Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summertime and the Eating is Good

I Love Summer Vegetables
The next 8 weeks are the best of the entire year for eating in our part of the world. Squash, eggplants, beans, early peppers, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, glorious tomatoes, are all now available in great quantities. And so I took advantage of the farmers market bounty this weekend to load up the refrigerator with good stuff for Ann to eat during the week while I am at work.

I tapped into that bounty for dinner last night: sliced tomatoes including a Green Zebra from our garden, Romano beans boiled until tender (25 minutes) and dressed in olive oil, and the tiniest baby redskin new potatoes boiled until tender (12 minutes) and dressed with butter and parsley from the garden.

I just love these vegetables. New potatoes cannot be beat. And for meaty goodness, Romano beans are outstanding. I could wax poetic about tomatoes, but instead, I will just eat some every day until we run out in October.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Cucamelon

Cucamelons, Perhaps the World's Cutest Fruit
You're right. They're so damned cute that it's ridiculous. Grape-sized watermelons. Not exactly. These little Curcurbits taste like cucumber with a bit of watermelon rind and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. The crunchy little critters are tasty, no doubt. I first read about them perhaps in about 2005 and got to play with them for the first time in 2009 when a local grower supplied them to us for a summer. And then she moved away.

This native of Mexico and Central America, Melothria scabra, besides being known as a cucamelon also goes by several other monikers such as pepquiño, mouse melon, Mexican sour gherkin, and sandía de ratón (mouse watermelon) and sandiita (little watermelon) in Spanish. Although the cucamelon tastes like a cucumber-melon cross, it is botanically neither and won't cross with either.

Cucamelons Grow Like Mad Here
After all these years, I finally got some plants from a friend this spring and transplanted them out around an old tomato cage. As you can see, the prolific vines with deep green ivy-shaped leaves are beautiful and lend themselves to trellising. In fact, this tomato cage is too small and the vines are taking over this part of the garden. Next year, I plan to grow them up and over the railing to the stairwell leading down to the basement. That should give them lots of room to do their thing.

Tiny (4-5mm) Cinqefoil-Like Blooms
Hundreds of Tiny Fruits Hiding in Plain Sight
See the little melon dead center in the photo? Right. It takes a few minutes to become accustomed to seeing them and then you can pick them very quickly. In picking Monday and Thursday this week, I have picked somewhere over a hundred fruits from this one vine. Amazingly prolific.

I really love the crunchy little guys. Ann, not so much.

CLT

Monday was Carter's 16th birthday and Ann let me know that he wanted BLTs for dinner. Unfortunately, we got clobbered at the restaurant Saturday night and sold out of every single tomato. Moreover, none of our tomatoes are yet ripe (and at the rate that the birds are pecking them, we may never have any ripe tomatoes this season) and the farmers market doesn't go until Tuesday. How to make a BLT without tomatoes?

Chicken, Lettuce, and Tomato
I decided on using a roasted chicken, figuring that this is something that Carter would eat. At times, he will eat just about anything; at other times, just about nothing. Typical teenager, I guess. I never went through that. My siblings called me the Vacuum Cleaner: anything that they didn't want, mainly vegetables, ended up on my plate and was inhaled.

CLT in Progress
So, back to the sandwich. It's built from grilled and toasted focaccia spread with saffron aioli, red leaf lettuce, thick-cut bacon roasted on a sheet tray in the oven, and sliced chicken breast. No complaints from the peanut gallery. When making a lot of sandwiches, it's often a lot easier to make one gigantic sandwich and cut it down into smaller ones. 

Guilty Pleasures

Some Mondays, rare ones, I get away from the restaurant early depending on my paperwork load. With a significant amount of effort last week to minimize my Monday paperwork, I was home by 1pm after only a very brief 6-hour day. On these rare occasions, I like to celebrate by having lunch with Ann and now that it is summer, with Carter too. Accordingly, I brought home some instant ramen for the three of us this past Monday.

Do you have a guilty pleasure? I certainly do. Being a restaurant chef and having access to awesome raw materials, essentially everything I eat is made from scratch and so I just do not eat pre-prepared foods. Except that I have a weakness for some of the more exotic varieties of instant ramen, not your ubiquitous Nissin ramen brick, but the crazy ones that are not labeled in English. And my weakness is not limited to ramen, instant pho and udon are also in the same category for me.

