July 28, 2009

Block Party Gazpacho

Last weekend we went to a neighborhood block party sponsored by the company who owns our building and the three other buildings next to us. It was kind of strange to have a block party in the middle of downtown, but the turn out was good and it was an opportunity to meet our neighbors. Everyone was supposed to bring a side dish to share so there were all kinds of dips and such, even homemade blueberry beer from our upstairs neighbor. I didn't make anything that fancy, just a simple gazpacho. I figured a refreshing chilled soup on a muggy summer evening would work well. Of course, it rained just a few minutes before the party was supposed to start and there was a chilly breeze coming through. But nonetheless, the soup was still delicious and so easy to make.

Traditionally, gazpacho is made with completely raw vegetable ingredients. But after surfing the web I found some recipes that actually roasted/grilled the veggies before blending them together. Probably to give the soup a deeper flavor? Well, I don't have an outdoor grill (no back yard!) so I roasted my veggies in the oven until deliciously tender and slightly charred. But to be honest, I couldn't see any distinct difference in flavor. Maybe grilling them over an open fire would do the trick? Well, if you're short on time or just don't want to bother with more steps in a recipe, skip the whole roasting/grilling thing and just follow this recipe:

(Serves 6)

3-4 lb firm, ripe tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
1 red onion
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped into small cubes, divided
3 tbsp vinegar
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3/4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or tart hot sauce, like Tabasco)
up to 3/4 cup cold water (optional)
3 green onions, thinly sliced

  • If roasting in oven, preheat to 450F. Chop tomatoes & bell pepper in half, chop onion into quarters, drizzle with olive oil, S&P. Roast 10-15 minutes until tender. If grilling, prepare veggies in same manner, heat grill on high and grill until nicely charred all around. Remove skins.
  • Coarsely chop the tomatoes, bell pepper, onion and garlic. Place in food processor or blender along with half of the diced cucumber. Blend together until desired consistency - should not be a puree, but a coarse blend that is slightly chunky. Pour into large bowl or container.
  • Stir in the olive oil, vinegar, marjoram, paprika, cumin and cayenne pepper. S&P to taste.
  • If desired, thin out the soup by pouring in cold water, a little at a time.
  • Chill the soup at least 2 hours. The longer it sits, the better the flavor. Before serving, taste the soup again and re-season to taste. Garnish with sliced green onions and rest of chopped cucumber.

Raspberry Vanilla Jam

The perfect Sunday morning breakfast: pancakes.

I hate eating a heavy breakfast so I didn't make any eggs or sausages to go with the pancakes. Instead, I peeled and chopped some fresh fruits we had sitting in the fridge. OK, but the pancakes still seemed to be missing something. Sure, I had maple syrup but still, something was missing - something to pull the fresh fruits and pancakes together... Like a jam or something... And then, inspiration hit: Raspberry Vanilla Jam!

I had about a handful of raspberries left in the fridge so I threw those into a saucepan with some sugar, a little bit of water and a few dashes of my homemade vanilla extract. I cooked the mixture down over low heat, breaking up the raspberries as I stirred, until it was thick and saucy and smelled amazing. Over the pancakes the jam went with a few drizzles of maple syrup et voila! Breakfast is served. Needless to say, Jason and I both devoured the pancakes and were left wishing we had more jam. Maybe I'll cook up a big batch and can it for the pantry so we'll have something for the winter months after all the raspberries and fresh fruits have gone. I smell a mini project brewing...

July 24, 2009

Where do all my recycled bottles go?

It's a fact that recycling, reducing, and reusing is good for the environment. But have you ever wondered what actually happens to all that stuff we recycle, especially those plastic bottles? I have this image in my mind: all the plastic bottles get sorted out, shipped to some factory where they're melted down and remolded into new bottles or something entirely different. Sure, that's a possibility. Or...

... they're purchased by the people over at Their slogan pretty much says it all: "New Soap, Old Bottle". They sell brand name, brand new, household cleaning products (like Palmolive dish soap & 409 all-purpose cleaner) packaged in old soda/beer bottles that have been recycled by earth-friendly people just like us :).

Pretty thrifty, eh? You can also sign up your office, start a collection, and sell your goods to these savvy people. If you're going to recycle, why not make a pretty penny out of it at the same time? Could be a good idea for a fundraiser if you're the kind of person involved in that sort of stuff.

Just be careful that you don't drink the 409 just because it's in a Sprite bottle...

