Sunday, December 12, 2010

Winter Storm Moussaka

As promised, we had a bit of storm last night. When I returned from a cookie exchange yesterday and the only thing falling from the sky was rain, I had my doubts. But as promised, a few hours later when I looked out the window, the rain had turned to snow.

This was the moment I had been thinking about last summer when, in a bit of a panic, I had begun squirreling away my CSA harvest. At the time I imagined rewarding myself with something hot from the oven after a hard day shoveling the snow away outside.

Lucky for me, I hired someone to do my snow removal, which adds even more joy to the fact that I can enjoy the fresh taste of summer on such a blustery day. With most of the labor of chopping and preparing done this past in July, I had plenty of free time to camp out on the couch and catch up on a few movies and some reading while my frozen moussaka cooked.

I took the frozen casserole out of the freezer yesterday and left it to thaw out in the refrigerator. After its day in waiting I could make out the ingredients, and it looked as if the eggplant had done well in the freezer, as had the meat and tomato mixture beneath.

The only thing left to do was to make the béchamel sauce for the top. I had combined the best of two moussaka recipes when I originally prepared it last summer and pulled them out again today for the cream sauce recipe.

I was missing one key ingredient from the first version (ricotta) and one from the second (eggs). My driveway hadn’t been cleared yet, so I decided to again combine the two recipes, and make due with whatever I had on hand. The final recipe included butter, flour, skim milk, nutmeg and Parmesan cheese, which one of the recipes said could substitute for kefalotyri cheese.

After cooking the sauce into a very thickened state that resembled mayonnaise, I poured it on top of the waiting casserole and topped with some more Parmesan, before heading back to the couch. If I had spent the afternoon shoveling it might have reminded me of the snow outside, but since I hadn’t seen the snow close up yet, I slipped it in the oven without a second thought. As it cooked, it steamed up my windows filling my house with a beautiful warm comforting smell and erasing the winter landscape outside.

When it was done, it looked so pretty that I had a hard time believing I had made it myself. After thanking my July self for thinking ahead I ate up and found it tasted as good as it looked. I was worried the eggplant wouldn’t taste very good or get mushy in the freezer, but it was the right consistency and freezing it had taken some of the pungency away. The eggplant matched well with the cinnamon-tomato meat sauce and will go on my list of eggplant-approved recipes, which require that I can’t taste to much eggplant.

Since it’s only December, I’m glad to say I still have a stockpile waiting for me in the freezer. When I pulled out the moussaka, I found some more pesto, along with a pan of lasagna, some beet burgers and what’s left of the preserved 10 pounds of tomatoes. With winter sure to keep throwing snow at me, all I have to do is make sure I have enough movies and reading materials on hand to enjoy it while my bounty cooks.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tortilla Española

I’ve never been very good at making omelets. Instead of looking like a fancy folded egg, mine always look more scrambled. After a little experiment this morning I know why. I’ve been stingy on the oil.

After returning from a Thanksgiving trip to Spain and wanting to recreate some of the dishes I had there, I knew the Tortilla Española was the one to start with. Similar to a frittata, not the flour or corn tortillas used in Mexican cooking, it was made of eggs and potatoes, two ingredients I had on hand this snowy morning.

I’ve been hoarding the last few items of my fall CSA deliveries and am down to two bags of potatoes, a few carrots, two onions, a head of garlic, and some Brussels sprouts that need to be eaten pronto. I will be making those later today to help them avoid the fate of the final two beets and one daikon radish that ended up in the compost bin yesterday. Somehow over the course of November they simultaneously dried up on the outside and grown soft inside.

I had three Spanish omelets during my short stay on the Costa del Sol of Spain. Two were identical copies of one another, perfect 6-inch round golden pancakes of egg and potato about an inch and half thick. The third, served as part of a meal of tapas, was about double the thickness of the other two and sliced out of a larger version, like a piece of pie. It was runnier than the other two, and my least favorite, so I set out to reproduce the other smaller version.

I peeled and thinly sliced a large Yukon gold before adding it to a pan that had been heated with some olive oil. In truth, quite a bit of olive oil. I usually try to skimp a bit on oil, using non-stick spray instead, but I wanted to give this my best shot and knew I would need a lot of oil to do it right. My mouth began to water at the sight of the potatoes somehow frying and boiling simultaneously. When they were done I slid them into a colander as the recipe had suggested to drain some of the oil. I set it on a plate with the hope of reusing some of the oil in the next step, but ended up with only a few drops.

I added the potatoes to two beaten eggs and mixed it all together carefully. Meanwhile, I added a bit more oil to the pan and let it cook over medium-high heat. The recipe said this was the most important step, otherwise the eggs would stick and I wouldn’t be able to flip it over – the key step in making a tortilla.

As it was, I probably let the oil get too hot. When I poured the egg mixture into the pan it sizzled on the spot. I waited a full minute before turning the burner down as the recipe stated, again to keep it from sticking, which was probably too long. By the time I turned the heat down to medium, the whole tortilla was nearly cooked and ready to be flipped.

Because I used so much oil, I had no trouble flipping the tortilla out of the pan and onto a plate and sliding it back into the pan to cook through on the other side. Once it was back in the pan it only took a few seconds before it was done. It was much easier than my past attempts at flipping omelets.

In addition to plenty of olive oil, the potatoes seem to make the tortilla easy to work with. Even with an omelet with plenty of filling inside, it rarely takes on as much heft as the potatoes seemed to in my tortilla. And the ratio of egg to filling is much different than a standard omelet. It was more like I was flipping over a stack of potatoes with a few eggs in it, than an egg dish with some filling inside.

After it was done, I patiently waited a few minutes to let it set before taking my first bite. It looked like a pretty close copy of the tortillas I had eaten in Spain, and tasted pretty close too. The only difference was that mine was a little more well done and had a higher concentration of olive oil. I’ll definitely make it again, using less oil and watching the heat. I also have some new tricks for standard omelets. Next time I’ll splurge and use some extra olive oil to make it easier to work with. But I just may stick to tortillas from now on.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Each His (or Her) Own Thanksgiving

This month’s issue of Real Simple features a number of essays on memories around Thanksgiving. As I read them on the elliptical machine this morning I was struck by how different each memory. There are a million different nuances to celebrating this “traditional” holiday.

It seemed like the perfect read this morning because I had eaten my own Thanksgiving meal last night and needed to burn off a few extra calories. As we do every year, my cooking group holds our own Thanksgiving dinner in weeks leading up to the holiday. It gives us a chance to try out the recipes we may later make for our families or to bring a dish that might not be accepted at our home feast.

For my contribution I made Buttercup Squash and Apple Bake. I had been saving the buttercup squash I received in one of my fall CSA boxes. These squash, which look like something like miniature green-striped pumpkins, were new to me. I love squash and was excited to try out a new variety to my usual acorn, butternut and spaghetti.

Because our dinner was planned for after work on a Monday, I planned to make them in the slow cooker, doing all my prep on Sunday night. As I chopped the buttercup open I noticed the cavity inside was smaller than an acorn squash and the meat itself was more similar in consistency to a sweet potato. I worked up quite a sweat paring the thick green peel off with my butcher knife and was lucky I didn’t lose a finger in the process. By the time I was done my hands were stained yellow, I assume from all the healthy vitamins inside.

The recipe was simple, calling for two apples, butter, brown sugar and mace, besides two squash. I didn’t have mace, so I used nutmeg instead, which seemed to be a worthy substitute. After a day of cooking on low, everything had blended into a perfect side dish that I felt was worthy of serving to others.

As for the rest of the meal, everything else was perfect too. We had turkey breast, wild rice stuffing, cauliflower gratin, mashed potatoes, spicy Moroccan chickpeas, sweet potato rolls, and chocolate walnut torte.

It may not have been a traditional meal, but like every group that gets together to share a version of this feast, we created a flavor all our own. And, as with any good Thanksgiving dinner, it was just as tasty when I ate the leftovers today.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bree’s Soup, My Tomatoes

As I mentioned in a previous post, Learning to Be Flexible, my cooking club has been meeting for 10 years now. The general idea of our group is that meet monthly around a specific theme, each bringing a dish to share. That’s 120 get-togethers and a whole lot of recipes over the past decade. A few recipes have made more than one appearance, and many have made my list of go-to choices.

Bree’s Lentil-Tomato Soup is one of those. To someone like me who tends to eat a mostly a vegetarian diet (my recent over-consumption of bacon notwithstanding) lentils are an important food. They are a main ingredient in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, which happens to be my favorite, and are super-healthy. I even learned from Wikipedia that lentils are the third highest source of protein after soybeans and hemp. They are also high in fiber, folate, vitamin B1, and iron.

All are really good reasons to love lentils, but that’s not why I keep returning to Bree’s Lentil-Tomato Soup. It actually tastes really good. It also is very easy to make, and because lentils are inexpensive, it’s very economical. And, since I usually have lentils in my pantry I can make it whenever I get the urge.

