Monday, April 30, 2012

Avocados Everywhere

Before the 1950s, avocados were not a particular popular food in New England. In other places, though, people ate the fruit. Early Aztecs considered it to be a sex stimulent; perhaps that scared off our Puritan ancestors. (In fact, the name avocado comes from the Aztec word for "testicle," which is probably why people made the sex connection.) Or perhaps no one wanted to try an "alligator pear," which was an early name that locals used. 

Today, avocados turn up everywhere, in stores, soups, salads, freezers, and even beauty products. Its newfound popularity is probably related not only to its warm buttery taste but also to its high nutritional content. Avocados have lots of fiber, potassium, folate, and other good things; furthermore, they are not that high in calories. Two tablespoons of mashed avocado has about half the calories and fat as the same amount of mayonnaise. The flesh also contains no cholesterol or sodium.

I often use mashed avocado on sandwiches in place of or in addition to mayonnaise. I love an avocado half stuffed with tuna, lobster, or crab salad. And I consider it asnecessary to a good salad as leafy greens.

I recently learned a few tidbits about avocados:
  • to speed ripening, put inside a brown paper bag in a warm oven
  • to retard ripening, refrigerate immediately
  • to keep a cut half from browning, place on top of coarsely chopped onions in a sealed container
This last detail came from a You Tube video that I loved. The narrator performed a comparison among various methods that are supposed to keep cut avocados from darkening. I watched the whole thing and loved it.

I figure that even if the onion method doesn't work and the avocado does turn brown, I can always mash it up with a little honey and smear it on my skin. Avocado never goes to waste in this house.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Local Asparagus Has Arrived!

About two weeks ago, I began to get impatient. Where was the local asparagus? It seldom arrives this early in the year, but I knew that this spring was weirdly warm. Then I received an email from my neighbor at Burroughs Farm announcing the first crop. Not quite enough to sell at market, but enough for the loyal asparagus lovers who eagerly await this seasonal delight.

I wrote back, saying "Save me two pounds," and picked it up this afternoon, just hours after it was harvested. (Want to get some yourself? Write to Bryon Clemence at bclemence at verizon dot net and ask when he will have some.) One pound I gave to my daughter, Kate, and the other I cooked for dinner. Since it was so fresh, I made it the simplest way I know: simmered for 3 minutes in a covered frypan and then sprinkled with garlicky buttered breadcrumbs.

The next batch I cook I will probably grill, and I'll probably make a lot. I enjoy cold asparagus almost as much as hot. I wrap it in thinly sliced cold ham, add a bit of mayonnaise, and eat it with toast. At the start of the season, I usually eat it plain, but after I've been enjoying it for a few weeks, I start using it in quiches, omelets, and other dishes.

Asparagus is considered a bit of a wonder food, since it is low in calories and high in nutrients and fiber. Once it was considered an aphrodisiac, but sadly, that has been discounted. However, science is still looking at asparagus. The online world is filled with articles about why asparagus makes your pee smell funny. I was amused to learn that  no one can pinpoint the exact cause of the odor, but they have learned that some people cannot recognize the scent, while others do so immediately. I like the idea that this is a subject of serious study. I bet it occasions some very odd discussions around the water cooler.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Roasted Reds

red bell pepper are sweet not hot

I don't think I ever ate a red bell pepper when I was growing up. Green peppers were common; they were cut up in salads or stuffed and baked, but red peppers appeared only on antipasto platters or as stuffing inside little green olives.

Today, though, I consider red peppers a staple. Luckily, they are a healthful food, very high in Vitamin C, A, B6, and other good things. I eat them because they are delicious. In warm weather, I often lunch on half a pepper filled with cottage cheese laced with chopped scallion, cucumber, and radish. I add raw peppers to most salads and to many sandwiches. I love the crunch as well as the color.

Roasted or grilled peppers lack the crunch but have a deeply satisfying flavor. I have been making them every week since I received my new grill. It is such a luxury to be able to cook up one pepper at a time. Previously, I had bought my grilled peppers in small containers. They were pretty expensive.  I can understand why; they require a human touch.

Still, making these peppers is easy: cut one or more into quarters vertically. Rub the pieces with oil. Either bake in a 500-degree oven or grill over a hot fire until charred and blackened, about 5 minutes to a side. Remove from heat and immediately place into a paper bag or a covered dish. Let sit until cool enough to handle. Peel off the blackened skin and coat with olive oil (add garlic if you like). Keep refrigerated.

Try roasted peppers on French bread with brie, melted cheddar, or goat cheese. You'll see why they have become a staple in my house.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Rushing the Season

We have had a few warm days lately, and  I'm all ready for summer food. In fact, I probably rushed the season a little bit, making a dinner of grilled chicken, potato salad, and tossed green salad. But I was ready to revisit  my summertime favorites.

Years ago, a friend with central air-conditioning mentioned that she loved central air because she didn't have to change either her clothes or her menu every season. Not me. I love making that change. I have my own ideas about what constitutes a good warm-weather meal and what constitutes a good cold-weather meal.At the change of the seasons, I look forward to having foods that I have not tasted in months.

