26 May, 2010

dinner party

My husband and I joined two friends for dinner the other night, and it was so lovely and delicious that I wanted to share some pictures with you. I always enjoy spending time with these people immensely and feel refreshed and inspired whenever I leave Crystal's beautiful home. When we planned the get-together she suggested we make pasta. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she meant actually making pasta by hand. I had never done this before. It was a lot of fun and the food was fantastic. I can't quite offer you a taste, but I do hope you enjoy the photos.

The red noodles are colored with beets.

We also pressed some with basil,
and made ravioli with smoked mozzarella and sauteed turnip greens,

and walnut gorgonzola sauce.

The table set, with a salad made entirely from vegetables out of Crystal's garden.

The final plate: fettuccine, ravioli, walnut gorgonzola sauce, pesto, and a vegetarian meatball with tomato sauce!

We concluded with an apricot-raspberry tart,

a chocolate "mosaic pie", made from a recipe my friend brought back from Turkey,

and classical guitar (with a little jazz and the Beatles thrown in for good measure).

22 May, 2010

a delightful threesome

Perhaps my favorite flavor combination is dark chocolate, ginger, and walnut. My friend Crystal turned me on to this threesome and it has been my go-to ever since. When I have an unidentifiable craving or want something sweet after dinner I can always count on this to satisfy: I just take one small square of very dark chocolate, one walnut half and a cube of crystallized ginger, and pop it all in my mouth. The flavors collide and then blend into one another. The walnut balances the spiciness of the ginger, the bitterness of the chocolate counteracts the ginger's sweetness, and the combination of chewy, crunchy, and smooth textures are pure bliss. I have a container that used to hold three varieties of tea leaves and now I use it to keep these three easily at hand. Unfortunately, I'm almost out of my stash of crystallized ginger. All I seem to be able to find around here is coated in sugar and it's a bit too much for me. When I was in Berlin I found the perfect crystallized ginger (sans all the extra sugar) at the neighborhood farmer's market and bought two kilograms of it.

A while back I saw this recipe for ginger jam and thought I would give it a try. It was my first time to make any sort of jam or marmalade, and it was definitely worth the effort. Last week at a picnic we enjoyed it on everything from bread and goat cheese, to a wrap with herby hummus and fresh sprouts, to chocolate walnut scones. I am pretty excited to share the recipe for these scones with you. I've been wanting to try coming up with my own scones for a while now, and I will definitely continue exploring this cookie.

I fell in love with scones in Paris at a bakery called Bread and Roses. In the one short week I spent in Paris last summer with my husband and mother-in-law, I really learned how to enjoy foods that prior to that time seemed overly-indulgent. Like putting butter on bread or eating a small scoop of gelato every day. This bakery is so beautiful and everything we tasted was delicious. I wanted to taste everything! One morning my husband and I went for breakfast and had cappuccinos and scones, served with jam, freshly-whipped cream, and fresh butter. It was heavenly.

Since then I have been baking scones from time-to-time, perhaps just to let myself reminisce. My favorite recipes have come from Orangette - she has several that are absolutely fantastic. All these things added up: my favorite trio of flavors, my homemade ginger jam, my love of scones, and I decided it was time to try my hand at a my own recipe. Because I knew I would be eating these with the jam and whipped cream, I wanted something hearty and not too sweet, so I used whole wheat flour and a pretty small amount of sugar. Maybe you could change that up a bit if you want a scone that is sufficient in itself.

Chocolate Walnut Scone Recipe:
1 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c. cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. butter, cut into small cubes
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 egg
seeds from one vanilla bean or 2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. chocolate chips
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400° F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl combine flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt with a fork until everything is very well blended (or sift).
Work the butter into the dry ingredients with your hands so that there are no large chunks and it is the texture of a moist, grainy sand.
Stir in the sugar.
In a small bowl beat the vanilla, cream and egg together with fork.
Pour the moist ingredients into the dry and stir to just barely incorporate.
Fold in the chocolate chips and walnuts, being careful not to over-handle.
Form the dough into a rough ball with your hands. Place it on a floured surface, flatten to about one inch, and cut into 8 triangles.
Place on the baking sheet and bake for about 16 minutes.

14 May, 2010

stress and breathing

I have realized recently that I often have trouble relaxing. This week I completed my ultimate final as an undergraduate. That, I think, is a good reason to celebrate and to say, "Okay. I have accomplished something. I should now relax for a little while." But that is not how it happened. In fact, before I even took the last final I began feeling anxious about the next thing on my to-do list. I am now noticing that this is a recurring pattern. Maybe it is a pattern of yours also.

Before I finish one project I start thinking about the next one, so that by the time I finish the first I am so mentally involved in the second that the former doesn't even seem like much of an accomplishment. It was just something I had to do to get to where I am now. This is true even with major life events. Why do we have this tendency to let free-floating anxiety stop us from recognizing the value of our accomplishments? When you consider the pace of our lives, maybe this question is not so hard to answer.

