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 savory sable

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I certainly think of making cookies more often than crackers, so this was a good inaugural recipe to make with Abby Dodge’s BakeTogether challenge. Abby offered us her Spicy Parmesan Sables which I turned into Chèvre Emmer Sables with Dried Cherries and Hazelnuts (guess I couldn’t go completely savory yet). My friend Mark and his family live and farm in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. He has a small herd of goats on his very diverse vegetable farm called Thistle Whistle. Besides their weed control and fertilizer duties, the girls produce milk year round, much of which Mark makes into the most delicious raw milk chèvre I’ve ever eaten. The dried cherries came from First Fruits’ orchards last summer at the Boulder farmers’ market; their orchards aren’t too far from Mark’s farm. They were still moist, chewy and delicious! The two other key ingredients came from the Pacific Northwest. The Freddy Guys hazelnuts were a gift from my daughter who lives in Portland, Oregon (hazelnuts are their State Nut!). And as a CSA member I get whole grains or freshly milled whole flours shipped from Bluebird Grain Farms in Washington monthly. Their signature grain is biodynamically grown emmer farro. I enjoy emmer flour’s earthy and nutty flavor in many of my baked goods and it doesn’t have the bitterness you sometimes taste in red whole wheat. Oh, and I used a fresh farm egg from down the street instead of the water to bring everything together!

Chèvre Emmer Sables with Dried Cherries and Hazelnuts (yields about 30 crackers)

scant 1 1/2 cups (7 oz. emmer flour)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup lightly toasted hazelnuts, chopped

1/4 cup dried cherries, chopped

1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

2 oz. dry chèvre, crumbled

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the mixer bowl and mix briefly. Add the chopped nuts and cherries, mix again. Now add the butter and mix on low speed until the pieces are no larger than peas. Do the same with the chèvre, being careful not to over mix. Finally add the beaten egg and continue to mix until the dough just comes together on the paddle. Place the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper and pat into a rectangle of the desired dimensions; mine was about 7 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches and a little over an inch tall. Wrap and chill until firm, overnight is best.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Slice the block into 1/4 inch thick pieces and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet about an inch apart. Immediately bake one sheet at a time 18-20 minutes or until the crackers are a light brown on the edges. Don’t be alarmed if you see butter sizzling on their surfaces towards the end of baking; these are very rich crackers! Cool completely on the pan and then store in an airtight container. Consume within a week.

This are very flavorful and rich crackers and would be a nice accompaniment for a simple soup or a vinaigrette-dressed salad. They’re a little over the top for a cheese platter. You can find Abby’s original recipe here; this version was a bit salty for my palate, especially if you use a salty cheese. Easy to make, and creating your own variations is so much fun! Thanks, Abby!

I modified Abby’s technique to use my 4.5 quart KitchenAid mixer instead of the food processor. Here’s the dough just before adding the liquid, and then after with a very brief mix on low speed to bring it together.

Use the parchment paper to help you shape the dough into the desired size and shape (you could easily make squares or rounds instead of the rectangles). After an overnight chill, it’s easy to slice for baking.

The butter foams on the surface of the cracker towards the end of baking, but is reabsorbed into the cracker as soon as you take them out of the oven. Yeah, super rich!

Half for us, half for an gift! Probably won’t last long.

wearing o’ the green

March 20, 2012 § 13 Comments

I try to get peas started in the garden if it’s not too cold, wet or snowy by St. Patrick’s Day. No problem this year! In fact over-wintered kale, collard, spinach and watercress (above) have already poked their heads up along with the usual suspects of sorrel, chives and onions. I went ahead and sowed some greens and radishes along with the pea seeds, so now I’m keeping my fingers crossed for mild end-of-winter-beginning-of-spring weather.

Corned beef and cabbage sounded like way too much food for just the two of us. Grilled lamb chops (yes, it’s that warm), long-cooked broccoli for something green and the last of local potatoes were as close as we got to Ireland to celebrate the day. I did make the Irish soda bread for Tuesdays with Dorie, but couldn’t stay true to Marion Cunningham’s recipe in Baking with Julia (sorry, Marion!). Guess I really made “Spotted Dog” since I added some currants. At least I managed to make bread and not what the Irish would call cake, since I resisted the urge to add butter or an egg! Oh yeah, and I made two smaller loaves and gave one to a neighbor, since Marion warned that this bread doesn’t keep long and would be “hard as a Blarney stone” by the end of the day.

