FOURTH OF JULY, 2011

1)    So, I won an award yesterday.  Many thanks to the Houston Press & Houston Web Awards for naming Blue Jean Gourmet the Best Food Blog in town; there’s a large, talented roster to choose from, and I am truly honored!

2)    My mom’s birthday is tomorrow, and she’ll be here in Houston so we can celebrate it with her.  She’s one of the most independent, opinionated, and determined people I know, and I love her so freaking much.

3)    NPR’S Kitchen Window featured a wonderful piece about the diversity of foods being grilled across the nation this week—from Korean kalbi to Indian tandoori salmon—and the way that culinary diversity reflects the very greatness and strength of America, which the Fourth of July is designed to celebrate.

My memories of backyard Fourth of July cookouts growing up seem “all-American” on the surface—beer, grill, family time outdoors with bug spray—but when you look closer, there’s Hindi music blasting through the speakers and chili-pepper-butter on the corn on the cob.  For many of us, I suspect it was, or is becoming this way, and I think that is a very good thing, indeed.

4)    Below I have culled some recipes from past posts–foods that I think would be right at home among the cookouts and potlucks of the upcoming long weekend, featuring some of the summer’s best produce.

Whatever you’re up to this Fourth of July, please be safe, enjoy yourselves, & eat well as we Americans celebrate our great country!

 

to drink:

fruit-infused tequila
lucky dogs (guava nectar cocktails)

snacks/appetizers:

deviled eggs
fried okra
marinated cheese*
black bean salsa*

sides:

grilled vegetable caponata
sweet summer corn
quick-pickled carrots*
marinated eggplant*

mains:

tomato bread pudding
Mexican-style pork tenderloin sandwiches

desserts:

strawberry ice cream
Mojito popsicles
gingersnap-crusted mascarpone tart

*designates no-cook items (i.e., you don’t have to turn on the stove, oven, or grill!)

 

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ALMOND PUDDINGS WITH BOURBON CHERRIES & WHIPPED CREAM

Sometimes you do something you are really, truly, genuinely proud of.  You want to do it, and then you do, and it turns out pretty much exactly as you had hoped.  And then you are unabashedly (or probably a tiny bit abashed, because you’re not super-great at taking compliments, even from yourself ) proud.

For example: I had this idea for a pudding, a cold, creamy, almond-flavored pudding topped with bourbon-y cherries and whipped cream.  I honestly have no idea where this idea came from, given that up until I made these, I have loathed, disdained, and completely eschewed puddings and all things pudding-esque in texture for my whole life.  But during my bout with bronchitis at the end of the school year, I found myself dreaming about the foods I would cook when I felt like eating again, and this was one of them.

Now, a pudding might not seem much to get all self-congratulatory over, except for two things: one, it turned out exactly how I had imagined, the flavors, textures, and temperatures all combining for a rich but not heavy dessert.  Two, the fact that these puddings turned out is for me a sign that I’ve reached a goal.

There are things I have wanted to do, very badly, without really knowing how to do them, or if I would be capable of doing them when it came right down to it.  I’m certain that you, reading this, know what I mean, though I don’t know what those things might have been for you.

Some of my goals have been more intense (deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral in a way that would dignify him, care-take Jill without making her cancer about me) than others (shave my head just to see what it would be like, become the kind of person people refer to as “refreshingly honest”).  Some I’ve yet to accomplish (publish a book, become fluent in Hindi).

But one constant goal, somewhere on the middle of the spectrum between serious and silly, has been to improve my cooking skills.  Early in my cooking career, I set my sights on the idea of being someone who can take whatever was in the house and throw together dinner; I do that regularly now, with fun and ease.  I am a much more efficient cook (and a much more efficient cleaner of the messes I make, something I know Jill appreciates)—I have a repertoire of dishes, but I also feel confident enough to improvise, something that would have terrified me a few years ago.

