Sunday, August 15, 2010

Caprese Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes

I couldn't resist the beautiful colors of these organic heirloom tomatoes. I didn't have much luck growing them the last few years because because the trees have grown and shaded my vegetable boxes, so I've had to rely on the wonderful growers that bring them to my local farmers' market.


Today I prepared a Caprese salad using freshly picked basil from my garden, and fresh mozarella cheese, sliced. I like a semi-generous amount of EV olive oil and a little splash of fine balsamic vinegar and then sprinkled with fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper.


All of the flavors work so well in bringing out the flavors of the fresh tomatoes and it's so easy to prepare. I've got to hand it to the Italians for coming up with such simple yet flavorful dishes such as the Caprese salad.

The colors and patterns of the tomatoes are spectacular. On the one hand they look too beautiful to eat but it's the beauty that makes them look so appetizing that one can easily eat several tomatoes in one sitting.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Biscotti with Lemon Curd and Fresh Blueberries

Hubby and I went for a long hike up in the hills this morning so we were able to justify dessert. We had a sweet tooth (rather we have a sweet tooth - every day) but nothing interesting in the house.

There was some biscotti in the pantry but knowing they had been there for about a month I perceived them to be stale and tasteless, even though I knew biscotti has a decent shelf life.

I was just about to inform my husband that we had nothing in the house and suggest to him that we travel to our favorite pastry shop, Fleur de Cocoa in Los Gatos, CA (not far from our house). However, as soon as I thought about one of our favorite desserts at Fleur de Cocoa, the lemon & blueberry tart, I was inspired! I had fresh blueberries and some wonderful English lemon curd in the fridge... why not make my own version of that lemon & blueberry tart?

I spread the lemon curd on the biscotti, topped it with the fresh blueberries and voila! We suddenly had a tasty dessert to enjoy with our coffee without having to make the little trek to Los Gatos. Though it wasn't quite the same as Fleur de Cocoa's spectacular tart, I was happy to save the time and money today.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Zucchini flowers (or squash blossoms) stuffed with pesto ricotta

Zucchini flowers, squash blossoms, fiori de zucca... however you prefer to call them is OK by me.

While vacationing in Italy in May 2008 I ate some deliciously prepared "fiori de zucca" at Cafe Perugia restaurant (in the city of Perugia) - stuffed with ricotta cheese and lightly fried in a panko crust.


The distinguished looking gentleman sitting at the table next to me said it was pumpkin flowers, not zucchini flowers - perhaps he thought "pumpkin" was the word for squash and I was thinking that "zucca" was the word for pumpkin. Confusing, I know! Whatever, it doesn't matter. Between his imperfect English and my limited Italian I was not quite understanding because I saw these edible flowers at the tips of zucchini at the Venice market just the week before  (the photo here proves it) - which is why thought I was eating zucchini flowers.

Anyway... I learned that many different types of squash flowers can be eaten - raw or cooked - and they all look pretty similarly. 

When I saw the squash flowers at the Willow Glen San Jose farmer's market and it brought me back to that wonderful dinner we had in Perugia so I bought a bag and made it my project for that evening.

The flowers are delicate and because they were stuffed inside a plastic bag on a hot day the flowers didn't actually look that great.

I don't think they were too old because there were 2 live bees inside the bag. I let them go in my garden hoping they will pollinate the vegetable flowers.


Next I removed the stamens from the inside of the flower. This was a bit time consuming because I had to be careful not to tear the flowers. Luckily I had some long, narrow and pointy shears that allowed me to easily get to the base of the stamens. Then I carefully washed them and let them dry.

While the flowers were drying I mixed some pre-made pesto into some ricotta cheese. I happened to have both ingredients in my fridge so it was quick and easy, and good. How can you go wrong with pesto?

I used a small spoon to stuff the flowers which made it easier and faster to prepare without tearing the flowers.

Beat 1 egg in a small bowl. Also place some panko crumbs in a separate bowl. 

Dip the stuffed flower in the egg and then in the panko crumbs.

Pour a little olive oil in the pan and heat to medium high. Not too much oil because we're not deep frying, just lightly frying.

Cook for about 45-60 seconds on each side. You may need to add more oil along the way if you're cooking many pieces, but remember to let the oil heat up first so you get that nice brown color.

I don't usually serve my first attempt at making something to guests, but I happen to have nice friends coming (including an Italian friend) and they unanimously highly approved. I will definitely try this again!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Easy appetizer: Bite size Caprese salad

A couple of weeks ago my friend Suely hosted a fun brunch with lots of delicious and healthy food.

One of the favorites (by me and others) was this tasty bite size Caprese Salad. I sometimes struggle to find good appetizer recipes that are easy to make, healthy and light, and complement the rest of my meal, so I was happy to come across this. Not only does it fit those criteria but it's also very pretty and looks great on the table.

It's so easy it doesn't even need a recipe but in case you're not seeing the image well, it's basically these three items cut small enough to fit on the toothpick.

1 cherry tomato (sliced in half)
1 small cube of mozarella cheese
1 small piece of fresh basil leaf

No dressing, no salt (and therefore no mess when eating it)... just the fresh taste of the 3 ingredients of the classic Italian salad known as Caprese. It's a keeper and I think I'll be bringing this dish to the upcoming parties I'll be going to later this month.

Just to make sure you drool some more, I thought I'd share a few more pictures of the other appetizers she served.  :-)

Asparagus spears blanched and wrapped in puff pastry before baking. Made by my friend's 12-year old daughter. Such a fun presentation.
Portuguese cheese bread - she made a Brazilian recipe. My first time tasting this and it was delicious! It had a slightly chewy consistency and the inside had lots of air pockets so it wasn't heavy.
Blueberry scones. Another one of my favorites on the table because it was it was only very lightly sweetened so it didn't compete with the natural sweetness of the fresh blueberries. I need to get the recipe!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

Happy 4th! 
Photo by pyrexboy78 of Flickr.
Happy birthday to the USA!

Isn't it strange how people usually say "Happy 4th of July" these days? The name of the holiday has become the name of a date - the 4th of July.

Like Memorial Day it's a day for barbeques at the park or the beach and perhaps some parades, or a weekend getaway or a vacation far away. All of which is wonderful but it seems like over the years we've been putting the meaning of the holidays as a backburner to the fun activities. Other holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day have become more about gift-giving.

Perhaps if we go back to saying "Happy Independence Day", like people did when I was a kid, we would reinforce the meaning of the day, more so than by just saying "Happy 4th of July". By saying the word INDEPENDENCE we reinforce the fact that we're celebrating the independence of our country, the birth of our great nation.

Happy Independence Day!!!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Squirrels attacking my plum tree!

This morning I found 29 unripe and partially eaten plums on the ground below the tree. Yesterday morning it was 27. All of them taken down by squirrels who decide they want to eat a few bites and then move on to the next one. Grrr!

At this rate only a few plums will have the chance of surviving to full ripeness and be enjoyed by me (and friends and neighbors).

I've had squirrels demolish my apricot tree (I got ZERO apricots this year) but this is the first in about 10 years, since my Santa Rosa plum tree has bore fruit, that the squirrels have eaten the plums. I just thought previously that they didn't like the sour skins.

I did a quick search on "natural squirrel repellents" and couldn't really find anything that would help protect a tree. Grrr! If you have any ideas please let me know.

If I don't find a solution I will not be able to make the plum-blueberry crisp served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream that I like to make every summer. Nor will I be able to enjoy sliced plums in my Greek yogurt with walnuts. And what about my friend Christie? She's a plum addict and I usually give her half my harvest. Maybe she'll be motivated to help me find a solution.


I did get to enjoy one ripe plum so far - a nice big juicy one. I'd really love to have more of those but I'm not feeling optimistic. I think the squirrels are going to ravage the tree before I get a chance to find a solution.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Lately I've been hearing and reading about how good the bread recipes are from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.

I'm not sure if I'll ever get into the habit of baking my own bread so I borrowed the book from my local library rather than spend money on yet another cookbook that just sits on the shelves.

I've never had any interest in baking my own bread because I didn't think I'd have the patience. Five minutes seems reasonable to me and reading this book has inspired me to finally try it.

In quickly reading through the recipes I noticed that they look straightforward and manageable so I am excited to try one soon. Page 5 is what really encouraged me because it lists what we DON'T have to do - steps from traditional bread baking that they omitted.

1. Mix a new batch of dough every time we want to make bread

2. Proof yeast

3. Knead dough

4. Cover formed loaves

5. Rest and rise the loaves in a draft-free location

6. Fuss over doubling or tripling the dough volume

7. Punch down and re-rise

8. Poke rising loaves to be sure they've "proofed" by leaving indentations

Huh? So glad that those steps are "don't". I don't even know what most of those steps mean - they sound complicated which is exactly what has prevented me from attempting bread baking. I'll report back as soon as I've tried a recipe or two. If you've tried any of these recipes, please share your experience or recommendations.

