Monthly Archives: February 2011

C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me…

For better or for worse, as she packs up and makes her way back to the U.S., The Experimental Gourmand is letting the younger of her two younger brothers write about one of his favorite food topics.  For the record, she also gifted him a box of Thin Mints again last year to refresh his cookie jar.

When my sister asked me to write about food, I briefly considered a variety of food topics.  However, like Sam Malone returning to his true love in the Cheers finale, I think she always knew this would lead to the topic of Cookies.  After all, I did have Cookie Monster cakes on two consecutive birthdays when I was little.  Plus, I invented the term “pre-ssert” to justify my consumption of a dessert before dinner in front of my [then] 4-year-old niece.
 
My most notorious cookie incident, however, involves Girl Scout Cookies.  See, I have four sisters which meant that my mom had to buy a lot of Girl Scout Cookies.  Each year she’d buy about a case of each kind of cookie and store them in the freezer (By the way, I’m not sure I had a store-bought cookie for the first ten years of my life).  Now as an 8-year-old whose bedroom was across from the room with that freezer how long do you think it took for me to start taking those cookies?
 
Of course I was a bright little boy, so I knew I couldn’t just throw the boxes in the trash.  Instead I just kept sticking the empty boxes under my bed. Eventually, of course, these were found and there was some explaining to do.  My excuse – I was collecting the boxes.  Apparently I was relying on the “I’m just a weird kid” defense.  Either that or I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought.
 
To this day, I still haven’t lived that one down.  Also, Girl Scout Cookies that aren’t frozen or don’t at least have that slight freezer flavor don’t quite taste right.  As a post script, when I got married my sisters gave me a cookie jar as a present (shaped like a pig – unnecessary!).  However, first they stuffed the jar with Thin Mints so that all other cookies would have the vague minty flavor once they were put in the jar.
As a little payback to The Experimental Gourmand, let me share with you one of my cookie tips that annoys her.  I contend most cookie recipes make the cookies too thick and they’re always hard the next day.  To counter that, cut back on the flour just a little bit.  For example, when you make the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, use only 2 1/8 cups of flour not the 2 1/4 cups it calls for.  Also, when the cookies are done on the edges, but look slightly undercooked in the center they’re ready to come out of the oven.  They’ll finish off on the cooling rack and they’ll be more chewy and buttery the next day.

Belgian Squares- Kiwi style

While The Experimental Gourmand is awaygazing at the snow-topped mountains of Andorra, one of her brothers hasoffered to talk about his adventures in cooking with his children.

Our ten-year-old daughter startedintermediate school this year, so she’s now doing home economics (sorry – ‘FoodTechnology’). On the first day, they made lemonade. The nice thing for me was thatI’ve made lemonade with the girls for years. It was the first thing we ‘cooked’together. At first, they would wash the lemons and mix the lemonade, while Idid everything else. As they got older, they learned to squeeze the lemonhalves and measure the sugar and water. Sometimes, I would put the lemonsqueezer on the floor, which made it easier for them to push down on the lemonhalves.
Now, Miss Ten can do it all herself,including cutting the lemons. She told me that she likes Food Technologybecause she gets to cook all by herself (does that mean we hover too much?).She also likes that she is starting a recipe book in class.
Miss Ten and Miss Eight are both getting moreinterested in cooking and baking. I made salt-water taffy last weekend and theyhelped. Miss Ten measured out the flavouring and colouring for me, and bothgirls helped pull the taffy once it was cool. It reminded me that, no matterwhat I’m cooking, there’s usually something they can do to help.
There’s a range of desserts in New Zealand,where we live, that are called ‘slices’. They are square like Americanbrownies, but the texture can be somewhat cakey or somewhat fudgey. They alsooften have icing (frosting). Some of the common ones are ginger crunch,peppermint slice, chocolate fudge, caramel slice, and lollie cake.
Miss Ten has learned to make Belgian (or Belgium) square,which is like cakey gingerbread with frosting. I helped Miss Eight make a batchfor their lunches this week. She did a lot of it herself – measuring theingredients and mixing it up. I made sure she followed the recipe and did thefinal stirring and baking. She also chose the colour for the icing.

