Archive for July, 2008

Growing your own

Early harvest

Early harvest: Tomatoes, basil, mint, garlic

Tonight’s dinner is as simple as can be: Three plum tomatoes, sliced, tossed with minced basil and garlic and dressed with a gloss of olive oil and the slightest sprinkling of salt. A piece of locally baked (Great Harvest) whole-grain bread with good Tillamook butter. A glass of crisp, honey-scented pinot gris from Elk Cove winery, just up the valley in Gaston.

A light meal, but one of great significance, because those tomatoes are the very first ones to ripen in this year’s garden.

I’ve been eating from the garden for over a month now, mostly raspberries and container-grown strawberries that just won’t quit bearing. The herbs, planted in an assortment of containers, are going like gangbusters this season, too. I’ve just finished drying the garlic I planted last fall.

But it’s the tomatoes that make me feel like a Real Gardener, even though my habits are less than diligent and my ambitions modest. After a disappointing season last summer, this year’s tomatoes – six plants, each a different heirloom variety – are starting to produce what looks like it could be a bumper crop. Helped, no doubt, by the fact that my neighbor let me remove a limb from his big-leaf maple that had gradually turned my full-sun raised bed into a morning-sun-only spot.

Now that the sun is back, the tomatoes are going nuts. I’m already eyeballing the beefsteak-style varieties, green though they still are, with visions of tomato sandwiches dancing in my head.

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July 29, 2008 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

Zucchini: Threat or menace?

Summer squash

Still life with summer squash

I knew I shouldn’t have bought zucchini at the market last weekend. Because once the zucchini harvest begins, buying it seems redundant. Zucchini grows like a weed around here; people whose tomato crops fail, whose lettuce and peas get decimated by slugs, who proclaim themselves to be possessed of Black Thumbs – everyone grows zucchini. While its season lasts, I hardly dare leave the house for risk of coming home to find I’ve been the victim of a drive-by zucchini drop-off.

Sure enough, my friend Sandy, whose garden never fails to produce an overabundance of everything, stopped by the office this afternoon to bring me some zucchini.

To her credit, she called ahead. More to her credit, she’s growing my favorite cultivar: globe zucchini, aka “Eight-ball” or “Cannonball” zucchini.

Spherical, rather than elongated, globe zucchini have much to recommend them. The flesh tends to be a little more firm and a little less watery when cooked – and while they can be cut up and used like any other summer squash, they also lend themselves beautifully to stuffing. Just slice a bit off the stem and blossom ends to stabilize them, slice them in half, scoop out the seedy part and then fill with whatever pre-cooked filling you like. Pop it in the oven for half an hour and you have a tasty, light supper in an edible bowl. Yum.

Unfortunately, globe zucchini are hard to find in the markets, and almost never seen in supermarkets. If you happen onto some, give them a try. Or grow your own – just don’t plant too many. I’ve found that a single plant, well fertilized and watered, can produce enough zucchini that I, too, have resorted to drive-bys.

Stuffed globe zucchini, Italian style

Serves 2

  • 2 small-to-medium-sized globe zucchini*. Choose squash with tender skins.
  • Bulk Italian sausage*, cooked and crumbled, about 1/2 cup
  • Olive oil
  • 1 tsp minced fresh oregano*
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh basil*
  • A thick slice of sweet onion, minced*
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced*
  • 1-2 Tbsp bread crumbs (I toasted a slice of multi-grain bread and tore it losely into crumbs)
  • A half dozen good-sized shiitake mushrooms*, chopped
  • Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

* Indicates local ingredients, either from the farmers’ market, from my garden or from a friend’s

Stuffed zucchini

Baked zucchini with extra stuffing

Preheat oven to 350F. Wash the zucchini. Remove a thin slice from the blossom and stem ends so the squash will sit flat in the baking dish. Cut in half and use a spoon to scoopy out the seedy middle, being careful not to break through the bottom. Place the zucchini halves in a baking dish and rub cut edges with olive oil.

