slow down, detour ahead

April 29, 2013 § 6 Comments

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My encounter with cancer almost two years ago changed me. An obvious statement perhaps, but I’m not talking about the remnants of treatment – scars and other body changes from surgery, the neuropathy (lack of feeling) in fingertips or toes from chemotherapy, more frequent forgetfulness and loss of words that I attribute to “chemo-brain” rather than aging, and the cloud of worry that slowly dissipates as time moves you further away from the milestone of NED (no evidence of disease), more commonly known as remission, but never known as cured. My “core” has changed too. I try to be more patient with myself and with others, more accepting and less judgmental, more joyful and less worried, forgiving and forgetting small injustices and inconveniences, appreciating life daily. As I gradually re-insert myself into the world of work, I’m less concerned with the size of the paycheck and benefit package, and more with the mission and ethics of the company I’ll keep and the amount of good we can do. And work needs to fit into the rest of my life, rather than the reverse which was how things were B.C. (before cancer).

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I flew into L.A. three weeks ago for a long weekend visit with my parents. Although I had only planned to stay a few days, my dad who’s nearing 90 ended up in the hospital the day after I arrived. He came home three days later, but the cause of the loss of consciousness that sent him off in an ambulance was still a mystery. It was time to check-in online for my flight back to Denver. But wintry weather and snowy conditions prompted Southwest to offer passengers the opportunity to re-book their flights up to two weeks later and waive any fare increase. I took the detour.

That extra two weeks ends soon; I fly back this Wednesday with another forecast of Front Range snow, but probably not enough to delay travelers this time. The time, as the popular refrain goes, was well spent. Dad’s back at home and gradually getting back to his old self and routines minus driving. He, mom and the whole family are much more aware of the need for better health and wellness self-care for both of them. We three sisters made calendar commitments to visit often for fun and just to see how they’re doing (and not just take the “We’re fine!” in a phone conversation at face value). Dad had several follow-up appointments after his hospital stay, so mom and I got to meet his medical team of “regular doctor, heart doctor and kidney doctor” as he calls them. And although our family dynamics can sometimes/often be annoying, irritating and downright messy, we almost seamlessly pulled together to make things better right away and for the future. Best of all, we re-connected, shared the love and had some fun too.

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I had some quiet time on my own strolling in a beautiful and funky Venice Beach neighborhood under a clear blue sky.

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Venice can also be charmingly retro and just plain bizarre.

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Of course I had to swing by Santa Monica and hang with the farmers market crowd. I lugged home three heavy bags of the most diverse load of produce I’ve ever bought at a farmers market. My haul represented what would normally be three seasons in Colorado and included

  • Winter – tangerines, grapefruits, a pomelo (of course these don’t even grow in my state), potatoes
  • Spring – mizuna, ruby streaks mustard, arugula, sugar snap peas, radishes, baby turnips, spring onions, spring garlic, strawberries
  • Summer – tomatoes, eggplant, baby zucchini, bell peppers, daikon radish, green beans, fennel

Although my mom no longer prepares elaborate meals for just the two of them, she instilled in me and my sisters the love of good food, well prepared and artfully presented. Here’s a few of the dinners and dishes we enjoyed together over the past several days with that cornucopia of vegetables.

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Sister and niece served a Chinese dish of bean threads and minced pork called “Ants in a Tree” with gently steamed green beans and rice one night. A salad of fennel, orange and slivered onion was a side dish for dinner on another.

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Mom made soba (not pictured) and shrimp tempura, while I prepared the vegetable dishes of blanched mizuna (cut and served cold with ponzu, a light citrus soy sauce) and seared Japanese eggplant drizzled with a miso-sesame sauce. Another night minced chicken in lettuce wraps repeated the Chinese theme of “ants”, small bits of seasoned meat.

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Tofu soup, radish tsukemono (quick salted pickles) and a chicken-egg-vegetable donburi (over rice) made a lovely and delicious meal. I found a frayed and well-splattered recipe in one of mom’s old cookbooks to make one of the best lemon meringue pies we’ve ever eaten!

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Memories refreshed, I happily return home.

a baking catch-up

October 30, 2012 § 7 Comments

I missed both of October’s bake days for the Tuesdays with Dorie group baking its way through Greenspan’s Baking with Julia.  It’s not that I haven’t been baking, really I have! In fact, dozens of loaves in my Paonia baker, farmer and friend’s wood-fired oven. I wish I had one! That oven absolutely bakes the best bread I’ve ever had, pizza too! Hana agrees!