The secret to the "five minutes" is to make a big batch of dough and refrigerate it so you can bake a fresh batch daily. It is a great idea for the winter when I don't mind turning on my oven. The recipes really do look much easier than the normal bread making process and the reviews of the book are very positive.

By the way, when I was searching Amazon I noticed that the authors have another book called Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients - I like the "healthy" part of the title and it got great reviews. If I have good luck with the recipes from the first book, I'll most likely end up buying the "healthy" book.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cucumbers with cherries?

I just received the July issue of Food and Wine magazine which features their annual list of Best New Chefs. Congratulations to all ten of them!

I read the recipes provided by each of the Chefs and one stood out... the Cucumber-Cherry Salad by Mike Sheerin (Blackbird restaurant, Chicago).

I'm not a picky eater (as long as it's fairly healthy) and I'm pretty adventurous in trying new foods and trying unique combinations of ingredients. However, this particular combination of cucumbers and cherries was not one that was intuitive for me, nor was it too appealing, but it did intrigue me. Once I noticed that it's meant to be pared with his Twice-Glazed Asian Barbecued Chicken I'll admit it did sound a lot better. Perhaps it's because I don't prefer to have fruit in my salads, but it also seems that the deep strong flavor of the cherry would overwhelm the lightness of the cucumber. But I guess the guy didn't become a Best Chef if he didn't know what he was talking about it.

I haven't had a chance to try the recipe but I will have to try it soon while cherries are still available and at their peak season. I like how easy the recipe is - the most work is pitting the cherries.

Because the new issue is hot off the press, I wanted to make sure you check out the Best New Chefs - they all look like they're well-deserving of the honor. Being in California, I'm especially excited about James Syhabout (I've eaten at 2 restaurants where worked, Betelnut and Manresa) and Roy Choi (of the famous Kogi taco trucks in LA). My only disappointment is that only one woman made it to the group of ten, but that's a topic for another blog post.

Cucumber-Cherry Salad
TOTAL TIME: 15 MIN SERVINGS: 4

2 cucumbers (1 1/4 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound sweet cherries, pitted and halved
1/2 cup cilantro leaves

Directions
1.In a medium bowl, toss the diced cucumbers with the white wine vinegar and olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
2. Add the halved cherries and cilantro leaves, toss lightly and serve.

Make Ahead
The salad can be refrigerated for up to 4 hours.

Images in this blog post downloaded from foodandwine.com.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Coffee tidbits

While enjoying my afternoon coffee I read a local magazine called Eucalyptus which had some interesting tidbits about coffee that I thought would be fun to share. Did you know...

"North Americans use 130 billion disposable coffee cups per yr. Makting those cups destroys 50 million trees and uses 33 billions gallons of water. Adding to the problem, one person insulating his/her cup w/ one disposable coffee slever per day creates 5.5 pounds of garbage per year, not incl the cup. Shun the paper cup AND the sleeve. Bring your own reusable mug to your fav coffee house."

"Coffee is a tropical export that is produced almost exclusively the developing world, but consumed mostly in wealthier nations. One out of ever five cups of coffee worldwide is sipped in the U.S. On average, U.S. coffee drinkers consume 3.5 cups a day per person. To get your fix and wtill be earth-friendly, insist that your cup o' joe is shade-grown (good for wildlife), organic (no pesticides), and fair trade (assures a fair price to the farmer)." by Steve Scheifer
"Coffee grows on approximately 10% of the earth's surface. The amount of coffee traded internationally is 2nd only to the amount of crude oil. Brazil exports the most."

SHADE GROWN "The tree canopy under which shade coffee is grown provides a fefuge for birds that have lost habitat due to raiinforest destruction. As many as 150 speices of birds are found on shade coffee farms. In full-sun coffee plantations, the species count is reduced by half."

"The largest reltailer of coffee by the cup is Dunkin' Donuts- over 1 billion cups per year it its 6000 locations in 30 countries."

"Kopi Luwak: Coffee beans that re gathered from the droppings of a small tree-dwelling cat called the palm civet. The cat eats the ripest coffee berries which pass through its digestive tract, undergoing chemical changes. Kopi Luwak sells for about $200 per pound."

I really enjoy reading Eucalyptus every month - I look for it at my gym. If you want to check out the digital version of the magazine you can find it at http://www.eucalyptusmagazine.com/Eucalyptus-Magazine/.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Peachy attitude at the Farmer's Market

What's there not to love about this time of the year? Warmer weather, longer days and the Farmer's Markets start to fill up with more and more of the season's best produce.

