September 21, 2009

Exploring Coastal New England

Fall is just around the corner and I can’t wait! Autumn is a celebrated time of year in the New England area, and is synonymous with beautiful colorful foliage and apple harvest time. Luckily, the weather has remained fairly warm, but there are definitely bursts of crisp, cool air. The landscape is just beginning to change with leaves of bright fall colors.

Wanting to take full advantage of the warm sun, I decided that part of my Massachusetts exploration should included a day trip to see coastal New England. The road trip included Newburyport and Rockport, two very charming, historic towns with tons of seafood and quaint shops.

As per request from some Massachusetts locals, I simply had to stop in Ipswich to eat the “best fried clams ever” at the legendary Clam Box of Ipswich. Personally, I don’t eat much fried food, but when we’re talking about fresh, high-end seafood fried to perfection, it’s hard to resist. Justin and I splurged on a mixed platter of clams and scallops, piled high with onion rings, and accompanied with tartar sauce and cole slaw. My expectations were definitely met…

Other events of the day included browsing local shops and stopping at several roadside farm stands with great produce! After the fried food episode, I had a major craving for a big, healthy salad (but don't I always...?). I ended up concocting a great early-fall salad that is worth sharing with you!

Early-Fall Deconstructed Salad
Makes 1 large salad.

For the salad
A handful of mixed greens or spinach
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1/2 apple, grated (toss with a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning)
1 medium beet, peeled and grated (optional)
1/2 ear of corn, shucked
1/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1-2 tablespoons raisins
1-2 tablespoons walnuts, coarsely chopped
For the dressing
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon grainy mustard
1/4 teaspoon honey
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients. Set aside.
2. Place greens in a shallow salad bowl and top with vegetables, cheese, raisins and walnuts (arranged in small piles if desired).
3. Drizzle dressing over salad and enjoy!

September 6, 2009

Summer Ratatouille

Succotash and ratatouille are two of my favorite summer vegetable dishes. There are many parallels between the two including they are a great way to use up the bounteous crops of the season, extremely versatile, and not to mention have great names! My succotash posting in June was a hit, and as summer nears its end, I thought I’d come up with a ratatouille dish, inspired by the fresh and sweet vegetables at the farmers market.

“Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence and is certainly one of the great Mediterranean dishes.” -Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Traditional ratatouille is composed of a medley of eggplant, tomato, summer squash, bell peppers, onion, garlic, and herbs. The dish originated is southern France at some point in the 16th century (don’t forget that the tomato wasn’t introduced to Europe until after the Spanish conquistadores brought the seeds home!). Ratatouille became remarkably popular due to its simplicity and versatility. It is traditionally served as a side dish, either hot or cold, often accompanied by meat. I have also seen the vegetable medley used as a savory filling for crepes or omelets.

In France, there is some debate on how to make a traditional ratatouille. Julia Child contended that the vegetables should be sautéed separately in olive oil and then layered in a casserole and baked. Others prefer a simpler approach of sautéing the vegetables together. My simple approach is a combination of the two.

In my recipe, the vegetables are chopped rather small, and simmered down to a stew-like consistency. To keep with the French theme, I serve the ratatouille with a poached egg over a crusty slice of bread (pain au levain is my absolute favorite). The textures and flavors pair wonderfully and is definitely a summer dish to make over and over.

Summer Ratatouille with a Poached Egg

This recipe is extremely versatile and can be adapted to your liking. Feel free to throw in any other summer vegetables that you have on hand. I used a variety of zucchini, crookneck and pattypan squash, and a couple of smaller Japanese eggplants.

Serves 4.

1 lb eggplant, cut into small cubes

1 lb summer squash, cut into small cubes (any type will do)

¼ cup olive oil

1 large onion, diced

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1 ½ lbs tomatoes, chopped

¼ mixed fresh herbs such as parsley, oregano, thyme and basil and/or ½ teaspoon Herbs de Provence

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

4 large organic eggs

4 large thick slices French bread, toasted (pain au levain is highly recommended)

1. Salt eggplant if necessary and set aside (see eggplant parmesan stacks).

2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet and when hot, add eggplant and zucchini. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a deep skillet. Add onions and garlic and cook over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Add bell pepper and tomato and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and thickened, about 20 minutes. Add eggplant and zucchini the last 5 minutes of cooking. Stir in herbs and season with salt and pepper.

4. Pour enough water in a large skillet to reach a depth of 1½ inches; add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer. Stir in vinegar. Crack an egg into a small bowl and carefully slide it into the simmering water. Repeat with remaining eggs. Simmer over low heat until whites are set but yolks are soft, about 3 minutes.

5. To serve, top each slice of bread with a poached egg and generously spoon ratatouille on top. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

September 1, 2009

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

NOTE: This blog was written prior to my exhasuting move to Boston. During the past week I packed up my car to the brim, literally drove across the country, and had one day to move into my new apartment before starting orientation! So I apologize for the delay; once I get into a routine I will be posting regularly...

Caramelized, sweet, meaty and robust...this is what you get when you slow-roast the season’s finest tomatoes. Roasting is a wonderful way to concentrate the natural sweetness and distinct flavors of tomatoes, or any produce for that matter. Many gourmet cooks reserve the simple technique for root vegetables, but roasting really flatters the delicate, subtle character of summer’s bounty.

My instructions for slow-roasted tomatoes would work for virtually any kind of tomato: beefsteak, plum, cherry and heirlooms of any sort. The Bay Area farmers’ markets have tables piled high with bright, juicy heirlooms, so I could hardly resist using them for my first attempt at slow-roasting. Heirlooms have definitely become increasingly popular, one can now even find them at many grocery stores and specialty markets. But the best are picked hours before they are sold---juicy, flavorful and utterly wonderful. There are countless varieties of heirlooms, each with a unique shape, size, color and taste.

A note about heirlooms:

Heirlooms may demand a premium price, but in my opinion, every penny is worth it, especially if it means I am supporting local agriculture. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated plants, which means they have been naturally selected in the wild and are grown directly from the seed of a previous plant. Many varieties have been around for more than 50 years, and are connected to interesting folklore and family traditions. Heirloom tomatoes take longer to ripen and often have lower yields than hybrid, commercial varieties. They rely on the sun to develop a bold flavor, tender skin and juiciness--characteristics that are sometimes compromised in commercial tomatoes, which are bred for longer transportation and storage. It is up to our local farmers and to us (the consumers) to support and preserve delicious heirloom varieties.

Try slow-roasting your next batch of summer tomatoes. The outcome is very versatile and keeps well, but from my experience, you’ll finish them off in no time. These tomatoes add so much punch that you don’t need much else to make a delicious meal. My favorites so far have been on a simple Greek pizza, on toasted bread with a poached egg, and on sandwiches of any sort.

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

2 lbs tomatoes, halved (or enough to spread evenly on a baking sheet)

A drizzle of olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 250°F. Cover a large baking sheet with foil. Arrange tomatoes on prepared baking sheet cut side up. Drizzle with a modest amount of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake 4-8 hours (depending on size of tomatoes) or until wrinkled, caramelized and rich in color. Drizzle with more olive oil and season to taste. Store in an airtight container for several weeks.