Wednesday, July 30, 2008

...HELLO corn and blueberries!

Since they have already begun to show "back to school" commercials, I am begrudgingly compelled to admit that we are on the other side of summer now. (Wouldn't that make a great title for a novel? The Other Side of Summer. But I digress...) And though we now grieve for the passing of springtime crops like lettuces and strawberries, I am ecstatic to report that the corn truck has finally arrived up at the corner store (as of last Thursday), and with the first sweet corn also come such welcome companions as green beans and blueberries!

Of course, my favorite way to eat sweet corn is to nuke the ears in their husks for about ten minutes, peel and de-silk, slather with butter, season with salt and pepper, and devour a minimum of two ears with every meal until October! But I thought I might try a new way to honor this harbinger of the harvest (another good novel title). In the latest issue of Gourmet, they shared a yummy-looking corn pudding recipe that looked like it would just do the trick. It's a savory bread pudding from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, though carnivores may wish it as a side to be paired with some grilled meat or another. Besides showcasing fresh corn, it's also a handy recipe for using up odds and ends of bread that we all have lying about. And it's DEE-licious!

Bread Pudding with Corn
Gourmet, August 2008)
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon corn oil or butter
1 bunch scallions, including the greens, sliced into thin rounds
4 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1/2 teaspoon paprika or ground red chile, plus extra for the top
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped dill or basil
4 eggs
2 cups milk (use whole milk here)
1 tablespoon (or so) sugar, optional*
5 cups cubed bread without crusts (I prefer to leave the crusts on myself!)
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
1/2 cup half-and-half or milk (I used heavy cream--oh yes I did!)

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Butter a 3-quart gratin dish or casserole.

Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add the scallions, corn, and paprika and cook until the scallions have softened and the corn is heated through, about 4 minutes. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir in the parsley and dill (I opted for basil instead of dill).

Whisk the eggs and milk with 1/2 teaspoon salt (and sugar, if using) and pour it over the bread in a bowl. Add the corn mixture and cheese and transfer the mixture to the prepared dish. Pour over the half-and-half. Bake until puffed and browned, about 45 minutes. Add a dash of paprika or chile to the top and serve.

*Because this is new corn, not yet at the pinnacle of sweetness, I also added about tablespoon of sugar to the custard mix. You might also want to do this if you're using frozen corn in the off season.

Along with my first-of-the-season corn binge, I have also recently acquired two pints of the most gorgeous, Vermont-grown organic blueberries. The first thing that I just had to do with them is to make fresh blueberry pancakes for our Sunday brunch. I was seduced into doing so by that wanton temptress, Deb, over at Smitten Kitchen. As usual, her pictures looked good enough to eat! I only have two comments about the recipe. One, I would start with 2 1/2 cups of buttermilk and add the remaining 1/2 cup if needed. I just dumped all the liquid in at once and ended up with very thin, almost crepe-like pancakes. They were still delicious, but I think most folks would want something a bit thicker and fluffier. Secondly, I would advise you to go ahead and make the whole batch! Even though I was only cooking for two, I saved the leftovers, wrapped them in plastic, and then they can either be popped in the toaster or even in the microwave for a quick but fabulous workday breakfast. Cyd said that these pancakes were so good, you didn't even need syrup. I concur--perhaps a light sprinkling of powdered sugar would suffice. In either case, I say to you, YUM! And I'll say it again, YUM!

Best Buttermilk (Blueberry) Pancakes
(Source: adapted from Martha Stewart’s Original Classics Cookbook via
Smitten Kitchen)
Yield: Martha says this makes 9 six-inch pancakes; Deb got about 16 four-inch ones, and I got about 16 very thin six-inchers

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or slightly less table salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for brushing griddle
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen and thawed (optional)

1. Preheat an electric griddle to 375°F, or place a griddle pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the eggs, buttermilk, and four tablespoons melted butter, and whisk to combine. The batter should have small to medium lumps. DO NOT OVERMIX (batter should NOT be smooth or the pancakes will not be delicate and fluffy)!

2. Test the griddle by sprinkling a few drops of water on it. If the water bounces and spatters, the griddle is hot enough. Using a pastry brush, brush a little of the remaining butter onto the griddle.

3. Using a 4-oz. ladle, about 1/2 cup (for a 6-inch pancake), pour the batter in pools 2 inches apart. If you wish to make blueberry pancakes, arrange a handful over the cooking pancake, pressing them in slightly. When the pancakes have bubbles on top and are slightly dry around the edges, about 2 1/2 minutes, flip over. If any batter oozes or blueberries roll out, push them back under with your spatula. Cook until golden on bottom, about 1 minute.

