Thursday, February 28, 2013

Spring Is Coming Through

 Popping out from the tangle of grey branches our flowering plum, the first to wake in spring, offers a tumble of sweet pink blossoms.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Impulse Camellia

I couldn't resist this camellia's luxurious semi-double flowers. I had a list at the nursery today. I was determined to proceed in an orderly fashion and concentrate on the full shade foundation bed James has asked me to plant first.
With a few grasses in the car (still a little early for most of the things on my list) I went up to pay and spied this Buttermint camellia's miniature pale yellow flowers. I'm new to camellias and this variety was new to me. When the gal at the counter said it was the last one (and a variety they don't usually get) I snapped it up without thinking twice.
I've since learned that Buttermint was introduced in the late 1990's by legendary camellia and azalea growers Nuccio's of Altadena, CA. The delicate plant is known and revered for it's creamy yellow color and heady, slightly minty fragrance.
Now I just have to figure out where to put it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Crock Pot Pot Luck

It's hard to complain about a Rick Bayless recipe, especially a crock pot ready one. With friends coming over last night and the house to clean before, a tidy slow cooker recipe would help the house stay clean and make time for all my chores. Our friends decided to bring beans and salad. I decided to round out the menu with cilantro rice (easily steamed in the rice cooker and then tossed -- right in the cooker -- with a blender pureed mix of lime juice (2TB), cilantro (1/2 cup), olive oil (1 TB) and garlic -- 2 cloves), guacamole, and some version of crock pot tacos.
Searching through my files and various internet sites I came across a Rick Bayless recipe for Tinga, a meaty Mexican stew, that the Chicago chef cooks in a crock pot -- Eureka! Rick browns his meat first but I found several versions (here's one) of the recipe -- all with rave reviews -- that simply layer the ingredients and turn the slow cooker to high. Sold.
The resulting stew had an unbeatable smoky, spicy flavor just right for warm corn tortillas, pickled red onions (a real flavor explosion smoky stew and sweet pickles), and a sprinkle of fresh cheese.
A big hit and super easy -- this recipe is a keeper!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Baked Goods For Guests

I first met James at an oscar party (and first made a date with him at the same event a year later) and I have always considered the awards show our anniversary. James is out of town working but I am still celebrating with our friends watching the telecast. To go with our oscar dinner (I'll tell you about that tomorrow) I made some bite sized (or just a bit bigger) baked treats. Mexican chocolate brownies flavored with cinnamon and ground almonds and sour milk spice cake, a frugal old fashioned recipe for a Hollywood night.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sunny Spring Muffins

Some mornings just cry out for muffins. Sun shining, blueberries on sale, lazy dogs sprawling across the blankets. James sleeping late while I pad around the house.
These tasty oversized cakes came from a recipe that was a finalist in some contest years ago, of all places, at The Pioneer Woman's website. I can't say I have ever cooked one of her recipes before but I did like the yogurt based recipe. Yogurt is a tangy tenderizer -- it works wonders for meats and keeps baked goods from being tough (don't take advantage and over beat -- for muffins it's still important to mix just until combined). I like this recipe and will probably use it again. The muffins are cakey and tender and  pleasantly sweet. But -- admiration for junior baker contest entry aside -- no where in the recipe or the post does it mention how many muffins the recipe makes. I tried for 12 and my muffins took almost double the posted time to cook -- but miraculously (thanks to an ample amount of yogurt) they were still fluffy and light. Just perfect muffins.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rustic Chicken Dinner

With our oven still not working I am always on the look out for stove top dishes. The other day I stumbled across this recipe for "farmhouse chicken in vinegar sauce" on the Saveur magazine (a favorite) website. I can't deny I am a sucker for any recipe with farmhouse, or grandma, or blue ribbon in the title. So I had to try this Alsatian specialty. Basically this easy dish is chicken braised in a almost tart sauce of vinegar, butter, chicken stock and wine. Rustic, simple, hearty. Real farmhouse cooking. Just my style.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An Old Favorite

I get tired of the same old dishes and so poor James has to wait or his favorites. Tonight I ended the prolonged absence of his beloved spaghetti and clam sauce. Funny, it's one of my favorites too.

Monday, February 18, 2013

It's All About The Fat

There can only be one reason that chicken has become a hum drum everyday dinner while duck maintains an air of the exotic. Though about as simple to cook as a roast chicken duck conjures up elegant dinner parties, society luncheons, aristocratic picnics. I'm sure the table at Downton Abbey has presented it's share of duck on carefully polished silver. Not that the juicy delicious bird doesn't deserve a culinary pedestal, but every now and then I like a simple rustic treatment. A dish I like to think a French farm wife (a duck farmers wife I assume) would offer her family. An accessible duck.
For our duck dinner I simply pricked the skin all over -- being careful not to puncture the meat -- stuffed some cut onions and thyme inside the seasoned cavity, and generously rubbed the skin with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I popped the duck breast side up in a 400º oven with about 1/2 cup of water in the pan. After 30 minutes I had a luscious pool of rendered duck fat just waiting a cluster of halved fingerling potatoes. Duck fat makes a fried egg a decadent treat, raises plain beans to a gourmet level but it is perhaps most generous to the humble potato. Roasted or fried potatoes flavored with duck fat act as eager sponges for the rich soaking up outstanding flavor. Though many a good matzo ball has depended on chicken fat for it's success, duck fat is something even more. It's unctuous, butter and savory all at once, exceptional in all types of dishes (hmm could I make a duck fat pasty?) a secret weapon of flavor. It is, in my opinion, what makes a duck a treat a chicken can never be.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Whole Wheat Cake

With a patisserie in every neighborhood French women, I am told, are not bakers. Yogurt cake, a beloved French snack, is the exception. There are endless variations but the basic yogurt cake formula uses yogurt, flavored or not and then the empty container as a measure to add 2 parts sugar, 3 parts flour and 1/2 part oil. Mix the wet ingredients together with 2 (or sometimes 3) eggs and then add in the flour already mixed with 2 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt. The cake, either in loaf pan or 9 inch round bakes at 350) for 50 - 60 minutes. The batter is a perfect base for experimentation -- flavoring with ground almonds, berries, lemon or even chocolate.
My yogurt cake tonight was whole wheat -- much to my dismay I had no white flour in the house. But, we still needed cake. I mixed up the standard batter flavored with orange zest (no lemons in the house either). When the cake had cooled a bit I brushed the top with a syrup of orange juice and powdered sugar to soak some extra flavor and moisture into the cake. Whole wheat flour absorbs moisture readily and can make baked goods dry. I poured a thicker glaze (also of orange juice and powdered sugar in different proportions) over top and garnished my quick cake with toasted almonds. Easy dessert.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Getting Ready For Spring

Mornings here are still crisp and dusted with frost. I might be pushing it just a bit.
To get a jump on the garden and move a bit closer to the year-round growing I've been dreaming of, I started peas on my homemade trellis. We have quite a bit of young willow in the burn pile so I snuck in and gathered up these fairly straight sticks for a certainly rustic support. Underneath I started a couple short rows of carrots and chard. Early, yes -- but I might just get lucky.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Edible Thistle

I don't like to trim artichokes. Pity, they are one of my favorite vegetables. When I see them on a menu or salad bar I jump but I rarely make the prickly thistles at home. Today there was a sale on artichokes and I figured I'd better try. Admittedly I took the easy way to a dinnertime recipe. First I trimmed the bottoms so each artichoke would stand up on it's own. I cut off the top third or so of the thorny leaves and a few of the tougher outer leaves and placed four in a covered baking dish with a splash of olive oil, S&P, and about 1/2 cup of water. I covered the dish with tin foil and the heavy lid and let the artichokes roast for about 35 minutes. After they cooled down (uncovered) I was able to reach in and remove the feathery choke and prepare the thistles for stuffing.
I wanted our artichokes to be a main dish so I opted for a hearty sausage stuffing. I simply pan fried Italian sausage (out of the casings) with shopped onion and plenty of garlic. To the cooked sausage I added breadcrumbs, grated parmesan and a dash of tomato sauce (I happened to have it in the fridge) for moisture. I placed the stuffing mostly in the center but also between the leaves of the waiting artichokes, drizzled the tops with more parmesan and olive oil and baked at 400º until heated through, about 15 minutes.
Admittedly these are going to win and vegetable beauty contest but this pretty quick recipe made artichokes accessible at home. I might just try it again.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Backyard Visitor

Since James surprised me with a new bird feed last Valentine's Day we've had birds of every color, every day. Now that's a great gift. 
Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Good Excuse For Cake

 James' friend Alex U (and his wife) has started making homemade vanilla extracts and sugars. We were the lucky recipients. These beautiful little bottles are a perfect excuse to start baking.
Though it's probably not the best test of new vanilla, I decided on a version of pastry chef and sweet blogger (and cook book author) supreme David Leibovitz's persimmon cake. We have plenty of frozen pulp that I put away from our trees this year. I have cream cheese for the frosting. I have a bag of currants from another recipe I could use up. Beside Lebovitz's recipe is flavored with not just vanilla but bourbon. A wining combo. A combo I think our friends at Vanilla Nouveau also like.
When most cooks say bourbon vanilla they are referring to beans from the island of Madacascar known for a pure clean vanilla taste. VN has produced what all we bakers (especially ones like me with a fondness for Southern style desserts) have been wishing for, a bourbon vanilla infused with actual bourbon. You certainly get a whiff of whisky when you open the bottle and that infusion added a layer of tasty intrigue to my cake -- especially to the uncooked cream cheese frosting where the vanilla really shown through, tempering the tang with a rich mellow undertone of sophisticated flavor.
Next up I am planning a rich vanilla custard, perhaps a creme brulee. A dish where the vanilla flavor will have less competition from other flavors and really have to step out as the star of the dish.
Thanks so much Vanilla Nouveau for your flavored vanilla and for another excuse to bake. Sweet!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Waiting For Flowers

