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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fancy Food Show: Not Completely Stupid

The 2010 Fancy Food Show has wrapped up in New York City, and while some of the offerings fall into the head-scratching or just plain "Eww" category—haggis potato chips, anybody?—we have to admit that some of them make sense. Check out the pesto company that's designed packaging to keep the contents from spoiling. Our favorite, though, is hot chocolate on a stick, which comes in several flavors, including salted caramel.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Eggplant Pasta Sauce

Over the weekend Salon ran an interesting recipe for eggplant-based pasta sauce, written by a former eggplant hater. Admittedly, eggplant is a tricky vegetable. Properly prepared, it has a wonderful smoky silkiness. Badly prepared, it's bitter, spongy, and mushy. And, let's face it, no matter how well you cook it, the color is not terribly appetizing. How a vegetable that is so beautiful on the outside can end up such a hideous gray-brown in the pot is one of the mysteries of cooking.

This recipe, however, sounds delicious, and we can't wait to try it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hot Weather Got You Down? Make a Watermelon Salad

June in Virginia is jaw-droppingly hot, and yesterday the temperature topped 100 degrees. By dinnertime we could not bring ourselves to use the stove or the grill—that would be redundant, given that stepping outside was like sliding into a pizza oven. Clearly, the weather called for salad. A nice, soothing watermelon salad. For us, there's nothing better to eat, or easier to prepare, after a scorching day. Paired with some cool Chardonnay, this composed salad makes an excellent light dinner. It also makes a good first course for a summer dinner party.

Soothing Watermelon Salad for Two

A few large handfuls of lettuce—any kind will do, from crunchy Romaine to mesclun mix
3 to 4 cups cubed watermelon
2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese (you may want more or less, depending on how much you love it)
3 T. chopped mint
Juice of one juicy lime
Sea salt and fresh-ground pepper

1. Spread lettuce on two good-size plates.

2. Divide watermelon, feta, and mint, and arrange them atop the plates.

3. Sprinkle with lime juice. Half a lime per plate is probably plenty, depending on how juicy it  is. Try a cube of melon midway through the sprinkling to make sure you aren't making the salad too sour.

4. Season with salt and pepper, but be careful not to oversalt, given the feta.

That's it! Insanely easy, deliciously cool, and perfect for hot summer nights.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Perfect Poached Eggs: Simple, but Not Always Easy

Being cholesterol-minded people, we aren't big egg eaters, but every once in a while, we indulge—with a holiday soufflé, or when we want to turn a vegetable side dish into an easy main course. When we saw Susie Middleton's recipe for Brown-Butter Asparagus with Pine Nuts, we knew that it would make a fine light dinner if we topped it with a poached egg.

Poaching eggs is a simple process, but a lot of people have trouble with it. So they buy expensive, fussy egg-poaching devices, which end up steaming the eggs instead of poaching them. Also, as anyone who's ever struggled with overcooked egg proteins knows, they are a pain to clean up. 

In fact, you don't need a special device. You just need a shallow pan of boiling water, a slotted spoon, some paper towels, a gentle hand, and a sharp eye.

Two Perfect Poached Eggs

1. Bring a skillet of water to a boil, then turn it down to simmer.

2. Crack your eggs and slip them into the simmering water, taking care not to break the yolks. (Some people crack their eggs onto plates and slip them into the water, but we've never needed to do this; we do, however, avoid cracking eggs on the side of the pan, as that can break the yolk.) Quickly add the second egg, so the two finish cooking at the same time.

3. Lay out some thick paper towels, grab hold of a slotted spoon, and keep an eye on your eggs. After about 90 seconds (no more than two minutes), start to examine them. Be gentle! The key to good poached eggs is not to boil them too hard or handle them too roughly. You want to make sure that the whites are completely cooked; after that, it's a matter of taste. If you like runny yolks, the eggs are ready when the whites are cooked; if you like them harder, let them go another minute or two.

4. Carefully slide the slotted spoon under the first egg and remove it to the paper towels so it can drain. Working quickly, take the other egg out of the water and let it drain too. Be careful not to break the yolks as you remove the eggs from the water. 

5. Once the eggs have drained, they're ready to be transferred to your plate. Again, gentleness is critical: depending on how you are serving the eggs, it may be easier to tip them off the paper towel than to use a spoon again.

This may seem like a fussy and anxiety-provoking exercise, but after you do it a few times, you get a sense of how long to let the eggs poach and how to handle them. And if you make a few mistakes, chances are it will be no big deal—there are worse tragedies in life than a broken or overcooked yolk. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Favorite Cookbooks: Fast, Fresh & Green

We've been excitedly waiting for Susie Middleton's vegetable cookbook, Fast, Fresh & Green, ever since we heard that she was writing it. Susie, a former chief editor of Fine Cooking magazine, is a great cook not only because of her formidable grasp of technique but because of the sheer excitement she feels for cooking and the pleasure she takes from it. She appreciates simple ingredients and unfussy preparations. And she's a really good writer.

Whenever we see a Susie-Middleton-bylined article in Fine Cooking, we dive in, knowing we'll read something good.

Our copy of Fast, Fresh & Green arrived just after we'd bought a big bag of asparagus at Costco. Normally, when we have an asparagus windfall, we roast it for an easy side dish or stir-fry it as part of an Asian main course. But this time we were interested in what Susie would do.

So we split our big batch of asparagus between two of her recipes: Brown-Butter Asparagus with Pine Nuts and Speedy Stir-Fried Asparagus with Toasted Garlic. Each recipe featured just a few ingredients beyond its vegetable star—a little butter or oil, a little lemon juice or garlic—and took just a few minutes to make. The result: amazing flavor. We still don't understand the alchemy, but we'll keep making these for a long time.

A couple of days later, we tried Susie's Sweet Potato "Mini-Fries" with Limey Dipping Sauce. Once again, she used just a few ingredients—oven-baked sweet potatoes that tasted for all the world like their fried cousins, and mayonnaise spiked with lime zest and juice—and came up with something extraordinary. (Tim used the rest of the lime mayo on his fish, with fine results.)

Some people might hear "vegetable cookbook" and think "Huh? I already know how to cook vegetables." But Susie's recipes take basic produce to a much higher level.

You won't be sorry if you buy this book.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How to Tackle a Spaghetti Squash

We should be happy with our improved food choices in Virginia—not just a wider range of groceries but an excellent selection of farmers' markets. Still, we miss the weekly box of produce we used to get in the summer from Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, Connecticut. Fortunately, we saved a lot of the recipes that came with the box and can draw on them when we need to. The food-loving farmers at Fort Hill put a lot of thought into getting the most flavor out of their produce.

Spaghetti squash, for example. Every supermarket has a pile of these big pale yellow vegetables, but people tend to walk right past them. Maybe they don't know how to fix them; maybe they've tried them and found the results to be kind of boring. After all, unadorned cooked squash can be pretty blah.

The trick to spaghetti squash is using it for its texture rather than for its flavor. Its stringy flesh resembles crunchy pasta and makes an excellent vehicle for any kind of sauce, including basic tomato.

In this recipe from Fort Hill Farm, simple ingredients turn a shrugworthy vegetable into something delicious.

Spaghetti Squash à la Farmer Paul

1 spaghetti squash
4 or 5 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Place both squash halves cut side down on a lightly oiled baking dish, and add about one inch of water. Cover and bake for 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the size of the squash. When you can stick a fork through the skin without much effort, it's done.

3. Remove the squash from the oven and set it on a dish to cook. When it's cool enough to handle, scrape the squash flesh from the skin using a fork. As you do this, the squash will turn to spaghetti-like strings. Set aside.

4. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic, and sauté for one minute or until the garlic is just fragrant. Add the squash and toss well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately with lots of fresh-grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Update: A Thumbs-Up on Wine Aerators

A while back, we questioned whether it was worth investing in wine-aerating devices such as the Rabbit Pourer. Yesterday Tim's brother Ron gave a rave review of the Vinturi:

I poured Gloria a glass [of Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur], from which she took a drink and expressed little enthusiasm. But wait! I had forgotten to use our new gadget that introduces oxygen as you pour. I poured from her glass to another through the bubbler, and the change in her expression was instantaneous. I learned my lesson, and poured mine similarly, and we both agreed that the wine was the best of those you sent that we have tried to date.
Ron and Gloria are experienced wine tasters, and we trust their judgment. Consider the wine aerator vindicated!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Find Your Local Farmers' Market

When we moved from Connecticut to Virginia, we looked forward to a longer growing season and more local produce. But we were sad to leave our CSA farm and our town's farmers' market. Though small, the Saturday morning market always offered choice organic produce as well as bread and pastries, cut flowers, potted plants, soap, and sometimes a pen of friendly goats for the kids to pet. From Memorial Day through the fall, we shopped there regularly.

We feared that the hardcore suburban culture we were moving to wouldn't be able to match our old farmers' market for charm or quality. But we were very wrong. In Fairfax County, where we live, there are farmers' markets nearly all week long, in one city or another. As we discovered on Saturday when we visited the market in Reston, this overdeveloped metropolitan area is surrounded by communities where people not only grow beautiful produce but make wonderful cheeses, honey, and baked goods. The Reston market features locally raised meat as well as crafts, clothing, and jewelry. On Saturday there was a bluegrass band and a magic show for the children.

Naturally, we emptied our wallets, coming home with bags of produce, bread, and, as an experiment, bee pollen (we'll let you know if it changes our life as advertised). It felt good knowing that our money was supporting local growers, and we had fun just walking around in the Saturday morning crowd, scarfing free samples and taking in the scene.

Chances are, there's a farmers' market near you: just plug your zip code into the search function on  the Local Harvest Web site. Even if you don't have a market close by, it's worth making a special trip to find one.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week: Safeway Loyalty Card

On a recent trip to Idaho, we had to buy a case of wine for a charity auction at an industry conference. The town liquor store didn't sell wine and the local groceries' selection was awful. What to do?

Our only hope was the town's Safeway supermarket. There we found a good selection, especially of Washington state wines, but like most supermarkets, the prices were about 33 percent higher than we're used to paying for our $10 value wines. There was, however, a much lower price posted near most of the wine. "What's that?" we asked.

It turns out that if you have a Safeway near you, you have a bargain wine store with a moderately good selection. There are two catches: One, you have to sign up for the chain's loyalty club card; Two, you have to buy six bottles at a time to get an additional 10 percent.

When we returned home, we checked out the local Safeway (not our usual supermarket) to make sure the rules applied there as well. They did. The wine selection was different because, we assume, the regional buyer has her choice of wines to buy.

Here's a general rule. If a wine is $13, the loyalty card takes $2 off the price — and buying six bottles reduces the price another $1. You don't have to buy six of the same wine. You can mix and match.

Yesterday we found many of the wines that we've reviewed on the shelves of our local Safeway — at less than $10, just as we'd found them online or at bargain discount wine stores.

For examples, Red Bicyclette Chardonnay was listed at $12.49, but we got it for $9.99. Beringer Founders Reserve was listed at $11.29, but we paid $8.99.

Your local chain supermarket might have a similar deal, but we haven't found such a supermarket deal where we live. So if you have a Safeway, you have a discount wine store in your town.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rave Review: Champagne Mangos

We love mangos, especially on a hot summer day. But we don't love dealing with mango pits, which take up a lot of valuable space inside the fruit and can be extremely fibrous. So when we walked into Whole Foods and saw a big display of yellow Champagne mangos, and a sign that claimed they were bred to have a slim, small pit, we were intrigued.

Whole Foods was selling them for a dollar apiece—great by mango standards, but these were about half the size of a regular mango. Still, we thought, if the pit really was small, $1 was a good price.

As soon as we sliced into one, we fell in love: the pit was extremely slender, as promised, and the surrounding flesh contained very few annoying fibers. The silky flesh was the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness.

If you see Champagne mangos in your supermarket or produce store, be sure to try them. You will not be sorry.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Make It Yourself: Barbecue Sauce

Walk down the condiments aisle of your local supermarket and you'll see an amazing array of barbecue sauces, ranging from sticky-sweet to vinegar-sharp to red-hot. This makes sense, given the wide array of barbecue styles in this country.

Some people like the sour tang of Carolina barbecue, while others prefer the tomatoey, molasses-rich flavors of the Midwest. Whatever you like, it's very easy to make your own sauce, adjusting the base to suit your taste. If you like a thick sauce, all you need is ketchup and a few basic ingredients; then you just need to figure out how hot, sweet, and sour you want to make it.

Over the years we've learned that barbecue sauce is very flexible. Heat can come from cayenne, chili powder, or even bottled hot sauce. If you don't have molasses to provide the sweetness, brown sugar works fine. Don't have red wine vinegar? Plain old white distilled will also work.

Here's our usual recipe:

Barbecue Sauce

1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup red wine (old leftover wine works well here)
2 T. red wine, sherry, or balsamic vinegar
2 T. molasses
1 t. Liquid Smoke
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 t. chili powder
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
a few grinds of black pepper

1. Heat oil in a saucepan, and add onions and garlic; cook for a few minutes, until soft and golden.

2. Add everything else. Stir, cover, and cook for a few minutes. Taste to determine how you want to adjust the seasonings. You might want more cayenne, more vinegar, or more molasses.

This lasts a very long time in the refrigerator, so if you make a big batch early in the season, you'll have it on hand when you need it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week: JT Cellars 2009 Chardonnay

The label pictured above is slightly incorrect. The wine we're discussing today is the JT Cellars Chardonnay from the Central Coast, not Santa Barbara County. The Central Coast bottling uses grapes from Monterey rather than the now more famous wine region to its south, Santa Barbara.

This is actually a wine from Starry Night Winery, which uses grapes from good vineyards that it doesn't own in order to keep its underutilized facilities humming with fruit from other vineyards. In this case, a small vineyard near the town of Monterey. Starry Night can buy grapes a little cheaper and produce a serviceable wine at a lower price under a different label. 

This wine actually started out as an $18 bottle of wine that we bought for $9, so keep an eye on the price. At $9 it's a great bargain.

This is not a big oaky, California Chardonnay, but a crisp yet round (a good shot of butterscotch defines it) and refreshing wine for fish, poultry, white pasta sauces and salads. Twenty percent of the wine is fermented in oak barrels to give it a hint of vanilla, but the apple and melon flavors keep it summer smart. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week: Big House White 2009

This quiet little inexpensive bottle of wine from the Central Coast of California that costs $7.99 (some places $7.49) has an incredible ratings history.

In the last 15 years, this bottle has scored several 90s and has missed a rating of some kind only two years in all of that time. We bought this bottle some time ago because we saw it on somebody's best 100 list and somebody else's best 10 under $10.

This wine has a hint of grapefruit on the acidy side and lychee on the sweet side of your mouth (although it's a dry wine). The lingering taste after it goes down is the best apricot you ever ate. It is best for summer sipping, but don't take that as a knock or a hedge. The wine is perfect for Asian fare or mixed appetizers.

The winery owners have some fun with the name. Here's what it says on the rear label:

"Yadda, yadda, yadda, warden! Break outta the confines of stuffy tradition with the Stelvin (screw top), an unrepentently practical closure by a long stretch. Cagney or Robinson would never deem it a dirty screw. Yo, the '09 Big House White is an extremely elegant, diverse blend viz. Malvasia Bianco, Muscat Canelli, Viognier and Gruner Vetliner. It more than Sing-Sings for its supper."

One more thing: it is available in 3 liter boxes for $22. That's the equivalent of four bottles. Nice deal.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"I Am Never Bored by Staying Home"

Sorry about the scanty number of recent posts, but this has been a deadline-heavy week and we've just now eked out enough time to check around online and see what's been going on in our absence.

Sure enough, there's lots of good stuff out there, including the Happiness Project's interview with BoingBoing founder Mark Frauenfelder. He's written a book on the do-it-yourself ethos, which includes cooking as well as carpentry. The whole piece is worth reading, but this section really stood out:

What's something you know now about happiness that you didn't know when you were 18 years old?

When I was 18 I thought that I had to go out and find things to make me happy. Now I am happiest when I don't venture past my property line. There is a world of adventure in my house and yard -- books, my family, drawing and painting, making yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha, beekeeping, raising chickens, making things. I still enjoy going out and seeing the rest of the world, but I also am at the point where I am never bored by staying home. Life gets more interesting as I grow older. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Prosecco — the Perfect Hot Weather Drink?

We spent much of Memorial Day weekend at the shore, marinating in salt air and sunshine. As if to commemorate the onset of summer, the temperature rose steadily over three days, from pleasantly cool to sledgehammer hot. We did the usual vacation things (read, kayaked, lazed) and ate the usual vacation food (cool salads, local seafood, bags of delicious salty junk). And we think we hit upon the perfect beverage for hot weather and vacations: Prosecco.

This Italian sparkling wine is lighter than Champagne, and lower in both price and alcohol content. This last quality may be the best: you can enjoy a few glasses of Prosecco without reaping the dreaded "Champagne head." Prosecco can range in flavor from dry to slightly sweet, so it's worth tasting a few bottles to find out what you like. Prosecco is generally too light to accompany a meal, but there's nothing better, in our opinion, for lazy summer porches and patios.

We drank a LaMarca Prosecco that cost slightly more than our customary benchmark, but you can find a decent bottle for less than $10 (check out the right side of the LaMarca page).