Friday, July 31, 2009

Food of Life Fridays: A New Weekly Entry

Poolside Dining

When I was thirteen my parents decided I should go to France for the month and stay with a French family. The father happened to be a top executive at Air France and was a business associate of my father’s, so that is how the host family was chosen. They also had a 16-year-old daughter who loved to ride horses, as did I, so all the adults agreed this was a good match.

Their summer home was in the south of France near Lyons. Their daughter had a cousin of her age visiting as well. I have blocked out their names. The social aspects of the trip were a disaster. The disparity between a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old were much greater than any of the adults imagined. (They should have just asked us kids). Throw in the cultural differences and I felt like a the odd gal out. We did ride some beautiful horses on the occasional morning (it would get too hot by midday), but the instructor only spoke French and my comprehension was not up to snuff, so frustration abounded.

The two bright spots were her stereo and record collection, which included Deep Purple and Cat Stevens, and also her uncle’s modest chateau. Her home was at the base of a small mountain. Up the mountain was her uncle’s place, within walking distance. On a daily basis we would take off in the hot August sun and begin our trek up the mountain. As soon as we got to the edge of the property we would be greeted, if that’s the right term, by her uncle’s scary Bouvier des Flandres. This is a large breed of dog known for its formidable appearance and protective nature. He knew this was his land and he would give us the once over every time, but either he was all bluff and no bluster, or perhaps he grew accustomed to our scent. No matter, he looked scary, but he never followed through on any of his apparent intent.

Once at the chateau we would head for the pool. It wasn’t opulent. Just a simple cement rectangle and just clean enough to swim in. I think us kids were the only ones who really used it. I was a very proficient swimmer and adored spending time in the water, to the point of becoming waterlogged with prune-like fingertips. But I had never experienced water like this. The first time I dove in, it took a few minutes, but it became apparent that there was something different about the water. I was used to pools back in the States, where, whether it was in a friend’s yard or at a public facility, there was usually some measure of chlorine that you had to contend with. This was not chlorine I smelled – or tasted. It was sweet and musky and was definitely of food origin.

I looked around and realized that the vines that wrapped around the railing along one long edge of the pool were grape vines. The vines hung over the water and very ripe grapes had dropped into the pool, perfuming it and my experience. I swam over to pluck one from the vine. They were smaller than the grapes I was used to seeing in the supermarket and quite firm. And they had that foggy look to them that some grapes and even blueberries get when they are on-the-vine or just picked. I popped one in my mouth, which puckered up immediately. They were quite sour, but I could immediately smell and taste the flavors that I had noticed before. I was swimming in grape juice! Fancy French grape juice! The grapes that landed in the pool were ripe to the point of being almost fermented, which just enforced the aromatic wine association. What a romantic notion, especially to a 13-year-old. No one else seemed to find this fascinating or as amazing as I did. I don’t think I even discussed it with anyone. It became one of those private moments you have as a young adult that no one around you is aware of, which suited me just fine.

The trip didn’t last. I was supposed to spend the month, but after two weeks I had had it. I was lonely and if I had to listen to Smoke on the Water or Wild World one more time I was going to explode. Arrangements were made for me to come home early. I got through it by taking long walks by myself along the country roads and talking out loud to my bull terrier Lily, who was at home. I was convinced she could hear me and I would complain to her about how no one there understood me like she did and that I couldn’t wait to see her. It offered me an immense amount of comfort; these “conversations” held me together just enough until I left.

I don’t think I even had a conscious farewell swim in the pool. The rest of the visit was just too miserable and cancelled out the perfumed water. But I still remember the aquatic immersion experience like it was yesterday, while I don’t even remember the people’s names.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Steel Cut Oats: Our Daily Breakfast

Several months ago, my partner David and I decided to forgo our rolled oats for steel-cut. We had been enjoying oatmeal as our first meal of the day for years, and all of a sudden we wanted more out of our dish. Maybe it had been roiling in our minds for a while, but it really just got to the point where we Had to make a change.

I went to the supermarket intending to buy
McCann's as those were the ones I was used to seeing. And I also like the pretty gold and white tin, so call me a sucker for packaging. Much to my surprise, when I perused the cereal aisle, there were many to choose from. The McCann's were there, but so were Quaker Oats brand, Arrowhead Mills and Stop & Shop's organic line. I decided to go cheap and try the house Stop & Shop Nature's Promise Irish Style Oatmeal Steel Cut.Simply prepare as described on the package (of whatever brand you are using). If you want to try them the way our household does, add a sliced, ripe banana during cooking. Add a handful of blueberries and a healthy dollop of canned pure pumpkin right before they are finished cooking. The oats themselves should be soft, but still chewy - a bit al dente. Dish out into a bowl, add a scattering of nuts (we use walnuts, but pecans are great). Then, David adds a dollop of nonfat yogurt and enough soy milk to make it soupy. I prefer mine a bit thicker and just add plain soy yogurt. If there are seasonal fruits around - additional ones - I like to embellish. A bit of sliced apple cooked along in the fall, some stewed sweetened rhubarb stirred in at the end in the spring, you get the idea. Now some very delicious and very healthy foods are not so pretty, and this is in the category, but here ya go anyway:

When my July 1, 2009 issue of Cook's Illustrated arrived and I saw that they had a steel-cut oats brand review, I knew the cereal had become ubiquitous and that I had been connected to the culinary zeitgeist without even knowing it. Sometimes being in vogue is the best place to be.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Food of Life Fridays: A New Weekly Entry

Welcome to the first "edition" of Food of Life Fridays. A few months ago I was overtaken by a sudden burst of energy and wrote over a dozen stories in 3 days. They just poured put of me. These are stories of my life, many from childhood, and what they all have in common is food and the great impressions it has made in my life. Sometimes the food is startling and new. Other times it is simple, yet so meaningful. The stories describe travel experiences, first tastes and observations that I hope you will enjoy. Our first installment:

Paris and Champagne

Ah, Paris and true French champagne. They will always go hand and hand for me, and for good reason. My first visit to Paris was June of 1979. I was eighteen. My father attended the Paris air show every year at this time and he and my Mom decided that I would accompany him as a high school graduation present.

We were met at the airport by our dear friends, Pierre and Francoise Kostic, who whisked us away to their Parisian apartment. Within an hour of landing, with my head and body still reeling from the flight and jet lag, we were sitting down to my first local meal.

And what a way to start my love affair with Paris. Francoise handed each of us a glass. Well, maybe a goblet would be a better term. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that each one held an entire bottle of champagne. A whole bottle! She is one of those chic French women who know how to wear silk scarves and perfume without pomp or circumstance and the champagne, as indulgent as this was, was poured with similar insouciance. This was my kind of town.

I don’t recall much else about the meal. I remember watching the tennis open, on television in the background. I remember the cheese course as there were a few I had never tasted before. But that’s about it. After a bottle of champagne, I’m amazed I remember that. Yes I drank the whole thing, as did everyone else. The last thing I recall was all of us drifting off to nap-land right there on the couches. It is such a comfort to be with such good friends that you could fall asleep in front of them without concern.

The trip was to last about a week, and that was certainly not the only time we had champagne. In fact, since my dad had lived in Paris for years, and this was the first time all his friends were going to meet his daughter on their home turf, the red carpet was rolled out at every turn. We had champagne every day. Usually two times a day.

One night, Dad said he wanted to take me to one of his old haunts. We went to a club that featured live entertainment, settled into a table near the stage, and he ordered some champagne. We were sipping and chatting and all of a sudden my Dad asked me if I noticed anything unusual. I glanced around. “Not really,” I replied. He pointed out to me that the chanteuse that had been serenading us was in fact a man in drag. I looked closer. Yup, a guy. In sequins. No biggie. My Dad had asked me if I had noticed anything unusual. In that blasé way that only a self-important 18-year old can muster I reminded my father that I had grown up in the East Village of New York City. A man in drag was not unusual. Remember the movie The Crying Game and how it was such a big secret? I knew that was a guy the moment he came on screen. Being jaded at 18 when it comes to the ways of the drag community might seem unusual to you, but for me this was an almost everyday manifestation.

We were staying at the Hotel Napoleon on the avenue de Friedland, very near the Champs Elysees. We had a suite and I got the bedroom. It was a sumptuous room with white walls and white linens and all sorts of intricate molding on the walls edged in gilt. And a balcony from which I could see the Arc de Triomphe. I got to order room service for the first time in my life and requested café au lait and a croissant. I felt like a princess receiving the tray, and yet, at the same time, I don’t think I was as appreciative at the time as I should have been. I am sure this all cost a pretty penny.

One night we headed back to the hotel and Dad said he wanted to have a drink in the hotel bar before we went upstairs. I seem to remember that we were not at the bar proper per se, but in a small room where there were a few tables. It was much more private than the bar, and a place where you could have quiet conversation. I think it was the evening before we were to leave for home. He ordered each of us some champagne, and then, he started talking to me about my current boyfriend. It was no secret that he and my Mom did not like him. This had been mentioned before. But there was something about this conversation, with champagne at hand and the sophisticated surroundings that made the words easier to hear. I felt like he was talking to me as an adult. No patronizing tone, no parental prejudice, just genuine care and concern. It was a watershed moment where I realized that my dad was “for me” and not “against me” in those ways that teenagers think. It worked. I heard him. It all made sense. He was right; the current beaux had to go.

The Air France stewardesses (they were called that back then) offered us champagne on the way home. I passed. Is there ever such a thing as too much champagne? I don’t know about that, but the ambiance was just not right.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Kismet? Or the Blogger Forces at Work

I was checking out at Whole Foods this evening and as I glanced backwards in line noticed that my college professor and advisor was behind me. "Hello Merle," I offered, as she looked up with a broad smile and a friendly hello. "How are you?" I asked. She responded that she was doing great and...and... at this point she was gesturing toward the food she had put on the conveyor belt. "Look," she singled out, "I've got peas and salmon and I read your blog!" I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing. She was on her way home to make my comfort meal blogged about below. Wow. If this isn't direct affirmation of blog writing I don't know what is. She did mention that she and another professor were discussing the unlikely event of ever stopping to pick herbs and flowers from a garden after a root canal. We both had a laugh at that and I reminded her that I was still quite numb from the novocaine. That, and of course the fact that I am obsessed with food.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Very Dark Caramel Sauce (or Post Root Canal Dinner Part II)

If you followed my saga last week, you know I had a root canal and decided to indulge after the fact. I picked up Ciao Bella Chocolate Sorbet and Haagen-Daz Fleur de Sel Caramel Ice Cream on the way home; the perfect combo I thought to soothe my sore mouth. All ice cream is enhanced by a good homemade caramel sauce, in my opinion, and I happen to like mine extra, extra dark, bordering on bitter. It complements the sweet ice cream so well. So when I got home, I whipped up a batch. (I know this sounds improbable, but I left the endodontist at noon and I swear the novacaine anesthesia lasted until about 5:00pm. I felt great. Until then).

Very Dark Caramel Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy cream, at room temperature

Combine sugar and water in deep, medium sized saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring, occasionally brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush. Watch carefully for the moment when the sugar syrup just begins to color, about 7 to 10 minutes after it has come to a boil. Watch constantly at this point as the color will develop quickly. Watch as it changes from pale gold, to a rich amber color. Continue boiling and within a minute it will darken to a rich reddish brown, the color of a pecan. Allow it to go a few seconds further and the moment you get a whiff of burnt sugar, remove from heat. (See photo below. You want the color all the way on the bottom or at least between the last two).

