30 September 2008

Study Like a Rock Star


Power Drinks

Last year my son's school laid down the law about Power or Energy Drinks. They made a policy and included it in the student handbook. It is as follows:

"Caffeinated, sugared energy drinks (eg. Monster, Rock
Star) are prohibited …due to their unhealthful nature and will be
confiscated and discarded."

Unhealthful? Perhaps, though I find that an odd pronouncement from an institution that serves pizza and burgers for lunch on a daily basis and serves vegetables only from a salad bar... but don’t get me started. It seems that such things pass for good nutrition these days.

In another school publication I read that energy drinks, such as Monster and Rock Star, have "twice as much caffeine as a typical caffeinated soda drink." Are you concerned yet?

What’s more the article warned that they include nutritional supplements like taurine and guarana to boost the effect of the caffeine. This is considered "unhealthful" by the school though the same article admits to caffeine's ability to elevate mood, improve memory and make the student more alert.

Personally I don’t care for energy drinks and I discourage them in my home. Still, I do see that it is difficult in a world so enamored with Coca Cola and other sugary caffeinated drinks to convince children that drinking them is a bad idea. I seldom drink them myself but with my teenagers, well, I believe you have to pick your battles. Though from time to time they buy a carton of Vault or bring home a four pack of Monsters generally they don’t seem to overindulge so I don’t worry much about it.

And, is it just me or do you think it is a bit ironic that, at roughly the same time the school saw the need to draft rules forbidding the consumption of energy drinks on campus, because of the unhealthful nature of caffeinated drinks, the PTO sought contributions for an espresso machine in the teacher’s lounge to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week?

Hypocritical? Well I don’t really take it that seriously but I did find it amusing. Still the kids don’t worry about it much. They are learning the art of persistence (and perhaps a few less desirable arts as well.) They know that if you can’t get in the front door, try the backdoor or a window.

One morning, following the ban, my son put an energy drink in his backpack before school. I pointed out the new rule at school, but he shrugged. No problem. He said he didn’t plan to open it at school and I let it go. As I said, I have enough fish to fry as it is.

Notes Over Minneapolis

Sometime later my family was flying to Minneapolis -St. Paul, on our way to visit family. I sat beside my son on the airplane. I noticed he was drinking some fruity smelling canned beverage and I looked up from my writing to see what it was. It was Full Throttle Original Energy Drink, Citrus flavor, but the can didn’t look open and I was sure that I could smell it. So I asked him about it.


He tipped it up to his mouth as if taking a drink and slurped on the can. Then he explained that while it didn’t look open, it was open, slightly. He showed me the little opening and I tried to get a documentary photo of it. This was how they drank these drinks at school, he explained. Technically they weren’t open so technically there was no infraction of the rules and the teachers were not compelled to “confiscate and discard” them as the rules described. It seems that for the most part the teachers felt they had bigger fish to fry too and didn’t want to worry about energy drinks on campus.


I’m sorry, but I had to laugh! The implications are mind boggling really. I mean when is a caffeinated beverage too caffeinated? Is one Coke okay, but two are too many? What about sugary caffeine laced chocolate candy bars? And when is open really open anyway? After all is the rule about having the beverage, opening the beverage or drinking the beverage? Are the children forbidden to have the beverage or just warned that they will be confiscated? Details, details.

Well it's now a new year and a new school. Cost and other factors seem to have decreased the number of energy drinks rolling through my house lately. The kids seem to have better things to spend their money on these days and of course there are no rules against them now so what’s the point. They seem to have lost their edge. Still, I am on the edge of my seat wondering what’s next. Kids are really an education in themselves, don’t you think? They certainly make me think and keep me on my toes.

27 September 2008

Oreo Cookies and Cream Cheesecake


Cookies

Cookies are a marvelous invention! Made with the richest ingredients and able to wear so many different toppings and hide so many different treasures they are diverse and delicious as well as practical and versatile. They can be a snack or a dessert or even breakfast, in a pinch. For tea they are an elegant afternoon pick me up and they make wonderful pocket sized bites for friends and family on the go. They are easy to carry and usually a perfect personal size for sack lunches and after school treats.


I would say that nothing beats a homemade cookie. The smell, the taste fresh from the oven, the care involved in making and sharing them, the mixing, the rolling, the shaping, the generosity and affection infused in every bite. They are a very satisfying indulgence!


Still packaged cookies have their place too. I’m not that fond of the homemade wannabees, made with inferior ingredients but intended to simulate homemade in texture and appearance. No, by packaged I mean cookies that come in a box or bag and are proud of it. Think Girl Scout cookies, Nutter Butters and of course Oreos!


Few things are as capable of both conjuring pleasant personal memories and plugging you into the larger cultural collective. Mention Girl Scout cookies or Oreos and everyone who wasn't born yesterday or recently arrived from some remote corner of the globe is almost certain to know exactly what you are talking about down to the taste, texture, appearance and even smell of the cookie. What's more they are quite likely to share some related memory or experience of their own.


What comes to mind when you think of Oreo cookies? Does it bring an irrepressible smile to your lips?


Oreo Facts

Here are a few facts about Oreo Cookies:



Personal Facts
  • My favorite way to eat an Oreo when I was a kid was to unscrew the top and scrape off the filling with my teeth, then eat the chocolate cookie separately or even discard it.
  • When they invented Double-Stuff Oreos I was thrilled. 
  • I love mini Oreos. They are my favorite Halloween treat.
  • I was never a dunker but one of the few ways I enjoy drinking milk is to wash down an Oreo cookie.
  • Now my favorite way to eat Oreos is to combine the milk and cookies into one amazing over-the-top dessert.

One Amazing Cheesecake

This great recipe has been in my files for well over twenty years now. Just out of college and on the job as a staff accountant a kind coworker brought this luscious cheesecake to work one day for all of us to try. Rich but not overwhelming, fun but not frivolous, childlike and still elegant, in short - it was amazing!


A few days later she brought in the newspaper clipping of the recipe and we all copied it. 25 years later it is still one of my favorite go-to desserts for a crowd.



Oreo Cookies and Cream Cheesecake

Crumb Crust

1¼ cups graham cracker crumbs (honey or chocolate grahams, your choice)
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Cover the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with a sheet of parchment paper. Close the side around it leaving the parchement paper to hang out slightly around the edge. Trim as necessary.


Grease the bottom and sides of the lined springform pan.

Blend all crust ingredients in the prepared pan.

Press the crumb mixture evenly onto the bottom and sides.

Place the pan in the refrigerator while preparing the filling.


Filling

2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup sugar (use vanilla sugar if available)
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 vanilla bean
2 teaspoons vanilla
1½ cup coarsely chopped Oreo cookies

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese at low speed until smooth.

Beat in the sugar and flour until well blended.

Add the eggs and egg yolks and continue beating until the mixture is smooth.

Stir in the vanilla extract, seeds scraped from the vanilla bean, and the cream.

Pour half of the batter into the prepared crust.

Sprinkle the crushed Oreo bits across the batter in the pan.

Smooth the remaining batter across the top of the Oreos.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 35o degrees and continue baking for 45 – 50 minutes (9-inch pan). If the cheesecake is browning too quickly, cover loosely with foil. If the cake splits, no problem.


This will be covered by the chocolate glaze and will provide a nice chocolate “ribbon” through the cake.

Remove from oven. Refrigerate immediately.

When cool, cover cake with plastic wrap and continue to chill overnight.

Remove cheesecake from pan carefully. Remove parchment from bottom and place the cake on a serving platter.

Glaze

1 cup whipping cream
8 ounce semisweet chocolate, chopped or chips
1 teaspoon vanilla

Oreo Cookies, whole or mini, for garnish

Scald the cream in a heavy saucepan over high heat.

Add vanilla and chocolate and stir for 1 minute.

Remove from the heat. Continue stirring until all chocolate is melted. Place pan in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Pour glaze across the top of the cheesecake. Use a wide bladed knife or pastry brush to smooth the glaze across the top and around the sides of the cake.

Garnish as desired with Oreo cookies, fruit or other embellishments.

Serves 12-16.

25 September 2008

Barbecued Chicken and Eggplant Pizza


Don’t you love homemade pizza? I do. Do you know what’s even better than making homemade pizza? Easy. Homemade pizza that someone else makes for you - especially when they let you sit by with a drink and watch!

HomeAlone

I took advantage of just such a wonderful opportunity recently. My husband and son were away on a male bonding adventure and had left me home alone for the week. While they were gone I tried so many fun recipes for future posts that I sort of forgot to actually make something for myself to, well...you know...eat, something that amounted to a real meal, containing several selections from appropriate food groups and the like. Kindly my friends invited me to have dinner with them at their house. Better still they were making homemade pizza.

I have to say that while I like to cook I absolutely love to be fed! It is so fun to be invited into someone else’s kitchen, to see the way they prepare a meal, what they eat and how they make it. That’s part of the appeal of reading food blogs isn’t it? Sitting with someone else, seeing and hearing about their real life adventures in the kitchen. And this was even better because it was in real time and in my own real world.

I had been told in advance that there would be something about the dinner I might find surprising. When I arrived I could see that we were having pizza and with a few questions and guesses I learned that the surprise was a pizza loaded with vegetables including bell peppers, onion, mushrooms and, most especially, eggplant.

Challenges

Well, eggplant pizza is a bit surprising but I was especially surprised considering the source. You see I have been giving the cook a hard time for months because we once ate Indian food together and he totally passed on trying the eggplant dish which prompted me to inquire about what vegetables he does enjoy eating. Come to find out, by my estimation, there weren’t that many. Suddenly I remembered his negative reaction to a post I wrote about Brussels sprouts. Let's just say he expressed a strong dislike for that vegetable. Okay, that's not really so unusual, many people have an aversion to Brussels sprouts, but over time I learned that he doesn’t much like fresh tomatoes or avocados either. Add to that the eggplant and I pegged him as "vegetable-challenged".

And so I have kind of neglected to share my vegetable based blogging creations with him, explaining that I felt pretty sure he wouldn’t like them anyway, them containing vegetables and all. But it seems that maybe that wasn’t quite fair. While he is a bit challenged by a number of different vegetables he assured me that he wanted to learn more about them and was open to trying new things. After all he did grow fresh tomatoes on his deck this summer. To further prove his point he was making this pizza.

Veggie Loaded Pizza

And it was a pretty process too! He rolled out the dough, thin, trimmed the edge and quickly arranged the crust, neatly rolling the edge. Then he spread it with tomato sauce his wife prepared and sprinkled that with cheese. He sauted onions and mushrooms which he arranged on top. Then he cut up peppers and slices of eggplant that had been brushed with a mixture of oil and seasonings and grilled the night before. He also had barbecued chicken which he added to the pizza as a final touch.

Oh yea, it looked good! After a few minutes in the oven it was ready and absolutely gorgeous. We ate on the deck, savoring this wonderful thin crust veggie loaded pizza, in the warm twilight. Everyone agreed it was good, some said surprisingly so. I wasn’t at all surprised but still I must admit, I am glad he didn’t prove his point with Brussels sprouts!

Here is the recipe as described by the cook:


Barbecued Chicken and Eggplant Pizza

Pizza Dough
(from the Breadman bread machine instruction booklet)

1 cup water (tepid, not cold)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups bread flour
1 Tablespoon cornmeal
2 teaspoon bread machine yeast

Place the above ingredients into the bread machine in the order given. Set the bread maker to its "Pizza Dough" setting and press the "START" button. About an hour later 1-1/2 pounds of dough are ready for making crusts.

For thin crust pizza, I use 3/4 lb of dough per 18" diameter crust and start by working the dough into a fat pancake shape with my hands. Then, using a rolling pin, work the dough into an even thickness. When it is big enough to cover our pizza pan, I spray the pan with PAM and transfer the dough to the pan by folding the dough up on itself several times until I can lift the whole thing into the pan and unfold it. The excess is trimmed off about 1/2" outside the pan rim and then the edges are rolled up to keep all of the good juicy stuff from leaking out while it cooks.


Whether or not I "pre-cook" the dough before adding the toppings depends on how thick I am going to pile on the goodies. A thin pizza with a light amount of toppings will cook well without pre-cooking the dough. A pizza piled high with yummy stuff might not get done in the middle unless you cook the crust before adding the toppings. Either way, set the oven to about 400 deg F and if you pre-cook the dough, 5-7 minutes in the oven is usually enough.


Tomato Sauce

1 can tomato paste per pizza
1 Tablespoon water (approximately)
1 Tablespoon Italian herb seasoning (again approximate)

Stir together and spread across the prepared crust. Tip: A rubber spatula works great for spreading a thick paste on a pizza. If you like your sauce thinner, it can be brushed on.

Once the base is on, cover the pizza with plenty of grated Mozzarella cheese. 3/4 of a pound is fairly typical for our pizzas. We also like to add cheddar cheese and might add 4 to 6 ounces of cheddar on top of the Mozzarella.


Next, add the toppings -

Toppings

Sauteed onions (Walla Walla sweets)
Sauteed mushrooms
Barbecued chicken thighs (marinated in Mr. Yoshida's "Original Gourmet" marinadeabut four hours before being barbecued), diced
Barbecued eggplant and peppers, diced (See cooking instructions below)

Arrange sauted onions and mushrooms as well as diced bits of barbecued chicken, eggplant and bell peppers over top.

Bake pizza at 400 degrees for approximately 18 minutes or until cheese is melted and crust is golden.

Let the pizza sit for a few minutes after coming out of the oven so that the cheese can set. Slice and serve.

Slice and serve.


Barbecued Eggplant and Peppers
(recipe inspiration from epicurean.com)

1 eggplant, sliced 1/2 inch thick
olive oil
garlic seasoning
Italian herb seasoning

In a small bowl mix oil and seasonings.

Brush the mixture on sliced eggplant.

Grill on a hot barbecue until marks show (about 2 minutes). Turn over, and repeat.

22 September 2008

Portage Bay Cafe


Last week we made a quick trip to Seattle. While we were there, hanging around the University of Washington, we stopped near the campus for a late breakfast at the Portage Bay Cafe.

Nice place! Though the cafe was crowded and busy we had a table in a serene garden area at the side of the restaurant. Thanks to the great weather we have had lately the setting was beautiful, perfectly shaded but bright with light twinkling through the green bower surrounding the patio.

We ordered Migas (pictured above) and Steel-Cut Oatmeal...


Both were pretty and delicious, though the portions were far more than we were able to eat.

Still I think the best part might have been the coffee. It was served in the Portage Bay Cafe mugs pictured below. They made me smile! I like to think that's what I have been doing for the last year, while writing this blog. I hope so.


I always like a little intention with my coffee, a conversation starter to see if I'm awake.

We bought two mugs.

19 September 2008

Stuffed Mini-Peppers and Pattypan Squash


I have a confession to make. There are times when I can be quite shallow. Especially when it comes to food, there are times when I am totally swayed by appearance.

That thing with me and the heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market was all about the way their colorful skin lit up in shades of transcluscent pink, dappled green, magenta and gold in the sunshine. Sure they tasted great but the first thing I thought of was how great they would look sitting on my kitchen counter, or how beautifully they might pose for a photo.

It’s the same with these precious little patty pan squash. Just looking at the smooth yellow curve of their skin, the ripple around their middle, makes me smile. They are just cute, cute, cute - so cute, in fact, that when I saw them I just had to pick them up... even though I had little idea of what to do with them.

A couple of years ago I was the same way with mini sweet peppers, the ones that come in an array of gorgeous pepper shapes and in colors from golden yellow to rich orange-red to bright green. They looked so fine that when I saw them at the market I couldn't help but take them home. It was only after we got there that I began to wonder how to cook them.


Luckily I found a recipe in an old issue of Sunset magazine that helped me solve that problem. It suggesting stuffing the little jeweled peppers with a delicious mixture of rice and pine nuts. It was really good. I made it several times and ate it with delight. But then, as the season changed and new beauties showed up at the market, the recipe got pushed aside and buried in my kitchen files.

This week, a recipe for stuffed patty pan squash at Fat Free Vegan got me thinking. I had complete confidence in Susan’s recipe for an herbed bean stuffing, but while I could have used the borlotto beans I bought at the farmers market for the stuffing I really had other plans for them.

Then I remembered the stuffing used in those little peppers and began to dig through my files. It took some time but I found that recipe. I adapted the seasoning slightly to more closely match Susan’s suggestions for a full fall flavor that would hint at sausage. I also chopped the contents scooped out of the cute little patty pans and added it back to the rice mixture for the stuffing. The result was very appealing.

What’s more, I found a little box of these sweet mini-peppers on the grocery shelf near the salad section so I bought them and cooked them alongside, for old time’s sake.

Both the stuffed mini-peppers and the stuffed patty pan squash were a hit with the family. Favorable comments were made and the dish was empty in no time.

I also thought they were wonderfully delicious. And of course they were pretty too! Still, while I am admittedly a pushover for the colorful yellow, orange and red of late summer and the bronzed and golden tints of fall, I have to say the bright seasonal flavors are something I look forward to savoring too.



Stuffed Patty Pan Squash
(adapted from a recipe for Stuffed Sweet Mini-Peppers in the November 2001 issue of Sunset magazine)

8 small patty pan squash (you might use more or less according to size)
1 cup finely chopped Walla Walla sweet onion
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup long-grain white rice
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 cup vegetable broth
1 - 2 teaspoons fresh sage leaves, chopped fine
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
a pinch of salt
a pinch of ground red pepper
Several sprigs of fresh thyme (enough to provide about 1 teaspoon of leaves)

Wash squash and place flat side down in a large pot filled with one inch of water. Bring water to a boil, cover and turn heat down to low. Cook for approximately 5 to 8 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the squash.

Drain the squash. When cool enough to handle cut off the stem end of the squash and scoop out the center, reserving the flesh. Leave at least 1/4 inch on all sides of the shell for stability.

To prepare the filling:

In a frying pan, cook the onion in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, over medium heat, until lightly browned, approximately 5 minutes.

Add the rice and pine nuts. Cook and stir until the rice is opaque and the nuts begin to brown, approximately 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the vegetable broth, sage, salt, and ground peppers. Stir, then drop the thyme sprigs on top and cover. Turn the heat to low and simmer until rice is tender, approximately 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

When cool enough to handle, pick the thyme sprigs from the top of the rice mixture and pull off the leaves discarding the stems. (The leaves should fall off easily.)

Coarsely chop the flesh scooped from the squash and stir it, along with the thyme leaves, into the rice mixture.

Fill the pattypan squash shells with the rice mixture, pressing it in and mounding it on the top. Place the filled squash shells in a rectangular baking dish. Scoop any remaining rice mixture in between the squash shells. Bake at 375 degrees for approximately 20 minutes or until the rice mixture begins to brown.

Remove from the oven and serve.

Note: I originally baked the stuffed squash for 30 minutes, as I would the peppers, but I think the squash, being precooked, were baked a little too long. They tasted great but had an overly wrinkly appearance. Or maybe its just that shallow thing speaking again. Judge for yourself.


To make Stuffed Mini-Peppers: When using mini-peppers the shell does not need to be precooked. Simply wash 12 to 15 mini-peppers and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds. Fill each half with the cooked rice mixture or fill only half with the rice mixture and match up the other pepper halves on top, drizzling with a little olive oil. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.

For another version of stuffed squash check out Alanna's feta cheese filling at A Veggie Venture. It sounds delicious made with pattypan or zucchini squash.

17 September 2008

Rattlesnake Beans and More at the Farmers Market


Closer to Home

After writing about the Saturday market in Murten I couldn’t help but run out to a local farmers market to see what’s in season and available closer to home. A trip to the Camas Farmers Market this past Saturday satisfied my curiosity. The market was smaller than the last time I visited. Fewer venders were set up along 5th Street. Still, while I didn’t show up early there were still quite a few things to choose from. I found a variety of gorgeous produce to use in simple and delicious meals throughout the week.

Late Summer Strawberries

At the first stand I picked up a basket of strawberries. These strawberries were small (by which I mean normal strawberry sized rather than Driscoll sized) fully red, ripe and beautiful. I learned that they were Seascape strawberries, an everbearing variety, and that they were locally grown and pesticide free. They were great for a light sweet ending to our dinner that evening. I took some advice from Sugarlaws and simply rinsed them and served them with Balsamic Whipped Cream. Simple but special, this version of Strawberries and Cream didn't last long. Yum!


