Thursday, November 15, 2012

'Tis the season of peppermint! (3)

I feel out of practice at this.

It's been a long time, as you know, since I've sat down at the computer with the sole goal of updating you on a recipe that I want to share. But on this rapidly-becoming-cloudy afternoon, with my sleeping sick daughter upstairs, I decided that I would attack a post. Only to discover that even the format of Blogger has changed since my last post! (I dislike change.)

It's weird though, because in a way I haven't stopped blogging. I use my recipe index regularly and I refer people to it sometimes. Though I (obviously) haven't been writing them down when I think of them, turns of phrase that I like, and that I want to share, appear in my head with some frequency (R wrote about this feeling before she closed up shop some months ago). And often when I'm cooking, whether it's something new or something old, I think about whether it would be a good recipe to share on this space.

Last week, in preparation for a lovely weekend away with friends in northern Sonoma County, I made, by special request, these peppermint marshmallows. We enjoyed them with hot cocoa one night, after a day that involved visiting an amazing bakery (also immortalized here) for provisions for a picnic at the picturesque winery where S's brother works. The girls had a great time together all weekend.

As a side note, E is obsessed with her rainboots. Who wouldn't be? H tried them on herself several times during the weekend. (It remains to be seen whether her parents will capitulate.)

On a weekend where we spent a lot of time eating and drinking (and planning our eating and drinking), it seems wrong to focus in on only one recipe. Be that as it may, I present to you one of my new standard winter recipes. You can probably guess that it includes peppermint (and chocolate). I first read about it on a blog that inspires me a while ago, but I very much disagree with her assertion that this candy is good for sending cross-country as a gift. To me, this peppermint bark should be stored in the refrigerator, and really only eaten directly from there. If not, the crisply cut triangles pretty quickly become a melty mess. Also, I think there's something refreshing about icy peppermint candy served icy cold. (Short trips in the car from one refrigerator to another are also acceptable.)

We had easy access to the bark in the fridge all weekend, and we all agreed that it was delicious—whether at 10am, after dinner, with coffee, as an appetizer before dinner. There wasn't much left to take home.

Do you see that pretty, glistening peppermint topping? My first, and best, improvement to this recipe is to outsource the peppermint to King Arthur. Their peppermint crunch (which seems to have changed packaging this season) is so easy to use and lasts so well. My days of loudly smashing candies with a heavy jar and chasing errant peppermint bits across the kitchen counter are, thankfully, over. Yours can be too.

My second improvement to the recipe is to can the candy thermometer. There is no reason that you need a candy thermometer for melting chocolate, especially if you aren't going to temper the chocolate. [Calms down. Steps off of high horse.]

The weather is getting colder. Candy-making season is getting closer. Even now, a delicious peppermint treat could be waiting for you in your fridge, tempting you, allowing you too to conduct a controlled experiment about which time of day it tastes best. Enjoy!

Peppermint Bark

Makes: around 36 candies
Time: 30 minutes active, 1 hour 20 min total

16 oz. white chocolate
1/2 c. peppermint crunch
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate
6 T. cream
3/4 t. peppermint extract

Turn a large rimmed baking sheet over, and cover the bottom securely with foil. Mark out a 9 x 12 inch rectangle.

Melt the white chocolate in a metal bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, or in a double boiler. Once melted, evenly spread approximately half of the white chocolate onto the marked-out rectangle with a spatula (silicone or icing spatula work well). Sprinkle 1/4 c. peppermint crunch evenly over the white chocolate. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the bittersweet chocolate and cream in a separate pot until evenly mixed. Add the peppermint extract and cool for 5 minutes. Then spread evenly over the white chocolate/peppermint mixture. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Melt the white chocolate again. Spread evenly over the chocolate and sprinkle remaining peppermint crunch evenly. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Cut the candy into triangles (or other shapes if desired). First, cut off misshapen edges with a long, sharp knife to form clean lines. Then cut into 2 inch wide strips both horizontally and vertically, and cut each rectangle crosswise into two triangles. Candy keeps, in a sealed container in the fridge, for 1-2 weeks.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What I do now

I never thought it would be a year. I did think it might be a while before I came back here regularly, but really, I didn't think it would be this long. I read somewhere that you're not supposed to apologize to your readers on your blog if you haven't posted in a long time because that will make them think that you have a far more interesting life outside the blog.

