Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dancing Sure Packs a Brunch!

Over the past week, the Contradance Queen and I have tried to work out plans for an additional dance outing for this weekend, but between the weather and other plans, we didn't get to go anywhere.

I knew the plans for Sunday's dance would hold, though, and I offered her the chance to come by my place for brunch before we met up with the rest of our crowd and headed south. Like the sensible person she is, she readily agreed.

When I finally caught up with our driver, though, I found out that we would not be able to stay after the dance to dine with other folks, so I offered to open up the brunch invitation to everyone in our group. After all, I reasoned, I can cook brunch for six people just as easily as for two... if not more so!

My suggestion met with general approval, so I set about planning the menu:

I pulled out the ever-so-easy egg and vegetable "puff" that worked well for me at the Inn over Christmas, and I combined local eggs, milk, and flour with some shredded zucchini from the freezer, shredded local cheddar, and shredded non-local carrots. I also roasted a handful of local potatoes with olive oil and some of my dried rosemary, and I threw together a salad of mixed organic greens (not local) with a tasty walnut vinaigrette.

I also decided to bake scones, following the suggestion of one of my fellow dancers, and I tossed some of my home-dried cherries into the local whole-wheat dough and added a sprinkling of crunchy roasted cacao nibs (always a good combination!).

Along with those items, I made more of Bri's delectable baked dates with goat cheese, and I set out a pot of good jasmine tea sweetened with local honey for everyone (save for the die-hard coffee drinker).

After a bit of delighted disbelief -– "this is your idea of a simple brunch?" asked one friend –- they all piled food on their plates and sat back to enjoy a good meal and good conversation.

It worked out even better than I had expected: we all had a good, well-balanced meal; I could set dishes aside to clean up later; and we were all then ready to dance ourselves silly for three hours.

And by the time we got back, I was ready to make the offer that perhaps such a brunch-dance combination could become a regular occurrence –- and they were more than ready to agree!

Make brunch in return for good company and a ride to the dance?

Yeah, I can swing that.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Berry Decadent Dessert

Though I didn't indulge in a big chocolate bake-off for Valentine's Day this year, I knew that pretty soon I'd have to unleash some dark, decadent dessert on my friends.

That time has come.

Back at our little French soirée, I mentioned my secret-recipe dark chocolate torte, and my friends responded with awe and eagerness to try it. Since two years have passed since I last made it, I readily agreed.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I was ready to try a variation on the recipe, combining a different flavor with the layers of dark, bittersweet chocolate.

Since the chocolate isn't a local item for me, I wanted to bring more local ingredients into the recipe. So the flavor I chose to pair with the chocolate was raspberry, allowing me to use local berries (and jam) as well as the usual local wheat flour, butter, eggs, and maple sugar.

I started with the same sort of shortbread layer as the base for the torte, using regular and black cocoas for a deeper chocolate flavor and adding some of my dried raspberry powder to intensify the raspberry flavor throughout the dessert.

Following that, I scattered shards of bittersweet chocolate over the shortbread, let it melt, and spread it evenly. Once it had cooled, I pulled a half-pint jar of homemade raspberry jam out of the pantry and spread it over the chocolate, allowing it to set overnight.

Last night, I made the brownie layer, adding the remains of the raspberry powder to continue the theme. It's a little tricky to spread the brownie batter over the jam as the jam wants to ooze to the sides, but even with a little jam poking around the edges, I think it worked out well.

Instead of the usual vegan chocolate sauce I pour over the spice torte, I needed to come up with something different, using what I had on hand. I discovered half a block of cream cheese lurking in the refrigerator, as well as more bittersweet chocolate, so I whipped up a creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting that balanced well against the density of the rest of the torte.

Aside from setting a few aside for friends at work come Monday, I cut the rest into squares and packed them into a tin to take to tomorrow's contra dance.

After all, it's a berry good idea to keep my dance partners happy somehow!

Raspberry Truffle Torte

I've tweaked the original recipes so many times to get to this point that I won't even bother listing them here. You're welcome to substitute almond extract for the vanilla if you're not allergic to nuts. And if you have fresh raspberries, why not garnish with those?

Shortbread Layer
1 3/4 c unbleached or whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c dried raspberry powder
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
2 T black cocoa
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c sugar (any kind of dry sugar works well, refined or not)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Sift together flour, raspberry powder, cocoa, and salt into a small bowl; set aside. In a larger bowl, cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar and cream until very light in color. Add in vanilla. Add flour mixture gradually and mix until flour is just incorporated and dough sticks together when squeezed with fingers.

Press dough into a greased 9" x 13" baking pan. Bake at 350 F for 10 minutes, until set.

