Monday, July 13, 2015

Estill Farms Blueberries

My friend Janet and I went to check out a new blueberry farm this morning and between the two of us, we picked almost a hundred pounds in about two hours!!!

Estill Farms (aka Uncle Paula's Blueberries) is located west of Drain on Hwy 38. It's about a 40 mile drive from my house (37 miles from the UCC exit on I-5) so we wanted to make it worth our while. We started off picking their Draper variety. The bushes are small (perfect for kids!) but, oh, were they loaded with big, beautiful berries! Our recent heat wave has taken its toll and some of the berries are beginning to shrivel a little, but there were plenty of dark, sweet, firm berries.

Estill Farms provides picking buckets, but we had our own small buckets on belts (so we could pick with both hands) and empty them into their larger buckets. We quickly tired of bending over, but then we figured out it was easier to just hold our small buckets right under the clusters of berries and lightly run our fingers over them and the ripe berries would fall straight into the bucket. Fastest picking ever!

After we filled six large buckets plus our small ones with Drapers, we drove back to the pay station and decided to pick a few Libertys, which they had just opened for picking today. The Liberty berries have incredible flavor, a bit tarter than the Drapers and perfect for fresh eating. (I freeze most of our berries and we use them in smoothies, so it doesn't really matter what type I pick for that.) The Liberty bushes are tall, not much bending over, so we went back to the bucket-on-a-belt method.

We chatted with the owners while they weighed our berries and learned that this is only their second year doing u-pick. Paula Estill has been at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market the past two weeks and that's how I found out about their farm. It's great to have another blueberry farm in the area, especially since their harvest seems to be a bit later than the others, extending the season for all of us u-pickers.

If you go:

The address is 6680 Hwy. 38. (541)-836-7612. 

U-pick berries are $1.25/lb.

Bring shallow containers to transfer your berries to after they are weighed and paid for.

There's a very clean port-a-potty and a handwashing station right near the first rows of berries.

If you're new to picking and need tips on storing blueberries, read this.

Blueberry season won't last much longer, so get 'em while you can.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Easy Kalua Pig and Crusty French Rolls

I added traditional southern sides to my "Kalua" pig.
Have you got a crowd to feed? I've got the dish for you! We recently had a mini family reunion of sorts. My brother and his wife, just home from a two-year mission to Tonga, drove up from California with their youngest daughter at the same time both of our girls were home for a visit. Add my parents, husband and son, and that made ten of us for a Father's Day feast.

I wanted a simple dish I could prepare ahead of time. Since we were honoring three fathers, I didn't want the men out grilling fish, tri-tip or hamburgers in the sweltering sun. I flipped through one of my church cookbooks and landed on Easy Kalua Pig, contributed by my friend, Kay Tano. Melt-in-your-mouth pork done in the slow cooker? Sounded like just the ticket to a fuss-free dinner.

Kalua, according to my friend Andy, who was raised on The Big Island, is the Hawaiian word for the method of cooking using an imu or underground oven. (Not to be confused with Kahlúa, which is a Mexican coffee liquor.) Kalua Pig is the traditional meat served at a luau.

I don't remember much about the food at the luaus I went to as a child during the two years we lived in Hawaii. I was probably too picky to try the traditional side dishes like lomi lomi salmon, poi or poke. I do, however, have a fondness for southern barbecue. While the cooking differs slightly from Kalua Pig, the flavor is quite similar.

Family reunions in South Carolina included a trip to the famous Sweatman's Bar-b-que in Holly Hill, an hour's drive from my mother's hometown of Charleston. Like Scarlett O'Hara and her unbridled enthusiasm to “eat barbeque,” we piled our Styrofoam plates high with smoky pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw, macaroni & cheese and cups of banana pudding for dessert. The family that eats together, stays together!

For this family dinner, I decided to go the southern route and served my “Kalua” Pig sandwich-style on crusty French rolls. Barbecue sauce was available for those who wanted it, but this meat had plenty of flavor without dressing it up. The pork cooks for 15 to 20 hours on low. I started it Saturday night before bed and it was falling-apart tender when I served it, to rave reviews, Sunday afternoon. The rolls, too, can be mixed and shaped the night before.

