Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Things I Loved About Memorial Day Weekend

I haven't feel like I haven't blogged in forever! Last week was busy with a new employment opportunity writing travel articles for Examiner.com (see my profile here!), and planning for a great weekend getaway to Cambria, California, thanks to the generosity of my aunt and uncle who invited us to stay at their beach house with them.

Just a few highlights from our trip:

Grilling some famous Hearst beef for dinner at home

Wildflowers - everywhere!

Seeing the sea lions

Having afternoon tea

The best ribs and potato salad I've ever had (at Hot City BBQ in Los Banos, CA)

The most adorable cottage and garden I've seen

Olive oil tasting, with my favorites tangerine olive oil
and olive jam (sweet, salty, amazing!)

The ocean, and that particular humidity that you can only inhale in a coastal town.

What did you do last weekend?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gardening, Weeds, and Life

One benefit of gardening: It reminds you of your connection to the natural world and your dependence on nature. Sure, I could walk into the grocery store and buy whatever I need, but growing my own food reminds me of the natural order of things - and has helped me empathize with farmers a lot more! Last week, West Sacramento was hit by a hail storm which left significant damage to our still-young plants. Check out this sad spinach :

And these hole-ridden green bean plants:

My hope is that, since the plants are still young, that they will eventually recover. But hail isn't the only problem we're encountering. Because we failed to mulch initially or put down plastic or anything to prevent weed growth, our naturally weed-prone plot is already overgrown with grass. If grass were edible, we'd be all set to feed ourselves, but sadly the weeds only compete with our plants for nutrients and sunlight. So every weekend we're out there pulling weeds.

Still, the fact that anything is growing at all is a huge encouragement compared with years past.
(Lettuce is above and baby carrots are below.)

After harvesting radishes and fresh butter lettuce for a big salad for Sunday night dinner, my dad made an interesting comment. "That was growing out there? How come all I see in the garden is weeds?" It made me think about perspective and life and how we see what we look for, what we focus on, either in a garden or in life. If we focus on the negative things, we may miss out on the beautiful, delicious elements that make it all worthwhile.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

White-Chocolate-Dipped Stawberries with Citrus Sugar

I have altered the recipe below slightly. One change of note was that the original recipe calls for "good-quality chocolate". For some reason, I find it vaguely insulting to a recipe reader when it commands one to use "good-quality" of anything. I imagine some sort of Julia Child-like cook wagging a finger at me and reprimanding, "You uncivilized brute - drop that bar of Alpine White I know you were thinking of using in this distinguished recipe which is FAR too good to include a Nestle product!" I will put more trust in you than that. I will assume that you can discern the value of good white chocolate.

That said, at first glance I wasn't sure that I'd care for this recipe because let's face it - if I had the choice of whatever Sheri's Berry I wanted, it's got to be dark chocolate all the way. Still, the idea of citrus sugar intrigued me, and that's what convinced me to try this method. The first bite of my "test strawberry" was surprising - the fragrance and bright flavor of the citrus sugar was an excellent match for the mild white chocolate and the sweet berry. I never thought I would love a white strawberry as much as I did a dark one, but this is one delicious recipe, and perfect for spring.

White Chocolate Dipped Strawberries with Citrus Sugar
From Bon Appetit

2 T. sugar
1/2 tsp finely grated orange peel
1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon peel
6 oz. white chocolate, chopped
16 large ripe strawberries (washed and patted completely dry)

Line baking sheet with waxed paper. Using fingertips, mix sugar and citrus peels in a small bowl until sugar is moist. Stir chocolate in a small bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from over water.

Holding 1 strawberry by stem end, dip 2/3 of berry into chocolate; shake excess back into bowl. Turn berry dipped end up and sprinkle with citrus sugar. Place on prepared sheet. Repeat with remaining berries, chocolate, and sugar. Chill until chocolate sets, about 30 minutes.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

West Sacramento Farmer's Market

My love affair with farmer’s markets began with a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in San Francisco just after I graduated from college. Never had I seen such an array of attractive- no, more like immaculate- produce in my life. Nor was I previously aware that fruit could taste as sweet and satisfying as the samples that were handed out by eager vendors. Tiny apricots that popped like bursts of sunshine in my mouth. Dark, tiny strawberries with an intense flavor far outshining anything the grocery store could dream of selling.

