Sesame and Balsamic Glazed Asparagus Cranberry Tart

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Since taking the Americorps position in Washington, I have been crazy busy planning my cross-country trip, looking for housing, trying to determine what people wear in places where it snows…. I have had very little time to cook! Thank goodness that I have an arsenal of quick, yummy, and if I do say so myself, BEAUTIFUL dishes up my sleeve. Tonight, between arranging for housing, laundry and PBS’s showing of the Phantom of the Opera, I will be making a Sesame and balsamic glazed asparagus cranberry tart. I used half as much as the original recipe  as I was cooking only for myself. Also, I used organic wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour, which is totally passé.

The Ingrediants

To make the Asparagus and Cranberries (the filling):

1/2 bunch asparagus (about 10 spears), cut to the width of your tart
1/8 cup or as much as you want, dried cranberries
1.5 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing the skillet
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds
Sea salt or any coarse salt
red crushed pepper
1 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
few tablespoon almond flakes/slivered almond

The Spread:

I used regular sun-dried tomato hummus but you could probably use anykind of spread / chutney / whatever with similar flavors.

For the crust:

1 cups organic whole wheat flour
1/6 cup + 1.25 tablespoons olive oil
1/8 cup + 1.25 tablespoons  very cold club soda (use a little bit more or less to make a soft but non sticky dough)
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
dried herbs, (optional) – any kind you like

The Process

Making the Crust:

Start by mixing the flour, salt, pepper and herbs together. In a separate bowl, whisk the club soda and olive oil together until it looks foamy. Add the wet mixture to the dry and stir with a fork until the dough comes together. Use your hands if you have to and if you feel that you need more moisture, just add a little bit of soda water. The dough should be more crumbly than stretchy.

Next, roll the dough out between two layers of parchment paper. Roll the dough into a square about 4′ by 4′. I am not very good at straight lines so I simply rolled up the edges so that it looked a bit more… square. Make sure that the tarte isn’t too thick as the dough will not retain it’s necessary flakiness.

Score the entire tarte with a fork.

Bake the crust on the parchment paper at 400 degrees F for 12-15 minutes or until the crust is firm.

To cook the Cranberries and Asparagus:

In a skillet, add the olive oil, sesame seeds and some roasted red pepper flakes and heat until the seeds sizzle a bit. The throw in the cranberries and trimmed asparagus. Toss until they are coated with sesame seeds and oil. Add the balsamic  vinegar and salt and toss until well coated. Cook the asparagus and cranberries for  about 5 minutes until they are slightly tender but still crunchy.

Assembling the tart:

Wait until the pastry is cool enough to handle and then spread you hummus (or whatever else you chose) on the top of it.

Arrange the asparagus on top of the hummus trying horizontally in a tightly packed line, allowing for little space between the spears. Toss the cranberries on top and garnish with some slivered almonds.

Put back in the oven at 350 degrees F, just long enough for the tart to completely warm up.  Enjoy!

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How to be Good at Everything

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“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” – ~Ayn Rand

This blog has one main purpose that is contingent on two points: I like fancy things (especially all natural, homemade things), and I don’t have any money. Instead of taking the corporate jobs of the hollow men, I chose to follow my dreams and freedom. Needless to say, that means that I have to do a lot of things myself… or I have nothing.

Fortunately, what I have discovered is that getting the things that I want is easy! Generally, all you need are a few ingredients, a book or two and a bit of ingenuity and there are very few things that you can’t DIY.

This blog was born out of that thought. Unable to afford fancy restaurants, all organic specialty foods and daily pastries and such I had no choice but to learn the techniques myself. Nobody is going to stop me from eating like a queen, especially myself.

Now, I feel like there is almost nothing that I can’t tackle! No mountain is too tall!

I thought that Van Gogh’s Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer would look nice in my bathroom so I painted it myself. And while I concede that it is a good ways off from the original, I am going to try again and again and again.

I couldn’t afford organic vegetables but refused to eat grocery store garbage, so I grew my own! It is so much cheaper than paying premiums for organic produce at the market and was really easy to do.

So now, when I want something, I figure out how to make it. There are limits on this of course but for the basics, I see no need in wasting any more money than I already have in the past 25 years. Additionally, my new skills have allowed me to barter. It is anticipated in my new move to Washington that I will actually be performing manual labor (gasp!) on a farm or ranch in exchange for my rent. This way, I get to save money that would be spent on rent as well as improve my skills for labor and manual dexterity.

This is where you come in. I have decided to do a 12 months, 12 new skills life adventure! I have already learnt so much in the past few months though that I am running short of ideas! So far, I have learnt (besides all the cooking) about how to run a farm from the lovely folks at Jenny Jack Sun farm, I have taken classes on making my own garden and growing my own vegetables (the cheapest way to eat!),  I have an entire new jewelry collection thanks to Honestly WTF.  And I have ransacked the public library. Books like “Knots and How to Tie them” and “Basic Ballet: The Steps Defined” litter my bedroom floor surrounded by other pieces of inspiration,

But I need more! So far, I only have two skill goals for the next 12 months. I would like to get ideas from my friends on things that you think would be interesting/useful/complimentary to my desire to have fabulous fancy things without spending money.

These are my constraints:

  • Money
  • Rustic living -I am fairly positive that for the next year I will be living in remote Washington state in a Pacific yurt with an icebox, a stove and a dry sink on a farm or a ranch…
  • Season – I want to do things in concordance with the seasons because this is when materials will be cheapest. For example, I am hording some very exciting tomato based recipes that are waiting until June for when they are in full season.
  • Personality – I don’t want to do anything boring or simple or…un-fancy.
  • Processes – I want suggestions on things that require processes. Please do not send me ideas like “learn French” or “play the piano.” I would like ideas that requires steps, that can be done over a weekend and that will have lifelong benefit of learning.

*Note: I have the following year-long goals, both personal and professional,and it would  be nice if my small skill goals could compliment them

  • Learn to sail
  • Study French
  • Farm
  • Learn basic survival skills / camp alone
  • Learn to fish
  • Basic fiddle

What I have thus far:

  • Perfume making – I want to learn how to make my own perfume, specifically like Jo Malone’s Pomegranite Noir. It is a delectable, sultry blend of night scents but also rather expensive, so until I have the money to afford it, I am trying my hand at making my own blend.
  • Prosciutto – Once I get to Washington and get to know some people, I plan on obscuring a ham leg and curing / salting it myself to make prosciutto. And I don’t want to hear a word of disapproval about this from my Italian friends. I miss it, I can’t afford it, it is as easy as that.
  • ???

Comments, ideas and other encouragement would be greatly welcomed!

Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style Artichoke)

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This recipe is the first (well, the second I guess because I think that the Tamales count) of many that I will feature that are not only delicious, but have played an important role in the growth of a culture or the success of a people. I think that food culture is outrageously important and recreating culturally classic recipes helps me relate to a different history, era or experience. As a humanist, I feel that this is quintessential. That being said, there are countless things that I miss about Rome, the greatest of them being the people who I left behind. Close second however, might be Carciofi alla Giudia. I can still remember the first time I experienced their crunchy leaves, tender heart and my favorite part, the perfect stem. This occurred solely on the insistence of Mr. Crowly, a friend who regularly frequents Rome and who allowed me the wonderful experience of a private tour of the inner lairs of the Vatican.  And I am eternally grateful for each of these things.

Carciofi alla Giudia has a long and interesting history. According to The Jewish Daily Forward (who, last year, featured an incredibly interesting and heartbreaking article on cookbooks and collections of recipes created by the depravity of the Holocaust and the stories which accompanied them),  “Their history… stems back to 16th century, when Roman Jews were confined to an overcrowded, impoverished ghetto. Deep fried artichokes might seem like a delicacy now, but according to Matthew Goodman who authored, Jewish Food: The World at Table, “food [in the ghetto] was scarce [and] frying was the cheapest and easiest option of food preparations.”

The Ingrediants

  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 6 to 8 small artichokes
  • Salt to taste
  •  Ground black pepper to taste
  • Olive or vegetable oil for deep frying

The Process

Start by squeezing the juice of a half of a lemon into a nonreactive bowl and add water. This is for soaking the artichokes in after cleaning them so they do not brown. Begin preparing your artichokes. This, to me, is the hard part but it gets easier each time and as you become more familiar with an artichokes layers and insides (how romantic). Begin by trimming the thorny end of the artichoke, horizontally. Remove the loose, tough outer leaves around the outside until you get to the soft, yellow leaves.

Scoop out the artichoke, leaving the leaves and heart intact. Be sure to trim the pointy tips of the inside leaves so that they don’t poke you when you chew. Use a vegetable peeler to peel back the rough outer layer of the stem and base of the artichoke. Soak in the lemon water.

Holding each artichoke by the stem, place top side down on a flat surface, and press to loosen the leaves without breaking.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat 1/2 – 1 inch of oil (I use canola) in a saucepan over medium heat. add the artichokes and fry, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 20 minutes. During frying, occasionally sprinkle the tops of the
artichokes with cold water, producing steam that helps to cook the interior.

Drain the artichokes on paper towels. Place top side down on a plate and let stand at least 1 hour. Reheat the oil. Holding each artichoke by the stem, dip into the oil, pressing the leaves against the bottom of the pan.

Serve warm or at room temperature and enjoy the fruits of years of Jewish tradition.

Smoked Tofu

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By this point, everyone knows how good tofu is for us. A staple in Asia for 2,000 years, tofu is known for its extraordinary nutritional benefits, as well as its versatility. Tofu, also known as soya curd, is a soft cheese-like food made by curdling soya milk with a coagulant. Tofu is a rather bland tasting product that easily absorbs the flavours of the other ingredients. Tofu is rich in both high quality protein, B-vitamins and calcium, lowers cholesterol and is easy to digest. Furthermore, tofu is rich in isoflavones which helps prevent osteoporosis and has shown to reduce likelihood of certain types of cancer. A wonderfood!

Then why aren’t more people gobbling it down? Tofu tastes like crap. Well that’s not exactly true, it actually tastes like absolutely nothing at all. And the texture is weird. If you meet someone who tells you that they like tofu as is, do not trust them. They are trying to impress you and they are liars.

However, not all is lost. Tofu is extremely versatile and capable of taking on the taste or whatever is it marinading in. And when baked, the texture changes. Hope for it yet.

This is my favorite way to make tofu and a perfect addition to sandwiches or salads. And it’s so easy too…

Ingredients

  • 1 to 1 1/2 lb. extra-firm tofu
  • 3/4 to 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup dark Superior brand mushroom soy sauce (or reg. soy sauce if unavailable)
  • 2 tablespoon maple syrup or organic molasses
  • 1 teaspoon hickory liquid smoke

The Process

  • Slice tofu about 1/3-inch thick lengthwise (or into triangles if serving as an appetizer/snack) Mix the rest of the ingredients in a plastic container with tight lid in which you can soak all of the tofu slices in this marinade sauce. Marinade the tofu slices for 24 hours in refrigerator.
  • Bake drained marinated tofu slices on an oiled cookie sheets for 10- 12 minutes in 400 F oven. Flip and bake the other side about another 10-12 minutes.
  • Let them cool before using if using for sushi. Otherwise enjoy! Good to eat hot or cold.

Sugar Cane Mojitos and Caipirinhas

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As most people who know me know, Caipirinhas are in my top 10 favorite things in the world. I love everything about them, the time and muscle that it takes to hand muddle lime and sugar, the tangy cachaça, even the way that the name sounds rolling off of my tongue. So when I found this recipe in an issue of Town & Country, I immediately ran out to buy ingredients.

This recipe originally came from El Bulli, the sorely missed wonder of haute cuisine created by gastronomical genius Ferran Adrià. Normally, I wouldn’t touch a recipe of his. Molecular gastronomy is chemistry, which is a subject I failed at. Literally, in college. But this drink is a whole different beast. Although grandiosely posh, this recipe is super simple and sure to impress even the snootiest of dinner guests.

 

Serves 10

Ingredients:

5 lengths of sugar cane

For Mojito

3/4 cup rhum agricole (such as Neisson Rhum Reserve Special)
15 fresh mint leaves

For Caipirinha

3/4 cup cachaca
To finish: demerara sugar
Citric acid crystals
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
Grated lime zest
10 fresh mint leaves
crushed ice

Preparation

For sugar cane rods:

1. With serrated knife, cut sugar cane following its natural separations, which should not be less than 3 inches.
2. Peel the bark of the sugar cane.
3. Cut the tender inside of the sugar cane into rectangular rods 3 inches in length by 1/2 inch wide to produce 20 rods of sugar cane.

For sugar cane mojitos:
1. Place 10 sugar cane rods in a Ziploc bag, along with rhum agricole and mint leaves.
2. Seal the bag tightly and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

For sugar cane caipirinhas:

1. Place 10 sugar cane rods in a Ziploc bag, along with cachaca.
2. Seal the bag tightly and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

To finish cocktails:

1. Remove sugar cane rods from Ziploc bag.
2. With a knife, make a small vertical cut in one end of each of the mojito rods and insert a whole mint leaf into each, being careful to center the leaves.
3. Sprinkle demerara sugar and grated lime zest over all the rods.
4. Sprinkle two citric-acid crystals on each mojito rod.
5. Fill two glasses with crushed ice and place five mojito rods and five finished caipirinha rods in each.
6. Serve at once.

To enjoy: Chew and lick the cane to extract the cocktail. (The cane is not eaten).

Chocolate Strawberry Pavlova

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Ya know, you learn something new every day. I, without being able to fully understand why, have always loved the name Pavlova. I suppose that it could be partly because of the way that it rolls off the tongue. Or perhaps partly because I always wanted to be a ballerina. Or, in all honestly, partly because it is part of the name that I made up for myself when I used to (cough..) pretend that I was the long-lost heir to the Romanov dynasty. Had I just taken the time to google the word I would have fully understood.

Not completely disjointed from the above thoughts, Pavlova is a meringue dessert with a crisp crust and soft, light inside and tends to be topped with fruit. A major player in the menus of both New Zealand and Australia, it is said to have been created in Wellington, New Zealand in 1926 when Anna Pavlova (see above) stopped there on her world tour. Unless you ask an Australian in which case it was made when she stopped there. Either way, it is decadent.

This version of Pavlova was found in my favorite Australian blog, What Katie Ate, although I substituted strawberries for her raspberries because they are in season. Also, please note that her measurements are in some crazy language that is impossible to decipher. *Hint -100 grams is 2/3 pound which is 10.7 ounces which is just over 21 tablespoons of caster sugar… which is the unit that you use when actually using the sugar.

The Ingredients

  • 6 egg whites
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar
  • 50g good quality chocolate, at least 70% cocoa, chopped up (I used bakers 100% cocoa, because it is cheap.)
  • 3 pints of fresh strawberries, chopped
  • whipped cream

The Process

Preheat oven to 375 F

Put egg whites in a very clean, mixing bowl and whisk until soft peaks form. Unless you are me and you have an egg white setting on your KitchenAid, in which case, just do that. Once you have soft peaks, using a tablespoon at a time, add the sugar and continue beating until the egg whites become stiff and glossy. This is the basis of making meringue really. *Hint – unsure of when they are ready? Try holding your bowl upside down. If nothing comes out, they are ready…

Sift in the cocoa powder, add the vinegar and chopped up chocolate and then slowly fold these into your egg white / sugar mixture until fully combined and the mixture is light brown.

Line 3 cake pans with parchment paper and spoon a layer of the mixture into each. Only fill the cake pan about 1/3, don’t fill the entire pan. Try to keep the volume of each equal and spread out the top of the Pavlova so that is relatively uniform. Remember however, that this treat is not supposed to be perfect looking (Thank God) so don’t take the smoothing too seriously.

Place in the oven and immediately drop the temperature down to 275 F. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. You’ll know that the Pavlova is done when the edges are crispy and it is cracking slightly. The bottom, however, should still be a little bit squishy and soft. These should be much more dense than normal meringue cookies. Remember to leave the Pavlova in the oven, door slightly ajar, to cool completely.

And now all you have to do is throw it all together. Once the Pavlova is cool, simply place one of the layers on a platter or cake stand, top with whipped cream and scatter with strawberries. Then do that again. And then one more time. When you run out of layers Garnish with shaved chocolate and serve.

Squash, Black Bean and Goat Cheese Tamales

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I love Tamales. I like to think of them as a healthier mexican Hot Pocket. They are wonderfully delicious, not completely awful for you and extremely versatile allowing for different combinations of ingredients. Plus they store well. Apparently, the tamale traces back to 5000 BC! During wartime, for the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures, the women became unable to keep up with cooking and food preparation and invented the tamale out of necessity for a more portable, sustainable foodstuff. It must say something to the quality of the recipe that Tamales have lasted this long and are still regularly enjoyed in a complex variety of South American cultures.

All history and tamale love aside – they are not easy to make. At least the first time. Tamales are steamed in a leaf or corn husk and are supposed to be rectangular. I found it to be quite difficult to get my tamales to be any decent shape at first. However, after some serious practice, my corn husk tying skills improved. And rectangular or not, they were delicious.

The tamale recipe that I am going to make here is vegetarian as I don’t consume any meat (fish withstanding) but tamales generally are made with pork or chicken. This recipe came from Eating Well but I have tried to simplify it as much as possible.

These are your ingredients:

Wrapping:

  • 16 Corn Husks, available for cheap at Hispanic grocery stores or for expensive at very fancy ones.

Batter:

  • 1 3/4 cups masa
  • 1 1/4 cups hot water
  • 1 1/2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese, store-bought or see recipe here
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups quick-cooking grits, or cornmeal
  • 1/2-3/4 cup vegetable broth

Filling:

  • 20 ounces frozen winter squash, thawed (about 2 cups; see Tip)
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed
  • 1 4-ounce can chopped green chiles, drained
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup crumbled goat cheese

 

The Process:

The first step is preparing your corn husk wrappers. As they are sold dried, the corn husks should be soaked in warm water for at least 30 minutes. This makes them more pliable.

Making the batter: Start off adding the masa and 1 1/4 cups hot water  to a large bowl and stirring with a wooden spoon until it is dough-like.

In a separate bowl, beat the ricotta, oil, baking powder and salt with an electric mixer on medium-high for two minutes.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the cornmeal. I found this part to be quite difficult as my mixture became really firm. I ended up adding a little water to the blend in order to soften it up a bit.

Now mix the two blends together and slowly add the vegetable stock, about a 1/2 cup at a time until you get a moist, spreadable batter.

Making the filling: This part is really easy. Simply defrost your frozen winter squash and mush it up (technical term). Try to drain as much excess liquid from the squash as possible. Next, stir in the beans,salt and green chilis and voila – filling is done.

Putting it all together: On a clean surface lay all of you corn husks out. Try to pick larger ones and tear the smaller ones into 16 12 inch ties.

Spread 1/3 cup of the batter in the center of the husk in a 4-inch square, leaving plenty of space at the top and bottom. On top of that, add about 2 tablespoons of the squash filling. Top with a bit of goat cheese.  My setup looked like this.

 

Now here comes the hard part. Wrapping tamales. It it very similar to wrapping a present, that is gooey and moves a little. First fold in the top and bottom of tamale. Now fold the sides in and wrap with the ties made from the smaller corn husks. The key in this is to not put too much batter/ filling into the husk so that it leaks out the side.

Finally, steaming the tamales: I had used an old pot and a colander and it worked wonderfully but I am sure that many of you have better set-ups. In the picture below you can see where I had some problems in the wrapping. Cover and steam for an hour making sure to check the water levels in the pot. The tamales are done when the batter is firm and easily pulls away from the wrapper.  Enjoy!

 

Tamales can be kept enjoyed immediately, refrigerated for a couple of days or frozen for up to 3 months. To reheat, simply throw them in the microwave for a minute or so.

Per tamale: 232 calories; 7 g fat ( 3 g sat , 3 g mono ); 10 mg cholesterol; 35 g carbohydrates; 8 g protein;4 g fiber; 612 mg sodium; 130 mg potassium.

Baked Brussel Sprouts

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As far back as I can remember, I have LOVED vegetables. As a child, I would go through the day munching on carrots and chose spinach for dessert instead of ice cream (this has since changed). But the one vegetable that I had never been able to suffer was Brussel Sprouts. The vile, little cabbages were forced upon me from a very early age causing a deep hatred for their shape, taste and sulfuric smell.

Years later, I found myself living in Rome, Italy where brussel sprouts are as regular as mozzarella. Boiled, roasted and sauteed brussels graced most meals, lightly tasting of lemon or vinegar. During this time, I grew to love cabbage’s baby sister and began to feel disappointed when they were not an option.

Here is my spin on this Brussel Sprout recipe, beautifully laid out by Georgia Pellegrini, which is pretty much fool proof. I added mushrooms and a few bits of tomato as well.

Here are your Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 lb. Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms (brown or portobello)
  • 1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes
  • half a white onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic, mince
  • Olive Oil
  • Italian seasoning
  • Salt and Pepper

The Process:

First, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Then, trim off a little bit of the end of the brussel sprout but be sure to leave enough to where the nob stays together. Cut the brussel sprouts in half.

Next, make a marinade for the brussel sprouts. Squeeze a half of a lemon on the sprouts and toss them around a bit. Drizzle with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.  Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes, depending on your oven. Be sure to check the dish regularly to make sure that each side browns evenly.

While the brussel sprouts are baking, mince 3 cloves of garlic and set in a bowl  to the side. Do the same with about half of a white onion and a large portobello mushroom.  Cover all of this with a bit of olive oil, italian seasoning and salt and pepper.

After 15 minutes is up, add the mushroom blend to the brussel sprouts and place back in the oven for another 15 minutes. With 5 minutes to spare, cut a few small Campari tomatoes into slices and add to the dish allowing them just a few minutes to roast.

Buon Appetite!

Hello world!

Bon Vivant – a person having cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink. Literally, a person who is good at living. This is me. Well… this was me before entering into the world of bills and responsibilities.

Fortunately, a lack of funds has never been an excuse for second-rate. Now I am simply learning how to satisfy my champagne tastes on a beer budget… well, malt liquor budget. So join me, along with a few of my fancy friends, as we cook, bake, sew and DIY our way back to the lavish luxury which we love so much.

“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”
~Oscar Wilde