Monday, July 4, 2016

4th of July Potato Salad

Spend some time on the internet reading up on potato salad, as I did on this 4th of July morning, and you will find that it is a topic of great passion and debate. You will find recipes that say not to use russet potatoes but the comments below will be full of people who swear by using russets. You will find great debates on whether the best potato salad should be creamy, mayo-based or should it be made with a vinaigrette. You will find that people can be almost religious about their mayonnaise (Hellman's, Miracle Whip, Best Foods). And everyone's mother, grandmother or Nana made "the best" potato salad.

Potato salad is simple and versatile but, in the end, we all want the potato salad that we all grew up with. So I went with a basic mayo-based potato salad. But in my research I did pick up a few tips/tricks:

When boiling the potatoes, start with cold water that is well salted. The potatoes will absorb some of the salt improving their flavor.

As potatoes are cooling, splash a little red wine vinegar over them. Again, they will absorb some of the flavor and it will add a nice contrast to the starchy potato flavor.

Because you will be working with mayonnaise, make sure the potatoes are not hot as you are mixing the ingredients.

Look, as I did, at a number of recipes and create your own with the ingredients that grab you.

4th of July Potato Salad

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. potatoes - I used two different types of fingerling potatoes
  • 1 cup finely chopped celery stalks
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
  • 1/2 cup of relish or chopped pickles - I diced up a half of a friend's spicy pickle
  • 2-3 coarsely chopped hard boiled eggs
  • 1 generous tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise or to desired creaminess
  • Salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • 1.5 tsp. celery seed
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic salt
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Paprika
Directions:
  • Start ahead of time by making the eggs. Cover them completely with cold water and then bring the water to a boil. Once boiling, turn off heat and let eggs sit in the hot water for 10-12 minutes. Remove and let cool. This can be done a few days ahead of time.
  • Scrub the potatoes clean. 
  • Cover them with cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Let potatoes boil about 7-8 minutes for smaller potatoes and up to 12 for large russets. Test with a knife to reach the right consistency.
  • Drain potatoes into a colander and lightly drizzle the potatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
  • Chop potatoes into cubes. Peels on or off--that's your choice.
  • In a large bowl combine all ingredients adding mayonnaise last. Stir to mix well and add mayonnaise in batches and stir to mix. Continue to add and mix in mayo until you get to your desired consistency.
  • Spoon the potato salad into a serving bowl and garnish with a few pinches of paprika.

Happy Summer!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Sweet Potato and Carrot Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms


We had an abundance of sweet potatoes in the pantry. They are definitely one food item I need to figure out how to utilize efficiently. Too often, I end up tossing a moldy bag into the compost bin. I know I could easily roast them or dice them up and add them to a risotto. Lots of people just bake them the same way as a russet potato. I had, at one time, been working to find a good oven-baked sweet potato fries recipe but I have yet to perfect that recipe. Too often, sweet potato recipes often include ingredients like maple syrup or tiny marshmallows which are two things we don't care for much. Thus began my search for an acceptable way to use up the latest batch of sweet potatoes from our CSA box.

Since we had so many sweet potatoes, I decided to explore a soup figuring that I could put it into smaller containers and stick them in the freezer awaiting a nice, easy weeknight dinner. After searching for a bit, I finally settled on this soup from Vegetarian Times. Their title doesn't contain carrots but we thought the flavor of the carrots was present enough that they deserved being on the bill. Their version was also a bisque that contained heavy cream. I read that heavy cream doesn't freeze well (it's possible but it just takes more work than I wanted to put in). So I did an adaptation of the recipe (leaving out the heavy cream) knowing that the soup was destined for the freezer. I made a note on the containers about possibly adding cream after reheating but when we pulled out the first batch out of the freezer a few weeks later I opted not to add the cream and the soup was quite tasty without it.


