Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Veggie Tales: Tomato Season

Summer is in full swing right now, so our forays into new and exciting produce continue. Lately, our CSA has been sending us different kinds of tomatoes. Tomatoes are something that neither Seth nor I have ever really liked very much, but as you know, we've been revisiting some of those foods and giving them second chances. In fact, we were actually looking forward to training ourselves to embrace these in particular. Tomatoes are such a well-loved, common food and -- as was the case with eggs -- I was beginning to feel kind of ridiculous for not being willing to eat them. 

I decided a while ago that I'd really like to revisit tomatoes for the first time by way of a caprese salad, as that seems to be one of the most celebrated ways to serve and enjoy fresh tomatoes. Plus, I love anything to do with cheese! The above photo is a picture of my first caprese. It features organic grape tomatoes (served while they were still green), fresh buffalo mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, and kosher salt. I decided to use raspberry Tabasco sauce in place of the balsamic vinegar, as it's really a lot like balsamic, only spicier. It was so good! Definitely a great way to reintroduce fresh summer tomatoes into my life.

As I mentioned previously, one thing Seth and I have been working on is taking better food photos. Not that our old photos sucked or anything, because they definitely didn't, but we're creative folks. The pride we take in the other things we create very definitely extends to the food we cook. We're always looking to become even more awesome at things we already excel at. Seth got us a nice set of white dishes to showcase our food a little better and I have to say I agree with him that they do better justice to our food.


In other news, a Facebook conversation with friends earlier alerted me to the fact that I'm not a complete fuck-up when it comes to life. Don't get me wrong. I fuck a lot of things up and I'm really inconsistent about what's left over. Food is a real exception though. Even though I have every reason for it to be otherwise, my relationship with food/cooking/eating is honestly pretty solid and I'm proud of the fact that it shows enough for friends to actually comment on it. 

I'm also realizing that I happily and willingly do just about everything you're "supposed to" when it comes to food. Seth and I both do. We don't live on take-out, restaurant food, or fast food. However, we also definitely enjoy the occasional Pizza Hut pizza or trip to Taco Bell. We buy organic, local, seasonal produce and organic, ethically raised meat and fish whenever possible. We eat balanced meals. We rarely to never overeat. We plan meals ahead of time, shop according to those plans, and budget well. We never over-shop and rarely to never actually waste food. Food is a real priority in our lives and I am proud of us for that. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Some Recent Foodie Photographs

Fresh Spring Berries from Our CSA
The other day, it occurred to me that I've really been getting a lot better at food photography. And I've been actively trying, but without much agenda beyond just wanting to do better justice to all the wonderful things Seth and I eat. It reminds me a bit of the process I went through when I was trying to become a better sketch artist and painter years ago. I wanted so much for the art I made to accurately reflect the beauty of the concepts, people, and places I was illustrating. I felt so accomplished once I felt I'd reached a point where that was starting to happen.

Grass Fed Beef Burger with Mac and Cheese
Part of that has to do with the awesome new phone I got recently. (It's a Samsung Galaxy S7.) The rest has to do with me finally figuring out how to make the most of what the phone's camera can actually do. Seth taught me how to properly edit shots so that the colors are brighter and truer quite some time ago. I've taken things from there on my own as well as I can. I hardly have a professional photography set-up going on here at home, so I have to get creative in order to make my compositions look the way I want. Plus I'm relatively nocturnal, so there's almost never natural light to work with when it's time to take these photos. I've figured out how to make the lighting pretty decent regardless though.

"Lazy" Bean and Cheese Enchiladas
I don't think any of my photography is ready for Bon Appetit or anything, but I've had more than one Facebook friend comment on how sharp and lovely they're getting lately. I don't consider myself to be much of a photographer at all, so that was pretty flattering. Even if I do say so myself, I'm getting better and better at winding up with shots that I feel accurately reflect the absolute awesomeness of what we actually cooked and ate. A lot of foods -- especially foods like that enchilada up there -- don't really translate that well to actual film, so sometimes it's a challenge.

