Monday, March 30, 2009

At Market....Lemongrass

I realize that many of you don't have the opportunity to buy fresh lemongrass at your farmers' market. But if you do, snap it up. It lasts for about two weeks in your refrigerator, if it is well wrapped in plastic. If you have any left over, it can be frozen in a thick zip-top bag for up to six months. Lemongrass has a light and refreshing lemony essence, but is much milder than lemon zest. It loses its oomph soon after it is cut, so it is best to use it fresh. In fact, don't even bother with the dried bottled stuff. It will give your food the flavor and texture of a grass beach mat. Yes, I know from experience. When you see it in the market, it is tall and has a light green outer layer, which is quite tough and fibrous and needs to be removed before using. You can break off a little bit, rub it between your fingers and smell it if you need confirmation that it is indeed lemongrass. On the bottom is a pale green bulb, much like a green onion. Peel the outer few layers away and cut off the green tops, leaving only about 4 inches of the bulb at the bottom. That is the part you will use in your cooking. Lemongrass is usually finely minced for recipes because it can be slightly tough. If you cannot find it at the market, you can add a pinch of lemon zest, or nothing at all. Most recipes that call for lemongrass are from South East Asia and are strongly flavored enough that they can stand on their own.

A few years ago, my cousin and her boyfriend took a whole year off from work to travel around the world. I personally thought they were nuts. But when her photo albums started appearing in my email inbox, complete with detailed captions of all they were seeing, eating and even smelling, I must admit that I envied her a little bit. This was the trip of a lifetime, for sure, and it took real courage to do something like that. She definitely opened my eyes to the beauty and the heartache of the many places she visited, several of which were well off the beaten path. When her emails arrived, we would all gather around the computer and ooh and aah at the amazing photographs she was sending. The kids loved the pictures of the animals and children they encountered along the way....but I was always fascinated by her descriptions of the food.

Though I have never been to Malaysia, I imagine it to be balmy and hot, tropical and richly colored, which is exactly how I would describe the Malaysian curry that I sometimes make. I prefer to travel with my my own kitchen, but perhaps some day I will have to guts to venture out to some of the more exotic destinations that my palate enjoys. For now, I can live vicariously through my cousin's wanderlust. And it's high time she got the heck out of dodge--I'm ready for her next adventure.

Malaysian Chicken Curry
adapted from Gourmet Cookbook

This recipe looks and tastes much more complicated than it is to actually prepare. It is rich, but only mildly spicy...and yes, my kids ate it....well at least 2 of them did!

6 boneless, skin-on chicken breasts (skinless is okay too...just cook it for 5 min. less)
2 T vegetable oil
1 1/2 C chopped shallot (about 6 large) or red onion (1 large)
2 stalks of lemongrass, chopped (peeled, lower 4 inches -light green part only)
1 1 inch segment of ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 T water
2 T curry powder
1 can coconut milk (lite is fine)
1 t salt
1 3 inch cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 clove
1 jalapeno pepper, stem end intact but cut in quarters lengthwise (leave whole)

Place shallot, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and water in a food processor (a small one is fine). Pulse until a nearly smooth puree is formed. Set aside. In a large, heavy bottomed skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. When hot, but not smoking, brown chicken, in two batches, skin side down first....about 5 minutes total. Remove to a plate. Reduce heat to medium low and add shallot puree. Saute for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add curry powder and stir for one minute more. Add coconut milk, and whisk to combine, then add remaining ingredients. Return chicken to the pan, cover and simmer for about 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Taste for seasonings and serve over rice, garnished with cilantro.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Asparagus Risotto

It's always nice to end the weekend with some music, wine, and risotto, don't you think? It was creamy and comforting and spiked with tender young asparagus spears and langostino tails (from Trader Joe's). A simple meal to end a complicated weekend. If you've never made risotto before, you need not be afraid--it's not nearly as difficult as some folks make it out to be. The worst part (and I say worst very loosely because I don't really think it is half bad to stand in my kitchen with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other), is that the rice needs to be tended to every five minutes or so. But preparing risotto is about as challenging as making a pot of Irish oatmeal, and once you get the hang of the basics, you can make any number of different risottos, from saffron to seafood. They all essentially begin the same way: First a little little shallot or onion is sauteed in butter and olive oil. Then the short-grain, arborio rice is added and stirred around until it is glossy. After that you splash a bit of wine in the pot, and wine in a glass for you. And finally, warm broth is stirred in slowly as each previous addition evaporates. Stir and sip, stir and sip. See? It really is that easy.

Asparagus and Langostino Risotto
serves 3ish (though we-my husband and I-can almost eat a whole pot by ourselves)

1 T butter
1 T olive oil
1/2 C finely chopped shallot
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1/2 C dry white wine (something you would drink)
1 quart of reduced sodium chicken broth
1 bunch of thin asparagus
1/2 pound frozen (but thawed), cooked langostino tails (or cooked shrimp)
1/2 C shredded Parmesan cheese

Chop bottom inch off of the asparagus spears and place in a small saucepan, along with the broth. Bring to a simmer. Slice remaining asparagus into 1-inch segments and set aside. Meanwhile, heat a medium sized, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add butter and oil and stir until butter melts. Add shallots and a large pinch of salt and saute for about 5 minutes or until shallots are soft, but not brown. Add rice and stir to coat the grains with the butter and oil. Add wine and stir until evaporated. Reduce heat to low.

