Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fail to Plan...

I need a plan. Things are always better with one, right? At least I will have a direction, a goal, an idea of what the heck is supposed to come next. Though I am referring to the bigger picture, a plan for my dinners the next few nights wouldn't hurt either. Take last night, for example. A plan would have helped me get something edible, if not delicious, on the table. But after driving up and down the freeway for two straight hours, dropping and dropping and retrieving and retrieving little boys from baseball practice, all I could do was pour myself a bottle of wine...I mean a glass (or two). The kids ate quesadillas with hunks of watermelon (again) and we ate, though I am deeply ashamed to admit it, Panda Express, which wasn't half bad (I must have been really hungry).

So this morning, in between getting a filling re-filled (popcorn kernel incident) and walking my stinky, but adorable, shaggy dog, I will make a menu and grocery list, just like the organized and responsible housewife I'm supposed to be. If you like printable lists to help you stay on track, check here. Or if you are like me, maybe you just scratch a list out on the back of your kid's old homework page (reduce, reuse, recycle). Gotta do what works for you, right? Just make sure you have a chance to use that list before you recycle it...not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.

When all is said and done, here is what my menu plan for the weekend is shaping up to be.

Thursday: Grilled chicken and sesame noodle salad

Friday: Pizza of some sort, maybe on the grill if it's too hot to heat my oven

Saturday: Grilled sausages that my dad is bringing from a little butcher near his house in northern California, broccoli salad and pasta salad

Sunday: Fresh pasta with fresh f.m. veggies

Four day's worth of meals is about all I have in me. Plus, hopefully I will be inspired by my purchases at the farmers' market on Sunday morning...that is, if I can make it. My son has a baseball playoff game that starts at 8 a.m. which is highly disturbing to say the least. Drive-thru Starbucks here I come.

Tonight's sesame noodle salad is perfect for a hot evening. There is just the right amount of creamy peanut flavor to temper the heat of the chilis, and the fresh veggies keep it light and fresh. It will be perfect with our grilled chicken (that has a soy balsamic marinade...I'll share that another time).

Sesame Noodle Salad
serves 4

1 pound spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
1 head broccoli, separated into small florets
12 oz. sugar snaps, de-stringed and cut in half
5 scallions, cut diagonally
1/2 C peanut butter
1/4 C red wine or rice wine vinegar
1/4 C soy sauce
1 t sesame oil
1 t chili garlic paste
1 T freshly grated ginger
1 clove of garlic, minced or grated
1 T toasted sesame seeds
1/4 C hot water from pasta pot

Cook pasta according to directions on package. Meanwhile whisk peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili paste, ginger and garlic in a small bowl. Set aside.

When pasta is finished cooking, drain in a colander. Add broccoli to boiling pasta water and cook until crisp tender (about 1-2 minutes). Remove and set aside. Add snap peas and cook for one minute. Remove and set aside. Toss pasta with peanut sauce in a large bowl. Add veggies and toss well. Sprinkle top with sliced scallions and sesame seeds. If pasta seems very sticky, add up to 1/4 C of hot water from pasta pot. Toss again. Let cool to room temp and serve.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Some days are heavy days and it seems like there isn't much reason to smile. We've been having a lot of those lately. But this too shall pass, as the saying goes. In the mean time, I look to the garden for some of the things that bring me joy.

Like my boysenberry brambles I planted a few years back. They have recovered from a butcher job by my semi-competent mow and blow guy and it looks like we should have quite a few this year....

And ladybugs...They are the guardians of my roses and are consequently much guarded by me. Just ask the neighborhood kids. Ladybug theft is punishable by...well, let's just say that some kids have learned that lesson the hard way. And notice the small praying mantis to the ladybug's right? I didn't see it until after I looked at the picture on my computer screen. I love those too.

And daises...these flowers are so bright and carefree. I am happy I have a shady spot for these in my back yard.

And my rapidly growing tomatoes...They have grown feet in a matter of weeks. In that way they are much like my kids, or at least it seems that way.

Though dandelions are much maligned, the greens are quite nutritious (yet bitter). I personally like them for their puffs of promise. Pluck them and make a wish. I did...and I hope it comes true!

My roses, over thirty shrubs and climbers now, fill my garden and my vases from April through December with their fragrance and beauty.

I'm thrilled to see my morning glory vine blooming this year after a hard frost two winters ago nearly killed it.

And don't forget bees! With all the worry about CCD (colony collapse disorder), it's nice they are alive and well and buzzing in my garden.

And finally, lots of lizards...they crack me up with the way they do their push ups. We have a ton in the walls, on the house, on the sidewalks. The dog and cat are especially fond of chasing them, but luckily for the lizards, they haven't yet had any success.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Forgotten Dessert

The block party was a huge success and everybody had a great time. New neighbors were introduced, old neighbors swapped gossip...I mean stories, and children ran around playing games like hide-and-seek and eating way too many sweets. Miss Della brought out her chocolate fountain, and my oldest son, by the end of the evening, had managed to wipe his chocolate-smeared face with the back of his hand and then his t-shirt. Another neighbor boy, sticky and oozing s'more in hand, informed his mother that he was heading into our house to watch TV with our kids. Um...I don't think so. I just washed my WHITE couch's slipcover (due to an unnoticed bleeding knee incident, but that's another story altogether). There were two boxes of mini red velvet cupcakes brought from a gourmet cupcake bakery (and I don't even want to know how many of those my kids ate), in addition to all the cookies, the caramel corn and rice crispy treats. Suffice it to say, there were plenty of desserts packing the tables and I forgot to bring out my berry crisp. A minor tragedy that ended up being a boon because I will just bring it to my mom's house for dessert tonight.

I'm pretty picky when it comes to crisps. In the fall, I prefer the crumbs to have lots of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nuts and oats, which are a perfect compliment to fall fruits like apples and pears. But with spring and summer fruits, I never, ever use oatmeal or brown sugar because the flavors seem too heavy and earthy for the delicate nature of rhubarb, berries, cherries, peaches and plums. So this is my spring/summer crisp recipe. It is almost cobbler-like, and tastes much like a crunchy sugar cookie that is lying atop a luscious sweet-tart sea of molten berries. Vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream is a must. It's adapted from a recipe by Marion Cunningham in my much loved and consequently much splattered Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

Summer Fruit Crisp
serves 6

4 C spring or summer fruits (berries, stone fruits)
1/4 C sugar
1 T corn starch
1 t lemon zest
pinch of salt

1 C flour
1 C sugar
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Toss fruit (I used blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries) with sugar, cornstarch, pinch of salt and lemon zest. Pour into a greased 8 inch baking dish.

Whisk together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Add egg and stir with a fork or mix with your fingers until coarse, shaggy crumbs appear. Sprinkle over fruit in pan and then pour over melted butter, spreading with the back of a spoon or your fingers. Bake for 20-30 minutes until deep golden brown. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Weekend in Pictures

Dressing up. Like I said regarding holidays....we don't mess around when it comes to decorations and food. So early Saturday, we set to work with flags, patriotic bunting and fan banners. A block party will be right in front of our house and I hope this will help set the mood.

A dinner party with friends. Lots of laughter, lots of kids, lots of unbelievable stories and lots and lots of food, prepared by Rob and Liana, who happen to be amazing cooks and friends. That makes us doubly lucky.

Fun with bubbles. I was inspired to write yet another haiku, poems which can be moving and random at once. That said, mine is definitely more the latter...

Rainbow in a sphere

Flying, soaring through the air

Fleeting beauty pops.

A block party. We have the friendliest neighbors and always have several parties throughout the year. This year, as always, a fleet of grills and chimineas are assembled curbside. As is the tradition, folks grill their own main course and bring side dishes to share. For us, that means grilled sausages with homemade pickle relish, potato salad and berry crisp. And s'mores...can't forget the s'mores. And the mojitos.

And on this Memorial Day holiday, I feel extraordinarily proud of the men and women who have served this country and deeply grateful for their sacrifices. I hope and pray for peace in this land and in those faraway places that are so gravely impacted by violence and war.

