Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Any Occasion for a Party

The holidays aren't the only reasons I have for celebration these days. In addition to the usual days off on the calendar and the gatherings of friends and family that go with them, I have two anniversaries worthy of a little party.

First, just before Thanksgiving I celebrated a whole year without a car. Last year I gave my old Land Yacht to Goodwill out of the frustration borne of nagging repairs (nothing huge, just a gradual wearing-down of my savings account) and of growing awareness of the environmental impact of driving. Since then, I have discovered that relying on my own two feet and the kindness of friends has helped me live in a much more grounded, localized way and led to some very pleasant and surprising consequences. This has been a very good move for me, and I look forward to what comes next.

The other anniversary I wanted to celebrate is yet to come: on Saturday, December 3, this blog will reach the one-year mark. It started as a little journal to share my holiday baking preparations with friends who love hearing about what I cook, and it has developed into both a place where I can indulge my love of food and of writing about food as well as a forum for exploring some of the deeper issues about food and food production. I'll plan to write more about what I've learned over the year in a later post, but suffice it to say that this project also led to some very pleasant and surprising consequences.

So in order to celebrate two seemingly small but astonishingly life-changing events in my life, I asked my faithful sous chef, the lovely Phoenix, how we should celebrate? She replied immediately, "Awesomely."

Well, yes, of course. But where?

After a brief discussion of options and schedules, we decided to head to the local Bistro, one of my favorite restaurants given its emphasis on local foods and organic produce, for dinner last night. (This shows you the extent of our desire to celebrately "awesomely"... dinner is much more expensive there than lunch... but oh so worth it.)

We started our meals with small bowls of a rich and creamy heirloom pumpkin soup garnished with tiny croutons and fresh chopped parsley. The fresh pumpkin flavor warmed our stomachs, and its velvety texture slid down comfortingly. I had chosen a glass of Riesling to accompany my dinner, and though the wine was surprisingly light and fruity, it paired well with the richness of the soup.

For our entrees, Phoenix opted for a large salad of mixed greens with a slice of bread topped with goat cheese and pecans and baked until bubbly and brown. I decided to sample the pecorino polenta, floating in a housemade tomato sauce and topped with braised greens (fennel, broccoli, brussel sprouts), roasted garlic, and shaved pecorino... and, of course, shared some of this delicious dish with my dinner companion. Hearty and rich, but not too filling, the polenta offered an unusual but pleasing mix of flavors.

The special dessert had been announced when we first came in, and Phoenix chose to enjoy it: a molten chocolate cake served with caramel ice cream. It sounded very fine to me, but I wasn't really up for that much chocolate for once, so I perused the rest of the dessert menu. So many wonderful choices! And I might have opted for the small serving of the dark chocolate mousse (which is fabulous) except that my eye fell upon the listing for the cheese platter and latched onto that as a very European ending to the meal.

I was astonished to discover that accompanying the cheese (a goat Brie, a Manchego, and one of my all-time favorites, Gruyère) was a sizable salad of mixed greens tossed with a light but savory vinaigrette (instead of the assumed selection of seasonal fruits and nuts). Not that this was a bad thing... those greens are locally grown and very good, and the tang of the vinaigrette worked very nicely with the creamy Brie as well as with the other cheeses. Apparently the kitchen just puts together what they find from the day's ingredients, and you take what you get since the cheese platter is not one of their more frequently-requested desserts. But I found it surprisingly satisfying as a way to end the meal, leaving me quite content with my choices.

Upon returning home, I did indulge in a small "nightcap" of a cup of sweet dreams tea sweetened with just a tiny bit of lavender honey (which might have been quite lovely on the Brie, come to that). That was all the sweetness I needed to round off the evening and settle me down for bedtime.

I think that qualifies as an "awesome" celebration, shared with one of my favorite cooking companions. And as I return to my holiday baking later this week, look for more entries that hearken back to those early days here on the site. Thanks to all of you for joining me on this culinary journey this past year.

And here's to a fruitful new year!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

You Are My Sunshine

Though the temperature is climbing slowly, the sun has slipped behind the clouds again, returning us to the dreary skies all too common to late fall around here.

