simple summer food

The best of the summer needs little dressing to make extraordinary meals – the sweetness of corn, the tang of tomatoes, and the smooth softness of fresh mozzarella or ricotta cheese pairs perfectly with a whole grain and sings once kissed with a bit of olive oil, salt & pepper.

I hope that you are enjoying the local bounty of the season and savoring the sweetness of what the fields are offering now.

Local lemons

That’s right – local lemons. In Maryland in December. You see, my thoughtful husband gave me a wonderful Mother’s Day gift way back in May that has been quietly growing and producing lovely dainty fruits for months.  We kept an eye on it, watered it, and left it to breathe in fresh air in the bright sunshine.  Then we started to count the fruits as they peeked through the shiny leaves – one, two, three, four, five! – and continued on with our daily lives. But those little green globes kept rounding out and filling up while we were busy with friends and babies, work and play.

They began as little bubbles hidden in the branches and then matured into firm dark green ovals that we weren’t convinced would ever change color. Each was so perfectly green that at one point my husband suggested we cut one open to make sure we didn’t get an accidental lime tree from the nursery. But there was a tinge of yellow on one or two so we held off – reassuring ourselves that it was still within a reasonable range for ripening after some online research.

And then it happened – one, two, three, four, five! – golden orbs appeared as if by magic. It seemed that they all turned brilliant yellow overnight in celebration of intangible holiday cheer.

homegrown lemons

So while not exactly a Christmas miracle, this little tree’s gorgeous gems did brighten our December and we rejoiced in its fruits.  My husband knew that the key ingredient in one of my favorite recipes is citrus, which is not Maryland-grown (for sale at least).  This meant that by definition the recipe was less-than-local-friendly.  But that has been remedied thanks to his considerate present many months ago.

May you also find ways to celebrate local in your everyday in 2012 – cheers to a brand new year!

Lemon cranberry scones

A Little Bit of Wheat

One of my clearest memories as a child is making chocolate chip cookies with my mom. Just as many mothers and daughters have done since Ruth Wakefield (who, ironically, was a dietitian) teemed up with Nestle; we used that famous Toll House recipe.

In our household, for reasons that I’m not quite sure of – maybe the perceived health benefits of it at the time, or it might have been cheaper than butter, or maybe just because that’s what my grandmother used – margarine was always the starting point. “Oleo” as my mother referred to it, was the base for the dough which then also included imitation vanilla extract and all-purpose bleached white flour.

For better or worse, the memory of these cookies is indelibly linked to warm and fuzzy emotions for me; and I have shared them with others in the same spirit. Over the years my friends have come to expect them for occasions such as birthdays, holidays, and any celebratory gathering.

As I have learned more about food and how it can affect people, I have tweaked the recipe to suit my changing tastes. I now prefer bourbon vanilla extract rather than imitation; unbleached flour from a particular company known for its quality; and fantastically fresh eggs from local farmers which have vibrant, almost orange yolks.

But I haven’t yet had the heart to change the core of the recipe, which some would argue is the most glaringly unhealthful part of these dessert treats. The margarine is what keeps the cookies from spreading, helps preserve tenderness with the slightest bit of edgy crunch, and which I have been trained to use since I was old enough to hold a spatula. I will have to live with this guilt, which is only bearable because my friends enjoy them despite this verboten base.

For Christmas this year, I received a cookbook that I am thrilled to explore. Focused on whole grain baking, it has inspiring chapters on different flours and forms of grains. Whole wheat is framed as the gateway grain for current households, thus it is the focus of the first chapter; whence the journey continues to other more exotic and harder to source grains with intricate recipes in which to use them. Presumably the gateway recipe is chocolate chip cookies, as it is the first in the whole wheat chapter.

Rather than make a – gasp – new recipe of chocolate chip cookies (since I’m not sure I’d be invited to anymore birthday celebrations), the idea was planted to update my current recipe by upping the healthful factor by adding a bit of whole wheat flour. After all, it wouldn’t be the first tweak of the original.
chocolate chip cookie with part whole wheat flour

They turned out great, with a bit of extra chew and depth that’s hard to put a finger on. Satisfying, homey, and still able to evoke warm-fuzzy-happy-satiety. So chalk another one up for health! Winter’s farmers markets are firing up again around these parts though so a local focus is (over)due to return…

Baby Steps

As my son begins to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other for the first time in his life, it has helped me reflect upon a new year in a different way. As another year dawns, many turn to resolutions as a means to start fresh or being anew; however for me such resolutions have always seemed a bit hollow.

As a person who is continually making lists of things to do, trying to define and work towards goals both professional and personal, I see the start of the year as a time to commit to achieving more of what I have already set out to accomplish. So rather than brainstorm a new list of mundane actions, I have decided to focus on prioritizing in each area of life – family, health, & work.

In contemplating these areas, it occurs to me that there is a priority that affects all three – conscious eating. I am fortunate in that I work in an area that I am passionate about and which what I learn can improve both my office work as well as the quality of my personal life. I thus renew my commitment to eating more local & healthful foods.

So, in the spirit of baby steps… today I ate grapefruit.

baby steps grapefruit

Before you shake your head and utter “tsk, tsk” – hear me out.  As is always the case in any location, some foods with fantastic qualities such as high antioxidant levels or vitamins that fight winter blues such as C, A, and B5 do not grow here due to climate. It is not warm enough for citrus fruits to thrive in Maryland – they do not tolerate more than a few hours below freezing. However, they flourish in southern states and ripen during the winter months. So grapefruit is now in-season. Furthermore one of my relatives is kind enough to send a big box of citrus from her home in Florida every holiday season. Thus I am able to enjoy grapefruit as a treat from a loved one and a boost to my health.

So on this day in the new year, I lean towards the health side of the spectrum more so than the local.

What are my other priorities this year? Well, one is – make peace with what works; be satisfied with progress towards more local eating rather than lamenting not meeting an arbitrary amount of local each meal, day, or week.

Here’s to making 2011 filled with progress, satisfaction, health, and happiness.

bye bye blueberries

As Labor Day meant the bell tolling for the end of summer, now is the time to take advantage of what warmer weather produce is still at market, including juicy fresh fruits.  In case you can’t find any more ripe berries at market this recipe also works well with frozen ones.  If you can still get your hands on a bunch of berries, by all means get extra and make some space in that freezer!  Just put the blueberries on a tray first, and then after they have frozen gently roll them into a bag for the long haul.  You’ll be thrilled in winter when a few of those blue morsels bring back the taste of summer sunshine.

end of summer berries
end of summer berries

Blueberries are a fickle fruit – they like very acidic soil, need lots of sunshine, can take 3 years to bear good fruit and can take up to 6 years to bear a full and luscious crop.  They are also beloved by birds, so plant protection can also be an important factor.  Shallow-rooted and in need of sustained moisture, these little orbs are a challenge to grow so either preserving or enjoying them while they last are great ways to appreciate what might be the last of summer’s gifts for the year.

blueberries ready
blueberries ready

Blueberry Muffins

Adapted from Joy of Cooking

Dry ingredients:
2 c. all purpose flour
1 T. baking powder
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
½ t. cinnamon

Wet ingredients:
2 large eggs
1 c. whole milk yogurt
2/3 c. granulated sugar
1 t. vanilla
6 T. butter, melted
1 ½ – 2 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)

Preheat the oven to 400˚F Grease 2 muffin tins (makes 18 -24 muffins depending on size) or line with muffin cups.

In a medium bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients.  Gently stir in the dry ingredients, until the mixture just barely comes together.  Fold in the blueberries, breaking as few as possible (unless you like all-blue muffins!).

Bake for 15-18 minutes, until cooked through and just browned on top.