Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cooking with Trader Joe's

When I stumbled upon "Cooking with Trader Joe's", a website devoted to "all things Trader Joe's", naturally, I was hooked. Readers of this blog know of my affinity for TJ's, so I was thrilled to discover there are other foodies out there who are as crazy (or crazier) about it than I am.

A number of weeks ago, they ran a contest for Best Brown Bag Lunch Recipe. The recipes were to be "healthy, satisfying, creative, easy, and keep well on the go." Oh, and the ingredients all need to be available at Trader Joe's. Considering my pantry is a Trader Joe's in miniature, I figured it was my obligation to enter.

My kids have recently become big fans of soup, so rather than opening a can, I've been experimenting with different ingredients to create a few simple, homemade versions. By starting with a basic, organic chicken stock, I add various vegetables (either fresh or frozen, depending on what I have on hand), meats (chicken, turkey, or mini-meatballs), and pastas (orzo, egg noodles, alphabet shapes, etc). So far they've liked them all. It also just feels better to make my own soup. I can control exactly what goes into my pot, making the finished dish lower in sodium and preservatives than the canned varieties. Naturally, opening a can is very easy, but using a few shortcut ingredients, homemade soup literally takes about 15 minutes or less to cook.

I decided to submit one of my kids' favorite soup recipes, which they love to bring to school for lunch in wide-mouthed themoses. It uses all Trader Joe's ingredients, is almost entirely organic, and most importantly, the kids gobble it up. Try experimenting with some of your favorite ingredients to create a signature soup your family will love.

I didn't end up winning the grand prize, but I was one of two runners up! Click here to see my submission for "Souper Fast Alphabet Soup with Mini-Meatballs". Your kids will love it!
Thanks to Cooking with Trader Joe's for taking the top photo of my soup!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I'm Just Buzzing about Foodbuzz

Back in April, I was contacted about becoming a Featured Publisher. I honestly didn't really understand what Foodbuzz was all about (and I'm still learning), but I figured it was a good way to share my blog with more people. And that it has.

The other day I came home to find a fluffy package jammed into my mailbox (gee, thanks, Mr. Mailman....I'm glad it wasn't fragile!). I opened it to reveal the nicest gift from the folks over at Foodbuzz.... a very nice, high quality chef's apron featuring the Foodbuzz logo, and a bright green silicone spatula (you can never have too many of those---and I JUST redecorated my kitchen with green! What luck!). Over the past several months I've received a number of fun and clever goodies. The mini-business cards with my blog address were a fantastic idea, and the cotton "Foodbuzz" tote is perfect for my (many) trips to the farmers market and grocery stores (because if you read my other blog, Season To Taste, you already know what I think about plastic single-use grocery bags!). I must say that the apron/spatula was the best to date. I'm especially looking forward to an upcoming dinner with the New York City Metro-Area Foodbuzz Featured Publishers....a chance to talk shop with my cyber-colleagues and foodie friends!

As a relatively new food blogger, it is nice to know that not only is there an online community out there devoted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of foodie-ness, but that they appreciate those of us who work so hard (many without any monetary reneumeration!) to share something very close to our hearts....our cooking. I am excited to wear my new apron while teaching my cooking classes, and hope to introduce Foodbuzz to my fellow Fairfield foodies!

Monday, September 22, 2008

September Corn

I usually think of "corn season" as coming to a conclusion at the end of August. By September I remember my parents always commenting that it was "past prime"in upstate New York. Well, this year, here in Connecticut, I'm still getting lots of fantastic fresh corn from the farmers markets! Because my family loves corn so much, I make sure to get it every week. This week I've been using corn to make lots of variations on this corn salad (which I featured on my other blog, Season to Taste), but also eating it right on the cob.

Recently, I was at Dish Supper Club in Bridgeport, CT, which served corn-on-the-cob on the side of a wonderful clam bake. Usually, restaurant corn-on-the-cob is overcooked from being kept warm in big pots of hot water for way too long. Then it is lathered with way too much butter, making it a mess to eat. Not this restaurant's corn---it was expertly cooked and served right away. The butter was lightly brushed on, and then it was sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese and a touch of Ancho chili powder - not chipotle chili powder as I erroneously reported in a previous post. Yup--- I realized that error after a lip-burning corn experience fit for someone with a mouth far more tolerant than my own. Note to self: Ancho chilies=3,000 units of heat. Chipotle chilies=15,000 units of heat. Sometimes my brain interchanges those two peppers---but my mouth certainly did not.