Vegetarian Rotini with Marinara
These are just a few of the recent shots I've been especially happy with lately. I've always been creative, but far too often, I've been overly focused on trying to make money or otherwise "get somewhere" with whatever I'm doing. I take and share my photos for no reason beyond the fact that I really enjoy doing it. I'd ultimately like to branch out to other subjects, but for now I'm ever so proud of my food pictures.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Product Reviews: Pizza Hut's Bacon Stuffed Crust Pizza

Thanks to the horrible experience we had at the hands of Domino's back in December sometime, it's apparently been months since we last ordered a pizza instead of making one ourselves or buying a frozen alternative at the store. However, we eventually decided that the bacon-stuffed crust option Pizza Hut is putting out there right now was worth once again risking disappointment. We missed the opportunity to try their hot dog-stuffed crust pizza and I really didn't want to miss this one too. I love me a good stuffed crust once in a while as a treat for sure and Pizza Hut does a really good job with theirs for the most part.

We placed an order for a large one, as well as some bourbon barbecue chicken wings, yesterday and I'm really glad we did. This was a truly delicious pizza. Granted I don't expect something from Pizza Hut or Domino's to be equivalent to haute cuisine coming out of Gordon Ramsay's kitchen or anything, but I do expect it to look and taste like someone actually gave half a fuck about making it properly. This met expectations in that regard, as you can see from my expert photo up there. 

There were plenty of toppings, as well as plenty of the garlic-Parmesan crust seasoning we requested. There was enough sauce and enough cheese despite not having ordered extra of either. The pizza was nice and hot. The minute you opened the box, the smell and the sight of it made you want to dig right in -- the reaction anyone should have when it comes to a pizza they just spent good money ordering. It certainly didn't look like something a blind first grader put together and I didn't get the impression the owner of the location was trying to see just how sparse they could make the toppings before the customers started complaining. (Seriously, Domino's. I'm still so pissed about that.)

The crust isn't filled to bursting with bacon and cheese or anything, but there's plenty in there. You definitely could taste the bacon. When you're eating a stuffed crust pizza, the crust should be your favorite part and I would say that was true for me while eating this. I'm already looking forward to maybe ordering us another one before it no longer exists. I felt like it was worth the money and the experience of eating it felt like a treat. Exactly what I'm hoping for when I turn to Seth and say: "Hey, let's order a pizza."

Monday, April 18, 2016

How to Prepare and Cook an Artichoke

Apparently it's artichoke season. Also, since we're lucky enough to live in the Monterey Bay area -- one of the primary artichoke-growing areas in the entire United States -- we get the privilege of seeing artichokes appear in our CSA boxes. (I'm still learning the specifics of what grows in my area seasonally, obviously.) That happened for the first time with the most recent box we received.

Seth had never eaten an actual intact artichoke before in his life. I've eaten them maybe once or twice as a child, but never actually prepared them all by myself, so this was kind of a first for both of us. I'm still kind of in shock as to how much I liked these. I probably shouldn't be though, as I tend to enjoy "interactive" foods like these -- foods that need to be disassembled a bit by using your hands before they can be eaten. And holy shit, were they ever delicious. 

Obviously, I wanted our introductory experience to artichoke eating to be as positive as possible, so I really did my homework beforehand to make absolutely sure I didn't fuck them up during the cooking process. I also researched the proper way to eat these things so that neither of us would be confused. Like I said, my most recent experience with these things was way back there in childhood at some point, so I didn't totally remember. (I found this video on how not to eat an artichoke wrong to be extremely helpful, just FYI. Seriously, watch it.)

As for cooking, I had my choices between baking, steaming, and boiling. I dislike boiling vegetables with a passion, since you're boiling away a lot of the flavor and nutrition in the process. Steaming sounded fine for these, but I really liked the idea of baking them much better, despite the fact that almost every resource I read recommended one of the other methods over that one. The main reason seemed to be that people have trouble with the 'chokes drying out during the baking process. Now... you know being able to cook stuff in the oven in such a way that it never gets dry is a point of pride for me, so I took that as a challenge to be accepted and conquered. 

And I'm glad I did, because I don't know how these could have come out any more perfect. They were tender, flavorful, and perfectly cooked. Not even a hint of dryness. Would eat again! In fact, I'm really hoping that when we get our box this week that there are more chokes in it, because yum.

  • Preheat your oven to 425 degrees so it's nice and hot by the time you finish the rest of your prep work.
  • Trim all the little pokey petal tips off of your artichokes. Most resources I looked at listed this step as optional, but I would do it. If you don't, you're going to stab yourself a bunch of times while you're trying to wash and season these things. 
  • Use a serrated knife to cut away the top 3/4 inch or so of the top of the artichoke. Also, give the stem a minor trim -- just a 1/2 inch or so. It doesn't seem like it, but the stem is actually part of the artichoke heart and that's the best part of a 'choke, trust me.
  • Wash your 'chokes really well under cold water. Separate the petals a bit with your fingers to make sure you get all the yucky dirt and sand out of there. No one likes sandy-ass veggies.
  • Season your artichokes by drizzling a little olive oil over them so it goes down into the petals. Then sprinkle a little kosher salt and fresh ground pepper down there as well. 
  • Now wrap these things in tin foil. Wrap them really, really super well, because that's the key to not having them dry out the way people worry they will. I used a double layer myself and there was zero leakage. Arrange your foil-wrapped artichokes in some kind of baking dish just in case though.
  • Bake the artichokes for an hour. Unwrap with care, because they're hot. Enjoy according to the instructions in that video I linked to above, because really... a visual of what to do and what not to do will be a million times more helpful than any directions I could possibly write for you.
Apparently you can stuff artichokes with just about anything you want as well. I hear bread crumbs and garlic make a great combination. I'd personally like to try making a sausage and bread crumb stuffing now that I've had these and know exactly what type of flavor and texture I'm working with, but there's lots of room to experiment. 

As for serving suggestions, I think I'm a fan of stuffing and/or seasoning your artichokes really well and enjoying them as a tasty side dish, as opposed to dipping the leaves in mayo like a lot of people seem to do. We ate ours along with some vegetarian chicken stir fry wraps and cheesy whole grain rice medley, but I can picture these going excellently with any sort of red meat in particular -- like a really nice steak or a burger. Pasta marinara, pizza, or any sort of Italian food would also be a really good choice, I'd imagine, as these have a real "special occasion" feel. Don't forget the red wine!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Veggie Tales: On Shelling Peas for the First Time

When I signed us up for the CSA boxes we've been enjoying so much, a lot of it was about convenience. It was an easy, affordable way to get more fresh produce into our diets without someone having to lug it home on foot. I also really liked the idea of learning to eat in season and having my money go to support a local farm right here in my community.

Last but certainly not least, I've been really interested in developing an appreciation for foods and ingredients I've never much liked -- particularly the fruits and vegetables that have been on my shit list for years. Neither Seth nor I have cared much for peas in particular, but we were both kind of excited to give them a second chance when they began showing up in our produce boxes.

The peas came in the shells, so I got to have the experience of shelling them by hand -- a completely new experience for me. We never ate fresh English peas that came in their shells when I was growing up (at least not that I remember), so I had no idea how to even go about it. Nothing a quick Google search couldn't fix though.

Honestly though, I have to say I really kind of enjoyed the experience, but then I've always enjoyed using my hands to work with and prepare food. I had saved our first batch of fresh peas to have with our Easter lamb, so I just sat with Seth and prepared them while we watched that wonderful New Yorker series on a quiet holiday afternoon. The pods filled the room with this wonderful green, springy smell. Plus, the act of splitting the pods, using my fingers to free the peas, and listening to the sound they made as they fell into the container I was using was satisfying on a really interesting level. I felt like I was doing something really simple, and healthy, and normal -- three concepts I wouldn't usually apply to my life. On the rare occasion I can, I notice it.

As I mentioned, I don't have the fond, idyllic childhood memories some people apparently have of sitting with a mother or grandmother and shelling peas together for a family dinner. My mother never actually liked to cook, so it's hard for me to even picture her willingly putting that kind of effort into preparing a vegetable when she could buy it in a can or in the frozen food aisle instead. I enjoy having that sort of connection to my food though, so I found it relaxing -- getting something delicious, and springy, and fresh ready for a special holiday dinner while I sat and talked with someone I love and care about. I remember thinking that that must be what "family" feels like.

And the peas were delicious. I mixed them with some baby carrots from the same produce box and they went perfectly with the lamb, gravy, and couscous I made for dinner. When we got peas in last week's box as well, I was really excited to shell them and serve them again, this time with one of Seth's amazing medium rare brisket burgers and a stuffed baked potato. Now I see why that meat, potato, and peas combination is considered such an American classic. It's because it really is delicious and comforting, just right for a time of year when it's no longer cold, but it isn't quite warm yet either.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

On Buying (and Loving) Locally Grown Organic Produce

So our wonderful CSA boxes. I know I've mentioned them in passing on here before, but they've yet to have an entire post revolve around them the way they deserve. Ours are delivered straight to our door from a local Monterey Bay area farm called J&P Organics and we've been receiving them about every other week since around Halloween. Who knew eating your veggies could be so much fun? 

The farmers put together the boxes for us from whatever's been harvested that week. (If you're so inclined, this same farm will also deliver eggs and/or fresh flowers with your order for a few dollars extra.) The produce boxes are different every time, but each usually contains a mixture of fruits and vegetables. Everything is always certified organic, seasonal, and super fresh. Like... we're talking fresh on a level I'm not sure I've experienced since that year in Montana when Seth and I had a vegetable garden. I'll tell you right now, there's salad... and then there's salad like the one pictured above that's made from fresh organic produce that was probably harvested mere days (if not hours) ago. You really can tell the difference, so if your area has a CSA program, I highly recommend checking it out.

These boxes have made it so much easier to eat healthier, more balanced meals. Before that, we liked fruits and vegetables well enough, but we never quite got around to adding very many to the grocery cart. We don't have a car right now for a number of reasons, so all of our fresh food usually comes from the corner grocery store which Seth walks to and from once a week and there are limits to how much he can carry back on foot. We make up the difference by ordering pantry staples and such online from places like Amazon. Once in a while, we'll place a meat order with Omaha Steaks or something, but that's about it.

A delivery service that selects and delivers fresh produce for us was exactly what we needed to round things out and make sure each of our meals included produce the way that they should. The produce is gorgeous and the box contains generous amounts. One usually feeds Seth and I amply for two weeks, so a family of four could easily eat plenty of fruits and veggies just out of the box if they ordered one every week. It's economical as well, since you're buying directly from the farmers that grow your food instead of paying retail mark-up at the grocery store. We'd never be able to afford this amount of organic produce at the grocery store, nor would it be as fresh.

It's also fun. They email me each week with what's going to be in the next box so I can decide whether I want to place an order, as well as plan meals around whatever's coming. Each week there are different things and they've all been delicious. We've had oranges, apples, grapefruit, and kiwi. Veggies have included everything from kale, chard, collard greens, and lettuce to cabbage, carrots, potatoes, yams, beets, squash, and more. A lot of those things -- like the beets and the cabbage -- we probably never would have thought to pick up at the store, so we've really been expanding our horizons as far as the types of produce we eat. We have a lot of new favorites.

It's also really fun to observe all the ways your produce changes from week to week. Like one week you'll get little baby lettuces and medium-sized oranges. Then in a future box, you'll get massive oranges and giant, full-grown lettuces, so you totally know that now you're getting the next installment of the same crop after it's "grown up". You also get to see your produce selection change with the seasons. In the winter, we got more squashes, and yams, and winter greens. Now that spring is here, we're starting to see springy things show up. Today's box was our first that had strawberries, so I was really excited -- so excited that I had to have some for lunch. They sent us some beautiful English peas that will go wonderfully with our Easter lamb on Sunday, too. 

I tend to get really excited about things that change with the seasons, so I especially like that part of this. Before CSA boxes, I'm not sure I could have told you what crops actually grow here in our actual area with any certainty or which ones are in season in the springtime, as opposed to the fall or winter. Now I totally know and I really like that. It's one more way to get in touch with the natural rhythms of the earth and synch your lifestyle choices with the seasons. Definitely something I'd recommend, especially if you're looking to eat more healthfully, go organic, or do more things to support your local economy. This lets you do all of those things, so it's a decision you can feel really good about.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Embracing Breakfast for Dinner

The more I actually experiment with different foods and explore new ways of cooking them, the more I realize that most of the foods I thought I hated were honestly just cooked horribly every time I had them. Case in point -- eggs. I still remember talking about my hatrid of eggs back when I first started this blog. I hoped that one day I'd be able to at least tolerate them so that I could actually order something other than waffles or pancakes when I visit a breakfast restaurant. (I'm really not a fan of sweet things for breakfast -- more of a Ron Swanson than a Leslie Knope.)

I'd say I reached the land of tolerance a while back, but since I've had such easy and continuous access to fresh eggs through our CSA program (thanks, Glaum Egg Ranch), I've been cooking and experimenting with eggs a whole lot more. At this point, I'd say that I've actually really developed an appreciation for them. I've also realized that the gummy, chewy texture and sulphur stench I associated with the eggs my parents and in-laws used to cook are abominations that only happen when they're overcooked. I learned how to cook them properly from Gordon Ramsay a while back so that I could make us a nice breakfast for Halloween and haven't looked back since.

