12 August 2012

Baked Yellow Crookneck Squash with Brown Sugar, Cinnamon and Thyme


I read somewhere that of all the summer squash varieties, yellow crookneck squash is the most like the heavier, deeper-flavored fall varieties.

There was something delicate about the two small crooknecks that I purchased today that made me want to prepare something very simple that would enhance, but not disguise their equally delicate flavor.

And yet, I wanted something a little different. Something that would celebrate flavor.

These little guys always remind me of geese. I would treat a young goose with a certain delicacy, and so it was with my little yellow squashes.

I cut the squash in two pieces, using a melon baller to remove the seeds and stringy flesh that always accompanies seeds. I created a rub, using cinnamon, brown sugar, sea salt and a light-handed dash of pepper, and used it to flavor the exposed flesh of the squash. I placed about two teaspoons of butter in each little half and baked them incovered in a preheated, 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Then I added some fresh German thyme, and continued baking for another 15-minutes.

The squash was really sweet, and the thyme, which seems to be the herb most often paired with crookneck, added a subtle, almost perfume-y touch. All very delicate - the way I hoped it would be.




08 August 2012

Apple-Prune Crisp with Salty Nut Topping



About a month or so ago, at the zenith of this summer's prolonged heat spell, I created a widget on my iGoogle page: Days until signs of fall.

Those of you who have been with me for a while know how much I love late summer. It is a season in between, the best of two glorious months, Sweltering July and Shimmering September. For every two or three warm days, there is one like today: Gray and cool with hints of more days to come.

(I rhapsodize about this every year.)

My iGoogle widget was set for Aug. 8, not a lucky guess, but an educated estimate. I pay great attention to the harbingers of seasonal shifts. Both the cicadas and the crickets were early this year, but the first truly cool day was right on target.

To celebrate, I baked Apple-Prune Crisp, inspired by this recipe on Epicurious.

I made a few changes, based on Epicurious reader comments.
  • To cut down on too much sweetness, I drizzled lemon juice on the already-tart apples.
  • I cut down on the amount of sugar by about a third.
  • I used almond meal flour, instead of all-purpose flour.
  • I had no hazelnuts, but I did have pecans, peanuts and mixed nuts with cinnamon. I used these and added sea salt to the topping. I like a blend of sweet and salty.
I followed the other directions closely, even to the point of enjoying it with ice cream. Sweet, but not too sweet, with a definite salty balance. More crumble than crisp, but still crunchy and delicious.

While it was baking, I stood on the side porch, the old service entrance where the stove vent is located. The air was filled with the faint aroma of woodsmoke - Neighbor Jerry? - and sweetness.

Yes. This is it.

07 August 2012

Zucchini Stuffed with Eggplant and Peppers

Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, my husband endured two surgeries for two life-threatening conditions while I underwent physical therapy and medication for a painful and debilitating injury.

We lived our life as normally as we could, but we tired easily. During this time, we moved my mother to an assisted living facility. There was emotional as well as physical pain to deal with. Frankly, comfort food helped us cope.

We prepared old favorites like roast beef, meat loaf, roasted chicken, burgers and sloppy joes. Good food, certainly, but not always the best for you on a daily basis.

We have come through the fire, and we look at life much differently now. We are happy with less. Nothing rattles us too much, and we both have more patience.

And, one hopes, more wisdom.

We still enjoy comfort food, but we are trying to eat healthier, fresher foods and fortunately, that's easy to do in summer, especially this one. We had a warm March, giving local growers a head start, followed by a typical April and slightly warmer May. It's been warm now since early June, and we've managed to escape the most of the drought that's hurting crops to the south.

Zucchini abounds, as it usually does, and peppers seem to be flourishing this year. Tomatoes are holding their own. Eggplant, maybe not so much.

I had the makings for ratatouille. Only I don't make it. I made Zucchini Stuffed with Eggplant and Peppers instead.
Here's what you need:

  • 1 small red pepper, roasted
  • 3 average-size zucchini, hollowed out with a melon baller
  • sea salt and pepper
  • butter
  • herbes de Provence 
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 2/3 cup eggplant, cubed
  • 1/2 cup green pepper, cubed
  • 1-2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 2/3 cup grated cheese to melt on top 

Preheat oven to 350.

