Chill out, even during the dog days

We're making chilled avocado soup
We’re making chilled avocado soup

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avocado 3 (2)

Don’t pay attention to the calendar, or the reappearance of school buses. Hot weather is going to be around long enough for you to go the pool or lake and watch college football  – all in the same day.

And, if you have finally, finally reached your limit on tomatoes, so that the idea of gazpacho makes you blanch, try a different approach. Try avocados.

Chilled avocado soup is ridiculously easy and flexible enough to accommodate whatever ingredients you might have on hand. No limes? Use rice vinegar. No cilantro? Use watercress. No jalepenos? Use green jalepeno hot sauce.

See. No sweat. And since we’ve been sweating enough this summer, thank you very much, this is the kind of recipe even the most hurried cook can appreciate. This version is even vegan, because I used cucumber to thicken it up. You could use the same amount of fresh bread. Oh, wait, that’s another substitution. Use a food processor or blender. Whir, refrigerate and go.

Then you can head outside. Because no matter how much we complain, come January, we’ll be nostalgic for even this hellish summer weather.

Chilled Avocado Soup

3 Tbsp. chopped red onion

juice of 2 limes (or 2 Tbsp. white wine or rice vinegar)

1 tsp. salt

3 medium sized ripe Hass avocados

1 cucumber, seeded, and cut into large pieces

1 clove garlic

1/2 jalepeno, seeded and chopped coarsely (or 1Tbsp. hot sauce)

3/4 cup cilantro

1/2 cup no-salt vegetable broth

1/2 cup water

1 Tbsp. olive oil

First, put the onions, lime juice and salt into the food processor and let them sit for at least 10 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. This will mellow the sting of the onion.

While onions get their groove on, slice and prepare the other ingredients. Then add them to the food processor bowl. Pulse until you get a creamy consistency. Then, with motor running, slowly add the broth and water, then finally, the olive oil. Taste for salt, and add more if necessary.

Pour into a bowl and chill at least an hour. Top with anything you want – toasted pistachios, sliced avocado, diced green peppers, cilantro, or, yes, even diced tomatoes

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A Girlilla by nurture and nature

I just finished reading an article that states that women are starting to take over the last bastion of manhood, the area in front of the grill.

That made me laugh, because I was raised by a mother who did the grilling. Mom had many phobias, but cooking over an open flame wasn’t one of them. Dad on the other hand, got sweaty palms every time he came near the grill. Fire was his biggest fear. We frequently heard, “What are you trying to do, burn the house down?”

We chalked it up to his degree and brief stint in forestry. He saw the damage that an idiot with a match could do.

So that left my mother to concoct the marinades, rubs and techniques to get the most out of our rusty grill, and much, much later, their fancy gas grill. She insisted that they always have one, because power outages on their house’s ancient electric grid were frequent and extended.

She embraced the grilling culture and passed it on to me and my sister. We frequently got the newest gadget or grill light for Christmas.

When my husband and I got our first gas grill as a wedding present, we wisely asked his brother to come visit and assemble the thing in exchange for food and beer. And, since then, while my husband can certainly grill, he has been more than happy to pass the tongs to me most times. And I am choosy about my tongs. They have to be medium-length, bare-bones, metal restaurant models to provide the best feel and grip for whatever you’re cooking

Unlike many (mostly manly) grillers, I use our grill as an outdoor oven more than a grill. Indirect heat is my friend and even though I like charcoal grills, a gas rig is better suited to it. The other day, while I grilled a steak, I had stuffed Portobello mushrooms sizzling away on the shelf above. Put them on and close the lid about five minutes before you add the meat and they will be ready by the time a thick-cut ribeye is medium rare (five minutes per side, with three minutes to rest).

So, whether you’re the girlilla of the house or the audience of another fire-eater, you can whip up these mushrooms easily and way ahead of time. I try to cook on aluminum as little as possible, but improvising an open-topped foil pan catches the delicious juices, which you can drizzle on the finished mushrooms or the steak. And, no cleanup, so, pleading guilty.

