Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Furry Friends: Kiwis

I never ate a kiwi when I was growing up. Of course, back then, few people did because they were called Chinese gooseberries, and their furry appearance was slightly off-putting. Then, in the early 1960s, some marketing genius renamed them kiwi fruits and a star was born.

Kiwis are gorgeous to look at, and their fresh  color and taste makes them a natural for fruit salads, green salads, and garnish. However, these fruits contain an enzyme that can cause a few problems. One problem is that the enzyme reacts to dairy foods and to gelatin and starts breaking them down. So if you use kiwis combined with any dairy food, eat the combination immediately. And don't use raw kiwis in gelatin, or it won't set.

The other problem is that some people—mainly those with allergies to latex, bananas, and papayas— have an allergic reaction to kiwis. However, most people enjoy them with impunity.

Like strawberries, kiwis have a sweet-tart taste. Both fruits are also high in Vitamin C and potassium, so you can feel virtuous snacking on them. Kiwis pair up beautifully with avocadoes in salads. They also go well with most other fruits for dessert. I tend to buy several at a time. One, at least, I eat plain, first cutting it in half and scooping out the flesh with a spoon.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Me and My Shrimp

just plain shrimp, to be eaten with cocktail sauce

I have a long and affectionate relationship with shrimp. When I was a kid and out to dinner with my parents, shrimp cocktail was my favorite restaurant appetizer. I loved the way they were presented, usually served dangling over the edge of a silver or crystal bowl, with a little tub of cocktail sauce in the center and a slice of lemon on the plate below. I also loved that I could eat them with my fingers.

Later, shrimp was one of the foods that I served to company. It had many incarnations: shrimp creole, scampi, stuffed shrimp, jambalaya, and one of my very favorites, shrimp de jonghe. Shrimp dejonghe is one of those foods that I eat infrequently, because it's so rich with butter, but I adore it. I serve it in large seashells that I was given years ago. I think they were meant for Coquille St. Jacques, another rich and tasty seafood dish, but one that I have made exactly once. However, I keep the shells because they are the perfect vehicle for serving up my shrimp de jonghe. The dish was named, by the way, for the DeJonghe Hotel in Chicago and the brothers who owned it.

One thing I love about shrimp is that it is tasty but very mild. So it goes well with sharp flavors like horseradish or garlic. When I eat shrimp plain and cold, I make a quick sauce by mixing together ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, and a dash of Tabasco. When I eat it hot, most often I make quick scampi.

I've been reluctant to try grilling shrimp, because it cooks quickly and I was afraid I'd ruin it. However, I visited some friends last week and they had a great method: cook peeled shrimp for 2-3 minutes in boiling water; drain and set the colander over ice in the refrigerator. This keeps the shrimp from being soggy. After the rest of the dinner is ready, slather the shrimp with a marinade (teriyaki sauce or garlic and butter) and then throw on a very hot grill just for a few moments. Since the shrimp is already cooked, this just heats it up, chars the outside a bit, and carmelizes the marinade. Delicious!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flashy Food

Admit it: sometimes you want to prepare a dish that looks great but is really easy to prepare. Years ago, my daughter Kate gave me just such a recipe, which she learned at Earlham College. The ingredients are simple: sugar cookie dough (your own or the type that comes in a roll); 8 oz. cream cheese; 2 TBSP sugar; dash vanilla; sliced fruit; jam.

Assembly is also simple. First, get your cream cheese out of the fridge so it softens. Now spread the dough on a greased pizza pan or other flat pan. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes, or until it turns pale brown. Let it cool. When it's cool, beat the cream cheese until soft. Then add the sugar and vanilla. Spread over the crust.

Now comes the fun part. Slice plump fruit but leave small berries whole. I used kiwis, Granny Smith apples, and strawberries, but you can also use bananas, blueberries, peaches, or anything but citrus, which curdles the cream cheese. Arrange the sliced fruit over the cream cheese, pressing it in slightly. Now melt a few TBSP of jam in a saucepan. I used apricot, but almost any jam works. Strain it and add a tsp of water to thin it slightly. Spread this over the fruit and chill for at least an hour. The glaze keeps the fruit from drying out and makes it sparkle.

