Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Spot of Tea

I spent the most glorious afternoon yesterday, relaxing. How about that? How often does the chance to just "do nothing" come along? Not too often, I'm afraid. Sure, there were chores and errands I could be doing, but really? On a beautiful, sunny Saturday? Really? I don't think so.

Even though I'm fighting a cold, I forced myself to do a little shopping (always good for what ails ya). Picked up a few books for the adorable little girl that I tutor to help with her summer reading, and purchased a wonderful new book for moi. I think you might find this book rather enjoyable, too. It's titled "Tea & Crumpets," by Margaret Johnson (see Amazon listing to the right). It's a most leisurely stroll through the history, recipes, and rituals of European tearooms and cafes. As I sat on the deck, pool glistening in the sun, iPod tuned to Buddy & Julie Miller's hauntingly beautiful "Written in Chalk," and a large, icy Arnold Palmer (the drink, not the man) standing by, I paged through this book, mentally checking the many fine English and Scottish tearooms I somehow must get to visit in this lifetime.

I totally lost myself in the delicious prose of the author as she described afternoon tea at the Ritz or Claridge's in London. Did you know there was a difference between afternoon tea and high tea? The former began as a small, elegant meal served between a light lunch and late dinner (normally between 3-5pm); and it was mainly a practice of the aristocracy, who enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle. The latter, quite conversely, is a more substantial meal, often including sausages or meat pies, really an early dinner more suited to the middle and lower classes after a long day at work.

Also interesting to know that a proper afternoon tea has three distinct courses -- the first being sandwiches and savories (don't you love that word, savories?), next, crumpets and scones, and finally, sweets. The book has many wonderful sounding recipes for all these courses - my favorites being the second and third courses. Just listen to some of these: Apricot-Walnut Loaf, Raisin-Apple Scones, Banana Bread with Apricot Glaze, Pistachio-Lemon-Vanilla Shortbread, Extreme Biscuit Brownie, Chocolate-Orange Tea Cake, Chocolate and Banana Charlottes, Madeleines, Pierre Herme's Macarons, and last but not least, Chocolate-Hazelnut Pots de Creme. You know, many of these items will turn up in future CT postings!

The author includes a Traveler's Guide to European Tearooms, which will come in very handy for my next jaunt across the pond! Of course, England, Scotland, and Ireland are listed, but believe it or not, the French also have a very rich tea culture. In fact, when I was in Paris several years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Mariage Freres, the famous tearoom founded in 1854 (the oldest in France). It did not disappoint. A beautiful room and an incredible selection of teas, savories, and pastries. A future fantasy trip would surely include afternoon tea at Claridge's, a visit to Twining's Tea Shop (supplier of tea to the royal households since 1837), tea at The Clarence Hotel in Dublin (owned by Bono and The Edge), hopping over to Edinburgh to enjoy an afternoon at the Balmoral Hotel, and finally one or two nights aboard The Royal Scotsman, which journeys through the Scottish countryside, serving an elegant afternoon tea shortly after guests board the train. Oh, what an exquisite few days this would be!

So, my culinary friends, if you find yourself one day soon with a few hours to spend idly, mentally transport yourself to another age and "indulge in the British tradition where a fondness for tea and a penchant for sweets come together most agreeably."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Simply Lovely

The time of year is here when all I want to do is get outside! The weather is starting to turn nice - beautiful blue sky, temps in the high 70s. And to top it off, a three-day holiday weekend - what could be better?!

Well, for starters, take all of the above, add one icy cocktail of your choosing, one handful of some delicious cocktail almonds, and you've got yourself the makings of one glorious day (or evening) out on the deck, porch, yard, etc.

My current favorite drink of choice is Vodka-Cranberry Lemonade (so refreshing!), and it could not be easier. I've just recently discovered "Simply Lemonade," this from the people who bring us "Simply Orange," and probably other "simply" drinks. The lemonade is not too sweet and mixes very nicely with Skyy vodka and a splash of cranberry. I'm sure some hip bartender somewhere has conjured up a cool name for this concoction, but my "simple" name will do.

Ah, now for the all-important cocktail nuts. I found this recipe on Epicurious (actually, on the very handy Epicurious app for iPhone/iPod Touch). Only five ingredients and made on top of the stove. You can whip these up in 5 minutes. They are just the ticket for a little spicy-salty snack to accompany your libation. Have a fabulous holiday weekend!

Chile-Roasted Almonds

3 TB peanut or canola oil
1-1/2 t dried crushed red pepper
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1 pound whole natural almonds with skin (about 3 cups)
coarse Kosher salt

Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add crushed red pepper and black pepper and stir to distribute evenly in skillet. Add almonds and stir to coat with oil-pepper mixture. Cook until almonds begin to darken slightly and mixture is fragrant, stirring frequently about 8 minutes. Transfer mixture to rimmed baking sheet; sprinkle generously with coarse salt. Cool completely. DO AHEAD: nuts can be made 2 days ahead. Store in airtight container at room temp.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Credit Munch"

n. - Recession-induced comfort eating.

From the U.K. Daily Express (May 11, 2009): "Stressed-out Britons have piled on 20 million stone in a year trying to "comfort eat" their way through the recession, according to [a] report out today. The condition - dubbed the credit munch - has seen three in five Britons put on weight in the past 12 months."

I don't know about you, but I don't really need the current economic crisis to force me into eating my favorite comfort foods. But, then again, I'm not a stress eater. I'm a stress baker. And I find I'm doing ALOT of baking lately (thank you, bankers and mortgage brokers of America). So to try and offset the frequency of baking, I am baking low-fat items (notice I didn't say low-taste items - I can't deal with that). Last week, if you recall, I made that delicious low-fat Banana Oatmeal Bread. Today, I baked some very tasty, low-fat, Carrot-Raisin Muffins. These are from the WebMD Magazine. They are only 130 calories and have less than 4 grams of fat, and with the carrots, raisins, and yogurt, you get a nice helping of vitamin A and iron. The recipe is below - try them when you need a credit-munch!

Carrot-Raisin Muffins

2 C all-purpose flour
1/2 C sugar
2 t baking soda
1 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground nutmeg
1/4 t salt
1/2 C fat-free yogurt
1/4 C canola oil
1/4 C 1% low-fat milk
1 t vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 C shredded carrots
1/2 C raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the muffin cup liners in muffin cups. Set aside.

Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, spices, and salt in large below; stir to mix. In a separate bowl, combine yogurt, oil, milk, vanilla, and eggs, and whisk to combine. Add liquid ingredients to flour mixture, and gently stir just until combined (do not over-mix). Lightly stir in carrots and raisins.

Spoon batter into muffin cups and bake for 20-25 minutes. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick that comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack. Makes 18 servings (serving size: 1 muffin).

BTW: this recipe makes regular size muffins, not the giant style that you might find in retail shops.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Virtual Dine-Around

Greetings, Culinary Friends.

I've got so much to write about today I just don't know where to begin! This will sort of be like those old-fashioned "dine-arounds," but rather than restaurants, we'll do quick stops at a few different topics. How does that sound?

First up: Friday night, we went "down neck" with some friends. Now, for those of you not from north Jersey (and not familiar with local slang), "down neck" refers to the Ironbound section of Newark. This section was once populated mostly by Italian immigrants (including some of my ancestors), but in the early 70s, a large influx of Portuguese arrived. With their arrival, came small restaurants focusing on fresh seafood and traditional Portuguese food. I haven't been to this section of Newark (let alone almost any part of Newark other than the airport) in about 25 years. So it was good to see the Ironbound alive with restaurants and activity on a pleasant spring evening.

We ate at Seabra's Marisqueira. I felt like I left the US and was indeed in Portugal. From the beautiful sea-blue tiles that cover the walls, to the wonderful Portuguese bread, to the waiters serving us, it was an authentic experience. It was recommended that we try their house specialty, Pork with Clams (photo above). I've never had clams as sweet. All around, a delicious evening. BTW: I have no idea what "down neck" means. If anyone knows, please write in!

Next stop on our dine-around: Low-Fat Oatmeal Banana Bread. Tooling around the various blogs that I read, I happened upon this terrific recipe from Joy the Baker. I actually wasn't planning to bake anything Sunday night, but when I read this recipe (see below) I quickly remembered that I had three very ripe bananas sitting on my counter. And, it looked easy (remember my rule?). De-lish!

Next: so much for low-fat. Today, my friend Melissa brought me a surprise bag from her excellent Mother's day brunch adventure to Brooklyn. Melissa took her mother and grandmother to Sweet Melissa Patisserie. Melissa (the bakery one) is the award-winning author and baker. Melissa (my friend) shares my love of sweets and brought me an incredible, to-die-for, little bag of Chocolate-Orange Macaroons. If you live anywhere near Brooklyn, and have a penchant for fine baked goods, you must visit Sweet Melissa.

Rounding out our trip are two stories from the May 18th issue of Time Magazine. The first is a terrific article by the always amusing Joel Stein as he reviews a new book about eating locally and America's culinary heritage - a virtual Americana dine-around.

The second article has nothing to do with food, but you should read it anyway. It's titled "Do-It-Yourself Heroes," written by Nancy Gibbs, probably one of the most gifted writers out there. In this piece, Gibbs eloquently tells us that in "tough times, the virtues that inspire us are old-fashioned, unglamorous and hiding in plain sight." Among others, she calls out Captain Richard Phillips, Susan Boyle (she of Britain's Got Talent recent fame), and Barack Obama. Ordinary heroes doing the extraordinary.

I hope you enjoyed our little tour. Come back next week to see where our travels take us.

Low Fat Oatmeal Banana Bread (Joy the Baker)

adapted from the Weight Watchers site

makes 1 loaf of 10 slices, 4 points per slice

- 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar

- 1/2 tsp salt

- 1/2 tsp baking soda

- 1/4 tsp baking powder

- 1/2 tsp cinnamon

- 3 tsp canola or walnut oil

- 1 large egg, beaten

- 2 medium egg whites, beaten

- 3 large bananas, ripe

- 1 cup uncooked old fashioned oats

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a loaf pan and set aside. In a large bowl, stir together dry ingredients including the oats and cinnamon.

In a smaller bowl, mash bananas with a potato masher or fork. Add oil and whole egg and mix thoroughly.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix well. Batter will be fairly thick.

In a medium sized bowl, with an electric hand mixer, beat the egg whites until medium stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter in three additions.

Pour batter into pan and bake until top of loaf is firm to touch, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes. Flip out and cool on a wire rack for another 10 minutes. Slice loaf into 10 equally sized slices.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Wild Mushroom Agnolotti

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "she can't be serious." Is she really going to post about a mass-produced, grocery store pasta? Yes I am. Even foodies need something quick but delicious during the week. Read on, MacDuff.

Through the good people at Foodbuzz, I received a surprise package in the mail last week. When I opened it, there was a sample of a new product line (Riserva) from Buitoni (you read that correctly) - Wild Mushroom Agnolotti.

Now, my first inclination was to dismiss this as not worth my time. But after reading the ingredients (portabello and crimini mushrooms - I know these are not wild, but apparently the Buitoni people don't, cream, bread crumbs, Grana Padano cheese, and Madeira wine, to name a few), I thought, "hey, why not take this out for a spin." It is not beneath me to use store-bought pasta, especially on a Tuesday night after a very full day!

Well, I must tell you, they were excellent. Toss with a little EVOO, sprinkle with some freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano (the King of Italian cheeses!), add a salad, and you've got dinner. My husband actually said incredulously, "these are Buitoni?" They were that good.

So if I were you, and if you are so inclined, I would hightail it over to the Buitoni web site and download a coupon. Then think about these the next time you want dinner fast and easy but don't want to sacrifice taste. Mangia bene!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

My Cookie Jag

Will it ever be Spring in New Jersey? Yeah, sure, we had 90 degree temps about a week ago, but I'm in that "what have you done for me lately?" mode. It was gray, rainy, and chilly today and the forecast is for more of the same for the rest of the week. What's a girl to do? I guess I'll just have to bake!

I go through baking phases, whereby I kind of get in a baking rut. I'll make different items but they are all in the same family of baked goods -- like coffee cakes, or cobblers (in the summer), or mini-cupcakes. Right now, I'm in the cookie phase. I think that's because I'm trying to maintain some sort of fitness regimen and eating one cookie seems much more acceptable than, say, a slice of Coffee Coffee Cake (that is not a typo). Speaking of that Coffee Coffee Cake, I really must make that sometime soon (when I get onto my coffee cake jag) - it is so good. The recipe was in the January 1991 issue of Gourmet and it is one of my tried-and-true, all-time favorites. When Phyllis and I owned I Love Cheesecake, it was a standard on our menu.

Back to the cookies. If you recall, the last post highlighted the wonderful Pain d'amande cookies from Flo Braker and David Leibovitz. These were so good that my husband requested them again. But I needed to try something new so today I also made Toasted Coconut Shortbread, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen (adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2004). You may think this sounds like alot of work - two different cookies in one day - but remember, people, I'm all about easy baking. And both of these recipes are so effortless they could have originated in The Big Easy.

These shortbread are just the ticket when you get that baking itch, but have a million other things on your weekend to-do list. First of all, you toast the coconut which gives your whole house this fabulous coconutty smell; then once the dough is together, you chill it for at least 1 hour (which gives you time for those other chores). You can come back to it anytime within two days. See no pressure, which is the last thing you need on the weekend. From there on in, it's easy-peasy. Roll, slice, bake. Repeat.

These cookies have a wonderfully, rich, buttery flavor. And the coconut taste is just enough. I know some of you don't like coconut texture, but after the coconut is toasted, you grind it up so you don't really get that mouth-feel that coconut-haters hate.

I just noticed how the word "eat" is part of "repeat." You see where I'm going with this, right? Eat. Repeat. Eat. Repeat. Well, they are small...

Toasted Coconut ShortbreadAdapted from Bon Appetit, April 2004 (from Smitten Kitchen)

1/2 cup (about 1.5 ounces) unsweetened shredded coconut* 

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature** 

1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar 

3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt 

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 325°F. Spread coconut on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until coconut is light golden, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Cool completely, then grind in a coffee grinder, food processor or blender until coarsely ground.

Using electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in large bowl until well blended. Mix in salt and vanilla. Beat in flour in 2 additions. Stir in toasted coconut. Gather dough together, flatten into a disc and wrap in plastic. Chill at least 1 hour. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Keep chilled. Soften slightly at room temperature before rolling out.)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll out 1 dough disk on lightly floured work surface to scant 1/4-inch thickness. Using 1 3/4- to 2-inch-diameter cookie cutters, cut dough into rounds. Transfer cookies to prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. Gather dough scraps and reroll; cut out additional cookies. Repeat procedure with remaining dough disk until all of dough is used.

Bake cookies until light golden, about 20 minutes. Cool on baking sheets 10 minutes. Transfer cookies to racks and cool completely. (Can be made ahead. Store airtight at room temperature up to 1 week.)

* I couldn’t find unsweetened, so I used sweetened and dialed back the sugar by 2 tablespoons. 
** If you’re looking for an excuse to splurge on the good butter, shortbread is it. You will absolutely appreciate the extra flavor as it shows up in this cookie.