Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pizza Party

The original plan had been to have hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill for the party.  My niece is partial to plain food and not much of a vegetable eater, so in deference to her I was going to keep the menu really simple.  But then I weighed the cost of doing hamburgers with all the fixings and embellishments against the cost of doing a lot of pizzas on the grill.  The pizzas won.  We would be ten adults for dinner.  That would mean at least ten ¼ pound burgers, with buns, a package of hot dogs, with buns, a side of potato salad, probably baked beans, and  the sliced tomatoes, pickles, onions, cheese, etc. that go with burgers.  At about $3.00 a pound, the burger meat would be at least $10.00.  Add the price of the hot dogs, the munchies before dinner, the dessert and everything else, I think I could estimate the food for ten adults would come to about $3.50 per person.  I know that sounds very modest and with friends and family, it’s even nicer to be more generous.  But with our tight budget, even given that we could do this as a potluck, I thought pizzas might be more fun anyway—in addition to being more economical.
We’ve had pizza parties before.  I’ve put out a variety of toppings and individual pizza balls for everyone to form and top for themselves.  A lot of fun and a bit of bedlam.  This would be different.  I would make them to order and cook them on the grill.  We would have ten pizza balls for ten pizzas, with some plain with a red sauce and cheese and pepperoni; a couple of them could be white with sausage, cheese, pine nuts, figs, whatever.  There could be some with goat cheese and bits of tomato and pepperoncini.  Made to order, we could be inventive and slice them all up for everybody to taste each and try something new.  When I figured the comparative cost, this was really a no-brainer.  All I needed to buy to add to what I already had on hand would be the Italian sausage—which happened to be on sale.  Including the cost of the flour and all the different condiments and the appetizer munchies, I could do this for about $1.50 per person.  Not bad.
This was going to be the last family gathering before my baby sister moved off to Illinois to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren, so it was a celebration and an opportunity to wish her well and good journey.  Joe and I anticipated a lovely evening on the patio since the weather has finally turned summer-like.  He prepared the fire pits, mowed the lawn, hosed down the patio and we were set.  Except that it rained all afternoon and into the evening.  Undaunted (after all, this is the Pacific Northwest), we went ahead with our plans.
Peach Tart with blackberries

The day before the party and before my sister and her daughter arrived to stay with us, I made a peach and blackberry tart and set it aside. 

The morning of the party, I made a quick tomatillo salsa verde and saved the juice and put it in the fridge to flavor up.  That afternoon, my bread machine made ten pizza balls while we went to the dog park, even though it was drizzling by now.  When we got home, I quickly browned the sausage and caramelized an onion.  Everyone was coming at around 5:00 for an early evening since this was a work night, so now it was time to start putting everything out in preparation.
Tomatillo salsa juice, lime and drink with juice, lime and tonic water

We experimented with a refreshing drink until we got it right, using the juice from the salsa verde as a base.  I know that sounds really weird but we decided it was pretty good. 

This was going to be so easy!  No side dishes, no salad, no fancy appetizers; just chips and the salsas, pizzas and the peach tart—a little heavy on the carbs, but so much fun.
One of the finished pizzas, sliced and ready to serve

As it turns out, the lefties in this family group work really well together.  Betty, as I’ve said before, is good at anticipating what needs to be done and is right there to do her efficient best, and we don’t get in each other’s way since we’re both left-handed.  Dawn is also left-handed and creatively inventive in the kitchen.  It was easy to share the pizza-making and I enjoyed some of the stuff she came up with to top some of the pizzas. 
Betty cut and served the pizzas that I brought in to her from the grill while Dawn and I went ahead preparing the next one. 
Close-up, tomatoes, goat cheese, sausage, pepperoncini, ready for the grill

We ended up only using eight of the ten balls, and I still have a whole cooked one left over so I think everyone had plenty to eat!
Very fresh tomatillo salsa

Tomatillo Salsa Verde
5 large tomatillos
½ sweet onion
1 large jalapeno pepper
2 cloves garlic (mine were small and fresh from the garden, so they were mild)
1 small bunch cilantro
Cut tomatillos in half, onion, and jalapeno in quarters, and removes seeds and membrane from jalapeno.  Put all ingredients in food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
Strain in sieve, saving liquid for later.
Mix in bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and juice of one lime.  Let flavors blend at least one hour in refrigerator.  Will keep and up to two days.  Serve with pita chips for scooping.
Refreshing non-alcoholic drink

Salsa Verde and Tonic
Fill tall glass ½ to ¾ with ice.  Pour about ¼ cup saved salsa verde liquid over ice.  Fill glass with tonic water.  Squeeze a piece of lime into glass and drop it in.  Stir to combine.  Drink up!

