Archive for January, 2009

Memories of France

January 29, 2009

My husband Randy is a master finagler. Everything he finagles is above board but he is just one of those amazing people who can ask for things and get them. He spent many years in the Navy and was able to do some incredible things (spend time with the Norwegian Navy, travel in Israel, study in France), all because he asked and they said yes.

This quality served us well the year we lived in London. We went to Euro-Disney for a conference (and a weekend in Paris), we went to Israel for a week so he could meet with a company his employer was thinking of buying. Oh yes, and he got us to London for a year!

Before we moved back to Seattle, and after he had been recruited to work for another company, he finagled a trip around northern Europe so he could “meet the teams.” If you know my husband, you know that he worked hard on that trip. He never doesn’t work hard. But he also got us to Tallin (Estonia), Stockholm, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris in the week and a half after we left London.

Once he was done with meetings in Paris, we rented a car and took our time driving south to Provence to meet up with some friends. I will always remember this trip for many different reasons. First, obviously, I got to see cities in Europe that I had never seen which is always thrilling. I was on my way back home to the States which I felt really excited about. I was going to see a part of my beloved France that I had heard so much about but never seen. We were going to witness parts of Llance Armstrong’s historic 6th win of the Tour de France. But perhaps most of all, I was hyper aware of the baby growing in my belly.

Right before we left London, I had an ultrasound (at 16 weeks) which told us that we were going to have a boy. The incredible joy I felt seeing that little fully formed person is difficult to describe – if you have witnessed an ultrasound for your baby-to-be, you know what I am talking about. We were beyond thrilled that he was going to be a boy and over the moon to see that he looked healthy. About a week later, once we had gotten to Stockholm, I started to bleed. Of course, it happened on July 4th, so I was unable to reach a doctor back in the States and the Swedish doctor we spoke to just told me to hang in there and if the bleeding increased, to go immediately to a hospital. My first thought when I woke up, the last thought I had before I drifted off to sleep, and every other thought in between was whether or not I was going to lose that precious baby for days. Once we got in touch with our doctor back home, she told me to stay off my feet as much as possible which is difficult in small European cities where you really just need to walk everywhere.

I did notice that when I took it easy, the bleeding stopped. Once I started walking too much, it would pick back up again. So, as much as I enjoyed the travel on that trip, when we finally made it to Provence, I could breathe easy. We were staying at a property where we had a wonderful room with lots of communal living space and a pool. We weren’t near anything except tiny perfect French towns. I pretty much just took it easy for the first few days. As my fear began to subside, I began to explore the paradise that is Provence. I did see Llance Armstrong come through Nimes (although I was sitting on the sidewalk). I did see countless vineyards and walk through the markets of Arles. I also sat in the sun poolside and got lots of sleep.

Once home, I had another ultrasound and everything looked fine with our baby. Just 17 weeks later he was born and showed himself to be perfect.

So what on Earth does all this have to do with lentils?? This incredible dish (one of my absolute favorites – like take it to a desert island favorites) comes from Patricia Wells’ The Provence Cookbook. It is the one cookbook I took with me on our trip there. Not only did I use it to cook lots of delicious food for our friends that week, but I also used it as a reference. Wells details out where the best markets are, where the best pottery is, and profiles some of her favorite farmers. It is an amazing cookbook but also a resource for traveling in her beloved Provence. Because this book really is a love letter to Provence. I cannot open this lovely cookbook with its sunny cover and inviting prose without thinking of my incredible son, now 4 years old. How worried I was! I had no idea that really, as a mother, you just keep worrying…

Lentils with Capers, Walnuts, Walnut Oil, and Mint
Adapted from
The Provence Cookbook
Serves 4-6

You could use regular lentils in this recipe, but Le Puy lentils are worth seeking out for their firm texture and density. Toasting the walnuts really brings out their flavor so don’t skip that step. The method of cooking the lentils may seem overly fussy here, but I trust Wells implicitly, so I always follow her advice when making this dish.

