Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Guide to Pesticides

Hello friends...just a little something to share today...the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides. Now that many CSAs and farmers' markets are coming to their season's end, you can refer to this handy list to help you determine which, if any, imported conventional produce you should buy.

I spent a very busy (and only marginally successful) day in the kitchen preparing recipes for Seems like the kitchen gods were against me, as 3 of the 5 recipes I attempted weren't so pretty...sigh. Time for a nice glass of wine I think. I'll try again tomorrow. Have a nice evening. Hopefully I'll be back with a recipe soon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happy Autumn and a New Salad!

We toasted to memories of our amazing summer, and to the prospect of a blessed new season. The signs of autumn are all around us...though here, in southern California, we sometimes have to look closely. Fall brings the Santa Anas, and fires. Fall brings more heat and dry air. Leaves and mountainsides turn brown and tinder dry. Seed pods rattle in the breeze, and palm fronds tumble to the ground. The light is changing, and the sun comes in at a different angle--dusk comes sooner too.

In the markets winter squash and pumpkins are making their appearance, and grapes, apples, pears and pomegranates are slowly edging out peaches and plums. Tomatoes still abound, and melons and corn are available, though time is running out.

So on this first day of autumn, the equinox, we dined al fresco, by candlelight. We feasted on our favorite tastes of summer--corn, watermelon, and big, juicy, grilled steaks. We reminisced about our trip east and back, and talked about all the exciting things that are just around the bend...there are so many!

I tried a new salad too...a recipe I've seen many times, but been a bit afraid to make. The ingredients on their own, I adore. Watermelon? Yes! Tomatoes? The best! Feta cheese? Yummy! Cilantro? Heaven! But all together? I just wasn't sure. So tonight I bit the bullet and gave it a go. And you know what? It's a like a chorus of flavors in the mouth. Maybe even a symphony. It's that good.

The crisp and sweet watermelon plays splendidly against the tender, juicy tomatoes and the tangy, salty cheese. And the grassy, herbaceousness of the cilantro makes for a spectacular top note. It's the kind of taste that is so surprising upon first bite, that you have to immediately take another one, just to be sure it was for real. And the ease with which this salad was thrown together, tells me that this could become a late summer standby, even a main course, on those sweltering nights when it is simply too hot to cook or eat much of anything at all.

We enjoyed our evening so much, knowing full well, that it is an awfully long wait until summer produce comes 'round again. And we're going to milk every last bit of it...I hope you do too.

Watermelon, Tomato and Feta Salad
serves 4

1/2 a smallish seedless watermelon (that weighs around 6 pounds), peeled and cubed
8 ounces feta cheese in brine, cubed
2 medium ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped
handful of cilantro, chopped
drizzle of red wine vinegar
drizzle of olive oil

Toss watermelon, feta, and tomatoes together in a salad bowl. Drizzle with vinegar and oil. Top with cilantro. Serve immediately, or chill up to one hour.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

A message from the USDA....could it signal a shift away from being bought out by big (meat/dairy/ag) industry lobbyists? Keeping my fingers crossed....

Have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

At Market...Pomegranates

My dad was the grateful recipient of all manner of offerings in exchange for his services, because living in a small farming community, many folks had limited financial resources to pay for their medical care. And being the generous soul that he was, he was hard pressed to turn away a patient who couldn't afford an eye examination. Consequently, he often brought home bags full of the most delicious tamales, jams and fresh garden produce you can imagine. And in late summer, along with tomatoes and zucchini, some folks brought in pomegranates.

Many Biblical scholars believe that pomegranates were the forbidden fruit of Eden, and indeed, in our house, we were banished to the out-of-doors to eat them. Dressed in our father's old V-neck undershirts, my sister and I would sit on the front porch, greedily splattering ourselves with the blood-red juice as we plunged our fingers into the gem-like interior of the fruit. We just thought its sweet-tart juice was a tasty treat, but little did we know, pomegranates are not only delicious, but extremely healthful, as well.

Earlier in the week, Molly from Pom Wonderful, was kind enough to send me a box full of delicious pomegranate juice, along with an information packet. Pomegranate juice, it seems, has even more antioxidants than blueberries, green tea, or--gasp--red wine. It's also very good for the heart, and for certain male health issues. Visit their website for more information on its health benefits, recipes, and tips on how to use this truly amazing fruit.

