Go to Home Page

springing anew

April 29th, 2010 | 11 Comments »

Everyone, say ‘Hello’ to Eli

If you follow me on Twitter, or hang out over on Facebook with me, you probably saw me post about him last week when he arrived in our household. We were just a little excited about him joining our family, and the past week has been full of new adventures, excitement for us and for him, sharing with us all the love he has within his superbly soft and furry little frame. This cat is like the softest teddy bear I’ve known, and oh so very cuddly; he loves to be held and burrows himself into me when I lift him to my shoulder. He’s affectionate, talkative, playful, and eager to learn everything he needs about his new home. Like where Bustopher’s best snoozing spots are located, for one thing.

Eli is doing a wonderful job of healing the hole inside of all of us that was left with Harmon’s passing. In the past few weeks Bustopher has needed a lot of attention, and seemed so unhappy when we left him alone. And we just felt empty. A new friend was necessary, and one visit to the shelter was all it took. Life has come full circle again. It’s a great testimony to what Harmon brought to my life, a love that went very deep and was so painful to lose, but was also powerful enough to make me believe I could withstand it again, that I could expand my heart to accept another feline friend.

I’m already quite in love with him. He is a good match for all of us.

And then of course, the best part of everything happening right now is that Spring is just busting out all over it’s glorious fragrant self, shining in the sunlight for us all to behold and embrace.

Along with falling in love with our new pet, I’m also just blissfully over the moon about pan roasted cauliflower. I know, strange isn’t it? With the verdant strands of spring asparagus, fresh pea shoots and the promise of ramps, I’m going slightly ga-ga over cauliflower, snatching up head after head of it and searing it to browned perfection in a pan while I bliss out in anticipation of the first bite to reach my lips.

Griffin won’t touch it. He will eat it steamed but only steamed, turning away in scorn when he lifts the lid on yet another pan of golden roasted florets at dinnertime. I don’t argue. It leaves more for me. I made half a head of it for lunch one afternoon and sighed my way through each forkful until the entire bowl was empty. The process of cooking it in a hot skillet, over searing heat with just a touch of oil leaves the florets crisply tender and sweetly succulent. I certainly could do worse for falling in love with a vegetable;  cauliflower is low in fat and high in fiber, folate and Vitamin C, as well as the wide range of phytochemicals present in other members of the Brassica family like kale, chard, broccoli and cabbage.

And you know what? It’s so very simple. The key to making it nice and caramelized is to slice the pieces so the sides are flat.

Place them in a bowl and add a little oil, some seasonings that you like as well as a bit of salt and pepper. Mix it up nicely while your pan heats on the stove. When the pan is smoking hot, empty the cauliflower in to it and spread it out. Let it sit for about 5 minutes undisturbed. Then toss it a little. Turn down the heat and cover the pan, with a lid or foil, then let it sit undisturbed for maybe 10 minutes. Toss it a bit more. Cover again, let it sit and repeat this until the cauliflower is as tender as you like. I like some bite to mine still. But it tastes just as good when it’s nice and soft. A sprinkling of good parmesan cheese tastes nice on it. You can add some thinly sliced garlic too, for extra flavor.

Give it a try, won’t you? Maybe you’ll find more reason to fall in love this Spring too. That is of course, unless you already are.

front step memories

April 16th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having these ‘front step moments’ lately, where memories are popping up from all ages of my lifetime that occurred on our front staircase. For some reason, the moving picture of my life has many frames that are wrapped around concrete and steps that led to streets, friends houses and adventures. So many of them intertwined with food too.

Who didn’t take their peanut butter sandwich outside as a child to eat on the back steps? There was your Mom, inside the house just a few feet away and your backyard in front of you, while you nibbled your lunch, sipping milk to wash the peanut butter from your tongue. Maybe the neighbor girl joined you and you shared your meal. Then you always ran off to play, leaving the remains of a sandwich, maybe a carrot stick or lone potato chip as fair game for the dog to snatch up. But only if they were quicker than your Mom.

Blessed or otherwise, I saw a lot of different front steps in my young lifetime. My first memories, ever, occurred at the top of this long flight of stairs in South Minneapolis.

