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Baking Adventure: Top Secret Focaccia 3 Ways

Beet Focaccia

I have done very little bread baking in my day.  I made a really nasty whole wheat baguette once, made some pretzel rolls that were mediocre, the bagels were good (a lot of work, but worth it), but my main experience has been with making pizza dough.  I have been wanting to expand upon this, and start small.  I asked myself, what kind of bread is easy and cheap to make, tends to be forgiving, but super tasty?  It came to me: focaccia.

First I whipped up a basic dough recipe, and topped it with oil, Italian seasoning, fresh parsley that I’d dried out overnight, and grated smoked Swiss.  I think it may be one of the more delicious things I’ve made lately – fresh out of the oven and warm, served with butter, it was outrageously tasty.  With this success under my belt, I have now adopted the concept of focaccia as two things: a fantastic blank canvass to integrate all sorts of flavors, herbs, seasonings, cheeses, meats, and other fun things in.  It also is something I might be able to sell… That is why the recipe is Top Secret.  I will, dear readers, appease you with some food porn (classy terminology, I know, but if any of you know me, I embody class).  Anyway, so my first foray into crazy focaccia land were chocolate cherry and beet.  More to come as I get more inspired and adventurous!

Oh, and here’s a really tasty looking recipe you can try 🙂  Serve it as a breakfast sandwich like I did, eat with butter, regular sandwich, eggs benedict, and use leftovers for sweet or savory bread pudding!

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Edible Plants: Carrots & Multimedia

It has been some weeks since I updated my Edible Plants series.  I am currently listening to the book Farm City: An Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter.  She lives in Oakland, CA and is able to construct a fantastic urban garden, well ultimately farmstead really, on an abandoned lot next to her house – she calls it her “squat garden.”  The writing is humorous and she manages to raise critical issues surrounding the food movement as it pertains to urban people within the larger context of history, industrial agriculture, and the myriad of “fad” or “trendy” takes on how we ought to feed ourselves without a soap box or liturgical ranting style that I felt Gabrielle Hamilton’s writing tended to smack of.  I appreciate the humility and genuine nature of her style where she seems to be merely chronicling her own journey and process through making her vision a reality, and making sense of why she is doing it.

This pertains to the Edible Plant Series because one of the cool things I learned from this book (which is littered with facts about the origins of vegetables, the history of animal husbandry, the history and modern place for the “back to the earth” movement), is that carrots are native to Afghanistan!  I definitely never would have come up with that if you asked me where I thought they started off there.  Another tip towards my discussing carrots today is that my mom ran into our farmer, Dennis, who provides our CSA share.  His farm is called Blue Dog Greens (make sure to check out his website, and if you live in the area, consider getting veggies from him – they are SO good!) form which we will begin receiving produce as of June 1!  He said that he has had a wonderful growing season, and that his carrots are going to be fantastic.  And, if the carrots I have had from him in the past don’t live up to these, we are going to be in for a real treat – they are SO GOOD.

Carrots began their culinary journey in Asia around 5,000 years ago.  They did not start out orange!  They were typically purple, but other colors existed as well.  Bitter in nature, they were first used medicinally, but, as with most plants that are domesticated, the roots became larger and sweeter with time.  Apparently, they were considere to be an aphrodisiac 😉

Greeks hated carrots, but the Romans loved them because their culture tended to be more accepting of robust flavors.  Eating them cooked and raw, the early Roman cookbook Apicius even includes them in its pages.  In the 12th century AD, Moors brought the roots to continental Europe where they spread to Great Britain and were cultivated there before coming to the New World.  The orange color has resulted from selective breeding, and tended to be more appealing to the eye.  This resulted in carrots becoming widely accepted as something for people to eat.

The Dutch are actually responsible for this change from purple to orange where they were used New World mutant seeds to steer the carrot towards sweetness rather than its typically bitter nature.  Yellow carrots (the mutants) were crossed with ye old purple ones, and resulted in orange carrots!  They are rumoured to have been adopted by The House of Orange under William I as the national vegetable in honor of the fight for independence from Spain.

Carrots are, thus, delineated into two categories – the original and bitter Eastern variety, and the new Western, under which there are a few general classifications.

  • Chantenay carrots are typically shorter and wider with a very thick top and blunt bottom.  They tend to be used in canned goods or other processed and pre cooked creations.
  • Danvers are conical and have a well defined tip.  They are slightly longer than the Chantenay type and can tolerate heavier soils.  Developed in the 19th century in Danvers, MA, they are now used for the most part in pureed baby food you buy at the grocery store.
  • Imperator carrots are the kind we usually see sold in bags at the store.  They are, on average, the third longest of the carrot varietals.
  • Nantes are the shortest and are much sweeter than any other type.