Because of this, I decided to postpone starting the first batch of biscotti in order to try a new recipe I've been pondering: sugar cookies with a sunny burst of fresh orange and candied ginger.

That's right: sunshine cookies.

I generally don't make cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas because I never had the right recipe or the inclination. (I've got plenty of cookie cutters, but I've never cared as much for rolled cookies.) But I came across one of my favorite childhood recipes earlier this year (for candy cane cookies) and thought I could adapt it to my purpose.

My adaptations ranged from using my usual half-and-half blend of unbleached and whole wheat pastry flour to substituting maple sugar for the confectioners' sugar listed in the recipe, not to mention the addition of freshly grated orange peel and mini diced ginger (as well as the obvious omission of the crushed candy cane topping).

I rolled out the lightly speckled dough and cut out fluted circles that could pass for stylized suns and sprinkled them with an orange-infused sugar before moving them to the cookie sheets.

Minutes later, I had a few dozen buttery little suns, crisp and twinkling and brightly flavored -- the perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea.

Is it any wonder that I called up a friend and offered to bring her a little sunshine on a gray day? And would you be surprised to learn that we shared a cup of tea along with the cookies and a good two hours' worth of conversation?

It's true that I haven't wanted to fuss much with cut-out cookies for the holidays, but I may make an exception for this recipe and add it to my traditional holiday baking repertoire. After all, Christmas and Hanukkah both appropriate the ancient traditions of celebrating the light at the darkest time of the year (the winter Solstice) and holding on to hope for better days and the renewal of the world.

So it's not too farfetched, I think, to bake a little extra sunshine to get us through the depths of winter.

Sunshine Cookies

Based on the recipe for candy cane cookies from the Gold Medal Century of Success Cookbook, these cookies will bring a smile to any kid’s face, no matter how young or old. Make them extra special by using a sun or flower shaped cookie cutter and sprinkling the orange-infused sugar on top.

1/2 c maple sugar
1/2 c organic cane juice crystals (or granulated sugar)
1/2 c unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c shortening (there IS non-hydrogenated shortening; look for it!)
1 T freshly grated orange peel
1 egg
1 tsp almond extract (can be omitted, but I like it)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c unbleached flour
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 c mini diced crystallized ginger
1/4 c organic cane juice crystals
1 tsp freshly grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 375 F. Set out cookie sheets; they do NOT need to be greased!

In large bowl, cream together maple sugar, cane juice crystals, butter, and shortening. Add orange peel, egg, and extracts, and mix until well blended. Stir in flours and salt, then work in diced ginger. You may want to finish working the dough together with your hands.

Grind together the remaining cane juice crystals and orange peel. Set aside.

On a lightly floured counter, roll out the dough to 1/4" to 1/8" thickness. Cut out cookies using a sun, flower, circle, or star cookie cutter. Sprinkle cookies with orange-infused sugar before setting them on cookie sheets. Gather dough scraps, work together, roll out, and continue cutting out cookies until dough is used up.

Bake cookies until set and very light brown, 8-10 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove to wire cooling rack. Store in airtight container.

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen

A Thrill a Millet

I have always kept the standard grains on hand in my pantry (wheat flour and germ, oats, rice, rice flour, cornmeal) but haven't often strayed beyond them. I'm finding, however, that the more I cook with millet, the more I love it.

This small round yellow grain is most often seen in birdseed, and so when I use millet, those people who don't understand my vegetarian ways ("So what do you eat? Grass and twigs? Nuts and berries?") have a field day.

Frankly, they do't know what they're missing. Millet is one of the most densely nutritious grains in the world, loaded with iron, magnesium, phosphorus, B vitamins, and all sorts of other good things. It's easily digested and grows well in poorly fertilized and dry soils, making it a very popular crop in other areas of the world.

As for me, I like the taste and the crunch of millet. I've used it with cauliflower to make a satisfying substitute for mashed potatoes, and earlier this fall I added it, uncooked, to a batch of pumpkin muffins, giving them a surprising heartiness.