Any day now the fava beans I planted as a delicious cover crop in December will reward us with a riot of delicate white flowers. The wire frames have kept our curious chickens at bay and by April I'm sure we will be blanching (and peeling and peelng --ugh) fresh green beans for salads and spring stews.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Oh Mario

When I saw the beautiful macro shot of glistening polenta cubes in rich sauce I should have known better. And yet I allowed myself to dream and imagine that my dish would be just as impossibly beautiful -- just as appetizing. I actually followed Batali's directions -- a rarity for me. I let my polenta chill well more than the 2 hours chef Mario required and still when I added the sunny cubes to the simmering sauce I got beef cheeks topped with celery root, carrots, onions, and little yellow bits of grains floating by. Sad. Tasty enough (but not spectacular) after long braising in red wine but not awe inspiring, not impossibly beautiful, not photo worthy.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chicken And Dumplings

There may be no dinner more old fashioned than chicken and dumplings. Basically its's a thick soup or heavy gravy coating tender stock poached chicken and sometimes vegetables with -- hopefully -- fluffy airy dumplings floating on top. And yet among fans the chicken and dumplings controversy rages. Square cut or drop dumplings, boned chicken or whole pieces, serve the vegetables or just the clear thickened sauce.
I like vegetables so I leave them in, and sometimes add some peas at the end. I generally prefer meat on the bone so I like to leave the pieces whole. James prefers boned. I favor drop dumplings to save rolling out the dough and making more dishes to wash.
To make this nostalgic dish brown seasoned, dredged chicken parts in oil and butter. Remove the chicken and add in chopped carrots, celery and onion. Sauté the vegetables in the hot fat. Return the chicken to the pot along with 5 cups of hot water. Allow the chicken to simmer for about 45 minutes. Once again remove the chicken. Mix together about 3 TB flour and 1/4 cup milk, add in a bit of the hot chicken stock and after a good whisk add the flour mixture to the simmering stock and vegetables. After a few minutes the sauce -- your future gravy -- will thicken. At this point add the chicken back in -- boned and skinned if you like and bring the sauce to a boil.
For the dumplings -- really the best part of this recipe, mix together 2 cups of flour, 2 tsp of baking powder and about 1/2 tsp salt. Add in 3/4 cup of milk, 2 TB melted butter and a good sized handful of minced parsley. Mix just enough to bring the dough together. Like muffins or quick breads, mix too much and your dumplings will be heavy and tough.
Drop the dumpling dough by heaping teaspoons onto the boiled sauce and quickly cover the pot. Reduce the heat to keep the liquid at a simmer and allow the dumplings to steam for 15 - 18 minutes until cooked through and fluffy. Don't open the pot or the steam will escape and again you risk heavy dumplings. After the dumplings are cooked carefully stir in frozen peas and allow them to heat through in the simmering (uncovered) sauce.
It takes a little effort but the homey appeal and old fashioned deliciousness is worth a little time to preserve a dish from our history. Make chicken and dumplings at home, connect with our country's past.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Slow Cooked Sauce

I used to make a lot of slow cooking tomatoey sauces. I love the idea of dinner bubbling away on the stove for hours. Somehow over the years I got the idea that James didn't like these long simmering treats. So these days, despite my fondness for old-fashioned red sauces, I make them less and less.
This month's Bon Appetit magazine featured 7, what they called, great pasta dishes. One really caught my eye, a spicy Calabrian style pork ragu. Funny it's the kind of recipe I usually breeze right by, but for some reason the combination of slow cooked sausage and ground pork (I just happened to have both in the freezer from our meat CSA box) and a tasty use for my home canned tomatoes called to me. A super tasty, cold weather hearty pasta dish with no trip to the store? genius!
I sautéd the sausage and then added in the ground pork until no longer pink and set the meat aside. In the remaining fat I cooked down carrot, onion, dried red peppers, oregano and -- because I didn't have the parsley the recipe called for -- shredded zucchini frozen from our summer garden. The vegetables cook down and are joined by diluted tomato sauce and pureéd canned tomatoes and the reserved meat. A mere four hours later (okay maybe four and a half) James was sitting down to a hearty red tinged dinner.
"We never have sauce like this," he mused. "It's really good."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Eggs Everyday

Our sweet little yellow hens were slow starters but now we're getting 2 or 3 eggs everyday. When a little time goes by without baking of a batch of ice cream the eggs tend to pile up. So we're always looking for something new to do with our beautiful orange yolked super fresh backyard eggs.
Today I looked around the fridge and cabinets for ingredients and stirred up a farm fresh scramble of prosciutto, salami, onions, fingerling potatoes and creamy goat cheese.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Late Night At Work With Five Guys

Five Guys Burgers and Fries is a much beloved Washington DC area burger chain that over the past 10 years or so has been selling franchises across the county. Not too long ago their fresh cooked ("we have no freezers," they proudly state) burgers started showing up around California offering weighty (very weighty I might add) competition for the West coast's renowned In and Out.
I've never understood my countrymens' fascination with In and Out but I could get used to Five Guys. Meaty griddled patties piled high with your choice of toppings. President Obama is a fan and so am I.