Chocolate Layer
1 or 2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped

While shortbread is still warm, scatter chocolate on top. When melted, spread into an even layer. Allow to cool and harden.

Jam Layer
1/2 pint raspberry jam

Spread jam over chocolate and smooth into an even layer. Chill overnight.

Brownie Layer
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/2 c unsalted butter
3/4 c packed brown sugar, Sucanat, maple sugar or other kind of unrefined dry sugar
1/4 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c whole wheat pastry or unbleached flour
1/4 c dried raspberry powder

Stir unsweetened chocolate and butter in heavy large saucepan over low heat until melted and smooth. Cool 5 minutes. Whisk in sugar and salt. Whisk in eggs, 1 at a time, and then vanilla. Continue to whisk until batter is smooth, about 2 minutes. Add flour and raspberry powder, and stir just until blended.

Pour batter on top of first three layers, smoothing surface. Bake at 325 F until tester inserted into center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 35-40 minutes (less for a fudgy texture, more for a cake-like texture). Cool completely in pan on rack.

4 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 c maple sugar or other dry sugar
4 T unsalted butter
1 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 c maple syrup

Cream together cream cheese and sugar until fluffy. Melt butter and chocolate together; allow to cool slightly. Add chocolate mixture to cream cheese and beat until incorporated. Add vanilla and maple syrup and beat until frosting is smooth and easily spread.

Drop dollops of frosting onto brownie and smooth into an even layer. Chill torte to set frosting.

Allow torte to warm up before cutting; it gets awfully thick and dense. Serve at room temperature to allow flavors to meld more harmoniously.

Makes 24-36 squares, depending on how small you cut them

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lettuce Hope For the Best

The skies have turned gray and cold again, but here's proof that better times are on the way:

The lettuce and kale seeds that I planted in pots on my sunny windowsill are starting to show some growth, and I even spotted just a hint of green emerging from the soil in my scallion pot. (Beans and Asian greens are still nowhere to be seen, alas.)

I'm not quite craving a fresh salad yet, but the more these little beauties grow, the more I'll be ready to eat them.

Hope does spring eternal!


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nothin' Says Lovin' Like Somethin' In My Muffin

As I'm starting to clean out my pantry in preparation for this summer's round of preservation, I'm astonished at the quantity of jam I have stashed away. I haven't taken a mini-census of all the jam jars, but it would be fair to say I have way more than I'm going to eat by the time summer rolls around.

What's a girl to do?

OK, the logical thing to do would be to bake bread more regularly and feast on jam-slathered toast as a regular occurrence. I just can't bring myself to do that, though. That's way too predictable.

Instead, this morning I pulled out the Sour Cream Muffin recipe from the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book and –- you guessed it -– modified it to suit my tastes for the day.

I replaced the sour cream with strained semi-local plain organic yogurt, used spelt flour instead of whole wheat, reduced the quantity of sugar (and tossed in a little local maple sugar), and added cinnamon and cardamom to the batter. But the biggest change of all came from replacing the fresh or frozen fruit called for in the recipe with a half-pint jar of My Fabulous Aunt's peach jam.

I mixed the jam into the dough and then scooped it into the greased muffin tins before adding a simple streusel of maple sugar, chopped walnuts, more spices, and melted butter.

The muffins smelled so good as they baked –- warm, fruity, spicy, and altogether inviting -– that when they came out of the oven, I could barely restrain myself from tucking into them right away. (I did, of course, else all you'd see here would be crumbs.)

The luxurious peach flavor worked its way throughout the muffins, and the spicy crunch on top made the perfect counterbalance to the moist crumb. In short, another winner of a breakfast treat!

And that is definitely somethin' to love.

Jam and Streusel Muffins

According to the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking instructions, you could make this batter and refrigerate it for at least an hour, which allows the grains to absorb more liquid. I found, though, that even without that rest period the muffins turned out perfectly moist and tender. You may also want to modify what spices and flavor extracts you use depending on what kind of jam you add to the batter.

2 c whole wheat pastry or spelt flour
1/2 c unbleached flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
4 T unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c sugar (I used cane juice crystals)
1/4 c maple sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 c strained plain yogurt
1 c peach jam

1/4 c chopped walnuts or pecans
1/4 c maple sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease muffin tins and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter with sugar and maple sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and almond extract and beat well. Add yogurt, mixing until batter becomes creamy. Add dry ingredients in two additions, mixing just until incorporated. Add jam and stir until well distributed throughout the batter.

Combine nuts, maple sugar, and spices for streusel in small bowl. Add melted butter and mix with your (clean!) fingers for even distribution.

Scoop batter into prepared tins, filling cups only 3/4 full. Sprinkle streusel on top and press lightly into batter. Bake muffins for 20-23 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove tins from oven and set aside for 5 minutes before removing muffins to wire cooling rack.

Makes 18 muffins

Saturday, February 16, 2008

B'stilla My Heart

The persistence of ice and snow this week has made me very, very glad indeed that I had planned a special treat for myself and for friends this weekend: a spicy Moroccan feast featuring a variety of local foods from my pantry and freezer.

It's been at least four years since I cooked an all-Moroccan meal, despite my appreciation for the cuisine, but I hadn't forgotten how much I loved the vegetarian version of b'stilla that I had baked once before.

One of the traditional dishes of Morocco, b'stilla is a filo-wrapped pie that usually contains chicken, almonds, and cinnamon. Some time back, though, I found a recipe that replaced the chicken with chickpeas and tofu. I had "local" chickpeas (courtesy of the fair Titania) on hand, but instead of tofu, I made a batch of paneer and crumbled that into the mixture instead. Perfect!

For me, a Moroccan meal wouldn't be complete without couscous and a spicy vegetable tagine (stew) on top. Ever since I learned to appreciate the dish while studying in France, I've been trying different combinations for the tagine, and for this meal I pulled out some of my cold storage vegetables (butternut squash and sweet potatoes) as well as edamame and an onion-garlic-hot pepper puck from the freezer, dried red peppers, and a jar of canned tomatoes (plus the whey left over from the paneer). The tagine simmered all day in the slow cooker, and it ended up spicy, velvety thick, and full of good warming flavor that seeped into the whole wheat couscous beneath it.

Even though the couscous had plenty of vegetables in it, I wanted something a little extra to accompany it, so I pulled out my zucchini-feta pancake recipe. I thawed two bags of shredded zucchini from the freezer, but when I drained them, I had very little vegetable left, so I ended up making bite-size fritters that included Bulgarian feta (yes, I'm still trying to use that up!), a local egg, dried mint from my garden, fresh parsley from my windowsill, and local flour.

I decided to try a Moroccan bread as well: grilled semolina flatbreads. I don't think mine turned out quite as traditional as the recipe indicated, but I did work in a little local spelt flour with the semolina, and I was pleased with the dense but hearty texture.

Suffice it to say that my guests, a collection of young folks with a good appreciation for food (especially local!), all devoured the food I set out and raved about how good everything tasted. One guest so enjoyed the Moroccan mint tea I had brewed as well that I ended up brewing a second pot just to satisfy him.

I cleaned up a bit after dinner and gave them all a chance to talk among themselves while I finished making dessert.

I took Bri's excellent recipe for baked dates with goat cheese and arranged those tangy-sweet bites on a plate with my homemade pistachio cookies... and then stood back to allow everyone else to tuck in. The dates went over incredibly well (oh, man, they were soooooo good!), and the cookies added just the right balance to the richness of the fruit. My guests cleaned off the plate, making me realize that sometimes the simplest recipes end up being the best of all.

They all headed home, contented and smiling, and I packed away the leftovers to enjoy later.

And for a few hours at least, we held winter at bay with our heart-warming meal.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sitting on Defense

By now, I'd guess it's safe to say that almost every regular reader of this blog has heard of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and now of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

By now, of course, Pollan's latest book has been reviewed up and down and all around, most articulately by Bonnie at The Ethicurean and Leah at The Jew and Carrot, and he's in the midst of a major book tour and publicity rush (where lucky people like Bri can catch him in person).

And by now, I've finally gotten hold of a copy and read through it myself.

Thanks to the fair Titania, who heard him speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia (podcast available) and met him afterward, I'm the proud owner of a signed copy of his book. And though you've probably had enough of the reviews and the hype and all, I'm going to share with you a few thoughts that I had in reading the book as well as a few favorite quotes.

In a nutshell, Pollan delivers a politely scathing review of the Western diet and its direct correlation to our declining health, as well as a dismissal of the blind adherence to "nutritionism" and the obsession with the latest fad nutrient, and he follows this overview with his "algorithms" for selecting real food and eating a healthy diet. (The clue is in the artfully simple book jacket: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.")

His exposé of nutritionism shows that as a science, it remains in its hubristic adolescence, making bold claims for good and bad nutrients and presenting the image of nutrition as being so complicated that we need experts to tell us what to eat. Yet most sensible nutrition experts (such as Marion Nestle) admit that we do not have enough understanding of the interactions between nutrients and their role in the food itself to make reliable statements on isolated nutrients. (I don't know about you, but I'm hearing the Wizard's words echoing in my head: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!")

Why has nutritionism become so pervasive? Among other reasons, it serves the interest of the big food processing corporations:

"When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in food (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. ... Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing" (p.32).

Thus we find ourselves in the midst of the supermarket, agog at the sight of cereals loaded with sweeteners, preservatives, and chemicals that are touted as "healthy" because of their added fiber or vitamins or the nutrient du jour, whatever it may be. And the more we eat these "food-like products," the less we remember how to recognize the real food with which our ancestors developed fruitful and symbiotic relationships:

"...long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communication up and down the food chain so that a creature's senses come to recognize foods as suitable by their taste and smell and color. Very often these signals are 'sent' by the foods themselves, which may have their own reasons for wanting to be eaten" (p.103).

"One of the problems with the products of food science is that, as Joan Gussow has pointed out, they lie to your body; their artificial colors and flavors and synthetic sweeteners and novel fats confound the senses we rely on to assess new foods and prepare our bodies to deal with them. Foods that lie leave us with little choice but to eat by the numbers, consulting labels rather than our senses" (p.149).

I also found one of his less-developed comments about nutritionism fascinating: Despite nutritionism being heralded as a very progressive, balanced, and "potentially unifying answer" for those Americans wondering about the best diet, he points out that "it is also a way to moralize about other people's choices without seeming to" (p.58). Considering that locavores, vegetarians, and a host of other "picky eaters" are often accused of being elitist and rigid about telling others what to eat, this comment strikes me as being right on the mark. After all, who would dare argue with the high moral tone of the low-fat police, the anti-carb cops, or the sweet-tooth SWAT team?

So how do we get beyond nutritionism and eat a healthy diet? Let's start, Pollan suggests, by spending "more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance" –- beyond the 10% or less of our income, beyond the hour or less of our day (p.145). Let's get back to making food a more central place in our lives -– not as an obsession, but as an expression of ourselves and our culture.

He spends a good deal of time and ink on the question of spending more for our food, probably because it's a point that will draw a good deal of criticism and complaint. (I've got my own beef with it.) Our industrialized food system was designed to deliver an abundance of cheap food, though not necessarily of high quality. So if you want better-tasting and more nutritionally good food, you'll generally end up spending more money because it's grown outside this mainstream food system and probably requires more labor-intensive practices. Pollan puts it bluntly: "Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should" (p.184).

Now, I've talked before about my willingness to spend more money in order to get the best possible food for my own table. But let's get real, Michael, dear: how am I supposed to feel when I can afford to buy high-quality food for myself but I have to watch My Wonderful Parents settle for the cheap, lower-quality, highly-processed food on their fixed retirement income, knowing that they have to pay close attention to labels and sales and that they are more likely than I am to run the risk of eating food that ends up being recalled for safety issues?

My supporting a large number of local farmers with my food dollars is great, but it's a drop in the bucket in the larger food economy, and it's going to take more than the money generated at farmers' markets to make more of this good, local, organic, sustainable, nutritious, healthy food available at an affordable price to everyone. It's going to take national action and legislation, better funding and expanded oversight for the federal agencies responsible for food safety, and a lot (and I mean A LOT) of people standing up and demanding it.

That said, I do appreciate his comment that when we pay more for food, we're "apt to eat less of it," thus further benefiting our health (p.184). I have definitely found this to be true for myself, noticing that my meal portions have been shrinking the more I depend on a limited pantry to get me through the winter. (And you know what? I'm not going hungry from it.)

I also have no argument with his many "algorithms" for how to decide what food to buy as they're all pretty straightforward and simple and sensible. (A brief summary of the key ones comes from Culinate.) And I confess that one of his comments –- "I may be showing my age, but didn't there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between-meal snack?" (p.191) –- has inspired me to try and curb my mid-morning coffee breaks at work (and the inevitable nosh on something sweet).

Ultimately, what eating real food according to these guidelines boils down to is this:

"To eat slowly, then, also means to eat deliberately, in the original sense of that word: 'from freedom' instead of compulsion" (p.196).

It's about freeing ourselves from the chokehold of nutritionism, experts, food corporations, disease, and disconnection from our food and the rest of the world. It may take some time, but we can reclaim real food for our plates and for our family meals –- garden by garden, farmers' market by farmers' market, little by little, person by person.

If any of this is news to you or makes you stop and ask "what is she talking about?" I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book and read it. (Some have argued that Pollan makes his points better in a lengthy article, available for free online; my response is, that's fine, but borrow the book from the local library if you want to read about these issues in more depth.)

Because sometimes the best offense is a good Defense.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pista Packin' Mama

With Valentine's Day swiftly approaching, I'm thinking about food.

Oh, I know, who am I kidding? I'm always thinking about food. But Valentine's Day carries time-honored food traditions with it.

Nope, I'm not here today to dish about chocolate, tempting though that may be. In my family, one of our traditions years ago was to give something different, and my Valentine package usually included a mixture of plain and red-dyed pistachios.

I know, the thought of dyed pistachios is so Seventies and not at all the thing to do nowadays. (Can one still find them? Wait, I don't really want to know.) But the fact is, I love pistachios –- or pistas, as Indians label them and I like to call them with affection -– and I could hardly wait for my special stash of them for the holiday.

My Wonderful Parents haven't given me pistachios in several years –- but I'm not complaining, folks, because My Fabulous Aunt gave me a bag for Christmas, and I've been nibbling away at them slowly, with plenty left for a special baking project this week.

This coming weekend, I'm hosting a Moroccan feast for several young friends. The main dishes will, of course, feature a variety of local foods that I've tucked in the pantry and the freezer, but the dessert will have a more exotic flair, simply because I'm ready for a little splurge.

When I spotted the baked dates stuffed with goat cheese on Bri's blog (yes, Bri, they're worth a second shout-out!), I knew they would make the perfect ending to a savory feast. And the pistas she so lovingly arranged under the dates made me think that I should use the rest of mine, too... though, perhaps, in a different way.

I settled on a simple, light, buttery cookie chock full of ground pistas: my lavender refrigerator cookie, tweaked with a hint of cardamom and a whole lot of pista-packed goodness.

Once again, the monster mixer made short work of pulling together the dough, and after a quick chill in the fridge, I sliced the dough and baked the cookies, ending up with two and a half dozen nutty and faintly exotic little morsels.

I've tucked them away in a tin and will have to discipline myself severely not to open it for the rest of the week... they're that good!

And I know I'm not the only one who will appreciate this tradition this Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Link Good Thoughts...

I've been reading a lot of good pieces elsewhere online lately, but I just never seem to get around to pulling together some of my favorites to share with you.

Some of what I've read lately has been on the distinctly depressing side, such as Marc's review of meat recalls over at the Ethicurean or some of Sharon's thought-provoking articles at Casaubon's Book.

But given the wall of grey skies out there today and the perpetual howl of the winter wind, I'm in need of happier thoughts and things to report, so I'm going to stick to the sunny side of the street today:

--Fellow Ethicurean Charlotte over at Living Small has a recent little piece about "Spring cravings." While she's mostly talking about the foods she preserved and is just now craving, she's also been planning her garden preparation, and what I've heard about that (from our behind-the-scenes Victory Garden talk) inspired me to sit down this week and start a few seeds of my own.

With any luck, I'll get some lettuce, Asian greens, scallions, and Tiger Eye beans started here on my windowsill!

--Harriet, the Happy Homesteader on Culinate's Dinner Guest blog, recently talked about "Self-reliance" and how she views the food preservation and other homesteading work she does as a form of political protest. The people who want to learn the skills from her, however, are adamant that they're not at all interested in starting a revolution. I'm fortunate in that the young folks who have wanted to learn such things from me have, in fact, seen such skills as a worthwhile way to keep from succumbing to mainstream, consumerist culture, but I do wonder –- even with all that's written about taking back control of our food and food production, are we really getting anywhere in changing how people think and eat?

--At Organic to Be, Jeff Cox has a beautiful little article about perfection and how it correlates less to physical ideal than to context. That perfect summer peach? You know it's the company with whom you shared it that made it "perfect," not any intrinsic perfection of the fruit itself. Poetry!

--Julie at Eat Local Challenge muses on hope, starting with the political scene and on how eating locally is an act of hope in her life. Inspiring!

--Finally, at Eat Close to Home, Emily has started a series called "So You Want to Garden" and has recently offered tips on the essential gardening tools and on what vegetables beginning gardeners here in the north might start sowing. Stay tuned to her blog for more useful information over the coming months.

--And since Valentine's Day is approaching ever so swiftly, go bake some good cookies. Better yet, take Bri's excellent idea for creating your own hot date!

There IS good news out there... we just have to find it! (Or make it!)

Hello, Dal-i!

Winter's back.

I knew it, even before I crawled out of bed this morning. I heard the wind howling around my window and could feel the chill seeping through the brick. And sure enough, when I looked out the window, I saw a fine swirl of white flakes driven horizontally into the face of the building. Brrr!

It's a good thing I had no real plans to head out today, because it's the kind of day when I just want to bundle into my coziest, warmest clothes, sip a big mug of hot tea, and start a pot of hot and spicy soup on the stove.

I'd had a fleeting thought the other day that I should make a pot of chili, and on the heels of that decision came the idea that I should make an Indian-spiced chili, more of a cross between a dal and chili. (You see where I'm going with this, don't you?)

So I rummaged through the pantry and the freezer and threw together a mostly local pot of savory spicy goodness: sautéing a frozen clump of onions, garlic, and hot pepper in ghee; adding a mix of Indian spices plus a dried Laotian chile; stirring in dried cabbage and red peppers; adding a pint of canned tomatoes, the remainder of the whey in the fridge, and some extra water; and tossing in a couple handfuls of (non-local) urad dal (split black gram) for good measure.

I let the mixture simmer for a couple of hours, wanting the dal to get well-cooked and enjoying the fragrance filling my loft. But once it had cooked sufficiently, I decided to add a little extra something.

I pulled out the besan (garbanzo) flour from the Indian grocery and mixed a quick little dumpling dough, adding kalonji seeds plus a chiffonade of small, tender kale leaves from the pot on the windowsill. I dropped dollops of the dough on top of the bubbling stew and let everything cook for another 15 minutes or so, and I rounded it all off by stirring in a couple big spoonfuls of ginger pickle, another delicious find from the Indian grocery.

The first spoonful of stew told me that I'd hit on just the right thing for such a cold day: lots of rich vegetable and legume flavor with the right amount of burn to warm me up inside and out. (Hot stuff! Yum!)

I spooned the leftovers into four small jars, and I think I'll have to take one jar with me to work tomorrow... maybe even eat it on the way, if it gets as cold tonight as they say it will!

Dal-i (Is It Chili? Is It Dal?)

This is one of those recipes that really isn't based on any other recipe: it just comes from what I have on hand. (The dumplings are based on a Betty Crocker classic, though.) That means it's totally open to interpretation and modification, so have fun with it!

1 small onion, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 small hot pepper, finely minced
1 1/2 T ghee or canola oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ajwain seeds*
1/2 tsp salt
1 dried hot chile pepper, poked with a knife in a few spots
3/4 c dried cabbage, crushed
2 T dried red peppers, crushed
1 pint canned tomatoes
2-3 c water
1 c urad dal (split black gram)*

1/2 c besan (garbanzo) flour*
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kalonji seeds*
1/4 tsp salt
1 T butter
1/4 c kale, finely shredded
1/4 c milk

(* Ingredients found at Indian grocery; omit spices if you don't have them or replace with others, and replace urad dal with lentils and besan flour with unbleached.)

In heavy saucepan over medium low heat, saute onion, garlic, and hot pepper in ghee or oil until translucent and golden. Add cumin, chili powder, coriander, ginger, ajwain seeds, salt, and dried chile pepper and saute another minute, until fragrant. Add cabbage, red peppers, tomatoes, water, and urad dal, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cover pan, allowing stew to simmer about 2 hours, with occasional stirring.

When urad dal has softened and stew is about finished, make dumpling dough. Whisk together besan flour, baking powder, kalonji seeds, and salt. Cut butter into dry ingredients with pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add kale and milk, and mix with a fork until evenly incorporated. Using fork, drop small dollops of dough onto stew until all dough is used. Allow stew to simmer another 15 minutes or so before serving.

If desired, add a couple spoonfuls of a spicy pickle relish (ginger is excellent) and stir to incorporate before serving.

Serves 4-6

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Pizza the Action

Come the weekend, I often want to bake a pizza from scratch for a quick Sunday evening dinner, with leftovers to get me through my lunches during the week. It's become a bit of a tradition for me.

There's another pizza-related tradition in my life, and it centers on "play dates" with My Adorable Nephews. Normally I try to visit them on a Friday afternoon –- time with them is an excellent antidote for the week's work-related stress –- but this week the Southern Belle and I had to plan the visit for Saturday instead. And though we usually order pizza from one of the franchises in town for our communal dinner, I suggested that this time around (since I had time on Saturday afternoon to make the dough) we make pizza from scratch.

She readily agreed, knowing that the boys would be eager to help in the kitchen, and her husband (the Absent-Minded Professor) concurred, wanting to get a taste of my bready pizza crust. (He's all about the bread.)

Before heading out, I made two batches of pizza dough: a spelt dough from my own recipe, and an unbleached version of my grandmother's roll/pizza dough, something a little sweeter that I thought the boys would appreciate more.

As soon as I arrived, the Southern Belle and I spread the doughs out onto greased cookie sheets and baked them for about 10 minutes, just to get the crust started before we added toppings.

The Absent-Minded Professor threw together a pretty good sauce and smeared it liberally over both crusts, and then My Adorable Nephews grabbed the bags of mozzarella cheese and covered the pizzas with mounds and mounds of cheese.

Beaker, having a strong inclination to sprinkle ingredients for baking, dusted the one pizza (destined to be a mostly cheese pizza with a little sausage added on) with herbs while I topped the spelt crust with spinach leaves and steamed broccoli.

After another sprinkling of cheese, the pizzas were ready to bake, and despite a temperamental oven that left the cheese pizza crust a little dark, our dinner came out looking deliciously tempting!

The Southern Belle and I tackled the vegetable pizza with gusto, sharing the occasional piece with the Absent-Minded Professor and even little Scooter.

We all enjoyed slices from the other pizza, too (though, of course, I only ate from the cheese-only end), but I'm pleased to say that my spelt crust won the unofficial taste test pretty much across the board. (Beaker didn't vote: he wasn't that crazy about the pizza at all, even after all the work he put into it.)

I have a feeling we'll make pizza together again sometime: it's always a treat to get everyone involved in making dinner, and the more my boys want to help out in the kitchen, the more I hope they'll learn to appreciate their food and where it comes from.

Maybe we've started a new tradition!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pasta Imperfect

Ever since I learned how to make my own pasta, I've been completely smitten. It's so much easier and more satisfying than I had expected, and I've gotten to the point where I rarely buy pasta as a quick fix just because I know I can whip up a batch of noodles very quickly.

Lately, though, I've been curious about the possibilities that pasta holds –- how a somewhat blank slate can be modified and given a little more pizzazz with a little tweaking of flavors. So I've donned my Mad Kitchen Scientist cap a few times recently, and while you can read more about the whole adventure over at the Ethicurean, I'll share more details of my forays into dessert pasta with you here.

A few years ago, in pondering a new creation for the Chocolate Potluck, an email dialogue with the incomparably sassy Spicyflower raised the possibility of chocolate pasta. I was intrigued, but I did nothing about it at the time except to bookmark a recipe or two.

But in considering how to make flavored pasta for desserts, I pulled out those recipes and decided to mix together a cocoa- and cinnamon-laced pasta. After cutting the dough into broad strips, I spread them with a cream cheese mixture and rolled them up, baking them like mini manicotti. With a dark chocolate sauce and a whipped chocolate cream on top, these little delicacies turned out delightfully rich and decadent.

I thought about other flavors for dessert pasta, too, and pondered the idea of working raspberries into the dough. Around that time, I stumbled across a paragraph in my copy of Stocking Up that indicated that dried fruits and vegetables (dried thoroughly, not just until leathery) could be ground and used to replace up to 1/4 c flour in recipes. Since I have a couple of small jars of too-dry raspberries from my early drying experiments, I decided I'd give this method a try.

I still haven't replaced my mini food processor, but my coffee grinder, once wiped clean, proved more than equal to the task of grinding the berries into a fluffy powder. The ground berries, then, worked into the pasta dough easily, adding a tart, intensely raspberry flavor to the dough.

But how to use the dough? I had considered making ravioli, but I thought I'd like to try shaping the dough and baking it first before adding soft fillings simply for the contrast in textures. So I cut out squares and draped them over greased cups to make "baskets"; I cut out circles and brushed them with lemon basil syrup, baking them into crisp ravioli rounds; and I took strips of pasta and wound them around wooden spoon handles and a lemon reamer to make little cones.

They're not perfect, not the most attractive little structures, but they did fulfill their mission very nicely. And while I think I prefer using pasta while soft instead of baking it, I did find the difference between the crisp pasta and both a cream cheese filling and the whipped chocolate cream to have a certain appeal.

But I won't make you take just my word for it. I invited the faithful Persephone and the Contradance Queen over for dessert this evening and plied them with my luscious experiments:

Both ladies expressed their full approval and appreciation of the dessert pasta sampler, thus earning them the honor of taking the leftovers when they left. (I can only eat so much of my own experiments before I have to foist them on others!)

I'm sure I'll launch into some new cooking experiments soon and get back to making just plain ol' pasta this weekend.

But sometimes it’s nice to explore the pastabilities...


Saturday, February 02, 2008

By Hook or By Cookie

If there's anything I've learned in my years of baking, it's that everyone loves home-baked goodies.

The care packages I occasionally send to dear friends and former students regularly elicit cries of rapture, profuse thanks, and the occasional poem. Neighbors and co-workers alike light up when a dish of cookies is thrust upon them. And even My Wonderful Parents grin like kids when I share my latest baking experiments with them.

So how better to make my way in a new group of people than to offer to bake for them? After way too long, I've finally gotten caught up in the local contra dancing whirlwind, and as I discovered before, dancers can work up a great appetite... and an even greater appreciation for homemade cookies.

I offered to help my Contradancing Colleague provide refreshments for this month's dance, so I spent the latter half of the week baking.

The first cookie recipe came directly from a book I no longer remember (something about baking in gratitude?). It's a simple recipe for toffee thins, combining flour, dark brown sugar, salt, butter, and a hint of vanilla -- that's it. Then, like refrigerator cookies, you roll the dough into a log and chill it well before baking.

I made the dough on Wednesday, but I finally sliced and baked the cookies last evening. Funny how the dough looks like trail bologna or something similar!

They don't look like much on the baking sheet as the logs were only about 1 1/2" in diameter.

But they spread out in baking (ah, butter, I love you!) and turn into lacy wisps of molasses-sweet buttery delight. Even though this recipe made nearly 6 dozen thin cookies, I expect they'll all be gobbled up by hungry dancers!

Next, I made a variation on my sunshine cookie recipe, dropping the ginger and almond flavors in favor of cinnamon and plain ol' vanilla.

After baking the cookies on Wednesday, I gave them a couple of days in a tin to cool their heels (as it were) before whipping up (literally!) a glorious bittersweet chocolate and cinnamon ganache to spread over half of the cookies.

Orange, chocolate, and cinnamon sandwiched together -- who could resist?

And finally, this morning I got an early start in the kitchen making my dark chocolate-double nut bars. Between a frenzied cleaning of my apartment and other chores, I pulled together the shortbread base and baked it before mixing the nut topping and adding that to the pan for a heavenly-scented and -flavored concoction.

I won't have many of those to take with me tonight, so I will probably save them for selected folks (like the kind couple who drove me to a dance last weekend and the ever-lovely Contradance Queen).

I'm pretty sure these treats will go over well, and I'm not sure I'll have any left to bring home at the end of the evening.

But I figure if these people can get me hooked on dancing, I'm happy to get them hooked on my cookies!

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Lists of Avalon

Though I fully expect the groundhog to see his shadow tomorrow and to predict another obvious six weeks of winter, the wacky weather we've had this week continues to tease me with hints of spring, like with the misty freezing rain this morning.

Frustration seems to be the gardener's constant companion at this time of year. Every warm spell brings mud and the sweet scent of the earth, and those two things automatically trigger the desire to rattle seed packets, to dig, and to plant. And yet, still we wait.

My seeds, at least, have arrived, so I can begin the plans for this year's garden -- the Victory Garden. And here's the list of what I'll be growing this year:

--plenty of greens: Green Lance Asian greens (like Chinese broccoli), Cracoviensis lettuce, Strela Green lettuce, Mizspoona mustard greens, Prize Choy Pak Choi, Winterbor curly kale, and Nero di Tuscana dinosaur kale
--beans for drying: Windsor Fava, Black Kabouli garbanzo, cannellini, Tiger Eye
--melons: Golden Gopher cantaloupe, Sugar Baby watermelon
--carrots: Nantes Fancy, Jaune du Doubs (a yellow)
--Evergreen Hardy white scallions
--Hopi Red Dye amaranth (also good for eating) and Omega flax
--and lots of herbs and edible flowers: anise hyssop, borage, chives, Caribe cilantro, salad burnet, summer savory, winter savory, Mad-dog skullcap, white yarrow, Resina calendula, Jewel Mix nasturtium

The Original Organic Farmer has also promised some tomato seedlings from her batch, and My Dear Papa has his fingers crossed for some old-fashioned Rutgers!

I'm hoping to start a few of the greens here in the loft sometime soon, just to ease me into spring, but the bulk of the work, of course, lies ahead. So to prepare myself, I've started my to-do lists:

The Victory Garden (at the Absent-Minded Professor's)
--Find out timetable for building raised beds. (Done 2/9/08)
--Sketch out plans for planting (since I know the approximate size of the beds). (Done 3/17/08)
--Set up a compost bin.
--Talk to the AMP about irrigation or a rain barrel. (Done 2/9/08)
--Lay out chart with timetables for planting and harvesting. (Done 2/10/08)
--Start digging!

The Inn Herb Beds
--Turn compost. (Done 4/8/08)
--Look over designated vegetable area; will there be enough sun? (Done 3/2/08; not enough!)
--Start clearing herb beds.
--Sketch out plans for planting.
--Sow seeds April/May.
--Call the Lady Bountiful about what seedlings she'll have available come June (or sooner). (Done 3/17/08)
--Note on calendar when to harvest for drying.

Then, of course, I'll have to keep up with everything... whew! But at least I'm on course to plant a little paradise of my own very soon.

Once the weather finally cooperates, that is...