Thursday, April 26, 2012

Omelet Fail: Asparagus and White Cheddar Scramble

People sometimes say, “You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.” I think that’s just another way of saying sometimes you have to get through tricky and/or nasty things in order to accomplish something good. I tried to keep this in mind as I failed to make an omelet yesterday; instead, I just told myself I was making a very successful scramble.

At first I thought it was because I’m out of practice, but now it’s time to admit that I am just not any good at making omelets. First of all, there’s no way I’m cracking eggs without getting some shell in the mix. That’s a given. I usually spend about a minute and a half trying to fish out the bits of shell before coming to terms with the idea of eating eggshells.

Once I’ve compiled the omelet in the pan, flipping it is another hurdle. Assuming I’ve greased the pan enough (which is a generous assumption), it’s unlikely that I’m going to get enough leverage with the spatula and choose just the ride midpoint so that the omelet looks… well, like an omelet instead of like a mess.

Making a sad-looking omelet is a depressing experience, so I’ve learned to avoid it by opting to make scrambles instead. Because what is a scramble if not a failed omelet? Set your sights low, that’s what I always say.

Yesterday I decided to use a bunch of fresh, local ingredients to make a delicious scramble. Here’s what I used:

Asparagus and White Cheddar Scramble
3 eggs
3 tbsp milk
3 asparagus stalks, chopped
handful raw white cheddar cheese
pinch of salt

I used Lily’s free-range, organic eggs from Fillmore, California (distance from me: 52 miles). Lily’s eggs is a company run by Robert Tropper and Diana Tuomey, who value the happiness of their chickens and treat them like pets. The chickens to run around their farm, snacking on earthworms, wheat sprouts, soybeans, and corn. Oh! And not being killed, since the farm is purely for egg production.

The asparagus came from Melendez Farm in Santa Maria, California (distance from me: 63.5 miles). Luis Melendez has been farming at this location for over twenty-four years. He and his sons, Hector, Mario, and Mike, grow all sorts of different vegetables on their twenty-five acres.

The raw white cheddar cheese, which has become a favorite of mine, was from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese. I wrote a post about Spring Hill a few weeks back.

After mixing the eggs (and, who am I kidding, some shards of eggshell) with the milk, I poured them into a large frying pan over a low flame. It’s important to make a scramble over low heat in order to cook all the eggs evenly. If you think I didn’t learn that the hard way, you don’t know me at all.

When the eggs started to congeal, I added the chopped asparagus and cheddar cheese and a pinch of salt. I mixed the scramble by kind of folding it over itself, over and over again. It was much easier to deal with than flipping an omelet would have been, and I think I pulled it off nicely.

I served it (to myself) with a roll of rustic bread from Solvang Pie Company (distance from me: 33.2 miles). This rustic bread was one of my staples when I was a vegan – it’s made without eggs or whey.

I know it sounds cliché, but here goes: using fresh, organic ingredients makes a huge difference in the taste of a meal. It can turn a boring old failed omelet into a tasty scramble. So if you must crack a few eggs to make an omelet (and yes, you must), make sure they’re free-range, organic eggs.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ugly Fruit Double Take: The Cherimoya

If you know me, you know that I like to pretend my life is a movie. Whenever I get the chance, I employ some filmic device to the real world. For example, every so often I burst into song and expect everyone to know the words (and the dance moves). Or – and this is much more difficult to pull off – I stage a montage (usually involving training for a marathon, laughing in slow motion, and trying on floppy hats).

One of the easiest movie tricks to execute in real life is the double take. Double takes can be emphatic (stopping in your tracks to get a better look at something) or subtle (a mere double glance, often confused for an aggressive wink).

Wandering around the Saturday farmers market, I was thrilled to find myself in a situation in which a double take was entirely warranted. I had just purchased some delicious avocadoes from Ellwood Farm in Winchester Canyon and was fantasizing about the guacamole I would make with them. That’s when I did the double take. 

What… what were those things?!

