The Junior League of Pasadena‘s classic Pasadena Prefers (1964) is another of those time capsule cookbooks that perfectly capture the home cooking of a particular time, place, and people.  Here, it’s affluent suburban housewives in southern California in the 1960s, the kind of women who might be called upon to wrangle a hoard of hungry small children, whip up a weeknight supper for the family, or pull off some gracious, elegant entertaining at a moment’s notice, and make it look effortless.

This week, I not only wanted to cook a classic 60s meal suitable for a nice family supper or for grown-up company, but I also wanted to settle a question:  why don’t people make leg of lamb and ice box cake anymore?

Are they too time-consuming?  Not tasty?  Dated?  Or, in the case of the icebox cake, which calls for several uncooked eggs, potentially dangerous?

The first recipe from Pasadena Prefers that I made recently came up on an episode of Mad Men when Don Draper drops in on his schoolteacher mistress, who offers him a slice of date nut bread.  While the quick bread is still alive and well, in pumpkin, banana, zucchini, and cranberry forms, the poor date nut bread has fallen from favor, unjustly, I might add.

Date Bread

datebread

Date Bread, which I did not offer to any philandering, cruel, yet devastatingly handsome and charismatic Manhattan ad men

2 cups dates, pitted and cut up; equivalent to one pound dates with seeds
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup butter
1 t. soda
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
3 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla
1 t. salt
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped

Pour boiling water over dates, butter, and soda. Let cool. Then add sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, salt and flour, mixing well. Add nuts. Whip egg whites until stiff but not too dry and fold into dough, blending well. Pour into 1 large or 2 small well-greased loaf pans. Bake at 325 for 1 hour and 35-45 minutes if using large pan; 1 hour and 10-15 minutes if two small pans are used. Test centers with toothpick at end of 1 hour 15 minutes, or 1 hour, depending on pans. If mixture adheres to pick, continue baking; if not, remove. Cool first in pans; then continue cooling on cake rack. When completely cool, wrap loaves in foil or saran wrap, air tight. Can be eaten immediately, but improves in texture and flavor if allowed to ripen one or two days before using.

— Mrs. Varick D. Martin, Jr.

It’s a dense, sticky bread that, as promised by Mrs. Martin, becomes stickier and moister after a day or so.  I kept meaning to send one of the loaves into work with Brady, but instead, we greedily kept both for ourselves, and got a week’s worth of yummy breakfast out of them.

I doubted if I’d like this next recipe (cold cream-based soups are not my thing), but it just seemed like such a perfect, clipped from an issue of Good Housekeeping, 60s appetizer that I just had to try it.

Avocado Soup

avocadosoup

Avocado Soup

1 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
2 cups cold clear chicken broth
1 cup cream
2 T. white rum
1/2 t. curry powder
1/2 t. salt
Ground pepper
1 lemon, quartered, for garnish

Combine all ingredients, except lemon, in blender. Serve in chilled cups, with lemon quarter on the side. Serves 4.

— Mrs. Hubert Paul, Jr.

Actually, this was almost good.  However, that little pinch of curry powder gave the soup a rather unpleasant aftertaste that sort of spoiled the whole thing.  If you’re a fan of cold soups, though, you might give this one a try without the curry powder.

Next, it was time for the main event, the leg of lamb, which I had to buy at a specialty butcher as my local grocery store only sold little 1-pound packages of lamb stew meat.  As is the case with most older cookbooks, the authors just assume that you know how to do things like trim and tie a piece of lamb, which I did not.  Cook’s Illustrated provided some useful tips on this, and the rest I pieced together by consulting Food & Wine magazine and the Food Network website.

Still, I had little to no idea whether I was doing it remotely correctly, so that might impact exactly how instructive all of my instructive photos are here.

Lamb Roasted with Coffee and Cream

Leg of lamb
Garlic
Dry mustard
Salt and pepper
Salt pork, sliced thin
2 cups coffee with cream
1 cup port wine

Skin lamb. Rub with garlic, mustard, salt and pepper.

lamb1

Place salt pork over lamb and roast 1/2 hour at 400 degrees until lamb is brown.

lamb2

lamb3Remove salt pork. Pour coffee with cream over lamb and roast 2 hours at 325 degrees basting frequently. Add port wine and cook 1/2 hour more.