Food brings us together. If the promise of a sumptuous meal gets people to the table, I'm eager to do my part in the kitchen. Easy Kalua Pig is a dish that feeds many mouths with minimal prep and lets you focus on family fun. 

Easy “Kalua” Pig

You can find nearly identical recipes for Kalua Pig all over the Internet. With only three ingredients, there's not much variation. I used my friend Kay's recipe from our church cookbook and added many preparation details of my own.

1 (6 lb.) pork butt roast
1 ½ tablespoons sea salt
1 tablespoon liquid smoke

A word about ingredients:

The pork butt I bought was bone-in and labeled “Pork Shoulder/Boston Butt.” The bone adds flavor while cooking and is easily pulled out when the meat gets tender.

Some recipes call for special Red Hawaiian sea salt. I used the sea salt I use for just about all my cooking, which is Redmond's Real Salt.

Liquid Smoke comes in several varieties: Mesquite, hickory, applewood, etc. I used hickory, but some recipes suggest that mesquite is closest to the kiawe wood traditionally used when cooking Kalua Pig in the ground.


Pierce the meat all over with something sharp, like a carving fork. I used a metal shish kebab skewer. An ice pick would work, also. Rub the salt all over the meat. Drizzle with liquid smoke and rub that in too. Place the roast in a slow cooker, cover and cook on low for 15 to 20 hours, turning once during the cooking period. Do not add any liquid! The roast will cook in its own juices and become falling-apart tender. I started my roast at 10:00 P.M. and served it at 5:00 P.M. the next day. It was perfect!

When ready to serve, remove the bone and transfer the meat to a cutting board using tongs or a slotted spoon. Shred the meat using two forks or chop it with a large knife. (I removed some of the fat from the meat before shredding, because I couldn't bear to mix it all in, but this is in no way a low-fat dish.) Add some of the juices from the slow cooker to moisten the shredded meat, if needed. Serve immediately.

Yield: I fed ten people and had enough meat leftover for another five or six servings. If you want to try a smaller amount, the butcher said you could use a few boneless pork ribs instead of a pork butt. Of course, you'll need to decrease the salt and liquid smoke proportionately.

Crusty French Rolls

I've adapted these rolls from Peter Reinhart's recipe for Classic French Bread in his book Artisan Breads Every Day. Kneading takes only a few minutes and is easily done by hand. Best of all, the rolls can be mixed, shaped and refrigerated overnight. The next day, just pop them into the oven for about 20 minutes and serve them warm. This recipe yields 40 oz of dough, which will make 13 (3 oz) rolls or 20 (2 oz) rolls. I used the larger rolls for sandwiches.

5 1/3 cups (24 oz) unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons (0.5 oz) sea salt
2 ¼ teaspoons (0.25 oz or 1 pkg. instant yeast (Red Star Quick-Rise or bread machine yeast)
2 cups (16 oz) lukewarm water

Measure the flour, salt and yeast into a large mixing bowl. Stir to combine and then add the water. Stir well with a large spoon for about 1 minute, until it forms a shaggy dough. Let it rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead gently by hand for about 3 minutes, adding as little flour as possible, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic, but is still just a bit tacky. If you touch it with a dry finger, it should cling ever so slightly, but not stick.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled container, cover and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 90 minutes. Turn out onto a floured board and divide into 2 or 3 oz pieces. Shape each piece of dough into a ball by placing it in the palm of one hand and using the fingers of your other hand to bring the edges to the center and pinch them together tightly, creating a smooth top. Place the rolls a few inches apart on a parchment-lined baking pan. Spray lightly with oil, cover the pan well with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. (The oven bags made for roasting a turkey in fit well over a standard 18 x 13 half sheet pan. You won't be able to use a twist-tie, but you can tape the end to the underside of the pan.)

The next day, remove the pan from the refrigerator 1 hour before you plan to bake. If you have a baking stone, place it on the center rack of the oven. Place a steam pan (see note below) on the bottom rack. Preheat the oven to it's highest setting for at least 45 minutes.

About 10 minutes before baking, uncover the rolls to let the surface of the dough dry slightly. Just before putting the pan in the oven, slash the tops of the rolls about 1/2-inch deep with a serrated knife or snip the tops with kitchen shears. Have a cup of hot water ready and waiting. Place the pan on the baking stone or center rack. Cover the oven window with a dry dish towel (to prevent splashes that could crack it), carefully (use oven mitts) pour the hot water into the steam pan on the bottom rack, quickly remove the towel and shut the door. Reduce the heat to 450 degrees.

