December 30, 2009

Writing about Cooking

For Christmas I received Mastering the Art of French Cooking , an absolute classic that believe it or not, was not already a part of my extensive cookbook library. I’d just finished reading Julie and Julia AND watched the movie a few days before Christmas...  the combination of delicious and comforting food, great writing and a pretty good movie inspired me.
There is such a definite, almost spiritual connection people have with food. For the last 8 years I’ve interviewed students and worked with cooks and chef instructors, and they all tell me the same thing: They’ve known they love to cook since they were children. Their most vivid memories are of being in the kitchen with their grandmother, their aunt, mother or father.  The memories, the tastes, smells and the warmth and love that food represented to them as a child has formed them into who they are today. Cooking food for people is an art form.  It makes some of us lose track of time and can light us up from the inside, like you've been plugged in and have an electric current running through your veins while  you chop, sauté, stir ,taste and create a meal. Almost everyone has stories that connect them to their past, to their family, friends and celebrations throughout life. Cooking for most of the people I know is a calling; their bliss, an artistic outlet, and their passion. It’s what makes their life richer, and it’s the one thing that makes them feel better no matter what else is going on.

I completely realize there are an impressive number of blogs now about recipes and food, restaurants, cook books and parties. But I think what is compelling me to toss my hat in the ring is the fact that I myself LOVE stories about food. Like Water for Chocolate still resonates with me and helped solidify my appreciation of the power of food and good literature. The best memories and some of the most important events in our lives revolve around food. People fall in love over food. We celebrate milestones like weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and job promotions with special dishes. I’ve always liked reading articles or books about what happened in someone’s life and what they ate, in a way, it tells you so much about a person and adds a colorful detail to their life story.

I imagine my blog to be brimming with recipes and pictures of things I make, great food I’ve eaten at restaurants.  I'll feature food that has been and made by my family and the chef’s who are friends. But also, this blog should tell stories. Good stories, hopefully. My goal is to record my own life/food experiences.  In the process, perhaps I'll trigger something, perhaps others will remember about the importance of food and how a good recipe, a fabulous glass of wine or a decadent dessert can enrich life.

Maybe, if everything comes along as planned, this blog can help connect the dots between delicious food, experiences, love, family, friends and celebrating The Moment of the Everyday.

Let's give it a go.

December 29, 2009

Easy Chili for a Cold Winter Night

Today is a definite sweater and mitten’s kind of day. Our car was iced over when we left for work and I couldn’t have been happier about having the luxury of a seat warmer to keep me from shivering on our short drive into the Culinary School. My mind is already racing forward to the end of the day to figure out something warm and comforting to make for dinner.

My friend Holly gave me a recipe much like this many years ago when Kristen and I went to her house for lunch. I’ve tweaked it a bit. You can sauté the main ingredients a little in the morning then keep the concoction simmering slowly in a Crockpot while you’re away. The smell of a spicy hearty chili is the perfect ‘welcome home’ on a cold evening after a day of work. It’s a little thicker than most and has a gorgeous range of color because of the rather untraditional addition of added veggies.

1 lb. ground turkey breast or 1 package ground soy-protein n (Mexican style is available in the deli section at New Seasons)

A few spoonfuls of olive oil (to sauté the peppers, onion and carrots in)

1 chopped sweet onion

1 chopped red or green pepper

2 or 3 fresh carrots chopped

2  cans of chopped tomatoes

1 small can of tomato paste

2 cans of black beans, drained

1 can of corn, drained

1 can of large black olives, drained

Fresh garlic (about 3 cloves chopped)

Smoked Paprika (or chili powder if you don’t have Smoked Paprika) about ½ tsp.

A dash of red pepper flakes, about ½ tsp, or according to how much heat you like

Salt and pepper to taste

Simply brown turkey in a large Dutch oven while you chop the onion, bell pepper and carrots. Toss into the pan with the browned meat and cook until slightly soft. (if you want to go completely vegetarian, simply sauté the veggies on their own) Add the canned tomatoes and tomato paste, drained black beans, and corn, olives and bring to a light boil. Allow to boil gently for about 5 minutes then turn the heat down to a simmer. Add in chopped garlic, smoked paprika, the red pepper flakes and salt to taste. Allow to simmer for about 20 minutes or set on low in the slow cooker for several hours. Just before serving garnish with freshly chopped cilantro and shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese. (a dollop of sour cream adds a little cool creaminess to the spicy warm stew-like consistency)

Also, this dish tastes best with a side of warm golden corn bread with honey and butter drizzled over the top and Tecate Mexican beer with a wedge of lime. 

December 28, 2009

Pears in Warm Honey and Pine Nut Caramel with Soft Sweet Cheese

I'm already fantasizing about New Years Eve night. 

Whether we have company or not, I'm planning a gorgeous dinner and a beautiful dessert with lot's of lovely sparkling wine to follow it.  In my ideal plan, the whole house is lit only with the lights from the Christmas tree and white votive candles strategically placed all over the house and  I'd be suave, wearing a glamorous lipstick-red satin cocktail dress and cool black suede pumps.  (truth be told, most likely I'll be cooking to the last minute and wearing a track suit.  Well, maybe not a track suit)
I'm not exactly sure what it is, but there is something incredibly romantic about New Years Eve.  Maybe it's the fact that the night almost always includes delicious food, generous amounts of sparkling wine, candlelight and midnight kisses.  
It's sort of a farewell to the Holidays and a definite look backwards at the year.  For me it's about reflection and celebration.

I've found the perfect dessert.  It's romantic, delicious, not too heavy or sweet and most importantly, super easy. A snap to make.
I'll probably even get it right after a glass of wine or two Thursday night. 

1/2 stick of unsalted butter
3 firm but ripe Bosc pears or other pears, halved lengthwise and cored
3 1/2 tablespoons mild honey (such as orange blossom or blackberry)
4 ounces artisanal cheese sliced or crumbled at room temperature
*(Humboldt Fog is to die for! It tastes like butter & cream with a subtle tangy flavor.  You can find it at Whole Foods, it looks like a pretty little snow white spongy-cake) 
3 tablespoons pine nuts
Pinch of flaked sea salt

Melt unsalted butter in a skillet  or dutch oven over medium-high heat until just beginning to brown. Toss in the prepared pear halves, cut side down. Drizzle honey over pears and swirl the pan slightly to blend butter with the honey. Reduce heat to medium.  Cover and cook until pears are tender when pierced with a fork, swirling skillet occasionally and adding a few tablespoons water to skillet if caramel sauce turns deep amber before pears are tender. (about 12 minutes)

Transfer honey gilded pears to a serving platter and top them with the cheese. Return skillet with caramel sauce to medium-high heat, then add the pine nuts to skillet and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Cook until sauce in skillet is brown and bubbling, about 2 more minutes. Spoon sauce over pears and serve with a crisp white wine.

I highly recommend a little Diana Krall to go with this recipe.  Prepare to make people swoon.

December 26, 2009

The day after Christmas is always somewhat of a let down but at the same time, a reprieve.

I woke up this morning around 5 and as hard as I tried, I just couldn't go back to sleep.  I crept out of bed, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and headed to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.  New Years resolutions loom ahead of me and include things like eating healthier and less butter, sugar and caffeine and being more athletic and out-doorsy, and whatever else that sort of lifestyle entails.  I've gathered the "Ultra- Metabolism" and "The Eight Day Body Makeover" cookbooks off the shelf in the kitchen and blown the dust off the covers.  After a thoroughly satisfying traditional Christmas dinner last night and still under the influence of celabratory wine, I painstakingly wrote down a shopping list that includes things like fresh ginger, tumuric, green tea, stevia and salmon to help me prepare for Sunday shopping and my new regime.  I have to admit, this year especially I've eaten my fair share of buttery creamy delightful foods.  It's sadly beginning to show on my waistline and I've come to the reluctant realization that although I'd never imagine myself a weight-watchers candidate, I must curb my enthusiasm for the more decadent foods.  I spent my morning pouring through my cookbooks and ancient editions of Cooking Light and created a game plan:  Fresh healthy low fat, (but some GOOD fat, like avocado, olive oil, fish oil, and plenty of nuts and seeds) flavorful spice laden whole organic ingredients, at least 3 cups of green tea each day and a minimal dosage of dark chocolate topped off with as many walks in the fresh air I can squeeze in.  This is my plan.  This is my resolution for 2010 and I have to say, for as fired up as I was about being a leaner foodie, it only lasted half the day.

My husband invited me for a walk on Mt. Tabor.  We packed up the backpack with the laptop, my camera and his new Flip and set off bundled up in extra layers, scarves and gloves to ward off the brisk chill.  Our walk definitely fit the bill as far as kicking off my plan for the new year, but things quickly went south from a healthy eating perspective as we contemplated where to go to write and relax for the evening.  We were just up the street from the Horse Brass Pub and decided to duck in for a beer to reward ourselves for the trek.
Once you enter the darkened pub you feel immediately transported to England.  The menu features an amazing assortment of local and rarer brands of beer on tap, bangers and mash and best of all, a delightful appetizer of melted brie in a dish with a head of roasted garlic, sour green apple slices and chunks of toasted sour dough.   The bar was filled with locals, most of them laughing drinking, playing darts and enjoying the cold day indoors with friends and heavy delicious comfort foods.

