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Posts from the ‘Desserts’ Category

Blackberry Pie for Breakfast and other Summer Treats

Blackberry pie for breakfast is an annual late summer treat.

Cooking in the summer for me is a funny combination of quick, whatever I have on hand because I don’t want to be sweating over a hot stove meals, and on the other hand, making more laborious, involved things that I only get to make once or twice a year because the season is fleeting and precious. And somehow sweating over a hot stove for hours is part of that fleeting pleasure and experience that makes it what it is. And it’s often done in the name of preserving that treasure for the cooler months so it’s time extra well spent.

The past few weeks have seen lots of the former and a few of the latter. Blackberry pie, though not terribly time-consuming is in the latter category. I just don’t make pies that often and blackberry may be my very favorite. It manages to evoke the feeling of hot summer afternoons picking blackberries in the woods–dusty, sticky sweet and all scratched up–in one single bite. I use an all-butter crust (this is a good recipe) and about 6 cups of blackberries, 3 tablespoons cornstarch, juice of one lemon and maybe a little lemon zest, for this summer treat. And if you make a blackberry pie, leave it out over night (covered with a dish towel) and don’t refrigerate it. In the morning you’ll have the best summer breakfast imaginable waiting for you.

In the slow and hot department, I’ve made lots of jam this year: raspberry, strawberry, marionberry peach vanilla, blackberry, peach vanilla, and blackberry fig lemon. I’ve approached jam with a cook-with-what-you-have (and desperately need to use up before it goes bad) attitude. Thus the blackberry fig (Dolores thank you for both!) and marionberry peach. It’s been fun, hot and sticky and I can’t wait to give many of these jars away come the holidays.

In the quick department, it’s been tomatoes and more tomatoes these days. Oh and a beet salad that’s worth briefly noting. I tossed chunks of cold, roasted beets with avocado, green onions, cilantro, feta and a bit of lime juice, olive oil and salt. It was an impromptu lunch but will certainly turn into a planned affair in the future.

Back to tomatoes and quick lunches. This is my idea of  the perfect summer lunch:

Fried egg on a slice of tomato, some basil, a few slivers of sweet onion, butter, a good pice of toast and topped with some basil and salt and pepper! Divine!

And finally, my new favorite tomato dish, that I made for dinner last week and will make again, at least once, this week. It’s a brilliant, quick combination of simple ingredients. I got the idea and only slightly changed the recipe from Deb at smittenkitchen.com who only slighted adapted if from Ina Garten.

Their versions call it Scalloped Tomatoes but because there is no milk or cream in it, which I think of when I think of scalloped anything, I’ve started calling it a Tomato Bread Gratin. But no matter, it’s really good.

Tomato Bread Gratin--a quick, hearty but light summer dish that is much lovelier than this lackluster photo conveys.

Tomato Bread Gratin

–adapted from smittenkitchen who adapted it from Ina Garten.

You can vary the quantities and ratios here with no problem. More tomatoes will make it a little moister and might take a little longer to cook and more bread will make it denser and more crisp. I used less cheese than the original(s) listed and loved it. You can vary the herbs and increase the quantity if you’d like.

3 cups cubed, stale bread (not sandwich bread–something with a bit more texture and heft), crusts included

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 1/2 – 3 lbs tomatoes, diced

2 -3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons kosher salt (yes, use all of this)

1/3 cups of basil, sliced into thin strips (or combination of basil and oregano)

1/2 cup (or more) grated Parmesan or other hard cheese.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 baking dish or other shallow dish.

Toast bread cubes in a large skillet with the olive oil over medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until the bread is toasty.

Add the diced tomatoes, sugar, salt and garlic  to the skillet with the bread and stir really well to incorporate evenly. Cook for about five minutes, stirring often. Take off the heat, stir in the basil and pour contents into baking dish. Top evenly with parmesan and bake until bubbly and crisp on top, about 35 minutes.

Serve with a big green salad or other summer salads. This is, as Deb at smittenkitchen suggests, fantastic with a fried or poached egg on top.

Happy Cooking!