When I studied in Spain we took a siesta everyday. Everybody did. Really. There was a pause in the day to go see your family at home, to meet a friend in the park, to take a nap. The whole schedule is different to accommodate for this break from work and from the heat of the afternoon. It just means that the work day is pushed a couple hours later. The evening meal is also pushed a couple hours later. But the beautiful thing about that is that when you do finally sit down to the dinner table you know that it means you are done for the day. Since you don't eat until 10 p.m. there really is no question of getting back to studying or paying the bills or cleaning the house. It will be time for bed. So you can just enjoy your food and a glass of wine, and really have a conversation with your loved ones without feeling rushed to finish eating and get back to work. I know studies show that not eating late in the evening is better for your metabolism, but I think the relaxation encouraged by this schedule must have some serious benefits.

Although eating a very late dinner has not been a lasting habit for me I have tried to hold onto some of those things that I observed and experienced while in Spain. Both during the siesta and during dinner I felt like I was really taking a break from the day. I think we should take a daily break. It doesn't have to be long and it doesn't mean that you are not working hard enough. It just means taking a few minutes to stop what you are doing, take notice of your emotions and physical feelings - if you are tired, if you have been squinting your eyes at the computer all day, or if your body is aching from physical activity. Maybe you can take ten minutes to talk to a friend (without mentioning how busy you are). Maybe you can take thirty and enjoy every, single, simple, tasty bite of your lunch. 

Now, if you don't mind a quick little bit of biology, I would like to tell you why this is so important:

Our central nervous system has two main components, the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest & digest).  These two are constantly in flux and when we get stressed because we are sick, get injured, are running away from danger, or are annoyed by the people around us or worried about getting everything done, the sympathetic system tends to overpower the parasympathetic. When the cause of this is psychological/social it's bad news for our heart because it starts beating faster, which wears on our blood vessels. Again, this is great when we have to fight infection or engage in strenuous physical activity - but when we don't it just causes our bodies to wear out more quickly.

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are always active and it just so happens that when we exhale the parasympathetic system automatically kicks it up a notch. One way that it does this is by lowering our heart rate. Your heart automatically beats more slowly when you exhale than when you inhale. Every time you do it. This is one reason prayer and meditation are so effective. So...

The next time you feel anxious and think your body might be working over-time, take 2 or 3 minutes just to sit quietly and breathe deeply. Inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6. Try to think only about your breath, not everything else going on around you. This should help to clear your mind and relax your heart.

06 May, 2010

my herb garden

Several friends have recently asked me for tips on growing their own herbs. Now, to be honest I'm not quite sure how this happened. I am no gardener. In fact, I've killed plenty of plants. Nevertheless, I've managed to keep a nice little herb garden in my window sill. I've learned the hard way that once you over-water a plant it is hard to keep it from dying. For this reason, I never use pots that do not have a hole in the bottom to let the extra water leak out. I've also learned to let the soil get a little bit dry between waterings. It is really neat to see a plant looking pitiful and dry in the morning, water it, and return in the afternoon to find it full of life and energy.

If you are thinking of starting your own herb garden start with the herbs that are best-suited to your style of cooking and eating. When you are ready to use them trim the longest sprigs down to a point where they still have a few leaves on them - they need those chlorophyll factories. You can also just pick off a few leaves at random whenever you want, but they do need the occasional trimming to keep from getting too scraggly. It really is quite easy and always being able to cook with fresh herbs is incredibly rewarding.

You can even put a combination of plants in the same pot. For example, I have one grouping of thyme, marjoram, and oregano; and another of lavender, oregano, and thyme (they're actually still in a shoe box). All-in-all I have two kinds of thyme, two kinds of oregano, marjoram, cinnamon basil, lavender, and orange mint. I also frequently take a few sprigs from the rosemary plants up on campus. With all of that I hardly ever buy any herbs other than parsley, and I never cook with dried herbs (the flavor just doesn't compare for most dishes).

Aside from using the herbs in any recipe that calls for them, here are a few other super-quick ideas:
  • chop and add to roasted or sauteed vegetables
  • sprinkle on any cooked meat
  • add to scrambled eggs or an omelette at the end of cooking
  • throw into a pasta dish at the end
  • add whole leaves to a salad for the occasional extra kick of flavor
  • add mint leaves to a glass of tea or juice
Eating fresh herbs also comes with health benefits. While there is  a lot of variation from one plant to the next, generally speaking they have very high concentration of antioxidants and other compounds that help to reduce inflammation and have anti-bacterial properties.

A few weeks ago I realized that everything had grown quite a lot and needed a major trimming. I thought of making a pesto but it turned out to be more of a paste. Because I had such a mixture and they all had small leaves I didn't think I would be able to achieve the traditional texture of pesto. But this paste is delicious - added to b├ęchamel sauce and poured over pasta, thinned out with olive oil and drizzled on top of an omelette, and spread thinly on good bread or toast.

Herb Paste Recipe:
1 cup of fresh herbs (leaves only, well-rinsed and dried)
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup walnuts
2 1/2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 T water
pinch salt

In a food processor, pulse the clove of garlic first to make sure that you don't end up with any giant chunks.
Add the herbs and walnuts and pulse until everything is broken up.
Add the lemon juice and water and let the food processor run until they are well-combined.
Stream in the olive oil while processing, adding more or less depending on your preference.
Add a pinch of salt, or leave it out if you prefer.
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