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 in 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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shanghaied in changsha

June 7th, 2014

Or, how I became a petty thief.

There are many situations wherein one’s morale, sanity, and general equilibrium are keenly connected to food. I’ve know this first hand, repeatedly, in two types of situation; while on tall ships at sea held from shore by weather, and while in foreign-speaking countries under challenging work conditions. What price sanity? No price too great, and that’s how I became a petty thief in Changsha, Hunan, China.

I work in a factory with a hand full of Germans, two hands full of Americans, and 80,000 Chinese. Working conditions are fairly brutal, to my way of thinking, if a lack of water, lack of lunch, lack of coffee, and lack of chairs and desks can be called brutal. It’s a twelve-hour work day, seven days a week.

I took a taxi to the supermarket today, along with a suitcase, to stock up on survival goods for the week ahead.  Oolong tea, green tea, rice crackers, dried fruits, an unknown selection of small Chinese snacks (none of which included the ubiquitous pickled and shrink-wrapped chicken foot), some paper plates, three ping-pong balls, and a paring knife. I need the knife to peel the apple I steal from the hotel every morning.

Pocketing an apple in a pair of stove-pipe slacks doesn’t work. Hiding it under a folded newspaper and sneezing at just the right moment gets one past the security/hostess stand at the 5-star hotel in which I currently reside.  An avaricious manager in the restaurant determined after several weeks that the company I’m with looked ripe for some fleecing, and suddenly started charging us $8.00 for a paper cup to carry out our morning coffee.

Apples, bananas, and an occasional yogurt were exacting prices in excess of ludicrous, and I, for one, was not going to get shanghaied in Changsha. I eat quite well now at the factory, and the golden moment in the midst of the long day consists of a sandwich, secretly assembled the night before from scraps on my plate from the dinner buffet. Small shreds of chicken tossed with a spicy Hunan pepper condiment, plopped onto some French bread and glued together with butter, swallowed into a zip-lock and dropped into the paper tote bag by my feet.

It’s really very delicious, and not simply because I steal it.

Hunan Pepper Condiment

the last of summer

September 3rd, 2013

Family, friends and strangers alike called my Mother’s father, “Pappy”.  By all reports he was a magical man who wasn’t able to leap tall buildings or move faster than a speeding train. He cared for his family through the depression, ensuring food on the table and a proper song or poem at the close of each day.  He taught his daughters to waltz and his sons to think big.

Pappy always used to say that he would eat anything if it were draped in Hollandaise Sauce, including sawdust.  I have always concurred with that statement and dare to take it a step further: anything draped in Crème Anglaise, sawdust included, sounds mighty tasty to me!  I never met Pappy, because he died before I was born, but I’ve always known him, and I’m certain that he’s somewhere nearby, in spirit.

The last of summer’s strawberries bid good-bye to kitchens regaling their many wonders all season long in the form of jams, shortcakes, and brief dips into liquid chocolate.  I was thinking some local strawberries and candied walnuts tucked into a crêpe and generously draped with Crème Anglaise would bid a proper adieu to the season, and Pappy, I’m sure, would be the first to agree.

Strawberry Crêpes with Candied Walnuts and Crème Anglaise

 

 

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second cousins

August 27th, 2013

Everyone is familiar with the famous dish from Provence known as Ratatouille, perhaps in thanks to the animated film, more hopefully because they’ve experienced this indigenous combination of tomato, zucchini, eggplant, garlic, onion and peppers, perfumed with Herbes de Provence.

Ratatouilles are like snowflakes – there are no two alike.

Its American second cousin, to my mind, has to be the equally indigenous and perhaps more ingenious dish of the Pueblo known as Calabacitas, generously demonstrated to conquering Spaniards long ago.  It features a variety of summer squash, onion, garlic, black beans, fresh corn and tomato.  The ingredient that throws Calabacitas over the top is the New Mexico chile, from Hatch Valley, which just came into season!

Preparing the dish is a multi-staged event, just like its French second cousin.  First, the chiles need to be dry roasted and peeled and then the corn on the cob is charred in a skillet until the natural sugars start to caramelize.  Other ingredients follow, with individual exactness, and then the whole lot is gently warmed in a skillet.

In keeping with the region, leftover Calabacitas contribute to superb versions of quesadillas, tostadas and Huevos Ranchero.

Just another snowflake…

Calabacitas with Fresh Hatch Chilis

 

 

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a taste of texas

September 5th, 2012

A few weeks ago I was standing next to my cousin Larry, admiring the Texas twilight as it settled onto the hill country in its varied lavender hues, with the lingering aromas still wafting up from the wood-fired pit-box where he had supremely roasted an array of meats for a remarkable group of relatives and friends.  Larry solemnly stoked a thick Cuban cigar, and occasionally I’d tweak his happy body and demand a smoky exhalation directed in my direction.

Those four days in Texas only whetted my appetite for its cuisine and the second thing I did upon returning home was to haul out the smoker, the little grill, the bean pot and the tortilla press.  I had one thing in mind – a perfect pork taco — and if that meant 12 hours of smoking, grilling, griddling and simmering, so be it.  As the rosy-green twilight brightened in the Northeast Boondocks sky, I demolished that single taco in four rapid bites.

The next morning I was looking down the gun barrel at eight pounds of smoked and pulled pork shoulder, a half-gallon of Frijoles Charros, a pint of Fire-roasted Salsa and an absurdly large stack of freshly-pressed corn tortillas.  What’s a girl to do?  Process, pack, stow and invent.  Hence came new renditions of Cuban Sandwiches, Migas Sabrosas, and Chili Rellenos, utilizing that unctuous pork, savory pintos and divine salsa.

It’s been two weeks now and it’s still not possible to run out of ideas, so for dinner tonight we happily munched down on Fresh Corn and Scallion Pancakes topped with the endless Smoked Pork Shoulder, some baby potatoes parboiled and seared in butter for a crispy crust, along with a throw of straight-from-the-garden green beans, flash steamed with spring water and sea salt.

That event in Texas was a tribute to my mother’s younger brother Chas, generously hosted by his children and their families.  I insist still that roving satellites recorded an unusual golden glow over the backyard of that house in the hill country that night and it would be the love and the joy and, never forget, the food, that made that glow we lucky attendees shall remain warm in for a good while to come.

Fresh Corn and Scallion Pancake with Smoked Pork

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kitchen wrath

April 16th, 2012

A few years ago on a drab and snowy day, I pulled the freshly made ricotta from the fridge and mixed up a souffléed lemon ricotta pancake batter.  The plug that usually accommodates the griddle cord had mysteriously lost its juice, so an extension was strung across the kitchen floor.  Most people have better sense.

The first batch of eight pancakes were softly rising on the hot griddle and just as I was about to turn them, a clumsy move on my part pulled the extension, and by extension, the griddle straight off the counter to land upside down on a Persian rug.  Without missing a beat, I flipped over the griddle, scraped all the gooey batter back onto its surface, walked out to the porch and chucked the whole thing into the snow where it lay steaming and sizzling.

Utterly irrationally, I’ve secretly blamed the ricotta for that debacle and have never attempted those pancakes again.  But one can begrudge a good homemade food only so long and I redeemed the product and myself the other afternoon with some Lemon Ricotta Cookies.  Light and lemony pillows of cookie softness and no griddle required.

Lemon Ricotta Cookies

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year of the dragon

April 10th, 2012

I’d love to have the job of writing pithy prognostications for Fortune Cookies, except that I’d probably have to make the cookie too, and since I don’t actually like the cookie, it’s not a career soon to happen.

As doughs go, however, the Chinese Jiǎozi, informally known as The Potsticker, surely ranks among the world’s tastiest and its potential fillings are as varied as they are with Italy’s Ravioli.  The Korean version is known as Mandu, the Japanese as Gyōza, the Nepali as Momo, the Russian as Pelymeni, the Polish as Pirogy, and so on to every corner of the world.  So many little dough packets filled with so many regional ingredients are a global staple.

Pick a protein and a fresh herb and set aside an afternoon for the Zen-like assembly of many dozens of Potstickers.  Bundle them into plastic bags, store them in the freezer and cook them up fresh and speedy whenever that ‘got to have’ moment arrives.  My moment usually occurs at breakfast time and a serving of three go beautifully with a cup of Earl Grey and a spicy dipping sauce.  A day full of fortune is always sure to follow.

Garlic Pork Potstickers

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