24 July 2013

Dukkah - An Exotic Journey



Seattle in July

Seattle was beautiful in early July.  The sun was shining, the bay was glistening and the natives were sweltering, even with a breeze gliding in from the water.


The central waterfront and Pike Place Market were bustling with tourists while many locals lounged in the green spaces or sought out the shade.


The scents of the city were strong and varied, especially around Pike Place Market.  From the acrid smoke-tinged drift near Victor Steinbrueck Park to the lingering odor of the piers and fish market, all the way to the earthy sweet aroma of coffee and pastries near the numerous coffee shops and bakeries, all were well developed and infused with a humid intensity.


Adrift in the City

After lunch on Pier 54 and then a stroll around Pike Place Market we headed back downhill toward our hotel.


Just past the market, down Western Avenue, I dodged a pedestrian exiting a nearby shop when something different caught my attention. I felt my lungs greeted by an aroma that was both earthy and clean, like the scent of distant fire and rain or an extravagant incense from some exotic locale. As I turned to identify the source I saw the sign for World Spice Merchants and was drawn inside.


Exotic Wares

The store, all stairs and slants. was lined in well worn wood.  The interior suggested a dock or warehouse with bundles being unpacked and sorted. There were barrels and boxes here and there, worn countertops and shelving nooks where jars of spices invited the curious to open and experience the intensity of their scent.  Below the main level were books. Closer to the door were bottles of spices and tables with gift-ware, blends and collections.

The look and feel of the shop was everything I aspire to suggest in my own kitchen; organized while being generous, interesting yet at the same time useful, efficient but full of texture and fragrance.  The shop was also full of ideas. The staff was wonderfully helpful, knowledgeable and creative.  I breathed it all in, deeply, traveling with the scent of spices and their creative inspiration to a place far away.


A Scent-sational Journey

Back home, in my Tennessee kitchen, that same journey took me to Egypt. I had been looking for dukkah, a spice blend included in a recipe I wanted to try.  My curiosity led me to learn that dukkah is Egyptian in origin though it seems there is a counterpart in the cuisine of many Middle Eastern countries (think zahtar, harissa, baharat, besar). Dukkah is a mixture of nuts, seeds, spices, even herbs that is customized by many vendors to a signature blend used as a flavorful addition to bread dipped in oil or as a seasoning for meat, roasted vegetables, salads or even rice.  I looked for dukkah locally but couldn’t find it ready-made.  Almost ready to make a substitution I remembered the scent of World Spice Merchants in Seattle and decided it would be fun to make dukkah myself.

With a collection of seeds found in many spice cupboards, some hazelnuts, a little salt and pepper a small heavy skillet and a sturdy mortar and pestle I proceeded to make my kitchen smell nearly as wonderfully exotic as that shop in Seattle and I ended up with a delicious blend of nuts and spices that I have been enjoying ever since.


Dukkah

1/3 cup hazelnuts
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon cumin seeds
½ Tablespoons black peppercorns
½ teaspoon flaked sea salt (or kosher salt)
½ teaspoon dried thyme or mint leaves (optional)

In a small heavy skillet dry toast the hazelnuts over medium heat.  Watch them carefully to prevent burning.  When they are fragrant and the brown skins begin to split remove from heat.  Briskly rub the warm hazelnuts together inside a clean tea towel to remove the skins, if you like. Set the nuts aside to cool.

In the same small skillet, over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds until they are golden.  Again, watch them carefully and stir them often to prevent burning.  When golden, remove the toasted sesame seeds to another small dish to cool.

Reheat the small skillet and add the coriander seeds, then the cumin seeds, then the black peppercorns, toasting each until fragrant before removing them to a small dish to cool.

When the ingredients have cooled, place them in a mortar and pound them with the pestle until they are crushed to a relatively fine consistency.  Stir in the salt and dried thyme or mint, if desired.

Store in an airtight container. 


Recipe Note:  I enjoy pounding the spices and I like the resulting consistency with larger bits of hazelnuts and discernable bits of peppercorns.  If, however, you don’t enjoy the spice pounding, or if you are in a hurry, the nuts and spices can be ground by pulsing  the mixture in a food processor or spice mill instead. Watch carefully so the mixture does not turn to a paste or butter.


