Monday, September 27, 2010

Satisfying Smoothies

These nearly record-breaking temperatures we've been having (112 today where I live) put me in the mood for cold, refreshing, fruit smoothies. This always happens to me when it's super-hot. So this afternoon, I had a juice place make me one, which I wanted to sip as I was driving around in the heat running errands. But they are so easy to make at home, and in the summer especially I love making them for breakfast.

Smoothies are basically fruit-based blended drinks, whipped up in a blender. They get their thick texture from blending fruit or fruit juice with banana, yogurt or ice. The fun in making smoothies is selecting whatever fruit(s) are in season and what you like to eat. 

In addition to the fruit, all kinds of things can be added to smoothies to make them healthier: soy or whey-based protein powders, spirulina, herbal extracts, wheat germ or ground flaxseeds, amino acids, immune-boosting nutrients and even liquid vitamins. But unfortunately, I have found most of these healthy additives alter the flavor of the smoothie, taking away from instead of adding to the flavor of the fruit. I've certainly added my share of these healthy ingredients to my breakfast smoothies, and you can if you like, but lately I've become a smoothie purist and prefer to make the fruit the star of the show.

The best smoothie is made up of fruit that is REALLY ripe. Because of its higher sugar content it makes blending that much easier. I usually use plain, lowfat, organic yogurt, but I've seen recipes that suggest using  frozen yogurt (I imagine like plain vanilla or some fruit flavor). Or, of course, if you avoid dairy, you can use alternative like rice milk, almond milk (works nicely with a lot of fruit especially apricots and peaches), soy milk, coconut milk or coconut cream (particularly delicious and great for those tropically-inspired creations).

This year my favorite fruit has been peaches and nectarines so this recipe is one of my favorite:

Peaches Galore

1 peach, peeled, pitted, chopped
1 ripe banana
3-4 oz. peach juice (or orange juice if you can't find peach)
3-4 oz. plain yogurt
1 Tbsp. honey (depending on ripeness of the peach)
3-4 ice cubes

Whirl everything together in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a tall glass. Serves 1.

I haven't made this one but it sounds refreshing for hot days:

Melon Smoothie

3/4 cup seeded and chopped watermelon*
3/4 cup seeded and chopped very ripe honeydew melon or canteloupe*
juice of 1 lime
3-4 ice cubes

* In peak melon season, you might want to select 3-4 different kinds of melon, whatever you find. Recipe called for yogurt, but that doesn't sound right to me. I think it would be better with just the melon juice. Serves 2.

This one takes you away to a tropical island (if only for a few minutes):

Mango Fusion

2 mangoes, peeled, pitted, chopped
juice of 1 small lime
6 oz. vanilla lowfat yogurt
2 Tbsp. honey
8-10 ice cubes

Serves 2.

What about berries? Whirl them with red currant juice, a banana, and yogurt. Like tropical fruit? Take pineapple juice, add fresh papaya, mango & banana, lime juice, and coconut milk. How about fresh kiwi, pineapple juice and yogurt? The combinations are endless.

Mmmhhh, I'm cooling off already!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Winter Garden Prep

Our summer garden never really turned out, I'm sad to report. We had a sorry excuse for a harvest. But I became hopeful again this past weekend after spending some time with a few master gardeners, learning how to best prepare for a winter veggie garden. The key is not only great soil, but SUN! Even during summer, our little plants were not getting enough of it. I found myself thinking, real estate agents had it right with their mantra about location, location, location!

The speaker at this gardening seminar spoke so highly about growing lettuce and how it's her favorite thing to grow because she eats so much of it, so naturally since I'm also a voracious salad eater, I was inspired to get out and plant lettuce right away. Armed with 5 seed packets of different varieties, I made little rows in my rectangular container, and planted. I also planted: 2 kinds of Swiss chard (neon yellow and red), the lettuces (Bibb, Boston, a reddish hued one, lamb's lettuce otherwise known as Mache, and arugula) as well as radishes. Tonight, I'm going to plant beets and turnips. By the weekend I want to plant beans and peas again but since these require some supports, I want to put those in place before I plant the seeds.

I made sure to put my containers in a location that would receive at least 6-8 hours of sun. After having spent the better part of the day yesterday watching my garden and logging how many hours of sun each area gets, it's no wonder nothing grew. I was able to find a few choice spots that DO get 6-8 hours and this is where the containers are going.

I thought this whole "container veggie garden" idea would appeal to people who, like me, don't have wide expanses of land just sitting there ready for planting or who don't want to rip their exiting gardens up just to try growing veggies. Containers can be easily replanted and moved if needed. They can be placed on shelving for a more vertical garden (like on a baker's rack set on a patio or some other shelving system).  I also like the idea that the care given to each container can vary based on those veggies' needs. For example, some may need more fertilizer, less sun, more water, etc. than the others, so having more control over the growing conditions of each veggie seems very exciting.

I'm going to try this. According to the packets, I should have lettuce in 45-60 days. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Flavor Profile: Sauces

Much of what we once knew about sauces has changed over the years. When we think sauce, many of us probably think of the classic French ones that are cooked, thickened, or contain some sort of binder like flour or tons of fat. Bechamel, hollandaise, mornay, veloute, bordelaise, chausseur..... But contemporary sauces are actually fresher tasting, healthier, more exotic, and often times easier to make than the classics, and so should not be overlooked as a way to deliver loads of flavor to the foods we prepare.

In previous posts, I covered a few. Salsas, for instance. In Spanish, salsa literally means sauce. Salsa variations abound. Instead of tomatoes, you could use fruit, such as pineapple, papaya, mangoes or peaches. Fruit salsas are particularly good on grilled fish, lending a little bit of an exotic twist to the food.

An oil-based green herb sauce, found in my Zucchini with Green Sauce post, is an excellent way to deliver flavor to bland vegetables.

Then there are those like chutneys, cooked vegetable and fruit sauces, yogurt sauces and chile pastes that can all be found in today's kitchens. Some store-bought sauces are bound to be staples in your kitchen. Take ketchup - though recipes for homemade ketchup are readily available, let's face it, most of us are not going to take the time to make it ourselves. But when it comes to others, like salsas and green sauce, I think that taking the time to make them ourselves is really worth it because of the payoff in terms of quality, freshness and especially flavor.

There are a million sauces I could highlight here. I made perhaps the best pan gravy ever on Sunday night when I roasted chicken. It was fantastic. Never better. But everyone knows how to make pan gravy, right? Vinaigrette - everyone has their favorite there, too. Pasta sauce - same. However, here's a sauce that perhaps not everyone makes and this is one I find completely inadequate no matter which store-bought brand I buy - Peanut Sauce. I've tried a few recipes but this one's my favorite and it's super easy. Great with chicken satay.

Peanut Sauce

1/2 cup peanut butter, chunky or smooth, unsweetened
1 large garlic clove
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar (I use light brown sugar)
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper or more, to taste
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup hot water

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor, except the water, and puree until smooth. Gradually add the water until the desired consistency is achieved (don't go too thin!). Taste for salt and cayenne, adding more if necessary.

Makes about 1 cup.

Can also be used as a dip for fried tofu, or as a dressing for noodles. Keeps several weeks in the fridge. It will thicken in the refrigerator. Thin with hot water, stock or even coconut milk.

If you're interested in the best-ever marinade for the Chicken Satay that I serve with this Peanut Sauce, please email me and I'll send you the recipe. To die for.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

One last hurrah for summer

Ok, so I'm excited that fall is here, but I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to summer entirely, mainly for one reason: I promised to make something with zucchini before it was over and here it is. I've got 2 recipes for you. The first is Vegetable Pancakes, which I was grateful to be able to put together quickly last night, having come home late from work. I cooked for one and so these were perfect. These would be ideal for lunch, served alongside a nice big green salad.

The other is a Zucchini Relish, recipe compliments of my mother. I have not tried to make it yet, but might venture to do so this weekend. We had just been talking about making it again when the L.A. Times ran a story on zucchini relish and posted their version. My mother gave me a small jar of her version after she had made a batch, and it was tasty. It's great alongside anything you want, really, but I think it would be good with cheese and crackers, on grilled chicken or fish, or on top of eggs or a tofu scramble.

The Vegetable Pancakes should really be called Zucchini and Ricotta Pancakes, for that is what they are. However, I'll start with the basic recipe and then list what I added for my variation.

Vegetable Pancakes

About 1 pound of turnips, carrots, zucchini, winter squash or sweet potatoes, peeled if necessary (about 2 cups packed)
1/2 onion, grated, or diced really fine
1-2 eggs, depending on size, lightly beaten
3/4 cup flour, more or less
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Milk, half and half, or cream as needed
2 Tbsp. melted butter or EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), plus more for the pan (to fry the cakes)

Grate the vegetables by hand or with the grating disk of your food processor. Empty into a bowl, adding the onion, egg and flour. Mix together. Seaon with salt and pepper. Then add just enough milk to the mixture so that it all holds together nicely without being too wet. Recipe said to stir in the butter or EVOO but I omitted this step.

