Monday, October 14, 2013

Time for Fried Green Tomatoes

  It’s clear that summer is over and autumn has crept into the garden. Here in Western Oregon birds are stoking up at the feeders, the fawns have lost their spots, the basil is shot and it’s time clean up the dying and drying plants of summer. I mourn a little over the cucumber vine that never managed to produce more than two-inch-long promises. This is the first year that has happened, but I had to plant three times because of our long cool wet spring. That was immediately followed by a blazing hot summer, with a record-setting dry spell. Plants bred for our normally temperate wet climate suffered while some more suited for heat did well.

I had six varieties of tomatoes this year. One grafted plant bore Brandywines and a large, fat Roma type that did OK, although they quickly outgrew even their oversized pot. A Big Beef did not do so well, and the Early Girl was anything but.  Most outstanding were a Celebrity salad type, and some red pear tomatoes. Some of these crawled in to each other’s caged spaces to create a lively mixed-fruit canopy overhead.

But all good things come to an end. I just relented and wrapped the last of the tomatoes to bring in for storage. But before that, of course, I indulged in another round of fried green tomatoes. (Not the first this season, and possibly not the last if some of the wrapped orbs stay green for while yet. 

You can invent or try infinite variations of this dish. Everyone has a favorite. Some like a thicker, crunchy coating and use an eggwash or egg and milk dip, seasoned flour dip, and breadcrumb and cornmeal dip. I prefer to keep the coating very light, for more tomato and less floury flavor not to mention less fat retention. And speaking of fat, for me a fried green tomato is not complete without bacon!

Fried Green Tomatoes With Bacon

Green tomatoes
Tajin (a condiment consisting of dehydrated red peppers and citrus juice
Corn starch
Masa Harina (corn meal intended for making tortillas, very fine ground)
Finishing salt, preferably smoked 

Fry some good smoked bacon until crisp, remove to paper towels to drain. A cast iron pan is best for this dish, or a heavy skillet.  

Meanwhile, Select large green tomatoes without bruises
Cut off blossom and stem ends and core tomatoes
Slice across into about ½ inch pieces. (A little less if very green, about ½ inch if slightly ripened 

Lay out slices and sprinkle lightly with salt. Let some of the tomato juices come up. 

Mix some cornstarch and masa harina, about 1/3 corn starch to 2/3 masa. Add a pinch of Taijin. If you don’t have Taijin, add some red pepper mix such as Cajun, and sprinkle the tomatoes with lime juice. I like to make this mixture on a piece of waxed paper, so you can bring it together to cover the tomatoes and keep the four mix centered. 

The point of frying the bacon is to cook your tomatoes in the rendered fat. (If you can’t handle that, use vegetable oil or non-hydrogenated shortening.) You can pour off some of the bacon fat if you cooked a lot of bacon, but reserve it in case you need to add it to the skillet as you fry the tomato slices. You want a good heavy coating of fat in the pan. 

Dip the tomato slices into the dry mixture, lightly coating both sides. Shake off any excess. Fry one piece and taste so that you can adjust red pepper seasoning if desired. PWhen you're happy with the seasoning, proceed to dip the other slices. Set them on some toweling to dry a bit. 

Reduce the heat to medium and place slices in pan with some space between them. Turn over just as they turn golden. Don’t over-cook or the tomatoes will get sludgy.  Place on paper toweling to drain until all slices are cooked.

Finish with seasoned salt – applewood smoked salt is superb for this.  

If desired, you can use some of the leftover bacon fat to make a mustard gravy, good with the tomatoes. Just brown some flour in a little of the bacon grease, add some water and  some mustard (your choice but avoid sweetened or overly flavored varieties) to taste, and stir to thicken slightly. Pour some on a plate and arrange your tomatoes on top and drizzle a little bit over the tomato slices. 

Serve with the crispy bacon, either in slices or crumbled over the tomatoes, or make hot spinach and bacon salad to accompany your tomatoes.



Monday, September 2, 2013

House Flood and Crusty Fish, Actually Not Related to Each Other

By way of a tip, and an important one:

   Into every life a little rain must fall, or so they say. One would prefer that it not fall from the ceiling, though, as we found it doing in our family room downstairs (daylight basement) a couple of weekends ago. Weekend, of course. In the end, we discovered that the water supply hose to the refrigerator (water dispenser, ice maker) had burst. To our dismay, we wound up with ruined floors upstairs and down. Asbestos mitigation required in the kitchen after our new flooring was pulled up off the old stuff, and the old stuff tested positive and had to come out because of moisture. More asbestos abatement required for the “popcorn” ceiling where the water was pouring out of the light fixtures. And the 2-year-old flooring upstairs and down all has to be removed. (Some of it they just cut out with a saw, then ran fans and dehumidifiers for a week.)
Fortunately, none of our possessions was affected, except for an area rug that got one end soaked. So do yourself a favor and check that hose if you have a water and ice dispensing refrigerator. If it’s thin plastic, have it replaced immediately with wound copper tubing. Everywhere we mention this situation, we hear about more cases of the same thing happening to others. Take steps!
So cooking was rudimentary for a couple of weeks, except when I couldn’t get to the fridge at all and we ate out. Toaster oven, microwave, and grill kept us going most of the time.
Back in the kitchen (temporary stove install while waiting for new flooring, which has to wait for downstairs asbestos abatement, which has to wait for POD availability for all our stuff that is packed and ready to store, which must then be brought back AFTER new floors are installed downstairs, so that the stuff upstairs can be packed and stored while flooring is laid.) No, we are not having fun yet.
Meanwhile, here’s a quick recipe that has nothing to do with the household flood:
Crusted Tilapia 

I’m one of those people who hate to waste anything. I even get a little bit fanatic
sometimes. So when I picked up a potato chip bag that had some broken chips and crumbs in the bottom, I pondered what I could with them. 

I had planned to prepare some Tilapia filets anyway, so I rolled a rolling pin over and over the bag (spreading out the chip crumbs in it for better coverage) to make fine flakes. 

Here’s how to use them: 

 Wash and pat some fish filets (your choice) dry, sprinkle with a little salt, and let them air dry while you do the rest. 

Add some seasoned flour to the potato chip crumbs (I keep a zip bag of all-purpose coating mix in the freezer, usually flour, corn meal, granulated garlic, powdered onion, and a little curry powder. You can add any special seasoning to this when dipping fish or meat, depending on the flavors you want), and added some finely grated parmesan. The fish will absorb a lot of this dry mixture, so make plenty. 

Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the filets if you wish, then dip briefly into the dry mixture, again into the egg wash to coat, and back into the crumbs for a good coating. Let them rest a few minutes on wax paper. Sprinkle them with a little paprika if you want a good robust color when they are cooked. 

Heat a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil (I prefer light olive or peanut) in a large skillet and add the filets. Cook on one side for a few minutes, then turn carefully and cook over moderate heat until they are done. (The thickest part of the fish should flake easily with a fork, with no raw flesh showing.)
Serve with fresh steamed vegetables, coleslaw, and perhaps some fresh French bread.  

Really very yummy, and worth using fresh potato chips if you don’t have crumbs!


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Too Hot to Cook? Don't Grin and Take it - Grill and Bake It!

If you have a gas grill with a hood, did you know that you can use it as an oven? Mine has a thermometer on it that’s fairly accurate, but lacking that you can use a regular oven thermometer to regulate the temperature.

The other night I made a nice big meatloaf “in” the grill! I used a metal pan, of course, and covered it with foil. Once the grill was up to temperature I turned off all but one burner, and placed the meatloaf pan on the off-fire side. (Use your own meatloaf recipe: mine is pretty much whatever sounds good at the time.) I kept it there at about 400 degrees for an hour, then removed the foil and cooked until it registered 170 on the instant meat thermometer. This is one of the few places I like ketchup. Spread it over the top of the meatloaf when you remove the foil it gives the loaf a nice saucy top.

Meantime, I prepared some veggies in a grill pan:
Medium zucchini cut in two lengthwise.
Slabs of yellow onion sliced ½ inch thick.

“Mini” stuffed sweet peppers. Slit the peppers lengthwise, then make a small slash across the top under the stem cap. (Leave stems on.) Slip the cheese into that slit. Add a small leaf of fresh basil, tucking it in over the cheese but letting the point stay over the top.  

Drizzle good quality extra virgin olive oil over the veggies, then shake on salt, peper, and some herbs – I used Italian seasoning mix (except on the peppers) but suit yourself.  

Grill until the veggies are to your liking. It’s best to leave the peppers a bit crisp and the others cooked to just-soft stage with a little firmness left in them. 

Remove the meatloaf from the grill, cover with foil, and set it aside to rest while you grill the veggies.  (Resting will condense the juices back into the meat. If there is a lot of fat or liquid, pour it off after resting the loaf.)

There you go – a simple meal. Add bread or salad or whatever if you feel you need something more. 

Meatloaf leftovers are wonderful in cold sandwiches, or heated up in the microwave for another supper entrĂ©e. It’s even better the second time around when the flavors have melded!




Friday, July 5, 2013

Keeping Cool: Grill Delights and Lusty Pasta Salad

Well into the second week of records heat with A/C (it broke last year – or rather, died. There’s a blog about that.) and I’m pulling out some favorite beat-the-heat recipes and cooking methods.
It’s time for light fare and cooking on the grill. 

Stuffed chicken thigh, grilled corn on the cob, asparagus
wrapped in bacon

Corn on the cob:
In the microwave: cut off the stem end at the shoulder and plonk your corn into the microwave. 2 large ears at 100% for six minutes. Let it rest, then shake the corn out of the husk. If that doesn’t work, just peel off the husk – carefully, it’s going to be piping hot.  

On the grill: soak the outer husk of the corn under running water. It will make life easier if you cut off the blossom end (with all the silk). Place on the grill – direct heat at first, then move off the heat and let it continue to steam until the rest of the meal is ready. 3 or 4 minutes each side on direct heat, then move it. Move it before the time is up if it starts charring or smoking!

  Asparagus: break off the tough ends. In a small tray or corn dish pour a thin layer of olive oil Sprinkle in salt and pepper if desired, plus some complimentary dried herbs. A commercial blend is fine….lemon/herb, Italian, Greek, Moroccan, garden, fine herbes, whatever appeals to you. Roll the asparagus in the flavored oil and place across the grate over medium heat. Turn over when one side is striped with grill marks. Cook until crisp-tender.
Asparagus with bacon: wrap bacon around a small bundle of asparagus stalks (about 3), secure with toothpicks, grill until bacon is cooked and asparagus is crisp-tender.

Asparagus and portabella mushrooms: Snap tough ends off asparagus and cut the stalk into about three pieces (depending on length – pieces should be about 2-2/3 to 3 inches long). Wash portabellos, trim off end of stem. Cut the caps into chunks about 2 x 2. You can clean out some of the gills by scraping them out after you cut the mushroom in two, but it isn’t necessary. Toss all of these pieces in an oil and herb mix (as above) and place in a grill pan. Grill over medium heat until asparagus in crisp-tender, tossing or stirring several times. 

Grilled Pineapple: cut peeled fresh pineapple vertically into strips about 3-4 inches long. Brush with oil and lay on a hot grill. When one side has nice grill marks, turn the pieces over and top with brown sugar. Continue to cook until the sugar melts to form a glaze.

Stuffed chicken thighs: remove skin and bone from chicken thigh, without cutting all the way through (leave the thigh intact). Pound out the chicken meat to make it more even in thickness. Then brush inside with pesto or a mix of olive oil, granulated garlic, and herbs. Slip in some good pepperoni slices and a slice of mozzarella cheese (note: you can use ham and Swiss or other white melting cheese, or salami and muenster, or any other combo you like. Brush the outside of the thighs with your pesto or oil mixture and place on a hot grill. Establish grill marks on both sides, about 3 minutes each, then set off heat on the grill to finish cooking. Make sure internal temperature is 165 (the chicken meat).  

Serve any combination of the above with this  

Lusty Pasta Salad with Olives and Bits
Cook a nice salad pasta – I prefer mini-farafalle. Rinse, drain, and refrigerate until cold. I like to cook extra when making a hot pasta dish, then refrigerate the surplus and use the cooked pasta in the next day or so for the salad.
2-3 cups of cooked pasta should serve about four people. Adjust amounts to your desire, need, or what’s in the fridge. Leftovers of this are great so don’t worry about having too much.
You can delete or add from the following ingredients, but for summer try to keep it salt-savory (olives, pickles, etc.) and light (olive oil dressing).
toss cooked cold pasta with a dash of olive oil (I like Kalamata) to separate the bits
Add as preferred: 

fresh broccoli
yellow onion
red and green bell peppers
Kalamata olives
Green olives
pickled pimento
dried crushed sun-dried tomato bits or sun-dried tomato in oil, drained and chopped
fresh or crushed dried oregano 

pickled garlic (some Asian markets sell jars of tiny pickled garlic – perfect used whole)
tiny grape tomatoes (or cut in half if fairly large) 

MIX, then add
some fruity olive oil (not too much!),
salt and pepper to taste, and toss again.  

Then add fresh grated Parmesan cheese and toss lightly.  

You could also add cooked bits of carrot or corn kernels or other vegetable bits.

Instead of the above herbs you can use a dried herb blend such as Italian.



Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summer Slaw and Surplus Salvation

So it’s summer, and one is likely to go a bit nuts in the produce department…fresh fruits and veggies….best time of year!

I do tend to overbuy for 2 people – a whole pineapple (Costco has some beauties), a 5 pound carton of strawberries (cheap in spring) and so on.  

There are lots of ways to use things, but the other night I had some fresh pineapple and strawberries to use up, plus a fresh bag of 3-color coleslaw, and needed a salad. At first I considered two: cole slaw and fruit salad (I also had bananas, apples, and oranges on hand.) But then it occurred to me to make a 2-in-1 and here is the result. I wondered if Gary would find it palatable, but he raved about the sweet/sour flavor! The lightness of the dressing is also perfect as a hot-weather dish.

Fruity Summer Slaw
3-color coleslaw
fresh pineapple, chopped small
fresh strawberries, chopped
grated Daikon radish
pine nuts
for dressing:
Annie’s Asian salad dressing
raw sugar or agave syrup
rice vinegar
Mix some sugar or agave syrup and rice vinegar into the salad dressing, until you achieve a pleasing sweet/sour balance. Add other ingredients and toss. (Suggestion: use only enough dressing to lightly coat the solids. You don’t need swimming slaw.) If you like, you can add a little punch with a pinch of ground cinnamon or 5-spice. 
Another version, good with fish: 
Zingy Summer Slaw
3-color coleslaw
Chopped fresh pineapple
For dressing:
lemon juice
agave syrup (or raw sugar)
horseradish sauce
Using small amounts, balance lemon juice, sweetener, and horseradish sauce until it’s to your taste (should be on the tart/spicy side). Add a dollop of mayo for a clinging consistency and toss with slaw and pineapple. Don’t overdo the mayo!
I actually used some chopped fresh apricots in this last version instead of the craisins…since they were there and needed to be used.
Never be afraid of trying something different. If nothing else, you’ll learn something.





Sunday, May 12, 2013

On Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, and Various Tips and Tricks

I was opening a new box of foil wrap last night, and it occurred to me that perhaps not everyone is aware of a little feature that many tube-type kitchen papers have. At each end of the carton, some will have a push-in dot or X. Push it in, and the box holds the roll so that it doesn’t come out when you pull on the paper! If there are none provided, you can easily use a paring knife to cut two slits into an X on each end of the carton. Push them into the hollow ends of the tube, and there you have it – no more popping out of the box when you tug on the paper!  

Another cool idea is circulating the Internet right now. Use a pants hangar to hold magazines or print-outs of recipes! Clip the paper onto the hangar and hook it over a cupboard door pull so that it’s hanging right in front of you while you work. Brilliant. Even better than an acrylic holder that sits on the counter since it’s easier to read at eye level. 

Since I’m not affiliated with any brand of anything, I don’t mind mentioning products from time to time. So here goes: Some of my favorite things: 

Balsamic vinegar. We all know what it’s like these days. Used to be you would be hard put to find a bottle of balsamic vinegar in the supermarket. If they carried it, there were usually only a couple of brands…often imported and quite expensive. Then the fad for balsamic arrived with the realization that the stuff can be really, really good; and now the supermarket displays shelves and shelves of it in a confusing and dismaying array. There are all kinds of prices, claims, ages, flavors and it’s up to you to find a favorite. 

For everyday cooking I use a fairly inexpensive type – Costco has a decent one, plus they have nice Light and Extra Virgin olive oils at good prices. But for dipping and exceptional salad dressings or other “gourmet” level applications, there is but one fantastic balsamic. It’s called OMG (a fairly recent change when the proprietor realized that “Oh My God” really described his products) and the favored flavor is a classic aged product that the website describes thus: 

“True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes.  The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto in Italian, is subsequently aged for a minimum of 12 years in a battery of seven barrels of successively smaller sizes. The casks are made of different woods like chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash, and, in the past, juniper. True balsamic vinegar is rich, glossy, deep brown in color and has a complex flavor that balances the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice with hints of wood from the casks.” 

I usually buy it when the company sets up at the local home shows (often enough that I’m recognized.) But you can order it online if you have no other source. At the home show, they set up a tasting bar with their various vinegars and oils, so if you do find them in a booth you can sample all of their offerings. (You can email to find out about their schedule for shows.) 

Thick syrup it is…thick and sweet and finger-lickin’ good. The perfect vinegar for dipping Italian Pugliese bread with its crispy crust and dense, moist interior.  (If you can find a take-and-bake loaf, or make your own, it’s even better – nothing beats hot crusty bread!) This is not “cheap” – expect to pay around $24 per bottle. But it doesn’t take much to flavor anything.  

Of course you want good olive oil with that. OMG makes nice flavored olive oils, but my 
favorite, and by no means expensive, is Martini’s Extra Virgin Kalamata olive oil. It has a rich fruity earthy flavor and heavy body and is perfect for dishes where you want that olive flavor to come through. I use it as seasoning oil in salad dressings, sauces, pasta dishes, and of course for dipping. You can spend a lot of money for a bottle (and you don’t really need the private reserve) or, if you search, you can find it at bargain prices. I just spotted a couple of listings online - $5.99 per bottle, or $23.99 for four. I usually buy 4-6 at a time to minimize shipping costs (there is none available locally). This makes nice gifts, too.


Now, you make a dipping bowl with the olive oil and a puddle of vinegar in it, some hot Pugliese bread, and you have a dish fit for royalty – or your favorite people. I like to add a bit of salt and pepper, Italian seasoning optional as well. 

For a quickie salad dressing: toss your greens and ingredients in the olive oil, add a splash of balsamic, some salt and pepper and a little raw sugar, and toss again to coat. (The sugar gives the oil and vinegar a wonderful piquancy.)  

A favorite salad is caprese:

Traditional recipe: Layer slices of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, top with fresh basil leaves (tear larger ones), sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. 

