Monday, February 28, 2005

Sunday Brunch

It's my personal opinion that when it comes to meals, there are two that just by their names alone evoke a wonderful feeling of relaxation and enjoyment shared with friends. The first of these is afternoon tea, a most civilized experience that we really should make time for more often. The other is, of course, Sunday brunch.

Combining some of the best of breakfast foods with the later, more leisurely luncheon hour, brunch conjures up images of a linen-clad dining table decked with pretty dishes, lovely flowers, and a variety of foods from French toast and fruit salads to coffee cakes and vegetable quiches. Perhaps you prefer a pot of coffee, perhaps you prefer a pot of tea... or maybe you'd even like to splurge and enjoy a Mimosa?

Part of the reason that I enjoy serving brunch (and it doesn't happen very often) is that it gives me a chance to showcase for friends some of the wonderful dishes that I enjoy indulging in for breakfast. Sometimes those dishes are more fancy, like cinnamon rolls or my favorite date-pecan coffee cake, and sometimes I just like to share more "common" favorite (which aren't all that common, I assure you).

I invited the lovely Phoenix and the steadfastly silent Mr. Nice Guy to brunch yesterday and plied them with my favorite cheese grits (one of the few Southern dishes I simply could not leave behind), a zucchini-feta "casserole" (more of a crustless quiche), some of the savory bread I'd made the day before, and a pot of Irish breakfast tea. Colorful, tasty, and... after an hour... nearly all gone!

So simple, really. A couple of dishes, a good pot of tea, and good friends. What better way to enjoy the weekend?

Snack Attack

Turns out that for my impending vacation, none of my flights offer a real meal. Nuts! (And that's probably all I'll get, too, aside from a packet of pretzels.)

But am I worried? If you think so, then Dear Reader, you don't know me very well at all. I retreated to the kitchen for part of the weekend and whipped up a few tasty and wholesome morsels to pack in my bag:

First off, ginger cakes. Well, they were supposed to be cookies, but the batter was a little too moist and runny to drop onto cookie sheets, so I spread it out in a pan instead. Actually, this is more like ginger bread, rich with (fresh!) ginger and molasses and not overly sweet. (I've enjoyed a few with a yogurt sauce mixed with orange syrup, cinnamon, and ginger... very tasty!)

Next, I continued my foray into the realm of crackers with a highly addictive potato-dill cracker made with mashed potatoes. Thanks to the really good baking powder I have stashed away, the crackers puffed up into little pillows of mouth-watering dilly goodness. They made the perfect accompaniment to the last of my vegetable paprikash soup, and they were also just right for the last chunk of cheese in the fridge.

Finally, I made a loaf of half white, half wheat bread filled with a blended spread of one egg, some feta cheese, some oven-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, fresh garlic, dried basil, salt and pepper. The flavors swirled through the loaf, making it utterly irresistible. (And it took so much less time than making the little filled pockets as the recipe originally stated!)

I think those will keep me very satisfied on the flight out, don't you?

No, what I'm truly worried about is getting an uncontrollable coffee craving. I stopped by my favorite coffeehouse to get some freshly roasted coffee to take to my parents (they taught me well... always take a gift for your host/s). I had hoped to pick up some Jamaican Blue Mountain beans, but they were nearly out, and after careful consultation with The Bean Guy, I settled on a fragrant Ethiopian coffee instead. And you just know that that fragrance will permeate my entire bag, making me want a big cup of it.

No matter how prepared I am with snacks, that coffee may precipitate a serious culinary emergency.

I'd better pack chocolate, too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Food for Thought

My reading has slowed down over the past week or two, due to the other projects I've been working on, but I've really been savoring the latest read, Eat Here by Brian Halweil. Although I plan to review this book more fully for the reading group, I'll summarize briefly:

Why do we allow our farms to be held in thrall to big corporations that take the food, transport it long distances, process and package it to a high degree, and then sell it far away... instead of encouraging small local farms to produce and SELL locally so that each region is supported largely by its own agriculture and animal husbandry in a manner that sustains not only the local economy but also the environment? And what can we do about it?

As you can imagine, there's a lot of information packed into this relatively small book, but it's an eye-opener and will really get you thinking hard about what you eat and where it comes from. The issues include supporting smaller farms with a more diversified production and an interest in supporting biodiversity (instead of limiting the field to a small handful of species and cultivars per fruit, vegetable, or animal). As the author so succinctly states, "If there is no choice in the crop fields, then there is no choice in the kitchen and no choice on the table" (p. 149).

Phoenix and I were discussing this book in tandem with the recent BBC article about a USDA study claiming that a vegan diet is harmful to children, and we agreed the question of diet content was not so critical as these three factors:

1. Is the food largely unprocessed, retaining most of its useful nutrients, or highly refined, thus stripped of vitamins and minerals and more likely to cause health problems?

