Thursday, March 31, 2011

Soft core food porn

The use of food and the reliance on it for pleasure is ages old.  No, I do not have a reference here, but think about it for a moment.  Think about the habits of ancient Romans and Grecians, who were historically excessive in their pursuit of pleasure.  Throwing a toga party?  Then that meant a feast, dancing women, and a lot of wine.  Heaping platters of meats, fruits, confections.  In Medieval times not much changed except that that rich were richer and the poor were poorer.  Trying to forget a hard day on the rack?  Have a feast with dancing women, and a lot of wine if you can afford it.  Serve heaping platters of meats, fruits, confections.   The Renaissance brought with it even more attention to rich foods and pleasurable experiences, especially during entertaining.  Fast forward to the Gilded Age and everything is sparkling and oppulent for those who entertain with feasts, dancing women, and a lot of wine.  Heaping platters of meats, fruits, and confections.  And present day?  At Vindaloo's Bordello of Boudin there are frequently feasts, dancing women, and a lot of wine.  Heaping platters of meats, fruits and confections.  Why break with tradition?

Historically, food and pleasure are inextricably linked and the appreciation of food is entwined with the appreciation of other pleasurable activities.  We could certainly have a discussion about dopamine receptors and pleasure/reward and endorphins and satiation levels, but let's leave those details to the behaviorists.  What I'm really interested in is the creation and presentation of food and pleasurable food experiences.  That's really the whole reason that The Voluptuous Table even exists.  I have an almost unflagging desire to transform something that all humans must do on a regular basis into something more than mundanely life-sustaining.  I want food to be a revelation, a gift, a way of entertaining yourself and others, a source of pleasure every day

The best way that I can bring that to you as my readers, short of having you as guests in my home, is to give you a virtual experience of pleasurable food experiences through my writing.  The use of imagination, language, imagery and visualization is important in my attempts to do this.  Several of you have asked about photographs of the food I cook and write about.  I have thought about this option for several weeks now and have come to the same conclusion each time the question arises.  Photography is not where Vindaloo's skills lie.  Many people will include pictures with their food blogs and that's great.  Vindaloo is just as visually and gustatorially stimulated by a beautiful plate of osso bucco as the next person.  The aromas, textures, and flavors are easily recalled and I think: "Now, let's go get some veal shanks for dinner," which is what the picture is designed to do--trigger my sense of desire for an unctious, aromatic plate of osso bucco.  Apparently this phenomenon also happens to Guy Fieri, who has commented that his tastebuds do the "Niagra Falls effect."

Recently, several food writers have noted the connection between the food production industry in visual media and the pornography industry.  Hence the term "food porn."  If some of you are surprised or even shocked by this analogy, consider this chain of references from a popular cultural information website:  "'Food porn" specifically refers to food photography and styling that presents food glamorously or provocatively, as in glamour photography or pornographic photography."  Although I normally wouldn't use Wikipedia to support my claims (being trained in more scholarly research methods by the good folk who hang out in the ivory towers), I thought it was the most succinct and relevant reference point.

Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations, whom I absolutely adore for his Bad Boy antics on the Travel Channel and elsewhere (follow him on Twitter, he's pretty amusing), popularized the concept of food porn by producing several episodes of shows that "present[ed] a XXX selection of all that's lip-smacking and luscious in the world of food. For hardcore viewers only."  Notice the the use of terminology formerly linked specifically to pornography: "For hardcore viewers only."  The photography and editing were pretty intense and, I thought, pretty provocative.  For Mr. Bourdain's analysis of this series, specifically the concept of the "money shot" see here.  There is nothing more titillating to Vindaloo than a Bad Boy who is also a Thinker!

But I believe that we are visually over-stimulated in our culture.  We are constantly bombarded with images, both subliminal and overt.  In some studies, visual imagery has been linked with the power to deliver a significant load of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain.  However, it is as if we are on stimulation overload all the time in our culture.  To make a blatant point, visual overload is what the porn industry relies on.  On another, but certainly not unrelated level, the food industry relies on visual overload to 1.) capture your attention; 2.) trigger dopamine release and pleasure; and 3.) induce desire for a specific food.  If you're still doubtful of my claims, do a little in vivo, highly subjective experiment and pay close attention to the number of times food is glamorized and even sexualized in the printed media, or to the next fast-food hamburger commercial you see on TV.  Remember the controversy and uproar over the Paris Hilton ad for Carl's Jr. hamburgers?  Pay close attention to what happens when you see these images.  I do realize that some of us are just not triggered by images of hamburgers, or by images of hamburgers being eaten by a wet, sudsy Paris Hilton.  But put a food magazine in my hands and my dopamine receptors almost short-circuit if I'm looking at those gorgeous pictures.  In another vein, I have a good friend who says that she can't watch the Food Network at night because it makes her too hungry. 

The way that I want to entice and excite my readers is through visual imagery that relies on much more subtle ways of stimulating those dopamine receptors.  I want to write "soft core food porn," if you please, and plan to supplement my writing with no cheesecake.  As I observe the way in which technology is moving, I fear that writing in such a way is becoming a lost art, swallowed up by the visual media industry.  There are very few food blogs that rely on the printed word only.  But I want to write about the foods I cook, present and enjoy in such a way that you will want to try to create your own pleasureable experiences, simply after reading my posts.  I want you to see the food in your mind, to smell it and taste it in anticipation of a pleasurable experience.  In other words, I want you to use that part of your brain called "imagination."  The comments from many of you so far have indicated that I'm headed in the right direction.

So think of Vindaloo, if you will, as the Anais Nin of food writing.  Or think of Vindaloo as an old-fashioned girl, if you must.  I'm not saying that I will never include pictures of what I'm cooking in my blog, but I am saying that my main focus is on the written word.  It is still a very powerful and persuasive way of connecting to others.  Those of you who enjoy reading already know that.

May your tastebuds continue to dance!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather...

...inside of 24 hours."  Mark Twain wrote that.  But evidently not about Texas, where it has been documented that there are actually 137 different kinds of weather inside 24 hours.

