Fresh Bite

Blood Orange Martini

We have a Sunday afternoon ritual that involves drinking copious amounts of summery, alcoholic beverages.  This ritual usually begins around the time that spring has made a prounouced appearance and lasts well into the fall months.  The overabundance of rain the past few months had me longing for “cocktail Sunday” so urgently that I was tempted to put on some flip flops and drink a beer out on the deck (52 degrees and rain be damed!).  So, when I saw the post on Fresh 365 for Blood Orange Martinis, I knew this was a wonderful comprise — a chilled, fruity cocktail made with a decidedly wintery fruit.  The martinis were so good that I am seriously contemplating a major blood orange purchase so that I can juice and freeze this goodness to recreate in the summer months.

Blood oranges really are only available in the winter months.  I’m not sure what variety I’ve been purchasing at my farmer’s market, but they have the outward appearance of a regular orange (some varieties have a red-colored rind).  The interior flesh is a deep, ruby red.  I find the taste to be more intense and a bit sweeter than a regular orange.  In addition to cocktails, blood orange makes an interesting addition to salads, salsas and dressings (a few weeks ago I made a very delicious mahi mahi dish topped with a fennel and blood orange salsa).  If you haven’t tried blood oranges, you should before the season is over!

Blood Orange Martini
serves 2

3 ounces good quality vodka
1 ounce triple sec
1/4 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add remaining ingredients.  Give it a good shake!  Strain into chilled martini glasses.   Add a slice of blood orange as a garnish or skip that and just start drinking like I did.

Mushroom Barley Soup

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every recipe you tried produced the exact culinary masterpiece you had in mind when you decided to make it?  Sadly, not every recipe does live up to it’s promise.  Case in point is the Mushroom Barley Soup I made and quickly tossed down the drain.  Okay, I actually ate one serving and tossed it the next day, but essentially, the soup was not worth another bite.

Mushroom Barley is one of my favorite soups and one that I really looked forward to making.  As with most “new” things I cook, I spent a few days combing through recipes in cookbooks and blog posts, and most importantly, looking for comments or feedback that would guarantee me a winner.  I settled on the recipe below from Mark Bittman (why I’m sharing it is a mystery and maybe someone can tell me what I did wrong).  I did adapt the recipe a bit from the original, incorporating some changes suggested by others.  My improvements included the addition of a shallot and finishing the soup with sherry.  I also ended up adding quite a bit of extra liquid.  And yet, the greatest failure of the soup was it’s lack of any remaining liquid once the barley was cooked past “crunchy.”

Mushroom-Barley Soup
adapted from Mark Bittman

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, finely diced
1/4 pound shiitake or button mushrooms, stemmed and roughly chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
1 cup pearl barley
3 cups water or stock (I used beef stock)
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup sherry

Soak porcini in 3 cups very hot water.  Once softened, remove and set aside mushrooms; strain and reserve the liquid.

Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Add shallots and cook until softened and fragrant (2-3 minutes). Add fresh mushroom and carrots, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown. Add barley, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown; sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

Add porcini to pot and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Add bay leaf, mushroom soaking water and 3 cups additional water (or stock). Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer; cook until barley is very tender, 30 to 45 minutes (or more). Add soy sauce and sherry.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

NOTES:  Original recipe stated that the barley should be tender within 20-30 minutes, which it absolutely was not.  I continued cooking and sampling for a total cooking time of about an hour.  As it cooked, the liquid was disappearing, so I added additional water.  After heating up the last bit of added water, I tried the soup.  The taste was good, but not great and that’s when I decided to add the sherry (which had been recommended by a reviewer).  It definitely added to the taste.

On first eating, the soup was average — had I ordered it in a restaurant, I would have been disappointed.  But, by the time it had cooled enough for me to store the remains in the refrigerator, it was a thick, clumpy, gluten-like mess.  I’m sure I could have salvaged it (and would have if it was delicious), but sadly it just went down the garbage disposal.

Mushroom Omelette

Normal meal planning for me involves choosing recipes and then shopping for the specific ingredients.  But, I’m now trying to shop what for looks fresh and delicious and then use what I find as inspiration.  My haul of fresh produce from the farmer’s market included a nice bag of mushrooms that I couldn’t wait to use.

One of the greatest meal ideas that easily incorporates fresh vegetables is the old stand-by, the omelette.  Once it was in my head, I knew we’d be having mushroom and cheese omelettes.  Having said that, I must confess I’m not the hugest omelette fan.  I much prefer a good *scramble* over an omelette.  But, it felt very French and more dinner-like to to fold over my eggs, rather than scramble ’em up.  I won’t give you the exact recipe as I believe omelette making is a very personal experience.  However, I will let you know that I sauteed the mushrooms with garlic and butter before adding them to the pan and completely dousing them in cheddar cheese.

