF THE DAY: Create A Spring Dinner

A few days ago, our wine collectors group had its scheduled team spring dinner, an annual event that celebrates the emergence of spring fruits and vegetables.

Problem is, nature isn’t cooperating. We’re still waiting for some of our favorite spring produce to show up in stores in the chilly Northeast.

Even though some of them are now available year-round, in our grandmother’s generation and before, people had no choice but to eat seasonally. Hence, the popular roast leg of lamb with spring peas, and a delicate salad of butter lettuce, always on Nana’s menus.

Thus, when when have a dinner to honor spring, we go full-out locavore. Here’s what you can choose from (we’ve left out the exotics; here’s the full list).

SPRING FRUITS & VEGETABLES

Because of imports from the southern hemisphere where the seasons are reversed, Americans have year-round access to what locally has been seasonal. There’s always someplace on earth that grows asparagus, for example.

Spring Fruits

  • Apricots
  • Blackberries
  • Black mission figs
  • Honeydew
  • Mango
  • Oranges
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberries
  •  
    Spring Vegetables

  • Asparagus (for fun, look for the purple variety)
  • Belgian endive
  • Beets
  • Butterhead/butter lettuce (Bibb and Boston varieties)
  • Dandelion greens
  • Fava beans*
  • Fennel
  • Fiddlehead ferns
  • Garlic scapes
  • Morel mushrooms
  • Mustard greens
  • Nettles
  • Ramps
  • Red leaf lettuce
  • Spring (English) peas, snow peas, Chinese pea pods
  • Vidalia onions
  •  
     
    THE NIBBLE’S SPRING EDITORIAL DINNER

    COCKTAIL: Blood Orange Margarita, Mimosa or Screwdriver with fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, or this Cherry Blossom cocktail.

    FIRST COURSE: Spring sauté: asparagus, fiddleheads, garlic, morels and ramps, sautéed in good butter and swerved with a sprinkle of salt. It’s simple, yet memorable.

    MAIN COURSE: Leg of lamb, spring peas, baby potatoes. We like to cook a leg for leftovers: lamb salad† and lamb sandwiches. See our Lamb Glossary for the different cuts and types of lamb.

    SALAD COURSE: Belgian endive, butter lettuce (Bibb or Boston), fennel, snow peas and garlic scapes, dressed with a Dijon and sherry vinaigrette and garnished with fresh parsley.

    CHEESE COURSE: Spring cheeses with black mission figs. We can find bucheron and charollais affine (goat), coulommiers (cow) and Pyrénées brebis (sheep), plus cheeses from local American artisan cheese makers. Ask your cheesemonger what he/she has that’s newly arrived in spring.

    DESSERT: Rhubarb, any way you like it; blood oranges supreme, or in sorbet. Since strawberries, now available year-round, are a traditional spring fruit, a strawberry-rhubarb pie or galette (photo #5) does the trick.

    Of course, there will be more than one spring dinner.

    We’ll feature more of the menus as we make them, and look forward to any contributions from you.
     
     
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    *Fava beans require a level of patience to shell, which we lack. Should you be come across shelled fava beans, it’s worth paying the premium for the labor involved.

    †Recipes: lamb, cucumber and watercress salad, lamb niçoise salad and Thai lamb and asparagus salad.

     

    Blood Orange Margarita

    Sauteed Ramps, Morels

    Leg Of Lamb

    Spring Bibb Lettuce Salad

    Lille Cheese Vermont Farmstead

    Strawberry Rhubarb Galette

    [1] Blood Orange Margarita (here’s the recipe via Betty Crocker). [2] A spring sautée (here’s the recipe from Honest Food. [3] Leg of lamb with spring peas (here’s the recipe from Good Eggs). [4] We love how the bibb lettuce is stacked in this salad (the recipe from My Man’s Belly). [5] Lillé, a cheese from Vermont, is the American-made version of French Coulommiers. [6] A strawberry rhubarb galette is the perfect seasonal pie (photo Hewn Bread | Chicago).

     

      

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    TIP OF THE DAY: Decorate Snacks With Candy Melts

    With Easter coming, you may want to get a bit craftsy.

    We’re not suggesting that you mold your own chocolate bunnies, make rocher nests of almonds and chocolate filled with your own truffles, or take on homemade Peeps.

    Rather, just decorate some of your everyday favorite snacks with drizzled candy melts in seasonal colors.

    It is as simple as:

  • Heating a drizzle pouch or two of candy melt drizzle (photo #1) in the microwave.
  • Laying cookies, potato chips, pretzels or other snacks on a baking sheet.
  • Snipping off a corner of the pouch and drizzling the color(s) over the snacks.
  • Chilling until set, about 5 to 10 minutes.
  •  
    That’s it!

    As with chocolate, candy melt brands vary by quality and price. Merckens* and Wilton are two quality brands.

    You also want to use fresh melts—nothing that’s been sitting in a cupboard (or on a retailer’s shelf) for a year.

    Here are some examples of colors to play with:

    WILTON CANDY MELTS

    Colors – Vanilla Flavor*

  • Bright Green
  • Bright Pink
  • Bright White
  • Red (vanilla flavor)
  • Turquoise
  •  
    Other Flavors† & Colors

  • Light Cocoa flavored (dark brown)
  • Mint Chip flavored (lighter green)
  • Peanut Butter flavored (light brown)
  • Salted Caramel (light brown)
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    Wilton drizzle is $1.99 for a 2-ounce/56g pouch. One package covers 3 dozen mini pretzels, as shown in photo #1.

    You can buy them online or check the Wilton store locator for a retailer near you.

    Don’t buy candy melts way in advance to keep until you need them: Fresh candy melts work better.
     
     
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    *All colors of Merckens wafers are flavored with artificial vanilla, as are the vanilla-flavored colors from Wilton. Candy melts are great for decorating, and people, and some people melt the wafers into colored bark and other candy. But flavor-wise, they are no substitute for chocolate—or for hand-tinted white chocolate.

    †These are artificial flavors as well. The chocolate varieties are flavored with cocoa.

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    Pretzels With Candy Coating

    Drizzled Chocolate Potato Chips

    Homemade Cracker Jacks

    Flower Bites With  Pretzels & M&Ms

    Recipes for [1] [2] and [3] from Wilton: drizzled pretzels, drizzled potato chips and colored peanuts-and-popcorn. [4] Flower bites made with pretzels and Easter M&Ms, bound together with white candy melts. Here are instructions from Two Sisters Crafting.

     

    Merckens Candy Melts

    Merck's Candy Melts

    [5] Candy melts come in a rainbow of colors, that can be blended together to make still other colors. [6] These may look like chocolate wafers from a fine chocolatier, but they’re candy coating—candy melts—without any cocoa butter (both photos courtesy Merckens).

     

    WHAT ARE CANDY MELTS?

    Candy melts are not quite chocolate, but they look like it.

    They are made in two formats: disks/wafers to melt and then use to decorate confections (used to adhere the M&Ms in photo #4 and larger projects like these), and microwaveable pouches to drizzle (the used in photos #1, #2 and #3).

    Candy melts have several other names: compound coating, confectionary coating, decorator’s chocolate, pâté glacée and summer coating.

    Candy melts are an imitation chocolate product that substitutes vegetable oil for all or part of the cocoa butter in chocolate. In milk chocolate-flavored melts, whey powders, whey derivatives and dairy blends can be used instead of powdered milk.

    Thus, the flavor of candy melts is not as fine as chocolate. If you bite into a piece of “chocolate” that doesn’t taste as rich or velvety on the tongue, it may well be made from candy melts.

    People who think they “hate white chocolate” may have experienced white candy melts instead: artificial chocolate flavored with artificial vanilla. Sometimes, the most beautiful creations are crafted from candy melts that don’t taste as good as they should.

    In the U.S., commercial products made with confectionary coating must be designated “chocolate-flavored.”

    Why do people use candy melts if it isn’t as tasty?

  • It is significantly less expensive than chocolate (and kids likely won’t notice the difference).
  • For color, it is easier than tinting white chocolate.
  • It does not require tempering, but melts easily.
  • It can be thinned out to make as delicate a decoration as the user wants.
  • It hardens quickly, and once hardened, does not melt in the heat like chocolate.
  •  
    Before universal air conditioning, chocolatiers used confectionary coating to create their summer wares, including chocolate-dipped fruit.

    The white coating was often tinted pastel pink, blue and green. The products were called “summer chocolate,” not artificial chocolate.

    Again, that’s why so many people dislike white “chocolate.” Give the best white chocolate a try.
     
     
    TIPS

    There are plenty of videos on YouTube and online articles that explain how to work with the disks. However, since the ideas above use only the drizzling pouches, not much instruction is needed except: Start with a very small cut in the pouch or your drizzle may wider than you’d like.

    Here’s how to read the freshness code on candy melts bags.

     

      

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    TIP OF THE DAY: DIY Wedge Salad Bar & Different Types Of Lettuce

    Back in the 1950s and 1960s, restaurant menus offered hearts of lettuce salad with creamy dressings. The head was cut into quarters and plated with a slice of tomato for color.

    Homemakers were fans, too.

  • The iceberg heads were sold fully trimmed, with little waste.
  • It was easy to cut into wedges or slice into shreds.
  • Although some people tore it into pieces, “The Joy Of Cooking” admonished: “Heads of iceberg lettuce are not separated. They are cut into wedge-shaped pieces, or into crosswise slices.”
  •  
    The lettuce’s crunch was very popular, if bland-tasting (solution: lots of dressing!). The heads kept longer in the fridge, so there was no wilted waste.

    Even James Beard was a fan, recommending the crisp texture mixed with other greens.

    Then came the California cuisine movement, introducing us to better varieties to eat. Iceberg was mocked for lacking flavor.

    Instead, foodies filled their shopping carts with romaine plus arugula and radicchio.

    Yet, hardy, crunchy iceberg still accounts for 70% of the lettuces raised in California (down from 80% in the mid-1970s, however). It’s still popular in foodservice (commercial, institutional), at salad bars and casual restaurants.

    And thanks to the retro food movement of the past decade, iceberg has returned to restaurant menus beyond the steakhouse, in the hearts of lettuce salad now known by a trendier name: wedge salad.

    Let the wedge salad add fun and crunch to your meals. If you have a daily dinner salad, feature the wedge once a week. Turn it into a DIY salad buffet for family and guests. An ingredients list is below.
     
    WEDGE SALAD HISTORY

    The crisphead (iceberg) lettuce variety is relatively new in the history of lettuce cultivation (see the different categories of lettuce, below).

    Crisphead lettuce was a mutation: A grower discovered a different-looking, sweeter-tasting head of lettuce in his field.

    Liking its flavor and superior crispness, he teamed with other growers to breed it to be even better. Thus was born what we today call iceberg lettuce.

    The new variety became a top seller, and remains so. It was called crisphead, its given varietal name, until the 1920s. It subsequently acquired the name iceberg because of its ability to be transported for long distances when packed on ice.

    Before the iceberg named settled in, it was also called cabbage lettuce, for its resemblance to cabbage. In 1894, a Burpee seed catalog exclaimed, “There is no handsomer or more solid Cabbage Lettuce in cultivation.”

    Numerous varieties of crisphead were developed, including varieties with reddish leaves tinged with green and varieties with scalloped edges. While they did not enter the mass market, you can still buy the seeds from specialty sellers.

    Now about the wedge salad:

    Period cookbooks, newspapers and culinary reference books date the popularity of iceberg lettuce salads to the 1920s.

    But the general consensus is that the wedge salad with creamy dressing became a ubiquitous menu entry in the 1950s. [source]

    Who served the first “hearts of lettuce salad,” as it was then called?

    Likely it was a steak house, given the popularity of that type of restaurant in the 1950s and the [still] ubiquitous presence on those menus. But as with so many things, we can only give credit to “an unknown cook.”

       

    Wedge Salad

    Wedge Salad

    Iceberg Lettuce

    [1] A California Wedge Salad with avocado, prosciutto crumbles and ranch dressing (here’s the recipe from Little Broken). [2] A BLT Wedge Salad from Applegate also has avocado and bacon with ranch dressing (here’s the recipe). Note that these are two different recipe names with the same ingredients. [3] The ubiquitous head of iceberg lettuce: Just quarter it for your wedge salad (photo Good Housekeeping).

     

    Boston Lettuce

    Red Leaf Lettuce

    Romaine

    [4] Boston lettuce, a variety of butterhead. [5] Red leaf lettuce, a variety of leaf lettuce. [6] Romaine lettuce (photos courtesy Good Housekeeping).

     

    DIY WEDGE SALAD BAR

    At THE NIBBLE, we’ve added a lot to the simple wedge salad. Call it a DIY, customized or signature wedge salad, it’s a fun munch.

    The Must Haves

  • Iceberg lettuce wedges
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Creamy dressings: blue cheese, thousand island/Russian, ranch
  •  
    Nice Additions

  • Avocado
  • Bacon, any type (the different types of bacon)
  • Cheeses: crumbled blue cheese or feta, shaved parmesan
  • Croutons
  • Veggies: peppadews or pimentos, red onion or scallions
  • Watercress
  •  
    For A Main Dish

  • Hard boiled egg halves (the quarters tend to fall apart)
  • Ham or turkey, julienned or cubed
  •  
    Garnishes

  • Fried Chinese noodles
  • Frizzled onions
  • Fresh herbs (basil, chives, dill, tarragon)
  • Nuts and seeds: candied walnuts, pepitas, spiced pecans, salted peanuts, any toasted nuts
  •  
     
    THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LETTUCE

    There four basic types: butterhead, iceberg, leaf, and romaine, along with hundreds of hybrids bred from them.

    Iceberg Lettuce: Also known as crisped lettuce, this is the crispest and hardiest of lettuces varieties. It lasts twice as long in the fridge as long as most other varieties. The downside: It’s not as flavorful or nutritious as other lettuces.

     

    Butterhead Lettuce: Comprising Boston and Bibb Lettuces, these are small, loosely formed heads of soft, supple leaves. Boston is a larger and fluffier head than Bibb; Bibb is the size of a fist, and sweeter than Boston. Both are excellent for lettuce cups. The down side: They’re highly perishable and bruise easily; and are pricier than iceberg and romaine.

    Leaf Lettuce: This category does not form a head; the leaves branch up from a single stalk. The leaves are very tender and are often seen in baby lettuce blends. The burgundy tint of red leaf lettuce and the spicier, nuttier oak leaf lettuce adds charming color to a mixed green salad. The downside: Leaf lettuces are more perishable than head lettuces and wilt easily.

    Romaine Lettuce: Second in crunchiness to iceberg lettuce, romaine is a stalk lettuce like leaf lettuce, with a pleasant bitterness. The crunchy center ribs make the leaves sturdy; and when the outer leaves are trimmed, the smaller ones (sold as hearts of romaine) can be used as “boats” to hold protein salads (egg, chicken, tuna, etc.).

      

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    TIP OF THE DAY: Customize Your St. Patrick’s Day Bagel

    Green bagels are a novelty on St. Patrick’s Day. But here’s a more elegant way to enjoy your bagel, with green fruits and vegetables.

    The concept can be applied to any holiday or occasion with theme colors (see the lists below), and can be part of a bagel buffet for brunch. Bonus: It’s a way to add an extra helping of produce to your daily intake.

    On top of the cream cheese, arrange fruits and/or vegetables in your color theme, as demonstrated by Arla Foods, maker of the cream cheese spreads used on the bagel (photo #1 and photo #6 at the bottom).

    Fruit on bagels beyond a raisin bagel? See photo #5, below—and try it on English muffins, too.

    Pick some fruits and/or vegetables from your color list, and get started. The green group has the most options.

    (Note: Specialty colors, such as yellow watermelon or purple bell peppers, aren’t typically found at supermarkets. Head to a specialty produce store or a farmers market.)

    GREEN FRUITS & VEGETABLES

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Broccoli (including rabe and rapini)
  • Capers
  • Cucumber
  • Edamame
  • Green apples, figs, grapes, plums
  • Green beans
  • Green bell pepper
  • Green olives
  • Green onion (scallion) tops
  • Green peas
  • Herbs (basil, dill, parsley, etc.)
  • Jalapeño
  • Kiwi
  • Lettuces (everything from arugula to watercress)
  • Pickles/gherkins
  • Sprouts
  • Sugar snap peas, snow peas
  • Zucchini
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    ORANGE FRUITS & VEGETABLES

  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Chiles (aji amarillo, habanero, Thai yellow chile)
  • Dried apricots
  • Kumquats
  • Mango
  • Orange bell pepper
  • Orange cherry or heirloom tomatoes
  • Orange or mandarin segments
  • Orange watermelon
  • Papaya
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    PURPLE/BLUE FRUITS & VEGETABLES

  • Berries: blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries
  • Dried blueberries
  • Eggplant (grilled)
  • Purple figs, grapes, plums
  • Purple olives
  • Red cabbage
  • Specialty varieties: purple bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower, corn, potatoes, string beans
  •  
    RED FRUITS & VEGETABLES

  • Dried cherries or cranberries
  • Jalapeño or other red chile
  • Pomegranate arils
  • Radicchio or red endive
  • Raspberries or strawberries
  • Red apples, grapes, plums
  • Red bell pepper
  • Red leaf lettuce
  • Red grapes
  • Red onion
  • Red tomatoes
  • Watermelon
  •  
    YELLOW FRUITS & VEGETABLES

  • Apples (golden delicious and others)
  • Chiles (aji, banana, golden cayenne, lemon, Hungarian yellow wax, pepperoncini, etc.)
  • Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Yellow bell pepper
  • Yellow tomatoes
  • Yellow watermelon
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    Green Bagel Toppings

    Green Bagels

    Green Bagels

    Shamrock Bagels

    Bagel With Fruit Topping

    [1] and [6] The alternative solution from Arla Foods. [2] Conventional green bagels from Einstein Bros Bagels. [3] Fancy (and $6 each!) at the Wynn Las Vegas. [4] The creativity award goes to the shamrock bagels at Sunrise Bagels and Cafe in Wyckoff, New Jersey. [5] Fruit-topped bagel from Number 2 Pencil.

     
    Green Bagel Toppings

    [6] Bagels with a buffet of green fruits and vegetables (photo courtesy Arla Foods).
      

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    TIP OF THE DAY: Stenciled Cheese For Holidays (St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas…)

    Add a little luck of the Irish to cheese and other foods, by creating a shamrock garnish made of herbs.

    You can apply the same technique to other themes: Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day hearts, stars for Christmas, Independence Day and New Year’s, pumpkins for Halloween, and so forth.

    You also can use edible glitter, which provides no flavor but adds gorgeous color.

    Spices allow you to play with the colors of the garnish, for example:

  • For Christmas, make separate stencils for green herbs and red spices.
  • Red spices for hearts: cayenne, chile flakes, kebab masala, paprika, red tandoori spice blend.
  • Yellow spices or gold glitter for stars: coriander seeds, cumin, curry, fenugreek, ras el hanout, turmeric.
  • Orange spices for Halloween and Thanksgiving: Cajun seasoning, tandoori masala.
  •  
    RECIPE: STENCILED CHEESE

    Select any cheese(s) that’s moist enough to hold the herbs: burrata, cream cheese log, goat cheese log, feta, fresh mozzarella, paneer, queso panela or ricotta salata.

    Print out the shamrock stencil (or other design) here. Print out a few copies for cutting practice.

    You can make a regular stencil or a reverse stencil, both shown in the photo.

    Ingredients

  • Assorted fresh herbs, finely chopped
  • Cheese(s) of choice
  • Paper stencil
  • Small piece plastic wrap
  • For serving: bread, crackers, fruit
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    ________________
    *Blend two or three herbs: dill, chervil, chives, parsley or tarragon, etc.

     

    Shamrock Cheese

    Herb & Spice Colors

    [1] Shamrock style with a stencil (photo and recipe idea courtesy Vermont Creamery). [2] Spices and herbs provide colors for any occasion (photo courtesy Renegade Expressions).

     
    Preparation

    1. CUT out the shamrock stencil and press it firmly onto the cheese.

    2. PRESS the herbs into the stencil. You can place a piece of plastic wrap over the herbs for easier pressing.

    3. GENTLY PEEL off the plastic and stencil. Clean the lines with a pointed tweezers, as needed.

    4. SERVE with bread, crackers and fruit (apples, grapes, orange/mandarin segments, pears, etc).
     
     
    TIP FOR SLICED FRUIT

    Instead of coating apples or pears in lemon juice to keep them from browning, coat them in calcium-fortified 100% apple juice.

    Here are more ways to keep fruits from browning.

      

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