April 28, 2010

Food Evolution

Roasted Beet and Beluga Lentil Salad in Savoy Cabbage Bowls
One of the most fun and exciting things about food is its evolutionary nature. We eat at a restaurant, and will later at home recreate a component of the meal with our own slant, substituting an ingredient for one in our own pantry, for example. We read cookbooks, food magazines and blogs, blogs, blogs and assimilate all those concepts into something unique without really knowing from where it came. The seasons change one into another and a house standard dish morphs to accommodate what is at market. Viola! A familiar yet new dish is served. The same, but different.
Beets Ready for Roasting
The evolutionary starting point for this salad is from Tim Mazurek over at Lottie + Doof. There's just something about his way that has worked itself under my skin, from his amazingly cool home, to his beautifully photographed food posts. Tim's essence is clean and well-edited yet organically warm; a very in-the-moment way of uniting fresh and new with a reflective regard for the past. His blog points toward this in many ways, even that he named it Lottie + Doof. Not to sound like a total teen idol groupie (I do believe I'm old enough to be his mother), but Tim's got it going on. Like his pretty, earthy beet and wheat berry salad.
Everything but the Beets
For our house version, I subbed Beluga lentils (named for their resemblance to the caviar) for the wheat berries. This evolution was nudged along because I recently wheat-berried us out with this salad and the ensuing leftover grains served with berries, yogurt and honey for breakfast a couple of mornings thereafter. We needed a change, and I knew that the sweet earthiness of the beet would marry nicely with the loamy earthiness of the lentil. A combination not unlike flavors found in Pinot Noir, I think.

Oregano Vinaigrette in Jar
For the dressing, I followed Tim's suggestion straight on, using oregano from the herb pot by our back door.

Having no arugula in the house meant that the crisp head of Savoy cabbage I hadn't been able to resist would find a nice use. The beet-wheat berry mixture nestled itself into the bowl of one of its leaves for each individual serving. The beets I had were deep red, not the citrine and carnelian colored ones that Tim used. His are prettier. And, one last evolution... I was out of feta, but had a ton of cotija; similar, but with a little more saltiness and pure cow's milk flavor.

Here's my riff of Tim's idea written out, along with some personal notes. Please do visit his site for his original guideline. If you don't know him already I'm honored to make the introduction.

Roasted Beet Salad with Wheat Berries, Savoy Cabbage and Cotija

Oregano Vinaigrette
1 shallot, finely minced
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey (Tim's recipe asks for less, but my cabbage was more bitter than spicy arugula usually is)
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup tasty olive oil

Put all ingredients in a jar and shake. Allow flavors to merge before serving.

Several leaves Savoy cabbage
2-3 medium beets, roasted, peeled, and chopped***
2 cups cooked Beluga lentils**
1/2 cup crumbled or shredded cotija cheese
Fresh oregano, chopped, for garnish

*** To roast beets, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place whole washed beets (unpeeled--roasting makes quick work of this job, as the peels of cooked and slightly cooled beets slip themselves right off) on a large sheet of foil. Drizzle with olive oil and seal edges of foil well. Bake until center of beets yield easily to a knife, about 50 minutes or so. With rare exception, this is my primary method for cooking beets. It's efficient, simple and tidy.

**To cook Beluga lentils, place one cup uncooked lentils in saucepan with 2 1/2 cups water and a healthy pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain any residual water off.

Mix lentils and most of the vinaigrette together. (I believe this tastes better when allowed to stand 20 minutes or so.) Layer a spoonful of lentils, diced beet and cotija in cabbage leaf. Drizzle with additional vinaigrette if desired. Garnish with oregano.

April 24, 2010

On Dining Outdoors

Apple Blossoms
In this spectacular Oregon setting of ours, dining al fresco is something we do a lot of. Outdoors, food and wine taste best and conversation flows. Mid-spring through mid-autumn we rarely use our dining room at all, rotating breakfast, lunch and dinner through our four outdoor dining "rooms."

Hatha Deck
There's the private Hatha (Sun/Moon in Sanskrit) Deck on the east side of the house where we watch both sun and moon rise. It' the perfect spot for breaking the fast in our sparkling early morning light (and is also a wonderful place for a yoga practice, by the way). This deck has an angular, sturdy, antique teak table and chairs that remind me of something you'd find in the captain's quarters shipboard the Bounty. And yes, those are neighboring cows you see just beyond the rail, augmenting our country ambiance. Sometimes the cows are exchanged for sheep, equally pastoral and serene.

