Fresh Strawberry Bundt Cake: No Jello Required

     All I wanted was a simple cake recipe to use up the beautiful local strawberries that I cannot resist buying by the quart at my local.

On-line searching proved to be such an eye-opening disappointment.  It seemed like every recipe called for a box of strawberry-flavored gelatin.  Why would anyone put jello into a cake?

     Just the thought of the strawberry-flavored sugary mix makes me think of pink fingers from swim meets of my youth.  Who came up with the idea to stick your finger into a box of the stuff to give you energy anyway?  Have you looked at the ingredients?  Strawberry-flavored gelatin mix contains sugar, gelatin, fumaric acid, sodium citrate, salt, artificial flavor, potassium sorbate (mold inhititor), FD & C red #4, dimethylpolysiloxane (prevents foam).  Enough to make your teeth crawl, right?

     Fortunately there are a couple of other blogging moms who agree, and I found inspiration from Week of Menus for this simple Fresh Strawberry Bundt Cake that turns out moist and has nothing artificial about it.

Fresh Strawberry Bundt Cake

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups white whole-wheat flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
½ cup sour cream
½ cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ½ cups diced strawberries

Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter and lightly dust inside of 10-inch bundt pan with confectioner’s sugar.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, blend together sour cream, coconut milk and vanilla.  Set both aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add butter and beat on medium speed with a paddle attachment for 2 minutes or until fluffy.  Gradually add sugar, then eggs one at a time.  Reduce speed to low and beginning and ending with the flour mixture, alternatively add it by quarters and the sour cream mixture by thirds until all have been incorporated into batter.  Remove bowl from stand mixer and gently fold in strawberries.  Transfer batter to prepared pan.  Place in center of oven and bake for about one hour until tester inserted near center comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes before inverting onto wire rack.  No frosting is needed, but you could always dust it with confectioner’s sugar or after the cake cools completely add something like my Double Cream Frosting.

     The perfect snack cake for the family, this simple dessert would also be perfect for a spring brunch. Fresh and berry-liscious:  just what a strawberry cake should be.

All photos by Avad Fan.


Quick & Easy: Warm Chicken Salad with Hanover Cherry Tomatoes

     I am in clean-up mood both around the house and here on Avad Fan.  Ever since the kids got out of school the beginning of June, I’ve had a hard time keeping up.  I really want to get all of the recipes that I’ve blogged about recently collected under the Recipe link at the upper right hand corner of  my main page.  I will let you know when it’s done.

Spied these gorgeous celosia at the Flores farm stand mentioned below

     In the process of straightening Avad Fan up, I’ve been reviewing some of my older posts.  Back in the beginning of May, I wrote about my desire to try to recreate the delicious Warm Chicken Salad that I enjoyed at Ristorante Piccola Roma in Annapolis with my swim mom girlfriends.  Finding some leftover Hanover cherry tomatoes from my Hanover Tomato blogfest last week, I was inspired to attempt my own version in my usual quick and easy manner with the aid of a store-bought rotisserie chicken (how did we survive without this ubiquitous grocery offering?).  To my delight, the men in my house enjoyed the result as we ended a lovely, low humidity day dining al fresco.  Because I put this salad together on the fly after a few fun hours on the boat, all measurements are approximate and can be adjusted to your tastes.

My inspiration

  • 2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken, warm or brought to room temperature
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 4 cups local baby lettuces (I snagged one of the last bags Saturday morning from the Flores farm stand at the St. Stephen’s Farmer’s Market)
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, sliced and halved
  • 1 container crumbled goat cheese
  • 1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped and lightly toasted

In a large bowl, layer the salad greens, cucumber, shredded chicken and goat cheese.

Heat olive oil over high heat in a frying pan until hot.  Reduce heat to medium and add garlic.  Cook about one minute stirring constantly until garlic just starts to brown.  Add cherry tomatoes and stir to coat.  As the tomatoes cook, add balsamic vinegar, rosemary, salt and pepper.  Once the tomatoes are softened (about 3-4 minutes), remove pan from stove and pour over the goat cheese in the bowl.

