Last year, I wrote a post about the Annual Tomato Festival in a nearby town.
It’s a six hour event and it’s a pretty big deal to the people around here. We went early and left early after having seen everything in about 45 minutes. It was too hot to really stay around and support everything that was happening.
Well, it was held again this past weekend and we showed up about a half hour after opening. We didn’t ride the tram this time since we knew our way from the parking area to the festival.
It was mildly disappointing, for a couple of reasons. First, the area has started a new event to be held next weekend called the Annual Watermelon Chucking Contest, wherein they use highly powered cannon-like devices to toss watermelons across the river. Because of this, they didn’t have the watermelon chucking contest. Last year, you could set the criteria of the cannon and press Shoot and watch your watermelon sail over the river, hoping to hit the other side.
Second, the number of booths had dwindled noticeably. Last year, there weren’t a huge amount of booths, enough to easily visit each one in an hour. This year, the same booths were there, but less of them. The Humane Society was absent so there weren’t any dogs and cats to cuddle. And the used books booth wasn’t there which we had all been looking forward to. There was only one place to buy food, one place to buy drinks, and one place to buy sno-cones. The lemonade at the drinks stand was remarkable only in the fact that it didn’t taste nearly as good as the little girls’ stand across the street from a couple of weeks ago.
But despite the minor disappointments, it was a fun morning. It was great to be out and not at work. It was good to be in a small community enjoying the day and supporting a worthwhile cause, the local volunteer fire dept. We bought a new filet knife made of carbon steel. Sharp as a scalpel. I haven’t cut myself yet. FiL bought one antique pocket knife and two brand new ones. He whittles and carves so knives are like toys to him. We got more information on upcoming events. We watched some ladies carding wool into fibers and spinning that into yarn.
And we watched some people have a tomato race. The official race took place long after we left, but they allowed people to race against each other for fun and practice. Like an egg race, the competitors balance a ripe tomato on a spoon and run or walk fast through a course without dropping the tomato. One little girl kept dropping her tomato and picking it up until she put it in her pocket and just carried her spoon upright to the finish line. Her brother cried foul, of course, so they both got prizes.
Since it’s on a river, there were boats everywhere, and places to walk along the water. There were cool breezes to enjoy, people to talk to, and even people we recognized and recognized us.
Before we left, we bought some heirloom tomatoes, some lettuce, and other salad stuff. We had home fried chicken, baked rice, and fresh salad. Way good stuff.
And you know what? We had a really good time after all.
What? You’ve never heard of baked rice? It’s so easy!!
Heat your oven to 350. Pour two cups of chicken broth into a dutch oven with a tight lid. Add one cup of rice, and any of your favorite seasonings. Go light on the seasoning since the cooking process will intensify the flavors. We also add chopped onion sometimes. Cover the pot, and bake for about 45 minutes. Take out of the oven and let it sit for 15-20 minutes then serve. Easy peasy. If the rice is too soft, reduce the cooking time next time.
At the store recently, a man brought up a bag of cucumbers to the register. There had to be at least a dozen and I commented that he must be going to make a lot of salad or pickles. He chuckled and said, “No, I just like cucumbers.” So do I. I’ve liked them since I can first remember eating solid food. I’ve never bought a dozen at one time. Turns out, he was going to make a something like zucchini bread but use cucumbers instead. After grating the cucumbers, you let them drip into the sink for an hour, then squeeze as much of the juice out of them as possible, then make the cake as a zucchini but put in the cucumber instead. I’m not going to try it because I don’t like zucchini bread, and I prefer my cucumbers raw, except in one case I’ll explain later.
But it did get me to wondering what you could do with a dozen cucumbers. Cucumbers can by amazingly good, and so easy to use. Not just for salads anymore, you have to think outside the box, or rather outside the vine to discover just how versatile this member of the gourd family is. First, you have to understand your cucumber. There are three main types: slicing, pickling, and “burpless” also called English. The pickling cucumber is smaller and harder than the other two, which can be used interchangeably as far as I’m concerned. Just remember that cucumbers are exceptionally juicy, which is part of their appeal. Some recipes call for removing the seeds and I’ve found that to be a good recommendation, although I love the seeds. The easiest way to remove them is to slice the cucumber in half lengthways and use a spoon to gently scrape the seeds out.
One way to use cucumbers is the standard “in a salad” way. I’ve probably eaten 50 pounds of cucumbers in a salad. They add crunch and flavor. But rather than making a cucumber an addition to a salad, what about making it the star of the salad? We make a wonderful cucumber salad by peeling and seeding a cucumber and cutting it into bite sized chunks. Then we add small, ripe grape tomatoes, and shelled pistachio nuts. We add roughly grated cheese of any kind, a small amount of dried oregano, and lemon juice. That’s all. An onion can be added if you like it, and the tomatoes can be omitted if you don’t want them, or don’t have them. It works as a side, or throw on some leftover chilled grilled chicken and it becomes a main dish. All it takes is think about the cucumber as the salad base.
Another way we use cucumbers is from a Julie Child recipe. It cooks the cucumbers. You wouldn’t expect cooked cucumbers to be exceptional, but they are amazing. I’ve written about them in the blog before but it bears repeating.
- 3 medium to large garden cucumbers (not the English or Persian variety)
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 1 pinch sugar (optional)
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 Tablespoon lemon juice (white vinegar will work if lemon juice isn’t around)
- 1/2 chopped fresh mint leaves
- Peel the cucumbers leaving the ends on. Slice in half lengthways. Cut in half across the length of cucumber making four quarters of even size for each cucumber. Using a spoon, gently remove the seeds. Cut the cucumber into one inch pieces. On medium heat, melt butter in a large heavy bottomed skillet until bubbles disappear, then add sugar if using. Add the cucumber and stir to coat evenly. Cover the skillet and cook for five minutes, stirring twice during the cooking time. Add salt, lemon, and mint stirring to mix thoroughly. Cover and cook for two more minutes, then remove from heat, uncover, and serve hot.
Pickles are small cucumbers that have been preserved either in a cold or hot processed method. Cold processed results in crispier pickles, which we prefer. They can be sweet or sour or savory, but in our house, it’s only sour. No other pickles shows up except by accident. (When I was a kid, mom couldn’t keep dill pickles in the house because of me.) But did you know there’s a quick and dirty way to making sour pickles in the refrigerator in just an afternoon? My mom used to make these in a bowl, but I use a jar. They’ll keep for about two weeks. Use as many cucumbers as will fit in a jar either sliced or cut into spears. Add fresh garlic cloves. Put enough white vinegar to fill the jar about one quarter of the way, then add cool water to fill to the top. Tighten a lid onto the jar, and leave in the fridge for a minimum of three hours. The pickles are ready to use, but the longer they stay, the more pickled they become. Kinda like me and wine. Like I said, they should be used fairly quickly, but in our house they don’t usually last longer than a couple of days.
In keeping with the latest trends, you can use cucumbers in smoothies. Just make your favorite smoothie and throw in a peeled cucumber cut into chunks. Make sure the flavors are complementary or you won’t like the results. Think fresh veggies and you won’t go too wrong.
Another trend is to substitute cucumbers for tomatoes in salsa. Gotta say, I like this one! Leave the seeds in and allow the cucumber juices to mix with the lime and other flavors. So good! Next time I make it, I’m going to cut the amount of tomatoes in half and put cucumbers in for the rest. That should taste like a salad salsa?
Ever have gazpacho? It’s a chilled tomato soup, of sorts. Well, you can make a chilled soup from cucumbers that’s perfect for a summer day. Use a pound of cucumbers. Peel them and seed them, then slice them thin. Sprinkle with a little salt and set in a colander in the sink to drain all the moisture off. After an hour, squeeze the cucumber to release more juice. Place the cucumbers in a food processor with a garlic clove that’s been chopped, and one or two green onions that have been chopped, and 2 cups of plain greek yogurt. Process until it’s smooth and pour into a bowl. Stir in five or six mint leaves that have been chopped fine and pour into chilled bowls. Serve immediately. This best served with cold chicken or cold beef, and crusty bread with butter.
One of my favorite ways to use cucumbers is replace them as crackers for cold appetizers. Slide the cucumber thin, but not too thin. They need to be able to hold their toppings. Place thin slice of cheese on the cucumber and then a small piece of your favorite meat. Or put a cream cheese and herb mixture into a piping bag and pipe it onto the cucumber slices. You could also use a deviled egg mixture. I’ve found that due to the juiciness of the cucumber, trying to spread the filling on with a knife is problematic.
