Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Creamy Dreamy Mushroom Stew, Hungarian Style

I've been making this Hungarian Mushroom Stew for a while now. I first tried it when I was working as an editor in Peterborough, NH, a small town that has a lot going for it, including a thriving downtown social scene. Juxtapose this against the mostly rural background of the Monadnock region, and what you have is a great place to visit, and, if you're very lucky, an awesome place to live. The town reminds me a little of Middleburg, VA, and it's home to many excellent restaurants and cafes. One of those places is Harlow's Pub on School St. Harlow's is the perfect combination of Brit pub and coffee house, with a cool, almost bohemian-vibe. It was the first place I ever encountered Hungarian Mushroom Stew. As it turned out, the kitchen had run out of the chili I normally got for lunch, otherwise, I might never have tried it. But try it I did, and it was all love affair after that. Scouring through my cookbook library, I soon found a comparable version in Mollie Katzen's wonderful vegetarian cookbook, Moosewood. After making that version for a few years, I decided to strike out on my own and update the recipe a little, or maybe a lot, depending on how you look at it. I got rid of the soy sauce, and replaced it with a fortified wine, then I updated the seasoning amounts, increased the amount of mushrooms, drastically. I also added a little more lemon juice. Quite by accident, I found that "marinating" the sauteed mushrooms and onions in the butter for at least 48 hours intensifies the flavor of these ingredients in a really delicious way.

What you will wind up with is something that's not quite a stew, but also definitely not a soup. If you want something to warm you on these cold winter nights, this is the recipe you want to have at the ready.

Things I like about this stew:

I like that it's endlessly adaptable to tastes. I like a lot of dill and lemon juice, etc, but if you don't, simply cut back on those and any other ingredients that don't float your boat so much.

The recipe as written, is appropriate for lacto vegetarians (the kind of vegetarian that consumes milks, cheeses, and other dairy products derived from animals), but it's also easily "beefed up" by swapping out the vegetable stock for, well, beef or chicken stock. And, if you want to please a vegan, substitute the dairy milk for nut milks, rice milks, coconut milks; just make sure whatever version you choose is the unsweetened type.

I love also that it's a great soup to lighten up. If I'm feeling like I've had a really "fat day," I just cut back on the butter, or swap it out entirely for olive or canola oil, I can use 1-or-2 percent milk instead of whole, and fat-free plain yogurt instead of sour cream. The stew has flexibility, and loses nothing in the trade.

Hungarian Mushroom Stew

4 Tbsps butter + 1 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (approx 3 cups), the milder the onion, the better; the mushrooms should be the star of this soup.
3-4 lbs white mushrooms, sliced (if you're the adventurous type, you can try substituting different varieties of mushrooms, or mixing multiple types; however, be careful--some mushrooms can develop a smoky, pungent flavor when cooked, which is why I like to stick to good old white mushrooms for this recipe).
1-1/2 tsps salt (or to taste)
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
3/4 - 1 cup AP flour (amount will depend on your desired thickness)
1/2 cup cream sherry, vermouth, or Madeira wine
2 quarts vegetable stock (I use Emeril's if I can't make my own)
The juice of one lemon
1/2 cup good quality dill weed
1/4 cup smokey Hungarian paprika
2-3 cups whole milk (this will vary depending on how thick you want your stew)
1 cup sour cream (added before serving, or dolloped on the tops of each individual serving
Dill and paprika: Just a pinch extra for garnishing the top of the soup
Chopped fresh chives for sprinkling

1. Sweat the onions in 3 Tbsps of butter and the 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium low heat until they soften.
2. Add in the mushrooms, salt, and pepper and saute until wilted.
*At this point, if you wish to do as I suggest and marinate the mushroom-onion mixture for 48 hours, simply cover the pot and refrigerate before moving on to the third step. Just bring back up to temp when ready to finish the stew.
3. When the mushrooms have released most of their liquid. add in the flour and 1 Tbsp butter to coat the mushroom-onion mixture. Lower the heat and stir constantly until the flour reaches a light brown color. Be vigilant about stirring. You do not want the flour to burn.
4. Deglaze the pot with the sherry (or whatever wine you've chosen to use), scraping the bottom of the pot as you go.
5. Stir in 2 cups of the broth, lemon juice, dill weed, and paprika. Cover and let simmer for 10 minutes.
6. Add the remaining broth, and then add the milk, adjusting the amount based on the consistency you prefer. Cover, and bring to temp over medium-low heat.
7. When ready to serve, sprinkle over a small amount of dill and paprika, add the chives, and serve hot with a fresh baguette or whole grain bread and butter. Makes 12 1-1/4 cup servings.