Remove asparagus stem bottoms from the broth and discard. Add broth, 1/2 C at a time, to the risotto and stir occasionally until evaporated. Continue in this way, until you have almost used up all the broth and the risotto is plump and creamy. It should take about 25 minutes or so. During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add thawed langostino tails and asparagus spears (and remaining broth). The risotto should be still quite moist at this point. You will know when it is done when the grains of rice are tender, but not mushy. Stir in shredded Parmesan cheese. Taste for could require up to 1 t more of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Top with additional Parmesan cheese and serve.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fast Food

Dear Baseball,

I've got just two words for you. Meatball. Sub. That's right, you cannot foil my dinner plans tonight because this dinner is quick. This dinner is easy. This dinner is portable. Better luck next time. And believe me, I'm all too aware there is a next time...but you'd better watch your back, I'm on to you!


Now friends, I hope you don't think I'm the kind of girl who always bakes the loaf of bread, rolls and fries the meatballs, and grinds the tomatoes (home grown obviously) for sauce. Yes, there is a time and place for that. But that time is not tonight. Not when there is someplace to be, and very little time to get there.

These nights call for quick and decisive action, a dip into the freezer, and a pluck from the pantry. Though all these store bought goodies may not actually be that much healthier than a trip through the drive through--well, okay, they probably are--at least I feel like I have provided my kids with a relatively well balanced meal, and had mercy on my picky oldest son, who has eaten only fruit for dinner for the past three nights. They are hot, hearty, and filling. The dinner of champions. Baseball champions.

Meatball Subs
serves 6

1 package of 6 French rolls
1 jar of your favorite marinara (I like organic tomato basil from Trader Joe's)
1, 1 pound package of frozen meatballs, defrosted (I like the turkey or meatless meatballs from Trader Joe's)
1 package of pre-sliced Provolone cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Slice the rolls lengthwise across the top. Place in the oven, on a cookie sheet to warm up for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put meatballs and half of the jar of marinara in a large bowl with a lid. Microwave for 5 minutes or until heated through. Remove rolls from the oven and spread open. Place 2 slices of cheese inside and return to the oven for 5 minutes more, or until the cheese is melted. Remove from oven and place as many meatballs as will fit inside the roll (about 4). Serve immediately, or wrap in foil and pack to take along. Bring napkins. Lots of napkins.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ode to Cilantro

I will never forget the moment I discovered cilantro. It was a revelation of sorts...the missing component in my salsa that I had been struggling for weeks to perfect. While I knew that my homemade version was far superior to the stuff that came out of a jar, it still wasn't as good as my favorite Mexican restaurant's. One Sunday afternoon, when I was eating lunch there with my boyfriend, I slowly rolled the spicy tomato and onion laden sauce around my tongue, trying to identify what was lacking from my own recipe. When it came upon that illusive flavor, I finally had my "aha" moment. Was it parsley? No way. Though it looked an awful lot like it, the flavor was worlds apart. This was grassy, tender, and fresh, like a bit of summer on my tongue. The salsa tasted complete, well-rounded, right.

What is this green stuff? I asked the waitress. Cilantro, she replied in her thick Spanish accent. Cilantro? Never heard of it, and certainly had never cooked with it, and neither had my mother. Luckily for me, despite the fact that it was 1992, and cilantro (also called fresh coriander or Chinese parsley) hadn't yet hit the mainstream, we lived in a small farming community with a substantial Mexican migrant worker population, so it was readily available at our supermarkets. I bought armfuls of it, it seemed, and made salsa like it was going out of style, sometimes with more cilantro than tomatoes, I think. I still hadn't been introduced to other cuisines that used this glorious herb, most notably and deliciously those from Thailand, Vietnam and India. But as my experience with ethnic foods broadened after I moved to Los Angeles, so did my recipes, and I began to use cilantro in many other dishes besides salsa.

Along the way, I was surprised to learn that there are people as disgusted with cilantro as I am enamored with it. To them it tastes soapy, bitter and the smell is nauseating. Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) is among them, I realized with disappointment after watching her show one day and gasping in disbelief as she replaced my favorite herb with parsley in a recipe. Parsley, my dear Ina, doesn't even come close to the sweet perfection that is cilantro. But evidently she is not alone. There are hate clubs, devoted to the common loathing of cilantro--this one is filled with letters from people who cannot stand it, there is even a page of haikus. Here is my favorite...

What's that awful taste?

Is this the flavor of death?

No, it's cilantro.

Some are convinced that those who dislike cilantro are genetically predisposed to do so, like people who are sensitive to bitter (or cannot taste it at all), though science has yet to prove it. But for whatever the reason, I think that these folks are seriously missing out...I like to cook with cilantro often, and almost always have some on hand. Tonight, we made the incredible Thai grilled chicken (with those cilantro roots I told you about pureed into a marinade along with garlic, ginger and fish sauce), and cilantro rice to accompany it. The finished dish is gorgeous and verdant because it is tossed with a dressing made from scallions, cilantro, and ginger. It is fresh and bright tasting and the perfect accompaniment to the grilled chicken.

