Friday, May 27, 2011

A Healthy Snack that’s full of flavor and fun to make with kids of all ages – Tomato Poppers

Are you looking for a healthy snack? Perhaps an alternative to boring carrot and celery sticks? Look no further. Here’s a great little idea that was passed along to me by a good friend. I like it because it’s full of flavor and a great way to add some vegetables into your life. I call them tomato poppers.

Take a pint of grape tomatoes (red and yellow if you can find them), rinse with some water, and leave them wet. Toss the tomatoes in a small brown paper bag, then add a teaspoon of sea salt (French fleur de sel is the best), a teaspoon of your favorite chopped fresh herb (my friend recommended dill, but chives would also be nice), a teaspoon of dried herbs (dill, herbs de Provence, whatever you like) and shake the bag. Pour the tomatoes out and “pop” them in your mouth for a healthy snack.

Kids of all ages will have fun shaking the bag and then popping the tomatoes in their mouth. The next time you are invited to a “bring a dish” party, take this as an appetizer. I guarantee the presentation of the tomatoes flowing out of the paper bag will wow your friends and family.

As Food Network star and cookbook author Ina Garten would say, “How easy is that?”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A stroll down Duval Street in Key West, Florida

One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Key West is the roosters and chickens that roam freely on the streets. While it’s perfectly legal to keep chickens here and they’ve become a legend over the years, the chicken population has stirred up quite a controversy among the locals. Read more about the chicken wars here. We photographed this handsome fellow near Duval Street, happy as a lark, walking right along with the tourists with not a care in the world. Come to think of it, maybe being a rooster in Key West isn’t all that bad after all. Nice work if you can get it.

Duval Street in Key West, Florida is often called the longest street in the world because it runs across the island from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. To say it’s a tourist attraction is an understatement. In addition to people such as ourselves that drove last month to the Keys to spend a couple of days soaking up the sun and relaxing in one of the many Victorian homes that now operate as lodges, hordes of day-trippers disembark from cruise ships that pull up to the dock in Key West daily and join the others that stroll Duval Street.

Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a favorite haunt of Key West’s legendary resident Ernest Hemingway, is one of the first places day-trippers stop on Duval Street. Hemingway once branded the offbeat ambiance of Key West “the St. Tropez of the poor.” Sloppy Joe’s opened the day prohibition ended in the US, December 5, 1933. However, the bar hasn’t always been called Sloppy Joes. As the story goes, it was originally a bar/club of shabby discomfort, good friends, gambling, fifteen-cent whiskey, and ten-cent shots of gin. The club also sold liquor and iced seafood and consequently the floor was always wet from the melted ice. Hemingway and his mob of cronies taunted owner Jose Garcia about running a sloppy joint and the name stuck. Sloppy Joe’s is now a Key West institution attracting the day crowd where the music gets louder as the day goes on and the word on the street is they serve a good “sloppy Joe.”

We opted to start the morning off down the street at Fogarty’s Flying Monkey Bar with a Bloody Mary. The white “cloud” coming from the roof is mist that’s sprayed in the air along the sidewalks up and down Duval Street. Supposedly it’s to help the tourists stay cool. Believe me, it definitely doesn’t make for a good hair day (you’ll see my hair later and agree). The bar specializes in frozen drinks, but we stuck with our first choice.

When we took a sip of the Flying Monkeys Bar’s very hot and spicy Bloody Mary, Meakin asked the bartender if there was a secret ingredient in them, dried thyme perhaps? The bartender shrugged his shoulders, then turned around, opened the cash register, took out a slip of paper from under the till, and casually handed it to us. Much to our surprise, it was the list of ingredients that he had added to the tomato juice just minutes earlier to make the Flying Monkeys Bar’s Bloody Mary. I asked if I could write them down and he said “sure,” so I did. You ask for a recipe and they hand it over. How often does that happen? Not often enough.  As I scanned the list, it appears that Old Bay seasonings is their secret ingredient.

