Monday, September 28, 2009

Heirloom Tomato Soup

Yesterday we spent a beautiful day at Greenwood Beach in Evanston. We shared the day with some wonderful friends as a third birthday celebration for a sweet, sweet girl. Blue skies, bright sun, a gentle lake breeze and warm water. Seriously, the water was warm. I think birthday girl's grandma called it a "birthday miracle". How lucky! We all talked of how grateful we were for such a perfect day at the end of beach season.

Then this morning we woke to fall. The sky was gray, there was no sun and the gently breeze had turned into cold wind. Uckk. Mother Nature can be so cruel.

While yesterday we picnicked, today I searched for something to warm us up. Chilly, fall day and too many garden tomatoes means tomato soup. Super easy and especially tasty with fresh heirloom tomatoes and thyme from the garden.

Sweat a large onion in a pot with a bit of olive oil. Throw in a clove or two of garlic, a few chopped carrots then allow that to soften and mellow. Add 6 cups seeded and chopped tomatoes, 4 cups stock of choice and a handful of thyme sprigs and let it cook. Season well with salt and pepper.

You can puree this soup thoroughly or leave a bit of texture. I like to use the immersion blender for the job - why make more dishes. This batch was pureed to a silky texture. With all the yellow "no-names" and green zebras I threw in the pot, it has a warm, golden color - like winter squash. It can be enriched with 1/2 & 1/2 or cream or just leave it as is - that's the way we like it best.

Mission accomplished. Hot soup, warm toasty gruyere and bacon sammies on a cold night. Perfect.

And only 6 huge tomatoes left on the window sill....

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Week of Meals

What to feed a family of 6 during a busy week? One that includes: Boy Scouts, 3) cross country practices, 2) cross country meets, bike club, 2) day shifts, 1) evening shift, morning chorus practice,
work an evening event, Doug's marathon training, homework for 4 and preparation for a garage sale?
Add to that the desire to use as many of the fresh vegetables available at the market because they are slipping away. And most importantly gather for many meals together at the table as many times as possible.

Here is what I came up with....

Sunday: Doug's Amazing Chili (including leftovers frozen for another meal)

Monday: Pork Bolognese over Penne Pasta
Roasted Cauliflower with Olive-Caper Vinaigrette
Italian Bread with Goat Cheese

Tuesday: Broccoli, Home-Smoked Bacon and Cheddar Stuffed Potatoes
Tomato-Cucumber Salad

Wednesday: Sloppy Joes, (from the can) on Homemade Brioche Hamburger Buns
(Ironic combo, huh?)
Multi-Grain Chips
Home Pickled Green Beans

Thursday: Leftovers - no sense wasting

Friday: Webb Farms Ham Steak
Roasted Acorn Squash
Garden Tomato Slices
Homemade Applesauce ( I can smell it cooking now)

Saturday: Pizza out with family. Yaayyyyy!

Not a bad week, I don't think. With people so busy these days, too often family meals are not a priority. We work hard to eat together as often as possible. If one of us is working in the evening there is still one parent at the table. Statistics show so many benefits of the family table that shouldn't be ignored. I have found with a bit of planning and prep the night or morning before I can put real food on the table easily.

We all love our time around the table together. We catch up, make weekend plans, play best and worst and draw cards from our conversation box.

It's a simple gift that's easy to give and one that will carry them into adulthood.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Day of Food

Shortly after the kids returned to school Doug and I took two days to spend together. In our 13+ years of child rearing we'd never really had that so it was a thrill to say the least. After getting the kids off to school, the world was our oyster - until 3:30pm. Our first day we decided to go to the city for a fabulous (of course) lunch at Frontera Grill. Doug had never been and it had been years since I had eaten there so we were excited. There were so many choices, we decided to go with some of our stand-by favorites elevated to Top Chef Masters level.....

Queso Fundido Clasico: Samuels artisanal Jack cheese with garlicky roasted peppers, homemade chorizo sausage and oregano. (seriously, homemade chorizo?)

Sopes Rancheros: crispy corn masa boats with savory shredded beef, roasted tomatoes, avocado and homemade fresh cheese. (Doug has been wanting to make corn masa boats.)

Tacos - wood-grilled meat, poultry, fish or mushrooms sliced and served with roasted pepper rajas, two salsas, frijoles charros, guacamole and homemade tortillas. (I had pork, he had beef. The 3 Sisters black beans were AMAZING)

Did I mention the cocktails? Margaritas are always great but the blackberry mojito was a high point. Let me just say that until that day I never really understood the mystique of mojitos - and now I do, two times over.

Unfortunately, I didn't think to bring my camera (stupid) and the photos taken with a Blackberry didn't do any of it justice. Next time I'll be prepared.

Afterward, running short on time (3:30 was looming) but in
desperate need of sweets, we hit Hoosier Mama Pie Company. This great pie company made it's debut at the Green City Market and provided the best pie I had ever eaten - that wasn't made in my own kitchen!

I love everything about this lovely little shop. The sign, the vintage decor, the pie and even the baker's twine tying up the boxes. "Save your fork, there's pie" always makes me think of my Grandma, so I appreciate that touch, too.

Paula, the owner of this quaint shop (and mother of two little ones) researches old cookbooks for forgotten pie recipes which is really cool, too. One of these is an apple variety, I want to say it was Colonial something but its true name has slipped my mind. It's not on the current menu but I hope it will return this fall and winter. It was wonderful.

On this day, there was a piece of coconut cream for the drive home, or shall I say for the drive to the tollway. Later, key lime and fresh peach.

It was perfect pie and a perfect day, too.

Monday, September 21, 2009


"FRESH is more than a movie, it’s a gateway to action. Our aim is to help grow FRESH food, ideas, and become active participants in an exciting, vibrant, and fast-growing movement."

Saturday night we had the opportunity to spend a perfect evening outdoors for a screening of Fresh, sponsored by The Geneva Green Market. Always interested in food and the its betterment, from farm to table I was excited to share this opportunity with many like minded eaters. The film featured Michael Pollan and farmers of all walks. It skillfully illustrated both sides of the issue and inspired viewers with all that is possible when we support this movement. Simply spending $10 of your weekly grocery budget at a local green market has countless repercussions - all positive.

Our theatre along the Fox River amongst wildflowers, waiting for dusk to fall.

Local "green" vendors were on hand to sell their wares. Great products for packing a green lunchbox, incredible oak rain barrels ( on my xmas list) and natural health options, too.

Viewers were encouraged to picnic in the park. Pumpkin and apple squares, cookies and ice cream were far better offerings than any theatre. There was hot coffee to warm from the inside out as the chill of Indian summer settled in.

A great way to spend an evening with my guys. I appreciate them joining me and continuing to support my efforts on behalf of the GGM, NFP. This outing allowed me to instill a bit more of the importance of Fresh-ness for the ones that matter to me the most.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Yellow Tomato Monsters

I am so pleased with the results of my tomato plants this year. Started from a mixed pack of Renee's Heirloom Seeds, I have no idea what they are but I think their my finest gardening feat to date. Some of them are Brandywines and I know some are green zebras which are great with all things Mexican, by the way. The yellow monster however, remains nameless. They are not all this size as you can see but this guy weighed in at 2# 1 oz. Too bad I missed the fair.

The other cool surprise about the no-names is the rosey hue that creeps up from the bottom, actually stains the center of the tomato as well. A light, citrus tomato flavor with nicely balanced acid. It's the most beautiful tomato I've ever seen and it came from my backyard. A very proud moment.

What do you do when you have a glut of gigantic tomatoes and need a side dish? Make tomatoes provencal, of course. Layer tomatoes, top with panko tossed with a bit of parmesan, a tiny bit of lemon zest, fresh thyme leaves and coarse sea salt and black pepper. Pop it in the oven....

It was every bit as delicious as it looks.

Really though, if you know what those yellow monsters are, drop me a line!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Zucchini Prejudice

Every year at this time, I realize I have ignored the humble zucchini. While my prejudice is probably unfair, I do believe that my explanations are reasonable.

#1 - It takes up a lot of garden space so I don't grow it.
#2 - It makes a lovely gratin, with or without tomatoes, but I don't really want to eat them.
#3 - It's good on the grill but not a favorite around our table.

All very reasonable explanations, right?

Then I stumble across a recipe, incorporating lemon and zucchini into a COOKIE. I am intrigued. I love zucchini in bread but a cookie, interesting. Darn it if Martha doesn't think of everything. Off to the market in search of a zucchini. Just one.

