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cheesy corn and kale bake

August 26th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

August is almost over.

And even writing that out doesn’t feel like it’s real. But it is; the month is over next week, then September comes and summer fades into the rear view mirror, leaving it’s fingerprints in our memory, waning like a summer tan. It has truly been an amazing and beautiful summer.

But it’s been a glorious August in Minnesota, a perfect end to this fleeting season. Despite June’s cool weeks, July roared in with it’s searing heat and choking humidity, and storm after storm after storm charged across the sky, darkening the hours, drowning us in rain. And what a delight too. I didn’t water my grass once this summer and it’s stayed lush and green through all the record-breaking heat. That’s pretty rare here. And the abundant rain has turned our surroundings in to a thick rainforest of growth, with a fresh earthy smell that’s nearly intoxicating. August ushered out the heat, and brought us gorgeous sun, endless blue sky and cool nights with fresh breezes. I’ve just fallen in love with August this year. If summer in Minnesota was like this month has been, no one would ever see the need to complain.

Then there’s the bounty, the amazing bounty sagging the tables at the Farmers Markets every week. It’s staggering how much produce is weighing down those tables, with over-loaded trucks parked behind, waiting to dispel their goods. I can take a $20 dollar bill and bring home two big sacks stuffed with food each week. My last trip was so fruitful that I could hardly stagger to the car with my load. And for only $28 dollars, I could have collapsed our kitchen island with the weight.

The one item I’ve been a bit disappointed with this season has been the sweet corn. I’ve had more misses with my ears than I’ve had wondrously sweet experiences, and one farmer I spoke to said that the intense heat and heavy rain can cause such quick ripening of the corn that it’s difficult to get it at that sweet tender state that so many people like.

A recent batch of corn that I purchased was a bit too starchy and dry for my liking, but mixed with red pepper, dark green kale and a few handfuls of good cheese, it turned in to a delightful dish that took the focus off the chewy over-ripe corn.

This cheesy baked dish was so yummy, rich with fresh summer flavor. I’d love to try it again, adding more vegetables to it, maybe change the cheese to something stronger, or try it with chard since I seem to have glided up and over the moon for this particular dark leafy green. Did you see in that photo that I bought THREE bunches of it? I am crazy.

But that’s what I need to do; dive head first into these seasonal delights and enjoy them while I can. Like summer, and August, they’ll be fading all too quickly, and I’ll be back in the produce aisle of the grocer, surveying my options, rubbing my arms from the cold, wishing I was dodging sunlight, an overstuffed sack slung on my bare shoulder.

Cheesy Corn and Kale Bake

1 red bell pepper, diced
1 medium leek, sliced thin (or an onion, if you wish)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large bunch of curly leaf kale, washed and spun dry then chopped
4 c. fresh corn kernels
2 T. unsalted butter
2 T. AP flour
1 c. milk (i used soy)
1 c. freshly grated cheddar cheese (or mix it up a bit with pepper jack)
1 T. cream cheese (I used sour cream)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°

In a deep cast iron skillet, or other oven proof skillet, sauté the leek and pepper in a bit of olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for about a minute or two. Add in the kale and stir until it’s coated with the oil, then cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Scrape veggies in to a bowl and set aside.

In same pan, melt the butter, then add the flour and stir to make a roux. Cook, stirring, for about two minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Slowly whisk in the milk until smooth, then cook, stirring constantly until the mixture is very thick. It may look a bit reddish brown from the pepper, but that’s just fine. Mix the cheese in a little at a time until you have a nice cheese sauce, stir in the cream cheese and cooked pepper mix, and then the corn kernels. It will be very thick. Season with salt, pepper and the cayenne and spread it evenly in the pan. Place the pan, uncovered, in to the oven and bake until hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

 

Original recipe is from The Kitchn website; I made heavy modifications.

You can use frozen corn in this if you wish, just be sure to run it under cold water to thaw it out, and shake all the extra moisture out before adding it to the cheese sauce mixture.


surprising creations

August 20th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

What’s that saying? ‘Necessity is the mother of invention?’

Many amazing recipes occur when the frantic need for something to add to dinner comes up and I wildly glance in the pantry to see what I’ve got. What odds and ends are laying about in the fridge? What needs to get used up? What tastes good together?

I fling a lot of ingredients in a pan, or a bowl and I cross my fingers a lot when I cook. Whether it’s out of ‘necessity’ like the quote, or just curiosity, it’s not often that I follow a recipe. More likely, I am making something up as I go. Thankfully, more often than not the results are pretty tasty.