July 22, 2009

Virginia Seafood + Seared Scallops

I'm completely ecstatic to learn that Virginia is the 4th largest producer of seafood in the U.S. (1. Alaska, 2. Washington, 3. Louisiana). Most of the goodies, especially the shellfish, come from the Chesapeake Bay - that large body of water right above Norfolk/Hampton Roads. The rest of it comes from the surrounding areas of the Atlantic waters. We've got everything from blue crab and oysters to black sea bass and mackerel! Some species are wild-caught and others are sustainably farmed but everything is always fresh and local.

So in honor of this great accomplishment, I bought some beautifully plumb, juicy, sweet sea scallops from a local fishmonger (Welton Seafoods in Ghent). About 3 times bigger than their baby cousins, the bay scallop, they're also not as tender or sweet, but usually cheaper and a better filler for a dinner dish. I turned some left-over mango salsa into a "relish" by adding olive oil and then heating up the mix in a saucepan. And for a side, I made mashed potatoes with the red russets I bought from the Farm Market awhile ago. Being new potatoes (freshly dug out of the ground) they were less starchy and required less time to boil. For the scallops, I simply seared them in some butter.

To sear the scallops:
  • Rinse under cold water to remove sand (I have to admit that I didn't wash mine thoroughly and crunchy sounds were coming out of Jason's mouth!)
  • Pat them dry (or else they will steam, instead of sear)
  • Salt and pepper both sides
  • Melt 1 tbsp butter in a large pan. Wait until hot and starting to brown.
  • Sear scallops in butter 1.5 - 2 minutes on each side. Make sure they have breathing room. Don't over cook or they'll be tough! Scallops should be translucent and tender in the middle and opaque and browned at the ends.
Simple and delicious! I later found out that Jason doesn't even like scallops! What a waste... $15.99 a lb... (1/2 lb should feed 2 people, with sides). SIGH.

July 21, 2009

Roasted Chicken and Mango Salsa

So I did end up making chicken soft tacos for dinner the other night. The chicken was delicious of course! Lean and ever so chicken-y. I roasted mine a little too long and they came out a bit dry, but if you follow these directions, they're sure to come out juicy and tender:

Roasted Chicken Breast
2 skinless, boneless chicken breast
olive oil
salt and pepper
fresh rosemary (optional - I just happened to have some on hand)

Preheat oven to 400F. While it heats up, drizzle the chicken with olive oil on both sides. Season with salt and pepper and chopped fresh rosemary. Roast for 30 minutes. Chicken should be nice and golden brown. Let rest 5 minutes before shredding.

As an additional garnish, I also made a super simple, super delicious mango salsa. OK, so mangoes are not local to Virginia, actually this mango came from Mexico, but they are technically "in season". So, no brownie points for me on this one. But if you're reading this from California or Florida you have nothing to feel bad about so go out there, get some mangoes, and make this salsa to eat with some mulitgrain tortilla chips!

Mango Salsa
1 mango, diced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1/2 lime, juiced
5 cherry tomatoes, diced
cilantro, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
pinch red pepper flakes (if you like it spicy)

Combine all ingredients into a bowl and mix. Let sit for 10 minutes so all the flavors can blend. And now you may eat!

Full Quiver Chicken

A few days ago I went to the neighborhood of Ghent to pick up some chicken I ordered online. Full Quiver Farm is a local, family-run farm located in Suffolk - just 30 miles from where I live in Norfolk. Orders are placed through their website and once a month Scott Wilson drives in to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area to drop off the orders at hostess homes located throughout the city. I ordered 4 chicken breast filets, a thigh pack with 6 chicken thighs and 1lb of Italian-style pork sausage. The grand total: $37.13, including taxes and delivery charge.

The Wilson family does everything the old-fashioned way on their farm: they use natural compost and manure instead of synthetic fertilizers; all the animals (chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys) are free-range meaning they pasture freely and aren't locked up in cages all day; no growth hormones are used to un-naturally fatten the animals; and they enjoy a natural diet: the chickens eat insects, grass and a natural feed mix, the cows are grass fed - not corn fed (which is not part of their natural diet!).

But the best (and most adorable) part of Full Quiver Farm? The Wilson Family! That's mom, dad, 3 boys and 6 girls! All the children play a large role in the running of the farm - just read their newsletter. Things can't get much more wholesome than that! So, even though the chicken was pretty pricey, I feel better spending that kind of money when I know I'm contributing to the livelihood of a family of ELEVEN. Jon and Kate move aside - you guys have nothing on the Wilson family!

I've yet to make anything with the chicken. Maybe I'll grill up two of the breast filets and make chicken soft tacos for dinner tonight... I do anticipate a more distinct "chicken flavor", as weird as that may sound. Like the chicken we caught and killed on my grandfather's farm in Vietnam - lean, not much meat, but had a very distinct (i.e. strong) chicken flavor compared to that stuff you get in the supermarkets. I'll let you know how it turns out :)