Westward Wonders

Summer vacations are over, but I’m still caught up in the memories of my wonderful California adventures. There were the mountains, the lake, the coast, the museums. But, wouldn’t you know, my lasting impression is of the fresh food.

 It may not be as good by the time it reaches us here in New Orleans, but there’s nothing quite like fresh California produce – the figs, the avocados, the berries and the greens. Of course, I think we know how to cook it better than they do in California – save the authentic Mexican food that I savored on more than one occasion.

I was about to turn green from eating avocados when I realized that this is the one thing that ships well. I guess it’s because of the heavy thick skin on the Hass avocado, so rich and creamy and different from the thin-skinned and less-dense Florida avocado. So I didn’t have to eat every avocado I saw since I can buy them right here at my own Rouses.

What I’ve learned about avocados over the years is that you don’t have to add much to them to make a great guacamole. I used to add sour cream and mayonnaise and whir it all up in a blender. Now, I mix in little more than fresh cilantro, lime juice and jalapeño peppers and mash it with a fork. The thought of it makes me long for the stacks of warm tortillas and fresh chips in the Mexican markets on the southern Pacific coast.

I am also a little jealous of those great stores and markets in the California cities. Mountains of locally grown produce, large wine selections from the area and huge bins of flowers entice you to entertain. The beauty of the food lends itself to simple cooking. I even enjoyed a Wolfgang Puck sandwich I bought at the airport for lunch on the plane. A ciabatta-blanketed smoked turkey with lots of veggies and a creamy aioli sauce. And a buffalo burger I ate in the mountains hit the spot.

 It is still hot, and I love simplicity in cooking. Below are a few examples of my idea of simple but delicious food.

My next great adventure will be in Maine and Nova Scotia where I’ll converge on those giant crawfish whose ancestors got skinny on their crawl to south Louisiana, or so they say. They call them lobsters up there. Once again, we know how to season them better here in Louisiana.
Great Guacamole
4    medium or 6 small Hass
      avocados, soft
1    medium red-ripe tomato,
1/4    cup chopped onion
    Juice of 1 lime
1/3    cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1    jalapeño pepper, seeded
      and minced
    Salt and freshly ground
      pepper to taste

On a plate, mash peeled avocados with a fork. Mix in remaining ingredients. Serve in a bowl surrounded by tortilla chips.

Serves 4 to 6.
Pasta With Robust Flavors
1    pound pasta such as penne
      or bowtie
1    teaspoon plus 2 Tablespoons
      extra-virgin olive oil
1    cap broccoli, flowerets cut
      into fourths
1/2    red bell pepper, chopped
3    large cloves garlic, minced
1/2    teaspoon dried chili flakes
1/3    cup dry-cured black olives,
      pitted and halved
6    anchovy fillets, packed in oil,
    Salt and freshly ground black
      pepper to taste
1/2    cup grated Parmesan cheese,
      preferably Parmigiano-

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon olive oil. Minutes before serving, drop pasta in water and boil until al dente – done but not overcooked.

While water is coming to a boil, heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy skillet. When medium-hot, add broccoli and red pepper and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring. Add garlic and chili flakes, sauté for 1 minute, stirring, and add olives, anchovies and black pepper. Sauté for 1 minute more.

Stir and taste before adding salt to taste. Keep hot while pasta boils.

Drain pasta and place on a large serving platter. Add veggie-anchovy mixture and Parmesan and toss. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.
Entrée Salad
2    boneless, skinless chicken
3    cups baby arugula
3    cups baby spinach
1    cup iceberg lettuce
1    baby cucumber, sliced
1    medium tomato, chopped
1/3    cup extra-virgin olive oil
2    Tablespoons red wine vinegar
    Salt and freshly ground
      pepper to taste
1/2    teaspoon garlic powder
1    cup crumbled goat cheese

Season chicken with salt and pepper and grill over a charcoal or gas grill until browned on the edges and done through. Let meat set for 10 minutes and cut into 1/4-inch slices.

 In a large bowl, mix greens, cucumber and tomato. Sprinkle with olive oil, vinegar and seasonings. Mix well. Serve on 4 salad plates with chicken strips and goat cheese on top.

Serves 4.

Haricots Verts
1    pound fresh French beans
      (haricots verts)
1 1/2    Tablespoons butter
    Sea salt to taste

Rinse beans. There is no need to trim, snap or string. Drain.

Melt butter in a skillet. Add beans and sauté, stirring, over medium-high heat. Cover beans for a few seconds at a time, then stir and sauté, continuing for 3 to 5 minutes or until the beans are cooked evenly but still bright green and crisp. Sprinkle with salt in the last minute or so of cooking.

Serves 4.

Westward Wonders

Healthy Harvest
Fall vegetables lend themselves to easy cooking. Winter squash, such as acorn and butternut, grow locally in fall and can be sliced in halves lengthwise and baked, cut sides down, until done. Butter and serve them, or scrape them out and turn them into delicious purées and soups. Also look for dark greens of all kinds, sweet potatoes, citrus, pears and pumpkins. Some of the most healthful food known to man is at the market now.

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