For Pearfect Pears, Check the Neck!

Check the Neck Pear

As we shift from the luscious berries of summer into the more robust fruits of fall, I’d like to put in a plug for the humble pear. I know many folks favor apples at this time of year. I certainly serve a lot of them at my house. Nonetheless, there is something delightfully earthy and comforting about a pear.  They taste great on their own. They are flavorful and elegant with cheese. They work great in cozy homey desserts like tarts, crumbles, and cobblers.  They can, however, be tricky to judge for ripeness.

Have you ever bought a pear, carted it home, sliced it open and found it to be rock hard and taste less? Or, have you sliced it open only to find that it has gone bad from the inside out? Well, thanks to USA Pears, which is the Pear Bureau Northwest, I learned to tackle those problems a few years ago. On their website, they feature a tricky and successful method for checking a pear for ripeness. You simply “Check the Neck.”  To do so, you simply apply gentle pressure to the neck of the pear with your thumb. If it yields to pressure, it’s ripe and you are good to go!

Gear up with a Rice Cooker

rice cookerAre you gearing up for the back to school frenzy?

Have your children already gone back to school? If so, then I’d like to tout the benefits of the rice cooker. A hiqh-quality cooker is positively priceless on those evenings when you need to crank out dinner, but you haven’t exactly planned accordingly.

I purchased my Zojirushi about twelve years ago and even though I paid more than $200 for it back then, I am positively certain that it has saved me countless dollars. There have been many many evenings when I decide to crank out a stir fry or other random dish and then decide to use my rice cooker for the rice. I simply load the machine with basmati or medium-grain brown rice, add water, program the machine for the type of rice at hand, and then hit the ON button. The rice takes care of itself while I tackle the veggies and other tasks.

Rice is, of course, one of those dinner staples that can please many palates. It can be dressed up or down. It can be easily transformed into an Asian, Indian, or Mexican-inspired side dish. And, it can certainly act as a blank slate when you are faced with a motley collection of leftovers.

So, if the back to school frenzy has you frazzled, buy a rice cooker and load it up. It will give you more time to cook dinner, weed through paperwork, or tackle that horrific math problem!

And, rest assured that even if you can’t do that wacky new math, your rice will be perfect…every time!

The Pike Place Market Urban Garden

Don’t we all love little secret destinations? Spots that aren’t well known but have an abundance of charm? Little places that speak volumes but haven’t been discovered by the masses?

Well, that’s how I felt when I visited the Pike Place Market Urban Garden this morning. Admittedly, this 2,000 square foot garden sits in one of the city’s busiest tourist attractions–the Pike Place Market–but it is deliciously removed from the hub bub.

In 2013, the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority and Seattle Urban Farm Company  teamed up in order to revitalize and essentially energize an underutilized patio in the market. Indeed, their efforts have created a wonderful haven amidst the hub bub of urban life.

Tucked away near Maximilien Restaurant and Market Spice, this community garden is completely run by volunteers and all of the produce is donated to the local food bank and the market senior center. Peppered with raised beds, benches, pole bean teepees, trellised gourds, cucumbers and tomatoes, this garden simultaneously oozes charm and local food! Plus the spectacular views make it a great place to sit and take a breather from the crowds at hand.

Next time you are at Seattle’s iconic and world renowned tourist attraction, visit the garden and take a few minutes to smell the herbs and savor the scenery.

Copper River Gravlax: Recipe Refresh!

Sometimes you get in a recipe rut. You make the same version of a recipe time and again. Then, there are instances when you decide you need a reboot.

You need to bust a rut and revisit your technique.

That’s exactly what happened to me last May.

I was attending the Nordic Culinary Conference at the Nordic Heritage Museum and Andreas Viestad, the author of Kitchen of Light and the host of the PBS Television series New Scandinavian Cooking was giving a demo on gravlax.  My husband and I have been making gravlax for years but I thought it would be fun to learn or explore a new technique.

Generally, when we make it we use wild salmon that has been frozen and we make it during the winter months,usually around Christmas. We also used kosher salt and follow a recipe that essentially had us “burying” the salmon in salt. The results were good but I felt they could be better.

Hello, Nordic Culinary Conference!

While discussing the history and culture of gravlax and working at a very basic set up in the museum’s gym, Andreas sparked my Gravlax Recipe Reboot! He used a far gentler hand when curing his gravlax and he discussed the merits of curing the wild salmon first and then freezing it.  Aside from neutralizing any potential health issues with eating wild salmon raw, this curing THEN freezing method also results in a superior end product because Andreas explained that the curing breaks down some of the proteins in the fish and removes excess water in the flesh before the fish is frozen.

At the end of that class we were all treated to tastings of his version. Memorable morsels indeed.

At home, I anxiously awaited the launch of Copper River sockeye season and once I could get my hands on some, I adapted Andreas’s basic gravlax recipe. While standing face to fin with my Copper River sockeye, I decided to adjust Andreas’s recipe even further. He calls for curing with dill seed and peppercorn but I left those out and wrote up my own version of the technique, using an even lighter more intuitive hand. The end product is buttery, fresh and deliciously decadent.

The sockeye gravlax slices beautifully.

It drapes like silk!

Missy Trainer’s Gravlax Recipe

Adapted from Andreas Viestad, Nordic Culinary Conference (May 2016) and Kitchen of Light.

Copyright 2016 Melissa A. Trainer

Ingredients:

1 Copper River sockeye salmon, (tested with a four pounder/2016 season), filleted, pin boned, washed and patted dry lightly with paper towels

1/3 cup fine sea salt*

2/3 cup sugar

½ large bunch fresh dill, chopped coarsely

Equipment: parchment paper, Saran Wrap, large baking dish, such as Le Creuset roasting pan, small sandwich sized Tupperware containers, and four cans of Oregon Fruit Products cherries to weight the fish

Put the sockeye fillets, flesh side up on the parchment paper.   Combine the salt and sugar in a bowl and lightly sprinkle the sockeye flesh with the mixture.

I did this about three times and between each sprinkling the cure mixture would start to dissolve. This gentle subtle sprinkling technique results in a more refined texture. In the past and in many recipes they call for just dumping the mixture on the flesh, which essentially suffocates the poor bugger! After sprinkling,  rub the mixture around a little bit to distribute it.

In my method, let the salmon talk back to ya! Let it suck up some of the salt sugar mixture and rest for a second before you “load it up” again!

After three or four sprinklings, you’ll probably have some salt/sugar cure mixture left. I didn’t use it all the first time…I just set it aside in a jam jar and saved it for the next round of fish.

Then top the salmon with the chopped dill and sandwich the two fillets together. Wrap the sandwiched fillets in Saran wrap, put in the roasting pan and weight it as evenly as you can with the Tupperware and canned cherries…or corn or beans or bricks. This compresses the salmon and helps to extract that excess water.

Refrigerate and turn daily for two to three days.  Remove the cured fish, pat it dry. Do not rinse it. Leave the fresh dill intact. Cut into eight ounce chunks or whatever size you want. (Eight ounce chunks make it easy to avoid waste and use only what you need in each sitting.)

Vacuum pack if you have a Food Saver and freeze. Remove from freezer, let defrost and cut the gravlax thinly on an angle.

Drape the gravlax slices on whole grain bread, top with Scandinavian mustard and a garnish of dill.

Gravlax Twice as Good: Leftovers? Save even the smallest leftovers and tidbits and make a Scandinavian style potato salad with fresh cooked new potatoes, sour cream/mayo combo, celery, sweet onion, fresh dill and snippets of gravlax. The best!

*Salt:  In prior seasons we always just used kosher salt  but we now know that it is way too coarse and harsh. I switched to a bulk French fine sea salt from Whole Foods, which made a huge difference as the salt melts on the flesh within seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool Tip for Leftover Citrus

Frozen CitrusLeftovers. Not exactly exciting but a fact of life. And…sometimes the best source of innovation.

A few weeks ago we had a party and my husband had segmented lemons and limes for cocktails. The next morning we had quite a few left but the pieces weren’t really suitable for cooking. They were too small to  work with.  I couldn’t squeeze much out of them and zesting them would have been a tedious task at best.

Rather than throw them out, I decided to just chuck the lemons and limes in a baggie and toss them in the freezer. At the time, i didn’t think too much about it.  I just figured they’d come in handy.

Well, last week I decided to spontaneously add a few of the frozen sections to my Hydro Flask in the morning. Wow! The results were spectacular. The frozen lemons and limes naturally chilled the water like ice and the aromatic oils from the citrus naturally flavored the concoction.

I love this tip and plan to use it often now that summer is here!

 

NW Sweet Cherry Season 2016

Burlat Cherries Mattawa 2016Looks like the NW Sweet Cherry season for 2016 is off to a strong (and early) start.

My husband picked up a gorgeous bag of Burlat cherries at a roadside stand out near Mattawa, WA this weekend. Shocked that they could be local, I did some research and indeed, according to the Yakima Herald,  the farmers are starting to  harvest this early variety.

Aside from being fun to eat and a spectacular seasonal treat, sweet cherries, like their sour cousins, possess some helpful anti-inflammatory properties, and may help  to reduce your risk or modify the severity of diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure and cancer. (Back in 2014, the results of a study were published and you can read more about that in this press release that I wrote for NW cherries.)

So if you like to eat fresh seasonal fare that can easily give your body a healthy boost, head for the produce aisle and seriously consider adding a bag of cherries to your cart. They are packable, portable and, of course, palatable. Kids love them, too so it’s a slam dunk way to help them hit their fruit and veggie goal for the day.

When choosing, look for shiny cherries with bright green stems and store them in the refrigerator at home. Eat them out of hand, or pit them and add them to sweet and savory salads!

 

Tomato Soup from a Frozen Asset

Frozen Tomatoes 2015Now that Tomato Season 2016 has launched, I am turning my attention to the freezer.

Last October, right before a major rain storm, I raced into the garden and gathered the last of the season’s tomatoes. I had tons of them and simply didn’t want them to get ruined by the cold rain coming my way.

I had no time to start stewing and brewing over a hot stove to make sauces so I grabbed some quart size Ziploc freezer bags and shoved the washed tomatoes (of all shapes and sizes) straight into the bag. Ripe, whole and raw, they all went into the freezer. We’ve been using them in slow cooker vegetable and minestrone-style soups all year.

Earlier this week, I decided I really needed to use up the stash so I grabbed a couple bags from the freezer and let them defrost overnight. Yesterday morning, I had very soft tomatoes and lots of excess liquid. Admittedly, that visual  holds little appeal but I quickly tackled the mess with my Cuisinart Stick blender and my All-Clad Slow Cooker.

The tomatoes went into the slow cooker with a bunch of chopped basil found in the veggie bin. I blended the concoction with my stick blender and turned my attention to the stove where I sauteed one sweet onion and four or five cloves or garlic over moderate heat until softened. I then added a little flour to the onions, stirred in some chicken broth and made a thickener of sorts which got added to my tomato basil mixture.

The slow cooker got set for six hours on low and later that day I had a beautiful tomato basil soup ready for a simple meal. It needed little more than a blast of sea salt and pepper. Served with croutons, it was just what I needed for a quick pick me up mid day.

So, if you are planting your tomato garden, make a note to harvest and freeze some of your crop once the colder weather circles our way.