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Archive for April, 2011

photo by Flickr user talkoftomatoes

Up to this point, I have pretty much let this blog be utterly dependent on my whims and energy at any given moment.  Which is okay, but to keep my own interest and, hopefully, that of some readers, I think I may need to add or edit out some content.  So I have been thinking about some new potential post categories and wanted to see which sound appealling to you folks out there.  First I will describe my new ideas, then there will be a poll at the end of this post, where you can vote for the ideas you would like to see.  I am also going to throw in some content that I have been writing about here, to see which of those things most interest you guys.  Seriously, be honest with your feedback, and feel free to add comments, too.  Some posts are fun for me to put up regardless of what readers may think, but blogging is pretty much always more fun when my readers seem to enjoy it, too.

Cooking by the books:  I have a bunch of cookbooks and I don’t use them all that often.  For these posts, I would pick a recipe from a cookbook, make it, and post about it.  Knowing me there will often be modifications to share, and you’ll get to see the success or failure of the dish.

Funky Ingredient Files: I take an odd, unusual, or challenging ingredient, kohlrabi or kefir for example, perhaps suggested by readers, and create a dish around it.

Green Goddess Dressing- Ask the Oracle: This one definitely requires some reader input.  Do you have an event coming up and you aren’t sure what to wear?  Like a certain style of clothing but don’t know how to work it into your existing wardrobe?  Have an item you bought and love, but don’t wear, because you aren’t sure what to pair it with?  I’ll weigh in and post photos and links with suggestions, based on your body type and style preferences.

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These look like thumbprint cookies, don’t they?  But they are savory, flaky, little rounds of dough, flavored with blue cheese and topped with jam.  More importantly, they are yummy!

I initially encountered them at Food in Jars, but it is originally from The Runaway Spoon. When I needed to bring an appetizer for Easter dinner with friends, these immediately came to mind. They require few ingredients, are simple to make, and can be prepared ahead. I will definitely be making them again.

The dough has just three ingredients: butter (softened and cut into chunks), blue cheese (crumbled), and flour.  Okay, the actual recipe has four ingredients, because it calls for pepper, but I forgot to put it in.  Honestly, I didn’t miss it.

I pulsed those ingredients in the food processor until they were combined and just started to come together.  There were still some chunks of butter, probably because this was a lot of stuff for my mini-Cuisinart to handle, but when I turned the dough out onto my floured butcher block I was able to work the butter into the dough more evenly.

I basically kneaded the dough until it was nice and smooth, then refrigerated it for about an hour.  After that, I took it out of the fridge and rolled it out on the floured surface, to about 1/4 inch thick.

Honestly, I bet you could skip the rolling and cutting process and treat the dough just like thumbprint cookies.  I think it would work fine to roll a bit of the dough into a ball, flatten it a bit, and then make the indentation for the jam.  But I made these by the book, or by the blog, so after rolling out the dough I cut little circles.

The closest thing I had to a 1″ round cookie cutter was a spice bottle lid.  Worked just fine.

After placing the circles on a baking sheet, I pressed the center of each with my finger to make a little indentation for the jam.

The original recipe calls for fig jam, and the version on Food in Jars used apricot.  I had both apricot and blackberry, so I made some savories with each.

Just about any kind of jam would work, but I think less sweet is the way to go.  Actually, I am wishing I had picked up the sour cherry preserves I saw at the store.

I baked the savories until they started to get a little bit golden.  The recipe says about 10-14 minutes, but mine took at least 15.  Perhaps my oven runs cool.  Anyway, the finished product was delicious, with the sweet jam complementing the buttery, tangy blue cheese flavor.  They are a lovely appetizer, would be a nice addition to a brunch menu, and would be excellent for a cocktail party.

Blue Cheese and Fig Savories from The Runaway Spoon

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Ground black pepper

Fruit preserves (about 3 Tablespoons)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone liner.

Place the flour, butter, blue cheese and a few grinds of black pepper in the bowl of a food processor.  Process until the dough just comes together and starts to form a ball.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to pull the dough together. Roll out to 1/8 inch thick with a floured rolling pin.  Cut rounds out of the dough with a floured 1-inch cutter and transfer the rounds to the parchment-lined baking sheet.

Using the back of a round half-teaspoon measure or your knuckle, make an indention in the top of each dough round.  Spoon about ¼ teaspoon of fig preserves into each indentation, using your finger to push the preserves as best as possible into the indentations.

Bake the savories for 10 – 14 minutes, until the preserves are bubbling and the pastry is light golden on the bottom.

Let cool on the baking sheet for at least 10 minutes, the remove to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 3 dozen

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Happy Spring Holidays

I hope that those who celebrate Passover are having a meaningful and lovely holiday.  And I wish those of you who celebrate Easter a beautiful and blessed holiday, as well.

On a more secular note, I feel the need to share this year’s Peeps dioramas at the Denver Post (Angry Peeps!), and Washington Post (movies and TV shows dominate, but Easter Island is my fave.)

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My latest kitchen experiment was not as successful as some.  Why can’t I get flatbread style pizza right?  The first time I ever made it, with basically the same method I used for this pizza, was perfect.  Since then, I just can’t quite get the crust right.  Guess I will have to keep trying.

With some hot Italian sausage in the fridge, I decided to make a white pizza and balance the richness with some greens.  My original vision was to top the pizza with sausage and onions and then add some lightly dressed arugula on top, kind of like the pear and gorgonzola pizza at California Pizza Kitchen.  Maybe the fact that the grocery store didn’t have any arugula or that I was out of onions should have prompted me to skip this project, but I just changed plans and ended up with a pizza that was fine, but nothing to write home about.

With grilled or flatbread style pizza, the dough is cooked partway before you add any toppings.  Anything you want really cooked as a topping, then, needs to be cooked in advance.  So I browned up the sausage (I often use hot Italian turkey sausage, when I can find it, but this was chicken), while the oven was preheating.

Meanwhile, I washed the collard greens, removed the stems, and chopped them into strips.

After removing the sausage (for pork sausage, you’d probably want to drain it on paper towels or a brown paper bag, but this was pretty lean) I added a little butter to the same pan and sauteed the collards until they were just starting to get tender.

While the sausage and greens were cooking, I made the white sauce.  I melted about a tablespoon or so of butter and added a bit of flour to make a roux, which I cooked until it began to look just a bit golden.

To that I added about a cup of milk, whisking to make it nice and smooth.  As it cooked I added black pepper, ground mustard, minced garlic, and a bit of prepared Dijon mustard, to take the sauce beyond a basic white sauce.

Once the sauce was thickened, I took it off the heat and set it aside until I was ready to assemble the pizza.

While the oven was preheating, I put a sheet pan in to heat up, and rolled out the pizza dough into a long, oval-ish shape.  Actually, I tried stretching and pressing the dough into shape by hand, but it was too elastic and kept shrinking back on me.  The rolling pin and some persistence finally did the trick, and I put the thin crust on the hot baking sheet, before putting it back in the oven (450 degrees, which in retrospect probably wasn’t hot enough for what I was going for.)

After about 5 minutes in the oven, I turned the crust over and let it bake for another 5 minutes or so, until a few places were just barely starting to brown.  At that point, I pulled the pan out of the oven and started adding toppings.

First on was a layer of the mustard and garlic infused white sauce.

That got topped with a bit of mozzarella, a scattering of sausage, and a bunch of collards.

Then more mozzarella went on top to finish it off.

Into the oven for about 15 minutes, and it came out melty and golden brown in a few spots.

Looks pretty tasty, right?  And it was good, but not great.  The main problem was the texture of the crust.  It was firm, but not crispy, and still managed to be kind of doughy on the inside.  Not the crisp exterior and chewy interior I was going for.  I think a higher baking temperature would help.

I really liked the white sauce, though, and it was nice with the collards and sausage.  The whole was a little rich, though, and would have benefited from a little lemon juice or cider vinegar (perhaps stirred in with the greens.) I have leftovers of sausage, greens, and the white sauce, so I am contemplating a polenta or pasta dish with those.  I’ll let you know if it turns out better than the pizza.

Since this dish wasn’t a triumph, nor did I measure a thing as I made it, I am not including a recipe.

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Sorry for my absence here lately. I am in the midst of special event mania at work, and I have some family stuff going on, so I have had little motivation or creativity to invest in blogging. I hope to have a cooking post and a Green Goddess Dressing post up in the next few days. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of links that I have found interesting and intriguing lately.

The Japanese government tried to discourage the tradition in Tokyo of picnicking under the blooming cherry trees, as the people should be mourning after the devastation from the earthquake and tsunami. I heard this story on NPR, and I thought the ban on the traditional picnics was loony. I don’t think anyone in Tokyo will be forgetting the disaster anytime soon. And in the midst of death and destruction, I think the people of Japan need comforting traditions, beauty, poetry, and the powerful inspiration of spring and renewal more than ever. I am glad that many chose to ignore the government’s recommendations.

I think it is human nature to make some snap judgments and assumptions about other people based on what we see, but that doesn’t make it right. Sal, of Already Pretty (which has in a very short time become one of my favorite blogs), points out that we can’t tell whether someone is healthy by their weight, and it’s none of our business anyway. Working in the medical field, I am conscious of the health risks and costs to society that tend to go along with being overweight, but people are individuals, not statistics, and the human body has an incredible ability to vary from one person to another. I needed the reminder that the specific person I see out and about with a bigger body may be in perfect physical health.

Dear Sugar is another website with which I am head over heels in love. This week, Sugar’s answer to a letter writer whose wedding preparations are making him/her crazy is an absolute thing of beauty. I want to shout it from the rooftops and write it in the sky over every single one of those conspicuous consumption driven wedding expos. If more people followed this philosophy, I think weddings would be more meaningful, more fun, less stressful, and probably way less expensive.

Speaking of consumerism, it always seemed odd to me that some chefs, cookbooks, and companies recommend getting new spices every year or so. Casual Kitchen has a post that validates my skepticism. If the flavor of your spices has faded, just use more. Sounds like common sense to me!

Did you hear about Easter eggs being renamed “spring spheres” at one school? What do you think? I’ve written here before about how I wonder how to best deal with the variety of cultural and holiday beliefs in our society, but “spring spheres”? Really? The nit-picking part of me has to point out that eggs are not spheres to begin with. And I kind of think that if you have a problem with Easter eggs, you should just avoid having them in the school, rather than renaming them. The whole controversy, though, has me wondering where the line can be drawn between religious customs and cultural ones. Egg hunts and Easter baskets have little, if anything, to do with Easter as a religious holiday, right? I’d love to hear from any readers who are non-Christian about whether you celebrate Easter or other secular versions of Christian holidays and why or why not.

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Man, my neighborhood just gets better and better!  Within walking distance of my house I have access to two thrift stores, a cupcake shop, an indie video store, an incredible bakery, a nice, local ice cream shop, a vintage store, a pond, an arboretum, blocks of pretty, mostly Victorian homes, and a hip hat and accessory boutique.  Best of all, though, it is peppered with wonderful restaurants, including Thai, Indian, Cuban, great sandwiches, burritos, pubs, a quirky breakfast joint, and my favorite restaurant/bar in the whole of greater Boston.

In January, a new tapas and wine place opened, called Tres Gatos, and after trying it out this weekend, I have to say that it is a welcome addition to my ‘hood. My older brother, a friend, and I went on Saturday night, and the place is definitely doing a brisk business already, as, even though it was before 7PM, we had to wait for a table. To be fair, it is a pretty dinky place, and we didn’t really mind the wait, since we could browse the books and records in the store section of the establishment. The store space is small, so the selection is limited, but it seems thoughtfully curated. The restaurant’s decor is similarly intentionally eclectic. There are shelves of vintage looking books along the top of the walls, cozy dark purplish brown paint, an arrangement of cast iron medallions, speckled glass pendant lights, and stemless wine glasses. Did I mention my neighborhood is quirky? This place fits right in.

Best of all, the food was absolutely delicious. The menu, which they plan to change regularly, is small but just as well considered as the rest of the business. We started with one of the pinchos, the marcona almonds with smoked sea salt and pimenton. These were a great, salty, crunchy, slightly spicy way to start the meal. After that, our tapas were delivered one or two at a time, which was a nice way to pace the meal and ensure that our tiny table wasn’t overwhelmed with plates. The lentil salad was really impressive. I couldn’t place what was in the dressing, but it was subtle and savory and wonderful, such that the dish hardly needed the peppery arugula and tender artichokes. I could have eaten it for days. Of the cheeses, we ordered the tetilla, which is described in the menu as creamy and full-flavored. It was definitely creamy, but it tasted pretty mild to me, and paired nicely with the fig spread it came with.

Since we had a vegetarian among us, we decided not to order any xarcuterie, though we did get one dish with meat: the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly with braised endive and apple salad. Yum! The tortilla espanola had more potato and less egg than versions I have had elsewhere, and I found that difference delightful. Like the lentil salad, the flavor of the tortilla somehow seemed greater than the sum of the apparent components, and we polished it off in no time flat. We also had the roasted mushroom cannelloni, which has so rich and flavorful, with the mushroom filling wrapped in perfectly browned, thin slices of potato. Seriously, it was all so good that my mouth is watering just remembering it.

We had room for dessert, so we also got to try the pear and pinon tart, rice pudding with orange and cinnamon, and the churros with chocolate dipping sauce. While the churros were light and sweet with the excellent dark chocolate sauce, and the rice pudding was thick and creamy with a perfect amount of spice, the tart was the real standout. Rather, the sauce was. It elevated the tart from a rustic and tasty dessert to something sophisticated and even more delicious. We couldn’t identify a spicy, herbal note in the sauce that clearly wasn’t the honey or saffron listed in the menu’s description, but a server informed us it was bay leaf. Wow.

The service had a couple kinks, which I suspect were a result of being a new place or just a busy Saturday night, but our server was charming and funny, and gracefully addressed the couple of tiny issues. We lingered a bit, chatting, after dessert, and eventually that led to some stares, so I wouldn’t recommend going during the weekend rush if you want to really take your time. However, overall, I definitely recommend Tres Gatos. I look forward to going back again, maybe once their patio is finished, so I can enjoy my tapas al fresco!

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I love historical fiction and I really like fantasy novels, so Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is right up my alley. The series is basically a reimagining of the Napoleonic Wars with the various countries having aerial forces consisting of trained dragons with crews of airmen. The dragons are sentient and are pivotal characters.

The concept may sound gimmicky, but Novik is incredibly adept at working the dragons in in an entirely believable way. She doesn’t just throw in her clever idea; she really explores and develops it. Some fantasy novels seem like a superficial mashup of imaginary things, magic and underground cities or fairies and giant octopi, but the Temeraire series really delves into the question, “If there were sentient dragons contributing to the Napoleonic Wars, what would that be like?” The books are full of action and battles, but they also explore the cultural, relational, and even political impact of humans and dragons living and working together. The result is a series that is often gripping and always intriguing.

Beyond her expertise in crafting a fascinating, fantastical take on an eventful period in history, Novik’s characters are varied, interesting, and well-rounded. That goes for human and draconic characters alike. With a separate race (dragons) and a group of enemies (Napoleon and his forces), Novik could easily have fallen into the trap of making those characters all of a type. Instead, the major characters, whether human or reptilian, English or French, have fleshed out motivations and personalities.

You may have noticed that all that commentary is about the series, not about Victory of Eagles.  All those things that I adore about the series are in this book, but I wasn’t quite thrilled with this particular volume.  There is a lot of internal struggle and questions of ethics in this book, and it was just a little too philosophical for me.  To be sure, there are great plot moments and a dose of the witty dialogue that I loved in the preceding books, but Victory of Eagles just didn’t captivate me the way the other books have.  Since there is already another book beyond this one published in the series, I am optimistic that the pace picks up again, but it is possible that Naomi Novik lost some steam five books into the series.  Victory of Eagles was still a fun read, but it wasn’t the engaging, laughter and tear inducing, page-turner I have come to expect from this series.

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