Colors

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.

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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  

A Year and a Day

What did we eat for lunch on June 23rd last year?

This:

Reception Spread 1
Reception Spread 2
Homemade bread, compound butter, big salads of farmer’s market greens with raspberry-mustard vinaigrette, big bowls of berries, three kinds of cheese (including Gruyere, an aged goat and a tangy Brie-like cheese), a smoked salmon-pink peppercorn tart in an almond crust, and a three-layer fritatta, with a roasted red pepper layer, a spinach layer and a cheese layer.

And for dessert?
Wedding cake

Wedding Cake.

Wedding cake and lemon cheesecake

Specifically, an almond cake filled with mixed fresh berries and frosted with vanilla bean whipped cream and decorated with red currants and a lemon cheesecake topped with lemon curd and black currants.

And what did we have for lunch on June 23rd this year?
Anniversary lunch

Sea scallops wrapped in radicchio and pancetta, then grilled and served with a red lettuce salad from the farmer’s market.

The scallop recipe was beyond simple–sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper, wrap each one in a radicchio leaf, and then wrap the leaves with a slice of pancetta. My slices were inexpertly wrapped at the butchers, and thus had unraveled. I ended up just wrapping it around and around and around each little radicchio bundle and securing the ends with toothpicks.

Who am I kidding–I used about 3 toothpicks per bundle. I am not good at food-skewering.

The grill caramelized the radicchio and infused the flavor of both the pancetta and radicchio into each scallop. In spite of the fiddly eating required by all the toothpicks, it was delicious, especially from our unaccustomed seats under our lawn umbrella (which we haven’t set up, sadly, since our wedding reception). Teacherman poured an Alsatian wine to drink alongside the meal–it reminded him perfectly of the wines from our honeymoon.

Lunch was wonderful, yes, but what did we eat for dinner? Last year, we didn’t eat anything for dinner. Our reception was still going on, and due to the enticements of the lunch board, we’d eaten too much of everything.

This year, though, lunch was elegant and austere. And so, for dinner:

Anniversary dinner

Chocolate-peanut butter cookies and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. What’s the point of being a grown-up if you can’t do this sort of thing every now and then?

(I have to admit, though, that I don’t feel remotely like a grown-up. Even though I’m nearly 30, and even though I’m married, I still have to remind myself that I’m not a kid. Thus, of course, the ideal dinner of cookies and ice cream).

If you’ll forgive my sentimentality (and if there’s one day a year when one is allowed to be sappy, one’s wedding anniversary ought to be it): Here’s hoping that we always feel this ridiculously young, and that each anniversary is as lovely–and delicious–as this one.

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Spring’s Last Breakfast

Rhubarb Maple Fool

Rhubarb-maple fool with cinnamon and vanilla.

Published in: on June 20, 2008 at 6:26 am  Leave a Comment  

Long and Scattered

Behold, I am alive.  Ambulatory, even.  (Kind of.  I’m walking perfectly easily, just not for very long periods of time). 

What’s more, I have been cooking.  AND going to the newly-opened farmer’s market. 

Given that it’s still so early in the spring, I’ve been able to do very little at the farmer’s market aside from make a considerable dent in the supply of pea shoots and rhubarb every week, but still.  The pea shoots have graced innumerable salads and sautes and stir-fries, and the rhubarb has been part of soup (poached in red wine and cassis), sorbet (cooked with the juice and zest of blood oranges) and smoothies:

Rhubarb Smoothie

(Greek yogurt, fresh ginger: need I say more?)

Unfortunately, aside from dishes containing the just-picked farmer’s market produce, my main meals have been somewhat lackluster.  Nothing has been actually bad, but nothing has excited me or made me want to write about it.  I haven’t saved a recipe I’ve prepared in almost a month. 

I am not entirely discouraged, however.  Even when living on hum-drum lunches and mediocre dinners, breakfast is always there to save me. 

Like probably 50% of the rest of the population of the U.S., when I was growing up, my parents would occasionally fix ‘breakfast for dinner’ as a special treat.  Whole wheat pancakes with scrambled eggs and bacon was the standard meal when the whole family sat down, and enormous potato pancakes–really thinly shredded hash browns bound with beaten egg and served with (forgive me) ketchup–when the food was meant for just my sister and me. 

Unlike most of the population of the U.S., however, my family also ate breakfast for breakfast.  I know that many people are unable to stomach heavy food–or food of any kind–early in the morning, but my family has never been been part of that group.  Toast (with peanut butter and honey) and fried eggs was my default meal through childhood, while my sister took her toast neat and her eggs scrambled.  My parents both consumed large quantities of yogurt and granola, and chili-covered cheese-filled omelets were rampant.  All of this on ordinary weekday mornings, no less. 

I don’t eat quite the same way anymore.  I have to eat my breakfast at 6:30 am to be able to get to work on time, and I cannot allow myself unlimited time to prepare a meal.  I must, however, eat just as heartily as I always have.  My usual lunch break isn’t until 1 pm, with no break for a snack, meaning that my breakfast has to last me more than six hours (and a 1.5 mile walk, when I’m up to par).

On weekdays I stick to my strict schedule: I eat a hardboiled egg, some homemade sausage (variety subject to change at a moment’s notice) and a large serving of whatever fruit is in season. 

Weekends, however, are a different story.  I have much more time to prepare my meal, and, given that I’m an early riser even without an alarm, the kitchen to myself to prepare it in. 

Farmer's market eggs

My weekend meals usually center around eggs.  Sometimes savory–two weeks ago I poached three eggs in the leftover sauce from a curry-roasted chicken.  It was tangy, spicy and absolutely divine.

Curried Eggs

More often, though, I use my eggs for sweet dishes.  Souffleed omelets and jam-filled crepes are my fall-back meals for weekends.  Both are usually topped with fruit, and both benefit from the eggs I get from the farmer’s market.  The yolks are bright yellow and melt into a custard with almost no need for additional flavoring; the whites are stronger than I am and whip up to stratospheric heights. 

Last week I made a very simple souffleed omelet–I whisked three egg yolks with two tablespoons of simple syrup and a teaspoon of vanilla, then folded in three egg whites, whipped to stiff peaks.  I poured the mixture into a hot cast-iron skillet, the bottom filmed with flavorless oil.  After a second on the heat to set the bottom, I slid the pan into the 400 degree oven, for 15 minutes, until it was cooked through–golden on the outsides, but still soft on the inside, like a meringue. 

I topped the whole thing with fresh strawberries tossed with slivered mint.  It looks enormous and sounds decadent, but it was so light on the tongue that the entire omelet disappeared without a second thought.

Strawberry souffleed omelet

Yesterday morning I made crepes.  Three more of those lovely eggs whisked up into the batter, along with a little Amaretto.  I filled each one with apricot jam, dusted the plate with cinnamon and topped it with raspberries.  It was, believe it or not, a clean-out-the-refrigerator meal. 

Breakfast is my favorite meal, and I’ve been having some great ones, but here’s hoping that the other two meals are soon up to snuff.

Published in: on June 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Avocado Heresy

As I have mentioned innumerable times, my father is from New Mexico. I grew up eating southwestern foods — like salsa — before they were well known in the rest of the country. (It was only a few years ago that I realized that they hadn’t been well known in the rest of the country. I just assumed everyone was eating that stuff).

I don’t have any deep, defining memories of guacamole from my early childhood. In fact, we may not have eaten it particularly often, or even at all. My mother went through a couple of cycles of trying to eat low-fat foods, and avocados weren’t on any of the lists of allowable items, no matter who you asked.

By the time I was in college (and my mother had switched to a moderation-in-all-foods mind-set), guacamole did make regular appearances at our dinner table — usually as a side dish, rather than a dip. We almost always ate it with salmon, I remember: each of us getting a heaping dollop on the plate next to our burnished fillet, the two meant to be eaten together in each bite.

For graduate school, I moved to Austin, TX, a place where one could scarcely avoid guacamole if one wanted to. I was possibly even more cash-strapped than most graduate students are (ask me sometime about the financial aid check that never arrived), but it never occurred to me to scratch the relatively expensive avocados off of my weekly grocery list. (That was probably a good thing. Given how little food I had to survive on, calorie-dense avocados [and my other contemporary indulgence, freshly-ground almond butter] may have kept me alive and healthy).

For all those years, though, I never deviated from the usual guacamole ingredients. Avocado. Tomatoes/tomatillos (my mother’s choice). Onion, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro. Chop. Mix. Eat. The End.

It wasn’t until I was out of school and a full-fledged recipe junkie that I began to notice avocado recipes from other cultures. Sure, I was aware that things like California rolls existed, but it would never have occurred to me to make ersatz guacamole with wasabi, soy sauce and sesame oil. Or a Hungarian version with roasted red peppers, caraway and sour cream.

I never really cared for any of the variations. In many cases, the resultant mixture had too many flavors to taste of anything in particular, and, almost universally, the recipes called for the addition of another kind of fat–sesame oil, sour cream–which I found highly suspect. Avocados are practically made of fat (not that I mind); adding more of it seemed bizarre. The mouth-feel of the finished mixture went from silky smooth to mouth-coatingly fatty.

(This is one of the reasons that I’ve never seen a recipe for an avocado soup that appealed to me. 2 cups of heavy cream to 1 avocado and a paltry pinch of salt? Served hot? Pardon me while I try to get that mental residue off of my tongue).

Not to mention that things like sesame oil and sour cream have very strong flavors of their own, which tended to mask the actual flavor of avocado. If an avocado is in a recipe simply for the buttery texture and to heck with the flavor, just make a cream-cheese dip or flavored butter or something. Leave the avocado alone.

So I continued along my rigid — but merry — way, making traditional guacamole and eating enormous quantities at each sitting. Every now and then a recipe would worm its way into my mind and I’d try something new, usually disappointing myself enough to send me scurrying back to the salsa.

Last week I got the usual bug in my ear. I had a wonderful new middle eastern-inspired cookbook checked out from the library, and behold: its recipe for guacamole contained chopped preserved lemon rind (which I adore).

Aside from that one fanciful deviation, the recipe was what I was used to. Chopped tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, green chiles, onions: all these ingredients are traditional for middle eastern cuisine as well as southwestern American. I had high hopes for the result.

I peeled, pitted and chop/mashed two avocados, until chunky. I added several generous pinches of salt, a small clamshell’s worth of cherry tomatoes, halved, a big handful of minced cilantro leaves, a few spoonfuls of minced onion and garlic, and half of a minced Hatch green chile. (I do keep my loyalty).

I extracted one of my preserved lemons from its jar of salt, rinsed it off, scooped out and discarded the pulp, then finely chopped the rind. I added half of the resultant dice to the avocado mixture (saving the other half for another dish) along with a few spoonfuls of fresh lemon juice, to take the place of the usual lime juice (I couldn’t leave citrus juice out entirely). A few seconds of light mixing later: guacamole.

AND?

It was delicious. My mind was not blown and I did not fall to my knees and weep, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the preserved lemon rind fit into the guacamole. Its astringent saltiness was the perfect foil for the unctuousness of the avocado — fulfilling much the same role as jalapeno, in traditional guacamole. (Yes, this version had green chiles as well, but the parallel was undeniable).

This is a variation on my usual guacamole that I will definitely make again: I can see pairing it with a middle-eastern spiced fish, much in the same way that my mother pairs the traditional version with salmon. Maybe next time I’ll go wild and even try adding some sumac or za’atar.

*(Note: for the record, avocados and wasabi can coexist very peacefully in, say, an Asian-inspired mixed vegetable salad. Just leave out the sesame oil).*

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

This is Not a Recipe

It is, however, a moment of astonishing clarity. It was sublime. Also a little ridiculous.

So. I made oatmeal.

Wait! Wait! There’s more to it than that! (But that is the ridiculous part).

This morning I was making breakfast, and I decided that I wanted oatmeal, so I started in on my usual routine: put a measure of oats in a saucepan with twice that amount of liquid, some spices, some sweetener, bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it once, turn it off and let it sit for a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the oats are tender, and then eat it. For some reason, this morning I got stuck on the choice of liquid.

Even though it’s in the low 30s again (snow! fie!), I didn’t really want the wintertime richness associated with cream or milk, or even coconut or nut milks. I also didn’t want to be so ascetic as to go for plain water, though–I love oats, and I love Scotland, but I’m not such a purist that I take my oats neat.

I stared into the fridge for a considerable amount of time, wasting shameful amounts of electricity. Eggs. Olives. Green Beans. Leftover soup. This was not helpful. Umeboshi plums. Vodka. Solitary muffin.

Wait. Muffin?

Yesterday I made a batch of muffins for a get-together with some friends. I used a recipe for applesauce-almond muffins, but instead of using applesauce, I used my last jar of quince butter, made in the heady days of last fall when fresh fruit was still a reality. (Don’t talk to me about those strawberries in the store right now. They are not real).

During quince season, I made quince butter and quince jam and poached quinces in wine and syrup and quinces ad nauseum. I stored some of everything in freezer, meaning to spread it out over the entire twelve months until quinces were ripe again, but what with one thing and another, I obliterated my quince reserves in just seven months. I used the last of the poached quinces a few weeks ago (baked and stuffed with lamb, lemon zest and pine nuts: phenomenal), but saved the poaching syrup. The muffins (which were also delicious) used all but a few tablespoons of the quince butter.

When I saw the muffin, I remembered the nearly-empty jar of quince butter hidden behind the mayonnaise, and when I saw the quince butter I remembered the quince poaching syrup in the freezer. Oatmeal. Cooked in quince syrup? With quince butter stirred in? Yes.

So that’s what I did. I microwaved the quince syrup for a few seconds, until it was liquid again, poured it over my oats, added a little cinnamon and ginger, then followed my usual method. I scraped the finished oatmeal into a bowl, then added the last scrapings of quince butter and stirred it all together, leaving the quince butter in big whorls throughout the oats.

It was truly lovely. The rich nuttiness of the oats went perfectly with most apparent apple-pear flavor of the quinces, and the floral/vegetal/lemony backnotes of the quinces lightened the dish enough that it didn’t seem heavy.

It’s a dish that, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever make again–the confluence of ingredients is unlikely to recur–but it’s one that I am extremely happy to have eaten.

Published in: on April 13, 2008 at 3:16 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  

Maybe I Should Just Get Over Myself

I’m having a bit of a crisis of faith.  Faith in myself, that is.

I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t talk up my own cooking skills too much—or rather, not my cooking skills, but the results of my cooking.  (This might sound like it’s the same thing, but consider how wonderful a salad of individually fabulous ingredients is—its transcendence has nothing to do with any artistry of arrangement, but is the result of the wonderful flavor of the components).

The last several times I’ve cooked something for other people—for a potluck, say—I’ve made something that I thought was really great.  A fruit crisp with cherries cooked in red wine.  A batch of popcorn dressed in duck fat and smoked salt.  Each time it was something that I’d made before and loved (this is out of the ordinary for me—usually I take a brand new, unattempted recipe, one for whatever I’m the most excited about at the time), and that Teacherman had loved as well. 

In every case, I excitedly presented the dish to the guests—fun, food-loving people with widely ranging tastes—only to receive comments along the lines of: “What’s so special about this?”  No one hated anything (well, okay, one person hate the cherry crisp), but no one thought the recipes were anything special, anything worth talking about, anything worth any amount of enthusiasm.  “It just tastes like popcorn.”  “I can’t taste any of that stuff.”

Upon seeing my startled reaction to their nonplussedness, my friends back-tracked and praised: “Oh, don’t worry, I like it, but. . .”, “It’s not that there’s anything wrong, but. . .”.

I can only wonder: am I over-hyping my results?  Have I become some kind of culinary girl who cried wolf?  I can’t deny that I’m given to flights of hyperbole in my everyday life, but I never thought I was self-aggrandizing about my cooking.  I genuinely believe that these recipes are delicious and distinctive-tasting, and was excited to share them with other people.

Even worse than making a recipe and having it turn out terribly is making a dish and loving it, but having no one else agree.  It makes one wonder if one is flawed in some intrinsic but inexplicable way.  What’s wrong with me that I love this when no one else does?  What am I missing?  What do I not understand?

I know that I am not A Great Chef—I’m a competent cook who’s been lucky enough to have access to what I think are wonderful ingredients, ingredients that I think combine into meals worthy of enthusiasm.  But are the ingredients really as delicious as I think they are?  Do I produce food that is merely passable and not worthy of additional comment? 

It’s a trying situation, and one that I don’t know how to resolve.

Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 11:57 am  Comments (1)  

Maybe I Should Have Waited till February

What’s that? You’re telling me that it’s 15 degrees and snowing?

Shut up! I can still make ice cream if I want to!

You might have noticed that I have this obsession. I don’t think a week has gone by in over a year when I didn’t make some kind of frozen dessert. Sorbet, ice cream, semifreddo; I’ve made them all. And I just haven’t stopped. In fact, I have so many ideas that I can’t believe that I’ll ever stop, simply because then the ideas would weigh on my mind.

Tonight we made blood orange sherbet. (I don’t really care for the word ‘sherbet’, but what we made was definitely in between ice cream and sorbet, thus: sherbet). I’ve been waiting for blood oranges to hit the stores since November, when I saw the Bon Appetit magazine recipe for cranberry-blood orange-ginger relish. The first glimpse of them was last Sunday, when I fell upon the display and carried four enormous specimens back to my lair.

<cough>

Kitchen.

But anyway. I hadn’t planned to use them in a frozen dessert, but the relish recipe only called for one blood orange, and as delicious as it was, I didn’t want to make it four times over. Instead, in an impromptu cupboard raid, I made them into sherbet.

I stripped the zest from all three remaining oranges, then supremed each one. I put the zest and juice from all three, and the flesh from two into my food processor and blended them into a puree, along with a can of light coconut milk. (Impromptu=lack of dairy products in the fridge). I sweetened it just a tiny bit–these blood oranges were sweeter than any others I’ve ever had–added the flesh of the last orange, chopped up into small squares, and then poured the mixture into a tupperware container. I chilled it for, as it turns out, 48 hours (Monday night was busier than expected), and then froze it my indefatigable ice cream maker.

It was, as expected, pretty divine. Every year I forget that blood oranges taste different than regular oranges, and every year I’m surprised by their mellow sweetness. The churned consistency of the sherbet was light, completely lacking in ice crystals, and actually fluffy. I can think of no good comparisons to other textures–one might say that it was almost like substantial, solid cotton candy. It was also, to continue the cotton candy comparison, bright pink. (Unlike cotton candy, however, it was not tooth-achingly sweet and flavorless).

The blood orange flavor was also astonishingly bright and pure, even though there was a can–nearly two cups–of coconut milk involved. There was no coconut flavor to speak of, but I’m sure it contributed to the texture. Unlike many ice creams that I make, I have no desire to eat the remainder with a sauce or a mix in: I want to experience this flavor and this texture over again, just as it is.

There are four more servings in the freezer, and I can’t wait to eat them. It’s supposed to be 7 degrees tomorrow? Shhhh.

Published in: on January 16, 2008 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment