Sunday, January 25, 2015

"B" is For Butternut and Beans

Dried Beans - Good Stuff
A Tagine Cornocopia

Beans at the ready w/Herbs & Spices
 These seeded pods derived from myriad of legumes are among the oldest of foods known to man/woman-kind, dating as far back as 4,000 years.  Beans have been a “go-to” food throughout history, and for a few very lean years in my household, when animal proteins are scarce or too expensive to purchase. 
So, are beans seasonal?  Well yes, they are.  Fresh beans are best during the summer and fall seasons.  Winter they are dormant.  Today we know beans in two distinct categories, dried and fresh.  Fresh beans are usually purchased while still in their pods the most common being Green Beans, Lima Beans and my newest favourite, Fava.  On your grocery shelf near the pasta and rice you’ll find bags of dried beans, such as Black Beans, Pinto Beans and Kidney, as well as a host of many others.  Of course, we are lucky in this country to be able to have our choice of many types of Beans in the forms of fresh, dried or canned.  Just remember, canned beans are prepared with an abundance of salt and preservatives. 
 Beans are such an excellent source of protein, (two to four times more than grains), as well as calcium, phosphorus and iron, not to mention they’re easy to prepare and quite adaptable.  I’ve decided to use three types of beans as a component of this week’s recipe. 
There isn’t a produce section that isn’t offering the winter squash, Butternut.  An obvious seasonal choice I know, but one I believe is under-utilized in our home kitchens. 
 Before I start cooking here’s what I know about the Butternut.  When selecting your squash look for skins that are smooth and free of cracks or greenish tinges.  If you can press your finger into it the squash is not yet mature and will lack flavor and sweetness.  It should feel heavy and dense for its size when you pick it up.  This is due to the naturally high water content.  Butternut lose some water though when they are harvested.  The unique shape and hard rind can make it tricky to cut, just be sure to slice off the top and bottom ends first to give yourself a flat surface to place on the cutting board.  Then cut in half lengthwise so you can clean out the seeds and fibrous strings.  This is also when it’s easiest to peel the skin using your potato peeler.  Inside the Butternut will look like its botanical sister, the pumpkin, and like its sister, the seeds are edible.  If roasting you can leave the squash in two halves, for cubing you will simply cut the two halves into sections that can manageably be diced into cubes. 
Butternut can be baked, steamed, simmered or roasted.  I love it roasted and topped with butter, salt and pepper.  And oh! ~ a bowl of rich, warm, creamy Butternut Squash soup, topped with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of turmeric or even dill!   Absolutely a most satisfying dinner in front of the fire on a cold winter’s evening.  But those are such common uses of this cylindrical vegetable I wanted to do something different. 
This week I’m integrating South, (Mexico) with East, (Middle East), and preparing Butternut & Kale Tacos.  Tacos have been around for a very long time themselves.  The Mayans, Aztecs and Zapotecas used their soft flat bread, we know it as a tortilla, as a kind of plate to hold spiced meats and seafood.  Did they roll the filling up in the flat bread or fold it over?  I’m not sure.  If you know the answer please share. 
The Middle Eastern aspect comes from the spread in my recipe, Hummus or Houmous.  A very familiar condiment to us these days.  Just so you know, Hummus is a Levantine food, which has been popular throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa for forever.  At its very basic, it is simply a blending of Chickpeas, also known as Garbanzo Beans, Tahini, olive oil, a little lemon juice, garlic and salt.  I’m preparing three types of Hummus, one using Chickpeas, one using Cannellini Beans and one using Black Beans.  Each will be seasoned according to what I believe best suites the bean and will have incorporated into it, a complimentary herb.  The Butternut will be roasted until sweet and near-caramelized and then is combined with kale and garlic.  The tacos will be finished off with Crema Mexicana and the toasted seeds of the squash.  I’ll throw the skin into my composting pail.  Perfect use of the entire vegetable, always a good thing.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

"A" is also for Atlantic, (American) Oysters

Raw Oysters, awaiting introduction to other ingredients

Avocado Puree, Mango Puree and Seasonings
Gosh! ~ And I thought staying seasonal in the “X, Y, Z’” section of the alphabet was going to be tough.  There are fewer food choices in January beginning with the letter “A” than one would think.   But I persevered and decided to cook up some Atlantic Oysters served with both an Avocado and a Mango puree. 

 Atlantic oysters, also known as “Virgin Oysters,” or “American Oysters,” are harvested from the waters along the Eastern Seaboard.  You’re probably most familiar with the “Blue Point,” but depending upon which bay they originate from, you may find oysters in your local market or butcher/seafood shop labeled as Chesapeake, Apalachicola, Cape Cod or Kent Island. 

According to my research, archeologists have found evidence that Native Americans returned to the same locations along the Eastern shore collecting oysters for consumption for 3,000 years! (Really?) 

