29 June 2009

Endless Possibilities

After making jam last week, I still had several pints of strawberries staining the refrigerator shelves, so we tried to eat them all. We had them on cereal. We ate them whole. I sliced them over ice cream. I discovered sliced strawberries are heavenly in this recipe when swapped for chocolate chips. But there were still more, and most were on the verge of overripe mush.

The ruby jewels are too precious to toss in the compost just because we couldn't get our grub on quick enough. So I gave them a rinse, sliced their little green tops off and dropped them in the blender. After a quick whiz, I had a brilliant red puree. Here's where I stole a trick from my baby-food-making recipes: I poured the puree into my silicone muffin tin (yes, it's not technically a tin, but I just can't make any other name stick) and popped them in the freezer. If you don't have a silicone muffin tin, use ice cube trays. A few hours later they are frozen solid and can be popped out and transferred to a plastic bag or other airtight container.

So what could you do with frozen strawberry hockey pucks? Well, toss one in the blender with plain yogurt for a smoothie. Add thawed puree to your morning oatmeal. Or use it for baking cakes, muffins or making pancakes. Blend it with cream cheese and sugar for a delicious frosting. Pour it over ice cream or sliced pound cake. Add it to your lemonade, or better yet, your margarita!

Unlike the shelf life of a strawberry, the possibilities are endless. The bottom line is, there is no need to let your fruit go to waste. If you can't eat it in time, take five minutes to puree and freeze it. It's just one little way to stretch the summer season.

24 June 2009

The Last Thing

I thought this being a food blog and all that I should offer up at least one recipe this week. And very appropriately, I thought I'd tell you about the last thing.

That's something I seem to say a lot. Like starting a sentence with "The last thing I have to do is ..." There's never really a last thing. I mean, even the couple sitting blissfully on the beach with a drink in hand will need someone to run to the store eventually for more vodka or limes, right?

In between the chores, dinner, the kids and the pets, treat yourself to a few niceties. Like croutons. I sometimes find myself pulling together a dinner and at the last minute thinking that the only thing left is the croutons. It sounds so meaningless, but imagine a great salad you love topped with crisp cubes of salty, crunchy goodness. Or sprinkle them on soup. Whiz 'em in the food processor and top your pasta with them. The possibilities are limitless, and this handy little tip will make you loath those boxed cubes of stale bread and love the leftover baguette.

Croutons are simple to make. The recipe goes something like this: Cube bread* then toss with just enough olive oil to coat. Season generously with salt, pepper and anything else you like (think herbs, red pepper flakes, crushed garlic and the like). Then apply heat to toast them up. It literally takes a couple of minutes. This can be accomplished in a medium oven for about five minutes, on the stove top in a skillet or even in a pan over the grill. If you've chosen the stovetop or grill method, you'll need to give the pan a shake every now and then to evenly brown. Those made in the oven will crisp nicely all on their own. Cool croutons and use immediately or store in an airtight container for a day or so.

* Stale or slightly stale bread works best, but fresh bread will work. Just note that the more moist the bread, the longer the cook time. Use any type of bread you like including plain old sandwich loaf bread.

23 June 2009

Grab a napkin, pass the jam

I made strawberry jam. Yes, I had lots of help, and no, I did not create the world's most perfect jam. Like me, it had its flaws. One of four cans didn't seal correctly, which is OK because I would have popped one open today anyway. The jam itself wasn't quite as gelled as I would have liked, but the flavor was excellent. Pectin is a finicky thing, and like with many things in the kitchen, making jam is a bit of trial and error, I suppose. Now, it's time to go at it again and see if with a few tweaks I may be able to get the consistency a bit firmer. Christiane said that perhaps we added the lemon juice a bit early and making it the last step would yield better results since it breaks down the natural pectin. She also said it could continue to set for the next day or two.

While it was pretty exciting to put my jam on my toast this morning, I'm most excited that making jam doesn't sound so scary anymore. I am not going to offer up a recipe just yet. I'll do that when I get it right. I'm still eating my jam, though. I'll just put a napkin in my lap.

22 June 2009

Now we wait

So I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but even though strawberry jam was made in my kitchen today, I did very little of the making. My sweet friend Christiane came by and basically gave me a preserving lesson while she made the jam. I did things like prepped the strawberries, cooked us lunch and kept Jasper out of the trash, which is his latest trick. She watched the timer, stirred the jam and fished out the foamy stuff in the pot that she said we didn't want.

Now, she says, we wait. I'm under strict orders to leave the jars alone until tomorrow morning. Then I give them a test to see if they have truly sealed. Those that are sealed can go to the pantry. Any that aren't are still good as long as they're eaten within a week or so. I am so excited. Once I give 'em a try, I'll pass along the recipe.

Even if we weren't successful, it was worth it. There are very few things I find more enjoyable than hanging out with good company in the kitchen.

Strawberry Ambition

Today I'm trying something new. I am going to make strawberry jam. It sounds easy just writing it here, but to be honest I'm a little scared. It involves canning, which sounds intimidating to me. I like flexibility. I want to be able to shift course mid-process, and filling jars and sealing them seems so permanent.

