It's all about the Experience

Natalia, of the wonderful blog From Our Kitchen, long ago (in fact, I'm probably the last food blogger out there now!) tagged me for the meme, "Five Things to Eat Before You Die" for the Food Blogger's Guide to the Globe. When I looked around to see other blogger's answers (you can see the entire list here on Melissa's fantastic blog, The Traveler's Lunchbox) and began thinking about about foods that I would want to recommend to others, I found that my list was composed of foods that weren't only spectacular in their own right, but centered mostly around the experience I had had while I enjoyed them. To me, it seemed that the atmosphere that surrounded my consumption of them, even just the time and the place and the feelings that were evoked by my memories of them, and the people that I shared them with, that made them special and stand out in my mind. So, without further adieu, here is my list of Five Things to Eat Before You Die...or at least, five experiences I'd love for you to have in your lifetime...

#1. Eat a Palisade peach, from Palisade, Colorado. Yes, they have peaches in Colorado (wine too, actually, and some of it is quite good). Drive out to the countryside in Palisade and choose yourself a local peach farmer who picked the fruit themselves and has been doing it for years and years, and will hand you entire peaches to taste and enjoy while you determine if you'd like to buy them. Feel the weight of the peach in your hands. Notice that it's almost too large to fit in a single palm. Notice how beautiful it is, how beautiful the entire box is; without a single bruise or blemish, and with a full covering of soft, gentle fuzz. Notice that you can tell that it's perfectly ripe, right now, just by the weight of it, the smell of it, and the way it feels in your hand - even without having to squeeze it.

If at all possible, do this while sitting on the porch of your childhood home, lazing around in your pajamas and staring out at the empty fields behind your house while remembering the times you and your brother adventured together when you were young - braving the waters, the dirt, the bugs, the treehouse and the cornfields off in the distance. Feel the warmth of the morning sun on your shoulders and the cool, crisp desert air kissing your skin. Let the juices run down your arms and over your lips, make your fingers sticky, and tumble down into the paper towel on your lap. Do this slowly, languorously, with as much slurping and licking your fingers as possible, and without a care in the world if someone will see you.

#2. Go to a bar in Spain. Any bar that will offer you a selection of tapas - usually there will be large legs of their exquisitely cured ham, or jamon (I do speak some Spanish, so pretend there are accents in the appropriate places for the duration of this paragraph...I just don't know how to do them on html!), hanging above the bar. Don't go to a fancy bar. Just choose one where you see lots of locals. Do this around 8 or 9 PM, as things don't get started until late here. Do this with someone you love talking to (always travel with someone you love to talk to!). Order a plate of jamon iberico. Since it's difficult (if not almost ridiculously expensive) to get a taste of this wonderful ham in the United States, just the feeling of being rebellious will add to the flavor of the meat if you're from here. Watch the bartender slice razor thin slices of your jamon from an entire hog leg held in a vice behind the bar, hooves and all, before he or she brings you your treat. Add to this a bit of quince paste, a little manchego viejo, some Spanish olives and perhaps a glass of house wine or sherry from Jerez.

After you've sipped your wine and tasted the tender, slightly musty and salty meat, look around the bar. Notice the people and the conversations happening around you. Relish in your own friends and the conversations you share with them. Take your time to do this. Just taste, sip, and talk for as long as you can. Follow this experience with a few hours of dinner and conversation before spending the night away dancing at the various night clubs that surround you. Ward off your hangover the next day by dipping hot, crispy, slightly greasy churros into a steaming pool of chocolate and enjoying a lengthy cup of excellent cafe con leche.

#3. Eat freshly caught halibut, pulled from the icy cold waters off the shores of Alaska only hours earlier, by you or someone you care about. Go to Seward or Homer, Alaska, and book yourself a charter boat. Choose your captain carefully, and you'll pleasantly find your deckhands are almost always enjoyable and helpful. Dress for the weather, taking all precautions to avoid getting seasick (trust me on this one), and spend 8 hours in the crisp Alaskan air deep-sea fishing and gazing out at the mountains, which actually do touch the sea. Listen to the seabirds and watch for whales, bears and other wildlife in the ecosytems surrounding you. Notice the ice-cold brilliant blue of the glaciers slowly cutting jagged scars into the mountains. You'll more than likely catch your limit (2) of this mild, lovely fish and while the younger, smaller ones taste better, the large ones are also quite delicious (and are far more impressive a catch).

