I’ve had Women of Great Taste, published by the Junior League of Wichita, Kansas (1995), for ages now, but just didn’t quite know what to make of it.  For starters, there’s the theme, which is a good idea, but plays out sort of… strangely.  Each chapter begins with a clever illustration of a famous woman, tied loosely to the theme of the section.  Carry Nation (the only native Kansan of the bunch) for Appetizers and Beverages makes sense, as does Marie Antoinette for Desserts.  Though it’s a stretch, I’ll buy Carmen Miranda for the Soups and Salads section, but the illustration of Joan of Arc wielding a kabob for the Meats section might be considered in slightly poor taste.

However, the recipes themselves are anything but.  Forget everything you think you know about Kansan cuisine because the dishes included in this cookbook don’t seem like anything that might have come out of Auntie Em’s kitchen.  Sure, there’s some comfort food here, but for the most part, the dishes are light, elegant, seasonal, and many include international flavors and ingredients.  In the end, it was tough to pick what to make, but since I vowed to make one meal that didn’t call for massive gobs of butter, and since I felt like baking bread, things fell into place from there.

This particular bread recipe appealed to me because there are two beekeepers in my family, so we currently have a ton of wildflower and buckwheat honey (fun fact:  when bees make honey from the pollen and nectar of buckwheat, it turns out a dark purplish-red).

Liberty Loaves

Liberty Loaves

2 cups water
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup honey
1 T. butter
2 t. salt
1 cup roasted sunflower kernels (optional)
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 cups bread flour

Bring water to a boil and stir in oats. Set aside for 1 hour. Oil two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pans and a large mixing bowl. Add honey, butter, salt and sunflower kernels to oat mixture and stir well. Dissolve yeast in warm water and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Stir softened yeast into oat mixture. Blend in flours until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl. Form dough into a ball and place in prepared bowl, turning to coat entire surface. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towl. Let rise in a warm draft-free area for 1 hour or until double in size. Punch down dough to remove air bubbles, then knead until smooth and elastic. Divide into two loaves and place in prepared pans. Cover and let rise again until double in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake until bread sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, 50 minutes. After baking for 35 minutes it may be necessary to shield loaves with foil to prevent over-browning. Remove bread from pans immediately and cool on a wire rack.

Yield: 2 loaves

I was really concerned about how this bread would turn out because it didn’t rise to anything close to double in size, though I was careful about temperature.  Brady theorized that between the heavy oats, whole-wheat flour, sunflower seeds, and honey, the yeast just got tired.  Whether or not this was the case, however, this is a delicious bread recipe, moist, nutty, wholesome, and just a little bit sweet.  I had some this morning for breakfast, toasted with butter and honey, and it was heavenly.  I know it says the sunflower kernels are optional, but don’t you dare leave them out.

Running butter tally:  1 tablespoon

For the main course, I chose this butternut and shallot risotto.  I don’t quite know what a shallot is, or how it’s related to or different from an onion, but I do know that the presence of shallots in a recipe improves the likelihood of its deliciousness by at least 25%.  Unless it’s dessert.

Butternut Risotto

Butternut Risotto

1 medium butternut squash
2 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 T. olive oil
4 shallots, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 to 6 cups chicken broth, heated
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 T. minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Rosemary sprigs for garnish

Cut squash into eighths, discarding seeds. Steam until fork tender. Scoop squash from skin and lightly mash. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in saucepan, add oil and saute shallots for 2 minutes. Add rice and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add wine and continue cooking until liquid is nearly absorbed. Add squash and 1 cup heated chicken broth. Simmer until liquid is nearly absorbed. Continue stirring in broth one ladle at a time until rice is creamy and firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in rosemary, remaining butter and 1/4 cup cheese. Serve in shallow bowls garnished with remaining cheese and rosemary sprigs.

Yield: 4-6 servings

I’ve made adequate risotto, flavorless, mushy risotto, and one really excellent risotto, and what seems to make all the difference is (gasp) really following the directions.  This one was really tasty (though it can’t really compete with that sublime bacon and egg recipe I linked to), and the flavor combination of fresh rosemary, butternut squash and nutmeg works amazingly well.

Running butter tally:  3 tablespoons

For side dishes, I decided to go with two vegetable dishes, and chose the first because I’d never braised fennel before, or for that matter, done much of anything with fennel before. It’s a crazy-looking vegetable, kind of a cross between an onion, a bunch of celery, and dill, and it tastes a little bit like anise.

Braised Fennel

Braised Fennel

4 medium fennel bulbs
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
1 t. granulated sugar
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 cup water
Salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves

Trim tops off fennel, then cut each bulb in half lengthwise. Melt butter in a large skillet and stir in sugar until dissolved. Add garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Place fennel in skillet, cut side down, cooking until well browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Turn fennel and add orange juice, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer until fennel is fork tender, 20 to 30 minutes. (If pan becomes dry during cooking, add a little more water.) Continue to cook uncovered at medium heat until liquid evaporates. Toss with parsley and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings

This one got mixed reviews.  I thought it was quite nice, but there was some note in the flavor that Brady didn’t like at all, and that he swears was not anise.  Also, for something braised, it is very attractive.  Usually braising will knock the pretty right out of food.

Running butter tally:  4 1/2 tablespoons

And speaking of pretty, here’s the last Wichita dish.  It’s beyond easy, but there were heirloom cherry tomatoes at the grocery store, and I couldn’t resist. I doubt I even need to tell you how good it tastes because a) so luminously pretty, and b) shallots!

Herbed Cherry Tomatoes

Herbed Cherry Tomatoes

2 shallots, minced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 T. minced fresh parsley
1 t. dried dill weed
1/4 cup butter
3 cups cherry tomatoes
1/2 t. salt

Saute shallots, onions, parsley and dill in butter until tender. Add tomatoes and salt. Cook, stirring gently until a few tomato skins burst, 5 to 7 minutes. Tomatoes should be well coated with butter-herb mixture.

Yield: 6 servings

Running butter tally:  8 1/2 tablespoons

Alas, it seems that I have still managed to go over one stick of butter, despite my best efforts; however, as it is only by a half tablespoon and we did get two suppers, a breakfast, and a couple of lunches out of this meal, I will not lose too much sleep over it.

Next up:  either Washington state or Washington, D.C., I have not decided which, but either way, there will probably be fish.

When I told Brady about this week’s menu from the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay’s California Fresh Harvest — prosciutto-wrapped figs with goat cheese, mango and brie quesadillas, candied ginger peach shortcakes– he raised an eyebrow.

“That doesn’t sound like anything I ate when I was in Oakland.”

I explained that it was the Junior League of Oakland AND the East Bay, and admitted that this meal was probably going to be a little more Berkeley than Oakland.

Admittedly, there’s a side of California cuisine that doesn’t quite make its way into California Fresh Harvest.  If you’re looking for home-cooked versions of Oakland street food, taco trucks and banh mi stands, you won’t find them in here.  While some recipes are clearly inspired by the cuisine of the Bay Area’s Asian and Latin American communities, most bear little resemblance to the source material.

However, if you have no idea what to do with the bushel of zucchini you just pulled out of your garden, or if you have five pounds of peaches that are about to go mushy, or if you’re just trying to find ways to get more fruits and vegetables into your meals, you’ve come to the right place.  The recipes here are simple, elegant, and nearly every one calls for at least two or three kinds of fresh produce.

The first course I served was the scary one because it involved cooking with figs AND making a sauce.

Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs with Goat Cheese

This incredible recipe was shared by Private Chef Steven T. Smith of Napa. The skewered figs are drizzled with Sapa, a rich and flavorful wine sauce

Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs
Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs with Sapa

40 to 50 small bamboo skewers
25 to 30 fresh ripe figs
4 shallots, minced, divided
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
10 ounces goat cheese
4 garlic cloves, minced, divided
1 pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
1 large bunch basil, trimmed
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon butter

Cover the bamboo skewers with cold water in a bowl. Let soak during the preparation of the figs.

Cut the figs lengthwise into halves. Reserve ten of the ripest halves for the Sapa. Combine half the minced shallots, honey and balsamic vinegar in a bowl and mix well. Season with salt and pepper. Add the remaining figs and toss gently to coat. Set aside to marinate.

Combine the goat cheese and half of the minced garlic in a bowl and mix well. Season with salt and pepper.

Cut the prosciutto slices in half lengthwise. Place one marinated fig half at the end of a prosciutto strip. Top with a dime-size dollop of the seasoned goat cheese and a basil leaf. Roll to enclose the filling and secure with a skewer. Arrange on a baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining marinated figs, prosciutto, seasoned goat cheese, and basil. Chill, covered, for at least one hour.

prosciutto figs1
I couldn’t find small bamboo skewers, so I used toothpicks.

To prepare the Sapa, coarsely chop the reserved fig halves. Combine the chopped figs with the remaining minced shallots and garlic in a bowl and mix well. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small saute pan. Add the fig mixture and season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture carmelizes slightly. Stir in the wine.

fig sauce
The Sapa will thicken nicely as it cools.

Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, stirring frequently. Stir in the butter. When the butter has melted, remove from heat. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing with a ladle to extract all of the liquid; discard the solids. Let stand until cool.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the skewered figs in batches and saute quickly until brown on both sides, adding additional olive oil as needed. Blot the figs to remove any excess oil. Arrange in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees just before serving. Bake for 5 minutes or just until heated through; blot to remove any excess oil. Arrange the figs on a serving platter. Drizzle with the Sapa and serve immediately.

