Friday, July 31, 2009

Unloved zucchini

There is something so forlorn about the abandoned zucchini that turn up in break rooms of office buildings this time of year. Plucked from their lush, happy garden and plunked unceremoniously on a cold composite table, under harsh fluorescent light and away from natural sun. Left there unregarded to rot or be thrown away by the cleaning people, if no one wants them. Because already no one wanted them. A loved would be sitting in a beautiful basket in the kitchen or, better yet, taken straight from plant to cutting board. Not these ones.

Fortunately there are those who open their hearts and their kitchens to the unloved zucchini, taking it on as their own. What kind of cold hearted person could see a veg in need and walk away?

Darling Husband brought home one such veg this week. "Just one?" you ask. YES. It was a monster of a zucchini, stretching from my elbow to finger tips and so wide around that I couldn't wrap both hands around and touch. We could've hollowed it out and rented it to college students to live in.

Instead we decided to fry it and make napoleons. I made essentially a hot crab dip, with farmer cheese, canned crab (not the fake flake, my friends!) and artichoke. Actually, I started with a quick, blonde roux and added milk for a bechamel, augmented with the cheese, crab and artchoke. It was pretty great, but the texture of the crab was completely lost.

Darling Husband cut thin slices of the behemoth squash and dredged in corn meal before frying. We layered a slice, a dollop, a slice, a dollop and a slice and called it dinner. A very, very rich dinner that was amazing, but actually a bit much for me. It would do better on a smaller scale and as an appetizer, I think. That being said, it tasted awesome and looked beautiful.

We had other ideas for the big zucchini, including stuffing it with a sausage and couscous mixture, making a monster curry, grilling planks with steak seasoning (for vegan steak, of course), zucchini parmasean. The good thing is we can still do all of those things because we still have most of a giant zucchini waiting for us. "Use me," it calls to us. Creepy, no? Maybe we should hollow it out and rent it to college students. I hear affordable housing can be hard to find.

On an unrelated note, my father today was telling me of his grandfather making what he called schmear casse, essentially homemade cottage cheese. I, not knowing this, had just been researching making my own ricotta. It's a coincidence that doesn't mean much, but I like saying schmear casse. I googled it and found a thread where a group was expounding on the virtues of scrapple, and one of them suggested apple butter und schmear casse as manna. The reply was, "gee, you really are from PA Dutch country!".

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I built a better burger

Yep, for the first time in three years, I managed to get my Sutter Home BBB recipe in before the deadline. I even had two hours to spare. I'm thankful for the time zone difference that gave me until 3pm my time (noon in LA).

I called the burgers "Tipsy Devil Jerk Burgers with Jicama, Carrot and Golden Raisin Slaw." Is it worth $50,000? Well, I don't know. I've read past recipe winners and I can't say any of them are worth quite that much money. But I think it's a contender and I'm pleased. I added baby arugula and sliced mango to the burgers and I think it's just what was needed. Wish me luck! The finalists are announced in August, to be flown out for an in-person cook-off in September. I'm not altering any of my fall plans, but I am pleased to have accomplished this.

In unrelated news, we violated a cardinal summer cooking rule in our house tonight. Though it was humid and oppressive, we turned on the oven for a baked pasta dish. What were we thinking? We were thinking, "oh, what would be quick and make use of ingredients we have already? I know, we have those pasta sheets in the freezer. How about something with that? And baked garlic bread?" In the cost/benefit analysis of dinner planning, we over weighted economy of time and ingredient and under weighted atmospheric conditions. Fortunately, the temperature dropped just as we opened windows. Even more fortunately, we have a bedroom air conditioner to which we can retreat with mint oreos and movies.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Hot day, garden bounty

Stir fries are rarely a planned thing in our home, but more of a "kitchen sink" sort of meal. ( in "everything but the kitchen sink.") I had some broccoli cleaned and ready in a bag, given to me by my sister before she left on vacation (don't you love finding homes for all your perishables while you try to remember to pack enough underwear?). I also had matchstick carrots. I decided to get beef to round out the meal. Between making that decision, however, and coming home for the evening, I managed to acquire a zucchini and some green beans, both from my mother's garden. While putting Baby Girl to bed, Darling Husband found half a green pepper from his aunt's garden. And so grew the stir fry.

