Wednesday, August 30, 2006

City to Agro Side Track

I promise I have food to discuss, but I give a quick and dirty roundup of a recent exciting first for me. While it has to do with food, it falters the line of my normal musings, though it does explain some of my latest absences.

D and I took a quick late summer journey to the city of my birth (Chicago) as well as a border crossing to his grandmother’s home for a State Fair. While D has joined me in Chicago in the past, he has never been witness to the golden summer that makes Chicago the pride of many (myself included). I would say, you never experience this city until you have walked its’ dazzling skyscraper shoreline in the heat of summer.

It was a voyage of firsts: D had his first deep dish pizza as well as his first taste of a true Chicago-style all-beef Vienna hot dog. The winner? It must be the hot dog because one week later D complained about being hungry after work: “if I was in Chicago I could just grab a hot dog anywhere.”
“But you’re in New York, there are hot dog vendors on every corner?!”
“It’s not Vienna-- It’s not as good.”

True enough. Those all-beef dogs in natural casings, 2 pickles, neon relish and a large fresh slice of tomato make my mouth water any day (and I'm usually not a hot dog fan). We would leave Chicago for Indiana and the State Fair-- my turn as newbie.

I love Indiana and spending time with D’s grandmother (and family in general). If it wasn’t for a not-to-be-mentioned altercation with a canoe and some rapids, the time we spend in Indianapolis is always pleasant (play. even the rapids). This time, we would attend the State Fair. My first State Fair ever.

State Fairs are a fabulous event. They bring the community together and (in the Midwest at least) really make one realize the breadth and hold that agriculture still has on this country (which is essentially forgotten if you live in or near a city). My minor “problem” with the State Fair? That the pork food tent is within smelling distance of the swine show barn, the lamb food tent is a sniff away from the lamb show barn, cows near the beef food tent, poultry near the poultry, etc.

Funny that when I started vocalizing my hankering for some bunny on a stick in the poultry and rabbit barn people gave me the evil eye—I could smell bacon frying up while contemplating the birth of 13 piglets! Isn’t that wrong?! No worries, there was plenty of chicken, but no rabbit (or bunny) for sale at the food tent.

We caught a few shows in the lamb barn. Spoke to the people who told us how judging was done, but couldn’t really explain what was being judged. Watching sheering right before these animals headed off to show was a good time in itself. Many beautiful animals-- and even spoke with a man who raises Shetland Sheep. As we left the distinct smell of lamb kebabs filtered into the arena.

Next, it was on to the draft horse barn. No worries-- no glue or meat was being grilled up outside this barn (the only one), but there was plenty of overpriced beer.

The above-mentioned poultry and rabbit barn followed. The loudest barn by far, I can see where all the phrases come from: “Hen party,” “louder than a hen house.” I could picture them all plopping their eggs away, knitting little bonnets and gaggling on about what Suzy over in pen A did— can you believe?! But really, it’s amazing to see the variety of chickens. Some of them are truly spectacular. Once I get enough land, neighbors be warned, I’m getting a hen house for fresh eggs! And did you know, hens with red earlobes produce brown eggs and hens with white earlobes produce white eggs? At least that's what I was told. Interesting if true.

A quick stop (of many) to the diary barn for milkshakes, some real whole milk extra thick chocolate milk, and a few other treats. Then, it was off to the Pioneer Village. Here, I finally met with my corn meal lady (mentioned here). Face to names, we’re b-f-f. I also met with my Sorghum man (been ordering from him too lately)—if anyone would like these numbers, please email me direct and I will provide them to you. Of course, I was soon informed, any trip to Pioneer Village is not complete without yer’ cracklins’ (pictured above).

Wound down to the 4-H agro barn for the results to a few other competitions: best honey, largest gourds and best hay bale. Learned a thing or two about honey, picked some up from the local apiary. Found the largest cheddar cheese construction (2,400 pounds) which made me never want to eat cheddar cheese again (and I love cheese!). We eventually left the State Fair by way of the old time pharmacy. I was pretty much born forty years too late-- or a city girl instead of a farm girl.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Chile Pepper News Flash!

