Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Sandies... Pecaned, Zested, Fruited and Gluten- and Dairy-Free

These little treats have been toted to their fair share of cookie exchanges and holiday gatherings over the years. Dating back to the early 1950's (or, perhaps even prior), the making of these nuggets has remained relatively unchanged... a simple shortbread-like dough is dotted with nuts and then more than generously coated with confectioner's sugar once cooled from the oven. While the precise date of their original unveiling may be of question, one thing is for certain: they have been responsible for many a powder-laced mouth and cookie-crumbed lap through the years.

They aren't new or different, trendy or chic. They are just good. And they are made from quite a versatile little dough, one that will happily produce a jam-filled sandwich cookie with just another step or two, and one that readily wraps its arms around a variety of flavors. It's also a recipe that adjusts beautifully with the substitution of Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Flour (and a little xanthan gum) to produce a delicious gluten-free (and in this case, dairy-free) variety, as well.

Sandies have been a staple in our own repertoire of holiday baking since as far back as I can remember. The recipe I use (and the one my own mother used) comes from the Better Homes Garden (BH&G) cookbook. And while this particular recipe has you shake cooled cookies in a bag filled with powdered sugar, there are a number of subtle variations... both in how these cookies are made and what they are called.

While my BH&G cookies are referred to as Sandies, they do incorporate pecans. For many, Pecan Sandies aren't even coated in powdered sugar. Instead, the pecan-laced dough is chilled, and then rolled and cut into rounds or squares before baking, or simply baked as a drop cookie. When our girls were little they called our version of this cookie The Cookie Covered In Sugar. That seemed as good a name as any at the time so that's what we went with. Apart from loving the subtle sweetness of this cookie, their melt-in-your-mouth texture, and the wonderful caking of powdered sugar each gets, I have always loved how easy they are to make (especially appealing for a girl that might rather bake a potato than a cake). One quick mixing of just a few ingredients, and no gadgets required to roll, cut, trim, or ice. A quick 20-minute pop in the oven (8 to 10 minutes in the case of the sandwich cookie) and a shake of powdered sugar. Easy and no fuss.

In addition to calling these cookies Sandies (or Pecan Sandies), some might refer to them as Mexican Wedding Cookies, Russian Teacakes, Polvorones, Snowdrops, Snowballs, etc. Some varieties use pecans, others walnuts or almonds. For as much as I can determine, these latter terms seem to correlate to the same ball-shaped, shortbread-like cookie dotted with nuts and rolled in sugar that we make every holiday.

This year I wanted to switch things up and experiment a little with the bits of goodness added to the dough, resulting in Pecan & Orange-Zested Sandies, Almond & Dried Mixed Berry Sandies, and Pistachio & Dried Cranberry Sandies. And, of course, Jam-Filled Sandwich Sandies. All these versions were great; however, I have to admit I definitely have my favorites. First, you can't beat the straight-up, original BH&G variety Pecan Sandies. And with a bit of orange zest, they are only better... a subtle, welcomed citrusy pop that melds beautifully with the sweet powdered sugar coating. Yum!

Apart from these traditional varieties, I really like the jam-filled sandwich variety. It's basically the same dough with just a touch of maple syrup added. Once the dough is mixed and the nuts added, you pop it into the fridge to chill for 15 to 20 minutes before rolling it and cutting it into one-inch squares. After baking for 8 to 10 minutes, you remove them to a wire rack to cool. Then you spread the underside of half the cookies with a bit of jam, sandwich them with mates, and dust the lot with some powdered sugar. These bite-size cookies are a definite favorite... both using the traditional dough and the gluten-free/dairy-free batch. It's one that will be repeated in our own holiday gatherings, cookie exchanges and such... for some time to come. Not particularly new or trendy... just good.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mushroom-Red Lentil Soup

Dependability is a noble trait, one that should be appreciated and honored. While it's wonderful when demonstrated in human form, meal dependability should not be underrated.

Translation: it's soup again!

A super busy month, holiday hosting, a steady drizzle, memories of a great lentil soup a friend made for us years ago while we were living in The Netherlands, and a heap of beautiful mushrooms all conspired in the making of this soup.

These things... and a very dependable cast-iron pot that quite likes her role as a busy girl.

It's a hearty little soup, satisfyingly rich in earthy, meaty mushrooms and bits of savory onion. And, yes, kale (again). The kale in our fridge has, I believe, become quite a brazen little thing; one that has become a bit heady in her consistent abundance compared to other veggies sharing the same real estate... pushing her way into most any coupling of ingredients that even remotely look her way. Thankfully she plays well.

This soup features red lentils which, unlike their brethren in the family of lentils, break down quite a bit while cooking. As such, they contribute to making a good, thick broth base; one with a wonderful hearth-side heartiness. It's a great soup to serve as a quick, weeknight meal, along with a side salad or slice of fresh bread; as a starter soup (simple, yet well structured); paired with sandwiches for lunch; or, as it thickens a bit the next day... I think it would be great as a base to some seared scallops.