Harlow's Pub & Restaurant
3 School St, Peterborough, NH 03458
(603) 924-6365

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Piano Has Been Drinking. (And so Have My Apples)

Oh darn. Where did September go? It usually sticks around for a while, doesn't it? At least it feels that way. We get our "Indian Summer" in NH right about the time when September is ready to slip out the door. It gets warm but breezy; you may find a few pine needles caught in between your toes and a few crisp, wind blown brown leaves in your hair while strolling around in your t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, and a long sleeve sweat shirt tied around your waist--just in case the weather turns really NH-ery. The rest of the year's a consistent crap shoot, the epitome of the saying: "You don't like the weather in NH? Well give it a minute!"  But this year September's last days came with rain, and a quick and impolite shot of the muggies that made me wish for Fall and Summer simultaneously.

As I type this, I'm wrapped in two layers and woolen socks, afraid to put the furnace on...uhm, you know...just in case we should all of a sudden find ourselves in the midst of an Indian Summer. I'm also yearning for a salad, and maybe a nice slab of watermelon or honey dew. Yes, I'm confused. 

Apparently, I've been confused for a while. In August (when it really did feel like summer, heat waves and all), I baked cakes, ignoring my cardinal rule of cookery: Never turn the oven on during a heat wave. But I was also downing Almond Joys like they were actually good for me, against my better judgement. See, I have never met a coconut and chocolate combination that I didn't fall head over heels in love with. In fact, my perfect man might be the one just good humored (or crazy) enough to dip himself in chocolate before rolling around on a blanket of flaked coconut. I'd marry that man, oh yes, without hesitation. But I've already admitted to being a tad bit confused. 

So, the recipe I'm going to share today came about after my personal Almond Joy meltdown. Feeling icky and really unhappy with my lack of willpower, I knew that in order to feel somewhat "healthy," like I was doing something good for my body, I must actually eat something that is at least a little bit healthy. But a few days of being mostly good with food choices led to one night of unintended abandon. I could afford to be the tiniest bit...naughty, right? At first, I bought apples, choosing to make baked apples; a good, healthier choice, right?! Oh, but then I noticed how much rum I had left over from a vacation a few years ago. I mean, I have a LOT of the stuff. See, I've never been one for mixed drinks, so in my house the hard liquor usually evaporates before it gets consumed. Sad, but true. Oh, I know: some of you are cringing reading this. I just feel it. Maybe you're even repeating the words "Oh the horror, the HORROR!" But I've been on this kick about cleaning out, and simplifying, in an effort to get myself organized. So I decided to make an apple cake with the rum I want so desperately to be rid of (but without just pouring it down the kitchen sink and outright wasting it. Oh no, my frugal nature wouldn't allow that!), and almond extract, yet another thing that's been hanging around unused in my cupboards for way too long. The result was this lovely French Apple Cake, and it was scrumptious.

Of course, I realize I could have just as easily made drunken baked apples, but I...oh well, I suppose I have no excuse: I like my apples best in cake! I stuck all but a quarter of the baked cake into the freezer, after wrapping it well in three layers of plastic wrap, then a layer of foil, another couple layers of plastic wrap, and then a freezer bag. (My freezer kills most everything that isn't wrapped well enough to survive a five year lunar orbit.) 

Here's the recipe:

French Apple Cake

1 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 firm, tart apples (you can vary the variety, depending on taste; in fact, I advise going for variety)
3 extra large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 tablespoons dark rum (less if you want lighter rum flavor)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (or 1 tsp vanilla extract, if preferred)
1-1/2 sticks butter at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350ยบ. Place rack in center of oven.
Heavily butter an 9-inch spring form pan. If you don't have a spring form pan, you can use any large cake pan with high sides.
Whisk dry ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Peel and core the apples and slice into slightly smaller than 1/2" sections.
Beat the eggs until foamy then slowly add in the sugar, rum and almond extract.
Add only half the flour mixture, a little at a time, stirring and scraping lighlty with each addition.
Stir in half of the butter (6 tablespoons), then add the second half of the flour mixture in the same manner as the first.
Drizzle in the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter, then fold in the apple slices until just coated with the mix.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and shake the pan back in forth to flatten and remove any air bubbles.
Bake the cake for between 30 and 45 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Out the Old, In the New

I love Halloween. No, scratch that: I adore Halloween. Truly. In fact, if I could find a way to make it socially acceptable, I would dress up as a scary witch with a smooshed black hat and a warty, crooked nose. I'd go out, and yell "Trick-or-Treat!" right along with the tiny people. In fact, my height and relative arm-length advantage might make for a real coup d'etat in the candy score. I'd be like some mythical Halloween legend. Maybe, after some years and careful dedication to my part, I'd even garner the same attention as the Chester Headless Horseman! Ah. Now there's a story...

The place where I spent my first two years of college, in Chester, NH, had the tradition of the Headless Horseman. For a small town of (at that time) less than 1,000, it wasn't unusual to see at least that many trick-or-treaters filing up and down either side of the town's main road, Chester St. When it got dark, the Headless Horseman came, riding atop a huge black horse and carrying his pumpkin "head" in the crook of his arm. He'd ride up and down the street, scaring the little goblins, and adults, too! It was very cool, but also a little scary; even for this witch-in-waiting!

I love all the holidays, but there's just something special about getting to dress up and be someone you're not, for the sole purpose of extorting candy from your neighbors. Maybe the kid in me yearns to go back to those carefree years. Because, much as I love them--and I'm sure most New Englander's would agree--holidays in New England can be a little stressful, especially in the small, quaint towns. The town where I live, Amherst, NH--blanketed by snow as it usually is by Christmas--looks like something that just sprung off the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. We have a lot of tradition, history, and no small amount of good taste and decorum to live up to. It can be daunting. Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas...they're big holidays, and New England is intrinsically linked to them all, by history, geography, and even climate. The Puritans first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass, Sleepy Hollow, NY and the Legend of the Headless Horseman, the picture postcard quaintness of a New England Christmas and the snow, and snow...and more snow!

So, as a lover of Halloween, I have sort of been biding my time, waiting for that invisible line to be crossed; the line that signals the end of summer and the beginning of Halloween season (err...Fall). That invisible line is APPLE PICKIN' SEASON! Because apple season, well, it's almost an unofficial holiday in its own right! We have festivals and carnivals, and auxiliary events dedicated to it. And if ever there was legislation offered up to make apple pickin' season an official holiday, I'd be the first one at the ballot box! But, for now bereft of its own official status as a holiday, apple pickin' season is what marks the change in seasons. Once it happens, I know to expect to see bags of Halloween candy piled in impossibly high displays at area stores.

So I had to do a double-take when I was out doing my weekly shop early last week and saw Halloween candy displayed in prime store real estate, at the front of the store. Reese's Cups normally come in orange bags, and for that matter, so do Kit Kats (reddish-orange, anyway). Snickers and Milkyway bars are usually in brown bags, which work equally as well as red, because Halloween does happen in the Fall, after all. But there was something different about these bags. They had little drawings of ghosts and skeletons and pumpkins... HALLOWEEN!! my inner child cried out. But no, my keen observation of other store patrons, their dress, the heat-induced crankiness of their little would-be goblins, and of course, the things in their carts (watermelon, salad makings, barbeque-ready meats), all pointed to the fact that we're still knee-deep in summer. How could this happen?

So I'm standing there, looking at this mountain of candy, and, before I knew what I was doing, I grabbed a bag of bright orange Reese's Cups and literally RAN over to the register with my loot (before good sense could overrule my oh-so decadent, Halloween candy-loving side!) I didn't even sneer at the woman in front of me when she turned to look at my purchase and boomed "Oh My God. They Have Halloween Candy Already Don't You Just Hate That?" Oh no, I love it, lady. Sincerely. Love. It. Now stop judging me!

