Experiencing Thanks(giving)

It’s almost Thanksgiving here, a holiday to celebrate the Harvest (though that has a different meaning for me this year) and give thanks for family and friends and the gifts of the year that will soon be coming to a close. The turkey has been picked up, the recipes chosen, the rest of the groceries bought (after only two trips to the grocery store), and the wine to compliment the meal was picked out days ago (a German Reisling that we couldn’t resist, and an excellent, full-flavored - but not heavy - Oregon Gamay Noir from Brick House)...and it’s about time to start cooking and baking and drinking.

This year, LB and I will hole up inside our house, alone, to spend the long weekend relaxing, lounging in front of the fire (our only source of heat) and getting to know each other again after several months of craziness, travel, obligations and extra jobs. This is a first for me. Thanksgiving has always been spent with family – whether biological or created by the people who, because of proximity or shared experiences, have become family. We’re still making a big meal (we plan to subsist on the leftovers to last us through the rest of the month), we’re still going to drink and live in the day as if we are surrounded by others, and we’ll still eat at the table and toast to living in the moment and being thankful for how far we’ve both come these last few years.

We’ll get up late (if the dogs will let us), have a simple breakfast and then start chopping vegetables, tearing bread (a big, hearty loaf of pan levain from Hideaway Bakery) for a chestnut (from our trip to Hood River), sausage (from Laughing Stock Farms) and apple dressing/stuffing, and we’ll simmer cranberries for homemade cranberry sauce (this year it’s going to be steeped in a Colorado port – from my hometown, with cinnamon and orange zest). Our turkey is brining already, in a salty concoction of coriander, juniper berries and fennel seeds, and we’ll make a lemon-herb butter to rub gently under the skin, stuffing it with lemons, red onions and herbs, and hoping to get that perfectly browned and crispy bird. We’ll start by sipping Wandering Goat coffee and as the afternoon advances, we’ll snack on Salumi salami, beautiful cheeses and roasted Oregon hazelnuts before we crack open our first bottle of wine.

All this will go on with bluegrass in the background and in the comfort of our own kitchen – no stress, no visitors, no specific time to eat, nothing but good food, wine and our dogs for company. We picked out the recipes together, a mixture of old favorites and new flavors, but if we get tired of cooking, we’ll stop and take a break...or (gasp!) even put off the meal until Friday (but that probably won't happen). If we feel like watching a movie or a football game, we will. If we want to turn the music up loud and dance, we'll dance and be silly and loud. And if the house is messy (oh, and it is), it doesn’t even matter, because there won’t be anyone else around to see it.

As much as I love a traditional Thanksgiving, surrounded by family and friends and love and the traditional fixin’s – grandma’s stuffing, can-shaped cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole - this year we’re making it whatever we want it to be, and that’s okay with me. Christmas will come in another month, and that will be my holiday to steep myself in the traditions that my family has been building for years. Thanksgiving, though, has continually evolved as I’ve gotten older, and I see more change in the years to come as it will become something new, something different – with new friends surrounding us, with new family (or “family”) members, and new local foods to grace the table. I’m curious how it will evolve and when or if it will stabilize and when I will have my own traditions.

Over time, my Eugene family has been pared down to my nearest and dearest friends, the ones I truly want to spend my extra time with, just as all friendships evolve over the years. Nevertheless, there are now new faces in my life that came in by chance and yet are carving out places in my heart quicker and deeper than I could have imagined; and already I know in my heart the handful of friends that I will carry with me from this place when I leave, as I have from all of the places I have lived since leaving home, and those I will shake hands with and leave behind – thankful that they came into my life at all, but ready to move on.

Even you, dear readers, have evolved as an important part of my Thanksgiving. Some of you have been with me since the beginning, when I started this blog two years ago, and some of you I am just beginning to know, but I am thankful for all of you. I am thankful for the place in my life that you have gently nestled your way into, and how I have come know small pieces of you by the stories and recipes you share with me, and that you have come to know me in the same way. It's a different type of friendship from that which develops by meeting someone in person. Over time, there are those of you that have stopped blogging, like I did for a while. And whatever the reason, be it busy schedules or tragedies or simply needing a break, I have found that I never stop hoping you’ll come back, that I miss hearing from you, miss knowing what is going on in your life, miss the emails back and forth.

See, dear readers, I look forward to hearing about how your Thanksgiving (or your day, if you are somewhere else in the world) went, how you are feeling today, or some tidbit from your past, and of course, your recipes. Strangely, though, I have come to realize that I don’t read your blogs strictly because of your recipes (much as I love them and use many of them); I read them to get a glimpse of you, of your world and your surroundings, of your history and your traditions, of your culture if it is different from my own. So, in a way, you are now as much a part of this holiday as both my biological and my Eugene family, and I am thankful for the hundreds of ways you have opened my eyes, challenged me, inspired me, made me laugh and made me cry. Thank you, for sharing yourself on your websites. Thank you, for coming to read what I share one mine. Thank you, for just being out there, in the world and all over the world. And thank you, for being you.

Have a wonderful, happy holiday, and a wonderful, happy day.

Other Thanksgiving posts and recipes:
2005: Rustic Porcini and Onion Stuffing
2006: Traditional Pumpkin Pie with Maple Whipped Cream


Heart of the Matter 9: Holiday Food (Round-Up)

Nearly everyone knows someone who has been affected by heart disease, including me. It is a product of both genetics and diet, and while it’s impossible (at this point in history anyhow) to control the genes we may or may not inherit from our parents or grandparents, one area where we can make a stand against this deadly disease is by watching what we eat. Losing someone you love (or almost losing them) to heart disease is scary enough, but consider the fact that it’s one of the leading causes of death among both men and women, and we’ve all got our work cut out for us.

