Happy Harvest Season

8 Oct


Is there anything better than the start of autumn? The cooler weather, fresh and breezy air, and all the yummy food that arise at this time all bring about a welcomed reset button. At the first feel of a slight wind, I’ve got 5-year olds yelling, “It’s autumn! Can you feeeeeel it?!”

Years ago, when I lived in Orange County, California, I worked at a year-round school where we started the year in July and received a 3-week fall break come the end of September. Oh holy goodness that break was so exciting! For the last week in September, and half of October, I gallivanted around SoCal visiting farmers markets, specialty food shops, and cooked most of the days away. The very best part, however, was taking a yearly trip up to Napa to visit my friend, Heather, who just happened to work for a very prominent winery.

Traveling to Northern California specifically during the grape harvest is simply special. There is a magic in the air matched only to that first nose, first swirl, first sip of fabulous wine.   The wine in Napa is big and exciting – tastes of fruit, mineral, and spices inevitably convert the faint of heart. Those in Sonoma are intricate, earthy, hitting the front of the tongue with brightness and pungency and almost leaving a feeling of urgency for more. Even the everyday oyster crackers served to cleanse the palate tasted better in wine country. As written endlessly in boundless foodie mags, the restaurants are fabulous, the food is fresh, and the locavore movement is thriving. Just thinking about the smell of hot, vine-laden grapes (sweet, earthy, and pungent) and the sight of the Russian River Valley (breathtaking does not do justice), literally makes me want to pop open a bottle right here and now.

Please excuse the drool.

Moving from California to Oregon created some initial sadness, but as Rob and I quickly warmed to the cold and wet climate, and we found a whole new world of wines. Not only was the now-infamous Willamette Valley a mere day-trip away, but the Umpqua Valley wineries proved to be some of our favorites. They were smaller, quainter, and not at all stuffy as the winemakers themselves would be happy to pour a perfectly Oregon-air-chilled glass of Baco Noir and chat the day away. Our Oregon wine excursions created a brand new set of memories of the Harvest Season. We would pack a lunch, sit on a picnic table in the vines or one overlooking the cascading evergreen hills with pockets of clouds blurring their branches, sip wine, and just be. It was quiet; not much talking, and there were never any hooting wine tour buses tainting the experience, nor the pressure to “hit up” as many wineries as possible. The whole experience was so relaxing, so picturesque, so perfect it felt unreal.

Recently, my mom and I went antiquing and I found a gem of a book: West Coast Cookbook by Helen Brown. The copyright is in Roman Numerals (which I’m convinced were invented only to make people’s shoulders drop and eyes roll), and after too-much-for-an-educated person-deliberation, I figured the copyright was 1952.

This book has more character and personality then expected in a dusty, antique find, and filled with so much culinary information. Aspics, cheese, bread, game meat, coffee, chocolate, all have sections devoted to their significant history rooted in the West, and Ms. Brown discussed it with mouthwatering eloquence. Phrases like, “You can’t turn off a cow,” and “tortillas are the staff of life,” keep the pages turning and the stomach grumbling. That is, until my eyes stumbled upon this:

“This is a vinous book. Good food is nothing without good wine, and our generous use of it as a beverage and as a necessary part of our cookery has much to do with the pleasure of our table…. When I speak of our wines, I mean Californian. The amount produced in Oregon and Washington is negligible.”

What?! Oregon, Washington – insignificant wine? Sorry Helen, you’re wrong on this one. While California has its fancy viticulture charm, the Pacific Northwest has its own delicious backbone of wine history that California would be envious of (but surely never admit).

Alas, it’s a pain in the neck to hold a grudge, so I won’t. Helen is still a cool gal. So as I’m remembering Harvest Days memories, and enjoying my antique find, a fantastic meal dedicated to the West during the Harvest Season is in order. Turning to the Fish & Shellfish section of the cookbook, Ms. Brown states “fish is not a food to be eaten only when nothing else is available, but is, when properly prepared, food as good as it comes.”

Ain’t that the truth?

So here it comes: good food! To be paired perfectly with good wine, no less!

There are a few parts to this Smoked Salmon Layered Salad. First off, layering salads should be the new thang if you ask me. They are so pretty and so much fun to eat. Oh, and a whole meal served on one giant plate, family style. Easy? Yes. No fuss?   No problem. And the gourmet-ish mushroom croutons? Get out of town! Such a show stopper.

