Friday, June 29, 2007

Hardly Shrinking - Violet Granita


Leave it to the Victorians. With their severely conservative customs, it’s no wonder they invented a language of flowers to communicate and vent the repressed emotions that filled the silent space between the gesture and the word. To this day, give a woman a bouquet of red roses, and we will immediately assume she is in the throes of a romance of deep beauty and heart-pounding sincerity. Give a woman an armful of white lilies, and we assume she is pure and regal in spirit and deed, heavenly and worthy of reverence. Give a woman a nosegay of violets, and we assume she is unassuming, prim, sweet, and … shrinking with shyness.

Well, I was never one for red roses nor white lilies, but I’ve always had a soft spot for violets, and I’ve never thought of them as shy and demure. True, they are tiny compared with the floral drama queens, but those little girls can sure pack a wallop of color, perfume and taste. Yes, taste. With a sweet, yet sharp, edge that strikes like lightening and flees just as fast, the taste of violet is elusive and explosive and endlessly enchanting. Europe has a long history of infusing the cherished essence into preserves, liqueurs and sweets as well as folkloric medicines.

Syrup

Beyond its intensity of hue, and occasional flashes of fascinating, ephemeral fragrances, most Americans only know the flavor of violet, if they know it at all, by the foil packets of chalky tablets or chewing gum introduced by C. Howard back in the 1930s, and still found today at some newsstands across the country. A fair proximity to the flavor, C. Howard’s formula relies on a chemist’s beaker rather than a natural extract derived from any one of several varieties of viola odorata blossoms. This is something of an injustice, since the natural flavor is far less harsh and more nuanced that the artificial. This may be one reason why violet comestibles are as elusive here as the scent itself, and why they are considered something of an acquired taste, even more so than rose or orange blossoms.

As hard as violet is to come by, there is a small chance that you will happen upon the genuine article someday. If you do, you must quickly dismiss any notion of musty old Victorian lace priggishness or peculiar qualities more soapy than sensual. Go on. Step right up. Don’t be shy.


First freeze

Violet Granita

Ingredients

1 cup violet syrup (or any other flavored syrup of your choice)
2 cups water
2 drops blue coloring (optional)
1 drop red coloring (optional)

Method

Mix syrup, water and coloring together in a bowl. Pour mixture into a chilled 8" or 9" metal or glass baking pan. (The mixture must not be too shallow in the pan.) Place pan in freezer until ice crystals form and mixture is partially frozen (30 – 45 minutes). Rake the mixture with the tines of a fork then return it to the freezer until it partially freezes again. Continue raking and re-freezing until the texture is coarsely granular and slushy. Granita is not meant to be a smooth frozen dessert like sorbet or Italian ice.

Serves 4 –


Note: Natural violet extract is virtually impossible to find in the U.S. Though Monin syrup is naturally flavored, it does have artificial coloring, which was diluted when mixed with water. The coloring I used was produced by India Tree with natural vegetable dyes.


This post is being submitted to Fiber at 28 Cooks for her summer
Chilled Out! blog event.


Friday, June 22, 2007

The Bread Bowl of Beirut - Fatoush


Soggy. It happens. You get caught in the rain, and your shoes get soggy. You go for a dip in the pool, and your swimsuit gets soggy. You dry yourself after a shower, and your towel gets soggy. Soggy is one of the most uncomfortable and unattractive states of being wet. No one likes soggy. It has negative connotations, like the swamp it was named after. We don’t like being in a swamp and we certainly don’t like eating one.

If ever a food looses its charm, it is when it goes soggy. Flabby French toast, clumped cornflakes and plastered pie crust -- the list is as endless as that rather wet river flowing to the sea. Nowhere is damp more unappealingly dull than when a perfectly well-constructed sandwich is sodden with torrents of oil and vinegar in the old American classic, the sub, hero, grinder or hoagie. A national institution, the bullet-shaped delicatessen sandwich is as popular as it ever was, with fierce competition among a handful of corporate chains vying for market share not unlike the cola wars.

I wish I could say I was one of their customers. Never mind trying to fit my small hands and jaws around the clumsy girth of a football spilling its layers of cold cuts and salad shred all over the table, but the squish of limp, leaden bread weakening the last walls of civilized eating was the last straw.

It wasn’t until several years later, when my tastes matured and culinary curiosity got the best of me, that I revisited the idea of bread and salad in the same breath. Broadening my scope beyond U.S. borders, I perked up at the idea of pan bagna, spinning a diaphanous French fantasy of opening carefully wrapped picnic parcels on the side of a provincial road on midsummer’s eve. The quest, unfortunately, was still on. The French are a fine people with remarkable food, but a sloppy sub sandwich by any other name is still a sloppy sub sandwich.


