29 February 2008

Leap Year - Frogs and Thyme



I really wanted to write a Leap Year post for today. I have been thinking about what to write for weeks now but I have to admit – I was stumped. What does February 29, that once-every-four-years occasion, mean in culinary terms?

Frogging

My first thought was to write about frogs. I have a bit of interesting history with frogs. When I was a girl I lived in a house near a pond. My Dad and I would sometimes go fishing for bluegills there. There were also snapping turtles and frogs that lived in the pond and in spring there were many tadpoles. Sometimes we would bring a tadpole home. It was fascinating to watch it sprout legs, then slowly loose it's big tail so that it could leap between the water and the land.

Every once in a great while, on a warm summer evening, someone around our house would get the idea to go back to the pond and hunt frogs. It was an antic episode, full of adventure. When we got home my Dad would clean the frogs we caught. I remember how he would skin them, peeling off their green pajamas and laying the white fleshy legs with their long bony toes to the side. Then he would trim off their feet before dredging them in flour or cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper, and fry them in his big cast iron skillet.

The Magic of Salt

Even more memorable was the way he once entertained me and my girl friends with a trick that he knew. He showed us the plate with the feet from the frogs he had fried, then he sprinkled salt across the feet and delighted in the shrieks and laughter when the long toes began to dance! Somehow salt does that. Then he offered samples of the frog legs he had fried. He had few takers but I tried them. They were good!

I could fry some frog legs today, in honor of leap year, if I knew where to get any in this part of the country. I don’t. So I looked for other recipes that related to frogs. I found a cute sherbet frog and instructions on making frog rolls. I found a recipe for Frog Eye Salad which sounded like fun but I couldn't find the Acini de Pepe, and I found a recipe for Chocolate Frogs but too late to run out for dried apricots. What to do?

A Matter of Time

I thought some more. What is the significance of February 29? The Writer's Almanac tells me that it exists because of the need to fix a problem with the Julian calendar. A new system, the Gregorian calendar, was developed that added one day every fourth year, at the end of February, to keep the calendar in tune with the actual length of a solar year. So it seems the significance of leap year is actually time, and what could be more fitting for My Own Sweet Thyme than a post about time/thyme?

First, I want to say what an amazing gift an extra 24 hours is! Think about it. We do without this 24 hour period, this extra day in the month of February, three out of four years. So, in a sense it is an extra day in our ordered lives, a day for catching up. It also seems appropriate that it should be a day about making amends for our silly mistakes, like miscalculating the solar year, and for patching up the things that all of our best laid plans fail to account for.

And while we think about that, let's have a cup of tea. This is an herbal tea made from honey and...well...thyme! It is adapted from a recipe at The Herbal Touch. And wouldn't it go great with a batch of Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies?


Lemon Thyme Lift

1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 small slice of lemon or a pinch of lemon zest (optional)

Boil the water. Remove it from the heat. Add the lemon thyme leaves and allow to steep for several minutes.

Strain if desired. Add the honey and stir.

Pour into cups and garnish with lemon slices or zest if desired. Sip and Enjoy!

27 February 2008

Bacon, Squash & Chestnut Risotto


I just love Jamie Oliver. I used to watch Oliver's Twist and I would get hungry just listening to him talk about food. (It's probably the accent!) I can remember drooling over the risotto he cooked. It sounded so good that I even tried it myself, carefully watching and following his directions.

I did like the way my Risotto turned out. I didn’t really love standing over the stove and stirring it though. Once in a while maybe, but not very often. And never for company. It just seemed too involving and would end up with me interrupting everyone else’s conversation and telling them what to do while I was at the stove stirring a Risotto which might well turn out overcooked and gummy anyway. No thanks! Risotto was more of a solitary pursuit, just between me and Jamie.

Enter Patricia at Technicolor Kitchen. She posted Bacon, Butternut Squash and Basil Baked Risotto that sounded wonderful and, once again, I had hope. Originally this recipe came from Donna Hay magazine and what a delightful idea – put the risotto in the oven, close the door and don’t look again until the rice is done. Stir in the extras, which could reasonably be prepared ahead, and voila! Dinner is ready.

That seemed too good to be true. I wanted to try it. On the spot. Patricia’s recipe called for butternut squash. I had two acorn squash on hand. Patricia’s recipe called for bacon and I had none. Oh well, it’s Lent, who needs it? I remembered that I had a similar recipe of Jamie’s that called for pumpkin and chestnuts. And I still had a bag of Trader Joe's chestnuts in the freezer, leftover from Thanksgiving. That would add some texture and flavor. I had the basil and Parmesan and Arborio rice. I decided we were good to go.

