Red Hot Chili Popsicles

Isn’t this sunflower just strikingly beautiful?  My garden is not only delicious it is also therapeutic.  Few material, temporal objects lift my spirits more than the petals of a crimson sunflower shimmering under the blazing sun. The dense, verdant wall of the Christmas lima bean plant happily houses little brown lizards that playfully race up and down the stems taunting would-be predators with myriad hiding places.  The sunflower plant’s branches have bent and twisted to penetrate this wall to reach out to their namesake life force.  Maybe I’m simple, but I can spend hours searching and finding nature’s miracles in my small backyard garden and every single day offers something new.

Philosophy aside, now for a hot and cold summer treat!  I am intrigued by the marriage of chili peppers with unlikely companions – chocolate and chilis for example.   In the cookbook Paletas, Fany Gerson has a recipe for pineapple popsicles with chili peppers.  I tweaked the recipe by substituting mango for the pineapple and chipotle powder for the fresh jalapeno (I SWEAR I bought a jalapeno but when I scavenged through the refrigerator it was nowhere to be found).   Maybe I have iron-clad taste buds because I kept adding more and more of the chipotle pepper to fire up the pops.   I also used guadillo peppers and boy, am I glad I found these little treasures.  They have a deep, earthy, flavor, sweet like a bell pepper but with a complex hint of fresh raspberries.  My son said they smell like chocolate!  Their heat blooms softly on the palate leaving an intriguing hint rather than a fiery blast.  The parchment-like flecks of the ground chilis lend a toothsome texture to the silkiness of the mango.   I remember vividly the first time I ate a fresh, ripe mango the perfumed nectar shocking my underdeveloped Midwestern palate, the layer of juicy flesh sticking stubbornly to the oversized pit….certainly one of the many culinary epiphanies punctuating my culinary journey.   The addition of chili peppers blows the mind!  Brace yourself and continue….

Red-Hot Chili Popsicles

  • 3 ripe mangoes
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1-2 tbsp dried guadillo chili peppers (use a heavy knife to chop the seeded pods into tiny flakes.)
  • dried, ground chipotle chili pepper to taste

Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a saucepan and stir until the sugar dissolves.  Cool to room temperature.

Dice the mango then puree it in the blender – I held back a small amount of diced mango to stir into the puree for texture.  Pour in the cooled sugar syrup and combine.  Add the guadillo and the chipotle pepper to taste and process briefly.  Stir in the reserved, cubed mango if desired.  Distribute among popsicle molds, (I put the cups in a small metal baking pan) place in the freezer and then wait impatiently.

I used cute little plastic shot glasses I found at a liquor store but any number of vessels can be used to make the popsicles.  Dixie cups work great.  Freeze the pops for an hour or so and when partially frozen insert the sticks.  Wait for the hottest of summer days (any day this week or next will be fine) unmold a pop and confuse your taste buds with this hot/sweet/cold explosion of exotic flavor.

Garden Pests – Friend or Foe?

Allow me to introduce my favorite garden tenant.  Having found my tomato plant gustatory paradise, this fellow has taken up residence.   His primary web is woven with a zipper-like juncture down the center where he positions himself waiting for foolish insects to meander by.  Secondary webs lace between stems throughout the entire plant.  We have come to a silent understanding – he doesn’t stir when I forage for ripe tomatoes and I permit him rent-free residence and all the bugs he can eat.  It’s a win/win situation.  If someone can tell me what kind of spider he is I would be ever so appreciative.  I don’t think he’s poisonous…..

****Warning!  Graphic descriptions and photos below!!****

I gave my spider a treat this morning!  While going about my morning inspection, I noted several blobs of caterpillar poopie.  Yes, they chew the heck out of my plants and then leave a trail of digested plant matter behind.  It is truly as gross as it sounds.  I’ve found that following the trail of poop is a good way to locate the little b**!!#!s and sure enough I found him on a chewed up branch nearby.  Heh heh, I figured Mr. Spider hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I shook the caterpillar in to a bottle cap and then tossed him on to the spider’s web!  Oh diabolical joy!  The spider froze with delight but after a few minutes the temptation overcame him and he reached out and started spinning the nasty/yummy critter into a cocoon!  He must have been somewhat concerned by the generous yet gigantic monster pointing a big black box at him so he paused mid-web until he could have a more private moment to finish off his treat.  Have I mentioned that he’s at least tripled in size since I first noticed him in the tomato plant?

