Sunday, December 26, 2010

Basic Vanilla Marshmallows

Why make marshmallows when you can buy them at the store for cheap? Here are my reasons:

- They taste better - plus, you can customize them to taste like vanilla beans, cocoa, or coconut if you like!
-They're a fun project if you like do-it-yourself ideas.
-They make a great gift when stacked on sheets of waxed paper in a jar!

I will give a disclaimer to this project: While making marshmallows is not HARD, it is nothing if not MESSY. There was a moment in the process when I looked down at my hands and it looked like I had taken a gooey S'More and stuck my hand right in the middle of it. But later, when we drank mugs of homemade hot chocolate with our buoyant vanilla marshmallows floating jubilantly and slowly melting into sweet goodness, the mess was a distant memory.

This recipe, one of the simplest ones I found for marshmallows (no egg whites necessary), comes from Karen Solomon's book "Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects", an excellent DIY book that I've been playing around with lately.


2/3 c. water, divided
3 (1/4 oz) envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 c. white sugar
1 c. light corn syrup
Pinch kosher salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. powdered sugar, for dusting (sifted)

Lightly oil the inside of a 8x8 inch pan with vegetable oil. Generously coat with sifted powdered sugar; set aside.

Pour 1/3 c. of the water into the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water, and let stand for about 10 minutes, or until the gelatin has softened.

In a saucepan, off heat, combine the remaining 1/3 c. water and the granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Place the pan over the medium-high heat. Clip a candy thermometer to the inside of the pan and make sure it does not touch the bottom. Cook the mixture without stirring until it reaches 240F. Brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush (or a clean paintbrush), dipped in water, to gently wipe away any residual sugar crystals.

With the mixer on low speed, very carefully add the hot syrup to the softened gelatin. Add the vanilla, increase the speed to medium-high, and beat until the mixture becomes very white, stuff, and sticky.

Spread the mixture into the prepared pan using a lightly oiled spatula. With wet hands, press the batter evenly into the corners of the pan. Set aside for at least 1 hour, or until the mixture is firm and cool.

Sift the powdered sugar into a shallow dish or bowl. Run a wet knife around the edge of the cooler pan to loosen the marshmallow sheet. Remove the marshmallows from the pan. Cut into 16 or 36 squares, wetting the knife often to keep it from sticking. Toss each marshmallow in the powdered sugar until completely coated.

Store marshmallows in a single layer or in layers separated by waxed paper. They will keep at least 1 month when stored airtight at moderate temperate.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

English Toffee

One of the best things about being married has been establishing our own Christmas traditions together. We love to make this easy version for friends and family. After layering decorative tins with waxed paper, we fill them with pieces of our toffee and give them away as gifts. We are pleased to share our tradition with you!

The Easiest English Toffee

2 cups butter
2 cups white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup finely chopped almonds/walnuts/other nuts, toasted

In a large heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the butter is melted. Allow to come to a boil, and cook until the mixture becomes a dark amber color, and the temperature has reached 285 degrees F (137 degrees C). Stir occasionally.

While the toffee is cooking, cover a large baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

As soon as the toffee reaches the proper temperature, pour it out onto the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle the chocolate over the top, and let it set for a minute or two to soften. Spread the chocolate into a thin even layer once it is melted. Sprinkle the nuts over the chocolate, and press in slightly. Putting a plastic bag over your hand will minimize the mess.

Place the toffee in the refrigerator to chill until set. Break into pieces, and store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Slow Food in Sac

The Slow Food Movement began in Italy in the 80's as a backlash to a McDonald's popping up near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Propelled in the US by supporters such as Alice Waters, the movement has spread worldwide with a mission to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, as well as relying upon local ecosystems to obtain food.

Sacramento does have a Slow Food chapter, but their activities usually sound like elitist fundraisers that are quite beyond my meager budget. I was excited to hear that the organization recently award "Snail" awards to a number of local restaurants for their efforts to promote local, sustainable food.

The awards were given to (drum roll, please): Grange, Ella, Hot Italian, the Kitchen, Magpie Caterers Market and Cafe, Mulvaney's, OneSpeed, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op Deli/Cafe, Selland's, Taylor's, Tuli Bistro and the Waterboy. I have been to several of these already,Magpie being one of my all-time favorite local spots. Hot Italian wasn't my style but I appreciate that they compost their leftovers! I do hope to support these institutions with my patronage. A few may be reserved for special occasions due to the higher cost, but the quality promises to make for a memorable experience. After all, why eat at chains when there are brave and innovative restaurants who are changing the way we eat, the way we live?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Restaurant Review: Shoki Ramen House

In a cute older neighborhood of Sacramento called Curtis Park lies a remodeled home which now houses our city's most popular ramen noodle house - Shoki Ramen House. Because of limited seating, plan on arriving early to get a seat (they open for dinner at 5:30pm). Otherwise, you'll need to sign in and wait for a while before enjoying what makes this place so popular - a bowl of authentic Japanese ramen. Also, make sure all your party members are present when you put your name in; you will not be seated until this occurs.
The handwritten board on the wall will inform you that the special broths require 8 hours of slow simmering. Also, the board claims, because there is no MSG or presveratives in the broth, it will not make you as thirsty as other versions will. (I appreciate this as I once had a bad experience with a bowl of noodles in Japantown, San Francisco that left me parched as the Sahara for the rest of the day.)
Two of the most popular dishes include Shoyu, or soy-sauce based broth, with cha siu pork:
and the spicy Tan Tan Men, served with flavorful minced meat, greens, and bamboo shoots. I got extra shitake mushrooms in my bowl as well since I love me some mushrooms.
Pictures of newspaper articles on the wall show the owner gently massaging the ramen noodles, as part of the traditional method of preparing them. Formerly a nutritionist in Japan, he developed a wonderful whole wheat ramen noodle which I tried and found to be just as toothsome and delicious as the traditional variety.

The chef's efforts prove worthwhile, as each bowl warms and satisfies the hungry customers and keeps them coming back for more. Another sign on the wall indicates that Shoki will be moving to a larger location soon, promising more seating and convenience with the same high quality food. Sacramento looks forward to this move!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winter Garden Update

I love it when some plants flower in the winter. I've noticed that most of them are purple, for some reason.

New additions - chives and curly parsley

Beets, bok choy, and arugula

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Persimmon Chutney

I think my kitchen is going to smell like chutney for a while. After a day of soaking and an evening of boiling and canning, the spicy vinegar scent has permeated every room of our apartment. But I'm so glad I tried this recipe! Here is the finished product, 3 jars full of persimmon chutney. Don't they look bright and glowing and ready to stock my larder (if I had a larder)?

You can't get much better than a vintage recipe from a New Zealand grandmother. Thanks to Florence and her blog for the recipe. I have Americanized it for your and my convenience (chilli became jalepeno, mixed peel became candied citrus peel, brown vinegar became apple cider vinegar, etc.). Below, you can see the amazing colors of the finished product, not to mention the complex combination of sweet, fruity, spicy and sour flavors.

I tried a little of what was left in the pan tonight on a cracker with some sliced turkey and it was delicious, even to a chutney novice like myself. I think it would be phenomenal with poultry or cheese. I'm planning on spooning some over cream cheese on a platter with crackers for Christmas. Won't it look festive on a plate?

Persimmon Chutney

6 large ripe persimmons, peeled and chopped
1 small red onion
1 jalepeno, finely chopped (omit seeds for less heat)
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. celery seeds
1/3 c. golden raisins
1/4 c. currents
1 T. candied citrus peel (I used lemon)
1 tsp. chopped ginger
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp. each of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice
1/3 c. white sugar
1/3 c. apple cider vinegar
1/3 c. lemon juice (freshly squeezed)

Chop onion and jalepeno. Tie the mustard and celery seeds in a piece of fine cheesecloth and tie into a bag with a piece of kitchen twine. Combine all ingredients, except persimmons. Cover and let stand overnight (or about 8 hours). Place mixture in a large saucepan and boil for 30 minutes. Add peeled persimmons and boil slowly until thickened. Pour into hot sterilized jars. Makes about a pint.

The Joys of Foraging

It never ceases to amaze me that even in the cold, rainy midst of winter, nature is capable of providing nourishment. As I walked through my parent’s back yard this weekend, I noticed an unusual-looking fruit lying on the ground under what I had always mistaken for an ornamental bush. After some taste testing and research, I discovered that the fruits are called Feijoa, or Pineapple Guavas (pictured above), and are native to South America. Inside, the soft pulp is citrusy, both tart and sweet and fun to squeeze out, while the protective tough green skin may be discarded.

The very next day, a friend from church learned of my love for persimmons and offered to let me and my husband come and glean the fruit from their persimmon tree, as her family doesn’t care for this fruit. I jumped at this opportunity, and this is how my refrigerator came to be overcrowded with four bulging bags of fruit.

Three of the bags contain the bright orange orbs of Fuyu persimmons. The trouble is, Fuyus are generally eaten raw, unlike Hachiyas where the pulp is often pureed and used in baked goods. I’ve had quite a time figuring out how to preserve the fruit to keep it from going to waste.

I finally decided upon a double batch of both persimmon jam and persimmon chutney (one version, pictured above). So far, the jam came out fairly well, although I probably didn’t add enough sugar. Jam recipes are notoriously scientific and unforgiving of aberration. I like things a little on the mild side anyway, and will still consider my jam something to look forward to on toast. Tonight, I will take a stab at my first ever chutney - a recipe I found posted by a New Zealand blogger chronicling her grandmother’s vintage recipes. It sounded fascinating - whoever first imagined that raisins, onions, garlic, ginger, and fruit would go together?

