1.3.06

Can you experience Lent if you are not Catholic? Perhaps not, but you can give something up until Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday came sooner than I had anticipated, and the weather could not be more appropriate.

The blue skies and the warming sun mark the first day of March in the Queen City. It’s due to get up to seventy degrees today, and last night I slept with my window open. I could not be luckier to have this kind of weather for Spring Break. The first day of Spring is less than twenty days away. It’s almost time for skirts and cardigans, sandals and Spring vegetables.

In light of the refreshing weather I have decided to take part in my own “Lent”. I will be giving up chocolate, actually, all processed sugar, desserts, snacks, etc. My only indulgence will be honey for my morning yogurt. I am anxious, nervous and excited to see if I can be the master of my restraint. I will not dare hide my addiction to chocolate, or sugar in general. But, I believe that it’s time for a change.

I was humored this morning when I began to think of what others were giving up. When you look at other people’s indulgences and weaknesses, they can seems a little kooky. My muse is giving up Coca-Cola. The expression on his face when I emptied six cans that were still on my fridge was priceless. I love him because he keeps me honest, in just more ways than just with chocolate.

So here’s to fresh fruit, vegetables, grains and Greek Yogurt.

28.2.06

Moro, or blood oranges, are only in season for a short time during the Winter months, which makes them ever more of a delicasy to me. I don't know if I am more obessed with the sweetness or these beauties or the deep color that floods the flesh. They should be used just like a normal orange or citrus for that matter and have endless culinary possibilites.


While at the Teeter the other day, I saw a 2/$3.00 sign over bags of seven of these fruits. I was floored, excited, yet reserved. I was leaving for D.C. the next day and didn't know what I would do with fourteen blood oranges. But, the deal consumed me and I submitted to a purchase.
When I returned there they were, still on my counter, seeming to be waiting for me to devour them. This morning I cut deep into the skin of these beauties with my newly sharpened knives [xoxoxo Brian], to reveal the astounding color of the insides. I have had blood oranges before, but it seems that Sunkist yields more of a red color on the inside than any other producers.
Paired simply with Greek yogurt and wildflower honey, this is the true breakfast of champions.
Now I have thirteen of these jewels left and am open to any suggestions. Perhaps a moro sorbet?

26.2.06

I recently took a big step in my baking endeavors. During a recently lovely Thursday afternoon, after having mussels with my muse, I decided that I would bake him a cheesecake. I am not refering to the Jello "No Bake" Cheesecake. This cheesecake reqiured over an hour in the oven, over two hours to cool and more than three hours in the refridgerator. The crust was prepared from scratch using just graham cracker crumbs (processed in my NEW CuisinArt Food Processor), a pinch of sugar and alot of butter. The creamy filling started with 2.5 pounds of cream cheese and ended with a cup of sugar and six eggs, plus more yolks. So, was it worth it? Absolutely. The crust was thick on the bottom of a thick and condensed New York Style middle. It was not too rich and not to cream cheese like. For being my first, from scratch cheesecake, I was pretty impressed, as was my muse.
Last night was marked by food, Part of which was tapas. What was suppose to be an evening of night snowboarding in the high country turned into a night of indulgence in every sense of the word.
Tapas comes to us from the divine country of Spain. It essentially means "cover or lid." The Spanish used bread and ham to cover their glasses of wine to keep flies and other various bugs out. It took hundreds of years for this concept, now dishes on small plates, to reach the United States. Even so, you did not see tapas in restaurants until the last thirty years. Now tapas "bars" are popping up all over the country.

Arpa was the first tapas bar that I had ever been to. My friend Ant and I met on a warm spring night and sat a quiet table outside. As I began to read the menu, I knew that I had hit the jackpot. What I dislike most about eating out (in America, especially with only one other person) is that you get one dish and a lot of it. I, myself, prefer lots of different dishes and small portions. For that, tapas delivers.

It had been almost a year since I have been back, and last night was the perfect occasion for it. One of my chums has a "virgin" palate if you will. Upon meeting this friend, I was told that he did not like seafood, had never eaten asparagus (the horror!), red velvet cake (partially forgivable), or tiramisu, among other things. With each day the list of "had never tried, but I know I do not like" went on. I felt it was my duty as an epicurean to teach this guy that real food doesn't come from a drive-thru and isn't limited to red meat and poultry.

