Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Life without a Microwave

When I recently began life in a new kitchen, Elspeth encouraged me to not get a microwave. I believe her reasons were (in no particular order) - saves space, saves energy, and saves living beings such as myself from any future discoveries that microwaves were zapping us full of bad.. um, micro..waves.

Happily, between my trusty stovetop, my trusty oven, and my trusty toaster oven - leftovers can usually get heated up quite easily. When push comes to shove, I also take leftovers to work for lunch quite a bit - where I heat them up in a microwave. However, on days like today, the absence of a microwave pushes me to make a new and improved meal out of what might otherwise have been a sad cold (or microwaved) pile of yesterday's meal.

My CSA (the meat one, not the veggie one) tends to provide meat that is packaged and labeled, just like at the grocery store - but with very specific labels... not so much about the cut of meat as what they think you should be doing with it. Last round, I ended up with "kabob beef" and this time, I ended up with "fajita beef" - so, fajitas it was. Beef (with salt, pepper, some lime juice, and some soy sauce on it), an onion, and a red bell pepper, tossed about in the cast iron pan (my favorite kitchen item!)... wrapped up in a tortilla, and tada.

Okay - so that brings us to this evening, with the leftover fajita business, staring up at me from the bottom shelf of my refrigerator. Kinda hard to heat up in the absence of a microwave, and I'm a real advocate for finishing up leftovers before they go bad and need to get thrown out. Soooo... I thought about it, and realized that what I really wanted to eat was a quesadilla. Guess what chopped up fajita fillings make? Awesome quesadilla fillings! I heated up the chopped up bits, stuck them between two tortillas (you guessed it, in the cast iron pan) with some cheddar cheese and chopped up jalapenos.... and, honestly? This meal was better than the first.

Take that, sad microwaved leftovers. Take that.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Homemade Brunch!

After one cup of coffee this morning, my brain was working, but not very quickly. And so, the following thought process occurred:

Hm. What to have for breakfast. Eggs seem like a good idea. Oh, and maybe that avocado that seems to have ripened. Hey... that sounds like the makings of a breakfast burrito! What's this next to the tortillas - the leftover corn cob from last night. It's supposed to be relatively straightforward to separate the kernels from the cob, right? So long as I have this pile of cold corn kernels, maybe I'll heat them up - oh, and a little red onion and basil might be nice. When I transferred red pepper flakes into a spice jar earlier, they looked yummy. I'll toss some of those in, I think. Well, there. Corn salsa, as defined by my leftovers!

These scrambled eggs would obviously be better with cheddar cheese stirred in, and as long as we're on the burrito theme, I better locate my salsa and sour cream. The tortilla seems to have been appropriately warmed up by the cast iron pan (a newly acquired item that is working out just fine)... the corn and eggs look good, but would benefit from yet some more cheese on top. Wow, this is a happy circumstance of homemade brunch creation... oh, and I better eat this watermelon, too.

Man oh man, I do love summertime.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's Pie Season!

Great news! Berries are ripening and the heat is rising...sounds to me like it's time for some pie! Growing up, we had a hill of raspberries, a stonewall covered in black berries and a field with more blueberries than we knew what to do with. We had rhubarb growing in the corner of our garden (plus I can't count the amount of stalks my mom picked from random ditches in the Maine countryside), AND we lived right down the road from Stevenson's Strawberries, a fantastic "U-Pick" farm with the most delicious strawberries. Needless to say, summer in Maine is full of pie. Lot's of pie. And it is fantastic.

Now that I live in a city (and as I've mentioned, a backyard-less apartment), I'm scrambling to find a way to get the satisfaction of making a pie from start (picking the berries myself) to finish. Being the car-less person I am, I've devised a strategy. 1. I'm going to go to a U-Pick area at least once this summer (but hopefully more). Just google (bing? I've yet to try it...) "U-Pick [insert city you live in]" and you're sure to get results. I've found over 25 places just in King County (which is the greater Seattle area) 2. I'm going to pick a bajillion berries while I'm home in Maine in late July/early August 3. I'm going to make the most of the farmers market, and get as much as I can there. Buy local! What I'm saying is, I'm going to get a few really good days of picking berries in, and then I'm going to get the rest at the farmers market, where I can be sure of (or easily find out) where the berries came from, how they were grown, how the people that grow them are treated, etc.

