Monday, February 2, 2015

HAPPY BIRTHDAY LANGSTON HUGHES! Let's have some cinnamon mocha coffee to celebrate!

It's wonderful to participate in Cook the Books once again! Lots of changes kept me away from this blog altogether, but I knew it was going to be only a matter of time before I returned.  My endeavors will be a bit more limited this time around, I mean to join all the Cook the Books to come, and Simona's Novel Food, for sure, and then there is Deb's Souper Sundays... 
But there are other things taking up my time, and you can read some of them here!  I mean poems of course, and the more of them there are the better. Just like soup, and books, and flowers and pasta. Poems!  Yes, the more of them, the better. But, Imaginings in Verse will stay on the back burner for today, so that I can spend time here at Sweet Almond Tree. Where do I come up with these names? 
For this round of Cook the Books, we read "Sustenance and Desire, A Food Lover's Anthology of Sensuality and Humor"  

Chosen for us by Rachel, from the Crispy Cook, the book is edited by Anne Bascove, who goes by the mononym of Bascove, and Bascove also supplied the paintings appearing in the book, because after all she is an artist/illustrator.  Have a look:
Still Life with Eggplants
   
Still Life with Heirloom Tomatoes
There are some wonderful pieces of prose and lots of good poetry also that Bascove chose for this anthology.  Some of the authors represented are Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Marcel Proust, Allen Ginsberg, May Sarton...  should I go on? Get the picture? A lovely compilation, in a book that should stay on your shelf and be available to frolic with every so often.  
I decided to focus on a poem by Langston Hughes for my entry here. Not only is it a beautiful poem, but just yesterday, February 1st, was the commemoration of the author's birthday, so it seemed very apropos that I say thank you Mr. Hughes, your poetry has made a difference in our lives and in our culture.  The poem is called "Harlem Sweeties," and on the Internet it can be read here.
I was inspired by the poem to make a uniquely flavored drink.  
drops of honey, and sticks of cinnamon and a dusting of cocoa and a sprinkling of cloves
It contains honey, cinnamon, there is coffee for the most part because it is after all a type of coffee drink, there is cocoa also, and a few cloves are thrown into the mix.
All these earthy flavors are in keeping with Hughes' theme, which is that there is an untold and uncounted variety of hue in the integumentary aspects of Harlem sweeties, that there is a lusciousness in the skin color of people of color. Hughes is offering a hymn of praise to African Americans, and by extension to all people who show their courage by embracing their difference. Thank you Langston Hughes, and Happy Birthday!  


The recipe, Cinnamon Mocha Coffee, based on one from Taste of Home magazine:

Ingredients:

1/3 cup ground coffee
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup 2% milk
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
a few cloves

4 cinnamon sticks


Directions:
In a coffeemaker basket combine the coffee and cinnamon. Prepare four cups of brewed coffee according to the manufacturer's directions.
Meanwhile combine milk, sugar, cocoa, cloves and vanilla in a saucepan.  Cook over low heat for about seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain the hot milk mixture into four coffee cups, then add the cinnamon-flavored coffee.  Garnish with cinnamon sticks.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ROMAINE LETTUCE AND FENNEL SALAD: A GREEK SPRING GREENS SALAD


A very nice salad, light, refreshing, simple and quick to make but with lots of flavor. It's a popular late spring-early summer salad at the Greek table. That's the time of year when the ingredients in it can be found at their best and freshest in the garden.  Of course, if your vegetable garden is at the supermarket, as is mine, you can enjoy this salad anytime. Try it in the summer though.  It really is refreshing hot weather fare.  Here's how it's made:

Ingredients: 

3 romaine lettuce hearts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
1/2 of a fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
5 scallions chopped, use white and light green parts only
about 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of one small lemon
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions: 

Mix the fennel, dill, mint, and scallions.  



Add the lettuce and mix to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with the oil and lemon juice, then sprinkle the grated cheese on top.  Easy!



