It’s Still Summer

So what if my mosquito bites are gone, the pool bag has been replaced by book bags, and our weekends have been taken over by football — it’s still summer, dammit, and I for one am not so ready to let go. Okay sure, we have to get up at 6:30 in the morning, so the al fresco dinners at the pool are probably not such a good idea. But, even though we have homework and soccer practice, we can still have picnic suppers and make homemade popsicles, can’t we?

One of the things I’ve tried to do with this blog is show that family meals don’t have to be painful exercises in cajoling and whine-endurance. And never is that more true than in the summertime, when meals can involve campfires and interludes of skateboarding. But once we get into the grind of after-school activities and math worksheets, it’s easy to understand how we leave all that summer fun behind and find ourselves in a dinnertime rut. But I contend it doesn’t have to be that way — at least not all the time, and at least not yet. And yes, if you think I’m writing this for myself as much as anyone, you’re right.

So, in the spirit of keeping summer alive — if only for the food — here are some strategies that seem to be working for me.

Pick one night this week to have a family picnic.
Pack your supper in a basket (the cuter the better) and bring it to a park. It’s amazing what kids will eat when it’s been pulled out of a picnic basket, plus you really don’t have to cook — which is nice, seeing as how it’s still summer. We did this the other night, and this is what we brought: one rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, one dry sausage (I used to get these at Napa Style, but they don’t have them anymore, so I now order from Il Mondo Vecchio in Denver; the Vero y Pepe Salami is incredible.), raspberries, cheese (Rembrandt aged Gouda), grapes, a chocolate bar, and of course a baguette. Oh and a bottle of Bandol. Don’t forget: knife, plate or cutting board, and napkins.

Go to the farmer’s market. We think of this as a family activity, but even though the kids are in school and playing sports on Saturdays, I still try to swing by and pick up my summer food trifecta: corn, tomatoes, and peaches. These three items are at their peak of perfection as I write this. How can it not be summer when we’re grilling ears of corn and making peach ice cream, right?

Cook outside. Not revolutionary, I know. In the summer, we do this almost every night because our house in not air conditioned — and sometimes if I’m cooking inside I tend to get a little cranky. Then, as soon as school starts, it’s tempting to boil pasta instead of grill fish. But I am resisting as long as possible; the pasta days will be here soon enough. I suggest eating outside, too. A little bit of backyard skateboarding or baseball throwing during the meal is okay (since it’s summer).

Grill peaches. The peaches are perfect right now in case you hadn’t notices, and it’s too hot to bake a pie or cobbler. Grilled peaches make a perfect, relatively healthy dessert — they caramelize and sweeten into something satisfying and really, really delicious. Here’s the recipe:

Grilled Peaches

6 Peaches (they should be ripe but not overly ripe; they should also be organic because peaches are one of the Dirty Dozen)
1-2 tbs. balsamic vinegar to taste
Brown sugar
Olive oil (not the fancy oil you drizzle on salads; basic olive oil is best as it adds less flavor to the already perfect-tasting peaches)

Preheat your grill if it’s not already hot from dinner. Rinse and dry the peaches. Cut them in half and remove the pit. Pour the vinegar in a small bowl and brush onto peaches with a pastry brush or paintbrush. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Brush the grill with a light amount of oil. Place peach halves on the grill and cook for 4-5 minutes. Turn over and cook for a few more minutes until very soft but not falling apart. Serve with ice cream. Or not. Swoon.


Happy Hours

It’s no secret that I think about food a lot. Okay, almost all the time. Even when I’m on vacation and staying 30 miles from the nearest town or market, I still want to eat food that’s delicious and fresh. And since I seem to care more than most people about what’s for dinner, I’ll happily volunteer to plan meals, shop, and cook — to a point. The empty can of Cutter and proximity of a refrigerator full of chardonnay notwithstanding, I don’t want to spend my entire vacation in the kitchen. I want to be out there hiking (bear spray in hand), canoeing, and fly-fishing with my family, not to mention reading a cheesy novel on the deck.