At home, whilst munching away on a Reese's Cup, I start thinking about Halloween and the way it used to be when I was a kid. We stayed out late. We went inside strangers' homes. We went through homemade haunted houses and played tricks on each other and rode our bikes in full makeup and costume, bags of candy dangling dangerously close to the front tire spokes. And the family who left a bushel of apples on their porch? We were so displeased that we each left a note. Mine said something like:  "Thank you for the apples, but please hand out REAL food next year (and not just candy corn!). Yes, we were little hooligans, but we weren't mean, and we could use the apple as a bribe to get our mom to let us eat some of our candy that night! We were even allowed to eat the homemade stuff that didn't look iffy: Popcorn balls, Rice Crispy Treats, caramels... mmmm caramels. 

A few days after my trip to the store, the weather started to change. The oppressive humidity went away, and we had temps in the 70's with a nice wind that made it feel even cooler. Not bad for a New England summer. I started to think about turning on the oven. Then I thought better of it and decided that firing up the old stove might be a good compromise. An hour or so later, this is what I'd made: 

Uhmmm, it is now three hours later, and I'm finally able to get back on my computer. In the meantime, this was happening:

Didn't have the heart to bump him off the comfy chair he
appropriated not two seconds after I left it to get a glass of water.
Oh, and cats DO snore. And it's cute. Really cute.
Darn that cuteness.

And now for the recipe: 

Easy Homemade Salted Caramels to Put You in Mind of Halloween

1 regular size can of sweetened condensed milk (8 oz, I think?)
A few tablespoons of cream or evaporated milk
4 tablespoons of butter
1/2 teaspoon flaked sea salt, or good old Morton's salt in the blue container (use less if you use the regular salt)

Place everything but the salt into a heavy bottomed, non-reactive sauce pot. Stainless steel, enameled, or glass are good choices. I don't advise using "non-stick." Start it under medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sides begin to bubble. The heat will cause the sugars in the milk to turn to volcanize and tumble in on itself. At this point, it will look like a lava and be quite hot, so it's important to keep small children and curious pets well away from the stove during this step. Once the mixture is up to temp, turn it down to the lowest setting. Watch it carefully for overflowing and splattering, but resist the urge to stir it constantly. If you must, dip a silicone spatula in at the sides of the pan and gently fold inward, following the natural inward flow of the caramel. If you smell burning at any point, that means the heat was too high and you'll unfortunately have to throw it out and start over (unless you actually like the taste of burnt caramel). 

When the caramel reaches softball stage after a few minutes on heat, you'll want to move to the next step and start working it. Use your silicone spatula to scrape the caramel out onto a clean, non-porous surface. You can use a baking sheet, clean counter, or even a baking tile. I used a baking sheet and my Silpat silicone bakers' mat  for this step. 

Tip: To test that your caramel is ready to be worked, spoon a dime-sized amount onto a plate. Wait until you can touch it without burning yourself, then gently roll it up between your fingers. If it rolls into a softball and keeps it shape, it's ready to be worked.

Work the caramel using two large spoons, two spatulas, or even two large, non-serrated knives. Start by rolling it out flat, like you're frosting a cake. Sprinkle a little of the salt over the caramel, then "knead" it with the utensils until it cools enough to be worked by hand. Place it between two layers of wax paper and flatten it out with a rolling pin. Lift it up, fold it into thirds, place back in between the wax paper and roll out again. Continue to do this, adding a pinch of salt with each fold, until the caramel begins to glaze. You'll see it go from rather dull to shiny. Once you're at this point, you're ready to add the last bit of salt to the top. No more folding at this point. Just put the wax paper back over the salted top of the caramel and gently press down on it. Discard the wax paper, and cut the caramel into whatever shape you desire. I decided on 2" long candies of about 1/2" in width. You'll get about 20 candies this way, give or take (it's not an exact science). Cut strips of wax paper slightly larger than your candies, and hand wrap each, twisting the ends to close. 

These would make a great gift, especially loaded up into one or two of those pretty "old style" Mason jars from Ball Corp. They began re-releasing the colored glass jars a few years ago, and I have used both the blue and the green. There's just something about a colored glass Ball Jar that's homey and stylish, and...well, just spectacularly sweet! I would decorate my whole pantry with them if I could. 