Saturday, November 2, 2013

PIZZA DOUGH, GREEK STYLE

Wish I had one slice left.  Even half a slice.  I would settle for half of a slice. Unfortunately it's all gone.  I am left with just the pictures.  And with the memories.  Ah, the taste memories!  I am eulogizing this pizza because it's not store bought, I made it myself.  Made the dough, arranged the toppings, even used zucchini from my garden, and handpicked the basil leaves from the plant that grows on my patio. So I had special feelings about this pizza.  We had a relationship.  It's over now.  The pizza has been eaten. 

What can I say?  Greeks love bread. I would wager it's every Greek's favorite thing to eat. So just about any Greek who cooks knows how to bake bread with homemade dough.  And they all like to argue about whose dough is the best. I long ago decided that there is no need to argue the point, since my dough is, if not the ultimate # 1 dough, then the ultimate #1.5 dough.  A difference of half a point is hardly worth arguing about.  Now we come to the subject of pizza.  Can you have pizza without dough?  Perhaps in an alternate universe that could be possible, but it would hardly be worth the experience. So since pizza depends on dough to become pizza, the pizza with the best dough makes the best pizza.  Perfect the art of making dough, and you will have perfected the art of making pizza. Another important thing in pizza making is to have a flavorful sauce. Not a bland unseasoned sauce, nor a strong over-seasoned one, not a runny sauce, and not an extra thick heavy sauce. Pretend you are a politician who has to tread the middle of the political spectrum, and then make your pizza sauce accordingly.  It will not be a middle of the road sauce, it will be a balanced sauce.

So I'll tell you how I make my pizza.  The recipe is tied and true, it makes pizza shop style pizza, and my family and I have been making it for 40 plus years.  It became perfected in the restaurant my parents owned.  I miss that place.  I worked there while going to college... and beyond.  We used 30 pounds of flour to make a batch of pizza dough.  That's a bit much if one is making pizza at home.  I've adjusted the ingredients to come up with a wonderful home version.

Ingredients:


4 cups bread flour
1½  cups very cold water (in summer we used to add ice to the water)
¼ cup vegetable or olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
a little more flour, cold water and vegetable or olive oil

Directions:


In the bowl of an electric mixer add the water, the salt, sugar, oil and yeast.  Using the paddle attachment mix until the ingredients are incorporated.  Switch to the dough hook and add the flour in 8 batches, mixing after each addition.  Mix until the dough is smooth and clears the sides of the bowl.  If it’s too wet and does not clear the sides sprinkle a little more flour into the bowl and mix until done. If the dough starts to wrap itself around the dough hook and looks as though it’s heading out of the bowl on its own, add some water.  You want a dough that is soft and just a little sticky.  
Sprinkle flour on the counter and transfer the dough onto it.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the parchment.  Cut the dough into pieces and weigh it:  14 ounces are good for a large pizza that will serve about 4 people, and 8 ounces are good for a smaller one that will serve about 2 people. 
Form each piece of dough into a round and place it on the sheet pan.  Brush the dough with oil, and cover the pan well, using a plastic bag. 
Place the pan in the refrigerator.  It should stay there to rest overnight. Any dough that will not be used the next day can be individually wrapped in plastic and placed in a freezer bag.  It can be kept in the freezer for 2 to 3 months.

To make a pizza, place a dough ball on the counter.  If frozen, let it come to room temperature.  Cover it with flour and flatten it with the palm of your hand.  Let it rest for 20 minutes and then flatten it to the appropriate size by using a rolling pin.

I like to bake my pizza in a pizza pan which is placed on top of a pizza stone. So at this point I place the dough in the pan and I stretch it with floured hands until it has reached the sides of the pan.  If the dough shrinks back from the sides, let it rest for a few minutes and it will become pliable and stay put.  I use a pan with a 14 inch diameter for a large pizza, and a pan with a 10 inch diameter for a small pizza. 

Once the dough is stretched out in the pan, it's time to spread on the sauce. Two tablespoons of sauce for the small pizza, or four tablespoons of sauce for the large one. After that I sprinkle on the cheese.

Why not add a nice touch like sesame seeds?  With just a touch of olive oil sprayed on the seeds...

At this point the dough has to rest again so that it can rise.  Cover it with plastic and let it rise for about 2 hours.  If the pizza will not be cooked after the 2 hours, it can wait in the refrigerator.  When ready to cook add any toppings that will be used.  The oven should be preheated to 500ยบ F. Place the pizza in the oven, on top of the pizza stone.  Baking time will be approximately 8 minutes.

If the top cooks before the bottom, next time move the pizza stone to a lower shelf.  If the bottom is nice and crisp before the cheese and toppings are browned, then next time the stone should be placed on a shelf that sits higher in the oven. 

Take the pizza out of the oven and with the use of a long knife or spatula transfer it to a cutting board.  Don’t slice it yet.  Inhale all the different aromas arising from the pizza.  You will smell the freshly baked dough, the caramelized cheese, the fragrance of roasted vegetables if any have been used.  You will feel the heat rising up from the pizza, and the heat will spin all those fragrances around the room.  Then look at all the lovely colors.  Admire the golden dough, the melted cheese…  or the ham, or the mushrooms or the pepperoni… is it any wonder pizza is the world’s favorite food?  Is there anyone who does not love pizza?  OK, it’s now time to stop admiring.  Your pizza, she is ready to be eaten. It needed a few minutes of admiration so that its beauty could be thoroughly appreciated, but also so that the cheese could set slightly and become easier to slice.  Well, what are you waiting for?  Slice that baby and… you know what to do after that.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

PIZZA QUATTRO STAGIONE for 'A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN"



I thought I knew all there was to know about pizza.  After all, I can make really good pizza, and I have been making it for years. (The secret of good pizza is in the dough.  If you have a good dough, chances are you'll have a good pizza).  But, surprise, I found out something new about pizza.  There exits a topping I didn't know of. No, it's not ham and pineapple.  It's quatro stagione, or four seasons pizza.  Quatro stagione pizza is topped with:

Marinated artichokes for springtime...

Tomato slices and fresh mozzarella for summer.  Sliced basil goes on after the pizza comes out of the oven.  I enjoyed slicing the basil, it gave off such a wonderful aroma...

Sauteed mushrooms and onions for autumn...

Ham, for winter.  I have three types of ham here.  Some I baked with the pizza, some I put on after the pizza came out of the oven, and some I picked on before I took this picture. So not all three types are clearly visible...

Make the pizza.  Dough, sauce, cheese.  Visually divide the pizza into four sections, and top each section accordingly.  The toppings can vary, as long as each section they are placed on represents one of the four seasons.

Bake and enjoy. Whoever thought of the concept of a four seasons pizza is a certified genius as far as I am concerned. It is a scrumptious pizza, a wonderful excuse for having a multi-topping pizza, except, in quattro stagione pizza the toppings are not piled one on top of the other, which truthfully, I find unappetizing.  Here, the toppings are artfully arranged on the pizza, giving it an air of sophistication.   And I like sophistication. Which is why I really liked reading the thriller A Very Private Gentleman, (1990), written by Martin Booth. As far as thrillers go, it reeks of sophistication. As do I. 

This is my contribution to Novel Food, the literary-culinary event hosted by Simona from Briciole. Read it, and then cook something that the reading has inspired you to prepare.  For this edition of Novel Food I enjoyed reading A Very Private Gentleman.  In one of my favorite chapters the main character takes his mistress to an out of the way restaurant where the two of them enjoy a bottle of wine and a "pizza quatro stagione." I loved the description of the event so, so much, that I wanted to be a patron at the very same countryside restaurant, ordering along with the protagonists.  


This is a thinking person's thriller, aesthetically pleasing, with an unforgettable protagonist. He is signor Farfala, thus called by the locals of the small town where he lives.  He is an artist who paints rare butterflies. Or so he pretends.  That's his cover.  In actuality, Signor Farfala, leads a life so secretive that even we, the readers, don't know his real name or nationality. He is well educated, a man of fine tastes.  He knows how to appreciate nature, art, architecture, good food and wine, good music and books, and he loves good company.  He always moves from place to place, sometimes because of work, sometimes to evade capture.  His real work is done in secret.  He is a gunsmith who crafts made-to-order weapons.  They carry a very high price tag because they are used for high level assassinations. He feels that he has helped to shape history, but now he is getting old and would like to retire.  When we meet him, he is promising that he's working on his last commission.  He likes the small Italian town where he's taken up residence, and he would like to settle there, in the company of Clara, a young student who moonlights as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. (Nothing wrong with that, right?).  Unfortunately, just as signor Farfala makes up his mind to settle down, he becomes aware that someone is after him.  And so the cat and mouse game begins... Booth's writing is clear, intelligent, tense and thought provoking.  A Very Private Gentleman is a first rate psychological thriller, a book that is hard to put down. The movie The American (2010), staring and produced by George Clooney, was based on this novel. The script has some significant differences from the novel, but both movie and book are first rate. With the release of the movie, the novel was republished under the same title as the movie.  So a very private gentleman was forced to become an American.  I don't think Martin Booth (who died in 2004), would have liked this change.  He didn't give his character a nationality, and I enjoyed trying to guess where signor Farfala could have come from.  
What's in a name?  Martin Booth's "The American," previously published as "A Very Private Gentleman."
And yes, I find George Clooney aesthetically pleasing. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

COOKING THE BOOKS WITH THE BAKER'S DAUGHTER

Have a pretzel roll.  They are slightly salty, doughy, soft and chewy.   The next best thing to a Philly pretzel!  Plus they make a nice snack if you want to take a break from reading "The Baker's Daughter,"  the novel which is featured for this round of Cook the Books Club.


I just finished reading "The Baker's Daughter," which unfortunately was a somewhat boring novel. Unfortunate, because it deals with very interesting subjects.  But this stuff has been written about before, and with a lot more suspense and style. Nothing new brought to the table here.  The storytelling is mushy, not even as palatable as overcooked spaghetti.
Novel:  The Baker’s Daughter.  Author:  Sarah McCoy.  Premise: Two main characters, both female.  One is a pretend Nazi, the other is a pretend vegan.  Here’s a question: if you had to, which of the two women would you rather be?  You might answer “I would rather be the pretend vegan,” since upon consideration it becomes clear to you it is the more ethical choice of the two.  Hold on though.  I would recommend that you choose to be the pretend Nazi.  Because, friends, it’s the pretend Nazi character who leads the more interesting life.  For one thing she is a baker extraordinaire. For another, she learns  all about the evils of Nazism and she forsakes them.  Not only that.  She saves the life of a Jewish boy.  Not only that.  She and the Jewish boy get to bake pretzels together.  Lots of pretzels.  Not only that.  She marries an American.  Not only that.  She moves to El Paso, Texas.  Not only that.  She opens up a German bakery.  Her life is filled with adventure and experience.  As for the pretend vegan…. I just could not understand why she wanted to pretend to be a vegan.  But she was really good at it.  Pretending, I mean.  To be a vegan.  Everyone believed her.  Except for me.  I knew it all along.  That girl ate dairy.
So the dairy eating girl is named Reba, and she is a journalist.  While on the job she meets Elsie, the German bakery owner.  They become fast friends and that's when we learn how each one arrived to the point where their lives converged.  It turns out that Reba has a boyfriend, a quite virile one, who is a border control officer.  Oh yes, I wouldn’t mind meeting him, but fine, I know he’s taken.  The virile boyfriend’s job is to locate illegal aliens and send them back whence they came.  It bothers Reba that these people are hunted down and deported.  She understands their struggle to escape poverty.  Eventually, Reba's boyfriend begins to question the effectiveness of his job.  Good for you Sarah McCoy, oh author of The Baker’s Daughter, for spinning a plot that confronts this issue. But you should have tried a little harder.  To make the story telling more interesting.  
While we're on the subject of illegal immigrants, I'd like to comment that it just seems every time our economy slides down the slippery slope there comes an outcry from certain political factions to curb illegal immigration.  As though the presence or absence of illegal aliens is the driving force of our economy. They're actually necessary and good for our economy, but they are not its driving force.  The vociferous bellowing against this minority helps to detract attention from the real problem at hand. Nice political trick.  Solving nothing.  Which is inherent in that sort of politics.
Back to the novel: what McCoy has done is engage her protagonists on a quest to find emotional maturity by coming to the realization that they cannot always follow traditional wisdom.