So, on vacation we stick with simple favorites (grilled chicken, enchiladas) and then improvise a few easy and quick dishes based on what’s available at the produce-challenged market in town. But what sets these vacation suppers apart from a typical weekend night at home is that the meals come together during my idea of a good, old fashioned happy hour — i.e. the adults are fiddling around with the grill and shredding lettuce with real cocktails in their hands while the kids are playing football, shooting arrows, planning skits with their cousins, and otherwise generally ignoring their parents. Each meal turns out to be a special event — not necessarily because the food is extraordinary, but because getting it to the table was so much fun for everyone.

But some of the food is extraordinary. While some things like elk fajitas and huckleberry-barbecue salmon just taste great when you’re in a log cabin in the woods, others, like this super simple asparagus pasta, are delicious — and easy to recreate — anywhere.

Sautéed Asparagus Pasta

1 lb. fresh asparagus
1 lb. fresh mushrooms
olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
A few fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup white wine (can be poured directly from glass)
1/4 cup milk or cream
1 package spaghetti (whole wheat if you can get it)
salt & pepper
Shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of well-salted water. Drain and reserve on cup of the cooking water.

Heat a cap-full of olive oil in a large skillet and then add garlic. Use scissors to cut the basil into ribbons and add to the pan. Rinse the asparagus well, snap off the ends (asparagus is very nifty in that it usually will naturally break right where the ends start to get tough, so I think the best way to handle it is to snap each spear individually), and cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to pan. Clean the mushrooms (if you wash them, allow them to dry fairly well; or you can just wipe off the dirt with a paper towel), cut them in quarters and add to the pan. Feel free to add any herbs of spices you can find; our selection included some oregano and “Italian Seasoning” I suspect was from the 1980s. Add wine and allow to cook until it doesn’t smell “boozy” anymore. Add milk or cream. If the sauce is too thick (or if you don’t feel like you have enough of it), stir in some of the pasta water and allow it to cook down a few minutes. Add pasta to the pan and toss to mix well. Season with sat & pepper. Add some cheese to the individual servings. We served this with buttered ciabatta toasts (huge hit) and a simple romaine salad.

If you have kids who don’t like “mixed food,” this is an easy meal to deconstruct, by the way.

A few weeks ago I started making a list of all my favorite things to eat. I was doing this partly because I had thought of including it on the “about me” page on my new website (which is coming very soon, yay!) and partly because I love making lists, especially food-related lists. And partly because I was probably hungry. But instead of throwing the whole list up on a page where it would languish uselessly, I decided to blog about my food loves instead. So consider this post about strawberries the first in a series. Each post will sing the praises of some food I happen to love (or am loving that week) and include at least one recipe for said food.

Of course my Foods-I-Love list is a seasonal one. While I love cassoulet and creamy potato-leek soup, I don’t think about them much this time of year. Right now I love strawberries. The big, fat, perfectly sweet-tart berries you can only get in the summer. I love strawberries because they’re delicious but also because they really make me feel great. In addition to 100 g. of vitamin C per cup, which is almost as mush as in OJ, strawberries are high in fiber, calcium, magnesium, folate, and potassium — all good things, especially in hot weather. Recent studies have linked eating strawberries to improved memory function and reduced risk of heart attack and cancer. All that, at about 50 calories per cup.

During both my pregnancies I craved strawberries. I bought them in bulk at the farmer’s market (Both my kids were born in the fall, so I had perfect strawberries to offset the fact that I was carrying around 40 extra pounds during 100-degree weather.), and I got very creative with them, as only a pregnant woman can. I would stack strawberries on my toast, use slices of them for mini Parmesan sandwiches or in wraps with cream cheese and turkey, eat them by the handful as a snack with almonds, and of course plop them in my drinks (they were something to look forward to at the bottom of yet another glass of mineral water or iced herbal tea). During that time, I came up with several strawberry recipes that have withstood the test of (less-hormonal) times. While I don’t make too many turkey-strawberry wraps anymore, I do still occasionally make strawberry-pecan pancakes on weekends, and my strawberry salad has become a family favorite.