I got the urge this week and in just a few minutes I was mixing the ingredients together in my slow cooker. When I got to the tomatoes in the recipe I reached for my freezer handle instead of the pantry door. The moment I had been waiting for was finally here. It was time to dip into my stash of oven dried tomatoes (10 Pounds of Tomatoes).

It felt so satisfying to drop those tomatoes in with the rest of the ingredients and not just because it was easier than opening up a can. It felt good to know that I had planned ahead for this moment and that the tomatoes had been nurtured under the same sun I had enjoyed this summer.

And the taste? I could tell the difference. It may have been the same recipe I’d been served by others and made myself many times before, but this time the tomatoes made the recipe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

One Month Since My Last Delivery, Still Cooking

It’s been almost a month since I picked up my last delivery of CSA vegetables and I’m still working my way through the box. It’s surprising how much easier it is to keep vegetables in the fall than it is in the summer. I’m using the same refrigerator to store them, but they seem to last forever without the heat outside the door. Even the spinach I was sure to use first in the summer has become indestructible. The leaves of winter spinach are much thicker and remain crisp almost a month later.

Last week I set my sights on the head broccoli, which was as fresh as it was when I received it four weeks ago. I decided to make a recipe with only what I had in the house. I had a lot of things in the house, including the makings for vegetable stir fry, but instead I decided to use the rice to make yet another cheesy casserole.

I had in my mind a recipe for Broccoli Cheese and Rice from Cooking Light that I had made before, but that required Velveeta. I wanted to see if I could make something as good without that famous cheese. The ingredients I chose for my Iron Chef challenge included the broccoli, rice, milk, fat-free cream cheese, reduced-fat cheddar cheese, and of course the bacon that seems to be showing up in all my recipes lately.

I steamed the broccoli, cooked the bacon and rice (separately) and made a cheesy, creamy sauce with the milk, cream cheese and cheddar. Then I combined it all together and let it meld into one in the oven. As you can probably guess from the ingredients, it was as comforting as a casserole can be.

Which made me wonder, after I had eaten a very large serving, just how many calories I had ingested. I put the recipe through the recipe analyzer at Calorie Count and at Fit Watch and came up with two answers within a hundred calories of each other. Calorie Count told me that it was about 300 calories and 13 grams of fat. Fit Watch told me it was a more diet-friendly 216 calories and 8 grams of fat. My guess, even though I’m not sure Calorie Count figured the bacon in, is that that site is closer to right.

Comparing it to the Broccoli Cheese and Rice, a side dish, which comes in at 137 calories for 8 servings and 4 grams of fat, the estimates I received don’t seem too far off, since I calculated for 6 servings. In any case, like the Cheesy Chicken Casserole I made a few weeks ago, this won’t be a regular in the rotation for health reasons, but it’s good for every once in a while.

I have lots more healthy options waiting in my crisper, including beets, carrots and more Brussels sprouts. I don’t think any of those go too well with cheese sauce and the bacon is nearly gone. I promise to make something healthy again soon.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Raise High the Brussels Sprout

I have only a vague memory of Brussels sprouts from my childhood. On the list of the best (Ruebens) and worst (liver and onions) recipes that made our regular rotation it didn’t really even stand out.

I remembered it as a bland side dish that didn’t come with much fanfare. Touted as “diet” food in the same way iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese, and for some reason, toast, was in the late 70s and early 80s, it was celebrated for its limited calories and not much more. Occasionally as an effort was made to cut back on calorie, the tiny cabbage heads appeared on our plates. They were served whole and left a puddle of water that had soaked in between their leaves as they bobbed around in a pot on the stove. They tasted like nothing really, or possible an inert gas.

As I grew up, my encounter with the Brussels sprout was rare. In fact I don’t think I saw them again until one November when my Cooking Light cooking group celebrated our annual Thanksgiving dinner. Held in the weeks before the holiday, it gives us a way to try out some new side dishes and desserts that may not be served at our own feasts. That night as I scooped the shredded vegetable side dish onto my plate, I had no idea what I was taking.

I suspected it was cabbage, the only other vegetable in a similar shade I had seen cut in such a way. As I took my first bite, I was delighted. It was wonderful, a tangy tart bite and of course a little bacon. As I would later find out it was the lowly Brussels sprout in the recipe, which I now know is Warm Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Red Onions. The apples, onions and sprouts were pan fried in a bath of water and vinegar.

I liked it so much I brought it to my own family banquet and it was as appreciated and loved there as well. Since then, I have passed the recipe on a number of times to family and friends who often think it is cabbage, but are surprised to find out they have just traveled to Brussels.

This year was the first I kept my CSA share through winter, making it the first that Brussels sprouts have appeared in my box. When I picked up my last delivery, I piled my box high with bags of it, trading my now lesser favorites, lettuce and radishes, for extra portions of the tiny cruciferous vegetable.

I tried a new recipe and was surprised to find out, it too was quite good. I had long thought the secret to eating the sprout was shredding it up until you weren’t sure what it was. But it turns out, you can eat it almost whole and it is just as lovely. The recipe I made, Eating Well’s Brussels Sprouts with Bacon-Horseradish Cream, is a new favorite, featuring steamed sprouts cut in half. The sauce is simple, just horseradish and reduced-fat sour cream, but it is a perfect pairing for the vegetable’s slightly biting taste. It was also versatile, tasting delicious both hot and cold.

Of course the recipe also features bacon, as does the Warm Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Red Onions, which always adds that special something to a recipe. But I’m sure it’s the Brussels sprouts that are doing it this time. After all, bacon was served with liver and onions too and that did nothing for that dish.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ending One Season, Beginning Another

I picked up my last CSA delivery this week. Which means the winter I’ve been dreading since it turned cold over Labor Day weekend is really coming. We’ve had such a beautiful fall it’s hard to believe the party may soon be over. But as the trees become more and more bare every day, their leaves piled up beneath them, it’s easy to see it’s the end of the growing season.

As such, I’ve been switching from my summer recipes to my winter staples. Last week I made Borscht with about half of the beets I’d been storing, some carrots that had been collecting dust in the crisper, and a few of the tomatoes I oven roasted a few months ago. It's not a stapel yet, but I first made it last fall and liked it so much, I’ve been craving it for a while. But somehow hot beet soup didn’t sound so appealing in the summer heat. Now its crazy colorful look and acidic taste is a perfect match for fall’s show.

Tonight I made another favorite winter recipe, Spinach Pesto and Chicken Couscous, with one of the bags of spinach I picked up this week. It’s nothing like the spinach pesto I made a few weeks ago, even though I used pretty much the same ingredients. For some reason, probably because the couscous is warm, I only make this in the cooler months. After a summer of cold couscous salads, it is comforting in a non-cheesy casserole way on a night when it is dark way too early.

Although my deliveries have stopped I have enough vegetables to keep cooking for a month or two. I’ve been stockpiling the hearty vegetables such as squash, onions, garlic and potatoes. And without the humid weather, the vegetable that seemed so perishable in the summer, such as broccoli, are lasting a little longer. Beyond that I have a few casseroles, pesto, and more tomatoes stored away in the freezer.

I plan to keep writing over the winter as I dip into that stash, and make use of whatever else I can find locally at the winter farmer’s market and from other local sources. Winter may be the dead season outdoors, but it’s often the time when the kitchen comes to life.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A New Take on a Comforting Casserole

When my sister called to tell me about an update she had made to the Chicken Divan recipe we knew and loved, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I made a version of it myself. I remembered the casserole, which was made with cream of chicken soup, mayonnaise, chicken, broccoli, and cheddar cheese, as a comforting dish of cheesy goodness.

My sister had upped the ante, substituting Swiss cheese and adding ham and cauliflower along with the broccoli. She told me I had to make it. I knew I would, but I wanted to give it my own twist. It wasn’t long after I hung up the phone until I started researching.

As if by destiny I happened upon a chicken cauliflower casserole in an old stack of Eating Well magazines. It’s wasn’t exactly the same as either the original Chicken Divan or my sister’s updated version, but it did call for Swiss cheese. It also added pasta to the mix, but being a fan of carbohydrates I didn’t mind.

Instead of cream of chicken soup and mayonnaise, the recipe had me making my own cream sauce with skim milk and flour and then adding the Swiss cheese. For the tang of the missing mayonnaise, I added apple cider vinegar instead of the white wine the recipe called for.

Since the chicken was the main ingredient of chicken divan, I even used two chicken breasts in my recipe. Since I’m not a huge meat fan, I normally only use one chicken breast no matter what the recipe calls for, especially in casseroles with other ingredients.

The finished product was a pretty good imitation of the original. The sauce tasted pretty close to what I remember and because of my extra chicken it was definitely meaty. I used a small head of broccoli and about a half a head of cauliflower and the addition of green crucifer made the casserole more colorful than the original Eating Well version.