Pizza Dough
Follow directions on your breadmaker.  Form each ball to be about the size of your fist.  Flour generously and save in a sandwich ziplock until ready to use.
Shape dough into 12” to 14” rounds and place on floured pizza paddle.  Top with whatever ingredients suit your fancy.
Slide onto preheated stone sprinkled with cornmeal on 450˚ outdoor gas grill.  Heat only outer burners and have stone in center.
Cover grill and cook 7 minutes or until done.
Peach tart

Peach Tart
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ½ sticks cold, unsalted butter
¼ to ½ cup ice cold water
5 big peaches, peeled and sliced
½ cup blackberries to sprinkle over peaches
¼ cup sugar
½ stick cold unsalted butter
2 tablespoons Calvados
½ cup plum jam
Place dry ingredients in bowl of food processor.  Add butter in small slices.  Pulse until pastry forms pea-sized balls.  With motor running, add water until dough breaks away from sides and shapes into a ball.  Don’t over-process.  Turn out onto a piece of plastic wrap and form into ball.  Refrigerate at least an hour.
Roll out dough on floured board to fit large cookie sheet.  Roll out parchment paper over dough and turn out onto cookie sheet.  Turn up the edges of the pastry all around. Bake in preheated 400˚ oven for about 10 minutes.
Arrange sliced peaches in diagonal rows on pastry.  Arrange blackberries over peaches (not too many because the juices will run too much).  Sprinkle with sugar.  With a cheese grater, grate the butter over the peaches.
Bake in preheated 400˚ oven for about 30 minutes, until crust is golden.  Let cool.
Heat jam and Calvados in saucepan and brush over peaches to make a glaze.
Full Array 
When we did our pizzas for this party, we had a full array of possible ingredients on the counter, ready to grab and toss onto the dough rounds.  These can be whatever you like, after you have painted the dough with red pizza sauce, pesto or garlic/herb olive oil.  Toss on some of the following possibilities:
Ground Italian sausage, hot or mild, Pepperoni slices, sliced mushrooms, pine nuts, diced figs, herbs de Provence, red pepper flakes, sliced pepperoncini, sliced tomatoes, caramelized onions (or raw, as you choose), grilled chicken pieces, mozzarella cheese, fresh or grated, goat cheese, feta cheese.
To my way of thinking, it’s the toppings that make the whole pizza experience so much fun for a crowd.  Most of all, be inventive, and be creative.  It’s all food so it’s all good!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

It Feels Like Fall...

Even though we seem to be finally getting our summer, it really feels like fall.  As I look out my window, I see the leaves on the dogwood are beginning to curl and look a little dusty mahogany as they always do as the tree signals it’s done with summer and preparing for its winter sleep.  Oh, no…I’m not ready for this yet.  I’m still picking blackberries!  But I see the beginning of turning on some of the maple trees in the neighborhood.  Even our giant chestnut trees are beginning to drop their fan-shaped leaf clusters.  How can this be when my tomatoes are still green?  Where has our summer been?
Yesterday was time to pick all the Japanese plums off the tree.  Most were quite ripe, some were still tinged with green, but the birds or critters were beginning to pick at them and leaving the half-eaten fruit to rot. 
Japanese Plums, ripe to ripening

 There weren’t as many this year (must be the strange summer), but enough to eat and let the sweet juice run down my chin.  And there were enough to make a few jars of jam. 
Like Gold!

We will have one jar now and save the rest to enjoy in deep winter when the sky is grey and cold and I want a little summer sunshine on my breakfast toast.  As I’ve been picking the blackberries, I’ve been freezing most of them for the same reason.  I want a taste of summer in January.
Making the Jam

Fannie Farmer, my go-to cookbook for basics, didn’t have a specific recipe for plum jam, but the instructions were there for making fruit jams and I learned something I had never paid attention to before.  We all know about the sheeting test for soft-ball, hard-ball, or syrup.  And a candy thermometer always has the different temperatures marked pretty clearly.  But I have had uneven success with this method even though I have a very good candy thermometer.  What I learned, when I read more attentively, was a method for accurately measuring these different boiling points.  I had assumed (incorrectly, I know now) that if I went according to the indicator on my thermometer, everything would be fine.  Not so.  Fannie Farmer gives a simple test: add eight degrees to the boiling point of the water in your location for an accurate measure of the soft-ball stage for jam.  Cool!  I never have to guess again!  I made four and a half pints of sunshiny golden plum jam. 
Plum Jam
8 cups fruit, pitted and cut up but not peeled
6 cups sugar
Boil fruit in tall stock pot, adding a little water to prevent sticking, until fruit is soft, about 5 minutes.
Add sugar and stir to dissolve.  Boil rapidly, stirring to keep fruit from scorching, until fruit reaches soft-ball stage.
Meantime, in large pot with insert, sterilize jars and lids.
Fill jars with hot fruit to within ¼” of top of jar and seal. 
Return jars to boiling water and boil for 20 minutes.
Filled jars, boiling for 20 minutes to preserve

