29 July 2009

Picnic in the Park

Every summer, I try to make it to at least a few of the free Concerts in the Park at the Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara. These concerts are the place to be on Thursday evenings in July, and you're bound to run into several people you know. As the band plays, picnickers enjoy homemade (or take-out) suppers and dance on the grass...you can watch the kids play on the jungle gym or watch the jugglers and hoola-hoop dancers...or you can just recline on the lawn and enjoy libations and food...

Last night, some friends and I packed a picnic feast and went down to the park to hear Spencer the Gardener. Of course, we did not do take-out! I always look forward to sharing a meal with these friends--they are great cooks and have such creative ideas--and this concert was the perfect opportunity to let our imaginations go. Mary put together a delicious salad of wild rice, sauteed kale, and spicy Cajun sausage. I loved the bold colors of the salad; the black of the rice, the deep bright green of the kale, and the golden orange of the sausage were a feast for the eyes. Andy made a quinoa salad, starring tons of juicy ripe tomatoes from his garden. It was creamy and nutty and fresh all together.

One of my contributions to the picnic was a watermelon tomato salad. Sounds like an intriguing combination, right? Over the past couple years I've come across salad recipes featuring this interesting pair of fruits and have wondered what they would taste like together. So I decided to make a salad based on these two, and added in chunks of cucumber and fresh herbs for a punch of green color and cubed feta cheese for a sparkling white counterpoint. Dressed simply with a little lime juice, salt, and pepper, this salad was so easy to make, so refreshing on a summer evening, and I can't get enough! Truth be told, after making this the evening before the concert, I had a ton that just couldn't fit into the picnic container, and I was eating the leftovers up by the (ahem, large) spoonful! Oh, and then to drink up the juices that collected at the bottom of the salad bowl....

So, I think watermelon and tomatoes can work really well together. You should really try this combo yourself and see! And, if you're wondering about what to drink with this, Andy thinks this would be great paired with a pinot grigio or a dry riesling. And with some grilled fish and steamed haricot verts alongside, and you've got a great summer picnic!

Watermelon and Tomato Salad with Cucumber, Feta Cheese, and Fresh Herbs

1/4 (14 lb.) seedless watermelon, in 1/2-inch cubes
2 large tomatoes (about 1.5 lbs), in 1/2-inch cubes
1 hot house cucumber, unpeeled, in 1/2-inch cubes
4 oz. low fat feta cheese, diced, in 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup finely sliced Walla Walla onion (or other sweet onion)
1/2 bunch cilantro, stems included, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
1/4 cup lime juice
salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and season to taste with plenty of salt and pepper. Can be made one day ahead; keep refrigerated. Serves 8.

25 July 2009

Saturday bread day

Homemade bread bespeaks the luxury of extended free time...time to knead, time to let bread dough rise, time to monitor the baking.... On the lucky days when I'm home all day, I love making a big hearty loaf. But don't worry, you won't have to spend all day watching the bread. Use the time between kneading, loaf-shaping, and baking to take care of other things...like reading a good book or soaking in the sun or working in the garden! After all that playing or working, you'll have a great snack to munch on.

Today I used buckwheat flour, which adds a super healthy kick of iron, zinc, and selenium besides having a great flavor. Cut yourself a crusty slice and enjoy it like I did with some thinly sliced
Iberico cheese, a wonderful nutty cheese from Central Spain.

Buckwheat Bread
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105°F to 115°F)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons (¼ stick) butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons quick-rising yeast
1 large egg
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup oats
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour

Place water, sugar, butter, and yeast in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat to mix all ingredients, then add egg, buckwheat flour, oats, and salt, and beat again to combine. Switch paddle attachment for dough hook. Add all-purpose and whole wheat flour, and mix at low speed until dough is smooth, comes cleanly from sides, and climbs hook, adding more flour by ¼ cupfuls if dough is very sticky, about 8 minutes. Scrape dough from hook. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and towel. Let rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 1½ hours.

Lightly oil a 9x5x3-inch metal loaf pan and a sheet of plastic wrap. Scrape dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth, about 2 minutes. Shape into 8x3-inch log. Place in prepared pan; cover loosely with prepared plastic wrap, oiled side down. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until center is 1½ inches higher than pan, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°F. Gently pull plastic off dough. Place bread in oven; bake until deep golden and instant-read thermometer inserted into center registers 180°F, about 30 minutes. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Run small knife around bread to loosen and turn out of pan. Cool completely on rack.

... ... ...

With my bread rising in the kitchen, I had some time to pop outside and work on my vegetable garden. It felt good to get out and dig around in the warm earth, and I cleaned out the onion patch, re-caged my tomatoes, and harvested and re-sowed carrots. Like with my herbs and onions, I'm letting some of the carrots go to seed to replenish my seed stores for next year!

Today's carrot harvest.

Winter's carrots-in-waiting.

Next year's carrots.