There are plenty of versions of strawberry salad out there, but I think mine is different enough to be worth trying. This recipe is on the menu of my husband’s and my fantasy restaurant — a place that would serve all the favorite meals we make at home just the way we like them, without messing up our kitchen. Like with all great dishes, the fresh ingredients each speak for themselves and also blend together perfectly. It’s simple to make and easy to adapt to your family’s tastes (Don’t like spinach? It’s also delicious with romaine or green leaf lettuce. I use spinach because it’s also in season and so awesome right now. Goat cheese would be a nice change, too.) Oh, and this salad is also easy to disassemble for kids who don’t like their foods to touch. I should know.

One last note: I can’t write about strawberries without a reminder that strawberries are one of the “Dirty Dozen,” in fact I just checked and they are currently ranked #3 on the list of conventional produce that is the most contaminated by pesticides. As if that weren’t bad enough, the state of California (where about 90% of U.S. strawberries are grown) just approved the use of methyl iodide, which has been called “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth,” as a fumigant in strawberry fields. Whether or not the methyl iodide seeps into the berries themselves seems to be up for debate, but I don’t like the sound of it. Buy organic strawberries. Please. As much as I love them, I’d rather go without strawberries than eat conventional ones. This time of year, organic strawberries are plentiful and are really no more expensive than the pesticide-soaked ones.

Summer Strawberry Salad
1 large bunch fresh spinach (I know the bagged spinach is convenient, but I don’t think it tastes nearly as good. Buy a bunch of organic spinach — #5 on the Dirty Dozen, btw — fill your sink with cold water, give the spinach a good bath and rinse under running water, then put in salad spinner.)
1 pint organic strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup shaved hard cheese, such as Dutch Parrano

Red Wine Vinaigrette
3 tbs. red wine vinegar
2 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 tbs. honey
3 tbs. olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper

To make the vinaigrette, put all ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well. Assemble the salad and toss with the dressing. If you want to get fancy, you can toast the pine nuts on the stove: Put in a skillet on medium-low heat and cook until they start to smell toasty; this only takes a few minutes so don’t take your eyes off them or they’ll burn.

If I had known how delicious this salad is, I would have posted this recipe last week — just in case anyone was looking for a perfect rock-the-pot-luck dish for the 4th of July. I was asked to bring a side dish to a neighbor’s barbecue, and just when I was settling on which pasta salad recipe to make, she mentioned that one of the guests is gluten intolerant. Okay, so no noodles.

Then I remembered this recipe, which I’d clipped from a newspaper last summer, and I knew it would be perfect. First, it’s made from whole grain brown rice and garbanzo beans, both of which I love and happened to have on hand. Second, it’s got a slightly sweet and tangy curry dressing, which is totally addictive.

I’ve been on a serious garbanzo kick lately, by the way. This of course started when I gave up meat for Lent; Garbanzo beans make an excellent and surprisingly satisfying substitute for chicken in salads and soups. Garbanzos, like most legumes (which is anything that grows in a pod), are really, really good for you. Aside from being high in fiber and fat-free protein, they are also high in heart-healthy minerals such as folate and magnesium. Garbanzos are a good “energy food” because they promote slow burning of complex carbs, which keeps you feeling full longer, too. In addition to throwing them in salads, soups, and all kinds of pasta dishes, I love them roasted as a snack — just toss them with some olive oil and salt and spread on a cookie sheet; roast in a hot oven.

I had bought a huge bag of dried garbanzos a couple weeks ago to make hummus and happened to have a large container of them waiting to be used. This salad would also work with canned beans, but the dried ones are cheaper and of course they don’t come out of a BPA-lined can. When using dried beans, buy them the day before you plan on using them so you can soak them overnight. Then rinse and simmer for a couple hours until they’re tender enough to eat. This salad makes a delicious side dish, and I’m making it again today so I can have it for lunch all week.

