Five (almost) labor-free recipes for Labor Day

labor day recipesI love to cook. Just not for myself. What I truly enjoy is feeding family and friends, but indoors or out the last thing I want to deal with is a labor-intensive meal–especially when it’s hot. So, in honor of the upcoming holiday weekend, I’m sharing five of my favorite, late summer recipes. They feature easy-to-find ingredients, regardless of where you live, but if you can purchase the produce and meat at your local farmer’s market or from another sustainable source, so much the better. In my opinion, the key to great food (especially where home cooks are concerned) lies in the quality of the ingredients. Even if you’re visiting friends, local ingredients can be adapted or found for these travel-friendly dishes.

The following require little in the way of skill, prep and clean-up, leaving you more time to enjoy the final days of summer with the ones you love (or want to impress). All of the following serve two, and can be easily increased to serve a large dinner party or barbecue.

1. Pancetta-wrapped pears (or peaches) with blue cheese
Allow one piece of fruit per person, and be sure to use ripe, but not mushy, produce–softer pear varieties such as Bosc, French Butter, or Warren are ideal. Halve each piece of fruit, and core or remove pit. Brush cut surfaces lightly with olive oil, and wrap each half in a piece of good-quality bacon, pancetta, or prosciutto (you may want to use a wooden skewer or toothpick to secure it during cooking). Grill over medium-hot coals (start with one half of fruit; if it’s taking too long, wait until coals are hot) until bacon or prosciutto is crisp, and fruit is slightly caramelized. Serve with lightly dressed bitter greens, and garnish with a creamy, non-assertive blue cheese such as Original Blue, Blue d’Auvergne, or Bleu d’Basque.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Pink Thistle]labor day recipes2. Panzanella
I can’t claim credit for this Tuscan classic, but it should be in every cook’s repertoire. Tear a loaf of day-old, country-style bread into 1-inch pieces, drizzle with olive oil, and toast until golden brown. While bread cools, halve one pint of miniature tomatoes, and cut 2 to 4 medium-size tomatoes (I prefer to use a mixture of heirloom varieties for the best color and flavor) into chunks. Place bread in large bowl, and add tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and one tablespoon of good Balsamic or Sherry vinegar. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss with hands until ingredients are combined. Just before serving, tear basil leaves into small pieces and toss into salad.

3. Fingerling potato and haricot vert salad
Scrub 1-1/2 pounds of fingerling or new potatoes, halve or quarter them, and place them in a large saucepan or stockpot of cold water. Boil until tender, and drain. Pinch stems from 1/2-pound of haricot vert, blanch until tender (the younger and thinner they are, the better they’ll taste), and drain. Finely mince one medium shallot, and one clove garlic. Add shallots and garlic to small saucepan with 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and heat on low until the the shallots and garlic are lightly sizzling (they shouldn’t brown) and the oil is fragrant. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of Champagne or white wine vinegar, and add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard (optional). Coarsely chop one large handful of Italian parsley. Place the potatoes and haricot vert in a serving bowl, and add enough of the shallot vinaigrette to coat potatoes without making the salad soggy. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, add parsley, and toss to combine.
labor day recipes
4. Grilled ribeyes with mustard-herb butter
Heat grill until coals are hot. While grill is heating, take a 1/2-stick of room temperature, unsalted butter, and place in small bowl. Add 1-2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard (or as needed), finely minced herbs such as chives, parsley, or chervil, teaspoon minched shallot or garlic and a pinch of salt. Mash ingredients together with a fork until desired flavor is reached.

Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on counter, and place butter at one end of the plastic wrap, shaping it into a log. Roll the butter up (be sure not to roll the plastic into it) to form a tube, and twist the ends of the plastic. Chill until ready to use. Pat steaks dry and generously season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and grill until medium rare. Arrange a small mound of bitter greens in the center of each plate, add a steak, and top each with an ounce of butter. Serve immediately.

5. Grilled peaches with raspberries and ricotta
Heat grill until coals are hot. Halve peaches, and brush cut surfaces very lightly with olive oil to prevent sticking. Grill until the cut side of the fruit is soft and caramelized. Serve in a shallow dish or bowl with raspberries and a large dollop of good-quality ricotta, Greek yogurt, unsweetened whipped cream, or fromage blanc. Garnish with chopped, toasted pistachios.

All recipes except panzanella copyright The Sustainable Kitchen®

[Photo credits: tomatoes, Flickr user wayneandwax; greens, Flickr user burntfat]

Quickie Tips - Safety

Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Bizarre foods: European “delicacies,” by country

European foodsWhat constitutes “food” is relative, depending upon what part of the world you call home. In Asia, pretty much anything on no (snakes), two, four, six, or eight legs is up for grabs. Europe, however, has its own culinary oddities, as detailed below. Got maggots?

Iceland
Hákarl: Fermented, dried Greenland or basking shark. This tasty treat is prepared by burying the beheaded and gutted shark in a shallow hole in the ground for six to 12 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the end result is considered noxious to pretty much everyone on the planet aside from Icelanders.

Norway
Smalahove: Boiled lamb’s head, traditionally served at Christmas. The brain is removed, and the head salted and dried before boiling. Because they’re the fattiest bits, the ear and eye are eaten first. More fun than a wishbone.

Sardinia (yes, it’s in Italy, but this one deserved its own listing)
Casu marzu: This sheep’s milk cheese has maggots added to it during ripening, because their digestive action creates an “advanced level” of fermentation (also known as “decomposition”). Some people prefer to eat the soupy results sans critters, while the stout of heart go for the whole package. Be forewarned: according to Wikipedia, irate maggots can propel themselves for distances up to six inches. Here’s fly in your eye.

