Comfort food = candied cherries


We (meaning: Tim and I) are under a bit of stress. Our house isn’t selling, and in fact, no one is even looking. I know — this story is a common one at this point in our great democracy with its wonders of capitalism. But it’s not only close to home right now, it is our home, the very home we are packing up and leaving in about 5 weeks.

So what do you do? Well, if you are me, you slip into a comfortable place of not necessarily denial, but perhaps willing suspension of belief. And, you make things to eat.

I’m looking for little bits of happy anywhere I can get them. And in Monday’s produce box, those bits came in the form of organic bing cherries. I had passed on buying a few pounds at Kroger earlier that day, my sacrifice for staying in-budget. And that night, there they were — little orbs of deep-red decadence. We ate a few right then and there, but the whole reason I’d been eyeing them at the grocery was so I could make candied cherries. To put in ice cream. So that we could eat Toasted Almond-Candied Cherry-Fudge Swirl ice cream. Make your head spin? Mine, too. In a good, delirious, forget-potential-financial-disasters sort of way.

Like most things I cook for the first time, I didn’t realize how easy it’d be. No candy thermometer necessary, no watching for ball stages, no corn syrup (although I did use that in the fudge swirl). Just sugar, water, cherries, lemon juice, and a drop (literally) of almond extract. The hardest part was pitting the cherries which — minus the appropriate gadget — I did with a pairing knife, and it took about 10 minutes for a pound. Nice, therapeutic work, while my kids were all napping.

Today I put it all together into the ice cream. Have I used the word decadent already, in this post? We had friends over for dinner, and all had a bowl for dessert. But there’s more in the freezer, and my guess is that I’ll be drowning my worries in a second helping, here in about five.

If your current financial status doesn’t have you mapping out an emergency plan, you might not need to go as far as making the ice cream, which is on the labor-intensive side, with all its many homemade mix-ins.  But if you like cherries, consider buying a pound and trying this. You could stir it into store-bought vanilla or chocolate. And the leftover syrup makes a great topping for both ice cream and plain yogurt.

Next post: a successful first-attempt at homemade mozzarella! (Can you tell that there is apparently a proportional relationship between my stress level and my consumption of dairy?)

Candied Cherries (from The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz)

  • 1 pound fresh cherries
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 drop almond extract (careful with this — too much can ruin it)

Stem and pit the cherries. Heat the cherries, water, sugar, and lemon juice in a large saucepan until the liquid starts to boil. Turn down the heat to a low boil and cook the cherries for 25-35 minutes, stirring frequently toward the end to prevent sticking. Once the liquid is the consistency of maple syrup, remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the almond extract. Let the cherries cool in the syrup.

If you’re mixing them in to ice cream, let the cherries drain in a strainer for about an hour (reserve the syrup for another use). Coarsely chop the drained cherries and fold them into 1 quart of softened (or just-churned) ice cream. If not using them right away, they keep in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.

Freezer meal #3: Risotto with peas, zucchini and ham


I have never cooked a ham. Most other pork products, I’m well-acquainted with: the tenderloin, the roast, the chop, prosciutto, and of course my beloved bacon. But a ham? It’s just never appealed to me. Not sure why.

But my mother-in-law does serve ham, and I’m always happy to eat it when she does. She was here a few months ago, to care for our older two children while Tim, the Wee One and I traipsed to Utah. When I returned, she had left in my refrigerator the remnants of a cooked ham, pulled off the bone, and the bone itself, which was used in the split-pea soup that set off this whole Freezer series. I made some ham salad, and stuck the rest of the leftovers in the freezer.

That’s what I pulled out a few days ago — frozen chunks of cooked ham. From that and last week’s veggie box, I pulled together a lovely risotto. Although, it wasn’t a true risotto, since I only had about 1/4 cup of arborio rice on hand; since one of my self-imposed rules for this cooking series is that I must only use what I already have in the house, I simply replaced what was lacking (an additional 1 1/4 cups) with regular long-grain white rice. But it was delicious all the same, even with the slightly different (and less creamy) texture.

