Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sweet Gratitude, Sour Cherries

As I was gone on my Grand Northwestern Tour, my longsuffering roommate, Cyd, had to hold down the fort for some eight days, caring for all the creatures and keeping them and all the plants alive until my return. Also, she begrudgingly took me to the airport at 3:30 in the morning, and picked me up after a full day's work upon my return. So I figured I owed her a special thank-you gift.

We bought a couple of pints of fresh sour cherries from Trader Joe's on the way back from Maine, but since we also brought back wild blueberry pie from Maine, I didn't make a cherry pie before I left for my second of back-to-back vacations. So Cyd pitted the cherries and chucked them into the freezer until I got home. Now I have a good cherry crumb pie recipe already memorialized on this blog, but I sort of just made this one up as I went along. Naturally, Cyd said it was the best one I've ever produced, and maybe the best she's ever had. So I thought it best to try to recall what I did and preserve it in text.

One change I made was to try a different pie crust. When visiting old college chums in Boise on the first leg of my journey out west, my dear friend, Letha, made a couple of excellent quiches for brunch, and I was impressed by the homemade crusts. When I asked about them, she said it was the basic Betty Crocker recipe which had never failed her. Now I tend to favor half-and-half crusts, with butter for flavor and shortening for flakiness. The Betty recipe is strictly shortening, but as this pie has a buttery crumble topping, I think it worked very well together. I also took a note from Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet, and blind-baked the crust before making the filling. To paraphrase Ms. Reichl, fresh sour cherries are too fleetingly seasonal and precious to risk dishonoring them with a soggy crust underneath!

The other thing I did was probably a mistake. The cherries were still frozen and I was impatient, so instead of just cooking the juice with thickeners and adding the cherries right before filling and baking the pie, I thought I'd try cooking everything together. Well, as you may guess, the fresh cherries not only thawed, but quickly cooked down to mush. So I ended up adding a (drained) jar of Morellos from Trader Joe's so that the pie would have whole fruit in it. (If you don't have a TJ's near you, use a can or two of Oregon brand pie cherries.) Actually, having the two types of cherries may have added an extra layer of flavor, so maybe it was a tasty mistake!

The best thing about this pie was the crumbly topping. I consulted a few different recipes online, then made my own way with it. It threatens to be overly-sweet by itself, but when paired with the sourness of the pie cherries, it's just perfect. And the texture is along the lines of ground-up shortbread cookies. Yummy!

Sour Cherry Pie with Almond Crumble Topping

Pie crust was that Betty Crocker classic made by hand with a pastry blender:

1 cup all-purpose flour (I used half white whole wheat)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold vegetable shortening
2 to 3 tablespoons cold water (start with one tablespoon, then add a bit at a time until it just holds together)

Chill the dough for 45 minutes, then roll out and fit into a pie pan. Blind bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered for maybe another 10 minutes at 350 until a pale golden color and baked through.

Cherry Filling:

2 pints fresh sour cherries, pitted (and maybe another can or two/one jar of drained pie cherries)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons butter

Cook everything above until thickened. (Or better yet, cook everything BUT the cherries along with about a cup of juice, then add the drained cherries after the filling is thick.) Then add:

one jar of Trader Joe's Morello cherries, drained
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Pour into the blind-baked pie shell.

Almond Topping, mixed by hand with a pastry blender (crushing up the almonds as you go):

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup sliced, toasted almonds
6 tablespoons softened butter
pinch of cinnamon

Pile the crumbly topping evenly on top of the pie. Cover the edge with a pie shield or tin foil and bake about 40 minutes at 350 until the filling is bubbling up and the topping is GB&D. Let cool for at least two hours before cutting and serving.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

There's still time for a few more cookouts...

As I shared in my previous post, I attended a FABULOUS summertime party at my dear friends, John and Keith's house while I was visiting them in Oregon last week. Their back patio (that humble expression doesn't really do the space justice) is nothing short of a MAGNIFICENT entertaining space, and the guests were lovely, there was live music, the weather was fine, and the beer and wine were flowing freely. On top of all that merriment, there was a TON of food, and it was all amazing! I couldn't possibly detail all of the tasty offerings, but I do want to share a few simple, delicious potluck ideas from that gathering.

The item that was the big winner (first thing to go--two platters emptied in the blink of an eye!) was made by my dear friend, Mike. In rooting around John and Keith's fridge, we found a bag of those teeny, multi-colored sweet peppers. So instead of jalapeno poppers, Mike decided to use the sweet peppers and fill them with a spicy cream cheese mixture. And as Mike's motto is "Everything's better with bacon!" the filled peppers would be topped with bacon, then roasted in the boys' wonderful wood-burning oven out back. These were so good, I recreated them when I got back to New York so that my roomie, Cyd, could try them, too. In fact, they may become my new take-along party staple. You could prepare them ahead of time, and then just bake them off at the host's house.

Here is the method, though it's all but self-explanatory:

Buy a bag of those little colorful sweet peppers and slice them in half, removing any thick ribs and seeds. Then fill them with a mixture of softened cream cheese, fresh chopped herbs (we used parsley, oregano, and thyme), and a good hit of chipotle, hot sauce, sriracha, harissa or whatever spicy business you have on hand, and maybe some black pepper for good measure.

Then you fill the cavities of the little peppers, top with a third of a slice of good quality bacon, then roast on a cookie sheet at a very high temp (450) for 20-25 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp. For the vegetarians, skip the bacon, then finish with a drizzle of thick, aged balsamic when they come out of the oven.

The dish I made for the party was a simple cole slaw that I fashioned after one that I had at a great little coffee house called Rembrandt's in Boise (well, Eagle), Idaho during the first leg of my Grand Northwestern Tour. In addition to one of their incredible sticky buns, I ordered a sandwich, and my friend, Todd, who regularly frequents the shop, practically begged me to order their cole slaw on the side. But I don't really care for cole slaw as a general rule, so I got the potato salad instead. It was very good, with a hint of curry, but when Todd insisted that I try his cole slaw, I knew I had made a mistake. (Yes, naturally Todd took the opportunity to say, "I told you so!")

I don't know the actual recipe, but the dressing seemed sour cream based (not sweet like Miracle Whip or even mayo), and the slaw included blue cheese, dried cranberries, and cashews. What an interesting and savory combination, n'est-ce pas? Here's what I did to make my own version that turned out quite well:

First, I shredded two rather small heads of green cabbage. Then I used about a half cup of a high-quality, fruity vinegar and two teaspoons of Maldon sea salt to brine the cabbage in overnight (an hour or two probably would have been fine). Then I drained the cabbage, but did not rinse it. I used about a cup of commerical Mexican crema that the boys had on hand to dress the slaw (made by Darigold--so yummy!), but sour cream would be fine, plus almost a teaspoon of black pepper. Then I added 8 oz. of Danish blue cheese crumbles (Castello is my fave!), and a generous half cup each of craisins and roughly-chopped cashews. Taste it to see if it needs more salt, then chill until party time. Simple, easy, slightly unusual, and DELISH!

For someone who professes to not care for cabbage, I sure am making a lot of sauerkraut and slaw lately! Perhaps I need to rethink my position on cabbage. In the meantime, my last "recipe" from John and Keith's party is a kind of Mexican or southwestern slaw. Actually, when I first saw it on the potluck table, I wasn't sure what to make of it. But a big bag of chips was propped up next to it, so I figured that it was meant to be a dip or salsa-type affair (but chunkier, maybe more like pico de gallo).

It was really good stuff, and I managed to make inquiries later to track down the woman who brought it. She seemed a bit embarrassed, as it's kind of a "cheater" recipe that starts with pre-packaged cole slaw mix. She confirmed that it was intended to be eaten with chips, but she also told me that she loves it on fish tacos. So when I got home, one of the first dinners I made was fish tacos with this southwestern slaw. SO YUMMY, light, summery and healthy, and a perfect quick-fix for a busy weeknight meal. This is especially the case if you have a grocery store that will cook your fish for you, as our local Price Chopper does. Of course, you could grill your own fish if you insist. ;-)

So you buy some white fish of your choosing--tonight cod was on sale at Price Chopper, so I went with that--and a pound will make a dozen fish tacos! Also purchase a package of the smallest size flour tortillas (or corn, if you prefer). When you get home, keep the fish warm in the oven, and also the tortillas wrapped in foil. Then make the following slaw:

‎1 lb. package cole slaw mix
1 jar of your favorite salsa (I used salsa verde)
juice of one large lime (or perhaps two small ones)

This is your base. Then add anything else you like. I added:

one can white corn with chipotle, drained
one can Southwestern-style black beans, drained
half a cup roughly-chopped cilantro
2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and cubed
salt and pepper, to taste

To each tortilla, add some broken-up chunks of fish, some crumbled queso fresco (or shredded cheese of your choice), a generous amount of the slaw, and top with chipotle sour cream (I just found this new product from Breakstone's in the dairy aisle). YUM! And the leftover slaw is indeed wonderful with tortilla chips, as we enjoyed it at the party.

WHEW! This length of this follow-up post has also become biblical, and to think, I only described three dishes! Suffice it to say, the evening was magical and lasted until about 1am, despite the fact that it was a school night for most of the party-goers. I am already looking ahead to another (hopefully, longer) visit next summer!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Summer Vacation 2011: My Bi-Coastal Adventures

This summer has been SO MUCH DIFFERENT from the hellish nightmare that was my life this time last year. In fact, to make up for that grueling ordeal, I decided that I needed a DOUBLE vacation this year!

The first trip was with my beloved roommate, Cyd, over the last week of July, all the way to the easternmost point of the U.S.A.--Downeast Maine. We stayed in a cute, dog-friendly cottage on Little Kennebec Bay near Machias, Maine, and day-tripped to Lubec and Eastport and to Campobello Island and several "saints" in New Brunswick, including Saint Stephen, Saint Andrews-by-the-Sea, and Saint George. It was truly lovely and relaxing, and we basically ate our own weight in fish and seafood!

There were too many yummy things to blog about concisely, but I can report that the BEST LOBSTER ROLL IN THE WORLD can be found at Red's Eats in Wiscasset (the meat of a whole lobster in one sandwich, served with mayo and drawn butter on the side--well worth the hour wait!), the BEST BLUEBERRY PIE IN MAINE can be found at Wild Blueberry Land in Columbia Falls (cheesy-looking place, but stop for the baked goods), and when you've finally had your fill of seafood, the BEST HOMEMADE OLD WORLD SAUSAGE can be found in Machias at Joe Parisi's (he's 89 years old and makes 100 pounds of sausage a day in his basement--bring a cooler to transport some yumminess home with you).

Less than three days after returning home from Maine, I was on a plane headed west. The first part of my Northwestern Tour was Boise, Idaho, to reunite with some wonderful folks from college. Sadly, one of our dearest mutual friends died unexpectedly in March, and we thought it would honor Sonny to gather together and reconnect with one another in his memory.

Then for the latter part of my adventure, I rented a car and drove to Falls City, OR (near Dallas, which is near Salem) to visit with one of my best friends, John, and his partner, Keith, who have recently opened a wood-fired bread bakery and now pizzeria, too! I simply had to see the business (and the dream!) in action. Sadly, I was only there for a couple of days, but as usual, I ate SO incredibly well while I was with the boys.

Here's a sampling, if you will, of our menus:

1) When my friend, Mike, and I arrived Sunday evening about 7:00pm, Keith and John pulled in right after us, looked around the kitchen and whipped up the following spread for dinner: zucchini, carrot and onion fritters with Mexican crema, panzanella made with bread from their bakery and local mozzarella, mixed greens with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, also radicchio salad with a couple of different grated hard cheeses, and sliced, roasted potatoes with olive oil, muscato vinegar, and Maldon sea salt. I literally could only finish two-thirds of what was on my plate! And it was the kind of savory and satisfying vegetarian fare that made you not even miss the meat.

2) The next day, we ended up over in Newport at the coast, and we pulled off on the side of the road and had a magnificent picnic on the bluff overlooking Nye Beach. The luncheon fare included a cheese platter (dill Havarti and Brie), mixed Greek olives, an assortment of Keith and John's breads (ciabatta, blue cheese, caramelized onion, and basil fougasse, three cheese and garlic loaf) with olive oil and aged balsamic to dip in, local shrimp and smoked salmon, spicy fish tacos, and outrageous brownies (Ida Garten's recipe). Just a simple spread...tee hee.

3) That evening, we headed back to The Bread Board for their fabulous wood-fired pizza. Their thin bubbly crust was honestly the best I've ever had, and all four of that night's varieties were delicious, including classic margherita, pepperoni, summer squash/roasted fennel/sundried tomato, and housemade lamb (merguez) sausage/caramelized onion/feta. YUM!

4) The night before Mike and I had to leave, John and Keith threw a big potluck/cookout party on their INCREDIBLE back patio so that we could meet the locals and also to say goodbye to one of their employees at the bakery who was moving to Thailand. Boy, did those folks come through with some AMAZING food! And of course, it was all homemade and homegrown, or at least organic and locally sourced. Among many others at the party, we had the breadmakers, two groups of winemakers, cheesemakers, and one family that raised heritage pork. Cool, huh? Gotta love the fertile Willamette Valley!

I have a few great dishes from the party to share, but this post is already too long, so I'll save that for next time. As much fun as I had travelling over the last couple/few weeks, I am happy to be home! I intend to sleep until the fall semester begins...all too soon. (Sigh.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Lighter summer fare...heavy on flavor!

After making the seasonally inappropriate (though scrumptious) fennel and chicken sausage bean soup, I felt that it was only right that I turn my attention to something lighter and more summery.  So I fired up the little smoker/charcoal grill that we affectionately refer to as R2D2 and made some tandoori-style chicken breasts that was another one of the winning recipes from The Pioneer Woman's and Bush's Grilling Beans contest. (I previously made both the harissa-crusted ribeye and the sweet-n-sassy chili pork chops--both excellent!) These chicken breasts come out so tender and incredibly flavorful, and they make an AWESOME sandwich the next day, if there are any leftovers, that is.

Though I may have been muddling the various cuisines of the Orient once again, I made an Asian noodle salad to accompany the tandoori-style chicken. The recipe came from a card I picked up at the Healthy Living Market in Burlington, and it had been stuck up in the visor of my car for months, waiting patiently to make an appearance on one of my dinner menus. The salad is light and zesty and just yummy, so I will not be waiting so long to make it again!

Grilled Tandoori-Style Chicken Breasts
(Source: Adapted from contest winner, Rebecca, via The Pioneer Woman)

4 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 cup plain yogurt (I used 3/4 cup sour cream thinned with 1/4 cup buttermilk)
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons kosher salt (I would cut this back to 1 1/2 teaspoons, maybe even just 1)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (I used sriracha instead)
1 teaspoon ground ginger (or 1 tablespoon grated ginger root--even better!)

Add all of the ingredients except the chicken to a zip-top re-sealable bag (or whisk together in a flat baking dish.) Set aside. This is your marinade.

Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and lay out flat on a cutting board. Holding a large, sharp knife parallel to the cutting board, cut the down the length of the chicken breast, dividing it into two evenly thick pieces. This is easiest if you press your other hand down flat on the chicken breast to hold it steady. Transfer the chicken breasts to the zip-top bag that contains the marinade. Seal the top and squish the bag around gently to coat all the chicken evenly. Place the bag in a bowl to catch any leaks and stash in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours but preferably overnight prior to grilling.

When you’re ready to cook the meat you have a couple options. The best option is to grill. You can use a grill pan or hot oven if you don’t have a grill at your disposal. For a gas grill, preheat the grill, with the cover down, to high. For a charcoal grill, build a bed of hot coals. Oil the grill racks very well as the chicken has a tendency to stick. Remove the chicken from the marinade, shake off excess and place on grill racks. Don’t move the chicken around once it’s on the grill. Give it a chance to develop a nice crust.

Cook, covered for 4 minutes, flip the chicken breasts and continue cooking, covered until the internal temperature of the chicken breasts reaches 160 degrees F. It’ll have charred bits on it and look delicious. Transfer to a platter and tent loosely with foil until ready to serve.

*Next time, I might add some tumeric just to give it that nice yellow color that is so common in Indian food. I think my curry powder (Madras), though spicy and tasty, didn't have tumeric like many others do.

Asian Vegetable Salad with Rice Stick Noodles
(Source: Adapted from Healthy Living Market, South Burlington, Vermont)

1 1/2 cups purple cabbage (I used Napa but purple would have been prettier!)
8 oz. thin rice stick noodles (my package was only 7 oz.)
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded cucumber
1/2 cup shredded daikon radish (I didn't have this so I doubled the cucumber)
2 tablespoons fresh mint, slivered
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon sriracha (or to taste)

Place the shredded cabbage in a bowl, salt heavily and cover with cold water. Let sit for 15 minutes then drain, rinse and dry on paper towels. Prepare noodles according to package directions. Drain and cut noodles into approximately 8-inch lengths.

In a large bowl, toss the noodles with the vegetables, mint and cilantro. Whisk together the lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar, ginger,soy sauce, sesame and canola oils. Toss with the noodle/vegetable mixture. Transfer to a platter and serve. (Or chill until ready to serve.)

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Unseasonable but DELICIOUS soup!

There has been precious little summer in these parts this year; nevertheless, something possessed me to make a big pot of a wintry soup on a day when the heat index was 103! was DELICIOUS! It was inspired by my sweet friend from college, Claire, who makes a black bean, chicken breast, and (double!) fennel soup--she swears by its antioxidant properties.

I decided to use some lovely beans that came in my last shipment from Rancho Gordo. They are called Zarco beans, a heritage Mexican varietal about the size of navy beans, and before they are cooked, they resemble tiny Easter eggs in all their pastel hues. The best thing about these beans, besides their beauty, is that they can take a long cooking time without the texture breaking down, so if you make this soup in a slow cooker or at a low temperature for several hours in the oven, the Zarcos will hold up for you. Put this one on file for fall and winter. It's so good and so good for you!

Photo Credit: Rancho Gordo

Zarco Bean, Fennel, and Chicken Sausage Soup

1 lb. Zarco beans, soaked (or black beans or what you like)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, diced
4 large stalks celery, diced (leaves, too)
1 large bulb fennel, diced (fronds, too)
4 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 whole head of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chicken or vegetable soup base (I like Better Than Bouillon)
1 can diced Italian-style tomatoes (the juice, too)
1 lb. chicken sausage, thickly-sliced
big handful of fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Pick over the beans and remove any debris. Rinse thoroughly, then cover the beans with an inch of water. Let soak for 4-6 hours (if you have the time...if not, proceed on to the next step right away).

In a five-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil and saute the onions, celery, fennel, carrots, and garlic until softened. Pour in the beans and their soaking liquid, plus another six cups of water. Add the bay leaves, cumin, pepper, and soup base, and stir. Bring to a boil, and boil for five minutes (ten if you haven't pre-soaked them).

Cover the pot and place in the oven on 170 degrees (or transfer to a crock pot on low) for four hours. Add the tomatoes and the sliced sausage and cook for up to another two hours on low (until the beans are sufficiently tender). Remove the bay leaves, taste to correct seasoning, and stir in the fresh parsley before serving.

*For a thicker soup, remove a cup of two of the beans, puree, and return to the pot.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Quiche me...beneath the (goat) milky twilight.

While I was checking out the Beekman 1802 blog recently, I came across an article on backyard chickens written by a woman named Deborah Niemann. Along with the blog post was a picture of a beautiful crustless goat cheese and spinach quiche that I was keen to make for brunch. In the comments was a link to Ms. Niemann's blog where the recipe for the quiche was to be found. I followed her boilerplate methodology, but adapted it to stuff that I had hanging about in my fridge. This recipe is definitely a keeper, especially as it is so versatile, and we will all soon have bountiful harvests from our gardens, CSA's or farmer's markets!

My version of this quiche included: caramelized onions, green peas, canadian bacon, fresh herbs, cheddar and monterey jack cheeses. The base was 1 1/2 cups goat's milk, 1/2 cup (white whole wheat) flour, 4 eggs, and a tablespoon of whole-grain Dijon mustard. Bake in a sprayed deep-dish pie plate at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, then topped with chopped tomatoes.