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.

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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!

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!

an upside-down cake

September 4, 2012 § 19 Comments

As you can see, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this cake. It looks nothing like the caramelized and streusel-filled Nectarine Upside-Down Chiffon cake by pastry chef Mary Bergin in Baking with Julia. And while my version has a pretty face, I do wish I had remembered to include the streusel; I made it but forgot to add it when filling the cake pan. My cake could have used that extra punch.

Replicating Mary’s nectarine cake was just not to be. First of all, this has been a great year for fruit in Colorado, and our most important fruit crop is probably peaches (move over Georgia). I had bought a case, “inherited” a case and then was given cases of peaches. I needed to preserve the onslaught of peaches without having an extra freezer or the time it takes to make several batches of jam or butter; these babies were RIPE and needed to be processed right away. So I now have several pint jars of canned peaches in light syrup in the basement. I used three of them to make this cake! I opted for granulated instead of the brown sugar under the peaches thinking I’d get some caramelization during baking.

Chiffon cakes, like genoise (remember June’s French Strawberry cake) rely heavily on the nature of eggs, in this case separated yolks and whites. Since I used these lovely farm-sourced eggs which vary in size as well as color, I selected the ones closest to large size. You can also measure them if needed allowing 1/2 oz per yolk, and 1 oz per white. (Check out this new and amusing way to separate eggs.) At this point, the rest of the dry and wet ingredients have been combined and are just waiting for perfectly whipped eggs whites at medium stiffness. If the whites are under whipped they won’t contain enough air to lift the batter, but if they’re over whipped they contain too much air and end up popping as the heated air expands in the oven and your cake collapses. At sea level, you can whip the whites a little stiffer than mine at 5000 feet, but definitely don’t let them start looking like popcorn or weep, both signs of severe over beating and impending cake disaster. Start over, it’s worth it.

“Sacrifice” 1/4 to 1/3 of the whipped eggs whites to lighten the batter. I just quickly whisk in with the mixer attachment and avoid one more things to wash. Don’t worry if the whites are streaky in the batter at this point.

Now add the rest of the egg whites and quickly fold in with the spatula. Stop once the batter looks uniformly mixed. If you continue to fold pass this point, you start to deflate the batter and are also on the road to a tough cake.

Working quickly to avoid losing the precious breath of your cake, pour it into the prepared cake pan (don’t forget to have buttered the sides) and level by just tilting the pan around instead of using the spatula to smooth the surface (the less touching, the better now). Here’s the cake just before going into the oven, and here’s my streusel I discover in the refrigerator just after that. Oh yeah, forgot to bake and cool the streusel, so it’s not going to happen this time.

Another altitude adjustment I made was to increase the oven temperature by 25°F for the first 10-15 minutes of baking, but again I forgot to turn the oven back down to the correct temperature. So it’s a little dark on top, but you see how level it is as the top sets before it can dome too much and then collapse. The final verdict after altitude adjustments and boo-boos? Pretty peaches, but the cake’s a little too wet (almost like pudding, if you like that) just underneath them. Beautiful yellow color, but actually a little too eggy in taste for chiffon to me. A little bit of a plain-jane, should’ve remembered the streusel layer and used the brown sugar with the peaches.

plum delicious!

August 7, 2012 § 14 Comments

Here’s last night’s dessert ~ backyard plum galette, vanilla ice cream (store bought) and plum sauce. Since our Baking with Julia recipe made a double batch of dough and I had enough plums, I went ahead and made two, and delivered the second one (still warm) to our good friends, Mo and Peter. It got a big thumbs up from everyone!

I started on this dessert in April; my hair just starting to sprout post-chemo, along with our fruit trees leafing out! I’m munching a yummy cookie from Lynn at Eat Drink Man Woman Dogs Cat, one of a box she sent me when I supported her in “The Big Climb” for leukemia/lymphoma research and support for survivors. Back to plums, doesn’t everyone grow their own? Actually, this is the first year we had enough from our backyard to do more than just taste. Colorado’s Front Range climate is not kind to fruit trees, so most of ours comes from the slightly milder Western Slope, which grows the most delicious peaches (I have not tasted the famous Georgia peach, however). And since our local abundance is stone fruit and not berries, this is what went into Flo Braker’s Berry Galette recipe.

We had to pick plums (and some small peaches) a little under ripe. By late July, the robins and squirrels have figured out there is a daily buffet of fruit in my yard. While I think there is plenty to go around, they eat or damage so much fruit, that we have to pick it under ripe and barely get our share. Luckily the plums ripened up nicely off the tree, the peaches not so much so I ended up composting those. 😦

This was a small batch of a simply made dough, so I thought it best to do by hand rather than in the food processor. The food processor is so fast, that it’s more difficult to control cutting in the butter and avoid over mixing and/or warming the small amount of ingredients. Dry ingredients, including a beautiful multicolored cornmeal went into the bowl which I mixed to blend.

Remove the ice cubes from now well-chilled water and add the yogurt or sour cream. What a great idea! I often use a little lemon juice or even vinegar to pie dough (helps keep it tender), but this adds a little richness and flavor too. Now you have to work fast, especially in the summer, to avoid letting the butter get too soft which can lead to a greasy, too soft dough and then a tough crust after baking.

I went ahead and used the whole stick of butter (what’s the point of leaving 1 tablespoon out?), quickly cut it into small pieces with the bench knife and tossed it into the flour mixture. If the weather’s warm and you don’t have air conditioning, chilling the dry mix in the refrigerator first will help.

Use a pastry cutter, a pair of table knives or your fingers (only if they’re cool enough though), cut and toss the butter pieces until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Add the chilled liquid, and gently toss and mix to evenly distribute the moisture. Keep a little iced water on hand if you need a little more just to moisten most of the dry mix; you don’t want a too wet dough which tends towards a tough cracker-like crust (remember, water + mixing = gluten).

My dough was a little dry (better than too wet), so I just pressed and folded it on itself a couple of times to bring it together; again you don’t want to overwork here either. The hour or so rest in the refrigerator allows the moisture to distribute more evenly, re-chill the butter and relax the gluten; all of this will make rolling a lot easier. See the butter bits and the colorful flecks of the cornmeal?

I prepped the plums while the dough chilled. These plums were easy to split and pit with my fingers (a lot faster than with a paring knife) and they were small enough to leave halved. I tossed them with the sugar, and then drained, hoping they would give up some of their juice before baking.

If you roll out two portions of dough, place them on a chilled parchment-lined sheet pan. Put the first one back in the refrigerator if your kitchen is warm, or it’s taking a long time to roll out the dough. The oven should be hot by now, and let any calls go to voicemail. Place the fruit onto the dough leaving a 2″ border, gently fold up and pleat; pressing the edge slightly at the bottom of each pleat helps keep the galette from opening during baking.

I did not glaze or sugar the crust before baking, but the small amount of sugar in the dough gave the crust a nice golden brown color after a full 40 minutes at 400°F. Wow, those were juicy plums! After a short 5 minutes of cooling, I c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y moved them using two pancake turners directly to platters; I didn’t want to serve galettes-with-parchment later. That sticky goo was a bit tricky to recover from the parchment and pan, but it made a yummy sauce!

Oh, and I drizzled the honey over the fruit after baking, instead of before. The tart plums definitely needed more sweetness, but I wanted to avoid more oven goo.

Here’s my breakfast next morning, and here’s the squirrel’s. That red plum was gone by the time I got this posted.

quick and easy biscotti

July 3, 2012 § 11 Comments

What? An Alice Medrich recipe that doesn’t use chocolate! This Tuesday’s Baking with Julia recipe surprised (and pleased) me in another way too. I’ve never thought of biscotti (which means “twice cooked” in Italian) as being particularly easy or quick to make, but this recipe was both. Plus, it adapted well to a couple of changes I made, one being the addition of chocolate. After all, it is an Alice Medrich recipe.

Separately assemble the dry and wet ingredients. I substituted some whole grain flour for some of the white, and honey for the sugar. I reduced the amount of sweetener by almost half, since honey is both sweeter and denser than the same volume of sugar. There is a bit of baking soda in this recipe, which leavens the biscotti slightly giving it a less than rock hard texture that other butter-less biscotti have. If you need your biscotti to stand up to a dunk in your morning coffee, you can leave the baking soda out.

Add any variations you’d like to the appropriate wet or dry ingredient mix. I chose a very fragrant olive oil for both flavor and a little richness, and an orange liqueur to accompany the vanilla. Bittersweet chocolate chips went into the dry along with some whole already toasted hazelnuts I brought home from Portland OR (this also helped make the prep quick and easy)!

In classic dump-and-mix style, pour the wet mixture into the dry ingredient bowl. I used a bowl scraper to easily mix just until I got a fairly stiff but sticky dough.

Using well-floured hands, I shaped and patted the half portions of dough right onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Whoops! I goofed and had the oven at 350ºF for the first bake, instead of 300°.

It’s important to let the logs cool long enough to settle so they don’t crumble when you slice them, but not so long that they harden and then shatter under the knife. Alice has a good trick to place the slices on a cooling rack set over the baking sheet for the second bake. It only took 10 minutes to dry the biscotti slices, and I certainly didn’t want any more color on them. I like the look you get when you slice whole nuts in biscotti.

And that was it! If you need an unfussy cookie to enjoy with ice cream or coffee, you’ll find the original recipe here and here. To keep it easy, skip the blanching of the hazelnuts in baking soda water and just bake them for 10-15 minutes at 350ºF and then rub off their skins while still warm in an old towel (they’ll stain). Just don’t forget to turn down the oven.

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