An exceptional use of a nectarine

I spotted this beautiful nectarine tart at Smitten Kitchen the other day, so when I found nectarines on sale at the grocery store I bought some and decided to give it a try.

It’s a fantastic recipe — super easy, but it looks like it must have been hard — and the combination of gingersnaps, butter and soft cheese is sort of like a less rich cheesecake. With fresh fruit on top it seems just a little less guilt-inducing.

This time I followed the recipe to the letter, leaving out the chrystallized ginger as she did, and using slightly larger nectarines (so I only needed one). I don’t have a cute tart pan with scalloped edges, either, but our springform pan worked just fine.

The mascarpone cheese I bought at Gateway Market was divine. It was definitely authentic — all the writing on the container was in Italian.

I also got some fancier than usual gingersnaps and some homemade peach jam from the farmers market.

Mmmm, this has not lasted long in our fridge.

Cold noodles and gooseberry tart

Sound like a weird combo? Well, we didn’t plan to have that for dinner, but it just kinda happened. I saw this recipe last weekend and wanted to try it, and then of course we ended up with a whole lotta gooseberries at the farmers market. I made the noodles, Mike made a streusel tart with the berries.

They were both quite yummy, and I can definitely recommend them.

For the noodles I changed quite a bit. I added carrots, which I tossed in with the pasta for the last two minutes of boiling, and substituted fried tofu for the chicken (sauteeing sliced tofu in oil, then cutting it into thin strips). I also have a great fear of burned garlic, so I didn’t cook that. And I’m not a ginger fan so I left that out, although I imagine most would call that a crime. I didn’t have any sesame seeds, so that also got left out. At the end it tasted a tad bland so I added a sprinkling of salt and a little more soy sauce. But after it marinated in the fridge for about a half hour it was divine. Really flavorful. (The final photo didn’t turn out well, so here is an earlier one.)

The pie recipe came from a book called “Easy as Apple Pie” by Caroline Barty. I can’t find a link so I’ll give you the recipe here:

Blueberry Streusel Tart
(obviously works for gooseberries, too)

2/3 cup butter, softened
3 T. sugar
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup light cream (We couldn’t figure this out so went with half and half)
1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 T. ground almonds
2 T. soft white bread crumbs (toast bread, grind up in food processor)

1 lb. 9 oz. blueberries
1/2 c. sugar
5 T. soft white bread crumbs
3 T. sliced almonds
2 T. light brown sugar
1/2 t. ground cinnamon

1. To make the pastry, beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg with a little of the flour. Stir in the remaining flour alternately with the cream and vanilla extract, mixing to make a smooth, soft dough.

2. Spoon the dough into a greased 10-1/2 inch tart pan (he used a small rectangular glass dish), then use your fingers to gently ease it evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Mix the ground almonds and bread crumbs together and sprinkle the mixture evenly over the bottom of the pie shell.

3. To make the filling, mix the berries with the sugar and half the bread crumbs. Spoon the mixture into the pie shell.

4. Mix the remaining bread crumbs with the sliced almonds, brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Scatter the mixture evenly over the berries.

5. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until the pastry is cooked and the streusel topping is golden, 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold (it says with creme fraiche, but come on! vanilla ice cream).

Why am I vegetarian?

Naturally, the more food books you read, the more you start to think about your own diet. And by this point, I’ve read enough Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver to give my food choices a pretty hard look.

I ate a pretty standard American diet up until I was 24. After seeing my cousins, several of my close friends and my boyfriend go vegetarian and not keel over from malnutrition or mope around because they didn’t get to eat what everyone else ate, my mind opened to the idea. They ate very well, in fact, and as a foodie I needed to see that.

But going vegetarian was a decision I had to make entirely on my own. So being in Boulder out on my own (and let’s face it, being in Boulder) was probably the right time for me to start to consider it. I watched a couple of public access shows — one about animal cruelty in factory farms and the second about how quitting meat could reduce your risk for disease, including cancer — and after that thought to myself, why not just try it for a week? If it was hard, I’d just go back to meat. But it wasn’t hard.

