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Ollalie Berry Basil Crisp from My Pantry ShelfOne of the things I love most about summer are the fresh berries and one of the things I like most to do with fresh berries is to bake them into sweet bubbly fruity crisps.  Thankfully my kids disappeared into my parents berry patch the other night and came back with buckets of beautiful Ollalie berries.  After devouring them by the handful and scattering them over waffles, there was still enough for a Father’s Day crisp.  The perfect dessert to cap off a perfect summer adventure day in the canoe and swimming in the lagoon.

Berry Crisp ala mode from My Pantry ShelfOllalie Berry Basil Crisp is one of the simplest yet satisfying desserts that summer can afford.  Ollalie berries are similar to boysenberries, so you can use those or blackberries, or even blueberries if that is what you have on hand.  The basil, an unexpected ingredient, blends beautifully with the sweet berries adding just a hint of herb.  The crunchy top is the perfect counterpoint to the sweet saucy berries and of course the dollop of ice cream.  This dessert was a super hit with my family.  EVERYONE had seconds.

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If any week is screaming for comfort food, it is this one.  In my life, I am facing a grading deadline (I teach high school science when I’m not cooking), parent conferences crammed into any and every spare hour, and a nail-biter of an election.  Yes, the presidential election has my nerves on end, but honestly the biggest concern on my mind is California’s Proposition 30.

As an educator and parent of children in public schools, I know first hand the drastic cuts that California schools have made over the last five years.  The passage of Proposition 30 does not make things much better, but it prevents further cuts to the already ravaged district budgets.  The other day, a few students approached me about the upcoming elections.  They had engaged in spirited mock democracy in their history classes, their faces aglow with hope and pride in our civic opportunities.  We discussed that our district, backed against the wall, may be forced to end the school year three weeks early (among other extreme measures) if Prop 30 does not pass.   No, these kids did not dance and dream at the thought of a longer vacation, they went gray with the realization they may not be able to finish the year.  They want to attend school.  They know they engage in valuable learning and skill-building at school and that 15 days out of each of their classes puts them at a huge disadvantage.  Every district in California is facing some similar extreme measure.   This is the heartbreak of the school funding crisis.  Yes, economies and tax codes are complex, but when funding is denied to schools, it is the students who lose every time.  School children cannot vote.  It is our responsibility to represent their interests!  So Tuesday, get out to vote.  And if you can read this, thank your parents’ generation who approved taxes to fund the public schools that gave you and your peers the opportunity to learn.

Saucy Sausage and Eggplant over Polenta is a simple, comforting dish with fresh, rich flavors from the Roasted Tomato Sauce with Fennel.  Having a batch of the sauce in the freezer makes this dinner come together in no time.  You could certainly make this dish with your own favorite marinara sauce.  To save time, cook the polenta slow on the stove top, while you put together the sausage and eggplant.  Then sit back, pour a glass of wine, and wait for the election results to roll in…

Please share this post with other voters and lovers of comfort food!

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Habañero Pepper Jelly

October 27, 2012

The rains came this week and called the official end to summer.  The cool weather came a bit late if you ask me, our sweaters and socks, not to mention our umbrellas, were looking mighty lonely. We picked our last lug of peppers just in time, hauling in a respectable bounty before the soaking.  Our pepper plants have nearly given us more peppers than we know what to do with, or than we would know if we were not busy making all sorts of yummy pepper dishes every few days.  There was no question of how to prepare this last harvest of peppers.  For the last year there has been a habañero pepper-sized hole on my pantry shelf (and in my heart- sigh).  Before you jump to judgement and label me as a dramatic preserved foodaphile, let me explain.  I started making a version of this jelly years ago.  In the early days of our relationship, my husband and I would make whole meals out of Swedish crisp bread topped with cream cheese and pepper jelly.  It was so good, we dubbed it “THE snack”.  It became a staple in our pantry and our diet.  For some reason, I never got around to making it last summer, so there was sweet relief in filling the pantry void with this jeweled treat.

Sweet, tart, and spicy, Habañero Pepper Jelly is nearly irresistible.  Habañero peppers have a robust flavor that infuses the jelly, but they are very spicy.  For this batch, I used a combination of semi-hot Hungarian wax peppers and a handful of habañeros.  There is a serious kick.  More often I pair the spicy habañeros with sweet bell peppers.  Of course, you can add whichever kinds of peppers you wish.  Not a fan of the heat?  It is fine to use only sweet peppers.  The only guideline is to try to use peppers that are in the same color range.  I once tried to use green, yellow, and red peppers and the result was a murky brown jelly.  Serve this jelly with a cheese course (great with goat cheese, brie, or cream cheese- a sharp cheddar is good too).  The jelly adds a serious kick to a simple grilled cheese or spread it on a turkey sandwich.  Come to think of it, this would be a wonderful hostess gift for Thanksgiving.  This recipe is all the reason you need to run out to the Farmers’ Market today to snatch up the last of the fall peppers.  You will not be disappointed.