I bought this flat of delicious, ripe strawberries at the farmer's market yesterday, so I've got to work quick. I've researched a few recipes, and a seasoned jam-making friend may stop by. I promise to update you later today and let you know just how it went. And if it's a true success and you live close enough, you may just find a jar of strawberry jam at your door.

15 June 2009

Recreating Mom's Zucchini

When I was a kid, we had a yellow, round electric skillet that was pulled out on Saturday mornings when Dad would make an omelet and for weeknight dinners when Mom would make sauteed zucchini. I always loved this vegetable side dish, especially the parmesan cheese from the green can that she sprinkled on just near the end of cooking.

I remember once trying to recreate the dish at my friend Lisa's while I was in middle school. I didn't get it quite right and made a mess of her mother's skillet when the cheese stuck everywhere but the zucchini. To this day, I still have trouble replicating her dish. It's possible that it's one of those things that tastes better in my memory than in reality. But then again, summer squash is a delicate thing that wants to be treated just right. Unlike its fall and winter counterparts, summer squash has a soft flesh and needs only minimal cooking. Cooked too long and it turns into a soggy mash; not long enough and it's got the bite of al dente pasta.

Perhaps it was that giant nonstick electric skillet that yielded the perfect zucchini. Then again it could have been the cheese from the green can that helped absorb the excess liquid. It was probably some wacky combination of all of these things along with my mom's technique. Whatever it was, it was delicious, and I've finally found a way to recreate the same flavor. The look is different, however. My mom sliced her squash into discs about a quarter of an inch thick while I trimmed the ends and then sliced them once, lengthwise.

The result is a zucchini that is cooked through yet firm enough to hold its shape. And the salty parmesan plays well upon the slight sweetness of the squash. The dish is an easy side or could also make for a fun appetizer.

Broiled Zucchini topped with Parmesan

2 medium zucchini, washed and ends trimmed
1/4 cup or more grated parmesan
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Preheat the oven on its broiler setting. Cut the zucchini in half, lengthwise. Place them on a cookie sheet with the cut sides facing up. Brush the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place under the broiler for approximately 7 minutes and check for doneness. The exact time will depend on how large your zucchini are. It is done when the squash is tender and the edges begin to brown. Remove from oven and top with parmesan cheese. Return to oven to melt and brown cheese, roughly 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

08 June 2009

Sophistication Without the Skills

The past week has been a whirlwind to say the least. Travel, sick baby, high fever and a catered event for 25 to pull off. Somehow it all came together, and we are, at last, back in our own home where everyone slept well last night.

In the spirit of busy times, I will be brief and leave you with a treat I first put together last summer. I was inspired after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with the book club gals and made an appetizer that was sourced completely from the farmer's market aside from the oil and vinegar.

It's a crostini topped with arugula, strawberries macerated in balsamic reduction and topped with crumbled feta. It's basically a salad that I love put onto a little slice of toasted bread. There's something magical that happens when fresh, ripe strawberries -- the kind that bleed a deep red syrup when sliced through -- meet balsamic vinegar. The sweet, tangy combination delivers five-star flavor by way of Top Ramen skills. It's really that simple. Slice them and toss them. The trick to balsamic is simply that if you're on a budget, buy a middle-of-the-road variety and reduce it to concentrate the flavor.

Crostini Topped with Arugula, Balsamic-Macerated Strawberries and Feta

1 baguette

5 oz arugula
1 pint fresh strawberries, sliced
1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar
1 cup crumbled feta
olive oil


Thinly slice baguette on the bias and brush one side of each slice with olive oil. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 350 oven for about 8 minutes or until bread is slightly golden and toasted. This step could also be done on a grill. Bring the balsamic vinegar to a gentle boil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan and reduce by about half and cool completely. Slice strawberries and combine with cooled vinegar for about 30 minutes. Toss arugula lightly with olive oil and salt. To assemble place a few leaves of arugula on each crostini. Top with macerated strawberries and crumbled feta. Serve immediately.

Note: The crostinis can be made several hours ahead of time and stored (once cooled) in an airtight container. The balsamic can also be reduced ahead of time. Simply combine strawberries and vinegar just a bit before serving and assemble when ready to eat.

01 June 2009

Nothing says "I love you" like cheap food

With the folks in town, seems like I've been running around the kitchen like crazy. It's not that cooking for two extra people is much more work. It's more like I've got so much running through my brain that I could easily get sidetracked making a bowl of cold cereal.

That said, after we'd grilled flank steak, tested a delicious pasta recipe, had a burger night and visited Nathan's farm for some outstanding grilled salmon, my creative cooking well was in need of a stiff drink. That's when I decided on carnitas tacos.

Nothing says "I love you" like great, cheap food. We sat down at the picnic table in the back yard and ate with our hands. It's an unpretentious meal but not soon forgotten.

A while back I discovered this fabulous recipe. After you're done noticing how much more fabulous this blog is than mine, read the recipe. Then go make it. Pork, orange juice, salt and water never tasted so good.