2. Is the food organically produced, so as to reduce as much as possible the accumulation of harmful chemicals in the body?

3. Is the food locally produced, thus reducing the need for additional preservatives and processing, as well as reducing the costs and pollution of transportation?

Given our convenience-oriented society in which most people don't feel they have the time to prepare a good, healthy meal from scratch (let alone to do it justice in the eating), these are difficult questions to ask and sometimes to answer. But I'm coming to learn that questions of nutrition cannot be isolated from cultural, social, economic, and environmental issues.

Eating food that is locally grown and produced brings you closer to the source and helps you develop an appreciation for the work that goes into it. Whether you grow your own food and understand the fickle nature of the garden... or you get the chance to talk with the farmer who brings her produce to the local farmers' market... or you develop an supportive relationship with the local co-op, you learn to understand how what you eat has an impact on the world. (The question of eating locally is one that shows up on the Ecological Footprint Quiz, something I encourage you to try!)

Halweil quotes Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, as saying at a recent conference that "the gastronome who is not aware of the environmental implications of his food is stupid, and the environmentalist who is naive of gastronomy is sad" (p. 148). Strong words, but true. And believe me, now that I'm more aware of the issues involved, I plan to make even greater efforts to support local growers, to eat more unprocessed food, and to grow and preserve more of my own vegetables. (I'm thinking about heirloom tomatoes this year!)

Now you understand why my page is green.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Danger: Chocolate Ahead

It's time once again for the Annual Chocolate Potluck. And in keeping with past years when we found excellent themes for the event ("Keep America Great: Eat Chocolate!" and "Chocolate and Duct Tape: All You Really Need in Life"), we have a very timely and relevant theme this year:

"In Case of Emergency, Eat Chocolate."

Yes, in our lighthearted support (and by support I mean gentle mockery) of the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to encourage people to develop a disaster plan at home, those of us in the Dinner Club would like to amend the government's excellent suggestions for an emergency kit to include chocolate. After all, chocolate keeps well (OK, maybe not in the heat of a nuclear blast) and has known curative powers (just ask Harry Potter).

And so, to encourage the widespread use of chocolate in case of emergency, we will be sampling a number of possible emergency kit additions tomorrow evening.

I'm ready. (I am SO ready.) I've taken about four different recipes and combined them to make a dessert so deliciously dark, so decadent, that it defies adequate description. From a dark chocolate shortbread base, through layers of melted chocolate and spicy nuts, a densely rich brownie center, up to a gloriously dark chocolate sauce with more nuts and spices on top, it is laced through with cinnamon (and a hint of chili powder) and multiple kinds of chocolate (including 2 kinds of cocoa). Is it a brownie? Is it a torte? Is it legal???

I haven't decided on a name for this concoction yet, though the working title is the Extreme Chocolate Extravaganza. (I am hoping that those who sample it will be more inspired.) This dessert is not for the faint of heart! And while I would not attribute superpowers or miraculous curative abilities to it, let's just say that I'm awfully glad this chocolate dish is on our side.

In addition, I've heard that other selections for the potluck will include chocolate fondue and some delightful cookies made with Andes mints (equally effective in handling emergencies, I'm sure).

So if you're ready for some seriously dangerous chocolate, you know where to find us. And if you're coming, I have three words for you:

Bring it on!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

A Very Happy Meal

The lovely Phoenix and I hit the road yesterday afternoon with our own personal mecca as the destination du jour: West Point Market.

If you love food as much as we do, how can you not love a large gourmet market that begins with a sizable wine room, followed directly by hundreds of fabulous cheeses, lots of gorgeous produce, a deli to die for, and rows and rows of wonderful groceries, including many difficult-to-find imports? And let's not forget the bakery, with several varieties of radiantly golden loaves of tender bread and more luscious desserts than you can dream up in one sitting, located oh so conveniently across the way from all the freshly roasted coffee beans.

It's heaven.

We had a long, leisurely browse through the aisles, selecting just a few choice morsels from this amazing cornucopia. My arms were eventually laden with a loaf of fragrant rosemary bread, two cheeses (more on those in a moment), a small brick of coffee, and two small Scharffen Berger chocolate bars (strictly to restock my emergency supplies, of course; if threatened by a terrorist attack, you'd better believe that my first step will be to reach for the chocolate, because if I'm going to die, I'm going to die happy).

After our other outings, we managed to get home in enough time to have dinner at a relaxed pace. I reheated some of the red lentil-carrot-coconut soup I'd made over the weekend, sliced the rosemary bread, and set out the cheeses. The first cheese, Red Dragon, was a white cheddar laced with ale and speckled with mustard seeds... sort of compact Welsh rarebit.