Baguettes are proofed on couche (the floured cloth). My favorite bake this day was the oversized sour dough white and whole wheat loaves.

We had pizza for lunch with chickpea socca (in the cast iron pan) for the gluten-free bakers. Even Hana got a personal-sized oatmeal loaf!

And although I didn’t get them done on the TWD schedule, here’s my not quick Cranberry Walnut Pumpkin Loaves and Bagels. They were both fun to make and turned out pretty well. I get the feeling the pumpkin bread will make another appearance on Thanksgiving when my kids join us. And bagels are one of my favorite breads. I made some tweaks to the recipe because I think bagels need to be dense and chewy and never have enough sesame seeds. These were easy enough to make with the overnight rise, shaping chilled dough and immediately boiling and baking, so I hope to bake and not buy bagels from now on.

For the pumpkin bread start by roasting a pie pumpkin. I used a variety called Winter Luxury and got enough punkin’ purée for bread and a pie down the road.

I melted the butter to combine it with the pumpkin and sugar, rather than creaming it. Here’s the finished dough.

Instead of making three little pan loaves, I rolled out three strands of dough to braid. Here’s the braid before and after proofing.

The egg wash gives the bread a very dark crust. This particular pumpkin wasn’t very sweet, so next time I’ll be sure to adjust the sugar. Pretty slices though!

Onto the bagels. I substituted a 1/2 cup of rye and 1 cup of whole wheat for some of the all purpose flour, and added a little vital wheat gluten for some extra chew. I left out the shortening in the recipe as well. After an overnight rise in the refrigerator bagels were shaped from the still chilly dough and almost immediately went for a swim in the hot tub.

A brief drain on a rack, then the still wet and now poofy bagel gets lots of seeds on BOTH sides (I like sesame seeds).

Onto the sheet pan, into a hot oven for about a half hour. I barely let them cool.

Yum! Warm seedy buttery jammy homemade bagel. Wow!

summer-to-winter and learning about tagines

October 26, 2012 § 12 Comments

Can you believe that these pictures were taken just one day apart? Los Angeles is still enjoying mild summer-like days. I took picture #1 Wednesday morning in my folks’ back yard; can you see the fat praying mantis hiding in the shade of the pulmeria blooms? Flew back home to Colorado and awoke on Thursday to picture #2, this snowy scene in our back yard; first real snow of the season! Unfortunately the early heavy wet snow can be hard on trees that haven’t shed their autumn leaves yet and can result in broken branches.

Lamb Tagine with Potatoes and Chickpeas

This was the back drop to making a chicken tagine for FFwD. Tagine refers to both the North African cooking vessel and the dish itself, usually an aromatic braise of vegetables and meat cooked stovetop. A contemporary example above is from Williams Sonoma. Even if you don’t own a tagine (which I don’t) you can make a perfectly good tagine with a pot that has a tight-fitting lid and that distributes heat evenly. My heavy Le Creuset pot made of enameled cast iron made a fine substitute. Although pricey, it is multi-purpose and I’m lucky enough to have an outlet store nearby in Lakewood, one of Denver’s suburbs.

Moroccan tagines traditionally use a spice mixture called ras el hanout which means “top of the shop” in Arabic, indicating the best quality spices in the blend. Dorie used a simpler approach of just a few spices along with a pinch of saffron in her Around my French Table recipe. Unfortunately I learned that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to saffron. I used a big pinch of some lovely Spanish saffron for a half recipe which completely overwhelmed all the other spices with a somewhat medicinal flavor. Sigh…

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and comes from a fall-blooming purple crocus which I have tried to grow but with limited success. So what I use in cooking is a 1/2 ounce container of Spanish saffron. I just checked and saffron is around $100 for just 1/4 ounce now. Ouch! Since I didn’t have sweet potatoes handy for this recipe I substituted delicata winter squash from my winter CSA (community-supported agriculture) share.

Here’s the not-a-tagine pot I used for cooking. The chicken and onions are under the squash slices and prunes; the brown color is from cinnamon-sugar I sprinkled on the squash (it wasn’t very sweet yet).