Bake the rolls for 12 minutes. Carefully remove the hot steam pan and rotate the pan of rolls for even baking. Bake an additional 8 to 10 minutes, until a deep, golden color. (If you remove the rolls too soon, the crust will soften as they cool. If you have a thermometer, you want an internal temperature of at least 200 degrees.) Cool slightly on a wire rack and serve warm with butter or sliced in half for sandwiches.

A word about baking stones and steam:

A baking stone is not necessary for baking these rolls, but it does conduct heat more quickly through the dough, helping the rolls rise higher in the oven. If you bake much at all, a stone is a good investment. My stone “lives” in one of my ovens. I bake hearth loaves, baguettes and pizzas directly on the hot stone, but I also bake pies, tarts and rectangular sandwich loaves in their pans, on top of the stone. You must preheat a baking stone on the oven rack for 45 minutes before using to give it time to absorb heat.

Steaming the oven during the first half of baking is essential to produce a great crust on these rolls. The method I use is to place a heavy-duty pan on the bottom rack of the oven, below and to the side of the baking stone (or where you will place the pan of rolls). A cast iron pan or small, shallow baking pan will work (though it may warp). The pan will be preheated to the oven's highest temperature along with the stone. Hot water added at the beginning of the bake will produce the blast of steam needed for hard, crusty rolls. Alternatively, you can spritz the oven with water from a clean spray bottle several times during the first 5 minutes of baking, but you lose oven heat each time you open the door.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Blueberries are ready!


This must be the earliest season ever for blueberries. So early that I missed opening day at Haven Farm in Tyee. I made a note to check their website on Friday (6/12) as they opened on 6/18 last year, but I didn't get around to looking until today. They opened yesterday!!! I couldn't have gone even if I had known, but they say there are still plenty of berries to pick and more varieties coming on soon. 

I dug the newspaper out of the recycling bin to see if Big Bend Berries is open and, yes, they are. The nice thing about Big Bend, aside from the fact that they are much closer and the owners are so nice, is that you can pick in the evening on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's a great family activity. The price, $1.20/lb. is the same at both places. Brosi's in Winston grows blueberries, too, but I have never picked there.

Big Bend Berries
458 Big Bend Rd., Roseburg (Garden Valley)
U-pick only (bring buckets and containers)
M W F Sat 8:00 am to noon
T TH 5:00 pm to 8:30 pm

10246 Tyee Rd., Umpqua (15 miles west of Sutherlin)
Bring containers; they supply picking buckets
Open M - Sat. 8:00 am to 2:00 pm

Additional information for first-time pickers: 

If you've never picked your own fruit before, blueberries are a great place to start. No bending, no thorns, no ladders! I use the bucket-on-a-belt method for the fastest picking. Just thread an old belt through the handle of a small, sturdy bucket and fasten around your waist or over one shoulder. That way you have both hands free to pick. I like the 10 lb. detergent buckets with the metal handle. (Note: Haven Farm supplies their own picking buckets, but you should still bring a belt.) The small, plastic ice cream tubs are fine for children (who rarely get them full), but I have had the plastic handle break and then had to re-pick all of my berries out of the grass! I take along plastic dishpans to empty the berries into when the bucket gets full.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Going Green

(Originally published in The News Review on June 2, 2015.)

Asian greens from Norm Lehne Garden and Orchard

U-pick season got off to an early start this year with local strawberries ripe and ready in mid-May, the earliest ever according to Kruse Farms. I'm busy cleaning out my freezer to make room for this year's crops. I bought myself a new copy of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving and stashed my ratty sneakers, buckets and bins in the car so I'm ready to pick at a moment's notice. Do I sound excited?

Picking perfectly ripe, sweet, juicy berries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, pears and apples is my all-time, number one favorite summer activity. Whether I'm alone in the orchard or chatting with friends or family the next row over, I feel right at home at any of our local u-pick farms.