The worst part of it all is that if I don’t write down what I did, I rarely remember it to be able to recreate the dish.

This one, however, did not get away from me.

Side dishes have always been a favorite of mine, and lately I’ve been on this kick of filling my plate with nothing but ‘side’ dishes. The nice thing about removing the focus of meat from our meals is that just about everything we do now can either be termed a ‘main’ dish, or a ‘side’ dish. And sometimes, all of what is being served at our table, technically, are sides.

Griffin was making fish for dinner recently (yes, we eat fish) and we both really wanted something unique on the side. I keep a lot of rice and grains handy, but we were short on time and didn’t want to wait for brown rice, or wild rice to cook. He was digging through our pantry and pulled out a jar of pearl couscous, asking me ‘What’s this?’ And as with necessity, and invention was born.

Pearl couscous, mostly recognized as Israeli couscous, is the thicker version of the tiny semolina grains that most people know best. Couscous isn’t really a ‘grain’ like farro, or quinoa; it’s pasta in minutiae form. The instant version of couscous cooks in a flash by adding the tiny beads to boiling broth. The larger form takes a bit longer, but still is quick enough to make for an easy dinner. We used chicken broth, some frozen corn and a generous handful of fresh herbs from the garden and the result was surprising to all of us. It’s light and flavorful and wondrously versatile, but not heavy like larger pasta shapes. I think some form of this will be making regular appearances on our dinner table. With enough fresh vegetables added to it, the dish becomes a meal in itself, or you can serve it over a garden fresh tomato for a perfect salad option. It actually tastes wonderful cold too.

Did you notice the new print button feature??? Pretty cool, huh??

Pearl Couscous Pilaf

1 c. pearl couscous
1-1/4 c. well seasoned broth (can use vegetable, mushroom, chicken….)
1 medium leek, or 2 small ones, sliced and washed well (can sub a finely diced onion)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 c. vegetable of choice (we used corn; try diced zucchini or other fresh seasonal vegetables)
1/4 c. fresh herbs, finely chopped (we used thyme, oregano and basil, then parsley to finish)

In a deep skillet with a cover, heat a few tablespoons of oil. Add the leek and cook, stirring regularly, until softened and beginning to brown in some places. Add in the garlic and cook, stirring for about a minute. Add the corn (or whatever vegetable you are using) and stir to coat with the oil mixture, then add the couscous and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Pour in the broth, stir to combine and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat so it simmers, cover the pan and allow to cook, undisturbed, until the couscous absorbs all the broth. It should take about 10 minutes. Allow it to sit for about 5 more minutes, off heat. Before serving, toss the fresh herbs in and stir to combine,  seasoning with salt and fresh pepper. Top with parsley as a garnish.

high summer hiking…. and eating

August 15th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

Not even five minutes into my Sunday morning hike and already my shoes are soaked from the dew. I have to make a split second decision as I feel cool, wet water seeping through my socks; turn back or keep going. There might be blisters at the end, surely some chafing from my hiking shoes, but it’s a glorious August morning and the sun is glaring down on me. I can’t go back. Ignoring my wet feet, I move on.

I’m in Otter Lake Regional Park and this is my glory place, my church of the great outdoors. Plopped in the middle of White Bear Township, it’s a tiny little park, with a very nice nature center and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re miles from the outer world. It’s where I cross country ski in the winter time, and for the other three seasons, I roam it’s trails and discover more and more every day to love about it. On this particularly beautiful morning, in the high season of summer, I take to the trails, dew and all to seek out something I can’t find among the concrete.

My favorite path is cut short by standing water; it’s unusually low in that area, and during the Spring thaw, the trail is often impassable, but it always dries out. But this summer, with it’s abundant rainfall, it’s a no-mans land. I keep on the path that leads me around the back of the newly constructed natural classroom and head in to the swamp. This trail will lead me to the northwest section of the park where the hardest challenge of my hike lies. In there, the path cuts through a sanctuary of birch and towering oak trees, dipping down sharply, then rising just as fast to offer a heart-pounding, blood racing interval that I love. I can’t even consider going on this trail in the wintertime, on my skis. It’s challenging enough on foot, but I can’t stay away. The majestic oak trees line the path, like sentries that silently watch me pass, breathing deep, as the smaller of the two lakes in the park wink it’s shimmer of blue through the tree line. I try to challenge myself to run hard up a few of these  short but steep hills. I’m ignoring my damp shoes.