Either way, it's a dependable dish to turn to during December's dizzying days...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Basic 30-Minute Vegetable Soup

Soup might be the easiest thing to get together on a busy night. Quicker and more nutritious than the fastest of fast foods... particularly if you factor in the time it takes to get to where you need to go to do the picking up. And, certainly, it's far more cost-effective.

I say this with a purpose...

With two daughters working busy schedules, in big cities, with lots of traffic to maneuver or sidewalks to travel, commutes home can be long and tiresome. These commutes often involve me (by phone), chatting about the day and, of course, what's for dinner.

Our older daughter is a bit of a planner (and typically cooks for two, which is always easier). Sundays usually involve grocery shopping and some thought to the week's menu. Our youngest has more of a go-with-the-flow approach to things. Translation: often doesn't know what might be for dinner until she peeks in her fridge or pantry. Grocery shopping is typically way down on her "to-do" list, necessitated simply by the fact that the aforementioned areas might be getting a bit thread bare. And yet, both girls appreciate and enjoy good food (and keeping money in their pockets!).

Enter this soup...

The "basic" part of this soup is that it does require some basics... ingredients that I believe should be part of a basic kitchen arsenal, no matter how bare the cupboards may be. And with these basics... dinner is easy and quick.

For fresh ingredients... carrots, celery, onion, and kale (or fresh spinach, swiss chard, whatever your particular preference might be). We happen to use kale in daily morning smoothies so we always have it readily available. Carrots, celery and onion are simply tried and true basics to starting many good soups. Plus they keep well if stored correctly. If not used quickly, carrots and celery can be cut into "sticks" and stored in an airtight container, with a little water, in the fridge. Onions keep well stored in a cool, dry place... like the pantry.

The seasonings are ones that are easy and inexpensive to stock... kosher salt, ground black pepper, garlic powder, and dried italian seasoning.

And, the pantry items should be regular staples... vegetable stock, olive oil, canned beans, and canned tomatoes. Having a good little selection of these items opens up all kinds of possibilities.

This is all it takes to have a great, flavorful, nutritious, quick, and easy soup... only 15 minutes to prep and 15 minutes (maybe 20) to simmer. It can be accomplished even when you're dog tired, half asleep, with one-armed tied behind your back (or stuffed in your pockets wading through the money you saved by not heading out for the $8 bowl of weak soup at the corner market).

It can also be lunch or dinner the next day... cha-ching, cha-ching.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pumpkin Pancakes... with or without Chocolate Chips

Pumpkin doesn't really call my name until we are well into October and I begin thinking of pumpkin pie. There is, however, one exception to my somewhat Pavlovian reaction to the season: the pumpkin-chocolate chip muffins I make and, for whatever reason, seem to speak my language no matter what time of year.

And now, there are these pancakes...

If you google "pumpkin pancakes" you'll get a host of recipes. Other than a few tweaks here and there... most having to do with the amount or type of flour, whether to use granulated or brown sugar, the option of using pumpkin pie spice mix or a mix of pumpkin pie spices (meaning you select the mix and amount of spices), etc... the recipes are somewhat similar. I took a peek at the results of this query... and my own favorite pumpkin-chocolate chip muffin recipe.. in mixing the batter for these pumpkin pancakes. Both muffins and pancakes are considered "quick breads" so the fundamentals of making each are similar with, perhaps, the main difference being that you want a wetter batter with pancakes... and one that isn't quite as sweet as a muffin batter.

The result? Pretty much pancake perfection.

First of all, I used Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Pancake Mix. I would never have normally considered this mix since I'm not gluten-intolerant; however, I recently tasted the gluten-free pancakes at one of our favorite brunch spots and think they may be the best I've had while eating out... making this mix our mix of choice now. Though I'm not entirely sure what all they added, I was told that they use soy milk.  Since I went the pumpkin route on these particular cakes, the rest of my additives follow that path of flavor.

These are fluffy, moist pancakes that hint at the flavors of pumpkin pie without becoming an after-dinner dessert. They offer a subtle pumpkin flavor with just the right amount of sweetness... a level that welcomes the addition of powdered sugar and maple syrup with open arms instead of a weak embrace. It's a pancake that can be as easily flipped for breakfast as it can be a flip for dinner (sometimes even better). And, like my favorite pumpkin muffin, one which plays beautifully with chocolate.

It's a pancake that will have pumpkin calling my name well in Spring and Summer... loud, clear... and subtly sweet.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Broiled Huevos Rancheros and Homemade Tortilla Chips

There are a host of people I admire... many that are just plain, private folks who would be unknown to most anyone but those in my closest circle; several that are in that quite-well-know sphere of public personalities that are favorites among many of us; and a sprinkling of people in between these two spectrums. And like a lot of things that are subjective, the reasoning for my admiration varies.