This recipe, like a few others, is based on one from Everyday Food. Theirs was a vegetarian spring risotto, but the ham added a lot of flavor, and a main-course depth that is missing in the original version. I loved it, almost enough to try my hand at cooking a ham someday. Or, continue to skip the ham-baking, and just replace it with another favorite pork product.

The meat wasn’t very fatty, so I started my sauté with butter (or olive oil) rather than rendering the pork fat. But sautéeing the pre-cooked ham does add flavor, so don’t skip that step.

Risotto with peas, zucchini and ham

  • 3 1/2 cups chicken stock (or [2] 14.5-oz cans reduced-sodium chicken broth)
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 1 pound zucchini (1 to 2 large), cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • about 1 cup cooked ham, diced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (about 1/2 medium onion)
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice (or medium- or long-grain white rice)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (a great reason to get a 4-pack of little chardonnay bottles)
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan

In a small saucepan, heat the stock (or broth) and 2 1/2 cups water over low heat (do not boil, but keep it warm). Meanwhile, melt 2 Tbsp butter in a 12-inch, straight-sided skillet (or 3-quart saucepan) over medium heat. Add zucchini, and season with salt and pepper. Cook about 4-5 minutes, then add the ham. Continue to cook until the zucchini is golden, about 5 more minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer zucchini and ham to a plate.

Reduce heat to med-low. Add onion, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper. Raise heat to medium, and add rice. Cook, stirring, until translucent around the edges, about 3 minutes. Add the wine, and cook until absorbed, about 2 minutes.

Continue to cook, adding about 1 cup hot broth at a time, stirring frequently until almost all is absorbed before adding more. It should take about 25-30 minutes to add all of the broth and for the rice too cook to tender.

Add zucchini, ham, and peas. Cook until peas are warm and bright green, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in remaining 1 Tbsp butter, and parmesan. Taste for seasoning, and serve topped with more cheese.


Inspiration and change

I’m currently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Someone asked me the other day what I would recommend reading first: the Kingsolver book, or one of Pollan’s books. After some thought, I recommended Pollan’s books first, specifically The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While I’ll admit the slightest possibility that my recommendation was influenced by my own reading order of these books, I think it also logically works: Omnivore tells you what’s wrong with the way we eat; In Defense of Food tells you how to fix that; and AVM further tells you how to eat, to an extreme.

The Kingsolver book is very inspiring — for example, after reading her section on making cheese, I ordered rennet and cheesecloth because I couldn’t go another month of life without making homemade mozzarella (since I’m technically reading this book for Book Club, I’m also planning to use this as my contribution to our required book-appropriate-snack material). But it has its slight annoyances too — she’s a touch arrogant with all her localized-farm-ness, and even though she tries to mitigate this with some self-deprecating humor (wait… did I just describe myself?), it doesn’t quite do the trick. I’m only halfway through, but thus far I’d recommend it heartily, with the tiniest disclaimer that if you live in a place where you can’t grow a garden, you might end up frustrated.

Here’s a passage I enjoyed, that sums up the fact that our thinking about food goes hand-in-hand with our thinking on just about everything else in life:

The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint — virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example…  “Blah blah blah,” hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.

The words ring true, but I am still left wondering how far to go with a seasonal mantra. I’ve thought of myself, in recent years, as being a “seasonal” cook and eater. But as I type, my peripheral vision captures a bowl of bananas and apples, and across the kitchen a few grapefruit (from our last veggie box) seem to be saying, “really? a grapefruit in June?” I can obsess over things; if I carry this thinking out to its full, logical, Kingsolveresque conclusion, I could become a real food Nazi. And I’m not sure that would be fun, for me or my family.


Meantime, in other news: I need to move this blog. When I started it, two years ago, I made a conscious decision to self-host, and run it with a downloaded version of WordPress. The reasons had to do with wanting freedom over design and content. Funny thing, though: the design hasn’t changed in two years. And ironically, I want to change some of the content, but have no idea how. So I’m going to move to a blogger site, which will hopefully be more user-friendly on both my and your ends. The problem has been the transfer: there was no easy way to move all the 140 posts I’ve written, so I’ve been having to copy/paste/re-edit every single post, by hand. It’s taking for-freaking-ever. But the end is in sight, and then I’ll just need to do that last thing: actually redesign the header.

Oh, and the other casualty (outside of my writing of late and my spare time) is the blog’s name. Turns out several people out there had the idea that “Thought for Food” was a good name for a blog. Since I want the blog’s name to be consistent with the address (novel idea), a change was necessary.

I’ll post the link when it moves. But don’t hold your breath. These things can be unpredictable.

On knowing when to stop, and regroup

If you decide to make mint ice cream with chocolate chips, and go outside to your abundance of wildly-growing (I know someone planted it sometime, but it’s still growing, wildly) mint to gather cuttings, and you realize as you bring it in that it’s spearmint, not mint mint, just STOP.  Stop, and think. Will spearmint ice cream be worth the effort? You will most likely come to the conclusion that it’s not. If you come to that conclusion, you are a better person than I am. If you don’t, you too will end up with a liter of spearmint-chocolate chip ice cream that no one is going to eat.

Dairy-free banana-chocolate chip muffins

These were inspired by our first experience at Ike and Jane’s (a more thorough post will come, eventually, about that eatery). We were all enjoying glazed and sprinkled confections; except my 3-year old, who was having his usual brought-from-home breakfast of cereal and soymilk. Out of pity for him, but without much hope, we inquired whether they had any dairy-free offerings. They did, some delicious yet simple banana-chocolate-chip muffins. I figured something like that would freeze well, so I dug around in my cookbooks for a recipe that looked like it’d be easy to alter. Found what I was looking for, in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook; took out the dairy, added some whole wheat, and this is what we have. A keeper, for sure. If you’re not avoiding dairy, you can make the muffins with butter in place of the oil — just use a stick (8 Tbsp) of unsalted butter, melted. This recipe was originally intended as quickbread, so you can alternatively use a greased standard loaf pan, and bake 50-60 minutes.

Banana-Chocolate Chip Muffins (dairy-free)
(about 15 muffins)

  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 3-4 medium bananas)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (Ghirardelli semi-sweet chips have no dairy)

Heat oven to 350º. Grease muffin tins, or line with paper cups. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the oil, sugar, and eggs for 2 minutes. Add the banana and vanilla, and mix on low speed until combined. Mix in the flour mixture by hand, using a large rubber spatula, until about halfway blended. Then add the chocolate chips, and continue stirring by hand until just blended (careful not to overmix). Fill muffin cups about 4/5 full. Bake about 25 minutes, or until golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the middle of several cupcakes comes out clean. Let cool (in tins) on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then remove the cupcakes to cool completely. Can be frozen in a ziplock back for about 4-6 weeks.


Freezer meal #2: Squash and turnip gratin

squash gratin

Dig #2 revealed a bag of chopped acorn squash and turnips. I’m sure I did something simple with the original used quantity of these wintry vegetables, like roasting with olive oil. That seemed a little too January for a hot June day, so I opted to find a twist. I followed the adage when in doubt, add cheese. Hence, the gratin — which turned out quite nicely, I think. It was served aside baked herbed chicken and sautéed green beans.

I sourced several recipes to pull this together, and I’m not completely sure that what I ended up with was a true gratin; the sources varied quite a bit. Joy of Cooking describes a gratin as simply covering a dish with breadcrumbs or cheese and letting it brown under a broiler. But many of the recipes included a milk/cheese/egg mixture that was poured over, with no breadcrumbs at all, suggesting something more quiche-like. Either way, your adding a crunchy crumb topping or cheese, and with those it’s hard to go wrong. I found that fresh herbs go a long way in making something simple go from simply boring to simply lovely; so if you don’t grow any, I encourage you to start with some parsley (my favorite variety is Italian, or flat-leaf), thyme and basil, and see how far they get you on a night when dinner is an experiment.

