Monthly Archives: August 2009

Tomato Blight? I Think Not.

blight |blīt|nouna plant disease, esp. one caused by fungi such as mildews, rusts, and smuts : the vines suffered blight and disease | [with adj. ] potato blight.informal anything that causes a plant disease or interferes with the healthy growth of a plant.[in sing. ] a thing that spoils or damages something : her remorse could be a blight on that happiness.

Several weeks ago I read online about this season’s tomato blight which was affecting most of the nation, limiting availability and driving up the price. This gave me fair concern, as I am a lover of all things that are tomatoes.

I’m not talking about the red things in the produce department of many groceries stores which try and pass for tomatoes. They are a disgrace. Usually sprayed within an inch of their lives to ward off insects and disease, they are then picked before they even start to think about ripening. (Yes, tomatoes do have thoughts. I am sure of it). Add insult to injury, they spend a considerable amount of time in trucks, planes and trains, many of the tomatoes coming from Canada this year.

Canada? Excuse me, but blight or no blight, the food industry honestly doesn’t have any U.S. sources for tomatoes? Oh please. Nothing against Canada, really. I just don’t want to eat their tomatoes.

This was only one of dozens of tomato stalls!

This was only one of dozens of tomato stalls!

Okay sorry, I got side tracked there for a second. Let’s go back to our tragic tomato’s travels. During their many miles of travel and usually long after, they get thrown into refrigerated storage which makes me all kinds of crazy. Ever see some decent looking tomatoes at the store and think, wow! A real tomato! Only to get it home, slice it up, and realize the delicate flesh has been desecrated to a mealy texture and consistency? Yep, thank the chill factor for that.

So imagine my glee when I arrived at at our local Farmer’s Market this past Saturday. Tomato Central people! Heirloom varietals, cherry, pear and tear drop tomatoes, green, yellow, orange, striped, even purple tomatoes! Organic in nature, never sprayed, never air chilled, all grown locally.

I will eat the small ones just like candy, popping one glorious jewel at a time into my mouth, no cutlery needed. The heirloom tomatoes need nothing more than a sharp knife, a sprinkling of sea salt, some herbs if you wish, a few drops of quality oil or vinegar, and you have a dish to remember long after the season of tomatoes has passed.

I want you... in my belly!

I want you all. In my belly!

I even came across a stall that were selling a hefty amount of ruby gems for $1.00 per pound. Yes, one dollar a pound. Why were they so cheap? Oh, because they were ripe. Seriously, I am not making this up. They weren’t a fancy hybrid, they didn’t have stripes, but they were perfectly red and smelled like a hot, summer day. I brought them home with me, and they will soon be transformed into a refreshing Cold Gazpacho Soup, perfect for a lunch or light supper during this blistering heat we continue to have.

If my recipe is a success (fingers crossed), I’ll post it tomorrow. I just hope you are lucky enough to have a source for some great tomatoes. If not, don’t waste your time or money. Those of you who are growing your own, rock on folks.

May the blight not be with you.

Need a Lift? Drop Some Acid.

No, I am not tripping, nor am I advocating you do anything similar. I’m talking about using acid as a food enhancer.

I once worked with a very talented chef, who although I suspect was probably high half the time, taught me a few things about acid and flavors.

Chef explained that when food tasted ‘flat’, it could usually use salt or more often than not, a bit of acid. At first I was perplexed by this statement, but I learned what my chef was trying to teach me.

The kitchen crew would be busy preparing dishes for service, cooks heavy with tasks and  items to prep and complete. Chef would routinely come on line to sample the food, sipping sauces, dressings, tasting our recent projects.

Chef would then yay or nay our progress, asking questions about recipes used. Ultimately I would hear the following sentences often enough, I began to understand the process of ingredients, chemistry and their dance together.

“More salt.”

“Needs acid.”

When properly used, acid enhances the natural flavors in the food you are preparing. It won’t alter the dish so much, but it gives it punch. It has this wonderful ability to give foods another layer of flavor. This I learned, could turn a mediocre meal into a party in the mouth.

Let me give you a few examples that will make good foods taste even better. Chances are you already have a few, if not all these goodies in your pantry or fridge right now. The following list is a sample of what I call my “Arsenal of Flavors.”

This is only a sampling of acids I recommend, but this will get you started. They are extremely versatile and demonstrate the beauty of key flavors. Hopefully, they will transform your meals, get you cooking more  and enjoying great food!

  • Citrus juice and their zest (orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit)
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Spanish Sherry Vinegar
  • Champagne Vinegar
  • Rice Wine Vinegar
  • Red and White Wines
  • Some liquors and cordials such as Sake, Tequila, Port and Brandy
  • Pernod or Dry Vermouth
  • Mustards
  • Capers
  • Beer!
  • Soy Sauce
  • Worcestershire Sauce

Here is a recipe I am using tonight which incorporates acid in a marinade, a great example which will impart maximum flavor versus just throwing the damn bird on the grill. No love or respect. Without further adieu, I give you:

Love and Respect Marinade for Grilled Chicken

This marinade would also work well for shrimp, scallops, various cuts of fish and pork. Tonight I’m using 1 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. This marinate makes about 1 cup, enough for up to 2 or 3 pounds of meat.

Key ingredients for the win.

Key ingredients for the win.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • a few dashes of hot sauce
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a measuring cup. Stir completely and pour over meat, chicken or seafood. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate one hour, turning halfway if you remember.

Giving the chicken some love.

Giving the chicken some love.

Remove meat from marinade and season with salt. Discard marinade. Grill chicken thighs over indirect heat until cooked through, about 20 minutes, turning after 10 minutes.

I am grilling the chicken tonight because it is still hotter than the be-jesus over here. I suppose you could broil the chicken, or saute, but I think a marinade and summer should require an outdoor cooking vessel.

Speaking of which, time to stop blogging, and get cooking.


It’s Like Africa Hot

My brain is not working at full capacity. Summer finally came to Santa Barbara in late August, and currently the temperatures are hovering around 90 degrees. My guess is our 1950’s beach shack is even hotter. I am hoping during the next hour as the sun travels further west, it will leave our humble home in a shady um, shade and I’ll be able to cool down and think about dinner.

I told you my brain wasn’t fully functioning.

I think about food. A lot. I think about food when I’m eating. Not only about what I’m eating at the moment, but what I’ll be preparing and enjoying later. When I’m on my morning run, I’m planning lunch. I plan entire meals in my head when I should be engrossed in work. I can’t help it, the random thoughts invade my head, and although I try to focus, food trumps all. Over the years I have learned to embrace it (and thank the Angels my darling husband can also get lost in anything food related). I was even able to make a living with my obsession, so I guess it’s not a serious problem.

Right?

What currently fills my mind is how to make dinner without an additional rise in the mercury of our thermometer. Because I have raw chicken or beef for dinner choices, tonight I must create fire. A crisp garden salad will round things out. Thank goodness I can escape the heat of my kitchen and fire up our outdoor grill. A fabulous invention and one of my favorite kitchen gadgets.

Fire + meat = yum

Fire + meat = yum

Several years ago, my dear father in-law who lives in Holland suggested buying us a barbecue for our house warming gift when we moved to Santa Barbara. We didn’t have a barbecue and the thought of owning a fine gas or propane grill to cook large amounts of food for our friends and family was a great adventure I eagerly awaited. We began our research immediately, visiting many hardware stores, the small independent shops and the ginormous home club venues. I looked online as well.

The one thing we kept coming across were the enormous grills, which wasn’t a bad thing. However, the quality or lack thereof did not impress. Flimsy hardware, rust just waiting to invade every surface, and those weird ‘volcanic briquettes’? What’s up with those things? You can’t even throw some mesquite or hard wood chips in there? Odd. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the cost of these things! My father in-law is a very generous man, but I didn’t think any of these grills deserved consideration.

Grill with goodies

Grill with goodies

I remember as a child we had an old Weber Grill in the back yard. It always fired right up, offering the chef the choice of hard wood, mesquite or coals, and you could cook with direct or indirect heat. You could prepare a shwack of food or just a couple of burgers. Clean up was a breeze, it never rusted, and it was a fraction of the price of most grills. It didn’t rely on gas, propane or phony rocks, just some crumbled up newspaper, briquettes of your choice and a match. Sold!

After several years of abuse, this grill has never let me down. It cooks evenly, it’s dependable, rust-free and a joy to use. The best thing about it right now? It’s outside. In the shade. Next to a picnic table where I will enjoy a glass of wine (or two) and let the grill do the work.

Cool.

We’re Jammin’…

Slice berries produce a chunky jam - yumba!

Sliced berries produce a chunky jam - yumba!

Yesterday, I posted my latest trial recipe and I am happy to report an A+! The abundant pints of fruit in my fridge were transformed into my latest recipe, a Summer Strawberry Jam.

This jam is not a day’s work – no sterilizing of jars, no fruit pectin needed, no water bath. After chopping the fruit and combining it with sugar and balsamic vinegar, I had a lovely mixture cooking away on the stove while I did other things. My only regret is not making a double batch.

The recipe is very easy and produces great results. I would only recommend using the best summer berries. Frozen is great in the winter, but since this recipe is so minimal, high quality fruit is key.

Toast + Summer Jam = Love

Toast + Summer Jam = Love

As I mentioned, fruit pectin is not used, so this jam is not as gelatinous as other recipes, but the consistency is thick enough that it spread wonderfully on my toast this morning.

I think this jam would also be fabulous stirred into oatmeal, yogurt or cottage cheese, excellent as a dessert over cake or ice cream, and lavished on biscuits or scones.

I’m already excited about breakfast tomorrow!

Summerlicious  Strawberry Jam

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups fresh stawberries, sliced (about 2 full pints)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Directions:

Strawberries, meet sugar, balsamic & fire!

Strawberries, meet sugar, balsamic & fire!

In a medium sauce pan, add all the ingredients and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce heat and cook until thickened and reduced slightly to a consistency similar to honey, about 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and let jam cool slightly, still stirring occasionally.

We're Jammin'... ah yeah we're jammin, we're jammin...

This is what the jam should look like after additional cooling and stirring.

Once the jam is cooled completely, transfer to refrigerator and chill overnight.

This jam will continue to thicken once refrigerated 8-12 hours. Jam can be stored in small jam jars or airtight containers and refrigerated  for 3-4 weeks.

Shfiggy Bars? Fuggedaboutit.

Yesterday I posted this article about my findings at the local Farmer’s Market, and my attempt at some healthy fig bars. As promised, this is my report back.

I wish I had better news, but the recipe I made was not a huge success. The filling was good, but the crust was not what I had hoped for. It didn’t exactly taste like cardboard but it was close enough.

Yes, I have eaten cardboard before, so I know what I’m talking about. I was young. Don’t judge. I’ve also tried dog biscuits. They taste like doggy cardboard.

Dirk and I ate a couple of the fig bars last night, and while the flavors of the fig and date mixture worked well with the spice from the cinnamon and the crunch of the oats, I probably wouldn’t make these again.

This tasted just okay.

This tasted just okay.

I did end up using some of the bars in my morning breakfast, crumbled on top of plain yogurt and it was edible. One thing I will say about these bars, they kept me full all morning. I wasn’t hungry until lunchtime, which is usually not the case. My stomach will usually start to rumble a good hour before noon. Note to self: Cardboard is satiety.

In retrospect, I should have used my over-ripe figs, replacing the bananas to make these muffins. Ah well, live and learn.

My latest kitchen dilemma is finding a use for 2 pounds of strawberries which maybe only have a 24 hour window. I think I’ll head into the kitchen and whip up a batch of strawberry jam. Made with nothing more than sugar, strawberries and a bit of balsamic vinegar, I am hopeful it will extend the summer days long after strawberry season has passed. I suppose you could also use it as a topping for ice cream or frozen yogurt, top your morning waffles or pancakes, or serve with biscuits, toast or scones.

Since it doesn’t contain pectin, not canned with the usual sterilized lids, tops and bottoms, or finished in a water bath, we shall see. I’m not into to all that, especially when the temps are rising above 80 degrees, my small kitchen even hotter. No thanks.

Tomorrow I’ll post the results, good or bad.

Hell, if another kitchen disaster ensues, I can always make strawberry jam peanut butter muffins.

I Bought the Farm

This past weekend Dirk and I went to the local Farmer’s Market for some supplies and inspiration.

We are lucky to live on the California Coast which is surrounded by endless agricultural wealth. The peak season for fruits and vegetables begins in late spring and continues through September. Right now, strawberries are still plentiful, but the blueberries have moved on. Heirloom tomatoes are at their height of glory, but the peaches are already losing some of their punch.

One of the bumper crops right now is figs. Dark, purple skins hiding a watermelon hued flesh, are firm yet yielding. They are perfect for an appetizer seared with a bit of prosciutto, black pepper and goat cheese.

That was the plan. However, after buying a large amount of tomatoes which needed to be consumed within 48 hours (success!), and the 5 pounds of strawberries filling our bellies but still more to go, the figs somehow got a bit lost in the fridge.