Along with fresh berries, which are so abundant right now, I'm trying to work more leafy greens into our diet. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal summarized the results of a new study that looked at nutrition and the brain. The MIND Diet (which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was developed by researchers at Rush University. In the study, strict adherence to the MIND diet, which emphasizes green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine, lowered the risk of Alzheimer's disease by as much as 53 percent. Quoting from the article, “Participants who ate one to two servings of green vegetables a day had a 'dramatic decrease in the rate of cognitive decline' compared with people who ate fewer greens, said Dr. Morris. 'It was about the equivalent of being 11 years younger in age,' she said. (Wall Street Journal April 20, 2015) That's music to my baby boomer ears!

So, how to get more leafy greens into our diet? Here are some suggestions for every meal of the day. Green smoothies for breakfast or post-workout are easy and delicious. Blend up a handful of kale or spinach with frozen fruit, pineapple juice and a banana and I promise you won't even taste the veggies.

A green salad, with a mix of spinach,arugula, a variety of lettuces, maybe some baby kale or cabbage thrown in, drizzled with an olive oil vinaigrette, makes a nutrition-packed side dish. Top with berries, nuts and grilled chicken or fish and you have a one-dish wonder for lunch or dinner that includes five of the ten recommended foods to nourish your brain. I never would have believed how much I'd enjoy a Massaged Kale and Mango Salad until I tried it, but I honestly could have eaten the whole batch myself. It's that good!

Kale chips are a delicately crunchy and very portable snack. You'll find three varieties made locally by NewLeaf Delivery at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market or at Umpqua Local Goods in Roseburg.

Cooked greens are going to be a harder sell at my house, but I'm determined to put my culinary creativity to the test. Big Lick Farm and Norm Lehne's Garden and Orchard both sell a dizzying array of leafy greens to experiment with. I've been adding beet greens to stir fries and chopped kale to soups. I've been sautéing Asian greens like Tat Soi in olive oil and garlic. My daughter, Christine, insists that greens cooked in bacon grease are the way to go, but,eaten too often, that might negate the health benefits.

Do you have a tasty way to serve cooked greens? Send me your recipe ( and I'll give it a try.

Massaged Kale and Mango Salad

You won't believe how good this is!

Massaged Kale and Mango Salad

My friend, Janet Catalano, has been making this salad for years. It's adapted from a recipe Nigella Lawson shared on The Food Network. Janet doubles the fruit and adds a touch more honey. Toasting the pumpkin seeds is optional, but I like the extra crunch it gives them.

1 bunch kale, any type will do but try dark, curly kale if you can find it
2 tablespoons olive oil
juice from ½ a large lemon
2 pinches of sea salt
1 tablespoon honey (or to taste)
a few grinds of pepper
1 whole mango, diced*
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, raw or toasted

If desired, toast the pumpkin seeds in a dry pan over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Rinse the kale and shake off extra water. Tear the leaves from the tough stems. (Discard the stems.) Stack the leaves on top of each other and slice into half-inch ribbons. Place the kale ribbons in a large bowl and drizzle with the olive oil. With your hands, massage the oil into the kale for at least 2 minutes. The kale will shrink down considerably and become tender, dark and glossy. In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper. Pour over the kale and stir well to combine, then add the diced mango. Transfer to a serving bowl or individual salad plates and top with pumpkin seeds.

Serves 3-4

*The easiest way to dice a mango is to slice the “cheeks” off each side of the pit before peeling. The pit is about ¾ inch wide. Score the flesh of the cheeks in parallel lines both lengthwise and then crosswise, being careful not to cut through the skin. Turn the scored mango cheeks inside out by pressing in the center of the skin side. Using a sharp knife, slice the squares of mango off the skin. Peel the skin from the portion containing the pit, score around the pit and slice off as much flesh as possible.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mixed Greens with Strawberries, Goat Cheese and Roasted Hazelnuts


Mixed Greens with Strawberries, Goat Cheese and Roasted Hazelnuts

I had a salad with strawberries and feta at a local restaurant and decided to create my own version at home. I didn't have any candied nuts on hand, so I added a little maple syrup to my vinaigrette to mimic that sweet flavor. This salad can easily be turned into a main dish by topping it with grilled chicken or salmon.

