Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Recipe: Strawberry Panzanella Salad

It's taken over three months for me to fully settle into my apartment, but I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere with it.  A lot of things have prevented me from doing this in a more timely fashion, the biggest being the neuropathy that has literally flipped my life inside out.  Constant, persistent, sometimes debilitating pain can make it hard to get even the simplest tasks accomplished.

The good news is that said tasks can be done; they just take a little more time and patience (which, I'll admit, I do not always possess).  Except for a half dozen boxes and the pictures that still need to be put up, I've made enough progress with it that it now looks more like a home than a warehouse.  That alone is reason enough to celebrate, so I finally had a small housewarming party over the weekend.

The celebration was twofold actually: I had my cute little apartment to show off and I had a sponsored dinner party to throw that night.  Since I'm the type that feels guilty not offering guests something on which to nibble no matter how casual the gathering, I figured this would be a great way to multitask: I'd have some awesome folks over and they'd eat like kings & queens!

I'll be posting the recap of the dinner party later this week, but I just couldn't wait to share the recipe to one of the dishes I whipped up for the occasion.  It's fresh, seasonal, lovely to look at, and so friggin' good I've had it for dinner three nights in a row.  And it brings out the cultural anthropologist in me.

Panzanella, an Italian bread salad popular in the summer, is one of those dishes that makes me appreciate how other cultures make the most out of very little.  Rather than throw out precious food because it's not perfect, people have simply figured out different ways to use what they had on hand, often times with delicious results. 

And that's exactly what I try to do on PGEW.

This particular dish is pretty much a rescue mission for those last bits of bread that have gone too hard and stale to enjoy on their own.

Traditionally, the bread is soaked in water & squeezed dry, then it's tossed together with simple, yet delicious ingredients like tomatoes, onions, basil, olive oil & vinegar.  A little sprinkle of salt & pepper later and presto!  Tough bread is now a lovely salad.

I thought it would be nice to do something a little different for my version of panzanella.  Rather than soaking stale bread (which I didn't have on hand), I pan-grilled mine with some olive oil.  It gave the bread a nice golden color and a special flavor & texture.  And since I've been having a lot of fun using strawberries in place of tomatoes in things like salads and salsas, I thought it would be fun to do so here as well.  They offer the same vibrant red hue that's peppered throughout the salad, only with a surprisingly sweet kick. 

With crisp spring greens, some gruyere I scored at Grocery Outlet (of all places!), and a homemade strawberry-balsamic vinaigrette, this salad is a definite departure from traditional panzanella, but every bit as delightful.  It's fabulous as an entree salad or as part of a larger spread for summer potlucks or the occasional housewarming party (where it was an absolute hit).  Let's check out the recipe!

Strawberry Panzanella Salad (makes 6-8 servings; total cost per serving: $1.75)


For the salad
1/2 loaf of French bread, cut into 1" cubes (about 5 cups)
2-3 T olive oil
1 1/2 c sliced fresh strawberries
3 c spring mix
1/3 c shaved gruyere
Salt & pepper to taste

For the strawberry-balsamic vinaigrette:
1/4 c olive oil
1/4 c balsamic vinegar
1/2 c sliced fresh strawberries
1 T honey
Dash of salt & pepper

1.  Prepare the dressing.  Combine all dressing ingredients in a blender & puree until smooth.  Cover & set aside.

2.  Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet or saute pan, then add the bread and a dash of salt & pepper.  Cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes or until golden brown, tossing the bread frequently to avoid burning.  Add more olive oil through the cooking process as needed.

3.  In a large bowl, combine the strawberries, bread and spring mix.  Drizzle about half of the vinaigrette onto the salad, sprinkle with salt & pepper, and toss everything together gently.  Cover and set aside for about 30 minutes.

4.  When ready to serve, toss in the gruyere cheese, serve with extra dressing on the side, and enjoy!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Recipe: Quinoa, Black Bean & Summer Squash Salad

It's that time of year again.  That special time when you come home after a long day at the office, arms full of parcels from running post-work errands, only to trip on something on your front doorstep.

It's Someone-Left-Zucchini-On-My-Doorstep season again.