Healthfulness aside, pomegranates are just plain tasty, and Middle Eastern cultures have been using it in their cooking for thousands of years. However, in the states, even in California which shares a climate with much of the Mediterranean, it remains an exotic ingredient, or gets set aside in a fruit basket as an autumnal decoration. But the seeds and juice are so flavorful, they deserve a second chance.

Luckily, places like Trader Joe's sell packets of seeds, freeing us from much of the messy work. Tossed on a salad or over rice pilaf, the ruby-red gems are not only full of flavor, but they are beautiful as well. And the juice is wonderful to drink (especially with a splash of vodka and club soda--does that detract from the health benefits?), but it also can be reduced into a rich, tangy sauce....which is exactly what I did tonight.

This dish, inspired by the flavors of Persia, was so addictive, we found ourselves mindlessly scooping more and more off the platter as we sat around the table. The chicken thighs, braised in a savory cinnamon-pomegranate sauce, were incredibly succulent, tender and very gently perfumed with spice. Topped with toasted walnuts, pomegranate seeds and slices of red onion, it was hot and cool, tender and crisp, sweet and spicy, all at once. Though the sauce usually includes ground walnuts, I chose to keep them whole, so they could be weeded out for those of us who might dislike them (or for those of us who might have an unfortunate sensitivity to them...sigh).

Persian Pomegranate Chicken Thighs

serves 4

3 T canola oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
salt and pepper
1/4 C sliced shallot
1/2 t cinnamon
1 T molasses
1 C pomegranate juice
minced fresh parsley
1/4 C chopped toasted walnuts
1/4 C pomegranate seeds
2 thin slices of red onion

Heat oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Salt and pepper both sides of the thighs, then place in the oil and brown, 3-4 minutes per side. Remove from heat and place on a platter. Reduce heat to low. Add shallots and cook for 5 minutes or until softened. Add molasses and pomegranate juice, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Raise heat and bring to a boil. Add thighs back to the pan, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 5 minutes or until cooked through. Remove thighs from pan and cover to keep warm. Raise heat to medium high and boil sauce to reduce by half (about 5-7 minutes). Pour over thighs. Top with parsley, walnuts, red onion and pomegranate seeds. Serve over hot basmati rice or couscous.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Heart Salt Potatoes

My dear readers, if you have high cholesterol, or high blood pressure, or a high fear of foods that might contribute to either of those, please stop reading now. But frankly, after two salad posts in a row, I felt it was high time we had ourselves a treat. Not the sweet kind, mind you, but the savory, salty and buttery kind. The kind of treat that turns forks into weapons as those gathered around the table vie for the last few bites.

I've always had a thing for salty, and I'd prefer seconds at dinner to dessert, or popcorn to ice cream any day...and oh, these these tender nuggets certainly fall into that category! Boiled in brine and then bathed in a pool of glistening herb butter, these salt potatoes are utter bliss. One bite and I was hooked--their skin is not quite crisp, but almost dry and and papery and definitely well seasoned with salt. It cracked slightly when I split it open to reveal the most tender and fluffy interior you can imagine. Each forkful, dragged through a puddle of butter, caused much moaning and eye-rolling and contented sighing at the table. Okay, mostly that came from me, but everyone loved these potatoes, I assure you.

When I read the recipe, originally in Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, I was taken aback by the huge amount of salt that was called for. But when I read more about the science behind salt potatoes, it made perfect sense. The high salt content in the water causes the boiling temperature to be increased, which gives these potatoes their unique shell and moist interior. Notice the salt flakes forming on my pot handle...and all that delicious butter?

Very common today in upstate New York, the recipe originated with 19th century Irish workers at the salt flats, who threw small potatoes into the brine as they boiled off the salt. During late summer, it is not unusual to see bags of "salt potatoes" sold with bags of sea salt for the cooking water. I used small, yellow creamers in this recipe, but any baby, thin-skinned potato would work well.

Salt Potatoes
serves 4

1 pound creamer or other new potatoes
8 cups water
1 1/2 cups coarse sea salt
4 T butter
1 T mixed fresh herbs, chopped

Bring water and salt to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until they are tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain. Melt butter. Mix in herbs and toss gently with potatoes. Serve hot...with lots of napkins.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

At Market...Figs

Figs are a quintessential, late summer fruit. Suited perfectly to California’s warmish winters and endless sun, they thrive in our Mediterranean-like climate. I have gobbled more than my fair share of Fig Newton Cookies, but have never really been a huge fan of fresh figs, mostly because, though they are sweet, they don’t have much flavor unless they are cooked or dried. But I keep trying, optimistically buying pints at the farmers’ market each week, only to have them covered with nasty white mold because I never get around to using them.

But I've been inspired by glossy magazine pictures of prosciutto-wrapped figs with goat cheese as an appetizer, and think I’ve finally figured out what to do with these teardrop-shaped fruits. Combining these ingredients creates a perfect trifecta of flavor (salty, tangy, and sweet) that tastes amazingly delicious served deconstructed atop a bed of baby field greens that have been tossed in a light vinaigrette. Presented on a platter, this salad is beautiful enough to impress your foodie friends yet simple enough to be enjoyed on a weeknight.

Figs can be deep purple to yellowish green, depending on the variety, but all should have smooth skin and soft, yielding flesh when they are ripe. Keep them in the refrigerator, and use them within a few days of purchase because they grow can grow fur faster than a werewolf under a full moon.

Fig, Prosciutto and Goat Cheese Salad
Serves 4

1 bag of mixed baby greens
10 ripe figs, stemmed and quartered
3 slices of prosciutto
4 thin slices of red onion
2 ounces of goat cheese, crumbled

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar (available at Trader Joes)
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

Pan-fry the prosciutto for a few minutes to crisp slightly, chop, then set aside.

Make dressing. In a bowl, mix vinegar, honey, and Dijon mustard. Drizzle in oil while whisking to emulsify. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Place lettuce in a large salad bowl and toss with about half the dressing, just to coat, taking care not to over dress the leaves or they will become soggy.

Lightly spread the lettuce out on a medium platter. Top with figs, red onion slices, prosciutto, and goat cheese. Season with a bit more salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

At Market...Summer Squash

Hello my friends! It's been awhile, I know. But I've been busy at work. Real work, with real money. And it's all good. But how my blogger friends manage their real work, and continue to update their for-fun blogs is beyond me. I definitely need more practice with that. Which is why I'm here today.

My next two months are crunch time, and I'll be cooking all manner of holiday foods (for my real work). Right now, though it's nearly 100 degrees outside (and snowing ash--but that's another story) I've got gingerbread granola in my oven and peppermint ice cream in my churner. I've also got a Filet Mignon roast in my fridge for dinner, and will be ordering a 12 pound turkey later this week. If I can get through these next two months without gaining 20 pounds it will be a minor miracle. And, I told my husband that he'd better enjoy all this now, because come December, I might be so over cooking that we end up eating fast food on Christmas.

Today, I have a quick recipe that's awesome because not only does it find use for all that beautiful summer squash at the markets, it uses leftover chicken if you have it, or a rotisserie chicken if you don't. And it calls for only the white meat so you can use the rest in a casserole (or enchiladas like I did). But the best part of all, is that it doesn't require much cooking so it doesn't heat up that kitchen.

Summer Squash and Chicken Salad over Spinach
serves 2

2 cooked chicken breasts halves
4 summer squash (I used 2 crook neck, 1 pattypan, and 1 zucchini)
1 bag of baby spinach
5 slices of red onion
1/2 C cubed fontina cheese (or other mild, soft cheese..smoked gouda would be nice)
1/4 C olive oil
juice from one lemon
finely slivered fresh mint and basil

Slice 4 summer squashes lengthwise, into 1/4 inch strips. Toss with olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper and set aside. Remove the breasts from a cooked chicken and slice across the grain. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a medium non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the squash and all the juice and saute for about 5 minutes, or until crisp tender. Remove from heat.

Lay baby spinach leaves on a large platter. Top with the squash first, then rings of red onion, sliced chicken breast, and cheese. Sprinkle over mint and basil and a drizzle more of olive oil and lemon juice, if desired. Grind some fresh pepper on top and serve.