Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Iced Coffee for a Heat Wave

The weather casters are calling for another heat wave later this week. I think I heard the heat index here on Friday is going to be 110. Ouch.

I stopped drinking "pop" for the most part a couple years ago. (I do occassionally still drink a diet pop if I am at some sort of gathering where it is served.) Somedays at work in the afternoon, I am looking for something to change up my water drinking that doesn't have artificial sweeteners. I like to drink a cup of herbal or green tea, but it's just too hot now. I have taken to brewing a cup of green tea and leaving it to cool, then pouring it over nice. This is good, but sometimes you want something with a little more kick.

Earlier this year, I ended up with a couple packets of Starbucks VIA as free samples. I LOVE Starbucks coffee. Not the froo froo stuff with all the whipped cream and caramel syrup, but the real deal coffee. Especially the dark roast stuff. De-licious. But anyway, these little VIA packets are great for iced coffee. That's actually about the only thing instant coffee is good for. But when I went to buy them at the grocery store I got sticker shock. They came out to something like a dollar per packet. No, thank you!

It crossed my mind to just pour some of the coffee my coworker brews, which we affectionately dubbed "The Gulf Oil Spill," over some ice, but I found this article yesterday: How to Make Iced Coffee. My suspicions are confirmed--you can't just pour brewed coffee over ice. It makes it nasty. I definitely want to try the cold brewed method in the article.

And, then last night, I found the ultimate answer to the iced coffee in a heat wave--affogato. I was watching that show on the Cooking Channel, Extra Virgin. I love that show. Debi Mazar is so sassy! And that husband of hers... he speaks Italian and cooks. What more do you need???

Anyway, they made affogato, which is a scoop of vanilla ice cream with espresso poured over it. Debi Mazar described it as "It's hot. It's cold. It's sweet and it's bitter." Sounds like it's just what I'm looking for.

Of course, it's probably delicious made with only vanilla ice cream and espresso, but you can always gussy it up a bit. I drizzled caramel syrup over mine and it was awesome. Here's a fancy recipe for affogato from Martha Stewart's website that has whipped cream, frangelico and biscotti. Sounds wonderful!

Affogato - from
(makes 4 servings)

1 pint vanilla ice cream
about 1 cup hot espresso
Sambuca, Grand Marnier or Frangelico (optional)
whipped cream (optional)
espresso beans for garnish (optional)
biscotti (optional)

Divide ice cream between 4 serving bowls and pour about 1/4 cup espresso over each. Garnish if desired and serve.

One tip I learned making mine was you have to make sure the ice cream stays cold. It took me forever to scoop out my homemade vanilla ice cream (it freezes harder for some reason than store bought... need to work on that), so I stuck the bowls back in the freezer for a few minutes after I had the ice cream scooped out. Once you pour the espresso over them, they will melt very quickly. And part of the experience is getting that very cold bite of ice cream with the hot espresso.

I don't know how easy this would be for an afternoon pick me up at work. It would be kinda hard to come by some espresso at my office. And I doubt I could get by with the Frangelico at work either... Maybe I should just stick with the iced green tea and save this for the weekends.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Smells like Thanksgiving in June

I've been on a roll the last few weeks of making baked goods for breakfast on Sunday night to last us through the week. While I started doing it because Jeremy is a picky breakfast eater, I've discovered how nice it is to have something I can eat on the way out the door. But, I never get to enjoy these baked goods right out of the oven.

Except for yesterday. Yesterday was a holiday, and last weekend I took some of the butternut squash I pureed last winter out of the freezer to bake with. And one of my favorite ways to bake with it is to make these pumpkin scones.

I've made these scones a dozen times, but they never quite came out just right. The dough would be too wet, or when I baked them, they would spread out on the cookie sheet. But yesterday was probably the closest I've came to getting them the right texture of a real scone--crumbly and slightly dry. And, it's likely because I screwed up making them and didn't follow the directions. I was distracted with a couple other tasks while I was mixing up the ingredients, and before I knew it, I had just dumped all the ingredients into the bowl instead of mixing the dry and wet seperately and folding the wet ingredients into the dry. It turned out to be a happy mistake when they came out of the oven.

