Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Summer's Favorite Lunch: Egg Salad and Avocado Sandwich with Sliced Tomato

I have been back to work for six days now, have gotten a paycheck before students graced my classroom, so I really cannot complain.  I am a middle school teacher, and I am looking forward to the students' return, because it is much more fun to be working with them than it is to be preparing for them.  Yes, fun.  When I meet new people and the inevitable subject of what one does for a living comes up, I am often amused by the reaction of those people when they learn I teach 13 year olds.  The conversation typically goes something like this:

     "So, what is it that you do?"
     "I am a teacher."  (at this point, they smile at me because they are imagining that I work with young children in elementary school, and that is noble)
     "Oh, how nice.  What grade do you teach?"
     "I teach eighth grade English."  This is the point that I look forward to because the look of shock is just priceless.  Some fear for my sanity, some just try to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. I laugh because they don't know what they are missing.  Kids at that age are certainly full of energy, and hormones, but they have wicked senses of humor, are appreciative of any kindness you show them, and can be the most fun people on the planet to spend time with.  I swear.

So my only complaint is that once I start back to school each Fall, my lifestyle goes through some changes.  I have to get used to getting up at 5:20 AM, have to become reaccustomed to the fact that restroom breaks are determined not by my body, but rather by the school schedule, and that my lunch has to be planned and teenager-friendly, as I may have students in my classroom when it is time to eat lunch.

So, my favorite lunch this summer is squarely off limits to me during the school year.  You see, I discovered a really great sandwich made with egg salad, onions,  avocado, and a thick slice of garden tomato.  I could eat this in school if I wanted to be the laughing stock of my students.  Remember all that good stuff I said about middle-schoolers?  That is true only for people who don't bring in weird and smelly lunches.  So I will have to relegate this yummy, open-faced sandwich to my weekends, and maybe add a piece of bacon to make up for the loss.

Egg Salad Sandwich with Avocado and Tomato:

1 thich slice multigrain bread, lightly toasted
2 hard boiled eggs (1 yolk removed)
1/4 avocado, cut into small chunks
1 tbsp. finely diced onion
2 slices tomato
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients except the bread and the tomato in a bowl.  Place the tomato slices on the toasted bread, then pile the egg salad on top of the tomatoes. Eat and enjoy without guilt!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Making Summer Last: Panzanella

Today is officially my last day of summer vacation.  School starts for most kids next week, so for us teachers, the mad rush to the first day of school begins this week.  While I love teaching, the transition each year is a tough one.  To go from the long, relaxing summer days where the biggest decision is what to have for dinner, to getting up at 5:15 AM and hitting the ground running is a tough one.  Teachers look forward to summer each year, not necessarily for the reasons you would think.  While we love the free time, what we really need is the long strand days where we do not have to plan what we are doing the next day or the next class. For ten months each year, the first thought I have when I wake up is "what am I doing in the classroom today?"  The summer provides the break from that.

Don't get me wrong.  By the end of the summer, I am ready to go back.  It is time to use my brain again, and of course, time to earn a paycheck again!  But I still feel that sadness at the end of each summer.  Time is passing too quickly, the kids are growing up much too rapidly.  As the saying goes, 'the days are long, but the years are short.'  So I do what I can to extend that summer feeling.  In addition to making a point of getting outside to enjoy the beautiful weather that September brings to Connecticut, I also continue to cook like it is summer. 

The vegetables in the garden and at the farmer's markets are hitting their peak right now, and nothing is more delicious than late summer tomatoes. We have been working toward real panzanella all summer, and waiting for the garden to yeild those sweet, juicy, red tomatoes.  They are here in spades, almost too many to eat.  Almost.

Summer Panzanella:
4-5 excellent summer tomatoes
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced
1/2 medium red onion
2 tbsp. capers (optional
big bunch basil
salt and pepper to taste
1 small loaf Italian bread (I used a small ciabatta loaf), cubed
Extra Virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Toast the bread cubes by drizzling with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, and placing in a 300 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until crunchy.  Cut up the tomatoes into bite sized chunks, and place in a large bowl.  Add cucumbers, onions, capers, if using, and basil.  Once the bread is toasted and cooled, add to the tomato mixture.

Mix 4 tablespoons of olive oil with 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, and whisk together.  Drizzle over the bread and tomato mixture, tossing to coat.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix again.  Add more dressing if necessary.  Serve immediately, and savor the taste of summer.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Salad Nana Would Love: Wedge Salad with Homemade Blue Cheese Dressing

As I was growing up, it seemed that all around me were wonderful examples of smart and strong women.  In addition to my mother and maternal grandmother, there were many dear friends of my mother who were raising children, taking care of a household, and still forging careers and contributing to the world around them.  My mother's dear friend Dolly raised five children as a single mother, created a career for herself by identifying a need in our community and filling it, and still managed to be the life of the party and a riot to be around.  My mother's friend Ellen was so interested in the world it was contagious, and my Aunt Kathy often reinvented her professional self while always remaining true to who she was. 

My father's mother, my Nana, was an example of a strong woman who was in many ways ahead of her time. She had a good career working for the telephone company at a time when many women did not work outside the home.  She spoke of those days so proudly, and it was clear that although she needed to work financially, she enjoyed what she did and the people she met and with whom she became lifelong friends.    She was a character and a great lady, my Nana.  She smoked her Pall Malls until the day she died, which was well into her 80s, she salted her beer, and she pronounced potatoes "pa-DAY-das."  One of the things I always appreciated was the fact that while we were in college, my Nana would take my sister and me out for dinner whenever we were home from school on break. I think it was her way of getting to know us as adults, having a little quality time with us, and catching up with us.  Usually we would go to a place called The Seafarer, a seafood restaurant, where, ironically, we would all order the stuffed chicken breast.  But before the entree, we always got a salad, and Nana introduced us to Blue Cheese dressing, which we loved.  Nowadays, it seems that the "Wedge Salad,' with its signature blue cheese dressing  is on just about every restaurant menu, and I love it.  The crisp iceberg lettuce seems so retro, but in the best way.  If tomatoes are in season, and the bacon is crispy, it is a beautiful thing. What is old is new again. Even in this, Nana was ahead of her time.

Wedge Salad  (Serves 4)
1 head iceberg lettuce, cored, trimmed and washed
8 strip thick cut bacon, cooked until crisp
2 really good tomatoes (I used heirloom from my garden), cut into small chunks
2/3 cup light cream or half and half
6 ounces Gorgonzola or bleu cheese crumbled and divided
1/2 clove garlic, minced fine
1/2 tsp. black pepper

To make dressing:  Put cream or half and half in a microwaveable bowl, add garlic and pepper.  Microwave on medium heat until very warm.  Crumble 5 ounces Gorgonzola (eyeball it) into the warm cream and stir until it is mostly melted into the cream.  Put it back into the microwave if necessary.  Place the dressing in the fridge until very cold.  Right before serving, add the remainder of the cheese to make it chunky.

Cut the lettuce in half, then in half again, keeping it in the wedges.  Place the wedges onto either 4 plates, or line them up in a platter.   Place tomatoes on top of lettuce wedges.  Crumble bacon and scatter over lettuce and tomatoes.  Drizzle dressing over the whole salad.  Enjoy!  Delicious with a salted beer (just like Nana liked it).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hot Soup in August: Tortilla Soup

Mid-August is hardly the time most people think about making a hot soup.  The weather is already hot and soupy here in the Northeast.  More typical fare would be salads, cold soups, or even something on the grill.  I keep running across recipes for tortilla soup, which is probably because I am several months behind in some of the food magazines I read. As I looked at the pictures, I saw corn, avocado and tomatoes.  Something said summer to me, so I decided to make tortilla soup for dinner.  It turned out to be a "Top Five"  dinner, according to my daughter Emily. Along with the corn, avocado, and tomato, the cilantro and lime give it a little bit of that summer feeling, although this soup will certainly become a regular in my house year round.

Tortilla Soup:
2 small boneless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded (I poached them in some water with a bay leaf and some spices, but grilled will do, or some shredded rotisserie chicken)
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped carrot
2 tbsp. flour
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/2 tsp cumin
3/4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp black pepper
64 ounces low sodium chicken stock
3 tomatoes, chopped, or 1 can of diced tomatoes
1-2 cups of water
juice of 1 lime
zest of half a lime
1 can small white beans, drained and rinsed
2 ears corn removed from the cob (frozen corn can be used when it is not corn season)
1/4 cup of cilantro, chopped, plus more for garnish
1 avocado, cubed
1/3 cup green onion, for garnish
8 corn tortillas, cut into 1/2 inch strips

In the bottom of a soup pot, saute the onion, carrots, garlic, and celery in the olive oil for about 4-6 minutes.  Add the flour, and whisk until the flour is cooked and golden brown, creating a roux.  Add cumin, paprika and black pepper, and whisk through.  Add the chicken stock, bring to medium heat, then add tomatoes, beans, lime zest and juice, and cilantro, and lower heat to simmer. Add cooked chicken.  I added the corn about 5 minutes before serving, and I really liked the 'al dente' quality.  Taste the soup, and add water if needed.

About 15 minutes before serving, take the tortilla strips, place them on a wire rack set on a cookie sheet, and spray with cooking spray.  Sprinkle a little salt and paprika on the strips, and place in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until crispy and golden.

Serve soup in a large bowl, garnished with cilantro, green onion, avocado, and several tortilla strips.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Tribute to my Grandparents: Roasted Summer Tomatoes

I cannot think of, eat, or even smell tomatoes without thinking of my beloved Grandma and Grandpa.  As I have mentioned before, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the same house as my maternal grandparents.  They were both originally from Italy, emigrating to this country around the time they were married in the early 1930s.  They settled, had four children, raised their family, made friends, were good neighbors, and contributed to their community.  They lived the American Dream at a time when the American Dream did not mean chasing after wealth.  My grandparents, Vincenzo and Vincenzella, wanted only a good life.  They wanted a home of their own, they wanted to watch their family grow; they wanted the riches of a simple life.  My Grandpa and Grandma carried their heritage with them when they came here.  They told many stories of their childhood in the small village in Southern Italy, they cooked the food they grew up with and welcomed many to their home and their table with graciousness and generosity. 

My grandfather had a large garden in our backyard every summer.  He grew squash, eggplant, peppers, string beans, herbs, and plenty of tomatoes.  They were really the main focus of his gardening.  Grandpa would sit out at the garden for hours each day, getting up from time to time to tie a plant to its pole, or pick a tomato that was ripened.  He kept a mason jar with a little water in it out at the picnic table and would circulate through the garden now and then, using the jar to capture beetles that dared to try to munch on his baby tomato plants.  He was protective of these prized goodies.  My sister Betsy  found that out many times, as she would try to sneak into the garden while our grandfather was not looking.  She would always bring the salt shaker with her, so that she could pick, salt, and eat her fill of tomatoes right there, among the tall plants.  There is something about a tomato that is still warm from the sun that is irresistible.  Grandpa would shoo her out of the garden, both of them laughing a little.  But I always wondered why my grandfather would just sit there, watching, looking, contemplating. To me, it looked boring.

 This year, as my garden is growing and maturing, I understand it for the first time. It is a beautiful thing to watch what you have planted grow and bear fruit.  It is slow gratification, but gratifying nonetheless.  

Once the tomatoes were ripe, it was my grandmother's turn.  She canned tomatoes for days on end, through the heat of those late summer days, putting up enough to get the entire extended family through the winter.  She would then make sauce, soups, and countless other delicious things to feed their family.

I think this effort was really symbolic of how my grandparents lived their lives.  Though their marriage was arranged, they built a beautiful life together.  They loved each other in the deepest sense.  They tried to nurture and protect those they loved and do the best they could for their children and grandchildren.  They worked together, not always harmoniously, but in the end, the fruits of their combined labor were even more gratifying to them than those tomatoes were. 

As I do not have the patience or fortitude of my sweet Gram, I take the easy way out when it comes to preserving my tomatoes for the winter.  As I harvest them, I cut a batch of them up into chunks, and stew them with some garlic, olive oil, and of course, basil.  I use 2 large cast iron skillets, and roast them outside on my gas grill, so as not to heat up my house on these hot days. I freeze these stewed tomatoes in plastic freezer bags or containers, and take them out throughout the year to use in making sauces, soups, or anything else that calls for tomatoes.  And with every sweet, soupy bite of those tomatoes, I am reminded of the comfort and love that was always given so readily by my dear grandparents.

Stewed Tomatoes:
As many fresh, ripe, native tomatoes as you can get your hands on (supermarket tomatoes don't count!)
a bunch of fresh basil for every 3 pounds of tomatoes
3-5 cloves of garlic (peeled, no need to chop) per batch
3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil per batch
A pinch or two of salt

Cut the tomatoes up into 1 inch chunks, and add remaining ingredients to the skillet.  Cook either in the oven at 300 degrees, or on the gas grill (with the cover down)  on medium low heat, until the tomatoes have been cooked down and the juices have reduced by about a third.  If the tomatoes are not very juicy, you can add a little low sodium chicken stock, but it is usually not necessary.  Use the tomatoes right away as a sauce (a little fresh mozzarella and Pecorino Romano makes it perfect), or save to use in a tomato sauce or a soup.  Will last in the freezer for several months.  Yum!