P.S. Now that school has started I’m gearing up for fall classes. Lots to choose from here at Cook With What You Have including the next two classes that take advantage of all this fabulous, late summer/early fall produce. So come take a class and enjoy these fleeting treats with some new ideas.

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Strawberries, Roasted, Baked, . . .

Strawberries: ready to be transformed into popsicles, ice cream, jam and a roasted compote.

It’s been a tough season for strawberries here in the Northwest. The cold and rainy spring has delayed the season and the berries tend to be smaller and less sweet than usual. However, they still are a treat, a long-awaited treat. They are my husband’s favorite berry and they’re really quite versatile. Once you’ve had your fill of them plain, right out of the green cardboard pint basket there are so many options. And if you’re like me and u-pick them or buy them by the flat you’ll quickly realize there really are only so many berries one can eat in the moment before they spoil.

So, this is what my kitchen counter looked like last week after my first real haul of the season. And I’m going back for more later this week since I don’t yet have my quota for plain, frozen berries, jam, etc.

Sliced strawberries waiting to be turned into jam, strawberry yogurt popsicles, roasted strawberries and strawberry ice cream.

I make popsicles all summer and usually add a bit of yogurt and honey to any fruit that’s suitable for popsicles (berries, peaches, etc.). The strawberries I picked last week were not very sweet or particularly flavorful so I decided to roast a bunch of them which is what is in the container on the far right of the photo above. Roasting brings out the sweetness in most any fruit or vegetable and strawberries are well-suited to this technique. I spread about 2-3 pints worth out on a sheet pan (cut in half), drizzle them with about one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and about 1/2 cup of sugar (more if you like them sweeter or the berries are particularly tart), toss well and roast at 375 until they are greatly reduced and the juice becomes syrupy. This can take anywhere from 40 – 70 minutes. They are wonderful over ice cream, stirred into yogurt, mixed with other, fresh fruit in a crisp or cobbler, etc. . . .they are quite intense in this preparation so can go along way.

Baking with strawberries is a bit trickier than other berries. They don’t hold up so well and tend to lose their punch. As you might recall from my wedding cake adventures last summer, creating a concentrated, stable strawberry filling was quite the task. So I was delighted to find this simple strawberry cake recipe on smittenkitchen this spring and have been enjoying it immensely. It’s quick, beautiful and delicious. I have adapted it only in two small ways. I reduce the amount of sugar in the batter to 3/4 cup  and I add 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom and 1/8 teaspoon finely ground black pepper to the batter–Makes for a slightly more mysterious cake. And if you’re feeling really adventurous add a little Kirsch to your whipped cream.

Strawberry Summer Cake

And if you really find yourself in a time crunch and need to process berries just freeze them whole in containers or bags. In mid-winter those berries are perfect in a bowl of steaming steel cut oats.

Happy Summer!

Bake With What You Have – Part I

Apple Oat Muffins . . . not the most photogenic muffins in the world but satisfying nevertheless.

I have a private client at the moment who has three sons; 11, 14 and 16. I grew up with three brothers so I know how much they can eat, but for years now I’ve lived in a household of two and more recently three and I’m just not accustomed to those quantities anymore. This client wants ideas and recipes for hearty, healthy snacks for the boys. So I’ve been testing and making a variety of things including lots of muffins. Muffins are in many ways ideal: they are baked in individual portions; they freeze well; they are portable; and they are adaptable to many different tastes/styles/ingredients. I have a feeling my client’s boys could eat a whole batch of these in one sitting but for those with smaller families, freezing part of the batch is a great idea.

I have always loved to bake and made more than my fair share of layer cakes out of the Joy of Cooking as a teenager. My tastes have changed over the years and I like things a bit less sweet now but until a few years ago, I carefully followed dessert recipes. Not anymore. The cook-with-what-you-have mindset has wormed its way into my baking (and other desserts) as well and I substitute and tinker to my heart’s content. There are still some recipes I strictly follow and certain chefs whose recipes I know better than to change because they are always perfect (David Lebovitz among others). . . .However, muffins are the perfect foil for tinkering and I want to convey that freedom to adapt baked goods like this to my client(s) so that good, home-made snacks like the below muffins become part of people’s regular routines.