Fall Canker Worms.  The top left is an actual worm I captured, identified in a gardening book, photographed for my Most Wanted Hall of Fame and promptly dispatched to one of Dante’s circles of hell.  Any of the nine will do.   Just yesterday I pulled up and destroyed a sunflower plant because it had been colonized by a new hatching of these awful things.  The photo below shows the damage done to my sweet potato plant.  At least I know today one less voracious monster exists to wreck havoc in my beautiful garden!

And the transitory population:

A posse of these orange with black polka-dots critters hung out for awhile but seem to have gone on their way.  They don’t seem to have done any damage….yet.  I don’t have any photos of them in my gardening books so I hope that’s a good sign.  Any ideas what they are?

Soldier bug!  He’s a good guy.  He eats the bad guys.  He can hang out as long as he likes.  I’ve created a fascinating menagerie in the backyard but I can’t wait for the winter growing season when most of these critters head for the hills and my biggest problem is remembering to watch the forecast so I can blanket my plants with sheets to keep them cozy during the occasional frost.  Happy days!

Seven Psychedelic Sweet Potatoes

I am nothing if not ambitious and filled with unbridled enthusiasm.  Or maybe, the cries of a 2 and a 4-year-old locked in armed combat  have something to do with my ordering SEVEN purple sweet potatoes from my online co-op.  Imagine my surprise when I picked up my box….at least I also ordered a loaf of bread and some kale so the people didn’t look at me too funny.

Innocent on the outside

Virulent on the inside

Really, take one look at the psychedelic purple-fleshed sweet potatoes and give me good reason to disprove their extraterrestrial origins.   After my initial shock, the artistically gustatory potential of these tubers exploded in chromatic splendor in my brain.  Potato hash, mash and fries will never be the same.  It could be otherworldly spores have infiltrated my brain with the alien’s evil plan to populate our planet.  Six of the potatoes were consumed.   One I planted in the garden with pleasing results.  How fun is it that you can plant a sweet potato in the ground and it begins growing sprouts that become lovely, lush vines?   I also planted two domestic (grocery purchased, conventionally grown) sweet potatoes at the same time from which I have only one anemic little sprout.   I’m telling you….NASA may want to keep an eye out for asteroids shaped like purple sweet potatoes….

Purple Sweet Potato Sprouts

In the meantime, as mentioned above, these specimens elevate the everyday starchy side dish to stellar heights.  But I wanted an interesting recipe to make the best of these amazing tubers.  One quick scan of The Rodale Whole Food Cookbook provided adequate inspiration.  Below is my delectable adaptation of  the recipe Fingerling Potato Salad with Cider-Caraway Dressing which I call Summery Purple Sweet Potato Salad.

Summery Purple Sweet Potato Salad

  • 4 large purple sweet potatoes (or any other sweet or white potato) cut into 1-inch dice

Dressing

  • 3/4 cup apple cider
  • 1/3 extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 large shallot minced
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 teaspoon celery seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 ribs celery chopped
  • 1/3 chopped flat-leaf parsley

Place a steamer rack in a large pot filled with water just to the bottom of the steamer.   Put the potatoes on the rack and steam until tender – 10-15 minutes.  When cooked, discard cooking water and put potatoes in a large bowl to cool slightly.

While the potatoes are cooking, put all dressing ingredients in a saucepan.  Stir and cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved.

When the potatoes have cooled slightly add the chopped celery and then pour the dressing over.  Toss well and let sit for a few minutes to let the potatoes absorb the dressing and then gently stir in the parsley.

I made a lunch of the salad by serving it on a bed of peppery watercress which balanced well with the tart/sweet potatoes.  It would be a great side dish with grilled burgers.  Serve warm, room temperature or cold while pajama clad standing in front of the open refrigerator door.  ¡Viva la Revolución!