— Mrs. William A. Brackenridge

The roasting times for this recipe will result in a leg of lamb that is probably more well-done than modern diners tend to prefer.  My meat thermometer read 140 degrees after two hours in the oven, so I added the port then, and cut the remaining roasting time to about 20 minutes in the oven, plus 10 minutes of resting on the cutting board.  With a total roasting time of 2 and a half hours for a 5-pound leg of lamb, instead of 3, most of the lamb came out somewhere between medium and medium-well.  So, if you like your meat a little bloodier, adjust accordingly.

I also found myself unable to procure salt pork to lay over the lamb during the first stage of roasting.  I picked up some bacon instead, but had concerns that the smoked flavor would interfere with the lamb.

Thankfully, Pasadena native Julia Child came to the rescue.  In those rare situations where the smoky, salty flavor of bacon isn’t necessarily a plus, Child recommends blanching it by placing the strips in a saucepan of cold water, bringing it to a boil, and allowing it to simmer for 5-8 minutes.  Problem solved.

My final concern about the leg of lamb was its cost.  However, Brady and I ate sliced lamb for two nights, then put the rest of the leg through a meat grinder, and made shepherd’s pie with the leftovers.  So, two people were fed for 4 nights, making the leg of lamb, in the end, not so extravagant after all.

And, I might add, we were fed very, very well.  Even though it was a bit more well-done than I would have liked, the lamb was still juicy, and the coffee/port basting juices were a delicious complement.  Why don’t people roast leg of lamb anymore?  Aside from the difficulty of obtaining it (which really wasn’t all that difficult), I can’t think of a single reason.

I wanted to make peas for a side dish (which would come in handy when we made the shepherd’s pie), and the recipe that I chose here was coincidentally, also submitted by Mrs. Varick D. Martin, Jr.

Savory Peas

savorypeas

Savory Peas

1 pkg. frozen peas
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 T. olive oil – or half olive, half Wesson
1/2-1 t. sugar
1/2 t. sweet basil
Salt and pepper to taste

In saucepan, blend together all ingredients except peas. Cover. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Cook peas according to package directions. Add to mixture, and reheat 1-2 minutes. Serve at once.

— Mrs. Varick D. Martin, Jr.

Finally, for dessert, I planned to tackle a version of a recipe that has fascinated me for as long as I’ve been collecting old cookbooks:  the ice box cake.  They’re ubiquitous in American cookbooks from the 50s or 60s, but nowhere else.  And despite the raw eggs, they’ve always struck me as delicious-sounding.  So, once again I had a moment of doubt, but ultimately decided that a) this dessert was eaten for decades and probably no one died of it, b) it was pretty sad that I had put it off this long, and c) who was I anyway to argue with the Junior League of Pasadena?

German Ice Box Cake

2 cakes German sweet chocolate
2 T. water
1 T. powdered sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla
1 dozen lady fingers

Melt chocolate and water in double boiler. Add sugar and beat well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and beat well. Add vanilla. Beat egg whites stiff, and fold into mixture.

icebox1

Line a one quart loaf pan with wax paper. Split lady fingers and line bottom and sides.

icebox2

Pour in mixture.

icebox3

Refrigerate overnight. Serves 8.

— Mrs. H.C. Krueger

I got this started with two hours in the freezer, then moved it to the refrigerator until the next day when it was time to eat.  Then, I had to trim the edges of the lady fingers, which came up a little further on the side of the pan than the chocolate mixture.

icebox4

Then, I inverted the loaf pan on a serving platter, removed the pan, and peeled off the wax paper.  As you can see, I could have used some slightly sturdier lady fingers (or maybe some sponge cake, which can be substituted), but though there was a dicey moment, it did not collapse.

icebox5

German Ice Box Cake

It is a very special day in a young woman’s life when she makes her first ice box cake.  And as with the leg of lamb, I regret that they have declined in popularity, because it was delicious.  The chocolate filling was like a cross between pudding and mousse, and though I would have liked a thicker lady finger, it make for a good combination.