Toss salad, sprinkle pecans on top and serve.

Serves 4.

     The tomato dressing melts the goat cheese and makes the whole salad slightly warm and creamy.  Hope this quick and easy approach inspires your own salad making creativity.

All photos by Avad Fan.

Another Yellow Umbrella Lesson: Cooking Soft-Shell Crabs

     Last night, I finally made good on my promise to learn to cook soft-shell crabs at home.  Thanks to cooler weather at the end of last week, the Yellow Umbrella had received some soft-shells that they were happy to sell, and they were just as happy to teach me what to do with them.  It turns out that, like most fresh seafood, only the simplest preparation is necessary to proudly serve these to family or friends.

     Once again, the guys behind the counter at the Yellow Umbrella were unbelievably helpful and knowledgeable.  When my salesman/teacher of the day (I’ll call him Mr. YU2) heard that I had never before cooked soft-shells, he patiently walked me through the process. The first step is cleaning the critters. See how cute this guy is?

Mr. YU2 explained that those soulful eyes need to be sliced off with one straight cut running just behind them.  The tail also needs to be sliced off with another straight cut right where it joins the body.

Then you peel back the soft-shell from the outside edge of each side of the body and remove the gills.

While either a knife or kitchen scissors work for slicing, you can use your fingers to remove the gills. That doesn’t sound too difficult, but because it was my first hands-on experience, Mr. YU2 kindly did the honors.

     After cleaning, the cooking is easy.  In a heavy, high-sided skillet, heat olive oil and butter in a 2:1 proportion until the butter melts.  Prepare an egg wash in a shallow bowl.  I was cooking five medium-sized soft-shells, and 2 eggs with just a splash of water was more than enough.  In another shallow bowl, stir 1 cup flour with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few turns of freshly ground pepper.  I added a tablespoon of Old Bay to kick up the flavor a notch.

     One at a time, dip each crab in the egg wash to cover, dredge through the flour mixture and place in the hot oil/butter.  Repeat with remaining crabs, but don’t crowd them in the skillet.  I cooked my five in two batches. Let the crabs cook on medium-high heat about 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown.  Remove and drain on paper towels.  Look how gorgeous they came out.

     The Hub was surprised at how good my crisp and juicy soft-shells tasted.  Our teens had never before even seen a soft-shell crab, much less eaten one, so I had cooked the fifth crab for them to sample along with their chicken.  They each gave the crab legs a thumbs up.  That’s a good start.  Next time I’ll make theirs a sandwich.

     Thanks to the guys at the Yellow Umbrella, I’ve got another dish to add to the repertoire.  I’ll be returning soon for another lesson.  How about you?

All photos by Avad Fan.

Seafood Lessons at the Yellow Umbrella

     Every time that I walk into the Yellow Umbrella seafood shop, I scold myself for not being a more frequent customer of this hidden West End institution.  Wednesday was no exception.  On a mission to buy soft-shell crabs that I want to learn how to cook, I left instead with a pound and a half of dry-pack sea scallops.

     I have yet to learn the names of the guys working behind the counter, but they are so friendly and knowledgable.  When I asked for soft-shells, Mr. Yellow Umbrella gladly explained why he didn’t have any that day.  As he described, the seafood truck came in from the Rivah, but the soft-shells on the crabs being delivered were beginning to harden.  He figured that the recent heat wave had overheated the water in the holding tanks on the crab boats speeding up the molting time for the captured crabs.  By the time the crabs made it to on-shore processing, they had likely already shed their shells, and it was all the wholesaler could do to get them on the trucks and headed up to Richmond.  Once they reached the Yellow Umbrella, they felt almost ready for steaming and cracking like any other hard-shell crab.  Mr. Yellow Umbrella said “no thanks”, but the cynic in me suspects those no longer soft-shelled crabs are being touted as such by some restaurant in town on a supposedly “soft-shell” crab sandwich.

