Because there's something comforting in the predictable
Today I made butternut squash soup, because last year I made butternut squash soup. And you know what? I take great comfort in that.
It never ceases to amaze me how culinarily ritualistic we are in this country. Every year, like clockwork, when the last day of September rolls into the first day of October, the stone fruits and tomatoes of summer give way to the weightier squashes and sprouts of winter, and an entire nation switches its focus from the frivolity of warm weather fare, to the serious business of food with the intent to sustain.
Of course it makes sense - eating seasonally is not only environmentally sound, it's also a hell of a lot tastier. Sure, you can probably find a pear at the grocery store in the middle of April, but where exactly that pear comes from, and whether or not it tastes anything remotely like it should, is a separate issue. Just because it's available, doesn't mean you should be eating it.
But eating seasonally is more than just a smarter and more responsible choice - it has become an anchor that roots us in ritual, helps us understand the passing of time and gives us something to look forward to with every year that passes.
I think it's fair to say that we come to grips with where we stand through what we eat, and at no time of the year is that more apparent than during its final months.
October, for example, gives way to our annual obsession with all things pumpkin. (And I truly mean obsession - I'm pretty sure our economy would collapse entirely, if pumpkin farmers woke up one morning and decided to diversify.) The tenth month of the year isn't official without the introduction of cinnamon and nutmeg, and an almost abrasive shift from a varied color palette to food that takes on an overwhelmingly orange hue.
November may be the penultimate month of year, but more significantly, it is a time for butternuts and delicatas, and cranberries baked into everything - only to be followed by December, which culminates in a symphony of root vegetables roasted to the point of sweet caramelization and dessert-like satisfaction.
We are creatures of habit, tradition and the comfort they provide, and in a country of culinary innovators, we find ourselves churning out the exact same dishes year after year, because of it. Summer is for innovation, and winter reminds us of where we come from. We round out the year with grandma's pies, mom's stews, dad's cocktails and 'so-and-so's world famous something-or-others,' that have been passed down for generations.
So this year, like last year, and the year before it, I give you butternut squash soup with ginger - because if it ain't broke...
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice you squashes in half, scoop out the seeds, oil the cut sides, season them with salt and pepper and place them, cut side down on a lined baking sheet. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, until soft
Meanwhile, add the coconut oil to a large pot over low-medium heat. Cook the onions until soft and slightly caramelized about 15-20 minutes, then add the ginger, garlic, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cook for a further minute.
Scoop the squash out of the skin and add it to the pot along with four cups of broth. Cook the soup for 15 minutes, until the squash has virtually 'melted' into the broth. At this point, you blend it. I use an immersion blender, but if you don't have one, carefully blend it in a standing blender in batches, then return the soup to the pot. If you feel the soup is too thick, and resembles baby food more than soup, add more stock.
Cook for a further 5-10 minutes and then season it with salt and pepper. Finally, stir in the butter, for a shiny, smooth and rich finish.
I like to top mine with some pumpkin and pomegranate seeds, and a swirl of coconut cream, because the combination of squash, brown sugar and coconut is absolutely divine! (And because everything's better with a little texture and a good garnish!)
As I sit here, eating my familiar and delicious squash soup, with Thanksgiving and Christmas fast approaching, I can already taste the meals that lie ahead. I can taste them, because I've been having them for the past 33 years. And I can tell you right now, if the brussel sprouts with walnuts and maple syrup don't make it onto the table, there will be uproar.
Tradition, in our very modern little family, is not to be messed with.
because the laziest day of the week should be the tastiest day of the week
There's just something about a Sunday that makes you want to spend a little extra time in the kitchen. An alarm-free day that starts with a slow ease into consciousness and the best cup of coffee you've had all week, often rolls into sweats-clad comfort in the kitchen, lazily laboring over something that takes significantly more time than throwing boiling water over a cup of dehydrated noodles and a flavor packet. Sundays are for lingering over breakfast, brunching with friends and preparing meals that don't subscribe to the 'one pot dinner' format.
(As a woman without a dishwasher, I must admit that this final day of the week fills me with equal parts longing and dread, as I have a tendency to make my way through nearly every pot, pan and utensil housed within the walls of my dated-but-functional kitchen.)
When growing up, I remember Sundays as the days when mom would experiment and try new recipes. They were the days when the cookbooks would come off the shelves and be leafed through, over milky cups of tea and something sweet brought home from a bakery. The kitchen table would be covered with worn copies of The River Cafe and Silver Palate cookbooks, that to this day still contain some of my all-time-favorite simple and delicious meals. Dishes like slow-cooked lamb shanks and roasted tomato pastas would rise from the pages and find their way onto our plates, just early enough to be followed by a movie on the couch and a reasonable bedtime before the week began anew.