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It is clean up time in the garden.  The last of the tomatoes and peppers are ripening on the vine.  We have cleared almost all of our summer crops in favor of space for fall garlic and broccoli and kale.  We left the tomato and pepper plants in hopes that a few more fruits would ripen during this week’s heat wave.

We have been on a serious salsa bender this summer, chopping most of the best tomatoes into a simple lime-laced habañero-powered accompaniment to everything from grilled fish to scrambled eggs.  Our smallest tomatoes are now chilling in the freezer having been transformed into Savory Oven Dried Tomatoes .  Today though,  emboldened by a bulb of fennel gleaned from a surprise source, I squirreled away enough tomatoes to make this delicious basic tomato sauce.

Basic is perhaps not the right word to describe Roasted Tomato Sauce with Fennel, because it suggests that the results may be a bit boring.  Quite to the contrary, this sauce absolutely sings of late summer with intense flavors of tomato and a slight sweetness lent by the roasted fennel.  I make as much of this sauce as I can, multiplying as necessary, and then freeze it in 2 cup portions that are ready to serve with the mood strikes.  Besides the intense and pure fall flavor, I also love this recipe because it calls to cook the sauce in the oven which frees up my time (and stove top) to take on other tasks such as making fig jam, cheering for the Giants, and supervising my children’s creation of a zillion maple leaf imprints. Read the rest of this entry »

Our garden grew wild this year.  Between the overload of responsibilities and excursions that spring demanded, not to mention an uncooperative back, it is actually surprising we even found time to thrust some plants in the ground.  But somehow, despite our lackluster efforts, the garden is producing heartily.  The other afternoon on a saunter through our beds I was shocked to find piles of peppers.  We planted a variety of sweet and hot that we found at our favorite plant sale. Each plant boasts a different flavor, color and shape.  The other night their abundance begged to be honored with a starring role in this dish. Read the rest of this entry »

Fresh Tomato Basil Soup

September 16, 2012

 

Though I was not particularly fond of tomatoes in my youth, tomato soup none-the-less was a favorite.   Tomato soup, the condensed variety-from the can, was the required side dish, along with crusty sourdough French bread, to our Dungeness Crab dinners every winter.  I loved the tangy creaminess of the soup topped with loads of cracked black pepper.  As the years progressed and I grew to have a garden that graces us with loads of tomatoes each late summer, I began to make my own soup- still seeking delightful tang and creaminess, but with fresh notes as well.

Fresh Tomato Basil Soup does not taste like the soup of my youth.  Do not try to pass it off on a die-hard canned soup fan.  Instead it highlights the intense flavor and aroma of summer tomatoes and fresh basil. Cook the tomatoes down and puree smooth.  The creaminess comes from a bit of Greek yogurt swirled in at the end, making this soup deceptively light despite its luxurious mouth feel.  My daughter, who is a bit of a tomato-phobe, paused while eagerly loading this soup into her mouth to say,”MOM, this soup is YUM!”  We are still working on proper grammar, but you get the point.

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There are certain foods I count on to take me through the dreary winter months.  Summer tomatoes are without a doubt on the top of that list.  We are not fantastic tomato growers, but each year I scan the plant sales and farmers’ markets for ten or so tomato plants to sink into our backyard garden.  At least one of those plants must be a Principe Borghese.  This heirloom tomato is a bit larger than a grape tomato and bred to be dried,  If you cannot find that variety, any Roma type or smaller tomato will do. While I have sliced and tossed these beauties into my dehydrator, I much prefer to dry them in the oven.

Savory Oven Dried Tomatoes are unlike the brittle sun-dried tomatoes found in stores.  They are dehydrated only to the point that their juices intensify and the flesh develops a slight chewiness.   Because they still have some moisture to them, they are not shelf stable and must be kept in the refrigerator or freezer. Dry a few baking sheets worth and enjoy them through the winter.  These oven dried tomatoes taste great in any number of dishes.  Toss them on pizzas or into a simple pasta dish, lay them  in frittatas, or on a simple Oven Dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart.

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