How do I love thee? Let me count the peppers...

Saturday, May 31, 2014

   I once read "there is no love, there are only acts of love." I can't remember where I read it or who should get credit for the original quote. But I remember thinking how stark and true that statement sometimes feels.

   Agree with it entirely? Certainly not. I do believe there is an intangible sense of 'love'- one that defies definition but cocoons you like a snug, reassuring hug at all times, regardless of what is going on with you and your partner. But on the other hand, I think there is a bit of truth in that we perform countless small acts of love for those that mean the most to us- mostly without really thinking about it, some more elaborate than others. And these things, no matter how small, build up to important gestures of care, love and thoughtfulness. How plain and boring life would be without them!

   I mentioned the film Fed Up in my last post. It is hard for me to emphasize the importance of documentaries like this, but suffice it to say that I really feel everyone and their families should seek out a viewing. One of the greatest scams of our (and our parents' and children's) generations is the machine that is the modern food industry. We've somehow been fooled into believing that our man made technologies are smarter, better and healthier than mother nature. We've been told that fats are bad, we need to trust factories to chemically reduce and remove them, providing 'healthier, better, low fat, low sodium' (low anything you chose) products. In reality, we are exchanging the whole package that is real food for a stripped down, factory version that for all intents and purposes are poisons in fancy packages.

  As a perfect example, did you know that every teaspoon of store bought Sriracha sauce has a gram of sugar in it? That means every four teaspoons has an entire teaspoon of sugar! Visually put, for every three pure teaspoons of sriracha, you're eating one full teaspoon of pure white sugar. Crazy!

   Steve loves the rooster sauce. He puts it liberally on everything- eggs, casseroles, tacos, burritos. When he started dabbling in the Paleo diet last year we began to look a little closer at the labels of the foods we buy and guess what? Sugar is the second ingredient labeled on the sriracha bottle. Ingredients must be listed by total weight/volume contributed to the final food product so you can easily imagine what this means. Oh, and the sixth, seventh and eighth ingredients were all chemical preservatives. Steve was devastated.

   Steve loves Sriacha and I love him, so I hunted down some red chilis and whipped up a home made, no ingredient guess work jar of the stuff for him. At the end of the day, food will always be my 'I love you' gesture of choice. I hope you dare to try this recipe- it is a gorgeous, impossibly red hue, totally chemical free, and spicy enough to knock your socks off!

Sriracha-esque Sauce
Adapted from My Darling Lemon Thyme
Makes ~2 cups

   As you can see in the photo, this rooster sauce is a little thicker than the original, store bought stuff. Steve really likes the additional texture, but feel free to press the final product through a fine meshed sieve for a closer approximation of what you can find in the store. Also, if you go to the original recipe, you'll notice the fermentation length is much longer than mine and the ingredients are added in a different order. I tried this but had trouble with mold. No bueno. My version allows for a mellowing and melding of the flavors without risk of losing the whole batch.

20 red chilis (I use red jalapenos but red serranos or thai chilis would also work)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon sugar (just enough to aid in the fermentation step)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

   Remove and discard the green hats from the chilis. Chop the chilis into approximately 1 inch discs and place in either a high speed blender or a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients in with the peppers and process or blend on high until quite smooth (and pleas learn from my mistake by not having your face directly over your blender while taking the top off. You will tear gas yourself.) Place in a clean glass container, cover loosely, and allow to sit at room temperature, out of the sun, for 1 day. After it's sat out, stir the sauce and enjoy! Keep in the refrigerator.

Pharmaceutically Elegant

Sunday, May 25, 2014

    In our beautiful town here in the southeast we have fantastic food. Rich, delicious marriages of southern comfort food with classical French and Italian cuisine. Really, I have nothing to complain about. And yet!

   We are woefully lacking in the ethnic food department. When I lived in buffalo there were teeny holes in the wall run by even teenier Asian women, churning out huge bowls of delightfully ethereal Pho, friendly ladies from Jamaica each with their own version of jerk chicken- so spicy and fragrant it made my eyes water. And the Indian food! There are no words.

   In the early months of our relationship our favorite restaurant was a boisterous Greek place that made the flakiest Spanikopita I've ever had and lamb gyros that I still have dreams about. Although as far as I know baba ghanoush is a traditional Lebanese dish, the owners of this place had their version that Steve just loved- he ordered it every single time we went. I'm not a fan of the eggplant in nearly any recipe, much as I have tried to be, but whizz it up in a silky bowl of baba and I'm in love.

   We've tried baba ghanoush at a few places down here in the south and it's always been a weird, grainy, failure. One of the reasons I love to cook so much is because with a little time and effort, a little care, you can make the things that you and your family love- and make them just exactly as you like them.

   We went and saw the movie Fed Up last night. It is a major eye opener and really drives home just how deceitful and greedy the modern food industry is. In such an unpredictable world full of people just waiting to pour harmful bits of this and that into your food, sometimes that extra bit of control in the kitchen is awfully nice. This dish offers that kind of unusual comfort- slightly exotic and lusciously complex, no guess work or hidden ingredients allowed.

   When I first brought this dish to the table and proudly proffered it to Steve he exclaimed in delight, "It's so pharmaceutically elegant!" At my baffled (and maybe slightly offended- I don't want my food to appear pharmaceutical anything!) look he quickly explained that when a pharmacist compounds a cream, they can haphazardly cram it into a container or they can take the time to smooth the top and make the pleasing finishing swirl. That extra bit of attention and effort results in a pharmaceutically elegant product. Before meeting Steve I never would have believed that such phrases could so melt my heart.

   Whether you enjoy this with chewy chunks of naan or crunchy wedges of carrot, make sure you don't forget the finishing flourish!

Baba Ghanoush
From David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen
Makes approximately 3 cups

2 eggplants (the dark purple globe variety)
1/2 cup tahini
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus a little more for brushing the eggplant and garnish
Freshly squeezed juice from one lemon
1/4 cup fresh flat leaf parsley leaves plus extra for garnish
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt

   Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with tin foil. Pierce the eggplants a few times with a sharp knife and trim the stem/caps off. Use tongs to hold them over an open stove flame to get the skins charred all over.  Cut them in half, brush the cut sides with a little bit of olive oil, and sprinkle with some kosher salt. Place cut side down on your prepared baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes. They will be very soft and appear a little collapsed at the end of the cooking time. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
   When cool, turn the eggplants over and scoop all the flesh out, discarding the charred skins. Place the flesh along with the remainder of the ingredients (including 1 tablespoon olive oil) in a food processor and process until smooth. Scrape into your serving dish, drizzle with some olive oil and garnish with additional fresh parsley.
   I like to serve this with triangles of naan that have warmed/toasted in the hot oven, or carrot sticks.

The Roots

Sunday, May 11, 2014

   I've mentioned here before that I associate many people in my life with certain foods. For my grandma, that food is rhubarb.

   My grandma was many, many things but the first I think of when she comes to mind is the amazing, patient gardener she was. She had a knack for coaxing things to grow in abundance, for knowing what the earth needed to be just the right environment for flowers, vegetables and fruits. She wasn't afraid of the deep, dark winters of the northeast that could last far longer than winter has any business lasting. She simply planted things that could survive the cold and come back with sweet vigor in the spring. She canned and jarred things like tomatoes and other vegetables to enjoy during the colder months- most especially, she made jars upon jars of rhubarb jam.

    Rhubarb grows well in the north and, although a vegetable, the sweet, deep red stalks often are prepared like fruit, such as in jams and pies. Grandma's rhubarb jam is one of my favorite childhood memories. I just loved the ruby hued, gooey sweet luxury of that stuff spread all over a salty cracker: eaten slowly, chops licked, repeated as many times as my little heart desired. I imagine all vegetables that masquerade as fruit balance the world of sweet and tart as masterfully as rhubarb does.

 Grandma kept her rhubarb patch in the same place since as long ago as I can remember- and my earliest memories of the rhubarb garden were probably from when I was about four. Last week, hours after her funeral, I walked with my parents and sister to that patch of garden and there the rhubarb was in the exact spot that I remembered- fledgling, spring sprouts struggling to the surface, already their leaves a vibrant green. We unearthed small pieces of the tuberous plant, divided them amongst ourselves and took them home with us. Grandma's rhubarb is now happily growing not only in her backyard, but in my sister's and mom's in the midwest, and here in mine in the deep south, the stalks just beginning to blush pink.

   I'm celebrating my own mother this mother's day; she's one of my closest friends, the person I often turn to for advice, comfort and, of course, just good fun. Mom taught me and my siblings how to forge our own paths- she decided to homeschool us even though she knew no one who was doing such a thing and nearly all her friends and relatives told her she was crazy. She raised five kids and after all of that decided to go to medical school and become a family physician. Mom has always sent the message that nothing is impossible; if you can imagine it, you can make it so. I'm thankful she's my mum every day, but especially this day.

   And, I'm celebrating the life of my dad's mom. Grandma appreciated nature, family and good food made right in her own kitchen. She taught me how to properly soak french toast and was totally unfazed by how picky an eater I was- hence her knack for getting me hooked on things like rhubarb. I'd like to think she would enjoy this crumble- it's certainly not her jam, but it comes close.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble
Serves 8 to 10, generously

For the filling:
6 cups rhubarb, cut in half lengthwise then chopped into 1/2 inch chunks (greens and dried ends discarded)
4 cups strawberries (whole, quartered or sliced- it is your preference)
Zest of half a lemon
Juice of half a lemon
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons butter

For the topping:
2 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces), cut into 1 tablespoon sized pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 13 x 9 inch baking dish.

Make the filling: mix all the ingredients except for the butter together in a mixing bowl. Place the filling in the prepared baking dish, smoothing it out. Use your fingers to pinch small pieces of the butter and place them over the top of the filling.

Make the topping: place 1 cup of the oats in a food processor and process until very fine. Add the butter, salt, brown sugar and vanilla extract and process until incorporated. Place this mixture in a bowl and use your hands to knead and smush in the remaining 1 1/2 cups oats. Sprinkle this evenly over your filling. Cover the whole thing with tin foil.

Bake for 30 minutes, covered with the foil. Remove the foil and bake for 40 minutes more until the filling is tender and bubbling and the topping is golden brown.

Serve warm with generous scoops of vanilla bean ice cream.

How Green It Is

Monday, May 5, 2014

There is a reason death is so difficult to confine to words. It defies description and confounds the mind. It's permanent yet elusive- at times devastating, at times a mournful, expected price to a happy and fully lived life.

I won't pretend to have an eloquent summation of what death means handy for you today. But I have experienced both kinds of losses this year- the unexpected and devastating, the quietly mournful and expected. Neither is welcome, both are hard. Both require time and more time to figure out how to assimilate into something resembling the fabric of your life. Sometimes it never quite fits and always stands out- like a starkly bare patch amidst an otherwise lushly cultivated garden.

Either way, often times our only defense during hard times is a resilient body, one that can weather the storm for us while our minds reel about for a while. My go to source of energy and nutrition dense enough to effortlessly carry me through my day recently has been breakfast green smoothies. It's taken me a little bit to solidly get on the green smoothie band wagon but now that I'm here, holy heck am I converted. All this green smoothie goodness is made possible by my brand new Vitamix blender (a kitchen implement I've been drooling over for at least five years: drawn by its sleek power, repulsed by its offensive but obviously worth every penny price). I finally took the plunge and found a way to get one of those babies into my life and I am so thankful I did.

There is something deeply calming and satisfying about sipping a glass teeming with such vibrancy and flavor first thing in the morning. Not only do smoothies like this one taste like life itself, but they feed the soul in a peaceful, almost meditative way.

Tomorrow I get on a plane for a funeral and I know this green beauty will keep me energized and grounded during the flight and difficult next few days.

I almost didn't write this post- too sad, too dark for a place I associate with happiness, life and good food- but I think it's important to acknowledge the bitter as well as the sweet. And mostly I wrote this because I hope you make one of these smoothies for yourself soon and take a moment to appreciate the power of a strong and nourished body in the face of hard times.

Also, it's jasmine season here in the south. Sweet, heady heaven.

Green Warrior Smoothie
Serves 1
3 small leaves green curly kale, destemmed and stems discarded
4 cups fairly well packed baby spinach
1/2 cup full fat unsweetened coconut milk (this brand is my favorite)
1 cup cold water
1 1/2 cups fresh pineapple

Load the ingredients into your blender in the order listed. Blend on high until perfectly smooth. Drink through a straw- this increases the happiness factor.