And as with the best casseroles, it was definitely comforting. It’ll find a place in my ever-expanding recipe collection. It won’t be something I make every week, but when I need a little dish of cheesy goodness I have a couple recipes to choose from.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When the CSA Box Hands You Spinach …

I love spinach. It’s one of my staples. During the winter I buy one of those plastic tubs every week. So when I saw a bag of fresh spinach in my CSA box yesterday, I was excited. I don’t remember eating the green since last spring.

I usually make a salad of it, along with feta cheese, walnuts, balsamic vinegar and oil. I had that for lunch today, even though I was craving the pesto cavatappi from the Noodles down the street.

By dinnertime, my pesto craving hadn’t subsided and I knew I had to take care of it. My own basil plant had withered up and died weeks ago and there hadn’t been basil with a vegetable delivery in a while. Without any basil in sight, and not wanting to dip into the pesto I had preserved in the freezer, I almost found myself at the store buying a jar of the pre-made stuff.

Luckily my guilt got the better of me. How could I justify buying something off the shelf when I had a load of fresh produce at home? As I whizzed past the grocery store (and Noodles) I told myself I could make something better at home. And, if it had to be pesto, it was perfectly acceptable to dip into my winter stash in early-October. But back at home, I wasn’t giving up so easily. I wanted to satisfy my craving, but I also wanted to come up with something creative on my own, without the frozen stuff.

The answer, of course, was spinach pesto. Just because I was used to making my recipe with basil that didn’t mean it was the only way to make it. I had seen plenty of recipes for pesto using other ingredients, from arugula to sun-dried tomatoes.

So before I knew it I had exactly what I was craving, if only in a different way. I used the spinach as well as the same-old garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, added a little leftover parsley and substituted ground almonds for the pine nuts.

After processing it all together, it looked pretty much the same as my old recipe. The only difference I could see was that it was a brighter shade of green. It definitely looked better than any jarred pesto I’ve seen. And on top of whole-wheat penne, it definitely satisfied my craving and tasted pretty close to Noodles.

I also felt pretty satisfied with my little exercise in problem solving. I think that’s one of the best parts about a CSA share. No matter what the box gives me, I get a chance to make something good with it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Not Giving Up Yet

If I was judging by its beauty alone, it would one of my favorite vegetables. I love the contrast of the dark green leaves and the neon pink stem. I can practically see the vitamins and minerals inside.

But unlike looking at a million other pretty vegetables, I fail to get excited about chard. Instead finding a way to cook it seems like work. So last week when I opened my box and saw it inside, I did a silent groan inside. What was I going to do with that?

The answer is usually the same – soup. But having just had two weeks of soup, I had to stretch a bit further. After momentarily considering putting it in a vase on the kitchen table, I decided I was up to the challenge. After all, I only have a few more weeks of vegetables left. Finding out how to love vegetables I never knew I could is part of the fun of having a CSA share. I couldn’t turn back now.

While it wasn’t exactly inspirational, an idea came to me quite quickly. I was using up some flatbread and making a personal pan pizza when the chard caught my eye poking out of the crisper drawer. I’m a big fan of spinach on pizza, so why not chard? I started by topping my crust with a Laughing Cow cheese spread before adding tomato sauce. On top of that I added the chard (minus the stem), Kalamata olives, a bit of fresh mozzarella and blue cheese sprinkles. I know it sounds a little heavy on the cheese, but I’m from Wisconsin, so I’m used to it. The cheese blend went nicely with the bitter chard and salty olives.

For the rest of the chard I made Stuffed Swiss Chard from my Bon Appétit Vegetables cookbook. Similar to cabbage rolls, rice and vegetables are wrapped inside the chard and then cooked in tomato sauce. The stuffing included brown rice, onions, garlic, parsley, cabbage and mushrooms. I had cabbage to use from my CSA box, making the recipe a two-fer.

After steaming the chard to make it pliable, I wrapped it around a couple teaspoons of the stuffing before cooking the little green and pink packages in tomato sauce. The secret ingredient in the sauce was cinnamon, which made the kitchen smell a little exotic. The stuffed chard was topped with feta cheese, which went well with the cinnamon-tomato sauce.

Overall, the recipe was a success, except for the fact that I added too much parsley. It overpowered everything else, and reminded me that I don’t really like parsley. But then again, maybe I just haven’t found the right recipe yet. I’m beginning to see the beauty in all vegetables.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Soup Diet

I’ve finally begun to embrace fall. This comes with the endless whir of my blender and gallons of soup just as summer temperatures seem to be returning. No matter, though, I’m enjoying all my creations even as I’m dabbing the perspiration from my brow.

It all started two weeks ago when cauliflower appeared in my CSA box. I don’t have anythingagainst cauliflower, but I don’t really love it either. When I see it on a vegetable tray I avoid it unless the olives and broccoli have already been eaten. And cooked, my preference leans toward cheese topped or in a cream-based soup.

I set out to find a different way to cook it and use up some of my other vegetables and was
excited to find a recipe for Cauliflower and Kohlrabi soup.The recipe calls for roasting the cauliflower and kohlrabi, then cooking them in chicken broth, before pureeing them and adding cream. I used skim milk instead to make it creamy and little healthier, but I didn’t notice the difference. It was fabulous and will become my new go-to cauliflower recipe. I added a little Parmesan to the top and it was much better than any cream of cauliflower soup I’ve tasted anywhere else, and better for me too.

Next, I moved on to the leeks in my CSA box. My employer was having a slow cooker potluck lunch as a United Way fundraiser, so I made curried lentil, leek, and kale soup, using up the kale from my delivery. I like plain curried lentil soup, and was pleased to find that the lentils and kale added a little something extra to it.

I used the other leek this past Sunday to make potato, leek, and ham soup, which cooked all day while I went to a new volunteer position. I was volunteering for the REAP Farm-School-Program, which provides fruit and vegetable snacks to local schools. This week the snack was cherry tomatoes and my job was to sort through the tomatoes for the ones without cracks, discarding the ones that couldn’t be used into large plastic buckets. Later I helped seal the cherries in snack-sized portions and label them for the schools.

I was even able to take some of the discards home with me. And when I say some, I mean a lot, like a garbage-bag-full. While they weren’t very appealing raw, I knew they would make great soup. I threw the bag over my shoulder and took them home to my waiting slow cooker of potato, leek, and ham soup, which I ate while I made my tomato soup.

To make the tomato soup, I altered a recipe from Cooking Light for Creamy Balsamic Tomato Soup. I roasted the tomatoes in balsamic vinegar, beef broth, and brown sugar before pureeing them in the blender. Next, I put them all through my food mill to take out any skins or seeds, a step I had often skipped in the past. The extra step was definitely worth it. The soup was so creamy and I didn’t bite into one errant seed. And the soup was so good as is, I didn’t even bother adding the cream.

So now only the tomato soup remains. I’ve had it for lunch and dinner today even as the heat rises outside. I picked up a new box of vegetables yesterday, but they’ll have to wait until I’m done with the tomato soup. I haven’t decided if soup is still on the menu. That will all depend on the weather. Or not.

Monday, September 13, 2010

BLT – Finally

After dreaming of it for so long, I finally made my first BLT last week. And how was it? Pretty darn good. It also felt good to finally satisfy this craving. It’s unbelievable how something so unassuming can rise to such heights. I may be getting a little dramatic, but the fact that I’ve been thinking about this BLT all summer, is probably why I enjoyed it so much.

Like most of everything I made this summer my BLT took a little planning, namely remembering to buy bacon and eating it before it got moldy. I thought about making a gourmet version that a friend had recommended after I blogged about my moldy bacon last time, but I didn’t remember to check the recipe before I left for the store.

I also didn’t remember to check my mayonnaise supply and my BLT was almost thwarted this time because of the lack of this sandwich spread. I was able to scrape enough out of the jar for my first two before I ran out. For my third – I ate them three days in a row for lunch, not in one sitting – I substituted jarred green goddess salad dressing. This is the one flavor of store-bought salad dressing I haven’t made on my own, so I usually have a jar in the refrigerator. It tastes particularly good on a taco salad, but it turns out, not that great on a BLT.

I’m not a huge fan of standing over a stove dodging splattering grease, so I usually make bacon in the microwave. It’s easier, but it comes out chewier that I like it. This time I decided to try making it in the oven as I remembered a friend doing. I baked it at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, which was just a few minutes too long. Since I didn’t have to tend to the bacon over the stove I was able to get some other work done around the house while it cooked. I checked it at 15 minutes and decided it wasn’t crispy enough so I put it back in the oven for five more minutes, which turned out to be a little too long for the pieces on the end. They were pretty well done, but they still tasted good. This was still bacon, after all.