Well, I hope this has tweaked your creative juices for using cucumbers in different ways. Let me know what you come up with!
I had a large moment of nostalgia over the weekend. The little girls across the street had their dad set up a lemonade stand and they sat there in the shad most of the afternoon shouting “Lemonade!” at intervals. Business wasn’t too good at first, but eventually picked up. I walked across and bought three glasses for FiL, Partner/Spouse and I. It was really good, very lemony and not too sweet. I’m sure we have mom and dad to thank for that. They were also selling handmade necklaces made out of hand painted metal washers, and seashells. And yarn.
It set me to thinking about lemonade. Well, not lemonade so much as making lemonade, because their lemonade was perfectly flavored. It was tart to the point of almost puckering your mouth, but sweet enough that it could be drunk in big swallows. And it was icy cold. I grew up with lemonade. It was part of the landscape. We had huge tracts of land all around my home town devoted to citrus groves.
To make lemonade properly, you have to get the juice out of the lemon while leaving behind all the bitter parts like the peel, the pith, and the seeds. It’s easy enough to do. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze over a strainer then mash what’s in the strainer to get as much juice as possible. Over the years, though, the “science” of juicing has taken some radical paths.
I think everyone in my town had one of these:
You sliced the lemon in half, jammed the center of the fruit onto the point, grasped firmly and rotated the fruit until all the juice was extracted. Everything was collected in the bowl of the juicer then poured into a strainer and into the pitcher where the other ingredients were added. Of course, as a kid I was stupid and just poured everything into the pitcher, seeds and all. Made for some very lumpy lemonade. I’ve seen versions of this that were over a hundred years old. I’ve seen them made of metal and plastic. The basic design is always the same.
But it’s not the only way to extract juice from citrus. Can you imagine a restaurant trying to make gallons of lemonade, or dozens of lemon pie using this over and over again? There’s another option, and I usually see this at seaside, riverside, or lakeside boardwalks at lemonade stands.
You can buy a home version of this, but they can be a little pricey. The industrial versions are large, clunky looking things, but work like a charm. Each half of the citrus fruit is place in the bowl one at a time, and the lever pulls down a hammer type of device that forces the fruit down. All the juice is strained and collected in about ten seconds. I don’t think I’d like this in my house. Not only is space a consideration, I just don’t think I’d use it enough to make it worthwhile. But it is much easier than the other one.
Back in the early 90’s my mother passed away from cancer. During the early stages of the disease, she and dad were looking for ways to enhance her immune system to help her fight off the cancers. They learned about juicing and its benefits and bought one. It weighed about 30 pounds and could actually extract juice from a block of wood.
This is similar to what they had, although somewhat smaller. It uses a masticating process. In the tube is a column set with teeth that shred the matter inserted into the hopper. The shreds are then pressed for any juice and sluiced off into a collect while the shreds are dumped into a storage bin. When it was apparent that juicing was not going to be the success they hoped for, they sent the juicer to me and my ex. I think we used it a couple of times and I found some cool uses for the leftover sludge. I’ve tried getting the smaller, home versions but don’t drink enough juice to justify having one around. Even the attachment for our stand mixer wouldn’t get much use.
I remember a while back these things became popular.
The concept is to insert this into the fruit, squeeze and drink directly from the fruit. I can’t imagine why anyone would insert a metal device into any citrus fruit, particularly a lemon, because of the acid, but I have seen them in plastic and silicon. I’ve never seen anyone actually using them.
And this one just seems silly from the get go.
So what does all this lead to? My favorite juice extractor for citrus fruits is this one.
It’s called a reamer. Get the one made of wood. Plastic will break; metal will corrode. You cut the fruit in half, insert the point into the center of the fruit, squeeze the fruit while twisting the reamer around, and a TON of juice will flow into the strainer and down into a bowl or other container. If you do it right, there will be nothing left inside the fruit except the pith and the fibrous ribs. This I use all the time. And it’s easy to clean. A quick rinse in cool water and it’s ready to go.
One more note about extracting juice. Inside the citrus fruit, the juice is contained in segments which are made up of hundreds of smaller membrane “bubbles” containing the juice. (These are my terms for all this.) It’s breaking these bubbles that releases the juice. To get the most juice, the fruit must be at its ripest. But there are a couple of other things you can do to get more juice. Microwaving the fruit for a few seconds causes the bubbles to burst internally releasing the juice before you cut it. Just don’t microwave it for too long. Another thing that breaks the membranes is rolling the fruit vigorously on a hard surface. It also softens the outer skin/peel making the fruit easier to squeeze.