Uses: Dukkah is best known as a dip for pita bread that has first been dipped in olive oil. It also adds interest to roasted vegetables, can dress up a dish of hummus, add flavor to plain rice, couscous or quinoa, add flavor to grilled meat or fish, etc. One of my favorite snacks this summer is a slice of toasted bread, or even a flatbread cracker, smothered in hummus, topped with a sliced tomato fresh from the garden, and then dusted with a spoonful of dukkah.

Enjoy!

17 July 2013

Ole Smoky Fruit Cocktail


Summer Vacations

Back in the '60s my parents saved all year for our summer vacations. They carefully put aside a little bit of each paycheck in the name of adventure, hoping to have enough to take to the road for a few meals out and a few nights spent at a motel with a swimming pool.  When summer came we packed the car and drove off to see what the area had to offer. Most of our vacations focused on regional attractions and several summers found us traveling to the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a favorite destination that my parents enjoyed for its scenic beauty and family friendly diversions.

My parents, like my grandparents before them, loved the diverse geography of the region.  They remarked on the splendid views as we rode along into the hills and mountains of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. We planned our route around waterfalls and caves and stopped at countless scenic overlooks along the highway.


Tourist Attractions

What I remember better than the scenery was the wildlife.  Black bears frequently wandered into the human pathways cut through the mountains.  You were bound to see them over the course of your vacation and if you didn’t run into one in the wild you could also find them on display back in the day.  One of my clearest memories of those early vacations is of a big black bear chained beside a roadside souvenir shop.  His celebrity was based on his ability to sit up on his hind legs and drink down a bottle of Choc-ola bought for him by a tourist.


A New Take on the Wild Life

The Great Smoky Mountains are still a popular tourist attraction.  These days, however, the area is better know for moonshine tasting than for Choc-ola drinking bears. Having grown up hearing tales of moonshiners and bootleggers in the bone-dry counties of Tennessee I was surprised when I moved back to the southeast last year to find that liquor laws have relaxed substantially and that moonshine making is not only legal but has become a product of regional pride.  

Equally surprising was the great variety of flavors now available. Looking on-line I discovered Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, a moonshine distillery located in Gatlinburg, TN, widely distributes an Apple Pie flavored Moonshine.  At the distillery you can also pick up seasonal flavors like Pink Lemonade, Lemon Drop and Blueberry.  Beyond drink, they even sell the same sized mason jar filled with White Lightnin’ infused maraschino cherries. Their marketing calls it an “Appalachian party tradition” and “A party in a jar!”  When I found them sold locally I bought a jar as a curiosity.



Retro Tastes

Truth is, I don’t even like maraschino cherries.  I don’t think I have eaten more than three (aside from those in my recently acquired mason jar) in my entire life.  Instead, I have passed them along to any takers when I find one garnishing a drink or an ice cream sundae or buried them in a napkin.  And still, I clearly remember that they taste like plastic.  All the same, those maraschino cherries sure looked pretty piled in that mason jar of clear liquid.

Finally curiosity demanded that I open the jar. I screwed off the lid and looked in the jar.  Those pretty neon red cherries smelled totally disinfected. I took my cute seafood forks from the kitchen drawer and passed one to each person present to stab a cherry for tasting.  I popped mine in my mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

Sure enough that little maraschino cherry tasted a lot like I remembered.  It had that same plastic texture and a similarly indifferent taste.  Added to that, however, was a hint of rubbing-alcohol-like vapor ascending upward to my sinuses as I chewed followed by a slight burn going down. A quiet squint followed, and a smirk that suggested never again; then, a pause... and a dizzy sense of amusement, as I reached for my fork and fished out another moonshine cherry!



A Potent Garnish

I’d say it is prudent to set an initial three or four cherry limit, until you have sensed the proof of those pretty little garnishes.  They are small but potent and while I wouldn’t say they tasted good I thought they were kind of fun. The shine itself wasn't all that tasty but it wasn’t any less appealing than, say, kirsch and at least has the merit of being American made, a true regional product.

While these cherries are an interesting novelty on their own I quickly found myself looking for a recipe to feature their qualities in dilution. Aside from suggestions for mixed drinks or sweet cocktails, of which I’m not a big fan, my search came up short.

