Sunday, July 31, 2005

To Market, to Market

Ah yes, another weekend, another trip to the farmers' market... and what was in my basket, er, backpack this week?

--fresh bicolor sweet corn, a baker's dozen! I shared four ears with my Wonderful Parents, boiled the rest, enjoyed two straight off the cob (I couldn't help myself!), and froze the rest.

--curly kale, broccoli (for my favorite pasta dish and for pizza), tiny Japanese eggplant (about 6" long), and purple kohlrabi from one organic farm stand

--a selection of grape and paste tomatoes, Italian garlic, more pickling cucumbers to add to the pickle-making fun from the other organic farm stand

And I still had a small amount of produce from last weekend to use up, so today I made:

--a splendid warm potato salad from organic fingerling potatoes, fresh rosemary from the pot on my windowsill, salt and pepper, organic extra-virgin olive oil, and crumbled blue cheese

--more Uzbek carrot salad with leftover cucumber added and sprinkled with crushed peanuts

It's so much easier to eat healthy when the food is this good!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

In a Pickle

We're in the depths of summer now, and my garden has been transformed into a weedy jungle with the occasional bounty-laden vegetable plant. And right now the crop to watch is the cucumbers.

Why is that? For those of you who are unfamiliar with my summer canning routine, this means pickles.

Not just any pickles, mind you. The one pickle recipe I make on an annual basis (and I usually make jars and jars and jars of it) is a recipe for hot kosher dills handed down from my grandmother.

Long known as "the hots" in my family (yes, I come from a line of women with rather earthy senses of humor, in case you couldn't tell), these pickles are legendary. I sometimes like to tell the story of my Culinarily-Challenged Aunt who attempted to make them one time and put in about three times as much hot red pepper as the recipe required... we kidded her about those "nuclear" pickles for years.

The recipe itself is straightforward (but I'm not going to give it out here!): Combine fresh cucumbers with fresh dill, whole cloves of garlic, whole hot peppers, and other spices... pack with a salt brine... and pop them into a hot-water bath for a short period of time to seal the jars.

So simple, really, and yet so widely adored and sought-after by the rest of my family and by an ever-growing circle of admiring friends. (Which is funny, because I don't really like pickles myself... though I admit that these are pretty good if you do like pickles.)

This year, the lovely Phoenix decided she wanted to learn how to make the pickles as she had fallen madly in love with them in past years, so she helped pack the jars, add the brine, and seal the four and a half pints that were produced Saturday afternoon. In return, she got to choose which jars she wanted for herself so that once again she could proudly show off the fruits of her labor.

More cucumbers are coming on the vine, so I may have to make another small batch later this week... and who knows how many jars I'll have made at the final count this summer? I'm sure it won't reach the record of 80+ pints that I made one summer (at least I hope not!).

I'll end up giving away almost all the jars, saving only a couple for entertaining at home or for later gifts (these pickles get hotter the longer they sit, and some people really love that).

I may be in a pickle now... but I'll be happy to share.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Happiness Is...

It's Friday morning, and though I've no new tales of baking or cooking to share with you (wait until after this weekend!), I can share the morning's happy blessings with you:

Happiness is... a surprisingly cool July morning that makes you burrow happily under the covers for just a little longer.

Happiness is... fresh-brewed coffee laced with very fresh cardamom (oh so fragrant!).

Happiness is... three new ideas for baking (one or two of which I hope to test this weekend).

Happiness is... fresh sour cream donuts from my lovely and aptly-nicknamed colleague She-Who-Brings-Fresh-Donuts.

Happiness is... hearing from the incomparably sassy Spicyflower that her interview at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts went very well (keep your fingers crossed, folks; she's going to make an awesome pastry chef!).

Happiness is... the thought of making dill pickles and basil pesto from my garden's produce this weekend.

Happines is... sharing all that with friends!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tricks and Treats

Among my purchases at last week's farmers' market was an enormous organic zucchini. And when I say enormous, I mean a Goliath-sized club about 18" long and 4" in diameter.

Zucchini as a lethal weapon... you always knew that, right?

When zucchini gets to be that size, I honestly don't think there's much you can do with it except to shred it and use the shredded zucchini in a number of different recipes. So I pulled out a cutting mat, my big chef's knife (a foot-long blade, a tool fit for a Warrior Baklava Queen), and my large food processor. And in no time flat, I had that big ol' zucchini torn to shreds.

("To shreds, you say?" asks the Gentleman. Indeed.)

Of course, I wasn't going to use all of it at once, so I pulled out a big cookie sheet and dumped one-cup clumps of drained zucchini onto the pan and popped it into the freezer. (That's one of the Chef Mother's handy tricks... freeze produce in the portions you want to use later, and then it's easier to thaw exactly what you want. Isn't she brilliant, folks? Let's give her a hand!)

Once those piles froze, I put them into plastic freezer bags and finished with the rest (save for 3 c that had been set aside). I ended up with 9 bags (yes, 9 cups) of shredded zucchini in the freezer, patiently waiting for future recipes.

With the remaining 3 cups of zucchini, well, what's a girl to do but make zucchini bread? The timing was perfect as I needed something new for coffee breaks today and tomorrow, and I can never resist a moist, spicy, nutty, wholesome loaf.

I used the basic Betty Crocker recipe but made half of the sugar unrefined (Sucanat... would have used it for all the sugar, but I'm running low), used whole wheat pastry flour, and added just a couple drops of Fiori di Sicilia, a yummy orange-vanilla flavoring, in place of the vanilla.

A couple of hours later... after the loaf had baked and cooled... I couldn't resist a fat slice for my dessert. And oh my, was it ever good!

I love the tasty treats of summer!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Choices We Make

Yesterday after work, I braved the threatening weather to walk down to the natural food store to pick up a few groceries: more whole wheat pastry flour, some pine nuts for pesto, soy milk, whole allspice for pickles, and a pound of shade grown, organic, fair-trade coffee.

Yeah, I felt pretty good about buying lots of healthy groceries, some of which were intended for my continued cooking around the garden.

Then I met Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy for dinner at a local tavern, and I promptly downed a good-sized salad, a small crock of beer cheese soup with tortilla chips, and an order of beer-battered fries... and ended up feeling overly full and not terribly happy.