Been quiet lately with late summer travels, out-of-towners, ceramic firings and general craziness. Will get some new food up shortly.

In the meantime, you can catch more of me on newsstands! Pick up the September/ October issue of Chile Pepper magazine on sale now (unfortunately, although it looks fabulous, they are reworking their website so you must read the paper version!).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Paella de Pescados y Mariscos con Chorizo (Fish and Shellfish Paella w/ Chorizo)

My favorite thing about Spanish food is not the paella. Nor is it the Valencia orange, omelette or great variety of delicious tapas available-- though these things are all delightful. My favorite thing about Spanish food is the olive.

This unassuming fruit, a call to peace, is plentiful in the Mediterranean region. Squat trees line roadsides for miles and the bitter little drupe almost appears as a small plum from afar: an iridescent purple as it fades into its ripe green. Harvested with a shake to the tree bough it arrives to us along the culinary path marinated, as tapenade or oil.

In Spain, as you enter almost any food or drink establishment, olive pits abound.

A few years ago, my mother and I planned a quick trip around Spain. A country both of us had always wanted to visit, but never had the opportunity. For me, it was a culinary and ceramic feast I planned around clay factories, orange groves and funky architecture. For my mother, it was a wearing down of her feet stomping through the cities and country back roads with the salvation being sangria and tapas along the way (though she too enjoyed the clay factories and architecture).

On day one, hungry from a morning of walking, we stopped for lunch at a recommended establishment: “Oh! How disgusting!” my mother gasped as we walked inside, “this floor is covered in pits!” We shuffled in, unable to understand the debris covering the floor and took a table across from the bar, ordering up a jug of sangria and a seafood paella.

We waited for our food and heard the definite “pffffmmmp” of a person triumphantly releasing a pit from mouth into air. Our noses turned up in question, we looked at each other, then scanned the restaurant for the perpetrator. There he was, tan and stocky with a perfectly edged beard looming in the shadow: “pfffmmmp” he turned and released his bleached teeth in a wide grin towards us.

A bowl of olives came to our table along with the sangria. I popped a few olives into my mouth, but finding nowhere to discard the seeds, I held them in my cheek, a squirrel at harvest. More patrons entered the establishment. Soon that pfffmmmp echoed throughout the restaurant, shooting from the trunk of men and women alike, regardless of age, no one seeming to care except for the clueless Americans. I looked at my mom and shot out five pits in bulleted repetition: pffp pffp pffp ffllmp fllp.

We soon realized it was custom in Spain. Olives abound and are ingrained in the culture. A complimentary bowl is provided at coffee shops, bars and restaurants in lieu of bread or peanuts. The more olives I stuffed into my face the more I fell in love with Spain, pfffmmping them out with the best of the locals. (My mother on the other hand, continued her dismay at the littered floors and begrudgingly returned the bare pit to a cupped hand where it delicately dropped to the floor unnoticed by anyone.)

This past July, a college friend married a Spaniard. The wedding was a great bi-lingual affair of misunderstandings and general good humor at each person’s attempt to befriend a person from another country with little to no verbal language skills. Communication fell remarkably well and eventually I got onto the subject of olive pits on the floor.

“Yes!” my new Spanish friend exclaimed, “it means how good the place is.” He went on to explain that some establishments will even go to the trouble of adding pits to the floor, be it from the mouths of their employees or the previous night’s collection. Pits on the floor is a rating of popularity-- the more pits, the more favored the premises.

Here is a recipe in memory of that first paella and the realization that it is okay to spit out your leftovers in some cultures. And as the season turns, I may even surprise you with some home-marinated olives. Until then, paella it is.

NOTE: Though I cannot remember if the paella I had in Spain was this moist, I enjoy the wet rice base. In this fashion, the rice sticks to everything, including the inside of the mussel and clam shells, forcing you to work for your food: sucking and rotating shells in your mouth to indulge in every bit. D and I found this much more enjoyable, and a more entertaining activity than simply wolfing down the dish without thought. We also felt it made you appreciate the variety of seafood present. I also enjoy eating with my hands, so take away what you will.

This paella is based on a recipe found in the Cuisines of Spain cookbook by, Teresa Barrenechea. It is essentially the same recipe with a few additions, namely peas, onion and chorizo.

This paella is fairly labor intensive, though if you make a large batch and have leftovers for the week it is worth it. We found that it is absolutely necessary to use fish stock and not chicken or vegetable. We felt the stock really enhanced the fish flavor throughout. Also, fresh seafood is essential.

Serving Size= 8 persons. Active time= about 1 hour. Inactive time= 12 mintues.
* 1 dozen littleneck clams
* 2 Tbl coarse salt
* 6 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
* 9 cups fish stock (recipe below)
* 2 pinches saffron threads
* 2 pound mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
* 2 cups water
* ½ cup olive oil
* 1 large red pepper, seeded and cut lengthwise into narrow strips
* 1 medium Spanish onion
* 8 ounces, about 4 links, chorizo, cut in half
* 1 pound monkfish (or grouper), cut into 2 inch chunks
* 1 pound large shrimp
* 1 pound small squid, whole and rings
* 1-½ tsp salt
* 4 cups Spanish (short grain) rice
* juice of 1 lemon plus extra for garnish

1) Preheat oven to 500F.
2) Clean clams under cold water. Discard any open clams, or those that do not close when touched. Place clams in a large bowl with the coarse salt and let stand for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. Clams will release sand trapped in shells.
3) Place garlic in a small heat-resistant bowl or baking dish and roast in oven for 10-15 minutes; until skins are browned. (Alternatively, you can throw a whole garlic head in, chopping the top off for easy removal, and use the extra as a spread mixture with olive oil.)
3) In a small saucepan, bring stock to a boil. Add saffron and decrease the heat retain simmer.
4) When garlic is ready, remove from oven (leave oven on). When cool enough to handle, peel cloves and place in blender with ½ cup simmering stock. Process until blended.
5) In a medium saucepot, place mussels (discarding any that fail to close when touched) with 2 cups of water on high heat. Bring to a boil and cook 5 minutes, until shells open. Using a slotted spoon, lift the mussels and set aside (add mussel broth to stock or freeze for later use).
6) In a large paella pan or stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add bell pepper, onion and chorizo, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes, or until chorizo has cooked through and the aromas are strong. Add monkfish, squid and salt, increase heat to medium high. Sauté 5-10 minutes, until monkfish turn opaque.
7) Add rice and stir to blend, allowing rice grains to incorporate into the oils present. Add hot stock, increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Add garlic mixture, stir gently to incorporate and boil for 5 minutes without stirring.
8) Drain the clams. Add shrimp to pot, stir gently to incorporate. Add mussels and clams around the top of the pot. Place in oven (uncovered) for 12 minutes; rice will be absorbed and clams and shrimp will cook.
9) Remove from oven and discard any clams that do not open. Sprinkle lemon juice over top. Cover with lid or towel and let sit for 7 minutes. Serve with lemon as garnish

Serving Size= 2 Quarts. Active time= 10 minutes. Inactive time= 20 mintues.
Note: White fish is ideal to use: snapper, cod, hake or bass. Avoid fatty fish, such as tuna, sardines and salmon, among others.
* 2 pounds fish frames and heads
* 1 cup shrimp shells (can clean your shrimp from above and use)
* 1-½ cups mussel broth (see above)
* 1 large Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
* 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
* 1 bunch flat leaf parsley
* 3 Tbl olive oil
* 2 quarts water
* salt/ pepper to taste

1) In a stockpot on medium-high heat warm olive oil. Add fish frames, shrimp shells, onion, carrots, parsley, salt and pepper. Stir until shrimp shells turn pink. Add water and bring to a light boil.
2) Using a slotted spoon, discard any foam that forms on the surface.
3) Decrease to medium-low heat and simmer, partially uncovered, for 30 minutes, skimming foam off as needed. (Do not overcook or stock will turn bitter)
4) Strain the stock and season with salt as necessary.

Head on over to Sweetnick's for today's delicious ARF roundup!

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rainbow Salad

*Just Braise has moved. Please visit me at!*

As the nights begin to cool and we turn the first corner into the fall season, it is best to take advantage of the freshness still available. Late season produce are some of my favorites; full of the warm juices of summer. They include certain berries, corn, peaches, beets and nectarines (amongst others). Keep to the seasons and you are guaranteed some of the best tasting produce.

When I started going hog wild for the peaches at my local fruit stand, D and I were overwhelmed (but they smell so good!)—there are only so many that can be sliced and frozen for mid-winter smoothie binges! Pretty soon, every time I made a dish, I just tossed a few peaches onto the mix. D thought me crazed at first, tainting his otherwise prized pork and sandwiches, but pretty soon, the boy caught on.

One morning as we were rushing out the door I pulled out anything and everything fresh from the fridge. It ended with a very colorful salad that appeared to taste as good as it looked. A few hours later I received emails from D that his officemates wouldn’t allow him to get a bite in—they were all admiring the colors! While we ate separately, we came together later commenting on the perfect harmony that the salad offered. No longer questioning my peach plundering, D and I made this salad again and again—a fast and fresh summer pick-me-up that can be altered in many ways, remaining a delicious feast for belly and eyes.

The colors on this salad are stunning--- an ideal side for a summer picnic or BBQ. So go ahead and stock up on peaches. Put a few aside for the winter, and indulge in this salad while peaches are at their best.

Serving Size= 2 persons. Active time= 10 minutes.
* 2 ripe peaches, each sliced into 8 wedges
* 4 radish, sliced
* 1 avocado, cubed
* 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced thin
* 1 small cucumber, cubed
* 1 small handful green beans, blanched and halved
* 1 cup lightly packed fresh basil
* ¼ cup Tarragon vinegar
* juice of 1 lime
* salt/ pepper to taste

1) In a medium bowl, gently toss cut fruit and vegetables: peach, radish, avocado, bell pepper and beans.
2) In a food processor or blender, combine basil, vinegar and lime juice. Blend until basil is finely chopped and well incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour over salad.
NOTE: Other tasty additions to this salad include celery, mango (in lieu of peach), corn, new potatoes, or anything else you enjoy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lebanese Potatoes

I was never too fond of potato salad growing up; the same goes for coleslaw and most macaroni salads. Often heavy with mayonnaise, I felt true flavors were hidden under a thick suffocating whiteness. I grew tired of finding a good, let alone perfect, potato salad, and my life of avoiding the tot began.

People accused me of being anti-carbohydrate. It simply is not so! I would proclaim. I love baked potatoes, bread, and most every carbohydrate there is. Then there was a jab that I was a food snob. Okay, maybe a bit. But it is when the wet white blanket covers my pure fare that I cringe and must walk away, head bowed low in a quiet, mournful state—that pastiness just sticks to my mouth too readily.

Being a frequenter of BBQs and returns to the Midwest does not help matters. Some sort of mayonnaise-based salad is always happy to make an appearance. It is not that I cannot give new foods a try, but I follow a mantra that the lesser the mayo the better.

One day, my good friend A showed me the light.

I sat at her aunt’s home for a wholesome Lebanese-American Thanksgiving. It was complete with hummus, flat bread, ful, turkey and a bowl of Lebanese potatoes. For once, I saw a potato salad where, surprise upon surprises, the potato shown through. One bite, and I pocketed this recipe with delight.

It is the lightness of the salad and ease of preparation that draws me back to this dish again and again. I have made it for others with the same promising accolades; it is simple and delicious. Below I have spruced it up by adding green peas. The brightness of these peas gave the red potatoes a sensational contrast. For those who are have fought off one too many mayonnaise dripping salads, now is your chance to bring the potato back to flavor.

Serving Size= 6-8 persons. Active time= 10 minutes. Inactive time= 2 hours.
* 8-10 small red new potatoes, washed and cut in half
* 1 bunch parsley, washed and chopped
* juice of 1-½ lemons
* 1 cup peas, lightly cooked (optional; not traditional, but good)
* 1 bunch scallions, chopped whites only
* 2 cloves garlic, crushed
* 4 Tbl olive oil
* salt/ pepper to taste

1) In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Run cold water over to stop cooking and begin cool down.
2) In a medium sauté pan, flash-cook the peas with a small amount of water, about 4 minutes until peas turn dark green.
3) Place all ingredients into a large bowl. Mix well and refrigerate until cool, about 1-½ hours.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The City Gardener #10

My latest pickings from the bucket garden include the above pictured fresh fare. Crisp lettuce mixtures held up nicely with my new favorite dressing: basil vinaigrette (also complements of the garden and go fabulous with some fast cooked squid). The lettuce, as well as the bright ball of a tomato, were a great finishing point to some beach-brought sandwiches, holding up well under the heat.

