Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Green is my Valley... or Dash and Dine

You could argue I live in a valley.   The McKenzie River courses through the mountains outside my window and leaves behind a narrow fertile swath of land I now call home.  Just around the corner, an organic farm has a roadside stand frequented by locals and travelers looking for fresh produce on their way over the mountain.  Small farms and ranches dot the landscape. There are pick your own blue berries, holly and Christmas trees sites, and even a lavender farm started up not too long ago. 

Up early this morning and full of energy, I decide to pass on breakfast before my walk.  As I head out, my neighbor Len is puttering in his yard, watering his plants.
 “Morning!” he says, and drops his hose. He walks over to my herb garden and points out the cute bright red baby strawberries, ripe for the plucking.  We share our tiny crops with each other, and I snag a few for us both.  So French, adorable, and candy-like.
“There are more baby tomatoes,” he advises and hands me a couple which I drop into my shorts pocket.  “Green beans are ready; don’t forget to grab some since I won’t eat them.” It took me several conversations with Len to realize he has no teeth.   
“Great!  I’ll be over after my walk.”  I’m already thinking of a tempting recipe for Green Beans and Salsa I’ve wanted to try.    We chat a bit longer and catch up on the latest gossip.  He mentions one of his buddies wants to walk with me but can’t keep up.  I share that I walk to get my heart rate up, and his pal would rather talk than walk.  It’s time to press on.

This is my first walk since returning from my ten day trip to Texas, and my senses are already approaching overload.  I cut through the tall trees and head toward the path along the property. Normally I would hardly catch the aromatic scent of pine; but now, the perfume is so intense, I can feel it in my throat.  How could I not notice that? 

At the property line, this year’s crop of blackberry vines are drooping dangerously low – weighted down from the extreme mass of fat berries.  I stop in awe; so irresistible, I snag a few for sampling.  Sweet, warm and juicy! This calls for another taste.  I pull off another handful to savor.

I walk along the canal which flows out of the fish hatchery up river from us.  Colorful flowers are abundant on both sides of the levee:  tall stately thistles bloom amid Queen Anne’s lace, yellow daisies, and purple wildflowers.  The hazelnut trees to one side are looking good.  Judging from their husks, it won’t be long before they will be ready for picking.

One of my neighbors is standing on the bank, casting his rod into the canal.  He waves and tells me he has caught several cut throats already this morning.  This is all about catch-and-release, so I heartily congratulate him.  I’d rather hear about a trout with a sore mouth than in someone’s frying pan. 

 Up ahead, noisy crows are perched atop a row of blueberry bushes neatly planted along the organic farm’s fence line. Worthy of investigation, I move closer and note the bushes are loaded with plump, blue globes of goodness.  Clearly, an informational taste is in order, since these are my first of the season.  OMG!  These must be the best ever!  I join the crows and have at it. 

As I slowly get back on the trail, gingerly cupping another handful of berries, I am reminded of my own words uttered earlier to Len. What was that about heart rate, and fast walking?  I’m not even a quarter of the way through my walk!  I’m way behind!  

The good news is that I’m not late for breakfast.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Austin Adventures in Food

The Happy Couple
I’m back, still reeling, from an amazing trip to Austin, Texas and my daughter’s stellar wedding.  

It’s fortunate that Lola and Jameson found each other, for they are both thoroughly adventurous foodies.  Together they have embraced the Austin food scene ― from charcuterie to cheese and Hatch peppers to hot sauce.

They joyously clink their glasses over the most exceptional beer and wine while supporting the impressive array of locally grown fruits and vegetables made possible by the robust farm to table movement there.

So, of course, this trip could only be described as adventures in food on steroids.  We began our ten days of celebration with a quiet family brunch “for the mothers”.   Jameson would not share our destination, but we were forewarned when grandson Nick was advised to step it up a bit and change out of his standard workout gear.  