I’ve been playing with these Apple Oat Muffins this week and they are a perfect example of a quick-to-make snack (dessert, breakfast, picnic treat) using items you might already have in your pantry or you can substitute with ingredients you do have on hand. They are just barely sweet but the combination of the fruit, the texture of the oats and the spices works well.

These muffins call for as much oats (by volume) as flour.

Muffin (and waffle, pancake, biscuit. etc.) recipes often call for buttermilk. I hardly ever have buttermilk on hand so I substitute either whole milk with 1 tsp of lemon juice per cup of milk or yogurt or a combination. Both work really well. I use whole milk in all my baking/cooking and think it gives the best results but 2% is workable too.

These muffins would also be delicious with the addition of raisins, chopped walnuts or almonds, shredded coconut, other dried fruit or fresh blueberries or raspberries. You could substitute mashed bananas for the apple sauce though you might reduce the sweetener a bit since bananas are sweeter than apples. And speaking of sweeteners, you could substitute maple syrup for the honey or use brown sugar or granulated sugar though honey is a bit sweeter than sugar so reduce the sugar amount by 1/4 or so.

You could also play with different kinds of flour or combinations of flour. You might use half spelt flour and half all-purpose, etc. Kim Boyce’s wonderful book Good to the Grain is a wonderful resource on whole grain flours of all kinds.

Apple Oat Muffins

When tinkering with baked goods you do want to keep the proportion of dry and wet ingredients the same. There are a few other rules (which I will explore in Bake With What You Have – Part II) but muffins are pretty forgiving so go ahead and play around and see what you like.

These muffins are not very sweet. If you like things a bit sweeter by all means add a few more tablespoons of honey.

12- 15 muffins

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour (or other flours-see note above)

1 1/4 cups oats

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/2 cup whole milk or plain yogurt (if using milk, add 1 tsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar)

1/3 cup honey (or other sweeteners-see note above)

2 tbsp olive oil or sunflower oil (or other vegetable or nut oil)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 large apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

grated zest of half a lemon (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Lightly oil or butter a 12 cup muffin tin.

In a large bowl combine flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. In another bowl combine applesauce, milk (or yogurt), honey, oil, egg and lemon zest, if using. Combine wet and dry ingredients and stir quickly until just combined. Add the chopped apple and fill muffin cups.

Bake for 16-18 minutes.

Ellis loves muffin-testing days.

Food as Comfort

For some reason a lot of sad and tragic things have happened/are happening to people I love right now. And I have that deep, sorrowful feeling of helplessness. When I’m sad I actually have a hard time eating, and an even harder time mustering the energy to cook. So I’m going to get cooking for people and hope that a little warm food might help just a little with the ache of it all. I apologize for the morose post but I guess what is this blog if not personal.

So here’s a recipe for a very comforting and nourishing dish:

Brown rice with lime peel, lemon zest, cinnamon stick

Citrus and Coconut Brown Rice Pudding

–adapted from Mark Bittman’s Food Matters

This takes a while to make but it’s almost all unattended time in the oven and it’s a treat especially in the winter. You can vary this in many ways to suit your tastes.  Mark Bittman suggests pulsing the grains of rice in a food processor a few times to break them up a bit which does result in a more luscious pudding but you can certainly skip the step.

½ cup long or medium-grain brown rice

1 14-ounce can coconut milk (I use full fat but you can use light too) and the equivalent amount of whole milk

½ cup brown sugar

1 two-inch long strip of lime peel (I use a carrot peeler to shave this off)

grated zest of half a lemon

1 small cinnamon stick and/or a 3-inch piece of vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped into mixture and pods added too

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Mix all the ingredients well in a 2 or 3 quart oven-proof pot or Dutch oven. Cook uncovered for about 45 minutes then stir well. Cook for another 45 minutes and stir again. The mixture should be bubbling by now and might be getting a bit golden around the edge. Cook for another 30-45 minutes. Now it will start looking more like rice than milk. Stir every 10 minutes now. It will thicken considerably as it cools so take it out just before you think it’s the right thickness. But even if it gets really thick it will taste wonderful so don’t sweat it too much.

