Saturday, May 31, 2008

La vie en rose

I am surrounded by roses. So many, that I many not see this many again in my home on this side of life. It was my birthday, as you remember, and the lingering beauty sent to remind me of a moment in the hospital with Mom long ago, is just beginning its swan song. These are only a few of the four beautiful rose arrangements sent to me by my oldest friend, Dori. I posted two pictures because the intro photo has to change but I wanted them to live on somewhere.

Soon they will go by and I will have to be on the lookout for more fresh flowers (for those of you who are nodding and thinking I am on my way to the cemetery to gather blooms tomorrow should be advised, not everything I learned in childhood survived into adulthood, gratefully). The farmers market here does not carry much in the way of cut flowers. This kind of thing never was an issue before because I grew all manner of roses. I love rose gardens, firstly, but I also never found myself without flowers for my house.

The world around my rose bushes and I changed: We moved from Boston and I was forced to leave six strong, vibrant rose plants behind. That nearly killed me. As the last year has progressed, I felt it was more important to plant food staples and see to it they are successful. The fuel crisis is one thing looming, the food crisis, while related, is an entirely different and an entirely more dire potential tidal wave. If you had to, you could bike or take public transportation to work. But there is no alternative to food. My kid needs it. In my spare time, I do two things: Subsistence garden and write for you and I and her: This is where she will find the recipes, safe from fire and fuel issues, of all the things her Mom made for her. Both the food that goes into her, and the food she will one day grow and make are crucial. Crucial enough that her Mother needs to take a lead in subsistence on her behalf.

It is with a bit of wistful mistiness that I tell you I miss flowers painfully. Every inch of every gardens in our care, borders, paths, and all, is under a food-yielding plant. The borders are squash, mint, pumpkin, or strawberry. The former flower urns hold fruit trees and peppers. So, it was with great joy I received flowers this year, more than ever before.

The right thing to do often makes your heart weaken a little, doesn't it? I should have been shored up by the arugula salad I made for lunch, reminded, as I was by Leah over at Wine Imbiber, how very much I love fresh arugula especially when I grew it. But several hours have passed now and I am still passing Dori's roses wishing they could stay forever.

My mind is on other roses as well. In Westchester, tomorrow will bring the Old Salem Grand Prix. A lot of faces I love will be there: Jennifer, surely Wendy, and Ward, those lovely kids who would follow Jen to the end of the earth and a million sun-drenched faces I came up with in the horsey genre. I cannot tell you how I anticipate the champagne and roses, the warm sun on our shoulders on the hill, and that distractingly lovely buffet they serve in the tent next to the Grand Prix ring. My hometown kid, McLain Ward, won his 100th Grand Prix there last year and we were there to cheer for him as we have been since we were all pals as children(that's good stuff, I don't care who you are). Boy, that must of felt good for him for a whole list of reasons. I hope he's in the roses again tomorrow.

Anyway, this is a note of missing-all-the-glorious-flowers, which entirely overshadow how great that arugula salad probably truly was. Note to all concerned: Arugula does not patch spot where best friends and our greatest memories have been missed. Roses though, are a warming and pleasing consolation.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I left neither bread crumbs nor popcorn

Once in great while, the neuroses left behind on me as scars from my very winning and competitive corporate days, fail me. They just don't show up for work. Most of the time, they are right there next to me, forcing me to write everything down and recheck, recheck, recheck. But sometimes, this habitual OCD thing (redundant, redundant, I know, it's OCD, that's the whole thing) limbos off to its own separate paradise, likely spent and exhausted from driving myself (and Josh) completely mad.

It is on those days, generally, when something spectacular happens and there is no documentation apart from the photos, which are hardly enough to roundly detail for myself what we enjoyed most about one dish or another. It never fails. But I am willing to walk you through it from memory if you are willing to have a seat next to me here on the porch, in these last brightly colored and deeply fragrant days of a Southern spring...

It is at this time of year when the farmers begin to haul to the street corners and outdoor markets these huge green tomatoes. They are harder than you are used to maybe, a lighter green shade than one might expect because they are not heirloom green always, sometimes (though some will tell you this is expressly against the Fried Green Tomato Rules) they are just not yet ripe. The huge green tomatoes that fell into my basket at the market were indeed the latter. I am not afraid of these tomatoes any longer: Northern child that I am, the first time I made and ate a green tomato, myself and my Brother eyed them with suspicion, my Dad shrugged his shoulders and figured he might as well try them because Dad loved tomatoes. They were okay, a decent first attempt.

As my understanding of both the American South and the green tomato have progressed, so too have my preferences: I don't like a heavily dipped and battered tomato like the sort they serve at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, though there is a distinguished Southern following of this preparation. I prefer the tomato have a bit of the juicy seediness squeezed out. I like buttermilk and tempura batters, I do not care for beer batters. The salt used after frying should be sea or gray sea. Like I said, neuroses, right?

It just happened that my take from the market this week also included a couple of pints of grape tomatoes. I spent some time looking at them, the huge green and tiny scarlet tomatoes. Then I cut up bits of them to try raw and they were both (yes, even the green) deeply sweet and succulent. They should be a pair, I thought. And so they were.

First, I cut up the green tomatoes (cored and seeded them a bit too), then I threw them in a colander with a sprinkle of salt and let some water drain from them.

In the meantime, I cranked the oven up to 450, threw the grape tomatoes in a Pyrex dish, rolled them around with some really fine olive oil, salt, and fresh pepper.

And I roasted them for about 20 minutes, until they were a little browned, very shriveled, and their juice was everywhere around them.

Then I put a cup of sweet rice flour and some salt and pepper in a zip lock bag in which to dredge my green tomatoes. Now here is the really exciting part:I made a quick tempura batter with sweet rice flour, sort of like this one but use any you like, okay? I also wanted to add some Old Bay to mine, so I did, and here is what happened:

The top from the container and half the huge box of Old Bay fell into the tempura. Ooopsie. Now, wasn't that exciting? You don't have to do that part at home if you don't want to.

I had to throw the whole tempura batter out and start over because technically and actually, one cup of Old Bay in tempura batter is inedible (of course I tasted it), take it from me. But then I remixed the batter, measured in only a teaspoon of Old Bay, and was back on track.

Then! Green tomatoes into the dredge, then into the tempura batter, then into the peanut oil: I had been all the while heating four inches of peanut oil to frying temperature (down here in the South that is generally when a tiny drop of water from your finger tip sizzles nicely) in a big pot and I fried those green tomato tempura up until they were golden then lifted them to a plate covered with paper towels and hit them with gray sea salt.

Why, once they left a bit of oil on the paper toweling, I moved them to a big platter. Then I took my tender sweet roasted grape tomatoes and I placed them over the top of the tempura'ed greens. I went to the fridge and pulled out my buttermilk, ancho chili, and cilantro dressing to go along side my nifty new Fried Green and Roasted Tomato Chopped Salad. I piled all of this on a big silver tray with two forks and laid it on the table outside.

I went in search of Josh directly and without plates, the two of us ate from that big platter. Some food makes you like children again. And I tell you what: No plate of good warm fried green tomatoes should ever be interrupted by an over-zealous place setting or mannerliness. Just don't serve them when the boss is over, maybe. There is something decidedly spoiling about being interrupted on your way outside with your plate of bring-on-my-summer tomatoes and your lemonade. Heed no interruptions, suffer no fools. Just get outside with those old Southern sweets and be glad for summer and tomatoes.

Here is one instance when the hostess bids you poor manners and the ungracious shoveling in of your food. Summer is so close, you can taste it, I'll bet.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Follow instructions, stay on the path

Hi'ya, Friends,

Whoa. Do I have a lot to tell you. Firstly, you will notice a few new links posted to the right, (that's over ===> there), with some of my favorite internet reads. You will notice (and no doubt read) Carol, over at French Laundry at Home has her hands full (ick.) and I would be less of a blog community member not to mention her sacrifice for our genre. Judy Rodgers, the author of the Zuni Cookbook (who claims she can taste whether a pig's head has been used in the making of a stock or not) has a bit in her book about a pigs head being stolen from the restaurant's stock pot late one night. I thought it was an unparalleled moment of home-cooking book writing.
Up until we arrived at Carol's pigs head moment in the sun, that is, complete with photos. Ah, the glamour of the work! Anyway, take a drive by over there and cheer her on for me, okay?

Secondly, I was fresh off a momentous high caused by my huge, glowing pile of white peaches.

They were beautiful and ever so fragrant. I took a million pictures of them then decided I would like a peach tart. Here is another picture of my peaches. Get the picture?

But after that there was a desperate low, caused by the Peach Tart Experiment '08 that ensued and all the internal strife and ugliness which has followed since. I have been wearing my "I'm a Wreck" cute shirred cap sleeve baby tee-shirt around the house ever since. This helps me to work it out. Thank you, Urban Outfitters.

I want you to understand, it was not without some reference on the subject that I decided pastry cream, or some version thereof, could indeed be made with cottage cheese (Anthony Bourdain already detests home cooks, doesn't he? So I will no longer be deterred by the goal that I might one day impress him on the pages before you. But, Mr. Bourdain, I did make the demi glace and it is that you should cling to now.).

I had the peaches, and I needed a tart. I wanted the Peach and Marscapone Tart in Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin by Susan Loomis Hermann but I had no marscapone and the baby was sleeping. Even if she had not been, I did not feel like going to the store, I am always over there, it is like a museum for me and I need to cut back on my time and receipts there. Ms. Hermann made mention of processing cottage cheese (which I did have, yippee!) into a soft potion to replace Fromage Blanc (a pain-in-my-tail ingredient if ever there was one). She did not so much say you could buzz the cottage cheese and then replace the marscapone with whipped heavy cream. I got that idea from a montage of other reference sources I consulted in the 3 minute planning stage involved in this project. I also did not deign to make her Pate Sablee because it used 4 egg yolks and I have no use for the whites at the moment, freezing them is culinary bunk, and I hate wastage (I was in manufacturing once, you know). Instead, I used another sweet pastry dough recipe from who-knows-where that was a disaster all on it's own merits, even without my harebrained pastry-cream ideas.

You know very well by now how much I love Ms. Hermann's book, how I am not paid to give positive mention, and how well her guidance has worked for me in the past: (Syrian Chicken, anyone?)Magnificently. If I am on any path as she defined it, I have noticed that all goes swimmingly. Divergence from her book became a fool's errand this morning, which stretched into afternoon and eventually became, without any warning, now. So you see, the tart meltdown has absorbed nothing less than a day of my life. And that fact alone will mark Peach Tart in my memory from here on.

It went like this: The pastry dough came together in the processor just fine. It was not too sticky, pretty perfect in feel for what I know of pastry dough, which is some. I balled it up and tossed it in the fridge to concentrate on my cottage cheese pastry cream theory:

Exhibit A: Cottage cheese, extracts, freshly ground nutmeg before pulsing.

The truth is, I knew then it was too liquid in form to be safe for a pastry dough shell that cracked at rolling,

at blind baking, and at cooling, all in different places. See?

But I have to try a thing from start to finish to understand why it does not work and how to improve it. So, I finished it. Knowing full well what would come of it. The situation was not helped by the extreme juicy wateriness of the peaches in question, which I noted when I peeled them in the traditional manner, not in boiling water, because I did not want to make a juicy thing more juicy.

Then I spread my liquidy cottage cheese and heavy cream pastry cream into the shell. That was in the moments before I changed into my t-shirt and prepared for my fate.

Is this any surprise to you, Sparky?

Oh, but wait, I can fix it!:

All better!

Make a note, Pals, this is soooooo not over. Here is the part where I eat my Peach Tart Cottage Cheese soup with faux pastry-dough croutons in spite of itself. This might be why people go to pastry school, I'm not sure. Goodnight, Mr. Bourdain, wherever you are.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Win at Addiction

Look, I love a good cookie. Now, I also love Mexican chocolate both in and out of cookies. I am a sorry addict. Sorry, in the sense that addiction is depressing, but happy, in the sense that I am winning the best-addiction contest in Westchester (I mean, some people have totally obnoxious addictions). I like to win, and I think I am. Not only because I picked the very best thing on the planet to be smitten with, but because I also have the cookie.

Mexican chocolate, do you know about this? I had a devil of a time putting my hand on the stuff. I finally dropped my baby off with my Mom, took a deep breath, knowing full well the sneering glances and suspicions before me and resolved to procure the stuff, period.

Regardless of what look crossed the snouts of our local (and perpetually nosey) state police, I was going to have to go to the "bodega" in town and seek out Mexican chocolate, among other life-defining ingredients looking low in the larder (Valentina hot sauce, dried ancho chiles, queso blanco). I fluffed my do, rechecked my Polo shirt placket was properly buttoned, brushed a bit of dust from my golf-green loafer, plunked myself down in the car and zoomed off to the bodega in my Volvo. I smiled and waved at the police seemingly everywhere in that neighborhood, maybe assuming I was there for a buy. Well, right you are, Mr. Legal Authority: I'm in a bogeda feeding my most recent addiction and stocking up on all my favorites gone-by. And anyway, it's a free country: For girls in green loafers to shop in dangerous neighborhoods. I have to do, what I have to do.

Okay, maybe I am making more controversy than there really is but I like my food to be good and a little bit dangerous.

And there, on my shelf, the Mexican chocolate sat for two months. I had to have it, and then I could not think what to do with it. In the meantime, hot chocolate season disappeared before I knew it. It came down to having to do something because the flashing indicators of being an impulsive ingredient consumer were too much for me to bear. So I opened it, and I tasted it raw as is my habit with any new ingredient. And I loved it, right from the start. Josh, not so much: He finds it too granular and sugary. He does not much care for cinnamon in his chocolate either. But he loves the cookie that came of all this nerviness, this boundless bodega-shopping spirit, this in-your-face-with-a-chocolate-bar-Copper! persona I have adopted. I am now a person who is bold and in flux and holds a cookie while I spar with the universe.

Keep your buttermilk cookies. And your deep dark flourless and butterless chocolate cookies (I mean, that's not even a cookie, I don't care who you are). And your Mexican wedding cookies. All of them are a cookie buzz-kill now.

This base recipe is that of The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl. It is as good as any cookie dough recipe you'll find. Take it from me, I know a little about eating cookies. And I am very, very fussy about the way a cookie looks, bites, and feels: A cookie should be thick and solid, like a small mountain of flavor. Cookies should not be sugar cookies, because life is too short and there are enough extracts in the market now to keep a cardboard cookie from tasting like vanilla flavored cardboard: It can taste like coconut and have lime zest! It can have ancho chili and chocolate. Wait. No! Buzz kill.

Make this cookie. Win at addiction.

Bust out best cookie you'll ever eat, Friend
Makes 3 dozen
Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (yes, it needs all of it)
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1 3.1 oz bar of Ibarra Mexican chocolate, chopped into small chunks
1 cup pistachios, toasted
Do not preheat the oven now, you cannot cook these until they have been completely refrigerated.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt.

With a stand mixer, beat butter until fluffy add sugars and beat until light and fluffy. Scrape downt he bowl, about 2 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla, beat until combined and scrape down bowl once again. Beat in flour mixture at a low speed until just evenly combined. Gently fold in both chocolates, all the powdered Mexican chocolate left on your board from cutting, the cranberries, and pistachios.

Place this bowl in the refrigerator overnight (the butter will tighten the mixture up again and make for a high, mountainous cookie).

The next day, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Drop tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake, 1 sheet at a time (I don't care what Gourmet says) until the edges of the cookie are golden. You may need to turn the cookie sheet to get even browning, check half-way through the approximate 12 minute baking time. NEVER bake a cookie to golden brown, they will be hopelessly overdone, dried out, and crunchy.

Let's Take it Outside

The Hostess is out at the moment, she has stepped over to the Blushing Hostess Entertains site. Join me there for Let's Take it Outside.

This post will also be available at the Dashing Host.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Buried in the sand with chicken

I am watching the news and writing to you. One of these activities has to stop because it is not doing any of us any good. I renew. I reuse. I restore. And I move on. No amount of my fretting up and down the east coast will stop gas and food prices from becoming more staggering with each passing day. I planted a garden to share with you, literally and figurativly. I watch the local news long enough to memorize the faces of the children searched for on today's Amber alerts, (because this is serious, serious stuff and we all need to commit to helping these families). After that, I'm out. Once in a while, and always on Wednesdays, I have my nose buried in the New York Times, but more and more often I am finding burying my head in a sand a far more rewarding experience.

Speaking of sand, there is a mighty good deal of it in Syria, I imagine. I will not be able to verify this suspicion of mine soon however, as this is not a place one gets to visit, generally speaking, owning to certain and uncertain dangers therein. But, I am pleased to advise you, there is no overt danger, nor any displeasure what-so-ever in a chicken dish Susan Loomis Hermann writes orginated in Syria in her book Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin.

There are so many glowing things to say about this dish but I am afraid saying them all might lead you to believe it is less straight forward and honest than it truly is. This is good, clean, fresh food, they way I imagine food might have been before friers entered civilization: The poached chicken is soft and tender under a crunchy bed of croutons and a simple, cooling yogurt sauce.

Makes you wonder if the things we ate first are not still the things we should go to to feel better, to feel whole, to help us amass the strngth and courage to unbury our heads each day.

As for myself, I have my chicken and it's not a bad place to spend a season or a year, a big sand pile. It's not wrong to stop the noise and tune out the catastropic inflationary warnings. It's wrong not to eat this chicken.

I bid you good day, from my invisible self-made desert.

Syrian Chicken

4 servings

Adapted from Cooking on Rue Tatin by Susan Loomis Hermann

Okay, let me tell you straight away that I had to omit the mint because the garden has not yielded any as yet and neither did a visit to the market. Secondly, same goes for pine nuts. I let the mint go and used toasted pistachios instead which I browned in a dry pan (Ms. Loomis called for 2 teaspoons of butter to toast the nuts). Still it was wonderful, still I dream of this chicken sitting, leftover, in my fridge right now.

One of the mysteries of this recipe, which I would ask Ms. Hermann had I the opportunity, is the inclusion of a baguette to provide the crunch in the dish (which it definately needs). The dish was said to remind a Syrian friend of hers of home, and I wonder if a baguette would have been the bread of choice had he been making the recipe in Syria. I reread the notes before the recipe because it seemed the baguette called for was out of place. I still think it is. But, it doesn't matter, the recipe is correct just as it is and best left alone. If there was another bread form more authentic to the dish, I will probably never know.

One chicken, 3.5 - 4.0 pounds, cut up
2 large white onions, quarted
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt
10 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed
1/2 baguette, cut into 1" cubes


2 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons tahini, well-stirred
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed and toasted


1/4 cup pistachios or pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup flat leaf parsely
10 fresh mint leaves (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large pot set over high heat, place chicken, onions, garlic, cumin seeds, salt, and pepper. Cover with water 2 inches above. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about one hour until meat separates easily from the bone when pierced with a fork. Remove pot from heat and allow chicken to stand in broth for ten minutes before removing to your cutting board. Retain one cup of the broth and save the remainder for another, later use (I froze mine for future chicken stock needs).

Meanwhile, as the chicken cooks place the cubed baguette onto a dry baking sheet and place in the oven. Cook, turning once or twice until it is toasted on golden on most sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Shut the oven off and place your low, wide bowl of a serving dish into the warm oven to heat.

Now make the sauce: In a medium bowl combine the yogurt, tahini, minced garlic cloves, lemon juice, and the toasted crushed cumin seeds. Taste and add lemon juice to taste as you wish. Place in the fridge until you are ready to plate the dish.

Into a small dry skillet over medium heat place the pistachios or pine nuts and toast until pistachios are a brighter green or until pine nuts are a golden brown. Remove from the pan to a plate to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

Get your serving pan out of the oven and place a half cup of the reserved broth in thebottom of the dish. Place the dish next to your board. On to your cutting board transfer the chicken, piece by piece, removing all of the meat from each piece with two forks and being sure all pieces are bite-sized before placeing them into the stock in your serving dish. If the meat is not covered with stock, add more from the remaining 1/2 cup that has been reserved, this will keep it from drying out.

Mince the parsely and mint leaves.

Now assemble the dish: Scatter the baguette cubes on top of the chicken. Cover the bread cubes with the yogurt sauce. Scatter the toasted nuts over, then the minced parsely and mint (while Ms. Hermann allows that you could serve the yogurt sauce on the side, if you wish, I have no intention of agreeing: It may seem odd to you, do it anyway, trust is part of life).

Serve it up with a big spoon and a watercress salad.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

We have a problem

First off, the Dashing Host is an exciting guy with enticing ideas which run parallel to my own. Secondly, we are both avid gardeners. In recent emails and chats he has caused me to consider that our gardens could be a lovely mix of both ground-dwelling and container (as he lives in a dwelling lending itself to pots, more on that later) plantings. A recent visit to my grocery store convinced me these plantings would all be subsistence (food, folks). The idea was to both have lovely gardens but also, rather seriously, to feed people in a potential depression. Furthermore, we would be less host and hostess, and certainly not publishing the best food and entertaining blog in America, or the world, if we did not grow at least some of the food we are hocking to you. It does not feel legitimate to me if we do not at least try to do something really, really well and thoroughly. So, I set off on a food-growing mission with more vigor than in previous years since you are with us now.

I scurried from store to store and discovered, disappointingly, that nearly every store stocks the same vegetables and herbs, all supplied by a company called Bonnie, and very little variation on the tomatoes, cucumber, basil theme is allowed for. I found a few other items which made me pleased: A small variety of peppers, strawberries, rhubarb, arugula, and ah, now that I think of it, that's all. The rest of the assortment here now has been all my doing, looking back. Mine, and the Burpee seed people.

I wanted and needed more to replace what was once flower beds and will now bloom every shade of green: Not only to insure a balanced diet for my husband once I return home, but because the plants I mentioned above are the same things I have always grown roughly, since I began this subsistence patch-growing five years ago in Boston. I felt the pickings were both under-nourishing and boring. And that, my Friends, is where our problem began: At the seed packet shelves.

Looking back on it now, I realize two things, both of which are new pieces of information to me having always bought seedlings before: Many, many little seeds come in each of those little packets and some types of seeds are particularly survival hardy. The first thing that happened was that I planted about 60 seed cups of interesting and unusual-to-me sorts of subsistence things. My husband (born and bred rural, food growing, Kansan that he his) looked them over briefly and asked what was in them: Subsistence stuff, I said. No flowers.

After a while, small plants began to spring up. Other cups, like the spinach, yielded nothing. Josh came over again and asked what the little plants were. Butternut and acorn squash, I said, some leeks, zucchini, watermelon, and pumpkin. He is an engineer and it did not take him but a split second to take the lay of his land and divide by the number of vine and squash plants. Maybe there is room for a couple of squash and one watermelon, he said. You won't believe how big a watermelon gets! But he was willing to let me carry on as more and more of the home's old gardens-gone-by have had to be pressed back into service. I have 6 watermelon plants and as many pumpkin. Also, 4 cucumber, and twelve squash. This is not even mentioning the tomato cages, the pepper trees, the lemon and lime citrus trees and the kitchen herb garden. You are probably thinking of the two-page schematic of the many acres of Martha Stewart's garden in Bedford (hey there hometown!) published in her magazine? Think again. Our garden might be 30' x 4, but I was not going to let that stop me.

The second thing that happened was that Puppy, the guard dog/ cuddle bug, got his wiggly self into the seed packets one day while we were elsewhere and spread seed cheer all over. I picked up what seeds were too big to vacuum and flung them into the garden, figuring they were compost. My Kansan husband advises me since that, in fact, a seed is a seed is a seed. Which is very clear to me now that I see the broad leaves of more pumpkin, squash, and watermelon forming all over the garden, next to the avocado seeds I also "composted," and the patches of herbs and lettuces.

I will be going home shortly and leaving Josh to tend to this little patch of heaven I created for his greener sustenance. I am not sure why he looks at the garden with dread now, but I like to think it is his inability to express gratitude.

In the meantime, the onions have begun to sprout. And the cilantro, all 6 flats worth. It occurs to me I am building equity in food and gifts for the future: Fabulous potted cilantro plants with limes and red onions from the yard. And towards the fall, a veritable cornucopia of squash and pumpkins. Josh will have a marvelous time caring for all the ground and container plantings, I just know it.

The garden has yielded its first gift of the season, this fabulous Salsa Verde, which I served on Grilled Sweet-Rubbed Tri-Tip Tacos one night, and on Huevos Rancheros the following morning for brunch. I hope it gets your growing season off to a fresh start.

Salsa Verde
Adapted from Authentic Mexican Cooking by Rick Bayless
Makes about 3 cups

I do not care for onions to be too pungent or to leave a sharp taste after a meal. Anytime I use uncooked onion, as below, I cut the onion into halves or quarters before chopping, and allow the onion to soak in cold water for a few minutes. This takes down the sharpness of the flavor and prevents the green flavors from being unnoticeable in this sauce. If you prefer the bite of full-on onion, skip the first step and just add the chopped onion as the last item, after the processing is finished. Please take my advice and do not put the onion in the food processor, it will not make for a pleasant salsa, they are best added chopped at the end in all scenarios.

Keep in mind as you season the salsa that as the salsa sits in the fridge and the flavors macerate, the intensity of the salt will increase.

I use the slotted spoon to drain off a bit of the wateriness from the bowl before serving. When the salsa is placed over Huevos Rancheros or Nachos, you may wish to press out even a bit more of the water. It is up to you to decide the consistency you prefer.

1 small onion
6 large or 10 small tomatillos, hulled and washed
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons italian flat-leaf parsely
Kosher salt and fesh ground black pepper to taste

Remove the tip end of the onion with your knife. Leaving the root end intact, slice the onion in half from top to bottom. Plunge the onion into a bowl of cold water large enough to cover the onion. Allow to sit for a minute to two, and remove the onion with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel, pat it dry. Now cut your onion into 1/2" dice and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium heat. Drop all the tomatillos into the water and watch the clock for 8 minutes then remove them with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with paper towel. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.