Cilantro Rice
serves 8

2 C jasmine rice
1/2 C chopped cilantro
2 scallions, chopped
1 T freshly grated ginger
1 t salt
1 T vegetable oil (not extra-virgin olive)
1 clove of garlic, chopped

Boil 3 1/2 C of water in a large sauce pan. Add a big pinch of salt and the rice, stir and return to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes, or until liquid has been absorbed.

Meanwhile, in a blender, combine remaining ingredients with 2 T of water. Pulse until it becomes a fine puree.

After rice is finished cooking, fluff with a fork and carefully stir in the herb puree. Topped with more chopped cilantro as a garnish if desired.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spring's Bounty

Dear friends, I implore you to get to your farmers' market this week...that is, if you have one open near you, especially if you live in southern California. Today's market was bursting with greens, not the thick winter kind, but the fresh, light, tender spring kind. The greens that require only a dunk in hot water to cook through. The greens that can be eaten raw or sauteed gently in butter. I was more than thrilled to see my favorite farmers back again this week. They had nothing to sell in the last few weeks, which explained their absence, but today their stand was overflowing with beautiful and unusual produce. The variety was absolutely astounding and as I stood there, inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of the herbs piled high on the table, I must admit that I became a bit giddy and a bit greedy. I grabbed fistfuls of aromatic herbs and baby greens, stuffing my two bags full to the top. I was surprised when they totaled it up, I only owed them $12.

These pea shoots look too beautiful to eat, don't they? I love the coiled tendrils and dainty white flowers. But they will make for a fantastic quick stir fry, or even taste wonderful on top of a lightly dressed green salad....not a horrible way to meet one's maker, I suppose...

I have no idea what this is, but I thought it had the most exquisite coloring. I love the pink and pretty, so preppy. Of course I asked the name, and a petite, visor-clad, older Asian lady standing nearby told me the Chinese name for it, because that's the only name she knew...and since my Chinese is a bit rusty (I wish) I cannot for the life of me remember what she said. She shared that it is in the spinach family, but slightly more bitter, and is a quick and healthy dinner when stir-fried. As it cooks, it releases a pink juice that she used to use, along with some chicken stock, to cook her children's tofu. Pink tofu was the only kind they would eat. "It wasn't boring that way," she said.

And would you just look at these herbs? There is dill, cilantro with root attached, and BASIL. Oh basil, how I have missed you! I mentioned that the root is still on the cilantro because it is so difficult to find it that way. But the root is edible too, and packs quite a punch when it comes to flavor. It can be ground up and used in sauces or marinades, and if you like cilantro as much as I do, you will be surprised at how much more cilantro-ish something can taste. In addition to all of these beautiful things, I bought lemongrass, ginger, snap peas, apples (yes! available 'til May), limes, strawberries, asparagus and bok choy. I'm sensing Thai food ahead...I'll share a recipe with you as soon as I figure it out.

Another quick thing before I you ever read the section in some magazines where they share funny overheard conversations? The farmers' market it a great place to eavesdrop. For example today I heard...

"Mommy, can we please, please, please buy this?"

"NO! Stop asking me! You won't eat it!"

The girls were frantically pointing at a pile of asparagus. Now that's what I call an opportunity lost. Such a shame. Sigh.

Well, I'm off to look through my cookbooks, and sit by our warm and crackling fire, which is probably the last one of the season. I hope you all have time for a sit-down, comforting Sunday supper with your friends or family.

Sunday Mornings

I think it is a spectacular thing to be woken, even in the wee hours, by the patter of rain on my rooftop. We left a window open last night, and consequently the room smelled so fresh and clean, but was quite cold. I don't mind a cold bedroom. It helps me sleep better, I think, and gives me all the more reason to snuggle deeper into my bed's downy embrace. Sunday is the perfect day for that...there's nowhere to go but out to the kitchen table to greet my coffee and newspapers. This morning, I made French toast, using up a whole loaf of thick white bread. As I looked around the table at my children, eagerly tucking into their peanut-butter and maple syrup slathered breakfasts, my heart felt so glad that true hunger is the least of our worries, even as it becomes more prevalent in society today. I read in the newspaper recently that one in eight suffers from hunger. One in Eight! That's a worrisome thing indeed.

I try to do due diligence to the news, the worrisome stuff, conveniently plastered all over the front pages. Today's news? Oakland Mourns 3 Slain Officers (a fourth fights for his life) and Some Rich Districts Get Richer As Aid Is Rushed to Schools. Or how about this one: U.S. Strikes Stagger Al Qaeda...wait a second, I think that might actually be GOOD news? What? On the front page of the paper? But mostly I scan those articles quickly, looking for something light, fluffy, and preferably mouth watering. In today's NY Times Magazine, there is a piece about fish tacos....that look delicious. And another, more serious, but equally interesting and newsworthy article is about how the "Food Revolution" is in season. Those are much more my speed. I don't want to be completely ignorant of the news of the day, but too much is...well, just too much. We need to live, and even enjoy that living too. Yes?