I finished it off with a spicy orange sauce, made from orange juice, hoisin, sambol olek, a dash of soy and some black pepper. I thickened the sauce with a water/cornstarch slurry. My trick to thickening and coating the mixture is to scoot all the veggies and meat to the left 3/4 of the pan, then tipping the empty right side end so that it's more in the flames of the stove. Then I pour the sauce into that newly formed hot spot oasis and hold it there until it bubbles and boils, thereby (thanks to the corn starch) thickening. Then I can lay the pan back down on the stove like normal and toss the veggies to coat. That way I don't have to transfer the pan contents into a bowl, dirtying another bowl, but they don't overcook waiting for the sauce to do it's thing.

It was a hot, sticky evening. We haven't had many of these lately. Perhaps it was cool and refreshing outside (one never knows, but I doubt it) but it was summer in Vietnam in my kitchen. (I remember when I was a little girl, my mom would put on a light cologne when she was hot, to freshen up and to cool the skin with the alcohol. We would do the same, sometimes, and it was quite refreshing. I had a friend who took it a step further and kept body spray in her fridge for hot days.) A stir fry should go quickly, so it's not a bad hot day meal. For some reason, tonight's seemed to take forever. Ironic, as several of the items arrived pre-sous cheffed and Darling Husband finished the rest while I put Baby Girl to bed. Just one of those nights, I guess.

One of those nights, in fact, where it's tempting to just sprawl naked in the air conditioning after a cold shower, allowing the fan to dry you off so that you maximize the cooling power of evaporation. Dinner be damned--order pizza!! Eat it in bed!!

Ah, but we ordered pizza last night. And we're grown ups with a child and a mortgage. Honestly, I don't know what that has to do with anything other than I have to play with her, feed her dinner, give her a bath and put the little angel to bed before I can sprawl naked and tell the world to go to hell.

While listening for her on the monitor.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Building a better burger

Have you ever impressed yourself? I mean, the kind of feeling you get where you're just a little ashamed just how much you want to toot your own horn? Your mind buzzes with sinful pride and you look around for people to tell?

Okay, so one of the best parts of having a blog is this is, in fact, that very forum.

Tonight we're perfecting burgers for Sutter Home's Build a Better Burger competition; the deadline is next week. Ordinarily, my meal planning wouldn't have popped up burgers just now, but hey, a deadline is a deadline. I'll take one for the team.

I made an amazing jerk sauce, if I do say it myself, and came to the realization that allspice is the smell I traditionally associate with jerk seasoning. I have no idea how authentic my sauce is, but I sure do like it. Fortunately, I have left overs for later...

The part I'm really proud of, though, is my jicama and carrot slaw. I made a dressing out of a little lime, a little apple cider vinegar, a bit of olive oil and some golden raisins. I pureed it all together with a tiny pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper and voila, a "creamy," emulsified, sweet, tangy dressing for my slaw. I'm pretty sure it's pretty darn healthy, too. After all, raisins are high in fiber and antioxidants, and have been suggested to slow macular degeneration. That last one might just be a myth, but who knows? No harm done.

I don't have a name for my jerk burger. I had originally had a different ingredient that made the title "Schoolyard Jerk Burger" appropriate, but I edited it out for simplicity and ease of eating. Maybe I'll stick to a descriptive name instead.

How did the burger taste? Sweet, spicy, meaty... but it was missing something. It's a work in progress.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chocolate covered endive

What would you do if you had to make a meal out of chocolate, endive, canadian bacon, tomatillos and refrigerated dinner roll dough? If you were Darling Husband, you would make endive and canadian bacon empinadas with mole.

He stuffed the empinadas with queso fresco, lardons of canadian bacon and sauteed endive with cumin. The mole was made with sauteed dried arbol chiles and pureed tomatillos combined with shaved chocolate, to which he added cinnamon, cayenne and salt.

The dough was delicious, with not quite melty cheese in it. The endive is licoricy, and almost a little bitter. The lardons of canadian bacon are crunchy, salty and sweet all at once. Together, it was homey and exciting. The mole was a little salty for my taste, but I loved the chocolate. Tomatillos look like green tomatoes and are sour and fresh tasting. If it had been me, I might've added more chocolate and allowed it to be a bit sweet. I think it would probably be less mole-like that way, though, so it seems I'm just not the target demographic for mole.

Which reminds me, several Valentine's Days ago, Darling Husband and I had a fancy dinner out where they served filet mignon with melted milk chocolate. It was surprisingly delicious.

I wonder if Darling Husband will have anything to say about his tasty dish...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gourmet grilled pizza

Darling Husband and I were watching Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, which is a cooking show with a blonde sous chef from Iron Chef America. She is loud, brash and overly dramatic, doing lots of voices and little dances and arm swoopies to emphasize what she says. She also uses fist fulls of salt in every dish. We love to hate her. We also love her bolognase recipe. Grudgingly, we admit she knows what she's talking about.

On this last episode, she was making grilled pizzas. "Who knew you could grill pizza?" she asked. Uh, we did?

Grilled pizza is certainly not a new idea, but it's done often for a reason. It's good. We buy our pizza dough already made at Wegman's. I don't even try to make my own. It has yeast in it and I've never been able to activate yeast properly. Store bought tastes wonderful and saves me the stress. The trick is to let it come to room temperature before you work with it. If not, the dough won't be very elasticy (I'm sure there's a chemical gluten explanation here, but all I know is cold dough rips) and your pizzas will have thin places and tears. It should be noted, however, that a thin place gets nice and crispy and even a bit charred, which adds to the flavor but leaks cheese.

You could make your pizzas individual sized or big enough to share. For a party, having individual pizza crusts done ahead of time and a buffet full of possible toppings encourages individuality and tasty creativity. Our niece and nephew enjoy topping their own, too.

Usually we make individual sized. We portion out our dough, then flatten and stretch each piece individually. You can use a little flour to help you along, or you can use oil. Oil will keep the dough from sticking to the grill, but flour seems to work better for us. I don't get hung up on making perfectly round pizzas, but instead stretch the dough where it needs stretching (usually they're triangles). The uncooked crusts will contract a bit, left on the cutting board, but are easily stretched back out just before putting on the grill, directly on the rack.

We cook the crusts until toasty and lightly charred on both sides, flipping as needed. If the dough isn't stretched enough, it might burn on the outside but still be chewy and underdone in the middle. We prefer to err on the side of too thin.

Last night, we decided to do a single kind of poshy pizza instead of individualized toppings. We chose a blend of three cheeses, shiitake mushrooms, prosciutto and an herb chimichurri. As these were the toppings, a red sauce was out of the question. Growing up, a white pizza wasn't really pizza to me, but I've really softened.

I made the chimichurri out of minced flat leaf parsley, oregano and basil, mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper and some freshly squeezed lime juice. We dabbed this onto the crust first. On top of that, we scattered the shiitake , which I had previously sauteed until soft. Then we topped with sliced kasseri, fontinella and pont l'eveque cheeses. Kasseri is firm and salty; fontinella is creamy and mild. Pont l'eveque is soft to the point of liquidy at room temperature, with a rind like camembert but a nicely stinky quality. The prosciutto came next, to allow it to get the full benefit of the heat and, therefore, crisp up. We finally topped it with the remaining chimichurri.

Usually we'd put the pizzas back on the grill and allow the heat to melt it, but this time we chose to put them under the broiler for a more direct flame application.

The result? Well, it was gooey and bright, fresh and salty. In my world, that's a hit. The cheeses had blended and filled in all the cracks. We had left the rind on the pont l'eveque and that was a nice touch. The prosciutto had become crispy, and the saltiness was nicely set off by the mushrooms. I might have wanted more mushrooms on mine, as the taste of them was a bit lost in most bites. The herbs in the chimichurri were wonderfully fresh tasting, with nice grassy notes. Lime juice was tangy and sour, highlighting the natural sweetness in the mushrooms. It was best when screamingly hot, the cheese super melty.

We had leftovers for breakfast/lunch. I didn't like it cold, but a minute in the microwave helped quite a bit.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mary, Mary, how does your garden grow?

Rather well, thank you!

We have planted heirloom tomatoes in two varieties: black cherry (supposedly with true black fruit) and Hawaiian currant (no bigger than a pea). Next to them are yellow pear tomatoes. Can you tell we go for the mini? I found out the hard way that in my garden, the shorter the span from flower to harvest the better. A big tomato will be eaten or somehow ruin itself with water spots or one of a thousand other tomato maladies before reaching ripeness. Get 'em in, get 'em out is my tomato motto.

Darling Husband and I cook with a lot of fresh peppers, so we have jalapenos and Thai style chilies growing. The trick to jalapenos is to leave them on the plant long enough to crack or turn red or both. That's when you know the flames of hell have been sucked up through the soil by the roots and deposited firmly in the jalapeno where they belong. Thai chilies, by the way, grow straight up like witch hats.

