Sunday, August 3, 2014

Around the world in 80 plates

Well, we didn't serve--or eat--that many dishes, but we were international!

A few weeks ago, we had a Bon Voyage party for my daughter, J. She's spending her senior year of high school in Sweden as a Rotary Exchange student. Ten months is a long time for any of us to be without our Boo, so we wanted to say goodbye in style.

I told her the theme of the party was "My Favorite Things" (cue the Julie Andrews vinyl), but in reality, I wanted her to have some last tastes of her favorite foods while surrounded by her favorite people. Those tastes just happen to be international. I didn't want to make a Swedish meal as she would be eating that--and then some--for the next 10 months.
(OK, Princess Cake for dessert was a concession, but that was her idea). And since she's a vegetarian, I wanted to make a vegetable-based main dish to accompany the burgers and chicken we grilled for the carnivores. (Note to self--the Tandoori marinade recipe for the chicken was popular but bit too sweet for my tastes, the Carribean too bland).

Thinking, thinking, thinking...and then, in the parking lot of the pan-Asian grocery store, I was inspired: Windischgirl's More-ish Stuffed Zucchini. Actually, there's a pun there: it's More-ish and Moor-ish, having been inspired by a recipe from Eva Zane's Middle Eastern Cookery. Ok, ok, so the original recipe claims to be Armenian, more Balkan than African, but with Windischgirl's spin on flavors, it could be from anywhere along the Mediterranean Sea.

This became a family favorite during those summer days when neighbors and friends would surreptitiously place overgrown zucchini before our door. You know the kind: the size of a baseball bat with a core like the innards of a hotel pillow. Of course, I can't throw anything away, so I had to do something. And this was it.

It's actually rather magical: simple ingredients combine in a synergistic way, yielding nuanced and compelling flavors. It can also be an opportunity to use up leftover cooked grains and beans. And this time we made ahead and froze until party time; it reheated nicely in a slow oven, wrapped in foil, until the festivities started.

More-ish Stuffed Zucchini
adapted from 'Middle Eastern Cookery" by Eva Zane.

2 large zucchini, about 3/4 lb each, or one behemoth (for the party I used 5 medium zukes, each about 10-12 inches long and less than 2 inches in diameter)
2 c. cooked brown lentils, although other small beans, such as great northerns or black beans, can be used
2 c. cooked grain--I like bulgur best but have also used brown rice, barley, or whole-wheat couscous
2 Tb. olive oil, or as needed--I use a flavorful Tunisian variety
3 stalks celery, diced (a medium onion for you allium fans)
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt, pepper, cumin, thyme, cinnamon, about 1 to 1 1/2 tsp each, to taste
pinch of allspice or cloves
1/3 to 1/2 c. each chopped fresh parsley and chives
Lemon juice to taste
1 c. shredded extra-sharp cheddar
1 c. chopped walnuts

Scrub the zucchini well, trim the stem end, and slice lengthwise. Now we need to parcook them. I take the lazy way out and place the zukes cut side down in a pyrex dish with 1/3 water and microwave for about 5 minutes, or until the flesh gives when tested with a knife (you can do the same by placing the zukes in boiling water for about 3 minutes). Let cool, cut side up.

Get your large bowl handy. Leaving about a 1/2 inch shell, scoop out the pulp of the zucchini, picking out and discarding any overly large seeds, and chop the pulp. Place the chopped pulp into the bowl and add in the lentils and grain, and combine. Taste. Surprising, isn't it? And we haven't even started yet.

In a saute pan, heat the olive oil and saute the celery (or onion) and garlic until tender. Add to the bowl. Now get seasoning--salt and pepper at first. Add in thyme, fresh if you have it, dried if you don't. Stir. Taste. Add in the savory spices: cumin, cinnamon, allspice or cloves. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon if it needs a bit of brightening. Taste. Stir in the chopped parley and chives for color. Taste. When you are happy with the flavors--deep, savory, exotic, mysterious--it's stuffing time.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Place the zucchini, cut side up, in a baking pan. Spoon the filling into the shells, pressing down and packing it, gradually mounding the filling; be generous now. There may be extra, which I just eat as it is, scooped up into a pita if I have them, but which could also be stuffed into a pepper or tomato and baked alongside the zukes.

Top the stuffed zucchini with the shredded cheese, patting it down so it sticks. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts on top, also patting them so they stay put. Cover with foil and bake 20 minutes, until heated through, then remove the foil and bake 5 more, or until the cheese is browned. Cut into sections--a 3-inch wide piece is a serving in our house--and eat, alongside a tomato salad.

Just finished a Skype conversation with our daughter and her host family. She is all smiles, having fun exploring her new environment and starting to accent her conversation with Swedish words. She also enjoyed her first meal in Sweden: pasta salad and chicken.

Which means she's no longer a vegetarian. That was quick!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pie are Squared

If you paid attention in geometry class, you know that's true. But it was also true in my kitchen yesterday morning. Why be round when you can be square?

Our family friend (and my daughter's beau), D, graduated from high school this week. A major accomplishment like that deserves a major dessert. And from overhearing his comments while standing in front of my open fridge, or next to the fruit bowl on our kitchen table, I knew peaches were a favorite.

We'd be joining his family and friends for a graduation party on Saturday, but since they live three hours away, I also needed something that traveled well. And that could feed a lot of people. Slab Pie came to mind.

The recipes I found online were iffy--wrong proportions of ingredients, the crust-to-fruit ratio too high. It was time to get creative. It must have worked; I didn't have to beg anyone to take the last piece.

D's Peach Mortarboard Pie

Crust--makes 1.5 batches
3 c. all purpose flour
1 c whole wheat flour (could also sub in almond meal)
3/4 tsp salt
4 Tbs sugar (optional)
3 sticks cold butter, cut into 1/4-in chunks
1/2 c.+ 2 Tbs. ice water

Pull out your food processor--it really does the best job of making a flaky crust. Mine is a smaller capacity so I need to make half a batch at a time.
Place the flours, salt, and sugar in the bowl with the S-blade and pulse 3-4 times to blend. Add in the butter all at once and pulse until the butter has formed small, pea-size lumps. With the motor running, add the ice water a tablespoon at a time until the dough starts to clump; it may seem a bit dry but that's OK. Shut off the motor immediately. Scoop the lumps into a ziploc bag, seal it, and with your hands press the lumps together to make a disk. Stick it in the fridge while you make the second batch of crust.

4 to 5 lbs peaches
juice of 2 lemons
6 oz candied (crystallized) ginger, minced
1/4 c. cornstarch
2 Tbs. all purpose flour
3/4 c sugar, or to taste
1 tsp ground ginger

You'll need a large bowl to hold all the ingredients. Cut each peach into eight wedges and cut each wedge into 1/2-inch thick chunks (they'll look like little triangles). You can peel the peaches if you like, but I prefer the extra color the skins provide...and they cook down. Combine with the lemon juice to prevent browning. Add in the other ingredients and adjust to taste; if the peaches are a little juicy, add a bit more flour. If the peaches are bland, kick up the lemon juice and ground ginger.

Putting it all together

I use my largest rimmed baking sheet, which is 14x18; it's a bit larger than a half-sheet cake size. Grease it well (I've been using coconut oil lately) and stick it in the fridge to chill while you roll out the pastry. Preheat your oven to 375F.

Take half of the pastry, and on a well-floured surface, roll it out to a rectangle about 2 inches bigger than your pan, as you want the crust to come up the sides. I like a thinner crust, about 1/8-inch thick. Use a ruler and a pizza wheel to get a nice even rectangle. If the dough sticks, loosen it from the surface with a pastry scraper or an offset spatula and dust some flour underneath. Dust the dough with flour (so you can fold it in half for ease of handling) and gently ease it into your prepared pan, unfolding as you go. Let the edges hang over the sides. Check for holes and patch them with the trimmings--a little water will help the patch stay in place. Stick the pan in the fridge.

Take the rest of your dough, roll it out into a rectangle about 1/8-inch thick, and using that ruler and pizza wheel, cut the dough into strips about 3/4-inch wide. Yes, we're making a lattice top. You can certainly roll out all of the second pastry to make a double-crust pie, but for me, pie's all about the filling. Ease those strips onto a rimless cookie sheet and they go in the fridge too, to firm up.

Take the bottom crust out of the fridge and spoon in the filling, making an even layer of fruit. Now take those lattice strips out and lay them on top of the fruit. Weave them if you dare, but essentially it doesn't matter--it will look great either way. I placed my rather close, about 3/4-in apart. If some strips are too small, add another piece of pastry, attaching them with a bit of water. Again, no worries--they will bake together and look fine. Take additional strips of pastry to rim the edges of the pan and hold the lattice in place; it makes for a nice crust edge. Now to finish:

1 egg, beaten
1 Tbs. cream
2 Tbs.+ raw sugar

Combine the egg and cream in a small bowl, until well blended. Brush the crust with the mixture to glaze the pastry, then sprinkle with raw sugar for some sparkle.

Bake the pie for 45 to 60 minutes, until browned and bubbling. Let cool. Meanwhile, you're washing that pizza wheel. Because it makes a handy device for cutting the slab pie into squares; we did 2-inch pieces.

And if there's spare pastry? You know Windischgirl won't let a thing go to waste. Cut it into shapes, brush with egg, sprinkle with parmesan (or cheddar and a dusting of hot paprika) and bake until just brown. Appetizers. Delish with an aperitif.

Congratulations, D. We're proud of you. And I think it's only fitting that you'll be majoring in Engineering at Northeastern U come the fall. You can prove to those profs that pie really are squared.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Culinary Therapy

This weekend's accomplishments: 8 mini-loaves of banana-coconut bread; 3 large loaves of banana-pecan-cranberry bread; and a trial run of the Mondrian Cake for the girl's 17th birthday. And the leftover egg yolks became fresh lasagna sheets, their mouthfeel light and tender, more sensuous than any pasta from a box.

On tap for this coming Saturday: a couple of loaves of Spelt Sourdough, or perhaps the Kuerbiskernbrot from my favorite bread forum, (for you non-German speakers, this translates to Pumpkin Seed Bread, and it's flavored with pumpkinseed oil, a rich green oil more flavorful than extra-virgin olive oil and lacking the bitter bite of EVOO).

The banana bread marathon followed a pre-Valentine's Day cookie festival two weeks ago: Oatmeal-chocolate chippers, with and without walnuts; rye-pecan sables sandwiched with chocolate; and linzer hearts filled with raspberry jam. This on the heels of a pair of mixed-grains sourdough loaves; two flaxseed filones; four Nury light rye batards; and before that, six kinds of Christmas cookies. I'm gratified to see the flours in my freezer being gradually transformed into edibles.

But why such a baking extravaganza? Because I finally, finally admitted that I need Zen in my life. Some people get their peace from yoga; others are at one with the universe playing in the dirt of a garden, or circling in the sky in a glider. I have accepted that I find my mindfulness in the kitchen. Cooking works, but baking is even better. I can focus on the tactile sensation of bread dough as it transforms from flour and water, feeling the gluten form beneath my fingertips from the simplest of ingredients. I can marvel at the interplay of flavors: honeyed bananas, tangy cranberries, buttery pecans. The russet coloring of a well-baked loaf. The fragrance of toasting wheat. Even the sounds: a recent cake recipe noted, "if the loaves crackle and pop, they need a few more minutes in the oven."

The typically-dreaded washing up has become a Zen moment as well; I focus on scrubbing the last bits of baked-on cheese from the lasagne pan and in that moment, that's all that matters. Being one with the change, the transformation.

Because right now, that's what I need. At my job, I'm working entirely too many hours and at the end of the day I am drained, unable to do more than heat up some soup or grill a cheese sandwich (thank God for good bread!). At home, my heart and my mind are bound up with my daughter: three months ago she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. What we thought was going to be "cancer light" has become more complex, more serious than we imagined; as I write this she is in surgery for the second time to remove a series of metastatic lymph nodes in her neck. I know her surgeon is brilliant, careful, perfectionistic, passionate, caring. I know she will ultimately heal and go on to live a remarkable life. But no 17-year-old should have to face this. Our family--and I mean our extended family and circle of friends--should not have to face our second go-round with pediatric cancer.

And so I bake. Unlike so many other things in my life, it's a process over which I do have some control. It's a way to feed my soul, and as I give away the tins of cookies and the loaves of bread, it's a way to feed others as well. Thank you for being part of my family, for taking good care of my child, for holding down the fort when I'm absent from work, for being a faithful friend.

Thank you.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The old made new

When a new year arrives, I find myself looking forward, wondering what the coming months will bring, thinking about what changes I might like to make in my life. What changes will come simply because the days pass? Son #2 will graduate high school; daughter will turn 16, with sweetness level yet to be determined.

But I also look back--reviewing the past year's events and reliving the delights, including the birth of my nephew, my son's 10 years of cancer survivorship, an amazing trip to the wonders of the ancient world.

As I prepare to bake the first Sunday breakfast of 2013, I am compelled to look back and forward as well; I'm planning to make a recipe that has been in my family for my entire lifetime. But those of you who know me well know I can't let a recipe be; tweaks are part of the fun!

I never knew Mrs. Schunke, but I understand she employed my mother to clean her house when my family first came to the United States, years before I was born. The only relic I have of her role in my family's life was a stained 3x5 card with a typed recipe for apple kuchen. It was one of those 1,1,1,1 recipes so popular in the 1950's--simple ingredients and a formula that was impossible to forget. Eggs, flour, sugar, butter: make it once and the recipe would be forever imbedded in your mind.

Of course, it was also one of those recipes that favored adjectives: "scant cup of sugar," for example. How much is a "scant?" And the thought of an entire stick of butter, melted and cooled; who wants to play with that mess, not to mention the resulting dirty dishes piling up in the sink?

What makes this recipe work is not the specific ingredients; it's the technique. Mrs. Schunke was probably unaware that her creation was a chiffon-style cake, capitalizing on the magic of eggs for its texture. I enjoy making this cake because it's also healthy: the eggs offer a good dose of protein, key for my vegetarian daughter and the son who's selective about his breakfast proteins. It has fruit for natural sweetness, and is a good way to use apples (peaches and plums also work well) that have lost their crispness. Nagymama would be pleased.

[FYI, an apple that has lost its crunch or seems bland is often a variety intended for cooking. Cut it into chunks and microwave until tender; you'll be amazed at the flavors).

Mrs. Schunke's Apple Kuchen Redux

Have all ingredients at room temperature

4 large eggs
2/3 c. white sugar or turbinado (raw) sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil, the best you can find
2-4 apples, cored and cut into 1/8-inch wedges (peaches and plums work too)

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a rimmed baking pan--I usually use a 1/4-sheet pan (12x18) but you can use a 9x13 baking pan for a greater cake-to-fruit ratio.

2) Make sure your ingredients are at room temperature for best results. If the eggs are right out of the fridge, warm them in a bowl of hot water for 5 minutes before breaking.

3) In the bowl of a stand mixer and using the whisk attachment, beat the 4 eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Start at low speed and gradually increase the speed to 8. Beat for 6 minutes (really! Trust me on this). The eggs will become creamy, fluffy, and opaque, and double to triple in volume. This is crucial for the light texture of the finished cake.

4). Turn off the mixer and switch to the flat beater attachment. With the mixer on lowest speed, add in the flour gradually, a few tablespoonfuls at a time, until just combined. Turn off the mixer, scrape the sides, and mix for another 30 seconds.

5) With the mixer on lowest speed, add the oil in a stream until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, gently easing the batter into the corners of the pan. The batter will be bubbly--that's the secret to a light texture.

6) Arrange the apples decoratively on the surface of the cake, covering as much of the batter as possible. Dust with cinnamon and bake for 20-25 minutes, until set and lightly browned. Let the cake cool slightly before serving.

This cake is best eaten the day it's made. Some might think that a disadvantage; I think it's a reminder that sometimes, we don't need to look forward or back; we need to cherish today. Yum.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The dangers of the Internet

Never walk down memory lane without personal protective gear. Or at least an adult beverage. Otherwise, the trauma can be overwhelming.

Case in point: Having a delightful conversation with the daughter regarding her college dreams.

"Is there a perk if I go to your college?" (I attended a small school in Buffalo NY). Actually, there is a perk..a little less tuition or some such.

"Do they have a bio major?" Hey, I was a dual Bio and Psych major. You bet they have a Bio major. Some of my best friends were in Bio.

"Hmmm. Did Mark Ruffalo go to your college?" (We are obviously on Tumblr or some such for this random question to appear. Unless "Buffalo" has her riffing on "Ruffalo" and then I know my kid is listening to entirely too much Rap music.)

Well, there was a Mark Somebody, a few years ahead of me, who was an actor. Ruffalo? I'm not sure. But there was also a guy just a year ahead of me who starred in a YA movie when we were still in college. I remember them screening it at school. He was...attractive. I recall his slender, youthful farm-lad physique, his head of blond curls, his amazing blue eyes.

"Mom! Well, yes, he was attractive in that movie."

Wonder what ever happened to him. Let's see... Heck, I am sitting in front of the computer doing paperwork; what's a minute to Google this guy's name?

Note to novices: anyone who has ever made anything that could be filmed has a page on IMDB (Internet Movie Database). Heck, if you were the understudy to the toilet-paper squeezing Mr. Whipple, you are certain to show up on IMDB.

So I type away and up pops the page. Only there's a problem. The man's face is no farm boy any longer. Give him a hoop earring and we have Mr. Clean. Or Yul Brynner.

I pull up his bio. The name matches, as does the age.
Eyes: blue.
Hair color: Bald.

Since when is "Bald" a color?

Hair length: Bald. That's like Jumbo Shrimp.

My little fantasy? Popped like a bubble.

At least I still look like a 20-something.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Swedish Fish

A little over two years ago, we found ourselves on the island of Gotland off the coast of Sweden. It was June 24th. We had enjoyed a wonderful hike along the seacoast, beachcombing. And then we visited the main town, Visby.

Visby was a lovely place, narrow streets of neat stucco houses painted in pastel colors. Brightly colored flowers flourished in window boxes and tiny patch gardens. But the odd thing about Visby was the silence. There were no people walking in town, no children playing in the yards, no laundry flapping in the breeze. All the doors were shut tight. I was beginning to think that Visby was a museum the size of a town. Lovely, but sterile.

As we came to the edge of town, there was the ruins of an old church and a graveyard. And at last, some humans, walking their dogs. But so few...they couldn't possibly be inhabitants. We walked more, into a park with wide expanses of grass and large ancient trees. And an odd sound: the voice of a man, magnified and echoing. Followed by music...and then singing, surely the singing of children.

Over the crest of a hill and then we saw them: the entire population of Visby, lounging on blankets arranged around a towering maypole decorated with flowers. The adult Swedes were eating picnic lunches; the children, many wearing wreaths of fresh flowers, were encircling the maypole, dancing, singing, and gesturing to the melodies--think the Swedish version of the Hokey-Pokey. This was no ghost town!

The delight of witnessing Midsommer--one of the most important festival days in Scandinavian culture--made such an impression on my family, that we've celebrated Midsommer since then. No Maypole for us--I have teenaged sons, after all--but a traditional Swedish picnic meal. New potatoes, scrubbed and sauteed in a pan, seasoned with salt, pepper, and fresh dill or parsley. Cucumbers--English seedless are best--thinly sliced and prepared with a simple dressing. Sometimes I make a quick brine with water, sugar, salt, and vinegar, accented with dill; other times, I toss the cukes with a spoonful of olive oil, white vinegar, salt and pepper, and chopped dill.

And then there's the salmon. So simple. On a hot day, this prep doesn't overheat the kitchen, and the poaching helps the fish stay moist.

Swedish Poached Salmon
adapted from the Swedish tourism website,

1 1/2 to 2 lbs fresh salmon filet, wild caught is best

Poaching liquid:
1 quart water
1/2 c white vinegar
2 Tbs sea salt
5 peppercorns
5 whole allspice
2 bay leaves
1 carrot, chopped
3-4 stalks of chives, fresh
3-4 stalks of dill, fresh

Combine all poaching liquid ingredients in a shallow saucepan (large enough to hold salmon). Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, gently place the salmon into the liquid, and cover. Let rest until the liquid cools; you can test the internal temperature of the fish after about 20 minutes (it should read 145F). Gently remove the fish from the liquid and peel off the skin. Serve with new potatoes or potato salad, cucumber salad, and tartar sauce or Swedish mustard. Leftovers keep well.

A lovely dessert with this is Saffranspannkaka--a saffron-flavored cake made with rice and almonds, and served with fresh seasonal fruit and a dab of whipped cream. But some frozen delights from IKEA will also work.

Hej da!

Below Basic

If you have school-aged children, you are familiar with the travesty known as "Standardized Testing," a gift from Bush 43's administration. (We prefer the term "No Child's Left Behind"...which means the spankings all come from the right side.)

In Pennsylvania, parents receive an annual statement regarding our children's performance on these tests: is my student "Advanced"? Or merely "Proficient" or "Basic"? Or--horrors--"Below Basic"?

I vote for scrapping the current system of educational assessment. But I want to preserve that rating scale--and apply it to the products offered by Cable/Internet service providers. Because it's Olympics Time once more, and all I want to do is watch. Something. Anything. But I can't.

Because although we have "cable service" and "internet service," we don't have a TV. And in order to live stream the olympics online, we need to have "Advanced" cable service...not the pitiful, inept, requiring remedial summer school "Below Basic" package we do have.

I attempt to log on via the Olympic website. It bumps me over to my cable provider. Which won't even let me into the website since I don't have the correct password. I manage, after a 10 minute wait, to live chat with a cable company agent. At least I was told it was an agent. It could have been a bot. After some elementary walking me through the websites I had already checked and totally ignoring my questions, the agent tells me I need a "Starter Package" (read: overpriced upgraded cable service). I try to inform the agent that I started 10 yrs ago, I am not starting anything else. For $67 per month I expect a few more channels than a set of rabbit ears and some aluminum foil can get me.

The agent responds by telling me to be sure to complete the customer service survey following our chat and to indicate that my problem was "Resolved." Nice try, Bot.

Yah. Right. I tell the agent that since I can't access cable service I might as well eliminate paying for it. She gives me the phone number for the main office so I can do just that. Last time I talked to the company regarding eliminating my cable service--since I don't use it--they quoted me a higher rate for internet service alone. Hunh??

Yes, this is a company that received national press on MSNBC for being in the Top 10 for WORST CUSTOMER SERVICE. Talk about Bottoms.

So how about another cable service? Well, there isn't one.

Can you say "Monopoly?"

Another ISP? Well, the competitor isn't sure that service is available in my area. Because I live beyond where the cable line ends, a mere 7 miles from Philadelphia city limits. Even though the competitor provides our local phone service. Hunh??

I guess you don't want my business either.

You know, dial-up and my grandfather's vintage roof antenna are looking mighty attractive right now.

PS: Funny, I'm able to live stream the Olympics--for free--off a British website. It feels so good. Like smoking in the girl's room and graffiti-ing the school. And maybe keying the principal's car.