31 December 2009

Good Friends, Good Wine, Good Food

I LOVE seafood.  All types of seafood.  But it wasn't always this way.  Growing up on the Texas Gulf Coast, yes, I have always had a fondness for fish, shrimp crawfish and crab, but that was about the extent of it.  None of those "gross" things with shells for me, thank you.  And little guys with multiple legs/tentacles... forget it.  And then I spent a summer in Italy that changed everything. 

I clearly remember when my love affair with seafood began.  I was somewhere in the south of Italy, in a little town along the coast and for dinner we ate at a tiny restaurant down on the dock.  Not a lot of options on the menu and I ended up ordering Frutti de Mare... it was game over.  A beautiful plate of pasta with a tomato sauce and all manner of sea critters on top.  I had never tasted seafood like that in my life - fresh, tender and not at all "fishy".  Linguini alle Vongole quickly became another favorite.  A new world had been opened up to me. 

Over time is has become apparent that not everyone shares my fondess for little sea creatures.  At Nino's in Houston, for instance, when I ordered the Zuppe de Pesce, my girlfriends all gave me weird looks and I think the little squid(s?) even offended a few of them.  However, my dear husband is a great sport, and although he does not approach them with the same gusto I do, he does enjoy a good mollusk every now and then.  In addition, we have been blessed with some friends who also enjoy seafood.  The other night they graciously agreed to come over to share in a steaming pot of cioppino. 

R and I first learned of cioppino while watching an episode of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on Food Network.  He challenged Phil, of Phil's Fish Market in northern California, to a Cioppino Throwdown - and lost.  The episode was entertaining for sure, Phil is quite a character, but I was more interested in the dish itself.  Cioppino is an Italian American seafood stew. The broth is tomato based, can be quite garlicky and makes the perfect backdrop for the real stars - the seafood.  I found a bare bones, no frills recipe that involves white fish, shrimp, mussels and clams.  Very simple, but very delicious. 

We served a simple salad and a few good, crusty baguettes with the stew.  Our friends brought some wonderful wine and we all ate until we could eat no more.  I love the relaxed atmosphere and the easy conversation that seem to inevitably accompany a good meal.  To me there is nothing better than sharing a meal with good friends.

28 December 2009

Food Fun with the Macro Lens

My sweet and talented husband borrowed a Canon 100mm f/2 Macro lens from a colleague and used it to photograph 10 (fairly common) foods we had in our kitchen. 

Can you identify the 10 foods below?
Answers are at the bottom of the post.

1. A common herb.  I'm waiting on your answer...clock's ticking

2. Not the most date-friendly food in the world...

3. I do NOT eat this "crumby" stuff.  Wheat only, please.

4. Not feeling bleu exactly, but close to it

5. A traditional Thanksgiving side dish

6. These granules are blooming

7. Another key player in the Thanksgiving meal

8. Personally, I prefer the dark stuff

9. Health food; R loves putting it on top of vanilla ice cream

10. Not what it looks like... A key ingredient in Puttanesca sauces.  I adore the nutty flavor it lends to dishes!

1. Thyme
2. Clove of Garlic
3. Slice of White Bread
4. Gorgonzola Cheese
5. Stove Top Dressing
6. Knox Unflavored Gelatine
7. Raw Sweet Potato
8. Ghiradelli Classic White Chips
9. Ground Flax Seed
10. Anchovy Paste

27 December 2009

Earth Girls Trip:Garner State Park ... known to some as"The Great Flood of 2009"

Another entry from the fall (October) that never was posted.

An Earth Girl is all about trying new things, enjoying the company of other Earth Girls and if not directly helping the earth, then at least enjoying it in an environmentally responsible manner.

Past Earth Girl Excursions have included:

1. Kayak Lessons

2. Volunteering to do maintanence work the Appalachian Trail for a week (I skipped out on that one - couldn't take a week off at that time... darn.)

3. Trip to Colorado for hiking and fly-fishing lessons (another trip I missed because I couldn't take a week off, although this one sounded much more enjoyable than the other one)

4. 30th Birthday Trip to Boston (more pedestrian commuters than in any other US city!). Included a fabulous culinary tour of the North End led by Jim Becker.

After much debate, we decided that for this year we would go camping at Garner State Park (had not been there in over 20 years). We each had a job assignment - Mom was in charge of reservations, Laura was in charge of activities and I was in charge of planning the menu. We would later realize that we forgot to put some one in charge of praying for good weather.

Menu had been planned in advance (with input from everyone) and included grilled salmon, chili and cornbread, foil dinners and lots of s'mores. Mom and Laura are die-hard Lodge Dutch Oven fans so that had to be factored in as well. Grocery shopping was done in Austin on our way out of town and took us over an hour. Not because we were unorganized, but because we were having so much fun!

Finally arrived to Garner State Park (GSP) mid-afternoon. Site 408!!!!

Unloading took a while - hey, we travel comfortably!

Got the both tents set up.
The idea to bring along a second tent was Mom's - turned out to be the best thing we packed!

We were able to get the fire roaring, the stove hooked up and dinner started before the sun set. Dinner was pan-grilled salmon with broccoli. Dessert: s'mores, of course.

Looked like things were going pretty well. We had heard that there might be rain that night, so we tied down the rain flaps, pretty sure we would easily weather any storm thrown at us. Ha! Woke up at some point during the night to the sound of raindrops... in our tent.

Mom was saying something about feeling a little damp and cold and asked Laura to turn on her head lamp to take a closer look. She was SOAKED. There was also almost an inch of standing water in the bottom of the tent - thank goodness we were on cots! We tried to tough it out, but ended up retreating to Mom's Odyssey to get a little sleep.

Next morning we requested a shelter (for one night) and ate a delicious, energizing breakfast of eggs, sausage and coffee (Via packets from Starbucks were a life-saver).

Spent the day recuperating, washing and drying Mom's sleeping bag and throwing away that leaky tent. By the way, that tent had been purchased on our last camping trip to GSP... that might explain why it was not so rain-proof.

Friday night's dinner - delicious Chili made by Laura with cornbread made in the Dutch Oven.

This is why we don't let Laura cook very often. Sometimes the food turns out beautifully and sometimes, well... let's just say she melted her own shoe, while wearing it!

Rest of the trip went much more smoothly (no more rain!) and we all had a great time. The monarch butterflies happened to be migrating through GSP that weekend. I have never experienced anything like it before. Hundreds, sometimes thousands would flutter through at a time. Absolutely magical.

Hiked Lost Maples and it was absolutely stunning. So proud of Mom, she was a real trooper and did the tough, steep hike with Laura and me.

She did, however, keep checking the map to be sure we were not leading her astray. Why she didnt' trust her daughter, the geography teacher, to accurately read the map is beyond me.

All in all it was a fantastic trip. Mom and Laura got to play with fire for hours on end, we were able to do some hiking in some of the most gorgeous parts of Texas, we ate some delicious food and just enjoyed spending time together. We came home dirty and exhausted, but none of us would have traded that trip for the world!

I Thought "Tartar" Referred To A People Group...

This was originally written back during the first week of October... forgot to post it. Oops!

School started and things got a little busy. I have been cooking, just not doing a great job blogging about it.

My most recent adventure was the result of an impetuous, last minute Sunday Dinner invitation I extended to some dear friends. I wasn't too stressed because I knew I had most of the meal under control. Appetizer ... piece of cake - had a beautiful head of Romaine in the crisper, some tangy pepperoncinis and a delicious Balsamic Walnut and Blue Cheese dressing I picked up at Berry Town Produce (a farmer's market) in Hammond, LA two weeks ago. I also had the main course all planned out - a simple Italian dish. Seasoned chicken breasts browned on both sides, then topped with an artichoke ricotta cheese mixture, covered in an carrettiera sauce and finished off in the oven. Oven-roasted garlic broccoli would serve as a healthy side dish.

But what to do for dessert? I needed something I could (for the most part) prepare ahead of time and just add finishing touches to as the chicken finished up in the oven. But I also wanted something with that WOW factor. Long story short - after flipping through several cookbooks I found a recipe for a Decadent Flourless Chocolate Cake that had to be made well ahead of time so it could be chilled. It also suggested serving it with Berry Coulis. I adore berry sauces, so that cinched it for me!

Cake was pretty straightforward - melt butter and chocolate in double boiler and then whisk in egg yolks (taking care to make sure they do not curdle). Meanwhile, and here is where the NEW ingredient comes in to play, you whip the egg whites with cream of tartar until they achieve soft peaks and then add in a T of sugar until you get stiff, but not dry peaks. (Kitchen-Aid stand mixer made it all possible - thanks, R!) Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites (sacrifice the few for the sake of the many) and then fold in the remaining egg whites. Bake at 325 for 30 minutes. Cool thoroughly and then chill for a minimum of three hours.

So what's the deal with this Cream of Tartar stuff? Why did I need to add it? I mean, I have whipped egg whites before and never used cream of tartar. And I thought the Tartars were a people group, so why the heck are they showing up in my recipe?

According to http://www.ochef.com/, it is potassium hydrogen tartrate, an acid salt. Come to find out, milk, egg whites and baking soda are the only alkaline foods we have, so it makes sense to pair an acid with the egg whites. It stabilizes and gives extra volume to egg whites when they are being whipped. I will admit that it made my eggs whites almost cloudlike. Another technique I had read about recently in Cook's Illustrated was to start out whipping egg whites on a lower speed (medium) and only much later in the process switch it to high. I found that also helped to increase the volume of the egg whites.

To accompany my chocolate cake, and cut some of the richness, I settled on a berry coulis. I had planned on making it from only raspberries, but as I was going through my fridge I found a carton of forgotten strawberries. While the majority were sickly and a bit moldy, there were a few jewels in there, so I threw them in as well. Turned out to be a stroke of genius!

After pureeing the berries, lemon juice and sugar in the food processor, I spent the next 30 minutes forcing fruitpuree through a fine sieve. At first progress was almost non-existant. What the heck was I thinking??? This was proving to be an incredibly fruitless (ha ha) endeavor. A few minutes later, however, a magical liquid began to appear in the bowl below the sieve. Seedless puree was dripping through and my, oh my, was it ever heavenly!!! I wimped out on the whipping cream and substituted Cool Whip (insert disgusted groan here).

We all enjoyed dessert after the meal - very rich, but very good. The guys both ate two servings... I have no idea how. I will definitely be making this one again!

Next adventure - cooking while camping. Heading to Garner State Park with my Earth Girls for 5 days... fun stories and pics to follow!