Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer Winds

It has been a whirlwind of a summer, as I'm trying to keep up on seasonal produce by visiting the Farmer's Market once a week.

We've been through the sweetest cherries I've ever had. So sweet, I went and bought a cherry pitter just so I could enjoy them a few seconds faster.

Then there were the sugar peas - almost as sweet as the cherries, but way more fun because they *SNAP* when you bite into them. I hated peas as a kid, but I can't get enough of these fresh-from-the-garden raw ones. (There's even some in the fridge right now, waiting for some room in my lunchbox later this week.

I bought a loaf of tasty chocolate sourdough with cherries, which I lost under the seat in the car and spent a couple of weeks wondering where exactly I'd put that yummy bread. By the time I found it and threw it out, the bakery had moved on to chocolate-orange sourdough, which was good, but not at the same caliber.

There's been lots of strawberries, of course, but I haven't had to buy any as our strawberry plants have been producing well enough to give us a small handful of berries each week.

Raspberries. Blueberries. Last time I went, there were peaches and apricots all over.

I don't have many peach recipes, aside from peach ice cream or peach smoothies. Help me out here - what's your favorite peach recipes? Leave me a comment with a link to 'em, and I'll pick out the best and give it a try!

Friday, August 13, 2010

6 Kitchen Tools I'd Want if I were Stranded on a Desert Island

... Assuming, of course, that my desert island had potable water, power, and a convenient supermarket for those obscure vegetables I can't grow myself.

1. Smoker - This being the Northwest, summer doesn't usually hit until July. Once the sun comes out and we start craving fire-cooked meals, it's time to rush out onto our small porch and investigate the grill. Given that we're only two people and don't entertain half as often as we'd like, we rarely invest heavily in a grill, choosing to buy small charcoal grills capable of cooking a couple of steaks. And most often, owing to the small size and replaceability of the grills, they rust away into rickety shadows of themselves during the winter months, and by July, are fit only as habitat for the several spiders which have taken up residence.

This year, we tried something different. In June, when patio ware went on sale, we tossed the old spider habitat and replaced it with a shiny new smoker. An electric one. No charcoal to light and re-light. No gas containers to refill. Just weave the cord through the window to the nearest outlet and wait.

This is arguably the best piece of patio-ware we've ever bought. Smoked chicken, pork chops, ribs, and fish, at our fingertips. It's taken a bit of research to get the recipes down - until we started smoking chicken, I'd never heard that grilled meats should be brined to make them juicier and faster-cooking. And with the smoker, it's almost critical - a pair of chicken breasts takes 5 hours to cook to the recommended 170. A salmon fillet, though, only takes about an hour, and comes out tasting like the fish from the gift baskets we got for Christmas when I was a child, even without the brine (which makes me wonder: should fish be brined? Would salt-water fish be pre-brined?)

A very short recipe for smoked salmon:
1 wooden grilling plank
several large hickory or mesquite wood chunks
1/4-1/2 pound of salmon fillet per person
2-3 Tbsp grilling rub (we've been using a cowboy-themed steak rub with barbeque and coffee flavors - but a basic brown sugar and paprika rub will work just fine as well)

Soak the plank and wood chunks at least 30 minutes before you intend to start cooking. If you have a charcoal smoker, follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding how soon to start the coals.

Pull the plank out of the water and center, as best as you can, the salmon on it, skin side down. Sprinkle the grilling rub over the top, and use your fingers to spread it about and rub it in.

Add the wood to your smoker, followed by the plank and the salmon. If your smoker has (like ours) a bowl for liquid, take it out. You do not want to steam the salmon. Close the lid and set a timer for about an hour. After the hour is up, the fish should flake easily with a fork, and you can turn the smoker off, bring the fish inside, and enjoy.

2. Immersion Blender - We bought this a couple of winters ago, frustrated with recipes that call for every bowl and pan in my small kitchen so that I can pour small batches of hot soup into the blender. Instead, I now pull out the immersion blender, plug it in and go right on with the soup in my big soup pot.

Here's a recipe we use from SoupSong
which is great for an immersion blender. We usually omit the sour cream and cilantro garnishes, and stir the cheese into the soup rather than garnishing with it.

3. Food Processor - Purchased in 2009, originally to make Black Bean Mini-Burgers for our bento lunches, there's not much this little standby can't do. We have the small, 3-cup version, which honestly holds and chops far less than 3-cups. It does, however, do a lovely job of chopping up onions for soup or tacos, without the tears. It makes black bean burgers, salsa, and chops onions - and takes up less counter space than the waffle iron.

4. Salad Bowl - Some years ago, my grandmother gave all of us kids a big aluminum mixing bowl filled with assorted travel size goodies for Christmas. A very grandma sort of gift, but the bowl has turned out to be priceless. It's just the right size for a dinner salad, mixing home-made Monkey Bars oatmeal, or stirring up quick bread dough.

5. iSi Whipped Cream Dispenser - Until the smoker, this was the newest addition to our kitchen, and has been used, at this point, exactly once. It made the list, though, because I've been yearning for one for so long, just on coolness factor alone, that it feels like it's been with us longer.

6. Large Saute Pan -Oh, saute pan, how I love you. What could I do without you? I cook eggs, pancakes, and yummy yummy smoked salmon hash in you. I can even use you for stir fried seitan if I don't feel like hauling out the wok.

Which kitchen tool could you not live without?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Beets

I'd like to introduce you to someone.
This is Ruth (center).

