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Kickin' Your Picnic Up a Notch - White Gazpacho

Ah now we’re talking! Picnic weather. The clouds have finally cleared from the Pacfic Nothwest sky and brilliant blue spans western hills to mountaintops. The weather is finally gorgeous, so amazingly gorgeous it must be said it was worth waiting for.

And people are out, everywhere, wearing their summer colors. When the sun shines in these parts no one fails to notice. No one gets passé or says, "No big deal!" Everyone, and I mean everyone, opens the doors and walks into the great outdoors. Some climb mountains, some drive to the beach, some run, some mow their lawn, some sit in a cedar chair and read a book, some chat with neighbors they had forgotten they had, some garden, but everyone participates. It cannot be said of those living in the Pacific Northwest that we take our natural asssets for granted. We see little enough of this gorgeous sunshine in a year and we know it. If it is out we are out there with it, case closed.

For me, I like to celebrate the sunshine with a picnic. A loaf of good bread, a bottle of wine or sparkling water, some great cheeses and olives are enough and make a wonderful repast. Sometimes though, I like a little adventure in my picnic food. I like to try new things.

Today I am trying a new soup, new to me anyway. White Gazpacho is a traditional Spanish recipe, It's origin possibly dating back to Moorish times, and is particularly from the area around Andulusia. It is made with stale pieces of rustic bread, garlic, olive oil and salt. Where it varies from Red Gazpacho is in the addition of ground almonds and white grapes to this base rather than tomatoes. The almonds, a traditional product of Spain, are rich and this soup is quite flavorful and best served cool and in small portions. Add it to the menu for your next picnic and enjoy a sunny taste of Spain.

White Gazpacho
(Ajo Blanco or Cold Almond and Garlic Soup)
from "Spain and the World Table"

2 cups day-old rustic bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
6 - 7 cups water, or as needed
1 Tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
2 cups blanched almonds
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided use
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
16 medium green grapes, halved and seeded, for garnish
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds, for garnish

In a medium bowl, soak day-old bread in 1 1/2 cups of water for 10 minutes. (If you use fresh bread this step is unnecessary.)

Place the garlic and almonds in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade. Process for 1 minute or until finely ground, scraping down the sides as needed to get an even texture. Add the bread and any soaking water, 2 teaspoons of salt (or less according to your taste), vinegar and oil. Blend until a smooth paste forms, approximately 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of water and blend for approximately 2 minutes longer.

Transfer the mixture to a nonreactive bowl and stir in approximately 3 to 4 cups of the remaining water. cover and refrigerate until well chilled.

Just before serving stir the soup well, reaching into to mix in any ingredients that have settled. Adjust the seasoning to taste.

Serve in small bowls or glasses garnished with grapes and the toasted almond slices.


Chocolate Tofu Mousse

In case you were wondering, here's the recipe for the Chocolate Tofu Mousse I piled into those cute little Cinnamon Sugar Tortilla Cups last week. This is a great recipe I was first introduced to by a good friend several years ago. I often eat firm tofu but one day I mentioned that I had never found a way that I enjoyed eating soft tofu. Knowing a thing or two about my tastes, she claimed she had the perfect remedy and gave me a copy of her recipe for Chocolate Tofu Mousse.

It took me a while to try it. Sometimes I am slow to organize my thoughts around new ideas but, in the end, she was right. This recipe produces a delicious mousse that, even after I added a few extra ingredients, is easy to make. Rich in protein, vegan, potentially non-dairy, and relatively low in sugar and fat this dessert could almost pass as a nutritious main course though the taste is definitely that of a decadent special dessert.

While it still sounds a bit strange to me to eat tofu for dessert, the flavor of this mousse is fabulous in every way. In a taste test I would never identify the main substance of this dessert as tofu. To prove my point I offered this "pudding" to my youngest son, the member of my household who is, by far, the most finicky eater. He liked it. Of course I then had to mention what it was made of and I don't think he finished it or has tasted a bite of it since.

Further confirmation came when I discovered that Mark Bittman found a very similar Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding to be an impressive dessert. He dressed his up in the same way, adding the Mexican flavorings I find so appealing as an addition to chocolate.

With those recommendations I feel I can serve this mousse with confidence. It is a perfect dessert when I crave something chocolaty to round out a sparse dinner menu or when I want to share an elegant dessert with dinner guests.

Chocolate Tofu Mousse
with inspiration from Tofu for Two

1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chili powder (I used ancho chili powder)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 package (12.3 ounces) of silken tofu (I used soft)
6 ounces good quality chocolate, melted

whipped cream, for garnish
chocolate shavings, for garnish
a pinch of chili powder, for garnish

In a microwave safe measuring cup or bowl combine the espresso powder, cinnamon, chili powder and brown sugar. Add the boiling water and stir together until the sugar is fully dissolved. Stir in the vanilla.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the tofu and hot coffee spice mixture (warm it up in the microwave if it has become tepid) using a stick blender or other mixer. Continue blending until smooth.

Whisk in the warm melted chocolate thoroughly until the mixture is smooth. (It will appear thin but that's okay.)

Divide the mousse among 4 to 6 small dishes, stemmed glassware or Cinnamon Sugar Tortilla Cups. Chill until ready to serve.

Just before serving, garnish with whipped cream, a dusting of chili powder and/or chocolate shavings, as desired.


Note: The mousse in the photographs shows fine lumps. These formed on my first try of this recipe. I think the cause was that the chocolate cooled too quickly when added to the tofu. Adding the hot liquid to the tofu first and then adding the chocolate while still nice and warm eliminated that problem with the second batch I made, described in the recipe above. I would have taken more pictures but I made that batch in the evening and it was gone before I could take advantage of the next day's light.

Garden Warriors, Released

They came in the mail, shipped from Gardens Alive, right on schedule. Some bright warm day long ago my husband had placed the order in anticipation of summer, and now it had arrived. With that order he extended the best of intentions to practice responsible pest control.

What he ordered were natural defenders, a little bag full of bright red spotted garden warriors, officially known as Coccinellidae, or Ladybird Beetles. These warriors came dressed and shaped a bit like my childhood memories of proper middle aged ladies, (thus, I imagine, their name). And, like those middle aged ladies from childhood, their impact should not be underestimated. Ladybird Beetles, or ladybugs, do a great job of protecting a homey garden from destructive summer pests.

Unfortuanately, summer weather is a little late in making its appearance in the Pacific Northwest this year. The little bag of ladybugs arrived just in time for summer somewhere, only it wasn’t anywhere close to summer here. The ladybugs were poised and ready to eat aphids in some dreamy locale where May and June warm newly exposed arms and legs as people shed layers of clothing to work in the garden. Here, I am still pulling my sweatshirt around myself before going outside even at midday. Somewhere pests are gathering under the shade of succulent leaves, inviting ladybugs to dine voluptuously upon their release. Somewhere these ladybugs would be welcomed and lauded for their unique and stylish ability to clean up the situations while adorning the landscape with their brightly polka-dotted red cloaks. No doubt they are greatly needed somewhere, it’s just that that somewhere isn’t here, at least not this year.

As it turned out the unfortunate ladybugs who arrived at my house were at least a month and half early, and counting. The weather was not warm when they arrived and the sun was not shining. Most years we release our ladybugs on a pleasant evening after a warm day working in the garden. We place their small bag in a shady spot under The Wizard (our tall atlas cedar that towers over the backyard), run the sprinklers to provide cool droplets for the beetles to drink from as they wake from their slumber and prepare for battle, then watch as they emerge and disperse into the yard to begin their noble campaign against garden pests. We usually enjoy this ritual in summer clothes with tall glasses of iced tea. Not this year.

This year there have been very few warm or sunny days. The garden plants are hardly growing. The tomatoes impatiently wait. The basil wilts and folds down on itself until it slowly disappears. No pests gather for the ladybugs to dine on. And yet there they were. Summer had arrived in our mailbox and we felt it urging us to let it go.

We left the bag of ladybugs in the refrigerator for a while. It was possible they would survive there until the weather warmed. Still inclination and research advised against it. It seems that packages of ladybugs sold in the spring are likely to be on the mature side and are best released soon after purchase.

Perhaps it was hope, or maybe resignation, but warned and impatient we finally released them despite the far from optimal conditions. We just couldn’t face waiting any longer only to find the pretty little ladybugs were all expired and never had the chance to drink deeply, to even crawl down a leaf or fly away.

In the end we released them on the windowbox just outside my kitchen window where the warmth from the house might urge them from their bag and where we could watch them without even venturing into the cold damp outdoors ourselves. Lame? I know. My cooling system was calibrated many years ago to the hot sticky summers of Louisville, Kentucky and the searing dry summers of Dallas, Texas. As a result I am unfit company throughout the cool damp spring months of the Pacific Northwest. Despite my wimpy vantage point the ladybugs rose to the occasion. They were fascinating to watch and posed photogenically as they found their way out of the bag and into the wide world beyond.

I doubt many have hung around our uninviting backyard but the good news is that the pests haven’t gathered there yet either. I like to think the ladybugs found their way to more inviting venues. Even their brief stay was worth the investment. These little warriors were able to coax a bright smile from my sun-starved complexion, even while I cowered in the kitchen to watch them.