In the area of food... I admire a variety of people from friends that cook really well, to accomplished bloggers, photographers, and chefs. And though these people are seemingly quite different from one another, there does seem to be an underlying commonality among those that I'm truly drawn to that fosters my admiration: a genuine sense of humility (and/or sincerity), coupled with a strong dose of creativity. The folks that make my "favorites" list simply seem to be folks that forge ahead in pursuing their passion with... well... passion. And, most importantly, do so without trying too hard to whoop up a lot of fanfare. They simply do what they do best... and we take notice... and, yes, fanfare can ensue. They have "it." That "it" that separates them from the pack... makes us want to discover more about them, makes us want to continue learning, makes us want to do better. Maybe it's a special bit of DNA that is creative-laden, yet equipped with the not-so-common coupling of humility.

Living in an area that is ripe with outstanding culinary options, there are many folks I admire within our small little corner of the globe. Folks that certainly don't know me... and, frankly, I don't know them except for what they do on a public level.

And then there are the folks beyond our little haven... that come to us on-line, via television, and in print. All these folks that catch my eye and interest seem to have that "it" factor... that extra element that takes their talents in the kitchen, with food and flavor, to another level. Whether it's their approach that draws us in like a warm blanket on a cold winter's night... like Ina Garten; their ethereal ability to present food in a way that makes you want to pack your bags and live among the pages of their magazine for just a bit of time (until your family takes note of your absence)... like Donna Hay; or the way they weave words into a tapestry of personal expression that gives you pause... like Gabrielle Hamilton.
Surprisingly, I don't make a great effort to meet most public or popular people I admire. I think I was squelched of this desire by my husband who has, over the course of his career, met numerous public personalities and found that they are just people, for the most part, and the venue of introduction is so often not conducive to any real connection. As a result, most "meeters" go away disappointed. For this reason among others, I am happy to enjoy the wares of those I admire... their approach to food, their eye, their creativity, their words... from afar.
And so, on a drizzly day just a few weeks ago, I found myself standing in front of Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton's well renowned New York restaurant, waiting patiently with my husband for a table... among a flock of other equally enamored patrons seeking to enjoy a Sunday brunch. Thankfully we kept dry during our nearly 45 minute wait, huddled beneath the awning of a neighboring restaurant, slightly uncomfortable with taking cover under a canopy of an establishment flourished with tables adorned with cloths and cutlery and nary a soul partaking in their food. And yet, completely entertained by Prune's hostess that day, expertly guiding misguided souls who would wander into the restaurant hoping for shelter during their wait only to be escorted back out to the sidewalk with the cheerful smile and confident demeanor of a hostess that, I think, could possibility command our military given her adroit ability to manage the throngs of folks going in and out of Prune... and, somehow, make them entirely content with their wait in the rain.

Though a mere thimble of a restaurant, with an even smaller kitchen, we were fortunate to be settled at a window table (there are only two). Having perused the menu on-line, I was ready with my order hours before: the huevos rancheros. Unlike a version I have come to love and make, these were deconstructed. Perfectly cooked eggs lay atop a moderately spiced, peppery, tomato-based sauce, served along with some simple black beans and homemade tortilla chips... perfection. Other than being a somewhat small portion for my husband, we were both perfectly satisfied with our choices... one which completely delivered on taste and had me quickly tapping flavor notes into my phone.

Huevos rancheros can be a heavy dish with multiple layers of beans, tortillas, cheese, and salsa. Certainly nothing to complain about. But this dish from Prune was a much welcomed, lighter approach to this personal favorite. It has the huevos ranchero nuance in flavor and, yet, because it's really just sauced up eggs with a side of beans, it somehow seems more approachable. And the tortilla component is perfectly, and simply, added in the form of homemade chips... that aid in scooping up beans, sauce and yolky eggs... lest you have to leave a trace of deliciousness behind.

And no, no sighting or meeting of Ms. Hamilton, just the great luck of a cozy little nook-of-a-table at the window, looking out on the rain-soaked sidewalk of an unusually quiet side street in the bustling city of New York, with a perfect plate of brunch and a hot cup of coffee... taking note not only of the wonderful flavors but the small details that make Prune stand out.

Food... and flair... admirable!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Skillet Salmon over Cannellini Bean-Kale-Fennel Sauté

I think I may cook a bit like I dress. I find a beautiful basic that I really love (like this skillet salmon) and simply accessorize differently (change up the flavor profile) to create a whole new look (entrée).