(that’s not trash littering the yard; it’s petals from a huge Star Magnolia behind me)

Nearly 40 years later, I’m floored to near tears by the fact that the railing pictured is the exact same one we used to slide down as children. My spot to sit and watch my young world go by was on the top step leaning against that railing. It was there, nibbling on my lunch one afternoon that I was jumped from behind by a Black Lab. I was terrified, screaming and wildly thrashing against that surprise assault when our feisty Dachshund, Schnapps came barreling out of nowhere to fling himself at the marauder, then chased that huge dog down the street, barking frantically, nipping at it’s heels. Schnapps was my protector. And he sat on those steps a lot with me.

Then we moved, briefly, to this set of front steps.

With this playground spread out before us.

This was a fantasy world at our young feet. We knew each trail, each bank of that creek as intimately as our own yard. We caught crawfish, dug worms, watched the current and climbed trees. When tired and thirsty, we’d run into the house and rummage for cookies, sipping Kool-Aid or lemonade, resting and catching our breath before heading back outside to find more beauty, gulp down the air and run until we were worn to the bone. How simple life could be if time was only defined through cold drinks, cookies and the sound of laughter and wind in the trees.

My front steps now aren’t that wondrous, but they’re tucked back against our house and sort of hidden in their own way. I’ve always enjoyed sitting outside on them; for the most part, not many people who pass by even know I am there so I can watch and observe and speculate on the world going by without disturbance. Our current neighborhood is made for walking, so there is always a parade of people, of dogs, kids on bikes and rollerblades, young families with strollers that sift through the evening breezes, quietly chatting with each other.

I can enjoy a glass of wine on these steps, chatting with The Teen, or sitting peacefully with a cat. We’ve been known to sit on these steps while thunder groans overhead and the tree in the yard bends in the furious wind. The storm siren can be going off, barely a block away and we won’t be able to hear each other speak, but the joy of watching that storm, the shiver of experiencing nature’s blast right in front of us keeps us there until drenching rain chases us both inside. My boy and I love a good thunderstorm.

So much of my days when I was very young were a mix of fresh air, sunshine, neighborhood kids and homemade treats. There were Dreamsicles, Freeze Pops and trying to fall asleep in the summer heat. My childhood, as many others, is full of these memories, and delicious tidbits that slipped between our fingers just as fast as we could lift them to our lips.

One of my most favorite treat as a young girl, and still to this day was my Mom’s Peanut Butter Fingers.

I guess I look to glean some sense of nostalgia whenever I make a beloved childhood cookie. How simple everything was then, the time of life that didn’t include numbers in bank account, property taxes, thinking about your child’s 16th birthday, insomnia and a host of other adult trappings that leave us longing for a simpler life. I bite into peaceful kid feelings when breaking through the solid chocolate crust of these beauties, and relish the memory of my Mom’s smile. Baking was her love language, and we sopped it up daily, never realizing how good we really had it. I still recall the first time at a friends house and she asked if I wanted a cookie. Enthusiastically I said yes, thinking of homemade chocolate chip, maybe a molasses cookie or my utmost favorite sugar cookies. She gave me an Oreo. Admittedly, I did like it -what kid didn’t like Oreos?- but it was the first exposure I had to the fact that not everyone had an endless supply of homemade treats at their disposal. I asked this friend what kind of cookies her Mom liked to bake and she looked at me blankly, then back at the Oreos. Oh, now that was a lesson to learn, all right.

Yes. I was blessed. And I continue to honor that upbringing in my own home, especially when the need for comfort and inner soothing become necessary. From what I see in the food blog world, baking is an obsession of many. That’s a wondrous thing to see, and indeed, to know in one’s lifetime. Fresh scratch treats have no comparison, in taste or in the way that they soothe, calm and bring ease to a often chaotic existence. The preciseness of baking is almost exactly opposite the freewheeling, often uncontrolled way that life has of tossing us around, leaving our souls feeling shaken. Peace to all-  through flour, sugar and a hot oven. Baking brings it’s own method of calm.

Today is my Mom’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mom. I sure do miss you. It’s no surprise to me that these memories are so strong right now.

Anyone want to join me on the steps for some cookies and a good chat??

Peanut Butter Fingers
origin unknown- some lifetime ago. This recipe is the first one under the ‘Desserts’ tab  in my indexed book of favorites. That’s how beloved it is.

Spray an 8×8 pan with cooking spray. Heat your oven to 350°.

Cream together:
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. each brown and white sugar

Blend in:
1 unbeaten egg
1/2 c. smooth peanut butter (chunky is fine too, if it’s your thing)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. sea salt

Stir in:
1 c. flour
1 c. quick cooking oats

Chocolate topping- 1 12-oz bag chocolate chips

Spread batter in prepared pan and bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until toothpick test is clean.  Remove pan from oven and sprinkle chips over the top. Allow to soften and then spread evenly to cover bars. Cool completely before cutting.

crispin cider and sliders dinner (april 8, 2010)

April 12th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

I was pretty excited to be on the invite list for Crispin Ciders ‘Cider and Sliders’ dinner at Firelake Grill House in the downtown Minneapolis Radisson. My experience with hard cider, the one that I’d had anyway was not the best, and I was wary enough of the brew to avoid it for the most part. This dinner was anticipated as a chance for me to learn more and understand hard cider, and by the end of it, hope to be won over fully. Oh who am I to kid? I was a fan with the first sip of the drink handed to me when I walked in the door. I’m such an easy pushover.

My only apprehension for this gig was that I was flying solo. My invite came at a late enough date that finding someone available to go with me was kind of a joke. But the friendly people of Crispin were more than welcoming to me, and I discovered some Twitter friends there to share a table with so I didn’t end up dining alone. This was a six-course meal, each paired with a different cider. I expected to be fully on the floor from all the imbibing. Thankfully, that didn’t pan out either. Hard cider isn’t especially high in alcohol, designed more for enjoyable consumption than sheer, all out drunkery. Thank goodness. The first glass set down in front of me was huge.

(please pardon the fuzzy shots. It wasn’t the cider. I’d forgot my good camera at home)

And the plate that followed took my breath away.

The first course was a cold-smoked lake char tartare, topped with a fried quail egg and frisee on a potato bun spread with a mustard vinaigrette. Two delicate and ultra delicious sweet potato chips accompanied it, but the tender tartare melted in my mouth, as the egg dripped over it leaving a wonderful flavor in my mouth. The bun was super soft and tender as well. Paired with this delicious start was Crispin’s Brut Cider served over ice. It was lightly effervescent, crisp and juicy. It was one of those drinks that I know I would deeply enjoy on a hot day, so refreshing and thirst-quenching.

Then our server set down the most gorgeously hued liquid in front of me. Lake char tartare? What? I was so taken with the color that I could hardly remember what I’d just ate.

Fox Barrel Ciders, partnered with Crispin, were also presenting some of their beverages, the first being this beautiful Black Current Cider that shimmered in my flute. It was a sight for the eyes and a delight for the tongue, lush with berry flavor and again, light and easy to drink. It was paired with an incredible little plate.

While I did make it through all six courses of the night, I could have stopped with this one and never known any difference. This was a gorgeous duck confit served on a chive gougere spread with spiced alder plum jam and topped with pickled starfruit and an incredible jicama slaw. The gougere was perfect, the confit rich and deeply flavored and the whole combination was perfectly balanced, a lovely dance in the mouth. This easily was the star of the menu, even with four more plates to go.

If I had remained a skeptic at this point, the third cider offering would have knocked me over the edge. It was the most beautifully flavored pear cider, rich like a opulent wine, coating the tongue with fruit like you were biting into the ripest pear you’ve ever tasted. It was gorgeous in color and I could have sipped up the whole bottle. Self-restraint was high, but seriously, I can’t imagine a better summer sipper than this light and delicious cider. I was so taken with it, admiring it and sipping it with my slider that I suddenly looked down and gasped.