Winter finds me brewing cauldrons of soup, simmering stews, and stuffing baked potatoes. I drink pots of tea and eat hearty Irish oatmeal. Summer finds me chilling gazpacho, making corn relish, and combining ingredients for main-dish salads. I drink pitchers of lemonade and eat cottage cheese with fruit. I guess this is my own way of celebrating the edible gifts that each season brings.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Usual Suspects

I love casual invitations to home-cooked meals, partly because I love to see what other people throw together on the spur of the moment. We all have different household staples on hand, and we all have different dishes that we can create at the drop of a hat. For example, I never run out of coffee, tea, milk, cheese, eggs, crackers, and salad fixings. Cheese omelet, anyone? In addition, I always have pesto in the freezer or refrigerator; some type of pasta; canned tomatoes; premade sauce; and fresh garlic. Another staple in my house is Boboli pizza crust.

I usually buy two of the whole-wheat large size, because they freeze well and thaw very quickly. The crusts are a perfect vehicle for a variety of leftovers. I  begin with a heaping tablespoon of pesto, spread all over,  followed by some type of tomato sauce. Then I improvise.

Last night, I threw on some fresh chopped tomatoes and a whole bunch of leftover grilled vegetables: eggplant, onions, mushrooms,  and bell peppers. I sprinkled some Parmesan over everything, threw on some mozzarella, and baked the pizza directly on the oven rack for a few minutes longer than recommended. The resulting dish is wonderfully tasty, filling, healthful, and easy to eat. In addition, the entire meal takes less than half an hour to prepare.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Waiting for Asparagus

I'm hoping the asparagus crop will be early this year. To my mind, few foods are as pretty as fresh asparagus. The stalks vary in color from pale green to dark emerald streaked with purple. I feel especially lucky, because my close neighbor Bryon Clemence grows several types of asparagus at the Burroughs Farm. He sells it fresh-cut, and it is truly delicious.

Usually, the first time I eat fresh seasonal asparagus, I just steam it quickly in a frypan with an inch of water. I cook it for two or three minutes, and it comes out bright green and incredibly tasty. I add a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and some salt and then eat it plain. After I've had several such meals, I usually branch out. Sometimes I make a quiche; at other times, I add buttered crumbs or a cheese sauce; often I wrap a few spears in thin ham slices and serve cold with mayonnaise.

Last month, I grilled asparagus for the first time and loved it. I tossed the spears with a bit of olive oil and then put them directly on the hot grill for just a few minutes.

A few weeks ago, I tried a recipe that I found online, called Absurdly Addictive Asparagus. Besides asparagus, the dish contains leeks, pancetta, garlic, citrus, and a few other ingredients. My first thought was that it was good, but addictive? However, by the time I had polished off a large bowlful, I decided that the adjective was accurate. The taste lingered in my memory, so I kept returning to the refrigerator.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Eggs through the Mail

When I was a kid, we had lots of chickens, and one of my favorite chores was gathering eggs. I still remember the feeling of sliding my hand beneath each warm, feathery hen to retrieve an egg or two. Sometimes the hen would peck but more often she wouldn't.

Surprisingly, eggs were frequently mailed from our farm to our other house in New Jersey. They were packed in individual cardboard sleeves that were then packed inside of lightweight metal boxes. The boxes were mailed at the post office, and I do not recall ever receiving a broken one. Eggs that didn't fit into the fridge were stored in a crock filled with some slimy goo called isinglass, which kept the eggs fresh for months.

Eggs were considered healthful when I was young. Then, for a few decades, they were deemed bad for the heart. Now they are back on the approved list, after scientists determined that dietary cholesterol isn't the real villain. Good thing. Not only are eggs versatile, but they are also a relatively inexpensive source of protein and other nutrients. A two-egg omelet, filled with such veggies as mushrooms, onions, or leftover cooked spinach, makes a quick and tasty meal any time of day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I am beginning to learn why people are so ga-ga over grills. Today, I stopped at Wegmans, which carries a $6 a bottle Shiraz that I like (SilverGum). I had  gone food shopping just a few days ago and wasn't planning on buying much else, but I did see a nice piece of salmon, so I brought it home. Usually, I cook it in my oven, but tonight I decided to try grilling it outdoors.

I preheated the grill for fifteen minutes and oiled it. Then I made a mixture of mayonnaise, lemon juice, fresh dill, salt, and pepper to brush onto the fish.  I cooked it approximately 5 minutes on a side. Not only was it ridiculously quick and easy, but also it was perfect: nice little grill marks, moist and tender fish, and best of all—NO SMELL IN THE HOUSE.

I had started new potatoes boiling when I first started the grill, and they were perfectly cooked by the time the salmon was done. These, plus some leftover grilled veggies, created a delicious dinner in less than half an hour. (Sorry--I ate the fish before photographing it.)