4. Repeat with the remaining batter. You can keep the finished pancakes on a heat-proof plate in the oven at 175°F. Serve warm.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Goodbye lettuce and strawberries...

For foodies and cooks and locavores, this is the high holy season, when each week may bring a new harvest from your backyard garden or farmer's market. When the new crops come in, there is great joy, but it also means saying a sad goodbye to those crops that have reached the end of their run. Despite nonstop rain and unseasonably cool temperatures, my lettuces have finally started to bolt. So I am harvesting as much as I can before what's left is inedible. Of course, the end of season lettuce is stronger and "greener"-tasting than the soft, new, sweet greens of springtime. And indeed, once it has completely bolted, you may find the lettuce distastefully bitter. But if it has just started to go, you should try to harvest what you can, wash it and store it properly in the fridge, and you might get another week or two of homegrown salads. Also, I find if you add a lot of other veggies and toppings and a particularly bold-flavored dressing, your summer salads can still be highly enjoyable.

At my house, we are really crazy about a homemade dressing that I threw together last week. In fact, it's so simple and has so few ingredients, that I'm almost embarrassed to post a "recipe" for it! My original inspiration was a wonderful housemade dressing that we always get at our favorite creperie in Montreal. At the Creperie Bretonne Ty-Breiz, if you order a large house salad, they will bring you an entire head of butter (Boston or bibb-type) lettuce propped up in a little wooden bowl. Then you and your dining companion peel off the soft leaves and drizzle them with their amazingly garlicky house dressing. Simple but simply delicious! We love it so much, that I often buy a small jar of the dressing to take home. Well, imagine my surprise when I discovered that I could make a nearly identical version at home by combining a couple of cups of good quality mayonnaise with enough red wine vinegar to thin it out to a desired consistency (3-4 tablespoons), adding four cloves of fresh garlic (minced), lots of freshly-ground black pepper, salt to taste, and a good pinch of sugar (up to a teaspoon perhaps--again, to taste). That's it! If you love garlic, you just have to try it. It's SO GOOD!

Sadly, we have also come to the end of having sliced strawberries on our salads, as their season is drawing to a close. Moreover, the constant rains of late have done a number on what few berries were left! So to give the local strawberries a big send-off (at least until fall when we sometimes get another small harvest), I have been doing some fine baking with the last few pints. First, I made some strawberry breads from a recipe shared with me by one of my PBGV friends, Joan. She is the moderator of our breed mailing list (PBGV-L), and I got to visit with her in person at the West Springfield dog shows earlier this month. In fact, it was she who advised us (quite wisely, as it turns out) to go to Farnham's clam shack in Essex while we were in the area. Anyway, this is a recipe that she sent me that is quite good. It says it makes one large loaf, but I got an additional two mini-loaves out of one batch of the batter.

Strawberry Bread

1 cup strawberries, sliced
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch loaf pan.

Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and mix well. Blend oil and eggs into strawberries. Add to the flour mixture. Stir in pecans, blending until dry ingredients are just moistened. Spoon into prepared pan. Bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes
out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Turn loaf out onto rack and cool completely.

Then for my final strawberry TA-DAH over the weekend, I made a vanilla cake layered with homemade strawberry curd and iced with a strawberry-cream cheese frosting. I think I added too much strawberry puree (or maybe I didn't drain it well enough), so my frosting ended up being more like a thick glaze, but I didn't want to add extra powdered sugar and thus render it overly sweet. I was tickled, however, that the icing came out a delightful shade of ballerina pink! Overall, the cake may have been a bit on the homey (homely?)-looking side because of the loose frosting and as the strawberry curd is not a very appealing color in and of itself. But it was altogether delicious--moist cake, tangy curd filling, and creamy, sweet icing. It was a great combination of flavors and textures, and I recommend it, especially if you have a last pint or two of strawberries hanging around your fridge needing to be used up. This way, they will go out with a bang, in a tasty, celebratory fashion!

Strawberry Cake

Bake one vanilla cake (your favorite recipe or even a box mix will do in a pinch) in two layers, then cool completely and split the two layers into four. As you assemble the cake, fill between each layer with about a half cup of strawberry curd (recipe follows) spread to about an inch from the edge of the cake. After placing the final cake layer on top, frost the top and sides of the cake liberally with the strawberry cream cheese frosting below. Chill the cake thoroughly to make it easier to slice and serve. Garnish with whole, fresh strawberries.

Strawberry Curd
(Source: adapted from
Jackie Miller, "Strawberry Fools")

1 1/3 strawberries (about half a pint)
finely-grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 stick plus 1/2 tablespoon butter
4 large eggs

Wash, dry and hull strawberries, puree fruit (sieve out seeds, optional). Put puree into a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Add the butter, lemon and sugar. Beat the eggs and add to the ingredients. Cook, stirring until sugar dissolves. Continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the mixture thickens. Cool, then cover and chill in the fridge. Curd will keep for a couple of months if kept refrigerated.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting
(Source: adapted from
Ann Byrn, The Cake Doctor )

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons), softened
3 1/2 to 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 cup mashed, strained and drained strawberries (from about 3/4 cup hulled berries)

With the help of a mixer, blend the cream cheese and butter together until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add the powdered sugar gradually, mixing on low speed until fully incorporated (start with 3 1/2 cups then add the additional 1/2 cup if needed to reach a desired spreading consistency). Then blend in the strawberry puree. Increase the mixer speed to medium for another minute or so, until frosting has lightened in texture. You may use immediately or chill to firm it up a bit first.

Monday, July 21, 2008

For whom the (wedding) bells toll....

No, no, not for me! But this past weekend was the beautiful wedding of a darling young couple, Dove and Trevor Neal. Dove is the lovely and brilliant daughter of my dear friends, June and Tom (pictured, center), and she and her handsome and charming groom were married on Saturday in a breathtakingly stunning setting overlooking Valcour Island, just down the road from the college where I teach. The groom's family is from British Columbia and the couple met in college in Montreal, so the event spanned two countries, and as the bride's people are mostly from New Orleans, you KNOW there was a kick-ass party after the nuptials that lasted until the nearby residents threatened to call the cops! And the frolicking didn't stop there, oh no. It was my understanding that friends and family flowed in and out of the June and Tom's home for a full ten days before and after the blessed event. So that meant June was chained to the kitchen for most of that time, trying to keep the guests fed and happy. She was in full Martha mode, and I tried to be helpful by emailing her simple recipes that made large quantities of tasty food.

For example, I'm not sure if she tried this one or not, but I finally managed to duplicate that wonderful shrimp and avocado soup that I crave from Leticia's Cosina at the Love Apple Farm in Ghent, NY. They have a recipe section on their website, but it's currently blank. So I sent an email requesting the recipe, but I never heard back. Thus, I struck out on my own, and though I hate to seem immodest, I think I may have come up with a version that's even tastier than the original! It's really a kind of gazpacho with shrimp and avocado in it. It requires no cooking, just some cut and chop (made more humane with the assistance of a food processor), and then a little chilling time. And MAN, is it GOOD! And really, quite healthful with TONS of veggies in the soup. The only fat to speak of is in the avocados, and that's the good kind of fat. This is definitely going to become a summer staple for me!

Gina's Homage to Leticia's Mexican Shrimp and Avocado Soup

1 medium to large onion
1 large stalk celery
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
2 large Anaheim-type peppers, seeded
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled (to taste)
32 oz. Clamato juice
2 teaspoons salt
up to 1 teaspoon black pepper (start with 1/2 then taste)
1 teaspoon sugar (just a little to counter all that acidity!)
juice of two limes (or to taste)
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes (when real tomatoes are ready, I'll use maybe 4 of those instead!)*
1/2 bunch cilantro (try to use mostly leaves), roughly chopped (about a half cup)
1 lb. cooked salad shrimp, thawed
2 large, ripe Haas avocados (the only kind of avocado, in my book), peeled, pitted, and (large) diced

I recommend throwing the onion, celery, cucumber, peppers, and garlic in a food processor and saving yourself a lot of heartache of cutting and chopping. I like a finer chop on these things myself, but your call. Then dump the chopped veggies in a big bowl and stir in the Clamato juice, seasonings, lime juice, tomatoes (with juice), and chopped cilantro. Taste to correct seasonings (you might want to add more lime or cilantro or salt or sugar...again, to taste). Then gently stir in the shrimp and avocado chunks, and refrigerate for at least three hours, though six would be even better, or perhaps best of all, make a day ahead for full flavor development.

Of course, the biggest culinary matter weighing on the mother-of-the-bride's mind was the brunch on Sunday after the wedding. They were hosting 30 or more people, and poor June was beside herself with worry that she wouldn't have enough food! First off, she was in a dither about make-ahead breakfast casseroles, so I auditioned one last weekend that I had recently seen on The Pioneer Woman Cooks!, and it was just excellent. Oh to be sure, like so many of The Pioneer Woman's recipes, it should be served with a cardiologist's business card on the side, but it was DELISH nonetheless!

