June 30, 2009

Southern Summer Succotash

For those of us who grew up watching the Looney Tunes, we remember hearing Sylvester utter the words “Sufferin’ succotash!” after every failed attempt to capture Tweety. But what exactly is succotash?

Succotash is essentially a sauté of corn with other seasonal vegetables and has become a symbol of the bounty of summer crops, especially in areas of the South. High summer temperatures mean that it’s prime time for many delicious vegetables such as sweet corn, summer squash, peppers, fresh shell beans and tomatoes. Succotash has adopted regional forms depending on the crops in quantity in a particular area. Such a dish became very popular during the Great Depression due to its simplicity and versatility.

Succotash traces back to the Native Americans, who taught colonists how to prepare a dish consisting of corn, shell beans and other vegetables, which combined to form a complete protein source for sustenance. The use of lima beans, tomatoes, sweet peppers and pieces of cured meat became popular additions in the 1800s. Here is an authentic recipe from the Ladies’ Aid Society of the First Presbyterian Church in Ohio. The recipe was published in 1894 and is titled “New England Succotash.”

Take two quarts shelled Lima beans (green), one dozen ears of corn (cut off cob), and one pound pickled pork. Cover pork with water, and parboil it; add beans, cook until they burst; then add corn, two tablespoonfuls sugar, butter the size of a walnut, and pepper to taste. After corn is added, watch carefully to keep from scorching.

I think that one of the best ways to showcase fresh summer vegetables, at the height of their season, is to saute them all together into a succotash. Given the dish’s popularity in the South, I wanted to honor tradition and attempt to make a true succotash dish, accented with bacon and topped lightly with butter, just enough to make the vegetable dish a satisfying, complete meal. I also provide my recipe for buttermilk biscuits because after all, all comfort-style meals should be accompanied with warm, home-baked flaky biscuits.

Summer Succotash

Serves 4.

Really, any summer vegetable or fresh shell bean would work in this versatile dish. I used baby pattypan squash and small gypsy peppers, which are delicious and make for a pretty presentation. Fresh basil leaves are a nice accompaniment, but feel free to experiment with other summer herbs.

2 thick slices of good-quality bacon

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

½ pound summer squash, diced or sliced into rounds

2 cups fresh or frozen fava beans, lima beans or edamame (if fresh, blanch until just tender, 5 minutes)

½ cup diced red or yellow peppers

3 ears fresh corn, shucked and kernels cut off

½ pint cherry tomatoes, halved

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ cup basil leaves, thinly sliced

1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook bacon until crisp, about 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels, then finely chop. Drain off all but 1 teaspoon of the bacon fat from the skillet.

2.Return the skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add summer squash, beans and peppers; cook, stirring gently, until the vegetables are just tender. Add corn and cherry tomatoes; cook 2-3 minutes longer.

3. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the butter and basil. Top with reserved bacon. Serve immediately with warm buttermilk biscuits.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Makes about 4 biscuits.

1 1/2 cups white whole-wheat flour or whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet and set aside.

2. Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Using your fingertips or two knives, cut butter into dry ingredients until mixture looks like coarse meal.

3. Make a well in the center and gradually pour in buttermilk, stirring with a wooden spoon until just combined.

4. Transfer dough to a floured surface and sprinkle with a little flour. Lightly knead, then pat into a circle about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into 2-inch rounds (or another shape) and transfer to prepared baking sheet. Gather any dough scraps and cut more rounds.

5. Bake the biscuits for 14 to 16 minutes, or until golden brown.

June 23, 2009

Exploring the Regional Cuisine of Hawaii

I just got back from a great trip to Kauai, Hawaii with my boyfriend Justin and his family. Sun, sand, good food, and outdoor activities are definitely my idea of a perfect vacation.

Kauai, also known as the “Garden Isle”, is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands and receives some of the most rainfall in the world. Mount Waialeale, at the heart of the island, receives up to 400 inches of rain per year! Where we stayed on the South Shore, however, we saw nothing but warm breezes and sunny skies.