     Everything that Mr. Yellow Umbrella said about the molting process was consistent with my research for It’s Soft-Shell Crab Season, and I was grateful for the shop’s high standards.  If I am going to try to sauté soft-shells for the first time and convince my children of their delicacy and deliciousness, I want to know that I am actually purchasing a soft shell.  With a couple of cooler days coming, I will return to the Yellow Umbrella soon in hopes of finding truly soft shells.

     My Wednesday menu plan was scuttled, so I asked for a fresh suggestion.  Mr. Yellow Umbrella identified the origin of each type of seafood in the case.  I was leaning toward a white fish from Virginia Beach with an unfamiliar name when I spied the scallops.  Then began my second lesson of the day.

     Although the scallops were shipped from Cape May, New Jersey, Mr. Yellow Umbrella assured me that they were not only fresh but wonderful.  The reason:  they were “dry-packed”.  Foodie that I am not, I had never heard this term used.  Apparently most scallops and often other seafood will be dipped in phosphates (usually sodium tripolyphosphate) to help preserve them during their long journey from the ocean to the processing plant to the consumer.  The phosphates cause the scallops to soak up a huge amount of water that actually makes these “wet-packed” scallops look bigger, but when they are cooked, they will shrink back down, no doubt to the surprise of the cook.  This preservative accounts for the milky liquid that you often see surrounding scallops.

     Now that the word about this chemical processing is spreading, the best restaurants and seafood markets are seeking dry-packed scallops for their customers.  Naturally, they cost more to be kept as cold and fresh as possible.  Having been assured that the difference in the packing really makes a taste difference, I bit the bullet and went home with two containers of scallops wrapped up in a bag of ice (a standard practice at the Yellow Umbrella and a necessity on a day with temperatures soaring to close to 100°).

     In addition to the dry-pack lesson, Mr. Yellow Umbrella suggested how to cook these scallops.  In a heavy frying pan, heat equal parts butter and olive oil.  I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons of each.  Once the butter melts, lightly sprinkle the scallops with sea salt and add to the frying pan.  (I cooked my 1 1/2 pounds in two batches.)  Turn the scallops after they have lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes.  Cook another 2-3 minutes depending on whether you like them medium or medium-rare.  After a quick turn of freshly ground pepper, remove from the pan and serve.

     How easy is that?  And the taste?  Sublime.  These scallops literally melted in my mouth.  I don’t recall ever eating scallops so tender.

     True, this was an expensive family dinner, but the four of us were actually enjoying a meal together, a rarer and rarer occurrence with my teenagers.  Thanks to the Yellow Umbrella’s seafood lessons, not only am I a more aware consumer of supposedly “fresh” food, I now have a delicious new entrée to serve to guests.  The cost of the scallops was definitely money well spent.

All photos by Avad Fan.

Sure Sign of Summertime: Succotash Salad

     My heart actually leapt a little when I pulled up to Shep’s Produce stand yesterday.  There written on cardboard were 2 little words that speak summer to me:  “Butter Beans“.  As long as Shep had some of the same sweet corn that he had last week, I knew what I was making yesterday afternoon, Succotash Salad.

Cleaning them is the most time-consuming part.

     Like so many things, my love of butter beans came later in life when I finally had some that were fresh and hadn’t been cooked in bacon fat all day.  Boiling them in lightly salted water for about 12 minutes is all that it takes to get rid of the slightly bitter taste of the raw bean.  Pair it with some sweet corn and a light dressing, and you’ve got a go-to side dish for the whole summer.

     Although this week feels hot enough for butter beans to be ripening on our local vines, Shep told me that these beans were picked in South Carolina.  Harvested in the fields on Tuesday, they were on a truck Tuesday night and at Shep’s stand on Libbie Avenue just south of Patterson Avenue by 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday.  When his “Butter Beans” sign goes up, his quart bags full go fast, so I was lucky to get mine around 10:15.