19 July 2009

Birthday Bliss

Did I mention I had a birthday recently? This past year of life has been absolutely amazing, going through a time of personal growth, developing in my day job, deepening in friendships, and becoming a first-time homeowner. As I look forward to the new year of life ahead, I am eager and expectant for the good things in store. To celebrate, the gardenia bush along my front walk has burst into bloom. Every day, the evening sun draws out the fragrance of the flowers and bathes the garden with a delightful, summertime aroma. Beautiful.

What's also beautiful is green goddess dip. Surrounded by colorful crudites. And fancy drinks served in the classic champagne coupe on a silver tray. With a softly swaying rumba playing in the background. And the whisper of a summer breeze.

So here are my latest recipes for you, dear reader, to set you up with your own moment of bliss.

Green Goddess Dip
2 ripe avocados
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1/4 cup (packed) fresh basil, finely chopped
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and blend together with an immersion stick blender until dip is smooth and basil is minced. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste, and transfer to serving bowl. Serve with an assortment of crudites, such as baby carrots, sugar snap peas, jicama and red bell pepper spears, and cooked shrimp.

Sparkling Blush
2 ripe white peaches, peeled and chopped
2 cups chardonnay
2 cups white zinfandel
club soda, chilled

Place peaches in a large mason jar and gently crush with a wooden spoon to release some of the juices. Add chardonnay and white zinfandel and chill overnight to allow flavors to meld. To serve, pour out 1/2 cup wine into a champagne coupe, holding back peach solids, then add a splash of club soda.

16 July 2009

California Couscous

Couscous has got to be one of my favorite comfort foods. As the tiny pasta particles cook, they take on a deeply-satisfying creaminess, and I love eating it by the fluffy spoonful. Last night I needed to fix dinner in a hurry and knew I could depend on this great standby. Even though it is such a quick dish to make, I really enjoy my time with it. Couscous has such a conservative flavor, making it a fantastic (and forgiving) canvas upon which to let your culinary artistry take wing. Every time I cook with it, I end up doing something new, with great results. Last night I layered flavors drawn from the local Mexican cuisine over this traditionally Middle Eastern dish and paired it with some grilled chicken for a great supper. Here is my latest invention!

Cumin-scented Couscous Salad

1 (generous) cup water
1 Tbs. butter
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
2 green onions, white parts only, sliced thin
1/2 cup regular couscous
1/2 cup whole-wheat couscous
1 tomato, finely chopped, with juices
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves and stems finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan, combine water, butter, salt, cumin, coriander, and onions. Bring to a boil over high heat, whisking ingredients together once butter has melted. When at a boil, add couscous, give it a brief stir, and cover pan snugly with a lid. Turn off heat and let couscous sit 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Transfer couscous to a large bowl, and let cool for a few minutes (hot couscous will wilt and discolor the fresh cilantro). Add chopped tomato with juices and cilantro and gently stir to combine. Adjust seasoning with more salt and freshly ground black pepper, if needed.

12 July 2009

Almond Peach Tart

The other day I tasted a succulent fruit and almond tart and have been dreaming of eating it again--no not just eating it but making it. There is something satisfying in knowing that the food you love is not some lofty and distant ideal that you can enjoy once in awhile, but rather something you know intimately--something you have mastered--and can create yourself. So I played around and came up with this almond peach tart. It's a perfect summer treat!

1¾ cups flour
½ cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup butter
1 egg, slightly beaten

2 large ripe peaches, peeled and thinly sliced

¼ cup butter
¼ cup sugar
2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. milk
1 cup sliced almonds
1 tsp. almond extract

For the crust, mix together dry ingredients, then cut in butter. Mix in the egg until dough forms; press into a 10" round tart pan with removable bottom, pushing the dough up the sides of the pan.

For the topping, combine all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl and heat until melted, stirring occasionally. Arrange the peach slices in concentric circles on the crust and spread almond topping evenly over the fruit.

Bake at 325°F for 30 minutes until deep golden. If almonds brown too quickly, cover with foil during baking. Let tart cool completely before slicing.

11 July 2009

Blueberry Cake

Blueberries have always held a special place in my life. Having spent hours frolicking and picking wild blueberries in the Frankenwald (Franconian Forest) of northern Bavaria on summer visits to my grandparents, these sweet little berries conjure up memories of the freedom of being on holiday, the warmth of a summer day, and the whispering of wind through fir trees.

Recently, after seeing some pictures of a friend's blueberry cake, I got a craving for blueberry cake of my own! And when I joined some friends for a Friday night summer barbeque, I found the opportunity to throw this yummy family favorite together. A super quick coffee cake, this can be enjoyed any time of the day.

Blueberry Coffee Cake
adapted from the Better Homes Cookbook

Cinnamon Streusel:
½ cup flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ cup butter, softened

½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups flour
2½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup milk

2 (+ ½) cups blueberries

Combine all ingredients for the cinnamon streusel and mix until well blended and crumbly; chill in refrigerator while mixing the rest of the cake.

For the cake, cream together butter and sugar; beat in the egg. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with milk.

Spread dough in a 9 x 9 inch pan. Top with blueberries, and sprinkle with cinnamon streusel. Bake at 350°F for 45 min. Let cool 30 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.