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Happy Harvest Season

8 Oct

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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!

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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!

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Cookies and Salads

23 Aug

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The other day, Rob and I did some Back To School grocery shopping, and it happened to be a date-night of sorts. We had already eaten dinner, and flashbacks of our Coos Bay days of taking a stroll down the fun-house halls of Walmart at 10 pm rushed in our minds as we stood in the Publix cookie aisle with two other couples. Hushed conversations evolved and we noticed the other couples, slowly and closely meandering, stopping and short-pointing with only a pinky, then whispering some more, were having the exact same musings as Rob and me.

“Remember these?”

“Oh, I ate a box of those ones once.”

“Huh, the packaging has changed on these ones.”

“Strawberry Oreos? Really?”

“Ooo these look so goooooood.”

Then, super-stealthily that short-pointing pinky turned into a swift grabbing hand snatching that Back To School treat. One couple got always-recognizable-even-when-cleverly-stuffed-under-the-16oz.-bag-of-baby-kale Pepperidge Farms cookies, the other couple further down settled with an audible let’s-be-responsible sigh on a cookie/cracker thing, and Rob and I chose Fig Newtons. The original. Always a Back To School classic, at least in my lunch box.

Seams harmless, right? Then, what’s with all the whispering and sideways glances? After further investigation of our late-night cookie aisle recon, this Back To School treat shopping was not for the kids. It was for the adults.

Who knows what happened to the other couples, but Rob and I waited until we got home (there is some restraint), and I dove into the little squares of fruit and cake. After a couple, the “fix” was over, and all was right and just in the world.

Teaching Kindergarten can be a different kind of crazy at beginning of the year, and even in this hot, hot, hot Jacksonville heat, a craving for comfort food spikes at the end of the day. Rather than turning to the cookies, I’ve actually found myself becoming increasingly adventurous with salads. Yes, salads. With the help of our farm basket, I have been experimenting with hot and cold salads, sweet and savory salads, grain and paleo salads, and many more. Come to realize it, more often than not, I have written about salads throughout the years. Well, hold on to your carrots, my friends, cause here comes another.

I called this the Chop Chop Salad, before I realized that there were actually many variations of an actual salad called a Chop Chop. So, I guess I’m adding another variation to the many recipes out there (although I’d like to continue to live in my ignorance that I actually came up with the really cool name). Literally, take every single vegetable that you love and toss it in a bowl. Add lettuce or any other green you’d like, or not. Add grains like quinoa, barley, or spelt, or not. Add a dried fruit or nuts, or not. You get the picture. Pour the contents on a big cutting board. With two chef’s knives, chop chop the heck out of it. Pour it all back into the bowl. Top with your favorite dressing. Voila! Chop Chop Salad! For such an incredibly unrefined technique, it creates such a beautiful presentation, and it’s fabulous for fun entertaining. Here’s how I made mine (everything was just a small handful, fresh and raw, unless otherwise stated):

  • Roasted kale
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Crimini mushrooms
  • Roasted green beans
  • Tomatoes (seeded)
  • Celery
  • Green onions
  • Manchego cheese

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The very best part of this salad happened to be the interesting dressing. To me, a big, full Chop Chop salad needs a hearty dressing. These days, however, cream and mayo-based dressings haven’t been making much of an appearance in our house due to the calories they add to the otherwise healthy dish. So to keep the creamy need, yet lose the bulk, I made a Cauliflower Dressing: ½ head of raw cauliflower, ¼ c extra virgin olive oil, ¼ c water, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, 2 tbsp agave nectar, 1 tbsp fresh dill. Throw it all into a blender with some s&p, whir until smooth and pourable, and taste for more seasoning. Pour a desired amount on your Chop Chop Salad, mix, and sit back and crunch away.

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This salad made for a great lunch the next day at school, and I told my kids all about it. At 5-years old, they weren’t so interested in a bowl chalked full of veg. Although I did get many oohs and aahs when I said “corn.” I think even a couple of excited claps.

It’s Back To School – a time for new beginning and taking risks. This salad isn’t risky at all, but try it anyway. It’s easy! It’s your own creation of tastiness! It’s healthy (which means you can dive into those cookies afterwards)!

Enjoy!

Turkey Day Trials 2013

16 Nov

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We’re starting again!  The best time of the year – Thanksgiving!  Such a wonderful holiday filled with the smells of warming cinnamon spices, the joyous laughter of friends and family, and The Dog Show.  Really, it’s such a great day.  And like always, I’m trying to prepare early.

Rob came home yesterday from his deployment (yay!), so he’ll be around for the Thankful festivities, and all the Turkey Day Trials that will ensue over the next 2 weeks.  What a great husband – one of the first things he asked me after getting off the plane (literally, we are standing at baggage claim) was, “How are the Turkey Day Trials coming?”  I think he enjoys this just as much as I do.