Northern Sweden or Finland
Lappkok: This charmingly-named concoction consists of blodpalt–a dumpling made with reindeer blood and wheat or rye flour–served with reindeer bone marrow. Well, Santa’s herd had to retire sometime.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fjords]

European foodsSweden
Lutefisk: This dried whitefish treated with lye is beloved by Scandinavians and their American Midwestern ancestors (let’s just say it’s an acquired taste). It’s traditionally served with potatoes or other root vegetables, gravy or white sauce, and akvavit.

Scotland
Haggis: Who doesn’t love a cooked sheep’s stomach stuffed with its lungs, heart, and liver, combined with oatmeal?

Poland
Nozki: Literally “cold feet,” this dish of jellied pig’s trotters isn’t as repulsive as it sounds. The meat is simmered with herbs and spices until falling off the bone, and set in gelatin. Think of how much fun this would be as a Jello shooter.

Ukraine
Salo: The cured fatback of pork is actually quite delicious, and similar to Italian lardo when seasoned. It’s chopped and used as a condiment, or eaten straight-up on bread. Plan your angioplasty accordingly.
European foods
England/Ireland
Black (or blood) pudding: Technically a sausage, this mixture of animal blood (usually pork), spices, fat, and oatmeal or other grains is surprisingly good. It’s served uncooked, fried, grilled, or boiled. Sound bad? At least it’s not called Spotted Dick.

Italy
Stracotto d’asino: A northern Italian donkey stew, often served as a pasta sauce. Donkey and horse are eaten throughout Italy, but this particular dish is a specialty of Veneto, and Mantua, in Lombardy.

France
Tête de veau: You have to love that the venerable French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, describes this dish of boiled calf’s head as, “a gelatinous variety of white offal.” Mmm. While there are many different preparations for the classical dish, it was traditionally served with cocks’ combs and kidneys, calves sweetbreads, and mushrooms.

Eastern Europe
P’tcha: A calves’ foot jelly enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews throughout this part of Europe. It’s uh, high in protein.

Germany
Zungenwurst: This sausage is made of pork blood and rind; pickled ox tongue, and a grain filler, such as barley. It’s available dried, or can be browned in butter or bacon fat before eating. And bacon makes everything better.European foods

Netherlands
Paardenrookvlees: Culinarily-speaking, the Dutch usually cop grief for their proclivity for pickled herring and eating mayonnaise on their french fries. That’s because most Americans don’t know this smoked horse meat is a popular sandwich filling. Trust me: Seabiscuit tastes pretty good.

Greece
Kokoretsi: Lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal (lungs, hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys), threaded onto a skewer, and cooked on a spit. You know what’s good with grilled meat? Meat.

[Photo credits: black pudding, Flickr user quimby;lutefisk, Flickr user adam_d_; kokoretsi, Flickr user Georgio Karamanis]


South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Traveling with Co-Workers: An Obsession with Steak Tartare

Steak TartarThere are co-workers that are close friends and then there are co-workers that are strictly co-workers and will never be anything more. Occasionally the lucky pair that consider themselves pals on and off the clock will be given the opportunity to travel on the company’s dime and have a ball. The other set which may be just as fortunate to head out beyond the office space together will painfully smile through it all and nit-pick the other behind closed quarters to all their friends and family.

Tonight, I consider you (the readers) my friends and family for I am trapped in situation number two. Sometime last month I believe I made note that I would be touring the north east corner of the country on a mobile marketing gig. Fantastic for me considering how I’ve never been to Vermont and Maine and can’t wait for next year when I finally get to check them out. On the road sharing this experience with me is my co-worker and strictly co-worker, who will remain unnamed for now until things totally escalate out of control. With our situation we basically have to spend every waking moment of the day with each other and to sum my feelings on that up, let me just say it’s um, alright. Yes, she is a nice sweet person and in spending so much time together I’ve come to learn several interesting things about her, but nothing more interesting than her obsession with steak tartare. (Yes, the freshest of raw red ground beef served with onions, capers and seasonings.) It is her mission in every big or slightly decent sized city to sample the dish even if she’s had it the previous night, because you can never have enough fresh raw red meat.

Well last night I almost reached that limit where a person can stand no more with their co-worker and their annoying bicker-babble on gross food topics. We had just pulled into the Best Western in the lovely and historic Gettysburg, PA (a very all-American sort of place) and while checking in at the front desk she inquires not about the local flavor, but whether any Frenchies have assumed the position in a cozy little bistro or cafe where they are serving steak tartare. The bar-tender who had just walked up and a man on business along with the front desk lady all pause for a moment before laughing. This is where I make my exit and start backing away slowly, for I did not want to be mistaken for a raw meat-eating carnivore and wished to engage no more in this conversation. I hear them say, “This is Gettysburg. You think there is some place to get steak tartare?” I’m dying on the inside. My stomach turns and I run to the elevator. I say a silent prayer so that I don’t have to deal with hearing about this or her other unique tastes until my contract ends in April 07′.

But please – as much as many of you probably agree with me out there (because you always take the Gadling blogger’s side) I must be sure that you do not paint me to be an angel free of annoying co-worker bicker-babble. I’m sure my daily marathon training talk is enough to make her hurl up the last serving of steak tartare. The two just don’t mesh well. So I’m asking you for tips on how you deal with co-workers that you just don’t click with while traveling for work. I want to hear stories. I’m sure some of you have been in my shoes or perhaps you have some positive feedback to offer. Yes… perhaps there is some constructive criticism to be provided here. I’ve searched Google, but found nothing of great help except this Q&A article on not discussing your mental illness with your co-workers.

The day she tells me she has a mental illness – I’m out of here.