Saturday, July 27, 2013

Win with Lady Potluck

I came back from a (very brief) vacation last week to have this email message waiting for me:


Since I'm still new to the Tucson job, it's the first time I've been around for such an event. Apparently this place does potlucks, dubbed "the graze" because people are picking at crap all day, twice a year. The second one, predictably, falls before Christmas. I didn't know the nuances yet: who brought chips, who hogged all the mini-meatballs, what way most people swing whether it be savory or sweet. I didn't have a whole ton of time, either. Finding out on Monday meant all prep would have to be done on Tuesday night after getting home. And I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I am extremely cranky and unmotivated on weeknights.


As I am getting way up there in years nowadays, or at least have enough solid years of tenure on my resume to look sort-of-not-stupid at last, I have developed guidelines. Rules, if you will. A few strategies that tend to snag wins at company potlucks. It's not usually a contest... they say. But I'm a competitive contributor. I want to have the dish emptied first, the recipe requested most, and most of all I am a clone of every other writer you'll meet. I have a pathological need to be loved.

My selection of a Cornbread Trifle, a colorful cool salad served in the old trusty trifle bowl, can be understood by following these important rules.

1. Go cold or room-temperature. I found a really neat recipe on Pinterest for Tamale Hand Pies. Yeah, you know. One of those adorable things you make in a muffin tin. If you all were coming over for a party at my house, where I could pop these right out of the oven, then they'd be a great choice. But I've only worked in one office with a legit kitchen, and it was a food distribution company. Who knew. I don't care how well you wrap a casserole dish in tinfoil. By the time you get it to your office, people get hungry for lunch and start picking at your dish, it's going to be congealed and gross. The industrious will perhaps microwave their portions, but we all know that's not going to taste an ounce as good as it did when it was fresh. Let it stay fresh by keeping it the fridge or at room temp. The exception would be a great Crock-Pot recipe, but this can be tricky, since you don't have all day to let stuff cook. Plus those things are a bear to lug around.

2. Don't bring pasta salad. Or its modern-day, ever-growing equivalent, quinoa salad. Everybody does. And they're boring. And fail to ever taste great.

3. Bring a dish that doesn't look like Tupperware you bought at a party in 1983. This is supposed to be a party! Or at least a slight diversion to keep shrinking middle-class America from FoxConn levels of despair. Bring your food in something pretty, or at least attractive. It helps with that whole eat-with-your-eyes first concept when you're staring down the buffet line. And everything tastes better when it's not retrieved from an olive green, half-melted plastic trough.

4. Don't you dare lazy out! Yeah, you. The one grabbing that cheap plastic carton of grocery store "cookies" that might as well be whimsically cut cardboard with sprinkles. Or the one bringing that veggie tray with carrot sticks, withered snap peas, and watery ranch dressing. You give everyone putting a half-ounce of effort into this thing a bad trade, and are totes not holding up your end of the bargain as you scoop up our delicious offerings. If you ARE going to buy something pre-made, buy something that has flavor and interest, like those sorbets they sell at Costco served in the hollowed-out fruits. Or an upscale deli salad that doesn't taste like preservatives with a side of soggy noodles. You don't have to be an amazing cook to either create or pick out something appetizing. My friend makes brownies with Ghirardelli chocolate mix. And that stuff is yumTASTIC.

5. Make a fun ingredient posty. With everyone eschewing bread and animals, an ingredient advisory is an unsaid necessity. That doesn't mean you can't be interesting. People get chatty about anything slightly different.

So did I win the potluck? I like to think so. Why don't you make a lovely version and see how it goes over.

Cornbread Trifle
1 box cornbread mix, baked per instructions, cooled, and cut into 1" squares (I like Marie Callendar's version because it's not as sickly-sweet. You can even savory it up by adding some cheddar cheese and sriracha)
2 small Romaine lettuces, roughly chopped
1 can black beans, drained
1 cup Ranch dressing, divided
1 cup sharp cheddar, divided
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
6 pieces of bacon, cooked and diced
1 cup grilled chicken chunks (mine were marinated in lime and chiles)
1 cup corn kernels (Trader Joe's sells frozen Roasted Corn that is fantastic for this)
1 small can green chiles, drained

In a trifle or large glass bowl, arrange a solid layer of cornbread chunks. Top first with half of the lettuce, half the black beans, 1/2 cup Ranch dressing, 1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, the bacon, 1/2 cup corn kernels, and 1/2 of the chiles. Arrange the halved cherry tomatoes around the top of the layer, as shown in the picture. Add the 2nd layer of cornbread, and the remaining ingredients, topping with the chicken and another row of tomato halves. Garnish with a sprig of cilantro. Chill at least 4 hours before serving, or overnight.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Preserving the Desert

When we were moving, I got rid of most of my canning jars. Who wants to pack crates of glass 1500 miles down the road? Although I will readily admit that seeing them leave brought on a few preemptive homesick tears. As did the concept of selling our lawn mower. I kept all my essential supplies, like the giant water bath pot, the can rack, funnels, magnet wands, and my cute labels (although those are still MIA in the Giant Sea of Garage Boxes). My canning future was very unsure after this pre-move conversation with a friend living in Phoenix:

Me: Do you have cherries in Arizona?
Katie: Well yeah, you can get cherries at the grocery store.
Me: No, but do they have cherry orchards there? And do they sell big bulk boxes at farm stands?
Katie: Ummm... no. I've never seen that here.