After a summer of trying some pretty crazy things (beet burgers come to mind) returning to the classic BLT just as summer ends seems just about right. I have some bacon left in the package and, if I don’t eat it for breakfast, I will revisit this classic again. I just need to remember to get mayonnaise from the store. For this old classic, it’s the only dressing that will do.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What is My Recipe?

This is the first post in what I hope will be many for the FoodBuzz Project Food Blog Challenge. I am competing, along with more than a thousand other food bloggers, in a series of blog challenges to win prizes including a featured blog on This is my response to the first challenge, which asks participants to create a post that defines them as a food blogger and that tells the reader why they should be the next food blog star. The entry will be voted on by judges and other participants. Readers can vote too, for a special reader's choice designation, but you will need to register at FoodBuzz. To vote for me, click on the Project Food Blog ad at right starting September 20.

So what makes me different as a food blogger? Like any good recipe, it’s the combination of ingredients:

Cooking By The Box Recipe
One Part Local, Fresh, Organic Vegetables
One Part Memories and Reflections
One Part Creativity
One Part Practicality and Midwest Sensibility

One Part Local, Fresh, Organic Vegetables
Local, fresh, organic vegetables from my Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share are the main ingredients of this blog. This was my third summer buying a CSA share, but my first writing about it. My intent was to keep a record of recipes so that next year, as in the past, I wouldn’t have to scramble to come up with ideas each week.

I hoped writing it down would help me remember the creative uses for the tried and true vegetables like cucumber and zucchini, and those that stumped me, such as fennel and eggplant. That was the goal, but writing week after week has become more than just an account of what I cooked. Which leads me to the second ingredient.

One Part Memories and Reflections
I was born and raised in Wisconsin, only two hours from where I live now. While the land is slightly different, my CSA offers me many of the same vegetables I ate as a child. The tomatoes, squash and yes, even beets, are the foods that nurtured and sustained me, my family, and ancestors before them. Each time I grasp one, it’s as if someone from my past has handed it to me, whispering a story I have long known and that I can’t help but tell again.

For every post I write that talks strictly about a recipe, you’ll find one that celebrates the memory of a different time or place, or the cook who made it best. I think this is one of the best parts of eating and I’m glad to celebrate it.

One Part Creativity
Eating the same vegetables over and over again all summer long could get boring if I didn’t change things up a bit from week to week. While I enjoy the family favorites I can make by heart, I also love the unexpected new favorites I find along the way.

Trying new things with old favorites and seeing vegetables I don’t necessarily love in a new way nourishes my body and soul. Writing about it here is the way I share the meals I make even when we can’t gather around the same table to enjoy them.

One Part Practicality and Midwest Sensibility
On the other side of creativity lives practicality. This is the part of me that sees my CSA share as a business agreement. I signed up for it and I need to take it seriously. I must eat every vegetable I paid for and not let anything go to waste. Thankfully, this is also the part of me that knows in the Midwest summer does not last forever, and who is adept at finding ways to preserve the extra bounty of summer for the long winter months ahead.

When this part of me takes over, the recipes may not be as fun as when I’m feeling creative, but I’ll thank me when I take the first bite of a hot stew filled with summer-preserved tomatoes when my CSA share is just a memory.

So What Does it Make?
If I could really mix all these ingredients together, I’m not sure what it would taste like, although, for some reason macaroni and cheese with some fresh vegetables to make it a little healthier comes to mind. Whatever form you imagine these ingredients baking into, I hope it tastes familiar enough to feel a little comforting. I also hope it keeps you guessing too. In my mind, that’s the perfect recipe for the next food blog star.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It Sure Feels Like Fall

It seems like fall has arrived right on time as September arrived. Fall-like weather pulled in following the torrential rain Thursday night. Perhaps, not coincidentally, my slow cooker made an appearance on the kitchen counter this week. I had heard word of the approaching cold front and thought it would perfect timing to try a recipe I saw in the Isthmus last week.

The recipe for Eggplant Sausage Stew appeared in an article by Terese Allen discussing the problem that is the eggplant. It seems I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with them. I don’t like any of the usual recipes, such as baba ganoush, eggplant Parmesan, or ratatouille. Unlike beets, which I’ve learned to like, I don’t really care for the purple vegetable anyway you slice it. I’ll tolerate it in moussaka, because of the heavily spiced meat and béchamel sauce, but if I had my choice, I’d replace with it zucchini in a heartbeat.

The other recipe, Eggplant Curry Pizza, covered the taste of the eggplant in curry sauce and then used them as a topping for pizza. Although I love curry, I wasn’t sure I could stomach a pizza where curried eggplant was the main ingredient.

The Eggplant Sausage Stew called for spicy Italian sausage, which I substituted with turkey sausage for no other reason than I know where it is on the shelf in the grocery store. Since I don’t buy meat very often, it’s the same way I buy most meat.

I made the stew early in the week before the temperature dropped, on a night when I knew I would be getting home from work late. It smelled so welcoming to open the door to a home-cooked meal. I did a little prep work, such as browning the turkey sausage, onions, garlic and eggplant the night before and then including all the other ingredients together in the slow cooker before I left for work.

As with other recipes I’ve converted to the slow cooker, it worked quite well, with the tomatoes cooking down during the day and melding with the other ingredients. The only thing I noticed was that the stew tasted very boozy. Sure enough, afterwards I did a little research and found some evidence that less moisture is lost during slow cooking, making less of the alcohol evaporate. Next time I will use a little less wine and substitute either water or broth for the rest. Overall the stew was wonderful and will find a permanent place in my recipe binder. I'm glad to say I've found a new way to eat eggplant.

Because I’m not ready to say goodbye to summer, entirely I made a cold Thai cucumber salad to go with my stew. I made it earlier this year for a Thai cooking club dinner, but this time I only used what I had on hand. The complete recipe is listed in the recipe panel, but I only used a few ingredients in this week's rendition. It actually turned out quite well. Mine included 1 chopped cucumber, 1 clove crushed garlic, a few sprigs of parsley chopped, 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons of lime juice, a dash of sugar, and chopped peanuts. It was completely different than the stew and made me remember that summer really isn’t over yet. At least I hope not.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Experimental Potato Salad

Where I come from there are two types of potato salad. There’s the kind that you find in most delis, the yellow kind with the celery and eggs, and German potato salad with the hot bacon and the tart vinegar dressing. I like them both for different reasons. The yellow kind is refreshing on hot day and I love the crunch of the celery and of course the hard boiled eggs. The German potato salad tastes a bit more complex, and depending when you get there, is served hot.

I have no strong leaning toward one or the other. If given the option of having both on a buffet, I’d gladly, and probably have, fill up two of my precious little Styrofoam compartments with a little of each. But as much I like them, I’ve never made either. During the summer when I crave it the most, it seems like such a hassle to boil, peel and slice the potatoes when the weather is hot.

Add to that the fact that it is easy to get everywhere else in the summer, and there hasn’t ever been any reason for me to make it myself. This summer though, I only remembered having it once while I was up north at my brother’s cottage, so I decided to give it a go myself.

Of course I didn’t make it easy on myself by choosing one or the other. Instead I made Potato, Corn and Cherry Tomato salad with basil dressing. It was about as different as I could get from the salads I had been brought up on. I picked it for the basil dressing, having received a large bunch in last week’s box and wanting to try something other than my usual pesto. I made it Tuesday when I got the vegetables and it kept well until tonight.

I had to supplement my CSA vegetables with Eugster's "famous sweet corn" and red potatoes. I had planned to buy potatoes at the farmer’s market, but didn’t get to the one on the square on Saturday or the one in Monona on Sunday, so I ended up buying them at Woodman’s. It felt a little strange after a summer of eating only local produce to buy a bag of potatoes in the grocery store.

Making potato salad wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. After rinsing off the potatoes all I had to do was boil them. My recipe didn’t even ask me to skin them. Probably the most labor-intensive part was taking the cooked corn off the cob, but that was nothing too.

In the end the salad was good, interesting, I suppose. The basil dressing was the best part. I liked how it tasted so different with each very different component of the salad. The combination of corn, potatoes and cherry tomatoes, also was unexpected. I liked the salad well enough, but I’m not in a huge hurry to make it again. It wasn’t too difficult to make, but I think I prefer the other kinds of potato salad more. Maybe I’ll try one of those someday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Letting the Vegetables Decide

There is something to be said for giving up a little control over the food you eat. In fact, one of the best parts of getting a CSA share for me has been the chance to keep revisiting the same vegetables over and over again. If I was choosing them in the store, I might think I should try something new, but instead when the tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchinis keep coming, I keep finding new ways to use them up.

In the past week, I’ve noticed a return to more simple tastes. With two weeks of tomatoes under my belt, I’m still not sick of them. Tonight I made fried tomatoes. This was another memory dish. As I made them I could almost see my dad frying them up on the griddle and they tasted pretty much the same. I love the way the crispy outside breading contrasts with the almost melted tomato inside. I sprinkled a little sugar on the ends that were too small to fry, and ate them for dessert, like my dad used to do too.