It is easy to imagine these cherries as a garnish for drinks and adult desserts. Beyond that my memories focused on only one other retro food that I remember picking maraschino cherries out of as a child: Fruit Cocktail. 

Here is my version.  Having looked it up, it wouldn’t qualify as fruit cocktail according to USDA standards since it includes oranges and pineapple instead of peaches and pears.  Still, to my way of thinking, these Moonshine Cherries make it a true adult fruit cocktail and a interesting conversation piece.




Ole Smoky Fruit Cocktail  (for adults only)

1 cup green grapes
1 cup red grapes
1 cup pineapple chunks (fresh or canned)
1  11 oz can mandarin orange sections in light syrup
8- 12 Ole Smoky Moonshine Cherries
Liquid from oranges (1/2 cup)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon liquid from Moonshine Cherries
2 teaspoons sugar

Drain the mandarin oranges reserving the liquid.

Stir together the grapes, pineapple, orange sections and moonshine cherries.

In a small bowl combine the reserved liquid from the oranges, lemon juice, moonshine and sugar.  Stir until sugar is dissolved.  Pour over the fruit and gently stir. 

Transfer to a serving bowl or large mason jar.

Can be served at once or stored in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

Enjoy!

13 July 2013

Wrestling with Captain Obvious



Due Caution

When is enough already enough?  Is there a time when, maybe, we should address a situation by leaving well enough alone. 


Take a corner very near my home back in Washington.  Having turned off of a fairly busy road that ran along the lake, onto a side street that wound up the hill,  there was a stretch of road, maybe 200 yards in length, that ran straight and fairly level before it ended at a T, requiring a sharp turn to either the left or the right.  At the end of this slight stretch of road was the hill rising steeply behind it.  It seemed completely intuitive to me that a person should stop, or at least slow most dramatically, before turning one way or the other. Still I did not think it particularly strange or unseemly to find a stop sign there, reminding the driving public of that obvious need for caution. 


A Sign of the Times

Years passed.  Then one day I noticed several additions along this brief stretch of road.  A short distance before each of the stop signs at either end was a new sign.  It was a square yellow sign set on end and showed a red octagon in its center below a forward pointing arrow.  “Stop Sign Ahead” was clearly the point.



Sometimes a point can be so sharply obvious, however, as to hurt.  After that I could not turn out of my neighborhood onto that short stretch of road without shaking my head.  There was scarcely enough road there to gather any speed before a 90 degree turn was clearly required.  This was made obvious from any point on the road by a house and hill on the horizon in one direction and a large tree and a lake in the other.  If that weren’t enough, the stop signs at the end of the road in both directions were clearly visible from any point along the road.  They were even more clearly visible from any point at which you could see the warning sign alerting you to the stop sign ahead.  



In a quiet little neighborly section of this scenic community where does a helpful traffic sign become a waste of money?  An insult to our intelligence?  A public eyesore? A banner for Captain Obvious? 


Another Victory for Captain Obvious

Lest you get too comfortably amused at the peculiarity and excess of small town Washington, let me hasten to say that I have my doubts my last home town is alone in their zeal to post excessive signage.  Few places are safe from Captain Obvious these days and the creepage of sign pollution that alleviates our need to engage our own powers of observation.  



Just across the river in Portland, OR I discovered a beautiful little garden terrace at the Kohler Pavilion of OHSU.  



As I enjoyed the 7th floor views of Portland and the lovely sunshine of early summer I looked down toward the bench where I sat my bag.  There on the low wall behind the bench I spied this little sign. 



Captain Obvious strikes again!

09 July 2013

Cornbread Griddle Cakes


Corn Cradles

Ever since the day after I last ate at the Loveless Café I have wanted to make Cornbread Griddle Cakes.  Among it’s Supper Platters the menu for the Loveless Café includes Pit-Cooked Pork Barbeque – with Cornbread Hoe Cakes. Though I felt somewhat indifferent to the Hoe Cakes in a place that is famous for its scratch-made-biscuits, I wanted to try the Pit-Cooked Barbecue. It wasn’t until my plate arrived that I realized the Cornbread Hoe Cakes were an integral part of the entrée and were intended as a cradle for the pork.