This morning, though, I decided to try the millet pancake recipe found in The Vegetarian Hearth for my breakfast. While the grain simmered in soymilk and water, absorbing the liquid and fluffing up yet retaining a hint of the crunch, I had time to clean the bathroom. And when I returned, it didn't take much longer to finish making the batter so that I could fry the cakes while I juiced an orange and brewed a big mug of coffee.

The author suggested topping the millet pancakes with sour cream, but since I rarely have that on hand, I reached for the plain nonfat yogurt I usually use in its place and discovered that the tang of the yogurt blended well with the mellow warmth of the millet. I also tried a dollop of pear-pine nut-walnut preserves on one little cake and found it pleasing as well.

But best of all, I enjoyed the pancakes completely unadorned, allowing the simplicity and complexity of the millet to shine through. Tender but with a bite, bland but with a nutty, almost corn-like flavor, the millet stood very well on its own.

I exercised restraint and only ate the first four cakes (about 3" diameter), saving the other four for lunch or dinner. (I suspect they will go excellently with steamed kale or the leftover squash.) But I know already that this recipe will become a regular favorite in my house.

Won't you give this humble grain a home, too?

Millet Pancakes

This is a slight variation of the recipe found in The Vegetarian Hearth, using yogurt for the farmer cheese and adding the flour to the batter instead of dredging the cakes in it. Make these any time of day... they're great on their own, but also work well as a side dish.

1 c millet
2 c milk or soy milk (unsweetened)
1/2 c water
1 tsp salt
1 T sugar
1/3 c plain nonfat yogurt
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 T flour (any kind, really)
2 T canola oil

In a medium saucepan, bring the millet, milk, water, and salt to a boil. Simmer, covered for 20 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in sugar, yogurt, egg, and flour.

In a large skillet, heat the oil. Drop the millet mixture into lumps about 3" diameter and press with the back of the spoon to spread the batter more evenly. Fry until golden brown, turning once, about 8 to 10 minutes in all.

Serve immediately, topped with nonfat yogurt... or not!

Makes 12-16 pancakes, serving 4

Friday, November 25, 2005

You Crack Me Up!

I'm going completely nuts.

I know that to some of you, this is no surprise. In fact, I can hear some of you saying, "Going?" (Quiet, you.)

But this time it's not my fault. Really.

My Wonderful Parents brought me a big bag (probably around 4 to 5 quarts) of cracked-shell pecans from their local market when they visited last weekend. And just in time for Thanksgiving, my good friend Sojourner sent me a couple more quarts of cracked-shell pecans from her local pecan grower in Illinois.

Such bounty! And just in time for holiday baking, too. But first, of course, I have to spend some time actually extracting the nuts from the shells before I can use them.

So, for the past couple of evenings I have snuggled up on the sofa, listening to lively Celtic and folk Christmas music, with a pan and two bowls on my lap as I pick apart the broken shells and pop out those tasty pecan meats. It's slow, meditative work as I concentrate on getting even the tiny pieces of shell from the nuts, and vice versa.

I'm not done yet -- it takes a while, and there are still walnuts to crack and shell, too -- but I've filled one half-gallon bucket of pecans already.

And when I'm done, just think of the things I'll be able to bake: baklava, ginger-pecan biscotti, spiced nuts -- even a pecan pie if I so choose.

But until then, I'll keep going nuts.

Care to join me?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Home for the Holiday

It's Thanksgiving Day, and now I'm even happier that I chose to stay home for the holiday. The snow that fell yesterday was coated this morning with freezing rain and blown into a fine sheen by the bitter winds as the temperature dropped into the teens. Hello, Winter!

It's a perfect day, then, for turning on the oven and cooking a simple harvest meal to celebrate the day.

I peeled and sliced one of those beautiful organic butternut squash from my favorite farmer, the Cheerful Lady, then browned the slices in a pan while I prepared the topping: sauteed organic onion and garlic from the farmers' market, chopped dates, organic pistachios, grated lemon peel, parsley, dried mint from the garden, cinnamon, and lemon juice. (Thanks once again to Local Flavors for a fantastic recipe!)

