Sunday, October 2, 2011

Stop and Smell the Fennel

We arrived at El Capitan State Beach Campground, which is 17 miles west of Santa Barbara off highway 101, at 4 pm on Wednesday, August 10 for our first tent camping experience. Our site, like most at El Capitan, was large and was surrounded by trees and shrubs so we really got a sense of privacy and our own space. After setting up two tents and drinking a well-deserved Hop Ottin' IPA we walked down to the beach. It was 5 pm, the sun was still shining but sat low in the sky to our west. The activities that we saw on that gorgeous stretch of beach were: beach combing, body surfing, boogie boarding, birdwatching, cocktail drinking, dinner eating, frisbee throwing, kayaking, knitting, sand sculpting, smashball playing, sun bathing and surfing all on approximately 1 mile of sand. Walking east (feels like south, but here the coast is south facing, not west facing) the beach got more crowded because this was the day use area. After soaking up some much needed sun and inhaling the beach air, we headed back to our campsite to get dinner ready.

I never thought camping would be an experience for me to write about in my blog, because frankly my options for food prep and storage were limited. But, while walking through the campground to and from the beach I spied several stands of foeniculum vulgare, fennel. For anyone who has experienced the drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, or Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, you know that the perennial herb fennel grows rampant along Southern California's coastal areas. Not only is this fennel that grows wild beautiful, it is also so flavorful! In the summer you can use the fronds and then in the late fall or winter the seeds. Wild fennel is different from the bulbed fennel you can buy in the store or at the farmer's market. If your bulbed fennel still has some fronds attached they will not be as flavorful or fragrant as the fronds of wild fennel. However, the wild fennel will not ever grow a bulb. So wild fennel is the reason you get to read alittle about my family's camping experience at the beautiful and highly recommended El Capitan State Beach and Campground.

Cooking with foraged fennel:
The meal planning for this camping trip was pretty simple. Cold cereal and pan toast for breakfast along with fresh fruit, sandwiches and more fruit for lunch. For dinner on Wednesday we planned grilled brautwurst and hot dogs and Thursday grilled top sirloin steaks. To go with brauts, I caramelized a (presliced) purple onion and added a handful of the delicate, fern-like fronds, cooking just to soften them. To go along with steaks the next night, I melted a 1/2 a stick of butter and added the finely chopped fronds to pour over the lightly seasoned sirloins. Our dinners would have been delicious without the fennel, but an opportunity to forage is an opportunity to feast!

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Soup Kitchen

It's been unfortunate to neglect my writing. I have so many entries written in my head I just can't seem to find the time to sit down and write. So here I am at work, writing my blog. Shame on me! I've never done this before - but today, due to events related to the bureacracy of my daughter's preschool (which is run by the same administration as my employer) I'm working on as-needed basis today. I told Irene (my coworker) she's okay with it, she's a great supporter of sticking it to "the man" which is what I'm doing - albeit passively.

So I've written (in my head) entries about making and eating flour tortillas, ravioli, chocolate cheesecake, making and gifting cookies at Christmas-time, growing and canning tomatoes (I ordered Roma seeds this season,)a fantasy about working for Alice Waters, and the joy of Rose and Marla's eggs. But what I've been making and thinking about a lot more is soups. Soups are so economical and delicious. With soup you can take the same basic ingredients, and create hundreds of different combinations. This week we had tortilla soup on Monday, and vegetable, bacon and bean soup (needs a different name huh?) on Thursday. I think my family is less enthusiastic about my obsession with the creations that come out of the beautiful black Le Creuset pot that holds court on our stove.(It's too gorgeous to put in a cupboard!) But with a budget of $200 each week to feed breakfast, lunch and dinner to seven people, soup is always a smart choice. Deciding on a garnish is also an important part of soup making. I always like to have a kind of cheese or herb that will float on the soup adding another texture and flavor to the bowl. Paired with a crusty loaf of bread, dinner is served. I consider my kitchen creations inventive and delicious - I once combined white beans with a tomato broth and floated a spoonful of pesto on top. I thought it was brilliant, but my 3 daughters were not impressed. Their favorite soup is sopa de fideo. It consists of a light tomato broth and thin fideo noodles. For them simplicity is bliss.

About soup:
The basis for my soups are usually a mix of carrots and onions, leeks, or shallots and a bit of salt. I add this to olive oil or rendered bacon fat - reserving the bacon to add in later. After softening them for a few minutes I add 2 or 3 cloves of pressed garlic. At this point I would add small cubes of potatoes if I was using them and let the outside begin to soften, brown a bit, but watch the garlic. Then comes the liquid. I usually have chicken stock in my freezer. When we grill or roast a whole chicken we save the neck and innards - you know the heart, kidneys and I think there is a liver in there. I throw these in the freezer and use them and any combination of celery, onions, herbs to make chicken stock when I need it. If I don't have homemade stock I use water. I can't bring myself to pay for canned or boxed broth. The flavor is just not right - I pass. The process of slowly cooking the vegetables will create a broth that doesn't necessarily need anything. After adding the liquid, stir and turn up the heat. Before it comes to a boil taste to see if you need more salt. When it comes to a boil turn it down to keep it at a low simmer. After about 20 minutes at a simmer I would add precooked beans or leftover chicken or any greens that I'm using. I would add the bacon back in at this time. This is a blueprint of how I make soup in my kitchen. Walk through the soup aisle of the grocery store for ideas, but then go home and start your on your own creative, soup project in your kitchen.