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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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Jill and Sig’s Excellent Adventure

4 Mar

Last winter on the Southern Oregon Coast left me with a bitter, angry, vitamin-D-deprived, taste in my mouth.  This winter, I was ready; knowing March is what it is in these parts, I stocked up on canned tomatoes, frozen berries, and lots of citrus to bring brightness to the dark, damp days.

But now, as I’m looking out over my sun-soaked overgrown backyard and reminiscing about the last couple days of dandelion dotted winery roads, iced coffee cravings, and chasing Sig around a dirt field, I’m wondering what happened to the anticipated dreary weather.  The hemp-laden Nature God in charge of Oregon must be making up for last year – or Al Gore was right!

While Rob had to travel this weekend for work (actually down to Cali), I decided to do something I haven’t done in a long time – nothing.  By nothing, I mean quite a few things actually, but all things I don’t do very often, including spending patient and slowed-down time focusing on food.  And I was able to share these fun moments with my dog, like a true Oregonian.

Friday brought a delicious breakfast of a poached egg over left over beer-braised wheat berries with blue cheese.  Enough protein and energy for our next outing: sea stone collecting on the beach.  Years ago, Rob took me to this beautiful beach where the wind blows harder, colder, and stronger that Chicago would be jealous.  So much so that it gave me a “cold nerve” in my ear, thus straining my neck to pain so bad, I accidentally flung a teapot across the room when I turned the wrong way.  Nonetheless, it’s still a beautiful beach.  So, I brought my goose down winter coat, and my 1080 ear protection preparing for the worst.  As Sig and I happily strolled along the beach, picking up gorgeous, rock-cycle-influenced rocks (yes, Sig was picking them up too, realized what I was doing and wanted to help out), I found myself taking off layer upon layer.  The amazingly unordinary weather fought my silly winter clothes, and won.  By the time we were back to the car, both human and dog were panting.

After a quick water break, lunchtime was upon us.  I drove a further bit south to a wonderful little coffee shop, where I did something unfathomable: I sat, drank coffee, ate lunch, and read.  I had a perfect view of the car and could see Sig doing a gopher dance, popping up to look through one window, then quickly dropping down only to appear in another window a few seconds later.  With attention shared between my Kinfolk magazine, the unmarried surprisingly flirtatious older couple at the table next to me, and betting on which window Sig would be smiling through next, the afternoon was, well, perfect.

Driving home was one of the first times we felt relaxed in a long time – I drove more slowly than usual, and Sig sang the zzz’s.

The evening meal was the perfect top-off to the already Swedish-massage-like day: Chinook Salmon Terrine with Lemon Butter Toasts.  Smooth, creamy, salty, and tangy and paired with one of my favorite Willamette chardonnays, I thanked the day and fell asleep in bliss.

Next adventure: a Saturday trip to Eugene.  After a spicy red pepper and bacon breakfast burrito, Sig and I were off – by far the longest car ride he’s ever had.  His excitement was overflowing.  Almost crossing the line between cute and annoying.  But after a desperately needed trip to Trader Joes, a momentary weakness overcome at Pottery Barn, and a quick walk, we were both ready to go home; but not without a stop at one of Oregon’s plopped-down-along-the-side-of-the-road-because-the-soil-is-amazing-everywhere wineries.

The sun was so bright yesterday Sig kept jumping from seat to seat in our Explorer, trying to find the coolest spot.  His waterproof double coat was definitely not meant for 70-degree winter weather.  As I drove past fields of agriculture, I pulled into the cutest barn-style tasting room, my mouth watering anticipating what treats were to come.  There was a Border Collie obediently running along side his owner, immediately sending Sig into a you-will-be-my-new-best-friend-if-only-I-could-sniff-you frenzy.  Meanwhile, completely ignoring the pubescent territorial sheep angrily bah-ing at us invading his space.  Leaving him to gopher at the farm animals (yes, I just turned gopher into a verb), I indulged in one of my favorite things: tasting wine.  It was good; a perfect break to a second perfect day.

Our drive home consisted of Sig’s sideways, head-tilted glances as I belted David Gray around the windy pine-lined road, leaving him thankfully exhausted.  Remembering Friday night’s meal, I wanted another Jill-type dinner, but also craved a bit of comfort.  Thus, I vamped up a favorite college-days meal: Herbed Cheesy Bread with Spinach and Fennel Salad with Cheese “Croutons.”  After 4 slices of that tangy, cheesy, spicy bread, I was more than content.  Both Sig and I were asleep by eight.