Sunday was a chilly, sunless day spent mostly in the gardens around our house, getting ready for spring and summer.  The coolness in the air made me think of roasted chicken with other cool-weather foods.  I opened a very lovely rose, a wine that typically straddles the not-too-warm and not-too-cold season right before the oppressive summer heat of central Texas hits us.  Pigmentum Rose of Malbec 2009 (France) has a slightly vegetal nose with a little green pepper, and backnotes of grapefruit.  But it brought me back to the scent of the floribunda roses that I grew while I lived in Albuquerque--lightly floral with strawberry notes.  This wine is very perky and brisk, with a nice hit of acid and a very clean finish.  In the glass, it's beautiful--the color of a just-caught sockeye salmon fillet.  The wine worked perfectly with the meal.  It was actually a bottle I had been storing since last November, when one of my Ab Fab wine guys at Spec's suggested it for another event--the Iron Chef Thanksgiving Leftover Cookoff Competition, if you must know.

With the rose as my muse, I was able to produce a quite satisfying dinner that smelled as it cooked like I would hope heaven smells when I get there to take up my new post as sous chef for Auguste Escoffier.  We sat on the patio and admired our work (and complained about our aching backs) while I sipped more rose and we deliberated on how we'd have to relocate all those pesky moles that kept eating the root systems out from under all my passion flower vines.  I couldn't be entirely unhappy with those moles because they do provide hours of digging pleasure for my dog, who really just wants to play with anything that's furry and moves faster than she does.  I wasn't feeling as kindly toward the squirrels, however, who had totally stripped a beautiful varigated sweet potato vine I'd been watering faithfully.  Fortunately, and we were able to soothe our souls at the table, pleased with our weekend's labors.  We supped on Oven-Braised Chicken Thighs Parisienne, Green Beans Sauteed with Garlic, Tomato and Herbes de Provence, and simple baked sweet potatoes.  Dessert, Blackberries with Muscovado Cream, was sheer inspiration and my husband requested seconds (but without the "green stuff").  Recipes follow.

Oven-Braised Chicken Thighs Parisienne

4 chicken thighs on the bone, cleaned of skin and fat
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 tsp. fresh chives, finely minced (or ½ tsp. dried chives)
¼ tsp. dried basil
¼ tsp. dried tarragon
¼ tsp. dried chervil
Pinch dried dill
½ bay leaf
Olive oil for drizzling
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 cup frozen pearl onions, thawed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbs. brandy
1 cup dry white wine
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. 
  2. Place chicken thighs in a baking dish.
  3. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  4. Scatter minced shallot, chives, basil, tarragon, chervil, and dill over chicken. 
  5. Drizzle with lightly with olive oil and bake for 20 minutes.
  6. Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in small sauté pan over medium-high heat.
  7. Add pearl onions and brown well.
  8. Add brandy and reduce for about 1 minute.
  9. Add pearl onions to chicken.
  10. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and add 1 cup dry white wine.
  11. Cover baking dish with foil and bake for another 45 minutes. 
  12. Remove chicken and pearl onions from pan to a serving platter; keep warm. 
  13. Reduce juices in a small saucepan over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes to concentrate flavors; taste and correct for seasoning.
  14. Pour juices over chicken and garnish with parsley.   Serves 2.

Green Beans Sauteed with Garlic, Tomato and Herbes de Provence

2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups frozen French-style green beans, thawed
Salt to taste
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 small Roma tomato, cored and chopped
½ tsp. herbes de Provence*
¼ tsp. mignonette pepper (I used Penzey’s brand)**

  1. Heat olive oil until shimmering in a medium-size sauté pan over medium heat. 
  2. Add green beans.
  3. Salt to taste generously and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes.
  4. Add minced garlic and chopped tomato; continue to sauté for an additional 3 minutes. 
  5. Add herbes de Provence; stir well.
  6. Add mignonette pepper, stir and serve while still hot.  Serves 2.
*To make your own herbes de Provence:  Combine the following dried herbs--3 Tbs. oregano, 3 Tbs. thyme, 1 tsp. basil, 1 tsp. rubbed sage  3 Tbs. savory (or substitute parsley), 2 Tbs. culinary lavender flowers and 1 tsp. rosemary, crushed.  Mix well. Makes about ¾ cup.  Store airtight.

** You can grind up equal amounts black peppercorns, white peppercorns and coriander seeds for the same results.

Blackberries with Muscovado Cream

     The sauce for this dessert is really a shortcut version of creme fraiche.  If you have that around, by all means, use it.  Muscovado sugar is not only richer in taste than other brown sugars, it has a higher mineral content as well.  It has a much deeper, more intense taste than regular brown sugar.

1 cup fresh blackberries, washed and dried well
2 Tbs. sour cream
2 Tbs. half and half
2 tsp. muscovado sugar (or substitute dark brown sugar)
fresh mint leaves for garnish

1.  Divide blackberries between two dessert cups.
2.  Combine sour cream, half and half, and muscovado sugar with a whisk.  If you want a
     thinnner sauce, add more half and half.
3.  Pour sauce over blackberries.
4.  Garnish with mint leaves.  Serves two.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

This chick is twisted, but in a good way

OK, I admit that I eat unusual food.  But I've come by my predilections honestly, having been literally schooled at the knee of my epicurean grandfather, who fed me my first oil-cured olive at the tender age of 5.  Following that, I was fed morsels of whatever stinky cheese he had brought home from the deli, along with bites of dolmas, garlicky salami, broiled bluefish and huge garlic dill pickles.  After that, I fell totally into debauchery at his hands--black bread wth unsalted butter, blood sausage, pickled herring, sopressata, strong green tea with a wedge of lime, leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary, endive braised with olive oil, garlic and lemon, a bottomless pot of espresso (always in the Bialetti stovetop pot), yaki tori, name it, my grandfather ate it and fed it to me as well.  I do have to say, however, that resisting the urge to run away from home while enduring the process of homemade sauerkraut and homemade kimchi was a challange.  Those were nearly intolerable odors when the house was filled with them for days during my grandparents' summer visits.

Whether my palate was born or made is still debatable.  What is very clear, however, is that I prefer and often crave foods that are outside the norm.  Acid, heat, pungency, herbaceousness, earthiness and especially umami--I really like cooking and eating off the beaten path.  So when I was expecting a friend for dinner earlier in the week and asked what she was wanting to eat, her immediately response was "Laap kai."  For the uninitiated, laap kai is a Thai salad made with ground chicken, chilies, lime juice and fresh herbs.  But what really makes it very different is the ground roasted rice that gives a slightly crunchy texture and a nutty taste when it gets mixed in with the warm chicken.  Then the chicken mixture is served on lettuce leaves and garnished with cucumber, scallions, Chinese long beans and more herbs and lime.  It's a delightful spring and summer salad and is often eated by the Thai as a lettuce wrap.

