Saturday Morning Ritual

Saturday mornings in the summer are a total about-face from my winter routine. Up with the sun with a cup of coffee, I sit with a piece of paper and pencil, figure out what I’m going to cook for the week, grab my bags, and head out for my local farmer’s market.

Farmer’s markets weren’t something I grew up with, but following college, I visited my  first one when it opened in town, which had just a couple of booths with farmers selling vegetables. At the time, I didn’t really know what organic meant nor were my cooking skills honed enough to know what to do with most of the veggies, so I stuck with what I knew: peas, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes. That same farmer’s market has expanded ten fold in the past two decades, moved its location, and now is one of the largest in the state.

I’ve been going to my own farmer’s market for more than ten years and along with the usual fruits and vegetables has come a plethora of other vendors. This year we have two local vineyards, meat, greeting cards, jewelry, homemade soap, flowers, prepared food, maple syrup, baked goods, and various crafters. This year I can even get my knives sharpened at $3 a pop! But I’m really there for the food.

Unlike my grocery list that is neatly organized, I go to the farmer’s market with some cash in my pocket, no list, and unusual reckless abandon. My method is always the same, start at one end, going down the other, checking out what is available and their prices, then going back to my usual farmers. And I always end up buying more than we can eat in a week’s time. Who can resist the gorgeous fresh garlic still on its stalk? The pint of bright red tomatoes? All the emerald-colored herbs that will fill my car with the  aroma of summer? The fridge overfloweth with fresh vegetables and fruit.

Herbs are something I love to buy, but I usually end up with too much and too many times have made their way to the compost pile because I didn’t use them in time.  A couple of years ago, staring at some wilting herbs in their water, I decided to make something with them so I could use them up and have summer all year long–Garlic Herb Butter! And it’s so easy; take some minced new garlic and some minced herbs, I like basil, parsley, dill, oregano, or a combination, and mix together. Take some butter and make a paste with the herbs. (Depending on how much you have for garlic and herbs will be how much butter you use.) When you finish mixing, take a cookie sheet lined with parchment or wax paper and with a tablespoon, measure out into herb butter patties and place in the freezer. When they are frozen, I take them out, wrap each one individually, and store in a freezer bag. I make several different combinations and just keep them in the freezer. I use these for sauteing vegetables in the wintertime and buttering homemade bread; the aroma of the fresh garlic and herbs is wonderful; it takes me back to my hot kitchen in the middle of summer! And they keep forever; I found some in the back of the freezer this winter with a date I won’t to say, but it was still fresh and was delicious with some winter vegetables!

Another dish to make is something I call Farmer’s Market Salad, with veggies that are currently in the season at the farmer’s market, aside from the ingredients for the dressing, of course. You can use any combination: fresh lettuce mix and/or spinach, steamed green beans, tomatoes, fresh corn, scallions, cooked new potatoes, cucumbers, herbs, basically any vegetable you buy can go in the salad. Since everything is so fresh and tasty, I don’t like to adorn it too much, so some olive oil, salt and pepper, and a splash of either lemon or vinegar will do. Who knows, maybe I’ll see olive oil and lemon purveyors next summer!

“Too Darn Hot!”

Not to quote Ella Fitzgerald, but far be it from me to complain about the heat wave we’ve been having this past week. Because I know August is right around the corner, which means it won’t be light at 5 in the morning, the apple orchard will soon open, and in a mere six months Christmas will be over. Since I work in an air-conditioned office, most evenings are tolerable, but last week it was not. I sat on the porch sweating in the shade, hoping for a bit of a breeze that didn’t come and my glass filled to the top with ice quickly melted. During heat like this, coffee and tea become a cocktail served on ice in the morning, and throughout the day the appetite slows and little nibbles instead of meals tend to be the norm.

During this latest heat wave, I was reminded of how I loved to go over to eat at my best friend’s house when I was growing up. At the time, her mom’s cooking seemed exotic; she put green peppers in her spaghetti sauce (which I still love), had large blocks of cheddar cheese we would eat with raisins (something I still eat to this day), and on really hot evenings, like we’ve been having, we’d eat tuna sandwiches for dinner. At my house, I remember eating sandwiches for dinner only when we’d return home from vacation and the larder was empty. Supper those nights always was scrambled eggs on toast with ketchup.

