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Orange spelt cake

Smell, it’s said, is our most powerful sense. Just one whiff can transport us through time and space, bringing to life those experiences archived back in the deep recesses of our memory – a departed grandparent’s cooking, an exotic meal from faraway travels, our first childhood encounter with a strange and exciting fruit. In the gray days and ice storms of winter, the smell that I find most powerful is that of fresh oranges. I’m thinking about that moment when you first break through the peel; a bright burst of citrus suddenly hits the air and color seems to come streaming in, gradually diffusing throughout the room.

Nature has a funny way of giving us what we need just at the right time. That’s exactly the joy of seasonal eating, the fact that the bounty of citrus in the U.S. overflows at the very point of the year when we desperately crave sunshine. Lately I’ve been getting my fix with a recipe for an aromatic orange spelt cake. It’s a humble little dessert (or breakfast item), almost like a cornbread, but with uplifting notes of citrus – and it also happens to be sugar and dairy-free.

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Orange Spelt Cake
Adapted from Little Upside Down Cake

1/2 cup sunflower oil
2 oranges (Minneolas are my favorite for this recipe)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 2/3 cup spelt flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
Handful of golden raisins

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a baking pan (springform, loaf, bundt – whatever tickles your fancy) with olive oil.

Roll the oranges on the countertop with the palm of your hand – it will break open some of the “juice pockets” (that’s my technical term for membranes), making it easier to squeeze all of the juice from the fruit. Zest the oranges before cutting them in half and juicing.

In a large bowl, stir the zest and juice together with the sunflower oil and maple syrup.

In a smaller bowl, combine the dry ingredients (spelt flour, ground almonds, baking soda, and salt), then fold into the wet mixture, stirring in the raisins at the end.

Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. If the top colors before the inside sets, cover with aluminum foil for the remaining time in the oven.

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Fresh for less

I haven’t been able to look at kombucha the same way again after reading Kelly Maclean’s hilarious article about shopping at Whole Foods: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-maclean/surviving-whole-foods_b_3895583.html. Many of her descriptions ring true, especially after my experience working at a food co-op – in Seattle, no less (prime territory for passive aggressive shoppers having nervous breakdowns about the way you packed their avocado in their bike bag).

Maclean definitely has a point; stores like Whole Foods can have a paralyzing effect on your bank statement, with all their promises of salvation in the guise of exorbitantly priced kale chips. But just because you’re in a natural foods store doesn’t mean you have to spend $313 on groceries. Avoid buying the $10 bag of hand-pressed artisanal crackers positioned strategically near the cash registers – eating the whole thing in attempt to cope with the trauma of having just navigated the supplements aisle will make you feel equally as miserable as downing a bag of Lay’s from Safeway.

Instead, go into grocery shopping with a game plan. Take advantage of the bulk section, and try to plan your meals as much as you can, stretching ingredients accordingly (if you know you want to roast chicken one day, make soup with the bones the next). I wrote an article for this month’s issue of the co-op’s newspaper, The Sound Consumer, about budget-friendly strategies for grocery shopping. Though some tips are specific to the co-op itself, most are applicable to any natural foods store: www.pccnaturalmarkets.com/sc/1401/pcc-budget.html

Regardless of the type of budget I’m on, my priority is always buying quality produce. Here are more tips on cost-effective ways to buy and use produce, building off some of the points raised in the article:

1. Go with what’s in season.

Fruit and vegetables that are in season generally cost less. Here’s a useful state-by-state guide to growing seasons in North America: http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?id=Seasonalfoodguides. Consider buying large quantities at a discount, if possible. During the winter, root vegetables like potatoes, squash, and onions will keep for relatively long periods of time. And in the summer, you can freeze extra fresh berries and sliced fruit for later months – when frozen at their peak, they’ll taste better than the anemic-looking versions sold during wintertime.

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2. Prioritize what to buy organic.

If you can’t afford to buy all organic produce, decide where you can get by with conventional alternatives. The Environmental Working Group has identified the fruits and vegetables that are most and least contaminated by pesticides, the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php. You can use these lists as a guide to help you determine where to splurge on organic items. It makes sense to spring for organic berries and other fruits with edible skins, rather than onions. Of course, this reasoning doesn’t address the environmental rationale behind buying organic, but if you’re a student on a strict budget it’s a good way to start.

