Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Little Things

Is there anything more wonderful than seeing a sign like this?

My daughter Kassie passed this sign on her walk to school. The giant pear tree sets in front of a beautiful, old, white Victorian home, not far from her college. And I can't think of a kinder, more pleasant act of generosity than allowing the kids to pick a pear on their way to school.

Last spring we left our barren, suburban landscape and moved to a town - a real town - with parks and sidewalks and old Victorian homes with bushes and flowers, and best of all, pear trees. I feel like I've been transported from a sterile spaceship in outer space to mother-earth in all her glory. The grass is greener, the birds are chirping, and the sky seems bluer. It's the little things, like picking a pear on a warm, late summer afternoon that make me happy.

There was a part of me, however, that felt a bit timid about picking fruit from a tree that didn't belong to me. I was worried a gnarly branch would reach out and slap me and say "Stop eating my pears!"

The nice lady who I assume owns the house, came out onto her porch while we were there and said it would be okay to come back later with a ladder and pick more fruit, as all the lower branches had already been picked clean. And the tree was loaded. It would be a shame for the pears to waste.

So you know where I am headed tomorrow. Does anyone have a good recipe for fresh pears?

Perhaps I should take the nice lady a Phyllo Pear Tart.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Balsamic Chicken

For a person who loves food and holidays, August can be a trying month.

Biding my time, waiting for summer's heat to subside, anticipating fall, I feel trapped in culinary limbo.

What to do?

When relatives sprang a surprise visit on me last weekend - relatives who mainly eat chicken - I quickly perused some of my favorite food blogs for inspiration and found Proud Italian Cook's Balsamic and Herb Grilled Chicken.

I changed the vegetables up a bit, but this was an easy dish to prepare for a crowd.

I began by marinating organic, boneless chicken breasts overnight in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, crushed garlic, Dijon mustard, a dash of salt and pepper - then grilled the chicken along with some fresh asparagus and finished with a squeeze of lemon.

Note: I own a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar, of which my son coyly said while drizzling over his bread, Wow, this vinegar is older than me. And he's about to finish college. Do not waste your money using this type of vinegar as a marinade. The cheaper balsamic from the grocery store works fine here, adding a nice sharpness to the marinade.

If you would like to see more inspiring and beautiful things to eat, go to http://www.prouditaliancook.blogspot.com/.

A bit of a warning however, her ricotta poundcake is weight-gainingly irresistible.

Marie, I hope you don't mind me giving you a shout out(!).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mexican Bean Soup

I have a unique fondness for beans.

I didn't always like them.

My mother, a wacky, terrible cook, never realized that beans must be washed before cooking. So I grew up with the erroneous assumption that all beans tasted like dirt. And then one day, I ate my grandmother's Pinto Beans, slow-cooked, smoky and thick, with homemade cornbread on top, and I was hooked. Thus a lifelong habit of eating beans once a week ensued.

Now to the soup. For many years, I had trouble cooking beans. I would lovingly prepare them in the crock pot, in the morning, only to arrive home in the evening to al dente soup - and this is not how beans were meant to be eaten. Beans are supposed to be soft, tender, and buttery. I tried many different things to fix the problem - longer soaking time, longer cooking time, cooking them on the stove, salt, no salt, bottled water. But nothing worked. No matter what cooking method I used, my beans were always firm and undercooked. And then one day I came across an article about the freshness of dried beans, and how most beans we buy in the supermarket are old beans - meaning that they have been hanging around for a while. Often these beans are several years old by the time we buy them. Atrocity(!). Thankfully this article saved me from a lifetime of undercooked beans, and set forth an interminable quest for, fresh, dried beans. And yes, they are out there. But one has to look for them.

I finally found Rancho Gordo beans and they are the best. His fresh Napa Valley beans cook up tender and delicious every time. You can buy them online at www.ranchogordo.com.

Recently at my local farmer's market, I hit pay dirt when I found a bag of fresh, dried Colorado Pinto Beans. I came home lugging this 10 lb. gunny sack like I'd won the lottery.

This is what I made the next day.

Mexican Bean Soup

The recipe is pretty basic. I always begin with a 'holy trinity' of some type of green pepper, onion, and garlic - along with some type of fat or oil - olive oil, a smoky piece of bacon, or some leftover ham will do. Next the spices: chili powder, dried red chile's, cumin, bay leaf, whatever your heart desires. Next, in a large dutch oven, add the presoaked beans and cover with water, or chicken stock, and cook on top of the stove until the mixture begins to bubble. Then, with the lid on, put the entire pot of beans into a 225 to 250 degree oven and cook until soft and tender. This can be anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on the freshness of the beans and how long you soaked them. I topped this bowl of beans with a squeeze of fresh lime, some cilantro, fresh chiles, and Cotija cheese.

The easy part of this recipe came one morning when I was in a hurry and asked myself, why am I chopping all these vegetables? So I drizzled some olive oil into the pot, threw in giant chunks of carrots, onions, and celery, heated things up a bit, added the beans and water, put the lid on, stuck it in the oven - and voila! - the best pot of beans I had eaten in a long time. And for some reason, my family really enjoyed these tasty chunks of vegetables in the soup.

This recipe is versatile. Just change the seasonings according to what type of beans you are cooking. For white beans, I like to add lots of olive oil, carrots, onion, rosemary, and celery. For black beans, or Pintos, I prefer green peppers in place of the celery. And for a mixed bean soup, freshly chopped tomatoes add a nice, bright touch. Always remember to begin with the freshest beans available, soak them overnight, cook them covered, low and slow, in the oven, and you will end up with a tender, flavorful pot of perfectly cooked beans.

One last note: many recipes call for salting beans at different times. I prefer to salt mine toward the end of the cooking process.

Please share with me some of your favorite bean recipes. I've got a lot of beans to cook here.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hello Again

I have been away for a while, but haven't forgotten about my favorite pals and bloggers out there.

I hope everyone is having a safe and happy summer.

With all the fresh, ripe tomatoes and spicy peppers at the Farmer's Market today, I couldn't resist making a batch of salsa in my new Molcajete.

It's a lot of fun. And I love the flavors! But I gotta admit - I do have a newfound respect for that guy who invented the food processor. This was a little more work than I had anticipated. But well worth the effort.

Homemade Molcajete Salsa

1 Serrano Chile
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 clove garlic
1 tsp. salt
1/8 of a white onion, chopped
Fresh Cilantro
1/2 lime

In an iron skillet, roast the chile and tomatoes for 7- 8 minutes or until they are soft and skin turns black.

Pell off and discard the burned skin from the tomatoes. (Note: I leave a little of the skin on, because I like that charred flavor.)

In the mortar, grind the garlic, and onion, and salt into a paste.

Add the roasted tomatoes and pepper and continue grinding until you get the consistancy you prefer.

Finish with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.

Note: I added a small dried, red chile to this batch and it made it extra red and spicy