Friday, July 30, 2010

An Unlikely Pair: Corn & Blueberries

Some foods just naturally go together: peas and carrots, red beans and rice, strawberries and cream. But blueberries and corn? Hmmm. When I first spied a recipe for a blueberry and corn salad, I was intrigued. I’m always on the lookout for blueberry recipes, especially savory ones. There’s only so many blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes, blueberry pies, that one can consume! And since I have ten healthy blueberry bushes, I’ve got ’em! I freeze a bunch every year, and we eat a lot fresh, just naked.  They're so good; that they're good for you is just a plus!   I’m always looking for an idea to use my bounty in a new recipe of some kind. And I’m still hanging onto the notion of a blueberry chicken dish I’ve put in the “gotta try” pile.

I found this recipe in my mother-in-law’s Better Homes & Gardens, a magazine to which I’ve subscribed and un-subscribed several times. (I’m currently in an “un-subscribed” mode.) I saved the recipe, intrigued more by the beautiful picture that accompanied it than the ingredient list. I was waiting for the day that fresh locally grown corn was ready, along with my own berries. Once armed, I made the salad early in the day and let it marinate till dinnertime. It was scrumptious, another great blending of hot and cold, crunchy, soft, tangy and sweet. I really couldn’t think of a thing I’d change! The only thing I did differently was to cook the corn in the microwave instead of in boiling water. Six ears, in their husks, take about 14 minutes on high. The silk and husks are easy to remove once cooked -- and cooled a little, of course. Oh, and I used two jalapenos. (They were small.)

Corn & Blueberry Salad
From Better Homes & Garden, June 2010

PREP: 25 min, Chill overnight

6 ears fresh sweet corn, husked
1 C fresh blueberries
1 small cucumber, sliced
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 T lime juice
2 T olive oil
1 T honey
½ t cumin
½ t salt

In Dutch oven, bring salted water to boil. Add corn. Cook, covered, 5 minutes, or until tender. When cool enough to handle, cut corn from cobs.

In a serving bowl, combine corn, blueberries, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, and jalapeno. For dressing, in screw-top jar, combine lime juice, oil, honey, cumin and salt. Cover and shake well to combine. Add to salad; toss. Cover and refrigerate overnight (up to 24 hours). Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Why Do They Call It "Orzo"

“Orzo? Sounds like a monster from a cheap foreign film.”   That was my husband’s reaction to the news that an orzo salad was on tap for dinner.  “What’s orzo again?” he asks.  “Rice-shaped pasta," I answer.  Says he, “If it looks like rice, it should be rice. Anyhow, I don’t like the name.”

Must run in the family. My mother-in-law can’t abide the thought of yogurt, in any form. Her face even kinda scrunches up when she says the word, eyes squinting, nose wrinkling. I have to admit, when she says “y-o-g-u-r-t," dragging out each letter, it doesn’t sound very appetizing. When her doctor recommended yogurt as an easy remedy for a stomach problem she was having, you can imagine how she groaned. She tried, God bless her, but she has trouble even getting down one of those little six ounce jobbies! I suggested Greek yogurt, thinking she’d like the thicker, richer texture. I told her that it would be just like sour cream and it would be great on a baked potato. She seemed open, even said, “That sounds pretty good,” but then said “Just don’t like the name.”

Same goes for tofu. Maybe it just sounds like toad food, or reminds her of toe jam, I don’t know. But it’s something she just can’t get by. (I haven’t given up on the Greek yogurt, though. I’m sure that once she smears it over a steaming baked potato, even a sweet baked potato, which she really loves, she’ll be a convert. I’ll report back later.)

But I was anxious to try the orzo salad, no matter what the word conjured up. Oldest daughter Renae had raved about it. Her eyes practically rolled back in her head describing it to me. So she rattled off the ingredients but promised to send the recipe. When it came, I did a quick inventory of the pantry, got the two things I needed from the store, and made the salad straight way.

She was right:   It’s wonderful. Just a great mix of textures and flavors, sweet, tangy, crunchy, all happening at the same time in your mouth. We should call it a Symphony Salad. I loved it. Now, the picture doesn’t make it look quite as appetizing as it really was. But you can probably see that with practically every forkful you’d get four or five pieces of different flavors all at once, blending so nicely together. It didn’t take long for the two of us (okay, a couple days) to clean it up. Even my skeptic husband declared that it was pretty good!

When Renae gave me the recipe she said that you could easily substitute feta for gorgonzola (I didn’t), dried cranberries for cherries (I did), and spinach for arugula (I used a packaged “spring mix”) so it’s a pretty flexible salad.

A salad by any other name . . . .

Tri-Color Orzo Salad
1 # orzo pasta
3 T extra virgin olive oil, plus 1/4 C
2 C fresh arugula
3/4 C gorgonzola cheese
1/2 C dried cherries
12 fresh basil leaves, torn
2 oz. pine nuts, toasted
3 T lemon juice
11/2 t salt
1 t black pepper

Cook orzo until al dente. Drain and put on a large cookie sheet tossed with 3 T olive oil, spread out and allow to cool. In a large serving bowl, gently toss pasta with remaining ingredients. Great fresh, but tastes even better with a few hours in the fridge to allow flavors to meld together.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Perseverance & Practice Pay Off: A Perfect Chocolate Walnut Pie

When it comes to baking, I’m no Martha Stewart, no Ina Garten, not even Betty Crocker. And pies are my nemesis. Peculiar really, since pies, especially fruit pies, are among my favorite desserts. (I’ll never rarely pass up cheesecake, any variety.) As a kid, a raspberry pie was my birthday request. 

I have a few baking successes under my belt, precious few. A recipe for a chocolate chip pie given me by a friend years ago has served me well as my stand-by when I need a dependable dessert.

But given my baking history –or maybe it’s fear of baking-- I really could understand the look of amazement, incredulity, maybe even panic, on my husband’s face when he saw me sign up for two, yes, two, pies to donate to the church’s annual fund-raising dinner. I could hear what he was saying to himself, “Why is she subjecting herself to this again? Does she want to be embarrassed? And in public no less!!!!”

I calmed him and told him that I really would try—earnestly--to do a good job, reminded him I’d made the chocolate chip pie dozens of times (“Yeah, and you nearly burned half of them!”), and promised if I did fail I would go to a bakery, buy two pies, repackage them and pass them off as my own.

But I didn’t need to.

The pies turned out great. I even got a little creative, just like I do with cooking. Maybe I will get the hang of this!

True to my word, I did everything just right. I preheated the oven, I assembled all my ingredients. I measured precisely. I adjusted the oven racks. I looked through the oven’s window, instead of opening the doors.  I didn't even leave the kitchen. I was a baking machine. And the pies rewarded my diligent attention.

Although I’d like to take full credit for the pies, I believe one of the reasons they looked as pretty as they did, all puffed up to perfection, was my neighbor farmer Dude’s (yes, that’s his real name) fresh farm eggs. They really do make a difference.

I'm sure the biggest reason baking and I don't get along too well is that baking seems to me so precise and exact and I prefer to be more free-wheeling in the kitchen.  And you can't peak and adjust as you go.  But I'm determined to, if not be a great baker, be an adequate one, at least enough so that I can confidently contribute to a Christmas cookie exchange.

I wish I would have inherited my mother’s pie-making genes, but I didn’t. She was a great pie baker. She was one of those -- you know the kind -- who didn’t measure or time a thing. She did it all by feel, smell and some innate sixth sense. Since I loved to hang around the kitchen so much, she did try and teach me but her lessons didn’t take. I did, however, became a master at making the cinnamon pinwheels with the leftover pie dough. Can still taste them fresh from the oven.

I got this recipe over 25 years ago, handwritten on a card, so I can’t really credit the original source. I did a few things differently:

  • The original recipe called for pecans, but I used walnuts and I toasted the walnuts first.
  • I added ½ cup coconut to the mixture.
  • I’ve tried using a graham cracker crust, but I like pastry better with this pie.
And as for the pastry, well, I still haven’t mastered that, and used Pillsbury’s roll-out pastry sheets.

One baby step at a time.

Chocolate-Pecan Pie
1 C sugar
½ C melted butter, cooled (no substitute)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 t vanilla
1 6 ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 c chopped pecans (or walnuts)
1 unbaked pie shell

Gently combine the first seven ingredients and spread into the unbaked shell and bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Best served warm, with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 6.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Learning to Mango: A Mango Rice Salad

I bought my first mango last week. It was almost an accident. I’ve eaten mangos before, I know, either in chutney, or a salad, but I’d never really picked one out, taken it home, cut it open and eaten it. (I’m really livin’ now, aren’t I?)

At the store, I was just about to reach for a cantaloupe and wishing I had X-ray vision so I could really tell if it was ripe or not, when I noticed the display of mangos next to it. There wasn’t anything to identify it, just the “88 cents each” sign. I’m a little red-faced to admit that I wasn’t really sure what it was. Papaya, maybe? And the woman next to me sniffing a cantaloupe said she thought it was a persimmon!  I knew that  wasn't right, so I had to ask the clerk, who had to ask someone else. Yes, it was indeed a mango.

Into my basket it goes and off I go to find out what the heck I was going to do with it. My husband, who hates un-ripe cantaloupe, was suspicious but game enough to go along with my “let’s-get-out-our-comfort-zone” mood.

I knew mangos were a sweet, tropical fruit, often juicy, but that’s about it. I’ve also noticed that they’re much more readily available in stores than they used to be, even in my part of the boonies.

I learned a lot during my Googling. Not only are mangos sweet, they have oodles of nutritious benefits. They contain an enzyme with stomach soothing properties similar to the papain found in papayas, making them very comforting to the digestive system. Those same enzymes, I learned, also make the mango a good tenderizing agent, good to include in a marinade.

They’re also a great source of fiber, and they’re low in calories – about 110 in an average mango. Rich in anti-oxidants, the mango is a good source of Vitamins A and C, as well as potassium and beta carotene.

I learned all this from a website called, published by the London Fruit Company. It had tons of recipes – everything from appetizers and drinks to chicken and seafood dishes. I landed on a Mango Rice Salad because the mixture of textures of the ingredients appealed to me. (The idea that I didn’t have to cook too much in 86 degree heat was also very appealing!)

Now how was I to cut the thing? I’d looked at a couple diagrams. One tip suggested just cutting in half and scooping the fruit with a spoon; but since I wanted small chunks for my salad, I skinned it first, then chopped it. It was more of a hatchet job. I nearly mangled it, but consoled myself that it wasn’t bad surgery for a first effort. I couldn’t resist sampling as I went. Yep, I’d had that before. A bright yellow in color, it tasted like something between a pineapple and a peach, but firmer. The closest thing to it, I think, might be a nectarine.

Mango Rice Salad
London Fruit Company

2 cups cooked brown rice
2 cups chopped mango
3/4 cup shredded carrot
4 stalks celery, diced
2 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup sugar

Pretty simple:  Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix well, cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving. Makes 5 generous servings.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Susie's Hot! (Just Like Her Stuffed Banana Peppers)

Our friend Susie is one great cook. I have never known anything she’s made that hasn’t been swooped up and swooned over. Case in point: Hot Stuffed Banana Peppers. She brought a tray of these to the annual Fourth of July shindig at Bob & Liz’s – at Bob’s near-command --and they were hardly out on the table before the tray was bare. I had to scurry to get a picture, not to mention a taste myself!

Her “recipe” is fairly simple: it’s the preparation of the pepper shells and the stuffing of them that are time-consuming. To be honest, Suz said she wasn’t quite sure what kind of peppers they were. She’d bought a bushel late last summer and seeded them, then froze them so she could be ready for just such command performances as these: “ . . . . and bring those hot stuffed peppers!”

She stuffed the seeded banana peppers – there were about four dozen of them – with hot Italian sausage. Her favorite brand is Uncle Charley’s, a great meat processing company based in a small town outside Pittsburgh named Vandergrift, only about an hour from us. Uncle Charley’s has a great line of different sausage and meats and is very popular in western Pennsylvania. (Uncle Charley’s is proud to announce their meats are now available at Heinz Field!)

Since banana peppers are long and thin, this is a time-consuming task, as Susie reminded Bob: “I was up at 6 a.m. stuffing these babies!!” It was worth it. After she stuffed all those babies, she roasted them in a slow 325 degree oven for about an hour. She poured a little water on the bottom of the roasting pan to prevent sticking and covered the pan with foil.  After one hour, she drained the juices from the pan and topped the cooked peppers with a jar of spaghetti sauce. She makes her own sauce every September, but her supply is pretty wiped out by the following summer. After drizzling sauce evenly over the peppers, she topped them with a generous coating of shredded Parmesan cheese, popped them in a 350 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes, to get the sauce warmed and the cheese melted. They’re best served right out of the oven . . . and it certainly wasn’t a problem that day!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Smokin’ Dan’s Chickens & the Fourth of July

These smoked  chickens were just a part of a Fourth of July celebration last Saturday hosted by my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Liz and Bob. We also had two pork roasts, each about 14 pounds, lovingly tended on the spit by my DH, and more than 10 pounds of breaded and pan fried bluegill fish. All for about 50 people! To say we ate well is an understatement. And everyone brought at least one dish. There were potato salads, macaroni salads, fruit salads, slaws, salads of all kinds (I made my first ever panzanella salad. It was great!), fresh fruit, beans, dips and spreads and pita chips and chocolate everything. Did I mention margaritas? I think we must have been celebrating our independence from watching our calories!

Son-in-law Dan loves to cook. The Fourth of July picnic is a pretty traditional routine – my husband and Bob tend the meat and everyone brings a dish they want to share. (Except Bob didn’t give our friend Susie a choice --- she had to bring her stuffed banana peppers. She did. More on that next time.)

But Dan was going to miss out on the cooking part because he lives an hour and a half away and his wife was working, so he decided he was going to smoke some chickens and bring them along when her hospital shift was over.  Now I think smoking meat is an act of love (so is slow roasting pork on a spit, for that matter; right, hon?) because it’s got to be tended and it takes a long time. We have a smoker but our experiences have not been so hot. We smoked some salmon once when we first got the smoker, and the fish was good but it was done way before any guests had arrived. Another time we started a turkey in the smoker while camping, went boating for the afternoon, and returned to a shriveled, dried bird. Almost like eating crow!

But after eating Dan’s chicken, we’re ready to give it another go. He decided to do this after he’d returned from a beach vacation in South Carolina and he had wings that had been smoked before being all sauced up. Anyhow, he was hot to smoke and it was worth it.

Typically Dan makes things up as he goes. This is how he smoked the chickens: First, he put Emeril’s seasoning, the original one, on two of the chickens and Barbecue 3000, from Penzey’s, on the other two. He also added thyme to the spice mixtures, because that’s his wife Renae’s favorite herb. Then he rubbed the seasonings all over the birds. He also stuffed them with carrots, celery and garlic. More carrots, celery and the Barbecue 3000 seasoning went into the pot of liquid that goes in the bottom of the smoker.

He used hickory wood chips and said it smelled great as it smoked. Next time he’ll try apple. We’ll supply the wood after apple tree trimming! He smoked the chickens for about 3 ½ hours, starting breast side down for 1 ½ hours then flipping them for the remainder.

He did a great job, especially since he lost the English instructions for the smoker and had to translate the Spanish version to learn the recommended cooking times for different kinds of meat. He was reminded that pollo means chicken in Spanish. Resourceful fellow.