I started to realize that I didn’t eat that much meat to begin with. I subsisted mostly on nachos and Spanish rice when I was on my own. When I cooked, I made the recipes I knew. So I started to make them without meat. I think I kind of enjoyed the creativity. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t stomach the idea of meat. I accidentally bought a meat lasagna frozen dinner, and I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. So I tossed it. I felt bad about wasting food, but this was something I had to do all the way.

Of course, I have never gone ALL the way. I kept fish and seafood in my diet, and if I encountered the occasional chicken stock in soup, I didn’t freak out. The truth is that being vegetarian can be very isolating at times, and it’s a constant battle to look at a menu, or at the spread your family cooked for Thanksgiving, and push it away. Thankfully, most of the time I can find plenty to eat, and it doesn’t feel like a big sacrifice. I’m a pro at picking things out, making a veggie sandwich, whatever I have to do. Well meaning people often feel like they have to make a fuss over a vegetarian, and while we appreciate the care, most of the time we’d rather avoid a fuss altogether. We are really good at fending for ourselves.

I’ve gone back and forth on the fish stuff (and other things like Jello and marshmallows that contain “hidden” animal products). I still don’t have a perfect answer. What I try to do is cook with natural foods that create natural substitutes for meat. For a long time I relied on fake this and imitation that. And what I eventually realized is that those things are no better than their Tyson equivalent.

But when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, my mind started to open a little to the idea of eating meat again. Her philosophy is to eat local, and stay small. Small farms, accessible foods. In other words — food you can get to know and people who don’t pollute on a mass scale. I love this philosophy, and I think it takes us back to a time when we had a food system we could manage without intensely damaging our planet. But not everyone wants to be a subsistence farmer. Not everyone has access to the amount of food that she does. Not everyone is going to make bread daily or drop $6 a loaf to get it made my an artisan baker. So I think you have to look at your life and your resources and ask, what is right for me?

The longer I’ve been vegetarian, the more I’ve started to grow uncomfortable with the idea of killing an animal so I can eat it. I don’t need to – I can get my calories elsewhere, no problem. If I’m not doing the slaughtering, I’m not sure someone else should have to do it for me either. So what I’m trying to do is stay vegetarian, but with an eye toward buying as much local food as possible, and growing my own in our garden. (Well, Mike’s the grower. I just eat it!)

I don’t know how much lower my cholesterol is because I didn’t take it before. But I feel healthy, just like I always have. I never noticed a major change healthwise. I certainly didn’t lose weight, though! I read Skinny Bitch, and while it sounded awesome to go vegan and get skinny, it also sounded like an entire menu of fake this and fake that — not exactly a better way to eat in my book.

This works for me now. At some point it may not. I’ve had a lot of fun improvising with meals and learning to cook and eat new things. It’s kind of a food adventure. I think it’s one I share with a lot of other people who have been forced to change their diets for various reasons. If you’ve never read Gluten Free Girl, you really should. She does such a great job of showing how you can absolutely fall in love with food that you once thought would make you miserable. You can take control of your diet and turn it into a good thing. (And you should read about her love story with “the chef”. I got seriously teary after a while).

I also found this article on Slate recently that did a great job of summing up how vegetarians really feel. Read that too while you’re at it.

Oh heavenly berries

Finally, fresh strawberries are starting to appear at our farmers market. We bought a carton, and now I wish we’d have bought two.

I decided the best use of our berries was strawberry shortcake. I sliced the berries thin and sprinkled them with a few teaspoons of sugar. Then I set them in the fridge to make syrup for a few hours.

For the shortcakes, I went with this recipe, entirely because I actually had all of the ingredients on hand. It ended up tasting fantastic, and I will use it again for sure. It makes those sponge cakes you get in four-packs at the grocery store seem totally pathetic. I can’t go back now.

Then I whipped one of those tiny cartons of cream with a little sugar and vanilla in the mixer — voila, whipped cream.

The resulting dessert was one of the better things I’ve eaten in a long, long time. I savored every bite. It was FABULOUS. YOU SHOULD MAKE IT!!

For dinner I tried making chickpea burgers and they were fairly successful, too. The recipe is from Martha. With veggie burgers you always have to worry about them sticking together on the grill (in my case a George Foreman). These made perfect medium-thick patties with a nice crust. They tasted like you would expect – falafel-ish. Sorry for the bad photo. It looked better than this.

Then we had a bunch of potatoes about to go bad in our mold factory of a kitchen. So I boiled them up and made potato salad. I decided I couldn’t go wrong with a Smitten Kitchen recipe, so I grabbed this one. I used golden potatoes instead of red because that’s what I had. And instead of two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, I used my grandma’s trick and replaced one with pickle juice. It always does the trick.

Overall, I would say we had a perfect summer meal. And you better believe I’ll be revisiting that shortcake all season long.

Tiny pies!

I had one little ball of dough left over from making my strawberry-rhubarb pie, so I decided to experiment with some little pies baked in a muffin tin. I’d seen it on notmartha before, so I knew it was possible.

For the filling I just mixed some diced strawberries with white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch until it looked about the right consistency. I rolled out the dough with my hands instead of a rolling pin because at that thinness it was really sticking to the rolling pin.

The bottom line is, when you’re making a “pie” that small, it’s a lot harder to make it look good. The dough tears, your fingers are too big to shape it correctly… But overall I think they turned out great. I cut out some little heart shapes and made some little lattices. Then topped it with sugar in the raw.

I think they baked about 20 minutes at 375.

The best part? It’s hard to overdo it when your pie is tee-tiny. Even if you had two it still wouldn’t be much.

Tofu-Wild Rice Casserole

Over the weekend my sister graduated from college, and after the sweltering ceremony we all headed to a big buffet, which blessedly had plenty of vegetarian food. The very last item was a casserole made with different kinds of rice, tofu cubes, onions and red peppers. And even though it had been languishing there for a while by the time I got to it, I really liked it. So I tried to make it.

We have an abundance of wild rice in our cupboard, thanks to a few trips to northern Minnesota. I always forget it’s back there in a giant sealed jar, just waiting to be enjoyed, if only the cook had the patience to wait 45 minutes for it.

Fortunately, my experiment with this recipe — baking it in the oven with vegetable broth — worked beautifully. And it kept me from worrying about what stage of boiling over my pot was in.

It’s kind of hard to write this up as an exact recipe, so I’ll just tell you what I did.

I put a cup of brown rice and 3/4 cup of wild rice in a 9X13 casserole dish. Then I added about three cups of vegetable broth and a tablespoon of butter. I covered it up with foil and put it in a 375-degree oven to bake. I sauteed about half an onion and half a red pepper (cut into strips) in a little oil on the stovetop until the onions turned translucent. Then I set them aside and fried some tofu rectangles (maybe an inch and a half long and 1/4-inch thick) in more oil. After about 45 minutes, I added the onions, peppers and tofu to the rice, and about a cup more broth. I baked it all another 45 minutes, then seasoned it with salt and pepper and called it a casserole. It still seemed to be lacking something in flavor, so I added a little more butter and salt at the end. Overall, it was really delicious, and full of healthy grains and tofu.

Did I have pie afterwards? Of course.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

This pie is a thing of beauty.

I couldn’t even eat a piece after I made it last night because it was too pretty to cut.

The recipe is from a recent post on Smitten Kitchen. The writer talks about how pies can “smell fear,” which I think is hilarious and true. I’ve only made pie crust by myself once before, and it actually went really well. But this time, using the food processor, everything clumped all together, and I think my ingredients were too warm. When I tried to arrange the lattice strips, a lot of them broke, so there was no chance I was going to get an actual weave out of it. Still, I think it turned out to be a damn good pie.