I’ve also been finding new ways to eat my cucumbers, getting away from the cucumber salads of early summer. My newest favorite is cherry tomatoes and cucumber salad. To make this I combine a pint of tomatoes, one chopped cucumber, some torn basil, feta, and a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

I still do enjoy trying out the new vegetables as they work their way into and out of the lineup, but for the most part week to week, the deliveries stay pretty consistent for months at a time. I like the predictability and the chance to try something new with a familiar vegetable.

My reaction may not be all that surprising according to a book I read earlier this summer, The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. Basically, and contrary to what we might, research shows that people are happier the fewer choices they have to make. With too many choices, even for simple things like food in the supermarket, people begin to expect a lot from each item. With so much hope placed in a choice, the potential for disappointment is enhanced.

For example, in the average grocery store I’d probably have at least 50 different types of fruits and vegetables to choose from, not to mention a number of varieties in each category. Think about the number of tomatoes you could choose on a trip to the grocery store. You could choose Roma, cherry, grape, on-the-vine or probably another five kinds. And that doesn’t include whether you’ll pick an organic option. With all those choices, people are less happy with the one they pick because they feel like they missed out on what they could have chosen, and what they think would have made them happier.

Compare that to my small, biweekly CSA share, which all told has offered me possibly 10 different kinds of vegetables all summer. And I don’t even have to pick the individual vegetables (this slightly rounded tomato versus that tomato with the brown patch). Instead I get whatever vegetables happen to be in the box that has my name on it. There’s no choice at all. That, plus a little nostalgia from some of the recipes? It’s no wonder I’ve been such a happy cook this summer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

More than a Recipe, a Memory

Well two weeks has passed and I still haven’t had a BLT. Maybe with the next box, which will be delivered tomorrow and promises more tomatoes. I went grocery shopping Friday and didn’t buy any bacon, so I’m starting to think that a BLT isn’t really that high on my list of priorities.

Instead of a BLT I used my tomatoes this delivery for zucchini casserole, an old favorite of mine. This was part of my mom’s regular rotation of meals, and was always a bright spot.

The recipe is simple. You only need a few ingredients: ground beef, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and Parmesan cheese, the grated kind that comes from the plastic container. The recipe is simple: brown and drain the beef, layer it, along with sliced zucchini, tomatoes and onion and top with a thick layer of cheese.

Cook it in the oven, at around 350 degrees or so, until the zucchini is so tender it is translucent and stringy and the cheese has melted into a yummy, gooey consistency. By this time your kitchen will smell heavenly and you won’t be able to wait to eat it. At least that’s my experience.

This week when I made it, I didn't have the full time to wait for the vegetables to cook in the oven, so I cheated a bit. I sauteed the zucchini and onion before putting the casserole in the oven to cut down on cooking time. I've also made it in the microwave, but always finish it in the oven because the melted cheese is the best part.

I realize this recipe doesn't sound like much, but for me it's comfort food. When I eat it, my worries seem to fall to the floor bite by bite. It's just like when I was a kid and the only thing I had to worry about was getting to the table in time for dinner.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

10 Pounds of Tomatoes

I’ve been having so much fun eating fresh, local produce this summer that I jumped at the chance to make it last a longer. A few weeks ago I saw an article in the Two Onion newsletter about paste tomatoes being available for purchase. These tomatoes freeze or can well and as such, the farm was selling them for those who wanted to preserve the summer a little longer.

At first I had visions of buying something like 30 pounds and canning them as my mom had when I was young. These jars, which were retrieved from the basement throughout the winter, were superior to the canned tomatoes bought in the store. Instead of 30 I chose 10 pounds, which turned out to be about a half box.

I remember the canning ritual of late summer by sound and smell. I can still hear the hiss coming from the stove as that little round dial on the pressure cooker twitched back and forth. The air would fill with the faint hint of whatever was being preserved, tomatoes, beans, elderberry jam, and even salmon – which didn’t smell so good – a hot bath of fragrant steam adding to the end of summer humidity.

Though I never saw a one of those glass jars explode into an abstract vegetable watercolor on the ceiling, it seemed as if even walking too close to the oven could cause something to go awry. It was as if at any moment you might have to take cover from flying glass and vegetables as hot as magma. With this in my mind, I decided to pursue other modes of preservation for my tomatoes.

While the flyer I received with my tomatoes insisted I could freeze them whole, that seemed too easy. I wasn’t up to the challenge of canning, but I still wanted to feel as if I had done some work, so I settled on oven drying.

Oven drying gave me the feeling that I had in fact done something, if you count opening the oven door at intervals during the day. I combined a number of recipes which weren’t really recipes at all, but instructions for sealing in the flavor and drawing out a bit of the water.

Basically, I cut the tomatoes in half, drizzled them with some olive oil and baked them in a 250-degree oven for about 9 hours. As they cooked they left a faint scent in the kitchen, different from the one I remembered during canning. I almost reminded me of bread baking.

After a day of cooking, the tomatoes looked redder and had a solid, and slightly wrinkled, composure. I let them cool as they came out of the oven before peeling off the skins and placing them back on the roasting pans to freeze individually before putting them into freezer bags.

I felt a little guilty leaving my oven on all day, but it was at such a low temperature it didn’t seem to make my air conditioner put in too much overtime. I did end up freezing about 10 of the tomatoes whole, so I can see if oven drying is worth the little effort it requires.

As for taste, I’m pretty sure oven drying wins already. I tasted a few of the roasted tomatoes while they were still hot and they were magnificent. Their texture reminded me a bit of canned tomatoes and if I closed my eyes I might imagine I had done a lot more work than I had.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Eat This

I have been seeing a lot of David Zinczenko lately on the talk show circuit. You may also know him as the Eat This, Not That® guy. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s a book series that shows that fast food has amazingly high amounts of sugar, fat and calories and offers a healthier alternative.

After seeing a number of segments where salads have been the focus, I decided to do my own Eat This, Not That challenge this week. He often shows how salads from restaurants can be loaded with calories and fat. Every time I see it, it reminds me of the gyro salad I have seen on more than one menu recently. Now, I don’t need David Zinczenko to tell me that a gyro salad is not a healthy one, but that does not keep me from wanting it all the same. I’m not a big meat eater, but something about salty gyro meat on a cool, crisp bed of vegetables sounds really appealing. All the same, I have not yet ordered it.

I decided to make my own healthier knock-off to see if I could really be satisfied as I imagined I would be with a gyro salad. Instead of “gyro” meat, I would substitute the next best thing in my mind, the Trempealeau walnut burger. This delicacy hails from the Trempealeau Hotel in, you guessed it, Trempealeau, Wisconsin.

I have never visited, but am lucky enough to have access to the walnut burgers in my local grocery store, Woodman’s. If I wanted, I could buy them onsite, or online, but down the street seems to work just fine. And although I may have raved about the beet burger a few weeks ago, it is nothing compared to the walnut burger.

Of course it tastes nothing like a burger, but has a nice spicy salty taste, which is balanced by walnuts and cheese. At 310 calories and 23 grams of fat, it’s not something I eat every night, but I figure the walnuts give it some redeeming value in the form of omega 3 fatty acids, and so I allow myself one every once in a while. And compared to the gyro, which after doing a quick online check for nutritional value has about twice as many calories and fat, it seemed like I was already coming out ahead.

As I fried the burger in non-stick spray I assembled my salad ingredients: romaine lettuce, a half of tomato, a half cucumber, reduced-fat feta cheese, and a little plain non-fat yogurt. When the patty was thoroughly browned, I broke it up into small pieces and mixed it in with the other ingredients.

Although, I can’t compare since I’ve never had one, I have to imagine this salad was as good as any gyro salad I could order anywhere else. The salty, slightly mushy walnut patty was a perfect contrast to the crunchy vegetables and creamy yogurt. And at what I guessed was less than 500 calories total, it seemed to be the clear winner in my own Eat This, Not That challenge.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Joy of Tomatoes

Another two weeks have passed making yesterday CSA day. I’m always amazed at how happy this every other week ritual can make me. Even though the vegetables don’t change too much from delivery to delivery, two weeks seems to be just enough time to make me miss them and ready for more. The charge I get out of it is the opposite of a trip to the grocery store, which often leaves me cranky and hungry.

Yesterday’s box held much of the same as previous weeks. I once again saw cucumbers, zucchini, garlic, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, onion and lettuce and a few vegetables, such as radishes, made a return from earlier in the season. There was also new twist on an earlier vegetable, long flat Romano beans, which I recognized from season’s past.

But the most glorious discovery, and perhaps the source of all my happiness, was finding the first slicing tomatoes of the season inside. I actually picked them each up and smelled them, feeling their slight heft and noticing the variations in their color. There was even one orange one, which reminded me of a small DayGlo pumpkin.

