Friday, December 28, 2007

santa, chicken bones, fairies and magic

It was christmas eve night at about 9:30pm. We were on the bridge back home enjoying light traffic and happy children despite the late hour and occasion. After a brief moment of silence the elder monkey blurts out: "I see a white sleigh in the sky!"
"You do? Where honey?"
"Over there by the hills daddy!"
"Just above them right there hon?" I pointed to a plane, low in the sky heading southward, making sure to sound convincing and enthusiastic, "Is it the one with the blinking light right there?"
"WOOOOWWWOWOW!!!!! That is soooo coool sweetie!"
"YEAHHHHH! SANTA!" she squeels.
"Wow. Santa must have a flashing safety light on the back of his sleigh just like mommy and daddy's bikes huh? You're eyesight is much better than mine but I can sure see the flashing light real well."
"Yeah, Santa has a flashing light on his sleigh so all the airplanes flying around don't hit crash into him. He's being real safe."
"Wow honey, not everyone sees Santa on his sleigh on christmas eve night!"
"Yeah, but I did!"

I've always wondered how old St. Nick gets around safely in such dense air traffic. Thanks to my knowledgeable and eagle-eyed daughter, I now know.

I was working on printing up a list of beer bottles available at a new bar here in oaktown. It specializes in belgain brews and features a few nice 'Merican ones as well. Have you heard of The Trappist? Like, damn, this place is cool. And, it has incredibly high alcohol belgian ales that encourage one to ride their bike rather than drive. I call that a step in the right direction.

In order to do a little homework before going and getting some exercise, I wanted to study-up on what's available, but my printer was acting all funky and paper was getting jammed. After trying three times with no success I finally pulled open the cover to have a thorough look. Nothing out of the ordinary except some tweaked and torn paper shreds. I cleared these and then slammed the cover shut in the prescribed fashion. Out popped a small object about 1/2 inch long and stick like, but with rounded edges and made out of some very light material. Oh crap I thought. Great, some tiny little tab of plastic snapped off and the printer is forever maimed. But the piece wasn't plastic. Or from the printer. It was one of those small chicken bones that always winds up being chomped on while enjoying chicken stewed in a chile verde. Apparently "someone" was not fond of having the bone in their possesion and it mysteriously ended up stuck under the edge of the printer. It reminded me of that maneuver where as a child you take the gum from your mouth and scrape it from your hand onto whatever edge your little fingers find under the folding chair at a family picnic. Only, I don't think anyone was sitting on top the printer while eating chicken verde. In a folding chair. That I know of that is.

But after my discovery, maybe I should look at it again and scan for gum too.

Once, riding the bike over to the farmers' market, the monkey spotted these and said "Look daddy! Christmas puppies!" I almost wrecked the bike laughing so hard.

I was reminded of this the other day, when we dropped H off at work and on the way home saw one of those electrical transformer boxes in Emeryville that are painted with stencil art. There are dozens of them, black shapes on yellow backgrounds. The one we saw was the typical profile view of a person (like the kind used in most crosswalk signs years ago) only this one had wings.
"Hey check out that art work over there; that person has wings!"
"Yeah I think it must be a fairy daddy!"
"You think?" I asked with a twinge of doubt, feeling myself slipping into playing the contrarian.
"Yes, a girl fairy."
"Really? How can you tell?"
"Because it has wings."
"You mean boy fairies don't have wings?"
"Not at all?"
"Well, they have one tiny little one, but it just flaps around in the breeze is all."
"Oh." I thought about it for a while then asked: "Sounds like it's better to be a girl fairy."
"Yeah, girl fairies are a lot better."

It really is a blessing to be in the presence of a set of eyes that don't have the same filters in place.

Why such big chairs? Well, it's kinda like around here when things happen or a new skill is demonstrated without any clear explanation of how exactly. It usually ends in "It must be magic daddy!"

Like this morning. Not sitting on such a large chair mind you, but unexpected indeed. I was making a dough when the elder monkey asked "Do you hear that Nutcracker music daddy? In the livingroom?"
"No. Do you?"
""Mmm hmmm," she says with a funny smile and then prances off. A few minutes later I walk in and discover that the Nutcracker is coming through the stereo and is about halfway through the performance.
"How did this come on?" I ask.
"I don't know." Said with a little shrug and smile.
"You mean it was just on when you came in here?"
"Yep!" Then she starts twirling around doing her best to be on her tippie toes.
"You sure you didn't turn it on sweetie?"
"Really I didn't daddy. I just used my magic!"

So according to that logic, from now on, all posting about food that contains a recipe will include an attempt to quantify the amount of "magic" that was used.

Call it a new years resolution of sorts.

Didn't think I was gonna get around to posting again, so sorry to sound repetitious but........

Happy New Year Everybody!

Monday, December 24, 2007

christmas tree seeds

We were down in Reedley for a pre-christmas visit and fruit gathering. My father in law asked if I could help him with getting up on a ladder and cutting down a pesky limb on one of the pines "down near the end." We dragged the ladder down to the southwest corner, past the last apricot on the right, and looked between where a handfull of pistachio trees blend into some pomegranates. We spotted our victim and discussed it's doom; deciding where to make the cut and set the ladder in place. I climbed up and found a comfortable branch to hold steady with, envisioning one hand gripping tight while sawing with the other. Then up came the saw, followed by lots of nice satisfying rasping noises, made possible by the blade having been recently sharpened.

Our limb safely on the ground and no longer encroaching on orchard space, my FIL started to gather a few pine cones that had fallen. He handed me one of them and pointed out that a few were loaded with nuts.
"Ah nuts! Cool! Hey, this isn't a pinyon pine, like the ones you gave us before.......a few years back." I remember cracking some and realizing that the nuts were going rancid with age because I took forever in using them and failed to refrigerate them properly.
"Well, this is an eye-tell-yen stone pine, but I didn't plant it. It just came up on its own. In fact all the stone pines around must've come from the first one we got years ago."
Wait a second, did he just say stone pine?
"Are there more cones laying around?" My heart started racing with dreams of local pine nuts. We quickly gathered all that we could find with open scales and exposed nuts, then got to pretending like we were squirrels, dismantling cones and stockpiling the bounty.
"Yeah, that first one was one of those live christmas trees that we got one of the first years here."
"Oh, the one leaning over near the house?" I asked.
"Right, but the birds have been busy spreading it around since I guess" he says with a chuckle.

Thank you birds. It's nice to benefit from your scattering ways. It looked like we had a bunch and I was eager to see what they tasted like. Out in the yard, this would require a few rocks, but then you mash the H - E - double hockey sticks out of them. We would have to wait until we got into the house and used a much more sophisticated tool. Such as channel locks. You can set them so that when the handles are fully squeezed together, the ends aren't touching. This allows you to crack the shell without completely mangling the inside, although at least a quarter still get a nice dent. Simple technology, but hey, I'm a simple monkey.

Inside the house my FIL got to cracking a few and quickly discovered that the majority were empty or shriveled. It was quickly becoming quite disconcerting. He came up with a simple solution. "Maybe if we put them in water, the empty ones will float and we can harvest the sinkers." Frickin' brilliant! I thought, I hope I'm half as sharp as this man is when I'm eighty two! With a little over fifty now on the counter drying after their bath, I began thinking of how best to use this hard earned bounty. Uh, hard earned, okay, no euphemisms, how about tiny little bit.

Well, it looked bigger in small hands at least. And next to all them pretty pairs of fairy wings they looked like a divine treat from the heavens. Which considering that they were dropped by birds, and perhaps even while in flight, I was really liking the analogy. The real working amount had still yet to be revealed. With pliers in hand, I set about pinching the crap out of my fingers while shooting small bits of nutty shrapnel about the kitchen. In fact, yesterday, a full five days after performing the task, I found a shelly chunk in my large fry pan that hangs from our ceiling rack.

So there you have it. 53 more or less intact pine nuts, free from their shell and ready for a recipe. My first thought was pesto. But have you seen any fresh basil in my yard lately? That would be no. With the first turn of weather even thinking about winter, and the first night in the upper thirties it quickly becomes that dried stick looking stuff next to the tomatoes. I have some pesto still socked away in the freezer though, so this meager ration was going into the next choice: cookies.

Biscotti to be exact. The ones on the left, pictured above the neapolitans are the anise cookies I've eaten my whole life, but I like to tinker and make vegan varieties. So I used some pistachios, lemon zest, a touch of corn meal, a few finely chopped shards of chocolate, and all 53 pine nuts and did just that. The end result was nice, but needs work. Next time I'm cutting down on the flax and adding more corn meal. Maybe even ditching the chocolate, or limiting it to a thin coating on one side. Then, they might be considered part of the holiday cookie lineup.

Of course, someone has to eat the experiments. I find they go down nicely with a steaming hot cup of joe. At least three or four at a time, I hear. I also hear those pine nuts spoil real fast, so you gotta make sure and eat them while they're fresh. Then enjoying such freshness you'd just have to think about ways to make the harvest of nuts bigger in the future.

Then again maybe I should just sit back, have a second cup, a few more biscotti and not think at all. Let nature run its course, and let the birds do all the work. With some luck, in just twenty or thirty years more time, I'll be making that pesto.

Happy Holidays Folks!
Oh, and while I'm at it I'll say Happy New Year too!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

naan too soon

Naan experiment 1: Garlic Chevre with Sesame Seeds.

It all started innocently enough. A simple potluck invite and mention of a theme and next thing you know I've volunteered to do naan. That means it was time for a naan experiment, but, the recipes I had in my mind, to try all together somehow at once, called for yogurt and I hadn't any on hand. Or in my fridge. As usual, I had to make do with what was available. I figure garlic naan is good, so some gifted garlic chevre went in with some milk, to go along with the active starter as the liquid component for my dough. My typical ratio of 1/4 whole wheat would be used. The few recipes I read spoke of kneading the dough for longer than five minutes so I assumed that they were after gluten development. I went ahead and pounded away for a while, then set it to rise in the oven.

After an initial floof, I put our pizza stone in the oven and cranked it up to blistering hot. Out comes the rolling pin and begins the thumping and squishing the dough until I work out the thickness I should start with. After the first pinch-ballup-squashandroll maneuver, I slapped the bread on the hot stone and stood back to avoid singing my eyebrows. Looking away I noticed our phone had a message. I pinched-balledup-squishedaround-andflattened the next one and then pulled the tester from the oven. I tore a bit off, shoved it in my mouth and shuffled over and hit play on the phone, hearing a disturbing message that was something to the effect of my cousin Rohan being due any minute. Though I didn't expect him to eat any of the milky-cheesy naan, I full well expected him to scrutinize me in how it was prepared. I began to get nervous. I could hear his first line: "please tell me you're making calzones," or maybe "don't tell me you're making naan!" I then imagined the tirade he would undoubtably launch into when he found out about my yogurt substitution and involuntarily gave a small shudder.

With the first rolled too thin, it fluffed nearly all the way resulting in a pita and was rather dry and thin compared to what I was envisioning. I abandoned my plan for immediate success (like, duh) and pulled out a few hot dogs to nosh on with the sample pieces I'd have to eat. I thought about the rack positioning I had arranged and decided to move the pizza stone to the top for the next round in order to try crisping the naan some. I worked on rolling out a few more, a touch thicker this time, hoping for a more doughy middle and lightly browned top given the new configuration. I got out a little butter and clarified it really quick, brushed the top and sprinkled on some sesame seeds. In went the next round.

With what looked like the best so far in the oven, Ro opens the door without a knock and invites himself in, grabs a beer from the fridge and in a quick maneuver cracks the top with his teeth and spits the cap out. He then pauses to tilt the bottle in my direction and give me a wink and nod, all in a highly practised manner before taking his first swig.
With a raised eyebrow I get: "Smells nice D. But what is that........some type of bread with like, what, goat cheese or something? some garlic?"
""Yes Ro, I'm making bread." I tried for the distraction move. "Are you well? Is the beer satisfying"
"Bloody well, thank you. And the stout is nice. Much too cold, my clueless American family member, but tasty indeed. Too bad it won't warm up appreciably before I'm through with it." Then lifting his nose and giving the air a prolonged sniff, "Wait, that smells familiar. Are you attempting a naan of sorts my dear cousin?"
"Well......." I didn't know how truthful to be, fearing the scorn and judgement I knew was imminent. I decided to tread lightly and thought that if I said something highlighting it having all this cheese in it, that it might trigger the vegan preferences he sometimes displays, resulting in him leaving it to me. "Yeah, cheesy garlic goaty cheese bread" I blurted.
Instead of the response I'm hoping for he lets out a: "Sounds great!" followed by a brief belly rub and "mmmmmm, goaty cheese bread!"
"So this sounds good to you my vegan cousin?"
"Oh yeah!"

We sampled the next round, me having a sense of accomplishment with my results and my cheery cousin polishing off his beer and moving on to his next without even a nod. I remembered the hot dogs I had boiled earlier and went to reach for one when I sensed scrutiny from behind.
"Are you gonna eat that?"
"No. Simply chew it up and spit it at you, why do you ask?"
"Because it would make a great bagel dog."
"Ro, that's brilliant!" Then I thought about it. "Wait, you want one too?"
"Does this mean you're taking another carnivorous detour from the veggie highway?"
"Maybe. I just know that right now, this dough would make for one great bagel dog wrapper, and coupled with them fine all veggie hot dogs and a chance to relive a childhood memory while enjoying a warm beery tummy, well, then, how do you Yanks say it, shit damn pardner, sign me up!"
"They are most certainly NOT vegan there Ro."
"But the package said Prather Ranch right?"
"Yeah. And.....?"
"Let us sit and eat. Then I shall explain," he says, reaching for another beer.

So, my wannabe vegan cousin and I sat and enjoyed some bagel dogs. They were way better than anything either one of us had as youths. These were uncured organic free range beef, lovingly wrapped with sourdough garlicky goaty bread and served with a (couple) nice dark beer(s).

"Well D, these are the best vegan bagel dogs I've ever had the fortune of tasting."
"What the......there was nothing vegan about them!"
"Sure there was. You see, if the cows eat only grasses, then this is vegan beef."
"Uh-huh, and what, somehow you're not then actually eating the cow?!?"
"Exactly. If you make hot dogs from cows that are strict vegans, then the meat used is really only a form of concentrated vegetal-mass, especially if you grind it so thoroughly. Meaning that this meal is really 100% vegan!"
"Well, even in the fictitious world of your mind where beef is vegan, the hot dogs would be, but not the goat cheese dough."
"Hmmmm," then a few hmmphs followed by a sigh. "I suppose not the dough. What a shame. Maybe we should have another beer to help commemorate the perfect vegan bagel dog. That very nearly, almost was."
"How eloquently put Ro."
"Right!" Then with a wink and a nod "another stout for you my brother?" then seeing the look on my face " c'mon, they're really good, I know the brewer......."

Notes to self: Really tasty, but really springy dough that is hard to get the right thickness. Maybe I'll try a commercial yeast version and/or knead the dough less next time. Garlic sesame combo works nice. Putting pizza stone near the top can result in radiant heat from oven roof browning the highest portions of the naan (good thing, although if using an electric oven it would probably burn the crap out of it being so close to the heating element). Overall, a good learning experience that warrants at least another experiment.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

kitchen noir

Dark, mysterious things have been happening in my kitchen. Like the case of the missing toast:

In the busy life I lead, I am often not able to fully ingest something before my attention is diverted away. In this case, I was about to sit down to a nice slice of toasted baguette when the wee one woke up from a morning nap. I ran upstairs to attend to him, and returned just a few moments later to find these remains. Hmmmmm, in black and white, to make it all the more mysterious......

Well now. If my breakfast is going to disappear I'll just have to do something about it. Sticking with the theme, I pulled out a boudin noir (my new favorite sausage) from the fridge and plopped it in a frying pan. I went to the remains of the baguette and discovered there was enough for a breakfast sandwich. So after frying the sausage, with the pan still blistering hot, in went two eggs. Slice the bread and pop it in the toaster. Spicey mustard in hand, the fixin's were coming together.

Now that is one good looking breakfast sandwich.


What the hell? Black and white still? What the f*%@ is going on here?

Can't a guy enjoy his morning sandwich in peace AND color?

Well, it tasted great. Them folks over at the Fatted Calf really know a thing or two about charcuterie. Topped off with local eggs and handmade mustard on a sourdough baguette and I nearly fainted. I could eat this all the time for breakfast. And lunch. Okay, and dinner too, who am I kidding. But I'll still need something to wash it down with. Something black I suppose.

Like a homebrewed black death stout. Who cares if the picture is black and white or not, the beer is black. That's all that matters. Oh, and super yummy tasty. I guess that matters too. There is another gallon or two in the garage, that should in theory, peak in flavor somewhere near the winter solstice. Pffftt! Like it will last that long. (I've really gotta get to making another batch of that stuff, damn it's good!)

Then, with the holidays just around the corner and the prospect of cooking very large sized meals for lots of family and friends, you start looking at all the kitchen implements at your disposal and wonder: do I have a big enough pot to cook that 15-20 pound roast in? I rifle through the pots and pans in the kitchen and none look up for the task. Besides, it's hard to gauge how big such a roast would be in theory. Unless you have such an ample sized "roast" at your disposal.

Looks like an eight-gallon stock pot will work!

Thanks little buddy. Good thing 6 month olds are entertained by such simple things. Like being momentarily sequestered in a large pot while your father day-dreams of enormous quantities of chile verde............

And for the folks worried about child endangerment: calm down. I'm a professional Monkey Wrangler here. I've been on the job for four years and haven't killed anyone yet. There was no active flame under that pot, nor was there one for the previous couple of hours. And just so you know, he loved it. So much in fact that the elder monkey requested she try it out as well.

See you all later. On the dark side of things.

Got any kitchen noir to share?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

wrangler in rose

{Note: Fatherhood is the most rewarding task I have undertaken in my life, and equally stressful, quite often at the same time. This post is a recollection of some events that produced such a state. But most importantly, my kids are well and I have survived to tell the tale..........and as with each tale of wandering near the brink, whether of sanity, health or reality, this tale portends of future occurences and long lasting consequences.}

Where am I?

Has it really been a fortnight of wranglin' around in a pastel ruled girlie land; a season of pinks, purples and myriad other shades, where rosie pink has infiltrated everything......

Two weekends ago it all started innocently enough with my desire to feed some farmers. The Ecology Center had their annual Feed the Farmers party and with purple sweet potatoes in the market it was time for that lavender beauty again. This is my favorite way to make cheesecake and the results are fantastic. The color of the finished product has folks wondering what's in it from across the room. When they find out it has sweet potato they usually raise an eyebrow in doubt. Then they try it, smile, and ask you once agin what's in it, because they simply can't fathom how your last statement of ingredient can yield such a tasty and royal colored treat. Or you get the "there's sweet potato in here?" questioning face, followed by the "but it's delicious!?" look of bewilderment. Try it sometime. You'll see what I'm talking about and then you can let me know what you had as experience for reactions to it.

Between making the cheesecake twice, eating some baked sweet potato for lunch twice myself, and feeding it to the wee one a few times as well, I spent each day involved with a lavendar hue at some point. Topped off with the elder monkey's hair having pink highlights, then coupled with her wearing pink and/or a princess dress for a few days on end while prancing and bopping, hopping and stomping around constantly, I was beginning to wonder if my eyesight had been "pink shifted." Like astronomy and universal expansion being seen in the red shift of things and stuff like that. Only closer to home, super girlie, and way pink. Before I realized it fully, my life in rose colored sight and taste had already lasted a week.

After the day of grotesque turkey consumption came the real days of pink though. Big girl turned four. It was birthday season. I thought to myself, Holy crap. I've got a four year old and a 6 month old!! Couple this with our orchids showing signs of blooming again this year and I'm startin' to feel like a real adult!

Plans for the momentous occasion began the previous weeks with late night store runs and the first rumblings of craft work. These were followed by actual progress on requested birthday items as the hours counted down. Last year we had a piñata, so this year we were being held to furnishing another. Only this time, with a preconceived notion of what the realm of possibility was, she requested a spiderbatflamingo. You've heard of one right? The great mythical creature of long ago. The part spider, part bat, part flamingo beast that was feared by some but loved and now revered by my kid. I hadn't heard of one before and was having trouble envisioning such a thing, but it didn't stop me from trying to accommodate her desires. Now the problem was how to find one. "Sure honey, we could have a piñata like that, no problem!" What the hell was I thinking? No one is going to have such a thing. I'll have to make it myself! I can do it!?

Well it only took about four hours of actual work on it, with maybe another ten of thinking about it real hard. It had a black widow body, and bat wings mounted near the intersection of the cephalothorax and abdomen, since I wasn't sure where a spiders wings would go, being that they haven't any. A flamingo neck and head complete with monkey chosen "poisonous fangs" mounted near the base completed the creature. We hung it from our dining room fixture for maximum effect. It was greeted on party morning with a "that's a flamingo spider!" Then after a wing-type question, "with bat wings!"

It was a hit, so to say. The underside of the spider didn't prove too difficult to whack through and the red violin shape was recognized by monkey and most others as belonging to a black widow. It made me think that maybe we have a future entymologist on our hands. Wait, or is that etymologist? Anyway, the treats seemed to trickle out in small handfulls with each turn of abuse. Perfect for the crowd. I was proud of my design, and the stress of the piñata making and the related worry over its ability to function, resulting in a bizarre sense of "performance anxiety," was over. The creature ended thoroughly mangled and empty of candy. My daughter's face was lit up and happy, beaming with the destruction and success. I patted myself on the back and gave my big girl a huge squeeze, feeling myself getting all choked up.......

Two days after the party, and finally a sense of normalcy is beginning to return to the house, after the holiday/birthday/special-nessy of it all. For me, it was time to start paying closer attention to our latest cider. I had managed to procure yet more apple juice for yet more apple hooch, making it three batches so far this year. And I'm proud to report that this time I went and bought the juice without squeezing it myself, thus saving an inordinate amount of time during a season that was lacking already. The juice was fresh pressed, unpasteurized and kept cold for a day. Not to mention, from one hell of a delicious fuji apple. Well, it was from more than one apple obviously, but not more than one variety. I can't wait to compare it in a few months with the rest of the ciders, side by side.

Just when I thought the season of pink might come to an end, I get roped into "let's put some of the foamy stickers on the cider daddy!" Willingly that is. You see, I'm a sucker for my monkey. She's trained me how to be a dad, and she deserves all I can give. I'm proud. And stressed. And comfortable in my masculinity amongst all the girlie-ee. Stickered in pink, even wearing a skirt or ribbons in my hair, I've never been happier in my whole life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

butternut pomegranate pistachio muffins (of Persian influence)

I've been thinking a lot lately, about the role of food in culture, but mainly how it is more important than religion. You can go ahead and argue the point, but the simple fact remains that you need to eat in order to worship. No food means no religion. Given this, and coupled with thinking of myself in the past at times as a zen buddhist with taoist inklings who was baptized as a catholic, I've been considering scrapping any sort of fondness or affiliation with organized philosophies and religions and just start declaring myself a worshipper of food. Who needs a deity when you have pomegranates? Of course, I realize that you can say, "hey, no deity no pomegranates dude," but the point I'm trying to make is that our love of food goes back to a time before our concepts of religion took any formal shape. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we listened for the breath of God in our daily meal before we ever did in a church. With this in mind, I'll be listening for the divine in some Persian produce.

I've been pawing through a Persian cookbook that my SIL loaned me and I've been struck with how many of the produce items involved are ones that are currently available at market. Nearly every other recipe has pomegranates or pistachios in it somewhere. Butternuts rule the squashes involved in most of the dishes. Reading this and realizing I have this produce and a fair quantity of the spices needed in my cabinet I suddenly felt inspired. A butternut deity from the fridge whispered: "my roasted honey self, on the lower shelf would lend a great undertone to some muffins." A voice from the dried goods drawer rasped: "come to the salted pistachios." As I thought about the voices, another far off in the garage screamed: "HEY! Please pull it together and do something with us!" I guess a few pomegranates were getting some moldy edges, and afflicting others no doubt. It was time to worship.

Out came the Cuisinart. That's always worship. I blended up some pom arils and sieved the pulp. I removed the skins from my roasted butternut wedges that were slathered in honey from a few nights before. To get a nice consistency I blended the pom juice with the squash, then added pistachios at the end and pulsed it a few times to leave some chunky deity in there. I consulted my Persian spice fairy and came up with a blend of cinnamon, cardamon, coriander and black pepper. This was pulverized by my lovely assistant while she chanted "POUND THEM, SQUASH THEM, POUND THEM!" several times and then stopped to begin circumnambulating her brother while he flailed about in the Johnny jump up.

I used the blended mash as the fruit portion in a recipe for banana bread. I pitched in the warm spices we ground and while mixing the batter before pouring into the cups, made sure to include some variance in aril usage for learning purposes. I decided to put some on a couple, some in a couple and then leave the remaining as a control group. Fresh from the oven they looked and smelled very promising, but what would the insides and the final flavor be like? Would the voices be pleased with my treatment of their ingredients?

Although this crappy picture doesn't document it well, I'll tell you here that the texture was fluffy and moist, the spicing nice and the chunks of pistachio right on. The muffin pictured was one with pomegranate arils in it. I found that they worked well, but then again I don't mind eating them whole, without spitting out the seed as many folks do. Cooking them made the seed softer, but probably not enough for everyone. They were very pretty though, and would be even more striking if they were from darker pomegranates. The Persian produce deities smiled and concluded the worship a success.

I'm so glad I listen for the little voices in my produce. They can be inspiring.
What a great way to worship.

sssshhhhhh!................what was that? did you hear something?


based on the old standby Joy of Cooking Banana Bread recipe:

1&1/2 c all-purpose flour (I'm trying using a blend of whole wheat and oatmeal next time)
1 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
3/4 stick (6 T) room temperature butter
1/2 c granulated sugar (I'll try using about half brown next time)
2 large room temperature eggs
1/2 c cooked butternut squash
1/2 c pomegranate juice
1/2 c pomegranate arils (seeds)
1/4 c pistachios
1/4 t cardamon
1/4 t coriander
1/4 t black pepper
1 t ground cinnamon

combine the first four dry ingredients into a bowl and mix thoroughly. melt the butter and cream in the sugar. by hand if you like torturing yourself/enjoy the workout, or in a mixer for a few minutes until it fluffs up some. oh yeah, use about two medium white pomegranates (the ones that are lighter in flavor and color) for this recipe. you can use the darker more common variety but remember they both taste and stain stronger. take them apart underwater as to separate the membrane from the arils and to keep them from doing the inevitable and squirting all over that light colored shirt that you are no doubt wearing right now. juice most of the seeds (~2/3rds) and use for blending with the squash, keeping the rest intact for topping or adding into the batter. add the pistachios at the end of blending the squash to keep some in larger pieces, or chop by hand and add later. measure the spices into a mortar and pestle and pulverize as finely as your arms allow. if not using freshly ground spices, you might want to add a pinch more. toss the spices into the dry ingredient mixture and add to the creamed butter fluff. mix this until it is all crumbly and sugary looking. crack and mix your eggs into this. when thoroughly combined, fold, that's right I said fold the butternut/pom/pistach blend into it. if you really really like pomegranate seeds and enjoy eating them whole then add the rest of seeds to the batter. line cupcake pans with paper cups and spoon some batter in. bake at 350 for about 25 minutes or until golden brown and done.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

favorite english muffins

I talk a lot about english muffins around here. I guess it's fine and dandy and all, but really I'm just full of hot air (as my cousin Ro so delicately pointed out) if I never reveal my sources. Apparently I've never given you the recipe I'm working with. So, contained here you will find my own current favorite version, of the one that my sis sent me an email about after discussing my early sourdough attempts, that started the whole obsession with the totally addictive muffin, that, has now morphed into a thing of deliciousness and beauty. So, besides the issues of transparency and full disclosure of sources, I wanted to write this version down for myself too because no matter how simple a recipe, the "details" will get lost.

If you can get your hands on fresh corn meal, you will be wanting to make these, and soon. Provided you have a sourdough starter. If you don't and live around the bay area, maybe we can talk and I'll give you some. I'm thinking of a sometime in the future, kind of english muffin workshop thingamagig. Otherwise if you want to forge ahead without starter it's up to you, because I've never attempted these with dry yeast, nor do I have any confidence that they will taste the same, so if you do, please tell me about it. And now, for the treats from this year's trick:

My friend Chilebrown, besides being a true bacon aficionado is also a bread fiend, who gifted me some bread flour from his recent trip north. The coolness of this particular flour is that it's from the mill that was first started by Bob, before he moved across the border and took up shop in Oregon, and called it by a different name, starting with his first instead of his last. It is a lovely light and fluffy bread flour that claims to be especially good for sourdough, so I fed mine with it and then did up some muffins the next day. I used a ratio of about 1/4 corn meal that was just fantastic.

In case you have not heard, the time is now for fresh cornmeal, so do yourself a favor and go get some and go home and use it. Now. It tastes the best right now. If you love muffins and cornmeal just go do it.

For halloween this year I made a double batch and did some pumpkin shaped ones and some big rounds. The pumpkins were fun, but unless you saw the cutter with it, you might not immediately think pumpkin. I almost put something in to make them orange, but after having discussions with my friend K, decided that the brain might not be able to get over them not tasting orange colored while consuming. Folks at the market seemed to appreciate them as treats, as I gave some out to my favorite vendors, making sure to get some to the source of the cornmeal, Full Belly.

They had to be tested before giving out and as with any muffin in this house, it is subject to a sweet or savory treatment depending on the mood. This time I wanted both to see how the corn flavor stood up. Two eggs over medium, homemade plum chutney on half, butter on the other, real strong and sweetened coffee (not pictured) to complete the round. I think I had two rounds of coffee, one of egg and four of muffins. This type of muffin munching made me tally what I figure in the last week, must be about 1/4 of my sustenance, I like them that much. Like I said, if you dig muffins and cornmeal, go do yourself a favor and make some of these if you are at all inclined.

And now for the secrets and methods, the "meat" of the method, with some pictures from the last year of making different versions:

adapted from sourdough english muffins recipe found at Baking Bites.
Hi Nicole! Really, this muffin obsession is all your fault.....

Note: from the point of initially taking the starter out of the fridge and feeding it, until eating the end product is at least 20 hours, maybe more. Remember this is sourdough and that despite this, the actual time you spend doing something is anywhere between one or two hours. More like one once you get the hang of it.

Uhhh, (clears throat) like, the recipe......

Take one cup bread flour and one cup room temperature water and whisk together in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. Remove starter from fridge and stir into the flour and water mixture. Use a plastic or wooden spoon for this. Cover with a tight lid or plastic wrap and allow to sit out on the counter in ambient temperatures between the high fifties and the low seventies, wherever that may be in your home.

The next day (8-12 hours later) scoop out 1&1/2 cups of starter and add to a clean, large bowl. Add an equal portion of non-fat milk and stir. (I usually use the same measuring cup from the starter as to get it all from inside and out while pouring the milk into it.) Add 1 cup corn meal and two cups of all purpose flour and stir. The result should be a soupy dough somewhat like pancake/waffle batter. Cover this and let sit out overnight (or 8-12 hours).

The next day (did I say 20 hours?) it should look as pictured here, a white and a whole wheat version of the muffin mix at this point in the process, sitting near some waffle mix ready for cooking. To this bubbly and frothy bowl, add 1 cup all purpose flour, 3 Tablespoons of granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix until it is time to use your hands. Then add a few more tablespoons of flour at a time until the dough is just hardly unsticky enough to turn out onto a well floured cutting board. I turn the edges of the dough inward and press flat, rotating and repeating a few times until the dough is no longer a sticky mess and is ready for a few minutes of kneading.

When the dough just begins to tighten up a bit (this will vary on your gluten content and how much whole grain product you use), roll it into a large sheet, rectangular or otherwise until it is approximately 1/4 inch thick. With the cutter of choice, cut as many shapes as possible with the first go round. Gather the remaining bits and while kneading as little as you can, roll it out again and repeat the cutting process.

Take the cut shapes from the board and arrange onto a cookie sheet that has been sprinkled generously with cornmeal. After all the muffins are transferred, sprinkle the tops with ever more cornmeal and then cover loosely with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Let these rise for anywhere between 30-60 minutes. If you are cooking the muffins on an iron griddle as I do, you will want to put it in the oven and pre-heat it at 500 degrees while the muffins do some rising.

Over medium heat, transfer the muffins one at a time onto the hot, seasoned but not buttered griddle. Cook for 3-4 minutes and then take a peak. When the muffins are beginning to brown on the bottom and show signs of bubbling through like pancakes, flip them. To compensate for differences in the griddle, I rotate my muffins during cooking and flipping to even their cooking times. If you can do pancakes, you can do muffins. Different end product, but the same basic cooking method.

Using a four inch round cutter, this recipe can yield 18 muffins, this and a smaller round makes easily twenty, using the pumpkin more like thirty, so if you're worried about disaster and don't quite want the commitment to wasting so much flour, halve the recipe and go from there. But if you do, be warned, as you'll probably wind up eating them all in a day whether they're great or not because they'll be hot and now. Then think, it will be another day (at least) from satisfying the craving for more. They are like crack. Especially served with smear of crack sauce or the like.

As for an english muffin workshop, I'll wait to see what kind of response I get to the idea. If any of my fellow bay area foodies are interested in this let me know. I'm thinking about 4-6 folks over to my home where there will be a co-created muffin batch with everyone getting some time to practice their hand at kneading dough, flipping muffins at the griddle, stuffing your face with muffins and copious quantities of jam, and then to top it all off leaving with some starter so that you can forge ahead at home and start feeding your own addiction.

Friday, October 26, 2007

halloween fruits

It's that time again. The crazy time of year when the Great Pumpkin rises over the patch and the ghouls and goblins come out to eat. Time to dress up and go sample some autumn fruit at the Berkeley Farmers' Markets, like on this coming Tuesday Halloween-eve as part of the Fall Fruit 'N Fright festivites. If you're in the East Bay, don't miss it and come check it out! If you can't make it, there is also this Saturday the 27th (tomorrow, sorry for the short notice) a chance to come for a preview fall fruit tasting while shopping. Then if you're lucky you can come again on Tuesday the 30th for more tasting and holiday festivities. Eat pie! Honor the dead! Dress up with the kids and come on down and carve a pumpkin! Show them that Halloween ain't just candy, it's also a bounty of great fruit. And what better way to get kids to love fruit than to give them the best in a fun atmosphere.

Rumor has it that master baker and sourdough saviour JtheC fresh from a desert camping trip will be making a brief appearance to cut some fruit for the public. A small flamingo and baby penguin that are the fruit of his loins might be in tow but other than avian off-spring, no miracles will be involved. However, J-man will be wielding a really sharp paring knife (which he keeps in his sleeve for such occasions, and hopes to not injure one of his healing hands this time) and working alongside other volunteers (is it really any suprise that he does?) while lovingly slicing some really delectable fruit, and serving it to you, the market shopper, for free. Just come on by the Ecology Center booth with a mouth ready for stuffing with tantalizingly super tasty pears, apples, and persimmons, maybe even some early citrus and spooky bloody looking pomegranates.

It's time for fun. See you there! Tell the folks at the booth that the Monkey Wrangler sent you and if you're there later in the day, give JtheC a big squeeze while enjoying the festivities......

Sunday, October 21, 2007

cornmeal harvest time at the park

As a shopper at many farmers' markets, I've developed a certain eye for particular foodstuffs. Grains for example. They seem to be lacking in selection at most markets, so when I find a good source I make sure to remember when and where, how much and how good. But this too has limits, since although grains store well, the storage bins tend to empty out before harvest time, leaving folks like me just DYING for a month or so before the new crop is ready. Take corn for instance. I just lurv the stuff. Corn on the cob, frozen corn, popcorn, with a special emphasis this year in cornmeal. I can't get enough apparently. With the pickings slim at the markets lately, I was very happy to find that the East Bay Regional Park District can occasionally be a source for fresh, delicious local grains.

This past weekend we went down to Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont to enjoy their Harvest Festival with our good friends. We had read about various activities including corn husking and doll making, cider pressing and ice cream making. Also, that grains would be milled on-site, including wheat. And corn. My heart did a little flutter: could it be? please lord let their be some for me......

Luckily, there were even some genuine old-timers around to do the grinding, using a few tractors as power for the belts involved to run the things. It was mesmerizing to stand at a safe distance and watch the spinning and listen to the spittysandygrindy noises as the flour was milled. Another team of folks took the large trays of fresh, warm flour and scooped it into cloth bags, tossing them on a nearby table for another team to sell. We checked it all out and then bought a still slighlty warm bag for the road. I did a little happy dance, and started thinking of cornbread variations and the possibilities of ingesting to much and getting corn bloat.

Come Monday, with the sourdough fed and looking like it's contemplating some sort of alien flight, it was only natural I'd add some cornflour and start with pizza dough. A touch of whole wheat made it in as well, resulting in it being a third whole grain. We went out and picked some rosemary and thyme and added this with the salt near the end of kneading. After a few hours it had poofed up nicely so I put the stone in the oven for a pre-heat.

Our cherry tomatoes out front are continuing to supply us with fruit so we picked a few cups worth and halved them for a topping. Out back the basil is still hanging on, especially the purple stuff. On Sunday, I finally turned some of our roma harvest into a sauce, so we used this as a base, pressed in basil leaves, finished with cheese and oodles of carmelized onions and we're in business. Then it hit me. All the water I use for my gardening needs at home are from Eb-Mud as we affectionately call it around here, so this pizza is really:
EBRPD Grain + EBMUD watered garden = YUM

Fine with me. I love it when two governmental agencies can get together on something for the betterment of the people. Even when they don't know it. With any luck, someone working for one of these will have some staff member who occasionally trolls about looking for who's saying what about them. On the off chance they are I like you guys. A lot. Please keep up the good work!

Ok, ass-kissing aside, I had to fold some of this dough up, especially since I spotted the calzone fiend out in my tomato patch the hour before and knew he must be on the prowl for a freebie. I tossed in some cheese at the last moment (we didn't have much left) hoping the smell would deter my supertaster quasi-vegan cousin from barging in and mooching on my dinner. Apparently it worked. There's still half in the fridge.

Wednesday found us hitting GTK for more corn meal experiments. I had plenty of buttermilk, eggs and cheese, and the jalapeños I had needed using. But who needs excuses to make cornbread? The weather has started turning crappy round these parts and I've been wanting warm things at all meals. Warm bread in particular.

So how lucky was I, when I pulled the bread from the oven and then remembered my ma saying she had some slow cooked pork roast and veggies in the fridge. I got these out and got some heat into them quick. I unmolded the muffins, having eaten one already since I accidently mangled the top. I pulled another two and a slice off the round to consume with the pork. Together, the flavors danced. The peppers were sweet with just a touch of heat. The freshness of the corn really rang. Damn. I ate until I could hardly breathe. The elder monkey was off with the grandparents and the younger was asleep. The entire scene was too much. I thought, I'm super-hella-lucky. I love my life.

The next day, I'm not sure why exactly, but I just had to make more corn bread. Well, kinda. This stuff was a sandwich loaf of sorts, with about a third of a whole grain component, most of which was corn meal. Because I failed to give my starter any notice of my intent to bake, I cheated and used a packet of commercial yeast. That's right folks. Even the Monkey Wrangler occasionally cheats and uses a form of yeast that will go from pure ingredients to baked loaf in under four hours. But, I did feel a bit silly and was thinking of my friend Chilebrown (who's bacon gift I was about to cook) and his deadly good sourdough jalapeño cheddar bread. Failing in the sourdough department, but still feeling inspired, I added some horseradish jack and a few jalapeños to the dough. The loaf came out beautiful, with all the flavor I had imagined in it coming through. I was proud, as it would allow me yet more cornmeal gluttony.

With the ingredients sliced, baked, fried and ready, it was time for some BAT sandwiches with roasted garlic rosemary potatoes. I'd like to take a moment here and thank Chilebrown for the bacon (it was the pork shoulder bacon from Gene's Market. Did that make it Chandler bacon then CB?) as it was most wonderful and satisfying. I'd also like to apologize to my friend Leena who will read this and want to kill me out of jealousy for having such fine bacon at hand. The poor thing. I guess down under you just can't get good bacon. Well, feast your eyes on this girl. I know the picture doesn't highlight the bacon well, but let me tell you: it was extra crispy.

I've toned it down on the corn madness in the last few days and have been concentrating on the cider. I mean, ciders. So far, so good. If all keeps going like it is, it will be cider not vinegar. So happy. Life is good. Busy, but good.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

fall break

Holy crap, where have I been the past two weeks? Like, there anybody out there still listening? Have I completely lost my audience by now?

(thump thump thump.......a static-y clicking sound over and over) this thing on?

Oh, right, it's about me not the audience, yes that was it. This is a blog not a job, really here to be a collection of thoughts and ideas that need form, direction maybe, at the very least a place to reside. Being that the space is public, you dear reader get to look at what spills out of the head, however occasional it might be. So, where was I?

The end of september was a whirlwind of activity and food preservation, but it did have a few highlights. During one of our wrangler/monkey "date nights" we dropped by the opening party for our friend's new restaurant and got a chance to see a master dessertress in action. The food was delicious, the staff very accommodating and polite, the ambience most tasteful and soothing. But the dessert.......oh, my! Try, like, the cumin pot de creme for starters. Being a party though, we ate gobs of hot fried pastries (not on the menu yet) made outta something called shoe paste, while sitting at a bar or sorts and admiring the green shoed boss run the sweets department. It was witnessing a craft being performed in a niche of heaven. Fried puffs tossed with hot cardamon or rose or fennel or cacao nib, some sugar of course, then maybe some mesquite flour. You name the spice combo it was sublime. We sat around and ate till stuffed. I thought about how I just wanted to sit there all night and do nothing but eat donuts at the bar. I thought of the talking heads: Everybody's trying, to get to the bar. The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven.

Choux paste, fancy food and delicious drinks aside, the monkey will probably always think of it as the place where she scored a lot of donuts and some tasty ice cream while sitting at a bar with her daddy. I just love building memories.

Speaking of childhood memories.......this was so frickin' satisfying it was nearly criminal. I had some mortadella in the fridge from the BFM and a craving for a sandwich. It brought me back with how rare a treat it was like when as a child, only this was from such a fine source. Nonetheless it reminded me of thirty something years ago. What I needed was some homemeade ketchup and hot mustard to round out the satisfying taste of what I now think of as my modern version of a bologna sandwich. Come to think of it, if the free mortadella had been stolen and not gifted it would definitley be criminal, but sorry to report, it was just nearly so.

The next day, I was out tending to the wild cherry tomatoes that are still going strong (okay, lurking about like some produce criminal) when I noticed that one of the teeny-tiny itty-bitty melons in the front yard was getting soft. I looked both ways down the sidewalk and picked it from the dry looking vine, giving it a whiff and nearly falling over. It smelled fantastic! Could it be true? A decent cantaloupe here in coldville? I brought it inside and hacked it in two. Low and behold it looked good too, even if it was only half size. It wasn't the sweetest thing ever, but damn it smelled good!

........and speaking of sweet! For the first weekend of October, we were stationed in picturesque Calistoga with our family for the wedding of H's brother. The last of the bunch (of 7, so I do mean bunch) just had to out do everyone else's wedding. Needless to say the ceremony was a grand and formal event with hundreds in attendance held in a medieval Tuscan castle, which fortunately was only a five minute ride from our cottage by the river in downtown. The kids held on till after 10 pm, which was quite remarkable. We knew it was time to go when we handed the elder monkey an extravagant looking chocolate dessert that was only met with a looking-through-us blank stare with glazed over eyes. "Sweetie, do you want some dessert?" No. (?!) Oh my, we better leave......

For those who know me in person, yes, in that photo at the castle I am missing some hair. A bit over 10 inches to be exact. I was feeling in of need a trim for the wedding and I figured it was about time for my second donation of hair to a good cause. If you know of anyone with a long rope dangling from their skull or some extra long braids that could lose some major length then send them over to the Locks of Love site. Or if you know someone who has really really long hair and they are resistant to the idea of losing a mere foot of it, then get them drunk and do it for them. When they wake up the next morning tell them it was for the children. If they are still mad then try and deflect their rage by saying something like "well, I guess I shouldn't mention the tattoo on your ass then!"

Back at home it was time to make some english muffins for my one and only customer who wanted to place a special order. Wait, one and only paying customer I should clarify. You see, when she places an order for them I think back to our tutorial earlier in the year and how I am ever grateful for the opportunity to fine tune my methods with a master. The muffins are now something I am rather proud of. To say dear Shuna is the one ordering them is akin to doing that little childhood dance we all know: "She likes mine better! Nyaah, nyaah, nyaaaaah nyaaah, nyaah! I get to make them, not you!" and all the other things or stupid stuff you'd say when you were feeling superior to your peers. It's not much, just some english muffins. And believe me, I know she could make them for herself, and better, but why? She probably has loads of friends willing to make and feed her anything at a moments notice, because in the past she'd shared some part of her knowledge or the most amazing dessert you'd ever had with them.

Speaking of the past, this one wasn't too long ago but if you've ever read this blog you might remember the bacon/chocolate combo thing and how in a vicodin induced stupor I blathered on about how great they are together. With weasel coffee of all things. Well, with the passing of my 135th birthday this week, my partner and monkey made me a choco/choco twisty candled birthday cake, and as a bonus I received a bacon chocolate bar from my older sister (yep, she's 140!) The cake was scrumptious and the bar was rather, uh......unique. It was, well, I mean is since I still have half, actually, really good. No, really. I guess if it was killer I would have snarfed the whole thing in one sitting, but it's salty enough to keep me from over indulging. It's pleasant and familiar somehow, like having a very smooth dark milk chocolate bar with smokey bits of salt in it. Only, after eating it, you realize that some of the smokey salty crunchy bits were bacon as you pick it from your teeth with your tongue. Overall though, the bacon works well with the chocolate. Really. I'm not gonna go start buying them and making a habit out of it, but if you find that the bacon chocolate bar is an itch that just needs scratching, then go find yourself one of these.

So, there you have it. I really have been alive and well, enjoying this love and food filled life, despite the radio silence. Sorry to my friends and fellow bloggers out there who I've failed to drop by and comment on lately. I've been overwhelmed with double-monkeydom and am still working on the groove........