Well, I'm headed out to the farmers' market, another favorite Sunday activity. I am a bit reluctant to go, what with the rain and all, but the farmers have made an effort to be there, so I should too. They also have mouths to feed, and feed those mouths by feeding mine. It is a food chain of sorts--a circular one. And one that I am so very happy to be a part of.

Have a beautiful day...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Classic Combo

Just about every culture has a one-pot chicken and rice meal, and for good reason; it's usually easy to prepare, economical, comforting and of course, delectable. Rice is my preferred starch and I like it just about every way. In fact, I have never met a meal of rice that I didn't like; Arancine makes me swoon, risotto is all about creamy deliciousness, fried rice is fun, jambalaya is like a party in my mouth, biryani is complex, and tah digue is a delight. I could eat rice every day and never grow tired of it, and I practically do...just ask my family.

Luckily, here in California, we have a rice grower that is far above the rest when it comes to sustainable farming. According to their website, "Lundberg Family Farms is a leader in producing and marketing high quality organic and eco-farmed rice products in a sustainable and beneficial manner." They have a fantastic variety of rices including brown, white, jasmine, basmati, red, black and wild that are available at specialty grocers like Whole Foods and Bristol Farms.

While their organic rice might be a tad more pricey than the usual kind, it is a worthy investment in both the health of the environment and your family. Rice that has not been farmed organically has been treated with some 40 different kinds of pesticides and herbicides in California alone, 15 of which have been classified as being high risk to humans, animals and/or groundwater supplies. That by itself should be enough to knock some sense into anyone, but the fact that imported rice contains even more pesticides, some banned in the United States, makes me all the more careful about what I buy. Something that I put into my body nearly every day, had better not be a hazard to my health. If you'd like to read more on this interesting, if not depressing subject, look here.

But I prefer to discuss happier onto the recipe, which I found in Gourmet Magazine. It was appealing for several reasons, not the least of which is that it only requires one pot, which is fantastic--the help (husband) is especially grateful. Plus, with its saffron scented rice, peas and chicken thighs, it just sounded so yummy--and it was.

Latin One-Pot Chicken and Rice
adapted from Gourmet Magazine
serves 4

2 pounds of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 6)
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
salt and pepper
1 large onion, chopped (1 C)
3 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
1 C organic, long-grain rice
1 3/4 C chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/4 t saffron threads, crushed
4 large green olives with pimentos, sliced
1 C frozen peas, not thawed
2 T chopped parsley

Heat olive oil and butter in a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Place chicken, skin side down, into hot oil and brown for about 5 minutes on each side. Remove to plate. Pour off all but 2 T fat and reduce heat to medium. Put onions and garlic into pan along with a large pinch of salt and saute for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Add rice and stir to coat the grains with the oil. Add broth, saffron and olives and stir to combine. Return chicken and any juices to pan (skin side up) and nestle down into the rice mixture. Cover with lid and reduce heat to low, simmering for about 25 minutes, or until broth has been absorbed. Remove from heat, open lid and stir in peas. Cover pan with a clean dish cloth, return lid and let steam for 15 minutes more, or until tender and fluffy. Taste for seasoning, garnish with parsley and serve.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tamarind Margatini

Last weekend, my husband took me to the fabulous Loteria Grill Restaurant in Hollywood, which was quite possibly, the best meal out I have had in a loooooooong time. If you live anywhere at all near Los Angeles, you must try either the full-scale restaurant (in Hollywood) or the smaller taco stand, located inside the Farmer's Market at the Grove. Their queso fundido was sublime, perfectly edged in crisp golden cheese and served with hand-made corn tortillas. A salad of nopalitos (cactus) followed, which was tender and tangy and lightly dressed. We also shared a sample platter of 12 bite-sized tacos, called probaditos (little tastes), topped with several of the best meat and vegetable stews I have ever tasted, inspired by the inimitable expert of Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy. All that food, and it was a lot, is available at their stand in the Farmer's Market--but what the restaurant has that the stand lacks is a scene (it is on Hollywood Boulevard after all), and liquor.

If you know anything about me at all, you know that I'd be pretty hard pressed to turn down a margarita, especially one made with premium spirits. So that night I had two (TWO!!) of their $12 Martini Tamarindos, which are made with Patron Silver, Patron Citronge, and tamarind paste (which is a sour, seedy fruit used in many tropical cuisines), shaken and served straight-up in a salt and chile rimed glass. They were the sexiest margaritas I have ever drunk, and not just because I might have been...drunk, that is. Smooth in the mouth, they were perfectly chilled and had the most intense and intriguing combination of flavors. The taste reminded me of those chile dusted dried mangoes I love so much. The sips alternately burned and cooled my lips and tongue, and made me thirst for more (which explains why I needed two...and why our bar bill far exceeded our food bill).

So, of course, I had to try to re-create the recipe at home. Since Patron is reserved for the most special of occasions, I made it with regular Jose Cuervo and Triple Sec, but it still tasted pretty darn good. I found the tamarind paste at an Indian market. It is black and thick like molasses, and quite sour--you just need a bit to pleasantly flavor and color the drink. And don't forget the chile-salt rim. All I can really say about this cocktail is, yes, yes, YES!