Recently, I have been focusing on the idea of flavor combinations and expanding my knowledge of ingredients and techniques.  I want to be able to build a dish in my mind, imagining the component parts and steps that will be necessary, and then build that dish in my kitchen, perhaps with some trial and error, but ultimately have it turn out.  So that’s why I’m so excited about this damn pudding.

I still have a long, long way to go—so much I do not know about food, or what to do with it.  My butchering skills need work, and I’m a total stranger to the grill.  But I hope, in time and with practice, I’ll be able to one day say—“I wanted to do that, and now I have.”

ALMOND PUDDINGS WITH BOURBON CHERRIES & WHIPPED CREAM

Please note: the puddings need to chill for about four hours before you can eat them.  I know, I know, I know, but it’s worth the wait.  Plan accordingly!

You could also keep them overnight, and maybe longer than that, but in my house, they did not last.

for the puddings:

½ cup almonds
2/3 cup sugar, divided
2 T water
2 cups whole milk
2 egg yolks
2 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
2 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch salt

special equipment: 6 ramekins (you could also use mugs or small glass bowls)

Grind the almonds and half the sugar (1/3 cup) until the nuts resemble wet sand.  Add the water and blend until mostly smooth.  Turn the almond paste into a medium-sized, thick-bottomed saucepan and add the milk.  Whisk together and heat the mixture over medium heat until hot to the touch.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, egg yolks, cornstarch, & salt until it’s smooth.  Pour in half of the hot milk mixture, whisking to combine.  Add the remaining half of the hot milk to the egg yolk bowl, whisking until completely incorporated.

Pour the whole thing back into the saucepan, and heat again over medium until it’s thick and bubbling.  Stir constantly with a whisk or spatula.  Boil for just a minute, until the mixture has thickened to a gloppy consistency.  (I know that sounds gross, but it’s going to be very tasty, don’t worry).

Remove the saucepan from the stove and stir in the butter and extracts until the butter has completely melted.  At this point, I passed the pudding mixture through a mesh sieve before spooning it into the ramekins; I wanted a smooth texture, but you might not.

Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic touches the pudding directly, preventing it from forming a thick skin.  Refrigerate until cold and set, about 4-5 hours.

for the bourbon cherries:

a dozen sweet red cherries, pitted & halved
3 T butter
2 T brown sugar
bourbon! (yes, it deserves an exclamation mark)

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium low until it’s foamy.  Add the cherries and sauté until they become soft and a bit darker in color.  Stir in the brown sugar, letting it caramelize a bit before deglazing the pan with a generous hit of bourbon.  Turn the heat to low and let everything cook together for a few minutes, at which point you should have boozy cherries and a simple, burgundy-colored sauce.

to serve:

Mound some homemade whipped cream over each pudding.  Top with a few bourbon cherries and, if you like, some chopped, toasted almonds.

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FRUIT-INFUSED TEQUILA

No time to waste on paragraphs.  Here’s a list of reasons you should make this:

1)    Tequila drinks are delicious.
2)    This tequila drink is delicious even when you use relatively cheap tequila (like I did).
3)    It’s amazingly simple to make.
4)    You can easily make it for a crowd.
5)    If you prep it today, it will be ready to drink on Monday.

Convinced?  Okay then.  Labor Day weekend–go!

FRUIT-INFUSED TEQUILA
adapted from Bon Appetit

The original recipe calls for the use of watermelon, which I don’t find I enjoy in cocktail form, so I substituted pineapple.  I also used crystallized ginger instead of regular, because that’s what I had on hand, but I will repeat that choice when I make this in the future.  Without the added sugar, I think the straight tequila would be a bit much.

ingredients:

1 small to medium bottle tequila (approximately 4-4 ½  cups)
half a ripe pineapple
2 mangoes
3 peaches or other stone fruit
4 limes
¼ cup crystallized ginger

optional: homemade grenadine

Peel & dice the pineapple, then place it into the bottom of a pitcher fitted with a lid.  Squeeze any juice from the pineapple rind into the pitcher as well.  Peel & dice the mangoes, discarding the pit.  Add to the pitcher.

No need to peel the stone fruit; just slice & toss it in.  Chop the crystallized ginger roughly, then add it to the pitcher as well.  Squeeze in the lime juice, then pour in the tequila.  Use the back of a large spoon or potato masher (it works!) to press down on the fruit, extracting all juices.

Store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.  When ready to serve, strain the tequila and discard the fruit (or serve it to the brave).  Pour over crushed ice, drizzle with grenadine (if using), & serve with lime.

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TOMATO BREAD PUDDING

I recommend you make this while the tomatoes are still good.

Labor Day brings with it all kinds of cultural restrictions and bounds: no more white, no more linen, no more talk of summer.  Corn loses its sweetness and the Farmers Market offerings begin to change.

Of course, if you live down South like I do, the idea that summer will end on Monday seems laughable, what with the 100 degree temperatures and all.  Still, I know tomatoes won’t last forever and the weather will turn cold eventually, bringing with it corduroys and long-sleeved shirts and excuses for making chili and baked goods with cinnamon and apples.  And chicken and dumplings, and…yeah.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, summer!

TOMATO BREAD PUDDING
adapted from Gourmet

It’s obscenely good.  That’s all that needs to be said.

ingredients:

3 lb. plum tomatoes, such as Roma, halved
1 whole head garlic
2 tsp. herbes de Provence
olive oil

oven: 400˚
pan: one or two foil-lined baking sheets

Toss the tomatoes with herbs de Provence, a few tablespoons of olive oil, and a bit of salt & pepper.  Arrange the tomatoes, cut sides up, on baking sheet(s).  Take the whole head of garlic and cut off the pointy tops, exposing all the cloves.  Wrap the garlic in foil & place on baking sheet with the tomatoes.

Roast it all for 45-50 minutes until the garlic is soft & tomatoes are wilted but still juicy.  Once the garlic has cooled, remove the cloves from their skins and mince it finely.  Alternately, puree the garlic in a blender or food processor.

10 cups cubed (1-inch) Italian bread*
8 eggs
2 cups grated Fontina
2 cups whole milk
1 ½ cups heavy cream
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

While the tomatoes & garlic are roasting, toss the bread crumbs in a bit more olive oil and spread them on another baking sheet.  Toast for 20-25 minutes and cool on a rack while the tomatoes & garlic finish.

Butter a 13 x 9 shallow baking dish.  Arrange the bread cubes, nestling in the roasted tomatoes.

In a bowl or large liquid measure, whisk together the eggs, milk, & cream.  Add the garlic and stir in the cheeses.  Pour the mixture over the bread and tomatoes.  Bake until golden brown and firm, about an hour.  Slice and serve with a green salad.

*I used about ¾ of a large loaf

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SUMMER REFRESHMENT, REVISITED

It’s really freaking hot, therefore refreshments are in order.

I’m revisiting two favorites from blogs past, both of which are easy to make and have become my essentials for summer survival.  Something about homemade iced coffee feels like a treat to myself, one I don’t have to feel very guilty about, and I am kind of obsessed with guava nectar.  And ginger beer.  And gin.  Opa!

If you’re interested in other summer staples, you can scroll through last year’s Summer Classics Series, with recipes for standards like coleslaw & potato salad, plus popular desserts like key lime pie & gingersnap-mascarpone tart.  It may feel like summer’s going to last forever, but when you start flipping through those calendar pages, fall isn’t so far away.

LUCKY DOGS

Guava is a little bit sweet, a little bit puckery, and pairs beautifully with spicy Mexican or Indian food.  You can read the story of how these cocktails got their strange name here.

1 can guava nectar
1 bottle Reed’s or other strong ginger beer
3 oz. gin or vodka
juice of one lime

Combine all ingredients, then pour into two glasses over ice.  Garnish with extra lime wedges.  You can easily double or triple the ingredients to make a pitcher.

COLD-BREW ICED COFFEE

This cold brewed iced coffee recipe was adapted from one I found in the New York Times.

