Sunday, January 31, 2010

Calendar: Two Thousand Ten - February

This is the third year in which I've created a calendar of my photos to share with family and a couple of friends. I decided to use the calendar as blog-fodder; once a month I'll be able to write about the calendar picture. (For all pictures, click to see a bigger version!)

February's photo is from The Burren, in Ireland. It's a wind-swept, rocky place, rather hilly. I drove there with my friends Sue and Deirdre from "our" cottage in County Clare (Sue's cousin's, really, but who's counting?).

Driving there was quite exciting, an hour's drive on the teeniest country roads you've ever seen - and on the wrong side, of course! It takes a LOT of concentration to drive down a steep road with hairpin curves AND stay in the leftish lane.

We parked near a farm, barely able to squeeze off the road, and then hiked up up up the hill to the top of the world.  Our car is down by that farmhouse in the center of the picture:

I loved the stone walls that served a dual purpose: they cleared the fields of rocks, and penned in any cattle that might be grazing in the now-cleared fields. The walls were rather porous, a fact I illustrated in the top photo (which wound up being February), and here, in a close-up:

Some of the walls clearly didn't serve any real purpose any more (if ever they had):

Except maybe to provide safe nooks for flowers to grow:

Above: Common Dog-violet; below: Early-purple Orchid. Both were SO small.

It felt like were were on the top of the world. It was great!

mostly pictures, some text

Here's an overhead shot of the beds in the garden. They're empty for now - I need to figure out drainage (gravel?) then we have to get soil, then we have to figure out planting. Sigh. But it's going forward!
They are beautiful, made of redwood, and measure about 4x4 and 18 inches deep. They're going to produce a LOT of awesomeness. I hope!

Also, my knitting is coming along. I started this sweater last March, put it down in April, and will have it finished sometime in February. (I was hoping for January, but.. that's today, so, I don't think I'll make it.)

I've got some Meyer lemons, mandarin oranges, and fresh rosemary from some coworkers' yard. I'm going to make lemon OR citrus curd, and rosemary shortbread. But I'd better get cracking: it's just past noon.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Garden project update!

It's been a few months since I posted about the garden project. Truthfully, it's been a while since there's been anything worth writing! But we're finally making steps in the right direction. The building manager finally got us some wood (actually completely unexpected, but the building owners gave it the okay). As a reminder of the situation, here's an overhead shot taken out my window in September:

Last September

The middle area clearly used to be a pool at some point. We're going to take over the dirt-filled part of the pool, and built beds to cover the first third of it - the part in the middle of the pic closest to the table & chairs. That area gets a TON of sunshine in the summer, and even in the winter gets a few hours per day, so it's going to do really well. Here's T preparing the area (note the dual-purpose rain/garden boots!):

Here are the beds being built upside down - the legs got buried in the ground to anchor the bed:

And here's the thing of beauty ready to be installed:

We have two 4x4 beds side by side. It started raining pretty much right after they were installed and hasn't stopped for a couple of weeks, but I'm hoping to get a picture this weekend if it stays dry.

Here's some of us weeding the beds (at the top of the picture taken from my apartment) - note the lemon tree putting out a ton of fruit just behind us.

And look! A tiny harvest!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Recipe Review: Chickpea Cashew Curry

Did I mention I got a food processor? And a Dutch oven? See, it's been so long since I blogged I can't remember. Plus, my head is a sieve.

Anyway, if I didn't: I did! I've wanted both items for a year and decided it is TIME, past time, to buy something I want, can afford, will use, and won't get from anyone else. I preach fiscal conservatism, but not ongoing self-denial.

So, new gadgets made me look for recipes that would require lots of chopping & cooking, and boy did I find one. Two, in fact! The Oyster Evangelist's post about Chickpea Cashew Curry caught my eye. She based her recipe on Pithy and Cleaver's Chana Masala. So what did I do? I made both. And no, reader, I did not cut either of them in half or thirds. I now have chana masala in the freezer, have eaten it for a number of meals, fed it to my lunch group, and STILL have some in the fridge. Do you think I'll ever learn?? (Side note, not sure it'll thaw okay, but one friend pointed out I could just puree it and use it as a dip if the texture is less-than-pleasing.)

So anyway, the recipe. I'll just paraphrase to save time. Follow the links above to actually recreate these.
1. Get some really cool spices. Put them in oil and heat on low to infuse the oil with the spices. For future reference, I'd use a smaller pot - my spices weren't fully immersed so I don't think I got all their goodness into the oil.

2. Shred a metric ton of onions. Squee with delight when your shiny new toy chews through them in seconds. Brush from your consciousness that you nearly fill a 12-cup food processor TWICE. Nah, that's not too many onions for one person.

3. Put the onions into the spice-infused oil (having removed the spices!) and cook on low for hours. No, I'm not kidding. Again ignore the evidence that maybe you're going a wee bit overboard.

4a & b Some of the onions are carmelized with spices (for the chickpea cashew curry); some are not (for the chana masala):

5. Follow the directions for the recipes and enjoy the results. Here's the chickpea cashew curry:

Marvel over your genius. Realize you went way the hell over the top. Hope fervently you can bring yourself to make & eat these recipes again someday. For the record, they were both excellent and totally worth the effort. I had a slight preference for the chickpea cashew curry.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Recipe Review: my Gingerbread Flan

so, I invented a recipe for gingerbread flan. I brought it to a dinner party on Friday night, where it was enthusiastically received. Even the two who don't usually like flan said they really liked this one, so yay! (edited to add: the flavor was good, but more pumpkin pie-like than gingerbready. I think less cinnamon, more cloves, maybe some ground pepper next time.)

However, there's room for improvement. The carmelized sugar mostly stayed inside the ramekin, rather than puddling luciously onto the custard when I overturned it onto a plate. Sigh. I suspect that if I make the topping from the post on the Pioneer Woman's blog, it may work better - the carmel I made was just sugar & water; the other one is sugar, water, corn syrup, and some acid, so I expect the texture is a lot less solid.

Here's my sample that I tested the night before I served it:

Note all the goodness still stuck in the ramekin. Sigh. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Recipe: Gingerbread Flan

This is a recipe of my own devising. I was first inspired by a guest post on The Pioneer Woman's blog - the post was for pumpkin leche flan. First I had to get ramekins, so I asked for some for Christmas (and got them, thanks to my family!). (Another food blogger inspired that request - I asked for the ones that Deb recommended.)

But now it's January, and I'm a little bit over pumpkin. Don't get me wrong - I'm still a fool for it, but I've had a goodly amount of it lately. I tried to think what might be wintery, but still good with the carmel that goes with flan, and decided that gingerbread flan sounded intruiging!

Ingredients, and recipe creation.

So, I searched for gingerbread flan recipes. I didn't get a lot of hits, but this one seemed to have a good spice mixture, so I cribbed that part of the recipe. Finally, I referenced the Joy of Cooking to get their take on flan, and to use for the carmel sauce when I realized I didn't have corn syrup and I wanted to get started. I also wanted to make a bit more filling and a bit more sauce, so I used the Joy of Cooking to help me scale the recipe up just a teeny bit. I also decided to use their slightly-lower-temp & longer-time baking instructions.

So here we go!  

Gingerbread flan

 - Set out 8 small (6-ounce) ramekins.
 - Put a full kettle of water on to boil (lower to a simmer if it's boiling before you need it)
 - Set out a roasting pan large enough to hold all the ramekins; line it with a towel.
 - Remove extra oven racks; leave one at the lowest level (I just moved my other rack to the top slot)
 - Preheat oven to 325.

For the sauce, which gets poured into the bottom of the ramekins:
1 c sugar
1/4 c + 1 T water

Combine the sugar & water in a small pot. Do not stir - turn the burner to medium high and swirl the ingredients occasionally. You want to make sure the water & sugar are mixed well before they start boiling. It will boil merrily along for at least 10-15 minutes (on my dinky stove, at least).

Look at that lovely color! 
I could have used a wet brush to moosh the sugar on the side back into the syrup.

Eventually it will turn golden in color - keep an eye on it, and when it's a nice amber tone, remove it from the heat and carefully pour it into the ramekins (have them on your stove or some other nearby and easy-to-clean surface). Let the carmel harden.

Ramekins with carmel.

While the sauce is boiling away, in a large bowl combine:
4 eggs
3 egg yolks
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract (I used my own!)

1 T molasses (I used blackstrap)
1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves

You can use a whisk to start combining these ingredients, but I was most successful with my beloved immersion blender. Combine thoroughly, with a minimum of frothing. Then strain the ingredients at least 3 times, alternating between two bowls. You want to remove any bubbles or other lumps. (This technique is from the pumpkin leche flan recipe, and I don't know that it's strictly necessary, but I figured it couldn't hurt.)

Triple-filtered - because I am thorough, or gullible.

By now the carmel in the ramekins should be hardened. Carefully pour the liquid mixture into the ramekins, filling them most of the way but NOT to the top. (I noticed some cracking noises at about this point - I think the carmel was cracking. I don't know what to make of that, but I think it's okay.)

Cover each ramekin tightly with foil. Set them in the towel-lined roasting pan (I gather that the towel helps keep the contents from cooking too fast; I didn't have the nerve to skip that step!). Set the roasting pan in the oven and carefully pour the water from your kettle into the pan. Fill it with water so that the ramekins are half immersed.

Ready for the hot water, and then the oven.

