Monday, September 28, 2009

Houseguests for lunch and a secret to making good soup

As you know from my previous post, it rained the entire weekend our house guests (my husband’s brother and his wife) were visiting. There’s nothing better for lunch on a rainy day than a good bowl of soup followed by a salad and perhaps a nap. Since our guests had an appointment to look at a house that’s for sale in the afternoon, we decided to save the nap for later and visit a local winery a few minutes away from the property they’re seeing with the realtor.

I believe I’ve found one of the secrets to making a really good soup. It’s how you sauté the vegetables. My mother used to throw the vegetables in without browning them first. While there’s nothing wrong with this and it does save a bit of time, if you brown the vegetables first your soup will have a much richer flavor. The second secret is to add the herbs and a little bit of tomato paste to the vegetables at the end of the browning stage. Here’s what I do. I start the vegetables on high heat, then quickly switch to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook them slowly until they are nice and brown taking care that they not burn. Then I add the herbs I’m using (thyme and fresh rosemary are my favorites) and a little tomato paste and cook the vegetables for a few more minutes until the tomato paste is blended in and begins to brown.

I adapted this bean soup from Pam Anderson’s Perfect Recipes for Having People Over. The mushrooms were my idea and I like using both the cremini and white button ones. You could easily leave out the prosciutto and sausage and substitute vegetable broth for the chicken used here and have a meal perfectly suited for a vegetarian guest.

White Beans & Sausage Soup
Adapted from Perfect Recipes for Having People Over by Pam Anderson
Printable recipe

Olive oil
¾ pound of mild Italian sausage (or up to 1 ½ pounds as in the original recipe)
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, minced
2 medium onions, cut into medium dice
2 medium carrots, peeled & cut into medium dice
2 medium celery stalks, cut into medium dice
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
8 ounces sliced white button mushrooms
8 ounces sliced cremini (baby bella) mushrooms
1 quart chicken broth
3 16-ounce cans cannelloni or great northern white beans
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Remove sausage from its casings, crumble the meat (discard casings) and sauté in a ten inch non-stick skillet in a tiny bit of olive oil until nicely browned and fully cooked. Set sausage aside and wipe out the skillet.

Add about two tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet and sauté the prosciutto, onions, carrots and celery over high heat about three or four minutes until they begin to soften. Season with salt and pepper, turn the heat to low and continue to sauté until they are nicely browned, about ten minutes. Add the thyme, rosemary and tomato paste and cook for a couple of minutes, then remove the vegetables and set aside with the sausage.

Sauté the mushrooms in olive oil until nicely browned, seasoning with salt and pepper about half way through. Remove the mushrooms and set aside with the sausage and vegetables.

Smash the beans from one can with a fork, then add it and the remaining whole beans with their liquid to a soup pot along with the broth, vegetables, mushrooms and sausage. Cover, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and continue to simmer, partially covered, to blend the flavors, about 20 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for 10 minutes for flavors to develop. Return soup to a simmer and serve. Can be made ahead and frozen. Before serving, sprinkle each person’s bowl with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Makes eight servings.

Spinach salad with oranges and blue cheese

Make lemony vinaigrette by mixing together one part fresh lemon juice to three parts extra virgin olive oil and a dash of Tabasco in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake well. Toss fresh baby spinach with the vinaigrette and top with fresh orange segments and blue cheese crumbles. Avoid buying pre-crumbled cheese; in my opinion it is dry and crumbling your own is well worth the effort.

This is the property they saw. One is of the pond in the summer and the other is of the barn after a fresh snowfall in the winter. As you can see the grounds were beautiful, but the house was on two levels and all of the rooms were extremely tiny. My husband and I have remodeled a dozen or so houses over the years and this one would be a major challenge.

Join us next time as we visit a local winery, Crane Creek Vineyards in nearby Young Harris, Georgia, and celebrate Pink Saturday.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What to serve house guests for breakfast

This past weekend my husband’s brother and his wife flew down from Long Island and were our house guests. They came to take a look at our beautiful western North Carolina mountains to see if it’s a place they might like to live when they retire. If you watched the news over the weekend, you know that the entire southeast was drenched with rain and flooding. We live about a hundred miles north of Atlanta and within a fifteen minute drive of the northwest Georgia border and about the same distance from eastern Tennessee.