During a long car ride, earlier this spring, it was discovered that a few of the guys in our group of friends claimed to not like pie. "It's just not that good" they said. I was appalled, but interpreted it as a challenge. Memorial Day in Seattle this year was wonderfully warm, and there just happened to be some rhubarb (the only appearance so far) at the farmers market, so I decided it was time to prove to my friends that, quite honestly, pie IS that good. It's delicious. My favorite type of pie is strawberry rhubarb, and since I was baking to impress (when am I not?) I was sure to use the Cook's Illustrated recipe, which is sure to be amazing. The pie disappeared quickly, thanks to the multiple pieces the former pie haters had. Challenge accepted... Elspeth wins! If you're looking for a way to impress and satisfy, I highly recommend making a strawberry rhubarb pie. It has yet to let me down. Here's the recipe, enjoy!

Cook's Illustrated's Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Pie Dough: 2 1/4 cups unbleached flour, plus extra for dusting, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons sugar, 11 tablespoons unsalted butter (8 T per stick, 1 stick = 1/2 cup...), cut into 1/4 inch cubes, 7 tablespoons chilled shortening, 1/3 cup water, chilled with ice, use more if needed.

(Hint: The key to a good crust is the chilled shortening and cold cold water! Don't skip this step to save time. Also, the mixture of shortening and butter is great, as each lend their own improvements to pie crust.)

Pie Filling: 3 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced, 3 cups fresh rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces, 3/4 cups granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, 3-4 tablespoons quick cooking tapioca (though I use corn starch, use), 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces. The recipe also calls for 1 tablespoon orange zest, but I only include it if I have an orange on hand).

Mix flour, salt and sugar, sprinkle cubed butter and toss with flour mixture. Cut butter into flour, add shortening and continue to cut into flour until mixture resembles course cornmeal. Butter bits should be no larger than small peas. Sprinkle all but 1 T of ice water over mixture. Using the blade ofa rubber spatula, fold to mix. Press down dough with broad side of spatula utnil dough sticks together, add water as necessary. Divide dough into 2 balls, with one slightly larger than the other. Flatten into 4 inch wide disks, dust with flour, wrap in plastic and regfrigerate for at least 30 minutes. When ready to assemble pie, heat oven to 400 degrees and remove dough from fridge (shouldn't be out for more than about 10 minutes). Toss fruit with sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and tapioca/corn starch (and orange zest if using). Let mixture stand for 15 minutes. Use this time to roll out the dough. Roll the large disk first, making a 12-inch circle. Transfer dough to pie pan, making sure there is dough that hangs over the lip. Turn in fruit mixture to pie shell and sprinkle butter pieces over fruit, refrigerate while you roll top dough piece. Roll smaller disk into a 10 inch circle, lay over fruit. Trim edges of dough to 1/2 inch beyond the edge of the pan and pinch together. Cut slits in the pie crust to allow steam to escape during cooking. If pie dough has warmed too much and become very soft, place in freezer for 10 minutes before baking. Place pie on pie sheet (this is so that if any filling boils over, it doesn't burn onto the bottom of the oven). Bake 20-25 minutes until top is golden, reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until juices bubble, 30-40 minutes. (Hint: I often place a ring of tinfoil around the edge of the pie during the last 15 minutes to prevent the edges of the crust from overcooking.) Let pie cool on a wire rack for at least an hour so juices have time to thicken. Serve! Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iced Tea is Delicious

Well, here in Minnesota it has been hovering above 90 degrees since I can remember, and the humidity is wobbling between 35% and 85%, depending on... well, I don't know what. I do know that for the first time since I was born, it was 97 degrees on my birthday. On May 19. That sort of thing just isn't normal this far north. The clouds kind of drift in and out, but not in a way that provides much shelter from the God forsaken solar heat. Ozone layer, where are you when we need you?