Heat a non-stick griddle or saute pan. Add some butter and/or EVOO and when melted, drop the batter in spoonfuls into the pan. Use a fork to spread the veggies into an even layer. Cook turning once, until nicely browned on both sides, about 15 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Zucchini and Ricotta Pancake Variation
Use grated zucchini as the vegetable, and instead of milk or half and half, use 1 cup ricotta cheese.
Finely chop some basil and sprinkle on top once they are cooked. Basil and zucchini are good friends and make an ideal combination for these cakes. Serve with creme fraiche, sour cream, or as I did, with a little goat cheese. YUM-MY!

Other Variations: if I were to make these with sweet potatoes, I'd use red onion instead of white or yellow for a touch of sweetness. Another combination, and this I've got to try, would be butternut squash or pumpkin, and adding 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts to the batter. Sounds like a great breakfast or dessert, served with maple syrup!

NOTE: I was just checking out 101 Cookbooks, an excellent food blog, and look what she's got on her site! Zucchini Ricotta Cheesecake.  This sounds great. Nearly the same ingredients as my pancakes.

Now for the second recipe:

Zucchini Relish

3 pounds zucchini
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
2 onions
2 Tbsp. salt
11 oz. wine vinegar (I'd go with white)
2 Tbsp. mustard seeds
1/2 Tbsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 1/2 Tbsp. paprika, mild, not hot
2 1/2 Tbsp. flour
a little water
8 small glass jars

Chop onion, zucchini, and bell peppers into small dice, salt and allow to sit in a colander for 30 minutes to draw out the liquid. Drain.
Place vegetables, vinegar and mustard seeds into a saucepan and bring to a simmer for 15 minutes. Add the remaining spices and simmer another 10 minutes. In a small bowl, combine a little water with the flour to make a paste, add to the vegetables. Fill glass jars and secure tight with lids. Turn jars on their heads and allow to cool.

The small jars are great to give as gifts. Else, put it all in 1 or 2 larger jars for yourself.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Change of Season

Fall is here! Well, almost. The calendar says we've got a few weeks to go, but the change is already in the air. The mornings are crisp and a little overcast now, and the dew hangs on the plants heavier than just a few weeks ago. The days are getting shorter and it's cooler in the evenings. Some nights I need a blanket as I relax on the sofa after dinner.

This is my favorite time of year. The best part is not only the cooler weather which I love so much more than the heat of summer, but the colors are amazing: gold, red, orange, brown. And the food! Ah, the food - something else to look forward to.

As I plan my menu now, the impending season conjures up thoughts of roasting vegetables and meats, incorporating seasonal fall foods like squashes and pumpkins, baking with apples, cranberries and walnuts, and using warming spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. I start to think about hearty soups and stews that provide warmth and comfort. It's a great time of year.

Last night, to kick off fall (albeit early), I made Balsamic Roasted Onions and Potatoes. Truly heaven. I can't tell you how I wished I would have found this a long time ago. So incredibly good. The potatoes are joined with red onions, instead of yellow or white ones, for a touch of sweetness, then coated in butter, and sprinkled with chopped fresh rosemary from the garden and a few garlic cloves. The "secret" ingredient is balsamic vinegar, which I would have never thought to add. It is reduced so that the consistency is more like syrup, then the whole lot is roasted in the oven until the onions and potatoes are crisp and carmelized. Fantastic. I couldn't get enough of 'em. Here's the recipe.

Balsamic Roasted Onions and Potatoes

3 1/2 lbs. medium-sized waxy potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
2-3 Tbsp. butter
a bunch of fresh rosemary,  leaves picked and chopped fine
a lot of garlic, as many cloves as you like, peeled, left whole, or if large, sliced in half
5 medium red onions, peeled and quartered
1 1/2 cups cheap balsamic vinegar

Preheat your oven to 400 F. Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 8 minutes, then drain. Pour into an ovenproof pan a bit of olive oil and add the butter, rosemary and garlic.  Add the potatoes and toss them in all the flavors. Add the onions and all the balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Cook 5 minutes on the burner to reduce the balsamic vinegar a little. Place the pan on the top shelf of your oven and cook for about 50 minutes until the potatoes and onions are dark, sticky and crispy, tossing the onions and potatoes halfway through.

Serve with any roasted meat or chicken, or alongside other roasted veggies. Serves 6.

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