When we woke up Monday morning and watched the news from Chattanooga, the weather was so bad they listed the schools that were open rather than the ones that were closed because there were so many more closed than open. Knowing they didn’t want to miss their flight from Chattanooga that stopped briefly in Atlanta (where there was massive flooding) on the way back to New York, I decided to make something quick that we could eat for breakfast before we left for the airport.

I choose Ina Garten’s Breakfast Fruit Crunch which I adopted from her Barefoot Contessa at Home cookbook. I used purchased granola, but Ina made her own and served her fruit crunch in parfait glasses. Since I didn’t have parfait glasses, I substituted martini glasses. I’ve never eaten granola with pineapple, but I found it quite refreshing. Feel free to substitute different fruit combinations, such as apples, pears, bananas and red grapes in the winter. Peaches or nectarines with blueberries, strawberries and kiwi would also be pretty. This recipe is my favorite breakfast for a guest in a hurry.

Breakfast Fruit Crunch
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten

8 to 10 strawberries, diced
½ cup blueberries
½ cup raspberries
¼ fresh pineapple, diced
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups purchased granola, preferably flavored with vanilla

Combine the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, pineapple and lemon zest in a bowl. Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the yogurt. If your granola isn’t flavored with vanilla, you might want add a little good vanilla extract, such as Nielsen-Massey’s Madagascar Bourbon, to the yogurt.

In four martini glasses alternately layer half the fruit, then the yogurt and sprinkle with granola. Top with remaining fruit and a few sprinkles of granola and a small dollop of yogurt. If you’re using parfait glasses which Ina used, you’ll be able to have two layers. In that case, alternately layer half the fruit, then half the yogurt and sprinkle with granola. Repeat with the second layer of fruit, yogurt and granola. Serves four.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Falling in love with Mark Bittman's latest cookbook - Kitchen Express

Award winning cookbook author Mark Bittman has done it again. He’s written another fresh and inspiring new cookbook - Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express, 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less, that has already become one of my current favorites
He’s taken a whole new approach from some of his other best selling cookbooks, such as How To Cook Everything, which has formally written recipes. He writes one paragraph instructions and talks you through the recipe, allowing you to do what you Mother did: add a pinch here and there and taste as you go. Don’t have an ingredient? Substitute what’s in your pantry or throw in some fresh herbs in you have them.
I can hear Mark’s friendly voice talking to me all the way through the book, like a big brother looking over my shoulder, offering suggestions but never in a pushy or bossy way. Perhaps it’s because his voice is so accessible to us on television and the internet. If you’ve ever once heard him talk to Al Roker on the Today Show about how easy it is to stuff a chicken breast, in the New York Times Food Section video when he first introduced his readers to Jim Lehay’s no-knead bread from the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan in 2006, or trekking around with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow in the PBS series Spain – On the Road, you’ll know what I mean.
Heather of Girlichef first brought this new cookbook to my attention when she introduced it in her post, Souper Simple Tuna Bean Salad. She prepared the salad and served it, as Mark suggested, over chilled asparagus, but added her own touches including amazing black truffle sea salt. I thought to myself - I’ve made a tuna and bean salad very similar to this for years, but I’ve never thought of serving it on asparagus – what a clever and refreshing twist to an old favorite. And there my love affair began with this cookbook. Thanks Heather. I owe you one.
Here are two of my current favorite recipes, but I assure you my list of recipes to try is already long, starting with sophisticated sounding Seared Pork Paillards with Prunes and Olives and a yummy Tomato, Goat Cheese and Basil Strata. I’ve adapted the following two recipes to suit my taste and pantry.

Cajun-Style Salmon with Mixed Baby Greens
Adapted from Kitchen Express by Mark Bittman
Mix together the following blend of Cajun-style spices (or use a store bought Cajun spice mix): one teaspoon each paprika, coriander, cumin and dried oregano; one-quarter teaspoon each cayenne pepper and cinnamon. Add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Rub the spice mixture on the top of salmon fillets. Broil, spice side up, skin side down, or until desired doneness. If spice mixture begins to burn, turn the oven to 400 and bake until done. Serve the salmon on a bed of mixed organic baby greens that have been tossed with one part freshly squeezed lemon juice to three parts extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Tuna and Bean Salad on Fresh Asparagus
Adapted from Kitchen Express by Mark Bittman
Whisk together 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and 1 finely chopped garlic clove in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (depending on the season), one 15-ounce can cannellini or great northern beans, drained and rinsed, 2 plum tomatoes, seeds removed, 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley and toss together. Gently add one 6-ounce can of solid white tuna in water, drained and flaked or packed in olive oil if you prefer. Serve over freshly cooked asparagus spears.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pink Saturday

Beverly of How Sweet the Sound is celebrating Pink Saturday's 6th anniversary and I would like to wish her a very happy anniversary. This post was the first of many I have submitted to Pink Saturday through the years and I thought it might be fun to submit this one again for "old times sake." My husband and I were out on a leisurely Sunday afternoon ride a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t help but snap this photo. It aroused my curiosity. Do you suppose they painted their house pink first or painted their car pink first? Whatever the case, it has to be a one of a kind. This may carry the concept of matching shoes and handbags to a whole new level. I hope this free spirit owner of the pink house and a car to match brings a smile to your face and sunshine into your Saturday.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A tribute to summertime, the Bradley County Pink Tomato and the early days of rock and roll stars

It’s almost time to say good-bye to summer, although fall doesn’t officially start until September 22. Summer is my favorite season of the year, primarily because I love homegrown tomatoes. I grew up in the small town of Warren, in Bradley County in southeastern Arkansas. It was known as “the land of the tall pines and pink tomatoes.” Every year, during the second week in June, Bradley County celebrates with a Pink Tomato Festival honoring the Bradley County pink tomato, a special variety of tomato which holds the distinction of being Arkansas’ state fruit and vegetable.

In 1956 a small group of the town merchants and members of the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce, which included my father, decided to create an event to celebrate the tomato industry and help promote business in the area. The Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival was born. Since that one day event in 1956, the celebration the festival has grown into a week long affair and is one of the oldest continuous running festivals in Arkansas. A parade, complete with the governor riding in a convertible, and beauty pageant were added in 1957. The all-tomato luncheon has always been a favorite.

In fact this year in June of 2009 the residents of Bradley County set the worlds record for the longest BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich by making a 169-foot-long BLT, using 60 pounds of sliced Bradley tomatoes, 300 pounds of Arkansas Tyson bacon, 220 ounces of mayonnaise and 80 pounds of lettuce.

Photos courtesy of the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce

Over the years the market share for pink tomatoes has been eroding because supermarkets’ now rely on durable strains of tomatoes, picked green and forced to ripen after being removed from the vine. Thick skinned tomatoes are favored for this because they aren’t easily damaged in shipping. But we all know those supermarket tomatoes lack the flavor and texture of vine-ripened fruit. For Arkansas consumers, the vine-ripened pink tomato is still available in farmer’s markets and Warren continues to host the Pink Tomato Festival every June.

As I recall, about this same time as the merchants and chamber members were starting the festival, this same group of men put together the South Arkansas Fair & Marketing Association. One of the things I remember they did was to build a large pavilion where the farmers could bring their tomatoes to be graded and boxed for shipment and where the farmers could work with the various tomato buyers. The Fair & Marketing Association also hosted the Annual Bradley County Fair & Livestock Show.

My father was President of the Association when I was in about the seventh grade. He came home for dinner one night and announced that Otis Cash, one of the members, had a cousin named Johnny from nearby Kingsland who was an up and coming singer for Sun Records in Memphis, which was about the same time Elvis, the king of Rock and Roll, was recording for Sun and got his start in the music business. Johnny planned to bring a friend of his, another one of Sun’s recording artists named Jerry Lee, and they would be the entertainment for the Livestock Show that year. You’ve probably figured out by now I’m talking about Johnny Cash in the early years of his career. Johnny Cash went on to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century with early hits as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” His friend was the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis who had just recorded two hits for Sun Records, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

It’s been years since I’ve thought about the Pink Tomato Festival or eaten a Bradley County Pink, as they are called. My father used to send us a case each year, but he’s been for gone twenty-five years and I probably haven’t been back to Arkansas but a few times since then.

When my husband and I went to see the movie about Johnny Cash’s life, Walk the Line, a couple of years ago, I remembered that night in the fifties when he and Jerry Lee belted out their rock and roll songs around a grand piano on a stage in the rodeo arena in a sleepy small town in south Arkansas. My sister and I had pony tails back then and we probably wore our poodle skirts and saddle shoes as we sat in the front row in box seat at the livestock show of a small town rodeo along with our father watching rock and roll history unfold. Cash and Lewis went on to receive numerous awards and both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As I said earlier, summertime is my favorite time of the year and I’m really going to miss the homegrown tomatoes. What is your favorite time of the year and what will you miss most about summer?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Backstage with Julia by Nancy Verde Barr – a delightful behind the scenes look at life with Julia

Photo from Julia Child & Company Cookbook

Backstage with Julia, My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr is a lovely memoir of Barr’s years as Julia’s assistant. Barr worked for Julia for eighteen years on her TV shoes, cookbooks and articles, serving as executive chef for Julia’s live demonstrations and monthly features in Parade magazine and they became great friends. For foodies, this must have been a dream job. Her book is a delightful behind the scenes look at life with Julia and a “must read” for Julia fans such as myself.

Barr tells charming stories such as what it was like to go to dinner at the Childs. To Julia, “come for dinner” meant “we’ll cook dinner together first, then we’ll eat,” says Barr. Julia had a very casual manner of having guests cook with her, including the likes of Jacques Pepin or John Kenneth Galbraith, President Kennedy’s ambassador to India. They were all just cooks in the kitchen. With or without company, Julia’s meals were unpretentious. Unless someone brought an appetizer or the ingredients to make one, the only hors d’oeuvres were Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Often dessert would be store-bought vanilla ice cream with very good bourbon drizzled on top.

The Childs preferred to eat in the kitchen unless there was a sizeable guest list and then dinner was served around their dining room table, which could seat twenty. Barr says Julia’s kitchen table was in the center of the room and permanently clothed in colorful Marimekko-style padded vinyl tablecloths. Can’t you just hear Julia saying to Barr, “We can just wipe them down. Whoosh!” as she made a quick wiping motion with her arm.

When Julia moved to California from Massachusetts in 2001, she donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the exhibit is called “Bon Appétit.” Her husband Paul designed it for her in 1961 and for seven years the kitchen was the set for her television series. Millions, including myself, watched the shows. With her distinctive voice, I can remember her telling us to “shoot the wad” when buying the best ingredients and to “go whole hog” in fearlessly cooking them.

Photo from Julia Child & Company Cookbook

Julia didn’t like “crunchly undercooked vegetables,” as she called them. She told Barr, “I like my vegetables raw or cooked, but that in-between ridiculousness is inedible and I won’t eat them.” Way to go Julia – I totally agree.

Over the years Barr and Julia became friends. She simply adored Julia, but who didn’t? Julia had incredible energy and did not allow herself or others around her to use the T-word (tired) and it visibly annoyed her if anyone did. According to Barr, late one night after Julia had had an incredibly long day a woman approached her and said, “Oh, Mrs. Child. You did so much today. You must be exhausted.” The pathetic whine in the woman’s voice sent Julia into a stern, defensive stance. “I don’t exhaust,” Julia brusquely snapped back as she quickly turned away from the startled woman and lead Barr and her colleagues back to the hotel for a nightcap.

Barr says Julia’s total lack of pretention and nonchalance about her fame – how unaware she was of her own celebrity - surprised some journalist, many of which she invited over for lunch at her house. She says she can’t help but smile when she reads the account of how they expected to be served a gourmet lunch and instead got a tuna fish sandwich – albeit a very, very good tuna fish sandwich.

There are many more delightful anecdotes including how enamored Julia was with Charlie Gibson (currently the host of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson) and the magic that occurred between them on stage when she did her live spots on Good Morning American. Charlie once told Julia’s husband Paul, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m in love with your wife.” “Not at all,” Paul said, “I’m in love with her myself.”

If you were in love with Julia and enjoyed the movie Julie and Julia, I guarantee you will love this wonderful book. I learned to cook from Julia and mastered my knife skills from the black and white drawings in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I wrote about a while back. As Julia would say, “Bon Appétit.”