Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Woman Sconed

I've been reading The Baker's Apprentice the past couple of days, and while I haven't been enjoying it quite as much as I enjoyed the first book (Bread Alone), it still makes for a good, light summer read.

And the bonus? Recipes.

That's right, the author graciously includes a handful of recipes for some of the dishes mentioned in the storyline. Now that's my kind of novel.

The recipe I stumbled across night before last was for luscious-sounding cappuccino-hazelnut scones. And as I knew I desperately needed to make something for my morning breaks at work (now that the little coffee house on campus is closed; not that they had much of anything I wanted, but now I have no fallback position except for a 2-mi round-trip walk to My Favorite Coffee House; but I digress), I looked at that recipe very closely.

Flour? Check. Sugar? Check. Butter? Check. And so on, und so weiter, etc. The only thing lacking was cream, so I stopped on the way home from work yesterday to pick up soy milk instead.

Despite the high temperatures outside, my kitchen actually felt reasonably comfortable last evening (80s instead of 90s, I'm sure), so I whipped up the scone dough after dinner.

By now you would think that I had learned always to follow a recipe exactly the first time through, but no... with scones I tend to play a little fast and loose. (And those generally work out well.) So I used a combination of white and wheat flour, a different sugar, soy milk instead of cream, much more cinnamon... and added good vanilla and cappuccino chips to the lot.

And wouldn't you know it? These scones turned out so tender and flavorful that I had to have one for dessert. (And another one for a quality control check before bedtime. You know.) And I brought in more for break time this morning.

So no matter how this book turns out, I'll have at least gotten one good thing from it:

Another excellent recipe.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Biscuits and Grits

After graduating from college, I moved Down South for five years and enjoyed (?!?) five steamy summers in Atlanta. Strangely enough, Atlanta was where I went vegetarian, which was a somewhat unexpected leap for someone who really enjoyed barbecue.

But I digress.

When I returned north, I decided that I did NOT miss tropical summer weather, excessively large bugs, and the Confederate flag and all the baggage that went with it. What I did miss, however, was some of the classic cuisine of the South: fried okra, sweet tea, biscuits so light they'd float off your plate if given half a chance, and cheese grits.

I brought back the recipe for home-cooked cheese grits from a Southern friend, and since then I have often spent a weekend morning cooking up a pot of that rich, creamy mess. (I usually am too hungry to go through the entire recipe, which involves adding eggs and milk, then baking the grits for an hour. That tastes fantastic, but I can't always wait that long!)

I also found, a few years ago, a couple of recipes for cheese grits that incorporated other cheeses and herbs, such as smoked cheddar and chives. My personal favorite, though, is the buttery, creamy, mild flavor of havarti paired with shreds of fresh dill... which is what I ended up making this morning.

And though grits are essentially a coarser cut of cornmeal, and thus a grain, I still enjoy biscuits with them, so I made a small batch of whole wheat baking powder biscuits that turned out fluffy and tender, even without butter dripping off them.

Add to that a big mug of Phoenix Blend coffee (doggone, that stuff is goooooood!), and you can well imagine that I had a pretty wonderful Sunday brunch for myself.

Of course, given this heat wave, the rest of the day may remind me about the things I didn't care for about the South, but at least I'll have enjoyed my biscuits and grits, thank you very much.

And I'll reach for my sweet mint tea, too...

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Garden City

Here we are, at last, in the long, sunny days of summer... and as I stroll around town, I see that other people have their tomatoes staked and other vegetables planted and growing tall.

In my own garden, I've been doing a good deal of weeding and can finally see an abundance of recent growth. The raspberry canes are setting flowers and thus the start of the first berries. The row of bush beans grows thick, with white blossoms peeping around the leaves. The cucumber seedlings and the dill nestle together happily, anticipating their future lives together as pickles, while the borage and the mint jostle for space in their corner. The tomato plants have finally settled in and started increasing, and the volunteer cilantro is growing so abundantly that I may have to make Indian food all week just to keep up with it!

The herb garden is going strong, too, with an abundant crop of mint (two varieties) for my ongoing jars of mint iced tea and a small bloom of lavender that offered up a handful of blossoms for lavender honey this morning.

In short, all is well in my little corner of the world.

The farmers' market, now in week 4, is also picking up with a wider variety of produce. Today I filled my pack with red potatoes, chard, broccoli, zucchini, beans, basil, kohlrabi (which I promptly shared with Papa, who taught me when I was young to love this knobbly little vegetable), and a bunch of garlic curls. With such a cornucopia of fresh veggies, I'm sure I won't go hungry this week.

So I'd better start cooking!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Good Spirits

Last weekend, the lovely Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy brought me two quarts (yes, QUARTS) of fresh organic strawberries from the farmers' market. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to baking with them during the week, so I had plenty of berries to freeze for later use.

I also had plenty of berries to start a batch of strawberry liqueur.