Nick admiring Pizza
The captivating complex of Soleil hangs on a bluff overlooking Lake Travis with a cool ambiance of re-purposed architecture and design.  The Italian-Mediterranean menu ranges from trout to soft-shelled crab, but since I was still on west coast time, I opted for something 'light':  a crusty wood-fired white pizza of prosciutto, figs, taleggio and gorgonzola cheeses, all lightly drizzled with honey and piled with arugula tossed in a lemon based vinaigretteWas it the view?  The company and occasion?  It was all an utterly sublime welcome to Austin!  With a hallmark beginning such as this, I had a hunch I’d best fasten my seat belt and hang on for a wild ride.
There was a whirlwind day of shopping in preparation for a pre-wedding ladies gathering.  Jameson was again leading the way and brought us to Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop.  Yes, one could cry out of sheer happiness:  a shop solely dedicated to the thrill of locally made hot sauce.   Tongues hardly recovered, we blasted on to Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, where we literally got in line for a flight tasting of legendary cheeses and first rate smoked products.  On top of our selection of aged gouda, creamy gorgonzola, goat cheese, chorizo and prosciutto, we added ciabatta, crunchy caramelized walnuts, and a little tupelo honey for ramdom drizzling. 

We were forewarned about a planned storming of the downtown food trucks.  Apparently there are two favored locations, and we opted for the smaller site:  a wise choice.  Right on the colorful old town city strip, as the searing sun finally shifted below the skyline, we jostled between Thai food, snow cones, mega cupcakes and other delights.  At The Mighty Cone, I struck a somewhat conservative choice with venison sausage in a cone, with mango slaw and horseradish mustard sauce.  What’s not to like with that combination?  The bread was eliminated and cleverly served in the cone-like cup with a bed of crunchy mango-jalapeno slaw, the perfect foil for spicy, juicy sausage, and topped off with the sweet-hot horseradish mustard sauce.  

A volume could be written on the wedding: it was unforgettable, stylish, and hilarious.  The reception took over three floors of the mythic Steiner Ranch Steak House with delicious flowing hors d’oeuvres, specialty wedding drinks, and a fabulous sit-down dinner.  Best part: a stunning bridal cake complete with a surprise layer of pineapple upside-down cake.

Another trip highlight which deserves mention was a visit to nearby Georgetown and a re-connect with high school classmate, Rory.  We smartly made no further plans and were happy to talk, laugh, and roam the historic downtown square of shops that surround the stately courthouse.  Situated in tree-covered foothills and home to Southwestern University, the surrounding community is classically charming― but still trying to find its way in the shadow of Austin and other threats.  Restaurants and shops seem to rotate in and out without much warning and the challenge of competing with invasive malls is taking its toll.  

We found our way to the Monument Café and Market.  In spite of hardships, they have managed to prevail and expand their operations.  In a new, larger location, they have added a garden to continue their philosophy of fresh organics.  Since they have long been supporters of local farms and suppliers, there’s also a beautiful well designed market on site for artisans and producers.

Shannon's Kobe Burger
There was another brunch; this one a farewell with close family members.  Lola suggested the Roaring Fork, which proved to be the perfect ending, as folks went on their separate ways.  Somehow I never had an occasion to try Kobe beef, and this was it.  A rare burger with thick slabs of smokey bacon, arugula and avocado, seemed the right over-the-top note to end on.  And so it was; like dreamy buttah. 

I could go on, and likely I will continue to make mention of the amazing food scene in Austin.  It’s important to note that while there, the temperature managed to stay at a record breaking 107 degrees, with no reprieve in sight.  Under severe drought conditions, the ground is blistered and cracking and fields are dead and brown.   Buildings are shifting and house foundations are sinking.    But, in true Texas spirit, they take it all in stride, and know they’ll get through this one, too. That's how they roll.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Winging it with Ricado

My new co-mother-in-law/friend, Helen, generously shared a popular seasoning blend called ricado brought back from a recent trip to Belize.  It was part of a requested stash located at a particular market for friends hungering for this traditional seasoning paste. 

Regional variations found throughout the Caribbean and Mexico characteristically feature achiote seeds, or its annatto pigment, which dyes the mixture red and gives meat or vegetables its distinctive red hue.  Belize’s spice mixture typically includes annatto, Mexican oregano, cumin, cinnamon, clove, black pepper, allspice, garlic, and salt.

The day Helen, my daughter, Shannon, and I decided to give our ricado a try, we had chicken wings on our minds and decided to see what would happen if we used the mild flavored paste as a rub.  The gorgeous results were infused with a mellow tropical touch.  We all agreed that a longer marinade would likely intensify the flavors.

We balanced out the wings with a big chopped salad and a thick bleu cheese dressing along with a huge platter of roasted red potatoes tossed with Montreal Steak Seasoning. Of course there was an assortment of wing and hot sauces for experimentation as well.  

