Sunday, July 25, 2010

Green Beans with Onion Vinaigrette

I fear there aren't that many green bean fanatics in the world, and that this post will serve as no more than a recipe archive for my own personal files, but this easy little recipe just has me so very excited.  Seriously excited.  I mean sure, they are just green beans, hardly the sexiest veggie in the world, but who can blame me?  They are one of those ingredients that can only be enjoyed in season, before they get smushed up and muddled by any sort of freezing or canning sub-par method of preservation.

They just don't store well.  I advocate freezing and canning where appropriate, and have gone a wee bit mad this past week with adventures and experiments in freezing pesto and salsa, roasting and freezing peppers, and canning Burn Sauce and pear preserves, but green beans just don't take to that sort of treatment.

It is with that knowledge that I go a little nuts about green beans every summer, when they can be found fresh-picked at the farmer's market and in the CSA box, crisp yet delicate, with pretty little curved tips and a sweet green scent.  My favorite beans are always a bit on the slender side - the ones that cook the fastest and cry out for the least adornment, though a few of our regular recipes can tend towards the assertive side when additional flavors are added to the dishes (as with Italian Dijon Green Beans or Green Beans with Garlic and Shallots).

I prefer to cook the first ones of the season as lightly as possible, and I love, love, love to serve them a little chilled, if you can believe it, so it was with no small amount of glee that I clipped a recipe for Green Beans with Sweet Onion Vinaigrette from one of those sadly final issues of Gourmet magazine last summer.

And boy, do I miss that lovely, thoughtful magazine with the sensual photographs and real reporting and poignant stories that could bring a tear to the eye.  A thousand and one curses on the heads of the decision-makers at Conde Nast.

Onions figure fairly heavily in our dishes, especially when Vidalias are in season, and this recipe just sounded so utterly perfect for the sweltering heat wave we have been mired in so thickly for the past few weeks.  The flavors are supremely evocative of summer, and the idea of a cold side dish (now that salad greens have no chance of surviving our brutal temperatures and have long since left the garden) - well, it is just spot on, if you know what I mean.

These beans are nearly addictive, with the bright flavor of red wine vinegar and the simple but lively herbal quality of fresh flat-leaf parsley.  I like these perfect, crisp little beans served alongside a cheesy, creamy omelette or frittata, but I imagine they would do just as well paired with spicy grilled fish (or meat, if you swing that way).  Sweet onions lend a delicate piquancy to the dish, but I have used regular old white onions in a pinch and been just as happy with the finished balance of flavor.


GREEN BEANS WITH ONION VINAIGRETTE (adapted from Gourmet, serves 8)
  • 1 cup finely chopped sweet onion, such as Vidalia, or white onion
  • 1 Tbs red-wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbs whole-grain Dijon mustard
  • 2 1/2 lbs green beans, stem end trimmed
  • 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • coarse salt & freshly-ground pepper
  1. In a large serving bowl, stir together the onion, vinegar, mustard, 3/4 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper.  Marinate for at least 10 minutes.
  2. Cook beans in large pot of well-salted boiling water, uncovered, until crisp-tender, about 4 to 6 minutes, depending on size of beans.
  3. Transfer beans to an ice bath to stop the cooking.  Drain, and pat dry.
  4. Whisk oil & parsley into the onion mixture, then add the beans and toss to coat.
  5. Taste & adjust for salt.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

From the Garden: Fresh Salsa

Honestly, I feel as if I have been waiting an entire year for tomato season to arrive.  And though I see the ever-so-slight absurdity of that statement, after making the first batch of fresh tomato sauce this past week, and then whipping up our first giant bowl of salsa today, it seemed as if it had been years since we had last feasted on these seasonal delicacies.

I know most people salivate over their first tomato sandwich, or even just their first sliced tomato of the summer, but we are a little weird in our tomato-loving ways.  Neither I nor The Carnivore really get into fresh tomatoes on their own.  I mean, we'll go utterly nutso over tomatoes in many dishes, but solo and unadorned?  Not so much.

If I see quartered tomatoes in my salad at a restaurant, I generally push them to the side, though to be fair, those tomatoes tend to be out-of-season and therefore not really tomatoes at all, if you know what I mean.  The same fate befalls tomato slices in my sandwich at a deli - unceremoniously pulled out and left forgotten on the plate.

But fresh salsa?  Be still my beating heart.

We have tweaked our favorite recipe over the past few summers, finally settling on an entirely raw recipe that incorporates the tomato peel.  The peel is incredibly nutritious, you see, and I was raised on a fairly strict waste-not, want-not philosophy so it distressed me to discard it, as is done for aesthetic reasons in so many recipes.   

I also go pretty heavy on the onions and cilantro in our recipe, and add just enough jalapeno peppers (seeds and all) to give just enough heat to nearly bring a tear to your eye, but to stop short of actually making one cry.  The flavor is quite lovely really, with a bit of salt and lime juice to brighten it all up.  It tastes fresh, spicy, and best of all, very summery.

It is a fine line, I believe, to achieve that elusive balance of acidity, heat, and tang, but I have provided some loose generalizations in the following recipe because everyone's tolerance and balance is a little different.  Now that we have found ours, I have sworn off any further tinkering.  This is our favorite recipe, and it has been for a few summers now so I have taken an oath to Hereby Leave It Alone.

My dream is to fill a pantry shelf with jars of salsa come August some year, but since we have been known to dispose of an entire quart in just one day, I'm not getting my hopes up just yet.


FRESH TOMATO SALSA (makes about 2 quarts)
  • 2 lbs tomatoes, quartered (for chunkier texture, squeeze out and discard excess seeds and juice)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 3 jalapeno peppers, minced (for less heat, discard the seeds)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped, about 1 cup (or use less, to taste)
  • juice of 2 limes (use more or less, to taste)
  1. Combine the tomatoes, garlic cloves, cumin, cayenne, salt, and jalapenos in a food processor, pulsing until desired texture is achieved.  We prefer ours fairly thin, as you can see from the photo.  If end result is too watery, strain out and discard a little of the liquid.
  2. Stir in the onion, cilantro and lime juice.  Taste and adjust for salt.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Homemade Hair Care Products

I am totally uncomfortable with this post, mostly because it feels dangerously akin to my dispensing beauty advice.

If you know me well at all, you recognize how comical that would be.  Especially since this post is about hair care, and for the most part, I walk around either with pigtails or looking like I styled my hair with a fork.

That said though, I have alluded more than once here recently to removing myself from the shampoo/conditioner/styling product machine, and I'm deriving such gratification from this tiny bit of consumer anarchy that I decided to suck it up, take a couple of photographs of my hair, and learn how to put this into my own words.

Disclaimer: this is not beauty advice.  This is just a little more discord sown into your shopping list by the self-styled shopping list whittler.

The upshot is that commercially-produced shampoo and conditioner are unnecessary, and there is more than ample evidence that sulfates and silicone-derivatives are harmful.  One Green Generation is, I believe, where I first read (in recent, less-hippie years, that is) about the baking soda and vinegar hair care revolution, and from there I followed links all over the internet, more than a little surprised at how mainstream the concept had become.

I was skeptical about trying it myself.  Vanity is a construct of letters fairly well ingrained in my vocabulary, and besides, I have long hair.  Years ago, when my hair was short and platinum blonde, I went a year without using shampoo, and no one even noticed.  With long hair though, and a lifestyle that is a little more socially-acceptable than it once was, along with family members who wrinkled their nose at me when I first suggested my interest in going no-poo, I went back and forth on this subject for months before trying it.

And I continued to buy crazy-cheap, relatively safe shampoos and conditioners from big box stores.  If, after all, I had so little money invested in this anyway, and it wasn't that difficult to find sulfate-free shampoo even in mainstream stores, well, there just wasn't much impetus to change my ways.

But here's the rub for me: after way too many years in journalism- and business-school, where I concentrated heavily in classes in economics, marketing, advertising, public relations, management case studies, and the like, I recognize all too well that much of what we do in this current climate is a direct result of what we are told to do by Those In Charge.  Essentially, advertising dictates what we buy, and our shopping lists are abysmally cumbersome.

To wit: we buy educations for three-, four-, and five-year-olds, because it has been ingrained that others will do a better job than we will at raising and teaching our own children.  We buy clothes dryers because subdivision covenants disallow clotheslines, we buy cake/brownie/pancake mixes because we think it's too much trouble to measure and mix ingredients, we buy paper napkins/towels/tissues in order to avoid having to wash something, and the list goes on.  And on.  And on.  From the simplest item, see baking powder, to much more culturally complex decisions, like how many vehicles a small family really needs to own, we have ceded personal decision-making to large businesses whose sole purpose is to make money.

