Monday, August 31, 2009

Grass-fed beef - I have seen the light, and it is tasty!

As you can probably tell from my recipes, I'm not a big meat eater - especially beef. I don't have any ethical issues with meat (well, except for lamb and veal, which I think are too cute to eat), it's just not something I crave. There are so many other flavors and textures that I'd much rather have. But Mr. ValleyWriter doesn't consider a meal (other than pasta or pizza) complete unless some kind of meat is served with it - so we eat a lot of chicken around here.

I noticed lately, however, that a lot of foodies out there were espousing the wonders of grass-fed beef. My friend The Leftover Queen has told me several times that it's a totally different taste from grain-fed beef - so I decided this week it was well-past time to give it a try.

I tried 2 stores near my home that have butcher shops, thinking they might have it - to no avail. Luckily, the Pioneer Valley has many, many shopping options - so I finally found it at the River Valley Market Coop in Northampton. That particular day, they had fresh grass-fed ground beef from nearby River Rock Farm. Not only is their beef grass-fed, it's also aged to enhance the flavor. At $7.99/lb, I thought it was still pretty dear for ground beef... but after grilling up some hamburger patties for dinner - I am sold!

Wow oh wow! These burgers were juicy and flavorful and incredibly tender. Unlike far too many hockey-puck hamburgers I've had, this was one that I wanted to savor every bite of - and *not* load up with ketchup or relish. If you live in the Western MA or Boston area - check out River Rock Farm. They deliver for a reasonable fee, and they sell at several local stores and farmer's markets.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fresh Tomato Basil Sauce (in the crockpot!)

I have always wanted to try my hand at homemade spaghetti sauce. Unfortunately, tomatoes usually come into season here just as soon as the temps reach 90+ degrees, with the humidity 80% or more. Yeah - not exactly the type of weather that you want to be boiling something on the stove for hours in. This year, the hot weather stayed at bay for a while, but all of the tomatoes at our CSA succumbed to blight! I went to another local farm last week to get some corn and saw they had a bunch of wonderfully ripe tomatoes.

Of course, by then, it was hotter than hades. But then dawned on me. The crockpot! So I loaded up my bag with tomatoes and happily headed home. The next day I picked up the herbs I needed from the CSA and a few other ingredients and set about making some sauce. I looked at a bunch of recipes online, but nothing really spoke to me. So I decided to wing it. Dangerous, maybe, but I figure, if you put good stuff in, you get good stuff out. Four hours later, I turned out to be right! We had a bunch of bright, fresh, delicious chunky tomato sauce. First we used it on pizza, and tonight, we had it over spaghetti noodles.

Wow, wow, wow. I don't know how I'll ever go back to the jar stuff again. I'm planning to go get a bunch more tomatoes this week and try my hand at canning. We'll see how that goes...

Here's the recipe for

Crockpot Tomato Basil Sauce

(Makes about 8 cups)

2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, chopped
8 cups chopped tomatoes*
2-3 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
4-5 grinds fresh pepper
3 Tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped
1/4 c. fresh parsley, chopped
3/4 c. fresh basil, chopped
12 oz. tomato paste

*I partially peeled my tomatoes with a vegetable peeler. For the really ripe ones, I left most of the peel on because it didn't want to come off. Apparently, you can par boil the tomatoes to help the skin come off more easily, but I was avoiding boiling anything that day... You can also leave the peels on entirely!

Drizzle olive oil in the bottom of the crockpot. Add garlic, turn crockpot to high and cook 10-15 minutes until garlic starts to become fragrant.
Add pepper, tomatoes, sugar, salt and pepper. Stir to mix. Cover, turn heat down to low and cook for 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
At the 3 1/2-4 hour mark, add in oregano, parsley, basil and tomato paste and continue cooking for another hour.

If you like a chunky sauce -you're done! Of you prefer something smoother, you can run it through a blender or food processor.

UPDATE: I should have noted that this sauce freezes very well. I separated it into 2 cup containers and froze the majority of it. The sauce on the spaghetti above was frozen and then reheated. I did leave some in the fridge and it easily lasted 4 days with no issues.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pesto Rotini with Shrimp & Summer Squash (aka CSA Cleanout Pasta)

I pick up our CSA share every Monday night on my way home from work. Since I never know exactly what I'll be getting that night, I always plan Monday night's dinner as a kind of clean out night where I use up whatever's left from the previous week's share. You never quite know what you're going to get with these clean out meals and many times it's just not that exciting, but this week's "CSA Cleanout Pasta" turned out to be a hit!

Since that's not exactly the most appetizing recipe name, you can call it:

Pesto Rotini with Shrimp & Summer Squash

For pesto:
4 cloves garlic
1/4 c. slivered almonds
1/2 c. Parmesan cheese
2 c. basil leaves
1/3 c. olive oil

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large summer squash
1/2 lb. large shrimp, shelled
4 cups cooked rotini

In a food processor, pulse garlic and almonds until finely chopped. Add Parmesan cheese and pulse until well mixed. Add basil leaves a handful at a time, pulsing a three or four times in between each addition until leaves are finely chopped. Turn food processor on low and slowly drizzle in 1/3 c. olive oil until fully mixed. Reserve 1/3 c. of mixture for this dinner and refrigerate or freeze the remaining.

With a vegetable peeler, cut squash into ribbons (stopping when you reach the seeded core). Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat in a saute pan. Add squash ribbons and pesto. Cook 3-4 minutes until squash is tender. Add shrimp and cook 5-6 minutes until shrimp are pink and cooked through. Remove from heat, add rotini and toss to coat.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mmmm... doughnuts

Mr. ValleyWriter has been craving fresh doughnuts for a couple of days. He suggested last night that we have them for dinner. I thought that wasn't the best idea in the world, but since he's such a good hubby, I thought I'd make him some for dessert tonight.

(You'll have to pardon the funny shape. As I've mentioned before, I don't have big round cookie cutters, but I do have a flower-shaped one, so that's what I used here. And for the holes, I used a soda bottle cap. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Or as I say - whatever works!)

Since it was my first endeavor making doughnuts, I wanted to go with a tried and true, amateur tested recipe. In my opinion, one of the best places to find such recipes is The recipe I chose was for Crispy and Creamy Doughnuts, since Mr. ValleyWriter's favorite are the fluffy, light donuts (versus the cake-like ones). I followed the recipe exactly, except that I scaled it down to 4 servings. It still made 6 doughnuts and a bunch of doughnut holes.

For my first attempt, I think they turned out pretty good. The actual doughnuts were a bit more like fried dough, but I wonder if that's because my oil wasn't hot enough. (I really do have to buy myself a candy thermometer. I just keep forgetting!) The doughnut holes, however, came out perfect. Nice and fluffy and oh so delicious. Next time, I might just make all holes. All in all, it was a fun and tasty experiment!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Healthier Fish Tacos

My husband's company is headquartered in southern California and ever since his first visit there, any time he hears mention of fish tacos, he tells me how wonderful they are in California and that we should try to make them sometime. I've always been reluctant to try since most of the recipes I've seen use battered, fried fish. While I think fried foods are OK once in a while, I don't want them to become part of our standard fare - and I don't want to deal with the mess of cooking them at home!

Finally, I stumbled upon a batter-free recipe for Baja Fish Tacos (from Ortega). I made it a few times, substituting and changing things along the way until I came up with the version that we love - and that our waistlines love, too! These fish tacos are light, yet pack a nice flavorful punch. They're also very versatile (which I figured out from all my experimenting).

Here's what I ended up with (as usual, this recipe serves 2):

1 6 oz. container nonfat Greek yogurt
1 package low-sodium taco seasoning
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lime juice
12 oz. firm white fish (I've used both cod and tilapia), cut into 1" pieces
6 6" flour tortillas (fajita size)
Salsa and chopped lettuce (or cabbage) for toppings

In a small bowl, combine 2 Tbsp. taco seasoning and Greek yogurt. Mix well.
In another bowl, combine remaining seasoning, olive oil and lime juice in a small bowl. Add fish and toss to coat. Pour into a skillet over medium heat. Cook 4-5 minutes, stirring constantly, until fish is cooked through and flakes easily.
To prepare tacos, spread about a tablespoon of yogurt mixture onto a flour tortilla. Top with fish, lettuce (or cabbage) and salsa. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A different take on strawberry shortcake

I posted about one of my favorite summer desserts, strawberry shortcake, back in May, using a quick shortbread biscuit (see that recipe here). While strawberry season is over here in the Pioneer Valley, I had the good sense to freeze a bunch while they were in season - and I decided to try a different kind of strawberry shortcake this weekend. Instead of using the biscuits, I made a light yellow cake (kind of a cross between a sponge cake and a pound cake) and then cut it into individual servings with a big cookie cutter.

As you can see, the cake soaked up the juices from the strawberries very well. And the lightness of it made this version of the dessert a little less heavy than the biscuit version. But honestly, I think both versions are great! Strawberries, cake & whipped cream? How could you go wrong?! Best of all, the cake recipe is super simple:

1 stick (1/2 c.) butter, softened
1/2 c. vanilla-infused sugar*
2 eggs
1 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8"x8" baking pan.
Beat butter and sugar until fluffy.
Beat in eggs one at a time.
In a small bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Add to butter/sugar mixture and beat on low speed just until combined (don't over mix).
Pour into pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool 15-20 minutes before turning cake out of pan to cook completely.

To make the strawberry short cake: Cut out individual servings with a round (or as in my case, flower-shaped) cookie cutter once cake is fully cooled. Top with strawberries & whipped cream!

*I make vanilla-infused sugar by combining 1 spent vanilla bean (i.e. already cut open and seeds removed) with 1 1/2-2 c. flour in a glass jar and letting it sit for at least a week for the vanilla to permeate the sugar. If you don't have this on hand, use 1/2 c. regular sugar and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract.