One of the many (manymany) benefits of the farmers’ market is the Technicolor burst of summer meals. The colors are brilliant, bright and arresting, drawing you in as they lie there.

Egg Salad
The substitute sunlight of nasturtium blossoms in a morning’s egg salad, accompanied by a midnight dark bowl of blackberries and blueberries.

Dill Salmon
The subtle greens of fresh dill contrasting with the pastel pink of grilled salmon and the earthy depths of cremini mushrooms (not to mention the inevitable nasturtiums on my salad).

Peaches and Cream
Honey-yellow peaches with burnished pink highlights half-hiding a billowing cloud of rich, white cream, freckled with cinnamon.

Blueberry Coconut Crisp
A big white bowl of blueberries, stewed until juicy and glistening, topped with crisp, toasted coconut.

My descriptions are no less purple than the fruit, but it’s hard not to let fly with superlatives when faced with such bounty.

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Dog Days

Cherry Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

I has been SO HOT in Chicago. The last several weeks have each sported several days in the 90s, with humidity to match. I realize that this not hot compared to the Sahara, or even just Texas, but it’s been miserable. I have a relatively high tolerance to heat, but even I have been dangerously wilted by the end of the day. (It doesn’t help that my workplace is kept at roughly 35 degrees, meaning that I also have temperature whiplash).

Naturally, therefore, I have no desired to eat a cooked dessert–even room temperature fruit is almost too much. I could refrigerate the fruit, but most fruit tastes best without too much chill on it. The best chilled dessert is obvious, of course: ice cream.

I think I’ve made a new ice cream every few days for the past two weeks. Right now I have four flavors in the freezer: fresh mint-fudge swirl, blueberry-lemon, toasted almond-candied cherry, and cherry-chocolate chip (seen in the picture above). I owe the almond and mint recipes to David Liebovitz (though I did use a lesser quantity of almonds than called for, because I was somewhat short of cash that shopping trip), the cherry-chocolate to Simply Recipes, and the blueberry to my own tortured brain. (Desperate for ice cream! Almost no ingredients! Mix things together!)

The cherry and blueberry ice creams started with cooked, sweetened fruit brightened with a little lemon juice and mixed with a few cups of milk.  Chill overnight and churn.

The mint and almond ice creams started with infusions–two cups of milk heated to the point of steaming with either 2 packed cups of mint leaves (chocolate mint, from my back garden) or 1/4 cup of heavily toasted almonds (I took them to a deep dark brown–just this side of burnt). In both cases I let the mixture infuse for far, far longer than called for in the recipes. Most recipes call for an infusion time of about an hour, but I let both the mint and the almonds sit in the milk for 24-48 hours (in the refrigerator, obviously). After straining, I made the milk into a simple custard, which I mixed with sweetener, cream, and a little salt, to bring out the flavors. After freezing, I swirled in my sauces. Simple simple simple.

Every ice cream is wonderful–I can’t think of anything I would change about any of them. Teacherman will be out of town for the next two weeks, but, sadly for him, I will not be saving any of this deliciousness. I plan to eat ice cream every single day, as long as the hot weather lasts.

Well, maybe not. Maybe there will also be some sorbet. Or popsicles. Yes, definitely popsicles . . . .

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Confectionary Genius in 16 Steps

Step 1: Stumble out of bed at 6:00 am, cursing the fact that you have to go to work for the seventh day in a row.

Step 2: Peel and section two clementines – making sure not to break the membranes – and put the sections on a paper towel-lined plate.

Step 3: Put the plate in the fridge, uncovered.

Step 4: Go to work. (Sadly).

Step 5: Come home from work, stare at the kitchen and wish that you had some kind of plan for dinner.

Step 6: Remember that you DID have an idea for dinner when you notice the (thankfully filled and turned on) slow cooker on the counter.

Step 7: Ignore the slow cooker and turn your mind to more interesting matters.

Step 8: Put a piece of parchment paper on a plate and stick the plate in the freezer.

Step 9: Melt 6 oz of bittersweet Callebaut chocolate (or 3 oz unsweetened and 3 Tbsp sweetener) and 3 Tbsp of butter in a nonstick pan.

Step 10: Remove the (now completely dry) clementine segments from the fridge.

Step 11: Dip each clementine segment into the melted chocolate and place onto the cold, parchment-lined plate, then place the plate in the freezer.

Step 12: Pour the remaining melted chocolate into a handily-shaped container and put in the fridge for future chocolate delectation. (Restrain yourself; you will be happy to have it on Wednesday).