My little book on liqueur-making does not include a recipe for using strawberries, so I sort of followed the one for raspberry liqueur instead, changing the spice added to a couple chunks of candied ginger in each quart jar. Add sugar syrup, vodka, and crushed berries, and let it sit!

I suspect it will be difficult to wait on this particular batch to steep because the brilliant pinkish red color of the liquid is so incredibly tempting... it makes me think of strawberry syrup, and I want to pour it into sodas or over ice cream.

But no, I'll be good. I'll wait for the flavors to mingle properly before bottling this brew.

And then... oh happy day!

Lazy Day Fried Rice

I haven't been inclined to cook much this week, thanks to the fumes in the kitchen. (No, I haven't been leaving food out, and yes, I have been taking the compost out daily.) I had new kitchen windows installed Tuesday, and the fumes from the sealers and then from the paint I used to touch up the windowsills have made me pass on cooking in favor of grabbing dishes from the refrigerator and retreating to a far corner of the house.

But as the smell subsided by last evening... and I was running out of pre-made meals... I decided that I could muster a little bit of the urge to cook. Not much. But enough to shred a carrot and a tiny zucchini, to mince garlic and ginger, and to throw together a pan of vegetable fried rice.

I don't normally get fried rice when I eat Chinese takeaway... it always seems so greasy and so sparsely populated by vegetables. But making my own, well, that's a different story. I had some cooked brown basmati rice in the fridge, which makes for a nutty taste to the dish, and I added a little extra tamari and a dash of toasted sesame oil to get the extra flavor without too much extra grease, then topped the dish with some dry-roasted peanuts.

Followed by the dregs of the coconut sorbet from a recent Thai dinner, the fried rice made a good, comforting meal on an evening when I didn't want to do much of anything except curl up with a good book or watch a film with friends. And the leftover rice will probably make a really good quick lunch today.

You've got to love summertime... when the cookin' is easy.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

You Put WHAT In My Chocolate?

After a half-mile swim over lunch, I knew I would need a supplement to my meager (if wholesome) lunch, so I commissioned Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy to find me something cold and sweet to drink.

When they returned, they carried something that looked like a thick, creamy mocha slathered in whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. (Oh darn, right?) But instead, they informed me that upon the recommendation of the waitress, they had instead procured for me a chocolate chai.

Hmmmmmm... says I. Not your normal combination, but hey, I'll try anything once. (Well, almost anything. Don't go getting ideas.)

So I sipped. And the flavor that hit my palate was a rich dark chocolate mingled with cinnamon and other delightful spices, reminiscent of my own wicked brownies. I'm not sure that my rapturous comments could be translated to type, but suffice it to say that my physical reaction piqued the interest of my two chocolate angels, who then each had to sample it in turn.

I had been feeling rather sluggish at the start of the afternoon, not wanting to do any work, but with that cold, sweet, luscious drink to keep me going, I picked up the pace right away and plowed through another project. (Which tells me that I had better not indulge in this treat too often... we're not even halfway through the summer, and I'm two-thirds of the way through my projects. No sense in getting even more bored!)

Chocolate... it IS good for you!

Monday, June 20, 2005

Nut For the Faint of Heart

I've been getting a ridiculously, wonderfully large number of ideas for cooking experiments lately. Earlier this spring, there were the lime-ginger squares. Last weekend, I tried out my idea for chai spice shortbread and herbed strawberry jams. And of course, how could anyone forget those still-to-be-named truly wicked brownies???

Now add to that list: dark chocolate-double nut bars.

One of my longtime favorite cookie bar recipes combines a shortbread base with a buttery nut filling that bakes down to an almost-toffee-like (but softer) substance. And just this past week, I idly thought to myself, I wonder what that would taste like with chocolate?

Silly question.

I changed the shortbread base to a dark chocolate shortbread base laced with almond extract, added chopped dark chocolate chips to the filling, and drizzled the cooled bars with melted dark chocolate chips.

Mmmmmm, what bliss. The dark chocolate adds just the right depth to the flavors, and there's still a wonderful contrast in texture between the melt-in-your-mouth base and the crunchy but gooey filling.

It's good to try something new once in a while.

Especially when that something new is really good!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Pastries from Heaven

This was the big weekend: the lovely Phoenix, after a number of other, more straightforward forays into the art of baking with yeast dough, had reached the skill level required to learn how to make croissants.

That's right, everyone... my dear little Phoenix is now all grown up... she's a Baker now. (Sniff! I'm so proud!)

We started the dough Friday evening, making the butter/flour sheet first and then the tender dough. After placing that sheet of butter on the dough and folding the dough over the top, we began the start-and-stop process of rolling and folding, chilling, rolling and folding, chilling... you get the picture.

(Those periods of chilling the dough, though, gave us ample time to head out to the garden for some weeding. Hey, it has to be done sometime!)

After the final rolling of the night, we wrapped up the dough, woke up Mr. Nice Guy (who did a splendid job of holding down the sofa while we worked), and parted ways until the morning.