2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt to taste

6 tbsp. walnut oil

1/2 cups (8 oz.) French lentils, such as Le Puy
2 cups vegetable stock

1 carrot, peeled and cut into thirds

1 onion, peeled and stuck with a clove

1 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

cup capers in vinegar, drained, rinsed, and chopped if large
1 cup fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Place the lemon juice and a pinch of salt in a jar with a screw top (such as a jam jar). Cover and give it a good shake. Add the oil and shake to blend. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a fine mesh sieve and rinse under cold running water. Tranfer them to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water boils, remove the saucepan from the heat. Transfer the lentils back to the sieve and drain over a sink. Rinse the lentils under cold running water again. Return the lentils to the saucepan, add the stock, season with salt, and bring just to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the carrot and onion. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the lentils are cooked but not mushy. Taste to
make sure. Remove the onion and carrot and discard. If there is still liquid in the pot along with the lentils, drain them once again in the sink.

3. Transer the lentils to a large bowl. Add the walnuts, capers, and a few grinds of pepper. Add the vinaigrette to taste – you may not need all of it. Toss well. Once the lentils have cooled a bit, add the mint and toss again. Can be served warm or room temperature. Keeps 2 days, covered, in the refrigerator.

Simply Delicious

January 28, 2009

If you ask my husband what he wants for dinner, without hesitation he says,”Mexican.” If you ask him where he wants to go out for dinner, he also says, “Mexican.” I honestly don’t even ask him anymore or if I do I have to ask like this, “Honey (deep breath), what-should-I-make-for-dinner-don’t-say-Mexican?” Phew.

I too love Mexican food but seeing as live far far away from Mexico, there aren’t a lot of places around here to satisfy the craving. Randy thinks bad Mexican is still good. I think bad Mexican is greasy and fattening. So I would rather make it myself.

Two things make a Mexican meal complete for me. Beans of some kind and lots of guacamole. For my clients last night I made Mushroom and Pinto Bean Enchiladas, Mexican Rice with Peppers and Tomatoes, and Salad with a Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette. I included a container of my guacamole which has gotten raves from them before and from others too. It is one of the only things I make completely without a recipe and totally to taste (hummus is another one.) I thought I would write a post about it so I paid attention to the proportions of what I added. Sometimes simple is best.

Serves 6 generously

I like my guacamole very limey and salty. You can always add less lime juice and salt and see how it tastes to you. If there is not too much going on in the meal, or if I am not serving salsa, I will dice up two seeded roma tomatoes and add it to the mix.

2 large ripe avocados, diced
1 1/2 large limes, cut in half

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

2 tbsp. cilantro, or more to taste

Place the avocados in a large bowl. Juice the limes into the same bowl and add the salt and pepper. Using a potato masher, mash up the avocados and incorporate the juice. You will want to leave some texture. Add the cilantro and mix carefully with a spoon.

Just Say No to Orange

January 27, 2009

Aren’t tastes funny? Why is it that something which is ambrosia to me makes your skin crawl? I love cilantro, you hate it. You love okra, I can’t stomach it. I have been reading lots of blogs featuring citrus desserts lately (it is January after all), and all I can think is…I hate orange.

No, I mean I really don’t like orange. I actually never have. I do like those little clementines that appear around Christmas time, but other than that, orange kind of makes me cringe. Orange popsicles were always the last resort for me and I never even bothered to eat orange Jolly Ranchers. And to see all of the orange desserts going around right now…shudder.

So why on Earth did I make an orange cake, you might ask. Well, here is the thing. My brothers, sister-in-law and niece and nephew came over on Saturday and I had to make a dessert in not a lot of time. And, perhaps more importantly, this is an Ina cake and I trust her implicitly. Yet another reason is that the recipe makes not one, but two cakes so I could get this week’s treat for my clients taken care of ahead of time.

The verdict? It’s orange, I didn’t love it. But it went over very well with the family and it was a breeze to make. It turned out just as it should which is one of the very best things about her recipes.

