• Simple Garden Recipes: Ratatouille

    Ratatouille, an easy version.

    Sometimes we think ratatouille is French for “quick summer vegetable hash”. (It isn’t, but that pretty much describes it). Typical of rustic French cooking, ratatouille combines a number of somewhat basic ingredients and makes them into more than the sum of their parts. For this dish the “parts” are eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, olives, olive oil and seasoning. And since gardens and farmers markets are brimming with all of those ingredients in late summer, ratatouille is a good way to use up some of the stuff (particularly the less attractive specimens).

    Straight from the summer garden…

    While the list of ingredients for ratatouille is pretty standard, the method for preparing the dish is anything but standard. Some recipes suggest cooking all the vegetables separately and then combining at the end. Some recipes suggest a layered approach. Some bake, some saute’, some simmer. But since we like “simple” garden recipes, we use an adapted Jacques Pepin recipe (all of his recipes work) that simmers all the veggies together in the same pot and serves the ratatouille over pasta or rice. This is a very quick and tasty version of ratatouille that makes up for slightly less defined textures with ease of cooking.

    And this is an easy dish to make. Chop vegetables, mix everything in a pot, simmer for 30 minutes, cool and serve. But there are a few tips and choices that will make the most of the dish. Japanese eggplant will work better, as they are firmer and have fewer seeds. Sweet red peppers round out the flavors more than green peppers. And fresh tomatoes, when in season, with a touch of purée make for brighter flavor than canned tomatoes (but canned are fine). A few briny black olives added at the end balance the sweet flavors. And simple seasoning is often best. We love fresh herbs in our cooking but suggest just a touch of herbs like thyme or marjoram. A little fresh basil at the end adds a lovely aroma. Continue reading

  • Weekly Cocktail #27: The Junior (and the Frisco Sour)

    The Junior Cocktail

    With the labor day weekend coming up we decided to give you an extra cocktail…. In reality, the Junior and the Frisco Sour are both great drinks but serve to illustrate just how different you can make a cocktail by just changing a key ingredient. In this case, both the Junior and Frisco Sour include rye whiskey and Benedictine, but the Junior includes lime juice and a dash of bitters while the Frisco Sour includes the more traditional lemon juice.

    And we say “more traditional” because most citrus drinks that include whiskey or cognac use lemon juice. Meanwhile, most gin and tequila cocktails include lime juice. (Rum plays well with anything and everything, it seems). But rules or traditions are meant to be broken, particularly in the world of food and spirits- so it is fun to play with aberrations like the Junior. And the Junior is a good cocktail. The spice of the rye goes well with the sour lime and herbal flavors of the Benedictine and bitters. But it is a tart sip- we like it, some may not. If you like a smoother and sweeter cocktail, the Frisco Sour with its lemon juice and no bitters might be the best choice. Basically, the Frisco Sour is a more complex (and much better IMHO) version of the Whiskey Sour. But since its pretty easy to make both of these cocktails, try them and decide for yourself.

    As for the spirits in these cocktails, any good rye whiskey will do. Both Bulleit and Rittenhouse are good and inexpensive rye. We also like the High West rye and Redemption, but they are a bit of a step-up in price. And as our exploration of rye continues, we very much recommend it as a key spirit in any home bar. From Scofflaws to Manhattans, we think rye makes great cocktails. And there is no real substitute for Benedictine, but since we already have some for Lani-Honis (very similar to a Frisco Sour, btw) we like to use it. But Benedictine is a good classic cocktail ingredient, and a little goes a long way- so worth seeking out.

    As for the names and provenance of both drinks, their origins are lost to history. But as any long time Bay Area resident can tell you, nobody says “Frisco” to describe San Francisco, but maybe they did 100 years ago, who knows? Regardless, there is a good New York Times article on the Frisco Sour here that describes how murky cocktail recipes and history can be. Unfortunately, there is even less information on the Junior cocktail out there. Even cocktail historian David Wondrich has little to offer other than saying the Junior is a tasty, if somewhat off-beat drink. But, in the end, a tasty drink is more than enough for us.

    The Junior Cocktail:

    Ingredients:

    • 2 oz. rye whiskey
    • 1/2 oz. lime juice
    • 1/2 oz. Benedictine
    • 1 dash Angostura bitters

    Assemble:

    1. Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake thoroughly and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, flute or coupé. Serve.

    —–

    The Frisco Sour Cocktail:

    Ingredients:

    • 2 oz. rye whiskey
    • 1/2 oz. lemon juice
    • 1/2 oz. Benedictine

    Assemble:

    1. Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake thoroughly and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, flute or coupé. Serve.
  • Back to the Roses

    While summer is winding down across much of the country, northern California often has a second or “Indian” summer in September and October. For many of the microclimates in the Bay Area, Indian summer offers better weather than our “real” summer. This time of year, the fog will roll back some, the wind slacken and sometimes go offshore and things will heat up. On the farm this means tomatoes through September, another crop of strawberries and more roses. We don’t know if we will have Indian Summer this year (it was already a good summer, no need to be greedy). But a new bloom of roses is here, so we may as well share.

    The bees drinking from the bird bath. A popular spot for the bees and the only place other than near the hive where they get a bit ornery.

  • Bonus Cocktail: Reagan Meets Gorbachev

    Reagan Meets Gorbachev cocktail.

    NOTE: Sorry for the strange name, we will explain more below. But please read on, this cocktail is basically a Mint Julep variant that combines bourbon, vodka, simple syrup, mint and crowberry liqueur (substitute blackberry liqueur or crème de Cassis).

    Meanwhile, one of the unexpected (but positive) surprises of cocktail blogging is our friends’ willingness to bring us fun, and sometimes rare, spirits to play with. Booze is always welcome here at the farm. And last week Carolyn’s Dad, and my good friend, Bill brought us two liqueurs from Reykjavík Distillery in Reykjavík Iceland (thanks Bill!). The first liqueur was a very tasty blueberry cordial. But the second was a crowberry liqueur, and we had never heard of crowberries. So we decided almost immediately that a crowberry cocktail was in order. Challenges are good, it means we get to experiment.

    East-meets-west ingredients…

    And after a few minutes of internet research we had at least some information on crowberries. Crowberries are the fruit of a dwarf evergreen shrub found in temperate and sub-arctic regions- basically they grow where it gets cold. Not surprisingly, they are a common food of the Sami in Finland and are also widely found in Iceland. Crowberries have lots of vitamin C and antioxidants, but are often lightly flavored. Their flavor is often described as watery blueberry with some tannic or black currant notes. But while the fresh fruit might be watery, fermentation and distillation concentrate flavors. So we were hopeful the liqueur would be tasty.

    A little fun with antique julep cups…

    Happily, the crowberry liqueur is quite good and tastes somewhat like a sweet mix of blueberries, blackberries and a little currant. So now that we had a good flavor to work with, we needed the cocktail. And since the liqueur is from Reykjavík, we wanted a theme based on the city. But the only thing we know about Reykjavík is that it was the location of the 1980′s meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev where they negotiated some of the IBT, but got hung up on SDI and the delayed approval of SALT II and then zzzzzzzzzzzz….. Let’s just say it was where Reagan and Gorbachev realized that both sides were open to broad concessions and they developed a personal relationship. This led to some good things; Soviet collapse, walls coming down, Maseratis in Moscow, etc….

    Adding dark fruit liqueur to Mint Juleps is a winner. The vodka helps the fruit show in the drink.

    As for the cocktail, we wanted to include both American and Russian spirits with the crowberry liqueur. Bourbon and vodka were the obvious choices. And as for the julep variant, there are many good blackberry juleps out there, so using crowberries isn’t a stretch. The vodka is not only Russian, but it lightens the bourbon without diluting the alcohol and helps the mint and crowberries shine through. Sometimes we think the bourbon overwhelms in Mint Juleps, but the vodka brings a sense of, ummm…detente (ugh, eye-roll).

    Overall this is a lighter, fruitier version of a Mint Julep that still has plenty of flavor. And you can substitute any dark fruit liqueur for the crowberry. So while we don’t expect many people to have crowberry liqueur, give this version of the Mint Julep a try, it may lead to good things.

    Reagan Meets Gorbachev:

    Ingredients:

    • 1 oz. bourbon
    • 1 oz. vodka
    • 1/2 oz. crowberry liqueur (or substitute dark fruit liqueur like blackberry or crème de Cassis)
    • 1/3 oz. Demerara or simple syrup
    • 6 mint leaves
    • Sprig of mint, for garnish
    • Crushed ice

    Assemble:

    1. Place the mint and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker and lightly muddle. Then add the bourbon, vodka, crowberry liqueur and ice to the shaker. Shake thoroughly and strain into a lowball glass or Julep cup filled with crushed ice.
    2. Stir and top with extra crushed ice, if needed. Garnish with the mint sprig. Serve.
  • Simple Garden Recipes: Maricela’s Oven-Roasted Tomato Salsa

    Maricela’s Oven-Roasted Tomato Salsa

    As we often mention in our blog, the garden dictates much of what we cook this time of year. And since we have sweet tomatoes and spicy Serrano peppers, it’s time to make salsa. But not just any salsa. We asked our friend and awesome Mexican cook (see her Posole recipe here) Maricela join us to share one of her salsa recipes. And while Maricela has a number of tasty salsas, with our tomatoes so ripe and sweet, she chose this version of oven-roasted tomato salsa.

    Just a few ingredients. Quality and technique matter.

    Roast your tomatoes, peppers and garlic.

    The salsa itself has only 6 ingredients; tomatoes, garlic, peppers, onion, salt and a dash of water. But the right in-season ingredients, matched with a few key techniques and a little time, makes for a lovely sweet, bright and slightly hot salsa that you can use on just about any dish (probably not ice cream, but you get the idea). The only “special” equipment you need is a blender or food processor. And as this salsa is briefly cooked, it keeps for a while too.

    Remove the peppers and garlic halfway through the roast.

    Fully-roasted tomatoes. Note the syrup and caramelized bits- they need to go into the salsa.

    Making the salsa is easy, but as we mentioned earlier, a few techniques matter. Firstly, you clean and core your tomatoes and roast in a very hot oven with the garlic and peppers (your kitchen will smell amazing). But a key is to remove the peppers and garlic halfway through the roast so they don’t burn and crate acrid flavors. Also, when the tomatoes are done, remove one tomato and put it in the blender with the peppers and garlic (add a splash of water if too dry)to create a very fine purée before adding the other tomatoes. This ensures that you don’t get rough chunks of garlic or peppers and their flavor is evenly distributed in the salsa. Then you add and purée all the tomatoes, but be sure to scrape all the caramelized liquid and brown bits from the baking sheet into the blender- this is where the extra sweetness comes from. And this extra sweetness is the perfect balance for the heat of the peppers. Finally, add your finely diced onion (see the photos and notes for Maricela’s technique) for extra bright and fresh flavors after you briefly reduce and cool the tomato mixture. None of these steps takes much extra time, but the attention to detail makes a world of difference.

    For a fine dice, make multiple top-town cuts in the onion….

    …then shave the fine dice from the onion for maximum flavor. Continue reading

  • Gravenstein Apple Harvest(s)

    Ripe Gravenstein apple.

    Ripe Gravensteins in the tree.

    Amidst our flurry of activity in the garden from the tomatoes, eggplant, beans, peppers and melons, we suddenly noticed that our Gravenstein apples were ready for harvest. And while we say “ready for harvest” for the Gravensteins, that is a relative term, as the Gravenstein is a “variable harvest” apple. This means, basically, that the apples ripen unevenly, usually over a 2-8 week span. This is good for home use, as we get apples over a month or so, but this is both a blessing and a curse for this excellent variety of apple.

    Apple picker, in action.

    The apple picker, these are very useful tools.

    And the Gravenstein is a very tasty apple, more on the tart side, but certainly sweet enough to eat out of hand, the Gravenstein is an excellent apple for applesauce, cider and pies. In our house we eat them out of hand and primarily make applesauce, the kids (and even the adults) love it. But we will make a few desserts and cocktails with the apples, as well. And none of the apples go to waste, the overripe apples go over the fence to the deer and the any others we don’t use to a nearby horse barn for treats. The horses, apple aficionados that they are, are big fans of the Gravensteins.

    Note the variation in color and ripeness. Good for home use, bad for commercial farming.

    The Gravenstein apple is a native of Denmark (it’s the “national apple”), but is most associated with Sonoma County in northern California. In the 20th century Sonoma teemed with Gravenstein apple trees, and many American soldiers ate applesauce from those trees. But the delicate (they don’t travel well) and variable nature of the Gravenstein led farmers to move to other varieties of apple, and even more so, grapes. Now the Gravenstein is more of a local symbol than a viable crop and many fear it will disappear from commercial production . There is a great New York Times article on the subject here.

    But what makes for a poor commercial crop often makes for good home use, and in a small setting the Gravenstein is an excellent apple. While there are a few days where we will harvest a majority of the apples, many remain on the tree for weeks, ready for picking and eating. In some ways the Gravenstein stores its fruit for you on the tree. And there are few better ways to slow your pulse than to walk up to an apple tree, pick an apple and just take a bite. So while there are limited commercial opportunities for the Gravenstein, we think it will thrive in back yards for as long as people like apples.

    Colors that look like they are painted on to the apple.

    Continue reading