It’s been the summer of oven-free cooking.

I’ll admit that it hasn’t been completely oven-free. There was that day in early summer when I decided to make shallot confit. Nearly set my kitchen ablaze when the olive oil heated, expanded, and flowed onto the oven floor. Which isn’t such a problem unless you panic and reach for a wad of paper towels to mop up the mess. An act that my husband described as “not my best moment”. (Hint, hot oil + paper + blistering coils = the kind of gentle flames that require the front yard testing of a 10-year-old fire extinguisher.)

There might have been a roasted chicken or two, I remember a baked blueberry oatmeal, a sheet pan of salty olive oil granola. But otherwise it’s been magically quiet on the oven frontier. I’m a griller these days, a smoker to be exact. And let’s not confuse that last sentence…a smoker of edible things, not the inhalable variety.

Smoking builds on my favorite style of summer cooking – easy, minimal ingredients, and very little prep time. It lets me enjoy everything that our short but sweet summer season has to offer. Paddleboarding on the lake, beach trips with the kids, hiking with my pup Happy in the woods. Which is most fun when she’s not chasing bears and my itty bitty pepper spray keychain poses no threat of actual use.

It’s the kind of food that I love to pair with equally easy sides – vegetables fresh from my CSA, simply prepared, lightly cooked.

In my last post I mentioned that I’d be taking on fewer but more meaningful projects so I’m happy this week to showcase Taylor Farms, a California-based grower of produce whose focus is on sustainability and food safety. They offer a range of easy breezy products from pre-made salad kits to fresh organic bagged greens and vegetables.

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“Mom, can we get a bird?”

My mind lapsed to our family doctor’s favorite expression when you were sick and paid her a visit. “Bottom of the birdcage” was her way of describing the ick that would accumulate at the base of your throat. You’d nod your head. Your cold had birdcage written all over it.

“Mom, can we get a bird?” Sam asked again. “A tiny bird. One that sings.”

I couldn’t think about the song, the colors, how happy it would make my little man to have his very own bird. All I could think about was the bottom of the birdcage and who would have to clean it.

“I’ll make you a promise buddy. You keep asking and working on your good behavior and maybe for your birthday we can get one.”

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I’m more than happy to play my adults-only trump card, I’ve earned it. You need to play the losing end of enough childhood poker games to play that card yourself. “Sure thing” the adult says. But without the benefit of perspective, little Lord Fauntleroy with his batting eyelashes is unaware that he’s bound to stop asking by the time his birthday rolls around 9 months later.

“What’s that thing ya got there?”

I pointed to the pipe cleaner that he clasped between both hands, Cheerios lined up like little soldiers along its length.

Apparently they’d spent the afternoon building bird feeders in class. In celebration of Earth Day. April 22nd. Jackson’s birthday. I’d been so distracted lavishing my dog with attention on his special day (long walk, brand new rawhide) that I’d forgotten all about it.

What a shame, I usually make some kind of effort to celebrate.

I remember my first Earth Day celebration: climbing all 144 flights of the CN Tower’s stairs in Toronto, which at that point was still the world’s tallest building.

Last year we celebrated with a special Earth Day collaboration with TOMS; we participated in One Day Without Shoes. We walked around the New York City with bare feet. Maybe it wasn’t really around the city. But we did it for a few blocks, from our apartment to the site of the One Day Without Shoes bash.

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If I’m famous for anything in the kitchen, it’s my track record for that most heroic of tasks: Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a beast, but someone’s gotta do it. Best assign it to the person who once claimed ownership of a pre-Pinterest era Thanksgiving binder that housed every T-day recipe from Gourmet to Saveur, classified, naturally, in order of appearance, from cocktails to desserts.

That person would be me.

Last year I cooked two dinners – Canadian Thanksgiving in October, and American Thanksgiving in November. Twice I wrote out long lists ingredients to source; twice I stood on my feet for two days solid, peeling, mashing, squeezing, rubbing, brining and basting until I gave myself a simultaneous episode of tennis elbow and carpal tunnel. Twice I had that foreboding sense that I might not make it to the finish line. Twice I managed to pull it off, poured myself an immense glass of red, and melted, silently, into my leather-backed chair between cheerful dining companions.

This year, we travel. It’s the least we can do – to share our part of the responsibility of getting one’s family, preferably intact, to a home that’s not our own. To brave the two busiest travel days of the year, crossing fingers for no delays, no lost baggage, and most important – no issues with the in-flight wine supply.

But that’s how it goes. You can’t always be the ones to stay at home. To sit back and put your feet up on the sofa, enveloped in the comfort of candlelight and your Frank Sinatra Pandora station, while others brave trains, planes and automobiles to land in this exact place.

But a travel year doesn’t mean that you have to put your excitement about Thanksgiving dishes on hold. There should be a law – let’s call it Jessica’s Law because nobody will pronounce my last name correctly, which could be summarized by the following equation:

TH Factor = (TMT-DTD)/3.14TMT2

In layman’s terms, your TH factor (that’s your Thanksgiving Hunger factor) = (Thanksgiving Miles Traveled – Days until Thanksgiving Dinner), divided by (Pie x Thanksgiving Miles Traveled) squared.

It just made sense to have pie in the equation – make it pecan, pumpkin, it doesn’t really matter.

The gist is that the closer you get to Thanksgiving, and the farther you have to travel, the hungrier you are for these kinds of foods at home.

Lately, my TH Factor has been stratospheric. And it doesn’t help that I’ve found a favorite new squash.

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OK, maybe I haven’t found a favorite new squash. Everyone, their brothers, their uncles, and their kids’ elementary school teachers have discovered it this year. That would be delicata. Do you hear the angels sing when I mention the name?

Not only does the name “delicata” conjure loveliness on its own, but it also follows up its name with a silky, almost custard-like texture that will have you questioning whether you’re eating dinner or dessert. And I’m saving the best part for last….you don’t have to peel the skin.

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Fall is here! The temperature is dropping, the leather boots have made their way out of the closet and into the daily mix, and the oven has been cranked, replacing the grill as my cooking weapon of choice.

I picked up another great box of produce from our friends at Bialas Farms on Saturday….

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*Photo credit: Lauren, age 6

And yes, there was dill. Amongst other things, including…

  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Chile Peppers (opt)
  • Kirby Cukes
  • Swiss Chard
  • Bok Choy
  • Poblanos *
  • Sweet Corn
  • Radishes
  • Baby Potatoes
  • Eggplant

Like most weekends after I receive my box, I immediately made a tomato salad. Which meant slicing up some heirlooms & fresh dill, and dressing the salad with nothing but good olive oil, aged Sherry vinegar, Maldon salt and fresh black pepper. Also typical these days, I needed to clear the decks before I ate.

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Lego building has hit a high note recently, something to do with a brand new box of the little blocks as opposed to the bigger Duplos. My kids are mad for these things, I should write a post about it one day.

I’m telling you, they follow me everywhere…

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Forced back into the kitchen for some Lego-free solitude, I decided that my previous salad had been far too healthy and needed some assistance in the form of burrata cheese.

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I discovered a new treat last weekend as well. I’ve been wanting to try this stuff for a while, having been intrigued by the concept of making ice cream with nothing but frozen bananas. Lo and behold the trick actually works although it might have been my blender’s swan song. If you try this at home, make sure that your bananas are soft enough to blend (you can always firm up the ice cream in the freezer afterwards) or that you have a really good machine at your disposal (e.g. Vitamix, Blendtec). (For the record, a shiny new…ok, refurbished…red Blendtec is now on its way to my house, I’m beyond excited.)

I mixed in some of leftover elderberries from last week into the ice cream and topped it all with a mix of chia seeds and pistachios. Salty/sweet/creamy – there is no way that this should be legal breakfast food. But when you’re eating something this healthy, you can eat anything you want, am I right?

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To make the banana ice cream:

Slice 3 bananas and leave them in the freezer overnight. If you’re working with a great blender, you can blend right when you take them out of the freezer, but if you’re working with a lesser blender, make sure to thaw them for 10-20 minutes so that you don’t damage your machine. You can also add a splash of liquid- milk, almond milk, coconut milk, water etc to help things along. Add a cup of frozen elderberries (or other berries) to the blender and blend until the fruit becomes a thick and creamy “ice cream”. If not frozen enough, throw in the freezer for 10-30 minutes to achieve desired consistency. Top with whatever nuts or seeds you have on hand for some added texture – I used plain pistachios and chia seeds.

I have big news this week. It should really be the topic of its own separate post, but here’s a little snippet….I learned to preserve!

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Mondays are usually reserved for CSA posts, but out of town last week and with a failed attempt at arranging an alternative pick-up, I was left with no vegetable share.

Which was a blessing in disguise because, especially on weeks that involve travel, my share gives me cold sweats when I get back to a mound of vegetables only to pick up another mound a few days later. So I luxuriated in a week free of obligations, even ordered pepperoni pizza one night, and made the best of it. I was happily reunited with my Week #12 box on Saturday, so friends, you will be seeing a new CSA post in all of its glory up on the site next week.

Until then, let’s talk grains…

One of my first posts on the blog was about sad desk lunches and my efforts to end them. Sadly, I experienced my last desk lunch only weeks after I wrote the post, after deciding that an office environment was no longer for me. Or “happily” I should say, because it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I can’t put a price on the family time I’ve gained, and the happiness I’ve found from building a career on my own terms.  That being said, splurging on prescription sunglasses owns a close second place on the best-decisions-list because, well…vision is important too.

One of the best meals to make for portability (aka the desk job) is a grain salad. I make these salads with increasing frequency as the weather starts to chill because they’re a perfect vessel for whatever vegetables that you have on hand – light and summery to use up the last remaining crops from August, or rich and hearty for all of the beautiful squash and root vegetables that are about to hit the markets.

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