August 30, 2010

All Dressed Up, Many Places to Go

Herb and Shallot Vinaigrette

Just as the right accessory can add panache your outfit, the right salad dressing can do the same for a salad, or even an entire meal. Just as with shoes or jewelry, salad dressing is an opportunity to show your flare, to infuse a meal with your personal sense of style.

I haven't purchased salad dressing in years. A custom designed-to-the-meal salad dressing can be whipped up in a matter of seconds, even faster than it takes to get through the checkout line at the grocery. When I make my own, I know the ingredients it contains... no multi-syllabic chemical preservatives, extenders or thickeners. And at pennies to the dollar, the homemade version leaves more discretionary capitol for other things I really care about. Like nice wine.
Roasted Chicken and Spring Vegetable Salad with Homemade Buttermilk Dressing

I can almost bet that you already have what it takes to get started creating your own salad dressings. Do you have a jar? Any old empty jam jar or salad dressing bottle will do. That and a few basic pantry items, and you are set to go. But just as in the fashion world, there are a few simple rules of thumb in regard to making salad dressing.
In general, begin with this proportion:
  • One part acid to three parts oil. If you are working to reduce fat in your diet, you can move toward equalizing the percentages here. Be warned: You will end up with a twangy, puckery dressing. My preference is to keep to the original proportions and just use it in moderation.
Even with these two foundational components, the sky's the limit. Imagine all the varieties of liquid acids:
  • Vinegar- there are zillions of kinds (balsamic, sherry, cider, rice wine, pomegranate, fruit flavored, white wine and red wine, etc.)
  • Lemon juice
  • Orange juice
  • Lime juice
  • Verjus
  • Buttermilk (you may think of this as creamy, and it is, but with a fairly high level of acidity)
As an aside, when My Baby and I combined households our "blended pantry" contained 17 various vinegars. I'm happy to report that we've edited our vinegar wardrobe down to a mere 14 kinds.

Now imagine all the kinds of oils:
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Nut and seed oils (walnut, flax, hazelnut, peanut, sesame, etc.)
  • Clarified butter (don't snicker... it can be delicious on the right salad)
Go ahead and eyeball it in your jar. Do you have about 1/4 part acid to 3/4 parts oil? No measuring is necessary... you'll easily be able to tell by looking. Leave enough room for a good, vigorous shake, and simplify cleanup by eliminating a mixing bowl and whisk. With those building blocks in place, now you get to be an artist. As you think about the rest of your meal, add as many or as few of these other ingredients as inspiration calls for:

An emulsifier is nice to create a homogenous blend, add a lush mouthfeel and to add flavor:
  • Mustard (grainy, dijon, honey mustard, yellow, brown, etc.), a teaspoonful per jar
  • Egg (read this for current food safety information regarding raw egg)
  • Cheeses, ground or grated
  • Nut butters (peanut, almond, etc.), a well-stirred spoonful... stir first or it will take forever to combine with the oil and vinegar
Other herbs and flavorings round things out and add zip and personality. Add up to a tablespoon of any of these, alone or in combination:
  • Any fresh herb, chopped finely
  • Any dried herb or spice, crushed or ground
  • Shallot, finely minced
  • Garlic, pressed or minced
  • Soy sauce, a teaspoon or less
  • Anchovies, chopped fine or large
  • Worcestershire sauce, a few drops
  • Finely minced or crushed fruit (cherries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.)
  • Citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, etc.)
Perhaps a little sweetening may be called for. This can sometimes be the difficult to define but magic secret balancing ingredient. Depending on your aim, between 1/2 - 2 teaspoonfuls may be nice:
  • Sugar
  • Honey
  • Agave syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Barley malt syrup
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Apple or white grape juice concentrate
Because vegetables tend to need a little zip to maximize their potential, I never, almost ever, make a salad dressing without a good dose of these two things:
  • Salt (kosher or sea), a healthy heaping teaspoonful or so to 10 oz. of dressing, depending on saltiness of other ingredients
  • Freshly ground pepper (black or mixed peppercorns)
Homemade Caesar Salad with Romaine Lettuce from our Garden
Another couple of exciting flashes: Most terrific salad dressings also make terrific marinades for meat or grilled or roasted vegetables. You'll find them to be versatile sauces as well. And just like you, salads warm or cold, with an added protein component or not, all come alive and exhibit great verve when properly dressed.

True to our Name, We at Sticks Forks Fingers Serve Caesar Salad in its Whole Leaves and Eat it with Our Fingers!

August 26, 2010

Love Nest Cooking

Love Nest Fresh Tomato-Basil Pasta

Part of the week I live in a little home-away-from-home studio apartment while I work out of town. I'm blessed to have some flexibility in my beloved non-profit day-job, reporting to my office part of the week and working from home the remainder. When My Baby and I met we lived 96 miles apart and he had a dream house in the country, so that decision was easy. My office is now 96 miles away from my current home.

Gentle Reader, if you become squeamish at at too much explicit romance, please skip the next sentence. We call our cute little studio our "Love Nest", as we also use it as a stop-off point on weekend excursions, or if we are missing each other terribly, My Baby will come down for a mid-week rendezvous.
As cute as it is, the Love Nest kitchen is little and functionally but not fully equipped. I can count on sushi night with friends once a week or so, but being of the sort that requires feeding about every 6 waking hours, creative meal planning is a necessity with one bitty cupboard, a two burner stove, a bar sink and a fridge that only gets visited three days a week.
This little pasta dish is a summertime tomato-season favorite of mine, and is particularly handy in the Love Nest as it requires no special equipment beyond a burner and a pot. With this dish I can eat a mouth-watering, well-balanced, quick and easy meal in the time it takes to boil pasta.

Over the years, I've found ways to change this one up with some additions here and there, which are noted for your dining pleasure.

Love Nest Fresh Tomato-Basil Pasta

8 oz. of your favorite pasta (Any shape you love will do, but I am fond of good old spaghetti)
4-6 ripe tomatoes, depending on size (Don't even think of this if you have crunchy, pink grocery store tomatoes. They will not offer up enough tangy juice.)
A lot of fresh basil (I know, I'm likely to never write a cookbook with directions like this. This is where you must trust yourself. You really can't use too much basil in this application. 1/3 cup? 1/2 cup? Go for it.)
3-5 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and roughly chopped or pressed
4 oz. bocconcini (small fresh mozzarella balls) or tear bigger balls into bite-sized pieces
A hefty pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2+ cup good olive oil

Put your salted pasta water on to boil. While it is heating, break the tomatoes apart with your hands over a large mixing/serving bowl. Let the juices and seeds collect in the bowl, and tear the flesh into generous bite-sized pieces.

With your hands, tear the basil into bits and toss into the bowl. Throw in the garlic, fresh mozzarella, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Pour the golden olive oil on top. It is my strong contention that anything made with the hand is magically better, so while your hands are already juicy, go ahead and sink them into the mix and give it a good toss.

Once the pasta is cooked al dente, or to you personal liking, drain it and toss the hot pasta into the tomato mixture. The warm pasta will soften the mozzarella balls and lightly wilt the basil. Serve with dispatch, though the left-overs are just fine the next day as well.

Additional add-ins:
Handfuls of fresh spinach
Chopped anchovies
Fresh oregano
Roasted chicken bites
Grated Parmesan
Drizzles of your favorite vinegar (balsamic and white wine are especially good)

August 23, 2010

Rest, Reflect, Re-energize and Chardonnay

Amalie Robert 2007 Willamette Valley Chardonnay

Chardonnay is a maligned wine grape varietal. Its downside, that it can be grown just about anywhere and tastes just like where it was grown, can be its upside: It can be grown almost anywhere and tastes just like where it was grown. These are the things My Baby and I discuss when we have a few moments to ourselves and are sitting, sipping, enjoying our idyll and each other.

You've heard all about our recent excitement, and yesterday the last of our long-distance guests departed. We had anticipated and prepared for this happy event for months and months. We had scrubbed and fluffed, weeded and mowed, and taken care of some overdue projects. We had planned menus, shopped, prepped and cooked. By being prepared we were able to make ourselves as available to family and friends as much as possible, to soak up each magic moment as it happened. People were coming from far away for this special event, and we wanted each one of them to feel welcome. They came, we had a wonderful time, then, just like that, they left.

And then, it happened.

Crash. As we hugged the last family members goodbye, a little emotional let-down snuck in. We were happy to "be back to normal" (just a setting on the dryer, if you ask me) and to reclaim our space and routine, but we tearily already missed our loved ones that we don't get to see often enough. So, My Baby and I nested in together with a bottle of special wine and a cheese platter under late summer Oregon skies to reflect on the past few weeks and to anticipate what is immediately ahead.
We've discussed the Amalie Robert Chardonnay on these pages before and loved the 2006 vintage. The 2007 has some similar characteristics, but definitely is its own. "Beautiful," we both kept saying to one another as we sipped. Ernie Pink, co-owner and winemaker at Amalie Robert has a way of coaxing a little olive note from his Chardonnays, and the 2007 has notes of briny green olive, warm buttered yeast buns, butternut squash and a lovely floral touch of earthy dandelion flowers. It has somehow become vogue to turn up the nose at Chardonnay, but I certainly don't know why when one as winsome and palate-provoking as this is available.

Dena Drews and Ernie Pink at Amalie Robert released their 2009 Chardonnay this past weekend, and with all of our goings-on we weren't able to visit their winery for a taste, but we will soon as their Chard has a very welcome place on our table.

That anticipating what's ahead part of our discussion?? My Baby and I are getting married in 48 days. 48 days!!! And the excitement builds all over again.

August 17, 2010

Weddings and Expansion

Domaine Meriwether Champaigne from Oregon's Willamette Valley, for a Honeymoon Send-Off Toast

This past weekend I was expanded, in the familial way. My Baby's oldest son was married to a most wonderful and vibrant young woman. The wedding was one you'd find in a magazine... The location was charming, the bride was an angelic vision, the bridesmaids and flower girls were fresh and pretty. The flowers were local and colorful, the ceremony sweet and touching. The food was delicious, the music was just right, the cake was divine. The toasts were eloquent and heartfelt, and the dancing was fun. It was a destination wedding for most of the people in attendance, including the bride and groom, but not for us. Mark and Michelle are living in Florida and wanted to be married here in Oregon where they met, where he grew up, and where nature provides beautiful backdrop. We enjoyed the company of an array of family and old and new friends. GranEbba's Shoes and Hat

The three-day party started on Friday night with a rehearsal night dinner at the home of the groom's mom. It was a great time of coming together and getting to know one another.

A Refreshing Cocktail Hour

This marriage not only expands our family in size, but in other ways, too. The Thesaurus declares that expansion can also mean to intensify, magnify, amplify and to add detail. Our new Michelle is Cuban-American and from a close-knit family. Adding a new cultural dimension to our already diverse family composition offers us a beautiful, new, exciting and welcome facet.

My Baby and I had the joy of hosting a post-wedding brunch on Sunday. Here's the menu:

A chard and proscuitto quiche; a scallop-artichoke quiche; a black-bean and mexican vegatable ricotta cheesecake.

Mango chicken sausage and garlic-herb chicken sausage, with grainy mustard.

A fresh fruit platter and a bowl of peeled clementines.

A potato-tomato gratin scented with thyme.

A cinnamon-walnut cake and a blueberry-vanilla bean cake.

It's a little challenging to take photos while entertaining 30 people, so these may not do it justice. I missed taking a photo of our huge pineapple punchbowl I lugged home from Mexico as a retirement gift for My Baby soon after we first met. We filled it with pineapple-orange juice for this event. I think it added a charming welcome.

The coffee we served was a blend of Cuban coffee and some from our local roaster. Just like our family... a terrific, interesting blend!

August 13, 2010

Fresh Fig and Duck Sausage Pizza

Fresh Fig and Duck Sausage Pizza

Don't you just love it when you get such an intense idea for a kitchen creation that you can almost taste the flavors coming together? The genesis of this dish began with the huge anticipation of our precious figs ripening and how I might use them. Some of my best food ideas happen in the middle of the night, and I lied in bed through many hours of darkness putting these flavors together. As I mentally tweaked and adjusted and made additions and subtractions to the ingredient list, this I knew for certain: Pinot Noir and duck sausage would be a match made in heaven.
Pinot Noir, Figs and Shallots

I am happy to report that the birds honored the agreement we made over the figs. Last year we were gone from home a few days just as they were ripening, and the birds feasted until there was not one single fig remaining upon our return. This year I completely gave up the bird battle over blueberries, leaving every single berry to the birds in exchange for the figs. And figs came ready as they do... 467 all within a three-day window, and for the most part untouched by the birds, as I had politely asked. Use them. NOW.

Brandborg Vineyard and Winery 2006 Love Puppets Pinot Noir

The wine we chose to highlight this knock-your-socks-off pizza is a fairly knock-your-socks-off Pinot Noir. From Elkton in the Umpqua Valley, Brandborg Vineyard and Winery's 2006 Love Puppets Pinot Noir is lush and spicy, with earthy notes of dried shitake mushroom. Brandborg's dry-farming method creates a very low yield of fruit, giving this wine a lot of nice structure. Its fruit notes are that of deep dark cherry, and we all know how amazing cherry and duck are together. At $30 a bottle I wouldn't serve it with just any old pizza, but with this duck pizza it was an out-of-the-park hit.

The duck sausage came from our friend and terrific cook, Larry, who served it to us first in an wonderful cassoulet. He had extra that he shared with us. Thanks again, Larry!

We used our favorite homemade pizza crust, and used no sauce at all. On top of the pizza dough, I sprinkled about 5 oz. of shredded Panquehue cheese. Panquehue is a semi-soft creamy cow's milk cheese from Chile, and was the perfect light and mild based for the rest of the toppings. The rest of the ingredients were:
  • A couple of shallots sliced about 1/4" thick
  • 5 or 6 fresh figs sliced about 1/4" thick
  • Two well-browned duck sausages, sliced on the bias
475 degrees and twelve minutes later we were in food heaven.

Lesson learned: When I make this pizza again (and soon, I hope) I will double the amount of shallot. It provided another high-end earthy note along with the sausage which connected to the wine so beautifully. And I wouldn't hesitate to lightly dress micro-greens with a few drops of sherry vinegar and good olive oil to pile atop each piece. This idea came as I sank my teeth into the first bite, and , imagine, I just happened to be plum out of micro-greens. Next time I'll plan ahead for that component.

We're moving on to other fig ideas, so stay tuned!

August 11, 2010

Waffles and Memories

The son of a grocer and trained in the art of butchery, my Grandpa was a terrific cook. My Grandma was a great cook too, and together they seemed happiest when they were efficiently executing a meal for our family, his part usually being the meat component of the meal. Amazingly good food came from their kitchen, but one favorite memory is of Grandpa's waffles.
Occasionally we were invited to Grandpa and Grandma's for Sunday night supper. This was different than Sunday dinner, which was an elaborate meal served mid-day. Sunday supper was a relaxed and casual evening meal, and was often a pot of one of Grandpa's interesting soups from which he'd pull a cheesecloth wrapped bouquet garni before ladling into bowls. This fascinated me, how he magically infused the broth with intriguing combinations of flavors, and I learned by watching. But my favorite Sunday supper was his waffles.

Plain waffles, streaked through with fluffy bits of egg white, lightly glistening with maple syrup. Nothing fancy. Grandpa knew that after separating the eggs and whipping the whites, the lightest touch in folding the whites into the batter would make for the most tender, crispy waffle. If any error was to be made, it would be in undermixing the batter, leaving a few pure white streaks remaining; a much more preferable outcome than a tough, chewy waffle. I learned by watching him, too.
Pancakes are okay by me, but I'm crazy about waffles, when given the choice. I still use the fluffy egg white method of my Granddad, and still use my old Better Homes and Gardens cookbook recipe from the splattered and stained page. I've made notes over the years, adjusting the quantities greater when there were three kids at home, and now lesser for two of us. I like how my own personal history lays over the top of something special my Grandpa didn't even know he was giving me.

Here's our latest waffle iteration. The batter is sprinkled with pecans and blueberries before baking and is topped with an Oregon triple berry sauce and a dollop of tangy Greek yogurt. Pretty terrific.

Grandpa's Waffles

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 beaten egg yolks
1 3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup canola oil
2 stiffly beaten egg whites

Sift together dry ingredients.

Combine yolks, milk and oil; stir into dry ingredients.

Fold in whites, leaving a few fluffs. Bake in waffle iron until brown and crispy.

Triple Oregon Berry Sauce
1 cup blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons corn starch, mixed in 1/4 cup cold water

I cup raspberries
1 cup strawberries, quartered

Place the blueberries, water and sugar in medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until blueberries are soft and are beginning to give up their shape. Stir in cornstarch mixture and heat until beginning to bubble and thicken, about two minutes.

Stir in remaining berries and heat for one more minute. Serve over waffles, pancakes, ice cream, etc.

I hum very quietly when I cook, and it was recently pointed out to me that my Grandpa did too.

August 9, 2010

Wine and Girlfriends

Here's the scene: Ring; ring. (Actually, marimba music, but let's go retro for a minute.)

"Hey, You."

"Hi. Are you busy?"

The direct-and-to-the-point, are you busy, means only one thing.

"Are you coming over?"

"Yeah. I need a girl chat."

"Sure. When?"

"Uuhhh, I'm on my way now."

"See you soon. Drive safely."

Dear reader, what you need to know is that I live in the middle of Oregon countryside nowhere. It's "a far piece" out to our place. This is not somewhere you drop by on your way to somewhere else. These are not accidental visits. They are necessary.

An hour of chatting and a glass of wine under the old and special apple tree (how many of these important conversations has this tree heard by now?, I wonder) turns into several. Chores get easily put on hold. In this life, there are just more important things.

Like men. And breakups. And hair. And health concerns. And hair. And crazy work stuff. And missing certain special people. And what great wines we've had lately, and what we've had for dinner last week that was so yummy. And the things we want and the things we need; goals, hopes and dreams. And hair. And did I mention? Men. Mars. Venus.
Girl talk like this is easily aided by a bottle of French Rosé. This particular Rosé, La Ferme Julien 2008, a blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah, is bright watermelon pink in color. It is a very inexpensive wine that is readily available at Trader Joe's. Hey, we aren't celebrating here, we're getting down to brass tacks, so fancy is not necessary. Its looks betray its taste: This is a very dry wine with tart but muted cranberry fruit. At one point I thought it carried a bit of minerally salinity, but that may have been our shared tears I was tasting.

Allow me say that I am terrifically blessed in this life with my female relationships. From my Mom who lives across the country to my neighbor down the way, my life is graced by women of all ages who possess diverse points of view, and I treasure them all. This particular visiting friend is so close and so dear, she is sometimes like a sister or mother and even sometimes like a daughter to me. Over the years we have shared so much of life, and she has taught me so many things. We always seem to be able to lift one another up, and to make each other laugh until we are snorting and our sides ache. I think we bring out the best in one another.

There is someone else really important in this story, too, and that's My Baby. Not long after we first met, I informed him that there were just always going to be things I was going to need my female friends for, things that he just wouldn't be able to provide. Never before have I seen such a look of relief in the eyes of a man. He already knew, and was glad that I knew, too, that he could a most important person in my life, but he couldn't be everything I would always need all at once. He is gracious and giving, supportive and loving to each of my girlfriends and my relationships with them. He and I share the view that life is too short to not be a good friend and have good friends.

Fast-forward a week: Ring; ring.

"Hey! How's your week going?"

"Terrific! And you?"

"Awesome. I've had the best news..."

Where would I be without my girlfriends?

August 5, 2010

Come to My Garden

Having guests out to our property is such a delight. Our place isn't fancy, but has some kind of magic which always seems to restore people whether they come for an afternoon or for a week. Countenances and shoulders just leave here visibly lifted. I could pretend that it's our charms that delight people right out of their stresses, but I know better. It's the place.

So will you join me for a glass of beautiful wine and a short visit? Maybe our Oregon countryside will offer you a little lift, too.
This wine? We picked it up at Anne Amie Vineyards on a recent trip to the Yamhill-Carlton District, one of the sub-appellations of the Willamette Valley AVA. The Anne Amie 2009 Cuvee A Amrita is a blended white that is bright, spicy and clean. Anne Amie's Amrita is so appropriate for today, as the word in sanskrit means nectar of life, ambrosia, or drink of the gods. I think you'll enjoy it as we walk the grounds.

Let's peek at the flowers first.
Long-legged orange day lilies are everywhere this year! They line the beds out front, and are sprinkled throughout the garden off our private deck. I love seeing them reach to greet the day when I first open my eyes in the morning.

It's hard to resist a man who loves calla lilies. My Baby ordered and planted dozens of white, mango, yellow and black callas last year, and a few are just beginning to bloom. The dramatic black ones are my favorite, but the mango blooms will be pretty to see again too.

The sweet young woman who married my son and whom I think of as my own planted these gorgeous pots. She has quite the eye, yes? And a very green thumb. The purple centered, chartreuse rimmed coleus in the upper left and lower right corners? Those are called "Wedding Train." I just couldn't resist those at the nursery, as there are two Oregon weddings in the family this year. August 14 is the special day for My Baby's son and his sweetheart. It's coming right up and we are delighted.
These volunteer onions growing right in a walkway bloomed before we even knew they were there. The lavender tennis ball flowers on long stalks make me smile, so they'll stay a while.

Before we stroll the orchard, would you like another glass of this refreshing wine?

The two fig trees are weighed down with enourmous fruits, and I'm determined to harvest them before the birds this year. We have a sharing policy with the fauna. I've relented each and every blueberry on 10 bushes in a deal I've made with the birds this year. This year the blueberries are theirs; the figs are mine. I've got plans for those figs.

One apple tree is burgeoning, while the one we heavily pruned has produced this lone lovely fruit. Since this is my favorite flavored apple, I think we'll savor it in a quiet little ceremony with a little brie in October. If it knows how much we love it's fruit, next year it's sure to give us a bushel. We can try, anyway.
Our Adam and Eve scarecrows just don't seem to keep the birds from eating the blueberries. I wonder why?

Yellow-fleshed plums here, and another plum tree has smaller red-fleshed fruits.

The nursery tagged these Oregon treats as Marionberries, but we call these five bushes Sara-Bearies. One daughter adores them and thinks the entire 3-acre pasture should be planted in them. There will be some special Sara-Beary jam for her when she visits next month.

This little bird fell from a tree, and has survived for several weeks hopping and running, and apparently eating the Sara-Bearies. He looks healthy, but can't fly. We've grown attached.

By day, a bird- and -bee bath... night, our outdoor fireplace. Did you bring some marshmallows?

Baby Pinot Noir vines. These are experimental, but I have high hopes.

Ever-bearing strawberries line most of the vegetable and flower garden. Murray, our Golden Retriever, seems to find the ripe ones before we do, but occasionally some make it into the breakfast cereal.

Even if it wasn't edible, I'd still grow the gorgeous purple cabbage as a huge flower.

We planted so much kale this year we can't possibly eat it all fresh. Soon, we'll blanch it, chop it, and put it in freezer bags for soups and stews this winter. You're sure to hear more about in in the fall.
The Straight Eight cucumber is slow to get started, but like zucchini (no, we don't grow any), it will soon take over.

It's time to plant a second row of golden carrots next to the first for a staggered harvest.

The rest of the salad greens have just about seen their day, but the Romaine is still going strong.
One of several varieties of peppers.

My Baby indulged me by planting 14 tomato vines this year. What we can't eat fresh will get roasted, pureed or dried for the long-term. Nothing delights me more than to use one of our tomatoes in January.

To raise corn on this property, one must possess a sense of humor and a lot of faith. Knee high by the Fourth of July? I don't think so. It's more likely that our first harvest will be in September.

I often feel like her... Blessed, graced and humbled to be a part of this special place.Thank you so much for stopping by today to our little Oregon countryside refuge. Now, where would you like to sit for lunch?

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