Coming out on the other end, I’ve broken a sweat and wish I had my water bottle. The sun has rose high enough now to pound on my skin, and the wind swirls around me. It’s not strong enough to keep the flies at bay, and I impatiently swat away at them, mentally reminding myself to bring bug spray the next time I come here. This section of the path, through the heart of the park is high and open. No trees hide the sun out here and as I push on, beads of sweat slip down my temples.

The best part of being out here isn’t the nature. It isn’t hearing the hum of the highway along the western edge of the park, or the sound of the trains in the distance, blasting their whistles as they through the crossing. It isn’t the flash of deer, startled from their morning graze, leaping through the trees with white tails whipping, nor the fox, visible only by it’s bright red bushy tail twisting as it runs. It isn’t the small brown snake that lifts it’s head as I approach, watching me closely. “I’m no threat.” I murmur, slowing down to gaze at it’s tiny eyes. It doesn’t even flinch as I carefully step over it, and turning back as I move on, I see it’s watching me.

It isn’t any of these things, nor the rustle of the grass, or the continual droning hum of the insects. It isn’t the fluttering butterflies that skip along the path ahead of me, all shapes, sizes and colors. It’s isn’t any of it, and it’s all of it. Because out here, with the open skies and clean air, coupled with my footsteps and steady, hard breathing, it’s all of it at once that tames the voices inside, the swirl of life in my head that becomes a cadence of regular disruption. I come out here and it all disappears. My head clears, while the constant motion in it stops and I can breathe, relax, feel my blood pound and just let go. I am in sync with myself on this path, instead of at war with trying to figure out what’s next.

Then the trail dips down to the larger lake, and winds around to the north. It’s really uneven here, and now I am fully aware of my hiking shoe rubbing on my right ankle. The arthritis in my feet is apparent, but it will never stop me; it’s just more noticeable where the path is the least stable. The grass is tall and it tickles my legs. I swat the flies, wipe the sweat and keep going because soon, there will be the boardwalk leading me around the side of the lake, and at the other end is the thickest, densest trees and a hard packed dirt path that will take me back to the place I began. I’m on the last leg and those woods, with the tall maples and cool shadows will feel really, really good after the heat and sunshine. I feel the temperature drop as I enter here, and the slight chill rejuvenates me. Sunlight is dripping through the high tree canopy. And it’s glorious with bird song.

But the mosquitos in here are terrible. I can’t stop, or even slow down. I want to grab a few photographs to chronicle this morning, but I am swarmed with nibblers if I try to catch my breath. My feet feel better, but the rubbing on my ankle is a chronic annoyance. Because it’s cool in here though, the sweat slows down and I don’t have to wipe my face so much. My heart and lungs are on full power now; I’ve been hiking hard for 45 minutes by the time this trail leads me back out to the blacktop path that I started on. The nature center is in sight, and the parking lot, where my car and my water bottle await, is beyond that. My head feels soothed and I take a deep breath, once again. I’m back to the car, stripping off my soaking wet shoes and socks, wiping down my feet with the wipes I keep in my car and toweling off the sweat. My water bottle is half empty already. I stretch out the tension, drop in to a few yoga positions to re-focus and eventually climb in to my car to head home. In less than an hour I hiked nearly 4 miles.

And I’m so hungry now.

At home is waiting the simplest of simple summer salads, perfect for these heady days of heat and sun. The farmers markets are absolutely bursting with a mind-boggling bounty of fresh food and I am crazy in love with sweet corn, fresh tomato, zucchini for the grill, tiny purple eggplants and dark, dark greens. Every meal tastes like sunshine, each bite bursts with flavor. I snip handfuls of herbs from the garden to crush and sprinkle over everything and even after washing my hands I can still smell the thyme, the parsley and basil, the volunteer oregano that sprung up from last years plants.

And this salad…. this salad awaits my gnawing stomach, the hunger driven out of a vigorous hike, deep gulps of clean morning air and the need to still my mind. It’s simple, quick and so delightful; the snap of fresh tomato, fresh zucchini chunks, crunchy corn kernels that still taste like a farm field and lots and lots of tiny thyme leaves. A few scattered pieces of lemony goat cheese makes it complete.

My shoes are drying in the hot sun, outside on the patio and I need a shower. My ankle didn’t blister, thank goodness, and while my body is energized from it’s workout, my mind is at rest. This is a good place to be. Like August, with it’s wellspring of fresh vegetables.

What’s on your summer table these days??

(Notice anything new down below here?? There’s a print button for my recipes now!!)