·         1 cup ricado paste
·         ½ cup olive oil, or enough to thin into a rubbing sauce
·         4 lbs chicken wings

Combine the paste and olive oil and rub it generously into the chicken wings.  Let marinate several hours or overnight.
Bake in a hot oven or on a grill over medium hot coals until the skin crisps and the wings are well cooked, about 45 minutes. Pass wing sauce of choice for dipping. Serves 4 to 6. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

More on Grains, the Moroccan Way…

I’m a little reluctant to post this, because it’s complicated, but I will because it is so darned good! 
Plus, on my current path of including more grains and legumes in my summer menu planning this one really meets my criteria. 

Granted, in the evening a salad entrée typically doesn’t cut it for me―I’m hungry for something more substantial.  Holy ras el hanout!  This Moroccan creation has so much going on, and is so filling, it’s easy to forget it’s ‘just a salad’.   However, it requires a bit of forethought since there are several working parts:  a simple seasonal Spinach-Strawberry Salad; the centerpiece, an utterly amazing Moroccan Chickpea Barley Salad; and an easy Orange Mustard Dressing, which pulls it all together.   

Since there’s usually a back story to my cooking, I must digress here.  The inspiration for this fabulous meal comes circuitously by way of Elise at Simply Recipes where she features a version of the Moroccan Chickpea Barley Salad by her friend, Hank Shaw at Hunter, Angler, Gardner, Cook. 

 I can’t say enough about either of these sites.  Suffice to say, I follow them regularly and concur with their food philosophies and their support of sustainable practices.  In fact, Hank Shaw has a new cookbook out based on his blog.  It is a fascinating resource for anyone captivated by the idea of consuming more of nature’s bounty and the romance of ‘finding the forgotten feast’.

So if you are adventurous and ready for new dimensions in food, may I suggest this provocative, hearty, and stylish salad.  

Moroccan Chickpea Barley Salad
Source:  per SimplyRecipes, Elise, originates with Hank Shaw, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.

·         1 ½ cups barley
·         1 ½ cups chicken or veggie broth
·         1 ½ cups water
·         1 tsp salt
·         olive oil
·         1 – 15 oz. can chickpeas ( garbanzo beans) rinsed, drained
·         ½ cup hazelnuts or pistachios
·         2/3 cup dried apricots, or other dried fruit
·         ½ cup parsley, chopped
·         2-3 green onion, chopped
·         1 lemon, zest and juice
·         1 Tbsp ras el hanout spice mix (follows)
·         salt to taste

Elise’s Ras El Hanout Spice Mix
·         1 tsp black pepper
·         1 tsp cardamom
·         ½ tsp turmeric
·         ¼ tsp each: cayenne, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon
Orange juice to moisten, if necessary. 

Heat 1 tsp. olive oil in large pot, over medium high heat.  Add the barley and toast 3-4 minutes, stirring often.  Add the broth, water and 1 tsp salt.  Bring to simmer and cook until the barley is tender, 30-60 minutes. 

Strain the barley and run cold water over it to cool quickly.  Drizzle lightly with additional tsp or more olive oil to coat and toss with 1/3 to 1/2 of the ras el hanout spice.

In a large bowl add the chickpeas, nuts, apricots, green onions, and parsley, ½ of the remaining ras el hanout and mix well.  Add the lemon zest and juice and mix again.  Add the barley and gently combine.    Taste, add salt and additional spice blend if desired. 

Let the salad marinate for an hour or longer.  If the barley has absorbed all the oil, drizzle a little more oil or some orange juice over the salad to moisten.  Serves 6 to 8.

Delicious as a centerpiece with Spinach Strawberry Salad with Orange Mustard Dressing.

Spinach Strawberry Salad
·         8 cups spinach, cleaned and stemmed
·         ½ basket fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
·         Orange-Mustard Dressing (follows)
·         2 cups Moroccan Chickpea Barley Salad (see)
·         ½ cup toasted hazelnut
Toss the spinach with a light coating of dressing and plate.  Place the strawberries around the edge of the spinach.  Add approx ½ cup Moroccan Chickpea Barley Salad in center of each salad.  Sprinkle with additional hazelnuts, if desired.  Serves 4

