Saturday, April 29, 2006

In My Little Swirled

Sunshine streaming through the windows on a weekend morning tends to arouse in me the urge to bake.


That's just the way things are in the little world that is my kitchen. Whether it's a hearty loaf of wholesome bread to go along with a pot of soup made from fresh vegetable stock, cookies or other sweet treats, I find the peace of a Saturday or Sunday morning to be an invitation to fill the house with wonderful, tempting fragrances.

And for me, there are few fragrances more tempting than the combination of a fresh yeast dough with butter, sugar, and cinnamon.

That's right: cinnamon rolls.

Knowing that I needed/wanted something new for breakfast, and preferably something that would last several days, I thought cinnamon rolls would make the perfect start to the weekend.

This time around, I used the recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book and gleefully used as many local ingredients as possible: honey, dried milk, egg, and whole wheat flour. I even threw in some "local" orange peel when I livened up the usual cinnamon-sugar filling with it (and cardamom, too) and swirled that into the dough.

My morning chores and writing kept me well occupied during the three hours it took from start to finish to make this sublime pastry, but once the scent of cinnamon rolls baking started to pervade the house, I became all too aware of my growing appetite.

With a little more patience, my work and wait found a reward:


I think it's fair to say that these are, hands down, the best cinnamon rolls I have ever made, both in terms of shape/appearance and of flavor. Trust me -- I took an extra sample for thorough quality control inspection.

Life is very good, indeed, in my little world.

Friday, April 28, 2006

You Wanna Pizza Me?

It's Friday evening, and though I've been away from work all day taking some much-needed vacation, I've been working hard here at home.

So by dinner time, I wanted something simple but satisfying. And if it gives me leftovers to take for lunches next week, all the better.

Fortunately, I had given this considerable thought earlier in the day and had decided that I should make my favorite broccoli pizza. I thawed a package of broccoli before heading out on errands, and while at the grocery store, I picked up some locally-produced pizza sauce and local mozzarella cheese.

Around 5 PM, with my chores for the day all done and in the midst of a lengthy succession of end-of-the-week phone calls, I mixed up the pizza dough (with more of that good locally-milled whole wheat flour) and assembled the pizza. While it baked, I checked on my recently-sick adorable "nephews" Beaker and Scooter, and while the pizza cooled, I caught up with the fair Titania.


Finally, social calls over, I was ready to tuck in! With a glass of iced blackberry herbal tea, I had a satisfying and healthy meal, and when I rounded out dinner with the last slice of my local-ingredient-filled blueberry-lavender pudding cake, you can imagine my contentment.

When offered a piece of said cake earlier this week and informed of all the local ingredients, Mr. Nice Guy responded, "Local tastes gooooooood." And after sampling this whole meal loaded with local flavors, I think anyone would agree.

I know I wanna pizza that!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Spirited Defense of Dandelions


When you look at this abundance of dandelions, you might see weeds to be pulled or sprayed (shame on you!), an invasive species, or perhaps just common wildflowers.

I look, and I see a bumper crop in my garden.

Yes, it's time for the annual dandelion harvest and the making of this year's dandelion wine.

Working on my own this year a few days after their peak, I didn't harvest nearly as many blossoms as I might have liked, making only about a pint of brew. Still, it's well on its way, fermenting happily:


I told an older colleague earlier in the week about my plans, and she commented that she had never liked dandelion wine because it tasted too much like dandelions (in particular, like their glue-like sap). Although one year my wine turned out like that, I've found that removing the green base of the blooms and adding generous amounts of orange and lemon juice to the mix result in a light, fruity liquid that is perfect for raising a toast with friends.


You go ahead and weed your dandelions or mow over them. I prefer to make room for them in my garden and my kitchen.

And I'll lift my spirits with their sunny bloom!

Teas Me

If it's springtime in Ohio, you know what you're in for: gorgeous sunny days filled with vibrantly colored flowers and fragrant blossoming trees under vivid blue skies -- alternating with cold, frosty mornings.

Spring is such a tease.

But even those chilly mornings don't stop me from believing in the promise of a warm and sunny afternoon when, after a leisurely stroll home from work, I can sit back with a glass of refreshingly cold and flavorful iced tea.

Though I haven't started making my Southern-style sweet tea with mint just yet, this week I've been enjoying two delightful organic brews by Choice, one of my favorite brands of tea (not only organic, but fair-trade, too). And no, they don't pay me to rhapsodize about them -- I just like to share.

Last summer I got hooked on their jasmine green tea, which makes a light, flowery iced tea with a dash of lime and a swirl of local honey added.


But just this past weekend I found an herbal blend I wanted to try: Northwest blackberry, "a celebration of field and forest," with organic hibiscus, rosehips, blackberry leaves, lemon grass, licorice root, and spearmint.


Caffeine-free and sweetened with honey, this infusion makes a good fruity but restful drink on days when I've already had too much caffeine.

I've also got an Earl Grey with lavender tucked away for the next round of iced tea, so I look forward to trying that, too.

I've shared a few teabags with friends in the hopes that they'll enjoy these blends as much as I do. As for the rest of you...

Well, I'll just teas you with words and photos.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Berry Nice Surprise!

I know I'm getting ahead of myself here, but I'm really eager for the tastes of summer. Obviously, with the farmers' market just over a month away, I'm not likely to get fresh locally-grown summer fruits for a while.

But I can do the next best thing: I can enjoy last year's fruit, straight from the freezer.

I know, I know -- it's not the same as fresh. But when I plan to bake with that fruit, the difference between fresh and frozen doesn't seem as important.

I've been thinking about the next-to-the-last bag of blueberries for about a week, wondering what I should make: a fruity bar cookie somewhere between my lime-ginger squares and my date bars? clafoutis? something along the lines of a cobbler?

Eventually I chose a recipe for an Autumn Fruit Pudding Cake I found a couple of years ago through the King Arthur Flour site. When I tried the cake originally, I used pears with a sprinkling of mini diced crystallized ginger, and it was a big hit.

This time around, though, I used the thawed blueberries and paired them with dried lavender from my herb garden. It's a combination I've grown fond of, especially in muffins, so I knew I had to try it in the cake.

The cake itself was simple to prepare and allowed me to use more local ingredients: whole wheat flour, an egg, and milk. (I considered using honey to sweeten the cake, but I'm running low!)

And on top of all that, inspired by an exquisite Dagoba organic chocolate bar I recently enjoyed, I decided to top the cake with a sprinkling of dark bittersweet chocolate shavings (also from Dagoba).


Richly fragrant, this cake enticed me long before it emerged from the oven. And while underneath that amber crust it was decidedly messy (until it cooled, of course, but I couldn't wait!), with a silky berry pudding layer under the tender cake, the combination of flavors resulted in sheer bliss.

But then, that's not really a surprise.


Blueberry-Lavender Pudding Cake

I haven't traditionally been a big fan of baking cakes. They're great to eat, sure, but I'd rather bake cookies or bars or even a pie. But when faced with such a simple recipe as this one (originally billed as an "Autumn Fruit Pudding Cake" on the King Arthur Baking Circle online), how can I resist? And when the basic recipe makes a superb blank slate for a multitude of flavor combinations, well, that's just my speed. Enjoy this cake as is, or vary your fruit and spice combinations (pear-ginger is fantastic, too).

2 c blueberries, fresh or thawed
1 tsp dried lavender buds
1/4 c unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c evaporated cane juice crystals
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c milk

Topping:
1/2 c evaporated cane juice crystals
1 T cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1 T dried lavender buds
1 c hot water (not boiling)
1 oz dark chocolate, chopped or grated coarsely

Lightly grease an 8" square or 9" round baking pan. Place the berries in the pan and toss with lavender. Preheat oven to 375 F.

In large bowl, cream together butter, sugar, baking powder, and salt until smooth. Beat in egg. Add flour alternately with the milk, beating after each addition. Spread batter over the berries in the pan to cover.

For the topping, sift together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and lavender. Sprinkle over the batter, then carefully pour the hot water over everything, allowing it to pool on top. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

Bake about 60 minutes, until nicely browned on top. Remove from oven, and serve warm. (You may find, though, that it looks most presentable when it has had a chance to cool and the layers have solidified a bit.)

Serves 8.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Naan Stop

I love having friends who are always ready for an adventure, and the lovely Phoenix and her fiance Mr. Nice Guy are often willing to follow my lead.

We decided to celebrate Earth Day by hiking on a section of the Towpath running through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We spent a couple of hours walking and watching for great blue herons, Canadian geese, wood ducks, turtles sunning on logs, frogs, and a variety of snakes as well as spring wildflowers.

When we had finished, our appetites had been throughly piqued, and we hastened back to the Indian restaurant we had passed on the way to the park.

Mr. Nice Guy headed straight for the buffet, while Phoenix and I sampled a number of vegetarian items off the menu. We started with spinach ghota, leaves of fresh spinach dipped in spiced chickpea batter, fried, and served with our favorite chutneys.

For our main course, we split a spicy vegetable vindaloo with peppers, carrots, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower as well as paneer akbari, simple cubes of cheese in a mild but rich and creamy tomato curry.


Add to that our favorite garlic naan (loaded with chopped fresh garlic) and nargisi naan, stuffed with dried fruits and finely chopped nuts, plus my refreshing strawberry lassi, and you can well imagine what a fine feast we had.

Since they were out of the coconut kulfi I had hoped to sample for dessert, I believe we'll have to make a return trip.

Soon.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Do the Rice Thing

Over the weekend, I stocked up on lots of fresh spring vegetables -- asparagus, snow peas, broccoli, baby carrots -- but opted not to cook a big batch of anything in the hopes that I would whip up something fresh, healthy, and easy each night.

Sunday evening I kicked off the week with a curry stir-fry, combining all of these vegetables with some fresh garlic and a healthy dash of curry powder, served over brown basmati rice.

I intentionally made a big pot of rice because I tend to be very lazy about cooking it and would rather have plenty to reheat!

And what better way to reheat rice than to have fried rice?

Monday night... and again tonight... I steamed a good-sized serving of asparagus and snow peas, cut to bite size, then sauteed some garlic, added the rice, added the vegetables, and threw in a quick and easy tamari sauce, allowing it to cook down and become temptingly savory.


So easy, so colorful, and sooooo delicious.

A dish of this homemade fried rice, no matter what vegetables I throw in, always makes me happy and lets me feel like I'm having something comparatively healthy.

And that, of course, is the rice thing to do.

Fried Rice (for a Healthy Heart)

I found a quick and easy recipe for fried rice online some time ago, but I've made it without the recipe so much that I'm sure I've adapted it to my own taste by now. This version makes a single serving... increase quantities as needed.

1 c fresh vegetables, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2" piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2 tsp canola oil
1 c cooked rice (I love brown basmati rice... good flavor!)
3 T tamari (use low-sodium if you can find it)
1 T brown rice vinegar
1 T toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp sweetener (sugar, honey, etc.)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

Steam vegetables until crisp-tender. Set aside.

Saute garlic and ginger in oil in large skillet. When fragrant, add rice and stir until well coated. Toss in vegetables and stir, cooking for about 2 minutes.

Mix together remaining ingredients and pour over vegetables and rice. Stir, cooking for another 2-4 minutes.

Serves one hungry but happy person!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Leave No Scone Unturned

Last night, as I pondered my baking possibilities for today, I had the notion that I might just be in the mood for scones.

As I considered this thought, it occurred to me that I could thaw the rest of last summer's strawberries to use in the scones. But since I didn't really want to incorporate them directly into the dough, I could puree them and spread them over the dough, then fold the dough over them for a layered effect.

A great idea! -- but, unfortunately, one that did not work as well as I'd hoped.

I mixed up a basic whole wheat scone dough, laced with rose geranium-scented sugar and a few fresh rose geranium petals, and patted it out on the floured counter. So far, so good.

The berries, however, were rather runny when pureed, and even the addition of sour cream, flour, and more rose geranium sugar failed to thicken them adequately.

Still, I thought I might as well try the idea anyway, so I spread a thin layer of sauce over the dough, folded half the dough over the other half, and carefully lifted the dough onto a prepared cookie sheet. (I decided to wait until the dough had baked before cutting it into squares so that the puree didn't leak out everywhere.)

The scones turned out to have only a barely discernable layer in the middle, and since I had plenty of puree left over, I did the only sensible thing and treated it as sauce for the scones:


On the whole, while the layering didn't work as well as I'd like, the taste was very good, so I'll have to try it again with a thicker inner layer (perhaps with jam or fresh chopped fruit instead).

After all, once I get an idea in my head, I'll keep trying until I get it right.

(Especially when the results are delicious!)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How Do You Filo?

I've had the remains of a box of filo dough in the freezer for four months, waiting for the right time for me to make a batch of Turkish-style baklava, with a touch of rosewater and possibly pistachios. Hasn't happened.

Instead, when faced with a bag of fresh spinach and a container of feta cheese, I knew I would have to thaw the last filo for another reason altogether: spanokopita.

Whenever I dine at the Greek restaurant downtown, I look over the menu, tempted to try something different, but I almost always fall back to my long-time favorite Greek dish.

And since I know the basics of working with filo, I have no problem with making my own spanokopita at home.

I only had enough filo for a small batch, made in a loaf pan with only one layer of spinach filling between thin layers of dough, but it was enough.


Light on olive oil and feta and generously endowed with spinach, garlic, and herbs, this turned out to be a perfect springtime dinner, a lighter and healthier version of what I would get downtown. (Not that I have ANY complaints about that version!)

Making it in a loaf pan means I only got two servings of spanokopita made, but since that's two more than I had before, I really can't complain. After all, it means I'll have good Greek food for lunch later this week!

And maybe I'll have to stock up on filo again soon.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Backyard Brunch

While we've had warmer weather lately, this weekend has been decidedly cooler. And after a long, exhausting (but ultimately very worthwhile) day yesterday, I slept in soundly this morning and woke to the risen sun streaming through my windows.

Obviously it was too late for me to have a breakfast that would then be followed shortly after by lunch, so I succumbed to the inevitable and made a sizable, satisfying brunch that should last me until the evening.

Though I didn't actually take my brunch out to the backyard for a picnic (tempting though it was to bask in the sunshine and birdsong, it's still a little too cool for that this morning), a majority of ingredients from this morning's feast came not only from my personal backyard but also from my regional "backyard."


herb flaxseed rolls made with local whole wheat flour, organic dill from my garden, among other ingredients; topped with homemade jam made from local organic black raspberries and organic chocolate mint from my garden

zucchini-feta pancake made with a local egg, local organic zucchini, organic mint and dill from my garden, feta cheese, salt and pepper, and more local whole wheat flour

vegetarian "sausage" (not local, but yum!)

homemade grape juice from local Concord grapes

a delicate herbal tisane all from my (organic) herb garden: equal parts (approximately 1 tsp each) lavender, lemon balm, and Moroccan mint, and a single rose geranium leaf, all steeped in hot water for 5-7 minutes and sweetened with a small dollop of local honey


I think only two things could have improved such a fine, filling meal: warmer weather to make a "picnic" possible, and a friend with whom I could have shared it.

So instead, I'll share with all of you!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Just the Flax, Ma'am

Saturday, April 8, 6:00 AM. Surveillance indicates that the suspect, though obviously tired, is heading into the kitchen to bake. Despite recent protestations that she hasn't baked bread very often this year, she appears to have developed a compulsive habit in recent weeks of starting the weekend with a batch of yeast dough.

Suspect boils water, sets out bowls and ingredients, starts to measure. A closer look reveals that she has her cookbook open to a recipe for Rosemary Garlic Focaccia, but she does not appear to be following it to the letter. This, too, is a recent change in her baking behavior.

She mixes local whole wheat flour, ground and whole organic flax seeds, salt, dried thyme, and an unmarked dried herb (later investigations reveal this to be dill from her garden) in one bowl and adds organic olive oil and hot water. In a smaller bowl she mixes yeast and Sucanat with boiled water that has cooled to lukewarm. She retires to the living room for breakfast while the yeast proofs.

6:30 AM. Suspect returns to the kitchen, adds yeast mixture to flour mixture, stirs, adds more wheat flour, stirs, sprinkles flour on the counter and turns dough out. She kneads the dough vigorously for 7 or 8 minutes, pats the dough into a boule, covers it with a towel.

7:45 AM. After doing other chores around the house, suspect returns to the kitchen to wash dishes. Notes size and consistency of dough. Washes dishes quickly, dried plastic dough cutter, presses down dough, cuts it into 8 pieces. Suspect pulls out baking sheet and dusts it with local cornmeal. Shapes dough into small boules, sets them on sheet, coats them with olive oil and dusts them with cornmeal. Turns on oven, cleans counter.

When oven is ready and dough has risen slightly, suspect puts rolls in to bake for 30 minutes.

8:45 AM. Suspect has removed rolls from oven and set them to cool on rack. Moments later, she pulls a saucer from the cupboard, breaks open one steaming roll, drizzles it with golden olive oil, eats, smiles blissfully.


(Surveillance report was terminated at this point as the detective on the case was invited to partake in the baked good in question, thus compromising objectivity. Clearly this disturbing pattern of making homemade bread constitutes a potential threat to consumers' equilibrium as well as to the economy and should be monitored closely. That is to say... er... hmm, this is good bread. Perhaps the suspect should be charged with not making these rolls more publicly available...)


Herb Flaxseed Rolls

The memory of the delectable thyme-scented loaf that the incomparably sassy Spicyflower brought me at Christmas has lingered on, so I decided to take my old favorite, Rosemary Garlic Focaccia (found years ago on an Internet discussion list for vegetarians), and modify it to add a little more crunch (flax) and some different herbs. Thyme, dill, and celery seed all have mild savory flavors that work well together, but you might try combinations like basil-oregano, thyme-orange peel, or mint-chive.

1 T yeast
1/2 tsp Sucanat
1 1/4 c warm water
1/3 c ground flaxseeds
1/4 c whole flaxseeds
1 c unbleached bread flour
2 or more c whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried dill
1/4 tsp celery seed
3 T extra virgin olive oil
some cornmeal for dusting the baking sheets
more extra virgin olive oil

Mix the yeast and Sucanat into 1/2 c warm water and let stand until foaming.

Mix flax meal and seeds, unbleached flour, half of the whole wheat flour, salt, and herbs in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the yeast free water and olive oil and mix well. Stir in the yeast mixture. Add remaining flour and knead on a floured countertop until stiff and resilient, about ten minutes. Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise in a warm (not hot) area until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough and knead for about a minute, then cut dough into six to ten pieces, depending on how large you want your rolls. Shape pieces into round balls, tucking the edges underneath.

Lightly grease a baking sheet with extra virgin olive oil, dust with cornmeal, and place rolls on sheet. Very lightly coat the dough with more olive oil, dust with a little cornmeal, and let rise until doubled again, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake 30 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Makes 6-10 rolls

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Unsettling Thoughts

I finished reading The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry (one of my favorite authors, if you haven't been paying attention) earlier this week, but I haven't been able to sit down and fully digest it until now.

Some of my Dear Readers might think that a book on agriculture sounds colossally boring, though perhaps worth reading if you're actually a farmer. Truth be told, a couple of years ago, I felt the same way -- until my readings on various environmental issues made me realize the central importance of agriculture in our lives and in the environmental debate.

We depend on food to live, right? And if we depend on food, we depend on farmers, and we depend on agriculture. As Berry puts it beautifully:

...we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblance between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth (p.97).

One of the key recurrent themes in Berry's writings derives from this simple reconnection of humanity to the whole of Creation. When we view and treat the earth with disdain or greed, as mere resources to be plundered and consumed as efficiently as possible, we damage Creation, including ourselves. When we view and treat the earth kindly, giving back as much as we take for our sustenance, we heal Creation -- including ourselves.

That may sound simplistic, but it really is that simple:

In an energy economy appropriate to the use of biological [as opposed to machine-derived] energy, all bodies, plant and animal and human, are joined in a kind of energy community. ... They die into each other's life, live into each other's death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures (pp 85-86).

Given this perspective on life and our connection to the earth, it's no surprise that Berry is a strong, articulate, vocal opponent of industrial agriculture or "agribusiness" -- huge farms engaged in chemical- and fossil-fuel-dependent monoculture, using and abusing as much land and water as possible to turn a profit, and leaving the land and local communities drained of life. (And if you think my summary of his views is blunt, read him yourself -- he pulls no punches.)

Our system of agriculture, by modeling itself on economics rather than biology, thus removes food from the cycle of its production and puts it into a finite, linear process that in effect destroys it by transforming it into waste. That is, it transforms food into fuel, a form of energy that is usable only once, and in doing so it transforms the body into a consumptive machine (p.137).

Berry cites Department of Agriculture reports and statements as well as research on "modern" agriculture, and he methodically refutes every overblown statement about how modern industrial agriculture will feed the world and expand the economy.

Being a longtime farmer as well as a writer, he offers an alternative vision: return to the past practice of small farms owned by the farmers who actually worked the land and participated in the community -- small farms that exemplified good stewardship by leaving some areas fallow, some in pasture, and some completely untouched; diversification of crops and animal husbandry; and a more complete economy in which those who produced the food also preserved and consumed it and returned the remains to the land in compost and manure. He admits that there were problems in this practice, of course, but holds it up as a far better starting place than what we have dominating our agriculture now.

There's so much more to Berry's book and to his thought overall that I feel I barely do him justice, so I highly recommend his work to you. And when you realize that this particular book of his was originally published in 1977 and reissued in two subsequent editions (1986 and 1996) -- and that nearly thirty years later we are still in thrall to industrial agriculture, at the risk of our personal, national, and global security -- I hope you realize that this is a book well worth reading. In his afterword to the third edition, Berry notes:

This book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong, but it has had the next happiest fate of belonging to a growing effort to think again about the issues of American land use and to start the changes that are needed (p.232).

You know what those changes are, and you can help: supporting and promoting sustainable, diversified, local, organic agriculture -- which in turn supports our local economies and promotes the health of our world.

Our future depends on it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Sense of Impending Dum

My stash of frozen vegetables (bought fresh at last year's farmers' market) is dwindling, and with a new growing season about to begin, I knew I had to start clearing out some of those last items.

I had thawed some shredded zucchini for a zucchini scramble (thrown together with garlic, a local egg, organic cottage cheese, and dried mint from my garden) the other night, and I've been drinking from the last quart of grape juice at breakfast all week.

But I knew something bigger was coming. I could feel it.

I'd gotten a craving for Indian food again, and as I slowly stocked up on other items (locally canned tomatoes, organic potatoes and onions), the idea stalked me, finally revealing itself as dum alu.

So along with the aforementioned vegetables, I thawed the last of my green peas and a cube of chopped cilantro (also from my garden), and I spent a while this evening (while talking on the phone with my Granola Girl) prepping, sauteeing, and simmering a large skillet full of Indian-spiced potatoes in a yogurt-laced tomato curry sauce.

By the time the potatoes had cooked to the appropriate tenderness, I realized that the dish was still liquid enough to warrant being served over rice. (It's been a while since I've made this dish, so I had forgotten.) But feeling lazy after all the energy I expended to make the dum alu, I decided not to take the additional time to cook some brown basmati rice and chose instead to whip up a quick polenta (made from local cornmeal) base for the dish.


Savory and filling, this small plate full of spicy vegetable goodness made an enjoyable dinner, especially when followed by a cup of herbal "chai" (Celestial Seasonings' Bengal Spice).

And I have a feeling I'll see dum alu at lunch tomorrow, too.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Taking the Wrap

You may have taken the scanty evidence and deduced that I really like culinary adventures, both in my own kitchen and at new restaurants and eateries.

You're right. I plead guilty and hungry as charged.

A week or so ago, the Archivist mentioned to me that she had been enjoying some fine lunches at the new deli downtown, just two doors down from the Hungarian pastry shop. Since she, like me, is vegetarian, I was surprised.

"Do they have vegetarian options?" I asked skeptically.

"Oh, sure!" she enthused, proceeding to tell me about their wonderful hummus and tabbouleh and other delights.

Since it's not easy to find a quick vegetarian pick-up lunch in this town aside from My Favorite Coffee House, I decided I'd have to check out this new place for myself.

I had errands to run today anyway, and with the sun shining brightly in clear blue skies, it seemed logical to me to combine my errands with an inspection visit to this new eatery.

So I pulled on my boots and coat and hat and trekked down the hill to the main street, walked into the deli, drooled momentarily at the sight of delectably fresh salads in the case, and announced to the gentlemen at the counter, "I want something vegetarian, and I want something good."

Without missing a beat, they proudly pointed out the multitude of veg-friendly salads and offered to make a wrapped sandwich (on a whole wheat flatbread, no less) combining a few of them: hummus, tabbouleh, artichoke and asiago dip, and roasted red peppers.

It sounded good to me, so I accepted their kind offer and enjoyed a little light conversation with them about other possibilities for a future visit, optimistic that the food would be worth the return trip.

"Well, was it?" you may ask.

When I tell you that I have not eaten so satisfactory a wrap in a long, long while... when I tell you that even after polishing off the whole thing with gusto, I was tempted to lick the remaining dip off the paper wrapper... I think you know the answer.

And when such a sublime sandwich was followed by two fresh little almond kifli from the Hungarian bakery, I think you will also know that I had a lunch to envy.

I thanked the Archivist, of course, for sharing this new find with me, and she got quite a chuckle out of the coincidence that she had apparently visited the deli just after I did and talked with the same gentlemen and was impressed by the wrap combination, thinking it was probably something I would like. (She's getting to know me well!) She also shared a couple of other suggestions for future meals there.

I confess, I'm tempted to go back tomorrow!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Content-mint

One of the things I enjoy the most about my Opera-Loving Friends is their enthusiasm for trying new ethnic restaurants -- and for going vegetarian with me so that we can sample a variety of dishes -- when we head to the Big City for a performance.

So after a sumptuous matinee performance of "Turandot," we decided to stick with an Asian theme and visit a newly-opened and newly-reviewed Thai restaurant called Mint Cafe.

We knew we had chosen well when we were greeted upon our arrival by a trio of friends and acquaintances who have traveled to the Big City for theater performances for years and have developed an instinct for finding the best places for dinner afterward.

After a few minutes of delighted conversation, we settled in with our menus, enraptured by the possibilities but able to make quick decisions to appease our hunger. And while my friends enjoyed two different seafood soups for their appetizer, I savored an entirely different sort of sea-food: seaweed salad, thin shreds of seaweed tossed in toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, red pepper, and sesame seeds. Though I shared a few bites, I was quite happy to devour the rest myself.

Having cleansed my palate with some refreshing coconut juice (with shreds of tender coconut meat floating at the top), I looked forward to our trio of vegetable-laden entrees:

First came the Green Garden: steamed broccoli, baby corn, carrots, snow peas, green beans, squash, and sweet potato, with pressed tofu and a mild peanut sauce to go over jasmine rice. Simple but satisfying!

Next, we sampled the tofu string beans, a much more spicy concoction with some of the same vegetables served in a pleasantly hot and creamy coconut curry sauce, sprinkled with peanuts and cashews. Given my love of nuts, it's not surprising that I liked this dish best -- but it was a tough call!

Finally, we tested the vegetable pad thai and found the reviews to be spot on: flavorful, with each vegetable bringing out its own fresh flavor, and not nearly as oil-laden as so many other pad thais can be. Another winner!

Happily, we each found room for a bit of dessert. I decided to try the ginger ice cream, which had a pungent kick behind the sweet creaminess that blended perfectly, and while one friend tried the green tea ice cream (also very good), her husband opted for the banana spring roll drizzled with chocolate and served with coconut ice cream.

Add to all that fabulous food a good hour and a half worth of excellent conversation (not counting the good times we had all day long), and I think you will understand that I found myself very satisfied with the meal.

We have one opera left in our season, and so many excellent restaurants to choose from when we make our next excursion.

But wherever we end up, I know I'll be content.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Pesto Change-o!

My plans for the day fell through, but I looked at the change in schedule as an opportunity to indulge in some long overdue domesticity.

Aside from the cleaning and the ironing and the sewing, naturally I spent a little time in the kitchen. And since I've recently lamented my avoidance of bread-baking this year, I thought I'd go ahead and test my idea for a pesto bread.

I started with the basic Tassajara yeasted bread, reduced it by half to make only one loaf, used Sucanat for sweetener, and made it half white/half wheat.

It's a wonderfully straightforward recipe that gives you plenty of time in between steps (45-60 minutes, generally) to do other things around the house, and it never fails to satisfy, which is why I decided to use it as the base for a new creation.

When it came time to shape the bread, I pressed it out into a rectangle and smeared it with about 2/3 c homemade pesto, taken from the freezer and thawed earlier in the morning. I scattered a few oven-dried tomatoes on top of that, rolled it up, tucked in the ends, and set it into a prepared loaf pan.

As soon as it started to bake, that blissful fragrance of basil and garlic mingled with the yeasty sweetness and filled the house. An hour later, I had a hefty loaf bursting at the seams with savory herbal goodness.


I was surprisingly restrained and waited an hour or more before sampling the first slice, and the only reason I stopped at one was because it's a very filling sort of bread. (Besides, I want to share some with my Opera-Loving Friends for a picnic lunch tomorrow before the show.)

One simple loaf, transformed by a new ingredient spiraling into the crumb.

It's magic!

Eat Like You Live Here: April

One whole quarter of the year has gone, and now that we're into Spring (and Daylight Savings as of tonight), the thought of this year's growing season and harvest comes hand in hand with my delight at the renewed life all around.

I feel like I'm starting to sound a little like a broken record, though (and you may well be thinking that!), as I keep touting local (and preferably organic) foods. But though I haven't had much feedback from my Dear Readers on the topic, I'm delighted to see that "local and organic" is becoming an oft-repeated mantra in many places.

I'll confess, though, that I didn't do very well at meeting my own March challenges. I meant to get to the Bistro for lunch one day, but it hasn't happened yet. (Maybe this month!) I haven't yet talked to far-flung friends about a local food swap, though I'm sure I'll be able to rely on my Wonderful Parents to supply me with oranges again this winter in return for some local buckwheat pancake mix and my own pickles and preserves.

I did get seeds planted (lettuce, dill, cilantro) in pots but haven't seen much movement on them yet. I also picked up more herbs -- peppermint and sage -- and have started digging up some of my mint and chives to share with friends.

On top of that, I've been picking away at the local foods I have tucked in the freezer and the cupboard as well as using those good local grains in my baking. I hope to have more culinary adventures involving those local foods in the coming week.

Now, if you're like me, you're looking at April and thinking about how much you want to get outside and enjoy the fresh, warm weather! So April's challenges will, I hope, fit into that faster-paced outdoors lifestyle:

1. Find out where your closest farmers' market is and what the schedule will be. Not sure where to find that information? The USDA has a listing, and you'll also find markets listed on Local Harvest and the Eat Well Guide. Our market begins the first Saturday in June -- I can hardly wait!

2. Go back to the previous monthly challenges and see if there's something you haven't tried yet. If anything, go support another restaurant that serves local foods, and go plant something!

3. If you're going to spend lots of time outside hiking or playing (as I hope to do), think "local" for your snacks. I found a terrific local, organic, raw milk cheese at the co-op recently -- add some local applesauce or apples, or bread from a local bakery (or a friend who uses local ingredients -- ahem! I can be bribed), or locally grown popcorn -- and you've got an easy, nutritious, locally-produced snack. And if you're lucky, like me, you might even have a fantastic local dairy that runs its own ice cream shop!

As always, if any of you have further ideas, please share! There are so many ways to enjoy local foods, and I know I'm only scratching the surface here.

In the meantime, don't give up hope if you're having difficulty finding local foods at the market or in restaurants. Now that Spring is here, it won't be long before you can get your fill of good local produce!

Keep dreaming, and enjoy the warmer, longer days!