In a small skillet, cook the sausage; remove it from the pan, drain off all but a small amount of fat and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Throw in the onions, garlic, mushrooms and herbs, and cook until soft.

Remove from heat. Stir in the bread crumbs. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary (it shouldn’t be).

Spoon filling into the halved zucchini, mounding slightly. If there’s some left, add it to the baking dish. Sprinkle parmesan on top.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the zucchini is fork-tender and the cheese is browned. Serve hot.

You could easily make this a vegetarian dish by omitting the sausage and increasing the mushrooms, or using one of those vegetarian sausage substitutes, if you like that sort of thing.

For that matter, you can substitute almost any filling you like, as long as it’s pre-cooked (the perfect cooking time for the squash is too short for most fillings) and not too wet (because you don’t want the whole thing to collapse into a sodden lump). Thanksgiving-style stuffings are great, as are the sorts of rice-based stuffings normally used to fill cabbages or grape-leaves.

Please note: As much as I love this dish, I don’t need any more zucchini. Really.

July 21, 2008 at 8:58 pm 1 comment

Beets and carrots and herbs, oh my

Roasted beets and carrots

Roasted beet and carrot salad

Friends in warmer climates are telling me about their home-grown tomatoes. I put my fingers in my ears and console myself with the thought that our tomatoes will be along in their own good time – and that, meanwhile, there’s plenty of other flavorful produce showing up at the market.

This week I steered clear of the berries (well, almost. One pint of blueberries doesn’t count, does it?) in favor of vegetables: Carrots, shelling peas, cucumber, zucchini and a big bunch of mixed beets, red and golden and a pretty stripey red-and-white stripe variety.

I love root vegetables, and beets and carrots are never better than when they’re young and tender, full of sweet, earthy flavor. I love to roast them together, and just a little extra effort can make the difference between a nice mess of roasted vegetables and a terrific dish that highlights the subtle differences in the two vegetables flavors.

Beets, even young ones, take longer to roast than carrots. So why not take advantage of that fact and treat each vegetable a little differently, even when you roast them in the same pan?

Roasted beets and carrots with herbs

Ingredients:

  • A mixture of red and golden beets (I used six medium-sized beets), scribbed, trimmed and cut in half
  • 1 Tbsp Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh thyme, finely minced
  • 4-5 medium-sized carrots, scrubbed, trimmed and cut in roughly equal-sized pieces
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds

Method:

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a bowl, toss beets with olive oil. Spoon them out, leaving excess oil in the bowl. Place in one layer at one end of a roasting pan and sprinkle lightly with salt; scatter a few sprigs of thyme among them. Place roasting pan in oven. 15 minutes into cooking, use a slotted spoon to turn the beets.

Meanwhile, add carrots, vinegar, maple syrup and cumin to the bowl and toss well.

When the beets have been in the oven 30 minutes, add the carrots at the other end of the pan. Continue roasting for 15-20 minutes more, stirring once to turn, until tender and lightly caramelized.

Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly so you can slip the skins off the beets without burning yourself. Serve warm as a side dish, or, as I did, allow the vegetables to cool to room temperature, slice them into bite-sized pieces and serve them on a bed of lettuce with a little blue cheese, some toasted hazlenuts and a light vinaigrette incorporating a touch more thyme.

If you don’t have the time or energy to bother with roasting them, young beets and carrots are also splendid raw, grated or sliced paper-thin, and added to a salad or slaw – or just tossed with a little Meyer lemon juice, sprinkled lightly with salt and heaped on a plate as a crunchy, vivid savory.

July 20, 2008 at 7:48 pm Leave a comment

Off my feed

Blueberries

Mmmm, blueberries

It happens every summer, and at the most inconvenient time: When we hit the prolonged hot weather, I lose my appetite. Or at least my appetite for anything resembling cooking and eating actual meals.

That doesn’t mean I’m slacking on the Eat Local Challenge, though. Not now, when the variety of good things at market and farmstands increases almost by the day. It just means I buy things that can be eaten as is, or very simply prepared.