Step 13: Remember, again, the existence of the slow cooker. Turn it off and eat your dinner.

Step 14: Do dishes, distractedly.

Step 15: Take the plate of chocolate-covered clementine segments out of the freezer and arrange on two plates.

Step 16: Eat the segments, allowing your teeth to shatter the perfectly crisp, darkly bitter chocolate coating, and shocking your tongue at the cold, intensely citrusy flavor of the clementine within.

Published in: on March 2, 2008 at 8:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Just Because It’s 2 Degrees. . . .

Er, yeah.  I made ice cream again.

Just accept that I have a condition, people!

And anyway, it wasn’t THAT cold yesterday.  (It is now, but no matter).

It started a few weeks ago when I bought a new kind of tea–blackcurrant.  I used to drink blackcurrant herbal tea when I was growing up, but then the herbal variety was discontinued, and only available as a flavored black tea.  Leaving aside my inability to deal with caffeine, I don’t much like the taste of black tea.  In my opinion, the tea overwhelmed the flavor of the blackcurrant; this is probably the way it was supposed to be, but I was still unhappy. 

So, I was sans blackcurrant tea for almost a decade.  When I saw an entirely herbal blackcurrant tea for sale at (of all places) a wine shop, though, I bought it immediately.  It’s not quite as good as I remember–probably because it’s a different brand and thus a different formulation–but it’s aggressively curranty, naturally sweet, and has a lovely purple color. 

On the afternoon when I had my third or fourth cup of the tea, I was thumbing through my favorite ice cream cookbook–if I don’t have a dessert to have with my cup of tea, I’ll read about desserts instead.  Lo, there near the center of the book was a recipe for blackcurrant tea ice cream.  I’ve seen plenty of recipes for plain blackcurrant ice cream or sorbet, but never for one where the only blackcurrant presence is that of tea.  For the next two weeks I hemmed and hawed a bit, due to the weather, but then, of course, I made it. 

I brought three cups of sweetened cream to a boil, added two blackcurrant tea bags, then turned off the heat and covered the pan.  I let the mixture infuse for about 2 hours (the recipe only calls for 1 hour, but I got distracted), then removed the tea bags, squeezing out all of the curranty juices. 

The color of cream immediately turned an odd shade of grey.  Hmm.  Not entirely appealing.  It did, however, taste fantastic, so I persevered. 

I whisked three eggs together until smooth, then tempered them with a bit of the cream, which was still quite warm.  (It is a mystery to me how my house, which is consistently far colder than the thermostat reading, has a hot spot around the stove where NOTHING ever gets cold.  It’s great for proofing dough, though).  I poured the tempered eggs into the pan with the infused cream, turned the heat back on to low, and began whisking.  It took about 10 minutes for the eggs to thicken the mixture into a custard; once it had done so, I poured it through a sieve into a big tupperware container, and slid it into the fridge. 

What with one thing and another it was several days before I managed to get the custard frozen; the wait was definitely worth it, though.  The fruitiness of the black currant was still the dominant flavor, but the background of creamy custard smoothed out its forcefulness.  I was a little offput by the greyish color, but, as Teacherman  pointed out, the tone wasn’t too far from that of a green tea ice cream; this made me feel considerably better. 

The recipe made only a few servings, but we made the most of them.  The first night we savored the ice cream by itself, but the second we served it with chocolate sauce.  I’d heard that chocolate and blackcurrant were an excellent flavor match, but I couldn’t imagine it.  It’s true–they’re perfect for each other, but I can’t really describe how.  The closest I can come is to suggest that the combination is similar to raisins and chocolate, but that isn’t really it at all.

There’s a simple solution to this dilemma, though: you’ll all just have to make the ice cream yourselves, and tell me what you think.  And then I’ll have to make it again, to see if I agree.

Published in: on January 30, 2008 at 1:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Oh Dear

I admit, it does sound weird, but you have to give it a chance! 

Last night was our upstairs neighbor/best friend’s 40th birthday, and his girlfriend threw him a fabulous party.  (How fabulous?  I actually stayed for five hours, even though I usually overdose on partydom by an hour in).  Said girlfriend laid on a bounteous spread of delectables, but since most of my non-Christmas gift-giving tends to be food-related, I still brought a few things. 

Of all the foods our friend loves, bacon is foremost among them.  The love is so great that it’s become a joke among his massive, world-wide group of friends.  “ANYTHING is better with bacon!”  I try not to serve him unending courses of bacon-related goodies, but this party seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a few of the more unusual bacon recipes I’ve been saving. 

A few months ago I checked The Bacon Cookbook by James Villas out of the library.  It’s a nearly 300 page cookbook where every recipe, even the ones for sweets, contains bacon.  One those recipes–chocolate coated peanut butter bacon truffles–was impossible to ignore. 

All right, yes, I know.  Bacon in a dessert is just bizarre.  Bacon is made of meat, and it’s been roughly 600 years since meat and sugar were regular recipe companions, at least in the Western world.  But consider this: maple-glazed bacon.  People eat that all the time!  Also, my mother has been known to eat the occasional peanut butter-bacon sandwich.  I only ever ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but it isn’t SUCH a stretch to elide the two.

So I made the truffles.  I cooked 4 slices of bacon until crisp, let them cool completely and then broke the strips into haphazard pieces and put them into my food processor.  I added 4 oz of roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp of sugar, and then ground all three together until they had amalgamated into a coarse powder.  I tasted–it was good!, but it needed another Tbsp of sugar and a pinch of salt, which I added, along with the stipulated 1/4 cup of smooth peanut butter.  I pulsed the new ingredients in until the mixture had come together and formed a ball. 

I scraped the peanut butter filling into a bowl, and stuck it in the fridge for half an hour to set up.  When the time came, I rolled the paste into small balls, froze them for 15 minutes, and then dipped them in melted bittersweet chocolate and rolled them in unsweetened cocoa powder.  Voila–chocolate peanut butter bacon truffles. 

I let them chill thoroughly before I tasted them.  In fact, I put them in the freezer for a couple of days, and then let them defrost in the fridge for an hour right before the party.  As I arranged them on the pretty platter, I popped one in my mouth–in spite of the positive tastes I’d had while making the filling, I was still a little dubious about the combination of bacon and chocolate. 

Wow.  They were like peanut butter cups, but enhanced.  The sort of food that the adjective “extreme” should be reserved for.  The bacon didn’t add a meaty flavor, or any textural component at all, it just added an extra salty, lightly smokey background to the peanut butter, making it taste more like itself.  The chocolate coating was shatteringly crisp, and the bitterness and purity of the chocolate contrasted perfectly with the richness and complexity of the filling. 

I went hurtling up to the party and thrust the platter at Teacherman and our upstairs neighbors.  They each took one, slightly hesitantly.  A pause, then three swoons: the reactions were ecstatic.  BUT.  After salving the birthday boy with his bacon ration, I offerred the platter to the rest of the guests.  Not one single one of them thought they were good.  Not one SINGLE one!  About ten people refused to try them at all, so they don’t really count, but the other fifteen tried them and thought they were terrible

I tried a second truffle.  Still nutty and salty and chocolatey.  Still the ur-peanut butter cup.  Still delicious.  Other people, though, were making faces of horrified disgust, some even went so far as to make gagging noises.  Everyone ate up their entire truffle, but they roundly declared them to be hideous. 

This is definitely one of the most confusing experiences I’ve ever had.  If it was just me that liked the truffles, I’d think that my dull tastebuds were to blame, but Teacherman, who has a very sensitive palate, and our upstairs neighbors, who aren’t vastly adventurous eaters, loved them, too.  We all had seconds, and enjoyed them just as much as the first. 

I can only conclude that the rest of our guests were too repulsed by the idea of bacon in a dessert to pay attention to the taste in their mouth.  I hate to dismiss an entire group of people outright, but I can’t figure out any other way to account for what happened.

In any case, and in spite of the reactions of the party-goers, I heartily recommend the recipe.  I know that I’ll be making it again, but this time I just won’t share. 

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cakes and Mistakes

Would you believe that I forgot to give them the mustard?

Indeed, a fabulous party has come and gone, and more than six pounds of corned beef were consumed all without the benefit of mustardy accompaniment. I think I received more astonished praise about this party’s food than I have for that of any other event. The two biggest hits, though, were the baked items: the soda bread and the dessert.

The soda bread recipe I settled on, after brief guilt induced by the article in last Wednesday’s New York Times about what does and does not become a “true” soda bread, was in almost no way traditional. The recipe, from the February 2006 issue of Bon Appetit, contained no eggs (traditional!) but did include browned butter, fresh rosemary and black pepper. I itched to fiddle with the recipe even more (whole wheat flour! maybe some mustard seeds!) but I restrained myself. The rosemary bush on the front porch, after several months of subzero temperatures and no water, is miraculously still alive, and yielded up ample fresh needles–on soft stalks, even–to chop into the dry ingredients.

The flour, baking soda, salt and seasonings were mixed with the buttermilk and browned butter. The dough was shaggier than I anticipated–far too sticky to even contemplate cutting fancy crosses on the top of. I just glopped two mounds onto an ungreased baking sheet, shoved them into the oven, and hoped. After 45 minutes the breads looked lovely (pristine white dough with deep golden spikes on the top, flecked through with black and green from the rosemary and pepper) and smelled quite divine. I usually don’t like the smell of melted butter (an interesting abberation, since I’m certainly willing to scarf it down in great quantity), but browning it first eliminates that problem. Cooking something with browned butter already in it further intensified the nuttiness that the browning brought out, ending with an aroma that noticeably filled the mouth sooner than the nose, the very definition of mouth-watering. The breads hadn’t risen nearly at all, however, so it was with great trepidation that I whisked them onto the cutting board on the serving table.

The locusts descended. Silence reigned. I picked at the cheddar and looked at other things.

“Wow,” said somebody. “This is really good!”

The soda bread was the first thing to disappear from the buffet table, and there were plenty of people hovering nearby to vulture up the crumbs after the last slice was consumed. I don’t make soda bread very often–on St. Patrick’s Day every few years, if then–but I may be required to make this bread for all future parties of any persuasion. I think, though, that now I can trust myself to try variations. No mustard seeds do I see in my future, but whole wheat flour is definitely in the offing.

The second slavered-after baked good was my dessert. I made my standard flourless chocolate cake (10 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 stick butter, 1 cup liquid of some variety, 1 cup sweetener of some variety, 4 eggs, 1 Tbsp vanilla and other flavorings as desired). Inspired by the visions of Irish Coffee that Teacherman had been having all week, I flavored this one with espresso and Irish whisky, which each made up half of the liquid element. The cake came out very dark and very bitter, rich enough to be a confection rather than a cake. I made it in a ten-inch springform pan (as opposed to a six-cup Bundt pan, my usual receptacle) and cut it into 20 pieces, each about an inch wide and equally high. Given the fact that it was almost a triangular truffle, this was the perfect size for the corner left in everyone everyone’s stomach and the cake was consumed (along with strawberries and clotted cream) with great alacrity.

I had hoped to have a few pieces left over (there’s always someone who doesn’t want dessert after a hearty dinner), but there weren’t even any crumbs left when I glanced at the platter, halfway through my own piece. The cake wasn’t as popular as the soda bread, but my favorite compliment of the evening resulted therefrom. “This is so adult,” said my choir director, a description that is rarely applied to me or my accoutrements by anyone. I’m absurdly pleased by that, and it makes up entirely for the fact that tonight’s dessert was half an apple.

Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Day of Unusual Snacks

Today I have a cold. A massive, awful, requiring-of-medication cold. Not only that, but there’s an unnerving ice storm going on outside that, according to the weather channel, will continue in various iterations until Monday at 4 pm. Yes, I made stock (beef). Yes, I made soup (split pea-lettuce). Yes, I made GALLONS of tea (lemon-ginger). All of these things are good for colds/days-of-inclement-weather. For some reason, though, I really needed something more, something that I could indulge myself with. I ended up making two rather involved snacks.

I’m not usually one for finicky prepared snacks; if anything I go for hastily sliced cheese or arm-long celery stalks out of the crisper. I don’t know what possessed me on a day when I felt so horrid, but I spent considerable time hovering over the stove and wrestling with implements, resulting in 1. popcorn with browned butter and orange zest and chocolate, and 2. homemade toasted soynut butter.

The popcorn recipe is one I had first noticed on seeing an episode of Michael Chiarello’s show on the Food Network. I’m addicted to Nigella Lawson in any form, and her latest show is broadcast at noon on Sundays; if I’m not at work, I never miss it. Chiarello’s show follows immediately after, and through complete laziness and sloth, sometimes I watch at least part of it, too. I don’t remember anything about that particular episode as a whole, but I do remember the popcorn. I was captivated by the idea of coating popcorn with browned butter (and intrigued by Chiarello’s tips on browning the butter without burning it), feathery shavings of orange rind zested on the spot, and chocolate grated with the same implement.

Teacherman stirred furiously while I zested the chocolate and watched the popcorn become slowly covered with melted flecks. It was the perfect snack food. The popcorn absorbed the butter, the chocolate set almost hard and the orange breathed in the background of every bite we took. It wasn’t too messy, but I still wimped out and ate it with a spoon.

Later, digging through our chest freezer to find one of my myriad bags of summer-frozen fruit, I happened upon half a package of soy flour, bought for a recipe I made nearly a year ago. I stood there, the freezer open and icicles developing on my sleeves (not that our back porch needs help in that regard, even though it’s enclosed), and remembered the soynut butter that I used to buy before the ingredient list started making me nervous. Why couldn’t I make soynut butter at home? I knew I couldn’t just grind it the way I do nuts, but there had to be some way.

I bundled the soy flour on top of my bag of rhubarb and carried it back to the kitchen. I threw about a cup of it into a big nonstick pan and stirred it over lowish heat until it started smelling toasty. I will gloss over the part where my medicine-head made me stare out the window at nothing, my stirring hand immobile until I returned to reality, shrieked and whisked the pan off the stove.

I added 2 Tbsp of roasted peanut oil (one of the best things ever invented, by the way, and I curse the day the nearby health food store stopped stocking it), an enormous splash of water and an equal amount of flavored coffee syrup. (That is, syrup for flavoring coffee with, not coffee-flavored syrup. This particular syrup was hazelnut-flavored). It was quite, quite lovely, and tasted much nicer than the store-bought variety; the sweetness is subtle, the toastiness rounds out the flavor and the texture is more like a real nut butter than the terrifying emulsification of the jarred. I don’t think I’d make this every weekend in order to have a continuous supply in the fridge, but a soft, sweet spoonful is a comforting indulgence for a snowy weekend with a cold.

Published in: on February 24, 2007 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cacao Nibs and Cocoa

Lately I’ve been interested in cooking savory dishes with chocolate. This isn’t exactly a new idea–Hispanics have been making mole for more years than I would care to estimate, and I’ve seen recipes for cocoa-crusted proteins in various high-end cookbooks for years. I always resisted these, precisely because of mole; or rather, because of my one experience with mole.

My father is originally from Albuquerque, NM, and when I was young and he still made dinner occasionally, he would often make Southwestern (or at least Southwestern-esque) dishes. For a Fancy Grown-Up Dinner Party once, he made real mole. I’m sure, given that it was the 80s in the midwest, he didn’t toast and grind all of his spices from scratch, but I remember the ingredient list being prodigious, and that it contained one square of unsweetened chocolate. I was in the kitchen when the sauce neared completion, and he offerred me a taste. I don’t know why I acquiesed–I was an incredibly picky child–but I did. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember that I hated it. This was not run-of-the-mill hate, the way I hated lasagne and enchiladas (two things that I have since grown to love), this was a revulsion that was actually shocking and arresting. I think I may even have run from the room to rinse out my mouth. The adults at the dinner party loved it.

Because of that lone incident, one that most likely took place before I even reached the age of ten, I absolutely refused to have anything to do with savory chocolate for nearly 20 years. Even after I grew up and became a voracious devourer of cookbooks and an eater of bizarre foods, I utterly rejected the idea of chocolate in savory preparations. I would read the recipes and curl my lip, thinking: “This chef, in spite of his years of culinary training and critical and popular adulation, is obviously an idiot.” I felt vindicated when I read a Nigella Lawson recipe for a spice-coated salmon in which she confessed that she’d adapted it from another author’s book, removing that author’s addition of cocoa powder. (Cocoa powder on SALMON! The lip curled further). I was comfortable in my superiority.

But at the beginning of February I unexpectedly began to think about savory chocolate. I’d like to say that it was inspired by the Valentine’s week episode of Iron Chef, or by the lovely new Scharffenberger chocolate cookbook that I just checked out of the library, but the interest arose before I ever saw either. I was making an otherwise unexceptional salad with avocados and oranges the other week, and for some reason threw in some cacao nibs.

It was very good.

I didn’t have a revelatory experience that caused me to fall to my knees and recant, but I did enjoy the flavors. And when I saw a Cooking Light recipe for a beef stew that included cocoa powder in the spice rub, I thought for a moment, then gave it a try. Also very good. The cocoa doesn’t add anything like an aggressively chocolate flavor (if I hadn’t tossed it in myself, I’d never recognize the cocoa) but in combination with what are really prodigious amounts of coriander, it adds an ineffable _something_. It being a stew, there was a vast quantity left over, and I’ve been eating it all week long for lunch, enjoying it just as much each day. Like all tomato-based stews, the flavors mellowed and melded, which, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing.

It still wasn’t a religious conversion, but I’m now definitely in favor of trying more savory foods with chocolate–or at least with cocoa. Maybe I’ll even add the cocoa powder back to Nigella’s recipe for salmon.

Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment