Category Archives: Summer

Toast and Jam

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Well, how has your summer been so far? Are you crossing off summery Bucket List items left and right, or are you taking a more relaxed, lazy approach? I’m doing a bit of both this year – being blessed with the time to relax and do more than I’ve been able to do for many summers. The weather has been mild and not too hot for the most part here on the West Coast. There’s been camping, barbecues, playing at the river, and of course some jam making.

Oh, the jam making. I was blessed with two HUGE boxed overfilled with the most beautiful plums. Not sure what kind they are? I don’t think they’re Santa Rosas, anyone with more fruit identification skills out there have any idea?

They’re juicy, with creamy yellow- to red fleshy interiors. And they aren’t free stone (bummer). Not being free stone they are a bit of a (read: complete) pain in the ass to process, as you have to cut them off the pits in order to glean any kind of flesh from their little bodies. But darn they’re tasty.

I’ve processed about 15 pounds of them so far, and have about, oh, 30 left hanging around, as evidenced by that picture above. Nick said to me very seriously yesterday that no one expects me to process all of these plums, we can use what we want and dispatch the rest. The only thing holding me back from canning them all is the sheer number of jars that it would take to can this many plums. (Those of you in the immediate area, the plums that are going to land on your front porches in the next 24 hours are not from me). I’ve already blasted through a flat of pints and a flat of half pints making Cinnamon Plum Jam and a batch of Savory Plum Chili Sauce, both of which came out great.

The Cinnamon Plum Jam was a new one for me this year. I found this blog a few weeks ago, and when I read this recipe I knew I had to make a cinnamon-laced plum jam of my very own. I know many of you out there are pectin purists, which translates that you don’t use any. Hats of to your skills! I am impatient and can’t handle stirring over a hot cauldron for the amount of time it takes to process fruit without pectin, so I use it the majority of the time. I plan to get out my big girl pants and make a pectinless version with some of these plums, but for now I made the recipe on my pectin box and dropped two 3″ cinnamon sticks into my hot lava jam boil, fishing them out before I canned it up. The result was a lightly scented and flavored jam of the most luxurious taste and texture. Just look at this:

The ultimate jam test, though, is how it tastes on toast. I am deeply in love with toast; heavily slathered with salted butter, seared under the broiler and not in the toaster, rendering the outside crisp and leaving the inside soft. And folks, I’m proud to announce that I found THE BEST bread recipe, which gave me the most amazing toast I may have ever had. No kidding.

Ordinarily and up to now, sourdough toast is my favorite. Being blessed with true San Francisco sourdough in my Outer Bay Area existence has spoiled me and mine with some of the best bread on the planet (should I ever have to give up gluten, well, perish the thought). This new bread is gently sweet, with a nice light crumb. Nick and I agreed that it smelled like graham crackers when it was cooling on the rack. Waiting for it to cool was the longest hour of my life.

The best part about this new loaf is that it’s a no-knead loaf, with only one rise. These two caveats make this a great loaf even for a beginning baker, especially one with yeast terrors. You literally mix it up, plop it in a greased loaf pan, let it rise, and bake it off. And for singletons and/or couples who don’t eat a lot of bread, it only makes one normal sized loaf. Between the ease of the recipe and the yield this might be the perfect sandwich loaf. The recipe has a lot going for it.

Those of you that do bake bread are going to see that it’s 100% whole wheat and doesn’t call for vital wheat gluten to help with the rise, which struck me as odd (and made me excited, since I’m too cheap to buy a bag and thus have none). The bread rose like a champ on my counter,  gaining lofty altitudes high above the edge of the loaf pan. It rose a bit more in the oven, with a gently browned crust, and popped right out of the loaf pan after a brief respite on the counter. In short, even in the long version of the story, this bread is perfect. And the toast this morning? Heavenly.

No-Knead 100% whole Wheat Bread
from King Arthur Flour website

Makes one nice loaf

1 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup melted butter or vegetable oil (mmm…butter)
3 tablespoons molasses, maple syrup, dark corn syrup, or brown sugar corn syrup (I used dark molasses)
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 cup Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk (I used nonfat and it worked just fine)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 cups King Arthur whole wheat flour, white whole wheat preferred

Heavily grease an 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan. This loaf tends to stick, so be sure to grease the pan thoroughly with non-stick vegetable oil spray.

Combine bine all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Beat the mixture vigorously for about 3 minutes; an electric mixer set on high speed works well here. You should have a very sticky dough. It won’t be pourable, but neither will it be kneadable. Scoop it into the prepared pan. (Take some care to level it out and push it into the corners of the pan. It may fight a bit, but you risk an uneven loaf if it isn’t leveled out.)

Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let it rise for 60 to 90 minutes; it should just about rise to the rim of the pan, perhaps just barely cresting over the rim. (I let mine go a full hour and it rose about 1/2-3/4″ above the pan.)

Preheat oven to 350*F. Uncover the bread, and bake it for about 40 to 45 minutes, tenting it with aluminum foil after 20 minutes. The bread is done when it’s golden brown on top, and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers between 190°F and 195°F. Remove it from the oven, and after 5 minutes turn it out onto a rack. Brush with melted butter, if desired; this will keep the crust soft (I didn’t bother, and the crust was still soft the next day). Cool the bread completely before cutting it.

Twofer: Honey-Gingered Pork Tenderloin

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It can be cumbersome coming up with a dinner idea some nights. I have a handful of ‘standards’ that I can whip up in a moment’s notice but there are evenings when even that fails me because I just don’t want to eat it. It’s hard for me to put my heart into something that I know I don’t want to eat, even if it is one of my favorites. These uninspired nights generally end up being bacon and egg nights, or even (eeek) ramen and toast nights. Don’t judge. Having the foresight to think up two dinners and only have to do the real cooking once is a life-saver. Most of those types of dinners around our house come from the Sunday Night Chicken Roast, but who’s roasting a bird when it’s a million degrees outside? Certainly not I, even with air conditioning. And to be honest, I’m kind of chickened out these days, we eat a lot of it.

Pork tenderloins aren’t something that make regular appearances at our house. The only pork persuasion  items that I generally buy with any sort of frequency are bacon and Italian sausage, and the occasional pork shoulder for a dinner party or carnitas. Sometimes I’ll buy a ham when they’re on sale around the holidays that warrant their immediate consumption. I sometimes get some fat pork chops when I’m blue and need gravy. I grabbed a couple tenderloins and froze them last week but only because they were fire-sale priced and really make for a fast dinner, as they cook in no time flat.

I managed to come up with a new twofer this week, which I’m a bit proud of. Night 1 was this Honey-Gingered pork tenderloin, with brown rice and foil-roasted green beans.  To make this a twofer, save about 1/4 of the pork tenderloin, and make double the amount of rice that you will need for dinner and save it for Night 2 Pork Fried Rice later in the week when you don’t feel like thinking up dinner (recipe to follow later this week).

I only made one pork tenderloin and used the entire amount of marinade. If you’re making two tenderloins like the recipe calls for, double the marinade so you have enough to boil down for sauce for dinner later in the week. The marinade was probably one of the best I’ve ever had, I didn’t even get to marinate it the entire time, either. I can only imagine how good it would have been if I pulled my life together and made it the night before like the recipe said! Also, for those who don’t eat pork, this would be amazing with turkey ‘tenderloins’, turkey breast or chicken breast.

Honey-Gingered Pork Tenderloins
Adapted from Gourmet magazine

Two 3/4-pound pork tenderloins (I only used one)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce (or tamari)
1/4 cup oyster sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced peeled fresh gingerroot
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pat pork dry and arrange in a shallow dish. In a bowl whisk together all remaining ingredients and pour marinade over pork. Turn pork to coat well. Chill pork, covered, turning it once or twice, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

Prepare grill.

Remove pork from marinade, reserving marinade, and arrange on a lightly oiled rack set 5 to 6 inches over glowing coals (or over medium high heat on a gas grill). Grill pork, basting with reserved marinade and turning it every 5 minutes, 15 minutes total. Continue to cook pork, turning it every 5 minutes, until a thermometer diagonally inserted 2 inches into center of tenderloin registers 155°F., about 10 minutes more. Let pork stand 5 minutes before thinly slicing.

For Sauce: Save the left over marinade! Pour into a saucepan, add 1/2 c. water, bring up to a boil and reduce the whole mixture by half. Drizzle a little over the sliced pork for tonight’s dinner, and save the rest for dinner later in the week.

Next up: Pork Fried Rice

Putting it together

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I was on my feet all day working a wine event and realized I didn’t have a dinner plan. The horror. Being food obsessed, this isn’t something that gets past me very often. I make my meal plans for at least 4-5 days at a span so I always have something yummy in the wings waiting to be prepared. That day, though, my mind was melting in the heat and my best-laid plans were all but gone. This, roughly translated, means that nothing that I had on my plan sounded good.

When I hopped in my car at the end of the day and tried to put something together that wasn’t a vat of frozen yogurt consumed in an ice cold shower. Something that didn’t require standing up too long since my dogs were barking, and something that was tasty and cool and refreshing, that didn’t require an additional trip to the store. Once I had slipped in to the sublime coldness of my air conditioned car I wasn’t getting back out until I was home sweet home.

I first made this shrimp cocktail many years back on an equally mind-melting night. I packed up my picnic hamper with cold beer and fresh tortilla chips and went over to Nick’s house, where he had a pool and air conditioning (I had neither of these things). We sat on the deck in the breeze and stuffed ourselves with chips and shrimp cocktail and ice cold beer, and declared this dish a withering-heat winner.

Food Purists take note: yes, I do know that this isn’t traditional ceviche. For those who are unsure what ceviche is, it’s fish and seafood cooked only with citrus juices, generally lime, whose acids ‘cook’ the fish. But Rick Bayless knows his Mexican cuisine, and I trust his naming of this concoction. It’s very similar to the coctail de camarones you get in a Mexican restaurant. And yes, it calls for ketchup. Think of it in this application as a pre-seasoned tomato sauce base (and don’t even try to use tomato sauce as a substitute, it won’t taste the same and you’ll be severely disappointed. You’ve been warned).

One could go about the shrimp preparation a number of different ways. The suggested poaching in lime water makes for succulent, soft shrimp, but in a pinch I’ve poached them with out the lime water when I didn’t have enough for the completed dish. I’ve also made this with defrosted, precooked, previously frozen deveined shrimp and no one was any the wiser. It’s a great dish to take to a barbecue or potluck, as well as for company. It’s surprisingly filling, too. So on a hot night when you have some folks over, a margarita or two or some icy cold Mexican beer and a great big communal bowl of this is a festive alternative to a sit down dinner. Make it ahead and stir in the avocado just before serving (it gets cloudy otherwise), serve some grill-roasted corn on the cob with chile powder and lime, and it meets or beats every taqueria whose coctail de camarones you’ve dared to try. Give it a whirl, you won’t be disappointed.

Ceviche de Camaron: Shrimp Ceviche “Cocktail”
by Rick Bayless, via Epicurious

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 generous pound unpeeled smallish shrimp (I prefer the ones that are 41/50 count to a pound)
1/2 medium white onion, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
1/2 cup ketchup
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegary Mexican bottled hot sauce (such as Tamazula, Valentina or Búfalo, the latter being on the sweet side)
About 2 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin (optional, but recommended to smooth out sharpness)
1 cup diced peeled cucumber or jícama (or 1/2 cup of each)
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed
Salt
Several lime slices for garnish
Tostadas or tortilla chips, store-bought or homemade or saltine crackers for serving

1. Cooking and Marinating the Shrimp.
Bring 1 quart salted water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Scoop in the shrimp, cover and let the water return to the boil. Immediately remove from the heat, set the lid askew and pour off all the liquid. Replace the cover and let the shrimp steam off the heat for 10 minutes. Spread out the shrimp in a large glass or stainless steel bowl to cool completely. Peel and devein the shrimp if you wish: One by one lay the shrimp on your work surface, make a shallow incision down the back and scrape out the (usually) dark intestinal tract. Toss the shrimp with the remaining 1/2 lime juice, cover and refrigerate for about an hour. Spare yourselves, kids – get the shrimp that are already peeled and deveined. No one will know but you.

2. The flavorings.
In a small strainer, rinse the onion under cold water, then shake off the excess liquid. Add to the shrimp bowl along with the cilantro, ketchup, hot sauce, optional olive oil, cucumber and/or jícama and avocado. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. Cover and refrigerate if not serving immediately.

3. Serving the ceviche.
Spoon the ceviche into sundae glasses, martini glasses, or small bowls: garnish with sprigs of cilantro and slices of lime. Serve with tostadas, tortilla chips or saltines to enjoy alongside. We dispense with the additional dishes and eat it out of the big bowl like savages. You may do as you wish, it IS lovely in a tall glass with a couple of shrimp hanging off the side, with the extra lime slices and cilantro sprigs.

Working Ahead:
The ceviche is best made the day it is served. The flavorings can be added to the shrimp a few hours in advance.

Way Back

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Does anyone else out there remember pudding pops? On a recent trip to the grocery store I had a sudden want for them (I’ve been on a big frozen dessert kick lately with the uptick in the mercury) and in wandering the frozen food aisle was bereft to find they didn’t have any. And when I asked the kid who was stocking the cases if they still carried them, he questioned what they were, and asked if I maybe meant fudgesicles? Obviously they’ve been gone of the shelves longer than I thought, and I suddenly felt like I was eleventy-billion years old. I wanted to ask this whippersnapper if he knew what a VHS tape was and if he’e ever heard of a man named Bill Cosby, but resisted the urge to completely embarrass myself and wheeled my cart away in shame.

After traveling through the meat counter, the deli and the produce department, I had an idea. Looking at the strawberries in my hand, I decided to try to make myself some pudding pops. Even if they weren’t the same silky consistency, they would probably be pretty damn good. I wandered to the baking aisle.

I never realized there were so  many flavors of pudding, I’m such a chocolate pudding kid that I never even thought that they made flavors other than that and vanilla. There was butterscotch, caramel, pistachio (in a very fetching shade of mint green, might I add), chocolate, milk chocolate, Oreo cookie and cream, vanilla, french vanilla, banana, and the one I settled on: cheesecake. I came up with a cold dozen different combinations of pudding and adjuncts with which to make pops; I told myself I was pudding-blind and to put back the butterscotch, with a silent promise to make the banana-butterscotch pops dancing in my head the next time if the first batch came out edible.

Back at the ranch, I rinsed and dried some strawberries and whizzed together my pudding and milk. I stirred in a little bit of vanilla extract to give it a more homemade flavor, though who was I kidding; I bought the fat-free sugar-free mix and there’s no real way the pudding was going to taste homemade. I know I crow a lot about only eating things that a 5 year old can pronounce and that processed food is the downfall of society. But sometimes a girl needs a mouthful of junk. And fewer calories and fat. And besides, I added strawberries, that had to health it up at least a little bit.

With the strawberries sliced and gently folded into my pudding, I filled up the ice pop molds, which was not as easy as it sounded. I left the strawberries in big chunks and my molds are the skinny, flat variety, so it took some finagling. Next time I’m going to mix up the pudding in a zip top bag and cut off a corner of it to faux-pipe the mixture into the molds. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I need to keep more of the pudding off the counter next time. I’m sure Bill Cosby never had this problem way back when.

If you venture out into making these, be sure to give the molds a couple of good smacks on the counter after filling, to force the air bubbles to the top. Don’t worry about splashing, the pudding is fairly set up. Total cost for 10 pops was less than $2, and each pop is less than 40 calories according to some quick math. Wallet and waistline friendly!

Strawberry Cheesecake Pudding Pops
Makes 10 in my ice pop molds, will vary with mold size

1 package instant Cheesecake flavored pudding (I used sugar-free fat-free)
2 cups cold milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup sliced strawberries
1 graham cracker, crushed

In a mixing bowl (or a zip top plastic bag), combine the milk, pudding and vanilla, and prepare according to package directions. Gently fold in the strawberries, and fill clean ice pop molds with the mixture, leaving a bit of room at the top for expansion (less than 1/4″ headspace). Sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs, insert popsicle sticks, and freeze until firm (1-2 hours).

What’s For Dessert?

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Summer is officially on it’s way here in the wine country. We had a couple of days of scorching heat last week, and are due for a few more hot ones in the coming days as well. The heat makes my tummy think of barbecuing, cole slaw, potato salad, and fruits and veggies at their finest. Summer eating is the greatest!

At the store the other day, peaches were on sale for a decent price. These aren’t local peaches, but because they were grown within 500 miles of here and their intoxicating perfume mesmerized me, I picked out the best of them and in to the cart they went. Stone fruits are my very favorite part of summer produce. It’s still a little early, but there was no talking myself out of them once I had a whiff!

I considered making a pie, bellinis, an upside down cake, but I really didn’t want to cook them, and we had nary a bottle of bubbles in the house to make with the cocktails (for shame!). What to  make, what to make? And then it hit me: ice cream. Wait, better yet, ice cream sandwiches.

My mom makes legendary ice cream sandwiches, with all kinds of combinations of homemade cookies and the finest ice creams money can buy. We are big ice cream people in our family; my dad and I almost always had a scoop after dinner when I was a kid. My brother still requests ice cream sandwiches for his birthday dessert every year, both to eat that evening and a handful to take home and not share with anyone. I can’t say I blame him.

I settled on butterscotch chip cookies to go with my peach ice cream, and wished quietly that I hadn’t finished off the container of Trader Joe’s Praline Pecans (have you had these things? If not go buy some, like, now). They would have been the best most tasty business to finely chop and roll the exposed edges of the sandwiches in.  My cookie recipe was the one off the back of the bag, which I of course already tossed in the recycle so I can’t give you the exact one, but it was really similar to this recipe. Simply omit the white sugar, and use a bag of butterscotch chips for the chocolate ones. Easy peasy. When baking your cookies, though, try to get them as symmetrical as possible, for easier pairing and sandwich assembly. I use a #3 scoop.

For our ritualistic ice cream makings, we use a Donvier ice cream maker with great results, as I haven’t broken down and bought the ice cream maker attachment for my mixer. We like this one because it’s quiet, does the job well, and is very, very little work. And without further ado, here’s the ice cream recipe. I’m a lazy kid and try to avoid making a custard base for my ice cream at just about any cost (tempering eggs frightens me), but if you have a favorite recipe please feel free to use it. In a pinch, buy some highest quality peach ice cream or gelato from your neighborhood purveyor.

No-Cook Peach Ice Cream
Adapted from Southern Living

1 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk (I used fat free)
1 5 oz. can of evaporated milk (again, fat free)
1 1/4 c. half and half*
4 medium sized peaches, peeled and sliced
1/4 c. lemon juice
2 T. sugar
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. peach nectar
1 t. vanilla extract
2 T. bourbon (optional)

In a large pitcher or mixing bowl, combine the condensed milk, evaporated milk, and half and half. Place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to chill.

Combine peaches, lemon juice, sugar and salt in a food processor, whiz a couple of times until the mixture is broken into chunks, but not completely pureed.  Stir this mixture and the peach nectar into the cold milk mixture, and process in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. Remove from ice cream maker to a small freezer container, and freeze for 1 to 2 hours until firm.

* I have a method to my madness here with my half and half. I used fat free condensed and evaporated milks to cut calories and fat, but used full-fat half and half in the mixture for mouth feel and in the past have even used heavy cream (which of course is the most creamy and the most fattening). When I made the recipe in the past with regular whole milk and the full fat condensed/evap milks, it got really icy and didn’t have that true creamy consistency. After tinkering around I found that the half and half really helps to keep it creamy and luscious, but it is still a little more icy than a full-fat ice cream base. Oh! And the bourbon? That keeps the ice cream from getting too hard in the freezer. This is completely optional, of course, if you’re making this for kiddies or simply don’t want the alcohol in there, simply leave it out.

When you assemble your sandwiches, go ahead and pair up your cookies first so they all have nicely matching mates. Inevitably there are a couple of crooked ones that fit better together than with other cookies, thus making your batch more uniform. When all of your cookies are paired, plop a fat scoop (don’t be shy here) of the ice cream in the middle of one of the cookies, and smoosh it’s top on. Press down to stick them together, but not too hard so the ice cream doesn’t goosh out everywhere. Wrap each in a wax paper bag or plastic wrap sheet, and freeze for at least an hour prior to serving.

And here are the sandwiches, fully assembled. Maybe I’ll call up my brother and share with him.

Hearthside Happy Hour: Sangria

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In typing the title there, I realize that I’m going to have to rename this series of segments someday, as we have no hearth in our new home.

I’m going to be so, so sad about that come Fall. But right now, it’s springtime and sunny. And there’s a festive reason to eat and drink this weekend (though you know me, I don’t need a festive reason to do either of these things).

I got an email from a reader (remind me to teach you guys how to comment soon) asking about a Sangria recipe, as there are many out there and they vary widely in ingredients and additions. Some call for lemon lime soda, some call for orange soda, some call for orange juice, some call for brandy and some don’t, ad nauseum. I’m here to tell you, it’s going to depend on how sweet you want your punch. I personally like to let the fruit and wine do the talking and let the sweetness take a back seat. This is a twofold preference, as the sugar added to the red wine makes for a Wicked hangover if you have too many. And a red wine drunk is bad, but a red wine hangover is awful.

Or so someone told me.

Here are a handful of tips:

  • Make your sangria at least 4 hours before you’re serving it and stick it in the fridge. This will help with keeping it cold later.
  • If you are heeding my advice and making it hours ahead, add the sparkling water just before serving (and make sure it’s cold before adding).
  • Use an inexpensive red wine, but not an out-and-out cheap wine. I prefer using Yellow Tail over Two Buck Chuck.
  • I personally like my Sangria a little less sweet, and so I use mineral water or club soda in place of the lemon lime soda. You may do as you wish, but in my personal polls most people dig it without the sweet soda. It’s more refresca that way.
  • You can easily sub in white wine for the red if the mood strikes you.
  • For a larger party or open house, I like to make fruit skewers to put into the glasses and serve the punch from a dispenser. And I drizzle my skewers with a little bit of Triple Sec for some added kick.
  • Speaking of fruit, the I list the basics in the recipe. You can add strawberries, blueberries, apple slices and melon cubes to your skewers or serving glasses.
  • And if you are using additional fruit in your dispenser or punch bowl, wash and freeze it prior to adding it to the container. Helps keep your punch cool.
  • If you’re using a beverage dispenser, do yourself a favor and pick the seeds out of the citrus. Nothing slows a party down like having to disassemble the nozzle and pry out a seed. And it’s not as easy as it sounds.
  • And last but not least, adding ice cubes directly to the Sangria if you’re serving it punch bowl or dispenser style will water it down in a hurry. Keep the ice on the side and let people fill their cups with it on their own.

And without further ado, here’s the recipe.

Sangria
Makes 8 servings, and scales up easily

1 750-ml bottle of dry red wine
1 1/2 cups of club soda, mineral water, or lemon-lime soda (regular or diet)
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 lime, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 orange, thinly sliced
1/2 cup brandy
1/4 cup sugar or honey or agave
2 tablespoons orange liqueur (triple sec, Cointreau, etc.)

Combine all in a large pitcher and let sit for at least 30 minutes prior to serving. Serve over ice with additional lemon, lime and orange slices, and any other fruits you wish.

Cinco de Mayo ~ Taco Bar and Side Dishes

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A taco bar is one of the easiest, most festive buffets that you can lay out for people. I love having sit-down dinners for a handful of people, but sometimes we have open house-style get togethers where people are coming and going throughout an afternoon and it’s nice to be able to have food come out in waves, or to be able to replenish as the day goes on. With a little bit of careful planning and menu construction, you can have a full-blown taco bar for an entire day.

My favorite taco bar set-up includes the following:

Carnitas or Carne Asada
Margarita Marinated Chicken or Shrimp
Tortillas, corn and flour (because my gringo self loves a flour tortilla)
Salsas, rojo and tomatillo (green)
Diced green onions
Pickled red onions
Shredded cheddar and crumbled Cotija cheese
Shredded cabbage or iceberg lettuce
Chopped cilantro
Lime wedges
Many, many hot sauces (and in fact I have been known to host a hot-sauce competition, getting everyone to bring one and we vote on which is best)
Fruit salad
Black bean and corn salad (mine is similar to this one, without the salad greens and sometimes with cucumber instead of mango)
Tortilla Chips
Refried beans
Guacamole (lots and lots of guacamole)

And of course, beverages:

Sangria Rojo (or Blanco, but only if the weather is REALLY hot)
Mexican beer selection
Lots of cut up limes

What, no margaritas? Depends on the size of the crowd, but usually, no. I’m too cheap to buy stuff for marges, because I only like them top shelf. Tequila also has a way of turning a party into a Par-Tay so I usually steer away from it. I never turn a soul down that wants to bring them, though.

As for folks bringing things, you can make this a less expensive party if your friends are like ours and offer to bring things. Make a list of what you want on your bar (or snacks you’d like to have) and when people ask, say ‘why yes, if you’d bring four avocados it would be awesome!’ You can also word your invitation to have your pals bring a bottle of inexpensive red wine to keep the Sangria pot full or a 6 pack of their favorite Mexican beer. The hooch is by far the most expensive part of a party but spread out this way it becomes a lot more affordable for everyone involved.

On  my taco bar, the condiment that always seems to fly off the buffet, that I can never seem to make enough of, is the pickled red onions. They’re not traditional by any means, but a smattering of them gives a nice vinegary brightness to the food that cuts through the richness of the fillings. And they are so, so easy to make.

Pickled Red Onions

In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup of rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice, a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Bring up to a simmer, stirring occasionally, to dissolve the sugar and salt.

Meanwhile, dice a medium-large red onion and place in a non-reactive, heat proof bowl or jar (I use canning jars for this). Pour your vinegar mixture over the top of the onions, submerging them in the liquid. Make these several hours ahead of time so they can really get pickle-y, or even a day or two ahead and cross it off of your list.

Saving up

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As summer marches on toward my favorite season, Fall, things are finally starting to ripen around the wine country and we’ve been gifted a BUNCH of fruit from one of N’s family members. No joke, I have a grocery bag of apples, a grocery bag of green pears and a TWO gallon-size bags of French prune plums. I quickly dispatched half the prunes to some of my unsuspecting family members, put the pears in a pretty apothecary jar to be viewed and loved until they ripened, and got out a couple of pretty baskets and bowls to display the apples in.

I’m not one of those people that lays out fruit to slowly die and collect fruit flies, though, I like to use mine up. I’m just not accustomed to getting so much at once. So, we save it for a rainy day. Those plums, while tasty now, are going in the dehydrator for later eating. The pears were sacrificed into a crisp with cardamom and a nice oatmeal streusal top.

And those apples. I got another bag from an enterprising client this week which brings my grand total of appledom to way more than we can eat! Granted I’ll save a handful for juicing (yes, dear reader, I added to my collection of small appliances and bought a juicer) but the rest are what I like to call Future Pie.

Future Pie is easy to accomplish. On your next trip to the hardware store or the grocery store, grab yourself some Fruit Fresh, a citric acid based powder that keeps the brown at bay on sliced fruits. When you get home, get out your favorite mixing bowl, big enough to stir around about six cups of sliced fruit.

Now. Get out your apple slicer if you have one, or find someone in your house that you can Tom Sawyer into helping you peel and slice up your apples. Add your Fruit Fresh, a half teaspoon for every cup of fruit you slice. Stir it all up nicely and dump it into a gallon freezer bag, seal it up, lay it flat on it’s side on a cookie sheet, label accordingly. Stuff the whole business in the freezer and let ‘er go until frozen solid. And just like that you’ve made yourself a sweet insurance policy to be enjoyed in the coming months. This works with just about any fruit, too. I’ve done it with peaches and nectarines with equal success.

Later this fall or winter or whatever, when you have an insatiable need for apple pie or last minute dinner guests, defrost your fruit. Make yourself a pie crust or a crumble topping (or if you’re one of those enterprising types that keeps a spare in the freezer get that out and defrost it) and get your pan and oven ready as you normally would. Add your favorite secret squirrel spices and some sugar to your fruit and proceed as usual with your chosen recipe.

Happy Freezing!

I don’t accept.

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The weekend started off promising enough. Good night’s sleep followed by coffee, farmer’s market, and a carnival at a local park sound like a good enough kick off to a weekend, right? I decided we were having burgers for dinner, complete with grass fed beef and homemade buns (because beef that good deserves a homemade bun). I started my dough, set it in a spot to rise, and made my way to the farmer’s market.

And then I got some news about a beloved family member that rocked my world. Don’t worry, everything will be OK, but it was a minor shock. OK, it was a major shock and things won’t exactly be OK but everything is manageable, one day at a time and we will make do. I came home and reeled for a minute or four, got my bearings, and formed and baked my buns on autopilot. Baking while distracted has never been my strong suit, and I’m always leery to try a new recipe that requires yeast anyway so my confidence wasn’t exactly high to begin with. And not that the buns didn’t come out fine, but I didn’t pat them down enough and they got very tall instead of wide enough to be a burger bun. N said they looked great and we’d have sliders instead, no big deal and who doesn’t love a tiny burger? (He could obviously see the wildness in my eyes when I pulled the buns out of the oven.)

Well, I don’t love a tiny burger if it wasn’t what I set out to make, dammit. I don’t accept. So I got out my trusty bread machine and made the bun recipe that I knew would come out just how I wanted them. And they didn’t. The meteoric rise of my breads yesterday should have made me giddy but for buns that I require to be of a certain stature, the loftiness of these guys was a let-down. And now I have more than a dozen buns and we are not huge bread eaters. Sorry blogosphere, but I’m not giving you a picture of them. I will tell you that they were tasty, but that my trusty recipe yielded a better bun with a lighter crumb than the half whole wheat bun, which was a bit too dense and the dough was almost not even workable when I was forming them. I subbed in a cup of rye flour for one cup of the regular flour in my trusty recipe, and have had equal success subbing in a cup of whole wheat flour as well.

I headed off to visit my family this afternoon and had offered to bring an appetizer to the barbecue, and I’ll admit it was a a tough afternoon for me (this is the family with ‘the news’). After Saturday you think I would have learned my lesson, and I did: I told myself to persevere and be calm, to be strong and smile and have a great time, even if inside I’m a little sad and wistful and not sure about my footing or place in the world. And I pictured myself serving a yummy appetizer that everyone would love and that came out perfect the first time, and it happened. I also brought my grandparents a bag of homemade sandwich buns, and just as I knew they would, they loved them and were so excited. See? Everything happens for a reason. And I just need to remember that sometimes.

Zucchini Squares

Makes 24 Small Squares

4 eggs, lightly beaten
A pinch of garlic powder, or one clove of fresh garlic, minced
1/2 t. each of salt and dried basil (I subbed in about 2 T. minced fresh basil)
1/2 t. dried parsley, or 1 1/2 t. fresh minced parsley
1/2 c. oil (I swear that’s what the recipe says, so use whatever kind you like. I use canola.)
1/2 c. grated cheese (again, baker’s choice. Parmesan is good, and so is cheddar.)
1/2 c. biscuit mix (whichever is your favorite, we’re Bisquick people.)
1 small onion, chopped
2 c. grated zucchini or summer squash, or a combination of the two

Combine all in a bowl and pour into a lightly oiled 7 x 10″ pan. Bake at 350* for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned and set. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature.

Soul Salvation

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Sometimes only a sandwich will do for dinner. A little something layered between a couple of slices of worthy bread every now and again is truly something to salve the soul. Well, tonight was one of those nights around the Young household.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. This sandwich was composed of one big chicken breast that I filleted in twain and grilled over a quick hot fire, some great sandwich buns (thank you Alvarado Street Bakery for making some great whole wheat, whole grain burger buns), and some extra basil mayo that was made for the best deviled eggs I’ve made in a while, which we enjoyed with friends over the weekend (a post on that to follow). While the chicken was grilling and resting, I roasted some yukon gold potato slices in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes with some olive oil, salt and pepper, to have on the side. The result, as N claimed, was pretty fantastic, even for a Monday. This is one of those big, fat, don’t-set-it-down-it-may-fall-apart sandwiches. Definitely required 2 napkins.

Grilled Chicken BLTs

Serves 2

1 big boneless skinless chicken breast, filleted in two
3 slices of best-quality applewood smoked bacon, cooked until crisp
6 oven roasted roma tomato halves (you could also sub in sundried tomatoes in olive oil, drained, or a couple of hearty fresh tomato slices)
2 T. Quick Basil Aioli (recipe courtesy of Orangette)
2 Alvarado Street Sprouted Wheat Hamburger Buns, or similar sandwich bun, split
Cucumber Slices
2 Iceberg Lettuce Leaves

Cook bacon slices in a heavy bottomed skillet until crisp, remove to paper towels to drain.

Preheat your grill (ours is gas) on medium high, and sprinkle your chicken fillets on both sides with a bit of salt and pepper. Grill chicken for 3-5 minutes per side or until done (use your thermometer if you’re unsure). Before chicken is finished, grill the cut sides of the buns until lightly toasted. Remove chicken and buns from grill.

To assemble, spread each half of your buns with a half a tablespoon of the basil aioli. Layer on your bacon slices (1 1/2 slices per sandwich), the chicken breast, tomato slices, and cucumber slices. Stop to apply some cracked black pepper, add in the lettuce leaves, and cap with the top of the bun. Give it a good smash with the heel of your hand to make the sandwich more readily edible.