First Try - What I Learned

I put the risotto in the oven. I roasted the acorn squash. I was delighted to find how easy it was to prepare the frozen chestnuts from Trader Joe’s. ( Next year I will definitely look for them and actually use them in the fall.) Easy peasy!

When the risotto was done I stirred it all together and ….well…. that’s what I get for skipping the bacon. It was okay. I ate it… for days. No one else at my table was too excited about it. There were two things I learned from that adventure, don’t skip the bacon and cut the recipe in half. There are only two or three eating at my table most evenings and half is just about enough to serve three.

Second Try - Wow!

I went to the market and tried again. This time I used a butternut squash, as Patricia's’s recipe called for, I used the bacon and I still added the chestnuts. I cut the recipe in half which made it just the right size to fit in my cute little Le Creuset 2-Quart Heart Casserole, a nice touch for February. And, WOW! This time it was delicious. I even forgot to add the Parmesan until after I had taken a bite and it was delicious anyway. And it was still wonderful not to have to stir.



Bacon, Squash and Chestnut Baked Risotto

7 oz butternut squash, chopped
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
a pinch of sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bacon
3/4 cup Arborio (or risotto) rice
2 1/4 cups (18 oz) vegetable stock
2 tablespoons torn basil leaves
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 oz frozen chestnuts from Trader Joe's

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the butternut squash in a bowl. Add the oil, sprinkle with the sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss to coat. Place the tossed squash on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until tender. Set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare chestnuts according to package directions. Let cool. Peel the chestnuts and coarsely chop them. Set aside.

Fry the bacon, or cook it in the microwave between paper towels, until crisp. Let it cool and break it into small pieces.

Place the rice and stock in a Le Creuset 2-Quart Heart Casserole, or other covered 2 quart casserole dish, and stir to combine. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. (The rice should be al dente and most of the stock should be absorbed.)

Remove from the oven and add the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine. Serve immediately.

Serves 2-3

23 February 2008

Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwich


I have always believed that it was important to teach my children their way around the kitchen. For a while that seemed to be going well. My oldest son always loved to cook. We spent hours together in the kitchen when he was little. When we baked he would ‘crack’ the eggs if I would ‘hatch’ them into the bowl. He would stir and stand on a stool to watch when I was doing other tasks.

When he went to kindergarten he brought home hand written recipes for some of his favorite foods, like cinnamon toast and peanut butter sandwiches, in his beginning writer's scrawl. He speculated as to the ingredients in dishes he liked, suggesting that Mammaw’s fried fresh fish must be laced with cinnamon, because it tasted so good.

Later, in high school, he would load some of my best kitchen tools in his book bag and go to friends' houses to cook pasta or risotto for a crowd. At home he watched the Food Network and tried to reproduce the creations of Jamie Oliver. He even dreamed of being a chef.

"It’s in the family," you might say, until you notice that my younger children have been more reluctant to take their turn in the kitchen. My daughter has had her moments and her own special interests. One summer she and a friend baked wonderful muffins with the blackberries they picked. Later she went through a phase where she was very interested in nutrition and one where she made exotic smoothies. Perhaps these introductions will someday bud into a true love of cooking.

And then there is my youngest. Well he does like to eat! Still his general lack of interest in learning to enjoy the kitchen arts worried me until one day I devised a plan. Having paid attention as my husband laid down the law that my youngest couldn’t get his driver’s license until he had finished the requirements to become an Eagle Scout, I decided to tack on a requirement or two of my own.

One day, as I was hurrying to finish a load of laundry and get dinner on the table at the same time, I asked my youngest son, who was immersed in a computer game, to lend a hand. He came into the laundry room as requested but claimed he was utterly and everlastingly unable to fold clothing fresh from the dryer. It was just something he wasn’t able to do, he told me.

Then and there, in a flash of insight, I could see that no teenager could possibly hope to safely maneuver around town behind the wheel of an automobile if he couldn’t competently sort, wash, dry, and fold his own clothing. And while we mused over that requirement as I held his attention over a pile of warm clothes, and while dinner waited until I was done there to be put on the table, I concluded that being able to prepare and serve a passable dinner was also a perfectly reasonable expectation for any driving age teen.

At that point my youngest had several years to master these requirements. I was impressed when right away he went to his older brother for instructions on how to make a grilled cheese sandwich like the ones they had shared over the summer. This was no normal grilled cheese sandwich but one they both described as gourmet and one that was made with a flourish. This grilled sandwich is both a comfort food and a showpiece, a recipe to fill and nourish the body as a snack or simple meal and to nourish a relationship by attending to the details of preparation and presentation that make a guest, or a family member, feel cared for and special.

My children are not the first in my family to make a fine grilled cheese sandwich. Perhaps the idea was handed down from my parents' generation. My Dad made what I considered to be a heavenly grilled cheese sandwich when I was a girl. He would cut thick slices of Velveeta cheese for the filling and told me that the secret was to thoroughly butter the outside of the bread, leaving no spots uncoated before grilling it in his cast iron skillet. Who was I to doubt him? He was a very good cook and I loved those sandwiches as a child.

My children, however, have their own opinions. They turn up their noses at Velveeta cheese, rightly pointing out that you just can't trust something called a "processed cheese product." Perhaps they are learning a thing or two about good nutrition. Or perhaps they are simply employing contrarian logic - if mom says it tastes good, It's my job to disagree. In any case they prefer a more high minded grilled cheese sandwich, made from real locally produced cheddar cheese and sprinkled with fresh herbs, freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.

However they want to make it, a grilled cheese sandwich is still a comfort food and is still delicious. This presentation, developed and practiced by my children, will impress friends and family with some basic, and important, skills in the kitchen.

A note to my son who demonstrated this recipe and indulged me as I took numerous photos for this post: Thanks for being such a good sport and for making a delicious dinner!


Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwich

1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
sliced Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices white bread
several sprigs of fresh thyme (or a few dashes of dried thyme)
freshly ground black pepper
pinch of sea salt
1 tablespoon butter

Begin by grating fresh Parmesan cheese directly onto a slice of bread, enough to cover it with a light dusting.


Slice six to eight 1/4 inch thick pieces from a slab of Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese and arrange them to cover the bread, trimming as necessary.

Grate a little more Parmesan cheese over the cheddar. Pull the leaves from a sprig of thyme and sprinkle on top of the cheeses. If you don’t have fresh herbs, use dried thyme instead.


Lay another slice of bread on top. Sprinkle the top of the bread with a few more fresh thyme leaves, a turn or two of freshly ground pepper and a pinch of sea salt.


Melt 1/2 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet, over medium heat. Rotate the skillet so the butter is evenly distributed. Place the sandwich in the pan and cook, reducing the heat if the sandwich is browning too quickly.

When the bottom of the bread is browned and the cheese has begun to melt, lift the sandwich from the skillet, redistribute butter, adding more, if necessary, to evenly coat the bottom of the pan.


Flip the sandwich and grill on the other side until it is toasty and browned on the bottom and the cheese is soft and oozy.

Remove the sandwich and place on a plate. Cut and garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme if desired.

Serve to eager friends and family. Enjoy!

19 February 2008

Sugar Cookies


Here I am, sitting in the corner of my kitchen on a stool, looking out the window. I have cookies baking in the oven. The kitchen smells like sugar and vanilla. I have Andrea Bocelli playing on my iHome in the background, singing songs filled with emotion that rises in my heart and spreads over me like a magic cloak, transforming all that is cold, pale or unsubstantial. I have no idea what the Italian words he is singing mean but the rich sound of the music and the thick amber tone of his voice is like honey. Warm and sticky with the sweetness I feel like a contented cinnamon roll.

I am waiting for the oven timer to go off. Often enough when I am baking I wander and get involved elsewhere and lose track of the timing, ruining a promising foray in the kitchen. I don’t want that to happen today. I want the cookies to be perfect.

So I sit here, near the oven, and I look out the window. I consider the landscape, inspect the beds from this distance. I cleaned up most of the plant debris from withered perennials last fall but there were a few plants that I skipped because something about them seemed interesting or beautiful as they were and I didn’t want to cut them back yet. One such clump of daylilies is framed, from this angle, by my kitchen window.


Last season’s tall sword-like leaves are now gray-brown and bent, folded onto themselves, kneeling toward the ground. Their tips look as if they have melted into the bark mulch beneath them. They are dismal and spent. The Zen garden rake lies beside them and my four ornamental bunnies sit in front of the clump somewhat out of kilter.

As I sit and gaze at this scene my first thoughts are of what I need to do in the yard, of how I need to get things cleaned up for spring… but then I stop myself. My eyes rest on the bunnies.


I study them. They seem to be wallowing in the spent leaves. I think they are whispering and laughing. One is so amused he has fallen over and mashed his ear.

Then I study the gray clump of daylilies and realize that new blades of spring green are poking up through the nest of old leaves, reaching toward the light like baby birds with their mouths wide open.


They are tall for so early in the year, no doubt warmed by the mellowing of their nest of last years leaves. The bright green rising above and surpassing the gray is really quite beautiful in a strange way and suddenly I forget everything, my cookies, the music, the yard work I need to do, and think instead that I must get my camera and take a picture of this beautiful thing that God has done in my yard. And then I notice that I am smiling. What’s more I realize that to find beauty and to notice that I am smiling must mean that I am happy, and, for some reason, that amazes me. Not that I have any reason not to be, but, then again, this quirky Spring moment seems huge.

I am happy with my camera and the fact that there are a million incredible revelations to photograph. I am happy that I have the opportunity to take those photos and to share them with others. I am also happy that I have my writing, to share what’s in my heart.

Outside I see that there are laughing concrete bunnies in my yard watching spring break out of winter’s cold gray bed, break out and push up toward the sky, spiky and green. No matter that their nest is messy and in disarray, no matter that the bunnies are laughing, they break forth in their own time and show their colors to the world. I join the bunnies and laugh, and with the daylilies I stretch toward the sky.

The timer goes off, yikes, I should have checked sooner. Some of my cookies are a little too brown around the edges and I broke one putting it onto the wire rack. Yet even that seems right. I will decorate it as a broken heart. These cookies are big enough to share anyway. This one isn’t perfect, but it can be meaningful and beautiful in it’s own way.


In the words of a baker, “To make a cake, you have to break some eggs.” We have to break open and offer what we know we have in order to create more. It is like the Parable of the Talents in the Bible or the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. My writing “encourager” recently shared these words, “taken, blessed, broken, shared.” It is a reference to faith, and to the act of offering our gifts. So often we find that what is offered, spread and shared, brings back more.

So...I offer you my photos and my words as I try to share my joy. And then there is this recipe for cookies too.....

Note: I searched through many cookbooks to come up with a Sugar Cookie recipe I wanted to try. I have tried many over the years but have not settled on one I think is ideal in both taste and texture and ease of use. Do you have a favorite Sugar Cookie recipe? Would you share it with me? I would love to hear about it!

This recipe comes from “Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.” This is the first time I have tried this recipe. It seems to use a lot of butter and the taste is fine, though I did not care for the texture. The cookies seemed tough. Perhaps I overworked the dough. These cookies did hold their shape well through baking (they didn’t spread much) and they were easy to work with and decorate.



Sugar Cookies

4 sticks (1 pound) butter
3 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ teaspoons salt
5 cups flour

Decorator sugars

Royal Icing (recipe below)

Place butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer and allow to come to room temperature. Beat the butter and sugar on high speed until it is light and fluffy (approximately 5 minutes). Add eggs, vanilla and salt and mix until combined. Add flour, mixing until just combined.

Divide dough in half. Flatten each half, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, (approximately 2 hours, but can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll cookie dough on a floured surface, or flour dusted Silpat Nonstick Mat, to a ¼ inch thickness. Cut out dough with cookie cutters. Carefully place cut shapes on the parchment lined baking sheets, two inches apart. When the cookie sheet is full, place it in the refrigerator for approximately 15 minutes, or until cookies are firm to the touch.

Sprinkle cookies with decorator sugar if desired, or leave plain and ice the cookies later.

Bake cookies at 350 degrees until lightly golden at the edges, approximately 15 minutes.

Carefully place the cookies on a wire rack to cool. When cool ice as desired.

Store in an airtight container or cookie tin.

Royal Icing

1 pound confectioners’ sugar
5 Tablespoons meringue powder
½ cup water

Combine ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix at high speed until fluffy, approximately 7 minutes. Add food coloring to tint the icing as desired. Thin icing, adding a little bit of water at a time, to achieve the desired consistency.

Cookies can be smoothly coated with icing by piping an outline around each cookie using a pastry bag and then flooding the area between the piping with thinner icing. Dots of icing can be added and made into a heart outline by dragging a toothpick through the dots, or decorator sugar can be sprinkled onto the wet icing. Have fun. Experiment!

Keep Royal Icing covered as it dries quickly when exposed to the air. Icing can be stored at room temperature, in an air tight container, up to one week. Stir thoroughly before each use.


Note: Royal Icing dries crisp and hard. It can be used to make beautiful decorations but I don’t really like the taste. A simple icing of 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, approximately 1 Tablespoon of milk or water, and a few drops of vanilla can be used instead, spread on the cookies and then sprinkled with decorator sugar. Or use a favorite icing of your choice.

14 February 2008

Vanilla Chile Truffles


I love St. Valentine's Day cards. Isn't this old Whitney Made one beautiful? Inside it says:

I hope 't will reach
you safely,
This little heart of mine,
I'm throwing out a gentle hint
To catch you, Valentine.


I also love chocolate. In fact, I have been known to daydream about chocolate. I love to make truffles and when I am preparing to make them I indulge in thoughts of what the most rapturous flavor might be. I search for new ideas and dig for exotic spice combinations.

I could simply dive into my own imagination for the seeds of some wonderful ideas, and on a good day that might work out. More often though I could scarcely hope to imagine anything as wonderful as the exotic tastes described on the website for Vosges Haut Chocolat.

I look there for inspiration. Their website is visual poetry. They picture truffles and describe truffles in truly exciting ways. I go to their truffle collections for ideas on how to envision a truffle, present a truffle, eat a truffle, even pair a truffle with wine or music. I click through the truffles individually reading their detailed description, imagining how they would look, feel or taste, what sort of sensation they might inspire. I study that bit of something on the top that makes each truffle unique and suggests what is hidden inside the chocolate ganache center.

So here it is, St. Valentine’s Day, and I want to make something chocolate. I go to Vosges Chocolat and come up with an idea to make truffles laced with the richness of vanilla cream, the exotic depth of cinnamon and the heat of two fiery ground chile peppers. I don't have time to dip them and I don't have the perfect garnish to make them individually gorgeous but I have chocolate and I'm making truffles and I know they'll taste great!

On the whole these are pretty easy to make and are sure to satisfy any craving your valentine might have for something dark and sweet, and with a little bit of fire.

Happy Valentine’s Day!



Vanilla Chile Truffles

Ganache:
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (I use Ghiradelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips)
½ cup cream
half of a vanilla bean
½ teaspoon ground Saigon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ancho chile powder
¼ teaspoon chipotle chile powder

For rolling:
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
½ teaspoon ground Saigon cinnamon


To prepare the ganache:
Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl over hot, not boiling, water. Set aside.

Place ½ vanilla bean and cream in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat until it begins to boil and is heated through. Remove from heat.

Carefully remove vanilla bean. When it is slightly cooled, split the bean and scrape the seeds into the cream. Discard the hull. Add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and the chile powders to the cream. Stir together until mixed. Add the cream mixture to the chocolate and stir or whisk until well combined.

Set the ganache mixture aside until cool and thick, but not hard, approximately two or three hours.

When it is thick, place the ganache in a Ziploc freezer bag. Seal the bag and snip a ½ inch piece from a lower corner of the bag.


Pipe the chocolate ganache mixture onto waxed paper or parchment in teaspoon size dollops. Place in the refrigerator or freezer until very firm, approximately 2 hours.


Place the 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and ½ teaspoon cinnamon in a shallow bowl and stir until blended. Remove the chocolate from the refrigerator or freezer. Place each dollop in the cocoa powder and then roll it in your hands to form a ball. (This will be messy!)


Place the chocolate ball on a new piece of waxed paper or parchment. When all pieces have been formed into balls, place the chocolate back in the refrigerator until set.

When set, remove the truffles from the refrigerator, and once more, roll the truffle in the cocoa powder mixture.

Place finished truffles in small paper candy cups or on waxed paper in a box or tin. Give as gifts or share with family and friends.

Enjoy!

Note:This recipe yields about 30 small truffles. It could easily be doubled or even tripled and still work fine in one batch.

12 February 2008

Mandarin Oranges

Last week my husband brought home a box of Cuties.... you know, those wonderful little mandarin oranges. They are beautiful - tart-sweet and juicy with soft supple skins that are easy to peel cleanly away from the succulent seedless flesh inside. We ate three just as he brought them into the house. Then later we ate several more. For breakfast I ate another... well you get the picture.

I do love them, but there are several still in my fruit basket today and I really wanted to come up with something different to dress them up a bit. So I started thinking, hoping maybe I could find a way to incorporate them in my Valentine’s Day menu.

Stage 1:

The first thing that came to mind was a recipe I had found in “Picnic: 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menus” by DeeDee Stovel, last summer. I had found the recipe while working on a menu for a picnic we had planned but for some reason didn’t end up happening. It was so simple as to be unforgettable so I decided to give it a try. I made the recipe for two but it could easily be adjusted for any number expected at your table or picnic blanket.

Oranges in Cointreau

2 mandarin oranges, peeled and separated into sections
1 or 2 tablespoons Cointreau, or other orange flavored liqueur

Remove any white strands that are loose on the outside of the orange sections.

Stir together oranges and liqueur. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Garnish with mint leaves if desired.

Stage 2:

Simple and easy, this is a lovely salad or could be served with biscotti or small butter cookies for dessert. I mixed the Cointreau with orange segments and began to clean up around the kitchen. There were a few things out from the night before that needed to be put away, including some snack mixes in little bowls. One snack mix was by Sahale Snacks, a brand sold at Target. It is called Valdosta Blend and is a mixture of pecans, dried cranberries, black pepper and orange zest. I thought of what an interesting addition that would be to my orange salad. So I embellished the recipe above by pouring the snack mix into my salad bowl.

Orange Pecan Melange

1 recipe of Oranges in Cointreau, as described above

2 tablespoons Valdosta Blend nut mix (or 1 tablespoon broken pecans, toasted, 1 tablespoon dried cranberries and a pinch of freshly ground pepper)

Stir ingredients into the Oranges in Cointreau. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes to allow flavors to blend before serving.

Stage 3:

That took a simple luscious fruit dish and added visual contrast as well as a zing to the palate with the addition of the black pepper in the snack mix. It would make an attractive side dish, served in a small glass bowl or other small dish. Then as I was setting it in the refrigerator until dinner, I saw that I had some leftover baby arugula and a smidgeon of Newman’s Own Light Balsamic Vinaigrette. I couldn’t help but think what a great green salad this Orange Pecan Melange would make. It would be romantic and pretty enough for a intimate dinner for two but also a great addition to a festive holiday dinner or a dinner party menu.

Orange Arugula Salad

1 recipe Orange Pecan Melange
2 cups bably arugula leaves
2 tablespoons Newman's Own Light Balsamic Vinaigrette

Arrange the baby arugula on two salad plates. Drizzle with the Balsamic Vinaigrette. Arrange the orange pecan mixture on top of the greens.

Serve and enjoy!

Note: I think I will also try this recipe with pitted black cherries instead of orange sections and with Kirsch instead of Cointreau, when cherries are season.

08 February 2008

Asparagus with Walnut Dressing

Isn’t this a cool valentine? This may date me but I got it from a boy named David when I was in the first grade. It seems he saw a certain potential in me even at that young age. I have kept it safely tucked away ever since. Oh, the insight of young love!

But why do we exchange these small notes of acknowledgment, otherwise known as valentines, every February? It seems it all began with a Christian named Valentine some 1800 years ago. Valentine was a priest who was jailed by the Romans for his faith under the rule of Claudius II. His jailor had a blind daughter that Valentine is said to have healed. As he was led out to his death, legend has it that the priest left a note of witness for the jailor’s daughter. It was signed, “From your Valentine.”

St. Valentine refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ and so he died that day, February 14, AD 269. But his testimony to his love for Christ lived on in the note he left for the jailor’s daughter. And so as we pass valentines to one another, though many are corny and others are little more than advertisements for popular toys, we continue in this tradition of proclaiming the power of love.

As St.Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching this year, my attention has turned toward ways to note the occasion. I love valentine cards. I also enjoy experimenting with chocolate and I hope to come up with a worthy truffle this weekend. But for now, as I begin to think about Valentine’s Day, I want to come up with a menu that is romantic, nutritious and easy. As that special day falls in the middle of a busy week, a simple menu is a must and yet it is nice to do something a little beyond the ordinary to mark the occasion for our own special Valentines at home.

As I tried to think of a romantic vegetable, a recipe I cut from the paper several years ago came to mind. It was for asparagus with an Asian inspired sauce. I dug through my files and finally found it. To my surprise it noted that the recipe was from one of my favorite cookbooks, “The World in a Bowl of Tea” by Bettina Vitell, and I had never noticed. Even more reason to try it again!

This recipe may appeal to tastes a bit more mature than my First Grade Valentine could have imagined, still I do appreciate his early vote of confidence in my ability to “cook up the sweetest Valentine!”



Asparagus with Walnut Dressing

1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon sake
1 pound asparagus

Chop walnuts or put them through a nut grinder or food processor until the are fine but have some small chunks remaining.

Place the walnuts, soy sauce, sugar and sake in a small bowl and stir until well combined.

Trim the hard woody ends from the asparagus stalks. (You can do this by holding the upper end of the stalk with one hand while bending the cut end of the stalk to the side with the other hand until it snaps. Discard the bottom portion.)

Slice the tender portion of the stalks at an angle into 2 inch lengths.

Steam the asparagus until tender and bright green, no longer than two minutes. Immediately drain and rinse under cold water.

Arrange asparagus in a serving bowl or on individual plates. Drizzle with the sake sauce.

Serve and enjoy!

Note: Any remaining sauce can be refrigerated and used on other steamed vegetables. It is delicious on green beans or spinach. I think it would be good on many other vegetables as well.


This is my entry in Vegetable Love 2008, a blogging event sponsored by Fat Free Vegan Kitchen. It asks for “food bloggers to post their most romantic, most seductive vegetable recipes…something suitable for a cozy dinner by candlelight…something that says “I love you, and I don’t want you to keel over with a heart attack!”" I think this quick romantic dish qualifies.

04 February 2008

Chocolate Decadence


February simply cries out for chocolate! When the Christmas holidays have become but a pleasant memory and our bodies have forgotten the overindulgence of holiday feasting, when our moods are challenged by a long succession of wet gray January days and the sweet occasion of Valentine’s Day peeps at us from just around the corner, the mind becomes restless and hears that cry.

Well mine does anyway. Last week I sampled a small selection of Alma Chocolates my husband brought home from an errand in Portland. This morning I put a square of Dove’s dark chocolate inside a slice of a baguette warm from the oven and enjoyed this simple luscious treat with coffee for my Sunday breakfast. Then surfing the world of blogs I found this Death by Chocolate contest at Culinate.com and I could hardly think of anything else.

I have always loved to make desserts and a chocolate dessert is almost always my favorite. There have been times when a chocolate dessert could convince me to attend a business dinner with my husband. If the menu for dinner included that ice cream dessert with a peach and raspberry sauce on top chances are I would pass but, if the dessert was something chocolate, I would make an extra effort to attend.

In those days I tried many different desserts when we entertained at home but in time I got it down to what I thought to be the perfect three, Double-Chocolate Cheesecake, covered in chocolate ganache and little chocolate stars, Chocolate Truffle Dessert, shaped with cookie cutters and laced with liqueur, and Chocolate Decadence.

The recipe for Chocolate Decadence was clipped from a magazine, probably in the '80s. It features a chocolate cookie crust and a dense egg rich chocolate filling that is laced with hints of orange and cappuccino. It is a lovely dessert, so lovely in fact that I have used its picture for my header.

With these three chocolate desserts in my recipe arsenal I was sure I would never need to scan another cookbook or magazine for the perfect dessert to complete any meal. While I have to admit that my tastes have changed a little since then, and I long ago resumed the search for great desserts, this one has stood the test of time and is still a frequent visitor at my table.

Chocolate Decadence

½ cup finely crushed chocolate wafers (or chocolate graham crackers)
16 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon instant coffee crystals
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 beaten eggs
¾ cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon finely shredded orange peel

Whipped cream
Chocolate-covered coffee beans (optional)
Edible flowers (optional)

Prepare a 9-inch springform pan. (I cover the bottom of the pan with parchment paper which extends slightly from the pan in all directions. Then I grease the parchment and the inner sides of the pan. This makes the cake easy to remove from the base and can be easily removed once the cake is chilled and ready to serve.)

Pour the chocolate wafer crumbs into the pan and lift and tilt to cover the sides and bottom of the pan with a coating of crumbs. Set aside.

Place chocolate, whipping cream, coffee crystals and cinnamon in a saucepan. Stir and cook over low heat until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Transfer the melted chocolate mixture to a medium sized mixing bowl.

Combine the eggs, sugar and flour in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until the mixture is thick and lemon colored, approximately ten minutes. Add the orange peel.

Pour one-forth of the egg mixture into the melted chocolate mixture and gently fold. Pour this mixture back into the remaining egg mixure and fold until just combined, being careful not to overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes or until the edge is puffed and firm approximately halfway to the center and the center is still slightly soft.

Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Remove the sides of the springform pan. Let the cake continue to cool on the rack for 4 hours. Then cover and place it in the refrigerator for another four hours, or until serving time.

Garnish with whipped cream, chocolate covered coffee beans and edible flowers. I used trailing rosemary blossoms.

02 February 2008

Overnight Pancakes



I don’t know about the rest of you, but to me Fat Tuesday means pancakes. Maybe it is my Episcopalian background. In every Episcopal church I have attended there is great excitement about the Fat Tuesday, or more properly called Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Dinner. People gather in the church kitchen to cook massive quantities of pancakes and sausages and serve them with juice and coffee.

I have enjoyed this tradition ever since I was introduced to it, after marrying an Episcopalian. I mean, who doesn’t like to eat pancakes? And eating them for dinner does seem like an indulgent treat. But where did this tradition come from? Pancakes are relatively inexpensive to prepare and, compared to many things we might eat, not an extremely “fat” choice for dinner.

Its origins are grounded in the Lenten observance of fasting. In an earlier time Christians routinely restricted their diets during the season of Lent. During this time meat, dairy products and eggs were forbidden. Instead, people ate simpler fare, giving up dietary richness in a spirit of repentance and self-examination. So, on the eve of Lent (Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent) when all the people were preparing for their Lenten fast, they cleaned out their cupboards and, to avoid waste, consumed all of the rich foods that were on hand and might spoil before Easter, some 40 days later. What better way to use eggs and butter and milk than to make a feast of pancakes?

In case you don’t plan to attend a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner, or if you would like to prepare one of your own, I have a great recipe for pancakes. These pancakes are a bit unusual. The batter contains yeast and can be prepared well in advance. It keeps in the refrigerator up to one week. So stir up the batter in the morning, the night before, or even the weekend before and the batter will be ready when you are for a great Shrove Tuesday dinner, or an easy weekend breakfast.


Overnight Pancakes

1 package active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (105 – 115 degrees)
2 teaspoons sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs
1 quart buttermilk
¼ cup vegetable oil

Combine the yeast, warm water and sugar in a small cup or bowl. Let stand 5 minutes.

Thoroughly mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Form a well in the center.

Beat the eggs together with the buttermilk and oil until well combined. Pour this mixture into the well formed in the dry ingredients. Stir just long enough to moisten the dry ingredients.

Add the yeast mixture and stir. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours, overnight, or up to one week.

When you are ready to cook the pancakes, remove the batter from the refrigerator and stir well.

For each pancake, pour roughly 1/3 cup of the batter onto a hot skillet. Cook the pancake over medium to medium-low heat until the bubbles that form along the edges have popped and the edges begin to look dry and cooked.
Turn and cook briefly on the other side until browned.

Yield: 2 ½ dozen.

Note: Pancake batter may be stored in refrigerator up to 1 week.

Cooked pancakes can be frozen and enjoyed later. Place waxed between each pancake and store in a Ziplock freezer bag or other freezer container.

Frozen pancakes can be rewarmed by removing from the packaging and placing the pancake in the microwave or, better yet, the toaster.

01 February 2008

Groundhog Day Meatloaf


By the beginning of February I am eager to welcome Spring. The Witch Hazel tree in my yard has been blooming for over a week now and bulbs are starting to push up through the dirt. The schools here have started late a few times because of ice and snow, enough to satisfy those who delight in winter’s surprises, and the charms of winter are starting to wear thin. I begin to wonder - just how much longer will winter last? It seems like a good time to take stock and do a little forecasting.

And so my thoughts turn to the groundhog. Who, I ask you, is better qualified than the groundhog to tell us when winter will end? It seems he has been predicting the time of Spring's arrival for generations.

But honestly, what does he know? While I know that Groundhog Day is approaching, I have to admit that I know little else about the meteorological qualifications of this scruffy rodent. Since we had a snow day and my morning meeting was cancelled I took the opportunity to do a background check on our little forecasting friend.

What did I learn about Groundhog Day?

1. The tradition comes from Germany where it was originally a hedgehog that came out of his burrow to check the weather. If this small skittish creature saw his shadow when he peeped from his hole on February 2, he would go back inside for six more weeks of winter. If, instead, it was cloudy and overcast he would come out to an early Spring.

2. At Suite101.com I also learned that when there were no hedgehogs to be found in America, the role of rodent meteorologist was transferred to the groundhog, thought by some Native Americans to be the wisest of animals.

3. From Mother Earth News I learned that the groundhog is also known as a whistle pig.

4. Whistle pigs are vegetarians and for this reason are actually quite tasty to eat.

5. A related thought came from an article in the Daily Mail where I learned that ancient peoples in Great Britain ate hedgehogs as a delicacy.

6. The Two Fat Ladies of Food Network fame have a recipe for a large meatloaf that they call “Roast Hedgehog."

7. Feb 2 is also known as Candlemas day. This occasion celebrates the 4oth day after the birth of Christ when Jesus was presented to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. At that time the Gospel of Luke tells us that the prophet Simeon saw Jesus and declared him to be the Light of the World.

8. For this reason liturgical candles are blessed on this day.

9. I also looked up February 2 in my copy of Mrs. Sharp's Traditions. It says that Candlemas day was also considered to be the day when the last trace of the Christmas holiday decorations were to be cleared away (a good reminder to get that Evergreen Wreath off of my front door.)

10. It was also a traditional day for predicting the weather – which brings us back to that groundhog.

Suggestions

All of that is very interesting but this is a food blog. How can we acknowledge the occasion with food? While hedgehogs may have been good eating in ancient Britain, and groundhogs might be tasty too, I don’t know where to get one and wouldn’t feel inclined to test that assertion anyway.

Instead, I suggest making a meatloaf to celebrate Groundhog Day. This one is made with ground pork (nod to the whistle pig) and ground turkey breast (because it is readily available, high in protein and low in fat) in a recipe adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. It is shaped according to the prompts from a recipe for "Roast Hedgehog" in Cooking with Two Fat Ladies. We can even dine by candlelight if we are careful not to let the groundhog cast a shadow.

I might also suggest watching Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, for after dinner entertainment. Sounds like a good way to say goodbye to winter to me!


Groundhog Day Meat Loaf

3/4 pound ground pork
3/4 pound ground turkey breast
3/4 cup oatmeal
3/4 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon sage

1/2 cup rosemary leaves
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
3 black olives

Mix all ingredients throughly. Shape mixture into an oval mound on a shallow roasting pan (or spread in an ungreased 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, if you prefer).

Combine the rosemary leaves and toasted sliced almonds. Sprinkle the mixture across the loaf to cover it, pressing the almonds and rosemary leaves into the surface gently. Arrange the three olives at one end to look like eyes and a nose.

Bake at 350 degrees until a thermometer inserted into the middle of the loaf reads 165 degrees, approximately 1 hour. Remove from oven. Let stand five to ten minutes before serving.

Happy Groundhog Day!