Squash and Bitter Melon

I also bought some little patty pan squash that were adorable. I wasn't sure how to cook them but found a quick and simple version at A Veggie Venture and a more challenging but delicious looking idea at Fat Free Vegan. Those are bookmarked for later this week.

I also picked up a couple of bitter melons because I have never tried them. I love their look but am not sure how I should use them. Any ideas?

Bread and Sweet Treats

Across the street I noticed a new baked goods vendor at the market, Svitoch Inc. There I bought a delicious loaf of German bread, and some sweets including these cream filled sandwich cookies and a delightfully flaky wedge of Baklava. The vendor told me that they have just opened a new permanent retail location near 164th and 15th in Vancouver. After tasting my purchases I would say that is definitely a bakery I will be checking out soon.


Borlotto Beans

At the next stand I found a palette of bright colorful vegetables. David Knaus of LaCenter's Fresh Earth Gardens grows beautiful heirloom vegetables for chefs in Portland. His stand offered some interesting produce last weekend and promised more to come. I was enchanted and picked up a variety of bright pink flecked borlotto beans, dark mottled green rattlesnake beans, a rich variety of heirloom tomatoes and some small pretty onions. (Pictured above.)

I found a simple recipe for Borlotto Beans, also known as Cranberry Beans, with Lemon and Olive Oil. This made a great side dish that enhanced the inherent freshness of these shell beans though their pretty pink speckles faded with cooking. I may use the leftovers to make a flavorful hummus later in the week.


Heirloom Tomatoes

I made a bright salad on Saturday evening using the tomatoes and purple onions along with some fresh mozzerella cheese and kalamata olives on a bed of of arugula and baby greens. I sprinkled the salad with an Italian vinaigrette. Then I made croutons from the remains of a loaf of Delphina's olive ciabatta by cutting the bread into cubes and shaking it in a sealed food bag with a tablespoon of olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of shaved parmesan cheese. After shaking well I spread them on a foil lined baking sheet and toasted them in a hot oven until they began to brown. Then I added them to the salad warm, not forgetting to peel up and include all of the little bits of toasty melted paaremsan from the foil.


I picked up enough pretty heirloom tomatoes to try still another salad or two. I found a great recipe at Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy for an Edamame and Heirloom Tomato Salad and thought it would be perfect for the gorgeous late summer weather we are having this week in the Pacific Northwest. I had everything on hand except the fresh shiso leaves so I looked up substitutions. Mint, basil, parsley, even lovage, were suggested. I had basil and decided to give it a try.

The salad turned out to be everything I hoped it would be. I really appreciated the addition of the light green edamame to the vibrant color and hardy texture of the tomatoes. The deep green of the basil turned out to be a nice accent and the Asian inspired dressing was delicious without being overpowering. I know I will make this salad again soon.


Rattlesnake Beans

With my last few heirloom tomatoes I made a vinaigrette dressing to serve over the rattlesnake beans. I used a green skinned tomato and a red one and threw in some slivers of Walla Walla sweet onion along with some thin strips of basil. I thought the sauce would be fresh and pretty with these sassy beans, named for the dark mottled streaks in their light green skin. When I looked for information on these handsome beans I learned that in the south they are also know as “Preacher Beans.” For some reason that made me smile.

I kept reading and learned that rattlesnake beans can be cooked like ordinary string beans and have a nice flavor but when heat is applied their distinct markings disappear and they look quite ordinary. Too bad, and yet the Heirloom Tomato Vinaigrette was quite pretty enough to make this dish a stand out all on its own. Once this recipe was assembled the bright green rattlesnake beans looked all dressed up again and were full of delicious late summer flavor.

As you can see, I left the market on Saturday with my arms loaded though there were still peaches and honey and pumpkins just to name a few of the items I saw but didn't get to. Live music was playing by John Baker as I shopped, offering a nice acoustic guitar background with interesting lyrics. I wouldn’t have minded staying to listen for a while but I wanted to get home with my purchases. As always the farmers market had my head full of ideas for tasty seasonal things to eat and offered a few surprises and challenges as well.


Rattlesnake Beans in Heirloom Tomato Vinaigrette
(adapted from a recipe clipped from the newspaper)

2 small to medium size ripe heirloom tomatoes
8 to 10 large fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup slivered sweet onion
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. rattlesnake or other string beans
Crumbled feta cheese, if desired

Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds, and chop into small pieces.

Stack basil leaves and roll lengthwise into a tight cylinder. Slice across the cylinder to make thin strips. (For a great how-to post on slicing basil and thoughts on how to use the word chiffonade check out this post on The Pioneer Woman Cooks.)

Combine tomatoes, basil, sweet onion slivers, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and set aside.

Prepare beans by washing and removing strings as necessary.

Steam the beans in one inch of boiling salted water for 8 to 10 minutes, or to desired tenderness. Immediately rinse in cold water.

Drain and arrange beans in a serving dish. Top with the heirloom tomato mixture and crumbled feta cheese if desired.

Serve and enjoy!

13 September 2008

Saturday Market in Murten


Early on Saturday morning, after lingering over coffee and croissants, my husband and I took the train to Murten. Murten, known in French as Morat, straddles the edge between French and German speaking Switzerland. It is situated in the canton of Fribourg above the shore of Lake Murten.