 

Here’s the recipe, originally from grandmaand copied from my wife’s handwritten recipe book:
Belgian Square
4 oz butter
4 oz sugar
2 eggs
1 Tbspn golden syrup
1½ cups flour
1 tspn baking powder
2 tspns mixed spices
2 tspns cinnamon
Cream butter and sugar. Add egg and syrupand mix well. Add dry ingredients. Press into sponge roll tin (or 8” bakingtin). Bake approximately 20 minutes at 350 degrees F. Ice when cool (withbutter frosting – just on the top) and sprinkle with jelly crystals (that is,Jell-O powder from the packet – or use cake decorating sprinkles). Cut intosquares or fingers.

Miss Ten has made this several times withMum, doing a bit more each time. There are several standard operations involved(‘Cream butter and sugar’), so it’s good for learning about baking. Overall,the recipe is pretty forgiving. The hardest part is waiting for the cake tocool enough to ice it.

Ode to Lutefisk

The Experimental Gourmand has decided to run away to Italy for a few days. She’s turned the keys to the blog over to her brother-in-law to write about one of his own food history stories.
 
We are told that one of the best ways to understand a country or people is to eat the food that they eat.  I don’t know if you gain understanding, but it certainly is a way to get beyond the tourist experience.In the small towns and farm country of the upper Midwest, this means a Lutefisk Dinner.  
 
For those of you who don’t know, Lutefisk is a traditional cod dish from Scandinavia.  Back in the day, cod was used to keep the population fed, and Lutefisk was a method of preserving it.  (The filets are dried, then later reconstituted by soaking it in a lye mixture, and then in plain water to flush the lye – thus Lutefisk = lye fish.)  It was finally cooked by being boiled.

Nowadays, Lutefisk is an echo of the old days.  For the Scandinavians that settled in this region, it is seen as one of the last links to the old countries.  So, as the leaves fall from the trees, and the wind becomes raw, the Lutefisk Dinner becomes a staple of small town life leading up to Christmas.  It is often both fundraiser and social event.


In South Dakota, one of the larger dinners is served in the town of Summit.  Summit’s claim to fame is that it is located on the highest land in the Eastern half of South Dakota – a range of hills that is too windy and too rolling to be much good for farming.  Summit is small by anyone’s standards – only about 250 people call it home, although it swells to several times that size during the Lutefisk Dinner.
 
Back in 2002, my wife and I drove out to South Dakota to visit my grandparents, and when we arrived, my grandmother was beside herself with excitement about taking us to this meal.   So, we loaded up in the car at 5pm, hoping to get to Summit about 5:30, and then into the dinner shortly thereafter.  As we approached the town, I could begin to smell the fish.  By the time we parked the car two blocks from the community hall, the smell was almost overpowering.  Then we walked into the building, and it was like walking into a Lutefisk flavored sauna – the temperature and the odor became even more intense.

We stood in line to get our tickets and were assigned numbers 351-354, and were then instructed to sit until called.   We sat, just in time to hear numbers 185-192 being called.  These lucky souls eagerly hurried to a table, where they were promptly served.  In came the bowls and platters heaped with corn, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, lefse (another Scandinavian treat) and, of course, Lutefisk.  The diners tucked in as if it would be their last meal – soon calling for refills, especially on the fish.

Finally, two hours after arriving in Summit, our numbers were finally called.  We took our seats and got started.  It was probably the best “mass-produced” meal I’ve ever eaten.  The ham was smoky and salty, but still moist.  The potatoes and gravy obviously had plenty of butter and cream, and the corn was as sweet as though it had been picked the week before (although rumor was that it came from a can.)  


But the fish was the star of the show.  Summit serves fish the ‘Norwegian’ way, with melted butter, and the tray made its way steadily around the table.  Most of our co-diners were taking huge spoonfuls, saving about half their plate for it, and dousing it liberally with the drawn butter.  When the tray came to me, I took just enough fish to be polite.  The truth is that, despite my heritage and family tradition, I have never liked it. And yet this time, I began to understand the appeal.

Yes, it can be kind of disgusting to look at – translucent and gelatinous almost to the point of slimy – and the smell has been unfavorably compared to wallpaper glue.  But when done right, it can be tasty.  The truth is that the actual taste itself is very mild.  Cod, after all, is not a strongly flavored fish, and the preservation process takes even more out of it. For the first time, I really understood what my grandfather meant when he called it good fish, year after year.  It is good because it is an enduring tradition.  This meal was a reminder of every other Lutefisk Dinner – from big social gatherings like this to more intimate Christmas gatherings with the family.  It is a tradition that always speaks to goods times and celebrations of the things that really matter.