Let me know how your caramels turn out!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Profit vs. Quality. The Ultimate Smackdown.

I recently learned that one of my favorite local restaurants was closing its doors. Roam Cafe in Wilton opened about three years ago. My first visit, for breakfast soon after they'd opened, was not, I admit, an altogether stellar one. My server was a tall, youngish woman sporting a sloppy chignon, short-shorts, and an expression that communicated she wasn't happy about being there, and even less so about having to serve me my veggie omelet and coffee. I chalked that first encounter up to the typical opening week "settling in" period, which I think all new restaurants must go through. My omelet was great, the coffee worth paying a premium for. For that I forgave the lackluster enthusiasm, because I've experienced similar nerve-wearing situations. I once made a vat of vegetarian (gasp!) chili for a town full of discerning and die-hard meat eaters; I opened and ran a college concession, catered a town meeting luncheon for the sitting governor, and have been the only server for twenty eight tables and an ice cream bar--when two servers who should have shown up--didn't.

Life in the food service world is hard and unforgiving. Now, it seems everyone is ready to jump online to rate their satisfaction (or lack thereof) over their dining experience. That's great, when it's a motivating factor to improve in the areas that need improvement. But it must be so frustrating to be working hard, only to see a review from one bad night, that may or may not have any grounding in reality (google bogus restaurant reviews). Roam Cafe was like other better restaurants; it had mostly stellar reviews, but a few that were not so. No big deal there. I like to think I've become good at figuring out which reviews are legit, and which are simply born of a fickle and impossible-to-please character; that customer who must always find fault with something--BAH!

There was a time I would have researched places online before deciding to where to eat. After all, eating out is an investment today. Where I live, it's certainly not out of the ordinary to expect to pay $25+ per person at a nice restaurant, for a sit-down lunch. Add anywhere from $15-$25 on to that for a nice dinner out, NOT including drinks and tip. And, nothing against this part of New England, but it's not like I live in a cultural mecca. Now, combine that cost with weekly morning coffees, the odd take-out meal, maybe a guilty bite at the local fast food or greasy spoon...and pretty soon you're spending your discretionary income to pay someone else to cook for you. Did I say "discretionary income?" Really, who worries about that? Who has that? Just call it: Pre-spent, or misspent savings.

Fortunately for us, we're not like that frog in a pot of warming water, who comes closer to frog heaven with each upward tick of the dial. We're noticing that our wallets are lighter, our bank statements less of a statement and more of a whimper. But the other side of this coin is what the stats prove: despite the known health risks long associated with "fast" food, we're eating more of it...instead of just eating out a little less often, we're choosing to spend our money at the Taco Bells or McDonald's, instead of at the Roam Cafe's of the world. And that's sad. Add to to all the cost, the relentless hours, the spiteful reviews, and I think that would be enough to do me in, or at least have me behaving like Seinfeld's Soup Nazi. "No soup for you!" Oh yes, it would be a cocktail for disaster.

My turn to play the diner! 1970-something. My sister and I played 
"restaurant"on Nana's back porch. Ambiance was in the details: Nana's 
good linens from Woody's, an old transistor radio, and an owl candle. 
I don't look too happy. Maybe spinach was on the menu?
On her Facebook page, the former owner of Roam Cafe offered an explanation for the closure, and one of those reasons supports the above. Cost. From an operational perspective, small locals have to act like large conglomerates. They must carry high cost insurance, they must pay for the costs associated with having employees, and they are weighed down with so much of the business part, that the big deal motivations for those who start out dreaming about opening their own restaurant--the food, the service, and the sense of community--simply must feel like added burdens to be managed. As one who has dreamed of opening her own small restaurant, Roam's experience hasn't just given me doubt--it's made me wonder how people do it at all. But they do.

On a related note: Fast food will always be fast food, but lately it appears these big companies are pulling out the stops to put on a friendly-neighborhood face. McDonald's is set to start offering table-side service, and Burger King stores are revamping their outward image to look more like a Chipotle's (still fast food, but with limited, simple ingredients we use in our own kitchens). Hmmm. Someone's grandma out there is very wisely shaking her head and calling this nothing more than "putting makeup on a pig." Right on, Grandma!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Of Brits, Burdock...and Bubba Gump

The Brits enjoy a rather odd-sounding drink that combines burdock root and dandelion. My mother, Avril, comes from the North Yorkshire region of Britain. She met my dad, Charles, a U.S. serviceman, while he was stationed there at Menwith Hill in the early 1960s. The two married and moved to Germany, where my mother gave birth to my older sister, Gwen. Soon after, dad moved his little family back to the states, and settled in his hometown of Prince Frederick, Maryland. PF is a bedroom community of DC, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I made my arrival not long after that.

As for that burdock and dandelion combination: I'd love to try my hand at making my own version of the drink my mom remembers. Apparently it can be prepared as a bubbly tonic, or tea. Yes, tea. I'm loving that! Burdock has long been in use as an herbal treatment for everything from stomach upset to cancer. Dandelion, likewise, has shown to have curative benefits and is commonly used as a diuretic aid, and also to treat problems of the liver, among other things.

To say that I'm intrigued is an understatement; but I've learned enough from my preliminary research to know that a trip down the street to the local herbalist would be a good idea. Both dandelion and burdock roots can have undesired effects when ingested, or even used externally on the skin. Burdock, particularly, can be risky because it may accidentally be picked with Belladonna and deadly nightshade, which are toxic, according to WebMD. Yeah. The "deadly" part of deadly nightshade would be enough to keep me away, barring further research. A primer on identifying poisonous flora that grow alongside the beneficial herbs is warranted.

The use of herbs in medicine is a great idea. But I also like the way uncommon herbs enhance food flavor while giving a gentle boost of vitamins and minerals that may be missing in our western diet. And, since I'm not quite ready to trot-out my version of Susan's Amazing Burdock & Dandelion Elixer for What Ails Ya!, I am thinking a lot about herbals, flora, and in particular, roses, lately. And of course. For what girl doesn't like roses? (Ok, I'm sure they're out there...on an island somewhere).

Food grade rose petals can be
used in food, cosmetics, or in
their natural state, as an aromatic.
So here's the story: I spent my formative college years in a town that was very close to Canterbury Shaker Village. Lucky for me, the woman who manned the school's bookstore had some say in what was purchased, and as a woman in love with anything Shaker, she sold a little cookbook titled Seasoned with Grace: My Generation of Shaker Cooking, a book of Shaker recipes by Eldress Bertha Lindsay. I flipped thru it one day and was sold when I came to a recipe for sugared rose petals. That recipe was my first foray into the world of edible florals gastronomy. I plunked my $12 on the table (which, back then, was a lot for a broke college student in the late 80s!). Unfortunately, I gave away or misplaced that book in the intervening years. This is where the internet earns its chops. It is, after nearly a quarter century, still available for purchase!.

I've yet to make those sugared rose petals. I just never got off my bum and thought to buy edible rose petals (othewise known as "food grade" rose petals), at least, not until this March, when I found the very thing online for a relative song. So what's a girl to do with two huge bags of orgasmically good smelling rose petals? Answer: Lots of good stuff! First, I'm going to make rose petal jelly.

I don't have Eldress Lindsay's recipes, but a quick look online yielded a treasure trove of ideas for the surely tasty, and obviously very pretty rose petal jelly, like this one.

These multi-colored petals
will make a gorgeous jelly!
Before the summer's out I'll make another batch of butter pickles, and when the leaves start to turn the canning pot will be filled with apple chutney, applesauce, apple jelly, apple butter...oh Lordy, I'm turnin' in to the apple version of Bubba Gump!

Keep an eye out for all these recipes, and more!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

As Goals Go...

If you're like me and a lot of other people, you start out every brand new year with a resolution of some kind. Most of these begin with some version of "This year I resolve to get healthy." Ahh, those resolutions; they're fun to make but ever so much more fun to break. Soon the holidays are over and it's back to reality. Six months down the road, Spring is in full swing and those resolutions get quietly re-made-reinforced, and re-tooled for the reality of our lives. It can be frustrating, right?

So, this year, rather than resolve to trim down or wear myself out on the gym elliptical machine, I decided to set more realistic goals. See, I still want need to eat chocolate, even tho I know I shouldn't. So I knew I had to strike a bargain with myself, but one that I could live with: 1). I get chocolate if I eat a salad. 2). I get chocolate if I go for a walk. Okay, well, not quite that simplistic, but those are the basics of my goal reaching plan. I'm happy with it so far.

And I'm also ecstatically happy about this cucumber salad. It's versatile, robust, colorful, and light. Just looking at it makes me happy! It's also easy to make, and the ingredients are readily available this time of year. Even better if you can pull them out of your own, or a generous friend's garden. I like to serve this with seafood such as shrimp, lightly steamed in a light summer ale. But it's a very versatile dish and can easily stand on its own.

Country Style Greek Salad

Feeds 4, as a main meal, double that number as a side.

  • 1 large seedless cucumber (sometimes called an "English" cucumber), or two medium cucumbers, seeded
  • 1 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 half of a medium red onion, sliced thin and chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 half each of a medium green and red bell pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2/3 to 3/4 cup seedless Kalamata olives, sliced in half lengthwise (do not used canned olives)
  • 8 oz good quality feta cheese. Use the solid cake, not the pre-crumbled kind, and cut into roughly half inch cubes or slightly smaller
  • Basic Greek vinaigrette (recipe follows)
  • At least a 1/2 cup well-aged Romano cheese, shaved thin
  • Dill sprig (optional)


Zebra peel the cucumber then quarter it, lengthwise. Cut all four lengths into bite-sized pieces, approximately 1/2 inch long. Toss with the tomatoes, onion, green and red bell pepper, and olives. Gently fold in the feta cheese. A few minutes before serving, pour the vinaigrette over the salad and toss gently to incorporate. Toss half the Romano into the salad, and sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top. Add the dill sprig if using. You should have about half of the vinaigrette leftover to serve at the table, in case your diners desire a little extra cheesy oomph with their salad.

Basic Greek Vinaigrette

Mix together 3/4 cup olive oil and 1 cup red wine vinegar. Add 1-1/2 teaspoons whole grain Dijon mustard, two tablespoons grated Romano cheese, the juice of a half lemon, 1 tablespoon dill weed, 1 garlic clove, mashed in a garlic press (use more if you like it stronger), and a half teaspoon each of basil and oregano. Add a half teaspoon each of salt and pepper and whisk quickly with a fork or in a cruet.

If you prefer a creamier style Greek dressing, lightly emulsify the oil and vinegar together, using an immersion blender, and adding the remaining ingredients one at a time while aerating.

It's best to finish this salad up by the second or, at most, the third day. Luckily, it has transformative powers: Add some chopped sun-dried tomatoes and spoon it into an Italian style hoagie smeared with garlic or red pepper aoli. Or, add it to leftover cold pasta with a little chopped ham or chicken. You could also mix it with a can of white cannelloni or chick peas, or serve it with tabouli and/or whole grain rice, combined with seasoned shredded beef on top of a crisped corn tortilla shell...the possibilities are endless, and I would love to hear what your imaginations come up with!

Friday, June 28, 2013

And I will make cheese

If you've ever been somewhere and felt, without doubt or reservation, an immediate, almost shocking sense of belonging, a sort of kinship usually reserved for siblings, best friends, and true loves, then by jove, you get me. There are those places you and I always want to go back to, right? These points on the map that are so much more than...points on a map. It's memories of a place and time and the people who made it special. I find myself always wanting to go back to my Nana's house in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Her house was a one-and-a-half-story custom-designed home, built by my grandfather who died before I was born. The house sat low at the end of a curving driveway, surrounded by forests and fields on all sides, and was aptly named Woods Edge. 

But that's one of those bittersweet memories. Nana's house is gone now, and no amount of Christmas dinners and summertime family gatherings on the back porch; or of me, hammering away rude little tunes on the music room's piano, will conjure up my Nana's house, because it's no longer there. What's in it's place is a development of townhomes, something out of A Stitch in Time, where all the doors are on one side, all the lawns neatly trimmed on the other, the driveways from an aerial view must look like the spokes on a comb.

Thankfully, there are other places I cherish from my childhood...

Someday I might be given the opportunity to travel to Europe on one of those six-week tours you dream about, but I would shake my head and say thank you very much, but no, if it meant I couldn't take my (almost) yearly trip to Rehoboth Beach. Situated about halfway down the eastern arm of Delaware, Rehoboth was the place I learned to negotiate waves by going thru them, and later, when I could go out further, I did a fine job of floating along on top of the water where each wave was just a swell, before it could crest and crash onto the surf, before being sucked back into itself, groaning like an old man struggling up from his easy chair.

Rehoboth Beach is special because it's the place where I learned it was ok to be a kid--to get cotton candy stuck to the sole of my shoe and my shoe stuck to the boardwalk as droves of people past by. We'd rent a cottage, or stay in one of the cottages owned by cousins. There were two, now there is just one. Ah, but what can one do? Oleta Adams said it best when she sang the words: Everything must change, nothing stays the same, the young become the old, and mysteries do unfold...

London is another place I'd like to revisit. Work took me to this up-all-night city ten years ago. It was busting at the seems with frenetic energy and I loved it. Loved every second of it, even if I was the "Ugly American." My mom's British, and I had visited as a toddler and again when I was 17, spending six weeks with my mom's family in Harrogate, which, being situated in North Yorkshire as it is, isn't exactly London, but close enough for this Yank.

As I'm getting older, I am beginning to think of places where I'd like to relocate, and later retire...well, okay, thirty- some years from now! But I hope that I can do so while I'm still young enough to enjoy it. And, if I do, I think I'd like to be somewhere close to a beach, or any body of water, really. I sometimes like to peruse those "living" magazines Coastal Living and Cottage Living being two, and dream about the places in the pictures. I found the image above on the Web, and it about sums it up. I want to wake up with the ocean on one side and chickens laying eggs in a chicken coop on the other...maybe a dairy cow, just so I can say I'm sort of a farmer--a lady farmer--you know? Maybe a horse snoozing in its paddock. Each morning I will wake up early, just before the sun spills over the horizon, go out in my jammies and slippered feet to collect a couple of eggs, milk old Bessie, and brush Fritz the horse. Then it's back to my little cottage by the sea, with its just-big-enough-for-two--kitchen, a perpetually whistling tea pot, and some cats, and a dog or three, languidly stretched out in the least convenient places. I'll make breakfast. Then later in the day I'll check on the cheese I made the night before. That's it, I want to make cheese and eat eggs when I retire. Lots of both. Who doesn't like eggs and cheese?

     This picture was taken on the Maine coast by someone with really good low-light skills (which means: not by me).

     If you want an easy recipe for cheese, here's one for Paneer that you can fold into your favorite Indian recipe (I use it in all my kormas, masala's and in Palak Paneer--pureed spinach with cheese), or add herbs to for a great spreadable cheese for crackers or fruit.

Recipe for Paneer (Indian cottage cheese)

1 litre of whole milk (the creamier, the better; but you can substitute low-fat milk if you prefer.)
4 Tbsps freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice

1. In a medium, heavy-bottomed pot, heat milk to the point just before boiling, but do not allow to boil. Turn off the heat and remove pot from burner. Add the juice one teaspoon at a time, stirring after each addition. The milk will begin to separate. Stop adding juice once the greenish-watery whey juices have separated from the milk.

2. Allow to cool for a half hour, or until cool enough to be handled.

3. Place a colander lined with cheese over a pot so that you can strain the cheese. Be sure to allow the cloth to overhang the edges of the colander, as you will be tying-off the cloth to hang the cheese for drying in the next step.

4. Once you have strained all of the whey from the curd, tie up the cheese into a bundle and hang it from your sink's faucet, or any convenient hanging place. Reserve the whey for soup stock, or for making ricotta cheese.

5. Gently squeeze the bundle to help extract all of the whey and form a tight ball (as if you were making buffalo mozzerella balls). The more you squeeze, the firmer your cheese will be. 6. When most of the liquid has drained into the pot, untie the ball of cheese and flatten it, still inside the cheese cloth, and shape it into a square. 7. Place the bundle between two pieces of plastic wrap. Lay a heavy pot over top of the the cheese and leave it like that for an hour. 8. Next, set the bundle in a pot and cover it with ice cold water for one or two hours. This step is optional. Cut the cheese into cubes and add to your favorite Indian dish; like Palak Paneer (pictured below, pre-cheese and pre-puree.Try saying that three times fast!)