While the squash and the topping baked together briefly in the oven, I steamed some fresh kale to add to my dinner plate. (I just love squash and kale together. Maybe it's my peace-loving Irish blood, seeing the orange and the green in harmony -- or maybe I just love autumn vegetables.)

By the time I had filled my plate with my humble Thanksgiving feast, the sun had come out, shining brightly in the blue sky, and I had yet another reason to give heartfelt thanks.

I love a good, traditional feast shared with family and friends as much as the next person, and yes, I'm a sucker for a good pumpkin pie (with real whipped cream, please!). But today I gave thanks for a full larder and freezer, as well as for the realization that a simple meal would be more than sufficient. I gave thanks for the loved ones who called and shared a small part of the day with me, and I gave thanks for the peace found at the end of the day.

And for the rest of the weekend, I'll give thanks for the time to bake more!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Let the Feast Begin

The stinging snow is blowing in, and the campus is looking more and more like a ghost town as the students head home for the long Thanksgiving weekend.

I'll be enjoying a long weekend myself and away from the computer, so you'll have to wait a week to find out what I've been up to with all that free time. I haven't started a written list as to what I hope to do over the weekend, but here's a sampling of what may or may not get done:

--I just breezed through Confessions of a French Baker, and now I confess to having an urge to bake some good French bread, with crisp crust and chewy crumb and unbeatable flavor. Might have to heat up the baking stone after all!

--I plan on drinking fresh orange juice every morning, followed by the making of candied orange peel.

--I've pulled recipes for all sorts of harvest dishes, from butternut squash rounds with dates and pistachios, an apple-spinach salad, mashed potatoes with parsnips, and so on. Since I've already enjoyed the family meal and won't be going anywhere come Thursday, these dishes aren't intended for a big Thanksgiving meal... just for my own satisfaction.

--I may try a microbatch of a carrot-orange marmalade found in Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures.

--I'll be shelling lots of local walnuts and some fresh pecans sent by Sojourner, setting aside several cups of the chopped meats for the upcoming annual baking of baklava. If I get really ambitious and shell them all, I may can the rest! (Yes, you can can nuts. Did you know that? I didn't!)

--I hope to make biscotti for the holiday season and get them stashed away in tins. So far, ginger-pecan is definitely leading the pack, but I haven't fully decided if I should stick with the classic cranberry-orange or try something else. Stay tuned.

On top of all that, there's a possibility of a play date with my adorable "nephews" and a strong desire to push ahead on some stories and to start Christmas preparations (addressing cards, putting up decorations, wrapping presents).

In short, it's a good thing I'm staying home alone (by choice, I assure you, not for lack of generous offers; I need to move rest to the top of that list!) and we're expected to have snow for the rest of the week.

For those of you who are traveling to visit with family and friends, I wish you safe journeys, good company, and a bountiful feast. Though I'm staying here alone for the weekend, I will be thankful for all of you Dear Readers who have shared your enthusiasm for good food, local farmers' markets, and life in general.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your Feast be blessed!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Gruyère Day Than Usual

Many years ago, I spent a semester of my senior year of college in Grenoble, a city at the foothills of the French Alps and at the heart of the Dauphiné region. I lived with a host family in a southern suburb, and after classes most of the day, I would return "home" and learn about everyday French cuisine, especially the modern fare influenced by the wide variety of immigrant populations that found a home in this bustling metropolis.

These were my pre-vegetarian days, so I sampled and enjoyed rabbit in a wine and mushroom sauce, couscous with a spicy beef tagine, salade dauphinoise strewn with petits lardons (small chunks of ham or bacon), and the occasional lasagna. My host mother worked full-time outside the home but still prepared a full meal (salad, entree, dessert) each evening (and I still don't know how she did that!).

But the dish that I loved the most (and she willingly trotted out regularly for me) was the regional classic gratin dauphinois. You can imagine this as a version of potatoes au gratin, but it is so much more creamy and rich and savory than plain ol' potatoes au gratin that it's like comparing a Hershey bar to a dark chocolate pot de crème.

As she made the dish one night, I took noted on the ingredients and the method, and I have since made it on an annual basis, usually for company. (It's far too rich for more frequent use now.) It requires liberal amounts of butter, garlic, potatoes, half-and-half, and, of course, my favorite cheese from the region, Gruyère.