4 cups bottled or filtered water
2/3 cup ground coffee, medium to coarse grind*

In a large liquid measuring cup or bowl with a pour spout, combine the two ingredients and stir.  Cover the mixture and let it sit at least overnight or up to 24 hours.

To remove the grounds from the concentrate, you can use a French press or pour the mixture through a wide-mouthed jar fitted with a coffee filter.  Store the concentrate in the fridge.

To make iced coffee, fill a glass with ice, then half or two-thirds of the way full with coffee concentrate.  Add milk, soymilk, or sweetened condensed milk to taste.

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SWEET SUMMER CORN

Sweet summer corn (swoon)
Plus butter and a hot pan,
Herbs, salt; happiness.

That’s pretty much all there is to this. It’s simple and bright, pairs perfectly with burgers and grilled steaks, and takes about fifteen minutes to make. What are you waiting for?

CARAMELIZED CORN WITH FRESH HERBS
adapted from The Wednesday Chef

I polled my friends when I made all three incarnations of this dish to see if we could determine which herb was the favorite—but there was no clear majority! So I’m afraid you may have to try all three yourself to see which one you like best.  I know, I know, the hardship.

4 ears sweet summer corn
4 T butter
¼ cup fresh basil, mint, or sage, chopped
salt

First, prep the corn. I like to do this over a newspaper-covered counter, to catch the silks. Remove each ear from its husks and slide its silky strings out of the way. Holding the “handle” end of each cob, carefully cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife.

Melt the butter in a wide pan over medium-high heat. Add the corn and stir until you begin to hear popping & spluttering. Don’t be alarmed! This is what you want. Watch and continue to stir as the kernels brown, about 10-12 minutes total.

Remove the corn from the heat, sprinkle in the salt. Divide in two or three, if necessary, then stir in fresh herbs. Serve hot.

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FRUIT SALAD

I grew up with a strange sense of family—if you ask me about them, I’ll say, “They’re all in India.  But my real family…” My parents have always been the only people I am related to by blood on the entire North American continent.  Actually, in the entire Western hemisphere.  There are relatives in India whom I feel close to, but they have always been a long plane ride or static-y phone call away.

fruit salad from the side

So my immediate sense of family has never been about blood or marriage, never about people to whom I was “actually” related. In fact, I’ve grown to kind of resent the implication that blood is somehow thicker than water, since all of my blood relatives lived two oceans away and didn’t know me.  Why do I need to be related to someone for them to be my family—and just because I am related to someone, what does that mean?  Why should I care about someone just because we share the same DNA?

My real family is the one my parents, then I, now Jill and I together, have chosen and created for ourselves.  I use the terms “sister,” “brother-in-law, “nephew,” freely, even though they don’t technically hold water.  Jill and I might not have a legal certificate that affirms such, but I have a mother-in-law who makes the best fried okra in the whole world, and a father-in-law who loves my chocolate cake.  These are the people who know me, who see me roundly and regularly, who have the authority and intimacy to nickname me and tease me.

In my book, adopted family is family, and so I proudly present this fruit salad, inspired by my best friend’s father, Bill, (also the father of our Blue Jean Sommelier), who in the last few years has become a kind of father to me and I am so grateful to him for it.  He’s generous and kind and loves food, so it’s truly as if we are related.

His is really a stellar, unusual take on fruit salad—tastes fresh, keeps well, and works with pretty much any combination of fruit (excepting bananas).  It’s a no-brainer in the summer, when the options are endless, but what I especially love about this recipe is that you can adapt it for the winter, using citrus, apples, even jicama for crunch.

BILL’S FRUIT SALAD

Bill says the key is to cut the fruit into smaller pieces, approximately half-inch cubes or slices.  I know halving the grapes may seem like a pain, but it makes a difference in the overall taste, I promise.  If you’re wary about the flavor of the crystallized ginger, feel free to cut back a bit.

Feel free to use any combination of fruit (adding mango, kiwi, orange segments) and keep in mind that this recipe double easily.