Friday, May 22, 2009

BLT Pizza

In honor of the CPK (or California Pizza Kitchen) that is opening on Monday within walking distance of my house, and our Pizza Friday tradition, I decided to make BLT pizza tonight. Their version is pretty good, with crisp, shredded, mayonnaise-dressed, iceberg lettuce on top, but mine is better. At least I think so. Mostly because I know where all the ingredients came from, made it myself, and ate it on my back deck surrounded by chirping birds, cool breezes and the people I love the most. And honestly, the total cost to make it was probably less than $5 and we didn't have to wait in an unruly line to be seated and served by a newbie waitstaff.

To call it a recipe would be presumptuous, because it's really just a simple cheese pizza with a salad on top. But I'll give you the basic method here, and as always, feel free to give it your own unique spin.

BLT Pizza

one recipe of your favorite pizza dough
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 clove garlic, grated
1 T oil
handful chopped fresh basil, or 1 T dried
8 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/2 pound baby lettuce
3 T mayonnaise (Hellman's or Best Foods is fine)
2 t white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1 C cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Preheat oven to 500 degrees for one hour with a pizza stone on the bottom rack. Let dough rise according to package direction (or at room temp for one hour). Carefully stretch dough to approximately a 14 inch circle and set on a floured surface or parchment paper. Do not roll out, or you will smoosh it and it will be flat, but rather grasp the edges and turn it around as if you are turning a steering wheel. If the dough isn't stretching easily, let it rest for another 15 minutes, covered with a damp cloth. Cover with a cloth and let it rest while you make the tomato sauce.

In a small saucepan, heat 1 T olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and stir, then add tomato sauce and basil. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat. I use this simple sauce on nearly all my tomato-sauced pizzas.

Spread about half of the tomato sauce onto stretched dough. Top with shredded cheese and using a pizza peel, carefully lift and slide out onto the heated stone (or bake in a floured pizza pan on top of the stone). Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is a dark golden brown. Remove from oven.

In a large bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, vinegar and salt and pepper. Toss in lettuce and tomatoes. Sprinkle on top of pizza, along with crumbled bacon. Slice into wedges and serve.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Naughty by Nature

I was a model citizen growing up. I always followed the rules (and made sure everyone else did too), always got perfect grades, and always tried really hard to please the adults in my life. The times I did make mistakes are singed into my memory, like a brand on a bull's rump. There was the time I got in trouble for bringing ranch dressing onto the school bus and the driver came unhinged and screamed at me. I also remember the time I recorded over a book on tape from the library, and how I had to apologize to the librarian. And the time I stole gum from the market (my mom made me give it back.) And the time I was busted for coercing the younger neighbor kids to write bad words with a sharp nail into the wet stucco of new construction nearby...really, really bad words. And how I was introduced to the concept of Karma when I faked being sick so I could stay in bed and read, but ended up really breaking out in the Chicken Pox that very same day. Boy, now that I read that laundry list, I'm not so sure I was the good girl my memory tells me. Well, at least I was a whole lot better behaved than my sister...

Actually, despite all that, mostly I did what was right. My only real teenage rebellion, was when I became a born again Christian in high school, which drove my agnostic parents crazy (and subsequently started dating the pastor's son...I hope you all warn your daughters about PKs...very dangerous indeed). But all in all, it could have been much, much worse.

That probably explains why as an adult, I get a sick thrill out of breaking popular cultures so-called 'rules' and doing things differently, like breastfeeding for eternity, and having babies at home, and eating healthy, organic foods when everyone else seems to subsist on fast food dinners. It's pathetic, I know, but I feel especially wicked when I don't follow recipes exactly, when I take an idea and hijack it to become my own and best the so-called experts with their fancy test kitchens. But I do it all the time, and it gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. It all starts with the art of improvisation, not being afraid to try new things, and most importantly, not being afraid to fail. Believe me, I make the occasional bomb too. But by and large, I'm pleasantly surprised with the food I prepare in my kitchen and am especially proud when it is entirely of my own creation.

Which brings me around to my dinner tonight. I made it with chicken and green beans, but if you have pork and asparagus, that would work too. Or shrimp and zucchini, or beef and bell peppers, or tofu and snap peas. The point is, is that you should have confidence in your cooking and understand that recipes are meant to be adapted to suit your mood (or what is in your refrigerator). That being said, it is important to follow most baking recipes exactly. Baking is much more about proper chemistry than a stir fry is.

