Candied Pears with Bleu Cheese and Pecans

August 17, 2009

PearsandArugula
If I were a 19th century poet, I would spend my summer afternoons on the outskirts of an orchard, watching the clouds pass, nibbling fruit, and limning the virtues of their juices. Alas, I am a modern eater, relegated to her blog—but at least there’s someplace to extol the sweetness of summer. After all, I could have been born a cavewoman, left to devour and delight without a sophisticated alphabet.

Pears

And so I say to you, friends, that I have a passion for the syrup-dribbling deliciousness of fruit warmed by the sun… the kind of fruit that seems to have just fallen from a tree, or better yet, was just dangling there, coaxed down by my hungry hands. Sadly, the closest fruit farm I know of is still farther than my local farmer’s market, so I just forage the pre-harvested. Which is just fine by me: the fruit is still warm, still fresh, still replete with summer.

BlockofCheese

Recently, it’s been peaches and figs galore, following a long and happy blueberry season. But last week, I got the surprise of the summer when I encountered a table covered with pears from Lightsey Farms. Pears! A treat relegated to autumn, I thought, but there they were, winking at me with their Cyclops stems and seductively encased by freckled green skins.

Hopelessly

I hadn’t anticipated pears for months, so I hesitated to bite off more than I could chew—which inspired, as it turns out, serious non-buyer’s remorse. I could hardly stop myself from swallowing the entire brownbagfull before I got home (I am wired for that kind of impulsive fruit-eating) and was fortunate enough to save a scant trio for a small, impromptu dinner party Christopher announced on Saturday night.

PearsandCheese

I wasn’t sure what I would do with them exactly, but I did know that they were the ultimate gift for a group of hungry guests—especially since I’d picked up a complementary hunk of Hopelessly Bleu goat cheese from the Houston Dairy Maids, who themselves procured it from Pure Luck Farm and Dairy in Dripping Springs, TX.

Sugar,Cheese,Nuts

That afternoon, before the party, I started arranging my most prized ingredients on the counter to determine how best to highlight them. I find this an extremely effective method for sizing up my options, when I haven’t got a specific recipe in mind. And lo! Hark! Inspiration soon came in the form of a frozen pecan—I keep all of my nuts in the freezer. The clouds of doubt parted before me: candied pears with bleu cheese and pecans served over arugula. But of course!

UncookedPears

Every bite of it had been procured that very morning: it was a beautiful homage to Texas at its best, sweet, savory, a tiny bit biter…all in all, a remarkably simple, yet elegant salad. Best of all, I cooked off the pears well in advance of things, and threw the salad together at the last minute—which left me plenty of time to wax poetic.

CloseupPears

Candied Pears with Blue Cheese, Pecans and Arugula

Serves 6

For Pears:

3 ripe pears
4 oz blue cheese
¼ c turbinado sugar
¼ c chopped pecans
Juice of 1 lemon

For Salad

(dressing adapted from The Barefoot Contessa)

3 c Arugula
3 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1 fresh egg yolk
½ c olive oil
s & p to taste

__

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Peel and core pears, removing enough flesh for ¼ inch divots. Slice a small piece off the rounded side of each pear to prevent its rolling in the oven.

Coat each pear with lemon juice to ward away browning.

Evenly distribute divots with blue cheese, separating cheese into small (easily melt-able) pieces if not already crumbled.

Nestle pears close together in a small baking dish and sprinkle with sugar.

Press pecans into cheese, distributing evenly among pears.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until sugar has caramelized and pecans are deep brown.

In the meantime, whisk vinegar, mustard, garlic, egg yolk, salt and pepper in a small bowl.

Slowly add olive oil to vinegar mixture, whisking constantly to emulsify.

Just before serving, toss Arugula with dressing and arrange pears over greens.

Taziki Salad, Endless Pleasure

August 14, 2009

AtMKT

I’m not good with full. Most people eat to get there, but I walk a lonesome road of desired emptiness. If I could, I would stay hungry forever, just to know there was room to keep eating. If I could, I would eat without stopping, just for the thrill of it. Sadly, whenever I try, (which is often) a feeling of unpleasantness ensues and I regret the attempt.

A tinge of panic sets in each time satiety creeps up on me: in fact, the second I get a pang of fullness, I am struck with what must be a flight or fight sensation. It means the end is near. It means I have to wait for a modicum of digestion to take place before I can spring my lips to action again.

Slicing
It is a dizzying dilemma, and certainly not normal, I know. So few people seem to experience this private disappointment—either that, or they’re much more self-possessed and discreet about it. I’ve been known to plow through an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet without pausing to breathe, just to prevent my gut from sending “STOP!” signals to my brain.

So, I’ve learned to cope. Mostly by determining which foods can be eaten in excess. I could eat mint chip ice cream sundaes until the dairy cows come home, but it wouldn’t bode well for my health. Plus I just bought a small car, and I’d like to continue fitting into it.

Sliced

There are certain foods (entire cuisines, even) that can be grazed almost indefinitely without the sensation of overwhelming fullness and the devastation that results. Indian food is not one of them, I discover time and again at high-speed-eating buffets—but Greek food is.

If you choose lamb gyros and blocks of feta this strategy may not work so well for you, but I’ve found that I can just about eat and eat and eat until my jaw gets weak with the right Greek selection. Grilled vegetables, seafood kebobs, olives and hummus… I munch them to my heart’s content, and my stomach doesn’t know the difference.

Salad

Last weekend, I was on my way to a party featuring Phil’s ribs. As I pondered what to make, I knew this: I’d  need some edible defense against devouring 10 or more of those exquisitely rendered barbecue bones. Inspired by a basket of cucumbers I’d bought the day before, I set to work on something light, crisp and cool. A nice companion to heavy, hot pork. What bites of the salad remained were even better a day later.

Taziki Salad

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa

4 cucumbers, sliced thin
1 large red onion, sliced thin
32 ounces plain, whole milk yogurt
½ c chopped dill
garlic salt
pepper
red wine vinegar (optional)

____

Thoroughly salt sliced cucumbers and onions and toss to coat.

Place in a large sieve over an even larger bowl and wrap with plastic.

Drain at least 4 hours refrigerated.

In the meantime, line another sieve with paper towels, and set over a bowl.

Empty yogurt into sieve and cover with plastic wrap.

Drain at least 4 hours refrigerated.

When yogurt has drained, add garlic salt, pepper and dill. (If the mixture seems too thick, add a splash of red wine vinegar.)

Toss cucumbers and onion with yogurt mixture and refrigerate (ideally a few hours) before serving.

Season to taste and garnish with dill.

Key Lime Pie with Graham Cracker Crust

August 11, 2009

thepie

Another advancement in scurvy prevention took place in my home this week, with the creation of  not one, but two key lime pies. The first was made and served as a welcome gift to my friends Billy and Katherine, who have joined the Lonestar crew from Manhattan–and just at the right time! Welcome to triple digits, friends!

And so, to cool them off, and to shield them from deadly Vitamin C deprivation, I initially squeezed some twenty-five key limes (AKA Mexican limes) mixed, baked and proudly presented them as a Tex-Mex welcome. Who says you have to go to Florida for great key limes?

somanylimes

Just when I thought everything had gone smoothly I committed the faux pas of faux pas, by clearing Billy’s plate  before he was able to finish the last bite of golden, crumbling crust. In my defense, I had watched him linger over it a while, and didn’t want him to feel any pressure… perhaps not everyone loves the butter crunch of graham cracker crust as much as I do?

Yes, it was a silly thought, but politeness will make a girl do curious things sometimes. A few minutes later, as I stood rinsing plates in the kitchen, my bold messenger, Christopher, came bounding through the  door to inform me that I *deep breath* had taken Billy’s crust! Apparently Billy had sat dumbfounded a while, until finally admitting his disappointment.

mkteggsI ran out to apologize, but what could I do? It had been wasted, the beautiful, gilded thing…that glorious, sweet, crunchy bite so necessary for offsetting the tart creaminess of the key lime custard. So exactly one week later, I was at it again, eager to make amends for a disappointed Billy.

Aside from its being delicious, I love this recipe because you do a lot, but not everything. If you’d rather spend your summer outdoors than inside baking pie crust, fear not. This one is fast and easy, but still involves some real baking. Plus, you’ll be at it a while with these delightfully demure little limes–they’ll really make you feel like you’ve earned your baker’s keep. (But, if you’re in the mood to work outdoors, these can be easily squeezed on a breezy porch or backyard–though if that’s the case, you’re obviously far from H-town.)

anegg

So small are these limes, in fact, that the first time I made this recipe I carried my basked through the aisles at the local Latin market and glanced haughtily at my list–I needed a mere ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of lime juice–“Child’s play!” I  silently jeered. How may limes would I need? Five? Six?

Twenty-five limes later, I had enough juice. But my oh my, it was worth every squeeze. The tiny, tough little suckers I bought–thirty for $1–were pinched dry, each and every one. If I hadn’t known how diminutive these little fruits were, I probably would have envisioned using a mere handful. But even when I saw their size, I still believed that a 30-lime bag would be enough for some five pies and maybe some lime-aid, too.

acorner

Not so. I ended up with a mere 5 little limes, perfectly apt for garnishing. I zested two into the batter, and sliced the rest to mark the center of each piece. I could not believe that each slice would contain the life of approximately 5 Mexican limes. Good thing there are lots across of them growing across the border.

As I served the pie for the second time, I watched Billy’s lips pucker with the first bite—this pie is a serious Lolita. As tart as any homemade sweet I’ve ever enjoyed and crowned with a golden, buttery arc to temper her zing. Make it with super fresh eggs, and the custard is truly stupendous.

sliceopie

Key Lime Pie with Graham Cracker Crust

Generously Serves 6

Adapted from Gourmet

9 standard graham crackers, smashed into crumbs (1 1/4 cups)

2 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons salted butter, melted (you can go unsalted, if you prefer)

14 oz can sweetened, condensed milk

4 egg yolks (I reserved whites for an Angel food cake)

1/2 cup plus 3 tbsp fresh-squeezed key lime juice

zest of 2 key limes

__

Preheat oven to 350

Mix crumbs, sugar and melted butter in a bowl until incorporated.

Press the crust evenly along the bottom and up the sides of a 9’’ pie plate.

Bake for 10 minutes.

As the crust cools, mix 1 can of sweetened condensed milk with 4 egg yolks until  blended

Add key lime juice and zext and mix again

Carefully pour into crust and bake for 15 minutes

Cool for at least 4 hours in the fridge. When ready to serve, garnish with a lime and / or homemade whipped cream.

Peach Clafoutis

August 7, 2009

FinishedClafoutis

If a peach in the hand is worth ten in the bush, then a few peaches in a Clafoutis are worth the haul of an entire basket. Usually, I’m unable to drive away from a farmer’s market without devouring at least half of the peaches I’ve procured. I arrive at home, appetite spoiled, lips sticky. I make a face in the mirror and even my pursed chin looks like a peach pit: all I see, all I think about, all I want, all the time are summer peaches.

AtMarket

I love their ridges, their fuzz, their changing gradations of pink and yellow. I love the leaves that spring from their tops—they look so biblical. They’re more beautiful in person than any still life, though I can see why they’ve inspired great art through the ages. We should all be so lucky to be as pretty as a peach.

And even though a peach devoured raw and dribbling is as good as summertime gets, I decided to practice some self restraint for once and see how they would look in a dessert. I deliberated for a couple of days, letting them ripen further in a brown paper bag. When I finally pulled them out, their sides were so soft I actually treated them like sparrows in my palm.

PeachesonCounter

I wanted something that would showcase their shape. Buckles and pies are lovely to taste, but fruit ends up something of a juicy mass beneath their crusts and crumbs. I wanted more for my peaches. They needed great presentation: a subtle platform for their astonishing color and shape. And then I came upon it—the Clafoutis, a French dish traditionally done with cherries.

The Clafoutis is an almost flan-like dessert and it’s easy to see why pert, tart cherries would complement its silky richness. That said, the ultra ripe peach wedges were hardly cloying. I would even consider making this with a layer of caramelized pears or apples and serving it after brunch. It’s sweet, but the texture is light enough to enjoy during daylight hours.

PeachesandLupe

When I first started researching the Clafoutis, I was slightly confused. Recipes call for pouring batter over fruit arranged in the bottom of a baking pan. I wondered if every Clafoutis recipe author had forgotten to mention that the dish had to be flipped before serving, like an upside-down cake.

Fortunately, a life lesson applied: when everyone else is WRONG, there’s probably something going on with me. So I took a leap of faith and trusted that my beautiful babies would be properly showcased like the cherries pictured in traditional Clafoutis preparations.

BatterClafoutis

And indeed, like all shining stars, they rose to the occasion—literally. As soon as I mixed the liquid custard I understood: the batter worked its way under every slice, lifting the pattern to the top of the pan, where the fruit floated in pink and gold glory. Everything about a peach is beautiful, but when a spiral of slices hover over a custard, they can take your breath away.

These peaches came courtesy of Lightsey Farm in Mexia, TX. I used a recipe from The Joy of Cooking as my base, but changed some rather significant details. When I do a fall Clafoutis with apples, I will do it exactly the same way.

ClafoutisCorer

Peach Clafoutis

4-6 peaches (enough to cover the bottom of a 9” round cake pan)
4 eggs
¾ c granulated sugar
1 c half and half
¾ c all purpose flour
1 tbsp amaretto
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Vanilla ice cream for serving

_____

Preheat oven to 375.

Arrange peaches in the bottom of a 9” cake pan.

Beat eggs and sugar until frothy about 2 minutes.

Stir in half and half, Amaretto and vanilla.

Add flour and salt and blend until smooth.

Carefully pour batter over peaches and bake for 10 minutes.

Reduce heat to 350 and bake another 30-35 minutes until Clafoutis puffs and edges are golden brown—a toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean.

Cool slightly before serving (with Vanilla ice cream) and dust with confectioner’s sugar.

White Bean Purée With Garlic and Rosemary

August 6, 2009

WhiteBeans

There’s something about carrots in the summertime that brings out the bean lover in me. So while I’m on the subject of my favorite legume dishes, let me recall a classic for any season: Cannellini bean dip with garlic, rosemary and a hint of lemon. White beans—bum bum bumbumbum, you make my heart sing. You make everything, groovy.

I found myself once again headed home with a bunch of beautiful, twisted, dirty, orange carrots, wondering what I could do to give them the platform they deserved. With so much visual character, they deserved to be featured on their own, instead of being chopped and softened into something else. Once again, it boiled down to beans. This purée can be quick or involved: it’s delicious from a couple of cans, or with a long soak of dried Cannellinis. Either way, you’ll add a few aromatics, do some blending, and find yourself with a supremely satisfying snack.

CarrotsontheFloorI will also say this: although I’ve grown out of ascribing myself with titles and am wary of announcing any dietary restrictions, I do eat a predominantly vegetarian diet. I’ll have a piece of meat from time to time, as long as I have a pretty good idea of where it came from and how it lived. Soaking some beans (or even opening a can—the best come from Eden Organics) requires a lot less research, however. And, in my opinion, a bowl of beans is as satisfying as any burger. Really. You think I’m crazy, but when is the last time you ate a whole bowl of home-made beans?

More likely than not, the idea of a bowl of beans recalls a little ditty not sung to the tune of “Wild Thing.” Bart Simpson loves to sing it, and so do most finicky child eaters I know. In fact, I’ve heard nervous adult eaters repeat it, too. It makes me temporarily sad for the beans until I remember that it’s all based on ignorance. Poor, deprived folk who don’t understand that such a simple dilemma can be easily resolved.

CarrotsCloseUp

Yes, beans are magical—musical even, depending on your rendition—but they do not have to produce after-effects that would drive away a blind date or a bed mate. Yes you CAN serve beans to your significant other and not worry about being fumigated (or worse fumigating) from under the covers. Just make sure to rinse the beans thoroughly. As thoroughly as possible. Whether you’ve soaked them for hours or just emptied a can, it is possible to change their gastronomical effects by washing off the oligosaccharides responsible for the infamous toot. Anyhow, I dare you to ignore the medical validity of such a big word for bean sugar.

Enough about that. Back to these white beans, so soft and savory; so perfectly flecked with garlic and rosemary, themselves such excellent accompaniments to the carrot. In winter I love roasted carrots with olive oil, salt and rosemary sprigs, though after trying the combination of carrots and white bean dip, I may never again serve the roasted roots alone. This purée is great on salads as well—I plopped a bit onto some balsamic roasted tomatoes with Arugula and pine nuts and was, once again, deeply satisfied…with not even a hint of tummy-rumbling.

White Bean Purée With Rosemary and Garlic

serves 8

(This is the quick version, although you can also use an equivalent amount of soaked beans)

2 15 oz cans Cannellini beans (reserve 1/2 c liquid)

2 large garlic cloves, diced

2-3 rosemary sprigs, stripped and diced plus 1 tsp for garnish

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 c olive oil, plus extra for garish

S & P

___

Purée beans in a food processor or blender, adding lemon juice and olive oil.

Add garlic, salt and pepper and taste.

If dip is too thick, add some reserved bean juice.

Stir in rosemary and garnish with 1 tsp rosemary and olive oil.

Serve with your favorite summer vegetable, crackers or pita chips.