Ancho chili peppers are a mild chili that lend great color and a somewhat sweet flavor to Mexican-inspired dishes. You can buy them whole and dried (and can reconstitute them in hot water then chop), or you can purchase the ground variety. I always keep a jar of ground Ancho chili powder on hand which I add to stews and chilis. It is readily available in the dried spice aisle of most grocery stores.
Chipotle peppers are much hotter, and can be found whole and dried, ground, or canned in "adobo" sauce (a tomato based sauce). They are very smoky in flavor, and add a nice kick to whatever you're cooking. They are most commonly found in Mexican and southwestern cuisine. You can certainly sprinkle ground chipotle pepper on lots of dishes (like the corn), but shake sparingly or else you'll end up running for the water pitcher.
Give your corn a little kick---- Ancho for the mild-mouthed cooks, and Chipotle for the spicier set!

Corn on the Cob with a Kick
Serves 4
4 ears of corn, husked
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Sprinkle of ground Ancho chili pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add sugar to water, and then add corn cobs.
Cook for 7-9 minutes (depending on desired consistency--- less time for crunchier corn, more for chewier)
Remove from pot, drain off excess water, and lightly brush with melted butter.
Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese and a touch of chili powder.
Serve immediately.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fairfield Area Ice Cream Favorites

Summer is almost officially over.... but there is still plenty of time to indulge in some ice cream! I recently completed an exhaustive search for some of the best ice cream for Fairfield Magazine. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it! Here are some excerpts from that article, which appears in full in the current issue of the magazine (Summer 2008, p. 10).

When it comes to homemade ice cream, Timothy's Ice Cream at 2974 Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport, is a winner. Named "Best Ice Cream" in the Fairfield County Advocate an astounding twenty-two times during its twenty-four years of business, and also chosen as one of the "Top 10" best ice cream parlors in the country (yes, the country!) by (run by Bon Appetit and Gourmet Magazines), it's no wonder I love it so much. Timothy's has twelve flavors of hard ice cream, six of which are standard favorites like chocolate and coffee, and the other six specialty flavors rotate on a daily basis. Black Rock (French Vanilla ice cream studded with chocolate covered almonds), Caramel Crunch, and Peppermint were among the tempting specialty selections on one of my recent visits. Because all the ice cream is made in small batches, customers are always assured of the freshest product imaginable.

For a heaven-sent dessert experience, head to Caffe 4 Quattro (1603 Post Road, Fairfield) for some fantastic gelato! Gelato is, hands-down, my all-time favorite dessert, and Caffe 4 Quattro gets my vote for the best around. Caffe 4 Quattro hits the nail on the head with their perfectly creamy, velvety smooth, completely authentic gelato. It is made fresh on the premises almost every day, using imported Italian ingredients. The most popular flavors include Panna Cotta, which translated literally is "cooked cream", but is similar to vanilla, Ciocolatto, made with fine Belgian chocolate, and my mother’s favorite, Stracciatella, which is an Italian version of chocolate chip. Gelato is served at the cafe year round, but in colder months, try having your gelato "affogato" style, which is a shot of espresso poured over the top of a scoop of your favorite flavor, and then topped with freshly whipped cream. It may be one of the most simple but delicious "grown-up" desserts on earth!

For fantastic, hand-packed pints of homemade ice cream and sorbet, The Pantry (1580 Post Road, 259-0400) has you covered. Yes, there is ice cream at The Pantry--- and it is wonderful. The owner states, "we use a base that has the same percentage butterfat as Haagen Daaz, so it is really good.” All the traditional favorites are available, like mint chocolate chip, cookies and cream, and chocolate, but if you’re looking for something different, try the pina colada or mango-lime sorbets, or the coffee with peanut butter cup ice cream. There’s something for everyone.

Check out Fairfield Magazine for more Fairfield-area favorites, including Sunny Daes and Helado Vasquez!

Photo above by QuintanaRoo.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Salmon: Up in Smoke?

There is quite a bit of controversy about salmon. Some experts say eating salmon up to twice a week is a great idea. It is rich in protein and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Others say to eat salmon, but make sure it is wild-caught, because the high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins in farm-raised fish is extremely unhealthy.