When you feel a slight tug, jerk up gently, and start reeling in. Feel your muscles rebel against the weight of the fish (which can be up to 500 lbs!), the tension on the line, and the tons of water beneath you as you coax your fish upward. It will begin to fight as it reaches closer to the surface - so hang on! Once your fish is on the boat, and your muscles (or at least the deckhand's, or perhaps, Dad's) are spent, revel in the glory of winning this fight. When you get home, take a fresh fillet - cut it into chunks, dip it in beer batter made with a local Alaskan brew, and deep fry it until it's golden brown. Fish this fresh will literally melt in your mouth; tasting gently of ocean breezes, exhausted muscles, and cold, deep water.

#4. Taste fois gras with a splash of a French Sauternes...in the same mouthful. Certainly, there are issues with fois gras, and perhaps you do not agree with it, and then, this experience will just have to be passed by. But if you have never tried it, do. Even if it is just once. First take a small nibble of the fois gras; notice the silky-smooth texture of it, roll it around on your tongue tasting the mouthfeel of the slightly salty and fatty goodness. Then, take a second bite, combining it with just a sip of Sauternes - and let that sweetness cut through the fat and salt and balance out the fois gras and explode with flavor. Repeat, repeat, repeat...slowly and seductively until every bit is gone from your plate.

If possible, of course, do this in where everything is freshest and the wine is available, but it is also quite enjoyable to do it at the Vista Grill in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on your birthday, out to a very nice dinner on a veranda with someone who loves you very much. Laugh with your French waiter about how odd it is to be eating fois gras, with Sauternes, in Mexico, per his suggestion, but how it is perfect, nonetheless. End your meal with a taste of 1921 Crema de Tequila, Mexico's decadent take on Baileys Irish Cream. Watch the sun go down over ocean and love every minute of your time there, along with every mouthful of deliciously fresh and gourmet food that follows and how every time you get up to go to the restroom, they refold your napkin for you.

#5. Visit Thailand and taste Khao Dome, or coconut sticky rice in banana leaves, handmade by a street vendor. Open up the banana leaf to find a delicious rectangle of sticky rice scented with coconut milk and filled with soft chucks of banana (or plantain). Do this while trekking around the historic city of Ayutthaya, near Bangkok, and marvel at the stunning ruins of this once majestic city. Revel in the brightly colored silks, gigantic Buddha statues, and the feeling of seeing something so ancient and steeped with cultural history. Let yourself feel the sadness of the various tragedies that surround you - that so much was lost when it was destroyed, including the majority of the art and literature, and that thieves and would-be money-makers have chopped off the heads of many Buddhas and stolen them. But also feel the power that comes from such a unique place and full of so many interesting things to see. My new friend, Karen, who has a wonderful blog called Ramblingspoon.com, shares lots of stories about her travels and adventures in Thailand and Cambodia and all kinds of delicious food with her readers, and helped me remember what this sweet snack was called (she has also opened my eyes to many new blogs featuring yummy foods from this area of Asia)...Thanks, Karen!

And thank you, Natalia, for tagging me. Since I've been out of the loop a bit, I have no idea who has or has not done this meme, so if you haven't and you're visiting here, please join in and let us in on your secret knowledge of delicious delicacies you've tried!


Returning to my roots...part 1

The weather is getting cooler now, and I can tell that Fall is upon us. The leaves have begun to trade their brilliant green hues for softer yellows, reds and browns and then make their final journey to the ground. The air grows crisp in the mornings and the first rains are falling from the heavens, and my body, in turn, begins to yearn for clothes that cling softly to my skin, down comforters, closed-toed shoes and food that warms my soul.

Fall is, by far, my favorite season. The smells, the chill in the air, the colors, the feeling of a new beginning (perhaps this feeling should come in Springtime, but for someone who has been in school now for almost 17 years, Fall is when everything begins anew), but it's also about the food. This may have been why I began my little food blog in the Fall, a little over one year ago. I find I don't mind spending long hours in the kitchen since it is far cooler than it has been the last few months. And the food at the market is food that brings back so many good memories and is as ripe with childhood nostalgia as it is with flavor. Apples, grapes, eggplant, mushrooms, figs, and heavy, red tomatoes. At the grocery store, I find my choices are now leaning towards richer, heavier foods...picking out free-range chickens for both dinner and batches of homemade chicken stock, spices like sage and thyme, heady cheeses, and thick, hearty breads.

The last time I was home, I sat with my grandmother (my dad's mother, not the one who recently passed away) and we dove through her recipes and cookbooks, seeking out her favorites and my favorites and the ones that she wanted to pass down to me since she knows how much I love to cook, and she isn't able to do the cooking any longer. There were recipes for casseroles of all kinds, yeast breads and rolls, ethnic recipes (Guamanian chicken is one that I'll share later, from when she lived in Guam), and several of her own mother's dishes.

What I remember most about the time spent with my grandmother in my childhood are the breakfasts - lots of fresh biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, and bacon. But secondary to those feasts, I remember the trips to Texas. My grandmother was the second oldest child in a family with 8 children. She was born in Texas and many of her siblings still reside all over the state. We used to go there for family reunions when I was younger. And Lord, can those Texans cook! Anything fried was certainly a specialty, but my favorite? Fried okra. Nobody, and I mean, nobody, can make fried okra taste like a Texan can. And lucky me? There's been loads of these fresh, green pods at the Farmer's Market, nestled in with all that gorgeous Fall produce.

My first attempt at fried okra, via grandma's word of mouth and the way her family has always cooked it, is what follows. And it's delicious. It's not healthy, but sometimes family recipes trump healthy, and anyway, who cares if it's healthy? It's freakin' delicious! Besides, since it is Fall, we should be storing up for Winter, right? Beware making too large of quantities of this - it goes down like popcorn and it's difficult to stop eating it.

Eakin Family Fried Okra, recipe courtesy of Evelyn Baysinger

Get yourself several pods of fresh okra or a bag of frozen okra (though not quite as good, still pretty darn tasty). Whisk together 1 or 2 whole eggs in a bowl, depending on how much okra you have. In another bowl, put 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour and an equal amount of cornmeal. Put this flour mixture inside a large ziplock bag and add salt, pepper and avery slight pinch of cayenne pepper.

Now, here's the secret: Cook 1/2 lb - 1 lb of your favorite smoked bacon in a heavy pan (cast iron would be ideal) until crisp. Remove the bacon and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the bacon for another use, and reserve the bacon grease to cook your okra in (Aha! That's why it tastes so delicious!). Keep the heat at a moderate heat, then if you have fresh okra pods, cut them into 1/2" pieces and put them directly in the bowl with the egg. Mix until all of the pieces of okra are coated well. Pick them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the bag with the four/cornmeal mixture. Close up the bag and shake it gently until all the okra is coated with the flour mixture. Pick a good handful of okra out and shake off the excess flour (there won't be much), then add it to the pan with the bacon grease. Fry the okra until it turns golden brown on all sides, turning as needed. Drain the grease off the okra on a paper towel and repeat, cooking the rest of the okra. Attempt to restrain from eating the entire plate full.

I served the okra with Chicken with Lots of Garlic, turnips with bread crumbs and parsely, and wilted turnip greens. For dessert, Great-grandma's Date Nut Loaf Cake (I'll post this one soon too).


Rosemary is for Remembrance

"There's rosemary; that's for remembrance.
Pray, love, remember."
~Shakespeare, Hamlet

Rosemary has been a symbol for remembrance since ancient times. It has been used as a symbol of love and remembrance at both weddings and funerals, as well as a number of other ceremonies. For newlyweds, its a symbol of fidelity and a promise not to forget the vows they made that day; for loved ones who have passed on, a symbol of love and a promise not to forget the impact they had on your life and the memories that you shared with them.

For me, today, it is a symbol of love and remembrance not only for the people who tragically died on September 11, 2001, but also for my grandmother and my great-aunt, both of whom passed away this Saturday.

I think that the most important thing that I have learned this summer has been that relationships are what's paramount in life. We are all busy; we have dreams we're trying to follow and passions we're trying to live, we have jobs and school, cooking and cleaning, traveling, hobbying, finding our way in the world and trying to discover who we are inside and if that matches up to who we want to be. But we are also surrounded by people who care about us; no matter how far away they may be, or even the time passed since we last spoke. We have to put effort into these relationships: cradle them, hold them near and dear to our hearts and show those that we care about, just exactly how much we care in whatever way possible - even a simple phone call or a few minutes of our time. Just so that they really get it - because of another simple fact of life - they will not always be around.

I was so fortunate to be able to go home the week before last and spend more time than usual with my grandmother. I am only able to go home once or sometimes twice a year and had taken an extra trip home this month because my stepfather was diagnosed with cancer earlier this summer and was supposed to begin treatment. An unexpected "blessing," I suppose, was that his treatment was delayed and we were all able to just spend time together as a family. My grandmother was already in a nursing home after suffering two heart attacks a few weeks ago (although, thankfully, she was able to be at home when she suffered her third and final one), and I spent a large part of my time there with her just talking and visiting.