I also made and served a green papaya salad.  I've eaten this salad countless times in restaurants but have never attempted to make it.  I saw a huge box of green papayas when I was shopping at M & T Market last weekend and decided that this was my chance to tackle a favorite at home.  The long shreds of pale, green papaya are beautiful glistening in their honey/chili/garlic/lime juice dressing and studded with peanuts, chopped fresh cilantro and Thai basil.  This salad is relatively simple to make and tastes great the next day too.

We started the evening with a cocktail I can't wait to make again.  It sets the stage for an evening of Thai cuisine with lime juice, basil and gin.  It's cool and refreshing, and easy to make if you can prep a little ahead.  I call it a Thai Gimlet.  Here's the recipe:

Thai Gimlet

6 oz. Tangueray Rangpur Lime Gin
2 oz. dry (white) vermouth
2 oz. fresh lime juice
3 oz. basil syrup (recipe follows)
8 basil leaves, sliced crosswise very thinly (use Thai basil for licorice flavor or Italian basil for  a more straightforward basil flavor)
Green grapes, basil leaves and thin lime slices for garnish, arranged on a cocktail pick or short skewer

Combine gin, vermouth, lime juice, basil syrup and basil leaves in a bar shaker.  Stir well.  Fill two tall glasses with ice.  Divide cocktail mixture between the two glasses.  Garnish with cocktail picks as suggested above.  Serves 2.

Basil Syrup

Combine 1 tsp. dried basil with 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water.  Bring to boil and boil for 2 minutes.  Cool to room temperature and strain before using.  Freeze any leftovers.


My Thai food-loving friend also came back later in the week and we repeated the cocktail ritual with great gusto, but this time we ate Jade Curry with Beef, Eggplant and Green Chili, Cucumber Salad with Cilantro and Mint, and Coconut Corn Ice Cream.  I know that the dessert will surprise some of you, but the combination of sweet coconut and corn is a Thai favorite.  So below, you'll find five recipes, the three I just mentioned, then Laap Kai and Green Papaya Salad.  Be adventurous and try them!

And how could I forget the wine that we drank with the curry?  One of my point-on wine guys at Spec's helped me deliberate over the right wine to serve.  What I eventually settled on was a rose.  Carmela Benegas 2010 (Argentina) is fermented entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes, one of my favorite varietals.  At well under $10 a bottle, it has a fairly high alcohol content (13.5%) and enough sweetness to bolster the heat and intensity of the curry.  The first thing I noted was that it smelled literally of roses; my friend noted cherry and strawberry, which were also present.  It is a very fruit-forward, intensely flavored wine and you will definitely taste lots of strawberry.  It is a gorgeous deep coral color in the glass.  I have never described a wine as sexy before, but this wine is sexy.  Remember Roman Polanski's movie Tess and Natasha Kinski during the strawberry scene?  Yeah, it's that kind of sexy.

Jade Curry with Beef, Eggplant and Green Chili

The original recipe, adapted from Victor Sodsook's True Thai, called for 6 serrano chilies, cut in half, but not seeded.  They are not intended to be eaten, but they did flavor this curry very intensely and although I can truly claim to be a chili-head, the amount of chili pushed the boundaries of my Scoville unit tolerance!  So I've reduced the amount called for here to help tone down the heat.  This curry is excellent reheated the next day, but the heat will have intensified, so those of you shy of chilies may want to leave out the serranos all together.

2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup green curry paste (you can make your own--contact me for a recipe--or
     use prepared curry paste such as Mae Ploy brand, which can be found at
     well-stocked Asian markets)
1 1/2 lbs. sirloin, sliced across the grain 1/4" thick (approx. 1" X 2" pieces)
1/4 cup golden brown sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla can be found at Asian markets)
1 lb. Japanese or Thai eggplant (or combination), stemmed and sliced into
     1/4" slices
1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced into 1/4" slices
2 to 3 medium serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced in half lengthwise (remove
     seeds if you'd like considerably less heat)
1 cup loosely packed Thai basil leaves (or substitute purple or Italian basil)

1.  Skim the thick cream from the top of the coconut milk into a medium-large
     sized kettle or soup pot.  Set remaining coconut milk aside.
2.  Over medium-high heat, stir in curry paste until well blended and bring to a
     simmer.  Cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes.
3.  Stir in the beef and the remaining coconut milk.  Bring to a simmer, stirring
4.  Add the brown sugar and the fish sauce.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved
     and all is blended.
5.  Stir in the eggplant and sweet green pepper.  Cook for about 2 minutes.
6.  Add the serranos and return to a simmer, stirring occasionally.  Cook for
     about 2 minutes.
7.  Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for a few minutes. 
8.  Just before serving, stir in the basil leaves, or use them to garnish if you
     are transferring the curry to a serving bowl.  Serve with plenty of hot
     jasmine rice.  Serves 6 to 8.

Cucumber Salad with Cilantro and Mint

2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into 1/4" slices
2 to 3 Tbs. honey
juice of 1 lime
salt to taste
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro
2 Tbs. chopped mint
1/4 cup plain dry-roasted peanuts, chopped or crushed

1.  Arrange cucumber slices on a serving platter.
2.  Drizzle cucumbers with honey and lime juice.
3.  Salt to taste.
4.  Sprinkle with chopped herbs.
5.  Sprinkle with chopped/crushed peanuts.  Serves 4.

Coconut Corn Ice Cream

2 pints good-quality vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
1/2 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
1/2 cup fresh sweet corn kernels (in the absence of fresh corn, use the sweetest, most tender
     corn kernels available.  Canned corn is acceptable, but its color is dull.  If you use it, make
     sure it is well-drained).

Blend all ingredients together with a mixer (or use a spatula and be quick about it!).  Pack into a container and freeze until time to serve.  Serves 4.

Laap Kai

You will need to plan to make the ground roasted rice ahead of time.  This recipe is a compilation of several and relies heavily on suggestions from my friend, whose's mother makes this dish for the family frequently.  You can also make this dish with ground turkey and it is really excellent with ground pork, which would then be called Laap Mu

2 cups ground chicken breast, with a little skin and fat mixed in (if you can't find ground
     chicken breast at your grocery store, chop boneless chicken breasts yourself if you have
     a food processor)
2 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded and minced (or substitute 1 Tbs. dried crushed red chili)
4 Tbs. fresh lime juice
3 Tbs. fish sauce (nam pla can be found at Asian markets)
2 to 3 Tbs. ground roasted rice
2 Tbs. thinly sliced shallots
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, or sawtooth herb
2 to 3 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped (optional)

Lettuce leaves (such as Boston lettuce, green leaf lettuce or Buttercrunch)
Chinese long beans, blanched and chilled
Shredded Chinese cabbage
Cucumber slices
Sliced scallions
Cherry or grape tomatoes
Cilantro, mint and/or sawtooth herb for garnish
Lime wedges

1.  Mix 2 Tbs. lime with the ground chicken.
2.  Using a little oil if necessary, cook the chicken and the minced jalapenos in a wok over
     medium heat, stirring until chicken is fully cooked.  It will not brown, so don't overcook it
     or it will be dry.
3.  Stir in the rest of the lime juice along with the fish sauce, the ground roasted rice, sliced
     shallots, chopped herbs, and kaffir lime leaves (if using).  Blend well and taste and correct
     for seasoning.
4.  Serve chicken mixture as a lettuce wrap along with the other vegetables, or line a serving
     platter with the lettuce leaves, pile the chicken mixture on top and arrange the other
     vegetables around the platter. 
5.  Garnish with extra herbs and pass lime wedges.  Serves 4.

Ground Roasted Rice

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Place 1 cup Thai glutinous or "sticky" rice on a dry baking sheet.  Roast rice in the oven for about 1 hour or longer.  It should look like the color of toasted sesame seeds when it is done.  Cool rice, then grind in a food processor or blender, or use a mortar and pestle to pound rice to about cornmeal consistency.  Store extra ground rice airtight.  It will keep for several weeks.  Makes a scant 1 cup.

Green Papaya Salad

This is a simplified version of Victor Sodsook's recipes in True ThaiYou can also find many versions on the internet, including Vietnamese-style, which I especially love for chopped the Asain beef jerky.  Note: there is an easy way and a hard way to shred the papaya.  If you shred it lengthwise (from stem end to blossom end), your job will be much quicker!

1 large green papaya
3 to 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 to 4 small Thai chilies, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 Tbs. mild honey (such as clover or orange blossom)
3 Tbs. fish sauce (nam pla can be found at Asian markets)
6 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro and/or Thai basil
1/2 cup dry roasted unsalted peanuts, crushed or finely chopped

1.  Peel the papaya with a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler, then cut it in half lengthwise. 
2.  Scoop out and discard the seeds, along with any white membrane. 
3.  Using a mandoline with a julienne attachment, or a food processor with a shredding disc,
     shred the papaya.  Set aside or chill until ready to serve.
4.  Pound the chillies and garlic together in  a mortar and mash well. 
5.  Blend in the honey and the fish sauce with the pestle.
6.  Use a large spoon to scrape down the sides of the mortar and to help dissolve any
     remaining sugar.
7.  Add the lime juice and mix well.
8.  Arrange the shredded papaya in a shallow bowl and pour the honey-lime-chile dressing over
     the papaya.  Toss well.
9.  Sprinkle with chopped herbs.
10. Sprinkle with peanuts.  Serves 4.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eating well requires consciousness

I get asked this question a lot: how can you cook like you do, eat like you do, have wine with dinner almost every night and still not weigh 300 lbs?  My first response is: well, it's certainly not my metabolism.  I was, off and on, a chunky child.  I also have been, off and on, a chunky adult.  And now that I've passed the half-century mark, the challenge of balancing a stubborn metabolism with enough physical activity is a serious one.  Also, balancing the foods I prefer to eat in the quantities required to maintain a healthy weight means that I must make daily decisions in an intentional and conscious manner.  That means Meal Planning.

Planning meals is not a new concept.  Plenty of women's magazines used to offer several weeks' worth of meals, even shopping lists, in order to make Mom's life easier.  But those meal plans existed in an era where Mom usually stayed home and kept house.  Some of you reading this post might not even have experienced this kind of lifestyle, but trust me, it did exist.  Today, however, Mom usually works to help pay the mortgage and often has the additional responsibility of throwing together a nutritious and attractive meal for her husband and their offspring.  And of course, sometimes it's Dad that has to manage meals, or each family member fends for themselves at meal times.

What does that look like in real life?  Often it looks like take-out, fast food, a budget chain restaurant or frozen, prepackaged meals.  Or maybe it's a bag of chips, microwave popcorn, or half a package of cookies.  Or a cup of yogurt or cheese and crackers.  Or, my personal favorite from my still-single days, peanut butter and celery.  Let's face it, cooking a meal from scratch after a long day and a frustrating commute home has potential to produce a Late Onset Psychotic Break complete with an E-Ticket to your local psych ward.  We are all stressed enough, you might argue, without having to cook too.  I agree!  And I plan to address how to cook quick, easy meals more healthfully and satisfyingly in a post in the very near future.  It is possible to have items on hand in your pantry, fridge and freezer to make less costly and more nutritious meals at home in about the same time as it takes to drive out and back to your local pizza joint.  What?  Don't like to cook?  We'll deal with that too.

But while you're waiting for that post on what to keep on hand, start with making a few small changes now.  Just thinking about making a change and becoming more intentional is half the battle.  After you've decided you're ready for change, you'll need to practice some discipline with yourself.  I do this by following four basic rules for eating well and eating healthfully.  My number one rule is No Processed Foods.  We must start thinking of most processed foods as synthesized food, not real food.  Start reading labels.  If there are words on the label you can't pronounce or don't recognize, realize that it's probably not something that is real food.  Anything that is manufactured in a lab has no business on your dinner plate.  And anything modified with additives and preservatives, even "fortified" and "enriched foods," is not real food.  Think about it for a minute: additives and preservatives enhance color, flavor, texture and give a longer shelf life.  Real food doesn't need enhancement in this way.  It is enhanced in the company of other real foods.  Similarly, we enrich and fortify food that is considered dead or no longer optimally nutritious.  Real foods, whole foods don't need to be enriched and fortified.

But there are other problems with processed foods.  The major health concerns in our culture--diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, etc., are strongly linked with heavy consumption of processed foods, mostly highly reinforcing products that provoke conditioned and driven behaviors.  In his book The End of Overeating, David A. Kessler, MD, a former FDA food commissioner, states that certain commercially prepared foods--especially those with added salt, sugar and fat--are so tasty and stimulating that they overload your brain's circuitry. 

Let's face it, highly processed foods are easy to eat (no bones, no pits, no knife and fork required).  They are calorie-dense with little nutritional payoff.  So what's the appeal?  Well, aside from the fact that processed foods make unconscious, mindless eating ridiculously easy, they're easily accessible.  They're intensely flavored.  And then there's texture, which, it seems, is a huge factor in their appeal.  The textures of processed foods tantalize us because they are engineered for optimum mouthfeel.  Did someone just say, "Philip Morris?"  Flavors are ratcheted up far beyond what is normally found in whole foods.  Processed foods are, in short, designed to deliver instant gratification.  Instantly.  And the beauty of this concept?  While you're not really thinking about that bag of chips you're scarfing down in front of the TV, the magic of engineering and advertising has already happened.  And, of course, you'll buy more.

When we eat highly processed foods, our brains manufacture dopamine (the neurochemical associated with reward) and that compels us to eat that food over and over again.  And that's the basic element of addiction.  Eventually, states Kessler, just looking at the food can trigger dopamine release.  Think of all the food and snack commercials you see if you're a TV watcher.  Just for grins, count them in a day's time and I think the number will astound you.  Those of you who do a lot of driving may also notice how many food and soft-drink billboards there are along our roadways.

Which brings me to rule number two: No Fast Food.  For a basic rationale, refer to Rule Number One.  In addition, I encourage you to do your research on calorie and nutrition information for your favorite fast food meals.  Sure, it's fast and easy to breeze through that drive through.  In fact, it requires almost no thought at all to order a super-size meal and inhale it in your car.  Get honest with yourself, get conscious and make an informed choice about what you put in your body.  Give yourself permission to sloooooow doooooown.  With a little forethought and a little effort, you could be taking healthful, lower-calorie food choices with you where ever you are.  Of course there are those unpredictable days when you are hungry, pressed for time, and have to grab a burger on the run.  But make them the minority, not the majority of the time.

Rule number three: Quality over Quantity.  Have you been to the grocery store lately???  It's getting more and more expensive to feed ourselves.  Everyone, however, no matter how small their food budget, could make changes in how and where they spend their food dollars.  You can choose to fill your shopping cart with a lot of inexpensive preprepared products.  Or you could choose to fill your grocery cart with nutritionally-dense, high quality whole foods.  Yes, the house brand orange soda is cheaper than milk and gelatin cups are cheaper than fruit.  Feeding ourselves is a challenge in our present economy.  We have to ask ourselves: can we be happy with less, if less means better quality, better taste, and better nutrition?  

Think about buying less foods with fillers, sauces and additives and more foods that are organic, plant-based, minimally processed and wholesome.  When you buy whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, you get to control how they're prepared, seasoned and served.  Sure, it's a no-brainer to buy a frozen lasagna casserole at the store on your way home from work.  But you could also make an easy uncooked pasta version the night before with just a little effort for about the same amount of money.  And you'd be consuming less sodium, additives and fat.  Again, I'm encouraging independent thought here.  And I think that most of us have gotten out of the habit of independent thinking, especially where food choices are concerned.

Rule number four: Move More, Eat Less.  Actually, I stole this quip from Jamie Lee Curtis.  Get active.  Take up jogging, speed-walking, rowing, yoga, boxing, cycling, or jiu jitsu.  The point is to get up off the couch, turn off the TV and move around.  Ideally, move your body in such a way that you get some cardiovascular benefit.  You want to eat?  Great!  But you've got to move.  We can't afford to mindlessly eat enormous portions of food any longer in our culture.  We no longer live in the Agricultural Era, when people worked hard--from sun up to sun down--for their calories.  We sit and play our X-Box 360s, fiddle with our BlackBerries, spend endless hours on Facebook, and watch entirely too much TV.  And we often snack and eat enormous quantities of synthesized foods while we're doing it.  So make a conscious decision (there's that thinking again!) to exercise at least every other day.  Make a conscious decision to leave some food on your plate (your mother is no longer there to tell you there are starving children somewhere!).  Make a conscious decision to eat less.  Period. 

So the take-home message of today's diatribe could be distilled into this one idea: Consciousness.  It's the most important thing you could do to help yourself stay healthy, to eat better, to make good choices.  Even more importantly, we need to teach our kids to make better choices.  If you lack the ability to be conscious alone, find someone to help you and support you, and most of all, to help you be accountable to yourself.  Get a community group together to do what Jamie Oliver is doing.  You have the ability to change your life and to change others' as well

Get up off the couch and dance so your tastebuds can continue to dance.  Meet me here again soon.  We'll do it together.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The first sign of spring: limoncello

Spring arrives and a girl's first thoughts turn to...limoncello.  If you've never tasted this delightful Italian liqueur, you have a couple of choices.  You can either go to your nearest Spec's and pick up a bottle (I recommend Luxardo brand), or you can make your own, which I think is much more gratifying and much more fun.  Don't worry, it's pretty easy.

Limoncello is sweet, intensely lemony and extremely versatile.  You can drink it chilled or over crushed ice, mix it with seltzer water, soda water, tonic water, or sparking wine.  Use it in a cocktail or make it part of a dessert (or a dessert-like breakfast pastry).  Drizzle it over vanilla ice cream or fresh berries.  It's entirely yummy and a perfect drink for warmer weather. 

Below you'll find a basic limoncello recipe and then some other recipes to use it in.  I always save the lemon peels and store them in a jar in the fridge for use in pastry, quick breads, cakes and muffins.  Finely slivered, the vodka-steeped peels also make a wonderful lemon dessert sauce for pound cake or cottage cake.

And by the way, limoncello makes a great host/hostess gift when decanted into a pretty bottle.  I've never known a soul to turn down a beautiful bottle of homemade limoncello--and then not ask for more.


       I’ve found that “kissing” your limoncello with some vanilla at the end of the process softens and mellows the final product.  Otherwise, it has a tendency to taste like Lemon Pledge.  Give yourself up to 80 days to complete your limoncello.

18 lemons
2 750 ml vodka (100 proof)
4 cups sugar
5 cups water
½ vanilla bean

1.     Scrub lemons well with a coarse cloth or brush in warm soapy water to remove wax and other residue. 
2.     Dry lemons.
3.     Peel lemon rind (yellow part only) with a sharp vegetable peeler.
4.     Pour one bottle of vodka into a large glass jar (1 gallon) and add lemon peels as they are zested.  You can juice the lemons for other uses and freeze or chill the juice.
5.     Cover jar and let sit in a cool, dark place for at least 10 days and up to 30 days.  No need to stir; the longer it sits the more intense the lemon flavor will be.
6.     When you have decided that the lemon peels have steeped in the vodka long enough, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil.  Boil for 5 to 7 minutes.
7.     Cool syrup to room temperature and add to vodka and lemon peels. 
8.     Add the other bottle of vodka and let sit for another 10 to 30 days in a cool, dark place.
9.     Approximately 4 to 7 days before you will strain the peels from the sugared vodka, add the vanilla bean.
10.  Strain lemon peels and vanilla bean from limoncello.  Discard vanilla bean.  Save lemon peels for other use (optional—see recipe below).
11.  Decant limoncello into bottles.  Either store in the freezer or refrigerator until ready to serve.   Makes about 2 ½ liters.

Limoncello Martini

2 oz. limoncello
1 oz. vodka
lemon sugar (recipe follows)

Combine limoncello and vodka in a shaker; add crushed ice and stir well.  Strain into chilled martini glass that has been rimmed in lemon sugar.

To make lemon sugar:  Finely zest one lemon and combine zest with 1/2 cup sugar.  Spread on a saucer or small plate and moisten martini glass with a lemon wedge.  Dip rim of glass in lemon sugar and then serve martini.

Lemon Knock-Out Punch
     This is beautiful punch for a spring or summer party--and it packs a wallop.

4 cups limoncello, chilled
2 cups vodka (reduce this amount for a less strong punch)
4 cups lemonade, chilled
2 liters Italian lemon soda (or for a less sweet punch, lemon seltzer), chilled
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh blueberries or blackberries
Thin lemon slices

1.      Combine limoncello, vodka, lemonade, and lemon soda or lemon seltzer in a large decanter or punch bowl.
2.      Float mint leaves, berries and lemon slices on top.
3.      Serve ice on the side.   Makes 20 cups of punch, or about 40 servings (if served over ice).

Limoncello Babas

These pastries are incredibly delicious and worth the effort.  The recipe is adapted from pastry chef Nick Malgieri.

1/2 cup milk
1 envelope active dry yeast or 1 3/4 teaspoons instant yeast
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
Limoncello Syrup (recipe follows)
Limoncello Glaze (recipe follows)

Sweetened whipped cream (optional)

1.)  Preheat oven to 400° F.
2.)  Butter or spray with nonstick cooking spray miniature muffin pans or regular muffin cups.
3.)  Heat 1/2 cup milk to lukewarm; sprinkle the yeast on the surface and allow to stand 5 minutes. Whisk until dissolved and stir in 3/4 cup flour.
4.)  Cover mixture and let stand for 20 minutes.  This is your sponge.  If you use instant yeast, you don't have to wait the 5 minutes and you can mix all the sponge ingredients at once.
5.)  In a large bowl, beat the eggs, salt, sugar, and 1 1/2 cups flour together; beat in the prepared sponge, and then the cooled melted butter.
Divide the dough into the muffin cups, filling them 1/2 full. 
7.)   Cover the pans loosely with buttered plastic wrap; allow to rise in a warm spot approximately 30 to 60 minutes or until the dough has risen to the top of the cups. At this point, you can put the pan(s) in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight until you are ready to bake.
8.)  Remove pan(s) from refrigerator to bring dough to room temperature if you chilled them.  When the dough has risen, remove the plastic wrap and bake for approximately 10 to 20 minutes (depending on size of your muffin cups) or until golden brown. 
9.)  Remove from oven. Allow to cool slightly in the pan for about 1 minute on a rack.
10.)  Using your fingers, one at a time, remove individual babas from muffin cups and submerge each baba into the warm Limoncello Syrup for approximately 1 minute or until they swell slightly. 11)  
11.)   Place the dipped babas in a large baking dish or pan (tops up). Repeat with the remaining babas.
12.)  After dipping all the babas, pour any leftover Limoncello Syrup over the top of the cakes. 
13.)  Allow them to stand 1 hour (all of the syrup will be absorbed). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours.
14.)  Before serving, brush tops of cakes with warm Limoncello Glaze. Serve with whipped sweetened cream, if desired.  Makes 12 babas.

Babas may be baked, soaked in syrup, and then cooled completely. They can be frozen if well-wrapped right in the pan.  To serve, let stand at room temperature 1 hour; then warm in 300 degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Top with warm Limoncello Glaze and serve.

Limoncello Syrup

2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups water
1/2 cup limoncello (or more to taste)

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, mix water and sugar together; bring to a boil and boil 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour syrup into a 2-cup liquid measure (because it is narrow and deep, it is easy to coat the babas). Cool syrup to lukewarm; stir in Limoncello.  Syrup will keep for 6 months.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Limoncello Glaze

12-ounce jar apricot jam
1 to 2 tablespoons limoncello

In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat approximately 2/3 of a 12-ounce jar of apricot jam until melted.  Remove from heat and push hot jam through sieve with a spatula. Add limoncello to taste.  Glaze will keep for 6 months.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Courtesan's Pasta: cheap and easy goes elegant

Although I don't really think of pasta when I want something to eat, my husband does.  It's his long-time squeeze when he wants comfort food.  I once went for seven years without having even so much as a rotini in my pantry, simply because I don't crave pasta and would rather have other things.  But now that I am compelled to produce more Man Food, I find that keeping several pounds of pasta around makes life easier.  Of course, my idea of pasta is one that's made from whole wheat or spelt, something my husband takes umbrage to, since his idea of pasta is whatever is made from semolina, or your standard readily-available grocery store spaghetti.  No matter, it's all good.

However, this is where Vindaloo gets to use her feminine wiles.  Because even though Vindaloo believes in lavish extravagance and a daily elegant repast, she also believes that she should prepare food that provides a high amount of nutritional bang for the buck whenever possible.  Most any pasta is complemented by the sauce you put on it.  For instance, the texture and flavor of spelt and whole grain pastas work well with heartier, earthier, nuttier sauces.  Lighter dishes, like aoili, primavera, seafood and cream-based sauces are best complemented by a semolina pasta.  You might say that the sauce makes the pasta, sort of like the clothes make the man--er, woman. 

The other night when my husband asked for pasta (having quietly suffered through several nights of Thai, Indian, French and Hungarian cuisine), I humbly relented.  Searching the pantry, I was inspired by capers, fire roasted and San Marzano tomatoes, anchovies, roasted red peppers and olives.  It had been over a decade since I could recall making Pasta Puttanesca, so that was the starting point.  And, also having been inspired and fortified by a glass of the medium-bodied berry/cherry, vanilla and spice of Firesteed Pinot Noir 2008 (Oregon), I felt as though I was on a mission to transform one of the working girls from a brothel in Storyville to a high dollar escort from Beverly Hills.

Courtesan's Pasta is a rich, intense sauce with depth from the olives, pepperoni and anchovies and a little kick from the crushed red pepper.  It melds perfectly with whole wheat penne pasta and when dressed with plenty of Romano cheese and fresh parsley, is earthy and elegant all at the same time.  She's the girl of your dreams.  Served with a simple green salad, it makes a great weeknight meal.  I hope you'll agree.

Courtesan’s Pasta

2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup chopped fire-roasted tomatoes
1 1/2 cups San Marzano tomatoes, broken up (or use other whole canned tomatoes)
1 cup dry red wine
1 ¼ tsp. Penzey’s Italian herb seasoning (or use ½ tsp. oregano, ½ tsp. basil, ¼ tsp.
              marjoram and a pinch of rosemary)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. crushed red pepper (increase or decrease to taste)
1/3 c. tapenade
1 oz. anchovy fillets
3 Tbs. capers, drained
1 cup cracked Italian green olives
½ cup chopped roasted red peppers
1/2 cup pepperoni slices, cut into slivers
1 lb. pasta, cooked according to package directions and kept warm
Romano cheese
Chopped fresh parsley

  1. Heat olive oil in medium-large saucepan until shimmering; add onions.
  2. Cook and stir onions until caramelized.
  3. Add chopped garlic and cook very briefly, stirring constantly.  Be careful not to burn garlic.
  4. Add fire-roasted tomatoes, broken San Marzanos, red wine, herbs, salt, and crushed red pepper.
  5. Cook and stir, bringing sauce to a boil.  Reduce heat and allow to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until slightly thickened.
  6. Add tapenade, anchovies, capers, cracked olives, roasted red peppers and pepperoni and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally.
  7. Serve over warm pasta and garnish with plenty of Romano cheese and chopped fresh parsley.  Serves 4. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A longing for lemons

On a recent almost-spring late afternoon, I was participating in my favorite sport: sitting on my patio, reading food magazines, sipping wine and watching the squirrel circus. Well, actually my dog was watching the squirrel circus and I was watching my dog be Elmer Fudd.  She unfortunately does not excel at this.

However, I digress.  As I was sipping and thinking about dinner in the late afternoon sunlight, I noticed how light and citrusy the pinot grigio was.  I seemed to be at that perfect nexus of inspiration and hunger, having just read about lemons, and having just read a lot of lemon recipes, and really liking lemons, and really liking my glass of wine, and really liking the idea of eating soon.  I decided that it was time to cook.

Some of you may already have guessed the plot and its predictable outcome: woman sitting on patio reading food magazines about lemons and drinking wine that tastes of lemons and, having several lemons and lemony condiments in her possession, decides to make dinner with the primary ingredient of ...LEMONS!  Music swells, angels sing, fade to black as smiling woman gracefully (in her 50's June Cleaver dress, heels and pearls) gets up--and not the least bit tipsy as she balances wine glass and food magazines--enters house, presumably kitchen.

Readers, it's not hard to come up with a dinner idea given enough hints, an ample larder, and of course, plenty of good grape juice.  It's also much easier to do this after allowing yourself time to decompress after work and having a husband who waits patiently while his wife goes about preparing a meal for the both of them like she is at a Zen meditation retreat (minus the detox diet of tofu and green tea).

The distillation of this lemon-and-pinot-grigio-infused kitchen mediation follows.  The menu consisted of Tilapia with Lemon Chutney Aioli, Fried Smashed Potatoes with Lemons, and Butter Lettuce and Baby Spinach with Red Onion and Lemon Basil Vinaigrette. What you also need to know is that second helpings were had and plates were cleaned.  Hoovered.  Compliments from the patient husband were effusive. 

Tilapia with Lemon Chutney Aioli

2 tipalia fillets
2 Tbs. lemon chutney (recipe follows)
1 Tbs. mayonnaise
fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1.  Place tilapia fillets on a greased baking pan.
2.  Combine lemon chutney and mayonnaise.
3.  Spread mixture evenly over tilapia.
4.  Broil 6 to 8 inches from heat until bubbly and just starting to brown.
5.  Garnish with cilantro leaves (optional).  Serves 2.

Lemon Chutney

   This is a recipe from the wonderful World Vegetarian cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey.  I keep this condiment in my fridge not only to accompany Indian food, but to use as you would catsup or other condiments.  It keeps for a long time.

2 large, fresh lemons
2 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. cayenne, or to taste
7 Tbs. sugar
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1.  Wash the lemons and cut into 1/8 inch slices.
2.  Dice lemon slices into 1/8 inch thick pieces and remove the seeds.
3.  Put the lemons and their juice into a non-reactive saucepan and add the salt, turmeric, cayenne, sugar and lemon juice. 
4.  Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the chutney has thickened slightly.  It will thicken more as it cools.
5.  Transfer chutney into a glass jar with a non-reactive lid.  Store in refrigerator.  It tastes better after it cures for 5 to 7 days.  Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups.

Fried Smashed Potatoes with Lemons

A good friend passed the next recipe on to me, insisting that these potatoes were Really Good.  They are not.  They are Really Addictive and should come with a warning.  The recipe is Giada de Laurentiis' and can be found here.

Butter Lettuce and Baby Spinach with Red Onion and Lemon Basil Vinaigrette

4 butter lettuce leaves, washed and dried gently
1/2 cup baby spinach leaves
2 paper-thin slices red onion
Lemon Basil Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Arrange 2 lettuce leaves on two small plates.  Divide spinach leave between plates.  Separate onion slices into rings and arrange over greens.  Drizzle with Lemon Basil Vinaigrette.  Serves 2.

Lemon Basil Vinaigrette

½  cup sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 2 Tbs. dried)
½ cup fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
garlic powder (optional)
milk or half and half for thinning (optional)

Mix sour cream, mayonnaise, basil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and garlic powder (if using).  Whisk until smooth.  Thin to desired consistency with milk or half and half.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beyond serendipity

Serendipity is when things happily come together--coincidentally and quite by accident.  I always experience a pleasant little jolt when that happens--a moment where the streaming video of your mind stops and you see the still photograph of what you will want to later remember.  It's like getting pinched in a playful way by the universe.  It's a reminder about all that is good about being human and sensate and the existential struggle.

This weekend, a good friend came to visit for a very pleasant, sunny afternoon and we sat on the patio in my back yard under oak trees just getting ready to bud, where the transition from winter to spring is evident in that expectant, bare and vulnerable way.  And besides really loving to talk with my friend for hours and hours, I really love to cook for her because she appreciates food.  And, also important, she has really great taste in wine and always gifts me with something lovely that begs to eventually be uncorked.

We began our journey into serendipity and beyond mid-afternoon.  And when ten o'clock arrived, we were still enjoying our last serendipitous moments before sheer tiredness took over.  And because one of us had to drive quite a little distance back home, I sadly let my friend leave me.  And, like most late nights after an evening of food, wine and wonderful conversation, I quietly cleaned up the kitchen, musing about what we'd said and laughed about, and thinking about how to share the food and wine experiences with all of you who were, hopefully, also having your own serendipitous adventures.

So here are the recipes and wine notes so that you can create your own photograph album of memories...

French Pearl Cocktail
     This cocktail is tart and refreshing--and NOT a mojito!

40-48 mint leaves
3 oz. fresh lime juice
3 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. Pernod
8 oz. Plymouth gin (or another gin with a high juniper and/or root ingredient content)
extra sprigs of mint, for garnish

1.  Bruise mint leaves in a martini pitcher. 
2.  Add remaining ingredients and blend well. 
3.  Fill four tall glasses with ice.
4.  Divide cocktail mixture among the glasses and garnish with mint sprigs.  Serves 4.

Margaret's Shrimp Dip

     A childhood friend of mine had an aunt who brought this simple appetizer to nearly every one of their family dinners.  It's an "old school" appetizer, served with Ritz or Club crackers... And if you really want to be old school, serve it alongside a bowl of pimento-stuffed olives.

8 oz. small frozen shrimp, thawed, drained and finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
3-4 Tbs. mayonnaise
Ritz crackers or Club crackers for serving

Mix all ingredients together and chill well.  Serve with crackers.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Of course, you can modify this recipe by adding freshly ground black pepper or Old Bay Seasoning to taste, or whatever you'd prefer...

Very Small and Very Sweet Yellow Tomatoes, Grape Tomatoes and Perlini with Herb Oil Dressing

1 cup small yellow tomatoes
1/2 cup red grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup perlini (tiny fresh mozzarella balls)
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh mint
1 Tbs. finely chopped cilantro
2-4 Tbs. EVOO
cracked black pepper and flake salt to taste

1.  Combine tomatoes, perlini and herbs. 
2.  Drizzle with EVOO--as much as you'd like.
3.  Stir in chopped herbs and season to taste with pepper and salt.
4.  Serve with cocktail toothpicks.  Makes about 2 cups.

And now for a note about the wine....One of my wine guys always asks me what I'm cooking and he has this telepathic way of helping me find just the right wine.  This time, the wine he picked for us was not only just right, it was sheer genius.  Sauvion Vouvray 2009 (Loire Valley, France) is fermented from a single grape varietal--Chenin Blanc.  This wine is, in a word, lovely.  Off dry and light, it opens with apple, pear, floral honey and a little ginger.  Lots of fruit in the nose with good mineral content and a crisp, acid finish.  And another great selling point?  Less than $10!  This Vouvray was the most perfect match for our main dish, Scallops with Emerald Thai Puree, and when we took a sip of the wine after our first bite of the scallops and puree, our eyes literally rolled back in our heads and--not just because our mouths were full--we were speechless.  Which for me, Dear Readers, is a severe hardship.

Scallops with Emerald Thai Puree

I thank Nigella Lawson for the inspiration for this dish, which is basically her recipe—tweaked.  You can serve the puree either warm or at room temperature.  Find Thai curry paste at a well-stocked international grocery store.

16 oz. frozen petites pois (baby peas)
2-3 Tbs. Thai green curry paste (such as Mae Ploy brand)
1/3 cup sour cream or crème fraiche
Salt to taste
¼ to 1/3 cup rich chicken stock
2 tsp. canola oil
2 tsp. butter
1 ½ lbs. sea scallops or bay scallops
Juice of one lime
1-2 Tbs. chopped fresh Thai basil or cilantro
Lime wedges for garnish

1,  Put the peas, 1 cup water and ½ tsp. salt into a covered saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stir and remove from heat.  Let sit for approximately 1 minute.
2.  Drain the peas and put them into a blender or food processor.  Add the curry paste and sour cream or crème fraiche along with a little salt.
3.  Blend the ingredients together and taste.  Drizzle in chicken stock and continue to blend until puree is the consistency of pancake batter.
4.  Taste puree again and correct for salt and for intensity of heat, adding more curry paste if you wish.  Set pea mixture aside.
5.  Heat oil and butter in medium-sized sauté pan over medium-high heat until shimmering and foamy.
6.  Cook scallops in hot oil and butter, turning sea scallops once and stirring bay scallops from time to time, just until barely done (about 1 ½ minutes per side for sea scallops and less than 2 minutes total for bay scallops).
7.  Transfer scallops to warmed plate.  Deglaze the sauté pan by squeezing the fresh lime juice into pan and using a spatula, loosen any caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan.
8.  To serve, place puree on plate, scatter scallops over puree and garnish with chopped Thai basil or cilantro.  Serve with additional lime wedges, if desire.  Serves 4.

Note: Puree can be made up to 3 hours ahead and chilled.  Reheat gently, being careful not to boil, in microwave or on stovetop, adding extra chicken stock if necessary.