Tamarind Margatini
serves 2

3 oz. white tequila (best you can afford...but Jose Cuervo is fine)
1 oz. triple sec or cointreau
juice from 1/2 orange
juice from 1/2 lime
1 t superfine sugar
1 t tamarind paste (available at Indian or Mexican grocers)

1 t salt
1 t chile powder (I like Ancho)

Place all ingredients except salt and chile in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Mix the salt and chile together on a small plate. Wipe the rims of two martini glasses with lime and dip in the chile/salt mixture. Strain martinis out into the glasses. Salud!

At Market...Asparagus

Lined up shoulder to shoulder, like meaty, green, linebackers all in a row, the asparagus at the market was the hearty sort, not the thin wispy kind that most people seem to prefer. I rather like asparagus this way because it can stand up to more aggressive preparations, like grilling or roasting at high heat--just make sure to peel the skin off the bottom half or so because it can be a bit tough. When topped with my mother-in-law's buttery balsamic glaze, it makes for a tasty and impressive side dish.

Balsamic Glaze for Asparagus

Heat a small skillet over a medium flame. Add 2 T butter, and swirl pan for a few minutes, just until it takes on a golden hue and nutty fragrance. Pour in 1 t balsamic vinegar and 2 t soy sauce. Simmer for about a minute more, then spoon over grilled or roasted asparagus.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

At Market...Citrus

The weather has been gloriously spring-like here in southern California. So much so that we have been spending as much time out-of-doors as possible--gardening, eating and just lounging around. My apple trees are blossoming, and the daffodils and poppies gently bob their heads in the breeze, nodding in agreement that indeed spring has come. The exotic smell of confederate jasmine is in the is spring fever. Consequently, the birds have gotten quite amorous, chasing each other about the trees, squawking and screeching, with puffs feathers drifting down. Several mourning doves have threatened to settle in the eves over the porch, which I detest, mostly for the fact that they spook easily and knock their eggs out of the nest onto my bricks...which is not a pretty sight. I guess the expression "bird brained" came about for good reason.

Despite the advancing season, my produce drawer is still chock full of several different kinds of winter-ripe citrus. And while eating them fresh is lovely, I decided to try to use some up today in a marinade for chicken. Now that the sun is up longer, we can grill it outside, in the fading light and lingering warmth of the day. Marinades are really difficult to mess up, which is a relief, isn't it? All you need is an acid to help tenderize the meat, some oil to keep it moist, and some herbs and spices for flavor. Nearly any combination will turn out well, and it is very fun to experiment with ingredients on hand. I almost always marinate meat in a gallon-sized, zip-top bag. It is so much easier to mix the marinade and turn the meat, and clean-up is a breeze too.

Citrus Balsamic Marinade

In a large zip-top bag, place 1/2 of a medium sized onion (thinly sliced), 4 cloves of garlic which have been smashed and roughly chopped, the juice from 2 oranges (I used blood oranges but any are fine), 2 limes and one lemon (about 3/4 C citrus juice total), 2 T of balsamic vinegar,2 T of low sodium Tamari (soy) sauce, 1/4 C olive oil, 1 t salt, and 1 t pepper. Squish bag around to mix and put in mixed bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (about 2 pounds).

Marinate chicken for about 6 hours or over night. Remove chicken from marinade and shake off excess. Grill over a medium-low flame for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Flip chicken every 15 minutes. It will be ready when the internal temperature registers 160 degrees. Remove from grill, cover, and let rest for about 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Back in my early days of teaching, I worked with a wonderful lady who was of Irish descent (and appropriately named Pat). Pat was a very young sixty, with cropped gray hair, sparkling eyes and girlish dimples. St. Patrick's Day was one of her favorite holidays, of course, and she filled the classroom with artwork and projects inspired by the Old Country. Our class would dance along with Michael Flatley to the energetic tunes of Riverdance, read all sorts of books about St. Patrick and other Irish lore, make tissue paper rainbows and sugar cube castles. The day before Saint Paddy's Day, the children would make an elaborate leprechaun trap, trying to catch those mischievous elves so they could find their pot of gold. But each year, when the kids returned to school, the leprechauns had evaded capture and made a mess of the classroom. Fortunately, they always left a trail of green footprints that led to a chocolate gold coin treasure.

In addition to all the fun and games, Pat made sure that her students had a taste of Ireland, baking her Irish Soda Bread in a cast iron skillet. When I saw how she made it, complete with raisins (or currants) and caraway seeds, I was certain that the children wouldn't eat it. But they surprised me with their willingness to try something new. I think it was because they had a hand in mixing and patting the dough...and the fact that it was spread thickly with Irish salty butter didn't hurt either. Soda bread is like a large scone or biscuit, but leavened only by the acid and alkaline combination of buttermilk and baking soda. Whether or not her recipe (with raisins and caraway) is truly Irish, or rather an Americanized version is up for debate--but it is delicious nonetheless. It should be crisp on the exterior and tender inside, and it makes a splendid breakfast when toasted for a bit in the oven and smeared guessed it...Irish salty butter. It tastes better the next day, so make it ahead if possible.

Irish Soda Bread

4 C flour
1 1/2 t salt
1 t baking soda
2 C buttermilk
1 C raisins or currants
1 T caraway seeds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease an 8 inch cast iron skillet or cake pan. In a large mixing bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking soda. Stir in the raisins and caraway seeds, then add the buttermilk and stir with a fork, just until the dough holds together. Knead on a lightly floured surface for about 30 seconds, then pat into an 8 inch round. Make an x-shaped slash, 1/4 inch deep, across the surface and place the formed dough into the pan. Bake for approximately 40-50 minutes or until it is nicely browned and the x has spread open. Transfer to a rack to cool, then wrap in a slightly damp towel and let it rest on the rack for another 8 hours. Soda bread is better and much easier to slice when cooled completely, but we could never don't worry too much about that. It keeps well for several days, if it lasts that long.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Sip of Strawberry

Okay, people. Remember how I said I was going to try to make a martini out of the foam I skimmed off the strawberry jam? Well I did. And it is fabulous. And strong. And not too sweet, which is good, because as everyone knows, sweet drinks are for sissies (kidding...I just don't care for them). Let's just say that if you go through the hard work of making the jam (it really isn't that hard, but it does require a bit of effort...), you deserve a cook's treat, like the extra piece of bacon you nibble on when making a spinach salad (or the skin off the turkey). We need to reward ourselves for a job well done. Happy Friday everyone! Have a fantastic weekend.

Strawberry Martini

After making jam, reserve the syrupy foam and set aside. Refrigerate until 5 o'clock exactly. At the appointed time, remove from fridge and place 2 T of the strawberry syrup and 2 ounces of your favorite quality vodka in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Squeeze in a bit of lemon juice. Using the same lemon, rub the edge of your martini glass. Dip the wet edge of the glass into some sugar to make a nice sweet rim. Place lid on shaker and shake the vodka and strawberry mixture vigorously. Pour into glass. Drink immediately...Skoal!

At Market...Strawberries

There is nothing more heavenly than fresh strawberry jam spooned over a cream biscuit. When I was a little girl, strawberry jam was my favorite...and I suppose it still is. Chunky with ruby-red fruit and glistening in the jam pot, it looks almost as beautiful as it tastes. I have made strawberry jam several different ways, including outside on a thin sheet pan covered by a screen. But perhaps the easiest and quickest way is to make it thus; smash some strawberries together with a bit of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice, simmer for a bit, then put it in a jar to refrigerate. It's so simple even a child could manage it. And if you make a smallish batch, you won't need to process the jam because it will be eaten up before it goes bad, especially if you serve it with these heavenly biscuits. It would also taste fantastic swirled into oatmeal or yogurt, over toast, or in a trifle. Yum.

Strawberry Jam
makes 1 pint

2 pints of ripe strawberries
1/2 C sugar
1 T lemon juice

Hull strawberries and put in a heavy bottomed pot. Pour over about 1/2 C sugar and using your hands (or a potato masher), break them apart, making the pieces as small as you like (I like to leave some large chunks). Add lemon juice and turn on heat to medium high. Bring mixture to a simmer, reduce heat to low and skim foam about every 5 minutes or so. (By the way, if you save the syrupy foam, it tastes amazing poured over some vanilla ice cream...but I think I might mix it with vodka and make a strawberry martini later...). It should take about 20-30 minutes for your jam to be soft set and will congeal more as it cools. You will know when it is ready because it will spit and sputter, and when you stir, you should begin to see the bottom of the pot. Pour into a sterile pint sized jar (you can boil it for 3 minutes or take it out of a hot dishwasher). Top with lid and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Jam should last about 3 weeks in the fridge, but I'd be willing to bet you'll use it up long before then.

James Beard's Cream Biscuits
makes 1 dozen

2 C flour
1 t salt
1 T baking powder
2 t sugar
1-1 1/2 C heavy cream
6 T butter, melted
sugar for sprinkling (if desired)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and sugar in a mixing bowl. Slowly add one cup of the cream, stirring with a fork. Gather the dough together. It should feel soft and tender, but if it is still a bit shaggy, add more cream until it holds together but is not sticky. Place dough on a lightly floured board and knead for one minute. Pat dough into a square that is about 1/2 inch thick. Cut 12 equal sized squares and dip each in the melted butter to coat. Place on a cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle tops with additional sugar if desired and bake for about 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve hot or cool to room temperature if using for a berry shortcake.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

NOT At Market...Bananas!

Growing up, we had the nicest neighbors, one of whom was called Sunny. Her name was perfectly suited to her cheery disposition and she was quite the homemaker extraordinaire. I remember being fascinated by how she vacuumed her home every day, and required her three (super handsome) teenage boys to remove their shoes before they entered, which apparently became a habit back when they lived in Hawaii, as a way of keeping the beach outside where it belonged. (Unfortunately the same rules apply at my home and I have a heck of a time keeping playground sand out...but I digress). Sunny was famous for her baking, especially her fantastic banana bread that was rich, moist and chock-full of goodies like nuts, coconut and chocolate chips. My mom tried many, many times to get her recipe, but she usually just waived her hand and insisted that she didn't have it written down, that she just made it with whatever she had on hand. When my mom finally succeeded, we were all thrilled and made it as often as we had soft, over-ripe bananas, which wasn't nearly often enough.

