Cooking from the Heart: A Lesson in Imperfection

You may have noticed that I have not written a blog post in quite a while. I have plenty of excuses why I haven’t been writing: 1) I was too busy to write; 2) I couldn’t get comfortable writing unless I was at home; 3) I didn’t want to post something if I didn’t have the “right” pictures to accompany the post.  But there was another and more honest reason I haven’t written in so long.  It was simply this: writing for me means getting to the heart of who I am and lately I have been avoiding just that.

Then last week two things happened to change my outlook and help me break through this writer’s block: a dear friend decided to publicly blog about his journey to happiness in all its ugly, awkward, and imperfect glory. He is diving deep and exposing all his neuroses and he is doing it in the most public way. He is an inspiration and seeing his bravery made me want to face my own demons and get to the source of my own anxieties. The day after my friend publicly announced his plan, my therapist reminded me that things don’t have to be perfect.  And that is when it clicked: by trying to make things perfect, I am actually hiding who I really am. I am so focused on what “perfect” is supposed to be or look like, that I deny who I am because I do not fit into that “perfect” mold.

Me 8-30-13

A gloriously imperfect photo
of me in my kitchen
copyright Laila Newton

When I am in my kitchen and cooking with my heart and soul, things are very rarely ever perfect. But when I am in my kitchen, I am fully centered and am living my highest self, my truest soul.  The foods and drinks that come out of my kitchen – what comes out of my heart – are amazing. Don’t get me wrong, I experiment and sometimes those experiments don’t turn out as I hoped. But the point is that when I am cooking I don’t worry about perfection, I just focus on taste and in that expression of my creative self, I am exactly who I am supposed to be. I am most honest, most real when I am in my kitchen and that is also when I am the exact opposite of perfect.  I am messy. I forget things. I break things. But then I adjust and keep going.  I never worry when I am in the kitchen; I just trust my instincts.  Most importantly: when I am in my kitchen I do not worry about failing.

So now I am applying this attitude to everything I do: I am going to trust my instincts. I am going to make mistakes. I am going to break things and I am going to forget things. But along the way I know I will create beautiful and wonderful expressions of me. Better yet, by letting go of the idea of perfection, I and going to be the best me I can be.

Stove-Top Short Ribs

short ribs & carrots

I have two guiding principles when it comes to cooking at home: 1) what do I need to use before it goes bad? and 2) don’t waste anything.  Last fall, I canned a bunch of roasted bell peppers and at the end of the day, I had about a cup of juice from the peppers left over. I didn’t want to throw it out so I canned it, too.  So, when I was checking my fridge the other day to see what I needed to use, I also checked my pantry and found this jar of juice that was almost a year old and figured I needed to use it, too. While this recipe will be nearly impossible to recreate, the point is to use this recipe simply as a guide. Look around your kitchen and pantry and see what you have available. Feel free to experiment and have fun in your kitchen. You will be amazed by what you will discover.

2 beef short ribs
2 tablespoons bacon fat, divided
½ medium onion, diced
2 pounds carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 cup roasted bell pepper juice (includes about 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar)
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
salt & pepper

Pull the short ribs out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you begin cooking so they come to room temperature. Salt and pepper the ribs on all sides. In a large pot, melt one tablespoon bacon fat on medium-high heat and brown the short ribs on all sides (about 2 minutes per side). Remove the short ribs to a plate and add the remaining tablespoon bacon fat to the pan. Turn heat down to medium-low and slowly sweat the onions. When the onions are soft and translucent (about 15-20 minutes), add the carrots and celery and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring to coat the vegetables.  Then add the roasted bell pepper juice and the wine. Place the ribs on top of the carrots.  Cover the pot and turn the heat to very low. Cook on low heat for 2-3 hours, until the beef is falling off the bone and practically melts.  When finished cooking, remove the meat and purée the vegetables. Shred the beef with two forks and serve atop the carrot purée. Garnish with fresh thyme and flaked sea salt or fleur de sel.

Posted in About Me, Eating Seasonally, Healing, Inspiration | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ode to the Fava Bean

shelled favas 1

I think spring has to be my favorite season for vegetables. I adore peas – especially sugar snap peas. Asparagus makes me so happy I can hardly sit still. But I think my absolute favorite is the fava bean.

Back in 1991 when I saw Silence of the Lambs, I was merely a freshman in college, and I had never heard of fava beans or Chianti, let alone tried them. The first time I had favas was just over a decade ago when I was still living in the community house in Berkeley. One of the house mates loved favas and wanted to make them for dinner one night. I was game to help him as I always loved learning new things in the kitchen. When he showed me the big pods, I thought, “Man, these must be huge beans.” Then he showed me that we had to first take them out of their pillowy pods, boil them to get the outer skins to release, peel them and finally you had a bean you could eat. It was a lot of work, but when he made his simple dish of favas seasoned with sumac, tossed with basmati rice and a little olive oil, I had to admit they were pretty awesome. However, I hadn’t thought much about favas until a couple of years ago when I committed to eating seasonally: buying produce directly from a farm and supplementing that with weekly trips to the farmers market. When favas showed up at the market and in my CSA box, I found a whole world of fun in those beans.

I know some of you might think that favas take too much work to be worth it, but truly it’s not that much work at all. I find the time I spend getting the beans out of their pods is quite meditative and downright fun. The other morning I shelled 4 1/2 pounds in under 20 minutes. I have this method down where I rip the pod and then squeeze the beans out. Sometimes they get a little excited and over shoot the bowl. That just makes me laugh. It reminds me of when I was in high school and we would snap bottle caps to see who could get theirs to fly the farthest. I think if there were a flying fava bean contest, I might just win.

peeling favas

Once shelled, blanched and peeled, fava beans are so vibrant green and just downright cute, I can’t help but enjoy myself. Prepping favas brings out the kid in me. I am playing with my food, and I revel in it.

I did something very adventurous last week: I ordered a 5 pound bag of fava beans from Mariquita Farm. I live alone and I bought 5 pounds of favas. Yes, I am a nut. I challenged myself to find new and inventive ways to use them and I had a blast doing it.

The first day I did a simple salad with the favas (spring onions, lemon juice, olive oil) tossed with strips of beef tongue pastrami. I think that might be my new favorite salad. I repeated that salad later in the week and loved it even more the second time around.

Fava bean & beef toungue pastrami salad

fava bean & beef tongue pastrami salad

One day, I braised a lamb shoulder roast with some Moroccan mint tea, celery, onion and chicken stock. Then I served it atop a carrot puree seasoned with Ras al Hanout. I topped the lamb with favas tossed with olive oil and salt. Simple yet elegant, and oh so flavorful.

On another day I had a friend coming over for lunch after yoga and I wanted to keep it light. I did a simple frittata with shiitake, asparagus, and Grana Padano. Then I made a fava mash with olive oil, salt and more Grana Padano. I finished the dish with a little burrata and fleur de sel. It was bright, light, yet completely satiating. And the best part was that I had leftovers for lunch the next day that I served with crostini.

asparagus & shiitake frittata with fava bean mash & burrata

asparagus & shiitake frittata with fava bean mash & burrata

With the last of the favas I had remaining, I made a lovely fava and asparagus dip that I served with some homemade crackers.

 Fava Bean & Asparagus Dip

5-5-13 fava dip & homemade crackers

1 – 1  1/2 lbs. fava beans in their pod (yields approximately 3 cups when shelled)
1/2 lb. small to medium sized asparagus spears
2 small spring onions, chopped (can substitute any type of onion, yield 2 tablespoons)
1/4 – 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (or more to taste)
1-2 tablespoons heavy cream (or more to taste)
salt and pepper to taste (I use fleur de sel for extra crunch)

Heat oven to 350° F and put a pot of water on to boil.

Break off woody end of asparagus and place spears on a baking sheet with a drizzle of olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, chop asparagus and put into food processor.

Shell fava beans, the put in boiling water for 2 minutes. Shock in ice bath for 3 minutes and then peel fava beans. Add favas and onions to asparagus and puree in food processor until you have a thick paste.

With food processor running, add 1/4 cup olive oil and 1 tablespoon of heavy cream. If the paste is still too thick, add the additional cream and additional olive oil until you have consistency of thick dip. Salt and pepper to taste and serve with Laura Calder’s Salt and Savory Biscuits or other cracker.

I haven’t even begun to explore the tip of the iceberg of all that you can do with fava beans. I adore how Locanda fries the young bean pods whole and serves them with shredded pecorino. I couldn’t stop eating them the other night at an event. DELISH! And I haven’t even told you about fava greens! There are so many wonderful things to do with the leaves of the fava plant but that is an entire post of its own . . .