Remove the cinnamon stick. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold. You can add raisins or other chopped, dried or fresh fruit half way through the cooking. You can also serve it topped with toasted coconut, shaved chocolate, chopped nuts or fruit compote of some kind. It’s very good with slices oranges that you macerate in orange and lemon juice, a bit of Cointreau, and some orange zest and sugar (if you’re feeling fancy!)

This was a quadruple batch a while ago, so know that the above recipe will make much less!

Send some good vibes out in the world and cook for a friend in need!

Wedding Cake

Vanilla Velvet Cake with Strawberry Curd and Strawberry-Kirsch Buttercream

More than three months after the wedding for which I made the above cake, I am finally going to share some photos and stories. Now, as I gear up for my brother’s wedding it’s fun to reflect back on the last wedding in which I played a small culinary part.

I had never before made a wedding cake. And I didn’t hesitate for long when Margo asked if I would make hers. She’s a very good friend, the wedding was not going to be huge and I had plenty of time to test, learn, fail, test again. . . .The wedding, however, was going to be populated by foodie/wine types with sophisticated palates so the pressure was on. In hindsight, the pressure was all entirely and needlessly self-induced and Margo never contributed to it whatsoever. The guidance she gave me was that the cake be centered around strawberries since the wedding was going to be in late June in Oregon. Fair enough!

Margo, Me, the cake, and Ian

I’ve made strawberry rhubarb pie; roasted strawberry and balsamic tart; strawberry ice cream; strawberry shortcake; and strawberry jam, but I did not realize at the outset of this project how challenging it is to get a true, strong strawberry flavor into a layered cake. Luckily the Cake Bible came to my rescue on this matter. The best way to accomplish this strong, fresh strawberry flavor is to pick the best berries you can find–not an easy task during this cold, water-logged spring–freeze them whole, then thaw them (this helps break down the membrane), then strain them, then reduce that juice significantly and finally mix with the blended pulp, a little lemon juice and touch of sugar. And voila! you have a super concentrated puree. I substituted this puree for the lemon juice in a classic lemon curd recipe to make the cake filling. It was delicious! I had tried both stabilizing the plain puree with gelatin and mixing it with whipped cream but neither of those fillings held up well enough with the size and weight of the cake layers and would not have cut or transported well.

Thawing Strawberries

Strawberry Puree

My next challenge was cake flour. I tested cake after cake made with cake flour–the hyper-processed, bleached , soft white flour that gives typical wedding cakes and other special occasion cakes that signature fine crumb. However signature it is, it often reminds me of grocery store sheet cakes. My test cakes tasted sort-of fake and like the smell of the plastic trays they come on. Then came the color. I wanted a really pale, almost white cake to create a nice contrast to the strawberry curd filling and buttercream and, however, tasty some of the cakes I tested were, they were too yellow. After testing half-a-dozen base cakes, I landed back on the first one, Grand Central Bakery’s Vanilla Velvet Cake. It uses just egg whites and all-purpose flour and holds up very well, both in structure and flavor.

My dear pastry-chef-friend Ellen not only lent me her cake pans and ideas (the strawberry curd was her idea) but her sophisticated palate and showed up with her husband–an excellent eater and critic in his own right–on a regular basis for taste tests.

The buttercream was actually the least complicated part of the cake. The Cake Bible once again had the answer in Neoclassic Buttercream that I also flavored with the strawberry puree and just a touch of Kirsch. The puree lent the buttercream a wonderfully marbled, reddish-pink hue and the Kirsch cut the richness just a bit. I’d make another wedding cake just to have an excuse to test and eat that much buttercream.

Strawberry/Kirsch Buttercream

The trickiest part of the whole wedding cake project I think typically is baking perfectly flat cake layers. The instant give-away of the cake made by the novice is the sloping, slanted look noticeable even with the slightest asymmetry.  The Cake Bible has elaborate tables with equations for  avoiding such slanting affairs. It all has to do with the leavening and how to decrease it in proportion to the other ingredients as the cake layers get bigger. I was careful and followed her instructions–by far the most complicated math I’ve found myself doing in my adult life. I weighed the batter for each pan precisely and ended up with very even layers.