½ pineapple, cubed fruit salad from above

1 bunch green grapes, halved lengthwise

1 pint strawberries, hulled & quartered

1 pint of blackberries, whole

juice of 1 lime

2 T crystallized ginger, minced very finely*

½ cup sliced, NOT slivered almonds (Bill toasts his before adding them)

To start the salad, place the ginger in a big bowl with the lime juice—this will help distribute the ginger flavor throughout the salad.  Toss in all of the fruit and leave, covered, in the refrigerator for as long as you like.  Mix in the sliced almonds close to serving so they’ll keep their snap.

* I recently made my own crystallized ginger following this recipe and wow is it about 100 times more delicious than the storebought stuff (not to mention cheaper!)

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HOMEMADE GRENADINE

As you may already know, teaching is my day job.  Eighth grade English, to be precise.  And in-service started this week.  Hence this post involves cocktails.

back to school cocktails

I know; I’m very lucky to have a summer vacation at all.  My job is truly fabulous because I love my students and I’m able to have a big chunk of time off to do all kinds of other things I may be interested in doing.  But a big part of why my job works so well for me is that I was. not. made. to sit behind a desk and/or in meetings all day.  And in-service is pretty much one big meeting.

So.

Doubtless you’re familiar with grenadine—if you’re like me, from the Shirley Temples of your youth?—but it’s also used to add color and sweetness to “grownup” drinks.  Originally, grenadine was made from pomegranates, hence the signature fuschia color, but as you can see, the bottled pre-made no longer has such wholesome origins:

storebought grenadine

Therefore I suggest to you the simple, even meditative act of making your own grenadine and storing it handily in the fridge where it will be waiting for you when you come home from a long day of meetings.

Even though the summer is technically “over” now that school has started, it’s still hot as blazes and so we’re going to keep the Summer Classics Series going through Labor Day–be on the lookout for a lovely Farmer’s Market Pasta & a killer fresh-fig dessert.

HOMEMADE GRENADINE (pomegranate syrup) grenadine ingredients
adapted from Alton Brown

ingredients:

4 cups pomegranate juice
juice from half a lemon
½ -1 cup sugar (adjust according to the amount of sugar in your brand of pomegranate juice)

Combine all of the ingredients in a deep saucepan over medium heat, stirring while it heats until the sugar has dissolved.  Turn the heat down and allow the mixture to simmer until the syrup has reduced by at least half.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool at room temperature before transferring to a jar in the fridge.  This will yield between 1 ½ – 2 cups of homemade grenadine, which should keep in the fridge for up to six months.

There are a million cocktail recipes out there that involve grenadine, but here’s one classic & one that I just made up:

TEQUILA SUNRISE

These things go down like a vacation in a glass.  Ahhh…..

you will need: tequila sunrises

tequila
orange juice (freshly squeezed is extra delicious!)
homemade grenadine

The method is simple: fill a glass with ice.  Pour in some tequila, as much or as little as you’d like.  Pour in orange juice nearly to the top of the glass, leaving just enough room to drizzle a few tablespoons of grenadine over the whole thing.  Because it’s a syrup, it will ease down slowly to make a lovely pattern—like a sunrise—so don’t stir!  Just drink.

BACK-TO-SCHOOL TONIC

Because I just threw this one together, feel free to adapt it in any way you see fit.  Basically this is like a cosmopolitan, just with pomegranate flavor instead of cranberry.  And it was delicious.  Cheers!

you will need:

1 lemon
orange liquor (I used Cointreau)
vodka
homemade grenadine

If you’d like a fancy lemon garnish, I recommend peeling a curlique with a paring knife before you juice the lemon; much easier.

For two drinks, fill a cocktail strainer with ice.  Squeeze in the whole lemon, add a generous glug of orange liquor & two shots of vodka.  Pour in between ½ – ¾ cup grenadine.

Shake it all up, strain, and pour.  Garnish with lemon twists or orange slices, etc.

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ICE CREAM PIE

This is totally one of those blog posts I would read & think “Come on!  Does she really think this counts as a recipe?  Who are we kidding here?”

