Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gluten Free Sesame and Anise Cookies

I love cookies. Which is funny for a girl who doesn't eat sugar. But I have to admit, there is just something fantastic about those chewy treats that fit so neatly in the palm of your hand. And yes, I am a chewy cookie girl, not a crunch-loving one. "What about cupcakes?", you ask. Nope, never been a fan. I'm not a cake fan either. Too light and airy. In fact, had my mother make giant chocolate and butterscotch chip ice cream balls for my 8th birthday as a protest against cake. (Disclaimer: This statement does not include cheesecake or flourless chocolate cakes.) And yet for all my cookie love, I didn't actually have a real chocolate chip cookie until I was a preteen. And let me tell you...when I finally bit into the rich, buttery goodness, noticed the sharp zing of sugar and coating of fat on my tongue, I immediately plopped it down on the table and thought,“What the heck is this and what have I been eating all these years!?!”

As with all things, it began with my mother. My mom loves to bake and couldn't wait to have a little girl with whom she could share her baking joy. She got the daughter she wanted but everything else was a no-go. I am not a baker, never have never will be, and though to this day I'm happy to talk her ear off in the kitchen, she knows not to ask me to measure or whisk. My mother's baking also comes with a single caveat: she’s a hippie baker. As a kid, butter substitutes, fructose and carob lined our pantry and glared at me from their “better-than-thou” perches. By everyday standards I don’t think I’m even allowed to call her baked round experiments "cookies", though they were certainly cookies to me and my siblings. Each baked treat harbored whole rolled oats and a good dose of the wheat germ that lived in the refrigerator side door. As I am now learning more about baked goods, I keep hearing this term “crumb”. Like “the cake had a nice light crumb” or “the scone with its richly textured crumb.” Yet, I know nothing about “crumbs” for the simple fact that my mother’s baking didn’t have any! God bless that sweet hippie baker, with her whole wheat dense-as-a-door edibles. Everything that came out of her kitchen weighed about 5 pounds, packed with walnuts, dried fruit and an extreme colon-cleansing amount of fiber. Her cookies were toughly-textured things that broke off in large chunks rather than crumbling under the pressure of one’s teeth. And I loved them. I still do actually. I have to admit that because of my earliest experiences with what I thought were "real" cookies, I’m still a major fan of the healthy hippie stuff and am repelled by sickeningly sweet cakes and muffins that leave your teeth aching and your mouth begging for a scrapper to remove the shellac of sugar and fat. And yes, my sugar queen sister thinks I'm annoying but my dentist loves me.

Sugar is such a popular topic, especially during the holidays. In fact, it is safe to say that almost every day in December a client asks for healthy dessert recipes. I've only posted a few which include my delicious chocolate truffles, brown rice crispy treats and date walnut tea biscuits. So here is a new cookie I just made for my friend's annual cookie party. It is gluten-free (a nice healthy buzz word) and is sweetened with real maple syrup. The great thing about bringing healthier desserts to a party is you can eat your own stuff without getting sucked into all the other junk. Here is a quick rundown on exactly what makes a dessert healthy. And no, it does not mean low fat. Healthy, in my book anyway, means high quality fat, unrefined sweeteners, and whole grain (or no grain) flours. Here is a list for you to use to make your holiday desserts a little more healthy.

Fats: Use organic butter or extra virgin coconut oil rather than refined vegetable oils

Sweeteners: Substitute honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup or unrefined/unbleached cane sugar for white and brown sugar (Here is a handy conversion sheet)

Flours: Use whole wheat pastry flour or almond flour instead of enriched white flour

Be warned: These cookies are dangerously good. They are reminiscent of halvah, a rich Middle Eastern sesame confection that my father often brought home when he wanted to be bad. Yes, halvah and salami were his go-to treats and there was an ongoing debate as to which version, the traditional or the chocolate dipped halvah, was best. (I was a flip-flopper myself.) The star anise was a last minute addition and I think it gives a nice warming sensation to the cookies.

The sesame cookie dough has a similar texture to peanut butter cookie dough. Though it may seem dry, it is not. That is how it is supposed to be. I adapted this recipe from the blog Elana's Pantry, which is a great resource for gluten-free goodies.

Gluten Free Sesame and Anise Cookies

Makes 24 cookies

2 1/2 cup almond flour

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground star anise

1/2 cup maple syrup

2/3 cup roasted organic tahini (Sesame seed paste. I used Arrowhead Mills.)

1 tablespoon organic butter (You can also use coconut oil here to make the cookies vegan.)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds, in a small bowl

In a large mixing bowl combine the almond flour, sea salt, baking soda and star anise. In a smaller bowl mix together the maple syrup, tahini, butter, and vanilla extract. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet and combine thoroughly. Make 1 inch balls with the dough and roll each in the sesame seeds. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and flatten a bit. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until the cookies are golden. Cool and enjoy!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Cheer

5th grade was my first year in private school and I was excited for the change and eager to see what this new school had to offer. Moving from a class of 35 to one of 12 was quite a change of pace but in the regular Jamie fashion, I soon got a handle on my new surroundings (i.e. first imperative school purchase: a sticker collection to trade with the other “cool” girls in my grade…all three of them). The curriculum was heavily focused on grammar (not that I’ve retained any of that knowledge) and the headmistresses, Mrs. Powell and Mrs. Plunkett, made sure every class took their monthly turn memorizing a poem to recite in front of the school and admiring parents at Friday assemblies. They were quite a pair, those two. Mrs. Powell’s overly-painted cheeks, forehead and nose made her already-angry face look like it might burst into flame, while Mrs. Plunkett, always dressed in an angelic combination of pastels, appeared on the brink of a face plant thanks to the girth of her over-sized ankles (or cankles, more aptly) bearing down on her oppressively small high heels. Roald Dahl himself couldn’t have done better when these two were matched.

Unlike the rest of the kids in my grade, who thought reciting poems was LAME, I was thrilled. Granted, the poems were a bit dry and none of us had any clue what they meant, but as a girl always down for a little time in the spotlight, I didn’t care. Just give me the words and show me the stage! Or concrete playground, as it were. Right before Christmas break we were given "Sea Fever" by John Masefield to study and recite. All I could make out was that this guy really liked sailing, which was enough for me. I was so excited to have a new performance in my repertoire that I asked if I could recite the poem for my relatives at Christmas dinner. All 40 of them! “During dessert would be best,” my aunt graciously said, though I should have sensed the eye roll. My sister and I were always asking to perform for our friends and family. Hey, she should I have been grateful I didn’t want to do our cheerleading routine again. “You're ugly, you're ugly, your mama says you're ugly!” Now that was a show stopper!

When my aunt brought out the large braising pots of sumptuous coq au vin and plates of buttery popovers, I barely looked up from my plate. In fact, I could barely take a bite of my food as I was entirely obsessed with rehearsing my lines over and over in my head. Finally it was time. I stood in front of my obviously-buzzed family members and began to speak. “I must go down to the seas again,” I bellowed in my biggest 10-year old voice. I looked over at my 15-year cousin Lorin to catch him smiling at me. “They love it!” I thought. I breezed through the first stanza and dove into the second with added gusto. As I neared the end I raised my voice louder for added effect. "And the flung spray and the blown spume!" I boomed. As the line came out of my mouth my cousin’s eyes widened and, as if to lead the charge, he burst out laughing. "What did she say?" my grandmother asked. "Blown spume! Jamie said blown spume!" my uncle cackled. Obviously not understanding the joke, I was mortified at the response. I promptly forgot the rest of the poem and ran “offstage” to the nearby bathroom. Granted I should have known my audience, as my family can make a sexual joke out of most anything. But I was in 5th grade, how was I supposed to know what "blown spume" might refer to? It took a good hour and 2 cups of my aunt’s homemade (and alcohol-laced) eggnog to coax me back to the party.

For years, my Uncle told and retold the story at every family gathering. "Remember when Jamie recited that poem about blown spume?” he’d say out of the side of his mischievous mouth. “Where did she get that poem? Just hilarious!!”

“Where did I get that poem?” I often wondered during these intense moments of humiliation. Mrs. Powell and Mrs. Plunkett, that’s where! How could they have done this to me? Were they not aware the havoc this poem might wreak on every child who chose to entertain their families during the holiday season? There were only two possibilities: 1) the hilarity of the line was wholly lost on them, which is entirely likely since neither had much of a sense of humor or 2) they completely understood the possible outcome and assigned the poem on purpose!

Over the last few years (yes, I am a slow forgiver) I’ve released most of my anger for Mrses Powell and Plunkett. They were a crazy, scary pair of headmistresses with a bizarre penchant for classical poetry but hey, it could have been worse. And now I prefer to think that yes, they certainly assigned “Sea Fever” as a twisted joke to be played on our 5th grade class; a grand trick passed down from headmistress to headmistress to ensure deep childhood scarring. It took me years (too many to admit actually) to understand why my family was laughing at me. I initially thought they had all gone insane. How could the combination of two bizarre words be enough to insight a laugh riot? Thankfully I can now laugh with them at the absurdity of it all and in particular at that little girl who at the top of her unknowing lungs screamed, “…blown spume!!” Looking back now, my only regret from that night has nothing to do with that ridiculous poem: I regret not eating my coq au vin. While everyone was in sheer food ecstasy, I was obsessing over my lines, trying to get them just right. Just perfect. My aunt is a brilliant cook and to have missed her coq au vin was a true travesty. And to make things worse, she hasn’t made it since that fateful Christmas dinner. I’m sure it’s too late to ask for it this year but I’m truly considering putting in a request for 2011. Though if I know her (and my uncle) at all, there might be a caveat. “Only if you recite the blown spume poem again,” I can hear her saying. Honestly, it might be worth it.

Home grown fingerling potatoes from my friend Eddie's garden. It definitely pays to have a friend with a green thumb. I've got to get more of those potatoes...and green thumb friends.

Beef Stew with Roasted Vegetables

The last few years my Aunt Sissy has thrown a soup party for Christmas. Granted the menu doesn't have the same panache as coq au vin, but sometimes a big warming bowl (OK, a few big bowls) of soup around the holiday table is all you really need. Last year I made my roasted kabocha squash and lentil soup, which was a big hit. This year I'm eager to debut my first ever beef stew; a recent recreation of my friend Jacqueline's peasant stew that she made for my birthday a few weeks ago. I've woken up with stew on the brain at least 3 times since having hers, it was that good! As with all things Jacqueline, when I asked her how she made it, she immediately dove into a 30 minute explanation of each nuanced technique she employed to get the deeply rich, unbelievably flavored beef stew. OK, I will admit right now that Jacqueline is a better cook than me. Fine, I've said it. But I will also say I just don't have the time and mental capacity to go the culinary distance that she does. I'm all about good, delicious food that I can hammer out in an hour. (Fine, sometimes two.)

So with all of that, here is my Jacqueline inspired beef stew. Though I did cut a few corners I kept two intact that I think give the dish that added, "Oh my frickin' God this is good," quality. First, roast the root vegetables. Roasting them brings out their innate sweetness which tames the beefiness. Second, use the anchovy! It does not impart a fishy flavor (promise!) but provides umami, the 5th savory flavor also found in bacon and Parmesan cheese, that adds the final touch to make this dish a real show stopper.

Serves 4

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2-3 cups fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and cubed

1 turnip, cubed

2 carrots, peeled and cubed

1 pound organic beef stew meat, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 onion, chopped

1/2 a fennel bulb, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 anchovy fillet

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup crushed tomatoes

3 cups organic chicken stock

Sea salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix the chopped potatoes, turnip and carrots with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and bit of salt and place in a large roasting pan. Throw them into the oven for about 35 minutes, or until they are nicely golden. Once done, take the vegetables out of the oven, set aside and reduce the oven to 315 degrees.

While the vegetables are roasting, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy stock pot and add the beef. Sprinkle the meat with a bit of salt and pepper and cook until all sides are browned. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside. Drain the excess fat from the pot, place it back on the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onion and fennel and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, anchovy, cloves and thyme and cook for another few minutes until the anchovy fillet has dissolved. Add the wine to the pot, and bring to a boil, scraping the pot of any brown bits.