Sleepin’ in Omelette
The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)

6 onion rolls (I used onion "pockets" that I found at Price Chopper and they worked great)
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 1/2 sticks butter (I cut this down to one stick and it was still plenty)
1 8 ounce package cream cheese
10 eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chopped chives

Generously butter 9 x 13 baking dish (I sprayed mine). Tear onion rolls into chunks. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese, then tear cream cheese into small pieces and place over the top. Cut butter into pats and place over the top. Mix remaining ingredients and pour over the top of the dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, bake at 325 degrees, covered, for 45 minutes. Then remove foil and continue baking at 350 for 10-15 minutes.

*I would say that this serves at least eight very hungry people, as it is rich and dense, and altogether luscious.

Even though she had the above breakfast casserole and some kind of southwestern frittata planned as well, not to mention two loaves of homemade bread, two cranberry bumps, assorted fruit, and Mimosas to wash it all down with, June was still concerned that she wouldn't have enough to satiate that wild, post-party crowd. I had a premonition that this might be the case, so I got up early on Saturday (well, early for me at 9am...tee hee) and checked in with Bridal Central. Sure enough, they required an additional coffee cake of some sort and eggs--LOTS and LOTS of eggs! Those tasks were right up my alley, so into my own kitchen I headed to wash and pack three dozen farm-fresh eggs from my hens into a small cooler (as June had run out of room in her fridge with all those breakfast casseroles and such!).

Then I decided to make a coffee cake that I had seen on Road Tasted with those Deen boys awhile back. It comes from Macrina Bakery in my beloved Seattle, and it was called Lemon Sour Cherry Coffee Cake, though truly, it looked more like a pound cake to me. Still, as much as my friend June loves sour cherries in all their forms, I knew this would be the perfect addition to her special brunch. Plus, I just had to break in my precious little fairy tale cottage Bundt pan in honor of the happy newlyweds! I think it turned out pretty cute despite those damnable cherries staining the little heart flags that Cyd made for me while I was getting dressed for the wedding. In fact, I was running so late that I didn't have time to take a picture of the cake before I left the house. So I snapped this crappy one in the back of my car before dropping the cake off. But it gives you the general idea...

Lemon Sour Cherry Coffee Cake
Leslie Mackie's Macrina Bakery and Cafe' Cookbook)

For the batter:
1 1/2 cups dried tart cherries
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest
5 eggs
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup plain yogurt

For the glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 325F. Oil a 12-cup Bundt pan. (I used a ten-cup Bundt mold--which I greased liberally and then dusted with flour--and there was enough batter leftover for a large loaf on the side! )

Place dried cherries in a medium bowl and cover with hot tap water. Let soak and plump for 10 minutes, then drain thoroughly and check for pits. (I used two cups frozen but thawed sour cherries instead, and therefore did not have to reconsitute them in water.)

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Toss with your hands and set aside. Combine butter, sugar, and lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix on medium speed for 5 to 8 minutes. The mixture will become smooth and pale in color. Add eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is fully mixed into the butter before adding another. After the last egg is incorporated, slowly add the lemon juice and mix for one more minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 30 seconds to make sure all of the ingredients are fully incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer.

Alternately add small amounts of the flour mixture and the yogurt to the batter, mixing with a wooden spoon just until all dry ingredients are incorporated into the batter. Set aside 10 to 12 cherries for garnish and gently fold the remainder into the batter, taking care not to overmix. Pour batter into prepared bundt pan, filling two thirds of the pan. Bake on center rack of oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Check the center of the coffee cake with a skewer. It will come out clean when the cake is finished. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes.

Loosen the sides of the cake with a sharp knife. Place serving plate, upside down, on the top of the cooled bundt pan and invert the pan to remove the cake. Let cake cool completely.

Sift powdered sugar into a medium bowl, then add lemon zest and lemon juice. Mix with a spoon until smooth. Drizzle glaze over the cooled coffee cake and top with reserved plumped cherries.

Epilogue: I had a couple of quick emails from the frazzled hostess today. It seems that most of the guests have trickled away (June says that's a good thing--if they left all at once, she might get the bends! ha ha), and the bride's parents are exhausted but happy. I did not get a fully detailed report, but it seems that the brunch went off very well, with barely a serving of any one thing left, and that was after one of the brothers-in-law made a big old mess of scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and chives from June's garden...on top of everything else on the menu! SHEESH! Hungover wedding guests sure can eat, eh? (Tee hee.)

So all's well that ends well, or in this case, that begins well. The bride and groom are off to the Big Apple to honeymoon, and I'm sure poor Tom and June will go comatose for awhile to recuperate from all of the excitement. CONGRATULATIONS, Dove and Trevor...may you have many, many years of happiness together!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meat and Fruit: Two Juicy Pairings

While I am still indulging my grilled pomegranate pork passions, I have been exploring some other meat and fruit pairings. I suppose it's a way to lighten up meat dishes during the warmer months and to give them some sweet, summery flavor twists. To begin with, I came across a luscious-looking recipe on Simply Recipes for rosemary-marinated chicken skewers with a fresh blackberry sauce (doesn't that just SOUND delicious??). Instead of doing skewers, though, I just made boneless, skin-on thighs. Although I reduced my sauce a little too much (it should be syrupy, not jammy!), it was a delicious dish and super-easy to boot. I served the chicken with garlic and chive mashed potatoes and a green salad on the side, and it was fun to be able to use so many freshly-picked, seasonal ingredients in one meal, many from my own garden! This recipe is perfect for summer, and I highly recommend that you give it a try. Everyone could use a sweet new take on chicken, right?

Rosemary Chicken Skewers with Berry Sauce
Simply Recipes)

For the chicken:
4-6 boneless chicken thighs or breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds), skin on or off
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh rosemary
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil


For the sauce:
1 3/4 cup fresh or frozen blackberries or boysenberries
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons red currant jelly (or berry jam or jelly--I used purple raspberry jam)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Cut the chicken into 1 1/2 inch pieces and place in a bowl. Mix with the wine, oil, rosemary, and pepper. Cover and set aside to marinate in the refrigerator for one hour. (Unfortunately, we ran out of propane after hours, so my chicken marinated for about 24 hours to no ill effect.)

Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade, reserving the marinade. Thread the chicken onto skewers and season generously with salt. (Tip: If you're making skewers and not whole chicken pieces, make sure to soak wooden skewers in water for about 30 minutes before grilling so that they don't burn.)

Preheat the grill for direct high heat. Brush the grill grates with olive oil. Place chicken skewers on grill and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Place on a platter and cover with foil to allow the chicken to rest.

To make the sauce, place the marinade and the berries in a sauce pan and simmer gently until the berries are soft. Press through a strainer and discard the pulp. Return the juice and marinade mixture to the pan. Add the vinegar, jelly, and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered until it has reduced by about 1/3 to a light syrup-like consistency.

Plate the skewers and spoon the sauce over the chicken. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 (Um...who eats just one chicken thigh for dinner? This serves TWO!)

Secondly, this past weekend, I got creative with a lonely pork roast that I unearthed from the freezer and a jar of Trader Joe's mango sauce (like applesauce, but with mangoes) that had been languishing in the pantry for far too long. Normally, I do pork roast with onions, applesauce, and/or sauerkraut, but that's far too autumnal for this time of year! So I lightened up those rich fall flavors with mangoes and chilies for a scrumptious, Caribbean-inflected, sweet and spicy pulled pork sandwich. To dress the sandwiches, I toasted some poppy seed buns, spread them with a little mayo, added thinly-sliced Vidalia onion and some of that great kraut relish that I made awhile back (which gave it that pulled pork and chow-chow feeling), then I topped the whole shebang with creamy, perfectly ripe Haas avocado slices that had been sprinkled with lime juice to keep from browning. SO GOOD!

I served the sandwiches with a simple macaroni salad that I zhoozhed up with my spicy house rub to somewhat emulate the fine mac salad that I enjoyed at the BBQ joint in Albany recently. This was a great summer meal despite that fact that I used the crock pot. At the time, the grill was still propane-less and out of commission. Moreover, I often have other things going on that dominate the summer kitchen, like big canning projects. So it's nice to have dinner simmering away--out of the way--in my faithful old slow cooker. This is another dish that you should definitely make, especially on a busy summer day crammed with activities--it'll be ready when you get home, and the sandwiches can be thrown together in minutes after that.

Mango Chili Pulled Pork

3-4 pound bone-in pork roast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup (or so) your favorite BBQ/chili spice rub
25 oz. jar mango sauce (or you could use chunks of fresh or frozen mango)
2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped (or 4 if you like it HOT!)
1/2 very large onion, peeled and chopped
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder (preferably, dark)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

In a large pan on medium-high, heat the olive oil. Season the pork roast liberally with the chili spice rub, then brown the roast on all sides in the oil.

While the roast is searing, add the remaining ingredients to the slow cooker and stir to combine. When the roast is sufficiently browned, add it to the crock pot and cook for 4-6 hours on high (8-10 hours on low?) or until tender enough to easily pull apart with two forks. Take the roast from the pot, remove the bones (they should pull right out or it's not done!), and shred the meat in large chunks. The meat is pretty tasty as is, or you can mix it with some of the sauce in which it cooked.