I also had done lots of research on the assembly and how best to support the layers: dowels, drinking straws, etc. I had purchased my cardboard cake circles at the Decorette Shop as well as an off-set spatula (the most important tool of all) where I had seen all sorts of crazy things I didn’t know existed including shelf-stable strawberry cake filling in a plastic bag. I did not ditch my strawberry curd plans for said, bright red filling. . . .And I happened to have a beautiful red glass cake plate from my grandmother that just fit the cake so I was able to avoid the foil-wrapped board.

I filled, frosted and assembled the cake the day before the wedding in a house all to myself. Ellis was at my mother’s and Brian was off watching a World Cup Soccer game and I cranked up the music (Bruce Springsteen I think) and went to work.

Assembly!

All the research and prep paid off. Everything worked and at the last-minute I remembered a trick I had seen on one of my favorite baking blogs to create a marbled effect with the buttercream. I left a bit of buttercream plain and gently mixed in some of the strawberry puree in the pastry bag and used that to pipe on my borders. Finally I decided against the flowers the wedding florist had set aside for the cake and went to my back yard and picked real strawberries with their stems and leaves and used those for the final touch.

Marbled Buttercream

Voila!

To make a now very long story a bit shorter, the trip to the location of the wedding (actually two trips since the restaurant sent us back home with the cake as they supposedly didn’t have anywhere to keep it for the few hours until the wedding!) was by far the most stressful part. But the buttercream held up despite the warm weather, the bride and groom loved it and we had plenty to go around.

And yes, I would make another wedding cake but again only for someone I know and love. I will not be going into the wedding cake business. The Cook With What You Have philosophy is a bit at odds with all those structural and visual needs of a wedding cake!

Sugar

I grew up in a family where dessert was mandated (by my father) every night. I also grew up in Germany so fresh or cooked fruit with whipped cream or lightly sweetened quark was considered–and is–a wonderful dessert. We also had puddings, tarts, pies, and all sorts of wonderful German baked goods my American mother perfected to my German father’s delight. So there was always a little something sweet after dinner. We all loved it. I started making desserts at an early age and went through a long period of making Joy of Cooking layered cakes with things like orange cream filling and Devil’s Food Cake Cockaigne (what  does that word mean and where does it come from?).

I still love dessert  in all its wonderful forms but my palate has evolved a bit and I like things less sweet than I used to. I still love the occasional layer cake but am more drawn to fruit desserts, tarts, cookies, and quick breads these days. And I have to admit that I don’t feel so good after eating a lot of sugar. So I tend to reduce the amount of sugar in most recipes and make my jams with a quarter of the sugar I used to and think the result is often more flavorful. And besides the often-improved-flavor-factor I also know that refined sugars aren’t so good for us so, once again, moderation is here to save us!

I love David Lebovitz’s blog and implicitly trust every one of his recipes. However, I have become a bit of a pathological recipe tinkerer.  In part it’s because in order to properly use, e.g. adapt other published recipes you need to make them you’re own before you post them and because I’m just curious and I am Miss Cook With What You Have after all, so if I don’t have sour cream I’ll use yogurt or if I don’t have a scallions I’ll use a chunk of regular onion, etc. In any case one of David Lebovitz’s recent posts was about a zucchini cake. I tried hard not to tinker much so I only made two changes. I reduced the amount of sugar by a generous 1/4 cup and squeezed the grated zucchini out in a tea towel, removing some of the moisture and enabling me to pack more zucchini (but still adhere to his weight prescription) into this amazing cake. So instead of rewriting his recipe in my own words I’ll leave you with the link. Do be sure to use lemon zest, as he suggests in the body of the post but not in the recipe itself. And if you care to decrease the sugar, I do recommend it. Oh and I use my Zyliss cheese grater to grind nuts (almonds in this case) since it results in a much fluffier texture. I think food processor’s tend to turn them a bit oily and chunkier but either way will be fine I’m sure.

This cake instantly made my top-five dessert list. I think it’s that good. And since my summer squash plants are still producing we may have less ratatouille this year and more zucchini cake. Oh and I made the glaze exactly like he describes though mine soaked into the cake more and didn’t leave much of a visible coating. It did not seem to compromise the flavor and I definitely wouldn’t skip the glaze. So, go put those zucchini to use!

Ellis wishing I would actually let him eat that big of a slice of cake

Making the Best of a Bad Purchase

I love Apricots and so does my 3-year-old son. Last summer he climbed up a ladder into an apricot tree and devoured 3 huge ones, never having tried one before. So in a fit of fear of missing the short apricot season entirely I purchased a case from a source I knew better than to trust in having good fruit. And I should have known better when, having asked the somewhat dumbfounded clerk if I could taste one before I purchased the case, I handed the other half to my son who took one bite and handed it back to me.

So I made two LARGE batches of jam, cursing my poor decision along the way. I typically add a bit of orange zest and juice to my apricot jam, something my grandmother always did (though she added pineapple as well) and with a bunch of lemon juice too, the jams are actually quite good. But now I understand why many people are uninspired by apricots.  There must be a lot of bad apricots out there. Apricots that are mealy and flavorless or hard and flavorless not sweet and juicy and musky and heavenly like they can and should be.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of driving through the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River to pick apricots and climbing ladders in the hot wind of the Gorge in mid-summer and eating and eating them up in the trees. And then driving home dusty and sticky, the car filled with the sweet warm scent of apricots.  They are really an easy fruit to work with too–a cinch to wash, no need to peel, and they’re free-stone.

So a few lessons from this experience. 1) I’ve been lucky to have grown up with good apricots. 2) Good products need much less doctoring and are delicious as is so if you’re after fresh eating, maybe better to skip them if they’re not very good. 3) The practice of breeding fruit (or veggies)  for portability and visual appeal rather than flavor is a shame. 4) I’ll buy my apricots from the farmers’ markets or u-pick in the future, even though I  know that this jam will be welcome in the dead of winter.

So today I decided to turn the final bowl of sorry fruit into a cobbler. This is hands-down my favorite cobbler recipe. It was originally written for Italian Prunes (or plums as most now call them) but is equally good with apricots and peaches or a combination or with the addition of a few handfuls of blackberries.

It calls for a bit of cardamom and crunchy turbinado sugar on the tops of the biscuits and is a perfect combination of juicy fruit and light, creamy biscuits. And the poor apricots, doctored up with lemon juice and zest, and said cardamom cooked up into a very good cobbler.

Apricot, Peach, or Plum Cobbler

–Adapted from Claudia Fleming

For the Biscuits:

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (or half all-purpose and half whole wheat pastry flour)

3 tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

For the Filling:

2 1/2 lbs of fruit (apricots, peaches, plums or a combination) to yield 6-7 cups

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 375.

To make the biscuits, mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the mixture with a pastry cutter until the butter is the size of large peas. Stir the cream in with a fork and gather the dough into a ball. Turn it out onto a floured work surface and shape the dough into 8, about 2-inch balls. Place on a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Refrigerate for  20 minutes or up to 2 hours. If you’re in a hurry you can skip this step. I have had fine results as well.

Mix the fruit with the sugar and spices in a 2 quart gratin dish. I used cardamom and 3 teaspoons of lemon juice and the zest of half a lemon in my apricot version today and skipped the cinnamon. I also used a generous 1/4 cup of sugar. Taste the fruit before you bake the cobbler and adjust sugar to taste. Place the flattened balls of dough evenly on the fruit. Brush the remaining cream on the biscuits and sprinkle the turbinado sugar on top. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the top is lightly browned. Serve warm are at room temperature with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

And apricot cobbler for breakfast is a treat, even with second-rate fruit!

Food as Gift

This topic warrants at least half-a-dozen posts but to at least start this favorite topic of mind, here’s what I have going on today. I should preface this by explaining that I’m going to NYC for a very quick trip planned just last week for some Slow Food USA board work. This trip has inspired quite the variety of food-as-gift and food-in-trade scenarios.

