Berrylicious: Pick-your-own Berry Adventure

I'm a little giddy over berries these days. I guess it's because I've had the opportunity to pick my own berries twice in the last week and just getting out there in the field makes me appreciate these delectable treats all the more. On Thursday we went to Rancho Notso Grande Farms in Hanford with a group of six other families. The drive was just 30 minutes from our home in Fresno. Meilani and I enjoyed the view out the window as we passed so many Valley farms and ranches. We tried to guess the kinds of plants and trees along the route. 

When we arrived Farmer Jon gave a us a quick tour of his myriad of berries, including blueberries, olallieberries, boysenberries, tay berries, blackberries, raspberries and many special varieties within those categories. He explained they use organic practices for farming, which was great to hear since berries have one of the highest amounts of pesticides of any fruit. After we did a taste test on all of them, he handed out paper baskets and the kids and mamas and daddies went to work. We started out in the blueberries mostly because these had the least amount of stickers and thorns. The bushes are low so they were perfect for my 1-year-old Giada to pick and pack them in herself. Picture this: one ripe berry, one handful of sandy dirt. Two ripe berries, one handful of sandy dirt. Yeah, that kept her busy for a while.

Admittedly, blueberries are a bit of a pain to pick because you have to search out the ripe ones one by one. Blueberries are pretty small so plucking them off the branch of the bush one by one can take a while. I tried to find my own technique of running my fingers down the branch to get several at a time. Meilani, my 4-year-old, had more fun eating what was in my basket. But I'm glad it took a long time to pick these babies. What I learned was a new appreciation for the men and women who pick berries in our Valley. Sitting out there in the hot sun, trying to find the ripe berries and fill baskets is hard work. Next time I buy berries at the market or at the grocery store I will understand the value of this "natural candy" so much better.
For Father's Day Weeekend we drove over to the Central Coast with our good friends, the Schultzes. We discovered a hidden gem: Rutiz Family Farms. It turned out to be a little organic U-pick place just around the corner from the beach house where we were staying Arroyo Grande. They also are a CSA (if you live in that area) with great boxes of food for pick-up.
We had four adults and six girls in tow and we started out Saturday morning combing the rows for ripe strawberries. These organic berries were unbelievably sweet. You've got to understand: I grew up in Chicago eating not always ripe berries that needed sugar added on top. (Gasp!) Apparently the cool Coastal air and sandy soil is just perfect for a berry crop. We picked for about and hour and then brought our loads of baskets in for the weighing. Much to our surprise we had picked a lot! The good news was: the price turned out to be about $1.25 per basket of organic berries. Now that's an amazing deal!

I've been swooning over a sea of berry recipes. We made berry pancakes for Father's Day morning along with a berry smoothie for the daddies after their run. We also baked up a Berry Crisp with crunchy oatmeal topping. We adore Blueberry Muffins and Blueberry-Lemon Tarts for something a little more fancy. One of my most elegant and easy berry desserts is Puff pastry cut into squares and topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. Yum-o! (Picture below on the May Menus.) 

Tonight I'm trying out a recipe for Strawberry Tiramisu. This is a summer version of my all-time fave Italian dessert - Tiramisu. Fresh fruit is the main event for this dessert instead of the usual splash of coffee flavor. Should be berrylicious!

What's your favorite way to eat a berry? Please share.


Mediterranean Cooking Class: Healthy eats with fresh taste

For my birthday my hubby treated me to a Mediterranean Cooking Class hosted at our local Whole Foods. I have never taken an "official" cooking class so I was thrilled. My friend Yasmin (Right) signed up with me and we chose a Healthy Mediterranean class taught by Wafa Aranki (Left).

The menu included:
Lentil Soup
Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini
Fatoush Salad
Chicken Kabob

When we arrived at the class, which had about 15 other cooks in training, we got right to work. Wafa assigned me to the job of toasting the pita bread. Meanwhile, I spied on all the other jobs and took pictures so I could remember the steps of the recipes.

We started out with a Lentil Soup made distinct with the juice of a lemon and a whole lot of garlic.

-2 cups red lentils
-1 large onion, diced
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-lemon, juiced
-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
-1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

1. Put the lentils in a large pot and cover with water. Boil.
2. Add onions.
3. Continue to boil approximately 45 minutes until lentils are soft. You may need to add more water to the pot if it evaporates quickly.
4. Add garlic, salt, cumin.
5. Use immersion blender or regular blender to mix soup to a creamy texture. Boil 5 more minutes.
6. Juice lemon and add to soup before serving.

Another group of cooks in training made this yogurt marinade for our chicken. Then they set it to grilling on a panini maker. Of course, a regular grill or George Foreman work just fine as well. I personally prefer the regular outdoor grill because the chicken maintains its juiciness.

Chicken Kabob

Marinade Ingredients:
-1 pound boneless chicken breast
-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
-1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
-1 teaspoon sea salt
-1 cup of plain yogurt
1. Combine marinade ingredients.
2. Trim fat from chicken and mix in marinade. Refrigerate 15 minutes or more.
3. Grill chicken 5-6 minutes.

Our menu also included grilled eggplant and zucchini with a marinade similar to the chicken. These are easy to prepare ahead and then just throw on the grill when you get home from a busy day.

Grilled Eggplant & Zucchini

-1 large eggplant
-2 large zucchini
-2 tablespoons lemon juice
-1/2 teaspoon sea salt
-1/2 teaspoon fresh basil
-2 garlic cloves, minced
-1 teaspoon sumac
-1 cup plain yogurt

1. Peel eggplant and slice 1/2-inch thick.
2. Cut zucchini in 1/2-inch thick slices.
3. Create marinade with salt, basil, garlic, sumac and plain yogurt.
4. Add vegetables to the marinade. Refrigerate 15 minutes or more.
5. Grill until tender.

Probably my favorite dish we learned to make was a Fatoush Salad - very popular in the Middle East. The blend of flavors in this salad is truly amazing. I also love the pita chips on top that provide a yummy crunch with each bite.
Fatoush Salad

-3 medium tomatoes, sliced
-1 medium onion, sliced
-1 bundle green onions, diced (approximately 1 cup)
-1/2 head of romaine lettuce (chopped)
-1 head of butter lettuce (chopped)
-5-6 radishes, sliced
-3 cucumbers, sliced
-1/2 bunch of parsley, chopped (approximately 1 cup)
-1 cup mint, chopped
-1 jalapeno, diced (Optional)

-10 cloves garlic, minced
-2 tablespoons vinegar
-1/4 cup olive oil
-2 lemons, juiced
-1 tablespoon lemon zest
-1 1/2 teaspoons sea slat
-1 teaspoon sumac
-1/2 teaspoon black pepper

-2 pita breads, toasted and crumbled

1. Chop all vegetables and add to salad bowl
2. Combine ingredients for dressing.
3. Dress salad.
4. Sprinkle pita chips on top.

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