Spicy Black Bean Soup, In A Flash

August 3, 2009

BlackBeanSoup1

When I was twelve, my family took a trip to see the great canyons and deserts of the American West. My mother had planed a voyage to England, but my father vetoed, insisting that before his children traveled abroad, they ought to see their own country—at least the part he loved best. Up until I was born and my mother got nervous enough to set her own vetoes, my father took annual trips to Monument Valley on his motorcycle. He spent much of his youth gallivanting from New York to Mexico on two wheels and was deeply disappointed when my mother put the kibosh on traveling several thousand miles with her family packed onto a bike and into a sidecar.

She gracefully negated the idea, noting that school was out for a mere week, and that we couldn’t afford to travel by land if we wanted to get home in time. So we flew to Flagstaff, AZ, rented some kind of unglamorous, gold sedan and drove from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon and from Zion National Park to the Four Corners, where we could play hopscotch from Colorado to Arizona to Utah to Wyoming while holding our breath.

spices

What I remember more than anything was the scent of the desert changing from mile to mile. Eucalyptus, juniper, clay, rock: the combinations were heightened at night when the world went black and the dryness of the air made my burnt lips feel tight. When you can feel heat in your cheeks long after the sun has set, you know you’ve sucked the life out of a day: especially when you get to sleep with a gut full of black bean soup.

Sedona lends itself particularly well to a bowl of this spicy soup. I’ve never had a properly made spoonful of the stuff without recalling the whine of coyotes and the licks of campfire flames against a sandy floor below the town’s red rocks. I remember being terrified and enchanted all at once, distracted only by a belly that begged to taste whatever scent was wafting from a nearby canyon kitchen.

Carrots

A few weeks ago I found myself longing for that deep sky, peppered by white dots…cool, windy and smelling like Chipotle peppers in Adobo. It was a rainy, cold afternoon in Connecticut, and I’d just picked up some bright carrots with which I’d planned to make a slaw. But raw vegetables were not in the cards on such a damp day. Instead, I wanted to translate the stormy weather into a bowl of something deep and warm.

Fortunately, a bowl of first-rate black bean soup does not require an overnight soak or 4 hours of simmering, despite whatever wild West myths you might have heard. When I found myself with a sudden craving—as much for a memory as for a meal—I tried a quick recipe and was happily surprised by the flavors I could tease from a couple of cans of beans, tomatoes and peppers. It added just the right kind of warmth for a wet, windy evening—the kind you might crave after a long day spent traversing the desert in a saddle: be it of the equine or boxer-twin variety.

BlackBeanSoup2

Spicy Black Bean Soup
Adapted from Epicurious
Serves 6

2 tbps olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
1-2 Chipotle peppers diced, plus 1 tsp Adobo sauce
2 15 oz cans of black beans, undrained
1 15 oz can of diced tomatoes, undrained
1 ½ c chicken broth
½ c sour cream
bunch of fresh cilantro for garnish
S & P

___

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat.

Add garlic, carrot and onion, sautéing until soft, about 6 minutes.

Mix in cumin and Chipotle (add in increments to control heat).

Empty bean and tomato cans into the pot, along with chicken broth, and bring soup to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook until carrots are soft, about 15 minutes.

Transfer to blender, pureeing in batches—be careful to leave enough room to prevent explosion!

Return to pot. Simmer soup until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.

Just before serving, remove 1 c of soup and slowly stir in sour cream. Reincorporate into large pot off the heat.

Garnish with chopped cilantro and season with salt and pepper.

Blueberry Crumble

July 29, 2009

fullcrumble
Baby when you call me, you can call me Sal.

When I was young, I had the good fortune of living up the hill from a blueberry patch that belonged to a place called March Farms. Just passed the farm was a pond called Long Meadow, where my family went from morning until evening in the days when school was out.

Sometimes we headed down the road to March Farms for a basket of all-you-can-pick blueberries and one or two of Mrs. March’s giant peanut butter cookies. It is still a spectacular lunch.

I go back to the farm every summer and haul away as many bags of berries as I can afford. At $2 a pound, it’s a pretty good deal—especially since a few end up digested before the loot gets weighed. As someone who has spent nearly $5 for a mini-box at the grocery store, $2 per pound feels like hitting the blueberry jackpot. So of course, every summer I end up with a surfeit of them. And every summer they’re gone within a week.

onthevine

From baking to eating, it’s fleeting.

If you’re looking to put away a huge amount of fruit in a very short time, I suggest a crumble. I think I ate this more quickly than I baked it. My sister and I, after a few glasses of wine, polished off two-thirds of the thing after dinner. The rest went down for breakfast in the morning.

A crumble goes well with Mascarpone cheese, or a dollop of vanilla ice cream. It’s a bit juicy, which is nice, because the liquid can be spooned over your dairy of choice and turned into a warm coulis. The crumble is worthy of thirds, and as I jabbed a bit extra off the top while serving myself yet-another-piece, I had a vision of myself at 5 years old, pilfering dots off the top of my Grandmother’s Entenmann’s Crumb Coffee Cake while she was up from the table, serving herself tea.

sugarcoated

But this is so much better than Entenmann’s. The buttery, crunchy topping (which tastes caramelized because of the baked brown sugar) goes perfectly with the slightly tart blueberries that melt and bubble out from the sides. Nothing cloyingly sweet or overwhelmingly heavy here.

If you find yourself with an extra 6 cups of berries to spare—quite an embarrassment of riches—make this. Make this! In under an hour you’ll have astonishingly beautiful, delicious results. It’s a great way to pay homage to the fleeting pulchritude and flavor of summer’s favorite fruit, which is of course, your favorite summer fruit, whatever that may be.*

CornerCrumble

Blueberry Crumble

Serves 6

6 c blueberries (or any summer fruit, cut finely)
¾ c flour plus 1 tbsp
½ c packed brown sugar
¼ c granulated white sugar
4 tbsp butter, cold, chopped into small pieces.
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350.

Wash and thoroughly dry the blueberries, then toss with 1 tbsp flour and ¼ c white sugar. Transfer to a pie pan.

In a medium sized bowl, mix the flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Add the butter with your fingers until small crumbles form throughout.

Distribute the mixture evenly on top of the blueberries, starting at the center. I like to leave a little room on the edges for the blueberries to poke through.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the top is quite brown and the blueberries have bubbled.

MarchBlueberries

* Some fruits may not be as juicy as berries, and you may sacrifice your coulis…

Grilled Corn with Spiced Butter

July 27, 2009

GrilledCorn

Short and sweet–like summer.

Grill corn, turning often until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes.

In the meantime, melt butter (about 1 tbsp for every 2 ears). Add a pinch of spice, to suit your taste.*

Pour warm butter over corn and serve immediately.

[You could also cut the kernels into a large serving bowl, pour butter over them, and serve with a spoon.]

*For example, you might try toasting:

1 tbsp each coriander, fennel and cumin seeds coriander seeds
½ tsp each cardamom seeds and whole cloves
2-4 dried red chilies (like cayenne)

blending them, then adding

1tbsp ground tumeric
and some ground cinnamon.

Use about 1 tsp of spice mix for each tablespoon of butter.

Roasted Rosemary Potatoes with Garlic Olive Oil

July 23, 2009

Taters

There’s a little nub, dug from the earth, covered in dirt, hard, humble and unremarkable. Or so it seems. The potato. Pot. Ate. Oh! Sometimes I like sounding words out. I’m not a big believer in onomatopœia, but in this case I think it does apply. Pot: a simple sound. Ate: what I have done, or will have done soon. Oh! That pure delight. It is so good, so deeply satisfying, to eat a potato.

Few things are more comforting, I think, which is why, of course, in our crazy culture of renunciation and denial (damn Puritan ancestors and their self-punishment; damn glut of HFCS that sends us all a fat-flutter) they have been ostracized and cut out of our kitchens at the prompting of lunacy via fad diets.

Garlic
Potatoes are remarkable creatures, extraordinarily wholesome, easy and versatile. If you pass on the potatoes, I know you’re following some no-carb craze because nobody, I mean NOBODY doesn’t like a potato. If you tell me you don’t, I’ll call you a liar and snatch back my platter. Ye who refuse the humble white flesh of such sustenance are in denial of something much greater than starch—you’re missing out on the staff of life and all of its history. What a root! Chips, salads, gratins; baked, roasted, fried… I’ve yet to meet a potato-dish I don’t like, nor a culture that doesn’t like potatoes.

Smashable

Smashed

Potatoes go perfectly well with so many things, but especially with eggs—never better than when your eggs are meant as a main meal. Sunny side uppers, over-easies or scrambled eggs go best with hash browns and home fries, but when it comes to something as elegant as a fritatta, I say go with roasted baby potatoes. A few of these, skins browned and wrinkling up over the flesh, mixed with garlic and olive oil and flecked with sea salt and rosemary are a true joy to behold, and even more so to eat.

Reddy

Suddenly your sandy lumps are transformed: crisp on the outside, smooth and hot on the inside and bursting with savory crunch from the herbs, oil and salt. They’re even great cold the next day tossed into a salad— Tuna Niçoise takes kindly to these, I’ve found. They’re especially tasty when dug by local hands. I just love buying a bag of potatoes and getting change from a farmer whose fingernails are still encrusted with their dirt.

readytoroast

Roasted Rosemary Potatoes with Garlic Olive Oil

Serves 3-4

2 cloves of garlic, diced
1 tbsp sea salt, plus more for flecking
1 lb baby red potatoes, washed and dried
1/3 c olive oil
4 sprigs fresh rosemary, stemmed and chopped, divided

___

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pour salt over diced garlic, and rub with the side of a wide-blade knife, so that the garlic and salt mix into a paste. You’ll know it’s finished when the garlic is wet and the salt is completely incorporated and smoothed.

Pour olive oil into the bottom of a large mixing bowl, whisking in garlic paste and ½ of the rosemary.

Place potatoes in the bowl and toss to coat. Spread onto a baking sheet and sprinkle with a bit more sea salt and remaining rosemary.

Make sure the potatoes are evenly spread and not overlapping. Bake for 30 minutes, or until skin wrinkles and browns. Serve immediately.

* If some potatoes are larger than others, cut them in half or quarters. It’s best to roast things of comparable size to ensure even cooking.

Summer, Frittata

July 19, 2009

THEFritatta
There’s something about summer days: long, lazy and ripe. Today I feel like a juicy peach, though not of the courtesan variety. I’m just that happy, rosy and full. Let me tell you why:

I woke up to no dog begging for breakfast. That is to say, I woke up when my body wanted to—a very tender, rested 8:30 am. Mom has kindly taken charge of my little canine lass in preparation (gasp) of being a grandmother. The prospect is far along a very distant horizon, let me assure you, but she seems to be looking forward to it. So she has adopted Lupe as her own for the time being, making mornings just a little bit later for me.

FreshEggs

Shortly thereafter I made peace with a rather heaping bowl of granola and some just-picked blueberries (we hauled away six pounds for a mere $5! yesterday) with fresh—thank goodness—raw milk. Sounds treacherous at first, I understand, but it’s delicious. I hope never to have to go back to the conventional variety.

The day progressed into a series of activities: yoga class, a walk in the forest with Mom and the pup, lunch by the water, and eventually a trip into town for some new books. I’m particularly thrilled about “American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau,” though its 1,000 + pages and spiffy cover did burn a hole in my wallet. It promises to be well worth the price, however, chock-full of essays by people I wish were my best friends—or at least my hiking companions.

MiseEnPlaceFritatta

A mile-long swim in the afternoon was punctuated by reading the first few chapters of my new tome. But nothing compared to the best part of it all: an unexpected encounter with an extraordinary frittata. Those who know me are aware that I’m prone to egregious exaggeration, but this, friends, is no such instance. I am serious here, and the proof is a mere 35 minutes away. I didn’t expect baked eggs to taste this good. But really, I am glowing still.

Before I sat down to limn the account, I wondered what would get you to actually get up and make this thing. I contemplated a dare… thought of threatening (all for your own good, of course)… but determined that making a seemingly hyperbolic claim all while wrapping the meal up in the irresistibility of a glorious summer day might be the most effective tactic. It is, after all, the most authentic account of how I experienced Sunday, July 19, 2009.

ScallionsandZucchini

Make this, I implore you, before summer wanes and fresh zucchini, tomatoes, scallions and parsley are impossible to come by. I’m sure there are many extraordinary frittatas to be had in the colder months—potatoes, prosciuto and caramelized onions come to mind as possible add-ins—but this particular summertime combination is worth every day it took to grow these ingredients, and every moment it takes for you to turn them into a soft-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside supper, which, I think, is the mark of so many well-wrought meals.

TomsfromMarchFarms

Mom and I each had thirds. THIRDS. That’s because each piece is light as air and absolutely worthy of such indulgence—grated zucchini adds an invisible yet wholesome sweetness, as do roast cherry tomatoes embedded in each bite. Meanwhile, grated Manchego cheese lends richness, and sliced herbs perk things up a bit.

I served this with roasted rosemary potatoes and a green salad. We both lamented the absence of a baguette, but that would have required a trip to the store… and there’s something really satisfying about making a meal with what you’ve already got. Just the kind of thing you want to eat on a Sunday evening, after a quintessential summer day, gazing out at a fluorescent sky. That is, until the mosquitoes drive you back into the house.

JulySunset

Summer Frittata

Serves 3-4

6 eggs
2 tbsp heavy cream or full-fat milk
1 ½ c grated zucchini (about 2 large)
1 tbsp kosher salt
6 small tomatoes, quartered (or 10 cherry tomatoes, halved)
¼ c chopped scallions (whites and all)
¼ c chopped parsley
¾ c grated Manchego
2 tbsp butter
s & p to taste

__

Preheat oven to 400.

Mix salt and zucchini in a colander and let sit for 15 minutes before draining liquid.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with cream or milk. Add zucchini and mix to incorporate.

Add remaining ingredients, except butter, mixing gently.

Heat butter in a heavy-bottomed, well-curved skillet.

When butter is melted, pour in egg mixture. Transfer skillet to oven and cook for 18-20 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the center looks firm.

I served mine directly from the skillet, as you can see.

Watermelon Gazpacho, Live from New York

July 16, 2009

MKTToms

Most of the year I feel blessed to live in Houston. Though I am a Yankee by birth, those long stretches of winter really do take the feather out of my cap—and threaten to take the green off my plate. Year-round farmer’s markets that profit from harvests December-March are a true Texas luxury.  In fact, I have to keep myself from bragging about our 364 day bounty to friends and family who suffer through the icy spell that endures up North from late November through late April.

But inevitably June comes and the tables turn. The change is often heralded by a profusion of eggplant and okra—the only edible plants that truly thrive through a gulf-coast summer. As a lone star arriviste, I either swelter or flee: usually a little bit of both. I am a fair-weather friend, indeed. Someday this will change, but for now, I enjoy the peripatetic luxury of having no kids and a generous boss. And I can joyfully report that the markets and farms in this cool, clear (and reasonably un-humid) part of the world have been extraordinary. They’ve been visions that make my eyes pop from my head like a salacious gent at a peep show. Yes, it is true: in my mind delicate, red raspberries, plump cherries and bunches of thick, colorful carrots are about as sexy as it gets.

Raspberries

Last night I visited Emily for a reunion dinner of sorts, wherein I drank a lot of wine (her gracious beau, John, had to go out and fetch more after I downed the only bottle I had brought… shame, shame, shame on me) and watched as the prep work and cooking took place gracefully in my midst. Emily has a way of preparing food that makes it seem like she’s just chatting and spending time. And suddenly—presto! Dinner has materialized, and just in time for me to befriend the cuddly Gus, who, like me, has a nibbling problem—though his centers around fingers, toes and ankles.

EmilyandGus
It was a simple, vegetarian feast procured from the market at Union Square. We’d spent the morning amassing beets, carrots, greens, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, shallots and mint in anticipation of a vegetarian feast. Even some fresh feta was procured from a local goat—though not directly.

We parted ways until 7pm, and reunited to prepare a watermelon gazpacho, roasted beets and green salad. Everything, but everything we ate was local, with the exception of our salad toppings and a handful of olives. I could feel Michael Pollan smiling from inside the back flap of his book in my purse.

MKTBeets

I am especially fond of cold soups, and cold, sweet soups really get my gonads going. I have an impossible sweet tooth—almost an insatiable one—and the smooth, cool gazpacho was the perfect dulcet end to the savory roasted beets and vinaigrette-slathered salad. Topped with olives, mint and feta cheese, it was a beautiful balance of lemon, sweet, light watermelon and tomato, rich feta, salty olives and clean mint. It was a joy to spoon—especially since the beet roasting rendered Emily’s cozy West Village apartment slightly cozier than one might want mid-July. But the heat was nothing a few bottles of icy Sauvignon Blanc couldn’t mollify.

When it was all said and done, Mr. Pollan and I settled into our perch on the 6 train to talk about organic farming, but mostly to eye-ball the 11pm commuters, a healthy mix of drunk tourists and bleary-eyed bankers on their way back uptown. Never ride the Subway without some kind of cover to hide behind: there really is nothing better than people ogling in New York. Oh Big Apple—I do adore you!

Dinner!

Watermelon Gazpacho

2 c cubed watermelon

1 large heirloom tomatoes

1/4 c almonds, chopped

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

juice of 1 lemon

feta, mint and black olives for garnish

s & p

___

Blend watermelon, tomato, almonds, lemon juice, vinegar and a bit of salt in a blender.

Transfer to serving bowl (season for taste) and let chill in the refrigeator. (Add some ice if serving immediately.)

Top each bowl with mint chiffonade, chopped black olives and some feta cheese just before serving.