In the large bowl of your food processor, place the tomatillos, garlic cloves, cilantro, lime juice, and parsley. Pulse until the tomatillos are only roughly still intact (if you prefer a very smooth sauce, pulse until you reach your desired consistency). Transfer the salsa to a glass or porcelain bowl, not metal. Taste the salsa and season with salt and pepper to your liking. Add the diced onion and stir gently to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour before serving, but overnight would be best.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The view from everywhere

I might have mentioned to you once or several dozen times that I recently celebrated a birthday. Josh was away at the time but after he finally arrived home, he and I went out for dinner. One of my many food related goals was to have dinner at Restaurant Medure in Ponte Vedra Beach before leaving. Here was my opportunity! I wiggled myself into the best table in town, fulfilled a goal (I am driven, even when it comes to dinner), and celebrated a birthday in the ever-so-sleek-and-chic dining room at Matthew Medure's second restaurant adventure in greater Jacksonville.

I feel I should restate how sleek it is. If a restaurant could wear a tuxedo, it is in Ralph Collection. It is dark and awash in icy-cool tones: some grey here, black there, greige there. The woods are dark, dark, dark. The lights are low, low, low. I mean so, very, low. There is one tiny tea light in a tiny glass holder on the table. The place is minimal in that way, not in many others which is why my mind is stuck on the tea light. It just does not fit, it does not say well-thought out. And it might be the only thing in the entire enterprise which did not. Maybe they wanted to see if I would notice? If it was going to wear on my last neurotic nerve for days on end (oh, has it ever). If it was a little joke on our sense of thoroughness?

It has driven me near mad ever since. I have considered, in every single hour that has passed, how many other things could be placed in the spot which would be polished and minimal. How easy it would be to arrive at something worthy of the Medure show: A tiny perfect water lily. One small chocolate-color rose left on the center of the table, as if someone romantic and forgetful had just stepped away, a small piece of creamy or dark sea glass to hold that one maddening tea light. But now you see how my mind works: The tart and snappy spinach salad served over the itty-bittiest piece of duck confit, the show-stopping duck breast (on sweet potato, kind of confusing given the heat of the day and beachy location), and the billowy, winking chocolate souffle with creme anglaise. Oh, it was all so minutely and perfectly tied up. Neat as a pin, delicious, and so refined. And were it not my birthday, and had we not met another lovely couple, I might have remembered the entire experience less than the candle because it remains so very perplexing.

There is just one other thing I might mention, knowing full-well I am running down an well-disputed road: It's a tad too dressed up for a place at the beach. But Ponte Vedra must respond accordingly, lest Medure not have survived for seven years. I will never argue to dress the guests or the place-settings down: Not if Jimmy Buffet himself tortures me. However, the sleekness of the place seemed wildly disjointed against the guests, many of whom appeared to be golfers just off the course and some other hip, laid-back beachy sorts. I think the joint is a glam memorial to all of the super-metro destinations travelers might be accustomed to, certainly we were, coming as we have from New York and Boston. But I am not sure I want that on vacation. I am not sure I want to be blown away by what a museum the place is. I might like it to cool down a little, be a smidge more welcoming, pat itself on the back one less time, take a moment to smile at the customers, and have a banquette more than five inches from the floor. You know, be a likeable place I would want to come back to on a Wednesday, say, and have it lend itself just a tad more to a "regular."

It is a date-celebration place, certainly. But I would like it to remain and be successful. I would like it to cozy up a little, be less self-conscious. The trouble with it as I see it now is that it would only pop back into mind for this purpose; celebrating something big. But it is not excessive nor even unreasonable in price, they have a very nice wine selection, and I suspect the servers might even be nice people who smile from time to time in real life. I would like to be familiar enough that were I resident here, I would feel justified in eating there before my next birthday. As it stands right now, I don't.

All that said, I hope two things for you: I hope you get to go to Restaurant Medure in this big life. And when you do, I hope they have done something about that infernal tea light. Alright, enough about that.

Sometimes I wonder if I imagine things just to amuse myself. But, I am relieved to report I am not the only one who read this blog and spotted, ironically, a Gosling's Rum advertisement in a recent Bon Appetit. There it is in glaring print, "for seven stubborn generations our family has simply refused to place quantity above quality." Curious. Maybe the quality initiative was time sensitive? Or did not extend to their new spiffy plastic bottling practice? Possibly it was just practical, and something was agreed to in a manufacturing and procurement meeting: Enough is enough, quality is for other rum's! Change to the plastic, we are throwing off our costumes and preparing to disappoint widely and shamelessly! Tell the supply chain to stock us mad full of all that plastic crap! I am off to my office to watch the profits roll in, boys!

Not now, not ever, will I believe that quality is job one in that house. No, sir. But, I will not go into that again. Nor will I go anywhere Gosling's is served quietly! Here I sit, gazing at their pompous ad and giggling to myself over the three bottles evident in their glossy pic: All glass, and neary a plastic bottle in sight. I am no rum rube. I am not a Dark and Stormy devotee of such blindness that I cannot see their obvious slight. I am so over their stuff, to be perfectly eloquent about our spilt. You go your way, Mr. Gosling, and I will go mine. But I promise you one thing: Should you ever find the Blushing Hostess down on her luck and holding a bottle, it will not be plastic. There are just some cliffs from which one may never, in any form of unenviable straights, fall. And your plastic bottle, is at the bottom of that unacceptable cliff.

Enough of that, too. Righty-o, then. Off we go. In the meanwhile, I continue on, cooking and baking, while the world goes off the deep end holding plastic rum bottles and cheap tea lights around me.

Yesterday, there was a mixed bag of experimentation: Oh, another bout with vegetarian cooking which rarely truly satisfies us (but I will keep trudging). It seemed a brilliant idea to replace the ground skirt steak in the ragu we enjoyed so with mushrooms and, using the same process, attempt to create a rich, silky vegetarian ragu. It was fine. But I must own up to tasting it twice, the first time re-seasoning it and the second time (throwing down the mantle of vegetarian ragu while wistfully remembering my skirt steak ragu) I dishonored the vegetarian establishment by pitching two tablespoons of hard-fought beef demi-glace into the pot. My, it was deep, luxe, and flavorful then. We all loved it, including my bouncing baby girl. I would give you the recipe but I am afraid you will not return if I encourage you to make demi-glace to that end. It is well worth the trouble, but I know my place.