Add the crushed tomatoes, beef, roasted vegetables, and the chicken stock to the large pot and mix thoroughly. Cover and bake in the 315 degree oven for 2 hours, until the beef is tender. Remove from the oven, adjust the seasoning and serve with a crisp winter salad. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spiced Pumpkin and Apple Soup

“So, what are you going to wear to Thanksgiving?” my sister asked as she sucked in her rounded cheeks to make model faces in the mirror. I glared back at her in annoyance. “I don’t know and honestly, I really don’t care!” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so pissy but honestly, she had her priorities all wrong. How could she be concerned with what to wear? Who the hell cared? What she should have asked was, “What do you think they will have for dinner?”

Every year we spend Thanksgiving with my Aunt Sissy’s family. As my Uncle Jon’s wife, her clan was a bit removed for our direct blood line which automatically made them far more fun. The Bishops were a family of 5 strikingly tall, square-jawed children and always seemed to be busting at the seams with more uncles, aunts and cousins. Our sit-down Thanksgiving meal was easily 45 people with everyone in attendance. “AAAHHHH, Jamie-girl it’s so good to see you!!,” Mary, my Aunt’s sister and hostess, would scream as we walked in. Mary never talked. In fact, she screamed and laughed through every interaction which was both startling and infectious. Truly, at Thanksgiving we all talked like we were on an airport runway. My sister and I weaved in and out of the throngs of family members saying our hellos and how are yous, all the while sneaking bottles of Martinelli’s apple cider for the kids table. (Thinking about it now, the cider was already for the kids table. What can I say, my scarcity mentality has always been strong).

As the ladies bustled in the kitchen, picking at crispy turkey skin and getting the buffet ready, the rest of the party reconnected over multiple games of pool and a bit too much crab and spinach dip. Though I liked watching my older cousins lovingly scream and yell over missed or made shots, it was always the kitchen that held my attention. Mary’s kitchen was a thing of beauty. Shiny copper pots hung over the 8-burner wolf range which led to a deep white porcelain sink that looked out over Malibu’s coastline. Her two sturdy ovens produced such devastatingly delicious smells that every once in a while an uncle would stumble in and cry, “Is dinner ready yet?” Naturally the Thanksgiving staples were on the menu but as a family of foodies they loved to spice things up. One year there was tortilla soup with chunks of avocado. Another year, Bibb lettuce with pomegranates and champagne vinaigrette. And who could forget the curried sweet potato medallions with maple syrup glaze? For dessert, in addition to the requisite pumpkin pie with homemade whipped cream, there was always at least one pumpkin cheesecake and some sort of chocolate mousse thingy. (I recently asked my sister what she remembers of the dessert table. Her reply: “They never had pecan pie. It’s my favorite. What were they thinking?” So, I guess Thanksgiving attire wasn’t her only concern.) Yes, the Bishops were certainly a big family in size, stature, and, most importantly, in appetite.

When it was time for carving the three 20-pound birds, my father was summoned from his nap on the couch to do the honors. Do not ask me why my Dad, the least sociable, least related guy in the house was the bird carving man. Perhaps it was because he was the only man not glued to the football game or maybe because he was, again, the only man constantly hanging around the bird. Whatever the reason, when Mary wrapped a white apron around my Dad’s protruding belly, it was go time! In my Dad went, without a plan or specific direction, tearing up the birds and placing entire joints on the platter. And as if to sing out, “one for you, one for me”, with every steaming piece put on the platter, another one was thrown directly in my Dad’s mouth. He probably ate a good 3 pounds of turkey just carving it. And thank goodness for that safety net of an apron which caught all the flying juice, meat and skin that fell from his mouth. “Dad, stop eating the bird. There won’t be anything left!” I screamed. Now I knew there was no way my father could eat it all, but I promise you he made a significant dent. “Jamie, don’t tell me what to do! I’ve got it handled,” he sternly replied. “Handled straight into your stomach,” I continued to push. And here we come flying back to my fears of scarcity. But if we are all being honest, the man’s mouth was a Hoover and I was just certain he was minutes away from sucking up each entire turkey, bones and all.

Once the carving was complete and the saved carcasses wrapped in white trash bags as my father’s “soon to be soup” reward, it was turkey time. Kids and adults alike jockeyed for position in the buffet line, ogling the many hot, bubbling dishes that crowded the table. As we settled into our chairs in the large sunken living room watching the California sun set into the ocean, we gave thanks for each other, the amazing food, and for the generous chefs who made it all happen. Sometimes there were announcements of college acceptances, engagements, or babies but mostly we just sat together eating, drinking, and laughing way too loud.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Thanksgiving. Ultimately it’s a holiday centered on food, family, and consuming way too much of both. Not much has changed around my family’s Thanksgiving, though now Aunt Sissy herself, rather than Mary, hosts it and the Bishop children’s children have children. (Did you get that?) My sister still queries every year as to what I’m going to wear for turkey day and just as I did 15 years ago I shoot back, “I have no idea, Laura. I’m just thinking about the food!”

Spiced Pumpkin and Apple Soup

Serves 4

So truth be told I actually didn't spend Thanksgiving with my family this year. After 7 years together I finally conceded to go to Gray's family's house for turkey day...and I was not looking forward to it. Don't get me wrong, Gray's family are lovely people and I definitely wanted to see them. I just didn't want to miss MY family's Thanksgiving. Well as you know, marriage is all about compromise and so it was about time I made an appearance at the in-laws. The festivities were held at Gray's uncle and aunt's beautiful ranch style home in San Diego. Their backyard literally wraps around the entire house and on the left side is an amazing kitchen garden; A garden, in fact, that supplied the large Cinderella pumpkin centerpieces. Well, one look at the huge pumpkin on my table and I had to have it. I couldn't help myself. Gray's aunt graciously said yes and I immediately began laying out all of my cooking options.

Originally I thought to turn half the pumpkin into soup and throw the rest into a winter salad but the flesh was simply too soft to hold up. So, a giant soup it was! The pumpkin was also not as sweet as I had imaged, which is how the apples and honey made their way into the pot. I made this soup the day after Thanksgiving as a thank you to Gray's cousins who housed us for the weekend. When Gray's 6 year old cousin took a bite he said, "Wow, this is yummy. You are a really good cook!" Though I know he genuinely enjoyed the soup by his quickly emptied mug, it may have also been a ploy to get me down there next year. Well, it worked.

4 cups roasted pumpkin**

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 gala or fuji apples, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon butter, optional

2 tsp. cinnamon

½-1 tsp. curry powder

¼ tsp. nutmeg

A dash of chipotle pepper powder (if you are a spice lover, add more)

1 ½ tbs. organic honey

4 cups organic chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Tamari roasted sunflower seeds, for garnish

**To roast the pumpkin, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Chop the pumpkin into large quarters and scoop out the seeds. Peel the pumpkin quarters and cut into 1 ½- 2 inch pieces for roasting. Mix the pumpkin pieces with a bit of olive oil and salt and roast for 30 minutes, until the pieces are softened and a bit brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a large stock pot over low-medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the pumpkin, garlic, apples, butter, and pinch of salt and cook for another 5 minutes until the apples begin to soften. Add the cinnamon, curry powder, nutmeg, chipotle, and honey and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken stock and bring to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and with a hand immersion blender or in batches with a regular blender, puree the soup. Once puréed, return to the heat and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper if needed. Ladle the soup into your favorite mugs and top with tamari sunflower seeds. Enjoy!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Apple Cider Braised Squash with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

You've gotta love how literal I used to take things. When I was 10 and had my first bowl of Pho in Seattle, I thought Vietnam's Pearl on Rainier Avenue was the only place in the world to get those giant bowls of steaming, spiced noodle soup. I honestly believed Vietnamese cuisine was indigenous to Washington state. How was I to know? There are countless stories from my childhood of me taking things at face value. Fine, I admit it. I wasn't so much of a critical thinker. It also took me 22 years to realize my parents were just winging the entire parental thing. It's therefore not surprising that I used to think the only farmer's market in the world was in Santa Barbara.

My paternal grandmother was the first person to ever take me to a farmer's market. In fact, every time I visited her beach house we got up early on Saturday morning to get the best pickings at the downtown market. She was notoriously more "visual artist" than "cook" and so always filled her huge wicker basket with fresh flowers and orchids for the dining table and fruit for the big bowl that sat in the middle of the kitchen island while I wandered in and out of the stalls looking at avocados, oranges, and freshly baked breads. "This is the best market in the world!", she said while examining a delicate orchid bud. "And this is the best orchid stand, " she sang while giving the stand owner an approving smile.

Everything and everyone in my grandmother's life is "the best". She has the best housekeeper, the best flower vendor, the best orthopedist. "Oh, he's the best in the country!", she praises. "People travel from around the world to see him." Let me add that not only are these particular people the best, they are hers and I often wonder if they agree with her self-entitled ownership rights. Now, whether or not any of the bests are true is completely irrelevant. My grandmother deeply believes that her world consists solely of bests and I, with my painfully literal interpretations, always believed her. I don't think I questioned anything she said until I was about 20. My favorite "best" was why to dress well on an airplane. "Jamie, remember to always dress your best while traveling," she so frequently reminded me. "I've met the best, most gorgeous, most glamorous people while traveling. You never know who you are going to meet!" From what I can gather, this recommendation all stemmed from her chance meeting and subsequent dinner with the Marchioness of Bath. No joke! Of course, with a story like that you might think I'd wear something other than sweatpants and my coke-bottle glasses on the plane. But no. That is serious dedication to comfort, my friends.

So let me admit right now that Santa Barbara is the best farmer's Southern California. It was the first place I ever ate sugar snap peas (and quickly learned you CAN have too much of a good thing) and where my grandmother asked her favorite farmers what they thought was the best of their bounty. I often think about my grandmother's conversations with her farmers when I am talking to my own. That's right, my farmers. Turns out I might have a small ownership problem myself. The farmer's market was our little ritual and I cherished strolling down the aisles with my grandmother in an environment so rich and beautiful to us both. We recently went back and, just like old times, she headed for her orchid lady and I quickly OD'd on sugar snap peas. It was a great morning and ended just like so many outings with my grandmother had. "Jamie," she said, hold my chin in her tanned yet aged hand. "Honey, you need a facial. I'm taking you to see my girl immediately. She is the best!"

Apple Cider Braised Squash with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

This is a recipe I made last week at the San Francisco Farmer's Market Food Wise booth. Every Tuesday they have guest chefs make a seasonal dish for the public to taste. I had one gentleman come up to me and exclaim, "This is absolutely perfect!" I was on cloud 9 for the rest of the day. Squash cooked in cider is a lovely combination of starchy and sweet while the nuts and pomegranates give it a great fatty and sour crunch. Think of this as a potential replacement for the traditional marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Enjoy!

Serves 4-6


2 kabocha squash (about 2 pounds) or other firm winter squash such as acorn or butternut
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee
1 garlic clove, minced
1 inch piece freshly grated ginger or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 1/2 cups fresh unfiltered apple cider or juice
1 cup water
2 teaspoons brown rice or apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Walnuts or almonds, toasted and chopped
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

If using kabocha squash, cut off the stem and split lengthwise. Peel it with a vegetable peeler and scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each piece lengthwise in half again, then crosswise into 1/2-inch -thick slices. If using an acorn squash use the same method however you do not have to peel it.

Melt the butter in a large (12-inch) skillet over low heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not brown the garlic.

Add the squash to the skillet, then the apple cider, water, vinegar, and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat at an even boil until the cider has boiled down to a glaze and the squash is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and season with pepper, and additional salt if needed. Top with fresh cilantro, toasted nuts, and pomegranate seeds and serve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Soy Marinated Rock Cod

The restaurant smelled a little funky, a mix between the much-needed-to-be-cleaned lobster and crab tanks to the left and Buster's BBQ on my right. It was less of a restaurant to be honest, and more of a 10 seater bar in the middle of an incandescently lit food court, the same "court", you will recall, that my family regularly patronized for frozen yogurt. But this time the trip had nothing to do with dessert. We we were on a sushi mission. I was 7 years old at the time and only knew two things sushi: one was that my Dad loved it and two, that it was special...very special. With my limited knowledge of what lay before me we strolled up to the bar with its two sticks as eating utensils and laminated menus with pictures of brightly colored slabs of fish. As you can imagine my child self was justifiably concerned. I should mention there was a third thing that made this event special, the only thing in fact that kept me from grabbing frozen yogurt for lunch and heading to the car. This outing was just me and my Dad. Such an occurrence had never happened before and looking back I have no idea where my mother and sister were. I now imagine my mother lecturing my father for his lack of one-on-one time with me and him acquiescing with one line, " OK, I'll take her to sushi."

So there we sat at the sushi bar next to a couple that was deeply engaged in their glazed eel. It looked kind of like chicken which helped calm me a bit. "Is this your first time eating sushi?" said the woman, taking a quick swig of sake. I nodded. "You are in for a treat!" My Dad took care of the ordering and I have to give him credit: he started us off with a soft shell crab roll. Simply put, if you want to get a kid to eat something, throw it in a deep fryer! He quickly handed me an inside piece of the roll, fearing I'd be too scared to eat a piece with a large crab leg hanging from it. Though I was unfamiliar with what lay before me I tried to mentally break it down into things I understood. I recognized white rice. Check. The white flaky stuff in the middle kind of looked like the baked fish my mom made. That's cool. I was a bit baffled by the seaweed but that wasn't enough to keep me from cramming the entire piece swiftly into my small child-sized mouth. Imagine stuffed chipmunk cheeks and that was me, trying to keep bits of rice and crab from flying out of my mouth. My first thought was, "I don't think I did this right" which was quickly followed by, "Aw, this is freakin' good!"

First I was hit by the sweet, slightly sour sticky rice then by the crispy fried crab and last by the creamy mayo that brought the entire bite together. Heaven! My eyes rolled back into my head with pure food ecstasy and I soon heard my Dad say with a smirk, "So I guess you like it, huh?" YES, more please! After that first bite I was all in and tasted everything my Dad put in from of me. California roll, eel roll, yellowtail and salmon all made the list. I even tried the salmon eggs and octopus, neither of which I liked but hey, I tried it. The chef was so impressed with the little white girl eating sushi that he gave me a green tea ice cream, on the house. "Good eater!" he praised. "Don't I know it!", my father replied. From that day forward sushi was my favorite food. I loved its clean and fresh taste, how the food was pristinely presented and delivered in bite-sized pieces, and most of all, that it was something my Dad and I could agree upon.

As I got older sushi became my go-to date option. I mean come on, what better way to a free sushi dinner?! It was also helpful in screening potential suitors. If they weren't down for sushi, I was not interested. In retrospect, I wonder what those boys must have thought when I suggested sushi as our first date. Presumptuous, expensive tastes, culinarily-adventurous princess? All I know is that I never got any complains. In fact, I first fell in love over sushi. I had been dating this guy for a month or two and things were going well. I wasn't that into him but he was older and drove a convertible so those improved his score. One night he invited me over for dinner. We had only ever gone out to eat and I kept replaying horror stories from girlfriends about cooking dates gone awry. "Please dear Lord don't let it be Refrigerator Surprise Meat Casserole," I prayed. Much to my delight I walked into his house to find him julienning carrots, cucumbers and fresh ahi tuna. "I like to make sushi at least once a week," he said, staring directly at me. Was this man looking straight into my soul? How did he know my deepest food desires? Well, that was it. I loved him. I had too!! When he ripped my heart out 6 months later I was devastated. "I love you, but I'm not in love with you," was the only answer I received. It took me an entire year to get over him, partly because every time I passed a sushi restaurant I burst into tears.

The revelation came, as many good ones do, in my therapist's office. We were recounting againmy feelings of loss and pain over my lack of a sushi-eating boyfriend when she said, "Is it possible that you don't miss your boyfriend at all but rather are mourning the loss of the attention and connection you never got from your father?" Oh my goodness, thank you Ms. Freud!!! Yes, I had just realized that the only time I'd ever felt connected to my Dad was over sushi and that my ex-boyfriend had become, dare I say it?, the perfect Dad substitute. The realization was simultaneously fantastic and horrific. Fantastic because I was immediately free of any emotions associated with my ex-boyfriend and horrific because I now had to work on my relationship with my father. OY!

Thanks to a heavy stint in therapy and way too much hippie soul searching, things with my Dad are good now. OK, not good, but definitely better. We can talk about work or music and can walk away from an argument without screaming or slamming doors. Most importantly, we no longer need a piece of raw fish to bring us together. Though, it never hurts.

Soy Marinated Rock Cod
Sushi, though delicious, take a decent amount of time to prep. This is my current favorite "de-constructed" sushi inspired dish that comes together in no time. OK, so it's not really sushi since the fish is cooked but it certainly does have similar flavors. Serve it along side rice and toasted nori to make your own open-faced sushi rolls. YUM!

Serves 2-3

3 pieces rock cod or other white fish, about 1 pound total
2-3 tablespoons tamari or shoyu (natural soy sauce)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey or brown rice syrup
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 inch ginger, freshly grated
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the fish from its packaging and dry it with paper towels. Please in an shallow baking dish and set aside.

In a small bowl add the tamari, balsamic vinegar, brown rice vinegar, and honey and whisk together. Add in the minced garlic and grated ginger and combine. Add the marinade to the fish in the baking dish and let sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Remove the fish from the fridge and place it in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the fish is white and flaky. Top with fresh cilantro and serve with a green salad, rice and toasted nori. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Olives

"Your parents always made the BEST food!" my aunt said while weaving in and out of traffic on our way to Pearl, our favorite Vietnamese place. I was up for my annual Seattle visit and we were engaged in a "Family Secrets" talk. These talks happened every so often, most commonly over two bowls of steamy pho and fresh spring rolls, and comprised of never before told stories about my parents, grandparents and, occasionally, great-grandparents. "When your parents had their apartment in Santa Monica, they experimented with all kinds of food and everything was amazing. Wonder why they don't do that anymore?" I had briefly heard about these cooking adventures in passing from my mother and imagined my parents as lovely hosts who cooked, drank red wine out of bowl-sized glasses and showed off their culinary skills with Fleetwood Mac on the record player. Skills, might I add, that I never saw. Of course I saw my mother cook, but nothing like she or my aunt ever described.

It was the mid-seventies and my parents lived in a beautiful "Spanish style" apartment building in Santa Monica that my grandmother conveniently owned. Being quit handy, my father became the building manager and soon had the run of the place. With a lovely courtyard and fire pit perfect for impromptu jam sessions and a teeny-weeny kitchen that allowed you to smack your face on the fridge when turning away from stove, it was ideal for the newly married couple. And it was in this little apartment that my parents made braised veal with lemon, capers and stuffed white fish. Where they invited my aunt over to partake in hand-rolled pasta that my mother had literally hung from the rafters because there was no table space. They held monstrous brunches and served quiche, bagels, fruit salad, and my Dad's famous fish eggs. (This is the only dish I've ever seen my father make. Take sauteed onions, mix with your eggs and throw into a hot, oiled pan. Toss in any vegetable you have in the fridge. Then, add kippers, herring or smoked trout and serve to your mortified children. Viola, fish eggs!) In her hippy glory, my mother loving made strudel by hand, laying the long dough out over her too-short table. By the time she was done, the sheets hung over the table edge, kissing the floor.

I felt like a reporter getting the goods on breaking news every time I heard one of these food stories. The characters were my parents, Debra and Steven in name and body, but somehow I didn't recognize them; these characters were the youthful, care-free counterparts, Debbie and Steve, to my now busy, children-laden parents. It was a side of my mom and dad I'd never seen before and I desperately wanted to know. Who were these people that made pasta from scratch or spent an entire Sunday cooking for friends? With every morsel of information I felt more connected to these young, exciting newlyweds, as if they were my friends and these memories were sourced from my own seat at the dinner table. There is one night in particular I could swear I was there. It was the evening my parents ventured into Middle Eastern cuisine. I think I was born with olives and lemons in my blood because there is no other flavor profile I adore more. On this particular night, young Debbie and Steve made chicken tagine with quince and almonds and homemade baklava. The sweet, astringent flavor of quince and delicate texture of long-cooked chicken filled my mouth and trickled down my throat as I imagined the dish in my mind. The table oohed and ahhed as my mother served her slightly intoxicated guests their generous helpings. A bit of sauce spilled on the floor and their kitten Rocky quickly pounced to lick it up. Even the kitty was smiling. Like a director I watched from behind the camera and took in all the smiles, laughs, smells and tastes. They may have not seen me but I certainly saw them and reveled in their unabashed delights. Hours of patiently maneuvering delicate phyllo dough and sticky honey made the baklava all the more delectable. It's thin layered, buttery sweet crunch left a party in the mouth only the tagine might have hoped to rival. And there it was. The party I knew I attend though it was held years before my birth.

Amazingly, I only heard about this particular meal a few times but there was something about the time, the place and the menu that stuck with me. Envisioning my parents as two youngsters creating a fun-filled home allowed me to break out of our parent/child relationship and relate to them under the umbrella of what we all jointly

Though not my mother's original recipe, I recently served this dish for my brother's 21st birthday to my own table of ohhs and ahhs. It really is a crowd pleaser and not very difficult to make. All you need are some foodie friends and you are good to go.

Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Olives
Adapted from Cover and Bake by Cook's Illustrated Magazine
Serves 4

1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 3-4 pound organic chicken, skinned and cut into respective parts with the wings reserved for another use. (You can also do this with 8 skinless thighs or breasts)
1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
2 tablespoons of water
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
1 3/4 cups water
1/2 cup organic un-sulfured apricots, chopped
1 (2 inch) strip of lemon peel or 1/2 a preserved lemon, minced
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and pre-heat to 300 degrees. Combine the ginger, cumin, coriander, paprika, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large bowl. Dry the chicken pieces thoroughly with paper towels and add to the bowl with the spiced and toss to coat. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large oven-proof Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 3 of the chicken parts, skinned side down, and cook without moving them until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Flip the chicken over and continue to cook until the second side is golden, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate. Add the remaining chicken parts to the pot and repeat, then transfer them to the plate and set aside.

Add the onion and 2 tablespoons of water to the pt with the drippings and return to medium-high heat. Cook, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pot, until the onion has softened and begins to brown, 5-6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the bay leaves, water, apricots, lemon peel, and browned chicken with any accumulated juices; bring to a simmer. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook until the chicken is easily pierced with a knife, about 1 1/4 hours.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and cover to keep warm. Add the lemon juice and olives to the sauce. Bring to a simmer and let the juice reduce by half. Add salt and pepper to taste then add the chicken back to the pot, and sprinkle with parsley. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

End of Summer Salad Party

I have a theory. Simply stated, most people don't truly dislike as many foods as they think they do. I pose it's more a matter of preparation than actual hatred of that specific food. Granted there are definitely a few foods on my "rather not eat" list (sea urchin, any type of aspic and egg salad are a few that come to mind) however, I can honestly say that I have tried them all at the height of their preparation and come to my conclusion legitimately. Consequently, I'm always shocked when I run into an adult that says, "I don't like vegetables." What do you mean you don't like vegetables?!? Do you even know how many types of vegetables there are? It's impossible for you to dislike them all! The truth is, most of these poor people suffered through childhoods filled with canned, boiled or microwaved vegetables. It's no wonder they now won't touch the stuff with a 10-foot pole! If that was my only knowledge of vegetables, I wouldn't either. In 9th grade I practically lived at my best friend's house, a sprawling multi-level place where kids ran free and parents escaped to the opposite side of the house. Her parents were lovely people but not what I would call culinarily inclined. To give you an example, twice a week they microwaved broccoli and served it with spray butter. Now, I have always been a broccoli lover but even I couldn't get myself to stomach this zapped, rubbery "vegetable". (They also cooked their morning eggs and bacon in the microwave. OY!) In retrospect, I still don't know why I didn't just eat before going over there. I'm pained deeply when I hear stories of gray asparagus and carrots boiled to mush not only because it brings back microwave memories but because it makes me wonder how we could be made to put such yucky stuff into our mouths year in and year out. I should say kudos to parents for trying. I truly appreciate you wanting to get vegetables into your children but I'm sure we could have found a more delicious way.

When I met my husband, he too had a laundry list of things he didn't eat, including kale and asparagus, my two all time faves. The first time I said I wanted to make him a kale dish he stared back at me, horrified, and said, "Are you sure that's safe? I used to feed it to my Iguana Spud. I don't think it's for human consumption!" And so goes the life of kale, relegated as garnish or lizard food. As a girl who likes a challenge, I made it my mission to make him fall in love with everything that he refused to eat. Once I had won him over with my braised kale (he was surprised not only by its deliciousness but by the fact that he didn't die!), I moved on the asparagus. When spring came, I found the most beautiful tender asparagus and roasted them with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Let me just say, he mowed through those asparagus so fast I only snagged two spears for myself. Since conquering Gray's taste buds (he eats anything I put in front of him now and just last night requested more dark leafy greens. I adore this man!), I now work on friends and family. Yes, I love hosting dinner parties for the sheer joy of feeding friends but my devious side also enjoys sneaking foods into the menu previously deemed inedible.

Enter the summer salad party. First, I wanted to make dishes that reflected the bounty of summer before it left us. I also wanted to show the men folk that YES you can have salad for dinner and be quite full and satisfied. Lastly, we have this friend, who shall remain nameless, who does not like beans or potatoes. Again I ask you, what the WHAT??? How is this possible? Beans and potatoes are the easiest foods to like because you can do anything with them. Mashed, fried, baked, broiled, they taste amazing every which way. But no, she doesn't like them in any form. We've decided she is a communist! So, of course, I couldn't contain myself and made a bean salad which I promptly insisted she try the second she walked in. She filled her plate with the other salads and took just a smidgen of beans. Whatever, as long as she tried them. About an hour into dinner I notice my friend get up for seconds. Now as a health coach I'm in a complete moral dilemma with seconds. I encourage people to try and stick to one plate, especially if they are no longer hungry, but the cook in me takes seconds as the most supreme form of praise and wants people to load up. Anyway, I noticed that when my friend sat back down, plate fully reloaded, she had indulged in a lovely scoop of beans. YES! Mission accomplished.

And while I'm sure that our friend will probably continue to voice her objection to beans, I now have proof that with the right preparation, she is open to bending the rules. Now it's time to move on to potatoes :)

End of Summer Salads

Here is the menu I put together for the party:

Green salad with orange, avocado, and tamari roasted pumpkin seeds
Grilled chicken breast and fresh green bean salad
Farro salad with fresh corn and roasted red onions
Bean salad with sun-dried tomatoes and Dijon vinaigrette

Farro salad with fresh corn and roasted red onions
Serves 4

4 cups water
1 cup farro, soaked overnight
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 large torpedo onions, sliced into 1/2 inch strips (Regular red onions will work well too)
1 teaspoon organic butter or ghee
2 cup organic fresh corn, cut off the cob
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the strips of onion on a 8 1/2 x 11 pyrex baking dish. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, stirring once half way through, until the onions are soft and a little crispy at the ends.

Place the water, farro, and salt in a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 18-20 minutes, or until the farro is tender but still toothy. Drain excess water and set aside.

In a heavy skillet, heat the organic butter and sauté the corn until just tender, about 4 minutes. Place the cooked corn, farro, and onions into a large bowl and season with the remaining olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly. Stir in the parsley and enjoy!

Bean salad with sun-dried tomatoes and Dijon vinaigrette
Serves 4-5

1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 can red beans or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 stalks of celery, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1 small red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (If they are oil packed, simply chop them. If they are dried, reconstitute them in boiling water for a few minutes then chop.)
1 handful arugula
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
A pinch of smoked sea salt

For the Dijon dressing

1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy bottomed skillet at the beans and heat through. **You can also quickly blanch them at this point if you prefer. Place them in a large bowl and add the celery, onions, tomatoes, arugula, parsley, and smoked salt.

In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, dried herbs, Dijon mustard, and vinegar. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Continue to whisk until the dressing comes together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drizzle the dressing over the beans, toss well, and serve immediately. Yum!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Candy Club

I had been waiting for my sister Laura to come home for the last hour. We attended separate schools and I always made better time on my royal blue 10-speed than she did on the rickety yellow school bus that brought her home. (My sister had been admitted to a school for gifted children the year before. A school, I might add, that denied me 3 years in a row. This was certainly a gaping wound on my part and one that my sister often enjoyed dousing with salt.) I sat on the front porch playing with the roly polies and trailing the lines between the big red bricks that made up our stairs with my finger. Finally, she turned the corner and walked up our driveway. I yelled from the porch, "Hey you wanna go to the little store?" My sister and I asked each other this question at least four times a week. The little store was just that: a ram-shackled little building about three blocks from our house that resembled an "old-tyme" general store with an ethnic twist. The back of the store was stocked with frozen vegetables and meats, and right next to the pig trotters, popsicles. (I only ever grabbed a popsicle when in dire need.) The left side of the store was stocked with beer and liquor while for us children, the right side was dedicated entirely to candy. The old man behind the counter always recognized us but rarely offered a smile. I'm sure he thought we were just biding our time before pick-pocketing our favorite items. Which was true. I had dreamed of hijacking the place and escaping with every last bit of candy on the shelves. However, this sugar fueled fantasy was nothing compared to the sweet devotion of my sister Laura, aka, "the candy queen".

Of course all children love sweets, but Laura took it to a entirely new level. While my mother craved green vegetables and salads when pregnant with me, she inhaled every candy, cake and chocolate bar in Ventura County while Laura was in the womb. My sister was literally made out of sugar. And so our respective preferences were shaped. I ate vegetables constantly and Laura hoarded candy in her room. Many times we didn't even know the stash was there until a conspicuous trail of ants blew her cover. About a decade later she was outed by my cousin's dog who found a hidden donut in my sister's overnight bag. I thought she was going to KILL that dog! Every Halloween we laid out our "bag of crap", as my father lovingly called it, to swap Abbazabbas for Snickers bars and haggle over the price of Red Hots. My sister owned her sweet tooth and quickly decided that everything should taste like candy. Like when my parents attempted to get her to stop sucking her middle and index fingers by saying, "Laura, your fingers are dirty and they must taste terrible!" "Nope," she smirked. "They taste like chocolate!"

So these were the two little devils that entered the little store. Two candy junkies looking for a fix whose mother had no idea what they poured down their throats four times a week. Laura immediately went for the chewy, fruity stuff like Starbursts, Now and Laters, and Skittles, while I stuck to the Red Hots, Fireballs, Skor bars (AMAZING!) and Lemon Heads. Our choices certainly revealed our personalities: one child sweet and bizarrely malleable, and the other, a rare combo of a sour and spicy. We walked back home in a sugar haze, almost blinded by the effects of sucrose coursing through our veins. Once home we promptly got into a fight and usually had to be separated. (See what happens when you have too much Yellow #5? I remember reading labels even back then and thinking, "Eating something with a number on it can't be good for me.")

As the years went by we became experimental, like when our babysitter Jessica Woodcock (P.S. I just recently realized the hilarity of her last name) showed us how to soften a jolly rancher stick in the microwave and wrap it around a blow pop to make the largest lollipop ever! We'd throw our multi-colored sucker monstrosities into the freezer for a quick cooling then eat them over the next few hours until our mother got home. Unfortunately, the ginormous lollipop factory shut down only after a few months when Laura turned the microwave on high and cooked the jolly rancher until it liquefied and almost caught fire.

I don't know when we stopped going to the little store. We got older, our tastes changed, and eventually our family moved from the neighborhood. Of course, now in my chosen profession as a whole foods crusader, it's shocking to think I was ever such a sugar fiend. Who knew it would come to this! Thank goodness Laura still keeps the little store flame alive by keeping mini snickers bars in her purse and hard candies in the car. My younger sister has never forgotten her roots, and holds on to them as tightly as I now grasp my kale. Ah, the candy queen lives on! She says it's her duty to make up for all the candy I'm not eating.

Well, I guess someone's got to do it.

Balsamic and Butter Glazed Frittata
Served 4

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

For those of you expecting a "healthy" candy recipe, I'm sorry to disappoint. I'm actually working on a relatively healthy toffee recipe which I will post as soon as it's ready. Promise! In the meantime, when you need something sweet, try this frittata. Eggs, you say? Absolutely. The caramelized red onions give it a nice smoky sweetness and the reduced buttery balsamic glaze just puts it over the top. SO GOOD!

2 large red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, Bariani is the best
Salt to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
6 eggs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon organic butter or ghee
¼ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Warm the olive oil in a 10 inch skillet and add the sliced onions. Cook over medium heat until they are golden, about 30 minutes. Add half the vinegar, let it reduce, and add in the cloves and a touch of salt. Preheat the broiler.

In a large bowl whisk the eggs. Season with salt and add in the onions and parsley. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in the skillet (you do not need to clean it out from the onions) until it is sizzling. Add the eggs and lower the heat. Scatter the walnuts on top and cook until the eggs are set and browned on the bottom, about 8-10 minutes. Slide the pan 6 inches under the broiler to finish cooking the top, about 2 minutes. Take care not to burn the walnuts.

Loosen the frittata and tilt it onto a serving plate. Return the skillet to the stove and raise the heat. Add the remaining teaspoon of butter and when it melts, add the remaining vinegar. Slide the pan back and forth to combine the two then pour the mixture over the eggs. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Figs, figs, a wonderful fruit

I adore figs. Green, black, brown, Turkish, I don't care! Just give me sweet, seedy, jammy figs and I am a happy girl. Today I don't eat many foods from my childhood, but figs for some reason have always possessed staying power. I grew up in a small craftsman-style house built in the early 1900's. It was a sweet little home with two beds and built-in cabinets, perfect for a young couple, which is exactly what my parents were when I came into the picture. Our backyard was not huge but it did have a few good fruits to bare, one of which was an enormous Haas avocado tree that dropped fruit the size of my head. Rich, thick and creamy, we ate them every chance we could, usually as guacamole, though sometimes I caught my mom sticking tablespoonfuls directly into her mouth. There was also a tangerine tree, a peach tree, a Meyer lemon tree and wild mint that we mashed with sugar and hot water to make "mint tea" (though in reality it was more like warm simple syrup with mint essence. Ah kids!)

My favorite however was the fig tree. Placed right next to our rickety (and definitely dangerous) swing set, it was in a prime location for me to swing over and grab an unsuspecting fig any time I wanted. I waited all year for that tree to bloom and when it did, I went crazy! I averaged a good 12 figs a day. At first I went for the ones at eye level, but as the summer progressed and those thinned out, I needed help getting my fig fix. I begged my Dad to come help me grab the luscious ripe ones that stared down at me from their high perch. "I'll get you my pretty!" I thought as I glared back at them. But one sunny Summer afternoon, I found myself in the middle of a major fig meltdown with no one to help me. I needed a fig bad and I simply couldn't wait for parental assistance, so I bravely decided to climb the tree. This was an emergency after all! It wouldn't have been so bad had there not been copious amounts of sap and ants lining the tree. I'd hated ants ever since my 6th birthday when I accidentally swallowed one that decided to take a nap on the lip of my 7-UP can. EEEEWWWW!!!

The ants had multiple trails going up and down the trunk and on every branch of the precious fig tree. Apparently, they too were all about figs. As I climbed the tree I kept thinking, "No ants in my mouth, just not in my mouth!" I gingerly picked as many figs as my left hand could hold as my right tightly gripped a sturdy-looking branch. However, the tricky part was not the climb or even picking the fruit, but getting down with two handfuls of sticky, split figs. I awkwardly descended, trying not to cause any accidents among the many ant highways. But wherever my hands touched the tree, eager ants assumed they were other branches and immediately hopped on. They seemed to have no problem with detours. With hands full of melty figs and arms covered with ants, I simply couldn't take it any more. I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and jumped. The ground was not as springy or soft as I'd imagined, and I hit the grass with a decided thud. Granted, I'd jumped down maybe 2 1/2 feet but it seems pretty dangerous at the time. I actually managed to save most of the figs though some were greatly damage by my now tightly closed fist. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the fig tree. "That's right fig tree," I yelled. "Who's the boss now?!" I rested my head on the grass and popped a glistening fig into my mouth. It somehow tasted sweeter than it ever had before. Perhaps it was my brush with death, or the simple fact it had had more time to ripen. Either way that fig was amazing and it felt good to have risked life and limb for it. I was a food hero! And there I stayed, spread out on the grass, feeling wonderful about myself and barely feeling the ants navigating their way up and down my arms.

Best ways to eat figs

1) Throw them on the grill until the jammy center begins to caramelize
2) Stuff with a small piece of goat cheese and fresh thyme
3) Stuff with a thin piece of prosciutto, and top with mint and drizzle with a bit of balsamic vinegar
4) Split them open and smear with almond butter
5) Thinly slice and lay them over an arugula and basil salad with shaved Parmesan
6) Slice and put on a pizza with goat cheese, shaved fennel, and caramelized onions
7) Place them directly in your mouth a chew (My favorite!)