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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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Love and Food Through Email

6 Nov

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For those of you who are married out there, or love the thrill of dating, remember that feeling you got when you’d get an email, text message, or a missed call from that special person with whom you were in smit?  It’s a fun feeling – butterflies, excitement, and an urgency to return the message, but of course not too urgent for fear of looking too eager? (Man, dating was exhausting).  Well, I hate to say it, that feeling does kind of dwindle when you get married.  That is, unless, your husband deploys with the military.

Silver lining, might you assume?  Absolutely.  I completely could drone on and on about how much I miss my husband, and how I got into a slump and didn’t feel like cooking, thus didn’t have much to blog about, and how he wasn’t here to help me assemble the desk, and then help me take the desk back when the drill-holes didn’t line up correctly.  Even when my wonderful dad was visiting for a few weeks, and we had a great time traveling to Atlanta, and he lovingly cut my grass for me (because I won’t touch that machine lest I care to lose a toe), there was still a pinge of longing for my out-at-sea husband.  Yes, I could complain, and maybe even you would understand.  Having a husband in the middle of who-knows-where trying to find who-knows-what can leave a lot to the imagination.  But, it can also bring about a spark.

Every little “bing” of my phone indicating a new email has started to bring about that dating feeling again.  Silly, right?  We’ve even been flirting – imagine!  Over government email, no less.  Hey, I figure, if we can make some government looky-loo smile from our deployment banter, then by all means, read away!  So, as a tip to all you military wives out there, imagine you and your deployed husband are dating again – it will make the time, the emails, and all the longing just go by a bit more smoothly.

There is one thing that came up in our emails this week, reminding me of why we put so much importance on our little home traditions.  Rob and I always have Sunday Night Dinner, and I made a point last Sunday (during a particularly slump-feeling weekend), to make something that I knew Rob would love.  I did, and for the first time in a long time, the cooking felt good, natural, and like there wasn’t something missing.  This is probably because at the exact same time, Rob was trying to recreate Sunday Night Dinner on his boat with his crew.  I read about it Monday morning in his email, and it just made me smile.  For that moment last Sunday night, we were sharing the same thought, feeling, and energy, thus making Sunday Night Dinner feel so less empty with only one at the table (well, two if you count Sig sniffing his way around the dining room).

The meal was simple yet unbelievably good. Making a creamy tomato soup with absolutely NO cream was divine, and made me feel less guilty about indulging. The simply s&p-baked halibut was a cold seawater treat. Atop the delightful combo sprinkled thinly sliced, quick-pickled celery providing a crunch and tang, balancing the subtle creaminess perfectly. Honestly, even as a left-over lunch, the meal was still delicious.

So unbeknownst to us, Rob and I had our Sunday Night Dinner together while being so far away. It clearly would have been better in person, but if anything, it shows us our strength in tradition, love, and the things (and food) we love.

Make this for someone you love – even if it’s just you! Enjoy!

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Creamy Tomato Puree
(makes about 1 quart)

  • 2 ripe beefsteak tomatoes, squeeze-seeded, and diced
  • 3 1-inch thick slices of left-over country bread (or French bread), crusts removed
  • 1 c non-fat milk
  • 2 c water
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 large sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • s&p

With the bread cubes in a mixing bowl, pour over the non-fat milk and add the rosemary sprig. Using your hands, massage, press, and work the bread pieces until saturated with the milk. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat. Once fragrant, add the tomatoes and the red pepper flakes, then season with s&p and sauté occasionally until soft.

Squeeze the milk mostly out of the bread, add the bread to the tomatoes, and stir well to combine.  Discard the milk. Add the water, and bring to a boil.

When boiling, turn off the heat. Then using an immersion blender (or spooning into a stand-up blender), puree the mixture until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasoning. Keep over low heat until ready to serve.

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Roasted Halibut
(serves 4)

  • 2 lb halibut filet
  • 2 pinches of salt per side
  • 1 pinch of cracked black pepper per side
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a baking dish, prepare the halibut by sprinkling over the salt, pepper, and olive oil. Make sure both sides are coated, and then lay the sprig of fresh rosemary on the top of the filet. The herb will roast and become crispy – a great garnish for the end of the meal.

Roast for 10-12 minutes, or until the fish just starts to flake when probed with a fork.

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Cardamom Pickled Celery
(makes about ¼ pt)

  • 2 stalks celery, cleaned , and finely sliced into ½ moons
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ tsp ground cardamom
  • pinch of s&p

Mix everything together, stirring occasionally, until ready to serve.

To assemble:
In a shallow bowl, spoon out the thick, creamy tomato puree. Then gently place a piece of halibut on top.  Sprinkle over some pickled celery, and a few pieces of the crispy rosemary. Enjoy!

The Meal That Changed Rob’s Life

2 Oct

Well, not really.  But I did get him to eat salmon… finally.  Rob has never been a fish person, but living on the Oregon Coast has given him an experience with fish that has he can’t deny; the fresh fish here is downright amazing.  Fantastic.  Fabulous.

