Early Harvest Apple Cheddar Pancakes

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What happens when an old apple tree dies in the middle of summer? You end up with a million small, sour apples that can’t be eaten raw. A sane person would leave them be, but since I have a vaguely manic complex about not letting food go to waste, I decided to see what I could do.

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After picking a grocery bag’s worth (a tiny fraction of the total number), I set to work, drying them in the oven for apple chips, stewing them on the stovetop for compote, and baking them into cake. A week on, the first batch has been mostly diminished, but the compote still looms in the fridge. Apparently I live in a house filled with people who prefer chocolate! So I decided to to make pancakes, remembering some sweet bites of the apple variety that I had enjoyed as a child. Most recipes I looked at involved raw apples, so I decided to eschew them altogether, in favour of a straight up pancake recipe with my own additions throw in. Besides adding stewed apples, I decided to throw in some chunks of cheddar cheese as well.

I don’t know if it’s just a Canadian thing, but when I was growing up, my mum used to sometimes serve  aged white cheddar with her homemade apple pie. I have never liked ice cream or whipped cream on pie, but somehow I always found  cheese to be a perfect compliment. It seemed like a no brainer, therefore, to put cheese in these pancakes! The result was a pancake that was delicious, rich and creamy on the inside, and crispy on the outside, with alternating bites of sweet and savoury thanks to the apple and cheese. This is a perfect breakfast for a foggy San Francisco Bay Area morning, even if it’s an early harvest. Summer is colder than fall here anyway, so actually it fits the season!

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Early Harvest Apple Cheddar Pancakes

1 1/2 cups flour
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1 egg
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 – 1 cup apple compote (depending on how apple-y you like your pancakes)
3 thick slices of sharp white cheddar cheese, diced

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together. In a separate bowl, whisk the milk, egg and oil. Add wet mixture to dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Stir in  apple compote and cheddar cheese.

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If you don’t have apple compote already made, a quick approximation can be achieved by stewing apples, lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar (I used a mix of brown and white) and a small amount of water together for about 20 minutes.

Oil a pan, and set it on a medium burner. When the oil is hot, scoop small ladle-fulls of pancake mixture into the pan.

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When a ring of bubbles forms around the outside of each pancake, they should be ready to flip. Cook for a few minutes on each side. You may need to flip again to achieve desired crispiness, as well as to fully cook the inside. Serve warm with maple syrup, apple compote, honey, or even eat them plain, as I did. Whatever topping you choose, you don’t want to overwhelm the flavour already inherent within the pancake. They’re good enough to eat by themselves, soft and a bit gooey on the inside, with occasional bursts of melted cheese.

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West Coast “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” Seafood Gumbo

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Maybe it’s because the fog’s rolling in, or maybe it’s because I’ve been watching two many second lines on Treme, but I recently developed a hankering for hot, steamy gumbo. And a hankering for gumbo ain’t exactly easy to fix. You see, gumbo pots aren’t that prevalent around these parts, and when the dish does appear, it is often served in expensive, gimmicky restaurants. Just not worth it.

So I had to make gumbo. Not that that’s a hard thing for me. It takes time, sure, but I had a day off, and even relished the idea of hanging around the stovetop for a few hours. Few things will stop me from making my favourite foods…and gumbo is one of them.

You see, I have a thing for New Orleans. A big thing. There’s a famous quote that goes:

“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministrations so           that it has become a study for archaeologists…but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”

It’s always made sense to me. The city is an amazing cultural stew to which the whole North American continent is indebted, the world really. And gumbo, besides being delicious, is just like that New Orleans stew, comprised of different ingredients melded together to create something beautiful and new. Like so many of the world’s great dishes, it was created by poor people, with what they had.

I call this version of gumbo “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” because I did just that. I used what I had. Purists might balk at the fact that I omitted okra (I didn’t have it and wasn’t able to go shopping.) Others will have a fit when they discover that I disrupted the “holy trinity” of Creole and Cajun Cuisine (onions, celery and green bell peppers). I used multicoloured peppers…the horror! Again, they’re what I had, and quite frankly, I prefer the taste of red, orange and yellow peppers anyway. Omissions were made and less conventional ingredients put in their place. But the spirit remains the same. You see, Gumbo’s not a dish that merits an exact recipe. It’s about honing flavour, taking tastes over and over again, and adding ingredient in small increments until the taste is perfect. So here’s my version of gumbo, or at least today’s version of gumbo..which celebrates my fridge, my coast (and the seafood that comes from it), all with a little help from the spirit of New Orleans.

West Coast “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” Seafood Gumbo

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large Andouille sausages, sliced crosswise (the spiced and smoked Louisiana kind, not the French kind. But if you can’t find Andouille, use other sausage and add liquid smoke or smoke flavoured salt, along with extra spices)
Leftover fish (I used salmon (hence the “west coast” and some sort of white fish, about 3 large handfuls), cut into large cubes
3 cups chopped onions, chopped
1.5 cup chopped celery, chopped
1.5 cup chopped bell peppers, chopped
A few pinches of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1tsp chili powder
pinch of oregano
pinch of thyme
1/4 tsp ground red pepper
1 tsp paprika
9 cups stock or water mixed with stock (probably seafood stock is best, but I used chicken since it was all I had. It tasted fine!)

Cooked Rice, to serve on the side

Directions: 

First things first. The most important factor for gumbo, and also its most defining aspect is the roux: the mixture of fat and flour that is not only a thickener, but the stew’s base flavour ingredient. It’s what differentiates gumbo from jambalaya, for example, a very similarly flavoured dish, which has no roux, and has the rice cooked in with it. A gumbo roux needs to be stir constantly and cooked over a slow heat for a long time it develops a dark colour and a nutty smell. If it burns, the whole process needs to start over again. Ideally you should cook it in a heavy bottomed stewing pot. For my roux, I mix the oil and flour, and stir over medium-low heat until it looks like cafe-au-lait. Some dedicated gumbo makes go even further, aiming for a chocolate colour. Depending how high the temperature and how often you stir, the roux can be accomplished in about 30 minutes. Mine took just over an hour, stirring slightly less often, because I kept it on quite low (so I could do other tasks at the same time).

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Once the roux is ready, add the onions, celery and peppers.

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Cook the vegetables until they wilt, about 7 minutes. Add the sausages, salt, pepper, spices and herbs, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the stock and stir. Let cook over medium heat for at least an hour and half. Taste frequently, and add more herbs and spices as you wish (I probably used more both than listed, due to additions half way through.) If you want to add okra, as I often do, chop it into chunks and throw the pieces in at the end, cooking them for just as long as it takes to looks their “gooey” internal texture.

Once your rice is cooked and your gumbo flavouring correct, add fish chunks. Cook for about two more minutes, just until fish is done (you don’t want to overcook it!) Serve with rice.

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Watermelon Summer Salad

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After some cold, foggy days, the sun has returned  to the San Francisco Bay Area. It finally  feels like summer has arrived, a few days late, a few days past the Solstice. Who knows how long it will last? The climate is strange here, and summers are often less pleasant than the Spring and Fall. But the forecast says it’s going to stay hot for the next week, so real summer food is in order.

I have always loved mint in fruit salads. This salad combines fruit and mint the way I like it, except with savory notes as well. Some of it is inspired by other watermelon salad recipes I’ve seen kicking around the internet. Other parts are inspired by my own personal tastes, and what happened to be in the fridge and garden. The result is a very refreshing salad, perfect for a light lunch or dinner, sitting out on the deck with friends.

Summer Watermelon Salad

4 cups watermelon chunks
2 cups arugula, loosely packed
4 spring onions, chopped finely
8 large mint leaves, chopped roughly
2 tsp candied lemon peel, minced
3/4 cup Feta cheese chunks
1 large Meyer lemon
4 tablespoons olive oil

In a large bowl, combine watermelon, arugula, spring onions, candied lemon peel, mint and Feta. I candy my own lemon peel (it’s really easy, and a good use for all those leftover peels that normally get thrown out), but you can also buy it in stores, or just use a little lemon zest instead. Squeeze the juice of one lemon (it doesn’t have to be Meyer, but that’s what I used because they’re hanging outside my window) onto the salad. Add olive oil. Mix. Serve chilled.

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Nopales and Sweet Pepper Tacos, with Tortilla Chips on the side

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A few days ago I received a message from my friend Lorena in Mexico City. Roughly translated, it said “I have a new obsession, nopales tacos with lime, salsa and salt, with a cold beer! I’ve eaten them two days in a row, and today I would like the same thing!” With this message in mind, I knew what my next blog post would be!

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What are nopales, you might ask? Before I went to Mexico last year, I had no idea either. I ate them on my first night there, after lugging my bag all the way through the metro to Politécnico station in the super far north of Mexico City, then onto a regular bus, and then tiny gas spewing pesero (the even smaller buses private buses that serve areas regular buses don’t go) towards the home of my couchsurfing host, Olivia. After meeting her roommates and putting my stuff down, we went to the street to eat tacos, my first in Mexico (did I mention Olivia had listed “tacos” as her religion on her couchsurfing profile?) They were carne asada (grilled steak), with cheese and green bits, which I later found out were nopales. Nopales are, in fact, just another word for cactus, that famous symbol of Mexico. More specifically, they’re the paddles of the Prickly Pear cactus, a nutrient-dense food. I ate them again several weeks later in a very different scenario: an organic, slightly yuppie-ish café in the trendy Condesa neighbourhood, offered as a vegetarian breakfast with panela cheese. They were good that way too, but somehow the atmosphere just wasn’t the same. No greasy tortillas, no steam pouring off the cart into the Mexican night, no kids running down the street. Obviously I can’t recreate much of that on my own, but when I saw that message from Lorena, and then saw Nopales in my local market, I just knew that tacos were in order! I made a few switches from Lorena’s original recommendation, but hopefully the final result is still close to what she so deliciously described!

Nopales and Sweet Pepper Tacos

2 medium nopales
5 small sweet peppers, grilled
4 slices of sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
salt
pepper
2 corn tortillas
1 lime

Carefully remove the spines from the cactus (the ones I bought already had them removed, though to be extra careful I used a knife to remove the small stumps at the base of each spine as well.) Chop nopales into relatively thin strips, about an inch or so long. Heat oil in a cast-iron pan, and when it’s hot, add chopped nopales (originally I was planning on grilling them, as I remember them in Mexico City, though Lorena recommended pan frying since I have no charcoal grill. I was not completely satisfied with the results, and might grill them on the gas grill next time anyway, chopping them into thin strips after grilling.) Pan fry the nopales with salt and pepper until they lose their stickiness (a bit like okra). This should not take more than 5 minutes.

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In the meantime, cut the grilled peppers into strips. Once nopales are done, remove them from grill, and pat off excess grease. Add tortillas to the still slightly greasy pan, and flip once after about a minute. Place cheese slices on top, and let melt slightly. Reheat peppers and nopales on the side of the pan.

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When the cheese has melted slightly, and the tortilla is nicely toasted, remove tortilla and place on plate. Add nopales and peppers. Squeeze lime over tacos, and add chili sauce or salsa or guacamole if you wish (I ate mine with guacamole). Even though they weren’t grilled, they still tasted quite delicious. The cheese really makes a difference, adding a nice bite, while the peppers provide some heartiness. I don’t normally like cheese on my tacos, but with these vegetarian ones, it really works. I also oven-baked tortilla chips to eat on the side with more guacamole!