Let me be clear that I have nothing against profit-generation, and I do not subscribe to the belief that Big Corporations are inherently evil.  In the same vein though, I also do not subscribe to the theory that these Companies In Charge have my best interests at heart.

Johnson & Johnson is not selling shampoo and conditioner as a matter of public health.  Bisquick was not invented to provide superior nutrition.  Ford does not manufacture vehicles the size of small living rooms because safety is their first priority.

I am unplugging myself from the matrix.

I am Keanu Reeves.


What I am really doing is continuing to shorten my shopping list.  And, well, let's be honest, it just so happened that I have never been happier with my hair since I gave up shampoo and conditioner, and that's really what this is all about.  If I had hated the baking soda and vinegar routine, I would have kept on keeping on (read: buying shampoo and conditioner from the store).

A short time back, Jessi wrote about going no-poo, and that was what it finally took for me to take the leap.  Jessi is someone I like a lot, someone I actually know, and someone who is (oh, she's gonna LOVE this) fairly normal.  "See," I said to my mother who had looked at me rather askance the first time I mentioned wanting to give up commercial shampoo, "Even Jessi has given up shampoo."

So I did, too, and though it took a week or so to adapt to the new routine, I found almost immediately that my hair texture improved, my ends ceased looking so frazzly, my hair was shinier overall, and my hair was just as clean and went just as long between cleanings as when I used commercial products.  And in a completely unexpected twist, styling products became unnecessary.

Crazy, right?

Here's the routine: Every couple of weeks, I mix up a solution (see below) of baking soda and water, and another solution (again, see below) of vinegar and water and a few drops of essential oil, and keep them in the shower in plastic bottles.  Some people make only as much as they need for a single use, but I find that insensible.  These solutions keep just fine, so I like to keep enough in the shower to last a few weeks at a time.  Easy peasy.

Following the advice I got 10 years or so ago from a hairstylist friend, I cleanse only my scalp (not the ends), and condition only from the nape of the neck down through the ends (not the scalp).  I wash no more often than every other day, and when I get out of the shower, I use the tiniest amount of coconut oil, smaller than a pea-sized amount, as a styling product.

Have you looked at the ingredient list on bottles of commercial shampoo and conditioner?  Mind-boggling, it is.  The shampoo strips your hair of natural oils, the conditioner adds synthetic products back in, which then build up and make the hair dirty, which requires the use of shampoo to remove.  'Tis a silly cycle.

Two months in, and I have now eliminated the following products from our household shopping list: shampoo, conditioner, shine spray, and styling cream.  And though I have added coconut oil to the list, I have found that it, in turn, also replaces eye cream, lip balm, The Carnivore's pomade, and first aid ointment, thus removing those four items from the shopping list as well.

'Consumer anarchy' sounds so much more palatable than 'Going the way of the hippie,' yes?



  • 1 part baking soda
  • 3 parts water
  1. Shake well before each use.
  2. Massage mixture onto dry scalp, concentrating on hairline and part.
  3. Leave in for one minute.
  4. Rinse.
  • 1 part white or apple cider vinegar
  • 4 parts water
  • 5 to 10 drops essential oil (vanilla, peppermint, lavender, whatever) per cup of solution
  1. Shake well before each use.
  2. Massage into hair from nape of neck down to ends.
  3. Leave in for a minute or so.
  4. Rinse.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

In Our Kitchen

Our kitchen is always a busy place.  It is where the whole family gathers together at least once a day for a meal around the table, where the kids and I linger every morning over breakfast, where the children color and paint, and where I get a chance to play.  Days begin and end in this room, with children sitting on counters to help roll out pasta dough or press buttons on the food processor, with mama perched at the menu desk, poring over cookbooks and sipping coffee, and with all of us just sitting at the table and watching the birds outside the bay window.  More time than usual was spent at home last week, and most of those hours were passed in this cheerful red room of ours.

:: Granola was made early one morning, using dried dates and local pecans, and resulting in our favorite batch yet.
:: There were three blueberry-picking excursions resulting in some 14 pounds of berries being consumed.
:: Basil was picked and made into pesto.
:: New cookie recipes were baked.
:: We made our first batch of cold-brewed coffee for Iced Coffee Concentrate.
:: More and more Dark Chocolate Cashew Clusters were made and devoured.
:: Vegetables from the individual gardens of three generations of women in my family were assembled into a dinner of Summer Vegetable Fried Rice.
:: Homemade play dough was formed by little hands into pretend cookies and cakes.
:: Kisses were exchanged, flowers were arranged, music was played, and time was shared.

