It's hot. No, it's really hot. Too hot to cook. But browsing through Bon Appetit magazine I saw a recipe for a peach dessert with lavender syrup. Tasty, no doubt, but requiring far too much heat in the kitchen. Forget that whole peeling peaches and cooking thing. I just want the lavender syrup, spooned and stirred into a tall glass of iced tea. Cold iced tea. Swirls of ice, clinking against the sides of the glass and fresh mint from the back yard. That's what I'm all about.
To make, add 1 1/2 cups sugar to a pan with 2 1/4 cups water. Tie roughly 3 tablespoons dried culinary lavender in cheesecloth and add to the pan. Add a fresh vanilla bean. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, steep ten minutes and strain. Cool. Stir. In. A. Tall. Glass. Of. Iced. Tea.
I will just say it upfront, this is a brown rice salad. I couldn't put it in the title though, or I would lose half of you right away. I love brown rice, but I know, not all of you do. Too many crunchy hippie associations for some people. But try this anyway, because you will like it. It is surprisingly rich for having so few ingredients. It is creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty. And it's easy. The only thing to cook is the brown rice, which does take a little more time than white rice, but you can throw it on the stove and let it cook while you chop the other ingredients.
Try to find short grain brown rice, otherwise it won't be sticky rice and the texture of the salad will change. I use a rotisserie chicken from my neighborhood grocery store. If you want to roast your own, go ahead, but if I were willing to roast my own, well, then I would be having roast chicken for dinner.
For the salad, toss together:
2 1/2 cups cooked short grain brown rice, cooled to room temperature
2 cups chopped rotisserie chicken
1 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 cup thinly sliced basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts
1 avocado, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
salt and pepper to taste
For the dressing, whisk together:
1/2 cup canola oil
2 T. sesame oil
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
That's it. Toss it together and you are done. In my house, this can easily feed four as a main dish salad.
Last December I read a review in the Washington Post of Warm Bread and Honey Cake, Home Baking from Around the World by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra. The review was very positive and I ordered a copy. It's a standout for me in that it has recipes for both sweet and savory baking that I haven't seen in other cookbooks. Not surprisingly, since the author lives in Holland, there is a particular strength in traditional Dutch breads.
A recipe for a bread called Duivekater was one of the first things to catch my eye; weird name, interesting story and accompanied by this Rijksmuseum Jan Steen painting. See that big long bread against the brick wall? That is the Duivekater, or shinbone bread. Here is the one I made. Not exactly shinbone-esque, but then, it was my first attempt.
The rough translation of Duivekater is apparently 'Devil's Tomcat', and it is believed to have descended from pagan sacrificial practices of offering animals or bones to the Gods. Like many pagan practices, it ultimately was adapted to Christian festivals as a winter or holiday bread with a bone-like shape.
The author has written another book on Dutch baking called Windmills in my Oven, a more expanded historical treatment of Dutch traditions. Interestingly, she points out that a fifteenth century decree actually forbade the making of large and expensive white loaves except during winter and at Easter. As a nutmeg and cardamom spiced bread, I imagine this would have been very expensive to make (these aren't exactly cheap spices today). And these traditional breads are not limited to the Duivekater. There is also the related Kerstwiggen (another shinbone shaped bread with a fruited dough), the Kersttimpen (long and snipped at both ends), and the Kruidbroodjes which according to the author is reddish tinged bread, perhaps originally symbolizing blood. Who knew these bakers were so bloodthirsty?
The Duivekater sounds to be something of a dying tradition, but Pagrach-Chandra may have succeeded in reviving it. In the many months that I have been sitting on this post, I noticed that several other bloggers also picked up the thread and started baking. No doubt they were also intrigued by the history and appearance of the bread, which is scored into interesting linear or circular patterns. Here is a comprehensive post from breadbasketcase and beautiful sample from needtoknead. Breadbasketcase already did the hard work of writing out the recipe, so no need to repeat it here.
Maybe most fun to me was the Jan Steen painting that accompanied the recipe in the book. Any cookbook author who can serve up a side of art with a bread recipe is one I am going to like. Undoubtedly my own bias, since these Dutch genre paintings of the mid-17th century are a favorite of mine (see this terrific post on symbolism in still life painting that my friend Heidi did in her blog Two Kitties).
Inspired by the book, I dragged my (ever patient) family along to search the Dutch painting galleries of the National Gallery in Washington, DC to see if we could spot a Duivekater ourselves. This is perhaps the closest we came (and with apologies to this long dead painter, I lost the slip of paper on which I wrote down the painter and title of the painting). At least I think that is bread in the front, and like mine, it runs on the plump side for a shinbone.
A few weeks ago I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, just before closing. I pretty much had these galleries to myself at almost 9 p.m. on a Friday night and I felt compelled to make a quick run through looking for Duivekater. No luck though.
The Rijksmuseum does have another wonderful sample in this Jan Steen painting of St. Nicholas Eve.
I have a feeling I will be looking for Duivekater in Dutch paintings for years to come.
Just stop ignoring it?
Cook up something interesting?
Share some recent trip photos?
For now, I will go with numbers one and three. Number two still to come.
I recently got back from a vacation to the Bay Area. Every time I go back to the Bay Area I ask myself why I ever left to come back to Washington, DC again. The smell of the air in springtime is what got me to move there in the first place. I was hooked at the scent of jasmine. Eucalyptus leaves, a smell I didn't even remember I knew, brought back an intense sense of place from my early childhood in San Diego. And I feel this way every time I visit. California can be a powerful drug.
But then I remind myself of the taxes, the high cost of living, the hit and miss schools; and when I lived there, the rolling blackouts. Add the current financial crisis and I don't think I am quite ready to go back. But oh, I am tempted sometimes.
And here is what tempts me...
There was a delivery at my doorstep when I returned from vacation this week. But not a conventional package. You have to look a little closer for this one.
A mourning dove has set up her house just over our heads, in a protected spot under our eaves. She is very diligent and watching us even more closely than we are watching her. I have not seen her leave the nest in the past week. I was wondering whether she ate during the gestational period or whether nature had simply equipped her to settle in without food until the eggs hatch. But yesterday, we spied her partner next to the nest, providing her with food.
Apparently mourning doves are monogamous, with males and females sharing in the nesting duty and in the feeding of the young. Females typically sit on the nest in the morning and early afternoon, with males taking over later in the day. I am not aware that mine have changed places, but equally not sure I could tell if they had. There are generally two eggs in the nest at a given time and a two week gestational period, with hatchlings moving to fledglings over another two week period. So by my calculations, we have at least three weeks before we become empty-nesters. And then, alas, we will have to remove the nest, since these birds can lay six times per season, and I can only divert my guests through the garage for so long.
In the meantime though, we are protectors of the birds. Our snow damaged front gutter can wait a few more weeks for repairs. And all in all, this is one of the nicer surprises that has settled in to share space with us. The last animal that moved in while we were on vacation was a ground hog that burrowed in under the front door step. We referred to it as the whistlepig, and it eventually got tired of us and left. And we have come to uneasy terms with the black snake that seems to live somewhere under the garage steps. We have moved it to the woods several times, and it just finds its way right back to the garage. It boldly lounges in the sun in plain view, just to remind us who is king of this castle. But I like the endurance of nature against our persistant attempts to control it.
And so we sit, awaiting the hatchlings, and peering at nature through the front door.
We have been having such a cold winter this year and everything outside looks slightly dismal. My empty plant containers on the back deck look forlorn and even the leaves of the rhododendrons appear to have pulled in, as if they too are huddling against the cold. But these are good days to make Sunday lunch, when there are few temptations to beckon me outside.
