25 July 2008

Beat the Heat Pralines


When I think of heat nothing stands out in my mind like Texas. In fact I’m pretty sure Dallas was where I learned the definition of hot...

The summer I moved to Texas just happened to be the hottest summer on record. My husband had taken a job in Dallas and I agreed to move there sight unseen, as soon as school was out and the wedding was over and we had managed to spend a little time on a honeymoon. I had never been to Texas but that didn't really bother me. I liked adventure and had been wanting to move somewhere my whole life.

We arrived in Dallas in our brand new bright blue Dodge with black vinyl interior in the middle of June. We rented an apartment which happened to be on the western edge of the apartment complex next to an open concrete parking lot. Within a week the temperature soared over 100 degrees and the daily highs stayed there for the next month and a half. On my birthday it was over 110 degrees. The heat poured into our apartment through the large sliding glass doors, and the air conditioning had no hope of keeping up.

On the news the weatherman was frying an egg on the sidewalk. I think you could have baked a cake in our car as that black vinyl interior sizzled in the open parking lot. Day after day the heat wave broke records and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Thank goodness for air-conditioning, something I had lived without until we moved to Texas. People without it died that summer. Hundreds of deaths were attributed to the record breaking temperatures. It was a difficult summer in a number of ways but I adapted. In the end I think it changed my body chemistry forever.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Texas. Texas is a huge part of who I am. And, for the most part, I enjoy the heat. On many a drizzly gray day in the Pacific Northwest I have driven my friends to distraction pining for that Texas heat. In fact, it was in Texas that I learned to appreciate not only the virtues of air conditioning but of many other heat inspired blessings as well. Blessings such as:

  • Warm summer evenings under the stars.
  • Huge jars of Sun Tea that are brewed on the patio with water heated by the sun instead of in the kitchen with water heated on the stove.
  • Pesto sauce mixed in a blender or food processor from the many happy basil plants that thrived in my garden.
  • BBQ Brisket in the slow cooker to keep the kitchen cool while providing a most delicious dinner for family and friends.
  • The beauty of a bread machine which also releases little heat and requires little effort while making a nice loaf of bread.
  • The knowledge that guacamole and tortilla chips, on occasion, can amount to an incredibly delicious no-cook dinner.
  • The recipe for these amazing microwave pralines. Though I have traveled many miles since I discovered this recipe and have had many different microwaves with different power settings and options, this recipe, as written, has never failed me.



Pralines
from the November 1986 issue of Southern Living

2 cups sugar
2 cups pecan halves
¾ cup buttermilk
2 Tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

In a 4 quart microwave safe casserole (I have always used my CorningWare oval 4 quart French white casserole dish) stir together the sugar, pecan halves, buttermilk, butter and salt. (It isn’t necessary to have previously melted the butter.)

Microwave on high for 12 minutes, stopping to stir well at 4 minutes intervals.

Stir in the baking soda and microwave on high for 1 to 1 ½ minutes.

Remove from the microwave and stir until the mixture begins to thicken, then quickly drop by tablespoonfuls onto waxed paper.

When cool the pralines should lift easily from the waxed paper.

These are best served the same day but can be kept for several days in an airtight container.

Enjoy!

Grace, from A Southern Grace, is hosting a Beat the Heat event this month. This post is my entry.

22 July 2008

Prospect, Crater Lake and Orange Balsamic Vinaigrette


Rogue River Drive

From Ashland it was a short scenic drive along the Rogue River to Prospect, Oregon, just south of Crater Lake. We had reservations at The Prospect Historic Hotel Bed and Breakfast for the evening and planned to drive north to Crater Lake the following day. The Prospect Hotel seemed like an interesting place to stop over for the night. It was built in the late 1800's and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel has entertained many famous guests over the years, including President Theodore Roosevelt and statesman William Jennings Bryan.

When we arrived that evening we found that our reservations at the hotel's Dinner House were still an hour away so we checked in, dropped off our things, and went for a walk in the direction of the waterfall trail recommended to us at the front desk. We walked down the road in front of the hotel then into the woods and soon heard the sound of rushing water. Just as the mosquitoes began biting we spied Pearsoney Falls in the long shadows of twilight. We took some quick photos then kept moving to escape the bites.


The Prospect Historic Hotel Dinner House

Back at the hotel we got ready for dinner. We walked downstairs and were seated in the dining room. Hungry, following our walk, we looked at the menu eagerly. It offered several entree choices as part of a fixed price dinner that also included antipasto, fresh baked bread, a green salad, and a choice of Iced Hazelnut Cake, Cheesecake or a Brownie for dessert.

The antipasto was nice. The olives and vegetable sticks gave us something light to snack on as selections were made and we waited for our dinner. The bread was fresh and hot and the Wild Green Salad with Orange Balsamic Vinaigrette was delicious. It was composed of a pretty assortment of mixed greens and mandarin oranges and was topped with toasted walnuts and feta cheese.


For our entree we selected Lemon Dill Roasted Salmon and 'Shroomed Vegetarian Linguine.


The Roasted Salmon was served with sherried rice, and a garnish of lemon and chives, as well as a Veggie Wedgie Frittata dotted with swirls of sour cream and chives. The presentation was invitingly homey, and the salmon itself was moist, flavorful and satisfying.


The 'Shroomed Vegetarian Linguine was delightful. This recipe, developed by Karen, co-owner of the Prospect Hotel, features a "delightful blend of mushrooms, Kalamata and Greek olives sauteed in garlic, onion and sherry." This is added to linguine that has been tossed with a delicate cream sauce and topped with flavorful slices of sauteed portabella mushrooms. The sauce was not too heavy or thick as some pasta sauces can be. It was smooth and creamy and redolent of exotic earthy mushrooms and tangy olives. It was so fine that I ate well past the point where I should have stopped to save room for dessert.


The meal came with a choice of desserts. We ordered the Cheesecake and the Iced Hazelnut Cake even though the waiter enthusiastically recommended the Brownie. Luckily the servings were not overly large though both were augmented by a scoop of ice cream. The cheesecake was good but the Iced Hazelnut Cake tasted of a delicious mixture of smooth sweet frosting and crunchy toasted hazelnuts which gave it a rich full flavor. It was a nice way to end the meal.

Zane Gray

After dinner we went to our room to read and plan for the next day's travel. We found that the room we were staying in was called the Zane Grey room because this prolific author of western novels was once a guest at the Prospect Hotel in its earlier days of operation. Some of his books, "Rogue River Feud" for one, were even set in this area. A few copies of his books were left in the room for guests to enjoy.

We were up early the next morning, coaxed from our bed by the early morning sunshine peeping through our window. There was coffee in the front room and breakfast was served to guests in the dining room. More coffee, juice and a fruit salad was brought out as we settled at our reserved table.


Wizard Island

For the main course we were served a somewhat unusual egg dish that we were told was shaped like Wizard Island, the volcanic cinder cone that rises above the surface of Crater Lake. It was served with breakfast potatoes and wheat toast.

The Wizard Island Eggs were quite good. They most resembled an upside down Strata cupcake topped with picante sauce, a flourish of sour cream and a sprig of parsley. It was both tasty and filling.


Satisfied by our generous and whimsical breakfast we went out to sit on the front porch for a while. The air was already growing warm with the promise of a brilliantly hot day. It was sweet to know that soon we would leave for Crater Lake where there was still snow on the ground.


A Twig Porch Swing

I stretched out in a twig swing hung in the corner of the Prospect Inn’s ample wraparound porch. As I sat there a faint breeze tickled my cheek. I found that with a very slight amount of movement I could keep the swing barely rocking from side to side as I watched the cars and the people walking toward the waterfall trail down the road while I wrote on my laptop.


I watched one couple linger in front of the building as the woman sketched the historic hotel. Her companion stood beside her, waiting, watching, occasionally remarking. I watched her with admiration through the twigs of the swing as she quickly picked up one colored pencil from her tin and then another. She finished and after a nod of approval from her friend they went inside.


The porch was comfortable and quiet as I worked on my writing. The only sounds were a bird singing nearby, a sprinkler oscillating in the yard across the road, the sound of a pick up truck receding in the distance and the rhythmic whir of someone pedaling a bicycle past the inn, making some effort, some percussion to the song of a quiet summer day.

A Recipe

As we collected our things to leave I made sure I had a copy of the recipe our waiter had given me the night before. When I told her how much we enjoyed our dinner and asked if they would be willing to share a recipe she gave me a copy of one of their Dinner House favorites: Orange Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Orange Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup orange juice
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cups olive oil

Mix the first 4 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor until well blended.

Turn the food processor on and while it is running slowly pour the olive oil, in a steady stream, into the mixture. Process until thick and creamy.

Refrigerate. Remove dressing from the refrigerator 1/2 hour before you are ready to use it and blend again just before using.

Makes 30 servings.

18 July 2008

White Sangria and A Random Tag


It’s been pretty warm here lately. Now don’t think I’m complaining. I’m not. I love that it’s warm, that summer is finally here. Temperatures in the 90’s have their own special charm!

In fact, hot summer weather always seems to bring fond memories to mind. I remember when, as a child, I would be given the change to buy an ice cold bottle of Orange Crush from a vending machine. I remember how it felt to hold that cold glass bottle against my face on a hot day. I also remember a big amber glass in my aunt's kitchen cabinet that she would fill with iced tea in the midsummer heat and how good a cup of cold water would taste when we poured it from the red pitcher of ice water she kept in her refrigerator at all times.

The hot temperatures also reminds me of my summer in Spain. In Madrid we discovered new ways to beat the heat. I remember the delicious sparkling limonadas that we often sipped at an outdoor café. I also think of the vat of Sangria our new friends at the collegio prepared for our going away party. Light and fruity, it was a delicious and refreshing summer cooler.

This summer, as I thumbed through “Spain and the World Table” I found an interesting recipe for White Sangria. It starts with white wine, takes advantage of some of summer’s lighter fleshed fruits, adds cherries for interest and a large splash of amaretto to augment the traditional addition of fruit juices. I wasn’t at all sure how the amaretto would taste in the wine but I was intrigued. When I tried the recipe I found that it added a slighty golden tint to this pretty beverage and a nice full flavored sweetness. Very refreshing!

White Sangria
From "Spain and the World Table"

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup diced peaches
3/4 cup diced plums
1 cup pitted cherrries
1 cup diced nectarines
1 orange, peeled and cut into 8 slices
1 bottle white wine
6 Tablespoons orange juice
6 Tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup Amaretto
1 pint sparkling water

In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and water just to a boil, stirring constantly. Set aside to cool.

In a large pitcher, stir together the cooled sugar syrup, wine, orange juice, lemon juice and Amaretto.

Combine the fruit and add it to the pitcher, mixing gently.

At this point you may store the Sangria in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours.

Just before serving, stir in the sparkling water.

Serve by spooning some of the fruit into each glass and then pouring the liquid on top.

Note: Use ripe, sweet fruit. If you are missing one of the fruits in the recipe simply skip it or substitute, based on availability. Many different combinations of seasonal fruits would work just fine.

Random Tag

So now, if you have a moment, won't you pour yourself a glass of your favorite summer refreshment and sit with me while I respond to the meme Grace of A Southern Grace tagged me with….

The rules? I think they go something like…

~ Mention the blog that tagged you and link to the same.
~ Post the rules.
~ Tell us six random things about yourself.
~ Tag several more of your favorite bloggers, via links and comments.

That done, here are Six Random Things About Me:



1. Once, my husband gave me a pool cue for Christmas. I’m not that good at pool but it gives me great confidence to open the case and put together my own cue before the game begins. Somehow, when I then totally botch the break, I don’t feel half as bad.


2. I have gnomes in my yard.


3. My very least favorite ingredient to find in a recipe – mayonnaise. I’m not sure why, but I just don't like it. I have similar feelings about other, though not all, ingredients that are white and creamy.


4. I think crossing a bridge is scary. Ever since I was a child I can’t ride over a bridge without thinking about it. Occasionally I have real issues with a bridge, like the 4.1 mile long Astoria-Megler Bridge at the mouth of the Columbia River. It connects Oregon and Washington. I have had nightmares about that bridge. More often I simply get tense and have to carefully look straight ahead until I reach the other side.


5.I have all three seasons of the TV show "Kung Fu” on DVD. My brother watched this when I was a kid but I never understood - why were all of those men in the wild west calling David Carradine "Chinese"? But then I saw "Office Space" and I began to understand...


6. I love violets.


So there you have it!

I tag:


Diet Dessert and Dogs

The Nourishing Gourmet

The SoHo

15 July 2008

The Play's the Thing


On our way back from California we stopped in Ashland, Oregon to check out the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. While we have lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost 12 years now this is only the second time we have been able to spend some time in Ashland to see the plays at this Tony Award-winning festival.



The Attraction of Shakespeare

Quoting lines from Shakespeare was one of the ways my husband won my attention back in our college days. I took several classes on Shakespeare and once you get into it the language is so deeply rich and sweet and silken, like a fine dark chocolate ganache. I fell in love with the language and have been attracted to all things Shakespeare ever since.

As newlyweds, we never missed
Shakespeare Dallas. For years we would faithfully pack a picnic basket and a blanket and sit in the park under the stars on those warm summer nights wrapping ourselves in the starlight and the language and romance of it all. We were thrilled with the quality of entertainment we were able to enjoy on our meager budget as we were just starting out and I was still in school.

Often we took friends and family along with us. When we had children we brought them along too. I still remember my daughter at age two or three being enchanted by a performance of Romeo and Juliet. She clapped her little hands together, and with wide eyed wonder shook her head gently from side to side in the late evening darkness as she exclaimed, “Oh, Romeo! Oh, Julio!”

All Things Shakespeare


When our children were small we shared our love of Shakespeare with them in other ways too. To supplement my collection of Shakespeare's plays in print, from college days, we bought beautifully illustrated children’s versions of some of Shakespeare’s better known plays. We also bought audio performances of
"Shakespeare for Children" by Jim Weiss.

When we traveled as a family to England we planned far in advance to get tickets to a performance at the
Globe Theater in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. We also took in a performance of the The Reduced Shakespeare Company's "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

What's more, we have a full collection of movies that feature the life of Shakespeare and his plays. Some of my favorites are Mel Gibson as "
Hamlet", Kenneth Branagh in "Henry V", and Heath Ledger in "10 Things I Hate About You" (which is based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew.") And then of course there is "Shakespeare in Love," one of my very favorite movies of all. Yes, Shakespeare movies rate right up there with good Asian Films like "House of Flying Daggers" and classics like "Harvey" and "Casablanca" on my list of movie favorites.

I even enjoy a tall glass of Rogue's Shakespeare Stout when I can get it, not only for it's dark chocolaty flavor, but also for it's name. I suppose there are times when I might qualify as a full blown Shakespeare Geek.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

So why haven't we spent more time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival? Well, Ashland is a long drive from Portland and getting tickets and hotel reservations can be a challenge. We just haven’t managed to get there as much as we would like so when it occurred to me that our road trip would take us right past Ashland we picked up the phone right away to see if we could get tickets and find a place to stay.

Unfortunately we are not the advance planners we used to be. By the time our plans were set the best tickets we could get to see "Othello" on the Elizabethan Stage were on the next to the last row. And our tickets to "The Clay Cart" were only a little better. Still we did score a gorgeous room at the
Peerless Hotel Bed and Breakfast so we looked forward to a wonderful stay.

A Fine Place to Stay


It was nice. We drove into town around 4 pm and checked into our room at the Peerless Hotel. The hotel itself was built in 1900. After
a colorful history and a long period of decline, the building's restoration was completed in 1994, within the guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places. Our room was gorgeous, comfortably elegant and thoughtfully appointed.

After settling in we took an afternoon walk around the town. We found that we were within easy walking distance of the theaters. On our way into town we passed many lovely gardens with flowers spilling onto the sidewalk. On the way to the theater box office we passed
Zoey's Cafe and All Natural Ice Cream and couldn’t resist stopping in to enjoy a vanilla gelato in the perfect summer weather. Eventually we picked up our tickets and returned to the hotel to change for dinner.

A Peerless Dinner


For dinner, we walked next door to the
Peerless Restaurant. After our gelato we weren't that hungry so we decided to try the small plates. We asked the waiter to advise us and settled on a Spinach Salad with pancetta, almonds and goat cheese, Pan Fried Oysters with lemon and dill aioli, a Mushroom Risotto Cake with red pepper coulis and Butternut Squash Gnocchi in sage brown butter.


Each was delicious in its own way. The salad was every bit as good as it sounded.

The oysters were fried just right, not soft or oily but not tough either, simply breaded and browned.

The Mushroom Risotto Cake was attractive and interesting. It held its shape without being soft and the flavor was fantastic.

The Butternut Squash Gnocchi was also a delight. It's soft smooth texture was dense and flavorful. We enjoyed every last bite.

A Starry Night


After dinner we walked back into town, to the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, to see "Othello." I had high hopes as we found our seats and settled in to see one of Shakespeare's best known plays. After all, it deals with such modern themes as jealousy and prejudice, if not for the rich poetry of its Shakespearean language (and of course the swords) you might think it was a contemporary drama. The setting is exotic, the themes and the dramatic action passionate. This can be a very stirring tragedy and seems well suited for an outdoor stage.

We settled into our seats and waited for the action to begin. To be fair, I must admit that I was feeling rather satisfied after our long drive and fine dinner. I felt at peace with the wonderfully relaxing summer weather and, despite my anticipation, I would have to say I was on the lazy side before the play even began.

Maybe that's why I slept through part of the first act. Or maybe it was that I couldn't hear the actor playing Desdemona's father. The voices just didn't seem to project all the way to the back from the large open air stage.


A little later, once the action moved to Cyprus, I found that I was more alert and engaged. The part of Iago was well done and held my interest. Still, near the end, I began to drift again. There was a considerable amount of auditory interference. I was distracted by the distorted beat of a band playing at a local club that was wafting through the evening air, and as the distractions increased my distance from the stage once again made it hard to follow exactly what was happening on stage.  What's more the passion and subtlety of Shakespeare's gorgeous prose became lost as the performance often seemed to lack modulation, even when the dramatic tension should have been at its highest.

Alas! So it goes with Shakespeare. There are so many variables and any performance, no matter it's merits on paper or the recommendation of location, opportunity and time, is a gamble. Still, I wouldn't have wanted to miss it! The gorgeous summer night, the stars in the sky above the stage and the lovely cadence of Shakespeare's lines are more than enough to make the experience worthwhile. Like Othello, perhaps I "lov'd not wisely but too well."

We had tickets to another play the next day so we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. We took a glass of port from the decanter in the lobby back to our room and there, on the bed, we found chocolate dipped homemade shortbread cookies and a handwritten quote. The card beside the cookies read, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream!” – Vincent Van Gogh



Breakfast and "The Clay Cart"

Breakfast was served at 8:30 at the Peerless Restaurant. As we walked out the side door toward the dining room we saw that our tables were set in the garden.


We were served a beautiful fruit salad garnished with a cheerful nasturtium.


Warm raspberry wheat muffins were then brought to our table followed by a plate filled with potatoes and eggs scrambled with spinach and cheese and garnished with lavender. It was an exquisite breakfast, a tapestry of flavors and textures, everything served at it's best.

After breakfast we lingered at the hotel reading, writing and relaxing until check out time. As we took our bags to the car we were invited to use the lobby and gathering room as long as we liked. It was nice to enjoy the quiet and the fine morning sunshine as we caught up on a few things before going to see "The Clay Cart" at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in the early afternoon.

I am so glad we saw "The Clay Cart." It is a 2000 year old tale from ancient India. In some ways it is Shakespearean in its presentation of comedic drama. This production was entertaining in every aspect. The setting, staging and costumes hit a perfect atmospheric tone and drew me into the drama. The acting was well modulated, from bawdy to funny to tender to hammy. The performance was quirky and charming and amazingly accessible. It was the perfect ending to our visit to Ashland.

11 July 2008

Honey Bees


Photogenic Bees

Another thing I discovered in California was a mild obsession with bees. As I lingered around the pool enjoying the sunshine and pleasant temperatures I couldn't help but notice the steady activity of the honeybees tending the abundant white lavender plants nearby. With my camera in hand I moved closer to investigate. Before I knew it I was spellbound by the perfectly photogenic nature of bees. These lovely honeybees, so busily combing the lavender blossoms, resembled little winged lions with rough and bushy manes.


They would lightly settle on the small lavender blossoms for a moment, put their face in the center and pull the soft fragrant petals up around themselves with their arms in a fervent embrace. A moment later they would move on to another blossom nearby. They seemed so rash and amorous and determined they began to remind me of Pepe Le Pew of Looney Tunes fame. What gorgeous and attentive creatures! They persisted throughout the afternoon. If they were shooed away they hovered at a safe distance for a short time then gradually returned to continue their pursuit.

