Any Night Meal - Al Fresco

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That's right the weather has turned... Finally.  I'm sure you have washed off the furniture, swept the patio and tidied up whatever outside area you have, whether it be a terrace, a small deck or a rolling pasture. It's time to go - al fresco.

Of course, we are all anxious to throw garden parties, BBQ's and the like after enduring a long, long winter.  And California, please spare me the "oh, we have that all year round" remark.  We know just how special you are.  The rest of the country suffers through changes.  Which is why we are outdoor party ready.  But you don't need to orchestrate a shindig in order to delight in the summer's offering. Taking in an evening breeze while savoring a meal doesn't need to equate to a big ordeal.  A simple dinner will do just fine so you can bask in the longer days, the extended light and the brisk air of a summer's eve.

 You can set the table and create warm vibes, or simply put dishes on the patio table.

You can set the table and create warm vibes, or simply put dishes on the patio table.

Cocktails - Here's a few ideas:

 These Aperol Spritz cocktails are easy to drink, so be careful.  If it's a school night, maybe just have one.

These Aperol Spritz cocktails are easy to drink, so be careful.  If it's a school night, maybe just have one.

 A dry rosé is the antidote to any long day.

A dry rosé is the antidote to any long day.

If you don't want the alcohol:

  • Cranberry juice, sparkling water and lemon wedge, or even add some frozen berries
  • Watermelon juice, sparkling water, basil leaves
  • Sparkling Water with Lemon & Lime Slices

The idea is to enjoy something refreshing.  So, go ahead and shake up a cool drink of your favorite flavors.

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The Meal

  • Summer Tart , simple puff pastry topped with farm fresh vegetables of the season
  • Large salad, it can be as simple as lettuces lightly tossed with fresh lemon juice and oil. Or a nectarine salad to reinforce that summer feel
  • Roasted salmon or grilled shrimp
  • Yogurt with honey and nuts
 Puff pastry tarts don't need to be complicated.  Fill them with whatever is fresh and seasonal and pop them in the oven.  I always add cheese!

Puff pastry tarts don't need to be complicated.  Fill them with whatever is fresh and seasonal and pop them in the oven.  I always add cheese!

Salad ideas

 Watermelon & Feta cheese served with a crisp white wine -  La Val Albariño  from Spain.

Watermelon & Feta cheese served with a crisp white wine - La Val Albariño from Spain.

Main Dish ideas


Keep it simple and roast fish on the grill.

 Roasted Salmon is perfect for outdoor entertaining. 

Roasted Salmon is perfect for outdoor entertaining. 

 

You can even have dessert without a fuss.  Some Greek yogurt, nuts with a drizzle of honey is the just the right amount of sweet to finish off a meal. The idea is to get outside.  Grab whatever food you have and put it on a platter, pop open a beverage and breathe in the fresh air.  And the sheer joy of dining al fresco.  

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 Whole Red Snapper stuffed with lemons and parsley and grilled on the BBQ.  So fresh and clean and ideal for a summer night.

Whole Red Snapper stuffed with lemons and parsley and grilled on the BBQ.  So fresh and clean and ideal for a summer night.

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 Yogurt drizzled with honey & nuts equals an easy, satisfying dessert

Yogurt drizzled with honey & nuts equals an easy, satisfying dessert

Farmer's Market - A Field of Riches

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It's Farmer's Market season.  And the pickings are not just good, they are great. It's my favorite, and the most glorious way to shop for food.  Buying fresh, locally grown produce, and selecting from what is in season.  I am a firm believer that this is what our bodies crave and how they were meant to be nourished; eating what is available at the moment.  Don't just take my word for it.  Here are a few links about how to eat seasonally and the benefits.

Eating Seasonally and Locally is Better for You

The Health Benefits of Eating Seasonally

I could go off on a rant here about one of the possible 'why's' so many people are having food issues.  The list is long but I think a contributing factor might be eating out of season, and eating the same food over and over again because we like it so much, and it's available... even when it really shouldn't be.  In the good ole days, people ate what farmer's grew, harvested and sold in that season. Period, the end. They didn't have Fed Ex flying food all over the country or world, for that matter.  It's almost like our bodies yearn for the exact foods particular to that time of the year.  Like strawberries in the summer or pumpkin in the fall.  But now with super fast transportation,  you can have strawberries in the winter and pumpkin in the summer.  It's bat shit crazy, I tell ya.  

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I try to eat as seasonally as possible.  It's the reason that I don't really have a desire for salads in the winter. My body pines for warm foods, so I create salads that fit the bill by adding winter items to them.  A good example is my Salads: Hot & Cold.  And it's also why every summer I wait, like a child anticipating Santa's arrival, for our farmer's market to open its stalls.  I jump out of bed on Saturday, drink my java and grab my straw basket to head into town.  I never have a plan. Just $$$ in my pocket, joy in my heart and big, child like enthusiasm. That's all you really need. 

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 Me in my local farmer's market get up ready to stuff my bag.

Me in my local farmer's market get up ready to stuff my bag.

I love everything about a Farmer's Market.  I love seeing all the people milling around, some willing to chat over what to make with this or should they buy that.  I love the artisans that come to sell their foods, their handcrafted wares and field flowers. I love the variety, and the natural look of the food.  Oddly shaped beauties made with nature's hand and stirred with love.  Not uniform, genetically duplicated food that looks as if it were pushed out of a mold. 

 Carrots with character.

Carrots with character.

 Jewel tones of swiss chard.

Jewel tones of swiss chard.

 Rows of corn... or corn rows?

Rows of corn... or corn rows?

I love the intimacy of a market, where the producers/owners are beaming with pride to tell you about their products. It's a community, with mutual respect.

 The owners of  Beth's Farm Kitchen .  They were eager to have me try their Hot Loving Habanero Jelly.

The owners of Beth's Farm Kitchen.  They were eager to have me try their Hot Loving Habanero Jelly.

I love it all so much that no matter where we are traveling, I find the farmer's market and make a bee line.

Whether in S.F area, or Aspen, Miami or Florence, Italy, Union Square NYC or my little town, venturing out to mingle among the masses of produce is how I get my jollies.

 Have hat will shop, that is my motto.  Me buying papaya and mangos at the  Sunday's Farmer's Market on Lincoln Road Mall  in Miami, FL.  

Have hat will shop, that is my motto.  Me buying papaya and mangos at the Sunday's Farmer's Market on Lincoln Road Mall in Miami, FL.  

 Artisan bread at the market in Marin County, CA

Artisan bread at the market in Marin County, CA

 Have your best friends take you to their favorite markets, as Dominique and Neil did when we visited them in Marin County, CA

Have your best friends take you to their favorite markets, as Dominique and Neil did when we visited them in Marin County, CA

 Fruits in Florence, Italy.  Shopping in Europe is different than in the U.S.  They shop more often, sometimes daily buying what they need for that day's meals. Then go out and get was is fresh for tomorrow.  

Fruits in Florence, Italy.  Shopping in Europe is different than in the U.S.  They shop more often, sometimes daily buying what they need for that day's meals. Then go out and get was is fresh for tomorrow.  

And what's not to love.  I have purposefully posted so many photos to show the absolute allure of this art form.  To tempt you. To lure you in and make you want to find the nearest market. Row after row.  Pile after pile. Each item perking up fresher than the next.

 Plums and currants at the  market in Hudson, NY

Plums and currants at the market in Hudson, NY

 Greens at the market in Hudson, NY

Greens at the market in Hudson, NY

 Flowers at the  Aspen Farmer's Market .

Flowers at the Aspen Farmer's Market.

 A length of peppers from which to choose at the  Union Square Market in NYC

A length of peppers from which to choose at the Union Square Market in NYC

Another huge plus is that you can discover new and interesting foods that don't usually appear at an ordinary supermarket. This is where the fun really begins, in the "what is that? and how can I use it?"

 These Mexican Gherkins are similar to a cucumber

These Mexican Gherkins are similar to a cucumber

 These mushrooms look like coral reef. They are earthy and vibrant.

These mushrooms look like coral reef. They are earthy and vibrant.

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It's Farmer's Market season y'all.  Grab a bag, satchel, basket or whatever brings you joy.  Put on sunglasses, grab a hat and mingle with both the food and your fellow shoppers. It's a visual feast in every regard. 

 
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 You'll want to buy everything.  But try and show better restraint than I do. Often times I over buy out of sheer excitement.

You'll want to buy everything.  But try and show better restraint than I do. Often times I over buy out of sheer excitement.

There are goodies of all kinds to indulge and experience.  Snag a baked item, hold onto your coffee and weave your way through.  Get up and get out there. 

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I like to ask the farmer for recommendations, or how it was grown, and why it is special.  Alright, if you don't feel like going that far, just breathe in the glory of buying what you need for the immediate days, then get excited to return the following week.  It's a simple pleasure. Leisurely wander around with a curious set of senses, picking up produce, smelling it and thoroughly reveling in how fortunate we are to have such abundance.  Enjoy the moment.  As I do this time of year.

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Fill your basket, then once home start figuring out all the possibilities. If you need help, here are just a few recipes I made with my finds over the years.

Graped Up Bibb Salad

Tarts of Summer

Swiss Chard, Potato & Eggplant Hash

Zucchini Crudo with Shaved Parmigiano & Mint Oil

Balsamic Bathed Carrots Wrapped with Zucchini

Corn & Fruit Salad

White Eggplant App - Greek Style

Corn Salad - Fresh & Roasted

The Great Tomato Caper

Happy feeling, smelling, tasting and picking.

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Butter Lettuce with Orange, Blueberries & Crunch

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It's funny how some ingredients gravitate towards one another. Or maybe it's me that gravitates towards them. Either way, it's nice to meet up with refreshing ingredients. 

Such as Butter lettuce. I enjoy its soft, delicate taste.  And even though it is mild, it's not too precious that it can't handle some zing and crunch.

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Which is why I paired it with orange segments for the zing and seeds for the crunch, and blueberries just because.  Well, not just because. Everything should have a purpose, and these certainly do.  They provide yet another flavor level, adding the tart/sweet level to be exact.  I've made this salad a bunch of time (using nuts)  but the blueberries are a recent addition, as this salad hit the big time, this go around.

 Straight up sunflower seeds

Straight up sunflower seeds

 Bursting with a tart bite blueberries

Bursting with a tart bite blueberries

This is not a complicated salad, yet it is complex in flavors and textures that all mingle beautifully with a variety of proteins for the main meal. Such as steaks, grilled or roasted fish, pork or chicken.  Its flavors are mild enough so as not to compete, but bold enough to say 'I'm crisp and refreshing, so don't pass me up."  What more can you want from a simple salad? I, dare say, not much. 

So, when during my recent internship at a prep kitchen in Miami I was tasked with making a salad for family meal (that's when the entire staff eats lunch together), I thought this salad might fit the bill. I've always enjoyed it, and was hoping that my new found friends would like it, too.  What I didn't expect was that head Chef MJ liked it so much she decided to offer it at the café for a lunch special the following week.  If you could see my face you would see joy and pride, and a sense of ultimate validation. I guess this little salad of bold flavors and subtle notes from a delicate lettuce got its star on the big screen stage of eateries. 

 The line up.

The line up.

Ingredients
 

(Serves 6 as main or 8-10 as a side salad)

2 heads Butter, Bibb or Boston lettuce
3 oranges, segmented
1 pint blueberries
1/4 cup pecans, roasted, chopped or sunflower or pumpkin seeds
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
3 scallions, sliced
 

 

Dressing

5 t orange juice
4 t lemon juice
4 t lime juice
2/3 c olive oil
2 T cilantro, minced
1 T ginger, grated
2-3 crushed garlic clove
salt, pepper to taste

Instructions

Wash and completely dry the lettuce. Gently tear it into bite size pieces.  If you are using pecans, place them in a 300 degree oven for 5-8 minutes to lightly toast.  Or you can toast them in a pan on the stove.  If you are using seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin, you can toast them or not.  Segment the oranges over a bowl so you can catch all the juices and use for the dressing. Toss together the lettuce, scallions, onions, ⅔ of the orange segments, ⅔ of the pecans or seeds reserving the remainder to decorate the top of the salad.  Whisk together all the ingredients and lovingly pour over the salad and mix well.  Do not over dress the salad.  You just want it all lightly coated.  Then using the rest of the oranges and nuts decorate the top.

 You may notice some radicchio in this closeup shot.  At the last minute, I added some to bulk up the salad because we had another person joining for lunch.   

You may notice some radicchio in this closeup shot.  At the last minute, I added some to bulk up the salad because we had another person joining for lunch.   

This is a wonderfully, refreshing summer salad.  Or anytime salad.  I think it will brighten any BBQ.  Pair it with spicy ribs.  Pair it with grilled meats or sausages.  Pair it with whole roasted fish.  Go ahead, pair it with anything.  

Salmon Burgers - San Gluten & Eggs... WHAT?

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Some of you know that I have an allergic reaction to wheat, yeast and eggs (plus a few other foods). So I try to eliminate those as much as possible.  Which means even foods containing just a smidge of bread or eggs to hold them together are quite literally my unraveling.  And thus, blacklisted from my repertoire.  Seriously, how much deprivation can one woman withstand?   I love me a fish burger, but alas most use bread or bread crumbs, and almost all use eggs. What's a gal to do?  Being stubborn and wanting what I want is when the thinking cap needs to be fully stretched and used to its fullest. Unscramble the mystery and find another way to hold the darn thing together.

I remember seeing a recipe a while back that whizzed up part of the protein to make a paste.  Paste... that definitely holds shit together.  So, with the sticky part done I needed to fill up the rest.  Here is the fun part.  You can, seriously, add a long list of accompaniments like; kale, spinach, corn, mushrooms and so on.  Alas, I only had some basics on hand:  onions, celery, peppers, scallions. So, that's what I used, and they worked out just fine. (Next time I will share experimenting with other fillings. Heck, don't wait for me. Be daring and test on your own.)

 The setup of what was to become a really tasty salmon burger.

The setup of what was to become a really tasty salmon burger.

Ingredients   

Burgers - Makes 6
1 lb Salmon, skin removed
1 c celery, chopped
1/3 c yellow pepper, small dice
1/3 c orange pepper, small dice
1/4 c red onion, small dice
1/4 c yellow onion, small dice
1/4 c + 2 T scallions, sliced
2 T oil
2 T capers
1 T parsley, chopped
1 t mustard
1/2 t whole grain mustard
1 t salt
1/4 t black pepper
corn meal, potato flour optional

 

 

Relish
2/3 c yogurt
2 T Kosher dill pickles, chopped
1 T parsley, chopped
1 t capers
1. 5 T lemon juice
1 T lemon zest
1/3 c sauté mixture
salt to taste

Instructions

Mise en place all the vegetables as directed.  Then in a cast iron pan or skillet, sauté onions, celery, peppers, 1/4 c scallions in oil, season with salt and pepper.

 Mise en place is French for "everything in place", meaning prep all your ingredients so they are ready to go.

Mise en place is French for "everything in place", meaning prep all your ingredients so they are ready to go.

 They sure look pretty like this but go ahead and mix them together for even sautéing.

They sure look pretty like this but go ahead and mix them together for even sautéing.

 Let them cook slowly over low heat until softened. When done, set aside and let cool.

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Meanwhile, cut the salmon into 3 equal parts.  One part cut into 3/4" cubes. One part cut into 1/4" cubes. One part pulse in a mini food processor to create a paste. 

 Salmon paste that will be the glue to hold the other two together.

Salmon paste that will be the glue to hold the other two together.

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Next chop the parsley and rest of scallions.  In a bowl, add all three portions of salmon. Then begin adding all filling ingredients:  1/2 c of the cooled sauté mixture, capers, the mustards, 2 T scallions and parsley.  Mix together until well combined, then form patties, and refrigerate for 15 minutes to 1/2 hour.  

 Salmon prepped in 3 sizes: Big cubes, smaller cubes and a paste.

Salmon prepped in 3 sizes: Big cubes, smaller cubes and a paste.

 Start building the burger flavors by adding the vegetable sauté.

Start building the burger flavors by adding the vegetable sauté.

 In go the capers.

In go the capers.

 Then the mustard, and so on.

Then the mustard, and so on.

 Then form your patties.  This makes 6 medium burgers.

Then form your patties.  This makes 6 medium burgers.

While the burgers are chilling out, move onto the relish. All it takes is a bowl to combine all the ingredients together, stirring until well incorporated.  Then refrigerate until ready to serve.

 The lineup for the relish.

The lineup for the relish.

 Homemade relish is so fresh and delicious.  It can be used on baked potatoes, or over rice even.

Homemade relish is so fresh and delicious.  It can be used on baked potatoes, or over rice even.

After the patties have had their chilled rest and are firm, they are ready for frying. You have choices at this point. You can either fry as is without any coating, or dust them with either potato flour* or corn grits**. Using my 6 burgers I experimented making 2 of each kind to see which we liked best. Jill and JC liked them plain with no coating. I also liked the purity of the plain one, but I liked the corn grits coating due to the outer crunch.  And if you search your memory banks, or this blog you will remember that I love crunch.  Test which one you like best.  

NOTE:
*If you use the potato flour coating, cook these at a lower heat since the the finer powder texture cooks faster and will burn if heat is too high.
** Corn grits are a larger grain, which gives it the crunch. But if you don't want as much crunch factor, then you can use a stone ground corn meal which has a finer texture.

 Corn grits.  See those grains of ground corn? That's what gives it Crunch! 

Corn grits.  See those grains of ground corn? That's what gives it Crunch! 

 Potato flour is much finer, almost like talcum powder.

Potato flour is much finer, almost like talcum powder.

 About to make crunchy goodness.

About to make crunchy goodness.

I like using a cast iron skillet because the pan retains the heat and gives a nice outer crust. Fry on both sides until you see the salmon turn pink, about 2-3 minutes each side, depending on thickness. 

 Front left has potato flour coating.  Back center has the corn grits, while front right is sans any coating.

Front left has potato flour coating.  Back center has the corn grits, while front right is sans any coating.

 The final lineup from left to right: Potato coated, no coating, corn grits coated.  You can see how much darker the potato coating got.

The final lineup from left to right: Potato coated, no coating, corn grits coated.  You can see how much darker the potato coating got.

Serve immediately with slices of tomato, arugula or boston lettuce, and some cornichons. Any lettuce works fine, but I really enjoyed how the spicy flavor of arugula plays off the salmon,  Don't forget the homemade relish. It's tangy, sweet and delicious. JC and Jill both told me that they don't usually like relish, but plopped spoonfuls of my homemade version on their burgers.  The next night we had fish. They broke out the relish again!

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Hey, since this is such a healthy version of a burger, no bread filling or bun, go ahead and splurge by serving up some fries or a baked potato.  You can even use the relish on that, too. With Memorial Day steaming down the tracks, these could be a great addition to your outdoor party.
(Note: I would not cook these directly on the grill, as they need a flat surface in order to form a crust to help hold them together.) 

Just because I need to eliminate some foods doesn't mean I can't enjoy things I love.
And just because these are sans bread and egg definitely doesn't mean they are sans flavor!

Brunch Made Simple

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Brunch is supposed to be a relaxed, chill vibe. A time to hang with friends and family. The whole idea is rooted in the premise of sleeping in, then eating lazily in the late morning.  That is true if you are going out to eat, or to someone else's home.  But if you are hosting, it's a bit harder to sleep in. Plus it can feel a bit overwhelming, knowing there are mountains of ideas on what to serve.  I am guilty of wanting to offer up more options than are possible to consume.  (Or to make, for that matter.) The essence of brunch is that beautiful crossover of food from breakfast items to lunch or even a few heartier items. There in lies the rub.  All those choices create a mind numbing battle of what to serve when the possibilities seem endless.

That was my dilemma a while back when we hosted a brunch for our dear friends Carl and Malcolm. I had all sorts of ideas, but I was determined to keep it as simple as possible.  In the end, I felt like I accomplished that, so much so that I recreated the same menu for a Sunday brunch with our other dear friends, Nicki and Jeff. 

A little forewarning, in order to keep this post manageable, each recipe below is a hot link, bolded and highlighted in blue. Just click to be whisked away to see how to make it.

Let us begin:

There were two slight changes to the menu for Nicki and Jeff versus the original. I didn't serve the polenta cake, but did add an amuse-bouche of Ibérico ham, Marcona Almonds, olives.  It was a nice way to greet our friends and settle in a bit as we caught up on our life tales and the many moons that had passed.

Now, you've heard me say many a time that it is essential to serve warm items, room temp and chilled items. This holds especially true for brunch.  Certainly, if I were serving brunch in the winter I might lean on a few more warm plates, but this combo seems just right for the rest of the seasons. Plus, as we head into summer we are in prime time for more entertaining in general, especially outdoors.  Brunch is ideal for backyard entertaining.

 

 

After the nibbles that amused our mouths and whetted our appetites, we started off with a chilled dish, then moved on to all the other plates. Let the party begin with a refreshing and clean burst of citrus.

Citrus Salad Martini

 A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

Next up was a continuation of fruit, transitioning to savory with this lightly tossed salad.

GRAPED UP BOSTON SALAD

 Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion.  It's bright and light.

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion.  It's bright and light.

Something warm with...

TOMATO & GOAT CHEESE PIE

 Warm and savory.  The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Warm and savory.  The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Something room temp and hearty...

Salmon Salad Platter, Deconstructed

Polenta Cake

 Polenta cake cut into slices.  

Polenta cake cut into slices.  

Ingredients

2 c polenta (cook according to package)
1.5 T butter
1/4 c chives, chopped
1/3 c goat cheese
salt, pepper

Instructions

Once the polenta is cooked, remove from the burner and stir in the butter, goat cheese and chives, salt and pepper until combined.  Lightly oil a cast iron pan and pour in the polenta. Bake at 350 degrees until a crust forms. Turn onto a board or plate and cut into wedges.  Best served warm but room temp is good too.

What I love best about this meal is that so much can be done in advance. The big plus is that any of these can be served at room temp, therefore, less stress about timing and getting the plates to the table.  

Then for dessert, I kept with the same theme of simple.  Prepped ahead of time and waiting on the kitchen table, I brought out a small platter of fresh cheeses (Manchego & Ibores),  grapes, strawberries and Sweet Olive Oil Crackers. Certainly, you can go sweet at this stage of the meal, but this felt right, and I believe our guests thought so too.

So, although YOU might not be sleeping in as late as everyone else, but taking the homemade brunch route doesn't have to stress you out.  Create the perfect crossover meal.  

 
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