Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Homage to the Humble Bramble

For this city girl, it’s been quite a year. My move to the country has been more than a major geographic relocation; it has also been a psychological and emotional shift. I am reminded of that each time I walk out my door and clip an herb or pick a berry.

I’ve always appreciated excellent fruits and vegetables and certainly prefer shopping organic when possible. But, in my flawed thinking, produce would always be on my market shelf, I might pay more for it, but that was the height of my inconvenience. I had not made the actual connection between my daily food supply and the earth from which it came.

Now, living closer to the land I am fascinated by the order and rhythm of nature; I’m awed by nature’s systematic abundance. How miraculous, the seasonal process of a mere sprout shooting from the earth, manufacturing new branches and leaves, buds and blossoms, and finally bearing its own sweet and succulent fruit, with little assistance on my part!

Early in the season, my neighbor next door warned me about our shared blackberry bushes. Apparently, in the past their invasive brambles have gotten wildly out of control, choking everything in their path. I couldn’t bear to completely eliminate them, so I promised to scrupulously monitor their growth and maintain only the tiniest little patch.

And so, it has become a ritual and my joy to regularly oversee my little patch of berries, to marvel at their ability to thrive, to snip when necessary, and to happily harvest a bowl of ripe fruit for later sharing and enjoyment. I have discovered there is nothing better than fresh berries straight up, or perhaps topped with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream.

This past weekend on a regular inspection with bowl in hand, I dipped and peered at my thorny bushes looking for more berries. I was perturbed and deeply mystified to admit that my seemingly endless supply was apparently drying up! How could that be? Barely able to glean a full cup of fruit, I sadly noted this year’s best berry days were gone for good.

Back in the kitchen, it was only right to pay final homage to my beloved blackberry patch. With such a limited offering, I pulled out my most suitable companions, two large tart apples, and set about making a beautiful and appropriate tribute, an old-fashioned Apple Berry Crisp.

Apple Berry Crisp

1 pound tart apples, 5 cups peeled, cored and sliced bite sized
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup blackberries
Topping1/3 cup flour, divided
1/3 cup oats
1/3 cup brown sugar
pinch salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter, cut up
2 tablespoons canola oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9" oven proof bowl or pie dish.

In large bowl, toss apples with lemon juice and orange juice, sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, and 1 Tbsp of flour. Toss to coat. Place in baking dish and bake about 15 minutes, to pre-cook while preparing topping.

In same mixing bowl, mix oats, remaining flour thru spices; work in butter until mixture forms clumps; then add oil and distribute evenly. Gently add the blackberries to the partially cooked apples and crumble topping evenly over fruit.

Bake until top is golden and crisp, 30 - 35 minutes. Serve warm with cream or ice cream.
Serves 4-6. ~~

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Green and Glorious

The buzz at our Farmers' Market this past week was all about the baby tomatoes at Quail Ridges’ booth. To prove their point, samples of 5 or 6 different heirloom baby tomatoes were neatly lined up for side-by-side comparisons.

Of all, I was most smitten by the baby green tomatoes. Perhaps it was their vibrant green color that threw me off, but I was not prepared for the flavor that burst forth as I popped one in my mouth. This little ball of dead ripe dynamite utterly exploded with sheer tomato essence!

Still reeling, I wandered over to Grateful Harvest’s booth and blankly asked Jessie about those funny looking green beans she was fussing over. It always amazes me how patient our vendors are, repeating the same information over and over as if it were the first time. With a sweet smile, Jessie explains that these Italian flat beans may look tough, but they are quite tender and cook in a flash.

At home much later, it occurs to me that I have all the makings for a delicious fall pasta "primavera". One quick bite of a Romano bean tells me Jessie was right: these are so tender they will cook in a hurry!

Since this will be shades of a stir fry, I begin by bringing the pasta water to a boil. I sauté the veggies and add winter savory, my current favorite herb. It ties the fresh green flavor of the beans and the earthiness of the mushrooms together into a lovely package; the jewel-like baby green tomatoes are left whole for mouth popping entertainment. Yes, the pasta creates the perfect canvas for these beauties to shine and clearly begs for cheese. Ricotta salata, my choice, plays an active role here; if not available, feta would be another good option.