The vast amount of research on this topic is a lot to wade through, but it seems as if the general consensus is that the benefits of eating salmon outweigh the risks. However, I have to admit that after reading this article, I was pretty disgusted by the idea of farm-raised fish, so today I buy only wild-caught. Yes, wild-caught is a little "fishier" tasting than the more mild farm-raised variety, but it is lower in fat and calories, so it's definitely worth trying.
Salmon is a very versatile fish because it is great steamed, poached, pan-fried, baked, broiled or grilled. Pick your method--- it holds up to all these techniques. During the summertime, I favor using my outdoor grill to cook salmon. It gives great flavor, in addition to keeping the heat (and the smell!) out of the house.

I recently purchased a smoker box for my grill, which adds additional flavor to the fish. By adding wet wood chips to the metal box and placing it on the grill next to the salmon, a fair amount of smoke is produced, gently flavoring and perfuming the fish (the result will not taste like traditional smoked salmon---it's just subtly flavored fresh fish). If you do not have a smoker box, simply add wet wood chips to a small metal pot, which gets placed on the grill. Wood chips for this purpose are available at specialty food stores and most hardware stores in several varieties, like hickory, apple wood, etc.

So make some healthy salmon tonight---- and try adding some smoke to your fire!

Grilled Apple Wood Salmon
Serves 4
3 handfuls apple wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 ½ lb wild-caught salmon fillet (preferably skin on, lessening the chance it will stick to the grill)
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Lemon wedges

Preheat outdoor grill to high heat.
Place the soaked wood chips into a smoker box or small metal pot, and place on grill grates. Once it begins smoking, move to a cooler (but still hot) part of the grill.
Brush the salmon fillet on both sides with olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place the fillet skin-side down on grill and reduce heat to medium-high.
Allow to cook approximately 12-15 minutes, until firm to the touch. It is not necessary to flip the salmon. Note: if you press flesh with your finger and it leaves an indent, the fish is not cooked. When it is, the flesh will spring back up after being touched).
Remove from grill and serve hot with lemon wedges

Monday, September 1, 2008

From the Farm: Blueberries

The rain was coming down in sheets on Saturday, the day I normally head to the farmers market to pick up my CSA farm share. The market is scheduled to run rain or shine, but since lightening and tents with metal poles are probably not a good combination, everything was on hold until the skies cleared. A few hours later, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, so I headed over to see what Lexi at Gazy Brothers Farm had for me this week. (Photo above by MeetaK)

The rain had kept most people away that day, so Lexi had a surplus of produce. Rather than have to bring so much back to the farm, she was nice enough to offer up some extras to me for braving the elements. As a result, I ended up with three huge containers of freshly picked blueberries, plus lots of veggies including corn, red onions, fresh basil, tomatoes, and a gorgeous, perfect looking purple eggplant.

The first container instantly disappeared when I set them out for my little ones and some of their buddies. The second container made its way into a triple batch of blueberry muffin bread (adapted from a recipe in How To Bake by Nick Malgieri), and I saved the third container for an unusual but delicious salad.

Years ago, I’d written down the idea for this salad on a piece of scrap paper which ended up stuffed in the front of my overflowing recipe box. I’d all but forgotten about it until one day I decided to organize all the stray recipes I’d written down, ripped out, and recycled. Unfortunately, I have no recollection as to where this particular recipe originated. I may have eaten it at a restaurant, seen it in a photo, or read about it in a magazine or newspaper article. Whatever its source, it made an impression on me, prompting me to scratch out an ingredient list on that stray piece of paper.

It’s a good thing I reorganized my recipe box when I did, considering blueberries are just about done for the season. The salad features blueberries as the main ingredient, and is paired with tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette. It may seem strange to put vinegar on fruit, but it’s actually a classic! Italians love strawberries with balsamic vinegar, which is another surprisingly delicious combination.

So, revel in the blueberry bounty! It’s great alongside fish, chicken, or steak, or perfect as a picnic salad.

Blueberry & Tomato Salad
Serves 4

1 pint blueberries
½ pint grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Pinch of salt

Combine berries and tomatoes in a bowl and toss to combine.
Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, and salt and add to salad. Toss again and serve chilled or at room temperature.