Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One mint julep

I don’t remember just how I started
I only know that we should have parted
I stole a kiss, and then another
I didn’t mean to take it further
One mint julep was the cause of it all
                                                                                  by Rudy Toombs

Vindaloo loves the Kentucky Derby!  She loves the grace and beauty of the horses!  She loves the beautiful hats!  She loves the white gloves!  She loves the idea of dressing up and wearing heels to an outdoor sporting event!  She especially loves mint juleps!  And she has long been aware that one mint julep is often the cause of many successive mint juleps and therefore, many unpredictable and often highly enjoyable events.

Happily, even though the Kentucky Derby has come and gone for this year, the opportunity to drink mint juleps in the hot, humid, sultry summer is not.  And who can resist drinking an icy, powerfully refreshing libation in a frozen silver cup, which you sip elegantly through a long, silver straw while balancing your cup on a white linen napkin?  Serving mint juleps in the proper way (in heels, Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, gloves and an oversize hat, carrying a silver tray, of course) is a lovely thing to do for guests (or just for yourself) on a hot summer afternoon.

What is the proper way to make a mint julep?  Well, folks disagree widely about that.  There are many opinions and even more recipes, but the essential ingredients are: plenty of crushed or shaved ice, good quality bourbon, fresh mint and some form of sugar--er, shugah.  Some folks prefer to muddle the mint with granulated sugar before adding the bourbon and crushed ice, others use confectioner's sugar so that it will dissolve quickly (or garnish the drink not only with mint but also with powdered sugar), and still others make a simple syrup infused with mint.  The most intriguing recipe is one in which you prepare a mint extract of bourbon and fresh mint leaves that is infused with a larger quanitity of bourbon 24 hours prior to serving your juleps.  Find that recipe here.

However enchanting making your own mint extract might seem however, that procedure takes planning, and Vindaloo prefers to have a mint julep on the spur of the moment, something she can always do because she always has fresh mint growing in her herb garden.  Don't you?  Vindaloo also likes to be able to put together a mint julep with little effort (because muddling often takes more effort than she's willing to expend) and has often made mint juleps with simple syrup infused with mint.  It is a very simple thing to make quantities of simple mint syrup when you have excess mint, or leggy mint that is unsuitable for garnishing your julep, and this syrup freezes very well.  So defrost it early in the day (if you're a planner) or in your microwave (if you're a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser) and bless your little pea-pickin' heart, you can have mint juleps anytime you want.  You can find a really good recipe using this technique here.

Another really delicious variation of the mint julep is Bobby Flay's Blackberry-Bourbon Julep, very lovely and very different.  Serve this one in an elegant glass or cut crystal goblet so that you can see the muddled blackberries, all plummy and swimming around rather tipsily.  This drink is not authentic to the original intent of the mint julep, but believe me, by the time you get around to eating the blackberries, you won't even be able to spell the word "maceration."  Now, if you believe that I have made an embarrasin' foo paw in the prior sentence, you'd best find your Funk and Wagnall's and look that word up, shug.

And now, because we're straying from the original intent (an excuse to drink bourbon with only slight modifications to its original form), I want to have a small discussion about bourbon.  Opinions about bourbon can border on the defensive and if crossed, be taken as a personal affront.  Bourbon, much like wine, has characteristics that attract bourbon lovers for widely disparate reasons.  Some folks like a smoky, darker quality, while others like a slightly sweet, lightly caramel quality.  Since bourbon has to be made from grain comprised of at least 51% corn to be labeled bourbon, and since all bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels, there is opportunity for much variation among bourbons since the grain mixture as well as the length of time in the barrel will determine a bourbon's characteristics.  Although she is certainly not a bourbon expert, Vindaloo knows what she likes.  She is definitely a Maker's Mark girl because of its buttery, lush, honeyed toffee notes and its wonderful structure, balance and smooth finish.  However, for special occasions, she does deviate a bit and tipple a bit of Noah's Mill, an incredibly elegant and well-balanced 114.3 proof 15-year-old rocket fuel that is full of vanilla, caramel and toasted wood.  Vindaloo loves Noah's Mill over vanilla ice cream--do try it!!  A friend prefers Knob Creek for its voluptuously rich, nutty and woody/smokey notes.  Another friend drinks Eagle Rare, full of toasted almond, honey and tobacco leaf.  So Vindaloo stocks them all on her bar, and everyone's happy.  Ah, the delights of bourbon!

