Harvest Meals: Part II

November 26, 2008

There is so much to do in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast tomorrow, but I wanted to quickly write about the tasty harvest meal George and I had for dinner last night. As I previously wrote, I went a little hog-wild, or legume-wild I should say, at the Alhambra Farmers’ Market on Sunday and pretty much bought a farmers’ market sampler platter of vegetables. Wanting to eat and cook as much of the produce as possible before Thanksgiving, as it most likely will not get eaten afterwards, I created a culinary plan to make “harvest meals” every night this week.

Sunday night, as my previous posting indicates, was somewhat of a success. The blackberry-red wine reduction was a culinary travesty, but our roasted vegetables and plum tart were huge successes. On Monday, I had good intentions of making a ratatouille with the fresh zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes I bought, but due to an unanticipated, and fortunately very short-lived illness, George had to take over cooking Monday’s dinner and he passed on making the ratatouille. He did make a mean taco and we saved the ratatouille for last night.

Sauteed Ratatouille

Sauteed Ratatouille

So…Ratatouille. Admittedly, I wanted my ratatouille to resemble Remi’s ratatouille in the movie Ratatouille, but I decided to simplify the ratatouille recipes I found and just make more of a ratatouille hash. Chopping up an onion, a few small zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes, I sauteed the vegetables in a little olive oil and seasoned them with salt, pepper, pepperincino flakes, oregano and a lot of fresh basil. It wasn’t bad! It was a very light and very fresh side-dish that was served next to baked chicken breasts. Of course the ratatouille could have been so much more, but for a quick and easy mid-week harvest meal, it couldn’t have been more perfect. So keeping in step with the culinary theme this week, a huge dent was made in our agri-rator (a refrigerator full of agricultural produce) and in the spirit of the Thanksgiving week, another harvest meal was had!

On deck for tonight’s harvest meal….something with green beans!

Until next time….

PS – As a quick aside, I did remember to properly salt my eggplant for the ratatouille. I began salting the eggplant about an hour before I was ready to use them. The salting process really makes all the difference – my eggplant was actually edible this time!


Harvest Meals: A Week of Thanksgiving

November 24, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I really love this time of year. In the third week of November, I usually start to feel a magical buzz in the air, which always seems to have a crescendoing effect up to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love that it is a holiday that is not materialistic or greedy, but one that simply brings family and friends together for a meal. Thanksgiving, historically, was a harvest meal celebrating the cooperation between the English settlers and Native Americans in 1621 in which thanks was given to the successful bounty of crops. I really love Thanksgiving’s symbolism and while most Americans are not literally giving thanks to a successful crop season each year, our Thanksgivings – or at least mine – truly does symbolize a harvest meal.

The anticipation and preparation of Thanksgiving is almost has much fun as eating the meal itself. This year, while I am not hosting Thanksgiving or preparing the turkey, I am making a few side dishes. I am very excited for my role this year, mostly because I feel like I have graduated from sous-chef or kitchen helper to “chef contributor.” I take my role seriously and have well-researched the types of dishes I want to prepare, focusing mainly on recipes that can be made from fresh and local ingredients.

Brussel Sprouts - Alhambra Farmers' Market

Brussel Sprouts - Alhambra Farmers' Market

After deciding on a brussel sprouts dish and perhaps a cauliflower gratin of some sort, I made my way to the Alhambra farmers’ market. Alhambra, a town nestled between San Marino, South Pasadena and San Gabriel, offers a farmers’ market every Sunday that is a real treasure trove of fruit and legume wonders. Although I was at the farmers’ market to buy just the few items I needed for my Thanksgiving side dishes, the spirit of the the harvest got me a little produce-happy. Quickly forgetting that it is a short week due to the holiday, and that we are traveling this weekend, I bought enough fruits and vegetables to last us two weeks. Armed with fresh plums, pears, and blackberries, a few varieties of basil, four pounds of brussel sprouts, a head of cauliflower the size of a garbage can lid, a few pounds of string beans, heirloom tomatoes, baby zucchini, and the list goes on…I left the farmers market feeling the need to give thanks to my bounty of crops.

