Sunday, May 29, 2005

One Night in Bangkok

The weather this weekend turned out remarkably sunny and warm, a nice change of pace from recent rainy days. And since I had planned to do some good cooking over the holiday weekend anyway, I pulled out my recipe for Bangkok noodles since Thai food always appeals to me as a good warm-weather cuisine.

Though I don't think I've seen this particular dish on menus at Thai restaurants, I think it does combine some of the best flavors of Thai cooking: a sauce of coconut milk (thinned with vegetable broth), curry powder, hot chili powder, soy sauce, and scallions (in this case, garlic chives from my garden). Add to that some sauteed garlic and ginger, cubes of tofu, and chopped spinach, and I'm quite happy. And though I had no more rice noodles in the cupboard, I discovered that whole wheat spaghetti worked just fine. (Mr. Clean, if you're reading this, consider it the green light to use soba noodles instead.)

When I made this dish for the Dinner Club last summer, I had some hot sesame peanuts to toss atop the noodles, and I admit I missed that extra crunch this time around, though not enough to stop me from slurping down the entire bowlful. (I consider it a minor miracle that although drops of that golden sauce dotted my chin, none besmeared my white shirt. Astonishing!)

All in all, I think it's fair to say that this dish has triggered my craving for Thai food, so I will need to make carrot salad and possibly pad thai in the near future. I also have a recipe for the pastry-wrapped fried bananas that go so well with coconut sorbet and chocolate sauce, and I do think a taste testing is in order this summer.

Or maybe I'll just organize another outing to my favorite Thai restaurant.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Espresso Yourself

I've tried so many rich and decadent brownie recipes over the past couple of years that I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite. Formerly, my Fabulous Aunt's honeybear brownies would always win out, but now they face stiff competition from my Grand Marnier brownies, not to mention the lethally wicked concoction I developed a few months ago. And for summer, there's always the "special" brownies with fresh green leaves scattered throughout the batter, thanks to the chocolate mint that grows so profusely in my garden. (What did you think?)

This time, though, I pulled out my cappuccino brownie recipe for something that would satisfy my recent mocha cravings. As most of my favorite brownie recipes do, this version begins with melting unsweetened chocolate together with unsalted butter, but then adds espresso powder and a hefty dose of cinnamon. I also like to add cappuccino chips from the Baker's Catalogue along with regular semi-sweet chocolate chips, just to provoke that reaction of "oh, you shouldn't have!... but I'm glad you did!"

(A note of caution to those who are unaccustomed to such chocolate decadence: these brownies are truly prescription-strength, made specially for a sick friend who needed a serious pick-me-up. And yes, I ran these brownies by my Fabulous Aunt, who also serves as my personal FDA (Food and Delicacies Advisor) in culinary matters. These brownies are potent... don't try them at home unless you have a serious medical need for chocolate!)

Now, I'll confess my deep, dark secret of rich, fudgy, meltingly gooey brownies, and you must remember to use this knowledge only for the good of the world and your immortal chocolate soul:

I like to underbake my brownies ever so slightly, so that the batter is set in the middle, but a little chocolate still clings to a toothpick inserted and removed from the center.

I know, I know, you should always cook eggs (and foods containing eggs) thoroughly to avoid foodborne illness... and with three eggs in this recipe, it's especially important. But I like to walk that fine line between cake-like and fully-cooked brownies and warm, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate danger.

Look, I'm usually a pretty cautious person. I fasten my seatbelt, I don't do drugs, and I don't jump off cliffs. But even with plenty of careful teaching by the Chef Mother on proper food handling, I like to take the occasional risk in the kitchen. (Yes, I eat raw cookie dough, too.)

Life's not worth living if you can't espresso your wild side once in a while!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Setting the Table

Just found this neat web site: Sustainable Table, all about sustainable agriculture and the benefits of it. I haven't had a chance to dig too deeply into the site, but I did discover some recipes I will have to try (like the macerated strawberries... wow!), and Phoenix will be delighted to note that through the Get Involved link, you can find state-specific tables on seasonal produce.

I strongly encourage you to browse this site, learn something new, and support local farmers or a local CSA (like Crown Point!) this summer. Around here, it's eight days and counting until the local farmers' market opens for the summer... yippee!

