Friday, April 27, 2012

a tasty treat

It's Friday Y'all! It seems as though I may have been focussing a lot on really light, healthy foods around here lately. Maybe because I've been in the cleansing frame of mind while teaching a Kundalini Yoga Detox series. But I promise you, we do get down and dirty in the kitchen from time to time. And I must confess, I have to muster up a bit of courage to venture into the land of pastry and baking. Perhaps due to my long hours put in steaming over gigantic vats of lemon curd and filling countless éclairs in what felt like a 100 degree pastry kitchen while a wee intern. It's not easy. All of the measuring and precision kind of cramps my style. When it comes to sweets, I'm the first to line up to consume, and less of a  pioneer in the pastry kitchen itself. But sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do (mainly to satisfy her husband's sweet tooth as of late!).

I finally got a Donna Hay book after almost a decade of being introduced to her elegant simplicity and no-nonsense way of putting food together. I have been cooking my way through the book the past couple weeks and love every single concoction. The best part is how ridiculously easy and truly "fast" (as the title suggests) the preparations are.

Little Chocolate Brownies. I made round #2 today after round #1 last week disappeared in 2.5 days. But I did make half of the quantity called for in the book so we sort of behaved in that respect. I adapted the recipe in a couple of ways: it is gluten free and I used almond flour for a nutty flavor. Plus I dressed them with strawberries and cream. What could be more tasty? 

Here is how I did it:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

5 oz. butter, softened until just starts to melt
1 cup pure cane sugar

Blend until light and fluffy in a mixing bowl.

Add ingredients and mix:

3/4 cup organic raw cocoa powder
2 eggs
1/4 cup almond flour
3/4 cup Red Mill gluten free all purpose four
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 teaspoon baking powder

First of all, you're wondering, "xanthan gum"? what the???? I was always suspicious of this ingredient and thought it was something chemical to preserve processed foods. Totally wrong answer. It's a thickening agent for gluten free foods. Mystery dispelled and after successful incorporation of the product, I feel confident using it and you should too. If you can't be bothered to make them gluten free, simply substitute the "gluten free all purpose flour" for regular all purpose flour and don't use xanthan gum. And if you don't have almond flour, use 1 whole cup of flour.

After mixing everything together, it becomes thick and stiff. Not what you are used to from store-bought brownie mix. It's ok, proceed to spooning the mixture into a non-stick muffin tin. Since my recipe was half of what I gave you, I used my mini muffin tin. Personally, I feel like mini treats are so much more gratifying and much less guilt-inducing. But these are organic, gluten free, antioxidant rich treats anyway, so who cares? Proceed to baking for 10-12 minutes.

Let cool before removing from tin. Some may come out whole, other's caps may come off in the process, but not to worry. Pop a whole one in your mouth if you can't control yourself once out of the oven, but to really treat yourself right, do them up proper style. I top the whole ones with crème fraîche and sliced strawberries.

The ones that don't come out whole from the tin, I make little tartines (open-faced sandwiches) spread with crème and strawberries. Happy Weekend!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

the simplest soup

Cooking, believe it or not, requires a load of planning if you want to make a true art of it. It starts with planting the seed in your mind of what you want to produce and then letting it take root in the form of a shopping list.

"Well, duh!," you pontificate.

But I'm not talking about preparing one meal. It's the kind of cooking I liken to weaving a basket, where the original elements (your shopping bag loot) form the foundation, and where new meals are born out of the last, introducing a new ingredient or two as you go, like weaving in the next piece of straw.

I have been recently considering if how I cook is really sustainable. Not in the sense of buying organic and composting, etc..., but rather am I really being efficient with my time and resources? No matter how I love preparing meals from scratch and rejoicing over the nourishment the soul receives as a result, there inevitably comes a time when the last thing I want to do is cook. The monotonous cycle of shopping, loading the fridge, figuring out what to make, (if I had planned well enough, I would have had a meal plan for the week so that would reduce one notch in the cycle of what to make), prepping the ingredients, actually assembling them (the fun part), eating (even better) and then the dreary act of clearing the table and loading the dishwasher (which is even more of a drag when the last load has not been emptied), and finally starting over the next day - it can become so exhausting, and then burnout happens and it's all about eating out (for the next several meals).

My fabulously multi-talented wedding photographer Jen Altman put it so beautifully in her food blog entry 'the little things': "it ebbs and flows," this desire and energy to cook. And I can surely attest to that. Not only is cooking at home less of a hit on the pocket book, but it's also the healthier route, no doubt. So why is it so damn easy to throw that logic out the window and cave into being lazy and jumping in the car to eat enchiladas at TDS???

I recently have been obsessing over this book that I picked up a couple weeks ago in CA, and coincidentally, the author is one of the co-founders of one of our favorite restaurants in Athens. It has completely made me re-think and in essence re-learn the way I cook.

I could wax on about the sheer simplicity in her cooking principles. But I would much rather you read the book and I can get on to the recipe you came here for!

So without further ado, I present Turnip Greens Soup.

Remember these little critters?

I made a killer lamb stew with these baby turnips on Monday that I honestly wish I had time to document (except for these)

Yum. As per Tamar's instructions, I saved the greens. Here in the South, this "greens" business has taken a while to register on my cooking radar and I had been admittedly a bit intimidated by what to do with this kind of produce. If you have a Farmers Market in your neighborhood, I assure you, this whole vast world of "greens" can be revealed to you as well. It's an adventure well worth getting on board with.

Because it was my "Vegan Tuesday", I would make the simplest soup out of the greens. How hard could it be? Tamar proclaims they (the greens) are "worth their weight in gold" so why throw them out?

By mere coincidence, the recipe that I clicked on upon doing a quick google search, happened to be from a vegan blog, go figure. I have adapted it by using turnip greens instead of radish greens and increased the quantity of fresh herbs by a lot. You can play with it too and add whatever greens you have on hand or are inspired to buy.

Turnip Greens Soup

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 Large Shallots, finely chopped
4 Cups Turnip Greens (or other greens), packed
4 Cups Vegetable Stock (I used a low sodium variety)
1/4-1/2 Cups Fresh Mint, roughly chopped (I had this amazing apple mint from the farmers market that was very bulky)
1/4-1/2 Cups Fresh Italian Parsley, roughly chopped
Sea Salt (to taste)
Freshly ground pepper (I used a Pepper Blend)
Fresh Lemon Juice (to taste)
French Breakfast Radishes for garnish (optional)
Crème Fraîche for garnish (optional)

In a stock pot or large sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat and add shallots, stirring often to prevent browning.
Sauté until translucent.
Add the greens and wilt and then add the stock.
Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, covered.
Add chopped mint and parsley.
Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Remove from heat.
Purée in a blender in batches or with an immersion blender.

Serves 4 large bowls, 6-8 small.

To serve: garnish with left-over herbs if you have any or with thinly sliced radish and a fresh crack of pepper. Note: do not over-pepper as some of these greens already have a peppery quality to them. Taste first! Add a generous squeeze of lemon juice. This really brightens up the soup.

On Tuesday, I ate as is, vegan style. But my husband enjoyed it with a healthy dollop of crème fraîche. Although I was blessed to have such a cleansing meal on Tuesday evening, I licked my bowl dry when I got to add my even healthier dollop of crème the next day, its resulting girth and depth making it incomparable to its vegan counterpart.

So there it is. 15 minutes and you have a wholesome meal if you add a hunk of bread to it. Although I firmly advocate for simplifying in the kitchen as much as possible, I also believe in giving the stove top a break as well to allow that flow to return to the spirit. As I told Jen the other day, "Never feel bad about not wanting to cook. If love isn't going into it, then what does the soul have to digest?" So next time you feel the urge to really go shopping and cook, I challenge you to let that flow weave a multitude of meals for you throughout your next week.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

cycle of life

"Good morning little bird," exclaimed Bogdan as he gently stepped out the door so as not to disturb Mama bird. In my mind, I realized that was the first time he vocalized a greeting to our feathered friend after a few weeks of inhabiting the nest that had been perched up in a corner of the back porch when we bought our home. Qualifying this gesture as out of the ordinary, as if to signal foreshadowing, I went about my morning.

Mama bird sits on her nest all day long, watchful for any sudden moves. As soon as we approach the door, she is on alert. Once stepping out the door, no matter how mindful our movement, she takes flight, abandoning her eggs momentarily to take cover. We mean no harm and I wish she would feel comfortable to stay.

"That's what they do, we don't want them to get used to humans," proclaims Bogdan. "Domesticating them puts them in harms way..."

Throughout the day, I noticed she did not return. And each time I passed the door, I looked, as if a worried mother myself, wondering about her whereabouts, checking in on her location status. To no avail, and by late afternoon, I found myself mourning her absence, as if subliminally reading into the universe's great secret.

"Why has she not come back?" I pleaded with Bogdan upon his return from work. "This is the first time in these weeks that she has been gone all day."

"She must have abandoned the nest, maybe the eggs are no longer viable."

And then Papa bird swooped in, monitoring the situation. Perhaps there was hope left. But I couldn't help thinking that she no longer wanted her roost.

This is not supposed to be a dreary anecdote. In fact, this morning greeted me with warm sunshine and I jumped out of bed to get to the Farmer's Market. No recipes to share today, nor any fun links. Just the delight that Spring brings to the soul.

And what a joyful occasion it was. Bright dragon snaps, baby turnip greens, fresh rye bread, and apple mint were my pickings, amongst others.

"You're in for a treat" delighted one of the girls as I picked up a bag of 'Fancy Pants'. "Every time you open a bag, a party comes out, watch out!" How can you not party with greens and petals so bold and yet dainty as these?

Decidedly, Mama bird had definitively left. And preying birds that were circling the area yesterday got to the nest.

I had noticed the nest was disheveled and even some strands lay strewn out on the deck. Only until I opened the door to step out on my way to market did I notice the reality of fallen eggs, two of them, yolks exposed to the first light of day.

"It's ok, that's the cycle of life," Bogdan giving me a reassuring hug. For a brief moment, I lamented the premature loss of little spring chicks. But Mother Nature knows its course, as did Mama bird.

The cycle of life continues as the story goes, for a fresh new mossy nest has been gathered and a new Mama bird roosts on our front porch! The Divine Hand is indeed at work. This weekend we celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter. And new life resurrects, not skipping a single beat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

digesting the road

The thrill of getting away on vacation is every much exhausting as it is exciting. No matter how much one tries to "relax" or makes a point of selecting a destination intent on "unplugging" from the race, it inevitably creeps up on you as soon as you step foot back on familiar soil and settle back into the rhythm of being home. Traversing time zones routinely does a number on the body, even if only 3 hours west in this case. Not only are you physically time traveling, but you ascend through layers of atmosphere as if transcending into a spirit realm of sorts, imbued with the evident lack of free-flowing oxygen. When I step off a plane, I feel as though my molecular structure has been jostled and re-configured (because it has been) to the point of nausea and it takes half a day to even begin to feel grounded.

Since we traveled back to our other "home", the California motherland, we weren't particularly giddy with anticipation of uncharted territory. We were just going up the coast, a jaunt to Santa Barbara and Big Sur. I never underestimate the intrinsic power of a Big Sur trip, as with it always comes a sense of transformative vitality. But since we threw Santa Barbara into the mix,  I must say I was a little curious as to how I would embrace this old teenage haunt as an adult. My memories reduced to mission architecture and spending weekends with one of my favorite high school friends at her uncle's hacienda, I immediately entered jaw-dropping mode to find a whole new world I never knew existed. It was like love at first site and the sheer glee that came over me was uncontainable. Why had I waited decades to return to this glorious resort-like setting?

Traveling for me is very much about the lodging as well as about the food. And I must say I pat myself on the back for having unearthed this little gem of a location: the Presidio Motel. I actually stumbled upon it while following links for a jewelry designer and ended up at the Supply Room online, the motel's exquisitely curated shop for all things ultra chic. From the moment we checked in, my head was buzzing and I ran from room to room trigger-happy. You would too if you saw these rooms:

Room 6

Room 14

Room 14

Room 12 Detail

Room 12 Headboard
The next order of things was to see how my egg coloring experiment turned out. Yes, I carried the eggs in a container full of stinky cabbage & vinegar water from Huntington Beach, as well as my props, and now it was time to unveil them. So although this was supposed to be vacation, it felt very much like I was on a work mission, but who cares? I was in Santa Barbara!!!

So if ever in the area, please do book a room at the Presidio and please stop in the Supply Room.

Please eat at Jane which is a 5 minute walk from the motel. If you have a hankering for Japanese, then Arigato Sushi is a must, just a few more minutes down State St. on foot. Oh, and did I mention that EVERYTHING you could possibly want to do in town is within walking distance on State St.???