I did this quite often when we were eating a good deal of chicken... not unlike a lot of other folks. I think anyone that eats a lot of chicken can relate to the 101 different chicken dishes they can produce at the drop of a hat. With chicken on the ebb... and vegetarian or pescatarian fare more the norm, I've found myself simply changing up how plates get "accessorized" without really having to veer too far from the basics I love. It not only simplifies weeknight dinners... but makes for a pretty simple dish that's fitting for company as well.

The warm, rich flavors of this simple sauté perfectly complement this quick skillet salmon. Sliced fennel and onion are mellowed and sweetened for a bit before adding chopped kale to the mix (I know... more kale!). Not only does the kale offer a great color complement, it's a great way to incorporate healthy greens. Once wilted down, tomatoes, capers, black olives, flat leaf parsley... and a dash of fresh lemon juice... give this base a great, fresh, and slightly tart flavor that balances the more subtle, pan-seared notes of the salmon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Easy Three-Bean Chili with Kale

Despite our quickly graying skies, falling temps and threats of rain... I still love Fall... fleeting though it may be.

I try not to share this sentiment aloud until we are well out of our summer stint... usually a couple of great months of brilliant skies, verdant landscapes and a warmth that trumps the ever-dependable dampness we know so well and even the most web-footed Oregonian is conditioned to accept but is willing to temporarily forgo.

For a few short months (weeks, even), I relish the changes that Fall brings... the crispness in the air, the sometimes uncanny blue of the sky, the billowy white clouds, puffed and proud, the unbelievable beauty in the changing colors of the season, with leaves ranging from iridescent yellows to fiery reds. It's a season that demands boots, sweaters, scarves... and soup!

Though I'm not alone in my affinity for soup, I do realize that it might supersede that of any other dweller in my home, and so refrain from putting on a pot during what should be the warmer months of the year (May through August... if lucky). However, once the temps begin to drop, this position changes dramatically...

This particular recipe is for a chili... not a soup... but it counts, nonetheless, in my book.

Years ago, our favorite chili was meat-based, thick with ground sirloin or sausage. Then, when we gave up red meat, I revamped it to highlight turkey... and we were quite happy. Now, as we move more and more toward a more plant-based diet, I've come to really love this three-bean chili; one that gets tweaked a bit each time out... a little more fire in the chilies used, or a few more veggies dropped in. This particular version is just right with a moderate chili flavor; a simple combination of pinto, black and kidney beans; and a great tomato-based broth made warm and satisfying with a good dose of chili powder, paprika, red chili flakes, mild roasted green chilies, green pepper, and onions. And... of course... the kale. Kale has become a bit of a mainstay in our daily diet... and, so, why not in chili...

It's a satisfying chili... easy to make, and quick to the table... 30 minutes tops!

Though I don't necessarily relish the goodbye of summer, or the short, sweet season of Fall disappearing into what can sometimes be a long, damp winter (and oft times a non-existent Spring), I do love the fact that soups and chilies will blissfully buoy us until the season again turns to sun and warmth... then Fall, again.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Artichoke-Mushroom-Onion Tapenade & Lemon-Basil Goat Cheese Toasts

For whatever reason, I find that making a beforehand bite... is often an after thought.

Perhaps this is because most our evenings don't involve an appetizer course. And... when having guests... I tend to concentrate on the main course, a soup or salad starter... and even a dessert. It's usually not until an hour or so before the doorbell rings that I realize I don't have a nibble to enjoy with cocktails and I then scramble to pull together a quick fruit and cheese plate.

This little appetizer, I suppose, is really just a dressed up cheese plate... so it completely falls within my wheelhouse. It's a little twist on a tomato-eggplant-artichoke bruschetta we enjoyed a while back at a local winery. The difference here is... absolute ease. I always seem to have all... or most... of these ingredients. It's a nibble that comes together quick and easy. The toasts can be slathered with a little cheese spread and tapenade... or a bit of just one. And, best of all, it can be made well in advance and doesn't require exact precision... a little more or less of this or that truly doesn't matter.

The veggies... red onion, marinated artichoke hearts and mushrooms... get a quick chop, toss with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and pop in the oven for a 20 minute roast... infusing your kitchen with a delicious aroma as they do their thing.
The spread is goat cheese roughly mixed with a drizzle of fresh lemon juice and honey, a sprinkle of lemon zest, and a touch of chopped basil.

Then, right before everyone arrives, the bread gets popped in the oven for a quick few minutes to toast... while at the same time, you secretly toast to the fact that you didn't forget the appetizer.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Black Lentil Salad with Fresh Veggies

I think most anyone living in the Pacific Northwest is fluent in the language of Weather (specifically the "rain" dialect) as it somehow infuses most of what we do, without necessarily imposing limitations. In fact, this language or dialect is what underscores much of what makes this region of the country notable for its outstanding farms, wine production and vibrant landscape. And for those of us that are fluent, it also underscores the ability to appreciate and bask (with no baggage of what came before) in the dialects of "sun" and "warmth," as well.