No, fruit that's not blooming off a prickly pear cactus is not easy to come by here. I almost fell over when I saw raspberries at the farmer's market today. And they looked much paler and sadder than any I've ever seen before (and probably cost around $10 for half a pint--not great jam-making prices).

 But last weekend, catching a farmer's market a little before closing, we met a guy who had cratefuls of gorgeous red-and-yellow heirloom tomatoes he didn't want to haul back to his farm. These fruity jewels were full of sugar, flavor, and fragrance, and taste like an entire different species of edibles from their grocery store, uh, cousins? Maybe? Unfortunately in Tucson, even the better grocery stores don't have exceptional produce. So when we were offered this incredible bounty for just $1.50 a pound, we scooped up 15.

I already have a good stash of lovely quartered tomatoes in juice from our garden last year, which aren't being used up very fast here. There's only so many hearty stews and braises you can crave when it's over 100 degrees for 39 days straight. But as I quickly learned, the Ball Book of Preserving doesn't stop at jams and jellies. Get to the back of the book and you get recipes for taco sauce, canned clams in saltwater, and cultivated canned mushrooms. Somewhere in the middle of the adventure spectrum are salsas. 

And if you're to find anything around here, it's bell peppers, onions, green chiles (a southern AZ specialty), and cilantro. One fun thing about the salsa recipes is that you get to pick your own peppers. They want "chili peppers" but that can mean anything from the benign poblano peppers up to habaneros with the casing and seeds left in (for when you want to give away really sadistic Christmas presents). Since we're living in the green chile capital, I wanted to show off the local flavors of our new home. I used half Anaheim chiles, a relatively mild and larger chile pepper, and half jalapenos. They grow so giant and beautiful here! Oregon jalapenos tend to look a little suicidal.

Oh no! But I have no jars! Whatever shall we do?

As fortune (or marketing genius) would have it, Ball just released their anniversary blue, antique-style jars this spring. Are they twice as much as clear jars? YES! Are they just blue and no better? YES! But if you don't understand why they're special, you do not understand me or this blog, and you might as well just go find some Susie Sensibility's Frugal Spartan Kitchen musings to try out.

The jar ransom paid, we returned to the cozy tile kitchen to slice and boil up a spicy storm. Even after the cooking process, this home-canned salsa has a surprisingly fresh flavor. Although you could use an immersion blender to get a smoother consistency, I prefer my salsa chunky, showing up the sparse harvest through blue-colored glasses.

Zesty Salsa (from the Ball Book of Preserving)
10 cups chopped, cored and peeled tomatoes (I didn't peel mine because the skins were so very thin. If you can find these kinds of heirloom varieties, it saves you a gigantic hassle)
5 cups chopped, seeded green bell peppers
5 cups chopped onions
2 1/2 cups chopped and seeded peppers. I used jalapenos and Anaheim chiles
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp hot pepper sauce (Secret Aardvark, obvi!)

Prepare canner, jars, and lids. If you don't know how to do this, watch YouTube videos or take a class. It's the most important part!

In a large, stainless steel saucepan, combine tomatoes, green peppers, onions, chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt, and hot pepper sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner, ensuring that they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process both 8-oz and 1-pint jars for 15 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool, and store.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Southwestward Ho - A Relaunch

A lot has happened since I made risotto.

Matt had an unexpected, un-turndownable job offer in Tucson, Arizona. We had a month to move. I had to quit my job. I had to find a new one. I had to pack up every last superfluous serving dish in my Oregon eden kitchen for a smaller place with tile floors and blue cabinets we had to choose off a leap of faith and the Internet. I have learned that there is a difference between Mexican and New Mexican food, and that I prefer the latter. I've discovered that there is a level of heat that can shrivel tomatoes off the vine, in opposition to our drowned Hubbard tomatoes. My canning supplies have sat collecting dust, for there are no berries in the desert.

I miss home. I miss my family and friends. I miss the seasons of the farmer's market and a trip over to New Seasons. Avocados and lemons are great here, but the blackberries lack juice and taste. In-N-Out Burger is delicious, but the fancy restaurants are more ho-hum than gung-ho. I miss driving through hazelnut groves on my way home from work, and I miss a summer that is not synonymous with "misery."

And I really miss my blog.