As I lined the tomatoes up on the counter I noticed I was smiling. My supply was large enough to make everything I wanted, from the BLT I was still craving from two weeks ago, to the zucchini casserole of my childhood.

But the real moment of truth came when I found mold growing on the bacon I had been saving for the BLT. After a brief moment of considering cutting around it, and deciding that it was not meant to be, I made a salad instead. I didn’t feel disappointed at all, instead I was comforted by the knowledge that there would be more tomatoes this season. That’s the joy of an every other week delivery.

The Joy of Tomatoes

Another two weeks have passed making yesterday CSA day. I’m always amazed at how happy this every other week ritual can make me. Even though the vegetables don’t change too much from delivery to delivery, two weeks seems to be just enough time to make me miss them and ready for more. The charge I get out of it is the opposite of a trip to the grocery store, which often leaves me cranky and hungry.

Yesterday’s box held much of the same as previous weeks. I once again saw cucumbers, zucchini, garlic, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, onion and lettuce and a few vegetables, such as radishes, made a return from earlier in the season. There was also new twist on an earlier vegetable, long flat Romano beans, which I recognized from season’s past.

But the most glorious discovery, and perhaps the source of all my happiness, was finding the first slicing tomatoes of the season inside. I actually picked them each up and smelled them, feeling their slight heft and noticing the variations in their color. There was even one orange one, which reminded me of a small DayGlo pumpkin.

As I lined the tomatoes up on the counter I noticed I was smiling. My supply was large enough to make everything I wanted, from the BLT I was still craving from two weeks ago, to the zucchini casserole of my childhood.

But the real moment of truth came when I found mold growing on the bacon I had been saving for the BLT. After a brief moment of considering cutting around it, and deciding that it was not meant to be, I made a salad instead. I didn’t feel disappointed at all, instead I was comforted by the knowledge that there would be more tomatoes this season. That’s the joy of an every other week delivery.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What’s not to like about pancakes?

The vegetable pancake is a thing of beauty. With all the doughy-ness of it’s cousin the flapjack, plus a few a few vitamins and minerals hidden inside, what could be finer?

I am a fan of the potato pancake, but have never made one myself. For some reason, the thought of grating all those potatoes before I have had any fortification makes me turn to buttermilk every time.

The same thing nearly happened over the weekend, when I decided to make zucchini pancakes. I had a moment of excitement before apathy kicked in. Maybe I’ll just make regular pancakes, I thought. Or maybe I’ll just have some cereal.

But I had made zucchini pancakes before and the memory of how good they tasted spurred me on. I am writing this post to remember forever that they are worth the minimal effort they are to make. Compared to regular pancakes, there is only one additional step. Of course, this was the most grueling in my mind, the one where I shredded the zucchini.

But then I remembered I live in modern times. And thanks to modern conveniences shredding vegetables doesn’t have to be done by hand. My mini food processor, which I found at Goodwill probably 10 years ago, has been as helpful as my mandolin slicer this summer. In as long as it took to take it down from the shelf, I had shredded zucchini.

From there, it was pretty much the same process as pancakes. I even cheated and used the Fiber One pancake mix I had in the cupboard. In addition to a couple tablespoons of that, I added one egg, and an eighth of a cup of Parmesan cheese. In a few minutes I had wonderful golden brown, and green, pancakes.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Saving Summer for Winter

After the pizza last Friday I woke Saturday morning and noticed the date on the calendar. July 31. How could it be? Already August? Or almost so? Summer was really slipping away. My mind sprang forward only a few months to a frigid landscape and nothing fresh for miles.

After letting the tears fall for a few minutes, I dried my eyes. It wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be. I am scheduled to receive vegetables until October 19, when it might not even be bone-chilling cold here yet.

It was just that I knew what came after that. And it wasn’t just the lack of fresh vegetables I was proactively grieving. It was the dead cold I was sure we would get after this beautiful hot summer we were having.

It was then that my Midwestern roots kicked in. I had been through this before. I would fill the freezer now in preparation for what was to come. When winter did arrive I would be able smile smugly and let it know I was ready with warm comfort food. Planning ahead was a birthright in this climate.

I began cooking up a storm to rival any blizzard winter could throw at me. When it was done I had a pan of zucchini, broccoli and pepper lasagna as well as a pan of moussaka. Add to that the beet burgers I had frozen a few weeks ago and the pesto from earlier in the week, and I was starting to feel better about the coming season.

I can just see myself now someday in the future after returning from clearing the driveway and sidewalks. The only reason anybody endures shoveling 20 inches of snow is what’s waiting inside. If you’re lucky, there’s a piping hot casserole with just a hint of summer baked inside.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Fun Food

I have a tendency to take things seriously. For me everything is a school assignment and the only acceptable grade is an “A”. So imagine my surprise this week, when I slacked off. After unpacking my produce and taking the picture at right, I promptly began to ignore it. After so much planning and excitement over the past two months, it was clear that I had hit the midsummer blahs.

I did, as I planned, make pesto with the parsley and basil on Tuesday night, but my dream of a BLT was thwarted by the substitution of cherry tomatoes for slicing tomatoes. My malaise continued on to Wednesday, when I didn’t even venture into the lower half of the refrigerator, instead eating a sandwich for dinner. Last night I was spared cooking, since I was invited to eat at a friend’s house.

So today, I decided it was time to get back on track. But instead of taking myself so seriously, I knew a little pick-me-up was in order. What better way to celebrate the beginning of the weekend than with homemade pizza? I could feel my enthusiasm rising as I reached for my Italian So Fat, Low Fat, No Fat cookbook by Betty Rohde to retrieve my favorite pizza dough recipe.

By the name, you can probably guess this book was published during the no-fat craze of the 90s. I also have the original So Fat, Low Fat, No Fat cookbook and many of the recipes have stood the test of time. In addition to the pizza crust, each version contains a number of go-to recipes as is evidenced by the split binding and stained pages.

With the scent of yeast in the air it felt good to get my hands dirty. After letting dough rise for about 45 minutes I spread it into a jellyroll pan and topped it with some pesto, a little shredded mozzarella, finely sliced zucchini (thanks to my little plastic slicer, which is holding up quite well), red onions and the rest of the cherry tomatoes.

It looked pretty good tasted even better. All in all, I’d give myself an “A” for effort, if I were the sort of person to do that.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Making Room for More

I pick up another box of vegetables tomorrow. So today I counted up what was left over from my delivery two weeks ago. Before dinner tonight, I had one half of a red onion, one kohlrabi, and one head of cabbage. That was easily transformed into my second coleslaw of the season.

I’m a bit competitive, even with myself, so I feel as if I failed if I haven’t eaten up all the vegetables over the two-week period or if any have gone to waste. So seeing the leftover cucumber yogurt dip in the refrigerator gave me a great idea. Instead of making the Asian dressing I had planned, I decided to use the leftover sauce instead. After dipping a piece of the cabbage and kohlrabi into the prepared dressing and finding the combination tasted good, I poured the rest over the bowl. I have to say I felt quite satisfied with my thriftiness.

That left me with only the rest of the dill and walnut sauce, which I also ran into in the refrigerator. It had tasted good on the green beans two weeks ago and a tilapia filet in the meantime, but how would it taste now? I dipped my pinky finger in and was relieved that it was still good. I put it back in the refrigerator, where I would see it tomorrow, when I would possibly get another bag of beans. If not, I'm sure it will taste good with something else in the box.

In addition to beans, I’m also expecting: lettuce, broccoli, a white pepper, cherry and/or slicing tomatoes, summer squash, cucumber, eggplant, onion, garlic, basil, and parsley. My plan is to make pesto tomorrow night, to use the herbs before they wilt. I also have big plans for the tomatoes, and hopefully I’ll get enough to fulfill all my dreams. A BLT is the first thing on my list for dinner, not only because it is one of the best things about summer, but also so the bacon, left from the salad a few weeks ago, doesn’t go bad.

Beyond that, I’m looking forward to making eggplant, zucchini and tomato tian, a recipe I saw in the June issue of Cooking Light. It has layers of vegetables topped by bread crumbs and cheese. It sounds similar to the zucchini casserole my mom made when I was a kid, which I will make before the season is over.

I don’t have any firm plans with the rest of the vegetables, but I’ll think about that later. That’s the best part. I wouldn’t want to have all the fun in one night.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Lunch Challenge

I am fortunate to have Friday afternoons off in the summer. Unfortunately, I’ve been making a habit of going out to lunch on my way home from the office. Today instead of stopping at Laredo’s as I wanted to, I came home and made lunch with some of my CSA produce, using only what I had on hand.

As I drove, I envisioned a couscous salad with the zucchini from my last box, along with garbanzo beans and feta cheese, which I was pretty sure I had. But when I opened my pantry I discovered my bag of couscous had only about a tablespoon rattling around like grains of sand.