The holiday season, that most formidable antagonist of healthy eating ambitions, is almost upon us. There’s a reason why one of the most common New Year’s Eve resolutions is to lose wait or diet after the first of the year and that it all begins after the holidays are over – most holiday foods are rich in saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar. Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves during the holidays, eat Christmas cookies or have that glass of eggnog spiked with rum when ‘tis the season, but our arteries (and waistlines) would be appreciative if we didn’t completely throw healthy eating to the wayside for the next two months. And some people don’t have the luxury of throwing it to the wayside, especially if they or someone they love has been affected by heart disease. So, when I asked for you for heart-healthy holiday recipes, many of you let your creativity go wild and sent me a suite of heart-healthy recipes that we can all use this holiday season - whether it’s to grace a Thanksgiving or Christmas table, to use as in-between meals before indulging in a holiday feast, give as healthy holiday gifts, or even to ring in and celebrate the New Year.

All of the recipes in this round-up would be fabulous served to family and friends this holiday season – for that’s really what the holidays are all about: spending time with the people we love. We can show them just how much we care by making this holiday season a healthier one for everyone. Thanks to all who particpated and stay tuned next month too, when Ilva hosts HotM 10 (how wonderful that you’ve been submitting recipes for 10 months now and this has translated to a database of delicious heart-healthy recipes we can use all year long!).

Since this was my first time hosting, I was thrilled to find so many new blogs just by the entries you sent in, and will definitely be visiting them again soon. I've organized the entries by course, so no matter what holiday you're celebrating, or what type of dish you need, you can find a heart healthy dish that fits the bill. Without further adieu, here’s the round-up of all the recipes for HotM 9: Holiday Food...

First Course: Soup

Abby, from North Carolina, has a blog called Confabulation in the Kitchen. She sent me a lovely entry for Creamy Sweet Potato Soup, and shared her own personal ambitions for eating healthy with us. She also reminded us that low calorie, low fat, good-for-you food should taste good too! With this soup, and her outlook on life, it looks like she's already off to a great start for the holidays. Stop by her blog and wish her luck to keep her going as she and her husband Brad embark on this adventure.

Main Dishes and Sides

Labelga, from Brussels, Belgium, shared her taste trials with four ways to cook scallops on her blog, Leafy Cooking, taking advantage of the open season (as she said: 'tis the season!) for this gorgeous little shellfish. This would be a great first course or light main dish for a special, elegant meal - just perfect for the holiday season. With scallops 1) steamed in an infusion of lemon grass and served with salad, 2) fried in sesame oil, with onion and leek, 3) à la nage in carrot juice with coriander, and 4) marinated and raw, with a crunch of red pepper corns and pistachio.

Ann, at Redacted Recipes, shares with us a stunning centerpiece that she created for her daughter, Sophie, who is a vegetarian: Sophie's Thanksgiving Pumpkin. This dish would wow any guest, vegetarian or otherwise, and I'm sure that Sophie will be both amazed and grateful for all the thought, love and preparation that went into making it both healthy and special. It would also add some serious pizzaz to a Thanksgiving turkey feast as a side dish for the omnivores out there.

Karyn is the author of Hot Potato, and shares with us a recipe for a heart-healthy lasagna, a Give-Thanks-for-My-Pie-Too Lasagna to be exact. Not only does she "pimp up the vegetables" but she reduces the fat significantly by limiting the cheese (and using mostly goat cheese, an already low fat cheese) since she is lactose intolerant. Not only is this a great recipe for vegetarians, but would also be great for those in-between holidays days or for Autumn entertaining.

If you're looking for a dish to ring in the New Year, Marta has the perfect dish for you: Lentil and Pasta with a Touch of Lime. Marta is An Italian in the US, and shares her take on an Italian tradition for bringing good luck to you the upcoming year, as well as a funny story about why some ingredients aren't exactly on the heart-healthy list! This is her first entry for HotM (and we hope there will be more, Marta!).

Carrie, from Ginger Lemon Girl (and also from North Carolina!), used the opportunity to work with a fellow blogger, Natalie, and posted a delcious sounding Sweet Potato-Apple Casserole. I love the idea of combining sweet potatoes and apple, all with a crispy, crunchy topping! Her entry does double duty as a gluten-free holiday dish too (as are many of the other recipes that people shared).

Joanna, of Joanna's Food, is used to creating delicious heart-healthy food and has been hosting HotM since it's inception. She's created the base for a myriad of festive dishes, by making Braised Red Cabbage that she can keep in her freezer and make several different dishes with over the holiday season. What a fabulous idea! Even better, she offers several ideas for seasonal additions to the cabbage, so you're sure to find something that works for you! With all the entertaining and things-to-do lists getting longer and longer, I only wish I was this prepared!

Smita, from Rochester, New York, and the blog Smita Serves You Right, shared her recipe for this elegant dish: Acorn Squash with Wild Rice and Quinoa. She first takes us on a beautifully written tour of Rochester that evokes a sense of actually being there, and ends with a warming, perfect dish for any vegetarian or health-conscious guests you may be having over the holiday season.

Tara is a nutrition student from Australia that has Type 1 Diabetes and is out to prove to the world that even with this disease, she can still make and eat delicious food just like everyone else. She's got a great outlook on dealing with diabetes (that it should fit into her life, and not the other way around) and didn't let it stop the foodie she was before her diagnosis. Plus, she's got lots of great tips and recipes for healthy eating. Check out her recipe for Ratatouille on her blog, Should You Eat That? This would be another great vegetarian main or side dish during the holidays.

Elizabeth hails from Canada, and we're lucky she happened upon the HotM challenge this month, because she offers us a savory and delicious sounding take on Roasted Sweet Potatoes on her blog, blog from OUR kitchen. As an added bonus, she even provides links to six of her other recipes that would be great additions to any holiday table, from appetizers to dessert!

Ilva, author of Lucullian Delights, is one of my long-time blog friends, as we started our blogs at nearly the same time. She and Joanna started HotM and have kept it going by posting both their own recipes and the round-up of your recipes for the last 10 months. She makes simple, beautiful food and shows us a bit of Italy through her camera lens nearly every day. She had two entries this month: the first is Quickly Sauteed Savoy Cabbage and Carrots with Ginger and Pine Nuts, the other, Gluten Free Rice Tarts with Christmassy Apple Filling is listed under Breads and Desserts.

Simona writes the informative blog, Briciole, where you can learn about and even hear her speak Italian words pertaining to food (how cool is that!?)! She shared with us her recipe for Pure di broccoli (my apologies, Simona, that I have yet to figure out how to put accents in my blog posts!), or pureed broccoli. After an unfortunate happenstance with her camera, which she details in her post, I'm glad to see that it's still taking beautiful pictures, such as this lovely green puree, which would even be a healthy and delcious alternative to mashed potatoes on any holiday table!

There's no food that says "holidays" to me like stuffing - often coated in butter, but oh so delcious. Catherine, at Wheatless Bay, introduces us to a unique and worldy take on stuffing, with Belarusian Buckwheat Mushroom Pilaf (or Stuffing) that is both healthy and gluten free. Even more touching, she has dedicated her dish to Dianne, another blogger who is near and dear to my heart, who is learning to live with heart disease after her husband recently experienced a heart attack. This is her first entry for HotM and we hope she (and all of you other first-timers) will continue to share recipes with us.

Katie, from Thyme for Cooking, took on a difficult challenge by taking a gratin recipe and making it healthier so that it can be enjoyed by all! Her recipe for Pumpkin Gratin would be a great, seasonal swap for cream-laden scalloped potatoes. While you're enjoying her post, you can also see the amazing thing that happened to her garden! On a side note, she's hosting a great event that should keep us all laughing through the holiday season - which is also, coincidently, great for the heart!

You may have already heard the plea on my site, The Accidental Scientist, to try Brussels sprouts with my entry for Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pecans and Mustard Seeds. These poor little green gems have been sorely misjudged in my opinon - they're delcious in so many ways. So, please, give sprouts a chance!

Breads and Desserts
A South African living in London, Jeanne is the author of Cook Sister! She presents us with a solid argument for giving bran muffins another try with her Cranberry Apple Bran Muffins...maybe you can tell she's had a career as a legal defender?! I hate to admit it, but she's got me convinced! These would be a lovely and healthy breakfast for holiday guests.

Another wonderful breakfast idea (or a light dessert after that heavy holiday meal) is the AppleSauce Spice Cake from Melody at FruitTart. This mom doesn't want anyone to have to miss out on great sweet treats and her site includes recipes that boast flavorful treats, some without eggs, without dairy or gluten-free - so you can find something for everyone!

Ilva's second entry for HotM is her cute little Rice Tarts with Christmassy Apple Filling. The great thing about these little beauties is that they are the perfect size for after a big, heavy meal, and that this crust would be wonderful for treats that are either sweet or savory.
Bee and Jai at Jugalbandi created an incredible looking Cranberry-Pecan Upside Down Cake for their entry and even give us a very informative history lesson about the ingredients they used. These two have dedicated their blog to the memory of their friend, whom they lost to Leukemia, another deadly disease. As vegetarians who "seek to foster a more conscious approach to the food we consume, the thoughts we harbour, and the environment that sustains us," they're already making huge strides towards the goal of healthy eating, and have a spirit that stands out in their writing and is truly inspiring.

Special Extras
Michelle is a woman after my own heart! Not only is her name the same as my own, she posted a recipe for Roasted Chesnuts as her entry, something I have always associated with the holidays and as we can see when she shares with us a memory from her childhood, she has too. Author of the blog Greedy Gourmet, she made me laugh when I was reading through her "About" section - her notes on microwave and brand-name cooking, and her questions about fridge raiding, had me both giggling and nodding in agreement!

Jill loves cranberries and shares this passion with us by sharing her recipe for Cranberry Orange Relish - a dish I can imagine would be perfect dolloped on top of turkey, with cream cheese on crackers as an appetizer or even on sandwhiches with leftovers! Jill's site, Hey, That Tastes Good! is full of gluten-free recipes and she is showing the world that "gluten-free doesn't mean taste free" through her take on delicious, gluten-free food. She's also got a great set of links to other gluten-free bloggers on her site, making her site another great resource for finding gluten-free recipes.

Dianne is the author of A Gluten Free Journey, a blog I've been enjoying for a long time, and she's also a woman near and dear to my heart because not only is she a total sweetheart, but we got married about the same time. Her entry is a sure-to-be-delectable Fruit Compote to enjoy with fat free greek yogurt (but oh, I bet it's good on lots of things too!). Dianne's husband recently had a heart attack and they're learning how to deal with heart disease - keep an eye on her blog for more heart-healthy (and gluten free to boot!) recipes, and if you feel so inclined, drop by and offer a note of support for their journey.

