Cucumber and Mint

Crisp and refreshing, those are the words I want to describe every meal I make from now until September.
I’ve lost my appetite for just about anything heated, as I sit in my sweltering living room and try to survive the 90 degree temps without air conditioning.

It’s salads and sandwiches for us, with maybe a popsicle or two for good measure.

When I think of cool and refreshing summer dishes, I think a nice, chilled cucumber and mint soup.
How can you go wrong? Not only is it fast to whip up, it tastes like something you spent all day slaving over. Big on flavor, low on labor. That’s my favorite kind of summer “cooking.”

Chilled Cucumber Soup
2 large English cucumbers (the long, thin variety)
1/4 small red onion
6oz fresh mint
1 cup chilled water
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt to taste
Dollop of yogurt

Peel and de-seed cucumbers, cut into 1/2 inch chunks. Set aside in large bowl. Dice onions and add to cucumbers. Roughly chop the mint and add to cucumbers. Pour water and lemon juice into large blender, add about 1/4 of the cuke mixture. Blend until only slightly chunky. Keep adding cucumber/onion/mint mixture until all is finely blended. I like a slightly pulpy texture to the final product. Add sea salt to taste (I put in about 1/2 tsp).
Top with a dollop of yogurt.

That’s all.
That’s it.
You can whip this up and serve as a refreshing appetizer for your BBQ or your cocktail party.
There’s no way you can eat this and not feel refreshed.

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Picture Perfect Picnic

It started with cherries.
I wait all year for them. I lurk around the produce stands waiting for that inevitable splash of red, because in my neck of the woods, they only come around for a few months in the early summer and then like a lovely apparition, they are gone. It was while walking through the park on my way home from the grocery store, that I realized the day was calling for a picnic. Finally, all of the trees were in full bloom, the sun was in full shine, the weather was cool and perfect.

But these cherries, these perfectly ripe, sweet little jewels, they needed to be devoured outside, in the open. These cherries were calling for a day just like that particular day when conditions were perfect for sitting on the damp grass and falling asleep under a spreading oak.

I’m lucky to live right next door to a little slice of country in the urban jungle. Our neighborhood park is mostly golf course, and the local little league team uses up most of the field for weekend tournaments, but we do have some lovely trees and a few secluded spots tucked behind fences. What better for an impromptu picnic than sandwiches and ripe cherries? I got the victuals together while Chris finished his work for the day, egg salad sandwiches on rye, pickles, marinated mushrooms and of course, the cherries. I poured some French rosé I had on hand into a plastic jug and Chris grabbed a novella he’d been wanting to read and we trudged off for an afternoon of al fresco lunching.

And ahhhhhh, what a fantastic time it was. We have not been avid picnickers, but there was something about the breeze, the sun and the distant squirrels bounding about that made everything taste like a memory or a dream. I remembered cold lemonade on a hot day, sprinting after my friends in a game of canonball, irrepressible laughter. That’s how I feel about picnics.

I might as well include a recipe while I’m at it, although I don’t know why anyone would need a recipe for egg salad. It’s not something I eat all of the time,
because it’s packed with fat and cholesterol, but every now and then I get a craving for a good ol’ fashioned egg salad sandwich.

Classic Egg Salad for Two
3-4 eggs, hardboiled
2 Tbsp mayo of choice
1-2 tsp capers
1 tsp dill
2 tsp dry mustard
1 chopped green onion
pinch of celery salt
swish of pepper

Mash the egg with a fork and mix with remaining ingredients.
I made the sandwiches in the photos above with arugula and sliced tomatoes. They were ridiculously good.


I think Chris would agree, we need to go on more picnics.


Conjuring Spring

Cold and Rainy. That’s Chicago in April and it’s so not fair. I read that my old hometown Phoenix, Arizona was approaching its first 100 degree temp. I’m kind of jealous. Six months of unrelenting cold weather has practically broken my spirit. I just want a little bit of sunshine, the teeniest bit of warmth. It doesn’t help that my Chris is studying abroad in Germany for the next two months and will miss the season completely. Spring is on its way and I’ll just have to enjoy it by my lonesome.

There’s something about spring, isn’t there? It’s a time for return, a resurrection from the agonizingly long winter. Everything sparkles with the glow of new life as trees begin to bud and blossom and baby birds chirp from their nests. I’m bursting with excitement for the warm days ahead. I can’t wait for the fresh produce and farmers’ markets waiting around the corner. Until the sun starts shining, I’m going to have to settle for a little spring in the kitchen.

Citrus always reminds me warm weather. Just close your eyes and think about lemonade, sweet navel oranges, bright green limes. Oh, can’t you just feel the summer sun bristling against your skin? I am trying, really trying to get there in one piece. So here’s a pasta salad I made the other day, because pasta salad reminds me of picnics and picnics remind me of summer. I’m always amazed at the wonderful things that can be done with a single lemon, some olive oil and fresh herbs. I used orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, but really any pasta will do.

Lemon Basil Orzo Salad
1 cup of orzo pasta
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½-1 tsp sea salt
1 large clove garlic
2-3 sprigs of fresh basil
1 small tomato
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
3-4 stalks of asparagus

In a quart size pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook for 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the orzo, it should be slightly al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Cut the asparagus into quarters and blanch in boiling water for 1 min. You don’t want to boil the asparagus. Plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. This will make the asparagus nice and crisp.

For the dressing: crush the garlic clove with the sea salt until there is a fine pulp. You can do this with the back of the knife, or use a mortar and pestle. In a small dish or bowl, add the lemon juice and continue crushing. Slowly add the olive oil while mixing.

Slice the fresh basil into strips and add to the dressing.

Chop the tomato into large chunks.

Mix all the ingredients and top with pepper. Serve on a bed of fresh spinach. (You can double the dressing recipe and dress the spinach for extra zing.)

I am convinced that by making this dish I am effectively expunging all traces of winter from my kitchen. This pasta salad will make the seasons finally change, the cold winds will blow far out over the sea, the heat will settle over my tiny corner of the city, and I will finally have a sunny day.
Let’s hope it works.


CabbageLove

“It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables. It may be eaten either cooked or raw; if you eat it raw, dip it into vinegar. It promotes digestion marvelously and is an excellent laxative, and the urine is wholesome for everything. If you wish to drink deep at a banquet and to enjoy your dinner, eat as much raw cabbage as you wish, seasoned with vinegar, before dinner, and likewise after dinner eat some half a dozen leaves; it will make you feel as if you had not dined, and you can drink as much as you please.” – Cato the Elder circa. 160 B.C.

This will be my second Chicago winter and I’m not particularly looking forward to it.
Yes, I’m a nerdy girl who enjoys the holidays, Christmas ornaments, tinsel, jingle bells, carols, a cozy fire, the whole lot. I thoroughly enjoy the festivities this time of year, but I don’t really enjoy the desolation in the produce aisle. Goodbye to ripe, sweet tomatoes and goodbye to juicy strawberries. It’s all roots and tubers from here until spring. But then, there are the winter vegetables that come out in full force after October and among them, the lovely cabbage.

Ah, cabbage, the versatile vegetable of both acclaim and infamy. Incredibly healthy, containing cancer fighting compounds, feeding the poverty stricken masses and most likely responsible for the survival and sustenance of those unfortunate souls living in the arctic cold of Northern Europe and Asia; cabbage has also been known as the torment of the poor, plain, cheap and if boiled too long, oftentimes smells and tastes like, well, you-know-what. It is true that the taste of a raw cabbage is rustic and grassy with a slight pungency, and boiling releases unpleasant sulfuric compounds, but I find cabbage a quintessential addition to my kitchen repertoire.

Cabbage belongs to the botanical genus Brassica, and is related to broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, and radishes. First cultivated in the Mediterranean, and eaten by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, cabbage is a close cousin to a variety of mustard plants. The condiment mustard, also first used in the Mediterranean, is made from the seeds of Brassica plants and compliments these vegetables well. This is why mustard and cabbage go together perfectly.
Acid is an ally to cabbage. It aids in retaining crispness and intensifies the flavors; hence why so many cultures pickle the leaves. Oh, sauerkraut, I would be lost without you.

This time of year, you can bet that I will be eating a lot of cabbage. The spicy green cabbage leaves are perfect for snacking. I used to munch on rolled cabbage leaves spread with peanut butter. Sliced red cabbage makes a beautiful addition to any salad. One of my favorite comfort foods is a hot sauerkraut sandwich with swiss cheese served on pumpernickel rye.
Here’s one of my winter favorites:

Braised, Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage

1 small head of red cabbage (1-2lbs)
1 sweet apple (honeycrisp, braeburn, pink lady)
1/4 cup sweet white onion, chopped
2-4Tbsp red wine vinegar (season to taste)
1-2tsp of salt
1-2 tsp fennel seeds
1tsp coriander
1/2 cup red wine (you’re call, a cheap merlot or cabernet is fine)/you can sub apple cider for the wine
1 tbsp olive oil or butter

In a deep pot over medium-high heat sautee the onion, apples and spices in the oil/butter until the apple begins to soften (2-3mins). Add cabbage, and salt and cook for 5-8mins until slightly carmelized. Add the wine/cider and put a lid on the pot. Turn heat to medium-low and simmer until the cabbage is soft (15-20mins).

This dish is filling on its own but also makes an excellent side-dish. Meatavores can enjoy it with a plate of sausage, or a roast chicken. I usually serve it up with a grain, try brown rice or quinoa. Cabbagelove.


Key Lime Pie – An Apt Adieu to my Summer

Note: This post was originally written Aug. 31st, 2010

The weather report says that today marks the end of meteorological summer and she’s going out with more of a bang than a whimper . While not the hottest day on record, the early evening swelters with a particularly stinging heat. Today I stayed home to nurse my husband following a tooth extraction. He is cloistered in the bedroom with his laptop and pain meds, condemned to eat only soft, cold food for the next twenty four hours. I am keeping him fed on applesauce and cottage cheese.

On this hot day, the last day of summer, with the windows wide open and the bronze rays of the setting sun beaming down from above, I have decided to finally approach a pie I have been meaning to make for the past three months. Back when it was winter and I was freezing my tuckus off all I could think of was a hot beach. I had imagined the white sand, the blue waves, and a neverending picnic of cold sandwiches, salads, lemonade, sangria and key lime pie. Key lime pie embodies all of my summertime hopes and dreams. Sweet, tart, cool, creamy, looking like a slice of sunshine on the plate, it is the kind of pie that sings summer.

This key lime pie sums up the entirety of my summer. On the one hand ambitious, or at least seemingly so, as I have to confess that this very key lime pie is my first key lime pie; on the other hand, lazy and not too eager to impress. You see, I did not score a huge cache of key limes at the Farmer’s Market, lug them home and squeeze every tiny one of them for their juice. I bought a bottle of key lime juice, a can of condensed milk and a pre-made graham crust. I know you are thinking I probably should have just bought a pie at the store, but I couldn’t resist donning an apron and getting fancy with whipped cream.

The recipe is stolen from a google search, but I didn’t feel it needed to be cited as it is a pretty simple and universal recipe, I even found a nearly identical version on the inside of the graham cracker crust label.

The Lazy Girl’s Key Lime Pie

1 (9inch) graham cracker crust
3 eggs
1/2 cup key lime juice
1 (14oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 pinch salt
1 pinch cream of tartar

Whipped Cream Topping:
1/2 cup chilled whipping cream
1/4/ cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 325.
Separate 2 of the eggs. Put the whites in a separate bowl. To the yolks, add one whole egg, the lime juice and the sweetened condensed milk. Whisk until smooth and set aside. With clean mixer blades or whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the salt and cream of tartar until it forms firm peaks. DO NOT OVERBEAT the whites until dry. Fold the beaten whites into the filling mixture. Pour filling into crust. Bake for 10 – 15mins or until set. Let cool at room temperature, then refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
When ready to serve, put whipped cream in chilled bowl and whisk until firm. Use spatula to fill decorating bag and pipe around pie. I like to use a rosette shape.

Folding the egg whites into the filling


The Final Product

Summer on a plate

The beaten egg whites really make the final product fluffy. It’s like biting into a lime-flavored cloud. If you eat it after only three or four hours in the fridge it will almost dissolve instantly on your tongue. The longer the pie sets the more firm and concentrated the flavors become. The last slice I consumed, about three days after baking, was rich and custardy as opposed to the first couple of slices that were light and airy.

Ironically, I actually went to Florida for a weekend this summer and didn’t taste a single key lime. I used key lime juice produced and bottled in Florida and bought in Illinois, which made me sit and think about the state of the global economy for about two seconds before the flavor of the citrus whisked me back to the beach and the hot sands of the Atlantic coast. I don’t know if using fresh key limes would have changed the flavor dynamic all that much. I am totally on board with the concept of freshness and buying locally, but if I took every admonition to only buy produce from within a three hundred mile radius, I wouldn’t be able to make a key lime pie. I still have about half a bottle of the juice and now I just have to wonder how I’m going to use it, key limeade? Key lime and garlic marinade for tofu or tempeh? Key lime salad dressing? Cupcakes? Oh, the possibilities.

This recipes is definitely a keeper. I think I might make this pie in the dead of winter to remind myself that summer will be on its way and the sun will shine once more.

TIPS: The eggs beat quicker and firmer if the bowl is chilled. I usually rinse a steel bowl in water and put it in the freezer for five minutes or so.
Cream of tartar (or potassium hydrogen tartrate) is a type of acid salt that stabilizes and increases the volume of egg whites. It is also used in candies and desserts to produce a creamier texture.

Also, I prefer to use local, organic, vegetarian, certified humane eggs. They are a few bucks more than factory eggs, but are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella, contain more nutrients and the hens will thank you for allowing them to have a decent life.


Guacamole The Right Way

The dead of summer is upon the Midwest and I lounge in my sweltering apartment, sans ac, prostrate on the couch in a veil of my own dew fighting against heat exhaustion. All I desire is a tall glass of ice water, a cold piece of fruit, anything chilled. Meals have consisted of sandwiches and salads. My stomach constricts, my hunger abates and only thirst keeps me in its clutches. I shudder to imagine turning on the oven.

Luckily the heat brings pristine produce. The oranges in the stands sit heavy with syrup, the sweet grapes overflow, now is the time for crisp lettuces, firm cucumbers, glistening tomatoes, and the dense, cool pudding of avocado. When I am languishing in the humid air there is little that can rouse my appetite more than a big bowl of guacamole.

The only sadness that my departure from Arizona brought me was the loss of fresh avocados brought in from Mexico, and readily available southwestern foodstuffs such as hominy, fresh tomatillos, and a wide variety of chili peppers . Oh, how I miss the memory of my friend Maribel and her mother’s tamales, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, how I mourn the thought of blue corn tortillas laden with spiced beans and green chilis.

Neither of my parents were inclined towards culinary greatness. My mother grew up in California and my father lived there for a decent amount of time, so one could assume they encountered an avocado or two. Yet, they never learned how to prepare a decent guac. As long as I can remember my father’s guacamole reigned in our house and sadly, it consisted of sour cream with flecks of green floating along the surface. I remember my father’s method of preparation, to peel the avocado from the outside like an orange. This time consuming technique bruised the avocado flesh and left an horrendous mess. Luckily, my proclivity towards cooking shows on PBS led me to learn that the proper and quickest way to peel an avocado is to slice it all around the pit, pull the two halves apart, and scoop the flesh out with a spoon. After I learned this I eagerly taught my father who looked upon this method as a revelation. Over time I discovered that satisfying guacamole enlivens the taste of the avocado rather than attempt to drown or mask it altogether.

A good guacamole begins with the essential ingredient: avocado. The avocado is a finicky fruit and the utmost care must be taken in choosing them at their height of ripeness. I’ve often heard, erroneously, that avocados should be chosen when they are very soft and the peel blackened. In fact I remember my mother relaying that very adage when choosing avocados that had already passed their prime. Maybe this is why their flavor had to be extinguished with sour cream. A ripe avocado will give slightly to the touch, it will feel heavy and firm. If you wait until they are completely softened you will cut open the fruit to find the flesh browned and rotted. The browning inside the avocado produces a bitter, unsavory flavor that will completely ruin the guacamole. The most preferable avocado will be a buttery yellow at the center graduating to a bright green near the peel. The ideal avocado will have a rich, lingering flavor and a custard like texture.

What good avocados should look like

Upon extracting the flesh, all of the avocados should be placed in a large bowl and mashed to a creamy paste. Now, this part leaves some room for variation. Traditionally, the avocados are mashed with a molcajete, or mortar and pestle made with volcanic rock. Nevermind if you do not have a molcajete, a sturdy fork will produce a chunky paste if you are partial to bulk, a good ol’ potato masher will also do the trick, or if you are inclined to gadgets, a food processor will quickly get the job done. This paste of avocado is the backbone of your guacamole, all other ingredients come secondary and can be adjusted to taste.

Here is my basic and never changing recipe for summertime guac:

4-6 avocados, depending on shape and quantity desired, mashed to a paste.
2 small tomatoes, or one large, diced.
2 scallions, chopped.
1/2 small white onion, minced.
2-3 cloves of raw garlic, minced.
1/2 cup or 1 bunch of cilantro, minced.
The juice of one lime.
1 tsp sea salt.
2 tsp of cayenne pepper (certainly adjusted to taste, I prefer a kick)
or 1 small jalapeno or habanero, minced.

The above ingredients are simply folded into the avocado paste. I enjoy the guacamole simply on a tortilla, with chips, on burritos, and occasionally straight from the bowl. I have had guacamole prepared with a few capfuls of tequila and found that to add a fantastic depth of flavor. However, I prefer my tequila on the side. After whipping up a batch I like to return to my lounging and siesta with a frosty glass of sangria. Muy delicioso.

Enjoyed simply on a fajita.


Goodbye Winter!

A frigid razor wind cuts through Chicago, but it can’t fool me. I know Spring’s on its way. See:

tiny buds

Most importantly, the time will soon arrive when farmer’s markets bustle with overflowing fruit and vegetables. I ache for the juicy cherries of summer, the vine ripened peaches, the watermelons. Has it been so long since watermelon season? I have forgotten what it’s like to feel the soft give of watermelon pulp as my teeth sink in for a bite. Unlike many people who shop at major grocery chains, I make a conscious effort to eat by season whenever possible. This means that I avoid most summer fruits and veg in the winter and vice versa. My winters consist of a whole lot of cabbage and starches, and not a whole lot of citrus or berries. I love cabbage. I’m a cabbage fiend, but it’s gotten a little out of hand recently. I’m totally ready for crisp salads, packing up simple sandwiches for picnics and fruit fruit fruit!

As a farewell, I would like to post two very simple winter meals that I consumed for a good portion of the season. I know it’s a bit strange to post winter recipes as spring lies ahead, but I wanted to say goodbye to my dear old friends. So, here is my goodbye letter to the winter foodstuffs:

Dear Butternut Squash, zucchini, red cabbage, broccoli and potatoes, et al.,

I love you guys! The carbs! The sugars! The abundance of nutrients! Thank you so much for keeping me company on blustery cold nights. I know we might not be seeing so much of each other over the summer, but I wanted you to know, my feelings haven’t changed. I know you will be there for me in full force starting next Autumn. So let’s keep in touch.

Love & Jellybeans,
N.

Butternut squash with olive oil and cinnamon, broccoli and brown rice

Red Cabbage and Potatoes