One thing is agreed: the silver cup or elegant glass you serve your mint juleps from must be frozen.  I'm convinced that freezing the cup is necessary so that the linen napkin will get stuck to the cup while it's protecting your fingers from frostbite.  Of course you can freeze a beautiful glass that will be frosty and icy when your julep is served, but the icyness won't last long.  Use the authentic thing--a silver cup--and the crushed ice will form a lovely little ice jacket on the outside for a long, long time.

One more thing:  I'm also including a recipe for a lovely little cocktail--think of it as a shirttail cousin of the mint julep--that sneaks up on you quietly and then delivers a lethal punch.  Remember drinking a Stinger?  Well, this cocktail is similar for its assertiveness (er, Northern Aggression)...find the recipe below.

Kentucky Licorice Stick

    I developed this recipe one late winter night.  I think two of these would qualify for a TKO.

1 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Marie Brizzard Anisette (or other anise flavored liqueur)
cracked or crushed ice

Combine all ingredients in a brandy snifter.  Drink at your own risk.  Makes one drink.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I am NOT an appliance whore

Several years ago, I dated a man who loved gadgets and appliances.  Never mind the creepy Freudian undertones of subconsciously dating my epicurean grandfather (who also loved gadgets and appliances).  I really liked this guy.  He was fun and spontaneous.  He cooked for himself.  He gardened.  He was neat, clean, maintained his home, his yard and his cars.  Everything was so neat and clean, in fact, that I began to suspect that we were dealing with just more than a little OCD.  However, he loved food and wine and liked quirky little out-of-the-way restaurants.  Just like my grandfather.  And that's when my therapist pointed out that I preferred dating men that reminded me of my grandfather.  So we fixed that and now I'm married to a man who's a lot like my younger brother.  I'm not sure therapy was the right approach where mate-selection challenges are concerned.

Anyway, this man who loved gadgets and appliances had two of everything.  And I guess that now is a really good time to admit that I, too, love gadgets and appliances and although I don't have two of everything, I do have the Disease of More, which means that I am constantly acquiring one of everything.  But knowing someone who has two of everything and being tolerant of any OCD tendencies they might have has its benefits.  Because that's how I inherited my Ronco Rotisserie--my "Set It and Forget It," my 2:30-in-the-morning-and-I-can't-sleep-so-I'm-watching-infomercials-with-Ron-Popeil-and-his-really-bad-comb-over.  I love my Ronco Rotisserie.  It's worth its weight in gold.  It does the most fabulous chickens, the most succulent rib-eyes and the most incredible pork roast you will ever put in your mouth.  The secret?  The meat spins while it cooks and the juices circulate.  The meat sizzles and smells fabulous while it's cooking.  Using this machine is a no-brainer.  The math is on the side of the machine.  In 22 point font.  With a big dial that a fourth-grader could operate.  With pictures of the meat you'll be cooking.  So it's practically foolproof--that is, if you can recognize a line drawing of a chicken.  AND--get this--it can steam vegetables or bake apples in a separate container on top of the rotisserie while you cook your meat.

So imagine my excitement.  At first I thought, "I'm never gonna use this thing.  It will sit and collect dust and take up space in a closet somewhere."  And truthfully, I don't use it that often, but I'm still thrilled to have it because if I'm cooking a large meal for company, it frees up more oven and stovetop space.  And people think it's really cool to watch the meat spin round and round inside that lighted box.  Someone said to me once that it was better than watching their clothes spin in the dryer at the laundromat.  Sadly, this was said with great solemnity.  To each his own.

But about the guy I dated.  While we were together, I convinced him that he needed to buy a Vita-Mix.  Because I occasionally and vicariously act out the Disease of More by enabling others with similar challenges.  But if you don't know about the Vita-Mix, you certainly need to.  It looks like a medieval blender, but it does almost anything.  It juices.  It purees.  It blends.  It dices, slices, cuts and shreds.  It grinds coffee, wheat berries, mixes bread dough, makes smoothies, makes soup (and serves it hot), makes nut butters and is a great tool if you're living the Raw Lifestyle.  Also, Saturday Night Live fans of a certain age, it's 10 times better than the Bass-O-Matic, because there's no nasty scales or bones to deal with--they all get pulverized!  And you have the wonderful option of choosing to drink your bass cold or hot. 

Months after Mr. Two-of-Everything and I finally broke up (I mean broke up for the fifth time), he called me out of the blue.  He had done this before, and with some success had plaintively convinced me why I should still be in a relationship with him, but this time, there was something different in his voice.  Would I like to have the Vita-Mix?  He said that I was really the one who enjoyed using it and that he really had no use for it.  I could come and get it any time.  And, by the way, he would like me to go on vacation with him.  He was thinking of taking a Carribean cruise--he would even pay all the expenses--but really wanted me to go along with him.  And then at the end of the cruise, I could have the Vita-Mix.