6 cups mixed greens, including spinach and arugula
1 cup strawberries, hulled and sliced in half
1 (3.5 ounce) container goat cheese or feta crumbles
¼ cup hazelnuts, roasted and coarsely chopped*
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons white balsamic or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Wash and dry the greens, tear into bite-size pieces and place in a large salad bowl. Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, syrup, salt and pepper. Pour dressing over the greens and toss gently to combine. Add the sliced strawberries and cheese; toss again briefly. Sprinkle chopped nuts over the top.

Serves 4.

*Roast hazelnuts in a shallow, rimmed baking sheet at 250 degrees for 20-25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. When cut in half, the center of the nuts should be a toasty brown.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Coming Home to an Old Favorite

(Originally published in The News Review on May 5, 2015)

I've just returned from a week visiting my daughter in New York City. For six days, with Laura as my guide, we ate our way through the borough of Manhattan. From Indian take out on the Upper West Side, to Dim Sum deep in the back alleys of Chinatown, heavenly mac & cheese in Chelsea, and perfect pizza arrabiata in the West Village, I found myself in a food-lovers paradise. And that was just dinner. We ate authentic New York bagels for breakfast and falafel for lunch. Across the East River we visited “Smorgasburg,” a hipster food festival in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. We sampled Moroccan meatballs with harissa, crispy scallion pancakes, hibiscus-glazed donuts and Columbian arepas. Farmers markets and random street fairs provided yet more temptation in the form fresh-pressed cider, babka and a peanut butter-banana-chocolate chip cookie.

Thankfully, these gastronomic adventures were balanced with miles and miles of walking, climbing up and down hundreds of stairs and riding bikes in Central Park. Still, after my week of indulgence, I crave simple, healthier fare. I'm hungry for beans. 

Dried beans are an excellent item to have in your pantry or food storage. Cooking dried beans is less expensive than buying canned beans and allows you to control the sodium content, eliminate additives and avoid the BPA (Bisphenol A) that is still used in the lining of most commercially canned foods. When I do opt for canned beans, I buy the Simple Truth brand at Fred Meyer. They're organic and contain much less salt than other brands.

I'm happy to eat just about any type of bean dish. I adore black beans and rice. Topped with salsa, sour cream, avocado and tortilla chips, black beans are my number one choice for a vegetarian dinner. Navy bean soup is simple to make in the slow cooker and delicious with biscuits or cornbread. I often cook up a big pot of pinto beans to use in chili and then make refried beans out of the leftovers for tostadas or burritos. I always add cooked beans (pintos or black beans) to taco filling; they add fiber and make my local, grass-fed ground beef go further.

A bean tutorial

The first step in cooking beans is to sort them. Slowly pour the dried beans into a large pot, keeping your eye out for dirt clods, stones or moldy beans. I don't find them often, but I've seen enough over the years to be careful. Once they're in the pot, run cold water over the beans and swish them around with your hand. Discard any beans that float; they could be infested with insects. Rinse and drain the beans in a colander.

Soaking the beans before cooking hydrates them and shortens the cooking time. It also helps the beans cook more evenly, so they all get tender about the same time. For two cups of beans you need 6-8 cups of cold water, enough to cover the beans by at least two inches. If you've planned ahead, let the beans soak overnight at room temperature. You can also speed soak by covering the beans with a couple inches of water in a pot and bringing to a boil. Boil two minutes, then turn off heat and let stand, covered, for one hour before proceeding to cook on stove top or in the slow cooker. You can soak beans and freeze them (before cooking) so you have them ready to go if you forget to soak in the future.

After soaking, drain the beans and use fresh water for cooking. This makes them easier to digest. Truth be told, if beans become a regular part of your diet, your body develops the enzymes it needs to digest them without difficulty.

Once the beans have been soaked, you're ready to cook them. Almost all recipes say not to salt beans until the end of cooking because it will make them tough. I always add the salt at the beginning and it's never caused a problem. If I wait to add salt after the beans have cooked, they don't absorb it and never taste salty enough for me. Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How To Cook Everything, agrees with me on this point. Bittman suggests adding one teaspoon salt per half pound of dried beans, but because I almost always add broth base or bouillon too, my rule of thumb is one teaspoon salt per pound of beans.

