Thursday, September 29, 2011

Roasted Butternut Squash with Red Onion and Thyme

I don't usually cook myself lunch. Lunch is for sandwiches, reheating leftovers and picking at strange odds and ends. I have totally made lunch out of cookies and cheese on occasion. If I put any effort into lunch, it usually involves quickly sauteing something on the stovetop. No advance planning means that lunch can't be time-consuming.

Today, however, I was forced to deviate from my usual path when I walked into my garden and noticed that my butternut squash - the only butternut squash that had matured on my vine, and for which I had harbored such high hopes - had developed some blemishes. They looked like rotten spots, but when I touched them, the outer rind didn't seem at all soft. Still, better safe than sorry. I plucked it from the vine, to be eaten ASAP.

I was a little worried about what I'd get when I cut it open, but as you can see, the blemishes were only skin deep. Tragedy having been averted, I began plotting. My favorite way to prepare winter squash is by roasting (actually, that's my favorite way to prepare most vegetables). I thought it might be nice with some red onion as well, and a bit of the massive thyme bush that is attempting to hijack my herb garden. The result was a flavorful, comforting little dish that made my whole house smell like fall (despite the summer-ish violent thunderstorm that had just rolled through). And squash is super-healthy, too. I look forward to many more tasty squash dishes as the weather begins to get chilly. Too bad my vine didn't produce any others!

Roasted Butternut Squash with Red Onion and Thyme

1 butternut squash
1/2 red onion, chopped (keep the chunks large or they will disintegrate in the oven)
small bunch thyme, leaves stripped from the stems
2 tsp olive oil (the amount really depends on the size of your squash - the cubes need to be lightly coated)
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Peel your squash (I hear you can do it with a heavy-duty vegetable peeler, but I just use a knife) and scoop out the seeds and stringy bits. Combine in a bowl with chopped onion and thyme leaves. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat.

Pour squash mixture into a baking dish coated with cooking spray (I neglected the cooking spray and have a mess waiting for me in the kitchen sink). Roast for 30-40 minutes, stirring once (the time will depend on the temperature of your oven - mine needs a tune-up, so it took longer). Enjoy with a sprig or two of fresh thyme.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Marvelous Ham Sandwich with Cornichons

Sometimes a sandwich can be a memory.

When I was at Georgetown, I worked at a student-run convenience store named Vital Vittles. We sold sandwiches that were brought in by a local bistro/catering company called Marvelous Market. One of those sandwiches - ham with butter and cornichons on French bread - was my favorite sandwich ever. The problem was that it cost $7 (a huge sum for a lunch, from my perspective). I think the first time I had the sandwich was when it was left over from a previous day and marked down to half price. The bread was a bit soggy, but it was delicious. After that, I found a way to splurge on the sandwich now and then. I could not resist its siren call.

What's so great about it? Butter and ham together initially sounded like overkill to me. I mean, ham's a fatty meat to begin with. But the creaminess of the butter against the smooth, rich slices of ham is delightful. Add to that freshly made French bread with a crispy crust but light, fluffy-soft interior. And top it off with tiny cornichons - French pickles that are extremely tart, acidic and addictive. I found the combination irresistible. I still, do, really.

I remember trying to recreate this sandwich a few years ago. I found mini gherkin pickles in the supermarket and thought I had rediscovered the cornichon. But no - while mini gherkins are tasty, they simply do not compare. The flavor and the tartness were not the same. The ham with butter was still delightful, but it lacked dimension. I gave up on my sandwich.

But two weeks ago, while browsing the cheeses at Whole Foods, I came upon a plastic container labeled "cornichons." I immediately searched out some ham and a nice baguette and went home to celebrate. Finally, after seven years, I had done it. I had recovered the lost sandwich. I've had it four times since then. And if you can find yourself some cornichons (try Whole Foods!), you can have it too!

Marvelous Ham Sandwich with Cornichons

French bread (I used half of a mini-baguette - a quarter of a large one would probably do)
2-4 slices ham (don't overload it - you're going for a balance of flavors)
4-6 cornichons (accept no substitutes!)
unsalted butter (salted butter would ruin it - you want something cool and creamy - whipped butter would be easiest to spread, if you have it)

Slice your baguette in half and butter the top. Lay slices of ham on the bottom half. Spread your cornichons on top - try to ensure you'll get some in every bite. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Honey Brook Organic Farm

I mention my CSA a lot so I thought you might like to check it out for yourselves. Or, at least, through the lens of my camera.

Honey Brook Organic Farm was the first New Jersey CSA. The owners have several different farm sites through the west-central part of the state. Honey Brook is a CSA only - no farm stand, no farmers markets and no commercial sales. That means that shareholders know they are getting the best of the available produce. Their website claims there are over 2,500 shares available, some at the Pennington farm (where I go), some at the Chesterfield farm, and some delivered box shares. Demand is high - they generally sell out. Since this was my first year with them, I made sure to send in my application early (in January, right when the forms went online!) to make sure I got a spot.