Flying Monkeys Bar’s Bloody Mary Mix
Here are the seasonings that were added to a gallon to tomato juice at Fogarty’s Flying Monkeys Bar: 2 ounces Worcestershire sauce, 5 tablespoons prepared horseradish, 1 tablespoon Old Bay seasonings, 1 tablespoon celery salt, 2 ounces lemon juice, 1 tablespoon Kosher salt, 1 tablespoon pepper, ¼ ounce Tabasco sauce, and 2 teaspoons blacking spice. Add vodka, gin or Cruzan gold rum (my personal favorite) to taste. It’s hot enough to bring tears to your eyes.

There are all sorts of ways of navigate your way around Key West.

Soon we were hungry and ready for some seafood for lunch. We decided on The Conch Republic Seafood Company, located on the historic harbor walk right around the corner from Duval Street. Meakin snapped this photo of a lovely lady sitting at the bar enjoying conch fritters with a key lime mustard sauce.

We started our meal with a tropical Rum Runner cocktail and no, unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to get the recipe this time. However, after living in the islands for years, we make a mean rum drink and here’s our recipe below, fashioned after the famous Guana Grabber drink in the Bahamas.

Bahamian Rum Runner Cocktail
Mix 1 ounce grapefruit juice, 3 ounces pineapple juice, 1 ounce orange juice with 1 ounce light rum, 1 ounce coconut rum, and 1 ounce Myer’s dark rum. Add a dash of grenadine, combine with ice and shake well. Strain and pour over fresh ice. Garnish as desired. Serves one.

The dozen oysters Meakin enjoyed for lunch were so briny and sweet he almost ordered a second round.

I had my heart set on a conch salad, but unfortunately it wasn’t on the menu, so I chose their Island Salad mixed with greens, avocado slices, mangos, oranges, tomatoes and cucumbers, tossed in a citrus vinaigrette and garnished with plantain chips. Very refreshing and healthy.

We chose the elegant, yet laid back Bagatelle’s restaurant on Duval Street for dinner and dined on the porch. The chef combines classical French cuisine with the indigenous tastes of the Keys and the Caribbean in his dishes. Again I was hoping to have a conch salad as an appetizer. The waitress informed me that conch wasn’t in season, so I enjoyed their rich yet delicate creamy fish chowder loaded with local seafood.

Meakin enjoyed another rich, decidedly French appetizer, mussels (or moules if you wish) in cream sauce while he sipped on a drink called An Old Cuban, which tasted similar to a margarita with mint.

The Florida Keys are not at all typical of the rest of the state. In the early 1800’s, they were founded on a seafaring, salvaging economy rather than agriculture or tourism.

Thousands of ships sailed between Cuba and Florida during this time, making it one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The ships were square-rigged and often overloaded, making them difficult to sail and they didn’t go into the wind very well. Among the hazards facing the captains of these ships were the currents, weather, and shallow waters over the coral of the Florida Reef. Many of them ran onto the rocks and the hull of their ships ripped open and sank, while others were left on the rocks. Almost no charts were available to show were the reefs were, no lighthouses guided the captains into safe waters, and they had no warnings about threatening weather. Worse still, legendary pirates such as Blackbeard roamed these waters.

This simple white frame cottage is now the Wrecker’s Museum and was built by one of the earliest Key West settlers who came north from Nassau in the Bahamas, hence the Bahamian flag flying alongside the American flag.

The term “wreckers” refers to the people who went out and salvaged the crew, ship, and cargo of ships that had run aground. Some of this happened out of heroism and some out of piracy.

Because of the location and climate, the residents built eclectic style cottages and were called “Conch Style” after its creators - islanders who ate the meat of the large seashells. From the Bahamian settlers came airy cottages with open porches, hinged and louvered shutters, and verandas. From New Orleans came filigreed trellises and balustrades. Greek and Gothic Revival style homes swept the nation during Key West’s heyday, which ended about the time of the American Civil War. Many of these cottages survived and are lovingly restored into lodging and private homes. Here are some examples, including a regal white church proudly occupying its corner.

We stayed in the heart of the Historic District at the Pilot House, so we could walk everywhere and not have to worry with parking. Our room was in the restored Victorian Otto Mansion, one block off of Duval Street.

You see it all on Duval Street. Here someone has turned a dog into a sophisticated beggar of sorts, asking you to “give the dog a bone.” What can I say? The dog seemed content and looked well fed.

This trip to Key West was a month ago. We drove from Fort Myers, which took us about six hours. Next time we might fly or take one of the four big catamaran boats operated by Sea Key West that operate between Fort Myers Beach and Key West daily. Why not arrive in style in less than four hours, rested, relaxed and ready to have fun.

Just like any other touristy area, things don’t come cheap on Duval Street. Perhaps in Key West money does grow among the palm trees.

This will be linked to Oh the Places I've Been at The Tablescaper & Food on Friday at Carole's Chatter.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Barefoot Contessa’s Mexican Chicken Soup & Our Very Own Homemade Tortilla Strips for Garnish

One of the things I like about recipes from Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) is that you always can count on them to turn out great. This soup is no exception. It’s rich tasting yet not filling, feeds a multitude, is colorful, can be spicy if you choose to include some of the seeds from the jalapenos, and will take care of any cravings you have for Mexican food.

There’s also a bonus recipe in this or what you might call “a recipe within a recipe.” In the first step, Ina cooks the chicken breasts in the oven at 350 degrees F for about 35 to 45 minutes and they come out juicy, tender, and delicious. I use this method almost exclusively now as my go-to recipe when I want roasted chicken breasts. As an example, they are perfect for chicken salads and sliced chicken sandwiches. Plus the recipe is foolproof, easy, and has become a staple in my kitchen.  For that reason I sometimes cook the chicken ahead (since I’m roasting them anyway for another meal) and leave them covered in the refrigerator until I start to prep the ingredients for this soup.

Speaking of tortilla chips, when we were ready to garnish the soup for the photo, I said to my photographer (who also happens to be my husband Meakin), “Take a look at the photo of the soup in Ina’s cookbook. It looks like she made her own chips instead of using store bought ones. I’d love to do that, but I don’t want to add more fat and calories to this recipe by frying tortillas.”

Great cook as he is, he replied, “Give me the corn tortillas you have left in the refrigerator. I’m going to try something. If it turns out good, we’ll share it. If it doesn’t, we won’t. Fair enough?”

Fair enough indeed. It was a huge success, so here’s Meakin’s method of making homemade strips of corn tortillas without frying them to garnish Ina’s Mexican soup.

Homemade Tortilla Chips/Strips 

Using 6” white corn tortillas, cut into ½” strips. On one side spray with a cooking spray such as Pam, sprinkle with kosher salt and smoked sweet paprika (also known as Pimenton) or ground cumin, place on a sheet pan and broil for a minute or two until they start to brown and turn crisp. Remove from the oven, flip the strips over, spray with the cooking spray again and season with more kosher salt and paprika or cumin. Broil the second side until brown and crispy. Remove from the oven, break the strips in half if desired and serve immediately as a garnish for soup.

Mexican Chicken Soup
From the Food Network and “Barefoot Contessa at Home” by Ina Garten

Serves: 6 to 8
Level: Easy

4 bone-in, skin on, chicken breasts
Good olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups chopped onions (2 onions)
1 cup chopped celery (2 stalks)
2 cups chopped carrots (4 carrots)
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 1/2 quarts low sodium, non-fat chicken stock
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes in puree, crushed
2 to 4 jalapeno peppers, seeded if desired and minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves, (optional according to Ina, essential according to me)
6 (6-inch) fresh white corn tortillas, plus more if you are making your own strips for garnish
Garnish: chopped avocado, sour cream (low fat works great), grated sharp Cheddar cheese, chopped fresh cilantro, a slice of lime, and crumbled tortilla chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the chicken breasts skin side up on a sheet pan covered in heavy duty foil for easy clean-up. Rub the chicken with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until done. Check with a instant read thermometer and when it reaches 160 degrees F, it’s done. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, discard the skin and bones and shred the meat. Cover and set aside.

Cooks note: Chicken can be cooked a couple of days in advance. Store covered in the refrigerator, but don’t shred it now. Instead, on the day you plan to serve the soup, bring the chicken to room temperature and shred it then, not as instructed above.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the onions, celery, and carrots and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, or until the onions start to brown. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock, tomatoes with their puree, jalapenos, cumin, coriander, and salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cut the tortillas in 1/2, then cut them crosswise into 1/2-inch strips and add to the soup. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Add the shredded chicken, chopped cilantro and check for seasonings, adding more salt and pepper to taste. Serve the soup hot topped with any or all of the garnishes and crumbled tortilla chips. Or better yet, make your own tortilla strips, recipe above. Leftovers keep nicely covered in the refrigerator for several days.

I am linking this to Stone Gable's On the Menu Monday, so be sure to drop by for a visit.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

This is a day around the world when we give tribute to our mothers. Meet my mother, a school teacher and educator. This picture is from an old yearbook.

She graduated from college in 1932, the height of the Depression. Jobs were hard to come by and many people hardly got by at all, existing on handouts and soup kitchens to keep their families fed. My mother did not exist on handouts or eat in a soup kitchen, but she did live in a boarding house with roommates, most of them other teachers, who would become her lifelong best friends. She taught high school English and was in charge of the school library when she was barely older than her students.

At the beginning of WWII she married my dad and three years later gave birth to me while my father was in the South Pacific, deep in the heat of battle serving his country. My dad didn’t see me until I was eighteen months old and I had one of the worst cases of chicken pox our doctor had ever seen. I often think how hard it must have been on my mother and father to be apart and I have great sympathy and appreciation for all of our military families today.

After my sister and I started to school, she “retired” from teaching and was a stay at home mother and did not return to the classroom until we were in college. She taught seventh grade English until her retirement and ruled the Junior High School as the Head Teacher with high standards and a good heart. Her students loved and respected her because she treated each one fairly, but at the same expected that they do their homework and learn proper English grammer. I can assure you that every student that passed seventh grade English under my mother speaks with good grammar today and knows the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

Happy Mother’s Day everyone.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Chef custom designed a wine dinner just for us at Bistro 41 in Fort Myers, Florida

When my husband Meakin’s birthday rolled around this year, we wanted to do something extra special because it was one of those “milestone” years that calls for a celebration. We tossed a lot of ideas around, but finally decided to throw an intimate little birthday dinner party at one of our favorite restaurants in Florida – Bistro 41.

Bistro 41 is an upscale yet casually elegant bistro-style restaurant located in the Bell Tower Shoppes in Fort Myers, Florida, and was established in 1997. We’ve dined there on numerous occasions and have always had an excellent meal and excellent service. I particularly like the relaxing atmosphere of the dining room and the colorful artwork displayed throughout the room.

We’ve also gotten to know the chef a little. So for this special occasion, we made an appointment with Chef Reiner Drygaka and sat down one afternoon to discuss our ideas for the menu. Chef Reiner is the kind of chef that’s easy to visit with, very easy going, and, best of all, full of great ideas. We explained that this was a very special birthday, there would be four of us, we would like to dine in their small private dining area, and we wanted something a bit out of the ordinary. Meakin added that his brother would be flying down from New York for the occasion and was accustomed to dining in gourmet restaurants and we wanted the chef to impress him. Here’s the wine birthday Surf & Turf dinner Chef Reiner suggested and it was a real success.

To begin the meal, we all toasted the birthday boy with flutes of dry Louis Perdier Brut champagne and dined on a spring salad of baby field greens with fresh mixed berries, topped with Chevre goat cheese and candied pecans, drizzled with a light, slightly tangy  raspberry vinaigrette.

At first I was a bit concerned that the butter poached lobster would be too rich as the main course, but since the chef served the lobsters and tournedos of beef over a creamy herbed risotto and accompanied them with sautéed Swiss chard and Belgium endive finished in a citrus beurre  blanc sauce, it was a perfect balance of flavors and textures. The wine was a McMannis Pinot Noir from California, a rich deep Pinot with a slight hint of fruit and Asian flavors.

One of our desires was to finish the meal with a light dessert and emphasized no birthday cake with candles or anything heavy. Chef Reiner suggested a cheese plate of Maytag blue accompanied with fresh strawberries served with a swirl of chocolate ganache. The St. Supery Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was a luxurious young wine with hints of black berries and Cassis and also happens to be one of the chef’s personal favorite wines.

I always consider a dinner party a success when everyone goes home happy, smiling, and well fed. Here we are thanking Chef Reiner and our server at Bistro 41 for custom designing a wine dinner just for us. Happy birthday Meakin. May you have many, many more.