Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gardening Like Crazy

My hubby isn’t the only one contributing to our mission to eat fresh, local (and free!) food. For the first time in about ten or twelve years, I’ve planted a vegetable garden. Our granddaughter’s father Chris is a tree man, so first I had him remove some trees in the back yard. Then I begged my step-father Tom to rototill a big portion of our back yard into a garden so I can grow veggies. Tom’s an early riser, so I woke to the sound of him plowing through the lawn. I jumped up and ran out on the deck in my bathrobe.

Tom was hard at work, but he paused to chat for a minute. I asked him what the logs were for and he explained that Steve had laid out the parameters of the garden before he left for work. Uh, no. This was a perfect example of the type of quibble that creates the only friction in our marriage. I’m the Queen of Enthusiasm and always plan things to be bigger and better than I can sometimes manage. Steve is Mr. Pragmatic and therefore constantly tries to rein me in.

Not this time. He was at work, so I won simply because I was the only one home. The garden is now close to three times the size Steve laid out. Ha! Steve was a good sport about it and sifted and spread the compost my brother Chris’s friend Sean (who works at Agway) dropped off for me. He even created a nice edging at the bottom with logs from the cut down trees.

I planted a dozen red tomatoes plants in various varieties, a dozen yellow tomato plants (because I love them!), yellow peppers, two varieties of beets, yellow carrots, green beans, cucumbers, Swiss chard, two varieties of squash, cucumbers, turnips, lettuce, and arugula. Here’s my Swiss chard:

I also planted a good size herb garden with Rosemary, fennel, basil, parsley, chives, sage, summer savory, tarragon, cilantro, dill, marjoram, lemon balm, and three kinds of thyme.

And then there is the experiment. Before I got a chance to plant the garden, some plants sprouted out of the compost and they looked so healthy I just couldn’t bear to pull them up. I think they are pumpkins, but I’m still waiting to see if they will bear anything because so many seeds today are genetically altered to ensure they can’t be saved from year to year. So far the (maybe) pumpkin plants are the biggest plants in the garden and they’ve even got blossoms.

Hope springs eternal – and so do the pumpkin (?) seeds. They are also growing in the spot where Sean first dumped the compost pile in the front yard. Since I never got around to planting grass seed there, I’m letting the mystery plants have their way. Fingers crossed for lots of pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread in the fall.

The only thing that hasn’t come up like gangbusters is my yellow peppers, which has me worried because my new favorite summer recipe is a twist on stuffed peppers. Now that I’ve discovered how sweet and tasty yellow and orange peppers are, I rarely eat green peppers and even snub red ones most of the time.

I found this recipe in a magazine at the doctor’s office, but I didn’t have time to copy the whole thing. In fact, I’ve discovered the quickest way to get your name called at the doctor’s office is to start writing down a recipe. My purse notebook full of half recipes is proof positive of that. No matter. When I got home I figured out my own version.

Mediterranean Stuffed Peppers:

3 yellow or orange peppers, cut in half (leave stem on)
6 medium vine ripened tomatoes, cut in wedges
18 calamata olives, pitted and cut in half
2 large cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
Block feta cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Put halved peppers in baking pan and fill each pepper with four tomato quarters, 6 olive halves, and 6 slices of garlic. Divide basil evenly among peppers. Add crumbled feta to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 15 minutes until peppers are tender.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Catch That Keeps on Giving

The best thing about the hubby catching a striped bass is free food. You saw the size of that fish, right? If not scroll down. It’s huge – and much too big for one dinner. The same night I fileted the fish, I saved enough for dinner the following night and then I cut up the rest into serving size pieces and wrapped each individually with Saran wrap and then put them in a freezer bag and tucked them in the freezer.

Meal number two was a Mediterranean style fish stew that was totally yummy and the best part is we still have more fish in the freezer. I’m so taken with this idea of free (and scrumptious) food that I pretty much pester Steve daily about when he’s going back out fishing. He’s hoping for Sunday because the tides will be perfect at sunset once again.

