roasted peaches, 101

Everybody said it was perfect here. For the first two months of my North County residence, I didn’t believe them. Gloomy mornings and evenings spent wearing long sleeves were evidence of the coldest summer since 1916, a nice little fact Mark heard one day on the radio. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was me. When I moved to D.C. last winter, they got slammed with Snowpocalypse, the worst triple-whammy of winter weather since who knows when. (How did I deal? I made stuffed eggplants.)

Of course it’s selfish to think that weather patterns revolve around my wayfaring ways. Of course they don’t. But after two months of patiently waiting out “June gloom,” California had really started to let me down.

And then came August, sweet August with its clear skies and stone fruit and newly-minted sun. Suddenly everyone who’d claimed how perfect it was here changed their tune: “September and October are the best months,” they’d say. “This is our winter,” they’d assure me, as I inquired about buying a bike trainer for the winter months. Despite a bad track record, the optimist in me must believe them.

August brought so many good things: a trip to Boulder for my first magazine cover photo shoot (not me, mind you, that would be a milestone worth its own post!), my first Aquathon (and many other great San Diego Triathlon Club events), and the much-anticipated parental visit. There was body-boarding with cousins visiting from Vancouver and lounging on the beach with books. With the parents there was a trip to the Wild Animal Park and Stone Brewery, a Del Mar reggae concert, good food and conversation. It was also the month our first pet joined our household of two: a seal-point Snowshoe we haven’t yet named! (Click here for a photo.)

My favorite part about this weather, quickly showing its true colors, is eating outdoors. Until I can afford the restaurants that overlook the ocean and until we have a patio or yard on which to dine, I’ll have to settle for beach picnics, the little deck at the office, and friends with benefits (ie: backyard dining rooms!) Two of those friends are our neighbors, Rob and Barbara, a lovely couple we became acquainted with through my Aunt Evelyn. From the first night we spent with them, drinking wine and eating pizza, they’ve been a significant part of our San Diego socialization process.

On Sunday they invited us over to their funky Leucadia home once more for a potluck with a few other couples. While the guests deliberated over beer, margaritas, or wine in the kitchen, Rob ushered everyone outside to enjoy the still-warm evening. (My kind of host—”get outside everyone, go enjoy it!”)

Charged with appetizers and a dessert, I decided on two recipe-less offerings. The first was fresh spring rolls, made with ingredients procured on Friday at an Asian market Mark had expertly tracked down while I was out covering a triathlon event. The second, simple roasted peaches with local honey, ricotta cheese, and toasted walnuts.

The idea for the peaches came from something similar we’d made for our parents two Christmases ago—Roasted Pears with Ricotta and Honey, from the January 2009 Bon Appetit. That was a slightly more involved version of roasted fruit, requiring that you strain ricotta and crush fennel seeds. I didn’t have time for either, so I stopped at the Leucadia farmer’s market down the street to see if I could come up with a simplified version (hence the “101” in the title … the market takes place just off highway 101, the same road that runs right by our apartment). I bought a few ripe local peaches, and a large jar of local wildflower honey from Deborah, my new friend at Sunflower Organics. (She mixes up a magical offering of honeys, including cinnamon- and Christmas-berry-spiked varieties, some with added bee pollen. Check it out.)

I cut the large peaches in thirds (you could also do halves for a larger portion), and placed them cut side up in a 400 degree oven. (See photos above). I put a little pat of butter on each one, and sprinkled the whole lot with about 2 tablespoons of sugar. I baked them until they looked done, about half an hour. While they baked, I mixed ricotta cheese (probably not local, unfortunately, as it was from Trader Joe’s!) with some cinnamon. To serve, I simply re-heated the peaches in the microwave, and each person got a portion topped with cinnamon-ricotta, drizzled honey, and chopped and toasted walnuts.

Aside from burning two pans of walnuts due to cat-induced distraction, it was a quick summer dessert that wasn’t too heavy or syrupy sweet. I probably should have made more, as I was the only person who brought dessert, but this would be perfect for a potluck or multi-course dinner party where you just want a little something to cleanse sharper flavors from your palate.

There were loads of other delicious items, like Rob’s onion pie (above), stuffed zucchini, grilled salmon, roasted cauliflower, and caprese salad. The best part, though, was the company: people who could talk travel, coffee roasting, wine, and William Carlos Williams. People from all walks of life and various parts of the country who’ve come to land here, a place that, as I’m starting to see, will only become more perfect the more I time I give it.

And of course, it’s the little things that will continue to make it so: love, food, friends, bikes, waves, coffee, sun, health, employment, and gratitude for all of it.

asparagus naan pizza

A weeknight dinner with a friend last week was colored in shades of green: Armed with key lime cupcakes I managed to lure her out to the Maryland boonies. She followed in a healthier suit, offering fresh, local asparagus.

I began to plan out the sustenance for our evening, but I didn’t have to think very hard. As soon as she mentioned her seasonal stalks, a recent Runner’s World recipe for naan bread pizza sprung to mind. Its unique fusion of an Indian staple, pesto, ricotta, and asparagus caught my eye. The fact that I already had half the ingredients on hand sealed the deal.

She arrived on a May evening almost warm enough to want to keep dinner an no-oven affair. But I wasn’t about to change the plan just because of a little sweat. We opened the windows, and as we snapped the stalks at the point of tenderness and chopped basil, began our many-weeks-in-waiting catch up session.

The frozen naan came from a darling Indian grocery store on University Boulevard—the very same one that ended a recent quest for small eggplants. I had turkey bacon in the freezer as well, and had picked up ricotta on my bike ride home. The recipe called for pesto, but my local grocery store isn’t quite so posh, so I bought fresh basil instead. I wasn’t sure what the block of cheese left in my fridge was exactly (Pecorino? Provolone?) but it was whitish and tangy and I was sure it would do.

The three mini, triangle-shaped pizzas came out light, crisp, and with a creamy pizza bianca base minus all the fat. I devoured my turkey-bacon topped variety, whereas my companion chose an asparagus-heavy vegetarian version. The pizzas were surprisingly filling, but left just a corner for tea and cupcakes on the front porch.

Satiated, we bid the day’s light farewell from the refuge of my blossoming front yard. We talked about our futures in journalism, immigration, family, and of course, relationships.

Yesterday another, less ambrosial occasion for the pizza arose. On my daily, 9-mile commute to work, I had another run-in with a car. Yes, another. It had happened just a few weeks before when a woman made a right turn into my bike lane without signaling. Yesterday’s event was practically a carbon copy, only this time it was a taxi driver (who had apparently signaled), and there was a large container of hummus involved.

There’s nothing like starting your day off with tears, embarrassment, and exploded hummus you got up early to make. Not to mention the family of new bruises and scrapes etched in the shape of tire tread across your shin. I was shaken up all day, and despite ice, my ankle and lower leg ached until sleep arrived to take pain’s place.

After work I took my bike for some minor break tweaks at a downtown bike shop, and, still car-spooked, hopped the metro home. Dinner that didn’t require too many new ingredients or a recipe was definitely in order. I stopped for asparagus, and had dinner ready as fast as you can say “I hate cars.” (OK, I might have said a little more than that, come to think of it.)

I laughed when I found out that asparagus it’s rich in rich in bone-building vitamin K, said to protect the body against fractures. I guess that casual dinner last week was more than just a delivery method for fresh spring flavor.

I smiled again when I sat down to eat and opened up the book I’m reading (subtitled “Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone”) to find that the next piece was about a woman who decided to eat asparagus every day for two months one spring. I leave you with her words:

How to be an asparagus superhero

Begin at the first hint of asparagus in your area.

Pick asparagus in the early morning while it is still dewy, or find people who wake up on dewy mornings and pick it for you. Have some coffee.

Eat the first piece raw. Test your biceps.

Week One: Cook the asparagus unadulturated for as long as possible. Keep some eggs and starches—rice, pasta, bread—around, and just enough meat to use as a condiment, like some bacon or a jar of anchovies.

See how fast you can run, how high you can jump. Alone or in company, use your fingers. Have plenty of fluids. Pee regularly. Tell everyone you never skip a day. Eat to impress.

Week Six: Just when you think you cannot be a superhero any longer, break asparagus into bits and hide it inside things.

Week Seven (The End): Roast one last time. Squeeze lemon to finish. Finish.

-Phobe Nobles, from Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. Riverhead Books, 2007.

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I Can and I Did: Chunky Farmer’s Market Salsa

I passed a food milestone yesterday. A friend of my mother’s came through town last week bearing an armload of a gift: my mother’s old hot water canner. (Basically, a big black speckled pot with a metal rack inside.)

My late-summer dreams of salsas, jams, and chutneys are inching ever closer. Yesterday, with a little help from Central New York farmers, I canned for the first time.

With a few weeks of research under my belt and the fear of botulism clinging fiercely to my hope, I set out to making a batch of salsa worthy of chips and tostadas. The great stuff at the stores is well over 5$, and the cheaper stuff is barely a dressed-up ketchup. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.

I scoured the internet for recipes, finally settling on one from FoodieMama.com.  I wanted chunks of tomato and good fresh peppers, and despite the recipe writer’s disdain for spelling and grammar, this one seemed to fit the bill.

A lazy hour at the farmer’s market outfitted me perfectly for my first adventure in jars: a flat of pint jars for $10, an assortment of peppers for $4, and tomatoes to last a lifetime for $9.

Equipped with my bounty, my canner, and some 80’s music, I proceeded to make six and a half pints of salsa in an afternoon. We polished off the half pint with some locally-made tortilla chips, feeling like good slow-foodies with every crunchy bite. The only adjustments I’ll make next time will be to add a little more heat; it turns out those little Serrano peppers weren’t as hot as they felt on my fingertips!

The next day I checked the jars and each one of them had sealed properly. My salsa not only tasted great, but it would keep for months without crowding my fridge.

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quinoa tabbouleh

I debated calling this next series of posts “The Unemployment Project, Part I (etc).” Since I’m not sure how long this is going to last, however, I figured I’d spare you from an ever-lengthening string of Roman numerals. Until my employment prospects crystallize, I’ve decided to give this neglected website of mine some love: Get ready to eat.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve had to adjust lately to this strange new thing called free time.  Sure, there have been weekend road trips to weddings and triathlons and concerts. There have gatherings with friends and leisurely walks. But the consuming projects and imperatives, not so much.

It’s like returning to an older verison of myself. There are going to be days where I’ll have to dig through those familiar storerooms of strength.

That said, things haven’t been so bad.

I shot photos for Edible Finger Lakes magazine on Monday (wait! I’m supposed to be a writer!), and got to meet the ringleader of Central New York’s Slow Food Chapter. Dipping into a different medium however, shooting his kitchen, meeting his bees, and marvelling at his asparagus plants was inspiring. And the invitation to pick fresh mint, marjoram and lavender whenever I need to? Priceless.

Tuesday was a frustrating day spent trying to secure certification to work in this country. But this is a food blog, not a rant, so I’ll spare you the story. Three things helped redeem that day: Wegman’s air-conditioning and rotisserie chickens, and this tabbouleh salad.

Tabbouleh (ta-boo-lee) is a Middle-Eastern dish that showcases fresh herbs. If you don’t like to be hit over the head with parsley, simply use the lesser amount.

It’s also traditionally made with coarsely-ground bulgur wheat, but since my life is basically one big steamy love affair with quinoa, I decided to try mixing it up a little. More protein and ancient grains never hurt anybody.

It’s funny how one little conversation with my mother about her parsley plant led to subsequent days of fresh, tangy leftover salad. Not a bad way to start off this new, as yet unnamed season in my life.

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Road Food Part 4: Meet the Virnigs

I’ve safely arrived in Eagle, Colorado, but before I get to the amazing food here, let me tie up the last few days of the Missouri leg. In my last post, I’d begun to wax poetic about how home cooking redeemed the area’s slew of chain restaurants.

The day after that amazing Indian meal, we found ourselves on the Virnig family farm. For the rest of our time in the Nixa area, we ate like queens around their harvest table. Healthy, organic, pasture-raised queens, that is.

Doug and Mary Virnig have eight children: Jessie, Laura, Emma, Madeleine, Tucker, Adelaide, Helen and Rachel. They live in an old farm house on the outskirts of Ozark, Missouri, where they raise beef and dairy cows, and tend an ever-expanding garden. We had dinner with them the Tuesday night before we left, and managed to squeeze ourselves into their lives for the next three days.

They won us over with their homemade burgers and fresh devilled eggs — which I had the pleasure of making, with the help of two pairs of little hands.

In the days to come, we feasted on homemade tostadas, guzzled kombucha tea (the kids were pretty excited to learn that I make it, too), munched on stovetop popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, and sipped raw milk around a fire.

The Virnigs haven’t always lived like this. Neither of the parents grew up on farms. They’ve morphed, in their life together, from town to country folks.

Their  journey toward self-sustenance is well thought out. This is no trendy organic dream. It’s a well-researched, tenderly executed dance with the earth God has set them upon.

As I lived and worked beside them for three days, the Virnig family became more than just a story.  From early-morning family time cuddled in blankets to outdoor labor to afternoon dips in the cold creek,  they refreshed me.

