Foodie Firsts: Meyer Lemons (Plus, A Recipe: Meyer Lemon Linguini with Kale Raab and Cherry Tomatoes)

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Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try.  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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Meyer lemons are one of those foods that people have very strong opinions about.  They almost have a cult-like following.  Devotees talk animatedly about their return each season, preserve what they can for the dark days when fresh ones are not available, and fill their lives with Meyer lemon goodness when the season is right.  If food were science-fiction, you might say that Meyer lemons are the Doctor Who of the food world.  (Or maybe, I’m just excited about Doctor Who right now and it’s infiltrating my other life spaces.)

Whole Close Up - edited

As you might have guessed given the focus of this column, I had never had a Meyer lemon.  So when people started blogging excitedly about them or expressing joy in the supermarket at their return, I just wasn’t getting it.  What was all the fuss?   Could they really be that much different from a ‘regular’ lemon??

Let me say that I am a BIG FAN of lemons.  I happen to believe that they are one of the most endlessly useful items to have in a kitchen.  Their zest and juice can transform baked goods to a whole other level of awesomeness, add zingy interest to soups, brighten up pasta in a flash, elevate salad from dull to exciting, and, heck, a slice in a glass of water (or, ahem, gin) can go a long way to increasing taste and experience.

Lemons are good stuff.

So, I had to ask, was a Meyer lemon going to be much different?  And, if in fact it was that different, was that going to actually be a good thing?

Meyer Lemon Collage

I think I can say that it WAS THAT different.  I decided to try Meyer lemons two ways – sweet and savory.  Plus, I just sampled a bit of the juice itself.  The difference, of course, starts right from the get-go with the visual aspect of the fruit.  It’s lemon-shaped and lemon-sized, but the color is not the same.  Less bright and catchy, the Meyer lemons I purchased had a flatter hue.  When I placed them side by side on my counter with a standard lemon, there was no confusing which was which.

Tasting the Meyer lemon juice on its own, it was clear that the taste is definitely a different experience from standard lemons.  I could tell it wasn’t as sharp or acidic and I was curious to see how this would impact my food.  I had 6 lemons and decided I would put 3 to work in a savory dish (pasta) and 3 would be used in a sweet dish (lemon bars).

I’ll start with the bad (because the good was REALLY good).  The lemon bars didn’t quite come out right.  To be fair, I don’t think it was entirely the fault of the Meyer lemons themselves.  The recipe I used just didn’t work quite right for some reason and I needed to have baked them longer, I think, as they didn’t set up quite right.  So, there were some serious fundamental flaws.  What I will say is that regardless of these issues, if you want a traditional lemon bar, with loads of wake-up-and-stimulate-your-senses sharp flavors, Meyer lemons aren’t going to do that for you.  If you want a smoother, more subtle, and possibly more sweet lemon bar, than the Meyers just might work.

Plated 5 - edited

Moving on to the good.  I made pasta.  Meyer lemon linguini with cherry tomatoes and kale raab to be specific about it, and it was tremendously satisfying.  Maybe I was just having a good night in the kitchen, but the Meyers really worked with this dish.  That lack of bold lemon punch was a really good thing in this case, as the Meyer lemons actually added a rounder, more full-bodied flavor to the dish, rather than just a zap of acid and tartness.  I would venture to say that they added a richness to this dish that a standard lemon just would not have done and it elevated the flavor to something a bit more complex.  This dish made me excited about Meyer lemons the way I have seen others be.

What about all of you?  Are you a Meyer lemon convert?  Do you get excited when their time rolls around each year?

Notes & Final Thoughts:

Lessons Learned:  As I said, I really love lemons.  I can’t say that Meyer lemons have won over my heart from their more common counterparts quite yet.  I certainly don’t think they have the versatility of their lemon cousins.  I was really excited about the pasta dish though and, in that context, totally understand how they could be used differently, uniquely, to make a dish their own.  That gives me enough incentive to want to experiment with them further.

Serving Suggestions:  Well, the pasta below, of course.  But also, I’ve seen a variety of recipes for Meyer lemon muffins and bread.  I am pretty much always in favor of a good muffin or bread, so those seem like an excellent thing to try.  Also, probably one of the most popular things to do is snag some while they’re in season and preserve them for later use.

Lessons Learned: I was struck by how it really is quite possible for two items to be so closely related to one another and yet be so very unique in the outcomes they produce.  It has caused me to give more consideration to the subtle differences between similar food items and how they will impact a dish.  It is fun to notice how my own palate is becoming more discerning as I continue to try new things with an open mind and attention to subtle details!

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Meyer Lemon Linguini with Kale Raab & Cherry Tomatoes

Serves 4

Ingredients:In Pan 2 - edited

  • 8 oz linguini (I used spinach linguini)
  • 2 small batches kale raab, stems discarded, leaves and flowers chopped
  • 3 tblspns water
  • 1 tblspn olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tspn red pepper flakes
  • Juice of 3 medium Meyer lemons
  • 1 tspn kosher salt
  • ½ tspn black pepper
  • 1 tblspn fresh thyme, minced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese (vegan or dairy, per preference)
  • Handful of Italian parsley, chopped

Directions:

  1. Prepare noodles according to package directions.  Drain and set aside.
  2. Warm sauté pan over medium heat.  Add chopped kale raab, along with 3 tblspns water.  Cover immediately and let steam in pan for 2-3 minutes.  Remove steamed kale raab from pan and set aside.
  3. Return sauté pan to stovetop, over medium heat.  Add oil.  Once warmed add garlic and red pepper flakes.  Cook, stirring frequently for 1-2 minutes, or until garlic begins to lightly brown.
  4. Add steamed kale raab, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and thyme to pan.  Stir to combine all ingredients well and cook for 1-2 minutes.
  5. Add cooked noodles and cherry tomatoes to pan and toss all ingredients together.  Cook 2-3 more minutes until all components are heated and combined.
  6. Remove from heat and add Parmesan, tossing to coat other ingredients.  Serve with fresh Italian parsley garnish.

Foodie Firsts: Orca Beans (AKA Calypso Beans and Yin Yang Beans)

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Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try.  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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There I was strolling through the store, all set to pick up the final couple of items I needed for dinner that night, when I spotted something beautiful and unfamiliar to me.

I love it when this happens.

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The item I had spotted was in the bulk food section.  Included among the rows and rows of bins filled with nuts, seeds, and pastas, were the bins of beans.  There were your usual suspects – kidney, black, pinto, cannellini, navy – but there was also a variety I had never seen or heard of before . . . . orca beans.  These beans are gorgeous.  Boldly patterns of black and white swirl across the surface of these beautiful legumes, just as they do on their namesake.  I took home several scoops and set about learning more about orcas (because last week, I learned the importance of research!).

It turns out that orca beans hail from Mexico.  They are also commonly called calypso or yin yang beans.  Through various Internet trolling, it is noted that they are a fairly rare variety and are often paired with corn or other traditional Mexican ingredients.

I decided to cook up these beans with corn, but instead of going with tried and true Mexican flavors, I was inspired by a recipe celebrating the flavors of Native America.  Granted these two cuisines have a lot in common, so many of the ingredients here can be found in both.   You can see the recipe that I used for inspiration here at Vegetarian Times.  I followed the sage pesto portion almost to a tee (except for subbing half the oil with vegetable broth – a little trick I learned to lighten things up a bit).  Then, I combined the pesto and orca beans with cooked brown rice, zucchini, corn, garlic, onion, and peppers.

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I soaked my orca beans overnight and, in true food-nerd fashion, got excited peeking at them glistening in the water.  They really are appealing little things!   Cooking these beans was a cinch.  After their fairly long soak, they only needed about 45 minutes before they were tender, ready to be drained, and added to the rest of the dish.

Interestingly, the black on the beans lightens in the cooking process, turning to a shade of brown.  I found that these beans held their shape and form quite well, not breaking down as much as, say, a navy bean might do.  The taste was pleasant enough, but fairly unremarkable.  That’s not to say they weren’t tasty, they just didn’t necessarily stand out as exceptionally different from their bean cousins.  I read one description of orca beans that commented on their potato-like taste.  I suppose that I would say that they did have a somewhat starchy quality to them, which is reminiscent of a white potato, though I wouldn’t go as far to say that they tasted like potatoes (but, seriously, someone should get on that – a bean that tastes like potatoes would be amazing).  I could see them working in just about any recipe that called for kidney or cannellini beans quite well, adapting to whatever spices and herbs may be added to them.

cooking with beans added in - edited

Overall, these beans were quite fun to try.  They seem very versatile and I can imagine picking them up again in the future when I want a bean that will stay somewhat firm through an extended cooking process, without distracting from a specific desired flavor profile.  Plus, they are visually very interesting and can add a playful appearance to an otherwise standard dish.

I know there are loads of bean varieties out there that I’ve never tried before and this gave me an excellent starting point from which to keep experimenting.  I am certainly going to keep my eyes peeled to see what else pops up in those bulk bins!

Final Thoughts:

Serving Suggestions:  Use the recipe that I linked to above if you like.  The sage pesto was quite delicious and offered a nice change from a more traditional basil pesto.  Orca beans can also easily be substituted for black beans or kidney beans in soups, stews, or chili.  I also imagine they’d be excellent stuffed into peppers and baked with your grain of choice and chopped vegetables.

I’m curious as to how they would work in a bean burger.  My feeling about their texture and taste is that they could make a pretty fantastic vegetarian burger patty, maybe combined with oats, rice, corn, or quinoa, as well as a binder and plenty of seasoning.  I might try this in the future.

Lessons Learned:

Visual appeal is important in food.  I knew this already, of course, but the value of it really stood out when I came across these beans.  Like a child taken in by shiny objects, I was so drawn to the color and pattern of these beans that it made cooking them all that much more engaging.

Pay attention to cooking times with different beans!  I had expected these to take somewhere between 1-1 ½ hours to cook, but they were done in 45 minutes!  They were pretty small which may have had something to do with it.  Either way, I’m lucky that I checked on them when I did, because letting them go unchecked could have led to a mushy bean disaster of epic proportions! 

Foodie Firsts: Kumquats!

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Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try!  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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Kumquats.

If you’re in a space where you’re able, I encourage you to say this word aloud.  It’s a word that feels a little odd to say and hear.  A peculiar word, it is, with sharp sounds that force you to enunciate.

I would venture to say that the experience of saying and hearing kumquat is similar to what it is like to eat one.  Sharp.  Deliberate.  Peculiar.  Maybe even a tad exotic.

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I have, of course, known of the existence of kumquats for a lifetime.  I’d heard of them without ever really knowing what they were.  They seemed so unusual and foreign – not something I would happen across on an average day.  I knew that they were a type of citrus, but I had never really considered what they would taste like.  I knew they were quite small, but never stopped to ponder how to eat them properly.  They were totally and completely mysterious to me.

Until last week.

Last week, I was wondering through the produce aisle at New Seasons Market (my favorite of all markets), looking at the abundance of various citrus that flooded the bins.  There were navel oranges, blood oranges, sumo oranges, tangerines, tangelos, grapefruits (white and red), lemons, Meyer lemons, limes . . . you see where I’m going with this.  The final stages of winter were producing a citrus bounty that was quite stunning, actually.  Nestled among the cases of plump navels and grapefruits was a slim, almost unnoticeable bin of kumquats.

Intriguing.

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Here was the perplexing little fruit that I knew next to nothing about, but I decided to scoop some up.  Taking home a handful, I put them on my counter and sort of stared.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.  I needed to do some research, but was impatient and wanted to just try one right away.  So I did.

Now, please don’t laugh at what I’m about to tell you.

Okay, laugh if you must, but just don’t tell me that you did.

Alright, so I took a kumquat – barely the size of my thumb – and set out to peel it.  This was my instinct.  You eat citrus after it’s been peeled, right?  I tore into it and ripped off the outer flesh, tossing it into the bin.  Left with what was truly a miniscule bit of fruit, I bit in.  It was tart.  REALLY TART.  Not bad.  But more tart than seemed reasonable to eat on it’s own.

I closed the bag, left them on my counter, and decided I needed to seek out answers on how to eat these tiny fruits from the those in the know – random people on the Internet.

The problem was I got busy and it took me a few days to get around to it.  When I finally did consult the all-knowing Internet, I had waited too long.  Once of the first things I learned was that kumquats don’t last long at room temperature and can turn rancid and moldy.  The second thing I learned about kumquats was that you don’t peel them.  You eat them whole – skin and all.

Oh.

Oohhhhhhh.

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That makes so much sense, because let me tell you, peeling a kumquat is not an easy thing to do well.

Plus, the skin actually is crucial to the taste experience.  As it turns out, the inside of the kumquat is very tart (as I had experienced), but the peel of a kumquat is very sweet.  When you bite into one whole, you get both together, creating an entirely different (and more balanced) foodie experience.

Oooohhhhhhhhhh.

Well, I felt a little silly learning this, thinking how I had torn apart my first one, but I was determined to try again.  Back to New Seasons I went, where I purchased a new batch of kumquats.  This time they went into my refrigerator for preserving freshness.  All except for one, that is.  That one I promptly washed and ate, standing right over my kitchen sink, skin and all.

Wow.  What a different experience.  There was tart again, sure, but this time there was so much more than that.  It went something like this.  When I first bit in, I was hit with the tartness of the body of the fruit, but then, after just a moment, as I ate it, the sweetness from the skin is released and they come together to provide a complex, layered flavor that was unlike any other citrus I’ve ever tasted.  It was exotic.  It was peculiar.  It was delightful.

I ate a couple more this way, reveling in this whole new flavor experience.  I had also noticed online, though, that a common use for them is in salad.  Well, I’m a girl who loves her greens and I eat 1-2 salads a day.  Perfect.  When dinnertime rolled around, I decided to slice a couple up and add them to my salad.  Combined with a combination of power greens (romaine lettuce, kale, baby chard, and baby spinach), cucumber, tomatoes, and raw red onion, they made a beautiful looking salad bowl.  Then, after drizzling with white wine vinegar and sprinkling with salt, pepper, and sunflower seeds, I dug in.  They were a WONDERFUL addition to my standard salad.  They added a refreshing brightness and zing that was absolutely delicious.

Salad - edited

Final Thoughts:  Kumquats are a fantastic find.  I’m utterly astounded that something so compact can pack in so much exciting flavor.  I’m definitely glad I gave these little fruits a try (despite my initial misunderstanding about how to eat them!).

Serving Suggestions:  Try them raw, as I did, to just get to know them a bit.  Certainly, slice them up and add them to a salad – you won’t even need much dressing with their added flavor.

I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve also seen them used in cocktails.  I kind of like the idea of a little muddled kumquat with some dry gin, a dash of bitters, and maybe even a splash of grenadine – served with a slice of kumquat on the rim or floating on top for visual appeal.  Sounds like a good happy hour to me.

Lessons Learned:  Do my research.  I can laugh at myself for the ridiculousness that was me trying to peel that tiny little thing, but I could have saved myself some time, trouble, and a whole batch of spoiled kumquats if I had done my research first.  Let’s hope I can remember this in the future.

Foodie Firsts: My First Vegan ‘Cheesecake’

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Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try!  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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Welcome to the inaugural entry in my new weekly series.  I’m excited to continue to push my boundaries with food and cooking and share it all here.  I commit to sharing each adventure, whether it is successful or, well, disastrous.

It pleases me to no end, however, to say that this first post is one of success!  I decided to start off this column big.  I feel like I really went for it this week.

Homemade.  Vegan.  Cheesecake.