I bought some beautiful garlic, ginger, red spring onions and green beans (I know...already?!?) at the farmers' market on Sunday. Chopped up and stir fried in a fermented black bean sauce, it made a simple, yet interesting weekday dinner. My kids (well the two that weren't at baseball) inhaled this dish, even though it was a bit spicy. And the basic sauce and method would translate well to whatever veg and protein combination you can imagine...probably.

Generally I find Martha's methods cumbersome, and just an excuse to dirty yet another dish, but her advice on how to peel ginger is really handy. If you press the edge of a spoon into the skin of a fresh ginger root, it peels right off, along with the stringy part. It's much easier than using a peeler or knife (and safer too, at least for me). To quickly cool the green beans, she often recommends an ice bath. For me, that just means one more dish to wash. So I dump them out into the colander, top with a few ice cubes and run cool water over it. It seems to work just fine...and personally, I'd rather have slightly overcooked beans than have to wash another dish. But, I always take my beans out when they are still pretty crisp, and not at all soft.

Chicken and Green Bean Stir-fry with Black Bean Sauce
serves 4

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
1 pound green beans, trimmed into two inch segments
1 bunch of spring onions, sliced on the diagonal
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1, inch segment of ginger, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
1/2 large jalapeno, minced (seeds removed if you don't like it too spicy)
2 T Black Bean and Garlic Sauce
canola oil

Sauce: In a small bowl, mix together 3/4 C broth (whatever you have is fine), 2 T soy sauce, 1 t sugar, 3 T dry sherry, and 2 t cornstarch.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add green beans and blanch for 2-3 minutes or until crisp tender. Drain in a colander and top with a few ice cubes. Run some cold water over the top to stop the cooking.

Heat 2 T oil in a large skillet, dutch oven or wok. When it is almost smoking add the ginger, give it a stir then add the onions, garlic and jalapeno. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the black bean sauce, along with the chicken. Stir fry until chicken is cooked through, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in sauce and cook for 2 more minutes, or until thick and glossy.

Serve with plenty of hot rice, and some chili garlic paste on the side if you are really feeling rebellious.

Monday, May 18, 2009

At Market...Zucchini Blossoms

There is a true champion of summer, an over-achiever and vigorous grower that is so easy to start from a tiny seed, pushed down into a mound of soil as soon as it's warm enough. Its savory fruits, yes fruits, we eat eagerly at first, hungry for a taste of the season. We like them grilled, sauteed, baked, stuffed, and even raw. We're thrilled when they first appear in our gardens and in the farm stands, and it seems as if we will never tire of them. But we do eventually, and they sit, unattended on the vines, growing to gargantuan sizes. As summer reaches its peak, there is a holiday for this special variety of produce, celebrated each year on August 8th, called Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day, created to help us rid ourselves of the burden so much wasted food.

But fortunately, we are early days yet, and the zucchini and other squash at the market are small and tender, easily prepared, and we haven't nearly had our fill. Though I enjoy the succulent flesh of a young squash, my very favorite part of the plant is the blossom. Goldenrod yellow, faintly floral in flavor, yet not as dainty as other edible flowers (like pansies or nasturtium blossoms), their subtle squash essence holds up well in pasta dishes, soups and on top of pizzas. There are many recipes for stuffed squash blossoms which are typically filled with some sort of cheese, battered, then deep fried, but I usually prefer a lighter preparation. Gently sauteed and added to fresh pasta, along with the baby zucchini to which they were attached, they make for a wonderfully fresh and fast summer meal.

This simple pasta dish really accentuates the lovely colors and mild flavors of the zucchini blossoms. I think it would have been much better with fresh pasta, but time was of the essence, and I had to use what I had on hand. You can make your own, of course, or buy it. Just make sure that the pasta contains eggs for added richness and depth of flavor. The base of this dish would also make for a wonderful risotto. Another important tidbit to know when working with zucchini blossoms is that it is necessary to open each one, check for creepy crawlies, and give them a good rinse just in case. A tightly closed blossom makes for a wonderful hiding place, don't you agree? This recipe is adapted from one posted by Molly of Orangette.

Zucchini Blossom Pasta
serves 4

1 pound of your favorite fresh or dried egg pasta, cooked according to package directions
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 T minced shallot
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 carrot, diced
salt and pepper
2 C quality vegetable stock
1 pinch of saffron threads, crushed
10 baby zucchinis with blossom attached, rinsed thoroughly (inside blossom) and halved lengthwise
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Reserve 2 blossoms and slice thinly for garnish.

Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic, carrots, and salt and pepper and saute, stirring frequently until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Pour in vegetable stock and add saffron and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until reduced to 3/4 C, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat another 1 T olive oil in another large skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini and saute, until zucchini is tender and golden brown, about 7-9 minutes. Turn off heat.

When pasta is finished cooking, remove it from the pot with tongs or a spider and add to the skillet with the reduced vegetable stock. Toss to coat. Add zucchini and toss again. If pasta seems dry or sticky, add a tablespoon or more of the pasta cooking water to loosen. Pour out into large serving bowl and top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and reserved sliced blossoms. Serve immediately.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Weekend in Pictures

This was our weekend.

Good friends, good food, and good fun.

It was way too hot.

By the way, the recipe for the delicious grilled chicken, asparagus and potatoes can be found here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Food, Inc.

The movie Food, Inc. is coming out in a few weeks. I hope you have the chance to see it. To whet your appetite, so to speak, watch the trailer, narrated by Michael Pollan, below.

And I hope you all have a wonderful weekend. I am off to the ballfield again. Yes, again. And again on Sunday. But at this point, who's counting?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Just Roll With It

You probably have already realized this, but if you haven't, I feel I should come clean about a few things. First of all, there has been a frightening paucity of actual cooking going on in my house, which is hilarious, given that I supposedly live for it...well, that and the eating part. And second, my heart and mind have a severe eastward bearing, as if there is a giant magnet pulling me along. These two things, coupled with a ridiculous baseball schedule (yes we are STILL playing and I get to be at the baseball field for five (5!!) hours tonight), make for some interesting dinner preparations.

So tonight, to continue on my path of actual non-cooking, and my Cape Cod mentality, I will be making lobster rolls to take along to the ball games. Those frozen langostino tails I have told you about from Trader Joe's are actually pretty good. Tender, not at all fishy, and quite lobster-esque in flavor, they will hopefully help satisfy my yen until I can eat an actual lobster, in about a month (hopefully).

Disturbingly, the west coast fails to appreciate the beauty that is the top split hot dog bun, which I have come to love. Instead we must make due with the ones that are slit through the side, or pay a dollar each for unsliced buns from Bristol Farms. Each year at the end of the summer, I stock up on a few bags of top split buns, and hope they make it home relatively undamaged. There they wait in the freezer and are whipped out whenever I need a taste of my home away from home. The flavor is exactly the same, but the east coast kind have nice tall sides that can be toasted in butter, which is an essential component of a good lobster roll. These toast okay too, but instead of having crisp sides, as is usual, you get a crisp buttery top and bottom. We'll suffer through it.

Though there are many variations on the classic, I prefer them prepared simply. Mayonnaise, slivers of celery and a pinch of salt and pepper are all you really need. If I'm feeling really crazy, I might throw in a chopped green onion or some fresh dill, but usually I'm not. And the lobster should be a good mix of tail and claw meat, not left in huge chunks, but not chopped up small either. I will make a real version for you this summer. But for now, the langostino tales and side split buns will have to make do. If I close my eyes, I might be able to imagine that I am eating the real thing, and instead of sitting at my sons' little league games, I'm sitting at the high school ball field watching some good Cape League baseball. Go Y-D Red Sox!

P.S. I apologize in advance for the increasing frequency of postings about Cape Cod. It is only going to get worse...just wanted to give you the heads up!

Makeshift (or Desperate Times) Lobster Roll
makes 4

Melt some butter (1 T) in a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add the buns (4) and brown on each side. Toss 12 ounces of thawed langostino tails (or cooked lobster or cooked chopped shrimp) with 1/2 C mayonnaise, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, 1 stalk of slivered celery, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Open bun and add a layer of baby lettuce. Pile in langostino salad and carefully wrap in parchment paper. Bring along to your sons' baseball games and close your eyes as you eat it. You just might be able to imagine you are eating the real thing somewhere where the real thing is served. Relax and smile. You'll be there soon enough.