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Archive for May, 2010

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Springtime brings us one of my favorite faux fruits: the strawberry.  This “accessory fruit”–or vegetable, depending on how you define it–is, in fact, the swollen tip of the stamen, or the base where the flower grows.  The seeds, or more accurately, the achenes, that attach themselves to this swollen bit are more than just annoying specks that get caught in our teeth–they are, in fact, the ovaries that house the real seeds of the plant.  So, just as the avocado is a delectable undercover fruit that is commonly treated as a culinary vegetable, the strawberry is a tasty summer vegetable that is almost always considered as a culinary fruit.  For more information than you ever wanted to know about the strawberry, click here.

So.  Maybe I went a little bit overboard by buying one kilo when I live alone.  But, in any case, I had this kilo of fresh, delicious, real–and I believe wild–strawberries (the multiple sized kind filled with juice and not genetic copies of some aesthetically “perfect” model).  And I was determined to eat them all.  So… I began by grabbing some and eating them simply, first by themselves, then with creme fraiche, then with regular cream.  If regular cream is difficult to find where you are, just use heavy whipping cream.

Preparing Strawberries:  To prepare strawberries for these simple dishes, as a general rule I cut off the caps, then quarter the strawberries, then sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar over them and mix it in.  (This amount of sugar can be adjusted depending on the natural sweetness of the particular strawberry.)  A very light syrup should start to form from the juice of the berry and the sugar.  Then mix with the cream or creme fraiche, if desired.

These were small and sweet enough that I didn't have to quarter and sugar them; but it's generally a good idea if you're getting the larger, "American" variety of farmed strawberry. With creme fraiche.

With regular cream

And after all that eating… I still had at least half a kilo left. So I began to search through my fridge and pantry, trying to come up with ideas to use the rest of the strawberries.  There was a bottle of cava (Spanish champagne) staring back at me, having been bought a week before and seemingly upset that it was sitting there, still unopened.  And I thought… wouldn’t a cheesecake that had both the strawberries and the champagne in it be simply divine?

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Produce as dessert can be as tricky as it is temporal. There are plenty of vegetables we consider fruits, fruits we consider vegetables, “accessory fruits” that don’t really fit into either category, and, of course, other parts of the plant that we may or may not desire as dessert. Presenting produce as dessert can be as simple as rinsing, chopping, and mixing fruits as a salad, to blending them into a shake, to adding other ingredients and boiling, baking, and/or chilling them as a more complex dish.

Then there is the matter of marrying the textures and tastes with “accent” ingredients such as cream or chocolate. Or making a new texture by adding the fruit as the accent, such as in cakes, pies and other pastries, ice creams and sorbets, mousses and puddings. So, we can have one fruit and have endless ways to make it into something unique and delicious, if we just keep in mind the capabilities and boundaries offered by that particular fruit.

Apart from applying our creativity to the process of going from plant to sweet treat, the short shelf life of produce demands that we think relatively quickly after, if not during, purchase. Many fruits don’t last more than a couple of days after arriving home, especially if they are not stored in the fridge. Some of the “tougher” fruits, like bananas and granny smith apples for instance, stay up to a week out of refrigeration; on the other hand, berries and thin-skinned fruits such as plums don’t last quite as long.

The typical food patterns we usually associate for fruit-based desserts include:

Flavor: pineapple and melon, strawberry and banana, orange and strawberry, apple and pear, and berries generally go well together (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, blackberries, etc.). The red currant and its cousin, the lingonberry, go well with other fruits, in preserves, and they also complement meats very well, as we tend to see in Nordic cuisine. Cloudberries and gooseberries, also prominent in Nordic dishes, are less common in the middle latitudes and lend subtly sweet overtones to a dish.

Texture: fruit and cream, fruit and bread, fruit and honey, fruit and ice, the list goes on and on. However, how the fruit is added makes a difference. For instance, lemon-flavored Italian ice sounds good, but why does the idea of drizzling honey over lemon wedges 1) make me want to grab my Vicks Vapo Rub and 2) sound like a rather unappetizing dessert for most? Replace the lemon wedges with baked apple, pear, or even banana, and the dessert is suddenly divine. While we value the lemon for its juice and occasionally its zest, most folks do not like to bite into the meat of the lemon itself, which, admittedly, may have something to do with the bitter taste. But the acidic citrus flesh also simply doesn’t work with everything (again–this is for most people; there are always exceptions). Using lemon with cream is a great idea; but again, you probably wouldn’t serve the lemon itself with the cream; you’d blend the lemon juice or grated zest with the cream and perhaps a few other ingredients in order to neutralize the tartness and offer a smoother texture.  But strawberries with cream is a whole ‘nother story.