Popsicles for Breakfast

My husband is a popsicle junkie.  He will consume popsicles morning noon and night.  Unfortunately, my children have inherited this dubious trait.  A few weeks ago we were on vacation in St. Pete and stopped by the Saturday Morning Market at the Al Lang Stadium.   Why are all the best markets so far from home?  Why is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence?

 

 

 

We meandered amongst herbal scented soaps, local, organic vegetables, and a truly international sampling of foods.  Without a doubt, we voted the popsicle lady our favorite vendor.  People queued six deep for her treats and the selection had dwindled when our turn came to her frosty treasure chest.   From her exotic selections, we chose blueberry basil, grapefruit mint, strawberry and coconut.  The frozen juice was redolent with blueberry seeds and grapefruit fibers with flakes of icy mint which lent succulent texture to the pops.  The icy, just-picked strawberry mash and the tropical, flake laced creamy coconut burst with candid fruit flavor. The brilliant use of herbs mixed with the freshest fruit really got me thinking.  I present to you the fruits (punny, I know) of my mental and physical labors:

Clockwise from left: grapefruit mint, watermelon/pomegranate/strawberry fizz, blackberry/peach/honey yogurt

Now, I would try to recreate specific, formal recipes for these lovely gems, but in the spirit of spontaneity  and creativity, I devised general guidelines to help you create pops using the ingredients your family likes and what you have on hand.  For delightful, adults-only pops add, oh say, a shot (or two) of vodka, rum, or tequila (now let’s be rational here, the adult versions would NOT be the best choice for breakfast).

For all I used 3 oz. Dixie cups and craft sticks.  I kept sugar to a minimum, but the more sugar you add, the slushier (and better textured) the pops will be.

Grapefruit-mint: I squeezed the juice of four grapefruits leaving some of the fiber but not the pith (the white stuff) and dissolved four teaspoons sugar in the juice (basically one tsp sugar per fruit – more if you want).  I stirred in one tablespoon chopped fresh mint and then divided the mix between four cups and dropped in one small chunk of grapefruit per cup.

Watermelon-Pomegranate-Strawberry Fizz: I juiced one cup of watermelon chunks in the blender, added 1/4 cup pomegranate juice and then 1/2 cup strawberry flavored fizzy mineral water.  Divide between four cups.   This one would be good with mint too but I didn’t want to overdo that particular herb.

Blackberry-peach-honey yogurt:  I thawed one bag of frozen blackberries and pureed them (seeds and all) in the blender.  We like chunky food with texture so I left the seeds in – the puree could certainly be strained if you prefer.  For the peach portion, I chopped 4 fresh peaches and pureed them in the blender with just a little water to get them going (again I left the peel on).  My peaches weren’t ripe enough so I added a couple of teaspoons of sugar – the blackberries were perfect so I left them without added sugar.  To 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt I added 2 tablespoons of honey.  To assemble, I dropped in one whole blackberry, added a big dollop of yogurt, then used spoons to ladle the purees on top of one another to keep them separate when they froze.

The next morning I found the boys (my husband and two sons) standing outside the freezer yelling, “Mommy we want popsicles!”  Because I knew all of the ingredients and really they are fairly healthy, I conceded.  These frozen treats have certainly raised the bar.

Bento Wanna be

Bento box lunches are awesome!   Today’s creations are inspired by the talented Japanese women whose blogs showcase their gorgeous bentos.   The ingredients they use appeal to an Asian palate and umeboshi plums and tofu cakes would never work for my brood.  I’ve searched for the perfect authentic bento boxes but I just haven’t been able to find what I want.  Ikea had these cute stacking containers and cookie cutters and I decided to use them to create a bento lunch for two picky American boys using decidedly Western ingredients (Ranch dressing).   I hope my Laura and Kerry get a chuckle from my amateurish but honest efforts…

I’m all for full disclosure and transparency in my posts.  I set up this photo on the kid’s table and I will tell you that the magic of iPhoto editing allowed me to eliminate the dried food smears not hidden by the dishtowel and one green Lego.  I would have cleaned the table and removed the Lego had there not been a very curious and greedy and FAST 2-year old hovering over my composition with evil intent.  A Mom had to do what a Mom has to do.