These days, the bedtimes aren't quite as reasonable, and the milky cups of tea have been replaced by slightly tannic, bold glasses of red wine and cocktails made rich by bourbon and bitters, but the inherent feeling of comfort through cooking and convening over food, remains.
As I sit here in the early morning light, with a cup of coffee and the sound of a thunderstorm scoring the start to my day (albeit from the noise machine app on my iPhone), I set my oven to 400*F, knowing that I have a boozy-brunch-out, fast approaching. Unwilling to forsake ritual, I decide to preemptively roast vegetables for the evening of blissful relaxation that lies on the horizon, making sure to satisfy my Sunday kitchen cravings, regardless of a social life.
And because every kitchen is made infinitely more inviting by the smell of crisping bacon, I conclude that extra virgin olive oil is for the other six days of the week, and roast my vegetables in the rendered fat of cured and smoked pork.
Set your oven to 400*F.
Cook your bacon in a pan over medium heat, until rendered and crispy. Set the bacon aside and reserve the bacon fat.
Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or aluminum foil and spread the veggies out over it. Drizzle them with the reserved drippings and vinegar and season them with salt and pepper and thyme leaves.
Roast the vegetables from 20 minutes, then give them a shuffle on the pan. Roast them for a further 15-20 minutes until cooked through.
Crumble the reserved bacon over the veg and enjoy them as a side to any main dish, topped with a poached egg or just as they are with a glass of wine and little attention paid to the week that looms ahead.
Of course, the members of my family aren't sat together around the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, scouring the pages of yellowing classics for food projects with which to occupy our afternoons and early evenings, anymore. We do, however, find ourselves on the phone, in three separate kitchens, sipping tea and wine, a country apart, planning experiments and bouncing ideas off each other. May that never change.
Because the cooler temperatures of Fall and all the Warmth they bring with them, can't come soon enough
Do you ever have those mornings where you wake up and hope it's raining? That when you crack your eyelids open, the room is just barely brighter than the inside of your eyelids? Those mornings that lead into guilt-free days of pure, pyjama-clad indulgence, where the simple fact that it's not 75 and sunny, is reason enough to dial it back for the day. (I'm aware that I may have lived in southern California for too long – I can feel an incredulous mob of damp-haired east coasters and northern Europeans rolling their eyes at me as they read this!)
I must admit I have them often – apparently you can take the girl out of her overcast, drizzly homeland, but you can't take that homeland out of the girl. There's just something about the half-light that makes my heart swell. When it's warmer inside than out and when a soft, electric bulb glows in harmony with a smattering of pooling wax candles, I'm taken straight back to short winter days in Denmark with my family, a good crime story to read and the sound of raindrops on the roof. Come to think of it, I'll take a torrential rainstorm in verdant Atlanta, GA, with the smell of something fragrant in the oven and the promise of a bath to round out the night, just as soon as I'd take a trip across the Atlantic. My childhood is rich with rain, and as an adult I crave not only precipitation, but also the nostalgia it drizzles down my window panes.
Cut to the end of October in Los Angeles, where the holiday season rapidly approaches and the temperature gauge still reads 90*F, despite the fact that persimmons, pears and pumpkins have hit every menu in town. Angelenos are being force-fed fall, even though we still find ourselves ordering our coffees iced and our toes painted pastel. Every day, with hope in our hearts, we preemptively don our sweaters, tights and jackets, in anticipation of a much longed-for dive into cooler temperatures, and every day we break a sweat, stripping back down to comfortable and barely decent.
I realize that, before I know it, the days will go from too hot to too cold, and the longing I have for long sleeves and a cold nose, will dissipate into a cold I can't shake from my bones – but, until then, I'll continue to keep my eyes shut for just a moment longer, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the clouds have descended upon this city of angels. (I'll also turn the air conditioning way down low, force myself into woolens, and perfect the perfect hot chocolate recipe in anticipation of a day so cold, I'll need it to warm my insides.)
This hot chocolate recipe is rich, comforting and totally vegan! (Not because I'm vegan, but because drinking a cup of hot dairy turns a cozy day in thick socks, into a day I'd rather not add to the memory bank.) For those of you lucky enough to bask comfortably in the delights of cow's milk, don't worry, you won't miss it – I promise.
In a Vitamix (or blender) combine the can of coconut cream (reserving about 2 tablespoons of the solid mass on top for garnish), cacao powder, dates, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Blend on high until the dates are completely incorporated and the mixture is smooth.
Heat in a pan (unless using a Vitamix, in which case it's already hot), until it reaches your desired temperature for drinking.
Pour the hot chocolate into two mugs, then whip the reserved coconut cream until light and fluffy. Top the hot chocolate with a tablespoon of the 'whipped cream' and some chocolate shavings.
As I sit here with my warm cup, staring out at clear blue skies and the mild distortion of air so hot you could slow-cook with it, I can see, way off in the distance, the promise of cold, drizzly days that taste of cacao, coconut and sweet dates, and imagine the window panes fogging with the warmth of their steam.