This is all to say that I am ever so thankful for iced tea. And here's the genius of it - I'm not waiting around for solar heat to brew it (though Lord knows I could), nor am I boiling a drop of water! One of my cookbooks (I've lost track of which one, so, grand apologies to the cookbook author who taught me this) shared this little tidbit with me: teabags and water WILL become tea, whether or not the water is hot! Imagine that! So. In my case, I have a glass bottle that some fancy fruit juice came in (FYI, strawberry kiwi juice just tastes kind of like cranberry apple juice or whatever). I discovered that this jar holds 4 cups of water, so I fill it up with tap water, throw 3 teabags in there (sometimes I get fancy and mix my generic grocery store teabags in with some mango tea from Trader Joe's or some Celestial Seasonings something-or-other), pop the lid on, and refrigerate. A while later... I don't know, 2 hours or whenever it looks like tea, I toss out the tea bags. Tada!

Also, I like to mix my iced tea with juice or lemonade, and at this moment I have added some mint leaves to the concoction as well. And ice cubes. Obviously. For extra deliciousness.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cooking Local!

Not to be outdone by Elspeth, I figured I better post something right away. I must start by saying that it is about 90 degrees out (really), and torrential rain just started. I am warm (very warm) and dry inside, enjoying this Angelique Kidjo album (Oyaya! - that's the name of it, punctuation and all). But, to get back to the point: my CSA began this week, and I have already made two meals with the fresh veggies that I obtained approximately 24 hours ago. I fear that I will not keep up this prompt veggies into meals turn around for the remaining 18 weeks of the CSA, but we shall see. Might as well document this effort to keep me motivated come August.

So, the CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture, for those of you not in the know) is from Driftless Organics, in southwestern Wisconsin (their blog is in our "highly recommended" list on the bottom right corner of this site). Yesterday, splitting my half-share with a friend, I came home with: arugula, mint, Butterhead lettuce, spinach, purple kohlrabi, green garlic, green onions, and broccoli. Please note that nearly all of these vegetables fall into "best when eaten straight out of the field, must be eaten within 3 days" category. That's a whole lotta salad.

Last night at 10pm I found myself on the phone with Elspeth, getting directions for the arugula pasta that she posted about earlier today - I did her clever "get it ready at work" lunch version, and it was all she promised it would be and more. This evening, faced with what is still a very full vegetable drawer of fresh things, I sat down with my "How to Cook Everything" cookbook by Mark Bittman, and hoped for the best. Lo and behold, a stir fry recipe surfaced that called for a couple of CSA ingredients, some standard stuff I've got in the fridge, and an "uncured fresh ham steak" - which I just happen (oddly enough) to have in my freezer from a recent trip to the Seward Co-op. So... I gathered up the ingredients, arranged them artfully, took a photo, and then proceeded to cook my dinner. Please note the inclusion of green garlic (on the cutting board), green onion (in the small dish) and spinach (in the colander)... three more CSA veggies, down for the count!

It turned out to be delicious, and believe it or not, this was my first time cooking rice, ever. It is really easy to do - who would've guessed? If you would like to make the whole production, here is the recipe as I interpret it:

*Slice thinly one pound of pork (tenderloin, fresh ham, loin, or shoulder). Cut the slices into inch-long pieces that might be considered bite-size.

*Prepare the following: one pound of spinach, coursely chopped; 1.5 Tbsp of minced garlic (or 3 Tbsp of chopped green garlic); 1/2 cup chopped scallions.

*Heat a big, serious-looking pan. I used a cast iron skillet. Put in 1 Tbsp of vegetable or peanut oil, and the pork. Push it around for a few minutes until it looks cooked. Take out the pork.

*Add another Tbsp of oil to the pan, stir the garlic in for 15 seconds, dump the spinach in, stir it around for a minute.

*Return the pork to the pan, and dump in 1 Tbsp soy sauce and the juice of 1/2 a lime.

*Shut off the heat, put it in a bowl, top it with the scallions, and eat it with rice.

My very own (windowsill) herb garden

I'm very fortunate to have the most fantastic apartment. It's in a wonderful neighborhood (Capitol Hill), close to downtown, pubic tennis courts, green spaces and of course, friends and (essentially) family, plus it's in an old, charming building. But it's an apartment. So while I love it, I go crazy about my lack of outdoor space of my own. I grew in Maine for goodness sake, the thought of not having my own flowers to cut, vegetables to pick and lawn to mow is crazy. I am fortunate to have a house-dwelling friend that has created the most fantastic organic garden in her backyard, so I get to enjoy the fruits of her labor and sip cool drinks on her back porch on hot summer days.

But still, how to cope with the limits of living in an apartment? The Sunday farmers market at the end of the block certainly helps, but I still needed more. So, I did the easiest thing you can do, I grew a windowsill herb garden, and my god, it's fantastic. Early this spring, I bought a packet of mixed herbs (chives, parsley, basil, dill, thyme 'and more'...all for ~$2). I dumped them in a little pot with some potting soil, watered them religiously and viola, before I knew it, I had this tangled mess of green sprouts. I bought a bunch more little terra cotta planters, gently separated root systems and sorted all of the plants. Both the thyme and basil are fantastic, the dill and chives are coming along slowly but surely, and the parsley is a bit of a disaster. I bought starters of parsley (much better), mint, and dug up some spare chives from a friends garden, and added those to my existing plants. The presence of green in my apartment is wonderful and having fresh herbs to cook with is immensely rewarding. While houseplants are fine and dandy, I highly recommend a windowsill herb garden.

Here's what I've learned so far...
1. Use bigger planters than you think you'll need, plants need a lot of space for their roots if they're going to grow to the size you want them to be.
2. Make sure your planters have a hole in the bottom of them so that any excess water can drain and be absorbed later as needed.
3. Be patient! I thought the chives (from seeds) were a disaster, but they are turning out to be a success after all, they just needed a bit more time.

And to wrap it up, here is an excellent recipe to make use of your fresh herbs:

Pasta with Arugula and Fresh Herbs (and grilled chicken, if you so desire).
(Borrowed from the America's Test Kitchen folks, with a personalized hint added)

Ingredients: 1 lb pasta (campanelle, fusilli or penne is best), 1/4 cup olive oil, 7 cloves garlic (minced) , small chile pepper (optional), 2 T lemon juice, 2 cups lightly packed arugula, 1 cup lightly packed fresh herbs (parsley, basil and chives are best), 1 cup parmesan and/or feta cheese, and salt & pepper to taste.

Directions: While pasta is cooking, saute garlic and olive oil together on med-low, adding minced chile pepper if you so desire (not too much though!). After about 3 minutes, remove from heat and add lemon juice. Coursely chop arugula and herbs. Drain pasta, reserving ~1/2 cup of the cooking water. Return pasta to warm pot and add garlic mixture, arugula, fresh herbs and cheese(s). Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir well, adding reserved pasta water if dry, and serve! I also like to add grilled chicken to this. If you choose to do this, I recommend rubbing the chicken beforehand with the following mixture ...olive oil, lemon juice, salt & pepper, and if on hand, a little bit of pesto. Cut the grilled chicken into small chunks and add to the pasta at the same time that everything else is added. Serves 4.

Hint: This also makes a WONDERFUL work lunch. Pre-prepare the garlic mixture, stir with cooked pasta and add salt & pepper. Place the cheese, arugula and herbs in a seperate container. When it comes time to eat lunch at work heat up the pasta in the microwave, then stir in the cheese/herb mixture. Fresh, delicious, healthy and easy!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Premise...

As sisters, we share a lot of things. Our parents, of course, but also advice, memories, recipes and opinions, just to name a few. We thought it might be nice to put some of these things down on paper (so to speak), thus the creation of Ballerina Breath. We'll post recipe attempts that failed miserably and those that were a profound success. We'll share our thoughts on ways to make the way we live our lives more thoughtful of our surroundings. You can expect our opinions on current events and reviews of books, music and who knows what else. Enjoy!