So far this week, for instance, I’ve had the following “meals,” all tasty and satisfying, but hardly worth photographing or writing down:

  • Scrambled duck eggs with red chard, smoked Oregon chinook and paper-thin slices of leek
  • More chard, coarsely chopped, steamed, and dressed with a dab of butter and a splash of sherry vinegar
  • Blueberries, just rinsed and eaten by the handful for breakfast or snacks.
  • A big salad of red leaf lettuce, still more chard (what can I say? I love chard, and I bought a big bunch of it at the market last Saturday), and baby spinach from a neighbor’s garden, tossed with a simple vinaigrette that included what are probably the last of the raspberries from my garden and a little home-grown basil.
  • A sort of rudimentary blueberry cobbler: Squares of poundcake (from Kristen’s bakery stand at the farmers market) tossed with blueberries and a teaspoon of sugar mixed with cinnamon, warmed in the oven just until the sugar began to caramelize, and topped with a scoop of Tillamook vanilla ice cream. As dinner, not dessert.
  • A Safeway bagel, topped with leaf lettuce, more of that smoked salmon, a little onion and Rogue Creamery’s Oregonzola blue cheese

Other than the condiments, that’s half a dozen meals of local or almost-local food, with hardly any effort at all. A light menu, to be sure, but I don’t move around much when it’s hot, so I don’t need much fuel.

How about you? What do you eat when it’s too hot to cook? If you’re trying the eat-local thing, is it working for you? What are the challenges?

July 16, 2008 at 7:41 pm 3 comments

Hot cherries

Cherry salsa with basil

Cherry salsa with basil

I live in a neighborhood of gardeners, and it’s common for us to share our bounty. I’m not just talking drive-by zucchini drop-offs in the dark of night, either. None of us seem to grow exactly the same things, but all of us wind up, sooner or later, with more than we can consume on our own, and those over-the-fence swaps are one a great way to share the wealth and catch up on the neighbors.

One neighbor grows Queen Anne cherries, and maybe it’s the tree’s location or her tender, loving care, but she consistently gets ripe cherries before they come to the market. I was unpacking the car on Saturday after returning from a trip to Ashland when she hollered over from her porch: “Want some cherries?”

Oh, yeah.

Queen Annes are those dappled red-and-yellow cherries, sweet and juicy, not quite as packed with cherry flavor as the darker varieties, and thus, I think less suited for baking or cooked sauces. But they’re great for nibbling (I brought a little bag to work for lunch today) and lovely in uncooked dishes that show off their flavor and vivid colors.

This cherry salsa is just such a dish, with the flavors of basil, lime and chiles providing a zippy contrast to the sweetness of the fruit. It’s a fantastic accompaniment to fish, pork or – as I had it on Sunday – roast chicken. And very easy to make, especially if you happen to own a cherry pitter. (You can buy fancy ones from Williams-Sonoma, OXO or KitchenAid, but my cheap plastic Norpro model has served me well for years). I like it pretty hot, but you can tone the heat up or down by adjusting the amount and variety of peppers you use.

Cherry Salsa

Ingredients:
1 pound cherries, pitted
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
1/2 small onion, or 1 large shallot, chopped
1 or more hot peppers (jalapeño or your choice), seeded and minced.*
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Black pepper and salt to taste

*I used three tiny, incendiary red peppers of unknown lineage, given by another gardening friend last year and ensconced in my freezer ever since. Peppers freeze remarkably well; just clean and chop them quickly before they go limp from thawing.

Method:
Throw everything but the salt and pepper into a food processor and pulse just until the cherries are coarsely chopped and all the ingredients are blended. Turn out into a non-reactive dish, taste and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate; served chilled as a side dish to meat, fish or poultry, or as a dip for blue-corn chips.

July 7, 2008 at 4:42 pm 2 comments

Green beans and …

FasolakiaI’m getting ready to leave town Thursday for the long weekend, and I still hadn’t finished off the wonderful green beans I bought at the market last week. There were other things in the vegetable drawer that really needed to be cooked and eaten in the next two days, too because by the time I get home they’d have passed their prime.

Serendipitiously, I had everything I needed to make one of my favorite green-bean dishes: Fasolakia, the lovely Greek summer stew of green beans and tomatoes, herbs and … other stuff. Some recipes call for potatoes. Or Kalamata olives. Me, I decided to throw in a chopped Portobello mushroom, because that’s one of the things I had on hand, and green beans go nicely with mushrooms.

Whatever you add, this is an easy, low-labor dish that shows off the bright flavors of fresh ingredients. I’ve had it made with canned or frozen green beans, and it was tasty, but with fresh, it’s just splendid. Try it with tender new green beans, or as the season progresses, older ones – just cook it a bit longer. It’s gorgeous made with fresh tomatoes, but since the green bean and tomato seasons here don’t really coincide, canned tomatoes work just fine.

Fasolakia with mushrooms

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • A small onion, or half a big one, chopped coarsely
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic (or more) minced
  • 1 pound of green beans. String them if you need to and cut into 1-2 inch lengths
  • 1 large Portobello mushroom, coarsely chopped (optional)
  • 1 can of low-salt diced tomatoes and their juice
  • A tablespoon or so of fresh oregano, minced, if you’ve got it (yay, herb garden!). A quarter as much dried, if you don’t.
  • A generous amount of chopped, fresh Italian parsley – at least a quarter cup.
  • Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste

Method:

Pour enough olive oil into a heavy-bottomed skillet to cover the bottom. Heat and add onions , garlic, green beans and mushrooms. Stir to coat with oil and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the onions and garlic begin to go translucent and the green beans start to become tender (How can you tell? Poke them with a fork!).

Stir in the canned tomatoes and juice, the oregano, parsley and a generous amount of black pepper, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer; cover the pan and continue cooking until the beans are nice and tender but not mushy. Taste and add salt if desired (I rarely do)

With early-season beans, no more than about 10 minutes of simmering is required; as the season progresses and the beans get tougher, you’ll need to cook them longer.

You can serve this as a vegetarian main dish, perhaps with a nice crusty bread to mop up the sauce, or as a side dish. A pound of beans makes two generous main-dish servings (guess what I’m having for lunch tomorrow) or perhaps four as an accompaniment. It’s fantastic with lamb.

(Note: Besides being tasty, tomatoes serve an interesting function in this dish. Tomatoes and other acid foods react with the cellulose in sp,e other vegetables in a way that inhibits the softening process as they cook. You may have noticed this if you’ve ever added tomatoes to a dried bean soup, for instance, or to a potato dish – no matter how long you cook them, the beans/potatoes never quite seem to get “done.” That can be a bother, but you can also use this bit of kitchen chemistry to your advantage: By adding the tomatoes to this dish after the green beans are already fairly tender, you’ll slow the softening and keep them from turning to mush while they absorb the flavor of the tomatoes and herbs.)

July 1, 2008 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

Drink locally: July is Craft Beer Month!

Craft Beer Month logo

The Germans have a saying: Bier ist flüssiges Brot – beer is liquid bread. It’s literally true – combine grain, yeast, water and a little sugar and depending on how you treat it, you’ll either wind up with a crusty, fragrant loaf or what’s known in my circles as a Frosty Adult Beverage. Bread and beer are among the earliest known purpose-made human foods; so intertwined are the histories of baking and brewing that some scholars credit the dual invention of bread and beer as a fundamental force in the emergency of human civilization.

Fast forward to present-day Oregon, and a thriving industry of “craft brewing,” the art of making small-batch beers (and ales, and porters, and stouts) with flavors and ingredients as distinctive as the people who make them. And July is the perfect month to celebrate the brewers’ craft.

It’s hard saying just how many craft brewers call Oregon home. The Oregon Brewers Guild lists more than 75 member breweries (not to mention the multiple brewpubs of such small-brewer-gone-large operations as Rogue and McMenamin’s). It’s a sign that even in a region better known for its wine, the craft beer business is booming.

If you’re working on eating locally, why not drink locally, too?

Right here in the Albany-Corvallis area we have three terrific brewpubs, each making and serving distinctive hand-crafted brews. The variety is remarkable, from traditional beers and ales to exotica brewed with fruits, berries, chocolate and chili peppers – even handcrafted root beer for those who don’t care for alcohol. Many are available on tap at other local pubs and restaurants, and to take home from the brewery to accompany your (locally grown!) meals, by the keg or by the jug.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go out and get tanked. Far from it. Hand-crafted beer deserves the same respect and attention as hand-crafted food. Take your time; savor and enjoy. I can nurse a pint of Calapooia Porter (for one instance) all evening long and come away more satisfied than if I’d swilled a six-pack of undistinguished brand-name beer. Add time for food and conversation, and there’s no cause to leave a brewpub in a less competent state than when you walked in the door.

If you haven’t visited one yet, July is a great month to start. Here are the three fine craft brewers local to me, oldest first:

Oregon Trail Brewery, housed in the Old World Deli on 2nd Street in downtown Corvallis, is the grand-daddy of Mid-Valley craft brewers, dating back to 1987, when the microbrewing industry was just getting a foothold in Oregon. Owner Dave Wills, who rescued the brewery when it nearly ran aground with financial and quality control problems in the early ’90s, and brewmaster Jerry Bockmore have built a loyal following with a select variety of distinctive brews, including an award-winning Brown Ale. Enjoy a pint alongside your choice from the deli’s extensive menu of sandwiches (or legendary chili and lasagna), catch a little local talent on the funky little faux-European stage or take home beer by the keg or “party pig” for your next barbecue.

Calapooia Brewing Co. is the two-year-old incarnation of what started life as Oregon Trader. Owners Mark Martin and Laura Bryngelson bought the business in 2006, and they’ve nurtured it to the point where they now produce 11 different regular brews, from their most popular Yankee Clipper IPA to a Scottish Ale that will knock your socks off, plus seasonal specialties. The little pub, at the corner of Hill and Water Street in what used to be Albany’s riverfront industrial district, is bright and comfortable, the food menu tasty (mmm, hand-made burgers!), and most weekends there’s a local band playing in a corner otherwise devoted to darts. While the pub itself is small, they’ve converted part of what was the warehouse garage to sheltered outdoor seating – a little low on ambience, but a nice place to enjoy a beer and a burger on a warm night. They’re licensed to sell their beer for off-premises consumption in handy, refillable 1/2 gallon “growler” jugs, as well as kegs. The ‘Pooia, as its fans call it, is the closest thing I’ve found to a cozy neighborhood pub, so I visit fairly often. Besides, I have a soft spot in my heart for any pub that regularly celebrates International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Block 15 is the new kid on the mid-Valley craft brewing block. Located in the historic Gazette-Times building (more recently, a succession of pizza joints) at the corner of 3rd and Jefferson in downtown Corvallis, Block 15 looks like an upscale pub, brews several excellent beers (and root beer!) right on the premises. Owner Nick Arzner is committed to finding local sources for both its beer-making and food menu wherever possible, with a commitment to sustainability that means, among other things, recycling brewery byproducts into animal feed and compost for local farmers. Brewer Steve van Rossem has cooked up an inspiring range of traditional and “freestyle” beers and ales, including some exceedingly tasty Belgian-style specialty ales. (Update: Nick tells me they also sell all their beer in take-home growlers, and have begun selling kegs.) The kitchen menu features what, in my opinion, is the perfect beer-and-food combination: Slow-cooked barbecue, smoked on the premises, using locally sourced meat, including succulent baby-back ribs a couple of nights a week and the best pulled-pork sandwich I’ve eaten west of the Mississippi. Summertime entertainment includes a Blues, Brews & Barbecues” event each Wednesday featuring local acoustic blues players.

One of these July nights, the kitchen’s going to be too hot for cooking. Why not try a brew pub? And if you do, be sure to wish them a happy Craft Beer Month.

July 1, 2008 at 1:01 pm Leave a comment


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