Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Zucchini Stuffed with Roasted Red Peppers and Feta Cheese

(That recipe name is a mouthful, isn't it? Try as I might, I couldn't make it any more concise without using a lot of hyphenation, and the result was less than euphonious.)

Have you ever misplaced a favourite recipe and tried to recreate it from memory? That's what happened here. I clipped this recipe (or a near approximation of it) out of a supermarket flier some years ago. Now that it's summer, and we're swimming in donated zucchini and blessedly cheap red peppers, I tried to hunt it up but without success. (It had disappeared into recipe limbo, which I think must be right next door to sock limbo. Isn't there some philosophical/scientific law which states that nothing ever disappears, it just changes form? If philosophers did more housework, they might re-think that postulate. But I digress.) So I set about re-inventing the wheel. Luckily the ingredients and steps were few.

Here's what I used to serve 2 people:

2 medium zucchini, about 7-8" long (it's even better with summer squash)
1 red bell pepper, roasted and diced
Feta cheese* - about 2 ounces
Freshly ground black pepper
Thyme - fresh is best, but dried will do in a pinch (herb pun!)
Olive oil - optional

*Next time I'll use fresh goat cheese. The supermarket feta I bought was just a tad rubbery. If you have a reliable brand of feta, go ahead and use that.

Wash zucchini and slice off the ends. Slice lengthwise, and steam for 5-7 minutes or until just beginning to be tender.

Drain and cool slightly. Heat oven to 400┬║.

While the zucchini is cooling, chop roasted pepper. Crumble enough feta cheese to equal the volume of chopped pepper. Dust liberally with freshly ground black pepper and sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of fresh thyme (if using dried, just half the amount will do).

Gently toss the pepper and cheese together to blend.

Scoop out a cavity the length of each zucchini half using a melon baller, spring-loaded scoop, or rounded spoon. (Save the scoopings for something else, or eat them if you like. Cook's privilege.)

Place the zucchini in a small shallow baking pan. Fill evenly with pepper-cheese mixture. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over, if desired (I don't think it makes much difference either way).

Bake for 15 minutes or until feta just starts to brown. Serve warm with whatever takes your fancy. (We had quinoa salad.) May be eaten with knife and fork, or if you're feeling casual and devil-may-care, with the fingers. Just keep it over the plate!

P.S. The original recipe called for slicing the zucchini crossways and hollowing out a little dip in each piece, to be filled with the pepper-cheese mixture and eaten as an appetizer. Too time-consuming for me.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Oven-Roasted Bell Peppers

Every time I roast a bell pepper, I wonder why I don't do it more often. The slight smoky flavour and intensified sweetness are more than worth the tiny bit of work involved.

Those of you who are lucky enough to have a gas stove can roast peppers quickly and easily over the flame. I am not one of your fortunate number - our stove is electric. (I've tried using the coils, but it's not the same.)

So I roast my peppers under the broiler instead. To speed up the process, and save me the bother of turning the pepper as it broils, I butterfly the pepper first. Here's how to do it:

Turn oven to broil setting. Put the rack as high as it will go.

Core your pepper, slice it in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds and ribs. Place the pieces in a flat shallow baking pan.

Make a series of slashes all the way across the curved ends, 1/4" - 1/2" apart, straight down to the flat part of the pepper (this is a trick borrowed from sewing - it's a way to make curved pieces lie flat). Don't forget to do both ends of each piece.

Turn the halves over, and gently flatten. It's okay if a few bits break off.

Broil for about 10 minutes, or until evenly blackened. Start checking the pepper after 5 minutes. (Look like something out of a horror movie, don't they?)

Remove from oven and cover with bowl or pot lid until cool.

Now comes the fun part. The skin should peel right off. Try to get all the bits and pieces.

If you like, you can rinse the pepper during or after peeling. (I rinsed, just to see if it made any difference. It didn't make the skin come off any easier, but it did make the pepper drippy.)

And there you are - roasted pepper. All clean and ready to slice, dice, and enjoy.

In another post, I'll show you what I did with this particular pepper. Hint: it involves zucchini.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Three Great Things About This Morning's Ride, with a Few Pictures

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Clouds like brushstrokes across the morning sky
Pagodas of goldenrod rising from the verge
Leathery oak leaves shining in the sun

And, if I were to add a fourth, it would be:

Thoughts of a friend on a mountain far away

(While I was riding this morning, and as I write these words now, Snowcatcher is climbing Pikes' Peak in Colorado, a 14,000+ foot mountain ride she's been training for all year. I admire her courage and determination more than I can say, and I wish her the best ride of her life. Good luck, Deb!)

My time is limited, and I will add pictures tonight if I can. Must fly!

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Back again. First, something I learned this morning: For the most picturesque ride, leave your camera at home. Second only to this is bringing your camera along, but not having time to stop for pictures.

This was my case today. We were due at my sister's to see some out-of-town relatives here on a flying visit: a very dear niece, two small adorable great-nieces, and my new great-nephew who is very small indeed. My riding time was limited, and I told myself sternly I would only take pictures on the fly.

Needless to say I saw many wonderful things that tempted me to stop and shoot - more things than I had time to capture. (I never realized until today how addicted I'd become to taking pictures on my Sunday rides.)

It was a beautiful morning, with a strong cool wind out of the north. I had to stop and snap this grapevine-covered windmill:

No more stops! I told myself. If you can't shoot it while riding, don't shoot it at all. So on I rode, past marshes garlanded with cattails and purple loosestrife, a large wild turkey crossing an open field, clumps of Queen Anne's Lace, weeping willows over a stream, hosts of goldenrod in bloom, and many other lovely sights.

My favourite bend in the road:

It's interesting to note how much the trees have filled out since pictures of the same spot taken in early spring.

Wide blue skies and delicate brush-stroked clouds over a field of green clover:

And a few miles further on ... wild chicory! I love wild chicory for its elusive, delicate lavender-blue flowers. In the afternoons, when I usually ride, the chicory has already closed up for the day. I'll admit I stopped to take this picture.

I passed a large group of wild turkeys in a field, but couldn't get any good shots of them. Par for the course today!

One last attempt to capture the feathery clouds in the sky before I head home.

A good ride, though short and somewhat frustrating photographically.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wings of Hope

Today was a stressful day. We'd heard that my mom is being unexpectedly released from the nursing home tomorrow morning, although by all accounts she's not ready. My dad is rushing around like mad trying to prepare for her return, exhausting himself in the process. Those of us who would like to be involved are far away, unable to do much more than call. The very few family members who are close enough to do anything are overcommitted to other endeavours, and less than enthusiastic when it comes to helping out.

In desperation I sent a message to the sister of a friend, someone I knew slightly when I lived in California. I had heard she offered in-home care to the elderly, and wanted to know if she were available and if so what were her terms. (My father had finally admitted he needed some help.)

I went to the grocery store under a cloud of woe. On my return, a bright red dragonfly zoomed up behind me and landed on the columbine bush next to our front steps. "As usual, I don't have my camera when I really want it," was my Eeyore-like thought.

I climbed the steps, and he didn't move. I went in, got my camera, came back out, and there he was still, just waiting to have his picture taken. He posed most obligingly for several minutes whilst I shot him from every conceivable angle.

He showed me his stealth mode...

And let me get right up in his face for a close-up. Don't his wings look like delicate stained glass?

When he felt I had enough shots, he zoomed off again.

I went inside to find a message on the answering machine from my friend's sister. "I got your message, Sue. I just finished up a job and was really praying for something new to come along. I'd love to help out with your parents. I'll clean, vacuum, cook, take care of your mom; anything they need done. When do they want me to start?"

Thank you, God, for bright red bugs with beautiful wings. For friendly human voices, and willing human hands, I am grateful.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Hey Pesto!

There's a jar of liquid gold in the fridge. (Actually it's green, but I value it very highly.)

My basil has been growing like gangbusters this summer - I gave it a sunnier spot in the planter and it's rewarding me with bountiful bunches of anise-scented deliciousness. I have invested heavily in foreign oil (olive, not crude) and Parmesan cheese, and am now happily wallowing in pesto.

The king of herbs

(If you're a pesto purist, you might want to stop reading here.) Up till now I've been making small batches using the immersion blender, which creates a very dense, smooth sauce. (I know, I know, a mortar and pestle are better, but my bursitis-y elbow takes exception to that process).

For my latest batch I decided to try the regular blender. Having a hazy idea that liquids should go in first, I started by pulverizing the olive oil, grated cheese, salt, garlic and walnuts...

...then stuffed in the basil leaves and let 'er rip, taking the lid off every now and then to scrape the sides and encourage the basil down towards the blade.

It yielded a pleasantly chunky sauce, oozing with antioxidants and flavour. (The level of emulsification wasn't perfect, but that doesn't bother me. A bit of oil rising to the top helps keep it green.)

Next time I'll start with half the oil, put in all the ingredients at once, then slowly add the other half of the oil after the initial blending. That should do the trick.

Hey pesto!

Our scrambled eggs certainly don't have any complaints.

P.S. If you'd like to try making some pesto of your own, there are plenty of good recipes out there on the Internet. I don't follow a recipe, but I do start with these proportions:

1 part olive oil : 2 parts grated fresh Parmesan : 4 parts fresh basil leaves, packed
(Extra oil may be added as needed)
Fresh garlic, walnuts, and salt to taste

To use the ratio method, measure your basil and work backwards from there to determine how much cheese and olive oil you need. And if your budget allows, splurge on a bit of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for authentic Italian flavour.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jade and Pearls for Judy's Friend

Beading season has returned - another sign that summer is on the wane. Time to start work on the next batch of jewelry projects for my friend Judy, whose family and friends all seem to have bead-requiring birthdays in fall or early spring. (They get necklaces for Christmas too.)

This project was a sort of secondhand commission. A friend of Judy's picked up some lovely jade beads while visiting the Southwest. Not knowing what to do with them, she consulted Judy, who did not rest until she brought us all together for a design powwow. She invited us both to her house, looked at the jade, suggested some pearls for contrast, and, being the soul of generosity, donated the pearls, vintage spacer beads, and stringing materials from her own stash. She also talked the friend into having earrings to match the necklace. (Judy's a very determined lady where jewelry is concerned.)

The style is very understated and classic-looking, in accordance with the friend's desires. Judy has an excellent eye for colour and form, and the pearls she suggested are the perfect foil for the rich mossy green of the jade (which colour was very hard to capture with the camera).

I hope Judy's friend will enjoy the finished set.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Simple Pleasures: Homemade Pizza

A round of pizza dough is to the cook what blank canvas is to the artist. For me, half the fun of homemade pizza consists in the marvellous colour combinations that result from the considered application of vegetables, herbs, and cheese (and sometimes meat). Here are two we enjoyed last Saturday night.

Red, white and green, recalling the Italian flag:

Pizza Margherita, with fresh tomato, basil
and Mozzarella over an olive-oil-brushed crust.

Cheerful purple, yellow and green:

Locavore's Delight, with fresh local zucchini, garlic, yellow pepper,
and red onion (which looks purple to me).
Parsley, rosemary and thyme from our own pots.
A bit of cream sauce under it all, and fresh Mozzarella on top.

If half the fun of pizza is topping it, the other half is eating it. We were lucky to come across some fresh Mozzarella on sale at a Madison grocery store last week ($2 a pound!). Very different from typical storebought Mozz, the fresh version adds an extra dimension of creamy lusciousness.

Another slice, please.

Make that two.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Partly Cloudy Ride With Pictures and the Three Great Things

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Faded old barns full of yesterdays
Shimmering cry of a hawk overhead
Long-legged pines reaching up to the sky

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Another postcard day today. The sun was quite warm, but when a cloud got in the way, the air temperature dropped noticeably.

Just had to take this picture on my way out of town.  Look at that blue sky.

A few miles out, I pass this empty barn. It's sad to see old farm buildings falling down, but I have to admit they're picturesque.

There are at least a dozen birds swooping and criss-crossing over this stream (although they don't show up very well in the photo). Looking for a snack, perhaps?

These trees never recovered from the 2008 tornado, but I think they look striking against that sky.

Around the corner and down a mile, and what do I spy in someone's yard? It's WAY too soon for this! Must be some kind of mutant tree. Or a very stressed one.

The zoom on my little digital cam was working well today. This wind turbine is at least 2 miles off (a mere speck on the horizon to my eyes) - the far-flung outpost of a wind farm going up in our county.

Around the next corner, a large shadow sweeps over me - a hawk swooping down out of the trees to my right. Its cry rings out just above my head. (An eerie sound, reminding me of the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings.) And of course my camera is in my back pocket.

Utility pole on steroids - or pylon, to my friends across the pond. (I never used to take pictures of these - must be Anne's influence. Check out her beautiful cycling pictures here.)

This has been an amazing year for Queen Anne's Lace. Here's one blossom head that's retiring for the summer. (Click to enlarge, and you'll see it holding little green hands to its face in horror at the thought of approaching autumn).

A spacious view. I love the green of the clover and those puffy little clouds floating in the deep, deep blue of the sky.

Now here's an old silo I never noticed before, although I've ridden down this road dozens of times. There are no houses nearby - just a crumbling barn foundation and a tumbledown, grapevine-covered shed. Once there was a farm here, and this is all that's left.

Miles later, in a small town, a rustic bridge on the far side of a marsh.

The clouds have rolled in. Suddenly the fields look a lot less green! But I can't resist taking a picture of these round bales. They remind me a bit of Shredded Wheat.

Although many of the thistles have gone to seed, I pass a thriving patch, mingling with heliopsis and these as-yet-unidentified but ubiquitous little white blossoms. I love this colour combination.

Wait a minute. Have I strayed into last week's post? No, I just got lucky again - a freshly gravelled road with a hill ahead (but only a small hill this time). They say that Wisconsin has only two seasons: winter and road construction. I'll give you one guess which season we're in now.

Around the corner and down a road I usually travel only once a year, these very tall pine trees reach for the sky. I'm on my way to check out some shorter ones...

...and here they are. This is the Christmas tree farm where we get our tree every year. The place is almost unrecognizable in summer. I'll be back here four months from now, trudging around in the snow, looking for the perfect tree.

Just a few miles from home now. As you can see, the sun has come back out. I turn into our driveway, and there it is, blazing forth from behind the last of the clouds.

Even the picture is almost too bright to look at!

A beautiful day and a very pleasant ride.

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