Monday, May 28, 2012

Sour Cherry Pie

Something exciting happened at my house in the past week: my first harvest from the garden. I got lots of snap peas and English peas, plus buttercrunch lettuce and Nantes carrots (shown above). These are a French heirloom carrot that do well in heavier clay soils because they stay short and compact.

I also made a sour cherry pie, which I haven't made since I took a college cooking class and dubbed this pie the Platonic Ideal of a Cherry Pie. You can make cherry pie with the sweet cherries we find here in California, but it is a very different thing from this pie. You have to find sour cherries, which I found at Whole Foods in the frozen aisle. They don't sell them fresh out here because sour cherry trees grow where the weather gets much colder than in our temperate climate.

But the search for sour cherries, even if frozen, is totally worth the trouble. This pie has that complex sweet/art classic cherry pie flavor, but a homemade pie texture that makes all of those glooey Hostess Cherry Pies I ate as a child hang their heads in shame (or would if pies had heads).

I use tapioca instead of cornstarch because I L-O-V-E the texture of tapioca in pies, but you are welcome to follow the recipe as is. I use the Perfect Pie Crust recipe posted here, brush the lattice top with egg white and sprinkle with coarse sugar before baking. Serve with vanilla ice cream and you'll be in heaven.

Sour Cherry Pie

1 recipe Perfect Pie Crust
3 1/3 c. fresh or frozen sour cherries
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. + 1 T. Thickgel OR cornstarch
1 1/3 c. water or juice from cherries
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1 T. + 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

Rinse and pit fresh cherries or thaw frozen cherries. Combine sugar and thickening agent in a large pot with water or juice from cherries. If desired, add almond extract. Stir mixture and cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and begins to bubble. Add lemon juice and boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Fold in cherries. Cool before filling prepared pie crust. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes until golden brown on top and the filling is bubbling. Cool on a wire rack before cutting.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Real Strawberry Shortcake

 Last year, I read a delightful memoir called Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. The author, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, relates lots of wonderful stories and makes you feel like you're sitting down for a chat with your own grandmother. Mildred's youth was filled to the brim with danger, inconvenience, hard work, strict and cheerless relatives, wonder, and simple pleasures.

Her book also delivers straight-forward, unadorned recipes for simple and delicious farm food, like how to prepare morel mushrooms or bake an applesauce cake. I made a copy of one recipe in particular, so as to be sure to make it the following spring. You see, I had never actually made a genuine strawberry shortcake until tonight- at least not the shortcake part. My mom's version of this American classic was a lower-fat version that substituted angel food cake and Cool Whip, but for some reason retained the same name.

I just fell in love with the real thing after making Mildred's recipe, which was a sort of subtly sweet biscuit with a crunchy top and heartiness that makes angel food cake pale in comparison. I hope that you will enjoy this dish too, while strawberries are still at their very best. Here are the instructions, in the author's own words. (For my personal notes, I made the dough with butter and almond milk.)

Mildred's Strawberry Shortcake

First, pick, wash, and hull two quarts of dead-ripe strawberries.

Sprinkle half a cup of sugar over the berries and set them aside while you make the dough.

In a bowl place two cups of flour, two tablespoons of sugar, one teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of baking powder. (Grandma swore by Calumet!)

Cut in half a cup of white lard, butter, or Crisco. Use that gadget that looks a bit like a stirrup made of wires; it was designed for cutting shortening into flour. The mixture should look like very coarse cornmeal.

Add one beaten egg to two thirds cup of whole milk. Now add this to the flour in the bowl all at once and stir with a fork until the mixture is just barely moistened. This is the crucial instruction for flaky shortcake. You will ruin the whole thing if you mix thoroughly.

Using a fork, openly spread this dough into a greased eight-by-eight inch pan. Bake for sixteen minutes in a 450 degree oven until nicely browned. Remove from the oven, cool in the pan for about ten minutes and, with a fork, carefully split the shortcake horizontally.

Divide the strawberries between the layer and over the top. Slosh with great gobs of not-too-stiffly-beaten whipped cream and enjoy.

Monday, May 21, 2012

First Harvest of Potatoes

Yesterday I went out with my basket and dug up the first half of my potatoes. Next year, I will use much more compost for a greater yield, but the first harvest wasn't too shabby for container potato plants. There were Purple Majesty, Banana Fingerling, and Yukon Gold Potatoes.

Digging for the potatoes is half the fun, like an Easter egg hunt for grown ups. I emptied one container at a time into a plastic bag and then dug around for buried treasure as I added the soil back into the container.

Of course, the other fun part about growing your own potatoes is figuring out how you will eat them. These potatoes are so tender and crisp inside, and on the outside, the thin skin so very delicate.  My favorite way to prepare them is simply to roast them in olive oil with fresh herbs and garlic.

Growing potatoes at home gives me such a thrill that I think I will grow them every year from now on. I ordered special seed potatoes this year by mail, but next year I may just use organic potatoes from the Natural Foods Co-op where I live.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New Orleans: A Dream Come True

Have you ever been drawn to a place and then fallen head over heels with it once you finally made it there? New Orleans was like that for me. A huge romantic, for me this city seemed to have everything that could be desired in a place: gorgeous architecture, stellar music, Southern hospitality but big-city sophistication, a fascinating history and of course, amazing food.

I headed off to explore Nawlins last week with a friend. Let's start with the food, shall we?

Favorite Appetizer: This is an Alligator Sausage and Shrimp Cheesecake from Jacque-Imo's. It's a savory cross between a cheesecake and a quiche, smothered in a creamy sauce. To die for!