I paused.  I would really love to have that Vita-Mix.  I could finally get into juicing and grinding my own wheat berries.  And it was true, I really needed a vacation.  A cruise through turquoise water that had virtually no impact on my finances certainly was tempting.  But the implications were unpleasant to me.  If I wanted the Vita-Mix, I would have to spend 5 days with a man that I no longer wanted a relationship with.  I would have to ignore my better judgment in exchange for an expensive machine.  Was the Vita-Mix really worth all that?  Could I suppress my inner voice and my scruples long enough to go along with Mr. Two-of-Everything's plans?  And, more importantly, how would I feel about using that Vita-Mix in the future, knowing how I had acquired it?

In the end, I politely declined.  I decided that the Vita-Mix was just too expensive for me to own.  And you know something?  I really don't miss it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How to get a diamond ring...in five easy steps

I have some fabulous recipes to share with you today, but I also have a family story that accompanies one of the recipes that is too good not to share.  My aunt and uncle came for dinner this past Saturday night and we enjoyed laughter, good food and wine together outside on the patio.  The sound of water surrounded us, and the gardens were as vivid and intensely colored as an Impressionist Era painter's palette.  We began with cocktails and some simple appetizers.  Then we moved inside for dinner.  As good as the side dishes were however (Spaghetti with Sauteed Fresh Herbs and Garlic and Sauteed Spinach with Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes), they could never outshine what we had for the main entree.

I have to give a lot of credit to a woman I know who also loves to cook, cooks competitively, and cooks quite well.  You'll find her recipe for marinated stuffed ribeyes below.  I relayed the marinade recipe in its entirety; the recipe for the boursin stuffing is my own rendition, based on her suggestions.  The results are outstanding.  Tender beef, grilled over smoky coals with thick strips of bacon.  Drooling yet?  But wait!  There's more!  Inside the ribeye is creamy, garlicky, shrimpy goodness and a rich sauce that is better than any compound butter I've ever put in my mouth.  These steaks are decadently rich and I can guarantee you that you will hurt yourself to finish your portion.

To drink with dinner, I served Santero Bessi Rosso (Italy), a carbonated red wine for those of us who preferred something light, sweet and refreshingly perfect for hotter weather.  I also poured Feudo di San Nicola Negroamaro 2009 (Italy), a red wine full of bright cherries and round, rich fruit and with enough tannins to support and complement the rich meat.  Intensely dark ruby red in the glass, it is full-bodied and has intense presence and good structure.

Dessert was a homemade lemon meringue pie that my aunt made.  It was entirely delicious and the crust was tender and flaky.  I have to tell you that in my family, this pie is legendary.  It has made son-in-laws happy and pleasantly amnesic of their mother-in-law's three-month-long visits, it has impressed boyfriends, graced buffet tables at church suppers, has been offered after Sunday dinners and most importantly, has been instrumental in putting a diamond ring on an adoring wife's finger.  Aww, ain't love grand?  I'll tell you the story behind that ring below.  But first, the recipes from dinner:

Grown-up Lemonade

   Guard your drink closely around kids--it's really pretty and looks like lemonade, but kapow! 

cracked or crushed ice
4 oz. limoncello, divided
1 bottle vinho verde
1 bottle Sicilian lemon Italian soda (such as Central Market Organics brand)
blackberries for garnish
mint leaves for garnish

Fill four glasses about halfway with ice.  Divide limoncello evenly among glasses.  Pour vinho verde in each glass, about halfway.  Top with lemon soda.  Garnish with blackberries and mint leaves.  Makes four drinks.

Spaghetti with Sauteed Fresh Herbs and Garlic

1 lb. spaghetti, cooked according to pkg. directions and kept warm
4 Tbs. EVOO
2 green onions, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
12 fresh sage leaves, chopped
4 sprigs flat leaf parsley, including stems, chopped
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper
additional EVOO for drizzling
additional chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish

1.  In large saute pan, heat EVOO over medium heat.
2.  Add green onions and garlic, sauteing briefly for about 1 minute, being careful not to burn the garlic and reducing heat if necessary.
3.  Add sage and parsley, stir and saute for about 1 minute.
4.  Season herb oil to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
5.  Toss warm spaghetti in herb oil to coat strands; correct for salt.
6.  Turn spaghetti onto warm platter or serving bowl, drizzle with additional EVOO and sprinkle with chopped parsley.  Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish.