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Gratitude for My Heroes

I am so blessed to live in San Francisco and have access to some of the best food on this planet. This post is part love letter and part thank you letter to the farmers, purveyors, chefs and vendors who do what they do so that I can do what I do. When I am in my kitchen and working with these amazing ingredients, I am not just thinking about what I am cooking or for whom I am cooking, I am also thinking about those of you who brought this food to my kitchen. I am thanking you for the care and time you take to grow and produce excellent food. You are my heroes. (In the future I intend to do individual posts about my favorite butcher shop, farms, vintners, cheese shop, pasta makers etc. But for now, you can click on the links below and check them out for yourself.)

Ray Bair of Cheese Plus

Ray Bair of Cheese Plus
2001 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109

Yesterday I was walking home from work and thinking about what I was going to cook for dinner. I was also thinking about the great food I had eaten while in Italy. And then I thought about the steak I had in Florence, and I had my meal figured out. I had a gorgeous top sirloin from my local butcher, 4505 Meats, and a simple sear on the grill with arugula and Parmigiano was the way to go.

For the first course, I knew I wanted to do a starch of some sort, and that I wanted it to be quick. It wouldn’t take long to the cook the steak and I had an appointment after dinner, so I didn’t want to spend more than 30 minutes in the kitchen. I grabbed my jar of flour + water pepper rigatoni that I got at Salumeria. I had about a cup of dried pasta left, which was the perfect amount for dinner plus enough for leftovers for lunch the next day. I put some water on to boil and then looked in my fridge for what to add to it. I grabbed a handful of Mariquita Farm sugar snap peas and sliced them on the bias about 1/4 inch thick. I put them in a bowl and grated 1/2 cup Grana Padano cheese (from Cheese Plus) over the top. When the pasta was done, I tossed it in with the peas and cheese, and added an ounce or two of pasta water to help create a little sauce. I loved the combination of the spiciness of the pasta, the sweetness of the peas and the creamy saltiness of the cheese. It was light, extremely flavorful and a great start to the meal.

flour + water pepper rigatoni with Mariquita sugar snap peas & Grana Padano

flour + water pepper rigatoni with Mariquita sugar snap peas & Grana Padano

Next, I quickly seared the sirloin on a grill pan. I like mine rare, and when you buy quality meat from a great butcher like 4505 Meats you know that you are getting meat that is sustainably and humanely grown, tastes incredible and is safe to eat rare. Then I tossed some Mariquita arugula with a squeeze of Meyer lemon and Montemaggiore’s amazing 2012 Olio Nuovo. I shaved some Parm and hit the whole dish with a little salt and pepper. The sirloin practically melted in my mouth and the peppery arugula and salty Parm perfectly matched the brightness of the Meyer lemon and the Olio Nuovo. It was a very hot day in San Francisco, and a quick and simple dish like this saves the kitchen from getting too hot and keeps the meal light so I don’t feel weighed down.

4505 Meats top sirloin, Mariquita arugula, Parmigiano Reggian & Montemaggiore 2012 Olio Nuovo

4505 Meats top sirloin, Mariquita arugula, Parmigiano Reggian & Montemaggiore 2012 Olio Nuovo

For dessert I opted for my favorite spring/summer dish. I serve my strawberry rhubarb sauce atop vanilla ice cream that is mixed with Batter Bakery Lavender Sea Salt shortbread cookies. The strawberry rhubarb flavor is elevated by the subtlety of the lavender and salt. And who doesn’t love crunchy cookies mixed in with their ice cream?

Catalan strawberry & Happy Quail rhubarb sauce atop vanilla ice cream with Batter Bakery Lavender Sea Salt cookies

Catalan strawberry & Happy Quail rhubarb sauce atop vanilla ice cream with Batter Bakery Lavender Sea Salt cookies

To make the sauce, I take a pound of Happy Quail Farms rhubarb and dice it. Then I add 3 cups of sliced strawberries, which I got from Catalan Farms this week. I put them in a sauce pan and put it on medium heat. I start by adding 2/3 cup sugar and let the fruit cook down, stirring occasionally to prevent any burning. After about 30 minutes, I take a taste and add more sugar if needed. But if your strawberries are as sweet as those from Catalan or Mariquita, you won’t need to add any more sugar.  I cook the fruit for another 30-40 minutes until the rhubarb has melted and there are only little chunks left to the strawberries.

In the past, I would leave the sauce slightly chunky. However, this time, I was using rhubarb that I had frozen last summer and I wasn’t happy with the texture. So I put the sauce in my Vitamix and holy cow did that take this great sauce and make it AMAZING. As my friend said, “this sauce is sensual.” There is something so sexy about the mouthfeel. Its smooth and velvety texture combined with the sweet-tart flavor just makes you stop and savor what is happening in your mouth. And you can’t help but start to dream about what else or where else you would want to drizzle this sauce. It is giving me ideas about my next date . . .

Posted in Bakeries, Butchers, Cheese, Farmers, Inspiration, Olive Oil, Pasta, Recipes, Winery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trattoria di via Serra – the Best Meal of My Life . . . So Far

Flavio Benassi (sommelier & host) & Tommaso Maio (chef) of Trattoria di via Serra

Flavio Benassi & Tommaso Maio (from their Facebook page) of Trattoria di via Serra, via Luigi Serra 9/B, Bologna

Last September, I took my first international trip. I spent 2 glorious weeks in Italy and had one of the best meals of my life. When I planned my trip, I decided to spend the majority of my time (nearly a week) in Tuscany. I thought that with my love of food, Tuscany would be the place where I would have my “aha moment.”  Don’t get me wrong; I loved everything about Florence. I explored the Mercato Centrale and ate porchetta at Nerbone. I cried at the beauty of The Birth of Venus and got turned on by David. I walked atop the wall around Lucca and noshed on panforte in Siena. I met some lovely people and ate some great food, but I never found that space where I clicked. I never felt truly at home.  And then I left Florence and headed to Bologna. This was my town. It’s a city with one foot in the blue collar world and one in academia and both planted firmly in the kitchen.

I was on a budget, so rather than stay in the center of town, my hotel was tucked away in a little side street a few short blocks from the train station.  When I got there, I asked the desk attendant for a recommendation for dinner. He told me that a new restaurant had opened next door and he had heard it was amazing.  We talked a bit about food and I trusted he knew what he was talking about so I decided to try it.

When I exited the hotel later that evening, I saw a couple heading toward the restaurant. They pushed the button for the doorbell, the garage-style glass-paned door slid open and I followed them inside. They had a reservation, but I didn’t. Happily the host told me not to worry. He stepped down into a tiny sunken dining room next to the host stand and pulled apart two tables that had been set up for a four-top. He sat me at one of the new two-tops and I was suddenly overcome with a sensation that this was going to be a momentous occasion. The other tables in the restaurant were already seated or had reservation signs on them. I had this feeling I was entering an insider’s hidden gem. Goose-bumps sprang up my arms and this zing of excitement scampered throughout my body.

The view of the tiny dining room from my table.

Partial view of the tiny dining room from my table.

I sat looking up into the waiting area, which was great for people watching. It was set up like a living room with a sofa, a coffee table and built-in bookshelves. There was a second larger dining room on the other side of the host stand and at first I was disappointed I was not seated in there, but that feeling quickly subsided when the host returned with menus and organic prosecco and treated everyone like they were guests in his home. Whether seated right away or made to wait, everyone was poured a glass of prosecco to start.

I learned that Flavio was much more than a host, he was the owner with his partner, Chef Tommaso. And here’s the crazy part: Flavio told me that they had opened their restaurant the day before I arrived! Tommaso and Flavio had owned a restaurant in Zocca, a mountain town in the Province of Modena, but had closed it to open this one in Bologna.

And then the chef’s antipasto plate arrived.

Fresh cow's milk cheese, slow roasted tomato, crispy prosciutto, pistachios & olive oil

Fresh cow’s milk cheese, slow roasted tomato, crispy prosciutto, pistachios & olive oil

This was a delightful little plate with a slow roasted tomato, some fresh cow’s milk cheese topped with a crispy prosciutto chip, chopped pistachios and the whole thing was drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The creamy butteriness of the cheese was perfectly in balance with the sweet tomato and salty prosciutto. I loved the surprise addition of the pistachios. It took all of my will power to not lick the plate.

After talking with Flavio, I opted for the more regional dishes. I wanted to taste new and authentic dishes I never before had the opportunity to try. When my first course came out, I was immediately hit with the aroma of rosemary. This dish was so beautiful and I just sat there for a minute to inhale the rosemary and appreciate the beauty of what was in front of me. The dish was called Calzagatti al forno con gola stagionata di Grigio del Casentino. Calzagatti is a regional cake-like patty that is made with polenta, beans and pancetta.  Tommaso topped these bean and polenta cakes with a regional cured pork, shaved paper-thin, that literally melted on my tongue. I have since found a couple of recipes on the web and am determined to recreate this dish.