Favorite Dinner: Crawfish Ettoufee, from the same place. Served alongside Cornbread, red beans and rice and corn maque choux, this was a genuine Creole experience - and soooo good!
Best Touristy Place to start your day: Cafe du Monde for some beignets topped with powdered sugar. With a tiny "large" glass of freshly squeeze orange juice, it was a wonderful (if overpriced) was to start exploring the French Quarter.
Dessert of choice in these parts: Pralines! Don't even bother looking for chocolate, cause this is Praline territory.
Biggest sandwich I have ever eaten: Muffaletta from Central Grocery. I didn't realize that "whole" meant it was served on a whole loaf of bread! We didn't finish this baby, but made a homeless guy's night.
Best "I'm in the South!" breakfast: Elizabeth's, where we ate praline bacon (I know!), fried green tomatoes, poached eggs, potatoes, and a biscuit. Swoon!

Best "I am way too underdressed to be here" lunch: Emeril's Restaurant. Despite our tennis shoes and shorts in a sea of suits, they didn't turn us away for lunch, so we got to enjoy this combination of Fried Organic Chicken, Sweet Corn-Belgian Waffle, Watermelon Slaw and Crystal Hot Sauce Syrup.

Best dessert: Emeril's Banana Cream Pie. Jacques Pepin named it "the best thing I ever ate in New Orleans", and the man has got a point there. It is one mean pie.

Best "late night dessert to eat when you're hanging out on Frenchmen Street and have a hankering for something sweet": Bread pudding in praline sauce from The Praline Connection.

Best "Dessert for Breakfast" dish: Bananas Foster French Toast from Surrey's. My stomach almost exploded by this time, but my friend finished hers. I am in awe!

Besides the food, how about some gorgeous shots of New Orleans?

Jackson Square

The French Quarter - so picturesque!

This is where we stayed: A typical house in the Bywater, with shutters, white pillars and palms.

St. Louis Cemetery #1: The first cemetery where they decided to built above-ground vaults. Before that, the bodies they buried on the river bank floated up when the city flooded. Imagine corpses floating down your street and you can see the wisdom of these vaults.
Public Art paying tribute to jazz

This mansion in the Garden District used to belong to Anne Rice. It's easy to see how the city inspired her aesthetic.

Houmas House, a real plantation. We ate lunch on green velvet chairs, strolled the gardens, 
had the best tour guide ever (a la Scarlet O'Hara) and stood under 500 year old oak trees 
draped in grey moss. 

If you ever get the chance, go to New Orleans. Filled with an indescribable positive energy, I can't imagine anyone not falling in love with it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lasagna Gardening

My last post was all about Biba's famous lasagna. Today I wanted to talk about lasagna gardening.

Maybe you have heard of lasagna gardening before. It's called that because it consists of creating layers of organic material. Last fall, we purchased three cedar wooden frames in order to create raised beds in our backyard. We don't have a space for a garden, per se, so we had to create one... where the lawn used to be.

How do you turn a patch of lawn into a gardening space? We chose to use lasagna gardening. We started by putting our wooden frames on the lawn, being careful not to put them on top of any sprinklers. Next, we put down a layer of wet newspaper over the grass. On top of the newspaper we piled compost, straw, coffee grounds, shredded leaves.... Lots of layers of organic matter, like a lasagna. The grass essentially composts itself, aided by worms who eat the organic matter and enrich the soil with their castings. Here were our beds when we started:

Then, we simply let our "lasagna" sit over the fall/winter season. The lack of rain caused the process to go a little slower decomposition than we'd expected, but sure enough, almost all the grass died off and we now have a nice, compact area in which to grow vegetables.

Here our beds were in early spring when we prepared the first bed to plant our early veggies (like lettuce and peas and carrots) by simply adding garden soil and a top dressing of compost, plus soaker hoses to water them:

And here is how it looks now, with all beds filled, including tomatoes, peppers and beans:

This weekend holds even more gardening when we head over to my parent's larger plot to plant the heat-loving kinds of things that need lots of room (melons, pumpkins, winter squash, etc.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lunch at Biba

If you are ever in Sacramento and love authentic Italian cooking, or need an elegant place to enjoy a meal, you may want to check out Biba. The owner, Biba Caggiano, has written cookbooks on Italian cooking and is a local food celebrity. Her restaurant recently got a facelift, and my husband and I headed over for one afternoon last week to celebrate his birthday and check out the lunch menu at the remodeled location.

We went on a Friday. This is a very important detail, because Biba's most famous dish of all is her lasagna, which is made only on Thursdays and Fridays. This masterpiece consists of ten layers of spinach noodles, intertwined with Bolognese meat ragu and creamy bechamel sauce.

The texture of this lasagna was remarkable and unique. Cutting into it with a fork and knife felt like slicing cleanly through delicate tissue paper. Although these two squares don't seem overwhelming at first glance, the taste was very rich, and I was unable to finish more than half of my plate at one sitting. Leftovers, however, tasted just as good the next day!

Part of my reduced appetite was due to an appetizer that my husband ordered - mozzarella topped with roasted peppers, arugula, and olive oil.

Again, the texture was amazing in this dish. The skin around the edge of the ball of mozzarella was firm, but the center of it was soft and creamy. I totally dig that textural contrast - I mean, I'm the kind of girl who actually enjoys eating the skin that forms on the top of pudding. (Oops, did I just admit that? Here's my foodie card.) The bold, peppery olive oil stood out, and the whole salad felt indulgent and cohesive.

We were lucky enough to get a Groupon for Biba, but it is always a pleasure to visit. And now, having tried her famous lasagna and "real" mozarella cheese, I feel almost as if I had been to Italy in an afternoon.