A note about brown rice: I always buy short grain brown rice (Lundberg’s) because I love its chewy, kind of sticky consistency. It works perfectly in salads like this. If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can bake it. Both methods work better than boiling it on the stove I think.

Curried Brown Rice and Chickpea Salad — I doubled this and wished I’d made more, just FYI.

2 cups cooked brown rice
2 cups garbanzo beans (or 1 15-oz. can, rinsed and drained)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/3 cup raisins (I used dried currants)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (juice of one lime)
2-3 teaspoons honey
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons curry powder
Salt & pepper

Combine brown rice, chickpeas, bell pepper, red onion, raisins, and cilantro. Toss to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice, honey, olive oil, curry powder, salt & pepper. Pour dressing over rice mixture and toss to blend. Season with additional salt & pepper to taste.

Make Lemonade

Back when I started this blog, I made a semi-conscious decision to not write about alcoholic beverages. I guess it seemed slightly bogus to be evangelical about eating healthy food in one post and then touting my killer margarita recipe in the next. But since then I’ve changed my mind, and the reason for that is that my philosophy about what you drink is essentially the same as it is about what you eat: If you’re going to consume alcohol, it might as well be something that tastes amazing and, if it’s a cocktail, preferably made from real, fresh ingredients.

Unlike my college self (who drank Everclear-KoolAid punch from a Rubbermaid trashcan on at least one occasion) or the 20-something gal who loved nothing more than watching “Melrose Place” with a (large) bottle of Yellowtail shiraz, I now am somewhat particular about my adult beverages. I’m not a snob, but I do think whatever you drink should be worth it (whether “it” is calories, a headache, or whatever). And, okay, I do like me some vino nobile and Tanqueray with homemade tonic. Hmmm, maybe I am a snob. But I digress. This post is supposed to be about my favorite summertime beverage: Lemonade. Well, actually vodka lemonade.

Once I started bringing fresh-squeezed lemonade to a few social gatherings, I realized just how special the real, non-Country Time stuff is. People were raving and asking for the recipe. It’s simple and delicious. The basic recipe is a favorite with the kids, but all it takes is a little Grey Goose to make it the perfect summertime cocktail.

One note about this recipe: Although a regular citrus juicer works fine, it’s much easier to squeeze lemons and limes with a Mexican-style metal lime squeezer. If you don’t have a lime squeezer, I highly recommend picking one up. These nifty gadgets are handy for cooking and of course cocktail making, and they’re easier to use and clean than a traditional citrus-juicing contraption. They used to be sort of a novelty (and my favorite gift to bring back from Mexico), but now they’re available everywhere, including Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Fresh Lemonade

8-10 lemons or a combination of lemons and limes
1/2-2/3 cup sugar (Get the organic, unbleached kind; I don’t know, it seems less refined.)
8-10 cups water or soda water (Only use soda if you’re going to be drinking immediately.)

Cut the lemons and limes in half then squeeze into a pitcher or bowl. Set juice aside. In a small saucepan, combine sugar with 1 cup water. Stir over medium heat until the mixture becomes syrupy (don’t let it scorch). Add 1/2 of the simple syrup to the juice and taste. If it’s sweet enough, you can stop there; if it’s not sweet enough, add the rest of the syrup. If it’s still not sweet enough (and now you’ll see just how much sugar they must put in most commercial lemonade since it’s so ridiculously sweet), you can add a bit more sugar to it because it will be still warm. Stir well and dilute with water or soda to taste.

If you’ve had one of those afternoons, add a few shots of vodka.

Thanks Dad

My parents were divorced when I was very young. After my dad moved out, my sister and I would spend most weekends with him and his roommate (a single college buddy with a grand piano) at their condo on the other side of town.

As far as I know, my dad was never much of a cook before splitting up from my mom. And I guess he wasn’t much of one afterward either. However, he did acquire some decent skills; bachelorhood will do that I guess. And Dad is a total gourmet in the sense that he knows and appreciates what’s good.

