Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes (In The Garden)

In honor of the recently completed London Olympics I thought this post needed a little nod to a great Brit - hence the Bowie referrence in the title.

One of the wonderful things about a vegetable garden is that it keeps changing as the seasons progress. Here in Northern Virginia we have a pretty long growing season and with the help of a little low level technology, we can make it even longer.

Back when it was still cold we were happily growing things like lettuce, beets, radishes and kale in our simple cold frame. There are few more satisfying things for a gardener than to have to take off winter gloves to harvest some lettuce that you'll wash and eat that day!

As the weather started to warm, our soil amendments made over the winter paid off handsomely in a bumper strawberry crop. Some heavy rains shortened the yield a bit but we really had all we could eat this spring -- and they were delicious. 

Spring and early summer also gave us kale, spinach, swiss chard, garlic (don't forget the scapes), leeks, more lettuces and a pretty wide variety of herbs.I wrote about much of it here.

Then came the tomatoes! And boy did they come -- it's been a really good year.

The zucchini have been prolific and I've written several posts about how we are using them is our Meatless Monday meals.

As we get into the later part of the summer , the garden is changing over once again. We're still getting a good amount of tomatoes and zucchini but several new plants are ready to take center stage. For the 1st time we are growing corn. Admittedly it is a small plot, but it was an experiment to see if we could do it. Well, our tiny little corn "field' seems pretty darn happy.

The stalks are nearly 10 feet high (is that the height of an elephant's eye?) and the ears are forming up nicely. It won't be long before we find out is it tastes as deleicious as it looks.

The hot peppers are ready to pick and the cucumbers seem to be multiplying overnight.

We've picked and eaten our first batch of yellow wax beans (delicious!) and are anxiously awaiting more.

Another first for us is a particularly interesting red variety of okra. They look quite different from the classic green pods I wrote about recently and we'll soon find out if there is any taste difference.

I realize how fortunate we are to have the space to do all of this. I also know that not everyone does.But, don't let that stop you from growing something -- anything. Even if it's just some herbs in a pot in your kitchen window. Or a small patch of tomatoes in that little unused spot in your yard. Once you grow and eat your own produce you'll learn what we did a long time ago -- it is so much better than anyting you can buy at a supermarket.

Happy gardening!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Okra - The Rodney Dangerfield of Veggies

That;s right, okra gets no respect I tell ya. These beautiful green pods, often called Ladyfingers in Indian and other Asian cultures are misunderstood and under appreciated. I'll admit, cooked badly (and it often is), okra be pretty nasty. It can get slimy and funky tasting. Cooked correctly, this member of the mallow family, can be amazingly delicious on its own or a tasty addition in a variety of dishes -- like this one.

We recently ate at a wonderful Indian restaurant about 1/2 hour from our home called Rangoli and, among other "small plates" we had a fried okra dish that we so good we ordered a second helping. We enjoyed it so much we wanted to try to recreate it at home. Here's Cynthia's version.

  • 1/2 cup AP flour
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
  • 1 scant tsp (sweet) paprika
  • several grinds of black pepper
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 - 2 dozens okra pods, the smaller the better but you'll need a few more
  • sea salt, finely ground
  •  Mix the flour, smoked paprika, cumin, sweet paprika and black pepper through a wire mesh colander to insure complete blending.
  •  Cut the okra on the bias into 1/4 inch slices
  • Place cut okra slices into the colander and cover with dry ingredient mixture
  •   Toss to coat well then shake to remove excess coating

  • Heat the oil (about 1/2 inch deep) in a shallow pan with plenty of cooking space
  • Fry slices about 30 seconds per side until GBD (golden brown and delicious)

  • Remove and place on a drain rack and salt liberally immediately

These crispy and spicy treats are addicting and are perfect as a side dish with burgers, as a appetizer or all by themselves with a cold beer. If you've had okra done badly and think you don't like it, I promise you these will change your mind.

Final note: The spice mix here is Cynthia's and probably different from what they used at Rangoli. I'm sure these are a million combinations that would be just as good. Be creative, use things you like, just give okra a chance.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Trouser Legs for Meatless Monday Dinner?

What's that you said? That's right, trouser legs -- also known as calzoni, literally translated from the Italian.

Last night was one of our "re-purposing" nights, you know, making use of things from the refrigerator and pantry that just happen to be sitting around. Not quite a Refrigerator Orphans event, but pretty close. Cynthia makes her own dough which we typically use to make Grilled Pizza. She usually makes more than we need and freezes the unused portions for later use. Initially, we had decided to make pizza so the dough was already out defrosting when she called me to say the plan had changed and we were doing something different and that she was going to use up some of the "never-ending supply of zucchini" that our garden seems hell bent on producing. We also had a red pepper from our garden and an eggplant from the farmer's market sitting around. So, vegetable and ricotta calzones it would be.

  • 1/4 Pizza dough recipe (find the recipe here)
  • 1 medium red bell pepper - cut into strips
  • 1 small eggplant - cut into 1/4" thick pieces (see picture), lightly salted and left to sit on the counter for 10 minutes or so
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium zucchini cut in half and then into half moons about 1/4" thick
  • couple cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • handful of breadcrumbs (used Ian's organic whole wheat panko)
  • EVOO, a tbsp or two
  • salt, fresh chopped herbs of your choice, we used marjoram and parsley
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • couple of slices of fresh mozzarella or goat cheese
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup your favorite grated cheese, we used locatelli romano 

  • Saute onions in EVOO for a couple of minutes, add eggplant and cook for another couple minutes
  • Add zucchini and pepper and continue to cook until all veggies are soft, on medium high heat to develop some carmelization.  Toss in the garlic, herbs, breadcrumb and cheese, adding a little extra EVOO if necessary.  Mix and let get nice and crusty.  Set aside and let cool.
  • Divide the pizza dough in half and roll out to about 1/8" thickness. Roughly round shape is helpful.

  • Place a health scoop of the veggie mix offset from the middle of your chosen shape leaving enough room around the edges to form a seal later
  • Add a healthy 1/4 cup dollop of ricotta cheese on top of the veggies along with some of the fresh mozzarella that you've ripped apart - season the cheese if you like 

  • Fold the dough over onto itself, making a "turnover" and crimp the edges together using your fingers. Making a good seal here is important to keep the insides from leaking out during cooking - it's imperative the top edge of the top portion gets tucked under the bottom edge that you're pulling up and over the top edge.  Got that?  
  • Place the calzone on a lightly oiled sheet pan to prevent sticking.
  • Cook at 425 degrees F for approximately 15 minutes. Brushing the top with a little oil will promote better browning, as will using your convection oven.

  • Remove from the oven and serve hot with warm sauce on the side for dipping and extra grated cheese.  Cold beer makes an excellent accompaniment.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Art of the Tomato Sandwich

Guest Blog By Cyn

Along with the copious amounts of zucchini now coming from 4 plants. (we really only need one, but I cannot seem to 'thin' the seedlings), the first wave of tomatoes is coming on hot and heavy.  One of my favorite ways to indulge myself in summer is with a couple of slices of fresh-from-the-garden tomato on toast. Sounds simple, doesn't it?  The beauty of it is, it can be as simple, or as complicated as you like.  

Step One, make toast.  Fresh bread will not hold up to a ripe slice of summer so well, so please toast to armor your bread against a juicy meltdown.  The bread selection is key -- too soft and you'll end up wearing your bread, too hard and you'll break a tooth.  My favorite of late is a miche from our neighborhood Wegman's bakery, a nice hearty sourdough, toasted lightly.  

Step Two, choose a bread spread.  It's for the additional barrier to the wet tomato and to elevate the flavor as well, you are shooting for Tomato Nirvana after all.  Choose wisely, for while the correct spread will bring you life, the false spread will take it from you (apologies to the Grail Knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).  Mayo is the classic choice, Hellman's, Best Foods or your own homemade.  Those are your only choices.  And regular mayo please, no low fat, half fat, no fat ---eat the fat, every healthy diet includes some.  Pesto is another classic choice, and fabulous in conjunction with mayo.  Other less traditional, interesting choices include: olive tapenade, hummus, baba ganoush, smushed avocado or guacamole, Boursin, and since I am a relatively new transplant to The South, pimento cheese.

Step Three, adding a green.  Could be a couple leaves of basil or arugula, a super thin slice of cucumber, a nicely crusted piece of baked zucchini or eggplant slices, any sort of lettuce. I even have a friend who loves roasted red peppers on her tomato sandwiches.  If you would add it to a salad that includes tomatoes, you can add it to your sandwich.
Step Four, slice your garden fresh tomatoes. 

Horizontal or vertical slices are acceptable, no wedgies, please. And they must be garden fresh, from yours or someone who lives within 25 miles of where you're eating them. It's a rule.  Look it up.

And last but not least, Step Five, assemble.  This is not a sandwich that you can wrap up and take to the beach.  It must be assembled and eaten on site, in situ. Don't wait to eat this!  If you do wait, get out a cutting board, place the sandwich on it, cut into 1" squares and toss in a salad bowl.  You've waited out the sandwich and made panzanella, an Italian bread and tomato salad.  Wasn't that easy?  Only one piece of bread in the house?  Serve your tomato sandwich open face and call it bruschetta (say 'bruce ketta' -- roll your rrrrr a little and pause on the t's for bit, you'll sound like a Roman).

Here are some of my favorite combinations and tricks:

  • rub your toast with a fresh garlic clove (on the inside please)
  • grill your bread instead of toasting, charcoal fire imparts a nice smokiness but even a gas grill adds a je ne sais quoi (spell check is having a fit with that one)
  • tomato, pesto, fresh mozzarella
  • tomato, mayo, slices of avocado and Vidalia onion, cracked black pepper
  • a boring classic, but for a very good reason, it's freakin' delicious -- garlic rubbed toast, tomato, basil leaves, fleur de sel
  • a cold rainy day in October favorite:  toast your bread with a schmear of pimento cheese on top before assembling with your choice of tomato et al.
  • my absolute favorite:  multigrain toast, mayo, avocado, and Nueske's bacon (my top reason for omnivore-ism) with thick slices of Green Zebra tomato and White Cherry tomato relish, drizzled with The Reluctant Foodie's famous balsamic vinaigrette, lots of napkins, big dopey smile

Lately we've been doing our part to keep the watermelon growers of the South in business, and I'm wondering, would watermelon and feta work on a tomato sandwich, with perhaps a bit of mint and basil? Can I add Thai fish sauce to the mayo and finish with a bit of sriracha??  What kind of bread do I hunt down for that combo??  Maybe I'll start with the watermelon and feta...

What are some of your favorite tomato sandwich combos?

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