When Feast Portland blew into town over a span of four days this past weekend, I first thought of the weather... and then the foodist element.

As luck would have it this event descended upon Portland on what I immediately realized would be Rose Bowl days. As a kid growing up in Southern California, every Rose Bowl game televised seem to fall on one of those unreal, shirt-sleeve days in the middle of what California calls winter, with spectacular blue skies, a blazing ball of a sun, and the resulting glimmer and sparkle that that combination casts. Knowing the vast audience that would witness this beauty each and every year always made me think... there's another million people that will want to move here. This past weekend in Portland evoked a little of the same feeling... for we had a heady combination of beautiful Northwest Fall weather (my favorite time of year) and the food, celebrity and general hoopla that Feast Portland so brilliantly produced.

Being from the area and already committed to a fairly chaotic weekend, I only attended two events... Mark Bittman's talk at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall and the Speaker Series entitled The Global Local: Reinventing Food Cultures. Walking over to hear Bittman, I parked in an underground lot below Director's Park and came up into the center of a magnificent mob of people enjoying the likes of some of my favorite chefs at the Sandwich Invitational. Though I did feel a slight pang of remorse for not partaking in the revelry of this event, Mark Bittman proved to be an engaging, insightful presenter of some of the more important food topics of today... obesity and its affects beyond belt size; the need to flip the cost factor on fresh versus highly processed foods; the need to address school lunches in a more meaningful way, etc. All topics that should be part of our daily diet of conversation. The Global Local panel of speakers offered another great dialogue with respect to where our "local" food perspective stands today and what the more global perspective looks like with regard to politics, actual implementation, etc. Though intrigued with the topics I do have to admit that my real impetus to attend was the fact that Gabrielle Hamilton, renowned chef-owner of NYC restaurant, Prune, and author of one of my favorite books, Blood, Bones & Butter, would be participating. Missing out on nabbing tickets to the dinner she was hosting, I grabbed tickets to this panel and thoroughly enjoyed hearing her somewhat salty banter with Adam Rapoport (Editor in Chief of Bon Appétit) regarding the realities of incorporating sustainable, local and organic sensibilities in line with running a top restaurant. Though I wish she'd write another book... surely she has more to share... at the very least I hope that someone in her ranks can convince House Beautiful to include a bit of her personal stories along with the monthly recipe she shares in their publication. Fine Cooking published a piece of hers back in 2011 (March, I think) that was such a poignant little writing apéritif... such a shame to waste the opportunity to include her words along with her food. Notables, along with Hamilton and Rapoport, were the Portland duo of Randy Gragg (Editor in Chief, Portland Monthly) and Karen Brooks (Restaurant Critic and Food Editor, Portland Monthly); local farmer Anthony Boutard; rising chef, Sean Brock (McCrady's and Husk restaurants, Charleston, S.C.); the engaging Francis Lim (Features Editor, Gilt Taste... among other credits); the entertaining Chris Ying (Editor of Lucky Peach) ; our own Rep. Earl Blumenauer (US Congressman, Portland); Co-CEO of Whole Foods, Walter Robb; and video features from Boaz Frankel (Filmmaker, "The Un-Road Trip"). I happen to sit next to the brother of Karen Brooks, who I also do not know, who was so enthusiastic in his support of his sister it was heartwarming... giving big thumbs up in her direction on the stage and then turning, ever-so-slightly in my direction and whispering "that's my sister... we're so proud of her." How great is that!

While I came away from the events I attended with a bit more insight on the food scene, both here in Portland, across the country, and globally, I boiled it all down to realizing that much of the change (improvement) we want to see needs to begin at home... being better educated with regard to nutrition, eating and meal planning (and those that are more knowledgable reaching out to those that are not); being more vocal in school districts and local government; standing up for promoting fresh ingredients and equal access to them. And, the realization that you can do all of this and still support and enjoy the wares of really interesting and talented chefs, many of whom have proliferated Portland... to our great pleasure.

In what seems to be a fitting cap to the weekend, I stood with a friend at one of the tall bar tables positioned in the lobby of the lovely Gerding Theater to enjoy the nibbles offered during the speakers' break. Huddled along with us were a few other people, happily sharing the same small table. Five of us were from in and around Portland, and the sixth was a woman who had driven all the way from the east coast to attend Feast Portland. Oh... and also move here! Thinking about Portland's unique language, I welcomed her to our city and asked if she had had much exposure to the area (translation: do you know it rains a lot and can sometimes be gray for 30 days straight?) and she immediately smiled a knowing grin and said "yes, I've been here at all times of the year." I think she'll do just fine.