It was a perfect "Last Meal".  Tomorrow is another day.

December 24, 2009

Heavenly Fudge

The smell of peppermint, molasses and chocolate in the winter takes me back.
Every year at Christmas my mother bakes Holiday cookies and candies.  Once I'm in her kitchen, no matter my age, suddenly I become 10 years old again.  This particular recipe was my mom's "fool proof" go-to recipe passed down to her by my grandmother Gi Gi.  Besides being sinfully decadent, it works wonders as a de-ager ~ better than botox, better than pilates and night cream, fudge has the power to make a woman transcend time landing directly in that place during youth where all was right with world.  Dark creamy chocolate fixes all sorts of ailments and makes my heart pound faster every time I smell the rich bittersweet smell wafting through my house the night before Christmas.  And the clincher is it only takes about 20 minutes.  Divine.

I've changed the recipe a bit, I've skipped the Tolhouse classic yellow bag of semisweet  morsels and replaced them with chunks of lovely 65% cocoa chocolate bars. (the Belgian dark chocolate candy bars at Trader Joe's are to die for, not too expensive and do the trick nicely)   To update it just a little bit more, I've added a sprinkle of flaked sea salt from The Meadow. Ahhhh, 'The Meadow'.  A lovely little shop on Mississippi Street in NE that features entire walls covered floor to ceiling with all the best salts, chocolate and wines you can imagine. (I'm sure to feature that gem in a future post)  

So here's my grandmothers recipe, luxurious, comforting and tempting all at once.  The richness of the chocolate and the solid creamy texture will take you back to childhood too.

2 cups roughly chopped dark chocolate
1 can sweetened condensed milk
pinch of sea salt
1 and 1/2 tsp pure vanilla

In the top of a double boiler or a smaller pan balanced carefully over a larger pan of boiling water, melt the chocolate stirring it occasionally until gently melted.  Remove from stove top and stir in warmed sweetened condensed milk, salt and vanilla.  Stir only until smooth.  Turn onto parchment paper that lines an 8" square pan and spread evenly.  Dab with flaked Sea Salt if desired.  Refrigerate about 2 hours or until firm.  Turn candy out and peel off paper then cut and store in airtight container.

December 23, 2009

Heart of the Home

"My kitchen is a mystical place, a kind of temple for me. It is a place where the surfaces seem to have significance, where the sounds and odors carry meaning that transfers from the past and bridges to the future."  Pearl Bailey 

This house I live in has a mystique, a quiet soul that you can almost feel when you walk in the door.  Kelly told me one day that when she walks in she feels immediately comfortable, somehow, immediately at home.  I'm not sure if it's the color of the paint on the walls, the way the couch is centered in the living room or the fact that we've had some of our best conversations and parties here, but there is a definite quality about our home that makes you feel like it's an old friend.  

Kevin and I bought the house over 5 years ago and learned the history of it, which included facts about the 3 generations of family that built and lived here, the "Ezetta's".  Supposedly, Charlie Ezetta sailed on a ship from Italy and set to work immediately building this house for his wife and one for his cousin, right next door. (Gayle lives there now)  Long, whole pieces of fir were brought in through the windows and the floors in the kitchen and bedrooms were sanded down but originally left bare.  There are beautiful built in book cases and gorgeous original moldings that surround and frame the 8 foot ceilings and windows.  Milbourne, across the street has lived in his house for over 50 years and tells stories that his parents told him about how the Ezetta family entertained constantly, inviting Italian entertainers, some of them famous musicians and singers, traveling through Portland to stay with them.  Stories of family gatherings and multiple course authentic Italian meals were the highlight and reputation of the neighborhood and our house was the heart of it... when the house was young, around 1935, there was a full kitchen in the basement as well and handmade pastas, breads and desserts were cranked out October through January at all hours of the day and night to appease the appetites of family, friends and visitors that filled the Ezetta house.

If there is such a thing as a house having a soul, I am completely convinced this particular one does.  When I'm in the kitchen I feel it, the connection to family, warmth, and the fundamental importance of making delicious food for my own family and guests.  During the holidays I often wonder if Charlie and his family are still somehow watching how their home is being opened up to a new generation, new friends and a new family.  Sometimes I wonder if they approve of how we are continuing their traditions by cooking and serving delicious heartfelt, homemade food and filling the house again with the comforting scent of sizzling olive oil, garlic and onion in the pan. I wonder if partly because of the history and memories made in this kitchen, the food is more delicious.  

Maybe the love left over in a place, the feeling of celebration and the creation of memories is sort of a magic seasoning.