As tiring as it may be, I love that gleaning and preserving food allows me to feel a connection to nature, as well as to my ancestors, who performed these acts by way of necessity. Today, I choose to do these same acts because it gives me a peaceful feeling to participate in such a timeless act universal to all humanity. Bounty surrounds us if we seek it out.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Azorean Beef Stew

I recently read an article about a woman who blogged her year of cooking dinner every night for a year in her slow cooker. I decided to check out her blog and I found this interesting recipe for an international twist on beef stew.
I felt a connection to this recipe because my grandmother (from my adopted family) came from the Azore Islands in Portugal when she was a little girl, and I grew up with stories and food from there. The combination of sweet and savory is a classic feature of the cooking from that part of the world, as in perhaps their most celebrated dish of Sopas (beef cooked in a spiced broth, then ladled over bread and topped with sprigs of mint). Other typical dishes are cod (lots of fishing in the islands), sweet bread, and Coconut Tarts.
My husband (who also has relatives from the Azores) raved about this dish, and loved the bold flavors of the sauce. Allspice, cinnamon and garlic will help warm you up on a cold winter's night! I recommend planning to be out of the house while this cooks, because the wonderful smell may drive you mad if you have to wait a full 8 hours before eating it.

Azorean Beef Stew

1 lb beef chuck stew meat
5-6 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
2 potatoes, chopped in 1 inch chunks
1/2 c. onion, chopped
3 cups beef stock
2 large chopped tomatoes, or 1 cup canned tomatoes
1/2 T red pepper flakes
1 tsp all spice
1 bay leaf
1 tsp cumin
2 cinnamon sticks, broken

Put the meat into your crockpot. If you are using frozen meat, it's fine, just know it will take longer to cook and get tender.

Add the broth. Chop up the tomatoes, potatoes, onion, and garlic. Throw them in.

Stir in the salt, red pepper, all spice and cumin. Float the bay leaf on top and add 2 cinnamon sticks.

Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours, or on high for about 6. Stew tastes better the longer and slower you cook it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: Farm City

If you’re looking for a fun, inspiring read, I recommend “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” by Novella Carpenter. Said author was born on an Idaho farm to hippie parents, then raised in free-spirited Washington. Naturally, she has farming blood running in her veins, but she also enjoys the excitement and company of city life.

Shortly after moving to a highly shady part of crime-ridden Oakland, Novella eyes a vacant lot adjacent to her apartment and envisions a thriving garden. As time goes on, she uses this empty lot (with the owner's permission) not only to cultivate all manner of heirloom crops, but to keep bees, rabbits, chickens, and eventually two pigs. She also feeds the animals by way of dumpster diving around town. This unusual behavior leads to many entertaining anecdotes and relationships with other members of the community.

The book works well because not only does the author have a quirky personality and an interesting story to tell, she is a talented writer to boot. This novel made me want to order heirloom seeds (in the middle of winter), check out a book on food preservation from the library, and rack my brain for ways to keep my own chickens. This story of unlikely successes (mixed with a healthy dose of failures) inspired will inspire you to become more self-reliant in whatever ways you can, wherever you may live.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How to Cook a Pheasant

When my father and brother took up hunting several years ago, they automatically turned to me to find ways to prepare the pheasants they brought home. I tried several different ways of preparing the bird, but our family favorite has to be this rendition, based on a classic Italian recipe. I believe that this method could be used with other game birds, or even rabbit.

Be sure to let freshly hunted meat rest for at least 24 hours before cooking with it. Shortly after death, rigormortis causes the muscles to freeze up, making for a tough cut of meat. Letting the meat relax for a day or two produces a much more tender meal.

I sometimes throw in a little fresh thyme or other herbs. Pancetta, an Italian cured meat, keeps the meat moist and flavorful. Serve with pasta - I think orzo would be a particularly nice side with this dish.

Pheasant Farmer's Style (Faggiano Alla Contadina)

2 small pheasants
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 sage leaves
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 rosemary branches
1 (16-ounce) can peeled tomatoes and their juices, crushed by hand
½ cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
8 slices pancetta
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley


Quarter the birds and season with salt and pepper. In a 14 to 16-inch skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Sear the poultry on all sides, then remove to a plate and reserve.

Add the onion, sage, bay leaves, garlic, and rosemary and cook over high heat 5 minutes. Add the stock and tomatoes, bring to a boil, and return the poultry to the pan, each piece wrapped in pancetta (secure with a toothpick if necessary). Reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, 30 minutes, or until juices run clear from a piece of the bird.

Remove bird pieces to a serving platter, check sauce for seasoning, stir in parsley and spoon over pieces.