Thursday, May 31, 2012

Strawberries & Not-So-Sour Cream

On occasion we'll have an after-dinner dessert... though it's usually while dining out... and most often one where four or more spoons have cleaned the plate.

Unless I'm baking for a special reason, have family or guests staying with us, or know I can "gift" three quarters of a batch of cookies, I don't make a lot of sweets. And, other than a few trusted bars of dark chocolate that can always be found in our fridge, we don't have any boxed cookies or candies stashed away in our pantry.

What we do always seem to have this time of year, and especially through the summer, are berries. So when the urge for something sweet hits, it's usually this old standby that we turn to.

My childhood version of this treat (and one that I continued well into our first years of marriage) was simply ripe berries dolloped with some sour cream and dusted with granulated sugar. No measuring. No prep bowls. We ate it in the same bowl it was mixed in... and ate it with the same spoon that did the mixing. A few good turns, a taste, and adjustments were made... more sour cream, sugar, or both. By the time you finished mixing it all up the whole concoction would be run through with the vibrant, sweet juice of the cut berries... and light pink in hue. I think I loved that color as much as I loved the treat.

Over the years, as I came to appreciate the beauty of berries as much as their flavor, the cream matured to a topping... and whether due to nostalgia or not, efforts to replace the sour cream with yogurt or mascarpone, though good, just aren't the same.

Today, it's still a simple mix of sour cream and sugar... though now with a bit of vanilla extract and orange zest added in. It still gets the same good turns of a spoon, until smooth and creamy in consistency. It still gets tasted and adjusted, as necessary. And it's still enjoyed as much as it was years ago... only now it's dolloped over or in between the berries... and not through to a hue.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Potato, Asparagus & Gruyére Cheese Frittata with Fresh Ribbons of Zucchini Salad

I talk to each of our girls most every day. And though our topics of conversation vary from one day to the next... both in length and scope... they always seem to be peppered with one thing: some mention of food.

Oftentimes, our food discussions can sound more like a bad standup act or an episode of Chopped than anything else...

What can you do with a can of beans, one zucchini, some wilting kale, and a few asparagus spears that have seen better days?

What's the quickest thing you can think of to make for dinner... I'm at the store right now?

While there's no guarantee they'll take my advice, I always attempt to offer something up. And a frittata is a great, all-around go-to meal for pretty much any challenge... assuming you have some eggs.

A lot of people shy away from frittatas (egg pancakes, tortas, whatever you want to call them) because recipes often call for half a dozen eggs (or more) and, in the case of a Spanish torta, a whole heap of potatoes. This isn't particularly conducive if you are cooking for just one or two. However, a good frittata is really just a function of selecting the right size pan. A small, six-inch skillet, a couple of eggs, and a single potato can make a great meal. Or... you can feed a whole troop with a large skillet, a bunch of eggs, and several taters. It's a quick meal either route you go.

Best of all, you can chop and drop most anything you want into the mix... which makes this a great way to clean out the fridge.

For this meal, it's a quick dinner for two (or one, with leftovers)... a thin, potato-asparagus-gruyére cheese frittata with a fresh zucchini salad alongside.

A great, go-to dinner... particularly perfect if you want to use up that last bit of asparagus... or find yourself wandering the aisles after work, tired, hungry and in need of a plan... just saying.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Good Veggie Burger...

There's something about the "quest" for a great recipe that can become more about the journey (and what you learn along the way) than the goal. For some it's a search for the perfect chicken soup or chocolate cake... I think I've had both. For me, of late, it's all about the veggie burger.

I've had a few really great veggie burgers while dining out. The best, to date, was a mushroom-nut burger I had at Gruner in Portland a few months ago. It had great flavor and, though it didn't exactly have the texture of a beef burger, it held together nicely and had just enough crunch to pass what I call the "bite" test... that little bit of crunch that mimics a true burger... and not a mushy mash. A lot of veggie burgers end up fairly mush-like. And many of the ones that aren't are often deep fried (a recent discovery I made about a burger I had long favored... and now know why). Others have so much binder in them... eggs, flour, bread... that they kind of lose their appeal as a burger that, well, calls itself "veggie."

