Gently simmering a bright mix of spring vegetables amplifies their fresh flavors.
Braised Asparagus, Peas, and Radishes with Tarragon
SERVES 4 to 6 FAST VEG
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS While raw and roasted vegetables certainly have their place, many Mediterranean recipes capitalize on the freshness of spring vegetables in another, more unexpected way: braising. To turn our early-season produce into a warm side dish, we started by softening a minced shallot in olive oil with additional aromatics for a savory base. To build a flavorful braising liquid, we poured in water and lemon and orange zest and dropped in a bay leaf. Adding the vegetables in stages ensured that each cooked at its own rate and maintained a crisp texture. Peppery radishes, which turned soft and sweet with cooking, were nicely complemented by the more vegetal notes of asparagus and peas (frozen peas were reliably sweet, and adding them off the heat prevented overcooking). In no time at all, we had a simple side of radiant vegetables in an invigorating, complex broth, proof positive that braising can bring out the best in even the most delicate flavors. A toss of chopped fresh tarragon gave a final nod to spring. Look for asparagus spears no thicker than ½ inch.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, sliced into thin rounds
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
3 fresh thyme sprigs
Pinch red pepper flakes
10 radishes, trimmed and quartered lengthwise
1¼ cups water
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
2 cups frozen peas
4 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon
1. Cook oil, shallot, garlic, thyme sprigs, and pepper flakes in Dutch oven over medium heat until shallot is just softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in radishes, water, lemon zest, orange zest, bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until radishes can be easily pierced with tip of paring knife, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in asparagus, cover, and cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Off heat, stir in peas, cover, and let sit until heated through, about 5 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Stir in tarragon and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.
Stuffed Bell Peppers with Spiced Beef, Currants, and Feta
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS Stuffed bell peppers are a simple entrée enjoyed throughout the Mediterranean. Balance in both flavor and texture is paramount to the success of this dish. We found that briefly blanching the peppers curbed their raw crunch but ensured that they were sturdy enough to hold our hearty filling; since we couldn’t rid green peppers of their bitterness, we stuck with red, orange, and yellow varieties. To keep our recipe streamlined, we used the same water to blanch the peppers and cook the rice (simple long-grain white rice was preferred). Ground beef made for a simple and savory element of our filling. A generous dose of spices ensured that our stuffing wasn’t bland, and some sautéed garlic and onion rounded out the aromatic profile. Chopped toasted almonds brought some welcome crunch, and a little feta helped bind everything together and further boosted flavor. We found that we could make our stuffing while the peppers and rice cooked, keeping the process efficient. For a unique twist on the finished recipe, we also created a version using lamb; we found that the meat’s robust flavor required upping the spices to balance the dish.
4 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, ½ inch trimmed off tops, cores and seeds discarded
Salt and pepper
½ cup long-grain white rice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 onion, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
10 ounces 90 percent lean ground beef
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained with 2 tablespoons juice reserved
¼ cup currants
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or ½ teaspoon dried
2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (½ cup)
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted and chopped
1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add bell peppers and 1 tablespoon salt and cook until just beginning to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Using tongs, remove peppers from pot, drain excess water, and place peppers cut side up on paper towels. Return water to boil, add rice, and cook until tender, about 13 minutes. Drain rice and transfer to large bowl; set aside.
2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and ¼ teaspoon salt and cook until softened and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, ginger, cumin, cardamom, pepper flakes, and cinnamon and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground beef and cook, breaking up meat with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Off heat, stir in tomatoes and reserved juice, currants, and oregano, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer mixture to bowl with rice. Add ¼ cup feta and almonds and gently toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Place peppers cut side up in 8-inch square baking dish. Pack each pepper with rice mixture, mounding filling on top. Bake until filling is heated through, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup feta over peppers and drizzle with extra oil. Serve.
Stuffed Bell Peppers with Spiced Lamb, Currants, and Feta
Substitute 10 ounces ground lamb for ground beef. Increase ginger to 1 tablespoon, cumin to 1 tablespoon, cardamom to 1 teaspoon, and cinnamon to ½ teaspoon.
Preparing Peppers for Stuffing
1.Trim ½ inch off tops of peppers.
2.Pull out core, seeds, and ribs and discard.
3.Cook peppers until just beginning to soften. Using tongs, remove peppers from pot, drain off excess water, and place cut side up on paper towels.
NOTES FROM THE TEST KITCHEN
All About Garlic
The pungent, aromatic flavor of garlic is great in everything from pasta sauces to vinaigrettes to steamed vegetables. Here’s everything you need to know about buying, storing, and cooking with garlic.
When shopping for garlic, look for unpackaged loose garlic heads so you can examine them closely. Pick heads without spots, mold, or sprouting. Squeeze them to make sure they’re not rubbery, have no soft spots, and aren’t missing cloves. The garlic shouldn’t have much of a scent; if it does, you’re risking spoilage. Of the various garlic varieties, your best bet is soft-neck garlic, since it stores well and is heat tolerant. This variety features a circle of large cloves surrounding a small cluster at the center. Hard-neck garlic has a stiff center staff surrounded by large, uniform cloves and boasts a more intense, complex flavor. But since it’s easily damaged and doesn’t store as well as soft-neck garlic, buy it at the farmers’ market.
With proper storage, whole heads of garlic should last for at least a few weeks. Store heads in a cool, dark place with plenty of air circulation to prevent spoiling and sprouting. (A small basket in the pantry is ideal.)
When preparing garlic, keep in mind that garlic’s pungency emerges only after its cell walls are ruptured, triggering the creation of a compound called allicin. The more a clove is broken down, the more allicin is produced. Thus you can control the amount of bite garlic contributes to a recipe by how fine or coarse you cut it. It’s also best not to cut garlic in advance; the longer cut garlic sits, the harsher its flavor.
Garlic’s flavor is sharpest when raw. Once heated above 150 degrees, its enzymes are destroyed and no new flavor is produced. This is why roasted garlic, which is cooked slowly and takes longer to reach 150 degrees, has a mellow, slightly sweet flavor. Alternatively, garlic browned at very high temperatures (300 to 350 degrees) has a more bitter flavor. To avoid the creation of bitter compounds, wait to add garlic to the pan until other aromatics or ingredients have softened. And don’t cook garlic over high heat for much longer than 30 seconds; you want to cook it, stirring constantly, only until it turns fragrant.