Now, I'm by no means a master chef. Heck! I'm not even a chef. But I grew up watching my father, a former professional cook, work his magic in the kitchen and I often helped mom with the nightly meals. These experiences made me love cooking, but even more, made me love sharing the results of my cooking with friends and family. That's what eventually led me to start this food blog. Watching "Chopped" I'm transported back to my youth watching my father working in the kitchen amazed that he knew what went well with what.
As my own talents in the kitchen grew, my sense of adventure grew. I'm one of those people who can look at the contents of a refrigerator and a pantry and when others see nothing to make for dinner, I find a way to make "something out of nothing." I'm not sharing this to toot my own horn but rather to set up why, when Barbara from Barbara Cooks posted on the San Diego Food Bloggers group page that Melissa's Produce was looking for some SD food bloggers to participate in the San Diego Food Bloggers Challenge they were sponsoring, I jumped at the chance despite my hectic work schedule these last two weeks. Our very own version of "Chopped"? Yes! Count me in.
So who is Melissa?
Melissa's Produce is a family business founded by Joe and Sharon Hernandez and was named after their daughter. According to their website, Melissa's/World Variety Produce, Inc., housed in a 280,000 square foot warehouse in Vernon, California, is currently the largest distributor of speciality produce in the United States. Not bad for a company that started in a small, rented produce warehouse lunchroom. They are a Certified Organic Packing Facility and their products can be found in local grocery stores or ordered directly from Melissa's website.
Speaking of the website, it's clean and simple to navigate with the homepage offering a variety of portals to get lost in. Want to know what's in season? Or how about a recipe that highlights some of their ingredients? Need to contact customer service? It's all easy to find with no tiny print to weed through.
"Chefs, open your baskets."
The day I came home from work to see the a 12 inch x 12 inch box sitting on the dining table, I admit, the little girl in me made an internal squeal of delight. What was I going to be working with?
I tore open the box even before greeting my baby. And if you are a regular reader of this space, you know by baby I'm talking about Starbuck, my adorable cocker spaniel. Baby was wagging and nudging at my legs for a proper greeting but on this particular day, I only had eyes for that box.
This is what I found:
There were items I had never eaten before (red quinoa, fava beans, dried Chanterelle mushrooms), one that I've never cooked before (leeks) and one that I downright hate (beets). Potatoes? Oh yes! Brussels? Mmm-hmm. Tangerines? Probably my favorite citrus.
Our instructions weren't as severe as they are for those pros on "Chopped." Where they have to use ALL of their ingredients, we simply had to use 3-4 plus a few of our own ingredients. It was teased on over on the SD Food Bloggers page that perhaps someone would take up the challenge of trying to use all eight ingredients. Knowing I hated beets and that, even though I love fresh mushrooms of any kind, I dislike the taste, smell and texture of reconstituted ones, I would definitely not be taking up that challenge.
I was sorry to see upon closer inspection that my brussels weren't in the best shape. Then I had to go and wait an entire week before having the time and opportunity to cook for the challenge. By then, they definitely were past their prime so despite my love for them, they were no longer going to be included in my prep. Everything else though was lovely and fresh looking. It took me days to figure out what exactly I wanted to do but once I settled on the main component of my dish, the second element fell into place. The third was originally going to be a dessert incorporating the tangerines but time constraints took me back to the drawing board. My auntie suggested I use them to create a cocktail instead and suddenly, all was right with the world again.
I want to thank Melissa's for the opportunity to try some amazing products and Barbara for organizing it for us. This was truly fun and inspiring. I hope you enjoy the results.
Quinoa Potato Leek Patties
These patties are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Serve with a smear of Fava Bean Arugula Pesto or a dollop of creme fraiche. They are also great with a fried egg on top and they make great burgers as they have a real "meaty" quality to them.
Yield: 8 4-inch patties
FOR THE QUINOA
6 ounce package Melissa's Red Quinoa
2 cups chicken broth
Place quinoa in a small bowl, add water and rub the seeds. Strain into a small sieve and rinse again under cold running water, rubbing the seeds to remove as much of the bitter coating as possible. Add the quinoa and the chicken broth to a small saucepan, cover and bring a boil. Lower heat to low and continue to cook for 18 minutes or until all the broth has been absorbed.
(This next step is optional but I like how fluffy it makes the quinoa.)
Remove the cooked quinoa to a sieve and rinse once more under cold running water. Add an inch or so of water to the same small saucepan and place the sieve with the quinoa back on the pan, cover and turn heat to medium high. Steam the quinoa for 10 minutes. Then set aside.
FOR THE PATTIES
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 ounces of Melissa's Cleaned & Sliced Leeks
1 clove garlic, minced
½ pound Melissa's Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes, grated
1 ½ cups cooked red quinoa
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
¼ cup grated parmesan
kosher or sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¾ teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup to 1 cup vegetable oil, for frying
Place a skillet on medium high heat; add the olive oil. Once the oil is shimmering, add the leeks and cook, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Toss in the garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 more minutes being careful not to let the garlic burn. Add the grated potatoes and cook, stirring to avoid browning the potatoes, for an additional 4-5 minutes or until the potatoes and leeks are tender but not browned. Remove mixture to a mixing bowl and add 1 ½ cups of the cooked quinoa (reserve the rest for another use later), the cumin, herbs, and the cheese. Mix to combine well. Add from ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon to ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Sprinkle in the baking powder and pour in the eggs, stirring to incorporate well. Batter should be moist but not overly wet.
Heat the oil in a deep skillet. Once shimmering, add 1 tablespoon of the quinoa mixture and cook for 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until lightly golden. Remove to paper towels, pat off excess oil and taste for seasoning. Adjust salt and pepper as needed in the remainder of the batter.
Using a 2 ounce food scoop or a ⅓ cup measuring cup, scoop up the batter, level off and place into the hot oil, flattening the mounds with a spatula to make about ¼ to ½ inch thick patties. Cook for approximately 3-5 minutes on each side, or until golden and slightly crispy around the edges. Do not crowd the pan; cook no more than 2 or 3 patties at a time. Remove cooked patties to a paper towel lined dish. Repeat with remaining batter.
Fava Bean and Arugula Pesto with Lemon
I have never seen fava beans let alone tasted one. I've read that they can be time-consuming to shell so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Melissa's fava beans come shelled, steamed and ready to eat straight from the package. Genius! I knew I wanted something to top my quinoa patties with so I opted to make a pesto that I could later thin out and use as a pasta sauce. This pesto is also excellent spread on toast and topped with thinly sliced radishes, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of finishing salt.
Yield: 2 cups
½ cup pine nuts
1 6-ounce package of Melissa's Fava Beans
1 large clove garlic
½ cup grated parmesan
½ cup parsley, leaves only
2 cups packed arugula leaves (longer stems removed)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, or more to personal preference
sea or kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Add the pine nuts to a skillet (cast iron works great), turn heat to medium and dry toast the pine nuts until they are golden. Stir or shake the pan continuously to keep the nuts from burning. Once golden, add them and the next six ingredients to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until it's a thick paste. With the machine on, slowly pour in olive oil and run until the pesto is smooth. Add additional oil if a thinner pesto is desired. Remove the pesto to a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Can keep for one week refrigerated.
Tangerine Vanilla Cooler
I am by no stretch of the imagination a mixologist. Unlike my cooking skills, when it comes to alcohol, my taste confidence is relatively low. I knew I wanted something that would remind me of a creamsicle but without the cream. When I placed everything in the shaker, it actually reminded me of a Big Stick which was my favorite popsicle as a kid. This is refreshing shaken with ice but I rather enjoyed it in a tumbler with ice as well. Serve it either way. To make the simple syrup, I used a sharp vegetable peeler to get only the thin orange part of the tangerine peel. It worked great.
FOR THE SIMPLE SYRUP
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
zest of 4 Melissa's Ojai Pixie Tangerines, orange part only, avoid the white pith
1 whole vanilla bean
5 ounces freshly squeezed Melissa's Ojai Pixie Tangerines
2 ounces Maraschino (or other good quality cherry liquor)
2 ounces light rum
1 ounce Campari
Tangerine wedges, for garnish, optional
To make the simple syrup: Place the sugar, water and zest into a small saucepan. Split the vanilla bean length-wise and scrape out the caviar. Add the caviar and the bean to the saucepan. Turn heat on to medium high and bring to a slow boil, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves well. Once the sugar is dissolved, lower the heat to medium low and simmer for 2 minutes to infuse the sugar water with the tangerine and vanilla. Remove from heat and allow to steep until cool. Strain syrup then bottle or place in an airtight container. Simple syrup will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks (I've kept mine as long as a month with no problem). Adding a tablespoon of vodka will prolong it's shelf life.
To make the cocktail: Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake well. Strain out into four small cocktail glasses or serve in small tumblers over ice. Garnish with a wedge of tangerine