Try, try again

One of my favorite cooking traditions is on the weekends when Jeremy and I get up and make breakfast together, side by side at the stove – him frying bacon and me scrambling eggs. But this past weekend he was out of town and to console myself, and to keep from eating obscene amounts of bacon, I decided to get a little inventive with breakfast. I had dropped by Trader Joe’s late last week after dropping Jeremy off at the airport and scored (among many, many other things) some great smoked salmon and a bag of ripe avocados. Somewhere in the back of my mind a light bulb flickered: salmon and avocado crepes. OK, so I don’t exactly bake, and making crepes feels like baking – there is flour sifting involved. So I made some pancake mix work for my purposes and here’s what I came up with:

I used the pancake mix, with a little more almond milk than it called for and a plop (yes, a plop is a technical cooking measurement) of Greek yogurt, lemon zest and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. I poured that into a non-stick skillet very thinly and swirled the pan to cover the bottom, flipping after only a minute or so. Then I smeared a cream cheese/herbed goat cheese mixture on the crepe, laid out some smoked salmon and avocado slices, then rolled up and topped with another plop of yogurt.

Verdict? Meh. Yeah, I admit, they look amazing. You would easily pay $12-15 for this plate at a restaurant, and maybe if I had I would have thought more highly of them, but something about the mouth feel of so many “creamy” things wasn’t doing it for me. Salmon, avocados, creamy cheese and the soft cake was all just a little too much. I was hoping the yogurt would tang it up a little, but it was too little, too late. Probably plenty of people would love this, if that flavor profile works for you, but it just doesn’t for me.

But I refused to be defeated. When Jeremy came back I decided to reinvent this dish into dinner and I knew exactly how to solve the problem. The answer was in the yogurt and the lemon all along. Instead of making crepes, I opted for two big pieces of naan. Then I made a tzatziki sauce with greek yogurt, cucumbers, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt, pepper and dill. I toasted the naan, rubbed in some olive oil, covered with a layer of tzatziki, then topped that with a mashed avocado mixed with salt, pepper and a squirt of lemon juice. Then I quick “cured” the salmon by laying it flat on a plate topped with cucumbers and dill, then squeezed an entire lemon over top of it all and let it sit while I put the salad together. Then I put the salmon, cucumbers and dill on top of the avocado and voila – perfection.

The problem with the first dish was the similarity of textures and, to a degree, taste. This dish solves that problem by adding in the crunch of the cucumbers, the tanginess of the yogurt and the bright, fresh flavor that the lemon gives to everything.

Redemption: it’s what’s for dinner.

So the lesson is: if at first your recipe is gross, try try again. Seriously. Every chef or cook who has ever invented a recipe has taken it through various tests and many of those tests are bound to fail. You can’t get it right the first time, every time. Although sometimes you do, and it’s amazing, but those times are rare.

Do you have a unique recipe that you created? If so, share it with me! Post it in a comment and maybe I’ll give it a try on the blog! 

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Saucy

Remember how I mentioned that I’m not exactly into measuring and precision? Principles that are important in things like baking, rocket science and canning. Can something without following all the right steps and BAM, everyone has botulism. That is why when I want to preserve something, I usually freeze it. I wish I could can, I really do. But I know how that science experiment would end up and it is with a trip to the hospital.

So every year, near the end of the summer (*weep*) I freeze a big batch of tomato sauce that I make from local tomatoes. This year a large basket of tomatoes was donated to me via my great uncle and aunt, Joe and Carol, who are pretty amazing gardeners. Free food is the best food, just ask the freegans! (I’m kidding. That movement is gross. Talk about botulism. . .)

Making tomato sauce is kind of an ordeal, but worth it in the long run. I usually have to block out several hours of my day to get this done. This tomato sauce is a little looser than pasta sauce and can be used in place of canned tomato sauce. Basically, it can become the building blocks of spaghetti, marinara, pizza sauce, tomato soups – whatever you want.

So let’s get started. First, you wash and dry your tomatoes. I was working with 3 1/2 lbs here. I usually do a batch twice this large, but this is what I had to work with in this case. On the bottom of each tomato, cut a small ‘x’ with a paring knife.

cut a small ‘x’ into the bottom of each tomato

Then get a large pot of boiling water going. You are going to blanch the tomatoes, which means they will bathe in boiling water for just 2 minutes or so, until you start to see the skin around the X peel back. When you see that start to happen, get the tomatoes out of the water with a slotted spoon and deposit into a colander where they can drain and cool. There is a serious system to this and you need to get your “mise en place!” (A fancy French term meaning ‘get your $h*t together before you start working’)

Mise en place!!

 

blanch and peel the tomatoes

Once you’ve done this in small batches to all of your tomatoes (don’t put more than 4 or 5 small tomatoes into your water at once), and once they’ve cooled to the touch, peel the tomatoes starting at the X in the bottom, pulling the skin away up to the top. Do this to all of your tomatoes. Once they are all peeled, start chopping and you’ll want to remove the hard area of the tomato where the stem was. Everything else gets chopped and thrown into your pot.

dump chopped tomatoes into your pot

Then you add your other ingredients (these measurements are based on using 3 1/2lbs of tomatoes):

  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • 3/4 tbs black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tbs minced onion
  • 1/2 tbs dried oregano
  • 1/2 tbs garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp dried parsley
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbs tomato paste
  • a few dashes of crushed red pepper flakes

You can use fresh herbs rather than dried herbs, but you don’t need too much. Remember, this is tomato sauce – a base, not your finished product that goes on your spaghetti. Also, if you don’t care for spice AT ALL, omit the chili powder and red pepper, but those two ingredients don’t really make this that spicy, so if you’re OK with a little spice, no worries.

Then the fun part. You probably don’t want your tomato sauce this chunky. If you do, awesome, move on to the next step, but if you’re like most people, you want a smooth sauce and you can accomplish this one of two ways: with a stick blender right in the pot, or with a regular blender in batches. I use a stick blender, because I feel bad ass when I open this thing up.

The 007 theme music starts playing

Seriously, it looks like a weapon custom designed for James Bond. But if you don’t have one of these, then just use your standard blender, blending in batches and returning the mixture to your pot. Do this before the sauce gets hot so nobody gets hurt.

After it’s been blended, simmer your sauce for at least an hour, or longer. It should look something like this:

droooool

If you’re using it right away, then do whatever you need to do, but if you’re freezing it, let it cool, off the heat for 15 minutes or so. Then dole out 1 cup portions into tupperware containers that are freezer-safe. Make sure you leave enough head room in each container – this stuff will expand, according to the laws of science. I buy tupperwares that have measurements right on the side of the container so I don’t actually have to measure, because we all know how I feel about that. I just ladle it in until it hits the mark.

Ready to chill out

Stash them in your freezer and pull them out whenever needed. To thaw, either put in the fridge overnight or let them float around in some cool water in the sink for an hour or so. Or if you’re super impatient like me, just dump the frozen sauce right into your pan and heat it up until it’s thawed. Look guys, I just need my tomato sauce RIGHT NOW.

You may be thinking that this is a lot of work, and so be it. It is. But the taste is amazing, you’re preserving a little piece of summer and perhaps you are not aware of the health implications of most canned food? Did you know that Bisphenol A (BPA) is widely used as a lining for cans holding canned food? BPA is thought to be harmful because it mimics human hormones and has been classified as an endocrine disruptor. BPA has been associated with a variety of health problems in laboratory animals, including cancers, early puberty, and developmental problems. Canned products are also laden with sodium (hello high blood pressure, blood clots, heart disease, etc etc etc) and other preservation chemicals. So avoiding canned products could be a life saver. There are a few small organic companies making canned beans and some veggies that are in BPA-free cans, but they are difficult to find and can be expensive. In the meantime, spend a little extra time to know and make what you’re eating. And if you’re NOT like me, and you are capable of following intense directions, start thinking about canning – which of course, is actually “jarring” and so avoids the BPA, sodium and chemicals in store-bought products. The Ball Jar website has great recipes and tutorials on how to do this. If I can ever get my brain to function on a linear plane, I may just try it myself.

Salmon: not just a horrible beach-house color

I try my hardest to eat salmon every week. Not because it’s my favorite fish, or because I think the Alaskan fishing industry needs my patronage (even though they do – do you hear me, Alaska? You NEED me!), but because it is super super super good for your brain. Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so we are all always looking for ways to prevent it. Recently, the link between omega-3 fatty acids and Alzheimer’s prevention has become clear. According to the Rush University Medical Center, people who eat fish one or more times a week are approximately 60 percent less likely to experience Alzheimer’s disease than those who rarely eat fish. The important thing about fish here being the omega-3’s, which salmon has a particularly high amount of. And omega-3’s in fish are of a particular kind called DHA and EPA, which appear to have the strongest health benefits. So what is it exactly that omega-3’s in fish oil are doing that are so beneficial besides making you smell like fish all the time? What, you don’t think of that as a benefit? Trust me, if you ever want to get out of a conversation, or need to rid yourself of a “close talker,” or are trying to attract stray cats, or just generally need the public to leave you alone, fish oil is a HUGE benefit. But in addition to that, these fatty acids reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is one of those things that can lead to myriad diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, blood clots, stroke, dementia (Alzheimer’s), arthritis and much more. Another interesting potential benefit of omega-3’s? They may help fight depression. Although the studies are mixed, it is clear that in countries with higher levels of omega-3 in the typical diet have lower levels of depression. Eat fish; be happy.

Our bodies do not naturally produce omega-3’s – we must consume them through our diets. And while you can do this through a supplement, why wouldn’t you just do it through delicious food? Enter: salmon. Enter: my long speech about the right kind of salmon to buy at the fish counter. If you would like to skip this wild vs. farmed fish debate, skip to the last sentence of this paragraph. At just about any fish counter of any grocery store you will see 2-3 different varieties of Salmon. Some will say “wild caught” some will say “farmed” some will even say “organic”, but here are a few differences: farmed fish are raised in feedlots and at feedlots fish are doused with antibiotics and exposed to more concentrated pesticides than their wild kin. Additionally, farmed salmon are given a salmon-colored dye in their feed, without which, their flesh would be an unappetizing grey color. And regarding the all-important omega3’s? FDA statistics on the nutritional content (protein and fat-ratios) of farm versus wild salmon show that the fat content of farmed salmon is excessively high–30-35% by weight, wild salmon have a 20% higher protein content and a 20% lower fat content than farm-raised salmon, farm-raised fish contain much higher amounts of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats than wild fish. IE – the opposite of what omega-3’s do for you. In studies by the FDA wild fish were not only much lower in overall fat content, but also were found to have 33% more omega-3 fatty acids than their farm-raised counterparts. Omega-3s accounted for 29% of the fats in wild coho versus 19% of the fats in cultivated coho. Bottom line: buy wild-caught fish.

I’m so sorry. Here are some pictures of food.


This was one of those recipes that came to me during this thing that happens in my mind where whatever fresh produce I picked up at the farmers market that week inserts itself into some recipe I’ve been drooling over on Pinterest. In this case, it was a tomato pasta recipe from Martha Stewart. But because I had zucchini and squash on hand and because I needed my weekly salmon, I mixed it up a little. I pan sauteed two small tomatoes, a small squash and small zucchini in olive oil with a teaspoon of minced garlic and some Italian seasoning. In the meantime, I rubbed the salmon down with lemon infused olive oil, salt, pepper and a little garlic. I heated some oil in a pan and laid several slices of lemon down into the oil, then placed the salmon on top, covered with a lid and let cook over medium-high heat while the pasta was boiling (about 8 minutes, or until it can be flaked with a fork). I have started using this Ronzini brand “Garden Delights” vegetable spaghetti – it is much more palatable to me than whole wheat pasta and still better for you than regular pasta, but you can use any kind you’d like. (Disclaimer: I did not get paid to promote Ronzini brand “Garden Delights” vegetable spaghetti, but I totally would if they offered. That goes for you too, Pacific Salmon Fishers of America, Sunkist lemon farms, and the people who make the ridiculously expensive lemon infused olive oil I use. )

I saved about a half a cup of the pasta water and made a sauce from the vegetables with some additional olive oil, Parmesan cheese, some freshly chopped basil from my garden, and a bit of the starchy pasta water, then mixed the pasta into it and topped with the salmon, a sprinkle of cheese and basil and a squirt of fresh lemon juice.

feed your brain!

And before you go off thinking I’m Martha Stewart, or Barefoot Contessa or something (although I think we can all agree that Jeffrey would just ADORE this meal), let me quickly correct you. I’m more like Julia Child’s slow second cousin. If Julia was forever dropping chickens or spilling this or that in some hilariously charming way, all the while making the most delicious French food you’ve ever seen, I am the slow second cousin who is nearly cutting off a finger or giving herself third degree burns while she tries to make toast. Case in point:

I need adult supervision.

I don’t know how well it comes through in that picture – but my middle finger has a pretty significant burn/blister right under the knuckle. This is because, as it turns out, metal skillets that have just come out of 400 degree ovens are HOT! This is my primary mistake in the kitchen – forgetting that things are hot and grabbing them with my bare hands. Also, over-salting things. So, Food Network, if you are looking for a new cooking show that appeals to those S&M loving, 50 Shades of Grey reading freaks, I am your girl. Get in line behind Ronzini and those stinky fishermen.