And then the Chickpea-Artichoke "Meatballs." They were quite good, just the smallest bit dry, but I am getting there. These will reappear here one fine and victorious day, but today is not that day, Friends. Oh, and that fabulous faux Arugula-spiked Caesar dressing. Well, we'll get there.

I will tell you, beamingly, that I slayed at breakfast though: Huevos Rancheros (sans Beans) with my own Salsa Verde, Breakfast Potatoes Lyonaisse (in honor of Raffles Hotel in Singapore), and Strawberry Pecan Bread. That's right. I only wish you had been here. I will tell you how to arrive at all of these items but you must be patient. I am typing as fast as I can and you know, I must experience life in order to write for you. I am dropping the bread recipe into our collective vault, it comes from a purely insane recipe in The Southern Junior League Cookbook edited by Ann Seranne: a volume neither actually so complete as to be true in calling itself a cookbook, nor in claiming to be edited. But there are ideas in there, however rough they are, that might surprise you. I hope you enjoy this one. In the meanwhile, sit here next to me, we need to be stalwart and enduring as they throw tea lights and plastic recyclables at us. Someone, Darling, someone, must hang on to decorum as the world falters.

Strawberry Pecan Bread
Adapted from The Southern Junior League Cookbook
Serves 12, at least

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup strawberry preserves
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of one half a lemon
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped
1/2 cup strawberries, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350. Generously butter two loaf pans or one large bundt pan. Set aside.

Sift together dry ingredents; Flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar and mix until evenly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl once during mixing. Add dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk in two additions, always begin and end with dry ingredients. Stop twice in process to scrape down the bowl. Do not over-mix.

Add vanilla, lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and preserves. Mix to combine. Scrape down the bowl once again. Add pecans and stawberries and mix gently only to combine.

Transfer the mixture in generally even amounts into the pan(s). Bake for one hour or until the center of the cake springs back completely to your touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan(s) for ten minutes then turn the cake(s) on to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before slicing.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

No less than expected

Hello, Friends,

I have spun around the house like a whirl to be able to slide into this chair and chat with you again. I assure you there has been no less cooking and serving than ever. Only there has been a preoccupation or two hereabouts: My family, which I am thrilled to have with me, the spa, which was just fine, not spectacular, and the beach.

Oh, there is also my obsession with the new Susan Hermann Loomis book Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin, which is, obviously, French in inspiration. It generates the obligatory recipes from her French ex-patriate surroundings, but it has one thing going for it over all the others which fall into this category: I have read only about fifty pages so far, and to it's credit, this is no Patrica Wells collection of (mostly) other people's idea's, it is a great book from which to work and read because it details several notes after each recipe which most author's would bid you figure out yourself. As when I read Julia Child, I prefer a writer to be both comprehensive in their knowledge about how a recipe reacts as well as succinct. Ms. Loomis is both.

I know you would like me to advise you what I have cooked from this book thus far. The answer is nothing. I have firstly been very tied up with a month's worth of cooking periodicals that are much better than most month's. And secondly, some of the items I make are at the square center of the blog universe: Neither so special as to necessitate giving you a recipe, nor so reprehensible as to warn you away from one (a la The Brisket).

There was Food and Wine's Greek Hand Pies courtesy of Jacques Pepin (eh.), there was the watermelon goat cheese salad from same (eh eh.), the poached eggs with baked feta and olives (murderously salty), the Georgian Cheese Bread (white stuffed crust pizza in Georgian disguise) from Gourmet, and then, there was this: My own melange of the elements of these
recipes I enjoyed (okay, only two). From leftovers in culinary periodical adventures comes this salad which will make you pleased and glad on the hottest of days:

Watermelon, Feta, Almond Salad with Dill
Serves 4

8 cups seedless watermelon as fresh as possible, cut into 1 inch dice
1/2 cup feta cheese, finely crumbled
1 cup toasted whole almonds, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar, more or less to taste
2 tablespoons dill, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Into your salad bowl place the watermelon, feta, and almonds. Sprinkle the red wine vinegar and dill over the mixture and toss gently to combine evenly. Taste. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place in refrigerator for 1 hour. Serve.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Goodbye, Gosling's

So much has happened since we last spoke, old friend. Namely, on Sunday we went to Mother's day brunch in the Ocean Grill room at Amelia Island Plantation. And then yesterday, Josh was home for a few hours unexpectedly, but once again called away. But it was a big weekend for more than just those events: It was my birthday and my first Mother's Day, as a Mom, that is.

It was a small milestone birthday, not a remarkable one. But it does make me aware of how very much is not as we knew it one year ago: I was pregnant then, and while I did not love pregnancy, I was excited for our child's arrival. Josh had been deployed for four months and was due home shortly. My Dad was very ill with pancreatic cancer. My then sister-in-law to be, Amy, and my brother, Chris, gave me my first Mother's Day gift which surprised me at first because I was not yet used to the idea of being a Mother. Then I realized: Right, in a month or so, the word Mom will join all the words I have ever been known by. That was an odd sensation. I felt something, barely perceptible and not at all tangible, slip away. It would be late June before the low spot it left was filled by my little girl who is the most precious thing I will ever know. I am proud to celebrate Mother's Day with her and my Mother. I have landed in the cat-bird seat of Motherly pride: Perfect Mother ahead of me, perfect Daughter after me.

And Amelia was a glorious place to see one's first Mother's Day and birthday into being. The bank of windows across the Grill room look down the sweeping lawns of golf course below, whose tips reach to the dunes before the ocean. Just beyond was a crystal clear coastline in every direction. We sat right there, in front of the huge windows in the dining room, with the vista of an old Southern ocean before us. It was almost difficult to notice the food over the view but for Mother's Day, Amelia had taken a million patient moments to place together tiny bites of celebratory majesty: A tapa's table with a lobster and quinoa salad, a smoked breast of duck with tiny potatoes and aged, syrupy balsamic, beet carpaccio, smoked shrimp. And there was this high table of seafood I had in no way earned any claim to but was encouraged to eat nonetheless: Alaskan and stone crabs, huge pink shrimp, tangy, snappy fresh seafood salad, more crab. There was table after table of hot buffet items of such grand food measure that it surpassed all the other fine brunches I have known (sorry, Four Seasons Singapore, your goose is cooked).

I felt so very lucky to be there and sorry, deeply sorry, that Josh missed this birthday too, and Mother's Day. We know this to be the nature of his business, but you can be sure that knowledge does not help one during the very big celebrations they miss. On the upside however, there is a chance Josh could be here for his first Father's Day and our tiny girl's first birthday. Make a wish for us, won't you?