Some days are like that... for every sensible choice I make that adds to my well-being and happiness, I make another choice that may give me instant gratification but a lingering unease or regret.

It's part of the beauty and the agony of being human, right?... the freedom to make choices, good or bad, well-informed or thoughtless.

I say all this because I don't want you to think that I think I'm perfect or wonderful... I'm certainly not trying to be. I'm just trying to live my life as best as I know how, doing the things that make me feel happy, healthy, and, if I'm lucky, even a little wise.

And yet some days, I do the things that make me feel completely the opposite. Go figure!

So though I love to enjoy wholesome food and read about others who are doing the same thing (the latest about the Hundred-Mile Diet is "A Local Eating Rhapsody"... and if that doesn't make you want to rush right out to a local farm or farmers' market, well, why are you reading this blog?), sometimes I fall short of my own goals and desires by taking the seemingly easy choice and ending up dissatisfied.

At least today I had a new set of choices. Granted, a couple of today's choices weren't that great, either, but at least each day I get a chance to start from scratch.

Who needs perfection? I prefer fallibility.

The choices are much more interesting.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Feeling a Chill

Yesterday afternoon, having used up a fair amount of Saturday's market finds already, I turned my thoughts to the pint of organic blackberries.

What to do, what to do?

Truly, I was torn. Should I make a cobbler, since I've sort of been craving one? Should I make a small batch of jam?

Or, since the temperatures are creeping up again, should I make sorbet?

So I pulled out my trusty little food processor, pureed the berries with a little water and sugar and just a pinch of lavender from my garden, and poured them into a glass loaf pan that then went straight into the freezer. And a few hours later, I had a sweet (well, not too sweet), cold, refreshing dessert.

And just to add the icing on the cake... I drizzled a little dark chocolate sauce over the sorbet. Bliss!

Ninety-degree weather today? Bah! What do I care?

I'm going to chill out with some fresh sorbet.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

My Soup Is Cold!

Actually, gazpacho is supposed to be cold, but it always reminds me of a classic Red Dwarf episode in which someone was amusingly unaware of that fact.

I usually make gazpacho a couple of times a summer since it's so easy to throw together and it makes a good quick lunch. But I hadn't yet gotten around to it, so I intentionally picked up tomatoes and cucumbers at the farmers' market yesterday so that I could make some.

There are many variations of gazpacho out there, but I like mine with a healthy dash of balsamic vinegar, which means I can make regular gazpacho with a Spanish or Mexican edge, or I can add basil and make it a more Italian-tasting soup. (I also just like how the rich flavor of balsamic vinegar gives it a little more depth.)

I also like to puree the vegetables in my gazpacho instead of leaving them in small chunks. Call me quirky (and many people do), but I want my soup to be more like soup than salsa.

A bowl of gazpacho, along with chunks of fresh sourdough bread, made an excellent light lunch today. And as the temperature was starting to rise, I was more than happy to have something easy and light to carry me through the afternoon.

And I have enough left for lunch later this week!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Quiche Me Quick!

We had another fine adventure at the farmers' market this morning, Phoenix and I, finding lots of good fresh veggies (broccoli, cucumbers, onions, garlic, zucchini, tomatoes), some organic blackberries from my favorite organic farmer (who has been absent from the market this year up until today), and a loaf of sourdough bread and a chocolate espresso cookie from the bakery stand.

Ah yes, life is good!

We followed our market outing with a little smackerel of something sweet at the Hungarian pastry shop, lingering to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and yet another cup of coffee (in my case).

Then, we trudged back up the hill to my house and got down to the day's cooking lessons: pie crust and quiche.

Over our lunch at the Bistro the other day, Phoenix mentioned how much she enjoyed the quiche-like tart, and had I ever made quiche before? Yes, I replied, but it's been years.

"Oh, really?" she asked, with that certain gleam in her eye that I know very well means, "Here's yet another situation I need to take advantage of, so I'll persuade the Baklava Queen to teach me something new and I will eat fabulously well."

(I'm smarter than I look, you see.)

So, I agreed that she needed to learn how to make a good pie crust as well as make a quiche, and we arranged to do so today.

First off, the pie crust. Usually I'm pretty terrific at making a tender, flaky pie crust, but for whatever reason, the dough did not want to hold together as we rolled it out. (I think it might have been a combination of a different flour, mature shortening, and weather.)

However, we were able to make a patchwork crust in the pie dish, and Phoenix patiently worked the dough to fill the holes and mend the seams. I was impressed with her deftness at smoothing out the dough so that the crust ended up looking almost perfect, and I told her that while anyone can learn how to make a good pie crust, it takes true talent to make an ugly pie crust look gorgeous!

We decided that our quiche would contain a tomato and a small zucchini from our market adventure, as well as a small onion from a previous week and basil from my garden. We also added crumbled blue cheese, though we later discovered that it wasn't quite enough for our tastes.

I wish I had had a digital camera to take a picture of the quiche, because I have rarely seen anything so photogenic come out of my oven. The egg filling had a beautiful random pattern with strips of red tomatoes, triangles of green zucchini, and darker strips of green basil. It almost looked too good to eat.

Almost. Because you see, in my house, it's never too good to eat.

We also threw together a light cucumber salad with the first cucumber from my own garden, plus dill and mint from my herb garden, and we served that and the quiche with a honey-sweetened jasmine green iced tea, followed by the blueberry-date bars I'd made in the morning.

I'm really growing quite fond of these market-to-kitchen Saturdays when I can cook with excellent fresh produce and end up with satisfying and healthy meals.

And Phoenix?

Well, she was happy to take home an extra piece of quiche.

My Date's Got the Blues

The last of the handpicked blueberries sat forlornly in the refrigerator. "We're so lonely," they whispered. "Won't you ever use us up?"

"I will, I promise," I reassured them. "I just have to find the right inspiration."

They sighed sadly and continued to wait.

Until this morning, when I decided that I was not going to make a cobbler or a pie or bread or sorbet... I wanted to make blueberry-date bars.

Ah, that got your attention, didn't it?

I was so enchanted by the candied ginger-cardamom bars I made earlier in the week that I thought, why not use that recipe as a base for date bars, throw in the rest of the blueberries while I'm at it, and have something truly wonderful?