I know.  It isn’t a recipe, more like a great idea.  Everyone loves ice cream, but scooping sundaes for a crowd can be kind-of a pain.  Instead, take good-quality ice cream (perhaps some you just made yourself?), soften it a bit, mix in nuts or chocolate or fruit or candy, spread that into the cookie shell you just made, and freeze the whole thing up.

ice cream pie

An hour later, you’ve got a simple, satisfying, & adaptable dessert, perfect for this hot, hot August.

Since this is sort of a slacker blog post, I’m going to throw in a little something extra here: our first Blue Jean Gourmet Mix.  Hope you enjoy these summer kitchen tunes as much as we do.

ICE CREAM PIE

The possibilities are really quite endless here; you can tailor to a sophisticated, adult palate, a gooier, kid-friendly palate, or somewhere in-between:

a)    chocolate cookie crust, chocolate ice cream, peppermint candies
b)    gingersnap crust, vanilla ice cream, fresh fruit
c)    vanilla wafer crust, banana ice cream, peanut butter cups
d)    graham cracker crust, Neapolitan ice cream, mini marshmallows

For this pie, I made an Oreo crust, coffee ice cream, & mixed in toasted almonds & chunks of semi-sweet chocolate.  To top it all off, homemade whipped cream & a few chocolate-covered espresso beans.  There were several “Whoah, I don’t know if I can finish this” remarks followed by clean plates.

To make the crust, I used a food processor to make crumbs of the Oreos & a few tablespoons of butter, then pressed the crumbs into a pie pan.  The whole thing went into the freezer for a while before I added in the ice cream filling.

Once you’ve filled the pie, be sure to cover it well to prevent freezer burn.  Take out at least 5 minutes before you’re planning to serve, so it can thaw a little, making your life easier when it comes time to cut wedges.

LATE SUMMER KITCHEN MIX (turntable links to iTunes)

1_turntable

We Used to Be Friends – The Dandy Warhols
Spiralling – Keane
We’re an American Band – Grand Funk Railroad
Rosanna – Toto
Believe in Me – Emily White
Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
Girls in Their Summer Clothes – Bruce Springsteen
Manhattan – Kings of Leon
Mr. Brownstone – Guns N’ Roses
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
No You Girls – Franz Ferdinand
Freeway of Love – Aretha Franklin
Wouldn’t It Be Nice – The Beach Boys
Miss Ferguson – Cory Branan
Abigail – Courtney Robbins
Cheated Hearts – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Overweight – Blue October
14th Street – Rufus Wainwright

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SNAP PEA SALAD

Ya’ll.  I am so tired and so full.  My in-laws are in town.

Jill’s parents are what you might call “good country people,” Louisiana folk who grow big gardens, hunt deer, & wear me out even though they are fifty and sixty years older than me, respectively.  I think it’s because they work so hard and all of the time that they can eat the way they do; which is to say that if I ate what they eat all of the time, I’d be six months out from a triple-bypass surgery and forty extra pounds.

snap pea salad

Our running joke when we come home from their house or when they leave ours is “I need something green, please!”  Most of what we eat with them is fried—for example, tonight’s meal consisted of onion rings, fried shrimp, this coleslaw, squash casserole (with cheese!), and double-chocolate brownies.  With whipped cream.

So, I think I’m going to make this salad tomorrow and eat it all myself.  Let’s hear it for vegetables.

SNAP PEA SALAD

The following is not a prescriptive recipe; please feel free to tinker.  And it tastes even better if you can make it an hour or two before serving.

ingredients: snap peas

2 cups snap peas, washed & trimmed*
3 carrots, grated (yielding about 1 cup)
1 ½ T fresh ginger, minced
¼ cup cilantro, picked
toasted sesame seeds for garnish

dressing:

¼ cup bottled garlic dressing (I used Annie’s Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette because I am obsessed)
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T rice wine vinegar or the juice of ½ a lime
soy sauce or salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.  Toss with dressing & adjust salt, etc. to taste.  Serve immediately or refrigerate until you’re ready.

*To trim, just snap off the ends & remove the middle “string.”

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