Returning to Fresno: Finding Summer Begun

Fresnopostcard Fresno is a beautiful place to fly into at night; I’ve remarked upon this to seatmates on a few descending planes, colleagues and co-workers, and all agree: the unerringly level valley, illuminated with a sprinkling of variously-toned white lights – pale yellow, blue, green, orange – in every direction as far as the eye can see, is absolutely stunning.

Friday, however, I was flying in during the late afternoon on one of the first warm days of the year, with the familiar pall of brown haze hanging over everything. Most of the time, Fresno looks like you should open it in Photoshop and do some color correction.

The daytime landscape, as you come toward the airport from the southern approach, is partially redeemed by the view of countless trees in neat orchard blocks. Many of them are stone fruit trees; you can spot them when they’re in full leaf by their doughnut appearance, the centers pruned out to let more light into the tree’s canopy.

At any rate, the spell is broken when you get out of the plane. I don’t know how to describe it, but Fresno has a smell – hot dust, even on what passes for a cold day here, is the closest I can come to it. Though I love my work in this place, I’m always a little sorry I left the fresh air of wherever I came from.

While I was gone this week, investigating consumer preferences, Fresno decided to have the first warm day of the summer. The wet spring is finally starting to recede; though many farmers have lost a lot of crops, we’re about to start into gonzo strawberry season.

I had already used my car air conditioner on April 20, and we had to crank the house one up on Friday. We’ve been trying to use the blinds-down-windows-open-in-the-morning-and-evening tactic – it works fairly well, as this is really a desert climate and the temperature drops precipitously once the sun goes down – but once we start getting up to those 90+ degree days, and it’ll be soon, we’ll have to start air conditioning in earnest.

My cooking is going to change now.

Seasonality isn’t just an idle whim here – cold food goes a long way toward making the very long, very hot summer bearable. Sitting on the couch on Friday, watching the cats sprawled out asleep, as long as they could make themselves in their full-body sweaters, I started thinking about big salads, chilled soups, fruit, and, in general, anything that doesn’t involve the oven.

So vinaigrettes are on my mind, massive piles of produce lightly dressed, things marinated, macerated, chilled. There’s always one day in the summer here where I can’t bear the idea of turning on even a light switch, much less a burner, in the kitchen, and I think That whole raw food thing makes a lot of sense. Time for some Mexican Gazpacho. It won’t be long.

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Chimp’s ‘Dude,You Better Use That’ Squash Soup

Squash_1 My husband Chimp (that’s his longstanding ‘net name) asked if he could guest blog this week while I’m traveling for business. Why not?  Due to my CFS, he’s cooked more dinners in the past two years than I have, though I’m still way ahead on the lifetime total.  So here comes Chimp’s improvised butternut squash soup recipe from last week.

The nice thing about his improvised recipes is that he sometimes does something that would never have occurred to me that turns out wonderfully. Like this – I’ve added traditional warm spices and hot seasonings to squash soup in the past, but never five-spice powder; I just never thought of it. This will come out very thick – if you’d like it soupier, just add water.  So here’s Chimp.

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With your regular host on the road this week, I’m stepping in to fill your left-field vegetarian needs.  No, I am not an actual chimp and no, I have not been hurling anything that I shouldn’t have been hurling before heading into the kitchen.  Now let’s get to it. . .

Imagine you were blissfully married to someone, but that someone really loved butternut squash.  That might not be so bad for some of us, but for others, squash makes the mouth go limp as does the body when bear-hugged as a child by distant relatives who smell of mothballs and calamine lotion.  This calls for a plan.

The nice thing about butternut squash is that initial prep is pretty easy.  (1) Turn oven on to 400 and insert squash.  (2) Wait for length of two Simpsons reruns.  (3) Remove from oven.  It also keeps just fine till the next day, so one could put this in the oven while making something else one night, stow it in the fridge overnight and have the makings of soup the next night.  Just remember to use it in a timely fashion, as the name would suggest.

Oil for the pan

2 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped

1 tsp. ginger, very finely chopped

1 tsp. Chinese Five Spice

2 red peppers, diced

3 carrots, diced

1 butternut squash, roasted about an hour and minus its skin and seeds

1/2 cup water or broth

salt and black pepper to taste (and I do mean a lot of both)

Heat the oil and the garlic and ginger for about a minute, stirring regularly.  Toss the Five Spice and lots of black pepper in, then add the peppers and carrots.  Sauté until tender.

Add the squash and the water or broth and let simmer for 10 minutes. Put the contents through a food processor or blender and return them to the pot.  Add salt and let simmer another 10 minutes or so.

Serve in bowl to grateful spouse after long day at work.

What makes this is that the Five Spice and the black pepper are strong enough to give the squash a bit more bite without turning the soup into an excuse for too much hot stuff.  (Some of us have been accused of this on other occasions.)  The peppers seem to add just enough sweetness to wake the whole thing up without making it taste sugary. It worked for me.

Produce Stats

Searchfor_picI’m on the road this week in Philadelphia and Houston, finding out what consumers like.  I really enjoy marketing research projects. I also happen to be a bit of a data geek in general; I love to add new items to my stock of Helpful Facts.

With that in mind, I wanted to point up this fact sheet (PDF file), just chock-full of statistics, released by the Produce Marketing Association last week.

The good news is that U.S. fruit and vegetable consumption increased 2% in 2004; the less good news (for me as someone who works on the behalf of fruit, of course) is that the consumption increase is entirely in vegetables, which are up about 4%.

Much of it’s not very surprising: older people eat more produce, people with more income and education eat more produce, women eat more produce.  However, be sure not to miss page five, which lists produce consumption in many other countries; keep in mind that PMA estimates U.S. per capita consumption at 346 pounds, and check out China.

Vaguely Cajun Spice Mix

This is an integral ingredient in red beans. For most recipes, I put together my spice mixture on the spot, but this I mix up, stash in the cupboard, and inflict a large amount on the legumes when they go into the pressure cooker.

Most Cajun/Creole spice blends include onion powder, garlic powder and salt. I leave out all three of those – the powders because I prefer to use fresh onion and garlic, and the salt because I’d rather adjust that separately from the spices. If you’re putting this into a pot of red beans in which you’re also using canned tomatoes, the tomatoes will already add almost enough salt to the dish; if you were using it in the cooking water for rice, you’d need to add salt.

This, like that paprika-and-celery based classic Old Bay (Bawlmer Merlin, hon!), is also great tossed with freshly stove-popped popcorn.

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Sloppy Mobys

Eh, the lighting needs work in that, but the important part of the lighting task is accomplished: you can see what it is that’s being photographed. My Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Internal Regulation System says: “That’s good enough. Sit down and eat now.”

A few years ago now – yikes, it was probably 1999, back when I was working for Whole Foods, because it was when Play was first out – I made a hot lentil sauté on hamburger buns, inspired by the idea of Sloppy Joes, which I never liked as a kid, but the idea of that kid-ish-inspired food seemed like fun. We called them Sloppy Mobys, because they were vegan, and Moby was very much the uber-vegan symbol at the time. This isn’t meant to strongly resemble actual Sloppy Joes made of meat; it’s the idea I liked.

The idea came back to me recently, so we had something like that this past week, tucked into whole-wheat pita instead of on burger buns, because I couldn’t find any whole-wheat burger buns, and I am that insufferable whole-grain type.

I didn’t even eat most of this as sandwiches, either – after one dinner with it that way, the rest of it I added a little water to and ate as soup – and it was great.

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Red Pepper Sauce

I really like using vegetable-and-nut sauces. Things like this and the Sorites Paradox Pesto add tons of color and nutrition to a plate, and variety to a vegetarian diet. Plus, because there’s little chopping and prep work, they’re usually manageable for me to assemble and contribute to dinner unless my energy is really, really poor.

This can be used to top fresh vegetables (it’s especially nice on green ones, as it’s a bit like a shortcut romesco sauce, except with red peppers instead of tomatoes), liven up a salad dressing or toss with pasta.

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Partly Saffron With a Chance of Anise

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I always get a kick out of the McCormick Flavor Forecast; it’s usually just the right blend of pulse-taking and McCormick sales job. Sure, sometimes it gets a little heavy-handed – last year, one of the flavors listed was Pickling Spice, which I suppose was a response to the huge increase in home pickling that we all saw coming for 2005. It was really launched by the sudden nationwide fascination with German cuisine – as with most food trends, it started with all the German fine-dining restaurants that all the socialites were seen in, feeding their tiny dogs huge sausages, and everyone was experiencing that weekend culinary aspiration, and there were massive runs on cabbage and cucumbers and rings and lids.

Okay, maybe not. And pickles aren’t just German, of course, it’s that cucumbers make for better humor than preserved lemons. Gherkin. Cornichon. Much funnier sounding.

Anyhow, the forecast came out way back in December, but that’s the first story I’ve seen on it this year. For 2006, the flavors are:

Anise – A personal favorite; happy to see it get the nod, though I know fennel will feel shortchanged.
Caraway – This is the one spice I just can’t stand – when I was younger I thought I didn’t like rye bread but I eventually figured out that what I didn’t like was caraway.
Chai – I would quarrel with this one; I think chai was actually probably one of the top flavors of the early to mid-1990s, but it takes a big company like McCormick a long time to come around to some things.
Marjoram – Here here, recognition for the more floral cousin of oregano; I have some seeds of this lovely annual I need to get around to planting.
Paprika – Everything needs paprika. It’s a reliable classic that intensifies savory flavors, adds rich color and promotes browning.
Saffron – What’s left to be said about saffron? The combination of rice, butter, salt, cardamom and saffron combine to one of the most transcendent experiences available in food.
Sesame – Pedestrian? Maybe a little, but not when applied in great quantities, as an alternative to breadcrumbs, or used as a blend of white and black sesame seeds.

This reminds me that I bought a bottle of paprika this week because I need to mix up more of my vaguely-Cajun (Very 80s! It’s retro now! Let’s all wear useless belts over our clothes again and make ourselves look thick in the middle, as they’re the season’s key accessory!) stuff I use for red beans.

Off to the kitchen.