First of all, I have lots of beautiful lettuce that is going to bolt soon. And I have basil, which did ultimately survive the wet spring and is now prolific. While I’m out-of-town I don’t think my husband will have time to put this to use so I offered it up on Facebook. My neighbors weighed in first so they’re going to get it.

Secondly, I have a limited wardrobe these days. Three-and-a-half years of raising a kid and working from home, in the garden and kitchen, does not make for a New York City meetings and dinners kind of wardrobe.  However, I have a great summery dress that I rarely wear  and I finally figured out that it’s just a bit too long. So, my wonderful neighbor Bev who is an accomplished seamstress fixed this problem for me last night. So she gets Yogurt Panna Cotta with Apricot Compote this evening in exchange.

The third food-as-gift endeavor involves baking a batch of my new favorite cookies which will be split three ways 1) my host and dear friend Gail in Brooklyn, 2) the fabulous Slow Food USA staff, and 3) and my husband and son.

Fourth, today a friend migrated all my data from my ancient and dying computer to my new (refurbished), shiny laptop for me. This will promptly result in a meal plus dessert upon my return.

My first forays into cooking involved giving it as a gift and I got hooked on the pleasure of creating something edible to share or give away. My mother, who as you know, influenced my approach to food and cooking in innumerable ways, always brings a tin of cookies to meetings. So as I finish this post in mid-air, flying past Mount St. Helen’s with two cookie tins at my feet, I am grateful for the gift of food.

Garden vs. Computer

I’ve been trying my best to write a blog post this morning. It is Tuesday which means blog post day. But then I remembered that I needed to check the planting calendar in my go-to gardening book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon and then I thought I’d better see if the spot I had in mind for summer squash was actually big enough. . . I get carried away in my little garden and tend to plant things too close together, forgetting year after year how gigantic squash plants get.  And then I saw some weeds that needed pulling, flowers that needed dead-heading, flowers that would make a lovely bouquet, arugula that needed thinning. . . . An hour later I’m back.

Typing away I notice that my hands are starting to look like my mothers’–a little cracked, with dirt embedded in them that no amount of washing will quite remove.  As I child I was often given the choice between “indoor chores” and “outdoor chores”. For  years I chose indoor, exclusively! I hated the feeling of dirt on my hands, especially as it dried and cracked. I hated pulling weeds. My mother lived in her garden and I just didn’t get it. Now I get it! I just want to be out there, pulling those weeds, sowing beans, digging in the compost, watching the volunteer sunflowers pop up everywhere. I love it!

Arugula and Mache Thinnings

Reflecting on this progression in my life is liberating as a parent when my son shows no interest in things I love or excessive interest in things I don’t. When I asked him  yesterday what I should write my blog post about today ( he’s 3), he said: “Chainsaw movies!”. He likes to watch logging videos on youtube (his uncle owns a sawmill, hence the obsession), which is what he means by chainsaw videos. Not that I don’t like chainsaws but they don’t inspire me.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap this up so I can get back outside. However, I’ll share a recipe for a crisp that I cobbled together (inspired by Heidi Swanson of 101cookbooks yet again) on the fly a few nights ago.

Strawberries for a future crisp!

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

Note: If you don’t have any port don’t worry, but it does add a lovely dimension.

Preheat oven to 375.

2-3 cups rhubarb, sliced in 1/2 inch chunks

1 1/2 – 2 cups whole strawberries, cut in half

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons Port (or 2 teaspoons good balsamic vinegar if you don’t have port)

For Topping:

3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour

2/3 cup ground almonds (I use my little Zyliss cheese grater for this or you can pulse them in the food processor)

2/3 cup of rolled oats

scant 1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp kosher salt

6 Tbs butter, melted

Mix sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl, sprinkle over fruit and mix well. Add port, mix again and place in 9 x 12 baking dish.

Mix dry ingredients well in medium bowl. Stir melted butter into the dry ingredients and combine well with a spoon or with your fingers. Some dry spots will remain which is fine. Cover fruit with topping and bake until the fruit is bubbling and topping starting to brown, about 45 minutes.

Serve warm with whipped cream.