Did I mention that this recipe has cornmeal in it? I love cornmeal anything. In a COOKIE, a subtle cornmeal crunch? I've got to have one. Just one.

Easy to put together. No need to lug the kitchen aid or find the beaters for the hand mixer. This can be made by hand.

And good. So very, very good. Cakey, lemony, not too sweet. Wouldn't they be pretty with a dusting of powdered sugar? I'd would even eat one with breakfast.

Tomorrow, I will return to the market in search of more zucchini. I will make them again and I will probably eat more than just one.

Lemon-Zucchini Cornmeal Cookies
Everyday Food - September 2009

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temp
1 c. powdered sugar
1/2 vanilla extract
1 t. packed, finely grated lemon zest
1 t. coarse salt
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. fine cornmeal
1 medium zucchini, finely grated (about 1 cup)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In large bowl, mix butter and sugar with a wooden spoon until pale and fluffy. Stir in vanilla, lemon zest and salt. Add flour and cornmeal and mix until mixture is crumbly. Add zucchini and stir into a thick dough.

Drop by rounded tablespoons onto parchment lined baking sheets. Bake until edges are lightly browned, about 25-30 minutes. Rotate sheets halfway through baking time. Cool completely on a wire rack then have one, just one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Garnishing Grape Jelly for Giving

I love to give gifts of food. Every step from the planning, growing or buying making and packaging is sheer joy for me. Once when I made many food gifts, I wanted to make them extra special by adding a label. Not especially computer savy (I've come quite far), I decided to work in mediums that were virtually foolproof. Card stock and pigment ink stamps. The twist is in the "stamps". I gather the fresh vegetables, fruits or herbs, used in the recipe to print a label of my own design.

Once I finished the grape jelly I knew I wanted to stamp labels with grape leaves. Since the beetles are having their fill of the leaves they won't be around too much longer so I got to work right away. Herbs make really pretty prints, too. It's worth printing up a few pages while they are around, basil or sage for pesto, mint or verbena for syrups. You get the idea.

For fine detail, you want to stamp the back of the leaf and then lay it on the paper you are stamping. Over the top of the leaf, lay a sheet of paper. Something from the copy or printer paper from the recycling bin is all you need. Once you've set the paper over the top, firmly rub the leaf without allowing it to shift. Carefully pull the paper and leaf off and you're done. Pigment inks have the best colors but can take a bit of time to dry so be careful of smudges. Remember this when reusing your "rubbing sheet", as well.

Fruits and veggies make fun stamps and kids can even help. Rolling an ear of corn across the ink and then the page is a crowning glory for corn relish. I have plans for a blueberry-jalapeno jam so I stamped a few sheets with slices of jalapenos in blue ink. I know. Clever, right?

The last step for me is to turn to my trusty alphabet rubber stamps. If you have beautiful handwriting, as many of my friends do, you can avoid this tedious step. For a type "A", it's a perfect method, no ugly letters and crooked is cool.

Technically, this is called botanical printing.

I just consider it a garnish.

The finishing touch placed upon a gift for someone you care for.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Backyard Grape Jelly

Remember way back, when I plucked the beautiful grapes growing our backyard?

The grapes seemed to have turned into the never ending project - until yesterday. Our schedule has been crazy busy and prevented me from finishing this jelly in a timely fashion.

However, this never ending project is a lesson. Canning doesn't need to take up an entire day. It may be broken down into steps to make what appears to be a mountain turn quickly to mole hill. If time keeps your from preserving remember that it can be done in steps. Take this grape jelly, for example, it had many, many, many steps that took place over many, many days.

Day 1 - The kids helped separate the grapes from the stems. I covered them with water so any little viney things would float to the top. After skimming the top, I drained them in a large colander.

Of course, I had to read every recipe I could find to determined exactly how to process the grapes. Many recipe called for cooking them with a bit of water to soften them before straining.

Day 2 - I decide to juice them. The lucky owner of a Breville juicer, I never cease to be amazed at what it can do. My grapes were beautifully juiced without a seed or skin to deal with, in not time at all. Check out that amazingly colored juice.

Last year, when we harvested the grapes, we made jam. I have never made jelly and this seemed like the perfect time. Without a jelly bag, I turned to a big pasta pot with steamer/strainer baskets. The steamer basket was lined with cheesecloth and juice dumped right in. I let it sit until the next morning before peaking. One of the most important things to remember with jelly is not to press the solids or squeeze the straining cloth because doing so will cloud the jelly. The pulp went to the compost and all that was left was the golden juice.

Day 3 - In reading all about grape jelly, one of the best pieces of info I found was about the tartaric acid naturally found in grapes. If the juice is not allowed to rest and immediately processed tartaric crystals will form in the jelly. Bummer and yet such a perfect fit with a busy week ahead. My juice settled for, um, days, several days - that puts me at about Day 8.

Finally, 11 days after cleaning the vines the jelly was complete. I added sugar and boiled and boiled and boiled. It always seems to take longer for things to jell than recipes suggest. I was a little tense, not wanting to blow the fruits of my labor. But watching it boil and seeing the juice turn to pink, rose, magenta and then finally a deep, dark purple was really fun. The finished product is beautiful.

Oh, it tastes fabulous, too. Welch's has nothing on me.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Make-A-Wish Wing Thing

Back in July, with the help of many friends, we hosted a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish. Doug runs on their Chicago Marathon team and in effort to raise more funds we had what came to be called, A Wing Thing.

One the menu, Doug's awesome Smoked Wings, Moveable Feast Potato Salad, Watermelon and Homemade Cookies. Family, friends and anyone who wanted to join us feasted, chatted and enjoyed great live music. All in all it was a wonderful, if simple, event and we were so touched by the incredible outpouring of support.

Today we once again, get to support this wonderful charity by providing dinner and breakfast as a part of a private Bunking with the Butterflies at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. It's a great opportunity for our family to realize how lucky we are to be healthy.

When someone is in need my thoughts always turn to food. A new baby, sickness, overwhelming life stuff or the passing of a loved one, I always want to feed people. I am so grateful that I can play a tiny role in supporting another family in a difficult time. I couldn't be more blessed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Burger Project - Completed!

On Labor Day, good friends gathered at the yellow house to celebrate the "last weekend of summer". Beer was brewed, buns were made, tomatillo salsa devoured and lemonade sold by the younger set. As holiday weekends go this was the best kind - lots of great people enjoying the pursuits of all things food. The perfect time for the The Burger Project Grand Finale!

The final step, after making the buns I posted yesterday, was the meat. Not having a grinder capable of grinding so much steak, we went the easy way and hit the best butcher in town to have sirloin ground for our burgers. We added some W-S hamburger seasoning. I like to think it was my only "cheat". It adds awesome flavor and if it was cheating, it was worth it. 8oz. portions, flattened enough to not pack with a nice divot in the middle to prevent shrinkage. Charcoal grill - DEFINITELY not a time to wimp out with the gas grill.

Here it is. Freshly ground steak cooked over charcoal, topped with homemade ketchup, mustard and pickles, choice of gruyere or blue cheese, garden tomatoes, bibb lettuce, home smoked bacon all between lightly grill-toasted brioche buns.

In retrospect, it was a great food project. I later realized I neglected to slice any onions and I think the ketchup will really be better, more mellow, in the next 4 to 6 weeks but no one complained. I was tremendously pleased with the homemade results.

I enjoyed each step and appreciated the challenge. Certainly not fine dining or rocket science but nonetheless an exercise in real food.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Burger Project - Buns

Here we are in the final phase of the burger project. Ketchup, pickles and mustard made. Buns (almost) in the oven. It's all done but the grilling.

I read several recipes in search of the bun of my dreams. I found lots for plain white buns but something told me they would be too "white bread" - pardon the pun.

I looked for a honey wheat recipe, thinking a hearty texture would be nice and the savory condiments would be offset perfectly by a touch of honey. Most of those recipes were whole wheat, meaning no all-purpose to lighten it up a bit, too heavy. Also, I didn't want this burger to appear to have a healthy bent. Whole and unprocessed is one thing but this is about a really great, guilt laden burger.

It was at this point I recalled Deb of Smitten Kitchen having similar issues in her search for the perfect hamburger bun.

And then I found it.......

*cue the choral angels*

The Perfect Bun...
A Light Brioche Burger Bun

A joy to make
Flavorful with amazing texture
Surpassing expectations after a light toasting on the grill

If you've ever considered making your own burger buns, make this recipe. If you think I am certifiable (as my brother does) for embarking upon this summer project, make these buns. They are truly worth it.

Many thanks for Deb of Smitten Kitchen, for her exquisite taste and paving the way to the perfect bun. To try this recipe, and you really must, click on the link above.

Also, many thanks to Carol for being my "right hand"and amazing photographer. She is so talented, I want to be like her.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Gathering of the Grapes

Today I wandered back to the garden to check on the beans, tomatoes and squash and was struck with the sweet, wonderful fragrance of grapes. It was then I decided this lovely afternoon was the perfect day to harvest. Years back I bought 2 concord vines and one died the first year and neither one were ever trained properly. The remaining vine proved to not be a concord but a white grape. Sadly, and embarrassingly so, it took me quite awhile to figure out why all the grapes fell off the vines before they ever turned purple. Now I know. My career as a viticulturist is but a pipe dream.

Last year, Henry and I gathered all the grapes and sat on the front porch separating the skins from the pulp and then the seeds from the pulp to make jam. It is a memory I'll always have and Henry still talks about our jam making. That said, the grapes were sort of spotty and while the jam was good, the end result was a little disheartening after all of our toil.

It's been such a weird growing year and the Japanese beetles had been feasting I wasn't too sure what I'd find. I approached this task hoping for 3 1/2# so I could make 2 pints of grape jelly. I was shocked (to say the least) when I started rooting through the vines how many perfect bunches hung waiting to be plucked. After the work was done they tipped the scales at a whopping 15#!

Adding to my weekend to-do list, which includes completion of the ultimate burger project, I now add making lots and lots of grape jelly. Maybe I should have waited until Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Peaches Panna Cotta / Jell-o Salad

The story goes like this. I received the perfect thank you note from a friend. A beautiful photograph of fresh peaches and an inspiring recipe for Peaches Panna Cotta. I patiently waited until peach season and finally made the recipe that I couldn't stop thinking about. I had a few raspberries, frozen from last year that needed to be gotten rid of in order to fill the freezer with this year's crop (read: hoard) Soooooo, I made peaches panna cotta with a raspberry coulis as dessert for a grilled pizza dinner.

Of course, I first had to make the peach puree. Not difficult and the perfect way to use the peaches at the market that are ready the same day. The puree is whisked into cream, sugar and gelatin as usual. What threw me was the whipped cream.

Panna cotta, or "cooked cream" is typically just that, cream heated with sugar and a little gelatin. Voila - panna cotta. In this recipe though, after the initial process you fold in softly whipped cream before filling the mold.

It's color is the palest of peach. With the addition of the whipped cream it takes on a cloud-like look. Ethereal really which is perfect because to me peaches have an ethereal flavor that no other fruit possesses.

Here is the finished product. I turned some out as is traditional but this one I left in the ramekin. The plated one looked a little 80's restuarant but I guess this one does, too. The kids loved it. I am on the fence. The peach was so subtle that too much raspberry overpowered it. However, without it the peach sort of fell flat. The other thing that I wasn't too thrilled with was the texture. It reminded me of the ever popular Jell-o dish with Cool Whip folded into it. It has a saran wrap crunch. Wad up a bunch of saran wrap into a ball and that noise is what it sounds and feels like in your mouth. Appealing, right?
In the future I'll stick with traditional panna cotta recipes. I do think that I'll hold onto this recipe though. It could become my version of a stand-by potluck dish. Based upon appearance it might be mistaken for every one's favorite Jell-0 salad. Maybe this could be my potluck offering that even the picky will eat?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Squash Anyone?

Although my garden is rather small, I thought it would be fun to grow acorn squash this year. One plant was about all I had space for and would certainly provide enough squash for my family, right? Little did I know that I would also be able to provide squash for every other family I know, too.

I have given 3 away, made puree out of 3, have 4 waiting to be eaten, 2 on the vine, lucky rodents have taken 2 and my "one plant" has many more blossoms and shows no sign of stopping.

It's good that we love acorn squash but I realize I am going to have to break out of the mold. Usually, I just roast it with butter and brown sugar because I love it that way. Due to the quantity available and yet to come, I will certainly be exploring other avenues.

Soups, pasta, pasta sauce, roasted cubes, stuffed......any suggestions?