Dressing Up Dessert - Cinnamon Sugar Tortilla Cups

Filled with Blueberry Pomegranate Granita and Fresh Blueberries

Simply Delicious

Presentation says a lot about a dish. Whether a recipe is simple or complex, adding interest through the art of visual appeal contributes a great deal to the overall sensory experience of a meal. That's why I love to find simple ways to dress up a recipe without having to buy and store new serving dishes (not that I don't have my share) and without spending a lot in terms of money or time.

Many people are familiar with salads being served in tortilla shells but what about dessert? And what if you didn't have to deep fry them? Here is a great way to dress up a dessert with a few taco sized flour tortilla shells, some non-stick cooking spray and a little cinnamon and sugar. You can make it even more fancy by dipping the edge in chocolate or drizzling melted chocolate over the cooled shell if you like, but you don't have to. I didn't here.

Cinnamon Sugar Tortilla Cups make a great dessert dish in any season but they seem especially nice for summer. Great for holding fresh fruit, sorbet, even cake and ice cream, these are the ultimate in disposable dishware. Why throw out even recyclables when you can eat these yummy dessert bowls instead?

Filled with a Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookie and Brown Sugar Sweetened Sliced Peaches

Cinnamon Sugar Tortilla Cups

6-8 small flour tortillas
Nonstick cooking spray
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

You can make 3 or 4 of these at a time on one baking sheet.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line a cookie sheet with foil. Lightly spray with non-stick cooking spray. (Really I'm not sure this is necessary but it aids in cleanup especially if you don't have non stick baking sheets. )

Invert 3 or 4 6-ounce glass custard cups on the foil.

Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

Lightly spray both sides of half the tortillas with nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle each side with a teaspoon or so of the cinnamon sugar mixture.

Lay one tortilla over each custard cup, balancing it on the cup as evenly as possible. (The tortilla will conform more closely to the shape of the custard cup while baking.)

Place another glass custard cup over the top, if you like. This will hold the tortilla shells on the custard cups and make them more upright but it isn't necessary.

Carefully slide the baking sheet into the oven.

Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned and crisp. Remove from oven. Using tongs, remove the tortilla shells from the custard cups and cool right side up on a wire rack.

Repeat with the remaining tortillas.

When cool, fill with ice cream, fruit, mousse or other filling of your choice.

Filled with Chocolate Tofu Mousse

Note: Smaller cups can be made by trimming the tortilla into smaller circles, coating them with sugar as directed above, and fitting them into muffin tins lightly coated with non-stick cooking spray. These I folded a little at the sides to fit them into the tins. They hold a relatively small quantity, just right for some desserts.

Serve and enjoy!

Key Lime Pie

In working out the details of my Family Cookbook there were several real challenges. I wanted at least one page from each of my father’s siblings. His oldest sister, however, was someone I never really knew all that well. Generationally our families were not in sync. That aunt was quite a bit older than my father and her children were a lot older than me. By the time I became interested in cooking they had all moved far away.

I tried to think of a recipe that would somehow fit. I had been to her house many times as a small child. She held an annual family Christmas party in her basement before my uncle retired and they moved to Florida. There was lots of food there. The problem was I couldn’t really remember any of it very well. At the time it didn't really appeal to me. I was still little then and all my memory could conjure up was a dreamlike haze of faded lime green in the form of old fashioned punch, congealed salads and unidentified dips. I could remember no distinct tastes to help me identify the recipes that might have been served. All I really remembered clearly was the Lifesavor Storybook I opened as a gift and the plaster of paris plaques my aunt crafted in quantity and let us choose one from when we won one of her party games.

So I asked around. My brother had the best idea. He remembered helping my aunt and uncle drive to Florida when they moved down south. His memory was of lime green too but in the form of a pie. He tasted his first slice of Key Lime Pie along that route to their new home in Florida. Back in those days Key Lime Pie still seemed exotic, something new that we had never had before and didn’t make regularly in Kentucky. For this reason it made an impression on him and he asked for a recipe. No doubt it went something like this...

Key Lime Pie

1 inner section of graham crackers, crushed into crumbs (approx. 1 cup)
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
5 Tablespoons salted butter, softened
3 Tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks
1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup key lime juice ( bottled, or from a dozen or so of those cute little key limes)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine graham cracker, crumbs and ground cardamon. Add the softened butter and mix well.

Press the crumbs into a 9 inch pie plate, distributing the crumbs evenly across the bottom and up the sides to form a crust. Bake for 8 - 10 minutes at 350 degrees, or until slightly browned. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks until they are thick and lemon colored (I whisk to the length of the song "Peggy Sue." It has a good beat for whisking.)

Add the sweetened condensed milk and continue whisking until well combined. Whisk in the lime juice, half at a time, just until incorporated.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Remove and let cool on a wire rack. When cool, cover and refrigerate until serving.

Top with sweetened whipped cream and a pinch of cardamon or lime zest if desired.