With no one else to blame I continued my search, now for a bag of orzo pasta I was sure existed, but proved only to be a figment of my imagination. I did come across some barley, but turned my nose up at that, instead grabbing a box of multi-grain penne pasta from the top shelf. It too was a little light, but had at least a third of its original contents, enough for a pasta salad.

I added a bit more water to the pot on the stove, which was waiting for the couscous, and began cutting up the zucchini. I chose to grill it because I knew I liked the vegetable that way, and thought it might make the salad a little different. I don’t have a grill, so I settled for my panini maker, setting the rounds on the grill plates, just as the water began to boil vigorously.

While the pasta and zucchini cooked, I prepared my dressing, choosing lemon juice, olive oil and a touch of hot mustard to go with the Mediterranean items in my salad. By then everything was done cooking so, after draining the penne, I mixed the ingredients together not waiting for anything to cool.

At first bite the salad seemed fine, but not enough to really qualify for a meal, so I returned to the pantry for a can of tuna I had unearthed earlier. After adding that, I had a bona fide meal. And it only took me about 30 minutes to make, not much longer than the wait at some restaurants, although not Laredo’s. Anyone who has ever eaten there knows they serve the entrées at the speed of light.

I’m willing to admit that this dish wasn’t the prettiest I’ve ever eaten and definitely ugly compared to my beet salad of a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t bad for whipping it up at the spur of the moment. It could also have used some more feta cheese, but that was only because I had greatly exaggerated the amount left in the container in my mind. All in all, it was a pretty good lunch and I have a really good idea about what I need to add to my grocery list.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fake Burgers and Fries with Real Beets and Zucchini

My surprising new affinity to beets continued tonight with, of all things, beet burgers. I have tried to make a number of different kind of homemade vegetarian burgers but have never succeeded in making anything that resembled an actually patty. That is to say, something that stays together on the bun. In the past black bean burgers looked like pâté and Dr. Andrew Weil’s chickpea burgers, while one of my favorites, look more like crumbled ground beef that isn’t the right color.

I was away this week with my sisters and mom in Lake Geneva and saw a recipe for beet burgers in a cookbook at one of the shops. I thought about buying the book, but decided I would try and find a similar recipe online when I returned home (when I vowed I would return to my healthier eating habits). Back home, happy and a little bloated, as promised I found a recipe online. Still hungry for some of the indulgent food I had on vacation, but wanting to get back on the wagon, I decided to make the fake burgers tonight.

After mixing together the ingredients, including sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, onions, rice, eggs, soy sauce, cheddar cheese, flour, and vegetable oil, it didn’t take much imagination to pretend they were burgers. The red color of the beets made the patties look like ground beef, even if a bit watery.

When I pulled them out of the oven the beet juice had all cooked away forming a nice solid patty that had somehow turned hamburger brown. As I scraped them off the pan and plopped it on my toasted sesame bun, I was pleased to see that the burger stayed in one piece.

I topped it with plain yogurt and Gorgonzola and took my first tentative bite. The patty held its shape even better than some hamburgers I’ve eaten. The taste was also remarkable. There wasn’t a bit of the dirt taste I had previously assumed was synonymous with beets. I could definitely taste the beets, but they were good, as were the sunflower and sesame seeds all playing against the slight tang of the soy sauce. Since I wanted to have a complete faux burger joint experience, I served my burger with a side of oven-fried zucchini sticks.

The surprising thing is that even though I was having a meal of imposters I didn’t feel cheated at all. After a couple of days away where I didn’t eat as healthy as I should have, it felt good to eat something that tasted good, and that was relatively good for me too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cooking with Dill

Lifting my box off the shelf at the pickup spot today, I could tell it was packed with vegetables. When I looked inside I saw everything I was promised. When I took out the lettuce and swapped it for a good-sized zucchini in the take-one-leave-one box, I noticed the delicate sprig of dill for the first time.

In years past I have made the mistake of forgoing the herbs on delivery day, with the idea of doing something grand with them another day, only to find them wilted by morning. Luckily after three years, I’m starting to learn, and this week I was ready to cook with dill tonight.

My first recipe was Persian cucumber yogurt dip, which make use of not only the cucumbers and dill, but also two of the green onions left from last week. I already have homemade Turkish pide bread, which I made over the weekend to eat with it. I also made a frozen walnut burger from the Trempealeau Hotel, which went well with both the bread and the dip.

After the dip I still had dill left, so I set my sights on green beans in dill and walnut sauce, a recipe I found in a Bon Appétit Vegetables cookbook I bought over the weekend at Barnes & Noble. It was only $1, so I figured I had to buy it. It is sorted by vegetable and may turn out to be my go-to for recipes this CSA season.

After blanching the beans, they are tossed with the dill and walnut sauce, which has to be the best sauce I’ve tasted. The recipe calls for green onions (which I just happened to have), walnut oil, fresh dill, parsley, cider vinegar, and walnuts. To be fair, I made a few substitutions, using olive oil for walnut oil and almonds for the walnuts.

I also cut back on amount of oil and vinegar, which made the sauce less of a dressing and more of a coating, but it still tasted wonderful on the beans. I saved some of the sauce and am planning to use it on fish next, although I’m thinking it might taste good on the carrots, which will need to be eaten in the next few days.

After that, I’m looking forward to the zucchini and the many cucumbers I have left, as well as the kohlrabi, and even the beets. So another two weeks begins …

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fennel Hot and Cold

It’s only a few days until my next box of CSA vegetables arrives. It’s surprising how the time flies and how many different things I get to try in between deliveries. This weekend I used the fennel, the last big item left. I still have one garlic scape from an earlier delivery and some green onions, which are also holding up well against time.

Fennel was the heartiest of the vegetables from my last box from the farm, and it hadn’t wilted at all by the time I used it this weekend. With the consistency of celery and the taste of licorice, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I had don’t remember receiving it before and had two bulbs to use up, so I decided to try two separate recipes.

The first was a wilted salad with a fennel and red onion dressing and the second was a raw tomato sauce with fennel, both from the Two Onion Farm recipe collection. They have a great index on their site, so I probably could use one of their recipes for each vegetable, if I didn’t love searching for my own so much. Since I didn’t have the lettuce and tomatoes required for the two recipes, I supplemented my collection with some that I found at the farmer’s market.

The wilted salad was superb, with red onion and fennel cooked in bacon drippings and balsamic vinegar. Bacon was indeed the secret ingredient, added along with the cooked vegetables to the top of the lettuce. While the salad was good, it was hard to taste anything but the balsamic vinegar and, of course, the bacon. The distinctive taste of the fennel was nowhere to be found.

Which is why I decided to make the raw pasta sauce with the second fennel bulb. The recipe couldn’t have been simpler. I cut up three tomatoes, sliced up the fennel, tore up some basil and added a little salt and pepper. I served it over pasta with Parmesan shavings. This was the winner for letting the taste of the fennel come through. It played the perfect contrast to the tart tomatoes and the sweet basil and also added a nice crunch. I also tried it as a topping for some of the leftover lettuce and it tasted just as good there.

I even have a few leftovers to carry me through until Tuesday. I’m expecting lettuce, cucumbers, dill, summer squash, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, red onions, garlic, more beets and possibly kohlrabi. The search begins again.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Beet Hate

I have always been leery of beets. It is only a natural response to a vegetable that appeared unsuspectingly throughout my youth in what first looked like chocolate cake. Sure, on the outside it looked safe, the white cream cheese frosting telling you to take a bite, the faint brown color beneath making you believe it was chocolate, but it was only partially so. The secret ingredient to this cake was beets, and it didn’t hide itself very well. It showed up in the red flecks between the chocolate color, in the weightiness of each bite, and the occasional unprocessed bit that fell between your teeth.

No, for a child who grew up eating beet cake, a general distrust – no dislike – is to be expected. So for the past three years my heart has fallen a little bit when I see the red monsters hiding at the bottom of the box. I’ve tried to like them, with not much success. During my first year of CSA membership I tried roasting and pureeing them, but no matter the shape, they always came out the same. I just couldn’t shake the taste of the beet-ness, something to me that tasted like the dirt they grew in.

Last fall I felt a small triumph when I actually enjoyed them in borscht. But today, when the temperature is about 80 and the humidity is nearly as high, soup sounded unappetizing. So I went searching for cold recipes typing the words “beet hate recipe” into Google. I found I was in good company, with these words appearing in more than 12 million results.

Amid discussions of aversion for the red rocks, I found some interesting recipes, including beet ravioli and beet roesti, which were intriguing, but would require a trip to the grocery store. Instead I looked again at the salad from my CSA newsletter. I had everything I needed on hand: chick peas, spinach, walnuts, feta cheese, which I would substitute for the goat cheese in the recipe, and of course beets and red onions from my delivery.

The recipe said I could use raw or roasted beets for the salad, and I chose roasted since I wanted to remove as much of the beet flavor as possible. In a feat of fearlessness, I dared myself to try one of the raw beets as I was cutting them up. I lifted it to and lowered it from my mouth a few times before actually taking a bite and was shocked to find that it actually tasted good. It still tasted earthy, but definitely not dirt-y.

After roasting the beets in some balsamic vinegar and olive oil they tasted even better and I was tempted to eat them just like that, but I wanted to finish what I started and make the salad. I wasn’t disappointed. You can see from the picture that the salad is beautiful and it tasted just as good. I even had seconds.

So now, I have a dilemma. I had planned to try out the beet cake recipe the next time I got some to see if it tasted any different as an adult. I have been thinking about it for the past few years and had decided this year would be the year I revisit the past. But now that I know about this salad, beet cake may just have to stay in my memory, a relic of when I used to hate beets.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Vegetable Math

When I went to pick up my box Tuesday night I was surprised by the variety of vegetables. As I dug through the box I tallied it up: two heads of lettuce, carrots, radishes, baby red onions, sugar snap peas, two bulbs of fennel, broccoli, beets, and green onions. The list matched the one I received via e-mail from Two Onion Farm a few days earlier, except the green onions had been substituted for leeks, something I wasn’t too disappointed with, as I didn’t find them all that exciting.

As I always do, my mind started calculating what items I would use first, a complicated formula that involves determining how long the produce will last along with how much I like it. I want to eat the produce that goes soft right away, but I also don’t want to waste my time on the produce that I don’t like while the vegetables I love go to wilt away.

The two heads of lettuce came to the top of the list right away. I knew they would be the first to fade and decided my meals for the next couple days would be salads. With two heads, they would have to be really big salads. I checked the swap box to see what might be inside to trade one of the heads of lettuce with and was excited to find a zucchini. I was the only one at the site, but snapped it out as if it was gold, dropping my lettuce in the swap box like a forgotten toy.

Zucchini is one of my favorites. It had been on the list I received from the farm, with a caveat that it would only be in few boxes since it was just beginning yield. It was a tiny one, but was glad to have it, since it met both the “love” and “last” criteria. I placed it in my box along side the beets, which would probably win the award for my least favorite vegetable before taking the box to my car.

At home, I made my first salad of the week, using about a quarter of the head of lettuce, a half of one of the red onion bulbs, a couple small carrots, leftover canned black beans, Colby jack cheese, and green goddess dressing. I had the same salad again for the lunch the next day and another salad, this time with lettuce, carrots, onion and cottage cheese, for lunch and dinner the next day. I also discovered I like radishes a lot better when I peeled them and enjoyed them as a snack along with some dip as a side to my salad one evening.

By Thursday night I had finished the lettuce, radishes, and most of the carrots, plus I had a number of vegetables I liked and could make without much thought, including broccoli, zucchini and sugar snap peas, left. I set my eyes on the snap peas and served them, along with one of the garlic scapes I still had from my last box, with some penne pasta and Parmesan cheese.

By the end of weekend, the broccoli, zucchini and one remaining carrot will be cooked and eaten, and then the real challenge will begin when I move on to the beets and fennel. They will still be here, earning their spot in last place for their ability to stay fresh and my general disinterest of them. But like all the others, they will be eaten too. More on that later.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning to be Flexible

It’s Monday night. Tomorrow I’ll be getting my second CSA delivery of the season. I went to the store yesterday and bought a few ingredients to make some recipes with what will be delivered. The only problem is I shopped before I received my list of vegetables using a list from the week before. If you know anything about farming, you know that crops aren’t that predictable. Last week’s rain means I have just the right items to make a great chard dish as well as a kohlrabi salad, which are no longer part of the delivery. Instead I’m getting leeks, fennel and beets, which I’m not sure what I’ll do with yet.

I could have done some research tonight, but I didn’t have time. Instead of preparing for my night in the kitchen tomorrow, I was eating dinner and celebrating my cooking club’s 10-year anniversary. In honor of the occasion we waived our usual pattern of choosing a theme and contributing a dish for dinner at a local tapas restaurant.

There are 12 of us now in the group. A few have been there since the beginning, a few have come and gone along the way, and the rest of us showed up at one point or another. I joined sometime after the first year reading about it on the Cooking Light website, the magazine that produced the club.

When I joined I wouldn’t have ever guessed that I’d still be in this club nearly a decade later. But who ever imagines something like that? I was new to town and wanted to meet some new people and share something I liked to do. I remember showing up at that first meeting, with my dish in hand, and thinking about turning around and leaving. It was immediately clear to me that I was way out of my league.

The others in the group were far more advanced than I was, discussing ingredients I had never heard of and utensils I didn’t own. But each month I came back and listened and learned. It was the members of my group who first taught me about CSA shares and gave me the courage to sign up.

Along the way I’ve made wonderful friends and learned that when it comes to cooking nobody’s perfect. Each of us has had our share of flops but we never leave a meeting without having shared a good meal. So tomorrow when I get my box, even though I’m not that prepared, I know I’ll figure out what to do with the vegetables I didn’t plan on. I’ve learned a lot about cooking over the past 10 years from some of the finest cooks in town.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cabbage Day

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I don’t think it was an accident that I found myself making coleslaw with one of the two cabbages I have left from last week's CSA share. I have vivid memories of my dad using his giant mandolin to shred cabbage onto a cutting board in the kitchen.

He kept the slicer underneath the kitchen sink where it could be retrieved at a moment's notice if he found himself with an extra head of cabbage. The mandolin I used, a slight white plastic piece, was nothing compared to my dad’s mandolin. I’m pretty sure mine will snap in half someday as I use it, something that never happened to my dad in a lifetime of making coleslaw.

The mandolin was wood and nearly as big as my whole arm, with blades that twisted in and were locked tight. I suspect it was homemade, not because of the craftsmanship, but because it seemed to be made out of exactly the same wood as our cutting board, which slid out from a square cut beneath the counter. The slicer was exactly the same thickness and if you placed it on top of the board, you might lose it there, were it not for the silver blades to tell you where it was hiding.

My dad favored a simple vinegar and oil dressing that he mixed up with a little sugar in whatever jar he could find. Sometimes he might use a metal measuring cup to mix the dressing ingredients together, capping the top with his big broad hand and making sure none escaped as he shook it. But whatever was handy would work too. I remember any number of washed out peanut butter and mayonnaise jars serving the purpose.

The Pampered Chef Measure, Mix and Pour I use to mix my dressing is a far cry from an old jar, but no better at the task. The recipe I make starts out similar to my dad’s but as with my materials, I take a more modern turn as I finish it out. I start with apple cider vinegar, olive oil and sugar and then decide to add some curry powder, ginger and hot sauce for an unexpected flavor, finishing with some peanuts.

All in all I’m pleased, but I’m not sure my dad would like it. I’m pretty sure he never had anything with curry in it during his whole life. But, knowing my dad he’d be too polite to say anything bad. As I finish my dinner and pack up the leftovers for another meal, I sneak another bite out of the bowl, just as my dad used to. “Not too shabby,” I can almost hear him say.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Simple Broccoli

Last night, after a day of snacking on the monster cookies I made last week, I was only a little hungry and craving something a little healthier. Lucky for me, I had saved the broccoli from my CSA box for just such an occasion. I love broccoli and feel it has magical powers. With my stomach a little mad at me for the transgressions of the day, I knew this cruciferous vegetable would make me feel better.

The head I received from the farm was small, about a cup or two when chopped, perfect for an individual serving. At first I thought about making a salad with it, but had a moment of inspiration when I spotted the walnuts in the pantry. Since it was already 7:00 p.m., I also wasn't up to anything too complicated. I decided sautéed broccoli with the walnuts was on the menu.

I added a bit of olive oil to a skillet along with the broccoli and the walnuts and cooked them together until the broccoli was that beautiful shiny green color and the walnuts were toasted. With about a tablespoon of feta to the top I was amazed at how beautiful it looked and how a few simple ingredients can come together to create something so much more. Although the broccoli didn't necessarily cancel out my sins of the day, I felt a little better after ingesting the greens after a day of golden browns.

This morning my stomach was raring to go again. I’ve been off of work the last week and celebrated my last leisurely morning by making scrambled eggs. When I opened the refrigerator, the garlic scapes curled out from the bottom shelf. I had planned to add a little cheese to my eggs, but instead grabbed one of the ribbons, cut it up and mixed it in. It added a nice garlic flavor to the eggs and complimented the Parmesan grated on top nicely.

Five days after picking up my first CSA box, I have worked my way through about half of my bounty. I have two heads of cabbage, some green onions, garlic scapes, and yes a salad turnip to use up. Putting it at the front of the refrigerator hadn’t helped. I’d completely forgotten about it. It looks a little wrinkled, but I’m sure it’s still crisp inside. I plan to eat it for lunch, so I’ll let you know how it goes.