Shep's Stand

     With Shep’s assurances that this week’s corn was even better tasting than the corn that I had used for my Frogmore Stew last week, I headed home with the beans, 3 ears of corn and some other June goodies to make my first batch of Succotash Salad for the season.  My recipe is adapted from one that Southern Living featured a few years back.  You can easily add more kick to it by upping the Tabasco.

3 cups fresh butter beans (that’s about what comes in Shep’s quart baggie)
2 cups fresh corn kernels (cut from 3 large ears)
3 1/2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or thinly sliced green onions
3/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

     Cook butter beans in boiling salted water to cover 12 minutes or until tender; drain. 

     Sauté corn in 1 Tbsp. hot oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes or until crisp-tender.  This steps brings out the sweetness of the corn without making it mushy.

     Whisk together lemon juice, next 4 ingredients, and remaining 2 1/2  Tbsp. oil in a large bowl.  Stir in corn and butter beans.  Serve immediately or cover and chill up to 3 days.

     This side dish just tastes like summer and was the perfect accompaniment for the rest of our super fresh supper.  Can’t wait to tell you about the other components in another post.  In the meantime, guess what else came up on the truck fresh-picked from South Carolina that is now ripening in this bag? 

(Hint:  it is absolutely the sweetest part of summer :-).)

Virtual Farmers Market

     Sometimes Saturday morning plans prevent or severely limit my time at the St. Stephens Farmers Market.  Today, for example, we are attending a 10:30 a.m. graduation.  If my morning goes according to plan, I will make a quick dash to St. Stephens to be there when the Farmers Market opens at 8, but if a roadblock arises, as so often happens at around here, I know that I can count on Fall Line Farms for my weekly fresh eggs and produce.

     Fall Line Farms was started by Molly Harris after her charming restaurant, the Edible Garden on River Road in Goochland, closed a few years ago.  Set in an old building just past Lower Tuckahoe, the restaurant was one of the first in the area to feature seasonal and local only foods.  When it closed, Molly decided to bring the products of her vendors to the local market.  So began Fall Line Farms’ on-line market in November, 2008.

     Molly describes it best on her website.

Fall Line Farms Co-op is a one stop shopping program for quality local food ordered from the comfort of your home. Now you can shop weekly for the sought after heritage breed beef, lamb, pork and poultry, artisan goats cheeses and an amazing listing of heirloom local produce only before available to local Chefs. There are no required minimum or maximum orders and you do not have to order each week, this is a totally flexible on-line shopping experience.

Concerned about the disappearance of family owned farms in Virginia, founder Molly Harris developed a system to bring naturally grown products to families and households efficiently, conveniently and cost effectively. In early 2009 Xgravity was hired to automate the weekly cycle system and bring to Virginia.

You will know the program is working when you see frequent changes in products and limited quantities. In other words, our food is seasonal and should not be available all the time. If you are buying bell peppers in December or eggplant in March then chances are you’re not buying Virginia, naturally grown, products. When products are available from Fall Line Farms they are fresh, in season, Virginia grown, natural and delicious.

    For my annual fee of $75, I receive an email on Friday afternoons telling me that the Buying Pages are open.  The deadline for ordering is Monday at 6:00 p.m., but if I know that I really want something, I will try to place my order early because many of the freshest offerings do sell out.  The Buying Pages often include the farmer/vendor’s descriptions of their products and what is currently happening at their farms, so I feel more connected to the growing season.  Though my mouth usually waters as I read through the long menu of available items, I try to make sensible choices because pick-up is not until Thursday afternoon.

     I always buy a dozen eggs, and every other week, I check the box for “Best of the Farm” from Manakintowne Specialty Growers.  This past week, they sent me bundles of sage, thyme, parsley, lavender , green onions and radishes, plus bags of greens, including little shots.  My mystery of the week is this purpley green:

Can anyone please tell my what it is?  It is a thicker leaf than the romaine that it resembles in this picture.  How do I prepare it for my family?   The Best of the Farm is a great way for my family to encounter a little something new every other week.