Laurie, the author of Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking Alaska (both the blog and the cookbook!) may be living in Alaska, but is gracing her table and cooking recipes from her second home, Greece. Her recipe for Beet-Yogurt Spread is a beautifully festive dish that would brighten up any holiday table. In her post, she takes us on a journey through Athens, Greece and the food she had there, before bringing us back home where she has recreated this dip to enjoy with her Thanksgiving meal.

Last, but certainly not least is the Sweet Potato Spread devised by Chris from Mele Cote. She gives us a savory, interesting take on this Thanksgiving standard, and offers up a few giggles about why this holiday beats out Christmas for her favorite, going all the way back to her childhood. It seems a love of food has turned this public education guru and previous journaling blogger into one of us - a food blogger for almost a year now! We're glad she's participating in events like ours!

Thanks to all who participated and for putting up with me peeping on your sites to see what else you write about and reading some of the stories you share...I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! I'm looking forward to getting to know you better and seeing your entries for future HotM events!


Brussels Sprouts: Not just for the Dogs (HotM 9)

Brussels sprouts are perhaps the most steadfast contender against lima beans in the age-old battle for the Most Hated Vegetable. And that’s speaking from experience. Like many children, when I was younger, I hated Brussels sprouts (and lima beans). My mom would bathe them in a creamy white sauce, which actually is quite delicious to my now grown-up palate (as are lima beans), but back then, asking me to eat them was like asking me to consume a plate full of earthworms: No Way. As I matured, I decided to give Brussels sprouts a second chance and not being much of a cook, I boiled them the first time I made them on my own. This was a HUGE mistake. Anyone who has made Brussels sprouts in this way, and overcooked them, knows exactly why.

Brussels sprouts develop a uniquely skunky, dirty sock-like flavor, and similarly God-awful smell, when they are overcooked - especially if you boil them (never, ever boil or steam Brussels sprouts longer than 10 minutes, and if you’re cooking them whole, trim a little “X” into the base to allow the heat to penetrate the sprout). I’m convinced that this smell/flavor is the true folly of the Brussels sprout – many a parent or amateur cook has simply overcooked the poor little things. Surely this must be the reason that the plant has garnered a reputation as a Most Dreadful Food; one suitable only for a swift mouth-to-napkin maneuver as a means for delivery to the hungry canine hanging out below the dinner table, or for deposit to the bottom of the milk glass (for that opaque liquid makes an excellent hiding place for heavy, solid foods) until it can be promptly disposed of after dinner when Mom and Dad allow you to (finally) leave the dinner table...the only trick being how to get it in there without being caught, a skill my brother and I spent many a dinner of strange vegetables or liver and onions becoming proficient in. Perhaps, one could imagine, this skunky-ness is how the Brussels sprout maintains its boutique status – by weeding us out slowly, one at a time, with that gag-inducing flavor.

Carefully devised avoidance schemes aside, Brussels sprouts definitely deserve another chance. If you’ve been avoiding them because you have, like me, overcooked them at some point in your life (or if your parents did), then do yourself a favor and give these little green gems another try. If it’s your first time, ease into it: simply trim the ends, remove any loose outside leaves and cut them into quarters through the stem. Drizzle them with olive oil and roast them at 350F until they caramelize and turn golden brown, or cook them in a skillet with a little olive oil and butter (garlic too, if you’d like) until they get browned and soft and caramelized that way. LB didn’t like Brussels sprouts when I met him – just a few days ago, he asked if we could please have them as part of our Thanksgiving meal.

In an effort to branch out from our usual cooking method of skillet-roasting them, I decided to try a recipe from Body and Soul magazine: Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pecans and Mustard Seeds. The new rage for Brussels sprouts recipes is to shred them using a food processor (thinly slicing them works just as well) and cook them down as you might do to with shredded cabbage. I’ve seen recipes that include caramelized shallots, bacon or proscuitto, and even use them as a base for a raw salad. This recipe uses only a few common ingredients and has a very light and subtle flavor, perfect as an accompaniment to a plate full of rich, decadent foods. Shredding the sprouts allows them to become meltingly tender and opens up more surface area for the caramelization reaction – what brings out all that delicious flavor (and we’re not talking about skunky, sulfury flavor here).

Better still, this recipe is healthy! I know, not only am I trying to convince you to eat Brussels sprouts – a Most Hated Vegetable – but worse, I’m adding insult to injury by offering you a recipe where you don’t have to disguise it in butter, drown it in sauce or even add that most heavenly of flavor enhancers, bacon, to it. Brussels sprouts are also packed with folate, fiber, vitamins A and C, are naturally low in fat, and contain detoxifying enzymes that are purported to reduce cancer risk. These facts make this dish an excellent entry for the theme of November’s Heart of the Matter, Holiday Food. It’s topped by heart-healthy nuts, and uses only 2 tsp. of heart-healthy olive oil for the entire 6 to 8 servings. Even though I had originally hoped to use local hazelnuts to top this dish, which I think would be excellent and add another depth of flavor the recipe, I didn’t make it to the Farmer’s Market this weekend and ended up using pecans that my grandmother sent me from her recent trip to Texas, which is what the recipe actually called for.

I’ve adapted the recipe slightly to decrease the amount of oil used, and would possibly add a little extra tang by a dash of ground mustard (or mix in a bit of Dijon mustard in a small amount of chicken stock drizzled over the top) or perhaps even some lemon zest the next time I make it because I’d like to taste a bit more of the mustard flavor than the mustard seeds alone have to offer. But over all, it’s a great new way to eat Brussels sprouts – it’s simple, subtle enough to fit in with the rest of the rich, flavorful dishes that may grace your holiday dinner table, and tangy and tasty enough to turn former Brussels sprouts haters into Brussels sprouts requesters.

Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pecans and Mustard Seeds, serves 6 to 8
Adapted slightly from Body and Soul magazine

½ cup raw pecans (or hazelnuts!), coarsely chopped
20 oz. Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and loose outside leaves pulled off**
2 tsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. yellow mustard seeds (whole)
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F, and toast pecans on a rimmed cookie sheet for about 10 minutes or until fragrant and lightly browned. Set aside.

Shred the Brussels sprouts using the shredding disk from a food processor, or halve them and then thinly slice them for a more elegant presentation. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, and add the mustard seeds to the pan, and cook until fragrant. Be careful, they’ll start to pop when they get hot! Next time I might toast them in a dry skillet and then add them back to the Brussels sprouts after heating the oil – they were difficult to move around as soon as they hit the oil. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook, stirring occasionally (Remember to let them caramelize! With a smaller amount of oil, you want to let them sit a bit longer than you might with more...) until they become tender and begin to brown – this will take about 7 – 9 minutes total. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Top with pecans and serve.

**If you can, buy Brussels sprouts that are still on the stalk – this keeps them fresher for longer, maintaining their nutrients. Simply cut the bottom sprouts off the stalk and then use your thumb to “push” the rest of the sprouts off between the spiky branches. I used the sprouts from one medium-sized stalk for this recipe.


Consider the Grape

Another installment of my adventures of working at a local winery in Eugene, Oregon (Part II).

Let us consider the grape...the wine grape, that is. The tiny package that holds the magical juice that will later be made into that sweet nectar of the Gods, vino.

The Pinot Noir grape, although found in many countries across the world, was made famous by the region it hails from in France – Burgundy. With few exceptions, French Pinot Noir wine is labeled as Burgundy – just as sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France is called Champagne. Oregon’s love affair with Pinot (as it is simply and affectionately referred to in The Industry – even though there are Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc grapes as well) began sometime in the 1960s and has only increased in momentum and stature. There is a region in France, the Côte d’Or that is famous for its Burgandy wine - this region lies along a similar line of latitude as the Northern Willamette Valley. The Northern Willamette Valley is where a large number of Oregon’s vineyards and wineries can be found.

Supposedly, Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grow – the finicky child of vineyard managers and winemakers alike. When I asked why this sentiment exists, I was told that it was because it prefers cooler temperatures, just enough shade (they sunburn easily because they have thinner skins than some other grape varieties) and just enough water. Basically, they told me, Pinot Noir is a picky plant - the demanding and easily miffed princess of the grape world. Moreover, not only is the grape plant itself like a capricious child according to some, but apparently the crushed and fermenting juice can also make an “unpredictable wine.” Thus, giving props to the team of hard-working “cellar rats” I currently count myself amongst, and the more than competent (and extremely modest) winemaker at the winery where I work, even with all of the physical labor involved, they make it look easy.

The grapes of the Pinot Noir plant are small, purple jewels. The small clusters of tightly packed grapes release a beautiful purplish red grape juice that is lighter in color than the juice from Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot grapes or even Syrah/Shiraz. Merlot and Cabernet grapes also have looser clusters of grapes when still on the stems. The grapes arrive at the winery in large plastic bins after being picked from the vineyards (this tends to happen in the late afternoon to very late evening hours). From here, they are taken off the trucks and weighed using a forklift, and the de-stemmer is then set up to start plucking those little morsels off of their stems and crushing them as it goes, ever so slightly, to extract that magical juice.

Yep, in case you missed that, I (sometimes) get to drive a forklift as part of my job.

That’s not to say I’m any good at it, and in fact, I am quite a slow forklift driver, but regardless, there is something immensely satisfying about driving around a big, dirty piece of motorized equipment...perhaps that’s why the boys I work with speed around in the forklift occasionally, laughing maniacally? I would to, if I was brave enough to go that fast. But I’m not. Again, they make it look easy - driving the thing around, moving bins and barrels with the grace and confidence of riding on a finely trained stallion instead of a large, bulky machine that could easily put a dent in any very expensive piece of equipment lying around or perhaps bust open a barrel containing $2000 worth of some of Oregon’s finest Pinot Noir (my biggest fear). But as I said, slow or no - I get to drive a forklift!!

Back to grapes though... De-stemming grapes is a dirty job, where one person slowly and carefully dumps the bin of jeweled grapes into the de-stemmer using the forklift while another person operates the pump (to move the juice from the de-stemmer to the tank where fermentation will begin), helps get the last of the grapes out of the bin with a shovel or a “dirty hoe” (ha ha ha – a garden hoe), makes sure the grapes aren’t falling on the ground and the pump is pumping away, the stems aren’t clogging the machine (and causing all those precious juices to flow directly on the concrete), and sprays the bin out once it gets dumped so that it can go back to the vineyard for more grapes. Usually after this latter job (for I am not nearly proficient enough at driving a forklift to want to dump grapes), I’m covered in grape juice splatters, have sore arms and sticky hair, and am freezing, because we’re outdoors, and because it is either October or November (which often means it’s raining in Oregon).

Mind you, all of this happens usually between the hours of 10 PM and 7 AM, especially when the grapes don’t show up until 9 PM and there are 44 bins of them. No wonder cheap beer is the drink of choice this time of night, and cellar rats bond in a way that only people who spend all night doing messy, sticky physical labor and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon (ahem, this is not exactly a fancy beer) together do. Ah, Crush. And yet, that was only the beginning...