I’ve had Lutefisk several times before and since, but I’ve never had a meal that has helped me understand people more.  I don’t know that I will ever like it , but I do know that there is something about sitting down to a tradition that makes for an incomparable experience, and one that I am not ready to let go anytime soon.

Picking A Line

The Experimental Gourmand has decided to hang out in her old stomping grounds in West London for a few days.  Her youngest sister kindly offered to post her experiences about re-visiting a high-end restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia.  All photos and text are attributed to her.

I know most people believe that whatever line they get into will automatically become the longest one but it is actually very true with me.  And it is not only with lines at the store.  The seat I pick in the movie theater will be next to a ten-year-old who will repeat every line and then laugh. I was in a shop in Puerto Rico when fifteen drunk, obnoxious Brazilians came in, and, an hour later, I picked the same restaurant on the boardwalk twenty minutes away where they had also decided to grace the world with their obnoxiousness.  When these things happen, my boyfriend Kelly simply smiles, shakes his head and says, “it’s just like picking a line.” 

On Tuesday a couple of weeks ago, we decide to get dressed up and go out to a nice restaurant for the first time in our three-plus years of dating.  He let me pick and knowing how he does not like the French, I asked if it was okay to go to a French restaurant.  L’Auberge Chez Francois is one of my Mom’s favorite and when the economy was good, you could not get a reservation there even two weeks in advance.  I had not been in probably fifteen years so I wanted to try it and Kelly agreed to go in with an open mind.  

L’Auberge is situated on a windy road in Great Falls surrounded by large, beautiful houses.  The soft lighting and the rustic atmosphere make it seem like a cozy cabin getaway but with pampering and indoor toilets.  Upon our arrival, coats were taken, seats were pulled out,and a 15-page wine menu was set before us.  Although this restaurant is quite pricey, we figured for good food, it is worth it.  

Kelly is a fantastic cook and if he thinks he can make the dish better, the restaurant will not receive his praise. We started with a bottle of Pierre Sparr Gewurztrawiner, which was phenomenal, and some appetizers. The menu features Alsatian cuisine, which represents a mixture of both French and German dishes such as sauerkraut and sausages.  Kelly’s appetizer fish plate featured a good fish sauce for the smoked salmon and trout but the sauce overpowered the delicate rockfish.  The cabbage was good but the sauerkraut had too much vinegar which led to Kelly saying, “you can tell a Frenchman made the sauerkraut!”  

I was disappointed in my escargot because not only were the snails small, but the garlic butter did not taste like anything.  Both of us thought the lobster salads were average with the dressing doing little to complement the food. However, it was really the main courses that excited us.  The chef had agreed to a single portion of the chateaubriand for me, and Kelly, who is an avid hunter and likes to cook game meats, had ordered a game plate with boar, venison, buffalo,and quail.  

The previous week, Kelly had made a filet stuffed with goat cheese, tarragon, shallots, and garlic that was cooked perfectly, so the chateaubriand had some steep competition.  While the béarnaise sauce was creamy and rich, the meat was not amazingly tender, nor did it melt in my mouth like I had envisioned. Kelly very much liked the quail, but said the boar was dry and the venison and buffalo were so charcoaled and over-seasoned that you could not really tell the difference between the two meats.  

The soufflés were wonderful, if not a little large for the ending to a four-course meal and the half-bottle of Chateau L’Ecuyer, recommended by the sommelier, was fabulous.  The service was impeccable and the tables were far enough apart that we could mostly block out the loud gentleman behind us who talked for ten minutes about the intricacies of doing laundry.  While it was a nice meal, for half the price we could have gotten better ingredients and made a more fantastic meal.  

There is something to be said for not having to cook or clean up; however, at home, I could be in my pjs and watch episodes of The Daily Show. It was a long drive home, where, after so much heavy food, sweet wine, and windy roads, we were both a little ill. Was it “just like picking a line?”  I guess we will chalk this one up to a snobby “yes,” if nothing more than the food was not worth the price.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone!  Even if you, like me, are sweetheart-less this year, I hope that you find a way to share the day with the folks whom you love and care about and who love and care about you (or at least reach out to them on Facebook).

These gorgeous treats are a present that I’m bringing to a friend I’ll see next weekend.  They are from Sweet Loren’s, who won the Next BIG Small Brand competition.  Not only do they look good, but I can also personally attest as to how delicious they are.  Loren and her wares were at the Brooklyn Winery yesterday, so this was another great excuse to grab some last-minute holiday gifts (the other is that the New Amsterdam Market is still open for today).

Today is going to be my last real-time post for another couple of weeks.  For better or worse, I have given the keys to the blog to some of my nearest and dearest while I am out of town having some adventures and exploring some great new food things to share with everyone when I return.  My siblings (and in-laws) have very kindly offered to post some of their food-related stories.

This idea sort of came from one of my sisters (the one in this post).  She said isn’t it interesting how a group of us all raised in the same household, with more or less the same cultural and culinary influences (our parents) each have a different relationship and love of food.  Some of use really like to eat and cook and try new things, some of us are o.k. with that but not adventurous, and some are really meh about food in general.

We also all now live in different parts of the country and around the world so that adds to the variety of the experiences we brought with us when we relocated our lives and have collected based upon where we live right now.  For those who are married and have children, those experiences have changed even more.  I hope that you enjoy reading these stories.  Aside from cooking and eating, as those who know us personally can tell you, the other thing we all love to do the most when we get together as a family is to tell stories.

Buon appetito!

