January 29, 2010

Functional Beautiful Good

Great Things for Kitchen, Home and Heart

Functional. Beautiful. Good.

Last summer my beloved and I combined households, resulting in Way Too Much Stuff. Between us, we arrived at 17 bottles of various vinegars, 12 types of rice (did you even know there were that many kinds???), and enough pasta varieties to stock a market. Cheese graters? Six. Knives? Umpteen. This may say a little something about the two of us and why were initially drawn to one another. It also says that not one more material object enters without at least one making an exit.

My criteria for such editing is simple. Round One: Is it functional? Is it beautiful? Yes to either of these questions and it's a pass on to Round Two: Is it redundant? No to this question then gives a new object a fighting chance of finding its way in to our nest. Here are some really beautiful, functional, good things that have added to my comfort and well-being this year:

Microfiber rags. Who knew that a dish rag could make my heart dance, but these do. Never before has a 9" x 9" piece of fabric had such a effect. Micro rags are like amazingly tough little scrub brushes, but very soft and non-abrasive. They behave like they have built-in cleaning solution in them, and, jeepers, when you do add a cleanser, these cloths bust the worst sticky gooey gunk in a flash. They even leave windows and mirrors streak and lint free. Mine were sourced from Ross Dress For Less and Target. Here's how they work. I love these downy little babies so much, everyone I love got them in their Christmas stockings, and was delighted to find a larger version for general housecleaning.

Magnetic spice rack. If we had 17 different vinegars, can you imagine the number of herbs and spices among us? Black cardamom pods, green cardamom pods; whole and ground this-and-that; coppery spices, mossy spices, amber, brown and gold spices. Leafy, seedy and powdery herbs; you get the picture. Too darn many for any conventional storage method to result in a sane cooking experience in our space-challenged kitchen. One recent leisurely Sunday breakfast-in-bed surf-the-net morning we discovered this beauty. We ordered up two. Merry Christmas to us!

The Flavor Bible. Genius. This is the coolest non-cookbook of flavor matchmaking ever. Have a bumper crop of, say, figs? Flip to figs in this tome, find all the flavors/ingredients that marry well with figs and create away. Discover some exotic new ingredient at the farmers market or butcher? Go ahead and buy it! Look it up in its alphabetic listing in this reference book and craft with confidence. The Flavor Bible also has an intensive on flavor; what it is, how it is perceived, and how it influences even our minds, hearts and spirits. See the "I'm Currently Reading" sidebar for photo and link.

Kuhn Ricon vegetable peeler. This very inexpensive peeler is incredible. Our friend Michael sold me on these, and he is right. Good tools rock. A $3.50 good tool rocks even more. Again, Santa delivered one to everyone's stocking this year.

Arbequina olive oil. How did I live without this delicious stuff? The bold, green, citrusy, peppery Arbequina olive oil is a wonderful drizzling/dipping oil for salad, fish or hummus, but I especially love it drizzled on a toasted French slice lightly schmeared with cream cheese, layered with thinly sliced avocado and sprinkled with cracked black pepper. What a delicious breakfast or appetizer.

The History of Love. OK, this isn't really a household item, but I love this book. See sidebar for photo. It came recommended by two of the most intricately-minded and well-read women I know, and they were right. This is a literary masterpiece.

Daily Drop Cap. If a gal is going to blog, the blog should be pretty, right? See the filigree pink "F" at the top of this post? It comes from Jessica Hische, seriously talented typographer and illustrator extraordinaire. Jessica gives us all (you too!) this generous gift of her hand-crafted decorative initial caps that she posts for our "enjoyment and for the beautification of blog posts everywhere". Those are her words. Can't wait to use the K. And the H. And especially the G.

What functional, beautiful, good objects are making your life easier, more attractive and more joyful? Leave a comment, or drop me an email!

January 26, 2010

My Baby Cooks Too

Chicken mushroom crepes. Scallops with chard and bacon. Sturgeon with Oregon berry sauce. Amazing pizzas. Innovative burritos and enchiladas. Surprise-filled omelets. Yes, My Baby Cooks Too, and I am the blissed-out recipient of his benevolent culinary benefaction.

Lamb moussaka, one of My Baby’s specialties, was our Sunday dinner this week. Tender browned lamb (sourced from our neighbors at Anderson Ranches) in a light tomato sauce (the tomatoes were grown on-premises last summer by My Baby, too) seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and herbs layered with roasted eggplant slices, under the angelic halo of perfect béchamel sauce. Gasp. Gasp. Be still my heart.