I've made and fallen in love with lots of different dishes since -- scrambles and various frittatas featuring fresh produce, especially. However, I think my favorite egg dish so far is the tater tot quiche pictured above. (The good folks at Spoon University call it an "epic breakfast pizza", but this is a quiche as far as I'm concerned.) I'm never really one for following recipes to the letter or anything, but I've made this twice now and I did it almost exactly as specified behind the link there. The only thing I do differently is mix things up in regards to the cheese sometimes (depending on what's on hand) and add mix-ins to the eggs like white onion, scallion, or herbs. 

The quiche above featured eggs with sauteed white onion, spicy Spanish paprika and a few carrot greens I had in the fridge. The cheeses were a mixture of good old Velveeta for the bottom layer that goes under the eggs and Monterey Jack plus sharp Cheddar for the top. A few sausage links and a little citrus fruit on the side rounded things out for a really nice breakfast-at-dinner treat. (We've had an abundance of fresh organic oranges and grapefruits on hand lately.)

We've also become fans of classic multi-component breakfasts like the one above. The potato hash in the picture was a combination of sweet jewel yams, onion, and Irish red potatoes. The scramble had plenty of cheese, as we like our eggs rich and flavorful. And then there's our friend, fully cooked ready-make bacon for the side. I'd never be able to create such perfect slices myself!

I think I'm finally starting to "get" what people like so much about breakfast food. As is the case with vegetables and many other delicate ingredients, eggs are just not nice when they're overcooked, underseasoned, or just badly prepared in general. But when you treat them with the love and care they deserve, they become a really wonderful treat -- filling, but not overly so. Light and rich at the same time. It helps that they're appropriate for meat-free days as well. We're right in the middle of Lent and as much as we really like fish, it's nice to have an alternative protein to enjoy now and then.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Food Experiments: Easy Cheese

It seems to be somewhat common for people to be picky eaters when they're children. I've always felt as if I've been picky in a very backwards way though. I never liked sweets, or junk food, or typical "kid food" when I actually was a kid.

I detested things like bologna, macaroni and cheese, yellow mustard, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets. I barely liked pizza or hamburgers. I literally would not eat fast food at all with the occasional exception of a couple of things on Jack in the Box's menu. (They were the only fast food place that had things like stuffed raviolis, or fried shrimp, or taquitos.)

As far as what I did like, I remember really enjoying light, natural foods that were simply prepared and contained very few ingredients. I loved seafood and white meat poultry. Whole beans, rice, pasta, potatoes, and steamed vegetables were all favorites as well. Salad was fine, but I didn't like salad dressing, gravy, or most sauces. I liked cheese, but only firm varieties like Cheddar or mozzarella. No cream cheese or anything else along those lines for me! I did like deep fried food quite a lot, but that was the only thing I really enjoyed that maybe wasn't on the lighter, more healthful side.

In other words, I grew up liking relatively wholesome things that most children don't come to appreciate until they're adults. That said, trying new things as an adult has largely been about finally giving some of the things I didn't appreciate when I was a kid a try. Seth's helped me get used to and eventually learn to love former no-no foods like mac and cheese, Velveeta, hot dogs, and steak. I've even reached a place where I sometimes willingly put ketchup or mustard on my food. (I actually discovered that I love whole grain French mustard.) I've introduced him to the seafood, whole grains, and vegetables I've always liked. As a result, we both like a wide range of foods now -- some very healthful and good for us, but others more indulgent.

Our latest experiment was actually Easy Cheese. We've been binge watching Parks and Recreation lately and there was this picnic scene where Andy was spraying it right into his mouth. I mentioned that I'd actually never had it before. Seth asked if I wanted to try some, so when I said yes, he came back from his next visit to the store with bacon-flavored Easy Cheese and Chicken in a Biskit (which happened to be one of my favorite crackers as a kid).

The cheese was actually much better than I expected. For some reason, I pictured it being... like... fluffy the way canned whipped cream is and I didn't expect it to actually taste all that cheesy. It was actually closer in consistency and flavor to those cheese ball things I like, which was awesome. It's definitely something I would happily eat again. It would be delicious on a hot dog or something for sure and it's definitely convenient enough to take along on a picnic or something. Pretty awesome! Andy and April would be proud of me.