Sunday, August 22, 2010

California Road Trip: Food and Scenery

I just returned from another fabulous trip to Southern California. This time Lori and I began our adventure in Marina Del Rey and Santa Monica.

We then headed south to San Diego and west to Coronado Bay to enjoy the scenery and magnificent sunsets, not to mention the long awaited late afternoon and dinner reunion with 2 of my favorite cousins Peter and Jane in their fabulous (I want to live there) town of Ocean Beach.

And then we were off to Murrietta Hot Springs (slightly north and most definately east of San Diego) to the desert and valley of the SoCal wine country where we took in the surrounding mountains and experienced the pleasant, dry heat of the dessert. We enjoyed another reunion with extra-special friends we hadn't seen in over 15 years, dining outdoors at Ponte winery. We indulged in Ponte wine, great conversation, belly laughs and tears (mostly mine), fabulous food and a marvelous fine-mist spritzing devise that kept us cool in the desert heat. Heavenly. Just heavenly.

But this is a cooking blog right? So let's get down to business. I'd like to talk about the one constant I experienced at just about every meal I enjoyed- the Avocado. It first appeared in a guacamole as a garnish in some fish tacos I ate (at 2 separate times), then in a vinaigrette on my lobster and crab cobb salad and later as an olive oil infused dipping sauce for the freshly baked bread at the winery. This is some versatile fruit I'm talking about. So when I got home I pulled out my food benefits chart and checked out what this baby has to offer. So after you read the next sentence, fasten your seat belts and run right out and get yourself some of this healthy goodness. Here are the benefits: Avocados battle diabetes, lower cholesterol, help stop strokes, control blood pressure and smooth your skin. Not bad for a bumpy, alien-looking little piece of fruit!

A while ago I came up with an avocado cream cheese spread that works beautifully on toasted or grilled bruscetta. Or as a dip for chips or raw veggies and a sandwich spread (instead of mayo or mustard or ketchup).

Avocado Cream Cheese Spread
Serve on 1 loaf (1 lb) French baguette sliced and toasted

1 avocado sliced
1 tsp Dijon mjustard
Juice of one lemon
8 oz pkg Philadelphia reduced fat cream cheese softened to room temp
2 cloves garlic chopped
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup fresh tomatoes small dice
1/4 cup red onion small dice or substitute 2 T fresh chives chopped

Put all ingredients (except garnish) in food processor or blender and mix until combined. Refrigerate an hour or two to let the mixture set up and the flavors meld. Meanwhile chop garnish ingredients and set aside. Top toasted bruscetta with avocado spread and garnish with 1/2 tsp of tomato mixture.

Now let's tackle the sandwich spread I mentioned a minute ago. The sandwich I love with this spread I call an ABLT: Avocado Spread, Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato. Omit the mayo you usually slather on since you're getting a lot more flavor from the avocado spread. Avocado tastes great with bacon. And tomato. And lettuce. And bread. And remember there's some cheese in this spread which also tastes great with all of the above. And if you want to really take it over the top, sprinkle on some crumbled blue cheese, which ALSO tastes great with everything on this sandwich. I can go on and on about the use of avocados and cheese, but it's late and I'm once again on east coast time. So for now, goodnight and enjoy!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Garden Fresh

I was lucky again this weekend to get more vegetables from Fran's garden and her tomatoes are out of this world FRESH. I decided to incorporate them into an old fashioned salad that back in the day was a staple at every steakhouse in the country- The Iceberg Wedge. I used to make this type of salad many years ago before we had the availability of all the lettuces we have now. Anyway, this is a blast from the past for me and I decided a blue cheese dressing jazzed up with turkey bacon chunks might put this salad right where I wanted it- over the top.

Iceberg Wedge Salad (serves two)

1/2 Iceberg lettuce cut in half
2 medium garden fresh tomatoes sliced
2 hard boiled eggs sliced

Blue Cheese Dressing
4 slices turkey bacon
1/2 cup Lite Mayonnaise- I like Hellmann's
1/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 tsp minced garlic- optional
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

To make the dressing: Cook the turkey bacon. I bake mine in a 385 degree oven until crisp, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. When cool, chop into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces. Combine all ingredients except cheese and bacon in a medium-large bowl and whisk until combined. Fold in cheese and bacon and refrigerate for 1 hour to let the flavors meld.