A HillCrest Vineyard 2006 Zinfandel is a match-made-in-heaven to the moussaka. This HillCrest Zinfandel Cuvee 1888 has an Old-World quality with winter spice and cola-like aromas and remarkable depth of complexity. HillCrest Vineyard, by the way, is Oregon's oldest estate winery where the states first Pinot Noir was planted. Dyson and Susan Demara practice natural, sustainable, green farming in this family-run enterprise. Their dry-farming techniques produce low yield, terroir-rich fruit. Dyson's skillful touch creates highly integrated, complex and incredibly interesting wines with greater than average food compatibility. When you visit, plan to spend a little time... Dyson will provide you with a highly entertaining, educational day well spent for those who love wine, and you won't want to leave.

Having been the chief-cook-and-bottle-washer for the first 30 years of my adult life, I’m just now getting used to how nourishing and loving it feels to be cooked for on a regular basis. It triples my joy to see My Baby take pleasure in the process, focusing his intentions on the flavors and textures, filling our kitchen with heavenly aromas. All I’m saying here is that this feeds way more than just my belly.

My Baby’s cooking comes from some deeply intuitive place and doesn’t rely heavily on recipes, so I can’t share his exact dish with you. Here’s a good guideline that includes the little tricks and touches that I observed from the chef himself.

Lamb Moussaka
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ pounds ground lamb
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
2 tomatoes, frozen, canned or fresh, chopped
2 cups tomato sauce
¾ cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
Salt to taste, about ¾ teaspoon

¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter
¼ cup all purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 egg
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 large eggplant sliced into 1/3” rounds (we like the peel left on)
1 red bell pepper, sliced into 1/3” rounds

Preheat oven to 350°F. Roast eggplant and pepper slices on baking sheet for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add lamb, chopped onion and garlic and cook until lamb is brown, breaking it up with a fork, about 15 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, red wine, herbs, spices and salt. Simmer until sauce reduces and mixture holds together, about 20 minutes.

Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook for a minute or two. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Boil until thick, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Beat egg in small bowl to blend. Whisk small amount of hot milk mixture into egg. Return mixture to saucepan. Bring to boil, whisking constantly. Remove béchamel sauce from heat. Stir in all of the mozzarella and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

In a 9 x 13 baking dish lay out the roasted eggplant slices. Spread the lamb mixture over the top. Pour hot béchamel sauce over lamb mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan. Top with pepper rings to garnish. Cover loosely with foil and bake 1 hour. Uncover and continue baking until golden and bubbly on edges, about 10 minutes longer. Cool 10 minutes.

January 22, 2010

To Be Loved

Potato Parsnip Soup with Orange Oil Drizzle

Recently I celebrated a birthday. Not on my actual birthdate, because that coincides with the big birthday party of a very special, important, famous, historic and religious figure that much of the world observes. So, the adorable man in my life gave me my very own day. And what a day it was.

There were presents at breakfast. Spectacular presents. Meaningful, beautiful, functional, thoughtful and sexy presents. But I'll spare you that part. Just let me tell you it was fun.

The day's celebratory activities first involved wine tasting at Sweet Cheeks Winery, a Southern Willamette Valley enterprise, which is known for its classic Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The also have an interesting Burgundy/Bordeaux blend (Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) that's worth exploring. If you go there, grab your glass, head out to the deck and soak up the lovely view as well.

King Estate Winery in Oregon's Lorane Valley was our ultimate destination for more wine tasting and dinner. The location is beautiful, the estate itself is, well, stately; the wines are organically grown, solidly consistent and classically Oregon-in-a-glass. The Chef de Cuisine, Michael Landsberg, has a long list of Michelin-starred experience to his credit, and was most recently associated with Marche in Eugene.

Our meal was a delightful adventure from beginning to end. We started with soup de jour, a parsnip-potato puree, then moved on the to charcuterie plate and wild mushroom risotto with pancetta and prawns. We each ordered wine flights in order to enjoy the wines interplaying with the various food flavors. What a great learning experience... We discovered that a drizzle of blood-orange oil to the parsnip-potato soup created a terrific pairing with the zesty Viognier. Without the oil, Pinot Gris or even Chardonnay works better. These are lessons to take back to the kitchen.

Our main courses were a smoked trout with Beluga lentils and beets for me, leg of lamb with roasted fingerlings and cabbage for my handsome date.

And there were desserts. Fabulous desserts. Rich pumpkin bread pudding and traditional creme brulee. Yummm on a dish. I'm pretty sure that my eyes were rolling around by then, and vocalizations of rapture were being made.