Zahtar - sesame, sumac and thyme.

By the time I discovered the meals of the Middle East, I was more than a little wary of fatoush, the popular Lebanese bread salad. While I was intrigued by the use of zahtar seasoning, I couldn’t get my mind passed the prejudice of my earlier wet-ragged disappointments. I could see myself picking out dead chunks of bread all over again. I just knew fatoush would not live up to my expectations, so I went out for all the ingredients, just so I could prove myself right.

Fatoush and I are now friends, but not before it made a fool out of me. I had it coming, I suppose. When pre-conceived notions stand in the way of progress, all you are left with is a soggy mind. I was all wet.




Fatoush - My own recipe

[Fatoush has as many variations as there are cooks. The only constant is pita bread.]

Ingredients

2 pita bread pockets (cut into strips or squares)
2 cups cucumber, cubed (peel if waxed)
1 cup chopped tomato
½ cup chopped red onion
1 handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice, strained of seeds and pulp
1 tablespoon zahtar seasoning (or spice mix of your choice)
1/8 teaspoon salt

Optional protein additions – small can of drained chickpeas and/or 1 cup cubed feta cheese

Method

Bake pita pieces in 400 degree F oven for approximately 8 minutes or until hard and toasted, but not overly browned.

In a large bowl, combine cucumber, tomato, red onion and parsley. In a separate bowl, mix oil, lemon juice, seasoning and salt. Set dressing aside for ten minutes then mix into vegetables.

Right before serving, add chickpeas and/or feta (if using), then gently mix in pita.

Tip: The pita must always be added last. Unlike croutons which are tossed on top of a salad, the pita is mixed in. The crunchy texture is at its best when consumed right away.

Serves 2. --

This post is being submitted to Lis of La Mia Cucina for the food blogging event, Salad Stravaganza, which she is co-hosting with Kelly of Sass & Veracity.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Haricots Verts - The Ultimate Amandine


Consider yourself warned. This recipe is swimming in so much fat, it can certainly be considered a hazard to one’s health. How can something so skinny be so fattening? Naturally slim, romantic and elegant, even when mature, France’s answer to string beans, haricots verts, can easily go it alone without any sauce, salt or slick, clinging to its green and delicate complexion.

The French, however, weren’t having any of it. Creator and champion of one of the world’s greatest cuisines, France knows how to gild a lily. Forays into nouvelle cuisine/cuisine minceur and molecular gastronomy notwithstanding, French cooking will likely be forever known by its grandaddy of disciplines, the classic haute cuisine. Beyond its exacting and elaborate methods, haute cuisine’s heavy reliance on butter, cream, oils and animal fats are the stuff the first famous chefs were made of.

It’s not that the average American diet isn’t guilty of its own hyper-embellishments. Bread really isn’t bread in these parts unless you lavishly, and slavishly, grease it with butter, cheese, mayonnaise, or nut spreads. If you aren’t using a knife to wax up your slice, you are probably dipping a tip of it into a small bowl of olive oil, infused with herbs or other aromatics. Americans are also quick with the sauces and salad dressings, smothering our healthy but “boring” vegetables into slow-moving masses so unrecognizable they could audition for a role in “The Blob.” Anyone who has been subjected to the Thanksgiving cult classic, the Green Bean Casserole, can testify to my claim. The French, however, use a lighter touch for this vegetable, though the luxurious caloric count would beg to differ.

Haricots Verts Amandine is an extremely easy recipe which Americans long ago have welcomed as their own, even if we are using local varieties of green beans or dolling it up with the additions of bacon, pearl onions or mushrooms. What everyone does agree on is the liberal use of butter and almonds. Substituting much of the butter with mono-saturated sweet almond oil reduces some cardio risks, but none of the calories. Will this discourage you from preparing this simple, sophisticated and satisfying dish? I’ll wager not. Fat chance.


The Ultimate Amandine - My own recipe

Ingredients

1 pound haricots verts or other green string beans
1/2 cup slivered, chopped or sliced skinless almonds
3 tablespoons sweet almond oil (culinary oil ONLY)
1 tablespoon butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
Dash of ground white pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Method

Heat large pot of water to boiling. Meantime, wash and trim ends from beans. (For decorative purposes, you can trim the ends by splitting them on the diagonal, called "frenching." This does, however, create some waste.) Blanche beans in the boiling water for exactly 3 minutes. Promptly remove beans to a bowl of cold water to stop cooking and retain color, which will now be a vivid green.)