But another low point has hit the buckets.

After a quick sojourn to the Midwest (how could I miss an invitation to the Indiana State Fair?!), D and I have returned to find the buckets tampered with-- the chicken wire, added for protection, has been removed by an unknown force. I have yet to make contact with the neighbor to see if she can help with the investigation. Can anyone solve this quandary? (Luckily, the lettuce and tomato were picked before leaving as there is now little left of the bucket bounty.)

I must now seek out new chicken wire. Until then, the tomatoes will be picked over by the squirrels (and the aging) and the lettuce will be testaments to the sun. Thankfully, nobody finds my arugula or swiss chard particularly appealing.

The City Gardener #9
The City Gardener #8
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The City Gardener

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Garden Pasta

My first personal (known) encounter with Swiss chard was the other year. While I am sure I have dined on it in restaurants, I had never sought to purchase the funky colored vegetable before. While at the grocery, the vegetable caught my eye and I scooped it into my basket. As D often does when he notices I am plucking items for their unique beauty rather than possible utility he queried what we could make with it. “I don’t know, but we’ll think of something.”

We turned “something” into Braised Swiss Chard wrapped in Sole. Swiss chard’s bitter sweetness won us over and D rarely questioned my random fruit and vegetable acquisitions again.

Over the months the rainbow vegetable remained on my mind and I eventually bought seeds for planting them when the bucket garden was a mere dream. They would soon sprout into their glory and remain a site as the stalks matured.

One day, impatient for my own chard to mature, I hit up the vegetable market for a bunch. They became a perfect accent to a delicious cold summer soup.

Finally the glory of my rainbow swiss chard in the buckets was breathtaking. Glowing yellows, radiant reds and electric pinks made the calling to me. I plucked them from their buckets and presented them to D. What to make when the temperature is too hot to handle the kitchen? Some quick and easy pasta, requiring minimal cooking.

As residents of Queens suffered through blackouts in the high temperatures D and I considered ourselves fortunate with our minimized power—at least we still had the refrigerator (and if that failed a few buckets of bounty outside). We ran to the grocery to pick up fresh pasta. Requiring a mere 2 minute boiling time, it would serve as an ideal backdrop to a cold dish.

Whipping up a large batch of pasta, D and I had a fresh meal to last us through the week; no stovetops required.

Serving Size= 6-8 persons. Active time= 10 minutes.
* 2 pounds fresh spinach pasta
* 1 bunch rainbow swiss chard, loosely chopped
* 1- 15 ounce can garbanzo beans (chick peas), washed and drained
* 1 red bell pepper, sliced into ¼-inch strips
* 1 medium Spanish onion, chopped
* 3 large garlic cloves, crushed
* ½ cup fresh firm ricotta cheese, crumbled
* ½ cup kalamata olives
* 2 Tbl olive oil

1) In a sauce pot on medium-high heat, bring salted water to a boil. Add pasta, cover and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, wash and drain. Set aside in a large bowl.
2) In a large skillet on medium heat, warm 2 Tbl olive oil. Add pepper, onion, garlic and cook until aroma is loosened (about 3 minutes). Add swiss chard, cover and cook until leaves wilt (4-6 minutes).
3) Add swiss chard, peppers, onions, garlic, garbanzo beans, ricotta and olives to pasta. Serve warm or cold.

Below is Kitty and her beloved squirrel toy. We train her to search and destroy these little critters that attack my garden—if only she were allowed outside to put her training work. The glazed look in her eye? We get her good and high so she can forget her killer instinct (the squirrel is full of catnip). Check out this weekend’s cat antic WCB over at Eat Stuff.

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