Bake at 325 for 45-60 minutes, until they jiggle only slightly. They will be HOT - I used tongs to handle the ramekins. If you have canning equipment, jar tongs might work well.

Cool on a rack for a while, then in the fridge for 2-48 hours. Serve by inverting onto a plate - note that the idea is that the carmel topping will now be a bit saucy, so be sure to use a plate that has an edge, or you'll risk losing the sauce (and making a mess of your tablecloth).

I made a small sample ramekin for me to test later; the rest are for a dinner on Friday night. This is the first flan I ever made; it required concentration but didn't feel difficult in any way. Stay tuned for my review!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Recipe Review: Clams & Bucatini for 1

Last night I made Clams & Bucatini for one as created by Joy, the Oyster Evangelist. Short story: it was delicious! It's interesting, but I realized I've never cooked shellfish before. I've been at a friend's for a clam bake, and a LONG time ago spent a winter weekend on the Oregon coast with friends, where we got permits to dig clams up by moonlight, and our friend Chef Dave cooked them.

But I've never done shellfish myself. I forget what kind I got, but comparing the pictures, I can see that mine were quite a bit bigger than the cockles or littlenecks that Joy recommended. Mine took 5-7 minutes to cook, but in the end they DID all open (and yes, I know not to eat the ones that won't open on their own!).  I got enough for two generous nights' worth, because I don't mind eating leftovers but I DO mind cooking every night.

I ate half last night, and stored the rest of the pasta for tonight. I removed the leftover clams from their shells and stored them separately from the pasta. Then I reheated the pasta and added the clams, but then still needed to heat it all a bit more.

It was delicous! It would be a very easy and impressive meal for company as well.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Recipe Review, continued: Marshmallows!

Whew. I wound up letting the marshmallow mass I made sit for over 24 hours, since I had to work today, and they were still pretty sticky last night. I think the extra time was good for them, but it certainly didn't hurt.

I used the tinfoil to lift them out of the pan, then peeled the foil off. I used a sharp knife (liberally dusted with cornstarch & confectioner's sugar) to cut them up. It was quite messy!

I put them in a bag with more of the cornstarch/sugar, and shook it up, to try to seal the sticky edges. Finally, I piled them into a pan:

But really, the most important thing was USING them, right? Fortunately I was headed to my local grocery store, where I pondered the many fancy drinking chocolates/hot chocolates/powdered chocolates/shaved was rather dizzying. I wound up buying something I've been curious about for quite a while: Ibarra Mexican table chocolate. It was about half the price of all the other options (it cost $3.89, I think) and had a LOT more servings in the package: 24, or two wedges per serving.

I was surprised to find that the chocolate is in a pretty solid cake - it took some effort to cut off two wedges. You're supposed to heat milk, add it and the chocolate to a blender, and puree it. I microwaved a cup of milk, added the chocolate, heated another 30 seconds, then used my immersible blender to do the honors. Then, of course, I topped with a marshmallow!

It was terrific.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Recipe Review: Marshmallows

I've been aware of what I'll call gourmet marshmallows for at least a couple of years. Catalogs like Crate & Barrel and the Pottery Barn have been selling them for a while, but I've never yet had one.

More recently I've seen a number of blog posts that reference home-made marshmallow, and I've finally taken the plunge. I admit that I didn't compare a bunch of recipes; I went with this one from Not Without Salt and am so far cautiously optimistic. It's very easy: let some gelatin get wet while cooking water, sugar, corn syrup, and a bit of salt in a pan. The tricky bit was getting the mixture up to 240 degrees - my stovetop seemed happy to sit at 215 for a LONG time. I finally mostly-covered the boiling liquid to keep more heat in, and that seemed to help. I was terrified it would boil over and make a horrific mess, but it didn't.

 Once I finally got the stovetop mixture to 240, I added it to the gelatin and started whipping it madly. Boy do I continue to love my mixer. The combined ingredients went from a cloudy, hot liquid:

To a gooey white mass almost instantly:

Now I have to let them sit for a few more hours (or overnight! ha! as if I could wait that long) before I can try them. I can confirm that I licked the bowl after turning out the marshmallows. I feel a bit jittery and have a small headache, so they must be good!

I'll add a note later with the report. Stay tuned, true believers! 

Final note: next time, try adding peppermint extract! 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Calendar: Two Thousand Ten - January

January's calendar image comes from the remains of Holyrood Abbey, in Edinburgh. The ruins are over 800 years old! They're on the grounds of Holyrood Palace, at the foot of the Royal Mile.

I was quite taken with the stonework - it was dramatic on that drizzly day, and refreshing after we spent time indoors touring Holyrood Palace.

I especially liked this gravestone from 1812 reminding us "Of the uncertainty of human life, / And the instability of earthly possessions / And enjoyments." - Yet another reminder to value experiences over things!