-Makes 40 to 50 skewers

The recipe doesn’t mention it, but these are addictive little suckers.  Though there were only four of us, we managed to eat all but three of the figs.  Now, I’m not a fan of goat cheese (I find it to be a little skanky), so I only put it in about a quarter of the wrapped figs.  If you share my opinion, you’ll be pleased to know that they’re fine without it.  And I did eat one with goat cheese by mistake, and was surprised to find that it was actually pretty good.

Next up, I made mango and brie quesadillas.  The good thing about making quesadillas for company is that just about everybody likes them.  The bad thing about making quesadillas for company is that you have to assemble and fry them immediately before serving.  To minimize time away from your dinner guests, get the veggies sauteed, the mangoes chopped, and the lime sour cream made ahead of time.

Mango & Brie Quesadillas

Mango & Brie Quesadillas
Mango & Brie Quesadillas

1 yellow onion, cut into halves, thinly sliced
3 Anaheim chiles, finely chopped, or 3 cans diced mild green chiles
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 flour tortillas
1 pound Brie cheese, rind removed, softened
2 ripe mangoes, chopped
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup sour cream
Grated zest of 1 lime
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Saute the onion and Anaheim chiles in 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat until the onion is translucent. If using canned chiles, add them to the skillet after the onion is translucent and cook for 3 minutes longer. Remove the mixture to a bowl using a slotted spoon.

Soften the tortillas by placing them in a heated nonstick skillet for about 15 seconds per side. Spread half of each tortilla with a thin layer of Brie cheese. Spread a thin layer of the onion mixture over the cheese and sprinkle lightly with the mangoes. Fold the other half of each tortilla over the top.

Combine the melted butter and 1/4 cupt oil in a bowl. Heat the skillet over medium heat. Brush the quesadillas with the butter mixture and lightly brown them on both sides. Place on a baking sheet in a warm oven while browning the remaining quesadillas.

Combine the sour cream, lime zest, and lime juice in a bowl and mix well. Cut each quesadilla into wedges and arrange on a serving platter. Drizzle with sour cream mixture and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve immediately.

-Serves 8 to 10

While this recipe isn’t exactly “wow” food like the prosciutto-wrapped figs, the mangoes and the lime sour cream are quite nice.  And besides, they’re quesadillas… they’re going to get eaten.

Finally, for dessert, I made one of my summertime favorites — shortcake.

Candied Ginger Shortcakes with Peaches

The Point Arena Bakery originally developed this recipe for scones. It makes a perfect shortcake with fresh peaches and cream.

Shortcakes

Candied Ginger Shortcake With Peaches
Candied Ginger Shortcake With Peaches

2 ounces candied ginger
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
Brown sugar

Topping

6 ripe peaches, peeled, sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine the candied ginger and sugar in a food processor. Process until the ginger is finely chopped. Combine the cake flour, baking powder, salt, and ground ginger in a bowl and mix well. Stir in the candied ginger mixture. Beat 1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream until soft peaks form. Fold half the whipped cream into the flour mixture until combined, then fold in the rest of the whipped cream. The dough will look lumpy and unblended. Knead briefly on a lightly floured surface until a soft dough forms.

Pat the dough into a 1-inch-thick rectangle, and cut into eight equal rectangles or squares. Arrange the portions close together on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Brush with egg and sprinkle generously with brown sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until light brown. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Cut each shortcake horizontally into halves.

Combine the peaches, 1 tablespoon sugar, and lemon juice in a bowl and toss to mix. Beat 2 cups heavy whipping cream and 1 tablespoon sugar in a mixing bowl until soft peaks form. Place the bottom half of each shortcake on a dessert plate. Layer with the peach mixture, shortcake tops, and whipped cream. Serve immediately.

-Serves 8

When making this shortcake, you might want to add a little more sugar to the peaches and the heavy whipping cream than the recipe calls for, but that’s just my sweet-toothed opinion.  Otherwise, it’s pretty lovely.  Ripe peaches and ginger together are hard to beat.

While this meal might look involved, it really doesn’t involve much time standing over a hot stove.  All the sauteing is quick, and even the sauce comes together in about 15 minutes.  Most of my time was spent chopping fruit and vegetables, which I actually find sort of comforting anyways.  Together, the dishes are textbook summertime food — light, yet satisfyingly filling.

Thanks to our dinner guests, Josh and Christina, who were game to try everything, and gracious enough not to become visibly alarmed by my clattering and cussing around the kitchen during the ill-fated flipping of the quesadillas (I did manage to get most of the spilled filling crammed back inside the tortilla… no one would have been the wiser had I kept my displeasure to myself).