My favorite variation: Lay down a bed of torn butter lettuce leaves or baby spinach. Add tomato slices (I like the small sweet “compare” tomatoes, quartered),  marinated mozzarella (Costco has tubs of wonderful large-marble-sized balls of marinated mozzarella – cut in half or so), thin-sliced pieces of sweet onion, fresh basil leaves, then sprinkle with the Kalamata olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and a little of that raw sugar for piquancy.
Mama mia! That is soooo good!



Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Tip, A Nip, and a Pip of a Baked Potato

TIP: When you need to mix butter into a dry mixture, FREEZE the butter and grate on a large-toothed grater. Mix with your fingers until it’s like coarse meal, or whatever the recipe calls for. How can a person live this long and not figure this out? No more sticky gooey or hard lumpy butter. Cool.
For a quickie omelet that you can cook in the microwave:
Break egg or eggs into a microwave safe bowl. (I use a little individual glass casserole with a lid for one or two eggs.)
Beat the egg with some kind of emulsifier. Water or milk will do (a couple of tablespoonsful) or I prefer a heaping tablespoon of cottage cheese and some green salsa. Add any extras such as chopped green onion, chopped cooked ham or bacon or sausage, cheese, etc. Sprinkle in seasoning if you wish – salt and pepper, or I like to add some spicy red pepper mix.
Dribble enough olive oil into the dish to coat it lightly, bottom and sides, and pour in your mixture. (Or save time by oiling the dish and then mixing the whole thing in it.)
Cover and microwave for about 40 seconds at 70 percent. Uncover and lift cook portions to middle of dish, recover, and start cooking on high in 10-second increments, gently stirring each time if there is uncooked egg in the dish – the is why I prefer clear glass, so I can see the bottom. (Cook for slightly longer times if you have more than one or two eggs or depending on amount of add-ins.) Keep an eye on it – it will suddenly rise in the dish and be ready.


As for baked potatoes: Sure, you can cook potatoes in a microwave and called it “baked,” but it’s more like steamed. Yukon Gold or red potatoes are good for this because they have more moisture and they come out creamy and smooth.

But if you want a real, earthy-tasting spud with genuine potato flavor, fluffy mealy interior,  and crispy skin, you gotta go with a Russet. A large one that has well-developed flavor. Russets are drier and better for frying as well.

 But back to the baked version:

Use medium-to-large sized potatoes. I get some whacking big russets at Costco. One provides a substantial side dish for two people, or if you stuff them they’re a good lunch or supper meal by themselves. In any case, thoroughly scrub and clean and then cut the potato in half lengthwise, whether you are using one for two people or one potato for each person. (See notes below)
Preheat your oven to 375.
Sprinkle the bottom of a baking dish or pan - large enough to accommodate your potatoes - with olive oil. Smack a little butter on that and put it in the oven until the butter melts, then remove the pan and sprinkle the bottom with coarse sea salt. Rub the skin side of the potatoes with butter and place them cut-side-down in the pan. (See NOTES below.) Shake coarse sea salt over them, making sure to get some all around. (The coarse salt is going to give them extra crunch.) Bake until very fork-tender, about 45-minutes to an hour, depending on size.
Now you can just mush up the insides and add butter or sour cream or whatever you like. Or you can scoop out the meat, mash and mix it with cooked veggies (broccoli is especially good), cheese, crumbled cooked bacon, or whatever grabs you and season to taste, then fill the potato shell and call it a meal. Some people like to pour chili into the mashed interior, and add chopped onion and grated cheese.

There is very little chance that the skin will not be eaten – it’s the best part!
You can substitute olive oil for butter if you absolutely must.
You can use kosher salt instead of coarse sea salt if you absolutely must.
If you are going to cook the potatoes whole, be sure to pierce them with a fork so that they don’t explode in your oven! Oil or butter them, salt them, and place them on a rack with a baking sheet underneath the shelf to catch drips. (This will crisp the whole exterior. Putting the skin on a baking sheet or pan will make it soggy.)