What do I like about Honey Brook? First of all, their philosophy. Their top priority is to nurture and sustain the environment (the Wargo Road farm in Pennington is on a nature preserve). All of their produce is organic or transitioning to organic (it takes three years to switch over a field that was used for conventional production). I feel safe eating their food, knowing that nothing is genetically modified. In fact, they work to promote genetic diversity by planting a range of heirloom varieties. Just last week, I brought home about a dozen different varieties of tomato. I believe that this kind of diversity makes us healthier.

I also enjoy the way share pick-up works each week. On Wednesday, I drive up to Pennington and park near the little red farm stand. (It's not very flashy because they're not trying to attract passers-by!)

Inside the stand, they've set up the produce for the week. Each item is labeled with the allotment for each share size. Look at those gorgeous tomatoes! As an individual share-holder, I got to take home a pound of regular slicing tomatoes and a pound of heirlooms last week. When tomatoes were peaking, we got as much as ten pounds at a time - I suppose the season is winding down.

Inside the building there are more items to choose from. From the left, the bins hold peppers, hot peppers, garlic, collard greens and scallions.

But that's not all! Once I've picked up my share, I am also allotted an assortment of pick-your-own items from the fields across the road. Early in the season there were strawberries, snap peas and snow peas. This week, there were a variety of herbs, cherry tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, okra, specialty eggplant, edamame, string beans, hot peppers, tomatillos, and lovely summer flowers. The tricky part is remembering everything that's on the map and how much I'm allowed to pick! I love that Honey Brook does this. I'm sure it saves them a lot of labor, but it also brings their customers closer to the farm. I have spent an hour in blistering heat picking snow peas until my thumbnails were dyed green. This gives me a greater appreciation and gratitude for the amount of work that goes into harvesting the produce I eat.

The CSA has become an integral part of the way I eat - I know I could never go back to the grocery store produce section when such wonderful, diverse food options are tucked away just down the road. And it has inspired me to try new things more frequently than I would have otherwise. I would never have purchased beets from the grocery store.

The farm has taught me to live dangerously. I now roam through the rows of hot peppers, picking whatever looks ripe, and figuring out how hot each one is once I got home (throwing two Tabasco peppers in a stir fry last week was a bad idea!).

While I still don't enjoy raw tomatoes, I love experimenting with how different varieties hold up in a sauce. I especially enjoy making quick sauces with cherry tomatoes, which don't require peeling! These are some Sungolds in the early morning haze.

I've also learned to cook entirely new foods, like edamame, which I'd never seen fresh before I harvested some at the farm.

Getting piles of fresh produce every week has also gotten me to start preserving. These Plum Dandy tomatoes went into the Roasted Tomato Basil Soup I posted recently, much of which was frozen for a chilly day. Other tomatoes went into batches of sauce that were frozen or canned. I'm looking forward to a canning workshop that the farm is hosting this weekend - while I've had some success, I'm still a beginner!

Finally, I get beautiful flowers to adorn my table every week. These straw flowers also dry well! Below is a picture of everything I brought home from the farm last week. Note the large pile of flowers on the left.

In striving to eat more healthily and locally, I have decided that time and money can no longer be factors. Good, healthy food is expensive and buying locally involves going to multiple stores and farm stands. But I know many of you are wondering if this could be cost effective. I will humor you.

I have been keeping a spreadsheet of everything I brought home from the farm each week, and what the value of these items would be if I purchased them at the supermarket (for my purposes, the prices are either from Whole Foods or Wegmans, which are the places I would otherwise be shopping). The numbers are staggering. I have brought home 65 lbs of tomatoes, (whether cherry, slicing, saucing, or heirloom varieties), 17 lbs of summer squash, 5.5 quarts of strawberries, 6 watermelons, and 10 lbs of string beans, besides about forty other types of vegetable. If I had purchased the entire list as conventionally-produced produce at the aforementioned grocery stores, it would have cost $535. If I had purchased all organic products, it would have cost over $700 ("over" because I was unable to find prices for half a dozen of my organic items). My farm share cost $360. Now, it's hard to make a direct comparison, because I would not have purchased many of these items on my own. In fact, we've been giving away all of our eggplant. But I still think that it was a cost effective experience. And remember that the season isn't over for another month and a half, so there's plenty more produce to come!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Roasted Tomato Basil Soup

It's easy to be a locavore during the summer. Right now, our backyard garden is pumping out tomatoes, bell peppers and herbs. My CSA and the farmers market are overflowing with late summer's bounty. Everything seems to be in season, from melons to winter squash. Much of my meat and some cheese comes from a farm ten miles down the road. My milk comes from a dairy in Chambersburg, PA, via the Princeton Whole Foods. As a locavore, I think I'm getting pretty high marks right now.

It's actually fairly easy to maintain this through the end of the year. Last year I was continually surprised at how much was available at the farmers market in December and even January. (Fortunately, I love winter squash and sweet potatoes!) In February and March, things get tough, as expected, but I was surprised how this extended into spring - even in early May there's not much available, as plants need time to grow (the cold spring we had this past year didn't help!). I realized, as our ancestors were clearly aware, that nature's bounty can only take us so far. A few quarts of frozen tomato sauce won't cut it.

This year, I began preserving in earnest. My boiling water canner has produced rich tomato and barbecue sauces, pickles and even lemon curd. Several batches of tomato sauce have been frozen, as well as a big container of pesto. But more is necessary in order to decrease our reliance on produce trucked a few thousand miles in the middle of winter. This weekend, I told Jeff to prepare himself, because we were going to fill the freezer with summer goodness!

Saturday's tasks? Vegetable stock, roasted bell peppers, blanched and frozen green beans, and roasted tomato soup. I've been making my own stock from vegetable scraps since this past winter, according to these instructions. It's a great form of recycling! This time I got about a gallon of stock out of two gallon-sized bags of scraps. I freeze it in ice cube trays and in two cup increments in tupperware. Once it's fully frozen, I remove it from these containers and put the frozen cubes in freezer bags, to use at my leisure.

I also had about half a dozen red peppers to roast. At the last minute, though, I figured that while the grill was going, we might as well fill it up, so I sent Jeff out for more. He came back with a giant bushel of peppers, so we ended up with two dozen to roast. Jeff charred them on the grill (no oil needed!), steamed their skins off, peeled and seeded them. We then froze the strips in batches on baking trays, then transferred them to freezer bags. I have a gallon bag plus a little extra filled with red, orange and yellow pepper strips. We also filled a quart bag with blanched green beans and froze them. And while all this was going on, we were making roasted tomato soup.

Now that September's here and the nights are getting chilly, I've been craving soup. With a large basket of tomatoes in my kitchen, this roasted tomato basil soup was the perfect solution. This was the perfect recipe for the tomatoes I had, too. These were Plum Dandy tomatoes, one of the sauce varieties offered by my CSA. These are delightful sauce tomatoes because of their firmness and fleshiness, which you can see in the picture below. They held up beautifully to roasting, and this added a delicious flavor to the final product. This is definitely going to be my stand-by tomato soup recipe for a while. I plan on making a few more batches for the freezer before tomato season ends, to enjoy during the depths of winter!

Roasted Tomato Basil Soup
From Annie's Eats.

3 lbs ripe tomatoes, halved and seeded
1/4 c and 2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp butter
2 c chopped onion
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
28 oz can whole tomatoes
2 c fresh basil, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme
4 c stock

Preheat oven to 400° F. Combine tomato halves, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl and toss. Spread on a large baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes. (Try not to eat too many, but they're really delicious just like this!)

In a Dutch oven over medium heat, combine 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp butter. Add the onions, garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 7-10 minutes, until softened, stirring periodically.

Add the canned tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, basil, thyme, and stock. Stir to combine, then bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 40 minutes. (I stirred it occasionally, breaking up the tomatoes a bit as they softened.)

When the mixture is finished cooking, puree it for a minute or two with an immersion blender, or let the soup cool and then pour it into a blender to puree. Enjoy right away, or freeze for later!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Plum Barbecue Sauce

Jeff here.  Since my better half generally leaves the handling and cooking of meat (on the stovetop, in the oven, or on the grill out back) to me, she's invited me to do a guest post on this delicious roast pork dinner from last week.  To be honest, though, the pork is simply a vehicle for the real star of the show, the plum barbecue sauce.  It makes the pork look really good in the picture above... and it tastes as good as it looks!

Asian cuisine has always been a favorite of mine and Kristin's.  Kristin ate her share of pad thai in college, and I was introduced to the Korean specialty bibimbap when I worked in New York City during my second semester of sophomore year.  (That dish is right up my alley: its name means "mixed meal," and I have a tendency to jumble my food together when I eat.)  We both love a good curry, although our palates can stand different levels of heat, and who can resist a well-prepared General Tso's Chicken?  Raw fish is where Kristin draws the line, so she doesn't share my love of sushi and sashimi, but what can you do?  (You can give me her share.)  But I digress.

We hadn't been waiting too long to make this delicious roast pork in plum sauce.  Kristin found it in this year's July issue of Cooking Light.  Since we enjoy cooking and eating local foods, we were able to get a taste of several New Jersey products, including the locally grown plums (bought at the Village Farms stand on Route 206), the pork tenderloin (from the nearby organic Cherry Grove Farm, just up the road from Village Farms), and ketchup made from 100% New Jersey tomatoes (from First Field).  Despite all the tomatoes we get from our backyard garden and our CSA share, we have not yet made our own ketchup, so we cracked open the jar we bought at another town's Farmer's Market (which just closed down) a few weeks ago; we were not disappointed.

As I said above, the sauce is really the highlight of this recipe.  The natural saltiness of the pork is well-complemented by the sweetness of the plums and the tangy-ness of the rest of the sauce.  The plums will break down most of the way, thickening up the sauce considerably, but the small chunks that remain are a delicious treat, bringing a change of texture to a mouthful of pork. 

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Plum Barbecue Sauce
From Cooking Light, July 2011

2 tbsp canola oil
1 c onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c brown sugar
1/4 c rice wine vinegar
1/4 c ketchup (we used First Field Ketchup)
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (the sauce didn't pack much heat, so feel free to add more red pepper flakes)
2 cloves
1 1/2 lb black plums, pitted and quartered

Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add canola oil and swirl to coat. Add onion and garlic. Sauté 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes until plums break down. (I thought the plums would need to be cut smaller, but they really do break down well. Don't worry about any chunks that remain. They're delicious too.) Discard cloves. (We forgot to do that. No one has taken an unlucky bite yet...)

2 tbsp canola oil
2 1-lb pork tenderloins (we only used a single tenderloin, but we made all the sauce)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Preheat oven to 450°. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan and swirl to coat. Sprinkle pork evenly with salt and pepper. Add pork to pan and sauté 7 minutes, turning to brown on all sides.

Transfer pork to a foil-lined jelly roll pan and coat with 1/2 cup plum sauce. Roast at 450° for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, turn pork over and coat with an additional 1/2 cup sauce (and breathe it in). Roast for 10 minutes, until internal temperature is 155°. Remove from pan and rest 10 minutes.

Slice crosswise and serve with plum sauce. (Garnish with a couple sprigs of thyme, if you'd like.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cheesecake-Stuffed Peaches

Fresh, in-season produce is the best. I have a very healthy crop of bell peppers in my yard right now. My goal is to leave them on the plants until they turn red, and I check every day for signs of changing color (today, finally, the first one started to turn!). The other day, as I was examining a large pepper, it just popped off into my hand. As I was adding it to our dinner, about five minutes later, I tasted a bit. What a delightful vegetable! I find that green peppers are slightly bitter for my taste, but this particular pepper was milder, even sweeter, than usual. And the texture! It was the crispest, crunchiest pepper I've ever had. The fact that it was raised organically in my own garden is the icing on the cake. I've been pushing local, in-season fruits and vegetables for a while now, and this confirmed everything that I've come to believe. No greenhouse-grown pepper from California or Mexico, shipped three thousand miles in a refrigerated truck and sitting in a bin in the grocery store for who knows how long, could ever compare to this. Seasonal, and eaten right after harvest, is the way to go.

The truth of this is evident in peaches, as well - perhaps more so than in any other fruit or vegetable. Store-bought peaches are bland and tired; like most commercial fruits, they are engineered for durability and shelf-stability. That means that they ripen slowly on your kitchen counter and don't bruise easily. And that they taste ok, at best. But in-season local peaches are a thing of beauty. The first ripe peach of summer (farmer's market peach, that is) is a glorious experience. Biting through its fuzzy exterior unleashes a wave of sticky juice that gushes down the front of your shirt. There's no stopping it. These peaches are sweet, juicy and delicious. They also bruise easily and go from ripe to rotten seemingly within minutes. But that's because they're real. And I prefer my fruit the way God made it to some icky-tasting science experiment. Science is cool, but it shouldn't be for human consumption.

I think the only thing better than biting into that fresh, juicy peach on its own is biting into a baked, butter-covered peach stuffed with cheesecake. It's the perfect little bite at the end of a late summer's evening. I think they're good warm, room temperature and cold - if they're too hot, though, the flavor of the peach tends to be muted. Labor Day might be almost over, but there's still time to toss a batch of these into the oven!

Cheesecake-Stuffed Peaches
From Better Homes and Gardens, August 2011.

6 peaches, halved and pitted (a number of my pits disintegrated, leaving bits behind in the peach, so I ended up using a melon baller to remove all the red bits, as you can see in the photo below - this also left more room for cheesecake!)
1/4 c butter, melted
3 tbsp cinnamon-sugar
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1/4 c sugar
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla (the second time I made this I may have accidentally doubled the vanilla - it still tastes great but the cheesecake looks a little dark)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Trim a very thin slice from the bottom of each peach half so they don't roll around. Dip the peach halves in the melted butter, coating them. Place them on the baking sheet and sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar.

In a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar, egg yolk and vanilla and beat until combined. Spoon into the peach centers.

Bake 30 minutes until cheesecake is firm and slightly browned. Cool slightly and serve.