As my week with the Junior League of Pasadena comes to an end, I have to admit that I’m no closer to answering my question about the leg of lamb and the ice box cake.  They weren’t difficult or time-consuming to make, not that expensive, all things considered, and both tasted great.

And I think both should make a comeback, if for no other reason than that it is really satisfying to make something you’ve never tried to cook before, especially when it turns out more or less like it’s supposed to.

pasadenameal

The time capsule cooking has been fun, but next week, it’s back to the present, and to the Midwest, with the Junior League of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

pasadena prefersThis week I’ll be cooking from the Junior League of Pasadena’s Pasadena Prefers (1964), because I felt like moving a little closer to home, preferably towards a city with no Major League baseball team (though Jackie Robinson did grow up there, and cut his sporting chops at Pasadena Junior College in the 1930s).

Though Pasadena is just a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, it seems worlds away, an outpost of quaintness, quiet, and beautifully landscaped yards within easy reach of the squalorous city.  As a result, it’s both a city in its own right, and an uncommonly pleasant suburb, possibly the closest that southern California comes to recreating life as experienced on Leave it to Beaver.  When Brady first moved to Los Angeles, he stayed with a friend there while apartment-hunting in the city, and began to refer to Pasadena as “The Womb.”

Even in its beginnings as a modern city, Pasadena was very much a product of that line of thinking.

first pasadena mapLet’s travel back to the 1870s, when a group of asthmatic, consumptive Hoosiers is so eager to escape another brutal Midwestern winter that they form a trust, the California Colony of Indiana, whose sole mission is to acquire some land in California, so that its membership might settle there.  A Mr. D.M. Berry was sent to survey the state, and wound up deciding that the land then known as the Rancho San Pasqual was ideal for their purposes.  In 1873, that particular chunk of property was owned by two men, Benjamin D. Wilson and Dr. John S. Griffin.  Griffin was eager to get rid of his land, while Wilson wasn’t (until a few years later).  The dividing line between their properties is now known as Fair Oaks Avenue.

Complicating all of this was the Panic of 1873, which was nearly the end of the California Colony of Indiana.  However, Berry was quick on his feet, and formed the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association, which sold stock to Angelenos eager to move to the area.  Each new settler got 15 acres of land for each share of stock, and thus, a city known for being settled by Midwesterners actually wasn’t… exactly.

In 1875, the city was named Pasadena, from a Chippewa word meaning either “valley between hills” or “Crown of the Valley,” depending who you ask.

Houses, churches, and schools were built, and then hotels, making Pasadena a prime destination for wealthy tourists, many of whom became residents.  A “Millionaire’s Row” sprung up along Orange Grove Avenue, boasting residences owned by families with names like Wrigley, Gamble, and Busch.

Pasadena is probably best known for hosting both the annual Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl.  Both got off to interesting starts.  The first parade was held in 1890, and consisted of a bunch of buggies adorned with flowers, followed by a day of sporting events (today, it’s not uncommon for a ToR float to run about a quarter of a million dollars).  Football didn’t enter into the picture until 1902, when Michigan trounced Stanford 49-0.  Though the event was a great success, drawing around 8000 people and creating an enormous traffic jam, it was thought too rough and wild, and the football game was discontinued until 1916.

However, in 1964, both traditions were alive and well.  That year, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower would serve as Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

tournament of roses cover 1964

 

As for Pasadena Prefers, the Junior League of Pasadena’s Cookbook Committee reads like a Who’s Who directory of Los Angeles County, though perhaps the best-known person on the roster is Marilyn Chandler, then wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler.  Despite its pedigree, the Foreword to the cookbook has a down-to-earth, slightly dippy, harried housewife tone worthy of Erma Bombeck (who would serve as the Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal in 1986):

Next came the tasting forms which enlivened many a dinner party and tried many a husband who had been busy at a desk all day and might have preferred to eat his dinner without comment… Without their help, we would never have been able to collect anything we were sure they that they would like.  Children helped, too.  For the strictly raised child who is normally not allowed to remark about the food on his plate, tasting forms were a real boon.  “Do I like the taste?  Ugh!  Would I serve it to guests?  Only if they were enemies.”

… Determining the length of time necessary to prepare a given dish was fraught with difficulties… Kitchen utensils have a way of disappearing just when you need them.  Foreign objects sometimes find their way into cake batters (remove all Lego pieces before baking).  Mud-covered children invade your domain.  Under these conditions, there is no such thing as a quick recipe, but remember, it is all relative.

1964 rose queen

1964 rose courtThe book itself divides recipes not by standard courses, but by their “adaptability to sporting activities either as accompaniment or postlude.”  As a result, chapters have names like “Lawn Sports” (outdoor picnics) “Skiing” (hearty, fortifying meals) and even “Bridge” (ladies’ luncheons), “Parlor Games” (entertaining in), and “Armchair Sports” (small gatherings of close friends and family).

The recipes themselves are textbook examples of 60s home cookery.  Aspics abound, ethnic foods are adapted to middle American palates, and there’s even a tamale pie or two.  Later this week, I’ll be trying out a number of them.  Most are dishes that I’ve never even come close to attempting, and two have greatly fallen out of favor in our times:  the roasted leg of lamb and the icebox cake.

We’ll see if that’s for good reason or not.  I will say, however, that leg of lamb is not exactly cheap these days, and icebox cake usually calls for raw eggs, so we’ll see how this all turns out.  Hopefully not with a trip to the ER (or as in that classic Roald Dahl story/Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, to the morgue).

For the record, my leg of lamb is not frozen, thus making it an improbable murder weapon.

pasadena freedom loving

While the Blueberries Bryan I made earlier this week makes an excellent breakfast or brunch, the other three brunch recipes I made from the Junior League of Las Vegas‘s Glitter to Gourmet are perhaps too savory – or too boozy – to be suitable for breakfast.  Happily, they are just fine any other time of day, as long as it’s after noon (or as long as it’s noon somewhere).

This batch of recipes could have been better, had I not been thwarted at the grocery store.  For each recipe, I was denied one crucial ingredient or utensil that would have made all the difference (or so I tell myself).

Italian Corn Muffins

Italian Corn Muffins

Italian Corn Muffins

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 plum tomatoes, seeded, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano or basil
1 cup milk
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
12 (3/4-inch) cubes mozzarella cheese

Combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the tomatoes and oregano and toss to mix. Mix the milk, olive oil and egg in a medium bowl. Add to the flour mixture stirring just until moistened.

Spoon half the batter into nonstick muffin cups. Top each with 1 cheese cube. Cover with the remaining batter. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until the muffins test done. Let stand for 5 minutes. Serve warm.

Yield: 1 dozen

When I came upon this recipe in Glitter to Gourmet, I thought, “What a brilliant idea!” and was surprised that I hadn’t seen it anywhere else before.  What’s not to like about a tomato and herb corn muffin stuffed with cheese?  And no, it’s not as heavy as it sounds.  I would suggest adding a tad more salt than the recipe calls for, but otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing.  I made this batch with fresh basil because the grocery store was out of fresh oregano, but I suspect the latter would have a more intense flavor.  Oh well, next time… and there will be a next time.

You’ll know what’s missing from this next recipe the second you see the picture. And no, it’s not the asparagus (it’s hiding under the egg and cheese).

Asparagus Tart

Asparagus Tart

Asparagus Tart

1 tablespoon flour
1 unbaked (10-inch) pie pastry
14 ounces asparagus, cut into 3-inch spears
Salt to taste
2/3 cup half-and-half
2 eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon, or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste

Rub the flour over 1 side of the pie pastry. Arrange the pastry floured side down in a 9-inch tart pan. Press the dough into the pan. Fold the excess dough at the top over 2 times to form a thick edge. Prick the bottom and side with a fork. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water in a saucepan for 4 minutes or until tender-crisp. Drain and pat dry. Arrange the spears in spoke-fashion on the bottom of the baked crust, with the tips at the outside.