It wasn’t the alcohol that was getting to me, as the pear cider rolled over my tongue with barely a 4% content. I’m pretty sure I was just reveling in how exciting and delicious these beverages were. The third slider was probably my least favorite, but not because the flavors weren’t great, but it was unbalanced. An herb focaccia was topped with house-cured pancetta, oven dried oyster mushrooms and a tomato confit, then served with a generous chunk of Bent River Camembert. The focaccia, tender and quite savory, overpowered the pancetta, and the cheese, although rich and delicious, was too much for the thin pancetta. I did like the mushrooms, but they were almost an afterthought. The cider, however, stole the show on this third round.

We moved on to meatloaf.

Yes, meatloaf. The best slab of meat that’s passed through this born and bred Minnesotan. This girl knows meatloaf, and Chef Paul Lynch’s use of boar, bison and wild turkey made a tiny slab come alive with meaty goodness. Served on a pretzel bun, this meatloaf was topped with Crispin braised sauerkraut and shaved apple, smeared with brown mustard. It was an incredible germanic combination. I am not, nor ever have been a fan of sauerkraut, but I am telling you, if I can learn to make it in this fashion, I actually might be able to call myself a fan. It was sweet, slightly sour and crunchy beyond belief. The pretzel bun was salty and perfect, capping off a perfect little handful of meat-love. It was served with Crispin’s basic cider; beautiful, full of flavor and easy across the lips.

Still two more courses to go, and the fifth cider set down before us was a gorgeous Honey Crispin Artisanal cider that tasted like a stronger version of what any perfect apple cider should be. It was lush and flavorful, making me think of crisp Fall days, the bite and snap of a ripe apple, touched with a tiny hint of honey. When you lift this glass to your nose, the sweet scent of honey reaches you, making you wonder if it’s going to be cloying in it’s sweetness, but the first sip is just apple and nothing more. The honey hints in the aftertaste, leaving a nice sweet note in the back of your throat. It was served with a lovely lamb burger, thick with feta and coriander, served with escarole and olive mayo, along with a tiny order of perfect fries.

While I am not often a huge fan of lamb, this was quite flavorful, rich with the coriander. The brioche bun was perfect, with a tender crumb and delicate flavor. I loved the fries, so perfectly cooked.

Our last course was a tasty fritter, shaped like a large donut hole, made from Grains of Paradise and scented with cider. It was split and filled with farmers cheese and served atop a thick smear of caramel that took my breath away in it’s smoky, dark taste.
It was sweet, with the perfect touch of crunch and rich with the smooth warm cheese. Paired alongside was a new Crispin varietal, The Saint artisanal cider that was brewed with Trappers yeast to give it a light beer-like touch. Sweet and perfectly matched to the rich caramel, it was an amazing end to a very eye-opening night in which I learned so much, and tasted so happily. Call me converted, no longer wary, and actually excited to branch out and experiment a bit more.

Many thanks to Ben Heinemann at Roepke PR for the gracious invite, and to Joe of Crispin, and Bruce of Fox Barrel for their generosity, information and general conviviality.

{{FDA Disclosure: I received admission to this event free of charge and was not compensated in any way by either Roepke PR, Crispin Cider or Fox Barrel Ciders. I was not paid for my review, nor was it expected.}}

boursin spinach gratin

April 9th, 2010 | 18 Comments »

Boursin, people. Boursin cheese. Rich, creamy and speckled with herbs. Melted and mixed with fresh spinach, topped with crunchy bread crumbs and baked to perfection. Ultra-satisfying and delicious. But strangely, I took a bite and swore I’d had it before, sometime far and long ago though. I know it wasn’t recently, and I’m pretty sure I was quite young, but the flavor of this was familiar in that misty, distant fashion that reeks of deja vu.

On my birthday in early March, we dined at a restaurant where perfectly cooked rotisserie meats were the star, and along with the meltingly tender chunks of meat that graced our plates, Mike and I selected a side of creamed spinach that was equally blissful. The spinach was tender, perfectly cooked and  in a delicious bath of smooth, lightly seasoned sauce. I remember sighing sadly as the last bite was scraped from the dish, and it was so blissful and perfect that I dreamed about it for days afterwards. Who dreams of creamed spinach? Especially since it was the first time in my life that I’ve eaten it. Yes. First time. I fell hard I guess. I’d seen numerous recipes for it, chock full of decadent heavy cream that made my arteries cringe away in fright. Not that Boursin cheese is any different; folks, this dish is rich like an oil baron. But given the richness of the added Boursin, I knew I wouldn’t need heavy cream to make it. In fact, I think having heavy cream, which the original recipe calls for, would make this dish a bit too much. As it is I could only manage a few mouthfuls, complete with much eye-rolling, and heavily satisfactory sighs. Heavy cream AND Boursin? Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.

Of course, any dish where there is delightful browned, butter drenched panko crumbs gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from this girl. I find myself making up excuses to brown myself a pan of them, fluttering them through my fingers to grace the top of just about anything, then gleefully slurping the rest from my hand. Something about their delicate crispness just makes my mouth happier. With this spinach, they form a nice crust on top of the gratin as it bakes, adding a polar opposite element to the smooth creamy base and lovely al dente spinach.

While this isn’t exactly the lightest of Spring fare, and I certainly wouldn’t want to drench the upcoming fresh spinach crop under such a disguise, I am glad to know that for a cool night I have an option to set my mind dreaming once again.

And maybe more importantly, keep it there for good. Does the idea of Boursin cheese make you swoon too? Tell me how you love to eat it, and to offer you another decadent side dish, please check out Chris’ Ultimate Boursin Mashed Potatoes.

Boursin Spinach Gratin
From Spring 2010, At Home with Kowalski’s magazine. Heavily adapted by Kate

1 bunch fresh spinach, destemmed, washed well and spun very dry
1 t. unsalted butter
1 small shallot, minced
3 T. AP flour
1-1/2 c. plain soymilk (alternately, use 1 c. skim milk & 1/2 c. heavy cream)
1 pkg Boursin Herb and Garlic cheese,  5.2oz
3 T. fresh shredded parmesan, or other hard cheese of choice
1 t. lemon zest
2/3 c. panko bread crumbs
1 T. melted butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 425°

In a medium oven proof skillet with a cover, melt butter and add shallot, cooking and stirring until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour to coat and then slowly begin whisking in milk until fully incorporated. Stirring constantly, bring sauce to a gentle simmer to thicken, then add in Boursin cheese, a small amount at a time, until all of it is blended into the sauce.

Drop a handful of spinach leaves into sauce and stir to coat. Add more, a handful at a time, until all spinach is mixed well with the sauce. Bring to a simmer, cover and simmer for about 5 minutes. Mix panko, salt and pepper and melted butter, sprinkle over top of spinach and place pan, uncovered, into oven. Bake for 10 minutes, until bubbly and crumbs are browned. Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly (remember that pan handle is HOT!) and serve immediately, sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Alternately, mixture can be divided among smaller ovenproof ramekins to be baked. Divide spinach into ramekins before topping with bread crumbs. Baking time will be shorter.

renewal, and feeding the pain

April 4th, 2010 | 12 Comments »

Our life can be marked by our losses, which often can be more defining than the days that take our breath away. A loss in life is like running smack into a brick wall, after which you shake off the tweeting birds floating around your head and look around at what’s landed in your path. There is no more going forward as you have been; it’s time to look to either side and determine which is the next best step, choosing your new direction, heading off into the unknown. But sometimes those brick walls of life stop us cold. We had no idea it was coming and it’s frozen us in time, unable to shift our direction and find the new normal. We sit in front of it and stare, uncomprehending this change that we don’t want, and didn’t ask for.

I’ve had times like that. Bad times that have stopped me senseless. I lost my sister in 1991, my Mom in 1994. Both times it was so numbing that I simply sat down, right where I was, and hardly budged. I got stuck a lot in those days, and held big-time pity parties for myself complete with isolation, junk food binges, too much alcohol, or worse, something stronger. I lost a lot of time that I’ll never get back.