And now, my favorite recipe for (what else?) Lemonade!!
Freshest Homemade Lemonade:
- 3/4 – 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup fresh lemon juice (4-6 lemons)
- 3 -4 cups cold water
Heat water and sugar together over low heat until sugar is dissolved completely. Zest one lemon, slice another, juice all lemons until you have one cup (strained as described above.) Remove sugar syrup some heat and add lemon juice and zest. Pour into large pitched and add cold water to taste, minimum of three cups, but four if needed. Add lemon slices and chill pitcher until ready to serve. Good stuff!
I’ve been thinking about post number 500 for several weeks. I wanted to make it memorable and relevant, and I wanted to make it funny and special. But I decided to make it from the heart instead.
Yesterday was the second year since Robin Williams killed himself. Since that moment, a lot has been said about depression, some if it by me. I’ve become more active in social media in talking about depression and my own battles with the disease, and some of the lessons I’ve learned.
It’s not a disease you ever “get over” like a cold. It’s not a disease you “learn to live with” like the loss of a digit or limb. It’s a constant day-to-day struggle finding the strength to go forward rather than just stop. I’ve struggled with depression since my teen years. I’ve always referred to it in my head as The Dragon. Each day is a new battle and most days I win. Some days The Dragon wins. If I had less of an optimistic personality, I might not be here.
I know several people who have lost that daily struggle.
In college, I had a dear funny friend named Donna Givens. We had the same major so we had many of the same classes. The moment we met, we knew we were going to be friends for life and we decided the friendship was more important than any other kind of relationship. I regret that that “life” was so short. We confided in each other about everything, I thought. We would make each other laugh until we were sick. Once, I had to leave class in the middle of a guest lecture over something funny she’d said. I apologized to the professor and the speaker later, and when I told them the joke, they laughed uproariously, too. Two days later, I had to leave an auditorium lecture because of a flashback laughing fit. I got her back at the end of that semester during a final she was taking. I’d already had the course with that professor so I was helping her study and we got onto a laughing fit involving a tennis ball in my apartment. After we got back to studying, I slipped the tennis ball into her book bag which fell over during the test. The tennis ball rolled out and she started laughing again. She couldn’t control the laughter; the professor thought she’d lost her mind; she got an A for the course. She showed up at my apartment after the test to yell at me, but when I opened the door, she started laughing, I started laughing, and we drank some wine.
About five years later, she stopped the laughter with a gun. My name and phone number was at the top of the list of people to contact. I learned many things from this experience. I learned we never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s life no matter how close we believe we are. I learned we can only help people just so much. I learned that suicide doesn’t end their life; it ends everyone’s life. Life after your friend commits suicide changes for you forever.
About a year or two afterwards, I was managing a computer retail store and one of the young kids working with me wanted to come over to talk. It was late, but I said sure, and watched movies and talked until nearly 1 am. When we went to where his car was parked, it had been towed. We copied the number of the tow company, and I walked to the subway station with him. He bitterly castigated the tow company, his parents, and his life. Then he said, “I should just kill myself and get it over with.”
I spent the next two hours telling him about my own battles with depression, and the still recent wounds of losing my friend Donna G. I explained the lessons I’d learned. I talked him down from where he was at the moment and when we parted, exhaustion ripping us both apart, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Not long after, he went back to school in Georgia and we lost contact. I hope he’s still with us.
There’s no “do over” with suicide.
I wish everyone understood that.
Sorry, it’s a dark subject, so I’ll close with a recipe for brownies because, you know, chocolate. It’s a simple recipe, one I’ve shared before, but since this is a post about a subject I’ve done before, it fits.
Heat your oven to 350. Melt a half cup of butter over low heat until it stops bubbling. Add a cup of sugar and remove from the heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved into the butter. Add a teaspoon of vanilla and mix thoroughly. Add two eggs and mix until fully incorporated. There should be no egg visible. Add a half cup of cocoa powder and stir carefully until there are no lumps. Add a half cup of flour, a quarter teaspoon of salt, and a quarter teaspoon of baking powder. Stir carefully until there are no lumps. Add a half cup to a whole cup of chocolate chips. Stir to combine. Add nuts or coconut if you like. Pour into an 8 x 8 square pan that’s been sprayed lightly with vegetable spray. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, no longer. Remove from oven, cool, cut, and eat.
