Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nature's Candy

Several years ago, before Steven & I were married, we would head over to Eastern Washington to visit with my aunt and uncle every fall and visit the local fruit & produce stands.  We would return from these trips with boxes of tomatoes, peaches and apples, bags of onions and smaller quantities of fresh bell peppers, cucumbers or whatever looked good the day we were at the market.  My mother-in-law would can the tomatoes and peaches and we'd split the apples and onions with them and just enjoy fresh apples to munch on and an abundant supply of really good onions for our soups (French Onion is one of our favorites, I'll share the recipe later this fall), stews, sauces and casseroles all winter long. 

At that time, my Aunt Linda & Uncle Len lived on a small farm.  They had chickens & ducks, a large garden and lots of fruit trees.  Amongst their fruit trees were Italian Plum trees and they would dehydrate their harvest, then vacuum pack the dried plums in jars.  They shared some with us on one of our visits and the dried plums became an instant favorite of ours.  The dehydrating process, as many of you are probably aware of, concentrates the natural sugars in the fruit and seals it inside, resulting in something Steven & I like to refer to as Nature's Candy! 

So it's no wonder that once we were ready to plant fruit trees of our own, we agreed we must have at least one Italian Plum tree.  We planted several apple trees, a pear tree, a cherry tree, several hazelnut trees, a couple almond trees and a couple other fruit trees (that never produced  thing).  For years, our apple & hazelnut trees have been our main producers, but the plum tree has been producing more & more plums as it has matured and this year we've hit the proverbial mother lode!  Our youngest niece-daughter, Amanda, started picking the plums last weekend and we have been wasting no time in splitting them open, removing the pits and putting them right into the dehydrator.  As of this morning, we have now filled our dehydrator with plums 3 times - we're talking 6 layers of trays folks - and we still have enough plums to fill it at least once more - probably twice! 

These plums are so small - most are about the size cherry tomatoes - that we've really only eaten them by the handful and/or dried them.  I would like to know if anyone out there has ever canned Italian plums or made preserves from them? 

If you have the opportunity, definitely pick up some Italian Plums and make Nature's Candy, I'm sure you'll fall in love too!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Snacky" Dinner

As much as I love to cook (and eat!), there are nights when I just don't want to work at making dinner.  Particularly on the warmer summer days when I don't want to heat up the kitchen, or at the end of an especially stressful work week, I just want easy, easy, easy.  Often times, the temperature of the meal is as much a deciding factor as the work involved - for instance if I'm in the mood to fix a meal, but jut want something cool and refreshing, I might throw together a salad for dinner - taco salad and greek salad are always favorites in our house, or we might have deli-style sandwiches on crusty rolls.  Then there is "Snacky Dinner".  Steven & I have always been fans of what I really think of as an indoor picnic - olives, rustic bread, an assortment of cheeses, fresh fruit, wine and some Pacific Northwest alder smoked salmon or a nice hunk of salami. 

Sometimes we enjoy an assortment of finger foods that can be eaten in front of the TV so we can enjoy a movie marathon or at the game table during family game-night (something we are LONG overdue for).  These might include appetizers that I make for parties like tortilla roll-ups, or taco bites (won-ton skins filled with a taco-like filling - I'll post the recipe another time) or other party-type foods like chicken wings, homemade artichoke-jalapeno dip with chips, nachos, sausage rolls or a deli-meats and cheese platter set out with  assorted cocktail breads and condiments like mayo or mustard. 

I remember Steven & I attempting to introduce these as "snack meals", more like something you'd enjoy at a party.  You assemble a little plate of goodies, nibble on them while playing cards ot mingling with guests, then later, you might assemble another plate with a few more items - just nibbling as you go, rather than filling a plate and eating non-stop until you're stuffed. This concept has never really caught on with our children, they enjoy the food (very mucy, in fact), but they just feel compelled eat until they are satisified, all in one go, so in our house if there's something you especially enjoy, you better move quick before the kids finish it off! 

Somewhere along the lines our "picnic" meal of bread, cheese, fruit, etc. was christened "Snacky Dinner".  If our youngest, Amanda, sees a loaf of bread and some cheese out near dinner time, she immediately announces we're having "Snacky Dinner".  It's a meal that is always greeted with much enthusiasm.  There's plenty of room for you to add your own twist and I find it's nice to know that my family is really just as happy with such a simple meal as a more complex one that requires real attention at the stove!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Baked Potato Soup

It's a very rare occasion that Steven, my husband, requests anything specific for dinner.  He's very easy going when it comes to meal time - he can take it or leave it, pbj it or gourmet it.  He always appreciates anything I make - even if it's less than my best effort (there's good reason I fell in love with & married this man!).  So, of course, when he does request something, I'm happy to oblige!

Friday night we attended a high school football game in Tacoma.  It was a fun, in house rivalry for us since our 15 year old's school was playing Steven's alma mater.  It was pretty chilly though and by the time we headed home we were all human popsicles so Steven's suggestion of soup - specifically potato soup - for dinner Saturday night sounded ideal!  We stopped at the store on the way home and I found some lovely, small to medium sized golden potatoes and picked up the rest of the item I would need to complete the meal.

Saturday evening rolled around and I decided to approach the soup a bit differently than I had in the past.  I really like to bake the potatoes, then put them in the soup for that lovely baked potato flavor but I wanted to try roasting the potatoes instead and see how that would turn out.  I was just about to put the potatoes in the oven when Steven announced we was going to play poker with his friends - just as well, I thought - I knew it would hurt the soup any to be made ahead and heated Sunday - in fact, it would probably make it that much better, so I continued on with making the soup.

We had it tonight for dinner & it was the thickest, heartiest potato soup I've made to date!  The potatoes were tender, the soup was thick, rich and ultra-filling - none of us could eat more than one bowl!  We had a simple spinach salad - just spinach and hard-boiled egg with it as well as shredded cheddar cheese, chives and light sour cream to top the soup.

Potato Soup
about 12 small-medium potatoes
4 strips of bacon, cut into small pieces
1/2 sweet onion, coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken stock
1 pint half & half
salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Cut potatoes into 1/2 or 1/4's depending on their size, so they are about 1 inch wedges.  Place in a roasting pan, sprinkle with salt & pepper and drizzle with olive oil.  Toss to coat potatoes thoroughly.  Bake until nicely browned - about 30-40 minutes and set aside to cool.

Place a dutch oven on the stove top at med-med. high heat and allow it to preheat while you chop the bacon.  Cut the strips in 1/2 lengthwise, then slice into pieces.  Cook bacon in dutch oven until browned on one side, add onions and continue cooking until bacon is evenly crisp and onions are translucent, stirring occasionally.  Add about 2 tablespoons of flour stirring well, and let it cook about 2 minutes.  Reserve about 1 cup of the roasted potatoes and mash the rest right in the roasting pan.  (you may need to cut up the skins a bit with a knife)  Add the mashed potatoes to the dutch oven and stir well.  Add chicken stock and half-n-half.  Cube up reserved potatoes and add to soup pot.  Allow it all to come to a boil, stirring occasionally, then turn down to a simmer and allow it all to heat through or you can turn it off at the point and store it in the refrigerator over night.  Salt & pepper to taste.

Serve hot with shredded cheddar cheese, chopped chives (scallions will work too) and sour cream.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It Always Comes Back to Food

I'm currently reading "A Homemade Life" by Molly Wizenburg (and I'm loving it).  It's a lovely collection of stories about Molly, her family & friends and food - including recipes.  One of the joys I'm finding in reading this particular book is the discovery that mine is not the only family who's family memories revolve around food!  Whenever we talk about get togethers, vacations, etc., food is always involved. 

For instance, I can remember a trip I took with my parents to California to visit my Aunt & Uncle and my then baby cousin.  It's the first road trip I really took with them without my sister and brother along.  The funny thing is, the majority of my memories of this trip revolve around food - I can remember 3 different restaurants (although, sadly, not their names) & what I ate at each one! 

We always seemed to land in Redding, CA our first night on any road trip to California and this trip was no exception. That first morning heading out of Redding, we decided to hit the road and grab breakfast somewhere along the way.  We ended up on this funky dirt road (that I think was supposed to be a short cut) which eventually lead us to a very small town whose name I cannot even remember.  We discovered a steak house that looked popular & happened to serve breakfast so we pulled in.  It had a Red Baron theme, including drawings of bi-planes on the paper placemats.  Although I no longer remember what Mom or Dad ordered, I still have full recollection of the fantastic strawberry pancakes that I ordered.  They were as big as my plate, smothered in beautiful, fresh strawberries and topped with my all-time favorite, whipped cream!  The pancakes were a perfect, golden brown on the outside and moist and fluffy on the inside.  YUM!