HotM 9 Reminder

There's still time to get your entries in for Heart of the Matter 9 with recipes for the theme of Holiday Food! Please try and send them to me by midnight November 18th (remember I'm in Oregon, in the USA) at mphilli4 AT uoregon DOT edu. I have already recieved some wonderful recipes (and beautiful pictures) from several bloggers out there, and I, for one, am very excited to try some of them over the holiday season (and beyond!).

Keep your eye out for the round-up here and on the HotM website - hopefully by November 20th, and get ready to begin the holiday season with an arsenal of delicious, heart-healthy recipes to share with your family and friends. For the original announcement and guidelines, check here or here.


You say tomato, I say tomatillo: Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

The tomatillo is an oft forgotten fruit, sometimes shunted to the “ethnic” section of the produce department and frequently overlooked when compared to its bright summer cousin, the tomato. Tomatillos are those little green beauties that look like small, unripe tomatoes and are covered by that strange, papery husk. Ah, but my friends! Don’t pass the tomatillo by! This petite green fruit is a delicious beauty in its own right. Inside that delicate brown husk hides a wonderfully tart little package, only slightly reminiscent of its more popular cousin, and used to make all of those fabulous green sauces that grace many a Latin American dish.

As members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and tomatillos are both incognito fruits (yes, botanically if not traditionally, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). A fruit is technically the ripened ovary of a plant (usually a flowering plant), which most often contains seeds, while a vegetable is all the other parts of the plant, including things like leaves (think: spinach!), stems (asparagus!) or roots (beets!). The nightshade family also includes other such incognito fruits such as capsicum (peppers), eggplant and the infamous magical mandrake of Harry Potter and folk tales galore. While in the same family, tomatoes and tomatillos have different genus and species names – much like, say, a mussel and a clam are both mollusks but have different genus and species names from each other (I won’t go into that here, but if you’re curious, email me and I’d be happy to fill you in). While they may have similarities in their outward appearances, the flavors of these two fruit cousins are quite distinct.

While the flesh of luscious summer tomato tastes subltly sweet, a tomatillo is tart and can lend a serious pucker to your mouth when eaten raw (though it’s still good this way too!). Roasted, however, tomatillos retain only a bit of that tartness, and have a deep, concentrated richness that would go excellent with enchiladas or nachos or fish or chicken or any number of dishes – turkey enchiladas made with leftover Thanksgiving turkey, and a side of rice and black beans perhaps? While fresh tomato salsas are the epitome of a summer condiment, roasted salsas, tomatillo salsa in particular, is redolent of the cooler, comfort-food days of fall, especially with a few smoky spices sprinkled in.

When choosing your tomatillos, choose small, firm fruits – they can be either a lighter or darker/brighter green, or even purple (purple are the sweetest, but these are generally only found in farmer's markets or a friend's garden). The papery husk should be brownish, but not turning black or mushy – the more papery, though, the better. The fruit will be slightly sticky; so don’t panic when things start sticking to your fingers as you’re removing the husks – when you rinse them, it does wash off and they're not slimy like okra can tend to be.

This is a simple, roasted tomatillo salsa that we made a while back while housesitting for some friends who had a lovely backyard garden full of tomatillos and the last of the summer tomatoes. If tomatillos have already come and gone in your neck of the woods, you can also make this with canned tomatillos - just don't try and roast them (roast the other goodies before you grind it all up though to get that fresh, smoky flavor!).

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa, makes about 1 ½ cup

¾ lb of fresh tomatillos, husks removed (or 2 cans of canned tomatillos)
2 medium jalapenos, whole
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 medium sweet onion, such as Walla Walla or Vidalia, roughly chopped
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. ancho chile powder

Roast the tomatillos, jalapenos, garlic and onion in a roasting pan over high heat in the oven (broil ‘em, if you can - we can't because our oven is set 100 degrees too high and broiling sets off the fire alarm and causes the oven to short out - ah, I love my rental house!) until they soften and become charred. This will take about 8 minutes or so (if you're broiling), depending on your oven (that would be about 30 minutes for us, just roasting) and the size of the tomatillos. You can stir them once or twice if you want to, just make sure that you get that beautiful char, where all the flavor will come from. Allow the mixture to cool enough that you can puree it without it coming spewing out in-between the lid and the body of your food processor or blender.

Peel the garlic cloves (leaving the peel on allows the garlic to steam inside the skins, leaving it soft, creamy and flavorful as opposed to getting burnt and bitter), and pull off the tops of the jalapenos, leaving the seeds and skins intact (we like it slightly hotter – remove some of the seeds and membranes if you prefer a milder salsa). Reserve the liquid that oozes out of the tomatillos while roasting (much like tomatoes when you roast them). Add the spices and salt the mixture and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth – add as much of the liquid as you want to make it the thickness that you prefer (we usually do about half).

Serve as a dip with chips (add some avocado if you’d like), as a sauce for pork or chicken (mmm...how about as a base for green chile?), or add a bit of chicken stock or water to make a great sauce for topping enchiladas. The possibilities, and variations, are endless!


Destinations: A Weekend in Hood River, Part II

The Columbia Gorge

Eating locally (and organically, whenever possible) is important to me, and I try to get a majority of my food and culinary products from local, or at least semi-local producers. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a French cheese on occasion or even try and resist the urge to buy an exotic spice (or two) when I come across them...but I do try. If I can make my own quince paste with local quinces to enjoy with that manchego viejo imported from Spain, substitute local hazelnuts for pecans or almonds in a recipe, or buy local chestnut honey from a chestnut farm in Hood River while I’m visiting, then I’m all for it.

