Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Birthday season

...means chocolate cake season around here.

It starts with Dorie Greenspan's Almost Fudge Gateau. Add in the grated zest of one large organic orange, a splash of grand marnier, and a pinch of cayenne to complement the chocolate; a third of a cup of finely ground blanched almonds to add denser body to the cake. We tend to go with a straight butter and chocolate glaze with just bit of Grand Marnier; this time I used some Scharffenberger mocha dark chocolate made with ground coffee. Made for a bumpy glaze, occasionally crunchy, but delicious. Might try to have some on hand for the next birthday coming up... all too soon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Blue apple

Not really blue, but a blue pearmain, one of the many Michigan heritage varieties currently available at The Produce Station in Ann Arbor. It's crisp and sweet with a pure white flesh that tastes of cinnamon and cider, a bit of apple wine. One good reason to make the, for me, out-of-the-way stop on South State Street on my way out of town.

And possibly a good reason to make the very out-of-the-way trip up to central Michigan to visit the orchard from whence it came, Eastman's Antique Apples. More than 1500 varieties of heritage and antique apples: sounds like a tasting opportunity I might have to experience!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday afternoon

...with almond macaroons, via the always delectable Alice Medrich:

Compared to making macarons, with the aged egg whites, and touchy touchy process for folding the batter, these are both much easier, and at least as delicious.

Begin by grinding 7 ounces of blanched almonds (whole, slivered, or sliced) together with 1-1/2 cups of sugar into a fine powder. If you have a food processor, the almonds and sugar will begin to collect on the sides in a thick paste. At least that's what Ms. Medrich claims. If, like me, all you have is a blender, you will probably have to process the almonds and sugar in batches, and guess a bit as to when it looks done.

Add 1 teaspoon of almond extract, and then gradually process in 3-4 egg whites until the mixture is the texture of thick mashed potatos. Again, with the blender, this was a little tricky, but, with occasional pauses to stir up the ground nuts that were stuck at the bottom, the job got done.

Drop rounded teaspoons (two teaspoons, total) of the batter onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Let sit for 30 minutes to age. Bake at 300 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until the edges begin to color just slightly. Rotate trays midway through the baking time, both top to bottom and from front to back. Drizzle with chocolate, if desired.

These will store well, frozen or refrigerated for several days.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Start here...

Slice in thin ribbons and fry in lots of butter until just crisp, but still green.
Add: a little sliced garlic (if you like), some peas (if you have them), bacon (if the carnivores in your household insist).

Pour over your favorite pasta and season with salt and pepper. Serve with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. A glass of wine, of course.

Call it dinner. No one will complain.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Apricot-Almond Tart

It's been years since I lived in Germany, but I still feel the pulse of those luxurious Sunday afternoon Kaffeestunden, the welcome infusion of sugar and wine after the exertion of that other German ritual, the Sunday Spaziergang through mountain forests. Sometimes there was something more nourishing, a plate of cheese, for example; slices of fresh fruit; coffee and wine. Friends came by to visit, and it was an easy meal, no fuss: we sat in the living room, crumbs falling into the sofa, soft lights, the youngest daughter playing piano; the gentle camaraderie of old friends, the comfortable silences of people who know each other well. Even today, as the sun is sinking into a brand new week, a slice of freshly baked pastry and a glass of wine (coffee if you want to be a purist) seems just the thing to ease the way.

If you haven't such a ritual already in your life, this lovely tart (recipe, from the wonderful, and wonderfully-inspiring pastry studio), filled with plump apricots, and topped with a streusel of almonds and sugar, might be just the one to get you started:

Apricots are not in season around here, so when I discovered that the late-season peaches I had purchased to use for this recipe were mealy, I soaked dried apricots in orange juice and used them instead. It made for a delicious cake that afternoon, but by the next morning, even carefully wrapped, it had begun to go stale: a hazard of yeasted tarts, I fear, and sundried fruit ... and a reminder that a cake like this is meant to share.