There used to be a local banana grower up the coast, but unfortunately he is no longer in business, so we sometimes splurge on some organic ones from the super market...they are so good, and good for you too. I love to make banana bread almost as much as my kids love to eat it. Loaded with butter and sour cream it certainly isn't like the dense, whole wheat version that you can find elsewhere. It is more like a pound cake with a moist, tender crumb, but luckily, it takes just a few minutes to throw together. Sometimes I put chocolate chips in the batter, and sometimes I leave it plain, like I did today. Either way, it won't last long...

Banana Bread

1/2 C butter, softened
1 C sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 C unbleached flour
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
1/2 C sour cream (lite is fine)
2 large mashed ripe (free-trade organic) bananas (about 1 C)
1 t vanilla extract
1 C chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time. Sift in flour, baking soda and salt and mix just until combined. Stir in sour cream, bananas and extract, taking care not to over mix. Fold in chocolate chips (if using). Pour into greased standard loaf pan and bake for 1 hour, or until toothpick comes out clean.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Something Soothing to Sip

Some days are more difficult than others, like the days I wake up feeling like I have been run over by a truck. The days when I cannot breathe through my nose and there is a tickle, not the silly, giggly kind, but the harsh, unrelenting kind, in the back of my throat. And the days where my neck is so stiff it hurts to turn my head and my skull is so full and throbbing I decide to take a shower with the lights off...just to try to calm it. Unfortunately that day is today.

But I will begin to feel better just as soon as I drink a cup of hot, gingery lemonade (and my motrin and sudafed kicks in). It is simple to make, which is good because my addled brain cannot handle anything too complicated today. Sweetened with a bit of honey, infused with ginger juice and brightened with lemon, this drink will be help me on my way. Just because mothers don't get a sick day, doesn't mean we shouldn't pause, even for a moment, to do something nice for ourselves (and that applies whether we are ill or not).

Hot Ginger Lemonade

Squeeze the juice from one half of a lemon into a large mug. Grate about 1 T of ginger onto a cheesecloth square (or some paper toweling or a thin dishcloth). Wrap it up and squeeze the juice out of it, right into the mug. Pour in a healthy amount of honey (to taste) least a tablespoonful. Fill mug to the top with boiling water. Sip slowly, inhaling the fragrant steam to help loosen congested lungs. Repeat as necessary.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Indecent Exposure

Here it is, my secret shame, my pantry, exposed for all to see. There...I've done it! I feel a bit relieved now that it is off my chest. I had been meaning to come out of the closet, so to speak, for some time, but just couldn't quite bring myself to do it. But then Mark Bittman shared his pantry today and I couldn't wait any longer. I doubt anyone would suspect how bad it has gotten because I am a pretty good housekeeper. Even though our place is crowded with three kids, a cat and a dog, my white slip covered furniture is still white (with frequent washings) and the house is generally neat and tidy. But I have really let my pantry, dare I say ALL my closets, slide into a place so deep and dark it might take weeks to excavate them.

I've long suffered from a pantry paralysis of sorts, brought on by deep seated envy of people who have "real" pantries...the walk in kind with shallow shelves and room for everything a home cook might need or want. Big enough to feed a family of five indefinitely, and more importantly, big enough to FIND all the food stashed away. Hiding away on the crowded shelves in my tiny pantry I have at least seven types of flours, multiple sugars, six types of rices, spices, snacks, cereals, nuts, dozens of different types of oils and vinegars, and we won't even discuss my baking supplies (sprinkles, cookie cutters, food coloring and flavor extracts). Each time I take something out, something else tumbles down, threatening to dent my floor or my foot (I'm not really sure what is worse). And trying to remove something from the bottom shelf requires an extra measure of patience, as there is heavy stuff (like a cast iron griddle) precariously balanced on other heavy stuff (like a large crock pot). I break out into a sweat (or a barrage of cursing) every time I need to get my ice cream maker or pasta machine. Sigh...

So there you have it. I'd love suggestions on how to fix this problem, if you have any. And in the next few weeks I will try to pull it together and post another picture...the eye-pleasing "after" kind.

Monday, March 2, 2009

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

She sat in her recliner, the yellow blanket crocheted by my other grandmother wrapped snugly around her bony legs because she is always cold. I think the thermostat is set at a brisk 78 or so. Her hair looked as if it has recently been in hot rollers, and her hands were folded primly on her lap as she stared off into space. When I entered, carrying my usual box of home baked goodies, her eyes brightened up in recognition and a smile played around the corners of her mouth.

I brought you some goodies today.

What did you bring, dear?

Almond thumbprint cookies, filled with cherry jam.

Hmmm....I don't know if I like almond cookies.

Suspicious as my Nana was, her long fingers, knobby now with painful arthritis but sporting freshly manicured coral colored nails, snatched one off the top and popped it in her mouth. A crumb or two fell on her striped blouse, which had been neatly pressed by my mother on her "day off" the weekend before. She peeked in the box to see how many were left, and seemed to be considering whether she would share any with the other residents in her elder care home. Satisfied that there was enough in the box, she smiled and nodded, indicating that I could take the package to the kitchen. I held up her water glass to her lips and she sipped daintily, then requested a tissue so she could dab her mouth.