Sweet Potato and Carrot Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms

Ingredients:
  • Sweet potatoes - 1 lb. peeled and cut into small chunks
  • Carrots - 3 medium sized, peeled and diced
  • Shiitake mushrooms - 5 oz. cleaned and diced
  • Garlic - 2-3 cloves minced
  • Yellow onion - 1 large, peeled and chopped
  • Unsalted butter - 6 tbsp.
  • Tomato puree - 1 cup
  • White wine - 3/4 cup
  • Vegetable stock - 4 cups
  • Scallions - 6 trimmed and finely minced
  • White pepper - 1/4 tsp.
  • Cayenne pepper - 1/4 tsp.
  • Salt and black pepper - to taste
Preparation:
  • Prep the potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic
  • Heat 4 tbsp. butter in a large saucepan over medium heat
  • Add onions and carrots and slowly stir until onions are translucent
  • Add minced garlic and let it cook until it releases its fragrance
  • Add broth, wine, sweet potatoes, seasonings, and tomato puree and slowly bring to a boil
  • Reduce heat, cover, and cook on low for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are soft
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Let cool slightly and use an immersion blender to puree the soup
At this point, I took it off the heat and let it cool until I could ladle it into freezer containers. Now, come the day you take it out of the freezer and once you have it defrosted and are beginning to reheat it, you could elect to add 1/4 cup of heavy cream to make it into a bisque. But I decided to forego the extra calories. However, the garnish is worth making as it adds a nice earthy flavor contrast to the sweetness of the potato and carrot.

Topping Preparation:
  • Heat 2 tbsp. butter in a skillet over medium heat
  • Add diced Shiitake mushrooms and stir to cook until they begin to soften
  • Add chopped scallions and cook until everything is tender 
  • Remove from heat and spoon onto the center of the soup just before serving.
Serve soup with some crunchy bread and olive oil.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Celery Leaf Pesto

When most of us buy celery at the store, most or all of the tops have already been removed. We have been conditioned to think of the tops of celery as something that gets thrown out or of no use. That is such a waste. There is much to enjoy in those celery greens. I've gotten better by using them as another ingredient in my homemade soup stock when there are some celery greens in the house.

But we recently picked up some celery at our local farmer's market and all of the beautiful, bright green celery leaves were still intact on top...as it occurs in nature. They look like giant flat leaf Italian parsley leaves.

The sight of the gorgeous green leaves begged the question (as it did a few years ago with beet greens), how can celery leaves be put to use beyond a soup stock ingredient?

After some online research I found that there is much to be done with fresh celery greens.

  • First, you can toss the fresh, cleaned celery leaves into a salad. 
  • The greens could also be tossed into a soup or a risotto just before serving.
  • They are an edible garnish similar to the way parsley leaves are used. 
  • They can be one of the greens in your morning smoothie.
  • Use celery leaves as a substitute for parsley in a tabbouleh salad.
  • I read some articles online about how to freeze the leaves until you are ready to make soup stock. 
  • Dry the leaves, crumble them up, and use them as a dried herb.
The last idea also resonated with me as I found a recipe for creating a celery salt that I do want to try at some point. You can find the details here

So after all of this online research, I settled on starting with the celery leaf pesto after reading Chef Cara Mangini's blog post about the celery pesto she keeps on hand in her Ohio restaurant.

I adapted her recipe to fit in with all of the basil pesto I've been making recently.

Celery Leaf Pesto

Ingredients:
  • Leaves from one natural stalk of celery
  • Toasted pine nuts - 1/3 cup
  • Garlic - 2-4 cloves
  • Parmesan cheese - 1/2 cup grated
  • High quality olive oil - 3/4 to 1 cup
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Mince garlic into a food processor bowl
  2. Add toasted pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and cleaned celery leaves
  3. Pulse a number of times to chop up and blend ingredients
  4. Turn on food processor and slowly add olive oil
  5. Blend until desired consistency
  6. Salt and pepper to taste
So I made the pesto and then used a tablespoon to pour the pesto into a lightly non-stick sprayed ice cube tray. I placed the pesto-filled ice cube tray into the freezer for a day or two. Then popped out the cubes of pesto and stored them into a freezer bag until ready to use.

How have I used them? Well, I'm just getting started, but I did defrost a cube to add to a pan of scrambled eggs.

I also used some to make a bruschetta. As a side for a light dinner, I toasted a piece of bread and added a thin layer of celery pesto and topped it with diced tomatoes.

I am planning using future cubes to be added to any soup or stock.

I am just glad to use up something that might have formerly gone into the compost bin.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

In the Garden: April 2016 - Apricot Tree Removed

When we had our backyard redone a number of years ago, we had a variety of fruit trees planted: lemon, lime, apple, peach, and apricot. We requested that all of them be the dwarf variety. However, the apricot tree became a fast-growing specimen getting quite tall and taller each year. We had it trimmed a few times. But ultimately, it's size meant that the vegetable beds were not getting enough sun light. So, after two years of poor output in the vegetable beds, we finally decided the apricot tree needed to go. The only thing we had to assuage our guilt was that over the holidays a neighbor advertised that she was looking for cuttings to propagate new fruit trees. She came by and took a number of cuttings from the then dormant tree. But the transformation in the backyard is incredible. Lots more sunshine in the backyard and hoping that this year's vegetable bed out put is better.

Another benefactor of the removed apricot tree is the apple tree which spent most of its life thus far living in the shadows of the apricot tree. But this spring, the apple tree has turned around. It has literally and figuratively blossomed. So far it has not produced too much fruit but I think this year will be different.

Spent some time last weekend working our compost into the vegetable beds. All of our kitchen and yard scraps go into the green bin which gets picked up separately. This gets turned into compost. Then, each Earth Day, every resident gets 3 bags of compost for free.

So, I will let the soil rest and incorporate the new compost. Sometime in May, I will head to the nursery to pick up this year's crop.





Saturday, February 6, 2016

Roasted Beets on Hummus

Around this time of year we start to get a lot of beets in the box. We've been getting better about using up the beet greens in weeknight stir-fries. For the beets themselves, I have tended to roast them and I add them to salads along with celery, carrots, and roasted almonds

But over the holidays, we were up in Healdsburg for a few days and had a very nice dinner at John Ash in Santa Rosa. One of courses was, for me, a complete standout. It was roasted beets served over a base of hummus and drizzled with a verjus vinaigrette. 

I did a little research and discovered that verjus is the pressed juice of unripe grapes. It is similar to vinegar but the flavor is more subtle and gentle. I have not seen it in the local supermarkets but it can be obtained online for $20-$25. But each brand can have its own taste and it could take one some time and money to find a brand you like.

So I have served this as a side dish a number of times at home since I had it at the restaurant--all the while thinking about how best to bring this recipe to the home cook. You can substitute rice wine or white wine vinegar for the verjus. To make a vinaigrette you want 3 parts vinegar with one part oil. I made the mistake of trying a flavored oil which didn't work at all. You can also use any type of salad dressing that's in the Italian family. Whether it's your own or bottled, you just don't want to overdo the application. The hummus and beets have plenty of flavor. The vinaigrette just heightens the existing flavors. Experiment and find your own preference. 

For the beets, you most often will find the classic red beets but golden beets are increasingly available. I used a mix on the night I took the photos. Roasting them together causes the golden beets to turn red. Wash beets thoroughly and cut off the tops and the rat tail-like base. Put them in a roasting pan with just enough water to cover the base of the dish. Cover and place them in a 350 degree oven for an hour. Remove and let cool. When they are cool enough to handle, use your fingers to peel off the skin. Cut them up and they will keep for about a week in the refrigerator. 

This is an excellent side dish that is hearty and filling. The hummus keeps it grounded but the beets are subtle, sweet but still earthy. The splashes of Italian dressing adds some brightness.

Roasted Beets on Hummus

Ingredients:
  • 4-6 beets - roasted, peeled, and diced
  • hummus - store bought or homemade
  • vinaigrette of choice
Directions:
  • Use a spoon to lay down a bed of hummus
  • Spoon some beets over the top
  • Drizzle a bit of vinaigrette over the top



Saturday, January 2, 2016

Slow Cooker Thai Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut squash is typically associated with fall but its season is fall to winter when evenings are getting cooler and the amount of sunlight begins to noticeably wane.

This is a super easy yet slightly exotic soup and it is the perfect accompaniment to the changing weather. It would be a great weeknight treat. It's also a good soup to have by the mugful on a chilly weekend while you're reading a book.

I ran into this recipe while continuing my search for ways to use the slow cooker. Karen Raye's Kitchen Treaty food blog is a nice one and is worth exploring. I've added it to my list on the right.

Her Thai Curry Butternut Squash soup is great because there are only five ingredients. The one thing you have to be careful about is the Thai Curry paste. It packs a punch. If you don't like spicy then start with 1 teaspoon. I did two teaspoons and I thought it was good but my spouse thought it was too spicy. You will need to find your comfort zone and/or the comfort zone of those you will serve this to. You can find the paste in many supermarkets these days. If not, you can order it through Amazon.


Thai Butternut Squash Soup


Ingredients:

  • Butternut squash - 1 medium to large
  • Yellow onion - peeled and chopped
  • Broth - 4 cups
  • Thai Red Curry paste - 1 1/2 teaspoon or to taste
  • Coconut milk - 1 14 oz. can (not light)
Directions:

The night before:
  • Peel, seed, and dice the butternut squash
  • Peel and chop onion
Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

The morning of:
  • Add squash, onions, and broth to your slow cooker
  • Cook on low for 8-10 hours
That evening:
  • Turn off the slow cooker and remove the lid to lower the temperature
  • When cooler, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth
  • Stir in the coconut milk
  • Stir in the red curry paste
Let the flavors marry. Taste to see if you want to add more curry paste or salt. You can garnish with some roasted pepitas or pine nuts. A sprig of parsley or cilantro can also be added.

Note: One of the questions that came to mind as I was making this is whether or not I could freeze it since it has coconut milk in it. The answer I found online is that it's perfectly acceptable to freeze it. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Sweet Potato & White Bean Soup

A long time ago, I picked up a slow cooker with the intention of trying to utilize it and take advantage of the convenience. I made a pretty good bean stew and promised to try more. But I haven't really done that and whenever I look at slow cooker cookbooks I always notice how meat-heavy they are.

While walking through the cookbook section of my local library (which I do every time I visit it), a cookbook caught my attention: The Vegan Slow Cooker by Kathy Hester. I checked it out of the library, brought it home, and proceeded to page through it reading through the recipes. There were easily a dozen recipes that I wanted to try. No more needing to skip through entire chunks of the book to avoid the meat recipes.

With the author being vegan, there are parts of the book dedicated to workarounds particular to vegans. And some of the recipes looked a little bland; written perhaps with the entire country in mind. Here in California, we have so many exotic ingredients available to us. So I immediately noticed places where I could add some changes and upgrades.

I decided to start with this recipe because we had multiple bags of sweet potatoes delivered that needed to be used up. I doctored up the recipe a bit.

On this particular December day, I was able to come home for lunch and get all of the ingredients into the slow cooker. I had an after-work holiday event to attend so I knew I wouldn't be home until a few hours later than usual. So I set this up to be our late dinner.

It was nice to walk through the door and pick up the scent of the simmering soup. This is a great weeknight meal for cooler fall and winter nights. Some good bread and olive oil goes along nicely.

Sweet Potato and White Bean Soup

Ingredients:
  • Sweet potato - About 3 medium to small potatoes, peeled and chopped into mostly equal-sized chunks
  • Garlic - 3 cloves, minced
  • Celery - 3 stalks, cleaned and chopped
  • Diced tomatoes - 1 14 oz. can
  • White beans - 1 14 oz. can of beans, drained and rinsed
  • Veggie broth - 5 cups
  • Greens - 1 15 oz. bag of prepared greens. I used a bag of baby kale leaves.
  • Parsley - leaves of 2-3 sprigs, chopped
  • Bay leaf - 1-2 leaves
  • Parmesan cheese - grated
  • White pepper - 1/4 tsp or more to taste
  • Salt and papper - to taste
  • Flour - 4 tbsp
Directions:

The night before:
  • Prepare the celery and sweet potatoes and store in air-tight container in the refrigerator.
The day of:
  • Add sweet potatoes, celery, herbs, beans, tomatoes, minced garlic, white pepper and broth to the slow cooker and heat on low for 6-8 hours until potatoes are softened. 
  • Remove bay leaf and parsley sprigs. 
  • Before serving put the flour in a bowl. Ladle some broth into the bowl. Whisk to dissolve the flour. Once it is fully dissolved add it all back to the slow cooker and stir to mix.
  • About 20 minutes before serving add in greens and let them cook down.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Top with some cheese and garnish with chopped parsley leaves.
  • Serves 4.