Some days, I'm really on a roll.

So I started off with making the dough for the bars, pressing it into a square baking dish. I simmered chopped dates and the blueberries in some water, then added a smidgen of flour to thicken the fruit when I realized I had used just a little too much water. I spread the fruit over the unbaked cookie base, then mixed together a streusel of oats, maple sugar, cinnamon, and mini candied ginger and sprinkled it all over the top.

Sweet berry bliss! I had two whopping pieces of it for breakfast, which made me extraordinarily happy on a Saturday morning, and I know I'm going to enjoy it for desserts as well.

No more fresh berries to send me into a paroxysm of guilt for not using them quickly enough.

But at least there's more in the freezer!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Donut Pass Go

I've mentioned before the sweet indulgence of fresh donuts. But no chain-store donut can hold a candle to a fresh donut from a locally-owned bakery.

One of my colleagues decided this morning that she needed to make a run to the local bakery, and she stopped by each staff member to ask if any of us wanted donuts as well. All it took was a single thought of those delectable sour cream donuts to weaken my will and force me to pony up a dollar for a couple of them.

Sour cream donuts, or frycakes as I used to call them, have a distinct advantage over the usual fluffy yeast donuts. The dough is more dense, more cake-like, but tender and flavorful. And when these babies are done right and are served fresh, the outside of the cakes have a crisp edge to them that provides a pleasing contrast to the soft crumb.

Add a sweet glaze laced with just a hint of lemon or something wonderful, and you have a substantial handful of bliss.

I was very good and shared one of my two donuts with Phoenix, and we both sat here, utterly enraptured by the glorious sweetness and delicacy of this unexpected treat.

Sigh!

But if you'll excuse me, it's time to go grab a coffee to complete the experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Bistro Lunch

We've been working hard this summer, Phoenix and I. OK, we've been working this summer and getting a lot done, despite slacking off on occasion. (Hey, we're just that good.)

So I thought it was time for a treat: lunch at the South Market Bistro.

It's not often I take the time to go out for lunch, nor do I often have the pleasure of the lovely Phoenix's company. But this place is one that must be shared with a friend who loves food as much as I do.

This little restaurant is one of the jewels in our small city, featuring lots of locally-grown and -produced vegetables, fruits, breads, meats and poultry. It's always a treat to dine there because you know you're going to get excellent food and a wonderful experience.

The menu is always fairly lean, with a couple salads, one soup of the day, and five to six entrees to take advantage of seasonal offerings. And with the weather being warm and humid today, Phoenix and I both opted for salads of mixed organic greens, dressed with a warm (!) mustard vinaigrette and topped with a sprinkling of blue cheese, and small tarts (read: quiches) of tomato, carmelized onion, fresh herbs, and more blue cheese.

I'm not a big fan of mustard, but the vinaigrette on the salad melded so perfectly with the bite of the various greens that I was completely enraptured. And the tart, encased in a flaky, tender shell, oozed warm egg and cheese and delectable vegetables. Everything was perfect and worth savoring... and gone very quickly.

For dessert, we were terribly torn between several excellent options, but instead of saying "Yes!" to them all, we limited our choices to a rich, velvety dark chocolate mousse topped with coffee mousse and whipped cream and a trio of fresh sorbets: creamy mango, tasty toasted coconut, and blissful black cherry. (I am not a huge fan of black cherries, either, but the first tiny taste of that elicited such a stunned infatuation that I helped myself to a much larger spoonful before giving Phoenix her bowl back.)

Ahhh... what wonderful treasures can be found in small, family-owned places like this that hold true to their roots and their beliefs. The folks who own the Bistro are avid supporters of local farmers (especially the organic farms in the area) and adhere to the principles of the Slow Food movement... and it shows.

And some of us are far richer for the experience of dining there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Spice of Life

A friend once asked me, "What are your three favorite spices?"

Well, that's an easy one, I thought: cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger.

All three have a sweetness but also a warmth, so they work extraordinarily well in both baked goods and savory dishes. (They're also all wonderful in tea or coffee for just a little extra richness in the flavor.) All three remind you of home, yet set your senses and palate wandering to exotic locales at the same time.

Contradiction, paradox... what life is all about, really.

But you're not here for philosophy, are you? You're here for tales of sweet, tender morsels fresh from my oven. I know you.

I had thought it was a warm day yesterday, but when I managed to mow both lawns right after work with having to down only one glass of honey-sweet jasmine iced tea (wow... new favorite!), I figured it must not be too hot out. Therefore, why not turn on the oven?

I had a mission, you see. Well, two, really.

First, I had this incredible-sounding recipe for candied ginger-cardamom bars from a Dear Reader (thanks, Tina!) that I had to try because it combines those three favorite spices.

And second, I had stopped by the tech office yesterday to chat with the lone consultant not on vacation this week. As usual, the Tall Guy greeted me with those three little words that I can never resist:

"Where're my cookies???"

You'd think I'd be able to say no to such shameless begging, wouldn't you? And really, though he tends to act and look very boyish when he begs like this, the Tall Guy really does live up to his name and could probably bench-press me, so I shouldn't fall for that "poor little me" act.

But I do. I'm not immune to such appeals to my culinary vanity.

So, with reason and recipe, I headed into the kitchen last evening to bake. (Don't worry, all doors and windows were open to let the heat circulate out of the room.) The recipe is pretty straightforward and ends up rather like a thick, soft shortbread in its butteriness.

But the spices! Oh! the spices! Loaded with cardamom, balanced by cinnamon, and sprinkled generously with candied ginger... how can I resist?

I had one piece, still warm from the oven, and while I savored each bite as it was, I was mentally wandering... wouldn't this be grand with good vanilla ice cream? Or hey, what about using this as a base for an autumn cookie bar with a cooked apple (or pear!) and date filling and a nutty streusel on top?

Hum, hum, hum... happy thoughts humming in my head. Guess I'll just have to make this recipe again... and again... and again.

Thanks, Tina... good ideas always spice up my life.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Blueberries for Betty

When I returned home yesterday afternoon, I saw my neighbor and learned that his wife had died over the weekend.

Betty was probably in her 70s and largely confined to a wheelchair since before I moved next door, but she would enjoy sitting out on her front porch and chatting with me when I came home from work or popped outside to do some gardening. She was always curious about what vegetables and herbs I was growing, and she loved it when I shared flowers from my garden (especially the lilacs and the lilies-of-the-valley).

Over the past couple of months, Betty had been in much worse health, and when she wasn't in the hospital, she was in the nursing home... so of course, her death comes as no surprise. And after a long life blessed with a loving family, I imagine it was a relief for her to slip away quietly.

What, however, is left for the living to do? Betty's husband is surrounded by their three children right now, and they're helping him with the transition. I wish I knew how to help... and so I fall back on what I know, both from my own grandmother's death and the family's aftermath, and my own experience in dealing with crises:

I baked.

This morning, before the sun's sliver peeked over the horizon, I was in the kitchen making a small batch of buttery blueberry muffins. After all, in times of grief, one still needs to eat. And since I had fresh blueberries, which I know Betty would have loved... well, breakfast seemed the way to go.

No one was stirring in the little white house next door when I headed off to work, so I left a bag containing the tin of muffins and a card on the front porch with the morning papers.

It seems so little... but it's the only way I know how to say "I'm sorry, and my thoughts are with you now."

Rest in peace, Betty. I hope you find blueberries in heaven.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Please Don't Teas

Here's more food for thought from today's news snippets:

1. The BBC reports on ongoing tea strikes in West Bengal over low wages and poor conditions for workers, many of whom don't have enough food or clean water. Having recently read a book about tea gardens, I am not surprised by this latest news, though I am saddened that it is still such a widespread problem. I've recently started drinking a selection of organic, fair-trade teas which makes me feel slightly better, but there's still the question of how to act in order to help those workers who still face such problems. (Because running those companies out of business clearly isn't the answer, either.)

2. And just to encourage myself to drink more herbal tea from my own homegrown herbs, there's this wonderful series from The Tyee (a Canadian alternative news site): part 1, Living on the Hundred-Mile Diet, and part 2, Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken. Do you think you can live on food produced within a hundred-mile radius of your home? It's certainly a more sustainable way of living, but there are so many little things that we take for granted that we'd have to give up if we followed this "diet" strictly. Still, it's an excellent eye-opener and something to try for, even if I don't completely succeed.

Guess I'll be thinking of ways to expand my garden next year!

Am I Blue?

Oh yes, I've still got plenty of blueberries to work through. (That was one heck of a bucket of berries!)

This weekend I pulled out my favorite blueberry muffin recipe: lavender blueberry streusel muffins. The faint hint of home-grown lavender adds a fragrant sweetness to the berries, and a buttery streusel on top makes the muffins absolutely irresistible.

Mmm, mmmm. And even though I had two for breakfast, I'm mighty tempted to have another one.

Yeah, I've got the blues... and they make me very happy!

Market Report

Have you been eagerly anticipating each Saturday's farmers' market as I have, even vicariously?

OK, probably not, but let me tell you... things are getting pretty doggone good down at the market these days as more crops are coming in. So here's a report on what I found on Saturday:

From Organic Farmer #1 (the gentle man with a beard and ponytail): Lots of greens are still coming in, so I picked up my first kale of the season. (Ooooh, yummy kale!) His broccoli is also starting to come in, and as that is probably my favorite vegetable all around, I certainly wasn't going to miss the first of the season.

From Organic Farmer #2 (the chirpy lady with two kids): I decided to go ahead and get two quarts of shelling peas, even though I don't like peas straight, because it finally occurred to me (duh!) that I could just shell, blanch, and freeze the peas and have them on hand this winter for soups and Indian food. (Why didn't I think of that sooner???) Also: cucumber, tender lettuce, and fingerling potatoes.

From Amish Farmer: two perfectly plump Roma tomatoes and a small (think the size and shape of a large mango) eggplant, both of which went into a fantastic crispy chickpea salad with roasted vegs that evening.

I also picked up a loaf of whole wheat bread made with locally grown and milled grains (yeah!) from a terrific little local bakery (not in my town, alas, but only half an hour away). It has a wonderful tang to it that makes you think that maybe someone has slipped in a hint of dark, dark chocolate or coffee... slightly bitter but very appealing.

And of course, I picked up ideas for next week's shopping trip. (I'm feeling an urge to make gazpacho soon... and I may have to blanch and freeze more vegetables.)

To cap off the entire festival of food that is my Saturday morning hike and buy, I stopped by the Hungarian pastry shop for coffee and a slice of apple strudel. What a treat!

Of course, then I had to return home and start cooking. But that's not such a bad thing when you have really good food to work with.

And boy! do I have good food!

Friday, July 15, 2005

Full of Beans

The week is winding down, so my vegetable crisper is emptying out rapidly. Last night I decided to use up the last of the green beans from last week's farmers' market visit (saving the zucchini for a quick meal tonight).

Earlier in the week I had trimmed about a quart of those beans, steamed them, and made one of my favorite recipes, Szechuan string beans. The soy-sesame sauce that the steamed beans get tossed into (along with some sauteed garlic and ginger and other good stuff) is so close to the potsticker sauce I sometimes crave that sometimes I'll make this dish just for the sake of the sauce!

Anyway, there I was with a quart full of cooked beans, and, well, I ended up eating the whole lot (and slurping down the last of the sauce, too). Hey, I like vegetables. And sometimes, I really like vegetables.

Last night's foray into bean cooking, though, took a slightly different turn. I had found a delightful-sounding recipe for Green Bean-Basil Soup on another blog, and from the picture alone, I knew I had to try it.

I made a smaller batch, of course, having few beans and only one mouth to fill. It was fairly easy to throw together, despite the hilarious mishaps of my immersion blender and then mini food processor. (Let me just say... it ain't easy being green.)

The bowl of thick puree that I had leftover did, indeed, turn out that beautiful shade of green you see in the photo on the other site... and though I topped mine with a light sprinkling of crumbled feta cheese, I'd still say it turned out as fresh and as lovely as advertised.

It's not going to be my favorite way of eating green beans, I admit. But for a summer night, it was a nice treat.

I have to get out to the garden tonight or tomorrow to pick more ripe green beans.