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3. Reduce food waste. 

Once you’ve spent money on produce, make sure you store it properly. No matter how cheap something may be, it’s money lost if it goes bad before you get the chance to cook it.

Store produce in the crisper, and only wash before eating or cooking. Avoid storing fruits and vegetables together, since fruits often emit high amounts of ethylene, a gas which speeds up the ripening process, making nearby vegetables spoil faster. Keep onions, potatoes, and squash in cool, dark containers outside of the fridge, but take care to separate onions and potatoes – onions encourage potatoes to ripen more quickly. Tomatoes shouldn’t be refrigerated either. Fresh herbs like cilantro can be stored in a glass half full of water in the fridge, with an optional plastic bag on top. Or, if not used regularly, they can be divided in smaller portions and frozen in ice cube trays for later use. For a comprehensive list of how to store a variety of fruit and vegetables, visit: http://www.thekitchn.com/a-guide-to-storing-fruits-vegetables-tip-roundup-176308.

Also ensure that you’re using all the edible parts of your vegetables. Tara Duggan’s book Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable is a great resource: http://www.food52.com/blog/8140-tara-duggan-on-root-to-stalk-cooking. Use beet greens in a frittata, or sauté with sausage. Stir fry broccoli stems, or incorporate them into salads. Save the potato skins discarded from a recipe to make crispy chips with bacon. And, most importantly, make your own stocks with bits of discarded produce, like corn cobs, leek greens, fennel ends, and onion skins. Look towards Louisiana for inspiration in stretching your ingredients as far as possible: one of the essential foundations of Cajun & Creole cuisine is fish stock, made with shrimp and crawfish shells. Once you get the hang of it, scraping by with scraps will become gastronomic genius.

Share any other tips below!

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Fruit of the gods

Not much has changed since I was a youngster – you can still find me in the kitchen, though I’ve graduated from my Tupperware mixing bowl:

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One thing that has changed, however, is my love for persimmons.

Whenever my parents and I travel to Northern Italy for Christmas, persimmons are nearing the end of their season, still persistently lending their festive red-orange color to otherwise bare yards. Throughout the season, from October to December, they’re so plentiful and are literally falling off trees, dragging down branches with their plump promises of sweetness. By the time we roll into town, friends and family have already reached the limit of how many persimmons they can possibly stomach. Knowing my dad’s unfailing love for the fruit, the neighbors promptly start their procession with overflowing baskets over to my aunt and uncle’s house, relieved to be handing over the torch.

Maybe I was too distracted by the panettoni and pandoro, or maybe there just weren’t any left after my dad got to them, but for some reason I never appreciated persimmons until recently. They’re part of the shrub and tree genus Diospyros, a Greek word that translates to “divine food” or “fruit of the gods.” And rightly so –  they taste like an otherworldly mix of apricots and honey.

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Though their high price may dissuade you from buying them on a whim, persimmons are becoming more widely available in grocery stores here in the U.S. The two main varieties you might find for sale are Hachiya (above) and Fuyu. Small and squat, similar in shape to a tomato, Fuyus can be eaten just like an apple, skins included. Hachiya persimmons, on the other hand, are only edible when they become very soft, almost mushy, otherwise they’re too bitter. It’s not recommended to eat their skins, though my dad is undeterred by them – then again, he’s also known for eating the entire apple core, seeds included. I find they taste sort of cottony and opt to do without, scooping out the inside with a spoon.

Persimmons are so richly sweet that they are plenty decadent on their own, without any extra flourishes. Even so, I came across a dessert idea in this month’s Bon Appetit that piqued my interest, and it has become a new favorite:

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Persimmons with Greek Yogurt, Honey & Pistachios

Simply spoon some Greek yogurt in a bowl, top with persimmon slices and crumbled pistachios, and drizzle with honey.

The tart yogurt cuts the sweetness of the persimmon and honey beautifully, and the pistachios chime in with an unexpected crunch. The combination is a nice antidote to all the heavy holiday fare this month. Forget the berries with ice cream you may be missing from summer – this will make you glad to hunker down and welcome winter.