Fresh Corn Salad

July 14, 2009

kernels

Though it factors prominently into Michael Pollan’s account of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” corn is fast becoming one of my absolute favorite summertime staples—that is, when I avoid it as a super-manipulated, non-perishable additive to my cottage cheese or crackers. I’m reading Pollan’s exquisitely wrought (and terrifying) account of America’s love affair with corn, and it’s scaring me to realize how insidiously the stuff is sneaked into us via the unlikeliest of comestibles.

So it seems strange today to extol the virtues of corn, but really, I think it deserves a break. At least all of us maize-eaters who want to just enjoy the taste of it in its purest form—straight from the kernel and into our meals. Other than gnawing it raw from the cob (which oh do I love!) sweet, in-season corn is well accompanied by some butter, some herbs, some salt and a dash of lemon.

CornatMarket
I stumbled into this process last summer, after my dear friend Emily, a most graceful cook, gifted me her only copy of her favorite book: “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells. Can you imagine that? Her only copy! Naturally I felt compelled to put it to good use, which was all too easy, especially for such a ravenous vegetable-lover. This book embodies the best of French cooking: the thrill of simple, fresh ingredients treated with dignity and respect—and not too many accompaniments.

Even though we all know great food is best approached simply, it can still be nice to refer to an expert from time to time. Ms. Wells does not disappoint. Her recipes are worth investigating, basic though they may seem. She uses herbs flawlessly and suggests pairings so clean and sweet on the tongue, you wonder how you didn’t think of them yourself. Read: lemon zest with corn. Really, it is a golden combination.

cornonthecob

This is a great salad for parties, because it can LITERALLY be thrown together (with some heat) at the very last minute. Once you’ve done your mise en place, it takes less than five minutes to prepare. I’ve also made it a bit in advance and kept it warm in the oven before serving. Cold corn salad leftovers are spectacular, and un-adorned kernels are well suited for pancakes. Few things embody summer so perfectly as a sweet ear of corn. I wish they would stay this way forever, naked and honest… so unlike the cobs that get hydrogenated or turned into some mysterious ingredient ending in ‘-ose.’

MoreatMarket

Fresh Corn Salad

(adapted from P.Wells)

Serves 4.

4 ears of fresh corn

3 tbsp local, unsalted butter

1 bunch parsley (or cilantro)

1 large organic lemon

1 tbsp sea salt

___

Slice corn kernels into a large bowl.

Finely chop herbs and set aside.

Zest 2 tbsp worth of lemon rind and add to sea salt. Set aside.

Melt butter into large sauce pan on medium heat. When corn is warm and butter has been melted and spread throughout, sprinkle with salt, stirring to mix thoroughly. Transfer to serving plate and stir in herbs. Serve immediately.

(Mortar and) Pesto, Three Ways

July 9, 2009

RoastedTomPesto

This spring, I worked as an organic gardening teacher at a Houston public school. It was at once inspirational and terrifying, as most new experiences are. My sister, who has been assisting at a summer camp, recently theorized that children grow up by sucking the life out of everything around them. A haunting way to consider one’s youth, though probably true: I ended each class feeling like a wrung out rag, used and floppy, drained of all capacity.

Toms

Fortunately, we ended our experience on a happy note, which is to say, a cessation of my top-of-the-lung instruction and a belly-filling feast. Thanks to a generous supervisor at Urban Harvest, I got my hands on a traditional Mexican molcajete y tejolote—an ancient, granite mortar and pestle and some locally grown pecans. With a block of Parmesan, some homegrown basil and a touch of lemon juice and olive oil, we ground together one of the tastiest pestos I’ve had: never again will I make an herb-based sauce without pulverizing the leaves beforehand. It really does take pesto to new heights of delicious.

BasilandMP
When I got home, I made quick use of my borrowed tool. I had to give it back at the end of the week, and, under such extreme pressure, was able to muster a tiny bit of post-gardening energy to roast some tomatoes, grind a few bunches of basil and create a few varieties of my favorite summertime sauce.

RoastedToms

I started with a large batch of classic pesto, divided it and added roasted tomatoes to the second half. In anticipation of serving fish for dinner, I added a bit of lemon to some of the plain batch, which gave it a light citrus kick. Making these all at once turned into quite an efficient way to dress up all of my meals for the week, including a crunchy roasted broccoli salad. Second only to the super-spongy eggplant, broccoli is truly the best vehicle for sauces and marinades, given the many branches and crags of each floret. More on that to come.

ClassicPesto

Basic Pesto:

(Double recipe if you plan to make another batch using this as a base)

2 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
¼ c toasted pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
¾ cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving
Coarse salt

Grind basil (you may have to work in batches) into a paste using a mortar and pestle.

Grind the pine nuts, garlic and salt in a food processor until pasty.

Add the basil and lemon juice and pulse a few times until incorporated. Drizzle in oil and process until smooth.

Transfer to a medium sized bowl and stir in cheese.

Lemony Pesto:

Repeat recipe, adding juice of 2 lemons and 1 Tbsp lemon zest.

Roasted Tomato Pesto:

Add 1 c roasted tomatoes to pesto mixture after adding oil, and before transferring to bowl.

In Love, With Fresh Corn Pancakes

July 7, 2009

pancake

Buckets of rain / Buckets of tears / Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears. / Buckets of moonbeams in my hand, / I got all the love, honey baby, / You can stand.

I been meek / And hard like an oak / I seen pretty people disappear like smoke. / Friends will arrive, friends will disappear, / If you want me, honey baby, / I’ll be here.

Like your smile / And your fingertips / Like the way that you move your lips. / I like the cool way you look at me, / Everything about you is bringing me / Misery.

Little red wagon / Little red bike / I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like. / I like the way you love me strong and slow, / I’m takin’ you with me, honey baby, / When I go.

Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do is do what you must. / You do what you must do and ya do it well,  / I’ll do it for you, honey baby, / Can’t you tell?

cobbs

There are few things better than cooking for a party that ends with a booming display of fireworks and the requisite swelling of pride and patriotism. That said, making use of leftovers in the following day is equally pleasing in its own humble way. I guess it works best when the house is full of people you love: a visiting fiancé who has to leave that very afternoon, a sister who took the train in from New York instead of going to some schmancy party on Long Island, a mom and pop with summer time to spare, and a dear old family friend named Olga, who eats anything, as long as it’s not green.
mise

We spent a sunny afternoon in preparation for the 4th of July party, chopping, mixing, marinating and the like. At around 3 pm, Christopher and I took brown paper bags out to the dock and shucked upwards of twenty ears for a corn salad, doing our best to keep the shaking dog and her lake-water-dewiness at bay. Next, we hauled our gilded logs and their empty husks to the picnic bench on the porch and sheared the kernels into bowls, though they were worthy of a much larger vessel. (Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears / buckets of corn kernels in my hands.)

There was truly an abundance of corn: corn so sweet you could literally gnaw it raw from the ear, which we did for respite from the shucking and hair pulling. It’s amazing to me that each kernel has its own fine strand—the vehicle for its pollination. Despite my fascination with maize-mating, it can be quite tedious to pull every one of those fine little hairs from the tight rows of plumped up kernels, especially when you’re dealing with a couple dozen cobs.

batter
It was a labor of love, and when it was all over, it felt like a real treasure. So much corn, so many sated friends, such a display of fireworks. “America!” I shouted, and I meant it, thinking of our beloved president and, oh, the place we’ll go. But the magic truly began when all the guests left, and only the Cowles plus one remained on the dock. Christopher, ducking into the house for more beers, somehow knew to win our hearts with Blonde on Blonde. Out came a crooning Dylan, loud enough to drown out the neighbor’s bad musical selection, and leaving us to bundle together and reminisce as the fire pit glowed against the lake. We all knew we were in love—not just me.

And even though Christopher has been here so many times before, the thought of sending him off with a plain old granola breakfast or some standard eggs and bacon was beyond heartbreaking. So I took to the pint of kernels I’d saved to make a very special batch of pancakes, for a very special Sunday morning. These are summer flapjacks at their finest—put away your blueberries and give these a go.

Fresh Corn Pancakes

Adapted from Gourmet: yields about 12 pancakes

1 c all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp Turbinado sugar (or white)
1 tsp kosher salt
3 ears of just-plucked, local corn
¾ c whole milk
2 large eggs
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ c pure maple syrup, warmed in a skillet with a pad of butter

__

Whisk flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a medium bowl.

Cut 2 cups worth of corn kernels. Transfer ½ c kernels to blender and puree with milk until smooth.

Strain through a sieve into a large bowl, pressing out as much liquid as possible, then discarding solids.

Whisk eggs, oil and butter into the milk. Add flour mixture with remaining corn and whisk until just combined.

Working in batches, pour dollops onto a hot, generously buttered griddle. Don’t be afraid of the butter here: add about half a tablespoon each time you start with a new batch. You want the melted butter to run around the edges of each cake, rendering it crispy and golden.

On Love, Independence Day and Salmon Burgers

July 3, 2009

A Patty

Once upon a time in 2006, I attended a summer financial program in Hanover, New Hampshire. In three weeks—nearly the most miserable twenty-one days of my twenty-one years—I learned little more than that I had no business at business camp. I had enrolled right after college graduation, hoping to postpone the inevitable job-market—or at least make myself more marketable.

Graduation came and went in a soggy flourish, but as soon as I got out of a rainy Philadelphia, I was back at school again, studying spreadsheets in the glorious green mountains. Although I endured the program for a full month, it took less than a single lecture for me to come upon a pretty simple formula: Isabel + Spreadsheets = Tears.

MarketZucchs

Indeed, I spent most of that sun-shining June wearing wet misery upon my face. I woke up in the night, febrile, tearing, tossing and terrified, like a little dinghy on fire out in a stormy sea. The workload was horrible—intended to mimic life as a banker—and most of my peers were econ or accounting majors. Yes, I was definitely out to sea. Nothing in my arsenal of literary theory had prepared me for this. I was in a cellular Hell, surrounded by McKinsey-courting, money-crazed madmen. All I wanted was to be a writer, I lamented, slinking away into the woods, wishing some sylvan hero would rescue me, a worn “Walden” tucked in his back pocket.

Which brings me to this tidbit: my frustration was also born from a certain sideways glancing boy I’d noticed in the lecture hall. He had dirty blond hair, the kind that curls a bit at the nape of the neck, and wrinkles around his smile…the kind that make me weak at the knees. On the first day of spreadsheet modeling class, I watched him unwrap a Bartlett pear from a brown paper bundle and eat it slowly, half chewing, half sucking, all while cradling its bulbous bottom as juice slinked down his fingers and dripped into his lap. It was quite a show.

TornUpZucchinia

Naturally, images of this impish fellow kept me up at night, and I was torn between wanting the days to pass so I could get out of my office-dormitory, and wanting them to last a bit longer, so that he and I might get a chance to speak. Well, one day we did—the 26th of June, when he sent a note that challenged me to a race up the fire tower. Not knowing what that was, I accepted, on the condition that he fetch me at 5am. After a very sleepless night, we were off. I lost. But the view up there was spectacular, and afterward, we had croissants and coffee by the river and took a very nude-ish dip before our accounting lecture at 8am.

July 4th soon followed, and by then we had traded accounting class for trips up trees with bagfuls of cherries. We spit pits at each other from our perches—highly romantic, indeed. We celebrated our Independence by drinking Moonshine he’d made (those Dartmouth boys are like grown-up scouts) and eating salted Edamame pods, knee-deep in a creek. We walked to the nearest grocery store as the sun started to soften, and bought ourselves a picnic of feta cheese, an aged baguette, green peppers, (which I later admitted I find too bitter) a gigantic tomato and fresh basil to eat in a field while the fireworks boomed for us.

MayoMixForSalmon

As I limn this three years later, he’s sitting by my side, reading the Financial Times. He finally got a day off! He made the trip to my parent’s house in Connecticut late last night! And while I’m still grumbling about Thoreau and feta cheese, he’s gone off and become a banker. But, in his spare time, he has helped me make this one of our favorite summer recipes. Try it with somebody you love, and if you can get your hands on some homemade lemonade and Moonshine, you’ll love them even more.

Salmon Burgers with Zucchini and Fennel Slaw

Adapted from Gourmet

Serves Two (easily halved if your dining partner is busy with a spreadsheet)

6 Tbsp Mayonnaise
4 tsp fresh lemon juice, divided
6 Tbsp chopped chives
2 tsp grainy mustard
¼ tsp cayenne
½ pound skinless salmon filet, chopped
8 saltine crackers, crumbled
2 medium zucchini, grated (or 3 cups)
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced thin
s & p
Olive Oil
Dijon mustard

___

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together mayo, 2 tsp lemon juice, chives, mustard, cayenne and salt and pepper (about ½ tsp of each).

Stir together salmon, crackers, 1 ½ cup zucchini, and half of mayonnaise mixture in another bowl.

Add fennel and remaining zucchini and leftover lemon juice to mayo mixture in medium bowl and toss to combine slaw.

Form salmon mixture into 4 patties and place on a baking rack for 12-15 minutes, until fish turns lighter in color. Serve with slaw and a dab of Dijon mustard.

Alternatively, you can cook salmon cakes in a skillet over medium heat, which takes about 6 minutes.

Home- Is Where I Want To Be

July 1, 2009

Greyhound

Home, home, home I go, in time for the fourth of July. Checkered tablecloths on wooden picnic benches! Golden, sweet, salty corn, sputtering and exploding in kernels betwixt my teeth! Blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream! Fireworks over the dock! My dog jumps into the patterned water! Oh, high-stepping I shall be when I waltz from the airplane platform tomorrow at 3:16 pm and declare myself home.  I’ll wear my favorite rainbow shoes and run off the dock at dusk, drink in hand. HOME–is where I want to be. (!)

rainbowshoes

I came to Texas almost two years ago—with Christopher, for the light in his eyes. Mostly it inspires me, sometimes it tires me, but always, no matter what, I dream of home. I grew up in such a wonderful way, I can hardly believe it: in a New England farmhouse on a wooded hill, no television, no neighbors, just me, my younger sister, the creek, the trees and the happy dog, Pippy—may she rest in peace.

sunshineflowers

The seasons were penetrating, way out there, away from everybody—especially the summertime, with the smell of wild roses and the heavy, quiet leaves, and the cool, wet plunges into Lake Waramaug, imagining myself a fish. I’m lying. I imagined myself a mermaid, even if the water was murky and brown.

So tomorrow home I go again—and I’m taking the new(er) dog with me. We’ll swim, we’ll berry pick, (you should see Lupe berry pick…she’s incredibly talented, even without  thumbs…) we’ll make a lattice-top pie and get tipsy on a canoe, licking our lips. Before we set out, I’ll lift my family’s spirits with this wonderful cocktail my dear Christopher has turned me onto. He may not have invented it, but it’s his in my mind.

TheDock

My fingers are crossed that he’ll find a last-minute flight out for the weekend, but if he can’t I’m prepared to do the honors. In the meantime, for practice, let me reiterate the simple recipe in hopes that you will find yourself with one, tingling and refreshed. It’s just a bit sweet, just a touch bitter, but definitely the most cheerful summer cocktail I’ve ever tasted. It’s so light and dignified, you could drink it with breakfast. Oh, the thrill of Independence Day. Oh summer, oh home, did I find you or you find me?

The Campari Greyhound

Serves 4, theoretically.

4 oz chilled local vodka (if you can—otherwise, try Kettle One)
4 oz Campari (probably not a local ingredient for you)
8 oz grapefruit juice (preferably fresh-squeezed)
4 sprigs grapefruit zest for garnish
2 c ice

Shake ingredients (reserving zest) and distribute evenly into highball glasses.
Garnish with zest and serve immediately.

Hi Yo!  Sing into my mouth.

Roasted Tomato Basil Soup

June 29, 2009

RoastedTomSoup
I woke up yesterday morning with a sharp stick in my throat…at least it felt that way. Every time I swallowed, my glands cried out and begged me to stop the searing pain. Oh how I hoped the feeling would pass, but it persisted—all day long. To add insult to injury, I also had an eyelid that refused to open (and creases from wrinkled sheets embedded into my right cheek—but that’s another complaint entirely). I looked like I was elbowed in the socket by an angry bedmate, and though I do have a penchant for stealing the covers, I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen. Did I mention my nose was running? So here’s what I had yesterday in a nutshell: a searing sore throat, a single operative eye, and a dribbling nose. I was gruff, winking and weepy. There’s only one magical thing that can save a gal on a day like that one, and it’s called a gut full of soup.

MarketSungolds
But, there’s a rub: it’s hard to make soup during a Houston summer. Once June rolls around, I am in a knockdown, drag-out fight with the heat. It’s all I can do to peel myself out of bed and trudge lugubriously from place to place, feigning efficiency. Walking the dog is a serious undertaking, as is taking out the garbage; watering the plants; making it from the driveway to the front door. Am I the only weirdo in the world to get a head cold during the dog days of summer?
In any case, the typical chicken soup nostrum is not something I gravitated to during my febrile bout. I had no homemade chicken stock on hand, and the idea of simmering a bird in quarts of water for hours did not appeal to my already over-heated house and head. Skimming fat off the bubbling broth while blowing my bubbling nose seemed too unglamorous for words. Fortunately, I was saved by a bounty of summertime produce—a heady, red dash of Lycopene and vitamin C, which did wonders for my ailing sinuses and broken immunity.