This small medieval town has a rich history and a generous climate. Nearby the Vully vineyards provide the region with good wine while the area between Murten and Neuchâtel is known as the Vegetable Garden of Switzerland. This area has long been recognized, from the time of the Romans and no doubt even earlier, for its fine temperate attributes and so this small town in Switzerland has a long and interesting history.


The Old Town of Murten itself is well worth just seeing. It's castle still stands at the entrance to the town. Though it is closed to the public it adds greatly to the atmosphere of the place rising above the other rooftops. Beyond the castle is a picturesque medieval town of three streets encircled by its 15th century town walls. Most of the ramparts and towers of this once heavily fortified town are still intact, reminding visitors of the strength and courage of the residents of the town and the Swiss Confederates in defeating the Burgundians and Charles the Bold back in 1476. In fact the ramparts are open to the public and tourists are encouraged to walk there and soak in the history as well as to admire some spectacular views of the town and surrounding countryside.


Besides the ramparts and towers the town of Murten boasts a beautiful gate, the Berntor, as you exit the Old Town on the medieval road to Bern. Just outside the Bern Gate, within view of Lake Murten, stalls were set up selling fruits and vegetables, fresh baked goods, meats, cheeses, olives and other market day fare. Of course I had to take a look around.


First I went to look over the vegetables. One vendor sold three types of aubergine. She showed me one long variety that I didn't know was an eggplant. Then she explained that her best selling item is her heirloom tomatoes. She lamented that she had nearly sold out of them then gave me several cherry tomatoes to sample. I have to say, they were delicious.


At the baked goods stand we bought several rolls, one shaped like a dove, one like a pretzel and another round roll sprinkled with pumpkin seeds. They were fresh and delicious. This vendor also sold small pies with happy faces cut into the top crusts. They looked so exuberant and friendly it was hard not to smile back.


The olive vendor had more types of olives than I have ever seen all attractively arranged in wooden barrels and offered samples of everything. As we were beginning to think of lunch we couldn't resist buying several kinds and a little bit of his herbed feta cheese to eat with our bread.


Further along we looked over the meats and sausages as well as the cheeses but decided we had enough for a small lunch, so we gathered our purchases and retreated within the Old Town walls.


There we found an inviting church yard beside the German church in the corner of the town. We sat on the stone wall of the yard and spread out our cheese, rolls and olives. A friendly tabby cat approached. Free of any language barrier, he assumed the role of a self appointed ambassador. He introduced himself by purring and rubbing against our ankles, sharing our company for a short while until duty called as other visitors approached.


After lunch we walked along the ramparts and looked over the pretty rolling hills of the surrounding area.


Then we walked through another church yard and took photos of Bumblebees grooming some pretty sunflowers.


Before we left town we checked out an awesome chessboard in the park outside the town gate where we had entered. The board and pieces were huge. Such chessboards are common in the parks in Switzerland. I saw a number of people playing quite seriously in Ouchy and Bern, but today this board was open for photographs.


What a surprise to find that these great looking pieces are made of a hollow plastic. For some reason I didn’t expect that.


On our way back to the train station we stopped at a Coop grocery and bought ice cream cups to eat while we waited on the platform. The weather was warm and the ice cream melted into a perfect soft pool. Just as we finished the train arrived and we rolled on to our next destination.

11 September 2008

Grilled Peaches with Mascarpone


It's break time! I want to take a brief intermission in my blogging about Switzerland. It was a great trip and I hardly realized how many food stories I was collecting while I was there. But there are some things that, no matter where you find yourself, just take you home.

This morning I left my home office, walked downstairs to put in a load of laundry, then stopped off at the kitchen for a late morning snack. I picked up a peach I bought at the grocery yesterday. It was perfectly ripe when I brought it home and I offered it to my daughter but for some reason she had left it on the counter uneaten. I picked it up, tested its weight and ran my thumb over its fuzzy pink skin as I took it to the sink. It was a white peach with a few small bruises that I trimmed away. As I sliced it and bit into it while gazing into my backyard through the kitchen window, the soft fragrance and pleasant flavor transported me to my childhood in Kentucky...

I was on the enclosed breezeway of the house I grew up in standing beside the cedar stained picnic table there drenched in the soft hot sunlight of late summer streaming through the windows. My Dad and my aunts were standing around extolling the wonders of the peaches they had just brought home from Bray's Orchard. There was a large fragrant crate of them there on the table and the scent slowly permeated the air around me. Their pink fuzzy skin was soft and beautiful. I was given one and as I bit into its delicious fruit the delicate sweet flavor and the gentle tartness on my tongue filled me with joy as the sticky juice ran down my arm.

I have had a special place in my heart for white peaches ever since.

What is the difference between white peaches and yellow peaches? I think it is something like the difference between white and yellow grits. It is a matter of tender subtlety versus brash intensity. A white peach has a delicate flesh that bruises easily and shows its bruises even more so. The flavor is not quite as sweet or sour as a yellow peach but is perhaps a bit more of a complex blend of the two. It is different and yet the same. Like I am now different than the little girl who ate that perfect white peach with rapture sitting on the concrete back porch steps of my childhood home... and yet I am the same. I still find a smile curling the corner of my lips as I bite into this luscious peach in my hand and notice the juice running down my wrist.