Ruth was born in Nebraska in 1899. As an 8-year old child, she moved to Idaho with her family in a wagon train to take up farming. A farmer's daughter, then a farmer's wife, she married my great-grandfather shortly after her first husband's death.

All told, my great-grandmother married three times, raised 4 daughters and a son, churned butter, made quilts, and kept a garden and who knows what else. She collected teddy bears and salt shakers, buried two husbands and one daughter, left situations that were intolerable, and made pickled beets for her family.

I was about 8 myself when I tasted her pickled beets. I don't remember what they tasted like, but to this day, 20 years after her death shortly before her 90th birthday, my family still talks about her beets.

So I'm trying to recreate her beets recipe.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

No post this week

We're traveling north to see family for a graduation. No cooking today!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Single Potato ISO creamy, low-fat dressing

Let me just start out by saying that I love potato salad. At least, I always thought I did. Potato salad, in my world, should be equally made of potatoes and eggs, seasoned with celery for crunch, onion for spice, and pickles for tartness, the assorted flavors held together by a creamy Miracle Whip glue.

I don't, however, love making potato salad. For a household of 2, the cutting and cooking of the potatoes and eggs, plus the various dishes that are required to cook and mix all of it - too much work for a pair of busy working people.

I've been on the hunt for several weeks now for something unique - a potato salad that made people sit up and take notice. The evil genius of potato salads, as it were.

My first attempt, a couple of weeks ago, came out bland and traditional, not much different from the salad available at the deli.

Tonight's follow-up came closer.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

All In One Pot

As did many of my peers in the 70s and 80s, I grew up with a morbid fear of the casserole dish.

Looking back, I don't understand it, really. My Mom is a fabulous cook, and I owe a lot to her teaching. But when she left the kitchen with her white casserole dish, the one with a spray of blue daisies painted on each side, I knew we were in for one of THOSE meals.

If it was ham-and-cheese casserole, I was in luck. I could pick the ham out and push it to the side of my plate, and very happily eat the remaining potatoes and cheese. I'd only have to eat enough ham to pass so I could be excused from the table. No sweat.

If it wasn't ham-and-cheese, though, I was in for a challenge. Mom's other casserole was a frightening concoction involving layers of potatoes, rice, ground beef, kidney beans, and tomatoes. No herbs, no spices, no flavors other than the base ingredients - which, since they were cooked in layers, didn't even mingle flavors in any appealing way. The only thing I disliked more was meatloaf. I think every parent has one meal that is guaranteed to keep the kids sitting at the table for hours trying to wish their plate away. This was it. I eventually learned to dowse the offending scoop with ketchup and eat it quickly. The only thing worse than shipwreck was cold shipwreck.

Given my history with casseroles, it came as a surprise to me when, a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking over all of the recipes I have ever concocted on my own, and realized that the only one worth repeating was our casserole from college. It was a chicken and rice combination with canned vegetables, largely because that's what we happened to have available.

Thinking about it made me realize that I didn't even have a casserole dish. So when I found a small oval casserole at Pepperberries, I bought it. It's just about the right size for a small household like ours.

We inaugurated it last night with a tamale casserole. The base recipe comes from EatingWell.com, but needed to be adjusted. For one, I'm not wild about shrimp - I'll eat it, but it's not my favorite - and wanted to use chicken instead. For another, the recipe promised to make 9 servings, which is an awful lot for 2 people.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cold-Brewed Coffee

Coffee and I have a long history together. I started seeing Coffee back in college, after watching my mom consume three cups a morning regularly while I was growing up. I'd been denied the pleasure, and since she took it blacker than black, and often reheated, I didn't mind so much. There was a sort of check-out system in place in the kitchen - once you'd been in there for a couple of minutes, Mom would demand to know what you were doing, which made me feel like I had to account for each grain of sugar (not to be wasted on drinks that would only stunt my growth anyways!)

College, though, was another story. Coffee hung out at the convenience store, with all the cream and sugar I could stir in, and I greedily tried every flavor I could find.

After the first couple of years, though, I started to fear the ulcer I was sure to get by slurping down coffee by the cupful and stressing over a combination of schoolwork, part-time work, and helping a sick friend over a difficult term. So I broke up with coffee, told him I couldn't see him anymore, and switched to cocoa. Only to find out that I hadn't been super-stressed at all, I'd just been over-caffeinated. The heart palpitations, the blood rushing through my veins, the thump-thump sound in my ears - all a reaction to the caffeine.

And that's about how things stayed until I moved back to Oregon several years ago. Eugene being a mere half-day drive away from Seattle, the coffee culture has permeated. I resisted for some time, but losing my job and taking a new one in an office that didn't provide hot water and tea at the flick of a switch led me back to temptation. Over the intervening years, I managed to stay ulcer-free, although I still have problems with caffeine. And isn't it lucky that they make coffee in decaf?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day Brunch

When I was a child, my mother told me she didn't like fruit salad. Every time I asked her for some, she objected. As a teenager, though, it became clear that we were talking about two different things.

When I think of fruit salad, I think of a big bowl of fruit, with little or no dressing. My mother things of the confection frequently found in supermarket delis, small bits of fruit wrapped in a foamy marshmallow soup.

So for Mother's Day, I'm making her fruit salad as it should be.

Our Mother's Day Brunch Menu:

Scrambled Eggs
Smoked Salmon Quesadillas
Lime-Ginger Fruit Salad
Blueberry Muffins
Orange Juice