Beat the half-and-half, eggs, Parmesan cheese, tarragon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper in a bowl. Pour over the asparagus. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Place on a wire rack to cool slightly and set. Serve warm.

Yield:  4 servings

Yeah, that’s a pretty awful-looking crust.  And no, I do not have a tart pan.  I tried to improvise by folding the pie crust down to about 2/3 of the way up the side of a pie pan.  This might be an acceptable fix, but I folded over too much excess dough, and would up with an edge that was just way too thick.

Now, aside from the edge of the crust, the rest of the asparagus tart tasted quite good.  The egg and Parmesan mixture is fluffy and creamy, the asparagus firm and tender, and the tarragon adds a nice anise-y note.  But since I can usually crank out a good pie crust in a few minutes (and am perhaps a little excessively proud of it), I was appropriately shamed by my tart’s clumsy appearance.

And for a light summer dessert with a little kick (kick optional), I made this.  Because, as it’s well known, brunch comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end.

Melon in Rum Lime Sauce

Melon in Rum Lime Sauce

Melon in Rum Lime Sauce

1 cantaloupe
1 small honeydew melon
1/8 of a small watermelon
1 cup fresh blueberries
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon grated lime peel
6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 cup light rum (optional)

Shape all the melons into balls using a melon ball scoop. Place in a bowl and add the blueberries. Cover and chill. Mix the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Stir in the lime peel, lime juice and rum. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

Pour the rum mixture over the chilled fruit and stir gently to mix. Cover and chill for several hours. Spoon into sherbet glasses and garnish with mint sprigs. Add a splash of rum.

Note:  This makes a refreshing, light dessert or first course.

Yield:  10 to 12 servings

Remember in college when somebody would get the brilliant idea to shove a bottle of vodka into a watermelon and bring it to a picnic?  This is a far more refined, grown-up approach to that general idea, using, you know, an appropriate amount of alcohol.

It’s yummy, refreshing, and would have been even better had my grocery store not failed me yet again by being out of blueberries.  I was annoyed, as they’d had them stocked not two days before.  But alas, I made do with red grapes.

And there ends this week’s salute to brunch with the Junior League of Las Vegas.  Next week, I’ll be cooking a meal from the Junior League of Phoenix’s lovely Pomegranates and Prickly Pears, but until then, I leave you with this strange relic from Vegas history.  The city’s marketing campaign used to be, well… different.

lasvegasbrochure

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).

california fresh harvest

California cuisine is marked by a style that’s as much a life philosophy as it is a set of cooking techniques, flavors, and ingredients.  And that philosophy is that food should be simple, local, fresh, seasonal, sustainable, and beautifully prepared.  Take the best ingredients you can get your hands on, then do as little to them as possible.

Consider, if you will, the tomato.

This week, I went to a farmers market on my lunch break, and bought some heirloom tomatoes.  They were sort of gnarly-looking and the flesh was split and hardened at the stem and the color wasn’t uniform.  I took them home, sliced them up, and broiled them in the oven for a few minutes on top of some French bread, fresh mozzarella, chopped basil, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

When I finished eating it, I was actually filled with rage.  Because it was so good, and because the tomatoes I buy at the grocery store are so awful and flavorless and taste like water with skin.  Even when they’re ripe, even when they’re in season.  And I live in California… I should be able to buy good tomatoes at the grocery store, but I can’t because they’re not pretty and they don’t ship well.

Others have said it better, more effectively, and more eloquently than I.

And one of them is Alice Waters.

alice watersIn the forward to Waters’ biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse:  The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by Thomas McNamee, R.W. Apple writes that Waters is an unlikely figure to be at the epicenter of the Slow Food revolution, by way of restaurant ownership.  She’s not a chef (though she’s sometimes filled in at Chez Panisse).  She’s not much of a businesswoman (the restaurant only became profitable in the past decade).  She’s not a chain or a brand like Wolfgang Puck.  She doesn’t really even do most of her own writing (she sort of says what she wants to write, somebody copies it down and polishes it up, and then they go back and forth in the editing process).

But still, Waters is a symbol, a leader, and a spokesperson for the somehow radical idea that food ought to taste good, and like food.  It started with a single restaurant in Berkeley, and now, there’s an Edible Schoolyard project at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (we saw it when we were in D.C. last month) and a vegetable garden at the White House.

(Interestingly, McNamee’s book discusses Waters’s attempts to woo the Clintons into planting a vegetable garden during the 90s.  Both Bill and Hillary were enchanted by Waters, who cooked for them on a number of occasions, but always waved away her request, saying that they already had a garden on the White House rooftop, and that a vegetable garden would sully the design of the gardens on the White House grounds.  She persisted, and finally, they just stopped writing back to her).

The Junior League of Oakland-East Bay’s California Fresh Harvest (2001) is very much invested in the idea of fresh, seasonal, local food, which is evidenced by its recipes actually being broken up by seasons.  Waters writes in the forward to the book,

The Junior League has asked me to use this forward ‘to discuss the merits of using fresh, seasonal ingredients in menu planning and meal preparation.’  I would like to believe that these merits are self-evident.  But I know that they are not.  I have read that 90 cents out of every dollar Americans spend on food is spent on processed food… But it is within our power to turn this statistic around by shopping locally, cooking sanely, and eating responsibly.

And so, this week, I cooked a meal with fresh, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables in every dish.  I visited not one farmers market, but two.  And, I daresay, that it turns out to be one of my prettier, more elaborate, and tastier meals.  Even though I didn’t do all that much to the ingredients.

Four words:  figs, tomatoes, mangoes, and peaches.

And a fifth:  yum.

Okay, so this week of camping food didn’t go so well.  I partly blame the recipes, and partly, the fact that these dishes probably would have tasted better had we actually eaten them in the woods.  But morning rolled around, and we decided we were feeling too lazy to drive to Will Rogers State Park and cook al fresco.

Even had we done so, there were problems with this first recipe, albeit easily remedied ones, that no amount of fresh air and exercise-sharpened appetites could fix:

Creole Eggs Colorado River – A Floater’s Special

Prepare in advance:

Creole Eggs Colorado:  Flawed and hideous

Creole Eggs Colorado: Flawed and hideous

1 28-ounce can stewed tomatoes
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste

At campsite:
1 16-ounce can peas
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
10 eggs (or more)
3/4 cup cornbread crumbs
1 1/2 cups grated Cheddar cheese

Combine tomatoes, celery, green pepper, onion, bay leaf and salt and pepper. Simmer covered until vegetables are slightly tender. Cool. Pour into a heavy plastic bag (Zip-loc or Seal-a-Meal), seal and chill.

In a heavy skillet, combine tomato mixture and undrained peas. Bring to a boil. Blend cornstarch and water and stir into mixture. Heat until thick. Remove bay leaf. Break eggs into skillet, one at a time. Cover and simmer for 7 or 8 minutes or until eggs are poached as you like them. Sprinkle with crumbs and cheese. Cover for 1 minute to allow cheese to melt.

I have a few suggestions on improving this recipe, which is based on the tried-and-true premise of cornbread, tomatoes, and poached eggs, and with a few minor tweaks could be delicious.  First, though I realize Creole food doesn’t have to be spicy, this tomato gravy needs a little heat:  add some red pepper flakes or some chopped chiles.  Second, lose the canned peas (what were they thinking?).  Third, instead of crumbling cornbread over the top, serve the gravy and eggs over a slice of cornbread (as I did in the photo above… my one act of rebellion against the recipe).  And finally, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but use less or no cheese at all.  And if you do use it, sprinkle a layer over the cornbread before ladling out the gravy, instead of weighing down your poached eggs.

After a lazy afternoon, I pulled out Colorado Cache again, and whipped up a dinner from the camping section of ham rolls and skillet potatoes.

Red Rocks Ham Rolls

2 cups cubed ham
3/4 pound grated Cheddar cheese
1 large onion, chopped
1 4 1/2-ounce can chopped, ripe olives
1 4-ounce can chopped, green chiles
1 8-ounce can tomato juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
10-12 hard rolls

Mix all ingredients except the rolls. Set aside. Slice the tops off the hard rolls, scoop out the insides (save for bread crumbs) and fill with the ham-cheese mixture. Replace tops on rolls and wrap individually in foil. Bake in a very slow oven (275 degrees) for 1 hour. Wrap in newspaper or heavy towel and take to picnic site.

Red Rocks Ham Rolls and Green Chile Potatoes

Red Rocks Ham Rolls and Green Chile Potatoes

Green Chile Potatoes

4 large potatoes, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 green pepper, diced
1 large green chile, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil over campfire in a large heavy skillet. Add potatoes and fry until slightly tender. Add onion and green pepper. Cook a few more minutes, just to heat the onion and pepper, leaving them slightly crunchy. Add the green chile just before serving. Salt and pepper to taste. Note: This was tested in Wyoming after an all day float trip. It put back everything the river had removed.

This meal can best be summed up by Brady’s reaction to it:  “Eh.”  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t terribly exciting either.  The ham rolls I wouldn’t make again.  After an hour in the oven, the bottoms of the rolls were soggy and unappetizing.  The fried potatoes, we decided, were something that would really hit the spot after a day of hiking (or the morning after a whiskey-fueled campfire singalong), but were not terribly impressive served on Mikasa plates and eaten while watching an episode of The Simpsons.

Oh well, I was about due for a misfire, though I stand by my assertion that the Creole Eggs could indeed be very, very good with a few adjustments.

And I’m very excited about next week’s cooking.  I’ve managed to lay hands on a 1960s cookbook from Battle Creek, Michigan which draws heavily from the city’s cereal-manufacturing, health craze-starting past, and actually includes recipes once served at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.  The history nerd in me is already doing Iroquois Twists in anticipation.

cookbook_denver_co_cacheA few years ago, my friend, Karen, moved to Denver from a Nashville suburb.  Now, besides the fact that she moved to a place where she knew very few people, started a new career, and bought her first house all within the space of a few months, I am hard-pressed to think of a move that could induce more culture shock than suburban Tennessee to Denver, CO.

Also, I think there is some kind of natural law that when you move away from the South, the first winter in your new city will be among the harshest and most brutal in recorded history.  I’m not sure whether this is the South trying to punish you for leaving, or the North trying to weed the scrawniest from the herd, but I do know that this phenomenon strikes particularly hard those who try to leave Tennessee (I speak from the experience of the Potts-McCoy’s brutal Memphis to Madison migration in ’01).

Anyway, after she’d had a few months to observe and adapt and dig herself out from the accumulated snowbanks, I asked Karen what she thought of people in Denver, to which she responded, “Everyone is really fit and outdoorsy here.  We have the highest skin cancer rates in the country.  And I am probably going to have to learn how to ski.”

When I went to visit her there, I found these observations to be true – North Face vests as far as the eye can see, and being about a mile closer to the sun than most other places in the United States, it’s extraordinarily bright in a way that almost compels you to turn off the television and be outdoors.  Just stock up on the SPF 45 when you do.

Colorado Cache is not the only Junior League cookbook that includes a section devoted to wild game or to Mexican cooking.  It is also not the only one with a chapter devoted to microwave cooking (thankfully, I do not have a microwave, and will be spared finding out what the shrimp jambalaya or burgandy beef stew recipes included in this chapter taste like).  However, it is the only Junior League cookbook I’ve come across to include an extensive section of recipes for camping.

So, that’s the plan for this week – campfire food.

Though I usually have to be dragged to the woods, I do enjoy certain aspects of camping:  hiking, drinking bourbon out of a metal cup, and those little sammiches that involve two slices of Wonder Bread and a can of fruit pie filling.  In short, I am a car camper under the best of circumstances.  However, the main advantage to car camping is that you can pack a cooler, and eat extraordinarily well.  We traditionally have steak and garlic-rosemary potatoes the first night, bacon and eggs and leftover potatoes for breakfast the next day, pasta and sauce on our second night, and whatever is leftover before we pack out.  This week’s cooking should introduce a few new possibilities to the camping menu, though it will have to be pretty good to top steak in the woods.