Barbecue Macaroni Salad

1 lb. elbows, boiled until tender then cooled under cold running water and drained
4 eggs, hard-cooked, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons BBQ seasoning/spice rub (or to taste)
3-4 green onions, ends removed and sliced
1 smallish carrot, peeled and finely shredded
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise (more or less, as you like it)
good pinch salt (to taste)
black pepper (to taste)

Combine all ingredients, stir gently to incorporate everything, cover and refrigerate at least a couple of hours.

Note: This makes an enormous, picnic-sized batch, so you may wish to halve the recipe.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gone to the dogs...

There has not been much cooking to blog about at my house lately, as we were gone for the long weekend to Massachusetts (and preparing to go for days before that). I had my dog, Grady, entered in the big shows in West Springfield on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and we didn't get home until pretty late Sunday night. Then--and I can hardly believe this--the second session of summer classes began on Monday, so I hit the ground running as soon as I got back from my mini-vacay. The summer is really flying by, even though it hasn't really felt like summer until the last couple of muggy days when I had to break down and turn on the AC to be able to sleep comfortably at night. :-(

Sadly, my sweet little man was not victorious over the weekend, even though I used what was left of the "economic incentive" that Mr. Bush sent me to hire a handler to show him for me. I hoped having a professional handler who is more skilled than I and better-known to the judges would give him the competitive edge, but apparently not! Oh well. At least I got to watch my boy show for once from ringside, and I even managed to take some video with my spiffy new multi-tasking camera that I got for Christmas! I thought maybe you'd like to see my beautiful boy strutting his stuff (if I can figure out how to embed a video...cross your fingers that this works). Of course, he didn't win, but he did get reserve, which is kind of like runner-up or second prize in a beauty contest in Monopoly (though you don't even get that measly fake ten bucks for it).

Speaking of money I don't have, here is one of my infamous tips for those of you budget-conscious folks that find yourselves needing accommodations near the "Big E" in West Springfield: stay in Enfield, CT, just across the state line! Though Connecticut is the toniest state in the union, somehow, it's cheap as chips to stay there. If you have pets with you, consider either the very low-rent Motel 6 or the slightly nicer Red Roof Inn which are just across the street from one another, and both are right smack dab in the middle of some excellent suburban shopping malls and eateries. In fact, one of my favorite places to dine there is the Royal Buffet for some of the best Chinese food around. You know how those buffets are--some are just okay and some are truly dreadful, but this one is among the best I've found. Their seafood dishes are especially good; try the shrimp scampi and the coconut shrimp! If you still have room after stuffing yourselves at the Chinese buffet, head across the street to Smyth's Delicious Ice Cream Stand, where there is always a line on a summer evening, but it's worth the wait. By request, they created for me a Turtles-type affair with roasted almonds, caramel, and chocolate dip mixed into vanilla ice cream. YUM!

Grady showed early on Saturday, so when he was done, we tucked him away at the hotel with a big, gnarly knuckle bone to chew, the t.v. on for company, and the AC to keep him cool and comfy, and then we headed off to go sightseeing for the day. We considered perhaps doing a "duck tour" of Boston which I have always wanted to do, but a friend and MA native that I saw at the show on Friday recommended that we try her favorite clam shack in Essex on Cape Ann. When I posed the choices to Cyd, she said she would rather poke around "charming seafood towns" for the day. I think that may have been a slip of the tongue and she intended to say "charming seaside towns," but then again, maybe she said precisely what she meant! And let me tell you, Essex is DEFINITELY a charming seafood town! Apparently, a clam shack called Woodman's is all the rage, but my friend Joan and many knowledgeable Chowhounders said to try Farnham's instead. We were not disappointed. The wait was pretty long, even without much of a crowd, but the food was terrific and so was the view of the salt marsh from our picnic table.

Our original thought was to order a sampling of things at BOTH Farnham's and Woodman's and do a head-to-head taste test, but we pretty much shot our wad on the food at Farnham's! No one said good seafood was gonna be cheap, and as the guy at the table next to us told his visiting parents, "It's a bit pricey, but you've paid that much for BAD clams before--at least these are great ones!" He may have a point. I myself am not fond of clams, but Cyd had Farnham's famous clam boat, and I tried some of hers. They were very tender and sweet with a nice, light cornmeal-based crust. But I think I made the more adventurous choice that paid off big time by ordering one of that day's specials, the cod cheeks. Yes, they are exactly what they sound like--the cheeks from the heads of very large cod that are about a half-dollar size, and because they tend to be firmer than the rest of the fish, they are particularly well-suited to frying. To fishermen and folks from the Atlantic region, they are considered a delicacy (no, that's not a synonym for "gross!"), plus it uses up more of the fish, so it makes me feel all green and ecological and environmentally conscious to eat them. More importantly, they are damn delicious! Cyd even admitted the cheeks were better than the clams (don't worry--we shared), and the platter was half the price of the clams and included onion rings!