Pair this meal with a great glass of Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, and you’ve got yourself a West Coast, harvest-inspired meal. Enjoy!


Smoked Salmon Layered Salad
(serves 4)

  • 2 tins of quality, hot smoked salmon (for the canned version, King or Coho would be best; Chuck’s Seafood in Charleston, OR, and Josephson’s in Astoria, OR both ship throughout the country).
  • 1 lb. fresh, end of the summer green beans, cleaned and stem-end removed
  • 1 pint crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 1 large sweet potato, diced into ½ -in pieces
  • 1 head tender lettuce – either romaine, red lettuce, or the baby lettuce mix from a bag. If using romaine or red lettuce, roughly chop.
  • 4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed and roughly chopped
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 ½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

** This meal pairs perfectly with Oregon Pinot Noir (I love Giradet from the Umpqua Valley), California Rose (Louis Martini makes a good one found in the heart of Napa), and Washington Chardonnay (Three Rivers is a great Columbia Valley un-oaked version).

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the sweet potato dices on a baking sheet and drizzle with 2 tbsp olive oil, s&p. Roast the sweet potatoes until the edges are browned and the insides are tender, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the green beans by seething them in a large sauté pan. Seething is a combination of steaming and sautéing in one pan. Put the green beans in the pan with 2 tbsp of olive oil, ¼ c water, and a good pinch of s&p. Heat over medium heat, turning the green beans often, until the liquid has cooked away, and the green beans are bright and cooked through (the beans should still retain a bit of a crunch – they should not have the texture of a stewed bean). When the beans are done, set aside.

To make the mushroom “croutons,” simply put the mushrooms in a sauté pan with the 2 tbsp of butter on med-high heat. Stir, then let be to brown, stir, then let be to brown, until all the mushroom pieces are so browned and lovely, and almost crunchy. Transfer mushrooms to a paper towel-lined plate, season with a bit of salt, and let cool. They will continue to crunch-up while cooling. (Seriously, these things are addicting. They may not even make it to the salad.)

To make the dressing, mix the Dijon mustard, lemon juice, honey, and a pinch of s&p together. While pouring in the extra virgin olive oil, whisk until combined and smooth. Set aside.

For the smoked salmon, open the container, drain if necessary, and flake the salmon using a fork. Set aside.

Now for the assembly! On a large serving plate, first put down the lettuce, and then sprinkle over the sweet potatoes, and the chopped thyme. Then evenly spread out the green beans, and the smoked salmon. Top with the mushroom croutons, and serve with the dressing in a carafe on the side for individual drizzling (I’ve found that this salad has enough flavor as is, that some enjoy without the dressing).

Dig in, image you are sitting among the vines, and enjoy!


How to Explain Cooking

20 Sep


Every year, without fail, the exact same thing happens the first day in Kindergarten:

“Who knows the sound the ‘M’ makes?”
“I do, I do…mmmmmmmmm.” I cringe as 18 surprisingly-loud-considering-their-size 5-year old voices shout at me.
“Wait, wait, wait, friends. You have to raise your hand to answer the question. So let’s try again. What sound does the ‘M’ make?”
Then right on cue: “Mmmmmmmmmmm,” 18 surprisingly-loud-considering-their-size 5-year old voices continue to shout at me all with hands up in the air.

My bad.   Nowhere in my explanation did I state that the kids have to be quiet while raising their hands so I can call on one of them. Kids are so literal. They are also blatantly truthful:

“The reason I’m late is because my mommy had to put her bra in the dryer.” Or, “You aren’t an old lady, but you do have wrinkles.” Or (amidst uncontrollable Friday morning sobbing), “I’m…. so….. tired.”

That last one I could relate to perfectly, and almost started sobbing myself out of sympathy and understanding. However, I’m happy to report that after five weeks into the school year, we are raising our hands to answer questions, and continuing to learn – together.

Having spent hours upon hours of advanced collegiate learning about writing, expression, and both written and verbal communication, as well as hours upon hours of putting those skills to use, the hands raising situation is a perfect example of how the lack of such a small detail can simply mess up everything.

Cooking is the same way. I have a good friend, Laura – and no, names have not been changed to hide identity – Laura asked that I specifically refer to her by name. She said being mentioned in my blog would make her famous (while I don’t think Laura knows that I only have 48 subscribers, I love the sentiment!). Laura has a hard time with the culinary arts, and frankly, like most who struggle in the kitchen, she dislikes the act of cooking. So over the past couple of years, I have tried to help her out by showing her easy cooking tricks, making her meals to introduce food she thought she didn’t enjoy, and provided recipes for potlucks and such. While most every time I’ve received an OMG-happy type phone call or text about the food, there have been a couple like this:

“So how did the lemon and lavender cocktail turn out?”
“Well,” uh-oh. The extended “well” is never a good sign. “The recipe said the word ‘syrup.’”
“Yes, the directions said to boil the water, sugar, lavender and lemon to make a simple syrup.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what that is. I read ‘syrup.’”
“So?” (Cue blonde moment; I had no idea where she was going with this, but I think most people probably would have.)
“I added syrup.”
“Like, maple?”
“Aunt Jemima, baby.”
“But the directions didn’t say to add maple syrup!”
“But the directions SAID syrup!”

My bad, again.

I think it happens quite often when the inside thought doesn’t match the outside output. Which, in turn, always creates a learning experience. For Laura, she learned what a simple syrup is, and to only put in a recipe specifically what is on the ingredient list. I learned that if I’m going to use a cooking phrase, I might want to explain it as well.

Friday night’s meal reminded me of Laura, as she was adamant about telling me how she hated squash – that was until she had a spaghetti squash salad at my house. Prior to the meal, I was standing in line at the grocery store, and a woman asked me about the spaghetti squash I was buying and how to cook it. I explained the “oh it’s simple” way of cooking it flesh-side down to steam it up before turning it over to roast, and received a blank stare. The woman did not know what the flesh of the squash was. A necessary key detail!

IMG_2539So for Laura, for the lady at the store, and for all the times I’ve tried to explain something that was oh-so-obvious in (only) my brain, here’s my simplest, easiest, go-to, gluten-free, veggie-loaded meal that will leave even the worst cook feeling proud and satisfied: Roasted Spaghetti Squash. It’s perfect for this beautiful start to the autumnal season, and smells so yummy while cooking.

Roasting is high-heat cooking, usually in an oven. To roast a spaghetti squash, first preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and then prep the squash by cutting it in half vertically. A strong knife, like a 6-8 inch chef’s knife will work best. The inside will have seeds and pulp like a pumpkin. Using a spoon, scrape out the seeds and pulp and discard. The inside of the squash is the flesh, beautiful and yellow, and season the flesh with 2 tbsp of olive oil and ½ tsp of salt for each side. Place the squash halves open side down on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven for 15 minutes. Then, using kitchen tongs, turn over the squash halves so the open side is facing up. Continue to roast the squash for about 20-25 minutes, or until the flesh of the squash is tender enough to be pricked easily with a fork. Remove from the oven and let cool until able to handle. Then, holding the squash with one hand and a fork in the other, scrape the spaghetti squash starting at the top and pulling the fork down. The flesh will pull off in a noodle-like form, and voila! Roasted Spaghetti Squash!

From here, the options are endless for serving the squash:

* melt a stick of butter, whisk in lemon juice from one lemon, and add thyme leaves in a pan and pour over the squash for an easy side dish.
* shave fresh parmesan and crack fresh pepper over the squash and mix with arugula, basil, and dried cranberries for a tasty salad.
* mix with a favorite tomato sauce for a faux-spaghetti dish.
* add it to a turkey sandwich for a sweet, Thanksgiving-y taste.
* stir into a favorite curry sauce and serve over cooked lentils for an exotic meal.
* mix in some crunchy bacon, fry up an egg to top, and enjoy a healthy carbonara alternative.

For my, eh-em, many readers out there that will inevitably make Laura famous, I have taken these cooking lessons to heart, and have started to learn how to talk about cooking more specifically. After all, the last thing we need is any more kitchen mishaps when cooking can be so much fun and so rewarding. So please, try the squash, and let me know how it turned out!



A Food Story

11 Sep

A few weeks ago, my mom and dad took Rob and me out to dinner for our 5th anniversary. Five years! It seems like only yesterday that we were having our first celebration together. Anywho, for such a fun occasion, my mom and dad researched one of the top ten restaurants in Jacksonville – a Brazilian steakhouse.

We walked into the restaurant first noticing the intoxicating meat smell, and the busy speediness of gaucho-dressed men delivering meat galore. Drinks were flowing, people were joyous, and keeping to traditional Brazilian style, the plethora of meat (lamb, steak, pork, chicken!) was brought to diners on giant saber-like sticks. I was filled with new-experience excitement, Rob’s carnivorous eyes were about to pop out of his head, and my parents’ giddiness was palpable.

Our hostess sat us at the best seat in the house: in the back of the massive room next to the wine cellar, with a clear view of all the restaurant action. It was explained that the buffet was for appetizers and side dishes, and at any time we could help ourselves to the feast. But, of course, not before opening the bottle of champagne for such a celebratory occasion.

The man explaining the buffet tag-teamed the next act of their choreographed dance, and three well-dressed men scurried to the table, one bringing the standing ice bucket, one with a black towel French-ly draped over his arm, and another who, I guess, just came to watch. Really, it all happened so fast – the “pop” of the cork and it landing in front of me happened almost simultaneously. It was weird, and as I picked up the cork to express my confusion, only then to see my mom rubbing her head. In a Brazilian whir, the towel man held his thumb over the bottle top (not the towel mind you), and the standing man rushed to her side. Rounds of “I’m sorrys” and “Are you oks?” flourished, and as being the only blond at the table, I was the last to figure out the obvious – the cork popped early, flew by me, bounced off the wine cellar glass, smacking my mom upside the head.

Needless to say, the corkage fee was waived, and uber excellent service was to come.

The appetizers were a feast in themselves. Cheeses, meats (ironically), veggies of all colors, bread, olives, you name it. As only one can naturally do with big eyes and a hungry stomach, we all loaded plates (full plates – none of those dainty appetizer plate things), and rushed back to the table. The sense of urgency was profound in this place! So much action, so much food, how was one to contain oneself?

Forks in hand, the four of us dove into our meal-in-themselves appetizers, only looking up to longingly ogle a gaucho walking by with a stick o’ meat. Then that gaze fell on each other with a pining urgency – the silent understanding of the dire need to finish the veggies on the plate ASAP.

Finally (but probably eaten in record time), the veggies were done. But next were the sides! My dad somehow developed cat-like moves and in 3.2 seconds made it to the buffet table and back with a lovely helping of creamy mashed potatoes. Rob took this as the baton handoff for getting his sides and got up to tackle the buffet, but didn’t seem to be as fast. Not being able to contain ourselves any longer, my mom, dad, and I flipped our meat tokens to green and like moths to a flame, gauchos were at our service.

Our first cut happened to be the house specialty, a top sirloin perfectly cooked, juicy, and medium rare. With a smile (and I swear a glitter in his eye), the Brazilian man (who could have been from Hoboken for all I know) elegantly sliced off a piece of meat. Then in true gaucho-patron collaboration, we took the tiny silver tongs sitting with our utensils and grabbed the falling meat. It truly made the most barbaric idea of eating meat off a stick into one of the most fun and classy restaurant experiences.

As my mom, dad, and I glutinously moan over the meat, we realize that probably the biggest carnivore among us is still missing – poor Rob! Here we are devouring the Brazilian meat and Rob is stuck at the potatoes.

Upon Rob’s return it didn’t take long for him to catch up. All of us completely had our fill and one by one turned our green meat tokens to the stopping red side. Except, that is, when the ribs went by. Then my dad and Rob had to try. Then it was red. Oh, but then the filet came ‘round again. Ok, one more. Now red. Wait, wait, wait – was that the house special again? Sir?

This carried on for a bit and actually got to the point where the gauchos knew that our red tokens did not mean stop. They really meant, I’m-totally-stuffed-but-if-you-walk-by-me-with-a-stick-o’-meat-I-have-the-inabilty-to-decline-so-pile-it-on-boys!

The bustle of the restaurant kept on, but like most good things, our indulgence came to an end. Rob wiping his brow was also a clear stopping sign. Meat sweats are a real thing, you know.

Not really realizing until the very end of the night, the restaurant manager had kept a close eye on our table – he was probably watching for anymore rogue corks, or flying meats, or God-forbid a sword fight. We received many, many thanks for dining there, and we in turn gave our gratitude. What a night!

I’ve been saying for years now that if someone made a television show about my family, people would be binge-watching us. Our Brazilian night was no exception, and no joke!

As this is my food blog, I could try and recreate the perfectly marinated meat, or try to reenact the night for the sole purpose of a recipe, but I won’t. Some stories are best just leaving a taste of laughter – you’ll have to go and taste the meat on your own!



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