Pasta with Romano Beans, Mushrooms and Baby TomatoesFor a special finish, sprinkle this “primavera” with sauteed bread crumbs flavored with garlic and herbs
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
½ Walla Walla sweet onion, cut into long strips
3/4 pound broad beans, trimmed and diagonally cut in 1 1/2" lengths
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, stemmed, sliced
1 cup baby tomatoes, red, green, or any color as available
1 teaspoon fresh savory
1/2 teaspoon salt and red pepper flakes to taste
1 teaspoon fresh oregano
1/2 pound fettuccine or linguine
1/2 cup ricotta salata, 1/4" slice and cut into 1" strips
fresh oregano for garni

Begin by bringing salted pasta water to a boil. When water is boiling, add pasta and cook until al dente, approx. 10 minutes. Drain, reserving @ 1/2 cup of hot pasta water, and rinse.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp oil in large sauté pan over medium high heat, add onion and cook briefly til aromatic. Add cut beans and stir fry until just tender, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic, then the savory; cook 3-4 minutes til mushrooms begin to release their liquid. Stir in the tomatoes and heat well.

Place the rinsed pasta pot back over medium heat, heat the remaining tbsp or oil, and add the drained pasta. Toss the pasta to coat with olive oil and season with salt, red pepper, and oregano. Add the sauteed veggies and combine lightly. Add the ricotta salata and heat well. Garnish with the fresh oregano if desired. Serves 2 as entree, 4 as a starter or side. ~~

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bowling for Lettuce

Prowling about our local Farmers' Market recently, my eyes were suddenly transfixed upon the enchanting baskets freshly displayed at Fern Ridge Nursery’s booth, heads of red and green lettuce formed into lush hanging gardens, utterly dripping in natural abundance.

No question, this was a must have: a veritable bowl of instant salad to smartly grace my rear deck, only steps from my kitchen door. I envisioned self languishing on deck, fabulous lettuce positioned nearby, scissors casually poised, a small stylish dish of flavored olive oil on the ready for dipping. A snip, a dip, a knowing nod, too charming for words!

Moments later, puffed as the proud owner of a new pet dangling from its leash, I strutted off with my prize, handling instructions attached:

“Harvest outer leaves.
Inner leaves will continue to grow allowing you to enjoy fresh salads for weeks!”

Truth is, my lettuce basket was so beautiful, I could hardly bear to snip its perfect leaves, I could only stare for two days.

It took an arm load of zucchini, sweet peppers and red onions to shake my trance and thrust me into action. Fridge staples of Kalamata olives, pepperoncini, and a coveted block of Greek feta made it a no-brainer.

It was time to grill!

Grilled Greek Salad
A satisfying summer meal, with enough additional marinade to baste a small amount of fish, chicken, pork or beef .

2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt and dried red pepper flakes
3/4 cup olive oil
Grilled Vegetables
2 medium red onion, cut into 3/4-inch rounds
3 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise into thick slices
3 small yellow squash, cut lengthwise into thick slices
2 medium red bell peppers, cut into 2" wide pieces
2 medium green bell pepper, cut into 2" wide pieces
10 cups mixed lettuce
1/4 cup fresh herbs, such as oregano, marjoram, mint, dill; more for garni
1 cup red baby tomatoes
1 cup Greek feta cheese, large crumble
1 cup Kalamata olives
1/2 cup pepperoncini pepper, slices
additional accompaniments: radishes, cucumber, grilled bruschetta

Prepare dressing/marinade, whisking in olive oil to emulsify.

Prepare grill and when coals are glowing: brush vegies with marinade and grill to mark on each side, about 4 minutes per side, do not over cook. Grill bread if making bruschetta, brushing with additional dressing if desired.