Arranged on the table of the Foley Farm stand were a cluster of some of the strangest looking things I’ve ever seen at a farmers market (and that’s including a dreadlocked woman playing the didgeridoo).

These things looked like what would happen if an ugly pinecone ate an everlasting gobstopper and the dessert course was key lime pie (not blueberry, as in the unfortunate case of Violet Beauregarde):
After a particularly dramatic double take, I inquired about these bizarre things. The man working at the stand was named James, and he told me that they were a type of fruit called cherimoyas. Cherimoya trees are evergreens native to South America; in the United States, they only grow in Southern California coastal areas and Southern Florida. Their crazy-looking fruit is sweet, but less acidic than other sweet fruits.

James offered me a sample. It tasted like a combination of a banana and a pineapple, with the texture of a kiwi. Obviously, I bought one. I ate it in the simplest way: I simply cut it in half and scooped out the inside with a spoon.

Cherimoyas are all over farmers markets in Southern California right now, so why not do a double take? Or a triple take if you really can’t figure out what the heck it is? I love discovering new foods, and this bizarre-looking fruit is going to become a staple in my local summer snacking.

Cue: montage of Meghan snacking on a cherimoya while sitting on the front porch, reading a book, playing golf, running through a sprinkler... you get the idea.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Go Get Your Goat (Cheese)

One of my new favorite stands at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market is the Drake Family goat cheese stand. The woman who offers samples is always really friendly and their cheese samples are delicious. So last week, I splurged and dropped $6 on a small tub of cranberry-walnut chevre:

Six dollars seems like a lot to spend on a tub so small, but I figured I’d consumed about an entire second tub’s worth in samples, so I was getting my money’s worth.

Compared to cheese made from cow’s milk, goat cheese is generally lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol. Since the fat particles in goat’s milk are similar in size to those in human mothers’ milk, it’s easier to digest than cow’s milk, even for lactose-intolerant people.

If you know me, you know as soon as you say, “easy to digest,” I’m sold. Unless you’re talking about literature. I like my literature to be almost prohibitively obtuse.

The Drake Family chevre I bought is creamy and rich like goat cheese should be, and because it has dried cranberries and walnuts mixed into it, making a yummy salad is pretty simple. For lunch one day this week, I just mixed it with some almond slivers and lettuce from Tutti Frutti Farms in Carpinteria (distance from me: 12 miles).

Like almost every product sold at farmers markets nowadays, this goat cheese is “artisan.” It seems to me that the word “artisan” is overused, almost to the point of absurdity, but that might just be because I’ve never been quite sure what it meant.

As it turns out, according to the American Cheese Society (of which I aim to become a card-carrying member someday), cheese is “artisan” or “artisanal” if it is produced by hand in small batches, adhering pretty closely to traditional methods.

Edward Drake started the Drake family farm in West Jordan, Utah when he settled there in 1880. Recently, one of his descendants, Dan Drake, decided to take 143 goats from the original farm and start a goat dairy in Ontario, California (distance from me: 133 miles). As a veterinarian, Dan Drake treats his goats like pets and prioritizes their health.

The best part of the whole thing is that they give each goat a name. If I had a goat, I’d name it Amanda and feed it my landlady’s tomatoes.

On the Drake Family website, you can purchase goat milk, goat cheese, goat milk soap (in case you want to trick someone with a keen sense of smell into thinking you’re a goat), and goat semen. Because, hey, you never know when you’re going to need $100 worth of goat semen.

You can even purchase a whole goat! So if you want to try to produce your own artisan goat cheese, go get your goat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When You Steal Lemons from Life, Make Lemon Squares!

The other morning while eating breakfast on David’s patio, I noticed a lemon tree growing in the corner of his backyard. Well, calling it a “tree” might be giving it a little too much credit. It was more of a lemon bush; it barely came up to my waist:
It was downright laden with lemons. I wanted to take them all. Food doesn’t get much more local than lemons stolen from your boyfriend’s backyard. So I headed home with a huge bag full of lemons. I plopped it down on my kitchen floor and then immediately began to wonder what on earth I was going to do with all those lemons.