Fresh Figs from the Santa Barbara Farmer's Market

Fresh Figs from the Santa Barbara Farmer's Market

This morning as I rifled around for breakfast, I came across a bag of extremely ripe figs. There was no way they would hold up to a hot pan sear at this stage. Damn. I thought about slicing them into our yogurt and fruit bowls, but they were a little too soft for that. Squishy fruit doesn’t bode well with me. I know, it’s weird. I can eat live octopus, sushi of any kind, and endless offal, but the over-ripe texture of these figs were not going to make it into my breakfast bowl.

If you know us,then you know about our nearly one year long journey to weight loss and better health. Dirk has lost 40 pounds! He is amazing, and we are trying to do it the right way. Move more, eat less.

I’ve  lost nearly 20 pounds and have a good 5 more to go. The biggest challenge we face is to eat well and keep on track. We have our rogue moments. Cookies are still an absolute passion for us, so I immediately thought of Fig Newtons when I was met with the fig dilemma.

As healthy as they sound, they really aren’t. Chock full of sugar, saturated fat and calories, I needed to find a way to make a healthy version without the end result tasting like baked cardboard.

Tomorrow I will post the recipe (and results) of my newest invention. The pan of “Shfiggy Bars” is cooling as we speak, the recipe written down on my note pad. If all goes well, we will be enjoying some healthy yet delicious fruit bars after dinner with a cold glass of milk. And, if all goes well, you my dear reader, will have the recipe at your ready.

If all else fails, I still have several pints of strawberries to contend with…

Sick to my Stomach

I just read a story about a man who suffered chronic illness, primarily trouble with his digestion, intestinal issues and so forth. I don’t need to go on with the gory details (and they were seriously gory, yikes). In a nut shell, he wound up at the hospital with a major blockage, which tore through his intestinal wall. Infection and sepsis invaded his body within an inch of his life. He was rushed to surgery, but only limited care could be administered because of his instability.

The surgeons did what they could and he remained in ICU for several weeks. The doctors required his stomach and intestines take a ‘vacation’ in order to heal and become strong enough to endure a more invasive surgery, so a feeding tube was inserted into his chest. Through an IV, he received liquids and a nutritional pack several times a day, completely bypassing his stomach and digestive tract.

After he was stable and strong enough, he was released from the hospital and able to return home, but his strict dietary restrictions and feedings continued.

For six months.

This poor man was not able to eat a thing, not a morsel of food or liquid passed his lips. No flavors, textures or culinary joys to be savored. Adding insult to injury, when he was finally able to start on small quantities of liquid and bits of food, he found his taste buds had atrophied from non-use. Result? He couldn’t taste a damn thing.

This gave me great concern and sadness. I mean, can you imagine never sitting down to enjoy a lovely meal with friends or family? A fantastic bottle of wine? Hell, even a handful of peanuts at a baseball game, or some lousy popcorn during a movie? A chunk of cheese or a handful of grapes? Never more. And the worst thing for this poor man was his olfactory system still worked like a charm, so he was privy to all the delectable aromas of fresh baked bread, a steak searing on the grill, while his family sat down to enjoy a meal together at the end of the day.

At first he joined his family for dinner, but that proved too taxing for everyone. The kids and wife felt guilty for enjoying such simple pleasures as raising a fork to their mouth, and he began to resent them all for being able to do it. Soon, he was banished to another room during dinner hour. Now he not only lost out on a meal, but the pleasure of enjoying the company and conversation that go with it.

Just shoot me. In. The. Head.

How blessed we are to have food and drink!

Can you imagine living day to day without it? Even those of you out there who may not be so crazy about cooking. Trying to find the time in our busy days to get to a grocery store can be a total pain in the ass. We are all so busy these days. Food? Often, it takes a second seat; or third, or fourth behind everything else going on in our lives.

I knew someone once who was so irritated with having to ‘break for food’ on a regular basis, he told me (and I quote):

“If I could just take a pill every day to nourish me so I could be done with it, I would.”

I was already having issues with this person, so this sealed the deal. Someone who views food and drink as a chore? An inconvenience? Well, I just don’t trust them.

Let’s raise our glass in honor of food and drink! And the tradition of both that bring us all together at the end of day, in the middle, or the onset.

Whenever food and loved ones collide as part of my day I cherish it dearly. Whatever we share, be it a hunk of bread, a bowl of cereal or a lovely glass of wine, I am aware that our time is fleeting. And I can’t stomach the thought of life without either.