And that brings me to a recipe that was shared by a friend who made this for us in his backyard earlier this summer. It isn’t even a recipe, actually, but more like a wonderful idea, perfectly executed. After attending a concert together, we went back to our friends' house to get our car. They asked us to stay for dessert, nothing difficult or too fancy, just a sweet bite to end the evening. We sipped wine while my friend turned on the barbecue, quickly halved some peaches and put them on the grill. After a few minutes he turned them and scooped some mascarpone cheese into the center, sprinkling the surface with a little sugar. When the peach was cooked through, hot and a little soft, he placed them on plates drizzled them with honey and passed them around. Amazing! They were light, creamy and tangy sweet. The complexity of the honey added a perfect sticky sweet finishing touch. We ate them around the fire pit in the darkness savoring every bite.


Grilled Peaches with Mascarpone Cheese

3 Peaches (ripe but not too soft)
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
a little white sugar, brown sugar or Splenda
Honey, to drizzle

Cut peaches in half and remove the pit. Scoop the center out a little bit if desired. (The peaches I had were so pretty inside that I skipped this step.) Brush the top edge with butter if you like.

Place cut side down either directly on the grill or on a piece of aluminum foil placed on the grill depending on your preference and the firmness of your peach. Grill 4 or 5 minutes or until the peaches begin to soften.

Turn peach halves over. Scoop approximateley 1 Tablespoon of mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) into each peach center. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Grill another 4 - 5 minutes, or to desired doneness.

Remove peach halves to serving plates and drizzle with honey.

Enjoy!


Note: Though white peaches are delicious and are available locally right now, my friend made these using yellow peaches and they would probably look prettier in this dessert because of their heartier texture.

And one more thing: This dessert is delicious as is! That said, when I made it at home I had some Berry Basil Sauce on hand and offered it as an option to spoon over the dessert. I had a few takers. They told me it made a nice addition.

08 September 2008

Choux Pastry in Vevey

Vevey, Switzerland is another beautiful town gracing the shoreline of Lake Geneva. It is much smaller than Lausanne but sounded just as picturesque when described in the travel guides I was reading. One early afternoon, as I took the train back to Lausanne, I thought it would be fun to get off at Vevey and have a look around. I wanted to see what the town was like, perhaps visit a museum or two or check out the local market that I had read was held on Tuesdays.

Exiting the station at Vevey I headed down the hill toward the lake. Soon I found myself at the Grande-Place (Place du Marché) market square. What I didn't find was a market but only a large paved area. Perhaps I arrived too late in the day. Perhaps I was misinformed. It didn't really matter. My eye was drawn down the hill to an intriguing old double decker carousel situated beside the market square toward the lake. Just past the carousel the lake front opened up to a lovely promenade stretching out beside the water in both directions. Small outdoor kiosks and cafés were nestled alongside and swans floated dreamily near the shore under a brilliant blue sky.

The Promenade

The promenade beckoned. I walked past the empty market area and the carousel and continued down the path beside the lake. It was a beautiful afternoon and people were out making the most of it. I passed couples holding hands, tourists taking photos and an older gentleman at an easel on the sidewalk painting a view of the town.

I hoped to find one of several interesting museums I had read about. The signpost for museums pointed this way so I continued walking, basking in the elegant yet relaxed beauty of this place. I watched sailboats glide across the shimmering water, saw children playing in a grassy space and photographed some of the beautiful flowers along the promenade.

Soon enough I saw something rather unusual up ahead. Along the promenade and just into the lake I saw a huge fork sticking up out of the water. I thought it must be a sign that I had found the Alimentarium (or Musée de l’Alimentation), a food museum sponsored by Nestlé whose international headquarters happen to be in Vevey.

The Alimentarium

Across the street I found the building, paid my admission and entered. Inside were four large galleries featuring different aspects of food - digesting, purchasing, eating and cooking - and a large area for special exhibitions upstairs. The signage in the main galleries was in English as well as French and German so I was able to follow the exhibits and enjoy the displays.

The museum was well laid out and housed a variety of exhibits. I especially enjoyed looking through the eating gallery. There I found several displays concerning the history of food. They offered some interesting observations about how food traditions have changed over time.

One display observed that while the Advent season in December was traditionally a time of restriction and preparation for the Christmas season, now December is simply the herald of winter and treats of all kinds are prepared, sold and consumed throughout the month.

Another pointed out that the third Sunday in September had been declared a day of thanksgiving, penitence and prayer by the Swiss assembly of cantons in 1832. It was known as the Federal Day of Fasting and yet, in time, no one fasted anymore. In 1970 it was decided to replace the act of thanksgiving and fasting with a project to collect money for mutual-aid. Now the day is celebrated by eating plum tarts.

My favorite display, featuring a bunny made of bread, noted, "In paradise, trees are in flower and in fruit together - there are no seasons. Paradoxically, now that produce is available all year round, there is a growing urge to eat according to the season."


Still my favorite section of the museum was the gallery on cooking. It featured a working kitchen area where interactive cooking demonstrations were offered several times a day. As I entered this section I saw a workshop in progress and it looked both fun and informative. "Too bad I missed it," I thought, as I saw that they were close to being finished with their choux pastry rolls. Then I noticed that another class was to begin in about half an hour.