MoreMarketSungolds
I’m the kind of gal who can never have enough tomatoes, even when they’re rolling off my countertops. I feel like a kid who greedily stuffed her pockets with too many marbles. Tomatoes are spilling out all over the place, tumbling from their colander perch, overflowing from brown paper bags and falling like un-ripened Humpty Dumpties from my windowsill. I’ve grown, bought and hoarded so many sun gold, heirloom and cherry tomatoes that there’s really nothing to do but roast them, turn them into sauce, or make soup.

Bagful
I had fortuitously roasted a whole batch the day before and was saved by my own unknowing foresight. There they were, shriveled, glazed, red and yellow, beautifully bright and beckoning me from their little glass jar in the refrigerator. There’s nothing so delightful as a sweet roasted tomato, either fresh from the oven or cooled and served on a bed of Arugula. But that is a story for another time. Today I talk about soup.
A few other summer odds and ends were also put into the mix, including two recently roasted red peppers, some garlic and a bunch of basil. What emerged was a warm, red broth that did wonders for my irritated throat and heat-induced irascible mood. I was soothed and calmed from top to bottom. If only there were a recipe to cure stinkeye.

RoastedToms

Roasted Tomato Soup

2-3 pounds of tomatoes, any kind, cored and halved or quartered, depending on size

2 large red peppers, cored and quartered

3 yellow onions, quartered

1 head of garlic, generously coated in olive oil

3 cups of stock—vegetable or chicken

1 c basil, torn plus 1 Tbsp basil chiffonade

Turbinado sugar

Balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

Dash of heavy cream (optional)

S & p

—-
Spread tomatoes skin-side down on a large baking sheet along with peppers, onions and garlic bulb. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a shake or two of salt and Turbinado sugar.

Roast at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes have collapsed and the onions have caramelized. Rotate if necessary.

In the meantime, bring broth to a simmer and cover.

When garlic cloves are cool enough to handle, squeeze them from their skins into a large bowl. Add the roasted vegetables, 1 c basil and broth to the bowl (if you have an immersion blender) or blend them traditionally, working in small batches to prevent any heat-induced explosions.

Once blended, bring soup to a simmer if it has cooled. When it’s warm enough to eat, swirl in a dash of heavy cream and top with some basil chiffonade. (You can also enjoy this soup cold–as I did for a few days after.)

Sour Cherry Pecan Scones

June 26, 2009

IMG_1505

Sometimes it’s fun to get stuck in a rut—especially when the rut involves lots of butter and nuts. A few weeks ago I made the bold claim that I’d found THE PERFECT SCONE RECIPE. This is a load of malarkey, not because the scones were anything less than perfect, but because it implies that there’s no longer a need to poke around for another option.

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Maybe that’s your cup of tea. There’s definitely a lot of comfort to be had in discovering one solid, sure-fire strategy for a crowd-pleasing dish. That said, perfection can also come from the thrill of discovery: a new golden flake, another rich crumb, and still the old faithful melts-in-your-mouth flavor of a perfect scone.

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I recently went to visit my parents for a week in Connecticut and discovered another good-looking scone recipe. While the house was quiet and sleepy, I made my way downstairs, chopped, mixed, folded, rolled, cut and baked. By the time my family was awake, a plate of scones was piled high on the kitchen table, ready to be smeared with butter, strawberry jam or dipped in maple syrup.

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It was a rainy, cold Sunday, and warm scones with coffee seemed like rays of sunshine and warmth in the morning gloom. They gave us an excuse to lounge until lunch on the couch, cozy with lots of newspaper and piles of books: another type of perfection altogether.

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So for anyone who can’t get enough scones, here’s another recipe to try. This dough comes from the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine, but instead of using currants, I added dried sour cherries and toasted pecans. Definitely make them when you’ve got people to please—they’re just right for sharing. I’d say they make an ideal hostess gift.

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Sour Cherry Pecan Scones

Makes 20

3 ½ c all-purpose flour
¾ c sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 ¾ sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
¾ c whole milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ c toasted pecans
¾ c dried sour cherries

Preheat oven to 375. Set racks in upper and lower thirds.
Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

Add butter and blend with your fingertips (or pastry blender, if your hosts have one) until mixture resembles coarse meal with some pearl-sized lumps of butter.

Stir in milk, eggs, nuts and fruit until combined—don’t be alarmed if dough is sticky.

Drop batter in ¼ c scoops at least 1 inch apart on 2 large, un-greased baking sheets.

Bake 15-20 minutes, rotating trays once to ensure a consistent, pale gold color.

*I like to serve mine with a variety of preserves and butter. These went well with some warmed maple syrup melted in a small bowl with butter.

Almond Chocolate Mousse…to Quell a Craving

June 22, 2009

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My grandmother had a variety of addictions—who wouldn’t after surviving two world wars and The Great Depression? Until she passed at age 87, she began each day with a glass of Scotch and drank until the sandman replaced her hiccoughs with slumber. She smoked at least a pack of Winstons a day. She played cards like a shark. When I was five years old she deemed me mature enough to learn Gin rummy. We played late into the night, gambling for chocolate chips.

Yes, among other things, my grandmother was a self-professed chocoholic. According to her son in law (my father) it was the only addiction she admitted to—ironic since she was actually quite measured in her cocoa consumption. She ate chocolate every day, but in modest quantities… damn aesthetic quantities compared to the amount of booze, tobacco and gambling she indulged in daily.

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Well apparently, her chocoholism was genetic. I’m not much of a drinker—although that may depend on whom you ask—and I don’t smoke or play cards much anymore, but I do eat chocolate every day, and not in moderate amounts. Last January I gave it up for a month to see if life would be worth living. IT WAS NOT. (Picture me pouting, stomping my foot and pointing a finger of blame at my loved ones, repeating the phrase.) Indeed, my abstinence lasted the full 30 days, though close friends have since told me that, not only was life not worth living for me, it was also hardly worth living for them—so downright bratty, so terrifyingly monstrous did I become.

Ladies, you know the feeling. It probably strikes you every 21 days or so. Without a bit of chocolate you feel as though your insides will literally drop out and you might attack an idiot bystander like a ravenous she-wolf lunging at a deaf, dumb and blind jackrabbit. It’s a strange hormonal mixture of famine and spite: stand between my estrogen and the chocolate, and you’re a damn fool in physical peril.

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I have a slightly tempered version of that feeling all the time, but nearing the full moon I really must be mindful to keep plenty of cocoa-based comestibles close at hand. Nevertheless, chocoholism must be treated with caution. I can’t go around eating mass-quantities of Phish Food and Butterfinger bars, and expect to fit into my pretty sundresses, if you know what I mean.

So, I find healthier ways to incorporate chocolate into my life. This keeps both my murderous tendencies and my gut at bay while satisfying even the severest cases of choco-lust. I recently came upon a truly decadent dessert, eaten in small spoonfuls and with good conscience. I am living proof (and so are my friends and neighbors) that even a rapacious craving can be quelled with a vegan dessert.

Yes, believe that.

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Almond Chocolate Mousse

(adapted from 101 Cookbooks)

½ c chocolate soy milk
1 ½ c semi-sweet chocolate chips
¼ c amaretto
12 oz silken tofu
¼ tsp almond extract
¼ tsp vanilla extract
kosher salt
slivered almonds (for garnish)

Heat soymilk in a saucepan until simmering then cover and let stand.

Melt chocolate chips in a double broiler. Add warm soymilk to hasten the process.

Blend or food-process melted chocolate, soymilk, tofu, amaretto and extracts until smooth, adding a pinch of salt to taste.

Divide into six small cups and chill for at least 2 hours for best results. (Or make 1 big batch, depending on the severity of your condition.)

Top with slivered almonds and serve.

The next time I make this recipe I may add some peppermint oil and garnish with a few mint leaves. May also try making some of Heidi Swanson’s Thin Mints to sit upon the side.

Crunchy Slaw with Ginger and Apples

June 19, 2009

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Oh, melancholy mealtime. Inevitably, one moment of every eating experience makes me sad, and it’s called THE END. I never want to stop. I spend the hours from sleep to waking dreaming about getting my teeth into breakfast. I prepare it with glee—even if it’s just a slice of toast and a cup of tea—and devour it, enraptured. I dread the final bite, the moment when I should push away from the table and get onto important things. A few minutes later I forget my troubles, awash with thoughts of lunch. I start planning my mid-day meal at about 8am and spend anywhere from four to five hours mulling over the upcoming thrill. Like all good things, it ends too quickly, and I’m left pondering a mid-afternoon snack, and the prospect of the biggest, most fulfilling gastronomical adventure of my day—dinner.

My recent musings have been largely affected by the weather: we’re pushing 100 degrees daily here in Houston, with 90 + percent humidity. Needless to say, it puts a damper on my desire for hot oatmeal or anything roasted in-house. But it hasn’t been all bad: the warmth inspired a delightfully easy cold cucumber and avocado soup, and recently prompted me to re-examine one of my favorite warm-weather dishes: slaw.

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I first discovered the versatility of slaw about five years ago and have been playing with it since. I generally stay away from infusing my own with heaps of mayonnaise, although I do enjoy a good deli-made slaw from time to time. Slaw is something I believe should be eaten in great quantities. I can easily make a batch and polish it off on my own within a couple of days. That is what I like most about slaw: it is the kind of thing you don’t have to stop eating—especially when it is dressed in something elegant, unlike the typical unctuous gloss of mayo.

The slaw I stumbled upon most recently is truly exceptional, and I will probably keep a refrigerator stocked full until the heat abates. That way I can eat until my jaw tires of crunching and chewing, keeping cool all the while.

Please remember to play with this recipe as you see fit—adjusting the citrus, sugar or cream to suit your fancy. You might also whip some goat cheese to the dressing to make it a bit richer. It would go nicely with the toasted walnuts and apples. Or try adding a handful of dried currants or cherries.

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Crunchy Slaw with Ginger and Apples

For dressing:

½ c olive oil
¼ c agave nectar or honey
¼ c heavy cream
juice of 1-2 lemons
¼ c apple cider vinegar
S & P to taste

For slaw:

1 finely shredded green cabbage
1 grated ginger root (use as much or as little as you like)
2 crisp, red apples
1 c toasted walnuts, chopped
½ c dried currants (optional)

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Mix apple cider vinegar, agave and lemon juice. Whisk in olive oil and cream. Set aside.

In the meantime, toss grated ginger and cabbage together in a large bowl. Grate apples over the bowl and toss with dressing. Add walnuts and dried fruit and toss a final time before serving.

Eat, eat, eat until you can’t eat no more.

Cool-As-A Cucumber (and Avocado) Soup

June 16, 2009

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Houston, you are truly a hot, wet babe. Not exactly gorgeous, but certainly widespread and lusty, full of sprawling roads leading to spicy foods of all kids. You’ve got about as much culture as any of the other more glamorous cities out there. Pfff. You are, by far, the most cosmopolitan and egalitarian place I’ve ever lived—everybody now, altogether, sharing collective road rage, heat waves and hurricanes.

So here we are again, another summer in the city. The sweat starts to bead along my lower back at 8 am, creep up to my armpits by mid-morning and seep out of my fingernails by noon. It is hot, but I think it’s sultry. More importantly, it has inspired one of the most delightful soups I’ve ever tasted. A mere handful of ingredients can be blended with an ice cube at the end of a long day for an absolutely refreshing meal, both hearty and light.

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For the last few months I’ve been working as a gardening teacher in inner city schools through an organization called Urban Harvest. The last thing I want to do when I get back to my little house after hours in the sun and dirt is ignite a stove. Fortunately, I do have it in me to start up a blender.

I can’t give you an exact recipe for this dish, since it changes somewhat every time I make it, depending on what I’m in the mood for. I can tell you that it requires about ½ an avocado and 1 ½ medium sized cucumbers per person. Mix and match the flavors to suit your fancy, or your energy levels at the end of a hot, summer day.

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Cold Cucumber and Avocado Soup

For 2

3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, chopped
1 avocado
1 shallot, diced, divided
1 jalapeño pepper, diced, divided
Juice of 1 lemon, divided
2 ice cubes (optional)
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Blend cucumbers, avocado, half of the shallot, half of the jalapeño and half the lemon juice. Add remaining shallot, jalapeño or lemon juice as desired. Add salt and pepper and ice cubes, if desired.  Serve as chilly as possible.

Reclaiming America, Bite by Bite

June 10, 2009

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Food is everything, in the best of ways. It is what ties us to our friends and families, what holds us to our traditions and the planet, what keeps us coming together each day for nourishment and to express our values. It is the element of our humanity we share above all else: more than sleep, more than sex, more than childbearing and death, all of which come at different times, in different ways, for different people. But breaking bread is something we do together: elemental and symbolic, it is an act that binds our community in clear and subtle ways. Food is the source of the health and vitality of society–the foundation of a peoples’ success and the prognostication of a peoples’ future.

Because food is so enmeshed in our bodies, our communities and our environment, it can also be a source of tremendous cultural complication. Robert Kenner’s new documentary Food Inc. explores some of America’s seemingly unrelated ills and ties them together within the subversive–and shrinking–network of American factory farms. The film shows how the food industry has shifted from a broad network of producers and consumers towards a handful of corporate giants that control food culture not only in the grocery store, but also on the farm and on Capitol Hill.

On one hand, consumers are detached from what they eat–gone are the days of seasonally-imposed menus. On the other hand, Americans have fewer and fewer choices of what to eat and where it comes from–even if the options seem endless. Easily manipulated foods like corn, wheat and soy are engineered to enhance virtually every product found in a conventional grocery store. You may be drinking a soda, eating a steak or having a bowl of ice cream, but you’re also having corn three ways, and in so doing, supporting multinational corporations that have usurped and exploited traditional American farmers, replacing them with engineers, machines and impoverished workers.

The film points to a litany of social ramifications brought on by the American food system, but I won’t be a total spoiler. Either way, Food Inc., sets out to tell you things you’ve most likely already heard, or at least noticed. To wit, many Americans are getting sicker, fatter and poorer every year. This is happening, in large part, because of America’s complex and hidden food system. Multi-layered elements of the food industry are deliberately withheld from the public because of how shocking and, frankly, unappetizing they are. Industrialized farms, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and large-scale meat packing plants (only 13 plants supply virtually all of America’s beef, according to the film) create sick animals, a sick environment and sick people.

But Food, Inc. doesn’t simply rely on a series of horrifying images of slaughterhouses and factory farms to get its cultural message across, although it certainly contains scenes unfit for the squeamish. Instead, the film uses real people and their struggles with financial, physical and emotional distress tied to industrialized food. One family is forced to choose between Burger King and broccoli in order to pay for diabetes medicine. One woman lost her child to an E.coli- infected hamburger and has spent the last six years fighting (unsuccessfully) for improved food safety standards. One farmer agrees to let the filmmakers see her chicken coup and subsequently loses her contract as a Purdue supplier. These people testify to the perversion of American nourishment. Something is amiss when a hamburger costs less than a head of broccoli. When spinach and tomatoes become a serious risk to public health, something beyond the individual is sick. The people who produce what we eat should not be forcefully silenced about their practices.

Human beings, economically and politically savvy as we may be, cannot exist for long outside of our ecosystem. Even if it seems cheaper today to buy a burger at a fast food restaurant than to buy seasonal vegetables from a local grower, the overall environmental cost is devastating in the long-run. Unfortunately, food calories have been re-routed so that energy-dense options often lack real nutritive value and require greater amounts of overall energy to produce. Efficient though the factory farm may currently seem, it will end our ability to feed ourselves as oil, clean water and healthy soil become increasingly limited. Alternatively, growing a wider variety of crops seasonally and humanely will keep people and the environment nourished for generations.

The film leaves us with an empowering extension of this message, reminding the viewer that while the high demand for food has gotten America into a threatening monopolistic mess, it is also the key to recovering our food heritage. Eating happens at least three times a day for most of us, and the choices we make at each meal greatly affect the state of our local growers and communities.

Food is everything: it is a reflection of how we value ourselves and the world, though the fact is often forgotten in a culture where fast, cheap and easy eating has become the norm. Emerging generations should not grow up believing that diseased bodies and a polluted world are necessary conditions. Food, Inc. empowers and challenges us to choose our food with a higher consciousness and care, reminding us that every product we buy and every bite we take can be a commitment to restoring an ailing network: the people, communities, animals and land that make America. The health and future of our society begins with the journey from seed to plate and perhaps for some, a ticket to this film.

Check out the original on The Huffington Post.

Soupe au Pistou with Pancetta

June 4, 2009

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Pancetta. Pan. Cet. Ta. The word smacks on my lips, across my teeth, a fine, smokey, salty sound. It almost sounds like chewing. Or like something a busty Italian would sing over a sizzling, steaming skillet, “Pancet-ta!” Its chewy texture and long lasting flavor is the stuff great meals are made of. Never again will I consider a pot of vegetables without this versatile manifestation of pig.

It started with a pot of soup that I’m long overdue in recounting. I’ve been busy fawning over a graduate for the last week–amid many tears and half-packed valises–so it’s not for lack of longing: I would do anything, anything to relive my first affair with pancetta. The implication is true, I’m ashamed to say. Before last week, I’d never cooked with this miracle ingredient. I’ll admit, am generally pretty wary of cooking with pork products, and for no good reason.

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I enjoy the once-yearly Polish sausage served at my family’s Easter table, and I indulge in the occasional bacon-accompanied pair of eggs, or a prosciutto-wrapped slice of melon in summer. These are things I like, nay, love, but haven’t adopted as daily indulgences. There’s something really, well, meaty about pork. Even veal has a softer, subtler flavor. Pork is really right there, smack on the tip of your tongue, assaulting your taste buds (forgive the pun) with its savory, fleshy flavor.