Lastly, Farnham's offers a whole range of chowders, but we tried a cup of their none-too-humbly named "Best Seafood Chowder." This was the kitchen sink of chowders, with a bit of everything in it, including clams, haddock, scallops, and shrimp, and the broth was tinged a pale pink with a hint of tomato. I know purists will balk at the Manhattan twist, but it truly was the best chowder, as its name honestly proclaimed. In fact, I'm thinking about trying to recreate it at home in the heat of summer...that's how much I loved that chowder!

We spent the rest of the day poking around Cape Ann. I brake for all farm stands, like this one where we got some yummy, homemade monkey bread and a sackful of fresh peas (I told you it's still spring-like in this region!). And I bought some squash plants at the next one, because with all the rain we've had, I think the seeds I planted a month ago must have rotted in the ground. It's very late to replant, of course, but squash grows so fast, I don't think it will be a problem. We'll soon see...

Following the signs for the previous farm stand and greenhouse, we passed another marker pointing toward Wingaersheek Beach, so we decided to check it out. Apparently, the parking fee is very steep ($20 a day or $15 after 3pm), but because we showed up after 5pm, admission was free! And it was a perfect beach, too. The water was very calm, and you could walk out in it forever without going past your knees. There were cool rock formations to climb on, and a lovely lighthouse made for a picture-postcard view. We even saw live clams trying to dig their way back under the sand (trying to hide from Farnham's and Woodman's and the others along "Clam Alley", no doubt!). After some quality beach time, we kept driving the loop all the way from cute little Rockport (which reminded me a lot of Provincetown with its narrow streets and little shops all crowded together) to Pigeon Cove to Annisquam and back around to Gloucester before we had to head back to check on Mr. Grady in the motel room. All in all, it was a delightful day on the coast, which made the trip seem more like a proper vacation.

We were done showing by early afternoon on Sunday, and we were eager to get home and relax for the evening before resuming work on Monday. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men! (Are mice really big planners? They seem like spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-err-pants creatures to me. See the cheese? GET the cheese! But I digress...) Everything went to hell in a handbasket just because I decided to take a short detour to my favorite Hudson Valley farm for pie cherries. It's a little off our beaten path, but even Cyd admitted that it was worth the drive for the homemade shrimp and avocado soup alone! The problem was the absolutely terrifying 4th of July weekend traffic on I-90 that we would have been stuck in had we gone back the way that we came. So we ended up doing some crazy loop down several rural highways and across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge ending up south of Albany. By that time, we needed more than cold Mexican soup to revive and sustain us, so we stopped for dinner at a BBQ joint in Clifton Park called Giffy's that served an excellent smoked chicken, some dynamite baby back ribs, and a spicy house macaroni salad with which I was most enamored and may have to try to retro-engineer at home, as is my way. So our four-hour trip home was nearly doubled, but it was scenic and fun (as I sure Cyd would agree--ha ha). To be sure, it was hell getting up the next day for work, but I think it was worth it. We managed to squeeze in quite a lot of vacationing into one long weekend. I hope yours was fun, too!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Putting the RED in red, white and blue!

Well, folks...we're in the thick of it: the sweet, red, juicy, puckery, sticky thick of it. It may be the height of summer where you are (the three-day Fourth of July weekend begins tomorrow, after all!), but in my region, we are enjoying an extended spring, with all the lettuce you (and a family of famished rabbits) could eat, and as befits my favorite seasonal salad topper, the most delicious STRAWBERRIES! We savored the first quart of organic beauties from Vermont as long as we could before I had to break down and drive up into another country for a whole flat of the red, ripe lovelies. Since then, I have literally been up to my elbows in pot after pot of jam, plus one batch of creamy, tangy strawberry curd, and I STILL have a quart left! Sheesh!

For my strawberry jam this year, it was my great pleasure to finally be able to turn to that most hallowed volume, Mes Confitures, from Christine Ferber (now that it is no longer out of print!). I knew I wanted to try her Strawberry with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint, because so many people have reviewed it so favorably, and because Cyd LOVES strawberries and mint together. But I also wanted to try the Strawberry with Raspberry Juice and Balsamic Vinegar for myself. It seems like an unusual combination (as Ferber's recipes often seem initially!), but it's actually a classic and traditional marriage of flavors from Modena, Italy--the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. It also seems like it might be a more savory jam, but I assure you, it is sweet--equally at home on buttered toast, stirred into morning yogurt, or I imagine it would be just heavenly over ice cream! Although I confess, I did take the leftover foam that I had skimmed off the jam, added an additional tablespoon of balsamic to it, and glazed some grilled pork ribs with the mixture--OH MY!