Off heat, immediately pour cream over caramel. It will bubble up; just allow it to bubble and it will subside. Whisk gently until smooth. In the pitcher below I swirled the caramel and let it re-settle do that you can see the colors of the sauce.

Sauce may be used warm. Alternatively, cool to room temperature and store in refrigerator in airtight container for up to 1 month. Re-heat gently in microwave or on stovetop before serving. Serve with Your favorite ice cream, gelato or sorbet.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Post Root Canal Dinner Part I

Last week I had an emergency root canal. I had a toothache for a day or so, but it didn't occur to me what it was until about 3:30am last Tuesday when I was contemplating taking my own tooth out. Either that or a trip to the emergency room to ask them to just knock me out. The pain was intolerable and I'm not really sure how I made it through the night. By 10:30am on Wednesday (when I had secured the appointment with the endodontist by literally crying on the phone with the receptionist) I was literally looking forward to the long numbing needles and having my roots drilled out. I kid you not. The procedure was completely pain free - the joys and result of 6 shots of novacaine.

So I felt just in spoiling myself for the rest of the day. I stopped at Whole Foods on the way home and bought some wild-caught sockeye salmon, some English peas and oyster mushrooms. (I also bought some Ciao Bella Chocolate Sorbet and Haagen-Daz Fleur de Sel Caramel ice cream, but that will be discussed in Part II another day). Then I stopped at my friend's garden and picked flat-leaf parsley and chives. I spied some nasturtiums and spontaneously picked a few. I had Yukon Gold potatoes at home; I was ready to cook.
The idea began with thinking of soft, easy-to-chew foods. My mind went immediately to mashed potatoes. Needing a protein, I thought of salmon, both for its pretty color and health benefits. The peas came along because I needed a veggie and some color. The mushrooms were a last minute addition because I saw them at the store and immediately decided their velvety quality would enhance the rest. Ta Da! The perfect dinner for after oral surgery, or anytime you would like some comfort - and comforting - food.

Mashed Potatoes, Salmon, Mushrooms and Peas

Serves 2

About 2 ounces Oyster Mushrooms
About 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 large handfuls of English pea pods (yields about 3/4 cup peas)
3/4 to 1 pound sockeye salmon filet
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
About 4 chives, snipped
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Nasturtiums (if they happen to be around. They add a peppery bite)

Separate the oyster mushrooms from their thick, connected stem end. Roughly chop
and saute lightly in a nonstick skillet with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside. No need to clean pan before using for salmon.

Place the salmon filet skin side down in same nonstick skillet. Add water to come about halfway up the side of the fish. Drizzle some olive oil in there. Throw in a few peppercorns and a few stalks of parsley and a sprinkle of salt. Simmer until edges begin to turn opaque. Carefully flip fish over and continue to poach in simmering liquid until just done. I like to keep the salmon very moist and undercooked a bit.
Meanwhile place potatoes in pot with salted water to cover and simmer vigorously until tender. About 2 minutes before they are done, throw in the peas. Drain potatoes and peas, reserving cooking liquid. Add potatoes and peas back to pot and mash, adding back some reserved cooking liquid, a good dose of olive oil, salt and pepper until they are a consistency you like. Fold in the mushrooms.
Place a nice mound of mashed potato mixture on a plate. Flake the salmon and scatter about. Sprinkle with herbs and garnish with nasturtiums, if you like. Eat with a spoon. It makes the dish even more comforting that way.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blueberries, Pie Crust and My Nana

Well we are halfway through the month, so I will take the glass-is-half-full approach and say YEAH there is plenty of time left to celebrate National Blueberry Month. Did you know that it has been a national month since 1999? If not, you have a lot of blueberry eating to catch up with:)

I love blueberries and always have and a lot of that has to do with the associations I have with my maternal Nana, Dora Rusitzky. I spent at least one month with her every summer during my entire childhood. She lived in South Dartmouth, MA just a very short walk from the beach, so this was an ideal situation for a New York City girl. As an aside, I always find it funny when upon learning that I grew up in Manhattan, that people assume I never got out of the inner city. Nothing could be further from the truth and my New England summers were luxurious stretches of time.

Nana Dora was strict. No "noshing" (snacking) allowed, which was the horrible part. Somehow I got by, I think by getting snacks behind her back with the aid of my Mom. But the great part involved Nana's cooking. She was a great, intuitive cook and baker and we always ate well (at proper meals), taking advantage of fresh fruits and vegetables - some from her garden - at nearly every meal.

But it is her blueberry pie that I lived for. To this day, a taste of blueberry pie is the taste of summer. Nana Dora also had a special way of making her crust. Much to the consternation of her interested family members, she, like so many old-fashioned bakers of her generation, never measured a thing. Eventually I got the gist of her measurements, but it was also the ingredients that were interesting. She liked to make her crust with vegetable shortening. No butter at all. The blue Crisco can was a constant. And she used orange juice as her liquid. I had never met anyone else who did this, nor have I till this day. She liked the flakiness that the acidity in the juice gave the crust, and it added some flavor as well. Her crust also had a fairly large amount of salt, which she determined was necessary with the bland flavor of the shortening.

Nana's Pie Crust

Makes 1, double crust for a 9 1/2-inch deep dish pie

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup chilled vegetable shortening

2 to 4 tablespoons cold orange juice

Measure flour and salt into a mixing bowl and place in freezer for 15 minutes.

Scatter shortening over dry mixture in tablespoon-sized pieces. Cut in using a pastry blender until shortening pieces are the size of large, flat grapes. Do not overwork.

Sprinkle the orange juice over the flour/shortening mixture. Toss in with two forks or fingertips until dough begins to come together.

Scrape dough onto lightly floured tabletop and knead briefly, just to bring the crust together in a ball. Divide into two pieces, roll into balls and flatten into disks. Wrap both in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight. The crust may also be frozen for a week and defrosted in the refrigerator overnight.

Use as desired in your favorite double-crusted pie recipe....preferably blueberry.

When my friend's garden doesn't provide enough fruit, shopping at the farmer's market or the supermarket are fine options. This year, the Driscoll's blueberries in my market have been quite sweet and they even have an organic option.

Blueberry Pie

I prefer cultivated blueberries because that's what my Nana used. Please taste them first and adjust the sugar level. By the way, this makes a juicy pie; add more tapioca for a thicker, more "sliceable" filling texture.

Makes 1, 9 1/2-inch deep dish pie

Serves 8

1 recipe Nana's Pie Crust (see above)

8 cups blueberries, washed, sorted, any stems or leaves discarded

3/4 to 1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup instant tapioca

2 teaspoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into large pieces

Coat a Pyrex 9 1/2-inch pie plate with nonstick spray. Roll out bottom crust to a 12-inch round and fit into pie plate. Refrigerate while assembling remaining ingredients.

Place berries in mixing bowl with sugar, tapioca and lemon juice. Toss to mix and let sit 15 minutes.

Pile fruit into pie crust. Dot with butter. Refrigerate while rolling out top crust.

Roll out top crust to a 13-inch round and place on top of berries. Seal top and bottom crusts and fold under; crimp edges. Make a steam vent (or 2 or 3). Freeze for 15 minutes while you preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Place pie on parchment lined baking sheet. Place pie in oven, turn oven down to 375 degrees F and bake for 45 minutes. Check to see how pie is browning. Continue to bake for approximately 15 more minutes or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling.

Let cool on wire rack for 30 minutes to allow juices to thicken.

Serve warm, with or without Vanilla Ice Cream. Or, have a slice or breakfast with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt - my favorite summer morning treat.

Blueberries will be available for quite a while longer. Here is my friend's bush from just a few days ago. You can see that they have just begun to ripen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My CBS Early Show Food Stylist Makes HER Debut!

Im sitting here this morning, waiting for an emergency root canal, so I turn on CBS and who is on The Early Show but my very own Marie Haycox! She is one of my favorite food stylists and helps me with ALL the food on my TV segments. They gave her her own segment today and she looked glamorous and was incredibly natural on TV. If you want to learn her tips and tricks to making your plates look as beautiful as ours always do on TV, check out Marie's Segment.

Here is a pic of Marie on the CBS kitchen set working on one of our Bon Appetit segments. Marie is on the right. Sue is our prop stylist, on the left.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Look at these beautiful berries from my friend’s garden (in central/western, MA). These are a pink /ruby colored variety and are sweet, not to mention gorgeous. Well, they are sweet as far as gooseberries go, which is on the tarter side of the berry spectrum. Not rhubarb tart, but many other varieties are equated to unripe grapes. These are like sweet grapes and could be nibbled right off of the vine. This type is related to edible currants (black, red and white) and is a member of the genus Ribes.Without getting too technical, there are varieties the color of green grapes, crimson-toned ones as I have here and others that are green with a hint of blush color. Some have small hairs, while some do not. Thankfully mine were "nude". Here's a pic of a single branch showing you how the berries proliferate on the plant.Below is a picture I found online of a green variety. Over the years I have seen the green types more often, so dont be surprised if these are the ones you come upon.This photo below shows one up close and you can see the stem end and the curly tail end - kinda like the curly tail ends of a green bean. In recipe directions it will often say “top and tail the gooseberries”, which refers to removing the stiffer stem (the "top") and the thin “tail”. This is not hard, but as you can imagine, is time consuming. If you are going to do it, just use the nails of your index finger and thumb to pinch them off.

This photo below and to the left shows the inside, which is quite seedy. Most recipes have you strain the cooked pulp. I do strain when cooking them, but I also like to eat them whole and raw. I liken them to strawberries with their seeds. The seeds are there, you are aware of them, but I enjoy them and consider them part of the gooseberry experience.

Here is a great big tip. I have found that if you are cooking them and know that you will be straining them after (which is really pressing the pulp firmly through a strainer), you can eliminate the topping and tailing prep as these hard bits will be retained by the strainer anyway and your pure, juicy pulp will fall down into your bowl.

If you are lucky enough to find some in a yard – or I have even heard of folks finding them in public parks – take advantage and make yourself a fool. Not into a fool! But make a fool, which is a simple English dessert of cooked crushed fruit and whipped cream. It is easy, light (in that deceptive way that desserts “lightened” with cream can be) and in this day and age, unusual.

Gooseberry Fool

The sugar will be to taste, as the gooseberries will vary so.

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds gooseberries
2 tablespoons water
1/2 to 1 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream

Separate individual berries from their branches, if necessary. Gently rinse and dry the berries. (Save a few whole berries for embellishment). Place berries and water in a deep saucepan and add smallest amount of sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture comes to a simmer. Total cooking time will be about 15 minutes. About halfway through, crush with a potato masher. You will know they are done when the mixture is homogenous and thickened and soft. Press through a strainer, discarding solids, reserving purée. Taste. If it is too tart, place back in pot with a bit more sugar and cook until sugar dissolves. Cool. This puree can be made a day ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. Bring back to room temperature before proceeding. Right before serving, whip the cream until soft peaks form and fold in the puree until a few streaks still show (I think it looks prettier this way, which I exaggerated a bit for the picture). Gently spoon into glass goblets and crown with a few reserved berries, if desired.

If you have a surfeit of berries, try adding a handful to a berry crisp, crumble or pie. Or even toss a few into your morning oatmeal, as I was lucky enough to do this morning.

Speaking of oatmeal. Look for an upcoming blog about chewy steel-cut oats. My new morning favorite.

For the dog fans out there, I leave you with a pic of my bull terrier Beckett, who watched me take these photos out on our deck on this glorious July afternoon.