Anyway, enough waxing on about Josh missing the last three consecutive birthdays, my first Mother's Day, and our daughter's first Christmas (as you can tell, I am not sensitive). The thing I must tell you is that on these very pages we have suggested to you that it might be a fine idea to take yourself aside (and someone else, but that is not necessary) and make a Dark and Stormy cocktail for yourself. I can tell you from personal experience now that The Host is entirely right, this is a deep and tangy drink worthy of any great occasion.

Well, almost any occasion. Maybe not an occasion when you will have a guest see the bar in your home. Maybe not when your guests are not familiar with Gosling Black Seal Rum (which may not be substituted) because they will not be even remotely bowled over by your generosity in serving them this rum. Gosling's has no intention of helping you to put your best foot forward in that respect: Gosling's is only available in (unbelievably cheap) and aesthetically unforgivable plastic bottles until further notice.

Here is where yours truly, the Blushing Hostess, had a bit of a moment with the ABC Liquor people in Ponte Vedra Beach (head's up here, avoid these people at any cost). My idea was that it would be lovely to serve Dark and Stormy's for Josh's homecoming (as it had been both dark and stormy during his absence. Logical, I like to think). All I had to do was come up with the Gosling's Black Seal Rum and a bit of ginger beer. I turned to ABC for Gosling's as they have a reputation for being a very fine bunch and knowing everything about everything boozy.

"Can I ask you about this?" I said holding up a plastic bottle of Gosling's Black Seal, the only sort of bottle I could find on their shelves.

Without waiting for my question, Woman 1 behind the counter says, "It is supposed to be very good rum."

"Yes, good." I said. "But I am wondering about this bottle. Plastic is not an appealing thing to put on a bar. Is there a glass bottle?"

"We cannot get them anymore, they will not send them to us." she replied.

Woman 2 behind the counter interjected and as she did, her face was clearly forming a judgement of me as a particular nuisance sort of a beach-wife customer, "Where is your bar?" she demanded.

"In my home." I answered.

"You care what a bottle looks like on your bar?" she stammered. And somewhere in my mind, I could hear squealing Volvo breaks. I could see every head at the Palm Beach Club swinging around. I could hear a thousand Bedford doyennes before me spinning wildly in their graves.

I froze there for a moment because it was one of the defining ones where you can fall into her expectations or you can fall back on your manners. I went the latter road though there was a flash through me of venom which would have meant the former had it been given the opportunity to rise to my voice. "Yes." I said. "I care very much about what a bottle looks like. And a label." I hesitated for a moment, looking over my shoulder at the thousands of beautiful bottles which surrounded this woman at work each day and clearly had not marked her soul in any way. I wondered if I was wasting my breath, concluded I was, and plowed onward heedlessly, "I won't put plastic on my bar, it looks as if I did not care enough to give my guests something well selected and worthy of them. It looks cheap, like liquor did in college. I expected more from these people."

Now, the problem is two-fold as I see it. Firstly, people who create and put their name on a thing are generally a discerning sort: They give careful thought to the way they present themselves and their product. They gain a following by being choosy about the impression they make and by producing something incomparable and of noteworthy quality. They take pride in their work and the things they have worked for, as I do, in the bar from which you will be served in my home. I can speak from a position of security on this subject because The Blushing Hostess is meant to be just those things for you: Incomparable. Quality. Choosy.

Secondly, I take issue with the Gosling people because the (rather surly) staff at ABC Ponte Vedra helped me to understand that Gosling refuses to ship anymore glass bottles to their customers until they go through their stock of plastic bottles. And while I understand their margins and inventory are balanced on this decision, speaking from the position of having managed both for businesses far larger than theirs, it is an insanely stupid one. It is the work of impossible and unstoppable branding buffoons who will learn that it is far better to eat one's own mistake in the budget than pass it on to the customer and debase the brand's image.

I will think twice before buying Gosling's again, though I will miss the Dark and Stormy. Not only because their failures are not my problem, but because as one looks around a liquor store, there are so many other brands which had so obviously agonized over presenting something aesthetically phenomenal to me as a consumer, both in their bottles and on their labels: I should give them my business. I am a discerning sort and I expect Gosling's to understand that at the end of the line, it is my aesthetic sense that matters, not theirs. I expect them to value me enough to give me a bottle which looks great on the bar and sings out, "Drink me, I am a very special rum, and I have come such a long way to prove it to you."

So, Woman 2 at ABC in Ponte Vedra and Gosling's please consider yourself advised: It always matters how you present a thing, but it matters so much more how you present yourself.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Hostess Cordially Invites You

To join her for a her first essay at The Blushing Hostess Entertains. The Hostess will return tomorrow.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The shiny little lamb grows up

Hiya friends,

I have been had. Not once either. Dozens of times. Remarkably, I continue to put my hand in the fire and feel surprised about the heat and the ensuing burn. It is those infernal magazine pictures again. Always so come-hither-and-cook-me so you can eat something marvelous and reawaken yourself from that gauzy haze of 1001 Asian Chicken Salads you've been eating in appearance.

And there I sit, reading and wishing I had the photogenic food before me. Having a hard time learning my lesson. The problem is the same now as when I was in corporate life: Every morning I get up and get ready to face the world: Makeup and hair in order. Sassy, perky little outfit. Cute shoes. I am shiny. And more often than not, I, the sweet little bouncing happy lamb, walk into a repetitive situation where I leave with the psychological equivalent of being a bouncy shiny lamb whose ear is hanging off and bleeding. Clothes torn and filthy, limping on one broken heel. Hair all matted and sticky, I retreat. Corporate life was not going to become any more pleasant, the way the occasional food photograph is not going to become any more like an actual food I can recreate. When I am abused by food magazines, I feel I am a fundamentally wronged innocent: Harmed, dirtied, and indelibly wounded; By The Brisket, by a certain chanterelle soup I would rather forget, and so on...

Yesterday, I once again gussied myself up and began the day sparkling and sweet (Alright, maybe sweet would be pushing it.) and decided to do something about lunch before the morning was swept away. For a few days, I had been looking forward to making the Georgian Cheese Bread recipe in this month's Gourmet magazine. But it is not as simple as waving my wooden spoon, enthusiastically bellowing, "Zap!" and then I have the bread, (which is more like pizza, really). No, you have to plan to execute a multi-step, multi-hour process because there is yeast involved and those herculean mites will not be rushed.

