Thursday, August 30, 2012

My New Russian Friends

So, something very strange happened yesterday. My Blog stats suggested that more Russians (yep)
read my Blog in the last week than people from the United States. I'm still at the baby stages of blogging, but this strikes me, surprises me. I'm getting a few hits from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Great Britian.

What does that tell me about the Russians? That they like food, that they are fond of laughter, that they are particularly enamored of children. Perhaps their own.

I've always been fond of them. They birthed and nurtured those thundering geniuses: Rachmaninov and Tchaikowsky; Dostoyevski and Tolstoy. I love the domed architecture that shelters the Russian Orthodox church, the lush countryside and beautiful roads, their dark Russian bread. They are great at cold-weather foods.

I found a Russian cookbook. This is my experience: you can be a great cook—in your own tradition. You really need a mama to show you how to do it. Mine is German-American with a little bit of Amish/anabaptist tossed in. But I'm spotty, at best, with food that comes from outside my own culture. I was lucky with an Americanized version of Japanese hot pots, but I didn't understand the original recipes. I was embarrassed by my uninspired, insipid macaroons.

I did find a recipe for Russian roasted pork loin with a stuffing of apples and raisins and orange. Yummo. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thanks to everybody who checks in.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Summer Chocolate

A three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting  is one of my dream foods, but it's too hard and too fussy to make in this heat.  It's an all day project, and if your kitchen is  hot, then the frosting can melt off the cake.  That happened to me last summer, so I know it can be done.  Only it wasn't chocolate; it was strawberry.  Only it wasn't cake, it was cupcakes.  Ones that were warm from the oven, warm from the day.

Still and all, it is somewhat of a shock, when your beautifully frosted little cakes wind up naked.  And the frosting is spreading out over the table cloth.  So, how do you have your frosted chocolate cake and summer all at the same time?

Here's the cake I make for picnics or Sunday evenings on somebody's patio:  Yummers.

1 good quality cake mix.
1 cup of rich and hearty red wine.  I prefer Merlots or Sirah's, although a fiesty Cab is good too.
(Or 1 cup of a home-brewed, strong coffee, if your prefer.)
4 eggs
1 cup of veggie oil
1 large Hershey's Dark Chocolate bar, frozen. Hershey's has the perfect choco/sugar ratio.  If you want more of a bitter chocolate, pick one of your own choosing.  If the bar is frozen, the chocolate breaks apart cleanly, instead of melting in your hands.  Don't freeze it too long, half an hour maybe.
1-2 tablespoons cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a large loaf pan.  Bust up half of the chocolate bar with a hammer.  You want shards of chocolate, small ones.  Put them on waxed paper and back in the freezer.

Mix up the cake mix, wine or coffee, oil, and eggs.  Beat  2 or 3 minutes.  Add the shards of chocolate to the batter and mix with a spoon.  Pour the cake into the loaf pan.  Bake for at least an hour.  Start checking at the point.  The cake should feel firm to the touch.  A toothpick should come out clean.
You might need to go an hour and twenty minutes, depending upon your oven and your altitude.

Pull it out and let it cool in the pan for 30 minutes or more.  Gently loosen the cake from the pan.
Turn the pan upside down on a plate and let the cake come free.  Turn it right side up.  Continue to let it cool for an hour or more.

You can sprinkle the top of the cake with powdered sugar or you can melt the rest of the chocolate over hot water and add the cream, beginning with 1 tablespoon.  You can add more to reach the consistency you wish to have.  Let it cool for a few minutes, and then drizzle it over the cake.  The cake is rich enough that you don't need frosting, this little drizzle of chocolate is enough. Let it cool for a few minutes.

Put the cake in plastic wrap and wrap it tight.  Store it in the fridge until you are ready to serve.  The cool chocolate cake is perfect for picnics with ham sandwiches or turkey croissants, with veggies and dip, with fresh fruit.  It is so moist, it travels like a champ.

‎"Where there's cake, there's hope. And there's always cake." -Dean Koontz

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unintended Gymnastics

So I was a marginal employee.  I made mistakes right, left and central, didn't always respect my elders or my betters, daydreamed all too frequently, and served as a role model for what not to do.  I landed in places that wanted/needed logical and consecutive thinking, and my brain patterns were loopy. I mean that—I went round and round and then in through the back door.

I made some sorta sense, sometimes.

The thing that saved me was that I have a wicked sense of humor and was more playful than less.  And quite extraordinary things happened in my presence. Or I did them.

Mid-afternoon.  Typical work day.  I took a call/message for a nurse destined to walked through my Center any second. In she came.  I leaned back in my office chair to catch her attention and deliver the message.  Only I leaned too far, too fast.  The desk caught the edges of the middle part of the chair, and did not hamper the bottom or the top. The result: I was catapulted out of the chair, into mid-air.I did a perfect 360-degree somersault, backwards.  And lit in the far corner of my office, on all fours.

Knees and hands.

I had a little conversation with myself.  "Are you all right?  Is anything broken?  Can you possibly be OK?" The only thing at risk was my pride.  I had a long, flowy skirt on and a slip. That was apparent.
I had on knee-high nylons. That was apparent.  I had on underwears. That was apparent.

