Sunday, May 20, 2012

The No-Cook Meal

Who knew butterflies love chive flowers? 

This is one of the best times of year to be in North Dakota. Memories of winter quickly fade in the warmth of the spring sunshine. Sidewalks beckon people for a stroll, no dog or stroller or excessive workout gear needed to justify the excursion. Summer days of camping and fishing, barbecues and softball games, sandbars and s'mores stretch out before us and the evening light continues until well past 9 pm, getting later every evening. The community throws open the windows and flutters to life like butterflies drawn to a field of flower blossoms.

It's times like this that I don't cook. I still love to cook, but this time of year, I want to - need to - be outside.  Instead of cooking, I do what I call no-cooking - I'm prepping food, but meals are super simple, easy, quick and (hopefully) still tasty bites that give us more time to enjoy these beautiful, warm spring days. No cookbooks. No recipes. But also, no McDonald's. Just making a meal out of real food to fuel up for a few more hours of play.

So what's a no-cook meal? A few examples from my kitchen this past week:

-  Some of Steph's lovely farm eggs, scrambled with a quick saute of onion and red pepper, topped with Cholula (always Cholula)
-  Croque monsieurs, a.k.a. hot ham and cheese sandwiches
- Quick egg salad with chopped boiled eggs, pickles, mustard, mayo, cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar, served with toast and some veggies on the side
- A "snack" meal - venison summer sausage, cheese, crackers, veggies, with homemade fruity popsicles for dessert.

Nothing fancy, and I'm sure I'll get back in my usual cooking groove soon.  But for now, I happily trade my kitchen time for a few more moments with Ben at the playground, a little more time to dig my hands in the garden, and sitting on the patio with a good read, trying to get some sun on my pasty legs.  'Tis the season of the no-cook meal.  I embrace it.

If you have any favorite no-cook (or low-cook) springtime meals, please share! For more ideas on super quick meals, check out this article from Mark Bittman.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Poached Eggs with Spinach and Chives

Beautiful chives + beautiful eggs = a beautiful supper.  Chives courtesy of my herb garden, eggs courtesy of Steph's Pastured Eggs in Driscoll, ND.  There is nothing better than a farm egg, and I'm pleased as punch that I can get fresh farm eggs from Steph every Friday with her deliveries to Bismarck. (Interested?  Connect with Steph on Facebook here.)

As for the dish, I first encountered eggs and spinach in Switzerland where I was an au pair (aka nanny) for  two German-speaking kids in a small village outside of Zurich.  I spoke to them in English; they spoke back to me in German.  Even though I knew no German outside of the swear words I picked up as a kid from the elders around the sauerkraut region of North Dakota, somehow the Swiss kids and I understood each other.

When I arrived in Switzerland, I didn't know how to cook. I knew how to follow a recipe, but I couldn't really put together a meal without a cookbook. As I was expected to make lunch daily and often dinner too for a family of picky eaters, in a country where prepackaged foods were nearly non-existent and all the cookbooks were in German with the metric system to boot...let's just say Switzerland served as my basic training into the world of slap-dash cooking, figuring out how to make something palatable out of whatever you have on hand.

After trying to make a broccoli quiche from a German cookbook, which took me hours to complete, I quickly discovered that simple is better.  After making enough risotto one night to feed the family and the neighbors for a week, I figured out proper proportion and how much is too much. When I realized you can make a lovely meal out of good bread, good cheese, and a salad pulled out of the garden, a lightbulb went off that fresh, quality ingredients are key. After taking trips with der kinder to the dairy farmer up the road for fresh (raw) milk, the baker for crusty loaves of vollkornbrot, and the farmer a couple kilometers away for my pick at an astounding array of fruit and vegetables - including at least eight apple varietals, each with a completely unique taste - I was hooked on the somewhat romantic notion of purchasing food straight from the producer.

I also discovered that my two Swiss kids liked spinach and eggs from a neighbor who came over and helped me make lunch one day.  The dish was so perfectly simple, easy, nourishing and tasty to both kids and nanny. Unfortunately, after that, I made them spinach and eggs for lunch too often, and the kids' mom actually asked me to stop.

Life as an au pair wasn't for me, and I came back to North Dakota grateful for the comforts of home, but that experience gave me the rough tools I needed to find my way around a kitchen and appreciate real good simple food.

I still love spinach and eggs.  I hope those kids still do too.

Poached Eggs with Spinach and Chives
From Cook This Now by Melissa Clark

2 Tbls. butter
3 scallions, sliced (white and light greens separated from dark greens)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/3 c. finely chopped chives
10 oz. baby spinach
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c. heavy cream
Grated lemon zest or a squeeze of lemon juice
6 large eggs
Crushed red pepper and buttered toast, for serving

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add white and light green scallions and garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds. Stir in chives and toss in spinach, a handful at a time, letting each batch wilt slightly before adding more. Add 1/4 tsp salt and pepper. Stir in cream and lemon; let simmer until spinach is very soft, about 3 mins.

Using back of a spoon, make six little indentations in spinach - like nests for eggs (five around edges, one in middle). Crack the eggs into the nests. Lower the heat to med-low and sprinkle eggs with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and let eggs cook until almost opaque, about 3 mins. Turn of heat and let eggs rest, covered, until done to taste, 30 seconds for yolks that are runny (whites should be completely cooked through), or longer if you like harder eggs.

Carefully scoop eggs and greens into bowls. Season each with crushed red pepper; garnish with scallion greens. Serve with buttered toast.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lemon Popsicles

My little man, double-fisting his popsicle treat.  See the blue popsicle stick?  That was the last one poured from the batch; not enough mixture creates a short baby pop.  I call it the runt of the litter. He didn't mind.

Clearly I'm on a homemade popsicle kick. The strawberry ice pops were a big hit in our house, so I've been refilling our popsicle molds with all sorts of fruit concoctions ever since. My rhubarb vanilla popsicle experiment turned out ok. The strawberry banana yogurt popsicles were pretty good. The standard oj with melty vanilla ice cream always works.  But I'll admit, these lemon ones are my favorites so far this year.

Just about every spring, my snowbirding in-laws bring back freshly squeezed lemon juice for me from Arizona, frozen into cubes. It's a precious gift that lasts me all year, serving as my lemon source whenever a recipe calls for it or when I splurge and use a bunch for homemade lemonade. To make these, I simply pulled some of that lemony Arizona sunshine from the freezer, made a quick simple syrup, and ta-da! Lovely lemon pops. Kid approved. Mom approved. 

Lemon Popsicles  
Taste the mixture before freezing, but just remember it should be a little sweeter than you'd like your popsicles to be. Freezing reduces the sweetness. You could try using frozen lemonade concentrate too.  Adjust as needed. 

1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1/2 c. lemon juice (or more/less to taste)

Make a simple syrup by combining the sugar and water in a small saucepan.  Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar, then remove from heat and cool.  Once cool, stir in lemon juice, pour into popsicle molds, and freeze. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Chicken Hut in Rolla, ND

There's a magical little place called The Chicken Hut just off the highway in Rolla, North Dakota. If you find yourself hungry in Rolla, you will probably eat here as it is one of the few restaurants in this small town of population 1,000 (although there is D&B Pizza downtown as well).  Here's the plan of attack for enjoying your visit to what I can now call The Hut:

1) Ask a random man on the streets of downtown Rolla for directions.  He will call you ma'am.  Don't be discouraged.  Then he will point you down Main Street to the east side of town.

2) Walk in The Hut and take note of the Ms. Pac-Man arcade game to the left of the entrance.  This will be important later. 

3) Walk up to the counter and order the four piece fried chicken meal for $8, sharing the meal with a friend.  Note the bucket of juneberry ice cream from Pride Dairy in Bottineau in the cooler by the counter.  This will also be important later.  

4) After ordering, seat yourself in one of the many tables and booths from 1973.  Then dig in your purse for a stack of quarters and proceed to the Ms. Pac-Man game (Cruisin' USA is also an option for the more vehicular gamers).  Although most people just try to pass each level of Ms. Pac-Man and simply avoid the ghosts, the real secret is to gobble the fruit too.  Buku points. 

5) After a few rounds of Ms. Pac-Man and a perusal of the Minot Daily newspaper laying on a table nearby, your meal will be served to your table.  The chicken is cooked to order, served up crispy and piping hot yet not greasy, sitting on a soft fluffy cloud of French fries and Texas toast (France and Texas? Very international).  The coleslaw is the good kind with the big shreds of cabbage - not the little tiny shreds that get all mushy and sloppy in the dressing.  Bonus. 

6) Grab a dollar out of your purse and purchase a scoop of juneberry ice cream for dessert.  Leave happy. 

PS - props to my photog friend/co-worker Jamie Vetter for the pics.