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I went into this little experiment totally prepared for it to fail.  Not expecting it to, but prepared for the possibility.  Let me give you some history.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Move Eat Create for introducing me to cheesecake to begin with.  I had never tried it until well into my twenties.  Blasphemy, I know!  Here I was, going through my life, thinking that cheesecake was absurd.  Why on earth would anyone make a cake out of cheese??  What was this horrid concept???  Were people mad????  Mr. Move Eat Create was, because he was a fan.  A big fan.  So he had some; I tried it, and my world was never the same again.

Now, you may think I’m being dramatic (and maybe I am), but it blew me away.  I had never tasted anything like it.  I wanted to devour it all the time.  I tried to restrain myself, but cheesecake was always a wonderful treat.  A rich, decadent reminder of how many things I had yet to taste in my life.

Whole with slice cut out - edited

These days, as you may know, I eat a mostly clean, healthy and plant-based diet, so cheesecake is a very rare item on my plate.  For a while, I’d been tossing around the idea of trying a vegan cheesecake.  I’ve seen several versions featuring vegan cream cheese (which I’m sure are delicious and I WILL try sometime), but, I was feeling sort of . . . ballsy.  I decided to go all out when I came across this recipe for a raw strawberry cream cake at The Veggie Nook.  A soft, creamy cake that mimics the experience of a cheesecake, but totally vegan?  I was in.  No questions asked.

So, as I stated, I was prepared for this to be a fail simply because I’ve never, ever eaten or made anything like it before.  Plus, the crust (which is yummy) is made solely out of almonds, dates, and salt.  The last time I tried to puree dates, I had a bit of a disastrous gooey mess that went quickly to the garbage can.   The recipe indicated a strong food processor would be needed and ours is a fairly small, simple model.  Would it do the job?  And, would my cheesecake-loving boyfriend enjoy this for what it was or would I be eating it all by my lonesome?

Single slice with coulis 5 - edited

I officially declare this foodie first a success!  While this is certainly not going to pass for a traditional cheesecake, it doesn’t need to.  It is delicious in its own right and it does provide a similar experience to feasting on cheesecake.  It’s soft, cool, and creamy.  It strikes a chord between sour/tart (from the lemon juice – a very important element) and sweet (strawberries, dates, vanilla and agave) and the strawberry coulis drizzled on top is fresh and bright.  The process of making this was a breeze, really.  I had to puree in batches (so as to not overwhelm my food processor), but the steps were straightforward and unfussy.  Plus, the possibilities with this are limitless.  Chocolate drizzled on top would be amazing.  I can imagine any berry subbing for the strawberries with success.  Vanilla bean mixed in would be rich and luscious.  Skip the berry layer altogether and do a caramel cream with chopped nuts on top.  Endless possibilities.

Notes & Final Thoughts:

The recipe can be found here:  Raw Strawberry Cream Cake  Whole with side of pan off - edited

Modifications:  The only thing I did differently was to use agave and additional vanilla extract instead of stevia.  I didn’t have any stevia on hand and decided to sub instead of purchasing some.  I doubled the vanilla extract and added agave in 1 tablespoon at a time, tasting as I went.  I found that about ¼ cup was the right amount for me.

Lessons Learned:  Simply because something doesn’t taste just like its inspiration, does not make it a lesser product.  Do I still think traditional cheesecake is delicious?  Of course I do.  But this option is so good and so satisfying that it is more than just a substitute.  Plus, the nutritional components mean a lot to me these days and knowing I can feel really good about the ingredients in this dessert is pretty fantastic.

Plus, I am constantly amazed by the humble cashew.  What can’t this little nut do?  Cashews = food chameleons.

Finally, making this taught me a bit about patience.  I don’t have much of it and when I cook, I like to keep things moving, see results, work on the next component.  The fact that my food processor is small made me have to work cautiously and in small batches.  I was forced to slow down instead of tossing everything in at once.  It actually was quite good for me to experience.  To have it pay off in the end was highly rewarding.