This loss was much different, as I had seen it coming for some time. But it didn’t hurt any less. Even with Mike and Griffin right there with me in the Vet’s office, as I held Harmon and felt him slip into an eternal sleep, it was the loneliest feeling I think I have ever known. The past 17 years flashed through my head; every little thing about him that endeared him to me, from the first glimpse of his face to his final day. He was such a part of me that I can’t even imagine how long it will take to stop looking around the house for him. Seventeen years is a very long time. Griffin has never known his life without this big orange cat. I can’t remember much about mine before he came along.

But we move on. We have no choice. And in the days following our loss, I was overcome with urges to eat foods I hadn’t touched in years. The need to cover the pain became very real, and yet none of my old coping mechanisms were still in place and I had to just let the pain seep out of me. It gripped me so hard that it left me physically gasping for air. I had no appetite, but ate mechanically. Nothing had any taste. I wept often, and uncontrollably. I craved fried foods, greasy burgers, heavy pizza, drinks with funny names, being prone under a pile of blankets and more isolation than is humanly wise. I was staring at yet another brick wall and the only thing I knew how to do with pain like this was collapse and disappear from life again.

This is now, however, the kinder and gentler Kate, and after the first acute and tenderly painful days, I realized that I did want food, and was pleased that I wanted good food. And the first dish that I took out and set before my grief was my most favorite Lentils and Farro with Caramelized Leeks. The attention to slowly caramelizing the leeks seemed to almost take my mind off the fact that there was no eager golden-hued face at my feet, weaving in and out of my legs as I stood at the stove. Then copious amounts of this white bean and roasted garlic spread not only had me set for life against vampires, but provided heady aromatic and tasty relief (that photo above should give you some clue as to how critical roasted garlic is in my kitchen). There were more roasted vegetables, despite the warm end to March in Minnesota, a succulent grilled pork tenderloin that I buried under a thick mustard glaze, salads crunchy enough to fill the echo within my heart.

And I baked, because what could soothe one more than homemade scones? Lacking fresh fruit for a Sunday morning treat before a necessary and pleasantly grueling 3.5 mile hike, I gently blended thick fruit preserves with the liquid in my favorite scone recipe, and came up with a delightfully light and flavorful round, studded with chopped pecans and warmly comforting to my tummy. Another batch of Orange-Cardamom Scones sent me skyrocketing into sheer happiness, lush with the crisp citrus scent. The secret to these, I am 100% certain, is the citrus-infused turbinado sugar that filled the interior and decked out the tops. With the crunchy sugar and fresh zest, really, can it go wrong?

And Brownies. Let’s just say that in everyone’s coping arsenal should be a good solid recipe for a Brownie that will calm even the worst of one’s inner storms. Fudgey or cakey, I’m OK with either because where good chocolate therapy is concerned, I’m always a willing participant.

There was also Spring Break with my Teen that included him getting contacts, and or course, the golden sunshine that tickled and warmed our faces as March bid us farewell. I busied myself cleaning up last year’s detritus in the garden, and marveled that I was sweating on the last day of a typically snowy and cold month. I took a very long bike ride. And I cooked more soothing foods. I’m exploring some terrific options for the weeks ahead, in April, the month where Spring explodes over our part of the Earth. I don’t want to miss out on that, or anything else coming my way these days. There’s no more hiding. Not for this girl.

And Easter Sunday I feel, is an appropriate time for a new beginning, wouldn’t you agree??

Orange Cardamom Scones
adapted heavily from Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen

2-1/2 c. AP flour
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. sea salt
2 T. sugar
1 T. orange zest
1/2 t. ground cardamon
5 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 c. fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 400°. Line a baking tray with parchment.

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, cardamom and salt. Blend together juice, zest and buttermilk, add to dry ingredients and mix gently with a fork until all flour is incorporated. Careful not to overmix.

Gently scoop individual portions onto cookie sheet. You should get about 8 scones. Bake until slightly browned on top, about 15-18 minutes.

For the Citrus Sugar that I sprinkled on top- Zest one orange and mix the zest with half a cup of turbinado sugar. Place in blender and mix until fully combined. Scrape into container and keep refrigerated. Use regular sugar if you have no turbinado. Sprinkle over tops of scones before baking.