I’ve heard some annoyingly perky people say, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” But as it turns out, you only need about two lemons to make a whole pitcher of lemonade. That wouldn’t make a satisfactory dent in my giant bag of lemons.

Well, life hadn’t given me lemons; I had taken them. So I wasn’t going to make lemonade; I was going to make lemon squares, the unskilled baker’s lemon meringue pie. Here’s what I used:

Lemon Squares

1 cup butter (2 sticks)
½ cup white sugar
2 cups all purpose flour

Goopy Part:
4 cage-free, local eggs
1 ½ cup white sugar
1 cup flour
juice of 5 lemons

First, I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. To soften the butter for the crust, I stuck it in the microwave… in the metal mixing bowl. The answer to the question, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! is that I wasn’t thinking. I spend a good portion of my life simply not thinking at all, and this was one of those moments.

It was only when I heard popping noises and smelled burning that I realized I had broken the Number 1 Rule of Being a Grownup in the Kitchen: Don’t put metal in the microwave. Luckily, I rescued the butter before the metal mixing bowl exploded and killed me and/or ruined my microwave.

I mixed in 2 cups of flour and ½ cup of sugar, then patted it into the bottom of an ungreased 9x13 pan. By this time, the oven was ready. I baked the crust for 20 minutes, until it was golden brown.

While it baked, I got to work on the goopy part of the lemon squares. I whisked together 1 ½ cups of sugar and ¼ cup of flour in another mixing bowl, then added the eggs and the lemon juice.

I started to just squeeze the first lemon directly into the mixture, but realized quickly that if I kept it up, my lemon squares would be full of seeds. I’m always one for a good surprise, but I don’t think breaking a tooth on a rogue lemon seed while eating dessert counts as a good surprise. So I squeezed the lemons into a little cup first, removed the seeds that accidentally got in there, and then added the juice to the mixing bowl.

When the crust was done baking, I removed it from the oven and poured the mixture on top of it as evenly as I could. Then I put the whole thing back in the oven for another 25 minutes. When I removed the tray from the oven, the lemon squares still looked a bit goopy. But they firmed up as they cooled down.

They have just the right texture and they taste perfect: lemony, but not too lemony. I still have a big bag of lemons in my kitchen, though. I’m not sure what to do with the rest of them – ideas are welcome!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Putting On Airs: Local Shrimp and Fancy Drinks at Coast Restaurant

Last night, David and I went on a spontaneous dinner date to Coast Restaurant at the Canary Hotel. Their motto is: “Eat. Drink. Local.” All things I like. Inside, Coast looks like an Elizabethan tavern had a baby with Gatsby’s library. The tables are thick, rustic-looking wood slabs and the chairs are distressed leather (distressed in a classy way).

Transported by the vibe of the place, I ordered a Manhattan, straight up. I had no clue what a Manhattan even was, but my dad used to order them when we went out to eat, and the waiters always looked impressed and slightly humbled. When our waiter asked what kind of Bourbon I wanted, I deduced that a Manhattan must include Bourbon. Since I don’t know the names of any kinds of Bourbon, I tried to make my face look mysterious and told him to surprise me.

Our waiter, Brett, was one of the best servers I’ve ever encountered. He asked us our names and shook our hands, but not in the affected way some other waiters do. I think we really made friends. I feel like having a party just so I can invite Brett. Maybe he’ll explain to me how to make a Manhattan, straight up.

I think I played the part of Person Who Knows Something About Fancy Drinks a bit too well, because Brett sent over the bartender (who is also the mixologist for the entire hotel chain), Kenny. Kenny told us about his plan to revamp the entire drink menu, periodically featuring a certain kind of drink in all its historical permutations. He convinced me to come back to Coast, if just to check out some other fancy drinks at the bar.

I perused the menu while sipping my Manhattan, and decided to order the shrimp with squash blossoms and pesto. Brett told me that the shrimp is caught just off the coast of Santa Barbara by a fisherman named Steve Escobar. Steve sells the crabs, lobsters, and prawns he catches at the Dory Fleet, the live fish market he owns in Newport Beach.

The whole dish was delicious. The pasta had just the right combination of butter and pesto, and they certainly hadn’t skimped on the shrimp. Sometimes you order a shrimp dish and it includes exactly three, tiny little shrimp. To my delight, that was not the case here.

David ordered the seared chicken. I asked Brett where the chicken came from, and he assured me it was local, from a farm just about thirty miles north of Santa Barbara.

I wanted to find out more, but I didn’t want to be like Peter and Nance in this Portlandia sketch, who demand to know the most minute details about the life of the chicken they are about to order, from its diet to its name (which is Colin).

I was glad to discover Coast, which is within walking distance of my cottage downtown. Even though it looks like the type of place that should be reserved for special occasions, with the happy-hour price of our drinks, the bill wasn’t mind-blowing. And the atmosphere made me nostalgic for the summer days I spent on docent-led tours at the Vanderbilt mansions in Newport, Rhode Island as a child. Ah.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Grilled White Cheddar with Strawberry, Avocado, and Balsamic

One of the best things about Santa Barbara is that we have a farmers market almost every day. Now that I’m making a point of eating locally, I have to be careful about how much money I spend on food. I am always a bit anxious about the price tags at farmers markets, but it’s worth it to me to support local growers.

Spending a little extra on groceries means I’ll have to cut back in other areas of my life, like haircuts (hello, Supercuts!) and clothes. Try not to be too jealous of my resourcefulness when you see that I’ve sewn the legs back onto my jean shorts come winter.

Last week I grabbed one of the reusable bags that have been piling up in a corner of my kitchen and headed to the market with my friend Sasha. When I got back, I wanted to eat everything I’d purchased right away. So I got it into my head to make a pretty weird sandwich. Here’s what I used:

Grilled White Cheddar with Strawberry, Avocado, and Balsamic

2 slices whole grain bread
1 large strawberry, sliced
2 tsp slivered almonds
1/4 avocado, sliced
1 handful fresh baby spinach
2 slices raw white cheddar cheese
1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Earth Balance

I used strawberries from John Givens Farm in Goleta (distance from me: 9 miles). John Givens started his farm in 1980 with just one acre of land; now it’s 180 acres. They grow a ton of different crops, from cabbage to broccoli to peas. I bought a crate of strawberries for $4 and snacked on one of them while I perused the rest of the market. Seriously, I snacked on one strawberry. It was enormous.

Obviously, any kind of cheese will do in a grilled cheese sandwich. But I found that white cheddar was tasty when combined with the sweetness of the strawberries. I used raw white cheddar from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese in Petaluma (distance from me: 360 miles). This farm turned out to be not as close to me as I would have liked; when the man operating the stand told me they make the cheese in Petaluma, I nodded and pretended I knew where Petaluma was. According to Google Maps, it would take me six hours to drive there… but I guess I can still count it as “local,” since this cheese is so tasty that I might just make the drive on my own.

Spring Hill Jersey Cheese is “estate produced,” meaning the cheese is manufactured in a single location. The milk comes from a herd of 400 pasture-grazed Jersey cows, and it’s made into cheese on the premises. My white cheddar is raw, or unpasteurized, so it contains a lot of healthy enzymes. So they tell me. Truthfully, I wouldn’t know an enzyme from my elbow.

To make the sandwich, I piled all the ingredients except for the balsamic vinegar onto the bread and spread some Earth Balance on each side. Then I grilled it for about two minutes. Flipping the sandwich was quite tricky – I have to admit, I lost a strawberry slice or two – but once the cheese melted, it was a lot more manageable.

After grilling each side, I removed the sandwich and poured the balsamic vinegar into the hot pan. I quickly put the sandwich back into the pan on top of it, and the balsamic vinegar absorbed right up into the toast. Yum.