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A quiche for Fall

Fresh duck eggs have become one of my new favorite ingredients. They’re more formidable than chicken eggs, with a larger, creamier yolk and a richer taste:

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And the high protein levels in duck egg whites also promise fluffier consistencies when used in recipes. If you can find a good source of local duck eggs, they’re a perfect way to amp up your omelettes or make a creamier carbonara sauce. I’ve found that they pair especially well with the wild mushrooms that are in abundance this year in the Seattle area. Here’s a bonus Fall mushroom recipe for a duck egg quiche with chanterelles and Gruyere:

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In addition to a pie crust, you’ll need about:

7 duck eggs
1/2 cup cream or milk (you can get away with 2% milk because duck eggs already lend a lot of creaminess)
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 pound of chanterelles, cut in halves or thirds (before cooking, clean your chanterelles with a damp paper towel, and trim the tip of the bottom stem)
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese (my favorite is Raw Milk Cave-Aged Gruyere)
A few tablespoons of olive oil
Salt & pepper

Start by making your pie crust. For a single quiche, I halve my double crust pie recipe, eliminating the sugar from the dough.

As the dough is chilling, you can get started on the filling. Sauté the green onions and chanterelles in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the mushrooms brown, and season with salt and pepper. Next, beat the eggs in a large bowl, adding more salt and pepper, as well as the milk/cream.

Roll out the dough and transfer to a pie plate. Add the mushrooms and onions, making sure they are spread evenly, then sprinkle the Gruyere on top before pouring in the egg mixture.

Bake in a 350° oven for about 30 minutes, or when the quiche browns to your liking. If the crust browns faster than the top of the quiche, you can make a protective ring with aluminum foil to prevent burning.

Also – if you don’t have the time or energy to make crust from scratch (though it’s really not that bad!), you can easily make a frittata version – a sort of Italian omelette (frittata comes from the word “fritta,”which means fried, referring to the use of a skillet to make the dish). After sautéing the mushrooms and onions, pour the egg mixture, without adding milk/cream, directly into the same skillet. Cook for several minutes to let the eggs set, lifting the edges with a spatula a few times. Then sprinkle some cheese on top and bake in a 350° oven for about 10 minutes. There’s your less buttery alternative – whether that’s better or worse is up to you!

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One for dough and dough for all

A good crust recipe provides the foundation for countless experiments in the kitchen, from double-crust pies to latticed fruit tarts, puffy quiches to savory appetizer bites. Once you become comfortable rolling out dough, the world of baked goodness is your oyster, since coming up with fillings is the easiest – and most creatively fulfilling – part of all.

For anyone in the Seattle area, I recommend taking the PCC Cooks class “Easy as Pie” for a great hands-on lesson in making crust. The recipe from the class, which I’m sharing below, is now my go-to guide for pies. It’s based around a food processor, so it’s quick and easy to clean up. And it’s easily adaptable; when making a savory dish, I just eliminate the sugar.

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This recipe makes enough for a double-crust pie (or a latticed pie, with extra crust for a little mini pie). You’ll need:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks of butter (1/2 lb), cut up in small cubes – Since using cold ingredients is very important in achieving a flaky crust, put the cubes of butter in the fridge until you need them.
1 teaspon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
About 6 tablespoons of cold water – Again, temperature is key. I usually fill a small bowl with water and ice cubes as I get my ingredients together, and stick it in the fridge, measuring out the amount I need just before using.

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt together in your food processor. Add the butter cubes and pulse several times, taking care not to over-mix. You’ll know when to stop when the butter cubes turn into pea-sized clumps:

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Next, add the water as you pulse the mixture. Since there are many variables that affect the dough coming together (like humidity, freshness of the flour), don’t assume you’ll need to use all of the water. I recommend pouring in about 3/4 of the estimated amount in a slow, steady stream, then assessing the consistency of the dough before adding any of the rest. It should be starting to clump together, but shouldn’t be a solid mass. If it sticks together when you press it between your fingers, you’re set:

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Dump the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap and mold it into a ball, bringing the four corners of the sheet of plastic together at the top. It’s important to do this quickly – the warmth of your hands will start to break down the butter, diminishing the flakiness of your crust. Cut in half and wrap each piece in plastic, flattening it into a disc, before placing in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes.