I know life isn’t perfect for them, but their joyful generosity imprinted itself on my heart. With grubby hands, skinned knees, and an a wide open door, I left feeling lucky to tell their story. It’s a debt not even our gifts of fresh fruit and Lola’s chocolate cake could repay.

Road Food Part 3: Coming Home

I should have known better. For all my disappointment at Missouri’s impoverished restaurant landscape, all I had to do was go home. In our last few days in the area, we found our appetites again— simply by following our noses down driveways and through front doors.

This week made up for all the bland burritos, dishwater coffee, faux-italian and “fusion sushi” (drenched in cloyingly sweet chili sauce). And thanks to my photojournalist colleague Mary, every precious bite was beautifully documented.  So beautifully, in fact, they deserve two posts. (I chipped in a few pictures, too).

My lesson for News21 summer trip #1: Real food in this part of the country isn’t broadcast on interstate signs. It’s strewn across scratched harvest tables and served up in suburban kitchens.

Our last Monday in Nixa, the family of a boy we’re profiling invited us for dinner. The spread included everything the Indian family calls everyday, and everything we call special.

There was pre-feast chai, homemade, with a thick sweetness that lingered through the afternoon. It was accompanied by cookies with the odd flavour of mango. Girl Scouts meets tropical lands.

And then there was one of my favorite snacks: the addictive mixture of chickpea-flour crunchy bits mixed with dried lentils, peanuts, and spices. Served up in a classic steel thali plate, the taste took me far from the flat Missouri prairie, and back to a toy train winding through the Indian Himalayas.

After dinner we had little cups of homemade pistachio ice cream, topped with threads of saffron. I ate mine, and then I ate Mary’s.


These were some of the happiest moment of my trip. Add to the mix gracious hosts, warm conversation, and a young boy whose story is worth telling the world, I went to bed grinning at the small things.

Part two tomorrow

happiness

Sure happiness might be a warm gun to the Beatles, but to me, it’s a piece of halva the size of a brick. I’ve been asked for more food pictures from Israel, but alas, I’ve shared them all.

A short post with no recipe — how dare I? Yet I write not just to be useful, but for poetry: for the love of food, and simply because it brings me joy.

This is the freshest halva in Syracuse. Light and studded in perfect proportions with pistachios. It’s so good, it’s worth waiting in line for (especially when the line runs next to about 15 open buckets of olives.  Today I was caught, thank goodness only by a mischievous old lady.)

When life sends those  sudden sweet cravings, halva comes in swiftly to the rescue. When I’ve got this much of it on hand, I know that things will be just fine.

best before

There’s two kinds of people in this world. Those who take best befores as expiration dates, and those who take expiration dates as a supper idea. I’ve lived with both over the years, a family member who will toss a whole container of yogurt past it’s best before, and roommates who’ll scrape the moldy skin off the top of sour cream, give a little sniff, and dollop away.

A bit of mold or natty spinach leaves don’t bother me much. I believe that when it comes to food, the nose knows, and the tastebuds will tell.  That doesn’t mean that when you come over for dinner next I’ll be secretly poisoning you, it just means that I use my senses, not a “MAR 5-09” stamped on white plastic. 

stilltasty2

Being frugal is also important these days, and as a student, I’m always looking for ways to eat well on a budget. Imagine my delight when I came across a new website called  Still Tasty, tips on how to keep your food fresh, and how to spot when it’s not. 

This is the ultimate resource when your Mom’s not around to tell you if Saturday’s stir-fry is still safe. Still Tasty offers guidance on how to keep fruit gorgeous, how to defrost safely, and the best ways to store your staples. Storage tips can be lifesavers. When I learned how to store herbs from Simply Recipes, I went from someone who never has cilantro or mint to a veritable herb garden.

So next time you find yourself unsure of how to care for your fresh chervil or tamarillos, get clicking!

za’atar from afar

Since I last posted, I don’t  really have much to say for myself,  food-wise. Late nights in the lab learning advanced digital editing software, long meetings trying to plan the production of a satire magazine, early-morning swims and hours studying Media Law result in meals of bananas and hummus-cucumber roll ups.  Save for a chocolate cake made with last summer’s frozen zucchini (will post on that one, soon) and a pretty ordinary Mexican Pizza, I haven’t been cooking up any show-stoppers lately.

And that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s these times when I’m glad I wrote blog posts months ago and stored them up, like little jars of oats, for a bleaker tomorrow. It’s also interesting how some things you think are toss aways come back and speak squarely to the present.