This is a great dessert to bring to a potluck dinner, because it never fails to attract attention. It looks wonderful and is very tasty. (Not as great as the made-from-scratch fruit tart, with a shortbread crust and pastry cream filling, which the same daughter once made for my birthday, but that is more of an undertaking.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Too Many Tomatoes? No such thing!

Nothing beats a fresh tomato, eaten immediately after picking. However, some times you wind up with a batch of tomatoes, rather than one or two perfect specimens. When tomatoes ripen, they often do so all at once, giving cooks an opportunity to cook in quantity and then save for later.

When I was younger, I used to can tomatoes. It was a bit of a pain, I admit, but they sure looked great in their sparkling jars. Then I froze them, back when I had a giant freezer in the basement. Now I roast them and then freeze them in bags. The roasting concentrates both the flavor and the bulk, and it makes a delicious sauce.

Take a large roasting pan and brush it with olive oil. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange them cut side up in the pan. You can crowd them in, but don't pile them up. One layer only, please. Sprinkle with a little salt and some chopped garlic, if you like. You can also throw in some basil or oregano. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Roast in a 400 oven for about an hour, depending on the size of the tomatoes. Check on them after 45 minutes, but it could take up to 90, depending on size. You want them to brown but not completely dry out.

Now put them through a food mill, if you have one and don't like skins. Or, throw them into a blender, skin and all (or use a stick blender). The resulting sauce can be frozen in plastic bags in serving sizes that fit your family. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Then use as is in recipes.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Enjoy the Stinking Rose

Recently, I bought a fresh head of garlic from Small Farm, and I was surprised at how different it was from the garlic that I usually buy. It had bite; it had scent; it had juice. It was wonderful.

I love garlic. In the winter, I roast it and spread it on sandwiches. This time of year, I usually throw it into stir-fries and salad dressing. Yesterday, I tried making a red pepper aioli, which turned out wonderfully. I had bought a bag of red peppers to roast, and I used half to make the aioli.

Garlic is touted as having all sorts of health benefits. The bulb is thought to prevent several types of cancer and improve blood flow. Scientists are trying to separate fact from fiction, since many medicinal uses, although steeped in history, do seem a bit dubious. (Garlic is also reputed to ward off vampires and werewolves, in case these concern you.) I don't care so much about the health benefits as I do about the taste. To my way of thinking, garlic has no good substitute.

By the way, I no longer mince garlic cloves with a knife; instead, I grate the cloves on a microplane. Much faster and easier.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Artichokes: the Edible Thistle

The first person to eat an artichoke probably deserves some sort of award, because the part that we eat is really the edible bud of a huge thistle plant. If left on the plant, the bud produces a large purple flower. In this country, commercial artichokes are all grown in California. I know this because I once drove through Castroville, California, which calls itself the artichoke capital of the world. (In 1948, Marilyn Monroe was crowned as the artichoke queen.)

Artichokes are one of those perfect summer foods, because they are good whether hot or cold. I often buy several them on sale and cook them all at one time. I eat a hot one right away and save the others to eat cold. To select a good artichoke, pick it up. It should feel heavy and the leaves should squeak a little when the globe is squeezed. If the tips of the leaves are brown, it could be old and a bit tough.

Despite their armored exteriors, people have been eating artichokes for centuries. The taste is both distinctive and appealing. Many diners are introduced to this vegetable through a spinach-artichoke dip served by some restaurants, while other folks make their own dip. One of the simplest is just to combine equal parts of chopped artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese, and mayonnaise. Place in a buttered casserole and bake at 425 degrees for 20–25 minutes.

Cooking and eating artichokes is simple. Personally, I don't use a pressure cooker any more. Although it does save time, more often it overcooks the food. Instead, I just steam them on top of the stove after adding some lemon and garlic to the water.  Hot or cold, I eat them with mayonnaise, but many other people enjoy lemon butter instead.