I love this recipe because it's not too sweet. The spices are what really makes the recipe, though. When they came out of the oven, I swear I smelled Thanksgiving.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe I found on a website somewhere that claimed to be a copycat recipe of Starbucks' Pumpkin Scones. I've never had those, so I don't know, but these are definitely delicious.

Pumpkin Scones (makes 8 scones)

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup buckwheat flour (you could just use 2 cups AP flour)
1 Tb baking powder
6 Tb cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (or other winter squash such as butternut or hubbard)
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground clove
1 tsp cinnamon
7 Tb sugar
3 Tb milk or half and half (I used 2% yesterday)
1 Tb sanding sugar or large crystal demerara sugar to sprinkle on top (optional)

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Mix all the dry ingredients well. In a seperate bowl, mix the pumpkin puree, egg, milk or half and half and vanilla. Cut cold butter into pieces and add to flour mixture. Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour until it is pea-sized crumbles. Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Mix until the dough doesn't have any more pockets of flour and is a uniform consistency. It will be very dry and sticky. On a well-flour surface, pat out dough in a disk to about 1 inch thick. I use a pizza cutter, which I dip in flour after each cut, to make 8 pieces, just like you were cutting a pizza. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. I use a dessert server dipped in flour to lift each piece off and place them on the the baking sheet. I leave about an inch between each piece. Brush with a little bit of milk and sprinkle tops with sugar if desired. Bake 14-16 minutes until browned.

Hot out of the oven with a latte. Perfect.
According to my LoseIt! App, each scone made just as I described above has 247 calories in them. Not great, but not too bad considering most baked goods at the bakery or at a restaurant have way more calories.

I can attest that these scones are, in fact, best enjoyed hot right out of the oven. And maybe with some apple butter on them. And maybe they might just be so good that way that you decide to enjoy two of them. But I'm just sayin.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Cal-la-loo, strange callaloo..."

Like the song says, "sooner or later we're all in the stew!"

Being that I am a huge Parrothead and that the Hubs and I are going to the Caribbean later this year, I decided it was time to try my hand at Caribbean cuisine.

A few years ago, my dad, who is also a Parrothead, bought me this cookbook.

I haven't used it as much as I have some of my others, which is a shame. I love this kind of food. It's not all Caribbean food, but it's all food and drinks that have been mentioned in Jimmy Buffett's songs or stories. So, of course, there's a cheeseburger in paradise in there, along with gumbo and margaritas. What's not to like?

I don't know why I settled on callaloo. Maybe it's because I have been listening to a lot of Jimmy Buffett as of late since it's summertime. And, that song WILL get stuck in your head.

Like a lot of things I make, I've never had callaloo before, so I don't have a point of reference to whether I did right by this dish or not. But it tasted pretty good. Also, I didn't have all the ingredients, like, say, the main ingredient, callaloo. But I improvised.

In the cookbook, there are several variations for callaloo. Each country puts its stamp on the soup dish, but all of them are a broth plus a little bit of meat and a lot of callaloo, which is a leafy vegetable, native to the Caribbean. I couldn't find any fresh callaloo here, obviously, and I read that you could substitute another leafy green, so I used mature spinach that I bought from Zenith Springs Farm via the Monroe Farm Market. I also took elements from several of the recipes to come up with my own version based on what I had on hand.

West Virginia Callaloo (adapted from The Margaritaville Cookbok)
Makes 6 servings

4 cups of chicken stock
2 cups of shrimp stock
8 oz. fresh spinach, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh crab meat (I used claw meat, wild-caught from the U.S.)
2/3 cup of diced ham
1 1/2 cups frozen sliced okra
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 cup diced banana pepper
salt and pepper to taste
chopped green onions and hot sauce for serving

On medium-high heat, bring the stock to a boil and add the onion, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper and spinach and reduce heat. Simmer for a few minutes and add banana pepper, crab meat and ham. Cook until vegetables are tender, 10 minutes. Add okra and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until okra is tender. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning. Scoop into bowls and sprinkle each with the green onion. Serve with hot sauce.