Grandma lived a long, rich life and had 3 wonderful sons, one of which is my step-father and I am grateful every day for the happiness that he brings my mom, and to my own life. She was married to my grandfather for 63 years, which is something that I won't be able to say when I am her age. She was a fiesty woman with a great sense of humor, and I remember her in her stocking hat and her construction-orange down jacket riding down the sledding hill at our cabin and laughing outloud the entire way. She always stocked ice-cream sandwiches for us kids and made the best cole-slaw and fudge in the family. She introduced me to how a can of smoked oysters can be as great an appetizer as any and how refreshing crisp radishes, kept in icy cold water, can be on a hot summer afternoon. Since she is my step-father's mother, she could be considered my step-grandmother...but grandma was my grandma for as long as I can remember and she will always be...because sometimes the relationships we build, those we spend time in, put effort into, and make memories with...are thicker than the bonds of a marriage between two families...sometimes they turn two people who are not related, into two people who love each other just the same as if they were.

After the initial shock of hearing this sad news begin to wear off, I knew that I wanted to incorporate rosemary into my dinner on Saturday evening. This was my way of expressing to myself that I would remember both grandma, and Aunt Mae, always. I turned, once again, to both food and friendship, for comfort. I spent the day with a special friend, browsing the Farmer's Market and embracing the life that always seems to radiate from there, and grateful for the presence of a friendship with someone who gives so freely of herself even though our friendship is still fairly new. We made a special trip to the fish market and picked up some Oregon Black Cod, and once home, I turned to a recipe inspired by Nigella Lawson's fabulous book, How to Eat.

Black Cod with Orange Zest, Rosemary and Garlic
This is hardly a recipe, but it was tasty, and it allowed me to raise a culinary salute and, had I had it available, a glass of good white wine, to both my grandma and my aunt.

2 fillets of black cod (about 3 oz. each)
one orange
1 clove of garlic
1 tbsp. fresh rosemary
olive oil
salt and pepper, if desired
white wine or dry vermouth

Mince the clove of garlic and zest the orange. Finely chop about a tablespoon of rosemary and add these ingredients to a frying pan. Put a little oil in the pan; not too much, because you don't want it to be greasy, but enough that the other ingredients will be able to infuse the oil. Mix them together, turn on the heat to medium (or medium high for most stoves probably - ours is a bit off), and let it come up to temperature until the spices begin to sizzle. Pat dry two fillets of black cod, salt and pepper them if you'd like, then lay them in the pan (skin side down if there's skin). Cook about 4-5 minutes per side until the fish flakes, but is still meltingly tender and juicy. When finished, put the fillets onto a warmed plate and keep covered until ready to plate. To the pan, add about 1/2 cup of white wine or dry vermouth, and let it bubble, evaporate slightly and get syrupy (about 5-6 minutes). When finished, pour this "sauce" over the fish, along with all of the scraped up brown bits from the pan.

I served this with grilled strawberry tomatoes (a little olive oil, salt, and pepper is plenty seasoning for these babies) and crusty pieces of multigrain bread from a local bakery. For dessert? Shauna's incredible Plum crumble, an amazing dessert from an incredibly positive and radiant woman, who just by the sheer energy she exudes on her site, always makes me feel better.


Soothing the Savage Beast

It's no secret that LB and I are always running out of money, especially at the end of the month (we only get paid on the 1st). We're grad students, we have debt up to our ears, we aren't allowed to be "gainfully employed" aside from our meager stipends (but thank goodness we at least get stipends!), but we do get by. Now, with the up-and-coming wedding, the big move to Hawaii looming in the background, and new student fees that I didn't used to have to pay for, we've had to confine our spending even more.

The most important thing that I've realized with this new spending stringency is that it's incredibly difficult for me to be on a food budget!! And it makes me Grumpy. Up until now, I've gone to the grocery store, bought a few things I needed/wanted for the recipes I had been recently inspired by (within reason, of course, with only the occasional luxury thrown in), enjoyed my strolls at the farmer's market picking out unique produce and whatever struck my fancy, and just made my sacrifices by way of no beer or spendy activities, or sometimes yummy food, at the end of the month. Thus, my pantry, once stocked and full so that almost any recipe I found could be made mostly from ingredients already available in my kitchen, has become more and more bare as time goes on. We've even begun to barter our larder and the blackberries in our backyard for fresh vegetables from other peoples gardens. Basically, this means that I will most likely starve to death in Hawaii due to the cost of food and everything else or LB will divorce me because I will be so Grumpy (and/or bald).

So when I went grocery shopping recently, I had a set myself a strict budget this time. I picked my food carefully, only taking the organic choice if I was totally grossed out my eating the conventional (ie. milk), carefully not purchasing the larger cuts of meat or anything extra, and trying to choose veggies that would either go far or could be used in a variety of cuisines. I still overspent! Granted, I had to buy things we were out of and had been out of for the last week or so (end of the month) like toilet paper (don't worry, we stole a roll from the roommate!), butter, milk, dog food (don't worry, we still fed the dogs!), flour, etc. And yet, I still went over my budget, forcing me to realize that there would not be a shopping trip the following week and we would have to get by on what we had and stretch it as far as possible.

For some, this happily forces you to be creative. For me, this is occasionally the case and can be quite enjoyable. However, when I am craving some kind of particular food and cannot have it...out comes the Grumpy Beast inside. She can be mean and nasty. She doesn't want you in the kitchen with her. She might growl at you if she doesn't like what you have to say about what she's come up with. Worse, if she doesn't like it, she might refuse to eat it and return to her lair to sulk, leaving you feeling helpless and alone and wondering where the Nice, Happy Cooking Girl you used to know went. This is doubled if she's stressed out about something else too (huh, LB?).

One particular weekend morning, my cravings for "real" food were especially bad...I woke up craving cooking, and craving something delicious for breakfast and NOT what we had been having all week. I went out into the kitchen with a dire need to start cooking to quell my inner Grumpy Beast. And I already knew we didn't have much left...no cereal, no milk, only a single egg. I could feel the Grumpy Beast inside me begin to rise up from the depths...

I scoured the cupboards, the drawers, the fridge, and the recipe books. By this time, I was growing frantic, as the Beast was already crawling its way out. LB poked his head into the kitchen and, although my memory is a bit foggy of the interaction, I either bit his head off and stamped on his body or growled at him and laughed as he scampered away terrified. After almost tearing the kitchen apart, I finally found a recipe that began to appease the Beast: Brown Sugar and Toasted Hazelnut Scones. I tore into cooking it like a woman gone mad. I yanked out bowls and spatulas, flour and sugar, sieves and cinnamon. I grabbed the last egg, and decided we didn't need to have half and half for our coffee for the rest of the week. I mixed and stirred, kneaded and patted and finally got the scones in the oven. By the end of it, I could feel the savage Grumpy Beast begin to relax its hold on me.

I poured a cup of tea, and took a first bite of the scones, and the Beast receded. Ahhh...no more cheap, packaged food. No choosing a single vegetable, excluding others from a dish that desperately needs more than one, just to make them last. No need to make a meat dish meatless. No compromises on taste; just rich, luxurious food, full of flavor and not missing a thing. And so, until the next paycheck, or the next meal at least, the Grumpy Beast rested.

These scones aren’t low fat, but they have a light and airy texture instead of being heavy and dense. The hazelnut and brown sugar topping lends a nice crunch on top and added sweetness.

Brown Sugar and Toasted Hazelnut Scones.
Adapted from The Big Book of Breakfast, by Maryana Vollstedt
Makes 8 Scones.

2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
3 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
1/2 cup half and half

3 tbsp. packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
a dash of nutmeg
3 tbsp. toasted hazelnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 425oF. Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the cold butter and cut it into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. This can be done using 2 knives, a pastry cutter, or a food processor. In a separate bowl, whisk the half and half and egg together. Add the egg mixture to the flour/butter mixture and stir with a fork until just moistened.

Gather the dough into a ball and put on a lightly floured surface. Knead a few times, then pat into an 8” round, being careful not to work the dough too much. Cut into 8 triangular pieces, then place 2” apart on an un-greased baking sheet. Sprinkle with the topping, pressing it down slightly onto the surface of the scones. (Hazelnuts can be toasted whole in a 350oF oven until toasted. Skins can be removed by placing all of the nuts into a clean kitchen towel and rubbing gently between your hands before chopping.)

Bake 12-15 minutes or until golden.

I've been off on a much-needed trip home until this past Sunday. I will try to post more often as I'm planning on getting back in the kitchen in the very near future. Thank you all for coming by even though I've been mysteriously absent! I hope you've had a wonderful week and are all doing splendidly and cooking up a storm with all the late-Summer produce and Fall just around the corner.