And then... who knows what will happen next?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Another Berry Good Idea

The thunderstorm rolled through in the late afternoon, leaving the evening surprisingly cool and refreshing. And there I was, just itching to bake.

The black raspberries needed to be used up, and the bucket of blueberries definitely needed to be taken down a couple of notches, so I sifted through my pile of untried summer recipes and found what I'd been wanting to try: mixed-berry coffee cake.

The cake itself was fairly straighforward and surprisingly low-fat (though I didn't have any applesauce, I added extra nonfat yogurt and a smidgen more canola oil), and the recipe said to hold back about a cup of batter for the topping.

Then came the berries, coated with some of the new triple raspberry jam, to cover the cake batter. I then added dollops of leftover batter on top and sprinkled the whole thing lightly with some cinnamon sugar (stolen out of the jar of cinnamon orange peel, so a few bits of peel found their way onto the cake as well).

Forty-five minutes later, a fragrant cake came out of the oven, and half an hour after that, I added a swirled glaze of black raspberry-coconut puree (leftover "sauce" from a previous experiment) mixed with confectioners' sugar and vanilla.

Contented sigh!

The cake made a fabulous dessert last night while still warm, and though I put the cake in the refrigerator for storage (the warmth and humidity forecast for this week translates to early mold where things like this are concerned), a nice piece of cake made the perfect breakfast, too.

Wasn't that smart thinking?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Get It While It's Hot?

Just came across this long but fascinating article in Grist, my main online source for environmental news (and more bad puns than even I throw out into the ether):

"In a warmed world, even food won't be as good for you."

If you think this summer is dry and hard on the garden, just wait... it could get even more so.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

I Can't Say No

"S'posin' that he says that you're sweeter than cream / And he's gotta have cream or die?" (from Oklahoma)

One of the rules I try to live by is this: "Everything in moderation... including moderation."

Some days, I think that should read "especially moderation"... but who am I to tinker with a perfectly good platitude?

Still, that should help you understand my dilemma concerning breakfast this morning. Should I have a couple of sensible, tasty, wholesome muffins? Or should I have a big bowl of fresh raspberries, topped with a generous dollop of lime peel-infused whipped cream left over from last night's Indian dinner?

And those of you who know me well can probably guess my final decision:

Both.

It's true... I'm just a girl who can't say no.

Getting Curried Away

I've been wanting to try some new Indian and Indian-style recipes for a while now, and my finds at the farmers' market and the berry patch this past weekend made it possible. Add good friends Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy to the mix, and you have the recipe for a fun evening.

For the first course, I made a blueberry-coconut soup with lime that I had found in a vegetarian magazine a couple of years ago. The fresh blueberries simmer with water, sugar, and lots of lime juice, then get pureed and chilled. After that, you add coconut milk, and you end up with a bowl full of gorgeous color and incredible flavor!

The blender attachment on my my mixer also got quite a workout making pineapple lassis with ice. Tangy and sweet... oh my, yes.

The main course, thanks to my trusty slow cooker, was a golden beet and green pea curry. I started it over my lunch hour yesterday and let it simmer while I slogged back to work. When I returned home, I realized I had put too much stock into it. But hey, I had the perfect solution: add the brown basmati rice to the pot and let it keep cooking. It saved me from another pot to clean as well as a too liquid curry!

The beet greens, then, were sauteed with garlic and ginger and fenugreek... and sprinkled with garam masala. Quite tasty.

All in all, it turned out to be a really good meal, for not having cooked any of the recipes before (nor having cooked with beets, one of my long-time childhood food aversions).

But wait! Would I let my guests leave without dessert??? Oh, no. And I had something really incredible in mind.

First step: Sunday evening I baked a small test batch of tuiles, the thin buttery cookies that are often draped over a rolling pin or something while warm to result in a curved shape. I draped mine over well-greased and -floured old-fashioned glasses to make little bowls, then set them aside until last night.

Then, with each little cookie "bowl" on a dessert plate, I added a single scoop of mango sorbet to each, followed that with a generous dollop of lime peel-infused whipped cream (the real stuff), and sprinkled it all with tiny crumbs of crystallized ginger.

A reverent, blissful hush fell over us all as we ate dessert, followed by much contentment and licking of plates. Since this dessert was a new recipe for me, I asked for suggestions for a name, and Mr. Nice Guy's immediate response was, "How do you type a long drawn-out sigh?"

With abandon, of course.

Long Drawn-Out Sigh Sundaes

The cookie recipe is modified from Martha Stewart's "Holiday Cookies" magazine from 2001; the rest comes from my head.

2 1/2 T unsalted butter, plus more for buttering cookie sheet
1/8 c unbleached flour, plus more for flouring cookie sheet
1/4 c sugar
1 tsp heavy cream or soymilk
1 tsp ground cardamom OR ground ginger
1 pt mango sorbet
1 c whipping cream
1/4 c powdered sugar
grated zest of one lime
a small handful of mini diced crystallized ginger

Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a baking sheet. Butter and flour two bowls.

In a small saucepan, combine butter, sugar, and cream, and set over medium heat. Stir until butter has melted. Remove from heat and add flour and cardamom or ginger.

Divide the batter into two small circles on the cookie sheet, using the back of a teaspoon to spread the batter. Make sure the circles are about 4" apart. Bake until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove from oven, and allow pan to sit on wire cooling rack for about 20 seconds. Using a wide spatula (or two together), carefully lift one cookie off the baking sheet and drape it over one bowl. Repeat with the other cookie.

Let cookies stand until completely hardened, then store very carefully in airtight container.

When ready to serve, allow mango sorbet to soften slightly. Beat whipping cream with sugar and lime peel until stiff peaks form. Set cookie bowls onto dessert plates and add to each bowl: one or two scoops of mango sorbet, a generous spoonful (or more) of lime whipping cream, and a light sprinkling of mini diced ginger.

Serves 2 very happy people.

Monday, July 11, 2005

I've Bean Thinking

After picking berries Saturday morning, I went out to my garden in the evening to inspect my vegetables' progress.

My raspberry canes actually have a small handful of berries developing... and I may be able to pick them in a couple of days! How sweet it is!

The tomato plants are all jumping right up and putting forth more tiny yellow blossoms, so I hope to see more dramatic developments there in a few weeks.

My cucumber plants are also displaying the first few tiny cucumbers... next stop, pickle season!

And wonder of wonders, I looked at my bean plants and realized that they were loaded with long, tender beans ripe for picking.

So I rang up the lovely Phoenix. "Would you be interested in helping me pick beans tomorrow morning and learning how to freeze them?" says I.

"You bet! What time?" she replied with great enthusiasm.

(This is what I love about having a cooking/gardening protegee... she looks at all these tasks that most other people would consider dull work, and she sees great fun.)

Around 10:30 Sunday morning, Phoenix stopped by to find me sitting in the garden, carefully probing each plant and plucking off quarts of perfect green beans. After I showed her how to handle the plants and what size beans to pick (and what to leave on the bushes), she started at the other end and met me somewhere in the middle. I think she especially enjoyed being out in the middle of the garden, surrounded by peace and a handful of bees buzzing around the enormous crop of borage.

We took the beans back inside and quickly went through the entire basket, snapping off the stem ends and leaving the beans whole otherwise while a big pot of water came to the boil. I showed her how to blanch the beans... three minutes in the boiling water, then drained and quickly dumped into ice cold water. And once the beans had cooled off, we packed them into plastic freezer bags, sucked out the air, and labeled them. (Yes, one does have Phoenix's name on it, so that she can claim it at a later date.)

This is one of the things I love about having my own garden... I get to fill the freezer with summer's bounty and enjoy it all winter long! Right now I have the strawberries and blueberries from the market and the fruit farm, these green beans, a couple of leftover pesto cubes from last year (which will soon be replaced with fresh), and ice cubes filled with parsley or with cilantro (to be used in stock or Indian cooking). And I have room for plenty more (which is a very good thing, as I will probably stock up on corn again this year!).

It makes me happy. And Phoenix?

She can't wait for the next garden adventure.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Herb Mother

One of the joys of my gardens at home is the extensive collection of herbs that I've added (and that have come up voluntarily) over the past several years.

Here's what I've been doing with them lately:

The cilantro, almost all of which has been volunteer, has been blooming madly, so I picked a lot the other night, chopped it up and tucked it into an ice cube tray, then added water to freeze it into cubes for later use. (Note to self: remove the blossoms next time... they may be edible, but they're too strong for you!)

The dill, which tends to reseed itself abundantly, has had to be thinned out and picked already. I have one large bunch hanging in the kitchen bay window to dry, and I've picked a fair bit for cooking as well as for making borage-dill vinegar.

The mints (and there are four of them scattered about) have stayed true to their minty nature and have spread like wildfire... so I picked a few bunches of two kinds (the spearmint and the Moroccan mint) to hang up to dry in the windows. I also layered some of the Moroccan mint into a jar of granulated sugar and will grind that in a few days... it's great for baking, especially in brownies. And I will have to do that soon with the chocolate mint, too.

The basil has been most persistent in producing blossoms, which I have been just as persistent in snapping off. I'm hoping both plants will bush out further so that I have plenty of leaves to harvest for pesto in a couple of weeks.

The lavender hit its peak of bloom about a week ago, so I snipped off all the flower stems I could find and hung them up to dry in a paper bag. The dried flowers will come in handy this winter when I'm craving lavender-sauteed apples... or next spring for cookies!

That's all for this week... but more will come!

Berry Good!

Saturday morning shone bright and clear and none too humid... perfect weather for being outside.

The lovely Phoenix joined me for a hike down to the farmers' market, where we found plenty of fresh veggies to fill the refrigerator (broccoli, zucchini, golden beets, parsley). We returned home to wait for my Wonderful Parents to pick us up for an outing to the berry farm south of town.

The Chef Mother and I have been out there before in previous summers because the farm has a wide variety of crops, and we can usually spend a morning picking blueberries and multiple kinds of raspberries and get all our berry-picking for the year done in one fell swoop. And if we have extra hands, such as Phoenix's willing ones, we can pick A LOT.

Two hours later, we had nearly two gallons of blueberries, four pints of red raspberries, probably three to four pints of black raspberries, and a quart of purple raspberries to divide between the three of us. The Chef Mother took her fair share, I sorted plenty out for Phoenix, and then I pondered what to do with the rest.

First of all, I had to freeze some blueberries because there's nothing quite so wonderful as having good locally-grown blueberries in your freezer when you're craving blueberry muffins in the middle of winter. So I filled a large cookie sheet with berries and stuck it in the freezer to let them harden (with the intent of transferring them to plastic freezer bags later).

Then, I decided that instead of making just a tiny batch of red raspberry jam... why not throw all three kinds of raspberries together for a triple play sort of jam? Yum. The resulting preserves were on the runny side (as I sweetened them with white grape juice concentrate instead of cups and cups of sugar), but with a hint of rose geranium and lime, the tart berries took on a rich depth with just the right amount of sweetness. (And oh my! are they good on pancakes!) Phoenix stayed to help with the jam (and did the bulk of the stirring, bless her heart), so now she has a jar of jam with her name on it to prove that she's learned yet another fine cooking technique.

I still have some red raspberries left and am contemplating making a raspberry vinegar. I also have plenty of black raspberries left. Should I make a pie or a crumble? Should I show some self-control and freeze them? Or will I make a granita with them?

And as for the blueberries, I still have half a bucket full! Some are going into a blueberry-coconut soup for an Indian meal, some will probably make it into lavender-blueberry muffins, and I'm not sure what I'll do with the rest. (A pie? A buckle? More liqueur?)

Stay tuned for more interesting developments.

Friday, July 08, 2005

From Tiny Seeds

My heart is full today after the news of yesterday's terrorist attacks in London. And while I try to steer clear of politics and world news in this forum (unless it has a direct relationship to food), I cannot remain silent today.

My heart goes out to those courageous Londoners who, in their grand tradition of soldiering on with a stiff upper lip, continued to work through the day yesterday, managed to bring their urban transportation back up (for the most part) by the end of the work day, and found other ways to help support each other in their evening commute. And my heart goes out especially those in London's Muslim community, who may feel especially afraid of the reaction not only from any of their fellow Britons but also from the extremists and terrorists who disagree with the choices they have made in living in a Western society.

But I also have to ask myself: since the tragedy of 9/11 nearly four years ago, have we truly learned anything?

Let me be absolutely clear. I condemn terrorism wholeheartedly, and these attacks on random, faceless groups of people who simply wanted to go about their daily routine were unconscionable. There is no valid reason for the wanton destruction of life... and blind hatred of a collective group is an especially despicable excuse.

But when the response of our leaders boils down to "you cannot scare us into changing how we live"... I have to stop and wonder.

Should the random violence of terrorists cause us to spend our lives in fear and keep us from living our lives as fully as we can? No, of course not.

But are we living our lives fully? And are we helping others to live their lives fully? That's where I have my doubts.

The current G-8 summit has focused on the key issues of global warming (and our response to it) and debt relief to African nations, two items that desperately need our attention and our action. And so far, the response to each by some leaders has been, "oh yes, we need to do something about that, buuuuuut we don't really want to be tied to specific figures and timetables and guidelines." And the longer we wait to do anything constructive about these issues, the more other people will have to suffer.

Those of my Dear Readers who know me well know that I have tried to keep my eyes open about our Western lifestyle and to be aware of the global impact that it has. Here in the U. S. especially, so many of us are so wrapped up in having more and better and bigger things than anybody else that we don't see how our rampant consumption and consumerism in turn inflict deprivation on others. Poverty is still widespread in this world, even in our own country, and it walks hand in hand with disease, illiteracy, malnutrition... and yes, in extreme cases, intolerance and hatred of others.

Please don't turn my words around to think that I am saying that Western society is to blame for terrorism... terrorists are to blame for terrorism. What I want to know is, what are we in Western society doing to help others in this world, to make an attempt at spreading around the Earth's resources, so that people are treated more fairly and are given a chance to flourish? In the face of such hatred and intolerance and violence, will our response be more anger and the digging in of our heels, or will we choose the path of compassion, looking at ourselves and others with clarity and trying to find the ways to help the world become a better place?

Events like yesterday's bombings make me stop and count my blessings. I may not be wealthy by Western standards, and there are still days when I have to stretch to pay the bills. But in the world's eyes, I am very rich, indeed... I have a roof over my head, clean running water, central heat, a little land on which to grow some of my own food, a job that pays well enough to support me, good health, access to good food through the farmers' market, and the freedom to live as I choose. And sometimes I look at this life and think that though I am grateful for these blessings, I could do more to help others, to reduce my impact on the earth.

And so, I try to live a little more simply. (Doesn't always work, but I try.) I try to give to organizations that share my beliefs and help to nourish other people, body and soul, both here and elsewhere in the world. I try to keep my mind open and to see other people as individuals from whom I can learn something. (Again, I don't always, but I try.)

And when my government fails to act on its purported compassion and concern for others, choosing instead to push a self-serving agenda in order to maintain the "American way of life"... and let me be clear, I think both major parties are guilty of this... then I try to speak up and to find away to change that view.

I know all too well that I'm not perfect. But I'm trying my best, as are many other people... and that gives me hope, slight though it may be in times like these. And that tiny seed of hope lies within all of us, waiting to find a way to take root and grow.

One thing I've learned about my garden over the years is that no matter what I do, the weeds will always grow. But if I take the time to nurture those seeds that I have planted, those that I want to grow, they will find a way to flourish, even around the weeds.

Let's all choose to nurture the seeds of hope and compassion, even now.

Especially now.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Color Me Hungry

It's the middle of the week, so I'm working my way through last week's purchases at the farmers' market as I prepare meals.

Last night, I knew exactly what I wanted. I'd been craving potato pancakes again, as I have done on a regular basis since my illness months ago.

But this time, I wanted to give it a special flair by adding shredded zucchini and carrot to make confetti pancakes.

I had come across the idea just a day or two ago (and, of course, now I can't remember where, so I can't thank whoever inspired me save in this vague and rambling fashion), and it so appealed to me that it's a wonder I didn't run right home and make the recipe on the spot. (I do have some self-control.)

I didn't bother trying to find a recipe since I've made the potato pancakes often enough that I figured I knew what I was doing. It's easy enough to peel and shred the vegetables, toss in a beaten egg and spices and flour, and then scoop dollops of the colorful mess into a hot-oil-laden skillet. Brown well on both sides, slide them onto a plate, add a spoonful of plain nonfat yogurt, and dinner is served!

What a satisfying way to eat your veggies!

Confetti Pancakes

A recipe so easy you don't even really need it. Feel free to vary the spices or add different vegetables or a little shredded cheese.

1 carrot
1 small zucchini
1 potato
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 c unbleached or whole wheat pastry flour
salt, pepper, garlic powder, and/or other herbs to taste

Peel and grate all three vegetables (preferably in that order so that the potato doesn't get too discolored). Mix in beaten egg, then add flour and spices and mix until well combined.

Heat a large skillet and add olive oil to cover the bottom. (You may choose to use less oil; my skillets prefer more.) Scoop large spoonfuls of batter into the skillet and flatten slightly. Allow to brown thoroughly on one side, about 3-4 minutes, before turning and browning the other. Remove pancakes to plate lined with paper towel to drain before serving.

Serve warm with dollops of plain nonfat yogurt or sour cream. Eat with gusto. Beg for more.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Queen of Tarts

I like to think that I don't have a really big sweet tooth.

I like to think that. But who am I kidding?

Maybe I can go without having home-baked cookies around the house for a week. Maybe I don't bake cakes every day. But after a good dinner... no matter what... I usually feel the need for a little smackerel of something sweet.

Doesn't have to be much, really. Just something to take the edge off. A cup of herbal chai laced with honey, a handful of chocolate chips, a small glass of dandelion wine... just a little something.

But last night I decided to take advantage of the cooler weather (post-thunderstorm) and make jam tarts. I've never made them before, but the idea seemed pretty simple... make a single recipe of whole wheat pie crust dough, then divide the dough into smaller portions, add dollops of jam, and bake.

So I hauled out my mini muffin tin, divided the dough into a dozen small pieces, rolled them into balls and dropped them into the tins. I pressed them out with a well-floured knuckle, then spooned in three different kinds of jam: strawberry-mint, plum, and blueberry-orange (homemade) topped with bits of candied orange peel. I baked them at 400 degrees for only about 10-12 minutes so as not to scorch the jams or burn the crusts.

Happy sight! to have all those little jewels of jam tarts winking up at me when I pulled them from the oven. And a trio of tarts -- one of each flavor -- sufficed for a sweet little something after dinner.

Of course, now that I've experimented with this one idea, the possibilities for other variations have suddenly opened up before me. Little cheese tarts for appetizers? Chocolate tarts? Hmmmmm.

Looks like I have my work cut out for me.

Jam Tarts

The pie crust recipe is the basic one from the classic Betty Crocker cookbook; the trick is always to use ice water for a flaky crust.

1/3 c plus 1 T shortening
1 c whole wheat pastry or unbleached flour
1/3 tsp salt
2 to 3 T ice water
12 tsp jam (your choice)

Cut shortening into flour and salt until particles are size of small peas. Sprinkle in water, 1 T at a time, tossing with fork until all flour is moistened and pastry almost cleans side of bowl. (1-2 tsp water can be added if necessary.)

Gather pastry into a ball. Divide dough in half, then in half again, and then each piece into three sections. Roll each section into a ball. Place each ball of dough in a cup of a mini muffin tin; press down dough with a well-floured knuckle so that dough is evenly spread around the sides of the cup.

Add 1 tsp jam to each crust. This should not fill the cup more than 2/3 full; otherwise, you risk an overflow of jam and burnt jam and crust.

Bake at 400 F for 10-12 minutes until crust is lightly golden. Allow to cool half an hour before removing tarts from tin.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Ladies Who Lunch

Sunday morning shone bright and clear, with gentle breezes keeping the air pleasantly cool. A perfect day was on its way.

Around 11 or so, dressed to the nines, I slid into my flashy little rental car and headed to one of the most fabulous food lovers' destinations around: West Point Market. I had plans to enjoy a gourmet lunch there with the fair Titania and her lovely friend the Writer as they passed through the area en route between a friend's wedding and a family gathering in the next state.

And really, there is nothing more uplifting than to share lunch with good friends who have as much appreciation for good food as I do.

Though the Writer opted to order off the menu (a Mediterranean salad chock full of fresh vegetables and feta cheese), the fair Titania and I made our selections from the nearby deli counter, sampling such items as wheatberry salad, a light cole slaw, roasted tomatoes, and a wild mushroom pasta salad. Add a tall glass of a passion fruit iced tea, and we had a refreshing meal for a warm day.

After lunch, we strolled around the entire store, taking at least an hour to cover all the territory as we stopped to sample various cheeses and dips and the like. The fair Titania stocked up on some of her favorite items, while I exercised a considerable amount of restraint and limited my selections to a can of coconut milk, a loaf of farmers' bread, and a small wedge of Midnight Moon goat cheese.

We three spent a great deal of time investigating the possibilities lurking in the bakery's dessert cases and finally decided upon a lone butter apricot bar for me and a luscious-looking chocolate creme for the two of them. After we had finished shopping, we lingered at the outside patio tables to savor our sweets and to continue our ongoing discussion.

I'm happy to report that such an outing was unbelievably relaxing... not only do I enjoy the company of these two lively young ladies, but for once I was able to sit back and enjoy the moment without my mind rushing on to the next thing. I had nowhere else to go, nothing more important to do, than to spend time with friends.

And really, isn't that the point of sharing good food?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Mission Accomplished

A good friend of mine... let us call her Sojourner, given the number of moves she's made in recent years (most recently away from a city near to me to one two states away... sniffle), among other reasons... has been under the weather lately. And when I say under the weather, I mean way too sick for way too long.

So I called her earlier today to see how she's coming along as the last news I had from her was encouraging. Today she sounded in even better spirits... still weak, but now to the point where she's ready to get going with life again. Cause for celebration, I'd say.

In our discussion, we came around to the topic of food. (And if you've ever talked with me for any amount of time, you know how completely unsurprising that is.) Being a big chocolate fan, she expressed interest in making a chocolate-zucchini cake, though she had been unable to settle on a recipe out of the myriad of options available.

Being the helpful sort of person I hope I always am, I immediately picked up a couple of cookbooks from my shelves and browsed the indexes for possible recipes. At last, I found a recipe in the Chef Mother's cookbook from her teaching days, and I offered to test the recipe and report back to my friend with the results. After all, I had some zucchini from the farmers' market that needed to be used, and well, I did need to bake something for my morning coffee breaks.

The cake turned out incredibly moist, darkly chocolatey, and not terribly sweet. In short, just right. Next time, I would add considerably more cinnamon and vanilla than the recipe requires, but otherwise, it's fine.

So now I need to type up the recipe and send it to Sojourner for her own experimentation.

And then my work here will be done. (Except for the eating.)

Friday, July 01, 2005

Pizza Mind

It was a dark and stormy night...

All right, all right. It was a gray and rainy afternoon. The temperature had dropped slightly, and suddenly, turning the oven on to make homemade pizza sounded like a really good idea. Besides, then I would have leftovers for lunch the following day.

I love it when I have dinner plans figured out before I get home... it makes it so much easier to spend the rest of the day in a stress-free fashion.

So when I arrived home, I steamed the remaining broccoli from last week's trip to the farmers' market and mixed up a batch of whole wheat pizza dough. After I had spread out the dough on the pan and added the sauce, I scattered several (read: LOTS) fresh basil leaves over the pizza before adding the broccoli and the cheese.

Half an hour later, a fragrantly steaming pizza emerged from the oven. Half an hour after that, I cut the pizza and dished up a couple of slices for my dinner.

(That's not a comment on my self-control, by the way... that's a display of hard-earned wisdom after a dozen too many times of burning the roof of my mouth.)

The basil was a brilliant addition to my usual combination as it added a wonderful taste of summer. Now I'm thinking, what about a pesto pizza? Hmmmm...

There's nothing quite so comforting as fresh, hot, tasty pizza on a gray day... and in my lunches. And I love how one hour's effort results in meals for a couple of days.

But I guess I'll have to stock up on vegetables at the market again tomorrow.