This salad has both everything and nothing to do with Feast Portland. Nothing in the sense that it's not anything that was featured. And, everything in that it was this particular event that got me to thinking more about the really fresh, more plant-based dishes I enjoy making... and this is one. The little black lentils are not only a great source of both protein and fiber, they also have a delicate little bite that, along with the sugar snap peas, lend a wonderful crunch to the salad. Little orange halves of Sungold tomatoes offer a perfect pop of natural sweetness. And a generous chop of marinated artichoke hearts provides a wonderful tang of flavor that melds beautifully with the slight dash of extra-virgin olive oil and splash of fresh lemon juice that finishes the mix. Not only is it great to enjoy on its own, it pairs well as a side dish, and packs beautifully for lunch the next day... or as a carry-on nibble when flying. This is the type of salad that can be made ahead and popped in the fridge for a quick lunch or snack on-the-go... helping to curb or prevent bad snacking habits.

Now... back to the Weather... which was, by the way, another beautiful Fall day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Layered Black Bean & Corn Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Dressing

There are a variety of potential influencers when it comes to deciding what I might make for dinner. Certainly if I'm cooking for others, then I think of them... what they might like. Sometimes it's a factor of how much energy or time I have. And many days it's simply just a function of what's in the fridge or pantry.

And then... it can be... something entirely random... like the meticulous, artistic, creative abilities of a produce manager I don't even know. I wasn't even at on airy, outdoor farmers market dotted with rough-hewed, whimsical wooden stands billowing with ripe, colorful produce plucked from the soil just hours before. Nope, this display of work was at a brick and mortar market... a supermarket.

This particular market just opened in our neighborhood. Though relatively large and well-stocked, as most supermarkets go, it's kind of a little oasis of a setting. It's managed to present its largess in an aesthetically beautiful manner in what many in this region of the country might define as rustic-modern Northwest architecture. When you approach it doors you are first greeted by a large outdoor patio sprinkled with tables, chairs, and a lounge-y sofa setting area all tucked under a roof canopy and dotted with heaters to keep you cozy against our oft times cool, damp weather. It's an area where you can sit for a bit... enjoy a morning coffee, some lunch fare from the market... or even dinner. The patio is nestled between the market's main door and its floral department... an exquisitely merchandised, European-inspired, stand-alone shop with bountiful bouquets of fresh-cut flowers colorfully spilling out onto the sidewalk and gracefully framing its doors. I kind of feel like I'm on a mini vacation when I visit this place... not at all what you'd expect when your expectation was simply a quick journey for bread and milk.

Whoever planned this market's logistical layout should get special kudos as there is but one way in... through this one set of doors that pretty much guarantees you take note of the inviting patio and bountiful florals as you enter. And yet, while I've gone on and on about this uniquely brilliant welcome, it is what first greets you upon entry into the actual market that is the real piéce de résistance... the produce department.

Yep... it's vegetables, herbs, fruits... what you'd pretty much expect. And yet, it is so beautifully arranged that you immediately think who is the little leprechaun that produced this magic? There are all the regulars you'd expect yet they are brilliantly positioned, color-blocked and nestled like an intricate mosaic wall... heady colors of cauliflower in white, purple and orange boldly stacked next to vibrant, green leafy lettuce, positioned with its leaves flowered out and partnered against heads of romaine that have been tucked with their bulbous, white-tinged ends facing out to provide a perfect contrast of hue and texture. It's nothing short of an incredibly thoughtful, artistic display of produce.

And... it was this particular display that got me to thinking about this salad. It's really just a play on a bean and corn salad that I've made before but thought would look quite lovely stacked in a clear vessel with each colorful layer defined... engaging in its bit of precision... a little like the magical land of produce I witnessed. There's a kaleidoscope of ingredients... romaine, peppers, olives, corn, black beans, avocado, cilantro... that play wonderfully together with a drizzle of cilantro-citrus dressing. Depending on what's in your fridge (or at your market), the layers can be few or many. Add cheese, marinated artichokes, fresh tomatoes, the last of summer's bounty. Apart from great, fresh flavor, it's a satisfying little salad that allows for a much welcomed element of artistic expression.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

PB&G Apple Wafers {and other kid-friendly recipes}

For many families across the country, this week marks the start of a new school year. Having personally welcomed this poignant passage of time 18 years in a row with our own daughters, I know there's lots of excitement (and, perhaps, even a little trepidation) involved... no matter the age or grade.

Beyond the peripheral minutia that needs to be assembled and readied anew each September, there are also lunches and after-school snacks to again consider. Though maintaining a healthy way of eating should be a year-round commitment, the added demands that come with the onset of a new school year can often leave families searching for easy solutions. Thinking it might require far too much effort to plan healthy, fresh options for breakfast, lunch or snacks, many folks turn to pre-packaged goods... instead of, say, the fruit bowl.