For the health nuts out there, Backyard Bowls for breakfast is awesome. This is "the backyard bowl" which kept me full for several hours and well fueled for a good hike up Cold Springs Trail.

 I was doing a vegan fast that day so lunch at The Natural Cafe was amazing.

The Farmers Market had just set up after stepping out from lunch. My heart swelled seeing the mountains of produce as I wistfully longed for a market such as this in Athens. It's ok, I count my blessings for the market we have (that by the way started last Saturday while away, hooray!), but I almost wished we had a full kitchen to play in so we could buy up loads of market specialties.

We did indulge in three baskets of strawberries from an Oxnard farm and took bikes down to the beach and gratified ourselves with a bit of sweetness before dinnertime.

And on advice from Food & Wine, we brunched at the Scarlet Begonia before I held my husband and sister hostage at The French Press (again, on State St.!) to pump out the last blog entry. I didn't fuel up on caffeine, but boy did the coffee look enticing.

It's hard to describe in words what Big Sur does to me, although the beatnik greats effortlessly achieved encapsulating its mysteries. The road there is itself a wrinkle in time. And once there, all there is to do is breath in all of its redwood and cedar air and float up in the mountain mist, into the ethers.

Apart from all of the more affordable charming (and somewhat rugged) inns and cottages, if you are not staying at the Ventana Inn or Post Ranch Inn (which should be on everyone's 'must do once in their lifetime' list), there is really not much else available, or so I thought. I was thrilled to find Glen Oaks Inn which was completely overhauled 5 years ago and struck the perfect balance between traveling on a budget and ultra luxury.

Room 2, fireplace standard in all rooms!
If you ever find yourself in Big Sur, you must never bypass Nepenthe, or Cafe Kevah and stop in the Phoenix shop. Breakfast or dinner at the Big Sur Inn is divine. And if you want to treat yourself right, do have a dinner at Cielo or get to Sierra Mar before the sunset to be embraced by the big blue ocean. For fine local culture, visit the Hawthorne Gallery and of course, the Henry Miller Library is always fun.

So as I sit here (a bit off-kilter from jet-lag) contemplating the road and the process it takes to get there and back, the discomfort always seems to be outweighed by the inspiration and fuel one generates from time away. And I resign to the fact that "the road more traveled" is always the better choice.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

hatching the easter egg

Timing was perfect for my trip out to the family compound in SoCal, for little did I know that a very distant memory would be sparked out of the April issue of Bon Appetit Mag's recipe for egg coloring 'au naturel' just one week before Easter. I remembered how an old family friend would dye Easter eggs old school Romanian style using an artisanal approach to honoring the egg and its symbolism around the vernal celebration that is upon us. So I made it my challenge to recreate her craft.

Now let me preface this with the fact that I managed to squeeze this test in between road tripping up the California coast, so considering the circumstances, I am rather pleased with the results of a project on the fly, as well as it making for a great adventure and amusing story, no doubt.

The original dying agent calls for extracting the brown hue from boiling onion peels. "Tanti Sitza" (as we called her) would save onion peels for months in anticipation of creating beautifully rustic colored eggs. I simplified and used Bon Appetit's trusty purple recipe for a more modern approach.

After hard boiling eggs and cooling off to room temperature, prepare the dye with desired color recipe. The next step is the use of parsley leaves to imprint a floral pattern on the eggs. I used parsley and also cilantro since it was in the fridge and I have to say the cilantro turned out to be the rock star. Mind you, this was an experiment in action so as the process unfolded, I discovered that the leaves being a little wet helped them stick to the egg, allowing for easier placement of cut pantyhose over the eggs to hold the leaves in place. Then tie off the ends of the nylon sock and your prep is set. I suggest using the sheerest nylon possible to ensure the color easily penetrates through.

After hitting the road with eggs in tow, 3 hours passed to reveal (to my surprise) a fine cerulean blue to match the Santa Barbara sky we were greeted to. In amazement, I carefully disrobed the eggs of their nylon encasing and with the help of my husband, gently laid the eggs out to dry.

A bit of bleeding occurred while lifting the leaves, but to our amazement, it worked... Tah-dah!!!!

So here we are a couple days later and with my husband & sister's patience & love, my determination to share this has been realized over a little picnic of Easter eggs and strawberries from the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. And now the road bekons us north-bound to Big Sur. Hallelujah!