Assemble salad: arrange grilled items attractively on top of lettuce and fresh herbs, garnish as above. Pass dressing. Serves 4 as entree.~~

Thursday, September 4, 2008

American as… Bodacious Corn

Last year at this time, corn was just corn. In the south, they grow it sweet and it all passed my lips in a hurry, unnamed. Back then, I liked to strip the husk back and remove the silk. I’d place the moist rewrapped corn in the microwave for about 3 minutes. When it was steaming I’d remove the husk and quickly sear the kernels on the grill, then drizzle with a little lime juice, maybe some chili flakes.

It was Michael Pollen’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, that underscored for me the fundamental importance of corn in this country. I understood that it was an early American staple shared by the Indians and early settlers; I got the historical significance.

What I failed to appreciate was corn as the American success story, of its incredible impact on the industrial age. Once it was discovered in a lab that a slight alteration of corn’s genetic composition could make it more abundant, more useful, it wasn’t long before the revolution kicked into high gear. Corn’s affordability and versatility made it the darling of industry; corn was everywhere: in sugars, oils, cereals and other convenience foods; in plastics, packaging and fuel. For a country hungry for beef, it was the prime feed for cattle. Corn was no longer just a vegetable; it was a commodity capable of influencing national economic policy.

On my cross country trip this year, catchy signs would appear along the road side for ‘Bodacious Corn!’ They were usually situated at the most inconvenient times, when I had no desire to stop and inquire. I would press on in my westerly direction, and continue to muse. Bodacious? Corn? What does that mean? Was it some sort of local mythology? An incomplete ad for Burma Shave?A corny joke, perhaps?

Now, here in Oregon, I’ve been told all about Bodacious corn and the debate rages on. Considered by some ‘hands down the most superior corn available’; it’s easy to grow, big, fat, juicy and absolutely delicious; it keeps and freezes quite well. Referred to as a triple sweet variety, it is considered cutting edge in corn breeding technology.

Good gracious, it’s Bodacious! Only in America.

Garden Cornbread
Practically a meal, this low fat veggie laden beauty is moist and portions easily thanks to the secret ingredient: couscous.

1 tablespoon butter, divided
3 scallions, chopped
1/2 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup or more fresh corn kernels, 1 large ear
2 tablespoons pepperoncini, slices
3/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup couscous grains
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line and spray 8" square pan.

Spray a medium skillet and melt 2 tsp butter over medium low heat. Add the scallion and peppers; cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the oregano and corn; cook 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat and add pepperoncini.

Sift flour, baking powder, soda and cornstarch into a bowl; add the salt, sugar, cornmeal and couscous and combine evenly. Stir in buttermilk and eggs with a few strokes, then stir in vegetables, do not over mix.

Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake until set and almost done, about 15 minutes; brush top lightly with remaining butter, melted. Remove from oven when puffed and golden, about 20 minutes.
Serves 4-6. ~~

Chili-fied Lentils with Corn
Inspired by Didi Emmons’ Entertaining for a Veggie Planet

For a meat version, substitute about ½ pound cooked ground beef for pumpkin seeds

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
28 ounces can diced or crushed tomatoes, with juice
2 cups lentils, green or brown
4 chipotles in adobo, or see note below
2 cups water, up to 4 cups or more
2 tablespoons cornmeal
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/3 cups corn kernels, @ 1-2 ears
1 cup pumpkin seeds, roasted, toasted, chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
accompaniments: green onion and yogurt crema, pickled red onions, cilantro

In large pot sauté onion in olive oil; when soft add garlic, cumin and coriander, and sauté til aromatic. Stir in tomatoes, the lentils, chipotles and 2 cups water and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer adding water as needed as it thickens; cook 40 minutes. Stir in additional 1 cup water plus 2 tbsp. cornmeal and simmer additional 10 minutes or longer, until lentils are soft and it has thickened. Adjust seasoning, adding salt and pepper.

Add the corn kernels and heat through, about 2 minutes. Stir in cilantro and pumpkin seeds. Serve in bowls topped with sour cream, more cilantro, and a few more seeds. Serves 6. ~~

Note: if chipotles in adobo are unavailable: substitute 3-5 dried peppers, plus 1 tbsp each smoked paprika, chili powder and cider vinegar; and a pinch cinnamon.


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