With no more effort than is required to cut up some fresh fruit... breakfast fare can go from bland to brilliant... lunches can pack a little punch... and after-school snacks can deliver flavor and fun. There are just so many healthy, fresh, easy solutions for families on the go... all with fruit.

This is why I was excited when Stemilt Growers approached me this summer to work on creating a few kid-friendly preparations for breakfast, lunch and snack time using their Lil Snappers fruits... beautiful, naturally delicious petite-size apples and pears that tuck into a child's hand with ease and are pretty perfect for a fruit snacker like me, as well. These miniature fruits are nature's perfect treat for kids... and busy moms, dads and caregivers, too. They're small enough to consume whole, or dice up to add to a host of different preparations.

These simple little PB&G Apple Wafers are a perfect example of an easy, tasty (and healthy) after-school treat...

With just a bit of peanut butter tucked between slices of fresh apple, then rolled in some cinnamon granola (or, perhaps, some toffee bits... or some nuts), these little wafers make having a treat a healthy option. You simply cut three slices from each side of one of Stemilt's Lil Snappers apples; match up each slice from side one of the apple with its partner from side two (this keeps wafer size uniform); top one slice from each pairing with a little dab of peanut butter; sandwich the peanut-buttered slice with its apple slice mate; press the slices firmly together to allow the peanut butter to ooze out the sides; then roll side of each wafer in a little granola (toffee bits  or nuts)... and voilá!

Boring cereals, bland sandwiches and uninspired snacks can be easily transformed into creative, healthy, fresh options that require little to no effort...

For a look at these preparations and others using Stemilt's Lil Snappers fruits, simply visit Stemilt's website for more information.

Disclosure: I was compensated by Stemilt Growers for recipe development and photography work associated with Stemilt's Lil Snappers campaign. However, the views and opinions expressed in this post are my own. All images, and recipe content, are the property of Stemilt Growers and may not be copied or reproduced.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Salmon & Roasted Corn Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Leftovers. I kind of love them.

Making a meal of leftovers is usually an ad hoc exercise in cleaning out the fridge... a particularly prevalent activity among those of us with a not-let-anything-go-to-waste kind of mindset. Bits of this and that go into a scramble, get tossed into a soup, or scooped into a taco. There never seems to be enough of anything left over to actually stand on its own; too meager a morsel to plate as it might once have been plated. Not enough to go around to again be last night's dinner. And, thus, like chameleons, those bits, pieces and scraps are remade into something entirely different, ever adaptable to the change. It's a creative and spontaneous exercise. Oftentimes what you end up with remains a mystery until it's nearly done and on the plate.

And sometimes you hit on something that becomes a meal you go to again... and again. Like these salmon cakes.

And when you do it's really more of a set aside than a leftover. I suppose a set aside is what a leftover aspires to be. Because once you hit on something that works you actually plan that second meal along with the first, setting aside enough to ensure its creation. In other words... you buy extra.

I make these salmon cakes (and other renditions like them) quite often. Sometimes they come about because I simply have some salmon left over. But, most often, it's because I intentionally over buy salmon... knowing these will be our reward.

Of course you can simply cut to the chase and make these cakes straight away, but it's a lot more fun knowing you'll get two great meals from one planned effort.

I started with a pan-seared salmon served over a roasted corn and pepper salad, topped with a roasted red pepper sauce.

The extra salmon and corn salad from this meal was then set aside for salmon cakes. A quick chop of the salmon is tossed in with the corn salad, a bit of mashed potato, and an additional chop of cilantro. The patties are then coated with a touch of panko bread crumbs and pan fried for just a few minutes. Quick, easy and delicious... whether spontaneously created or deliberately planned.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Easy, One-Skillet Veggie Tacos

I learned early on in life, thanks to my fifty-percent hispanic heritage, that a good taco is made by putting almost anything you love into the fold of a corn tortilla. I grew up understanding that if a meal was good... it was even better in a tortilla.

Oftentimes, our tacos were simply warmed corn tortillas slathered with a pat of unsalted butter, a sprig of cilantro and a sprinkle of salt. Once dressed, you simply roll the warmed tortilla into a little flute, pinching up the end between two fingers to prevent a cascade of butter from running down your chin, pooling into your plate, or splashing onto your shirt... going to waste.

As a young girl, our best tacos weren't even really planned. They were just made from whatever leftovers were left over... the pork roast, the beef brisket, fried chicken, or rewarmed potatoes. I can remember (and still make) tacos with fresh slices of avocado, sprinkled with salt and pepper; tacos with fried egg and fresh spinach leaves; tacos with bits of salmon or cod from the previous night's dinner; or tacos with just a crumble of cotija cheese and a touch of salsa fresca.

Tacos, visiting Mexico City, as we did almost every summer of my childhood, weren't really even "tacos." They were simply fresh tortillas, purchased just minutes before the evening meal from the corner tortillaria by one of my cousins. Rolled, filled or just topped with a little something off our plates and, voilá, we had tacos. It's how most people might understand their table's bread basket; tortillas were our bread... with an accent, perhaps.

So say what you want about those artificially-created shells that are prefabbed, popped into formed molds and cellophane wrapped... or the tex-mex taco that has the traditional ground beef, cheddar and shredded lettuce. They are but mere impostors.

True tacos celebrate flavor... and simplicity. To be really good... you don't need to over think it. You simply need to think with your taste buds.

Though not purchased from a neighborhood tortillaria, the flavor of white corn tortillas warmed over an open flame is quite satisfying. And, with the weather almost too warm to heat the oven... or even fire up the BBQ... a one-skillet, quick sauté of veggies makes a great filler. Russet potatoes fried up with a good pop of onion, until they are caramelized and slightly charred, together with diced zucchini and slices of cremini mushroom offer a perfect medley of goodness. Topped with a little green salsa, a hit of fresh feta (or cotija) cheese, and a sprinkle of shredded cabbage... and you have the easy makings of a pretty terrific taco. The filling is great on its own... a yummy side for almost any entrée... good on its own... but even better in a tortilla.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Almond Cake with White Peach Compote

I have a particular affinity for white peaches.

Whether eaten straight off the tree, or dressed up into a compote for a delicious almond cake... I always take advantage of this fruit's rather short season... always with just a bit of a nostalgic tug.

When I was a kid, my parents held an annual PPDP party that they launched with the specific purpose of unloading the almighty bounty of white peaches that consumed the branches of the one rather scrawny tree that stood in our backyard, just footsteps from a pirate fort my dad had built for my brother and me. You had to climb a wooden ladder to access the fort; a square structure with a pirate logo (thus, the name) that stood high off the ground on four wooden beams with a two-seater, wooden swing hung from its underbelly, and a rather large beam that extended high off its side wall to accommodate two, traditional "kid" swings. From these two swings we could launch ourselves out over the hillside below (covered in a rather unattractive ice plant that guaranteed a soft landing).

While we'd often grab a little nectar before heading to the fort to take a few flings from the swings, the proliferation of fruit from our one and only peach tree never ceased to amaze me. Now, looking back, this little tree was quite the over achiever. It was just average in size but had a good number of branches. As its season approached, its limbs would sprout an abundance of fruit and slowly become so laden that its appendages would begin to sag, many languidly resting on the grass below, thankful for the reprieve.

We ate a LOT of peaches straight off this tree during peak season; picked buckets to disperse to neighbors, and plucked a ton to toss onto ice cream or cereal. But it wasn't until my parents came up with the PPDP party plan that we truly felt that the harvest was used to its full fruition.

A few weeks before the peaches truly came into their own... that little window between this is great and this needs to be trashed... we sent out the PPDP invites. I loved the whole festive nature of this annual party even though I really wasn't a true participant. PPDP (PEE-PEE DEE-PEE), pronounced as two, two-syllable words (which I loved to roll off my tongue about as much as I loved the fruit to which is was a tribute), involved alcohol and, at the ripe old age of nine, I was but a mere observer.

The acronym, PPDP, stood for Perennial Peach Daiquiri Party and once the date arrived for said "party," our yard would fill with a lot of very happy participants partaking in the fruit of the nectar. Our blender ran on over-drive, the peaches disappeared, and my brother, cousin and I enjoyed the festivities launching out over the ice plant and playing hide and seek in the many nooks and crannies of our large backyard, with lights and voices twinkling into the evening sky.

To this day I am enthralled with the arrival of sweet, white peaches. As soon as I spot them at the market, I pluck them up. Whether it's nostalgia's tug, or a genuine love for the fruit, truly doesn't matter. Like so many years ago, I still find it fascinating to cut open this seemingly colorless fruit and be rewarded with an abundantly sweet, juicy nectar. At their peak of ripeness they practically burst upon biting... a party just waiting to happen. Unlike their more brightly-hued brethren, white peaches have a more delicate, sweet, slightly floral flavor, with very little acidic tang. Though not entirely noticeable when baked, this distinction is quite apparent when eaten fresh.

For this almond cake (adapted from a recipe by David Lebovitz), I warmed sliced peaches (skins removed) in just a little honey and lime juice, creating a great little compote that enhances the delicate flavor of the peaches without adding too much sweetness or interfering with their intrinsic goodness.

The almond cake is a perfect complement, incredibly light and moist, with a subtle almond flavor that pairs beautifully with this blush-white fruit.

While this particular treat has no invites or alcohol involved, it does celebrate the sweet glory of fresh, ripe, white peaches beautifully... and stays true (somewhat) to the PPDP acronym, being but one of the many ways I satisfy my Particular Penchant (for) Delicious Peaches.