Saturday morning we rolled out one third of the dough, having frozen the rest for a later date, and cut out triangles to roll up into the classic croissant shape. The rolls proofed while we brewed some of that fabulous Phoenix Blend coffee, and after a quick 15 minutes in the oven, the croissants came out golden and gorgeous, fragrant and flaky.

Quick! To the table!

I pulled out a selection of homemade jams, including both varieties of strawberry jam from last week's cooking, and every last croissant and crumb was completely gone in a very short time, amid much sighing and smacking of lips.

I've had other croissants lately that were satisfying and that inspired me to dust off my own recipe at home, but believe me... nothing, absolutely nothing compares to the bliss of fresh, flaky croissants baked at home, filling your house with the sweet mingling of buttery and yeasty fragrances.

It's not that difficult to bake a little slice of Heaven.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Strawberry Pie Forever

What to do, what to do with the rest of those lovely organic strawberries?

Oooh! Oooh! I know! How about a pie?

In sorting through my summer recipes recently, I unearthed a vegan recipe for a strawberry "cream" pie. And since I have been on a pie kick recently, wanting to use more of that nifty new non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening, I thought, why not?

Start with a tender, flaky pie crust with a 2:1 whole wheat to unbleached flour ratio. Then blend silken tofu with powdered sugar, vanilla, a thickener (I used flour but will use agar next time as it didn't set up as well as it ought), and fresh strawberries for a gorgeously pink and creamy filling flecked with bits of juicy red berries. Top with more silken tofu blended into a "whipped cream," and chill.

Like I said, it didn't set up as well as it ought, but it looked absolutely gorgeous before I cut into it (and let the filling ooze all over), and it tastes fresh and fruity and creamy and gooooooooooood.

I'm still hoping to make some macerated strawberries from the rest of the batch, so that I have some berries to drizzle over the top of the pie. Perhaps tonight.

Wouldn't that be berry nice?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

To Read, Perchance to Eat

I think it's pretty well established that I love to eat.

I think it's also pretty well established that I love to read.

And if you've been keeping track of the column to the right, you know that I really enjoy reading books about food.

But this is beyond even my wildest dreams:

The Sixth International Edible Book Show and Tea

Some of the entries are wonderfully witty, while others make brilliant culinary use of bookbinding techniques. I've no idea how they taste, but they're pretty impressive visually.

What a way to eat your words!

Thai This!

Yes, I'm still on the Thai food kick, though I think it is finally passing.

Last evening I threw together a simple meal (with prep work by the lovely Phoenix) of whole wheat spaghetti tossed with an Asian-flavored cilantro-peanut pesto, peanut tofu, steamed green beans, strips of cucumber, and carrot salad, with everyone free to pile on the veggies as they liked. It turned out to be a very filling dish, but thoroughly satisfactory in that the heat of the spices was not unbearable but balanced by the richness of the peanuts. Though I could not finish even one plateful of such wonderful food, everyone else was thrilled to be allowed to go back for seconds. (And thank you all for leaving a little for me for my lunches this week!)

After we allowed the noodles to settle a bit, The Prof helped me prepare a homemade version of Siam sundaes (as we know them from a local Thai restaurant). He helped make the little banana turnovers (slices of banana topped with turbinado sugar in wonton wrappers), then browned them in melted butter until a bit crisp and translucent and slightly carmelized. I pulled out chilled dessert plates, scooped coconut sorbet in the middle, then arranged the banana turnovers around the edge and drizzled milk chocolate sauce (courtesy of Mr. Nice Guy) all over everything. You are, perhaps, salivating at your computer even now, so you will not be surprised when I say that a reverential hush fell over us all as we ate our desserts.

Everyone stayed to help clean up... for which I thank them all! And everyone left with full stomachs and very happy faces.

We'll still visit the Thai restaurant this summer... but I think everyone can hold out a little longer now.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Brewing Up Trouble

It's funny... I haven't ventured too far afield lately, so when I do get out of town even for part of a day, it feels like a fabulous vacation. And when I get to spend that time with a delightful friend, everything becomes all that much more enjoyable.

Yesterday, Phoenix and I headed up to the Big City for a buffet lunch at a terrific Indian restaurant (with bright, carroty halwah and rich pistachio burfee for dessert), followed by a showing of the new Judi Dench-Maggie Smith movie Ladies in Lavender. But since we arrived at the theatre an hour early, we decided to walk about the neighborhood.

And lo and behold, we stumbled across Phoenix Coffee, appropriately enough. (Yes, Phoenix herself was tickled to find her "name" on the sign.) I had read good things about it from Superbarista, which is the blog is by one of the main people at Phoenix Coffee. But since her writings reveal the almost obsessive care that the company puts into selecting, roasting, and brewing the best possible coffee, I knew I had to step across the threshhold to find out for myself.

