Sunday, July 14, 2013

An Affair with Asparagus

I've been so consumed with berries and cherries that I have been neglecting my good friend asparagus here on the blog. Asparagus is like a childhood friend. Now she lives too far away to have a day to day impact on adult life. But because relations with her were so strong at some point it doesn't matter how many miles or how many days separate us. Whenever there is an opportunity to catch up on life there is always a strong sense of comfort and appreciation towards one another and a longing desire to be together in the interim.

Asparagus was a memorable food from my childhood. We didn't eat it often and certainly not seasonally.  Well I suppose it was seasonal wherever the asparagus was grown because asparagus is not a vegetable that can be forced. She comes up but once a year in late spring to display all her glory and then ducks into the shadows while annual vegetables steal the summer spot light biding time until next season. So whenever that garden miracle occurred, be it in China, Peru, Germany or Australian in the case of imports or California, Michigan or Washington in the case of domestic commercial production, and the veggie showed up in our local chain grocery store, my mom would purchase a bundle of spears and either grill, steam or saute them. They were a preferred vegetable side at my childhood dinner table.  Perhaps it was because they seemed novel each time they showed up.  Perhaps it was because of what we called them: monkey tails! It was the clever name my mom and uncles gave them when the were children and it stuck with the next generation. "Are we having monkey tails for dinner?" I would eagerly ask each night after knowing that my mom had bought some at the store. My relationship with asparagus was strong, I absolutely loved eating it, but is was sporadic if not somewhat unpredictable. But never the less it had a lasting impact on my taste buds and I always look forward to its return in spring.
This borrowed caption shows how asparagus is harvested from a home garden.
As a seasonal vegetable, asparagus comes when it comes and goes just as quickly. It's not a vegetable that can be extended early into the season and it will only come back nice and tender (read edible) so many times before nature must take its course and monkey tail enthusiasts must wait until next season.  Because asparagus is a late spring vegetable I use it to gauge the timing of the harvest for the year. Though not the first vegetable to come up, it is a good of the season's timing. This year asparagus came early and so too have the other crops that followed (apricots and cherries for instance as you can read about here). Luckily asparagus decided to stick around this year. I'm not sure why or what factors played into this gift, but the farmer I buy asparagus from has been selling it for several weeks longer than normal.  Generally speaking I consume asparagus by steaming, grilling, sauteing, or broiling it. I use it as a dinner side and I love it mixed with other spring greens in scrambled eggs or omelets in the morning and as an addition to pasta in the afternoon. Its even yummy thrown on a spring pizza. But this year I have been challenged to find new and creative ways to eat asparagus since it is only appealing as is for so long. Even though I've eaten my fair share I can't ignore asparagus so long as she is around, so I've had to get creative. A quick note about asparagus before I delve into a recipe I recently tried and loved and an original one I tested out on the 4th of July. Asparagus does not preserve well (although I've never pickled it- which sounds good). The preservation guidebooks I refer to recommend freezing it, but I find that it is excessively soggy once cooked and it is never as tender as it was in the spring.  The entire spear takes on the tough stringy-ness like the bottom of a fresh spear (which you would cut off). There are other veggies, like corn, peas and green beans, that store much better for winter use. So when it comes to asparagus it is wise to appreciate her while she is here and let her go with confidence knowing that she will return just when your desire and longing for her is strongest. She is indeed the epitome of seasonal eating!

Asparagus can be served, by itself, steamed, broiled, grilled or sauteed.
You will find basic ways to prepare asparagus under the recipe tab or by clicking here.  Since asparagus season lasted longer than normal this year I also had a chance to try out some new and creative ways to use asparagus including the recipe for Asparagus Goldenrod found below. Asparagus Goldenrod is a breakfast dish combining the spears with hard boiled eggs. It is a vegetarian dish unless you add a meat on the side like I did. In fact, it reminds me of a modern version of biscuits and gravy with a vegetarian twist. This is a great savory breakfast meal for the weekend or thrown together on a weekday if you hard boil and peel the eggs the night before. 