Orange Mustard Dressing
This is a little obscure because of the uniqueness of Olive Grand’s Blood Orange Olive Oil, but I offer it here because it is so incredibly delicious.   This drop-dead fresh olive oil is a local find from Eugene’s own purveyors of artisan products.    Check them out at
·         1 tsp Thai Chile Garlic sauce
·         1 Tbsp Deli Mustard, whole grained
·         1 Tbsp Gulden’s spicy brown mustard
·         1 tsp sherry vinegar, or to taste
·         2 tsp blood orange olive oil or 1 tbsp flavored olive oil (see note below)

Combine the garlic sauce and the mustards; add the vinegar, whisk in the olive oil and adjust flavors as needed. 
Note:  If the blood orange olive oil is not available, substitute 1 Tbsp good quality EVOO, plus a tsp of grated orange zest and approximately 1 Tbsp orange juice.    Serves 4

Monday, August 8, 2011

Munch a Brunch of Egg Foo Young

Lately I’ve been living my Sundays in reverse order; that is, enjoying brunch at dinnertime.   You know, there’s something slightly decadent about ending the weekend with a lazy, relaxed spread featuring eggs and all the trimmings. 
Since I’m still on my lentil sprout kick, this past Sunday I faced the additional challenge of incorporating my burgeoning sprout supply into a brunch item.  One look at the odds and ends in the fridge and the brilliant idea of egg foo young emerged.

Exactly!  I’d simply replace the usual mung beans with my prize sprouts, and instead of frying up little individual pancakes, I’d create a big, fat frittata.   In no time, I had one opulent jumbo egg foo young cut into wedges and draped with a gingery Asian brown sauce.   

I’ve made a few wicked Spanish frittatas, but this crazy combination pushed all the right buttons and handily satisfied a sudden craving for Chinese take-out, too!  It’s a perfect night-time brunch― plenty of crispy veggies all bound together by eggs and humming with zingy garlic and ginger.  Of course, ham would be a nice addition in the omelet, or on the side. Try it with rice or couscous and a fresh fruit melange such as melons and strawberries. 

Egg Foo Young Frittata
Inspired by Rachel Ray’s Egg Foo Young  

·         2 tsp oil, divided
·         1 onion, sliced
·         1 large clove garlic, minced
·         ginger root, 1 tsp grated
·         1 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
·         ½ cup grated carrot
·         1 heaping cup cabbage or bok choy
·         1/2 cup sliced red pepper
·         3 scallions, chopped
·         1-2 cups lentil sprouts
·         8 eggs
·         salt and pepper

Brown Sauce
·         1 cup chicken stock or 1 bouillon cube and 1 cup boiling water
·         3 Tbsp soy sauce
·         1 tsp. Kitchen Bouquet
·         1 Tbsp cornstarch
·         1 tsp hot sauce
·         ½” thick slice ginger
·         dash red pepper flakes

In a 2 cup ovenproof measurer place brown sauce ingredients and stir to combine.  Heat the sauce in the microwave until thick and bubbly about 2 minutes.  Let stand while preparing frittata.

Coat bottom of oven proof sauté pan with oil and heat over medium heat, add the onion and sauté until soft; add garlic and ginger stir until aromatic; stir in the mushrooms and sauté until softened.  Add the carrots and, cabbage and cook until softened.  Stir in the scallions and remove the vegetables from heat and cool. 

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Have a plate handy that is larger than the width of the pan.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and add a bit of salt and pepper; stir in the mushroom mixture and the sprouts.  Wipe out the omelet pan, heat it over medium high heat and coat it lightly with oil. 
When the pan is hot, pour in the egg mixture and allow to set, lifting the edges and tilting pan so that egg liquid will run under the set eggs.

When the eggs begin to firm and bottom begins to brown remove from heat and with a spatula shift to loosen.  Cover the pan with the plate and flip the frittata onto the plate.  Quickly slip the frittata back into the pan browned side up.  Return the pan to the heat and repeat the process, cooking the bottom another couple of minutes.  The center will likely still be uncooked, place the pan in the oven for another 4 minutes to finish the frittata.  It will begin to puff up.  Cut it in wedges and serve with the brown sauce and garnish with cilantro. Serves 4

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ricotta Made Easy. Really?

It could be said that there isn’t much new when it comes to Pasta Marinara―especially with grilled vegetables.  Possibly even more uninteresting might be a lasagna lacking the gooey layers of cheese.

Well, that’s pretty much where we begin here:  a layered lasagna-like version where grilled vegetables are front and center and cheese layers are nearly non-existent. What makes this pasta newsworthy and exceptionally tasty is the homemade lemon ricotta cheese added after baking, instead of buried way inside.  Here, superb ricotta is a creamy condiment that crowns the pasta and elevates it to spectacular heights. 

Ricotta has always meant a special trip to the grocery store before making that special cheesecake, white pizza, or lasagna.  Then, in the cheese aisle I debate which ricotta to purchase, and why?   I usually recall that it isn’t the fat free variety ― they all resemble tasteless rubber.  So, it’s probably a low fat ricotta, but which one?  Some of those are pretty bad, too.   Good grief, it’s such a crap shoot. 

It hadn’t occurred to me that it might actually be easy to whip up a homemade batch of ricotta.  Having the convenience of fresh ricotta at my finger tips would certainly take all of the guess and gamble out of the equation.  Thanks to Cooking Light magazine, their simple ricotta offers the perfect solution, and even better, their secret ingredient is none other than low fat yogurt, an item I usually have on hand. 

Of course, there are a couple of caveats:  the yield/ratio to yogurt is about 1:1; plus, a fair amount of low fat milk is required.  I have found that making about a one cup quantity is a realistic return.

A few notes on procedures.  The process is made easy by using the microwave to heat the yogurt/milk mixture.   To strain the curd and whey, lining a sieve with coffee filters will make the subsequent cheese collection and clean up straight forward.  Also, the liquid left from the straining process has good nutritional value, and is a great addition to baked breads and such. 

Flavoring the ricotta also adds a whole new dimension, too, and in this particular dish lemon zest offers the perfect finishing touch.   So here you are, a truly exceptional layered penne with marinara and grilled vegetables regally crowned with homemade Lemon Ricotta.  Naturally, we’ll start with the ricotta!

Lemon Ricotta, Quick
Courtesy Cooking Light magazine, Aug 2011

·         2 cups 2% milk
·         ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, or other natural yogurt such as Nancy’s
·         2 tsp cider vinegar
·         1 ½ tsp grated lemon rind
·         1/4 tsp  coarse salt, divided

In a microwave safe 1-qt measurer combine milk, yogurt and vinegar; microwave on high for 4 minutes.  
Stir mixture to form small curds.  Strain into cheese cloth or a coffee filter lined sieve, and let stand for 5 minutes.  Discard liquid.
Scrape mixture into small bowl and stir in rind and ¼ tsp. salt.   Yield:  approx ½ cup, enough for 4 servings.  

Penne with Marinara, Grilled Vegetables and Fresh Lemon Ricotta

·         6 to 8 cups Marinara Sauce, approximate
·         1 eggplant, sliced.  Sprinkle with salt and allow to drain in colander for 20 minutes; pat dry
·         2 zucchini
·         2 yellow squash
·         3 cups whole wheat penne pasta, cooked in salted boiling water until al dente
·         ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
·         cooking spray for the grill
·         salt and pepper
 Lemon Ricottta and fresh mint

Prepare the marinara sauce, or have 6-8 cups on hand.

To grill vegetables:   
Prepare the grill to medium high or until coals are red hot.
Slice the eggplant, zucchini, squash and red onion into long ½” thick slices. 
Spray the eggplant slices on one side and lay sprayed side down onto clean grill over hot white coals.  When well marked, spray top side, and turn.  Remove when browned on both sides but not cooked through.
Spray, salt and pepper the zucchini, squash and red onions on one side; grill, spray, salt and pepper top sides and turn until all are seared but not cooked thoroughly.  Remove and cool.  Cut the vegetable into bite sized chunks

To assemble:  Spray or oil a Le creuset or other oven proof 2 ½ qt dish or pot, and spread about 1 cup sauce in the bottom.  Add half of the pasta, sprinkle with 1/3 of the cheese, top with half of the vegetables, and spread half of the remaining sauce over it.  Repeat with second layer of pasta, Parmesan, vegetables, and top with the remainder of the sauce and sprinkle with rest of the cheese.  This can all be done ahead at this point and refrigerated.

To bake:  Heat the oven to 325 degrees.  Place covered dish in center of oven and bake 60 to 90 minutes or until browned and bubbly. 

To serve:  place 2 cups hot pasta into 4 shallow bowls.  Sprinkle each serving with a few grinds of coarse salt and pepper; top each with 1-2 tbsp room temperature Lemon Ricotta Cheese and 1 Tbsp mint.  Serves:  6-8


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