After my discovery, I was pleased to learn about more accessible, nearby options. First, I visited the market at Davis, where neighborhood food vendors like the Hotdogger, local musicians and enthusiastic student protesters all created a strong sense of market attendance being a community affair.

Last summer, I took an out-of-town friend to the downtown afternoon market at Caesar Chavez park, where we selected a bag of perfect pears for a crisp so delicious we later declared it superior even to the apple version. Despite the melting heat of a late-summer heat wave, we were rewarded for our market sojourn with the discovering of outstanding locally produced Bariani Olive Oil and an unexpected performance by the Sacramento Ballet promoting their current production.

Each market offers unique products, from home-spun, hand-dyed wool in Point Reyes to burdock root and tomato juice in Portland. There were disappointments along the way, like the meager offerings at a disappointing Elk Grove market that supposedly lasted to “dusk”- yet was already starting to pack up when I arrived at 6pm. But though I traveled near and far, I always hoped that my own community in West Sacramento would be able to muster up their own market someday.

Today my dream came true. I give you the first West Sacramento Farmer's Market:

Fresh lemonade, a bargain at $1 a cup (above)
and free market bucks if you ride your bike (bike parking shown below)

Gorgeous Raineer cherries (above) and
hot house heirloom tomatoes grown here in West Sac (below)

Fresh flower bouquets (above) and
Oyster mushrooms at the mushroom stand (below)

Free samples of bean sprouted quinoa (above) and
French Icicle radishes from Dave's Pumpkin Patch (below)

Live music by Mike McGowan and the Mighty Delta
Roadmasters (all local West Sac residents except one)

Inside my market basket: green onions, heirloom tomatoes,
apricots, and green leaf lettuce

Dinner at the Hotdogger (featuring market heirloom tomato slices
and Maui Onion mustard). Delicious and a deal at buy one, get one half off!

Above: the dessert menu for the Eatery (scheduled to open in July by Target)
and their Strawberry Shortcake below

We have a great time and hope that the Farmer's Market has found a permanent home here! Thanks to all the fantastic vendors and city officials who finally made this dream a reality.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dorie Greenspan for Dummies

Lately, I have been wondering who this elfin-like Dorie Greenspan is, why she's so skinny despite being a veritable baking goddess, and why everyone is worshiping her these days. Who does she think she is, living in glamorous places like France and New York and tempting us with food like this:

And this:
And heaven help me, this!

Well, I still don't know why she's so skinny, but tonight, I decided to take a stab at her incredibly simple-sounding recipe for No-Bake White Chocolate Pie. One bite, and I declared, "That woman knows what she's doing." The creamy, fluffy pie filling was sweet-tart, with a subtle thin layer of banana and a crunchy (store-bought) Oreo crust. Simple, quick, delicious. It would appear that the cult of Dorie has a new inductee today.

No-Bake White Chocolate Pie
by Dorie Greenspan

4 oz. white chocolate (preferably imported), finely chopped
1/2 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled
1 banana, thinly sliced
One ready-made graham-cracker crust (9 inches)

1. Warm the chocolate in a bowl set over a pot of lightly simmering water. Remove from heat when only partially melted; stir to melt completely.

2. Beat the cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla until smooth. Beat in the chocolate, then the sour cream. Whip the heavy cream until firm; gently fold into chocolate filling.

3. Put the banana slices on the crust, top with the filling, and chill at least 2 hours. If you’d like, sprinkle with grated dark chocolate before serving.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Alice Waters' Cherry Clafoutis

We never seem to get sour cherries in my neck of the states, but sweet cherries are being sold like crazy in streetside stands and markets everywhere this time of year. I bought a big bag yesterday that were cheap and looked nice, but it turned out they weren't too sweet, so I decided to bake with them.

For help, I turned to Alice Waters, the queen of regional fruit desserts. Decidedly French in spirit if not nationality, Waters' desserts are consistently subtle, light, and almost always feature the very best in fresh fruit.

Well, my fruit wasn't the very best, but when used in a cherry clafoutis, you could hardly tell. This traditional French dessert is sometimes very custardy and rich, but this version is more of a light cake topping over baked sweet cherries. The reserved cherry juice is thickened into a sweet-tart syrup that only heightens the flavor.

WARNING: If you are averse to the idea of perfuming your entire kitchen and the surrounding areas with the heavenly scent of cherry, almond, and lemon, this might not be the dish for you. However, if you are a fan of aroma therapy, by all means make this cherry clafoutis. The smell is to die for, not to mention the taste.

Cherry Clafoutis
From Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook by Alice Waters

1 lb. sweet cherries, washed and pitted (I halved mine)
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. grated lemon zest
A pinch ground cinnamon
1/3 c. sugar (or more, depending on the sweetness of the cherries)
2 eggs, separated
3 T. sugar
2 T. flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/3 c. cream
A pinch salt
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly butter a baking pan large enough to hold the cherries loosely in a single layer. Prepare the cherries and arrange them in the pan. Sprinkle with the lemon juice, zest, cinnamon, and sugar. Bake until the fruit is tender, about 15 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Raise the oven temperature to 375F. butter another dish large enough to hold the cherries in a single layer (I used a medium rectangular Pyrex). Drain the cooked cherries, reserving their juice in a small saucepan. Arrange the cherries in the bottom of your baking dish. Beat together the egg yolks and sugar until well blended. Beat in the flour, vanilla, almond extract, and cream.

Beat the egg white with a pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. Stir a little of the whites into the batter, and then carefully fold in the rest. Pour the batter over the fruit in the baking dish, letting a little fruit show through the top.

Bake in the upper third of the oven for about 20 minutes, until the batter has puffed and browned. While the clafoutis is baking, reduce the fruit juices to a thin syrup. When the clafoutis is done, dust it with powdered sugar and serve warm with a drizzle of the syrup.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

First Harvest: Potatoes and Radishes

Recently, Sacramento went through a heat wave and the temperature soared to 88 degrees. I noticed that my container potato plants, which had been towering green stalks, promptly began to wilt, then wither, turn brown, and die. I later learned that potato plants stop growing when the soil temperature reaches 80 degrees.

I was all ready to call it a failure for the year and went out this morning to clear my pots of the carnage. As I dug through the pots however, I was tickled pink to discover small red baby potatoes in each container, some tiny as the head of a nail, others medium sized. The heat may have cut short the growing season, but I still think these tender babies will do well drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fresh garden rosemary, roasted to a crisp.

The garden at my parent's yard appears to be doing well after a month today, although the onslaught of weeds requires constant attention. We made our first harvest there of ruby red radishes. Now we just have to figure out a good recipe to use them!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Summer BBQ Fantasy Interlude

I am already dreaming of the perfect summer BBQ. This year, I would like to branch out from the traditional and expected (burgers, chicken and hot dogs where I come from), and try some new grilling ideas.

Let’s start with dessert, with this grilled pineapple dish from Cooking Light:

While flipping through June's edition of Better Homes and Gardens, I saw these tantalizing ideas for grilling:

Grilled Pizza

Grilled Ribs and Boy Choy

Grilled Corn on the Cob

Grilled Shrimp Kebabs

Any other grilling ideas? BHG also had a recipe (but sadly, no picture online yet) that sounded so refreshing on a hot day: Watermelon Salad. We’re not talking Jello at la 1975, but rather fresh watermelon and white grape juices, set with fresh fruit and sprinkled with crumbled feta cheese and mint leaves. You can bet I’m going to bust out this side dish as soon as the weather heats up (as it inevitably will in Sacramento).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Things to Anticipate

The Press Bistro
When I go through things that are hard for me, one thing I have found to be essential is to always have something to look forward to, today, tomorrow, next week, and next month.

Today, I am looking forward to trying the Mini Burger Truck. I was foiled at the Sacramento Mobile Food Festival when we waited in line for over an hour only to be turned away and told that they would run out of time before they got to us. I hope for greater success today.

Tomorrow, I am looking forward to going out to dinner with a special friend and checking out Sacramento’s Press Bistro. It has a communal table with a sophisticated Mediterranean vibe. I can’t wait to try it!

Next week, our town is getting our own Farmer’s Market (for the first time ever!). I can barely contain my enthusiasm! Bring on the fresh produce, local businesses and the Hotdogger!

Finally, next month is our family vacation to Vancouver, B.C. (Yes, we are still occasionally invited to go on family vacations - particularly when the location is somewhere I have always wanted to go, as in this case.) I already have a list of sights, stores and restaurants that I am aching to see. Ok, fine, I'm a compulsive planner and made the list months ago. But I'm hoping to see everything I can! (Anyone been there? Any suggestions?)

It seems like there’s quite a lot to look forward to indeed!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Portuguese Sopas

For Mother's Day, I made my mom one of her favorite dishes, a traditional Portuguese soup that we call sopas. This simply means "soup" in Portugese and isn't a very descriptive name, but as a child I had a different term for it. I called it "that soggy bread stuff". Needless to say, I was not a big fan back then.

Often made to serve a crowd, sopas consists of a slow-cooked beef and the broth it's cooked in, ladled over a slice of bread that's been topped with mint leaves. By the time it makes its way to your mouth, the bread has soaked up a lot of the broth and is usually kind of soggy, which didn't appeal much to my palate as a kid.

Now when I make my simplified version at home, each family member can add broth as desired and it always seems to go over well. The warm spices, crusty bread and fresh mint appeal to everyone with whom we have shared this dish. My version is Portuguese people-approved (by my mom and aunt) but less involved that the traditional way of preparing sopas. I don't use wine or marinate the meat, and I prefer a boneless roast to bone-on roast.

Portgugese Sopas

5 pounds beef chuck roast or beef rump roast
3-4 cups beef broth
4 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed
1 large Vidalia or yellow Spanish onion, thickly sliced
2 cups finely chopped peeled very ripe tomatoes or canned crushed tomatoes
¼ cup ketchup
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. allspice
2 two medium bay leaves
¼ teaspoon cumin
Coarse salt
1 cabbage, cored and sliced in half (optional)
Mint leaves
Thickly sliced, day old crusty artisan bread

1. Trim the cut of beef and sprinkle with coarse salt.

2. Combine broth, onion slices, tomatoes, ketchup, tomato paste and spices in a large pot.
Sprinkle the salt over.

3. Place roast in the pan, making sure liquid comes half-way up the side of the roast. If not, add additional broth.

4. Cover pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Then reduce the heat to medium-low and turning the meat occasionally, simmer until the meat is tender, about 3 hours. If desired, add cabbage and cook an additional 1/2 hr.

5. To serve, remove the meat and shred it. Place a thick slice or two of bread in each soup plate topped with a mint leaf or two. Ladle a generous amount of broth over the bread and top it off with pieces of meat.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Meet Ruth and Chris

My mom grew up on a dairy in a rural community, and this year she decided to re-visit her roots in a way by purchasing two Black Angus calves to raise for meat. In the process of naming the castrated steer and heifer, my siblings came up with the names Ruth and Chris, of course in honor of the steakhouse - and the ultimate destiny of the livestock. (Don't kill me, PETA. Not my idea.)

Here they are below. (Little Boy Blue is my brother).

Surprisingly, watching these cattle eagerly roam through soft green grass and munch away to their heart's content is very satisfying, and it took me a while to realize why. I believe it's the sight of seeing a living creature do what it is born to do and observing the act which inherently brings it the highest degree of satisfaction. Although we may have plans for grass-fed, hormone-free beef in 18 months, I know these animals are having a far better life than most of their kind will ever know. That makes me happy.
Above, here's a fairly recent picture of our garden. Lots of straw down as mulch. However, in the past week an alarming amount of grass-like weeds have sprouted up in the midst of our seedlings. I know if we don't act soon, these weeds can choke out the plants we do want growing, so tomorrow will find me pulling as many out as I possibly can. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Summer Reading List 2011

I know it’s only May, but this week Sacramento is supposed to get up to 90 degrees! Some colleges are already done with spring semester (or will be in the next couple of weeks). You know what that means? Time for summer reading!

I’m quite particular about the seasonal appropriateness of books. For example, Russian classics like “War and Peace” or “Crime and Punishment” seem natural choices to read during winter. Others, say “Like Water for Chocolate”, beg me to be read during the warm, lazy summer months.

Here are some of the books I hope to check out this summer. Most are either classics I've had sitting on my bookshelf for a while or recommendations from friends, with a few random selections I just happened to pick up at Goodwill and thought they looked interesting. (I put the potential fall candidates towards the end in case I don’t get to them in time.) Let me know if you've read any of them and whether you liked the book!

Sideways on a scooter : Life and Love in India / Miranda Kennedy.

Starvation Heights : the True Story of an American Doctor and the Murder of a British Heiress / Gregg Olsen.

Cutting for stone / Abraham Verghese.

Peony In Love/ Lisa See

Irresistible Revolution / Shane Claiborne

The Girl Who Chased the Moon / Sarah Addison Allen

Love in the Time of Cholera / Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Golden Notebook / Doris Lessing

The Queen of Dreams / Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek / Annie Dillard

Blackbird House / Alice Hoffman

Angela’s Ashes/ Frank McCourt

The Giant’s House: A Romance / Elizabeth McCracken

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lemon Bar Trifle & Recipe for a Perfect Birthday

Let us consider the ingredients of a perfect birthday celebration for one's spouse.

Step one: If your spouse can't get enough Mexican food, find a fantastic taco stand and take them there for lunch.
Squeeze the lime over the meat, then devour the freshly made tacos with relish.
Step two: Take your spouse somewhere exciting and exotic for dinner. Maybe eat some tapas and the best salad you ever had (dates in my salad? A wonderful idea! Who knew?) and pretend that you are on the streets of Barcelona together.
Step three: A wonderful dessert is requisite, and if your spouse loves lemon, how about a Lemon Bar Trifle with fresh lemon curd, pecan shortbread crumbs and white creaminess?

Step 4: When the whole family gets together to celebrate, make sure there are at least 3 kinds of pies to satisfy all appetites. The smile on your spouse's face will be all the reward you need.

There's the recipe I used for a happy birthday this time around. It was a winner. So was the Lemon Bar Trifle recipe, so here it is:

Lemon Bar Trifle

2 c. flour
1 c. pecans, chopped
1 c. butter, melted
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. cornstarch
1/4 c. flour
1 3/4 c. cold water
3 egg yolks, beaten
2/3 c. lemon juice
2 T. butter
4 tsp. lemon peel, grated
1 8-oz cream cheese, softened
3 C. powdered sugar
1 8-oz. container frozen whipped topping, thawed

In a small bowl, combine flour and pecans; stir in melted butter. Press into an ungreased 9x13 inch baking dish. Bake at 350 for 18-20 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

In a small heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and flour. Stir in water until smooth. cook and stir over medium-high heat until thickened and bubbly. Reduce heat; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Stir a small amount of hot mixture into egg yolks; return all egg yolks to the pan, stirring constantly. Bring to a gentle boil; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Remove from the heat. Gently stir in the lemon juice, butter, and lemon peel. transfer to a large bowl. Cool to room temperature without stirring. Cover surface with waxed paper; refrigerate until chilled.

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese and powdered sugar until smooth. Fold in whipped topping. Crumble the baked pecan mixture; set aside 1/2 c. for topping. Just before serving, in a 3-quart trifle bowl, layer 1 C. each pecan mixture, lemon mixture, and cream cheese mixture. Repeat layers 2 more times. Sprinkle with reserved pecan mixture. Refrigerate leftovers. Makes 9 servings.