Cheesy Stuffed Portobellos

Preheat the grill to 400 degrees, leaving one burner unlit for indirect heat if you don’t have a warming rack.

4 small Portobello mushrooms

1/3 cup canned artichoke hearts, chopped fine

1 Tbsp. each of fresh basil and oregano, minced

1 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1/3 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

Wipe the mushroom clean and remove the stems.

Mix the artichokes, herbs, mayonnaise and cheese. Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Stuff the mushrooms and place in a pan or on foil with the sides folded up.

Place over indirect heat and close the grill lid.

Cook for 12-15 minutes, until mushrooms are tender.

Memories are about taste, too

Ok, I’ll admit it, from my first memories to just last week, the things that usually stick with me from any trip or vacation revolve around food. I have no shame for making these strong associations because they dredge up many more wonderful memories from each event.

My mother, a foodie herself, used to get exasperated with me. For example, we were once reminiscing about my childhood trip to Mystic Seaport. The first thing that popped in my head was that a huge bee landed in my root beer and I had to toss it out. My mother threw up her hands and said, “Really? That’s what you remember?”

Well, no. I remembered the huge ships and flapping sails and chilly (in summer!!) breeze. That appeased her, some. But from then on she told anyone who would listen that all I remembered about Mystic was the damn bee.

It was a HUGE bee, I’m just saying.

Likewise, the other day I came across some photos I had taken during a trip with four college friends to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN, in 1982. I spent the entire two-day whirlwind trip with my jaw agape, blown away by the size, scope and representative cultures of the fairgrounds. I saw my first robot,  building a car in the Japanese pavilion, among dozens of other marvels.

We could only afford a weekend trip and we slept on the floor at a friend’s house, because, you know, college equals dirt poor. So, while I eyed the exotic food being offered hither and yon, I couldn’t afford most of it. That’s why my food memory of The World’s Fair is Fritos chili pie. Yep, at a lowly stand, they would slice open the side of a Fritos bag, top it with chili, cheese and onions and hand it to you with a spoon. Nirvana for a college student.

When I unearthed those photos, of course I had to make Fritos chili pie for dinner, and it was a good as I remember, even when eaten from a bowl and topped with a heap of crisp arugula  to offer some semblance of a healthy meal. Now I can call it Fritos chili salad to appease the guilt, because we will have it again.

You don’t need a recipe for Fritos chili salad, but here are a some variations:

  • Use your favorite recipe for black beans or red beans, skip the rice, and pile on (in this order) the shredded cheddar or Monterey jack, diced raw onions, and arugula, watercress or cilantro.
  • Instead of greens, top your “salad” with quick pickled slaw and cucumbers: In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup of rice vinegar with a tablespoon of sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir until sugar dissolves. Add a cup of coleslaw cabbage mix (the kind with carrots) and one diced cucumber. Let sit, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes before you begin assembling the meal. Use slotted spoon to scoop the pickled slaw on top of your creation.
  • Add what you usually like on your chili, whether it’s jalapenos, green olives, green onions or sour cream.

Give an ancient grain a new twist

It has been a while since my last recipe. I could say I’ve been on sabbatical, touring the country or the world, testing recipes with talented cooks and chefs and expanding my culinary horizons.

Except, well, no.

Everyday life just took over – work, commuting, errands, holidays, playing with friends, cleaning, reading, a new puppy and well, you know what it’s like with a new puppy.

So, onward. As usual, during the winter I ate out too much because all that comfort food called to me, and I answered. But letting other folks cook for me sometimes fed my imagination, as well as my belly.
For instance, I visited a Peruvian chicken restaurant, where the mouth-watering smell of rotisserie chickens swathed in mysterious spices almost drove me crazy. Of course, I ordered the chicken, but I was intrigued by another dish they offered – an avocado stuffed with quinoa.

I have two ingredients that are my go-to champions on balmier days – avocados and lemons. Yep, we eat a lot of guacamole around here, but an avocado stuffed with lemony quinoa sounded like a great alternative. I know, I know, quinoa is the trendy “it-girl”, and you can’t open a magazine without seeing it mentioned. But this stuff has been around forever, it cooks quickly, and like tofu, it will take on any flavor you throw at it.

As I pushed my cart through the grocery store (with an open People magazine in the baby seat), I thought about how to make the stuffing. Then I looked up from the photos of celebrities cavorting in the surf with their kids and saw dried cherries. Yep, a little sweet, a little sour and some shallots always make a great combo.

I usually suggest you substitute anything you like for ingredients, but in this case, I would suggest you stick with quinoa or another light grain like farro instead of using rice, which really bogs down this dish. Also, make the little extra effort to find shallots instead of using onions that can overpower the delicate flavors of this dish.

Quinoa-stuffed Avocados

Serves four

1 cup water

1 cup vegetable broth

1 cup quinoa

pinch of salt

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2 shallots

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 cup dried tart cherries

2 Hass avocados

juice of one lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tbsp. green Tabasco

Bring the water, vegetable broth and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan, add the quinoa, lower the heat to a simmer, cover and cook about 15 minutes until quinoa is fluffy.

While the quinoa cooks, heat the olive oil over low heat in a medium saute pan. Peel and mince the shallots and add them to the pan.  Cook about 5 minutes, then stir in cumin and cherries and cook another 3-4 minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa and remove from heat.

Halve the avocados, remove the pits and run a sharp knife around the edges to loosen and remove the flesh. Place the empty shells on each plate.

Coarsely chop the avocado,  and stir it gently into the quinoa mixture. In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the lemon juice, olive oil and Tabasco sauce. Shake vigorously.

Spoon the quinoa mixture into avocado shells and pour dressing over each.

 

Let’s talk about abandon

And by abandon, I don’t mean sad-eyed dogs and cats in shelters. I’m talking about the fun kind of abandon. Do you remember the last time you experienced abandon? If you didn’t remember that it is a noun as well as a verb, then I’d say it has been way, way too long.

Which brings me to a subject near and dear to my heart. Let’s talk about Halloween. Now, you get it, right? Remember how you used to enjoy Halloween with reckless abandon? The costumes, the role-playing, the chance to get wild, even on a school night, all fueled by a sugar high as you ate the best candy on the way home before your father got hold of your bag to “inspect” it. (My father used to grouse every year that no one gave out his favorite Hershey bars with almonds. Hahahaha, here Dad, have a Zagnut).

If you refused to grow up, you kept celebrating Halloween through your 20s and well into your 30s, just in a different way. And every year, as Halloween draws near, my friends and I reminisce about the fun, the adventure, the pranks and the scares. And guess what? No one ever got hurt on Halloween. No one ever got a razor blade in an apple or poisoned, kidnapped, or even hurt – much. (There was the Halloween when my best friend, Linda, and I decided to be a two-headed ghost and got tangled up in the sheet and fell in a culvert. But that was nothing a little Bactene couldn’t handle.)

And also, just for the record, none of us even thought about worshipping Satan, or going occult or becoming a Wiccan. We knew it was make-believe. And we knew it only lasted one night, so we made the most of it.

I know, I know. You’ll say times are different. People are different. Kids are different. But seriously, why are we trying to take the fun, the abandon, out of the one day of the year when everyone gets to be childish?

As adults, we should appreciate that we don’t have to shop for or wrap gifts for Halloween. Unlike other holidays, it’s not labor intensive – no baskets to fill, no turkey to carve, no tree to decorate. We can ignore Pinterest and all those magazines with time-consuming crafts. Put some pumpkins out (you don’t even have to carve them), buy candy, throw a store-bought costume on the kids and it’s done.

But no, now we’ve extended Halloween into a 10-day ordeal, with planned (planned!) activities held at times that are convenient for us and in ways we think are appropriate. Halloween is no longer for children, it’s for busy adults and I think we’ve got it all wrong.