To prepare the salad: Place lettuce wedge, tomato slices and sliced egg (plus any other vegetables you might like- scallions and carrot slices are nice) on serving dish. Spoon blue cheese dressing liberally over vegetables and dig in and enjoy the crunch.

Re-mix: My mom used to make this salad with a homemade Russian dressing and it's equally as good. She'd mix mayo, ketchup, chopped egg and sweet relish. I don't remember the proportions exactly but will be happy to figure them out if anyone is interested.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Summer produce from my friend Fran's garden is what healthy cooking is all about. Last weekend she presented me with baby eggplants, summer squash, green peppers and tomatoes and the next thing I knew I was in my kitchen making a ratatouille that's fast, easy and delicious. I didn't follow a recipe and just did what seemed to feel right. I also used a few items from my fridge. With a dish like this- any, and (almost) every combination seems to work. So have fun- and change, omit and add ingredients any way you like.

Garden Ratatouille

2 T canola oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
3 cloves garlic chopped
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp crushed red pepper
2 baby eggplants peeled and cut into 1" dice
1 8 oz package sliced mushrooms
1 summer squash cut into 1" dice
1 zucchini cut into 1" dice
2 plum tomatoes chopped
1 jar 14 oz Classico tomatoe sauce
1 jar 14 oz of water
2 small bay leaves
additional salt and pepper if necessary

Heat oil in large saucepan on medium/medium low. Add onions and green pepper and sweat them for about 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and cook for a minute. Add eggplant, mushrooms, summer squash, zucchini and plum tomatoes. When mushrooms and eggplant begin to soften add tomato sauce, water and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer and cook 25 minutes uncovered. This will allow some of the water to evaporate and the flavors to concentrate. And that's it. You've got ratatouille!

I didn't measure the quantity this recipe makes, but it is substantial. So I decided to make a pasta cheese bake with some of it.

Baked Ratatouille, Penne and Cheese

1-1/2 cups penne pasta uncooked (I use low carb Dreamfields)
3 cups of ratatouille mixture
1 cup reduced fat shredded Italian 4 cheese blend (I used Sargento- I love all their cheeses)
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Pre heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook penne according to package directions. Coat an 8 x 8 inch baking dish with cooking spray. In large bowl combine penne, ratatouille and 4 cheese blend. Pour penne mixture into baking dish, top with parmesan cheese and bake 30 to 35 minutes. I had this for dinner with a crisp green salad and lunch the next day with a few slices of Italian bread.

And what happened to the remaining ratatouille? It's in the freezer for round two next week...

...which will be ratatouille served on crusty bruschetta. It makes a great appetizer or light lunch and can be served warm or at room temperature. One little tip here- before I top the bruschettas, I go back into the dish and chop the veggies a little smaller so nothing rolls off the small rounds of bread. Enjoy!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Baked Not Fried

It's been about a month since I wrote my last post, but I must say I haven't been slacking. It all started with my July 4th visit with Sharon and a snack we had at Faneuil Hall- a simple falafel platter with hummus, salad and pita bread. I knew I could make those delicious little balls of chick peas and spices without deep frying them, but it took many tries (a month's worth). I've always been a great believer in oven frying and this task was a challenge. I immediately got the spices right, but had some trouble with the baking time and temperature. There's a reason falafel are deep fried. The oil helps them crisp up and adds to the flavor. But I kept at it and came up with a reasonable facsimile for fried falafel that I think are pretty delish.

Baked Falafel

3 T canola oil
1 15.5 oz can chick peas drained
1/2 cup onion chopped
2 tsp garlic chopped
2 T AP flour
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper (optional)
2 T chopped parsley (optional)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp pepper

Pre heat oven to 425 degrees. Pour canola oil in baking dish and place in middle rack of oven. To make the falafel mixture combine chick peas, onion, and garlic in a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients and whirl until combined. Shape mixture into 12 balls. By this time your oven should be pre heated and you can remove the baking dish and place the balls in the pre heated oil. Don't crowd the balls because the baking powder makes them spread. Bake 15 minutes. Turn them over and bake another 15 minutes. Serve warm.

For lunch at work I had my falafel cold with a hummus dressing and feta cheese salad.

Hummus Dressing
2 T hummus tahini (store bought)
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
Juice of one lemon
3 T light soy sauce
5 T canola oil
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 T water

And right before I began writing this post I enjoyed them warm with a cool Indian Raita on pita. Very tasty.

1 cucumber peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
3/4 cup non fat yogurt
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
2 T fresh mint or parsley (optional)