We moved on and ended up in Fort Bragg, California (that same night, I think).  We stayed at a motel with a view of the ocean and I'm sure we must have spent a bit of time on the beach, but again, it's the meal we had there that I remember most.  Mom & Dad chose a lovely seafood restaurant overlooking the ocean.  I've always liked steamed clams (my aunt & uncle who live on Whidbey Island used to have amazing clambakes at their place) and this restaurant had clams steamed in a champagne and herb sauce.  They were wonderful, tender morsels of clams served with melted butter, of course, and lovely, crusty sourdough bread.  I think of that dinner every time I watch "Pretty Woman" - you know the scene where Vivian is having dinner in a fancy restaurant with Edward and his business associates and she sends an escargot flying?  - well, I was attempting to remove a particularly stubborn clam from it's shell and fling went my fork, zing went the clam to land somewhere on the floor near my chair!  I was mortified!  Of course, my first instinct was to chase it, pick it up and discard it, but my mother said "Don't even think about it!" and assured me it must happen with some regularity and suggested that we just let the wait staff know upon our departure.  Which we did - and all was well.

My final food-related memory of that trip was of my first taste of Red Snapper.  Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, we've always eaten plenty of fish.  I think at this point in my life (I must've been 13 or so at the time) I had eaten salmon, halibut, the aforementioned clams, oysters, crab, shrimp, trout, steelhead and who knows what else, but I had never tasted Red Snapper.  On the way home, we stayed at a lovely place at Lake Shasta - I remember wishing we could stay one more day to enjoy the resort-setting, but we had a pretty tight timeline on the trip back.  We had dinner in the restaurant that was part of the resort where we stayed.  I ordered the Red Snapper - I don't remember anything, really, about the specific preparation, but I do remember enjoying it thoroughly!  Red Snapper became a favorite of mine for awhile after that and I would often order it when I had the opportunity.

It seems every family gathering involves dinner or lunch, potluck or BBQ.  Of course we need fuel to live, and we all know it's not healthy to "live to eat", but wouldn't life be so much more mundane without those wonderful surprises like a perfectly steamed bucket of clams, a light & fluffy pancake or that first taste of something new?  Our family has been talking about a get-together in October to celebrate all the fall birthdays and, yep, you guessed it, we've already talked about what to fix for dinner!  It's true, it really does always come back to food!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ina Garten's Roasted Shrimp & Orzo Salad

I picked up a new recipe recently while watching an episode of the Barefoot Contessa.  About a week ago, I decided to try the recipe for the first time - just off the top of my head.  I managed to just about duplicate it, but I did make one minor change.  The recipe was for Roasted Shrimp and Orzo salad and called for cucumbers, amongst the other ingredients.  Rather than purchasing cucs, I decided to use some zucchini I already had on hand and - and this is the inspired part - I had my husband grill the zucchini.  Steven said the zucchini really made the salad - it was his favorite part.  It's a really tasty dish & can be treated as a salad or a side dish.  We've eaten it cold so far, but I'm sure it would be tasty warm too. 

Here's the link to the recipe - try it, it's so delicious that when I decided to take it to the family reunion for my potluck contribution, he said I should but a warning on it that eating it may cause "orgasm" - yes, he really said that!

The weather has been fairly hot here lately (for the Pacific Northwest anyway), and I haven't really wanted to heat up the house by turning on the oven, so I did cook the shrimp in my cast iron skillet - they were delicious, but I've tried Ina's oven roasting method too - and they are especally yummy prepared that way.

It's really best to prepare a day in advance, we both thought it was at it's best the next day and it's held up well enough for us to pack it in our lunches for a couple days following. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fish Tacos - Perfect Summer Fare!

I picked up some lovely, fresh cod at the grocery store the other day and decided we'd have fish tacos.  The kids aren't big on fish though and since they headed to Grandma's house for a visit yesterday, I decided to fix the fish tacos last night. 

I really like dill, cumin, coriander and fresh lime juice on white fish so that's what I used last night, plus salt & pepper and a bit of olive oil.  I prepped the fish, then baked it in the oven - no breading, no frying.  I baked it at 375 degrees (f) for about 15-20 minutes.  It came out moist and delicious! 

For toppings, I'm not big on the traditional cabbage, so I just shredded up some romaine lettuce instead. I also cut up some fresh zucchini into matchstick-sized pieces and cut a lime into wedges and made some fresh tartar sauce. 

Tartar Sauce:
1/4 c light sour cream or greek yogurt
zest of 1 lime
juice of 1/2 - 1 lime
1 tbls capers, chopped
1 tbls. dill (fresh is best, if you can get it)
1/2 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. cumin
salt & pepper to taste

Stir it all together and Chill while the fish is baking.

I found some lovely corn tortillas at the store that were really soft & "hand-made style" - they were a bit thicker and a lot moister than the usual corn tortillas - and healthier too.  The zucchini added a nice crunch and their mild flavor allowed the fish to remain the star. We also had a lovely spinach salad with honey-mustard dressing to balance out the meal.  My husband enjoyed this delicious, light and healthy meal so much, he had a 2nd helping!