We had cracked farro “polenta” along with the chicken tagine. My only make-up recipe this week were the  St.-Germain-des-Prés onion biscuits (March 2012) which were delightfully flakey, rich and savory.

stone soup ~ L.A. style

October 18, 2012 § 12 Comments

I flew into Los Angeles a few days ago to spend some time with my parents. When I arrived it felt like I had taken a short trip back in time from our coolish fall back to over-90 summer again, not exactly what I had in mind. But yesterday I awoke to a cool overcast morning and the clouds gave us enough shelter to make soup sound like a good idea for supper.

On Wednesday my sis and I had gone to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, one of my must visit stops on almost every trip to L.A. The Wednesday market is even bigger than Saturday’s, since that’s the day many Los Angeles chefs shop for fresh local ingredients. Australian finger caviar limes or fresh figs, anyone? We didn’t buy anything too crazy on this trip since my parents like pretty simple food.

Nearby there’s some good Japanese shopping and dining in West L.A. We found lunch at a Japanese food court inside of a Japanese market – a big bowl of shrimp and anago eel tempura over rice. It came garnished with a shishito pepper and a poached egg, both also tempura deep fried. It was messy and delicious! Living in Colorado, I do miss the breadth and depth of the L.A. food scene. Onto our own food scene in my parents’ kitchen last night…

Do you remember the story of Stone Soup? This is the edition I remember reading many times in my childhood. To me it’s the story of creating a delicious meal and community seemingly from nothing, and discovering the bounty of food and camaraderie that people once strangers can share.

We started with some gems from the farmers’ market, the last of the season’s corn and a small kabocha winter squash (Japanese pumpkin), two of my mom’s favorite vegetables and a perfect transition to fall. Most of the other vegetables were household pantry and refrigerator staples that provided the classic French base for stocks, soups and stews, mirepoix. This is just a fancy word for two parts onion and one part each of celery and carrot which I cut into a small dice to cook evenly and look pretty in the finished soup.

To get the most flavor from the ingredients, I grated the ginger, minced the garlic and added the corn cobs after cutting off the kernels which I set aside. There were a couple of small tired wrinkled tomatoes from the garden; I peeled, cored, crushed and then added them to the soup base too. A sprinkling of salt and I had a true stone soup approach to using everything available.

After adding water and a touch more salt and removing the corn cobs, I had a flavorful and aromatic broth that did not need the addition of chicken stock. In fact I think chicken stock would have masked the light flavor of the vegetables and background notes of the ginger. For the same reason, I omitted adding the herb sprigs of thyme and rosemary Dorie called for in her Around My French Table recipe. While the vegetable base had been cooking, I prepared the kabocha squash for it’s starring role by first removing the stem (either cut just underneath, or struck with the back of a heavy knife).

The hard part is splitting hard winter squashes open, so be patient, use a large heavy and sharp knife and watch those fingers! You can easily scoop out the seeds and pulp with a big spoon. I cut the squash into big wedges as they’ll break down into smaller pieces as they cook and get tender and soft.

Everyone into the jacuzzi! Another 10-15 minutes of gentle simmering and we have a be-ooo-ti-ful soup! Taste for flavor and seasoning.

I added a spoonful of white miso for some salt, sweet and umami. I had baked a loaf of sourdough for my dad before leaving Colorado, so that and butter were the only additions our soup dinner needed.

My version of spur-of-the-moment vegetable soup, aka stone soup a la SoCal Japan garnished with some cilantro and scallion.

And here are my make-up FFwD dishes from the last couple of weeks…

Last week’s crispy crackly apple almond tart was a big hit at our annual Oktoberfest pot luck, a perfect finish to the hearty celebration dinner of sauerbraten and red cabbage that our friend Paul has perfected over the years.

I contributed eggplant caviar (August 2011) prepared with end of the season eggplant and tomatoes to another potluck, this one at Cure Farm’s fall CSA pig roast party. The tiny glistening bits of vegetables coated with the olive oil and lemon juice did remind me of caviar, but I forgot to take a picture of the final dish, whoops!

Braised cardamom curry lamb (November 2011) made a warming meal for one of the below freezing nights we had at the beginning of October, a warning of winter’s approach.

