30 May 2008

Chocolate Fire Ice Cream Cupcakes


Stef at Cupcake Project is co-hosting an Ice Cream Cupcake Roundup along with Scoopalicious during the month of May. The idea is to make mini ice cream cakes to usher in the warm summer weather.

I know I wish the weather were getting warm, but in my corner of the world it just hasn't felt that way lately. In my view it isn’t really ice cream weather. I do love ice cream but to really enjoy it I have to be wearing shorts and languishing in the afternoon heat. I want to feel the hot breath of summer on my skin as I taste the cool custard melting on my tongue.

Sadly, the weather has not been cooperating and the end of the month is almost here. Still I do want to participate in the event. What to do? I added a bit of heat to the recipe.

Summer Fun

To learn how to have fun with ice cream there’s no better place to start than with children. For my cupcake recipe I turned to my vintage "Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls." It no longer has a cover or pages 1 through 8 but the rest is still spiral bound and sitting on my cookbook shelf. I remember it’s recipes so fondly from my childhood that I can still see it's illustrations in my mind when I think of easy and fun recipes. I remember a chapter called "Summer Fun." I also remember a cool Castle Cake that I dreamed of making, a wonderful Painted Sugar Cookie recipe that we tried and a recipe for a salad that was shaped like a bunny and made from a canned pear half. But my favorite memory is of a reliable recipe for basic Brownies. Of course I had plans to change and embellish it, but those basic recipes are great for knowing where to start.

To the basic recipe I added chipolte and ancho chili powder, ground Saigon cinnamon, and the seeds from half of a vanilla bean. I also added cocoa powder for a deeper chocolate taste, changed the shortening to butter and used Moonstruck Chocolate’s 2 0z. Dark Chocolate Chile Variado bar instead of the unsweetened chocolate squares. These Chocolate Fire Cupcakes smelled wonderful as they were baking. The aroma of the spices lingered in the air and smelled fresh and warm in the kitchen throughout the evening.

Kashmir Cinnamon

For the ice cream layer I used PJ Madison's organic super-premium gelato-style ice cream in Kashmir Cinnamon. It was fantastic! My biggest mistake in this process was only buying one pint of this fabulous ice cream. It worked out well since I also overfilled the cupcake liners but having some of this ice cream left over would not have been a problem.

For the icing I used a basic Cream Cheese Frosting to which I added the seeds from the other half of the vanilla bean. Then I dusted the cupcakes with a splash of cinnamon and a splash of ancho chile powder before adding a sprinkling of chopped cacao nibs.

These cupcakes turned out even better than I expected! The taste of the chile peppers added interest and fully engaged my taste buds but the heat was balanced by the sweetness so that there was no lingering fire on my tongue. The cinnamon added another sort of sweetly hot sensation and the vanilla added depth to the flavor. The cinnamon ice cream was just spicy enough to be luscious and sparkling without overpowering the taste of the chocolate or the cool sensation of the iced cream. The cream cheese icing also added a welcome tang and even the crunch of the bitter nibs was not lost in this exotic tapestry of flavors.

In short, I would definitely make these again!


Chile Variado Brownies
Adapted from "Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls"

1 2-ounce Chile Variado chocolate bar from Moonstruck
1/3 cup butter
1/2 vanilla bean
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup flour
3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

PJ Madison's Kashmir Cinnamon Ice Cream

Cream Cheese Frosting

Additional ancho chile powder and ground cinnamon
Chopped cacao nibs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line cupcake pans with foil or paper liners and set aside.

In a small saucepan, gently melt the chocolate and butter until soft. Split the 1/2 vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the chocolate and butter. Stir to mix and set aside.

In a medium bowl beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla together. Add the chocolate mixture stirring until smooth. Set aside.

In a small bowl mix the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, ancho chile powder and chipotle chile powder until thoroughly combined.

Add the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture stirring just until combined.

Pour the batter into the cupcake liners filling each 1/3 full. ( I think this will make approximately 24 cupcakes. I made seventeen but I overfilled the liners and the cupcakes were too large to add much ice cream.)

Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes or until brownies are done. (Check carefully as smaller cupcakes will change the baking time.)

Place pans on wire rack to cool. When the cupcakes are cool place them in the freezer for several hours.


When the cupcakes are ready place the ice cream out on the counter for a few minutes to soften slightly. Scoop the ice cream on top of the brownies into the cupcake liners. Smooth the ice cream to fill the liner, mounding slightly on the top if desired.

Place the cupcakes back in the freezer until the ice cream is firm.

Ice with Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe below).

Dust with ancho chile powder and cinnamon. Top with chopped cacoa nibs.

Cream Cheese Frosting
from "Better Homes and Gardens Complete Step-by-Step Cookbook"

1 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean

Combine the cream cheese and butter in a mixing bowl. Scrape the seeds from the inside of the vanilla bean into the mixture. Beat together until fluffy.

Add the powdered sugar gradually, beating well after each addition, until smooth. Stir in the vanilla extract. Refrigerate until ready to use.

24 May 2008

Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce



Something New

Last month, while I was in Paducah, Kentucky, I tried something new. In all of my travels and through all of my experimentation with different cuisines I had never actually eaten Bread Pudding until I had lunch one beautiful spring day at the Stranded Cow in Paducah’s Lowertown Arts District. I guess it was the raisins that put me off. That day seemed tailor made for trying something new and so I ordered the Bread Pudding for dessert and dug in.

Mmmmm! The flavors were luscious. Cream and sugar with vanilla and cinnamon wrapped around the texture and tang of nuts and fruit and punctuated with a smooth hint of whiskey. The creaminess was exquisite and gracefully balanced by the firm but even texture of the bread. The nuts added interest and the dried fruit was plump and, well, chewy(?).... but never mind about that. I really enjoyed it, raisins and all, and have been eager to try making it at home.

A Basic Plan

I asked Grace, owner of the Stranded Cow, for her recipe. She offered me what help she could. It seems she cooks like my aunts often did, with more of a list of basic ingredients than a recipe. She offered that her Bread Pudding was a composition of:
  • Bread
  • Raisins
  • Dried Cranberries
  • Walnuts
  • Brown sugar
  • Cinnamon
  • Vanilla
  • And Enough Milk and Eggs to make it really moist.
  • Then bake until firm.
Adaptations

I knew I could work with that but wanted a little more direction so I turned to Epicurious. There I found a recipe for Bread Pudding with Warm Bourbon Sauce and used that as a guide. From there I made a few adaptations:

  1. The recipe called for day old cinnamon raisin bread but there is a wonderful cinnamon bread available at my local market, Harvest Mill Breadmakers Cinnamon Log, which contains no raisins. I used it instead.
  2. To follow Grace’s lead I did actually look around my kitchen for some raisins to add in an effort to be authentic. I couldn’t find any. (I guess I should have saved that package from the airplane back from Kentucky, the one that came in one of those purchased snack boxes the airline offers, instead of discreetly tucking the little package into the magazine pocket in front of me.) I did find dried cranberries though, and in hopes of making them less "raisiny," I plumped them up before assembling the Bread Pudding by soaking them in a mixture of whiskey and orange juice in the refrigerator overnight. That made them good enough that I was tempted to just eat them on the spot instead of putting them in the recipe, but I did have this post to write…
  3. I also added toasted nuts to match Grace’s version. I toasted walnuts, but any type of nuts could be used.
  4. I doubled the amount of milk and omitted the whipping cream. To make the dessert richer you could use half whipping cream but I am more likely to make it for a casual dessert if the ingredients are a bit lighter.
  5. I used brown sugar instead of white sugar to enhance the casual southern flavor of the luscious cream and sugar base.
  6. Epicuious calls for placing the pan of Bread Pudding in a large metal pan to which boiling water is added to a depth of 1 inch along the side of the bread pudding dish, before baking. I didn’t do this, mostly because I forgot, and mine turned out great. Still, if you like your bread pudding on the moist side this sounds like a great idea. It might also work to just add a separate pan of boiling water to the oven on a rack beneath the bread pudding or set just to the side.
So here is the recipe I ended up with:


Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

4 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup brown sugar
1 or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
5 cups day old cinnamon bread, cut into ½ inch pieces
½ cup dried cranberries (soaked in 2 Tablespoons whiskey or orange juice)
½ cup toasted nuts

Bourbon Sauce

whipped cream

Prepare an 8-inch square baking dish by buttering the sides and bottom of the pan.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt.

Mix the bread, soaked cranberries and toasted nuts and arrange in the prepared pan.

Pour the milk mixture over the top of the bread and let stand for five or ten minutes pressing any dry bread on the top gently down into the custard mixture.

Refrigerate the mixture for several hours or until ready to bake.

Bake at 375 degrees for approximately 50 minutes, or until pudding is puffy and golden.

Remove from the oven and cool slightly.

Serve warm topped with Bourbon Sauce and whipped cream.

Bourbon Sauce

¼ cup unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons whipping cream
2 tablespoons bourbon whiskey
Pinch of salt

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.

Add the remaining ingredients, whisking until well combined.

Simmer, whisking often, until thickened, approximately 3 minutes.

Cool slightly and serve over warm Bread Pudding.

I think this bourbon sauce might also be great over butter pecan ice cream, or as a topping for cheesecake.

Or for a simpler, stronger Bourbon Sauce that doesn’t need to be cooked try:

1 stick butter, melted
3 cups powdered sugar
½ cup whiskey

Mix until well combined. Adjust quantities to achieve the consistency you desire.

This recipe turned out great! I will definitely be making this again.

What's more, this is really the kind of recipe that can be adapted to whatever is on hand. It could be made with other dried fruit or nuts or none at all. It could also be made with leftover Challah or French Bread, just add a bit more sugar and cinnamon. Or you could omit the sugar and topping all together and add cheese, fresh herbs and/or other bits and pieces to create a savory bread pudding. You could change the spices and ingredients seasonally. The ideas for variations are endless. Just sitting here I am thinking how great it would be to make:

Alvine's Bread Pudding (topped with chocolate and meringue)
Pumpkin Pecan Bread Pudding
Coconut Banana Bread Pudding
Peanut Butter Bread Pudding
Cheese Bread Pudding………….

I'll let you know if I come up with anything wonderful!

19 May 2008

Jamon and Arugula Salad


Arugula and Hazelnuts

Looking through “Spain and the World Table” a great photo caught my eye. It went with a recipe for Jamon and Arugula Salad. The salad includes one of my favorite ingredients, arugula. It also calls for hazelnuts, a product that is grown locally in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, according to the Hazelnut Council, the USA is one of the world's leading hazelnut producers and "more than 99 percent of domestic hazelnuts are grown in the Willamette Valley, outside of Portland, Oregon."

I found that fascinating. Apparently the relatively mild winter temperatures in this region allow Oregon to rival sultry Spain in the production of these tasty nuts. Thinking that I might find more interesting ideas for using ingredients local to the Pacific Northwest, I continued to browse through this new cookbook. Quite a few of the recipes call for hazelnuts. It seems that hazelnuts are almost as popular in Spanish cooking as almonds. I never knew that!

Blue Cheese

A number of the recipes also call for Spanish blue cheese. Actually, this one calls for Cabrales but, unfortunately, I couldn't find it. I used another Spanish blue cheese, Valdeon. I was able to find this interesting cheese at Wild Oats. It is made from a mixture of cow and goat's milk and is wrapped in Sycamore leaves. Still another local product comes to mind and I wonder if it might not be even better to substitute an Oregon-made blue cheese from Rogue Creamery. "Oregon Blue" is award winning and is actually smoked over Northwest-grown hazelnut shells. It is so good that it has been paired with chocolate and made into an inspired and award winning truffle, by Lillie Belle Farms in southern Oregon. Any of these blue cheese would be delicious on the salad and would complement the flavor of...

Cured Ham

Serrano ham. Well ham anyway. Again I couldn't find Serrano ham in a local market but prosciutto is readily available so I used it instead. A slightly drier ham might be better as a substitution. I think a thin slice of Kentucky Country Ham would also be excellent in this salad. But the prosciutto was a fine substitute in taste and appearance.

So search out and use authentic Spanish ingredients if you like, or simply use the inspiration of Spanish cuisine to spark the exploration of great local products. Either way, enjoy the adventure!

Jamon and Arugula Salad
(from Spain and the World Table)

1/4 cup hazelnut paste (or hazelnut butter)
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1/2 teaspoon minced shallots
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
large pinch freshly ground black pepper
8 cups arugula
8 slices (about 7 oz.) Serrano ham (or prosciutto or country ham)
1/2 cup crumbled Cabrales (or other blue cheese)
1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts, toasted

To make dressing, whisk together hazelnut paste or butter, vinegar, shallots, grapeseed oil, salt and pepper.

Toss arugula with 1/4 cup of the dressing. Arrange a slice of ham or prosciutto on each plate and top with approximately 1 cup of the arugula. Top each salad with one tablespoon of the crumbled blue cheese and one tablespoon of the toasted hazelnuts.

Makes 8 servings.

Notes: I could not find hazelnut paste in any local markets. I did find a place where you could order it, L'Epicerie, but I didn’t want to wait and was interested in cutting expenses. I decided to use hazelnut butter instead. I had already purchased a jar of Kettle Hazelnut Butter, which is produced in Salem, Oregon, for another recipe anyway. I’m not sure what the difference is between hazelnut butter and hazelnut paste but I enjoyed the taste of the dressing I made.

Next time I make this I think I will candy the hazelnuts added to the salad. This can be done by melting one tablespoon of butter in a small skillet. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and mix well. Add hazelnuts and stir over medium low heat until the mixture starts to gently brown. Set skillet aside until sugar firms up.

Or try this method from My Recipes. Toss 1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts with 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons egg white and 1/8 teaspoon salt. When the hazelnuts are well coated turn them out on a baking sheet prepared with cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned, about 6 minutes.

I might also serve this salad with sliced pears, figs or other fruit.

16 May 2008

Gazpacho

The weatherman was right! The gray clouds are gone and the sky is a beautiful shade of blue. Temperatures are soaring. Spring is here and summer is on its way.

You can see it at the market too. The produce aisle is bright with fresh vegetables. Now that the light has changed the produce looks even more enticing in its rich vibrant colors. I want to bring home one of everything just to look at it! What’s more local farmers markets are opening in many locations offering more choices for buying fresh local produce.

People are getting out to shop for vegetables, to look for flowers and herbs. Tomorrow there will be an herb festival and sale at Pomeroy Farms and it looks like a great weekend to drive out to Yacolt, Washington and enjoy this celebration of fresh ingredients and local products. There will be thousands of herb plants for sale in many hard to find varieties and there will be lots of other products and entertainment offered too.

With the soaring temperature and all of this beautiful fresh produce for sale I can’t help but think of gazpacho. Gazpacho makes use of so many wonderful vegetables and brings them together in a delicious cold soup that can be made ahead and saved in the refrigerator until dinner time. This one comes from my new cookbook, "Spain and the World Table." It makes use of a rich and colorful variety of vegetables, eggplant, peppers, onion and tomatoes, and adds a slight kick with Tabasco sauce. It is very refreshing on a warm day.

And don’t skip the garnish on this one. In fact next time I think I will make a double batch. These spicy roasted garbanzo beans would be as good just to snack on before a meal as they are added as an interesting garnish to the gazpacho.



Gazpacho Garbanzos

Soup

12 ounces Spanish onions (or yellow onions), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 pound green peppers
1 pound red peppers
1 jalapeno
1 pound eggplant, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 pounds tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup roasted garlic
8 ounces seedless cucumber, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/4 cup lime juice
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Chickpea Garnish

1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon saffron
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt

Soup: Brush the onions, peppers. eggplant, and tomatoes with 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and the black pepper. Grill or roast until the vegetables are softened and browned and look easy to peel. Times will vary by vegetable from about four minutes for tomatoes up to about fifteen minutes for the peppers.

Put the grilled vegetables, garlic and cucumber in a food processor or blender in batches. Fill the food processor or blender to a reasonable level and blend until smooth. Then pour contents into a large bowl and repeat with the remaining vegetables until all have been blended. Stir the batches together in the large bowl until well blended.

Add the cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar, tomato juice and Tabasco sauce. Add additional salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and place in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Garnish: Place drained chickpeas on an lightly greased backing sheet and roast at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes, or until the beans are golden brown. Meanwhile mix olive oil, cayenne pepper, saffron, hot paprika, dried thyme and salt, blending well.

As soon as the chickpeas are removed from the oven, toss them with the spice mix.

Garnish each bowl of Gazpacho with 2 tablespoons of the roasted and spiced chickpeas. Spread any remaining chickpeas out to cool. Store in the refrigerator.

14 May 2008

Catalonia Dreaming

For residents of the Pacific Northwest this is a great time of the year to travel. Here it is, mid-May, and while reports trickle in from places far and wide about the beauty of spring and the anticipation of summer, here it is still generally cloudy and cool. Those same gray days of February and March are lingering deep into May with only the slightest hint of sunshine.

The plants are ready. The trees have leafed out in fresh spring green. Flowers are in bloom. But the colors are muted by the damp gray cloud cover. Tender shoots push out on rich green pine and cedar branches then seem to shiver in the spring air, wondering why they have been called out so soon.

The forecast for this week has consistently been hot and sunny. There are rumors that the temperatures will soar into the 90’s by the weekend, but while I have been holding onto the hope of that forecast since early last week, when everyone began to speak of the heat wave to hit just after Mother’s Day, we are into mid-week and still waiting.

So, while the clouds stubbornly refuse to break, I am seeking sunshine in the privacy of my own kitchen. I have a new cookbook "Spain and the World Table" from the Culinary Institute of America, and this seems like the perfect time to explore the tastes of sunshine inherent in Spanish cuisine.


When I think of Spain I think of hot dry summers, welcome shade, refreshing beverages and tapas. This impression was etched in my mind one glorious summer in my youth when I had the opportunity to study in Spain. I have had a special place in my heart for the language, the cuisine and the weather ever since. So I was excited to receive this cookbook and try some of its recipes.

Spain and the World Table

This cookbook comes from DK publishing, you know, the place with the great Eyewitness Travel Guidebooks. I almost never take a vacation without a copy of their travel guide to help plan a trip almost anywhere. I love the detailed drawings and maps as well as the wonderful photographs. If the books don’t grab you with their text they will get your attention and make you want to be there with their photos and diagrams.

"Spain and the World Table" has some of the same great qualities of the travel guidebooks but in a different format. Here I can learn about the Spanish pantry and regional and historical influences on the country's ever evolving cuisine. I can picture the Mediterranean Coast, imagine the sun and sea air as I read about dishes rich in fish and seafood. I can feel the hot arid winds of Andulucia in the recipes that rely on olive oil and figs. I can taste the adventure of exploration and the delight in new discoveries as I read about traditional recipes that rely heavily on new world ingredients not even seen in Spain until after the voyage of Columbus. And I can bask in the fragrant and exotic influences of the ancient Moors who made their mark on Spanish cuisine over 1000 years ago.

This book is not so much about the basics as it is about inspiration and finding a way to bring the origins and influences of the regionalized Spanish cuisine to today's table. It is about making food traditions relevant and interesting to a modern kitchen and lifestyle.

My first impression is that the book is, well, big. Most of the layouts consist of huge gorgeous pictures of food on one page and the recipe on the page opposite. There are lots of interesting Spanish inspired flavor combinations. Cocao nib, fig, and bleu cheese. Saffron and potatoes. Vanilla, pork and tempranillo wine. Some recipes require extra equipment that may not be found in the average kitchen, like a siphon and nitrous oxide cartridges. Some call for techniques the average home chef may not have mastered, like making sushi. Many call for ingredients that can be hard to find or are prohibitively expensive, like quince paste, Serrano ham and quail eggs. Still these recipes are interesting and inspiring and there are plenty of others that consist of classically Spanish ingredients and are more easily attainable like Cold Almond and Garlic Soup (or white gazpacho), made with day old bread, almonds, garlic and salt, or Patatas Panaderas that calls for only potatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt and herbs. In all cases the information is fascinating and the presentation is gorgeous.

After thumbing through the book, wondering where to start, I decided to begin my long distance exploration of Spain with a traditional favorite, Tortilla Espanola. I remember this dish fondly from my initial introduction to it at a tapas bar in Madrid where I first saw wine drunk from a traditional Catalonian vessel called a porron, a sort of a glass bota or wineskin, between bites of this delicious potato and egg dish. I’ve been to the grocery to collect the ingredients and hope that this combination of armchair traveling and kitchen alchemy will result in a sense of copious sunshine by late afternoon.


Tortilla Espanola (Spanish Omelet)
(from "Spain and the World Table")

9 Yukon Gold potatoes (about 2 pounds) peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup chopped yellow onions
1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup diced chorizo sausage
1 cup diced Serrano ham
10 large eggs

Beat eggs and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl until smooth. Set aside.

Toss sliced potatoes with 1 teaspoon of salt. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a large non-stick or well seasoned frying pan. Add potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes begin to soften (approximately 5 minutes).

Add the onions, peppers, sausage and ham. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender, another 5-10 minutes).

Drain the potato mixture and add it to the eggs. Stir until well combined.

Clean the frying pan then return it to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is quite hot add the potato mixture, smoothing it evenly in the pan.

Reduce heat to low. Cook the egg mixture, gently shaking the pan occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is set (approximately 8 minutes).

Remove pan from heat. Cover the omelet with a large plate ( a flat pan lid or omelet turner be used instead) then flip the pan, inverting the omelet onto the plate. Slide the omelet back into the pan to cook the other side until lightly browned (approximately 5 minutes).

Transfer the omelet to a serving plate. Cut into wedges or squares. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Notes:

I could not find Serrano ham at any local markets. In this case I substituted prosciutto.

To my taste, the amount of salt can be reduced by about half.

Like any omelet, this dish is very generous in allowing for variations of quantities and ingredients to be added to the basic mixture of eggs and potatoes. Either ham or sausage or neither might be added. Likewise the mixture of vegetables or color of peppers might vary according to what is on hand.

10 May 2008

Yellow Pea and Mint Soup


I have been reading through my travel journals on this gray rainy Saturday:

April 1, 2008
Oxford, England

After climbing through every section of Blackwell’s bookshop, and browsing the promised three miles of book shelves in its subterranean Norrington Room, we are ready to move on to something else. We cross the street walking past marvelous stone heads outside the Sheldonian Theatre and find our way to the foyer of the Bodleian Library. In front of us is the huge doorway to the Divinity School and a few semi-bored tour guides telling tourists that tickets can be purchased across the courtyard and that tours last an hour except for the last tour of the day which lasts only a half-hour. My son and I remain in a state of indecision.

We go with the indecision. Maybe if we just climb something, I say, we can see all of these famous old buildings from the outside and determine what we must see on the inside. We walk past the Radcliffe Camera and into the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Here we pay a fee at the gift shop counter and are allowed to pass through the arched doorway and climb the tower.

Up the atmospheric spiral stone staircase we climb, step after narrow step. As the stairs ascend there are occasional glimpses outside of gargoyles and rooftops as we make our way to the viewing ledge around the church tower. Here Oxford is spread out before us like the playing board of a Harry Potter game. Spiked towers, rotund buildings with wonderful British names, red rooftops and lots of honey and toast colored stone buildings gathered in such wonderful order. Fine architecture can be seen in every direction. A few in particular stand out like star students in the classroom shining from beneath their formal university gowns.

Up close, we are in the position on this tower ledge to get very personal with stone carvings on the church tower and surrounding buildings, not to mention the other tourists who have also climbed up to share this ledge with us, especially when passing carefully in opposite directions. We take in every view and then squeeze past other visitors and start back down the spiraling stone steps.


At the base of the tower and just outside the door of the church I am delighted by the pleasant convenience of a garden kitchen serving tea and scones, hot drinks and bowls of soup. We are thirsty from our climb and oddly hungry as our circadian rhythm is just now reminding us that we’ve skipped lunch and it is almost four in the afternoon. Happily we duck into the pleasant Vaults and Garden teashop where I order a bowl of Yellow Pea and Mint Soup while my son asks for Hot Chocolate.

With our warm mug and bowl we dare to sit in the garden in the cool gray afternoon light. The soup is warm and filling. It comes with a generous slice of fresh bread and a dish of butter. It is immensely satisfying and tastes wonderful.

We leave on a very good note to wander back toward the library to take the tour. Just outside the garden terrace we pass a small car with the boot left open and inside see two crates of fennel bulbs and one of chard. I wonder what will be on the menu for tomorrow?

---

Thinking that soup might be the perfect antidote to the dreary weather at home, I tried to recreate the soup I had so enjoyed on that cool gray afternoon in Oxford. In the end I'm not sure that it is all that similar but it starts with the same ingredients, was a pleasure to make and ended up tasting good. I call that success.


Yellow Pea and Mint Soup

(While looking for inspiration I found a great recipe at 101 Cookbooks for Yellow Split Pea Soupand I started from there...)

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 clove garlic
2 cups yellow split peas
1 box vegetable broth (4 cups)
2 cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons curry powder
¼ cup finely chopped mint leaves

Plain yogurt, if desired
Olives
Finely chopped mint leaves

Heat oil in a 4 quart saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot add the onion and garlic. Saute over medium heat until the onion is tender and translucent.

Add the split peas, vegetable broth and water, stirring well. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until peas are tender, approximately 45 minutes.

Remove half of the mixture to another bowl. Puree remaining split peas with a stick blender until smooth. Add back the split pea mixture that was set aside, along with the salt, white pepper, curry powder and mint leaves. Stir and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat and serve garnished with a dollop of plain yogurt (if you aren't vegan), chopped olives and/or finely chopped mint leaves.

Enjoy!

07 May 2008

Spring Paella


One summer, when I was in High School, I traveled to Spain to study the language. It was an amazing summer. I met such interesting people, fellow travelers and people who lived in the countries I visited as I crossed Europe, stopping to see the highlights, on my way to my destination in Spain.

After arriving in Spain things only got better. I was impressed and changed by the medieval grandeur of the Alcazar, the castle of Ferdinand and Isabel in Segovia, the treasures and tombs of El Escorial, the narrow winding streets of Toledo, the setting and atmosphere of Valle de los Caidos, the hustle of Madrid, the cheers and ceremonial traditions of the Plaza de los Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid. It was exciting, eye opening, a feast of sensations, of ideas and understanding.

It was also a feast of new texture, tastes and aromas. One of the most amazing things about the trip was the food. I loved the tapas, the Tortilla Espanola , the sweet butter cookies we bought by the kilo from the pastelleria. In the afternoon our collegio would serve drinks and snacks at the bar for our merienda. Almost every day we had a sandwich on good baguette style bread. There was no mayonnaise, only buttered bread and filling. One day a week the filling would be a chocolate bar. How great is that?

I loved that summer in Spain. I loved the people I met, the city life, the heat of the sun and the deep cool of the shade. I loved the strong black morning coffee, the siesta, limonadas in the afternoon at a café, and dinner, late, at our dining room. We were active and busy and always hungry, and as a result the food tasted all the more wonderful.

One of my fondest memories is of the Paella. It was served frequently during my stay in Spain but the ingredients varied. The rice was delicious and firm with little green peas, sometimes shrimp or sausage and eggs, chicken, tomatoes…but it was always fragrant, filling and delicious.

After returning to the States I hoped to eat this wonderful dish again, but I never saw it offered and I didn’t really have an adequate recipe. Later, when I visited St. Augustine, FL, on my honeymoon, we ate in a small Spanish restaurant that served Paella. I ordered it with great hope but was disappointed to find that the rice was not really fragrant with saffron but yellow with tumeric. The peas were small and soft and the rice was rather damp, not at all what I remembered or hoped for. That experience has been repeated several times since, so that I am now wary of ordering Paella in a restaurant.

At home I have had a bit more luck. I have never made a Paella that fully lives up to my memories of those wonderful weeks I spent in Spain, wide eyed with the wonder and abundance of this world, but I have made a few that aren’t bad.

This recipe is tasty and consistent. It incorporates a lot of seasonal vegetables and is very pretty on a plate. The rice does not get mushy and for the ease of preparation I cannot fault its slight stickiness.

This recipe was originally clipped from a magazine perhaps fifteen years ago, maybe from Woman's Day or Family Circle.


Spring Paella

1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup regular long-grain or parboiled rice
1 10½ -ounce can condensed chicken broth
2 carrots, cut into ½-inch chunks
1 large tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
½ teaspoon saffron threads
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 medium-size skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves (about ½ pound)
½ pound large shrimp, thawed and fully cooked
½ pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium-size zucchini, cut in half lengthwise then into ½-inch pieces

Heat olive oil in a 4 or 5 quart saucepan or Dutch oven, over medium heat. When oil is hot saute onion and garlic until onion is tender and translucent.

Add the rice to the pan stirring until well mixed. Add undiluted chicken broth, stirring well. Then add carrots, tomato, dried thyme leaves, saffron threads, salt and ground red pepper. Bring these ingredients to a boil.

Reduce heat to low. Cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.

While the rice mixture is cooking, cut the chicken breasts into 1½ inch pieces and set aside.

Layer chicken over the rice mixture. Cover and continue cooking for 10 to 15 more minutes, until the rice is tender and the chicken is cooked through.


While the chicken is cooking, place asparagus and zucchini in a 2-quart microwave safe casserole. Add 2 tablespoons of water, cover, and cook on High for 5 to 7 minutes, or until tender, stirring midway through the cooking process.

Layer shrimp and vegetables over chicken and rice mixture. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Stir and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

02 May 2008

A Different Mint Julep


It’s time to get real about the first Saturday in May. The forecast suggests the weather may clear up a bit but, if it does continue as it has all week, I need a backup plan. Derby Day in these parts is at least as likely to be cool and rainy as it is to be a promising day to sit on the veranda with a Mint Julep.

Forget what I said last month when I was sipping my official yearly Mint Julep in some unseasonably warm spring weather. Amaretto is out. There is none in the cupboard and I’m not buying more. Bourbon, a uniquely Kentucky bred whiskey, is called for on Derby Day.

I’ll pass on the coin silver julep cup. I don’t want to hold something frosty and cold, nor do I want to sit outside when it is rainy, chilly and/or threatening hail. Yet I need a little something that speaks of horse racing and/or southern tradition. Lucky for me I picked up some finds at Hadley Pottery when I was in Louisville a few years ago. Thick heat retentive mugs are great for a steaming beverage when I’m chilled to the bone (or just wishing for warmer sunnier weather.)

Forget the crushed or chipped ice. I can still see the snow pack gracing the peak of Mt. Hood. It’s a skier’s paradise this spring. For that matter, there is still snow in the hills outside my window. That is icy enough. Give me something warm.

Mint? Well it is not so cold or wet that the mint hasn’t come up or that I can’t go around to the side of the house and pick some. Yes, mint is tenacious and tolerant and invigorating. It is a beacon of good humor and a fine example of blooming where you’re planted. Its attributes recommend it highly to me at this time of the year in this place. Mint is in.

I’m keeping the sugar too. I might as well go ahead with the whole syrup thing. I can use a little sweetness in my outlook just now.

So here goes, a new drink to commemorate the Kentucky Derby, named after a great Kentucky Derby champion and Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew


Seattle Slew Brew

1. Rub the rim of a coffee mug with a fresh mint leaf. Discard the leaf.

2. Put one or two teaspoons of Mint Julep Syrup in the bottom of a mug.

3. Fill the mug three-quarters full of strong hot dark roasted coffee.

4. Add about 1 ounce of good quality bourbon whiskey (Maker's Mark is a good choice).

5. Pour a bit of heavy cream over the back of a spoon onto the top of the coffee or drop a dollop of sweetened whipped cream on top.

Garnish with a mint leaf if desired.

Happy Derby Day!