But it's been a very long time, so here I am apologizing nonetheless. And admitting (shocking!) that I have an interesting life outside this space.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year. A new home, a new job (oh this endless medical training I've signed up for), and a new addition. Baby H was born last October. She's adorable, but even though she looks like she's ready for the kitchen (thanks to my brother E and S), she's not super-helpful (yet).

She crawls and pulls up and is very active. She has an internal magnet that steers her to anything and everything that she's not supposed to touch (outlets, the hearth, paper, the remote control, and I could certainly go on). I must watch her like a hawk, which makes cooking somewhat challenging. With great frequency, she makes me feel like a bad housekeeper. She finds lint and cat hair and cat toys on the floor; she picks them up with her perfect pincer grasp and deposits them into her mouth. I wish her pincer grasp were as reliable with actual food, but this 25th-percentile-weight baby of mine goes in fits and starts in terms of eating.

She's still enjoying purees, but I know that will end soon. Once we wean her from the bottle in the next few months, I fear for her nutrition. Though they are healthy and nutritious and excellent at lowering cholesterol, Cheerios cannot be one's only sustenance. Oh, darling baby H: "You really wear me out, but I love you anyway." Also, you are too young to worry about your cholesterol.

Purees aside, I cook grown-up food too. I do think about food writing, even composing bits of future blog entries in my head when my mind wanders. (Robin described this excellently here.) Before baby H arrived, I had all sorts of mistaken ideas about the work I was going to get done on maternity leave. Besides planning to finish a research paper that is still far from finished, I wanted to write here. Even though I was cooking regularly, somehow I wasn't able to make that next leap to writing. And then it became downright paralyzing: what sort of recipe should I post when it had been so long? After having a very delicious recipe mentioned by a real food blogger, what could I make to match up to that? Should it be a "wow" recipe like Suzanne Goin's halibut with roasted beets on a bed of arugula (page 366)? Should it be my modification of a truly fantastic standby? Should it be something simple but elegant, the sort of daily evening meal that I strive for around here?

As it turns out, my foray back into blogging falls into none of those categories. Instead, since dinner is already made (new recipe—we'll see) and baby H is asleep (along with B, as these nighttime wakenings are exhausting for all), I took some lovely strawberries from our local farmers' market and dipped them in chocolate.

They're not fancy, nor difficult, nor baby-appropriate, but they are dead-easy and delicious (and somewhat retro). As always, I recommend paying close attention to your ingredients. Use only the best strawberries and the best chocolate for the best results. Remember that there's nothing more disappointing than inferior chocolate marring a delicious strawberry. I find the best strawberries are not the ones picked with long stems and designed for dipping; they are often watery and tasteless, suffering from what a friend calls "big berry syndrome." Also, I think there's something perfectly imperfect about the variety of sizes of berries in a typical pint from the farmers' market.

It's been years since I've dipped strawberries, but I'm not really sure why it's been so long. I'm also not really sure why I thought of dipping them today. But I did. And I wrote about it. The paralysis is over. I hope the radio silence isn't as long in the future. In the meantime, enjoy.

Chocolate-dipped Strawberries

Serves: 4
Time: 15 min active, 2 hours 15 min total for chilling

1 pint strawberries
4-5 oz good quality chocolate (I like Scharffenberger 62%)

First, rinse the strawberries. Allow them to dry completely on a towel before proceeding, at least 30 minutes, or the chocolate will not stick.

Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Coarsely chop the chocolate, and melt (my preferred method is in the microwave on power level 3 or 4 for two to three minutes). Holding the stem end of each berry, roll the red flesh in the chocolate evenly, allowing the excess chocolate to drip off. Carefully place each dipped berry on the wax paper. Repeat. (You can of course choose other fruit to dip also; banana is an obvious choice.)

Chill for at least two hours, or up to twelve. They can be served immediately after being taken out of the fridge, but I prefer to let them warm up for five minutes so that the chocolate doesn't crack with your first bite.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Last weekend, B and I went up to Sonoma for a day of eating and fruit-gathering. It ended up being a sunny day in San Francisco that we missed out on, but it was even sunnier and warmer up there. First, we stopped at a great fruit and vegetable stand in Petaluma, and bought some beautiful figs. Then we drove up to the tiny hamlet of Freestone, and stopped to have some fresh, warm fougasse bread and a picnic in the lovely garden adjoining the Wild Flour bakery.

About a mile down the road from the bakery, we stopped again, this time for some blackberry-picking along a particularly fruitful stretch of the Bohemian Highway. Our final stop was at my grandfather's house in Sonoma proper, where we were given some fresh prune plums from his prolific tree to take home.

As you might be able to predict, I've since made three batches of jam (one blackberry and two plum). Fig ice cream was clearly on the agenda too. I also made this fantastic plum galette, which I modified last year with apricots.

The real reason I'm writing this post, though, is to encourage you to find and take advantage of fresh blackberries to make this blackberry frozen yogurt. It is exceptionally delicious and fresh-tasting! However, because it is so easy and relies so heavily on high-quality berries, the recipe fails with store-bought blackberries. So whether you go picking or farmer's-market-ing, make sure you find very ripe, very dark, very sweet berries. And make this frozen yogurt. You won't regret it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Adventures in Canada

B and I went on a vacation to Alberta last month. I hadn't been to Canada since I went on a family trip to Niagara Falls twenty years ago, but I already can't wait to go back! We explored both east and west from Calgary, and the glaciers and lakes and mountains and waterfalls and wildlife are like nothing I've ever seen.

Did I mention that the wildlife was awesome?

This is a hawk we saw flying not-that-high above in southern Alberta at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The name of this UNESCO site pretty much says it all: the Native Americans used to drive buffalo across the plains until they stampeded to their death over this 30-meter cliff. The meat and hides from the dead buffalo lasted the tribespeople through the winter. We ate some buffalo burgers on the trip, but I'm pretty sure they were prepared in a more humane fashion.

On more than one occasion, we had picnic lunches with scenic vistas. Towards the end of our trip, we picked a nice rock overlooking Medicine Lake, near Jasper. (Apparently I can't escape medicine, even on vacation; though I am quite thankful that I haven't yet had a medical emergency develop in a fellow passenger while on an airplane.)

Another highlight, among the many lakes we saw, was Lake Louise, about thirty miles north of Banff. We particularly enjoyed our hike from the waterfront up to the teahouse at Lake Agnes.

People keep asking if this trip was a "babymoon." I guess it was, since it was presumably our last big trip with just the two of us. However, we were also joined by a real, live baby (A, and her parents B&K) for the Banff portion of the trip. She was incredibly interested in practicing her walking, as she prepared to become a toddler instead of a baby.

We stayed in a condo for the Banff part of the trip, which was equipped with a small kitchen. We mostly used the refrigerator and sink, but I had also packed a bag of white powder, a.k.a. a pre-made baking mix to have one morning as a breakfast treat. Unlike on our trip to Wyoming with J and other B, my baggage was not inspected by a suspicious TSA employee, so I thought I was home-free by the time the scone mix arrived in Banff.

After all, making the mix ahead of time was the hard part (and it wasn't even hard). The instructions I'd written on the Ziploc were very easy to follow: "Cut in 1.5 sticks butter, mix in dried cherries, add 1 cup water, and bake at 375 for 20 to 25 minutes." I pre-heated the oven (quite pleased that the dial was in Fahrenheit and not Celsius), found a makeshift baking sheet in the tiny kitchen, formed the scones, and popped them into the oven.

Not five minutes later, the acrid smell of smoke and burning scone filled the loft apartment. Reader, my plans for a home-cooked breakfast on vacation were thwarted by a broken oven dial! After much fiddling of the temperature dial, I learned that although it had tick marks for a normal range of temperatures, functionally it seemed to have but two settings: broil, and off.

B opened the sliding doors to allow for some ventilation, but of course this situation occurred on the coldest day of our trip (and it was cold, even for someone used to summer in San Francisco, with a high that day of around 40). We couldn't keep the condo doors open for too long!

I valiantly attempted to make a second batch of scones with the remaining batter, keeping the oven door propped open to let out some of the searing heat. This batch turned out marginally better, taking a whole ten minutes to cook instead of the aforementioned five (but much less than the typical twenty). B&K, not having had the scones before, thought they tasted good, but B and I knew better, so we picked off the edible top parts from the overcooked bottoms.

I promised K that I would give her the recipe, so here it is. It's pretty self-explanatory, but I would caution her (and you) to be careful of strange ovens. I like scones a lot (we had these ones yesterday with a fresh batch of blackberry jam), and I particularly like Cheese Board scones (like these cheese ones that B loves so much). The corn-cherry scones I made in Banff are also derived from the Cheese Board cookbook, but as with the cheese ones, I've significantly decreased the amount of butter from the original recipe.

When I made the scones again at home, after the trip, I didn't take a picture of the lightly-browned (i.e., not blackened) bottoms, but here's a picture of what the tops should look like. Enjoy!

Corn Cherry Scones

Makes: 12 scones
Time: 15 minutes active, 45 min total

2 c. unbleached flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 c. sugar, divided
1 1/2 c. cornmeal
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 c.) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-in. cubes
8-oz. package dried sweet cherries, about 1 1/2 c. (I use the Bing cherries from Trader Joe's)
1 c. buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 375. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda and powder, salt, 3/4 c. sugar, and cornmeal. Using a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingers, cut in the unsalted butter until it is the consistency of large breadcrumbs. Mix in the cherries. Add the buttermilk, mixing until just combined.

Form dough into balls about 2 1/2-in. in diameter, and place on baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with remaining 1/4 c. sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until tops are golden (and bottoms are not blackened). Cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

(If making a scone mix for travel, mix together the dry ingredients as above, but also add 4 T. powdered buttermilk. When reconstituting the mix, add 1 c. water in place of fresh buttermilk.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"I am delicious"

A few weeks ago, B and I went to DC for a long weekend. Though both of us have visited the capital and environs for various conferences, it had been years since either of us had been there as tourists. His obligatory school trip across the country from California was in eighth grade, and mine in sixth.

My school trip, unlike B's, was cut brutally short by the development of that nasty, highly contagious rash known as chickenpox. It was not a coincidence that the pox had been going around the entire school that May, and my own little brother had gotten it just ten days before we left. About halfway through the trip (we'd already seen Monticello and Mt. Vernon, but had just arrived in DC itself), I saw a few herald spots, felt the beginning of the itch (oh, that miserable itch), and knew the jig was up. I was sent home early. The title of my subsequent scrapbook was "Spotlight on Washington, DC."

On this trip, B and I visited some monuments that we hadn't seen in twenty years.

The Washington monument by night was very impressive, but B and I most enjoyed the ghostly Korean War memorial with the larger-than-life soldiers trekking through the night (the pictures didn't turn out very well, or I would share them with you). The entire memorial wasn't even there the last time either of us visited the Mall! Another landmark we saw on our trip certainly was there twenty years ago, but, not surprisingly, wasn't pointed out to us by our teachers.

Yes, there it is. That's the infamous Watergate complex! We saw it from a boat cruise we took down the Potomac from Georgetown to Alexandria.

The real purpose of our trip, however, was to visit family (my brother—the very same one who gave me chickenpox—and his girlfriend) and friends. In addition to sight-seeing, we ate at lots of great restaurants, cooked in E&T's beautiful kitchen (just one room of their beautiful house in their beautiful neighborhood), watched some French Open tennis, and, because the hot weather had just arrived for the summer, appreciated the air-conditioning.