While I think George is slightly skeptical of the farm that is now residing in our refrigerator, I have devised a culinary plan in which George and I will honor Thanksgiving’s symbolism by having a harvest meal every night this week. And our meal last night did just that. Using the fresh blackberries, I made a blackberry-red wine reduction and served the sauce over sauteed pork chops. This recipe idea, while admittedly novel, is not one that I would recommend. The reduction was bitter and almost a bit acidic, and even though the ingredients seemed so benign, (shallots, wine, chicken broth, blackberry puree and salt and pepper), the sauce did not come together as I hoped. Fortunately, the rest of our dinner did and we enjoyed perfectly roasted potatoes and carrots and a fresh salad that incorporated the heirloom tomatoes I had bought earlier in the day. And for dessert, well that just took the cake…or tart!

A Beautiful and Tasty Plum Tart!

A Beautiful and Tasty Plum Tart!

Check out this plum tart! Not only did it actually look beautiful, but it was a simple recipe that accentuated the flavors of the fresh plums. The filling was simply quartered plums placed symmetrically around the tart shell with a sugar, cornstarch, vanilla and lemon juice batter poured over the plums. The tart was so tasty and thankfully off-setted my blackberry reduction debacle.

Our Sunday night dinner may have made a dent in our produce-laden refrigerator, but it also jump-started this important holiday week. While George and I will have another harvest meal tonight, The Alhambra Farmers’ Market – and the local produce Southern California has to offer – certainly puts the meaning of Thanksgiving into perspective this year.

Happy Thanksgiving and until next time…

Egged-On By Eggplant

November 18, 2008

Beautiful Baby Eggplants

Beautiful Baby Eggplants

I have been going a little gung-ho with the local farmers’ market recently. My seasonal clock has not quite adjusted to the California growing season, and I just cannot get over that I can still buy local produce this late into November. I’m used to buying brussel sprouts and perhaps a few lingering heads of cauliflower this time of year in New York, not the variety of fruits and vegetables that are still adorning the farmers’ markets in the Pasadena area.

I have scouted out many of the farmers’ markets in and around Pasadena and discovered these beautiful organic baby eggplants at the Old L.A. Farmer’s Market in Highland Park. Highland Park, which is just minutes down the 110 Freeway from Pasadena, is one of the oldest settled areas in Los Angeles. Nestled right next to the Arroyo Seco, Highland Park seems to be a culturally diverse, hipster kind of community, and reminded me a little of Astoria Queens, without the el train.

Feeling right at home in my Queens away from Queens, I couldn’t resist buying these baby eggplants despite the fact that I generally steer clear of them unless prepared by someone else. I find eggplant to be a lot of work and I lack the patience to properly salt and soak them to remove some of the vegetable’s natural bitterness. However, these baby eggplants were so purple, so fresh and so delicious looking, and averaging about an inch and a half to two inches tall and roughly an inch wide, I anticipated them being tender and sweet and not as bitter as the larger eggplant we commonly see in the market. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

My plan was to slice these baby eggplants width-wise, season them with salt, pepper and paprika and sauté them in a little olive oil. This is my go-to preparation with many vegetables, especially yellow squash and zucchini. I really love sautéed vegetables and seasoning them with paprika really adds a nice flavor when blended with the olive oil. So I got to work on sautéing my eggplant, foregoing the laborious salting process. Big mistake. Due to my eggplant naiveté, I did not realize that salting eggplant not only tenderizes the eggplant meat, but pulls out some of its water content making it less permeable to absorbing oil used when cooking.

A few minutes into sautéing my eggplant, I found that I had to add more olive oil because the eggplant had absorbed all of what was in the pan, and despite using a non-stick skillet, my eggplant turned crispy and stuck to the pan’s surface. Although my eggplant did not cook into tender slices of perfectly seasoned eggplant, I did learn two important culinary lessons. First, eggplant, no matter its size should not be subjected to culinary short-cuts. And second, I may have inadvertently invented something new – eggplant chips! Perhaps my culinary disaster could turn into a snack-food revolution?!

Until next time…

Lamb Kabobs: Skewering a Memory

November 14, 2008
Yummy Lamb Kabobs and Rice Pilaf

Yummy Lamb Kabobs and Rice Pilaf

Before moving to Pasadena, George and I were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We were only Upper West Siders for a brief time – George lived in our UWS apartment for five months before moving to California; I was there for eight months. It was a short living stint, but a very memorable one.

Our apartment was just north of the tony Upper West Side, but provided ideal access to Central Park, relatively inexpensive parking (inexpensive for NYC), the express 2/3 train and, last but not least, good restaurants. There was a Mediterranean restaurant a few blocks away on Amsterdam, a small bistro-style restaurant that almost had no presence – meaning, you could walk by it and not notice it was there. But inside, the restaurant was warm and inviting – a sort of clean, well-lighted place, and almost had the ambiance of eating in someone’s home. The menu was limited – a few fresh salads and signature starters like humus and Babaghanoush, and for entrees, a few tangine dishes and traditional kabob combinations.

The restaurant’s lamb kabobs were really quite good and I found myself thinking about them recently. Before long, my thoughts turned into a craving for lamb kabobs, which then lead to NYC nostalgia, which then became how can I satisfy this craving, which finally lead to how can I duplicate those memorable lamb kabobs from the Upper West Side?

Not really knowing all that much about the seasonings the restaurant used on their kabobs, I decided to keep mine simple as I really wanted to enjoy the lamb’s flavor and tenderness. I bought some good quality lamb from my local butcher, cubed it myself and seasoned it simply with a little extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. I skewered the lamb with fresh red bell pepper, red onions and cherry tomatoes and grilled them until the meat was about medium in temperature. The simplicity of the seasoning really accentuated the lamb and the grilled vegetables married perfectly with it. To round out our Mediterranean meal, I made a quick Greek yogurt dipping sauce that couldn’t have been easier to make and tastier to eat! By combining a cup of Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, a bit of dill and surprisingly, a few dashes of cumin, the dipping sauce was the perfect complement to the lamb kabobs and brought the memories and flavors of our old Upper West Side neighborhood to our Pasadena living room!

Until next time…

The Comforts of a Roast Chicken

November 8, 2008

The Magical Roast Chicken - With Oranges!

The Magical Roast Chicken - With Oranges!

I have said this before, but there is something quite special about a roast chicken (see also, The Magical Roast Chicken, 10/2006 archive, http://www.chefs-in-the-city.blogspot.com).  A roast chicken can be as simple or as decadent as you wish, but one thing is for sure, you can never take away its humility. It seems funny calling a chicken humble, or at least calling its traditional method of preparation humble, but a roast chicken is my ultimate comfort food. A roast chicken has a way of calming me; fond memories are resurrected with its smells and flavors, and it often seems like a bad day can be turned into a good day with a simple bite into its crispy herbed skin.

So much can be written about the magical roast chicken – most of which I will save for other postings. I do want to mention that Julia Child praised a good roast chicken and now that I am living in her birthplace of Pasadena, I find it difficult to not think about her young life here, especially as her grandparents’ path to Pasadena was much like my ancestors journey across this country to California. I want to devote a lot of this blog to her, of course many others have, but I find the irony remarkable that our lives while generations apart have someone crossed paths.

But, alas, the humble roast chicken! Even though my husband and I have had so many good changes happen so quickly in our lives recently, it is easy to get sidetracked by some of the difficulties we now face. I was a bit bummed out the other day, mostly because I am still unemployed, and decided that we needed a comforting dinner, one that would take my mind off of life’s stresses. Turning to the dish that comforts me the most, I roasted a chicken – a citrusy chicken because after all, from apples to oranges…

The inspiration for my orange-infused roast chicken came easily. If lemon and chicken pair together so well, why wouldn’t oranges and chicken? With that, I began by thoroughly washing a whole chicken and patting it dry with a paper towel. I placed the whole chicken in a greased roasting plan, along with some nice roasting vegetables of carrots and onions. I then thinly sliced a few pieces of orange and slid the slices under the chicken’s skin. I wanted the oranges to not only infuse flavor into the chicken, but also keep the meat moist. I then rubbed butter over the top of my chicken, seasoned it with salt, pepper and thyme, and then juiced half of an orange over my chicken. I cut the remaining orange into wedges, placed a few of the wedges in the chicken’s cavity, and left the other wedges to roast in the pan with the carrots and onions. I did add a bit of white wine so there was some liquid in my roasting pan.

While the chicken was roasting (25 minutes a pound on a 325 degree oven), I basted the chicken with melted butter – not too much, but enough to brown the skin and make it crispy! When the chicken was done, it was time to make the gravy, because after all, what’s a roast chicken without the gravy? Keeping within my theme of orange-infused chicken, the base of my gravy was the orange juice and wine that remained in the pan. I added a bit of chicken stock and thickened it with flour. The gravy was light and flavorful and coupled with the orange-flavored meat, the roast chicken smelled and tasted like California. With my first bite, hints of citrus and thyme brought happiness to my mouth and comfort to my day. So while the flavors of my roast chicken may have reflected our new home, its special comfort certainly brought me back to what is home.

Until next time..

Cooking Carnitas: An Undefeated Season

November 2, 2008

My Nittany Lions are having quite the season. Ranked #3 nationally, Penn State is leading its Big Ten Conference and may be well on its way to playing for the National Championship. As a new Pasadena resident, I would personally prefer Penn State to play in the Rose Bowl this year, but Coach Paterno definitely deserves a chance at a national title.

Go Penn State!

Go Penn State!

Penn State football is a huge part of my life. As a student, there was nothing better than football Saturdays in State College, PA, and I will never forget how magical Beaver Stadium became with 100,000 cheering fans in it. But game days were not always just about a big win. The day was about spending time with friends, tailgating in the stadium’s parking lot and grilling hot-dogs and hamburgers – or in my case – schlepping a pot of baked beans across campus to a friend’s tailgate! Over the course of four years, I developed a few fall football Saturday traditions and today, no one can come between me, my television and my kitchen when Penn State is playing!

So much about a college football game is the game-day food! From wings and pizza to chips and beer, I think every college football fan gets a pass from eating healthy when there is a football game to watch! When living in New York City, it was easy to find a neighborhood bar sponsoring a Penn State party during the game, or find a restaurant that would deliver wings and pizza to our doorsteps in time for kick-off. But now that we are living across the country in California – in USC and UCLA territory – we haven’t yet found a Penn State presence in Pasadena or a restaurant that delivers greasy bar food.

But we are not letting this stop us from celebrating football traditions. Instead, we are putting West coast twists on our game-day menus and watching Penn State beat Ohio State from the comfort of our own apartment. For the past several football Saturdays, George and I have slow-cooked carnitas, and in the spirit of the football season, my carnitas are undefeated! We got the inspiration for making carnitas after having them for the first time at a party this past summer. The host slow-cooked her carnitas in a crockpot overnight, which turned the pork into shreds of tender juicy goodness. Thinking that the recipe could easily be duplicated and believing that carnitas were appropriate for a California football menu, I set out to master carnitas.

Before heading out to the local market, I did a quick online recipe search for carnitas so I had a sense of the ingredients I would need to buy at the market. Knowing I needed onions, celery, garlic and a few key spices like cumin and bay leaves, I was not clear on the cut of pork I needed. Fortunately, I found that my local butcher not only knew a lot about chopping chuck, but also knew a thing or two about cooking carnitas! The butcher – a professionally trained chef – advised that I buy two pounds of pork butt over other cuts of pork as the pork butt tenderizes well in a slow cooker and provides a lot of rich flavor as it has a higher content of fat.

Carnitas In The Making!

Carnitas In The Making!

On Friday night, we began preparing our carnitas. Cubing the pork and chopping the garlic, onions and celery, we covered all the ingredients with a liberal amount of chicken broth in our slow cooker. We added some salt and pepper, cumin and two bay leaves and let the carnitas simmer on low all night. By Saturday morning, the slow-cooked pork was tender, easily shreddable and looking like a sure win for our game-day snack! A few minutes before we were ready to eat our carnitas, we transferred the carnitas into a large skillet to cook off some of the excess liquid. I also found that by sauteing the carnitas, the seasonings were really able to absorb into each other. We served the carnitas in corn tortillas with a little dollop of sour cream. They were so delicious, and for me, a big win on a new West coast football tradition. Go Penn State!

Until next time…


October 24, 2008

The phrase “Drill Baby Drill” may be on some minds recently, but not on mine. I’m chanting, COOK BABY COOK! I have been feeling so inspired to cook recently and have been loving the preparation of putting together a quick and simple week night meal or a more elaborate Sunday night dinner. I have a few ideas as to the genesis of this inspiration – it may be my proximity to great southern California produce, or perhaps all the free time I have as I am unemployed, or it could be the windfall of culinary gadgets my husband and I received for our wedding. Selfishly speaking, one of the best things about getting married – aside from George, of course, is the wedding registry.

The concept of a wedding registry was first developed in 1924 by the Marshall Fields department store in Chicago. At that time, the concept of a wedding registry was limited one; it was a means for engaged couples to share their selected china and silver with their guests. Today, a wedding registry is the “super-sized” version of the 1924 model. Registries today provide engaged couples with a carte-blanche to request anything and everything relating to the kitchen – from food processors, to everyday flatware, or to a pink silicon spoonula. It is also customary to register for bedroom items like new linens or blankets, or even bathroom essentials like towels and shower curtains. And while the registry was originally thought of as a means for couples to ask for a few nicer items for the home, it would not be uncommon to see an engaged couple today registering for a honeymoon or a flat-screen plasma TV.

Although my wedding registry did not include home electronics (to George’s dismay) or a trip around the world, we did register for everything for the kitchen, except for the kitchen sink, of course! What started as a culinary fantasy became a culinary reality thanks to our very gracious friends and family. We now have wonderful kitchen tools like a pasta maker, roasting pans, beautiful serving platters, and the pièce de résistance – fabulously sharp knives (no pun intended, but I know firsthand…I already had a cooking calamity and lost my index finger’s finger nail….).

As I have been trying to test out all my new tools and utensils, I had an idea for a Caprese salad, which not only allowed me to break out my new food processor, but take advantage of the beautiful heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers’ markets. When tomatoes and basil are in season, there are few things better than a traditional Caprese. Gorgeous tomatoes layered between sliced mozzarella and fresh basil…seriously, what more could you want? Well, how about a little bit of basil in each bite?

A Stacked Caprese

A Stacked Caprese

My twist on the traditional Caprese is two-fold: first, I prefer a stacked Caprese – mainly for aesthetics; and second, and most important, I infuse basil throughout my Caprese by using it in a dressing, rather than placing it haphazardly on the salad. Using my new food processor, I made a dressing for my Caprese that resembled a pesto. I begin my chopping one whole garlic clove and several handfuls of basil. To that, I add the juice of one lemon, salt and pepper to season and enough olive oil to thin the mixture into a salad dressing. I find that the fresh lemon juice really pops the basil flavor, which in the affectation of the Oprah–yodel, makes the dressing fabuLOUSSSS….

I simply pour a few teaspoons of my basil dressing over my stacked Caprese and enjoy. This salad could be served as a side dish to grilled fish, chicken, or steak, or could even be served on its own as a first course. Either way, it is a refreshing, seasonal twist, on a traditional Caprese, which could not be accomplished without my new food processor! And with that, COOK BABY COOK!

Until next time…

The Flavor of a Local Farmers’ Market: Bittersweet

October 18, 2008

Pomegrantes adorned the farmers' tables!

Pomegranates Galore!

I am so excited to share my adventures and discoveries at the South Pasadena Farmers’ market, but before doing so, I want to provide a bit of context for this blog – as this is my first posting. Life was quite copacetic for me until Memorial Day weekend this year. Up until then, my then fiancé, George, and I were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, planning our September 2008 wedding and enjoying a relatively comfortable way of life as I was working as an attorney and George was working for a big company downtown. Two days before the kick off of summer, George was asked by his company to relocate to Los Angeles and take a new job. The decision was an obvious one and in the midst of wedding planning, George moved to California. I would continue to work through the summer and join him after our wedding.

The summer fortunately passed quickly, we had a beautiful wedding in my hometown on Long Island, and two days after our wedding we boarded a plane that would take us to a new city, a new way of life and to new challenges and obstacles that a few short months prior were not in our wildest thoughts. I am now a resident of Pasadena, CA, living in an apartment that is three times the size of our New York City apartment, and driving a car rather than riding the 3 train. As my life changed radically in such a short time, this blog is about this transition, its challenges and successes, but through it all, how I am finding comfort in what I like best – food and cooking.

As this is my inaugural posting, there is nothing more appropriate to write about than the produce California has to offer any gourmande like myself. Since I arrived, the buzz around town is that the South Pasadena Farmers’ Market (SPFM) is the place to be on Thursday evenings. Located on Mission Street and Meridian Avenue in South Pasadena, a funky suburban town that has a vibe similar to Park Slope in Brooklyn, the South “Pas” Farmers Market is truly a produce Mecca. Similar in style and layout to the farmer’s market to end all farmers’ markets – the Union Square Farmers’ Market in New York City – the SPFM offers produce and variety that one could never find on the east coast – or at least outside of some specialty store.

A beautiful example of a West coast produce wonder!

A beautiful example of a West coast produce wonder!

Walking around the SPFM was nostalgic as it reminded me of New York, but exciting and new in so many different ways. For one, it was a quiet experience – the sounds of taxis and buses were not there, and the smell was different – the smell of basil infused exhaust could not be detected at all… The smell was instead sweet, one of fruits and heirloom tomatoes combined with a scent that I am not familiar with yet – perhaps it was palm tree? While the Union Square Farmers’ Market in New York is magical – a calm oasis of sorts in an otherwise busy metropolis, the SPFM – at least for now – will be a challenge to my culinary routines and comforts.

This time of year in New York, the farmers’ markets are laden with apples from the Hudson River Valley, eastern Long Island and New Jersey. While recipes of apple crisps and apples pies are fresh in my mind, Southern California, and especially the SPFM, offers new ideas for fall recipes and creations. Among the farmers’ tables at the SPFM were varieties of fruits and vegetables that I have never seen, or would never have the occasion to see at a farmer’s market back East. Artichokes, black figs, white radishes, rainbow chard and edamame pea sprouts lined the farmers’ tables. A large pear quash and pomegranates were veritable gastronomic wonders to me, but common place for SPFM customers. An orange orb with a little green stem similar to a small pumpkin struck my interest, and during my conversation with its farmer, learned that it was a type of persimmon that “tastes like bar soap when not ready to be eaten.” There were many varieties of lettuces, from baby greens to arugula to frisee, all of which were so clean and fresh looking. One lettuce farmer, from Living Lettuce Farms in Reseda, CA (http://www.livinglettuce.com/index2.htm) explained that the lettuce was so clean because it is grown hydroponically, which is essentially a farming technique in which the plant is grown in nutrient-infused water, rather than soil. Absolutely fascinating! I also discovered later that night that with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a few minced shallots, hydroponic lettuce becomes a tasty side for any dinner!

While my culinary wheels were churning at mach speed and my tastes buds salivating during my time exploring the SPFM, my experience was bittersweet. It was a reminder of what I have left and the challenges – both in life and in the kitchen – that lie ahead.

Until next time…