Category Archives: Food

A Birthday Weekend with Shannon, in which We Had Fish Tacos and the First Grilled Bread of the Season

Shannon on the patio at the little house in the big woods
Shannon, the birthday girl, on the patio at the little house in the big woods

Last weekend was what might called a very Shannon weekend. Her birthday is April 22—Earth Day—and as is the tradition in our family, we had a little party where we cooked what the birthday girl wanted. In this case, fish tacos, which Clif and I had never made.

Awhile back, I went to Mary Jane’s house for lunch, and she served fish tacos that were utterly delectable. I wrote about it for this blog, and Shannon read the post.

“Fish tacos!” she told me. “I love fish tacos.”

“Would you like them for your birthday?” I asked. “I bet Mary Jane would give me the recipe.”

Shannon said yes to the tacos, and Mary Jane did indeed agree to give me the recipe. Or rather talk me through it.

“I used tilapia,” she said. “But catfish would be fine, too.” Good. Unlike most fish, both tilapia and catfish are sustainable fish that we don’t have to feel guilty about eating. “All you do is cut the fish in strips, dip the strips in beaten eggs, roll them in crushed cornflakes, and pan fry them. You’ll have to do it in batches and keep the fish warm in the oven on a low heat.”

Not too hard. But what about the delicious chipotle mayonnaise Mary Jane served with the tacos? “Buy a can of chipotle chilis in adobo sauce. Cut up a few of the chilis, removing most of the seeds. Add them to some mayonnaise along with a little of the adobo sauce.”

Easy enough.

“Cole slaw is also good with the tacos,” Mary Jane added. “And so is salsa verde. And sliced limes.”

With these directions I felt more than confidant that Clif and I could make good fish tacos for Shannon’s birthday. As Mike doesn’t care for fish, we would make chicken strips as well, using egg and cornflakes and pan frying them the same way we would for the fish.

I am someone who likes to plan and have things ready ahead of time—last minute rushing leaves me flustered and prone to making mistakes. The fish tacos were not difficult to make, but there was a certain amount of prep work that needed to be done: cutting the fish and chicken, crushing the corn flakes, slicing the limes, and and making the chipotle mayonnaise.

Fortunately, Clif and I work well together in the kitchen, and we had everything ready before Shannon, Mike, and the dogs—Holly and Samara—arrived for the afternoon.  The day was nice enough so that we could have appetizers on the patio. It was so fine that we could have the first grilled bread of the season, and Clif grilled the dough to perfection. (As I’ve written many times, Clif’s grilled bread is legendary among family and friends.)

IMG_8311

After appetizers, it was time for fish tacos. Mike and Shannon sat in the dining room where they could still talk to us. Clif used the big electric frying pan for the chicken, and I used the cast iron for the fish. Everything went just the way it should, and how gratifying it is when that happens. I also cooked some rice to go with the tacos.

A plate of pan-fried tilapia
A plate of pan-fried tilapia

Both the fish and the chicken were pretty darned good, as Clif put it, and we all agreed that this was a make-again meal. In fact, you might even say that Mary Jane started a tradition for us.

Thank you Mary Jane, and happy birthday Shannon!

A fish taco, ready to be eaten
A fish taco, ready to be eaten

 

 

 

A Gray Spring Day: Perfect for a Tomato Soup with Farmer Kev’s Vegetables

IMG_8281Today is a gray day, but I am not sorry for the misty weather because truth be told, I am a little achy from the sudden burst of outdoor activity. Over the past few days I have been sweeping, removing leaves from flower beds, picking up sticks from the backyard, and hauling outside furniture up from the cellar.

Even though I regularly ride the exercise bike and take the dog for a walk almost every day, my body was, ahem, unprepared for all the outside work. So a day of rest is a good thing. When the next nice day comes, I’ll be ready for more outside work, which I really do enjoy. It’s funny how working in the garden is so much more satisfying than, say, dusting or vacuuming. I suppose it’s because I’m outside, with the sun on my face and the birds fluttering and singing in the trees overhead.

On this cool day, homemade tomato soup is on the menu for supper tonight. I made the soup on Monday, and we’ll be eating the last of it this evening. In fact, we’ve pretty much been eating it all week, but it’s such a good soup that Clif and I haven’t minded the repetition one bit.

Basically, as is the case with so many of my soups, this tomato soup is a variation on a theme, and I’ve made many a minestrone following this template: tomatoes, water, onion, garlic, vegetables, chicken sausage, chickpeas or white beans, spices, and some kind of pasta added to the bottom of each bowl before the soup is ladled on top. (Pasta added directly to the soup tends to swell and swell until it becomes truly alarming.)

However, this time when making the soup, I did something a little different. In my pantry, I had a can of crushed tomatoes with basil—Muir Glenn, a little more expensive but worth it. I also had a can of Muir Glenn diced tomatoes. I often buy fresh basil for my minestrone soup, and I thought, why not try the crushed tomatoes with basil? Somehow, I had never done this before. I’d always just used diced tomatoes.

After tasting the finished soup, I wondered why in the world I hadn’t used the crushed tomatoes sooner. This definitely comes under the category of an old dog learning a new trick. Not only did the basil give the soup a lovely taste, but the crushed tomatoes also gave it a smooth, rich texture. (The diced tomatoes are important, too. They add a satisfying chunk to the soup.)

For vegetables, I used Farmer Kev’s frozen string beans and yellow squash, perfect for this kind of soup and for many other kinds, too. I had two cups of chickpeas in the freezer, so out those came to thaw and go into the soup.

This type of soup is perfect for the slow cooker. Basically, just chop, add, and stir everything in. Bring the ingredients to a simmer, and let them bubble until the flavors have mingled.

Biscuits are always a nice addition to soup. They are quick and easy to put together, and I plan on making some tonight, using a recipe of my mother’s. (Oh, she was quite the biscuit maker.)

As we Mainers might say, biscuits and soup on a cool, rainy spring night make the finest kind of meal.

 

Smooth and Chunky Tomato Soup

(Note: This makes a lot of soup—10 or 12 generous servings. My large slow cooker was filled to the brim. To make a smaller batch, use small cans of tomatoes and cut back accordingly on the other ingredients.)

1 (28) ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 (28) ounce can of crushed tomatoes with basil
42 ounces of water. (I used the empty cans—1 1/2 cans of water.)
4 cloves of minced garlic
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup of summer squash, chopped
1 cup of string beans, chopped
1 (12) ounce package of chicken sausage, cut in rounds and then cut in half
2 cups of chickpeas (White beans would work well, too.)
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or more, to taste)
Salt, to taste

Put all the ingredients into your slow cooker, and let ‘er simmer until your house is fragrant with the smell of tomatoes and spices. On high, the soup will take about four hours. On low, seven or eight hours. Cook some pasta, if you like, to go in the bottom of each bowl and then ladle some soup over the pasta.

 

 

Alice’s Magic Trick: How to Make Delicious String Beans from Frozen Ones

Magic beans
Magic beans

I have a confession to make: I am not a fan of frozen string beans. Oh, how slimy they are and how I hate their texture. I would take a can of string beans any day over frozen ones, with fresh, of course, being the best.

However, this year in Farmer Kev’s winter CSA I got packets of frozen string beans. Lots of packets. (I completely understand why Farmer Kev would prefer to freeze the beans rather than can them. I would make the same decision if I were in his situation.) I’ve been using the string beans, diced small, in various soups, and this hides their slimy nature. In fact, the frozen beans are very good in soup.

Then not long ago, when my friend Alice was visiting, she told me what she had done with part of a packet of frozen string beans I had given her. “I stir fried them with garlic and oil until the beans were blistered and well cooked. They were delicious.”

Alice is a good cook, and I trust her judgement. Despite my aversion to frozen beans, I resolved to try her method. Not long after her visit,  I whipped out my trusty cast-iron frying pan, added some oil, heated it, then added some thawed beans. I let them sizzle for quite a while, say, five minutes or so, until they were nicely blistered and more than a little brown. I added the garlic during the last minute—I didn’t want the garlic to be as brown as the string beans.

And the results? Readers, the beans were utterly delicious. The slimy texture was gone, gone, gone to be replaced by a crisp, garlicky one. The beans were so good that I gobbled them up before I ate my potato and chicken, and I wished I had more when the beans were gone.

I see other possibilities for these stir-fried string beans. They are terrific with just the garlic, but soy sauce and sesame oil could also be added. The beans are great as a side, but cut a little smaller, and they would also be delicious in stir-fried rice, one of Clif’s favorite dishes and a staple in our house.

How nice for this old cook to learn a new trick, to take a vegetable I was not excited about and to turn it into something that I eagerly eat.

Many thanks, Alice!

 

 

North African Ragout

IMG_7713Thanks to Farmer Kev and his winter CSA program, I have lots and lots of summer squash and zucchini in packets piled so high there is barely room for anything else in the freezer.

Accordingly, I’ve been making batches of minestrone soup, which not only uses the zucchini and squash but also frozen beans, another item from the CSA.

Minestrone soup is good. We love it, but we also love some variety, and in the nick of time, Farmer Kev sent a recipe for an Italian ragout that used squash and zucchini, along with frozen peppers, yet again another item from the CSA. The recipe involved roasting the vegetables with garlic, blending them, adding tomatoes and spices, and cooking it some more until you have a tasty ragout to serve over rice, pasta, couscous, or whatever.

