Cooking, Eating, and Diving In

“I just have to dive in.” That’s what I’ve been telling myself and others I meet when I tell them about my new food adventure. I’ve been wanting to do cooking demos and share my joy of cooking and mealtime with other people for quite a while. This week I finally just dove in and hosted my first pop-up dinner demo. It went remarkably well, with a few hiccups of course, and I’m excited to do another one!

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My Granny Garrison with my Aunty Sue, cooking away. That could very well be a tomato in Granny’s hand.

I’ve loved to cook and eat for as long as I can remember. Some of my first memories in the kitchen were with my maternal grandmother, preparing elaborate holiday meals as she had me roll out sugar cookie dough to keep me in the kitchen, yet occupied. I remember her exploring a German menu, cooking schnitzel and sausages and homemade sauerkraut. I remember in the summers when she’d let me, my brother and each of my cousins choose and prepare our very own menu for dinner one night. Cooking and mealtime was special, revered, almost sacred. You took your time and prepared everything with love and care.

So when my best childhood girlfriend sparked an idea about doing cooking demos in my house, I was intrigued…skeptical, too, but intrigued more so. “Would anyone really want to watch me cook?” I wondered. Would they want to come into MY home; listen to me gush about fresh tomatoes or my advice about seeking out local food? Perhaps the biggest question for me was a bit more practical — could I make a business of this?

Back to “diving in.” I hosted a small group of people who I knew shared my love of cooking and food, whom I trust to give me good, honest feedback and whom I happen to like, too. And they helped me answer those questions plus a whole bunch more. Based on their insight and feedback, I think I might be on to something. I would have never found that feeling that I just might be on the right track if I’d just sat on the side of the pool, dangling my feet in the water. Diving in is the only way for me to figure some things out.

I’m going to host another pop-up dinner demo in the coming weeks, and just like the inaugural event, I’m going to do a beta demo, applying what I learned from the last one and refining some more before I officially launch. In exchange, I’m looking for good, honest feedback and help securing future paid events. To give you an idea of what to expect, here’s my menu from the first event:

Prosciutto melon bites with fresh basil

Fresh End-of-Summer Gazpacho 

Seasonal greens with roasted fig vinaigrette, shallots, blue cheese and walnuts

Julia Child’s Roast Chicken 

Macerated peaches in rum and honey over vanilla bean ice cream

I dove in. I’m still treading water, but I’m in it. If you want to be a guinea pig at my next dinner or you’re interested in learning more, subscribe to this blog or send me a private email at jen@jenssidedishes.com. I’d love to welcome you into my home and my kitchen.

Really, It’s About the Food

Deep down, I love food more than I probably should (hence, the extra “baby weight” I’ve been carrying around for 10+ years). Food isn’t just about sustenance for me. It’s about gathering, expressing, and connecting with other people. Food is universal. It’s communal. It’s peaceful. It’s love.

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I find solace in cooking and sharing thoughtfully prepared meals with people I hold dear. And I believe every amazing dish starts with quality ingredients. Not just any tomato will do in a scrumptious end-of-summer BLT. No, no. It must be the freshest, brightest, juiciest tomato, plucked from a vine hopefully in my backyard, but if not, a vine as close to my backyard as possible. I don’t think there is a more disappointing food experience than to bite into a sub-par tomato. Why bother?!

I loved my work with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, promoting Colorado Proud and Colorado-grown food and agricultural products. I was downright giddy when I had to drive five and a half hours across the state to the Western Slope to wander through peach orchards and vineyards, and taste the freshest produce you could imagine.

IMG_2864It’s hot and dry on the Western Slope. You get dusty, and you have to swat away gnats and flies with fury. Many people might be miserable talking about when the first frost of season will be or how many pieces of fruit you can process in a day. Or how far a particular farm’s distribution is, or which retailers and restaurants carry Colorado fruits and veggies and other products. But my heart sang…and my mouth watered. Because really, it’s always been about the food.

 

All that brings me back to the original intent of this blog. I want to share my love of food and cooking with as many like-minded people (and hopefully a few converts) as possible. Yes, I want to continue sharing my travel, home and motherhood adventures, but I really want to talk about food.

It’s late summer, so across most agriculture country in the U.S., it’s harvest season. That means an abundance of fresh, local food, and it’s my favorite time of year to eat. In celebration of eating the very best, I’m sharing one of my favorite ways to use up peak summer veggies: Fresh End-of-Summer Gazpacho. Oh my god! I would bathe in this stuff if I could.

 

My version was inspired by a recipe I first found in a Williams Sonoma catalog, or it could’ve been an e-mail. I don’t remember exactly, but it was a recipe that used all fresh veggies. There was no canned or jarred tomato juice to be found. It sounded divine, so I gave it a go. I’ve probably made it 20 times during the past three summers, and I so look forward to it when I see the first bright, plump tomatoes appear in late summer. It requires a bit of prep work, but it’s otherwise easy, peasy. Give it a go with that extra tomato sitting on your counter. For this recipe, you’ll be so glad you bothered.

Fresh End-of-Summer Gazpacho

  • 2 ripe, medium-sized tomatoes (I sometimes use heirlooms, depending on color)
  • 1 jar of roasted sweet red peppers (not fresh, I know, I know, but roasting your own peppers is tedious and so unnecessary. You won’t be able to tell if they’re fresh or not when the dish is complete)
  • 1 medium English cucumber, chopped; peeled and seeded if it’s a thick-skinned cucumber with seeds
  • 1 sweet pepper (green, red, yellow, orange, doesn’t matter what color), finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 3 Tablespoons of Sherry vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and cubed

Cut your tomatoes in half and place the cut side on the biggest holes on a box grater (if you don’t have a box grater, go get one. Every proper home kitchen needs one. Seriously!). Place over a large bowl and grate the tomato down to the skin. The tomato skin acts as a barrier, so don’t worry about cutting yourself. Get as much of the flesh as you can and repeat with each tomato half until you have a thick bunch of tomato goodness at the bottom of your bowl. Throw in your chopped cuke, sweet pepper, red onion and Jalapeño and give it stir to mix all the ingredients together. 

Take your jar of roasted red peppers and put them in a food processor or blender (again, if you don’t have at least a blender, get thee to Bed, Bath & Beyond immediately!). Process the peppers until smooth and pour directly into the bowl with the rest of your ingredients. Stir a few more times to blend. Add the salt, vinegar and oil. Stir, and taste. Add more salt and a little pepper if you’d like. Grab a ladle and some bowls and spoons, throw on a few cubes of avocado, dive in, and do as I do…dream of a tomato bath. Enjoy!

Since I’ve made this A LOT, I’ve learned a few things along with way. It’s true, chopping the veggies sucks, so like me, you might be thinking, “I can just throw everything in the food processor or blender, hit ‘go,’ and I’m done.” Don’t do it. You will end up with a veggie mash that looks a bit like what comes up and out of a backed-up kitchen drain after you’ve made a giant salad. Both a blender and food processor tend to liquify everything, even if you’ve carefully “pulsed” your ingredients. The only things you want liquified are the tomatoes and the roasted peppers. Everything else you want in nice, bite-sized chunks. You just can’t get that with a piece of powerful, electric kitchen equipment. I’ve found that a nice, cool glass of crisp rosé makes chopping veggies much more enjoyable. Trust me on this one.

Invest in and use good Sherry vinegar in this recipe. You don’t use that much, and once you’ve had good Sherry vinegar, you’ll fine yourself using it a lot. I store my good vinegars in the fridge, so they keep a little longer anyway.

I think this gets better after a day of chilling and sitting in the fridge. But you can certainly serve it immediately. I’ve eaten a big bowl with some grilled bread for a light dinner, or you can serve it as a first course or in place of a salad along with grilled meat.

One bite, and you’ll know it’s love!