Next time, I promise, I will be more generous. We have neighbors now, hard-working organic farmers whose schedules are usually just flexible enough to accommodate a slice of cake. I'm pretty sure I could get them to stop on by. Add in a glass of wine, and I bet the deal is closed.

And next time, I promise to make a few other changes as well: I'll use juicier fruit (plums or pears), which I hope will make for a moister cake; there might be cinnamon or ground cardamom mixed in with the sugar topping; and I'm tempted to spritz the cake with a sweet Riesling, just like my Gastmutti did for practically every tart, as soon as she took it out of the oven.

One thing is for certain, though. With a cake like this, there will definitely be a next time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Another experiment

Overall, we do pretty well with our field potatos. Even with our imperfect methods of curing and storing them -- basically, they get whatever temperature and humidity our basement maintains -- we are usually enjoying them through at least early January, and sometimes even into February or March. We are spoiled, though, and we resent those few brief months between the end of last year's potatos and the arrival of the new ones when we are forced to using store-bought ones.

So this year, we're trying something new: interleaving the cured potatos with sprigs of lavender to retard sprouting.

And if our roasted potatos taste of lavender? I, for one, won't mind a bit.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Garden Notes

We harvested the first of our garlic today, which, together with the basil flourishing in the herb garden, means that pesto season has officially begun. The other significant news from the garden is that the blueberries have begun at last to bear fruit, and if we're not getting the hundreds of pounds per year we hoped for (seven years ago!), we're getting just enough each day to add to our morning yogurt or to sprinkle on pancakes. They are delicious, and we are grateful.

As for the green beans, they are beginning to come in a handful at a time: not enough for making dilly beans, but a reasonable amount to steam for dinner. Excellent by themselves or served with a balsamic vinaigrette and minced basil or mint.

The mint was a benign little plant when I picked her up at the market, but put in the earth, she has become a voracious creature threatening to overtake both the parsley and the basil. Means I've had to both invent new ways of using the herb (muddled mint in tea! on cucumbers! in rice! in salads!) and, on occasion, trim her overreaching tentacles. Harsh treatment perhaps, but in my garden, nothing is allowed to threaten the basil.

No tomatos yet -- it is early in the season, after all -- but I decided to rush things a bit and buy some organic tomatos at the market to try out a recipe for Spicy Tomato Salsa from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving... just to see if we'd even like it. I ratcheted up the heat a few degrees by substituting dried chipotle chiles for some of the dried ancho chiles called for and by doubling the quantity of crushed red pepper. The result: smokier than we are used to, and a little sweeter, too, but amazing, completely amazing flavor. Excellent with chips and guacamole, and a divine compansion to huevos rancheros.

It was my first salsa, but it probably won't be my last. I'm still aiming for something a little more tangy, a little less sweet, and it's looking like we'll have enough tomatos come August that it will be easy to experiment a bit.

Projects like these definitely involve some work -- spending an hour peeling, coring, and chopping 12 cups of tomatos, not to mention the 3 cups of onions as well as numerous jalapenos and cloves of garlic, had me momentarily fantasizing about a food processor... until I started reading reviews of food processors and realized that all my memories of tomatos & onions turning into mush were grounded in actual fact -- but having a garden makes it hard to avoid learning how to preserve its bounty: the produce is just too delicious, and there is always way too much of it. When you put the usual surplus together with the memory of spending way too much for way too little for the same items from November to March, the argument for preserving what you grow is hard to resist.

All to say: there are a few other food preservation projects in the works this summer. The dilly beans I mentioned earlier, for example; blame a recent addiction to Rick's Pick's Mean Beans for this one. This corn and red pepper relish. Sauerkraut (fermented, not canned), with caraway seed and maybe juniper; something to help me break my budget-breaking habit at The Brinery. I even have plans for those violas: they are destined to be preserved in sugar syrup, then used to decorate cakes.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

First strawberry shrub

A shrub in this case refers not to a bush, but to a fruity syrup mixed with apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar, of which a tablespoon or two (or more!) is added to your favorite sparkling water, vodka, or rum. According to the Virtual Linguist, the word shrub comes from the Arabic word sharab for wine, or shariba, meaning drink. What they are for certain is completely refreshing; totally delicious.

Shrubs will keep for up to a year in the refrigerator. At the rate this one is going, we'll be lucky to keep ours through the 4th of July weekend.

Thanks to Serious Eats for the recipe, and to Food in Jars for pointing the way...

Friday, July 1, 2011

Wishful thinking: what I'd like to see in my refrigerator right about now

None of these treats is a meal unto itself, and none of them takes very much effort to prepare. With a few of them on hand, though -- and something to throw on the grill -- you are well-prepared for anything from a quick lunch to a spontaneous feast. If only I could find someone willing to wash and chop and prep, this is what I would like to keep around:

1) Pesto. Because pesto is the little black dress of summer; goes with potatos, grilled fish or chicken, pasta (of course!), even in salad dressings. Around here, some of us have been known to eat it straight from the refrigerator, with crackers, and call it lunch.

2) Slow cooked tomatos. Start with a dozen or so perfectly ripe paste tomatos (roma, san marzano, etc.). Split lengthwise and remove the seeds. Sprinkle with finely minced garlic and a little salt, then drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 275-300 for 2-4 hours, or until they are completely collapsed but not crispy. The long, low heat accentuates their sweetness, intensifies flavors, and renders this perennial best friend of the vegetable garden into something a lot more seductive, completely irresistible. No matter how many I make, none are ever left.

3) Guacamole. To eat with chips and lots of salsa fresca (#4, below). To encourage frequent refills of excellent homemade sangria.

4) Salsa fresca: diced tomatos, chopped onions, minced jalapenos, dressed with lime juice and salt; to go with #3 and #5.

5) Sangria. The kind you make from red wine, fresh fruit, and a generous hand of brandy. The kind that will take you from sunny afternoons on the porch to philosophical reveries under the stars. Coupled with background music from Stan Getz, might even prompt you to consider taking flamenco lessons. That kind of sangria.

6) Iced tea, both black and green, with plenty of muddled mint in each.

7) The green bean salad that my friend J. makes: green beans steamed to a perfect crisp, dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and paired with thinly sliced shallots, diced tomatos, toasted pine nuts, lots of thinly sliced ribbons of basil, and the very freshest of diced, fresh mozzarella.

8) Cucumbers in a light vinegar and sugar dressing. Traditionally served with a dainty accompaniment of thinly sliced chives. In our household, more frequently clobbered with chives, mint, and dill, plus a generous dose of red pepper flakes. Very refreshing.

8) Potato salad: Preferably with lemon, olive oil & herbs, but in a pinch, I'll make do with the kind made with mayonnaise, pickle, celery, and chopped shallots.

9) Pickled carrots. One of my latest addictions, especially the spicy version pickled with garlic and jalapenos from The Brinery in Ann Arbor. Crisp, salty, spicy, even a little bit sweet, and good for you as well! Definitely addictive. Theoretically, an items I can buy (and thus, technically, not entitled to a place on this list), but given the difficulty of making it to the farmer's market this year, one of those things -- along with sauerkraut -- that I may need to learn how to make.

10) Chocolate sorbet. Because what is summer without dessert?

11) Deviled eggs. For a quick protein boost. And because we always have lots of eggs around.

12) Fruit salad, just about any kind. My current favorite is a mix of berries and nectarines with a light sugar syrup mixed with lime and mint. Am still trying to duplicate the melon salad I had at Zingerman's last year, the one with watermelon, canteloupe, blueberries and mint:

Haven't got it yet. Will let you know as soon as I do...

13) Some kind of black bean salad with roasted red peppers and roasted sweet corn. Always improvised. Different each time. Absolutely essential.

So that's my list. What's on yours?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The tagine and I

We've been exploring Moroccan cuisine around here these days, the happy consequence of receiving this beautiful baking dish for Mother's Day this year:

It's called a tagine (ta-zheen'), and with its rich color and lovely lines it is a gorgeous pot, one I'd proudly use to serve any casserole or roast or gratin. This particular dish, though, is made of Burgundy clay, which means that it can be used directly on any cooktop element, without any diffuser, without any risk of cracking or breaking. Which means it is perfect for braising, which is exactly what a tagine is meant to do.

Maybe you haven't heard of braising before, but if you have cooked much at all, you have probably used this technique to tenderize tough cuts of meat or large pieces of fibrous vegetables (artichokes, for example, or tough leafy greens such as collards or rapini): just briefly saute the meat or tough vegetables, add in any other vegetables and herbs you want to use, then add a small amount of water, wine, or broth; bring to a boil, then lower heat to a slow simmer and cover. Cook until meat and vegetables are perfectly tender, stirring periodically and checking to make sure there is still some liquid in the pan. As the liquid evaporates and condenses on the lid, it returns to the pot, both marrying the flavors of the various ingredients you've used and intensifying their flavors so that by the time the dish is done, everything is deliciously coated in a perfectly complementary -- and surprisingly low calorie -- sauce. It is slow cooking at its very best.

It is not, however, the kind of cooking I think of first when it comes to summer. Last week, though, there was not much in the air to make one think of summer. The skies were gray, rains frequent, and the temperatures depressingly dank. We wanted something warm and nourishing, but something also with the promise of the sun. Moroccan cuisine, with its pairings of sweet (raisins/dates/figs/honey), savory (onions/garlic/meat), and citrus seemed just right.

Plus, I had this wonderful new pot.* And no desire at all to go out for groceries.

So I started by browning skinless/boneless chicken breasts in ghee, then added a clove or two of minced garlic and as many chopped onions as I could scrounge from the cupboards (about two cups; more probably would have been even better), and then seasoned it all with salt and lots of coarsely ground pepper and let it cook until the onions were just barely tender, very aromatic.

Then I added water. This simple step is surprisingly controversial. Some cookbooks advocate using only a very little bit of water -- a 1/4-cup at a time, for example -- and replenishing liquid as needed, where others go so far as to recommend using enough broth, wine, or water to cover all the ingredients by at least an inch and NEVER lifting the lid. In my experience, though, using that much liquid results in something far more like a stew than the caramelized glaze most braises aspire to: delicious, but not what I am aiming for, and so I add less water at the beginning, check it frequently, and add more as needed.

After adding liquid, you can add whatever else you would like to the tagine (tagine, incidentally, refers to both the pot and the dish you make in it). If I'd had some preserved lemons sitting in the refrigerator, I probably would have added one or two of those, cut in quarters, to establish the mellow piquant flavors I associate with Moroccan cuisine. Instead, I added the juice of half a lemon along with a cup or so of cooked garbanzo beans, a handful of raisins for sweetness to balance the bright savory flavors of the chicken and onion mixture, a healthy pinch of saffron, and a tablespoon or more of finely minced parsley. I brought the tagine to to a boil, lowered the heat to a bare simmer, covered the pot and let cook for an hour or so, stirring occasionally and adding water or broth as needed to prevent the pot from going dry.

So far, so good... but I thought it wanted a bit of color; specifically red. Tomatos might have worked, but seemed too acidic. Instead, while the tagine was cooking, I charred a red pepper, peeled and seeded it, and then sliced it in long strips, for a smoky, sweet finish to the dish.

Adjust seasonings, and serve. We had our tagine with whole wheat couscous and crusty bread and a pot of hot black tea poured over muddled mint: a perfect antidote to the miserable weather we've been having.

*For the record: you don't need a tagine to make a tagine. Any heavy frying pan or saute pan with a fitted lid will work just fine (as will any braising pan as well). But if you have a tagine, making something Moroccan is an excellent excuse for bringing it out.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March berries

There were organic strawberries from Florida at the market earlier this week: not the shiny mutants shipped from California -- obvious hollow-cored fakes -- but deep-red, shyly alluring beauties designed to inspire sun-starved desperadoes dreaming of spring. A mirage, of course; nothing like the berries we hope to pick from the garden in June.

Sweetened with a little sugar and a drop or two of a syrupy aged balsamic vinegar, though, they carried just enough memory of warm earth and soft breezes that if you closed your eyes, there it was: the scent of freshly-mown grass, blue skies, peonies swaying in full voluptuous bloom. In Michigan, in March, it is as close to summer as we're going to get.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

12 Retro foods I wouldn't mind having right now, and 3 I don't care ever to have again

(It's a snowy day. Inspired by a Sunday Scribblings prompt, and the sudden desire to put a pot roast on the stove, am heading straight into list territory.)

1) French onion soup, made with slowly caramelized onions, homemade beef broth, bay leaf, and just the right amount of fresh thyme. A sturdy crouton made from a thick slice of a french baguette; lots of gruyere. Goes well with artichoke hearts and hollandaise, which, when I was in Paris, was what I lived on, being too poor to afford anything else.

2) Artichokes with hollandaise.

3) Hollandaise.

4) Artichoke heart dip. Which is kind of like artichokes with hollandaise plus cheese, but heated. And lately, when I make it, spiked with a heavy dose of smoked spanish paprika or ground chipotle peppers in adobo. Best served hot; as it cools and congeals, will remind you of the damage it is doing to your arteries. I like to think a glass of red wine counteracts any ill effects, but I could be wrong.

5) Russian tea (aka Tang tea): an unholy concoction of tang, sweetened lemonade mix, nestea instant tea mix, MORE sugar, cinnamon and cloves. I lived on this stuff in high school, along with cheese curls -- and liked it best when I made it so strong I could spoon the sludge from the bottom of the cup. If the thought of all that sugar makes you as queasy as it does me now, then you can go for a similar effect by diluting cranberry juice with equal amounts of water or tea, and just the smallest bit of added sugar, and simmering with whole cinnamon and cloves for 20 minutes or so. Add fresh orange juice and a little lemon juice to finish. Serve hot or cold.

6) Coquilles St. Jacques. And the salad bar at Bacchus in Kalamazoo. Even today, 20 years later, still one of the most over-the-top indulgences in memory.

7) Magic bars. I don't miss toll house chocolate chip cookies, but I sure do miss these bars made from sweetened condensed milk, graham cracker crumbs, chocolate chips, coconut and chopped nuts. Also miss making them in the kitchen of my friend, L., where no one ever seemed to mind whatever mess we made.

8) The enchiladas chipotle from Pedros at the Stanford Mall. Spicy tomato sauce with smoky chipotle peppers and a sweet kick of pineapple. Loved these. So sad when they went out of business.

9) Beef fondue. Especially if made in a copper pot and served with a rotating carousel of sauces and garnishes. Must include ground roasted peanuts and homemade hot mustard; someone will probably insist on ketchup. Twice-baked potatos are mandatory.

10) And while I'm on a beef kick... the grilled steaks from the Elks Club in Midland. Best in the world. Made me the bovo-vegetarian I still am today.

11) Wide buttered egg noodles with freshly chopped parsley.

12) Italian sundried tomatos from San Remo. As ubiquitous as shoulder pads in the 80s, and much more appealing. Unfortunately, the Californians started muscling in with their inexpensive, dessicated tomato chips and this already far more luxurious variety became the kind of item it takes special connections and suitcases filled with cash to obtain.

As for the three foods I don't care if I ever have again...

1) Pop tarts. Cardboard and jelly. Blech.
2) Kraft macaroni and cheese. Plastic and pasta. Again, blech.
3) Any flourless chocolate torte floated on a sea of raspberry sauce. It is just. too. much.

So tonight, we're having pot roast with buttered egg noodles. If I'd had mushrooms at home, I'd have made it with mushrooms and tomato, with maybe a bit of orange zest, but I didn't, and the roads are looking kind of impassable, so it's pot roast with carrots and potatos, which we always have on hand. If you've made it this far, tell me: What are you having for dinner?