Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Born on the 4th of July

As the guest list for the 4th of July Ultimate Rib Extravaganza was falling into place, it became clear—appetizers were a must. I dipped into my “Recipes for a Hoard” file and pulled out the tried and true Black Bean Salsa. Many permutations of this recipe have been served at various events, and the 4th of July Ultimate Rib Extravaganza wasn’t going to be the exception. Celebrating the 4th was going to be a weekend long event, with houseguests, dinner guests, and then the big event on the 4th. Planning ahead was going to be essential if I was going to be prepared and not a frantic mess.

Saturday morning found us at the local Farmer’s Market. DH carved a straight line to his cousin’s stand, Gizmo’s Pickled Plus and settled in. The rest of us scattered taking in the ambiance and variety of the Market. A tap on my shoulder found Bella at my elbow with our good friend Jo in tow, a truly delightful surprise, which turned into two more for dinner. It had been far too long since we had enjoyed Jo and Angel’s company; they would be a welcome addition to our al fresco dinner party.

Several hours later we arrived home laden with our purchases, and attempted to cram them into an already burgeoning refrigerator. We took a short break and began the day’s real work—preparing food.

In addition to preparing for the 4th of July Ultimate Rib Extravaganza there were now additional preparations to make for dinner. Another pound of hamburg needed thawing, and I wondered if someone needed to go out for more sweet corn. I lingered on that for about two seconds before I was distracted and off in another direction. The kitchen was bustle of activity. My nephew Wort was making ice cream and sorbet, Adele was doing the ribs, I was making pies and lists, and Bella and Christy were in the dining room coloring and accusing each other of monopolizing crayons in between doing the dishes.

Around 5 o’clock everyone was starving, and dinner was still a ways off. Out came the ingredients for Black Bean Salsa. I whipped together this and some Dilled White Bean Spread, arranged everything in a cloth-lined basket and brought it to the porch. Wort opened a growler of beer and everyone settled in for a good gnosh. It was all delicious, but what the blazing sun would be served for appetizers tomorrow?!

The next morning I pulled the remnants of the Black Bean Salsa from the fridge--not much left. It was time to forage. There were a couple ears of corn-on-the-cob left from the previous night’s dinner. There was still a tomato or two, a variety of peppers, lots of fresh cilantro, a ripe avocado, limes, and a can of black beans-- a veritable treasure trove. What I didn’t have were chips. Bella and Wort made a supply run and we were good to go. So, here it is--Black Bean & Corn Salsa, born on the 4th of July.

Notes for this recipe: The Salsa will be best when made ahead of time giving the flavors time to develop and meld. More or less cilantro, garlic, and cumin can be added to suit your palate. The avocado can be omitted. The picture shows Black Bean & Corn Salsa from our Saturday night festivities. Click on "cooked corn" below for the link on this blog for cooking corn how to.

4th of July Black Bean and Corn Salsa

1 avocado peeled, pitted & diced
Zest & juice of 1 lime
2 15 oz. cans black beans, rinsed and drained
2 ears of cooked corn, kernels cut from the cob (or 1 c. frozen, thawed or 1 c. canned, drained)
½ red pepper, seeded & diced
½ yellow pepper, seeded & diced
¼ green pepper, seeded & diced
1 tomato, sliced & diced
2 Tbsp. green onion tops, minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed and minced
1/3 c. chopped cilantro
2 tsp. cumin
Kosher salt
White & Blue corn chips

Put the diced avocado in a small bowl. Pour the lime juice over and gently stir with a rubber spatula. Add the zest. Set aside.

In a larger bowl combine the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine. Add the avocado & lime juice mixture. Stir gently to combine. Season with salt to taste. Scrape into a serving bowl and set aside for an hour. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Line a basket with a towel. Set the serving bowl in the basket and surround with chips and serve.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sacred Events

Every year for at least twenty years we’ve made a pilgrimage. Less than a handful of times have we missed this most sacred of events—strawberry picking. Sacrilege? Heresy? Hardly! One could worship worse things than the beautiful and succulent strawberry. And worship it I do!

This year DH and I were able to make the pilgrimage together. It was a glorious mid-June Vermont day—cloudless blue sky with a brilliant sun. We arrived at Norris Berry Farm mid-morning, and checked in. We blocked up, donned our sun hats, grabbed our flats (the large rectangular cartons to hold the picked strawberries), and headed to our designated patch where we each selected a row and got busy.

We toiled for hours in the hot sun picking our rows while others came and went. The person who most captured our attention was the young woman carrying a latte in one hand and a quart basket in the other. Miss Latte wore a mini-shirt and a pair of designer sandals. As DH and I scooted along on our butts this young woman hopped from row to row looking for the biggest and most beautiful berries. She was what we call a top grazer. Miss Latte ignored strawberry picking etiquette--you select a row and pick it, placing the flag for that row where you stop. No silly rules or etiquette for Miss Latte! DH and I chuckled and exchanged a knowing look. Go ahead, Miss Latte, pick the biggest, most perfect berries! We are quite content with the smaller ones. As strawberry devotees, we know that the smaller berries pack the most flavor. Miss Latte was not the only picker obsessed with finding the largest berries, which makes me ask, "What is the obsession with big berries?!"

The answer must be Clamshell strawberries, those tasteless monstrosities available for purchase year round in supermarkets. I’ve concluded that this product appeals to our cultural training that bigger must be better, even if it tastes terrible. If shoppers knew how these crops were grown and the environmental impact of the agricultural methods used, would it make a difference in their purchasing habits? Clamshells are cultivated using a form of modern commercial production called the “plasticulture” system. Which means lots of plastic is used.

The plants are covered with plastic to prevent weeds from growing and pests from invading. The plants are “fumigated,” which is a less frightening way of referring to the pesticides used to kill pests and weeds. Talk about toxic! This is not a product I purchase, period. We eat strawberries when they are in season and pick or purchase them from a local grower. This year we picked four flats of these tasty morsels, which were turned into jam or frozen. Come January this little bit of summer will be most welcome.

One of our favorite summer desserts is Strawberry Shortcake. A tender, slightly sweet biscuit doused with strawberries and bathed in whipped cream. But here’s the burning question--"Why is Shortcake called shortcake?" I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t because the biscuits are short in stature! Shortcake’s name derives from the ratio of fat to flour and how this affects the length of the gluten strands. Gluten strands are “shortened” by increasing the ratio of fat to flour resulting in a much more tender product. Hence the name shortcake. By adding sugar, milk and baking powder the chemical reaction is complete creating a tender, moist biscuit.

Notes for this recipe: Our preference is for unsugared strawberries, but it can be added. A tablespoon or two would be sufficient. Although many shortcake biscuits call for eggs, this one does not. Why? I prefer them without. Whipping cream--don’t over whip or it will turn to butter, and confectioner’s sugar can be increased to 1 tablespoon if you prefer yours a little sweeter.

Strawberry Shortcake

1 qt. strawberries


Whipped Cream

Hull strawberries. In a separate bowl mash approximately 1/3 of the berries. Halve the remaining strawberries into a larger bowl. Add the mashed berries. With a rubber spatula, gently mix to combine. Set aside.

While the strawberries are resting, make the biscuits.


2 c. flour

4 Tbsp. brown sugar

3 tsp. baking power

1 tsp. salt

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 c. milk

Preheat oven to 375. Lightly grease a cookie sheet with shortening or canola oil and set aside. Into a bowl measure the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Thoroughly cut in the butter with a pastry blender or two table knives. Add the milk. Stir with a fork to combine. Using two spoons drop the dough onto the prepared cookie sheet to make 8 biscuits.

Bake for 15 minutes or until biscuits are a light golden brown. Cool for 5 minutes and remove to wire rack to cool completely.

While the biscuits are cooling give the strawberries a gentle stir, and then make the whipped cream.

Whipped Cream

1/2 c. heavy cream

½ tsp. vanilla

½ Tbsp. confectioner’s sugar

In small bowl beat the whipped cream until it is thickened. Gently stir in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar.

To assemble the Strawberry Shortcakes: Cut a biscuit in half horizontally. Place the lower half of the biscuit in a dessert-sized bowl. Fill a one cup solid measuring cup with strawberries. Pour them on top of the biscuit. Add a good dollop of whipped cream and cover with the top of the biscuit. Serve.