Inspiration from a Butterfly

I was recently tagged for a meme by Paz, a cooking novice like myself (but growing by leaps and bounds) from the other coast and author of the fabulous New York City blog, The Cooking Adventures of Chef Paz. The meme is The Butterfly Effect Meme, and to avoid any kitchen poxes that may come forth from not participating in a timely manner, here it is!

The Butterfly Effect Meme asks you to name food items or events that changed your foodie life. Specifically you are asked to recall “an item, person, event, or place” that affected you profoundly – something that created a moment you can look back at and say “that was a defining moment.” It doesn’t have to be “big, splashy” things. Instead, it can be something “small and simple” – something that changed the way you view the world.

These are the categories:
1. An ingredient
2. A dish, a recipe
3. A meal (in a restaurant, a home, or elsewhere)
4. A cookbook or other written work
5. A food “personality” (chef, writer, etc.)
6. Another person in your life

An ingredient:
A single ingredient that has changed my life? Now, that's tough. Not to deviate from the meme (does that qualify me for a pox too?!), but I don't think that I could name just one...I think just as the experiences of eating different foods in certain places or certain things were what stood out to me when trying to name "5 things to eat before you die" for that meme, I think that there has not been so much a single ingredient that has launched the foodie inside as the taste of quality ingredients...like farmer's market vegetables, soft and tender vanilla beans, spicy tellicherry peppercorns, fragrant freshly ground spices, and varieties of things like spices and chocolates from different countries that taste of the different environments they came from. I love this simply because it's like exploring the world through food the way that it should be, and it makes the experience of eating that much more of an adventure and far more fulfilling because sometimes there's no need to cook elaborate meals or dishes because you want to be able to taste each ingredient. This has also moved me away from just using all convenient foods as now I've learned to make several things from scratch...and I must say, they taste far better when I know I've "labored" over them (compare whipped cream to cool whip, for example, or homemade bread), and beyond that, I rather enjoy the labor! Quality ingredients and my love of food and cooking have also helped me stock my pantry over the last couple of years so that I always have most of what I need for recipes I want to try, which has made cooking easy and more affordable month by month.

A dish, a recipe:
Two words: Chicken stock. I had never made my own chicken stock before I started reading blogs and letting myself fall in love with food and cooking. Now I make it often, especially this time of year when it's cold and rainy outside and my body craves comfort foods. I save chicken carcasses, or when I can afford it, buy whole chickens just for stock. Once it has simmered away on the stove for hours scenting the house with its delicious fragrance, cooled and been skimmed free of fat, then I freeze it in aliquots (that's the scientist in me - I mean "portions"), and use it often. Now, I have even done it so many times that I don't have to get out books or recipes to make it (those of you who have been reading here for a while know the weight of that remark!). I love just throwing things together in the morning and waiting patiently for the fruits of my labor. Plus, it's inspired me to try other things that I would have bought at the store but now can make at home - like marshmallows!

A meal:
I've already written about this in the last meme I wrote: my birthday meal in Puerto Vallarta, where LB and I threw caution, and money (yikes!), to the wind and shared an extravagant and incredible meal at a cliffside restaurant. We tasted an exquisite fois gras, just how it should be served - thanks to our French waitor (go figure, eh?) - with Sauternes. We sipped cocktails and wine and the restaurant even ended up giving us a free dessert because they could tell how excited we were and how we purposefully taking our time to enjoy every course and learn as we went. It was worth every penny (we split the cost) and every moment of that evening with my LB was the perfect birthday present. Second to this meal would have to be my solitary breakfast of sustainable caviar in the Ferry Street Building in San Francisco, California, written about here. Both meals were presented beautifully, made of excellent ingredients and eaten mindfully - the experience, the food, and my surroundings were all important in making them memorable...and increasing my desire to have more of them!

A cookbook or other written work:
When LB and I first met, he didn't cook much. Not that he didn't enjoy cooking, nor have a few good recipes up his sleeve (mmm...his mom's apple pie), but he and our current roommate lived together like the bachelor's they were. Did I ever mention that my roomie eats mostly microwaveable meals? :) But LB liked making meals for me, and complained that he didn't have recipes - his cookbooks were limited and didn't contain recipes for simple things, like just plain, hearty, delicious pork roast, for instance. So we went on a mission - we went to our favorite bookstore here, Smith Family Bookstore, scoured the shelves for cookbooks and found The Joy of Cooking, and it's been a member of our own little family of cookbooks ever since...and we both use it so often and have loved it so well that it's become lovingly tattered and spotted with various cooking experiments over the years. I love it! You can find recipes for almost anything in there - even cactus paddles, which LB brought home (with an enormously cute smile) one day and we had to figure out what to do with them, and it's become a trusted friend whenever I have a cooking question.

A food personality:
I'd have to say here that Alice Waters is probably the one food personality that I admire most. I love her philosophy on food, on eating, on restaurants, and on how children should learn about food (Edible Schoolyard). She promotes fresh, organic food, small farmers, Slow eating, and so many other things and programs that I believe in and full-heartedly support when it comes to food. Her cookbooks also have amazingly delcious recipes (well, the one I have anyway - Chez Panisse Vegetables).

Another person in your life:
I'd like to have come up with this one first, but full credit goes to Paz: other food bloggers. I knew I liked to cook and enjoyed food, but from the first day when I discovered food blogs out here in cyberspace, you've been here with me, dear readers...encouraging me, supporting me, giving me hints and tips about things I'm cooking. You come by, leave your comments to brighten my day, and inspire me to no end with all of the amazing food that you post about on your own sites. I love learning about each of you and from you - your cooking, your histories, your cultures and experiences. You're really the people that have changed my cooking, watched it grow and helped me to become a better cook in general (from novice to amateur perhaps?!)...and I keep posting here because of you. In addition, many of you have become my friends, and I will always be thankful and grateful to have each you in my life.

A butterfly lights beside us, like a sunbeam...
and for a brief moment it's glory
and beauty belong to our world...
but then it flies on again, and although
we wish it could have stayed,
we are so thankful to have seen it at all.

Author Unknown

Now it's your turn - this meme has been going on a while, so I'm not sure who has done it or who hasn't. If you haven't participated yet, please do!

For now, I'm going to tag: (only if you have time, of course)
Vickie, of The Moveable Feast Food Blog
Nerissa, of Deetsa's Diningroom
Anna, of Sunday Night Dinners
and Natalia, of From Our Kitchen


You say to-MA-toe, I say to-MAY-toe; you said ugly, I say beautiful!

Some of you may remember my ramblings about the so-called "Ugly tomato" (pictured above) where I psuedo-scientifically taste-tested a tomato grown in Florida in the wintertime, the Uglyripe, that supposedly actually tasted like summer tomato. If you've been reading my site for any length of time, you've probably noticed my fondness for the red fruit; quite unlike my Eugene partner in food love, McAuliflower. Well, my tastebuds didn't particularily agree that the Uglyripe tomato tasted like a tomato in the summertime (although I was hoping that would be true...oh why can't that be true?), but I was particularly perturbed by the name they gave the decent-looking specimen of a tomato - Uglyripe. To me, this implies that the perfectly round, cardboard-tasting hockey pucks that you can get in the grocery store in the wintertime (oh, but let's not kid ourselves that summertime grocery store tomatoes are that much better) are what a "pretty" tomato looks like. I beg to differ! This is what a tomato looks like:

Knobby, mishappen, and definitely with some of those brown lines on the bottom on some of the most tasty of specimens! Sometimes big, bursting at the seems, with what I suppose to an untrained eye could be misconstrued as "blemishes." But, just as the ugly duckling turned into a swan with the passage of time, I think the Uglyripe, while not really tasting much like a tomato (although, bad scientist that I am, I could not bring myself to repeat the experiment to verify my results), sure as heck looks a bit more like a tomato that what you find in the grocery store! There is just nothing out there that tastes like a tomato picked from the vine; whether it be from a farmer's market, a friend's garden, or lucky you if you have your own vines in the garden. So, now as prime tomato season comes to an end and the last of these gorgeous little things are still bursting with sun and vine-ripened flavor, I thought I would just send a long a picture or two of what a real tomato looks like to pay homage to the noble tomato and in an effort to encourage all of you to not miss this last opportunity to enjoy the delicious taste of last summer and early Autumn before winter comes along and leaves us with only hockey pucks and Uglyripes once again.

Gorgeous, aren't they? Take a bow, little beauties, it's your time to shine!

One suggestion: This has become a favorite breakfast of LB and mine this summer - a toasted piece of hearty, whole grain bread (we love Cottage Grove Farmhouse Bakery's Dakota Bread), spread with a layer of cream cheese and topped with a few slices of ripe, red tomato. As always, the quality of the ingredients will turn this from something that is an okay combination of flavors into a stellar treat - but with the right tomato, it's pure heaven (I would eat this every morning, if LB would let me!).


"12 Pies Men Like Best" and Other Treasures

Just recently, I was able to sit down with my grandmother and sort through all of her recipes and cookbooks because she is no longer able to spend much time in the kitchen and my grandfather has become the primary cook in the house. There were certainly many treasures to be found. The first of the treasures she gave me was a book called "12 Pies Men Like Best," which I find just hilarious. How June Cleaver-ish! It was some kind of advertisement from Proctor and Gamble in 1931. The front of the little pamphlet shows a woman in an apron holding out a pie to a smartly dressed man. Like I want to make pies that men like because men like them! Ha! I want to make pies because I like them (although, um, uh, I guess I do try to make stuff that LB likes...)!

The next treasure was the cookbook pictured above; this one belonged to my grandmother's mother, my great-grandmother. I have no idea how old it is because unfortunately, the cover is missing, but it looks to be quite old, worn and well-used. I've tried finding the title on the web to figure out its publication date to no avail (there are cookbooks with this same name published in the 1800s all the way to the 1930s). But since it belonged to my grandmother's mother, and my great grandmother died when my grandma was young, it has to at least be at least as old as the 1930s. It's so amazing though: It's a compilation of recipes from home cooks around the U.S. and there are recipes for such dishes as rabbit pie, chow chow, watermelon ice cream, "luscious cake," and sour pickles. You can also note that the instructions are far less detailed than they are today, making me think that women, since they spent so much time in the home those days, had much more knowledge than I do about how to do things (like "make a pie crust that is delicately baked," and dress and joint a chicken "as usual") so that there didn't need to be much instruction in the recipe for them to follow. It's just amazing to look through! I'm definitely going to try some of these recipes when I get around to it...now, if I can only figure out how to dress and joint a chicken...

But lately, the one thing I've been treasuring most of all, was my great-grandmother's recipe for Date Nut Loaf Cake. I've decided that just as she passed it on to me, I will pass it on to you, because it's delcious! It's called a cake, but it's more like banana or zucchini bread...it's rich and dense, with a very distinct caramel flavor to it - especially in the end pieces (my favorite). It's also a wonderfully refreshing contrast to the usual banana or zucchini bread. At first I thought that perhaps I had written things down wrong because there were no spices in the ingredient list - but no, it has so much flavor to it that there's no need (although, I may try adding some cardamom or perhaps a little cinnamon next time, just to see what it ends up like). The recipe is also done a little differently than I normally would do things; for instance, creaming the butter and sugar and eggs together (I usually would do sugar and butter together, then do eggs one at a time), but this works too, so I've just written it as she did. Another note: the humidity of where you live will make a big difference in the texture of the loaf. I made this in Oregon exactly as written and it came out beautifully - I made it in Colorado and it came out crumbly and didn't hold together well, so you may need to fiddle with the amount of liquid if that happens to you.

Great-Grandma's Date Nut Loaf Cake, recipe courtesy of my grandmother

1 cup butter or trans-fat free shortening (the original calls for shortening)
2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup hot water
1 lb. nuts (pecans in her recipe, although I used a mixture of pecans and walnuts)
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
2 1/2 cup flour
1 lb. pitted dates, chopped
1 tsp. baking powder

Chop the dates and put them in a bowl. Sprinkle them with baking soda and add hot water. Mix, then let stand until cool. Cream together butter, sugar and eggs, then mix together flour, baking powder, salt and nuts in a separate bowl. Beat together the butter mixture with the flour mixture and date mixture, alternating between them and ending on the dates. Bake 1 hour at 300 F.

This is best made in a cast iron skillet, supposedly. If you don't have one (like I don't), it will make two standard-sized loaf pans of the bread (I'm not sure of the size of the cast iron skillet she used either). Be sure and grease them, and line the bottom with either a sized piece of brown paper grocery bag (grandma's way) or parchment paper (my way). Important: No matter which container you're cooking in, about 15 minutes into baking, you'll want to put tin foil around the edges to prevent them from burning...this gives it that nice caramelized crust. Enjoy!


Back to the bench...and to the kitchen!

Whew...take a breath.
Look around.


Notice what's happening around you.

Now...wait a sec. What are all of these fall colors and half-naked deciduous trees doing flaunting their stuff already? What is this cold chill in the air that makes me don sweatshirts and socks while lounging about my house in the evenings? How can the houses around me be decked out with Halloween decorations this early? What is this talk of Thanksgiving turkeys and dinner plans? How is it that my mom is already suggesting buying tickets home for Christmas?

This summer, with all of its trials and tribulations, experiences and obligations, literally flew by and passed me over. Somehow, I let my last summer in Oregon just slip by, unnoticed...I didn't stretch my toes in the sand on the beautifully gray Oregon beaches, star- and moon-gaze the long nights away, or spend luxurious moments spilling over tide pools or mountain streams. I spent only a single evening in the arms of LB cuddling next to a campfire (complete with an army of mosquitos), and I can count the number of hikes spent with my dogs on a single hand. I've only posted on this blog 7 times in the last two months. I haven't made a single advancement towards the planning of my wedding in the last month and a half, and I can't think of anything I did the entire month of September!

How did this happen? Is this the pace of life that the last year of graduate school takes on? Is it the pace of life that I've let my life become? Or have I just forgotten to "stop and smell the roses" in the midst of everything going on? I'm teaching now, so yes, my schedule has become far busier than before if that's possible. I'm still cooking; at times it's my only solace from the hustle-bustle of the rest of my world, but I find myself scarfing the meals I make - sometime even beating LB to the bottom of the bowl before he's halfway done, then scrambling to the kitchen to wash my dish and start my classroom "homework" (and LB is not a slow eater!). LB and I just returned from my sister's wedding (and some much needed rest) in Colorado to find that our surroundings have completely changed in the mere 7 days that we were gone...it's already deep into the Fall season. Some small part of me knew it had arrived before I left, but there's no denying it now. But with the chill in the air, the few rainy days we've had, and all of that snow I saw in the mountains from the plane...Winter is swiftly on its way.

I refuse to just sit back and let my very last Fall (for the next several years!) slip by me the way that I allowed Summer to do. So, now that I've recovered from the wedding (especially that bachelorette party! And I did make a very *cute* cake for that occasion!), it's back to the lab bench, back to teaching, and back to the kitchen. Luckily, our friends had bumper crops of zucchini and squash this summer, so we still have several in the fridge. Perhaps you do to? Once you've made steamed and grilled zucchini a hundred times, zucchini and squash ribbons about fifty times and so many loaves of zucchini bread you can't imagine eating any more of the stuff, you can try this recipe: Zucchini Pancakes with Basil Creme Fraiche. They're much lighter and "fluffier" than you would think. We found them quite refreshing, especially as an appetizer to a hearty Fall meal, or to accompany a bowl of minestrone soup.

You can find the original recipe here.

Zucchini Panckes with Basil Creme Fraiche, adapted from epicurious.com
Makes about 7 pancakes, but can be easily doubled.

For basil creme fraiche:
3/4 cup creme fraiche
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

For pancakes:
4 cups coarsely grated zucchini (1 lb)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 large egg whites
4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

Blend creme fraiche, basil, and salt in a blender until smooth and pale green. Chill until ready to serve. If you want a thicker sauce, you can strain the creme fraiche first on a paper towel or cheese cloth over a strainer for 20 minutes before adding the other ingredients.

Put zucchini in a colander and toss with salt. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes, then wrap zucchini in a kitchen towel and twist towel to wring out as much liquid as possible. Transfer zucchini to a large bowl and stir in flour, sugar, and pepper. Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt using an electric mixer until they just hold stiff peaks, then gently fold into zucchini mixture.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches of 5, spoon 2 tablespoons batter per pancake into skillet, flattening slightly with back of spoon. Cook pancakes, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes total, transferring as cooked to paper towels to drain and adding more oil to skillet as necessary.

Serve immediately, with basil creme fraiche.