Adventures in Composting (or not)

Adventures in Composting (or not)

As I begin writing a blog entry about my compost pile, the mind numbing absurdity of the topic becomes evident.  Do my readers really want to know about rotting vegetables, worms, rats and noxious smells?  Do I even want readers who want to know about rotting vegetables, worms, rats and noxious smells?  I think we can all agree the answer is “NO”.

Suffice it to say I’ve started a compost pile. I’ll be making dirt.  End of subject.

Now on to a delicious topic.

The bounty has started marching from the backyard into my kitchen and I scored with tonight’s dinner:  Saffron Risotto with Lemon Basil and Roasted Summer Squash.  I have been inspired to vary from traditional recipe format to tell a story of today’s recipe.

Saffron Risotto with Lemon Basil and Roasted Summer Squash

Vegetable Broth

  • 1 carrot
  • 1 stick celery
  • 1/4 onion
  • bunch of parsley
  • smashed garlic clove
  • bay leaf
  • 6 cups water
  • big pinch of salt
  • several grinds of pepper

Boil, boil toil and trouble.  Not from this magic brew though.  I have found an absolute perfect way to make any broth called for in a recipe.  Just chop up a few extra basic vegetables (carrots, celery etc.) to combine with peelings from the vegetables to be used in the final dish.  Add some herbs, cover with water, simmer away and everyone is happy.  So easy and economical!

Grilled Squash

  • 4-6 cups yellow squash and zucchini chopped into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Toss squash and zucchini with the olive oil.  Apply fire and brimstone (or put the veggies on an indoor grill pan like I did) sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Grill, turning once or twice until tender.

Risotto

  • 1/2 onion finely diced
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 big pinch saffron
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes halved
  • 1/2 cup lemon basil chopped
  • 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano grated  – plus a bit more for sprinkling on individual servings

Once upon a time, pearly Arborio rice joined a snappy onion sautéed in butter and oil.  White wine came along and scented the duo with its fruity fragrance.  A pinch of saffron added its exotic nuance and then torrents of broth bathed the whole mèlange over and over and over and over while a wooden spoon kept up a dizzying dance of circles, figure eights, and zig zags.  Seeking perfection, the rice drank all of the elixir and transcended its former dull existence to reach nirvana, otherwise known as al dente.  Vibrant cherry red tomatoes and summer green herbs jumped in to enliven the golden hued porridge.   A dusting of nutty, cheesy goodness, a few grinds of black pepper and happily ever after is just around the bend.

To serve:  Mound a portion of the risotto on a serving dish and top with the grilled zucchini.  If you are feeling particularly indulgent, sprinkle with more grated cheese.   Eat, enjoy and then go forth to live happily ever after.

Silly yes, but somewhat more entertaining for the writer than the traditional recipe format.

Would you call me irresponsible if I admit that I forgot the garlic in the preceding recipe for Redemption Soup?  If you are reading this note before you begin the recipe, throw a smashed clove of garlic in the blender with the vegetables.  If you have already made it and loved it then don’t even give it a second thought.

Transcendental Writing

V. S. Pritchett – “The Evils of Spain”

“Fernando was a man who waited for silence and his hour. Once getting possession of the conversation he never let it go, but held it in the long, soothing ecstasy of a pliable embrace. All day long he lay in bed in his room in Fuencarral with the shutters closed, recovering from the bout of the day before. He was preparing himself to appear in the evening, spruce, grey-haired and meaty under the deep black crescents of his eyebrows, his cheeks ripening like plums as the evening advanced, his blue eyes, which got blood-shot early, becoming mistier. He was a man who ripened and moistened. He talked his way through dinner into the night, his voice loosening, his eyes misting, his walk becoming slower and stealthier, acting every sentence, as if he were swaying through the exalted phase of inebriation. But it was an inebriation purely verbal; an exaltation of dramatic moments, refinements upon situations; and hour after hour passed until the dawn found him sodden in his own anecdotes, like a fruit in rum.”

I read this passage in “A Literary Feast” an anthology edited by Lilly Golden. I was struck dumb by the Pritchett’s phenomenal character sketch. I kept reading it over and over in amazement. In just single paragraph Pritchett creates a universe in Fernando. What a gift.