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Friday, May 31, 2013

Food Finds: Foodie Pen Pals

Foodie Christmas Package in May!
Have you ever experienced a foodie Christmas? I have! I joined a group through the blog website called, The Lean Green Bean that pairs you up with people from around the United States and you send a foodie pen pal package to someone and then someone else sends you a foodie pen pal package. If you think it sounds odd, you're mistaken, it's AWESOME!  The basics are, you sign up at Lyndsay's site - on her Foodie Pen Pals Information Page (click here to take you to the page) by the 5th of each month.  Then you get an email spreadsheet detailing all the people in that month's Foodie Pen Pal Swap (Like my food swapper events, but via the mail I suppose!) The spreadsheet has all the participants listed along with their blogs/websites and email addresses.  You cross reference your name to the person to whom you are sending a package.  You contact the person, find out their dietary restrictions, food likes and dislikes, etc. and then you have until the 15th of the month to send out a "care package." The spending limit is $15 - though I know I spent well over that and I'm guess the person who sent me my box spent way more than $15.
Representing Philly and Collingswood!
I sent a box of love and goodies to Mike, a military man who lives out in California.  He called my package a foodie Christmas - so I'm borrowing the term from him! I sent him local products - Momma's Homemade Apple Pie Applesauce; Dill Pickle Pop Corn from my popcorn store in C'wood; Fleur de Sel Caramel from Market Day Cannelle; Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar from Blue Moon in C'wood; 2 of my spice blends; my favorite Korean sesame/coconut crackers; and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, to represent Philly!  I also wrote him a little note, on a Phillies Phanatic Card, and sent him one of my recipe newsletters.  
I received a beautifully wrapped box of goodies, in which was another beautiful and reusable box filled with unique, local and organic foodstuffs, as well as recipes and hand written notes.  There was gluten free pasta, organic cheese mix; locally grown rice with a Tex-Mex mix packet; lip balm; nut butters; teas; organic animal crackers; trail mix; organic and vegan sloppy Joe mix! Karen wrote recipe cards,
notes and gave me blank recipe cards to use too.  The box is a magic box of happiness.  I've been enjoying the contents for almost 2 weeks now.  Plus, the box itself is pretty - I can reuse it for recipes or crafting supplies.
My foodie Pen Pal is Karen G, from Oklahoma.  She writes a blog called - My Jungle of Life in Oklahoma.  Karen and I are not even opposites, were are worlds apart, but somehow through this exchange and our emails, I realized that we are not so much worlds apart, we are spirits in different lands who found each other.  Karen in her mid-40's; the mother of 3 sons, all teen agers. Her husband is an oil field driller. They live in a small town called Rush Springs,  in rural Oklahoma (thankfully, not in the path or affected by the recent devastating tornadoes that swept through Oklahoma a few weeks ago). I thought it fascinating that I got to "meet" and connect with someone from a small town in the middle of the USA.  I think of us as living in a small town here in Collingswood, NJ.  Ha!  We have 15,000 people here!
Karen and I traded a bunch of emails and I suspect we will continue to write to each other.  I love the idea of sending real mail and packages to people - maybe it's my age or upbringing, but I love to send letters and cards to people.  In our age of immediate electronic communications, the art and niceties of taking the time to write, to create, to send a piece of yourself to someone is timeless.

What I also learned about this experience is that sharing and caring is universal.  I was worried to tell Karen that I'm a gay woman, raising a son, with my partner.  I thought maybe Karen would be taken aback by who I am.  So much for me being open-minded.  She turned out to be the open-minded and brave person.  She shared with me that she was going to a gay pride event in Oklahoma one weekend recently! We may come from different worlds, do different jobs, pray at very different churches, but when it all comes down to the basics, we are raising our families, caring for our loved ones, praying for their safety during horrendous storms.  We blog and write because it's our creative outlet and connects us to people all around the world.  Food and writing, for me and perhaps for Karen G., are the things that we we do to show our love.

To participate in a foodie pen pal swap, go to Lyndsay's blog - The Lean Green Bean and check out her page - Foodie Pen Pals  Sign up on the List to join in - by the 4th of each month.  On the 5th of the month, you'll get an email with the spread sheet and the conditions of the swap.  You have to follow some simple rules and ettiqute guidelines.  The spending limit is $15, and you have to send your package out by the 15th of the month.  It's fun! I can't wait to do this again for June!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Food Swap! Collingswood Food Swappers Event

I held a Food Swap Event at my house this past week, having been inspired by the one I attended in April at The Reading Terminal Market (see my post about that event here!) I was so jazzed about the foodstuffs I saw and swapped I couldn't wait to go to another event.  I talked about the event with a lot of people and every time I mentioned it, people were as intrigued as I was about it.  I kept thinking I could do this - host a food swap, so when I asked two of my local Collingswood acquaintances if they'd be interested the response was very positive. I struck while the iron was hot - organizing the event in a matter of weeks so that I could keep the interest in the event blooming.  It worked - I got a great response from the Facebook postings and group invitations I created.   

People came from mostly from the immediate area of Collingswood.  We did have some visitors from the next town over, Westmont.  Our friend, Maren, came down from where she lives in NJ - which is about a half hour away.  The guests who surprised me the most were the women I met at the Philly Food Swappers Event - Pam and Sam.  Sam found my blog post and commented on the blog.  I wrote back to her and told her I was holding one at my house in a few days. I asked her, via my comments section, if she would like to attend.  And she did! With only a few days notice, she and her best friend not only came to my party but they each brought delicious and beautifully packaged items - key lime meringue marshmallows and preserved lemons.

Signage is key! Not just for the food items, but for directions as well! We wanted the event - which was more like a garden party to be held in our yard.  Liz and Nate drew arrows and signs in chalk on our driveway pointing people to our yard.
I made pickled vegetables - Cucumbers, Bell Peppers, Red Onions and Celery.  Quick Pickles - brined in apple cider vinegar. I wanted to do something quick, inexpensive, tasty without having to chop, can and cook for hours on end.  These came out really well.  The recipe is one of my modified pickle recipes that I tweaked/stole a few years ago from a Martha Stewart idea.  
 I set out some snacks for people to nosh on - my summer salsa and a guacamole.
 The Pickles! They are tangy, spicy and sweet.
We had a great crowd of people from the area.  I met a few new folks from Collingswood too - other friends invited people they knew.  Pictured here are my neighbors, Dave and his wife, Susannah.  I met them last year at our Open House Tour - Dave was the volunteer stationed at my house for the day.  Susannah and I "met" via Facebook.  We have a mutual friend who introduced us.  Turns out we live a block apart - though we never see each other!
Susannah made these awesome cream puffs - filled with a cream lightly flavored with a coffee she bought from a small batch coffee company in Maryland.  Her pate a choux were delicious and her packaging was very impressive as well!
 Lemon Balm Infused Simple Syrup in Syrup Pourer Glasses - a swap item brought by my friend and neighbor, Donna.
 Nate played "Beer-tender" all night - he's the perfect host.  As soon as someone came into the yard, he went to the cooler and offered a beer, whether they wanted it or not!

We socialized for about an hour before the swap started.  Pictured here are Kris and Jodie, (along with my friend Donna) the women I met a few weeks ago when I catered the Mexican-inspired dinner party for Jodie and her husband, Jay, and their friends.  Kris lives down my end of Collingswood. They had heard about my food swap event on Facebook and then I talked about it with them at the dinner party. Their offerings were very good too.  Kris made gazpacho (YUMMY!) and Jodie made Chili - which I scarfed down for my lunch the next day!

 One of my favorite offerings of the night - pineapple infused vodka!  I met 3 or 4 new people at the swap - these were brought by new comers, Lauri and Ferd.  They also brought a very delicious and STRONG Vodka Sangria PUNCH! I drank two small cups and I was beyond tipsy! Gotta love the boozy offerings!

Our friend, Maren, came to the party too - she lives in New Jersey, but not in Collingswood.  I opened the event to our friends who I thought might be interested in this sort of party.  She's the perfect guest - great company, interesting to talk to, and highly engaging.  I should start a career for her renting her out as a party mixer and mingler!  She made a marinara sauce which could and should be sold in supermarkets! Outstanding!
 Highly addictive curried chickpeas by friend and neighbor, Laura.  I can see these would be tasty little morsels that one could put out for a cocktail party.
Another new friend and Facebook acquaintance, JamieLynn, brought her granola.  Our jar barely lasted to the next morning.

Everyone had a great time - as evidenced by all the positive postings on Facebook after the party.  I was so impressed by the food choices and the creative packaging.  I couldn't believe the response and turn out - especially since I put it together in about 3 weeks time.  I'll  hold another event again - but in all likelihood, I won't be able to pull one together until September.  I'm hoping other people will be inspired enough to host one of their own food swaps and that I'll be a guest to the next one soon! The idea is definitely picking up steam.

Items we swapped - though this list is incomplete due to memory loss! 

  1. Honey Ginger Butter Spread
  2. Curried Chick Peas
  3. Lemon Balm Simple Syrup
  4. Pineapple Infused Vodka
  5. Preserved Lemons
  6. Key Lime Meringue Marshmallows
  7. Strawberry and Banana Chip Granola
  8. Vegetarian Chili
  9. Gazpacho
  10. Cheese Cakes (3 for tasting by Eric Sewell Wolf)
  11. Cream Puffs with Coffee Flavored Cream Filling
  12. Maren's Marinara
  13. Pickled Vegetables
  14. Rum Punch (that was a knock out!)
  15. Lasagna

Monday, May 20, 2013

Jicama Radish Watermelon Salad: Mexican-Inspired Dinner Party - Part 2

Part 2 of my Mexican-Inspired Party recipes from an event I catered a few weekends ago.  This one is a Jicama Salad with Radish and Watermelon topped with Cotija Cheese.  I wanted to do a play on Mexican Vegetables - which typically aren't such a mainstay of the Tex-Mex or Taqueria style foods that we have been finding on menus of late.  One finds likes of re-fried beans, fry breads, nachos, tortillas. There is also the occasional radish and lime slices, along with lettuce, some tomatoes and onions.  I've yet to be served a full salad or vegetable medley at the places we've dined here in the East Coast, or even out in the Southwest where the real and great Mexican foods are to be found.

As I lay no true claims to fully understanding the nuances and simplicities of Mexican-influenced cookery, I went on my instincts, cookbooks and research.  Jicama is a tuber, like a potato. Crunchy, starchy, slightly sweet - it tastes like a cross between a Russet potato and a water chestnut.  It works well raw in salads and is even tastier fried like a French Fry.  Very versatile  and a little goes a long way.  Radishes add the bite and colour; watermelon is the sweet note. I pickled the red onions to tame the bite and added the Cotija cheese for its saltiness. 
A little bit of each vegetable goes a long way.  If you use only a handful of each item it will make a substantial salad.  Serve it over iceberg lettuce wedges, along with some extra limes.  It can be made ahead and will hold well for a day or two - but add the cheese at serving.

Jicama Radish and Watermelon Salad Ingredients:
  • 1 Small Red Onion (1 cup) - thinly sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons Red or White Wine Vinegar or 2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
  • 1 Small Jicama - (about a cup's worth) peeled and Julienne
  • 4 Radishes - tops removed and cut into thin slices
  • 2 Cups Seedless Watermelon - Diced
  • 1 Lime - Zest and Juice (about 1/4 cup juice)
  • 1/4 Cup Cilantro - Rough Chop
  • Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper - to taste
  • 1/2 Cup Cojita Cheese - Crumbled (a Hard, Dry Mexican Cheese. If you
  • cannot find it, substitute a dry Queso Fresco, which is similar to Feta cheese)
  • Olive Oil for Drizzling (preferably a Spanish Olive Oil!)
  1. Peel, core and slice the red onions and put into a non-reactive bowl, then sprinkle with a pinch of salt and the 2 tablespoons of vinegar or lime juice. Macerate for 10 to 15 minutes and set aside. This will help “tame” the acidic bite of the raw onion! 
  2. Peel and slice the jicama and place into a mixing bowl.
  3. Slice the radish and dice the watermelon, adding both to the bowl with the jicama.
  4. Add in the zest and juice of the lime and cilantro, tossing to combine.
  5. Season the salad to taste with a pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  6. When ready to serve, remove the red onions from the vinegar, adding to the jicama salad (discard the vinegar). Crumble the Cotija cheese over the salad and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mexican-inspired Dinner Party - part 1: Grilled Guacamole with Oranges

A few months ago, I was asked by my friend, Donna H., to donate my cooking services (cooking class and a meal) for a charity fundraiser silent auction.  Her friend, Judy, runs after school programs in Camden for kids to have gym/sports/events to do after school.  It keeps kids focused, doing something positive and off the streets in what is without argument, the most violent and depressed city in America.  How could I refuse to offer my services for a worthwhile and kid-centric cause? I couldn't.  I donated a cooking class and dinner party for 6 people, at their home, within an hours drive from Collingswood.  After I made up the flyer, I sort of forgot about the donation.  A few months later I was contacted by the winner and he asked if we could organize the event in May.  The family that bid on the item at the silent auction lives in Collingswood - about 2 miles from my end of town.  

We quickly decided on a Mexican-inspired menu, since Jay and Jodie, had recently been to Mexico on vacation.  I love Mexican food and frequently cook Mexican-inspired food. My salsas are sort of "famous" (! says me!), and I make a mean fajita and sloppy Jose medley.  I couldn't wait to create a fun simple menu for this party.  Jay and his wife, Jodie, are fun, laid back people.  Foodies, into good wine and spirits and happen to be in the food industry.  Jay's family owns a fabulous restaurant supply company in Philly - so while I didn't personally know him, I was familiar with his company.  A few email exchanges back and forth and the date and menu were set.  I opted to make a modified Rick Bayless version of grilled guacamole (with my own tweaks of course!); Margarita Chicken (a tequila, lime, garlic and cumin marinade fiesta!); Jicama, Radish and Watermelon Salad with Cotija Cheese; and for dessert - Mexican Chocolate Pots de Creme (Mexican Chocolate, Chipotle and Cinnamon).  Muy Delicioso!
cleaning the guacamole bowl out -
I got a small taste before this bowl was EMPTIED!
I'll be posting each of the recipes over the next week or so, since there are four to share (the Pots de Creme is a Mexican version of my low-fat pots de creme found here.)  Today's offering was definitely my favorite of the whole menu - Grilled Guacamole with Oranges.  It's unique but not bizarre and easy enough to make. You grill onions, jalapeño, garlic and tomatoes then diced and added to the avocado.  Everyone at the party loved it - cleaning out the very large bowl in which I made the guac! This, along with the other menu items will be sure to be a part of my new favorite party menu.

Grilled Guacamole with Oranges (adapted from Rick Bayless)
  • 4 Garlic Cloves - Peeled
  • 1 Jalapeño - stemmed & de-seeded if desired
  • 1 Small Red Onion - sliced in half-moon slices, 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 Plum Tomatoes - washed & cored
  • 1 Large Navel Orange - Zested (reserve) and Supremed (Orange segments removed from skin and pith)
  • 1 Lime - Zested and Juiced
  • 3 Medium-Large Ripe Avocados - pitted and flesh scooped from skin
  • 1/4 Cup Cilantro - Rough Chopped
  • Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper - to taste
  • Olive Oil - for drizzling
  1. Grill the garlic, jalapeño, onion and the plum tomatoes, charring them over an open flame, the stove top or on a grill pan.  The garlic, jalapeño and onion should start to become soft and charred; the tomato should char and soften but not fall apart.  Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on heat source and how hot your grill surface is.  Set the vegetables aside to cool.
  2. While the vegetables are cooling, zest the orange (reserving the zest) and supreme the segments, cutting away the skin and pith of the orange.  Use a work bowl to catch the juices. Use a sharp thin knife and cut the orange segments from between the white membranes that divide them. Cut the orange segments in half and add them to a bowl to catch the orange’s juices.  Zest and juice the lime as well, adding the zest and lime juice to the bowl along with the orange zest, segments and juices. Set aside.
  3. Cut the avocados in half, removing the pits and scooping out the flesh.  Place the avocado into a mixing or serving bowl.  Pour in the orange segments and orange juice and lime juice.
  4. Add in the chopped cilantro.
  5. When the grilled vegetables are cool enough to handle, chop/mince them - mince the garlic; small dice the jalapeño (work carefully! and wash your hands immediately after handling the jalapeño!); small dice the onion and small dice the tomatoes.  Add all the vegetables to the bowl with the avocado and cilantro.  Stir to combine and mash half of the avocados - but leave it on the chunky side.
  6. Season to taste with Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper.  Drizzle some olive oil over the top and serve immediately with tortilla chips.  If serving later, cover the surface of the guacamole with plastic wrap touching the surface.  Refrigerate until ready to use - but use within a few hours of making.  For hotter/spicier guacamole, add in the seeds of the jalapeño or a few dashes of hot sauce. Serves 6 - 8.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Collingswood Farmers Market Opening Weekend 2013

Opening Weekend at the Collingswood Farmers' Market

The 2013 Collingswood Farmers' Market opened this past weekend.  I dashed out of the house hoping to catch the ribbon cutting ceremony at 8 am.  I either missed it by a minute or blinked and was too busy looking at something else (like locking up my bike) because I didn't see the ceremonial cutting.  Oh well.  I did take a lot of great photos and bought a lot of vegetables, breads, plants and flowers.  The market was as great as I remembered it to be on my very first opening day last year.

Favorite shots of the day
This year's market brings a few folks from my old stomping grounds of South Philly - Green Aisle Grocery and Market Day Cannel.  I was also pleased to see Momma's Homemade Applesauce and Hot Sauce! I met these fine and kind folks at the Ocean City Farmers' Market last summer.  Their foodstuffs are so tasty and delicious.  It will be wonderful to be able to buy their foods and sauces in C-Wood if and when they can be regular vendors here!

Favorite vendors from last year have returned too - the best bread (and only decent) source in Collingswood, Wild Flour Artisan Bakers, Viereck Farms (cannot wait for the strawberries and tomatoes!) as well as Spring Dale Farms and their good pies and cider donuts.  Nate was excited to see King Kettle Korn with the dollar boxes of kettle corn! Yum.

I had such a good visit to the market at 8 am, that I was able to go home, drop off my goods, get Nate dressed and return for a late morning once around again!  2nd trip to the market enabled me to buy some herbs and 6 huge healthy geraniums for the garden.  I definitely did my part to keep a lot of cash well-spent in the local small business stream!

Dogs of the Collingswood Farmers' Market