So, to do my part, I will do something with abandon Halloween night, since we no longer get more than half a dozen trick-or-treaters.  I’m going to get some oil really, really hot and fry up what my mother used to call Swedish waffles. They are actually called rosettes and traditionally are made at Christmas. But we’re going to get all anarchist and make them for Halloween. You can still buy the cast-iron sets of rosette molds online. I’m going to use my mother’s set that turned up when we moved to our new house.

http://www.amazon.com/Fox-Run-4512-Rosette-Set/dp/B001AT1J1O/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1414437419&sr=8-2&keywords=rosette+iron

Rosettes are time-consuming and messy and fun and require at least two people. More is better. Take turns frying, scooping and sugar shaking. You make a runny, eggy batter, dip the hot molds into it and plunge them in the hot oil. The batter releases from the mold as it browns and shrinks and you get lovely, crispy butterflies, snowflakes and stars. Sift some powdered sugar over them and eat them as soon as you can without burning yourself. Now that’s abandon.

Swedish Waffles (Rosettes)

Peanut or vegetable oil

3 Tbsp. sugar

a pinch of salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

1 tsp. vanilla

confectioner’s sugar

Over medium-high heat, bring oil to 375 degrees in a cast-iron pot or dutch oven. You’ll need about three inches of oil. Spread paper towels on two cookie sheets for draining and set aside.

With a mixer, beat the sugar, salt and eggs together until smooth. Add the milk, flour and vanilla and beat again until smooth. Heat a rosette iron in the hot oil for three minutes. Dip the hot mold into the batter, up to 1/4 of an inch from the top. Immediately dip the mold into the hot oil. The rosette will brown and release itself from the mold. Scoop it out and drain on paper towels. Sift confectioners sugar over the drained rosettes.  Heat the mold between each use at least one minute in the hot oil.

 

Picture a chilly night that caps off a long day of either fun or work. You’re hungry. You’re short on time and you need a dish that will make people sit up and notice that the day is not yet over and there is still fun and flavor to be had.

Then check your freezer for those frozen shrimp you bought by the cooler-full at the beach this summer.

Because it’s time for BBQ Shrimp. To clarify, you do not need a grill to barbeque shrimp. You just need a bottle of the most important ingredient: chili sauce.

2014-03-26 17.16.58As you may know from making those famous party meatballs from the 1980s, chili sauce, is not, in fact, very spicy. That means that even though you are making a dish with BBQ in the title, even timid eaters can probably stomach it.

With chili sauce in hand, it’s time to make this easy one-pan (OK, two pans) meal. Do not be intimidated by the apparently long list of ingredients because you will already have most of them in your kitchen and basically you just dump them all together. Bonus: no onions, so no stinky chopping.

Ok, I was being a little sneaky. This dish is quick because you have to make the sauce and marinate the shrimp in the refrigerator a few hours before you cook it. So it will take a little planning.

When serving up BBQ shrimp, you basically need two things – bread for sopping up sauce and plenty, and we mean plenty, of napkins. Things get messy because the shrimp are served unpeeled and you have to dig in the sauce and peel them. But that’s half the fun. Nothing builds comraderie at the table like a sloppy, labor-intensive feast. Think of the friendships you have forged over cracking and eating blue crabs or clams. And, as any wing fan knows, you’re not having fun until the sauce hits your elbows.

BBQ Shrimp

2-3 pounds unpeeled shrimp (allow half a pound per person)

6 Tbsp. butter

6 Tbsp. olive oil

4 Tbsp. chili sauce

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 lemon, sliced thinly

Juice of another lemon

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tsp. minced parsley

1/2 tsp. paprika

1/4 tsp. oregano

2 bay leaves

1 tsp. hot pepper sauce of your choice

1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper

Rinse the shrimp, drain and spread in a single layer in a shallow pan.

Place the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.

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Immediately reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes until sauce thickens:

BBQ sauce is just the right viscosity
BBQ sauce is just the right viscosity

Spoon the sauce over the shrimp in the pan and refrigerate 2-3 hours.