I might not be the only one, either. Whenever I set down a creative culinary adventure on our table (same table, 1500 mile away new digs), Matt asks me where the camera is. A few times when I logged on for one reason or another, the number of hits that Eats of Eden was receiving knocked me over (I thought I was all alone here since there aren't usually any comments on my yammerings... ya'll are a silent stalky bunch!).

So, I thought, maybe I'm not exactly in Eden anymore. Not right now, at least. For the unaware, Tucson summers rarely dip out of the triple digits, this year we're setting records, and now we're in monsoon season. That's when freaky lightening storms and flash floods sneak in. And no, it doesn't cool off that much. But in the fall, when we get our second growing season and can sit out on our porch at night again, it may be closer to that joy of land and food that I used to know.

Or, I still don't like it that much. But the Northwest is home, and will be waiting after an adventure. An adventure that would be better if I kept track of the stories.

We hosted a small, last-minute 4th of July party yesterday with a few of Matt's co-workers in town on business. I brought up Eats of Eden, my trove of favorites, for a few classics like Roosevelt Beans and Secret Aardvark Macaroni and Cheese. Matt smoked brisket (which would have probably cooked up just as toasty if thrown on the patio bricks), and I decided to re-visit my cooking nemesis: layer cake.

If you've read the couple of posts this year, you know that I royally botched my last layer cake. Although I was able to rescue the cake and filling into trifle form, it was a potential giant waste of expensive ingredients and precious time. Time, increasingly not on my side, since my commute is now an hour each way and, well, whine, it's hot. The oven sucks. But I had a vision. A vision of a beautiful red, white, and blue cake, heavily influenced by the fact that I walked out of Williams-Sonoma last week with a box of Ad-Hoc red velvet cake mix.

That's right, cake mix. Am I going soft? Probably. But when you're putting together a three-layer dessert after work on a Wednesday, you take a few shortcuts, all right?

Red velvet, white cake and cream cheese frosting, and the blue? A quite-homemade blueberry compote using some of the techniques I learned last summer from our cherry pie filling escapades. That Clear-Jel finally went to work down here making a cake layer filling so thick, even the light white cake in the middle of this masterpiece did not dare slide out of place.

I carefully assembled the layers, using a serrated bread knife to take off the top poofy layer of each cake layer to make a clean, flat surface and promote stability. I kept the blueberry compote about a 3/4" away from the edge of the cake so that it didn't smoosh out and tint the icing. I put the cake back in the fridge to chill and harden a smidge for about 20 minutes while the icing came to room temperature, spreadable without causing friction on the delicate cake.

And, yes, FINALLY! Nailed it. If I was actually good at photography, I'd stick this thing on Pinterest.

(Cool knife-holder-point Tucson).

The Red, White, & Blueberry Cake was the grand finale to an epic barbecue that won the "best meal on work trip to Tucson contest." Because that's how we do it in my 'hood. No matter where, at the moment, that happens to be.

Red, White & Blueberry Cake
1 box Red Velvet Cake mix, made to package directions for 2 9" rounds
1 box White Cake mix, made to package directions for 1 9" rounds (use the extra mix to make 6 cupcakes! Bonus yum!)
2 cups washed fresh blueberries
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons Clear-Jel (you can use cornstarch, but I can't guarantee that your results will be as good and sturdy)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 packages cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Toppings: blackberries, raspberries, and red white and blue sprinkles (these are the Williams-Sonoma natural series, and I am biased to their awesomeness)

While your mix cakes are all cooked and cooled to room temperature, make the blueberry compote. In a medium saucepan, bring the blueberries, 1 cup sugar, Clear-Jel, lemon juice, and 1 cup of water to a slow boil over medium heat, stirring frequently, and constantly as the mixture nears a boil. After hitting a boil, turn down to low and keep stirring until berries are bursting and the mixture is thick like jam. Think cranberry sauce-like consistency.

You can also make the frosting by creaming together the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract with a stand mixer. Slowly add the powdered sugar in 3 additions, and mix until all sugar is fully incorporated. Be sure the mixture is at room temperature before attempting to frost.

To prepare the cake layers, select your cake stand of preference, and invert one of the red velvet cakes onto it. With a serrated knife, take off the "poofy" top of the cake, leaving a smooth and even surface. Invert the other red velvet cake and white cake on a baking sheet, repeating the shearing process.

Take the cooled, room-temperature compote and place 1/2 cup into the middle of the cake stand cake. Using a spatula, work the compote out into an even layer that does not reach past 3/4" of the edge of the cake. Carefully remove the white layer cake from the baking sheet, and place atop the red and compote layer. Gently add another 1/2 cup of compote and spread as before. Top with the final layer of red velvet cake.

To frost, use a large spreading knife, and evenly coat the sides and top with icing. I had the best luck by starting on top and then turning the stand along with the knife for the sides, but I am not an authority on this so if you're an expert cake-froster, do your thing.

Use leftover compote to top your extra cupcakes, or make some banging waffles.

Top with berries and sprinkles. Absorb the awesome feeling of success and freedom from trifle dishes.