A Birthday Brunch at the Wildlife Area

Today was not unlike most Monday mornings. I awoke at 5am and began my morning routine finishing with a light breakfast around 7am. Now I was ready to start a very important deviation in my morning routine. Today I am baking an apple crisp to take to  a brunch at work. It is the Director’s birthday and and we want to do something special for this very special lady.

At most places of work a birthday brunch would mean gathering around in an office setting and sharing a variety of delicacies. Not where I work. It meant that we were headed out to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to do some bird watching, look at some of the newest research and restoration projects and of course, have our birthday brunch amongst a beautiful wetland setting with the birds singing and the sun shining down on us.

The Wildlife Area is a very special destination for all of us at Yolo Basin Foundation, but it is especially special to Robin, our Director. Robin was part of a handful of people that came together in 1989 to begin the conversation of restoring the wetlands of the Putah Creek Sinks located in the Yolo Bypass. As a result of these conversations  the Yolo Basin Foundation was founded in 1990 as a non-profit dedicated to the stewardship and appreciation of wetlands and wildlife through education and innovative partnerships. In 1997 the Wildlife Area opened to the public, the beginning a long-term partnership between the Yolo Basin Foundation and the California Depart of Fish and Game to provide public outreach and educational programs at the Bypass. The original area of preservation was 3,500 acres and that number has grown to over the years to over 16,000 acres. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to have her birthday celebration.

I have been thinking about how to make this crisp for days now. One member of our staff doesn’t eat foods containing gluten and another is allergic to walnuts. I want everyone to be able to enjoy the crisp so I combined ideas from a couple of recipes. I used Annie’s Apricot Crisp recipe to create the topping, but this time instead of using wheat or oat flour I used almond flour. Another potential problem was that some folks who are gluten intolerant don’t eat oats and I definitely wanted to include rolled oats in the topping so I checked to see why something that doesn’t have gluten in its makeup was on the avoid list. A Google search turned up http://www.glutenfreeoats.net/. Their reasons were: “The concern is that if oats are grown in a field that previously grew other gluten containing grains, some of those other gluten containing grains will naturally grow in the oat field the next year, which will then cause the oats harvested from that field to be contaminated. If a farmer uses the same equipment to process all his grains, that can also cause cross contamination. If the coop or transport company that brought the oats to the processor has stored and transported other grains, that can cause cross contamination. If the processor processes other gluten containing grains, there can be cross contamination.” Makes complete sense to me so I found some certified gluten free oats to use not wanting to take the chance of using cross contaminated oats. The second recipe was from Simply Recipes. It gave me the basic ingredient ideas for the apple part of the crisp; apples, lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar and cinnamon. I added some nutmeg and increased the cinnamon and vanilla amounts over what they recommended. After a half hour of peeling, slicing and mixing the apples with the lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar and spices, the mixture was poured into a 9 x 12-inch pan, then the topping with the almond flour, certified gluten free oats, chopped pecans and butter mixture was added. It looked great and if it hadn’t been a foggy morning with very little natural light coming in the kitchen windows I would have taken some nice pictures to show you. I really don’t like how food pictures turn out when you use flash. In my opinion the look is very unnatural and unappetizing and Annie is definitely not into unappetizing looking foods.

The crisp came out of the oven 45 minutes later, smelling wonderful as only apples drenched in sugar and cinnamon can and looking perfect. I wrapped it in a towel to keep it warm, loaded the car with my laptop and some serving utensils and headed off through the fog to work. The closer I got to work the sunnier it got which is unusual since there is always more fog in the rural areas and that’s where our office is, in a field surrounded by agriculture.  At work we loaded the food each of us had brought; bagels and cream cheese, just picked tangerines and freshly shelled walnuts, hot water for coffee, tea or cocoa, and Greek yogurt to use on the crisp.  Plates, silverware and hot cups were placed in a basket and loaded into the fifteen passenger van along with a loaded ice chest. Party supplies all loaded we all jumped in and headed two miles to the east to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area where we drove south into a closed area to view a project area and some recently restored wetlands.  It took us a while, every time we got started down the road one of us would see a bird or birds that we would have to stop and watch.  Sometimes it was to make an identification. I was sitting in the third set of seats from the front, warm crisp on my lap and the basket of the other goodies and a co-worker beside me. My views were through windows that do not open and have not been washed for who knows how long. It was not good viewing, with or without binoculars, and definitely not good at all for picture taking. Since I couldn’t take any pictures of the birds we saw I took this picture to show you my view of everyone else bird watching. I thought it was funny. There they sat with their binoculars all at attention, the part you can’t see or obviously hear is the discussion as to which bird it was that was spotted and where it is amongst the hundreds of other birds out on the water. Then there is the discussion by a few of them that are using the iBird app on their phones to research or justify identification. It was definitely entertaining and not atypical of birders, which all of us, with the exception of two are. Actually the app was great help since some of the female ducks are really hard to identify. We also used it to confirm some eared grebes that are not common to the area.

When we got to the southern part of the wildlife area we stopped and had our brunch. Since we didn’t stop in an area with a table we used the ice chest and the seat and step of the van to set up our feast. The crisp went quickly and this is all that was left after eight hungry women had finished with it. At one point this morning I had considered making a 9 x 9 pan, glad I didn’t. Yes I ate again. I had to see if the crisp tasted as good as it had smelled all morning. It was delicious if I do say so myself. Guess what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow morning. Love leftovers!

As we pulled to the top of the levee to leave the wildlife area we were given one more memorable moment, we spotted five river otter playing in the water just below us. As we sat watching their antics I couldn’t help wish that I could just stay and spend the rest of the day as carefree as the playing otters seemed.  That wish would have to wait; there was work to do back at the office. But I knew as we drove off that I would be back out to the Wildlife Area the next day, this time with a class of excited school children and we would continue the exploration of this wonderful area.

To see pictures of the wildlife area and some of it’s inhabitants click here.

Craving Mac n Cheese

The other day I made my favorite Mac n Cheese. I’ve been craving it for a while but it’s been too warm to cook this type of food so when the days started cooling off I knew exactly what it was time for; creamy Mac n Cheese with crispy edges and crusty top.

It was a Saturday and the Farmers’ Market that I usually go to is on Sunday morning. That means I was out of just about everything fresh. So, that night I feasted on my Mac n Cheese accompanied by only a simple salad of baby greens, shredded carrots and a sprinkle of sunflower seeds. Tasty enough but as I sat down to eat I thought, “you know what would be great with this Mac n Cheese, grilled Brussels sprouts”.  Next morning as I shopped the Farmers’ Market the first thing I picked up was some Brussels sprouts and some Crimii mushrooms. I also picked up a nice butternut squash, some onions and a couple of Black Arkansas apples (more on these later)

Sunday night I grilled the Brussels sprouts, Chrimini, onion and garlic and feasted on left over Mac n Cheese with a side of the roasted veggies. Oh my was it good. Definitely a great accompaniment to the Mac n Cheese. You can find more ways to fix Brussels sprouts on my January 22, 2010 post, \”How I Learned To Love Brussels Sprouts\”. You might even consider one of these versions as a side for Thanksgiving.

Here’s the recipe for the Mac n Cheese. It’s from James Beard’s American Cookery and has been my favorite since my son was a little boy. Which, as I consider it, was a long time ago.

Macaroni and Cheese I

½ lb macaroni (I use brown rice pasta)

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 ½ cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon dry mustard

Dash Tabasco

1 to 1 ½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese (I use a sharp Tillamook)

Boil the macaroni in salted water till just tender. Drain well. Prepare a white sauce — melt the butter in a heavy saucepan, blend with the flour, and cook several minutes over medium heat. Heat the milk to the boiling point, stir into the flour-butter mixture, and continue stirring until it thickens. Add the seasonings and simmer 4 to 5 minutes.

Butter a 2 or 2 ½ quart baking dish or casserole. In it arrange alternate layers of macaroni, sauce, and cheese, ending with cheese.  Option: Cover the top with buttered breadcrumbs. Bake at 350° for 25 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the sauce is bubbly. Serve at once.

Annie’s Grilled Vegetable Lasagna

If you have been reading my posts you know that the Ichiban Japanese eggplant I planted in a pot on my patio has been the best producing eggplant I have ever had. It has supplied a neighbor friend and myself with more than enough eggplant. We have made all kinds of dishes with it. A couple of weeks ago I made up a vegetable lasagna that doesn’t use any noodles, just grilled veggies, cheese and some very delicious Trader Joe’s Tuscano Marinara Sauce. This week I decided to grill the extra veggies that have been ripening faster than I can eat them and store them in the refrigerator with the idea that when I had enough variety I would make another vegetable lasagna.

Today was the day that version-two of the lasagna took shape. It is cool and windy outside with the sun popping in and out from behind the clouds. If we were having a normal August it would be hot outside by now and I certainly wouldn’t consider turning on the oven. Not even the small convection oven I used today. But it’s not hot and so the lasagna creation began. I gathered the grilled eggplant, Butterstick zucchini, and red peppers from the refrigerator. Next I sliced a beautiful red onion I had just bought at the Farmers’ Market and sautéed it in a little olive oil until it was beautifully browned and tender. A trip out to the patio yielded fresh basil leaves.

Lasagna is a process of layers; a layer of marinara (which I strained the excess liquid out of since there are no noodles to absorb the liquid), then the eggplant topped with whole basil leaves and mozzarella cheese, another layer of marinara, zucchini, basil leaves, peppers, onions and cheese. I finished it off with the last bit of marinara, mozzarella and some shredded Parmesan. I baked the lasagna at 350° for about 30 minutes, or until the top was browned. I let it sit for about 10 minutes before I cut it into serving size pieces.

This is one of those great recipes that you can modify to fit the ingredients you have. If I had had some ricotta I would have added a layer. Pine nuts might add some nice texture. I might even be tempted to try a pepper that has a little heat in it. I do love the red bells for their sweetness but it might be nice to  add just a little kick to the mix. I also think I’ll add a little fresh parsley next time since I have some in my garden. And, since the eggplant has started a whole new round of flowering and producing, I’m sure there will be a next time.

If you give my grilled vegetable lasagna a try let me know how it turned out for you or how you modified the ingredients to fit your likes and vegetable abundance. There’s more on grilling vegetables here. I’m always looking for new ways to cook vegetables and would love to share your ideas with my readers.

Dried Fruit and Nuts = Healthy Fruit-nut Bars

A post, last month, by David Lebovitz caught my eye. It was called Fruitcake Bars. While I’m not a fan of conventional Fruitcake I do like breads that incorporate dried fruits and nuts and this particular recipe was mostly dates, which I love and toasted nuts, which I also love. It sounded incredibly easy and I had all the ingredients so I gave it a try. After I tried it the first time, and loved it, I tried it again using a little different combination for both the fruit and nuts. Here’s the basic recipe for what I now call Fruit-nut Bars:

Grease two small loaf pans and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325° F and position the rack in the center of the oven.

Chop 2 cups of toasted nuts. To toast the nuts bake them for about 10 minutes at 350°, or until just starting to brown. I used walnuts and pecans this time.  Chop 2 1/2 cups dried fruit. I used dates, apricots and cranberries.

In a large bowl, toss together 6 tablespoons almond flour (or wheat flour), 1/8 teaspoon baking soda, 1/8 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 6 tablespoons packed, light or dark brown sugar, the nuts and dried fruit. Use your fingers to mix, separating any pieces sticking together.

Beat 1 large egg with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, then mix it with the fruit and nut mixture until every-thing’s coated.

Spread the mixture into greased baking pans and press gently to even out. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the tops are golden brown and have pulled away just-slightly from the sides of the pan Cool on racks, in the pans. Remove from pans when completely cool.

A heavy sharp knife, such as a bread knife, is best for cutting the Fruitcake. It can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, if it lasts that long. Mine were usually gone in one to two days. Individual cakes can be wrapped in plastic. Try serving slices with Mascarpone. It’s delicious.  I have plans to make a slightly different version again next week. Depends on what fruits and nuts I have on hand or what interesting fruit I find at the market this weekend.  They’re a nice snack to have around. Healthy too.

When you’re shopping at the Farmers’ Market purchase: dried fruits, nuts, and eggs. Some markets will also have almond flour.

Squash For Dessert? Why Not? It’s Delicious.

Buttercup Flan

  • 1.5 cups of cooked Buttercup Squash (To bake it, cut the squash in half, take out the seeds and bake cut side face-down for about 1 hour, until soft at 350.)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup or honey
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger (or less if you don’t love it)
  • sprinkle of nutmeg
  • dash of sea salt.

Blend it all up in food processor.

Pour into a greased pie plate

Bake at 450 for 10 minutes, and then 350 for 30 minutes or until set and slightly brown.

Pick up these ingredients at your local Farmers Market:

• 2lbs Buttercup squash

• honey

This wonderful little recipe is from Nina Manolson’s blog, Body Alive, Body Aware. It’s so easy to prepare. Please click  here to watch Nina’s step by step video. Bon appetite.