Personally, I haven't tripped on any zucchini, pattypan and other summer squash just yet, but I have in the past and I know it's coming.  I don't mind, really - after all, who can say no to fresh summer produce right out of the garden?  And in a season when fruit seems to take center stage, it's nice to have a source for free veggies.

But until my friends & neighbors start leaving tasty obstacles on my doorstep, I make do with all the beautiful squash being sold at ye olde farmer's market.  With prices like $1/lb for mix-n-match squash (and peaches, and apricots, and...), how can one go wrong?

I scored a nice bunch of these beauties over the weekend with no particular recipe in mind.  I like to let my produce inspire me rather than the other way 'round, especially in the summertime when the markets are resplendent with fresh, vibrant, just-picked fruits & vegetables.  I chose the smallest ones so they'd be nice & tender (and, let's face it, cute), making it easy to use them either cooked or raw - a huge plus during the summer when there are days too hot for cooking, or even grilling.

Because of the warmer weather, my stove & I have been seeing a lot less of each other.  The long dates we used to have on a nightly basis are now happening just a couple times a week, when I cook up big batches of beans or grains to use in salads & other dishes.  And as we enter Scary Week, making a big batch of quinoa to stretch out into different meals is the way to go.  It's beyond nutritious, filling without being overwhelming, and because of its versatility & high yield, very cost-effective

With all that fabulous squash I'd picked up, I was tempted to make my Summer Veggies & Quinoa with Cilantro-Pistachio Pesto.  But since I had no nuts in the house whatsoever, I scrapped that pesto-making plan pretty quickly.  Instead, I made use of what I had available to me and made a quick, simple salad that required zero cooking now that my quinoa was made.  With smoky black beans and crunchy, fresh summer veggies all tossed together in a simple citrus dressing, voila!  Dinner - and lunch for the next two days - was served.

All that for less than a buck fi'ty per serving.  Gotta love that!  :)

Quinoa, Black Bean & Summer Squash Salad (makes 3-4 servings; total cost per serving: $1.25)

1 c cooked quinoa
3/4 c cooked black beans
1 c chopped assorted summer squash (zucchini, pattypan, etc.)
1/2 c diced red onion
1 large tomato, diced
1/8 c olive oil
1/8 c fresh lemon juice
1/8 c fresh key lime juice
1 T honey
Salt & pepper to taste

1.  Prepare the dressing by vigorously whisking together the last five ingredients in a small bowl until completely combined.  Set aside.

2.  In a large bowl, add the quinoa, beans, squash, tomato & onion, and toss together.  Pour the dressing into the salad and mix well.  Cover and refrigerate for about 30 minutes to let the flavors incorporate.

3.  Serve alone, atop a bed of greens, or as a nice side to grilled meats or fish.  Enjoy!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father's Day Menu Ideas (and a lesson in food presentation)

When I was about ten years old, I was deep into the plating & presentation phase of my culinary development.  I was pretty good at making some basic dishes, and was looking to be more creative in my presentation.  By then, I had joined my parents for enough fancy dinners at upscale restaurants to know that I wanted whatever I made to look exactly like what those guys would serve.

I don't recall many of the specifics of the dish I had prepared for my parents one evening after we spent a day at the beach, except that there was pasta and seafood involved.  It was a more elaborate recipe than what I was used to making and I was quite pleased that I'd put it all together with minimal help from my mom.

As usual, I had declared the kitchen a Do Not Enter zone when I was ready to plate my piece de resistance.  With calculated precision I arranged the prawns and other shellfish on top of the pasta in a lovely spiral pattern, alternating colors for a more dramatic effect, just like at the fancy restaurants.

When my masterpiece was complete, I glided confidently out of the kitchen with my father's plate in hand, eagerly anticipating the praises he'd surely have for his little girl.  I went to his favorite recliner where he was lounging after the long day, and let him know dinner was served.  He pulled himself into a slightly more upright position, I leaned over and presented him with his dish, describing it the way they did at those nice restaurants, then strode back into the kitchen.

I was just about finished plating mom's dish when I heard, "AY!  Hija!  There's a rock in here!  I hurt my tooth!"
I only look sweet & innocent..
(NOTE: This meal was probably something Mama made, so there were no rocks involved)

I ran out of the kitchen, shocked, mortified and horrified that I had unintentionally broken my father's tooth and would find him bleeding profusely over his pasta.  He wasn't bleeding, but he was holding a greenish rock between his fingers, inspecting it with WTF-is-this-doing-here eyes.

Instantly, I knew how it had gotten into his pasta.  I had completely forgotten that I'd gone shell hunting earlier and had brought home a nice little collection of shells, rocks and sea glass.  Unfortunately, I'd also forgotten to remove my treasures from my shirt pocket.  One of the rocks must have fallen out when I leaned over to give my daddy his nice dinner.

I've learned a lot since then, obviously.  I make sure people are seated in the full upright position before I give them their grub, and I no longer wear shirts with pockets.  But what I'll never forget about that day was that daddies are very forgiving.  After we realized what had happened, Daddy just erupted into his big, hearty laugh, pulled me into his strong embrace and kissed the top of my head, laughing the entire time.  I had almost killed him (he could have choked!) and he still loved me.  We still laugh about it to this day.
How could he not love his little girl?
(My most favorite picture of my daddy & me EVER)

I would love to show my Daddy how much I've improved since then, but he lives overseas and with travel being so expensive, it's not always easy for us to get together.  We do manage to have a good long phone date on special occasions, so I'm looking forward to doing that tomorrow for Father's Day.

For now, here are some of my favorite recipes that I think my dad - and all the other dads out there - might enjoy this weekend.  These are the heartier, meatier, spicier dishes from PGEW, all super tasty and all ridiculously affordable.

And all of them are 100% rock-free.  :)

Father's Day Menu Ideas
(Title links to recipe)

Happy Father's Day to all you fabulous dads out there!

:) Kimberly

Friday, June 17, 2011

Recipe: Poached Tilapia with Strawberry-Pineapple Salsa

I think it's safe to say that summer is finally making its way to Northern California.  Last week's wild winter storms are but a distant memory, the sun and warmer weather taking their rightful place just in the nick of time.  After such a prolonged cold season, however, even the slightest warm up can seem a bit extreme.  Such was the case this week when we finally got our first taste of 90+ degree heat. 

At first the warmth felt absolutely delicious on my skin, and a wide grin spread across my face in the realization that winter was over at last.  Then I came home from work.  In the time it took to walk up the stairs and unlock my door, the sun had moved approximately 27 times closer to Earth and turned my little apartment into a 1-bedroom oven.  It was stuffy & hot, and the poor cats stretched out on whatever cool spots they could find, their wide eyes narrowed into perturbed glares as if were my fault that heat rises.

That's the only drawback to upstairs living: The EZ Bake Oven Effect.

There's always a slight period of adjustment for this sort of thing, though.  We haven't seen temperatures like these in over 280 days (not that I've been counting), so they're easy to forget.  And since this is my first summer in the new apartment, I'm still working out my options for staying comfortable. Over the past week I've studied the effectiveness of my small, incredibly loud A/C unit, traded out the heater for the box fan, and experimented with different window coverings to keep the sun out during the day.

And I've stopped using my oven.

My dear, sweet oven that had been my whole-house heater for most of this year isn't so dear or sweet right now.  Which sucks, because I was enjoying getting more comfortable with the art of baking.  But when it's in the mid-90's and all you have is one window A/C unit that's more noisy than cooling, the oven can be a formidable foe.

This posed quite the dilemma earlier this week when I decided I must have crispy baked tilapia.  I had a couple filets left and had prepared a killer strawberry salsa that I knew would be fantastic on top of the fish.  When I realized I still hadn't replenished my panko crumb supply, I figured I could always go the non-crispy baked route.  But the idea of turning on my oven - even for just half an hour - seemed five ways wrong.

Not wanting to go the sauteed-in-butter or pan-fried route, I racked my brain for healthier cooking methods for my fish that didn't involve the oven.  And then it hit me: poaching!  I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before, but poaching my tilapia was the perfect solution: it's quick, extremely healthy, and wouldn't heat up the air my dinky A/C was so desperately trying to cool.

Since I didn't have wine (my go-to poaching liquid), I made my own little poaching concoction using vegetable broth, lemon juice and a few herbs.  The results were phenomenal.  I made sure not to overpoach (I didn't just steal my mom's Julia Child cookbooks for looks!), so the fish was tender & melt-in-your-mouth moist, without being mushy.  It was further enhanced by my strawberry-pineapple salsa: a vibrant, colorful melange of ingredients that's the perfect accompaniment to any firm, mild fish.  Tilapia, mahi mahi and even salmon would taste fantastic with some of that salsa spooned on top.

If you have wine or fish stock on hand, or if you prefer to poach in olive oil (which I hear brings an interesting depth of flavor to the fish), feel free to use one of those as your poaching agent.  But if you're really strapped for cash and don't even have broth in the house, don't worry; you can still make a nice poaching liquid with water, salt, and a few dried herbs. 

To further cut costs, get those berries (and cilantro!) at the farmer's market, or take advantage of any sales your local grocery stores are holding right now.  Most stores are pushing berries of all kinds during the first half of the summer, so you're bound to find some awesome deals.  Putting all these little tips to work will help you make your own healthy dinner for a tiny little price tag.  Let's check out the recipe!

Poached Tilapia with Strawberry-Pineapple Salsa (makes 2 servings; total cost per serving: $3)


For the fish
2-4 small tilapia filets
1 c vegetable broth
1/4 c lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 t dried thyme
1/4 t dried tarragon
Salt & pepper to taste

For the salsa
1 c chopped fresh strawberries
1/2 c chopped pineapple (frozen or canned is okay)
1/2 small red onion, chopped
2 T cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 c key lime juice
Salt & pepper to taste

1.  Prepare the salsa by combining all the ingredients in a medium bowl.  Toss everything together until completely combined.  Cover and set aside.
2.  In a deep pan or skillet, combine the broth, lemon juice and herbs, and bring to a simmer.  Carefully place the fish in the liquid, making sure that the fish is completely covered by the liquid.  Simmer gently until the fish is opaque and just begins to flake (about 5 minutes).  Carefully remove the fish and set aside.
3.  To serve, place 1 or 2 filets on a plate.  Spoon a generous amount of salsa on top, serve with a nice salad and enjoy!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I ♥ the Farmer's Market - South Bay Edition

This past weekend I went to San Jose to attend to some business and visit my mama.  Before I left Sac, she made it absolutely clear that I had to bring my camera - or else.  Knowing there had to be a good reason for such an ominous sounding request, I obediently did as I was asked.  You just don't mess with mom.

When I realized this was all because she was taking me to ogle fresh local produce at the farmer's market on Santana Row, I did a small happy dance on the inside.  I am, after all, pretty much obsessed with photographing fresh produce anytime I'm at a farmer's market, so having a new market to visit and photograph was definitely a treat.  My mom assured me that even though the market was on the small side compared to the one I frequent, the produce was every bit as gorgeous.

As usual, she was right...

I can't tell you how happy it made me to see the following signs near every stand in the market.  The Santana Row market is one of the few in Northern California that accepts EBT cards for purchasing fruits & veggies, and the extra discounts they offer for certain populations makes enjoying fresh, nutritious foods easier for those on fixed incomes...

A growing trend at certain farmer's markets around the nation. Hopefully there will come a day when all markets will accept EBT cards from those on SNAP assistance.

Love. This. We need this in Sacramento!

But there was more to the farmer's market at Santana Row than scrumptious produce and great deals.  From piping hot kettle corn to homemade baked goods, there was a little something for everyone to enjoy...

Love the variety of colors, especially the light blue ones!

Cutest Employee of the Month EVER.

Ahhh, at last I have found the Bolani stand!

Mmmm... spinach bolani...

Some of Bolani's incredible cheeses & spreads.  That jalapeño jelly is phenomenal!

Fun display outside one of the many restaurants surrounding the market

And then there were all those orchids...

It was a wonderful morning at the market, and even though I may not be able to go very often, I'm definitely looking forward to my next trip to the market on Santana Row.  I wasn't able to take too much home with me, but I did score some Bolani, that jalapeño jelly, and some of those gorgeous strawberries & raspberries from the Calvillo Brothers stand.  Be sure to stay tuned for a new recipe featuring those luscious berries later this week! :)


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