I admit I hardly even got a taste of the corn cakes that day, there was so much barbecue piled on top.  By the time I ate my sides and my share of those famous biscuits, generously piled on a plate at our table, I had little room left for a taste of the barbecue let alone the cornbread cakes underneath it all. But I took my leftover barbecue home and the cornbread hoe cakes went with it.

It wasn’t until I warmed my leftovers the next day at lunch that I really discovered those griddle cooked corn cakes.  The most surprising thing was that they were even edible after resting under that barbecue in the take-home box all night.  The good news: not only were they edible but really delicious! I determined it was time I learned to make them myself.



Persistent Inspiration

Next thing I knew I had the latest issue of Southern Living in my mailbox. Flipping through the pages I found a barbecue tutorial and a recipe for pork filled Griddle Cakes served with a Fresh Cherry Salsa. I don’t think I ever thought of serving pork barbecue on (or in) corn cakes before and here they were, right in front of me, twice in one week.

Not that I followed the recipe in the magazine.  I had to do some research whereby I unearthed another recipe or two and sort of worked out a happy medium of elements I liked in each one.  The result was a recipe for some delicious cornmeal pancakes (hoecakes, griddle cakes or whatever you like to call them) that made a great base for my own Slow-Cooked Pulled Pork. They would also be a nice simple supper side dish on their own.




Cornbread Griddle Cakes

1¼ cups cornmeal
½ cup flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 Tablespoon vegetable oil or melted butter

In a large bowl thoroughly combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

In a medium bowl combine the buttermilk, eggs and oil (or butter).

Form a well in the middle of the dry ingredients. Pour the egg mixture into the well and stir until smooth.

Heat a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) or griddle over medium high heat.  When hot, add a little oil or bacon fat to lightly grease the pan.  Pour batter onto the hot skillet by ¼ cupfuls. Cook over medium heat until bubbles form and begin to pop, the edges are dry and the bottom has browned.  Flip the griddle cake and brown on the other side.

Keep cooked griddle cakes loosely covered with foil in a warm oven (on its lowest setting) until ready to serve.

Serving Suggestions: Top with Slow Cooked Pulled Pork and Sweet Cherry Salsa.  The same combination of Pulled Pork and Cherry Salsa would also make a nice appetizer served on miniature Griddle Cakes (just pour less batter on the griddle for each cake.) Cornbread Griddle Cakes also make a good side dish on their own, served with salsa or spread with butter.   Or try them topped with honey or maple syrup for breakfast or dessert.

Enjoy!

02 July 2013

Sweet Cherry Salsa


For my birthday I got a beautiful new bowl.  It’s pretty much white, like most of the dishes I love.  What makes it distinct is the shape, the twine and brown paper tag packaging and …. the serving spoon.  It has a frilly little ladle with the words “Let’s Salsa” stamped in the bowl. 




While I’m not much of a dancer it is a fitting phrase to roll with the rhythm of my summer kitchen. I have been crazy about salsa since my introduction to it when I first moved to Texas way back in the ‘80s. Then my salsa of choice was all about tomatoes, onions and peppers and usually came in a jar labeled “Pace”.  This spicy condiment, along with other elements of the local cuisine, began to change the way I thought about the taste of summer.


While I still use Pace for all kinds of things, my love of salsa has expanded dramatically over the years to include many colorful salsas, both sweet and savory, from the orchard as well as the garden.  This cherry salsa encompasses a number of steps in that journey, drawing on the spicy fire of ginger as well as the heat of peppers and onion, adding herbs for flavor, citrus and vinegar for brightness and cherries for sweet substance.  To switch from before the meal to a sweet conclusion you can even add a few bits of chocolate.



Sweet Cherry Salsa

2 cups sweet cherries, pitted and roughly chopped
1 small jalapeno (about 2 Tablespoons), seeded and finely diced
2 green onions, finely chopped
¼ cup basil leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon grated ginger root
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Grated rind of one small lime

In a small bowl combine the ingredients.  Cover and chill for at least 1 hour before serving.


Or... skip the onions and stir in ¼ cup mini chocolate chips (or chopped bits of dark chocolate). Serve with thin packaged sugar cookies. 

Enjoy!