On a stifling day last summer I made an Israeli salad in a kitchen that had sumac, a spice I’d never cooked with. Now, nine months later, I’m going to Israel. I put the pictures  on the back shelf to share with you sometime when it seemed right, and now here it is, newly appropriate.

It’s called Za’atar Salad, and is a dish often deemed Israeli but eaten all over the Middle East. If any of you have seen the film The Visitor, Mouna makes this salad for Walter when he first joins her for dinner. It’s the most sensual salad-making scene I’ve seen in a long time — the way she juices the lemons by hand over the bowl of glistening primary colors.

I leave a week today for Jerusalem, a place that has existed largely in my imagination. It’s the place where my faith has its roots. I am imagining it will feel strangely familiar, almost enveloping. I know it will seem alien, too, separate and distinct from this North American Christianity I have been nurtured in. Sites might seem like felt board scenes or picture Bible pages writ large.

A Barn Birth. A Good Samaritan. A road in Damascus. Anger in a temple-turned-marketplace. A goblet of wine and some bread. A betrayal and an ear, cut away from a cheek. One man’s death, and a cold stone tomb. All these stories swirling in the dust, suddenly louder than words.

It will likely be touristy, politically charged, mystical and commercial all wrapped up like a gyro, and yet I can’t wait.

My companions will be thirteen other students and three of the chaplains from Syracuse University’s interfaith chapel. Like this salad, we will be a colorful mix of personalities and stories, flecked with the new flavors of a place we might not have been able to visit in another time. Muslims, Jews and Christians we will share our stories and play their colors off  each other.

As this simple salad did, maybe we’ll show each other a new way of experiencing the ingredients of the three Abrahamic faiths.

And so while I prepared rather poorly  for Lent this year (yoga followed by free pancakes at IHOP), a visit to the Holy Land seems like a good way to kick-start my journey toward the joy of Easter. I think it would be so easy to feel pressure regarding a trip like this, especially if you’re a person who derives part of their spiritual identity from the place. You know, pressure to see the right things, feel profound emotions, that kind of thing.

I think I’ll just try to take it all in—slowly, and making sure to chew after every bite.

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savoy, sweet and savory

Cabbage is a beautiful thing. Underrated, but mysterious and beautiful. A tight loaf (as the Brits say) of interlocking leaves is always a joy to slice through, yielding folds upon folds of spicy-squeaky goodness.  Unfortunately, cabbage is not the most inspiring thing to look at. Even piled high at quaint market stands, it can resemble dull-looking bowling balls.

Another strike against this peasant cruciferae is that it’s not so easy to freestyle with as are so many other vegetables. You can’t really throw it in a quesadilla or a pizza, it doesn’t (as far as I know) compliment pasta, and it can be too brawny in salad. Thus, preparing cabbage usually takes a good chunk of time. Though it’s incredibly easy, you sort of have to plan around it. Good thing it keeps for about as long as it takes me to make those plans.

Enter the Savoy.  I have recently discovered this variety, and hereby declare it the Queen of Cabbage. Ruffled and maze-like, Savoy is a soft and pliable variety that cooks up to be tender and  slippery.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found two spectacular uses for these lacey loaves. The first is from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and best of all, it was prepared for me. It was a Tuesday night near the end of an insane semester. I returned home from a much-needed hour of yoga, and stepped into a house that smelled so good I almost fell back into Savasana (Corpse Pose). Was it apple cider? Not quite. Was it soup? I couldn’t quite place it.

Sputtering away in our big stock pot was a stew-like mess of pinkish green strips of savoy cabbage. There was a subtle sweetness to it all, which I later found out was, of course, apples. The classic pair, those two, only I’d never encountered them so perfectly merged.

The second Savoy success was a French gratin that I poached from Orangette, which she got out of a book on braising. I hauled it along to a potluck on Friday night, where it rounded out our multi-cultural meal nicely. There was Indian “street food,” fresh baguette with dipping sauces, homemade stromboli, baked ziti, chili and corn bread, and of course, plenty of wine. It was all topped off with a campfire-style jam session that went far past the dinner hour.

This is the simplest of recipes, with the sliced up Savoy withered in just-browning butter and some good stock, and then dotted and roasted with triple-cream French cheese.

Fresh out of the oven it looks lazy and marbled with different shades of green. The flavor is robustly tangy and creamy. And how couldn’t it be? You did hear the part about the triple-cream, right? Let the fact that I don’t have any pictures of the final product be the ultimate testimony.

Next time you see a brainy Savoy staring back at you from beside the broccoli, don’t be afraid to scoop it up. You’ll get around to it. And when you do, you might just break into song.

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