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Meringue Ghosts

Here it is a few days before Halloween and I have scarcely thought about it. I have a pumpkin on my front porch that I got free with a fill up at the gas station but other than that I have not decorated. I did get down the box of fall decorations from the shelf in the garage but until yesterday I hadn't opened it.

Now, suddenly, I am thinking maybe I should do something for the occasion. I am wondering if I have a perfect recipe somewhere, one that is quick and easy, seasonal and yet subtle.

After a little thought I remember something I made years ago - Meringue Ghosts. They were a great treat to make with my children. The recipe has only a few ingredients and involves kitchen tasks my children were eager to help with when they were young - cracking eggs, operating the mixer, using a pastry bag to squeeze ghost shaped dollops of meringue onto parchment paper and then decorating them with chocolate chip eyes. Since the form of a ghost is very forgiving, a great deal of skill and experience is not necessary to come up with a pleasing result.

This year I am on my own in the kitchen and still Meringue Ghosts seem like a good idea. I will have to handle the pastry bag myself but these cookies are easy to make, use simple ingredients, are low in calories and fat and have a wonderful vanilla flavor. I think that baking a batch makes a great way for children of all ages to enjoy the season.

Note: When I went to find the recipe I couldn't locate the one I originally snipped from a magazine so I searched for the recipe on-line. I found it at Diana'sDesserts.com. There they are attributed to the October 2003 issue of Sunset Magazine. I also found some great advice on working with meringue at JoyofBaking.com.

Meringue Ghosts

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Take cold eggs and separate the white from the yolk carefully. (Any trace of egg yolk or grease in the egg whites or on the bowl or the beaters will inhibit the fluffiness of the meringue.) Cover the yolks and return to the refrigerator for another use. Set the whites aside until they warm to room temperature, approximately 30 minutes.

Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar in a deep bowl at high speed with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Continue to beat adding sugar slowly, one tablespoon at a time, until the meringue forms stiff peaks and a little of it rubbed between your fingers no longer feels gritty. Beat in vanilla.

Heat oven to 200 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, dabbing a small bit of meringue between the corners of the parchment and the pan to help the parchment lay flat.

Scoop meringue into a gallon sized Ziploc bag. Seal the bag. Snip a 1/2 inch opening across a lower corner of the bag. Use like a pastry bag to pipe meringue onto the parchment paper in the shape of a ghost approximately 2 inches wide, 3 or 4 inches long, and 2 inches apart. Place two miniature chocolate chips on the shape and press lightly into the meringue to form eyes. Repeat with remaining meringue.

Place ghosts in oven. Bake until meringues turn lightly golden, approximately 1 1/2 hours, turning and switching position of the pans halfway through. Turn oven off and let meringues sit in the closed oven for another hour before removing.

These are great on their own or with a bowl of ice cream or fruit. They might also be nice as a decoration on a cake or pumpkin pie.

Hint: To enhance the vanilla flavor of the meringue I used vanilla sugar that I had on hand. I make vanilla sugar whenever a recipe calls for the seeds from a vanilla bean. After I scrape the seeds into the recipe I am making I seal the leftover outer hull in a storage container covered with several cups of sugar. This infuses the sugar with a wonderful vanilla scent and flavor. After a couple of weeks the sugar can be used in place of regular sugar in any recipe where you would like to boost the vanilla taste.

Pumpkin Chocoate Bread

Yes, some years we do have beautiful fall color in the Pacific Northwest! It is almost always interspersed with the bright woodsy color of evergreens but it does come our way. It is just hard to appreciate it when it is veiled in fog and persistent rain on those monotonous gray days we are famous for.

This week we have had two days of beautiful weather and it is only Wednesday. Yesterday the sunrise was lovely, revealing ribbons of fog in the valleys as the sun climbed above the hills to break into gorgeous sunshine and reflect on bright blue skies. The gold, orange and crimson leaves of autumn popped against the brilliant background of green and blue. I couldn't wait to grab my camera and head outside to enjoy the riot of fall colors and the bright shabbiness of leaves strewn everywhere.

With so much evidence of autumn around me my thoughts turned to, you guessed it, pumpkin! As I brought my camera back into the house I had an overwhelming urge to bake something and all of the recipes I thought of started with "Pumpkin. .."

I found a favorite recipe for pumpkin bread, looked in my pantry, and found one large can of pumpkin. It seemed so wasteful to open it when all my recipe called for was 1 cup, but I didn't want to run to the store. I wanted to bake...now...while this beautiful autumn day still had me in its grip. What to do? I pulled out more recipes and determined to bake until I had used the whole can! The results will be showing up in my blog over the next couple of weeks.

I began with a recipe I have been using for maybe twenty years. It is a special occasion bread that marbles chocolate and pumpkin batters into a dense rich loaf. It makes a big loaf and is quite pretty, especially when drizzled with melted chocolate.

Marbled Pumpkin Chocolate Bread

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup butter, melted
1 cup solid-pack canned pumpkin

1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

First melt the chocolate. You can do this by placing the chocolate chips in a small glass bowl and microwaving them for short intervals while stirring carefully in between. The time varies according to the power of your microwave but I put mine in for 30 seconds, then stir and repeat at intervals of 15 seconds. In a minute or two the chocolate is melted. Or melt it any other way that feels comfortable for you. Set it aside.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, butter and pumpkin with a wire whisk until thoroughly blended. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients just until combined, being careful not to over mix.

Place half of the mixture in a clean bowl and add the melted chocolate. Gently fold it into the batter until blended.

Spoon the pumpkin and the chocolate batters alternately into a greased 9 inch loaf pan. Run a thin knife through the batter, moving the knife back and forth lengthwise at one to two inch intervals to produce the marbled effect.

Bake the loaf at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean. Remove the loaf from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then remove it from the pan and let it rest on a wire rack until completely cool.

When the loaf is cool, melt 1/4 cup of chocolate chips. Stir until smooth and place the melted chocolate in a Ziploc sandwich bag. Seal the bag and snip a small piece from the lower corner with scissors. Use it like a pastry bag to squeeze the chocolate onto the top of the loaf in a random pattern. Let the chocolate cool. Enjoy!

Cheese Grits

How do you feel about grits?

It seems that everyone I know has an opinion about them. Most everyone I know, in this part of the country, seems to think they don’t like them. When I happily tell that I am planning to make grits for dinner, they screw up their face and back away slightly. “Grits?” they say. “You’re looking forward to eating grits?” That’s what I like to see when I’m talking about food – a passionate response! And the answer is, “Yes! Yes I am.” Grits are delicious!

Grits have long been a southern staple. Growing up in the south I frequently saw them served for breakfast, scooped on a plate with a pat of butter on top. I must confess, I didn’t like them then. Served plain they have no more pizzazz than oatmeal or cream of wheat. Also, most often white grits were served and, in my opinion, yellow grits have a bit more to offer in terms of color and texture on a plate. Yellow grits are also known as polenta, and polenta sounds trendy and more desirable than grits, so if your friends are opposed to eating grits and give you that “grits face” tell them you are serving polenta and, while that might not inspire enthusiasm, it is less likely to invite a sour look.

Now I enjoy grits for breakfast. I add a good bit of freshly ground black pepper to a bowl of yellow grits, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Or substitute a pat of butter and cheddar cheese. It also makes a good side dish at breakfast or dinner.

For dinner tonight I am making Cheese Grits (Polenta) Casserole. It is a comfort food, much like macaroni and cheese, only easier to prepare. Start with good yellow corn grits. I use Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits Also Known as Polenta. These are found in the health food section of my favorite supermarket but are sometimes found in other sections. If you can’t find that brand try any other type of grits you can find - but do try them. You may find you like them more than you thought you did.

Cheese Grits Casserole

1 cup grits (polenta), prepared according to package directions
½ teaspoon garlic powder
3 Tablespoons butter
1 cup grated cheese
2 eggs, well beaten
¼ cup milk

Prepare 1 cup of uncooked grits according to package directions. Then stir 3 Tablespoons of butter into the warm grits along with ½ teaspoon garlic powder and 1 cup of grated sharp cheese. I usually use extra sharp cheddar cheese but fontina works well, and other cheeses would work well too.

Beat 2 eggs with ¼ cup of milk. Add this to the grits and mix well. Pour the mixture into a greased 2 quart casserole dish. Bake for 45 minutes in a 425 degree oven.

Note: This is a forgiving recipe. A little more or a little less cheese, butter, or even milk won't spoil the recipe. And it can be baked at other temperatures if needed, so that it can share the oven with another dish that requires a lower baking temperature. Cooking time will differ but just leave it in the oven until the top begins to brown.


Breakfast in Japan

Last week I spent five wonderful days in Japan. The weather was unexpectedly brilliant. I was warm, several days were sunny, and I never needed my umbrella. It doesn’t get much better than that! I spent three days in Tokyo and a day and a half in Nara. It was spectacular!

One of the best things about traveling in Japan is the morning. Though dead tired from the journey the night before, and after falling into bed and fast asleep around 10 pm, I woke up in the morning very early, while it was dark and still outside my room.

There is a certain magic in coming to consciousness at 3 am in a distant land, wide awake, with thoughts swimming in your head. The clock by my bed told me that there was plenty of time to sleep but my internal clock told me that I was ready to get started with my day. Certainly it was early but the day stretched out before me, a blank canvas waiting to be painted. What a wonderful feeling!

There were so many fine choices. I could stay in bed and enjoy the softness of the down comforter on top of me, the unusual pellet filled pillow under my head, the sensations of restful comfort after a long journey. Or, in this space, far across the world from my home, I could use my morning to read, or write, or carefully plan my day. There was an opportunity to do some inner housekeeping while the world around me slept, and to watch the darkness outside my window slowly fade into a steel gray morning unveiling the harbor in the distance. There is such a peace to time unwinding before you, when you are alert and outside your normal routine. Everything seems possible.

I finally got up to make tea in the lovely little teapot provided, poured it from the spout on the side into two low, covered teacups with lids and dark saucers. It was a joy to hold the hot tea, to feel the comforting sensation of warmth against my hand and to taste the slight bitterness of the fragrant liquid with the heightened awareness of a traveler enjoying luxuries that a host has so thoughtfully provided.

Yet soon enough my stomach began to intrude upon my peace. I began to feel hungry and wonder what there was to eat. I had a coupon for breakfast at the restaurant downstairs and by 7am I was there to see what was available. I found a buffet of hot and cold breakfast items, both Japanese and western style. It was a fabulous spread! There were a variety of fruit juices, coffee and tea, a selection of fruit and pastries, as well as potatoes, sausage, bacon and eggs. There were also traditional Japanese breakfast favorites such as salad, miso soup, fish, pickles and rice with nori strips to wrap the rice in. I tried the rice and broiled fish with dried nori, a small portion of Japanese omelette along with miso soup and a few pickled vegetables. I also had a small chocolate filled roll and a boiled egg. As it turned out, morning was the perfect time to explore some of the exotic differences between Japanese and western cuisine.

In case a Japanese breakfast doesn't sound appealing, a traveler has no trouble finding a more western style alternative. It is easy enough to find a good cup of coffee and fresh baked goods in any number of restaurants or coffee shops.

On my second morning in Japan I did just that. I was eager to explore the difference between a breakfast of baked goods at home and one in Japan. I walked from the hotel toward the train station and quickly found a small bakery. It offered a variety of breads and rolls that were selected from baskets with tongs and placed on a tray. I chose a scone with sugar sprinkled on top, a small roll with a sausage inside and a chocolate croissant. I also ordered coffee and picked up a boiled egg. The cashier put the rolls in a cute basket and poured my coffee and I found a table outside on the sidewalk.

Despite the sugar on top, the scone was less sweet than I would usually expect to find in the US. On the other hand the chocolate croissant was even more buttery and the chocolate was dark and flavorful. Better yet, it was still warm from the oven. The cool air, the warm croissant oozing rich dark chocolate, the strong hot coffee savored to the exotic hum of conversations in an unfamiliar language and the almost familiar but slightly different sounds of the city and its traffic wove a rich and satisfying texture through my senses in the morning light. When I finished breakfast I felt full and satisfied and I happily rolled my suitcase on toward the train station to ride the shinkansen south.

The next morning I woke up in Nara and tried another hotel breakfast buffet. This one was less elaborate but still offered a wide variety of both Japanese and western style food choices. I ate rice, pickles, fish and miso soup in a quiet dining room oddly adorned with Halloween decorations. Once again the breakfast was a pleasant cultural adventure.

Friday morning found me in Tokyo again. At the small hotel in Hamamatsucho I enjoyed a different style of Japanese buffet breakfast that offered salad, boiled eggs and toasted rolls. While less adventurous than some of my other morning meals it was fresh, convenient and provided a nutritious start to the day.

On my last morning in Japan I walked and shopped in search of something different. Finally I settled on a Japanese coffee house that offered a set breakfast of coffee, banana juice and an egg sandwich for a reasonable price. They upgraded the coffee to a latte for only 50 yen.

The egg sandwich was a bit different than expected. It was more like egg salad served with slices of mild ham on a hot dog bun than the scrambled eggs I had imagined from the picture. And the 'banana juice' turned out to be a frothy fruit smoothie served over ice. The lattes they made were exquisite with a lovely heart and leaf drawn into the foam on the top. It was a fun, pretty meal, enjoyed at a large comfortable table as I reviewed my adventure and made plans for the journey home.

Despite warnings in one of my travel books claiming that a traditional Japanese breakfast is one meal that foreigners are not likely to enjoy, as the dense volume of rice will make you want to go back to bed, I found that a breakfast built around a dish of rice was filling and a great way to start a busy day of traveling and sightseeing. And, of course, if you don't want rice for breakfast, there are many other choices. Simple or fancy, I found that breakfast was the meal I most looked forward to in Japan. Because of the difference in time zones and routines I felt hungry in the mornings as well as energetic and adventurous. My Japanese breakfasts were mostly delicious and without exception a great start to a busy day. And so I collected some fabulous breakfast memories in Japan and brought home some interesting ideas and a new perspective on the morning meal.

Meals for One

In some ways this is a strange time for me to start a food blog. While it seems my family has always been busy and meals have been erratic for years, I just sent my middle child off to college and now I have even fewer mouths to feed at dinner time. In fact my husband often misses meals and my youngest son, who still lives at home, is frequently grabbing a quick bite between football and other activities and eating at odd hours. Quite often these days I find that I am eating dinner alone. Sometimes I eat leftovers or fast food but there are times when I want to eat something fresh and healthy and home cooked, though it is always nice if the preparation is easy.

One of my favorite easy meals involves little more than a bag of spinach and a can of chickpeas. When I am hungry and in a hurry but want to feel that I am nurturing my body with natural vitamins and calcium I am always glad to find that bag of spinach I picked up at the market waiting for me in the refrigerator.

Spinach with Chickpeas

2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 clove garlic
1 bag fresh spinach, washed
½ fresh lemon
curry powder or cumin (optional)

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large skillet. Open the can of chickpeas. Drain and rinse. Add the chickpeas to the skillet. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Add a little curry powder or cumin if you like. Continue cooking over medium heat until the beans are warm and toasty, two minutes, or longer if you like them a bit nuttier. Remove from heat and transfer the chickpeas to a plate.

Heat a bit more olive oil in the skillet and when it is hot add a pressed clove of garlic and stir for one minute. Then gradually add the fresh spinach. Turn and stir, adding more as room allows until the whole bag has been added and all of the spinach has wilted. If the spinach begins to stick or get dry, sprinkle with a few drops of water and continue cooking. When all of the spinach has wilted squeeze half a lemon across the leaves and stir, then add the chickpeas back to the pan. Combine and stir until the chickpeas are warm again then remove from the heat. Served with toasted pita bread, or ‘Tandoori Naan’ from Trader Joe’s.

I find this to be a simple and healthy quick meal. If you have a heartier appetite it would be great served with rice, orzo or couscous. It also makes a nice side dish.

Harvest Gazpacho

It’s early October. My tomato harvest is still ripening indoors after a cool summer in the Pacific Northwest. In August my tomato plants looked beautiful, with hordes of little yellow flowers just waiting for enough warmth to burst into bright red tomatoes. Temperatures remained cool and gradually the flowers were transformed to small green tomatoes and, oh so slowly, into bronze tinged fruit, and, finally, as the promise of summer warmth faded into fall, I picked my mildly blushing tomatoes and brought them in to the kitchen. Now there are ripe red tomatoes all over my counter.

As the cool northwest summer has turned to a wet and still cooler northwest fall, my eagerness for tomatoes has faded. I suppose there are many possibilities but much of my enthusiasm dwindled waiting for those green tomatoes to turn to a deep rich red. Since they have been ripening on my counter I have made tomato sauce but most of my favorite tomato dishes feel a little out of place in the shortening days of autumn. What to do?

The answer – I decided I needed a new recipe. What says autumn in the kitchen? Roasted vegetables, orange tinged hues, recipes with names that suggest abundance. And which dishes had I missed the most as my tomatoes took their own sweet time ripening in my garden?

The recipe I craved the most this summer was gazpacho. I made it twice in August, with store bought tomatoes. The result was nice but not completely satisfying. So I decided to try again. I gave it a new name and tried to fortify it with a little more substance and rich flavor to complement our chilly autumn weather.

I like gazpacho with bread in it. For years I made a version that added bread in the form of croutons as accompaniments when serving. The texture of the soup was okay for summer, a little thin, but refreshing. The croutons added crunch and texture. Still, for autumn, the idea of bread in the gazpacho, thickening it, really appealed to me and, as I looked for new recipes, I found that food writers agree that adding bread to the main list of ingredients is the authentic way to go.

I found several gazpacho recipes on the Internet that included bread. In fact they suggested that bread was perhaps the most essential ingredient in gazpacho, followed closely by olive oil, garlic, salt and vinegar. Interesting! Several sources called for soaking stale bread and then squeezing out the water but the mushiness of that approach did not appeal to me. Simply adding sliced bread with the other ingredients seemed easier, more direct, and at least worth a try. I had a plan so I assembled my ingredients.

Harvest Gazpacho

olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground pepper
balsamic vinegar
three slices of bread
9 medium tomatoes
2 bell peppers
1 jalepeno pepper
2 cucumbers
1/2 large red onion
3 cloves of garlic
½ cup cilantro
1 11.5 ounce can Spicy Hot V8 juice

I got out olive oil, sea salt and the pepper grinder. I had no sherry vinegar on hand, and while I’m sure it would have been nice, and more authentic, I used balsamic vinegar instead. I had part of a loaf of olive bread on hand that was a couple of days old. I cut several slices. Any type of French or Italian bread would work nicely. If the crust is too hard or thick it might be best to remove it. If the bread is too fresh, toasting it would probably improve the texture.

Next, I cut maybe 9 medium sized tomatoes in half. I placed them, cut side down, on a baking sheet and roasted them under the broiler until the skins began to blacken. That made the skins easy to remove. I cut and seeded two bell peppers, one red and one orange. Any bell peppers can be used but red gives the richest color and the orange one appealed to me in the interest of adding a bit more of an autumn hue. I also halved and seeded one jalapeño pepper. I laid the pepper pieces on the baking sheet and put them under the broiler, again until the skins began to blacken. I removed that skin as well. I peeled and seeded two large cucumbers, cut up half of a red onion and pressed three large cloves of garlic. I also cut several handfuls from a bunch of cilantro I had on hand.

I got out the blender and added my ingredients in batches. I ran the blender until the contents were fairly smooth but no longer than needed. I poured each batch into a large bowl and then stirred them together with one can of Spicy Hot V8 juice. I also added maybe a quarter cup of virgin olive oil and a few tablespoons of the vinegar.

That’s it. I served the gazpacho in low soup bowls, at room temperature. It is nice and refreshing to serve gazpacho chilled in summer and I think it would be equally nice to serve it gently warmed on cool autumn days. I garnished the bowl with cherry tomato halves and diced avocado. Bits of cucumber, green pepper, green onion, and/or good croutons would also be appropriate and add to the variety and texture of the soup. You might want to drizzle the top with olive oil or even a bit of pesto for a nice contrast. When I was in Georgetown a few weeks ago I had a bowl of gazpacho at a restaurant that was topped with toasted tortilla strips and three large grilled shrimp. They made a fabulous addition that it would also be fun to experiment with at home.

About Me

I am a Portland, Oregon area food enthusiast. I was born and raised in Kentucky. In between I have cooked across the south and called Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia my home. I have been baking since I was a girl and have been master of my own kitchen since I was in my teens. Southern cooking is my heritage and strongly influences my food preferences while the fresh perspectives and ingredients of the Pacific Northwest inform my choices.

My passion for food has known many phases. During my baking phase I decorated elaborate cakes, baked homemade breads and beautiful cookies. During an exotic food phase I experimented with spices and ethnic cuisines, tried new ingredients and flavor combinations and learned new cooking techniques. During a health food phase I haunted health food stores, mixed nut flours into baked goods to balance proteins and developed recipes with reduced sugar and sodium content. More recently, while building a teahouse in my backyard I developed an appreciation for sushi and an interest in the artful presentation of simple seasonal ingredients in Japanese cuisine.

Another phase engaged my passion for writing. Several years ago I compiled a family history cookbook. As I sifted through old cookbooks and gathered memories and recipes from family members across five generations I gained a whole new perspective on the role of food in family life. The final product included photos, recipes, stories and food anecdotes from the late 1800’s to the present.

Today my explorations in the kitchen are marked by a synthesis of all of these phases into a less obsessive, but no less determined, effort to provide an enjoyable, healthful and meaningful experience around my table for both family and friends. I try to be considerate of what I know about individual preferences while offering gentle challenges and opportunities to experience something new. I hope to stimulate and satisfy the mind and the senses while encouraging an awareness of diet and health. I also hope to encourage a love of cooking and exploration in the kitchen.

By way of my own experiences in the kitchen I have come to realize that food is more than a technicality and cooking is more than a skill or even an art. Cooking is about nurturing the future with roots that dig deeply into the past. Cooking is a channel for transmitting love, faith, understanding, pleasure, history, geography, culture, chemistry, art and adventure.

The kitchen arts encompass metaphors for, and lessons that apply to, every aspect of life. Cooking and eating are daily pleasures that connect a need for creativity and expression with the need to nourish our body and soul. Please join me as I explore the art of cooking in My Own Sweet Thyme. It is my hope that the stories and recipes I share here will inspire you to make new discoveries of your own.