Monday, August 29, 2011

The Soup Project: Grilled Red Pepper Chowder

I can't get enough of grilled vegetables. I could eat them breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can't believe how many more vegetables I eat when we fire up the grill.

I have to say I don't get people who don't love vegetables. There are so many, how could you not like at least one or two. But some people at the Slow Roots Festival described themselves as vegetable phobes. I was shocked, and for some reason, I always think of Kansas when someone says they hate vegetables. The phrase "Why don't you move there," comes to mind. But I only say that because the only two people I ever met from Kansas hated vegetables so I figured that's where people who hate vegetables must come from.

The Northwest is vegetable heaven. I'm sure if people ate more grilled vegetables, I bet they be converts in no time.

Grilled vegetable sandwiches, soup, salads, or layered on crisp corn toritillas--that's my kind of summer meal. Some of my favorites include zucchini, sweet onions, eggplant and of course red peppers.

I couldn't shake off my craving for pureed smoky red peppers as soup base,as I considered today's soup recipe.

I created a roasted red pepper sauce in my book made with yogurt, garlic, roasted peppers and sweet onions and it was great, but yogurt and cream are easy options anyone can do. It's no rabbit out of the hat if the recipe calls for cream. I was going nondairy. That way people who like dairy in soup can add crumbled or grated cheese or stir in a dollop of yogurt and the dairy-challenged folks can also enjoy the soup with minced fresh peppers or toasted bread crumbs as a garnish.

First I had to find red peppers at the market--not a guaranteed easy task this last weekend because red peppers are just now showing up at the markets. I always envy the growing season in Portland, it always seems longer and produce appears there before it shows up in Seattle.

I found these peppers at the Portland Hillsdale Farmers' Market a few weeks ago. I could taste them roasted as soon as I laid eyes on them.

I found fresh peppers at River Farm at the U-District Market last weekend.

Sweet onions, garlic and celery were in the pantry and frig, and I realized I needed touse the potatoes, eggplant and zucchini, too. The soup morphed into a chowder.

The problem is too many things impress me at the market, like the stunning celery I found at the Hillsdale Market. And sometimes I find great produce at farms like Whispering Winds Farm stand and I get so caught up in the moment of buying just a little extra.

Another thing that impresses me and seduces me into a sale are cool market displays. Like the ones JoanE puts together at Rent's Due Ranch, with giant sparkly mushrooms and colors in tablecloths that compliment the produce. I step back, admire the display, and before I know it, I picking out a bunch of carrots or pint of blueberries in hand and I'm standing in line.

The sweet reward is that the flavors are so good you don't have to work at creating complicated recipes.

It never fails to impress me when a farmer creates beautiful displays like this one below. Check out the garlic heads all arranged in individual little boxes at the Coupeville farmers' market.

Check out the table cloths with contrasting color patterns under the produce. These subtle pleasing colors pull me in like a magnet. Is it the same with you?

And when sampling is included, you've got me. I'm weak.

I got fresh hot salsa from Gathering Together Farm, so I included fresh salsa in this recipe, but you could easily substitute your own favorite salsa.

Every week I take an ice chest to the market every week to keep eggs and produce cool. In this picture you can just barely see the red peppers near the back. They were small, first of the season peppers.

My food inspector cares nothing for peppers. He's a trained blueberry hound. (We all have our weaknesses.)

To select peppers at the market, spend a few minutes talking to the farmer or look for the organic sign if you don't know the farm.

Last year I found these tiny peppers for 25 cents each on the bargain shelf at Nash's Organic Produce in Sequim. I heard that Nash'snew farm store is open now and will soon have a grand opening to celebrate. I'm ready, pour me a glass of wine for the party.

Be sure to look for the bargain shelf for great farm grown seconds, treasures at discount prices.

These peppers were from River Farm. Liz will bring their roaster to the market and once you buy roasted peppers from the market, you'll be hooked. I shamelessly gorge on them putting them in everything.

I peeled the blackened skin because I imagined little black flecks floating unattractively. Maybe I was too chicken to let it go.

Tom cut the peppers in half, discarded the seeds and put the peppers on grilling racks. Then he basted the peppers as they cooked with an Italian salad dressing. Grilling the peppers took about ten minutes. The eggplant went for about 12 minutes and was sliced lengthwise in half-inch slices and basted with dressing. Check it with a fork to determine when it's done.

I used coconut milk from an aseptic container not the kind from a can.

Here is the recipe:

Grilled Red Pepper Chowder
(Serves 4)

4 small new potatoes, quartered
1 large sweet onion (like a Walla Walla), diced
1 1/2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
2 cups sliced celery
1 medium sliced zucchini
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups stock or water
4 grilled red peppers, skin removed
1 1/2 to 2 cups coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup salsa
Honey (optional)
Lemon (optional)
1 medium eggplant, sliced, grilled and cut into bite-size pieces
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 red pepper, seeded and minced (for garnish)
Bread crumbs or croutons (optional)
Grated mozzeralla cheese (optional)

1. Cook potatoes in a small saucepan with about a half cup of water and until tender. Drain and reserve.

2. Heat a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions and oil. Stir and cook until onions soften. Add celery and continue to cook until celery begins to soft. Stir in zucchini and garlic cloves. Add water or stock, cover and cook on medium low until zucchini softens.

3. Peel the peppers and discard carred skins. Blend with coconut milk, potatoes and salsa. Stir into the onion-zucchini mixture. Tweak flavors with small amounts of honey and lemon. Blend in eggplant and cook 5 more minutes.

4. Garnish with red peppers, cheese or bread crumbs.

Serve with bagels from Bagel Oasis (or your own favorite place) or crusty artisan bread from the market.

The delicate smoky pepper flavor was a knockout and the pureed potatoes made a great creamy texture. If you want to add protein to this soup, try some chunks of sauteed tofu or if you're feeling decadent, try some award winning blue cheese from Rogue Creamery.

The soup was so good, my poor Assistant barely even got a taste from the dishes. I'm sure I'll never hear the end of this faux paw.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Romanesco, Slow Roots and Upcoming Events

Romanesco from Whispering Winds Farm was on my menu this past week as I perused recipes and outlined ingredients I'd need for the Slow Roots Festival in Stanwood this weekend.

The Romanesco had nothing to do with the event, but the way I cooked it, was made in the same way that I'm cooking this weekend at the event.

I'm bringing one written recipe to share, and the other recipe will be more intuitive based on what's at the market that day.

First let me say thanks to farmer Char Byde from Whispering Winds who introduced me to Tom Bird of Snowbird Books in Stanwood. He asked me to participate in the festival and right away I suggested my friend Kathy Gehrt because her book, Discover Cooking with Lavender has been selling as fast as trendy cupcakes.

(And if you don't have a copy of her book, it's about time, you checked it out. Really, lavender is quite delicious and Kathy has tons of tips for using it.)

Also attending this event is Graham Kerr (the former Galloping Gourmet) who will be talking about his first garden and his newest book. Can you believe it's number 29? I'm so excited about this because it was the early Galloping Gourmet TV shows inspired my love of cooking.

Anyway back to the Romanesco. If you aren't familiar with this vegetable, it's actually a cauliflower relative. And, we were supposed to have enjoy it at this farm-to-fork dinner in July, but the weather was so damp and cold, the vegetables were all late and this one was nearly a month late.

Check out how beautiful this vegetable is, tucked into the green leaves, looking like a queen.

I was thrilled when Char harvested this one for me.

Even my Cooking Assistant is impressed, and check out the Costata Romanesco zucchini (also from Whispering Winds Farm. This ridged zucchini has a better texture than smooth zucchini and I love the sweet flavor.

FYI: plunge the head of romanesco in a sink filled with salt water to dislodge any interloper insects that may have taken up residence before cutting it up and cooking it.

I had some big sweet onions and fresh salsa from Gathering Together Farm that I'd purchased at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market.

I had about a half an hour to make dinner, so I blanched the romanesco and sauteed the onions. When the onions were soft, I added a good helping of salsa and then stirred in the romanesco. I grated a bit of Parmesan cheese over each serving and tucked a slice of toasted artisan bread into each bowl.

You could add some sauteed tofu, toasted pecans or even some white beans for more protein if you want.

Okay it's minimalist, but when you cook with the best ingredients, fresh from the farm, you don't have to tweak flavors much.

If you have time, stop by the Slow Roots Festival on Sunday afternoon and say hello The Garlicky Greens always get rave reviews, and my hazelnut seasonal fruit smoothies go fast.

Upcoming events on my calender include:

September 10th, 12:00 pm the The Food Summer at Tumwater Library where I'll share stories about local farmers like the late Bob Meyer of Stoney Plains Farm who was one of the original organic farmers at the Olympia farmers market and was among the first farmers to be certified organic in this state.

September 24-25 at The North Cascades Institute where I'll share stories and information about Skagit Valley farms like Blue Heron Farm and Gibbs' Organic Produce and talk about trends in farming. I can't wait to taste the dinner form locally grown produce at this event!

Each event brings different rewards. My Assistant hopes I'll find more cool dog biscuits like these cool dog cookies I found at a shop on Whidbey Island.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No Regrets: Going Overboard on the Treasures of Summer

This Romanesco from Whispering Winds Farm in Stanwood was one of the many treasures I picked up this past weekend. Overall, it was a great produce weekend and I loved every minute of it, but I went overboard and totally abandoned my budget. I feel the pangs of guilt still eating away, but I got caught up in the heat of the moment.

This is what happened.

I'd made plans to return to Hillsdale Farmers' Market this past weekend. I wanted to stock up. Fill my freezer with berries in one trip. I wanted Chester blackberries and this was the only weekend I could go.

On Thursday, I got a request for more of my books on Whidbey Island and Whispering Winds Farm, so that's what I did the Friday before I drove to Portland.

I took a ferry to Whidbey Island, delivered books and then made a side trip to Langley to The Chocolate Flower Farm--a store devoted to gardening and chocolate colored plants. I discovered this unique store the last time I was in Langley.

I bought a package of chocolate mint tea. It smells exactly like Frango Mints. If you're going to Whidbey Island, you should definitely check out this shop.

These funky shops are so classic in Langley.

Next stop of the day was Whispering Winds Farm in Stanwood where the dogs barked their greetings. Char and Doug's pay-as-you-go farm stand is open now and you really can't beat the affordable prices of organic produce from this farm. I got new potatoes, regular and elephant garlic, and the most beautiful Romanesco broccoli.

The onions in my garden didn't get this big.

Char wanted to show me something very cool. What is it? Look close and think Thanksgiving. (No not turkey, stuffing, potatoes or gravy.)

It's celery.

"Celery is grown in the dark or it turns bitter," Char said. Char and Doug cut pieces of plastic pipe and put them over all the celery plants to keep the sun off of them.

Who knew this much was involved in growing celery? You know celery must have us trained because if we didn't do some work, this domesticated plant would be seriously bitter and stringy. If you ever get bitter celery from the market, ask the farmer if he covers his celery.

I brought a load of vegetables home, but by the time I got home, the kale had wilted. I didn't give up on it. Instead, I washed it, tore it into small pieces and rubbed olive oil on them. Then I put the kale on baking sheets, sprinkled them with sea salt, set the oven at 350F. and made kale chips.

You have to watch it carefully; there's a fine line between chip and burned kale.

But every sheet of kale I put in the oven came out perfect. My Cooking Assistant thinks this simple snack is amazing. Kale chips are so good, you could possibly eat too much. It's funny to watch Finn crunch the chips.

After I made the chips, I noticed Gino (Mair Farm cat) seemed off. I won't go into it the icy details, but he had an abscess that broke. It was possibly inflicted by Spooky, the bully cat next door.

I took Gino to the vet who drained the abscess and put a tube in it. Everybody was glad when Mair Farm cat came home.

I left for the Hillsdale Market before the crack of dawn.

It was a perfect summer day. I love this view when farmers are still setting out produce and putting up price signs.

A double line formed at Ayers Creek Farm so as not to block another vendor's stand.

What are all these people waiting for?

Chester blackberries. Not even blueberries get this kind of attention at the market. I decided to get more of these than the usual blueberries for my freezer this year and it seems everybody else had the same idea.

I got some Elliot blueberries, too. Sweet with a great blueberry flavor, they're almost half the price of organic blueberries at markets here. Washington berry farmers got slammed with a long damp wet spring this season. And there's a new fruit fly to contend with- spotted wing drosophilia.

It's an Asian variety of fly that attacks the fruit in the green stage and makes it turn mushy when ripe. The berries in my own yard have it. I'm sad that I didn't believe it would happen to us and I neglected to set out some apple cider vinegar traps early in the season.

These berries from the market were perfect.

That isn't all I got.

Peppers have barely come in at Seattle markets. Check out these red and orange peppers and eggplant from Gathering Together Farm.

And the heirloom tomatoes--what a deal of a price for these treasures. Why the lower price?

Less farmers growing them? A shorter growing season? A trip over the mountains? Is Seattle more cosmopolitan? Do markets here require more fees? Who knows?

Sun Gold Farm is a sustainable farm near Corvallis, Oregon. At $2 a pound many more folks can afford to come to the table.

I would have gone for the green beans, but we've got beans in our garden right now. And I don't really go in for canning. I got plenty of everything else--celery, carrots, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, artichokes, melon, plums, figs, berries, greens, preserves, bagels and dog treats.

I loaded my trusty wagon up and it was the talk of the market. I could barely pull it to the car.

Back at home, my assistant found the carrots right away.

And he was enchanted by the plums and figs. They look like Brown Turkeys or Desert Kings. Figs are rare at markets in Washington.

Okay my berry fund is seriously overdrawn now. I'm back to the usual budget next week.

With all this fruit how could I be a loser? My sweet tooth is satisfied and my Cooking Assistant is so happy with my successful produce hunt. No judgments are passed when you return home with good food.

What food could entice you to drive three hours?

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Soup Project: Refreshing Raw Creamy Cucumber Soup

Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks when I search for soup-of-the-week recipe inspiration. No recipe will do, except the one that's perfect in every way. That's the way it was with cucumber soup.

I have to admit that like many people, never liked cold soup as a child or as an adult, but once I tasted a cold blackberry soup in between dishes at a fine restaurant and from the moment I tasted it, I was hooked.

The only problem as I see it, it's often not hot enough in the Northwest to really enjoy cold soup. Yet this weekly soup project has compelled me to branch out. So why not a cucumber soup?

And not just any cucumber soup. It had to be just right.

There was this one made with yogurt from Emerl Lagasse, but I don't like to rely on dairy products for soup recipes. Then there was this one that actually called for cooking the cucumbers and adding soy milk. All I could say after reading that recipe, was that sounded so sad and boring, that I'm sorry for the person who created it and even more for the people who sampled it.

I knew I wanted creamy texture, slightly sweet with the tang of pickled cucumbers. (And no dairy.)

My mouth watered as I recalled the way Mom marinated cucumber slices in apple cider vinegar when I was young. What could I add for creaminess? I found this creamy one with avocado at the Nourishing Gourmet. It sounded good and I usually love her recipes, but I wasn't feeling the avocados and definitely not the cumin. I had a few ideas for alternatives.

Also I waited for the price of cucumbers to drop, making the soup more affordable.

These are Japanese salad cucumbers. Don't use those for soup, they're more expensive and best used in salads.

Get plain old slicing cukes. You can find them at mixed vegetable stands. These standard cucumbers have been dropping in price for the past few weeks. I found these cucumbers (below) at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market in Portland a few weeks ago.

Now see how mid-season shopping can really save some bucks. Or it can make you more open to trying new recipes.

Like the stock market, at the farmers' market, you have to jump in at the perfect time to reap the benefits.

My instincts told me, sweet onion and garlic were perfect pairs in this soup. And I wanted a bit of lemon, but I really wanted more of an apple cider vinegar flavor. I used vinegar from Rockridge Orchards.

It was hot here, yesterday. Honest. We had one full day of summer and though folks in Phoenix or Austin might laugh, it was in the high 80s and I was ready to wilt when I came home.

This soup was perfect, so perfect I could have eaten the entire batch myself.

Refreshing Raw Creamy Cucumber Soup
(Serves 2)

1/2 cup apple cider
3/4 cup cashews
1 medium (7-8 inches) cucumber, peeled and sliced
2 thin slices sweet onion, roughly chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic
Handful of spinach
Zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh grated carrots for garnish
Lemon wedges

1. Soak cashews in apple cider for a few hours or overnight.

2. Puree cashews, cider, cucumber, onion, garlic, spinach and lemon zest in a blender. When soup is creamy, add vinegar and water to thin to desired consistency.

3. Adjust seasonings. Garnish with grated carrots and serve with lemon wedges.

With the addition of onions, this soup is not a good choice for the dogs. This is the look I get from Chloe (my Cooking Assistant's sister) when the soup isn't meant for dogs.

I hate to say it, but I wasn't ready to share with them anyway. The flavor and texture of this soup were so amazing, I hope you'll try it, too.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

From Seed to Plate: A Green Bean Dinner

I love the Corvallis farmers' market. It's set up along the Mary's River and it feels like one of the biggest Northwest farmers' markets with all the tables laden with fresh produce, demonstration beehives, dancers, singers, cheesemakers and lots of farmers. You must go there, if you get a chance before the season ends.

So that's where I found Peace Seedlings, a seed producing farm at the market and I bought these Red Swan Bush snap beans and was told the seeds would be quick to sprout and ripen. Okay I pictured Jack and the Bean Stalk and suddenly I couldn't wait until spring. I planted a few seeds when I got home, but it was too late in the season (who plants beans in August?). Before long it started raining and got so cold the beans quit growing. I saw flowers on the plants, but they died before beans because it was so cold, the bees quit flying.

Early this spring I got out the gardening seed catalogs.

And I remembered the seeds I had from Peace Seedlings.

Nowyou can have the farmers' market kind of bean experience--buy from abundant bins of beans in the peak season, and there isn't anything wrong with that I've done it for years. I still buy plenty of green beans at the market.

It's gratifying knowing you're buying great locally produced food, but . . .

you could also have this amazing bean experience at home.

I was anxious again and wanted to taste these beans in my garden so much, I picked them too early. Tom mentioned they didn't look quite ripe to him, but I wanted to try them, so I picked them anyway.

See them next to the bigger greener green beans from Rent's Due Ranch.

Even my Cooking Assistant is impressed.

Suddenly I realized it was 5 o'clock. What shall I make? Came to mind.

I got out fresh garlic, carrots, potatoes and onions. The zucchini is nearly ripe, but Tom said, "Let's go a day without zucchini, okay?" Like me, he's had too much zucchini lately.

Here is what I made:

Five O'clock Green Beans
(Serves 4)

1 spring onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Handful of chopped basil
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry hard apple cider
1 potato, cut into bite-size chunks
1 carrot, sliced
2 cups green beans, ends removed and cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths
Sea salt to taste
Fire Cracker Port Madison Goat Cheese, 1/2 round cut into small chunks

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the onions, garlic and oil. Stir and cook until onions are soft. Add tomato paste and cook a few more minutes.

Stir in the basil, wine, potato and carrots. Cook until vegetables are nearly fork tender. Add green beans. Add more wine or water, if necessary. Cover and cook until green beans are tender.
Season to taste with sea salt.

Sprinkle with goat cheese and add pepper as needed to balance the flavors.

This quick dish took about 20 minutes from start to finish. The potatoes and carrots take longest to cook; cut these vegetables in smaller chunks.

Somebody felt a little left out of this and isn't afraid to give me the look.

How could you resist handing him the prewash job?