Last weekend, Rob’s parents were visiting us on their journey through a whirlwind Oregon adventure.  Driving down the Coast, they realized sooner than later that there are no “national” chain restaurants here (there’s not an Olive Garden to be seen, fortunately or unfortunately?), so experiencing new restaurants and foods was luckily on the menu.  And when they arrived, I wanted to show a true, seasonal, local Pacific Northwest meal.

But that meant Rob would have to eat salmon.

Oh my.

The Oregon Coast is utterly amazing, and a main reason is because of the food.  So when I asked Rob about how he’d feel if I cooked Chinook salmon for his parents, he surprisingly was all for trying it out again.  There have been many times I’ve asked Rob to try salmon, “Just *bleeping* taste it!” each time with no avail.  He makes his “fish face” (it’s a term of endearment), and is quite polite about it all, but has never enjoyed the experience.

“So, why now?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “I just want to give it another try.”

The wife in me knew that maybe he wanted to show off for his fish-loving parents (which provoked a little audible giggle), but the cook in me was ecstatic.  Yay!  Rob will eat one of the most amazing ingredients to come out of the Pacific Ocean!

I cooked my favorite kind of meal: simple, tasty, with flourishes only to enhance the flavor of what already is.  With ingredients this fresh and beautiful, there’s no benefit to altering them, only to support them.  Like the humble adjective to the bold action verb in an interesting sentence, the specific sauces and sides add more than just color to a dish (sorry, we’re in the 5th week of school – my teacher nerdiness is bound to come out sometime).

While the fish was obviously a fresh purchase, there are things that I like to keep on hand in my kitchen that makes entertaining super easy.  Those humble sides and sauces, when seasonal and well planned, can be made ahead and create a painters palate of a menu.  For this particular dish, I took some local corn and tomatoes and did a hot sauté for a quick relish.  The creamy addition were melted red onions with green apples – sweet, tangy, and rounded out with a douse of white wine (yes, sometimes I actually do put it in the food).  Finally, and while everything is best in threes, the finale sauce was a special (and favorite) no-cook fresh strawberry, maple, and rosemary coulis.   Strawberries, believe it or not, are at the end of their season up here, and there’s something about the sweetness of a berry that pairs so Scandinavianly well with salmon.  Trust me; channel your inner Tuula and Johaan.

While putting the it’s-really-not-a-lot-of-time-but-tastes-like-it-was-prepared-for-days time into creating the special touches to add to a dish, it let’s the true star shine.  The salmon tasted like salmon, and like what cooked salmon should taste like: the smell of a foggy ocean morning mixed with cucumber and butter.  Finally, Rob understood.

While the meal was great, being able to reconnect with family was even better. There will be stories to repeat forever (like how my Irish in-laws had to go to an Italian restaurant in Ireland because, “You can only eat so many carrots and potatoes!”) and stories to be reminded of forever (I’ll leave those be).  The trip was a whirlwind, but so much fun, and we spoiled ourselves with a steady flow of great food and wine.  After all, if you can’t indulge with family, then with whom can you indulge?

Baked Salmon (serves 4)

  • 2 lbs. wild Chinook salmon (preferably fall season, Pacific Norwest rivers)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • ¼ c white wine (either a chardonnay or pinot gris)
  • s&p

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Prepare the salmon by patting it dry, then rubbing it with olive oil and lemon juice.  Sprinkle a large pinch of s&p, and place, skin side down, in a square baking dish.  Pour over the white wine, and cook until salmon is just cooked through.  NOTE: rare to med-rare salmon tends to have the best taste, but know where your fish came from before consuming undercooked protein.

Serve with the following sauces:

Corn and Tomato Relish (makes 1 pint)

  • 2 ears of corn, kernels cut off
  • 1 large tomato
  • ¼ tsp fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

Heat the corn and tomato in a sauté pan over high heat.  Season with s&p and the thyme.  Cook for only about 5 minutes, until the tomatoes soften a bit (but do not break apart), and the corn warms through.

Melted Red Onions with Apple (makes about 1 pint)

  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • ½ Granny Smith apple, small diced
  • ½ c white wine
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

Over medium-low heat, sauté the onions, apple, and red pepper flakes in the oil until they start to soften (seasoning with s&p from the beginning will help with this process).  Deglaze the pan with the wine, picking up any brown bits that have formed on the bottom of the pan.  Reduce the wine until the mixture is smooth, and it looks like the onions have “melted” and submitted to the low, constant heat of the pan. 

Strawberry Maple and Rosemary Coulis (makes about ½ pint)

  • ½ pint strawberries, hulled
  • 1 tbsp good quality maple syrup
  • ½ tsp fresh rosemary
  • juice ½ lemon
  • small pinch of salt

 Put all ingredients into a blender, and blend until thick, smooth, and almost frothy. 

ENJOY! 

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