Monday, June 25, 2012

The Almond Brothers Live at the Backyard Garden

We've been living in a rental house for nearly a year now. This comes after living in a house we owned (well, along with the bank, of course) for nearly 4 years. During those years I managed to put together a vegetable garden, of varying degrees, every year. Denver, where our house is (we are currently absentee landlords, as it is being rented) is a relatively difficult place to grow a vegetable garden -- especially compared to northern, coastal California. In Denver, most plants are only safe after Memorial Day, as this is the historic place marker for frosts and freezing temperatures. Of course, rain never comes in gentle showers on the front range, and often, during the summer, if a torrential downpour isn't passing overhead, precipitation comes in the form of hail storms, which can not only destroy tomato plants (as I witnessed a few years ago) but reek havoc in general. Hopefully, Old Man Winter waits around until the end of September before visiting the Mile High City, but this is nothing that one can bank on either, meaning that a three month growing window is all one gets in Denver.

The Denver garden in various stages
This is a stark contrast to our little rented plot of land, just north of San Francisco, where we have citrus trees right outside our windows, which of course, mature in the winter. We also moved into a home where the owners had left us with a opulent and generous vegetable garden, one that kept providing bounty well into December. The jalapeno peppers and brussel sprouts kept producing well past the point where single digits nights were the norm in Denver.

Now, with the summer only being a few days old, I have had the meager (relatively speaking) vegetable plants in the ground for nearly a month, and for the most part they are growing like weeds -- no wait, the weeds are still growing like weeds, but my plants, nevertheless, are growing.

The garden and backyard with fruit trees in California

I've got 5 basil plants, with 4 different varieties. There are 3 tomato plants, a jalepeno, habenero and bell pepper plant along with a cilantro plant. These are all in the upper plot, in full sun. It's not the prettiest chunk of land, and I won't be spreading mulch around, but I think it will produce, if the past week is any indication.

Okay. Basil is one of my favorite things. I use it generously in many dishes, and to have multiple plants producing one tasty leaf after another is the primary goal of even having a garden. And basil, the Bilderberg group of my garden, is the inspiration of what I am making for dinner tonight.

I love basil in all forms, that is to say, that I've never had basil that I've not liked. Hopefully, this track record will not be broken tonight.

Whatever protein a meal features, it is almost always the star of the meal. That will change tonight, instead it will have a costarring role, along side the home-made almond basil pesto, in it's debut performance.

In an effort to create the best, low carbohydrate meals that I can, I decided to use almonds versus pinenuts (the "nut" component in a traditional pesto), or pistachios, which I will try in the near future, as pistachio basil pesto sounds ridiculously delicious. I don't eschew all carbohydrates, especially since I'm currently training for a half-marathon, but I am conscious of limiting them, especially when it is easy to do.

Almond Basil Pesto:

  • 1.75 cups of raw almonds
  • 2.25 packed cups of fresh basil (I used 3 different basil varieties, but this may not be available)
  • 5 large cloves of fresh garlic
  • 1 cup of olive oil
  • 0.5 fresh lemon, squeezed
  • 1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
  • .75 teaspoon salt
  • 0.5 cup water (used because I only have a blender, not a food processor)
I toasted the almonds in the toaster oven, for 8 minutes, on broil. It took some effort, because I used a blender to gain proper consistency of the pesto, but some patience with a wooden spoon overcomes all. Also, because I left the skin of the almonds on, the pesto is somewhat "browner" than I was expecting, in that it almost looks like a salsa (which I also love to make fresh) but if I remember anything from elementary school, it is that green and brown mixed together make a greenish brown.

I know I made couscous just couple of posts ago. And, I'm gonna use it again -- except this time with a twist in that I pureed some herbs and garlic to mix in. Here is the recipe behind it. 

Green Couscous:
  • 0.5 cup fresh chives
  • 0.5 cup fresh parsley
  • 0.25 cup fresh basil
  • 2 large cloves of fresh garlic
  • 0.25 cup water, added to the blender
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 0.75 water, added at the end
I use instant couscous, and it calls for a one to one ratio for grain and water. So, with all the above brought to a boil, I take the pan off the heat and stir in the couscous. It turns green. Like the hulk. 

I would've loved to have gotten some fantastic cut of meat for this dish, perhaps some lamb shank or something and grilled it, but part of my desire in writing this blog is to demonstrate that, within in a reasonable budget, can be had fantastic, healthy food. So, one of the staples around our house is Costco brand frozen, individually wrapped chicken breasts. Easy, and relatively healthy. I'd love to say that they are free range, organic, locally grown chickens, but alas. I did want to do something a little more fancy than just grill or broil some chicken, so I decided to "bread" them with almonds, cheese and spices and then bake them. Components:

Almond Breaded Baked Chicken Breast:
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 0.5 cup raw almonds
  • 0.25 fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper

So, as you can see in the action shots (photo credits go to the wife here), one just tries to dry the chicken as best as possible, and then dip it in the yellow snot that is a scrambled egg. I then tried to hang as much of the almond/cheese gravel as I could on the chicken before baking it. During baking, when I flipped the chicken I used the leftover almond/cheese mixture to sprinkle on top of the chicken, as it had gotten kind of pasty. I'm looking for a crispy chicken breast, after all! I baked the chicken for 35 minutes, before finishing it off with roughly 5 minutes of high broil, in an effort to achieve maximum crispiness.

My wife says that she would've preferred to have the chicken breast stuffed with the pesto, instead of just plopped on the plate, free to be used how the eater sees fit. Seeing as how the last two dinner posts were stuffing-centric, there was no way I was gonna stuff anything with this meal, but I can appreciate where she is coming from.

If nothing else, this is a flavor packed meal. The chicken is spicy, and the cheese comes through just as I was hoping. The couscous is really good -- the only thing I would do differently is make sure that Trader Joes had taragon in stock, which they did not, or else have my own herb garden up to speed, which I do not. The pesto is surprisingly good, and I am glad that I have 4 or so cups sitting in the fridge. I was, as stated above, a tad apprehensive about the almonds, but they turned out well. I often reached a good balance with the garlic concentration as well, as often I tend to add too much garlic. The couscous (which, with the recipe I provided could serve 4 people, not just 2) is well "garlic-ed" and the pesto is not garlic heavy at all.

Update: The pesto has sat in the fridge overnight, and has had an opportunity to "set" and I'm contemplating adding some more oil and stirring it in, as it's consistency is less like any pesto that I've had but more like an olive tapenade spread. But this is okay, and most likely we'll just use it as it is, and I don't foresee it languishing, unused in the refrigerator for very long, in that we will eat it all soon enough.

Overall grade: A-

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