Easiest (and Best!) Fig Jam

Fig Harvest 2015

Sometimes the simplest things in life are the best.

I was reminded of this last night when I was staring at a basket of some big beautiful ripe figs that I had picked in my little garden.  I had about 20 figs on hand and  knew that if I didn’t do something with them right away I’d risk losing them.

Seeking inspiration, I hunted through some of my favorite cookbooks. I pulled Patricia Wells, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, and many others off the shelf. I considered fig clafouti, fig tartlets, grilled figs, figs stewed with rhubarb and even a fig and arugula salad. That being said, I also considered my energy level and realized I was too dang exhausted to tackle any of those recipes. As great as they looked, I decided to really keep it simple and just go with my instincts.

So, rather than gather a ton of ingredients, I simply sliced the stems off of about 15 figs, quartered them and placed them in my favorite Le Creuset Dutch oven. I grabbed a measuring cup and sprinkled 2/3 cup sugar over the quartered figs and simmered over moderate heat.

The whole process probably took about 15 to  20 minutes at the most and resulted in  a dark and luscious fig jam that surpasses any I’ve bought in the store. When the jam cooled to lukewarm, I grabbed a multigrain cracker and some Cambozola. I then dolloped the warm oozy jam over the cheese and cracker. It was superb and, most likely, very bad for my waistline! (And, yes, it was my dinner!)

Best and Easiest Fig Jam

My 15 figs yielded a large jar of jam that is now stashed in the fridge. I don’t think it will last very long…

So, if you find yourself with some gorgeous figs, try this super simple fig jam!

Easiest (and Best!) Fig Jam

15 very ripe large figs

2/3 cup sugar

Slice the top stem off the figs and quarter. Put the quartered figs in a large Dutch oven. Sprinkle the sugar over the figs and turn on the stove to moderately high.

Watch the figs, stirring, as they heat up. They will start to soften and release a lot of juice. Stir again and lower the heat to moderate.

Get the mixture bubbling and stir intermittently. Stay close to the range at this point to avoid burning.

The figs will start to break up and the mixture will change color and thicken as the fig pulp breaks down. Keep stirring because the fig skin will resist breaking down.

After a few more minutes of simmering, stirring and mashing, the fig skin will succumb and break down, making the whole mixture turn a darker color, closer to the color of the Fig Newton filling!

At this point, I only simmered and stirred for a minute or two longer. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly and transfer to a jam jar.

Store in fridge and serve with cheese and crackers or on savory paninis.

Growing Micro Greens at Home

Basil Micro Greens on homegrown tomatoes.

Basil Micro Greens on homegrown tomatoes.

Have any of you spotted that restaurant trend that features mini greens as a final garnish on a special dish? Have you noticed petite little sprigs of greens sprinkled into salads and tucked into sandwiches? If so, then you’ve noticed micro greens. A nifty specialty item that sits between sprouts and full grown greens, micro greens have been gaining traction lately.  Highly nutritious, they are easy to grow and delicious to eat.

I’ve been a fan of micro greens for some time. Many years ago when we vacationed on Vancouver Island, I’d always reach for the sunflower sprouts at the local grocery store. Locally grown and displayed in messy tangles, the sunflower sprouts were only few inches long but they packed a bright and succulent crunch when tucked into our hearty whole grain sandwiches.  Even though I hunted for sunflower sprouts here in the Seattle area for years, I’ve always been hard pressed to find them in grocery stores around here.

This spring, while perusing the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. I noticed that they had a massive selection of micro green seeds—everything from basil and kale to a sorrel and shiso. Distracted by planting my regular garden at the time, I put “Grow Micro Greens” on my garden to do list and a couple weeks ago I finally circled back to the task. I surveyed the garden for a suitable spot and mail ordered an array of seeds from Johnny’s (arugula, basil, spicy and mild micro mix, cress, sunflowers and kales).  Simple to grow, I’ve been amazed at how lovely these little greens are. We’ve been tucking the powerhouses into sandwiches and sprinkling them on top of sliced tomatoes.