The Comfort of Good Food – Lentil Soup and Carrot Cake

After a recent weekend of teaching classes and non-stop planning, cooking, and shopping in preparation therefor, I found myself completely uninspired on the cooking front. Maybe it was the let down of completing a big project and the need for my mind to take a break. . . luckily it only lasted a few days. And luckily a neighbor stopped by with Madhur Jaffrey’s tome World Vegetarian during the middle of my slump.

A quick side note about neighbors. As I have always found, people like to talk about cooking and food and eating.  We all eat and we all feel strongly about some aspect of that piece of our lives and whether it’s my neighbors or new facebook friends or folks commenting on my blog or my relatives or long-lost high-school friends, everybody has something to say about food. Every walk through the neighborhood ends up in conversations about a new discovery of how to make nut-butters; whether a focaccia recipe will turn out well as a regular loaf and if yeast quantities should be adjusted; a discussion about whether one prefers thick or thin asparagus; or about why children eat three servings of lentil soup one day and refuse it the next. Such walks and conversations pull me right out of any, temporary funk!

Now back to cookbooks and recipes. Just browsing Jaffrey’s enormous book made me smile and want to spend all day cooking again. I have not managed to make anything out of  it yet  but did order it and look forward to incorporating her recipes in many of  my classes. Now to the things that I did make and that were immensely satisfying:

I made both of these dishes this week (an unseasonably cold-week!)  for the first time and both have been added to the favorite/go-to list. And they are both from the same book Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, though I made some changes to both.

French Lentil and Potato Stew

–Adapted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair

1 Tbs olive oil

1 onion, diced

1 tsp ground cumin

t tsp ground coriander

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1/8 tsp cayenne (or more if you like spice)

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 tsp salt (omit if you’re using salted stock or bouillon)

black pepper

3 medium potatoes, cubed

1 stalk celery, diced

1 carrot, chopped

1 1/4 cups French green lentils (or regular brown ones if that’s what you have)

5 cups water or veggie or chicken stock (use homemade veggie bouillon if you have it)

1 bunch chard or spinach (collards, kale, beet greens. .. ) washed and chopped

squeeze or two of lemon juice

Heat olive oil in a 4-quart pot on medium to medium-high  heat. Add onion, carrot and celery and saute until softened. Add all spices and saute a few more minutes.

Add potatoes, lentils and water (or stock/bouillon). Bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered for 45 – 55 minutes until the lentils are almost creamy. About 10 minutes (or less for spinach) before the lentils are done add the greens. Taste for salt and adjust to your taste. Finish with a squeeze or two of lemon juice. If you have Greek yogurt or sour cream on hand, garnish each bowl with a dollop.

Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

–Adapted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair

I turned to this book for dessert ideas that are on the healthier side of things. I bake so much and love sweets and I figure I should temper all the sweet stuff with this kind of cake that uses honey and whole wheat flour. I expected it to be much less decadent than it was. I just ate twice as much of it, knowing how healthy it was. Oh the mind games!

Cake:

1 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp sea salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cloves (optional)

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup honey

2 eggs

1 generous cup grated carrot (I grated half the carrots on the biggest holes on my box grater and half on the smaller ones – liked the combo)

1 Tablespoon lemon zest

1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1/3 cup currants

1/3 cup golden raisins, roughly chopped (regular raisins would be fine too) and if you like nuts in your carrot cake, by all means add some chopped walnuts or whatever you have

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly oil and dust with flour a 9-inch cake pan. Mix flour, salt, baking soda and spices in a mixing bowl; set aside.

Melt butter and honey over low heat. add eggs and lemon juice and whisk together. Add wet ingredients to dry mixture and mix well.

Fold carrots, zest, currants, and raisins. Pour batter in pan and bake for 25-30 minutes. be careful not to over bake.

Frosting:

6 oz cream cheeses

1/4 cup (4 Tbs) of butter, room temperature

2-3 Tbs maple syrup

1/2 tsp lemon juice

Cream the butter and cream cheese together with a wooden spoon. Add maple syrup and lemon juice. Add more of either to taste. The frosting will firm up in the fridge if it gets to soft to spread but mine worked just fine.

Frost top and sides of cake!