My dad is also not shy about sharing his opinions. Whether it was in his brown linoleum kitchen, around many campfires, or in the backseat of one of his overly cool vehicles (most likely the doorless Jeep or the Porsche; I believe the Ferrari didn’t have a backseat…um, mid-life crisis), I learned a lot of things worth knowing about food from my dad. Here are some nuggets of his culinary wisdom.

1) To cook freshly caught Brook trout, wrap the whole fish in tin foil with salt, butter, and onion slices and throw the bundle in the coals of a campfire. Put on some heavy deerskin gloves to pull the packets out of the fire. Eat the delicious steamy fish with your fingers.

2) Throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it’s done. I’m not certain this actually works, but it sure is fun.

3) There is a big difference between Brie and Camembert.

4) The very best picnic food is baby new potatoes that have been boiled then cooled and smeared with butter and salt.

5) A slab of cheese, hard sausage, and a few apple slices makes a perfectly acceptable supper.

6) If you’re going to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, get the Original Recipe.

7) Escargot are not disgusting.

And last but definitely not least: Real Coca-Cola and real Oreos are better than RC and those light brown store-brand cookies. Get the real thing and treat it as a treat.

Do you ever have those days when all of a sudden you notice your fridge overflowing with greenery and panic about how on earth your family will possibly eat it all before it wilts beyond recognition? If you said no, I’m jealous — and a bit dubious. Really? This time of year, between tennis team practice, baseball games, and happy hour at the pool, we’re lucky to eat two or three dinners a week at home (I know, this is a situation I need to rectify. Thankfully little league season comes to an end soon; now, what to do about the poolside vodka lemonade slushies?). So I’m not sure why I still feel compelled to buy heaps of produce every time I’m at the market. I guess it’s because it’s all so gorgeous right now, I can’t resist.

Last night I found myself with a night at home and lots of vegetables that needed to be eaten while we had the chance; looking ahead, I didn’t foresee another free evening until Sunday — oops, and that’s Father’s Day, so we’ll be barbecuing with my husband’s family. But what to do with large quantities of spinach, bok choy, broccoli, and arugula kind of escaped me at first. I don’t love raw spinach or broccoli, so salad was out. The bok choy got me thinking about things like Asian chili paste and rice wine, so I decided to stir fry the veggies in an Asian-inspired sauce. It was delicious and sweet enough that even the kids loved it.

Recipes like this are obviously just guidelines. You could also add red bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, well just about any veggie, to this stir fry. I served it over brown rice with grilled fish. The meal was the perfect antidote to our all-too-frequent snack bar suppers.

Sweet & Spicy Stir Fried Vegetables

1 large bunch organic spinach (Give the spinach a good cold bath in the sink, then rinse thoroughly to remove all the sandy grit. Dry on paper towels or in a salad spinner and remove thick stems.)
3 broccoli crowns, cut into large pieces (I blanched mine first in boiling water for about 3 minutes. I did this party because the greens cook so much more quickly than the broccoli, but also in case the kids didn’t like the sauce, at least I would still have some cooked broccoli to give them. And frankly sometimes that’s all I need to feel like I gave them a good dinner.)
4 baby bok choy, ends cut off and leaves separated
1 handful arugula
1 one-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
olive oil
1 tbs. Asian chili paste (such as Sambal Oelek, which is brought to us by Huy Fong Foods, the same people who make my beloved Siracha), more or less to taste
1-2 tbs. Hoisin Sauce (you can substitute a small amount of jam for the sweetness if you don’t have Hoisin)
Splash Mirin or Japanese Rice Vinegar

Heat a large skillet (the largest you have; I have a 14-inch pan and it’s perfect for this) over medium heat. Add chopped ginger, garlic, and oil (and onion if you want). Saute for about 5 minutes until it’s fragrant but not browned. Add bok choy and cook until it starts to wilt. Add spinach and cooked broccoli (and other veggies if you’re using). Mix Hoisin and chili paste in a small bowl and taste. If it’s too sweet or too spicy, add more of one or the other. Stir into veggies and add Mirin or vinegar. Toss in arugula and stir fry until veggies are well coated and hot.