Right now my micro green adventure has been pretty easy because I have been growing them in seed trays in a little greenhouse that I purchased from Amazon in February. This method has been great because the trays are at eye level and I have positioned the greenhouse in a protected area where the greens won’t get fried by the sun. I check them each morning to make sure they are sufficiently moist and I spritz or water as need.  I’m still pondering how I will grow these during the cooler months but for now, I’m happy with the operation at hand.

Freshly snipped sunflower and red kale micro greens carried in a lettuce cup.

Freshly snipped sunflower and red kale micro greens carried in a lettuce cup.

So, here are some quick tips for growing microgreens.

  • Check out the selection at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. They offer great tips in both the catalog and online. I asked an array of questions when I ordered and was pleased with the informative answers I received. If you are just getting started consider ordering their “5 Top Micro Greens Varieties for Beginners.”
  • Buy some seed starting trays and good top quality potting soil. I used those basic seed starting trays that you can get at Fred Meyer or Home Depot. I sprinkled in high quality potting soil and opted NOT to use the seed starting mixes because I thought they would be too light. The potting soil works great.
  • Sprinkle the seeds generously but not too densely and water. In my first tray I visualized three different sections and grew three different varieties. This worked pretty well but in my next trays I kept to one variety for each tray simply because the growing times and heights were different.
  • Keep the trays in an area where they get some sunlight but avoid full sunlight all day if possible. Seedlings are fragile and I find that partial sun/shade prevents them from getting fried by the midday sun. My greenhouse is on the southeast side of the house and gets shade by mid afternoon.
  • Keep the trays moist and check frequently or the seeds might not germinate. When watering, use a spray bottle or a light spritz from the hose but avoid watering too hard or heavily because the potting soil will splash all over the greens and make them more difficult to wash.
  • Once the micro greens get their first two seeds, watch them carefully, let them grow to a couple inches and snip them with culinary scissors for use in the kitchen. Rinse before using.

A Super Tip for Garlic

Note: This post was originally published on my old blog on March 9, 2011. I am reposting it because the tip is timeless. Try it the next time you tackle some garlic on the chopping block!

Don’t you just hate it when you are chopping garlic and then have to get that smell off your hands?

Well, many years ago, I discovered a quirky tip for removing the smell of garlic from my hands quickly and easily. I found the tip in some very little vintage booklet that has long since disappeared. Nonetheless, I often demonstrated this tip while teaching some basic cooking classes at Seattle’s natural foods coop, PCC. The students loved it. So, here’s the tip:

Turn on the faucet, grab a stainless steel spoon and rub you fingers over the spoon while holding them under running water. Wash your hands quickly with soap. And, voila, you are ready to answer the phone or sign that field trip permission slip! Try it and let me know if you like it.

Zucchini: My Fiscal Buffer

Zucchini Medley from the blockbuster harvest this summer. Shown are yellow and green as well as Eight Ball and Costata Romanesco

Zucchini Medley from the blockbuster harvest this summer. Shown are yellow and green as well as Eight Ball and Costata Romanesco

So, how do you tackle your food budget? Do you notice that your food bill skyrockets during the summer months when the kids and their friends are home and hungry? I’ve noticed this for many years and this spring I decided to seek a little backup from my kitchen garden. Every year my small organic kitchen garden provides an array of homegrown veggies—green beans, cucumbers, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, greens, beets and a lot more.

Last May, in anticipation of my teenagers (and their friends) being around quite a bit during the summer, I decided to dedicate a little more garden real estate to zucchini. While at the garden centers, I explored my options and purchased some unique varieties such as Costata Romanesco, a striated heirloom from Italy, and Eight Ball, a round compact green zucchini.  I also tossed a few seeds into the ground from some old packets and planted a couple yellow squash for good measure and bright color.

Well, by July 4th, thanks to this incredibly warm and sunny weather we’ve had in Seattle, my zucchini were blowing forth and producing daily. My Costata Romanesco plant stretched more than five feet into the air and the zucchini was gorgeous and decidedly more delicious than the run of the mill varieties.  All of the other zucchini plants were exploding and on July 4th I decided to start weighing the harvest and keeping track in a little spiral notebook.  I wondered just what my haul would be and estimated that my initial investment in plants and seeds didn’t surpass $10.  Well, much to my shock, between July 4th and July 20th, my harvest totaled 78 pounds! Yes, 78! I couldn’t believe it. When I tallied the farmers market value of that haul, a conservative estimate brought me to about $200, which I felt was a pretty solid return on my $10 investment.