This non traditional savory breakfast will brighten your morning and fill your stomach.
Another great way to use asparagus is in a cold Cream Cheese Snack Wrap. These tasty wraps were made with ingredients I had on hand and required very little prep work. Once they were assembled they were left sitting on the table for the household to snack on. It was the 4th of July and we had a yummy french toast brunch that morning so we only needed something light to tie us over until my all-American dinner of hamburgers, watermelon, summer squash and root beer floats (everything made from scratch of coarse). After brunch we went on a midday hike so we were all a little hungry, but because of the afternoon heat and the fact that I was already consumed with prepping for dinner I wanted to keep the munchies simple. These guys did just trick!
These cold wraps are a great grab and go snack item

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Loss of This Year's Cherry Crop

It's CHERRY season!
 The 4th of July is always a fun holiday in my opinion because compared to other holidays its quite relaxing.  My family never had a particular traditional for this holiday, although when I look back I realize celebrations were usually included close family or friends that depended on the local enjoying a truly American meal somewhere near a body of water and possible, but not always a firework show. Since moving to the northwest from the never changing scenery of Southern California I've become accustomed to what seasonal living is like.  Where as in California Memorial day in late May was always a good time to be outside at the beach, in Oregon its generally still chilly and often rainy at that time.  By 4th of July, however, sunshine is pretty much a given.  Another thing that is given around 4th of July is the ripening of the cherries on my sour cherry tree.  Market cherries begin to ripen around the middle of June in our area depending on the location of the orchard and the variety. For the last three years, my cherry tree has reliably been ready for picking the week before or after the 4th. This 4th of July weekend just passed however and there were no cherries from my tree.  In fact the weekend brought with it a sad recollection of this year's cherry crop loss but also triumph in finding a nearby U-Pick orchard with amazing trees!

Harvesting market cherries on a hot day.
A young patch of cherry trees at Root Orchard in Mosier, OR.
Two weeks earlier I went on a three day weekend trip to Joseph, OR (which you can briefly read about here).  The days leading up to the trip were jam packed with food preparation, putting the house in order for a three day absence without supervision and last minute tasks to finish up at work.  On that particular Monday I noticed the cherries on my sour cherry tree, which I can view from the kitchen window, looking particularly vibrant.  At first I thought nothing of it other than how beautiful the bright red was contrasted against the dark green leaves.  No notice was paid to the tree on Tuesday, but I Wednesday I stopped and thought "I wonder if they are ripe? It has been quite an early season after all!" I stumbled upon Thursday faster than I would have liked and all day long I thought I really ought to pick some cherries. I was worried they'd be over ripe by the time I got back from my short trip.  Picking cherries is not time consuming and I actually find it quite relaxing.  What to do with the harvest was the quandary that kept my from picking that day (not to mention last minute packing). Usually I make cherry pie filling. The fruit on this tree is really too sour for much else (though I'd like to dry some in the future but I'm still in the process of finding the right dehydrator for my wants and needs). Even though picking is a swift process, pitting cherries and processing filling can not be expedited.  So I took a deep breath and acknowledged that I could not get everything done and crossed my fingers that the cherries would still be good when I returned.
A close up of cherries in a local orchard.
Sadly that was not the case.  The weekend I was gone and the entire week after I returned was really raining. Unseasonably raining.  Anyone who lives in an agricultural area with cherry orchards and industry can tell you that rain and ripening cherries do not mix.  It usually means a significant loss in the crop because the cherries split.  What I found when I first examined my sad looking crop was not only split cherries but some that were completely covered in mildew and mold, most were just rotten and those that did look salvageable were home to one or two worms per cherry! It was quite a disaster, but not something a seasonal eater can dwell on.  Truth be told, I usually struggle to use up all the pie filling I can so a year without it might do me some good.  The cherries were not left to rot on the tree further however.  I picked them and fed some to the happy hens (after all they contained an extra dose of protein!) and froze the rest in quart size baggies to serve as chicken treats during the winter.

Look at the fourth cherry from the bottom. Mold!
The same image without the flash shows dark spots which indicate rotting.

The happy hens enjoyed the spoiled, but not mildewy, cherries.
Luckily, I was not left completely devoid of cherries this season.  Some nearby farms had a decent crop it turns out (not as a good as normal but not nearly as bad as it could have been thanks to later ripening varieties and a slightly dryer micro climate). So per the usual 4th of July week tradition, I went to a u-pick farm to harvest some Bing cherries for my self created Chipotle Cherry BBQ sauce recipe. We picked 16 pounds in all (the friend I brought along was a litter zealous since it was his first time). We went to a farm I had never been to before that turned out not only to be slightly cheaper per pound, but their trees were much newer and more plentiful in a condensed manner which makes picking super easy. The whole process of driving to the farm and picking 16 pounds took less than one hour!
A young cherry orchard with dense fruit.
Picking cherries is fast and easy!
But as I mentioned earlier, picking is the easy part. I still had a ton of cherries to wash, pit and put up somehow. First on my list of priorities was making a big batch of Chipotle Cherry BBQ sauce so that I could put some reserves on my shelf and have enough to give some as gifts for Christmas.  First I washed and picked out the berries with stems. These were to be saved for munching on throughout the next week or two (cherries with the stems still attached keep longer in the refrigerator).  Next I pitted 4 quarts (around 8 lbs I think) of cherries to make the sauce.  After canning was finished, I pitted the remaining cherries to be frozen for use in desserts, smoothies or other recipes throughout the year.  All that processing happened in one day followed by a small dinner of Chipotle Cherry Chicken wings with a few friends to celebrate the harvest.
The end result: a yummy bowl of plump cherries!

Monday, July 8, 2013

July is National Ice Cream Month

July is National Ice Cream Month! Who would have known?!? I discovered this odd but delightful fact while reading this months AAA magazine (the magazine AAA sends to its members to highlight cool and interesting things to do in your area).  The irony is that I was reading the article while waiting for a vanilla custard to chill on the 4th of July.  The custard was destined to be french vanilla for root beer floats, the all American dessert I planned to serve after my all American 4th of July dinner later that evening.  Afterwards I turned the remaining ice cream into mint chocolate chip to satisfy a craving I'd been having.

What a sweet sight!
Once I'd learned this small tidbit, I had to know more. So I did the next logical thing...I googled it!  A search of 'national ice cream month' resulted in a wikipedia entry (of course) and several news articles including one from the Los Angeles Times highlighting Parmesan Gelato and the Washington Post recommending Doughnut ice cream. Definitely check out these two articles if for no other reason than they both contain great pictures of some truly unique flavors.  Disclaimer: you may end up with a craving for ice cream!  The top search result was the most informative.  The International Dairy Foods Association describes the inception of this meaningless holiday as well as some facts about ice cream and the dairy industry. I also noticed that on the left side menu of the IFDA's website there are lots of other media announcements such as "What's Hot In Ice Cream" (the answer: its still vanilla!). It's amazing what you can learn when you are inquisitive!  As a seasonal eater its important to learn about the history of things because often what was done long ago was done so for a good reason. Although that theory doesn't necessarily apply to National Ice Cream Month it did get me thinking about how I plan to celebrate it.

Mint chocolate chip ice cream shouldn't be green. Freshly chopped mint is all you need!
Since the second week of July is just beginning, I think I will make a new (and seasonal flavor) of ice cream each week this month and highlight some of my favorite desserts centered around ice cream.  I already started with mint chocolate chip last week (mint is usually out of control wherever it grows by this time of year so its a great seasonal add in). Next week I am planning to attend the Portland Berry Festival. I have a great recipe for simple strawberry ice cream that will be very appropriate.  After that who knows?  How will you celebrate National Ice Cream Month???  Share your ideas in the comments section! Then, click here to learn how to make a delectable vanilla ice cream base using homemade vanilla extract and fair trade vanilla beans.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Using Up Last Year's Strawberry Jam

Before I delve into different ways to preserve berries (such as freezing, jams, drying, etc) I think its important to mention ways I am using what I put up year in order to make room for this season's stores. One of the easiest (and possibly most delicious) ways to preserve berries is by making jam.  Last year I experimented with jam recipes using a local variety of berries that are so sweet I wanted to come up with a 'formula' that used less sugar but still jelled properly (because pectin requires a certain amount of sugar to perform its jelling duties effectively).  This season I am going to look into low sugar pectin, but that is for another post and another time.  Because I was testing out different ratios I ended up with a ton of strawberry jam (close to 18 jars for a family of 2).  Basically, there is a lot of jam in the cupboard still!  Luckily jam is a wonderful thing.  Its great on toast of course, but also biscuits, crackers, pancakes, waffles, crepes, rolls (pretty much anything that counts as a carbohydrate).  Jam can also be quickly added to yogurt for flavoring or made into a syrup for ice cream.  One of my favorite ways to use up jam, especially if I have a have full pint jar that is only half used up but has been sitting int he fridge for a while, is to make peanut butter and jelly cookies.
This isn't your childhood PB&J in a plastic baggie.  Same great flavor with a grown up touch.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Cookies
Makes 30 cookies using a small cookie scoop.
Oven temperature: 350 degrees

Seasonal Summary
Jam!- once preserved its in season all year long.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter 
   (freshly ground is best because it contains nothing but roasted peanuts!)
1/2 cup softened butter- 1 stick
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
more granulated sugar for rolling
1/2 cup jam use any flavor you have on hand)
Adding the sugar to creamed peanut butter and softened butter.
  1. After preheating the oven, combine the dry ingredients in bowl and whisk two or three times to combine.  
  2. Beat peanut butter and softened butter with a mixer on medium speed until smooth.  Add sugar and continue beating until smooth.  Continue beating until the egg and vanilla are fully incorporated.
  3. With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients.
  4. Using a small cookie scoop, scoop out dough and roll into balls.  Roll each ball in sugar and place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper of a baking mat.
  5. Bake for 10 minutes (cookies with be puffy) then remove from oven and use the end of a wooden spoon or other utensil to make an indentation in the center (I use a tool that makes about a 1" indentation so that I have more room to put jam!).
  6. Return to over and bake for 6-7 more minutes.
  7. Remove baking sheet from oven and lace on a wire rack to cool.
  8. Spoon 1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. of jam into the indentation of cooled cookies.  The bigger the indentation the more jam!
  9. Store cookies in a single layer.
These cookies get gobbled up quick! They are also great at potlucks due to the large batch.

Individual Flash Freezing Technique for Preserving Berries

Berries are quite delicate and don't keep for very long in the fridge. After just a few days they start to get soft and darken and if they are not stored in a single layer (ie you leave them in the berry basket they come in) they can even begin to mildew in that short amount of time. Luckily berries preserve quite well when frozen using a technique called Individual Flash Freezing. Once frozen berries are great in pies, cobblers, cakes and other desserts. They also work well in smoothies and other frozen drinks.  Berries can be thawed and turned into sauces, chutneys and spreads. They are great thrown into oatmeal just before its done cooking or in pancakes and waffles where they add a touch of sweet and juicy flavor to an otherwise boring and routine breakfast. They do not work well thawed and eaten as if fresh.  Keep in mind that once frozen, thawed berries are very mushy. What is preserved however is the incredible color and sweet flavor.

Raspberries are frozen unwashed in a single layer.
Begin by washing* and placing berries that have been patted dry in a single layer on a cookie sheet covered with parchment or freezer paper. If you are freezing strawberries, slice off the green top also. Freezer paper is sometimes available in grocery or big box stores only on a seasonal basis, but it is a lot cheaper than parchment so I recommend picking it up if its available near you. *Note: I actually don't wash the berries I buy because I know the farmer I get them from and know that they use growing methods I approve of and that they wash them before taking them to market. So for me its a time saver- one less step!  I do wash berries I pick at u-pick farms.