That lovely morsel to the left of omelette came from the homemade loaf below.  I’ve been pretty good about making bread using the “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” book.  Very tasty and a great money-saver.

Buttermilk Pancakes with Strawberries

I have a confession.  I hate syrup.  Yes, you read correctly, I can’t stand that sweet, goopy mess.  I do, however, love breakfast sweets like pancakes, waffles and french toast.  I just prefer mine with butter — and in recent years, powdered sugar. Add some fresh fruit and it’s a meal as close to perfection as it gets.

Having been an avid cook for many years, I was always searching for the perfect pancake recipe.  I finally found it many years ago on the Williams-Sonoma website.  My torn and tattered print out has been lovingly referred to in the production of dozens and dozens of fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Probably hundreds, but who’s counting?  Let’s see, pancakes at least every other weekend, sixteen per batch, times the 7 or 8 years I’ve been making them works out to….okay a lot of them!

Flipping hundreds of pancakes, I’ve also learned the secret to never having “the dreaded first batch that doesn’t come out right, so you end up throwing it away.”  Want to know the secret?  First of all, I use a cheap square griddle that is exactly like the one we had when I was a kid.  It was scratched, warped and blackened, and yet I was so disheartened to learn that my Mom had thrown it away prior to a move.  Just knowing I would never inherit this *treasure* sent me off to Bed Bath & Beyond quicker than you can say “20% off one item.”  Heating the griddle over medium heat is the first step followed by a very, very light coating of vegetable oil.  I use a small piece of paper towel, and lightly rub on the tiniest bit of oil.  After every two batches, the oil is re-applied.  There you have it….a perfect cooking surface for pancakes.

Buttermilk Pancakes with Strawberries, makes 16
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma

2 eggs
2 cups flour, sifted
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 stick (4 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla
Vegetable oil for greasing pan

To serve:  butter, powdered sugar, sliced fresh strawberries

Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs until frothy.  Add the remaining ingredients through the vanilla and beat on low until you have just removed the lumps — do not overbeat.

After heating and greasing the griddle (see above), pour about 1/3 cup of batter per pancake onto pan (if using a square griddle, this is 4 pancakes at a time).  When bubbles form, flip the pancakes.  Both sides should be golden brown.  Finished pancakes can be kept warm in a lightly heated oven.

Add your own combination of butter, sugar, and strawberries and dig in!

Farmer’s Market Bounty

We like to play the rainbow game at the farmer’s market.  Not hard to play — you just make sure you choose one fruit or vegetable from each of the 6 colors of the rainbow.  It’s the best tool I have for getting the kids excited about choosing and then eating the produce we buy.  I’ll confess, we did not get anything blue this trip.  It is the hardest color and we usually stick with blueberries — which aren’t even blue, but what are you gonna do?

Knowing that my diet would consist of a huge amount of produce, I went a bit crazy with my shopping.  I am so happy to see that local strawberries have returned (I love living near the epicenter of the country’s strawberry mecca).  I was also delighted by the huge selection that was available this week.  I came home with beets, brussels sprouts, tangerines, carrots, lettuce, fennel, potatoes, an artichoke, mushrooms and some grass-fed beef and pork.  I’ll confess, I’m very good at buying produce, but I’m even better at throwing it away after it goes bad in the fridge.  So, once home, I immediately came up with some dinner ideas to actually use the stuff I bought.  First thought, veggie pizza for dinner!

Food Eaten, 1/30/10:

Breakfast:  Barbara’s Puffins Cinnamon Cereal (I thought this was organic — it’s not)
Lunch:  Spring Mix Salad with chicken, beets, blue cheese, walnuts & vinaigrette
Dinner:  Pizza (homemade dough) with fresh mozzarella, farmer’s market tomatoes & mushroom
After Dinner Snack:  very small piece of cake (homemade, no frosting); sorry, I was hungry and everything else seemed like a worse option at the time

Food, Inc.

I’m not sure why it took so long, but we finally watched Food, Inc. last night (it had been saved in our Netflix/TiVo queue for months).  I love it when a documentary makes you think, gets you mad and inspires you to *do* something.  Like the film tells you, each day you vote 3 times each day with your food dollars.  I can tell you that my dollars are definitely going to be spent on better quality, higher cost food.  It is appalling to me how we allow big business to put things in our supermarkets that barely qualify as food, and don’t even get me started on the practices that occur in the meat processing plants.  I am horrified that in the past I looked for the cheapest meat I could buy, thinking only of my wallet.  What about the well-being of my family?  As one person states in Food, Inc., would you buy the cheapest car?  Nobody does that.  We buy the best and safest car we can afford.  From now on, my family is going to be dining on Mercedes Burgers and Volvo Bacon.