I am beginning to have daydreams about the tomatoes.  So far, only a few cherry tomatoes have ripened.  Every day, I visit the hoop house. 
The Hoop House

All closed up to stay warm
 I have to take my glasses off before I go in because it’s so hot and steamy.  The scent of the vines, singularly pungent, is almost overwhelming—or at least intoxicating to this passionate tomato lover.  A quiet drip gently waters the leaves as the roof of the hoop house sweats in a misty rain over the plants. 
My camera lense fogged up
Not so much out of focus--just the mist!

 But the tomatoes are still green.  I’m impatient to have my first salad of sliced tomatoes and basil in a balsamic vinaigrette.  I’m anticipating the lovely joy of roasting the quartered Romas in a toss of olive oil and herbs to put in little jars that I can open in January.  Every year, I’ve put aside a couple of dozen jars of tomatoes to use in a quick sauce in the middle of winter.
But I’m encouraged by the success of the hoop house.  Even if it gets cold, the tomato plants won’t shiver and be done.  The cool breezes and dropping temperatures that tell the tomatoes that their time is up may be forestalled a bit this year.  Even with such a late start, they may have a late finish.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll have a tomato for Thanksgiving, the way we had one last lovely fruit the first year we lived up here in the cool grey Puget Sound.  At the time, I thought that was normal.  Fifteen years later, I know better.  Fifteen years of tomato challenge and I won’t give up!

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Feast of Blackberries--and Leftovers

I’ve been watching the blackberries ripen along the dog path to the beach, waiting for that moment when they are perfect, and before the birds have eaten most of them.  They hang in great clusters over the wire-link fence, easily within reach.  They are dusty from the activity below of dogs running, romping, catching balls, and all the other social antics of dogs out for a good time at the park.  We go to the park every day, rain or shine, or snow or sleet because that’s what has to happen if you live with a border collie. 
Getting in the dog park
Yesterday was especially busy at the dog beach, with a whole pack of basset hounds, other kinds of baying hounds, and an especially vocal Australian shepherd. 
Trace goes after the ball

 An eager young German shepherd was determined to play tug of war with his rope with any of the other dogs—any dog.  He really wanted to play.  Trace, of course, can only focus on his ball, even if one of the many labs gets to it first.  Trace will shadow the thief until his ball is finally released—then snap, he’s got it in his mouth and brings it back for another toss.
Trace gets the dust washed off
But Joe and I had enough of this.  We left the dog park and went to the other side of the fence to the people park.  Trace has to be on his leash but it was our turn to enjoy the beautiful afternoon in the park.  Joe ran on ahead with Trace and ducked in toward the water.  I followed, but lost track of where they’d gone.  Just as well, because I found myself in the most incredible maze of blackberry vines I’ve ever seen.  The path between was barely wide enough for me to go through and on either side, the blackberries beckoned in ripe and shiny blackness of perfection.  I had a plastic bag (normally used for something else when you’re with a dog!), and began picking until Joe called me on my cell, wondering where in the world I’d gone off to.
Beautiful blackberries getting washed

Dinner was going to be a simple affair for just the two of us.  We would have leftover chicken, beans from the garden, leftover rice, a garden salad, and, of course, a blackberry dessert.  The whole thing turned out much better than I had expected—which is usually true of simple things.
I had a chicken breast, just big enough to slice and share between two people.  The beans were certainly plentiful and there were even a few snap peas I could add.  There was just enough wild rice medley left over to heat through and top with a little grated asiago cheese.  The salad was a no brainer, or course, and I would slice one of the beautiful California red plums to top it, plus half an avocado that had to be used up.  I even had about a tablespoon of roasted tomato garlic pesto that was simply taking up room in the fridge.  And, of course, I had the blackberries.
Chicken Breast in Roasted Tomato Pesto Cream
1 cooked chicken breast, skin removed
1 tablespoon roasted garlic tomato pesto
2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup green beans
½ cup pea pods
In 10” skillet, heat and stir together the wine and the tomato pesto.  Add chicken breast, which has been sliced on the diagonal and place to one side.  Add beans and peas, arranged on other side of pan.  Cover and simmer for 2 minutes.  Add cream and cover again and simmer 2 more minutes.
Rice in small pot, dinner of chicken in pesto cream sauce

Arrange on two plates, pouring cream sauce over all and serve with rice medley topped with a small grating of asiago cheese.

Garden Salad with Red Plums and Avocado
2 cups salad greens
1 ripe red plum
½ avocado
3 tablespoons Kitchen Essentials Light Balsamic Vinaigrette
Sea salt and red pepper flakes to taste
Arrange greens on two plates.  Slice plum and divide between two plates.  Top with avocado slices.  Drizzle vinaigrette over salads and sprinkle with sea salt and red pepper flakes.

Blackberries in Cream with Mint
            2 cups blackberries
            ¼ cup cream
            1 tablespoon brown sugar
            2 sprigs fresh mint
            Divide blackberries between 2 dessert coupes
            Sprinkle with sugar and pour cream over berries.  Garnish with fresh mint leaves.

This simple meal took about ten minutes to prepare and five minutes to cook.  Best of all, the cost was negligible if it could even be calculated.  Granted, this was only for two people, but this is a dinner that could just as easily be expanded to serve a larger family, simply by increasing the quantities.  With so much coming from the bounty of the garden and a walk in the park, the only expense is in the leftover chicken and rice—and a few tablespoons of cream!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Russian Kale

We had an impromptu evening a couple of nights ago that was another fresh cooking challenge.  My new daughter-in-law has interesting past experience from having been brought up on a farm, from having her own bakery at one time, from having been brought up in Walla Walla, the heart of Washington’s fine wine country.  Betty was also spending the night and we love to experiment together in the kitchen.
Setting the scene, roses and astilbe

I was planning something really simple, on the grill, of course and Mark and Dawn would be coming with some fresh road stand produce: corn, blueberries, beans, and lovely little cherry tomatoes.  And of course, there was a lot of stuff in my garden as well.  A roast chicken on the grill would be a perfect summer accompaniment for all this lovely harvest.  The corn and the squash could also be grilled, and I could slice a couple of turnips and grill them as well. 
Russian Kale
And of course, there was the Russian kale.  This is a new vegetable for me and I was primarily interested in growing it because I liked the picture on the seed packet and the description on the back.  When it was very young and very tender, I mixed it with other salad greens.  But now it was much bigger and probably to tough to eat raw.  I decided to feature it as an appetizer.  But I also didn’t want to be cooking once we were all gathered together so however it was prepared would have to be done mostly ahead of time.  We could have cheese and crackers while the grill did its thing with the chicken and vegetables, then I could do a quick put together with the kale and plate it in the kitchen to serve on the patio.
Betty has become my right hand in the kitchen—though we’re both left-handed.  Or maybe we work well together because we approach things the same way.  She teams with me in such a way that she can anticipate what needs to happen next and be there to make it happen.  So by the time the grilling was almost finished, we were ready to put the appetizer together and bring it out.  The kale had been partially sautéed earlier and could be finished in a minute or so.  Then the crostini went on it, topped with a slice of goat cheese brie.  A quick zap in the broiler to melt the cheese and throw on a few of the luscious cherry tomatoes and we were ready to bring it out.
Russian kale, crostini topped with goat cheese brie and succulent cherry tomatoes

By the time we finished the appetizer, the chicken and vegetables and the corn were done, ready to put on a big platter and share at the table. 
Grilled corn, vegetables and chicken

Betty had made her special spinach salad to augment this feast and then we were ready for the little crème brûlée for dessert and a strong cup of coffee to go with it.  This is what I call a dining experience.  
Russian Kale Appetizer
2 big bunches Russian kale, stems removed
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon herb and garlic infused olive oil
Crostini slices, one for each plate
Goat cheese brie slices, one for each plate
2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon pine nuts
Wash and trim kale.  Stack leaves on cutting board and slice into 1” slices. 
In a large frying pan, sauté the garlic in the olive oil just until fragrant and golden, about 1 minute. 
Toss in the kale and stir until it has reduced and become limp and bright green, about 3 minutes.  At this point, the kale can be put on hold until almost ready to serve. 
Return the kale to medium heat and toss gently with balsamic until tender, about 5 minutes.
Plate the kale and top with a crostini slice, a few pine nuts, and a slice of goat cheese brie. 
Put under broiler only to melt the cheese lightly, about 1 minute.
Arrange a few cherry tomatoes around and serve immediately.

Roast Chicken, Vegetables and Corn on the Grill
1 roasting chicken, about 4-5 pounds
Yellow squash, red peppers, sliced turnips
6 ears corn
1 lemon, cut in half
¼ cup garlic and herb infused olive oil
Sea salt, pepper and herbs de Provence to sprinkle
Squeeze juice of lemon over chicken and put squeezed rind in cavity of chicken.  Sprinkle chicken with herbs de Provence.
Set grill to 350˚ and place chicken at side of burners, to roast slowly.  Close cover of grill to maintain an even temperature while chicken cooks.  Brush occasionally with garlic and herb infused olive oil.  Turn after 30 minutes to roast second side.  Chicken is done when leg wiggles easily, about 1 ½ hours.
About ten minutes before chicken is finished, arrange vegetables and corn on open grill and paint with garlic and herb infused olive oil.  Turn to roast evenly.
Carve chicken and arrange on platter with vegetables and corn and serve immediately.

Crème Brûlée
2 cups cream
¾ cup milk
½ cup superfine sugar
1 vanilla pod or 1 teaspoon vanilla (I didn’t have a vanilla pod)
5 egg yolks
1 egg white
1-2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
About ½ cup demarara sugar
Bring cream, milk, vanilla, and half the sugar just to a boil (so that it foams just at the edges of the pot).
Whisk together the remaining sugar, egg yolks and egg white.  Strain the boiling milk over the egg mixture, whisking well, then stir in the Grand Marnier.
Ladle into 8 ramekins and place in large roasting pan that is half filled with water.
Cook for 1 ½ hours in 230˚ oven or until set in center. Cool, then refrigerate until ready to serve.
Sprinkle demarara sugar over each ramekin and set under broiler to melt the sugar, watching closely to prevent the sugar from scorching.  Serve immediately.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Scents, Sense, and Cents

I used to be a store manager for the French soap and skincare boutique, l’Occitane.  Originating in Provence, in Southern France, l’Occitane has stores all over the world.  I fell in love with the fresh and honest fragrance that is the signature characteristic of all the products sold, and would invariably come home with a bit of it all.  Now, ten years later, I still have a few bars of soap and assorted other lovely scented goods but nothing new.  
Good stuff, even ten years later

When we remodeled our bathroom it was because I wanted to luxuriate in a soaking tub with the salts and the candles and the body lotions and all those other wonderfully fragrant items that I sold every day.
Alas, those days are gone forever.  But maybe not alas.  Today, I can walk through my lavender plants and let the fragrance be released as I pass my hand over the blossoms. 

I can watch the bees get drunk on the bounty of lavender as they are completely oblivious to my presence as I snap a picture or two. 
Happy bee in the lavender

I can harvest the long stalks and use the buds as part of my herbs de Provence mix which flavors almost everything I cook. 
Lavender in the kitchen

My nose can follow the scent of the jasmine in the garden, the lavender, or the herbs and even tomato plants.  Best of all is the scent of feverfew, otherwise known as chamomile, which seems to grow wild everywhere, self seeding with abandon. 
Feverfew, tucked in with the hosta and bleeding heart

I often wrench out many of the plants as they can take over the garden.  It doesn’t seem to matter since they come back year after year, looking like little daisies on their tall stems.  I think I should make tea with the leaves for the medicinal properties.  Feverfew is an anti-inflammatory which can be helpful with migraines and even arthritis.  I should definitely make tea!
I used to put some very expensive products on my face—as many of us women of a certain age want to do whatever we can to look a little younger and maybe even reduce some of those tell tale wrinkles.   My favorite product was something derived from what l’Occitane called Immortelle, the plant otherwise known as Everlasting.  But does anti-aging skin care really work?  I don’t know, except that I really liked the way it felt on my face.  There came a day, not so long ago, when I finally had to classify this lovely lotion as an expensive luxury I could no longer justify.  It dawned on me that if l’Occitane makes olive oil soap and skin care products, maybe I could use the straight stuff on my face—and on my elbows, and hands, and heels and every place else!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for my face--keeping it virgin pure!

Olive oil is the most ancient of skin care products and I’m certainly aware of all its health benefits as an antioxidant and a source of good cholesterol.  Maybe I’m as healthy as I am because olive oil is so basic to everything I do in the kitchen.  I use extra virgin olive oil (it’s the least processed) practically by the gallon.  Now, I not only cook with it, I slather it all over my face and body as well.  I especially like that I get four liters of extra virgin olive oil for $21.99 at Costco.  L’Occitane’s Immortelle Elixir was $55 an ounce the last time I bought it.  Some things are not worth the price.