I love that in January, I can find fresh black eyed peas at my local grocery store. Here in Washington DC, I guess we are in the northeast corner of the Southeast, and the old southern tradition of eating black eyed peas at the New Year holds sway. I would eat them anytime, if only I could find them more often.
This is a quick and flavorful way to enjoy the brief appearance of fresh black eyed peas. With only six ingredients, plus some salt and pepper, you really can't hide anything, so good ingredients are key.
Black Eyes Peas with Spinach and Smoked Paprika - Serves 4
3/4 pound fresh black eyed peas
3 slices of bacon, preferably apple-wood smoked
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton)
Water to cover black eyed peas
6 shakes Tabasco sauce
One 6 ounce package fresh spinach
Salt and Pepper
Rinse and drain black eyed peas, set aside. In a dutch oven, cook 3 slices of bacon on medium heat and set aside on paper towel, reserving rendered bacon fat. Turn heat to low, add diced onion to bacon fat, add a good pinch of salt, and slowly sweat the onions until translucent. Sprinkle onions with 1/2 teaspoon paprika and stir to mix. Add black eyed peas and then add water just to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover, and then reduce heat back to a low simmer. Cover beans and cook until tender, 20-25 minutes. Add spinach and continue to cook until spinach has wilted (another 2-3 minutes). Crumble bacon into the pot, and add 6 drops of Tabasco sauce. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
Sit down and enjoy, in spite of the weather.
I like these late in the year days. Expectations for ta-dum cooking go way down, my appetite for over the top eating is sated, and yet there are always a few Christmas goodies still tucked here and there. Leftover bits of fancy cheese, a few Marcona almonds, stocking chocolates or a stray slice of tart are still on my shelves. But generally the new year makes me crave more straightforward cooking. Something simple is satisfying.
Breaking down citrus and pears is easy. Here I broke down citrus and pears for a fruit salad, and made a syrup with a recipe from the January issue of Sunset magazine. To make the syrup, just simmer one tablespoon of candied ginger in one quarter cup of water, covered, for up to five minutes. Blend to puree.
To section and remove citrus peel and pith, first cut a slice across the top and bottom of the orange (across the sections). This will give you a stable base to rest on while you slice off the peel and pith.
Next, following the curve of the orange, slice down the sides remove all peel and pith, revealing the citrus sections.
Once you have removed all the peel and trimmed off any remaining pith, cut alongside the membranes which separate each section and lift the sections out. Alternatively, at this point you could choose to cut in to slices across the orange to cross section, rather than to individually section out each piece. For a fruit salad, I like to section it, if I were decorating a tart, I might prefer to cross section it.
Finally, when I have removed all the sections, I like to squeeze out any remaining juice. You can use this technique for all citrus fruits.
The technique for breaking down pears begins similarly. Remove a slice from the bottom of the pear to give yourself a stable base for cutting.
Next, follow the curve of the pear with your knife to remove the skin.
Once you have removed all skin, starting just at the outside of the core, slice straight down each side of the pear, creating four thick slices with a remainder of a four sided core.
Then take each of the four sections you created, and slice length wise into rough half inch slices.
Finally, I cut each length cross wise into half inch cubes.
This is also a good way to break down pears for a cobbler or other fruit dessert. For my fruit salad, I mixed some oranges, pears and grapefruit, gently mixed in the ginger syrup, and sprinkled with cinnamon. I will call it the New Year's Resolution Breakfast.
Thanks to my daughter for taking the photos.
While cleaning out some desk drawers this week, I ran across a letter my husband and I received from his Aunt, Laura Boddie Bowers, in in 1991. I was touched by it and saved it. Laura Boddie died several years ago, but her story is just as moving today. I want to share it with you.
"This morning, television pictures of tons of Christmas mail being unloaded by and for our troops in the Saudi desert brought the past into vivid, clear focus.
Once upon a time, many years ago, it was my privilege to spend Christmas Eve with our troops in the field. It happened this way:
During 1943 I was Special Services librarian, attached to the 346th Infantry Regiment of the 87th Division, stationed at Camp McCain near Grenada, Mississippi. In May of that year I had been married to Lieutenant Earle Cooper Bowers, Jr., of Providence, Rhode Island, who was with the 346th.
When the Division was ordered on "big maneuvers" in Tennessee early in December, 1943, I resigned my position in order to follow my husband. The maneuver area was along the Stones River, in what was known as the Nashville-Lebanon Murfreesboro Triangle.
My friend Jane Leighton, whose husband was assigned to Headquarters Company, 346th, had learned to drive in order to come to Mississippi from her home in Boston, and we had become close friends.
Early on the morning of Christmas Eve we received a telegram from our husbands advising us that the problem they were running would be over about noon, and giving us the grid coordinates where we were to meet them. We set off across snowy hills, were almost run down by a tank that went out of control on an icy hill, and reached the Cedars of Lebanon State Park area early in the afternoon, having had no lunch.
In the distance I spotted a mess tent, and we headed that way. Since I had worked closely with the 346th for a year, most of the soldiers knew me. I was delighted to find that the mess Sergeant on duty was a friend of mine. We asked if he could feed two starving army wives, and he replied, "Everything I have is frozen, but I think I can thaw some eggs and bread and peanut butter."
After our substantial lunch, we went on to the designated area for "our" Regiment, and found that the problem had not ended, and that our men were still on duty. I was taken under the protection of Corporal Winoski, an Ohio farm boy. He had floored my husband's tent with fragrant branches from the Cedars of Lebanon that give the park its name. He kept a huge pot of coffee suspended by a rope hung over a tree branch, and as the fire died down he would lower the rope so that the coffee was almost always boiling. After a mug of this strong brew I crawled into the tent and took a nap.
Late on that freezing cold afternoon my husband's patrol returned from their mission, and the soldiers' Christmas celebration began. The week before I had been on leave for a visit with my family in Canton, and, at my husband's request, had scoured the area for paper plates so that his men would not have to wash mess gear on Christmas day. When the string broke in the Nashville railroad station it could have caused my a lot of embarrassment, but everyone - porters, passengers, and bystanders - all jumped to help me gather up my treasure.
On Christmas Eve, however, out in the snowy field, the men lined up with their mess kits. Someone lent me one and I shared the evening meal with the men - as well as I remember we had ham, cabbage, apple sauce, and corn bread.
Supper over, the entire Company gathered on the snowy banks of the Stones River. One young soldier had a guitar, and we sang Christmas carols to his accompaniment. The mail had been delivered, and the boys (the 87th division was the first in the United States Army to have 18-19 year old draftees, so many of the men were very, very young, and homesick) had used the linings of envelopes from Christmas cards to fashion ornaments for a small Christmas tree they had cut from the forest. One young Jewish boy had contributed a Yule log from all the logs that were everywhere along the river bank, and, although everything was snow-covered, he had sprinkled the Yule log liberally with foot powder "snow".
We drove back to Nashville with our husbands, who had a day of Christmas leave. And the sound of those young voices, singing old familiar carols to the accompaniment of the music of the guitar, rings in my ears as each Christmas comes, and I remember that there in the snowy hills of Tennessee the soldiers and I shared a White Christmas, complete with decorated tree, Yule log, traditional carols, and most important, togetherness. And that was to be the only Christmas Eve I was ever to share with my soldier husband - a precious memory that will last as long as I live."
Sadly, Laura Boddie's husband, Earle Cooper Bowers, Jr. was killed September 27th, 1944, fighting outside Rimburg in the Netherlands. He is buried in Northern Belgium.
Please give a thought to those who are far away from home this year in the service of their country, and hold tightly to those you love.
Peace on Earth.
"But anyway. What I meant about ice cream is that it's a communal kind of pleasure, don't you think? Everybody piles into the station wagon when Dad's in a good mood after work...drive out to Dairy Queen and get cones together. It's really not about the ice cream, per se."
From The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault, published in 2009