Sunday, May 30, 2010

Quick Food for the Long Weekend, including Watermelon Popsicles


How are you?  We are feeling pretty darn great around here, celebrating what I've been calling Saturday v2: another chance to have a relaxing but fulfilling day at home before preparing to go back to work on Tuesday.

Chances are you're celebrating this long weekend with some family and friends, and hopefully food will be a big part of enjoying the warm weather and good company.  I'd like to offer up a few suggestions just in case you're still not sure about what to bring to a gathering or make for yourself this afternoon or tomorrow, with foods that balance health and indulgence, and are always beautiful.

One of my all-time favorite last-minute foods is the avocado.  This fruit is one source of good fats, but it also comes with a flavor and texture that are so valuable to a home cook.
Guacamole is something that you can throw together in a few minutes but will still be a major hit.  It's great served with blue corn tortilla chips, but it's also excellent as a condiment on a burger. 

Guacamole (first posted here)

2 ripe avocados. (if they are not ripe, this is not worth eating.)
2-3 small roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/2 a small red onion, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
the juice of one lime (maybe more to taste)
1 tbsp. salt (again, more to taste)
1 tsp. fresh cracked pepper

That old photo:

I heard another brilliant idea for avocados yesterday on KCRW's Good Food.  If you're going to be grilling, follow the advice of this avocado farmer (source)

who suggested slicing ripe but still firm avocados in half, removing the pit, seasoning them with lemon juice and salt and pepper, and then searing them on the grill.  He recommended serving this with some kind of sauce in the middle, but I think a spoon and fork would be more than enough to enjoy this treat.

Asparagus is green and perfectly in season at the moment.  Again, if you're grilling, I'd highly recommend bringing some fresh rinsed asparagus and cooking it on a hot grill, seasoned only with olive oil and salt and pepper.  If the grill is hot enough, they should get a nice char on the outside just as they're tender enough on the inside.  

One of my favorite party foods that is a hit with kids is this recipe for cheese straws.  A whirl in the food processor and a quick 15 minutes in the oven and you have these little cheesy bites that are addicting and perfect finger food.

Spicy Cheese Straws

3 c. grated extra-sharp cheddar
8 tbsp (one stick) butter at room temperature, cut into tbsps
1 1/2 c. white whole wheat or whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh black pepper
1/4-1 tsp. cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)
1 tbsp. milk

Combine all ingredients but the milk in a food processor, pulsing until they make a sandy dough.
Add the milk, then pulse again until the dough comes together.
Roll this into a rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick.
Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut the dough into strips 1/4-1/3 inch long.
Bake these on an ungreased cookie sheet at 350 for 13 minutes, or until the edges are just brown. They will puff up, the bottoms will get crispy, and they will be light and airy.

If you're in charge of meat but still want to keep things lean and cheap, I recommend using this marinade on some flank steak, which grills beautifully.  Here I've done it with some sweet onions that we also grilled.

Chili Flank Steak
1/2 mild chili powder (if you like it hot, 1/4 c. each mild and hot)
4 cloves garlic
2 tsp. salt
the juice of 1/2 lime
1 tbsp. freshly ground cumin (toast the seeds whole in a dry non-stick skillet on low heat, then grind in the blender or a spice grinder)

Finally, let's not overlook PIE as the perfect thing to bring to any celebration.  I'd like to suggest two options: one sweet and one savory.  

Sausage Kale Pie
This savory sausage kale pie is a great last-minute dish because it uses puff pastry.  You could even use precooked sausage so long as the quality is good.  Recipe here.

Fruit Pie
This is one of my best and most popular posts to date.  It illustrates putting together a pie crust that's easy and consistently works for me.  There's something celebratory about a pie, and bringing a beautiful one to a party nearly guarentees a good time. You can use any fruit for the filling that is good right now.  I'd highly recommend strawberries if your market has them.  Recipe here.

Finally, I'd like to share a "recipe" for watermelon popsicles that I made and have been enjoying in the heat.  If you're anywhere warm right now, you've probably been craving watermelon.  This is a great way to have some in a slightly different style.  

Simply take a couple pounds of watermelon and cut it into small chunks.  Put these in a blender or food processor with 2-3 tbsp. honey, depending on how sweet the watermelon is, and a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice.  Process or blend, then pour into a popsicle mold.  (I found mine at JoAnn fabric for $2.50.)  When these are frozen (a few hours, depending on your freezer) they are refreshing and delicious, and not too sweet.

Yeah, that's what I had for breakfast.  Oh and one of these.  You'll have to wait for that recipe until next time ;)

I hope you spend this weekend with people you love, and delicious food!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Spring and Food, Inside and Out: Introducing the Veggie Gardens and Chocolate Ice Cream

Things have been bustling in the yard these days, and we've had productive nights and weekends around the homestead.  We made progress in the food-growing areas, and even a little in the front yard.  We ripped out some horrible bushes and will plant something new once we manage to dig these out.

The chives are bursting.

We bought a little hanging strawberry plant and it's managed to be quite productive so far.

My father came to my aid with his amazing vintage tiller and made me two promising growing spaces.  The first is the same raised bed as last year, which we've beefed up with extra top soil and compost.  The other is the west side of the yard.  They both get strong sunlight, but each at different times. 
Someday, that tiller will be mine.

 I managed to plant some tomatoes in the raised bed and have started some other seeds in the plot along with some kale seedlings.

This dog has discovered that dirt is soft and warm.

I go out there every night and go like this for a little while. It's pretty great.

Oh, and it's peony season, too. 

Though it's still May, these days feel more like summer than spring, and farmer's market brings cheap high-quality eggs, so I decided to break out the ice cream machine.

Being the only chocolate lover in a house of vanilla people, (I was also the only lefty) I learned to be satisfied with "chocolate" ice cream made by stirring chocolate syrup into vanilla ice cream.  Now, I am a grown-up and I get to chose what ice cream to make, and even what kind of chocolate to use.  In this way, getting older has been favorable.  

This ice cream uses only cocoa powder, because that's all I had on hand, thus it's not the super-rich double dark chocolate ice creams you might know.  It almost tastes like hot cocoa or milk chocolate.  Use the best eggs you can find and your desired blend of milk/cream.  My recipe is a rough take on Alton Brown's. 

Chocolate Ice Cream

Combine in a pot over medium heat,
1.5 oz. (around 1/2 c.) cocoa powder (spend some money here.)
4 c. milk/cream (I used 1/2 heavy cream and 2% milk. The more fat the better)

Bring to a simmer then remove from heat.
Meanwhile, take eight egg yolks and whip them with a whisk until they're light and fluffy.

Then, whisk in up to 
9 oz. (~1 1/8 c.) sugar, to taste.

We want to add the egg yolks to the milk mixture, but we can't do it quickly or the yolks will scramble.  Instead, we want to slowly heat the eggs so they thicken our ice cream without cooking into solid pieces of egg.  So, we temper the yolks by adding a small amount of the warm cream mixture and stirring.  Then add a little more, and then slowly stir the yolk mixture into the pot with the cream.

Return this to heat and slowy bring it to 170-175 degrees, or until it's thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, stirring occasionally.

Pour this into a bowl, cover, and let it chill in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.  Run this through your ice cream maker, and enjoy.  This ice cream is very creamy and chocolaty, without being too sweet or bitter.  Really, ice cream is a case where it's worth it to make your own.  It's so easy and cheap.  This makes around a quart and a half of solid ice cream.

Make some ice cream, grow something, and enjoy the spring!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Garden Check-In, Almost Summer's Best, Enlightened: Burgers and Roasted Veggies


It has been a rainy few days around here, but spring is still chugging along and things are growing faster than I can keep up with them.  The ideal is to start all your seeds at once, but I've been doing mine in stages.  (Ok really I've been starting what I can while I watch old episodes of LOST) 
Luckily this means you can see all the different steps in starting seeds at once.  So, here's what's been going on in the basement:

Everybody starts in a long tray that gets covered first by a plastic lid and then with something to keep it warm.  This step is called germination, and it needs warmth but not light.  I keep germinating seeds on top of my dryer.

You can see in that photo that some of the seeds have opened up into little sprouts.  Once they sprout, they go onto the shelf under a light that it very close to the seedlings, almost touching them.

On the right you can see the smallest seedling with just two or three leaves, and on the left you can see the tomato leaves starting to take on their distinct shape (and smell!).  Not long after they reach the stage on the left, seedlings must be moved into bigger pots.  I move them into pots that are made of coconut fiber and can be planted directly in the ground.  I've got kale and tomatoes going here, along with just a few pepper plants.

(The plant on the far left isn't doing very well. It has shot up too quickly and its stem isn't straight.  I moved the light up a bit but it might be too late.  This is why you should always start more than you need.)

On to the food!  The hubs and I finally bought a charcoal grill because we were feeling all summery, and we've been making great use of it ever since.

Last spring, I shared how I make a burger and fries, including big slabs of cheese on top.

I decided to lighten it up a bit by using slightly leaner beef and replacing the fries with grilled vegetables.  The spread:

To begin, I crushed a bunch of dried thyme into the bottom of that big white bowl, then mixed it with some of my favorite mustard, a little red wine vinegar, some olive oil, and lots of salt and pepper.  I let them hang out for a long time, then throw them on skewers.  I use squash, peppers, onions, and crimini, which you might see labeled as baby 'bellas.

I also used some shredded cheese instead.  On a whole wheat bun with tons of vegetables, it was delicious, indulgent, but still lean enough to be eaten more often.  

If it's sunny where you are, get out there and grill some vegetables!  

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Yoga Pose May: Plank Pose and The Best of Early Market

Today is the day I get to feature a yoga pose for Yoga Pose May, organized by Tina from Carrots 'N' Cake and Kate from What Kate Ate.  Check out the project's page here.

My pose is plank pose, and I'm very happy to feature it because I think it's exemplary of what I love about yoga.  This pose isn't difficult to get into, but it's difficult to stay in for long.  It tests strength and balance and is a great pose to transition in and out of.  (In the basic sun salutation, we move from a forward bend into a plank pose before lowering ourselves to the floor and moving into upward facing dog.)

My living room is my yoga studio.  Some nights I close the curtains and have lowish light, but it's also lovely during the day with full sun streaming through the windows.  Either way I have to share the room with my dog.  Here's my plank!

I recommend the following posture after every practice.

We've had three markets so far this season and they've been full of all the things we expect from early market season: lettuce, sprouts, asparagus, leeks, herbs, and rhubarb.  Yum.

 Three other lovely bloggers have also covered plank pose today, so check out Carrie, Brittany, and Katie.

If you need ideas for asparagus, leeks, or dill, click those links for some old recipes.  If you're lucky enough to have fresh peas around, you should be cooking with those too!  It's finally market season so get out there and enjoy it!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Calorie Labeling and a Food Processor Meal: Gyros with fresh Pita and Hummus

I listen to NPR every day.  There are many programs that I love (Splended Table, Fresh Air) and many that  I can barely stand, and Marketplace falls into the latter camp for a variety of reasons, but I still tune in sometimes because their stories can be interesting.  In particular, it's useful to me to hear how the mainstream media covers food issues.
Today, Marketplace had a story about calorie labeling.  They had an interesting statistician on, whose work address whether or not calorie labeling in restaurants will affect public behavior.  They're talking about this because the Health Care Reform Act has a provision that requires calorie labeling.  From this article in the New England Journal of Medicine by the one and only Marion Nestle:

"Tucked away on page 455 of the 906-page health care reform act (Public Law 111-148) is a provision for listing calorie counts on the menu boards of chain restaurants or adjacent to each food offered in vending machines and in retail stores. Establishments with 20 or more locations nationwide must post calories “in a clear and conspicuous manner,” along with “a succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake” — presumably the 2000-kcal-per-day standard that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses for the “Nutrition Facts” on packaged foods. When the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 went into effect in 1994, it required that nutrition labels be placed on food products but exempted restaurants. The new law removes that exemption."

The story from Marketplace, which you can read and listen to here, joins the chorus of mainstream media which has diminished the importance of this provision by framing its justification only in terms of how effective it is in immediately shaping the behavior of consumers.  The conclusion the story came to was that the effect calorie labeling had on customer's behavior in their experiment (at a Chinese restaurant) was "very, very close to zero." 

The point I want to make is this:  whether or not calorie labeling changes how people buy food right now, this provision is an important and significant one.  Americans should be proud that, in rare form, our government is forcing corporations to be forthright about what they're feeding us.  As you hopefully know by now, industrial food companies have consistently lied and deceived consumers about what is in their products, while the government simultaneously has enabled much of this behavior.  

Full disclosure about food is a fundamental right, one which we've been denied thoroughly in the past, and this provision brings us one step closer to an open system, where consumers can make informed choices and reward decent businesses with our dollars.  So, it doesn't so much matter if calorie labels will make people decide to order the salad instead of the burger.  It's a step in the right direction, and knowing is half the battle.  The next step is requiring full ingredients lists.  

If you want to know more about food policy, I highly recommend checking out Marion's blog, Food Politics.

I'd like to share with you the beautiful meal that we planned to celebrate our new food processor.  I've had it for a couple months now and can say that it was well worth the money.  This meal was a bit of work, but produced huge portions that made great leftovers.

The machine came with a dough blade, so I started by making this pita recipe, which I'm still not totally confident about.  The processor has a special function.  It is fantastic, especially for wet doughs, and has gotten a ton of use.  I felt pretty cool weighing my ingredients out on my scale and then processing them in this fabulous machine.

You just pulse the dry ingredients, slowly add your liquid, and BAM! dough!  It's amazing.

While I worked on the bread, I had some dried mango slices soaking in hot water.  I love dried mango and keep it on hand as a snack.  When we were making this meal, I remembered that our favorite falafel place has a mango curry sauce, so I tried to replicate it myself.

Next I used the machine to shred some cabbage.  This job isn't bad by hand, but it's WAY faster and more uniform when done by machine.

Then I worked on the hummus.  I use dried beans, but often forget to soak them.  If you do, you can still just boil away, but it'll take at least a couple hours.

Garlic in the machine, super fast and easy.  (You can also see the tiny spatula I bought recently.  I love this thing and use it a lot.  It's great for getting the last bit out of jars.)

All done up.

Along with some tzatziki.

That sauce, which was just the mangos in the processor with chilis, tomatillos, lime, olive oil, curry, and salt and pepper.  

That red cabbage sure looks pretty in a jadeite bowl.  It's just dressed with vinagar, mustard, olive oil, and salt and pepper.

We made Alton Brown's gyro recipe and it was honestly just ok, but all together it made an excellent meal and solidified the processor as a smart kitchen purchase.  This meal was a great blend of flavors and textures.


Healthy food is beautiful, no?

Until next time, read Marion's blog and enjoy spring!  Seed update to come very soon.
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