(I sometimes characterized the aroma of this delightful cheese as something akin to dirty socks. Perhaps that's an exaggeration. It has a potent flavor with a nice tang, and despite my description, I grew quite fond of Gruyère as it tasted so good on a fresh baguette, with or without ham, and thus made an easy and cheap lunch during the school day.)

When we stopped at West Point Market a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a small block of cave-aged Gruyère from the Comté region of France (some comes from Switzerland; I choose not to join the debate over which is better) and asked Phoenix if I needed to make gratin dauphinois for her soon. After a brief, blissful reminiscence over the last time she sampled it, she gave me that look I know all too well and said, "Well, I wouldn't say no."

So when it came time to plan dinner for my Wonderful Parents -- as well as for my Wonderful Work Crew of Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy -- I opted for a sort of country French meal with a hearty white bean cassoulet, the not-really-French flatbreads mentioned previously, and gratin dauphinois.

After we loaded the minivan with boxes from the basement, Phoenix helped me prepare the potatoes as I layered butter, garlic, potatoes, and shredded Gruyère in the baking dish. I had chosen to use 2% milk from the local dairy instead of half-and-half in order to make a slightly healthier dish, but it turned out a little on the runny side.

But no matter: everyone agreed that the flavor was still fantastic and that it harmonized well with the cassoulet. And after all that, no one had room for dessert (a relief, since I hadn't made any!).

I sometimes miss Grenoble and being in such a lovely area so close to the Alps. But once a year, I make this dish, and I'm transported back for an evening, savoring what was good about the city and the region... and the cheese.

Gratin Dauphinois

This recipe originally comes from my French host mother, though it was confirmed by a similar recipe in the Betty Crocker International Cookbook. I'll include measurements here, but I don't follow them any longer; just use liberal amounts of everything (except salt and pepper), and you will end up with a very rich and creamy dish.

4 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1-4 garlic cloves, minced or crushed
1 stick butter (don’t worry! you don’t have to use it all!)
salt and black pepper to taste
1 1/2 c shredded Gruyère cheese
1 pint half-and-half

Scrub the potatoes but don’t peel them. Cut them into enough thin slices to measure about 4 cups. Sprinkle an oblong baking dish (10 x 6 x 1 1/2 inches or thereabouts) with garlic. Slice thin curls of butter into the bottom of the pan as well; they don’t have to cover the bottom, they’re just there to grease the pan.

Arrange the potatoes in three layers in the pan, sprinkling each layer with a bit of salt and pepper, 1/3 of the cheese, and a little extra butter and garlic if you feel so inclined. The top layer of potatoes should be well-covered with Gruyère and dotted with a little more butter. Pour the half-and-half into the pan along the sides; the level should stop about 1/2 inch from the top of the pan so that it doesn’t bubble over and make a mess of your oven. (If you really feel the need to fill it up, then put your pan on top of a cookie sheet with sides... then you only have an extra pan to clean up.)

Cook uncovered in a 350 degree oven until potatoes are tender, top is golden brown, and a most succulent aroma is filling your kitchen, dragging you out by the tongue. This should take about 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool a little while before serving.

Serves approximately 6

Friday, November 18, 2005

Flat Out

It's been an exhausting week with a frustrating project at work, so I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to take a vacation today in order to spend a little more time with my Wonderful Parents.

Of course, then they decided to spend the day with friends a few miles up the road, so that gave me even more time to relax.

After a power loll in bed this morning, I eventually made my way downstairs to squeeze some fresh orange juice and to start making flatbread. No, that wasn't for breakfast -- it's for dinner tomorrow.

Being a Good Daughter, I had offered to cook dinner one night for my Wonderful Parents while they're here, and it made sense to me to arrange that for after our little moving party to load their things into the minivan. That way, our helpful movers, the ever-generous Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy, can share in the feast. (Ah, college students -- so easy to bribe with free home cooking!)

I'm planning to make a pot of white bean cassoulet tomorrow, along with my famous gratin dauphinois (potato bliss; more on that tomorrow), so these flatbreads topped with chopped spinach and carmelized red onion tossed with raisins and balsamic vinegar, then sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, sounded like the perfect accompaniment.

And oh! are they ever! I sampled one (quality control check, you know) and the crunchy crust laced with local stone ground cornmeal provides the ideal base for a savory-sweet topping that leaves you begging for more.

Don't worry -- I put the rest away for tomorrow.

And for the rest of today, I'm just going to relax.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Orange You Jealous (Again)?

My Wonderful Parents have rolled back into town for a pre-holiday visit and to pick up the last of their goods and chattels stored at my house. Now that they have a permanent home in Florida, they have room for the last of their stuff.

And since they had plenty of space in the minivan on the way up, they brought me my Christmas present a little early: fresh oranges.

Now, I'm not keen on Florida, but I do like fresh oranges and the bright burst of sunshine they bring. And when my Wonderful Parents bring me a quarter-bushel of navel oranges and a quarter-bushel of Amberson juice oranges, well, that really makes me happy.

No, the oranges aren't locally grown in my neighborhood, but they're local for my folks, and I have to think that their transportation of local produce on a trip they needed to make anyway is at least marginally better than if I had bought the oranges at the local grocery. But I'm aware I'm still pretty spoiled. (Ah, the advantages of being an Only Child!)

So I'll have freshly squeeze orange juice in the morning and will dry the peels for use in baking later. Over Thanksgiving, I will probably make a batch of candied orange peel and possibly orangettes. And if my supply lasts that long, I'll make Pie in the Sky over Christmas when my Granola Girl comes to visit.

In the meantime, I'll be glad to tote boxes for my folks and cook dinner for them and spend some time with family while I can.

Let the holidays begin!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Almost one full shelf in my spacious kitchen cabinets is devoted to tea.

Think about that! Between boxes and tins of black tea, boxes of herbal tisanes, jars of dried herbs from the garden, and a small loaf pan full of bags of loose herbs from the local co-op, there's enough there to keep me in tea for the whole winter.

On a recent visit to two terrific markets, I stocked up on the good black teas I love so well, especially the Irish breakfast and a couple of holiday blends.

I do still have a jar of Moroccan mint tea, made with decaf green tea along with dried lemon grass and Moroccan mint from my garden, and I need to strip the stems of this year's harvest of Moroccan mint to see if that would be a good herbal substitute for Earl Grey tea.

But the remainder of my stock of herbal blends has been dwindling, despite my recent routine of a cup of chamomile in the evening. Most dismaying of all, I finished the last of my homemade "sweet dreams" blend, which includes chamomile and lavender and lemon balm and mint and a handful of other "secret" herbs.

This particular blend has almost a charming fairy-tale quality to it as it combines delicate flowers and herbs picked at midsummer and promises a sweet, restful night filled with delightful dreams. It's the favorite of the fair Titania, and I assure you, she is no fool when it comes to such matters. Laced with a hint of lavender honey, this is a drink that soothes and comforts and lightens all your woes.

Then sigh not so, / But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny.

(Yes, it may even have you quoting Shakespeare. It's that good.)

Since I had run out of this herbal blend... as had the fair Titania... I decided that I would take a little time this afternoon to mix up more. I had all the ingredients to hand, including this year's lavender harvest and the lemon balm and orange mint from two years ago, so into the bowl they all went. I mixed and stirred them gently, lovingly, whispering wishes for delightful dreams and merry mysteries, and sifted the petals and leaves into small glass jars.

Can you capture magic in a bottle? Perhaps you don't think so, but I like to think that the sweet essence of summer lingers in this light tisane, and when I sip it, I could almost swear I hear the fairies laugh and invite me to dance under the moon with them.

To drink their health... and to dream...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Beets Me

Usually on weekends I have a list of dishes I want to cook to get me through the following week, especially to keep me fed for my morning coffee breaks at work and for lunches after my noontime swim.

This weekend, though I had a couple of recipes in mind, I had a pretty lackadaisical attitude about getting anything done. (Call it the lingering effects from not wanting to cook or eat much this past week.)

But in looking over the contents of the refrigerator this morning, I decided to go all out with the veggies for dinner. I had a simple recipe for baked parsnips that I thought I'd try, as well as a recipe for lemon-ginger glazed beets and carrots. Between those two dishes and some steamed kale, I knew I'd be set.

Though I discovered I had no lemons on hand, I quickly adapted the recipe and used balsamic vinegar and vegetable stock as the cooking liquid for the beets and carrots, and the rest of the ingredients, including both fresh and crystallized ginger, gave me no problems at all.

Both the beet-carrot dish and the parsnips required a long time to cook in the oven, but that only gave me the chance to whip up a batch of brownies, too, which then baked while I ate dinner.

And what a dinner! I haven't had such a gorgeous array of colors on my plate since the chard gratin or the vegetable quiche, if then. Brilliant red and deep orange beets and carrots, creamy white parsnips, and bright dark green kale all made a fragrant palette of palate-pleasing flavors.

Maybe this is why I'm getting more laid-back about my cooking...

Even the simplest dishes can be satisfying.

Friday, November 11, 2005

International Harvest

It's been nearly two months since I invited Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy, my two most faithful Dinner Club fans, to dinner. Where has the fall gone?

But I made their wait worthwhile by presenting a harvest meal with a slightly Asian flair: butternut-ginger soup laced with organic coconut milk and a hint of hot pepper and topped with fresh cilantro, and stir-fry tofu with basil and green beans.

The butternut squash, onion, and garlic for the soup came from the farmers' market, and the soup transformed this good local and organic produce into something a little more exotic. The green beans for the stir-fry came, of course, from my own garden (via the freezer), and the basil was freshly picked from the pot on the windowsill. (What a treat to have fresh herbs through the winter!)

My charming guests found everything about the meal to be satisfyingly wonderful (as was made plain by the way they cleaned out the pan of tofu and beans). And yes, they saved room for a more traditional autumn dessert, gingerbread. But not just any gingerbread, of course -- this version started with butter, Sucanat, and pears cooked in the pan before the batter was added. Served as an upside-down cake with a richly sweet topping, it was the perfect way to fill our stomachs after a good meal.

(The homemade pear-ginger liqueur I served with it rounded out the whole experience -- and made everyone very content to sit back and enjoy a relaxed conversation afterward.)

I love the warmth and richness of fall flavors, but this year is the first time I've really come to appreciate how these fall vegetables so common to our American plates can taste incredible when worked into other ethnic cuisines. It's a pleasing mixture of local and global tastes.

And to me, it tastes good.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Considering the Pastabilities

It's been one of those weeks when I've found myself largely uninterested in cooking and, aside from the necessity of doing so, even eating. I'm glad I've had a fair amount of leftovers in the fridge, because otherwise I'd probably have passed out by now.

(For example, since I planned to swim on Monday, I knew I wouldn't be home for lunch. But since I didn't have anything specifically made for my lunch, I ended up packing an apple, a pumpkin muffin, and a small handful of peanut butter pretzels. It sufficed.)

But last evening I considered my options:

1. I could make a recipe of Middle Eastern vegetables from scratch. Nah, too much effort, and I didn't have couscous.

2. I could make the stir-fry tofu with basil and green beans that I've been planning to make along with soup for dinner Friday evening with Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy come over for dinner. Nah, had tofu the night before, not ready for it again.

3. I could make something with the leftover chickpeas before they go off. But what?

Then it hit me... pasta e ceci!

I started by sauteeing one small chopped onion (local/organic) and a couple sliced cloves of garlic (ditto) with olive oil and some fresh rosemary from the pot on my table. I added the contents of a small jar of the Costoluto Genovese tomatoes from my garden along with the rest of the chickpeas and some pepper, and I let them all simmer down for a bit before pureeing them into a thick, chunky sauce.

Meanwhile, I cooked a small handful of broccoli for a side dish, and then I cooked some whole wheat macaroni for a lunch serving and cheese tortellini for dinner.

I topped the tortellini with that fragrant sauce and some yummy goat cheese that my dear colleague, She-Who-Brings-Fresh-Donuts, shared with me in the morning... tossed the broccoli with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt... and there you have it, an easy but satisfying dinner, with leftovers to boot!

I was so pleased with myself that I enjoyed a small celebratory glass of dandelion wine with it.

I'm sure tonight I'll face a similar dilemma about dinner, but at least for one night I solved the eternal question of "what's for dinner?"

I suppose I could always bake a potato...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fowl Play

Just a little note to let you all know that I'm still around, though I've been more engaged in other activities than cooking these days. (As the end of the year draws near, I tend to get into a cleaning and clearing-out frenzy, physically and mentally. Bear with me.)

But I do have a couple of tidbits to share for those of you who are already planning for Thanksgiving. Though I don't know yet what I'll be doing that day... I'll be home, but I may spend the day with friends or just have a quiet day to myself... I can assure you that as a vegetarian, I will NOT be cooking a turkey. And thanks to my Culinarily-Challenged Aunt, I have a very good reason to laugh about it. (Click on that link... I dare you. Just don't have your sound turned up too high!)

If, on the other hand, you are planning to cook a turkey, visit the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service web site for "Let's Talk Turkey" and other food safety tips.

And as always... give thanks for the bountiful food you enjoy.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Keeping the Doctor Away

You know the old saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." So how far away do you think the doc is if my apple dessert last night contained no fewer than half a dozen apples?

My Fabulous Aunt, legendary family baker, has a supersecret recipe for a luscious apple dessert similar to an apple crisp but soooooo much better. This fantastic dessert has been known to stir up a rivalry between me and a friend of their family over who gets the leftovers (yeah, I won... take that!), to have medicinal powers strong enough to cause an "overdose" if taken warm with a big scoop of ice cream, and generally to make everyone very, very happy.

My Fabulous Aunt has been known to send pans of the pre-baked goopy apple concoction through the mail before (well packaged and cushioned, never fear!), but this year she hit upon the perfect solution: she mixed up the topping with all her secret ingredients, packaged the dry mix in zippered plastic bags, and sent two packs to me with instructions for baking.

Easy enough! Just cut softened butter into the dry mix and sprinkle over peeled, sliced apples in an ungreased baking dish, then bake for half an hour. And there you have it... perfect, warm, spicy-sweet apple dessert.

You don't need a whole lot in one sitting (though I used to devour half a pan at once) because the brown sugar and the spices and the butter in the topping work together into a crunchy, carmelized crumb over the softened apples, and a little goes a loooooong way.

But after all, apples are pretty wholesome, so I thought I might put some of the apple dessert on top of warm oatmeal this morning. Can I help it if I didn't actually get around to making the oatmeal?

Nope, no doctor on my doorstep... I'm taking my apple "medicine" faithfully!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Way to a Man's Heart...

You've all heard the old adage... repeat after me: "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

It's true. I've discovered this to be true, and now the lovely Phoenix has proven it to be true.

Ever wondered why she was so keen on cooking lessons? Not only has she become as passionate about good food and local, organic produce as I have, but I suspected she had an ulterior motive in mind. After all, over the summer she planned weekly dinners for her and her charming young man, Mr. Nice Guy (and yes, they cooked together... it wasn't all her work!).

But I am pleased to annnounce... and by pleased, I mean I am just busting my buttons, I'm so happy!... that the lovely Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy have announced their engagement and are planning to tie the knot this coming September.

It's a wonderful match, and one I've been pulling for for quite some time now. They have plenty of dreams to build in the months ahead, and I am very much looking forward to seeing the two of them join their lives together. But before then, I think we need to squeeze in a few more lessons.

After all, the path to a man's heart requires constant work!

Truth in Advertising?

I'll catch up on cooking posts from the weekend in a minute, but I wanted to share this post from sustainablog about "Congress Approves Weakened Organic Standards."

I've been reading articles for some time now about the proposed changes to the USDA standards for the organic label, and while on the one hand you can say that these synthetic additives are safe for human consumption, doesn't adding them to "organic" foods sort of defeat the purpose and philosophy of organic food? And when these changes mainly benefit the large-scale food producers who are employing industrial agricultural methods, I'm not impressed.

Just reinforces my inclination to choose local over organic whenever possible.