As much as I love Italian dishes—they are, in fact, a favorite—with this dish my mind somehow turned to North Africa—to cumin, cinnamon, and a little smoked paprika. Chickpeas would be added after the mixture was blended, and toasted almonds on top when the ragout was served over couscous.

So out of the freezer came the squash, zucchini, and peppers and into the roaster they went with garlic and onion.

IMG_7695When they had roasted for about forty-five minutes, I blended them with an immersion blender. However, I made two mistakes: I had not cut the squash, peppers, and zukes into chunks, and I did not let the mixture cool down enough. The result was a hot, splattery mess, where the vegetables more or less had to be mashed with the blender. Next time I make this dish—and there will be a next time—I will be sure to cut everything into chunks before roasting.

IMG_7699After the vegetables were blended, I added chickpeas, the spices, and tomatoes.

IMG_7707I put the cover on the roaster and let the mixture cook in the oven for another forty-five minutes. When the ragout was steaming hot, I served it over couscous and sprinkled toasted almonds on top. The results? “Pretty darned good,” my husband said as he went back for seconds.

Yes, indeed, and somehow the ragout managed to be smooth and spicy at the same time.

Now, I know that not everyone has a freezer full of vegetables, courtesy of Farmer Kev, but I have no doubt that this recipe could be made with fresh vegetables, cut in chunks and roasted longer, until very soft. In the heat of summer, when these vegetables abound, this dish could even be made in the Crock-Pot, starting first thing in the morning, then blending and adding as the day progressed.

Next time I make this dish, I will try the Crock-Pot method, just to see how it turns out. In the meantime, we have several meals of North African ragout, and after having used so many packets of frozen vegetables, there is even room in the freezer for a couple of Ziploc bags of ragout, to be taken out on cold but busy days.

North African Ragout
Adapted from a Farmer Kev Recipe

1lb of zucchini, cut in big chunks
2lbs of yellow summer squash, cut in big chunks
1lb of sweet peppers, cut in big chunks
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, cut in big chunks
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large roasting pan, combine all the vegetables and sprinkle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast, uncovered for 45 minutes or so until the vegetables are very soft.

Remove the pan from the oven, turn the heat down to 350 degrees, and let the mixture cool. Using an immersion blender, blend vegetables to a consistency you like. (Leaving it a little chunky works just fine.)

In a medium mixing bowl combine:

1 28oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt (or more, to taste)
1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or more, if you like it really hot).
2 cups of cooked chickpeas

Pour over the blended vegetables, mix to combine, cover, and return the roaster to the oven. Bake for another 45 minutes and add more spicing, if so desired.

Serve over couscous or rice. Top with roasted almonds, and pretend you are somewhere warm where the air smells of spices.

Fish Tacos before Snowmageddon

Yesterday was quite the busy day filled with library meetings, a dental appointment, and stocking up in anticipation of the big storm. It seems that I wasn’t the only one scurrying for supplies. Last night, at Hannaford, the shelves were cleaned out of bread, butter, and cheddar cheese. There is something about a storm that encourages people to lay in supplies. Quite sensible, I think, and no doubt a holdover from our hunter/gatherer past.

How nice it was, then, to go to Mary Jane’s house for lunch, where I had utterly delectable fish tacos made with tilapia and served with limes, cole slaw, avocados, salsa verde, and a chipotle mayonnaise . (I can’t resist adding that tilapia, along with catfish and carp, is truly sustainable and is approved by the oceanographer Sylvia Earle.) What a terrific Monday treat to have before the storm.

Crunchy tilapia, hot from the pan
Crunchy tilapia, hot from the pan
Fish taco with all the fixings
Fish taco with all the fixings

I ate way more than I should have, and I could have a fish taco—or two or three—right now.

Today, the blizzard came as expected, and when I got up, it was a winter wonderland. Snow, snow, and more snow, but fortunately it is light and fluffy. And, as readers can probably guess, we still have our power, at least for the moment. I am hoping we will keep our power, but as I wrote in yesterday’s post, we are ready if it goes out.

Flashlights ready for action
Flashlights ready for action

In a little while, Clif and I will head outside to begin the first of what will probably be at least two cleanings. The dog will be in his glory as he jumps and barks at the snow I shovel. By the end, Liam will definitely look like a dog of the north, which, with his thick coat, is exactly what he is.

But when we come in, thanks to our wood furnace, the house will be warm. Because of my shopping, we have plenty of treats, and in this house there are always many books just waiting to be read.

All will be snug at the little house in the big woods.

A winter wonderland outside our front door
A winter wonderland outside our front door