Winter squash and turnip gratin

  • about 4 cups peeled and chopped (appx. 1″ pieces) winter squash and turnips
    (you could do this with all squash, but I wouldn’t do it with all turnip, since they are so strong)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tsp minced fresh sage (or a pinch of dried sage)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup milk (2% or whole)
  • 1 oz. parmesan, grated (about 1/4 cup — don’t use the powdered kind)

Preheat oven to 425º (on a hot day, you’ll appreciate a countertop convection oven for recipes like this). Place squash and turnip pieces in an 8×8″ (or smaller — as long as they fit) baking dish, and drizzle with 1 Tbsp of the oil. Add salt and pepper to taste, toss to coat, and bake for about 25 minutes, or until the pieces are tender. Remove from the oven (this can be done ahead, and refrigerated until ready to finish).

Meanwhile, heat another Tbsp olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sautée the onion until tender but not brown, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the parsley, sage, and cooked squash/turnip mixture (keep your original baking dish handy; no need to wash it), and stir to mix well. Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat together the eggs and milk with 1/4 tsp salt and pepper to taste. Pour the squash/turnip mixture back into your baking dish, and pour the egg mixture on top. Top with grated parmesan, return to the oven, and bake another 15-20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the eggs are set. Serve warm.


Bad Idea Jeans

I’m not really sure how to write about our evening Saturday night with The Four Coursemen. Perhaps by starting with what I remember?

We arrived at the house a little after 7:30, with a bottle of wine in-hand. The email said that while paired tasting pours would be provided with each course, you were welcome to bring anything with you that you might want to drink before or after dinner. We took that as a gentle suggestion to show up with some form of alcohol, so we brought a decent (by our standards) bottle. The location of the dinner was a historic shotgun house in an eclectic part of Athens; we had thought it was the living quarters of one of the chefs, but it’s just a house that they use to cook and host dinners. A classic shotgun, it has 4 rooms, all in one line, with an entryway in the middle; the front room is for before- and after-dinner gathering, the middle room is the dining room, lined with two long tables (each sits about a dozen people), followed by the kitchen and a bathroom.

We arrived to an already-assembled group of guests mingling outside, and were greeted by two nice women who took our wine, opened it for us, and brought us glasses. They encouraged us to mingle, and informed that we’d be gathering at the tables a little before 8 o’clock. The place was sparsely furnished with mid-century pieces and bold, stylized chrysanthemum paintings. A 1940’s refrigerator stood in the corner of the lounge, seeming completely at-home. The dining room was lit solely with candles, and a look beyond showed the kitchen, with its industrial oven and prep-table abuzz with laid-back yet precise preparations. We were encouraged to take a peak into the kitchen, and you had to walk through it to get to the bathroom; the chefs, even while busy at work, were friendly and casual and overall created a warm, homey atmosphere.

We were called to dinner, and sat at a table filled mostly with individual couples (the other table had a party of 12). The way it worked was, before each course, a chef would describe the thought behind its creation, and then the wine girl would explain how she paired the drink with the dish. It was immediately clear that, while these guys think a lot about what they create, that this is definitely their pallette for experimentation. Descriptions were followed by phrases such as, “so, enjoy — I hope it works!” They couldn’t have been experimenting on a more eager crowd of people; everyone in attendance seemed to understand that we were participants to a unique eating experience. The food was delivered by the chefs (plus a couple other assistants? I couldn’t really keep up with who was who), and the drink poured by the same. You were instructed to keep your utensils, and the drinks were repeatedly poured into the same glass (there’s no industrial dishwasher; on a trip to the bathroom, I saw the wine girl hand-washing dinner plates in a regular kitchen sink).

I wanted to link to the menu, but so far they still haven’t put it up on the website. It’s hard to give an idea of the balance of experimentation and elegance we experienced without writing it all out:


Smoked Crawfish w/ Frissee & Carrot Mignonette
Brooklyn Schneider, Hopfen-Weisse, NY, NV

Grilled Watermelon w/ Ricotta Salata, Lemon Basil & Black Licorice Vinaigrette
w/ Loredonna, Viognier, CA, ’08

Poached Farm Egg w/ Morels, Pickled Garlic & Dandelion Greens
w/ Leal Vineyards, Chardonnay, CA, ’05

Seared Ostrich Filet w/ Blueberry Sauce, Jellied Preserved Lemon & Foie Gras
w/ Glen Carlou, “Grand Classique,” SA, ’03