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Oven-bake tortilla chips

3 corn tortillas
1 capful of vegetable oil
salt

This recipe is easy as pie (much easier really!), and much healthier than store-bought tortilla chips. They’re also super tasty, and I don’t feel like I’m losing out by eating them baked instead of fried. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stack tortillas and slice into pie-shaped wedges. Place in an oven dish, and sprinkle a capful of oil on them. You really need barely any at all. Sprinkle a few dashes of salt and place in the oven. After 5 minutes, stir the chips. Keep checking regularly until they’re done. Golden is the ideal colour, once they start turning brown, that means they’re burning! It’s ok if they’re a bit soft when you take them out. They will stiffen as they cool. Remove from oven and sprinkle with a bit more salt. Serve warm with salsa or guacamole!

Guacamole

1 large avocado
1 small lime
handful of grape tomatoes, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
salt

This is not necessarily an “authentic” guacamole recipe. I had no cilantro on hand, so by all means add that to yours if you wish. Same with onion. As for chile, I personally prefer a non-spicy guacamole. I like the lime and avocado to hit me as an antidote to the chile in everything else. This guacamole is super simple: Remove flesh from avocado and place it in a bowl. Squeeze lime onto avocado. With a fork, break the flesh down until it is somewhat smooth, with some chunks remaining. Add tomatoes, garlic and salt, and mix until incorporated. Enjoy! And here’s some food for thought while you eat: I recently met a Mexican who told me the origins of the word Guacamole. In Nahuatl (the Aztec language), “mole” means sauce (not just the chocolate kind), and “guaca” refers to  āhuacatl, the avocado. Therefore guacamole simply means avocado sauce!

Armenian Sweet Rolls, with a side of Horiatiki

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Two Christmases ago my brother gave me the first volume of “The Silk Road Gourmet”, by Laura Kelley. It documents the food cultures of the western half of the old Silk Road, from the Caucasus to India. The history of the route has always fascinated me, and it has been a real joy to discover how its foods are related, linked step by step across the Asian continent. One day I hope to travel there, but for now I’ll just have to make do through the recipes, dreaming up a caravan in my mind.

Tonight I really wanted to bake some bread, so I looked to the Silk Road for inspiration. I found a wonderful recipe for Armenian Sweet Rolls, and tweaked it for my own California environment. These are supposed to be orange flavoured, but since I have a Meyer Lemon Tree just outside the window, it seemed like a good opportunity to experiment. As for the Horiatiki, it has nothing to do with Armenia (except for the history of Turkish imperialism in both countries), however I had the ingredients on hand, and a fresh Greek salad seemed like a perfect compliment to this sweet, buttery bread. I hate to deal in hyperbole, but these are some of the most delicious rolls I have ever eaten. They are almost like a biscuit and a roll put together, light and fluffy, yeasted yet also containing baking powder. Make these, you won’t regret it!

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Armenian Sweet Rolls

1 package dry, active yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon butter, melted and brought to room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk, warm (I didn’t have milk on hand, so mixed half-and-half with water)
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 Meyer Lemon
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten (for glaze)
Poppy Seeds

Dissolve yeast in warm water and mix well. Add sugar and mix again. Set aside and allow yeast to activate for 15 minutes. In the meantime, combine melted butter with milk, eggs, salt and lemon rind. Mix well. Add dissolved yeast and mix again. Add flour and baking powder to make a soft dough. It should be very soft, but not sticky. No extra flour should be needed for kneading. Knead for 5 minutes and let stand for in a warm place, covered for 40 minutes (I put mine outside, in the sun). Punch down and kneed for another two minutes. Form rolls, and let rise of trays for another 30 inutes. Brush with the beaten egg and sprinkle poppy seeds on top. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven until golden brown. Kelley’s recipe says this should take about 10-12 minutes, but for me, it was closer to 20  (and I used convection, which normally reduces baking time). For reference, my rolls were just a bit smaller than hamburger buns, and they numbered about 20. Best enjoyed slightly warm.

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Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

Equal parts tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers (I used about 15 grape tomatoes, a persian cucumber, and 6 mini bell peppers)
1/4 red onion
3-4 tablespoons feta cheese
handful of kalamata olives
2 tsp garlic, minced
2 dashes of dried oregano
salt
pepper, freshly ground
2 dashes olive oil
1 Meyer Lemon, squeezed

Chop vegetables into bite sized chunks. Add feta, olives, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Add olive oil and lemon juice. Mix. Enjoy. Ideally, you can intersperse bites of Horiatiki and Armenian Sweet Roll, and soak up the leftover salad dressing with the last of the bread. Serves 2-4, depending on your appetite.

 

Border Season Sweet Pepper and Kale Farfalle

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It may be late spring, but there’s still a lot of kale around in my kitchen. There are many microclimates here in the Bay Area, so it’s often easy to feel like you’re crossing seasons in a single day, in a single city. Berkeley tends to be warmer than many adjacent areas, but we’ve had a fair bit of fog lately, resulting in lots of hot tea and hearty soups. When it turns sunny again the next day, however, the tea is iced and the kale that went into last night’s soup becomes the next night’s salad or pasta. You get the picture.

On the other hand, if you go over the hills, the micro-climates disappear and you just get hot weather. As a result, our markets have been flooded with summer produce: corn, peppers, tomatoes, stone-fruit, the kind of stuff you dream about all winter. This pasta dish is the result of all these things, a true border season mélange.

Border Season Sweet Pepper and Kale Farfalle

2 cups Farfalle pasta
2 dashes olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tomato
5 mushrooms
12 mini bell peppers, grilled (3 regular)
4 large Kale leaves, chopped in long thin strips
1/3 cup Milk
Flour (a couple dashes)
handful of parsley
Red Wine
Parmesan cheese
Salt
Pepper

Boil a pot of water. Add a dash of salt, and pasta. Cook until al dente.  In the meantime, heat olive oil in a pan on medium. Add onion, stirring regularly. Season with salt and pepper. If the onion starts to overcook, throw in a dash of wine. Add garlic, turning up the heat, then add more wine again about a minute later. Cook away the wine, and add the tomatoes.

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Add more oil if necessary. When onions looks soft and a bit caramelized, add the mushrooms and bell peppers. Mix flour and a bit of the milk in a small bowl, making a paste. Add the rest of the milk and stir until the mixture is smooth. Pour over vegetables in hot pan, and stir vigorously, making sure no lumps form. The sauce should cook down relatively quickly. You don’t want a real liquidy sauce. In fact, you barely want a sauce at all (just enough “stick” for the vegetables to cling to the pasta). Lower the heat to medium-low and cook for a couple more minutes. Add another dash of  wine. If the wine’s bitter, throw in a pinch of sugar. When the sauce is to your liking, add kale and using tongs or a fork, mix. After a minute or two, the kale should be wilted and well incorporated into the sauce. Turn off heat. Mix sauce with pasta, and add parsley. Add parmesan to individual servings, if desired. Enjoy!

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Inspiration at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

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Spring is in full swing here. The days are becoming very long, and the sun has been out in full force almost every day. For the past week, the temperatures have all been above 23 degrees celsius (that’s about 74 for you Fahrenheit folk), making for good planting and growing. My recently planted basil is finally starting to become sturdy, and some of my other experiments (germinating mango and avocado seeds) are yet to be determined, though they will hopefully benefit from all the intense sunlight.

A few days ago, I went to the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden for the first time, and was truly delighted to see plants there from all over the world. Besides the setting, which is fabulous in itself, the vegetation was abundant. It was inspiring to walk around the Asian herb garden, and the South American and Mediterranean gardens, contemplating what projects I might start, and of course, more importantly what dishes I might make with them. There are a lot of new projects coming soon as a result, including South Indian Lemon Pickle!

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