Obviously, zucchini held central stage in all of my cooking those weeks and indeed it became my fiscal buffer. I turned to it as the vegetable mainstay during those weeks and I used it as a good substitute for high carb alternatives such as potatoes.  I sliced, shredded, baked, parboiled, steamed and sautéed it. I worked it into bread and Bundt cakes and sliced some lengthwise to mimic lasagna. I handed more than a few off to friendly neighbors and sent a few home with those teenagers who bounced in around dinner time! (I told them if they wanted the green light to go out for the evening, they had to take a zucchini home!) Most of the brood around here willingly engaged in my zucchini creations although I had one zucchini defector, William.

The most athletic of the lot, my zucchini defector would make his power breakfast each morning and while sitting at the kitchen table, Will would stare at that morning’s harvest sitting before him. He would shake his head in horror and mumble how it gave him shivers. I’ve yet to convert him but I haven’t given up hope. Zucchini Brownies are on my bucket list!

So, if you have a bumper crop of zukes and a house full of kids, friends, family and guests, consider yourself lucky, get creative and try some of these ideas:

Build a Gratin

Grease a baking dish, slice the zucchini and layer it in the dish. Add some chopped garlic, diced tomato, herbs such as thyme and basil, season with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with Parmesan, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at about 375 F. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Leftovers are great the next day.

Rev up the Food Processor and Shred those Zukes! Use the shredding blade, or better yet the julienne blade if you have it. (The julienne blade, though less popular and somewhat harder to find, does produce a more elegant shred and in my opinion the julienned zucchini doesn’t get as wet and watery) Shred a bunch in advance, keep it in the fridge, and saute it, add it to quiches or gratins, or simmer it in boiling water for a few seconds, drain and toss with butter, olive oil or a sauce for gluten free pasta option.

Slice It Lengthwise and Create Lasagna Sheets: With a sharp knife, slice it into long sheets, steam it and use it like lasagna or create a savory pork or vegetarian filling and wrap the steamed “lasagna” sheets around scoops of the filling. Put it in a baking dish, top with jarred marinara and bake at 350 for 40 minutes or so. Low carb, high flavor, great price!

Tackle the Little Ones: If you can get them before they explode (the zucchini/not the kids), slice  lengthwise and saute in olive oil and a little garlic for a quick and easy accompaniment to chicken, beef or seafood. This one only takes about five minutes and the fresh flavor is a revelation.

Grill them: Slice into chunks or lengthwise, season with salt and pepper, toss in a little oil and grill over moderate heat until tender. Delicious served right away and great the next day at room temperature or reheated. This is a cool way to crank through some of the zucchini volume very quickly.

So, right now I am in a zucchini lull…my first round of plants expired and I pulled them out about a week ago. That being said…I have a second round of plants (Ronde de Nice, a French heirloom) coming up the bend…these should be producing right around September…just in time for the kids to go back to school!

Dungeness Crab: Take this Crabby Quiz!

Dungeness Crab from the Puget Sound.

Dungeness Crab from the Puget Sound.

This post originally appeared on Amazon’s Al Dente blog on August 18, 2011. Dungeness Crab season is in full swing out here in the Puget Sound so I decided to pull this post from my archives and bring it back to life here on my new website. The links to the interactive WDFW quiz and the informative PDF brochure continue to work, so check them out. 

Here in Washington State, the Dungeness crabbing season is in full swing!

If you live in the Puget Sound region and want to try your hand at crabbing for Dungeness, then be sure to test the waters by taking this fun little quiz right at your desk at home. I discovered this interactive quiz this morning while doing some research on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I was poking around the crab section, which is quite comprehensive. I easily found information on licensing, harvesting, identification, and preparation. The quiz is fun because it asks basic questions and if you don’t get the answer correct, you are encouraged to review the material! (Aha! We’ve already gone back to school, haven’t we?)

The website also features a video and a useful informative downloadable PDF brochure. If you do go crabbing and manage to haul some home, be sure to have some crabby tools such as these on deck and at the ready!