Today continued our Jill and Sig adventure story; however, like every adventure story, there must be a little bit of drama.  With another beautiful day on our hands, I spent my time on Sunday brunch: Brown Sugar Caramelized Acorn Squash with Rosemary Maple Bacon and Cardamom Infused Coffee.  Being that it was Sunday after all, and there were chores to be done, Sig and I decided to take some time to soak up the sun after much cleaning and laundry.  As I sat, I could hear his collar tags jingle with each leap, bounce, and jaunt around the fruit flies coming out early for a spring-like tease.  That is, until I couldn’t hear his playful jingle anymore.  Looking around the corner of our yard, I realized the worse: the gate had been left open, and Sig has escaped.

Now it’s my time to really thank the Oregon Nature God (or Al Gore), as if it were pouring rain, windy, and cold, I would be even more of an angry pet owner chasing my dog around the wild fauna-filled field across from our house.  If it weren’t for the very distracting smell of deer scat, I’d probably still be out there chasing.

Sig is relaxing now. With the sun setting on my keyboard, I’m back to doing the same: enjoying the fleeting warmth, typing more slowly than my normal work cadence, and thoughtfully contemplating another my-favorite-type of meal for dinner.  Despite his Great Escape, it’s actually his birthday today, and also despite the unintended near heart attack, I made him some homemade doggie treats to celebrate.  As the kitchen air still lingers with peanut butter and barley flour, our adventure story is ending with the same note it started on: lots of good food and, well, lots of nothing.

Chinook Salmon Terrine with Lemon Butter Toasts (makes 2 small ramekins)

  • 1 can unsalted Chinook Salmon in oil (it’s a pantry staple in the Pacific Northwest)
  • 2 tbsp grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp rosemary
  • ½ tsp mint
  • 1 oz. goat cheese
  • ½ tsp raw agave nectar
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice (just from about ¼ a lemon)
  • 2-3 cabbage leaves
  • s&p
  • olive oil for drizzling 

Lemon Butter Toasts

  • 6-8 slices rustic French bread
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
  • zest of one lemon, dried (spread on a piece of parchment paper, and bake for about 15 minutes at 300, or microwave for 30-40 seconds on high)
  • pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

Using a mortar and pestle, combine the mustard, rosemary, mint, goat cheese, agave, lemon juice, and s&p, until combined.  It should be the consistency of a sauce.  Set aside.

Drain the canned salmon and flake apart with a fork.  Set aside.  Take the cabbage leaves and line the inside of the ramekin until the cabbage just comes above the edges.  Working in layers, put the salmon on the bottom, and press down until packed.  Then, pour in a thin layer of mustard sauce.  Then salmon, pack, mustard, etc. until the last layer is salmon.  Drizzle with olive oil and cracked pepper, and cover with aluminum foil. 

Put foil-covered ramekins in a square baking dish, and fill dish halfway with hot water (cooking the terrines in a water bath keeps them evenly cooking, as well as creates steam for moisture).  Cook in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes.  Remove, or cut open the foil, and continue cooking for 15 minutes. 

Meanwhile, mix together the butter, dried lemon zest, and salt in a small dish.  Toast the French bread slices (bottom layer of oven, or separate oven if you are so lucky), and while still warm, spread the dried lemon butter on one of the faces.

When terrine is done, serve with a small spreading knife, and spread salmon on the toasts.  Serve with a half-oaked chardonnay.

Enjoy! 

Not Your Average Sheboygan

10 Jun

I grew up with brats.  Not brats, like the screaming child who kicked you in the leg at the grocery store, but bratwurst, the sausage (pronounced broughts).  My dad, being a native Michigan Upper (pronounced you-per) and then having spent most of his growing up years living in Wisconsin, had the natural Midwestern instinct of knowing how to make a good brat.  Let me tell you, there are good brats, and bad brats, and when you find a good one, buy a lot because a perfectly cooked brat is good any which way – hot, cold, bun or sans, in casseroles, in quiche, on pizza, really the options are endless.

Along with the eating options, there are also the cooking ones: there’s the boil-in-beer technique, and the grill is always a favorite.  The toppings can be endless – onions, caramelized or not, sauerkraut, chili, cheese, relish, or anything your little sausage heart desires.  But in our house, it usually always came down to the simple, but still debated, question of using mustard or ketchup (obviously, mustard is the clear choice.  Did you hear that Jenn?  Mustard.).

My mom would serve brats and my dad would turn into a little kid again, occasionally doing a little dance in front of the grill and making sure there was a good cold beer in the fridge awaiting.  She always had a yummy salad to go with, or maybe baked beans, or if we were really lucky, she’d make her prize-winning macaroni salad (the prize was from our church picnic, but still).  As the four of us would sit around the kitchen table dipping our brats into the topping of choice, Casey (the dog) would eye us from just outside hoping one of us was nice enough to bring out a piece (we were never nice enough).

Not so many years later, I meet a New Englander who just happens to also be a huge brat fan.  Who also likes them with mustard!  What luck!  And it’s funny, Rob’s grill stance/dance is similar to my dad’s, and there’s always a good cold beer waiting in the fridge.

So, keeping with the yummy summertime theme, last night we grilled brats.  But, knowing what we had in the fridge, I decided to shake things up a little bit and turn the standard simple brat into something even more delicious.  We both had seconds.

First the toppings: so, I was debating whether or not to beer boil, and then grill, or just grill, but then while driving home, the idea sparked – I’ll make a sweet beer mustard sauce.  There I am getting saucy again.  But it totally worked – fingerlicking worked.  I reduced some summer ale with a bit of maple syrup, added the mustard and seasoning, and voila, a perfect brat sauce.

But that wasn’t all.  Our school has a beautiful, yet overgrown, garden that has the most lovely herbs (why I’m only discovering this now, with 4 days left of school, is beyond me).  So I picked some chives with the flowering bulb at the top (a vibrant purple color with a mild onion flavor), and mixed together those chive flowers in a simple relish of mango, cucumber, and lemon juice.  Topped on the salty and spicy brat, with the sweet and tangy mustard beer sauce, it was a flavor combination that kicked good ol’ sauerkraut back to Germany.

Then the side dish: beans.  But, with limited I-just-got-home-from-work-and-I-will-eat-pounds-of-nachos-if-I-don’t-cook-something-healthy-now patience, slow cooked baked beans were not going to cut it.  So, turning towards the pantry and freezer I grabbed some staples: black beans, chickpeas, and frozen edamame.  These three protein and fiber packed powerhouses warmed slightly and mixed together with just a touch of butter and herbs (chives, applemint, and thyme – again, from our school’s garden) created a tasty, colorful, rustic side dish.  It provided a perfect creamy contrast to the main dish with its cooling relish.  There were even enough leftovers for a delicious lunch today (the thought of which made my stomach start talking around 10am).

I don’t know how my Wisconsin grandparents would feel about my vamped up brats, but Rob and I were certainly happy.  And I’d like to think my dad might even skip the beer boil step to try the beer mustard sauce.  But for now, we’ll keep the grill hot, make lots of leftovers, and thoroughly enjoy our glamafied sausages.

Sweet Beer Mustard Brat Sauce (makes about 1 1/2 c) 

  • 1 c summertime (light) ale
  • 1/4 c good quality maple syrup
  • 1/2 c dijon mustard 
  • s&p (optional)

Over med high heat, combine the maple syrup and ale in a sauce pot.  Reduce (let bubble and boil) until the mixture has concentrated by half.  Off the heat, whisk in the dijon mustard.  Bring back to med-low heat, and reduce for about 10 minutes more, stirring often, until the mixture is smooth, silky, and coats the back of a spoon.  Taste for s&p seasoning. 

Serve over hot grilled brats. 

Warm Herbed Three Bean Salad (serves 4-6) 

  • 1 can black beans, strained and rinsed
  • 1 can chickpeas, strained and rinsed
  • 12 oz edamame (if frozen, pop in boiling water for 3-5 minutes until the beans in the pods are tender with a bite) 
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped chives
  • 1 tsp applemint, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp thyme, finely chopped
  • s&p 

Heat the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over med-high heat until just melted.  Add the chopped herbs, and stir.  The herbs should become fragrant very quickly.  Add the mixture of three beans, s&p to taste, and stir to combine.  Turn heat down to low and keep stirring until just heated through.  Turn off the heat and immediately cover.  

For a rustic look, serve in the pot with a wooden spoon. 

Enjoy! 

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