While it’s a hot topic right now among various food magazines and other media, and the movement to eat within a hundred (or so) miles from your home has been championed by various food bloggers through the Eat Local Challenge (I’m always catching up on cookiecrumb’s adventures in local eating – this woman is a true champion and even made her own sea salt!), there is still a great need to support the local farmers, growers and producers in your area. Not only does the need to import food from far away places increase pollution (how do you think those apples from Chile actually get to your supermarket? via planes, trains and automobiles, my friend!), but it also takes money away from the farmers and producers in your area that are trying to make a living, and it keeps places like Walmart, who don’t support their employees and go extra lengths to make small businesses go extinct, in business (don’t even get me started).

A tractor in front of the Apple Valley Store, serving up milkshakes
made with local huckleberries

The bonus? If it’s from a local producer, you can even meet the farmer who picked that head of lettuce from their field earlier this morning, dew still dripping off the leaves; the community Mycology professor who foraged that mushroom from the forest for you because he’s been going to the same secret spots for 40 years; or the winemaker who stayed up all night to crush the grapes that went into that perfect Pinot Noir (dirt or grape stains on their hands? Even better! Think about how you look when you come in from your own garden!) Better still, you can ask them about your food – Is it organic? What kind of farming practices do you use? Are your animals allowed to roam free? For how long? After meeting them, they may even invite you out to see where your food was grown, to meet the cow whose milk graced the flakes of your favorite cereal or the chickens that produced the saffron-colored yolk of the eggs you had this morning.

But enough about that – back to Hood River. This little town is a champion for local foods. Even in Eugene, a fairly progressive and food-minded place, you still have to search for restaurants that feature mostly local foods – Marche comes to mind. But in Hood River, there was no paucity of places to indulge in the local offerings. Even the hotel, the historic Hood River Hotel, where the wedding reception took place had an entirely local wine list! The food came almost exclusively from either Washington or Oregon and even the fish and seafood that was served was sustainable. Directly across the street was Celilo, which had been my first choice for a restaurant to try there, but was unfortunately only open for dinner (the wedding, and wedding reception, took precedence of course).

A wedding guest enjoying the view of the Columbia Gorge

We ended up eating at the wonderful Sixth Street Bistro and Loft, another of my top choices. The pub served beer and wine from Washington and Oregon, and listed on the front of the menu all of the local producers that supplied any of the ingredients they used for their delicious food. They even had organic soap in the bathrooms!! Not only was the large majority of their food locally sourced, but the meal was also excellent. I had a rich, creamy artichoke bisque and a salad of local greens, local pears, Oregon blue cheese and hazelnuts, all kissed gently by a tangy hazelnut vinaigrette. LB had a chipotle burger (free-range, from Painted Hills Ranch) with house-made crispy french fries. After a glass of Erin Glen "Tantrum" Red table wine for me and an IPA from Double Mountain Brewery for LB (located just down the block from the bistro, mind you), both of us left happy and full.

The Apple Valley Country Store, a Hood River institution

Over the two days we were there, we made our way along the Fruit Loop, making a specific stop at the Apple Valley Country Store, where jellies, jams and spreads made from local fruit abound. They're really known for their apple dumplings, supposedly, which we specifically hoped to enjoy, and were one of three groups of tourists that sadly got turned away because they don't make them daily after October. Alas, we were still able to visit three additional wineries (Quenett, the actual tasting room for Hood River Vineyards, and Cathedral Ridge) and spent an hour or so browsing the very cute shops and boutiques in downtown Hood River. All of the wineries had at least a few wines that we enjoyed (and ended up taking home with us), although Cathedral Ridge has the most beautiful view of all three – looking out across the vineyards, you can see the peak of Mt. Adams in the distance.

View of Mt. Adams from Cathedral Ridge Winery

The wedding was gorgeous - the couple beaming and gushy in love with each other, the wines were fabulous, and the scenery was breathtaking...leading to a very enjoyable weekend away from Eugene. But with a National Historical Site for our hotel (and a boiler to match, but that’s another story), an incredibly cute town full of friendly locals, and a plethora of delicious local food choices available, Hood River was an unexpected and pure joy for this foodie. If you have the opportunity, definitely stop by this lovely little town for a visit.


Destinations: A Weekend in Hood River, Part I

A view of Mt. Hood, looking across an orchard in full Fall regalia

Some friends of ours were married in Hood River, Oregon this weekend. Hood River is a small town along the Columbia Gorge in Oregon, about an hour east of Portland on I-84. Although I had heard it was a great little tourist destination in Oregon, known mostly as a top destination for windsurfing gurus, I had no idea how much of a local food pioneer and wine drinking haven it was (for its size), until I started doing a little undercover research before the trip - with full intentions of dragging LB along with me during our free time over the weekend to any cool food destinations I uncovered.

My first discovery was the Hood River County Fruit Loop. This is a 35-mile loop of gorgeous farmland and mountain views that leads to several fruit stands, pear and cherry orchards, lavender farms, wineries and other fabulous Hood River secrets. We didn’t have time to do the whole Loop, but I chose several wineries and a few farms as must-see destinations along the way.

Outside the tasting room at Mt. Hood Winery

When we arrived in town, we headed to the furthest destinations from town on the Fruit Loop, intending on working our way back up during the next two days. Our first stop? Mount Hood Winery. This little winery is just off Highway 35, which allows for gorgeous views of Mt. Hood as well as Mt. Adams (if you remember to turn around!). The tasting room is small, but cute, and they have a nice little courtyard where you can enjoy a glass of wine after your complimentary tasting. It’s a small operation, and while I think they have potential, the wines there were just okay - neither LB nor I were very impressed. They did have a port and one other variety (Chardonnay, if I recall correctly) that had already sold out, so perhaps those were the gems of this little winery. Regardless, the tasting room has a gorgeous view and the woman pouring wine was talkative and pleasant.

Our second stop was supposed to be Hood River Lavender Farm, which is where the photo at the top of this post was taken. Unfortunately, we missed being able to test out their organic u-pick lavender and essential oils by a mere week – they were closed. The place itself looks very cute and will have to be a stop if we ever make it this way again. They are currently operating by appointment only, but when we called (from the road, just moments after driving by), we only got an answering machine.

A chestnut's armor against the world

The last stop along the Fruit Loop for the day was NutQuacker Farms – we lucked out and happened to be arriving the weekend of their annual Chestnut Roast. Here, we were able to taste delicious roasted and raw chestnuts, chestnut honey, and lucky for us, a free flight of the red wines from Hood River Vineyards – a stop we had planned for the following day. Raw chestnuts are crunchy and have a subtle nutty flavor...roasting them turns them into softer, richer, nuttier treats that would go perfectly with any kind of mushrooms or as an accompaniment, side dish or sauce for roasted chicken or turkey – as soon as I tasted one, I knew what my Thanksgiving stuffing is going to have in it. We also got to see what chestnuts look like on the tree – little hedgehogs!! Tight, spiny balls hold in the deep brown shell of the nut to protect it on the tree – it must be a wonderful defense against birds that want to have their own taste of this delicious tree fruit.

The wines from Hood River Vineyards definitely demonstrate the 26 years of winemaking that this family has been involved in. They have a more traditional European style than many of the wineries in Oregon and age their red wines for several years. This longer aging process, from what I understand, takes away much of the acidity, allows the fruit to balance itself and mellows the tannins in wine substantially – giving it a richer, fuller, more complex flavor than a younger wine (like those from Mt. Hood Winery). It definitely shows in their 2001 Pinot Noir (for some perspective, most wineries are currently offering a 2006 vintage), which has a completely unique flavor, very fruit-forward (means the fruit pops on your tongue as the first, and most prominent flavor in the wine), and with a long, beautifully rich finish to it. They also had a grape variety I hadn’t heard of, or tried before, called a Barbera, and surprised me by offering a Sangiovese – called Chianti when made in that particular region of Tuscany in Italy – this one was LB’s favorite. This winery also offers a few white varieties, several port-style fruit wines, two 12-year aged sherries (we ended up with the pear sherry), and even homemade hard apple cider at their tasting room near I-84, which we made our way to on Sunday.

By this time, LB and I were starving, and ready to make our way into town. We were more than pleasantly surprised at the culinary offerings available in this tiny town. But, since this post is getting long, I think I’ll fill you in on the food in my next post...stay tuned!


On the Docket for Next Oct. 31st

My sister and my mom are two of my biggest inspirations in the realm of all things culinary. I remember days rolling out large, homemade egg noodles underneath the palms of my floured hands for turkey and noodles with my mom when I was a kid (mom – I want that recipe!). My sister has always been The Baker of the family, whipping up up-side down german chocolate cakes and homemade dog biscuits for her belovedly spoiled pooch, Rocky (I think I’ve just convinced her to do a guest post soon too...). As we’ve gotten older, each of us has grown even more in love with food and cooking (although I am still, perhaps, the biggest food dork of the bunch). Lucky for the both of them (and unlucky for me), they both live in my hometown in Grand Junction, Colorado, whipping up delicious meals together on Girl’s Nights and having get-together’s at each other’s houses for holidays and other fun events (aw, I miss my family!).

For Halloween, my sister took the reigns, and made this very cool Eyeball Soup. Just from the name of it, I couldn’t resist begging them to take a picture and send me the recipe just so that I could share it with you! I know it’s a little late for this year, but this soup is definitely on my list of treats for next Halloween!! It got raves from all the family members in attendance and is sure to be a conversation starter – but I also think it would be a great way to get your kids to want to eat a delicious tomato bisque.

And just look at that picture - isn't it adorable?!! This was a collaborative effort - my sister made the soup, and my mom documented the event by taking this picture. I think there may be more blogs in the family sometime in the near future...

Eyeball Soup
, serves 6
Adapted from Martha Stewart Halloween Holiday Edition 2007
(adaptations in italics)

To make "eyeballs," scoop the centers from mini mozzarella balls, and fill them with sliced pimiento-stuffed olives.

4 tablespoons butter (or olive oil)
1 medium onion, chopped
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 can diced tomatoes in basil with juice
4 stalks celery diced
2-4 tablespoons cream

In a 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat; add oil and onion and celery, and season with salt and pepper. Cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and tomato paste; cook 1 minute.

To saucepan, add thyme, broth, and tomatoes, breaking up tomatoes with your fingers. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, 30 minutes. (Remove thyme sprigs before blending.)
Using an immersion blender, puree soup in pot, leaving a fair amount of the tomatoes in chunks. Or, working in several batches, puree half (5 cups) of the soup in a conventional blender until smooth; return to pot. Season with salt and pepper and add cream. Serve immediately, or let cool to room temperature before dividing among airtight containers (leaving 1 inch of space at the top) and freezing. Garnish with “eyeballs” and enjoy!