Photo of Dungeness crab by Carolyn Trainer

Wild Blackberries are Ripe and Ready in Seattle!

Wild blackberries are ripe and ready in Seattle. Pick now and freeze for later. Think smoothies, cobblers, healthy breakfasts for those cold dark dreary days of winter!

Wild blackberries are ripe and ready in Seattle. Pick now and freeze for later. Think smoothies, cobblers, healthy breakfasts for those cold dark dreary days of winter!

Note: This post originally appeared on Amazon’s Al Dente blog in August 2012. Even though three years have gone by, this classic culinary story never goes out of style. Hot and sunny summer days bring a plethora of  fat and juicy wild blackberries growing on the thick and thorny brambles around town! 

The wild blackberries are ripe! At long last, the plethora of wild blackberries found out here in Seattle are plump and ready for picking. On trails and in parks it is common to see berry enthusiasts braving the thorns and picking berries!

I have loved wild blackberry season ever since I moved to Seattle in 1995. I was astonished that so many plump berries were easily found and free for the picking! Back then, everyone seemed to take my enthusiasm with a ho-hum sigh. No one seemed particularly impressed by the glossy fat berries or they simply took their existence for granted. Many of my gardening friends reminded me that they were an invasive nuisance! I was sort of baffled by the lackluster enthusiasm for such a sweet wild treasure. Having been born and raised on suburban Long Island, I can assure you that I didn’t grow up with berries growing so wild and free!

I braved the thorny hedges last week and gathered my first five pounds. The berries were just starting to ripen after a brief heat wave. A pound of those berries were turned into an unstrained berry syrup suitable for ice cream or yogurt. The rest of the berries were frozen on a tray and transferred to a heavy duty freezer bag. They will be turned into cobblers and crisps in the off season.

Are you a wild berry fan? Do you gather berries, such as huckleberries, salmonberries, cranberries, or blackberries in your region?

No Rise Pizza Dough

Note: Originally published on my old website on March 4, 2011 and being re posted here on my new site. This is a quick and easy pizza dough that has withstood the test of time in my busy family kitchen. 

My No Rise Pizza Dough is quickly made in the food processor, doesn't require lengthy rising time, and is very family friendly.

My No Rise Pizza Dough is quickly made in the food processor, doesn’t require lengthy rising time, and is very family friendly.

Okay, folks, here’s my slam dunk all-time favorite pizza dough. This dough can be made in under five minutes in the food processor and it needs no tedious rising time. This No Rise Pizza Dough is the one I use when making a simple thin crust pizza, chubby calzones, savory cheesy flat breads, individual grilled pizzas or massive rectangular pizzas.

My version is adapted from one I found in Abby Mandel’s Fast and Flavorful New Food Processor Recipes Volume 1 published in 1985 by the Cuisinart Cooking Club. Abby was a food processor maven who hailed from Chicago. Pizza was one of her favorite foods.

Although Abby is now deceased, I called her about two years ago and spoke to her directly about this particular pizza dough. I wanted to know why it didn’t need any rising time. Abby mentioned that it had something to do with the sugar and the yeast. Indeed, the quantity called for is higher than normal, which may explain why this dough can skip the rise and roll right into action. This dough is also very easy to roll or stretch into a thin disk.

My family loves this dough so much that I sometimes make quadruple batches in my 20-cup DLC-X Cuisinart food processor. If we don’t use all the dough in one round, I tuck the dough into a food storage bag, tie it loosely and store in the fridge for a day or two…having my No Rise Pizza Dough at the ready is speed cuisine at its best!

No Rise Pizza Dough
(Adapted from Abby Mandel’s Thin Crust recipe)

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons bread flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

In the glass measuring cup in which the water was measured, add the yeast and sugar to the water. Stir well to combine and let stand for a couple minutes to activate the yeast.

In the food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the bread flour, salt and olive oil. Pour the yeast mixture through the feed tube while the machine is running. Let the machine run until the dough starts to form a ball. Check the dough to make sure it isn’t too dry or too sticky. Add more flour or water accordingly to get a smooth dough.

Run the machine for another 30 seconds or so to knead completely. Gather your desired topping ingredients and get ready to roll! For best results, be sure to preheat the oven to 425 F or 450 F for at least 20 minutes!

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