My mom made her tuna salad with celery and Hellmann’s mayo  (“Best Foods” for my West Coast readers), but my friend’s mom’s salad was different: a little hard-boiled egg, onion, celery, and Cains mayonnaise. I would happily munch on my sandwich, intrigued by the flavors as they melded with the tuna. This time of year, I always have a couple of cans of tuna fish, salmon, or crabmeat on hand in the cupboard for an easy (and cheap!) meal that requires nothing more than a can opener, a knife, a spoon, and a bowl. I always serve it on greens, never as a sandwich. In the winter when I’m yearning for a bit of summer and something quick to eat after the gym, I’ll whip up a bowl of tuna fish salad in the morning so it’s ready to eat when we get home. Usually it’s just celery, but sometimes I go back in time and add in a little chopped egg and onion, depending on my mood.

As in true Vermont fashion, our short heat wave has passed, and the tuna salad will be relegated back to lunch instead of dinner. It’s now cool enough to turn on the stove; I’m roasting chicken tonight.

Tuesday Night Tacos

Maybe it was the conversation about hamburgers at work that afternoon, but Tuesday I started to get a craving for beef. Since I had a package in the freezer, I knew it wouldn’t be hamburgers or meatloaf, it needed to be something where the meat cooked in the skillet. A quick mind scan of what I had on hand in the fridge and I knew what I was going to make: tacos!

I had to mow the lawn that evening, so when I got home, I took out the hamburger and corn tortillas and put some frozen corn in a small bowl to defrost for a little while. I have a love-hate relationship with mowing the lawn; it gives me 40 minutes of meditation time to daydream about my day, recipes to make, and other things going on in my life, it’s great exercise, and in the end, I can see the fruits of my labor, but I also get hot, sweaty, and it’s hard work. So this evening, I daydreamed about what I was going to put in my tacos; I always figure if I think about food, the job will go faster! A cool shower and a glass of Moscato and I was ready to go.

Although I’ve made tacos many times, this evening’s meal was totally on the fly. In a skillet, heat about a teaspoon of olive oil and when warm, add a thinly sliced clove of garlic (we’re finally getting the first garlic bulbs of the season, so this was nice and mellow). Add about a pound of hamburger (ground turkey or chicken would work nicely too) and gently cook until the meat is finished. Perhaps it was the Moscato talking, but I got a little crazy with the spices: a couple of dashes of chili powder, some curry, a bit of cinnamon, and cumin and coriander filled the kitchen with a Middle Eastern scent as opposed to Mexico, but it was delicious. While this was cooking, I set up my mise en place: chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, corn, lettuce, and a diced avocado with a couple squirts of lime juice were placed in small bowls. I didn’t have cheddar cheese, but no matter, with the avocado and salsa with a dollop of sour cream, it wasn’t missed at all. If you are a vegetarian, this can easily be turned into a veggie meal, with either crumbled tofu or black beans in place of the beef.

Summer in Vermont, a newly mowed lawn, a glass of wine, a quick and delicious dinner, and episode 3 of “Downton Abbey,” I felt like I was in heaven!

Szechuan Cucumbers

I love this time of year as it means cucumbers–and lots of them! I make soups, salads, pickles (recipes to come!) almost on a daily basis. I always have a large stash in the fridge. One of my favorite side dishes is Szechuan Cucumbers, based on an old Eating Well recipe that I’ve changed so many times it’s become my own. It is reminiscent of a wonderful Thai restaurant that is no longer in business; at dim sum they offered a small plate of crunchy, spicy cucumbers with just the right amount of acid. It was heaven and I would have been happy just eating plate after plate of cucumbers if I could. And now that I have a recipe, I can!

I made this the other evening while waiting for the fish to finish cooking for dinner; it’s fast, easy, and delicious with almost no calories! (Note, that evening I didn’t follow my on instructions to leave in the fridge or an hour or so!) I have made substitutions through the years: yellow onions instead of red, peeled cucumbers, no ginger, no peanuts, eaten right away, and while it is still tasty, it’s not perfect. This is one instance where it is best for the recipe to be followed, in my opinion!

Szechuan Cucumbers
• 2 cucumbers, sliced horizontally, seeded, and cut into half-moon slices
• 1 jalapeno, minced
• ½ small red onion, thinly sliced (or more, depending on the size of your cucumbers, if they’re large, use more onion)
• Minced ginger, about a tablespoon or more to taste

• ½ cup rice vinegar
• 4 teaspoons reduced sodium soy sauce or tamari
• *1 Tablespoon sugar (*Note: The original recipe called for sugar, but I usually leave it out. Feel free to use if you want to balance out the vinegar and soy sauce.)

• ¼ cup chopped peanuts

In a bowl, add the cucumber, onion, pepper, and ginger and mix. Measure out the liquid, mix together,  add to the bowl, and mix again. Place in refrigerator for an hour or two before serving. Right before serving, give it one last stir, add the chopped peanuts,  and enjoy!

101 Simple Meals in 10 Minutes–or Less!

One of my all-time favorite cooks is Mark Bittman.

(Photo © Fred R. Conrad/New York Times)

I was first introduced to Bittman around 2005 through his PBS cooking shows, “Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs” and “The Best Recipes in the World.” Author of How to Cook Everything, Food Matters, among others, and a longtime contributor to Wednesday’s Dining Section of The New York Times (he is now a food columnist for the Sunday magazine but still contributes recipes), Bittman can take just a couple of ingredients and create an inventive, delicious, and quick meal.

In the summer, when dinnertime is right around the corner and you don’t really feel like cooking, Bittman, of course, has the answer. In 2007, he published in the Times, Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less.” As he writes in the introduction, these are more of a general outline instead of a formal recipe. Such as this:

“3. Cut eight sea scallops into four horizontal slices each. Arrange on plates. Sprinkle with lime juice, salt and crushed chilis; serve after five minutes.”

See, simple, easy, and delicious in six minutes! He has since expanded this idea to “101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics” (2008), “101 Simple Salads for the Season” (2009), and “101 Fast Recipes for Grilling” (2010).

So, get your printer fired up and take advantage of your ten free monthly articles from the Times and print these menus out! I always haul them out once springtime arrives for some needed inspiration on those evenings I don’t feel like cooking!

Crumbly Peach Pie

It’s almost the middle of July and the refrigerator already is bursting at its seams with fruit! Cherries, blueberries, cantaloupe, peaches, bananas, raspberries, lemons, limes, grapes, and watermelon are filling the shelves, leaving precious little room for anything else. Fresh fruit for breakfast, for lunch, and in the evening, we live for this season in the dead of January.

Last week we were out of town for three days, but before I left I put a bowl of almost ripe peaches in the fridge so they wouldn’t go bad before my return. When I pulled the five peaches out, they were ready to go, but I wasn’t. I had no desire to eat them plain and had to figure out how I wanted to use them. There is only one recipe that will make me turn on the stove in 80 degree weather: my grandmother’s recipe for Crumbly Peach Pie!

I grew up eating this pie at the height of peach season every the summer and have carried on the tradition, making it at least once every summer. While the recipe came from my grandmother, who passed it on to my mother, who passed it on to me (with various changes along the way), I always thought it was a family recipe. Imagine my surprise when I was going through Grandma’s old recipe books to find a version of this in an old Betty Crocker cookbook! No matter, this pie with its flaky, crumbly filling, just ripe peaches, and homemade crust is delicious, decadent, and easy. Good for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dessert! I think serving it at room temperature is best.

Crumbly Peach Pie
Cook’s note: This is directly from Grandma’s recipe, but since I am horrible at math, I put in the tablespoon conversion of what I use. 

2/3 cup sugar (scant)
3/8 cup (6 Tablespoons) flour
1/3 cup (5 Tablespoons) butter (scant)
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
6-8 peach halves, skinned

Mix the ingredients together and place half of the mixture at the bottom of a ready-to-bake pie crust. Place the peach halves on top and add the remainder of the crumbly mixture. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then 325 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden.

To peel peaches: This is the easiest method I’ve found, albeit a bit tedious. Fill a large pan with water and bring to a boil. In the sink, fill a large bowl with extra cold water. When the water has come to a boil, add the peaches one at a time and let it sit in the water for about 45 seconds to a minute. (The timing is very important, as you don’t want the peaches to cook.) Transfer immediately to the bowl of cold water. If everything goes well, you should be able to peel the skins off easily with your fingers. If you find they don’t, you can stick them in the hot water a little bit longer.

True Confessions…and a Recipe

“Hello. My name is Chris and I am addicted to cookbooks. I’ve done so well in 2011, only purchasing Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2 that I got for a steal on eBay in January. I’ve heard NPR and the New York Times review the summertime cookbooks with nary a note. I’ve gone to used book sales and have put back cookbooks that were tempting me. I even went to a bookstore that had an amazing cookbook section and purchased just two books of food essays! But the other day I found myself tempted by a cookbook and I fell off the wagon.”

Of course, this is done in jest, but I really do have a lot of cookbooks. I take them to bed with me to read like a novel, propped on a pillow. You’ll know I’m in a cooking mood or planning a big meal if you find a stack of cookbooks next to the bed in the morning! And often I do pare down my collection; I donated several to my library book sale this spring and was pleased to discover I had more room on my cookbook shelves.

So the other day I was remembering a story I recently heard food writer Melissa Clark  tell on the NPR radio program, “The Splendid Table.” She spent several summers in France with her family and every day her mother made a pan bagnat for the family’s lunch to take to the beach. This is a delicious sandwich, where you take a loaf of crusty bread, hollow it out, and fill it with a mixture of tuna, vegetables, herbs, olives, garlic, and lemon. When the sandwich was made, her mother would wrap it tightly in foil. A key ingredient to the recipe is to have a seven-year-old child to sit on the sandwich!  This melds everything together, the bread and the filling, into a delicious meal.

Clark writes the “Good Appetite” column in the NYTs and her book, In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite: 150 Recipes and Stories About the Food You Love, published last year,  brings together recipes and past articles. She is a great food storyteller and is improvisational in the kitchen, making dishes out of just about anything. I can’t wait to read this–and who can resist that grilled cheese sandwich on the cover?

Next week is Festival on the Green. From Sunday to Friday, evenings will be spent listening to free music on the green. This is always a week of picnic salad suppers for us, made ahead of time, so I can grab things quickly to pack when I get home from work before heading out the door again. I never, ever consider a sandwich dinner, but for this week, I plan on making pan bagnat for dinner one evening, sans the seven-year-old; my nephew doesn’t live close enough to sit on the sandwich!

Pan Bagnat
Reprinted from A Good Appetite: Lunch Recipe: Take One 7-Year-Old by Melissa Clark

Prep time: 15 min
Weighting time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 min
Yield: 2 to 3 servings

2 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
1 very small garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 8-inch round crusty country loaf or small ciabatta, halved
1 Kirby cucumber or 1/2 regular cucumber
1 medium-size, ripe tomato, sliced
1/2 small red onion, sliced
1 jar (5 to 6 ounces) tuna packed in olive oil, drained
8 large basil leaves
2 tablespoons sliced pitted olives, preferably a mix of black and green
1 hard-cooked egg, peeled and thinly sliced

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the optional anchovies, the garlic, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle in oil, whisking constantly.

2. If using a country loaf, pull out some soft interior crumb to form a cavity. If using a ciabatta, you won’t need to eliminate anything.

3. If using a Kirby cucumber, slice thinly. If using a regular cucumber, peel, halve lengthwise, and scoop out seeds from one half. Thinly slice seedless half. Add sliced cucumber to vinaigrette and toss well.