 

Herbed Sweet Corn and Tomato Salad

4 ears sweet corn, shucked, cooked and stripped of kernels
4 medium tomatoes, or 1 pint fresh cherry tomatoes, as ripe as you can find
2 small zucchini, diced
1/2 c. fresh chopped herbs, such as basil, thyme, parsley and oregano (use rosemary if you like it)
2 T. good quality olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper and sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow to stand for 5-10 minutes to combine flavors. Serve topped with goat cheese, if desired.

My Notes: I used half a pint of purple cherry tomato, and one good sized orange heirloom tomato for my version of this dish. I also diced up a fresh heirloom pepper that I had on hand. I think one of the best parts about this dish is how colorful it can be with the variations available now. As the salad stands, it will release plentiful juices which are delicious if you dip fresh toasted bread into them, then sprinkle a bit of sea salt over before eating.

apple time of year

October 18th, 2010 | 7 Comments »

Apples are on everyone’s mind right about now.

In the oven, on the stove, in the crisper drawer, in hand and crunching away….. it’s mid-October and it’s Apple time and it’s a beautiful thing.

There’s a gorgeous apple orchard near our lake home- Baker Orchard in Centuria, WI-  that we visit several times a year, the owners being good friends of ours. It’s a simple place, has a century-old barn that was renovated a few years back and a lovely art gallery on the property. The orchard hosts community events each year; an art festival, a cyclocross race and the occasional wedding inside the lovely old barn. There’s hiking trails through gorgeous woods, and a huge gentle team of horses that will languidly pull you through the laden trees, branches close enough for you to reach out and snatch a ripe apple for snacking. They make their own fresh-pressed apple cider, an incredible treat. John is exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable about apples, even taking the time to assess a mystery apple brought in by a visitor to determine what exactly it was.

He’s always ready to do his apple-juggling act, complete with biting the apples as he tosses them through the air.

He encourages treks through the orchard and doesn’t mind a sampling here and there of the fruit. It’s a simple, family-owned business. Last year, Mike and I re-designed their website into a blog format, and the reward for our work was complimentary apples. Payment in food for a job well-done is my kind of reward. So if I’m talking about apples here, it’s fairly certain they came from Baker Orchard.

The orchard sustained hail damage this past summer, and the last time we visited, John gave me a sack of hail-damaged Haralson apples to take home, making me promise I wouldn’t photograph them. I agreed, and unfortunately, once broken and damaged by hail, the apples don’t last that long. I barely managed to salvage enough of them (my fault, really- I left them too long once they came home) to make a few delectable options with them, namely an Apple Cheddar and Almond muffin, and a pan of Apple Streusel Bars. Try as I might, I simply could not photograph those muffins and make them look even close to having the exceptional flavor they did. But those bars?

Oh dear.

These bars are something else. It’s like a pie that you can eat with your hands. It’s like Apple Crisp in your fingertips. It’s heaven in apple and butter and crumbs. It’s simple and sweet and easy to make and tastes like Autumn. You don’t need a thing out of the ordinary pantry supplies and as good as they are simply out of the pan, they are another bit of heaven altogether when you warm them slightly and crumble them over a bowl of yogurt, or even ice cream. And did I mention that they were simple?

Apple Streusel Bars

Pastry:

2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. real butter, softened
1 egg, beaten

Apple Filling:

1/2 c. white sugar
1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
4 c. (about 3 medium) sliced, peeled baking apples

To prepare crust, mix flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender or two knives until you have pea-sized crumbles. Gently mix in beaten egg.

Spray a 9×13 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Gently pat about 2/3 of the crumb mixture onto the bottom of the dish. Preheat oven to 350° and set aside.

To prepare apple filling, combine sugar, flour, and cinnamon and toss with apples.

Spread apples out on prepared crust. Sprinkle reserved crust mixture over apples evenly and bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes. Allow to cool completely before slicing.

And for good measure, even though there is no photo- here is the Apple Cheddar and Almond Muffin recipe. Because it’s just THAT good.

Apple Cheddar Muffins with Almonds
from Real Food magazine, Lunds/Byerlys

1/2 (1 stick) c. unsalted butter (room temperature)
1/2 c. sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 c. whole milk
2-1/2 c. flour
2-1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. sea salt
2 large apples, cored, peeled and diced small
1/2 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 c. chopped almonds (can sub in any nut, really; pecans or walnuts would also be wonderful)

Heat oven to 350°. Prepare muffins tins with cooking spray or paper liners (I got 18 muffins from this recipe). Combine milk and eggs in large measuring cup and whisk lightly to blend. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a second bowl. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then whisk in milk/egg mixture. Add flour, apples, cheese and nuts and gently fold together until just combined. Scoop into muffin tins and bake 20-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes, then remove from pans.