This is my favorite room in our house.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

From The Garden: Fresh Basil Pesto

The first wave of harvests from the garden ended with a bit of a whimper.  My onion plants were all ripped right out of the ground by thieving wild animals, and the snow peas collapsed in a miserable, shriveled up heap before they really gave us anything.

The radishes did well, and the lettuces did splendidly for about six weeks, but the very last salad, the harvest that I had let build up for a few days so that our final salad would be a spectacular one, was nothing short of heartbreaking.  On that fateful afternoon about a month ago, when I traipsed outside with a colander and an appetite and my heart on my sleeve, I stood in horror as I surveyed the completely barren garden bed where the lettuce had been.  There was nothing there.  Not even the base of the stems.  Rabbits had come in and mown the whole bed clean.

I have never felt quite so murderous towards another living being.  Those rabbits will be sorry.  Maybe not those exact rabbits per se, but at least their offspring.  The sins of the fathers will be visited upon their sons.  I will exact my revenge.

My first set of tomato plants disappeared mysteriously one night, ripped out by their roots (not sure whether to blame the rabbits again, or deer), but now that there are tomato cages over the second planting, they seem to be doing well so far.  I am cautiously optimistic about those tomatoes, along with the pepper plants, the watermelon, and the butternut squash, but only time will tell.

As far as I am concerned though, the second harvest has commenced.  While I have been pinching small sprigs of basil and flat-leaf parsley for the past two months, and bringing them in to use in small amounts at dinner, in dishes such as grilled potato salad, lemon-herb bruschetta, and other sundry recipes, it was only this week that I went outside and found the basil plants had literally exploded.

Exploded in a good way, that is.  I brought a little more than a pound inside one evening, and rather excitedly whipped up three batches of fresh pesto.

We love pesto.  Every year, whether from plants in my own garden or that of my mother, or even from our former beloved CSA, we enjoy at least a few dinners of pasta with fresh basil pesto (there has even been arugula pesto on our menu in seasons past), and there have been years in which I have managed to freeze enough batches to see us through the winter.

There is nothing, it would seem, that can evoke summer in January so well as the bright, sharp peppery flavor of pesto made from fresh basil.  And to our utter delight, pesto that is frozen keeps its fresh flavor in a way unlike any other herb preservation technique.

I find pesto is best served over a substantial pasta.  The light, slippery sauce is a bit lost on angel hair, and it can be a bit clumpy when used as an accompaniment to orecchiette or penne, where it can lodge itself into the crevices and make a nuisance out of itself, so we tend towards homemade whole-wheat fettucine.  The heft of the whole-wheat makes for a more filling meal, and the width of the fettucine noodles provides a nice foil to the delicate sauce.

And I love making fresh pasta.  Rolled out thinly enough, the ribbons of pasta get an almost silky texture that will spoil you in a hurry.

We have tried countless variations on basil pesto, sometimes using nuts, other times omitting them, occasionally varying the ratio of olive oil to basil, and employing different cheeses as we see fit.  This time I went with a recipe from How to Cook Everything, and we were crazy about it.  A small amount of toasted nuts were included, which added a little richness to the texture and provided a welcome ever-so-slightly smoky flavor.  The flavor of the basil was still bright and clear though, allowing the fresh herb to shine in the best of ways.

This will be our new go-to version for sure.  One pound of basil, weighed while still on the stem, was enough to make three batches of the sauce, two of which were frozen for future use, and now, only three or four days later, the plants have already leafed out again.  I decree this a perfect year for herbs.  And for pesto.

Especially if I take up rabbit hunting...


BASIL PESTO (adapted from How to Cook Everything), makes enough to serve with one pound of pasta

Note: if freezing, omit the Parmesan for now and stir in after thawing.

  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, stems discarded
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbs walnuts or pecans, lightly toasted in a dry skillet
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, more if needed
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more to grate on top of the finished dish
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, salt, garlic, nuts and oil, and process until basil is finely chopped.  More oil can be added if you prefer the sauce to be thinner (or an extra drizzle of olive oil can be added to the finished dish).
  2. Stir the Parmesan in by hand.
  3. Toss with cooked and drained pasta, finishing the dish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan, and adding a couple grinds of black pepper if desired.