Selling Lentil Soup In The Summer and Helping Iowan Farmers

LentilSoup

I know this isn’t the most summery of soups. Even us Southern Californians are experiencing a bit of a heat wave. So, why would anyone make lentil soup in the summer? It’s sort of a hard sell, I’ll admit, but I’m going to give it a go.

The 12oz. bag of lentils I purchased cost $3.23. I used about 9 oz. (1½ C.) or $2.42 worth of lentils in this recipe. (As far as lentils go, $3.23 for 12oz. is rather steep. You’ll likely pay much less.) Now, I don’t have all of my receipts to give an accurate estimate of what this soup costs to prepare, but the remaining ingredients, a mixture of pantry items (vinegar, bay leaf, olive oil, tomato sauce and salt) and vegetables (carrots, celery, onions and garlic) cost next to nothing, even given the crazy-high food prices we are currently facing at the market.

This soup is one of the most economical dishes you could ever prepare. It yields three quarts or eight generous servings. Even if the cost of ingredients totaled $10, which is very unlikely, the cost per serving is only $1.25. Serve it with a loaf of bread and you have a complete meal. Lentil soup and bread for dinner might seem a little Spartan, but the addition of a salad with this meal in a way would be superfluous — this soup is filled with vegetables for one, and lentils themselves are nutritional powerhouses: These little legumes are high in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals and are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Also, according to the Web site, The World’s Healthiest Foods, one cup of cooked lentils contains just 230 calories.

Have I sold anyone?

I should note that this soup takes little time to prepare — you basically throw all of the ingredients in a pot and let it simmer for an hour — and that it is delicious. This is one of my mother’s favorite recipes, passed down, I believe, from her mother, and maybe even from her mother’s mother. Am I making this up, mom?

Lastly, the publisher of Edible San Diego, a wonderful magazine “celebrating local food, from coast to crest, season by season” recently informed me about Farm Aid’s Family Disaster Fund. Severe flooding in Iowa and Wisconsin is threatening the lives of family farmers and Farm Aid is providing serious help to the region. Click here to read more about Farm Aid or to help the farmers in these states.

A bowl of French green lentils. I have yet to find a source of local lentils, but I can’t say I have looked terribly hard. In Philadelphia, one of the vendors at the Sunday Headhouse market sold lentils and they were delicious. I purchased these at a shop in Philadelphia nearly a year ago and they traveled with me across country. Unless you have a local source for lentils, I highly recommend the D’Allasandro French Green Lentils.

Simple Lentil Soup
Yield=3 quarts or 8 generous servings

1½ C. French green lentils
1 8oz. can + 1/2 can of tomato sauce, such as Pomi brand
2 large onions, chopped 
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
½ C. red wine vinegar
½ C. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 celery stalks, peeled and diced
crushed red pepper flakes to taste

Throw all ingredients together in a pot. Add 1½ qts. plus one cup of water (seven cups total). Simmer for one hour uncovered. Stir and serve with crusty bread. Tastes even better on day two. Keeps for over a week in the refrigerator. Freezes well, too.

Favorite Summer Salad: Shaved Zucchini & Pecorino

zucchinisalad

There’s something about the combination of raw (or briefly blanched) and young (or thinly shaved) vegetables with Pecorino Romano cheese that I find irresistible. Which vegetables meet this criteria? I can name only a few — asparagus (shaved), fennel (shaved), fava beans (briefly blanched) and summer squash (julienned on a mandoline) — but many more exist. When fresh, these vegetables need little more than salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice — no cooking is necessary (with the exception, of course, of the fava beans).

After discovering this zucchini salad last summer, I prepared it often, and on more than one occasion, made myself sick to my stomach. I think raw zucchini might be a little harsh on the stomach? Don’t let that deter you, however. Just a little warning.

Now, why Pecorino over Parmigiano? Parmigiano Reggiano would be a fine substitute, but there’s something about Pecorino that I’m really liking these days — I think it’s its saltiness. Cut it the same way as in the fava bean and pecorino salad: Stick the tip of a big chef’s knife right into the block and twist until nice chards break from the block.

Zucchini and Pecorino Salad
Serves 2 as a side dish

1 zucchini, about 8-inches long
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, halved

1. Shave the zucchini on a mandoline into thin spaghetti-like strips. Place in a bowl. Stick the tip of a big chef’s knife into a wedge of Pecorino and twist until nice chards break from the block. Add to the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle olive oil over the mixture. Squeeze with lemon. Gently toss and serve.

Squash Blossom Obsession

squash blossoms

A friend recently reminded me of my several-months-long fixation with quince. I couldn’t experiment enough with the exotic fruit. I bought cases and cases and peeled and poached, making jams and pastes and tarts and cakes. And then, I went green and discovered my beloved quince had traveled all the way from Chili. Alas.

Well, I’ve moved on to squash blossoms. Ever since I learned how to stuff them, batter them and fry them, I’ve looked forward to the summer growing season, which would bring these delicate flowers to market. In Philadelphia, not every market would carry them, however, and the ones that did, would only bring them every so often. Seeing squash blossoms was always a treat.

Imagine my surprise upon running into this at my Sunday San Clemente farmers’ market:

Have you ever scene so many zucchini blossoms in one space at one time? I purchased a half pound for three dollars and set to work. Of course, I battered and fried a few. But I also made something I have been dying to make for years: squash blossom quesadillas. (I even found fresh corn masa at a Mexican market in my town) And with my leftover quesadilla filling, I made a yummy squash-blossom pizza.

Do you know anything about plant sex? Here’s a little lesson: Squash flowers are either male or female: male flowers are equipped with a stamen, females with a stigma. Males, more plentiful in number, stand on long, thin stems, while the females, sitting on a small, fuzzy green ball, blossom closer to the vine.

Only when a grain of pollen from the stamen lands on the stigma, will this ball turn into a squash. Pollination occurs when bees or other insects travel from flower to flower, or when the wind blows. Using a brush, humans can fertilize the plant as well by collecting pollen from the stamen and painting it onto the stigma.

But here’s the miracle: Pollination can occur on only one day in a blossom’s entire lifetime. Just before dawn, the flowers uncurl; by midday, they begin to close; and by dusk, they close, precluding pollination forever. Few flowers actually ever bear fruit. I know, I know, home gardeners can’t give away enough zucchini during the growing season. I still think it’s amazing.

Pictured below are mini zucchini with the female blossom still attached. The Carlsbad farm growing all of these blossoms promises to bring them to the market every weekend all summer long.

As you can see, I’m on a bit of a pizza kick right now as well. Pictured below is the squash-blossom pizza, a male zucchini flower (picked from my garden), and the edge of a pizza topped with thinly shaved rounds of zucchini, grated Pecorino, sliced mozzarella, red pepper flakes and fresh basil, (currently my favorite preparation).

So, incidentally, my male and female zucchini blossoms mated successfully, producing these three zucchini. I cut them from their stems over the weekend, shaved them into long spaghetti-like ribbons with my mandoline, tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and Pecorino, and ate them raw. This salad is not dissimilar to the fresh fava bean and Pecorino salad posted last month.

I don’t have an accurate recipe yet for the squash blossom filling, but I followed instructions given to me by the Carlsbad farmer selling the blossoms and am pretty happy with the results. You basically just sauté an onion until tender, and then add a chopped tomato and the blossoms, and with the pan covered, cook for about five minutes.


Weekend Baking: Blueberry Crumb Coffee Cake

blueberrycoffeecake

I have been wanting to make rhubarb coffee cake since seeing a recipe posted on the blog Smitten Kitchen in February. I waited and waited to see rhubarb at the farmers’ market, but it seems I either missed it or it never arrived.

In any case, I woke up Saturday morning dying to do some baking and craving a piece of coffee cake. I pulled up the SK recipe for Big Crumb Coffee Cake — first printed in Melissa Clark’s NY Times‘ column “Big Appetite” — and decided frozen blueberries would be an acceptable substitute for the rhubarb.

I decided, too, that I wanted the cake to be baked before Ben woke up. I could hear him stirring in the other room and knew I didn’t have much time. I set to work, frantically pulling bowls from the cupboards, measuring cups from the drawers and ingredients from the pantry, hoping the thrashing wouldn’t expedite his emergence. Before long, the various components of the cake — the sugar-coated berries, the thick, buttery batter and the big-crumb topping — had been prepared and the cake assembled. Before long, too, the smell of warm, stewing blueberries pervaded the apartment, gently tapping on the bedroom door.

As I pulled the cake from the oven, the love of my life — sorry to be such a cheese, but I’ve been gone for two weekends in a row — walked into the kitchen. Perfect timing. I switched on the coffee, let the cake cool briefly and then tucked in. Yum!

Now, when I make this cake again, I will follow the instructions, and I know the results will be even more pleasing. Where I messed up most was in step two. Step two should result in the creation of a solid dough — the foundation of the “big crumbs” — but instead resulted in a crumbly, small-clump mix. In the end, the topping baked just fine, but the “big crumbs,” a critical component to the cake, were few and far between. Yay for next weekend, I’ll be home again, likely without rhubarb but with a freezer full of berries, a slightly unsatisfied hunger for coffee cake and hopefully a bit more patience.

Blueberry Crumb Coffee Cake
Adapted from the NY Times’ column “Big Appetite” by Melissa Clark via the blog Smitten Kitchen
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Butter for greasing pan

For the filling:

½ lb. blueberries
2T. sugar

2 tsp. cornstarch


For the crumbs:

1/3 C. dark brown sugar

1/3 C. granulated sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon


1/8 tsp. salt

½ C. melted butter

1¾ C. cake flour or all-purpose or whole-grain pastry flour (I used a mix of all three)

For the cake:

1/3 C. sour cream

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 C. cake flour or all-purpose flour
½ C. sugar

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

6 T. softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

1. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. Toss blueberries with sugar and cornstarch. Set aside.

2. To make crumbs, in a large bowl, whisk together sugars, spices, salt and butter until smooth. Stir in flour with a spatula. It will look like a solid dough.

3. To prepare cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about ½ cup of the batter and set aside.

4. Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon blueberries over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over berries; it does not have to be even.

5. Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter, 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

Two Things Everyone Should Know

passport

1. You can get a new passport within 24 hours.

Last Friday, I hopped on a plane to Cabo. The Monday before I departed, I discovered my passport had expired in March. After sending a few freakout emails to friends, I began some constructive research on the Internet. For an average price of $200, I discovered, mail-in services will issue new passports within 24 hours. The legitimacy more than the price concerned me.

I searched further and learned that an alternative exists, though this option is more convenient for some than others: If you need a new passport within 14 days of travel, you must make an appointment at one of the 15 Regional Passport Agencies located across the country. One, lucky for me, happens to be in L.A. (From a wise source, I heard that Minnesotans, in a pinch, will fly to Chicago to take care of passport issues.)

For future reference, call 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778) to schedule an appointment. And the official Web site for passport matters is: www.travel.state.gov. The expedited services costs $135, but count on spending at least another $50 for food and entertainment while you wait for it to be issued.

2. Digital cameras costing only $9.99 can be purchased at drugstores. And, these cameras come with a little carrying case, a cd and a USB cord. You can judge the quality of the pictures for yourself:

Why would anyone purchase such a camera? Well, last Wednesday, I suddenly found myself in L.A. with five hours to kill. (After I waited in line, filled out the paperwork and turned in all of my documents, I was told to return at 3:00 p.m. to retrieve my little blue book.) The passport agency, I soon discovered, is located just blocks away from the heart of Westwood and UCLA. And before I knew it, I had stumbled into a Pinkberry.

I have heard so much about Pinkberry. I remember reading a NYTimes article about lines of devoted customers extending around the block of the West Hollywood shop. The green-tea flavor sounded exotic, and all of the fruit toppings, fresh and healthy*.

Upon seeing the shop, I became overwhelmed with emotions: excitement, because I had wanted to sample the “swirly goodness” for years; sadness, because I had left my camera at home and would have no way of documenting the moment.

It was 10:00 a.m. when I spotted the shop. I needed to work up a little bit of an appetite, so I walked around UCLA — which is beautiful! — and then up and down the streets of Westwood. I made several phone calls, one to my mother, who suggested I check out a drugstore for a disposable digital camera. She’s so smart! CVS had just the device I needed. And, it’s not even disposable, though I still haven’t figured out how to erase the 20 pictures I have taken.

As you can see, I’m still learning how to center the subject of the photos:

*Recent reports have disclosed that Pinkberry yogurt is not the all-natural wonder once believed, which might explain the absence of any sort of a line when I arrived at the shop. And, though I had a blast tasting it, I’m not sure it deserves all the attention it has received.

Tortillas & Blossoms

steaktacos

I have a vision of the perfect tortilla. It’s made of corn, from fresh masa, not masa harina. It’s thin. It’s soft. And, ideally, it’s made to order on a griddle-like surface like the ones served every weekend at the Primavera Mexican stand at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market. Several summers ago on a visit to San Fran for a wedding, Ben and I savored these freshly made tortillas for breakfast, filling them with scrambled eggs, salsa, avocados and cheese.

This meal inspired me to buy one of those tortilla presses and to try to replicate our experience at home. I soon learned, however, the task would be impossible — fresh corn masa was no where to be found in the Philadelphia area. Ben even called a shop in California (after reading an article online), to ask if the masa could be shipped across country. (This was before we went local). The woman refused, however, alleging that the masa would perish en route. I made a batch of tortillas anyway using the Maseca brand masa harina — the product all the local taquerías used as well — but the results proved far from satisfying. As time passed, I gave up my search for fresh masa and settled for store-bought varieties, which tasted far superior to my homemade creations. (Incidentally, if you are interested in learning more about the homemade tortilla making process, read this San Francisco Chronicle article.)

I just returned from a wedding in Baja where the yummy tortillas I ate at every meal reminded me of my bygone quest for the perfect tortilla. At the hotel restaurant, the waiters delivered a basket of warm flour and corn tortillas with every meal to be filled with eggs, fish, beef or whatever. Now, I don’t know if it’s just that no tortilla will ever measure up to the ones made at the Primavera stand, or if I’ve changed — I think I prefer flour to corn. I know, I know, corn is more authentic, but there was something about these small, thin, chewy flour tortillas that I could not resist. Alas, it seems my vision of the perfect tortilla may have changed.

How cute is this little zucchini? Each time I walk by my blossom-filled pot, however, I am tempted to rip off the flowers, stuff them with cheese and fry them up. Fortunately, my farmers’ market has a limitless supply of these blossoms, and I can resist the urge.

Now, about this non-local, grass-fed beef. I’m embarrassed to name its country of origin, but I had traveled all the way to Jimbo’s market with Aunt Vicki and her mother, Sy, and I could not pass up the opportunity to purchase a bit of grass-fed meat. Seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled for three to four minutes a side, tri-tip makes a wonderful taco filling, needing little more than salsa, chopped onion and a splash of lime.

Grass-Fed Tri-tip Tacos
Serves 2 to 3

1 lb. grass-fed tri-tip, flank or skirt steak
kosher salt and peper to taste
6 to 9 soft, corn or flour tortillas
finely diced white onion
chopped cilantro
1 avocado, thinly sliced
pico de gallo
1 limes, quartered
grated cheese (optional)
sour cream (optional)

1. Preheat a grill to high. (Alternatively, place a large frying pan over high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil.) Season the steaks on all sides with salt and pepper to taste. Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Wrap the tortillas in foil and place in the oven.

2. Place onion, cilantro, avocados, pico de gallo, limes, cheese and sour cream in small bowls. Place in the center of the table.

3. Grill the steaks to desired doneness, then let rest for five minutes. Slice thinly against the grain and pile onto a platter. Remove tortillas from the oven, and place two on each plate. Begin assembling tacos.

I’m So Green …

mybagcares

… and fashionable! I feel so fortunate to have friends who look out for me not only on the green-food front, but also on the green-fashion front. Gone are the days when people ask me if I’ve lost my suitcase, which, sadly, happened once during college. From a very reliable source residing in NYC, I learned that this bag is all the rage in the style world. A quick look at all of the celebrities sporting this eco-friendly tote verified her claim. Thanks lis!

What’s more? For every bag purchased, a tree is planted. You can even become a fan of mybagcares on Facebook.

Check out MyBagCares.com for more info.

Breakfast Pizza For Dinner

breakfastpizza

Oh, how I wish I could take credit for this ingenious creation. Alas, I cannot. A very good friend of mine, after observing my egg obsession, kindly directed me to this Apartment Therapy site, offering me yet another way to enjoy my beloved eggs. (Thanks, Amanda!) The eggs, cracked atop the pizza during the last few minutes of baking, retain a runny yolk, which, when cracked, ooze into the crust and toppings — sautéed Swiss chard and cheese, in this case — making each bite unbelievably tasty. This combination was particularly yummy, but I suspect these eggs would enhance various topping combinations, from sausage and peppers to tomato and basil to ricotta and spinach — oh, the possibilities are endless.

Not too long ago, I made a flatbread with brie, prosciutto and watercress — a recipe I spotted in a recently published cookbook Blue Eggs, Yellow Tomatoes. Well, I must confess that the dough recipe I have enclosed below is far superior. Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table, this wet dough — admittedly a little difficult to work with — yields a thin and crispy crust. I’m not sure why I bother experimenting with any other recipe — my family (my mother) has been making the Figs’ pizza dough for years with great success.

One note: Unless you have a very powerful food processor, don’t use one. I burned out the engine on mine making this recipe and had to finish the kneading by hand. Use a stand mixer if you have one or knead by hand from the beginning.

This recipe makes a very wet pizza dough. Once baked, however, the dough becomes a light, thin, crisp crust. My family has been using this recipe for years, and one of our favorite topping combinations includes caramelized onions, grapes, blue cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil. This dough freezes well, too: After the two-hour rise, punch it down, wrap it in plastic and throw in the freezer. When ready to use it, let the dough sit at room temperature for a few hours prior to cooking.

Pizza Dough
Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table
Makes 4 8- to 10-inch pizzas (Serves 1 to 2 people per pizza)

¼ cup whole wheat flour
3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 2/3 cups lukewarm water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. Place the flours and salt in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl and let sit for five minutes until the mixture bubbles slightly. Add the olive oil and stir. With the mixer on low, gradually add the oil-water mixture into the bowl. Knead until the dough is firm and smooth, about 10 minutes. The dough will be very wet and sort of difficult to work with. I liberally coat my hands with flour before attempting to remove it.

2. Divide the dough into four balls, about 7½ ounces each. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. (Be sure to oil the parchment paper.) Place two balls on a sheet. Lightly rub the balls with olive oil or lightly coat with cooking spray, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. The dough is very sticky and wet, so, be sure to coat the balls or the plastic with oil. Let the balls rise in a warm spot until they have doubled in bulk, about two hours.

3. To roll out the dough: Dab your fingers in flour and then place one ball on a generously floured work surface. Press down in the center with the tips of your fingers, spreading the dough with your hand. When the dough has doubled in width, use a floured rolling pin and roll out until it is very thin, like flatbread. The outer portion should be a little thicker than the inner portion.

Breakfast Pizza: Sorry for these undetailed instructions, but I really just threw this together.
Serves 2

cornmeal

olive oil
Swiss chard, washed, stems diced, leaves roughly chopped
garlic, minced
kosher salt
crushed red pepper flakes
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano and cheddar and crumbled goat cheese (use any grated cheese you have on hand)
4 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 500ºF. Follow the instructions above for rolling out the dough. Sprinkle some cornmeal on a baking sheet and transfer the dough to the baking sheet.

2. Meanwhile, sauté the Swiss chard stems in the oil until slightly tender. Increase the heat to high, add the greens, season with salt, red pepper flakes and garlic. Rearrange the greens with tongs until nicely wilted. Turn off the heat and set aside.

3. Top pizza with a thin layer of greens and cover with the grated cheese. Place in the oven for about eight minutes, or until about three minutes away from being done. Remove from the oven and crack the eggs over the pizza. Return to the oven, cooking just until the whites are set and the yolks are slightly runny.

4. Serve immediately.

Garden Update

Garden

Recall the garden I (Ben) planted? Well, in just one month, look how it’s progressed!

The tomato plants are growing like mad. So is the summer squash. If you haven’t planted a garden yet this spring, it’s not too late. Even easier than the cinder-block method I used for my main garden, is the “pot” method, which requires two steps: buying a pot and filling it with potting soil. Seriously, the four plants I have in pots — summer squash, zucchini, butternut squash and melon — seem to grow inches every day.

Other notes: We have already eaten a lot of the Swiss chard and have watched it grow back. We’ve eaten all of the arugula and are hoping it grows back. We use the herbs often. One of our pepper plants hasn’t budged since we put it in the ground. And our neighbor’s cat thinks our garden is an enormous kitty litter, but so far hasn’t caused any damage.

To see the complete transformation, click here: Cinder-Block Garden How-To, and here: Garden Update II.

Blossoms from a summer squash plant:

Not quite sure what this is. It’s either melon or butternut squash:


Garden as a whole:

I Love David Archuleta

veryberry2

… and so does Ben. Seriously, Ben was practically moved to tears by tonight’s performance.

I’ve been having some computer trouble these past fews days, but I wanted to post my fifth and final muffin finding. I spotted these tri-berry muffins not too long ago on RecipeGirl’s blog. A Barefoot Contessa Recipe, these muffins are moist, sweet, and a yummy yummy treat! I used all frozen berries and they came out beautifully. 

Tri-Berry Muffins
Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa via RecipeGirl
Yield = 12

1½ C. all-purpose flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¾ C. granulated sugar

¾ C. milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 C. mixed berries, fresh or frozen. A mixture of frozen blueberries and raspberries works well. If using strawberries, fresh is better than frozen. Be sure to dice.

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Place liners in muffin tin.

2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar together in a large bowl. Stir with a whisk to combine.

3. In another bowl, combine the milk, eggs, butter and vanilla.

4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and stir until just combined. There might be some lumps but don’t overmix the batter. Fold in the blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

5. Spoon batter into the muffin cups. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean and the tops are nicely browned.