Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aromatherapy: Vanilla Goodies for the Holidays

Just a couple of days ago, I divulged that the holiday spirit was seemingly sparse around my household. But that's not entirely the case. I've actually been planning for Christmas over many weeks, creating some special homemade goodies to give as gifts with my friend and Fare to Remember cookbook co-author, Carolyn. We wanted to have a fun, unique, homemade gift that would be consistent with the Fare to Remember ideal: good eats, great friends, fun memories.

Our gift of choice this year? Homemade vanilla extract.

Making it is ridiculously easy. You need only basic ingredients (alcohol and fresh vanilla beans) and lots of time. So early in November, we started three different batches, simply splitting the vanilla beans open, scraping the flavorful and aromatic paste plus the pods straight into our 1.5 liter jugs of alcohol (so ghetto!), and setting the jugs in the pantry for the vanilla to go to town. The vanilla does all the work - it infuses the alcohol slowly but surely, and soon enough, we wound up with three big jugs of pure vanilla extract - perfect for baking (nothing artificial, as opposed to commercially available imitation vanilla or vanilla flavoring), or ideal for vanilla-flavored cocktails. Our three batches were done with various sorts of alcohol and different varieties of vanilla beans (vodka with Madagascar vanilla; rum with Tahitian vanilla; tequila with Mexican vanilla), giving each one a unique flavor profile. Much like coffee beans or wine grapes, a vanilla bean's flavor and aroma is unique to the area in which it's grown (yes - vanilla beans have terroir!). At the same time, we started a ten-pound batch of vanilla sugar by placing Indonesian vanilla beans in cane sugar to infuse it with flavor. The whole kit and caboodle became a gift set of vanilla goodness for some of our foodie friends.

But that's not all. It wouldn't be a Fare to Remember gift if there weren't a celebratory gathering involved. So we threw ourselves a vanilla bottling party, and invited friends to come and help package up their own presents. The caveat: each person had to bring a homemade holiday appetizer or dessert to share. Voila! A true Fare to Remember function.

The party's spread was nothing short of amazing - savory treats like crab cakes and salmon spread; sweet treats like gingerbread and pecan tart. The adult beverages were flowing, and Carolyn had her house festively decorated to the nines. Add the cued-up Christmas music in the background, and it was nothing short of merry and bright. (I contributed some deceptively addictive stuffed mushrooms to the table; recipe included here.)

As for the vanilla extract bottling line, we had a veritable Santa's workshop all set up. Bottles festooned with ribbon and labeled with their respective vanilla variety; tins for the vanilla sugar; packaging complete with a handy vanilla fact-filled pamphlet (did you know that vanilla is the world's second most expensive spice after saffron?), and satin bows for that finishing touch. Everybody went down the line and packaged up their own gift, and I think everyone really enjoyed it.

So thank you to Carolyn for teaming up with me on such a fun project, and thank you to all of our friends who came to celebrate the season with us. I see a tradition in the making… what do you think?

Here's a couple of tips for making your own vanilla extract:
  • Use one fresh, plump vanilla bean per every pint of alcohol
  • Let stand for a minimum of six weeks in order for the flavors to infuse. The longer the better.
  • I highly recommend beanilla.com for purchasing vanilla beans. Their prices are fantastic and the quality of their product is outstanding.
  • When baking with homemade vanilla extract, use about 1/2 of what is called for in the recipe (this stuff is strong!)

I'm Stuffed: Seriously Addicting Stuffed Mushrooms

I contributed these stuffed shrooms to the appetizer bonanza at the recent Fare to Remember holiday soiree. They turned out to be a pretty big hit, so I promised I would share the recipe here. They might look pretty harmless, but I found that I couldn't stop popping them in my mouth. I think I walked away after about a dozen. Baker's dozen, that is! :)

Stuffed Mushrooms
  • 2 dozen large mushroom caps, stems removed and chopped
  • 4 mild Italian-style chicken sausages, casings removed
  • 1 cup cooked wild rice
  • 1/4 cup fresh sage, chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine the chopped stems of the mushrooms with all other ingredients; combine into a meatloaf consistency. Place a heaping tablespoon of the mixture into each mushroom cap, forming a mound. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until sausage is cooked through. Garnish with a dab of Dijon mustard and chive spear.

Speaking of Wild Rice… Winter Wild Rice Salad

This is a dish that I brought to our family's Thanksgiving gathering. There was so much food that day, I think it understandably got lost in the shuffle. I didn't even have a bite (not when there's mashed potatoes to be had!). But I haven't forgotten about it! Since that day I've made it a couple of times because I find it warm and hearty and satisfying on a Winter's night, and its simple enough to whip up after work. Enjoy!

Wild Rice Salad
  • 1 cups wild rice
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 2 scallions, chopped (including greens)
  • The juice of one fresh-squeezed orange
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
Cook the wild rice according to package directions. If using a rice cooker, use a ratio of 1 part rice to 3 parts water. Once the rice is finished cooking, transfer to a mixing bowl and fluff it up with a fork. Let cool a it before adding the cranberries, pecans, and green onions. Once combined, add the orange juice and olive oil; toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Can be served warm, chilled, or room temperature (I personally like it warm - seems very hearty and perfect for winter that way).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Please Pass the Blog: Remembering Molly

Contributed by by Joanne Ritter

All I have to say about this guest post is that yep, this is what Fare to Remember is all about. The memories we have surrounding food sustain us perhaps as much as the calories; the connections and relationships built in the kitchen or at the table are some of the most enduring. I never knew Molly, but am honored to pass along her legacy in true Fare to Remember fashion. Thank you for sharing Joanne. -Mo

When my mom died last week, my sister and I decided the best way to commemorate her spirit was to bake some of her favorite cookie recipes. Frankly, I was surprised at how cathartic and appropriate this was. As we baked, we were flooded with memories of the vivacious, creative and talented person she had been, and we appreciated the richness of our lives together. The later years of dementia were pushed into the background where they belonged. Yes, this is how we want to remember our mom.

Molly grew up on a farm in Upstate New York, one of eight children in a first-generation Italian family. They had a pastry business, and homemade breads and pasta, cakes decorated with sugar roses, pasties, canolies and other specialties were a matter of course. She loved to experiment and was always coming up with new creations. I hope you’ll make some of Molly’s recipes a part of your heritage this Christmas.

You can honor the late, great cooks in your family by starting a new Christmas tradition of baking together with your siblings. The smells and tastes of your childhood will make memories come alive. And you’ll be giving your children and grandchildren a priceless gift by letting them listen in to the stories of your family’s history.

Molly’s Italian Chocolate Cookies
(Makes 4 dozen)

Sift together:
  • 3 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/8 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Take a tablespoon-full and roll mixture into small balls. Place on ungreased pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Chocolate Frosting
Will coat a DOUBLE recipe of Italian Chocolate cookies.
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup of oil
  • 2 16-ounce boxes of powdered sugar
Mix cocoa with sugar and add the water. Place in deep pan and bring to a bubbly boil. Let cool. Add oil, blending well. Add powdered sugar. Place pan in a larger pan of hot water to keep frosting warm. If the frosting is too thick, add some of the following mixture until you get a good consistency (air temperature and humidity will affect the glaze):
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa
  • 1/2 cup water
Place several cookies in the frosting. Spoon them out on to waxed paper until frosting hardens into a shiny glaze.

Molly’s Macaroon Surprise Cookies
Makes approximately 3 dozen

Pasti Dough
  • 11 tablespoons sugar
  • 10 tablespoons shortening
Beat together in a separate bowl:
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 5 tablespoons wine (white dry vermouth)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
Blend both mixtures together.

In a separate bowl mix together:
  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
Blend both mixtures together. Knead dough until smooth (flour your hands to keep dough from sticking).

Coconut Filling
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup sugar gradually and beat until stiff.
Stir in:
  • 2 cups coconut
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 tablespoons flour
Mix well.

Take a spoonful of pasti dough and roll into a small ball. Flatten with your palms and place a half spoon of coconut filling into the center. Fold the dough around the filling and roll between your palms gently. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.

Molly’s Chocolate Cherry Bars

  • 2 eggs
Add and mix by hand:
  • 1 box chocolate cake mix
  • 1 can cherry pie filling
  • 1 teaspoon almond flavoring
Spread into greased and floured 9x13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until center springs back to the touch.

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 tablespoons margarine
  • 1/3 cup milk
Bring to boil and boil for one minute. Remove from heat and add one 6-ounce bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Spread on bars while warm.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do!

There is not a single solitary Christmas decoration up at my house. No tree, no wreath, no twinkling lights. Brightly wrapped presents? Not a one to be found. But before you are sad for me and think me a grinch, a little explanation: Ran would say that he and I are making a concerted effort to SIMPLIFY (spending lots of time together, downsizing the gift list, giving presents hand made with love as opposed to "stuff" we just go out and buy) - and he would be right. But my reason? I leave for a 15-day trip to Southeast Asia on the 26th. I have Laos on the brain. Christmas, for the first time ever, has become secondary.

Randall is being a good sport about it; after all - we don't have kids, we're sharing Christmas Eve at Martha Stewart's decked out halls (that would be our friend Carolyn), and quite frankly, all the decor is so buried in the garage that the thought of unearthing it AND packing/planning/organizing for my trip AND cooking up goodies for a Christmas morning brunch AND finishing up any last minute internet shopping.... nope. Not gonna happen this year. I give myself total credit for getting a short list of holiday cards in the mail - I wasn't sure that was even going to happen.