Trio of Ice Cream: Cheese, Pickle, Bread
w/ Gloria Ferrar, Blanc De Blanc, CA, ’04


The whole experience started and ended with success, albeit sometimes surprising and unbelievable. In between were a scattered a question mark or two, but nothing was a failure. Early on, we were wowed by the grilled watermelon salad; it was reminiscent of a watermelon-feta salad we had once at Five & Ten (we later heard that dish had been written up in In Style magazine). I’m not a huge watermelon fan, but something about the acid in the vinaigrette and rough texture of the cheese made it delectable, and I found myself scooping every last drop of leftover juice and dressing from the shallow bowl. The poached farm egg was a work of art on our plates; pristine white, perfectly-shaped, impeccably cooked — it was the poached egg that I will never produce. The foie gras was described, a little tongue-in-cheek, as being from “as happy a duck as a foie gras duck can be,” and was buttery in texture, a perfect fatty complement to the lean ostrich (which I had never had). Tim and I agreed that the jellied preserved lemon, presented as a cubic jewel opposite the filet, was too intense a flavor to really complement the rest of the dish; even eaten as in-between bites of filet, it overwhelmed the subtle flavors of meat and blueberry sauce (which together, alone, were perfect).

At this point in the story, we come to dessert. But before I describe in detail the characteristics of pickle ice cream, I must point to a weakness, for me, in this whole dinner setup. The title of this post recalls the spoof ads that ran on Saturday Night Live in the 90s(?). One could say that the following easily add up to something that would qualify as a bad idea:

  • A smallish mother of three who doesn’t get out much
  • A before-dinner small glass of wine (from the bottle we brought)
  • A five-course ‘tasting menu’ consisting of the most minuscule proportions
  • 3-oz tasting pours of alcohol served with each course (3 ounces? Is that normal?)

Are you following me here? Let’s just say that, by dessert, I was wondering not only how I was going to adequately write about dinner, but more immediately important — how I was going to walk to the car. I am an unbearable lightweight, which is, most of the time, pretty convenient. It means I just don’t drink much — I’m a one-drink girl. Now, why I didn’t think through the consequences of the proportions of the evening, well — I’m going to conveniently blame that on several things outside of myself: the fact that I thought I’d actually be eating dinner, rather than bites here and there of delicious food; the upbeat, somewhat magical atmosphere of the evening; and the rare occasion to actually partake of wines that have been perfectly paired with food — it was an amazing experience, and I didn’t want to miss out on a single bite/sip (to my detriment).

So, to those crazy ice creams: they were a delight. The cheese ice cream was made from raclette, a stinky Swiss cheese used in a traditional broiled dish of the same name. The pickle variety had, well, diced pickles. And the bread ice cream had a yeasty flavor, topped with bread crumbs. They were admittedly odd — the oddest being the pickles. But the cheese and bread varieties, I would’ve brought home a quart (the inherent question there being whether I would’ve wondered why the next day).

The overall consensus: the evening was great fun. We sat across from a friendly and interesting young couple, fresh out of school. Can’t remember their names to save a life, but they were both destined for big cities with big plans, and by the end of the evening I felt as if we’d made friends of strangers (friends, er, who’s names we don’t know).  I would love it if they could find a way to serve a little more food; this way, I wouldn’t feel like I needed to eat a pb&j before I went. A cup of coffee or tea at the end of the meal would be nice, too. The dining room was also unbearably loud at times, but I talked to a hostess who said they’re working on fixing that; but in some ways, it underscores the novelty of eating not at a restaurant, but at someone’s house. Like walking through the kitchen to get to the bathroom, you can’t help but feel you are at an intimate party with 24 of the closest friends you’ve never met. Which has its charm.

I say go. It’s totally worth the money (sheepish confession: we were actually short on the cash, because of a forgotten previous purchase, so I guess when I ask if they can cook more food, they can return with their own legitimate request). It’s a rare treat, especially in a town this size. So get on their mailing list, set aside your moneys, designate a driver with a healthy tolerance, and enjoy the art of The Four.