Ecology Center’s From-Scratch Heirloom Granola Bars

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Kerri Cacciata is the chef in residence at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, a non-profit educational center that teaches hands-on environmental solutions for homes, workplaces and communities (TheEcologyCenter.org).

Cacciata prepares dishes for events and whips up made-from-scratch jams and products to sell at the Center’s gift shop. Leading workshops on topics such as food preserving and seed saving are also part of her duties.

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She stopped by my home kitchen to tape a video to show how to prepare her favorite granola bars – treats that she explained that are delicious, reduce packaging waste and use many local ingredients to diminish the carbon footprint. These family-friendly bars are simple enough for kids’ school lunches, while being impressive enough to please adults with sophisticated palettes.

Although she said that heirloom grains add more flavor and complexity, grains purchased from bulk bins at health food stores are perfectly acceptable.

As for choosing which dried fruits and/or nuts to use, she said to incorporate what is available at local farmers’ markets. She used dried apples and dried figs at my house, but revealed that one of her favorite combinations is dried apples and pitted dates augmented with ground cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.

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Born and raised in Orange County, she earned a bachelor’s degree in community organizing, followed by local culinary studies, finding harmony when the two subjects came together. She has worked in non-profit agencies, farmers markets, and in a number of professional kitchens including Park Avenue in Stanton and Mozza in Newport Beach.

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Blade Trade: The first knife she bought was a 7-inch Wusthof; the trusty blade continues to get her through every event and project. She also appreciates her Shun cleaver and Opinel pocket knife.

Maximum mentor: Chef Paul Buchanan, Primary Alchemy Catering, for his ever-changing menus and culinary playfulness, as well as his longtime dedication to fighting for local sourcing and seasonal cooking. His Tri-Color Heirloom Gazpacho is a favorite. It shows off different colors layered in small tray-passed glasses.

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Fridge Raid: She likes pickling, so inside her refrigerator is everything from pickled beets to pickled strawberries. Also there’s an obscene amount of dairy product – some homemade, some not. Plus a bottle of Rosé.

Secret Talent: Befriending “unfriendable” cats.

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Cacciata’s Heirloom Granola Bars
Yield: 12-16 bars, depending on slice size
1/2 cup wheat germ
2 cups rolled oats, or a combination of other cereal grains such as amaranth, oats, barley and quinoa
1 1/2 cups nuts and seeds, such as 3/4 cup salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and 3/4 cup pecans, both coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup honey, local preferred
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of dried fruit, chopped finely, such as dried apples and dried figs
1/4 teaspoon each of finely minced lemon and orange zest
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Place wheat germ in small skillet and place on medium heat. Toast it to a light brown, stirring frequently; set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast grains, seeds and nuts on a rimmed baking sheet tray for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring a few times during the process and monitoring to prevent burning. Remove from oven to cool, and reduce heat to 300 degrees.
2. Combine butter, sugar, honey, vanilla and salt in a large saucepan; place on medium heat and stir until sugar melts completely. Remove from heat and add wheat germ, toasted grains and nuts along with the dried fruit, zest and ginger. Stir to combine.
3. In a parchment paper lined 9-by-9-inch (or 8-by-12-inch) baking dish, cautiously pour in the mixture, being mindful of the heat. When cool enough to touch, press the mixture down to even it out with wet fingers. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until it is a light golden brown. Remove from oven, and let cool a few hours before removing, peeling off parchment paper and slicing into bars.
Source: Kerri Cacciata, Chef in Residence at The Ecology Center, San Juan Capistrano

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…. Here’s a QUICK TIP from MELISSA’S PRODUCE ….

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Dukka (also spelled “dukkah”) is an Egyptian specialty that is blend of spices, roasted nuts and toasted sesame seeds. One way to serve it is to combine the blend with good olive oil and dip bread or grilled pita into it. When eating it this way, I like to include a good dollop of yogurt as well.

Dukka makes a crunchy coating for cooked chicken or fish. It is delicious sprinkled over mixed green salads or green beans tossed with a little olive oil. The recipe used here is adapted from a formula devised by Susan Carter, manager at Savory Spice Shop, Corona del Mar. Carter adds sunflower seeds and Sucanat (whole cane) sugar to her blend.

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Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
2/3 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup roasted, salted cashews
1/4 cup roasted pistachios, salted or unsalted
3 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
2 tablespoons ground cumin seeds
Optional: 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste, see cook’s notes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cook’s notes: If using salted nuts do not add salt. Most cashews in the marketplace are roasted. If you buy raw pistachios, roast them on a rimmed baking sheet in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned. Watch carefully because nuts burn easily. Cool nuts before using in this recipe. This mixture is delicious sprinkled on the kale salad (recipe included).
1. Toast sesame seeds. Place a rimmed plate or bowl next to stove. Place half of sesame seeds in medium-sized dry saucepan on medium heat. Toast until golden (lightly browned) using a spatula to stir constantly (a heatproof silicone spatula works well). Sesame seeds burn easily. Place seeds on plate and repeat process with remaining sesame seeds. Set aside to cool.
2. Place nuts in food processor. Pulse until nuts are chopped (some pieces will be fairly large, others ground into a powder). In a bowl, stir together the nuts, cooled sesame seeds, coriander, cumin, salt (if using) and pepper. Store in an airtight container. Best used within two weeks (it usually disappears in just a few days at my house).
Nutrition information (per teaspoon): 50 calories, 95 percent of calories from fat, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 0.5 g carbohydrates, 0.5 g protein, 15 mg sodium, 0.1 g fiber

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