One of my most memorable activities was visiting Kauai’s breathtaking Na Pali coast, which extends along the northwest side of the island. The coastline can only be seen by sea, air or hiking so we set out on a rafting tour adventure to witness the incredible views. And an adventure it was—fast, wet and bumpy, but well worth it. The spectacular coastlines are the result of millions of years of wind and water erosion with soaring cliffs, lush valleys, waterfalls, sea caves and some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done.

In 1992, Hurricane Iniki was the worst hurricane to strike the area in recorded history and devastated much of the island. It had an effect on the island’s ecosystem, uprooting many agricultural crops, and destroying many domestic chicken farms. Years later, visitors will find thousands of wild chickens clucking, crowing and pecking throughout the island. With few natural predators, they are bound to remain significant inhabitants of the island.

As one can imagine, the land in Kauai is very fertile and home to a variety of agricultural crops. During the plantation era, sugar cane, pineapple, coffee and macadamia nuts were discovered to be profitable crops by U.S. landowners. Cheap labor was brought in from China, and other immigrants followed, namely from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Portugal. Each of these groups introduced flavors and ingredients from their homelands.

Unfortunately the methods used to grow the mass-produced crops relied heavily on pesticides and depleted the soil of much of its nutrients. Recently, there has been a movement to revive sustainable and organic farming throughout Hawaii. After doing some research, I learned that in the 1980’s, acclaimed chefs Peter Merriman and Alan Wong helped to pioneer a regional cuisine that uses fresh local ingredients. Since then, community efforts to eat locally and sustainably have flourished.

Farmers are now growing a variety of crops including taro root, pineapple, chocolate, coffee, guava, mango, banana, coconut, lettuce, cucumber, pikake (Hawaiian jasmine) and gardenia.

The modern cuisine of Hawaii is a fusion of many ethnic flavors, often incorporating fresh fish and unique foods grown on the islands. I have been inspired by the push for a regional cuisine using local ingredients and set out to create my own take on a fresh, healthy dish that employs the unique flavors of Hawaii. I encourage you to try this recipe—the combination of sweet, tart and spicy, paired with crisp vegetables and flaky, moist mahi mahi makes for a tasty and satisfying meal.

Macadamia-Coconut Crusted Mahi Mahi with Banana Salsa
Baby Greens with Citrus Dressing

The spicy banana salsa, paired with the sweet and crunchy macadamia-coconut crust truly makes the meal. Use bananas that are deep yellow and still firm. An overripe banana would likely overpower the dish. If you'd like, you could substitute the banana with other tropical fruits such as mango or papaya.

For Mahi Mahi

Juice of 1 lime
1 Tbsp soy sauce
4 (6-ounce) skinless mahi mahi fillets
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup roasted, salted macadamia nuts
3 Tbsp unsweetened flaked coconut
3 Tbsp plain bread crumbs
1 organic egg
1 Tbsp unsalted butter

For Banana Salsa

1/2 jalapeño, minced
1-2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup red onion, minced
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1⁄4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper (optional)
1/4 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 medium banana, sliced in half lengthwise and chopped into small cubes

For Mixed Greens

4 large handfuls organic baby mixed greens
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lime plus ½ teaspoon finely grated lime zest
Juice of ½ orange plus ½ tsp finely grated orange zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced on a diagonal

1. Arrange mahi mahi on a large platter and pour lime juice and soy sauce over fillets. Turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to marinate for no longer than 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the salsa ingredients in a small bowl. Toss gently to combine and set aside at room temperature.
3. In a food processor, blend macadamia nuts, coconut, and bread crumbs until nuts are ground coarsely. Place ingredients in a shallow bowl. Beat egg in another shallow bowl. Set aside.
4. Prepare the citrus dressing: whisk together olive oil, lime juice, orange juice and zests. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Remove mahi mahi from refrigerator and pat dry. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
6. Dip each fillet in egg, and then in macadamia-coconut mixture so that it is thoroughly coated. Place in skillet. Cook over medium heat approximately 8 minutes on each side or until mahi mahi is cooked through. Reduce heat to low if coating begins to burn. Do not overcook.
7. Drizzle citrus dressing over mixed greens and toss to coat. Divide among 4 plates and top with mahi mahi. Spoon on salsa and garnish with cucumber.