Sauteed Spinach with Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes

3/4 cup small cherry tomatoes (or halve larger cherry or grape tomatoes)
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 Tbs. EVOO
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs. EVOO
3/4 lb. fresh baby spinach leaves

1.  First, roast the tomatoes:  place them on a small baking tray or a piece of sturdy foil.  
2.  Add smashed garlic; drizzle with EVOO and generously season with salt and pepper.
3.  Roast at 375 degrees for about 10 to 15 minutes until caramelized.  Set aside (tomatoes can be roasted up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated until ready to use).
4.  Heat remaining EVOO in large skillet over medium heat.  
5.  Add roasted tomatoes and garlic, along with any juices.
6.  Add spinach leaves, stirring frequently until just wilted.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4.

Stuffed Ribeye Steaks with Shrimp, Piquillo Pepper and Garlic Boursin

The marinade on these steaks is fantastic.  And just when you think it couldn't get any better, you cut into perfectly grilled beef to find a rich, creamy and flavorful center.  Pinch me!

2 large boneless ribeye steaks, cut 1½ to 2 inches thick (steaks will weigh approx. 1 lb. each)

1/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons dried basil
1 1/2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon dried minced garlic (optional)

Boursin Filling:

4 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 Tbs. butter, softened
1 green onion, green part only, thinly sliced
1 ½ roasted piquillo peppers, in small dice (alternatively, 1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely minced and/or 2 Tbs. finely chopped red bell pepper)
1 lg. clove garlic, finely minced
6 to 8 medium uncooked shrimp, peeled, tailed and deveined, finely chopped
generous amount of salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 pieces good-quality thick-cut bacon

1. Place the soy sauce, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, basil, parsley, and pepper in a blender. Add hot pepper sauce and garlic, if desired. Blend on high speed for 30 seconds until thoroughly mixed and somewhat emulsified.

2. Pour marinade over meat. Cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.  The longer the better.  I like to use a plastic storage bag and squeeze out the excess air so the marinade surrounds the meat on all sides. 

3. Meanwhile make the boursin filling by combining the cream cheese, butter, green onion, piquillo or jalapeno pepper, garlic, shrimp, salt and pepper.  Blend well and refrigerate until ready to use.

4. Remove steak from marinade and allow to drain in a colander.  Using a very sharp knife with a good point, insert knife on the side of the steak with more connective tissue, cutting a pocket carefully, leaving opposite side, top and bottom of steak intact.  Take care not to tear the intact sides.  Pocket should be big enough to get two fingers inside.  Move the knife around to create a pocket.  Be sure to keep knife level and even.  Check pocket cavity by running fingers into steak and making sure there is enough room for filling.  Repeat for remaining steak.

5. Turn steak on side with the opening facing up and fill steak with boursin stuffing using a spoon or your fingers.  Divide stuffing evenly between the two steaks.  They will appear to be overstuffed, but that is exactly what they should be.
6. Seal openings with toothpicks, then wrap two pieces of bacon around the entire steak, placing bacon end to end to cover sides and secure with toothpicks.

7. Cook steak on a preheated grill on very low indirect flame to desired doneness.  Turn carefully and gently with a large metal spatula and tongs so that meat does not tear and filling does not ooze out.  I also used lump hardwood charcoal for extra depth of flavor when grilling and cooked the steaks for about 7 or 8 minutes per side.  I then turned off the flame and then left the steaks on the grill, covered, to finish cooking.  Serves 4 (with 2 people sharing 1 steak each).

Diamond Ring Lemon Meringue Pie

This recipe is straight out of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.  The lemon custard is intensely sweet, so reduce the sugar up to 1/4 cup if you like.  It is worth the extra effort to make a scratch crust and to take the time to make meringue.  The results are outstanding every time and it blows store-bought pie out of the water because of its intensely lemony flavor.  A true American classic.

And here's the story behind the pie:  My uncle by marriage is a very patient, gracious man.  Before my grandparents moved to Texas permanently, they would travel every year for a visit to my aunt and uncle.  This was no ordinary visit from ordinary in-laws.  This was a three-month-long visit.  With an epicurean father-in-law who would bring olives and stinky cheese and loose, green tea, and God love him, his own espresso pot.  Oh, and did I mention The Book of Calvin would also be in residence for three months with daily readings commencing at 6 a.m.?  How many son-in-laws can you think of that would welcome that???  But my uncle loved my grandmother, and he loved my grandmother's lemon meringue pie.  In fact, he loved it so much that she would make him a pie on the first and last days of their visit.

My aunt is beloved by all of us, but she would be the first to tell you that although she excels at many things, making lemon meringue pie was formerly not one of them.  And following my grandmother's act is something that has been hard for all of us to do.  But my uncle knew that my aunt wanted a 1-carat marquis-cut diamond ring.  How badly did she want that ring?  Apparently she wanted it badly enough to take on The Diamond Ring Lemon Meringue Pie Challenge.  My uncle told her (in front of other family witnesses, I might add), "Baby, you make me five perfect lemon meringue pies just like your mother, without fail and from scratch, and I'll get you your diamond."

Well.  You want to light a match under the women in my family?  Give them a stiff challenge.  My aunt worked hard--five years, in fact--to match her husband's challenge.  One of the reasons that challenge was so stiff was that if she failed to make a perfect pie, she would have to start all over with Pie Number One.  But on the Christmas just prior to their 15th wedding anniversary, my uncle presented my aunt with her diamond ring.  And to this day, she's still making great lemon meringue pies.  Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Correction to Warm Grilled Tomato Salad Recipe

I apologize for an error I made earlier in a recipe posted under the Three to Tango posting of May 30, 2011.  The balsamic vinegar should be increased to 2 Tbs.  Here is the corrected recipe:

Warm Grilled Tomato Salad

6 large tomatoes, cored and cut into 6 to 8 wedges
Kosher salt for sprinkling
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. EVOO
1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. fresh basil leaves, slivered finely

  1. Place tomato wedges on a baking tray and sprinkle generously with salt.
  2. Prepare grill and heat to medium-hot.
  3. Mix together in a medium-sized bowl the Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar and EVOO. Stir in jalapeno; set aside.
  4. Grill tomato wedges until liquid begins to bubble and the skin on the bottom begins to char a bit.
  5. Transfer grilled tomatoes directly to the dressing mixture in bowl and toss well.
  6. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
  7. Sprinkle slivered basil leaves over the top.
  8. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 6.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fear and trepidation

Recently, I had some minor anxiety over opening a bottle of wine that I had had in my wine rack for over 10 years.  Because I have the Disease of More (as I've confessed on previous occasions), I often forget about things and then--horrors--there is waste and spoilage.  Of course, the simple solution is to not bring so much into the house, but somehow this logic escapes me when I am shopping for wine and food.

So it was with fear and trepidation that opened a 12 year old bottle of Campo Viejo Tempranillo Reserva 1999 (Spain), fully expecting it to have oxidized.  I have, admittedly, not stored my wine very well over the past several years and some of it has suffered as a result.  Of course, a lot of oxidized wine makes perfectly good wine vinegar, but readers, I am up to my earbobs in expensive wine vinegar.  In fact, I have some for you!!  Next time you're here for dinner, bring a container and I'll gladly give you some!!  You can have your choice of white, or red, or both!!

But let's talk some more about the 12 year old wine I drank:  I removed the foil from the bottle and inspected the cork.  There had been just a small amount of drying, but no wine had traveled farther than a quarter inch within a very small portion of the bottom of the cork.  So far, so good.  I put the corkscrew in the cork and began to pull.  And that's where true anxiety rushed toward me like an oncoming train.  The cork broke 2/3 of the way down and I began to consider that more disappointment would follow.  You may think that I am overly dramatic about these things (and you would be right), but I do treat food and wine as serious matters.  Matters of life and death.  Because life without good food and wine is akin to death for me...and I wish that were true for more people that I know...

But Bacchus be praised, I was able to extract the rest of the cork with no particles that I could see left in the bottle, and I took a deep breath.  This was to be the moment of truth.  The moment when I might have to come to grips with yet another spoiled bottle of wine.  My mind flashed back to a story I had read once of a serious wine collector who had bought a very old, very rare, very expensive bottle of wine at an auction.  He carefully uncorked the wine, decanted it and allowed it to breathe.  And then, when he poured it into the glass, he discovered it had oxidized in that very short period of time after it had left the bottle.  What an immense disappointment this must have been for him.  But I do hope that he enjoyed making luxury salad dressing with that wine!

So far, my investment was only about $10, which was what I would have paid on average for a bottle of wine about 10 years ago.  Checking my online resources, I noted that not only was a 12 year old bottle of tempranillo still drinkable, but that a 1999 bottle of Campo Viejo Tempranillo Reserva was now valued at approximately $22, so I had a fairly decent bottle of everyday wine in my possession, and thankfully, had not invested several hundred or even several thousand dollars in it, as had the wine collector I mentioned.  So I took another deep breath, steeled my nerves and poured the wine.

The garnet-hued liquid fell like a languid bolt of silk into the glass.  It shimmered on the rim nearest the glass, russet fading to apricot.   I put my nose into the glass and inhaled.  Oak, leather, cherry and dark berries.  I sipped and closed my eyes.  Heaven on the palate!  Berries, cherries, plums and vanilla.  Beautifully balanced with enough acid, there was plenty of subtle oak and leather in the long finish.  It was the kind of wine you should share, but don't really want to.  It was a fabulous choice to enjoy with a smoky, peppery London broil and herb risotto that night.  And it was plenty dessert for me.

Unquestionably, this was the best $10 bottle of wine I've ever had.  I don't think I'll be allowed to have this experience twice in one lifetime.  But I pray that I do.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The lagniappe in limoncello

The long-awaited limoncello is ready!  I've bottled portions of it for friends and it's been well-received.  I even managed to save some for me--for later in the summer when it's really hot, really sultry and really humid.  In Texas. that seems to be NOW!!  On a night when the crickets are singing in the trees and the frogs are chorusing in the pond, on a night following a day that has been one constant wave of heat, I'll pour some limoncello over cracked ice and sip it slowly on my patio.  If you're on my patio during one of those hot, summer nights, I'm sure you'll want your own glass of limoncello to sip.

But even though limoncello-making is over for this year, being my mother's daughter, I cannot bear to throw away the lemon peels that have been steeping in vodka and sugar for the past several weeks.  In previous incarnations, I've used them to make baba pastries and I've slivered and added them to lemon sauce that accompanies warm gingerbread.  They'll keep tightly covered for several months in your refrigerator.  Recently, I used them to enhance a pan of lemon bars:  finely minced in the food processor, they melded with butter, sugar and flour to make the rich shortbread crust that lies underneath a delicious, tart, not-too-sweet lemon curd, which was also intensified with more minced lemon peel and mellowed with some of last year's limoncello.

Lemon Bars

These bar cookies are easy to make and utterly delicious if you use top-quality ingredients.  Make sure your butter is fresh and pure-tasting.  Here's the recipe I developed:


1/2 cup loosely packed lemon peels strained from limoncello (alternatively, zest of 1 lemon)
1 cup butter (you'll need to soften it a bit first if you don't have a food processor)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put lemon peels in food processor and mince finely.  If you are using lemon zest, add that to your bowl now.  Add butter, sugar and flour, processing until mixture resembles coarse meal.  If you work the ingredients by hand, use two forks or a pastry blender to work ingredients into a coarse meal.  Press into an ungreased 9 x 13 inch pan (metal works best for this recipe).

Bake for 20 minutes, or until firm and lightly golden.  Meanwhile, make the lemon curd filling.

Lemon Curd Filling:

4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup flour
juice of 2 lemons
1 Tbs. limoncello
2 Tbs. finely minced lemon peels strained from limoncello (alternatively, zest of 1 lemon)

Whisk together all ingredients until smooth.  Pour over baked crust.  Put pan back in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes more, or until filling is set.  Cool completely and garnish with lemon curls, or cut into 2" squares and dust each square generously with powdered sugar.  Makes 36 bars.

When life gives you lemons, make limoncello!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Good friends, good food

My good friend and soul-sister, TXMama, loves to cook and like me, isn't afraid to eat.  We've cooked many a meal together, put on many unforgettable parties and most of all, have shared many fabulous meals together--both out and in.  Over the weekend, we got together to cook and eat.  Appetizers were simple and low-maintenance (excellent dry salami and a sharp, buttery cheddar cheese) and cocktail hour was a refreshing, relaxing waterside experience.  We moved inside out of the heat to a memorable dinner and great wine--thanks again to one of my wine guys at Spec's.

Dinner had been smelling fabulous for some time (it had gone in the oven at about 3:30 p.m.), and the aromas promised great things.  We had a lovely spinach salad studded with fresh orange segments, strawberry slices and red onion, dressed in a piquant dressing.  The brisket was tender and deeply flavored thanks to aromatic vegetables and plenty of red wine in the braising liquid.  I had substituted rutabaga and carrot in the brisket recipe for parsnips, which were unavailable.  And the couscous?  Extremely simple to make and full of lemon, parsley and garlic.  Magical with the Montepulciano!!  I later had a second helping of the couscous in a small dish, paired only with the wine.  TXMama's husband, Richyson, commented, "You're eating that couscous like it's ice cream!"  To me, it was better than ice cream.

Here are the recipes:

Blueberry Basil Frozen Daiquiris

These daiquiris are tart and complex.  I've convinced myself that the antioxidant property of the blueberries more than compensates for the sugar and alcohol content in these drinks!

1 cup basil syrup (recipe follows)
3/4 cup fresh blueberries
12 large basil leaves
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 cup white rum
blueberries, thinly sliced limes and basil sprigs for garnish

To make basil syrup:  Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1 cup water in small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then remove from heat.  Add 3 to 4 stems of basil leaves and let steep until cooled.  Refrigerate until ready to use.  Strain before using.  Makes about 1 cup.

In a large blender container, combine basil syrup, blueberries, basil leaves, lime juice and rum.  Add enough ice to come to top of blender container.  Blend until an icy/slushie consistency is achieved.  Pour into stemless red wine glasses and garnish with blueberries, lime slices and basil sprigs.  Makes four drinks.

TXMama's Sweet or Savory Spinach Salad

We had the sweet version of this salad, which harmonized beautifully with the main course.  Both versions are excellent.

Make the dressing:
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup Heinz white vinegar
Put egg in small saucepan and lightly beat.  Add sugar and vinegar and mix well.  Heat over medium heat until boiling.  Reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes or until lightly thickened.  Allow to cool and then refrigerate.  

Assemble the salad:

Sweet salad is best with cold dressing.  Combine baby spinach, thinly sliced red onion, supremed fresh orange or mandarin oranges and sliced or quartered fresh strawberries.

For a savory salad, serve with dressing that is hot, room temperature or cold.  Combine baby spinach, sliced fresh button mushrooms, red onion thinly sliced into half rings, roughly crumbled bacon and hard cooked eggs either served as wedges on side or top salad with large diced egg.
Be careful not to over dress salad.  Add a little dressing at a time, mix very well and taste; add more if necessary, toss well and retaste.  Makes 4 generous servings.


Several weeks ago, while slogging away on the treadmill at my local gym, I watched Food Network's Alex Guarnaschelli make this fabulous brisket and couscous.  This ain't your typical brisket--you might be shocked at the lack of barbeque sauce and smoke--and it sure ain't your typical couscous because it is graced with gremolata, which is bright and lemony, a perfect foil for the rich brisket.  With the recommended wine (see below for full review), it was a knockout dinner.  Recipes are embedded below:

For dessert we savored strong Community Coffee and Blackberries with Muscovado Cream Sauce.  I've posted this dessert recipe before, but because it is so simple, here it is again:  For each serving, place 1/2 cup washed, chilled blackberries in a small dessert dish or shallow goblet.  Combine 1 cup sour cream with 2 Tbs. muscovado sugar and blend well.  Pour muscovado cream over berries and garnish with mint leaves.

About the wine we drank with dinner:  My wine guy has a fabulous palate.  I can describe what I am planning to cook to him and he can translate that into a literal gustatory experience, matching wines with foods flawlessly.  He recommended a Montepulciano, Cantina Zaccagnini 2008 (Italy).  Full of plum and black fruit, this dry red is soft, and slightly peppery with a hint of leather and vanilla.  This is the best of country peasant wines, earthy, full-bodied and big enough to support earthy, country-style Italian dishes such as game, veal, sausages, lamb and intense red sauces such as Puttanesca.

May your taste buds dance!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A bon vivant lifestyle

bon vi·vant   noun

\ˌbän-vē-ˈvänt, ˌbōⁿ-vē-ˈväⁿ\

plural bons vivants \ˌbän-vē-ˈvän(t)s, ˌbōⁿ-vē-ˈväⁿ(z)\ or bon vivants \same\


Definition of BON VIVANT 

a person having cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink


Examples of BON VIVANT

  1. a bon vivant who loves to hold dinner parties and serve exquisite, elaborate meals 

Origin of BON VIVANT:

French, literally, good liver
First Known Use: circa 1695    (Mirriam-Webster)

In a recent conversation with a food and wine-loving friend, we discussed our mutual penchant for living slightly beyond our means, surrounding ourselves with fine food and wine and loving to share that with others, even if it meant some form of personal austerity after our indulgences.  My friend said, "I believe that's called bon vivant."  Well, believe you me, I held my head a little higher after hearing that because I've always just referred to my lifestyle as excessive and wonton hedonism.  But any time I can redefine myself--and in French, mind you--I'll take the opportunity for a make-over.

So here are some things I've done (and some characteristics I still currently hold) that qualify me, if not as the poster child for the Bon Vivant Lifestyle, then at least as an honorary runner up in the Bon Vivant Lifestyle Hall of Fame:

In my 20's when I lived in upstate New York, I would think nothing of driving to New York City (a 3-hour trip) for a cup of coffee and a bagel or a Greek omelette with nothing but a $10 bill in my wallet.   

I have paid and will continue to pay a lot of money for beautiful, exquisite, rare and unusual food.  Rainier cherries at $12 a pound?  Sprite melons at $5 each (if you do the math, that works out to be about $20 a pound)?  Castelmagno cheese at $37 per pound?  Chiagga beets at $7 a bunch?  Beluga caviar (price upon request)?  Sure.  It's a treat.  I don't eat this way every day.  But I draw the line at Kopi Luwak.  Because I am no longer a coffee drinker and my husband will only drink water-processed coffee.  Really.

On the spur of the moment, I always enjoy having dinner out with a friend at an establishment that can pamper us and bring us lovely foodDinner will likely consist of wine, lots of appetizers, more wine and more appetizers.  This experience involves, at minimum, 3 hours of eating and pairing wines and sipping and nibbling and chatting up the wait staff and sommelier.  The bill is usually enormous because we've eaten our way through the appetizer menu and have begun to make a dent in the wine list.  Did I mention we would have lots of wine?  Did I mention that drinking lots of wine during these experiences is necessary to dull the shock of paying the tab when it is, sadly, time to leave?

Those who have witnessed my interior decorating "skills" will recall that I jokingly refer to my home as done in the Bordello Nouveau style.  Actually, after recently listening to Terry Gross interview filmmaker John Waters (think Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray) about his book Role Models on her NPR broadcast Fresh Air, I've revised my position.  Here all the time I thought I was channeling my inner Madame.  But I've actually been channeling my inner John Waters.  Glad you liked visiting my home!  Hope you had fun looking at all that stuff I've collected!  Can you say, "I love to shop at Goodwill?"  Sure, it cost a lot to put all those beads up there--they're from Czechoslovakia--but aren't they beautiful!?  Isn't it rather like a movie set in here?  Ever been to Bal'more, hon?  Did Divine throw up in here??

At any given time, I'm likely to throw a large dinner party.  No two dinners are ever alike with regard to theme, props and table settings, music or guests.  I can usually pull this off just from what I have on hand in my pantry, refrigerators and freezers.  I think of it as a strategic and competitive game I like to play with myself.  But I also have this problem.  I've mentioned it before: The Disease of More.  I'm convinced that not only is The Disease of More fully diagnosable, but that there is a genetic marker for this condition as well.  My parents were post-Depression Era children.  You know, the children of hoarders and people who never threw anything out.  Because you might need it one day.  And I have found that hoarding and keeping things pays off.  Because I'll make a party around it.

I'm not a particularly late-night person, but on those occasions when intimate conversations continue late into the night and I'm in my own kitchen, I can feed you.  And I can feed you well.  We might be having crepes with creamed sherried mushrooms and crabmeat at 2 a.m., or we might enjoy a bowl of spaghetti carbonara.  We could also be devouring an omelette with smoked salmon and a triple creme cheese.  Or a pizza with creamed leeks, goat cheese and toasted walnuts.  Or French toast with Grand Marnier and lingonberry coulis.  You just never know.  Stick around, stay late, let me cook for you with whatever ingredients we can forage in the fridge.  Then you can crash on my couch and wake up to homemade muffins, fruit and coffee in the morning.  And champagne.

How many champagne glasses does one woman need?  Apparently, if you're Vindaloo Tiramisu, you need plenty.  Plenty is one of those vague, indeterminate numbers that range between 2 and 2000.  So whether it's vintage coupes from the 30's, Art Deco etched saucers from the 20's, modest glasses you won't cry over breaking that can be stacked for a champagne tower (and purchased ridiculously cheaply at thrift stores), or exquisite hollow stems from the pre-Prohibition era that you've paid waaaaay toooooo much money for, one can never have too many receptacles for champagne.  Because champagne isn't just for breakfast anymore.

So now my readership knows where my disposable income goes.  I don't smoke, I don't chew, and I don't run with girls who do.  But I do live like there's no tomorrow.  And I do use my good china--often.   And all because I've never seen a U-Haul attached to a hearse.  It all distills down to this: no one lays on their deathbed wishing they'd spent more time depriving themselves of pleasure.  I intend to spend as much time experiencing pleasure in the company of others as possible.