They are related to parsnips, best grown in sandy soil and cooler temperatures.  They flower after their second year of cultivation – they are biennials.  Adding a sweet flavor to dishes when cooked, they are often used in stocks, soups, braises, and other things that are cooked slow and steady.  As a side, they are fantastic if you steam or boil them and toss with butter or oil and some chopped herbs, salt and pepper.  Carrots are a mainstay of cooking, appearing in the tried and true mirepoix – the base for so many traditional dishes in European cuisine – consisting of celery, carrots, and onion.

We all know carrots are supposedly great for the eyes.  If you are focused on Beta Carotene, make sure to cook them for maximum benefits, as only 3% of beta carotene is released during digestion when consumed raw, and jumps to 39% when cooked!  Beta Carotene is metabolized into Vitamin A.  Eating too many will actually turn your skin orange – this is not a myth.  Vitamin A is responsible for improving eyesight (a lack of it actually will negatively affect your night vision).  During WWII in England pilots were encouraged to eat more carrots in order to improve their ability to shoot at enemy targets.  Carrots are also known to help with improving digestion, fighting off intestinal parasites, and mitigating both tonsillitis and constipation.

Something else I would love to share with you is this piece I listened to earlier today on NPR’s show Being.  They show’s host interviews chef Dan Barber in front of a live audience.  He is a chef at the Blue Hill Farm restaurants in New York – they have two locations: one on Manhattan and another in the Hudson Valley on a farm.  He is a visionary and smart person who happens to also be quite funny.  I appreciate his take on food, and I like this particular piece as it focuses on ethical issues surrounding the local food movement.  I felt like it was particularly timely given that I am listening to the previously mentioned book!  As Susan and my Mom would say, a case of Mexican Wrestler Syndrome 🙂  I encourage you guys to listen to it and check out the restaurants when you’re on the East Coast.  For good measure, I will toss out this recipe for his scrambled eggs recipe that I found!

Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm

Olive Oil Cake, Honey Lemon Goat Cheese Buttercream

This week’s potluck cookoff is themed Greens & Herbs.  I love to do the you think it should be sweet but it’s savory trick, and decided I’d make an olive oil cake.  I had one once for dessert at an Italian restaurant last year involving an impromptu afternoon trip to botanic gardens, a bottle of wine, bike ride ghetto kids style, and all sorts of hijinx.  The cake and day were both really good.

Since this is for the cookoff, which will produce a cookbook at the end, I am not going to post the recipe – unless it wins, and then I will amend this post 😉  We shall see… Instead I will provide another recipe that I came across while researching how to make this kind of cake, and it sounded very awesome.  It involves chocolate, and you know you can’t go wrong if there is chocolate involved.  If you have not looked at this website, it is fantastic also, so make sure to check out other things besides this.

I hope you guys can put up with some nice pictures until I know the verdict on how it tastes, not just how it looks!

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Colder Weather Soup

90 to 50 in 24 hours?  Sounds like soup to me.  I have been craving mushroom soup ever since I had this amazing bowl of it at Room 11 in DC on Valentine’s Day.  It totally hit the spot that day, which was similarly cold on all levels.  I had a small package of dried morel mushrooms in the pantry, so I used them to extract broth for this recipe.  I would recommend using any dried mushrooms you can find to d0 this – it adds a depth of flavor that makes the soup even more delicious.

Room 11 Mushroom Soup

Makes about 8 servings

Ingredients

  • Dried mushrooms (save a few for garnis)
  • 16 oz mixed mushrooms of your choice
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 large vidalia onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups boiling water for dried mushrooms
  • 4 cups stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp coriander
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Parsley for garnish
Method
  1. Boil water and pour two cups into a bowl containing dried mushrooms.  Let them rehydrate (at least 5-10 minutes), then strain out mushrooms and reserve stock.
  2. Chop up the onion, garlic, and carrot – place in a bowl. Chop up all the mushrooms and place in another bowl.
  3. Melt butter in a large stock pot, and saute the onion, garlic and carrot together.
  4. Add in the mushrooms, then the listened seasonings, and let them cook into the sauteed vegetables for a bit.
  5. Add in stock, sauces, and bay leaves.  Simmer until the liquid has reduced about half.
  6. Puree with a blender, food processor, or immersion blender.
  7. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in some olive oil if you like.  Garnish with chopped paprika.

Ramp Week: Pizza with Pesto

I made some pizza last night using the ramp pesto made on Monday.  I had some pizza dough I made using my usual recipe that was frozen from a double batch made a few weeks ago.  I heated up the oven to 550 (highest it will go) for half an hour before pre – baking the crust a bit.  I usually do that since our oven just doesn’t get hot enough to cook fast enough to produce the lovely crispy/doughy combination that brick ovens or big commercial ovens can.

I spread the pesto over the pre-baked crust, and topped it with a combination of shredded gruyere, smoked swiss, and then some goats cheese.  Shaved parm on after baking, of course.  I also used some caramelized onions, lightly charred mushrooms, and ramp leaf chiffonnade.  The pizza was really tasty – I highly recommend trying out this pesto while you can.  If you make it, don’t forget to whip up some grilled cheese with it…

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Ramp Week: Pesto

I dived into a pile of ramps this afternoon, and inaugurated my new toy: a cuisinart food processor.  I had a nice time making it – I love watching the colors swirl and then pouring in the oil at the end where it all comes together and gets so bright and lovely.

Ramp Pesto

makes a whole lot

  • 30-40 ramps, leaves and bulbs roughly chopped
  • 3/4-1 cup grated hard cheeses (I used asiago, stravecchio parmesan, and parrano)
  • 3/4-1 cup toasted nuts (I used almonds)
  • juice of at 4-6 lemons
  • salt and pepper
  • dash of golden balsamic vinegar
To make this I usually start with the greens first, and since these are ramps, I did not bother adding garlic, as they are part of the onion family – seemed unnecessary.  Then I added in the cheese, nuts, lemon, salt and pepper… finally drizzling in the oil at the end.

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Labor of Love

Today was super productive.  I cleaned out my little house, mowed the lawn, cleaned the pounds of fresh, local ramps that my mom’s friend gave us (I have so much more – this is officially Ramp Week here at the diner, by the way), made pie crusts, juiced 20 limes, vacuumed, swept, mopped, carried a picnic table, and shared a lovely mother’s day meal with my family.  While I mowed, I was thinking about unconditional love.  That is what comes to mind on mother’s day, and how lucky I always have been to have so much of it in my life – not just from my own family, but friends, and other people too.  Now that some of my friends are having kids, I was thinking about what unconditional love means to me.

I landed on this definition as I was mowing the lawn: Unconditional love is not a sentiment, it is a responsibility.  Love is a hugely beautiful thing, and I am glad to know it very well.  But it is what you do when things are not easy or given anymore that this becomes crucial.  Today I thought a lot about how I want to show that kind of love to the people in my life I feel so strongly about – what is the best way to nurture that responsibility and to be a rock for them?  I have not asked that question of myself in a long time.  Since I moved back home, my family has shown me unconditional love not by just being kind, but being present themselves in order to do so.  That is where the words evaporate and all that is left are people doing everything they can to help each other.  I feel like I have a lot left to learn, but that it is flowing through my hands every time I break bread with people.  That is something I can always do when things are falling apart, or everyone else is too tired, unmotivated.  I am always willing and able to cook good food.  Now, what else can I do?  I feel like some things are starting to make sense finally, and I am glad that it is easier to know how to do what my heart is telling me.  My mom asked me to make her key lime pie for dessert, and so I squeezed the limes by hand.  I cut them in half and tried to get every bit of juice out, leaving my small hands sore and sticky.  Love is worth it, though, and I know that I have people who would squeeze limes by hand for me in a jiffy.

Thanks, Mom.  You are so special to me, and I am so glad I am getting to spend my days with you right now.  You’re always there when I need you.  And I will always make you key lime pie and risotto, whenever you ask.

Two peas in a pod.

Mother’s Day Key Lime Pie 

Verbatim from Joy of Cooking

  • Single pie crust, pre-baked
  • Can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Meringue topping, if you like
  1. Make the pie crust and bake it until lightly golden brown at 350
  2. Mix the condensed milk, lime juice and salt.  It’s really cool how it all comes together.
  3. Make the meringue and put that on top if you want, then bake it at 350 for 10-15 minutes.
Mother’s Day Ramp Risotto
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup golden balsamic or white wine
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 20 ramps, divided and chopped (including the leaves)
  • 1 medium vidalia onion, roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 log goats cheese
  • 1/2 cup parano cheese, grated
  • 1/4-1/2 up yogurt
  • 4 cups stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  1. So let’s talk about the ramps:  what I did was slice them all horizontally up through to the top, and put them in a bowl.  Then I took some of the white parts out and mixed them with the onions I would start my saute with.  I reserved the rest to be added in at the end.  Chop of the rest of the vegetables, mincue the garlic, and the parsley.  Place in dishes so it’s easy to add them in at the right times during cooking.
  2. Heat stock in a saucepan on the stove, toss in the bay leaves.
  3. Melt butter in the olive oil, and begin sauteing the onion, garlic, then the mushrooms. Add in some salt and pepper, the coriander.
  4. Add in rice and stir it around for a bit, then deglaze with the vinegar or wine.  Then begin adding your stock, stirring as it gets absorbed.  You don’t have to stand over it, just ensure it isn’t boiling or getting too dry.
  5. At the end of cooking, add in the cheeses and yogurt.  You can even add some more olive oil or butter, use cream if you want it to be heavier.  Then stir in the aromatics – the remaining ramps, and the parsley.  Squeeze in the lemon.  Salt and pepper adjustment if you need to.
  6. At the end I quickly stir fried some more whole ramps as a topping, just in some olive oil over high heat.  Added salt and pepper, deglazed with golden balsamic, and squeezed some lemon over.  Topped everything with chopped pistachios.

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