The taste is a little hard to describe fully, but it is intensely berry-flavored with a depth and sophistication of flavor from the balsamic that I don't think the average person could identify specifically. Likewise, the black pepper (in both recipes) doesn't come forward as you might think--it just gives it a subtle little kick, a little something-something that, again, most folks wouldn't be able to pick out of the flavor line-up, even though I doubled the peppercorns. I'm sure I'm not doing the description justice, but I do not exaggerate when I say that it my be my favorite jam EVER. In fact, as soon as I finished the first batch, I set about making a second, and when my own raspberries are ready, I darn well may make a third! If you make one jam"summer," this should be the one.

And don't be put off by the Ferber methodology. Yes, it may take two or even three days to complete one small batch of her jam, but it's lots of passive time, letting the berries macerate in sugar syrup overnight one or twice until they become as shimmering, translucent and jewel-like as stained glass. The berries will stay whole in the jam (so be mindful of that when you're cutting them up--some folks may even wish to mash them a bit), but the beautiful glacéed fruit will be so tender that they will easily yield to gentle pressure with a knife against your toast or muffin. Remember, any fool can make a quick jam with a box of pectin, but patience and love will render a transcendent, yea, a resplendent confection, in the Ferber tradition. They don't call her la fée des confitures (the jam fairy) for nuthin'!

Strawberry with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint
(Source: Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber)

2 1/2 pounds strawberries (2 1/4 pounds net)
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
juice of 1 small lemon
5 fresh mint leaves (or 10! I used a combination of orange mint and Kentucky Colonel mint from my herb garden), chopped
5 black peppercorns, freshly ground (again, I used 10)

Rinse the strawberries under cold water. Dry them and hull (hull the strawberries after you wash them or they will absorb water). In a ceramic bowl, mix the strawberries, lemon juice and sugar, and cover with a piece of parchment (or just use a plastic bowl with a lid). Let this macerate overnight in the fridge.

The next day, bring the mixture to a simmer in a preserving pan. Pour it back into the ceramic bowl, cover again with the parchment, and let it refrigerate overnight once more. (I won't tell Ms. Ferber if you skip this step and move right onto cooking the jam. However, I just brought mine to a boil the second morning, let it chill all day, and then made the jam that evening, preserving Ferber's method, so to speak, but cutting the time down to just two days instead of three.)

On the third day, pour the mixture through a sieve and reserve the macerated strawberries. Bring the syrup to a boil over high heat, skimming as necessary. When the syrup has reached 221 degrees on a candy thermometer, add the strawberries, mint, and black pepper. Return to the boil and cook for five minutes, then check the set. (To check whether the jam is set, spoon a little onto a chilled plate, wait few seconds and run your finger through the drop of jam. If it wrinkles, it means the jam is ready). Continue to boil until the set point is reached (mine took about nine minutes total).
Pour the jam into clean, warm jars, wipe down the rims, and add lids and rings. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes (Ferber uses the open kettle method but, as always, I'm a safety gal). Yield: 4 half-pints

Strawberry with Raspberry Juice and Balsamic Vinegar
(Source: Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber)

1 3/4 pounds strawberries (1 1/2 pounds net)
4 1/4 cups granulated sugar
juice of 1 small lemon
1 1/4 pound raspberries (preferably fresh but thawed frozen will do nicely)
1 2/3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (the best you can afford, preferably the aged, thick stuff, as the flavor is so concentrated and even more so in jam)
5 peppercorns, freshly ground (or 10!)

Select small strawberries. Rinse them in cold water, dry them in a towel, stem them, and halve them (or quarter if larger). In a bowl, combine the strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice. Cover with a sheet of parchment paper, and let them macerate, refrigerated, overnight (or use a plastic bowl with a lid).

Next day, place the raspberries into a saucepan with 3 1/2 ounces water, bring to a boil, and boil for a few minutes until the berries break down. Strain this mixture through a chinoise or sieve, pressing the fruit lightly with the back of a skimmer. Add the collected raspberry juice to a preserving pan. Pour the macerated strawberries into the sieve. Bring the strawberry syrup to a boil in the preserving pan with the raspberry juice. Skim and continue cooking over high heat. The syrup will be sufficiently concentrated at 221°F on a candy thermometer.

Add the macerated strawberries, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar, and bring to a boil once more. Skim, return to a boil, cooking for about five minutes while stirring gently. Check the set. The strawberries should be translucent. (Mine didn't reach the set point until about 10 or 12 minutes.)

Put the jam into clean, warm jars immediately, wipe down the rims, add lids and rings and seal. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. Yield: 5 half-pint jars