Creamy cheesy garlicky rice with greens (September 2011) was an easy fun spin on classic risotto and let me use just picked kale from the garden and whatever rice and cheese was handy. We had a couple of weeks of good eats, just too busy to write about it!

back to bread

September 18, 2012 § 16 Comments

Porcelain berry vines display their namesakes in late summer

We had so many hot dry days (a record number) this summer, but the autumnal equinox is right around the corner. Cooler night time temperatures are reminding the tomatoes they need to hurry up and ripen, and the day time temps are bouncing from the 80’s to 60’s. I took advantage of a 60 degree day to bake the Whole Wheat loaves from Baking with Julia with the TWD group today.

Farmer John (yes, that is really his name) has been experimenting with growing grains in Boulder County the last few years, with rye joining his hard red winter wheat this year. I like the flavor of rye so I added a little to this recipe. And while Craig Kominiak’s recipe called for malt extract (available at beer brewing supply stores) I used the barley malt syrup I had on hand. It contributed a rounded toasted sweetness to the bread, along with the small amount of honey called for. I skipped adding the even smaller amount of oil in the recipe.

For baking I almost always use a scale to measure ingredients by weight, and I find it especially important when baking bread to help get predictable and consistent results. I use 5 oz. per cup of flour (any type, it’s close enough), 7 oz. per cup of granulated or brown sugar, 8 oz. works for a cup of most liquids, water, milk, oils, butter, but not all (honey is much denser than water for instance). I found this recipe on the dry side for me and at our altitude of 5000′. For the total two pounds of flour, I up’d the water to 2 3/4 cups. In baker’s math, this means 22 oz. water/32 oz. flour = 68%, which is the target hydration that tends to give results I like. I also had to lengthen the baking time by about 10 minutes for this wetter dough.

I lightly mixed all the ingredients together except for the salt, covered the dough and let it rest for a half hour. I like to do this for a couple of reasons. Salt strengthens gluten and inhibits yeast activity, so I lighten the load on my mixer a bit and let the yeast get going. The rest period allows the flour grains to thoroughly hydrate and gluten actually starts to develop on its own. You can even see a few strands in the second picture after the dough has rested and even risen a bit.

I sprinkle the salt over the rested dough and then mix with the dough hook on a low speed (2 on the KitchenAid). It only takes 4-5 minutes instead of the 10 minutes at medium to achieve a well-kneaded dough with adequate gluten development.

I had an appointment in town and some errands to run so I covered the dough and popped it into the refrigerator for a slow leisurely rise (this is called retarding since you’re slowing the dough’s activity).

The dough was fully risen without being over-fermented by the time I got back home 3-4 hours later. I decided to roll in some plumped raisins, chopped toasted walnuts and some chopped candied orange peel leftover from poaching apples for FFwD last week.

The recipe makes two loaves, so I made one plain and the other with the raisin nut add-ins. Don’t forget to butter the baking dish!

Since the dough is chilled from the refrigerator it takes over an hour to rise enough to fill the pans. And being half whole grain and half white flour, the loaves are pretty heavy and don’t rise much more in the oven.

This bread had a very moist crumb that benefits from toasting. Some butter and cinnamon sugar doesn’t hurt either!

apples, apples and more apples

September 14, 2012 § 14 Comments

Dorie’s Spice-Poached Apples or Pears from her book Around my French Table is a simple dessert, perfect anytime you need a little sweet after dinner (which is every night for me). You can use almost any seasonal fruit in this recipe and it’s something you can make in a half hour or so, unless you grew your own apples too, in which case it will take you most of a year.

Here’s our Honey Crisp apple tree last month. It’s been an extraordinary year for fruit on the Front Range of Colorado. Unfortunately, most of our apples feed the critters, from insects to the birds and squirrels that snack just before the fruit ripens. So I have to pick them a little greener than I like if we want to get our share. See the big bite out of the one in the middle of the photo?

Here’s what we got from the little Honey Crisp tree and the much bigger Cox Orange Pippin tree, really not a huge difference and so much easier to pick from the smaller tree (note to self for future fruit tree management). Onto the recipe…

The apples I used were from our third tree, the youngest so it contributed a smaller harvest this year. I had lost its tag but from my web investigations I think it’s a Greening apple of some type, a very old American apple variety and supposedly the best for apple pie of course! Here are the apples bathing in their spice-infused poaching liquid (I added a cup of white wine for some acidity to balance the sweetness of the honey and sugar). I like to use a parchment cartouche to keep the heat and moisture against the apples. This allows the steam to escape to avoid overcooking under a lid and you can keep an eye on the cooking process. Different types of apples at different ripenesses are completely unpredictable in how long it takes them to get to tender-but-not-falling-apart doneness.

Poached fruit is the perfect easy seasonal dessert simply served with some of its syrup and a little vanilla ice cream.

Here are the French Fridays with Dorie catchup recipes we enjoyed this week as well…

I reconstructed Dorie’s Deconstructed BLT with Eggs (September 2011) subbing kale braised with bacon and poaching the eggs instead of hard boiling, achieving a more tartine look. Savory Cheese and Chive Bread (March 2011) was everything its name promised and quick too.

The highlight of the week was Salmon and Tomatoes en Papillote (July 2011) but I couldn’t resist buying some beautiful pink-fleshed trout instead. We ate Pancetta Green Beans (February 2011) alongside. All the vegetables and herbs for these dishes came from local farms or the garden, and the pancetta came from Cure Farm as well.

Finally apples and ice cream made another appearance in the guise of Marie-Helene’s Apple Cake (October 2010) for dessert one night, and an encore as breakfast. This was a very bon appetit week!

un deux trois ~ FFwD! and eggplant tartine?

September 7, 2012 § 21 Comments

Okay, now you’ve done it! All of you French Fridays with Dorie (FFwD) cooks made me do it. (The end of a Colorado summer produce bounty was an added incentive.) I bought the book and now I’m boogie-ing trying to catch up since I’m 100 recipes behind the rest of you. Actually, I’ve known about this challenge group since the beginning of the year, as I bake with many of you (all of you?) in the Tuesdays with Dorie (TwD) group. There were a few reasons I had NOT to do this –

  1. I already own several French cookbooks that I haven’t cooked from
  2. I already participate in Dorie Greenspan’s baking challenge
  3. Could I really commit to a recipe per week, when sometimes it’s hard for me to bake every other week with TwD?
  4. Am I developing a Dorie cookbook compulsion?

Then I rationalized, we have to eat everyday, so it should be easy to do one recipe from Around my French Table per week. And I have other five nights to cook Italian, Mexican, Spanish, regional American, Indian, other Asian, Greek, etc. and still have a night to go out or get takeout. We would eat the leftovers all this cooking generated for lunch (we’re both at home, Phil’s retired and I haven’t returned to work yet), and hopefully not put on any extra weight.

So my personal FFwD goal is to cook the weekly recipe and two past recipes – un, deux, trois! Hopefully in a year, I’ll catch up with the rest of you.

This week is Dorie’s riff on a tartine, an open-faced sandwich, with eggplant slices standing in for the bread. My riff was a salad with lots of contrasts – still warm creamy-flesh-chewy-skin roasted Japanese eggplant topped with our favorite farmstead chèvre , juicy heirloom tomato “salsa” spiked with bites of celery and salty capers and olives, and crunchy cucumber slices drenched with olive oil and finished with large grained salt. A perfect end-of-summer salad as all of the produce came from a local farm or our garden.

This is a light and easy supper. While the eggplant roasts in the oven (mine was already hot from baking dessert, but you could also grill the eggplant if it’s too hot to cook in the house), cut and toss most of the other ingredients into a bowl for the tomato salsa which is brightened with some red wine vinegar.  Thinly slice the cucumbers and drizzle and toss with olive oil. When you’re ready to eat, assemble eggplant, chèvre, tomato and cucumber. Voilà, dinner is served.

This was such a light dish, we had to have dessert too! I took the very ripe peaches from the fruit bowl to top a thin cake batter, and used the forgotten streusel from my last peach cake to provide a crunchy edging. This cake was the complete opposite from the upside down chiffon cake – straight forward, easy, foolproof and all about the peaches! The perfect ending for a weeknight meal.

Here’s the roll call of the other FFwD dishes I made this week from local farm and garden produce and herbs. It sure is easy to eat well in the summertime!

Un – a simple last-of-the-season creamy corn soup (September 2011)

Deux – slow-roasted cherry tomatoes from the garden (August 2011)

Trois – classic leek and potato soup with cheese crouton (December 2010)

I have to say that both of the soups were striking in their bright clean flavors. The simple preparations, a light hand with fat and seasonings, and relatively short cooking times really allowed the freshness and taste of the vegetables to shine. Kudos to Dorie!

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