One time when we were cooking, or discussing cooking, the subject of tamarind came up. It turns out that both my brother and my friend E have had major difficulty locating tamarind paste in this large, multicultural, cosmopolitan city in which they live. It's not even available at their Whole Foods. And, as anyone who has cooked with tamarind before knows, the paste is a huge shortcut. Tamarind is also available in its original seed pods at some Asian markets, or in blocks made from the innards of the seed pods. However, in order to be usable, the blocks must be softened in hot water, and then laboriously pressed through a strainer to separate the fibrous waste from the delicious, tangy, dark-brown tamarind juice. It's a real pain.

All the discussion about tamarind made me excited to return home, where tamarind paste is easily available, so that I could make one of my favorite recipes. I bought three tubs of paste at an Asian market in the Richmond: one for me, one for E&T, and one for my brother. I didn't mail them until a few days ago, though, so that's why I couldn't post earlier in the month and thereby torture them with a recipe that would make them salivate.

B loves this recipe. One time he went through my Gourmets until he found this one, and affixed a sticky note onto the cover: "I am delicious." Each component is delicious on its own, but what makes the recipe special is how well they all work together. The Thai-inspired tamarind shrimp top an avocado and cilantro base that represents the best of California cuisine. The shrimp and avocado are in turn served over rice, and finished with sauteed shallots. Everything combines to make a dish worthy of company—if you're willing to share it, that is.

Though some of the reviewers on Epicurious despise the brown color of the tamarind sauce, I think one of the best parts of the dish is how colorful it is, from the white rice to the green avocado to the pink shrimp. The very best part, of course, is the taste, and the tang of tamarind paste is a major contributor.

Now that E and my brother have tamarind paste on the way, they're all set to make this recipe, since that's really the only non-standard grocery ingredient. The dish is perfect for summer, and writing about it makes me wish it were on the menu for this coming week. I think you'll like it too. Enjoy!

Tamarind Shrimp with Avocado
Adapted from Gourmet, April 2005

Serves: 4, generously
Time: 35 minutes active and total

2 large avocados, peeled, pitted, and chopped into 1 inch dice
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
juice from two limes, divided
2 T. tamarind paste
1 T. soy sauce
1 T. fish sauce
1 t. sugar
3-4 T. vegetable oil
3 shallots, sliced crosswise and separated into rings
2 cloves garlic, minced or smashed
1 inch ginger, peeled and minced
1 serrano chile, seeded if desired and minced
1 1/2 lb. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined (I use the 31-40/pound frozen shrimp from Costco)
cooked Jasmine rice (I use 1 1/2 c. uncooked rice)
1/4 c. peanuts, toasted and chopped (optional)

First, mix together the avocado, cilantro, and juice from one lime in a small bowl; set aside. In another small bowl, mix together the juice from the remaining lime, tamarind, soy and fish sauces, and sugar; set aside.

In a medium-sized saute pan, heat 3 T. vegetable oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the shallots, and saute until lightly browned. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fried shallots from the pan and drain on a paper towel (I usually lightly salt them).

Using the same saute pan, add the garlic, ginger, and chile (adding another tablespoon of vegetable oil if necessary). Stir for 30 seconds, or until fragrant, and then add the shrimp, tossing frequently for two minutes until evenly pink. Add the tamarind sauce, and cook for another two minutes, until shrimp are just cooked through.

Place 3/4 c. cooked rice on a plate, then top with avocado mixture, shrimp and tamarind sauce, and fried shallots (and peanuts if using). Serve immediately.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Summer is here

This is going to be a short post, without a recipe. I do have a recipe that I want to share with you in the next few days, but I want to tell you about something else today. It's still edible, so I think it belongs in this blog.

Perhaps the best part of summer (besides the grilling and the sunshine, neither of which we have in abundance in our apartment in San Francisco) is the fresh fruit. The strawberries have been phenomenal for weeks at this point. Yesterday, B and I just got our first delivery from our new CSA (straight to our doorstep!), with beautiful peaches and blueberries and melon. And don't get me started on the cherries; I love the cherries.

And today I got another delivery: an egg carton by overnight mail. An egg carton filled with the first apricots from my parents' trees, that is!

Aren't they beautiful? The egg carton is the perfect size to hold these little gems. I've told you before how much I love apricots. How could I not? The apricot-adoration has been generationally ingrained into me, after all.

There are many ways to prepare apricots (jam, ice cream, pie, to name but a few), but these specimens will be sliced, pitted, and eaten fresh. I'll eat most of them, but B will do his fair share as well. We can't wait.

Thanks, Mom!

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Last week, B and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary. And, for the third year in a row, we had a special dinner at Chez Panisse. I think I might say this every year, but I really believe that this was the best dinner we've had there. It was as though all of my springtime favorites were combined in one delicious meal! (Also, the company was very nice.)

Can you read the menu? I'll tell you about the most delicious parts, which were the beginning and the end. We started with a fritto misto of artichokes and asparagus. Wow. Just wow. Who knew that Alice and her chefs knew how to fry so well? The spicy arugula salad and the aioli on the plate cut any heaviness from the fried vegetables. Everything in the middle was delicious too, but we ended with a tartlet filled with strawberry-rhubarb ice cream, and topped with a truly lovely meringue. The "Happy Anniversary" banner you see in the picture adorned our dessert plates. Needless to say, not a speck of food was left on our plates at the end of each course.

Our three years of marriage are only part of the seven years that B and I have been together, and we know each other pretty darn well by now. There was a time when we didn't, however hard that is for us to imagine now. B did not entirely understand my devotion to the culinary arts when we met (though, for the record, I was not nearly as good a cook back then). As I've probably told you before, he described me as being "from scratch" in the kitchen. When we met, I was in medical school, living in an apartment on my own. B, on the other hand, was living and working as a consultant in San Diego, but technically working out of his company's office in San Francisco. This state of affairs meant that he had a per diem allowance, and ate out three meals a day! I preferred (and still prefer, when feasible) to cook three meals a day.

So, one morning when B and I did not know each other very well, I was casting about in the kitchen trying to find something to make for breakfast. I came across some blueberries in the freezer, and asked B how he would feel about having blueberry muffins for breakfast. He agreed that they sounded good. And then, after looking around the kitchen a little more, I reneged on the offer. Why?

We had no lemons to make lemon zest!

Lemon zest is a critical part of the following blueberry muffin recipe. Let's just say that in those few crucial minutes that morning long ago, B had fallen in love with the idea of blueberry muffins for breakfast, and did not entirely understand how lemon zest could be so crucial to their success. And, because B didn't know me very well, he wanted me to still make the muffins without the lemon zest. This did not happen. Though I don't remember what we ended up having to eat that morning, it was NOT blueberry muffins.

I guess I also don't entirely understand why the lemon zest is essential (other than that blueberries and lemons pair beautifully together), but it is. The lemon zest and sugar mixture that tops each muffin becomes a crunchy-sweet component to each bite. The muffins are studded with berries, ensuring fruit in every mouthful. As I alluded to, frozen blueberries work just as well as fresh. There is no need to defrost; however, you must be very careful to mix only as much as needed to fold the frozen berries in, because otherwise you'll end up with batter of an unappetizing gray shade.

Since there's only a half-stick of butter for 12 muffins, I feel no compunction about having mine with a pat on top of each slice, but health-conscious B prefers them plain.

I told B I was going to write about the lemon zest story, and he laughed. I've worked my kitchen magic over the years, and now he understands how important the lemon zest is. Hopefully you'll understand too. Here's to many more zest-filled years together! Enjoy.

Blueberry Muffins
From the Sacramento Bee sometime in the 1970s

Makes: 12 muffins
Time: 15 minutes active, 45 minutes total

zest of 1 lemon
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 egg
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)

Preheat the oven to 375, and line 12 muffins cups with muffin liners. In a small bowl, mix together the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. In a medium bowl, mix together the remaining sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, combine egg, milk, and melted butter. With several quick motions, mix wet ingredients into dry. Fold in blueberries. Drop batter into muffin cups. Sprinkle tops evenly with lemon sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve warm.