In general, pork has always been a side-dish, a garnish to enhance a plate of something else. Even though this classic vegetable soup could hardly be called a meal of pancetta, the rich, salty flavor comes through in every bite, wrapping itself subtly around each piece of potato, every bean and wilted leaf of spinach. A mere 4 oz of chopped pancetta rendered more than 12 quarts of the most spoonable–dare I say addictive–vegetable soup I’ve ever tasted. After having almost single-handedly slurped the entire batch myself, I vowed to make another as soon as possible.

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The soup began with a handful of browning pancetta, popping and browning dutifully at the bottom of a pot. When it was crisp and golden, I added a series of spring vegetables, each one stirring the smell anew. Sweet fennel and onions; bright squash and carrots; the aromatics of a bay leaf. Somehow, the pancetta offered itself to each one, enhancing them as individual ingredients and as a lot…oh, sweet miracle food. After all the flavors had mellowed together, it was truly a perfect spring meal and the ideal resting place for an abundance of seasonal produce.

The vegetables I included in this recipe are by no means the only ones that could be used in such a soup. Play around with your favorites or with what you have on hand, but keep sizes, textures and consistencies the same. For example, use winter squash in lieu of potatoes or kale instead of cabbage. One caveat: don’t expect the same results without a sweet pancetta broth to start with.

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Soupe au Pistou with Pancetta

adapted from Gourmet Magazine

SOUP

  • 1/4 lb sliced pancetta, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 fennel bulb, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 white onion, chopped–use a large or small onion, as per your preference
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 small, white cabbage, cored and chopped (about 2 cups)
  • piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (2-4 inches, and optional)
  • 3 yellow summer squash or zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 c small red potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves (not California)
  • 9 cups water
  • 1 (10-oz) package frozen baby lima beans
  • 1/2 lb haricots verts or other thin green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 (15-oz) can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 5 oz baby spinach (about 5 cups)
  • salt and pepper
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PISTOU


  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 c grated parmesan (1/3 cup)

* You can also make this pistou with the addition of ground pine or walnuts, as it is pretty much just a simple pesto. Adding parsley or roasting the garlic beforehand would also nicely enhance the dish.

FOr SOUP:

Cook pancetta in oil in a large heavy pot (at least 7 quarts) over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until slightly browned–about 7 minutes.

Stir in fennel, onion, carrots, and cabbage and cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is wilted, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add cheese rind, squash, potato, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, 1.5 tsp salt and water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.

Add all beans and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes more.

Discard cheese rind, thyme sprigs, and bay leaf.

Just before serving, stir in spinach and stir until wilted.

While soup is simmering, MAKE PISTOU:

Mash garlic into a paste with salt using the back of a knife or with a mortar and pestle.

Blend with basil in a food processor until finely chopped.

Add oil and cheese (and any additions) and purée.

Almond “Every Day” Cake

May 28, 2009

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Yesterday evening saw me over a pot of vegetable soup. It was a great event from start to finish, punctuated by the pop of pancetta, the slow caramelizing of onions and fennel and the smell of herbs drifting into the deepest corners of the house, infused by the bubbling broth. Served with a hunk of baguette, it made for a sweet, salty and simple springtime meal. The soup was so good, I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But I’m going to wait and talk about the soup tomorrow, or maybe over the weekend: I’ll continue eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for at least the next three days, and would like to see how it compares to itself as time marches steadily on, blending, mellowing and enlivening its flavors. Plus, it was a much bigger batch than I initially envisioned.

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Now, I’m going to talk about what I ate post-soup: cake. Yesterday, I had the occasion to cook for Christopher who was miraculously released at a decent hour from his official duties, which generally include staring cross-eyed at a thousand tiny numbers on a gargantuan computer screen… often well into the night. It pains me to imagine him all alone up there, working in a dark room with nothing but the blue glow of a PC to keep him company. So, when he gets a chance to eat at home on a weeknight, I jump whole-hog into supper-prep. Last night, I immersed myself in huge pot, accompanied by some very necessary dough and dessert–a French baguette and a basic, almond cake.

I found the recipe through one of my favorite food enthusiasts and writers, Molly Wizenburg. If you have not yet bought yourself a copy of “A Homemade Life,” or become addicted to reading the archives of her blog, (Orangette is on hold as she rolls out a pizzaria, if you will) you are not making effective use of your time. Navigate away from here–for a moment–and discover a real, true culiary gem.

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Molly likes cake as much as anyone, as far as I can tell, and her recipe fit perfectly with my needs. I wanted something that could be made with what I had on hand: having settling in after a long day, I was loathed to start my engine again in search of vanilla beans, buttermilk or enough heavy cream to do anything significant with.

[An aside: I’m steadily shedding the contents of my kitchen–many of which were thrown into the vegetable soup–as I’ll be heading home ..HOME!… in three days. My humble shelves have been reduced to a few remaining eggs, some nibble-able shards of dark chocolate, and now, a large vat of vegetable soup and a small, accompanying container of pistou. As satisfying as I find shopping to be, I’m equally delighted to use up my extra foodstuffs and come home to start afresh. I’ve been known to pack rather a strange lunch on travel days, full of some concoted version of any remaining ingredients that might get lonesome–or rot–in my absence.]

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Fortunately, Molly’s “Every Day Cake” was a perfect end to the “Every Day” meal I’d prepared and was the ideal resting place for a final teaspoon of almond extract. I changed the cake a bit, adding my last splash of almond extract along with some brown sugar, but it turned out just  as it had been described–something I could eat as dessert after breakfast, at lunch, in the afternoon or post-dinner. It is not too sweet and quite dense, lending itself to absolute, quotidien satisfaction. I’ll reiterate in a slightly different way: enjoy this with a cup of coffee, a glass of lemonade or with a bottle of wine. It’s an ‘Every Day,’ allllll day kind of thing, which bodes well, since it really should be consumed within 24 hours of being born into the sweet, happy world of cake enthusiasts.

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Almond “Every Day” Cake

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. almond extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

½ cup plain yogurt, at room temperature

Handfull of sliced almonds

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Set oven to 375°F, grese a 9-inch pan (Molly calls for springform, I used a plain, round pan)
In a medium bowl, combine flours, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg and set aside.

Blend the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy on low speed (with hand or stand mixer).

Add the eggs, one at a time and mix well after each addition.

Add the vanilla extract, and beat to blend.

Slowly, combine flour mixture to wet mixture–adding about 1/4 of dry mix at a time. Alternate by adding yogurt. Read: add some flour; add some yogurt; add some flour; add some yogurt; add some flour; add some yogurt; add some flour. Then you will be done. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and incorporate any remaining flour.

Pour the batter into the cake pan and spread evenly across the top–do not worry. It will be pretty sticky.

Sprinkle with a handful of almonds.

Bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cover with aluminum foil after about 20 minutes to prevent the top from over-browning.

Cool at least 20 minutes before cutting into the cake–if you can stand the wait.

zucchini bread, to sleep

May 26, 2009

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Thank you, thank you, thank you, for a Tuesday afternoon at home. There’s really something heavenly about being the only one in the house when the light is just softening—surprising the dog with the turn of a key, not generally heard until well after six.

It really does feel like a vacation, stealing away just past midday. Actually, it felt like I was playing hooky: a combination of guilt and gusto that ended in pure self-satisfaction. The afternoon light is especially remarkable during the weekdays, I think. If I’m ever home on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I’ll forget to notice how the sun turns from midday to evening. Taking time for granted is part of the luxury of those two days.

But to have a Tuesday, private, quiet, lost in my thoughts and with the soft silver sun on the dining room table—it was enough to make me wonder, “What food shall I use to commemorate this moment?” Well actually, I’d known all along. I’d been thinking of some dense, hearty slices as I rounded the corner from the final intersection home; I’d been imagining some sweet almond flavor as I pulled into the driveway; I’d been envisioning myself biting into a slivered almond as I opened the door and stepped over the threshold. I was thinking of freshly baked zucchini bread, made the night before.

I settled down with my napkin, bread lot and a cup of mint tea. I sipped and stared out the window at the wood fence, enjoying this silent, private thrill. It was absolutely invigorating to be so quiet: until, of course, I felt asleep. Yes sir, I did. Right on the big brown couch in the living room, right in front of the picture window, where tourists on their way to the museum could peep in and see me…another private thrill. And all the while, I drooled on the throw pillows and dreamed of zucchini bread. Yes sir, I did.

I’ve been making a variety of healthy breads for an ice cream shop that will be opening here in Houston. This trial loaf was zucchini almond, and because I can’t help myself, and want everyone to have a piece of late-afternoon delight (with or without the being at home part) I’m sharing the recipe. Remarkably, it’s made with wheat flour—though not entirely—and has very little fat. A good thing, too, because I ate most of the loaf.

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Zucchini Almond Bread

2 grated zucchini, or enough for two cups
¾ c white flour
¼ c whole wheat flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
¾ c white sugar
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 bananas, mashed completely (or 1 c worth)
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup slivered almonds, divided

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Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9×5 inch bread pan.

Grate and drain (squeezing by hand over a sink) 2 cups-worth of zucchini.

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon.

In an even larger bowl, mix salt, vanilla, almond, eggs, sugar and bananas.

Slowly add dry mixture to wet, being careful not to over-blend.

Add zucchini and half of the almonds, stirring until just incorporated.

Pour into baking dish; sprinkle remaining almonds on top and bake for 45 minutes or so.

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Serves 8.

15 minutes active time; 45 minutes to bake.

This bread will be moist and dense. If you find it too wet, leave it in for 50-55 minutes—the bananas tend to slow the cooking time. If you’d prefer a full-fat loaf, replace the bananas with canola oil. You can also use grated apples or carrots in place of zucchini, and substitute whatever spices or nuts you prefer. Use more baking powder when dealing with wet mix-ins like apple and zucchini.

Flatbread with Spring Vegetables

May 25, 2009

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Christopher and I went out to the Scott’s farm for lunch on Saturday. We really are lucky to have met such a pair in Texas. It’s not often that near strangers are quite so friendly and welcoming: after a single run-in with Aaron Scott at my neighborhood community garden, I managed to score myself (with unabashed prompting and flattery) an invitation to Southern Hope Farm, thirty minutes outside of Houston.

The first time I went was under the guise of a mission—I was to write a Huffington Post about the Scott’s decision to give up the trappings of ‘normal’ life and live on a small farm. It really is an extraordinary choice: not just because farm life is hard and all consuming, but also because the sustainable food movement hasn’t exactly hit Houston over the head.

Raw Carrots

I went back this weekend with Christopher, having finagled yet another invitation. I’d really like to live off the land someday, and I’m constantly compelled to remind Christopher of that. I really do love farms. Funny how they all smell sort of the same…from Texas to Connecticut.

We pulled up late, due mostly to my predictably poor co-piloting. Christopher was harassed by work emails, his little email device (the Bealzeberry) buzzed all along the way. When we pulled up, tensions were high. “What can we do?” I asked Stephanie, referring to lunch. “Relax,” she said, cool, calm, and without a trace of condescension. Generally when people tell me to relax, I feel belittled and fly into a private tizzy. Instead, I filled my nose with the smell of flowering dill and my shoulders dutifully dropped.

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The Scotts took us to the back yard to pluck lunch. We chose fennel, zucchini, squash and Swiss chard to be grilled with Aaron’s homemade venison sausage. He killed the buck himself—serious sustainability.

I thought it impolite to snap away at the meal with my clunky camera, so I was glad when the Scotts sent us home with bagfuls of our harvest. Yesterday, when nostalgia and appetite hit hardest, (they generally come as a pair) I used my bounty for a flatbread medley. It wasn’t half bad.

Flatbread

Spring Vegetable Flatbread

Something round and doughy—I used a brown rice tortilla, but pizza dough    or a pita would work well, too. (Spring vegetables are an excellent excuse to make homemade focaccia dough… which I will soon do.)

1 c roasted veggies—I used multi-colored carrots from Tuesday’s farmer’s market and a lemon squash from the Scott’s garden.

1 onion, sliced—I used red.

½ c refried black beans—hummus or white bean dip would also work.

1 large bunch Swiss chard, stems removed

¼ c shaved Parmesan / fresh or smoked Mozzarella

A sprinkling of your favorite herbs (I used herbes de Provence)

Olive oil


Chop the veggies to equal sized parts and roast at 400 degrees about 30-45 minutes, depending on their size and type. (No need to preheat the oven—save energy!)

In the meantime, pour a tablespoon of olive oil into a skillet and add sliced onion. Stir slowly over low heat until deep brown and translucent—at least 20 minutes. If necessary, add more oil. (Sometimes I add a squeeze of Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids. It offers a nice savory flavor, but can quickly become too salty, so be ware.)

Add chopped chard and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes.

In the meantime, toast your bread and turn your roasting veggies.

Add beans to the skillet to warm.

Spread bean, chard and onion mixture over the flatbread and top with vegetables.

Sprinkle with shaved cheese or more herbs, if you like.

Serves a hungry 1; or 2 as a snack or side dish.
Takes between 30-40 minutes.

(To cut down on time, sauté your vegetable or go raw.)

Perfect Scones

May 22, 2009

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There’s a billboard here in Houston that reads, “You wouldn’t take a sword to a gunfight.” It’s an ad for fire-ant killer, but I think it applies where scones are concerned. If you’re going to have a scone, have a scone. Forget the temptation to bake some kind of healthy version thereof: whole-wheat flour and buttermilk does not a scone create.

I recently tried to do something of the sort, substituting all sorts of healthy ingredients for the ones that really matter to a scone—butter, white flour, sugar. Using what I thought was a magnificent mix of low fat buttermilk, wholesome flour and apricot jam in lieu of your typical lipid-white refinement, I managed to create about a dozen brownish hockey pucks that glistened with jam on top. They were bland as a biscuit and tough as a shoe.

It was a valuable lesson, though. I’ll save my wholesome baking ingredients for recipes they can complement like breads and muffins. I’ve come up with some extraordinary batter without wheat, butter or sugar, so it really is possible—admirable, even. Just not in a scone.

As disappointed as I was initially, realizing that there’s just no such thing as a healthy scone was actually quite liberating: I was free to discover the best possible batter, no holds barred. A few recipes later, I came upon the definitive, knock-your-socks-off, bang-your-head-on-the-table-good scone.

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This batch was adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe for Strawberry Scones, although I substituted several ingredients and flavors, and plan on doing so with a wide variety of mix-ins. Other combinations I think would be delightful include: apricot vanilla, candied ginger and dried cherries or even savory varieties like bacon cheddar or parmesan chive.

Perfect Scone Batter

4 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (set aside)
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar for sprinkling
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
½ c toasted, chopped pecans
½ c dried cranberries
1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons of water

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Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

Using a hand mixer, or a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, blend in the butter at low speed until it is crumbly and pearl-sized.

Mix the eggs and cream together and quickly add them to the flour and butter mixture, until just mixed—don’t stir the batter more than 12 times.

Toss the pecans and cranberries with the remaining tablespoon of flour and quickly fold them into the dough. Don’t worry—it will be sticky and hard to work with. If you have lots of trouble, wet the palms of your hands slightly with water.

On a well-floured surface, with a well-floured rolling pin, roll the dough to about ¾ inches thick. It will be lumpy with butter. I cut mine into circles using the lid of a Ball jar, though you can use a traditional square shaped cutter, too.

Arrange on a baking sheet with parchment paper and cut down the middle to create half-moon shapes or triangles. (I recommend doing this on the baking pan since the dough is really sticky and hard to move… cutting beforehand would mean transferring twice as many scones.)

Brush the tops with egg wash. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the outsides are golden brown.

On a final note: these scones really are best the day of. Time toughens even the crumbliest scone—and it doesn’t take much. I made these for my dear friend Louisa to send as a birthday gift, but realized they would be a pretty formidable weapon by the time they reached her doorstep, even if mailed overnight.

A Sea Change

May 21, 2009

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Things are transforming a bit for me and my food. Aside from a minor makeover, my kitchen looks the same, but something strange and exciting has been born in there—my appetite to write. I started this blog over a year ago, with the hope of learning to cook. What I’ve learned more than anything is that I love to eat… and then talk about it. I certainly know more about food than I ever have, but the food has only really been a muse for my mind and my pen. Or my keyboard, as it were.

I wish I could invite you in and share with you whatever successes or failures come my way over the open oven or the blue-lit stove. Since I can’t, I’ve settled for limning them, and found it to be at least as satisfied as the cooking experiences themselves. As much as I love keeping this site going, daily life steps in too often, and gets me off track. I scramble some eggs, stir fry some vegetables and feel like a miserable failure for not testing or inventing a more interesting recipe to share.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling restless and a little blue. Those feelings come over me like a piece of bad news: even if you put it out of your mind, a cloud of dread still lingers. That is how I feel when I don’t let myself write. For some reason, I’ve grown so attached to writing about food, that I don’t feel like I have the right to write (ahem) without something delicious to show for it.

But what if I just wanted to say that the light is nice in my kitchen this afternoon? That the dog, Lupe, is jingling around and sniffing for crumbs from recently-made strawberry scones, and putting a smile on my face, even if she opens the pantry door and can’t close it up again? It feels good just to say these things, to talk about what brings me joy and adds some beauty to the world, even if it’s not a soufflé. Which, I admit, I have not yet learned to make.

In the meantime, I am in the process of redesigning TASTE somewhat so that all of the things I have learned (and really learned, not just half-learned) will be indexed in a more organized, sensible manner. This site a little messy right now, and I’d really love to make each part of it as transparent and accessible as the Ball jars make my sugar, flour and quinoa. It’s coming…

Before that happens, though, I’ll be writing a little bit more of myself into this ever-evolving process. Here’s a start: I am 24, a former Comparative Literature and Cinema major at the University of Pennsylvania. I lived in New York for a year after, studying theater and writing, and moved to Houston in 2007 as a journalist because I fell in love. His name is Christopher, and he is the kindest, wittiest and handsomest man I’ve ever known. I want to feed him. I want to immortalize him.

And here is how I became a food writer: writing about the news all day made me sad. Journalism left me cold, and, frankly, pretty hungry. To me, cooking is an infinitely more appealing and interesting subject than the rise and fall of politicians and markets. The kitchen is where I discover my ability to create something out of nothing—and not just any something—smells, sounds, colors, tastes. I am a regular alchemist over here, especially because a good piece of cornbread or a perfectly grilled zucchini really is as good as gold. It’s the best fodder there is.

I discovered that writing about the way bread bakes, or the way a fennel bulb turns sweet and diaphanous in the oven makes me happy, simple as that. Almost as much as eating itself. But I’ve kept myself out of this somewhat: not wanting to overload my readers with stories of myself, my fiancé and my friends. Well anyway, I’ve decided that’s stingy and mean, mostly because my life is worth sharing—for my moments of ebullience, of blues, but most of all, for my deep, passionate affair with food and words.

In the meantime, here are some carrots from Tuesday’s farmer’s market. Inspiring, aren’t they?

Tiny Boxwoods

May 20, 2009

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A few of my favorite things, in order: milk, sugar, coffee. I’ve discovered a harmonious mixture of the three at what may be the most pleasant spot on earth–a sunlit, whitewashed cafe with nothing but a wood burning stove and an espresso machine to sustain its simple menu. As teaching winds down for the season, I’m at Tiny Boxwoods most mornings, sipping sweet froth from mugs the size of fish bowls until lunch rolls around and I feel obliged to relinquish my warm seat to some other visitor willing to pay $4 for a single cup of milky caffeine.

The cost is worth the ambiance, not to mention that the same pair of steady, familiar hands makes a “latteccino” exactly to my liking. I can’t bring myself to speak such a precious portmanteau, and fortunately, the kind barman knows what I want when I timidly ask him for, “The same thing I had yesterday.” After five minutes of frothing, my race against deflating foam begins. It is with slight reticence that I admit that my first cup is drained within a quarter of an hour.

To avoid drawing attention to my guzzling, I often take my empty mug outside and admire the neighboring nursery, Thompson and Hanson, which is as notable for its wares as for its wit. Today its roadside sign read “Stop in for some ZZTopsoil.” The floral quips change daily as does the display of plants for sale. After a stroll through the latest shipment, I’ll find myself back at Tiny’s marble bar, ordering another three shots of espresso, disguised by tufts of lactose and spoonfuls of raw sugar.

Sometimes, as I watch the crowd nibble pieces of toast between sips of weekday sangria, I wonder, “Am I really in Houston?” Google Maps tells me I’m just down the street from a sprawling shopping center and the mouth of a freeway, but the vulgarities of commuters and conspicuous consumption seem a million miles away from Tiny’s austere, early morning interior.

Here, I am insulated by a wall of stacked logs, made especially quaint by their functionality. Every hour or so an older gentleman, clad all in white, wheels a red Flyer wagon to the wall of wood, loads it with care, and drags it back to the fireplace as fuel for breakfast tacos and baked eggs. Extra security comes from the thick cover of climbing jasmine that grows over the stucco walls, muffling outside sounds as it blows the scent of nectar through Tiny’s open door.

The other worldliness of the space is heightened by a sense of timelessness: hours can pass in the time it takes me to finish a carafe of lemonade. This ambiguity is heightened by the enormous clock painted across the back wall, which languidly moves its heavy hands from number to number with no attempt at accuracy. It is one of the many reasons I go back: I’m glad to spend my savings on coffee, if it means I can witness time standing still.

The antiquated kitchen also abides, as though not just the hours have stopped, but the centuries, also. A few computers and a single register reveal our era, but otherwise the space  is free of the modern din typical of today’s coffee shops and diners. The ‘baristas’ don’t sing off-key or greet customers as loudly as possible a la Starbucks, and there’s no fryer odor to muddle my senses and endow a crunchy biscotti with the smell of a french fry.

Also lacking are any behind-the-scenes-glimpses at a hectic line with sweaty, cursing chefs bent over flaming skillets or griddles. The only thing I see when the kitchen door swings open is a young woman at an uncluttered work station, scooping yogurt, granola and fresh fruit into over-sized, porcelain bowls. As far as I can tell, she’s always smiling. Probably her parents are Swedish, and she was born to churn yogurt and bake muesli in a brick oven after plucking wild berries from the backyard for garnish.

I slip into a pleasant trance as music lofts subtly, nearly inaudibly, from hidden speakers. Classic French accordion chords give way to a gentle coo from Frank Sinatra or Astrud Gilberto. After I’ve licked every sugary remnant of froth from the inside of my cup, I welcome a stream of images…breezy beaches where tanned men and women lounge on white cushions wearing pale blue linen pants and apricot scarves. I’m somewhere else, somewhere I’ve never been: possibly Aix en Provence, maybe Southampton, could be Rio.

Inevitably, dreadfully, plates begin to clang and cell phones to ring.  At precisely 11:30 am, Tiny Boxwoods becomes the battleground of Houston’s self-appointed glitterati. Thick crowds of finely clad women flock to the cafe like regal cormorants,  ready to spar over empty seats or the attention of Tiny’s beguiling head chef.

The ladies come in droves, in black, designer SUVs wearing enormous guilded watches and jumbo gold bags to match. They sit for a while, or stand and pout, twirling their table numbers and waiting for their blond doppelgangers or long-ago high school rivals to stop gossiping over half-finished chunks of chicken salad and to relinquish their seats in the scene.

I have, on two occasions, dressed myself up in my Sunday best and indulged in a weekday lunch at Tiny’s with a girlfriend or two. The food is worth waiting for, especially the bison burger and the buttery pull of Tiny’s chocolate chip cookies, although securing a table is an unappetizing pursuit.

One one of my visits, I got the hairy eyeball for a woman whose spot I ‘scooped’ while she was en route from the bar. I tried to ignore her whispers and searing sideways glances, but I was sure she was telling her lunch companions that I was a phony, pretending to be a woman of leisure, when really I was on an hour-long lunch break. I felt like Marge Simpson in a Chanel suit cut a dozen times.

So as the early morning fades, I slink to my station wagon, hoping nobody notices my rusty door handles and single headlight. It’s Tiny’s witching hour, when the calm of tasteful simplicity is broken by forces from the outside world: time… place… money. Costly as a daily latteccinos may be for my budget, my appetite is certainly not enough to keep the cafe flush with fresh flowers. I know I should be grateful for the women who come and eat a few bites of the food they order too much of, as it is their charity that sustains the place. Yet part of me leaves enviously, as I envision the lingerers drinking bottomless mimosas and white wine spritzers until it’s time to meet the school bus.

Honey Nut Granola

May 14, 2009

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Once in a while you get a new bibelot that inspires a wave of creativity. I remember the feeling most vividly as a student–a spiffy new pencil or pen could give rise to beautifully maintained notebooks and florid doodles. The thrill might last a day or so, but I’ll always remember the excitement and energy that could be generated by a simple tool. Such is the nature of Ball jars, now that I’m more invested in my pantry than in my college-ruled notebooks. Before inspiring me to completely redo my kitchen, a box of Ball jars enticed me to send edible gifts for Mother’s Day, rather than ordering the usual batches of pink peonies for the moms in my life.

At first, I debated what to make to fill these charmingly antique-y vessels. They have the same quality as a Polaroid photo: instant vintage appeal, straight out of the box. A gift sent in a Ball jar is like a glimpse into kitchens past– natural, thoughtful, straight from the farm. So, I debated typical homestead canning options…tomato sauce? My vines haven’t thrown nearly enough fruit to fill two quart-sized jars. Nor did I want to oblige my recipients to make themselves spaghetti on Mother’s Day evening. Plus totally savory seemed, well… not sweet enough. Jam, then? Once again, the harvest was an issue, and I wasn’t sure a single woman could get through a quart of fruit preserve, no matter how deep her affection for toast.

What would have ample volume, a sweet taste, and last at least as long as a bunch of flowers? What could be slightly sweet, slightly salty; slightly crunchy, slightly silky; mostly healthy, but satisfyingly decadent? It came to me, like an oat oasis to a hippie in a butcher shop: GRANOLA.

If you’ve ever bought granola, you know it’s typically sold dry. This recipe holds a lot of moisture, and its chewy quality complements the honey and sweet coconut as they release their flavors into a bowl of milk. Each bite is punctuated by a crispy, toasted nut or a toothsome piece of fruit.

Honey Nut Granola:

2 c old fashioned oats

1 c sweet, shredded coconut

1 c thinly sliced almonds

1/2  c canola oil

1/4 c honey

.5 c toasted, chopped pecans

.5 c toasted, chopped, salted cashews

.5 c chopped prunes

.5 c chopped dried apricots

.5 c dried raspberries, blueberries or strawberries (or a mix)

.5 c dried cranberries

(Or try any combination of your favorite dried fruit.)

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Preheat oven to 375.

Mix oats, coconut and almonds in a large bowl.

Whisk oil and honey in a small bowl.

Combine the oat mixture with the oil mixture and spread into 2 large baking sheets.

Bake until coconut is light brown and oats and nuts are fragrant–about 35 minutes.

Let cool slightly then add dried fruits, pecans and cashews to the mixture. (Adding the fruits and remaining nuts while the oats are still warm will help hold the granola’s moisture.)

Transfer to Ball jars and store in the refrigerator until devoured: this batch doubles easily if you’ve got multiple moms or mouths to please.

Take-Me-Home Banana Bread

May 13, 2009

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When I’m sad, I bake. There’s something comfortable and steady about following a recipe from start to finish, not to mention that pilfering licks of raw batter brings me almost overwhelming, girlish delight.  As the kitchen warms up and dough takes its form, remote memories are drawn out and I often experience a timeless fluidity, imagining myself in my grandmother’s kitchen or at home on some holiday morning. When I am finished, I feel integrated and connected, as if cracking eggs and folding batter are the foundations on which my humanity is built. And in many ways, they are–the little Isabel who snuck hand fulls of chocolate chip dough and the woman who will someday teach her own grandchildren how to bake cookies are both present, standing over the mixing bowls, peeping into the oven, and relishing the smells of home. I firmly do believe that where there is bread baking, there is home.

I’m not sure there’s a fruit more comforting than the banana, and so it’s only fitting that bananas and bread are the ultimate calming combination. When I first moved to Houston a year and a half ago, I was so lonesome and homesick that I baked banana bread several times a week. I started with a sturdy, reliable recipe as my base and added a few extras to create something moist, crunchy, rich and smooth all at the same time. Because there are so many bananas in this recipe, the loaf is truly dense and naturally sweet. I highly recommend having a toasted slice for breakfast, with a pat of butter spread across. I’ve never had a bad day with banana bread.

Basic Banana Bread:

1c vegetable or canola oil

3 eggs

1 c white sugar

1/2 c dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 c flour

1tsp baking soda

1tsp salt

7 bananas; 6 mashed; 1 chopped

1/2 c sweetened coconut flakes

1 c chopped, toasted pecans

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Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Beat oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl.

Add the flour, baking soda and salt and combine, but do not over-mix.

Gently integrate the mashed bananas and pecans.

Fold in the chopped banana.

Pour into a 9×13″ greased baking pan, and sprinkle with coconut.

Bake 1 hour, covering the top with aluminum foil if the loaf starts to brown prematurely.

* Check your bread after 40 minutes. I usually take mine out before an hour is up, as I find a slightly undercooked loaf infinitely more dense and delicious than a dry one.

Having a Ball

May 11, 2009

P5100782Last week, my kitchen looked like any other carelessly maintained cooking space—oil and vinegar spills left untended on the pantry shelf had turned into sticky lines, collecting rogue oats and bits of salt. Other shelves were lined with boxes of flour and spices whose purchase dates were indeterminate, though certainly long, long ago. It was rather an anomaly, given my obsession with made beds and crumb-less couches, the thought of which send me back to college when all sorts of bits of dough and cereal dropped from haphazardly placed plates onto the communal sofa, leaving little grainy textures to stick to my legs or bare feet.

Despite my aversion to crusty cushions and untended beds, a messy kitchen has never proved problematic. I think because the image of myself as a mad scientist behind the stove has firmly taken hold: I see myself in a cloud of flour, with a dozen dishes going, juggling salt and lemons. As something of a free wheelin’ cook, I never quite considered the importance of a neat workspace. Or maybe I was just afraid of what I would find if I actually started unraveling the mess…

P5100787Thursday of last week I dined at the apartment of my dear friend Carlos, whose kitchen is a study in cleanliness and good taste. He’s got a full garden of herbs in little jam jars along his window sill; his mixing bowls are stacked to size, and separated neatly by paper towels; his Le Creusetwear—procured through friends and garage sales—matches perfectly and occupies its own closet.

P5100783In addition to a charming array of cookware and plants, Carlos masterfully creates the illusion of space. If he gets himself even one more cast iron skillet, his whole shelf might collapse, but his stacking and organizing methods are so seamless that everything appears to fit just perfectly, as if he occupied a bohemian Sur la Table or a down-to-earth Dean and Deluca. Don’t we all want our kitchens to look like the floor of a specialty food shop? The dream, it seemed, was not unattainable after all.

P5100786So, on Sunday, I succumbed to a cleaning tear, as my fiancé Christopher calls it. It started with the Ball jars. I wanted my pantry to look uniform and neat—à la Carlos—and so was determined to do away with rogue bags and half spent boxes with all sorts of motley labels, bound by rubber bands and paper clips. After many hours of clearing, scrubbing, washing, jarring and tossing, so much detritus had piled up that it was impossible to open the back door and access the recycling and garbage binds. By 8 pm I was a total mess, with frazzled hair and dirty knees, but I was on fire. Most of the work was done and Christopher, fearing for my sanity, took me out to our standby Mexican patio for soul-cooling ceviche.

This morning I woke up and took tiny peeps in my pantry and drawers, just to be sure it wasn’t all a dream. I just went and took another glimpse. In a few minutes more, I’ll go back again, stick my head into the cupboards and grin. I am finally growing into my kitchen.

Growing Life on the Family Farm

May 5, 2009

p4210678Read the original on The Huffington Post.

Logan Scott, age 7, owes his life to a goat and a backyard garden. In 2006 Logan’s parents, Aaron and Stephanie Scott, began a small experiment to save their son from a severe nutritional deficiency. A mere three years later, the Scotts have created their own small enterprise, “Southern Hope Farm,” which has nourished their son back to health and has blossomed into a community hub where friends, family, neighbors–and even strangers–are welcome to witness and partake in the passion and potential of a simple, family garden.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Alice Waters and her responsibility to take on the problem of high sustainable food prices. Yet the potential for change is within reach for all of us and if we value sustainable food, we must develop a personal stake in what we eat. That means knowing our food sources–costly as they may be–and producing our own. Unfortunately, many people claim that they are incapable of growing anything, and find the process too daunting. After visiting the Scotts, I better understood this common apprehension, the root of which may be more intimidating than the idea of killing a few plants.

A few days after publishing the Alice Waters piece, I was working at a nearby community garden, where I noticed a ruddy man in a suit plucking weeds and watering patches of seed. I was intrigued: typically, people on their way to the office don’t stop by to admire the cucumber vine. Another gardener introduced us, telling me that Aaron had worked at the community garden long enough to figure things out and start his own small farm. He did it under two seasons. Two weeks later, I was on my way to the Scott’s home in Manvel, Texas, to learn the story of a family for whom gardening became an absolute necessity–and an attainable one.

For nearly four years, Aaron and Stephanie Scott watched their son’s body reject nutrition. From his third to fourth birthday, Logan gained less than an ounce of weight. Logan’s condition began when he was just ten days old and underwent a serious round of antibiotics, which destroyed his intestinal flora and ability to properly digest food. Eventually, the condition was so severe that his body recognized food as an antigen and Logan had to be fed through a surgically inserted tube.

Even after upping the dosage and increasing the steroid and protein content of his formula, doctors could not help Logan gain weight–in addition, the steroid dose caused a violent behavioral reaction. Finally, a specialist suggested admitting him to a hospital and inserting a TPN (Total Parental Nutrition) line into an artery. Having her son indefinitely attached to a feeding pump was not an acceptable option for Stephanie Scott. Frustrated by the limits of Western medicine, she researched alternate forms of healing and discovered the nutritive properties of raw, organic goat’s milk.

“I finally realized that it was up to me to help him,” Stephanie explained, “So I started putting a little bit of raw goat’s milk into his IV bag to see how his body responded.” Logan’s body readily accepted the mixture of milk and formula. Ounce for ounce, Stephanie continued replacing Logan’s prescription formula with goat’s milk until that was all he drank.

“Within weeks he was asking for solid food,” Stephanie said. “That’s a big deal, because there were all sorts of psychological issues attached to food, since his body had forcefully rejected it all his life.” Under careful monitoring, Stephanie slowly introduced organic, solid foods into Logan’s diet. In the meantime, the family consumed upwards of six gallons of raw goat’s milk per week. At $10 a gallon, it was proving an expensive habit.

So, Aaron Scott (who works as a full-time salesman) bought a goat and learned to milk it at home. Shortly thereafter, a small garden was blooming in the backyard and within a year and a half, the Scotts were subsisting mostly on what they grew organically. Today, the family diet consists almost entirely of homegrown produce, hunted game plus some organic grains, oils and spices procured as locally as possible.

It has not been an easy process, the couple admits, although dealing with discouraging doctors and Logan’s illness was infinitely more depleting. “It’s hard work,” Aaron explains, “The choices we’ve made affect our whole life.” Although eating as cleanly and autonomously as possible requires great sacrifices–no more restaurants or grocery stores–the Scotts would never revert back to typical American eating habits.

Discovering the power to sustain themselves was an incredibly empowering experience. “When I first started, I didn’t know how to do any of this,” Aaron admits. “So I read books and I learned. And it worked.” Today, the Scotts plan to expand their small farm into a functioning business that will provide produce, eggs and classes to the community. In a few years, Aaron hopes that the farm will be his only source of income.

The Scotts live in a cottage they built on a six-acre tract of land about 30 minutes outside of Houston. As is the case throughout Houston’s city limits, the road to Manvel is lined with shopping complexes, developments and cleared tracts of land peppered with bulldozers waiting to go to work. Still, it was incredible to see how just a few exits can separate the developed from the rural: the Scotts live fewer than five miles from the main highway amid fields, forests and streams.

As we talked about Logan’s life and the history of the farm, the smell of rich greenery blew in from the back window. Both the living room and kitchen offer a view of the garden, including rows of fennel, tomatoes, corn, onions and a large bed of herbs. Goats, turkeys and chickens roam in paddocks set farther back. It’s the kind of vision every farmers’ market attendee would love to enjoy, if only for a day.

Most of us don’t have the space or time to cultivate six acres of land and keep livestock, but the Scotts are proof that anyone who wants to grow good grub can do it. Visiting Southern Hope Farm felt almost like time travel, going back to a simpler moment when family ties and communal efforts were, quite literally, the stuff of life.

Along the highway out of Manvel, I was struck with melancholy and apprehension over the joy that most of us are missing. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to have a small farm–or even a large garden–though the Scotts made me realize one thing for certain: once I do get my hands on a piece of land, I may never leave it. Perhaps that is what we fear when we say we are incapable of growing our own food–that the joy will be so great it will inspire us to make difficult or alienating sacrifices that pull us apart from the social and institutionalized food habits we’ve grown accustomed to. 

Indian Roasted Cauliflower, Zucchini, and Spinach Saag ‘Paneer’

April 29, 2009

p3160352This is a real vegetable beauty and is just the type of recipe I like: simple, improvisational and savory. Though it sounds exotic, you’ll be surprised by how prepared your pantry already is to whip up this dish. You’ll have to buy fresh spinach, cauliflower and maybe mozzarella, but the other ingredients are likely lying in wait. This meal is wonderful to prepare with friends–as you p3160347marinate the cauliflower, I suggest mixing up a few citrus martinis and getting lively. The timing is just perfect for that. You could even use your tipsy enthusiasm to make real paneer, which is not difficult… the process involves boiling milk and fermenting it with lemon juice–both of which you probably have. But, if time is of the essence, substitute mozzarella instead. This is a lovely option for supporting local dairymaids, as most have mozzarella readily available.

Indian Roasted Cauliflower: p3160351

Tumeric, pepper flakes, coriander, cumin, S & P and plain yogurt.

*Mix spices in large bowl, with yogurt. * Marinate cauliflower about 30-45 minutes. * Bake at 450 until golden brown around the edges.

Spinach Saag ‘Paneer:’

Bunch of spinach * 1 yellow onion * 2 tbsp fresh ground ginger * 3 tbsp olive oil * 2 teaspoons ground coriander * 1 teaspoon ground cumin * 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper * 1/2 pound paneer cheese (or sub mozzarella) * 1/2 c plain yogurt * 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved * 2 tsp salt * 1 tsp black pepper * 2-4 zucchini, sliced lengthwise, brushed with olive oil and dusted with sea salt.

p3160350* Roast zucchini with cauliflower–about 30 minutes until golden, flipping once and turning the pan.

p3160349* Blend chopped onion, garlic and ginger along with spinach in a food processor. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and puree until a smooth paste forms. * Set aside. * Heat oil in a saute pan and add onion/ spinach paste and chopped tomatoes. * Saute until fragrant, then add the yogurt and spices. * Sprinkle with S & P and saute about 2 minutes more. * Add cheese to the mix–if using mozzarella instead of real paneer, add just before serving, as the mozzarella easily melts throughout.

Roasted Salmon with Fennel

April 22, 2009

p1030232I visited a farm today, run by two local Texans who got fed up with conventional food and bought a goat. The story is much more detailed than that, but essentially, fresh goat’s milk and a small p1030224vegetable garden turned into a full-scale operation that feeds an entire family, and will eventually feed the Manvel, TX community at large. Though Aaron and Stephanie Scott will soon sell their produce to restauranteurs and markets around town, I made out like a bandit today, with two beautiful, diaphanous fennel bulbs, ready to remind me of the sweet taste of spring.

p10302281A quick salad recipe with salmon put the fennel to good use tonight, complete with a lemon vinaigrette to round off the rich, sweet flavors of the fish and the bulb. It was truly delightful and really quick. I borrowed the recipe from Real Simple, although I added some extra lemon and honey to the sauce to thicken and balance it.

Here’s what you’ll need:

2 sliced fennel bulbs, 2.5 lemons (halved), 4 unpeeled garlic cloves, 4 pieces of skinless salmon, 1 tbsp honey, 1 tsp chopped rosemary, mixed greens, 3 tbsp olive oil, s & p

Here’s what you do with it:
p10302252Preheat oven to 400. * Toss fennel, lemons and garlic with 1 tbsp olive oil, 1/4 tsp  s & p and roast until the fennel softens, about 8 minutes. * Season salmon with s & p and set into the fennel. * Roast until fish is opaque, 12 to 15 minutes. * Squeeze garlic from skins into a small bowl, mashing into a paste. * Juice lemon into the bowl, adding honey, rosemary, remaining oil and salt. * Plate salmon and fennel on greens, and drizzle with vinaigrette.

Nasty Habits of Food Network Celebrities

April 16, 2009

Read the original on The Huffington Post.

Put away your tin foil, Giada de Laurentiis enthusiasts; lay down your many meats, Guy Ferari fans, and please, Sandra Lee watchers, resist buying all of the pre-packaged ingredients you can easily make on your own. Food Network viewers be warned: your favorite celebrity chef is encouraging wasteful, unhealthy behavior from the grocery store to the plate.

The burgeoning home-cooking trend is a wonderful thing and the Food Network empire (cooking shows, cookbooks, online recipes, magazines, cooking ware, etc.) is a valuable resource for people who want endless options and culinary inspiration. Unfortunately, many of the network’s beloved faces are cooking up a hailstorm of garbage, from wasted packaging to edible trash. As an emerging icon in American eating, the Food Network needs to re-examine the message it sends to consumers.

Take Giada De Laurentiis, who manages to add nearly 1,000 square inches of aluminum foil to her Los Angeles landfill while preparing to tickle her friends’ taste buds during the “Wine Tasting Party” episode of her show “Everyday Italian.” In the process of making Parmesan Tortilla Crisps and Salami Crisps, De Laurentiis recommends using 4 heavy, large baking sheets (14″ x 16″) each lined with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. She suggests using yet another foil-lined pan for marinating swordfish.

Instead of washing her bake ware, De Laurentiis simply balls up her greasy foil and tosses it away–an ingenious process that brings her great delight. What De Laurentiis doesn’t recognize is that the aftermath of her soiree will leave an indelible mark on the planet, since aluminum foil does not decompose: imagine the ramifications if thousands of Food Network fans were to routinely mimic such an extravagance.

Guy Fieri is an environmental and nutritional nightmare. His “Dragon’s Breath Chili” is enough to set Michael Pollen’s entire body of work into flames. Let’s look at what he encourages his audience to consume during an episode of “Guy’s Big Bite.” To make eight servings of Chili, Fieri calls for 2 tbsp butter; 3 tbsp bacon grease; 1 lb boneless chuck; 2 lb ground beef; 1 pound bulk Italian sausage; 12 oz lager beer; doubled-fried French fries; 1 c cheddar. This single dish calls for 4 pounds of meat from three animals, if you include the chicken stock.

Fieri is encouraging one of America’s worst habits–the profligate consumption of meat from anyplace. Chances are the average family can’t find local, organic butchers to source the wide variety of flesh Fieri calls for, so he sends his audience to the nearby grocery store to support what Mark Bittman called, “assembly-line meat factories,” which, “consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.”

Meanwhile, the perky Sandra Lee is telling us to buy our ingredients encased in plastic, even when purchasing them fresh would be perfectly simple–and more affordable. Her “trademark 70/30 Semi-Homemade® philosophy,” means that the majority of what she prepares comes pre-made. For example, Lee’s “Las Chalupas” dish calls for a package of taco seasoning (a combination of common spices); bottled salsa; bagged, pre-shredded cheese; bagged, pre-shredded lettuce and store-bought guacamole.

What Lee is doing is not really cooking… it’s arranging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the food she puts together comes wrapped in soon-to-be-waste. Chopping your own tomatoes, cutting your own lettuce and mashing your own avocados would save a bundle, not to mention a quite a few bottles, bags and containers. Multiply all of that packaging by Lee’s national audience, and you’ve got a lot of unnecessary garbage.

The example set by these Food Network celebrities is disheartening. Encouraging viewers to be too lazy to clean up after themselves or to chop their own produce is truly insulting–to say nothing of the artery-clogging recipe suggestions offered by some of the network’s more gluttonous cooks. (For more health disasters, see anything made by Paula Deen.)

The image these chefs are creating of our country’s food ethos and practices wreaks of wastefulness, over-indulgence and laziness. The Food Network and its celebrity chefs should inspire Americans to savor quality food and the entire process of making a meal–from good food choices, to mise en place, to clean up. It’s a shame that these chefs don’t use their popularity to truly help improve how Americans cook and eat.

Crawfish Boil

April 10, 2009

p3290402The first time I went to a crawfish boil I ended up with a head full of shells. I’d really gotten going on the cathartic act of smashing, hammering and pulling the crawfish, king crabs and stone crab claws—and so had my neighbors. We were seated at a table of 20 or so, and each had a small plastic bib tied around his neck, an act performed by a slightly disgruntled, pre-pubescent busboy with a nascent mustache and sweaty fingers. But I won’t judge him: my palms were equally clammy, my nerves just as frazzled. I had never dined with a plastic bib, not even as a dibbling infant…nor had I ever been to a famed crawfish boil.

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After we were properly dressed for the event, the waiter handed each diner a small wooden mallet. Then, he took our p3290372order. At first, I was aghast. Our host—an authority on mud bug boils—was well versed in the language of the Texas Crab shack. After ordering nearly 20 pounds of fare, he sat back and chucked a pint of beer.

p3290373About 10 minutes later, a procession of waiters approached our table, each one embracing a gargantuan tin mixing bowl, filled to the brim with boiled corn cobs, potatoes, sausage bits and crustaceans. There were no plates on the table. Nor were there forks, knives or spoons—though there were about a dozen metallic napkin dispensers. Our host, poised with mallet in hand, was the first to reach for the heap of food, as soon as it p3290374was poured from the bowls to the paper table covering. It was as though none of us had eaten in months: absolute barbarism ensued, as we dug into the boiled heap, attacking anything shelled with the butts of our wooden hammers.

Needless to say, the bib was essential. Though I woke up with something of a crawfish hangover, my sweater was not p32903841sullied. My lips were cracking and dried from the spices and my hair was a tangle of shell shards, but boy was I delighted. Never, ever have I experienced a meal so interactive.

audrey‘Tis the season again, and I recently went to a wonderful boil in Austin, though the event was markedly more civilized—even if the fare was served in Styrofoam boxes. (My future cousins-in-law brought their little girl Audrey for her first-ever boil, although, lacking teeth, she was unable to participate.) This meal brought nothing but crawfish, obviating the need for wooden mallets. But, of course, there was plenty of corn on the cob, boiled potatoes and sausage to go along with the mud bugs, and the addition of carrots, broccoli and garlic cloves was most welcome. As were the very dignified, and cool oysters, which p3290376helped soothe the burning roof of my Cajun-spiced mouth.

As we were leaving, I overheard one guest commenting that he would have to stand upside down in a cold shower the next morning, the food was so spicy. Indeed, it was, though I am no acrobat. I am proud p3290389of my newfound digit dexterity, though: my fingers can twist, pull and separate a crawfish in no time flat, which is important, since the Boil is an every-man-for-himself kind of meal.

RIBS

April 7, 2009

p40404961Phil’s ribs have put some meat on my bones. Not a whole lot yet, but as summer wears on, I suspect I’ll be more and more porky. In general, I’m pretty intimidated by pig meat, I must admit. A bite or two of bacon is about as much as I can tolerate—I’ve never been much of a meat eater and must have been especially touched by “Babe” because, even though they trudge in mud and eat garbage, I’ve always had a special fondness for pigs. Well, now that fondness runs even deeper. Slather pig ribs with sweet marinate, brush them again and again for hours over open flame and you’ve got yourself a glazed, crunchy, savory and sweet meal that is really, truly satisfying.

photo1There is a lot more meat on a pig bone than I would have imagined, and a couple of ribs go a long way…an entire rack really is substantial and you could spend hours picking and licking. (Which made me grin like a madwoman.) Come to think of it, eating ribs all summer might be a great diet tool—they’re so sweet and satisfying you really don’t need dessert after a good plate. In fact, it would be almost profane to put anything into your stomach after these holy morsels—there’s definitely a reason God chose these as the origins of woman.

p40404991My friend Phil Scioli, a fellow Yankee, has finally perfected his rib recipe, which has to have been an intimidating task given our current Lone star roots…few things make Texans prouder than their livestock and barbeque. Ten gallon hats off to Phil, whose process would make any Texan drool.

Here’s how he does it, but be warned: if this is your first rib-making experience, don’t expect to be an expert, even with a great recipe. It takes a lot of time, patience and practice. Slow and low y’all.

Here’s How:

Mix equal parts soy sauce, Grey Poupon and olive oil in a bowl with garlic powder and pepper—amounts will depend on how much meat you’re grilling, but make sure you have a bowl big enough to coat your rack over and over. In Phil’s own words: “I let the ribs soak it in for at least an hour in the fridge.  Heat the grill to somewhere between low and medium (325 to 350).  Put the ribs on bone side down for about an hour, and brush on more of the marinade about every ten minutes.  That’s it.” At the end, he flips them again and gives them a few minutes meat-side down to get a nice crispy finish.

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Serve with some fresh sides like corn; (Molly Scioli boils corn in a pot with a bit of sugar to help draw out the sweetness of the kernels) grilled veggies; coleslaw or guacamole.

Breakfast Tart With Gruyere, Scallions and Egg

April 1, 2009

p2130294Until recently, I considered the making of tarts to be a laborious and time-consuming process. I’m not one to outsource ingredients, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a Pillsbury pre-made crust. But I must confess, philo dough has totally subverted my tartish snobbery. I can’t believe I’ve been too stubborn to get myself a frozen roll of this delightful dough. It could not be easier to work with (if you can stand a tear or two at first) and makes a truly beautiful base for whatever you can think to concoct. I recently created a surprise breakfast tart for my fiancé, but this could be used for anything flat and crusty—smear it with some marinara and bake on mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, and you’ve got yourself a very dignified margarita ‘pizza’ indeed.

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The tart I chose was Swiss-inspired, and ideal for breakfast. I discovered it while registering for wedding gifts at the local Williams-Sonoma during what was one of the most glorious days of my culinary life. As we were leaving the store with our greedy list of All Clads and doodads (cherry pitters, spiders, mandolins, etc.) I spotted a catalog. Just for fun, I picked it up and discovered the glorious image of eggs, bacon, chives and cheese atop a gilded crust. I glanced sideways at my future husband and grinned—what a delicious a.m. surprise.

p2130295I was surprised to discover that the edible masterpiece called for puff pastry dough, but I went for it anyway—a decision that opened up my gastronomical world. Now I can’t stop envisioning ways I could put this stuff to use for quick-dinners, breakfasts or lunches made with all of my favorite ingredients.

Anyway, the William-Sonoma recipe was wonderful, but slightly imperfect for my needs. For example, I have seriously clumsy thumbs and was not capable of constructing anything beautiful out of a single sheet of philo dough. So I doubled up. Also, I added extra crème-fraîche and cheese  to make the base even richer and more spread-able. Finally, I used scallions instead of chives. The result was absolutely delicious: the crispy, dense taste of the bacon went wonderfully with the flaky dough and the tart cheese was a great complement to the runny egg and tangy scallion. This could easily be served for lunch or dinner, too, with a simple green salad beside.

All day long, the two of us were singing its praises: Yodelahehooooooo!

What Alice Waters is Missing

March 25, 2009

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

For decades, Alice Waters has commanded attention for her love of the freshest, most local food. Last week, her crusade was the focal point of national attention, as Michelle Obama finally agreed to plant an extensive vegetable garden at the White House.

If Ms. Waters is serious about changing the national food system for all Americans, she needs to get down and dirty on the economic issues tied to her edible ethos. At present, the food Waters espouses–clean, local and organic–is not sustainable to the American wallet.

Two weeks ago, in honor of Houston’s best growing season, I committed to eating only local foods for a full moth. For 30 days I planned to restrict my diet to whatever was grown, raised and slaughtered within 100 miles of my doorstep. My plan was derailed three days–and fifty dollars–later.

Without the use of my own vegetable garden, the only way I could afford to live on strictly local food for the period would be to eat eggs (at $3.50 a dozen) with scant veggies and bulk beans. Normally, I buy staples from a super market and make meals that feature whatever is fresh at local farmers’ markets. Without the addition of non-local grains, flour, butter, milk and affordable produce, I was left with esoteric dairy, (raw goat’s milk) meat, mushrooms, dried black beans and lettuce–all at an exorbitant cost.

It wasn’t a huge surprise: in general, I spend almost as much at the farmers market as I do at the local grocery store each week, and the locally grown produce accounts for less than a quarter of what I eat. Trying to rely purely on my regional food sources was harrowing, though, and illuminated a major flaw in America’s food system: for the first time in my life, I understood what it was like to be unable to afford the healthy food I wanted.

Like so many Americans, I have been inspired by Waters’ mission and believe that her far-reaching message has improved this country. Nevertheless, her current platform needs an update, or more bluntly, a reality check. When interviewed by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, Waters outlined her noble vision: “I feel that good food should be a right and not a privilege and it needs to be without pesticides and herbicides. And everybody deserves this food. And that’s not elitist.”

Later, when asked about the exorbitant price of organic grapes, ($4 a pound) Waters said, “We make decisions everyday about what we’re going to eat. And some people want to buy Nike shoes — two pairs, and other people want to eat Bronx grapes, and nourish themselves. I pay a little extra, but this is what I want to do.”

The remark was rife with elitism — the choice that most people face is not between name-brand shoes and grapes. The audience Waters referred to in her comment is probably already capable of choosing organic produce, at least part of the time. But the people for whom this “right” is absent aren’t likely to be sporting the latest Zooms or Air Jordans. Or both.

All people deserve good, clean food. But, if even professionals like me cannot afford to eat the way Ms. Waters eats, then it is highly unlikely that poor or even middle class Americans are going live off the organic produce at a local farmers markets.

Ms. Waters should use this moment in the spotlight to strongly encourage political leaders to help subsidize and support regional farmers in their area. She should lobby for the construction of community gardens across the United States, especially in urban areas where farmers markets and fresh food are hard to find. Finally, she should write some of her persistent letters to the CEOs of Whole Foods, Trader Joes and other sustainable food franchises to see if prices can come down significantly, so that everyone can enjoy the sustenance they deserve.

For Ms. Waters to be truly effective in the coming decades, she must address the unsustainable problem of sustainable food prices, or else the momentary excitement over the Obama victory garden will prove little more than a fad for the privileged.

Endive, Pear and Roquefort Salad

March 9, 2009

I’ve discovered an elegant salad to satisfy any palate—without leaving large leaves dangling from your fork or nestled between your teeth. It can be difficult to serve a salad to company. More often than not, I find myself fighting with a stiff spinach stem or worrying that something green is stuck between my molars. That said, I’ve never considered lettuce-less salads much of anything: if it doesn’t have a bed, it doesn’t count. I also believe that salads should marry a combination of flavors and should include a variety of subtle tastes. Needless to say, I found one that I am really happy with, a riff on a recipe from the former Barefoot Contessa. This salad is a medley of all things delicious: salty cheese, bitter endive, pungent mustard, rich walnuts, sweet honey and pears.

I will try this salad again sometime soon, using toasted hazelnuts and goat cheese. Toasted pecans and sharp cheddar would also go well with sliced apples and endive, I think.

Endive, Pear and Roquefort Salad

5 heads of Belgian endive

1.5 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ripe Bartlett pears, in 1” pieces

1/4 pound Roquefort cheese

1/2 cup walnut halves, sprinkled with honey then toasted

___

Chop endive into ¼ inch slices.

In a large bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper.

Add olive oil slowly to emulsify.

Toss pears in dressing to coat.

Add chopped endive and gently toss until dressed.

Transfer to individual plates and crumble Roquefort and walnuts on top.

Almond Pastry

February 11, 2009

pc240125One of the most wonderful things to eat on a special morning is this almond pastry my grandmother used to serve at Christmas. It’s sweet, crunchy and smooth at the same time, with four layers of texturpc240127e: a crisp bottom, a soft center, an almond icing and crispy shaved nuts on top. It should be cut into thin slices and served with coffee. It’s best served on a special occasion: one where you’ll have a whole day ahead to lounge, sip coffee and nibble. Youpc240126’d be surprised how quickly an entire pastry can go, which is really a good thing—almond pastry is best truly fresh. This Valentine’s Day is a Saturday and a perfect occasion for sitting, sipping and nibbling. Among other things you could entertain your sweetheart with a full day off… You may consider making it TOGETHER, however, since some of the mixing requires two people. You’ll see what I mean.
pc240067Ingredients:

Base:
½ c butter unsalted butter
1 c flour
2 tbsp water

pc240068Middle:

½ c unsalted butter, 1 c water, 3 eggs
1 tsp almond extract
1 c flour

Glaze
1 ½ c confectioners sugar
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 ½ tsp almond extract
1-2 tsp warm water
slivered almonds

pc240070Preheat oven to 350 degrees * Mix and kneed base ingredients into a ball * Cut into 2 parts with a knife and spread onto baking sheet * Melt ½ c butter and 1 cup water and almond extract to a ROLLING boil (here’s pc240072where you need a partner) * Remove from flame and add flour, stirring rapidly until pc240075the dough leaves the side of the pan. * Add 3 eggs, one at a time * Stir until dough leaves the side of the pan * Pour equal parts over each base. * Bake for 1 hour. * Cool before glazing. * Make glaze by pc240078mixing its ingredients together—add water or sugar to thin or thicken as necessary. * Cover with slivered almonds.
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Russian Tea Cakes a.k.a. Mexican Wedding Cakes

February 9, 2009

pc240080Clearly, these little nutty, sugar-covered, buttery dough-balls have serious global appeal. With two such gastronomically distinct countries laying claim to the recipe, it’s clear these cookies are a little bite of mirth, no matter what your temperate or time zone. These are perfect to make for Valentine’s Day, since one little batch can please so many… bake them up and dole them into little red boxes to friends, family members, co-workers or your significant other(s). Really, they’ll go that far. These will crumble and flake and leave a layer of confection on your thumb and forefinger (also possibly your lower lip–kinky!) but despite their seeming lightness, a little goes a pc240057long way. One single cookie, which takes two or three dainty bites to finish, will do you fine. I find it really delightful to be satisfied with so little–especially if I am on a date and don’t want to have to loosen the tie of my dress. So do everybody you love a favor and deliver just a couple of these mouth-water-worthy bites in a pretty package. Even if you just wrap ’em in some tinfoil, they’ll  still impress way beyond the stale Russel Stover gesture. Oh, did I mention they are INCREDIBLY simple to make and have just a few ingredients? I am in loooove.

pc240060Ingredients:

I. 1c soft butter; 1/2 c sifted confec. sugar; 1 tsp vanilla

II. 2 1/4 c sifted flour; 1/4 tsp. salt; 3/4 c finely chopped toasted walnuts (or pecans)

Mix ingredients from part I together thoroughly in a large bowl. * Sift ingredients from part II together and stir into the mixture from part I. * Chill dough for about two hours. * Preheat oven to 400. * Roll into 1″ balls placed about 2.5″ apart on an un-greased pan. (Very important if you want to avoid rendering a puddle of melted butter.) * Bake until set, but not brown, about 10 minutes * While cookies are still warm, roll them in confectioner’s sugar. * Let cool. * Roll again.*

For more V.Day ideas check out findingDulicinea’s Valentine’s Day Web Guide.

Fig, Olive and Goat Cheese Tapenade

January 23, 2009

pc230039The LSATs make my head ache. They also make my stomach rumble and I’ve made lots of dishes that are just waiting to be wrung out of my spongy brain. After February 7 this blog pc230040will be a buzz again, but for now, here is something I must share: fig, olive and goat cheese tapenade. The recipe is super simple and brings together all of the best flavors—creamy cheese, pc230041sweet figs, salty olives and tangy capers. Candied walnuts add a necessary texture kick. Although the recipe I saw called for the goat pc240042cheese to be served in rounds below the tapenade, I decided to mix it in to make spreading easier. pc240047It was delightful and kept things a lot neater than they would have been otherwise. Next time I go to a friend’s house for dinner, I am bringing this with some crostini or thick, rosemary crackers. It’s a great bite any time of year.

Ingredients: pc240051

* 1 cup chopped figs, stems removed
* 1/3 cup water
* 1/3 cup chopped pitted briny olives
* 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
* 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
* 1 tablespoon drained capers, chopped
* 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
* 10 oz of crumbled goat cheese
* 1/2 cup chopped toasted, chopped very coarsely (in 1/4s if possible)
* 1/4 cup toasted walnut halves, same as above
* Fresh thyme sprigs
* Assorted crispy bread or crackers

pc240091Combine figs and 1/3 c water in a saucepan and simmer until figs are soft and plump and water evaporates…about 5- 7 minutes. * Transfer to a medium bowl and mix in olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, capers, and chopped thyme. * Season with salt and pepper.  * Add cheese, and mix together well until completely blended. * Add remaining toasted walnuts just before serving. *

This can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in the fridge, though I recommend serving it at room temp so it spreads readily.

Video: Making Cranberry Chutney

December 23, 2008

pc230026As I mentioned after Thanksgiving, there are some dishes that should be made all the time–not just for the holidays to which they are relegated. In particular, I don’t think Thanksgiving should be imprisoned on the last Thursday of November. In honor of my firm stance against such foolishness, I proposed that, on the day after Christmas, my family cook a big bird, complete with stuffing, chutney, etc. It was agreed upon–especially since we didn’t get to share the date this year. Also, because the only foods we eat on December 24th are Polish, we thought it might be in order to have some hearty, American fare the next day. So, dear reader, here is a vlog of my chutney–I hope you enjoy the extremely high-tech cinematography and sound. As annoying as the 70s effects may seem, don’t miss the walnut outtake.  Texan bags are thicker, I guess. (Video continues below…)

Here is the recipe:

1/2 c apricot or orange preserves

1/2 c firmly packed brown sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/4 t tsp ginger

1/4 tsp cloves (less if you prefer)

12 oz pack of fresh cranberries (frozen if need be)

1 med. pear, peeled and cubed

1 med. apple, the same

1/2 c golden raisins

1/2 c coarsely chopped walnuts

Combine preserves, sugar and spices in med. saucepan. Bring to a boil, cook until  sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Add cranberries, pear, apple and raisins; cook over med. heat for 25 minutes or until mixture is thick, stirring occasionally. Stir in walnuts, cool slightly. Pour into clean bowl or jars and store up to 3 weeks.

So I am a little nuts.

Spinach Gratin

December 9, 2008

pb2205801Eat this and you will be as fortified as a pipe smoking sailor man. This gratin is just about the most energy-packed vegetable dish you could dream up. Oh, forget the  euphemism. This is the richest, most decadent veggie you’ll ever put to your greedy little lips. But for all the butter and cream in this recipe, the dish does call for some 5 pounds of spinach: one serving and you’ll load up on iron, folate, vitamin A and antioxidants. Not bad for something so decadent. Don’t thank me: thank Ina. imgp1662Ina Garten’s recipe is truly incredible since it doubles as both creamed spinach or spinach gratin: forgo the cheesy top and you’ve got a perfectly great side dish for steak. I made the creamed spinach bit beforehand and covered it with cheese and aluminum foil before transporting the platter to the Thanksgiving potluck. I then put it in the oven at about 450 for at least 25 minutes. It took a long time for all of that Gruyere on top to brown sufficiently. I would make this again in a heartbeat for any cold weather holiday, especially one where meats are involved; this is a bit heavy to go with fish, although something rich like salmon or swordfish could probably hold its own. My favorite part was the slight hint of nutmeg–truly festive.

Sweet Potato Mash With Caramelized Apples

December 8, 2008

pb2205831I am conflicted about Holiday foods. As I sit in the midst of two of my favorites, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I realize that some of the very best recipes I eat all year get made at just one, fleeting moment. That is a tragedy. Thanksgiving dinner should be had by all AT LEAST once a month–especially from October – March, when the weather is cold and dreary and eating stuffing and sleep-pb220563inducing turkey is the best fix for daylight savings blues. The dishes I made for the Thanksgiving potluck, for example, are all great, seasonal options–even without the Thanksgiving tag attached. I don’t know anybody who fixes turkey with cranberry chutney, stuffing, gravy or pumpkin pie at any time other than Thanksgiving. That needs to change. I have vowed to have multiple fall and winter feasts this year that will feature favored foods, regardless of whether they have been stigmatized as belonging either to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s. Why not enjoy our favorites more pb220564than once ever 365 days? A perfect example of this phenomenon are the mashed sweet potatoes I made for the Thanksgiving potluck. It was a great dish for fall, made with yams, apples and a bit of brown sugar, butter and cream. What could be more perfectly substantial and seasonal than that? It’s the perfect autumn side-dish–bird or no bird.

pb220561Here is the base of the recipe from Ina Garten. I chose to caramelize  an apple with 1/4 c. brown sugar and 4 tbsp of butter to spread on top–she covers this in her cookbook “Parties.”

Potluck Thanksgiving

December 3, 2008

pb220585It’s hard to write when you’re stuffing yourself—or a turkey for that matter. I’ve been something of a blogging delinquent over Thanksgiving. I’m likely the only person with a food blog who didn’t post a slew of turkey-day recipes. Well anyway, they’ll serve me fine next year in the archive. I had not one, not two, but three Thanksgiving celebrations to pb220578attend, including a trip out of town and guests for a weekend—trying to get my work done and gobble leftovers in the interim was quite a task and left me little room for musing on the process. Now that it’s December I feel that I’ve finally begun to digest all of hoopla. pb220580Every holiday event I attended was completely unique and delightful. I must say, though, that the potluck Thanksgiving was a great treat—if only because I had some hand in it. Molly, the hostess, made the bird, stuffing and pb220574mashed potatoes, while guests brought the side dishes and desserts. In an effort to push fruits and veggies, I made spinach gratin, sweet potatoes with caramelized apples, cranberry chutney with walnuts and cornbread with maple pb220568syrup and buttermilk. I thought I wouldn’t touch another turkey until next November, but thinking about this meal is making my stomach rumble. Is 9am too early for a leftover sandwich?

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Eggplant Confit

November 21, 2008

pb100454I love a good confit, though I’m not always a fan of the wait. I was delighted when I came across a recipe for an eggplant confit that would take considerably less time to prepare than a bird and might be equally delicious—at least in my estimation. After trying this roast a few times, with a few modifications, I discovered that one can eliminate about ½ of the olive oil called for in the recipe by using canned tomatoes instead. The juice acts as enough of an emulsifier to keep the eggplant and pepper chunks from burning, all pb090441the while infusing them with a nice bit of savory flavor. In lieu of dousing all of the vegetables until they are shiny and wet with unction, why not sprinkle them with half the oil and amp up the flavor? It’s remarkable what a few herbs can add to this as well. I am one to finish an entire dish at once—forget the serving guidelines—hence my reticence to make my veggies slimier than they needed to be. I wasn’t looking to make them slide down my throat any faster than they would already. As it was, I polished this off (alone) in two days.

Ingredients: pb090448

1 eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes * 2 red peppers, cut the same * 15 oz can of whole, stewed tomatoes in juice * your favorite herbs * olive oil * sea salt * pepper

I lay all of the sliced vegetables onto a baking tray and coated them with a drizzle of olive oil. I then cut each stewed tomato in half over the baking sheet so that the juice would fall directly onto the peppers and eggplant. When I was pb090451finished, I tossed the veggies with some of the remaining juice, sprinkled them with sea salt and pepper and doused them in Rosemary. This was baked at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes then rotated and mixed a bit to distribute the juices.Some recipes advocate pureeing this into a spread. I disagree. I like it chunky and tossed over salad. A splash of balsamic vinegar can really draw out the flavor and will be wonderfully absorbed by the spongy eggplant flesh. It’s almost as carniverous as a duck confit…

Roasted Carrots

November 17, 2008

pb020413Carrots are one of my favorite vegetables to roast because they always turn out well—especially if you don’t burn them. But even so, the sweet starchiness can withstand being a bit brown around the edges. Another absolutely delightful carrot-charistic is that they don’t get juicy when you bake them, as often occurs with wetter vegetables like zucchini, tomatoes or eggplant. But carrots hold firm, get slightly soft and slightly crisp and become tremendously sweet, which is a perfect complement to a strong herb and some sea salt. I pb020397like to chop mine diagonally into ¼ inch discs and sprinkle them with olive oil, good fleur de sel and rosemary sprigs. They take about an hour to roast fully well—I like them best when they are wrinkled with heat, soft on the inside and crisp along the edges. Usually I roast them at about 400 for 40 minutes then see how they’re doing. They can sit in the oven on 200 for a while, while you wait for guests or other dishes to be ready for dinner. These could not be simpler and go very well with most main pa200318courses, except light fish. I like them with white bean soup or rack of lamb, for example. Also, there’s nothing like the smell of rosemary in a kitchen to make you feel warm and fuzzy when it’s cold outside. These carrot sticks make great leftovers, too, and can really add color, flavor and texture to a salad. Have I praised them enough? I’ll stop now—that’s all folks.pb020418