Monday, March 28, 2011

Lemon Meringue Pie with Coconut Shortbread Crust

Lemon season is coming to a close. And what better way to bid adieu to this amazing fruit than by making lemon meringue pie? This was my first attempt at baking a meringue topping. You have no doubt heard the warnings issued to first time bakers with this sweet dessert, warnings about weeping and gloppy meringue that slides right off the custard beneath. But I'm happy to say, this pie was delicious and tearless from day one until I finally polished it off about five days later. The men in my life were no help. They apparently don't crave sour things like I do. Nigella Lawson says you either have a sour tooth of you don't. Like her, I do.

This recipe is adapted from the Joy of Cooking but improves upon it, in my opinion, with a toasted coconut crust and by including an oven temperature, which the original recipe somehow fails to mention.

1 cup packaged shortbread cookies
1/2 cup coconut, toasted briefly beneath a broiler
1/4 cup butter, melted
Pinch sea salt
Pinch sugar

1 1/2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 egg yolks, whisked
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups boiling water
Zest of one lemon

1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup water
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar

To make the crust, pulse the cookies and coconut in a food processor until you achieve a coarse crumb. Drizzle in the butter and blend again until the mixture is just combined. Take a quick taste and add a pinch of salt and or sugar depending on the sweetness and saltiness of the shortbread cookies you have used. You're looking for a savory crust to offset the almost cloying sweetness of the lemony filling. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes until lightly browned.

To make the filling, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch and salt with the water and lemon juice in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. After thoroughly combined, whisk in the egg yolks. When combined, add the butter and gradually add the boiling water. Bring to a full boil, stirring constantly, remove from heat and continue constantly whisking until thick. Stir in lemon zest and set aside momentarily to make the meringue.

In a small saucepan, whisk together the water, sugar and cornstarch to form a paste. Stir over low heat until thick. Set aside to cool briefly. In a clean metal or glass bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add vanilla and cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until stiff and glossy. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and then beat another 10 seconds.

To assemble, pour the lemon custard into the prepared crust. Scoop meringue filling onto the edges of the filling all along the rim to form a barrier. Make sure the meringue touches the filling and crust all the way around. Scoop the remaining meringue into the center of the pie and spread gently to cover. If you wish, use the back of a clean, dry spoon to "lick" the top of the meringue into cute little peaks.

Bake at 425 degrees fahrenheit for 18 minutes or until the top is golden and toasty. Allow to cool at room temperature and then refrigerate. The pie is best on the first two days, but is still delicious for about four-five days.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Creamy Spinach and Black Bean Enchiladas with Fire Roasted Green Chilies

These enchiladas are truly the most popular recipe I have ever shared. I regularly get text messages and comments saying, "Hey, I made those spinach enchiladas and they're amazing!" In my recent project to source local ingredients, I updated the recipe with jalapeno cheese curds and fire roasted green chilies. To make the original version, use a shredded Mexican cheese blend instead and add 1/2 a teaspoon of red chili flake to the filling.
Serves 4-6
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6-8 cups fresh spinach
1, 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
8 ounces jalapeño cheese
4 green chilies, charred, skins removed, roughly chopped 
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Enchilada Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon red chili flake
1 28 ounce can pureed tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon Ancho chili powder
Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste

1 package corn tortillas
½ cup cheddar and jack cheese blend

For Serving:
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
Sour cream

For the enchilada sauce, heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Cook the onions and garlic over medium heat until the onion is golden. Add the tomatoes and remaining seasonings. Allow to simmer over low heat while making the filling.

For the filling, heat the olive oil in a wide, deep skillet. Sauté the onions and garlic over medium heat until the onion is golden. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. Then add the black beans and cream cheese and stir until the cheese is melted. Add the jalapeño cheese, green chilies and cumin and stir until everything comes together. Remove from heat.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium-size baking dish ladle in enough enchilada sauce to cover the bottom. Fill each tortilla with about ¼ cup of filling and snuggle down into the dish. Spoon the remaining sauce over all of the enchiladas and top with shredded cheese. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes, testing the middle for doneness. Allow to rest before serving.

Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with sour cream.

Monday, March 7, 2011

DAY 7: Eat Local Project

After my seven days of eating closer to home, I have a new appreciation for local farmers and food artisans. The learning curve was steep. But I learned quickly (hunger will do that to you). And with every new farmer I met, new ingredient I discovered and new recipe I created, I felt my skill as a home chef grow and my palate expand to appreciate exciting new flavors.
Today I used up the last of my lemon, pecan & basil pesto with some fresh mint and one of my final few lemons. I tossed it all with pasta and artichoke hearts. A simple ending to an enlightening week.
If you want to try something similar, here are a few tips and resources:
Getting Started
-Start slowly. Pick one local ingredient to incorporate into your existing menu.
-For more of a challenge, visit a farmers market to create one entire meal from local sources.
-Visit a restaurant that features locally produced foods.
-Celebrate the seasons with new recipes featuring whatever is the flavor of the moment.
-Plant a garden, even if it’s just one potted herb growing in your kitchen window.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Day 6: Eat Local Project

I'm still relishing last night's almost entirely local dinner. I used to wonder how cookbook writers and food bloggers came up with new content. Sure, some of them recycle pasta recipes with only minor tweaks for each subsequent book (Tyler Florence, I'm talking about you.) But for other chefs, I think the inspiration comes with each new season. As one ingredient fades into cool sunsets and another rises with the heat of a scorching summer sun, new recipes are born. That's been my favorite part of this adventure exploring local foods, ditching the same old romaine with balsamic salad and spaghetti we have eaten weekly for the last 7 years.  Last night I reveled in the delicious newness of arugula salad with grapefruit and mint vinaigrette, tepary beans with spring onions and cilantro and locally-crafted tamales.

Arugula Salad with Grapefruit & Mint Vinaigrette
Serves four

6 cups arugula, loosely packed
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into rings
2 white grapefruits, peeled with a paring knife to remove pith then cut into segments

1/2 white grapefruit, juiced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 mint sprig, leaves only, minced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Whisk the vinaigrette ingredients together and drizzle over arugula and red onion in a medium mixing bowl. Toss to coat. Portion the salad onto individual plates and top with grapefruit segments.

Today my worry about my tomato seeds ever sprouting turned sharply to concern about how exactly we are going to consume the fruit of about two dozen tomato plants after they reach maturity. The seed catalog promised dozens of tomatoes per plant on the large varieties and as many as 100 on the cherry varieties. It's a good problem to have. I may finally have to face my fear of canning. Either that or my local friends may get that doorbell ditch tomato delivery. Watch out Anna, Hannah, Kim. I know where you live.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Day 5: Eat Local Project

The day I've been waiting for since I began this project dawned sunny and warm. The Central Phoenix farmer's market happens every Saturday morning and Wednesday evening and takes up a whole city block with local farmers, food artisans and various other vendors.

Although visiting the farmer's market with children sounds poetic, it's usually a disaster in my experience. Ideally I make a quick jaunt around the market to get a general feel for what's available and then ponder how these foods could be put together for a tasty dinner. With a preschooler in tow, all of my creative energy is diverted to yelling, "No, don't feed that dog your cookie!" or "Please don't sample the coffee!" But today I went alone, blissfully alone.

I met several farmers. Casey and Melissa from Maya's Farm helped me select some native dried Tepary beans and complementary savory spring onions and cilantro. I also snagged a bunch of edible flowers from Maya's. At the Mountgrove Arcadia farm stand I sampled some amazing white grapefruit and bought five for a $1. For a salad I purchased a huge bunch of arugula for $2 from some beautiful Somali women. Through an organization called the International Rescue Committee and its New Roots Farm Program, local Somali Bantu farmers can support themselves through farming. Last year, Michelle Obama toured a New Roots farm in San Diego and praised it as a model for the nation and the world. Who knew that supporting local farmers could be so delicious and inexpensive?

For the main course I purchased half a dozen tamales from The Tamale Store, which was voted best tamale's in the Valley by a local paper. I bought green corn and cream cheese; roasted pepper, mushroom and jack cheese; and chicken with green chile. When I asked the man selling them if the ingredients were grown locally, he said "I sure hope so." Not very reassuring. But at the end of the day, by feeding my family, I'm helping this guy feed his. So even if a Sysco truck delivers the masa harina to his restaurant each week, I feel better about it than I would padding the pockets of chain restaurant stockholders.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Day 4: Eat Local Project

With our orange tree still drooping with fruit and about a dozen lemons remaining on the dining room table, I moved on to perhaps the most obvious answer to the phrase, "When life gives you lemons." I made lemonade.

My friend Crystal spent two years living in Honduras and learned to make limeade from the Honduran women who chopped up whole limes and blended them with simple syrup and water. For my version, I chopped up about four oranges and two lemons and blended them with about 1 cup of simple syrup and a handful of the fresh spearmint I have growing in my window box. I strained the mixture to make about 1 1/4 cups of juice which I cut with sparkling water to make about four small servings. Blending the whole fruit releases oils from the thick citrus skin yielding a more complex, almost bitter taste. If I were not enormously pregnant right now, I would have made margaritas with the juice. I'm trying not to imagine how amazingly delicious it would have been. But seriously, try it.

This afternoon we visited Queen Creek Olive Mill, which is located about 45 minutes southeast of Phoenix. They grow, harvest and mill olives from about 2,000 trees. They also serve dinner from food grown onsite and from farms nearby. We sat under a grove of olive trees while listening to a live jazz band. For dinner, I enjoyed fresh mixed greens with white balsamic vinaigrette and lemon chicken with capers and cheese layered between fresh pasta. If not for an overtired little boy, the evening would have been perfect.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Day 3: Eat Local Project

I've heard the argument recently that purchasing foods from around the globe supports developing economies and is therefore acceptable, even virtuous. It sounds almost plausible. However while working as a journalist in Portland, I covered the city's move to avoid purchasing any goods produced using sweat shop labor. During a rally in support of this decision, I met a woman named Beatriz who worked for Dole in South America. She recounted the familiar tale of long hours for negligible pay echoed from sweat shop and farm workers around the globe. The workers could have improved working conditions by forming a union, but Dole, like other industrial agriculture companies, worked overtime themselves to prevent that from happening.

So what does this mean for you and me? Cheap bananas. Cheap lettuce. Cheap food. When we realize that the inexpensive food we eat comes at great cost to not only the environment but also real people, like Beatriz, it leaves a pretty bitter aftertaste.

Today I ate mostly leftovers--green chile enchiladas, vegan pecan pie cookies and some of the lemon curd stirred into yogurt--while I chewed on the realities of industrial agriculture.

To read the original article, visit:

When Elizabeth Gives You Lemons, continued

Luscious Lemon Curd
I adapted this from Nigella Lawson’s recipe for lime curd in her beautiful book “How to Be a Domestic Goddess,” which has been a staple in my kitchen for the past several years.
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup sugar
Zest of one lemon
3 eggs
Melt the butter over medium-low heat. In a separate dish, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon juice and zest.  Before pouring the egg mixture into the butter, ensure the butter is not scalding hot or you’ll scramble the eggs. Pour the egg mixture in and whisk over medium-low heat until it forms a custard. It should begin to thicken within five minutes. If not, increase the heat slightly. As soon as your custard has formed, remove from heat and continue whisking for a minute so that the residual heat from the pan doesn’t overcook the curd.
Cool in a glass bowl with plastic wrap covering the surface of the curd to prevent a skin from forming.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

DAY 2: Eat Local Project

I feel like a contestant on one of those reality cooking shows in which they open a basket full of miscellaneous ingredients and must cook an appetizer, entree and dessert. For me it's not a basket that I'm opening but my front door to discover what's in season here in the valley of the sun.

This morning Brad and I wandered into the backyard to plant the bell pepper and sugar snap pea plants I've had sitting on the kitchen counter for a week now. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the growing seasons here. While the rest of the country is digging out of the snow, we're enjoying balmy 70 degree days while we pick oranges and work on our tans. Don't hate me. We pay a hefty price for this heaven come July. But as far as gardening goes, it's past time to plant around here. So in went the peppers and peas. My tomato and basil seedlings have a couple weeks before they're mature enough to plant outdoors, but it doesn't get any more local than growing your own food.

Brad analyzing the earthworms I uncovered while planting.

Today Brad asked if he could eat the plants. Therein lies the rub with gardening. Just because you plant something in the ground doesn't mean you get to eat it. Weather turns sour. Crops fail. Hailstorms come. That's something we don't really think about under the fluorescent lights of the mega mart. Food just appears. It doesn't seem to have any connection to the ground or the seasons. My project, steep as the learning curve may be, is already impressing on me a sense of gratitude for whole foods. I never thought about being grateful for plants. Animals, sure, they give up their life for me to eat. But for plants? That mindset is changing.

After gardening, I stared down the remaining 15 lemons languishing in a decorative bowl on my dining room table. Pesto would not do. We needed some lemon annihilation. So I made gluten-free lemon scones and fresh lemon curd. It is to die for. Even tonight when I had guests over, I couldn't help but invite the ladies helping me with dishes to dig into the fridge for a bite.

As I finished up the scones, Rich came home quite fortuitously with a bag of fresh fire roasted green chilies one of his coworkers brought back from New Mexico. Suddenly a wave of inspiration hit and I created what must be the most fantastic dish of enchiladas I have ever had. I used the local jalapeno cheese and corn tortillas I bought yesterday and spiced up my existing creamy spinach and black bean enchiladas. Although many of the ingredients came from outside the Southwest, this isn't a religion. It's food. It's not about being perfect. It's about connecting with people around life giving foods and supporting the people, plants and animals that make that food possible.

Lucky Baby Bok Choy Soup

1 batch vegetable broth (recipe below)
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
3 heads baby bok choy, roughly chopped
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 lime, juiced
1 block tofu, drained, pressed and cubed
1 pound shrimp, shells reservered
4 ounces thin rice noodles
4 eggs, whisked
1/2 cup peanuts, roughly chopped
1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

Baby bok choy is the veal of the vegetable garden, soft, tender and ripped from the ground in the prime of its youth. But you're welcome to use regular bok choy is you wish. Simply add it about four minutes before you add the mushrooms in the last step.

Heat the vegetable broth in a large stockpot with the garlic, ginger and the shrimp shells. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, then strain to remove the shells.

While the stock is coming together, pour boiling water over the rice noodles and allow to soften for five minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a saute pan over medium heat and fry the eggs until cooked through. It should resemble a thick crepe. Remove to a cutting board and cut into ribbons when cool.

Return the stock to a simmer and add the fish sauce, lime juice, bok choy, mushrooms and tofu. Simmer for two minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper then add the shrimp. When the shrimp is pink, remove from heat.

Divide rice noodles among four bowls. Ladle soup over the noodles and garnish with egg strips, peanuts and cilantro.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

DAY 1: Eat Local Project

For the next week I'm researching for an article I'm writing on eating seasonal food grown close to home.
I can think of better times to start an experiment like this than when I’m seven months pregnant, avoiding gluten, and cooking mostly vegetarian for my husband. To make matters worse, little more than citrus, nuts and mixed greens grow locally at this time of year. It’s 6:25PM and I still don’t know what I’m serving for dinner.
I did enjoy one moment of success this morning. Brad and I whipped up some quick raw, vegan cookies from the great raw chef, Ani Phyo's dessert book. We combined local pecans, orange juice--from the oranges growing in our front yard--and dates with cinnamon (not local, thank you Trader Joes) for some delicious and healthy cookies. They sustained us while trekking downtown with the jog stroller and our friends Hannah and her little ones.
In the city we visited the local public market which claims to offer local, seasonal produce. A shelf full of bananas should have been my first clue that we didn’t share the same definition of “local.” But I wandered through the store determined to eat as close to home and as close to the season as possible. I picked up a package of corn tortillas and jalepeno cheese, both from local purveyors, and figured I could make some version of enchiladas or fajitas. This is the Southwest after all. Sadly, my search for a tomato, avocado and bell peppers drove me far from home all the way to California and then Mexico.
I have some office work to do until later this evening, but after that I’m heading to the grocery store to buy something to eat, whether it comes from down the street or Chile. At the end of the day, I feel like a failure. A hungry failure. And we still need coffee for tomorrow morning, which I’m confident doesn’t grow in the mountains of Flagstaff.

When Elizabeth Gives You Lemons...

...and Christy gives you pecans, you make Lemon, Pecan & Basil Pesto. I meet weekly with a beautiful group of women who strive to live off the grid, save money and share resources of time and expertise. We undertake projects together, my favorite of which involve food. Last week we shelled about a dozen pounds of fresh pecans Christy picked from a local farm. The same day Elizabeth brought me about 50 lemons from her backyard lemon tree.

I juiced and zested a third of the bunch, tossing the zest into a freezer bag and filling ice cube trays with the juice. But as I stared at another several dozen lemons, I knew I needed to get creative. Nothing makes me feel more womanly than a little black dress and high heels. Second to that, "putting up" food fulfills that part of me that desires to be creative and nurture the people I love. So I put up some of the most delicious lemon, pecan and basil pesto. Enjoy!

1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup raw pecans, finely chopped
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
3/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put all of the ingredients in a high-speed blender and puree until smooth. Refrigerate and use the pesto within a few days or freeze in individual ice cube trays then transfer to a freezer bag. To thaw, place pesto cubes in a bowl and microwave on high for about 30 seconds. Yields about 1 1/2 cups pesto.

My favorite uses for this pesto include spreading it on pizza crust, tossing it with pasta and artichoke hearts, and spreading it on chicken before grilling.