piece of toast

February 22nd, 2015

Some things are just so simple good, assuming one can use an adjective to modify an adjective, that a simply expressed single word can sum up the experience, to wit, “wow”.

Sunday lunch snack, after a challenging week of ice and snow, consisted of a simple tartine (piece of toast), topped with cream cheese, hot-smoked salmon, freshly pickled red onion, fried capers, and a drizzle of olive oil.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I shan’t say anything more.

Smoked Salmon Tartine with Pickled Red Onion and Fried Capers

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alternate routes

February 8th, 2015

I spent the afternoon plotting an overland journey around the world in eighty days, based on Jules Verne’s adventure novel from 1873. The biggest challenge is getting from Cairo to Bombay by way of Suez without stepping foot or toe into Saudi Arabia and that’s when my plotting hit the wall. An escorted trip to northern India might be more practical, but not nearly so thrilling.

In the meantime, I can eat the way Verne’s character, Phileas Fogg, might have done, on and off slow trains and slower freighters and the place to begin is with an unleavened flatbread called Paratha, whose pedigree dates from Vedic Sanskrit.  Housewives and boat cooks of South Asia make this fresh every morning.

To accompany the Paratha, a ground nut and pepper paste from Syria and perhaps a new version of Hummus with the addition of roasted garlic and Feta cheese wouldn’t go amiss. Some crunchy baked chick peas, fresh crudité, and a generous drizzle of olive oil adorn the plate and I am in for an adventure.

Paratha, Hummus, and Muhammara

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blue chip pickles

January 1st, 2015

Once upon a time, I lived in a farmhouse in rural Virginia, surrounded by fifty acres of cultivated soybeans. The front and back lawns were spacious enough to allow for large vegetable gardens that always yielded far more produce than could be consumed or given away. Canning these many vegetables became a daily event, usually performed in the morning when the combination of temperature and humidity were still tolerable.

Hundreds of jars later, the Blue Chip Pickle-of-the-Month Club was born and its lucky subscribers enjoyed an array of pickles, relishes, chutneys and conserves each month for the next year. That enterprise earned me more friends than it did income and remains a fond food memory.

Recent house hunting and travel have taken me through Williamsburg, Virginia several times where I twice got to enjoy dinner at the Waypoint Seafood and Grill. Diners are served a sectioned dish containing homemade Bread ‘n Butter Pickles, Country Ham Pate, and Whipped Sweet Butter alongside a breadbasket of Cornmeal Gems and sliced Baguette.

Aye, aye, aye… that introductory taste combination has no parallel. The pickles, in particular, are so tantalizing to the palate that I ordered a refill for dessert and they’ve been haunting me ever since. The haunt became a nag and with no tool other than desire did I create a batch of Bread n’ Butter Pickles quite in keeping with the Waypoint’s!

Day two of my delirious enjoyment set off a whisper from my inner baker that demanded some Artisanal Whole Wheat Molasses Bread as an accompaniment. I promptly obeyed. The pickles and the bread were soon joined by a knob of cheese, some sliced salami and a hard-boiled egg. A fitting Plowgirl’s Lunch for a girl without a plow.

Better Bread 'n Butter Pickles

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provisions

December 18th, 2014

The good thing about living at the beach during the off-season is that there’s no one here. Mile upon mile of empty beach for me to dance on and sit by in appreciative silence. I’ve ruined two pairs of sneakers flirting too aggressively with incoming 12-foot waves. There are four neighbors who walk beneath the deck along the tree line each day: an eight point buck and his three doe-friends.

The down side to living at the beach during the off-season is the dearth of food availability. The nearby markets have trimmed their produce, dairy, seafood, and meat counters to the barest minimum, leaving only the center aisles properly stocked with cans, boxes, and bags of processed “things to eat”. These “things” are not food and I won’t consume them at any time, ever.

Thanks to the modern day marvel of overnight shipping, I can get in some rather glorious and (perforce) pricey seafood, cheese, and meats, and it all arrives snuggled in a cooler with dry ice. Unfortunately, there is no mail-order solution to fresh veggies and I have to make the weekly 50-mile trip south in order to load up on greens and reds and yellows and purples.

Becoming a wizard at repurposing leftovers is an unexpected reward, propelled in part by my general laze that doesn’t like driving 50 miles for a carrot. The freezer has become my friend. It houses numerous small bits and bites, which, in the aggregate, become an inventive recipe. Some frozen bread heals, toasted and soaked in an egg custard were combined with fried ham sausage, red bell pepper, and a combo of leftover bits of cheese. Thirty minutes later, miniature stratas emerged from the oven, enough to create yet another leftover. No road traveled: priceless!

Mini Sausage and Red Pepper Stratas

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tasty giving

November 28th, 2014

Digging through the outer reaches of too many external hard drives, I unearthed a recipe book that I began in 2005 titled, “Tasty Giving.” It features gifts from the kitchen and includes such predictable things as candies, flavored popcorns and preserves along with the less predictable infused vodkas, cakes baked in jars (with a five-year shelf life), exotic biscotti, and even homemade crackers.

The book grew to 463 pages before it was abandoned to the more necessary writing tasks that actually pay good money, but a delight nonetheless to rediscover so serendipitously, and perforce I had to surf through the exhaustive Table of Contents and select something to cook!

Fudge sounded like a good idea, except that I don’t have a candy thermometer here at the beach house and refuse to buy yet another one, so I made the fudge the no-brainer way, requiring only four simple ingredients: semi-sweet chocolate, condensed milk, vanilla and pecans. As long as you avoid scorching the chocolate, you really can’t fail in achieving a delectably decadent and silkily-textured pan of chocolate wonder.

Some was shipped out by mail and more heads north by car next week for local deliveries. I kept four pieces for myself, which lasted four days. I also got to lick the spoon.

Tasty giving – pass it on!

Toasted Pecan Fudge

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breakfast at the hotel

November 23rd, 2014

Including both vacations and business travel, a calculator is required to add up all the hotel breakfasts I’ve consumed in my life, and of those thousands, there are only three stand-outs. Caneel Bay Plantation in the Virgin Islands serves the freshest fruit on earth along with a hummingbird that hovers above the raw sugar bowl. Hotel de France in Vienna, Austria serves a piping hot Gulaschsuppe amidst its lavish buffet and is the only way to begin a snowy day spent hiking down through the Wienerwald.  Lastly, there is the Ritz Carlton on Shanghai, China that, goodness knows how, renders up the most perfect bacon in either hemisphere.

The other side of this coin distinguishes itself, for the most part, with plastic cutlery and barely edible microwaved eggs and grey sausage patties. One does a quick U-turn past the yogurt cooler and grabs an indifferent cup of brown liquid casually named “coffee” before heading out to a busy and challenging day.  One learns quickly to have no expectations when it comes to the hotel breakfast and thus is never disappointed.

Imagine my surprise earlier this week while staying at a Sheraton in Herndon, Virginia and discovering that the silverware was actually made of metal, the coffee was Starbucks and the orange juice both fresh and properly chilled. My stony face at 6:45 a.m. started to relax into a smile, especially when the bread turned out to be top-shelf and the toaster in proper working order. Big delights continued with a chafing dish offering up corned beef hash and poached eggs, crispy and soft and delectably savory. Three thumbs up for this hotel breakfast and the first thing I did when I got home was to reprise the whole thing!

Corned Beef Hash

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visions

November 11th, 2014

A few weeks ago I sent a rolling pin to a friend of mine in Virginia with hopes that she’d make her own pastries and biscuits instead of buying the more expensive and much less tasty commercial varieties. Yesterday she emailed me and asked for my basic pie dough recipe. This is a positive sign, to be sure, that her future will be more tender and flaky!

Perforce, I now have pie on my mind, and biscuits. Visions of biscuits dripping butter and jam or spread with a country ham pate and a tiny slice of pickle dance in my head. So today I made buttermilk biscuits but was unable to unscrew the lid off the new jar of jam. Visions were replaced with curses! The biscuits were uber tender and light, nevertheless, and sufficiently divine with just a small pat of butter.

Buttermilk Biscuits

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bread demystified

November 4th, 2014

From Syria we get pocketed pita, from France crusty baguettes, from Italy golden foccacia and chewy ciabatta, from America homey sandwich loaves, from India na’an and from Germany porous fladenbrot. And I’ll bet you don’t realize that they are all the same recipe.  What gives them their respective signature is simply the manner in which the dough is proofed, shaped and baked.

Bagels are great example.  The Caraway Rye Bagels pictured below are nothing more than Caraway Rye Bread rendered differently and it’s that unique difference that manages to spin a simple dough into a chewy ring of magic.  Eaten fresh from the oven or toasted on one side, homemade bagels can tear through a package of cream cheese with frightening speed!

Caraway Rye Bagel

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the perfume of hunan

July 4th, 2014

I’m pleased to say that my abysmal stint in Changsha ended on a very high note, thanks to a young friend named Zhou Qiaoting. How we became friends is a story in itself that I’ll save for another day.

My single, deep disappointment, after four weeks working in Hunan province was that I hadn’t experienced the local cuisine, and the reasons were many and varied, some valid, some not. This changed a few days before I returned home on a most memorable evening with Zhou Qiaoting.

We set out, in the hot rain, sharing an umbrella, up a narrow lane just off Jianxiang Road, to a tiny noodle restaurant operated by three brothers whose resemblance to the young banjo player in the movie Deliverance is uncanny. The noodles are made outside on a small counter adjacent to a large cauldron of steaming soup.

We took a seat on small plastic stools and selected a noodle dish from the photos on the wall. First came a small bowl of broth from the big cauldron. Something made from chicken stock, lightly perfumed with five-spice powder and a few shreds of cilantro. Piping hot soup on a piping hot rainy night. It was divine.

In between slurps, I watched one of the brothers stretch, twine, and whirl a ball of  fresh dough into long noodles at his outdoor counter and shortly thereafter two bowls of steaming noodles were plunked in front of us, dressed with an array of vegetables, a mild sauce, and some unknown bits of meat. It was slippery work trying to grab the noodles with chopsticks, but I had four weeks of hunger providing a dexterity I don’t usually possess. It was so good, I groaned – repeatedly.

The meal was successfully restorative, not just to my furnace but also my temple, and with a lighter mood did I return home, inspired to try my hand at something akin to the Noodle Shop’s offering. A simple noodle, a simple broth, a simple herb, and five-spice powder – the perfume of Hunan.

Hunan Soup for the Soul

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