Soon, I hope.
*In order for the cream part of the coconut milk to really set up, store the can in the fridge over night. When you go to open the can, flip it first - then the creamy, solid part should be on top, ready to scoop out. If you live near a Trader Joe's, they sell cans of coconut cream that are perfect for this.
**I simply use a vegetable peeler and shave along a chocolate bar to achieve these chocolate shavings.
When you realize it's late and you still have to make dinner
Ok, full disclosure - outside the four walls of a perfect little Instagram photo, lies pure and utter chaos. Pots, pans, grocery bags, the sweater that was cast off in a fit of overheated food styling, and the general clutter that is everyday life.
Of course I'm speaking from my own, personal experience here, but I can pretty much guarantee that in the periphery of even the most well-oiled machine, someone's pushing a creative mess just outside of frame. Thank goodness for the tight crop!
Now, I don't think I've mentioned it before, but I shoot all my photos on my little iPhone 6 Plus (ok, not so little - unless you have really, really large hands), using only the natural light that shines in through my living room windows. I set up a chair with a cutting board on top, and move that chair around the room, depending on where the light's coming from at any given time of day. Is it ideal? No. Is it the way I dream of shooting my food? Again, no. But I love the challenge and I'm having a blast with it.
Or, at least I was until the seasons started to change!
I now find myself in a mad dash to dream up, produce and shoot before the last glimmer of viable sunlight surreptitiously makes its retreat from my hardwood floors, leaving in its wake a dim shade only rectified by ambient (but useless) electric light. The slow cooker has no place in my kitchen at the moment - it's all fast-paced and high heat!
The other afternoon I found myself wanting to cook and shoot, but realizing that I had no more than 30 minutes left, before cooking became merely about enjoyable consumption, as opposed to creating aesthetically pleasing and photographable forays into food. (Gone are the days of casually whipping up anything as simple as a piece of toast without artfully swooping something across it, just so.)
This is when the chaos ensues. This is where the myth that cooking for food photography is somehow therapeutic and peaceful, is cracked wide open. And this is when you get creative.
I scoured my fridge and cabinets for their contents and pulled together a veritable mystery basket of ingredients to begin my 'Chopped-meets-Top Chef quick fire challenge', for which the clock had already been set. Buckwheat noodles, bok choy, mushrooms, some Fresno chilis and an egg. (This was a good day. I've certainly encountered the 'stick of butter, half a cucumber, scallions and an open bottle of Sauvignon Blanc basket', too! At which point, it's best to just drink the wine, switch on Netflix, rest cucumber slices on those suitcases under your eyes, and save the scallions for a day when you choose to live more like an adult.)
I quickly set a pot of water to boil on the stove, broke out the sautée pan and began chopping my vegetables - repeatedly glancing at the floor of my living room, hoping to keep it lit by sheer will power.
Noodles in water - check! Veggies in pan - check! I dashed to grab a pot for the egg poaching, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a grim shadow enveloping the front of my apartment, like a scene right out of a horror movie. Slowly but surely, the dim began to creep across the room, rendering much of the space utterly useless.
Determined not to lose a day's work, I gently cracked the egg into the barely simmering water, as a bead of sweat broke on my brow, then set the timer for three minutes.
As I yanked the noodles out of the water and swiftly chilled them down, I added soy, mirin and almond butter to my pan of vegetables, furiously stirring and counting down the final seconds of my egg's poach.
As the noodle dish hit the bowl and the egg went down on top, I triumphantly turned toward the living room, only to find that the last beams of light had, indeed, made their exit for the day.
My shoulders slumped, momentarily, as I eyed my steaming bowl of perfectly cooked egg and noodles, and then, refusing to admit defeat, thought, 'to the roof!!' And to the roof I ran, bowl, cutting board, garnish and phone in hand.
I awkwardly bounded up two flights of stairs, trying not to break the yolk, and unlatched the door to the roof, which bears a sign that reads 'NO FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY ON ROOF!" (It may actually say something like 'DO NOT USE ROOF!' but it's all a blur - I can't be sure.)
I was in luck - there was just enough light to get the job done. Down went the cutting board with the bowl on top, and after a little artful arrangement of some mushrooms and scallions, I whipped out my camera (phone). Click, click, click...and then she died.
This is not the first time I've drained my phone without noticing and been left with 2% on which to shoot - I believe the last time this happened, I was 30 seconds away from pulling a soufflé out of the oven!
I laid down on the roof, stared up at the sky and then glanced over at my beautiful bowl of buckwheat noodles and thought 'well, at least dinner's ready!'
Fortunately, after the descent to my apartment and 10 minutes of charging my phone, I discovered I still got the shot, albeit a little on the dim side.
Cook your noodles according to the instructions on the packet, then drain them and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Set the noodles aside and place a small pot of water on the stove to boil, adding about a tablespoon of vinegar. (This is for egg poaching.)
Separate the mushrooms if using the Japanese variety, or slice them if using something like a white button or crimini, then chop the bok choy,
Heat the coconut oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and add the mushrooms and bok choy. Cook until the mushrooms are browned and soft, then add the sliced chili to the mix.
Meanwhile poach your egg, at a low simmer, for three minutes. Once cooked, place the egg on a paper towel or tea towel, until the dish is ready to plate.
To the pan with the vegetables, add the mirin, soy sauce and almond butter, and stir thoroughly to combine, then add the cooked noodles, and sautée one minute longer. If needed, season with salt - although the soy should cover that.
Sprinkle with fresh cilantro, squeeze half a lime over it, and top the noodles with the egg.
So, next time you're leafing through the pages of your favorite food magazine, or obsessively checking your go-to Instagram accounts, remember, somewhere, just outside of frame, a soufflé died while the battery pack was being replaced.
Here's to an earlier start until the clocks 'spring forward' again!
BEcause When you're having one of those weeks, you top your sister's pancake recipe with sautéed blackberries and pears
Let me start out by saying that pancakes and I have a funny relationship (I realize, of course, that any relationship with a pancake is, in and of itself, funny, but never mind that). The thing is, I crave, adore and admire them, but I'll rarely commit to making or ordering them (come to think of it, that does actually sound a lot like a relationship. Ugh).
Let me clarify that statement, though. When I say pancake, I am specifically referring to an American-style pancake, not a European-style pancake. When it comes to the French and Scandinavian varieties, I'm all in, in that 'til death do us part' kind of way. But when it comes to the thicker, weightier, and more substantial American rendition, I've always been a little fickle (try not to read to much into this...pancakes, people, we are talking pancakes.)
This does not reflect a deeper, inner battle waging between my dueling Scandinavian and American loyalties - I went to an international school, for goodness sake. I'm all about 14 different takes on the same three ingredients at a multinational bake sale, raising funds for a multinational production of The Crucible, in a setting straight out of Disney's 'It's a Small World.'
It's just that I'm so often disappointed by a stack of good ole' American flapjacks. They hold so much promise - that golden color, those crisp, browned edges, the height, the knob of butter balancing on top, and the (real) maple syrup, oh the syrup that oozes down its sides and pools, warmly at its feet. There's a reason that, other than bursting, runny egg yolks, they're possibly the most frequently posted 'food porn' on Instagram. I mean, I wake up in the morning, reach for my phone, and immediately feel the need to go all '1950's housewife' on my kitchen, whipping out the blueberries, syrup and a general sentimentality that pancakes seem to conjure up. But more often than not, I take one bite and realize that the apparent hope for a better tomorrow, isn't found in a heavy, stodgy round of pan-cooked cake.
I want crispy edges and fluffy, flavorful insides! I want a pancake that really tastes of something. And I want to have a bite and actually feel the need to have another. Rarely are those needs met.
So, this morning, I woke up exhausted and reeling from an intense week of post-vacation catch up, and an exciting venture into food videos for a company I'm totally inspired by, and I thought 'I just want to make something that makes me feel good.' No, not in that healthy, virtuous, 'I'm totally satisfied by kale' kind of way, but in that 'I'll probably feel super lethargic and regret this later' kind of way.
With a brain too tired to come up with anything on its own, I texted my sister for suggestions. 'Pancakes!' She said, 'you love pancakes! I have the best recipe for apple cider pancakes.' I thought, for a moment, of the disappointment that may very well lay ahead of me, if I ventured into the land of underwhelming hotcakes, and then, like the girl who still orders bourbon, even though she knows it'll give her a headache, decided to give them a whirl.
Oh boy. Ladies and gentlemen, she may be three years younger, but man, my little sister knows more about a good pancake than her older, hitherto-sheltered sister could have possibly imagined. These babies where everything I could have hoped for, and above all else, equal parts fluffy and flavorful. The cider flavor is subtle, and creeps in at the end, and the addition of the yogurt makes them perfectly tender. I consider myself thoroughly schooled in the art of our domestic varietal.
Make. These. Now.
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and give them a good whisk to combine. Then, dig a little well in the middle.
Into the well, add the cider, yogurt, egg and butter. Then, using your whisk, combine all the ingredients, but do not over mix. It's ok if there are a few little lumps left in the batter - they will cook out. If you mix too much, you risk a tough pancake, and who likes a tough pancake? Not I.
Once the batter is ready, get working on your fruit. I used my cast iron skillet for this, because, well, I always feel like a real pro when I break out the cast iron - but you can use any pan you like.
