Friday, May 22, 2009

Making Honey While The Sun Shines

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
May 2009

Beekeeping has always fascinated me. Maybe the allure of beekeeping is nothing more than another opportunity to make a fashion statement, just like my idea of gardening in a big straw hat with matching wellies and gloves. I have to admit, the big hats with all that netting, the big white suits and the big gloves do add a certain cachet to the whole beekeeper mystique—I mean, aside from the fear of being stung, of course. Very Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, don’t you think?

Dan's backyard beehive and his beekeeping equipment.

Believe it or not, until recently I wasn’t really too fond of honey. The taste reminded me of the smell of cigarette tobacco—not that I have ever eaten cigarette tobacco! While everyone else was enjoying a sweet, pleasant taste, I was having some sort of olfactory - taste bud disconnect. Not pleasant at all! Still, I have always been drawn to bees and the mysteries of life inside the hive.

Dan is all suited up and ready to prepare the hive for new bees.

Alas, beekeeping is yet another outdoor activity; and unless those big puffy beekeeper suits come with a personal air-conditioning system, I’ll never be a beekeeper. However, providence has smiled upon me again and I have to look no farther than my own neighborhood to find, not one, but two real beekeepers. Serendipity has provided me with the vicarious thrill of beekeeping in the forms of Dan and Kenny, who also happen to be two of my favorite gardeners!

The hive is made of stacking drawers that hold the frames of wax honeycomb.

Baklava was the first food I ever tasted that made me appreciate how good honey can be. Some flavors are just meant to go together—like nuts and honey! All it took was one bite of a friend’s homemade baklava at one Easter dinner and I was captivated by the sublime perfection of crispy, gooey, crunchy sweetness. I took this to mean there was good honey out there, and good ways to eat it, so I went on a quest for more.

Before long, I was enjoying honey varieties flavored with the subtle complexities imparted by the nectar of various plants. Sure enough, bees pollinating and drinking nectar from certain flowers made truly delicious honey. There was lavender honey, orange blossom honey, clover honey, raspberry honey and tupelo honey. Honey often can be identified by the specific flowers visited by the honeybees and is labeled as such. Others, with less distinct flavors, or those produced from a variety of flowers, are blended to produce most of the honey we buy in the supermarket. Specialty flavors of honey can usually be found in gourmet stores, coffee and teashops, and ethnic markets. My palate is happy now and pleased with the sweet flavor of many delicious kinds of honey. And wherever they find their honey, our local bees make some excellent honey, too.

The lovely taste of honey does not require sophisticated baking skills to bring out its goodness. Honey paired with cheese is another flavor match made in heaven, especially with fresh or dried fruits or bread. Good bleu cheese spread on warm focaccia and drizzled with lavender honey can transport you to Provence or Tuscany. A bowl of juicy Spring strawberries, yogurt and a big spoonful of honey is perfect for breakfast or dessert or both if it’s May and the strawberries are ripe for picking.

Not only has honey been around forever, but it also has many attributes that have made it a valuable commodity to man throughout history. Honey will last indefinitely. The sugars in honey do not need to be broken down once it is eaten so it is easily digestible. Research has proven that honey also has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

Many allergy sufferers also claim that regularly eating local honey relieves their sniffly, sneezey symptoms, though it should be pointed out that those who eat honey for allergies should begin doing so in very small amounts and watch carefully for any adverse reactions.

Honey should not be fed to infants before the age of 12 months! Their immune systems are not sufficiently developed to handle some of the spores and toxins found in raw honey, even though honey is safe for adults. The best plan is to avoid all honey for children until they reach the age of one year.

Local honey is available at the Carbondale Farmers’ Market and several other locations in our area, just in case you don’t have a neighborhood apiculturist, as beekeepers are known. If you do find honey labeled by a specific flower, be sure to give it a try. I like special honey varieties added to my tea or served with cheese, fruit and nuts so I can enjoy the delicious subtle flavors.

The long shelf life means you can buy honey and store it for long periods of time. Refrigeration is not necessary; just keep it in a cool place, out of direct sunlight. Crystallization may cause honey to appear cloudy or make it difficult to pour, but it does not harm the honey in any way. Place the container in some warm water or heat it very briefly in the microwave to dissolve the crystals. Overheating may affect the flavor.

For those of you who love its rich, sweet taste, it is no surprise that there are so many good recipes for baked goods and other foods that use honey. Most baking recipes can be adapted to substitute honey in place of sugar by cutting the amount by one-third to one-half. It’s also a good idea to reduce the temperature of the oven by 25 degrees when substituting honey for other sweeteners in baked goods. Coating the measuring cup with vegetable oil or spray will help the honey pour easily. And honey also helps baked goods stay fresh longer.

The recipes this month can all be made with any type of honey. If you shop at the Farmers’ Market, you will probably be able to find local strawberries toward the end of this month. Sweet Vidalia onions from Georgia should be in markets soon so how about a batch of onion rings with honey mustard dipping sauce. For those who love the sweet goodness of honey with fiber, try the recipe below for Granola Bars. And last, but not least, one of my favorite treats of all time is the Honey Pecan Squares, adapted from the Barefoot Contessa. I think you will love what honey does for all these foods. And remember, it’s good for you, too!

While there is still time this month, why not do your part for and plant something for your neighborhood bees to turn into honey. Somewhere a beekeeper will appreciate it and you may get a sweet treat in return for lending a helping hand to the neighborhood bees and their essential work in the food chain.

3 c. carrots, baby or sliced whole
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. honey
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. chopped parsley

Cook carrots until tender and drain. Stir remaining ingredients in with warm carrots until coated. Salt to taste. Makes 6 servings.

1 large Vidalia onion, cut into 1/4-in. slices
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
1 c. milk, or as needed
1 c. Panko crumbs (or more)
1 qt. oil for frying (or more)

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or deep fryer to 365 degrees. Separate the onion slices into rings and set aside. In a large zip bag, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Place the onion slices into the flour mixture and shake until they are all coated; remove onion rings and set aside. Add the egg and milk into the zip bag with the flour mixture and squeeze to blend. Return the floured rings to the bag of coating – just a few at a time – and shake to coat all the onion rings. Place the coated rings on a wire rack over a foil covered baking sheet to drain until the batter stops dripping – clean up will be easier. Pour the Panko crumbs onto a plate or shallow dish. Place rings one at a time into the Panko crumbs. Turn and sprinkle with Panko to coat evenly. Give each a hard tap as you remove it from the crumbs. The coating should cling very well. Repeat with remaining rings.
Deep fry the rings, a few at a time, for 2 - 3 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve with
Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce.

1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 tbsp. prepared yellow mustard
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. lemon juice

Mix all ingredients. Cover and chill in refrigerator overnight. Serve as a dipping sauce or sandwich spread.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Secret for Great Grilled Chicken

Meet my new best friend and my secret ingredient for speedy-quick great grilled chicken -- Ken's Asian Sesame with Ginger & Soy.

And it's even lite, if you are so inclined!

Still and all, nothing can beat my brother's special homemade secret sauce as a marinade or finishing sauce for fish, chicken and even sawdust, but a bottle of this stuff is good to have in the pantry -- just in case.

Just thought you should know. I'd want you to tell me if you had a secret. Do you have a secret . . . sauce, that is? Want to share? Awww, come on.

Grilled Chicken on Foodista

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fresh Asparagus Soup

Last week my neighbor Dianna and I traded soups. She is lucky enough to have fresh asparagus growing in her garden, so she made some delicious asparagus soup with part of the harvest. I just happened to have made a huge batch of Black Bean Soup and, as always, there was more than enough to share.

With a squirt of leftover sauce from fish tacos to add the pizzaz -- mayo, sour cream, orange zest, orange juice, and a hint of cilantro -- the soup looked as delicious as it tasted.

I'm not sure where Dianna got her recipe, but it is so simple and delicious that I've saved it here, just in case someone gives me some fresh asparagus. What would you do with a big bunch of fresh asparagus? Soup? Saute? Roast? Steam?

This creamy-without-any-cream fresh asparagus soup is a keeper!

1 lb. fresh asparagus
olive oil cooking spray
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
4 tbsp. butter
1 sweet onion, diced
2 medium-size red potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Snap off and discard tough ends of asparagus. Arrange asparagus in a jelly-roll pan and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, depending on thickness, or until spears begin to brown lightly. Remove from oven and cool. Meanwhile, melt 2 tbsp. butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add onion and cook, stirring frequently for about 3 minutes or until tender. Add remaining butter and stir until melted. Add potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Stir in chicken broth. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer about 6 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Chop asparagus into 1/4-inch pieces; reserve a few pieces to add to finished soup later. Add chopped asparagus to soup; cook, stirring occasionally, 4 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool 10 minutes. Process asparagus mixture, in batches, in a blender or food processor 8 to 10 seconds or until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides. Return asparagus mixture to Dutch oven and add reserved pieces of chopped roasted asparagus. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Inland Hurricane" Sweeps Through Southern Illinois

Sometimes strange things happen. This is what happened at our house last Friday . . . right here in Southern Illinois!

Even the weather guys called it an "inland hurricane". Having been through at least five coastal hurricanes, I have to agree!

We had hail, rain, wind (106 mph!), flooding, trees down, power lines down, houses crushed, property blown away, lost power, injuries, and one death in our area.

While I was hiding in the closet with the vacuum cleaner, the pictures tell the story of what was going on outside.

Check out this site for some technical information about how the Midwest ended up in "hurricane alley".

Rearrangement of deck furniture and a carpet of leaves and twigs.

More green leaves and branches carpet the driveway.

Last May we had a wedding under this tree!

One tree that will no longer shade the upstairs deck . . . or fall on the roof.

For all the trees we lost, there are still plenty to enjoy from this otherwise peaceful setting overlooking the lake

Power has been restored at our house. Clean-up continues and will last us through the summer.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fresh and Zesty Taco Salad

Earlier this week, I made a pot of Black Bean Soup and had one of those slap-your-forehead moments. No one should eat bowl after bowl of Black Bean Soup! How could I use those addictive, cumin-flavored beans in smaller doses?

My first idea was a riff on another salad we love around here. I'll be tweaking it a little more, but the flavor combination was delicious, as is. A quick rinse to the soupy black beans, for aesthetics mostly, added lots of depth to the flavor of the salad. Now for me, just the idea of using the beans in other recipes would be reason enough to make a whole pot of Black Bean Soup, but canned black beans would work too. The soup recipe does make enough for an army, so it would be easy enough to eat some, give some to the neighbors and still freeze some of it in one cup containers to thaw and use later for salad. . . tacos. . . burritos. . . nachos. . . or. . . whatever inspiration comes to you.

Maybe a good recipe is like a good small kitchen appliance -- it should be able to function and serve more than one purpose. Like my new tortilla press, which now make tortillas. . . AND tortillas make tortilla chips for (you see this coming, don't you?). . . Fresh and Zesty Taco Salad! It's almost like an entire cuisine could be based on beans and tortillas.

Who knew Black Bean Soup could be so inspiring!

I know we'll all be happy when I can learn how to work my new camera,
or I take a photography course,
or I cook during the natural light part of the day,
or I set up my light box somewhere permanently . . .

Until then, you've got the recipe and a general idea of the look.

1 oz. vinegar
1 oz. olive oil
1 oz. fresh orange juice
1/8 tsp. orange zest
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. cumin (or more to taste)
1 tsp. Cholula hot sauce (or more to taste)
2 tbsp. honey

6-8 c. fresh lettuce mix – romaine, curly endive, butter head, iceberg, etc.
1 red bell pepper – sliced in 1-in. strips
4-6 green onions - chopped
1 c. canned red kidney or black beans, rinsed and drained
1 Haas avocado, peeled and diced
tortilla chips – broken into large pieces

Optional Additions for Main Dish Salad
2 grilled boneless chicken breasts, sliced
OR grilled fresh shrimp

Mix dressing and set aside. In a large bowl, combine lettuce, red bell pepper, green onions, beans, avocado and chicken slices or shrimp (if using) – toss to blend. Mix enough dressing with lettuce mixture to coat evenly. Add tortilla chips to salad and serve immediately.

Note: Maybe a little lime juice would give the dressing another flavor note. Hmmmm . . .