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I am back.  This last month I took an unexpected, but much needed break from many of the details of my life, including keeping My Pantry Shelf full of new pictures and recipes.  After many anxious months, I finally had my chance at desperately needed back surgery.  The weeks that followed proved that I am not very good at resting (big surprise).  Luckily my incredibly generous and talented friends stepped in to make sure that my family and I were eating in style.  They dropped off pot pies and meatloafs, quiches and casseroles, salads and a notable tub of pad thai from my friend at Make Room.  It felt so indulgent to lie around while others fed me, but I could not be more grateful for the support.  The flip side of course was that I was hardly cooking at all and certainly nothing “blog-worthy”.  Then we took off for a couple of weeks of true rejuvenation in the best place on earth (no- not Disneyland, how could that be rejuvenating?).  Now I am back.  Back to my energetic, pain-free, and most importantly happy self.  It is good to be me…again. Read the rest of this entry »

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Strawberry Freezer Jam

July 15, 2012

Delicious strawberry jam can be elusive.  The standard jam-making technique of cooking down fruit and sugar until the mixture achieves a jell generally does not work with strawberries.  All the fresh sweetness of the ripe fruit converts into an overly sweet darkened mash when cooked.  Not bad, but definitely not one of my family’s favorites.  Mixed with other fruits, it does not seem to be a problem.  The strawberries added to Three Berry Jam only add to the complex fruitiness of the mix.   Slow roasting the strawberries is another option, as I have done  in this Strawberry Rhubarb Jam.  To capture the simple delight of strawberries though, the trick is not to cook them at all.

Strawberry Freezer Jam is perhaps the simplest jam I have made.  Starting with fresh ripe strawberries in season, they are simply cut, mashed, and mixed with a simple syrup mixed with pectin.  That is it, no additional cooking.  As the pectin cools, it jells.  Now since this jam is not cooked, it is not safe for shelf storage.  It can be stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks and for a year in the freezer.  It is so quick and easy I literally made it while my kids ate their lunch one day.  Since there is no boiling jam it also does not heat up the house like other jam making might.  My daughter took over the job of filling the jars.  We capped them off, labeled them with the name of the jam and the date, and we were done.  What a perfect way to preserve the fresh taste of strawberries for the winter ahead.  It would also be a great jam recipe for someone who is new to jam making and does not want to deal with the sterilization and processing required to safely make other types of jams.

This post is linked with Grow It, Cook It, Can It’s Cook It 2012.  Check that site shortly for a roundup of great jam making posts.

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Strawberry Shortcakes

July 11, 2012

Could there be a more classic summer dessert than a strawberry shortcake?  Probably not.  So when I finally got my hands on a lug of gorgeously fragrant, deep red strawberries from a local farm, all I could think of was making this simple dessert to showcase these berries.

Since there are only three simple components to a strawberry shortcake, it is essential that all three elements can sing on their own. Most recipes call for a cream scone, but I prefer a buttermilk biscuit not only because it reduces the overall fat in the recipe, but also for the lovely tang that the buttermilk provides.  This recipe makes buttery, flaky, beautifully browned biscuits.  Split them open and dollop  them with cream which has been whipped into a soft, velvety mixture.  (Do not pour in cream, turn on your mixer to whisk and then leave the room to mediate a sibling squabble,  oh no, do not.  You will make butter. Trust me.)

Last are the strawberries.  This dish is best with fresh sweet summer berries.  Pick ones that are small and red to the core, preferably from your local farmers market and not shipped to the supermarket in plastic boxes.  There is a huge difference.  Depending on the size of the strawberries, halve or quarter them and dust with a bit of sugar.  As the strawberries sit they will gently weep and make a beautiful pink syrup.  Scoop the berries and their syrup onto the pillow of whipped cream and top with the other half of the biscuit.  Simple and delightful.

The last time we made these was the 4th of July, so we tossed in some blueberries as well to go with the red, white, and blue theme.  My son insisted that the dessert would benefit from the option of Chocolate Pudding as well.  He was right.  We went with the self serve model, allowing each person to create their own shortcake dessert from bowls of whipped cream, strawberries, blueberries, and chocolate pudding.  For a more formal approach, serve the assembled shortcakes.

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I am not known for overt patriotism, but I am also not one to pass up an opportunity to celebrate.  And isn’t it a happy coincidence that our nation’s birthday falls smack dab in the middle of berry season?  We are surrounded by luscious reds and blues hanging from the bushes and trees throughout our neighborhoods and farms.  To pass these by is a shame and perhaps even unpatriotic.

My kids and I went on a west county adventure yesterday, and came home with a bag full of blueberries from Sonoma Swamp Blues (great spot to pick up super tasty local blueberries!).  Most of them are destined for shortcakes with strawberries and cream, but I could not resist tossing a few handfuls into the blender to make these popsicles. Believe it our not, my kiddos will happily gobble up a popsicle every day of summer!

Red, White and Blueberry Popsicles are a tasty treat to cool you off while savoring the sweet tastes of July.   Also they only take about 10 minutes to prepare (and freeze overnight), so you have more time to sit around sipping on lemonade (or an ice cold margarita).  You can test your luck and pull them out of the mold after 4 hours or so.  We did.  Waiting until the actual 4th of July was more than our patience could take.  Use caution though, if they are not fully frozen they are more likely to break off or for the stick to come loose from the popsicle.

*Don’t have a popsicle mold?  Check out this one.

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Thai-Style Steak Salad

July 2, 2012

At least once a week we opt for a dinner salad.  Tired from a long day of work or summertime adventures as it may be, dinner can be on the table in minutes with just a bit of forethought.  Our secret… grill enough meat on the weekend to have hearty leftovers.  Perhaps it is a breast of chicken spared from our ravenous tots or a generous morsel of salmon craftily hidden from my husband’s lunch, or as the case was last weekend, a nice piece of hanger steak.  Steak salad takes on endless incarnations, but this is one of our favorites from Sunset magazine years ago.

Thai-Style Steak Salad bursts with flavor from a mixture of fresh herbs, crunchy vegetables, salty peanuts, and a tangy dressing.  Using leftover grilled meat makes it a cinch to pull together, but you could certainly grill up a steak for the occasion.  The dressing is super light and oil free helping this dinner balance out the indulgences of the weekend.  The chili garlic sauce is spicy so adjust the amount to your own taste.

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School has been out for two weeks now, the sun is blazing, and the canning pot has reasserted its dominance on my stove top.  Hello summer!  Canning is usually a solitary sport for me, squeezed in the early hours of the morning or late at night when the kids have finally succumbed to sleep.  While the bubbling caldron of jam is still a bit much for my youngsters, they are quite capable of helping me to process the fruit.  My son found the cherry pitter to be quite a lot of fun and was thrilled when I handed him the knife to cut the cherries.  Who needs summer camp when you can enlist your kids in practical life skills at home?  (Of course, give me a few weeks and I may be screaming for them to go to any sort of camp that will take them!)

Cherry Rhubarb Jam is a delightful balance of sweet and tart with a rich background note of vanilla.  The color is absolutely divine.   This is my second attempt at this type of jam and it is an absolute hit.  There is a relatively small amount of sugar added.  Cherries are so naturally sweet that it is very easy to over-sweeten them. The fruit macerates for an extended time before cooking.  This reduces the overall cooking time, since the fruit has already given up its juice.  Shorter cooking times mean fresher tasting jam and more vibrant colors.  This jam is sure to a new June tradition in our house. Absolutely delicious!

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Summer, with a capital “S”, beginning with the longest day of the year, is weeks away, but thanks to our local school board, summer is in full swing here.  School is out, pools are open, and that means it is time to break out the ice cream maker.  My kids and I (since I teach for a living) are wholeheartedly leaping into carefree summer-mode.  I am now in the business of putting smiles on their sweet little faces and nothing works better for that than some form of sweet frozen goodness.

Lebovitz’s Strawberry Frozen Yogurt made its way into our lives (and bellies) last summer.  As strawberry season unfolded this year, I could not wait to make it again.  David Lebovitz is a master of desserts and this frozen yogurt is no exception.  The recipe starts with a full pound of perfectly ripe seasonal strawberries macerating in sugar and vodka.  Once they are nice and syrupy, simply blend them with yogurt (he calls for whole milk, but I find lowfat makes it perfectly creamy) and pour into your ice cream maker.  Wow, the result is frozen yogurt with an amazingly intense strawberry flavor not to mention the remarkable pink color.  The yogurt has a tender yielding texture and truly tastes like strawberries.  Head for the field or market, gather the most delectable strawberries you can find and make this dessert.  It is sure to bring a smile to your face.

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