While the dough is in the fridge, you can come up with a filling. I’m still on a Washington State apple kick, so I thought I’d stick to good old fashioned apple pie here. For an apple pie filling you’ll need:

A large bowl of sliced tart apples (about 8 apples) – It’s up to you whether you want to peel them or not.
3/4 cup sugar
1 lemon (zest & juice)
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch

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Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl (if you like the apples in pie to be soft and mushy, you can also put the mixture on the stove for 5-10 minutes). Roll out your first disc of pie dough and gently transfer it to a pie pan. Pour the apple mixture into the pan, making a slight mound towards the center. Dot with a few pieces of butter.

Roll out the second disc of dough and place on top of the apples. Cut off any overhanging dough, and crimp the crust using the index finger of one hand while pinching the dough with the thumb and index finger of your other hand. Cut a few decorative slits in the crust to allow steam to escape during cooking. Lastly, beat an egg and brush over the exposed dough to ensure a beautifully golden crust.

Bake for about an hour in a 375° oven, covering with aluminum foil halfway to prevent the crust from burning. Let cool for a few hours, even overnight.

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And there you have it – domestic bliss!

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Apples to pears

I recently realized that I’ve been living in Washington, a state which produces more than half of the apples grown in the U.S., for more than a year without ever visiting a local orchard. So when I found myself driving through the Cascade mountains this past weekend, I jumped at the chance to go apple picking at a farm in Skagit Valley. Though Skagit Valley lies to the West of the Cascades together with Seattle, the majority of Washington’s fruit production is actually centered on the eastern side of the mountains. Even to the West at Jones Creek Farm, I was impressed by the wide variety of apples – more than 10 – available in a relatively small orchard:

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I was also happy to discover that the farm also has a crop of Asian pears available for “u-pick,” with three varieties to choose from. My favorite ended up being the Mishirasu, which has the slightly rough, spotted skin of common Asian pears, as well as the signature shape of its European counterparts, like Bartlett and Bosc:

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Asian pears are native to China and Japan, where they grew a few thousand years before being brought over to North America in the 1800s, most likely by Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. Because of their crisp texture and most often round shape, the fruit is sometimes misconstrued as a cross between an apple and pear – its nickname is indeed “apple pear.” In actuality, though, it’s part of the Pyrus genus, the set of plant species which encompass edible and decorative pears.

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Back in Seattle, with a fruit bowl brimming with pears, I’ve had to get creative with my harvest. Because they’re very crunchy and watery at the same time, Asian pears are notoriously hard to break down in cooking, so making use of them raw is more manageable. (I also recently learned that they’re a common ingredient in Korean barbecue marinades because they contain enzymes which help tenderize meat.) Here I thought I’d share two different ideas for using Asian pears in salads. The first is based on the holy salad trinity of crisp fruit + sharp cheese + toasted nuts, while the second is a bit of a riff on the classic Waldorf salad.

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Mixed Greens with Asian Pears, Gorgonzola,
Toasted Pecans, and Maple-Balsamic Dressing

Here the name says it all: toss thinly sliced Asian pears with mixed greens, crumbled Gorgonzola, and toasted pecans. To make the dressing, whisk balsamic vinegar and maple syrup together with a tiny dollop of Dijon mustard, adding salt and pepper to taste, and then gradually whisk in some olive oil. Simple and elegant!

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Asian Pear Aioli Salad

This second salad is based on a recipe of a good friend of my mom’s, a woman who is famous for hosting big parties with tables overflowing with food. She adds celery root, cut in matchstick pieces, but here I substituted plain old celery, thinly sliced. I chose to leave the skins on the pears to add more color and texture to the salad, though you can also peel them for a more elegant effect.

Start by making a quick aioli sauce: to make about a half a cup’s worth, whisk together an egg yolk, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a chopped garlic clove, a generous pinch of salt, and a couple teaspoons of water. Then gradually whisk in 1/4 cup of olive oil, as well as another 1/4 cup of an alternative oil with a less powerful flavor, like grapeseed. Add fresh lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Depending on how large a salad you want to make and how much dressing you like, multiply the quantities as you see fit. Then combine thinly sliced Asian pears and celery in a bowl with the sauce, and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.

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