     This week’s Buying Pages include 51 vendors from traditional family farmers, to local pasta makers, to bakers, to herbalists, to dairy and bison producers.  Fall Line Farms also provides a place at the end of the pages to make a donation to its “Pounds of Plenty” program, which allows its customers to provide some of this fresh local food to the Virginia Food Bank and Meals on Wheels Community Kitchen.

     Fall Line Farms is a CSA without the commitment.  It also provides a lot more choices than a CSA, which is usually just sourced from one farm.  As part of bringing local food to local families, Fall Line Farms also sponsors community events throughout the area such as meet and greets with some of the growers and movie showings like Fresh.

     I will be sad to not be able to linger at the St. Stephens Farmers Market this morning, if I can even get there.  I will miss the 10 a.m. cooking demonstration by Brittany Mullins, a local foodie and author of the healthy living blog,  Eating Bird Food, as well as the folk music sounds of the Westover Hills duo, Richard and John.  No fish tacos from Boka Tako for me, either, this morning.  They sure were tasty last week.  Thankfully I’ve got the Fall Line Farms Buying Pages to whet my appetite and satisfy my hunger for the freshest produce around.

It’s Soft-Shell Crab Season

     I must confess.  Before moving to Richmond, I had never heard of soft-shell crabs.  Then after hearing soft-shell crab sandwiches mentioned as a special in Richmond restaurants for several years, I finally decided that I had to try one. (If my memory serves, my inaugural soft-shell sandwich was served at Sam Miller’s Restaurant in Shockoe Slip.)   I remember thinking that this soft-shell was interesting and must be an acquired taste. Since that first one, I have continued to try them whenever they are offered as a menu special, and while not yet a connoisseur, I know a fresh soft-shell crab when I taste it.

     Their appearance on the specials list is usually one of the first harbingers of summer, my favorite season of the year.  According to a delightful article by Jane Black, “They Had to Hand It to Me, How the Charms of True Soft-Shells Subdued My Inner Crab” in The Washington Post, molting season for blue crabs runs from mid-May to September in the Chesapeake Bay when its waters have begun to warm.  The absolute peak season is considered to occur between the first full moon of May and early June.

by James M. Thresher for The Washington Post

     During peak season, crabbers look for the tell-tale sign that any of their catch is about to shed their shell:  a pale pink or red color on the crab’s swimming fin.   They hustle these babies to the seafood processors who keep a trained eye carefully watching for the shell to slip off.  Once that miracle happens, the processor has to quickly get them to market as their peak of freshness only lasts about 2 days.  Fortunately for Richmonders, our restaurants are close enough to the Bay that we can expect a fresh soft-shell crab when we find it listed as a menu special.

     Since May 17th marked the first full moon of May, we have just hit peak season for soft-shells.  When I found myself at a well-regarded seafood restaurant yesterday at lunch time and a soft-shell crab sandwich was the only special offered, guess what I had to order?  I didn’t even read the Water Grill’s menu.  My lunch companion and I both choose the soft-shell served on ciabatta bread with a remoulade sauce on the side and coleslaw.

Water Grill Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich

     As we sat under its red umbrellas on its Carytown patio on a warm summer-feeling day, the Water Grill and its soft-shell did not disappoint.  We both ate up all of its lightly fried goodness.  As I dug in, my crab squirted its briny juice, a sure sign of freshness.  A true foodie might turn his nose up at a fried version and demand only a sautéed soft-shell.  I’m no foodie, and a little frying never gets in the way of my enjoyment so long as it is fresh.  Yes, the Water Grill’s offering was fresh.  In fact, the whole lunch experience at the Water Grill was fabulous.

     Like any good seasonal food, I will avadly seek out soft-shells for the next month until I have had my fill.  I may even try to sauté my own here at home.  A couple of my friends have told me how easy it is, and now that I have done a little research on soft-shells for this blog post, I think that I’ve got up my nerve.  Can’t wait to see what my kids think ;-).

Second photo by Avad Fan.