Harvest Table
Another special place is the ipe wood harvest table handmade by My Baby. This treasured table sits on the lawn just steps from the back door, tucked into the low-lying branches of an enormous fir. Table and tree match the generosity of one another in this beautiful outdoor room. Our harvest table, flanked by benches on all four sides, engenders convivial conversation and is wonderful for family gatherings and parties.

The White Table
The iron White Table on the westerly edge of the property is the perfect place for observing the sunset. Surrounded by a cedar grove, this space makes it all too easy to linger late at the table, as we don't want to miss the show of the early night sky that is always offered here. Performance art at its best.

Apple Tree Table
My favorite outdoor room, though, is roofed by the branches of an old apple tree, right in the center of the garden. Our garden is divided into four quadrants; one section in seasonal vegetables, one in blueberry bushes and strawberries, one in tiny kiwi and Marionberry, and the final quarter, herbs and flowers. This is the table I love to set with pretty cloths, our best dishes, flatware, glassware and flowers or candles. We've fallen in love many times together under this tree; with one another, this place, and friends and family. The Apple Tree table is intimate, and this tree has a special way of sharing its wisdom with us each time we sit under it.

Have I mentioned that this is a very nice life?

We love our place and all it offers, indoors and out. We are nurtured here, and love to share the gift with others. Family, friends, and internet friends are welcome!

April 19, 2010

Sourcing: Vanilla Bean

Tahitian Vanilla Beans
One of the things I've missed most since baking in a professional kitchen has been ready access to chubby, long, moist caviar-filled vanilla beans. As a home cook, the return on investment for grocery store vanilla beans just isn't there. Even upscale groceries' vanilla beans tend to be brittle, dry and past their prime for scraping into a pan of bubbling butterscotch pudding, pastry cream, muffin or cake batter; not at all worth their high cost. But fear not...

The Organic Vanilla Bean Company is an on-line source for the best-of-the-best vanilla beans at an extremely reasonable cost. It is possible, if you choose their 5" beans, to pay 50 cents a piece, a little more for the longer (up to 7"+) beans. They come in reasonably sized packages, and shipping costs are nominal. Prompt delivery is a plus as well. I've ordered both their Tahitian and Bourbon vanilla beans several times, and have been pleased all the way around.

Be fairly warned: Occasionally The Organic Vanilla Bean Company is out of stock on several (or all, as I found out today when researching this piece) of their beans. In the past I've waited for a couple of weeks for their stocks to be replenished so that I could place an order. Maybe you'll learn to do like me, and place an order well before you've run out to so that you always have a few in your pantry. Besides, what home baker wouldn't love a vanilla bean as a host/hostess gift?? A few extra is never a problem.

The Organic Vanilla Bean Company website is also really interesting. The pages on vanilla history, how to buy vanilla, and tips on when to use Bourbon and when to use Tahitian varieties are helpful and engaging.

So what will you do with all the vanilla beans you are about to possess? Here are some fun ideas for applying the warm, earthy and deepening flavors of the vanilla bean:

April 14, 2010

An Afternoon Sigh

Artichoke and Handmade Aioli
Aioli, as the Italians call, or mayonnaise, as it is known in France, is infinitely better when made at home than that found in jars. It is so easy, quick, fresh and flavorful that it is really a shame to resort to the mass produced variety. I call this "handmade", because much of the fun is in the vigorous wrist and hand action required to emulisfy the fresh egg yolks, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and garlic into your delectable sauce. Occasionally I get so enthusiastic about the magic that happens while whisking that my whole body gets into the act, like a whisk dance.

During yesterday's brief sunny spot, My Baby and I sat outside and soaked up our Oregon country view while savoring an enormous steamed artichoke with aioli and a LaVelle Winery 2007 Viognier. The light, sprightly, floral-nosed wine is becoming favorite of mine as it delivers a high value at this price point. I'm especially fond of its almond and peachy flavors and tangy acidity. I have mentioned before that this is a very nice life, haven't I?
The View Beyond Our Garden
As for the aioli, I make it in this small quantity when it's just My Baby and me so that we can consume it at the height of its freshness, but can easily be doubled. Use it on fresh fish of all kinds, a dab on sliced hard-cooked eggs topped with an anchovy fillet, roasted potatoes, crudite, or classically, pomme frite. Aioli is traditionally flavored with garlic only, but mayonnaise can have added flavor bonuses of capers, Dijon mustard, citrus zest, saffron, anchovy fillets, any combination of fresh minced herbs or any number of other enhancers to suit your mood.

Classic Aioli
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, smashed with about 1/2 teaspoonful salt in deep bowl
1 large egg yolk, room temperature (use the freshest you have as this is a big part of the flavor)
2 or so teaspoons fresh lemon juice
about 1 cup extra virgin olive oil (the variety you use will really shine here, so choose one you enjoy and that will enhance the other flavor components of the meal)

Add egg yolk and lemon juice to the smashed garlic in the bowl. A conical shaped bowl makes the whisking more effective. Whisk briefly to combine.

Using a simple wire whisk or fork, add the oil to the egg mixture drop by drop at first, then very slowly, whisking intensely as you go. Try to maintain a completely emulsified texture the whole time. If the aioli looks oily or "broken", stop adding oil and whisk whisk whisk away until it regains itself before continuing with more oil.

If the sauce gets too thick, add additional lemon juice (for tang) or warm water teaspoonful at a time. A warning: Adding more oil will only make it thicker. Taste for salt and pepper (white pepper is good, but I always love freshly cracked black) and add more garlic if you'd like.

Aioli is the very essence of freshness, so use within a couple of hours. It begins to loose it's personality with refrigeration, so make only what you can use right away. You can always make more tomorrow.

April 12, 2010

A Tranquil Morning

Red Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Scones
F or all the many reasons to love scones, my favorite is that their preparation is tranquilly quiet. While I love making and eating breakfast, an exuberant morning person I am not, preferring to ease my senses into the civility of the day. The machineless, silent, fingers-only cutting in of the butter is a peaceable way to greet morning. I love to be working over my bowl, listening to the steam slowing building in the kettle, newspaper pages being turned in the next room, the hum of the heater kicking on and the long sigh of the Murray the Amazing Wonder dog stretching into his first urdva mukha svanasana of the day.

Other reasons to love scones include their buttery richness, tender crumb, just-barely sweetness, and their tendency to be specked with bits of fruit. And, these raspberry scones are a pretty pink. Who doesn't love pink food?
This recipe includes red raspberries pulled from our freezer stash of last summer and a tang from the Meyer lemon zest. A bit of whole wheat adds a subtle nuttiness that I love. Due to the tartness of my raspberries, I sweetened this recipe a tad more than I might if I was using a sweeter fruit.

Red Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Scones
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3/4 cup (1 1/2) sticks cold butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
1/2 cup frozen red raspberries
1 cup cold buttermilk, plus 2 Tablespoons additional for brushing tops

8 red raspberries, thawed and smashed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Mix first seven ingredients (flours through lemon zest) together in mixing bowl. Add butter, rubbing with fingertips while tossing in the flour until mixture resembles coarse meal, trying for nothing larger than pea-sized butter bits. Toss in frozen raspberries. Gradually add buttermilk, stirring until moist clumps form. On a well-floured surface, turn dough out and need briefly to bind, about 4 turns or so. Don't worry if your raspberries break a bit. Pat dough into a 1" thick round. Cut into 10 wedges. Place wedges on parchment lined baking sheet and brush tops with additional buttermilk. Space them about 2" apart, as they do expand. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool ten minutes.
While scones are cooling, whisk smashed raspberries, melted butter, powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth, adding additional lemon juice drop by drop until glaze is thin enough to brush over scone tops, but substantial enough to make a thick glaze on the warm scones. Serve warm or room temperature.
I glaze the scones on a cooling rack over the sink, saving on cleanup later.

April 8, 2010

Taking the Cake

Lemon Meringue Cake
I've always loved cake, and now that there's a wedding in the future, cake is about all I can think of. We've all had our experiences with the well-intentioned but ubiquitous dry, boring, leaden wedding cakes with cloying frosting, and here is my promise to our guests: To the best of my ability, it is not going to happen here.

Having put lots of love and attention into a half-dozen or so wedding cakes for beloved friends in the past, and countless bridal shower, baby shower, birthday and special occasion cakes besides, creating our own would be fun, right?? At least up until the last minute precision decorating and harried transport-to-venue car ride and then lifting the teetering layers upon one another and... Well, maybe I'll rethink this whole venture, but it is still a dream to at least bake the cakes myself, ensuring the flavor and quality to which I hope to treat our guests.

When it's time to get serious about cake, I go straight to Flo Braker. Twenty years ago I worked my way through her wonderful compendium ">The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. Flo taught me, through this book, the importance of bringing baking ingredients to room temperature, why we sift the dry ingredients, how to add egg to a batter while maintaining a perfect emulsion, and a myriad of other tips and tricks. Flo, whose culinary education is from both the Richemont Professional School in Switzerland and Ecole Le Notre in France, knows her genoise, pate a choux and good old American butter cakes like nobody's business.

Over the course of the next few months, I plan to practice my skills and play with various flavor combinations until (sound the trumpets) we find the just-right cake for our special day. This means, of course, that last minute dress alterations may become necessary. I'm sure you'll hear all about these efforts.
A lemon meringue cake was chosen first for two reasons: First, to simply practice a plain vanilla buttermilk butter cake in order to refamiliarize myself with the process. It's been a while since I've seriously baked, so that was an important goal. And second, I couldn't wait to try the bad-boy blow-torch My Baby brought home from the hardware store, so a caramelized meringue seemed in good order. There are no photos included in this post of a slice of the cake revealing its three bright-yellow lemon curd stripes. Once it was cut, somehow all thoughts of a camera were forgotten.

Here is my adaptation of Flo Braker's recipe for Buttermilk Cake. All components, the cake, lemon curd and Swiss meringue, came from ">The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. See what you think.

Lemon Meringue Cake

Makes two 8" x 1/2" layers, or 3 6" x 1 1/2" layers

Buttermilk Cake
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
For perfect measurement and a light cake, sift cake flour before measuring. Measure flour, then sift it and all the remaining dry ingredients above into a medium bowl. Set aside.

3 large eggs, room temperature
Whisk eggs lightly together in a small bowl. Set aside.

1 cup milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
Stir vanilla into milk and set aside.

1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups bakers sugar or granulated sugar

Grease bottom and sides of pans with shortening or butter. Dust generously with all-purpose flour, tapping out excess. Insert 8" rounds of parchment or waxed paper into bottoms of pans.
Position oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using the flat beater, cream butter on medium speed until it it light in color and has satiny appearance. Add sugar in steady stream. When all sugar is added, scrape the bowl. Continue to cream for 4-5 minutes, or until mixture is very light in color an fluffy in appearance.

With mixer still on medium speed, pour in the eggs tablespoon by tablespoon. If at any time the mixture appears water or shiny or curdled, stop the flow of eggs and increase the mixer's speed until a smooth, silken appearance returns before resuming the addition of eggs.

Continue to cream, stopping the mixer and scraping the sides of the bowl at least once. when the mixture appears fluffy, white and increased in volume (resembles whipped cream cheese), detach the beater and bowl from the mixer. (The total process of adding the eggs and incorporating them takes about 3-4 minutes.)

Having abandoned the mixer, lift about one-fourth of the flour mixture into the creamed mixture. Stir it in gently with a rubber spatula. Pour in about 1/3 of the vanilla milk, stirring to blend together. Repeat this procedure, alternating dry and liquid ingredients, ending with flour. (Stirring the flour in last rather than the liquid binds the batter together to form the desired consistency. Doing this last bit by hand rather than by machine gives more control in incorporating the ingredients and reduces the risk of overmixing, which creates a tough cake.)

Spoon equal amount of batter in to each pan. Spread batter, working from the center outward, creating a slightly raised ridge outside the rim. (Since heat is conducted faster near the metal rim, mounding the bater around the edges assures more even, level baked layers. Batters containing chemical leavenings also have a tendency to bake higher in the middle, forming domelike shapes: the outer ridge compensates for this.)

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until baked surface springs back slightly when touched lightly in the center and the sides begin to pull away from the pan.

When cool, slit layers in half, creating 4 thinner layers. Fill with lemon curd, stacking layers. Frost with Swiss meringue and brown meringue with a torch.

Quick Linker