Spotted Dog (yield 2 small loaves)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup currants

2 cups buttermilk*, plus a little extra if needed

*Try to find full fat rather than low fat buttermilk, or use BWJ’s substitution of 2/3 cup plain whole yogurt plus 1/3 cup whole milk per cup of buttermilk. The extra fat will help your soda bread keep a wee bit longer.

Preheat the oven to 450°F and have a sheet pan with parchment ready. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add the currants and mix so they’re evenly distributed throughout. Add the buttermilk and gently mix with a spatula or bowl scraper so the flour mixture is evenly moistened and you have a rough sticky dough. I had to add a couple of splashes more milk to get the last of the flour in the bottom of the bowl. Turn out onto a floured board and divide in half by eye. With floured hands, quickly and gently form into two rounds and transfer to the parchment-lined baking sheet, patting into their final shape. Cut a deep “X” on top with a wet knife and place into the oven. Immediately drop the oven temperature to 375°F and bake for about 40-45 minutes (you may need to drop the temperature a little more towards the end of baking to prevent over-browning). When done, the loaves are well-risen and browned, the “X” no longer appears moist and the bread sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom.

Combine all the dry ingredients together (you can leave out the 1/2 cup of rolled oats and use white or whole wheat flour in its place). Add the currants to the dry mix now to avoid the extra kneading of mixing them into the dough at the end. That gadget is a dough whisk I got from King Arthur Flour; it works well to mix stiff doughs like this one.

Only mix until a rough dough forms (over-mixing will make your bread tough), divide and shape into rounds, score the tops deeply with an “X” which helps the center of the bread bake through. You can also bake one large loaf; extend the baking time by about 10 minutes and lower the temperature again sooner if the loaves brown too quickly.

The second loaf made a yummy “almost spring” gift for our neighbors. And if you love to bake bread, my next post have info on two bread challenges starting up right away. So Follow Me, or if you can’t wait, check out Mellow Bakers from my Blogroll. More baking fun and learning coming your way!

naan and Indian comfort food

March 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

Plateful of homemade scallion-topped naan

I love those Indian tandoor-baked breads so much, that I’ve even stopped by a good Indian restaurant and placed a naan order to go. But if you get a little head start before making dinner, you can make a good tasting flatbread at home. It doesn’t have exactly the same charred crisp outside, stretchy inside, but you can get delicious results on your baking stone in a hot oven. I wouldn’t hesitate to make it again the next time I make Indian food at home.

Wet ingredients go into the mixer bowl first, followed by the dry; mix to combine then switch to the dough hook to knead.

After one rise, turn the dough out, portion into eight pieces and shape into “buns”; cover and rest for several minutes.

Just before baking roll and flatten the bun into the traditional teardrop (or oval) shape. If you’re adding toppings, scatter and press them in now. Then dock (poke holes) with a fork to prevent the bread from puffing into pita.

Immediately place on the baking stone in a well-preheated HOT oven. I like to keep a pan of hot water under the stone to keep the oven a little steamier. There’s about a minute between placing each of these on the stone, and I flipped them over for a final minute of baking.

Here’s my recipe which can be easily doubled; you can freeze leftover naan for a couple of weeks.

Naan (makes 8 flatbreads)

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 oz.) all-purpose flour (I substituted 1/2 cup with whole wheat)

1 teaspoon instant yeast

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon nigella seeds, optional

1/2 cup (4 oz.) warmed milk

1/2 cup (4 oz.) plain yogurt

3 tablespoons melted butter

1 small bunch scallions, thinly sliced

melted ghee or butter and coarse salt, optional

Combine the dry ingredients and set aside. Place the warmed milk, yogurt and melted butter into the mixer bowl and mix briefly to combine. Check to make sure the temperature is between 80°-90°F before adding the dry ingredients. Mix everything together on low speed with the flat beater until well combined. Switch to the dough hook and knead on speed 2 until the dough comes together and is somewhat smooth, no more than five minutes. Cover and set aside to rise until doubled, about an hour.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 500°F with a baking stone on a lower shelf. Turn out the risen dough onto a floured surface and divide into eight portions with a bench scraper. Roll each portion up into a rounded bun and set aside on a floured section of the board; cover and let rest for 30 minutes. One at a time, take a bun and use a pin to roll it about 1/8-inch thick into a traditional teardrop or oval shape. Sprinkle sliced scallions over the naan and press them in with your fingers. Dock (prick) the dough all over with a fork to prevent it from puffing up in the oven. Open the oven and with your hands quickly place the naan onto the baking stone leaving room for 2-3 others. Immediately shut the oven and proceed rolling, topping and docking the next one and keeping an eye on how they quickly they brown. If needed, turn each naan over so it cooks completely, remove from the oven to a plate and cover with foil to steam and keep warm. Continue shaping and baking the naan in batches until done. If you like, brush melted ghee or butter and sprinkle with a little coarse salt before serving.

I served the naan with two Indian-style dinners last week – a dal of mixed beans over brown rice and lamb curry with yogurt and tomato chutney I canned last fall. If these dishes appeal to you, hop over to Indianfoodpalooza for more recipes and a chance to show off your own Indian cooking creativity this month.

wheaty pan bread

March 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m always looking for ways to incorporate whole grains into our diet, and since I enjoy baking and eating bread, that’s a convenient avenue for me. Last year, we became CSA members of Bluebird Grain Farms in Washington. And while that’s not a farm local to us, I’ve been really happy with the variety and quality of their grains and grain products, and we support good land stewardship this way. They use organic and biodynamic methods to grow and preserve heirloom grain varieties, milling their flours fresh for orders. I’m particularly fond of the emmer (farro) whole, split and cracked grains and flour. The flavor is nutty, slightly sweet and the whole grain has a toothsome chewiness. Learn more about Bluebird farm and a farro risotto recipe here or visit their website via my blogroll link. Yesterday I substituted Bluebird’s cereal blend of farro, rye and flax for the bulgur (cracked wheat) in my wheaty pan bread recipe. This can be a wet dough, depending on how your grain soaks up the water, so I recommend that you mix and knead in your mixer. If you must, add a little more white flour (all-purpose or bread) during the kneading process. The dough becomes less sticky with two bulk rises.

Here are the loaves just before and after baking. I’ve found this bread keeps better than most since the dough’s on the wet side and it has a little butter. The earthy sweetness of the molasses complements the depth of flavor of the grains. It has a lovely aroma and I love it toasted with butter!

Wheaty Pan Bread (makes 2 loaves)

1 cup (6 ounces) cracked wheat or other cracked grain or blend

2 cups (16 ounces) boiling water

3 cups (1 pound) all-purpose or bread flour

2 cups (10 ounces) whole wheat or emmer flour

1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup (8 ounces) milk or buttermilk

1/4 cup (3 ounces) molasses

3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) melted butter or olive oil

Pour the boiling water over the cracked grain, stirring to break up any clumps. Let sit, allowing the grain to soak and the water to cool to room temperature.

Place the dry ingredients (flours, salt and instant yeast) into a bowl and mix to blend. Place the cracked grain with the soaking water and the rest of the wet ingredients in the mixer bowl and mix with the flat beater to combine. Add the flour mixture and mix to combine, adding a little more white flour if the mixture seems too wet. Switch to the dough hook and knead on low speed for 3-5 minutes until the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, fold and return to the bowl (punch down) and let rise until doubled again, about an hour.

Butter two loaf pans. Turn the dough out on a floured board again, divide in half and shape into two “logs”. Place the loaves seam down into the pan and place the pans into a plastic bag so the loaves can rise without touching the plastic. Let rise 45-60 minutes while you preheat the oven to 400°F. Steaming the oven is optional for pan bread. When the loaves are well proofed, score down the middle and place in the oven on a baking stone if you have one. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 375°F and continue to bake for 30 minutes. Check the loaves by turning out of the pans to see if the sides and bottom have browned. Return the loaves (leave out of the pans) to the oven if needed; total baking time is 40-50 minutes. Lower the heat during baking if needed to prevent over-browning. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.

Slice of wheaty bread toasted with hazelnut butter and home-grown and homemade cherry preserves. Yum!

southern California date nut bread

February 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

One of my childhood food memories is Van de Kamp’s date nut bread that mom would buy as a breakfast treat. I liked it best toasted. I remember its deep molasses color in contrast to the white smear of cream cheese, very moist texture and sweetness.

