September 30, 2011

green beans, three ways

I've been waiting all summer for our garden's green beans. Now it's fall, and so far I've harvested about a pound of beans this past week from our two Blue Lake bush plants. I wish I'd planted more of them, because it's one of my favorite vegetables, and we'd have no problem eating the surplus. Seeing the green bean plants finally producing fruit was a long-awaited success after several failures that seemed like it might not happen. Now that the green beans have arrived, the long wait is over.

For every day meals I like to fix green beans fairly simply, so I thought I'd share three ways we typically cook them. The variations are easy and only require a few ingredients, most of what you probably already have on hand at home. For the tomato sauce version, I once again made Marcella Hazan's tomato-garlic-basil sauce, but this time omitted the basil. It's a great sauce to make ahead of time and use with whatever you want. If you just want to throw the tomato sauce together on the spot and cook it very briefly before adding the green beans, that works too. The quality of the olive oil and tomatoes are key to its flavor.

September 23, 2011

whole grain french toast with almond, orange and thyme

The other night, while eating dinner, I watched old episodes of Julia Child's The French Chef on PBS. In one episode I learned how to properly rotisserie a chicken, including using pliers to tighten the thumbscrews on the spit. In another episode, with clips of visits to an upscale fish market and lessons from a skilled chef, I learned how to fillet a fish. Julia's enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness were lovely to watch. She seemed thoroughly immersed in what she did and gave her viewer a valuable education in food. A graceful force, she taught us techniques of French cuisine and increased awareness of ways to prepare food. For the American cook, it was a way to visit France and imagine what it might be like to eat there.

The recipe for the familiar breakfast staple of french toast is adapted from the cookbook Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. Chad and his wife Elisabeth Prueitt are chefs and co-owners of Tartine Bakery & Cafe and Bar Tartine in San Francisco. Like Julia, their food is deeply influenced by travels and training in France. Chad's cookbook Tartine Bread addresses the art of breadmaking, formulas for several types of bread, and thirty recipes using day-old bread. If you love to bake bread, it's a gorgeous and inspiring read. Though I haven't yet eaten at their restaurant, the recipes in Tartine Bread at least provide a way for me to eat there in my imagination, and it's a delectable trip.

September 16, 2011

a five-dollar meal

I did a little thrift store shopping this week and scored three excellent finds at places within minutes of our house. It was great because I'm not a hard-core shop-'til-you-drop type of person. I want to walk into the store, find what I need, and take it home. The rule for me tends to be that the harder I search for something, the less success I tend to have. Instead, the bounty appears, unexpectedly, when I'm simply browsing. In truth, the only endurance shopping I'm willing to do these days is usually food-related. It might be hunting down inexpensive vanilla beans, or discovering a deal on saffron or extra virgin olive oil. Discovering some new culinary delight, one that causes you to sigh with deep satisfaction, makes it worth the difficulty.

I've got a bargain and a delight for you this week as well, and it's what I'm making for Slow Food USA's $5 Challenge, an event happening all over the country this Saturday, September 17th. Just like a fast food value meal, this recipe is affordable, easy and quick. With the addition of a salad, bread and wine, the total rings in at approximately $4.35 per person. Most importantly, it's made from scratch with real food ingredients, and the ultimate reward is in the eating.

The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan's cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking without any adaptation of ingredients from the original recipe. Really, there's no messing with perfection, or with the many years of tradition from which the recipe was passed down. The only thing I don't do the same is tearing the fresh basil by hand. Instead I stack the leaves, roll them, and cut them into a chiffonade. You can use canned tomatoes instead of fresh; in her book Marcella specifically recommends using imported Italian plum tomatoes. I used fresh Roma tomatoes, and fresh basil from our garden. It's a perfect end-of-summer meal, and pleasing to your pocketbook too. As a nice little budget bonus, I was even able to afford an inexpensive wine to go with the pasta. As everyone who eats at our house knows, it just isn't dinner without a little wine.

September 9, 2011

a change of seasons

After a scorching summer with unrelenting days of temperatures over 100 degrees, this past holiday weekend finally brought a partial reprieve for Texas. On Labor Day, the mercury didn't even break 90 degrees. During the worst of the heat we've been watering our garden in the morning and evening, but when I walked outside to water on Monday morning, the air was surprisingly chilly. I purposely call it a partial reprieve, though. As of the week before, Stage 1 water restrictions for our area began, and despite the welcome drop in temperatures, we still need rain, desperately.

Fortunately, watering by hand is allowed anytime, and with the cooler weather, we've only needed to water thoroughly in the evenings during this past week. The plants in the garden are responding to the change too. The lanky, leaning poblano pepper plant has exploded with new fruit, and I've had to prop it up with tall stakes. The banana pepper plant, which had been slowing down its production, is now blooming again, along with the hybrid jalapeno. And finally, after a summer of unfruitful waiting and pampering, the green bean plants, with their pretty little white flowers, have begun to produce tiny little green bean sprouts.

September 2, 2011

whole grain breakfast bread with apricots, dates & pecans

About a year or so ago I decided to try my hand at homemade bread. The first yeast bread recipe I made was the "Oatmeal Sandwich Bread" from Good To The Grain by Kim Boyce. It couldn't have been a better choice for a beginner like me. I followed the recipe to the letter and produced a beautiful loaf with great structure, crumb and flavor. That initial success opened a whole world of baking bread for me, and I've explored it with fervency. Since then, I've made my own whole wheat english muffins, tortillas, hamburger buns, and multi-grain bread.

After reading a post from the blog Life, In Recipes and learning more about the nutritional benefits of freshly ground flour, I also started grinding my own flours. I've been trying to find a local resource to buy grain in large bulk, but in the meantime I buy from the small bulk aisle at a local grocery store. To grind the kernels quickly and easily I use my Vitamix blender with the dry grains container.

After a bit of experimentation with different types of bread, I decided to try to make a whole grain version of a favorite breakfast bread we used to buy from the store. For the base I made a half recipe of the "Oatmeal Sandwich Bread" with freshly ground flours, added freshly ground spices and a mix of dried apricots, dates and pecans, and sprinkled the finished dough with sugar. For a guideline on when and how much fruit and nuts to add to yeast bread I consulted How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. With great resources like these, my success was nearly guaranteed. The result is a breakfast bread I think you'll look forward to waking up to.