The weather in Charlotte yesterday was quite bizarre. For being in the prime of winter, 70 didn't seem quite right. But, we were not complaining and decided to take a long stroll through center city. At the end of the walk we found ourselves at the front door of Arpa. I told him that I would order for the both of us, something very out of character for me. I like people to choose what they like and to eat what they love, but he is the exception. Because he has spent twenty six years eating the same foods with little variation, I am most always inclined to suggest, if not force him to try something new. What I love best is that he surrenders to my knowledge and complies with my orders. Most every time that we go out to eat, he makes me choose where we go. A foodie's DREAM.

So, here we were at a two top in a tapas bar, serving everything but American cuisine. When I told him what I was thinking of ordering I could see the anxiety consume him. Mussels, goat cheese, garlic shrimp, oh my!
First came the artisan bread, crusty, moist and warm. With it they served a fruity olive oil and pomegranate syrup. The syrup was dark, rich, complex and very concentrated. If you had the pleasure of going to Arpa, be sure to ask your server for extra on the side. Our server then dropped of the goat cheese, two small balls of deep friend goat cheese on top of roasted peppers, capers and drizzled honey. The combination was phenomenal. Why had I never though of pairing goat cheese with honey? Then we follow up with Gambas al Ajillo, or roasted garlic shrimp, apparently a tapas classic. It was just OK. The flavors were rich and delicious, but I think that I am getting burnt out on shrimp. I much prefer shellfish and fish. Finally, the mussels arrived, bathing in a hot tomato broth with manchego and micro basil. Recommended to us as "the best mussels" in Charlotte, my expectations were high, but I was not disappointed. They slid out of their glistening shells with ease and dissolved on my tongue like a rich gelato. The flavor of the basil and tomato broth was intense but it complimented the deep-sea richness of the mussels. My chum was more paranoid than I had ever seen him, and his hesitation made me break out in laughter. You would have though that he was meeting his death, not simply trying a jewel of the coast. He ate the first one, not saying a word, and then replied without me asking, "It's good." I already knew that, but I wanted him to try more. He finished half of the order, and with no complaint. I secretly wanted him to love it and I think that he may have. Time will only tell. Overall, I recommend eating at Arpa if you want a slow, sensual dinner. If you go, I cannot insist enough on getting the artisan bread and the mussels.

21.1.06

When I think about chocolate, I believe that my heart skips a beat. Though there are some that can simply live without it, I confess that one way into my heart is through quality chocolat. I recently purchased Nigella's "How To Be A Domestic Goddess". I rapidly flipped through the book, eager to read her chocolat selections. Upon reaching the chapter that was merely a picture of raw Valrhona and the word "chocolate", I knew I would not be disappointed.
I came across a cake that represented Gianduia, chocolate mixed with hazelnuts. I was shocked when to read that this recipe called for a whole container of Nutella. But, what is it that I say? "If you're going to do it, do it up."
I ended up using bittersweet buttercream frosting instead of what was recommended. I also used Starbuck's Liquor instead of the Frangelico, and I like the hint of espresso that it gave. This is a very moist cake that aims to please.

Torta Alla Gianduia
From Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess

for the cake:
6 large eggs, separated
pinch of salt
1/2 cup, soft, unsalted butter
14 ounces Nutella (1 large jar)
1 tablespoon Frangelico, rum, or water (this is where I used the Starbucks liquor)
scant 1/2 cup ground hazelnuts
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
9-inch springform pan, greased and lined with parchment paper or wax paper

for the icing:
4 ounces hazelnuts (peeled weight)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Frangelico, rum, or water
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites and salt until stiff but not dry. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and the Nutella spread together, and then add the Frangelico (or in my case, Starbucks liquor), egg yolks, and ground hazelnuts. Fold in the cooled, melted chocolate then lighted the mixture with a large dollop of egg white, which you can beat in as roughly as you want, before gently folding the rest of them in a third of the time. Pour into the prepared pan and Cook for 40 minutes or until the cake beginning to come away at the sides, then let cool on a rack.
Toast the hazelnuts in a dry frying pan until the aroma wafts upward and the nuts are golden brown in parts: keep shaking the pan so that they don't burn on one side and stay too pallid on others. Transfer to a plate and let cool. This is imperative: if they go on the ganache while hot, it'll turn oily.
Note: I toasted my hazelnuts in the oven, 350 degrees for 10 minutes. The skins literally feel off. A great way to toast nuts. Simply rolls them between a hand towel to remove the rest of the skins.
In a heavy-bottomed sauce-pan, add the cream, liqueur or water, and chopped chocolate and heat gently. Once the chocolate is melted, take the pan off the heat and whisk until it reaches the right consistency ice the top of the cake. ice the top with the icing, and dot thickly with the whole, toasted hazelnuts.
If you have used Frangelico, put shot glasses on the table and serve it with the cake.
Serves 8.

19.1.06

This sums up my Winter thus far. I have found so many excuses to bake. I cannot count the number of Oatmeal Raisin cookie batches I have made. But, what I have discovered that practice does make perfect. I've used butter at room temperature and slightly soft/melty. The latter of the two seems to yield the moistest and chewiest cookie. I think that cookies are best right out of the oven. However, I also believe that the true way to judge a cookie is by it's solidity or lack there of at room temperature. If that cookie is still soft and chewy, then you've done good. I have tried golden raisins as a variation. While they do bring a new and interesting citrus flavor, I'm not fond of the combination with these cookies. Regular California raisins do best.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
From Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook p. 77
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup pure maple syrup (grade B is best, but grade A works well too)
1 large egg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, with racks in the upper and lower thirds. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt; stir in the coconut. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachement, beat the butter and the brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the maple syrup and mix to combine. Add the egg and vanilla; beat utnil well combined, about 1 minute, scrapping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in two batches; mix until combined, but do not over mix. Add the oats and raisins; mix until combined.
Shape 3 tablespoons of dough at a time into 1 1/2 inch balls, 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Let set on the sheets for 2 minutes and then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Makes about 2 dozen.

21.12.05

As the New Year is showing it's eager face from around the corner, I cannot help but to reflect on all of my new knowledge and discoveries this year. Not only have I had the pleasure of indulging in so many new tastes and smells, but I have acquired more kitchen equipment than I have time to list. I have come a long way in my knowledge of food and how to prepare it. I believe it was in June of July, I started to read more and more about food and cookbooks and basically anything I could get my hands on that offered any knowledge of the culinary world. In September, I decided to grow some ball, so to speak, and put what I learned to use. I have only had a handful of successes, but more so than the wonderful treats I have whipped up, I have a new weekly tradition of cooking for my "test dummy" Jason. Not only is he the best company I think I have ever had, but he is an honest critic when it comes to my preparations. Here are two lists, hopefully some things will be new to some too.

New Kitchen Equipment:
oxo Mandoline
Kitchen Aid Artisan Mixer [my backbone]
x5 Francis!Francis! Illy espresso machine
microplane grater

New Tastes: Sea Bass
Red Snapper
Oysters
Fois Gras
Caviar
Pomegranite
Honey Crisp Apple
Speghetti Squash
Buffalo

5.11.05

Not to sound so terribly cliche, but I love Saturdays. I feel like it is the one day of the week that I have completely to myself. I allow myself to sleep in until I wake up, with out an alarm of any kind, and then I make a fresh pot of perked coffee. After purchasing several coffee makers, all of which ended up with a funky taste, Ken turned me on to perked coffee. I'll never go back.
After coffee, I throw on some "normal" clothing, because I'm dressed up all week for school, and go grocery shopping. I doubt there is a feeling more wonderful that I have than the one that I get when I go grocery shopping on Saturday. For me, it's a treasure hunt for all the best produce. This morning I was saddened to find that the farmer's market is now closed for the year. It's the beginning of a dismal winter. Now, I'm left to search through Harris Teeters whose product is over priced [2.99 for a single red bell pepper, and that is on sale] and half the quality. The only place that I can find a semi-replacement is the Fresh Market, but I still shell out about a fourth of my earnings from the night before for wonderful honey crisp apples and gigando pomegranates.
Thing brings me to my next rant. Charlotte. This is a wonderful town that is expanding at every seam, but how is that we are not fortunate enough to have a Whole Foods Market. True, we are blessed to have a decent size Dean and Deluca, which my Mother reminds me of [that we are DAMN lucky to have]. But how do we not have a Whole Foods or a Zingermans or a Trader Joes. We certainly have the demand for it. This city is so full of organic food lovers and picky eaters. For now, we must suffice with Tally's - a joke of an organic grocer. But I guess, until that day comes, I'll special order and do without.

My FIRST homemade pumpkin pie.