Melt the butter at medium heat and add your pears and blackberries, then add your honey. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until the pears are soft and the blackberries have released a good amount of juice. Keep an eye on things though, as the honey can burn quite easily. Just keep things moving around the pan.
Cook your pancakes in a pan over medium heat, using a little extra butter, for a couple of minutes per side. You'll know they're ready to flip, when you see bubbles bursting in the center of the pancake.
Serve them topped with the fruit and its syrup and, of course, a little (or a lot) of maple syrup drizzled on top.
The reality is, I'll probably continue to date crepes and Swedish pancakes - I mean make, make crepes and Swedish pancakes, but my eyes have certainly been opened to a breakfast cake with a little more substance. And hey, as long as it has maple syrup poured all over it, who can really tell the difference anyway?!
* For the lightest, fluffiest pancakes, use regular AP, however, if you're gluten intolerant, you can certainly swap it out for your favorite GF variety (I like Cup 4 Cup). Spelt flour, even though it still contains gluten, is a little easier to digest and manages to render the same result as AP.
** Plain, cow's milk yogurt is great here, but I'm a little sensitive to it, so I used goat's milk yogurt instead. It gave the pancakes a really lovely, savory undertone that paired really nicely with the sweet cider.
Because when your grandmother goes rogue, you have complete license to follow suit.
Every family has recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. And by recipes, I mean scratchings on the back of a cocktail napkin, vague instructions passed down verbally (that seem to change just slightly with every iteration) and faded, grease-stained cookbooks, with certain pages in particular that reflect the smeared and fingerprinted popularity of a treasured dish.
As memories blur, tastes change and scribbles fade, the passing-down of recipes becomes a bit of a game of Chinese Whispers, and what once may have been the Arnoldi family's recipe for its world famous apple crumble (in some, very discerning parts, anyway), has become whatever version of said crumble our 94-year-old grandmother choses to remember.
Jean Arnoldi, the matriarch of my mother's side of the family, is a woman of great strength, intelligence, wit and perseverance. Jean Arnoldi is also a woman who is never wrong. (I'm pretty sure that trait was passed down to all the women of the family, along with an appreciation for dark chocolate and deeply disturbing television thrillers.)
My grandmother refuses to age and thank goodness for that. She climbs stepladders to hang Christmas ornaments (despite the fact that she can barely see or balance), sticks her head in the pot to make sure the water is boiling (I mean, I just can't) and insists that apple crumble was always, always made with an oat topping. On this final point, I can assure you, it was not.
Crumble has been my family's go-to dessert since I can remember. It's simple, quick and always delicious – it's the dessert that wins you major points, with barely any effort. It featured prominently at the end of a many-a-weekend meal, summer beach picnics, and the occasional, particularly grizzly school night, when a little something extra was required.
And crumble was always made with flour, butter, sugar, a pinch of salt and apples. That's it. No more, no less, and certainly no oats. But at some point, during the last 10 years, granny started throwing oats into the mix. No big deal, right? I mean, it's apple crumble – as long as it's delicious, who cares? It's just that our stubborn grandmother insists it was always made that way. It's like the scribbled-on cocktail napkin was lost – like the torn notebook page had been misplaced. And there's no use arguing, because even when my granny seems to concede, she waits til you turn away, before mouthing the words 'you're wrong of course, darling' under her breath. Infuriating? Yes. But wonderful at the same time. I'm convinced that a nature so stubborn pushes you forward. It pushed her through her time as a nurse during the war, through raising five children, through being the devoted wife of a brilliant (and very busy) doctor, and through the almost 21 years alone, since his passing.
So, if my granny wants to believe (whole-heartedly) that apple crumble was always made with oats, well then the rest of us will respect our elder and take her word for it! (Until she turns away, and we collectively whisper 'you're wrong of course, darling' under our breaths.)
Having flown the nest long ago, and realized that, apparently, nothing is sacred, I've started making my own memory-lapsed versions of this family classic. I figure, as long as I call it crumble, think of my grandmother when I make it, and throw at least four of the primary ingredients in, I'm not going any more rogue than granny did.
So, this week, I incorporated a snack that I've absolutely fallen for. It's called Gigi's Remix, and it's ridiculously delicious. Somewhere between granola and trail mix, this crunchy, sweet and wholesome blend of sprouted nuts, goji berries, cacao nibs and coconut flakes, among other things, is as crave-worthy as it is healthful. When you read through the list of ingredients clearly printed on the front of the packet, you find yourself turning the bag to look for additional items, perhaps sneakily listed on its back side. It can't possibly be this good, and not have at least one thing I can't pronounce hidden inside it, can it?
Apparently, it can.
This stuff's good as is, in a bowl with any milk you like, and, as I've recently discovered, baked into the non-traditional topping of an ever-evolving apple crumble.
Cue the remix.
For the crumble topping:
For the filling:
Set your oven to 350*F.
Peel, core and chop your apples into bite-sized pieces, then mix them in a bowl with two tablespoons of sugar and the cinnamon. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, Gigi's Remix, sugar and salt, and then cut in the butter in chunks.
Using your hands, incorporate the butter into the flour mixture, until you have a crumbly dough. You want the butter evenly distributed throughout.
Butter a pie dish, add in the apples in a fairly even layer, and crumble the topping over them. You want nice chunks of buttery topping covering all the apples.
Oh, and I also threw on a few pumpkin seeds, because I love 'em, but this was more of an afterthought, rather than part of the recipe.
Bake the crumble for 45 minutes to an hour, until golden on top and bubbling. Then serve it up as is or with a big scoop of soon-to-be-melting, vanilla ice cream on top.
That's my take on it, anyway, and I'm curious to find out how it goes down with the head of the family. Perhaps we're back to an oat-free rendition come Christmas time when I see my lovely granny next, at which point this may be far too revolutionary. But then again, you never know.
I don't think we'll ever win the battle on irresponsible stepladder usage or steam facials not administered by a professional, but at least we still get crumble when we come to visit, even if it's different from what we grew up on.
*Gigi's Remix is primarily sold in California, however you can oder it online from anywhere. You can, of course, and by all means, incorporate your favorite granola instead. Something heavy in nuts, berries and seeds, rather than clusters, works best.
** If you're using a particularly sweet apple, such as Golden Delicious, you can cut the sugar down to ¼ cup – unless you like your desserts on the sweeter side.
Because when the ingredients speak for themselves, you shut up and listen
Have you ever eaten a vegetable and thought 'wow, this is exactly what this vegetable should taste like'? I mean, like, bitten into a carrot and thought 'this is the most carrot-y carrot I've ever had - I didn't know a carrot could be so, well, carrot-like!' Instead of something more along the lines of 'babe, where's the dip?'
You may be one of the lucky ones who answers in the affirmative, but for most, vegetables simply taste like a vague semblance of what their corresponding Magic Marker shade may have smelled like, and act, primarily, as a vehicle for hummus and the like.
Unless you're fortunate enough to do your produce shopping at a local farmer's market (and even that can be hit or miss - just because it's farm fresh and organic, doesn't mean it'll get you anywhere near as excited as a chargrilled ribeye steak with a side of, umm, chargrilled ribeye steak) you're probably living a life of underwhelming veg, with the odd standout making its way into your crisper drawer from time to time.
The reality is, the reason vegetable dishes are so often doctored up with lots of cheese, garlic, butter and bacon, is that the produce being served can't stand on its own two feet. Let's be honest, you're not ordering the brussel sprouts, you're ordering the bacon and browned butter they're basking in - and, most of the time, so am I!
Though I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some truly outstanding examples of fruits and vegetables through work and by living in a state that always seems to have something in season, the true potential of a vegetable wasn't made clear to me until one rainy evening on the opposite coast, in the Hudson Valley.
If you haven't been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, find a way to make it happen. Not only are you in for an amazing dining experience, you get treated to a deeper understanding of what food, at its most naked, should taste like. (They also serve foie gras, sandwiched between shards of paper-thin, salted dark chocolate - I almost cried. No, seriously, if I were someone who OMG'd, I would have OMG'd...all over the place. So, if the 'deeper understanding' bit isn't enough to get you there, this borderline inappropriate, dip into almost pornographic indulgence, should be.)
Dan Barber, the genius behind Blue Hill, is the epitome of the 'farm to table' dining movement, and I would say 90% of what you consume at his restaurants was grown, raised and harvested at the Stone Barns farm. And after a (very) late night, post-work, hunger inducing Netflix screening of his Chef's Table episode, I knew I had to taste the fruits of his labor for myself.
And boy, did I taste. Every course was, quite honestly, magical. The execution was, of course, perfect, but the courses that stood out the most, were the simplest - the ones that required no execution apart from simply growing the ingredients with care, in soil so tended to, he probably could have served it to me as an amuse.
The dish that really gave me an education in the potential of a vegetable, was served on a humble wooden plank. Small spikes stood at attention down its center, with perfect pieces of raw vegetables skewered atop. After a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, said plank was dispatched from the kitchen and placed in front of me. Beautiful, yes, but raw vegetables as an appetizer? And no dip? Oh, yes...yes, yes, yes!
I've never had a tomato that tasted more like a tomato, or a piece of squash that tasted more like a piece of squash. I seem to remember it actually stopping me in my tracks - speechless and astounded, eating a glorified crudité platter reminiscent of no catered office party ever.
Though everything we had that night was more than memorable, that one little mid-course was a welcome reminder that immaculate ingredients prepared simply, can actually change your understanding of food, quite deeply. And that a vegetable has the potential to be perfection, when given the opportunity to grow into everything it was intended to be.
So, when I heard of a squash developed by the Vegetable Breeding Institute at Cornell University, in collaboration with none other than Dan Barber himself, I thought 'that squash is going to taste like what every squash dreams of growing up to be' and I knew I had to try it - by no means was I disappointed.
The Honey Nut Squash is something special indeed. Think of a mini butternut squash, then amplify the flavor and the sweetness tenfold - a mighty punch, packed into a teeny, tiny gourd, so enchanting you feel barbaric slicing it in half and roasting the hell out of it. But barbarian that I am, slice it and roast it, I did.
For the squash:
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice the squash halves into 1" thick wedges, toss them with the olive oil, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste, and spread them out on a foiled baking sheet. Bake them at 15 minutes, until tender. Then allow them to cool.
Meanwhile, slice your apples into thin wedges and sauté them in butter over medium heat, until browned and soft, but not mushy, about 5-7 minutes. Allow them to cool.
Finally, toss the cooled squash and apples with the arugula, chopped nuts, pomegranate seeds, a splash of olive oil and flakey sea salt and pepper to taste.
That's all she wrote. No heavy dressing required - I'm telling you, the honey nut doesn't need it.
It took an evening of driving through the rain with a friend and the combined nighttime eyesight of an earthworm, an hour outside the city, to Pocantico Hills, NY, to truly realize that such simplicity was possible.
That being said, I'm not turning my nose up at dip - dip's delicious. Oh, and chargrilled ribeye. Chargrilled ribeye's good too.
because birthdays are about cake, even when You're a little on the savory side
I will freely admit that I'm totally the girl who makes her own birthday cake - almost every year. 'Happy birthday to me!' I think, as I frost three layers of celebratory genoise. No, it's not because I don't have a wonderful group of friends and family who offer to take care of such things - it's because I know what I like. When you're the person people come to for dessert, doesn't it make sense to provide yourself with the same experience? I believe it falls under the 'treat yourself' and 'because I'm worth it' mantras we so often utter, right before making a really frivolous or irresponsible decision. (Has anyone else been shopping after two glasses of wine, btw? You're totally worth it until the rosé colored glasses come off.) No, I'm not a control freak.
Ok, maybe just a baby control freak, but I'm ok with that. We all have something. Cake by me it is.
Not only do I make my own cake, I also try to make a birthday cake (or any cake) for as many of my friends as I can manage. I have a stack of cake boxes at the ready, stowed under my desk, for precisely these occasions.
When you're a kid, birthday cake is a bit of a given and chances are, mom or dad will have you covered. From homemade to store-bought, cake features prominently as part of your special day, from the age when you'll probably stick your tiny foot in it, to the age when you're too embarrassed to be celebrating with your parents to actually enjoy it. It simply isn't a birthday until the designated amount of candles have dripped their inedible wax into the frosting of a cake so loaded with sugar, it's a wonder you make it through the remainder of the day after eating it. And what is another year gone by, without a flame snuffing wish by which to enter the next.
As an adult, however. you have to hope that someone else assumes the parental responsibility, or it falls on you to take matters into your own hands. I try to assume that responsibility when I can, because no matter how grown up my friends are, they still light up at the sight of piped buttercream. And sprinkles. Sprinkles will always make 'em smile.
I have made quite a few of these celebratory cakes in the last few years, for many a sweet-toothed friend and co-worker, but this week, I was faced with a bit of an obstacle. The birthday of one of my nearest and dearest was looming and, despite the fact that he shuns the idea of drawing attention to this occasion at work, I was intent on making him a cake. Because it's my party and I'll bake if I want to, dammit...right? Ish. (Still not a control freak.)
Obstacles two, three and four were that he doesn't care for sweets and that he's lactose and gluten intolerant.
Now, you may be thinking 'Tess, just throw in the towel, you're fighting a losing battle here!' Sure, sure, sure I could. But I'm stubborn as hell, and if I want to make a cake, I'm going to make a damn cake. (Let's call it headstrong - that has a more positive ring to it.)
So how do you celebrate without sweets, gluten and dairy? Oh, and without really celebrating? You realize that he can tolerate goat milk and cheese, that he likes beets and that if you serve the 'cake' up once almost everyone has left, it's a little less like celebrating and a little more like enjoying an extravagant midnight snack with a glass of champagne and a few select co-workers. And so, the beet salad birthday cake was born.
With sliced, roasted beets to serve as the cake layers, whipped goat cheese to serve as the frosting and toasted, salted macadamia nuts for some added crunch and decorative flair, you end up with something that looks so much like birthday cake, friends will be utterly surprised when they unwittingly bite into something much more savory than they had expected.
Set your oven to 400*F.
Place your beets on a large baking sheet covered with a sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle the olive oil over the beets and season them with salt and pepper. Tear off another sheet of aluminum foil and lay it over the beets. Crimp the two sheet together at the edges, to form a sealed pocket for your beets to cook in. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender all the way through.
Once the beets are roasted, and cooled enough to handle, rub the skins off, using two paper towels. Set the beets aside to cool completely.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the goat cheese, lemon zest, goat yogurt and salt and pepper to taste. Whip the ingredients at medium speed, until completely incorporated and smooth. You want a 'pipeable' consistency, so if you need to add a little more yogurt to make that happen, by all means do. Place the 'frosting' in a piping bag, fitted with a star tip.
Slice your beets to somewhere between a 1/4 inch and a 1/2 inch thickness, using a mandolin or a knife and a steady hand.
Chop your nuts (reserving a few whole ones to decorate with on top) and tear your basil (also reserving a few whole leaves for the top.)
Using a 6" cake ring placed on top of a cake plate or board, begin to layer your ingredients. Start with a thin layer of frosting, so that the cake sticks to the plate and doesn't slide, then add your first layer of sliced beets. You'll have to cut a few of the rounds to fit - don't worry, you won't be able to tell on the finished cake.
Next, pipe a layer of frosting, top that with some of the chopped nuts and a bit of the basil, then repeat with a beet layer. Continue this process, until you reach the top of the cake ring. At this point, place the cake in the fridge, so that the goat cheese frosting sets.
When you're ready to serve it, gently slide the ring up and off the cake. Decorate the top with the remaining frosting, whole macadamias and a few whole basil leaves.
And there you have it! A cake that's also an appetizer. The stuff that every child's birthday dreams are made of!
Seriously though, everyone needs a birthday cake. It's just a fact. And if you have someone in your life who makes a beeline for the salad bar instead of the dessert table, this one's sure to be a hit.
Because, when it comes to dessert, the messier the better
It's a known fact - dessert makes people happy. From cracked-out children on a sugar high, to grown-ups not finishing their dinners, so that they have just enough room for something sweet, the effect of a meal's final course is universal.
I have literally seen grown men in suits wriggle in their seats come the end of a long, serious, business dinner, at the thought of chocolate molten cake. 'Oooooh, is that like a lava cake? Does it come with ice cream? Can we make it two scoops of ice cream??' they plead, with conspiratorial winks and glances, and a sudden abandonment of the formality associated with the more savory courses.
I've always believed that this glee induced by sweets comes from the fact that dessert, more than any other food group, is emotional. Dessert is playing in the neighborhood until dark, it's coming home to mom's famous crumble, it's hiding cookies in your room, it's crumbs in bed, it's chocolate all over your face, it's long summer days filled with ice cream cones, and it's always, always a good thing.
If you want to sell dessert at a restaurant, write the menu using a lot of adjectives. Don't write 'apple pie,' write 'rustic, toasty-warm apple pie with a flaky, golden shortcrust pastry. Dusted with warming cinnamon-sugar and topped with rich, melting, real vanilla-bean ice cream.' Not only will your customers want to order it, they'll want to take a damn bath in it, rub it all over their faces, and call their moms to tell them they love 'em.
I also believe that the most craveable desserts are the most imperfect ones - the messiest ones. Or course, there's nothing like a beautifully decorated, immaculate cake, so perfectly constructed it practically screams 'photograph me', but that's just it - you want to take a picture, but by no means do you want to ruin it by slicing yourself a piece. Perfection, in dessert, lies in how it tastes and how it makes you feel, not in what it looks like. It's not about symmetrical lines and even spacing, it's about rustic plenty, bursting fruit, melts and drips, and sticky fingers. And it's about simplicity.
One of my favorite desserts satisfies both of those criteria. Eton Mess is, as indicated by its name, messy and ridiculously simple. Originally an English dessert, served at the annual cricket match between Eton College and Harrow School, it's comprised of broken meringue, whipped cream and strawberries, unceremoniously dumped into a bowl and mixed together.
It doesn't get much simpler than that. (As a side note, I love the idea of England's most promising and well-to-do young boys, gorging themselves on bowls of mess, with gobs of whipped cream undoubtedly perched at the corners of their mouths.)
I made this dish a fair amount when I lived in London, mostly because it's so delicious, but also because it reminds me of the big bowls of strawberries and cream we used to eat when I was little, and still eat every summer in Denmark.
I don't want to get into measurements here, because it's really not about that. Eton Mess isn't an exact science, it's just mixing whipped cream, broken meringue and berries together.
You can simply slice the berries and mix them in as they are, or you can slice half of them and simmer the other half with just a touch of sugar, until they break down, and then blend them into a sauce.
Break up your meringues and fold them into the whipped cream, along with the strawberry pieces and the sauce (if you made some). Give everything a light mix and then sprinkle some slivered almonds on top for a little added texture.
Now devour it, take a bath in it and rub it all over your face. Oh, and call your mamma, because you'll definitely get all the love feels from this one.