Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cookbook of the Month - Baklava Figs


Asking me about my favorite cookbook is like asking me what date of the month it is. There are at least 30 different possibilities. Like many of us, I am a creature of moods, fits and starts; what floats my boat one day, may sink it another, but not because yesterday’s dish was a disaster. More than likely, it was delectable, and I am still licking my chops over it. What by outside appearances seems like caprice is nothing more than an extreme case of curiosity, or a reminder of a recipe that I’d not made in ages and must return to.

This sort of studied randomness serves me in pretty good stead. Faced with infinite choices, honing in on the next taste treat can be easier if lured by someone else’s whim. Food blogs and events are ideal idea farms to guide me to the next great dish.

And that last dish was a dazzler. The last time I had baklava, I think most of the world was still on the Julian calendar. Shockingly sweet, roiling in buttery, syrupy decadence, this classic Middle Eastern pastry was as dull a memory as the toothache I would get from indulging in one too many of them. Destiny, however, was about to take my hand and tug me into the kitchen. I’d not been able to shake the tantalizing, jewel-like images of an adaptation of the traditional recipe, one where the filling is fitted into phyllo dumplings and baked in muffin tins. I was a goner.

I was also without phyllo dough and in the midst of too many other distractions to trot myself to the store. So I brooded for five minutes before I got cracking in my cupboards, desperate, but convinced that somewhere in the dark corners I could find a passable pitch hitter for my pastry. I did.

Dried figs are one of nature’s marvels. They never go bad, but can be reconstituted to a tender and plump facsimile of their former fresh selves. Someday I will bake baklava in muffin tins, and someday I’ll make it as prescribed in my favorite current cookbook, A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. I don’t know if it will be tomorrow, or next week or next season. I just counted my cookbooks. The calendar month really should have 47 days.


Me and my current favorite cookbook.

Phyllo-Free Baklava Figs (my own recipe) adapted from the traditional Claudia Roden recipe with inspiration from The Budding Cook.

Ingredients

8 dried, large well-shaped figs, such as Turkish or Calimyrna (I used Calimyrna)
2 cups water
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup walnuts
2 tablespoons honey (replace with brown sugar for vegan requirements)
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter (leave out butter for vegan requirements)
2 tablespoons rosewater
2 tablespoons crushed pistachio nuts

Method

In a medium sauce pan, bring the water and cinnamon sticks to a boil. Add figs to pan and simmer until the figs are plump, but not so tender that they fall apart. Remove from heat and allow figs to further soften and cool.

Meantime, grind or crush the walnuts in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Add honey, stirring until a paste forms. Either finely ground or chopped nuts work equally well.

When figs are cool, remove from cinnamon water and set on cutting board. Strain cinnamon water, then return it to saucepan, adding ½ cup sugar and the butter. Bring sugar water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer until the water thickens into syrup.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut only the very stem ends from the figs, discarding the stems. Carefully open and push down on the fig with a fingertip to create a little hollow. Do not press your finger through the fig, breaking the bottom. Fill each fig with the walnut/honey paste and arrange in an oven-proof dish. Pour syrup over figs and around them until they are sitting in syrup 1/3 of their height. Bake for approximately 35 minutes or until figs brown and syrup further thickens.

Remove from oven and allow to cool before carefully lifting each fig from the bottom with a fork onto serving plates. Strain syrup to clear of any nuts or fig seeds, stir in rosewater, then pour over and around the figs. Top each fig with a generous sprinkling of crushed pistachios.

Serves 8. --

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This post is for Nags of For the Cook in Me, hosting Show Me Your Cook Books, an event that actually got me to collect all of my cookbooks in one place and take a good look at them. Thanks, Nags!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Curiouser and Curiouser - Speculaas


Most of us need no provocation to indulge in the pleasures of eating and drinking, unless, of course, we have taken up the cause of self-deprivation in the form of going on a diet. Diets derail at an amazingly high rate, likely around the same percentile as new restaurants going under. This food business can be pretty tough to negotiate.

Diets fail for many reasons, the greatest of which is boredom. You can assuage the hunger pit formerly known as your stomach with enormous portions of “safe” foods such as hot-air popcorn and celery sticks, but it takes stupendous willpower to resist breaking out of the bubble of agonizing boredom which comes from knowing that for the next several weeks or months, you will live on only hot-air popcorn and celery sticks in order to reach your goal. Boredom can get you into a great deal of trouble. Go ask Alice.

Alice, the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s famous, quasi coked-up novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, lives the idle, pampered life of a stuffy upper-class Victorian English childhood. As her story opens, Alice is languishing with boredom on a river bank, primed for any temptation that comes her way. A white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and fretting over the time is just the sort of diversion this little girl craves. The chase is on.

No sooner does our fanciful heroine drop with a “thump” onto the floor of the deep well of the rabbit's hole, than she is drawn to the label of a little bottle of liquid ordering her to “DRINK ME.” Despite the elaborate matrix of pro and con arguments blurring through her mind, she does conclude that its contents are potable:

… finding it very nice (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast), she soon finished it off.”


The drink, however, nearly finishes her off. Now shrunken to only ten inches tall, she spies another alluring directive, “EAT ME,” on a small cake housed in a glass box. Giving up any further debate, Alice “…very soon finished off the cake,” and as one can now predict, skyrockets to a reed-slender figure over nine feet tall.



Magical transformations of height and weight should be so easy. I cannot vouch that a sweet marked “EAT ME” will either shrink or stretch you, but I do know that if you eat too many of them, they will make you wider.



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Speculaas - From Cookie Recipes Online. I made no deviations, except to roll out the dough approximately 1/4 inch thick before using assorted cookie cutters (not shown). The cookie in the photos was cut with a large oval jar lid and stamped with a letter press before baking. Traditionally, this dough is pressed into special molds, most commonly the image of a windmill, and often served for Christmas celebrations. It is important to allow the dough to soften slightly after chilling to allow for easy rolling. Makes approximately 32 two-inch cookies or 16 large ones. --


This post is being submitted to Simona of Briciole, and Lisa of Champaigne Taste, for their wonderful Novel Food event, highlighting the good food in the good books we read for body and soul.

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Been There, Done That

Alice
Grilled Portobello Caps

Spiced Sweets
Extreme Gingerbread Makeover

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Same Time Last Year - Green Goddess Crab


Photos 1 and 2 - Sand Beach, Acadia National Park


Acadia wasn’t the first choice for Scott, my fiancé, and I when we were planning our honeymoon last year. We were all set to go to the Grand Canyon and had secured a coveted hotel room perched precariously on the south rim. Unfortunately, work demands conspired against us, so we shortened our getaway and considered destinations closer to home. The decision to drive up the Eastern seaboard through one craggy fishing village after another enroute to our lodgings in Blue Hill, Maine, was easy. Not only had we found a region of majestic beauty, but also home to one of the premier shellfish industries in the nation. Our dining would be as memorable as our exploration of Mount Desert Island, but you wouldn’t know it from our arrival in Blue Hill.

Having taken the long, slowly scenic passage along Maine’s Route 1, we were deeply hungry and tired by the time we checked into our bed and breakfast. My mind was fixed on the idea of a lobster shack, clam hut or other unpretentious hole-in-the-wall, the more weather beaten, the better. I’d had the most bohemian, memorable meals at these types of little lean-to’s in other coastal towns throughout the years.


Crab Claws

Parsley

Tarragon

It was nearly 8 p.m. and many restaurants were not only closed at that hour, but already shuttered for the season, a mere two weeks after Labor Day. Our innkeeper recommended the restaurant of a seaside resort, one of the few places still open. We memorized her easy oral directions and dragged our bone-weary bodies, clad in grungy jeans and sweaters, back to the car.



Photos 3, 4 and 5 - Summit, Cadillac Mountain

The first turn onto the first pitch-black road was our first mistake, never mind that a sign was pointing the way. The next turn proved even more inauspicious; we lost the red tail lights of the car before us, guiding our uneasy way. At least it was something. Now we were all alone on a road that incrementally narrowed and grew gravelly under our tires. The brush scratched along the sides of the car and the road suddenly dropped and disappeared, leaving us on a dirt trail no wider than two hikers walking abreast. I wanted to go back, but there was no place to turn, and we were literally in too deep to back out without getting caught in a clutch of conifers. After inches that felt like miles, and minutes that felt like hours, we worked our way down to a clearing and a dimly lit Victorian mansion. We had finally arrived.

Thunderhole

Or so it seemed. We paced the wooden porch of the deserted building until we were greeted suspiciously by a woman whose demeanor was as severe and grizzled as her physical presence. After we justified our intrusion, the woman led us inside and pulled a map out of a drawer. A map? To get from the hotel to the restaurant? Where the hell were we and where were we going? After elaborately marking up the map with yellow highlighter, the woman sent us out into the night, admonishing us not to park our car just anywhere lest we block traffic. Traffic?

The map pushed us deeper into the darkest wilderness. The half-eaten bag of pretzels and flaccid, warm cheese sticks in the back seat were starting to look really good. We were another ten minutes into our travail, and still no “traffic.” My extravagant imagination tripped all my worst fears; I was convinced we would never return alive from those woods, that the next life form we would encounter would not be a deer in the headlights but a shotgun aimed at the windshield by a creature of sinister intent and single-digit IQ.

The Bubbles and Jordan Pond


The Bubbles

By the time we did get to the restaurant, a tomb serving a handful of diners as effete and dull as taxidermy specimens, I had no appetite left for the rich and creamy lobster pasta dish finally set before me. Deprived of my simple supper, I vowed to get my fill of all the shanty shellfish we could find for the duration of our stay. This year, when we returned to Maine, I continued my mission, plotting and planning each meal with precision as we worked up our appetites hiking steep trails in the brightest of sunshine, where we knew where we were going.


Bass Harbor Lighthouse


Green Goddess Crab Puffs (my own recipe)

Ingredients

16 miniature puff pastry shells
½ pound shredded crab meat, the freshest available
¼ cup mayonnaise, or the least needed to moisten and bind
1 scant handful chopped scallion greens
1 scant handful chopped tarragon
1 scant handful chopped parsley
Dash of black ground pepper
Salt, optional to taste
Slivered lemon peel, optional garnish

Method

Heat pastry shells in 300 degree F oven for approximately 8 minutes until warm. Follow package directions if using frozen shells.

Gently combine all other ingredients except the lemon peel in a large bowl. Fill each shell with a small amount of crab salad, then top with lemon peel if desired. Serve immediately as they are or return to oven to warm the filling for a few minutes.

Makes approximately 16 miniature crab puffs. The crab salad works equally well in grilled buns or atop a mound of mixed greens. --


This post is being submitted to Myriam of Once Upon a Tart, hosting Weekend Herb Blogging for Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, the creator of this weekly food-blogging event.

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Been There, Done That

Scallions
Colcannon

Tarragon
Herb and Walnut Bread

Parsley
Pasta with Parsley, Capers and Olives

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

We Will Rock You - Mâche Pit Salad


Do you ever get a song stuck playing in your head? Maybe it’s a chord progression as you’re passing by a boombox in the street, or a few lyrical notes that repeat like a mantra to soothe your rough nerves at the end of a day. Or maybe someone said something to you that trips a whole trainload of memories that you can’t shake no matter how you try. The old adage goes that you can’t hold two disparate thoughts together at the same time, that one will dominate and obliterate the other. But those synapse scientists never had to deal with the contagion of the jack-boot stomp of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”


Susan had a little lamb....

That seed was planted by Cynthia of Tastes Like Home, and Sandeepa of Bong Mom’s CookBook. Each a Rockin’ Girl Blogger in her own right, passed the torch of honor to me, and now I’ve got to face the music. We aren’t talking “Ave Maria,” here, either. And that’s too bad, because I’ve just scored my serendipitous first-ever punnet of tender, timid lamb’s tongue lettuce which I planned to dress in a simple slip of ultra-virgin olive oil and the faintest spray of sea salt. Looks like I’m going to have to go all acid and edgy now, and turn my sweet little salad into an anything-but-modest mosh pit. Lollapalooza just might approve.

Mâche Pit Salad

1 punnet (8 generous handfuls) lamb’s lettuce
1 medium bullet endive, shredded
½ yellow bell pepper, slivered after removing seeds and pith
½ cup carrots, sliced into coins
2 medium tomatoes, diced

Method

Gently mix all ingredients in large bowl. Add vinaigrette at last moment. Lamb’s lettuce is very delicate and wilts easily when dressed.


Raspberry Marmalade Vinaigrette – Adapted from About.com

1/3 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 cup good-quality orange or other citrus marmalade
1 tablespoon olive oil [or heavy cream, sour cream or mayonnaise]
3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
A few whole raspberries, for garnish

Method

Gently whisk all ingredients in medium bowl. Pour on salad moments before serving and top with raspberry garnish.

Serves 4 --
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For more girls in the band, check out:

Nora of Life's Smörgåsbord - Conviviality across the continents, joie de vivre and genuine concern for the blogging community.

Ayşe of I Love Turkish Food - Skillfully translated, fascinating recipes and orchestrator of one of the most mesmerizing blockbuster round-ups in recent times, Turkish Night.

Simona of Briciole - Quintessentially Italian expressions of life and love of good eating, inextricably bound with emotion, charm, and literally, a voice.

Johanna of Green Giraffe Gourmet - Infectious enthusiasm, a weakness for winging it when the ingredients are AWOL, and the best mix of rockin' music teasers at the end of every post on her virtual stereo.

This post is being submitted to Katie at Thyme for Cooking, the Blog, hosting Weekend Herb Blogging for Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, the creator of this weekly food blog event.

[Note: I am leaving this Saturday for a week in Maine, where the wi-fi connectivity is iffy at best. Will be in touch and posting again as soon as it's possible. Warm wishes to you all!]