And the nurse.  The kindest, most professional, caring of women? She laughed so hard she couldn't stand up.  For ten minutes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Beautiful Food

Farmer's Markets are the most beautiful, abundant places,  Golden corn, deep red tomatoes, blackberries sit in the sun next to somebody's apple pies, Northwest wines, along side snapdragon and sweet pea.  There is such abundance in the West, such pleasure for the eye, such scents: mint, basil, lavender.  The space labeled Pacific Northwest is a garden framed by azure mountains on one side and the deep blue sea on the other.

So this  dish arises from my own creative and  from this abundance.    Nothing is difficult, but there are steps.  You will be making stuffed cabbage.   A caution: read this recipe all the way through.   You can be caught unawares.

Here's what you need:  Brown or white rice that you will cook in a fruity white wine and a little chicken stock.  You'll need 1 cup of rice  and 2 cups of liquid.  Put it in a sauce pan with a lid,  bring the broth/wine to a simmer, and then add the rice, cover with the lid and let it sit for 45 minutes.  Check for doneness at 40 minutes.  

While the rice is cooking, poach the cabbage leaves.  Choose the biggest ones you can find from your cabbage.  You'll need a big leaf for each person you are serving.  Bring water to a boil and slip the leaves in for 1-2 minutes. You just want a quick cook.  The leaves will be a lovely soft green that maintains a little bit of crunch.  You'll want the leaves pliable enough to wrap around your filling.

You'll need 1/2 cup rice for each serving.  Saute about 1 cup of sweet onions until they are crispy.  
If you want them a little bit sweet, add 1 tablespoon sugar at the last to carmelize them.  Roast hazel nuts in the oven for a few minutes at 350 degrees.  Then put them in a processor, or a nut chopper, or chop them by hand.  You'll need a couple of tablespoons full for each serving. Saute about a cup of sliced white mushrooms and add those.  Dice a red pepper or two and peel and shred a couple of peeled carrots.  If you want a little protein, you can add some cooked, shredded chicken.  Or maybe some shrimp.   Mix all  of this together,  salt and pepper to taste. A little bit of butter, if you wish. 

Now comes the tricky part.  Add about 1/2 cup of the mixture  to the middle of a cabbage leaf.  You can add a few shreds of basil if you wish, maybe some mint, or dried lavender blossoms.   But I'd be too scared to try all three at once.  Choose one.  Either roll your cabbage leaf around the filling or make cute little  packages.  Put the packages or the rolls in a steamer, and steam them for a few minutes until the cabbage leaves shine.  Put them on an exquisite platter.

In the meantime,  cut 3-4 big beautiful tomatoes into quarters  and 1 medium-sized baked beet (Put the beet(s) in a small glass pan, add 1/2  cup water and bake at 350 for an hour or so. Cover them with foil. You'll be able to peel the beet and cut off the ends easily after they are baked. )  Add about half a cup of the wine, salt and pepper, and let the tomatoes and beet cook slowly for 15 minutes or so.  Pull out the tomato peelings and the seeds.

Mash them all together.  You are making the most beautiful garnet-colored, sweet and sour sauce.  Start with 1/2 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice, and about 1 teaspoon of sugar.  Increase those amounts to suit your own taste buds.  Add the beautiful sauce to your exquisite platter.  And decorate them with edible flowers: Little baby violets, maybe. 

It's almost too much to take.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sun Valley Summer

Summer is as much a state of mind, as it is a season. Things you can't do without?  Iced tea, new mown grass, kids playing in the sprinklers, corn on the cob, maybe some ice cream.  I'm also thinking you might need concerts under the stars, 'smores, and any one of hundreds of sporting events.  We have cycling races and their attendant crashes, rodeos, and the most devastating, straight up and then straight back down, half marathon on the planet.  You've earned your ice cream if you can do that.

Two of my favorite summer memories comes from Sun Valley.  If you live outside of the West and are not prone to skiing, you might not know what it is.  It's an older resort community in the central mountains of Idaho. A little river runs through it, mountains surround it, and you are better off with a little bit of money when you go there.

The grand Sun Valley Inn has a rich history of movie stars and athletes, wide expanses of lawn, ponds with swans in them, an ice rink with a grand old show and dinner outside.  Not exactly a picnic, but the food is great.

Last summer, I drove over to attend their famous writer's conference, which is not a writer's conference so much as it is a stage for showcasing well known writers, reading their work.  My star-struck heart was on full display in the outdoor pavilion, listening to one of my heroes, Pico Iyler.  Sometimes you are confronted with a mind so dextrous and so profound, you realize just exactly how unsophisticated you actually are.  That happened.

But an image that stays with me was lunch.  Hamburgers, I think.  It was on the back lawn of the resort.  Hundreds of white picnic tables were stark against the grass, shaded by open umbrellas in pastel yellow, greens, pinks, and blues, vividly framed by snow-capped mountains.  It was all a girl could want.

Later  I met friends for dinner at a famous restaurant at the Inn, The Ram, where we ate outside, along a meandering sidewalk,  a swath of  grass, the pond with black swans.  We didn't have any kids with us, all of us being well past the kidhood stages. Either one of them.  But the table next to ours did.  Their little girls were dressed in frocks, and the little boys had on madras plaid shorts and sandals.  And they had taken over the grass, running in and out of sprinkler range, their giggles echoing off the regal old walls of the Sun Valley Inn.

Now, that's summer.