Tuesday, August 31, 2010

over-the-hill cooking

No, I don't mean the cook is over-the-hill, though sometimes we may feel that way! What I'm talking about here are those ingredients that get forgotten in the refrigerator or garden till they're a bit past their prime. Not rotting or slimy or anything, just not as fresh as they used to be. The question, then, is whether to throw them out or find some way to incorporate them into something tasty. There's a saying I like (I saw it on an old embroidered sampler):

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

My grandmother, who was very important in my upbringing and who raised her children during the Great Depression, would have liked that. She taught me a lot about cooking, sewing, gardening, etc., and I also absorbed many of my beliefs and values from her. One of those is that it just makes me crazy to see people throw away perfectly good food that could be put to use and provide eating pleasure.

All of this is just the lead-in to what we had for lunch yesterday, a zucchini frittata enhanced by a few over-the-hill mushrooms.

You can't see the mushrooms in the picture. There were four of them, nice Creminis, stored properly in a brown paper bag with the edges turned down and partly open to let the mushrooms breathe, and they'd been breathing at the back of the refrigerator for a couple of weeks or so, and now they were showing their age. Not crispy crumbly dried like the ones in the little packets that we buy as delicacies at the market, but slightly shriveled and leathery though otherwise okay. I didn't want to "reconstitute" them by soaking and thus lose their flavor and "structural integrity," so I sliced off the bottoms of the stems and chopped what remained into fairly small bits, then sautéed them in olive oil with quite a bit of minced garlic and a couple of sliced zucchini for 10 minutes or so over pretty low heat. I salted the zucchini at this stage rather than salting the dish later because if you salt the vegetables as you sauté them, it not only enhances the flavor but it also draws out more of their moisture, and zucchini have considerable moisture that, before it cooked down, helped to rehydrate my mushroom bits and enhance the flavor addition they made to the frittata.

I should add here that the zucchini had also been forgotten a few days longer than I would have liked, so their lovely dark green skin was starting to show the first signs of cellulite, but they were still quite wholesome and acceptable, though they'd lost some of their youthful perfection. Anyway, after the zucchini were tender it was time to pour the eggs over (I use 6 eggs to serve 4), sprinkle a good handful or two of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top, pop on the lid, turn the heat down even lower, and go do something else for 10 or 15 minutes. I know that's not the traditional way of cooking a frittata, but it produces a lovely, puffy dish with minimal effort, and with a nice salad (the dressing recipe is in an earlier post), some good bread, and a glass of wine (this is a decent but not too pricey white Zin) it was a lovely lunch.

The bread is the "bran-enriched white bread" from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, my current new favorite cookbook. If you follow the instructions to the letter you get exactly the results they promise - excellent bread with minimal effort. Don't let hubris derail you. As a long-time bread-baker who even used to teach classes on it, I thought I could improve on their method, so the first time I tried one of their recipes I didn't really pay attention, and what I got wasn't all that great. In fact, I almost took the book to Bookman's (Tucson's wonderful used book/music/and many other things exchange) but then I tried it again and followed the directions and was very happy with the results. With a bit more experience under my belt, I now feel able to improvise and adapt, but baking, more than other forms of cooking, does require a bit more attention to certain details.

Frittatas are such a lovely way to use up bits of this and that and turn them into something special. I'd meant to add some slivers of sun-dried tomato to this one, but I forgot. Fresh mushrooms are great, of course, and I often use just mushrooms and onions or scallions. Fresh herbs - parsley, basil, thyme, marjoram, etc. - brighten things up, but don't confuse the issue by using too much or too many different ones all together. Rosemary, for example, is wonderful with garlic and anything else, but in something as delicate as a frittata, it's probably all the herb you need, and it should be minced quite finely (dried rosemary is to be avoided - those little sharp sticks could really hurt a person! - unless you really have no possible way to get the fresh stuff, in which case the dried herb should be very finely minced and simmered in whatever you're making for a long time, or ground to a powder so it can't choke you). Leftover crumbled bacon and/or various cheeses - that last ounce of gorgonzola with some caramelized onion and a slice of crumbled bacon from yesterday's breakfast (or the day before - it's cooked so it will keep for a few days) can really elevate what might otherwise just seem like scrambled eggs for two.

And now it's time for me to go see what I can come up with for lunch today!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

mountain getaway

I've been away from this blog for quite a while. The summer has been busier and hotter than I'd like; the monsoons have been few and mostly stingy, so we gave up on some of the summer garden - seemed like a waste of expensive water - and are looking forward to cooler weather and planting for the winter. But in the meantime, Tucson has a wonderful sky island getaway available close by, Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains just northeast of the city, rising through several bio-zones from the saguaros of the desert floor to the pines of the 9000+ foot summit, and Joe and I escaped there for the day last Saturday.
About halfway up we stopped at a pullout and I picked this Hooker's primrose.  The blossom is as big and as yellow as the columbine we see on the shadier, moister trails higher up, but there was no shade or moisture where these were growing.  There was, however, a spcctacular view of the road we'd just driven up. I hadn't realized the switchbacks were quite that dramatic.  Good thing I outgrew most of the car-sickness that plagued me as a kid!

We decided to try one of our favorite trails from a few years ago, before the Aspen Fire that devastated so much of the mountain and virtually destroyed the village of Summerhaven, though the people of the village have since rebuilt much of what burned.  The memory of the fire is still fresh, both in human minds and in the landscape.  These burned trees stand as silent reminders to those who stop to look down into the San Pedro River valley on the far side of the mountains.

The Butterfly trail used to be
thickly wooded, but much of
it burned, and some of those
burned trees have since fallen
or been cut down, so it looks
very different these days. All
over the mountains there is
new growth, especially ferns
and aspen and locust trees,
and some trees seize any
opportunity to put down
roots, like this one that
seems to be growing right
out of the rock, probably
since before the fire.

When we hiked there before the fire we didn't see as many raspberries we did on Saturday, and last September we found lots of elderberries, enough to pick some to take home to make syrup.  We were hoping for elderberries on this trip, but they're not ripe yet. However, we found lots of wildflowers, like these columbines and Indian paintbrush.
I love the bearded penstemons that line the trail, and so do the hummingbirds.
This dead log surrounded by a froth of lovely, delicate cranesbill is fulfilling one of the higher purposes available to a downed tree, that is, to provide  a home for colorful fungi.
Unfortunately, we cut our hike a bit shorter than we'd planned because my left knee, which I injured a few weeks ago (just before the elevator went out in the building I was teaching in for three weeks, which didn't help matters), started acting up, so we turned back. But the nice thing about hiking out and back is that things look very different on the return trip, so it was just fine.  It was also uphill on the return, which was easier on my knee. And I'm happy to say that I've been walking every day and the knee continues to improve, just not as rapidly as I'd like - but patience really isn't my strongest virtue.

We'd packed a lunch, since the four eating establishments Summerhaven boasted before the fire had been reduced to one. Of the three that burned, only one has rebuilt so far, and it was always our least favorite (the one restaurant that survived the fire closed some months ago for other reasons). But hope springs eternal, so we drove into the village to see if there was anything new, and there was! At the upper end of the main street a big banner announced "Planet of the Crepes" so we pressed on eagerly and at the intersection with Carter Canyon Road, in a shady clearing, we found a white trailer and a few tables and the answer to our prayers.

The menu was a delightful surprise, ranging from breakfast bacon-and-egg crepes to sweet treats (Nutella and banana, for example) and some fairly sophisticated savory offerings, all folded up in delicious, generous, crispy crepes. Joe had the veggie option, tomatoes, cheese, pesto and some other fresh and delicious ingredients, while I tried the smoked duck breast with havarti and arugula. Our taste buds were very happy and so was our budget; the prices are quite reasonable (my very fancy lunch was $6.75). There's a Facebook page under Planet of the Crepes Tucson, but I couldn't find the menu posted anywhere online.  Guess you'll just have to drive up the mountain and check it out for yourselves - I promise you won't be sorry!