Every Sunday morning I do a yoga class at my gym (well, almost every Sunday). Just outside my gym there happens to be a little Farmer's Market (Santana Row, San Jose).

I noticed a new vendor recently selling nice looking desserts but with a sour-faced lady sitting behind the table and staring into the space. She wasn't engaging anyone and she looked so unfriendly so I wasn't inclined to stop at her booth. But that didn't stop my dessert-loving husband who decided to ask her what her goodies were. Her answers were short and factual. No details about the ingredients or how it's made, no opinion about how it tasted, no smile - she acted like she was bothered to have to answer his questions. So I didn't even bother to ask her why the Tiramisu was not being kept cold on that 85-degree day.

I was planning to write about the wonderful fruits and vegetables I tasted at the market but the marketing professional in me compelled me to tell you about this woman's poor attitude. I was astonished that she had no interest in trying to sell her products at all. Why the heck was she there?

The interaction with her was so negative that despite how lovely the desserts looked I could not justify giving her my money. I preferred to give it to someone else who had a better work ethic and was going to give me a pleasant experience. I even returned to her booth the following two Sundays after the first encounter to give her the benefit of the doubt (perhaps she had an emotional trauma that first day), but she was exactly the same. And each time I observed to see if customers were going to her booth - they were not. They must have felt the same negative vibe.

Maybe it's the marketer in me that was sensitive to her unfriendliness (or cluelessness). But if I'm going to spend my money (especially on something I don't absolutely need), the interaction should be a positive experience. She wasn't the only one selling desserts there.

Bottom line... a peachy attitude can go a long way. No matter what you're selling, whether it's computer software or cakes, it's important to provide good customer service, which starts with a good attitude and making the customer feel important. I bet replacing her with an enthusiastic seller who is well-versed about the products would triple or quadruple sales.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Nasturtium Risotto - David Kinch on The Martha Stewart Show

Good thing I remembered to record Martha Stewart's show today because my fave chef was her guest, David Kinch of Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, also winner of the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chefs in America - Pacific (congratulations).

Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm (where Chef Kinch gets all of his fruits, vegetables and herbs) was also there to educate about biodynamic farming. 


On the show Chef Kinch showed Martha how to cook a NASTURTIUM RISOTTO - how cool is that? I've used the edible nasturtium flowers from my garden to beautify my summer salads, but I had no idea that the leaves can be delicious enough to eat. He used to leaves to make a "pesto" which was the finishing touch for the nasturtium risotto. It looked amazing and I can't wait to try it.

If you can find a repeat episode of today's The Martha Stewart Show (click to see a video preview), check it out. If you've got plenty of nasturtiums growing already, here's the recipe.

Ingredients

Serves 6
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/2 leek, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced, white and light-green parts only
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Coarse salt
  • 3 cups Nasturtium Bouillon, heated
  • 3/4 cup Nasturtium Butter
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Nasturtium Pesto, for garnish
  • Fresh chervil sprigs, for garnish
  • Nasturtium flowers, petals, or buds, for garnish

Directions

  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, until grains are opaque, start to sizzle, and stick together, about 2 minutes. Add wine and cook, stirring, until liquid is completely absorbed, about 30 seconds. Season with salt.
     
  2. Reduce heat to low and add enough bouillon to cover rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until almost all the liquid has been absorbed. Add another 1/2 cup bouillon and continue cooking and stirring, until liquid has been absorbed. Continue cooking and adding bouillon, 1/2 cup at a time, until rice is al dente, about 20 minutes.

  3. Stir in butter and remove from heat. Fold in cheese and season with salt. Serve garnished with nasturtium pesto, chervil, and flowers.
Photo and Recipe from the web site of The Martha Stewart Show, May 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chocolate and zucchini cake

The organic zucchini I purchased the other day stared at me every time I opened the fridge. My intention was to grill it with some fish but because of the cold and rainy weather, I was craving something that would comfort me... like one of my favorite chocolate cake recipes. Yeah!

As you can imagine, zucchini doesn't really have that much flavor (unless it's enhanced with salt, olive oil & perhaps a little garlic), so in a way, the zucchini in this cake recipe only serves to add a little texture and moist carb (in lieu of more flour). Plus it's healthier - it has greens/vitamins and fiber. The chocolate (and coffee in the recipe) pretty much overwhelms the true zucchini flavor. So what's the point? It makes feel like I'm eating a healthier cake... that's enough to justify baking it. Yeah!

I've baked this cake many times before and I've modified the recipe to make it a little more "healthy", but the original recipe is based on this recipe by one of my favorite food bloggers, Clotilde Desoulier.

The modifications I've made are:
- I use all whole wheat flour
- I add 1 cup more zucchini than the recipe calls for to make it more moist (compensate for the dry whole wheat flour)
- I decrease the sugar by almost half
- I use 60% chocolate chips (Ghirardelli)
- I add raw walnuts

In this last batch:
- I substituted half of the butter for greek yogurt (+ 1 TB)
- I added 2 TBS brewed espresso (+ the instant coffee granules) for a little more flavor intensity

Getty ready to bake Chocolate Zucchini cakeI appreciate that the recipe allows me to use up zucchini when I have a big harvest in the garden. Also that it's easy and doesn't have too many ingredients.

The only thing I wonder is how many slices of cake equals one serving of vegetables?  :-)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Top 10 FEEL-GOOD foods - Sunset.com

I just found an article that I had saved from the January issue of Sunset magazine - the top 10 feel-good foods are:

1. Fresh sardines
2. Blue corn
3. Artisanal tofu
4. Hazelnut butter
5. Chioggia beets
6. American kiwi
7. Sea vegetables
8. Quinoa
9. Bison
10. Scarlet runner beans

Luckily the article and the beautiful photos can also be found online so you can get the full story here: Top 10 healthy foods on Sunset.com

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Sunday, April 25, 2010

It's peak artichoke season!


How lucky I am to live just 50 miles away from the artichoke capital of Castroville, CA. It means a steady supply of fresh artichokes is never far away. It was fun to introduce steamed artichokes to my visitors from northern Finland (where there is still snow on the ground) because they had never eaten fresh artichokes before.

They enjoyed learning how to eat it where you peel off each leaf and dip the meaty part in the herb-garlic-butter-olive oil dip that I made. Then removing the hairy part above the heart warning them that it might get stuck in their throats. My husband informed them that it was worth carefully removing the "hairs" because the "prize" was underneath... the coveted heart of the artichoke. He then demonstrated how cutting it in quarters and then soaking it for a few seconds in the dip was the best way to eat it.

Dip - butter & olive oil with fresh herbs
The herbs were cut fresh from my garden just minutes before preparing it. I grabbed some thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, burnett and a little bit of rosemary (not too much because it can easily overpower the other herbs). I let my friend finely chop the herbs so she can enjoy the pleasure of smelling the freshly cut herbs, while I chopped a clove of garlic.

I cooked the herbs and garlic in the butter, added salt and removed some of the butter foam. I let it cool a bit before stirring in some extra virgin olive oil so as not to cook away the nice flavor of the EVOO.

I know what you're thinking... not everyone has a garden full of fresh herbs. But you can easily use dried herbs or even just 1 or 2 different fresh herbs from your garden, your neighbor's garden or from your local supermarket. Many perennial herbs are super easy to grow and come back every year (or evergreen in California) so if you have access to any dirt, consider growing some herbs.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Alice Waters honored by the French Legion d'Honneur

The article in this week's food section of my local newspaper focused on how Alice Waters continues to have high standards for her Chez Panisse restaurant - I really admire her standard of excellence.

There are so many approaches to and philosophies about food and cooking. Watch the Food Network and you'll see a wide variety of programs targeted to many different audiences. For me food is about many things, but mainly about nourishment and flavor - the best quality ingredients I can find, easy to prepare, tastes good and healthy for me, my family and the planet.

It's why Alice Waters is my food idol - she has influenced my approach to food more than any other food celebrity or chef out there. It's sometimes hard for me to succinctly articulate exactly why her approach agrees with me. There are many reasons and one of them is a point she makes in the article and she says it best herself...

"It's a moral issue for me," she said. "Everyone on this planet deserves to eat food that's really nourishing and produced in a way that is fair to the people who produce it. We have to get over the idea that food should be cheap. The people who take care of our farms are treasures. And in terms of the damage to our health, our culture and our planet, that extra cost is nothing."

I understand that low income families can't justify buying broccoli for the same price as 4 fast food hamburgers, but there is something wrong with our food system that it has come to this. That's another argument for another day (put the Food Inc. movie in your Netflix queue).

In the process of cultivating food (that nature helps to create) in manner of high integrity, we get food that tastes good, is healthy for us and healthy for our bodies. I'm grateful that she has passionately dedicated her life to changing the way America eats, she an many others who are dedicated to the same cause.

Congratulations to Alice Waters for being awarded the coveted French honor last week.