Trim red pepper. Cut into one-inch strips and drizzle with oil, roasting for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Set aside when finished; allow to cool.

While pepper is roasting, chop onion, eggplant and green pepper and into small cubes. Sauté lightly. I added small chunks of seasoned chicken sausage; this is optional. Cover and set aside.

Pour olive oil into skillet and add minced garlic, cooking under moderate heat until garlic begins to turn gold. Add the other vegetables, stirring frequently. Cut the red pepper into small squares and add it to the skillet mix. I did not skin mine; I think this is a matter of preference.

Meanwhile, using a knife and a melon baller or grapefruit spoon, hollow out 2-3 zucchini so they look like little canoes (as my husband observed as he watched). Mine were rather average in size, but you could do this with one Monster Zucchini. Season the hollowed-out part of the "canoes" with a dab of butter, salt, pepper and a dash of herbes de Provence.

Partially cook the zucchini, covered, in a microwave. I cooked them for a total of about 5 minutes, testing frequently. The zucchini must remain firm throughout.

Once the zucchini is semi-cooked and the filling is lightly sauteed, allow both to cool slightly to make handling easier. Stuff the filling into the hollowed out zucchini, placing in a shallow baking dish.

(I had some of the mixture left over, and that's what I ate while my zucchini baked.)

Cover with foil and bake for 30-50 minutes, testing frequently. Do not allow the zucchini to get mushy.

Sprinkle with grated cheese before removing from the oven, and give the cheese a chance to melt before removing from the oven.

Total comfort food! And pretty darned healthy, too. The zucchini was bland enough to make you feel good and seasoned enough to be interested.











06 August 2012

Tomato Tartines for Breakfast

We live in a late-19th century home on a slight ridge near a river and a wetland. We have lots of trees on our little hill. As a result, our property is also home to rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks. We've had frequent deer, bear, muskrat, turkey, porcupine, raccoon and fox sightings as well, and yet we live less than a mile from downtown. Most of the time, I love this crazy neighborhood with its mix of very old and newer homes, and think of my yard with its motley crew of critters as the peaceable kingdom.

But I'm pretty sure it's those sneaky squirrels who are enjoying my garden this summer. They have an odd ritual: Eat half the tomato, squash or other vegetable and then leave the rest on the deck or porch steps. They do this all the time. I know they like to position themselves on a hard surface when they eat, and I don't blame them. It's a lot easier that way. But I swear, sometimes they just do this to get to me. It's sort of a "Nah nah nah nah nah, I'm eating your harvest!" Or maybe it's some weird kind of offering, a sign of affection. I'm not really sure.

It is discouraging, but fortunately, I have ample access to tomatoes at area farm stands and farm markets, and the local Italian market makes a great effort to offer local and regional produce. And when tomatoes are in season, I have them for breakfast.

Tomato tartines! Breakfast doesn't get any easier or tastier. Here's my technique:
  • Toast two pieces of Udi's Gluten-Free Whole Grain Bread and then slather them with Smart Balance; you can add a bit of cream cheese, too, and sprinkle on minced onions. Or dill.
  • Cut two thick slices of tomato and place atop the bread. Spread with mayonnaise.
  • Then add Parmesan cheese, or, in the case above, cheese with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. Zap in the microwave until the cheese melts.
I was in a hurry (it was, after all, Monday) or I'd have gone outside to pick some fresh basil. Bacon bits are a nice addition, too. In the past, I have topped the tartines with salmon and capers, too, or black olives. 

How do you make tomato sandwiches? True sandwiches or open faced tartines? Here's an open-faced version that sounds good. Or, try a more classic sandwich approach.

Here are some ideas from other tomato lovers. But I want to hear from you!

(Thanks to Christine and Kalyn for whetting my appetite.)



05 August 2012

Green Pepper, Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Onion and Cumin



By my estimate, our Saturday night meal was 90 percent local. And it tasted of summer.

The red potatoes I roasted came from the farm market. I have a favorite recipe for those, and it never fails me. The herbs de Provence aren't necessarily actually from Provence - I've been known to make my own.

The salad - green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and onion - came from local sources. I shopped at both farm markets - Wisconsin and Michigan growers were equally represented.

The salt, I am not ashamed to say, was coarse Peruvian pink salt. I mean it's not like I used a lot of it. But a girl has to indulge herself once in a while. Some women buy nail polish, I buy exotic salts and seasonings.

We don't grow lemons here. I have no idea where it came from; I didn't bother to look. I should do this, right? Oh, well.

The red wine vinegar came from my pantry. I didn't make it, but I am looking forward to having time to make flavored vinegar this winter. See yesterday's photo for inspiration.

The salad comes from a Rachael Ray recipe, which you will find here. The only thing I did differently was add cucumber, something one of the cooks who reviewed the recipe suggested.

The salad is tart and tasty. It was the perfection counterpoint to our herby potatoes and pepper-y steak.

It truly tasted of of the garden. And it tasted of my lovely little community, with its easy access to beach, river, and backroads lined with family farms.

Since I'm trying to ease myself into Phase One of the South Beach Diet, my old standby when I need to take off a few pounds, this salad works for me. If you want to do the same, skip the potatoes, as Kalyn would say!


04 August 2012

Introducing...Frugal French Fridays and BlogHer 2013

Blogging about food from my little corner of Wisconsin-almost-Michigan is a continual challenge. For one thing, our growing season is short and fresh, locally-grown produce is generally only available five months a year.

Since becoming a blogger and spending more time in France, I've come to appreciate the importance of fresh ingredients, something my chef father and my grandmother understood but somehow failed to thoroughly impart to me, perhaps because my mother, who brags about not caring about food, likes to open cans for supper. She was the spoiler.

Then I left Madison and the proximity of the legendary Dane County Farm Market. What culinary culture shock! When we moved back to our hometown in the mid-90s, there was not one restaurant that emphasized fresh and healthy. We'd plan an evening out, and drive around looking for a place that wasn't all steaks and burgers and fried stuff. And then go home and make popcorn.

Finally a restaurant specializing in fresh, from-scratch food opened in an old house near the harbor in the late 1990s: Apricot-chicken salad in pita pockets! Portabella mushroom sandwiches! Vegetable stir fries! Soon others began to add locally grown, fresh produce to their menus. Then came a French restaurant and bakery, and the chefs routinely visited local markets and farm stands. That was the Big Turning Point.

Within a year or two several young chefs trained at culinary institutes in larger cities came along and bingo! We were off. Now our community even has a winery.

At the same time, Farmer Lucy took a town with no farm market and through hard work and year-round determination, created an outdoor market from nothing. There was a tough year or two when the city kicked the farmers out of the park by charging them a weekly fee. Fortunately, a sympathetic local merchant loaned the growers his parking lot and the interior of his antiques mall in winter, and bingo again! We were cooking with locally=grown and raised food.

Now we're working to revive the other farm market in our community, which has its own challenges.

But our community is not based on food, so there are few local food makers to purchase additional items from. So I try to eat regionally.

Then there is my own blogger voice. It probably has limited appeal. I'm not a twenty- or even thirty-something blogger. I don't get fashionably snarky and I don't generally use the word "meh" to describe my lack of enthusiasm for something. I like to talk about my grandmother instead. Age has mellowed my sarcasm. I might not be that fun to read. (I do, I am proud to say, have some wonderful blogger friends who have been with me for six years now.)

Now that "rewirement" is so close I can touch it, it's time to take this whole blogging thing seriously. So I've been thinking a lot. And I'm ready to reveal one new change to French Kitchen in America.

Beginning September 1, my Friday post will focus on Frugal French. It might be a low-cost version of a French favorite. It might be a French provincial dish that doesn't cost much to prepare. It might be a dish I conjure up with seasonal ingredients. At any rate, it will be fun, and I invite you to join me for Friday Frugal French Fridays.

Meanwhile, because I want to win a pass to next year's BogHer conference, I'm telling you about this competition. For doing so, my name goes in the hat. Yours can, too.





01 August 2012

At the Market: Produce, Artfully Displayed



The  market in old Cahors is truly a community event where news, gossip and political opinions are exchanged. It's held in the cathedral square but spills over into side streets. Here the streets are narrow and meandering. The market teems with life.

Our own market is not that busy yet, and in its 6th year, not so well established. But the produce is also artfully displayed:

Fresh Onions
Red and Purple Potatoes, with Tomatoes
Peppers, Beets, Onions and Cabbage