And so it goes, our little weekly ritual...I bring cookies, we chat for a bit and usually watch some type of television show. Even though her memory is fading (along with her hearing and eyesight), she often surprises me with an interesting story from her childhood or from mine. She was such a loving and gentle grandmother when I was a girl and I absolutely loved to go for a visit at her house, especially when she would take me for a whole weekend. We would eat her delicious pancakes for breakfast with real maple syrup and blueberries and then we would bring a whole bag of bread to feed the ducks at the pond. She would let me dress up in all her fabulous silk scarves, elbow length opera gloves and costume jewelry, heavily laden with rhinestone jewels, and tip toe through the house wearing her Ferragamos. I felt like a princess, a very loved and special one.

I hope that she feels a little like a very loved and special princess when I come bearing goodies each week--even when she forgets that I stopped by.

Almond Thumbprint Cookies

1/2 C butter, softened
1/3 C lightly packed brown sugar
1/2 t almond extract
1 C unbleached flour
1/2 C toasted almond meal (toasted ground almonds)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, add extract, flour and almond meal and mix until combined. Roll dough into small balls. Place on silicone lined baking sheets (or grease the sheets) and press thumb into each ball to make an indentation. Bake until lightly golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and press thumb gently into indentation again to reshape. When cool fill with the jam of your choice. Raspberry, apricot or cherry jams would be lovely.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hello Sunshine!

Look who came out to play today! My first daffodil of the season opened up her frilly petticoat this afternoon. The rain, followed by the warm spring weather, has caused an eruption of sorts in the garden, and things are sprouting all over the place. It was very hard to resist the warm sunshine, I know, because I had a fantasy of spreading a blanket on the grass and reading a book...but I'll bet you can guess where I was instead...that's right, the baseball field! But that's okay, because it was a lovely day, not too hot, and my son got two hits and his first RBI of the season. And I got to nosh on some seeds and sip an icy cold coke...not half bad, really. And afterwards we wheeled out the barbecue, to grill our supper...but I'm not ready to talk about food yet.

Getting back to my apple trees are also leafing out. I planted their spindly bare roots just last month, and already they are springing into action. I have resisted planting fruit trees of any sort, because the house we live in was supposed to be our little starter house...and it takes so long for fruit trees to reach maturation and bear good fruit, so it seemed like a waste. But here we are, now eight years later. I keep telling myself that we are going to get the heck out of dodge, but with the housing market plunging into the toilet, it seems like we might be here for awhile. So I planted 2 lovely apple trees, and one nectarine tree...all of them "super mini dwarfs" which means that they should top out at five feet. I was also supposed to top out at five feet, according to some orthodontic x-rays, but I reached five foot five, so I am optimistic that these little beauties might also achieve a decent height. I am also optimistic that the future owners of this house will be here to enjoy them and not me. It's like the Murphy's Law of fruit trees, once you make a long term plan (like committing to fruit trees), you have to (get to) move! We'll see.

Tonight, as we were finishing up with the grill outside, I looked up to notice that the moon had a glowing ring around it, which according to folklore, means that it will rain soon and according to the weather report, seems to be true. This is such good news because California is in another year of drought, despite all our recent downpours. I hope it is a good drenching rain, and that my garden will continue to thrive for as long as possible without turning on my sprinklers, that we start to see even more bright petticoats dancing in the yard, and that our apple and nectarine trees will grow and thrive and produce many delicious fruits for us to enjoy...some years from now...

Like the daffodils in my garden, I saw many other signs of spring at the farmers market this morning, most notably asparagus. I bought a bunch, and grilled it tonight alongside some chicken. You really must try asparagus this way. We grill it for just a few minutes so it is still crisp, but tender too, with the tiniest hint of smokiness. Of course, if you live somewhere where you aren't quite ready to uncover the grill, you can roast it in a hot oven (475 degrees for about 10 minutes) with much the same effect. Before you cook it, toss it in a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper.

Grilled Coconut Chicken

The best part of this chicken is the sticky glaze that gets poured over the top when it comes off the grill. It is salty, spicy, sweet and sour...and delicious! This recipe, originally from Sunset Magazine, makes a lot of marinade, so it will feed a crowd, and is quite economical because I like to make it using thigh meat.


3/4 C coconut milk
1/4 C chopped ginger
1 t red pepper flakes
1 t black pepper
1 t salt
boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts

Marinate enough boneless, skinless chicken thighs to feed your crowd, for at least one hour and up to one day. Remove chicken from marinade and grill over high heat for about 5-7 minutes per side, or until cooked through. Serve with rice (you can use the left over coconut milk as a substitute for some of the cooking water) and topped with glaze and chopped green onions.


3/4 C rice vinegar
1/2 C sugar
3 T soy sauce
1 t chili flakes

Heat ingredients together in a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over high heat. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat, simmering until thickened and reduced to 1/2 C, about 10-15 minutes. Pour over chicken.