blackberry butter cookies

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I’m off for a month-long research trip to Buffalo, NY, starting tomorrow.  While I’m there, I’ll be doing research for a new project and making the last great push on my dissertation.  But I don’t think you’ll miss me much — I’ve been so busy I have a backlog of blog posts just ready for the postin’.  And I might find some excellent eats in Buffalo, too.  And anyway, I expect you’ll be too busy with the opening of the farmer’s market downtown on April 4, and all the stirrings of spring, to be reading inside!dscf4093

There are many, many things I’ll miss this month, but not really the Great Purpling my yard undergoes each April.  Someone (not me) was a big fan of the color purple, and planted all purple and lavender flowers around my house.  I have a big swath of purple double irises, lavender and pink rhododendrons, vinca vine under the incense cedar, and tons of grape hyacinth just waiting to burst.  Over the years, I’ve tried to counteract the purpling with some red and yellow, but it still takes over.

So in honor of what I’ll be missing, I baked up some very purple cookies, using the rest of a jar of blackberry varenye.  They’re variations on Poilâne’s punitions again, but with salted butter and some of the sugar replaced by homemade blackberry Russian-style, pectin-free preserves.  The blackberry and salt give the cookies a little tang, a little sadness…perfect for leaving home.

Blackberry Butter Cookies

  • 5 oz. (1/2 c. + 1/8 c. or 1.25 sticks)  salted Noris Dairy butter, or other very high quality butter
  • 1/4 c. blackberry varenye or frozen, sweetened blackberries with a bit of sugar added
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 egg
  • turbinado or other non-melting sugar for sprinkling on top (optional)

Allow egg and butter to come to room temperature.

Process butter until smooth in a food processor with the metal blade. Scrape down, add the sugar and blackberry varenye, and process until thoroughly blended into the butter, scraping down the sides once or twice.

Add the egg and continue to process, scraping down the bowl as needed, until the mixture is smooth and satiny.

Add the flour all at once, then pulse 10-15 times, until the dough forms clumps and curds and looks like streusel.

Roll dough into log on saran wrap and wrap tightly, chilling in the refrigerator for at least four hours. If you opt to roll out the dough later instead of slice it, form the dough into two equal-sized flattened disks instead.

When you are ready to bake, position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F.  I find parchment paper isn’t necessary, but it makes cleanup easier, especially if you’re using the sprinkling sugar on top of the cookies.

You’ll want cookies that are between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. Either (A) cut log in slices that are no more than 1/4 inch thick with a sharp, thin knife, or (B) roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it is between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick, and cut with a cookie cutter no more than 2 inches in diameter.

Place on cookie sheets, leaving about 1 inch space between them.  Carefully turbinado sprinkle sugar on top, if using.  It gives a nice sparkle to these cookies, and a touch more sweetness.

Bake the cookies for 6-7 minutes, or until they are set but pale.  They will lose their sheen when ready.  Transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature.

Dorie Greenspan says the dough can be wrapped airtight and refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month. The finished cookies can be kept in a tin at room temperature for about 5 days or wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 1 month.  They won’t last that long.

Makes about 4 dozen small cookies.

rabbit redux

An update to my Rabbit Bistro mini-review — less glowing, unfortunately — is here.  I’ve decided to append review updates to the original posts, since most people find my reviews months later via Google ‘n’ such, and don’t necessarily see the updates.

out like a lamb: my garden in march

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An early spring garden gallery for you.  My chives among the allium have overwintered, and are starting to send up little chive flower stalks.  My magic tarragon made it through the winter, too.

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The artichokes were pretty much vaniquished by the snow, I thought, but they’re already back and going like gangbusters.  The rosemary stands sentinel, and the strawberry patch regroups.

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Kitty + lovage shoots next to the artichokes = kitty lovage.  A wild pansy surveys the strawberry patch, thinking thoughts in French.

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To me, there is no more glorious sight than a big patch of dirt in March.  It’s not a great image, but you can see the rosemary and one artichoke immediately in front of the shed.  Boris is the dark blotch to the left (where the lovage grows), and the herb garden, allium patch, and strawberry patch are in the rows closest to the shed.  The dark areas of soil are where I built out the six rows another foot, and the woodchips mark my new path on the south side of the garden.  The north side still needs woodchips for a similar path.  The metal structure on the bottom left is part of my pea support.

Behind the photographer (yours truly) is the potato and fennel row, and the cane berries (raspberries, blackcaps, and a new tayberry), and my little elderberry shrub.  The shed hides my new rhubarb, a wormwood plant, and jerusalem artichokes.

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Let the games begin!

winter blackberry varenye: preserves 101

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My latest food column for the Eugene Weekly is on the stands!

In the article, I wrote a few tips for eating all the food that’s clogging up our freezers in the Willamette Valley, separated by freezer food groups:

  • meat;
  • berries;
  • small round vegetables; and
  • sauce.

If you’re looking for recipes I mentioned in the article and similar ones, here are two for frozen corn.  My summer blueberry liqueur and blackberry thyme vinegar recipes are now available for the clicking.  Fava bean recipes I wrote last year are here.  And an impromptu frozen chicken drum-ette fiesta with frozen tomato puree takes place under these words.

I thought I’d provide another good frozen berry recipe today: something to whittle down those berry bags.

Varenye is a loose Russian preserve served as a sweet treat.  In Russia, they eat it in a little bowl alongside tea, or actually in the tea itself as a sweetener.  I eat it on bread, but it would also make a good topping for crepes or waffles, since the berries are swimming in syrup.  Best yet: it’s a concoction anyone can make at any time.  You can use frozen berries and you don’t have to worry about sterilizing jars, since the preserve is stored in the freezer.  No pectin to buy, either.  It’s easy and delicious — what else can we ask for in late winter?

My varenye is made with frozen boysenberries and my homemade blackberry cordial, a  vodka-based fruit liqueur, but you can use any kind of blackberries.  Any berry, really.  This version has less sugar than some recipes, which can run up to a 1:1 ratio of sugar to berries. The instructions to bring the berries to a boil three times, cooling in between, seem unnecessary, but that’s how I first heard the recipe I rather like the tradition.

Blackberry Varenye Preserves

  • 3 c. sweetened frozen blackberries or boysenberries*
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 3  T. vodka or other spirit (kirsch would be nice)
  • 1 T. fresh lemon juice

Bring all ingredients up to a boil, stirring carefully to ensure the sugar has melted.  Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, removing foam if necessary.  Let cool, then bring to a boil again and simmer for 5 minutes.  Repeat a third time.  Pour varenye into freezer-safe containers and keep in the freezer, spooning out a bit into a bowl, spooning out a bit when you need it.  The sugar will keep the varenye from completely freezing.  You can also keep a small jar in the refrigerator, but the preserve lacks the copious amounts of sugar in regular jam and won’t keep as long, so plan on using refrigerated varenye within a couple of weeks.

Makes about 4 cups.

*I freeze my berries with a ratio of 1 c. sugar to 3 lbs. berries to keep them plump and individual in the freezer, as per MFP guidelines.

food for thought

  • The gluten-free baking class (details to the right) with OSU Extension Master Food Preservers will be held next Saturday (April 4), not this Saturday, as printed today in the Register-Guard‘s Community Notes.  The class will be held at Food for Lane County, and Diane Connell of the Eugene Gluten Intolerance Group will be answering questions and providing local resources.
  • The class this Saturday (March 28)?  That’s the candy-making class, at which you’ll learn to make a wide variety of yummy treats, including fudge, nut clusters, and marshmallows. This class will be held at the OSU Extension Building.  Both classes are appropriate for beginners, and you can’t beat the price: thirty bucks.
  • Also noteworthy:  the City Club of Eugene forum this week will feature David Turner, Lynne Fessenden, and Douglas Frazer, individuals involved in our local food movement in different ways, discussing “Locavores: Eat Local/Be Happy.”  David will discuss the history of local produce markets; Lynne (who heads up the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition) will talk about local food system rebuilding, and Douglas will talk about his experiences with Eugene Local Foods.  You can attend the forum at the Downtown Athletic Club at 11:50 am on Friday (March 27) for $5, or listen to the broadcast on KLCC at 6:30 pm on the following Monday.

What else is going on around town in the food universe?  I’d love to hear what you’ve got.

rabbit bistro is hoppin’

OK, so baffled by the reviews, we went to see for ourselves, and found The (Black) Rabbit Bistro on W. 29th charming and rather delicious, with great drinks.  Can you believe it?  You likely won’t until you go.

I don’t have time for a proper review today, as I am engrossed in a host of unpleasant administrative tasks, editing, and woodchipping a garden path, but I felt obligated to share after my sourpussing about Rabbit’s reputation for bad juju the other day.

We ended up staying a long time, sampling house-infused fig bourbon cocktails, flowery libations, and absinthey concoctions made by the bar manager, Amy, who is an absolute sweetheart.  Her drink menu has a refreshingly unsweet profile, and she’s bold with flavor combinations.  Her Manhattan, for example, has Navan in it, a French vanilla liqueur, and I had a drink with both lavender and lychee in it, and it actually tasted good.  Holding back on the sugar and just letting the essences come through really goes a long way with this kind of experimentation.

The chef (Gabriel Gil, formerly of Red Agave) doesn’t hold back, either.  I had to ask about a handful of the ingredients or preparations, since they were unfamiliar to me.  That’s probably the first time I’ve ever had to do that in Eugene.  “Gnoki,” for example, is a French version of gnocchi, but it’s made with choux pastry instead of potato, so it really does merit its own name.  Does this kind of specificity make the Rabbit snobby or pretentious?  I can see why many people think it would.  I don’t mind it, personally.  I was intrigued by startling combinations like braised endive and grapefruit.  Bitters, anyone?  We both had a really hard time choosing what to order, since so many things looked so good.

I didn’t meet the owners or chef, and had the very pleasurable experience of running into Scott, formerly of Bel Ami, who is now the bartender at the Rabbit on Amy’s days off (i.e., during the early part of the week).  I didn’t see even a tiny speck of rudeness, arrogance, or anything negative whatsoever.  In fact, I found the whole experience a thousand times better than I had expected.

So what about the food?  Well, I had an open-faced duck rillette sandwich with frisée and cornichons with frites, and my companion had comfort food: a chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and green beans.  They were both excellent.  We also sampled a hen-of-the-woods, asparagus, savory custard and poached egg salad: delicious.  And we watched several more delights pass us by, like a whole trout served with its little head perched on top, frog legs fried in what looked like panko breadcrumbs, the infamous no-ketchup burger.  The latter smelled good, really good, and that was after I ate.  And we heard about the soup specials, which sounded like they were from an alien planet but both the bartenders swore up and down they were the best soups they had ever had.

Prices are excellent for the quality of the dishes.  Almost impossibly, Rabbit is cheaper than Belly, and a happy hour in the bar section in the back offers half price on a small set of appetizers (until the menu changes this week, your choice is frites, mussels, or frog legs) and $5 cocktails.  That’s an Abe Lincoln for top-shelf cocktails.  You can’t get that kind of deal anywhere.

I need to go back again several times before I do a proper review, but I’ll tell ya what: I’m really looking forward to it.

Try it and let me know what you think!

3/28/09:  UPDATED TO ADD:

Hm.  Went to Rabbit Bistro again, when the owners were in, and the tone of the place was dramatically different: too dark, for one, and a strange, muted hush fell over the place.  I completely understand the critical comments in the reviews now.  We were greeted by a brusque woman with this dialogue:

Her:  Would you like to sit in the bar?
My husband, not seeing a bar and not understanding:  In the bar?
Her:  Yes, the bar.  Because that’s what we’ve got right now.
[awkward silence]
Me:  Um, ok.

I happen to like the bartender, so sitting in the bar area (for the record, in the back of the restaurant) isn’t a huge problem, but the way this was handled was not exactly welcoming.  Just a small change of tone would have made a huge difference.

What could have gone down:

Her:  We don’t have anything available in the dining area in front but there are some tables in the bar area.  Would you like to sit there or wait for a table to open up?

Us:  The bar area is fine.

And I enjoyed a strong Sazerac and sips of my friend’s Manhattan, infused with a subtle hint of vanilla.  Didn’t care for the champagne cocktail with grapefruit juice as much, though.

The food was quite good, especially the trout.  This is Rabbit’s saving grace.  All three of us had seafood.  The dourade royale presentation was quite fussy, with two pieces of fish on a long platter and a dozen or so clams lined up in a row above the fish.  My mussels were tasty, but I felt the bacon (which was cubed back bacon, not the fried stuff) and the thin slices of green beans did absolutely nothing for the sauce.  And, to be even more cantankerous, allow me to complain about serving both fish dishes with a root vegetable purée, a texture combination that has always grossed me out.  A cauliflower-fennel soup du jour was tasty, albeit light on the fennel.  The asparagus/hen of the woods mushroom/poached egg salad we enjoyed the other day came in a portion so tiny the egg barely covered it — I was surprised by that.  Probably my biggest negative was that it took forever for the food to arrive.

Retrogrouch complained bitterly about the richness of the food, and my companion disliked the strip mall and multipurpose use room atmosphere afforded by same.  It’s kind of unpleasant when you realize you have the best view in the place, and you’re sitting in the bar hinterlands, as far from the front door as possible, overlooking the back parking lot of Market of Choice.

So there you have it.  One pleasant experience, one not-so-pleasant experience at the Rabbit.  Just keepin’ it real, hare.  Sigh.

Don’t forget about Happy Hour in the bar.  The bar, because that’s what they’ve got right now.  They’ve just switched over the HH specials to the liver cromequis (a fancy word for croquette), but have kept the fries and mussels.  Rock bottom prices.  $5 cocktails, half price appetizers.  4:30-6:30.

nacho average salsa: red pepper purée with corn!

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These are some gradin’ nachos.  I’m fortunate since I didn’t have many final projects to grade this term, but the nachos made it easier.  Although I still have a few jars of homemade salsa in the pantry, I thought I’d try something new.  Everyone and their brother is trying to get rid of frozen corn, right?  I noticed I had a drooping bunch of cilantro and a red onion, so thought I’d throw together a salsa. Winter tomatoes didn’t exactly appeal, hm…

And then, inspiration struck.

When I was an undergraduate in Berkeley, I’d almost exclusively shop at the old Berkeley Bowl, showing up on an odd weekday or first thing in the morning on a weekend to avoid some of the foot traffic.  One of the only prepared items I’d buy was a delicious, bright red, zingy corn salsa made by a local company that also (if I remember correctly) made tamales.  They’d sample the salsas on a little table on the weekends.  I’d buy a pint and a bag of corn chips, then rush home and devour half the container for lunch.

It was that good.

So as I was mulling over my corn salsa possibilities, the remembrance of times past filled me with the holy recipe ghost, and it occurred to me that my decades of experimentation to recreate this salsa were misguided.  I had never been able to capture the texture and slightly bitter flavor of the red pepper purée.

But lo!  I had a jar of ajvar in the ‘fridge, and my long struggles were over.

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This summer, I’m planning to make my own ajvar, but until then, I use the stuff in a jar, available at any Middle Eastern grocery store and many plain ol’ American ones, too.  In Orange County, I could buy it at the Safeway, but I’m not so sure about Eugene.  They’d probably have it at Market of Choice.  It’s bright red and fortified with vegetables, such as carrots and onions and eggplants.  The eggplants are the key: they lend the smoky bitterness to the spread that I had been missing when I tried to recreate the corn salsa from Berkeley Bowl.

Did the original recipe use ajvar?  Hard to tell, but it sure tastes like it.  In any case, the salsa is easy, pretty, and vegetable-y.  More importantly, it uses up your freezer corn.  Enjoy.

Red and Yellow Winter Salsa

  • 2 c. frozen corn, unthawed
  • 1/2 c. ajvar red pepper spread, either hot or mild
  • 2 T. minced red onion
  • good squeeze of fresh lime
  • handful cilantro, chopped (optional but recommended)
  • chopped fresh jalapeño (optional)

Mix all ingredients together and let sit in the refrigerator until corn defrosts and the corny juice blends with the flavors in the salsa.  Serves as an all-in-one nacho topping, quesadilla insert, or taco fiesta.

dining niblets: familiar faces, new places edition

You’ve probably already heard the news that Café Zenon (Zenon Café?  I can never remember) is reopening under the ownership of Ibrahim Hamide, the erstwhile owner of Café Soriah.  I was a little touched when I saw him on tv yesterday, promising to respect the traditions of this Eugene institution, even though I’m generally grumpy about the small pool of ownership among Eugene restaurateurs.  Hey, I have a soft spot for that kind of community spirit.  It rocks.

Another familiar face, Adam of his Place, has been operating Adam’s Sustainable Table for almost a month now.  We went and it wasn’t bad.  Adam mixed me a Sazerac with a icewater chaser, which was cool, explaining it was new on the menu and promising the second one would be better.  And it was.  I loved the simple herb “flower” arrangement on the table.  I think it was made of carrot tops.  That was a sweet gesture.  The food was perfectly serviceable and I didn’t have any negative experiences like some friends did when they visited.  Fried squid, a fish special, lamb stew with paparadelle, chocolate molten cake, if I recall.  I guess I was hoping for some new oomph to the menu, eye-opening combinations or something that screamed green.  Ah well.  What I ate was fine; I don’t want to be too negative.

In case you wondered about the review in Chow!, Black Rabbit Bistro is now called The Rabbit Bistro, but everyone still calls them Black Rabbit.  I still haven’t been, and have heard grumpy stories about the service and substitutions policy that make me not want to go.  Chillax, bunny.  We want to pet you, but you’re making it hard.

If you miss Morgenthaler, check him out all fancy and stuff, making a cocktail video for Imbibe Magazine.   I seriously wanted that damn Manhattan, even though I was watching the video at, like, 7 am.  Stirred, not shaken, indeed.

Speaking of which, it’s quittin’ time.  And that means I have an hour to relax before getting back to work, yay.

seeds for lasagna master gardener victory compost

As yet another sign our vegetable love is growing vaster than empires and more fast, the White House breaks ground for its Victory Garden today.  Good luck, Mrs. Obama, with your first dig!

I love the way we’ve taken back the concept of Victory Garden in 2009.  Victory Gardens were marketed in WWII as a means to support the war effort by growing your own food so the government could devote more national resources to war.  Now, of course, we’re devoting our taxpayer dollars to bonuses for executives and, um, war.  But at least we’re not telling people to grow vegetables to support jingoistic nonsense.  Progress?  Hm, not so sure.

Out here in Eugene, we’re all about amending soil right now.  Food for Lane County’s Grass Roots Garden, which gleans food and paper scraps from local businesses to produce tens of thousands of pounds of food for Lane County hunger relief, recently taught composting to the Master Gardener trainees.  Lasagna, anyone?

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Lasagna or sheet composting is a method of cold composting, where layers of nitrogen and carbon material slowly break down over a 4-6 month time frame.  I snapped this shot during a demo at Grass Roots, and have never felt so inspired by garbage.  Now, I’ve got my own lasagna beds in the works.  Puttin’ ’em in before my husband gets home from his business trip and sees what I’ve done to his lawn.

Last year, I had soil shipped in for my raised beds, and I’ve been integrating compost and organic matter all year, so I’m hoping it will be all right.  Peas, potatoes, rhubarb, fennel, garlic, artichokes, lovage, and leeks are all doing well so far, as are the berries.  I’ll be expanding my beds this year by a foot or two in length, and am considering putting in two more rows.  I’ve always been a hobby gardener, having fun in the dirt and not really caring if all my crops turn out, but I’m becoming more serious about produce yield and feeding our family from our garden, so I’m going to be more careful this year.

To that end, I’m finishing up my Master Gardener training program this week with the certification test.   I’m really excited to start helping other gardeners when I return from my trip to Buffalo in April.   I startled myself (secretly) at my volunteer shift at the home show last weekend when I realized I actually know something about gardening now.  It was a great pleasure to talk to dozens of people about vegetable gardening in Lane County.

If you’re new to vegetable gardening, you can buy choices someone else picked out for you, something like Territorial’s clever pot of seed packets for a complete garden, or a pack of starts that allow you to transplant a group of vegetables.  If you are new, please take my advice: you don’t want seeds.  Try the starts this year, and invest that extra cash in good soil, organic fertilizer and compost.  Log House Plants in Dexter, OR, has developed “Grab and Go” start packs geared toward our finicky summer conditions in the PNW.  They don’t have them listed yet on their website, so I’ll quote from their newsletter:

Grab & Grow, a new series of regional vegetable gardening kits.  After talking to nursery owners and expert gardeners from all over the Northwest, we’ve designed several collections for each region, with varieties chosen for flavor, productivity, and ease of care for a novice gardener.  Each convenient half flat contains a carefully chosen mix of vegetable varieties, along with detailed planting and growing information.

I love this idea.

It’s also worth slowing down and growing only a few things in your Victory Garden.  Like lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, and hot peppers.  You can make a killer pesto at summer’s end with a few basil plants, for example, that would be lovely on your tomatoes.  Zucchini is easy to grow if you have space, too.  Then you can be one of those people begging friends to take your squash, please, at the end of the summer.  Good times.

If you’re interested in learning how to compost and you live near Eugene, check out Extension’s Compost and Worm Bin Composting Classes.  They’re cheap as dirt (heh), free for the compost classes and nearly free for the worm bin classes since you get equipment and worms with your fee.  If you haven’t taken any classes with Lane County Extension, you’re missing out!

happy st. patrick’s day: new potatoes with wild dandelions and cress

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Everyone in the Willamette Valley (except me) knew to plant their potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.  Mine are still in a little bag on my kitchen table.  Are yours?

Instead, I sit inside and dream of fluffy mashed potatoes, tossed with dandelion greens and olive oil, and topped with breadcrumbs.  Mark Bittman profiled this delicious Ligurian dish a few days ago, and I’ve been longing for it ever since.  It’s a fancy’d up version of the Irish colcannon, and thus appropriate for this holiday.

Bittman uses culivated dandelions, an entire bunch for two russet potatoes.  He suggests using a darker, ranker green like collards if you can’t buy dandelions, but I, for one, think the dish would be even better with the weeds flourishing in our own lawns right now.  Here in the Willamette Valley, that means tender native dandelion greens and little western bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma), the brassica relative you see in the picture above.

The cress is abundant right now; it’s the stuff with tiny white flowers that shoots seeds in your eye from little powerpacked cannon seed pods.  I’m hoping you’ll recognize it immediately.  Break off a leaf and try it if you do (and I’m not responsible if you don’t and eat, say, poison oak).  Like other wild brassicae, it’s peppery and slightly mustardy, with a little sweetness to it.  It’s lovely thrown into salads.

So here’s what I recommend.  Skip the russets and cultivated dandelions, as delicious as they are.

Go out into your garden, dodging raindrops, and pick a big bowl full of the tenderest, nicest wild dandelion greens.  Gather as much little western bittercress as you can, too.  Wash the greens very well, looking for slugs, in several changes of water.

As you are washing your greens, put on a pot of heavily salted water.  Use new potatoes instead of russets, about two big handfuls of them, boiling them until just done with the skins on.  Then, mash your new potatoes in their skins very coarsely in a bowl with a fat glug of great olive oil.

Don’t blanch the greens, unless they are too bitter for your tastes (try a dandelion leaf or two), since the heat from the potatoes will cook them a bit. If you do find the dandelion too bitter, plunging the leaves into the potato water for 30 seconds or so will take away some of the bitterness.  You don’t want to overcook them, though.  Beware.  The bland potatoes will make a nice foil for the bitterness.

Chop your dandelion greens in little pieces, and combine with the beautiful little cress leaves.  Add all the greens to the bowl with the still hot potatoes, and combine well until the greens are slightly wilted and incorporated.  Taste, add more salt, olive oil, or a bit of the potato cooking water if necessary.  Don’t overmash: the final product should not be gluey or oily.

You can eat the mash as is, or top with fresh breadcrumbs that have been moistened with olive oil and then browned under a broiler for no more than a minute.

And we can serve this to Mark Bittman the next time he comes into town.  :)