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Juicing a Watermelon

No easy task. But what do you do when $4 at the farmer’s market gets you a melon the size of an abnormally large infant? Ok, first, try breaking it down. Forget about the seeds–those will come out later. Put chunks in your food processor first and wiz away, then strain into a pitcher.

Dump the pulp into your blender, and repeat until the blender is full, and juice is running in rivulets down your cabinets. Blend, then strain again into the pitcher. Mop up all the juice, take a picture, and wonder if it’s worth it. This was the result of half a watermelon. HALF. The juice is  refreshing, and just a little sweet. Left in the fridge, the juice tends to separate a bit. A quick stir does the trick, but maybe that watermelon essence could become a simple syrup for cocktails or the base for a sorbet? Still, if cooking for one, best to avoid a baby-sized watermelon.

A Proper Stir-Fry

After an unintended summer away, it’s time to get back to business. Specifically: stir fries. I’ve been making a lot of these lately, usually when I want a bunch of vegetables and just a little bit of protein.

Believe it or not, I’ve been making stir fries the wrong way for, well, always. I had previously started the meat in the pan, then dumped in veggies and lots more oil until it felt cooked. The result: dry meat and greasy, overcooked vegetables.

My goal this year is to follow more recipes. Sounds silly, but I tend to wing it in the kitchen, ignoring proven, crowd tested methods that would make my meals so much better (though, true to form, I still make a few substitutions and skip a step here or there). I’ve got a lot to learn.

The best, easiest way to make a stir-fry is to brown off the meat in just a little oil at a fairly high heat, remove it from the pan, reduce the heat a little, add vegetables and saute just a couple minutes, then add just enough broth to cover the bottom of the pan and a splash of soy sauce, return the meat, cover and steam for about 5 minutes. I’ve made three this week with tofu, chicken, corn, squash, peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, and onion. It’s worked every time, in no time at all.

This is what happens when foodies (and bloggers) get together. I love that we can throw together a last minute cookout on a warm summer night and have it turn out amazing. Everyone looked cute, we had a lovely backyard space to grill, and it was a much needed finish to a crazy week. Our potlucks tend to be coordinated, but really with very little effort an anyone’s part–we just sort of declare in a series of short e-mails what we feel like making. Tonight: Chicken under a brick by Liz, a mayo-less potato salad from me, farmer’s market green beans with red onions and almonds from Madoline, and a fresh corn salad with pecans and feta from Amy. Bea’s brownies from Bri for dessert, and most importantly:Whisky Sours with Liz’s homemade sour mix–kind of a concentrated, citrusy simple syrup with a perfect hint of fresh ginger. She develops and styles for Paula Dean Magazine, so naturally these would be served in mason jars. Very easy to get carried away with these. Maybe our group has some extraordinary mojo that makes this happen (I think we’re all just talented cooks), but it shows that you can elevate any typical cookout to something cater-worthy in no time. Any excuse to sip whiskey at sunset with friends works for me.

First Meal

It’s not much, but it’s amazing how much a simple meal can represent. This is the first dinner I prepared for myself in my new apartment, my first foray into life without a roommate, a whole fridge to myself, a reoccurring kitchen mess that I don’t feel guilty about, all the counter space I could need (though I’ll always want more). It’s mine, all mine (mwah ha ha).

Here, just a simple steak with a new potato salad I’m inventing. Farmer’s market potatoes and corn, red onion and parsley, feta, and a lemon olive oil vinaigrette with lots of cracked pepper and a splash of white wine. A trick: toss the potatoes in the freezer for a few minutes after they’ve drained–it cools things down and keeps everything fresh as you chop the other ingredients.

It tasted good…satisfying. The first of many, many meals to come.

In an unassuming store front in a strip mall, right behind a Texaco, amazing things happen. This seems to be a trademark of the Anniston/Guntersville area: don’t make a big deal, just do things really well. Maybe I this could be applied to other cool areas outside of Birmingham, like Pie Lab and Jeanie’s. Instead of boasting about being the big thing coming out of a small town, you just do what you do. The inside was clean, sleek, and warm. An open kitchen with a huge copper hood, lots of light wood and open space. The menu features fresh, bright dishes that are thoughtful without being fussy. I get excited by simple menus–it means the chef values the ingredients he’s working with and that they’re of awesome quality. We all went with seafood. Grilled oysters (my new fav after trying them in San Francisco with Karen) take on so much smoky flavor in a matter of minutes, still earthy and briny with a choice of garlic butter and house-made cocktail sauce. Sea bass with a pomegranate reduction and grapefruit segments on a bed of greens. I don’t know if many people get what it means to eat perfectly cooked fish. A seared crust on the outside, flaky, moist, and just opaque enough on the inside. Not easy to achieve at home, not easy to achieve in a busy kitchen (hence breadings and thick sauces to cover it up). Seared scallops with carrot and celery root purees. Dinner plate-sized scallops are a rarity to me, and here, again, perfectly cooked. Definitely the most popular dish at the restaurant judging from the other tables (I mean, look at the presentation!). The purees had a silky texture without being too creamy–something that would have coated the tongue and masked all that scallop flavor. Halibut en Papillote. I think this was an ordering goof on my part. I remembered the snapper I made ages ago at school, and loved the idea of a light ginger steam, a really moist fish. The ginger flavor was a bit too subtle (rosemary steals the thunder of just about anything), and the veg underneath kind of shrank away into a spoonful of paper thin strips. Plus, I love fish as much as anyone, but this serving was about the size of my arm. Still, the quality was great. A basil sorbet with strawberries and balsamic syrup, and we rolled away happy.

Jeanie’s

About an hour and a half north of Birmingham, where Albertville meets Oneonta, far down a winding road without a name, is a little organic grocery store called Cardinal Rose. It’s been there for 6 years, and Jeanie has evolved it so much since then. This has to be the biggest selection of gluten=free products in Alabama. All kinds of breads, flours, and mixes… GF rolls imported from Italy, GF pretzels from Germany, and in the freezer case:Scratch made organic meals Jeanie makes and freezes, cheese from her goats out back, rice milk ice creams for us lactose intolerant folks. She serves lunch daily from a counter-sized kitchen next to the register (I didn’t even see it at first).For the store’s sixth anniversary, Jeanie served basil lemonade, garlicky roasted vegetables, black bean spread and red pepper hummus on homemade bread, sweet brown bread with apple butter cream cheese…amazing. My mom’s boyfriend Tom has known Jeanie forever–he’s an Albertville native who used to work on her farm. A lot of friends came for the party, but so many were just shopping, most loading up on gluten free bagels (if you’re allergic and it’s the one thing you crave, you’ll drive hours to find them). I love the country store feel: it was conscious without being pretentious, wholesome without being too cute or crunchy. I loved it. Behind the store and Jeanie’s home are the goats, the chickens, the donkey, and the dogs who watch over them. I’m sure the goats are not so cute when they have to be milked at 4:30 in the morning and they baah at everything, but… I can’t help it. The dogs were so chill, laying on the grass while the kids grazed, nudging one up the hill when it got separated from the others. Maybe that’s the southern version of herding: all in your own time, while still finding ways to beat the heat.

Two days, two birthday potlucks, two tomato tarts. No recipe here, just a refrigerated pie crust filled with things I like. Can’t wait to make this again with in season tomatoes, and a scratch made crust after I get a few baking classes under my belt. Roll out a pie crust on a baking sheet to about 14-inches, until dough is pretty thin. I stupidly did this one on the cutting board, was almost impossible to transfer once it was done. Sprinkle with goat cheese (I used 1/2 a 3 ounce log from Publix), caramelized onions, and basil. Top with tomatoes and the rest of the goat cheese and crimp the edges. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes and top with a little more fresh basil. Once cool, cut into wedges or squares. change the filling as much as you like–the cook time just warms the toppings through and browns the crust. Definitely a crowd pleaser.