For the big day, Rob will be contributing his now-famous-among-my-family mashed potatoes.  No trials there.  It is a dish with which not to be messed.  As with pigs in a blanket, gin and tonics, and football, some Thanksgiving things are just expected, and Rob’s potatoes are one of them.  Although we may have to make sure an extra pair of oven mitts is readily available.  While cooking his welcome home dinner last night, I asked him to try a piece of tortellini, handing it to him with my fingers straight from the spoon out of the boiling pot.

“Put that down!”

“Oh come on!  You don’t have asbestos hands like me?” was thus my attempt at flirting involving boiling hot substances.  Sad, I know.  I put down the little round pasta.

“No,” Rob gently tries to pick up the pasta, drops it, picks it up again, and then blows on it with disproportionate vigor, “I don’t have asbestos hands.  I have soft, delicate Pilot hands.”

I’m so glad he’s home.

But I digress.  Even though the potatoes are perfection already, that doesn’t mean I can’t mess with other things.  Like butternut squash, for example.  Butternut squash is fun, beautiful, funky (as in the cool hipster way, not the smelly way), simple and sweet.  It is a favorite to salads, soups, and starchy roasted vegetable platters come this time of year.  As an appetizer, I always make an Apple Bourbon Butternut Squash soup on the Day de Turkey, but thought I would experiment a bit this year.  So with a big, sharp knife in hand, I dove in.

Whether in soups, salads or just on its own sprinkled with a bit of sea salt and cardamom, my favorite way to prepare butternut squash is to roast it: diced smallish, high heat, olive oil, s&p, and often with an herb or spice.  The caramelization of the squash’s natural sugars brings out a subtle sweetness similar to a rosé wine.  Not at all over-powering, but leaves a touch of I-want-some-more-of-that on your tongue.

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Almost every time I entertain, I have a dip of some sort, really, because people love to dip things.  And in some company, double-dipping is perfectly acceptable.  So my “go-to” is a lemony white bean dip that is much more subtle tasting than hummus, and as smooth as pate.  It is always elegant, easy, and gone by the end of the evening.  So as this Thanksgiving will be filled with wonderful entertaining, I thought of this dish, and the unexpected marrying of it and the butternut squash.  Simply roasted, then puréed with the buttery white (cannellini) beans, with a touch of garlic, spice and rosemary, LOTS of olive oil, and voila: a new Thanksgiving appetizer.  It’s perfectly fine just like this, especially still warm from the roasted squash, but I put some stilettoes on this dip and brought it to the next level.  Spooning a bit of the dip into an ovenproof dish, I sprinkled over the top a bit of red pepper flakes, freshly grated parmesan regiano, and a drizzle of olive oil.  After being under the broiler for about 3-4 minutes, the crusty, bubbly, golden crust is irresistible with some crusty French bread.

I want some right now!  Maybe I’ll slather some dip on a piece of thin, whole-grain toast, and fry and egg on top – the possibilities for this spread are endless!

Turkey Day Trials are off to a good start!  I’ll keep you posted with more to come!  Enjoy the start to the season!

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Roasted Butternut Squash and White Bean Dip
(makes about 20 oz)

  • 1 15 oz. can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • the top half of a small butternut squash (the part without the seeds), peeled, then diced into ½- inch pieces, about 2 c uncooked
  • 1 good-sized clove of garlic
  • 1 small sprig of rosemary
  • about ½ c extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp regular olive oil (for cooking)
  • s&p

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Taking the diced butternut squash, toss with the tbsp of olive oil, the rosemary sprig, and a 3-finger pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper.  After all the pieces are coated, spread the squash evenly on a baking sheet.  The rosemary will crisp up in the oven, and add a great flavor.  Place in oven for 10-15 minutes, turning the pieces once, until the top and bottom of the squash is a beautiful, dark golden color. 

Then, pour the beans, the garlic clove, and a few tbsp of the extra virgin olive oil into a food processor.  Pour in the squash, including the cooking oil, which has now been flavored by the squash and rosemary.  Take the leaves off the rosemary (they will come off very easily and most likely crumble in your fingers), and add to the food processor.  Add just a pinch of s&p, and pulse to get the mixture started.  Then, while the processor is running, pour in a steady stream of the rest of the extra virgin olive oil.  You’ll see the  spread become creamy and very smooth. 

Taste for seasoning (I always find at the end, after adding all the olive oil, I need to add a bit more s&p).  Enjoy with pita chips, crusty bread, or mixed vegetables. 

**To make the broiled spread: heat your broiler to high, spoon some of the dip into a ovenproof bowl, and sprinkle some red pepper flakes, good parmesan cheese, and olive oil on top.  Broil until bubbly and golden. 

Goes GREAT with an earthy Pinot Noir, or bubbly Brut.  Enjoy! 

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