2014-03-26 17.46.17When you’re ready to cook. preheat the oven to 300 degrees and bake the shrimp 20-30 minutes, until all shrimp have turned a nice pink. Serve in bowls with crusty bread, and of course, those napkins ready and waiting.

The best souvenirs are edible

C

We celebrated our 25th anniversary in a big way by flying across the country to the exotic port of – Portland, Oregon.

When we told people our destination, their reactions ranged from puzzled to flummoxed. The most common question, after “Why?” was, “Oh, do you have family there?”

No, no we don’t. We’ve always wanted to see the funky, friendly, often foggy and soggy town because of its reputation for great food, breathtaking scenery and world-class local beer and wine. We were never disappointed with any of these.

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Tumbling waters in Columbia Gorge
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View from pedestrian bridge at railroad station
Tea at the Chinese garden
Tea at the Chinese garden

We crammed a lot of small meals and hours of walking, and quite a bit of beer and wine sampling into a too-brief week. And we’d do it again. Because, folks, despite its reputation as a freewheeling town, Portland is very, very serious about its food and drink.

Sipping a comforting latte in a cozy coffeehouse on a dreary afternoon, I saw a sign that boiled the essentials of Portland’s local food craze down to a simple PBJ. The café only served this one food item. But the description ran something like this: “Try our PBJ, with peanut butter ground on order, jam from nearby Meadowsweet Farm, on artisan bread baked fresh right around the corner, with a smear of homemade butter.” Serious.

We tend to wander around and let serendipity lead us to great food when we’re on vacation. But, the one place we knew we absolutely had to find was Pok Pok, a funky, Asian fusion restaurant that borrows all the best from food truck cooking and serves it up on patios covered with plastic to protect diners from Portland’s frequent downpours.

We knew we’d have to wait a while, but, being the Portland geniuses that they are, the owners have opened a bar across the street, where you can drink heavenly cocktails garnished with, of course, local vegetation while waiting for a table. We ordered the actual dish we came for, Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, which have been featured in Food and Wine magazine and touted among foodies nationwide.

The wings are marinated in a fish sauce mixture, which makes them salty and addictive. My husband almost stopped breathing after his first bite, saying simply, “THAT IS SO ***** GOOD!”

We devoured the plate, and considered ordering more when we actually got to our table.

Turns out Pok Pok wings are not hard to make. You just have to plan ahead, because the wings need to marinate for at least four hours. They are not for the faint-hearted eater, as the fish sauce is pungent and really, really salty – two of my favorite things. The mint, cilantro and fried garlic mellow the dish out and create that perfect “Wow” moment. Red wine actually paired well with the wings, but a brisk IPA would probably be even better. Just make sure to stay in the Portland groove and make it a local Charlotte beer.

Pok Pok Wings

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup sugar

5 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely

1 1/2 pounds chicken wings

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

Enough vegetable oil to cover wings for frying

1/3 cup cornstarch

2-3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

2-3 Tbsp. chopped mint

In a large zip-top bag, combine fish sauce, sugar and 5 cloves of crushed garlic. Seal and shake until sugar begins to dissolve. Add wings and marinate in refrigerator at least four hours.

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When you’re ready to start cooking, heat the 2 Tbsp. of oil over medium heat and saute garlic until it’s golden. Set aside to drain on a paper towel.

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Heat oil in a large pan until it’s 350 degrees. (Really hot oil is the secret to great fried anything.)

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Remove wings from bag and pour the marinade in a small saucepan. Pat the wings dry (dry meat is the other secret to great fried anything.)

Pour cornstarch on a plate and coat the wings. Fry the wings, without crowding, for 8-10 minutes.

While wings are frying, bring the marinade to a boil over medium-high heat and boil down until it’s syrupy.

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Put the wings in a large bowl. Pour the sauce over them and toss. Add the cilantro, mint and fried garlic and toss gently.

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Serve immediately. (Like you could stop anyone from grabbing them.)

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