Enjoy all the local bounty the summer has to offer!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

You Look Radish-ing, Dahling!

Of all the spring produce from my garden, I think I have come to enjoy radishes the most. They grow quickly, are easy to thin, and as they get bigger, you see the rosy roots peeking shyly out of the soil, beckoning you to come and pick!

So I did.

I went home for lunch today, intending to sit outside and soak up the warm sunshine that has been scarce lately. I had some fresh rolls, courtesy of Phoenix's visit to West Point Market last evening, some sweet unsalted butter, and a whole row of radishes... more than I could possibly need for some simple radish sandwiches.

Years ago, when I first got curious about French cooking, I borrowed a cookbook from the Chef Mother and was struck by a photograph of a French family having a picnic and the children stuffing their faces with radish sandwiches on crusty bread. I thought it was a bit odd at the time, but after sampling my first one, I was hooked. Combine that peppery bite of the fresh radish with the sweet creaminess of the butter and the tender/crusty dichotomy of good French bread, and you have a perfect little meal on a sunny day. (And believe me, I'm not the only one to think this.)

One year I even tried a slight variation, adding freshly grated lemon peel to the butter, and that made a wonderful combination, too.

Today, though, I wanted to let those glorious fresh French radishes from my garden have center stage all to themselves. Oh, so good, especially when enjoyed al fresco! And I'm planning to bake more crusty rolls this weekend because, well, there's a whole row of radishes out there.

My mouth is watering already.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Getting to the Point

The lovely Phoenix has already described the delights of our Saturday morning adventure so well, that I hardly need add anything.

But I will, anyway.

Crown Point Ecology Center has become one of my favorite places on this earth since a friend introduced me to it (and its beautiful meadow labyrinth) last fall. The Center is founded on four simple but inspiring principles: ecology, spirituality, community, and sustainability. And to that end, the Center provides educational events for children and adults, spiritual resources, and a healthy organic farm that not only supports the local food bank but also provides a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) resource for the neighboring community.

As Phoenix mentioned, we had the great fortune to meet up with Sister Joanne, the director of the Center, who offered us an impromptu tour of the Center. (We had been trying for weeks to find a time when we could arrange a tour with her, to no avail.) And as both Phoenix and I have become very interested in organic farming and gardening (my garden has been evolving toward being fully organic for a number of years), we were thrilled to see how well the land at the Center is used, how vast rows of beautifully dark and rich compost lined the fields, how the beds in the greenhouses were laid out, and how much care has been taken to provide good and thoughtful stewardship of the earth. Sister Joanne spoke eloquently on why they do what they do at the Center (to avoid monoculture and to increase biodiversity) and how they are trying to make a difference in the way people think about their food... and it was all I could do to restrain myself from shouting, "Amen!"

As Phoenix mentioned, she took home a lovely purple basil plant that had been raised and potted on the farm, and I found a tall Genovese basil plant for my own garden (I'm mad for pesto!) as well as a Japanese eggplant seedling. All of our plants were incredibly affordable, knowing they were organic, and I would have gladly paid more to support such a worthy endeavor and such an uplifting place.

And oh yes, we'll be back. Soon!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

C is for Cookie

Okay, so I may not be cooking a whole lot these days. But I still get the urge to bake.

And when I know that our tech guys are returning to work on Monday (though Mr. Nice Guy has been around this week), I know it's time to bake a few sacrifices to the Tech Gods.

I met our new intern a few weeks ago, shortly after he was hired, when The Gentleman took him around to meet the staff. And when we have a new tech person come on board, I have a few very important questions to ask: How well do you know Windows? What is your skill level in using databases to produce an HTML menu for CD-ROM products? How well do you interact with others who need a lot of tech-related hand-holding (not me, thank heaven)? And most important, what is your favorite kind of cookie?

A bit nonplussed by this question, our new intern confessed to a weakness for oatmeal raisin cookies. So Friday evening I pulled out my trusty oatmeal cookie recipe, whipped up a full batch, then divided the dough into two portions.

The first portion had only raisins added to the mix. Let me just state here that oatmeal raisin cookies have never been my favorite as I've never been overwhelmingly fond of raisins. But these were REALLY GOOD oatmeal raisin cookies, with just the right amount of spice and buttery goodness.