Keeping in mind flavor, texture, and longevity, it’s fun to play around with new ideas and push the envelope by investigating and experimenting with the various cooking options for almost every edible plant out there. To help us along, we can look to world cultures for inspiration. We can also borrow (or else fully adopt) the vegan and vegetarian options that have been developed in many parts of the world and that offer us new possibilities for almost any type of cuisine out there. Even if you’re not vegetarian, the techniques cultivated in this branch of culinary thought are very useful in applying to other dishes. And it’s always helpful to have a few recipes on hand if you have vegetarian or vegan friends or family coming to dinner. In the coming weeks I am hoping to flesh out the vegetarian/vegan section of this site (poor pun) with the help of a friend who has already done a lot of the leg work to modify old favorite recipes–stay tuned!

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Whether you buy local and organic or conventional produce, the fact remains that some fruits just don’t last quite as long as others. After all, they are plants that have been recently cut and transported for consumption. A general rule of thumb is 5-7 days, refrigerated. Obviously, some can last a bit longer, and some a bit less. What this means is that you either 1) need to have the dish in mind whilst buying the ingredients at the market or store; or 2) need to have enough “helper ingredients” on hand to use whatever may be in season or whatever may have caught your eye that day.

The idea is that, unlike, say, roots and tubers, produce really does need to be used in a “revolving door”-type fashion and should always be on its way through the house rather than stored as a staple that can be kept for weeks or even months. If this option is not going to work for you, frozen, canned, vacuum-sealed, or otherwise preserved produce may be a good solution for you. But it’s never quite as tasty or as healthy as the fresh option. Usually, you’ll have to add more sugar to frozen fruits.  On the other hand, usually people keep the sugary syrup in which many fruits are canned and consider that useful flavoring.  But you may need to rinse off any legumes or veggies that are jarred or canned as those are often treated with some sort of preservative that isn’t quite as tasty or useful.  But it’s your kitchen–your call.

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In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, I am stealing the link off of a friend to this fun Texas Monthly recipe blog.  Thanks, Anna!

http://www.texasmonthly.com: Sweet Texas Heat. Photograph by Adam Voorhes

There is some debate as to how “authentic” Cinco de Mayo is.  Truth be known, it is much more celebrated in the US than in the homeland (much like St. Patty’s Day).  However, the Battle of Puebla was real, the victory over the French was real, and I don’t see a reason to boycott it just because Chicanos & Friends generally have a little more fun with it than folks actually residing in Mexico.  As a Chicana, I am happy to link over to this fun jalapeño-infused tequila drink recipe for today’s celebration!  There are also a number of Margarita recipes if you’re not feeling that frisky.  Click here to access the Texas Monthly recipe blog.

Viva La Raza!

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This may not be an authentic Eye-talian recipe, and it may not be the most exciting or original food ever, but when you are looking for a fast, easy, minimalist, yet filling and delicious dish to throw together, this is a good one to have on hand.  And it is really, really good.  Like whoa.  I have to say, this meal is definitely staying on my short list for visiting family and friends.

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 20-25 minutes.

Servings: 2.  Or one, if you’re me.

one fileted chicken breast, chopped into smaller pieces.

5 “nests” of spinach fettuccine

approx. 5-6 Tbsp fresh cream

about 3-4 pinches of shredded emmental cheese

2-3 dollops of creme fraiche

about 3-4 Tbsp grated parmesan

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

This is your basic pasta recipe… nothing too shocking.  While you set the water to boil in a pot, rub some olive oil, salt and a small dash of pepper on the chicken and set to bake until it is white through and through.  For me, this is in my toaster oven for 15 min (I’m not sure what temperature it is).  Of course, you can also pan fry it, but baking is healthier and it also keeps a nice moist texture to the chicken.

Add a little bit of salt and a bit of oil when the water comes to a boil, before adding the pasta.

When the pasta has boiled, strain and place back in pot.  Over low heat, stir in about a Tbsp of oil, and the cream, creme fraiche, and the emmental and parmesan.  When this has reached a nice smooth consistency, give it a taste and add salt as needed.  Toss in the cooked chicken pieces (they should be done by now) and stir those in.  When everything is nicely coated with the creamy cheese sauce, transfer to plate, and top with a sprinkle of grated parmesan and freshly cracked black pepper.  Serve with toasted bread and a nice glass of chilled white wine for a nice, relaxing meal.

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