Sarah McCoy's novel The Baker's Daughter, is the reading selection for this round of "Cook the Books Club."  Read the book and cook something which is inspired by the reading.  In my case, the choice was simple, easy, clear.  I made pretzel rolls, inspired by Elsie's pretzel making marathons. 
PRETZELS! 
I live in the Philadelphia area. Pretzels are a ubiquitous snack here. What else was I going to make but something with the word pretzel in it?  I grew up eating soft pretzels.  At school they used to cost one nickel each, but in the “fancy” shops around town they would sell for one quarter each.  I gladly paid the quarter when school was closed.  One pretzel a day, and all was right with the world.  I liked my pretzel with a thin ribbon of mustard squeezed on top. The big trick was to eat the pretzel without dripping mustard on my clean outfit.  Come summertime, kids and adults alike would line up (and still line up) to buy fruit flavored water ice, and yes, the best accompaniment for water ice was and is a soft pretzel.  It’s a Philly thing. Pretzels were introduced to our neck of the woods in the late eighteenth century by German immigrants who began arriving here at that time. Since then, the soft pretzel became a Philadelphia tradition. Yes, thanks to a large population with German background, Philadelphia and its surrounding counties became the birthplace of the American pretzel industry.  In fact, even to this day, Pennsylvania produces the majority of our nation’s pretzels.  

To make pretzel rolls I used a recipe by Alton Brown from the Food Network.  It's a very good recipe, with a how-to video included.  I made the dough, then shaped it into rolls rather than pretzels. After all, pretzel rolls are quite a popular thing these days. And no, I will not make actual pretzels at home. Why mess with tradition?  I always buy my pretzels at the corner pretzel store.  I don't even mind that the price has gone up since I was a schoolgirl. Now they cost “two for a dollar,”  or seventy five cents for one, but... the mustard is still free.  

This has been my contribution to "Cook the Books Club."  Read the book, cook something delicious inspired by the book, then blog about it.  Submissions are due every two months, and a winner is chosen from among the participants.  If you like to read and cook, this is the internet club you should join!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

CORN ON THE COB GRILLED WITH FRESH HERBS

Corn on the cob on the grill.  A great way to enjoy summer sweet corn!  This corn was as fresh as it could be.  I bought it just a few hours after it was picked, and at a really sweet price too, 4 for $1.00. I often grill corn.  I love eating it hot, crunchy and slightly charred, but with kernels that are still juicy and sweet below their crispy coat. The best way to grill corn is to wrap it in aluminum foil, and I have been cooking it this way for more years than I can count. I never considered improving on the taste, not until I came across a picture on the Food Network of corn grilled in foil but with lots of herbs added in for extra taste.  Well, go figure. I grow herbs and I have a clear view of my little herb garden from where the grill is set up.  Yet, never once did I consider adding some of those herbs I stare at when I'm grilling to the corn cooking in front of me. OK, thank you Food Network for kicking my brain into gear. 
So pick some rosemary, some thyme, some lemon thyme... 






Don't forget the basil...
Place the corn on a piece of foil and add the herbs...

Yes, go ahead add a little lemon if you like, definitely add the garlic, then drizzle some olive oil on top...
Then add a little butter and some salt and pepper. Wrap the the foil over the corn and form a tight seal.  Wrap in the same manner with another layer of foil.  You'll have a nice sturdy packet, ready for the grill...
Grill on both sides, tear up the foil and pull out the corn.  Bite into it and taste the hints of each herb used.  A fantastic departure from ordinary grilled corn.  Simple, fast, delicious!