Maybe today I can bring myself to eat it. If I have to.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has really inspired me to start eating more locally and more seasonally. Those were both important to me already, but the truth is that unless you have a farm or a really fantastic garden, it’s hard to commit to eating that way. I’ve gotten really used to the availability of pretty much any food any time of year, but unfortunately I’ve also gotten used to how bad some of that produce tastes.

So, I’m trying to take advantage of our fabulous farmers market and the grocery stores that do carry Iowa-made products. One of the items we grabbed at Saturday’s market was a bundle of rhubarb. I’ve never made anything with rhubarb before, but I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a sugary, buttery rhubarb crisp.

I got the recipe from one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever had, called Simply in Season. I believe it was a gift from Mike’s grandparents. The recipes inside are really simple (as you might guess), and I think it’s that simplicity that makes them so good. The book is divided into seasons rather than type of food, so you can look up a recipe based on what’s at the market that week.

For this one I changed it a little bit, leaving out orange peel in the fruit mixture and using strawberries instead of sorrel. Feel free to go with the original.

**Warning: Do not make this recipe unless you are prepared to mow down a whole pan. It’s that good.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

4 cups rhubarb, finely chopped
2 cups strawberries, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
1 t. vanilla

Combine in large saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium and cook 4 minutes, stirring frequently.

1/4 cup water
3 T. cornstarch

Dissolve cornstarch in water. Add to rhubarb mixture and cook until thickened, stirring constantly.

1-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 cups oats
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans

Mix together until crumbly. Place about 3-1/2 cups of crumb mixture into greased 9 X 13 pan and press to make an even layer. Pour in rhubarb/strawberry mixture and spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining crumb mixture over top. Bake in preheated oven at 350 for 30-40 minutes. Cut into squares.

Top with vanilla ice cream. Try not to get too much on your face.

3-Bean Chipotle Chili

You’d never believe a dish this hearty was vegan. Well, until you put the crackers and cheese in it, but who’s counting?

I think we planned to have this last week because it was so damn cold. Again. We just needed as much comfort food as we could get. But then we ran out of time to cook it and had to make it today when it was sunny and beautiful.

The secret, I think, is to use crushed tomatoes instead of whole or cut tomatoes. And then mix in a few chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, as many as you can handle, for extra flavor.

3-Bean Chipotle Chili

2 T. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 zucchini, chopped (peeled, if you like)
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 15 oz. can dark kidney beans, drained
1 15 oz. can black beans, drained
1 15 oz. can chili beans
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 7 oz. can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
1 T. cumin
1 T. chili powder
1 t. oregano
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

While the oil is heating in a big saucepan over medium, chop up all the vegetables.

I usually throw the garlic and onions in first, followed by the peppers, then the other veggies. After they’ve cooked about five minutes, mix in the spices, salt and pepper and bay leaf. Once everything is combined, add the tomatoes and beans and put a lid on the pot.

While that simmers, take out as many chipotle peppers as you want. If you don’t like spicy foods, I would take one or even one without the seeds. Those suckers are hot! I use three, but I had to work up to that. Put the rest in a container in the fridge until you need them again. Chop the chiles super fine and add them to the pot.

Simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes, remove the bay leaf and serve with cheddar and saltines.

Vegetarian Cassoulet

I’ve tried a number of so-so vegetarian bean soups, hoping they’d turn out to be regulars in my arsenal, but this one finally hit the spot.

I’ll just let you go there for the recipe (complete with gorgeous photos), plus some tips on how to cook beans from scratch. I really think that might have made all the difference somehow.

Instead of making the breadcrumbs, we just dropped or dipped chunks of baguette into the soup and were plenty satisfied with that. I made some other adjustments (a little more tomatoes, dried herbs instead of fresh…), but overall the recipe is solid.