Tops are cut off strawberries and then placed on a baking sheet to be individually frozen.
Place the sheet in a freezer for at least 2-3 hours.  Thicker berries (like strawberries) take longer to freeze. Once frozen, place berries in a freezer baggie or other freezer container. Be sure to label and date the container.  Most preservation guides will tell you berries keep for 1 year. Its true that in a year you will be able to replenish your stock, but I can say that they are just as good when kept longer. One year we significantly over picked blueberries at a u-pick farm (just like grocery shopping can be dangerous when you are hungry, so can picking berries when you ran out of last year's stores early and haven't had any for months!) and it took two years to use up the stock.  The quality of the berries did not diminish in the second year in my opinion. I date the container for another reason. To me this serves as an important reminder of when I need to pick or purchase the following year in order to replenish my supply. Although seasonality fluctuates each year, I've found that the date on the container gives me a good idea plus or minus two weeks of when I should keep my eye out at the market or start checking with u-pick locations. Its a good idea to keep a preservation log just for this purpose. Two or three years into this seasonal style of eating you will be able to tell how early or late the season is based on precedent with the very first crop. In my region, I use asparagus to judge this! Even though there are earlier home crops, asparagus is the first reliable market crop. It can't be forced earlier in a green house, hot house or cold frame so I consider it an to be honest vegetable.

Its crucial to label and date anything you preserve.  Keep a preservation log or write directly on the container.
The great thing about this technique is that once the berries are frozen individually, they stay separated even when thrown into a container together.  That way you can remove and use only what you need without having to thaw out your entire stock. Get ready to enjoy berry smoothies and cobblers all year long!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Very Berry Smoothie

Berry season is in full swing where I am located (as I thoroughly mentioned in my last post) and for the moment I just can't gobble them up quick enough!  That's what happens when you adopt a seasonal style of eating.  After eight months without fresh berries, they seem like heaven when they arrive.  Since I'm on that note though, I have to mention one thing.  I've tried thus far not to post too much on why I think seasonal eating is the way to go, but I must sit on a soapbox for a moment. When you eat strawberries year round from the grocery store you lose appreciation for them.  I have nothing against big supermarket store bought strawberries (well actually I do because they just don't taste as good, but another point still).  I once lived in a small coastal agricultural community in southern California where the city moto was "California's Strawberry Coastline."  That place was a revolving door as far as strawberry season is concerned.  If I remember correctly they get three plantings in one year. When you have plump red strawberries at your disposal all year long there is no waiting, no anticipation and thus no appreciation.
Mmmm, refreshing and sweet.
One way to show my appreciation for fresh strawberries is to pop berry after berry in my mouth, which makes my taste buds go crazy by the way. I love making fresh berry smoothies.  I make berry smoothies year round (using fruit I freeze when its in season) but its important to enjoy them when the fruit is fresh because let's face it, berries don't stay fresh for long.  So when you get down to the bottom of the berry basket and there are a handful of fruits that are starting to get mushy I throw them into the blender and whip up a smoothie.  Sometimes I throw in vanilla yogurt, spinach or flax seed.  When I'm feeling really decadent or making a smoothie to fulfill a dessert craving I'll top it off with whipped creme like the one above.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Beginning of Berries

I've bought strawberries the last couple of weeks at the farmers' market (and even some raspberries).  These are the first of many yummy berries coming our way! Berries are great.  They can be eaten now or later.  They are oh so delicious when freshly picked or purchased.  However, they can also be eaten in winter because berries preserve remarkably well when frozen.  Now don't get me wrong, a frozen strawberry in November is not the same as a fresh strawberry in June.  While it is still the same fruit and tastes pretty much the same, the properties are different, one is juicy and tender, the other is mushy!  The point is, you use a fresh strawberry different than a frozen one.  For instance, in the summer I enjoy strawberries (and any berry for that matter) with vanilla yogurt and granola for a quick on the go breakfast.  In the winter, I mix the berries with warm oatmeal topped with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar. Of the course of the next few weeks I look forward to sharing ways to use berries now and discussing how to preserve them for later. For now, enjoy a bit of summer in a bowl for breakfast.
To me this is a sign of summer!