There were so many honeybees on the lavender flowers, and they were so appealing, that I began to take their picture. Having learned a bit about macro photography from taking pictures of food I tried to get close and capture the same particular detail as I photographed the bees. At first I was a little nervous as their buzzing drew close to my ears, but then, finding that these bees were rather difficult to deter from the object of their desire, I began to relax.

As I settled in among the bees I marveled at just how amazing compact digital cameras are. Sometimes I dream of a more sophisticated Digital SLR camera but I am still surprised and thrilled by what my Canon Powershot 1100 Digital Elph can do without being any trouble at all to lug about. It just slips into my pocket or rests in my palm. It is light weight, easy to keep close by and there when I want it. I sat there, close to the lavender watching and snapping photos. Some of the bees were skittish and hurried away while others were fabulous models, indifferent to and undeterred by the proximity of my lens. I ended up capturing some wonderful images.


Comb Honey and Bee Cake

Enchanted as I was by those energetic little honeybees, when we decided to make a cake that afternoon we chose to make a Honey Chocolate Cake from Nigella's "Feast" cookbook. This choice was totally colored not only by the fact that Nigella's chocolate cakes are delicious but also by the cute little bees she decorates the cake with and tells you how to make.

Of course, to make this cake, we needed honey. Just like me, my sister-in-law had several different half used containers of honey in her pantry, each in a different stage of crystallization. One jar contained comb honey. I had never eaten comb honey before and this seemed like a great time to try it. As she removed the comb from the jar, to pour what remained into a measuring cup, I broke off a piece and let it settle on my tongue. Mmmm! Naturally it tasted like rich sweet honey but with more substance. As it began to dissolve in my mouth, I chewed the comb. Soon, all that remained was a small bit of soft beeswax. I understand that this wax is perfectly fine to eat (but, if you have a way to discretely dispose of it, that's okay too.)



Different Shades of Honey

As we continued to explore the honey on hand my sister-in-law took a container of dark honey from another cabinet. This honey had a different sort of comb settled in it, one with an irregular shape. This honey , she told me, had been given to her by a neighbor. The neighbor had a bee infestation and when she called a professional to remove the bees they did the job competently but then told her that the honey and comb was no good and offered to dispose of it for her. Skeptical, she said no, thank you, she would keep it. When she tried it she declared it to be the best honey she had ever tasted. So I tasted it too and it was good. Very good. The flavor was more complex and vibrant than that of the other honey I had tasted.

When you think about it, honey is a truly amazing substance! It has been valued throughout history for its sweetness, is mentioned a number of times in the Bible as it is compared to the sweetness of God's word and is now believed to have many healthful and even medicinal qualities. So why haven't I ever thought to make a honey cake before? Yet as my Writing Encourager tells me, yesterdays don't count. You can always "just start today".

Something Worth Celebrating

We baked the cake but had to wait until later to decorate it. We had plans to go shopping and eat gelato and then spend the evening in San Francisco. We had tickets to see "Beach Blanket Babylon" at Club Fugazi and wanted to eat dinner at Pacific Cafe. Our plans began to crowd our efforts in the kitchen but we remained undiscouraged. All would be well. We would simply finish and eat our Honey Chocolate Cake when we got home.

It was a blast! We had a wonderful evening out. Dinner was delicious and Beach Blanket Babylon turned out to be a wonderfully funny musical review. At the end of the evening we felt that we had experienced at least a small taste of San Francisco.

When we got back to the house we found that we were still surprisingly energetic. We got out the cookbook and made the little marzipan bees according to Nigella's instructions. We then nestled them on the top of the cake, poured champagne and cut into our creation. It was wonderful! Rich, chocolaty, lusciously sweet and moist. It was a success in so many ways. It isn't every day we take the opportunity to notice, explore, shape and appreciate the small wonders of life: bees, honey, lavender blossoms, neighbors, family, the opportunity to travel, a night out on the town or even a small piece of marzipan. When we do, well that is something worth celebrating!


Honey Chocolate Cake
from Nigella Lawson's "Feast, Food to Celebrate Life"

Cake

4 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
1 1/3 cups light brown sugar
2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup honey
2 egg, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare a 9-inch springform pan by buttering the sides and bottom and lining it with parchment paper.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave or using a double boiler. Set aside to cool.

Beat the sugar and butter together until fluffy.

Add the honey and continue beating as you add the eggs, one at a time, beating in a tablespoon of the flour with each addition.

Fold the melted chocolate into the batter.

Sift together the remaining flour, baking soda and cocoa powder and stir it into the batter.

Beat in the boiling water.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for approximately one hour. (Check after 45 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, if necessary, until the cake tests done.)

Place the cake on a wire rack to cool. When the cake is cool remove it from the pan and settle it onto a serving plate.

Cover with Honey Glaze and candy Bees.

Honey Glaze

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup runny honey
6 oz semisweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons confectioners' sugar, sifted

Combine water and honey in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off and add the chocolate. Let it sit for a few minutes and then whisk until combined.

Add the confectioners' sugar, then whisk again until smooth.

Pour the frosting over the cold honey cake, smoothing it over the top and around the sides. It will drip and puddle. (Put strips of waxed paper or parchment paper under the edges of the cake to catch the drips if you desire.) When the glaze is set (this will take a while) remove the strips and discard.

Bees

1 oz yellow marzipan
12 slivered almond

(Tint white marzipan with food coloring, if necessary, to get bee-colored marzipan.)

Pinch off fingertip sized portions of the marzipan and roll each into a jelly bean shaped bee body.

Cut tiny slits with a thin knife on both sides of the body.

Pipe the chocolate honey glaze onto the bee bodies to add detail. (To do this, spoon a bit of the Honey Glaze into a Ziploc sandwich bag and snip off a tiny bit of the corner. Using it like a pastry bag, draw three lines across the bee bodies and dot on the eyes as desired.)

Insert a sliced almond piece into each slit to resemble wings.

Nestle the bees into the honey glaze across the top of the cake.

Note: I have made this cake again since getting home from California. It was a wonderful chocolate cake! The second time I considered other ways to form the bees. I took butterscotch chips and carefully melted them in the microwave, stirring until smooth. When the butterscotch became somewhat firmer, I spooned out half teaspoonfuls and rolled them into jellybean sized bee shapes. I set them aside to firm up, rolling them once more in my palms to smooth the surface. With a thin knife I cut slits in the top. Then I piped details with the Honey Glaze, as described above, and added the almond wings.


This worked well enough. Still there are other possibilities. Next time I might try making Peanut Butter Fudge Bees by making Peanut Butter Fudge as directed, but instead of pouring all of it into the pan after beating, I would spoon some of it out into bee shaped portions. After it cools completely it can be decorated as above, to resemble honeybees, and placed on the cake or even eaten as individual candies.

09 July 2008

Mistaken Identity


While relaxing in California last week I discovered some amazing things. One of them was Armenian Cucumbers.... though I didn't discover that right away. Instead I was just minding my own business, cutting up zucchini for the Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables we were having for dinner. I needed another zucchini and my sister-in-law handed me this unusual looking long light green ridged vegetable. A friend had given it to her and she assumed it was some type of squash.

Who am I to doubt? I had never seen one before and, while I wasn't sure what it was, it certainly was interesting and pretty. I took a couple of photos and then cut into it. At that point we discovered it wasn't a zucchini at all but was more like a cucumber. So we sliced it and tasted it. It made such pretty flower like slices. They would be gorgeous in a salad and tasted good too, crisp and mild.

Later I searched the Internet in an effort to identify our mystery vegetable. Searching through cucumber varieties I finally found it. I learned that, while it is often called an Armenian Cucumber, it is also called a Snake Melon and actually is a variety of melon. Interesting! Still, who knew? Even when I'm not really trying there is something amazing to learn every day.

While, technically, this unusual variety of produce is a melon it works best as a cucumber which it most closely resembles in taste and texture. If you have access to Armenian Cucumbers, or Snake Melons, try this great recipe I found for Spicy Ginger Cucumber Salad at The Ethicurean. If not, it is still very good using regular cucumbers. It calls for fresh ginger, minced Thai green chiles and black sesame seeds, which promise to give this cool summer salad some Asian flair. What's more, I added some leftover shelled edamame from my freezer for a bit of contrast in texture and shape which I found appealing.


Spicy Ginger Cucumber Salad
adapted from www.ethicurean.com
Serves 4

1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 inch piece of ginger root, peeled and grated or finely chopped
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large cucumbers, peeled, cut in half, seeded and sliced (or one 18-in Armenian cucumber washed and sliced)
3 Tablespoons grapeseed or other mild oil
1 red onion, quartered and sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric
2 Tablespoons toasted black sesame seeds
2 small green chiles (Thai preferred) stemmed and minced
10 peppercorns
1 cup frozen shelled edamame (rinsed and thawed)

Combine the rice vinegar, ginger root, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Add the cucumber and toss to coat. Let stand for at least one hour.

One hour or less before ready to serve, drain the liquid from the cucumbers.

Toast the sesame seeds in a medium skillet, being careful not to burn them. Transfer to a small dish and set aside.

Heat the oil in the skillet. When hot, add the onion, tumeric, chiles and whole peppercorns. Saute for approximately five minutes, or until the onion is softened. Toss with the reserved cucumbers and edamame. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Note: Leftover pieces of fresh ginger root can be peeled and stored in the freezer for future use.
The original recipe did not call for edamame and it could easily be left out.

07 July 2008

Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables


Last week my husband and I set out on a road trip. Our destination was California. Our plan was to visit family then drive back home more slowly, making several stops along the way. We hadn't been on a real road trip in years, but still we fondly remember our long drives home to Kentucky when we were newlyweds. We have also enjoyed various cross country journeys to visit friends and family or to show our children the fabulous places we remembered from vacations when we were kids. With summer finally here we ignored the price of gas, packed up the car and headed south like we might have done in the old days. We drove under blue skies reveling in the warm summer sunshine and decades of wonderful memories together.

As we approached California the blue skies turned to gray. Through most of northern California we were surrounded by a sometimes claustrophobic haze of smoke from the wildfires. The smoke made Mt. Shasta look like a ghost hovering on the horizon, with only the remaining streaks of snow high on its peak visible in the distance.


Shasta Lake had an eerie appearance, so low with fires burning on the hillside nearby. Beyond the Lake, south on I-5, the smoke grew even thicker as the landscape rolled and changed. The smoky atmosphere felt close around the fields of fruit trees and bright happy sunflowers. Finally the sky opened up a bit north of San Francisco and a splendid sunset broke out in the west as we approached our destination.

While staying with family we enjoyed two days of near perfect weather. We sipped margaritas under a gorgeous palm tree and sat poolside beside mounds of fragrant lavender. One evening we had dinner on the patio, enjoying the wonders and peculiar blessings of my sister-in-law’s Aga Cooker. To prepare dinner we roasted vegetables in one oven while baking Zucchini Bread, then Honey Chocolate Cake, in another and poaching salmon on the boiling plate.

There is nothing like a sense of adventure and the company of friends and family to add to the enjoyment of good food and its preparation. This meal was a fabulous beginning to our nostalgic driving vacation break. Things do change over the years, some for better, some for worse, but in the company of family and friends we were thrilled to find that we are all still engaged in the journey, still enjoying each other’s company and still thankful for that blessing.


Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables with Balsamic Dressing
From “Real Food – Fast” by Mary Berry

3 T olive oil
12 oz. eggplant, trimmed and cut into thin slices
12 oz. zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1 ½ x ½ in batons
2 yellow peppers, seeded and cut into large pieces
1 large onion, cut into thick wedges
2 cloves garlic, with skins on
salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 T balsamic vinegar

Pour the oil into a large roasting pan. Add the prepared vegetables and garlic and toss until thoroughly coated with the oil. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

Place the pan in a preheated 425 degree oven (or in the Aga roasting oven) for approximately 30 minutes, stirring once at the halfway point, until golden brown and just tender.

Peel the roasted garlic. Place it in a small bowl then squash it into a paste with the back of a spoon. Add the balsamic vinegar and mix thoroughly. Pour this mixture over the vegetables and serve.

To serve as a salad:

When the vegetables are removed from the oven add:

2 oz of tomatoes
8 oz of goat’s cheese or buffalo mozzarella
1 large bunch of basil leaves

Toss well.

This can be served hot or cold. It makes a great take along salad for picnics or outdoor gatherings.