Amazing gifts, good wine and delicious food are each wonderful things, but I would trade them all away for a lifetime of pop-beads, Kool-Aid and beans-n-weenies cold from the can for the sense of being loved I possess. That comes from the soul of the giver. Thank you, Baby. You throw one great party.

Every single day.

Here is a reasonable facsimile of the soup we had at King Estate that I came up with at home.

Potato Parsnip Soup with Orange Oil Drizzle
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
4 leeks, halved lenghtwise, washed, sliced 1/4" thick (about 4 cups)
4 parsnips, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
32 ounce carton low-sodium chicken broth
4 large russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 2 1/2 cups)
3 springs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and white pepper to taste

Orange Oil
Zest from one large orange, white pith removed, cut into 1" strips
3/4 cup citrusy or peppery flavored olive oil

several sprigs flat-leafed parsley

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until very soft and meltingly textured, but not browned, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add parsnips and cook 10 minutes, again being careful not to brown, just soften vegetables. Add chicken stock, potatoes, thyme and bay leaf. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

With an immersion blender, puree soup as smooth as possible. For the most elegant and velvety texture, strain soup through fine-mesh sieve set over a two-quart bowl. Return soup to pan to warm. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

For orange oil, cut zest only from orange with paring knife, leaving white pith behind. Reserve orange for another use. Place peel and olive oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Heat gently to just under a simmer. Cover, remove from heat, and allow to stand for one hour. Strain and reserve for soup garnish. (Use left overs with a little muscat orange vinegar for a terrific salad dressing.)

Ladle soup into bowls. Drizzle orange oil over, and sprinkle with finely chapped flat-leaved parsley to garnish.

January 18, 2010

January Simplicity

Fruity Nutty Grainy Granola

Every January I get an even stronger than usual craving for simplicity. It just seems right. Even nature goes the simplicity route in January with the pale color palette of its fauna; winter flora depend on nothing more than the structure of bare trunk and naked branch for beauty. I’m always relieved to put away the holiday decorations, gaining back a bit of Zen from the fussy, pretty, glittery displays.

In January I’m also ready to retreat from the culinary excesses of the holidays and eat more simply. For me, this means turning all the dribs and drabs from the cupboards, pantry and refrigerator into delicious and healthful meals. Only a few necessary perishables such as produce, eggs and milk are purchased all month. Using what I have becomes a treasure hunt and creative challenge.

This year, the little nub of Port Salut has been stirred last-minute into a risotto; straggling jars of chutneys and sauces glazed pork tenderloin and roasted vegetables; remainders of various and sundry pastas have taken the plunge into a hot soup. The half-used and long-forgotten tub of miso paste has been moved forward in the fridge to be finished off as salad dressing and breakfast broth. Tomatoes and bell peppers dried from our summer garden will make their way into stews and braises. Asian pears and apples also dried from our orchard will go into homemade granola along with seeds, grains and nuts pulled from the way-way back of the freezer.

In this way we offer ourselves an end-of-the-year clearance sale. We eat well and at the same time promote a good stock rotation and allow our pocketbook to rebound from holiday spending.

This January exercise always reminds me~ near the end, when the cupboards are nearing bareness~ of my privilege. I like starting the new year out with a mindfulness of gratitude, health and simplicity.

Here’s a delicious, healthy and simple granola that I’ve made for years. It's perfect over a bowl of yogurt, with milk or sprinkled over pancake batter before flipping a cake. This flexible recipe is more of a proportion guide, so feel free to exchange maple syrup, frozen apple juice concentrate, brown rice syrup or honey for the agave syrup; butter or canola oil for the olive oil and any dried fruit for the apples and Asian pears… whatever it is you happen to have in your pantry.

Fruity Nutty Grainy Granola
4 cups thick rolled oats, not quick cooking
1 cup pumpkin seeds, or other nut of choice (whole cashews are over-the-moon amazing)
1 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup flax seeds

1/3 cup fruity or neutral olive oil, canola oil or butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup agave syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, maple syrup or frozen apple juice concentrate
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup dried fruits of your choice, chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix seeds, nuts and grains in a large mixing bowl. In small saucepan, combine oil or butter, brown sugar, other sweetener of choice, and salt. Place over medium heat, stirring frequently, until bubbly. Remove from heat. (At this point, feel free to add a teaspoon of vanilla, almond extract, or spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.)

Slowly pour oil mixture over dry ingredients in bowl, stirring with large silicone spatula to evenly coat dry ingredients.

Pour onto baking sheet and bake for one hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so. (You may like yours more lightly baked, more like muesli. I prefer my with a little more toastiness.) Remove from oven and stir every few minutes as it cools to break up large clumps. When cool, stir in dried fruits. Store tightly sealed.

January 14, 2010

A Warm Country Meal for a Long Winter's Night

Winter in Oregon is dark. Our short Pacific Norhtwest days are clouded over, sometimes creating weeks of not seeing the direct light of the sun. For those of us born and bred in brighter climes, this can pose a challenge to our senses of well-being. It becomes a matter of perspective whether we deem the days short or the nights long. I'm learning, after 19 Oregon winters, how to make peace with the dark.

A. Candles. Lots and lots of candles on the dining table to evoke warm bright light. Candlelight implies warmth and light while holding respect for the reality of winter. They seem to say, "Hang on... Good and hopeful things are happening deep within".

B. Warm company. If you've been blessed by warm relationships, you know what I'm talking about here. Relish those. If you haven't, don't give up. Imagine the life and relationships you'd like to have. Settle for nothing less. With firmly set intentions, it will happen. Promise. And learn to enjoy your own warm company in the meantime.

C. Great wine. Take the time to really notice the wine you drink. Don't rush this. If you've been blessed with warm company (see above), don't be afraid to share what you smell, taste and feel in your glass. If you are by yourself, write it down. Noticing the nuances in your wines dials you in to notice many other wonderful things about a dark day. Sharing it affirms your humanity.

D. Winter foods. Cool salads and fruits are great, but may throw your sense of well-being way off in the dark days. Read a little about Ayurvedic eating and apply the concepts to your table, such as using warming spices, cooked orange veggies and dark leafy greens and dense grains and beans. A little pork now and then won't hurt either. Start your meal early and end it late, savoring each bite and sip and word and thought shared at your table. Accepting the long evening the Universe has given as its gift lightens the darkness.

Our solstice meal honored the beauty of a long winter's night. White beans cooked with rosemary, sage, garlic and chard; pork chops; roasted acorn squash with brown sugar glaze (these plump beauties were held over from our garden), and olive oil biscuits. A lush bottle of hand-crafted French style '06 Chardonnay from one of our favorite wineries, Amalie Robert, reminded us of Willamette Valley's summer grass fields. The fruit in my first sip was like a bite of green olive. (As an aside, Amalie Robert's Syrah showed up on our our Christmas celebration table. This beautifully structured elixir with notes of tobacco, leather and brandied cherries stole the show.)

We'd snuck a sip or two of the wine before dinner prep, and that olive-y nuance made me think of these biscuits. Here's the recipe:

Olive Oil Biscuits:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. sea salt, finely ground
5 Tbsp. intensely flavored olive oil
1 cup milk*
1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients in medium mixing bowl. Toss in Parmesan to coat. Measure olive oil and milk together, and briefly stir into dry ingredients just until it comes together, no more. Drop biscuits with scoop onto parchment lined baking sheet. With damp fingers, apply light pressure to subtly flatten biscuit tops. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Crumbly, rich and terrific.
*If you are feeling particularly decadent, use half milk, half cream.

January 13, 2010

Using Your Fingers is Good Manners

Last night I experienced the joy of pulling a roasted guinea hen apart with my fingers, nibbling on the succulent meat, slurping the bones for their last bit of goodness, then licking the sticky tasty juices from my fingers. Be sure, there was a knife, fork and spoon on the well appointed table. For all the elegance the meal called for, this was a time when only fingers would do.

Also on the plate were perfectly smashed garlicky potatoes and glazed sautéed green beans. And I can't forget the nectar-like piece de resistance-- a bottle of Pfeiffer Vineyards pinot gris.* I couldn't have felt more well cared for and comforted by that meal. I work out of town half the week, and a similar scene almost always awaits as a welcome home from the wonderful man I love.

*This is a Southern Willamette Valley winery whose pinot noir was on the table at Mr. Obama's inaugural dinner. If you go, be sure to ask for Robin's Pinot Noir clinic. You may learn a thing or two, like I did, that has enhanced my wine tasting experiences.

Here's how the green beans are made:

Dry Sauteed Glazed Green Beans
1 bunch slim tender green beans, ends trimmed, dried
1 swirl extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pinch red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Place a large skillet or saute pan over medium high heat. When the pan is well heated, add your swirl of olive oil. Not too much. Add the beans and allow them to slightly blister in spots and turn a bright shiny green. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and briefly stir. You may turn the heat down a bit at this point to keep the garlic from burning, but you'll still want it fairly hot.

Add the soy and balsamic, stirring over heat until they create a glaze over the beans. Serve immediately. These are great eaten with your fingers, too!

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