Choux Pastry Workshop

I have loved choux pastry since I first sampled it freshly made and hot from the oven. My oldest son used to cook quite often and sometimes he would make Profiteroles and serve them fresh, with ice cream and his own special chocolate sauce. They were wonderful, and yet I somehow imagined that they were very difficult to make and never tried them for myself. But there is a time for everything. I began to think how perfect it would be to try making them here and bring that experience home from Switzerland as a souvenir. With someone to guide me in person I felt confident that I could do it.

Finally I got up the nerve to ask if I could participate. The workshop was presented in French only but I thought I would be able to follow it. I just didn't want anyone to get frustrated by my mistakes or my camera. Happily I was encouraged to participate and after paying a small fee I hurried in to get ready for the workshop.

As the class began we put on our 'Alimetarium' aprons. I soon found that of the eight or so other participants in this workshop more than half were children. And why not? The recipe turned out to be simple enough. I also found that the other participants spoke a variety of languages. The boy beside me, my station partner, helped me to understand the instrutions with gestures and a few words of English. What's more, the chef's assistant knew English and was kind enough to translate for me whenever the chef explained details beyond the basic recipe and techniques, or told something very interesting about the history or potential of Pâte à Choux. I was touched by their effort to help me overcome my language limitations and make the most of the class.


History and Chemistry

The chef spoke briefly about the origins and history of choux pastry. It had to do with Catherine de Medici and her court chefs as well as something about the terminology that evolved. I think it is an interesting story though I couldn't completely follow the details at the time.

He also talked about it's chemistry. He asked what makes choux pastry rise and become hollow inside when it consists of only basic ingredients and no baking powder or other leavening? The answer is steam. Because of the high ratio of eggs to flour, the egg proteins provide shape but remain stretchy. When the liquid in the recipe comes in contact with the heat of the oven it turns to steam which expands the roll from the inside causing it to puff outward and creates a hollow shell. This shell, when opened, can be filled with all sorts of good things. The chef also showed us how to form a pastry bag from parchment paper and then he piped the names of some of the workshop participants along with other shapes to show us how fun it could be to work with Pâte à Choux.

Along the way we created our own bits of choux pastry in teams of two and ended up with two different choux pastry appetizers packed in pretty boxes and bags to take home. We also took home a copy of the recipe. Luckily, though it was written in French, the recipe is rather short and simple and I have made an attempt to translate it here for you. I tried it at home to make sure I didn't miss anything. The result was some delicious little cheesy rolls that my family gobbled up.

The recipe we used in class was for eight choux pastry puffs. It is a good amount for a demonstration but I would usually want to make more. Today I doubled the amount and that is what I will write below. You may want to double it again if you are serving guests. Do remember though, choux pastry puffs are best served when cooled only slightly and then served fresh. For that reason I suggest making only the quantity you plan to eat within a few hours. Luckily, it is an easy recipe and you can simply make more for the next time.


Cheesy Pâte à Choux
(recipe from the Alimentarium Workshop)

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese (optional)

Place the water, butter and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the butter is melted and the water is boiling.

Add the flour all at once stirring to combine. Continue to cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Add eggs gradually in several parts, stirring well after each addition, to form a paste.

Add the cheese, if desired.

Using two spoons scoop teaspoon sized dollops of the dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, spacing them 2 inches apart.

Bake in a hot oven.

Note: At home I baked them at 375 degrees F for approximately 20 -25 minutes, or until golden brown. Some choux pastry recipes use higher baking temperatures, up to 250C which is over 475F. These call for baking times more like 15 - 20 minutes. If I am reading the recipe from the Alimentarium correctly it calls for placing the puffs in an oven preheated to 100C, or around 250F. After placing the pastry in the preheated oven, immediately turn the temperature up to 250C, or 450F. Then bake until golden, 15 to 17 minutes.

Another way to make these is to leave the cheese out of the pastry dough and scoop tablespoon sized dollops onto the parchment paper about 2 or 3 inches apart.

Continue as directed above. When the puffs are golden remove them from the oven and let them cool slightly.

While they are cooling prepare a mixture of:

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese
2 Tablespoons grainy mustard
2 Tablespoons of your choice of fresh herbs
(the recipe suggested tarragon, chives, chervil, parsley or lovage)

Mix these ingredients until well combined.

Cut the tops from the pastry puffs carefully and scoop some of the cream cheese mixture inside. Cover with the pastry top and serve.

We made both types of savory appetizers in our workshop. My favorite were the ones made with Gruyère cheese. The assistant to the chef told me to make these quite small. Then she told me that in Switzerland just past 5pm, which was fast approaching at the time, these would be delicious with the local white wine for apéritifs.

She also suggested that if I made these at home the dough should be prepared and arranged on a baking pan in advance and then as soon as the guests arrive should be popped in the oven for a warm delicious appetizer.

Eager to try her advice I stopped for a glass of white wine along the promenade on the way back to the boat dock and sampled my Gruyère Choux Puffs. Delicious! When I had finished I caught the boat back to Lausanne feeling good about the day.

As Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy has invited us to a Blogiversary Bash at her place I am submitting this recipe to her party roundup. Happy blogiversary and Bon Appétit!