Saturday, September 22, 2012

Apple Picking and Finally a Decent Lunch

I have blogged before about our annual fall sojourns to Apple Hill, but this year we wanted to do things a little differently. Going earlier in the season to avoid crowds and finding a decent place for lunch were at the top of our priority list. See, Apple Hill does anything apple-related extremely well.

Case in point: Apple Cider Donut-

Or the perfect Apple Fritter with chunks of fresh apple, laced with cinnamon:

Apple pie is always a winner-

Along with Apple Dumplings, Apple Crisp, Apple Strudel, Caramel Apples, Apple Cider and...  you get the picture.

But while the desserts are superb, over the years we have been subjected to one horrible lunch after another at Apple Hill. Grisly hamburgers, cold and tough tri-tip sandwiches on squishy white buns, and puny pulled pork sandwiches (all overpriced) had slowly drained us of any hope of finding a meal that was equal to the apple desserts.

But Crystal Basin Bistro finally has us excited about lunch again.

Located next to a winery of the same name, the sunny and open space of the bistro is inviting, modern and offers a dog-friendly patio. (We didn't take our chihuahua this time, but would love to in the future.)

Lunch plates are affordable ($8 per plate with meat, $6 for a vegetarian plate) and more sophisticated than anything else in the Apple Hill area. We opted for an antipasti plate, a beef brisket and gorgonzola sandwich, and...

The ridiculously gooey and probably very fattening cheesy artichoke dip. What can I say? We lost our heads for the day.

All fueled up after lunch, we headed to Denver Dan's for some apple pickin'.

I find apple orchards to be incredibly picturesque.

Last year we were disappointed when the U-Pick option here was cancelled after a bad apple season. This year obviously the trees were making up for lost time and were heavy laden with fruit.

Customers are encouraged to taste as they go to ensure ripe apples. Besides allowing us to buy the freshest apples possible, we get access to interesting varieties not often seen in grocery stores. We stocked up on King David and Northern Spy apples in particular.

Before leaving, we found this amazing deal - $2.99 for a basket of figs. In our area, figs almost never sell for less than $5 or more a basket, so I was in fig heaven when I saw this.

Weekends like this, you wish Monday would never come.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rigatoni with Tomatoes, Eggplant and Mozzarella

Some vegetables can be used year-round with similar results, like carrots and beets. Others are special; they must be eaten at their peak because they just don't taste the same out of season. Eggplant, I feel, is special and meant to be used in summer and summer only. I have, in my impatience, made the mistake of buying winter eggplant before....Ok, more than once. I have always found it to be disappointingly tough and mushy.

So when I found some awesome white eggplants at the Farmer's Market, I knew just what to do with them. There's this Jamie Oliver recipe I pinned on Pinterest quite a while back to my Summer Food board. (It's from Leite's Culinaria, an amazing website where famous chefs give you all sorts of cool recipes from their newest cookbooks for free. In other words, a very, very good idea - check it out!) 
Jamie describes this dish as one he ate many times while on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, and I could almost picture myself there as I ate it. Easy, unfussy, and ooey-gooey good, the sum of this recipe was greater than the total of its parts. As a bonus, it also helped me use some of my endlessly prolific basil, plus garlic and padron peppers from the garden. Nice one, Jamie! (Serves 6 generously.)
Rigatoni with Tomatoes, Eggplant and Mozzarella
By Jamie Oliver, From Jamie's Dinners

1 firm ripe pink, black, or white eggplant
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
Two 14-ounce cans good-quality plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 fresh or dried chilies, chopped or crumbled, optional
Bunch fresh basil, leaves ripped and stalks sliced
4 tablespoons heavy cream (I used half-and-half)
1 pound rigatoni or penne (I used whole wheat rigatoni)
7 ounces cow’s-milk mozzarella
1 piece Parmesan cheese, for grating

1. Remove both ends of the eggplant and slice it into 1/2 inch slices, then slice these across and finely dice into 1/2 inch cubes. Some people prefer to season their eggplant with salt and let it sit for a while in a colander to draw out the bitterness, but I don’t really do this unless I’m dealing with a seedy, bitter eggplant. This dish is really best made using a firm silky one. 2. Now, put a large saucepan on the heat and drizzle in 4 to 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. When it’s hot, add the cubes of eggplant, and as soon as they hit the pan stir them around with a spoon so they are delicately coated with the oil and not soaked on one side only. Cook for about 7 or 8 minutes on a medium heat.
3. Then add the garlic and onion. When they have a little color, add the canned tomatoes and the balsamic vinegar. Stir around and season carefully with salt and pepper. At this point, if you wanted to give the dish a little heat you could add some chopped fresh or crumbled dried chilli, but that’s up to you. Add the basil stalks, and simmer the sauce nice and gently for around 15 minutes, then add the cream.
4. While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta, cook according to the package instructions until it is soft but still holding its shape, then drain it, saving a little of the cooking water. I like to put the pasta back into the pot it was cooked in with a tiny bit of the cooking water and a drizzle of olive oil and move it around so it becomes almost dressed with the water and oil.
5. At this point add the lovely tomato sauce to the pasta. By now the eggplant will have cooked into a creamy tomatoey pulp, which is just yum yum yum! Season carefully to taste with salt and pepper. When all my guests are sitting round the table, I take the pan to the table, tear up the mozzarella and the fresh basil, and fold these in nicely for 30 seconds. Then very quickly serve into bowls. By the time your guests start to eat, the mozzarella will have started to melt and will be stringy and gorgeous and really milky-tasting. Just lovely with the tomatoes and eggplant. Serve at the table with a block of Parmesan cheese and a grater so that everyone can help themselves.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Another Labor Day in Ashland, Oregon

We spent another Labor Day weekend in Ashland, Oregon this year (after enjoying it so much last time), and enjoyed some fine Shakespeare Festival delights. I always feel a rush when I first glimpse the Elizabethan stage. We saw "As You Like It" (and we liked it), "Troilus and Cressida" (based on "The Iliad", and I can see why it isn't performed much!), and "Henry V" (perhaps the Bard's most inspirational piece).

We also saw lovely vistas of the Rogue Valley:

And ever so many well-kept gardens, including many vegetable gardens and gorgeous flowers:

Of course, no trip would be complete without me picking out my favorite thing I ate. I loved this Rogue Cheese Sampler from Pasta Piatti, featuring local cheeses from Rogue Cheeses, served with crostini, and paired with roasted garlic and onion, fresh pear, red grapes, caper berries, olives, tomato/basil, and spiced walnuts. Whew! What a mouthful (pun intended)! We hardly needed dinner after polishing off this plate.
Now we have returned, well fed, well rested, and ready to take on the last dog days of summer. My tomatoes are starting to really ripen, but I'm already getting my fall seeds in. I also found this kind of extreme but also really cool book called "Food Not Lawns" in a little indie bookstore in Ashland. It's all about how to rid of useless huge lawn spaces and convert them into food-producing gardens. I'm all ears, sister!