Calzagatti al forno con gola stagionata di Grigio del Casentino

Calzagatti al forno con gola stagionata di Grigio del Casentino

When Flavio described the next dish to me, gnocchi di patate e rapa rossa su vellutata di zucca e scaglie di Parmigiano, he did not know the English translation for rapa rossa – beets!  I had never had beet gnocchi before, and they were quite lovely. Surprisingly light and not as sweet as you would think. The bite of the shaved Parmigiano was in perfect balance with the sweetness of the butternut squash puree.

Gnocchi di patate e rapa rossa su vellutata di zucca e scaglie di Parmigiano

Gnocchi di patate e rapa rossa su vellutata di zucca e scaglie di Parmigiano

For the third course, I opted for the special: Bocconcini di coniglio fritti nella pancetta con friggitelli. These were little rabbit meatballs wrapped in very thinly sliced pancetta and served with fried green peppers. The crispy pancetta protected the rabbit and kept it moist while adding a salty, porky flavor.  And the textural contrast of the crunchy exterior with the tender interior was wonderful. I am a huge fan of the Spanish peppers, pimiento de padron, and these friggitelli were the Italian equivalent. Superb!

Bocconcini di coniglio fritti nella pancetta con friggitelli

Bocconcini di coniglio fritti nella pancetta con friggitelli

Flavio also brought me some traditional Modenese bread: le Crescenti tra le Tigelle di Grano Marzotto. These breads were simliar in style, but not flavor, to the English muffin. The bread was crunchy on the outside and soft inside and perfect for making a sandwich for lunch the next day with the leftover rabbit and peppers.

Le Crescenti tra la Tigelle di Grano Marzotto

Le Crescenti tra la Tigelle di Grano Marzotto

For dessert Flavio brought me a plate of traditional cookies and a glass of late harvest dessert wine. It was the perfect end to the perfect meal. Not too sweet, completely traditional and completely new to my palate. The cookies were made with cornmeal, but had the texture of a Scottish shortbread. The textures and flavors surprised and delighted.

I was in absolute heaven that night and couldn’t stop raving about the food. So, before the dessert course, Flavio walked me through the other dining room to the tiny kitchen and introduced me to Tommaso. This was my first time getting to go to a kitchen to thank the  chef for an amazing meal. It was a dream come true for this girl. A night I will never forget.

Flavio and Tommaso are all about the slow food movement and their food is a glorious testament to the beauty and simplicity of traditional food done extremely well. I often think about that night, and look at my photos and recreate the flavors in my mind. Now I just need to figure out how to recreate the flavors in my kitchen . . .

Cartoon of Flavio and Tommaso the "Boys of Sole"

Cartoon of Flavio and Tommaso the “Boys of Sole”

Posted in Inspiration, Italy, Restaurants | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

When Life Gives You Lemons . . . Make Marmalade

My canning shelf overrun with marmalade jars.

My canning shelf overrun with marmalade.

Having grown up in the Midwest, citrus was not a huge part of our diet. My mother always had cans of mandarin oranges in her pantry, I just thought they were baby oranges. I didn’t have a fresh mandarin until I was in my 30’s. Living in San Francisco, shopping weekly at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, I have begun to try more citrus and have discovered a real love for it. I decided to try my hand at making marmalade.

10 lbs. of washed Meyer lemons.

10 lbs. of washed Meyer lemons.

Initially I used Meyer lemons and turned to Food in Jars and played with her recipe a bit. Then I took a citrus workshop with Happy Girl Kitchen and learned a ton about marmalade. Now here’s the funny part: when I decided to embark on this marmalade adventure, I had actually never tried marmalade. I have no idea why I wanted to make it so badly, when I had never tasted it, but there it is. At this workshop I tried lime marmalade and I fell in love with that hint of spicy, sweet & sour flavor. I also walked out of there with 10 lbs. of Meyer lemons and bearss limes, and then I ordered another 20 lbs. each of the two fruits from my local farmer. What the hell was I thinking?  I spent days (and I mean literally days) slicing, boiling, cooking and canning citrus into marmalade. And then something awful happened.