4. Spread half the cucumbers on bottom of bread. Top with tomato and onion slices, then with tuna, basil, olives and egg slices. Top egg with remaining cucumbers and vinaigrette. Cover with second bread half and firmly press sandwich together.

5. Wrap sandwich tightly in foil, waxed paper or plastic wrap, then place in a plastic bag. Put sandwich under a weight such as a cast-iron frying pan topped with a filled kettle, or have a child about 7 years old sit on it. Weight sandwich for 7 to 10 minutes, then flip and weight it for another 7 to 10 minutes (or as long as you can get the child to sit still). Unwrap, slice and serve immediately, or keep it wrapped for up to 8 hours before serving.

Simple Salad Suppers

The calendar has turned to July, the temperature is now humid not warm, and my hair is no longer curly but frizzy. Yup, it’s summer! So when the heat and humidity turns up, I want to get out of the kitchen and away from the stove for easy and light dinners. These two salads are so simple and easy, I promise it will take you longer to go to the grocery store to buy the items than it will take you to make them!

Easy Cucumber Salad
(Note: Easy to double!)
One cucumber
– Diced tomatoes (I like grape tomatoes sliced in half, but you can use whatever fresh tomato you have on hand)
– Onion (I prefer Vidalia in this, but any onion will do. As you can see, I used red onion this weekend.)
– Feta cheese (optional, I don’t make an effort to add this, only if I have some in the house)
– Finely sliced fresh basil (optional)
– Apple cider vinegar

Peel the cucumber. Slice it in half horizontally and scrape the seeds out with a spoon. Slice into thin half-moon shaped pieces and place in a bowl. Add the tomatoes (I want the ratio to be 3/4 cucumbers, 1/4 tomatoes, but of course you can change it to fit your mood). Add to the bowl. Add a few slices of onion. Mix together. Add the feta, if using. Add a couple of capfuls of the vinegar, about a tablespoon or so, mix, testing it to make sure it has the right amount of zing. Some freshly ground pepper, salt (if I don’t use the feta), stir, and serve!
*Note: This salad is a bit weak on leftovers. Although I eat it, it gets a little wilted and everything isn’t as crisp as when you first make it.  

Spicy Black Bean Salad
– One can black beans, rinsed
– About a half cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
– Sliced scallions (green onions)
– Diced jalapeno pepper (optional)
– Diced avocado (optional)
– Juice from a half lime, or to taste
– Salt and pepper

In a bowl, add the black beans, tomatoes, scallions, pepper, and mix. Add avocado, if using. Add the lime, salt and pepper, and chill until ready to serve.

Macaroni Salad: A Healthier Way

Just in time for Fourth of July weekend!  One of the things I love to eat every summer (and sometimes when I have a hankering for it, wintertime too!), is macaroni salad. Tiny elbows of macaroni with a mixture of eggs, onion, and mayonnaise. I like it simple and unadorned.

I’ve seen many a recipe for healthy macaroni salads. To me, whole wheat elbows, topped with low fat cheese, or filling it with other vegetables just isn’t macaroni salad; I’d prefer not to eat it at all if that’s my option. Through the years, I’ve tried to make a healthier version and this is my standby. Using juicy pickles (my favorite is dill) cuts down on the amount of mayonnaise you need to use. This is enough for two servings, with leftovers. And doubling (or tripling!) the recipe for a crowd is a snap!

“Healthy” Macaroni Salad
1 cup elbow macaroni, uncooked
2 hard boiled eggs
Chopped scallions or onions (the amount depends on how much or little you prefer)
Chopped dill pickles, about 2 spears
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
A generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and a dash of salt

Cook macaroni per directions, or for 8-9 minutes in boiling water. Drain macaroni and place in bowl and let it cool. Add chopped egg, scallions, pickles, and mix. Add mayonnaise and mix thoroughly until incorporated. Add salt and pepper and serve, or chill until dinner is ready!

Happy Fourth of July! I hope everyone has a happy and safe weekend! Enjoy the fireworks and eat lots of good summertime food!