The long, long service counter had one section devoted entirely to enormous apothecary jars of freshly roasted coffee beans... easily 30 different varieties! After looking over the list of varieties, I asked to get a whiff of the organic fair trade Phoenix Blend. The fragrance that came wafting out of the jar struck me as a dark, intense mixture of bittersweet chocolate and freshly roasted peanut butter, strangely enough. But when the barista noted that she thought it smelled like fresh-baked bread when brewed, I knew I couldn't leave the premises without a half-pound bag of beans in my purse.

But of course, smelling and tasting are two different things. And since Superbarista has recently been touting the perfection of espresso shots, I wanted to sample something containing said espresso. Normally, I'm a straight-up mocha fan, though recently the hot weather has had me indulging in frappuccinos and mocha mudslides. The barista at Phoenix, however, suggested a Speedball, which the menu describes as "like Cafe Mocha, but more intense, with two types of chocolate and two forms of coffee" and the barista herself described as a "liquid brownie."

I never expected to hear those two words put together. But as I think my Dear Readers have guessed by now, I'm a big fan of brownies. And so, after sampling this concoction, Phoenix and I agreed that we both wanted Speedballs, iced, to keep us awake during the movie. (Not that we needed to be kept awake, as it was a beautiful movie, but with the lights down low in the middle of a hot afternoon... well, you never know.)

The Phoenix Coffee Cafe also has a long list of other drinks I would like to try, and they even serve bubble tea. I don't care for bubble tea generally as I don't like the big bubbles, but since they say they can make the tea without the bubbles AND offer flavors like coconut, plum, green tea honeydew, and Thai, I might just have to overcome that prejudice.

So, any time any of you good folks want to catch a movie in the Big City, I'm all for going with you...

As long as we can visit the Phoenix.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

If You're Ever in a Jam

The local farmers' market is now in full swing, and though it's only the second week, the variety of offerings already impresses me. And because this year I hope to visit the market every Saturday for my veggie fix, I'm trying to pay close attention to what crops are coming in when (and asking the farmers what to expect in coming weeks) so that I can plan meals accordingly.

I know the timetable for a large number of crops, though, thanks to the experience of my own garden and of living in this area for most of my life. So I had a strong suspicion that today I would find one of my favorites:

Strawberries.

Thanks be to that obsessive impulse that always causes me to arrive early wherever I go, because I reached the market 15 minutes before the "official" opening time. And there at the first stall, run by a family that owns an organic farm, were several pints of sparklingly fresh and sweet berries. I bought four pints, trying desperately not to drool all over them, along with a bundle of very slender and fresh asparagus, before visiting some of the other farmers and then joining my Wonderful Parents for coffee and sweets at the Hungarian pastry shop.

Once I returned home, I pulled out pots and jars and fired up the stove to make jam. True, it's hot and steamy work (on a hot and steamy day, no less), but the end results are always worth it. (And The Gentleman called while I worked, keeping me company and graciously ignoring my random mutterings about jam boiling too hard.)

In recent years, inspired first by my poli sci professor's creations and more recently by Clotilde's samplings, I've tried different combinations of flavors in my own jams, often adding items from my herb garden. First came the peach-plum-pecan preserves, then blackberry-lavender jam, strawberry-ginger, and last year's black raspberry-chocolate mint (the best to date!).

This time I wanted to make two "micro" batches, using one pint of berries for each and resulting in little more than a half-pint's worth of sweet, sweet berry goodness. The first batch combined strawberries and rose geranium leaves (through infusion and sugar both), and the next matched the berries with minced Moroccan mint, which has a faint bergamot flavor that makes you think of a green Earl Grey tea. By making small batches, if I discovered I didn't much care for either combination, I wouldn't have wasted many berries.

Silly moi. How could I think that these sweet preserves wouldn't taste fantastic? The rose geranium version mingles fruit and floral notes harmoniously, and I believe I may have to make biscuits or scones or croissants to provide the proper backdrop for such flavors. And though I haven't yet sampled the mint-infused jam, it smelled equally heavenly.

As for the rest of those beautiful berries, I haven't yet decided what I'll do with them. A pie? A tart? Shortcake?

Or more jam?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Sugar and Spice

I wasn't going to bake this weekend. Honest.

It's still toasty in the house, and the increased outside humidity should have persuaded me to keep the oven off.

But noooooooooooooooooo.

You see, during a brief discussion of holiday baked goods, the words "chai biscotti" captured my interest and fired my imagination. (Thanks, Tina... I look forward to the recipe!) Inspiration struck!

What if I used the spices I normally use in chai -- cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves -- and added them to a light, buttery shortbread? And what if the bite of ginger came from one of my favorite baking ingredients, mini bits of candied ginger?

Once I get such a delectable idea in my head, it's hard to hold me back. I knew I had to find out how this combination would taste.

It's good. And by "good" I mean fabulously melt-in-your-mouth "sugar and spice and all things nice."

This weekend, that's what this little girl is made of.

Me and the Boys

Some of my Dear Readers know that I am a very proud "auntie" of two adorable little boys, Beaker and Scooter. (Some of you have been subjected to regular photo displays!) But I try not to let my enthusiasm for their childlike bons mots seep into conversation (or writing) too terribly often.

Still, as the saying goes, sometimes kids "say the darnedest things!"

While visiting my boys for a play date yesterday, I was invited by their parents to stay for dinner (homemade salad and takeaway pizza... good for a warm night). I wasn't about to say no, considering the prospect of a nearly empty refrigerator at home.

Beaker impressed me with his willingness to try the veggie pizza with unfamiliar things on it, including black olives, green peppers, and mushrooms. (And though it isn't my favorite combination, how could I not try a piece when my not-quite-four-year-old "nephew" was willing to try?) He wasn't overly delighted with the pizza overall, but he did ask what different things were, and he did try them, without any forcing on the part of his parents. And knowing what a fussy eater I was at times when I was a kid, I thought he was admirably adventurous.

Of course, he also had other vegetables on his plate, as did his 14-month-old brother, and somehow that steamed broccoli got tucked under the remains of the pizza by the end of the meal. (Who of us hasn't ever tried that trick?) So when he requested dessert, the following exchange ensued:

Mommy: Did you eat all your broccoli?
Beaker: I'm full... no more room.
Mommy: Well, if you don't have room for broccoli, you don't have room for dessert.
Auntie: You could have broccoli for dessert.
Beaker: Broccoli isn't dessert! (followed by the look that clearly said, Don't you know THAT???)

Ah yes, bright boy. You can't put anything past him. But could I leave it at that? Oh no...

Auntie: Well, I've known people who had ice cream for breakfast, so I don't see why you couldn't have broccoli for dessert.
Beaker: (speculative look)
Mommy: (pointed look at Auntie)
Auntie (mumbling): I'm just saying.

Me and my big mouth. That will probably come back to haunt me.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Easy As... Pudding?

It's summer. It's hot out.

Well, OK, it's not hot out at this precise moment in the morning, but when I kick off work for the day, it's hot out.

And I'm not complaining, truly, because it's better than the chilly, damp, dreary weather that characterized the end of May. But when it gets this hot, I am disinclined to most physical activity, including cooking.

Which is a problem when you're hungry.

Of course, I find I don't eat much when it's this hot as I get queasy, but hey, you still have to eat, right?

So after picking a large salad from my garden (lettuce, spinach, borage leaves, dill, mint, radishes), I knew I needed something a little more substantial or else I would have difficulty getting to sleep over the rumbling in my tummy. And, well, logic (at least my version of it) dictates that you follow dinner (however so slight) with dessert.

Aside from the almond-ginger cookies, I didn't have anything for dessert, and I truly wanted something cold. There's no ice cream in the freezer, alas, and it would have been too much effort to walk out and get some.

BUT! I remembered that I had set out a couple of vegan dessert recipes (from the cookbook Sinfully Vegan) requiring silken tofu, which I picked up over the weekend, so I decided to combine recipes for a buckeye parfait.

First, half the contents of the box of silken tofu went into one bowl, and I blended that with powdered sugar, vanilla, and some melted vegan chocolate chips to make a luscious, rich chocolate pudding.

In another bowl, I blended the remaining tofu with more powdered sugar and vanilla, plus smooth peanut butter and a little flour to make a sort of peanut whipped cream.

(You see where I'm going here, don't you?)

I divided the pudding into my lovely rose Depression glass cups, topped each portion with the peanut whipped cream, and popped them all into the refrigerator to cool. And about an hour later, I helped myself to a thoroughly decadent (and cold) dessert that proved very satisfactory indeed.

The heat is expected to last all week, but you know, right now it doesn't really bother me, because I've got more pudding chillin' in the fridge.

It's as easy as that.

Buckeye Parfaits

Adapted from the Chocolate Lover's Pudding recipe and the peanut whipped cream portion of the Truffle Pie recipe from Sinfully Vegan... and wicked easy to make on a hot summer's night.

1 box light silken tofu
1 c powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 c vegan chocolate chips, melted (stovetop or microwave)
1/2 c smooth peanut butter
1 T flour

Blend the tofu in a mixing bowl until smooth. Add powdered sugar and vanilla, blending. Scrape half the tofu mixture into another bowl. In the first bowl, add the melted chocolate chips and blend until smooth. In the second bowl, add peanut butter and flour and blend until smooth.

Divide chocolate mixture evenly between 4 serving cups or small bowls. Divide the peanut whipped "cream" mixture evenly to top the pudding in each serving cup. Cover with waxed paper or plastic wrap and chill at least one hour. Serve.

Makes 4 servings of lusciousness.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Proper Cup of Tea

Let me say here and now that I am smitten (in a completely non-threatening and non-stalking way) with Neil Gaiman, author of such fine literature as American Gods and the Sandman comic series, and his witty, informal, and utterly delightful blog.

And when dear Neil speaks (er, writes), I listen (em, read). (I'm bound to learn something, and I'm likely to be highly entertained.)

So when he expounded on the proper way to make a cup of tea, I knew I needed to share it with my dear friends as well. Hey, he's British, and he would know, right?

He confirms what I learned a couple of years ago from reading The Agony of the Leaves by Helen Gustafson, who used to be the tea lady at Chez Panisse: the boiling water... and it must be a rolling boil... is the key to excellent tea.

So the next time you make a cup of tea... use the good stuff, please, and make sure that water is boiling merrily before you add it to the cup or pot.

And join me in a toast to Neil, would you?

Fortune Cookie

The cooking lessons with Phoenix continue apace, and I'm proud to report that she is becoming much more comfortable in the kitchen.

Last night we planned and cooked a well-rounded Chinese meal of spicy Szechuan eggplant (which was neither spicy nor Szechuan since I had no hot bean paste; it was good, but a little bland), Szechuan green beans (one of our favorites), brown rice, tofu vegetable potstickers with ginger-lime dipping sauce, and almond-ginger cookies and pecan pie for dessert.

Though Phoenix was unable to arrive in time for part of the prep (after all, I leave work before she does), she did help to assemble and cook the potstickers, and I left the bulk of the sauteeing to her. Everything cooked up beautifully and in good time, so we were left to lust after the potstickers and sauce for a goodly while before Mr. Nice Guy showed up.

(We're not telling him how many potstickers we made, but suffice it to say that we had to do a thorough quality-control check on the dish, and then a second quality-control check to verify that the success of the first was not a fluke. We take our quality control very seriously.)

Toward the end of a fine dinner, our mutual friend and colleague, Linux Man, showed up on the doorstep, lured there by the promise of homemade pecan pie. We waited for him to fill up on the main course, then all enjoyed dessert together, polishing off the rest of that fabulous pie. Linux Man, also known by his catch phrase of "sell your soul for a cookie?", was further delighted to see the tin of almond-ginger cookies, which he immediately sampled and declared "excellent" while attempting to tuck said tin under his shirt to make a quick getaway. (No, he didn't succeed.)

All in all, another successful dinner party with delightful, laughter-filled conversation and judicious compliments to the chefs. And though the cookies offered contained no fortunes (get yours online instead), I think this randomly selected fortune would fit the evening just fine:

"There's no time like the pleasant."

Sunday, June 05, 2005

You Sweet Talker

Some time ago, I came across a review of the book Finding Betty Crocker, Susan Marks' history of General Mills' iconic homemaker from the 1920s to the present. And since I finally picked up a copy at the library, I ripped through the pages (visually only) at astonishing speed this weekend.

You see, even with the Chef Mother to show me the ropes in the kitchen, I still learned an awful lot from Betty Crocker. I collected the coupons from bags of Gold Medal flour and, at the tender age of ten (or so), redeemed them for my first grown-up cookbook: the "new and revised" 1978 edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook. (Alas, that was back in the day when Betty had a hideously starched bubble/flip hairdo... but then, I wasn't following her as a fashion role model.)

That basic cookbook still proves useful to me on a regular basis, though I no longer need the diagrams of cuts of meat. I still refer to "Big Red" when I need to know rice cooking times, and the pizza dough recipe and the never-fails flaky pie crust recipe that I use to great success come directly from this cookbook. And almost every Christmas I find myself turning to the same page in the cookie section for Russian teacakes.

A couple of years after acquiring this volume, I also received the Betty Crocker International Cookbook from the Chef Mother in support of my 4-H project on international foods (and the birth of my love affair with ethnic cuisines). From this book have come some of my favorite desserts: cassata alla siciliana, a rich pound cake filled with Grand Marnier-laced cream and topped with mocha buttercream; torta de almendra, an orange-almond cake sprinkled with Grand Marnier (do you sense a trend here?); and, of course, baklava.

Both books have inspired me many times over the years, and I would be loath to part with either one. Other cookbooks may come and go, but I'm always learning something new from my Betty Crocker cookbooks, even when that something new is something old (and there are a LOT of classic recipes).

So in tribute to America's First Lady of Food, I baked this weekend. I pulled out the delightfully old-fashioned recipe for vanilla refrigerator cookies, tweaking the flavors (adding almond extract, ground ginger, and mini diced candied ginger) to create a light cookie that would make a pleasant finish to a Chinese meal. (This recipe is a wonderful blank slate for other flavors, too: it's the basis for my lavender cookies, for example.)

And today I baked a pecan pie, one of my personal favorites because it always turns out so buttery and lush. Though I usually only bake pecan pie around the fall and winter holidays, I've been craving it lately and decided to brave the heat and surrender to the inevitable, knowing that no other pecan pie would satisfy me so well.

Recipes like these have been big crowd-pleasers at my dinner parties (and around the office) for years, and while I can take the credit for the final products, so many of the recipes began with that Big Red Book.

Betty, I couldn't have done it without you!

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Who Do That Tofu That You Do So Well?

Even after twelve years of being vegetarian, I still don't feel like I have the knack for cooking with tofu. Sure, it's an easy substitute for cheese in Indian dishes like shahi paneer, but I'm only now learning some of the tricks for handling it (like pressing the tofu between layers of cotton or linen towels, not paper towels) and finding good recipes for it.

Case in point: I had come across a recipe for peanut-broiled tofu on the Yoga Journal food site when the lovely Phoenix introduced me to it. I've always loved peanut butter, so I thought I needed to try this dish.

And, of course, since I've had plenty of cravings for Thai or Asian-style dishes lately (and you know, I'm going to lay a little blame on The Gentleman for that since he's been raving about the many Thai restaurants in his new location; but I digress), and since I had tofu left over from the Bangkok noodles, this seemed as good a time as any to sample a new recipe.

I didn't follow the recipe exactly as it was too hot out this weekend (yippee!) to turn on the broiler. So after marinating the tofu for a few hours, I simply pan-fried the pieces and added the peanut sauce to the pan, letting it reduce and become more richly flavored. Once again, I used whole wheat spaghetti instead of the rice noodles for the foundation of the dish, and after using the carrots called for in the recipe the first time through, I used steamed broccoli to liven up the leftovers.

I have only once before eaten tofu cooked so perfectly (lots of flavor seared into the outside, creamy and rich inside), and even that dish couldn't compare to the heavenly mingling of peanut butter, soy sauce, cilantro, and my other favorite Asian flavors. It was succulent, it was blissful, it was amazing!

And it's going to get made again this week.

Lassi-Faire

A few nights ago, I sat down with my cooking notebooks to pull out some new recipes for summer.

That's right, notebooks plural. In addition to the shelf of cookbooks (and I try to keep it down to one shelf, rotating titles on and off and trying not to go too far overboard in my love of cookbooks), I have four three-ring binders, divided into categories, that contain not only my cookbook as developed over the years but also various recipes I've torn out of magazines or copied from other people's collections. That's a lot of recipes. So it gets a little difficult to find things sometimes.

The point is, that's why I decided to pull out all the recipes that used good summer produce and have yet to be tested in my kitchen. With a superb budding sous chef by my side and eager taste testers not far behind, I feel certain that I can experiment with several of these dishes this summer.

Some recipes, though, sound a little more unusual, so I thought perhaps I'd better try them just for myself first. And among those was a recipe that would use the leftover watermelon from a recent picnic with my Wonderful Parents... in short, watermelon lassi.

Lassi, the yogurt drink that helps cool you down when you're eating hot (but good!) Indian food, does come in various flavors. I've had the plain sweet lassi, a salty ginger lassi that was just too potent for me, rich mango lassis (my favorite), and most recently, a homemade mango-date lassi. But watermelon? Who'd'a thunk it?

But hey, I like watermelon, so I decided to give it a whirl and to hope for something refreshing on a very warm day. Like other lassis, it's easy to throw it together... just blend! ...and the resulting concoction was a gorgeous blush pink, almost as if I had used strawberries instead.

The verdict? A satisfying sweet drink, astonishingly rich, and flavorful yet mellow. I wouldn't want too much of it too often, but I feel that way about lassis in general. And I do think I'll make it again the next time I make Indian food (NOTE: and that happened the very next day!).

Watermelon Lassi

Modified from Entertaining for a Veggie Planet, this recipe makes two lassis. Modify at will!

4 c seeded watermelon chunks
1 c plain yogurt
4 to 6 T sugar
large pinch of cardamom
large pinch of salt
juice of 1 lime

In blender, mix watermelon, yogurt, sugar, cardamom, salt, and lime juice on high speed until smooth. Pour into ice-filled glass. Serve!

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Challenge

I had a long, cozy phone conversation with the incomparably sassy Spicyflower yesterday evening, and as most of our conversations do, the topic eventually came around to fabulous gourmet food.

I know, big surprise, right?

I have to say that Spicyflower has one of the most amazing culinary minds I've had the privilege to meet... and she hasn't even started culinary school yet! But when we get to talking about recipes we've made or would like to try, the ideas started flowing, and we get on to the most delectable riffs about flavor combinations, wine pairings, and the like.

It's thanks to Spicyflower that I developed the wicked brownies earlier this year... and then refined the recipe... thanks to our conversation about chocolate pasta dishes and then combining chocolate and chili powder. See? Isn't she brilliant?

Anyway, last night we got to discussing fresh pasta and butternut squash... and yes, you guessed it, fresh pasta filled with butternut squash and the wonderful ways you could dress it up. She voted for her decadent cream sauce laced with cloves, while I proposed a variation on the Afghan squash recipe I made over the winter, with a marinara sauce infused with cinnamon and cloves and topped with a garlic-herb yogurt sauce.

I then mentioned that I had seen a recipe recently for butternut squash gnocchi, regarding which she gasped in delight... and away we went, planning the perfect presentation for such a dish. We agreed that it would have to be served on a bed of wilted greens and topped with the aforementioned cream sauce, then sprinkled with toasted nuts and perhaps fresh chopped herbs.

So, come fall, I think we will end up having a little challenge contest of our own... perhaps a mini "Is My Blog Burning?" event. After all, I hope to harvest a fair amount of butternut squash from my garden this year, and I'll have to find delicious ways to use it.

I'm pretty sure I'll find help in eating it up, too.

Stay tuned!

Thai-ing Something New

Once I get started with a cooking theme, sometimes I just can't stop.

To wit: After making Bangkok noodles over the weekend, I had plenty of coconut milk left over and plenty of cravings for Thai flavors. And while I could have made the noodles again, I would have had to run out for more spinach. I had the tofu, the coconut milk, all the spices and such... just no spinach (aside from the little leaves popping up in the garden, and that would not have been enough).

Sometimes I'm pretty lazy.

So there's me, thinking, what else can I make with coconut milk? And I remember the scones I made last year: a variation on my basic scone recipe, replacing the milk with coconut milk and spicing it up with lime zest and juice, mini diced ginger, and more coconut.

After all, you've learned that I really like cooking with ginger. And I really, really like the combination of lime and ginger together. And when coconut goes so very well with both of those flavors, how can I resist?

But this time, I didn't want to make scones. I've been toying with the idea of making muffins with this combination, so upon waking early this morning, I decided to hurl my weary body into the kitchen to whip up a batch of coconut-ginger-lime muffins.

Though I used a vegan recipe, you can take any basic muffin recipe and make the following adaptations:

1. Replace the milk with coconut milk (I used lite coconut milk) or a combination of coconut milk and regular milk if you prefer. Add the juice of one lime

2. For spices, add up to 1 teaspoon of ground ginger and the freshly grated zest of one lime.

3. Add just a wee drop of both vanilla and almond extracts to the batter... just enough to enhance, not overpower, the other flavors. (Coconut extract would have been ideal, but I don't have any. Must find some!)

4. Fold in 1/4 cup each of mini diced candied ginger and flaked coconut.

I also substituted about 1/2 cup of brown rice flour for some of the regular flour, simply because I like the texture and lightness it adds... but that's me.

The muffins turned out to be just the right degree of moistness and just sweet enough to satisfy (but not overly sweet) for the morning, and the flavors melded subtly and warmly. Next time, I must try coconut extract to enhance that flavor... but overall, I was very pleased with the results. (I'm thinking that a simple lime glaze would also be nice... someday...)

I brought the rest into work to share with certain other folks. Who's up for break?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Getting to Know You

The Dinner Club has been on extended hiatus since the Chocolate Potluck, partly because I've wanted to devote more time to Phoenix's request for continued cooking lessons on more complicated recipes, and partly because I was fairly burned out on cooking for a crowd. And while I'm not saying that the Dinner Club is about to be revived, I do think there is new hope for occasional culinary celebrations.

Part of the inspiration behind this is, of course, the onset of summer weather, the growth of my vegetable garden, and the return of the farmers' market... all of which have fired up my desire to try new warm-weather recipes.

But I would also lay part of the blame/praise/inspiration at the door of our new intern, whom I'll call The Prof, given his predilection for a determinedly academic sense of couture and his eagerness to engage in mind-stimulating conversation. Within the first couple of days of his start of work here, we found ourselves discussing local restaurants and ethnic cuisines with great fervor, and I knew I'd found a friend.

So, to welcome The Prof into our cozy little culinary circle, I threw a casual little wine and cheese gathering last evening and invited a handful of people, including the lovely Phoenix, Mr. Nice Guy, THE Tech God Himself, and, of course, The Prof and his charming girlfriend. We don't get too snobbish about our wines... we just ask that they be good... but we do get a little crazy about our cheeses, which included the sumptuous Prima Donna, an amusing wine-marinated goat cheese called Drunken Goat, and another fine sample, the name of which I've already forgotten.

In addition, we had homemade flaxseed rolls, lavash crackers, a radish and herb borani (ingredients fresh from the garden!), rosemary walnuts, and fresh apples and grapes (and Nutella!) courtesy of The Prof and his girlfriend. A fine, light, refreshing spread for a summery evening!

And to cap off the feast, we enjoyed a bottle of blackberry dessert wine that my Wonderful Parents had brought me from one of their journeys, and it paired well with the decadent cappuccino brownies I had made earlier in the weekend. What bliss!

I always wonder how well new people will fit into an established dinner group, especially when they have to tread their way through a series of long-running inside jokes. But considering that everyone stayed until 10 PM (after arriving around 6:30 for a "casual" gathering!), I think it's safe to say that a good time was had by all.

And I think the Prof has found a permanent place in our little "club."