For anyone who has not yet seen Food, Inc., please do so.  If it doesn’t change your opinion about the food industry in this country, I’d be well-and-truly shocked.

Food Eaten, 1/29/10:

Breakfast:  Small Croissant (was in the freezer, not sure of it’s “real” status), 1/2 organic grapefruit
Snack:  Grapes (eating these only because we have them — they traveled too far to fit into the *rules*)
Lunch:  1/2 Chicken Salad Sandwich with organic tomato and lettuce (same as yesterday)
Snack (really a nibble):  a few crumbs of cake and frosting — homemade
Dinner:  White Beans with Sausage and Carrots (more leftovers)

On Saturday morning, I’m off to the farmer’s market to do some *voting* for local, organic meat and produce.  I’m excited about what I’ll find!

Slow Cooker White Beans and Sausage

It has quickly become obvious to me that my main challenge in trying to live a Real Food existence will not be in the dinner category.  By definition of how I normally cook, it’s already pretty real!  I mean, how many recipes do you see out there that call for fake food?  When I really think about it, the most highly processed thing we eat at dinner time is pasta.  And I’m pretty sure that if I switch to whole wheat (I’m so scared…) or make it myself from scratch, I wouldn’t be breaking any food rules.  It’s the snacks and convenience foods that will be difficult, but I’ll get into that in a later post.

In case you’re wondering about my food rules, they are technically the “Food Rules” in the book of the same name by Michael Pollan.  Yes, like millions of others, I saw him this week on Oprah and decided immediately to buy the book and follow it’s doctrine.  Oddly, I was about one-third of the way through Jillian Michaels’ latest book, “Mastering Your Metabolism,” which discusses in great detail how eating a diet full of C. R. A. P. messes with our hormones and was already planning to drastically change my eating habits.  I guess listening to Michael Pollan helped me press the fast-forward button on the process.

As could be expected (this always happens to me), by the end of the first day of what is technically a detox period, I developed a horrible headache, which is likely to be with me for 3 to 4 days.  I guess that’s a good sign, though.  My body HATES it when I stop feeding it sugar!

Food for the Day (by the way, I’m never going to include coffee as that is just a given on every, single day):

Breakfast:  Honey Nut O’s with Raspberries
Snack:  Apple
Lunch:  Chicken Salad Sandwich with Lettuce & Tomato (homemade chicken salad, with the lettuce and tomato bit being the “upgrade” — I never bother on a sandwich made in my own kitchen)
Snack:  Banana
Dinner:  Slow Cooker White Beans and Sausage (recipe follows) + Carrots

Slow Cooker White Beans and Sausage, Adapted from Relish! meal planning service

2 Andouille Sausages
1 Clove Garlic, minced
1 Shallot, minced
1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1 lb. dried Navy or Great Northern Beans
4 Cups Chicken Stock
2 Cups Water
1/2 cup White Wine
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh Thyme

Heat oil over medium heat in heavy skillet; cut sausages into bite-size (1/2″) pieces and add to the skillet; remove when browned on all sides.  Add shallot and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Place sausages, onion/garlic mixture and all remaining ingredients into a slow cooker.  Set on low and cook for about 8 hours.  Be sure to check the liquid near the end to avoid burning.

This was a very tasty dinner which definitely fit the “eat food, mostly plants, not too much” adage.  Did everything I use technically meet the definition of Real Food?  Probably not.  I already had all of the ingredients on hand and I used what I had (as I will continue to do until no previously purchased food exists.  I’m sure the sausage was not made from “grass fed” animals and I was shocked to find (I checked) that my Organice Free-Range Chicken Broth contained dried sugar cane.  Why on earth does chicken broth need sugar?  I am going to be busy with all the homemade stuff I’m going to have to start making.  Maybe the trade-off of making my own broth will off-set the extra cost of the organic vegetables and pastured meats I’m going to be buying.

The journey begins…

I’ve long been an advocate of local produce, shopping at the Farmer’s Market and cooking delicious meals at home.  However, in many ways I’ve been a bit of a hypocrite.  I make sure my kids have some sort of fruit and/or vegetables each day.  I also make most of our meals from scratch, and that does not mean a jar of pasta sauce over some spaghetti noodles.  But, it’s not uncommon for me to have a lunch comprised of the crumbs at the bottom of a potato chip bag, followed by a mini candy bar stolen from my daughter’s still uneaten Halloween stash.  And yet on the days when I make myself a beautiful salad with homemade vinaigrette (can’t remember the last time I bought salad dressing in a bottle), I am surprised by how easy and tasty it is.

I know there are thousands of food blogs out there, and on this day, January 28, 2010, I officially throw my hat into the ring of would-be chef/journalists.  I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my successes and failures in the kitchen, at the market, and in life.