But the other cheese... oh! what bliss! Aptly named Prima Donna, this aged gouda was still "young" enough to have a mild, sweet, creamy flavor (as opposed to the three-year-old gouda that has become a cult classic in our little circle, thanks to its more intense flavor and crackly texture). But give the Prima Donna a moment to warm up, and you'll find yourself sinking deeply into the rich, velvety, creme caramel undertones that fill your mouth and leave you utterly speechless with rapture. Phoenix laughed at me when she watched my reaction to the first bite... I kid you not, I went weak in the knees... but I had the last laugh when she sampled it, and reacted with the same look of concentrated happiness.

No, we actually did NOT finish off the cheese. (And no, you can't have any.) We had just enough room left for a Georgian preserved walnut each, the perfect ending for a simple supper.

Phoenix says it best: "That was a very happy meal!"

Lunch Is on Them

I'm not worked up about the impending British royal wedding, but I do like checking the BBC web site for news and the occasional human interest story, and this little article about the tiffin-carriers of Mumbai caught my eye. (Be sure to look at some of the other links about their history.)

Now I'm pretty lucky. I can walk home for lunch and enjoy something hot and homemade pretty much whenever I want. In a big city, though, that could be tricky. The tiffin-carriers have apparently worked out an amazing system to keep the business men and women (and other workers too, I assume) well-fed with good, hot, Indian food. I like it.

And frankly, I wouldn't mind a smackerel of channa saag or alo gobi with a piping hot samosa every day for lunch myself.

D'you think they deliver this far away?

Friday, February 11, 2005

Kitchen Traveler

As you've probably guessed from previous posts, I have a keen interest in exploring the cuisines of other countries. Maybe it's due to having gone vegetarian and finding so many fabulous "ethnic" dishes in my search for good food... maybe we can blame it all on that long-long-ago (over two decades... eeps!) 4-H project I took on "International Foods." (That was a fun one... I rocked out on that project, researching a country's cuisine and putting on a dinner for my folks each month, complete with table decor and occasionally costume. Yeah, I've always been a total cooking geek. But I digress.)

So it will be no surprise to you when I say that after my recent forays into Georgian cooking (insert satisfied and rapturous sigh here), the snowfall yesterday inspired me to move only a bit further south, into ancient Persia and modern-day Iran.

A couple of years ago, I came across a gorgeous cookbook called Silk Road Cooking that spanned cuisines from Italy and Greece, through Central Asia, and on to India and China (with many stops along the way). The photography in the book made the dishes look especially appealing, so I copied down a number of the recipes to try in due course.

Last evening I hauled a plump, glossy eggplant out of the crisper for a fabulous dish called fesenjan-e bademjan. The eggplant, along with sauteed onion and garlic and spices and herbs, ends up being simmered in a delectable sauce of ground walnuts, honey, and pomegranate juice, my new favorite. The sauce delights the eyes as well as the taste buds because it starts off with that typical ruby glow and gets a wonderful pink froth as you blend it and add it to the eggplant. (Of course, it doesn't last, but it's fun while it does!)

The recipe suggested serving the dish with rice or pasta, neither of which I felt like making when faced with the last chunk of Georgian cheese bread. (Well, the two countries are almost neighbors, so why not?) The contrast in texture between the tender softened eggplant and the tiny ground walnuts, the contrast in flavors (sweet, slightly sour, and spicy), and the contrast in colors all made it a superbly exotic treat.

I may try this again in summer as there are a couple of warm-weather dishes that I think would go very well with it (a good borani, a melon sorbet). But for a winter's night, it made a pleasant getaway to warmer climes, even if only in my mind.

And it's anyone's guess as to where my cooking will travel next.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Dine the Friendly Skies

I'm heading out west in a few weeks to visit my parents, which means I will once again have the thrill and adventure of sampling airline-prepared food. (Since this is a longer flight, I had better check to see if there's an actual meal... and if so, request something veg.)

But you can have the vicarious thrills right at your own computer! Visit AirlineMeals.net for more information than you can possibly ever stomach about those food trays that range from dull to delightful. (My favorite section is the vintage photos... some airlines have always known that presentation is key!)

Good thing it's almost lunch time.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Oh, the Choices!

The countdown currently stands at two weeks until the 4th Annual Chocolate Potluck.

And I haven't yet decided what to make!

You must understand, I've built up something of a reputation for myself with this annual event (originally inspired by the lovely Pixie). One year I made chocolate-espresso lava cakes with espresso whipped cream, which were decadent and luscious beyond belief. Last year I made pains au chocolat with homemade croissant dough... also a winner.

My initial thoughts for this year's potluck focused on either a cassata alla siciliana (a wonderful sponge cake interlayered with a Grand Marnier- and chocolate chip-infused cream filling and frosted with a rich mocha buttercream; fabulous to eat but always a thorny task to frost) or a selection of very chocolatey cookies and brownies. Somehow neither of those really satisfied me.

So I've been consulting with the incomparably sassy Spicyflower (a woman after my own heart in terms of attitude and culinary stylings) about potential chocolate offerings. We got onto a riff about combining chocolate and chili for something more savory... something like the holy mole! pecans I made last year, but more substantial. She found me a chocolate pasta recipe which could be turned into ravioli with a subtly spiced filling... definitely worth considering.

But I've also been pondering creating something new... inspired by others, but with my own twist. (And heaven knows I'm just the right person for that sort of twist.) Something with layers upon layers of chocolate, with little surprises that make you sit up in astonishment and then sink back, blissfully sated by the sheer voluptuousness of it. Just a thought.

So... any preferences?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Pickled Pink

In going through the rest of the Georgian recipes I had copied some time back, I discovered a recipe for pickled garlic, often eaten as an appetizer. It sounded pretty outrageous, but I was tempted at the same time... and since I had all the ingredients just sitting around, I decided, why not?

After sterilizing the jar, I filled it with three small bulbs of organic garlic and sprinkled salt on top. I boiled together some pomegranate juice and some of my homemade nasturtium vinegar (since I didn't have any plain white vinegar in the house... shocking but true), then poured that over the garlic and added a few peppercorns and sealed the jar.

The pomegranate juice, of course, has a wonderful deep ruby red glow, and where the bulbs of garlic press against the sides the juice fades to a rosy pink. Absolutely gorgeous to look at... and I'm hoping that it will be equally magnificent to eat!

In keeping with the Georgian theme this weekend, I decided to tackle the cheese bread recipe again, and to my great relief, I was able to resolve the problems in the recipe by using different yeast and less flour. This time the dough ended up very tender and almost flaky in spots... and utterly irresistible while still warm.

And now I'm thinking... cheese bread and pickled garlic. I can't wait!

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Consolation of Toast

There are those days when I feel so decidedly under the weather in body and/or in spirit that I simply can't think of eating much of anything. Still, the mind knows that somehow the body must be nourished, and I reach for something bland but consoling:

Toast.

I had picked up a boule of pseudo-pain au levain at the grocery store the other day. (And I say "pseudo" because unlike a true pain au levain, this loaf clearly did not use wild yeast in a real starter and was strictly white flour all the way, as far as I could see. Yes, I'm becoming a bread snob.) I had bought it as a backup for the fondue and then of course did not need it for that meal, but I was relieved to cut into it last night for dinner.

Believe me, I am usually more in favor of whole wheat bread, especially homemade, but sometimes a reasonably decent white bread is more soothing to the spirit and to the stomach. And this was one of those times.

Toasted to an amber burnish, gently slathered with sweet butter, topped with a couple small slices of good cave-aged Gruyere... it tasted heavenly. And with a main dish of pan-fried potato slices with scrambled egg, well, I didn't need much more to make me feel more settled.

In my younger days, my Chef Mother would sometimes make a cheese sauce (from Velveeta, I have to admit) and serve it to me over toast for breakfast or for lunch on a wintry day, and it always made me feel cozy and content and well-loved. Though I don't make the sauce for myself any more, I still find that fresh toast can sometimes be a good cure for almost anything.

Try it sometime... you'll see.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Fondue... Didn't

And I believe that's all I wish to say. Quelle horreur!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Charms of Dessert

The past couple of years I have tried to expand my cookie baking repertoire (and have been fortunate to have a number of willing young guinea pigs, er, people to share the results). Be they homely in appearance or utterly elegant, cookies will always have a place in my kitchen for their sheer ease and speed of creation... not to mention their perfect compact size and flavor.

Since this week's Dinner Club will feature Swiss cheese fondue, I thought a simple dessert would be in order. I found a recipe for chocolate shortbread cookies called "chocolate charms," which are aptly named as they do fall into that category of "darling wee cookies!"

I mixed up the dough shortly after getting home from work, kneading the dough together at the last to work the flour and cocoa into the butter more thoroughly, then wrapped it up and chilled it while I sat back for some afternoon reading and a comforting dinner.

Eventually I remembered to pull out the dough, lay parchment on the baking sheet, and heat up the oven. I rolled the dough into soft 1" balls and pressed them gently to keep them steady on the cookie sheet, then baked them.

The recipe calls for a dusting of cocoa powder once the cookies have cooled to give them a truffle-like appearance, and believe me, I will do that before serving them tomorrow night.

But fresh from the oven? No way. Just give me a couple of those precious little gems and let them melt in my mouth.

Sweet, sweet buttery chocolate goodness.