I learned the hard way that you really have to be careful with the okra. Okra has been used for hundreds of years as a thickener. You have to add it last and only cook it until it is not cold anymore (if it was frozen) and tender, because it will cause the soup to thicken and develop this weird viscosity kinda like oil has. But  it's not oily. I cooked mine a little too long. I can see how that consistency might be offputting to some people, but it didn't bother me. Had I cooked it longer, it might have been a problem, and I'm not even sure what will happen when I reheat the leftovers. But as the okra thickened the soup, it made it so hearty. Like it was more filling that just broth, so that's a good thing.

I served it with a mix of beets. I bought the larger ones, and the smaller ones came from my garden. The smaller ones were much better--but I might be biased. The variety I grew was called "cylindra" and they grow long and skinny, like carrots. They are ideal for smaller plots because you can plant them closer together. My good friend, Tiffany (what's up, girl!), was telling me a couple weeks ago about some roasted beets and carrots that she made and her family ate them like candy. Just slice up a couple carrots and beets (I left the carrots out in the essence of time) and mix up some balsamic vinegar and honey to drizzle over them, then roast low and slow.

I'm only a recent conver to beets. As I've gotten older, I am eating more and more things that I thought I didn't like. Beets, chicken wings, kale. What's next? Waldorf salad? Wings with buffalo sauce (I still won't touch those...) Pickled corn?

These beets definitely tasted like candy. They were so good. I just wish I'd chopped the big beets into smaller pieces. A couple still had a little bit of crunch. And maybe I wouldn't have eaten such a big bowl if I was doing it over. By the end, it was too sweet. But there's a handful more in my garden that I'm going to make this way again. And add a carrot.

I roasted these on 325 degrees for about 1 hour 15 minutes. And I used about half a cup of honey and a fourth cup of balsamic vinegar. I may go with less next time so they aren't so sweet. Beets are naturally sweet on their own.

Hopefully when I go to the Caribbean later this year, I'll get to try some authentic callaloo so I can compare notes and make this again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dinner on the fly: Baja Shrimp Salad

When you play on two different slow-pitch softball teams and the Hubs plays on three, some weeks it seems like all we do is spend time at a softball field. But it's hard to complain. Softball is pretty decent exercise (as long as you don't undo all that calorie burning by drinking cold beer the whole time--sometimes it's hard not to). And I look at it as cheap entertainment.

This year, I've been doing better at planning dinners that are quick and easy and light for nights we spend a few hours on the field. Last night, we had a co-ed team double header at 6 pm, and the Hubs had a men's team double header at 8 pm. At least they were at the same place. So, I rushed home from work and got right to making dinner. We usually eat after our games, but that wasn't going to be an option last night, and I didn't want to get stuck with fast food for dinner.

I had some shrimp unthawed for something else I didn't end up making. I also had some avocados that were a little overripe, along with some limes and green onions. And, I'd bought a whole wheat french bread on Sunday at the grocery store that was marked "manager's special," meaning about to go past the expiration date. I am such a sucker for those "manager's specials."

I quickly threw together the ingredients, not sure what to expect. But it was surprisingly good. And it got better the longer it sat as those flavors kinda melded together. And it was filling! I think it would be good scooped over some salad greens or rolled up in a tortilla as a burrito.

Baja Shrimp Salad (makes 2 - 3 servings)

1/2 lb of U.S. wild caught Gulf shrimp*, peeled and deveined
extra virgin olive oil
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup shrimp stock or white wine
2 avocados, diced
3 green onions, chopped
juice and zest from 1 lime
handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
kosher salt and pepper to taste

In a skillet, heat the oil on medium and add the garlic. Cook the garlic, stirring so it doesn't burn, until fragrant. Add shrimp, season with salt and pepper, and stir to coat with garlic and oil. Add the shrimp stock or white wine, turn heat to low and cover. In a bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Check on shrimp after a couple minutes--be careful, the will overcook easily. Once opaque and curled, remove from heat and let cool slightly. Add to avocado mixture and stir well. For best results, let sit 20 minutes to 1 hour.

*I know I've talked about the importance of sustainable seafood here before, but I'll take every opportunity I can to get the word out. Health experts these days keep telling us we need to eat more fish, but those recommendations should come with a caveat. Some fish have dangerous levels of mercury in them that are ingested when they are eaten. However, probably most importantly, fisheries around the world are being squeezed to the point of collapse because of overfishing and detrimental environmental effects. It is of the utmost importance to ONLY eat sustainable seafood. The best tool I've found to aid in making sustainable choices in seafood is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Their website is fabulous, but they also have a FREE smartphone app, or a downloadable paper guide you can keep in your wallet.

Most of the shrimp served in restaurants comes from China or other Asian countries that has lower environmental standards for both shrimp farming and fishing. The good news is that seafood sold in grocery stores in the U.S. is required to have the country of origin on the package. The offerings are pretty limited at my local Kroger's. There are always what I call "standard" shrimp, or the Chinese shrimp, and U.S. wild caught Gulf shrimp. It either is labeled as "Key West Pink" shrimp or "Texas Gulf" shrimp. These are labeled as a "Good Alternative" by Seafood Watch.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Restaurant Redo: Fried Green Tomato Sandwiches

The Greenbrier Classic is a big deal in these here parts. West Virginia doesn't find itself in the national spotlight much, and a lot of time when it does, it isn't for the right reason. So, a big-time PGA tournament with tv cameras and celebrities is so much more than a sporting event. It's an opportunity to showcase our state, its natural beauty, and our very own historic luxury resort.

The Greenbrier does a fantastic job of this. Case in point: the fried green tomato sandwiches you can buy at the food tents scattered around the golf course during the tournament. These sandwiches are saying "Yeah, this is southern West Virginia. We eat fried green tomatoes around here. But this IS The Greenbrier, afterall. So we put goat cheese, arugula and panceta on them."

Last year, the Hubs and I went to The Greenbrier Classic, and I had the best time. Considering I'm not even a "golf fan." It was so much fun, and I was truly starstruck. Especially when I saw stuff like this.

It's hard to tell from this picture, but that is indeed John Daly. I was like 15 feet from him! We walked around all day at the pro-am event earlier in the week before the actual tournament started. When we decided to grab lunch from one of the food tents, the choice wasn't hard. There wasn't a huge selection--which makes sense, since these are temporary food tents that serve over 200,000 fans. Grilled chicken sandwich eight bucks. Fried green tomato sandwich $1.75. Yes, please!

I actually didn't think I was much of a fried green tomato lover, but The Greenbrier converted me. Of course, they had me a goat cheese and arugula.

Now that green tomatoes are coming back in season, I'm almost giddy. Is it me, or does it seem like the anticipation for something fresh and local is almost unbearable this time of year before you get that first fruit or vegetable of the season?

I picked up two Gritt's Greenhouse hydroponic green tomatoes at the Capitol Market last week. Since we've been playing softball at least two nights a week, I've been in need of quick and light dinners that we can eat at 8 or 9 pm when we get home. I had arugula from my garden and some bacon in the fridge. I just didn't have mayo or goat cheese. Cue sad music here... So, I improvised with some Laughing Cow chipotle cheese.

Bright green fresh and local beauties

The secret here is to brown the bacon first and then fry the tomatoes in the bacon grease. I had to add a little bit of canola oil. Also, I dredge them in milk then very lightly dredge them in cornmeal. I've tried flour, and I just miss the crunch of cornmeal. It's a personal thing, I think. Also, the cornmeal adds a nice nutty flavor. I sprinkled some kosher salt, pepper and minced garlic into the cornmeal. As with frying anything, you have to just leave it alone once you put it in the skillet, which is so hard to do. Four minutes on each side should be good for medium heat. I like them golden brown with a slightly soft inside.

Of course, we ate all the tomatoes we made, even after we had our sandwiches. Throw in some simple fresh new potatoes from my father-in-law's garden, and it was a delicious meal. The arugula adds something interresting that just wouldn't be there if you used lettuce or even spinach. It's a slight bite that sort of just melds with the tangy tomato. So delicious!

I have to say The Greenbrier does it better than me. But the way I see it, that just means I need more practice--which I'm totally up for.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

More to this Delicious Potager than vegetables

A few years ago, when we'd only owned our house for a year or so, I was at my mom's house sitting on her brick patio enjoying a beautiful evening (probably drinking a glass of nice wine) admiring her flower beds around the patio. They were in full bloom and spilling over with so many different colors and textures and interesting plants just absolutely thriving. And I looked around the rest of the yard and I hoped that one day my own backyard would be such an enjoyable and idyllic place.

Our house wasn't occupied when we bought it. While the inside was kept neat and clean in the absence of the owner, the landscaping was completely hopeless. Weeds filled the stone flowerbeds in the front yard and the small flower bed in back. English ivy was quickly overtaking what was left of the back yard and threatening the front steps and a crab apple tree in the front yard. While the Hubs probably would have been happy to just keep the grass cut and disregard the rest, I didn't waste much time before I started exercising my green thumb.

I hoed the weeds out of the stone flowerbeds in front, and found a sweet note the previous owners had left in the concrete: their initials and the date. I planted tulip and daffodil bulbs, and was delighted when they came up the following spring.

Not long after, we tore down the lattice around the patio that was collapsing under the weight of the English ivy, and cut the ivy off of a huge poplar tree it was choking. For things like this I am grateful that the Hubs makes his living as a forester and knows his way around with a chainsaw like it's second nature. Had the ivy continued to grow up that tree, it would have killed the tree, requiring it to be cut down by professionals at a cost of around $2,000, lest it fall on our house.

Summer before last, that English ivy did bring a tree down. A tree that was on our neighbor's property fell across our fence and into our yard. We spent a day cleaning the mess up cut it up for firewood. The trunk of the tree is still laying across our fence, actually, because it is too big for the Hubs to get himself. It's something we need to finish soon, and get that fence repaired.
Again, I am lucky Jeremy is a certified faller.

The following summer after we bought the house, I cleaned out an unkempt flowerbed out back and planted a few tomato and pepper plants. And the "Delicious Potager" was born. The original bed is still a garden plot, only now it's twice as big, and has four raised beds around it.

garden plot and raised beds, June 2011
Last fall, we dug out a flower bed along the front of the house and planted grass. Because of the eaves of the house, it didn't get enough rain, and I could never get anything to grow in it. Even hostas sucumbed to the conditions. We hauled the rocks edging that flower bed around back, and I expanded the little flower bed I had just off the patio. The small flower bed had three hostas, which were there when we bought the house. In the years since we tore out the English ivy and lattice, I had added sweet williams and buttercups from my mom's flower bed, three varieties of mint from a coworker's herb garden and echinacea and bee balm from another coworker's yard.

When we added the new edging rocks and expanded the bed, I moved several iris rhizomes and grape hyacinth bulbs from the front unsuccessful bed into the back bed. I had several tulip bulbs languishing unplanted in my garage that went in, as well as red hot poker plants from a coworker's flower garden. Beginning about Mid-March, this bed has put on one stunning display after another. I have more bulbs in the garage from daffodils growing wild that I dug up from the bottom part of the yard, as well as snow drops and more tulips. And another coworker recently gave me a canna lily rhizome, which I am super-excited to see blooming next summer.

The thing that I love most about the flowerbed in back is that it's full of things given to me. I haven't bought any of the plants in it. It's nice because the flowers are sorta left to chance. You take a chance planting something like that and in some cases, I wasn't even really sure what the flowers would look like. The bee balm and irises were a surprise when they bloomed the first time.

Along the white vinyl fence I have a narrow herb garden with four varieties of mint, rosemary and another bee balm plant.

Last year for my birthday, my dad gave me the WVU windchimes and the wooden sign that reads "Jennelle's Garden." The blue plaque in the center of it says "Grow, Damnit!" The echinacea in the left of the picture is twice the size it was last summer and ready to bloom any day.

Last Sunday, was a perfect day with cloudless blue skies and temps around 72 degrees. I took advantage of the weather and spent some time cleaning up the patio. When it gets miserably sticky, we tend to neglect it, instead staying holed up inside with the AC cranked. But after I finished sweeping it off and arranging the patio furniture, a took a few minutes to rest and enjoy the backyard, and I realized, that while my mom's flower garden is more established and spectacular, I did finally get what I wished for a few years ago--that same feeling from my very own back yard.

Friday, June 1, 2012

It's getting to be that time of year again.

Especially by the looks of my sad and meager larder.

But on one hand, I get a sense of satisfaction from looking at this nearly empty larder. I remember how full it was at the start of last fall. Look how much stuff we ate this year that we didn't buy from the grocery store, picked ourselves, bought locallly, knew exactly what the ingredients were, etc.

Since I started canning about three years ago, I have made some adjustments to what I've put up based on what we use and need. That summer in 2009, I made WAY too many pickles, so now I know to alternate years. Pickles are one of those things that I personally don't mind keeping longer than one year, but that might make some nervous. (For the record, pickles are pretty much the only thing I'd keep longer than one year. I think fruit jams are okay, but once the 12th month comes and goes on those, I try to use them up sooner rather than later.)

I have a few jars of salsa left, which is good. We love it, and the first year I canned it, I didn't make enough. These jars should get me through this summer until peppers come in season again. Same goes for tomatoes. I use those a lot, and I think I estimated it pretty well last year when I was trying to decide how many to can.

I have a ton of jam left. Last year was a banner year for blackberries, so I canned a lot of blackberry jam. Last year, I made plain blackberry jam, but a few years ago, I made balsamic basil blackberry jam that was delicious! My father-in-law assures me that this year there will be even more blackberries than last year, which I cannot imagine. I'll most certainly make some of that jam, as well as can some whole. Last summer, I tried canning them whole for the first time. I only did three pints as an experiment, but they were great! They held up much better than freezing them. I put them in my oatmeal this winter and spring, and am looking forward to more of those this year.

I'm always on the lookout for fast breakfast foods for weekdays, especially for the Hubs, who is a picky breakfast eater. I've seen recipes online for homemade "pop-tarts" a couple of times, recently, so I think that a lot of my leftover jam stash will go into those.

And speaking of jams, a couple years ago, a friend of my mom's gave her a bushel of peaches from the trees on her farm. My mom split them with me, and I ended up canning them in halves and making the most wonderful jam. I followed a recipe for regular peach jam, and threw a sprig of rosemary in it while it was cooking, removing it before I added the sugar. I have been craving some of that for the past few months, so even if I have to buy peaches from the farmer's market this year, I'll be making some more of that. (Note: While experimenting with recipes is always fun and interresting, it is advised to not deviate in canning recipes. Always use reputable recipes, and if you do add something, say a sprig of rosemary, don't add anything that would change the volume of the recipe, and make sure it is either ph neutral or acidic.)

Two resources for canning that I rely on are: The Ball Blue Book of Home Preserving and the National Center for Home Food Preservation's website. The Ball Blue Book has been around for more than 100 years, and I have a pretty recent edition. It has plenty of modern recipes for things like chutneys and salsas, as well as tips and step by step instructions for canning basics.
The next things on the horizon that I will be canning will likely be peaches and blackberries. Both are in season around the beginning of July. I know I am officially a total canning geek, because I can hardly wait!