Enriched Hot Dog Buns (sliced)

The Van de Kamp’s bakery belongs to Los Angeles’ past now. It started as a family-owned business in 1915 that expanded to a chain of bakery outlets with a central production facility in just fifteen years. Distribution then started into grocery stores, and the business grew to include coffee shops and later frozen foods. Starting in the 1950’s it changed hands a few times, with part of the operation becoming a national brand under Pillsbury Co. in 1984. Around the same time, an East Coast bakery named Entenmann’s entered the California market by building a modern bakery plant and distributing a streamlined product line into supermarkets. Van de Kamp’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1990, its date nut bread and windmill cookies gone forever. I found a recipe and tweaked it to come up with a date nut loaf that lacks the dark color, but has the same sweet moist dense taste that I remember.

My sis sent me 5 pounds of California Palm desert dates (three varieties) and large pecans from Georgia for Christmas. They’re both delicious, and having a surplus of dates inspired me to make the date nut bread.

The liquid ingredient for this recipe is dates puréed with water. Check carefully to make sure you’ve gotten all the pits out! Lovely burnished loaves just out of the oven.

Date Nut Bread

(makes 2 loaves; recipe works at 5000 ft.)

1/2 pound moist fresh dates, pitted

2 cups water

juice of one orange

2 cups (10 oz.) all-purpose flour

1 cup (5 oz.) whole wheat or emmer flour (or use all-purpose)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

4 oz. butter, room temperature

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped

Butter and lightly flour two loaf pans. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Place the pitted dates into the blender container and add enough water to cover them. Purée until smooth, add the rest of the water and the orange juice and blend again. Set aside.

Combine the flours, baking powder and baking soda and mix thoroughly to blend.

Cream the butter, sugar and salt in the mixer until lightened. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each; add the vanilla.

Alternately add the dry and wet ingredients mixing just enough to combine after each addition. Start with 1/3 of the dry, 1/2 of wet, 1/3 dry, rest of wet, rest of dry. Scrape the sides of the bowl down once or twice during this process. Add the chopped nuts and fold into the batter. The batter should look somewhat smooth.

Divide the batter between the two loaf pans and spread so it’s level. Bake for about 1 hour, until a toothpick comes out clean or with just a few crumbs. Rotate the pans if needed for even baking. Cool for 15 minutes, remove from pans and let loaves cool on a rack. This bread keeps well wrapped, and can be sliced and frozen (place wax paper between the slices).

Enjoy a slice toasted with cream cheese with your morning coffee

IDBAD!? really?

February 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ll bet you and your best four-legged (or in my case, three-legged) friend didn’t know that today was 
International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day! I found this bit of canine culinary history in the online edition of the Green Valley News.

The earliest dog biscuits, courtesy of the Romans, were very old, hard, stale bread. Later, in the 19th century, hunters fed their canine friends hard barley meal biscuits for energy to sustain a long hunt. In 1860, James Spratt, an electrician from Cincinnati, created Spratt’s Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes. Today there is a wide variety of dog biscuits and treats available for our furry friends.

So in the spirit of IDBAD, and because it snowed again today which made it an official Bake Day, I came up with a new dog cookie for Hana. It’s based on Morning Glory muffins which have carrots, apple, nuts and raisins. Just be sure to leave out the raisins, one of the four foods NOT to feed your dog (grapes, raisins, onions and of course chocolate).

Some of Hana’s favorite foods go into these dog biscuits including a HUGE locally grown carrot

Good Morning Dog Biscuits (yields about 6 dozen small biscuits)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat, emmer or spelt flour

1 cup barley flour

1/2 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 eggs

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

2 carrots, grated

1 apple, grated

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Combine all of the dry ingredients and set aside. Combine the wet ingredients (everything else). Add the wet mixture to the dry mix and mix until blended and you have a stiff dough. You may need to adjust the consistency by adding a little flour or water, depending on the size and juiciness of the carrots and apple. Drop by the spoonful onto a parchment-lined baking sheet allowing about an inch of space between each. Bake for an hour or slightly longer until completely hard. Turn off the oven and leave the biscuits in the oven as it cools to completely dry out.

Hana patiently waits for her cookies to come out of the oven. WOOF!

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