Okay, I had to check that one out.  3,000 years sounded like a very long time.  And while I enjoyed a high level of elementary, junior and senior high school education within the Palo Alto Unified School District, I don’t recall learning exactly how many years Native Americans occupied lands along the Eastern Shore. 

Yes, 3,000 years is viable.  Evidently it is estimated varied tribes, inhabiting that area, referred to as Woodland Tribes, were there for more than 12,000 years!  Farming and fishing were the methods they used to sustain themselves.  Which brings us back to those Atlantic Oysters and my inclusion of them as seasonal for this time of year.

It is in summer and early autumn when oysters begin spawning or breeding.  During this time they become their fattiest and begin to slow down, reserving their energy.  With the onset of winter and the cooling of the ocean waters, harvesting begins.  So while we can indeed purchase oysters year round, thanks to refrigeration and commercial farming, the winter season happens to be when they are at their tastiest and most naturally abundant.  By the way, the myth of NOT eating oysters in months that do NOT have the letter “R” in them has been debunked.  That old adage came along when people were out collecting oysters on their own for those backyard clambakes.  Does anyone do that anymore, I wonder?

Another interesting fact is during summer spawning, warming waters are also prime time for the emergence of “Red Tides.”  These are large blooms of algae that grow along the shore and are prone to growing toxins.  These toxins are absorbed by all kinds of shellfish, including oysters.  Eating oysters withholding those toxins can of course cause us to ingest them.  However, there are no Red Tides found in our commercial seafood/shellfish farms, so no worries there.    

I understand oysters are not for everyone. But it surprises me how many adults say they don’t care for oysters when they haven’t even tried them!  Of course it’s not always the taste of something we don’t like texture has a lot to do with it.  And let’s be honest, for many of you out there, slurping the slimy raw oyster from the half shell is less than appealing.  But have you tried it?  Truly there’s a natural clean, ocean characteristic to those bivalves, topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a splash of Tabasco.  Don’t chew, inhale slightly, swallow it down whole then take a swig of Ouzo.  You’ll realize the easy slide of the mollusk with its cool, fresh, saltwater essence chased by the sweet, earthy liquor makes for such an interesting combination, you’ll find you just have to try it again.  Before you know it, you’ve consumed a whole plate of them.  It’s a wonderfully fun experience.  Trust me, millions have. 

So you’re not game to try, or you have and swear raw oysters aren’t for you.  Perhaps you need your oysters dressed for dinner.  Oysters Rockefeller would be an excellent choice.  Yes, this dish was named for the then, 1899, richest man in American, John D. Rockefeller.  The dish was created by Jules Alciatore, the son of chef Antoine Alciatore, owner of Antoine’s in New Orleans.  Oysters on the half shell are topped with a sauce, (the original recipe is a family secret), of spinach puree, a sprinkling of bread crumbs then baked.  No slimy sensation when you eat these.  Only a delectable taste that is hot, crispy and buttery. 

To keep it easy this week, I went middle of the road.  My oysters are dusted with a flour and seasoned breadcrumb mixture then deep fried.  So they’re cooked but not buried in any kind of sauce.  I pushed the envelope a little with “A” is for Avocado, but included an Avocado puree to serve the oysters, as well as a mango puree, just to add another layer of flavor.  I’m stretching here since Avocado season begins in February, (for some varieties), and extends through summer, which is when they are at their best.   

  This week’s recipe offers you a simple dish that can be served as an appetizer or main dish when served with a simple salad and a baguette. 

MANGO PUREE                 Ingredients:  1 fresh mango - peeled and diced or 1-2 cups frozen mango
                                                                     3 Tblsp granulated sugar    
                                                                     1 Tblsp fresh lemon juice + 1 Tblsp fresh lime juice
                                                                      1/4 tsp Kosher salt            1-2 Tblsp water if needed
      Blend all ingredients together in a blender or food processor until smooth.  Season with additional salt if needed.  Cover and set aside until ready to use.

AVOCADO PUREE             Ingredients:  2 ripe avocados - pitted and peeled
                                                                    2 Tblsp sour cream or creme fraiche
                                                                    juice from 1 large lime
                                                                    1/4 tsp ground cumin              salt & pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients together in blender or food processor until smooth.  Cover and set aside.

See?  Small, crispy and well seasoned

A little Avocado and Mango Puree for dipping


FRIED OYSTERS           Ingedients: 1 lb fresh oysters OR 2  8-oz cans oysters - drained
                                                             canola or peanut oil for frying
                                                             1 cup all-purpose flour        1 cup bread crumbs
                                                             1 tsp cayenne pepper    1 tsp paprika    1 clove garlic minced
                                                             2 tsp salt                        4 Tblsp unsalted butter

1) In large shallow pan combine flour, bread crumbs, cayenne, paprika and salt
2) In two batches, dredge half the oysters in the mixture
3) Heat about 1 inch of oil in heavy skillet until hot
4) Using a slotted spoon, remove oysters from flour mixture shaking off excess, and gently drop into skillet of hot oil.  Turn the oysters once, until golden brown - about 5 minutes.
5) Transfer to a paper towel lined plate to absorb oil - Repeat process with remaining batch of oysters
6) In a small saucepot - melt butter and add minced garlic

To Serve arrange fried oysters on one platter or one individual serving plates.  Drizzle melted garlic butter over all oysters.

Using a squeeze bottle or tip of a spoon, create small dollops of the mango and avocado purees on plates.  Serve hot. 

OR you could shmear the purees onto a sandwich roll, load it up with the cooked oysters, a few leaves of Arugula and you have yourself a new kind of Oyster Po’Boy!





Sunday, January 4, 2015

Another Lap Around The Sun

"A" is for Arugula

So I didn’t have anyone to kiss when the New Year rang in.  But true to my Cosmic nature I took a moment to gaze outside my bedroom window into the starry night and acknowledge our planet made it around the Sun one more time.  In spite of protests and disagreements, regardless of financial upturns or downward spirals, while some of us suffered the loss of loved ones and others celebrated the birth of the new, planet Earth completed her cycle.    Your Cosmic Muffin didn’t spin out of orbit or crash and burn into upon entering Earth’s atmosphere during the last couple of weeks.   I was just really sick during the holidays.  But not even illness or missed deadlines interrupted our planet’s obit.  Now that I’m up and about and feeling human, like most of us I’m more than ready to make use of this brand New Year and the start of Earth’s next lap.    

    While some of us make resolutions and others don’t, (I’m of the “don’t” group), you can’t deny the prospect of walking along a new and as yet uncharted road is exciting.  Even though I don’t make resolutions, I look upon a clean, unmarked slate as appealing.   While lying in bed and looking out at the night sky I pondered the personal changes I’d like to make.  Things like being a kinder, more productive woman has always been one of my New Year considerations.  Exercising consistently is another internal promise I make to myself.  Maybe a little less wine.  Actually, having the flu for the last ten days of 2014 kicked that one into gear even before the dawn of 2015.  And of course, less sugar and more veggies is another intention I set for myself.  Honestly, the explosion of juicers and the multitudes of recipes for juicing and smoothies helped me tremendously  in 2014 and I’m sure will continue in 2015.

But I’m a cook.  One who eats and offers services to others who eat.  So when I’m providing personal chef services for a client or teaching a class I’m preparing real food that requires the use a knife and fork, not something they’ll sip through a straw.   And as a cook, it is my goal to serve up food my clients and students will enjoy and benefit from. 

At the start of any new year, the most requested cuisine is healthy and flavorful.   So that’s what I’m going to offer again this year.  Healthy, in that our bodies will derive fuel from and/or use to rebuild and restore.   Flavorful in terms of taste, complexity and interest.  I also like to include aesthetic value.  If the dish isn’t appealing to the eye, then no one will want to even try it. 

We all know good flavor is closely related to freshness.  And freshness is associated with season.  So I’m going Seasonal this year.  Most of our produce is available to us year round but that doesn’t mean it naturally grows year round.  I’m not going to go into what our food producers do to produce to make it available to us year round, but I am going to address what’s in season right now. 

And to make things even more interesting, I’ve decided I am going to go alphabetically.  I just did the math and it works out perfectly!  There are 52 weeks in the year and 26 letters in the alphabet.  So each week’s blog will alternately feature a vegetable or herb then a fruit or herb.  All the while adhering to what’s in season!  Not sure what I’m going to do when we hit the Q’s, Y’s and Z’s, but we’ll have fun figuring it out! 

We begin this first Blog of the New Year with the letter “A,” for arugula.  Naturally in season now, arugula is also known as Rocket, Italian cress, rucola, or roquette.   I read somewhere the Romans not only appreciated the sprite taste of arugula, they believed it held aphrodisiac-like properties. 

If you haven’t yet tried arugula, it has a rather bitter and peppery, mild mustard taste and looks like the leaves that grow on radishes.  But don’t be misled by the boldness of taste, this bright green foliage is delicate and perishes quickly.  It’s best used within 2 days after purchasing or stored in a sealed plastic bag until ready to use.   

Think beyond salad green, use it to infuse your oils, it’s wonderful in soups instead of spinach or sautéed with other vegetables. Since arugula is high in vitamins A and C,  I would suggest including it in your smoothies and juicing.  Especially if you are looking to add some kick to your cucumber and green apple blends. 

As you can see from my photo, arugula is easy to grow.  I keep mine in containers and place the pots in an open, sunny area of my back patio.  There have been times my harvest has been so abundant I’ve used arugula in place of basil to make pesto.  This week I’m using my lively emerald green leaves to enhance a simple ravioli dish and as the co-Star in a salad with grilled peaches.  No need for too many ingredients.  This time of year, after all that fudge, cookies, bread, turkey, ham and prime rib, I'mready to follow the A, B,C’s of clean eating. 

All we need to prepare the entree and side salad

Recipe for arugula and ravioli to follow