Small beans, like black beans or navy beans, will cook on the stove top, gently simmering, in 1 ½ to 2 hours. Larger beans, like pintos, kidney beans or garbanzo beans, will take a bit longer. If you use a slow cooker, plan to let the beans cook all day on low or at least eight hours. You can vary the flavor by adding herbs, spices, and vegetables while the beans are cooking. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, cumin, carrots, onion and celery all work well. One word of caution: add acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, toward the end of cooking, as they will prevent the beans from becoming tender.

Cooked beans can be frozen in their liquid to be used later in chili, tacos, soups, etc. I freeze two cups in a quart ziptop freezer bag or 4 cups in a gallon bag. Lay the bag flat on a cookie sheet until frozen solid, then add them to your “frozen food file.” When ready to use, thaw quickly in a sink of hot water.

Black beans and rice with salsa, sour cream and avocado.
Basic Black Beans

This basic recipe can be used for cooking most types of dried beans. Larger beans may require longer cooking. Feel free to jazz it up by adding garlic, cumin, chili powder or other herbs and spices. Anything acidic, like tomatoes, should be added toward the end of cooking, after the beans are tender.

1 pound (2 ¼ cups) dried black beans
6 to 8 cups water for soaking

6 cups fresh water
1 bay leaf, broken in half
1 medium onion, diced or 2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon beef bouillon (I like Better Than Bouillon brand)

Carefully pick over beans then rinse thoroughly under cold water. Drain and place in a large pot. Cover with at least two inches of cold water and allow to soak overnight or at least six hours at room temperature.

Drain and rinse the beans; return to pot. Add six cups of fresh water and the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer approximately 1 ½ to 2 hours, until beans are tender, but not mushy. Remove bay leaf pieces.

Serve over cooked rice with salsa, avocado, tortilla chips and/or sour cream.

Yield: about 6 cups of cooked beans

Slow cooker method: Follow the recipe as directed, but cook beans in slow cooker on low for 8 to 10 hours.

Aprons and Asparagus

(Originally published in The News Review on April 7, 2015.)

I grew up believing that “how you dress affects how you act and how you act affects everything.” For church, I put on my “Sunday best” because it helps me feel reverent. In the gym, I wear workout clothes; they make me feel strong. On date night I slip into high heels; they make me feel glamorous. And when I step into the kitchen, I tie on an apron; it says to my mind “Let's get cooking” and I feel like a chef.

From flirty to functional, aprons come in all shapes and patterns for both men and women. The purpose, of course, is to shield one's clothes from the splashes and splatters and spills all cooks contend with. Marcy Goldman of says cooking without an apron is akin to driving without a seat belt and I agree. Why risk it? Besides the protection it offers, an apron comes in handy when two hands aren't enough. How many times have I run out to the garden to snip a few herbs and returned with an apron full of tomatoes or beans or cucumbers!

My stash of aprons is fairly small. I have a few souvenirs: a milk chocolate-colored Ghirardelli apron, a bright red Pike Place Market apron, a black and orange OSU extension apron (though I'm officially a duck), a lacy half apron (aka hostess apron) my in-laws brought back from a trip to Europe. Yet, my ideal apron is plain white and practical, one I can bleach if necessary to keep it fresh-looking. I like a slender pocket to hold a thermometer and a big pocket to hold my smartphone/timer. (My favorite kitchen timer is a free phone app called Nag. It allows me to set and label eight different timers at once.) I need my apron strings long enough to crisscross behind my back and tie around my waist in front so I can loop a dishtowel through for drying my hands.

Dressing the part won't turn me into a chef without top-notch ingredients. Farmers markets are moving back outdoors and the produce stalls are a sea of green. The cabbage, kale, brassicas and root vegetables we've enjoyed all winter are making way for lettuce, chives, green onions, garlic scapes and asparagus. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas aren't far off.

I adore asparagus and eagerly anticipate its arrival each spring. It's usually sold in one pound bundles, often a mix of thick and thin spears. Pencil-thin spears are so tender they can be added raw to salads or tossed into a quick stir-fry. Larger spears are perfect for roasting with olive oil or steaming then sautéing in garlic butter. Any size works well for a creamy asparagus soup.

If your kitchen confidence needs a boost, maybe it's time to “dress for success” with a new apron. Pick a style that makes you smile, gather up some local ingredients and get cooking.

Creamy asparagus soup gets a little zing from white balsamic vinegar.
Cream of Asparagus Soup

Asparagus, garlic stalks and chives are some of the first spring greens to appear at farmers markets. All three go into this creamy soup that can be served warm or chilled. I use Trader Joe's White Balsamic Vinegar. If don't have any, try white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar or a splash of fresh lemon juice.

2 tablespoons butter
1 rounded cup sliced garlic stalks (I used it all the way up to the dark green part) or one large onion and 1 clove of garlic, diced
2 cups chicken stock
1 pound (as purchased) asparagus, woody ends trimmed, sliced into 1-inch pieces
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
fresh chives for garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sliced garlic (and/or onion) and cook until softened. Add the broth, asparagus and seasonings, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, until asparagus is tender. Add the milk. I like to puree it right in the pot using a hand blender, but you can also do it in batches in a regular blender. Stir in the cream. Add additional salt, if needed. Just before serving stir in the vinegar. Garnish each bowlful with freshly snipped chives.

Makes 5 to 6 cups of soup.

Roasted asparagus with coarse sea salt.
Roasted Asparagus

Simple and so very good.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse the asparagus and snap off the woody ends. I do this by holding each spear by the cut end and a few inches up the stalk. Bend gently and the spear will break where the woody part starts.
Arrange the asparagus in a single layer in a very shallow baking pan (a half-sheet pan or a cookie sheet with sides). Drizzle with olive oil then toss with your fingers to coat the spears evenly. Sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt.
Place in the oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how thick the asparagus is. Check with a cake tester or fork. You want it tender-crisp. Do not overbake or it will turn mushy.

Serve immediately. Any leftovers make a great addition to an omelet or frittata.

Steamed Asparagus Sautéed in Garlic Butter
If your steamer basket is not large enough to lay the asparagus in, try improvising with a round cooling rack or trivet set in a skillet you can cover.

Rinse the asparagus and trim the woody ends. Place the spears in a steamer set over (not in) hot water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and steam just until tender-crisp. This will only take a few minutes, depending on how thick the spears are.

Meanwhile, begin melting some butter in a frying pan over low heat. When the asparagus is ready, transfer it to the frying pan and add a finely minced or pressed clove of garlic. Increase heat to medium and sauté two or three minutes, just until spears are tender. Do not over cook. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately.

Do ahead tip: After steaming just until tender-crisp, plunge the asparagus into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, drain well and store in the refrigerator for several days. When you want to serve it, proceed with sautéing instructions. You can have fresh vegetables on the table in minutes with this method.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Steamed Eggs

I love being able to buy ultra-fresh eggs at my local farmers market. The bright yellow-orange yolks, loaded with vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids, give a lovely golden color to yeast breads, pancakes, and even homemade ice cream. The sturdy whites whip up light and fluffy in meringues. And scrambled eggs never looked so pretty or tasted so good.

My only frustration with fresh eggs is that I've always found them difficult to peel when boiled. I like to snack on hard-boiled eggs or add them to a chef salad. And I love a great egg salad sandwich. I gave up grocery store eggs years ago, but they sure were easy to peel. I've tried all the tricks when boiling my farm fresh eggs, but still ended up with a lot of the white stuck in the shell when I tried to peel them. If I wanted boiled eggs, I resorted to holding back a dozen in the refrigerator for a couple weeks so they wouldn't be quite so fresh and would peel more easily, but that takes advance planning.

I was sharing my frustration with my daughter one day and she said she steams her eggs instead of boiling them and the peel slips right off. How had I not heard about this???

I decided to give it a try last weekend when I boiled my Easter eggs. I wanted to cook a dozen and I don't have a large steamer so I improvised by placing a cake rack in a large pan. I added water so it came just under the rack, set my eggs on the rack, covered to pan and brought the water to a boil, then lowered it to a simmer. Christine said 12 minutes was the timing for hard-cooked yolks so that's what I did.

After steaming, I ran the eggs under cold water out of habit, though she said that's not even necessary. Now for the test....

...Hallelujah! The peel came off in big pieces with no white clinging to it. No pockmarked eggs! And the yolks?

Perfectly cooked with no gray ring around the edge.

I'm sold on this method. Can't imagine why I would ever go back to boiling. Thanks for the tip, Christine:)