But, thanks to the above-mentioned Carolyn who gave us the kit, Ran and I did enjoy an afternoon of holiday merriment this weekend by decorating a gingerbread house. We sat around the kitchen table - tubes of frosting and candy splayed about - laughing, decorating and sneaking in little bites of the gingerbread man's limbs. It's no masterpiece, but we had such a fun time doing it together. It was a sweet little date. And all the credit for the powdered sugar snow goes to Ran. Aw.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Nutty Tradition

This time of year, do you have visions of sugarplums dancing in your head, or is it just me? For the majority of my life, the holidays have always teemed with visions of sugarplums dancing - literally. As in Sugar Plum fairy. I've done the math. It's safe to say that of the 39 Christmas seasons under my belt, damn near 35 of them have been spent in the company of The Nutcracker. The holidays of my youth/young adulthood were spent performing in the time-honored ballet; and now, in my more recent non-dancing years, I've either been backstage in some capacity or in the audience. To say that I've seen The Nutcracker hundreds of times is not an exaggeration; to say that I know the ballet like the back of my hand is not an understatement. Like it or not, The Nutcracker is synonymous with Christmas for me.

Until a week or so ago however, I actually had no plans to attend The Nutcracker this year. For some inexplicable reason, the ballet just wasn't on my radar screen. Enter stage left, my friend Kathryn. Kathryn and I had served on the Board of Trustees for Marin Ballet together for many years (she's still a trustee), and she invited me to be her guest to The Nutcracker performance. And it wasn't to be just any performance - this year, Marin Ballet premiered its brand new, revamped Nutcracker with all-new choreography by the esteemed Julia Adam. In the works for three years, I was eager to see the culmination of such a huge undertaking.

So there I was, Nutcracker bound yet again.

And that's all well and good, but just what, exactly, does The Nutcracker have to do with Fare to Remember? This is a food blog, right? Well let me tell you: Ms. Adams has reinvented Marin Ballet's Nutcracker to be a mouth-watering spectacle wherein FOOD plays a central role. True - if you're familiar with the story of The Nutcracker ballet, there has always been tidbits of deliciousness (Madam Ginger, the aforementioned Sugar Plum Fairy...) - but Julia's rendition takes the notion of Act II's The Land of the Sweets quite literally, and then turns it on its head. Exotic ingredients are integral to her interpretation and essential to her modernized storyline. From the Spanish Chocolate to the Arabian Brown Sugar, she turns each variation into not only a visual feast, but integral to what she has cooking up for the ballet's climax.

To recap the program (picking up from the time when Clara, Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince arrive in the Land of the Sweets):

They are greeted with great ceremony by the Sweet Tooth Fairies, and Drosselmeyer introduces Clara to the people of the Land of the Sweets [by bringing] forth a huge mixing bowl and starting a parade of characters who bring with them wonderful ingredients for a very special cake. The Spanish dancers bring rich, dark chocolate fans; the Arabian dancers bring sparkling jewels of brown sugar; the Chinese dancers arrive with crunchy almonds, and an extraordinary Golden Goose brings Golden Eggs. Each drops their gift into the bowl. Then the Russian Bakers bustle in to stir the batter. Mother Ginger comes to add gingerbread spice, and with The Waltz of the Flour, the batter is finished. [Drosselmeyer] reveals a beautiful cake, and within the cake, another wonderful surprise: The Sugar Plum Fairy.

OMG... this ain't yo momma's Nutcracker. Quite frankly, it's not my Nutcracker yet either. I was a little blown away. There was so much going on onstage that was a complete departure from any Nutcracker I've ever been involved with, that I think I need to see Marin Ballet's new version many many more times before I can possibly take it all in. What I do know was that it was a sweet, sweet performance. If it were still playing, I'd urge everyone to go and check it out, but alas - it comes but once a year.

So with the curtains closed on yet another Nutcracker, Kathryn and I headed out to the VIP reception after the performance to mingle with, well... VIPs (Kathryn was the VIP - I was a hanger-on!). It was a celebratory affair - everyone in the room was excited by the performance, and in jubilant moods. The mirth was much assisted by the open bar turning out festive libations, specifically, a cocktail dubbed "The Blue Ballet" in honor of the evening's accomplishments. I leave you with the recipe below, and of course, a hearty "Encore!" (for both the performance and the cocktail!).

The Blue Ballet
Pour equal parts vodka and Chambord (black raspberry liquer) into a shaker full of ice. Shake vigorously; strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a skewer of blueberries and lychee fruit. Drink and repeat - but beware, this one packs a punch!