Sunday, July 25, 2010

Chopping Therapy

It's my meditation, my calm. There's a rhythm, a focus, a goal. No matter that it involves a sharp object, almost always the very same sharp object with which I nearly severed my left index finger.

Despite the hazards, I like everything about it. Chopping, that is.

There's something, for me, about being solitary in my kitchen and chopping chopping chopping. The heft of the knife handle, the satisfying Guillotine-like sound of a swift slice, the knock of the blade against my seen-better-days bamboo cutting board. I'm beginning to realize that I get out a lot of aggression when it's just me, my knife and a pile of items that need to be cleaved. And not in an enraged sort of way - more like a methodical, focused, in-the-moment sort of way. Zen, via carrots.

Chopping vegetables offers me the most pleasure, with their solid THUNK or their crisp snap as they meet their fate. Meat, however, is a different contentment altogether. I can see the allure of butchery - or surgery, for that matter. I get a deep-seated fulfillment when I can trim a steak just so, or dress down a chicken breast to its naked, shiny essence with a few strokes of a well-honed knife.

Lately, the chopping has been my escape. I spend several hours on a weekend day prepping mounds of veggies for the grill, enough to last me for the week ahead. I've come to crave that time to myself, and I prefer it to be silent, with only the thuds and whacks of my efforts serving as accompaniment. I don't think about anything but the task at hand - no thoughts of the stresses in my life, no worrying over the trifles, no job, no pets, no DH - just the chopping. Some people like to bake for the very same reason, but for me, there's too much mental involvement in baking (oy - the measuring and recipe-following!). So I'll just chop instead, thank you very much. If I had the time, I'd make Asian-style stir-fry dinners every night, just for the opportunity to chop.

I'm not sure why I'm even writing this - probably because I just finished up my chopping for the week, and I'm so HAPPY. The result of an hour or so of chopping followed by another hour or so at the BBQ means that my fridge is now full of gorgeous grilled veggies, grilled chicken, grilled salmon... my week ahead looks delicious. But alas... no more chopping until next Sunday and a whole new set of stresses rolls around. Sigh.

What about you? How do you find solace in the kitchen? Or do you?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Grilling and Chilling: My 4th of July

From my decidedly non-scientific poll, it seems as though oodles of folks stuck close to home this past holiday weekend, opting for grilling and chilling as opposed to driving and colliding (I wanted that to rhyme... sorry, lame). That certainly was the case with me. I stuck close to home, and think I turned on the grill for darn near every meal over the long weekend. For my one lone venture to parts yonder, I made it all the way from Napa to St. Helena (phew!), and enjoyed the grill skills of good friends.

The next few posts will give you a run-down of some of the noms I made when left to my own devices; this, however, is the result of the 4th of July extravaganza BBQ put on by my friends:

(Doesn't that look ridiculous?!! Off the hook....)

(This one is my plate, as I was attempting to show restraint at the buffet.... FAIL!)

I dare say, it was not your average Q. This particular group of friends consisted of a local chef and caterer (yo Kinyon!); an Italian who would like nothing more than to hang up his day job and cook, cook, cook; a passionate baker; a food blogger (yours truly); a hobbyist winemaker (lucky me - my DH!), and a couple of devoted foodies thrown in for good measure. Assemble those kind of folks together for a dinner party, and by God, the spread didn't disappoint. My friend Glenn (the Italian), worked up a burger bar beyond belief - lamb burgers with edam cheese and fresh mint; beef burgers with sharp cheddar - and Kinyon grilled them to perfection. Topping choices included carmelized onions, sauteed shiitake mushrooms, avocado, heirloom tomatoes, house-made pickles, arugula, Fatted Calf bacon... and on and on. The rest of the Independence Day spread could have fed Patton's Army: grilled Dijon potato salad, tortellini salad, white bean salad, grilled veggies, Model Bakery buns and rolls... probably more! Not to mention the appetizers, desserts and free-flowing wine.

At the end of the night, I almost wished someone would have taken away my freedom to graze the buffet. We were there to "let freedom ring" and all, but damn... it should be downright unconstitutional for me to indulge like that. Erp.

How about you? Was it a grilling and chilling sort of holiday for you as well? Whatever the case, I hope you enjoyed some good times with good friends over some good food... you know, fare to remember! Read on for some of my grilling adventures from this chill weekend...mmmm!

Grilling and Chilling: Veg!

One of my absolute favorite things to throw on a grill is vegetables. Any kind of veg - mushrooms, asparagus, squash, fingerling carrots, corn, eggplant, endive... you name it. If it's a vegetable, it's pretty darn likely I will grill it (although I can't say that I've grilled broccoli with much success - steaming doesn't count). Now don't get me wrong - I enjoy a fat ribeye as much as the next carnivore out there - but a juicy steak is a treat. Vegetables - now those are daily necessities in my book.

People often ask me what I eat "for real." Fare to Remember probably gives the impression sometimes that I cook a lot, eat out a lot, and enjoy a huge variety of food. In truth, not so much. In my day-to-day life, I stick with lean proteins, seasonal fruit, whole grains and loads and loads of veggies. Pretty darn predictable on any given day.

So, for my grilling and chilling weekend, I knew that loading up the grill with my farmer's market haul would be at the top of my list. I like to grill loads of stuff in advance - chicken breasts and heaps of veggies - that I then eat all week long. I keep it simple - just toss everything with some good olive oil, season with kosher salt and cracked pepper, and then grill away.

One of my favorite applications for grilled veggies - aside from just eating them straight up - is throwing them in a bowl together with a grain. Pictured above, and one of my all-time faves, is quinoa (ok ok... quinoa is technically a seed - not a grain. So sue me.). I cook the quinoa in my rice cooker (add liquid, push button, walk away - my kind of kitchen duty!) - and I like to prepare it with chicken or vegetable stock as opposed to plain water. The result of combining quinoa and grilled veggies is no less than one humongous bowl of super food - hearty, straight from Mother Nature, exploding with fiber and packed with protein. It's a vegan dish that fulfills darn near every possible nutritional requirement and then some.

So that's my dinner or lunch (or both) 90 percent of the time. The veggies will change with the season, the grain will change according to mood, but the essence is still the same. Lucky me, I can grill year-round here in the gorgeous, temperate Napa Valley, but I have a feeling that if I lived in the heart of Siberia, I'd still find a way to fire up a grill in the midst of a howling blizzard. Now if I could only figure out how to grill that darn broccoli.... anyone?

Grilling and Chilling: French Toast

I love the internets. Saw a little nugget of information posted on a friend's Facebook page; something to the tune of "Camping? be sure to make French toast kebabs on the grill!" followed by a quick and simple recipe.

Well blow me over. I thought I was pretty adept at making anything and everything on a grill, and totally pride myself on hella good camp eats. But I have never grilled French toast - what a concept. So, of course on this past grilling and chilling weekend, I had to give it a go right here in my own backyard. Results: spectacular. Am officially adding the kebabs to my breakfast/brunch repertoire, camping or not.

Not much to it - just whip up your favorite French toast custard recipe and pour it over big cubes of day-old crusty bread. (My simple custard recipe consists of 3 eggs, 1/2 cup milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg, whisked into submission. If I'm feeling a little fancy, I'll add a splash of Grand Marnier.) I let the bread cubes absorb all of the egg mixture (it was a good 20 minute soak), threaded them onto skewers, then cooked them over a hot, well-oiled grill. Dusted the finished kebabs with powdered sugar, then ate them up with butter and maple syrup. SUPER simple. SUPER good. Nuf said.

Grilling and Chilling: Avocados

Advertising works! During my daily commute, I try my best not to listen to the radio - the incessant ads drive me bonkers. But there are those days when my CD selection just isn't cutting it, the iPod fails to deliver, or I'm just plain lazy... and the radio is a better alternative than listening to the thoughts in my head.

Last week, during one such stretch of radio time, I heard an advertisement from the California Avocado Commission. One of the growers was recounting his favorite way to prepare avocados: brushed with olive oil and lemon juice, grilled, then loaded up with salsa in the middle. Um... hello, yum?

Over this past grilling and chilling weekend, I gave it a go. Happy to report it is delicious. Grilling the avocados until the fruit is warmed all the way through makes them even creamier, and the grilling imparts a bit of smokiness to the flavor. I scooped my warmed avocado directly from the skin with corn chips; mixed with the salsa, the result was like a warm, ready-made guacamole. It takes zero effort, and would make a great appetizer or side dish to any BBQ spread. I, however, enjoyed mine all on its own - now I call that a lunch!