The Father in Law is here for an extended visit. Since we’re now cooking for three, we cooking in larger portions. We no longer take a large package of chicken thighs and break it up into two meals, for instance. We cook it all and use the leftovers for another meal. Sometimes it’s the same one, and sometimes it’s repurposed. Sort of like Chopped, but no prizes. And the only judges are the hungry folks around the table.
We get really good at creativity with leftovers, but we run to a few that are favorites. Tacos, for one. Put random meat, veggies, and cheese in a corn tortilla with salsa on top or on the side and it’s going to be good. But one main meal/leftover combination we have fairly often. It’s good and tasty and inspires a lot of ideas.
First, we start the main meal with either a good pork roast, or several pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs. We put that in a slow cooker with a jar of good salsa verde. If we have any tomatillos available, we make our own, but typically it’s a jar. We add onions, garlic, and fresh peppers of some kind. That all gets cooked slowly all day long. When it’s tender, we do a rough shred after draining it of all the juices (which we keep for other uses.) Then, we either dry sauté it in a large skillet until it gets a little crispy, or we put on a baking sheet and put it in a high oven until the tops start to char. Throw some fresh cilantro and lime and the result can be eaten as is with a salad, or chunky salsa, rice, and whatever else we like. Or it can go into a large flour tortilla for burritos, or into corn tortillas for tacos. There’s always tons of it left over.
The difficulty we have with leftovers in our house is we don’t usually enjoy the same flavors two or three nights in a row. Fried chicken or pizza is the exception. Lotsa times we’ll freeze the leftovers, but that usually just ends up getting tossed because we don’t remember what was in that baggie, or it’s far beyond the mythical “use by” date.
But with FiL here, we have to make sure we use everything since we’re spending more.
So we had the pork roast in the slow cooker on Monday. Partner/Spouse cooked while I was at work. The roast had not only the salsa verde, but he had thrown in extra onion and garlic, and added potatoes. We both grew up in the same area near the border of Mexico, but we had both forgotten the flavor added by tossing in a chopped potato until recently. Now it’s a staple ingredient in much of our Mexican cooking. We had baked rice, tortillas, the pork roast, and some kind of dessert.
So yesterday, while at work, I was pondering what to do with the leftovers. The flavor of the roast had been amazing. Partner/Spouse took the leftover rice and some roast to work for lunch. I had the roast, some tortillas, and not much else left. So I decided to make a white chili.
White chili is basically chili con carne but it’s made with chicken instead of beef, white beans instead of red, and no tomatoes are added so it stays a light color rather than turning brownish-red. So I got a couple of cans of white beans. But I didn’t just want to add water to the roast because I thought it would just give it a watered down flavor. So I got a box of chicken stock. When I got home, I put the leftover roast into a large pot and added the entire four cups of chicken stock. I started heating it on low and stirred to get the flavors combined. It was lacking a little kick, so I added a couple of teaspoons of chili powder. That was okay, but not exactly what I was after. Oh well, not much to do about it since I didn’t have anything spicier to add. I left the chili to simmer for an hour or so. I wanted the chicken stock to reduce and thicken, but it wasn’t doing that.
Then I remembered a trick from ATK. I had 9 leftover corn tortillas. I cut them into strips and added about a third of them directly to the chili. Ordinarily, I would have left the chili to simmer for a few hours, but this was after work, I didn’t get home until nearly 6, and we wanted to eat before 9. I just didn’t have time. So I left the tortillas to break down in the chili and thicken it up, which it did beautifully. With the rest of the strips, I heated some oil and made fresh tortillas chips to have with the chili. I’d brought home some corn bread mix, but decided the tortilla chips would be plenty.
While I was putting the corn bread mixes away, I found a small can of chopped green peppers! Woo hoo! Just what I needed. Those went into the chili along with the beans. Another twenty minutes of simmering, and we had a pot of white chili that had the tang of the tomatillos and lime, along with the kick of the green peppers, and the mellowness of corn.
It was a hit, and I’m likely going serve that one again.