The second portion of the dough was reserved for me to unleash my gourmet creativity. I added chopped dates from California, crushed walnuts, and a handful of mini diced crystallized ginger chips. Yes, I do like my oatmeal cookies to be full of such culinary treasures. No, I didn't save any for you.

I made all the cookies extra large... just because sometimes you need the psychological comfort of a really big cookies. And they are still tender and melt-in-your-mouth good after a couple of days.

And that's good enough for me!

Friday, May 20, 2005

May the Farm Be With You

Here's a tasty little treat to celebrate the opening weekend of the final Star Wars movie:

Grocery Store Wars

I confess, I have only ever seen the original Star Wars movie, and hey, call me a heathen or a philistine, but I've never had the urge to see any of the others. Still, I laughed hysterically throughout this wonderful Flash sendup to the series.

Listen to Obi-Wan Cannoli... buy organic produce and thwart Darth Tater!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Guilty Pleasures

By the time I got home yesterday evening (after a rollicking good play date with my boys Beaker and Scooter), I bypassed the lawn mower, the dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, and the vacuum... and headed straight for the historical romance novel I'd been reading, with a plate of Chinese takeaway (broccoli with garlic sauce) in hand.

Ah yes, the guilty pleasures of life!

Once you hit a certain age (I won't say "grow up") and a certain level of responsibility, you realize that once in a while it's a very very good thing to be totally irresponsible and just have fun. Chores? Bah... who needs them? Ice cream for breakfast? Why not?

Among my other guilty pleasures (true confession time!):

--espresso truffles
--a little extra sweet butter on a warm croissant
--licking the last cookie dough out of the bowl
--licking the last melted butter out of the popcorn bowl
--real whipped cream
--liqueur-soaked strawberries in the aforementioned real whipped cream
--chocolate chips straight out of the bag
--coffee ice cream with hot fudge sauce (well, maybe no sauce if it's for breakfast)
--ice cream in my morning coffee
--"chips" with malt vinegar
--cheese puffs (I know, I know, they're hideously orange, loaded with hydrogenated fat, etc. etc... but still...!)

I could probably go on, but it's too early in the day to torment myself with such wicked delights... I really don't need my stomach to rumble all morning.

So... what are your guilty (food!) pleasures?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Why I Like My Favorite Coffee House

I mention My Favorite Coffee House a lot here, for a number of reasons. I spend a good deal of time there as a way of getting out of the daily routine, relaxing, and catching up on my writing. The atmosphere... a cross between an old bar and a cozy living room or den... has great appeal. And the people who work there clearly love being there and interacting with the customers, making the whole place rock with their energetic and fun vibe.

I came across this excellent explanation of What Makes for a Great Barista? on Superbarista's blog (by way of a library blog, go figure), and while I would only call a couple of the folks at My Favorite Coffee House truly great baristas, they're all working pretty hard to get to that level.

So here's a little salute to some of my favorite baristas:

--a tip of the cappuccino to Miss Sunshine
--a fresh, flaky croissant to The Baker
--a cup of strong Ethiopian coffee to The Bean Guy
--a turtle mocha for my sweet Green Man
--and of course, a chai charger to My Favorite Barista

You folks make my day(s)!

Tastes of Summer

I know, I'm impatient. I just got my garden planted, and I can't wait for it to get going and to get growing.

I'm ready for the fresh tastes of summer-fresh produce, what can I say? So until my garden is producing produce like mad, I guess I'll have to make the best of what I get at the market. (Which isn't easy since I'm still not wanting to cook much...)

So here's a quick peek at what I've been cooking lately in the hopes of conjuring up warmer weather:

1. Fresh guacamole: Really, can anything compare to the velvety green of a fresh avocado, mashed up with fresh garlic, a little lime juice, and, if you're lucky, some fresh cilantro? This is becoming my Saturday lunch staple, with whole wheat tortillas or pitas... yeah, a whole avocado, all to myself. Yum!

2. Indian chickpea spread: Think hummus with tomatoes, garlic, and a curry kind of kick. Fast and easy to prepare, keeps well, and is fabulous slathered on a whole wheat pita with slices of fresh cucumber on top.

3. Zucchini-feta casserole: Usually when I make this recipe, I fry small zucchini pancakes, but I was lazy on Saturday and just dumped the lot into a greased casserole dish and baked it for about half an hour. Mmmmmm... green and cheesy.

4. Lavender-rose geranium scones: Having just made more rose-scented geranium sugar, and having a rose geranium that doesn't seem to stop blooming this year, I decided to combine these two wonderful floral flavors once again in my favorite basic tender scone recipe. I added some of the rose geranium sugar with the rest of the sugar, then folded dried lavender flowers and fresh rose geranium petals into the dough. The resulting scones are delicately flavored, not too sweet, and soft and pillowy... sheer bliss. (On a side note, the rose geranium sugar was also rather pleasing as a sweetener for the strong Ethiopian coffee I brewed on Saturday... surprisingly good!)

5. Mint iced tea: Again. What can I say? It's good.

I also spent a little time browsing through my cookbook and have an idea for a Persian meal later this summer... and that thought might get me started on other menu planning and more cooking in the near future.

But for me, the lazy days of summer are now.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Mmmmm-Mocha

I think I am going to be very spoiled.

Why? By having a second location of my favorite coffeehouse open up just up the street from work, it has now become so much easier to grab a good coffee during the day.

To wit...

I hiked up to the fabric store to pick up notions for the next round of projects over my lunch hour. On the way back, well, I just had to stop for something to wet my whistle, right? And since that wind was a little chilly, I had to make it a hot drink.

Darn. Guess I'll just have to have a mocha to get me through the rest of the day.

(Oh, and a cookie, too.)

Spoiled? Oh yeah...

Naan-Stop Fun

Guess who's been to her favorite Indian restaurant???

Yesterday evening, with the lovely Phoenix at the wheel, me in the navigator's seat, and Mr. Nice Guy providing the ballast in the back seat, we headed off to the closest (and, in my humble opinion, the best) Indian restaurant, favored by pretty much everyone with whom I've dined there. It's the end of the school year, and thinking that these two deserved a real treat for all the hard work they've done in recent months... and just because I love 'em a bunch... I thought it was time to splurge on some really good food.

No, make that GREAT food.

Since I wanted them to get the full experience of the many culinary delights to be sampled at this place, we started off with vegetable samosas (a longtime favorite of mine) and the vegetable appetizer platter, which included a third samosa, vegetable pakoras, two paneer pakora "sticks," and one large aloo tikki (potatoes mashed with spices and all sorts of good stuff, then batter-dipped and fried). Add to that some good chutneys and fresh pappadums, and you can't go wrong.

I persuaded them to sample the thick and refreshing mango lassis as well, which came in very handy for cutting some of the heat from the spices. Phoenix, who had never sampled a lassi before, was torn between describing it as a milkshake or a smoothie, finally settling on "yum."

For our main course, Phoenix and I naturally settled on the vegetarian entrees... my favorite palak chole (spinach and chickpeas) for her, and the aloo chole (potatoes and chickpeas in a tomato curry) for me... while Mr. Nice Guy opted for the sizzling chicken tandoori. And with a basket full of fresh garlic naan, well, we were set.

I had warned them ahead of time that it was very easy to fill up quickly on this food, so we all exercised restraint and saved about half of our entrees for leftovers (yippee! another night of not cooking for me!). That way, we all had just a little room left to tuck in a smidgen of dessert.

And the desserts were well worth the restraint. We settled on two desserts, split three ways: my favorite ras malai (this is the only place where I like how it's made... so creamy and flavorful) and some sweet and tender gulab jamun. What bliss!

No chai for us, as I think that would have pushed us all across the line from "full" to a Pythonesque explosion of overindulgence. (A pity, because their chai is good, but it's not really worth the agony of a too-full stomach.)

My dinner companions both agreed that this was certainly a place to revisit in future... as much as possible!... so I hope that we will get there again yet this summer and into the next year.

In fact, I know we will.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Well-Laid Plans

Nope, still haven't been cooking much (aside from the broccoli pizza made last night for lunches this week)... I've been having too much fun outside.

Friday evening, I took advantage of the sunny warmth lingering after dinner to head out to the garden with my cultivator and to scrape the garden soil into five rows of piled-up dirt. After a bit of a breather, I went back out to plant the remaining seeds for this year's veggie patch:

Row 1 contains the raspberry canes planted the week before, the Moroccan mint planted two years ago, and some additional cilantro and calendula seeds (as well as the returning borage)

Row 2 contains bush snap beans and a mound of Asian cucumber seeds

Row 3 contains mounds of seeds for both the Asian cucumbers and some pickling cucumbers, as well as plenty of dill seed scattered in between

Row 4 has stakes marking where my heirloom tomatoes will go, and in between those I have planted seeds for carrots, parsnips, basil, and parsley

Row 5 has mounds of seeds for butternut squash and zucchini, with more parsley scattered in between (though I'd like to put nasturtiums in, too)

Are you are winded as I am from all that? But I'm very excited about all this future bounty as I hope to can and freeze beans, make plenty of hot dill pickles (family recipe, beloved by many), can tomatoes, make several herbed vinegars, and dry herbs for later use.

I haven't had a garden this full in five years... which is when I last pulled my back badly. But I have help this year, as the lovely Phoenix will be around all summer, willing and eager to help out with everything from weeding and harvesting to canning and preserving. (And I am deeply grateful for her help!)

So now I can sprawl out in the backyard on a sunny day (like yesterday), mint iced tea in hand, and survey the growing vegetables with relief and pleasure, knowing that I have a brief respite before the hard work starts in earnest.

Care to join me?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Getting Out of the Kitchen

It's been a relatively quiet week in the kitchen (aside from the delicious Chinese meal on Wednesday with the lovely Phoenix taking on the bulk of the prep work)... for the most part, I've been too lazy to cook!

So let's step outside and have a look around, shall we?

New in the garden this week: I planted new raspberry canes in the hopes of having my own bumper crop of organic (red) raspberries... if not this year, then next... for making jam, liqueur, desserts, and so on. And maybe some will even make it into the freezer!

The mint has also been springing back with a vengeance and clamoring to be used in homemade iced tea (with a squeeze of lime)... the taste of summer. And the radishes are growing quite nicely after being thinned. This variety is the French long and cylindrical sort, so I look forward to having the first few in a couple of weeks.

New around town: my favorite coffee house has finally opened its second location, up near the hospital, and though it's for takeaway only, it's really a wonderful little place. The back room is used for roasting the coffee beans, so I hope sometime to catch them in action (and the folks who own the place are also starting to sell green coffee beans for people to roast at home).

With all this bounty around me, is it any wonder I haven't stayed inside? But don't worry, I will get back to cooking eventually...

After all, the farmers' market starts in a month.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

If This Be the Food of Love...

Food and romance... always a perfect pairing. (My mother used to have a potholder that said "Please kiss the chef"... it's a philosophy I like.)

That's why I found an entry in the moblog of La Belle Clotilde (of Chocolate and Zucchini) so delightful:

Aujourd'hui Le Chef Vous Propose

For those of my Dear Readers who are unfamiliar with French, this loosely translates to: "Today the Chef Suggests for You... A Smile to the Gentlemen and A Kiss to the Ladies."

Uplifting and non-fattening. Oh la la!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Play It Again, Sam

There are some recipes in my repertoire that get trotted out but once a year:

gratin dauphinois
croissants
Pie in the Sky
baklava

And then there are those recipes that, either due to popular demand or to my own cravings, get made much more frequently.

This weekend I made cinnamon/Mexican brownies once again, including the "wicked" variation, for the end-of-the-year party for the Tech Gods. I was just itching to perfect the recipe, including cutting the base recipe by half (resulting in a thinner, lighter layer of shortbread) and trying a slightly different recipe for the nuts... and I think it's safe to say that the results were favorable.

On top of that, I made the lime-ginger squares for a second time, doubling the quantity of lime juice and ginger to make a more decisively-lime-flavored and mellower treat. I've also been inspired to consider adding fresh mint or mint sugar the next time around, to give it a more summery edge.

Both of these treats bring to mind a wonderful quote I found recently in The Language of Baklava (p. 188): "The thing about cinnamon and ginger -- they're pretty, yes, but they also bite, which is more interesting and can be dangerous."

I like having a hint of excitement and mystery in my baking.

Usually I bake for other people, but on this recipe, that little voice inside (which sounded strangely gravelly and called me Sam, I don't know why) told me, "You made it for her, now make it for me."

So I did.

And it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.