Some years, our garden has stopped at the tomato and hot pepper point, but this year we have a cucumber plant and two zucchinis. It's hard to watch the squash blossoms bloom and not pick them, stuff them, batter them and fry them. It's also hard to get much of a zucchini crop if you pick all the flowers. We're being as patient as we can. I'm also pleased to boast half a dozen flowers on my cucumber plant, which is curling tendrils around my ornamental mini garden fence as if it's expecting a tornado of Oz proportion.

Of course, this doesn't count our half whiskey barrel, home to our yearly herb garden. This year we've planted oregano, short leaf basil, Thai basil, thyme, flat leaf parsley and sage. Our herbs always grow into unruly bushes, thanks to a wonderful compost mixture my parents "make" behind their barn with various yard clippings. It's also the reason my tomato plants come up to my chest, I think.

What an odd burger we made

And yet, yummy. Topped with Camembert, a vinegar slaw and french fries. Hmm. Don't have anything else to say about it, actually.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Blissfully Greek to me

The Greek festival, my favorite of the summer ethnic festivals (dare I say my favorite festival period?) was this past weekend. It was a very, very full weekend, but we managed to pack in a few hours to listen to bouzouki and eat spanakopida made by little old Greek ladies.

I love the little old Greek ladies, who get together and cook trays and trays and trays of this wonderful food to be sold at this festival. I could kiss them on both of their cheeks, tell them how much love I can taste in the food, applaud, and then maybe kidnap them and force them to show me how to make it all. But I don't. I just make mmmmhh and yummy sounds.

Actually, we ate ...

dolmades- grape leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat, cooked with olive oil and lemons

moussaka- eggplant casserole, comforty and wonderful

pastitsio- a baked noodle dish with ground beef and a creamy bechamel sauce

spanakopida- phyllo dough, feta and spinach, baked

tyropida- spanakopida without the spinach, basically

Mythos, a Greek beer-a not amazing, not terrible, summer drinking beer

saganaki-crazy fried cheese, not breaded; marinated, seared but not liquefied, hit with a flame inducing squirt of lemon and cooking wine, served with pita. Sounds Japanese.

You just can't get food like this the rest of the year. It's the little old Greek ladies or bust. That being said, if you get a hankering for dolmades, and the ones at the Olive Bar at Wegman's are not cutting it, I can recommend Peninsula Gateway. It's a little shop that doesn't quite know what it is, near the corner of 6th street and Peninsula Drive. It sells beer, pop, hot dogs and Greek food, apparently. I was pleased but puzzled. I do suggest you bring along a half lemon, because while the dolmades are lovely, they are not nearly lemony enough for my tastes.

Toddlers and stubborn potatoes

When does that baby/toddler switch officially happen? Is it when they turn one? When they start to walk? When they come home from highschool with a hickey?

For that matter, when does one cease to be a newlywed? Six months? A year? Two years? Until you stop calling each other Pooky in public?

Sigh. But I digress.

My baby had three cakes on her birthday:
1. A white cake, dyed pink, with mini chocolate chips and green icing, baked in a bowl... can you picture it? A watermellon cake!
2. A raspberry ganache cake. Chocolate cake, saturated with ganache, mixed with fresh raspberries, frosted with ganache. Oh, so chocolately rich and sinfully decadent.
3. A white cake with pink whipped cream frosting for smashing and smearing.

For lunch, we had pulled pork sandwiches with three barbecue sauces on the side, corn on the cob, green salad, potato salad with vinaigrette dressing and fruit. Those who don't eat pork had optional sliced turkey breast with wich to make their sand. (haha)

I made the pork with boston butt in the crock pot. First, I trimmed the silver skin and the worst of the fat. Yes, I know they say that's the source of the flavor, but trust me, it was plenty flavorful and moist. Then I liberally applied a spice rub of brown sugar, paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, salt and crushed black pepper. The pork was loaded into the crock, then covered with a mixture of half water, half apple cider vinegar. It then cooked, on low, for three years.

No, not really. More like 36 hours, although it spent the last 10 or so on "warm" instead of low. It was falling apart so much, we couldn't even flip the pieces of pork. I pretty much stirred it to "pull" the pork. Awesome.

The first sauce was store bought Kraft original, to give the grand parents and others a recognizable sauce. Then we made the passion fruit chipotle sauce (which has already been blogged about) and a Carolina style sauce. The latter was the hands-down favorite, and was a real cinch to make. Yellow mustard, cider vinegar, honey, a touch of hot sauce, soy (a last minute stand in for worchestire) and black pepper. It was tangy but not hot-spicy. My mom tried to save the left overs, but my snacking family devoured most of it picking at the pork all afternoon. Even Darling Husband, who generally eschews mustard sauces, enjoyed a little mixed in with his searing hot chipotle sauce.

By far the strangest thing to happen, though, was the Unboilable Potatoes. I bought red potatoes, then peeled and cubed them. I boiled them until fork tender. I admit, at this point, I was exhausted and may not have been as diligent as I should've been at testing the doneness. Likely they were undercooked. I say this because to say otherwise would suggest a vast shift in fundamental laws of the universe.

Once done, I threw them in a zip top bag and splashed a touch of vinegar on them to flavor. I planned to further assemble the salad the next morning. The next morning, however, when I went to toss the potatoes in with the shallot, egg and vinaigrette, I was shocked that my potatoes were basically raw. I dug them back out of the bowl and put into water to soften. They probably cooked a half hour before I had to hurry and get to my mother's for the party. On the way, I called and asked her to get a pot of water boiling to finish the damn things. They boiled a further forty minutes and STILL were very al dente and undercooked. I was about to toss them but Darling Husband persevered and in the end, we had barely cooked potato salad.

I have no idea what caused this, except that maybe the vinegar sealed the potato pieces somehow and prevented them from cooking? It's a reach.

Anyone else ever heard of Uncookable Potatoes?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Catering to the masses

Baby Girl's first birthday party is this weekend, and in between sobs I'm trying to get all the food ready in advance--but not so in advance that it's past its prime, of course. (This is, in case you have forgotten, in addition to my full time job and my full time momminess. I'm certainly not complaining, however, as my craziness is of my own creation. I am learning to embrace the different parts of my life and accept that they must--and do--harmonize.)

Tonight, after the little princess was in bed, I made a bbq sauce from scratch, prepped potatoes for potato salad, boiled said potatoes, made a killer spice rub, prepped pork for pulled pork, shucked corn, and what else? Oh yeah, and made dinner. :o) Darling Husband helped. I'm particularly thankful he carved the rotisserie chicken, as I really don't like hacking flesh from bone.

The best part of this endeavor is I don't have to worry about cleaning my house like a perfectionist at the same time as I cook all this food (much more than I'll need, I'm sure. Hope people like left-overs!) My wonderful parents are having the party at their house with their big, comfortable yard. My tiny, cramped, perfectly respectable city-type yard just wouldn't be as appropriate. All we have to do is show up with food and a baby.

Dinner tonight is mashed purple potatoes, which turn a lovely lavender, and rotisserie chicken over salad. So you see? Not a martyr after all. I do find that if I wash and tear all the lettuce first, then put in a large ziptop bag lined with a couple of paper towels, I can get the salad to last all week. I'm all about a quick salad! It's more work at first, but saves time and money later.

As a side note, when I was pregnant I went through a phase where I would crave salads. I distinctly remember getting out of bed and making a salad at 12:30 at night. I've been thinking of these times a lot, particularly in the what-was-I-doing-last-year-at-this-time sort of way. It's a very bitter sweet pass time, and I'm trying to curb it.

I have a "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" daily calender on my desk, and one of the days really stuck with me. It said, approximately, that dwelling too much on the past or worrying about the future takes away resources you need to deal with the present. You have enough to deal with and get through without handicapping yourself at the start. I liked that. I often try to remember that when I get bogged down in the what-if's and the could-have-beens and the if-only's and such. I can't change yesterday; I can't control tomorrow. I only have impact and influence on today.

And so concludes my moment of zen. Tomorrow is the evening of cakes, for I fear I've committed myself to three cakes for the event. Shhhh, don't tell my mom. She already worries I take on too much...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rappi, what are you?

There's a wonderful green vegetable on the shelf at our local Wegman's. It's name is something of a mystery... aliases include broccoli rabe, rappini, rappi, broccoli di rappa. Not to be confused with broccolini, which looks a bit similar but is actually something else. I'm pretty sure.

Rappi is apparently a closer relative of the turnip, but has little florettes very reminiscent of broccoli tucked into its leaves. It can be a little inaccessible, but with a little tweaking, it's a wonderful side dish.

At Wegman's, rappi can be bought by the bunch or in a bag, presorted and chopped. If bought by the bag, it's ready to go. By the bunch, we wash and then chop into 1 inch sections, starting at the top and working our way down into the stem. As is common with greens, buy more than you think you will need because it will wilt down to almost nothing.

The key to curbing its bitterness (as with most greens) is to blanche in heavily salted water. This will make the color pop and take away much of the assertive, unpleasant, or (generously termed) acquired tastes. After blanching, drain and lightly wring to remove the moisture. Then saute in a pan with some olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and fresh garlic.

Darling Husband made this lovely side dish to go with our couscous and chicken cordon bleu tonight. I halved chicken breasts horizontally, then butterflied the pieces and pounded them into large planks. Onto this I layered three very thin slices of brown sugar ham and one slice of swiss cheese. I rolled up my chicken top to bottom, like a jelly roll, and secured with a tooth pick. Into a pan with some olive oil, covered to promote even cooking, and left to get golden and happy. We were particularly fortunate as some of the sugars from the ham came out and caramelized a bit on the chicken.

It sounds much fancier than it is; it sounds harder than it is, too. Truthfully, I made the chicken in just a couple minutes while waiting for the AAA tow truck to arrive to apply first aide to the battery in our car. It helps that the chicken breasts were cleaned before being popped into sandwich bags and frozen in individual serving sizes. All I had to do was defrost in a bowl of water in the fridge overnight and boom, ready to go.

As a finished product, the sweetness and saltiness of the chicken cordon bleu was nicely mellowed by the slightly nutty couscous, which itself was livened by the garlicy rappi. A lovely meal, shared by my family around the table.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Protein Acquisition Committee, Captain speaking

I used to go fishing with my grandfather when I was a little girl. He and my grandmother lived on a small lake near Mercer until I was 12, when they moved here to Erie next door to my parents. They had a boat and my sister and I would go water skiing, too.

When I imagine my grandfather fishing, I picture him standing on the dock in his dark blue trousers and light blue, short sleeve, button down shirt. He's slowly reeling in his line, and the cigarette hanging from his lips has a long ash trail like an elephant's tiny tusk. My Pappy was not a talkative man, but his stories were legendary in my mind. As we fished, I don't remember much of the conversation, or even if there was much, but I do know he gave me lots of tips, He told me about when to jerk the rod to set the hook, how to keep the tip down when reeling in, how to keep the tension on the line when reeling in the fish, and a hundred other things I've now forgotten. I used fluorescent yellow plastic lures, shaped sort of like a question mark, and caught mainly blue gills. Or, rather, caught mostly nothing, but missed lots of nibbles. (One time the fish actually ripped my plastic lure--Pappy laughed and laughed!)

Learning to cast was the hard part. I spent hours in the yard just off the back porch, next to the garden where my grandmother grew cucumbers with very dark, thick skin and white thorns that looked like grains of salt. Depress the button with your thumb and hold it. Bring the rod back over your shoulder. Flick the rod forward, letting go with your thumb at just the right moment so that the lure flies through the air, playing out the line behind it like a speed-demon spider. Try not to hook the tree or your own ear. Try not to let your thumb slip off too soon and have the lure plunk to the ground prematurely.

My grandfather passed away when I was a freshman in highschool. I haven't been fishing in more than 15 years, but the muscle memory was there for me this weekend, fishing with family at a cabin on one of the NY finger lakes. I was a little rusty at first, but soon caught on when Darling Husband's grandfather sat down on the dock with me to be my fishing coach. Mostly this involved baiting my line with worms (my plastic question marks, bought at WalMart at the same time as my fishing license, drew mostly disdain from the fish--the worms had them practically fighting to bite my hook) and removing the fish from the line. That, and a lyrical, "there you go!" when he could tell the fish took the bait, laughing as I hauled in my three inch bass and sunfish bigger than my hand, alike. The little ones were thrown back with a little wave from me, and the big ones were put into an underwater net. One of the cousins had asked we do a fish fry.

Being on the Protein Acquisition Committee was a big deal for me. I was providing a meal! It's like growing your own tomatoes for sauce, but much faster.

Incidentally, the "Protein Acquisition Committee" actually comes from a scene in a book I read, which can be paraphrased as follows: A group is stuck on a desert island. One man turns to the group and says, "Right. Ned, you look for wood for a fire. Gene, you see if you can find fresh water. Linda, you try to make a shelter for us. Natalie, look for any edible plants." "But what will you do," one of them asks. "Me? I'm the Protein Acquisition Committee." Pause. "You're going to go fishing, aren't you?"

Right off the bat, I caught the biggest fish of the keep. I was very proud. That, combined with the fact that I caught 7 fish with the same worm, earned me the title of captain or queen of the P.A.C.

I was very glad I didn't have to dispatch and fillet said protein. I would have done it, and I even read up on the most humane way (including studying anatomy charts to be sure to hit the fish just right in the brain). But it turns out that Darling Husband's grandfather had brought his filleting equipment and board, and was just as happy to do it. We beer battered the (admittedly tiny) fillets and had them for lunch (with burgers, because there wasn't enough to feed 10 hungry people). They were delicious.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hot dip

There's something wildly decadent about picnic or pot luck hot dips. You'd never make them just for yourself, to nibble of an afternoon or for dinner. Yet they're irresistible in the right setting. Below is a list of the hot dips I had available to me today:

Chicken wing dip
Pizza dip
Taco dip
Salsa Sausage Queso

I personally make a mean reuben dip, which is practically guaranteed to turn even reuben-haters into fans. I'll post approximate recipes soon, but for now, I have a happy, full tummy and need to sleep off all this cheese...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Picnic food, carney food and sunshine

The most sinful thing I can think of just now is deep fried oreos. We first had them at the Three River's Arts Festival a few years ago. The oreos are dipped in batter, sort of like a funnel cake batter or a donut batter, and deep fried. The cookie is softened to a cake-like center, while the creme melts completely and is absorbed into the surroundings. This place dusted the innocuous looking packets of chocolate decadence with powdered sugar. They're hot and chewy and dry all at once, an explosion of comforting flavors.

Darling Husband and I were discussing them the other day, then coincidentally ran into a deep fried oreo vendor at the Erie Festival of the Arts. These ones were not dusted in sugar, and seemed less melty than the previous, but were still scrumptious. What a fun little surprise.

Of course, you always find yummy (if overpriced) food at these festivals. Run by middle aged people seemingly impervious to the volcanic heat of fryers on asphalt in the July sun, (themselves assisted by their giggly teenaged children) these stalls are a tower of flashy canvas signs stretched over metal pipe frames. They often have samples of their wares sitting out for people to see for themselves if this is the stall from which they will buy their sausage in a bun.

Many of these vendors sell sausage and pepper sandwiches, also cheese steaks, chicken on a stick, mountains of fries or fried potato chips, blooming onions, fried rice, funnel cakes, lemonade--what Darling Husband and I affectionately call "carney food." We've recently been seeing more pita/gyro options as well. This year we tried a pita stuffed with trendy mixed salad greens, grilled shrimp, feta cheese, tomatoes, dried cranberries, cucumbers and a creamy yogurt based dressing. Or was it a vidalia onion dressing? Either way, creamy. The whole sandwich was quite refreshing.

Coming up is the Greek Festival, which is my hands-down favorite of the summer. The food is made by all these little old Greek ladies from the church, and is so incredible that I was really concerned last year that I would go into labor and miss it. I made people promise to bring me spanikopita and moussaka to the hospital if that were the case. Fortunately, I was able to go myself (big as a house, hot as anything, being beat up by a scrunched baby girl and beset by contractions, but loving it).

Summer food, though, is such a thrill for me. Maybe it's the associations with relaxing, long, sunshine filled evenings. Summer is a time of get togethers and friends, of relaxed curfews and bedtimes, of not having to wear a coat or shoes, of going to the beach and the zoo and the park and lots and lots of picnics. I love picnics. I love to eat outside, regardless of the occasion: in a restaurant, on the porch, in a pavilion, whatever. Coffee on a sunny summer morning, taken on the porch. Ahhh, I feel relaxed just thinking these things.

The grill, a summer powerhouse, gives distinctive and wonderful flavor to everything. Almost everything tastes better grilled! Meats, veggies, fruits... we do corn, chicken wings, pizza, even clams. And of course, the ubiquitous classics (oldies but goodies-they stick around for a reason!) the burgers and hot dogs.

This weekend promises picnics galore, as everyone celebrates our country's Independence in different ways. For my part, I adore fireworks. Especially with a tummy full of picnic food.