I began at 9:30 am and by 1:30 pm I had a pizza dough (and just a pizza dough, friends, not an extraordinary recipe like the one in the New York Cookbook, not even a good one like such as graces How to Cook Everything). Just a dough you might get out of a can marked Pillsbury. The addition of one egg to what is normally a pizza recipe did not make a remarkable change to the dough such as would prevent me from using my great pizza recipe, or getting a crust from the local pizza guy. It was such a disappointment to have hours of a short and promising life tied up with this recipe: The fools errand of a magazine photo true-believer

And then, because some days disappointment knows no bounds, the Havarti and mozzarella cheese to be inserted into the dough was not nearly enough. It might be a scarce half of an what the concept was begging for.

I think it is a fine idea to make the recipe and add twice as much cheese, then you too can get over the romanticised name "Georgian Cheese Bread" and have stuffed crust pizza for lunch (this managing your expectations, you shiny sweet lamb), which is what this is, like it or not.

But there was one remarkable upside to this meal: A recipe from the Blue Willow Inn Cookbook (a volume often vilified on these pages) was the precursor to an idea for a fresh Tomato Chutney: A worldbeater great with "Georgian Cheese Bread" (or, stuffed white pizza). In the original recipe, canned diced tomatoes were used and that sounded perfectly vile; Knowing, as I do, that the authors (and dubious "test kitchen") of this book cannot be trusted (I refer you to the Sweet Potato Bread incident), I decided to improve upon a great idea which they managed to make contemptible, heretofore to be known as Actually Good Tomato Chutney.

Actually Good Tomato Chutney
adapted from the Blue Willow Cookbook by Louis and Billie Van Dyke
4 Servings

1 1/2 pounds fresh roma tomatoes, chopped
6 green onions, top and bottom ends discarded and finely chopped
3 tablespoons light brown sugar, be sure this is free of lumps
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons hot sauce, more or less to taste
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients, and stir until evenly combined. Refrigerate at least four hours. Serve next to meats, substantial fishes, poultry, and starches.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Traditional dress

Hey there, pals.

We have had a busy few days. My Mom and Margaret are here with us now and we have been making tracks all over. But yesterday, we were only down the street at the International Food Tasting here in Jacksonville.

Food festivals, and festivals with food are like a carnival on to themselves. If there is anything better than smiling people gathered around, coexisting, why, even socializing, joined in the pursuit of experiencing some new food while simultaneously giving to charity, then I don't know it. It is as if a perfect opportunity has been created for sharing all we have been given, in every sense.

Now, I presented a bit of Moroccan/ Tunisian food, which is a thing I am able to do because I read everything I can and then, I cook everything I can. This does not mean I am Moroccan. (though, it would be nice to visit). I am not sure how I might have been presumed to be a Moroccan citizen (was it the crock pot? my rattan napkin holder?) but somehow, before I even knew what was happening, this Anglo-Irish kid from Westchester was roped into coming to the International mass in Jacksonville next week. "Just wear your traditional dress and you will carry your flag..." a perky women chirped at Margaret and I. For a moment, I stood there confused but smiling and nodding (a habit I learned in my far-away land). One thing always leads to another when people get on a roll of sorts in their own thoughts, I learned that on the soil of my birth also. Oh, I wished the Dashing Host had been there, I know how he would have enjoyed the moment.

I do not wish to disappoint but I am from Westchester County, New York: My traditional dress is pearls, a gold button sweater, and Ferragamo heels. My flag is red, white, and blue. The only tangines and harissa in my native place were from Williams-Sonona during a cooking fad. I am afraid I can only present myself as what I am: A card-carrying member of the bows-on-pumps tradition, an interested student of the world in general, and a girl with only one flag. Oh, and I make some pretty mean Moroccan food. So, I will be there with my flag, my Chanel sweater, and my Gimlet in my tumbler: an accurate representation of a Westchester-ite in her traditional costume at an international festival. I cannot wait.

It was a pleasure to meet so many interested eaters and I am looking forward to seeing many of you right back here.

Tomato and Red Pepper Stew (or Salsa) with Harissa
Serves 6
Adapted from Food and Wine, May, 2008

We presented the recipe below almost as a salsa with za'atar pitas. It occurs to me now that I would be happy to serve this as a reinvented salsa, warm or cold. When Food and Wine published this recipe, it called for poaching eggs in the sauce for brunch. You could. But I like mine best cooked down to almost a ragu consistency.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon harissa
2 tablespoon tomato paste
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Zest of one lemon
Pitas or crusty bread, for serving

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and bell pepper, season with salt and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Stir in the paprika and coriander and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the harissa and tomato paste and cook over low heat for 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and simmer over low heat until the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes or up to 40 for a very thick sauce. Stir in the parsley, cilantro, and lemon and season with salt.

Serve with warmed pitas or crusty bread.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Rosemary. Peach. Gardenia.

Sometimes, things stay with you: The way the light moves through a window, past the curtains, and filters on to a floor at two in the afternoon in your Grandmother’s living room. The fuzzy leaves of the African violets your Grandfather loved, and their scent; like acrid soil. A sweetly citrus-scented lemon poppy seed cake at an inn in Portsmouth, Virginia on a July summer morning when the air was as heavy as hot lead. The way the Union Oyster Bar in Boston seems to smell of sea salt brine and beer, and the way you will come to associate that pair of scents with people arguing about the Red Sox. And if only the scent of pipe smoke and roses would linger around me around me just once more on this side of life, it would be heavenly.

I made a few biscuits this morning which reminded me of these sensations. If you can take a minute to appreciate what they are and what would go well them, they could be more than just a morning biscuit, they could be one of those historical markers that changes you, stops you, even undermines you at times: One day, a year or a decade from now you might set out determine to change the universe. Put right where there is wrong. But then something will catch you, something deep in the air. And you will have to put it off for a minute or even a week, until you can catch your ghost again and revisit some old, pure, perfect place, worth putting off everything to see on this side of life.

If you make these biscuits and serve them the way Tyler Florence remembers them, they will stay with you in that unforgettable way: Rosemary southern biscuits with peach jam. If you can, get some freshly cut gardenia for the table. Lord knows, I hope I will always remember this day from that heady, deep combination: Rosemary. Peach. Gardenia. Can you believe a person like me can be lucky enough to start a day that way? In some former life, I did something right.

I pass this to you now for safekeeping. I hope you get the peach jam. I hope someone brings you a gardenia. I hope you can always remember the American South this way deep, fragrant, and simply charming. I did not put out a lot of food for family breakfast today. A few small enchanting things can live the precious marks of a lifetime on a sould when left to their own devices.

Rosemary Biscuits
adapted from Alton Brown
makes 14 biscuits

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons finely minced rosemary
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shortening
1 cup buttermilk, chilled

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and rosemary. Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don't want the fats to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.

Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they just touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. (Biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first, but hey, that's life.)

Bake until biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes.