Monday, July 27, 2009

Really, really local and seasonal produce

So far? Seventeen tomatoes in various stages of tomato-ness; anywhere from "it's defintely a little green orb" to "just cut out the bad parts, it'll be fine."

Mmmmm, LOVE the smell of tomato plants!

Squash blossoms too numerous to count, and five jalapenos. I'm hoping the blossoms will lead to actual squash (or cucumbers, or watermelon - I'm not picky. In fact, I'm still in shock that these little beings are the green I've always heard that these "plant" things should be).

See the black center in the blossom? That's a bumblebee.

As much as I want to pull and use veggies from my own yard, I'm OK with not getting a big haul. It has been really cool to watch these babies grow.

But if I do get to cook my very, very own food, then - even though I don't have an Alaskan river teeming with salmon running through my Georgia garden - I'm making this yummy and SO easy dinner with my peppers and tomatoes. It's fantastic with corn on the cob.

Salsa-Roasted Salmon
Eating Well Serves Two - cookbook

1 medium plum tomato, roughly chopped
1/2 small onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon cider vinegar (plain white vinegar will work just as well)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt (a few shakes of the shaker - it doesn't have to be exact)
2 - 3 dashes hot sauce (like Tabasco or Texas Pete)
8 ounces center-cut salmon fillet, skinned and cut into two portions

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place tomato, onion, garlic, jalapeno, vinegar, chili powder, cumin, salt and hot sauce to taste in a food processor. Process until finely chopped and uniform [Note - you can make the salsa the day before and store it, covered, in the refrigerator]

3. Place salmon in a medium roasting pan; spoon the salsa on top. Roast until the salmon is just cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So You Think You Can't Cook

Now that "So You Think You Can Dance" and "The Biggest Loser" exist in my world, I'm going to have to drop my whole snotty "I don't watch television" thing. Because I do. Pathetically, I try to be home to wave the rabbit ears and that stupid digital TV converter on my 19-inch TV (color, thankyouverymuch) for either of those shows.

I always tune in to SYTYCD around Episode 4, after all the annoying audition footage - you know, where the white Rasta guy calls his dance genre "classical jazz with a touch of hackysack" and then alternates between stylized hopscotch and snow angels (sans snow).

If you haven't seen it - young dancers are randomly paired and assigned a dance genre and choreographer. This is about as "random" as being tapped for a Presidential cabinet post. The dancers practice cute while they're being filmed, then they perform for the judges and America and the voting begins. To the best of my knowledge felons and immigrants are permitted to dial-in for their favorite.

So in honor of showbiz, a ham sandwich with a fancy French accent.

Croque Monsieur
Cooking Light

4 1 1/2-ounce slices French bread
4 teaspoons honey mustard
6 ounces reduced-fat deli ham, thinly sliced
4 1-ounce slices reduced-fat Swiss, cheddar, or fresh Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fat-free milk
3 large egg whites
Cooking spray

1. Cut a slit in each bread slice to form a pocket. Spread 1 teaspoon honey mustard into each bread pocket. Divide ham and cheese evenly among bread pockets.

2. Combine milk and egg whites in a shallow bowl, stirring with a whisk or fork. Dip sandwiches, 1 at a time, in a milk mixture, turning to coat.

3. Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add 2 sandwiches, cook 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Repeat procedure with remaining sandwiches.

Monday, July 13, 2009

25 Random Food Things

Yup, stealing this from Facebook...

1. I have never used tarragon because of a recipe my mother made - only once - that dredged Cornish hens in a small garden's worth.

2. Nor have I ever had a 7&7 since one fateful night in college. A similar story, but, you know, way different.

3. Chef Nancy made our wedding cake (red velvet) as her gift to us. She walked into the reception site with an actual bucket full of cream cheese icing and instantly attracted admirers and new friends.

Had I known how effective that was, I would've brought a giant frosting-bucket to high school on occasion. What could it hurt?

4. Just to keep it real in my first-ever garden, the oregano and thyme are already a distant, dusty memory. My tomato, squash, pepper, and okra plants are still (God willing) thriving despite my Touch Of Plant Death.

5. I was surprised to read that in Italy people generally don't eat fish and dairy together. I can't stand to have them on the same plate and thought that was yet another quirk of mine (OK, it is) but apparently there's a cultural angle to it also.

6. From the moment College Roomie told me that as a child she once turned the beaters on and lowered them into the full mixing bowl, requiring ceiling replacement in two rooms, I knew we'd be forever friends.

7. It's the seaweed. I've tried and tried and tried to like sushi and I just can't get there.

8. My latest food-crush is coffee ice cream. I don't care who knows it, we're not sneaking around. We're out and we're proud.

9. We don't have cable so I've never seen the Food Network or any of these "celebrity" chefs.

10. That's not true - I was babysitting Cutie and, after her bedtime, clicked through channels and came upon some very cool cake decorating show that required fine arts degrees, architects, engineers, etc. Utterly captivating.

During a break a breathy voice said, "Food Network... after dark." Reflexively I turned the volume down - Cutie is only 8 - then I was all, "Is this food porn? I swear that cake looks like a castle. I'm pretty sure it's a castle...."

11. That's not true #2 - at the gym one time I saw 5 minutes of some "Half-Assed Homemade" show with a kitchen fembot. Apparently picking up a rotisserie chicken & salad at the supermarket, and adding your very own salt & pepper touch to the meat, qualifies for a cooking show.

We're not getting cable.

12. Courtesy of my aunt I own a cookbook autographed "Happy Cooking!" by Jacques Pepin himself.

13. Every summer - and that fateful day is just around the corner - I put up homemade bread & butter pickles. You have NO idea how much I hate this task (I'm sure I'll elaborate on it soon). What's to love about your house smelling like boiled vinegar? For years my mother talked about how good Grandma's pickles were, and I figured I'd go ahead and learn since Grandma's standing-for-hours-in-the-kitchen days were over. It is a testament to how much I love and owe my mother that I do this every year.

14. At a business lunch I tried to fork a crouton and it went flying off my plate and landed on the salad plate next to me. I turned to its owner and asked if he'd like a crouton - he declined. Well fine, I said, but I won't offer again. Great way to start a meeting.

15. My biggest leap of culinary faith was making Black Bean Soup (recipe onsite) despite having never had black beans before. Apparently I'm just that susceptible to online yummy-noises from cooking communities.

16. If you make sugar cookies and forget to add the sugar they take on a flat biscuit/cracker quality. Not that I recommend it.

17. Sweetie and I, who love a good gourmet restaurant, will happily dine at Cracker Barrel every time we get the chance.

18. It took me years to learn how to make decent scrambled eggs. I could make homemade doughnuts, homemade bread, brie-en-croute, etc. and everyone was on their own for eggs or they weren't gettin' any.

19. I've tried Vosges and Scharffenberger and other insanely-expensive chocolates, and I still say Ghirardelli beats them all. [Note that I haven't tried John & Kira's myself yet, but have heard wondrous and amazing things...] I highly encourage anyone else to take this experiment on in the name of "science."

20. Sweetie doesn't care much for chocolate desserts, which is really the only reason I ever explored fruit-based desserts, which I have come to love. I did raise an eyebrow, though, about the "meh on chocolate" thing - seemed suspect.

21. Sweetie also took me for my first and only fishing experience. Fortunately it was a heavily-stocked trout pond, so after only 3 short hours of fish flinging themselves toward my hook ("Over here! Swimmy-swimmy! I'm swimming slooooowly just for yooooou!") I managed to catch something. Even better, they did all the messy stuff so that we could just come home, dust it with cornmeal and toss it on the skillet.

He hasn't wanted to go back.

22. For a Yankee native I've developed quite a taste for fried green tomatoes, barbecue, biscuits, and - under certain conditions - black-eyed peas.

23. I'm trying to avoid painting my guest room. Isn't this list supposed to be 30 or 50 items long?

24. My mother-in-law had the only brunch wedding reception I've ever been to for her second wedding, and it was fabulous. Why don't more people do fancy brunches?

25. Back in my business travel , pre-Katrina, pre-9/11 days, I used to go to New Orleans every so often. I always had to pack a jar of peanut butter in my suitcase because I'm allergic to shellfish and I swear even the restaurant bread baskets had lobster paste or something in them. Legendary restaurants all around and my foodie self with a jar of Jif.

Feel free to add your own list!

Friday, July 10, 2009

How are you keeping it? Good-good?

I never could master the Liberian handshake. Granted, I don't really have anyone to practice with who knows what it is - it's kind of a slide/snap maneuver, your hands have to be really dry, and you should've been practicing since shortly after birth in order to master it by adulthood. So my chances, I'm guessing, are pretty slim.

It was July 18, 1989 when I returned from six months in West Africa. For my 20th birthday two of my friends took a treacherous cab ride to the American Embassy compound to buy me a bag of frozen strawberries at one of the few supermarkets in the country. Perhaps you know they're not native to the tropical rainforest, but in case you didn't - they're sooo not. Pineapple? Mango? Coconut and banana? All you want. No strawberries. Also not easy to find - ice cream, but they did it. Ann and Denise, I'm still grateful and amazed that you went to all that trouble!

There's coffee, though, and coffee trees smell nothing like coffee. They have the most gorgeous blossoms and a heavy, sweet but not cloying smell. Whenever we went by them all I could do was close my eyes, breathe deeply, and hope and pray to remember the moment.

Why did I stop eating red meat in Liberia? Two words - no cows.

What we did have was chicken, rice, dried fish, palm butter, scorching-hot peppers, rice, chicken bouillon cubes, rice, rice, various types of bread, rice, fresh fish (if by the sea), shortening (instead of butter/margarine for the bread), "bush meat" (whatever unlucky critter ended up in the stew pot), rice, palm wine, plantains, Spam, rice, greens, and rice.

All served on a bed of rice.

School - I was at a university - could not open without electricity, which ran for 3 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the evening. However, when the generator conked out again after having spent 5 days raised from the dead to open school, life and the semester went on undisturbed. And dark at night.

When coming back from Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), our intent was to walk the 8 miles from the military checkpoint at the border to the next town. But a car came along and picked up the four of us. What would they have done without us sticking our flashlights out the windows to light the way in the absence of headlights?

During the school year I lived on campus and not at the missionary compound. The cafeteria served bread - like a thick shortbread, or sometimes cornbread - for breakfast and dinner. There would be a thick pool of heavy margarine, or a smear of Crisco, on the plate as a spread. The Americans would often bring peanut butter into the cafeteria.

At lunch we stood in line to get a bowl of rice. Then we stood in another line for soup, which in the US we would call a stew. There were several different colors of stew, each with a hint of red from the palm oil. I'm sure they tasted different, but I could never taste anything except the AAAAAAAAGGGGHHHH of peppers.

Did I mention I looked terrifically thin when I got back to the States? Suck it, Atkins Diet.

The American professors had apartments on/near campus. When one of the professors went back to the States for a few weeks she allowed us to use her home - and at that point I cooked an entire four-course meal for seven on a hibachi with no refrigeration and one knife, thankyouverymuch. YES. Do I feel any conflict now with my nifty collection of multi-functional kitchen accoutrements? Well no, not until this minute... hmmm..... well, I'll say this - standards are higher in the US as an adult than they were in Liberia (or anywhere) as a college student.

Sweetie mentioned recently that if we're going on a trip there's sure to be a Stephanie-developed checklist of Stuff To Bring. And I can't tell you how difficult it was to get used to a much more laid-back way of traveling. Specifically, when do we leave? When the bus is full. If a big group comes by tomorrow and buys tickets, we leave tomorrow. Otherwise, no. How long is the trip? Depends on if it's rainy season or not. Depends on if the military checkpoints lets us pass. There's no way to know. Now put your head back on your canteen and go to sleep.

And throwing ourselves on the mercy of strangers to take us in whither we landed just blew my mind. But you know, what a wonderful thing - to fling one's self on the wings of adventure and be confident of a warm welcome. It never, ever failed to materialize - a safe, dry place to sleep.

Fufu is boiled, pounded cassava root. Women young and old sit outside with their pot of fufu-in-process and the pounding stick and they pound all day. ALL DAY.

Tastes like wax.

Cassava fries, though, aren't bad.

Liberia is a tribal country. You can draw all the lines you want to around a map, but patriotism is tribe, not country. Every tribe has its specialty industry, and the Mandingo tribe made incredible bread. Like French bread - crisp outside, fluffy inside, perfect with (I'm not kidding) Laughing Cow cheese, which you could buy one wedge at a time on the street in the capitol.

Going to Liberia when I was 19 made it really weird to say "I'll just have a beer." In college - where I had been a mere 60 days previously - there's so much faux-drama and secrecy and posturing about alcohol that it was other-worldly for it to be a non-event to have a Club beer. Which, by the way, I've never liked, but sterilizing your water gets old pretty fast and makes bottled beverages much more appealing. I've never cared for soda, either, but orange Fanta was my best friend for a while.

It's also how I knew I had malaria - I was at the market and spit out my Fanta saying it had "gone bad." It can't. The soda was fine, it was me that wasn't doing so great. And that's really all I remember until about 5 days later when my fever broke.

Palaver is a highly civilized concept. To palaver is to peaceably discuss an issue, for as long as necessary, until a workable solution can be reached. In small villages issues are not put to a majority vote - because if 51% support an idea, then you have 49% of your village unhappy with it. One imagines a leader doesn't sleep well that way, and probably not much of the citizenry, either.

There is also a wonderful dish known as palaver sauce; I'd be happy to share the recipe but I can't find kpon leaves or plato greens anywhere and doubt they're much available. Sadly, due to the absence of worlor seed, I won't be sharing the worlor sauce recipe, either.

The bananas I've had in the states have, frankly, fallen short of what I've learned a banana can be. Head out of the gutter, please. In West Africa they were small, creamy, and intensely flavorful. If you have the opportunity to pick up some red bananas they most closely approximate what I had available (really available, like "dropping off the tree").

One of my favorite dishes was Groundnut Stew. Groundnuts are known as the States as peanuts. This wonderful dish is cleverly served atop rice.

From the Phebe Cookbook, written by the folks at the Phebe Hospital compound - and by all means, take advantage of the supermarket and its selection of natural peanut butter!

Groundnut Stew
1 pint (2 cups) roasted peanuts
2 lbs. chicken or beef
1 bouillon cube (chicken or beef) - check the label to see if it's gluten-free, if that's a concern
Tomato paste
1 medium onion
1 TBSP butter (optional)

Season meat with salt and pepper. Let stand for a while.

Cook meat on medium heat until partly tender. Pound peanuts in mortar until like butter. Add 2 cups sterilized water to peanuts. Strain through a sieve. Pour the liquid into a pot with meat. Add a little tomato paste to give color. Cook until as tender as desired (approximately two hours).