One Saturday night I set up my station, put on some great movies and began to slice away. Of course I had to have a glass of wine while I was working. I didn’t take into account that I had already had a couple of glasses of wine earlier in the day at a cooking class, followed by another couple of glasses with a dear friend after the class. After I spent 4 hours slicing nearly 6 lbs. of Meyer lemons and mandarin oranges, I put them on the stove to boil, which softens the rinds. I set the timer and sat down to watch a cooking show while I waited. And then I proceeded to fall asleep (some might say I passed out). I woke up at some point in the night when the acrid smell of burned citrus finally penetrated my wine-addled brain. I turned off the stove, turned out the lights and somehow made it to my bed (though I didn’t manage to make it under the covers).

I woke bright & early the next morning, hoping that I had dreamed the terrible episode. Unfortunately, my nose told me the truth. I was overwhelmed by the sickly, smoky sweet smell of burned citrus. I walked into the kitchen to assess the damage and was heartbroken at the sight of the black crust that used to be gorgeous yellow and orange fruit. I couldn’t face it. I was devastated. It wasn’t just about the loss of the fruit or the wasted four plus hours I had invested in slicing all that citrus. For me, being in my kitchen is a direct link to my spirituality and my psyche. I didn’t just mess up a recipe, I DESTROYED something. I felt the pain as if I had stabbed myself in the gut. I couldn’t function. I just crawled back into bed, sent a text to cancel my plans for the day and went back to sleep. I woke a few hours later and was in no better shape. So I did the only thing I could: I avoided my kitchen. It didn’t matter that I had another batch of perfectly boiled citrus waiting for the final cook and canning process. I couldn’t face it.

The outside of the burned pot.

The outside of the burned pot.

It took me 4 days before I could get back into my kitchen and face the destruction that I had wrought. I cried as I grabbed handfuls of ruined citrus pulp and tossed it into the compost bin. I sobbed as I had to use a butter knife to break through the inch-thick coal black crust that had formed on the bottom and sides of the pot. But then something amazing happened. I checked the other pot of marmalade that I had started before the drunken escapade. I figured it was a loss as well and would need to go into the compost bin, but when I lifted the lid and stuck my nose in the pot, it was fine. The All-Clad lid had kept an airtight seal. So I cooked it down and canned it. I was back in my kitchen and I was happy again.

I couldn't take a photo of the burned citrus. This is after 3 attempts to clean the pot.

I couldn’t take a photo of the burned citrus. This is after 3 attempts to clean the pot.

Yesterday, afternoon, I sat down to watch a cooking show and was suddenly overcome with the need to finish what I started. I still had about 6 lbs. of Meyer lemons sitting on my table. But even better – I was hit with inspiration. I ran to my local Real Food Co. and picked up a few ruby red grapefruit. Then I came home, put on a couple of movies and started slicing away. I even had a glass of wine (or two). I boiled it up without incident. Tonight I will cook it down and can it. And in the meantime, I will continue to work on cleaning up that pot I nearly destroyed. Thank God for All Clad.

Today's batch of Meyer lemon and ruby red grapefruit. Boiled and waiting for the cooking with sugar.

Today’s batch of Meyer lemon and ruby red grapefruit. Boiled and waiting for the cooking with sugar.

Posted in Healing, Inspiration, Mistakes in the Kitchen | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Creative Spark: Making Garbage Gourmet

A delicate, sweet-tart apple sorbet.

A delicate, sweet-tart apple sorbet.

A couple of years ago my work life was extremely intense. I was working 60-70 hours a week, and when I would get home, I rarely had the energy to cook. I would often order takeout or whip up something fast, uninspired and totally unhealthy. Then I would eat in front of the TV and zone out for a couple of hours. I felt like the creative part of my brain was atrophying. I needed a creative outlet, and then I found the 18 Reasons Food Lit Book Club. Perfect!  I love all things food related and by joining a book club, I knew I would carve out the time to read.  I don’t always enjoy the books we read (they are chosen by group vote), but I always enjoy our meetings and each month I learn something new and find inspiration both in what we are reading and in the people in the club.

Last month we read Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef and I really enjoyed this book.  Chef Samuelsson has an amazing story and the book was written superbly.  In fact, reading this book was a big inspiration for finally launching my own blog.  But, more than that, I discovered Chef Samuelsson’s influence in my cooking.  In the chapter about his restaurant in Harlem, Red Rooster, Chef Samuelsson explains that he likes to use things in his kitchen that most chefs and restaurants throw out; e.g. watermelon rinds and broccoli stems. The idea of making something great out of something that is considered garbage really appealed to me.

