8.22.2010

recharging

As I write this, I have spent five of the past eight days in the car. I have traveled over 750 miles around Maine. I am very tired, but also very happy to have seen my cousin marry the love of his life, to have reconnected with my oldest best friend and introduced our children to each other, and to have rediscovered favorite haunts of my youth. I've had a wonderful week.




Summer is winding down around here, but we seem determined to make the most of the remaining days. We've got one more weekend trip planned, to attend the American Folk Festival up in Bangor. And of course, assuming our amazing summer weather holds up, more trips to the beach to take advantage of ocean water that is finally warm enough for some real swimming!

I remember that, when I was younger, summer seemed like an endless parade of trips to visit grandparents, sleepovers and camp-outs with neighborhood friends, fresh and saltwater swimming and boating, and days upon days of playing outside with my sisters and cousins. Sadly, growing up came with the realization that most people's lives don't shift so drastically toward leisure during the summer. Most jobs aren't seasonal, so we try to fit in all the warm-weather pleasures we enjoyed so freely as children into scattered weekends that feel less like earned time and more like stolen time.

This is where being at home with my kids has its real perks. I feel obligated, like it's my duty, to make sure they experience summer in the same state of blissful ignorance of "real life" that I did. Luckily for me, this means we need to take lots of day trips to fun locations, play outside every chance we get, eat ice cream in the middle of the day, and chase festivals and family parties across the state. I can't really comprehend why no one ever talks about this truly great aspect of parenting: that in order to really do justice to your kids' early years, you'll need to think back to your own childhood and all its glory days, and find ways to give your lovely offspring similar joyous experiences. What a wonderful situation to find oneself in! To realize that being a parent, arguably one of life's most responsible undertakings, also means getting in touch with your inner child on a regular basis, and letting that child out to play. Having fun is practically a requirement!




So yes, we've been enjoying ourselves lately. The kids are loving it, I'm feeling like it's been one of my busiest - and best - summers in a long time, and Josh has even found time to pry himself away from the restaurant to join us on many of our adventures. But this very full life of mine has been missing one thing lately: kitchen time. Lots of running around to social engagements leaves very little time for basic meal preparation, never mind hours in the kitchen to experiment and write recipes. To be truthful, it makes me feel a little unbalanced. I miss that part of my life, the way I imagine someone feels when they lose their cell phone: it's just an ordinary, almost unseen part of my everyday life, one that I'm not really aware of the breadth of my dependence on until it's gone missing.

Thankfully, I've been called on to supply some of the food at these recent gatherings, and so have had to set aside time to prepare a real dish. Not much time, however, because my go-to potluck fare (when I'm not bringing dessert) is almost always the same quick, simple thing: Quinoa Tabouli. It's not original (nothing really is when you're starting with a flavor profile that's thousands of years old), but it's delicious and surprisingly meditative to make.


Meditative? Well, the way I make it at least, it is. I don't make it in the efficient, clean way you would in a "real" kitchen, one which you're paid to be in. I make it messily, stickily, with the understanding that I'm really getting into the food, with all my senses. I like it that way.

I don't follow any tabouli recipe per se, but simply take the flavors I remember that classic bulgur wheat-based salad as having and mix them together in proportions that feel right, adding and subtracting ingredients until the salad is mine completely. A base of cold quinoa. Bright, ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped so that their juices coat my hands as I scoop them into the bowl. Cool cucumbers, fresh and crisp, summer's Zen vegetable. Scallions, mint, and parsley to clear my mind, as their invigorating aromas waft around my head, released from all that green confetti. Creamy, salty feta, feeling it crumble and smear through my fingertips as it tumbles into the bowl. Squeezing a lemon over it all, stirring and folding everything together, and always tasting tasting tasting, looking for the perfect balance. Some salt and pepper and it's done, but if you can let it rest in the fridge for a while, the flavors will meld and intensify for the better.

This tabouli is very good at a potluck, where it shares space on your plate that's piled high with fruit and gluten-free pretzels and curried deviled eggs, and where, in all likelihood, it's eaten absentmindedly as you laugh and share stories with friends old and new. But personally, I like it best all alone. By which I mean really all alone - just me and a bowl of quinoa tabouli, sitting quietly together, savoring the rare quiet, late-afternoon moment. It's my favorite way to slow down and take a break from this crazy beautiful summer.


Quinoa Tabouli
yields approximately 2 quarts of tabouli

1 cup (pre-cooking measurement) white quinoa, cooked and cooled completely
1 large tomato, or several small ones, coarsely chopped
1 smallish cucumber (I used a pickling cucumber and it was plenty), peeled, quartered and chopped
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp finely chopped chives
4 Tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
8 oz feta cheese
juice of one lemon
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste


Combine quinoa, tomatoes, cucumber, mint, chives, parsley, and feta in a medium bowl. At this point, I taste to see if I need to adjust the herb ratio; I like the mint to play a supporting role, not dominate the dish, and sometimes I need extra chives or parsley as a counterweight to a particularly strong bunch of mint. Add the feta, crumbling it with your fingers into irregular chunks. Sprinkle the juice of half of a lemon over the salad, stir, and taste. I love lemon, so always add more lemon juice than I expect to (up to an entire lemon's worth), but you may not like astringency as much as I do, so go with your own tastes here. Season with salt and pepper. If possible, allow the salad to sit, refrigerated, for at least three hours before serving, to allow the flavors to really mix and deepen. Quinoa tabouli keeps, covered and refrigerated, for up to three days.

8.11.2010

"it always rains on tents. rainstorms will travel thousands of miles . . . for the opportunity to rain on a tent."*

Well, we made it. In spite of intense humidity, thunderstorms, dangerous rip tides, flying ant infestations, and complications too feminine in nature to mention outright, we managed to have a really wonderful camping trip with my family.

In my family, there are two kinds of camping: car camping and backpacking. Car camping involves packing your car to overflowing with every possible gadget and form of amusement you could possibly need, and driving to a site that has running water and electricity. Golf clubs, bikes, bocce and koob, not one but two coolers of food, a large awning, camp chairs, a music system, portable burners and cast iron pans - all usually make it onto the list for car camping! Backpacking though, well, that's all about minimalism. Your gear is limited to what you're strong enough to carry on your back. You're lucky if you get to have a pillow, and it will absolutely not be the nice fluffy one from your bed at home! Games come in the form of cards, and food is of the instant, dehydrated variety.

Guess which version we did?


True, some may decry car camping as not "real" enough, since we're not really "roughing" it, but any camping trip that lets me start my morning with French press coffee and buckwheat corn cakes with berries and Maine maple syrup leaves me feeling like . . . well, a happy camper!

And to be completely honest? Truly roughing it with young kids in tow sounds like the exact opposite of a vacation to me. So for now, I'll take the working toilets, swimming pools, mini golf courses, and trolley rides, and enjoy my time with my family, one which happens to include a young boy who cried, "I don't want to leave! I want to stay here forever!" A sure sign of a successful vacation, wouldn't you say?

Now, since this is a food blog, I feel that I should give you the rundown of what we ate. None of it was that spectacular or even really special, except for one little thing: for me and my dad, it was all gluten-free. Regardless of what kind of camping you do, cooking is never as elaborate or involved as it is at home; coolers and camp stoves are great, but do a poor job of mimicking a home kitchen. And throw the gluten-free wrench into the mix, and it can be very tempting to stock up on lots of prepackaged foods to get you through the trip. And I'm not saying we didn't rely more heavily on processed foods than usual (these cookies are a traditional camping treat), but I made an effort to plan and make as much in advance as I could, and it really paid off.

We had hamburgers on Shauna's hamburger buns. Black and blue shortcake on my biscuits. (It sounds hostile. It's not - we used wild Maine blackberries and blueberries!) Rebecca Reilly's perfect gluten-free graham crackers, which never made it into s'mores, but were perfect for snacking on. Bacon and egg breakfast sandwiches on these gluten-free English muffins. And of course, those buckwheat corn cakes, which was one of the easiest camping breakfasts I've done in a long time. I had measured out all the dry ingredients into a ziploc bag before we left, and taped instructions for mixing up the batter onto the bag. I even brought along a tiny jar of pre-measured buttermilk! (Why bring the whole bottle if I only need a quarter cup?) We dumped everything into a mixing bowl and stirred it up while the pan was heating. They cooked up quickly, everyone loved them, and they were a nice, healthy way to launch a day that would later include lots of ice cream and pier fries. They are absolutely my new camping go-to breakfast.


So yes, we ate well. We even stopped at a very good barbecue joint on the way home (they were knowledgeable about gluten-free foods, and assured me that all the sauces on the table were safe), and topped it off with a trip to Ben & Jerry's (because we just hadn't had enough ice cream!).

But as good as the food may have been - and it was! - it was really just a minor accessory to the trip. Because, as much as it may often feel like my whole life is about food, sometimes it's decidedly not.

Instead, it's about telling stories by the campfire late at night. Relaxing and doing absolutely nothing while my youngest one naps. Enjoying a beautiful sunset amidst the cacophony of amusement park bustle. Standing at the edge of the ocean, marveling at the power of the waves. And of course, per the usual these days, watching my children grow in leaps and bounds before my eyes. Swimming? Putting your face in the water? Going on rides all by yourself? Really?? Yes. All of it. No food required.



However, since this is a food blog, and a gluten-free baking one at that, I can't let you go without a recipe. Especially since we're off again in two days for my cousin's wedding, and my oldest childhood friend comes into town after that, so it might be awhile before you get another post from me. The night before we left I made this summer squash tart, and it was a great, easy dinner, one which was also the perfect breakfast the next morning, eaten in fits and starts as we rushed about the house, trying to accomplish all the last-minute packing and organizing in order to leave soon!soon!soon! before we lost most of the day. And it's great going-away food, since it used up some aging squash, perishable goat cheese, and almost-forgotten herbs. It was inspired by Deb's and Jen's galettes. Because really, aren't we all inspired by Deb and Jen?



Summer Squash Tart
makes one 11-inch tart

One recipe gluten-free pie crust

8 oz fresh goat cheese (Vermont Butter & Cheese is a good, widely-available product)
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan (I use my microplane)
1 large egg
1 Tbsp coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp coarsely chopped fresh oregano
drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil (about 2 Tbsp, at the most, depending on how dry your goat cheese is)
salt and pepper, to taste
1 small zucchini
1 small yellow squash
2 pieces cooked bacon, crumbled
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°. Roll out the pie dough and transfer it to your tart pan, patching any cracks or holes that form. (I used my largest removable-bottom tart pan, which is 11 inches across. I was able to stretch a single-batch of pie dough to about 14 inches, which fit the pan perfectly. Good to know.) Press plastic wrap against the surface of the tart dough to protect it from drying out, and refrigerate until needed.

In a small food processor or blender, combine the goat cheese, Parmesan, egg, chopped herbs, and just enough olive oil to make a smooth pureé. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Alternately, if your goat cheese is pretty creamy, you could do this by hand in a small bowl.)

Take the tart pan out of the refrigerator, remove the plastic wrap, and spread the goat cheese pureé evenly over the bottom.

Slice the zucchini and squash into thin rounds, and lay them in overlapping circles over the goat cheese. Scatter the crumbled bacon over the whole thing, and season with salt and pepper.

Place the tart pan on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the squash slices are soft (some may be just starting to brown). Allow the tart to cool in the pan until it's cool enough for you to carefully remove the base from the rim of the tart pan. Slice into wedges, and drizzle with your favorite olive oil. Tart is great served warm or at room temperature.

*via the esteemable Dave Barry.

8.05.2010

inspiration from disappointment


I am pretty easy-going when it comes to food. I am also extremely critical about what is placed in front of me.

Does this seem contradictory? I promise you, it's really not.

I will eat just about anything, if it's gluten-free. Well, okay, I guess I've already admitted to a couple of food aversions in this space. And I try to be conscious of the bigger impact my food choices can have beyond just my own bodily health. But aside from those caveats, I'm open to anything. I don't necessarily love everything I taste, but for the most part I will eat it if it's put in front of me. There are probably many reasons for this, ranging from the desire to simply satiate my hunger, to wanting to show consideration to the person who prepared it, to recognizing that even when it's not amazingly delicious, food is more than just food and eating it is to engage in a web of complex relationships that makes life more interesting. Of course, eating out of habit and by memory also need to be included here.

But I don't actually want to talk about how broad my palate is. I want to talk about how I constantly critique everything I consume.

Because I do. With every bite, I've got an internal conversation racing along between my mouth and my mind. Do I like it? Why? Why not? What parts are good? What should be changed? How would I do it differently? What makes it absolutely perfect, and how can that be applied to other dishes? Writing it out like this makes it sound exhausting, like I'm doing homework at every meal.

It's not like that at all.

In fact, I find it invigorating. I am not so critical that not loving a food will stop me from eating it, so this mental analysis doesn't really get in the way of feeding myself. And I rarely communicate any of this out loud - I do it for my own benefit, not to find things to complain to others about. But by thinking about food this way (and practically all foods, not just the high-end or artisan products we've all by now been taught that we're supposed to pay lots of attention to), it gives me a lot to challenge myself with and keeps me on my toes, which makes the act of eating much more mindful than it might otherwise be. I love finding inspiration in mediocre foods, ones which seem like they should work but for one reason or another end up falling flat on my tongue. It's almost like a game.

I played this game on that lovely, dreamy Sunday I just told you about. At the town creamery, the one with the chalkboard and customers lined up to the door and sticky-faced, smiling children everywhere. I knew as soon as I saw it on the board that I would order it. Chocolate Cherry Amaretto. Some of my favorite flavors, together in ice cream, one of my favorite foods. I immediately yanked my expectations way up high (and who doesn't when they're ordering ice cream?), imagining rich chocolate and winey cherries with the sophistication of almond liqueur. You know, grown-up ice cream.

Instead, I was served a cup of bland vanilla ice cream that was swirled with red something (artificially-flavored cherry sauce, no doubt), and speckled with little dots of dried cherries and waxy chocolate pieces. No Amaretto flavor to be found. My sky-high expectations did a free-fall and shattered.

But still? It was ice cream, on a hot, uncharacteristically lazy summer Sunday, I was with my family, and I was hungry. I ate all of it. And decided that I could easily make the ice cream my mind had instantly conjured when it read those misleading words. See? I'm not picky. But I do know what I want.


So when I made the ice cream base for my recent mesquite experiment, I made a double batch, saving half for this new flavor. I churned it into my ideal version of rich, intense chocolate-almond ice cream, and added big pieces of plump, tart dried cherries and crackly, sweet candied almonds. It was easy, and so, so worth it. It was exactly what I thought I was getting at the ice cream shop. So, odd as it may sound, I am ever so grateful that I ordered such a disappointing flavor that day!

And it turns out that what I had imagined to be a very mature flavor is, quite simply, a great flavor. Josh and I both love it, but so do the boys, who have enthusiastically eaten their shares with no signs of concern when they hit upon a chewy cherry or angular almond.

It is ice cream at its very best.

We're off on a seaside camping trip with my family for the rest of the week. Swimming, sand, ice cream, and pier fries are on the agenda. See you next week!

Chocolate Cherry Almond Ice Cream
yields approximately 2 pints

Make one batch basic ice cream base

Make the chocolate base:
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 fluid cup half and half
1/4 pound (4 ounces) bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Sift the cocoa and sugar into a small saucepan. Whisk in the half and half. Over medium-low heat, bring the mixture to a low simmer, and simmer for five minutes. Off the heat, add the chopped chocolate and whisk to combine. Chill.

Make the candied almonds:
1 cup sliced almonds
1 Tbsp egg white, whisked until very frothy
3 Tbsp turbinado (or demerara) sugar - you could also use granulated sugar, but turbinado sugar gives the almonds a more complex, darker flavor

Preheat the oven to 350º. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a rimmed baking pan, and toast in the oven just until they begin to develop some light brown color. Keep a close eye on them, and stir them around periodically in case your oven, like mine, has definite hot and cold zones. Remove from oven and allow them to cool on the pan. Keep the oven on.

Put the cooled almonds in a small bowl, and pour some of the whisked egg white in. Stir. You want to coat all of the almonds with the white, but not have them positively dripping. You probably won't need all of the white. Stir in the sugar.

Spread the almond mixture in a single layer on a parchment- or silicon mat-lined baking pan. Put the pan in the oven, and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the almonds are a dark caramel color and almost dry. Remove from oven, and move the almonds (still on the parchment) to a cooling rack. Once cool, break up any clumps so you have individual almond pieces.

Make the chocolate cherry almond ice cream:

Additional ingredients needed:
1 tsp almond extract
1 cup dried tart cherries (buy the best you can, to ensure they're plump and moist), roughly chopped

Whisk the almond extract and chocolate base into the ice cream base. Pour mixture into the bowl of your ice cream maker, and churn according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Once the ice cream reaches soft serve consistency, add the candied almonds and chopped cherries, letting your machine mix them into the ice cream. Transfer the ice cream into the container you'll be freezing it in. I like to use chilled 1-quart lidded glass bowls. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface, put the lid on, and stick it in the freezer. It's ready to eat once it's firm! Ice cream keeps, frozen, for up to two months.

8.04.2010

the speed of light

The most unexpected things can happen when you turn your back for a moment.

A fearless child can discover a new balancing act.


A cherry may inexplicably find it's way onto a fence post.


And your bowl of ice cream will be quickly consumed by eager little ones before you can grab a good shot of it.


This is how the summer has unfolded around here. Turn around, and everything's different. Literally, of course, as the photos above prove (and as my living room, after the five-minute mad-dash game of "shopping" my boys play, can easily attest to). But also in a much broader sense.

Summer is supposed to be the time of year when everyone relaxes, unwinds, leans back into the rocker on the veranda or swings ever-so-gently in the hammock, and watches the world go by. It's been immortalized as the "easy-living" time of year. That theme has apparently not been properly communicated to my children, however, or to us, the adults who share their lives.

This is the summer my baby turned into a little kid, one who can speak in sentences and jump and climb up everything and proves every day that he can outrun his older brother. This is the summer my little kid turned into a big kid, when he taught himself to read without informing his parents, began making up his own stories about little worms and fairies and his cousin, and asks philosophical and scientific questions.

Summer in Maine, with its period of brief-but-intense heat and light pouring through every open window, which drapes itself across our shoulders, sticking to the backs of ours necks like so many strands of sweat-drenched hair, seems to be just the thing to energize my children, who want to do more! faster! longer! every day. And we watch them, and get pulled into their double spheres of joy and enthusiasm, and spin with them around and around and around until we can't anymore and down we go, and when we look up, squinting through the blur, we wonder who these children are and where did our snuggly babies go?

It's at times like these that I wish I had a personal photographer to follow me around, helping me claim all the little moments of our days that seem inconsequential, yet when taken together point to momentous happenings and changes ahead. I can't capture it all myself - my first priority has to be making sure I live it. Yet I want to remember every little bit.

I had just such a day recently. A Sunday, Josh's only (and only sometimes) day off from the restaurant. The weather was what people from away stream into the state by the carload looking for each summer: clear skies, bright sun, ocean breeze, warmth prickling your forearms. We leashed up the dog, buckled the boys into the stroller, and moseyed on down the road to the beach. And then, I saw it. My kids had grown more fully into themselves, seemingly overnight.


Kalen, once timid, was now perfectly agile, insistent that he scamper across the boulders alone. Wylie, who months earlier (or was it just weeks ago?) wasn't sure about even standing in the ocean, now strode purposefully through the waves and appeared ready to start swimming. This spontaneous eruption of bravery, of independence, was bittersweet to witness, in ways every parent will recognize. They're growing up so quickly! Developing new skills! . . . They don't need me as much anymore.

So, what is a parent feeling nostalgic and proud to do? Head to the local creamery, of course. Watch your suddenly-old kids draw on the chalkboard wall and weave among the legs of friendly strangers as they run between you and their father. Eat lots of ice cream. Smile at young families with little babies, hoping they know what you're just beginning to grasp. That you'll never absorb all of it. You'll always be surprised, caught off guard by these little people. It's the whole point, after all.

See you here again tomorrow, when I'll be sharing the chocolate-cherry-almond ice cream recipe inspired by this day. Until then!
 
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