I've definitely produced a few veggie burgers from my own kitchen as well. My first was a black-bean burger that I spied years ago in one of my many cooking magazines. It was fairly good on the flavor front and held together nicely... but sorely lacked in texture (bite). It was about as soft and mushy as you could get... completely bailing on its burger shape with the very first nibble. Others have been better in flavor, or better in texture, but none have curtailed my quest.

Given my recent 30-day "no grains" diet, this quest has been ever the more challenged.

I'm thinking a lot of the best recipes (the ones that pretty much guarantee a non-mushy center, a crunchy outer layer, and great flavor) use some grains to bind them and provide a bit of bite. A recipe I tested just prior to this new one, using french green lentils and sliced almonds, was great from a flavor perspective but far too mushy. After making some adjustments, a bit of mashed potato as a binder instead of egg, I did achieve a burger that held together better but didn't have any bite.

So... I googled for the "best veggie burger" and found what sounds like it could be a great burger... on this lovely site. The problem is it calls for a bit of a bread/grain filler... which I'm currently avoiding. So... while I opted out of all the grain additions, I did take away a few great suggestions. Namely, the use of a "flax egg" as a binder. Basically it's just a bit of ground flax mixed with warm water... a genius idea!!! Left to sit for just ten minutes or so, this mixture thickens up and gets "eggy" in consistency. I also brought black beans back into the fold... only mashed them slightly instead of processing or puréeing them. And, I substituted my french green lentils with black lentils, cooked to an "al dente" consistency to achieve the bite that a great long-grain rice or farro might offer. Then, of course, there are the veggies and flavor enhancers... parsley, scallions, garlic, carrot. And... nuts!! I think the generous use of nuts (almonds and sunflower seeds, lightly toasted and chopped, as this googled recipe suggests) provide a level of crunch and nutrition you want with these burgers.

Sautéed over a medium high heat in olive oil, these burgers get a bit of a crisp on them. While they might want to pull apart a little on the turn over... probably where a bread addition might help... they easily come back together with a little encouragement and, once seared on the second side, behave nicely as a whole... served on a bun with all the traditional fixings, or sans the bun with all the fixings over greens. Though they aren't entirely crisp, they do offer enough of a bite and yummy flavor to satisfy... certainly a quest worth the journey... or, perhaps, a journey worth the quest. Either way, they're good.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Workshop with Helene Dujardin & Clare Barboza...

This past weekend I was lucky enough to snag a spot in a food styling and photography workshop hosted by Helene Dujardin and Clare Barboza, two photographers I have come to greatly admire and... now... feel ever so grateful to have met. The experience was about as akin to playing in a sandbox... with some really fun playmates and some really great toys... as one can get.

In a nutshell, eleven women from all parts of the US and Peru (!), and from all walks of life, descended on a beach house on the Isle of Palms just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and quickly discovered that they had one common denominator that could transcend all possible differences... a love of food and how it can be presented. And under the expert tutelage of Helene and Clare, we couldn't get enough of it. From morning until night, it was all about camera settings, lighting, composition, story telling, props (oh... the beautiful props!)... and food, food, food. Here is a bit of what I came away with...

Though the workshop was intense (especially for a rookie, like me), the setting was so relaxed and lovely, our instructors so very patient and experienced, and the company of women so equally generous in sharing what they know, that the whirlwind of activity and challenge was nothing short of amazing.

As much as I love cooking and chronicling recipes, I've come to realize that I love the images as well (and all that goes into a good image). I could easily sit amongst the pages of Food & Wine, Saveur, Donna Hay... and a mountain of other magazines and cookbooks... completely satiated by the amazing visuals.

And this weekend was all about the visual... styling and shooting a variety of images from breakfast to dessert, market to restaurant, "ugly" food to picnic fare... what a blast it was playing with food, working with props, styling images, and chatting with others doing the same.

While my intent among these pages has always been food and flavor... and the chronicling of recipes for my daughters... I am ever so grateful for the insights of both Helene and Clare. Due to their abundant generosity and kind (and fun!) spirit, we all came away feeling ever so thankful for their knowledge and instruction... in a sandbox, on an isle, outside of Charleston...