I’m also pushing to get a shellfish license so we can go clamming. We tried this once with no success (aside from razor clams, which are actually very sweet and tender and make a nice chowder), but I’m ever hopeful we can figure this out and hit the payload of real clams if we ever find the time to go digging on the beach.

Steve has also added a new kitchen tool to our collection. He helped out at our church yard sale last week and came home with this:

“Isn’t it cool?” He fingered the blade like the cackling witch who left bobby pins flying in one of my favorite Bugs Bunny episodes.

“Feel it. It’s really sharp," he said.

I gingerly ran my finger over the blade and it was indeed sharp – alarmingly so. It looked more like an instrument of murder than a useful item for our kitchen. “So, what would we do with that?" I asked.

“We could use it to chop the heads off fish. Or cut up a sheep,” he said.

Cut up a sheep? Like we are ever going to do that in our lifetime? (I might have laughed.)

“Or we could just hang it on the wall. It looks like an antique.”

Much better, except we haven’t actually hung it up, so it remains an ominous presence on our counter. Of course our 12-year old son, Tommy, was immediately attracted to the cleaver. I’m pretty sure that boy has never even noticed we own a coffee maker or a can opener, but the cleaver – oh yeah. He was right on it and held it up in a menacing way.

“Can I have this for my room?” he asked, fingering the blade. (Is this genetic, or just guys???)

My response: “Put that down! Right now!”

“But it would look so cool hanging on my wall.” He then rummaged through the junk drawer and found a much, much smaller cleaver. (Apparently he does know his way around the lesser used, more eclectic kitchen implements.) “Can I have this one?”

Uh, no. Around this time our 15-year old daughter, Julie, came into the kitchen and picked up the offending cleaver. She and Tommy proceeded to clash "swords" with the big and small cleavers.

If you look close at the smaller cleaver, those shiny spots are from the battle of siblings in the kitchen. Mystery solved: it’s genetic – and not from me…

The Recipe:

Mediterranean Style Striped Bass

4 serving size filets of striped bass
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, cut in half and sliced on the bias
1 fennel bulb, frond and root cut off, then slice the bulb
25 grape tomatoes
25 calamata olives, pitted
1/4 cup vegetable or fish stock
1 teaspoon fresh basil, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in heavy pan with metal or oven proof handle. Add onion and fennel and sauté until just slightly soft. Nestle fish filets into the pan and add olives, grape tomatoes, stock, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Heat until liquid begins to boil and then put in oven preheated to 350 degrees. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until fish is flaky. Divide ingredients into four wide soup bowls and pour broth over each. Serve with crusty bread to dip in broth.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Striped Bass for Dinner!

My husband not only brings home the bacon, he brings home FISH! Most people, even my family members, don’t quite get my enthusiasm for fresh caught fish, but it is a combination of nostalgia from my past and my newfound passion for local food. Add the fact that striped bass is my absolute favorite fish, and it is only in season for a matter of weeks in fish markets and restaurants, and you might have some idea of how much of a hero my husband is to me.

When Steve left for the fishing outing with his friends Brian and Bob, I was hopeful. I’d heard the fish were biting like crazy in Cape Cod Bay; they were going out in Brian’s boat and it was near high tide – all good.

I was pretty sure Steve would send a cell phone photo if he caught one, but as the hours passed with no fishy messages, I figured the outing was a bust, fish-wise. That is until 11:30 p.m. when I got an email from Brian with five glorious photos of my hubby holding a fish half as tall as he is. Score!

By the time he got home, it was 12:30, but I had the cutting board and filet knife ready and waiting. All people have hidden skills and one of mine is that I know how to filet a fish.

I learned how as a child at Bob’s Lake in Ontario, Canada. Every Memorial Day and Labor Day my family would go to Howard’s Cottages and stay in a little rustic cabin because my Dad loved to fish and Bob’s Lake had some good fishing.

My grandparents, Aunt Barb, Uncle Dann and their kids Dann and Debbie always came too, and most of the time other people in our peripheral circle of friends and family joined us.

Every night the Dads would go out fishing, and very occasionally they would take the boys with them. I loved to fish, but as the only girl in my family I never got a turn in the boat until the year I went to Canada alone with my grandparents. They took me out trolling and we caught a stringer full of fish, but the thing I remember the most is the amazing sunset of my life – it kept evolving in awe-inspiring colors ranging from bright pink to deep purple that were reflected on the lake. I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful.

That trip was an exception. Most of the time, I was left to my own devices on the dock, where I fished for hours and kept every single fish I caught. I begged my father to clean my fish so I could eat them (I had this idea that I wanted fish for breakfast), but he refused to filet my puny catch.

On one trip, my Uncle Dann’s mother, “Grandma Ellsworth,” caught wind of my dilemma and since she was an avid fisherwoman, she sat me down and taught me how to clean and filet a fish. My Grandma Palmer cooked up the whole batch of my fish for me - for breakfast, no less. She just dipped them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and fried them in butter. It was a most memorable meal.

For Steve’s striped bass, I wanted something a little more fancy. I kept the preparation of the fish simple – I simply seared the filets on both sides in olive oil in a hot cast iron skillet and then put the skillet in the oven to finish cooking. Then I made a fresh blueberry/corn salsa, a recipe from my favorite fisherwoman Linda Greenlaw and her mother Martha's excellent cookbook,Recipes From a Very Small Island, to ladle over the top. You could also substitute mango or nectarines for the blueberries. (This salsa is so good my daughter Jess ate the leftovers for lunch the next day as a salad and has already made this recipe for a friend.) We served the bass with some sautéed Swiss chard and red bliss potatoes tossed with sour cream and chives. Absolutely delish!

Here’s hoping for a long and productive fishing season!

The Recipe:

Striped Bass with Fresh Blueberry and Corn Salsa

Striped bass filets, cut into four servings
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ears corn, cook and cut kernels off
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of one lime
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup blueberries

Combine corn, tomatoes, avocado, bell pepper, cilantro, lime, olive oil and vinegar in a bowl and stir to combine.

Sprinkle the bass with cumin, salt and pepper. Put one tablespoon olive oil in cast iron skillet and heat over medium high heat until a drop of water sizzles in pan. Place fish top side down in pan and fry until brown. Turn fish over and put pan in 400 degree oven for ten minutes or until done.

Add blueberries to salsa and stir gently. Serve on top of striped bass or any other firm fish like halibut or salmon.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Children's Sunday

Last week was Children’s Sunday at our church, Northside United Methodist. It is the last week of our Sunday School year and the children do the entire service. I’ve been doing this long enough that I no longer panic at the botched performances and shaky dress rehearsals leading up the main event. And the day itself proved there was no need to worry. When the time came, as always, they did an awesome job delivering a service that provided our congregation plenty of laughter and even a few tears.

We started the year with 32 kids enrolled in our Sunday School program in September. On Children’s Sunday we had grown to 72 kids – more than double in one year. Most of the credit for that goes to our new Director of Children and Youth Services, Evy Nickerson. She has brought a lot of fun, joy, and a genuine calling to serve our Lord to our youth. There were so many kids getting their certificates that I couldn't even fit them all in one picture!

My high school class did a very moving skit about the temptations today’s teenagers face at school and with friends to the song “Everything” by the Christian band, Lifehouse. Here is a version of the skit on YouTube. Our kids modified it to make it less violent and more reflective of their lives. So knives, guns and suicidal thoughts didn't play a part in our skit. We replaced those temptations with greed, money and jealousy.

Words can not express how proud I was of these kids who I have watched grow and mature into a really great group who support each other on life’s sometimes difficult path.

Afterwards, despite the rain, we had an all church barbecue and pot luck. My trusty husband, Steve, helped man the grills, pumping out hundreds of hotdogs and hamburgers. I brought my daughter Jess’s favorite pasta salad. It is the perfect salad to bring to a pot luck or picnic because it has a tomato sauce base so there is no worry of mayonnaise spoiling. Plus it is the simplest recipe ever. I got it off the jar of Ragu sauce a few years ago - and changed it up, of course.

Jess’s Pasta Salad with Red Sauce

1 box bowties, gemelli or cellentani pasta
1 can small black olives, drained
1 can chick peas, rinsed and drained
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
1 – 7 oz jar roasted red peppers, diced
1/3 cup chopped red onion
5 slices spicy Italian salami, cut into thin slivers
1 jar Ragu Parmesan and Romano
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta in salted water, according to directions on the package. In the meantime put the olives, chick peas, artichoke hearts, red peppers, red onions and salami in a large bowl. Drain pasta and rinse with cold water, letting set until well drained. Add to bowl and mix.

In a separate bowl whisk together vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add Ragu and mix until well blended. Add to salad and toss until all pasta is covered. Serve right away at room temperature or chill to serve cold.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Nibbling and Sipping on Some of the Best

I’ve been goofing off and not posting lately so I'll include two recipes this time to try to make up for it. Actually goofing off isn’t entirely correct. I’ve been writing my fingers to the bone for my paying job and using any spare time I have to work on my novel and there’s only so much even I can write.

The most fun food experience of the week was at the Cape Cod Life Food & Wine Festival. My hubby scored us some tickets and we had a great time sampling food and wine at the Rectrix Aerodrome at Barnstable Airport. Twenty four restaurants participated and the chefs outdid themselves.

There's a strategy to getting the most out of a food show and the most important thing is to scan the offerings and make sure to try your favorite things first before they run our or you get too full. We heard that the Beachcomber was serving up some generous sized lobster salad rolls so we headed there first and discovered they had a fountain of Goombay Smash Caribbean cocktails.

This was a trip down memory lane. When I was 13, my parents went on a trip to the Bahamas and after they got home, they mixed up a bunch of these tasty treats for all the neighbors. I snuck a taste and thought they were pure yum. Still are.

The Beachcomber also offered plates of the little mini raw bar items you see above, with an oyster, clam and shrimp. Definitely a favorite booth. Then we moved on to Ardeo Grille for some Mediterranean treats like stuffed grape leaves and tasty salads.

The Old Yarmouth Inn had the most creative dishes with appetizers that looked like dessert. They had beets layered with goat’s cheese and mini potatoes with the tops sliced off and topped with a swirl of sour cream and caviar. They were as pretty as cupcakes.

There were some great cooking demonstrations by top chefs and I even got an early birthday dinner. Master of Ceremonies Billy Costa, asked all people with June birthdays to step forward. It was like getting picked on Emeril. Us Junies got a front row seat to the demonstration and then we got to eat the food the chef prepared.

My chef was Gabriel Frasca, chef at Straight Wharf on Nantucket. Chef Frasca loves to use fresh and local ingredients (that’s my guy). He made us slow roasted salmon with spring vegetables. He sautéed asparagus, fava beans, fresh peas and morel mushrooms and topped them with a nice slab of salmon and garnished with herb butter and chive flower petals.

It was delicious and huge, especially after all the other food we had already tasted. Even though I shared it with my sweetie, we still couldn’t finish it.

As for the wine, the same advice applies. I didn't see alot of people spitting and really can you imagine anything grosser? The wine sellers only pour about two sips, and because I can't stand the waste of dumping out wine that is way out of my everyday budget, I drink the both sips. Since I can't take two sips out of hundreds of wines, I'm careful to only choose wines I really want to try. Best way to determine that? As you are tssting the food, ask other folks what their favorite wine was. Ours was an Italian French experimental Bordeaux called Rocca di Frassinello.

The Recipes:

Goombay Smash

3/4 ounce Bacardi spiced rum
1/2 ounce Bacardi light rum
1/4 ounce apricot brandy
1/2 ounce coconut cream
2 ounces pineapple juice

Beet Appetizers

Four large beets
Olive oil
Small package of goat’s cheese

Cut ends off beets. Oil and season beets and wrap them in aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees for one to one and a half hours, until tender. Cool beets completely. Peel beets and slice them into uniform thickness slices. Layer beet, goat cheese, beet, goat cheese, beet, goat cheese, beet. Place toothpick in four corners and quarter (or cut into whatever shapes you prefer with sharp knife.