Orange Pound Cake
Adapted from
Barefoot Contessa Family Style
Makes 2 loaves

Ina makes this cake in two 8 x 4 pans – I used one of those and three mini loaf pans so each of my clients could have their own cake. You can freeze these cakes, unglazed, for up to one month.

½ lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided

4 eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup orange zest (about 4 large oranges)

3 cups flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. kosher salt

3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, divided

3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

1 tsp. vanilla extract

To Glaze One Loaf (optional)
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1 1/2 tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8 x 4 inch loaf pans with non-stick spray.

Cream the butter and 2 cups of the granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the orange zest.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the orange huice, the buttermilk, and vanilla. Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops, and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.

While the cakes bake cook the remaining 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar with the remaining 1/2 cup orange juice in a small saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. When the cakes are done, let them cool for 10 minutes. Take them out of the pans and place them on a baking rack set over a try. Spoon the orange syrup over the cakes and allow the cakes to cool completely.

To glaze, combine the confectioner’s sugar and orange juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth. Add a few more drops of juice, if necessary, to make it pour easily. Pour over the top of one cake and allow the cake to dry. Wrap well and store in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Fair Warning

January 23, 2009

(Note: There are some who think that one should only write about successes in a food blog. I think it humanizes us all to read about occasional failures especially if tips are given on how to succeed next time.)

If you yourself write a food blog, or if you read a fair number of them, you will have noticed that there are certain trends that bounce around the blogosphere. One is the no-knead bread that I still haven’t made, another is the chocolate chip cookie recipe that appeared in the NY Times this past summer. Recently, it seems that everyone is enamored with the Baked cookbook. One of my favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen, has been raving about this book since before it actually came out so, of course, I bought it.

It is a very cool book. Terrific photography and very interesting and different recipes. I have a lot of baking books and whenever I open a prospective purchase, something has to really catch my eye. I have lots of recipes for chocolate cakes and chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread in my 20-something baking books so I want to see something new and different. Baked has some things I never thought of (pumpkin whoopie pies anyone?) and some classics done with a twist.

I now have made three things from it and I have to say I am, um, underwhelmed. I know three recipes does not a cookbook review make, but I am feeling a little bummed by the book. The whoopie pies were great and my clients loved them, but the proportions of the recipe were totally off (for me anyway.) I also made their Chocolate Pecan Pie for Thanksgiving and was just not happy about how it turned out, although my brother Michael (a pecan pie lover) thought it was great. And now these bars.

First let me say that I LOVE lemon bars. For a chocolate and caramel lover that is saying something. My go-to recipe is actually from the Betty Crocker cookbook. It is totally no frills and for that reason it is perfect. The Baked recipe caught my eye because the bars masquerade as lemon bars but are actually much more sophisticated. The crust, instead of being more or less shortbread, is made from graham cracker crumbs, butter, sugar, and toasted coconut. The filling is a lemon and lime curd with lots of fresh juice and zest. I thought I would knock it out of the park with this one because almost everyone I know loves lemon bars.

Let me just detail out the dishes involved in making these little guys:

Food processor for grinding graham crackers
Small saucepan for melting butter

Baking sheet for toasting coconut

Reamer for juicing lemons and limes

Zester for zesting lemons and limes

Large saucepan for mixing curd

Whisk for mixing curd

Fine mesh strainer for straining curd

Knife for slicing bars

Spatula for excavating bars

Pan bars were made in

Now, I recognize that dishes are a necessary evil of cooking and especially baking. I curse them while I do them but when the end result is delicious, I forget about them. Here is what I thought about the end result here…

The first problem is that I couldn’t get them out of the pan in time to bring them to my Tuesday clients. The recipe says that you need to refrigerate them at least 2 hours, which I did, but even then the filling was so mushy and the crust was firmly cemented to the pan (in spite of the fact that I buttered it well.) So I waited a fully 24 hours before I tried again to pry out a square and had to sacrifice 3 other innocent squares to get my photo candidate out. One of those, of course, had to be tasted and boy oh boy were they SWEET! Between the coconut and the graham crackers in the crust and the almost 2 cups of sugar in the curd – they made my teeth ache.

So, no thank you Baked. I am going to stick with Betty Crocker on this one. If you have the Baked cookbook and are dying to try their recipe (after the above rousing endorsement), here are some things I would suggest. Bake the crust until it is starting to brown – I may have pulled mine out too soon which resulted in it not releasing from the pan. Add a little less sugar to the curd – maybe just 1 1/2 cups. The crust is plenty sweet so if the curd is a little sour, it will balance better. And finally, refrigerate these (after they have cooled) at least 24 hours and preferably 48. The crust may get a tad soggy but you will be able to get them out of the pan. Be sure to use a very thin metal spatula to lift them out or you will lose half your crust.

Or, you can just save yourself heartache and many dishes and make the alternative recipe below.

Lemon Bars
Adapted from The Betty Crocker Cookbook

Makes 16 small bars

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, butter, and powdered sugar in an electric mixer until the dough starts to come together. Press into
an ungreased 8 x 8 inch pan, building up an edge. Bake 20 minutes, until light brown.

Wipe out bowl. Beat remaining ingredients for 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Pour over hot crust. Bake another 25 minutes longer, or just until no imprint remains when touched lightly in center. Allow to cool completely, then sprinkle with powdered sugar and cut into squares.

Sweet, Salty, or Both?

January 20, 2009

Cookthink has a feature where they interview all different people in the food world. To each chef, food-writer, what-have-you, they ask the same series of questions. As you might expect, althought the questions don’t change, the answers vary widely – except for one of the questions. First off the bat is always, “Sweet or Salty?” It seems to me that 90% of the time, the interviewee answers, “Both.”

Ask me? Salty. As much as I love sweets, I am really a savory girl at heart. If a piece of chocolate torte were in front of me, I might answer sweet. I would never answer “both”. I was the kid who didn’t want any of the different food touching on her plate and I am embarrassed to say I am still that way. I don’t like to mix flavors. I will finish all of one thing before I start another. So, to me, sweet and salty is way too mixed up. (Except if we are talking about salted caramel and then all bets are off. Who is responsible for this frenzy? I would like to kiss them.)

For that reason, I was surprised that I really like this eggplant spread. It is, by nature, a savory dish. Eggplant, onions, tomatoes, salt. But it also has quite a bit of sweetness from a touch of sugar, balsamic vinegar, and currants. And the eggplant here does what it does best, in my opinion, it kind of disappears. I mean, it’s there – you can tell it’s eggplant, but it’s not like, “I am eggplant, hear me roar.” I can’t explain why I couldn’t keep my tasting spoon out of it – maybe it’s that the balance is perfect. For my tastebuds anyway. I have made lots of different caponata type recipes in the past and have always found them lacking something. This is my new favorite.

Sicilian Eggplant Spread with Crostini
Adapted from The Farm to Table Cookbook

6-8 servings

I gave this to my clients with the crostini but served it at my house with crackers. Either way it’s delicious.

Olive oil
1 cup chopped onion

3 tbsp. pine nuts

3 tbsp. dried currants or raisins

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

3 garlic cloves, sliced

1 pound eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup tomato sauce

3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 loaf rustic French bread, sliced 1/4 inch thick

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the onion, pine nuts, currants, and oregano. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to medium; add the garlic, eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa. Cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant begins to brown and bocomes soft around the edges, about 15 minutes. (DN: I felt the onion was in danger of burning after about 8 minutes so I proceeded with the next step at that point.)

3. Add the tomato sauce and vinegar, cover and simmer until the eggplant is very tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside for at least 1 hour to meld flavors.

4. Meanwhile, place the bread slices in a single layer on 2 baking sheets. Lightly brush (or drizzle) them with oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Bake just until the bread is crisp and golden brown around the edges, about 15 minutes. Serve with eggplant mixture.

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