In a large skillet (cast iron works best), toast almonds over medium-high heat until they are somewhat browned. Do not fully brown them at this point. Turn off heat. Mix oil, butter, salt and dash of white pepper together before pouring into hot skillet. Stir the almonds often until fully browned. Turn heat back on to medium-low. Add beans, gently turning until well coated with oil/butter mixture and warm to the touch. Squeeze lemon over beans. Remove from skillet and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a side dish. --

[Health note: Much of the fat can be cut by roasting the blanched beans with the partially-browned almonds at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes, turning them once. Lightly oil or spray non-stick coating on a cookie sheet before arranging ingredients on top.]

This post is being submitted to Rachel of Rachel's Bite, who is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging for Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, the creator of this food blogging event.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Oven-Baked Zucchini Fries with Cornflakes and Olive Oil


It is an idyllic summer morning. The sun has barely beamed above the eastern horizon, some honeybees are making an early start for the cutting garden, and the air is soft and sweet. You peek your head out the door to make sure the coast is clear, that the quiet and privacy of the moment allow you to pad quickly across the dewy grass to your little patch of nirvana, your vegetable garden. Barefoot and still in your robe, you feel as carefree and lithe as a child, clutching your trug by its handle and zeroing in on the harvest to come. Considering your breakfast options, you feel around for a nice, robust squash and travel your fingers up its smooth length to snap it off at the blossom end. You meet with resistance, a lot of resistance, and begin twisting and tugging until a victorious last pull throws you off balance and onto your backside. You look at the monster clutched in your hand. It is not so robust as you had thought; it is beyond robust. It is a baseball bat.

What are you going to do with a one-pound zucchini? This bears contemplating, but not so fast. When you reach under again, you pull off another, and another, and another. OK, then. What are you going to do with four pounds of zucchini? The cliché of the prolific squash vine cannot be overstated. You can’t go sneaking into the night and lay baskets of them on unsuspecting neighbors’ porches, like newborns left on church steps. You’ve done too much of that; they are on to you. No, you are just going to have to stew, bake and broil these cudgels even though the skin is tough and the seeds are innumerable. You’re going to have to suck it up, but you are going to have to get smart, too.


Conquering a massive squash harvest takes the commitment of Madame Curie and the ruthlessness of Robespierre. It means off with their heads, their blossom heads, to prevent the formation of fruit, as well as collecting the fruit when it is very young, no more than four inches long. You must go out and inspect your vines two, even three times a day, but your extra effort will pay off with tender, virtually seedless specimens that you can eat raw, as well as blossoms to stuff or fry. This bounty is no longer a nuisance crop, but gourmet-coveted produce which commands a premium price in the marketplace.

Once in the kitchen, you marvel at your baby zucchini’s skin, fragile enough to nick with a fingernail, and consider recipes worthy of their delicacy. You have just enough to slice and sauté for a frittata or save for crunchy oven fries later in the day. You are feeling pretty good about yourself now. You should. You only have one more night run to go.





Cheese Zucchini Crisps - Adapted from the Food Down Under recipe
Ingredients

1/3 cup cornflake crumbs
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese or other hard cheese, grated (or vegan cheese)
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt or dried herb/s or both
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
4 very young (4-inches long) zucchini or other summer squash,
cut in 1/2" strips
1/4 cup olive oil (or olive oil spray to further reduce calories)

MethodPre-heat oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine dry ingredients in a small bowl. Either dip squash strips in olive oil or spray both sides with oil spray. Press each strip with crumb mixture on both sides. Arranged coated strips on cookie sheet and bake approximately 10 minutes until golden brown and crisp. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a starter, side dish or snack. --

This post is being submitted to Joanna of Joanna's Food, host of the June addition of The Heart of the Matter. This month's theme is vegetables.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Rapid Rapini - Broccoli Rabe Brown Rice


Cooking on the fly is not a new concept. Indeed, after giving it some thought, there really isn’t anything under the sun that hasn’t been done before in matters of the kitchen. Despite trendy travertine countertops and the technological advancements of convenience gadgetry, every recipe and method are variations on themes that have evolved and been recycled through the years, introduced to and re-discovered by new generations of cooks.

This is not a bad thing; it keeps the channels of creativity crackling and prevents our increasingly jaded senses from being dulled down to the point where every meal looks like a pot of porridge. In nations of plenty, we have come to expect and embrace these dynamic innovations, but now seem on the verge of something really “big and different”…a return to going slow, to the customs and traditions of our ancestors and their small-farm ways, naturally-raised foods and big-time cooking. Planting the seed to move us away from McDonald’s and agribusiness is a very good thing for our health, as well as the planet’s, but there is no reason why we can’t adjust our speedometers to include the best of both worlds. Rapini is an ideal candidate to get things started.


Celebrated historically by the Italians, rapini, more commonly known as broccoli rabe or other permutations, cooks up much more quickly than other members of the bulky brassica family. Vibrantly healthy and closer genetically to the turnip than its namesake broccoli, rapini’s easily wilted leaves, stems and flowers belie a bitter bite to the uninitiated. Classically sauteed with oil and garlic, and served as a side dish, the vegetable is often combined with starches to temper its flavor while providing color and texture.

As we look at “new” ways to expand our culinary repertoire, revamp our diets, and consider our energy output, lesser known produce like rapini can be expected to enjoy some well-deserved popularity. We can still have our fast food and eat it, too.


Rapini with Brown Rice and Chickpeas - From the Barlow's recipe.

Ingredients

2 bunches rapini, tough, thick stems cut off
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-15 ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 cups cold cooked brown rice (I used a 10-minute style to further speed things up)
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (or more to taste)
Salt and Pepper

Method

Rinse rapini under running water, then blanch 3 minutes in a large pot of boiling water. Remove from water and allow to cool.

Meantime, in large skillet, cook onions and garlic in the olive oil over low heat until onions are golden and brown edged. Chop cooked rapini and add to onions and garlic, cooking for about one minute. Add chickpeas, brown rice and hot pepper flakes, mixing well and heating through. Serve in bowls. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you use quick-cook rice, this meal can be ready in as little as 20 minutes.

Serves 4. --

This entry is being submitted to Ulrike of Küchenlatein, who is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging for Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, the creator of this food blogging event.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Going to Grandma's - Maple Walnut Cake


It was a small house, with wooded slats and a porch painted in creams and browns. As you walked through the heavy burnished door and stood in the center hall, you left the world behind you on the threshold, not three feet away yet a thousand miles from care. A curved staircase led to a motley square of stained glass, a glimpse of the music room through the double French doors, and the unmistakable aroma of a perked pot of coffee always at the ready. This was Grandma’s house, Hertha’s house. This was gemütlichkeit.

A uniquely German abstract, gemütlichkeit, is virtually impossible to accurately translate, though the Dutch, Russians and Danish have words that convey a similar meaning. It is a place of coziness, comfort and camaraderie, where one minute slips effortless into the next, yet you are forever in the moment. The feeling, though typically defined as “home,” knows no exact boundaries; it could be a garden, a glade, or a table tucked away in a café. The only guidepost is that you know it, feel it in your fiber, exactly when you get there.

It was many a Saturday afternoon, so long ago, that I was there. My mother, brother and I would arrive to the last notes of Chopin, Bach and Ravel dancing through the doorways, as my grandmother gave her final student of the day a lesson on the piano. We would sit and wait for her on a comfy sofa with a collection of lazing cats stretched over the cushions.

When the lesson was over, we would immediately be welcomed into the dining room, a small inner sanctum of tall, glossy cabinets. Thick slashes of sunlight would cross the table and converge on a solitary white box bound in striped twine. We all knew what was inside, a lavishly frosted layer cake, which was bought that morning at the local bakery.

As we assembled around the table to the clinking of china and utensils, and the arrival of the coffee pot, all eyes were focused on the box, waiting for the mystery inside to be revealed. Could it be coconut, black-and-white ganache, or maple walnut? Maple walnut was always my favorite, a pile of fawn-colored buttercream cresting walnut-crusted curves of cake, a mile high to a child’s eye. Despite its dazzling decor, it always seemed less sophisticated and more friendly than the other cakes in the rotation. Coffee was poured for the adults and milk for us children. The twine was snipped from the box, thick wedges of cake were cut, and there we would be, spending hours caught up in conversation beyond my ken. To this day, I do not remember a word of it, but it doesn’t matter.

My grandmother has been gone some years now, and the house has long since been sold and gutted several times to accommodate a string of businesses. Memory, though, can hardly be quelled by progress. I sometimes pass by and imagine the door is opening, just wide enough for a small girl to step inside.

Maple Walnut Layer Cake

Chiffon Layer Cake
- Adapted from the Crisco recipe.
[This is an excellent, moist, all-purpose cake recipe, particularly good when you don't want to fuss with the extra steps and tube pan needed for a traditional foam batter. I've made it several times, and it has never failed to perform.]

Ingredients

2 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flavorless oil (I used safflower)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg yolks

Method

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, beat egg whites with 1/3 cup sugar until thick and glossy but not stiff. Set aside. Combine flour, 1 cup sugar, baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add milk, oil, vanilla and egg yolks to the dry ingredients. Beat with electric mixer at medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl and beaters frequently (not continually). Fold or stir egg whites into batter until, about 1 minute. Pour into two greased and floured 8-inch layer cake pans. [I used 6-inch X 3-inch round pans.]

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Cool 10-20 minutes before removing from pans.

American Buttercream Frosting (Maple)
[This is a standard recipe, using all butter and no trans-fat shortening. If you are not fond of the metallic gritty sweetness of confectioners sugar, you can use glazing sugar, a powdered sugar without cornstarch. King Arthur carries it.]

Ingredients

½ pound butter, softened to room temperature
1 pound confectioners sugar (or more)
¼ cup milk (or more)
1 Tablespoon natural maple extract (much more highly concentrated than maple syrup)

Method

In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy and fluffy. Add sugar one cup at a time, beating well between additions. Keep beating until all the sugar is absorbed. Add extract and milk, and resume beating until frosting is smooth and light. Frosting consistency is a matter of taste. You can easily add more sugar to thicken. You can also stretch your ingredients by adding more sugar and milk incrementally until you have doubled the volume. This is especially useful if you have a large cake to frost and don’t want to increase an already high fat content. Keep frosting tightly covered until ready to use to prevent sugar crust. Buttercream does not have to be refrigerated, but should be kept in a cool place so it doesn’t melt.

After filling and decorating the assembled layers, gently press approximately 1 1/2 cups of chopped walnuts into the sides of cake. Cake will develop a natural sugar crust while standing; this is perfectly harmless and adds to its character. Cover with a large inverted plastic bowl to keep it fresh.

Yield – The original recipe without additional sugar and milk will lightly fill and frost an 8-inch, 2-layer cake or two 6-inch cakes split into 2 layers. The cake shown is a 6-inch split into 3 layers. It is lightly filled, but generously decorated. It is very sweet and rich.

Serves 8 - 12 depending on size of wedges cut.


This post is my submission for this month's Sugar High Friday, hosted by Jennifer of Domestic Goddess, the creator of the long-running monthly sweet blogging event. This month's theme is Favorite, Most Craved Desserts.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Mutant Ninja Baby Cauliflower


There are few things more frustrating than not being able to get the right answer. I have no problem heavily researching any subject to extract just the information I need, comparing and contrasting from many sources to make sure both they and I know what all of us are talking about.

Brocciflower?

Such has not been the case with the culinary curio known as green cauliflower. Alternately called brocciflower and/or broccoflower and/or Romanesque, these varieties are hard to classify, even for plant taxonomists. No one seems to know exactly if they are hybrids of cauliflower and broccoli (which supposedly are incapable of crossbreeding unless science interferes) or heirlooms. I’ve read that brocciflower IS a cross between the two cruciferous vegetables, and that Broccoflower is actually just a brand name that should be capitalized, but is only real Broccoflower if it’s green all the way through. The only thing anyone seems to agree on is that the funky, perfect symmetry of the Romanesque’s design is a fine example of naturally occurring fractal architecture. Depending on which article you pull up, the Romanesque may also be known as a broccoli, rather than cauliflower.


Romanesque.

Confused? Never fear. It gets worse. Reduced to the dicey proposition that Wikipedia might sort things out, I warily consulted that massive data dump for at least one kernel of truth. Instead, I was pulled into a quagmire of yet more contradictions and dead ends. Every entry, as expected, amounted to a big mess of a ragu. After all this head banging and hemorrhaging, I am done. A ragu works for me.
Ragu of Cauliflower – Adapted from Drago, Santa Monica, CA

Ingredients

4 baby cauliflower heads, any color
2 Tablespoons shallots, chopped
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
2 Tablespoons raisins
1 small cluster saffron threads, the size of a dime
1 cup wine (I used Marsala)
1 cup water or vegetable stock
1 Tablespoon butter
Salt and Pepper

Method

While bringing to boil a large pot of water, rinse the cauliflower heads, then cut the stems close to the base of each. Leave intact any small, tender leaves that hug the head.

Blanch the heads in boiling water for 3 minutes, then remove from water to cool. In a large skillet, cook the shallots in olive oil over medium heat until soft, golden and translucent. Add the wine, fennel seeds, raisins and saffron, continuing to cook on medium heat until wine reduces by half. Add water or stock, then gently place cauliflower heads in skillet. Turn heat down to low and cook until liquid is nearly all reduced. During this time, turn the cauliflower heads periodically to evenly cook and flavor in the sauce. The cauliflower will lose some, but not all, of their distinctive lime green color.

Remove cauliflower to plates and pour ragu over them. Finish with salt and pepper to taste. Serve while warm.

Serves 2. --
This post is being submitted to Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, creator of the food blogging event, Weekend Herb Blogging.