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Rolling Tart Dough

Nurture. What a great word. So many meanings, so much promise. Full of hope and faith in the future.

As I mentioned way back when, at the start of 2012, Matt and I have a tradition: in lieu of New Year’s resolutions, every year we choose a single word to live by. A mantra to remind ourselves what really matters. This year during our New Year’s Day hike, when I asked Matt what he thought our 2013 word should be, “nurture” was the first word out of his mouth. And it was perfect. At the time, I was about 6 months pregnant, (now only 7 weeks, yes I said weeks, left to go!), and just starting to feel the movements of a new life taking shape inside me. We had nurtured the hope of becoming parents for a long time, and now it seemed it was really going to happen.

For us, the word contained not only the obvious meaning of nurturing our child, and cultivating the types of values we want to pass along as parents, but also a reminder to nurture ourselves and each other. To steady ourselves against the all-consuming, life-changing event on the horizon.

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I found myself thinking about this promise last weekend, as I was preparing a meal to drop off for my friend Clare who just had a baby. Most of the time, nothing gives me more pleasure or satisfaction than cooking for the people I love. And going above and beyond with a few culinary details (homemade chicken stock for my soup, pie dough from scratch), especially for people who might not have the time to do it themselves, is a gift I love to give. But last weekend, as I was rolling out pie dough with my great-grandmother’s wooden rolling pin (we’ll get back to her in a moment) and rushing to get my tart in the oven, I discovered that at 8-months pregnant, standing in the kitchen for hours is not as fun as it used to be. As much as I wanted to make the meal of all meals to soothe the bodies and souls of a family with their hands full (newborn AND toddler!), what I wanted and needed even more was a nap. In my quest to nurture others, I had forgotten to nurture myself.

Gramma in the iris bed

Now back to my great-grandmother, Mary Blanche. She knew a thing or two about how to nurture. For Christmas every year, she gave us each a tin of homemade cookies and new flannel pajamas, lovingly sewn. And when I visited her as a little girl, we would make snickerdoodles and tapioca pudding, and serve it up on her finest china at tea parties for prestigious guests (my dolls, stuffed animals, and other dignitaries.) She would pull a step stool up to her kitchen counter so I could be her kitchen apprentice, kneading and mixing at her side. I loved her wrinkled hands, talcum-scented and soft as pie dough. But in addition to all the loving touches she doled out to those around her, Mary Blanche was really good at taking care of herself. Of hearty Michigan farm stock, she had a streak of independence and gumption that served her well all her life. She lived out her final days alone in her house, and as family legend has it, was making herself a pot of homemade chicken soup from scratch on the day she died, at age 96.

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When I finally arrived at Clare’s house with a basket of homemade goodies, flustered from rushing around all day, I was greeted with a very calming reality-check. The whole family–mom, dad, newborn, and toddler were settled in for a Sunday afternoon nap. Rosy-cheeked, and pleasantly tired from a hike, they greeted me in PJs and bed-head and invited me into their cozy cocoon. Invited me to slow down. Leading by example in the most nurturing way.

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I was really happy to share a lovingly prepared meal with this family, and I know they sincerely appreciated it. But I also know they would have equally appreciated a much simpler gesture. And so, after that visit, I vowed to give myself permission to simplify. And naps. More naps!

Thank you Clare and Mary Blanche for helping me remember to nurture myself.

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The meal:

Sausage & Kale Dinner Tart, recipe from Food 52, posted by My Pantry Shelf. (Whose blog My Pantry Shelf  is definitely worth checking out.)

This recipe is fantastic. I’ve made it before. This time around, I made a few minor modifications in an effort to reduce the guilt I feel about eating pie for dinner: used a lower fat turkey sausage and substituted 1/2 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour. But then again, I probably negated those efforts by adding slightly more cheese (ricotta AND goat’s milk feta) than the original recipe calls for. Oh well. Delicious either way.

Served with cauliflower soup (recipe from The French Market: More Recipes from a French Kitchenby Joanne Harris & Fran Warde) and salad greens from our garden, with a homemade Dijon vinaigrette.

At least I was “self-nurturing” enough to double the recipes so we could also enjoy the fruits of my labor!

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It was a cold and rainy January night, and my headlights cut through the fog as I headed North along winding country roads. The occasional oncoming brights seemed to flash out of nowhere, doing little to calm my nerves. I clenched the steering wheel with trepidation, knowing I’d be reporting for my first day of boot camp at the CIA before the sun came up.

Although this may sound like the opening paragraph of a bad thriller, the CIA that I’m referring to is, of course, the Culinary Institute of America. Thanks to an incredibly thoughtful gift from my husband and parents, I was headed to spend the week of my birthday in “Culinary Boot Camp: Basic Training” brushing up on my cooking skills. The course promised hands-on training in all the fundamentals from knife skills, to kitchen terminology, to basic cooking methods like roasting, grilling, poaching and braising, just to name a few. Although I’ve considered myself a pretty good cook for years, I’d never had any professional training in the basics and I liked the idea of becoming more confident in the how and why of the kitchen. Spending a whole week in a real culinary school–you might even say THE culinary school–was a dare to myself. Would I still feel passionate about this hobby under such extreme circumstances? Do I have what it takes to even allow myself to daydream of making this a career someday?

CIA Napa

Those were the questions on my mind as I pulled into the dark parking lot at 5:45 the next morning and stared up at the imposing, castle-like fortress, appropriately named “Greystone”. After a few minutes in the lobby, exchanging nervous glances with the other recruits, we were issued our uniforms: black and white checkered pants and white double-breasted jackets, and sent to the bathrooms to change. Our instructor, Rebecca greeted us in the classroom, and stifling a laugh at seeing all of our kerchiefs tied around our necks like a bunch of new boy scouts, promptly instructed us that we’d need to make “some adjustments” to our uniforms. She showed us how to tie the kerchiefs like a cravat under our jackets, and how to tuck our towels neatly into our apron strings, and before we knew it, we were well on our way to acting the part of professional chefs.

After a brief orientation to the massive kitchen and a few demonstrations on knife skills, we were split into small groups and given assignments. Day one was stocks and sauces. We made five different types of stocks from scratch, which we would use in our recipes for the rest of the week. And on my first day of boot camp, I quickly learned that I have a lot to learn. I’m no stranger to homemade stock. I grew up in a house where the smell of homemade chicken soup in winter was as constant as the sound of the furnace keeping us warm. Open my freezer at home and you’re likely to find a roasted turkey carcass being saved for a rainy day. The method that my mother taught me, and that her grandmother taught her, yields a wonderfully rich, slightly cloudy, golden brown poultry stock that’s great in soups and stews with a robust flavor. But there is so much more to the art of stock-making that was new to me. I didn’t know about the constant skimming or the blanching of bones for an end result that is clearer in color and more delicate in flavor. I didn’t know to only add the vegetables in the last hour of cooking–just long enough to render their flavor but not long enough for them to break down and cloud the texture of the stock.

These moments of enlightenment–of deeper understanding of techniques and ingredients I thought I knew–continued throughout the week. After the first day of class, I called my friend Holly and excitedly told her “everything I thought I knew about cooking was ‘wrong’!” To which she protested (as the truly supportive friend that she is), “but how can it be wrong? Your cooking has always tasted great.” And that’s why I put “wrong” in quotes. Like any creative endeavor, there’s a lot about cooking that’s subjective and intuitive. In the kitchen, the ends often justify the means. But like a jazz musician with an understanding of  the fundamentals of rhythm and melody, a cook with a deeper knowledge of the science behind the art will get more consistently satisfying results when improvising. Throughout the week as we worked our way through roasting, braising, grilling, emulsions and starches I soaked up tidbits of knowledge on everything from the shape of protein strands as meat cools, to the acids released by green vegetables when cooked. And I learned something new about even the most basic of recipes. Even mashed potatoes, which is probably one of the first things I ever ate and is practically running through my veins, yielded an “aha moment” in the CIA kitchen.

After five exhausting and exhilarating days in a professional kitchen, I had blisters on my feet, an ossobuco burn on my hand, stains all over my white jacket, and a head that was spinning with fancy french terms like concasse and veloute. But more importantly, I had a new spring in my step, a new level of confidence in the kitchen, and a hunger for more. Where this passion may lead, I still do not know, but after a week at the CIA the spark is anything but extinguished.

Since I can’t possibly share everything I learned during my week at the CIA in one or two blog posts. I thought I’d sprinkle some of my newfound knowledge throughout the next few posts as I put it into practice at home. First up: roux and bechamel sauce. Last weekend, I made the classic Greek dish, “Papoutsakia” or “Little Shoes” (aka, baked eggplant stuffed with meat sauce and bechamel), which gave me a perfect chance to practice some of my new skills.

What I learned in culinary school about roux and bechamel:

-The basic ratio of roux is 6 parts flour/4 parts fat by weight
-At the CIA, we used clarified butter  (butter with the milk solids removed) because you can cook it a higher temperature without risk of burning. I must confess, I was lazy at home and just used regular unsalted butter.
-There are four stages of roux (cooked at varying lengths) which are used to thicken different sauces: 1) white roux, only cooked for about 8 min, just until raw flour taste is removed and the texture is like wet sand. Used in white sauces like bechamel. 2) Blonde/light roux, cooked another 2-3 minutes until color is golden and it smells like shortbread cookies. Used in thinner sauces like chicken veloute or gravy. 3) Brown roux, cooked until it’s the color of brown sugar and it smells like toasted almonds. Used in sauce Espagnole (tomato-based sauce with veal stock). 4) Black roux: cooked until it’s the color of molasses. Only used in Cajun/Creole cooking.
-The longer the flour cooks, the less thickening power it has.
-Classic bechamel sauce is made by adding scalded milk to white roux. Heating the milk with an “oignon pique” (whole, peeled onion, with a bay leaf “tacked” onto it with a few cloves) adds flavor.

Papoutsakia Recipe from “Modern Greek” by Andy Harris

6 small italian eggplants (mine were about 7-8″ long and 2-3″ in diameter. You can use any kind of eggplant. The recipe called for two large eggplants, but I chose the small variety for prettier individual servings.)
2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups meat sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups bechamel sauce (recipe follows)
3 Tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Half eggplants length-wise. Score flesh with a knife to create a diamond pattern, and then scoop out flesh with a spoon, taking care not to break through the skin. Chop flesh into small pieces, and saute in a skillet with olive oil over medium heat until cooked through and slightly browned around edges. Add cooked eggplant to meat sauce. Place eggplant halves skin-side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Fill each eggplant with meat sauce, then top with a generous layer of bechamel (meat should be fully covered with bechamel sauce.) Sprinkle bread crumbs and parmesan evenly over stuffed eggplants and bake for about 40 minutes, until topping is bubbly and golden brown in spots. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Meat Sauce (yields about 5 cups)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 small/medium yellow onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 pounds lean ground beef
15 oz can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2/3 cup red wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Heat oil in a large skillet and saute onions, garlic and celery over medium heat until translucent. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Brown the ground beef in skillet over medium high heat, pouring off excess liquid/fat if needed. Add sautéed onion mixture back to pan and combine with beef. Season with salt and pepper. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for about 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Consistency of sauce should be thick and not too liquidy.

Bechamel Sauce
(yields about 4 cups)
4 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon all spice berries
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup flour
8 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste (white pepper preferred)

Scald the milk in a saucepan with bay leaves and all spice berries, and turn heat off. Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, until melted and frothy. Add the flour all at once. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook over low heat until the roux is a pale ivory and the consistency of wet sand. About 8 minutes. Whisk the scalded milk into the roux (pour through a strainer to remove the bay leaves and all spice berries), and increase heat slightly to bring sauce to a boil, then reduce again and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes. Sauce should be thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan. Add nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.The bechamel for this recipe is thicker than the standard–it should be about the consistency of pudding when it cools slightly. If it’s too paste-like, add a little more milk.

The ratios listed above will make a lot more meat sauce and bechamel sauce than you need for the papoutsakia. You can either half the quantities, or use the extra for something else. I used the leftovers in a greek-ish lasagna layered with pasta, bechamel sauce (added a little more milk to thin it out), meat sauce, diced, roasted butternut squash, with a layer of mozzarella on top. It was delicious and definitely not your typical lasagna recipe.

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A few years ago, I stopped making New Year’s resolutions. No matter how good my intentions in January, before long I always found myself holding a bag full of broken promises with nothing but a guilty heart to show for it. In an effort to make our commitments for the new year a little stickier, instead of a long list of resolutions, my husband and I started coming up with a simple word or two that we want to hang on to for the year. A motto of sorts. Something we can repeat to ourselves or each other throughout the year when we need a little kick in the pants. In 2011, it was “Jump In”, meaning “take risks”, “try new things” (like starting a blog, for example), “what the hell are we waiting for?”.

On January 1, 2012, with the year’s mantra still up for grabs, we decided to start the year with an impromptu adventure. We put the kayaks on the roof of the car, packed our overnight bags and headed north towards Pt. Reyes. It was one of those weekends that was good to the last drop: a late afternoon paddle, followed with cold beer and fresh oysters on the half shell, sleeping late under a pile of quilts at the Olema Inn, a hike that was long enough to make our legs ache for days, and lots of time to reflect on the ups and downs of 2011 and hopes for the year ahead. During one of those moments, we settled on the catch phrase for 2012: “Savor.” A reminder to slow down and enjoy. To appreciate the fleeting moments that threaten to pass by unnoticed. To find joy in simple pleasures.

And with that in mind, the recipe I want to share with you is simple and sweet. For all the wonderful restaurant meals and elaborate home-cooked feasts of 2011, our simple New Year’s eve dinner at home in front of the fire was one of my favorites. Our main course was Dungeness crabs, steamed with champagne, butter, garlic and fennel, inspired by this beautiful post on The Year in Food. For dessert, the limes from our backyard tree were the stars. After two years of nurturing and fertilizing, our little tree is finally beginning to yield some fruit, which seemed just right for our last taste of 2011.

Inspired by the Vanilla Lime Posset at Twenty-Five Lusk in San Francisco, and using mrslarkin’s Lemon Posset recipe from Food52 as a guide, I made a Lime Posset, which is a rich and creamy custard. With only three ingredients, fifteen minutes of active prep and cooking time, it really could not be any simpler…and yet so elegant and cleansing. Not a bad way to end the year. And it just so happens to taste great with champagne. Also not a bad way to end the year.

Lime Posset

2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup lime juice (you’ll need 2-3 limes)
zest from two limes

Heat cream and sugar in a small, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar. Continue cooking at a gentle boil for five minutes. Watch the heat closely, and turn it down slightly if the cream begins to froth up–you don’t want it to boil over. The mixture will still be very liquidy, and you might be tempted–as I did the first time I made this–to keep boiling a little longer to let it thicken, because it’s hard to believe that this hot, runny liquid will turn into the beautiful, creamy custard you envision. Have faith. Five minutes, no more, no less, will get you the perfect texture.

Remove pan from heat and stir in lime juice, and half of the lime zest. Let cool for 5-10 minutes, and then pour custard into small ramekins, espresso cups or port glasses. Sprinkle a little of the remaining lime zest on the top of each serving. This is a pretty rich and flavorful dessert, and a few bites go a long way. I like using a dish that holds about 1/4 cup if liquid, in which case, the recipe makes 6-8 servings.

Happy New Year! May you have many moments that are worth savoring.

PS- Right after I published this post, my friend The Wimpy Vegetarian turned me onto the concept of a bloghop, where the food blog community connects with other blogs to share recipes. It just so happens that the theme this month is “Citrus Love”, so I joined in on the fun. To read more about it and discover over 100 great citrus recipes from other food bloggers, pucker up and check out this post on The Wimpy Vegetarian.

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This year, we hosted a mellow Thanksgiving dinner with a few friends. I cooked for days, and all the usual suspects were at the table: turkey, stuffing, green beans, the works. But my surprise favorites of the day were the butternut squash soup and sun-dried tomato shortbread that I served as appetizers.

Maybe it was my favorite because the soup looked so pretty in those espresso cups passed down from my mother-in-law. The ones her mother brought back from Vienna, which had been sitting in my cabinet for ages just begging for a chance. Maybe it tasted so good because we had just come in from a long hike, rosy-faced and ravenous, and hot soup was waiting. Maybe it was the smell of turkey in the oven, and the anticipation of the feast still to come. The sound of laughter and wine glasses clinking. The sun setting on the cusp of a four-day weekend…

Okay, let’s be honest, it was probably the bacon. Culinary cheating. Maybe it’s wrong, but it tasted so right, and I’ll definitely be making this combo again.

Butternut Squash & White Bean Soup

Adapted, ever so slightly, from this recipe, posted on Food52 by Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast. I first tasted the soup when someone made it for a Food52 potluck party that I was lucky enough to attend. (more on that in another post). I reversed the balance of the flavors a bit here by increasing the squash and decreasing the beans–mainly because I have to be sneaky about the use of beans in my cooking if I want to fool “Mr. T” into eating it. (Which worked beautifully in this case. Again, it’s probably the bacon.)

1 medium-sized butternut squash
6 slices thick bacon, each strip cut into about 4 pieces
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed slightly
1/4 cup sherry (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
15 oz can of cannellini beans
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery coarsely chopped
2 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken or turkey stock
1/2 cup half & half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash in half the long way, brush with olive oil and put on a baking sheet, cut-side up. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until squash is soft all the way through when poked with a fork, and a little brown around the edges. Allow to cool slightly, then scoop seeds out with a spoon and discard.

Heat a little olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add bacon and saute until sizzling and cooked through. (Don’t worry about getting it crisp, as it will all be pureed in the end.) Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place onto a plate lined with a paper towel. Pour off all but one tablespoon of bacon fat.

Add  shallots, celery, carrots, and garlic to pan and saute over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add a little olive oil if necessary to prevent burning. Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and cook for about 10 minutes until vegetables are softened and just beginning to brown. Add sherry to deglaze pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or two to allow alcohol to burn off. Transfer mixture to a large pot.

Add beans, bacon and rosemary to pot and cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Add all the stock to the pot, raise the heat and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, and then turn heat off, allowing mixture to cool slightly.

Using a spoon, scrape the flesh of one half of the roasted squash from its skin and place it into the bowl of a food processor. Ladle a few spoonfuls of the soup mixture on top of the squash and blend until smooth and then return pureed mixture to the soup pot. Repeat until all the soup and squash have been pureed. If you have a hand-held immersion blender, lucky you, you can skip the food processor and just blend it all together in the soup pot. If you want to make the soup ahead of time and freeze it, stop here, and follow the final steps just before serving.

Heat pureed mixture over low heat. Mix in the half and half and stir to combine. Add more broth and/or half and half to achieve desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Savory Shortbread with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Thyme

These little riches were inspired by Rhode Island chef and caterer, Chris Whirlow. I had his savory olive shortbread at a party and asked him for the recipe. (He calls them “Scourtins aux Olives de Nyons”, which I must admit sounds way fancier, but I like the simplicity of shortbread.) I decided to swap the olives for sun-dried tomatoes and thyme to complement the flavors of my soup.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (I used the kind that come in a jar with olive oil, and left them pretty wet with oil. If you’re using the dried out variety, you’ll want to reconstitute it first, and may need to add some extra fat.)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt

Cream  butter and sugar. Drizzle olive oil and mix in with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Stir in the flour by hand just until the dough is smooth. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, thyme and salt and stir just until they are evenly
distributed throughout the dough.

Dough will be a little crumbly. (Ok, at this point in the recipe, I must fess up. Chris’s recipe said the dough would be a little sticky and my plan was to roll it into a log, freeze it, and slice and bake. Sounds easy, right? But my dough wasn’t a little sticky. It was a lot crumbly. Probably because I converted his recipe from weight measurements since I don’t own a kitchen scale. It’s on my Christmas list! If you are a better baker than I, you can probably tweak this recipe back into shape. But the crumbly version was really good too, so I’ll call it a happy accident.) Press the dough into a baking pan, using your fingers to make it hold together and to get an even thickness. I used 9″x12″ pan. A little larger would be okay for thinner shortbread. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 45 minutes, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until ever so slightly brown around the edges and evenly dry on top. Allow to cool for a few minutes and cut into squares. As you can see in my photo, I didn’t end up with perfect squares, but the rustic-looking crumbly shapes were okay with me. Now you know the truth about why I couldn’t give them a fancy name like “scourtins”. Whatever you call them, they taste pretty delicious dipped in soup, with a fire in the fireplace and some good friends to be thankful with.

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