Recently, when I was making applesauce, I looked at the apple peels and cores I had removed and thought how wasteful it would be to just throw them out.  What could I do with them? And then it hit me: why not try to make apple sorbet? It turned out to be a lovely sorbet with a delicate pink color from the apple peels.  Now, whenever I make applesauce, I will also make apple sorbet.

Apple peels & cores

Apple Sorbet

peels and cores from 7-10 lbs apples (I use a mixed variety of heirloom apples)
2 quarts water
1 cup sugar
zest and juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup apple cider

Put apple peels and cores in large sauce pan and cover with 2 quarts water. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 1 hour. Strain liquid through a cheese cloth or clean tea towel and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Return apple liquid to medium heat, add a cup of sugar and reduce until you have 3 cups of liquid left.  Refrigerate at least 3 hours, but better if overnight.

Once fully chilled, add zest and juice of a lemon and ¼ cup apple cider.  Pour mixture into ice cream maker and churn for 20-30 minutes until you get sorbet. Store in air tight container in freezer. Keeps up to 2 weeks.

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The Elixir of Ginger Tea

Ginger TeaOver the last couple of weeks, I have been dealing with the typical seasonal ailments and as I grab my go-to elixir of ginger tea I have thought often of a woman who changed my life.

Many years ago, when I moved to Berkeley for graduate school, I chose to live in a community environment. There were 11 of us living in that community with ages ranging from 21 to 70. We had men and women, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, both domestic and international.  I learned a lot that year living with that group of people, but it was the person with whom I had the least in common who taught me the most.

Sister Kim Chi grew up in Vietnam and entered a convent as a pre-teen during the height of the Vietnam War.  I grew up in America, a pop culture junkie and proud child of the 80’s.  I didn’t spend a lot of time with Sister Kim Chi outside of our group activities, but she is one of the few people in that community that left a lasting impression on me – and it’s all because of food.

Sister Kim Chi Bui speaks with fifth graders at All Saints Parish in Portland, OR. Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois

Sister Kim Chi Bui speaks with fifth graders at All Saints Parish in Portland, OR. Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois

One of the requirements of living in that community group was that we shared meals 5 nights a week and we rotated cooking duties.  Sister Kim Chi showed me how to make tofu soup, how to keep rice fluffy and moist without being sticky and because of her, I discovered that I actually love sweet potatoes. Growing up in the Midwest I had only ever had canned yams and I abhorred them.  One day, when it was Sister Kim Chi’s turn to cook, she came out with freshly fried potato chips and sweet potato chips. It was the first time in my life I was able to taste the sweet potato by itself, without any additional sugar or marshmallows. Those chips were incredible and eye-opening.

The first time I got sick while living in the community, Sister Kim Chi brought me some of her ginger tea and within minutes, my throat felt better, my cough lessened, and I was breathing better. It was a miracle drink and I was hooked. The spiciness of the ginger, the tartness of the lemon and the soothing sweetness of the honey work in this wonderful harmony to provide pain relief and comfort. She brought me several cups of tea that night and when I woke up the next morning, my sore throat was gone and my cough non-existent. Now, whenever I’m feeling ill, the first thing I do is make ginger tea. It doesn’t always work as miraculously as that first time, but it always makes me feel better.

I haven’t seen Sister Kim Chi in over a decade, but often she is with me in my kitchen, as I make her ginger tea, or slice up a sweet potato, or make some of her “every day” tofu soup. Our life experiences and political and religious beliefs were practically on the opposite sides of the spectrum, but we found common ground through food and hers has been the most lasting impression from that year of my life.

Ginger Tea Ingredients

Ginger Tea

2-inch knob of fresh ginger root
2 cups water
½ lemon
Honey to taste

Peel ginger and slice into several pieces. Put ginger and water in a non-reactive pan and place on high heat. I prefer to use glass Pyrex pan when making teas. Put lid on and bring water to boil. Boil for a minute or two and turn off heat. Allow ginger to steep in the water for 10-15 minutes.

Squeeze in juice from half a lemon and return to low heat. Stir in honey to taste – I use a tablespoon for 2 cups.

Strain into a cup that has been heated with hot water. Retire to your sofa or bed and drink in the healing essence.

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