Please don't tell me what is in those seasoning packets, because I know enough to know that ignorance is bliss. Just bring me a bowl of the stuff now and again. I do generally have to doctor the soup with a squeeze of sriracha, some cilantro, a squeeze of lime, or perhaps a touch of hoisin. Once this is done, I can have a quick and halfway tasty meal that not only fills the belly, but it also scratches the guilty pleasure itch.

Monday, I was surfing the instant soup shelf at the Food Maxx on the way home. Yes, they have a lot of shelving just for instant soups, counting dozens and dozens of flavors and brands. One in particular caught my eye, though because I don't read even the slightest bit of Korean, I had no way of knowing what it contained. My eye was attracted to the flames, the exclamation point, and the English word "mania." I wasn't sure what kind of psycho stuff I was getting, but that's never stopped me before and it sure wasn't stopping me on Monday.

WTF?

I assumed the ramen would be spicy but wasn't sure until I opened the flavor packet and tried it out. Spicy yes, very, but kind of one-dimensional in flavor, even with the other little packet of toasted sesame seeds and nori flakes. This was definitely the most spicy prepackaged food I have ever tasted, most manufacturers really laming out on the heat so as not to offend anyone, but not nearly close to my maximum spice tolerance level.

After lunch, for giggles, I decided to use Google to see if I could find out more about this spicy ramen. Little did I know that my searches would lead me to YouTube and dozens of videos of spicy ramen challenges, of various people spluttering and choking and gasping their way through bowls of these Spicy Fried Chicken Ramen.

Spicy? Yes. Worthy of a challenge? No.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

An Improv Sunday

Sunday was a bit of a strange day. It was too hot to go outside, Ann still wasn't feeling great from her bout with this cold that I had last weekend into the early part of this week, and no wine in preparation for my 14-hour fast for bloodwork on Monday morning. Our usual Sunday routine of coffee on the patio in the morning and wine on the patio in the afternoon was shot to hell. But I guess that was OK because neither of us was feeling up for much, with Ann still reeling from her cold and me feeling like I got punched in the face after a brutal, brutal Saturday night at the restaurant.

But it got to be noon and we needed something to eat. In what would become the theme for the day, I scrounged the cooler and pantry for stuff for breakfast and came up with this delightful mess for breakfast. This is the kind of thing I would serve for brunch, if I ever did brunch at a restaurant, which I have vowed never, ever to do.

Black Bean, Potato, and Egg Mess
This particular mess is fried redskin potatoes cooked with onion, black beans, jalapeño, garlic, and cilantro stems and bound with a few fresh chicken eggs, garnished with grape tomatoes, cotija cheese, and more cilantro.

Continuing the improvisational theme for an early Sunday dinner before starting my fast, Ann had some zucchini in the fridge, which I made into traditional latkes. I guess I can add that to my list of vegetables from which I have made latkes. They were really good, tasting like a combination of latke and fried zucchini.

Zucchini Latkes
In the afternoon, I also made Ann some eggplant "meatballs" to eat during the week (eggplant, onion, garlic, rosemary, basil, egg, panko, and cotija). I cooked the onion until it was browning around the edges, then added the rosemary and garlic and let that cook for a minute, and then added finely diced eggplant. I added bits of water as necessary to steam the eggplant and to let me scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pan. Once the eggplant was soft, about 12-15 minutes, I folded in the basil and seasoned the eggplant. After cooling for a minute, I put it in a bowl with some panko, a bit of Cotija cheese, and an egg. Mixed, the eggplant sat on the counter for five minutes to cool at which point I made it into meatball shapes and put them on a greased sheet tray in a 350F oven for 30 minutes to set.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pizza Margherita

Summer and the first ripe tomatoes means only one thing to me: time to get busy making fresh mozzarella! And mozzarella and ripe tomatoes means only two things: Insalata Caprese and Pizza Margherita! At home on a weekend when there is plenty of time to get some dough rising, it's pizza time for sure.

Grilled Pizza Margherita
A lot of people swear that a Margherita pizza must have red sauce on it. I'm not going to say that they are wrong, but merely misguided. I would rather have big slabs of ripe tomato on my pizza than sauce any day!

We ended up making these pizzas on Monday rather than Sunday as planned because apparently our yeast is a bit feeble and it took an extra day to get it going.

When grilling pizzas, I stretch the dough and spray the grill bars with pan spray. After two turns on the grill with the top closed, the crust is flipped and the bottom gets a single turn. Then I pull it out of the grill, three-quarters cooked, and put the ingredients on the top side, which has been fully cooked.

First, I drizzle olive oil on the crust, then sprinkle it with salt, then lay on the basil leaves. Over this goes the mozz and the tomatoes and another sprinkle of coarse salt. Back into the grill it goes with the lid closed until the mozz is melted. This is all best accomplished over medium heat. High heat cooks the bottom crust much more quickly than the top crust and the result is half-baked and half-baked is half-baked.

Sunday Sipping
This weekend was fairly temperate and we were able to sit outside a lot and that was a blessing after the blazing temperatures of June. This village-level Chablis from Albert Bichot (Domain Long-Depaquit) is a delicious Chardonnay and one of my favorites of the summer.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

July 4th Weekend

Friday night July 3rd was about as brutal as it gets at the restaurant. Most of the time in the restaurant business we wish for more customers, but not so Friday night. The entire crew was wishing that not another person would come through the front door. I don't remember getting home or showering or falling asleep, that's how tired I was. Ann says she put my phone on the charger and turned off the light. I have no recollection of this. Not a good way to start a weekend and a surefire indicator that I will be a zombie come Sunday.

Fortunately, Saturday night July 4th was a lot easier and after sleeping like a dead thing on Friday night, I actually had some steam left on Saturday night to watch the fireworks in our neighborhood with Ann.


Neighborhood Fireworks
One of the (very few) benefits of living in a neighborhood of upwardly mobile rednecks is that with their disposable income and pyromaniacal tendencies, the fireworks shows are pretty damned awesome as they all try to outdo each other! The poor dogs, on the other hand, did not have a good night.

Come Sunday, after a decent night's rest on Saturday night, I was somewhat refreshed. Nothing like ten years ago or even five, but all things considered, I was a lot more functional on Sunday than I imagined I would be, even though I got up long before I wanted to. The dogs have no concept of sleeping in or any idea how tired I might be and my lovely bride has the amazing ability to keep on sleeping even through a hurricane, where the slightest noise will awaken me.

At 7:15am, the brown dog decided enough was enough and came and rousted me out of the bed. Her usual MO after she decides that I am ignoring her stomping and huffing about is to paw me like she is digging for China and lick me until I relent and take her out and feed her. So while Ann slept, I ticked several yard work items off my list and was relaxing on the patio when she joined me about quarter to ten, coffee for the both of us in hand, bless her.

After a half an hour or more of chit chat, she went inside and returned with a cookbook, Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, one of her favorites. She sat down to browse and was soon enthusing loudly about certain dishes. Yes, food really is a primary topic of conversation at our house. When she said, "I really would love some latkes right now!" I told her I would be right back and returned with a plate of red onion and chive latkes made from red potatoes with the skins still on.

Red Onion and Chive Latkes
By this time, Carter was awake and joined us on the patio. I made a dozen latkes; he ate six and would have eaten more. Latkes are old hat for me: we used to make them every morning for our lunch menu at the restaurant. And I have made them from all manner of vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, turnips, daikon, carrots, and parsnips. I am sure I missed a few.

In the afternoon, it had gotten a bit too warm to be outside so we had gone in to watch a bit of television. Once again, and apparently apropos of nothing, Ann said, "I wish I had some guacamole!" so I went up to the store and scored four beautifully ripe avocados. Once it cooled down outside, I made guacamole and Ann opened a bottle of Vinho Verde and we took both out on the patio to relax. Although we had different plans for dinner, neither of us were hungry post guacamole.

Guacamole
Vinho Verde Seems Just Right for Guacamole
While we were out on the patio talking, looking at our gardens, and watching the birds on the feeders, we saw this big buck rabbit who kept trying to line up a doe (right on the tree line). I assume that he was ultimately successful. She wasn't cooperating, but she wasn't protesting either.

Rabbits, Acting like, um, Rabbits
The whole time we were outside, I kept thinking how wonderful it was to be sitting outside in the late afternoon in July, especially given how brutally hot our summer has already been.

Keeping it Local

It hit me when I woke up two Sunday mornings ago in Auburn AL. Or rather it felt like several people and a baseball bat hit me. I wasn't...