New Amsterdam Market Valentine’s Market & Apothecary

If you, like me, have been having withdrawal symptoms fromthe New Amsterdam Market’s weekly gatherings of this fall, visiting theirValentine’s Market & Apothecary was a bright ray of sunshine for this coldSaturday.  Held in theireducational space on Front Street, this was a perfect chance to pick up someunique artisan gifts for the special people (or person) in yourlife.
I had a chance to see some of my favorite food folksincluding the ice cream geniuses at The Bent Spoon.  Flavors are available for purchase as pints or you can get an instant fix in the form of a small cone (similar to the ones at the Ice Cream Festival this summer).  TheStrawberry-Chocolate had a deep, dark chocolate flavor paired with an intense ripe berry freshness that felt like biting into summertime fruit.  The gorgeous redcolor is completely in theme with the holiday.  The Bitter Chocolate (seen above) was rich and darkly seductive, perfectfor the chocoholic in your life. My favorite, however, was the Olive Oil.  Creamy and smooth with a bright yellow-green flavor and a slightlynutty finish.  Made with a Spanisholive oil, the texture of the ice cream shines a warm, flattering glow on the oil’s features.  This was really fantastic andwould make a great ending to that meal à deux that you are planning to prepare.
Next to them were Cyrilla and Warren at Nuts+Nuts.  I picked up a packet of their SpicyCashews (my favorites from the New Amsterdam Holiday Market) and the HoneySesame Cashews, which were going fast today.  I’m a huge fan of these cashews, which are smaller andmeatier than the ones that you typically find for sale.  Cyrilla is passionate about herproduct, which is sourced directly from farmers in her native Indonesia. Theywill be at New Amsterdam tomorrow, too, but they are also at another market at145 Front Street in Dumbo, if you can’t get downtown this weekend to see them.
Liddabit Sweet’s Liz Gutman was behind the table at theirstand today (Jen King was at the Brooklyn Flea).  In addition to their delectable candy bars and silken caramels, she had aselection of their Jellies in a box that contains Cassis, Guava, Meyer Lemon, and BloodOrange flavors.  There were also special gift boxes of gorgeous Salted CaramelBonbons sprinkled with gold dust. You could opt instead to give your sweetie one of their beautifulCinnamon Heart Lollipops whose coloring comes from beets, not artificialdye.  Both the Lollipops and theJellies are vegan.
I don’t think I’ve run into P&H Soda’s Anton Nocitosince the Hester Street / Grub Street Food Festival.  At that time, he had his handmade Concord Grape sodaavailable.  Sadly, that is now outof season, but I’ve been told it will return again when local grapes areavailable.  He’ll also be bringingback his quince, cherry, strawberry flavors during their peak times, as well.  For this weekend, he has several of hisclassic syrups like Lime, Ginger, Hibiscus, and Cream available for purchase,to be combined with fizzy water to make your favorite sodas.  You can also catch up with Anton at oneof the classes he gives at The Brooklyn Kitchen.
When I was very little, I remember that every holiday seasonwe received a box of citrus fruit from Florida.  My great-grandmother and great-great-aunt had moved to St.Petersburg, away from the harsh Midwestern winters, and I think my grandparentsarranged for us to get this from them as a present.  Seeing Cee Bee’s Citrus colorful display of grapefruit, tangelos,and tangerines, brought back for me the excitement and wonder of opening thatpackage of orange and yellow orbs. A family-run farm, one of the few left in Florida, they pick and packtheir fruit to order with it arriving at your home 4-5 days off of thetree.  I had a sample of theirMonarch Tangerines, which were originally grown solely by the King of Morocco, he liked them so much as to keep them for himself.  With one bite, I could tell why, luscious juiciness flowedover my tongue with just enough sweet aftertaste and none of the metalliccloying I sometimes find in the supermarket-purchased variety.  I’ve heard murmurings of a pairing up between P&H Soda and Cee Bee’s Citrus so soda lovers be on the lookout for somethingspecial to happen.
Wild Food Gatherers had a display of black walnuts along withtheir tinctures and ginseng products. They had honey and ginseng combinations in male and female versions,which I understand are supposed to be taken alternately for best effect.  The tinctures are designed based upondifferent ailments.  I was evenshown a sample of what the different sexes of the wild ginseng look like, whichwas an interesting botany lesson on a lazy Saturday.  The wild ginseng for these wares are hand-foraged in thewild.
Next to that table were the delicious and gorgeous chocolatebars (photo left) from the Mast Brothers.  Myfriend had picked up a bar to tide her over while I walked around themarket.  I didn’t try any samplesfrom them today, except at the next stand I visited, Shandaken Bake, where Ipicked up a huge chocolate chunk cookie (photo right) that had Mast Brothers Dominicanchocolate embedded within it.  Iabsolutely loved the combination of the decadent, sultry chocolate chunksjutting out from the cookie that had slivers of chocolate dancing around thedough.  The cookie itself had theperfect combination of a crisp outer ring, with that burnt butter finish Ienjoy along with a chewy center. This is going to be one of those market finds I go back for again andagain.
In the non-food variety, there were these beautiful cardsfrom Robert Wagner.  I saw severalfolks buying these to have them personalized by Deborah Delaney in her gorgeous, scrolling calligraphy.  A gift ofone of these would be a Valentine’s Day gift to cherish in a keepsake album.
After the market winds down, however, it could be time toput your feet up and relax with a cuppa. With names like “Chill Out” and “Snowy Day” who could resist a bag ofherbal tea from Terra Cura Botanicals? The 100% organic ingredients are either grown by the owners themselves(about 30%) or sourced from small farmers and are naturally non-caffeinated.  They also sell a line of traditionalteas, which they source from China. I smelled the Jasmine Green Tea (one of their most popular), which had awonderful, deep, rich perfume to it.
Lore and Yewande Komolafe shared the table closest to thedoor today.  The former is a smallshop that is being incubated by this market.  There wereseveral pieces of cookware that caught my eye.  I’d have to figure outwhere on earth to put them in my tiny kitchen at this point, so I had to hold off on buying anything today. The latter vendor had the most beautiful-looking thumbprintcookies.  Buttery shortbread on theoutside with homemade jam dotting the center in either blood orange or Meyerlemon flavors.  I picked up asquare of moist, rich Basbousa, which is a semolina cake with honey, almonds,and orange.  The perfume of thecitrus syrup filled my mouth with warm happy feelings, taking the chill off ofthe day.
Midway through my market tour today, I ran into RobertLaValva, the Director of the New Amsterdam Market.  He shared with me how happy he was to see the turnout.  At that point, it was literallybumper-to-bumper people all checking out the different treats for sale andpicking up goodies for either themselves or their loved ones.  Doing something off-season in thisspace was a bit of a test for them to see how it would work.  As he said, he is “thinking about thevendors who support the market,” and “wants to have a good market forthem.”  If the traffic flow todaywas any indication, it was a great success.  I know of at least one vendor who was on the verge ofselling out of everything they’d brought for the day.  This is probably my favorite market in the city, so I, too,was glad to see how popular it was.
The New Amsterdam Market Valentine’s Market & Apothecary is open Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, February 12-14, 2011, which means youhave a couple of more days to check out all the wonderful things that are downthere.  For a complete list of theactivities taking place, visit their website.  The best way to find out about the activities and scheduleof the New Amsterdam Market is to get on their email list, where they alsohighlight the vendors who are participating on market days.
Buon appetito!